Wednesday, January 14, 2015

POBB: January 6, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 6, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to a new year of The Pick of the Brown Bag.  My name is Ray Tate, and in this column, blog, whatever you would like to call it, I review the week’s comic book haul; the cream of the crop and the rotting dregs at the bottom of the basket. 

This week I review, Angel and Faith, Detective Comics, Lady Killer, Red Sonja: Vulture’s Circle, Shaft, Swamp Thing, Vampirella and The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.  Henceforth known just as Squirrel Girl.  I’ll also review The Doc Savage Special, but first Star Trek/Planet of the Apes.

The Tiptons, Scott and David, return with more professional fanfiction mashing up Star Trek and The Planet of the Apes.  Now, frankly, had the final 2014 week offered more options in comic book buying, I would have passed this title right up because…why?  Why is it a big deal that Star Trek crossover with Planet of the Apes?  Wouldn’t Kirk, Spock and the crew of the starship…Enterprise simply view the simians as ape-like aliens? 

So, yeah.  Why? Well…The answer is that it’s fun.  The Tiptons seem to know exactly how irrelevant Star Trek/Planet of the Apes is and opt not to look upon this as an historic meeting between Kirk and the Apes.  Instead, the writers relax a little, pack the story with inside jokes and give Kirk and crew the best dialogue they probably ever had in a Star Trek comic book.  Furthermore, look at the artwork! Just look at it.  Rachael Stott, where were you when the Tiptons were doing Doctor Who/Star Trek?  Damn it.  We missed out on something incredible.

The plot’s perfect.  The Klingons are selling weapons to the Apes, just like they did in “A Private Little War,” only with a more familiar Klingon in charge of the wheeling and dealing.  This all occurs beyond a time/space breach where Klingon activity is rampant.

Kirk is just itching to see what they’re up to.  McCoy attempts to be the voice of common sense.  Spock however expresses curiosity.  Two against one.  McCoy never stood a chance.  I just can’t see how a Star Trek fan wouldn’t love this.

Angel's confrontation against Amy Madison didn't turn out the way he planned, and now he's stuck contending against a powerful sorceress.  Fortunately she's an arrogant one.

I like how Angel and Faith writer Victor Gischler positions Willow as the witch of witches in the Whedonverse.  It grants our Miss Rosenberg more resonance and builds up the potential conflict.  The beats of the story mimic the rhythm of a Joss Whedon production, especially when Gischler institutes the reveal.

The more straightforward dramatic comeuppance occurs in Faith's part of the book.  Her mission ostensibly a quest for Renee Zane's father went sour when it turns out he didn't need rescuing at all.

In another writer's hand this vignette could have gone on for another chapter, rife with padding.  Instead Gischler wisely ends the short with a sharp surprise and plausibly sets up Faith's return to Magic Town.  Along the way he spotlights Riley Finn's endnote maturity in an impressive little speech and comes up with a killer cliffhanger.

Horror author Nancy Collins sets up Vampirella to resemble an arc in which Vampirella and her cohorts will hunt the original Dr. Faustus, issue after issue.  This is misdirection.  The foray instead turns out to be a quick, smart appetizer to the main course.  

It seems that for some immortality isn’t all that it's cracked up to be.  These everlasting creatures seek to end their longevity by wiping out humanity, which appears to be tied into what’s keeping them ticking.

When Vampirella cured herself of Umbra's taint through the fratricide of Drago, she inherited his lands, wealth and memberships in various associations.  Ella, as Vampirella refers to herself nowadays, embarks on the Faust mission for the Kabal.  

The Kabal are a group of monsters who have concluded that it's best to hide in plain sight.  In order to achieve these ends, they set themselves up as a governing body that plays by a system of protocols designed to protect their ilk from discovery by humans.  Sometimes their simple goal results in defending humanity against the worst evils of the world, but you shouldn't mistake the Kabal's aims as altruistic.  The Kabal are pragmatists.

The character speaking boasts literary roots that had yet to be tapped by another author, and let's face it this sub genre of famous prose progeny has a long history, especially in comic books.

