Tuesday, April 22, 2014

POBB: April 17, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 17, 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag is live! This week I review Batman, Batman and Wonder Woman, Birds of Prey, Justice League, Sheena, Smallville: Lantern, Red Hood and the Outlaws and Wonder Woman.

Batman defeated Dr. Death last issue, but it turns out the Riddler never thought Batman would lose.  Dr. Death was a distraction for the neophyte Dark Knight.  As Batman concentrated on Dr. Death, the Riddler instigated various disasters and took over Gotham City.  He's willing to give it back, if somebody in Gotham riddles him a riddle he cannot answer.

Year Zero is No Man's Land done correctly.  Unlike No Man's Land, Year Zero happens in Batman's past.  At this time, Superman just began leaping over tall buildings in a single bound.  So, even were he not Metropolis-centric, he still wasn't powerful enough to aid Gotham City.  The Justice League hasn't banded together.  So you needn't ask simple, sensible questions and find less than satisfying answers.  Hey, why isn't the Justice League repairing the earthquake-ravaged Gotham and giving Batman some much needed backup against the criminal element?  Oh, right.  Big. Yellow.  Birds.

The government also hasn't turned its back on Gotham City, like it amusingly did in No Man's Land.  It's just kind of ineffective.  Heart's in the right place though.

Snyder refers to the gentlemen as members of DEVGRU.  DEVGRU is often misidentified as Seal Team Six.  Seal Team Six in fact disbanded in the late eighties.  DEVGRU arose from its ashes.  Members of DEVGRU executed infamous mass murderer Osama Bin Laden.  Newspeople just thought Seal Team Six sounded sexier and more alliterative.  Can't fault them.  DEVGRU sounds like an organization out to kill James Bond.

Barak Obama is the U.S. President in our reality and in the DC Universe.  Batman Year Zero takes place during the mid-to-late Bush years.  During that time, the Bush administration made untraceable funds readily available to persons of interest in Iraq and Afghanistan.  At least twelve-billion shrink-wrapped tax payer dollars vanished like the thieves in the night that took them.  The point is that paying off foreign parties of questionable identity? Kind of what that administration did.  DEVGRU acting as money men to offer a ransom to the Riddler? Totally believable.  However, the Riddler is a philosophical villain.  He doesn't take kindly to the thought.  

Fortunately, for Lieutenant Gordon and DEVGRU, the Riddler didn't succeed in every battle waged.  Batman is still alive and well-rested.  Now, the threads interweave to the intriguing beginning of the tale.  In case you've forgotten, which is understandable, Year Zero kicked off with this scene.

It turns out that the boy Batman saved from a bizarre shark-themed gang wasn't a random victim, but one of a family of four that rescued Bruce Wayne.  Physically overwhelmed by the Riddler's machinations, Bruce discarded his Batman uniform and succumbed to extreme fatigue.  Bruce recuperated in young Duke's home, and while absent from the battle, the Riddler secured his strangle-hold on the city.

Snyder once again associates Batman, a man whose childhood was abruptly obliterated, with children.  He's a symbol of hope for all, but children embrace the concept of the Batman more than any in Snyder's works.  Harper at first in Night of the Owls.  The Batman Family in Death of the Family.  Duke whom Bruce interacts with during the opening scene for Year Zero and this new chapter "Savage City." 

As with previous stories and chapters, Batman experiences a flashback that injects new information into the Batman mythology.  Again, it all stems back to the destruction of Bruce's childhood.  Turns out Bruce while at boarding school wooed Julie Madison, the Detective's first love interest in the history of the comic book.

Snyder positions that relationship, or a wished for relationship since this could all be in Bruce's mind, much earlier in Bruce's lifespan and he recapitulates the murder of the Waynes in the memory/dream.  

I'm sure lots of Freudians could interpret the scene to favor their philosophy, but I tend to look at this phantasm as a reminder to Bruce that he cannot under any circumstances pursue a normal life.  He saw Joe Chill murder his parents, and the memory of his mother facing him as Chill shot her through the head burns throughout his mind.  Anybody would have become Batman in Bruce's place.  Bruce however through his resources, his genius and his macabre sense of humor makes Batman special, and Year Zero like all of Snyder's works celebrates Batman.

All the DC books are beginning to coalesce now that Forever Evil is winding down.  I'd say at least three to four past months of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman adventures may have occurred after the events of Forever Evil.  Last week's Batgirl hinted at Dick Grayson's fate, and Brian Azzarello's entire Wonder Woman series may have in fact unfolded after Forever Evil.  This timeline gibes with Orion's guest-appearance in the Superman titles.  It would also explain how Wonder Woman can be so involved protecting Zola, the inadvertent lover of Zeus, and Zeke, son of Zola and Zeus, twenty-four-seven and participate in the Justice League at the same time.

