Tuesday, August 18, 2015

POBB: August 12, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
August 12, 2015
Ray Tate

The comicopia of critiques begins with Batman and Superman, Bombshells, two issues of Doctor Who, Justice League United, King Tiger, Red Hood and Arsenal, Reyn, Starfire and String Divers! Dive! but first a review of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

From the first page where Squirrel Girl becomes entangled in a Twitter feed involving two heroes who have nothing to do with this adventure, to the second page doodle that sets up a hilarious running gag, this issue of Squirrel Girl is the funniest issue of the series.  While reading Squirrel Girl, I laughed about as hard and long as I do when watching @Midnight.  It's that funny.

For those who came in late, Ratatskor, the Norse Squirrel Deity/Monster escaped Asgardian captivity.

Loki however didn't release Ratatskor out of pure malice.  He has a wonderfully skewed excuse to eschew blame.  This is of course the new Loki, the trying to atone for his past transgressions Loki.  

Loki adds spice to the team up of Squirrel Girl, Thor, Odinson—the artist formerly known as Thor—and Squirrel Girl's best friend Nancy.  Nancy's presence on Asgard and her desire for a particular trick also helps sway Loki into throwing in his lot with the heroes.  

Squirrel Girl does the heavy lifting on Midgard, earth for those not in the know.  In so doing, she acquires Spider-Man's web-shooters, to smartly thwart Ratatskor's schemes and allude to the premiere of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

Squirrel Girl defeats Ratatskor, but there's no easy out.  Scribe Ryan North plots what seems like a clever, optimistic means for Squirrel Girl to win, but at the last moment he pulls back to preserve the integrity of the story.  You see.  In addition to being damn funny, Squirrel Girl dares to make absolute sense.

The great idea of Bombshells heals all comic book wounds.  Bombshells takes place during World War II and is based on the art of DC's Bombshell covers and statuettes.  These items depicted the DC heroines redesigned with a nineteen forties slant.

The story introduces the central concepts through the debut of Batwoman.  Every faithful POBB reader knows how much I hate Batwoman.  So I won't go into it again here.  For those not familiar with my animosity, they can just click on the link for a good helping of vitriol: POBB April 3, 2013.

What's the difference between Bombshells Batwoman and regular Batwoman? Day and night.  I’ll even forgive writer Marguerite Bennett for “borrowing” yet more from Batgirl to bolster the character—a lyric from the terrible, terrible Batgirl theme song from the sixties.

Bennett and artist Marguerite Sauvage bestows to Batwoman a period personality.  The creative team craft a history that differs from Kate Kane’s.  The more interesting background reflects the experiences of Richard Henry Benson, the Avenger.  The Marguerites furthermore blend in liberal doses of the original Batwoman lore.

Betty Kane was the original 1940s Bat-Girl, and please, before anybody starts.  I am fully aware of the half-hearted attempt to include the post-Crisis Bette Kane as Flamebird in Batwoman’s regular series.  It’s still not enough to suggest a glimmer of likeness between superior Kathy Kane...

...and subpar Kate Kane.  Indeed, I’ve said it before and I’ve said it again, here’s the only novelty of Batwoman.

Better in Bombshells because there’s so much more to Batwoman than being gay.  Laying with Batwoman, the 1940s version of Maggie Sawyer, who actually was a ground breaking character.  In Bombshells, she's an excellent 1940s cop, in on the joke and gifted with a finely tuned sense of humor.

As the story continues, Bennett and Sauvage reintroduce readers to Wonder Woman.  This was probably the trickiest sleight of hand.  Wonder Woman actually premiered in the 1940s.  Her story is known by generations.  What can you add to such a widely known classic tale? How can you build without undermining?

Unlike Batwoman, Wonder Woman is almost identical to her more familiar avatar.  The addition of the Amazons engaging in battle suggests a more inclusive society and also establishes Diana and her sisters as traditional warriors, rather than those that conquer through submission, a stance coined by Wonder Woman's creator.  

The illustration also suggests the legends of the Amazons.  The idea of the Amazons wearing Wonder Woman uniforms beneath the diaphanous togas draws the eye to the contrasting color.  This at once generates an allusion to the common exposure of the female body in Grecian art and the apocrypha of Amazons cutting off one breast.

In the final pages of Bombshells, the Marguerites take the Star-Spangled Kid and Supergirl to a new land and create a surprising similarity all through their depiction.

