Monday, June 9, 2014

POBB: June 5, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
June 5, 2014
Ray Tate

Hey, look at that, we're on time.  This week we look at Angel and Faith, Batwing, Doc Savage, Earth 2, Flash Gordon, Inhuman, Loki, Moon Knight, Painkiller Jane, Princess Ugg, Swamp Thing and Vampirella.  And remember, fight for your right to utilize an open internet.  All data must be treated equally.  Inform yourself about the cable and phone companies' plans to hijack the internet.  Send your comments to the FCC.  Don't let them get away with this.

The latest issue of Earth 2 turns away from the now solved mystery of the new Batman and focuses on the wonders with which we began our new earth-two adventures.  The Flash lies in the hands of the Beguiler, a Darkseid agent, but things aren't going exactly how the twisted thing planned.

Fleet of feet and fleet of mouth, the newest version of Jay Garrick continues to prove himself worthy of the name Flash.  Writer Tom Taylor also begins to reinstate the famous Flash/Green Lantern friendship of the past.  Alan Scott, the champion of the earth, returns to baste flocks and flocks of Apokoliptan turkey.  He's a big shiny distraction to provide Kendra, the earth-two Hawkgirl enough time to find and rescue Jay.

The return of Green Lantern, the Flash and Hawkgirl pretty much earns the book's right to exist, but Taylor and artist Nicola Scott aren't done with you yet.  Batman tears Val a new one for his pacifist philosophy and blames the Red Arrow's death on the young Kryptonian whose last page reveal is a jaw-dropper.

Of all people, Jimmy Olsen defends Val with some pretty decent reasoning.  I always hated Jimmy Olsen, but this moment where Olsen confronts the Batman is a stirring cogency that cannot be ignored.

Jimmy Palmiotti's and Justin Gray's Batwing finally conclude their implausible beneath the center of Gotham story.  At first they seem to end the book on a high note, with young Luke Fox rescuing his younger sister Tiffany from the Rat-Catcher.  The damage done however to Luke's older sister Tam takes a toll on the tone of the tale.  Of course, Batwing feels the need to take it out on Batman, during a dour end note.  Does nobody like Batman anymore?  He was doing so well at the beginning of the new 52.

I really hated this story.  I might have been a little more willing to suspend my disbelief had the tale been a pulpy lark to fit the setting.  It has the ingredients.  A group of displaced citizens synthesize a lost civilization filled with cults and weirdness galore.  As a serious tale it falters in the presence of the Dark Knight.  How is it Batman wouldn't notice such a decrease in Gotham's population? How could Batman not hear rumors of such a place and investigate? It's like an old magic trick played on an arch-magician.  No.  Sorry.  I love Palmiotti's and Gray's style of writing, but this premise lacked a base on which to stand.

Batwing should be about daring-do, not another angst-ridden sidekick.  I felt the Tam subplot was mean and unnecessary.  She's Palmiotti's and Gray's character.  So it's not that they didn't have the right to damage her, but it's just so old DC.  The new 52 is about renewal.  Gray's and Palmiotti's move also duplicates the catalyst of Blaxploitation classic Coffy

Coffy's sister loses her mind to drugs.  The sister ends up in a comatose state and must be confined to a sanitarium for constant care.  If you haven't seen Coffy, do so.  It's a terrific little revenge film.  The subplot to Batwing's story varies only in degrees.  Criminals victimize Tam with designer drugs, while Coffy's sister did the damage herself.  Coffy's sister triggers Coffy's intent to destroy the drug trade.  Tam's trauma is merely incorporated into an already established Batwing's life.  Gray and Palmiotti also make a point to bring religion into the mix.  They include a scene where Luke wheels Tam into church, and he claims his faith is shaken.  This seems so pretentious.  I'm an atheist.  So take this critique with all the bias you think I may possess, but the whole scenario just strikes me as Luke Fox reaffirming his faith despite the adversity that's been handed to him.  Coffy makes no such lofty claims.  There is no god in Coffy, just her vengeance, and the film is better for it.  Batwing's being cancelled, and that's a damn shame because it was a good book with one of the few Batman spin-offs and one of the few costume hand-offs that actually worked.  The early issues of Palmiotti's and Gray's run are recommended.  This last story isn't.

Previous issues of Moon Knight exemplified each of Moon Knight's avatars.  Writer Warren Ellis also explained whether Marc Spector had been chosen by Khonshu to represent the deity's ideals, which include protecting night travelers, or had lost his sanity.  Turns out Spector is sane.  Who would have thunk it? This issue shows how the various aspects of Khonshu actually can work together.

Mr. Knight, the detective, comes into contact with a sleep researcher that has a problem.

