Monday, April 28, 2014

POBB: April 23, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 23, 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag is on the air.  This week I review Batman/Superman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Catwoman, The Flash, the brand new book 7th Sword and two issues of World's Finest held back due to the lateness of Batman/Superman.  I'll also examine the new movie Under the Skin.  Because of a shipping snafu, reviews of All-Star Western and Aquaman will be aired next week.  The POBB begins with the premiere of Justice League United

Jeff Lemire reintroduces a staple character to the new 52.  Adam Strange makes his debut.  The anthropologist discovered evidence of alien lifeforms in Canada, with his grad student/fiancee Alanna, who mysteriously disappeared.  Remember what I said about archaeologists and anthropologists in fiction? Check out the last Aquaman review if you don't.

No doubt some fans of Adam Strange will balk at Alanna's genetic makeup.  She's human not from Rann, but this is exactly the kind of shakeup the new 52 is supposed to engage in.  

The whole human falling in love with an alien "princess" theme was old hat when Julius Schwartz proposed Adam Strange/Alanna in the Silver Age anyway, and this version of Alanna adds more diversity with what appears to be Native American descent.  All of it sounds good to me, and I'm a traditionalist.

Adam takes the skull to Star Girl and Animal Man who just happen to be in Canada.  Lemire's a talented plotter.  Why are Star Girl and Animal Man in Canada? The heroes were already established as DC's caped celebrities.  Animal Man is a movie star.  Star Girl is a sort of super-hero prom queen. They're signing autographs.  

I just love how effortlessly Lemire's plot falls into place.  Star Girl was a member of Amanda Waller's anti-League, the Justice League of Ameica.  So Star Girl calls for back-up, and who should arrive but Green Arrow and Martian Manhunter. 

Believe it or not this team-up expresses oodles of tradition, and I'll wager ten Quatloos that Lemire and/or McKone are aware of it.

The two are in the nick of time.  Since, it turns out the aliens are still present and hostile.  What they're doing is anybody's guess, but it involves genetic manipulation and a surprise guest star that keys in another member of, say it with me, Justice League United.

In addition to all of this smooth as butter plotting that gets the gang together, Lemire creates a brand new character for the new 52 DCU and all the while exemplifying camaraderie between the principals through the interplay of fun banter.

Artist Mike McKone has lost none of his skill, and he ultimately contributes the final asset in easily the most entertaining book on the rack this week.  

The historic team-up between Batman,Superman, earth-two "kin" Power Girl, cousin to Superman, and Huntress, daughter of Batman and Catwoman relies on a number of seemingly inconsequential elements related in World's Finest and Batman/Superman.  Writers Greg Pak and Paul Levitz should be commended for secretly building up both books to this moment.

First and foremost, Batman and Superman met their counterparts in the debut of Batman/Superman.  Though this episode in their early lives was erased from their memories, the encounters with Huntress and Power Girl increasingly cause flickers of recognition.

The ghosts give Batman and Superman an undercurrent of trust in the strange visitors from another earth, and though unspoken there's probably an instinctive acceptance of the bloodline.  Like Pete accepting his time traveling daughter Rose before he actually sires her.

Huntress consulted Batman because her partner Power Girl's abilities went haywire and present a danger to innocents who might be in her vicinity.  It turns out the culprit behind Power Girl's bursts of energy and cutouts is an old friend that she never met.

As revealed in the World's Finest annual, on earth-two, when Power Girl still went by the name of Supergirl and served as Superman's secret weapon, she broke curfew one night and went out to party.  During this excursion, she met a man named Ken, whom she lost through a series of unfortunate contingencies.

The Ken of earth-one is not the upstanding, self-sacrificing individual that Kara met on earth-two.  He instead is a technology czar of New Gamorra, which he named after himself.  

Bad Ken infused Power Girl with nanites, which Superman during a desperate measure to re-enable Power Girl, absorbs into his own body.  With Superman under the influence of robotic control, it now became even more imperative for Batman, Huntress, Power Girl and a depleted Superman to infiltrate Ken's Gamorran base and destroy the operation.  As to Superman, Batman had a means to eliminate the power fluctuations.

As the teams get deeper involved in Bad Ken's schemes, they discover something even more disturbing, than what seems like a madman's aim to make Kryptonians in a petri dish.  

A puppeteer lies behind the whole scenario, and his identity explains why Power Girl, a largely unknown super-hero on earth-one, was targeted and who would be arrogant enough not to foresee the consequences.


Turns out.  It's Superman.  Not the Superman of earth-one.  The dead one on earth-two.  The World's Finest team-up in fact ties into the goings-on in Earth 2.  