The Kryptonian in Mother Russia was of course done well in Red Son, but once again the Marguerites put a unique spin on their subject.

Bombshells is a must read for any fan of female super-heroes.  All through the book the Marguerites respect their subjects and neatly inject real World War II atmosphere to the story and artwork.

Justice League United embarked on their first mission to form task forces out the DCU's superhero community.  Adam Strange now one with the Zeta Beam chose these heroes based on an oracular insight the science fiction staple granted him upon merging.

This issue sees the League trapped on the living island.  The island already fell Swamp Thing.  The thing means to do the same to the League and then propagate across the globe.

The team figure a pretty cool means to destroy the menace, and it does take everybody's effort.  Writer Jeff Parker however questions the League's manipulation of heroes through the Demon's words.

At the same time Travel Foreman produces freaky artwork that would be more at home in a Vertigo book than a Justice League title.  However, this weirdness works in the book's favor since Parker is trying to carve out the JLU's unique path.

For those wishing to keep tabs about what's going on with Bruce Wayne,  this issue of Batman provides most of the answers.  Fortunately, Scott Snyder writes so well that even a book that ultimately serves as a recent wikipedia entry is entertaining.  Snyder covers whether or not Bruce survived intact after his final battle against the Joker.  He explains why Bruce is no longer Batman.  He also bounces off this information against a fitting sounding board: Superman.  As to the new Baddie on the cover.  Meh.  He's fine for the substitute Batman.  I doubt that he'd give Batman much trouble.

Batman and Superman could be considered an elseworld.  What if Batman were another guy in a Bunny Robot Suit, and at the same time Superman lost most of his power?  What if they teamed up to become the World's Worst Haircuts?

These are awful concepts, yet, you cannot help admire writer Greg Pak rising to the challenge to present a good story, despite the new status quo.

Superman once discovered an underground world, coincidentally created by Pak.  He tried to make friends with the dwellers, but he and Lana Lang only managed to ally with the Prince of the realm.

The Prince isn't always so cute.  Sometimes he's a magnificent dragon-like beast.  In any case, the Prince inherited a world that used the life force of others as suns,  Superman naturally wasn't down with this, but his decision left Subterranea without warmth or light.  Hence, the conflict.

The Prince's former bodyguard Ukur intends to steal an artificial sun designed by Waynetech.  Bat Bunny and Superman both believe this to be a bad idea.  However, Superman hopes to avoid bloodshed and arrive at a peaceful solution.  The difference lies in how he intends to accomplish the feat.

Superman takes the place of Batman while fulfilling the role of Superman, and as he assumes the position usually ascribed to the Dark Knight, he begins to understand his "dead" friend, even more.  This growth in characterization and the central plot makes Batman and Superman worth your time.

While not the funniest of the three issues, Red Hood and Arsenal is still amusing.  Arsenal invests his and Red Hood's paycheck from Tara Battleworth, Washington fixer into an advertising campaign that includes this hilarious billboard.

The Red Hood and Arsenal are going public.  At first, Jason is dead-set against the idea, but then the duo meet the dreaded Underbelly.  Not to worry.  They never heard of him either.

The whole book is twisted.  Arsenal thinks Heroes for Hire, but that doesn't work in the DC Universe.  Jason appears to be talking sense, until he sees the worth of the scheme for all the wrong reasons.

Starfire is a mix of terror and cuteness.  It’s a difficult combo to maintain, but Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti manage the juggling act with aplomb.  The story begins with a classic horror no-no.

Never pick up a castaway in the middle of the ocean.  The Twilight Zone and The Night Gallery warned you about this.  Of course, the code of the sea demands sailors rescue the stranded.  It’s just a no-win situation.

The crew wrongly believe the castaway to be a victim of last issue’s hurricane.  Alas not so, and it's up to she and Sheriff Gomez to investigate the abandoned craft when it docks near key west.  The whole shebang draws parallels to Dracula.  So, this can't be a good development.

The lion's share of the issue isn't devoted to things that go bump in the night.  Kori instead focuses on clean-up.  Along the way, she learns a bit more about the social mores of humans and meets Terra while fighting a giant monster from the subterranean world.  

Terra, created by Conner, Palmiotti and Justin Gray, in the post-Crisis, debuted in Supergirl and became best buds with Power GirlThe creative team preserve that history, while hedging their bets, about who may or may not be part of new 52 continuity. 

