Tuesday, October 7, 2014

POBB: September 24--October 1, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 24--October 1, 2014
Ray Tate

This is Paul McGann, one of my favorite Doctors.   I went to the Pittsburgh Comicon to thank him for being the Doctor at a time when we really needed one.  It was a privilege to meet the man who with Daphne Ashbrook preserved Doctor Who.  I wouldn't still be a fan had it not been for them.  

If Doctor Who returned as based on the Virgin novels published in the early nineties, I would have quit.  Doctor Who would have ended with seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy in "Survival."  Instead, 1996 rolls around.  The Doctor's half-human and kisses girls, which explains Susan his granddaughter quite nicely.  The series we have now is informed by Doctor Who 1996, or the New Year's special as I refer to it.  

Mr. McGann was friendly, generous with his time and very entertaining.   There are several videos of Mr. McGann at the Con uploaded onto YouTube.  Two of particular note is his interpretation of Matt Smith's speech in the Doctor Who episode "Rings of Akhaten" and a lip-sink to the Proclaimers' 500 Miles.  Look closely in the crowd at the end, and you'll see me having the time of my life.

Due to my attendance at the Con, the POBB was late last week.  Apologies to all my faithful readers.  Sometimes real life does affect this blog   This week it's a double issue with reviews of Action Comics, Angel and Faith, Baltimore, Bart Simpson, Batman and Superman, Detective Comics, Justice Inc, Justice League, Legendary, Loki, Princess Ugg, Swamp Thing, Thor, Vampirella and Wonder Woman.

Bart Simpson Comics begins with Max Davison's hilarious send-up of the X-Men in a framework that's original and unexpected.  Ignoring Nelson's scientific acumen, Bart tries to perform a skateboard stunt that sends him to Dr. Hibbert and forces him to undergo an unusual type of therapy.

Frankly, I was unaware of the stigmatism associated with wheeled backpacks.  Of course, I would have raised an eyebrow had I seen such a thing in school, but I would have gotten used to them.  Still, bullies aren't known for their acceptance of change.  

Bart soon joins other kids who wheel their packs around.  The cadre include Martin, perpetually ill fourth tier character Wendell, and some other familiar faces from episodes long ago aired, mainly from Lisa's history rather than Bart's.  The plot opens the halls up to some terrific one-stop gags and needles Professor Xavier's on again, off again affliction--dealt with way better in the films than the comic books.  Sharply illustrated by Rex Lindsey, Dan Davis and Art Villanueva "Leader of the Backpack Pack," is a sweet looking comedy ride.

In the second tale, Carol Lay illustrates, informs and induces laughter with an elaborate prank from Bart.  She depends on the overall low IQs and inherent kindness of Bart's targets to unfold a tale roomy enough to include a smart guest appearance by Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel.  Lay also relies upon the reinvention of comedic tropes just like the television series and displays superior understanding for The Simpsons formula.  A perfect short.

Princess Ulga returns for equine hijinks for her near eponymous title Princess Ugg.  In trying to make a friend in Lady Julifer, Ulga must match wills against an obstinate unicorn.  In the end Ulga shows the beastie who's the alpha, but her victory proves to be detrimental to Julifer's chances in the competition.

Ted Naifeh's frequently hilarious comedy evolves from Ulga's implacable character.  This is particularly evident when Ulga discovers that the unicorn galloped from its mistress.  The over the top tone turns the quest for a steed into into a romantic saga pitting the impossibly graceful warrior against the unlikely opponent, complete with Wagnerian narrative.

In the second act, Ulga makes good on her promise to Julifer with a substitute that's the four-legged equivalent of Herbie the Love Bug.  As Naifeh concentrates on the main plot, he builds on the underlying motif of Ulga learning to read and write and discovering the fine art of diplomacy.  She already demonstrates change.  Odin's raven informs her of an imminent Frost Giant attack.  Seeing futility in such a fight, Ulga chooses to stay in the school for princesses.

Under the briefly held covers of married horse trainers, Red Sonja and Zorro travel by train into enemy territory.  As soon as the duo reach the intelligence they seek, Sonja distinguishes the spy from the swashbuckler.

Upon securing the information, Zorro and Sonja contact headquarters, gather reinforcements, and that's it for the opposition.  Bill Willingham makes a shallow attempt at recapitulating the characterization from past issues, but this final chapter of Legendary is largely a visceral display, literally, with a few lines of perfunctory dialogue.  Meaty it is not.