The Searchers pre-dated League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by three years and featured among others the daughter of Professor James Moriarty.

There's not a whole lot left in the gene pool if you want to be original, but Nancy Collins finds that one cherry, and artist Patrick Berkenkotter bases his personage on Vincent Price.  The presence of our mystery guest adds spice to an already enticing blend of vampires, good werewolves and witches, oh, my.

With co-writer Luke Lieberman, Nancy Collins also relates a thoughtful Red Sonja story in Vulture's Circle.  The tale brings Sonja's wandering to a fitting close.  The wounds of previous battles finally caught up with her, but that doesn't mean she can't swing a mean sword to kill a god.

The difference is that she's teaching a new generation of warrior women, and this is such an impressive twilight to her story.  

Red Sonja has always been a good feminist role model because of her take no-shit attitude and the fact that though never evil, she was neither pure goodness.  She never once met the criteria for the virgin/whore dichotomy.  Rather Sonja in every comic book incarnation has been portrayed as a shrewd mercenary.

My only criticism of the latest Red Sonja adventure is that it really needed to be rated R and slipped into plastic.  Exactly how many kids buy Red Sonja in the first place?  

The weird want to conceal nudity results in some extremely bad visuals in overall good artwork, and these silly nipple shadows plague women’s breasts throughout the story.  

Silly Nipple Shadows Two Electric Boogaloo

If you want nudity in your book, show it.  If nudity is a taboo, don’t even try.  The half-assed hair extensions, the fudged crosshatching, the dumb nipple shadows just distract the reader and take her out of the story.

Lady killer is a shout out to feminism and highlights the Stepford fifties, coming to a theater near you if Congress gets its way.  That or something like it is what I think a lot of people will say about Lady Killer, but they're wrong.  Not about Congress, of course.  If not for President Barak Obama, women would be buying birth control on the black market and be arrested for the privilege.

The truth of the matter is that Lady Killer by Joelle Jones and Jamie S. Rich is a fairly straightforward hit man story set in the 1950s.  Hit man stories can be either darkly humorous, the norm, or ice-cold serious.  The very fact that the hit woman is carrying out her executions in a stewardess outfit makes Lady Killer the norm, but it's not really feminist given the first target's gender.

Woman on woman violence probably isn't what the sisterhood had in mind, which is why you really need to take Lady Killer out of the blurb-form of critiquing and really analyze what’s going on.  

Lady Killer is funny because it presents the very model of 1950s suburbia and then subversively suggests that one of the avatars of that era is really a cunning psychopath.  That psychopath happens to be a 1950s housewife with two lovely children and an ordinary suit and tie schlep of a husband.  I would also argue that it’s not just that Josie is a murderous psychopath.  Every era has plenty of representatives, male and female.  It’s that she gets paid doing work she enjoys.

A 1950s housewife with a job is an affront to that society enough, but her job also involves the unwomanly art of executing human beings.  That’s what makes Lady Killer so fresh and giddy.  Can you imagine the local 4H Club’s reaction?  Lady Killer is a judgement against the 1950s.  Everything about the 1950s.  Not just the treatment of women.

To emphasize the point, Joelle and Rich introduce a rough and tough male lead.  

Peck comes from the 1940s and catalyzes yet more digs at the 1950s mind-set.   He’s a man that treats a woman as an equal if not better and hires that woman out for dirty work.  It’s here that you see an undercurrent beneath Josie’s 1950s persona.  While there’s no repartee to speak of, she deals with Peck in a way that wouldn’t occur to a 1950s woman.  She stands up to him and his lurid commentary.  Most woman just took this crap.  

The relationship between Josie and Peck is a lot more open and honest than that with her husband, who is very much a male of his time, and just as bland.  On some weird level Josie enjoys being a housewife and subservient to her bread-winning husband, but underlying that is the fact that she’s supplementing her income, possibly the household’s income by sparing a few moments in her busy day to kill somebody.

I was on the fence about getting The Doc Savage Special.  A flip through indicated that this was Pat Savage, Cleavage of Bronze.  Oh, wasn’t I proud of that little bit of snark.