Last issue, Hera returned the Amazons to their immortal forms.  Previously she changed them into snakes.  Much time has passed since then and now.  Hera is kinder and more forgiving, but there's one spell she cannot undo.

Azzarrello doesn't spell it out, and lets you decide upon why Hippolyta continues to possess feet of clay.  I tend to think that Hera will never forgive Hippolyte, but even so she should be able to reverse her own spell.  It's really Hippolyta who like the Thing resists change.  Hippolyta feels guilty over her multitude of deceptions.  She made up a fairy story about molding Diana out of clay, when in reality Diana is the blood daughter of Hippolyta and Zeus.  Hippolyta also lied to her daughter about how the ranks of the Amazons swell.  The Amazons every now and again seduce sailors to become pregnant and kill the men after they're fertilized.  They leave the male children to die, but Hephaestus finds them and nurtures them.  Hardly the Utopian society Diana believed herself a part of.

Diana needs an army to fight the First Born, who is wrecking havoc on Olympus and in the other godly planes.  Azzarello however already displays dissension in the ranks, mostly due to the heavyweight Amazon Aleka, who in the new 52 takes the place of svelte one-time Wonder Woman, Artemis.  

Artemis had a small fan base, but I suspect she's absent in name, body and personality for several reasons.  She's too tethered to the post-Crisis, and DC eliminated the post-Crisis.  Good riddance.  Artemis objected to Diana's less reactionary philosophy and competed against Diana for her title, but she eventually became one of Diana's allies.  By introducing the similarly designed Aleka, the writers have more options with her fate, and she can be more of a thorn in Wonder Woman's side, without the appearance of chucking history aside.

Primarily the story sets up Azzarello's ducks, and does so in an entertaining way.  The dialogue is thoughtful and coincides with a natural conflict.  The whole chapter continues the exploration of Wonder Woman's original themes of loving submission.  This foray furthermore contrasts the horrific moments the First Born shares with the reader and his unwilling subjects.

Lousiest Boss Ever

When Azzarello focuses on the First Born, his original intent for the new 52 Wonder Woman resurfaces.  Azzarello opined that his book would be a horror novel, and indeed with the advent of Hera in the early chapters it was, but the story softened as time flowed, and Azzarello being a good writer went with that.  Redeeming Hera from madness was perfectly acceptable.  Still, Greek myth is rife with terror, and Azzarello as well as the superb Cliff Chiang substitute Goran Sudzuka takes advantage of the Greek's fascination with godly excess and the defiance of taboo.

As I said, the DC books are beginning to once again come together into a strongly knit continuity.  The time differentials are becoming less and less important.  DC might have planned Forever Evil a little better in terms of timing, but the impact of the series and its execution have been less damaging than previous terrible Big Stupid Events of the post-Crisis.  Azzarello introduced Wonder Woman in London, and that's where Batman finds her at the end of Batman and Aquaman.

In Batman and Wonder Woman the internal continuity recapitulated in this week's Wonder Woman all get checked off.  Writer Peter Tomasi mentions that until recently the Amazons were snakes and notes their mating rituals.  Diana visits her transformed mother.  She reveals her deity nature to Batman, and Aleka is still a jackass.  So, once again, this issue must occur after Forever Evil and the events in Wonder Woman.  

Though not without merit, Batman and Wonder Woman isn't one of Tomasi's best of the defacto new 52 Brave and Bold.  The conflict between Wonder Woman, Batman and Aleka is horribly contrived.  All the Amazon technology available, and Wonder Woman can't phone ahead to say she'll be bringing a male guest with her to Paradise Island.  

The whole initial verbal duel quells with some posturing and a poor twist involving unmasking.  Really you just get the impression that Tomasi or the editors were hoping to sandwich in a Wonder Woman team-up with Batman along the search for Damien's body.  It only kind of makes sense.  If you discard godly energies, how do the Amazons keep eternal? Lazarus Pit.  So, naturally, Ra's would seek out Paradise Island.  You see? You see?  Huh? Huh? I'm not all that convinced of the premise. Still there's a little fun to be had here.

The best scene occurs when Batman consults the Oracle of Paradise Island.  The moment's filled with whimsy and a lot more thought than the entire book.  

Of course, the Oracle should have foresaw Batman's visit and informed Aleka and the others that Wonder Woman would be bringing a guest and that they should be on their best behavior.  No seduction, fertilization and slaying, thank you very much.  