Darkseid somehow possessed Superman, who sacrificed himself in the war against Apokolips.  The exact nature of the possession is debatable.  I suspect that Darkseid's Superman is similar to Joss Whedon's vampires, a shell occupied by a "demon" that pieced together its personality from the echoes of a dead mind.  Thus, Darkseid's hand puppet recognizes Lois although her consciousness now resides in an android body--the Red Tornado--but fears Batman of earth-two, despite the Dark Knight being another man.  I'll not spoil it if you haven't read the Earth-2 annual.

The real Superman would be able to microscopically compare the two Batmen.  Power Girl in fact does this when she unobtrusively scans Superman with the spectrum of her vision.  She confirms his identity, but she doesn't know that Darkseid killed his brain.  Or corrupted him, which seems less and less likely.

In any case, the logic behind the identity of the master is appealing.  Because Batman and Huntress are involved in the adventure, you would expect a fairplay reveal.  In other words, had you been paying attention, you would have been able to deduce the perpetrator.  

The red herring is that the team-up itself.  For readers that lived in the Bronze Age, this is a historic meeting, but for most it's merely new 52 small-potatoes fun.  Either way it's the distraction of a superb sleight of hand.  Never the less, the magician allows you to see is pretty entertaining in its own right.

The relationship that Batman and Huntress had died in the pre-Crisis.  In the post-Crisis, the Huntress was nobody important, and Batman hated her.  In the new 52, Levitz could have merely reinstated the previous relationship Batman  and Huntress fostered, but he's too good of a writer.  This is a different Batman and Huntress, with different experiences.  Never the less, it's inevitable that the two would become closer.  They even share a similar opinion about Superman.

Superman's relationship with Power Girl was less involved in the pre-Crisis.  Whereas Huntress referred to Batman as Uncle Bruce, Superman seldom interacted with Power Girl beyond Justice League and Justice Society meetings.  Huntress visited Batman on several occasions just to ease her loneliness.  However, Superman and Power Girl also reach a deep level of friendship after this adventure.  So, on the whole, despite the bump in the scheduling, the team-up reads as a huge success.

The current issue of World's Finest cleans up the loose ends of the team-up with style.  Batman and Superman depart leaving Power Girl and Huntress to sift through the wreckage for a potential way home.  The always skeptical Huntress however isn't convinced they had one in the first place.

Before the heroes can examine the technology, a new 52 staple shows up to claim the debris.  Apparently, Forever Evil didn't wipe out ARGUS.  DC's incredibly weak-tea SHIELD.  Power Girl and Huntress just might.  

Courtesy of the Always Welcome R.B. Silva

ARGUS's intrusion allows  Levitz to highlight the gaiety in the antics of the best friends.  The theme in Power Girl and Huntress is consistently positive.  They love being who they are, and despite coming from a war-torn world, the people that meant the most to them taught them to be better than they were.  Huntress is darker than Power Girl, but she revels in her skills as much as Kara likes tossing tanks and pulling stunts in the boardroom.

In addition to all this goodness, Levitz and Yildiary Cinar detail an episode in the life of the neophyte Huntress, just establishing her post-Robin alter-ego.  The flashback is frankly unnecessary, and I sincerely doubt the trigger of the recollection, but it's well written and illustrated.  So, no complaints.  

Ann Nocenti's Catwoman is actually half-good.  The first half is...Urgh...some tripe about Selina Kyle chucking her Catwoman identity.  The half-hearted soft reboot lacks a shred of plausibility because Nocenti spans Selina's retirement across pages that are meant to represent a bridge of time but only act as perfunctory footnotes.  Feels like a week at the most, which is way too short.

I think Nocenti was left in a quandary, and this was an act of pure desperation on her part.  She wanted some fresh way to reintroduce Catwoman to the reading public, but she just couldn't think of anything original.  So, she went to the Spider-Man well, thinking a quitting story would fit.  It so doesn't. 

DC's super-heroes never quit.  They never even think about quitting, and when a writer tries to suggest such a thing, it immediately feels wrong.  Writers have tried it with Batgirl, the whole of the Justice Society, Hal Jordan and Green Arrow.  None worked.  That's because even when the Powers That Be decide to introduce aging to a hero, those old heroes would still be a heartbeat away from putting on their cape and cowl.  

Catwoman gave up her villainous life once before to pursue a romance with Bruce Wayne, but her retirement made sense.  Catwoman was an unrepentant thief back in the day, She learned she had contracted a rare, lethal illness. Catwoman never had a death wish, and she likely believed that her final days should be less stressful, maybe filled with love.  Catwoman only returned to the life to clear her name. Afterward, she closeted the costume. It was only years later that Catwoman returned, as a reformed criminal turning to the side of justice.  With Ann Nocenti's tale, Catwoman's over the top burning of her uniform seems more like an unbelievable, destructive whim, and the way she retrieves another is utterly facetious.  

