Monday, October 13, 2014

POBB: October 8, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
October 8, 2014
Ray Tate

This week it's a cornucopia of comic book goodness.  I review Batgirl, Captain Marvel, Copperhead, The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage, Doctor Who, Earth 2, Earth 2: World's End, Justice League United, Smallville: Chaos and World's Finest.

So, right up front.  Do not read Vampirella: Faery Tales.  There's a massive spoiler on the first page revealing the outcome of Nancy Collins' first story arc, and Vampirella #6 has yet to be published.  Too bad on Dynamite's publishing snafu.  I was really looking forward to this book.  Oh, well.  Maybe in a few weeks.

Batgirl takes a fresh look at Barbara Gordon, and nobody had to be crippled in order to do it.  The story opens with Babs in her new apartment, complete with new friends and a new roommate.

You don't need to deeply analyze the artwork to realize that this entire run is going to look very different from the more traditional illustration in previous issues.  That's not to say those panels were bad.  Far from it.

The artistic degree of latitude simply shifts drastically.  It's a different aesthetic, directed by Cameron Stewart and finalized by the apropos named Babs Tarr.  Despite the change, you shouldn't mistake Batgirl for a funny book.  There's comedy to be sure, but a lot of moments like this.

Batgirl has a smarter attitude.  Writers Cameron Stewart and Brenden Fletcher update Batgirl with text-messaging, hook-ups, and a variety of sexual orientations represented by a multiethnic cast.  In other words, the writers set Batgirl's new adventures in a true-to-life college section of the city.   At the same time, Stewart and Fletcher do not completely forget what happened in previous issues.  For example, Alysia, Babs' former roommate, gets name-checked in a text message.  Black Canary also makes a welcome return, and you needn't know about the blow-up between she and Babs in Birds of Prey.

Fletcher and Stewart essentially cinch what was right in Babs' life while adding a strong group of support players.  They drop the dross.  

Let me reiterate.  When Gail Simone started Batgirl, it was great, but as soon as Simone fell in love one of her characters, Ricky, the carjacking boy caught in the bear-trap, she forgot that she was writing a book about Batgirl.  Instead, she wrote around Batgirl.  Those superfluous additions and the dour negativity that plagued Batgirl from the Joker story onward fizzles.  Instead, Stewart and Fletcher accent the positive.  

Babs is super-intelligent, and the authors use the skills that she acquired pre-Crisis as a crux for her current history.  I wasn't sure how much I would like to experience Babs in college because it seemed to be too much of a regression.  Babs had in the pre-Crisis earned her PhD in library science to become Head Librarian of Gotham City Library.  Stewart assuages any trepidation with the following revelation.

I would have accepted any analytic field from statistics to population genetics.  Urban geography is exactly the kind of dense subject that's worthy of Babs.  It also alludes to her past.  Pre-Crisis, after Babs left Congress, she worked for what would nowadays be called an NGO.  The position would have required understanding about socioeconomic conditions.  So Babs' research in the field of urban geography is a lovely and unexpected call back.  

Still not convinced that Batgirl's redo is right for you? Well, suppose you are a fan like me.  What do you want to see in Batgirl? Photographic memory?

Check, and you'll note that this isn't the mopey Barbara Gordon from Gail Simone's last three or four collections.  This is the Dynamic Daredoll Babs Gordon who is secretly Batgirl.  This is the vivacious, daring Batgirl you fell for in Batman Family, Detective Comics and in the svelte form of Yvonne Craig.

Which brings me to the costume.  

Batgirl was always self-made.  She honed her body into a crime fighting weapon.  She studied martial arts.  She proved herself to Batman.  She fabricated her costume.  Second verse same as the first.

Finally, I think every Batgirl fan wants Babs to fight real crime.  Not something tame.  We don't want to see Batgirl combating jaywalking.  In this issue, she goes after a modern method blackmailer.  She defeats him using her wits and her battle prowess.  This is Batgirl.  

Paul Levitz remains on World's Finest, despite its shift of focus from Huntress and Power Girl, to fill in some of the missing pages in Earth 2 history.  Namely, Levitz details the life and times of Batman and Superman, and he uses a very smart narrator, who would be privy to all the facts.

If you're wondering why I'm lauding the choice of Red Tornado as the storyteller, then you haven't been reading Earth 2.  Else you would know that Lois Lane's consciousness resides in Red Tornado's metallic body.