After reading the book, I see that the creative forces were just mimicking the way Doc Savage ended up on the covers of his 1970s Bantam book reprints.

The shredding occurred on his original pulp magazine as well, but less frequently, and you know what? I did pretty much the same thing way back in the day.

Never throw away your sketchbooks.  This sketch of Pat Savage is from 1989.  While I didn’t show as much cleavage, I did make the shirt see-through.  My reasoning was…

Let’s call it a draw, and move on.  For the record, Pat Savage starts out fashionable.

Shaft writer David Walker did his research, Pat Savage owns a beauty salon and fights economic oppression by charging her high-end clientele a queen’s ransom.

Doc always attempted to keep Pat out of the action, or he at least tried to before finally giving up and accepting her as a constant.  More or less in order to keep his gold-flecked eyes on her.  Before anyone cries foul over a pretense of male chauvinism.   Pat is Doc’s only blood relative.  He isn’t concerned about her because she’s a woman.  He’s concerned because she’s his cousin.  It’s the same as Superman and Supergirl, and Supergirl is even less vulnerable than Pat.

Pat is the knocked-out champ.  Pat has been sapped, blackjacked, cracked on the head more than any of Doc’s crew, possibly more than any other female character from the pulps.  The frequency has even led pulp aficionados to the conclusion that Pat must have a genetically harder skull and indeed overall skeletal structure than a normal human being.  Just goes to show you.  Sometimes you shouldn’t think too hard about plot devices like that.

Anyway, the latest of Doc’s tasks angers Pat something fierce.

As it turns out, Pat receives all the action she could ask for when Ninjas attempt to kidnap the professor’s daughter.  

Walker gives artist Keber Baal ample opportunity to choreograph fight after fight where Pat lives up to her surname, in tight-knit scraps and a particularly impressive tor de force.

Kudos also go out to colorist Kelsey Shannon for keeping our lady in bronze and granting her the golden eyes of the Savage line.

As with The Avenger, the story isn’t all a fun and games.  Doc gets mortally wounded.  The cousins experience a sour ending, and Pat combats racism.  

We learn later in the book that A’Lelia, the black woman helping Pat up is an experienced pilot, yet she’s relegated to working as a beautician in Pat’s salon.  This isn’t to say that A’Lelia lacks the skills Pat requires.  Rather, she clearly should be aviating as a profession.  Pat unfortunately is probably the only one that would hire her in a world that gives her two strikes: woman and black.

Squirrel Girl opens with a song as our title heroine kicks ass.  Writer Ryan North portrays Doreen Green alias Squirrel Girl as a fun-loving, crime-fighting super-hero, and Erica Henderson’s cartoony artwork makes Squirrel Girl’s antics as frenetically squirrelly as you might expect.

I imagine that Squirrel Girl is only slightly tilted toward Marvel continuity.  It’s too nutty and smart to be involved with anything that might be going on.  If Marvel Knights had an all-ages line Squirrel Girl would fit right in.

North for example mentions that Squirrel Girl is an actual Avenger, as opposed to the Legion of Substitute Avengers operating in the Great Lakes area, but she’s leaving the Avengers Mansion to pursue a college career.

I like that she’s only doing this to seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge.  It fits with her characterization.

As Doreen meets and greets her roomie, Kraven the Hunter happens by, and he’s got her squirrel.

Pitting a D-List hero against a B-List Villain has become a comic book trope designed for maximum laughs and unexpected poignancy.  For Squirrel Girl though, it’s her life.  If she faced the Hypno-Hustler, that would be strange.  Steve Ditko introduced Squirrel Girl  battling Doctor Doom not Doctor Bong.  Seriously.

Because of this encounter, it’s traditional for Squirrel Girl to fight villains that are way beyond her weight class.

Squirrel Girl has one foot in continuity, you can’t just blow off her battle against Kraven as mere lark.  It’s fun.  It’s entertaining, but there are real consequences behind the fight, namely the life of Tippy-Toe her squirrel.  I mean if Kraven did kill Tippy-Toe that would be horrible.  It wouldn't be funny.  It would turn this book into something it's not, but the threat is there.

