Tuesday, December 30, 2014

POBB: December 24, 2014

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 24, 2014
Ray Tate

This week I review Aquaman, The Avenger, Bionic Woman, The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage, Judge Anderson, McBain, Simpsons Comics, Robin Rises Alpha and They’re Not Like Us.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m a pulp fiction aficionado.   For several weeks now, I’ve been lauding Michael Uslan’s Justice Inc. which relates the birth of the Avenger within the context of the shared world of Doc Savage and the Shadow.  The series deserves accolades, but it is ultimately professional fan fiction.

The truth is that none of these characters met in their original adventures, and Uslan imagines a version of the Avenger, however valid, that differs from the original.  For example, whereas the original Avenger is a self-made vigilante.   The Avenger in Uslan’s tale acquires gifts from Doc and the Shadow, who become patrons and mentors.  

From Michael Uslan's Justice Inc. #4

With Dynamite’s new one-shot, writer Mark Rahner produces a work that’s more reflective of the underrated Paul Ernst.  Under the house name of Kenneth Robeson, Ernst wrote twenty-four Avenger novels.  

Rahner combines fact with fiction in order to make This Avenger book memorable.  First the fiction.  Uslan turned Richard Henry Benson, the man who will become the Avenger, into a C.E.O.  

Rahner follows the history Ernst laid out for Benson and he ignores whether or not that history is politically correct

Benson's wife and daughter were the key catalysts in his life.  When they were taken from him, seemingly vanished in a blink of an eye, Benson snapped.  His skin underwent a weird transformation.  It turned to a malleable chalk.  His hair shocked white.  His face became an emotionless mask.  All feeling paralyzed as he grew cold inside.  

Benson used these changes in his pursuit to discover the truth about his wife and daughter.  The disappearance of Alice and Alicia will haunt Benson's every waking moment.  Benson’s relentless quest in fact provides the emotional impact behind Rahner’s impressive conclusion, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The Avenger novels are known for their seriousness.  Even more so than the Shadow pulps, which frequently include intellectual gameplay like cryptograms and codebreaking.  The Avenger contrasts with a group of walking wounded who form Justice Inc.  

In this instance, something is turning ordinary men and women into cannibalistic maniacs.  A somber mood fills each page of Rahner’s excellent pulp.  Even the presence of a mechanical man does not divert, nor does the historical personage Billie Holiday.

Billy Holiday is receiving death threats should she sing “Strange Fruit.”  Rahner did his homework.  Billie Holiday did indeed perform “Strange Fruit” at her black and tan club Club Society, and she did record the song in 1939 on the Commodore record label.  Rahner though makes the fanciful license to skip ahead to television.

While television existed in 1939, especially at the World’s Fair, it was not so widely sought, a fact noted by Rahner.  One wonders then the logic behind Billie Holiday deciding to go straight to television rather than radio.   We can imagine that Holiday simply had the foresight to see the future utility in television and that the power in the song just might sway future generations, who would be watching, away from racism.

The prescient logic combined with an artist’s creative insight gives this story it’s spine, and it doesn’t back down.  While we can imagine that Billie Holiday received all kinds of threats from racists of the time.  The fact is she was too powerful to touch, and everybody played it smart with “Strange Fruit.”  So Rahner here decides to advance his plot over the facts.  That’s not a criticism.   As long as there’s an intrinsic logic and purpose to the story, I don’t mind at all.  In the case of Rahner’s The Avenger, it’s to set a realistic backdrop, bring up the unfortunate authenticity of racism and draw upon a true proponent of change.  These facets grant gravitas to the pulpy idea of wild killing machines and the group that’s tailor made to stop them.

The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage opens with the ritual Linton March and his fellow soldiers performed to bind a demon to their wills.  March however has reconsidered his youthful excesses and asks Dr. Mirage, Shan Fong, to sever the connection.  His former army buddies don’t like this at all.

