Monday, June 23, 2014

POBB: June 18, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
June 18, 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag welcomes you to another week of comic book reviews.  Our current issue looks at Batman and...Batman Eternal, Future's End, Harley Quinn, Red Hood and The Outlaws, The Simpsons, The Wicked and the Divine and Wonder Woman.

It's another while you weren't looking issue of Batman and... The fill in the blank title highlights Ra's Al Ghul.  However, Batman is actually still teamed up with Frankenstein, who entered the fray last chapter, and a group of Yeti that want Ra's off their mountain.

Universal Monsters Green by John Kalisz

Ra's ushered the bodies of his daughter Talia and his grandson Damien to the famous DC staple Nanda Parbat.  The area sports a special Lazarus Pit that will not only permit resurrection some time after death but also erase the memory.  Such alteration will allow Ra's to ply his daughter and grandson to his way of thinking.  That is assuming the whackjob brings them back from the dead in the first place.  Even in a fictional context, this is a tall order.  

After a vicious battle against Ra's scientifically perverted Man-Bat army, Batman makes extreme headway.  Through his efforts and that of his allies, Batman manages for a time to actually abscond with Damien's body.  Ra's however is a cockroach.  The villain gives Batman an ultimatum that leads to two things, a serious threat bringing back the old Bob Kane/Bill Finger Batman...

...and Batman beating the crap out of Ra's Al Ghul in a knock-down, drag out fight grittily choreographed by artist Patrick Gleason that's far from the renowned gentlemen's duel originally conceived by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams.  Ra's hasn't been a gentleman for some time, and the new 52 carries the flow of the deep end dip the archfiend took.

Here's the thing though.  Writer Peter Tomasi is actually shooting for something even higher than what appears to be the final battle between Batman and Ra's.  The cliffhanger promises something continuity affecting, taking the reader by complete surprise.  Highly recommended.

I'm still not reading the entirety of Future's End.  It's a title that takes place sometime in DC's future, possibly on another earth or earths, and its completely irrelevant.  The only reason you need to buy Future's End can be summed thusly:

Frankenstein vs Black Adam in the Phantom Zone.  If you're not a Frankenstein fan, I really cannot see why you would buy Future's End.  Batman Beyond has a nice moment kicking Mr. Terrific in the face, but Lois Lane and some war profiteer's daughter share a fit of histrionics.  Grifter guest-stars and a little girl named Fifty Sue, get it, harasses Deathstroke.  Nope.  This issue is only for die-hard Frankenstein fans and entirely skippable for anybody else.

Likewise for Batman Eternal.  This chapter is solely for Batgirl fans.  Fortunately, I'm one of them.  So top marks all around.  Batgirl heads to Rio de Janeiro to follow a lead that might free her Dad, Commissioner Gordon, from jail. 

In all honesty, there's really no need for Batgirl to be in Brazil.  It's just a conceit to excuse Barbara's globe-trotting.  One may recall that Batgirl couldn't trot anywhere thirty-seven years ago so this is a vast improvement.  

Batgirl promptly beats the crap out of Scorpiana who, on the cover, appears to be a knock-off of the famous Spider-Man villain.  However, the trappings are just that.  The unique personality of the character, her method of killing, her lethal role and the design all distinguish her from the Scorpion. 

The "Blue Bug Girl's" dispatched not by Batgirl but by an obscure member of the Batman Family.   Normally, I'd say the fellow stole Batgirl's thunder, but it's clear from the story that the duo share a history, and it's fitting this hero takes the femme fatale down. 

No matter the outcome, the story and the villain exist to reinforce Batgirl's resolve, martial skill and remarkable speed.  It's something that Batgirl challenges Scorpiana and prevents her from executing her target.  If you ignore the pretense of her visit, Batman Eternal reads like a stylish, one-off inventory issue of Batgirl.

Batman Eternal's artwork, by Ian Bertram, may be a little off-putting at first, but it possesses an aesthetic quality that validates its manifestation of Batgirl and surprise guest-stars Red Hood and Starfire.

Bertram I'm guessing is British, but his style is reminiscent of underground Latin American comic strip art from the sixties. There's a broad cast of body types present that solidifies the allusion.  You could say that Bertram's illustration belongs in this issue.