The ending provides some satisfaction since all the champions gather, but the war is remarkably short.  There's enough material here for six more issues, but it's as if Willingham had to cash his check immediately and zipped out the door before more plans could be made.

Michael Uslan successfully relates the origin of Richard Henry Benson, the man who will be known as the Avenger, in the presence of a shared world populated by the Shadow and Doc Savage.  Readers unfamiliar with the Avenger's beginnings will be suitably horrified.  The Avenger is the most tragic of pulp figures.  He loses everything.

Under the house name Kenneth Robeson, Paul Ernst defied convention by not just killing Alicia, Benson's wife and Alice, Benson's child, but also robbing him of every personal feature.  The Avenger rose out of Benson's ashes, and took his remains as the hue of his preternaturally malleable skin.  In this way Ernst elegantly emphasized the overall viciousness of fate and eschewed an oft lodged sexist criticism at a remarkably early period.  

I should point out that Ernst didn't explicitly kill the Avenger's family.  Rather they disappear mid-flight and remain presumed dead throughout the Avenger's adventures. Despite the lack of overt homicide, I think it's a safe bet to agree with Uslan.  The organization murdered the Avenger's wife and child in flight or soon after the plane landed.  The criminals behind the affair had no reason to keep Alice and Alicia alive, even as hostages.  Too much time passed within the Avenger novels to suggest anything other than something nasty.  

In Uslan's mash-up a new wrinkle has been added.  Waylaid by an old foe, the Shadow awakens humiliated in the plane's restroom.  Had he not been surprised, the Shadow might have intervened, but he returns to consciousness as the plot against Benson is in force.   Using Shelock's method, Uslan concludes that the entire passenger manifesto and flight crew must have been part of the scheme.  More's the pity for them, for now the Shadow knows, and he is particularly enraged at the callousness of the scheme.  The look on his face indicates that man or woman, there will be a reckoning.

The Shadow attempts to save Benson.  His reason only altruism.  The Shadow is many things, but the purity of his mission cannot be doubted.  He destroys crime as a gift to humanity, and he saves lives because it's the right thing to do.  In this way, he is very much like Doc Savage, who actually has a more personal stake in saving Benson.  Benson intended to fund Doc's latest scientific endeavor.  These factors link the fates of the three pulp heroes, and when the Avenger shambles to life, he surprises both champions for a stirring cliffhanger.

Black Widow finally out of Russia gets a little more interesting when she teams up with X-23, Wolverine"s daughter, to take down a criminal web that's kidnapped Natasha's lawyer friend; surprisingly not Matt Murdock.  The plot is nothing more than getting the ladies from Point A to Point B, but with oodles and oodles of wholesome violence as illustrated by Phil Noto, whose style reflects a modern interpretation of sixties paperback art.  Essentially the visual narrative is the comic book equivalent of Alias with Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and a young Eliza Dushku as X-23.  That's a good thing.

Doctor Doom over the years has morphed from villain to protagonist.  In Al Ewing's Loki Doom travels to the final days of earth only to find a fly in the ointment.  A certain mischievous Asgardian.  He decides to proactively remove that insect for the sake of the human race.

Doom has never been more heroic or honest.  That may be because he convinced Valeria, his goddaughter, to aid him in his quest.  Valeria is the daughter of Doom's traditional enemies Reed and Sue Richards, but she refers to him as Uncle Doom.   Readers more familiar with Doom's villainy may be a tad confused, but that's actually what this story is about.  The perception of Doom, by readers, incorporated into the fiction.

Valeria always refers to Doom as her Uncle, and that's because Doom named her after delivering her.  Uh-huh.  It happened.  Sue went into labor.  Johnny asked Doom for help.  Doom is a bona fide medical doctor as well as a scientist.   He was ironically duty-bound to aid Sue.  Doom furthermore pledged that no harm would ever befall Valeria so long as he lived.  That event changed the way some writers looked at Victor von Doom.  

So who is Dr. Doom?  Is he a gypsy that justifiably despises Nazis like the Red Skull? Is he the iron-fisted ruler of Latveria who brooks no insult or challenge to his authority? Is he the rightful ruler of Latveria who will see his country prosper and every man and woman under his auspices cared for? Is he the kook that wore the skin suit of an innocent woman in an attempt to harness magic against the Fantastic Four? Is the father of an adopted son? Is he the maniac who transported the Baxter Building into space? Is he the somewhat noble individual that pledged himself to Valeria?  Is he Uncle Doom? Is he all or none of the above.  That's what this story is about, and it's a doozy.