At this point Patrick Gleason's artwork sharpens.  He made some atrocious corner cutting in the early scenes, but he has the opportunity to introduce the Oracle to the new 52, and he doesn't ignore it.  Gleason comes up with a neat looking headdress that recalls Ray Harryhausen's style, and his work continues to improve as the action starts.

There's no denying the entertainment value in Batman and Wonder Woman's assault on al Ghul's forces and the creature from the Greek grotto, but the story ends with an unforgivable, blatant swipe from the Doctor Who episode "Dalek."

Batman and Wonder Woman fans deserved better.

Quite a few readers looked at Cyborg as a token hero meant to overtly force diversity into the new 52 Justice League.  I doubt you can argue such a thing given Geoff Johns' fanboy persona clearly at work when redeveloping the DC Universe.  It's more likely that Johns remembered the moment when Cyborg joined the Super-Friends on television.

Cyborg suited the Powers That Be's well-meant intentions for a more flavorful cast, but you could not argue tokenism then either.  Cyborg was an extremely popular character; The New Teen Titans by Marv Wolfman and George Perez possibly the hottest DC title of the era.

Geoff Johns never meant Cyborg to be a token.  However, there's no excusing the fact that Johns sidelined the character in every Justice League excursion come to pass.  Skin color however was immaterial.  If Victor Stone were white, he still would have been neglected.  

Part of the blame lies with Jim Lee.  Lee illustrated Victor Stone with a love of anime in mind.  The problem is that a big clunky exoskeleton doesn't grant much in the way of movement.  It's freakin' hard to draw, especially from cosmos knows how many angles.

As a result, occasionally, Cyborg would get in a few lines and white sound blasts, but mostly writer Johns and artist Lee reduced Cyborg to a slightly mobile model of Star Trek's Guardian of Forever.  Slightly.

With readily available Boom Tube Technology, Victor became a highly advanced door.  His purpose was to cart the League off to wherever they needed to be.  The creative team thusly checked Cyborg's participation off the list.  Lee could forgo illustrating Cyborg in the actual adventure.  At a guess, I think Johns knew that this technique just wasn't fair to Cyborg, a hero that he actually liked.  Integrating Cyborg back into the Justice League became one of Johns' priorities in Forever Evil.  

With Lee gone from regular art duties, Johns could create a story that would serve multiple purposes.  One of those aims: more dialogue and action from Cyborg.  Johns came up with a really good plan to rid Cyborg of the hard to operate Jim Lee accouterments.  He introduced a new member of the Crime Syndicate designated Grid.

Grid was Cyborg's metal half.  Johns posited that the advanced system developed a consciousness, although not a conscience, and it wanted to be rid of the fleshy meat that was Victor Stone.  However, it envied Victor's ability to feel.  Grid suffered from emotional envy.  He was the exact opposite of a Cyberman, and Johns deserves a lot of credit for this attractive idea.  By conceiving a flip-side to Victor Stone, he actually repurposed Cyborg to be a bona fide champion.  You know you've made it in the super hero business when you meet your bearded Spock.

In conjunction with Johns' goals of a more versatile Cyborg, artist Ivan Reis redesigned Cyborg to facilitate animation and recall his old look.  Though Doug Mahnke is on art duty, I'd say he's relieved and really excels at putting Cyborg through his more expressive and limber paces.  

Last issue Cyborg attempted to convince Doc Magnus to resurrect the Metal Men.  This issue, Cyborg asks the Metal Men for help.  So Johns also makes Cyborg a man that inspires.  Not that the Metal Men need inspiration.

The Metal Men are on hand to add comedy and be just awesome, but their issue was the last one.  This issue of the Justice League belongs to Cyborg as he duels against the Grid and plausibly stems the assured victory of the Crime Syndicate.  Every page of the story is stirring, and Cyborg hasn't been written this well since Marv Wolfman penned the character.

It's my understanding that Red Hood and the Outlaws will soon be cancelled, and that's a pity because everything I liked about the title, and it came as a surprise to me because I hated Jason Todd and wasn't all that keen on Speedy as Arsenal either, is in this inventory issue.

First there's a lack of Tynion.  When Scott Lobdell left the title, James Tynion took over and sank it.  I'm sure of it.  The first storyline he began involved a confusing Jason Todd amnesia story.  I didn't want to see this.  Lobdell wrote a substantial Jason Todd whom Batman liked.  As a result, I started to like this throwaway Robin.  Well, he's back.  He knows Kori and Roy.  He makes some clever moves, and shows off a sense of humor, evident in writer Will Pfeifer's banter between the two teammates.  