Ninety percent of Batman Eternal spotlights Batgirl.  When not focusing on the Darknight Daredoll, the story reiterates the origin of Cluemaster.   It also looks into the relationship between Alfred and his estranged daughter Julia.  In the pre-Crisis Julia was also the spawn of Mademoiselle Marie.  

In the new 52, Mademoiselle Marie turns out to be Lady Frankenstein.  So, I don't think this counts anymore.  On the other hand, maybe Alfred is open-minded.

Red Hood and The Outlaws offers the reader a fun entry-level story that introduces the characters, demonstrates the character dynamic, explains power levels and abilities as well as each hero's limitations and goals.  

That writer Scott Lobdell does all this while providing a comedic narrative and light dialogue makes the book even more of an attractive a selection.  Once the preliminaries are out of the way, the team find themselves guests of SHADE, where we meet its newest agent.

Hopefully, this will keep Man-Bat out of the comic book limelight.  For awhile, he was in every Batman book, including Scoob-Doo Team-Up.  In any case, SHADE acquired an odd pieie of alien hardware that specifically asked for Princess Koriand'r alias Starfire.  When Kori grants the ship an audience, the unexpected occurs leaving the reader with an enticing cliffhanger.

Certain things must be mentioned.  One is that Starfire is now exclusive with Roy Harper.    So there you go prudes.  The threesome is over, but Lobdell still reminds readers that Starfire is an alien that expresses different social mores.

Having mended fences with Batman, Jason now wears the Bat-Symbol proudly, not as mockery.  He exhibits far more deductive reasoning than..well...ever and better reflects Batman's training.  He still has no problems with killing the opposition should the need arise, but it's difficult to lose any tears over those he executes.  Roy's interaction with Jason is also more appealing than his interaction with the now more mature Nightwing.  So, yeah.  Red Hood and the Outlaws is a sleeper hit waiting to be discovered.

Now that the Sy-Borg storyarc ended, Harley Quinn zooms back to its effective comedy standing.  Poison Ivy returns to determine exactly which lunatic put out the hit on the only person she's devoted to.  For some reason the ladies start their search at the beach.

The thing that I admired the most about the scene, no not those, is Ivy's kindness.  

I'm convinced that Harley Quinn lies well outside of new 52 continuity.  However, the new 52 does affect Harley Quinn.  Writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti take the idea of Harley and Ivy being companions seriously and consider Ivy as more than mere villain.  The little moment where Ivy moves the fellow's soda closer indicates tremendous depth.  The old Ivy wouldn't have done that.  She would have been more apt to spike a toxin in the poor guy's drink and record his suffering.  The new 52 Ivy however is a borderline hero, and Palmiotti and Conner run with that idea.

Ivy's designs in Harley Quinn are noble.  As the story proceeds at a zippy pace, Ivy continues to exhibit remarkable restraint.  Harley and Ivy harm no innocents.  That's probably the most important concept in this comical adventure.

The people Harley and Ivy snuff are killers themselves.  So, it's impossible to root for anything but their demise.  Even then, it's not a mass slaughter, which definitely would have taken the edge off the funny.  This would have been especially true since artist Chad Hardin doesn't create an outlandish motif in the artwork.  Instead, he renders down to earth characters with apropos anatomy; in particular check out his excellent footwork.  Feet are usually the bane of artists everywhere.

Brian Azzarello advances the story in Wonder Woman.  As Diana prepares the Amazons and the Sons of the Amazons for war against the First Born of Olympus, Eros and Moon travel to Hell to free Hermes. 

Strife attempts to forward her own agenda by becoming the First Born's consort.  The mad Cassandra stages an attack on Ceres, goddess of the Harvest, and the First Born himself exhibits only admiration for Wonder Woman.

It's pretty clear that Azzarello is finishing his run.  The plot feels a little rushed, as if missing a chapter, but the book doesn't suffer that much for the loss of explanation.  

Eros sort of comes out of nowhere.  It took me a moment to remember he took the stage before.  Wonder Woman borrowed his guns--as opposed to the traditional Cupid's Bow--when she went into Hell searching for Zola and Zeke.  Dio who took part in more recent events only gets an aside mention from Hera.

Strife's ploy while unusual fits her characterization as does her snarky sense of humor, probably disguising anxiety over her disgusting surroundings.  Ceres also served as Zeke's host at one point, and it's a testament to Azzarello's skill that you can take these returns in stride because he has had such a memorable run on Wonder Woman.  Those previous encounters with the gods feel like foreshadowing.

