Monday, November 3, 2014

POBB: October 29, 2014

The Pick of the Brown Bag
October 29, 2014
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag hits the Internet with new reviews of Baltimore: The Wolf and the Apostle, Justice League United Annual, Swamp Thing, Wonder Woman and the newest Phantom comic book series from Hermes Press.  

Annuals? Do we need them?  Perhaps a better question would be.  Are they relevant?  Comic book annuals tend to fester a bad reputation.  

They're frequently over-priced anthologies, tangentially associated with the main series, illustrated and written by whomever's in the room.  Worse, the books sometimes sport work by fan favorite artists and writers that should have known better.

While this might be a good time for the newcomer to breach the castle, it's usually a pretty lousy experience for readers.  The two annuals under scrutiny this week are actually worth it.

Swamp Thing decides the fate of Capucine.  She is one of the oldest cast members in the Charles Soule run of the series.  Capucine was the nigh immortal who asked Swamp Thing for sanctuary.  She became his ally, confidant and friend.  Ancient monks sealed a deal with a demon to grant Capucine a thousand years more of life.  The demon gets her body when her time's up.  

Already the book is relevant to Swamp Thing proper.  It's written by current Swamp Thing scribe Charles Soule and the majority of the annual is illustrated by regular artist Javier Piña.  The story pertains to a second tier cast member of Swamp Thing.  The way Soule extricates Capucine from her predicament is at once fair-play and dependent on the events that unfolded in recent issues of Swamp Thing

Ah, but there's the catch.  Did you see it? "...the majority illustrated by regular artist Javier Piña."  So the rest of it looks terrible, doesn't it? Not really.  Artist Ryan Browne puts together a very funny two page Swamp Thing fable, that fits snugly within the main tale.  Carmen Carnero's art merges nicely with Piña's illustration, and Yanick Paquette contributes a happy coda that works as a pin-up and fitting send-off for Capucine.  Dave Bullock is also on hand for a particular origin story, and the subject of this origin figures in as a draw for those not reading Swamp Thing.  It's actually pretty funny that the Powers That Be secreted him away from the cover.



Gone! Gone! O' Form of Man.  Arise the Demon Etrigan.

That's right the Demon is Etrigan.  The degree of a comic book's significance is proportional to the Jack Kirby content.  It doesn't matter whether or not you're a Jack Kirby fan.  He was an architect for both Marvel and DC comics.  

Soule balances the various characterizations of the Demon.  For Kirby, the Demon was the bona fide good guy.  Most writers sweep the original intent under the rug.   Soule for the most part concurs with the majority.  Etrigan is bad news.  He does however differ on the details.  For example, Etrigan became a rhymer.  Soule identifies rhyming as a rank.  The Demon has no compulsion to rhyme.  He just chooses to do so.  The whole basis of the story appears to be the Demon's libido, introduced in Demon Knights.  Just why the hell does Etrigan want the body of Capucine?  Soule implies something perverted but leaves it to the reader's own filthy imagination. Being an atheist, I only think of pure thoughts.  So I imagine the Demon's going to invite fluffy bunnies to share tea with he and Capucine.  Yes, that's what I think.

Justice League United Annual is a necessary purchase for Legion of Super-Heroes fans.  Mon-El starts the ball rolling by attacking Justice League United.  The reason? Ultra, the alien composite, actually an old Silver Age character given a new lease of new 52 life, bears the same genetic code of Infinitus, a monstrous being that devours planets.  Shades of Galactus!  Ultra will become Infinitus.  

Mon-El intends to initiate the Grandfather Paradox, to save the galaxies and perhaps more importantly Shadow-Lass, who will fall victim to the monster.  Standing in his way, the Martian Manhunter, guardian of Ultra and his comrades from Justice League United.

United split forces last issue, one group stayed on earth.  The away team went into space to investigate the theft of Hawkman’s body.  This led to Supergirl, Green Arrow, Animal Man and the Star-Spangled Kid investigating a bar filled with bounty hunters.  The hunters find themselves on the other end of the spectrum.  

Lots of people might pass this issue up because of the heavy Legion involvement, but writer Jeff Lemire also gives his new character who we mistakingly referred to as Keewahtin the name Equinox.  He also brings the Martian Manhunter and Supergirl back into the limelight.  Martian Manhunter used to be Mr. Justice League, but the new 52 severed his connection with the teams and kept him largely under cover.  This was a valid decision.  The Manhunter’s disengagement facilitated the new 52’s growth as a unique continuity.  Supergirl debuted with a bang, but some idiot decided to turn her into an orange Lantern.  Now, we get a relatable kickass Kara who won’t take guff from anybody.