Basically an average day in the life of Starfire beautifully written with witty dialogue and sweet artwork courtesy of Emanuela Lupacchino, Ray McCarthy and Hi-Fi.

The two Doctor Who books this week call back to previous stories, but the regular Tennant title in my opinion does a better job.

Continuing the Dorothy Bell focus Doctor Who delves deep into the archives for an ancient race that really did a number on the Doctor back in the day.

The ancient race was so advanced that they created an artificial intelligence that was too sophisticated; it chose the perfect foil against its designers.  The aforementioned Dorothy.

The Doctor must deal with not Dorothy or the race of ancients, yet.  Instead, he must contend with lunatic humans...

...and a new companion forced upon him.

The characterization, the plotting and the dialogue are really excellent and that surprised me.  I had low expectations about this chapter because my initial flip-through at the Phantom of the Attic suggested Doctor Who just might be too thick.  The artwork by Rachael Stott and Leonardo Romero looked fan-tas-tic, but all those speech balloons worried me.  Writer Nick Abadzis however makes each word count for something.  That's impressive.

I wish I could say the same about The Four Doctors.  Paul Cornell starts off well enough with the ninth Doctor as portrayed by John Hurt revisiting one of the eldest of worlds seen on the series.

The rethinking of the Voord is perfectly valid and mildly interesting.  It's also quite possible that they would side with the Time Lords rather than Daleks in the Time War.  So I have no complaints about Cornell's John Hurt vignette.

The story however quickly devolves into a confusing mish-mash of characters that only sort of seem like their television analogues.  The companions from the comic books--Gabby and Alice--fail to distinguish themselves.  The shallowness is likely due to Cornell's lack of exposure to the ladies.   

Clara comes off well.  She once again attempts to protect the Doctor, which is as we saw in "The Name of the Doctor" her history and future.

The plot begins because Clara visits the Guardian of Forever.

Cornell may call it something else, but there's no doubt in my mind.  It's the Guardian of Forever.  

The device/being that can see what is, what was and what will be.  In this case, Clara witnesses the end of the universe should the three most recent Doctors meet.  I suppose John Hurt is on backup.  

Naturally, Clara in fact unwittingly instigates the meeting.  It's a classic time travel paradox, but my troubles do not come from the tradition or the dubious use of the Blinovitch Limitation Effect, a keen little bit of technobabble from the series.  It arises from the dialogue.

Exactly what does that mean?  I've read the lines twice, and I still can't figure it out.  The Doctors also blither like idiots.

The idea of the Doctors not recognizing each other originates from the Target novelizations of the episodes.  Once this was the only way an American fan could "watch" the most current of the show.  Even when the Doctor materialized on PBS, the U.S. was usually a year or more behind what happened in the U.K.

In any case the Doctor recognizes his past incarnations quite readily on the series.  This is true of The Three Doctors, The Five Doctors, The Two Doctors and The Day of the Doctor.  After all if some of his companions can recognize him despite the regeneration, he should be able to identify his past selves.

It's true that a thirteenth Doctor may be surprising to Matt Smith's incarnation who knows he will not regenerate, but the Tennant Doctor shouldn't be so sure.  The Capaldi Doctor however is being extremely obtuse.  All of this reads as annoying rather than clever.  I'm still hopeful though.

String Theory proposes that beyond the quark lies vibrating strings which qualify charge, mass, etc.  I'm not a huge fan of this overly elegant proposal, but String Divers is a mostly enjoyable read.

The tale reshapes the Metal Men into becoming explorers and trouble shooters that shrink into the strings to repair damage and address threats to the multiverse, a consequence of actual String Theory.

The String Divers' introductory mission is an investigation into the behavior of strange creatures that populate one of the strings.  The encounter allows writer Ryan Wood to spotlight the personalities of his a.i. stars.  

These personae have the depth of second tier Hanna-Barbera superheroes like Mightor and adventurers such as Goober and the Ghostchasers.   That's not an insult.  I happen to be a fan of those cartoons.  In other words, the String Divers have just enough resonance to be memorable, but their psychologies are simple.

As a premiere, String Divers is pretty slick, and the cliffhanger promises more.  It seems that the string damage or sabotage results in some impressive macrocosmic disasters that promise interesting times for future adventures.

