Wednesday, October 7, 2015

POBB September 30, 2015

Pick of Brown Bag
September 30, 2015
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag looks at a short week consisting of two annuals: Grayson and Vampirella, the latest Wonder Woman 77 Special and the current issue of Justice League.

First, I'd like to address some honest and good criticism of my reviews.  She asked me not to single her out.  So I won't, but we'll call her Jane Doe--in honor of the awesome new series Blindspot.  

Jane suggests that using the terms pre-Crisis and post-Crisis just promotes artificiality in comic books and many prefer the historical designations of ages: Golden, Silver, Bronze, etc.  I've used the terms before, but I do see her point.  I tend to split comic book eras into two.  Three with the new 52.  So, when pertinent, I'll try to mix it up a little more.  What though to call the post-Crisis? How about the Rhinestone.  Glittery but cheap.

So by now you're beginning to doubt my disinterest in Grayson.  After all I purchased an annual, the traditional dog's unmentionables of any comic book series, and in a row after the most recent issue of Grayson.  The answer to this apparent contradiction is simple.   The annual establishes and/or strengthens continuity.  This is the story about the history of Superman and Robin.  

Writers Tim Seeley and Tom King open the story in the past where Batman and Robin with Superman tackle Blockbuster.  On the surface the flashback offers some high-octane hijinks with a Silver Age Batman villain and Superman along for the ride.  You can enjoy it for just that, but there's a ton of history in this interaction that merits consideration.

For the most part, Superman and Batman were compadres in the Silver and Bronze Ages of comic books.  They had a tiny blow-up when Batman quit the Justice League and formed the Outsiders before both groups brought them back together again.  However, friendship is Batman's and Superman's natural state.

I've always felt that Superman thought of Robin as a friend of a friend.  He liked him well enough, but he was a boy, Batman's boy, and unlike Batman who was like Supergirl's Uncle, the Silver Age Superman wasn't the Uncle type.  In the Bronze Age, Superman rarely encountered Robin without Batman, but they got along well enough.

When DC rebooted the heroes after The Crisis of Infinite Earths, Superman and Batman were no longer friends.  At best, they respected each other.  However, that didn't stick for long, writers began to throw spanners into the works of the Crisis.  Previously we could assume that Superman at least knew of Dick Grayson, but he likely never encountered him, that was until a single issue of Legends of the DCU.

That issue informs the Grayson Annual.  Batman's attitude here reflects the attitude of the Batman in Legends of the Dark Knight while preserving the new origins of the heroes in the new 52.  

The Grayson Annual departs from the conclusion to Legends of the Dark Knight, in which Robin agrees with Batman.  Superman is not human, and you shouldn't hang out with him.  

It appears that the uncle roles have been switched, and Seeley and King envision a longer history of Superman and Robin working together, which makes sense of course.

While I never ascribed to Batman the kind of automaton that many readers preferred, I admit that Batman keeps his feelings, other than rage, close to the vest.  He does not express a lot except to his closest friends, and even then there are limits.  

So the boisterous Robin would have gladly warmed up to the more off the cuff Superman.

With these preliminaries established, the Dynamic Duo of Red and Blue take on a weird cult that's sort of Hostel mixed with @midnight on the road with Mad Max.

Superman and Robin take care of business and enjoy the continuation of a longer friendship than they had in any other age of comic books.  Artists Alvaro Martinez, Raul Fernandez and Jeromy Cox almost makes you forget about Superman's lousy haircut.  These aspects make the Grayson Annual worth considering.

Justice League continues to be riveting entertainment.  The war against Darkseid rages on with the dark god badly outnumbered not just by the League but also by his daughter, his one time mate and Moebis the thing responsible for killing earth three, the Crime Syndicate's world.

At the same time Batman now fueled by the knowledge of the Moebis Chair, totally screws with Hal Jordan.  


Meanwhile Superman corrupted by the energy of Apokolips turns on Lex Luthor.

And a great time was had by all.  The only bad thing I can say about this Justice League issue is that it almost reads as too short.  However, it bears the surprising ability to function as a stand alone or a chapter in a saga.  The feeling reminds me of the Bronze Age League.  You could pick up those issues and never feel lost or cheated, and when you collected the rest of the story you felt even more satisfied.

The Wonder Woman 77 Special is a must buy for any Wonder Woman fan.  Marc Andryko, known for his hardboiled writing, once again brilliantly characterizes the kinder Lynda Carter version of Wonder Woman in two full-length meaty tales and a vignette.

The first story reintroduces the Cheetah, and the nineteen seventies Cheetah is the same Cheetah you've been reading about for years.

Drew Johnson and Richard Ortiz with Romulo Fajardo

Petty emotions trigger the rebirth.   A poorly renamed Smithsonian opens a Wonder Woman exhibit at the expense of an archaeological showcase curated by the Cheetah's alter-ego Dr. Barbara Minerva.  The Cheetah gains some new powers, but this proves to be no match for Wonder Woman.