Lois begins at the beginning.  I know fans will roll their eyes at the thought of another trip to Krypton before its destruction and a visit to Thomas and Martha Wayne before they're slain in Crime Alley.  Events unfold a little differently in Levitz's tale.  Earth 2's versions of the figures are flawed.

Some of these amendments to history were already introduced in Earth 2.  Others belong to Levitz whole-cloth.  No matter there's quite a bit of craft evident.  For instance, although ostensibly a debut story, with Bruce and Clark as little babies, Levitz still incorporates late additions from Earth 2, like mentioning Val-Zod, the new Superman who was retroactively placed in the House of El. 

Levitz relates time-displaced Apokoliptan shenanigans.  They're right where you would expect them.  At the beginning.  He delves into the more linear criminal connections of Thomas Wayne.  The links ended soon after marrying Martha, who also had a less than wholesome past, but you can see how these dominoes foreshadow the Wayne tragedy. 

The key is that Levitz embraced the intricacies of shared world continuity long before anybody else did, and he knows the ins and outs of such a device.  His skill shows with every scene.  His partners Jed Dougherty, Scott Hanna and colorist Blond provide a strong visual narrative that supports Levitz's intent.  You may not appreciate the artist's overt cartoony exaggeration over photorealism, but that's a subjective decision to make on your own. 

Although a fan of Earth 2.  I'm unsure about its sister title World's End.  Faithful Earth 2 readers will cheer for the price point.  DC would have been teetering on the brink of fraud had they charged any more than three dollars.  Twenty-one pages summarizes a storyline that we just experienced for twenty-six issues.   That leaves approximately sixteen pages of new material, and that new material seems old since it doesn't really do anything to advance a plot.  The new material primarily involves setting up the return of Power Girl and Huntress. 

Power Girl and Lois Lane benefit the most in World's End.  The writers, of which there are many, add something original to Power Girl history, and it's novel no matter the continuity you choose.  Furthermore, the addition is meaningful and not just a gimmick.  It makes sense, and it's a warm moment in an otherwise workmanlike reiteration.  Although, the relationship between the new Batman and Huntress gain practical recognition.

The most curious thing about World's End is that the writers sandwich a Dick Grayson/Barbara Gordon marriage in the tale.  Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon never existed in Earth 2 as far as James Robinson and Tom Taylor were concerned.  If they did, they weren't special enough to warrant any thought.  The writers here however grant the Graysons equal importance.  

I know what you're thinking.  Bonus for me, eh? More Barbara Gordon.  I should be happy.  Not really.  Dick Grayson is a better prospect than Ricky.  A hobo with scabies would be a better prospect.  However, I never held the fevered dream of Robin/Batgirl shippers.  In fact I thought it was mean that the Powers That Be even suggested the possibility.  Babs was in a wheelchair post-Crisis.  She wouldn't have been able to escape Nighwhiner, the man who had every DC heroine in his bed.  All right.   Not Wonder Woman.  Maybe--Maybe--not Black Canary.  In any case, Earth 2 ran fine without Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon.  Why bring them up now?  Earth 2: World's End finishes thusly.  Don't worry.  It's not a spoiler.

Earth 2 begins like this.  Again, not a spoiler.

So, we're not following through with the Scary Cupid angle?  All right.  Either Earth 2 is ahead of World's End, or neither is relevant to the other.  This makes deciding which to buy much easier.  Earth 2 all the way. 

Earth 2's more optimistic attitude appears to dovetail right off of the formation of the Justice Society seen at the end of the last issue.  

Huntress and Power Girl could have encountered these heroes immediately after leaving World's Finest.  No further explanation necessary.  

The story is self-contained and juxtaposes action and suspense along with Power Girl's and Huntress' past, which furthermore comments on their resonating friendship.  

Power Girl and Huntress are necessary to save Earth 2 from total destruction.  The threat while apparently hailing from Apokolips could have come from any-when.  

I'm actually thinking the explicit origin was added after the fact to better excuse the existence of World's End.  Because these things invade CERN, the real life Swiss-centered scientific research complex, I'm thinking the creatures could have originally been the result from an experiment gone wrong.  Some time ago there was the concern that experiments with high-energy particle collisions such as those in the Large Hadron Collider could create black holes that would of course kill us all.  I find it highly suspicious that these things happen to be in the vicinity of something that could easily inspire a writer to create a doorway from another realm, which of course is the whole purpose of black holes in fiction.