The one thing that just seems far-fetched is the First Born's sudden respect for Wonder Woman.  Maybe he was too busy killing Apollo to express it, but the First Born never had the attributes of that kind of foe until now.  He was just a thuggish deity with no majesty or nobility.  His and Wonder Woman's stories also paralleled each other, only coming to a crux in London.   It's possible that the single meeting impressed the First Born greatly, but we didn't really get any indication of this reaction.  Whatever.  The previously unknown feelings from the First Born are easy gloss over, and Wonder Woman's trap is a good one.  It's perhaps not the best issue of Wonder Woman, but it's good enough to pass the time on a Saturday afternoon.

The new book by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie The Wicked and the Divine  also deals with the gods, but the treatment's a little more ephemeral.  The best I can gather from the story is that the gods return as human avatars to the earth in cycles.  The three gods that the premiere introduces include: Sekhmet, an Egyptian deity, Lucifer and Amaterasu, a Japanese sun goddess.  Laura is the everyman of book that we're supposed to sympathize with.  She's a fan of Amaterasu and experiences a rapture at sunny's concert before waking up to see Lucifer.

The story is kind of what you would see in the pilot episode of a television drama that's not specifically action-oriented, like Orphan Black for example.  The Wicked and the Divine is sort of a Good Wife meets the pantheons of the world.

Lucifer soon escorts Laura into the inner circle of the gods, who are being interviewed by a doubting media before suffering from an out of place eruption of violence that turns into an homage to Scanners.

Gillen's story is uninvolving, goofy and somewhat cliche.  Lucifer is catnip to modern writers not as a figure of evil but as a symbol of disinformation.  She smokes to express her disbelief in a system of lies.  The truth of course is entirely the opposite.  Smoking is about the worst thing a real person can do to herself.  Fictional figures do not get lung cancer.  Real people that smoke do.  Rebel or not.  It's a good thing to be skeptical, but not so blind to facts proven in independent study over and over again.

One of the more amusing things that occurs in The Wicked and the Divine is how quickly Gillen cuts to the speedy chase of a trial.  Let's look at this rationally.  The cops that arrive to investigate the mess left behind by Lucifer really couldn't possibly charge her with anything.  She's unarmed.  The blowy-head brigade had rifles.  Why their heads exploded? One best answered by the philosophers.  The cops aren't going to write in their reports that the woman named Lucy Rigby snapped her fingers to make the armed gunmen's heads explode.  That would be career-shattering.  Besides, they weren't there, and they would cast suspicious eyes to the witness statements.  Even if the cops dared to be stupid, a D.A. wouldn't pursue such a case since despite the magic involved it was clearly self-defense.  Why waste tax-payer money on something that cannot be proven? Now, it's true that there are some D.A.s that are simply politically minded sphincters, but politics doesn't enter into such a situation.  The trial wouldn't have happened, and it's just a grandstanding ploy on Gillen's part to include it in the denouement.

Wicked and the Divine is a sort of Mystery Science Theater experiment that's got amazing production values thanks to artist Jamie McKelvie.  Well, a lot of Hercules films had great production values, and they were still ripe for ridicule.  McKelvie's artwork is mouthwatering.  Without it, Gillen's tale would have been Legend of Boggy Creek nasty looking, but it's failings would have been obvious.  For example, the sexually charged narration is unwittingly hilarious, but because of McKelvie's touch of class, you cannot really fault its inclusion.  If another artist detailed what Gillen related, the book would land squarely in the gutters.

Simpsons Comics on the other hand is funny on purpose.  The script sings with Monty Burns seeing revenue in clean energy.  He teams up with Lisa Simpson again in a riotous run of the electric car advent. 

Because Monty's scheme is so successful because its so beneficial, the Springfielders forget all the past sins for which he has lorded over.  It helps when his cheering section is Lisa.

The scheme is so perfect because it's so legitimate, but it runs afoul of a fifth tier character awash in the oil and gas industry.

Somehow all of this laugh a second gag fest leads to a Transformers inspired death match presided by the residents of Springfield.  I'm pleased to declare that this issue of Simpsons Comics is a start to finish triumph of hilarity and should not be missed by anybody.

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