Monday, May 5, 2014

POBB: April 30, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 30, 2014
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, in this blog, I review the best and worst comic books of the week.  This issue I look at last week's All-Star Western, Aquaman and Justice League Dark.  For the current batch, it's The Batgirl Annual, Batman '66, Batman Eternal, Captain Midnight, Doc Savage and Uncanny Avengers Annual.

Ignore the borderline Tentacle Sex cover.  The Batgirl Annual is easily the best I've read from Gail Simone since her laudable Batgirl Before Bear Trap Boy run.  The story's not without flaw, but the assets of the annual outweigh any pitfalls, neither deep or disturbing.

Duane Swierczynski reintroduced Poison Ivy as a bona fide hero in Birds of Prey, but Jon Layman preferred Ivy's traditional ecoterrorist role in Detective Comics.  Scott Snyder posited a future where Ivy will become a Champion of the Green.  Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti adhered to the subtext offered in Batman: The Animated Series.  Ivy's in love with Harley Quinn.  It's safe to say that more than any other comic book era, DC writers have Ivy on their minds.  

Rather than accept writer's whim as an explanation for Ivy's different roles in different books, Simone incorporates all these glimpses as valid personality facets in one character.  Then she conceives a mostly satisfying, contextual explanation for Poison Ivy's mood swings.  

Simone's story spans the four seasons.  As it turns out, the weather affects Ivy's mood more than a normal person.  You can argue this is because she's part plant or has control over plants, but I think you can also suggest that the belief she's more plant than human psychosomatically instills sickness.  It is for this reason that Ivy needs some sort of help.  Not to cure her of plant domination or preference.  DC's a weirder world than our own.  Who's to say what's normal in such a place?  Ivy needs help to cope with an actual mental problem.  

Simone opens the tale in the past where Ivy worked side-by-side with Black Canary and Batgirl.  During this period, they encountered a group of terminally-ill individuals working for the enigmatic Mr. Rain.   Mr. Rain sees a kindred spirit in Ivy. He is an ecoterrorist as well, though not as kind.

For reasons of her own Ivy continues to pursue Mr. Rain and encounters Batgirl again.  Ivy betrayed the Birds of Prey at the cusp of Christy Marx's run, and Batgirl's still stinging over the action.

Ninety percent of the time, Simone characterizes Ivy and Batgirl well in the annual.  Their conflict arises not so much from a hero and villain schism but on a more personal and psychological angle.  Ivy is mostly a protagonist in the Batgirl annual.  She and Batgirl do tangle, but the battle evolves naturally out of deep seated anger over Ivy's original betrayal and doesn't play out like a typical hero/villain fight.

The story culminates in winter where Ivy's seriously depleted, and she contacts Batgirl to help her end Mr. Rain's reign of terror.  As you can see in the above example, Simone is really at her finest in this annual with strong dialogue and a superb understanding of just how dangerous Batgirl is, as well as what makes her different.  She also imbues Ivy with remarkable pathos.  In addition the artwork by Robert Gill, Javier Garron and Romulo Fajuardo is uniformly stunning.

Now the annoying part.  Simone feels the need to always write, rather than let the artist have the show.  

Poison Ivy is not pregnant.  As Bruce Timm established, she cannot become pregnant.  Her immune system identifies sperm as a poison, and she is impervious to toxins.  This weird conversation didn't need to be in the book, and it goes on for too long.  Simone carries over the bizarre dialogue through several pages until Ivy states, oh, what she meant was she's "pregnant with possibility."  This snatch of speech isn't funny.  The exchange lacks meaning.  It's just infuriating.  If it had been weeded out of the story.  The Batgirl Annual would have been perfection.

I only bought Batman Eternal for Batgirl's appearance.  In that respect, it didn't disappoint me.  Batgirl blows off steam by beating the crap out of a loser villain's flunkies. She gets in a couple of good shots against Batman, and she investigates a lead.  Batman exhibits concern for her, and there's no question that they are friends.  Dustin Nguyen's Batgirl furthermore is a petite powerhouse.  

As to the rest, somebody in Gotham framed Commissioner Gordon for severe negligence.  The setup catalyzes Gordon's bail bond trial and his incarceration.  Batman questions the likely suspects including a Falcone from The Long Halloween, whose scratches indicate a feline acquaintance.  Meanwhile, Spoiler runs from her father the Cluemaster, and DC drip Jason Bard makes his new 52 debut.  The new Commish decides it's best to eliminate a vigilante presence in Gotham City.  I'm surprised I didn't yawn while typing that.

