Tuesday, September 2, 2014

POBB: August 27, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
August 27 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag this week reviews All-Star Western, Aquaman, Batman/Superman, Doctor Who, Flash Gordon.  I'll also say a few words about Baltimore and Justice League Dark.  In addition, I'll look at the new movie November Man.

In the last issue of Doctor Who.  We met Gabriella, the new companion, who worked as a waitress at her domineering father's restaurant and watched over his new enterprise a coin-operated laundry.  The laundromat unfortunately became the center of an alien incursion, and strange things began to happen. This attracted the Doctor.  Last issue ended with an impressive steely resolve.

Ooooo.  Chilling? No.  Unfortunately, writer Nick Abadzis doesn't follow through.  Instead, he starts doing--I can't really describe it.

That's really ridiculous.  I get that Abadzis was trying to keep the Doctor peaceful, but it's the wrong direction.  The Doctor tries to be a pacifist, but he's not.  The universe won't let him.

"No.  The Question is what do you make of me.  You make me into this."

In every incarnation, The Doctor always made credible threats and backed them up with action.

"You want dominion over the living, yet all you do is kill!"

If he didn't, the universe would be Dalek.  So, it's a massive let down when Abadzis tries to be saccharine twee after he set up the promise of a great Doctor moment.  It's not dark when the Doctor fights.  It's heroic.  There's a difference.  Abadzis could have had the Doctor attempt to disrupt the thing's psychic hold with his sonic screwdriver as an explanation.  That's more Doctorish.  It also makes more sense. 

I mean Abadzis' is quite willing to play up the Doctor being catnip to imaginative girls; gaining companions he does not wish to endanger.  He still feels guilt over having to take away Donna's memories.  So we can have angst but not power? Feh.

The story perks up when the Doctor inevitably gives in to Gabriella's inquisitiveness, and he introduces her to an interesting idea.

Abadzis' Pranavores are an intriguing creation, and they fit in with the mechanisms of the Doctor Who universe.  In Doctor Who, telepathy is an uncommon trait in humans, but it does exist.  So, the concept of another species subsisting on an empathic plain and developing a natural history maintains the science fiction.

Further investigation reveals a connection between the Pranavores and the invading species.  Finally, Abadzis' Doctor shows some spine.

On the whole, despite my reservations, this is a good issue of Doctor Who, primarily due to the bond quickly but plausibly cemented between the Doctor and Gabriella.  Abadzis monsters are imaginative, and the references to the Shadow Proclamation and the first Doctor episode "The Aztecs" gives the Doctor a sense of inner continuity that's welcome.  However, it could have been a great Doctor Who comic book had Abadzis delivered in that opening scene.

Flash Gordon, Dale Arden and Doctor Zarkov travel through the interplanetary territories held by Ming the Merciless.  Their destination.  Sky World.  Home of the hawk people.

At first this issue of Flash Gordon just seemed to be a valid homage to the pulps.  The trio have a close encounter with a space type amoeba.  That sort of thing happened before in such periodicals as Astounding Science Fiction and Amazing Stories.  This is what makes the meeting unique.

As presented the space creature wouldn't be very difficult to enslave, but why waste the time? The cow-like intelligences appear mostly harmless.  Only a complete megalomaniac would bother, and that's Ming in a nutshell.  I imagine he wasted his limitless resources to capture and alter every one of the poor things.  Parker's scene thus works two-fold.  One, the scenario alludes to the heyday of pulp.  Two, it characterizes Ming as completely bonkers.

When our trio find their way to Sky World, things get somewhat better before Flash and Zarkov succumb to a more sophisticated version of another pulp staple. 

No.  It's not Cop Rock.  Though Flash's refrain could be a sly reference to Queen's theme song for the Dino De Laurentiis movie.

Parker updates the motifs of yore while dignifying them in a modern context.  While doing so, he loses none of the resonance that this imagery originally possessed.  At the same time, he chisels out his versions of the comic strip characters, turning them into likable figures that fit within our reality while still tethered to the source material of Alex Raymond. Flash Gordon doesn't disappoint.  Instead, it surprises and with artist Evan Shaner's strong illustration conveys a sense of wonder.

Aquaman is a book-length duel pitting our title hero against Chimera, the composite villain that comprises one deep sea diver and the deadliest forms of sea-life.  Add a heady mix of megalomania and delusion, and you have a menace that's tailor-made for Aquaman.

Writer Jeff Parker choreographs the entire enterprise and includes neat facts about sea dwellers.  For instance, electrified animals cannot avoid shocking themselves along with their prey.  So when Chimera uses that power, biological fact comes into play.  It also explains why he doesn't use that ploy all the time.

With such a great knock-down drag out fight you better have a good artist to manifest the ferocity.  Fortunately regular artist Paul Pelletier--hmmm, appears nowhere to be found.  Uh-oh.

Not to worry.  Carlos Rodriguez substitutes admirably.  He combines an excellent grasp of anatomy, action and monster illustration all in one inviting package.

Gregg Pak returns a neo-classic villain to the new 52.  Satanus debuts in the still freshly minted DCU. He's not happy about Kaiyo operating on his turf.

Pak really surprised me by making Kaiyo a recurring antagonist.  I assumed wrongly that she was just a means to an ends.  I should have known better.  You give a villain a New Gods background, she's bound to return.

Pak positions Kaiyo as DC's Loki.  Previously, in the debut of Batman/Superman she introduced the heroes to their counterparts on earth-two.  She did this to prepare them for Darkseid's arrival, with the hope that the world's best team would end the evil lord once and for all. 

