Monday, April 14, 2014

POBB: April 10, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 10, 2014
Ray Tate

This week The Pick of the Brown Bag reviews Batgirl, Captain Marvel, Flash Gordon, King's Watch and Secret Avengers.  I'll also review the new horror movie Oculus.

Batgirl returns to the Pick of the Brown Bag because it's a lovely inventory issue by Marguerite Bennett and Robert Hill. 

Gotham has its own version of Bloody Mary.  

DC proudly presents...Batgirl versus the Midnight Man.  

The premise is roomy enough to give our heroine the room to breathe.  Bennett focuses on who Batgirl is and why she's important.  At the same time, she orchestrates a kickass duel against a supernatural beastie oozing out of Hill's imagination.

Bennett's characterization for Batgirl is a gem that Hill polishes with characteristic expressions and action denoting a skilled martial artist.  Batgirl narrates the story, and Bennett incorporates all the facets of the Darknight Daredoll that built her fan base.  This is exactly how we want to see Batgirl portrayed.  Not moping over a car-jacker with a heart of gold, not looking over her shoulder so as not to be shot down by her father.  Batgirl should be full of life and moxie.  We get a big spoiler in the narrative about Forever Evil, but Batgirl doesn't exactly dwell on it.  Rather, she instead thinks of the good things in her past and uses the current situation to deflect any morose thoughts.

In the new 52, Batman trained Batgirl as well as the Robins, but you don't need to know that.  In the pre-Crisis Batgirl only worked with Batman, and they traded notes.  It all works regardless of the Batgirl continuity you wish to follow; there was no Batgirl continuity in the post-Crisis, why it sucked so much.  

Batgirl is her own person.  She's not a mere opposite gender reflection of Batman.  Her attitude is markedly different, and though a detective, the second best on the planet, she's a different sort of detective than Batman.  Furthermore, her sense of humor is diverse and comparable to that of normal people.  Batman has a sense of humor, but it's a darker sort.

Though the plot is secondary to the creative team's exquisite characterization of Batgirl, Bennett and Hill mold a strong menace for Batgirl to fight and take liberty with the tropes of the horror genre.  For example, though Batgirl fights in a confined space, it's not a ramshackle house.  Though Bennett sets up a gotcha at the end of the story, it doesn't undermine Batgirl's victory over the Midnight Man.  An ideal Batgirl story.

In 1936 Lee Falk created a legend that would haunt comic strips around the world.  In the sixteenth century, a lone survivor of a ship attacked by pirates washed ashore on the coast of Bangalla.  Natives from that land rescued him, and he would swear on a skull to take the guise of a phantom and wage a war on "cruelty" and "piracy." His sons and daughters would recite the same pledge in a cave shaped like the very skull that served witness.

The Phantom still can be found in that rare newspaper with taste and online.  The Ghost Who Walks can also be found in King's Watch, along with the other Defenders of the Earth.  Legendary heroes Flash Gordon, Mandrake and Lothar, Dale Arden and Professor Zarkov.  

Writer Jeff Parker makes some shrewd additions to the legend of the Phantom.  Comic strip readers tend not to like massive change among the core continuity.  The amendments Parker imbues to the Phantom however flow into the spirit of the mythology and strengthen the Phantom legend.  There must always be a Phantom in the world.  Realizing that, Parker finds a satisfying conclusion to Ming's attempt at invasion that's Phantom based.

To be sure, the other members of the team play an important part.  Flash becomes a thorn in the side of Ming and earns the contempt the alien warlord harbors.  Parker also plants the seeds for a Mandrake series, and Marc Laming holds the entire story together with strong illustration that stands with the masters of the respective comic strips.  If you haven't been buying King's Watch, the trade will be out soon, and it's a must for fans of the Phantom and champions of justice in general.

Although King's Watch sets up the new Flash Gordon, you needn't feel lost if you hadn't read that awesome series.  Parker opens the story with brief introductions of Flash, Zarkov and Dale before storming into the story.

The story starts properly in the middle.  Due to events in King's Watch, Flash, Dale and Zarkov find themselves fighting for their lives on Mongo.  Flash pilots Dr. Zarkov's cutting-edge air/space craft powered by the quantum crystal in a high-speed chase, with our heroes as the foxes to Ming's hunters. 

The hunters think this will be an easy foray, but they don't count on Flash's consummate skill and a thrill-seeking nature that can easily be mistaken for recklessness.  Parker however portrays Flash as being a lot smarter than you expect.  He's not just an athlete.  He's observant and dopes things out rather quickly.

Flash darts his entourage in out of wormholes leading to Mongo's conquered worlds.  So all in one comic, Parker gives snapshots of the stars, engages the reader in a thrilling chase, exacerbates the animosity between Ming and Flash and samples the worlds of the Merciless Empire.  

The comic book still isn't over.  The trio finally end up on Arboria, home of the Robin Hood inspired Prince Barin, a Flash Gordon classic character, and it's here that Dale takes charge.

Eric Shaner's artwork compares to Marc Laming.  I could understand a reader being disappointed if the art didn't fall into the same illustrative category as Laming's.  Fortunately, Shaner's work is fantastic and in the realistic vein you would expect an artist to adopt for Alex Raymond's seminal characters.

