Monday, September 8, 2014

POBB: September 3, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 3, 2014
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  My name is Ray Tate, and here's what I'll be reviewing today: Angel and Faith, Doctor Mirage, Futurama Comics, Justice League, Moon Knight, Scooby-Doo Team-Up, Shadow vs. Grendel and Vampirella.

If you're looking for reviews of the Future's End titles, look elsewhere.  I'm not falling for DC's latest lenticular cover scam.  Any story that tackles the future in either the DC or Marvel universe, instantly becomes irrelevant.

DC will not stick to the five years established in these books.  They couldn't even adhere to a one year jump during the post-Crisis.  I'm confident that five years from now I'm going to be reading a relatively unchanged DCU.   Now, on with the critiques.

In Eric Rogers' Futurama Comics, Leela rescues a ship endangered by everybody's favorite doofus Zapp Brannigan.

The bravado earns her a promotion by President Nixon's head.  She becomes the Captain of the Nimbus.  The Out-of-work Zapp wheedles his way into the empty position at Planet Express.  So twists the status quo.

You may think that Leela will make a dynamite captain, but Rogers plausibly demonstrates that the captain's chair itself is lethal to even the most competent star pilot.  Because Leela now has access to all the troops on the Nimbus, because she doesn't actually need to go planet-side, Leela's physical health deteriorates along with her common sense.  Meanwhile, exposed to actual work Zapp generates a gray cell.

The reversal of fortune is smart and funny, with enough room for some terrific character moments and apropos guest appearances.  Simultaneously, artists John Lloyd, Andrew Pepoy and Nathan Hamill produce a cosmic backdrop that's quite beautiful and unexpected for a funny book.

I've had a love/hate relationship with Geoff Johns.  He debuted with Stars and STRIPE, a stark, zippy contrast to a dark, repellent DC universe.  Soon after, I loathed Johns' stories.  His Justice Society kept getting worse and worse until it hit rock bottom with consistent sexism.  

At the denouement of the post-Crisis, Johns' writing was mostly incomprehensible.  That just may have had something to do with the source material.  No writer could really pull out anything good from the morass without softly rebooting: Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke on Catwoman for example.  Johns appeared to return to his roots with the advent of the new 52, and this issue of Justice League exemplifies the skill I once credited Johns with.  

Johns offers a superb follow up to his opening chapters of Justice League.  Previously, he reintroduced the Doom Patrol and shook up the traditional roster with the surprise additions of Lex Luthor and Captain Cold.  Lex furthermore discovered Batman's secret identity, and the parasitic Power Ring from the Crime Syndicate's universe took over another host.

Johns pulls a sleight of hand with the current issue.  He appears to concentrate on the measuring contest between Lex Luthor and Niles Caulder.  With the dialogue, he identifies neither as a good person, but Lex might be the lesser of two evils.

The duel and the background battles pitting Justice League against the Doom Patrol are actually smoke screens for the moving characterization of Batman.  If you look closely, he's in the background, inexorably nearing his target.

Kudos must also be given to artist Doug Mahnke whose timing in the scenes with Batman and Jessica is tantamount.

Scooby-Doo and the Gang team-up with the Super-Friends.  Writer Sholly Fisch generates the most plausible circumstances to explain the partnership between The World's Greatest Super-Heroes and the Mystery Machine.  Due to Fisch's masterful plotting we also get a terrific Supergirl cameo, gorgeously illustrated by artist Dario Brizuela.

The tale takes several ingenious turns all based on classic and well known DC continuity.  One such twist inventively exploits stupid post-Crisis amendments.  The result brilliantly transforms the perpetually petrified Shaggy and Scooby into heroes.  The camaraderie of both teams underpins the story, and the persona based jokes are as funny as those arising from the plotting.  Notable in respect.  Daphne chiding Fred, and Velma outwitting a legion of baddies.

Dr. Mirage returns to comics with a new number one and a new gender.  Written by Jen Van Meter, the book is a pleasant surprise.  You don't need to know anything about the previous Dr. Mirage to enjoy this one.  I knew of the character, but not the specifics.  

Van Meter introduces Shan, Dr. Mirage, as a psychic, occult investigator.  Now, I have a low tolerance for psychics, what with their not existing.  However, Van Meter infuses the concept correctly.  It's not just that Dr. Mirage is a psychic.  She's a psychic in a world that's tilted toward the supernatural.  So there's context.

Dr. Mirage distinguishes herself by connecting with the dead.  It's a classic flimflam, but Dr. Mirage is for real.  She differs from the con-men in several ways.  She uses no psychometry or seance.  It's not a performance, and she doesn't charge the desperate.  She simply concentrates and finds the ghosts to give the survivors peace of mind.  

Van Meter conceives of a poetic Achilles Heel for the new Dr. Mirage.  She can contact the dead, but not her dead husband Hwen.  Every time she engages, it serves as a reminder of her loss.  She's never happy doing these small favors.  She never can take pleasure in her good deeds.  The limitation grants Dr. Mirage grand pathos.

After the introduction where we also meet Shan's aide Leo, Van meter employs our heroine for a more lucrative project.  Working odd occult jobs for those that can afford her services is Dr. Mirage's bread and butter.  The monetary element pushes Dr. Mirage away from the super-hero field.  She instead seems more like an adventurer, and gives the book a classic comic strip feel.