Second, Kori's really, really intelligent.  Readers and non-readers came down on Lobdell like a ton of bricks when he suggested Kori slept with Jason and Roy.  Like anybody would have objected were she a man.  

Kenneth Rocafort's remarkable artwork came under scrutiny as well when he redesigned Starfire's uniform with as little covering as possible.  Hello.  Starfire always was sexually free and didn't at all care if anybody saw her nude.  In any case, Kori in this issue is more than just an alien Kewpie doll.  She asks Jason all the right questions and displays her power not her pulchritude.

Third, Roy happens to be trapped on a spaceship with alien bastards that want to destroy the planet.  Roy's opening gambit is actually interesting and smart.  Sandoval's artwork is easy on the eyes, and last but certainly not least...


Chrysty Marx has been adding substance to the Birds of Prey throughout her run.  She ably characterized Batgirl, Black Canary, Katana, Strix and Condor while introducing the new immortal Mother Eve and exhibiting Ra's Al Ghul's madness.  You kind of expected such attributes from the writer of Amethyst.  She's into world-building and evolving depth from the cast.  What you didn't really count upon and what this issue of Birds of Prey demonstrates is how well Marx orchestrates a plot dependent on strategy.

Batgirl is now the leader of the Birds of Prey.  Black Canary stepped down after she realized her concern for Kurt, her comatose husband, overwhelmed her ability to make good, tactical decisions.  In a strange way, the passive means in which Canary backs away from the position reflects the Legion of Super-Heroes' leaders forfeiting rank.  They usually still served on the team.  They just wanted a breather from all that responsibility.  Black Canary still remains a key member of the Birds of Prey, but Batgirl is calling the shots, and when she does, they're all excellent calls.  The way in which she thwarts a gas attack for example mirrors her brilliance.

Marx set up two of the Birds for a potential fall from grace last issue.  This issue she fortifies her characters by having them all do the rational thing.  As a result, each player serves to strengthen Batgirl's status as a strong, decisive leader.  She new something was up, but she had faith in her team, and that faith pays off.  Yeah, spoiler ahoy, I guess, but you honestly didn't think either Canary or Condor would falter from the straight and narrow.  It's so beneath their character that it doesn't bear thinking about.

Sheena returns to comic books.  This time she lights to Moonstone.  I've always been a fan of Moonstone publishing since it's advent with Mr. Nightmare.  So, I'm happy as punch when they score a good character.  Sheena was the first jungle woman in comics, and the best.

Recently, these same writers, the DeSouzas, reintroduced Sheena to the modern reader under the aegis of Devil's Due.  I'm happy to say that though Sheena moved to Moonstone, the continuity remains the same.  The DeSouzas gave Sheena a secret identity, which sounds bizarre, but before Sheena was Sheena, she was a little girl from the civilized world rescued and raised by African tribes.  Although in these adventures, Sheena swings through the trees of the South American fiction of Val Verde, which sounds good really.

The idea of a pure idiot jungle man and/or jungle woman is passé.  Nobody buys the Johnny Weismuller Tarzan anymore because we expect our heroes to adapt to an increasingly intrusive modern world.  Sheena's ferocity nets her an urban legend status.  Sheena's take no prisoner's attitude was best seen on Geena Nolin's Sheena series.  There she covered herself in mud and actually fostered a dark continent urban legend.  Here it's more of a meme.

The DeSouzas involve Sheena in an emerald smuggling cartel.  It's a little refreshing to see something other than drugs as a "natural resource."  The DeSouzas juxtapose the battle against greed with Rachel's sponsorship of an archaeological expedition.  This too offers intrigue in the form of sexual impropriety from a professor.  In addition, something attacks, and it looks as though it might be Sheena's black panther companion.  A good start with colorist James Brown vividly gracing artist Jake Minor's lovely lines.  Minor follows the footfalls of many a grand Sheena artist by not just making the blond beautiful but also bold and baleful.

The cover says it all in Smallville.  Tomar Re having failed to prevent the destruction of Krypton seeks out a worthy Kryptonian to wield the Green Lantern ring.  The Bryan Q. Miller story is a lot of fun, but compared to past issues pretty fluffy, not that there's anything wrong with lighter writing.  He also introduces John Stewart to the Smallville universe and checks in with the Queens with a very cute vow.  Recommended and Marcio Takara's artwork keeps the ball rolling with a streamline look to the Lanterns that should really be adopted in a much needed reboot.

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