Monday, August 4, 2014

POBB: July 30, 2014

The Pick of the Brown Bag
July 30, 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag is live with reviews of Aquaman Annual, Baltimore, Captain Midnight, Detective Comics Annual, Doc Savage, Justice League, The Shadow and Smallville.  First, though a critique of the latest issue of Justice League.

Justice League in actuality spotlights the newest incarnation of the Doom Patrol.  The fan favorite team originally consisted of Niles Caulder, Rita Farr, Cliff Steel and Larry Trainor.  

There have been other formations, but writer Geoff Johns for the new 52 resets the clock.  Cliff, Larry, Rita and the Chief comprise our team.  

Created by writers Arnold Drake and Bob Haney and illustrated with realism by superb artist Bruno Permiani, Niles Caulder, The Chief, originally was a humanitarian who loved the members of his team as a family. 

Confined to a wheelchair, his intent was to show the world that physical "limitations" did not define the person.  So, the Doom Patrol would travel the world and combat weird menaces that threatened the same until, in a first for comics, the team would sacrifice their lives to save "14 useless fishermen" in "Codsville, Maine," which will be rechristened Four Heroes, Maine.

As it turned out, not all the Doom Patrol died.  Robot Man washed ashore, where Metal Man creator Will Magnus rebuilt his body.  That made sense.  The Chief would have constructed the encasement that guarded Cliff's brain out of the same material black boxes are made.  During the post-Crisis, writers revealed that Larry and the Chief also somehow managed to survive.  

Exemplifying DC's past sexism, Rita Farr became the only member of the Doom Patrol to die, and she with her ability to shrink to the size of a doll is the hero that logically could have survived the blast that historically destroyed the Doom Patrol.  In the waning years of the post-Crisis, writer/artist John Byrne would finally bring her back.

Predating Byrne's clean reboot, Grant Morrison took an altogether different tack with the Doom Patrol.  As far as he was concerned, the Chief was a self-serving bastard that eventually descended into madness.  That version of the Chief held weight in the minds of most writers and became the most influential.  This is mainly because the lion's share of writers prefer cynicism over optimism.  Cynicism is easier to write.

For the new 52, Geoff Johns reverts the Doom Patrol back to their beginnings, but he can't resist tampering with what didn't need to be fixed.  Rita Farr for example doesn't just grow and shrink.  Johns affixes a nastier condition to the character.  Larry Trainor fears being left helpless while releasing Negative Man, and the Chief is a misanthrope.  He catalyzed the creation of the Doom Patrol for his own reasons.  Johns implies, and the feverish design by Doug Mahnke corroborates, that the Chief is a probably a megalomaniac.  At least a control-freak.

Whatever the reason, the Doom Patrol gather to collect the cursed ring from another universe from the new Power Ring.  Standing amidst the Doom Patrol, the former Justice Leaguer Element Woman, who becomes an impediment in Caulder's schemes.  

Element Woman owes the Chief nothing.  So she can afford to be the conscience of the team.  You might ask, and rightly so, where is the Justice League.  There, there is the Justice League.

If it sounds like I'm not wild about Johns' story.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  I don't like his take on the Doom Patrol, but he leaves enough room in their characterization for repairs.  Caulder though acts like a typical mad scientist.  The next writer would have to do a complete overhaul on him.  Maybe a brick to the head to unscramble the wiring.

Given what's in the pages, Johns' story works from an outsider's perspective.  The Doom Patrol want to be super-heroes.  Caulder doesn't want them to fill that role.  They want to save people, but Caulder resists, and they look upon the Justice League as the real deal, whereas they are mere misfits under the thumb of the Chief.  It's a good, frothy tale even if I don't like some of the core elements.

The Aquaman Annual deals with loose ends from the highly recommended second story from Jeff Parker involving an archaeologist inadvertently releasing monsters sealed up in a Hellmouth by none other than Hercules.  While Arthur battled the insane demigod, many of the monsters escaped as others perished.  The head creature, the canniest of the lot, unfortunately was one of the missing.

She got even smarter in the interim and set up her species as special effects for a movie being made.  Thus, not only do they need not hide their monstrous forms, which likely expends enormous amounts of energy.  They also have a ready supply of food coming to their door.   The difference is that they learned to suck the lifeforce like a fine tea rather than just devour like Muppets.  