Female Thor!  Female Thor! Is it the apocalypse!  If you believe Fox News, and there's never been a reason to, Ragnarok has indeed arrived.  For the experienced comic book reader the female Thor is just a little shake up to give the traditional male version time to regenerate.  His return will be triumphant, and Marvel will get a hammer wielding female character to counterbalance the machismo.  Beta-Ray Bill received his hammer Stormbringer after proving his worth, and the female Thor will receive her own mallet while still being able to wield Mjonlir.  I suppose Beta-Ray can still pick up Thor's hammer.

Story wise this is a lot more amusing than it had any right to be.   Jason Aaron expresses great zeal when displaying the rules of enchantment that Odin originally placed on the hammer, and All-Father gets hoisted on his own petard in riotous fashion.  Odin's dialogue as he attempts to lift the hammer is laugh aloud funny as is the animated sequence depicting Odin's wants.  As to the identity of the second female Thor, for Wonder Woman was the first, there's a very clear indication that she's....female.  Sorry, folks.  The Powers That Be Are keeping Thor's identity quiet.  Could be an Asgardian.  Could be a human living among them.  Could be an alien woman come to visit.  Definitely female though and humanoid.  Does that help?

Wonder Woman experiences visions of War as she lays dying in the First Born's headquarters.  Despite these mortal wounds, Diana does get a good solid hit in before the chapter ends.  

War's words about the truth are remarkable.  They furthermore reflect a lot of what's going in Jefferson County, Colorado.  A conservative-heavy school board decided to edit history to emphasize patriotism and civil obedience.  The students saw that as wrong.  So they went on strike.  They weren't the only ones.  Faculty also stuck up for knowledge and cashed in some sick days.  The College Board that oversees the advanced placement course applauded the lesson in civil disobedience.  The truth isn't pretty, and we must learn the ugliness in order not to repeat it.

In addition to the philosophical definitions, 
 the Amazons led by Hippolyte now in the form of Diana's traditionally sculpted body, Orion and Moon along with new New God Milan kick some serious ass.   Azzarello also concludes Hera's character arc.  Hera catalyzed his whole Wonder Woman run by hunting down Zeus' latest conquest Zola.  The human bore the missing god a child she dubbed Zeke.  I remember an old explanation of what makes a good novel.  The characters change from the opening to the ending.  They grow or degrade as a result of what they learned in the story.  I'm not absolutely sure I buy that, but Wonder Woman certainly suits the attribute.

I'd like to recommend Justice League, but this issue is not going to be for everybody.  It's more steeped in the recent mythology of Forever Evil than past issues.  Last issue Batman confronted the new, unwilling host of the Power Ring from Earth Three, but you didn't actually need to know anything about the battle in Forever Evil to appreciate the masterful characterization of Batman or comprehend the stakes.  This issue tackles the idea of Lex Luthor being in the Justice League, a secret partner to safeguard the planet whose impact relies on knowledge of Forever Evil and Jessica taming the Power Ring.  It's not a complete wash of a book for newcomers just looking for a good superhero story, but it helps a lot to have background information.

Action Comics establishes the new status quo, and it looks like a good one.  Greg Pak has been writing excellent Superman in Action Comics, and it doesn't look like that will change any time soon.  With this issue, Pak establishes Supergirl as part of the Family rather than an antagonist to her cousin or an orange-vomit spewing lobotomy patient.  You can argue that Supergirl was brought into the fold by Scott Lobdell, but that was a life and death situation.  Here Supergirl is one of the team.  

Supergirl according to the flashbacks helped earth while Superman made his way back home from space.  She wasn't alone.  Finally, the agreeable Lana Lang, whom Pak really put a lot of work into during his run of Action Comics, has a likable date.  John Henry Irons.  In addition Baka pitched in during the crisis.  As did John Corben, the artist formally known as Metallo.  He apparently teamed up with Krypto.  Furthermore, the Martian Manhunter revealed himself and found humans grateful for the rescue.  Superman has a cheering section in Lois Lane, and Bruce makes a cameo appearance.  It's a solid new beginning for the Man of Steel after being "Doomed."