Earth 2 offers readers a stronger set of revelations.  Power Girl and Val-Zod are old childhood friends, and they renew their acquaintance in this issue.  Helena finds out who this new Batman is and why he deserves to wear the Bat Symbol.  Things of importance happen in Earth 2, whereas World's End just summarizes and retrofits.  

Smallville also develops its multiverse plot quite nicely.  Superman and Lois Lane are trapped on a dying earth.  They infiltrate a Monitor ship, which travels the Bleed--a phenomenon borrowed from the Wildstorm universe.  Before that, they make a bargain with a classic DC villain, that's not Lex Luthor. 

Luthor is busy making his own deals, which leads to a potent cliffhanger.  Meanwhile, the rest of the gang which includes Superboy and Supergirl contend against the growing Eclipso plague, and Booster Gold finds himself on the short end of the glowing yellow stick.  Good stuff.

Justice League United focuses on Jeff Lemire's new creation Keewahtin.   Lemire carves out a Native legend background for our neophyte champion and throws her against the Canadian demon, Wendigo.  Oh, he calls it a Whitigo, but it's a Wendigo.  It's just not white and fuzzy like John Byrne imagined.

As anybody who read that Uncanny X-Men comic book years ago can say with authority, a person becomes a Wendigo when they eat human flesh.  It's not an entirely crazy bit of folklore.  One can imagine years ago when Canada was mostly unexplored territory, people deprived of game feeding on a herd closer to home.  I suspect it rarely if ever happened, but as far as fears go it's understandable.  

Anyway, Lemire sanitizes the Wendigo legend by expanding the demonic possession.  All the baser transgressions including fear and greed can leave a person open to a hostile takeover, this is especially true if you are one of the chosen. 

Fans might object to Lemire concentrating on just one Justice League member, but those readers coming in for Martian Manhunter, Supergirl or the double-act of Green Arrow and Animal Man still will not be disappointed.  They all get a good moments.

Although artist Mike McKone appears to be taking a breather, Timothy Green orchestrates an excellent visual narrative with decent illustration clearly done as a quick substitute but still easy on the eyes.

Copperhead introduces another trope from the western genre: the drunken doctor.  Sheriff Clara Bronson needs a doctor since one of green potato people from the cliffhanger slaughter happened to survive.  
Deputy Boo dopes out what the attack might have been about, and meanwhile the Copperhead equivalent to a mountain man rescues the lost children from the alien version of coyotes or wolves.

Copperhead continues to be a pleasant diversion without really diverting much from a typical western.  It's still only the presence of a female sheriff that really distinguishes the book from other media set in the same genre.  Despite the longevity of the western there have only been a few female law keepers in such stories and cinema.  
You can argue that the aliens are a difference, but no, not really.  They're just a science fiction veil.  Remove it, and Copperhead is a typical, however enjoyable, western with an atypical central figure.

Captain Marvel is sheer unadulterated fun.  Rocket, the Captain, Tic and her cat now revealed to be the Flerken that Rocket thought it was, battle to save the lives of the Flerken's kitty-hatching eggs from The X-Files' Black Oil.  Highly amusing, one moment will make you burst out laughing.  

Writer Jen Van Meter follows up her impressive debut of The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage with an equally admirable follow-up.  Last issue, millionaire Lincoln Marsh hired Dr. Mirage, actual occult investigator, to separate him from a demon servant.  This issue, Van Meter reveals Marsh's  ne'er do well colleagues while Mirage--real name Shan Fong traverses the planes of the dead.  In order to travel and hire a spirit guide, Fong must relate a story or gift a powerful object to the ghosts she encounters.  This leads to a flashback involving her late husband Hwen and uncovers an even greater threat to Fong.  Once again, artist Roberto De La Torre and David Baron facilitates Van Meter's apparent intent to make Dr. Mirage an undiscovered sixties comic strip.  I approve of that.  It's what makes Dr. Mirage unique on the rack.  

Writer Nick Abadzis concludes his first Doctor Who story with a crescendo worthy of David Tennant's reign.  Abadzis divulges of the secrets of the ethereal Cerebravores, while cementing the friendship of new companion Gabby Gonzalez and the good Doctor.

While the Doctor beats the bad aliens with unknown technology, the bare bones of the explanation makes sense and was foreshadowed from the beginning.  For the close observer there's a lot of inside jokes to enjoy and universal humor involving Gabby's family.  The reaction to the Doctor by the female contingent of the Gonzalez clan is hilarious, and artist Elena Casagrande adds her two sense with some terrific expressions.  

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