Tuesday, June 23, 2015

POBB June 17, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
June 17, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, a weekly comic book review blog.  I’ve got a heap of comic books to peruse and critique this week.  The premiere books consist of Black Canary and The Martian Manhunter.  I'll also have a few words about Dr. Fate and Prez.  The mini-series docket consists of a brief look at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the second issue of Doctor Who and the premiere of Harley Quinn and Power Girl.  For the ongoing titles it’s Joe Frankenstein and Jungle Jim.  Finally, we have The Big Event books: Dejah Thoris and Irene Adler, Runaways and Thors, “plural.”

Thors is as “dumb as a box of hammers.”  It’s just your common every day police procedural with the window dressing of Thor; nary even gifted with Thor-Speak.

I mean why does Thor need latex gloves? He’s a god.  A Norse alien.  I doubt he leaves behind fingerprints.  Anyway, Jason Aaron trots through all the tropes of the genre.  We’ve got the racist cop--referring to mutants, the alcoholic cop, the rookie, etc.  There’s nothing you haven’t seen here if you’ve glanced at one episode of any cop show ever made.

The best thing about Thors is Groot.

Runaways possesses a lot of comic book community cred.  I've never read any volume in the series, but I'm familiar with the basic concepts through crossovers with Avengers Academy. Fortunately, previous knowledge is irrelevant.  Lumberjanes co-creator Noelle Stevenson wipes the slate clean.  The Battleworld book most resembles an elseworld, and it benefits from a lack of quasi-Marvel weird-barony-no-stars-in-the-sky stuff.

The premise to Runaways is very simple.  What if Dr. Doom established the Charles Xavier School for Gifted Youngsters?  There's an overall strictness to the curriculum, but Doom slips his metal glove in velvet to teach the charges. 

Nevertheless, the kids get into trouble, and before you can say Breakfast Club detention is their fate.  This is where the book kicks off.  

The art by Sanford Greene is excellent throughout and a little “rougher” than his Ame-Comi Girls material.  The creative team’s story occurs during finals week and introduces the cast of familiar and not so familiar characters.  You needn't worry.  Stevenson includes an entertaining blurb about each.

Jubilee actually works quite well in this setting.  The blurb teases about she being a vampire, but this is a sham.  She's really just the tougher version of her traditional incarnation.

She also has a better dress sense.  

Pixie from X-Men First Class is on hand to liven things up.  Cloak and Dagger appear for humorous color commentary, and super intelligent Amadeus Cho checks in as the school swat.  Some Runaways fans may be a little miffed that only Molly Hayes represents the original team, but this version of Runaways is an amusing little read.

Booze.  We've mostly seen it as an underlying theme in Jungle Jim.  Jim engages in lots of social drinking.  He frequently seems drunk, even though not.  

Last issue Lille Devrille revealed that she needed to drink in order to keep Ming's body programming at bay, but this issue booze saves the day in a spectacular way that cements the legend of Jungle Jim to all.

Why does Mycroft Holmes hire Irene Adler as a big game hunter?  

I’m as in the dark as she is.  Irene is an actress, opera singer, thief and blackmailer.  Most important.  She is one of the few people ever to best Sherlock Holmes, and that's canon, baby, straight from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's pen.  That said.  I really can’t fault Leah Moore’s embellishment, however dubious. 

Irene is neither a dominatrix nor murdering mastermind, yet you don’t see me complaining about either version from television.

Still, those avatars of Irene Adler do have grains of truth to them.  Elementary’s Irene defeats Holmes in the most tremendous way, and Sherlock though updating Irene’s shadiness sticks to the main plot of  “A Scandal in Bohemia.”

Guy Ritchie and Rachel McAdams in fact gave fans the most accurate Irene Adler.  An American thief with a fondness for Sherlock Holmes that’s evident in their first encounter and a player in a constant game of one-upmanship, but back to Swords of Sorrow.

It would have made more sense if Jane Porter had been the one to track down the lion-thing from Barsoom.  It would have also been a more logical mashup to team two Edgar Rice Burroughs’ characters, but that's not what we have here.  For all I know, Leah Moore may be a hired gun.  In other words, she may not have conceived the encounter but was given a suggestion and made the best of the unlikeliness.   

Putting the contrivance aside, Deja Thoris and Irene Adler is "mostly harmless," and the best thing I read from Moore.  It’s also beautifully illustrated by Francesco Manna and Inlight Studio.  You can do worse.

Originally, the Martian Manhunter was a founding member of the Justice League.  Such is history, not just continuity. 

For comic book fans, J'onn J'onzz has been the face of the Justice League; participating in every formation.

The new 52 changed that perspective.  The Martian Manhunter in comic book context is older than the League.  He became part of Stormwatch to guard the planet.