Detective Comics benefits from the inventory clean slate.  Batman attempts to enjoy a long needed vacation only to wind up grounded on the tarmac.  The reason smashes through Gotham International Airport, in the same way that a Boeing humorously did the same in Airplane!  Yes, knowledge of that spoof will undermine the dramatic impact.  Though the endangerment of a little girl possess all the impetus needed, especially since Batman is on hand to mount a daring rescue.

Mention is made about Batman's relative youth.  This combined with a classic look including the blue trunks indicate a Legends of the Dark Knight intent that went awry with the series cancellation.  While the material seems fresh it could have been written any time since the seventies onward.  That's because the United States has always been involved in the Middle East.  Planes have always been targets for terrorists, and the accusation of wasting lives for the sake of oil has always been offered.  The sadness of course is in the loss of life, for war in the Middle East has never been clean, and the motives always questionable.  The novelty in the story arises from the perpetrator's motivation.  Ecoterrorism is nothing new, but this specific philosophy is novel and arresting.

Batman and Superman doesn't gain much momentum this week, with a superhero amnesia plot, but there's still some good scenes for the reader to enjoy.  Any moment with Lois Lane in it, and there are a lot of them, is wildly entertaining.  However, the tale would have worked better out of continuity since Lois Lane of the new 52 couldn't possibly have a grasp on Batman's personality.  She doesn't know him, and her observations aren't entirely convincing.  Lois is smart, but she's not an instinctive genius.

Angel mulls over Amy's offer to let him help her resurrect her boyfriend Warren, who in the television series inadvertently killed Tara and tipped Willow to the dark side of magic.  Angel never expressed a liking for Warren, and in the television series, never met him.  Nevertheless, Gischler comes up with quite a bit of sound reasoning to explain why Angel should aid Amy.  Meanwhile, in the jungle, Faith leads Deepscan, former Slayers turned private contractors, in a fight for survival against primitive vampires, who may or may not have been behind the disappearance of Riley and his wife Sam.  A dynamic spy couple from the television series as well.

Vampirella begins as a tribute to the Tigon horror film The Blood Beast of Terror, one of my personal faves.  In the story a giant death's-head moth preys upon the men of the village and takes the form of a beautiful woman when not draining the countryside.  Writer Nancy Collins, a student of horror, brings Vampirella in penultimate conflict with the moth creature and adds a pretense of sexuality to the absorption of power Vampirella must acquire to combat Umbra, the evil goddess attempting parasitize her.

Vampirella isn't actually enjoying the "kiss" but you may not know that if you never picked up a Vampirella adventure before, or if you didn't bother perusing the dialogue or the narrative prose.  The lip-lock actually foreshadows the more explicit detail in Patrick Berkenkotter's art.  In one mythology, and the one Nancy Collins adheres to, Vampirella is the daughter of Lilith, the mother of all vampire kind.  Through trysts with various demons, she spat out numerous monstrous offspring from her womb.  Berkenkotter shows several of these unions, and he also slips a nipple into the graphic.  So fair warning.  Not kids stuff.

When Vampirella finishes her task she must journey the Nostferatu capitol of the world and finish the King of these rat-faced fiends.  It proves to be a little more challenging than first imagined.  There's a strange surreal atmosphere in the very idea of these first vampires as imagined by the make-up artist Albin Grau and Marnau as interpreted by Berkenkotter and Collins living in a little Germanic hamlet, with their own constables and government.

Swamp Thing after finishing off a former avatar turned monster meets the newest force of life.  The machines.  A clever idea by writer Charles Soule, the machines allegedly  seek co-existence and make Swamp Thing a tempting offer.

Had the machines made this offer earlier in Alec Holland's life as Champion of the Green, he may have jumped at it, but Alec has learned the hard way what abandoning his post means.  So he politely declines.  The machines seem to accept his answer, but of courser, nothing is that easy.

Because Swamp Thing is so consistently well written, I don't really say enough about Jesus Saiz's wonderful illustration.  Saiz creates a charming representative for the machines, even if it doesn't possess a face, and be prepared to be awed by a double page spread depicting the original war between the natural forces of the Red and Green.

In Baltimore Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden let their choreography and the art of Peter Bergting and Dave Stewart do the talking.  Not much really needed to be said after Lord Baltimore discovered the truth behind the zombies.  There's some satisfying dismemberment, another decimation of Baltimore's forces as well as an added cast member.

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