The well-written premiere with rich, informative dialogue establishes a strong female hero in a realistic plot that's invaded by the unknown.  The schism between the two worlds is better defined by the artwork of Roberto De La Torre.  At times, his illustration recalls that of Jim Holdaway of Modesty Blaise fame. 

 Anybody familiar with my reviews knows that's a good thing.

Angel and Faith split the issue.  Angel gets his butt handed to him by a landlubbing gill-man named Catfish Bob.  He's rescued by old Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Amy Madison, who had the misfortune of turning herself into a rat.  In the comic book Amy joined a team of also-rans to fight the Slayer.  She may swing both ways in Angel and Faith.  I mean of course the pendulum between good and evil.

Faith quit Deepscan, former Slayers now operating as private contractors, but another Buffy ally Riley Finn disappeared into the jungle to look for his wife Samantha, also introduced on the series.  Faith owes Riley, so she postpones her resignation.

Writer Vincent Gischler has an excellent handle on these characters and artist Will Conrad returns to keep the photorealism to an all-time high.

Nancy Collins opens Vampirella with some old fashioned narration that details what Patrick Berkenkotter's art design cannot capture.  

Collins' words sound as if they're coming from her latest novel, and that injects depth to the horror comic book.

The every man follows an obvious lure to his doom, and in the climax of death Collins lets Berkenkotter's art do the startling with the visual of Vampirella's latest target, the  Scylla from Greek myth.

Vampirella, or Ella as Collins nicknames her, must hunt down specific vampires and feed from their blood in order to prevent her possession by evil goddess Umbra, represented by the crescent brand on her breast.

Ella reconnoiters on the beach where her natural beauty attracts an admirer and guide.  

Vampirella is one of the few vampires in literature that isn't bothered by sunlight.  In fact she tends to bask in it.  The idea of sunlight incinerating a vampire is pure Hollywood myth.  However, vampires were traditionally depicted as "lethargic" in the day time.  Oh, and for the record, decapitation always works.  Staking is also very popular in folklore, but depending on the culture, the practice is frequently tree-specific.

Vampirella ends up being a straight forward affair in which Collins continues to solidify Ella's characterization through contrast against scenes where Umbra appears to usurp and her Nostferatu benefactor Drago exhibits humorous pragmatism.

Collins is such a good writer and Berkenkotter such a craftsman that you really don't need much more for your enjoyment.  However Collins provides a nice twist at the climax that's full of dark comedy and modern context.

In the late 1980s, Matt Wagner created Grendel, a master criminal with a reincarnated essence.  Grendel is best known as Hunter Rose.  He's as charismatic and as knowledgable as Patricia Highsmith's Ripley and as much of a bloody psychopath as Leatherface, although he uses a more elegant weapon than a chainsaw.

The Grendel returns after a long absence to face the Shadow.  After acquiring an ancient urn and reading the incantation on a parchment, Hunter Rose travels back to the time of The Shadow.  His timing is impeccable.

Needless to say, Grendel intends to fill this vacuum, no matter how much the imposition damages history.  To get to the top however will require Rose to step over The Shadow's corpse.  He'll find that a little easier imagined than managed.

While Wagner's Shadow is darkly poetic in his crusade against crime, he's a little too robotically portrayed outside the arena.  Even when play acting as Lamont Cranston, the Shadow is one-dimensional.  This seems to be an obvious conceit that allows Wagner to explore The Shadow's relationship with Margo Lane.

I don't like to compare writers with different styles approaching the same character, but Wagner's interpretation of the Margo Lane/Shadow relationship just seems completely off.  His Shadow is also somewhat one-dimensional.

Ron Marz a few weeks ago portrayed the Shadow and Margo as an ideal team in The Shadow Over Innsmouth.  The Shadow also appeared to have fun violently debunking the Deep Ones.  Gerard Jones in The Shadow Strikes presented the Shadow with all the depth Walter B. Gibson imbued, and he can take even greater pride with his characterization of Margo Lane.  Gibson never liked dealing with Margo Lane.  She was a character from the radio show foisted upon him.  Jones turned her into a willing compatriot who gladly took part in the Shadow's crusade, perhaps for atonement.  Jones hinted that Margo was tainted somehow, and the Shadow protected her secrets.

I find Wagner's treatment of Margo a little patronizing.  All of the Shadow's agents were loyal because they believed in what the Shadow accomplished.  A Shadow agent seeking a life outside the work is almost sacrilegious.  The Shadow did not pressure his agents.  If we take the words of the Shadow spoken to Harry Vincent as a motif in the pattern, we see willful obedience in exchange for a higher purpose:

Moon Knight marks Brian Wood's debut as writer.  For the most part, he does a fairly solid imitation of Warren Ellis, just as well as Greg Smallwood standing in for Declan Shalvey.  You'll notice the difference quickly.  Wood's Moon Knight is chattier, and Wood is less likely to let Smallwood's artwork do the talking.  Ellis choreographed a near wordless issue for Shalvey to spotlight; don't bother looking for the review.  It was impossible to critique.  It's not that Wood's Moon Knight is bad.  Far from it.  It's just not different enough.  Ellis and Shalvey produced something really unique.

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