Tuesday, June 9, 2015

POBB: June 3, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
June 3, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to The Pick of the Brown Bag.  This week I review two Phantom books, the title from Hermes publishing, and the King version courtesy of Dynamite.  I'll also look at Angel and Faith, Giant-Size Little Marvel: A vs. X, Groot, Gunsuits, Justice League, Justice Inc., Legendary Red Sonja, Spider-Man: Renew Your Vows and Spider-Woman. 

If there's one book that benefits the most from the new rules of the multiverse, it's Justice League.  Most of fandom considered the Justice League its own thing ever since Grant Morrison took over the title back in the nineties.  

The League must be Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman at its core to be authentic, and when that core's absent, the League no longer makes sense.  The trouble is that these three are busy all the time, and their various editorial boards in the past have been very stingy with loaning out the characters for what should have always been the flagship title.

Geoff Johns has been for the most part isolating the League from events outside the new 52.  So the heroes in the League are the heroes you expect.   Batman is Batman, not Bat-Bunny.  Superman is secret identity, powers intact Superman.  Wonder Woman is basically classic Wonder Woman, and it looks like Johns has dropped any reference to her romance with Superman.

Johns rarely did much if anything with the romance in Justice League.  Clark and Diana went to dinner.  Johns never played it up like DC marketing.  As it turned out, Batman didn't really care about the romance; the Superman/Wonder Woman tryst never split the League or caused the so-called Justice War.  The invasion by the Earth Three villains did that.

I think Johns was treating the Justice League as its own thing all along.  He may use elements other writers argued for if they fit his story.  Otherwise he would simply stay away from them.  

Johns properly introduces the founders of the League in their first arc where they turn Darkseid's single attempt to take the planet.  Other writers added things to that fight, but these amendments such as those in Batman/Superman were tangentialJohns could ignore them if he wanted.  

DC expunged the post-Crisis single earth rebirth in Convergence; no this doesn’t make any sense to me, but whatever.  Johns now has even more freedom to relate the stories he wants to in Justice League.  That’s why Hal Jordan is back on the team.  Johns doesn't need to worry about upsetting the plans of Green Lantern writers.  Lex Luthor, Power Ring and Captain Cold are also Justice League members as dovetails from Forever EvilJustice League is the flagship.  The events in Justice League happen now, but Johns planted seeds since the very beginning.  

Something devoured Earth Three's universe, which is why the villains of Earth Three sought an escape in Forever Evil.  Darkseid  didn’t just invade earth for kicks in Justice League’s premiere.  He was searching for his daughter.

From Justice League #6

After the League handed Darkseid his stony ass, Darkseid did not cross swords with the Justice League hence.  That in itself is a new idea.  Johns does not incorporate any of Darkseid's past encounters with the League and Leaguers from any other continuity or media tie-in.  This issue of Justice League relates the advent of the second Darkseid encounter.

Johns' story opens with the murder of two innocent humans by Darkseid's assassin Kanto and Female Fury Lashina.  This isn't pettiness on their part.  They're dashing across the globe killing women named Myrina Black.

Their traces lead Steve Trevor to call the Justice League.  Here's another change.  Steve Trevor is back as Justice League liaison.  This and the Wonder Woman narrative would seem to indicate that Johns always intended Trevor to fill that role, and his subsequent removal was more of an ends to a means; allowing Amanda Waller to take the stage and create Justice League of America to counter the Justice League proper.

Myrina Black is Darkseid’s daughter, borne from the rape of an Amazon.  This is why she justifiably identifies Wonder Woman as a sister and why she's tactically superior than any of Darkseid's minions.

The new Big Bad already studied the Justice League and identifies their strengths.  So this is a lose/lose situation for the League.  However, the new Big Bad isn't a fan of Darkseid.  She appears to hate him, and he sees her as a threat.  No doubt she found out she was a product of rape and seeks to honor her mother, but because of her upbringing on Apokolips, she's no hero.

That said.  Sometimes it doesn't matter if one's raised by something worse than a Nazi.  Sometimes people are born rebels.  Johns juxtaposes the second stage in the Justice League's battle with the new 52 debut of Scott Free alias Mr. Miracle.