And there's more.  The best thing about this story is how Andreyko relishes proving the Cheetah wrong.  She's completely unsympathetic because of her hatred for Wonder Woman is unfounded.

Wonder Woman hadn't opened up her own section of the museum.  Somebody else did to honor her service to peace and justice.  She refuses to succumb to the Cheetah's ethical  traps.  She will not hurt the innocent people victimized by the Cheetah's whims, nor will she injure the beasts that fall under the Cheetah's control.

With every action Wonder Woman takes, she proves herself to be the better person, even though she wishes not to partake in such a contest.  Wonder Woman is humble.

The second story equally impresses despite the introduction of a new antagonist, rather than relying on a Wonder Woman classic.

Cat Staggs and Fajardo

The story revolves around nuclear concerns of the nineteen seventies, still prevalent now.  My own bias?  I believe nuclear power if done correctly can be a remarkable resource that may eventually free the world from fossil fuel dependence and ultimately benefit humankind.  If done correctly, because sister, when nuclear power goes wrong it can destroy us as if we were fleas.   It's fairly clear in Wonder Woman that something went wrong indeed.

Wonder Woman approaches the problem the same way she does in any situation.  She's merciful toward her nemesis.

Furthermore, she sees right through politics and corruption to penetrate the defenses of the guilty.  

There's just one problem.  One of the beautiful things about Andreyko's story is that he not only establishes a new foe for Wonder Woman to contend against, he reimagines a cult favorite of comic book fans to guest  star.  This group presents a whole new set of variables, but you'll have to read about Wonder Woman's encounter with them yourselves.

In the vignette, Wonder Woman becomes entangled with an old family tradition and domestic violence on Halloween.  This reads as you might expect.  Perfect, with Wonder Woman's words absolutely pertinent to the now.

Jason Badower with Brett Smith

These stories which should be silly are instead inventive and meaningful because they say something.  Wonder Woman in these tales is an icon, not just a superhero or goddess.  She's kind and courageous.  She searches for solutions to the problems.  She doesn't just hit them.

Hiring a feminist-minded writer like Marc Andreyko is nothing short of genius, and pairing him up with artists that can do photorealistic while retaining the kinetic fluidity of the comic book narrative gives the reader her money's worth.

A lot of writers choose a scorched earth policy when departing a title.  Others simply leave the slate blank for future scribes.  Nancy Collins isn’t doing that.

I kept expecting something to go wrong with Vampirella’s induction into the beautiful idea of the KABAL, but it doesn’t.  By the end of the story, Vampirella is a full KABAL agent.  Collins instead of employing something inconceivable to turn the wheel back to the status quo builds on the history she added to Vee’s immortal life-span.

Collins introduces more KABAL agents with ties to famous horror stories.  Some are expected but no less welcome.  Others surprise and demonstrate Collins’ not mere talent as a horror author but also the research and knowledge she’s accumulated in making herself a favorite amongst horror readers.

Vampirella’s induction ceremony—because the KABAL is a group of monsters and occultists—takes pause when the Prometheus Society invades the inner sanctum.

Their target is a fair exchange with one of those surprises I was talking about and Dr. Faustus, one of the immortal masterminds behind the plot of Nancy Collins’ second story arc; both of which I highly recommend.

One of the neat things Collins does in the KABAL is treat it like an espionage agency.  She brings in all the tropes from the genre but twists them in a way that suits horror, or dark fantasy if you prefer.

Partner in crime Aneke serves a lot cheesecake.  That’s a Vampirella tradition, but one needs to keep in mind that the magazine has always been for adults.  Mostly the comic book as well.  All of what's seen in the annual is tame anyway.  Modern age Vampirella isn’t explicit.  You just enjoy cleavage from numerous participants.  The women are sensual but not sex objects.  The difference lies in the deadliness.

Vampirella’s and Madame Evily’s targets are monsters.  So, it’s difficult to feel any sympathy for them.  Neither Collins and Aneke promote such empathy.  Rather, they dip their fingers in seriously dark comedy.  When Vampirella fights humans or devil cults she becomes a horror heroine.  When she battles the forces of darkness, Vampirella transforms into a straight up action story with monsters.  Thus it has always been.

Previous Vampirella stories by Collins dealt with defying a curse and saving the world from a plague.  Although not without humor, these tales were much more dramatic than this wonderful double-sized lark.   The annual also paves the way for the newest writer.  I’m glad for this.  Given the Vatican’s history of abuse, corruption and callousness it was always difficult for me to imagine Vampirella being an agent for even an alternate universe Vatican.  She fits better fighting alongside monsters who though not necessarily good help humanity.  Long live Vampirella, Nancy Collins and the KABAL.

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