Because the dreamers are in fact night travelers, Mr. Knight agrees to help.  First step, enter the dream state as Moon Knight.  Here's where Declan Shalvey and colorist Jordie Bellaire take over. 

The trip into the dream world resembles the imagery oft described by poets and writers who were counted among the Order of the Golden Dawn.  A movement of magical realism in the late Victorian Age.  These poets and writers, led by the infamous Aleister Crowley, included such luminaries as William Butler Yeates and Arthur Machen.  As well as unjustly forgotten names such as Lord Dunsany.  The collection of literati allegedly attempted to gain vision through drugs, the newly retooled Tarot--once merely a game like Faro--and eerie rituals frequently involving naked girls.  Given humanity's propensity to exaggerate, let's just call it a writer's group that imbibed just enough opiates to make the word shimmer a bit.

In any case, Moon Knight detects a theme in the dreams that puts Mr. Knight onto the solution of the problem.  The epiphany leads to a satisfying, surprisingly violent denouement followed by an even stronger conclusion.  The issue by which others will be measured.

Writer/creator Jimmy Palmiotti reintroduces the 22 Brides in an Arabian Nights styled fable.  The tale of the Brides foreshadows the ferocity, tenacity, team work and the independence of the twenty-two women you'll soon meet in modern times.  Through the prologue Palmiotti demonstrates that good stories will always work regardless of the period.  The era just adds flavor.

In the present, Palmiotti involves the 22 Brides and Painkiller Jane in a mystery where mostly empty buildings implode. This however is only the opening act to something even more sinister.  Jane gets caught in one of the explosions, and wakes up among familiar faces if not a familiar surrounding.

The 22 Brides are a group of private investigators, specializing in body guard duty.  They don't get along with Maureen, Jane's detective friend, but the cops tolerate their presence due to a "matchless knowledge of the city."

It's the teeming nature of New York that lends the coincidences in Palmiotti's story credence.  One afterall might question the fortune that Jane and the Brides were touched by the disasters and that the crimes just happen to occur in Maureen's precinct.  However, New York isn't Cabot Cove.  It's perfectly reasonable to suggest these crimes spread across the city and touched citizens capable of investigating.

Juan Santacruz is on duty for the artwork, and he brings realism and a judiciously paced suspenseful narrative to a book that could have just been a good-girl fiesta.  There is nudity in Painkiller Jane, but it's not where you expect.  The nudity, courtesy of artist Norberto Fernandez, occurs in the Arabian fable not the pair of shower scenes that are included just to show cleanliness.  

Palmiotti has pulled this switch before.  In Random Acts of Violence, an American giallo, the man performs the shower scene.  Palmiotti delights in trumping expectations and is well aware of the tropes in cinema.  The shower scene is the actress' apology to the audience for their having to wade through a cesspool: 

"Oh, you poor dear.  It is a bad movie.  Here are my ta-tas.  I just wish I could have been there for you during Prometheus."

The art in the second story is by Fearless Dawn's Steve Mannion.  As a result, the style of storytelling is more over-the-top and cartoony.  Perfectly acceptable given the atmosphere of the short.  In the tale, Jane follows a lead to a low-level crook and plunges into fight after fight in a Carny setting.  It's only until the end note that Palmiotti switches the tone.  

Mannion mans up to the change and illustrates the versatility within his style.  Whether you're in it for the story or the artists, the entirety of Painkiller Jane is as usual worth experiencing.

Nancy Collins is the creator of Sonja Blue.  Debuting in the superbly titled Sunglasses After Dark, Sonja was raped by a vampire and turned, but Sonja didn't become like the evil bloodsuckers that populated Collins' novels.  Instead, she became a feared otherworldly vampire hunter; referred to as a Dhampire.  The fistful of Sonja Blue novels comprise some of the most entertaining supernatural literature written in the past two decades.  Over the years, I've recommended each, especially Collins' underrated urban western A Dozen Black Roses, which is the most recent.  

Collins is the anti-Rice.  Her vampires are not romantic, Byronesque figures.  They are deadly, ravenous predators in the vein of Janos Skorzeny from Kolchak: The Night Stalker.  Her monsters in addition often blend violence and blood hunger with sex.  Collins was one of the first authors that broke the tradition of fangs being metaphors for sexual penetration.  Her monsters are not impotent, and they'll rip out a victim's throat just the same.

When I learned Collins was taking over the writing duties of Vampirella, I knew this would be the start of an amazing era for the comic book.  The premiere does not disappoint.  Collins stakes out exactly who Vampirella is, how she operates and addresses a history that has became extremely convoluted.  "Ella's" adventures strayed far from her creator Forrest J. Ackerman's elegant alien vampire origin.  It was in fact the alien nature of Vampirella that attracted me to her stories in the first place.  