Batgirl features in this week's side-B of Batman '66.  Bruce Wayne succumbs to a snake-bite.  In order to help him, Batgirl must track down the snake so that the hospital can generate the anti-venom.  Barbara Gordon's investigation quickly leads her to the culprit and ginchy action as Batgirl.  

Vamping it up courtesy of talented artist Joelle Jones.  Fab colors by Nick Filardi

With the exception of Commissioner Gordon's commentary about Alfred, Parker mimics not the campy tone of Batman but instead duplicates the themes in the Batgirl mythology.  Batgirl works alone.  She often beats the Dynamic Duo to the punch.  Her library resources fuel her knowledge.  She's fun loving, not grim.

The culprit's motive is off-the-rails, unless you bring in Stockholm Syndrome, of which I'm sure Parker is aware.  If you factor in this unfortunate condition, the perpetrator's actions gain a level of authenticity, and Batgirl's closing comment also grants impetus to the deluded rationale.

Side-A didn't interest me as much as the Batgirl vignette.  However, it's a perfectly harmless depiction of Mr. Freeze's latest attempt to seek revenge against Batman, who with Robin, outsmarts the fiend through fancy footwork. 

David Williams' art's notable for a dead on, yet cartoony likeness of Adam West, Burt Ward and Otto Preminger, who portrayed Mr. Freeze, and Kelsey Shannon's colors give the whole enterprise a Topps card look and feel.

The main attraction in All-Star Western is one of the quietest I've seen from Palmiotti and Gray.  Jonah Hex buries Gina, his lover from the future who accompanied Hex to the past.  I'm guessing a virus or bacterium, to which she had no defense, combined with heat exhaustion and shock from a gunshot wound did her in.  In short, the West killed her.

After that unhappy task, Hex mosies into the nearest town where he meets with an old acquaintance Tullulah Black.  Given the plastic surgery Hex received in modern times, he must convince her that he's who he says he is. It doesn't take long.  Though she doubts his story.

The second feature is much noisier.  Gray and Palmiotti with the legendary Jose Garcia-Lopez reintroduce Madame .44.  I must confess to being in the dark about this character and couldn't say whether or not her origin is a new one or old.  I recall her post-Crisis redo in Secret Origins indicating that she was a bank robber posing as a school marm who fell in love with Johnny Thunder, the gunslinger, not the Thunderbolt caller.

A childhood friend, whose mind is twisted by a western hooker with silver in her eyes, betrays the Gray/Palmiotti version.  He comes to his senses, but it's too late.  The deed is done, and the cast set.  Madame .44, nee Jeanne Walker, digs her way out of her predicament only to find herself in a new one.

Even if you have no interest in Madame .44, Garcia-Lopez's art is a massive enticement, with not just good old fashioned attentiveness to anatomy and expression, but also inventive designs and expressive layouts.

Captain Midnight confronts his erstwhile partner Chuck Ramsey and finds him wanting in ethics.  Writer Joshua Williamson demonstrates Ramsey's insanity through outstanding dialogue.  The man's ends justify the means words entertain to no end, as does the sleight of hand in the narration leading to a juicy twist, that's so classic it feels new again.

Dagnino's art offers the reader a solid stage and energetic characters that compliment a decaying villain who bears the look of a terrific character actor hired to bring gusto to a power gluttonous weasel of an adversary.

Doc Savage in Spaaaaaaaaaaaace.  Chris Roberson's fun story updates Doc Savage in the seventies, where interest in space exploration was at an all time high.  Though set in the past, Roberson induces some anachronistic material to exemplify Doc's influence on the future.  

Doc's Space Plane, piloted by the engaging Roughneck whom we met last issue, looks like a modified Space Shuttle.  The U.S. economy never faltered because Doc became a hiring force, turning his operation from a six man crew into a world wide scientific-centered conglomerate.  

The plot alludes to Nazi secret weaponry, mixed in with seventies book cults--reflecting say Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson's period popular Illuminati novels.  Roberson's grip on Doc Savage mythology, this time represented by the special guns the Man of Bronze used, continues to impress.  He's starting to nail down Doc's and Pat's characterization while building his own creations' attractive personalities.      

Aquaman battles Hercules in a visceral toe-to-toe that displays Paul Pelletier's penchant for super-hero action.  In every panel, you can imagine feeling the pain and hearing the impact of the blows.  