If Dr. Mirage helps March, she may be able to bring back her husband Hwen from the land of the dead.   Once her physical form is destroyed, however, denizens of the ghost realm may enter the real world.  Guess who pays Linton March a visit and decides to get rid of Dr. Mirage?

As usual, this issue of The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage is a gem.  The 1960’s adventure strip feel from art by Roberto De La Torre continues to breathe life and verisimilitude to a difficult to swallow subject.  Namely, the occult.  

Shan is sensitive to the supernatural world, and apparently there’s no heaven or hell just a depository for spirits who have through their own willpower established social status and differing niches within one big spectral domain.  Dr. Mirage tricked one such Big Bad into a cage.

Magic in Jen Van Meter's story is not just spontaneous generation and hocus-pocus breaking the laws of physics.  The demons come from somewhere.  They play by rules which are written in stone.

Shan’s journey cost her the objects she snatched from March’s abode.  These things contained power not because of their presence but because of their history and their meaning to the individual spirits.

In the end Shan bargains for Hwen’s life with the last object that she can retrieve.  The staff that Hwen used to collect spirits.  Will Shan succeed? Will she need to make an even costlier sacrifice to stop Ivros from breaching the doorway to our world? Find out in the next issue of The Death-Defying Dr. Mirage.

Points for cleverness.  McBain is actually a poster with the comic book story printed on the other side.  It's an interesting way to read a comic book.  That's for sure.  You pull out the first pages, flip them over, etc.  You'll figure it out if you decide to purchase Bongo's latest experiment.  

McBain is the television action hero played by Ranier Wolfcastle on The Simpsons.  In other words, The Simpson clan watch McBain in the movies and on television.  Wolfcastle is the analogue of Arnold Schwarzenegger, and until The Simpsons Movie, Arnold probably didn't exist in the "flexible reality" of The Simpsons.  

McBain begins in a dream/memory flashback, setting the parody of every action movie ever created.  Not even necessarily just the bad ones.  

To say that McBain is strange is an understatement.  The story by Nathan Kane touches all sorts of mischief.  The Native American seen beside McBain as his team punch Predator clones is a call back to Apache Chief, the Rambo action figure and the curious group of seventies action figures Big Jim and the Wolf Pack.  It just gets funnier from here.  The art from Jim Delaney and Andrew PePoy isn't quite so silly.  There's this underpinning that it's one nuance away from being the illustration in a serious drama.  That works in the send up's favor.

Simpsons Comics begins with the real world past-time of Take Your Daughter’s To Work Day.  The Simpsons have addressed the event previously in “Bart on the Road.”  So I was wondering what writers Tom and Alice Gammill had in mind and if it would recall that story or not.  I’m pleased to say it’s not.  The Gammills dispense with this catalyst through stylish humor, admirably rendered by Phil Ortiz, Mike DeCarlo and Art Villanueva.

The real story begins when Mr. Burns in honor of the function bequeaths a simulacrum doll to Lisa, and since he has a bunch of them, due to a dearth of turnout, he decides to be generous and give them all to Lisa.

Mr. Burns’ unusual generosity inspires Marge to improve the dolls, and that’s where all good deeds pay back in dividends of comic misfortune.  

The brilliant story makes perfect sense, relies upon the characterization and doesn’t spare a panel for anything but jokes, whether those gags be visual integration with the narrative or Homerific asides.

Robin Rises Alpha details the aftermath of the Batman Family’s invasion of Apokolips in Batman & Robin and the resurrection of Damien Wayne.  Is the five dollar price tag worth it.  It depends on just how much of a nut you are for Damien Wayne.  If you wept when the little fellow met his demise, then by all means, treat yourself.  

The art by Andy Kubert, Jonathan Glapion and Brad Anderson does justice to the characters and crafts a palatable visual narrative.  If you’re only mildly interested in Damien, you may want to wait for the trade paperback or snatch this one-shot up when it’s half off.

It’s not that Peter Tomasi’s story is bad.  It’s just that eleven pages summarizes what occurred in the last issue of Batman & Robin.  The artists weren’t in contact with each other so there are slight differences in the story to art ratios.  Batman for example resurrects Damien in a different way than he did in Batman & Robin.  The emotions contrast.  Given that these depictions conflict in degrees, it’s a minor quibble, but that could be a bother.  