Since I grew up watching Universal horrors and the eternal battles between Peter Cushing's Van Helsing legacy and Christopher Lee's immortal evil, it took a helluva lot for me to wrap my head around the concept of a good vampire.  Vampirella expressed numerous benefits that eased transition.  One, she was an alien.  Not undead.  Two, she liked humans, but not for supper.  Three, she fought monsters and human killers.  Four, some of the best artists in the business graced her curves and made her hip swimsuit and boots sexy but also dignified.  It didn't matter what Vampirella wore, she was out of your league.

Sonja Blue and Vampirella on the surface share several attributes.  Both are female.  Both feed on blood.  Both hunt monsters that would prey upon humanity, and both bear traits that distinguish them from their prey.  Specifically both can function in the daylight.  Vampirella though practically basks in the sun, while Sonja merely tolerates the rays.  Despite these similarities, Collins gives Vampirella a distinctive voice, and because I've read so much of Collins' past work, I'm even more impressed.  It's easy for a writer to fall into the trap of writing the same character despite the very different clothing.  Especially when they're almost blood sisters.

Sonja is an introvert.  Vampirella is an extrovert.  Collins gives Vampirella a greater sense of duty and humor.  Sonja centered her thoughts on revenge and only much later in the series became something of a savior.  She has a sense of humor, but it's buried deep.  Vampirella exploits whatever's handy to kill monsters, and relies more on her vampire strength.  Sonja usually kills with her weapon of choice: a silver switchblade bearing a gold-leaf dragon hilt.  Sonja also has something no other vampire has, and that's the Other.  A second personality or entity that's the equivalent to berserker rage.  Vampirella in contrast is always poised and always seems to have the upper hand.  In the story, Collins will temper Vampirella's attributes, but not without reason.  Indeed, the threat is almost in turning Vampirella into a character like Sonja Blue, but without Sonja's control.

The Vatican calls Vampirella to investigate what appears to be a straight forward matter of child abduction by a crazy cult.  No sweat for our favorite alien from Drakulon.  Alas, complications arise.

The terrified state Mrs. Baxter displays is just the tip of a blood-soaked iceberg.  Mrs. Baxter accepts Vampirella's cover story as gospel, and she relates a disturbing tale of possession that pulls back the veil on one of Vampirella's oldest enemies.

To say more would give the whole game away, and this is a game you should read.  Accompanying Collins on the new ground, Patrick Berkenkotter.  I've complimented Berkenkotter before on his Vampirella and Dark Shadows.  Here he's even better.  Berkenkotter provides sharper attention to detail, demonstrates an experience with the character and creates a greater sense of realism with a more diverse cast.  Berkenkotter illustrates ordinary people extremely well.  Previously, he centered his work on larger than life figures like Vampirella and Barnabas Collins.  The ordinary cast provide a contrast to the more robust Vampirella.  It's a terrific debut.  Don't miss it, and if you've never even thought about picking up an issue of Vampirella, here's a good place to muse.

In the last issue of Angel and Faith, Faith joined Kennedy's Deepscan Agency, a private security firm, but the Slayer doesn't have any luck fitting in.  She keeps wanting to kill the clients.

This is absolutely fitting since the charismatic clucker feeds off the adoration of his fans, but his current target was an underage girl whose father attempted to rescue.  Kennedy's not down with chicken-hawking either, but she's willing to accept that some responsibilities lie out of her hands.  Not Faith.  She's a Slayer through and through, and she's got a big shiny knife to emphasize her vocation.

Writer Victor Gischler spotlights the awesomeness in Faith, but he cleverly makes Faith's assets as a Slayer drawbacks for a grayer world of private investigation, which partly involves protecting the client's confidences.  She also seems to have problem drawing her gun, preferring Slayer weapons.  All of this makes sense.  

Gischler mimics exactly how Eliza Dushku would have essayed the part in the story.  Frequently, you hear Dushku as you read Faith's dialogue, and Will Conrad's phenomenal artwork captures the look and feel of the actress.

As Faith tries to fit in with the former Slayers at Deepscan, Angel resumes his hunt for Corky, the murderous Pixie, in Magic Town.  Angel returns to consult Nadira, the half-human seer of the supernatural domain, and naturally she speaks in riddles.  

Her advice brings Angel into contact with various denizens of the hocus-pocus address, but the centerpiece occurs when he meets the hilarious and humongous glass blower, a truly unique creation filled with a combination of absurdity and horror. 

Angel and Faith is a winner, and I'll be adding it to my subscription list.

Doc Savage reaches the present day and deals with the horrors of the modern world.  First, he must rescue two team members investigating filth that exploits children as soldiers.