In an unpublished adventure, the Martian Manhunter even fought the League.  That novel animosity and his need to shield the earth from threat led to his induction in the Justice League of America, Amanda Waller's countermeasure group positioned to destroy the League.  

J'onn only recently rejoined the superhero community by helping establish Justice League United.  That exposure apparently led the Martian Manhunter back onto the comics racks.

2000 A.D. writer Rob Williams starts primarily from scratch.  He dispenses with Dr. Erdel's well-meaning attempts to contact extraterrestrial life and J'onn's accidental arrival.

Detective Comics #225

Instead, Williams creates an as of yet unexplained earth connection. 

Rather than being the traditional Martian policeman/adjudicator, J'onn suggests an origin reflecting a decided change in rationale.

He also has a more public face and probably a different history.  That explains why the Justice League appear to know and like him, or at least respect him.

What all of this means is uncertain.  Williams just isn't revealing much in the issue and raises more unanswered questions like who on earth is this fellow?

Is That You, J'onn?

Above all, Williams indicates that J'onn's primary emotional aspect is guilt, and I have no idea what this guilt refers to, if it has any historical context or if it's just Williams attempting to tap into an angst vibe so many long-lived heroes develop.

I'm interested enough to continue reading but not sold enough to add Martian Manhunter to my subscription list.

In contrast, Black Canary despite being about ten years older than the Martian Manhunter, is surprisingly free from the baggage of writers and can be streamlined quite easily.  

Canary is essentially the same as she was in 1940s Flash Comics.  She might be a mother or daughter.  She may have a sonic cry, but at the core, Canary is a crimefighter supremely skilled in the martial arts and gifted with a wry sense of humor.  The latter is largely due to her involvement with the light hearted Johnny Thunder.

Writer Brendan Fletcher springboards right off of Black Canary's guest role from Batgirl.  In that series Black Canary was pissed off at Babs Gordon for setting fire to her home.  An anti-theft device malfunctioned.  Canary initially intended to become Babs' worst, bitchy nightmare, but their longstanding friendship won out in the end.

In Batgirl, Black Canary found a new life as a rock singer, and that's where Fletcher begins.  This is not a new role for Black Canary, but strangely enough, it's a seldom used persona, and it's quite possible that Fletcher was unaware of these previous engagements.

Fletcher characterizes Canary as she always has been characterized: toughness personified, the ultimate woman.  She's a feminist symbol and doesn't need to deal with the crap most woman must put up with.  That's because Dinah Lance can beat the snot out of any man and comports that kind of confidence.

The story isn't however about Black Canary taking names for the sisterhood.  It's about that through Canary's very presence, but the plot is more Justice League related.

Mind you.  This is a very creepy Justice League themed story with the aliens infiltrating rather than invading, surgically targeting rather than attacking.

Let me clarify that Black Canary is not reliant or tied into any of the Justice League titles.  What I mean is that the alien involvement isn't something you would see in a story about a street level crimefighter.

What I like the most about Black Canary is how the creative team portray Dinah and contrast her against her bandmates.  For the Black Canary, spooky aliens with hidden agendas are walks in the park.  She has League experience.  For everybody else this is unimaginable terror.

Black Canary earns my highest recommendation.  The story fits the Canary like a black leather glove.  The rock and roll atmosphere suits her like a little black coat.  Black Canary is unique and uber cool.

As is Harley Quinn and Power Girl.  Man, this book embraces and thumbs its nose at the whole multiverse concept, all at once.

So, in the Quinnverse—we’ll call it.  Power Girl from the post-Crisis Power Girl series still exists.   This Power Girl as I deduced in a previous review, a long time ago, on a site far, far away, is the original Power Girl from earth-two of the pre-Crisis.  She’s powerful enough to survive cosmicide—we’ll refer to it.  She’s that powerful.  

Power Girl’s existence does not affect the new 52 timeline or the post-Convergence uncertainty because I am convinced with each issue I read that Harley Quinn and the Quinnverse is tangent to DC time and space proper.  

Batman tolerates Harley’s presence.  Poison Ivy is relatively sane and totally taken with Harley.  Power Girl exists with the full knowledge of her past; except the immediate past that was wiped out in her temporary amnesia.  This entire story incidentally exists as a bubble between two issues of Harley Quinn.

I know.  It is far-out and groovy.  Fortunately, it’s also freaking hilarious and gorgeously imagined by artist Stephane Roux and Paul Mounts.  

It would be so damn funny if Harley Quinn and Power Girl counted in the overall scheme of things because on the first page Amanda Conner, Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti kill one of the most devious minds in the DC universe in the most undignified manner imaginable.  Jumping forward, the book relies heavily on classic humor and parody before finally settling in on one of the weirdest homages in the history of comic books, also tickled by the keys of Harley’s hearing perspective.