Artist Yvel Guichet follows Paul Pelletier's example and creates some remarkably revolting monsters.  I don't know what's worse the design of the flying thing's head or the way it licks the leader of this danse macabre's hand.  Whatever the reason, the artist doesn't just draw a comic book but also a gut reaction from the reader.  That's the power of art.

Aquaman and Wonder Woman in--we'll call it disguise--infiltrate the monsters' base of operations and while the Justice Leaguers subtly cement their friendship, they kick monster ass in remarkable scenes of awesome superhero violence.  Wonder Woman and Aquaman aren't holding back.  In the new 52, monsters that would feed on humans have no rights.  Lifeforms they may be, but their lives are forfeit.  New 52 continuity mavens may also like to note that Hercules is a hero, albeit a now demented champion, who had nothing to do with the Amazons.

In addition to this visceral tale of pounding plug-uglies, Parker returns for a back up story that's actually even more rewarding since it's pure super hero might against monsters.  Parker concludes the main story with trite banishment and atonement for the archaeologist that released the demons in the first place.  That's fair given the premise, but it's not nearly as satisfying as watching Wonder Woman and Mera decimate the deadly creatures using pure power.

As you can see artist Alvaro Martinez is no mere traditional backup artist.  The ladies are the ideal combinations of beauty and brawn, and there's a nice little nod to Shark Week.

Detective Comics Annual is really a Detective Comics one-shot that cuts back and forth to an "Icarus" prequel.  Batman hunts down a gang known as the Blackgate Bastards.  They've stolen a cache of high-tech weaponry from Caldwell Industries.  Regular readers of Detective Comics will recall the name.

On the trail, Batman encounters young Aden, the son of an abusive criminal thug named Julian.  Naturally, Julian's treatment of Aden doesn't sit well with the Dark Knight, and he takes a time out to assume the guise of Matches Malone and beat the crap out of dear old dad.

Aden's information gives Batman a solid lead.  He suits up to follow the trek to its end.  The tin can tech recalls Iron Man, but it's undeniably cool.  Buccellato isn't reinventing the wheel here.  He's just sticking Batman in his natural element and throwing in a little real world crime that's not so easy to solve.

The rest of the book tangentially ties into "Icarus."  So, you have things like Annette Aguilar demonstrating her dirt bike skills.  The scenario's really just sort of nothing because Buccellato and his partner Francis Manapul properly debuted Annette with artistic fanfare in their premiere of Detective Comics.  

Annette's doomed love affair with Dante, as in Dante's Inferno, get it, takes up space.  She arrives sans partner in Detective Comics.  Annette's mother Elena is alive.  Her murder starts the whole ball rolling in "Incarus."  Sid the Squid is hale and hearty.  In Detective Comics, the Kings' Gangboss shoots him.

It's a weird schism that doesn't really work.  Best just to pay attention to the Batman centerpiece.  That's a lot of fun.  Batman beats up an abusive father.  Who wouldn't want to see that? His rage burns from the fuel of his own loss.  So, it's also a great little character moment, and his kindness with Aden frames him as more than just a Dark Knight Detective but also as a Caped Crusder.  Batman can be badass and genial.  There's no need to assume a preclusion. 

"The weed of crime bears bitter fruit" in the infamous H.P. Lovecraft towne of Innsmouth.  This is the friendly little place where Cthulhu's servants the Deep Ones, every so often arise from the waters and stage a rape-invasion of all the female townfolk.  

The concept has been immortalized in Roger Corman's incredible classic Humanoids from the Deep, and the less exploitative Dagon from Stuart Gordon.  

The Deep Ones appear to visit a stranded Margo Lane, Shadow operative and significant other.  One may question why instead of being raped, Margo merely suffers from one of her concussive encounters with the opposite side.  That turns out to be a clue to what's really going on.

This is easily the best Shadow story I read from Dynamite, and that's mainly because Ron Marz drops the supernatural abilities of the Shadow that most of the Dynamite writers chose to imbue.  He sticks with the basics established by Shadow progenitor Walter B. Gibson.  