Next he finds his entire global operation under the assault of a psychopathic hacker.  For a story that runs more on disaster and stemming a tide of destruction rather than fisticuffs and battling would-be world dominating madmen, this is a pretty exciting issue.  

Flash Gordon actually arrived last week.  So apologies for the late review.  Flash, Dale Arden and Professor Zarkov enjoy the hospitality of Prince Barin and the Arboreans.  The reason behind the hospitality is due to Dale's quick-thinking and duplicity.

At first there's much rejoicing.  Our heroes sample the local cuisine and games.  One game in particular attracts Flash Gordon to the arena.  

As the group flaunt their false status, word begins to reach the planet about the exploits of Flash Gordon and company and how the earth resisted Mongo's takeover.  This occurred in King's Watch, which reunited Flash, Mandrake and the Phantom.  It definitely needs to be on your trade paperback buy list if you missed the mini-series. 

Jeff Parker reintroduces one of Flash's oldest allies in a whole new way.  Apart from the blue skin, Barin exhibits an allegiance to Mongo that's partly due to his having no choice in the matter.  As the story unfolds, Parker turns the sense of wonder into a sense of horror.  We discover what Mongo demands for Arborea's "protection."

The moment triggers Barin's resentment and disgust with Mongo and the slip of Flash's, Dale's and Zarkov's facade.  It's an example of perfect timing in a tale evocatively illustrated by Evan Shaner and Jordie Bellaire, who bring a sense of comic strip exoticism in the tradition of Alex Raymond to the Flash Gordon comic book.

Parker on the other hand blew it in last week's Aquaman.  He and Charlie Soule generate an animosity between Aquaman and Swamp Thing that just doesn't make any sense and leaves the impression that both heroes are asses.

The second part of the Aquaman and Swamp Thing team-up is just as bad.  Alec Holland investigates what's been eating the coral reef, and he discovers a big blob of algae he cannot communicate with.  Soule dubs the thing a Kreuzblutler, which formed when Alec wiped out the Parlaiment of Trees.  So, in a way, he's responsible for the beast's manifestation.  The use of German is also very Grimm.

The best part of the book occurs when Alec appreciates of his deep sea environs and the epilogue where the former Avatars express their disdain for their current benefactor.  He pulled them from the Green, reverting them back to human.  Gripe.  Gripe.  Gripe.  He could have done a lot of things to you, but he let you live.  The middle of Swamp Thing is just dull and ridiculous, with Aquaman and Swamp Thing continuing their private measuring stick war.  Swamp Thing wins, Arthur.  No matter how long your member may be, Swamp Thing can form a branch that'll drop to his leafy feet.

Charles Soule fares much better at Marvel with the second issue of Inhuman.  Pay no attention to the new Inhuman that's supposedly the centerpiece of the whole enchilada. The second issue consists of Medusa teaming up with Captain America to bring the beat down on everybody's favorite lethal beekeepers.  It's that fun.

Loki: Agent of Asgard conducts a break in on the vaults within his home-city.  The story starts out as a heist-like caper with Loki calling in favors and placing his crew in positions to reach his ultimate goal.  The pacing is quick, and the atmosphere free-wheeling until the very end where Loki learns the truth about himself and the secrets of Asgard.  Vicious, but it's Loki.  You can't say that he didn't have this payback coming.

Last but not least, Ted Naifeh's utterly charming Princess Ugg.  I've had limited exposure to Naifeh.  I avoided Courtney Crumrin because it just struck me as trying to be cute, and quite frankly the fact that Courtney lacked a nose creeped me out.  

I flipped through Princess Ugg, and Naifeh impressed the hell out of me art wise.  Naifeh renders Princess Ugg in a much more realistic style.  All the characters for example possess noses.  The coloring by Warren Wuginich looks to be a flattering imitation of water colors.  So this book stands out among its ilk. 

Reading the story just added to its infectiousness.  Princess "Ugg" is really Ulga, a Celtic princess who with her woolly mammoth treads into the lowlands for a proper education among other royal heirs.   This is just a lovely thing.

Princess Ugg reminds me of a really good old school Disney cartoon with hand-painted cel animation and a tale that's not just for kids.  For example, we meet Ulga's brave mum early in the book, but she's only a memory later.  The hilarious scenes in which Ulga takes a bath vs the luxurious bathing of Lady Juliper, probably wouldn't have passed muster in sanitized cinema, and we would be robbed of laugh out loud comedy.  Likely, the flash of the whip against Ulga's hide wouldn't have seen the light of day either--even though the MPAA doesn't frown on violence as much as it does nudity--but without it, the book would lack a rationale for fight scenes that rely as much upon philosophy as kinetics.  I love this book.

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