The Big Bad of the book is Kalibak, which is really old hat since Batman disposed of him readily in the last two issues of Batman and Robin.  It is kind of interesting though to see the non-powered Batman Family stand up to a brute who has in the past given Superman a run for his money.

What did intrigue me is the arrival of a nameless woman who appears in a solo set-piece as the narrative cuts away from Damien and the Batman Family.  Unless Tomasi pulls a Monarch, her identity’s pretty obvious.  She’s not like the never named amphibious dominatrix from last week's Wonder Woman. 

It’s furthermore important to distinguish how the writer and the artist treats the lady.

Natural shadows fall on her flesh to plausibly block any “offending” nudity.  Breasts and buttocks are shown in casual fancy.  Furthermore, though she arrives without memory, she knows how to fight rather than just wait for somebody to add sausage to the sunny-side up snack.  The woman appears on one page though.  In the end, this is Damien’s show.

The next reviews contain massive spoilers.  So be warned.  If you trust my judgement, these short capsules will have to do.  I'm recommending Aquaman, Bionic Woman, Judge Anderson and They’re Not Like Us.  So here are the non-spoiler overviews.

Aquaman surprises by not just being good but also linking legacies that have been epitomes of DC mythology, regardless of whatever cosmology you would care to name.  Even if you’re not an Aquaman fan but just a DC fan, you can’t pass on the issue because it's filled with brilliant, modern explanations of DC's past.

Bionic Woman offers the reader an exciting conclusion to the mad plans of General Morales.  Jaime is in top form thanks to Brandon Jerwa, David Cabrera and Sandra Molina.

Judge Anderson neatly grants impetus to the revelation of a Big Bad that nobody knew.  The story gives Anderson the greater depth that we're used to seeing in her appearances and adds a bit of mythology to the Judge Dredd universe.

They’re Not Like Us by writer Eric Stephenson grabs your attention quickly and keeps it with interesting characters, intelligent dialogue and a compelling premise.


In past issues of Aquaman, we discovered that Aquaman's mother Atlanna faked her death to save her life and the lives of her sons.  That's the reason why Atlantis is quaking.  Atlantis is tied to the bloodline of Aquaman somehow, and he's not the true king of Atlantis since the Queen still lives.  Atlantis somehow senses this.  This issue begins Aquaman's quest to find Mom.

Artist Paul Pelletier and colorist Rain Beredo turn a simple passage into a wondrous emotional affirmation.

Surprisingly, Aquaman and Mera end up in Gorilla City.  Arthur's knowledge of the culture allows him to avoid any silly misunderstandings, and the legendary Solovar greets him personally.  Over food and drink, they discuss some similarities between Atlantis and Gorilla City, known as Katangala to the natives.  I don't know if that's a Jeff Parker coin.  If so it's a good one.

These similarities arise from a single, elegant reason.  Unfortunately, only one ape appears to know the truth of Atlanna and along the way, we discover why Grodd is the way he is as well as why the Gorillas tolerate his existence.  It's not simply that they're better than him or above human retribution.  In any case, the truth comes out in traditional comic book fashion.  My friends, it's a bout you never thought would happen.  Aquaman vs. Gorilla Grodd.

In Bionic Woman Season Four, the OSI sent Jaime on a mission that turned out to be a trap set by General Morales, a screwball that collected cyborgs and a.i. that he situated in a Village named North Eden.  What we didn't know and learned at the cliffhanger last issue is that North Eden is located somewhere way up North.

Morales acquired an abandoned NASA project, and he sees himself as the protector of the American way of life.  Whatever that means.  His intent is to guide this group of special people to his way of thinking.  Ultimately I guess to breed and spread his philosophy naturally, through mother-father teachings.  