Though the Shadow's creation depended on the imagination of other men, Gibson redefined the radio version of the Shadow from invisible "clouder of mens' minds" to an arch stage-magician that destroyed crime with two forty-five automatics and a brilliant tactical brain.  That's what we get here, gustily rendered by artist Ian Rodriguez, and the Shadow's better for it.

Marz characterizes the Shadow as a Hanzo samurai sword that cuts through criminals.  He however differs from the traditional idea of the Shadow being completely aloof to normal feeling.  

Marz's Shadow and Margo Lane are a couple, and he's devoted to her.  This relationship works quite well in the story, adding a level of unexpected depth that completes the picture.

The Shadow's contemporary Doc Savage persists in the present day in the cerebral yet lively conclusion to the story and series by Chris Roberson.  In the previous issue a well-meaning idiot who worked at Doc's Crime College went on the air to expose Doc's method of capturing criminals and then treating their strikes against society as a disease or malignancy.  

Doc, the most humane of the pulp heroes, performed brain surgery and re-education techniques to rehabilitate his charges. Congress forced Doc to release the records of those he worked upon, and other doctors reversed the process.  So, everything was hunky-dory, right? Wrong.  

The scum returned to their criminal ways as quick as water rolls off a duck's back.  Begging the question, how could these reformed criminals undergo brainwashing/lobotomies if everything was so easily reversible?

Lester Dent, the mirror to Walter B. Gibson when concerning Doc Savage, didn't think of lobotomies or brainwashing when he created Doc's techniques.  It was simply Dent's potent attempt at an ultimate solution by a Man of Bronze determined to make the world a better place through mostly peaceful and rational means. 

As the story proceeds, humanity drops into the pit of madness, but Doc's been burned before, and he anticipated an attack like this.  Although the exact nature momentarily flummoxes him.  

Framing his reversal of the damage with one of many inspiring speeches to the narrator of the entire series, Doc, nevertheless, takes the onus of responsibility and blame, world leaders are quick to shoot his way.  Doc however continues to do what he believes is the right thing.  An impressive end with Bilquis Evely's best artwork on the series to date.  He underplays Doc, but nevertheless shows the nuances of emotion in Doc's demeanor.  It's not an easy artistic balance, but Bilquis succeeds.

Cajoled by Agent Jones, Captain Midnight reluctantly returns to battling crime.  The criminal in question is the villain behind the Ghost/X/Midnight team-up "12 to Midnight."  You don't need to know that.  The fiend acts like a typical criminal lunatic and uses Midnight's own technology subverted during the Captain's long absence against him.  This institutes a terrific battle ably illustrated by artist Manuel Garcia.  Good solid super-hero action with a gritty cliffhanger.

In Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden's Baltimore, a damsel in distress runs from a husband that won't stay dead.  The woman bumps into Baltimore and his entourage gathered from the previous adventure, and they provide cannon fodder to up the threat of Baltimore's occult opponents.

As usual, the gist of the story isn't what's key, it's how Mignola and Golden unfold the tale that keep the reader rapt.  Flashbacks appear to provide an answer, but is there more than meets the eye? 

Smallville introduces John Constantine to the television based universe.  If this is the character that will appear in the Constantine television series, fans of the DC character as opposed to the Vertigo Hellblazer will have much to be grateful for.  Miller presents Constantine as a kind of lawful neutral figure, who generally sides with the overall good.  Miller's Constantine as a collector and seller of unusual occult objects, literally haunted by the ghosts of those he has gotten killed during his quests.

Zatanna already appeared in the series.  Bryan Q. Miller characterizes her as you expect.  Opening with her stage act and turning it into true bewitchment.  She's on the hunt for one of her father's magic books; this slams her headlong into an encounter with Constantine, and the villain also picks a fight with the Mistress of Magic.  The villains will be immediately recognized by Teen Titans readers and Arrow watchers.

Excellent artwork accompanies a whimsical tale that bears a nasty streak, and it's also a vehicle that demonstrates how the real world begins to deal with existence of extraterrestrials and sorcery in a previously thought of ordinary planet.  Surprisingly epic on scale, the scope of the battle is huge and not the throwaway tale you expect.

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