Reyn began as a neat Conan-like adventure with the title character traveling to various parts, fighting monsters and supping on life's pleasures.  As the story continued, writer Kel Symons introduced the Venn, salamander creatures who took over a province and supped on life's pleasures, though in a far nastier way.

Warden Reyn met Seph, a Techno-Witch, whose presence signaled that there was something more than mere sword fantasy going on in this book.



It turns out the Venn are actually aliens, and Reyn just may have been the warden or the descendent of one from a prison starship.  Reyn joined Seph and her group of proto-scientists and infiltrated the ship.  Throughout the series, Aurora an enigmatic woman that Reyn can only see advised his actions.

Now, our heroes are trapped on the starship, with the Venn at their heels and the starship's defenses making their lives extra difficult.

Last issue Seph lost her father to the void of space.  This issue She takes out her grief on the Venn, who are clearly far more knowledgable about the state of affairs than the feudal people colonizing the planet.

Seph's friends lack empathy, which Reyn supplies.  Reyn, like Conan, isn't what you expect.  He changes with the situation, and this I think is the key to the book's success.  Reyn's surprisingly complex.

He has feelings for Seph, but these feelings manifest in different, unexpected ways.  Because Seph just suffered the death of her father, Reyn's quite tender toward her.  She doesn't know what to make of him, but he's not the man her friends think he is, or at least that's not the be all, end all of him.

I also like the pace of Reyn.  The story started fast and introduced the major concepts quick, without needless exposition.  As soon as the group reached the starship, things slowed down because they were essentially facing concepts that they could never have imagined.  This issue the group must escape by donning spacesuits and reaching a vent outside the ship.  The simple dilemma creates a deliberate intricacy that artist Nate Stockman brilliantly actualizes.

King Tiger returns to Dark Horse.  Writer Randy Stradley introduces the title character for a new audience and keeps the faith with older readers.

Stradley drops Tiger into a human abduction investigation.  The kidnapers however aren't run-of-the-mill ski masks.  These criminals have something far more insidious in store that will require King Tiger to be magically and martially prepared.  Recommended, especially for Doug Wheatley's and Rain Beredo's lush and lovely artwork. 

The Saturday Afternoon Movie

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin are professional enemies that become allies against an echo of absolute order.

I went into The Man from U.N.C.L.E. with high expectations.  I’m a huge fan of the 1960s series on which the film is based.  Guy Ritchie’s involvement also swayed my curiosity.  Ritchie proved instrumental in bringing Sherlock Holmes back to life in cinema.  Then, I found out Ritchie is a fan of the show, and he planned to reveal the origins of U.N.C.L.E., never before breached.  The hairs on the back of my neck started to bristle.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. creates plausible beginnings for Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin.  Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer epitomize the expert operatives.  While making the roles their own, they capture the style that Robert Vaughn and David McCallum imbued. 

The cast of Alicia Vikander, Hugh Grant, Elizabeth Debicki and Sylvester Groth lend admirable support with their various roles.  I’ll not say who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.  

Picking out the sides is half the fun, and the creative team trust in the intelligence of the audience; which is why a joke involving a certain Count Lippe will make James Bond fans laugh the loudest.

Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin were the best of friends on the television series, despite being two faces on the Cold War coin.  The script evolves that peculiar friendship.  Napoleon and Illya are nemeses out of fabrication.  Their friendship is from the cloth of genuine decency and respect.

The film captures the mood of the television series.  The movie like the show is very funny, but there’s also underlying drama that the creative team understands.  At its heart, The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  represented the unification of the world against common enemies that sought to undermine all governments and replace them with something horrible.  

Ritchie captures this basic need for global survival in impressive chases and action choreography; the true fights in U.N.C.L.E. are mostly short, brutal and decisive.  They would have earned a hard PG rating back in the day.  Ritchie furthermore brings a sense of sixties style to the direction and the camerawork.  Split-screens and snap-cut montages excise padding and sharpen the pace while lending credibility to the plot.  It’s not just Solo and Kuryakin attacking the Big Bad’s headquarters, but an army.  I’ve been seeing more and more experimentation with the shooting of film lately, reflective of imaginative sixties and seventies lenses, and it’s particularly apt for The Man from U.N.C.L.E.   

In short, expectations met.  The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is a fitting tribute to the television series as well as a suitable construction of fictional history for the organization and its operatives.  

I would like to thank the United Network Command for Law and Enforcement without whose assistance this critique would not be possible.

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