This version of Darkseid exhibits none of the class of the previous versions.  His treatment of Scott Free entertains none of the respect or even twisted love former avatars had for his surrogate son.  The Mother Box phenomenon also gets a tweak from Geoff Johns who upgrades the miniature super computers considerably.

Last, but not least.  Darkseid's cunning places a mole at the heart of Lex Luthor's operations.  The reveal is a stunning upheaval of the status quo, counters Smallville and creates an awesome moment in an overall superbly-written comic book.

Dynamite have been fostering consistently entertaining Justice Inc. adventures.  First writer Michael Uslan imagined the Avenger being born in the presence of Doc Savage and the Shadow.

That version of Justice Inc. was more enjoyable for even those having the highest hopes for such a pulp mash-up.  Then the Avenger properly debuted with his actual team of Justice Inc. in an excellent stand-alone from Mark Rahner.

Now, Dynamite hopes that Mark Waid will properly usher in a new era for Justice Inc.  It's very clear to me that Waid has either done research or bears some affection for Richard Henry Benson and his team.  However, the story reads more like a pastiche of Paul Ernst, the original Avenger writer, than a truly novel work.  

In James Bond fashion, the story opens on the finish to The Musical Murders.  This case is not part of the Avenger's oeuvre.  So you needn't bother looking, nor does this case refer to Mark Rahner's one-shot. 

As one may surmise.  These off-screen murders involve sound.  Not entirely far-fetched of course, but the weapon strikes me as too elegant to be part of a pulp universe.  I could buy say a sonic device being housed in one of the train's cars.  Still it's at best a minor quibble, and Waid does create a unique cool, means for Justice Inc. to escape certain death after this episode. 

After the escape, a new case evolves with an old woman reporting of ghostly happenings in her tenement.  She travels the lonely road to Bleek Street to find the mysterious man only whispered about.  

Two things.  Benson owned a block of Bleek Street, and it wasn’t a ghetto.  The facade appeared abandoned, but Benson did not allow it to fall into disrepair.  Boarded up, yes.  Spooky, no.  Second, the Avenger and Justice Inc. were well known to law enforcement everywhere.  The Avenger’s enigma arose solely from his visage not his operations.  So the old woman’s trepidation is really goofy.  Maybe it’s a generation thing.

I’m willing to allow that Waid took some license with Bleek Street.  He may have thought the ill repute enhanced the illusion of abandonment, but that’s not really convincing to me.  Unless the homeless guys are actors on Benson’s payroll, I can’t see him letting any individual nesting so near his headquarters.  Criminals hated the Avenger, and they would do anything to see him destroyed, even pretending to be destitute.

Benson creates a demonstration for the woman that’s way too stagey.  I can’t really agree with Waid’s setup.  Justice Inc. acts way too expository.  Smitty’s got Tesla Coils or such going on in the meeting room.  MacMurdie’s  concocting a new brew in the same room.  Josh and Rosabel are just hanging out while MacMurdie’s donned a gas mask to protect him from noxious possibly lethal chemical fumes.

It’s all rather cluttered, and the narration didn’t need to be so obsessive.  The purple prose of pulp novels existed because there were no consistent pictures to represent the thousand words.  I mean, we really didn’t need to know the details of Mike and Ike, the Avengers’ .22 caliber pistol and throwing knife.  Mike holds four shots.  Who cares? Just count the bullets and let the reader figure it out.  Oh, gun’s empty.  Must only shoot four bullets.  Let me check the web.  Yup.  The Avenger’s gun only holds four bullets.

When Waid finally settles down and let’s artist Ronilson Freire strut his stuff, it starts to become a good story.  The ghost is a translucent, ghastly figure that I shan’t spoil here.  Freire’s designs for Justice Inc.  are mostly accurate, or at least traditional.  

No comic book artist ever really captured the description of the Avenger.  The Avenger was just terrible looking.  That’s not the villain looking down upon events.  That’s the Avenger.

The idea was that the shock of loss turned his face into a mask.  He lost his humanity.  However, from Kirby to E.R. Cruz, most just draw him as an albino adonis.  Freire though does come up with a tres cool and disturbing look at the Avenger’s eyes.  Perfect colors by Marco Lesko as well.

Justice Inc. isn’t a bad book, but I can’t fully recommend it.  Waid may find his stride in future issues.  It’s worth watching for improvement.