Unimpressed by Superman's and Batman's five year camaraderie, which Kaiyo feels made them soft, she wiped out the heroes' memories for laughs.  This issue plops them into unfamiliar territory.

Catwoman must know who Superman is, if only by reputation.  Batman/Superman likely takes place before the events of Forever Evil, or perhaps Catwoman, a trickster in her own right, merely decides to have some fun with the situation.  She's not the only one.

Scarecrow finds himself worse off with this blank slate Batman.  Nothing seems to faze him, and he has the reflexes of the experienced detective.

Amnesia is a plot device that was old the moment it was conceived.  However, Pak and artist Jae Lee, use it almost in parody.  As a result the reader enjoys some hilarious scenes generated by Batman and Superman.  Renewed by fresh possibilities, our heroes just might be inclined to sway even farther away from the path that Kaiyo wants them to take.  With guest-stars Catwoman and Lois Lane in good voice, this story can only get juicier.  

Jonah Hex didn't lose his memory.  He lost his scars and while he was away in the future, he lost his identity.  This issue Hex reclaims what is his and abandons baggage he no longer needs.

Throughout the series, Gray and Palmiotti insisted that Jonah Hex was more than just a mercenary, which is how I saw him pre-Crisis and post-Crisis.  As soon as Hex arrived in Gotham City, they framed him as a man of the law.  They suggested bounty hunting was as valid a profession as private investigator without losing the harder edge of Sergio Leone styled films.  

With the reintroduction of Tallulah Black to Hex's life, Palmiotti and Gray created a contrast to Hex.  Tallulah was even more pragmatic than Hex, who kept demonstrating compassion and altruism when you least expected it.  Tallulah still possessed these qualities just in lesser degrees.  These satisfying portrayals kept me coming back for more and made me question how I judged Jonah Hex.

The final issue of All Star Western doesn't play at all like you think it will.  The presence of artist Darwyn Cooke at his most inviting and playful changes the atmosphere.

Cooke can do dark work.  This is evident in his Klan-era set John Henry vignette for The New Frontier, but he's most at home among the pulps and lighter fare.  Here, Cooke turns the tropes of the spaghetti western into an optimistic tableau.  The mood shifts believably and draws upon the multiple facets of the bounty hunters' personalities.

Some may balk at Cooke's feminization of Tallulah Black.  Never has a scarred woman looked so inviting.  He also emphasizes Hex's new good looks.  I see Cooke's romanticism of the couple as a brilliant coda.  They're Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman acting their hearts out in roles they really have no business assuming.  

Cooke's ideal of the duo doesn't invalidate the past rougher art of Moritat and Staz Johnson.  Instead, Cooke presents the two lovers as they see each other.  Cooke's illustration makes the ending to All Star Western even more inevitable.

The termination of Jonah Hex was predicated long before the new 52, and Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray saw that as a challenge.  In the final issue of All-Star Western, they preserve the future created by others and simultaneously give the gunslingers their just desserts.  The last roundup of All Star Western is a perfect, unforeseen yet elegantly foreshadowed conclusion exemplifying writing, specifically in a shared world, at its finest.

Justice League Dark is a little too chatty for my tastes.  Boston Brand finds himself living and breathing in Nanda Parbat, which to any reader of Deadman's adventures is old news.  Meanwhile, the Justice League finds themselves magically bound by a nasty creature called Pantheon who comprises a lot of old evil gods.  In DeMatteis' favor, he includes a lovely scene with a young Boston Brand being groomed for his role as Deadman.  I never expected something so soft and sweet to come out of DeMatteis' metaphysically inclined pen.  Also, artist Andres Guinaldo, though no Michael Janin, cuts loose with Swamp Thing's shape-shifting ability.  Not a terrible issue, but it's too often bogged down by needless verbiage.

No complaints about Baltimore the Witch of Harju.   I just can't review it since it hinges on the shock of monsters where you least expect them.  Last issue, Lord Baltimore and his entourage took down a zombified domestic abuser and took in the victim who told the story of a demonic cat.  There's more than meets the eye in this story.  It's not about zombies, and the inclusion of Harish, a cool Sikh character is reminiscent of Ram Singh from the Spider.

The Saturday Afternoon Matinee

This week I went to see The November Man.  Pierce Brosnan was my favorite James Bond.  I still miss him.  He combined heroism with lethality.  So, when I discovered somebody did a brilliant thing and cast James Bond as a spy, I had to see the result.

Brosnan has lost none of his acting or action chops.  He brings a sense of authenticity to Peter Devereux, a character created by late Edgar Award winning author Bill Granger in a series of novels.  

Devereux is a retired spy dragged back into the arena out of loyalty to a friend.  He quickly uncovers political machinations that catalyze a series of assassinations.  What I really loved about the story, apart from the depth of characterization planted squarely amidst a high body count, was how the screen writers updated the events and the technology.  

Granger wrote the Devereux books in the eighties.  Well, the Cold War thawed.  The script writers however conceive a heinous trigger that suits the geopolitical world that we live in now.  Technology has also been updated.  Drones for example appear in a pivotal scene.  None of this however stymies Devereux who is simply smarter than all of his opponents and willing to kill without hesitation.  He's not a fish out of water.  He adapts like an evolutionary survivor.

A brilliant cast supports Brosnan.  Olga Kurylenko whom I have only heard of and seen in photos is a revelation.  Newcomer Luke Bracey demonstrates remarkable skill at his craft.  Veteran performer Bill Smirtovitch is terrific as Devereux's far from stereotypical old spy friend.  

November Man succeeds as the James Bond film that Pierce Brosnan always wanted to do.  It's gritty.  It shadows the romance of the spy.  It never the less gives us a bona fide hero to root for. 

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