That Squirrel Girl defeats Kraven through reason is just one of those nutty little gems that make Squirrel Girl such a knockout, pleasant read.

Squirrel Girl comes with a high four dollar price tag.  I think I’ll be making room for it on my subscription list by dropping Detective Comics.  It’s really a pity because Detective Comics  features scenes like this.

Yeah, I know, but in order to get to this point, you’ve got to plow through a very difficult to follow narrative.  It’s like Francis Manapul and Brian Buccelato after leaving The Flash said, “Oh, we’re on a Batman book now.  Point A doesn’t have to follow point B.”  Their work on The Flash was stellar, and part of the reason for that was this rapid paced, flowing narrative that mirrored the Flash’s velocity.

Detective Comics begins with Batman saving everybody’s butts from the trap set by Anarky at Wayne Tower.  It’s a good save, but rather than go from there, the writers cut to Anarky’s manifesto and follow with an op/ed media piece that stops the book cold.

That's like interrupting a Person of Interest marathon with a special report on economics.

Batman continues to investigate Anarky as Matches Mallone, but something’s not right in all of this.  

If Anarky did what he said, there should be chaos in the streets.  Banks should fail.  The stock market should plummet.  Nobody should be able to buy anything, including the essentials like eggs and milk.  Erasing everybody’s bank account and debt all at once would be devastating.  There’s no panic.  Instead, things seem to be as is in Gotham City.  How can that be?

While dealing with Anarky, Batman investigates the bodies of children he found at a Mad Hatter site.  Naturally, Batman believes the Hatter to be responsible.  

Perhaps he’s innocent.  It doesn’t matter though because the scene is misplaced.  The diversion to Gotham Penitentiary acts as another hiccup in the sequence of events.  It doesn’t set up anything.  It doesn’t finish anything.  It doesn’t apply to the main story.  Although it is possible that the forgotten children in some way involves Anarky, but this wasn’t the way to broach the subject.

Batman’s on his way to stop an armed hostage situation, and this is where the car through the window comes about.  Buccellato and Manapul should have begun the story with this moment and stuck with it.  It provides the strongest impetus to continue reading.  

The Anarky and Mad Hatter portions of the book are actually the weakest.  Neither one actually feeds into the orphaned hostage scenario.  In fact Anarky and Mad Hatter could have been edited out with just a few tweaks.  It pains me when I feel I have to drop a Batman book that has so much promise but so poor of an execution.

Shaft on the other hand is lean, mean and direct.  Writer David F. Walker relates another incident in John Shaft’s formative years.

Shaft’s position in the store facilitates his meeting Arletha Havens, a cutie from the perfume department.  All seems well and good until…

The home invasion, although at that time the phrase hadn’t been coined, exemplifies the unfairness in Shaft’s world.  Arletha didn’t do anything wrong.  She just happens to know the wrong roommate.  

With Arletha held hostage, Shaft seeks out his first missing person, and things just go straight downhill from there.  Shaft is simply damn good, no frills writing, and Doc Savage’s Bilquis Evely does a fantastic job portraying the 1970s period lacking a hint of distracting kitsch.  

Sex and horror go together like bacon and eggs.  It’s been that way since the Penny Dreadful.  

Swamp Thing is arguably a horror book, albeit one that always had one leafy foot in the superhero genre.  

Mostly though, Swamp Thing shied away from eroticism, even when counting Abigail Arcane’s unusual relationship with Swamp Thing.  Well, this is the new 52, baby, and although Swamp Thing is technically a book any kid can pick up, they can get away with a lot.

Yeah.  Good luck in unseeing that.  The wtf coitus is in service of a plan to defeat Swamp Thing with essentially…Nope.  Not going to reveal it.  Let’s just say that Swamp Thing and Superman now have more in common.

In addition to this centerpiece of ick, Swamp Thing benefits from Javier Pina’s imaginative monster-battling-monster moments that also include Rot avatar Abby Arcane taking names and an attention grabbing explosion.  Swamp Thing is as always solidly entertaining.  I have no idea why DC would cancel this title.

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