Complimenting this renewal, Lemire imbues the fantastic sense of humor that first attracted many fans to Justice League United to the annual.  Animal Man unwittingly relates a terrific joke, and Lemire gets that Animal Man is supposed to be a normal man with a normal wife and family.  This allows for some added comedy.  In the final scenes, Lemire tackles Byth’s part in the whole scheme, and he sicks a familiar foe against Justice League United.  Fortunately, the team is packed with power.  Finally, eventhough though Mike McKone is taking some time off, DC lined up a primo eye candy choreographer Neil Edwards to visually narrate this excellent story.

Brian Azzarello's impressive run on Wonder Woman ends.   While the actual final battle between Wonder Woman and the First Born is kind of a let down, there's still a lot to recommend.  The art of Cliff Chiang being the most obvious.

In terms of plotting, Azzarello pulls a clever twist that's based on the least noticeable issue of Wonder Woman.  The twist relies on Wonder Woman's sense of mercy, and that aspect alludes to the roots of William Moulton Marston's intent regarding the Amazon.  Whatever your opinions on Wonder Woman's creator and his lifestyle, Marston's means cannot be questioned.  He intended Wonder Woman to be the antithesis of violent machismo.

Azzarello's final solution to who will rule Olympus is at once fair and weird.  You could have easily deduced the secrets of the gods had you been paying attention, but there's still a strange development regarding one of the cast members nearly impossible to foresee.  For one thing, the evolution depends on the lackadaisical social mores of the Greek gods, and it takes an almost new mind-set to grasp the concepts being offered.

On the whole I can recommend Azzarello's and Chiang's Wonder Woman.  Though Chiang wasn't present for the entirety, admirable substitute artists kept up the visual quality of the series.  The story was an unusual adventure that pit Wonder Woman against foes that deserved her and presented a challenge.  It redefined Diana's origins and addressed the Greek Myths with a unique perspective.  In terms of continuity, Azzarello made connections between Wonder Woman and the New Gods and restored their luster through a more palatable and savvy Orion.  Wonder Woman began as Azzarello promised.  It was horrific.  It turned into a dark comedy of magical realism and finally ended within dark fantasy.  Check out the trades if you didn't follow the monthly chapters.

The Ghost Who Walks Returns to comics courtesy of Peter David, optical anatomist Sal Velluto and Hermes Press.  This is the eternal Phantom from the comic strips.  He is married to Diana Palmer who works for the United Nations and the  father of twins Heloise and Kip.  There's nothing broken in The Phantom, and writer David doesn't fix anything.  David however imagines a different temperament for the Phantom and Diana.

I don't think I've ever seen the Phantom so amorous before, but it's consistent with the conceit by creator Lee Falk.  The Phantom is the original legacy hero.  He even predates the Green Hornet's relation with the Lone Ranger.  In truth this is the same Phantom and Diana that graced the newsprint in World War II.  If the current writers of the comic strip ever described that Phantom, he would be a different man who married a different woman.  Wisely the comic strip tends to gloss over that era.  Although other Phantoms have been before mentioned.  The Sixteenth Century Phantom for example married Jean Lafitte's sister.

David's story resurrects the The Singh Brotherhood who invade Ophir and seek the whereabouts of a different legendary figure from the jungle.  The Phantom and Diana intervene.  Here, David also distinguishes his Phantom.  Generally speaking the Phantom is a solo act with his horse Hero and wolf Devil. 

Diana regains some of the pluck she lost since World War II.  David's wise ass, pistol-packing Diana is absolutely valid.

Last but not least Baltimore takes a holiday from his own book.  The obsessed monter-huting Lord merely serves as listener in a stand-alone horror story that only bears the trappings of the Baltimore environs.   Fortunately, this deliciously timed tale by Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden and Ben Stenbeck is a juicy macabre with colors by Dave Stewart that echo the impact of the occasional splashes of red that might be seen in a few crossover era black and whites.

A group of knights that for the sake of Baltimore's alternate earth arise from the ranks of the same inquisitors as his nemesis from previous issues.  They kit themselves up and go a hunting for a horror in the castle only to die one by one.  A near perfect fright that doesn't actually need a second issue to do the job.  

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