King’s Phantom plays like an action/comedy.  Lothar, Mandrake’s long-time assistant, and Guran , one in the ancestry of the Phantom’s partner, discover the true Phantom.  It’s not who you expect, and there will be no spoilers.  If that’s a disappointment go on to the next review knowing that King: The Phantom is a good book with fun art that’s well worth your time.  Also know that this new Phantom is even greener, if that word can be applied to the purple-suited legend, than Lothar.  So, if you’ve gotten used to Lothar, don’t worry.  He’s not giving up the skull ring so quickly.  Now, If you’d like a bit more detail about the plot.  Read on.

The Phantom will refer to Lothar during this review.  The new Phantom will be referred to as Walker.  The Phantom, Guran and Walker discuss the adventure that recently took place, and that naturally eliminates any real sense of suspense.  We know all three of our heroes got out of their situation in one-piece.  So, the tension immediately transforms to fascination and comedy as the Phantom, Walker and Guran try to break the web of the Singh Brotherhood.

In some ways, The King Phantom is superior to Hermes’ bona fide Phantom.  

On the one hand you have the fantastic artwork of Sal Velluto, Phantom artist and overall anatomical impresario.  This version of Phantom and Diana also reads like every other Phantom and Diana, which if you’re a Phantom fan is a good aspect.  It’s also a period piece, something not readily apparent last issue.  Since there were no classically designed items that stood out.

On the other hand, Peter David’s sense of humor is an acquired taste.  Jimmy Wells was a one time Phantom character from the 1930s, and he was an actual candidate for the Phantom before creator Lee Falk decided to go walk down a different path.  Some people think that the pun is the lowest form of comedy.  I am not one of those people.

Jimmy Wells as Tarzan is a cute idea, but David goes way too far with the references this issue.


Against all of this however is the thrilling moment when the Phantom does something awesome.  

If you can tolerate the Tarzan jokes, some extraordinarily painful like the City of Ophir, then this is a rousing Phantom adventure in which he once again tackles the Baroness.

The Baroness looks nothing like Catherine Zeta-Jones.  She forever cemented the image of the villainous aviatrix for any Phantom fan that saw Billy Zane’s remarkable Phantom.  Because of Jones' embodiment, the comic strip blonde seen in David's and Velluto's story is a little off-putting despite she being the original.

Red Sonja finds herself in the drink after escaping the clutches of Baron von Frankenstein.  Marc Andreyko runs Sonja through the expected paces.  Shark attack.  Check.  Drowning.  You bet, and he does it all with a sense of humor in the narrative that suits the feisty narrator.

Andreyko isn't all about fun and games though.  When pressed without relief, Sonja's Magda persona resurfaces, indicating that so long as Andryko's writing, there's a chance for Sonja's "sister's" return.  This puts a nice Rose and Thorn spin on Sonja in Legendary.  In addition to these plot twists, Andreyko gives Sonja another valuable ally from literature; displays the Baron's cruelty and lands the duo of Sonja and friend in even more hot water.

I stopped reading Spider-Man books the moment Marvel decided they wanted Spidey to be a swinging single again.  Thankfully, the comic strip is still being published, and guess who's still married there?  Guess why the comic strip is better than the comic books?

Spidey's bachelorhood was the least interesting aspect of his life.  Gwen Stacy and M.J. made sense.  Nobody else did.  The Black Cat came the closest before the writers made her nuttier than Selina Kyle.

When I heard about Renew Your Vows as part of the multiverse Battleworld whatever the heck it is, I jumped at the chance to see Spidey and M.J. together again.  This time with a little tyke named Annie towing the line.  

What makes Renew Your Vows so different from other treatments is that Dan Slott makes Mary Jane a super-responsible woman in charge of not only her daughter's future but also her husband's secret, especially inadvertent slips from a precocious toddler.

An adult keeping a secret is one thing, but a child another

Pete's been more Spidey than photojournalist because he hasn't just been fighting his foes but also the enemies of other heroes, and he soon finds out why.

It turns out that this isn't just a street level threat but also an Avengers level event.

Yay! Tigra!

Heroes are being picked off one by one, and Captain America, he with the stupid A on his chest needs all hands on deck, but Spidey passes on this superhero hootenanny once he discovers that one of his most infamous foes escaped.