Writer Jeff Parker lets Pelletier do most of the talking.  However, his plotting facilitates Aquamans's status as a champion of justice.  A moment where Aquaman reveals his cunning turns the tide of battle.  Ultimately, Aquaman expresses the mercy and wisdom of a king.  Hercules' madness isn't of his own making.  He didn't deserve to be sealed in a pit of hellish creatures, and when Arthur disposes of the legendary hero, one he recounts from his school days, he chooses a place that will solve the problem of a rampaging misunderstood maniac without dooming the Demigod.

Meanwhile, below the surface, skullduggery is afoot as the Atlanteans manifest their disdain for the Xebel Queen, Mera. 

Parker's Mera is a take-no-prisoners gal who apparently only humors her husband when fighting beside him on land.  Yes, dear.  Criminals should be put in jail.  I promise not to stick their heads on pikes. Honest.  Cross my heart.  Not so when she's operating solo.

The assassins pull a dirty trick on Mera--clearly out of their weight class, but a new addition to the cast, though an old ally, swims out of nowhere to ultimately secure a higher ranking due to valorous actions on behalf of the lethal lassie.  
If that isn't enough to warrant a purchase, Parker and Pelletier remind readers that Aquaman doesn't live in a vacuum.  He lives in the water of course.  Anyway, a cameo appearance by Wonder Woman sets up she and Arthur's team-up in the forthcoming Aquaman Annual, and her mention of Superman's meeting with Swamp Thing whets the appetite for the Champion of the Green's appearance in the next issue.

For Justice League Dark, it's a parting of ways.   New writer J.M. DeMatteis takes over and culls his group of supernatural superheroes from the larger selection Jeff Lemire and Ray Fawkes left behind.  So far, it's Zatanna, who acquired the legal ownership of the House of Mystery, Deadman, Night Nurse and maybe Swamp Thing.  Black Orchid and Frankenstein exit, and John Constantine burns any bridges that still might have been standing.  Most of the team want to kill him by the end of this story.

The book is well wrtitten with a lot of straight drama that's DeMatteis' forte.  Less time is given to the vagaries of the past occult plots that loosely tied into Forever Evil.  More instead revolves around the feelings of the team.  Although, DeMatteis sows the seeds for the trigger to a tantalizing cliffhanger.  It however seems less global and more personal.

I was going to drop Justice League Dark after the changing of the guard and superb illustrator Mikel Janin's shuffle, but there's enough in this issue to keep me sticking around, and artists Andres Guinaldo, Mark Irwin and Brad

Rick Remender combines forces with Paul Renaud to produce the issue of Uncanny Avengers that provides reason for this title's existence.  This is the most fun I've had reading an Avengers/X-Men team up.

Mojo an extraterrestrial showrunner--no, really--pitches an Avengers/X-Men television series to the Powers That Be.  The antagonists will be the Legion of Monsters with Blade and Stephen Strange replacing Jack Ryder the Werewolf by Night and Morbius the living vampire.  

Mojo uses the Legion to snatch the Avengers and X-Men at an opportune moment, which happens to be during the Wasp's pool party.

It's nice to see the heroes relaxing with each other.  Inside, Captain America and Sunfire shoot pool while Thor and Wolverine indulge in a drinking contest, naturally.  The drunken Thor offers the reader a lot of comedy, but none so much as the dynamic between the returned, I don't know when, Scarlet Witch and Wonder Man, Simon Williams.

The thing is that Rick Remender doesn't appear to care at all about the whole Scarlet Witch, Wonder Man, Vision triangle.  It seems to me that he characterizes Wonder Man as just some old pervert that wants to get into Wanda's pants, and that suits me because I loathed the Wonder Man, Vision, Scarlet Witch triangle.  

Remender bequeaths a wisdom to Wanda that belies the gorgeous youthful appearance Renaud bestows. These two talents make Wanda look and act better than ever before, and I love the colors.  Wanda looks at Simon as if through a microscope, and she finds him no more than a distraction.  Even when Mojo follows the Powers That Be's production ghastly notes--Remender must have really been burned by somebody in Hollywood; this is biting satire--he doesn't pair Wanda up with Simon.  

Mojo "casts" the Avengers, the X-Men and the Legion of Monsters in a simply dreadful teen drama, which thankfully only lasts three pages before all hell literally breaks loose.

The Avengers, X-Men and Legion come together to combat a real threat to the world and perhaps the universe.  They come up with an ingenious plan that uses multiple heroes from all three teams, and the ending offers a pricless moment in which Remender takes the piss out of over the top melodrama.  Uncanny Avengers Annual isn't just good.  It's Frankencastle good.  

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