Morales initially needs the mechanically enhanced or simply the mechanical.  Their minds can be erased, at least in theory, and rebooted to Morales' philosophy.  It's therefore a must that Jaime Sommers or Steve Austin be the hero.  This is what a lot of literature fails to address.  Why this person? Why did he need to solve the mystery?  What makes her so special?  So, writer Brandon Jerwa gives an intrinsic rationale for why Jaime Sommers had to be the one.

Since the beneficent OSI continuously upgrade Jaime and Steve, it's plausible that someday they would have the ability to resist memory tampering.  Jaime's recent apps give her the ability to fend off the rude awakening Morales inflicts on all his guests.  Steve could have been the hero in this one, but he would have had too easy a time of it.  The hero should work a little for his victories.  

Jerwa saw Jaime as the perfect candidate because of her nature and also because she wouldn't be familiar with space.  Steve Austin is an astronaut.  As soon as he woke up in North Eden, he would have sensed he was out in space.  Whoops.  No reveal then.  Jaime works much better, and Jerwa should be commended for balancing just the right bit of smarts and ability with a reasonable pace for discovery.  While some might just blow off Bionic Woman as a lark, from a pure writing standpoint, it's actually quite complex.

The narrative evolves another Big Bad to compliment the mad General Morales.  

Morales has given up on the America down below and would be happy to see it rot.  He's committed to his Utopian society.  Whitney, the chap in the red shirt, on the other hand wants to take back America for Americans using bionic and robotic soldiers.  What we're seeing is the cancer of totalitarian vision metastasizing into a new form of terror.  Whitney had he the opportunity, would have grown into the typical slap-happy fruitcake military despot.  Morales and Whitney would have eventually ended up at each other's throats, and Jerwa actually plants Jaime at the beginning of a mad scheme rather than the middle like so many action/adventure treatments do with their heroes.  Think of how many James Bond villains are already fully functional.  All these facets as well as a sly sense of humor make the expected, though nevertheless frenetic, endgame even more savory.

Somebody has been using mutants as psionic bombs.   Judge Anderson investigated and tracked the damage back to the Keyser Soze of Mega-City One.  Judge Dredd however confirmed that the perp exists.  

Discovering the legendary Ashberry doesn't really mean anything.  He's just a criminal.  He doesn't harbor any deep ties to Judge Dredd lore.  He's not secretly Judge Death for example.  However, writer Matt Smith ties him into the entire universe of Mega-City One.

Judge Anderson naturally scotches Ashberry's schemes as the Psi-Judge division cleans house.  The way Anderson acts carries the poetry of the story and bears terrific imagery from artist Carl Critchlow.

Like McBain, They're Not Like Us plays with the comic book format.  Page one is actually the cover.  Open the book, and you immediately see the girl soon to be named Syd about to commit suicide because she's a telepath, and she cannot control the voices in her head.  John Constantine attempts to interfere with her decision.

All right.  That's not exactly John Constantine, but it is.  If you see a well-dressed Englishman smoking a cigarette, acting cool, and trying to be enigmatic while talking deep thoughts as he swears for no good reason, it's John Constantine.  Not the television hero, who is a cut above the comic book antagonist.  John Constantine is a modern English archetype.  He's postmodern punk.  He's a symbol of anarchy.  He represents all the bad things we want to do but the government says we shouldn't.

Anyway, the fellow in They're Not Like Us goes by the name of Skippy Constantine.  Okay.  Okay.  Last joke.  Goes by the name of...Well, here we go again.  No name.  That's all right.  At least this is a new book, and he carries his anonymity well.

Our mystery man takes Syd away from the hospital and her confusing life of hearing other's thoughts.  He introduces her to a special group of people.

On the whole if the art by Simon Gane and Jordie Bellaire wasn't so stunning and unique, I probably wouldn't have given this book a second thought.  It's essentially amoral X-Men with swearing, but to be fair, Eric Stephenson's story is told in a really involving way, and with that artwork, it's not at all difficult to be swept into events.  That said, whether or not I continue or you continue depends on the resolution to the startling existential cliffhanger with real world consequences.

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