Who on earth can she mean?  Let’s give you a hint.  Welcome to hell.

Zardoz is nonsensical cinema excrement.  All the gratuitous nudity in the world cannot help this movie, and brother, there is a lot of that, but I’ll give the pretentious coddle-flop this much.  It's superior to Prometheus and Batman Forever, the worst films of all time, combined.  It also inspired the creation of one ridiculous Superman character.

Vartox's longevity in comic books is baffling until you realize that he's exactly the kind of character that a comic book fan will happily embrace.  Although we comic book fans allegedly seek the dark regions of pop culture.  

A different kind of offal

The truth is we relish the asinine almost as much  and it's all individual.  I hate Bizarro.  Oh, but Vartox is just fantastic, precisely because he's minted in absolute poor taste.  The difference between Sean Connery's character Zed and Vartox is that Vartox is against all odds likable.  That's because Connery was playing Zed straight.  That means he's a Men's Rights Association darling.  Vartox even if played straight cannot be taken seriously.

There's just too much wrong, and it helps that Harley, Power Girl and Vartox are taking out religious right trash.  A masterful first issue.

Presenting the new Dr. Fate in pants.  I don't know why but whenever DC decides to put a character in pants, it's usually the character that wears the universally agreed upon coolest costume.

So, yeah.  Pants.  Paul Levitz reintroduces Dr. Fate in a by the numbers tale that lacks the fire of his World's Finest.  He just took to Helena and Kara running.  Dr. Fate is slow by comparison, and...pants.

When last we left the Doctor, Rose had been sucked into the time/space vortex.

Of course we know the Doctor will rescue Rose because even though this comic book is in no way canonical to Eccleston's and Piper's era, we know the writer is going to do his level best to fit in his adventure as a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  He can't help it.  The pull is too great.

You however cannot help but be swept away by the adventure.  That's a testament to writer Cavan Scott's and Blair Shedd's imitation of Eccleston's and Piper's performance as well as the overall tone of the Russell T. Davies' first series: characters died; it appeared Rose died, and the Doctor discovered that he's the Last of the Time Lords surrounded by newly resurrected Daleks.  This is incidentally why you should not under any circumstances skip the Christopher Eccleston period of Doctor Who.

As the story progresses, we discover that Rose is indeed alive, cleverly explained in the context of the first series, and full of vinegar.

This scene mirrors the Davies' antidote to the potentially maudlin.  It's a really wonderful moment, followed by yet another where the Doctor and Rose exhibit the growing attraction that will follow through to the next incarnation.

In the end it's these scenes not the main plot involving the Time War that make Doctor Who a recommended purchase.

Everybody knows that Prez was actually a previous series from DC of the 1970s? Yes?  So, what the hell? Let's try it again.  Teen President and Female.  It's a shame she couldn't also be black.  Then you would have the trifecta of things that make the GOP wet their pants.  Not that Prez is as biting as it should be.

Best heist I've seen this year.  It arrives from Disney and Marvel, and it's based on a theme park.  What the hell?

Bullion intends to use hired guns to protect his train of gold cargo, but he didn't count on the gang of western Robin Hoods led by mastermind Chandler.

The heist goes like clockwork, and if the violence is mostly PG rated, that's perfectly acceptable given the genre.

The book falters somewhat with the duality of Native American bandit Onawa.  Survivor of a massacre, rescued as a child by Bullion but turned into the help, she could have been the most interesting character of the group, but she exists to go Native in certain scenes.

In others she radiates jealousy or envy, and she can only go so far thanks to the all-ages nature of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.  As a result, Onawa fluctuates in a characterization limbo and too often becomes a plot device.

Last but not least, Graham Nolan's and Chuck Dixon's Joe Frankenstein entertains through mayhem and monster mashes.  Joe, Igor and werewolf Finnabar storm the castle in order to rescue Skye and Frankenstein from the machinations of the Bride.

I referred to Joe Frankenstein as a kind of Hanna-Barbera cartoon for a mature audience, and that's not a bad thing.  There's a lot of nasty business going on in the story.  The drawing of Frankenstein's blood is the least of the injustices.

The Brides' associate Golgotha attacks with an excruciating power that's revealed in sequential panels that just heighten its efficacy.  The Bride is one sick whack job, harvesting personal as personal one can get.  Finnabar brings all the ferocity of the werewolf at his disposal.

The drama of the ticking clock is preserved but there's still hope through a comic book themed sleight of hand, and that's when you know that's the experience of these two professionals that's come into play.  This is a dark comic book--as dark as the Universal monster movies, but the traditional form that Nolan prefers makes it all bearable and easier to absorb.

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