When the actual story kicks in, Catwoman reads a lot better.  Catwoman participates in a thief rally, hosted by one of the few interesting post-Crisis creations, Roulette.  This is more like the type of tale I wish to read in Catwoman.  Big heists.  The story's not without a few bumps and bruises.  Selina goes to her Q, Alice Tesla, for new toys, and some of those toys like explosive charms seem way outside her purview.  I can see her using smoke bombs, but not ordnance.  

Robert Venditti and Van Jensen make an innocuous debut on The Flash.  The story's set well after the Crime Syndicate's defeat.  So, Spoiler Ahoy, "Everybody lives, Rose! Just this once everybody lives!"  

Yup, I'm showing a gratuitous photo of the Doctor because I'm terribly bored with The Flash.  How's that for a review?

Except maybe Nightwing, but we'll see about that.  No spoilers about Dick Grayson's fate here.  Last week's Batgirl apparently did that.  Anyway, the Flash zips around fixing the city, this time with a new watch courtesy of lover Patty Spivot.  I am genuinely glad that Patty's still in his picture.  Barry's lack of punctuality was a running joke back in the day.

In his private life, Barry must see a department psychiatrist before being cleared for active duty.  He's still stuck in the Records Room at the time of the comic book's opening.  The session allows him to express his guilt over being imprisoned by the Crime Syndicate in Firestorm.  I'm sure this happens all the time. 

The much promoted time travel element of The Flash is likely to disappoint.  The fast man in the purple suit turns out not be Wally West or John Fox or anybody we were hoping for. 

Still not feeling the love for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  The powers that be behind the comic book really try hard to win back anybody who, justifiably infuriated by "Twilight" twaddle, gleefully struck the series from their subscription lists.  Unfortunately, they keep missing the reason why Buffy the Vampire Slayer attracted such a loyal fanbase in the first place.  It was the characterization and the acting in addition to the clever plotting.

The cast in this issue are really shallow.  They're not so much shadows of their television incarnations.  More like silhouettes.  

A case in point occurs with Faith.  She was too sad and angsty in Angel and Faith, but in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, she's too uncaring about leaving Giles. 

Oh, for bloody sake, just hug him, give him a peck on the cheek and then go off with Kennedy.  It's not rocket science.

The best scene occurs with Xander and Anya, or the hallucination of Anya produced from his guilt over betraying Buffy to save Dawn....Got me....At first she seems like a ghost from a Noel Coward play, but she quickly softens and explains why she may be making like Casper.  

The rest of the book is quippy without being funny, as the Scooby Gang try to dope out the new rules and discern the identity of the dungeonmaster behind those rules.  The protocols include granting vampires a little more meat to resist dusting and shape-shifting abilities, which really doesn't seem like a game-changer at all, but at it's beautifully illustrated by Rebecca Issacs.  So, not a total loss, but close.

Famous photographer but newbie writer John Raffo creates a slick piece of pure science fiction.  7th Sword occurs on the once colonized planet of Helios and stars the ronin Daniel Clay, who operates under the code of Bushido.  His mission for this issue is to escort Holly and her brother across an alien desert.

Killer androids left over from the colonization interrupt the trip, and artist Blake Nelson proves himself more than capable of matching imagery to Raffo's imagination.

Clay later finds himself rescued/captured by the citizens of a legendary city called Zenzion.  They have more problems than distrusting Mr. Clay however.

Raffo though building an alien world establishes that it arose from a recognizable earth.  The brevity in which he explains the whereabouts and what have you is deft and provides for smooth reading that shows rather than tells.

As Clay stands trial, a new danger springs from another fiefdom.  The warlord known as Kavanaugh offers the people of Zenzion an offer they cannot refuse, and he backs that ultimatum up with acid-spitting frog clones and more elegantly designed robotics.  7th Sword is an intriguing, well orchestrated story that shouldn't be dismissed.

The Saturday Afternoon Matinee

Under the Skin is an otherworldly film that relies on the unique vision of its director Jonathan Glazer and the consummate skill of actress Scartlett Johansson.  Ms. Johansson's portrayal of the Black Widow in the Marvel films appears to have opened a floodgate of experimentation in the young talent.  Later she will star in Luc Besson's action/science fiction thriller Lucy.

Glazer's film isn't so much as watched as experienced.  From the trailer, you received the impression that this flick is about a sexy, alien vampire, and it is.  However, Johansson and Glazer approach this well trodden theme in an entirely singular way.  I can't really even call Under the Skin science fiction or horror, because the principals keep the origin of the species under wraps.  

You follow Johansson through a series of vignettes, where she seems to be picking up men.  The experience isn't voyeuristic.  You are a naturalist observing the ecology of a new predator.  

Johannson's nameless figure does terrible things.  You are trapped within your seat and riveted by an inscrutable method that's parceled out through each event.  It's a testament to Johansson's chameleon acting ability that she can still coax you to empathize with her, even when discovering what's really going on.

Under the Skin isn't for every taste, but aficionados of the strange will find much to enjoy. You've never seen anything like this.

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