Captain Marvel transports a member of an alien species to her homeworld but meets with mercenary resistance.  Once the privateer confirms the kill-order, it's bad news for Captain Carol.  Though, not really.

I would say Captain Marvel's powers are back at Binary level.  Marvel and Kelly Sue DeConnick appear to be repositioning Captain Carol as Marvel's Supergirl, the original alien female powerhouse.  

The comparison has been made before.  Roy Thomas atom-smashed the Big Red Cheese Captain Marvel and Superman to recreate the male Captain Marvel. 

Ms. Marvel, introduced as Air Force Intelligence Officer Carol Danvers, had Wonder Woman's background, Supergirl's blonde hair and blue eyes and even Supergirl artist Jim Mooney as her first penciler.  Incidentally, The Danvers adopted Supergirl, whose original identity was Linda Lee.

This means if Carol appears in any film with this level of power, DC can kiss introducing Kara in a movie good-bye.  Just like the Falcon in Captain America: Winter Soldier wiped out the hopes for a cinematic Hawkman and Hawkgirl.  Fortunately, Warner Brothers is no longer in the business of making genre movies.  So it was a pipe dream anyway.

Whether she needs it or not, Captain Marvel gains backup in the form of Guardians of the Galaxy.

This is actually my first encounter with the newest version of the Guardians of the Galaxy.  I'm more familiar with the band led by a future version of Vance Astro.  However, I'm cognizant of their solo careers.  Rocket Racoon and Groot are self-explanatory oddballs.

Star-Lord, used to be this fellow.  

I miss the old helmet.  I suppose Marvel's sliding-scale of a six year timeline adequately covers his period as a hero.  Since it never coincided with anybody else's spotlight, Star-Lord's past exhibits no conflict.  Although John Byrne drew him older.  We can dismiss that as artistic license, or maybe this historically first Star-Lord story occurs in future of the current Guardians of the Galaxy member.

A resurrected earth man, believe it or not, Drax the Destroyer, father to Moondragon, obsessed over killing Thanos in Captain Marvel's adventures and others.  As he stands now, he doesn't really offer too much of a change.  He's still green.  He might have bulked up and got rid of the purple, but his presence actually makes sense in a comic book associated Captain Marvel.

Gamora's the only sore spot.  I think you can safely call her one of Marvel's rare reboots, which damns the continuity.   Gamora used to be an assassin trained by Thanos.  I can buy the comic book logic of she being killed, absorbed into Adam Warlock's Soul Gem, returning to the real world and taking over a human form, but why hasn't she aged since? It's DC that's cornered the market on immortals, not Marvel.  So, yeah.  Gamora is a new character with new history.  The Guardians of the Galaxy Gamora isn't the same Gamora from Warlock.

Anyway, if you can get past the idea of the Guardians of the Galaxy being an entirely different group, this is a pretty fun team-up, and it's not without merit.  Who else would Captain Marvel meet in space?  

As you can see by the artwork, David Lopez does justice to the entire cast, and his spaceship battles are actually exciting, creating an illusion of true movement.

Secret Avengers really irritates me.  It's funny.  It's well written and often self-explanatory, yet Alex Kot doesn't write the characters of Nick Fury, Phil Coulson, Maria Hill, Black Widow, Spider-Woman and Hawkeye in an any remote comparison to how they're supposed to be written. 

They just don't sound like themselves or their media counterparts.  I can't for the life of me imagine Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg or Cobie Smulders speaking like the way the SHIELD agents do in Secret Avengers.

Spider-Woman doesn't read like an experienced hero.  She instead comes off as a neophyte, which compared to Black Widow she would be, but in Secret Avengers, Kot characterizes Jessica Drew with a much younger persona.  It's as though Jessica just manifested her powers weeks ago rather than--'effin sliding-scale--six years earlier.

Black Widow gets points for being able to expertly handle a SHIELD hover car, and Hawkeye.  He's just along for the ride.  There's a big volume of subtext that Kot hammers you with involving Hawkeye's former relationships with the ladies.  Frankly, couldn't care less.  Hawkeye shoots arrows with deadly accuracy.  That's his schtick.  Although some would disagree, I felt The Avengers film gave him a great opportunity, and I can't see anybody but Jeremy Renner portraying the bowman.  Incidentally, for a real shock at Renner's range, check out American Hustle.

Then there's MODOK.  What the hell is he doing in SHIELD! Okay.  Project Paperclip and all that, but it's MODOK.  All of this aside, if you knew nothing about the Marvel Universe, and hadn't read comic books until the new 20s, you probably wouldn't notice all the reduction, but if you think Marvel's heyday was the Bronze Age in the seventies, then Secret Avengers is just going to feel like a bat smacked to the head.  Mind you, really inviting artwork by Michael Walsh.

Saturday Afternoon Matinee

After you've justifiably gushed over Captain America: Winter Soldier and Veronica Mars, cleanse the palette with Karen Gillan's new film Oculus.  This is one creepy, slick horror film that plays with the viewer's expectations, uses little if any CGI and seems old fashioned in the sense of effects but never the less demonstrates an effective use of terror.  

This baby is a take no prisoners type of horror flick that's rated R not because of boobies, not because of swearing, not because of torture porn but because of devastating  imagery, disturbing subject matter and awesome freakishness.  Imagine the atmosphere of The Night Gallery raised to the tenth power.  

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