This foe threatens Spidey's family, and readers really see what it means to have great power and great responsibility.  What Renew Your Vows shows is that far from being detrimental to Spidey's life, Mary Jane and his daughter give him something to fight for.

Spider-Woman concludes her first story arc on an upbeat note that pushes Jessica Drew into outlaw territory.  The story by Dennis Hopeless addresses domestic violence and the idea of unique communities shirking a system that seems to be rigged.

It also features a wicked fight between Spider-Woman and the leader of pack.  Fantastic artwork by Javier Rodriguez, Alvaro Lopez and Muntsa Vicente depicting Jess' resilience and her arachnid abilities to their fullest make this duel one of her best.

Spider-Woman furthermore kicks off the partnership of Jess and Ben Urich.  They make a good team, and I look forward to Porcupine joining them in these smaller victories that seek to help people rather than adhere to the letter of the law.

Little Marvel is as hilarious as the cover suggests.  Iron man in diminutive form picks a fight with the X-Men, thus sucking in his fellow Avengers.

The story progresses with kids stuff oneupmanship as the Avengers and X-Men open up ice cream and hot dog stands to lure the kiddie versions of the Marvel characters that aren't allied to either team.

In addition to the main plot, numerous gags abound.  Most address the total of absurdity of the exercise.  Others draw upon the consistency of the Marvel Universe.  Ninety percent of this is laugh out loud.

Groot's popularity in The Guardians of the Galaxy nets him his own book.  To celebrate, I have an interview with the tree itself.  Groot.

Welcome to the studio Groot.

I am Groot.

Let's get the facts straight.  You were born in Tales to Astonish #13 to Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby.

Or was that an ancestor?

I am Groot.

I guess it doesn't matter at that.  So in your eponymous title, you team-up again with Rocket Raccoon.

I am Groot.

Oh, sorry.  He doesn't like to be referred to as a raccoon.  Fair enough.  Through a series of events, you end up hitchhiking across the galaxy.  I have to say Groot, it's been done before.

I am Groot.

That's true.  Not actual hitchhiking.  So, the book written by Jeff Loveness, breaks down into a series of loosely connected vignettes.  This one being my favorite.

I am Groot!

One of your favorites as well.  It really just perfectly captures the classic Marvel villain.  Advanced yet stupid.

I am Groot.

This scene is also a great showcase for artist Brian Kesinger.  It displays his ability to render cartoony humans as well as cartoony trees and...ah...faux-coons.  The expression on yours and Rocket's faces is absolutely riotous.

I am Groot.

Yes, this also does show you to be sentient.  Have you had that problem before? Proving your sentience?

I am Groot.

I see.  That's a good point.  In a universe teeming with alien life, a talking tree doesn't seem so unusual, but you're on your way to earth after your first adventure.

I am Groot.

Yes, I'm looking forward to that as well.  Thank you for your time, Groot.

I am Groot.

Uber horror fan and Vampirella co-creator Forrest J. Ackerman was determined to twist the lives of little boys and girls everywhere with his magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland.  Years, later fans of the magazine would resuscitate the black and white pulp into a glossy currently published as a contender against Fangoria and Rue Morgue.  Today, Famous Monsters of Filmland gets into the comics.

 Gunsuits by Paul Tobin and artist P.J. Holden with colorist Diego Rodriguez is the type of comic book you expected Famous Monsters of Filmland to publish.  It's laden with ghastly images...

and creature comforts...

...that could have gotten you arrested years ago.  Yes, you the reader and the publisher.  

In addition to this loveliness, Paul Tobin gives the story a brain.  On the surface and the draw of the book, the imagery suggests Pacific Rim vs. Cthulhu.  It's not, but the idea involving parallel dimensions is a good one, and the somber tone of the book contrasts the celebration of monsters to evolve a unique drama.

Angel and Faith is actually Angel and Fred this week.  Fred played by Amy Acker on the television show returned last issue.  This current chapter re-establishes the duo's friendship in a road trip that turns into a solid monster-of-the week story.

It's so well-written by guest Kel McDonald and beautifully illustrated by regular artist Will Conrad that you forget that for Angel and Faith this is actually a B Tale.  

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