Tuesday, November 3, 2015

POBB October 28, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
October 28, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  In this column I pick the best and worst from the week’s haul of comic books.  If you haven’t the time for the full POBB effect, and prefer a quick and dirty version, I’m now tweeting itty-bitty reviews flying under the hashtag: #PickoftheBrownBag.  

This week I look at the current issues of Batgirl, Hellboy and the BPRD 1953, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Justice League 3001, Justice League Batman, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and We Are Robin.  I’ll also examine new publications Black Magic, Henchgirl  and The Howling Commandos of SHIELD.

Henchgirl relates the flip-side of the sidekick.  Henchgirl is actually one of a gang of criminals run by Monsieur Butterfly, a goofy Silver Age styled Batman villain who has a thing for Lepidoptera.  

He's also probably a nod to the frequent flutter in anime.  The art by creator/writer Kristen Gudsnuk appears to be partially inspired by manga, albeit a rougher hewn variety.

Henchgirl is often amusing.  We learn that although profitable the criminal life of a flunky is anything but rewarding.  In fact the funniest part of the comic is that the superbly christened Mary Posa, Henchgirl, longs for a legal job that includes her paying taxes.

Henchgirl isn't all laughs.  Occasionally, Gudsnuk presents the darkest part of criminality.  Mr. Butterfly’s crony and Henchgirl's colleague suffers a sad state that occurs after a two page conversation that’s at once convincing and affecting.  

In addition to that fateful scene, Gudsnuk includes a peculiar job interview that’s laced with a double-entendre.  The risqué however is one-sided, and it serves another purpose.  It demonstrates that Mary gains more respect in the criminal underworld than in the white collar workplace.  Unlike the  gutter brain depicted above who leaps to a conclusion that’s more in his wishful thoughts than anything, Monsieur Butterfly values Mary’s guile and loyalty.  Mind you, these very values are often a double-edged sword.  Such is the life of a Henchgirl.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl makes a welcome return.  The book opens with Squirrel Girl, Chipmunk Hunk and Koi Boy rescuing victims from a fire.

The disaster serves as typical superhero setup.  The fire introduces the cast for new readers who just may have happened upon the Squirrel Girl bandwagon.  We get a brief rundown of the heroes' powers and an invite to Squirrel Girl’s and Nancy’s new digs.  Squirrel Girl's best friend Nancy also sports a new do.  Oh, and Doreen, Squirrel Girl, taught her friends to comprehend squirrel speak.

Further in the story, writer Ryan North clues the reader into Squirrel Girl’s status as a New Avenger. 

No, No, No.  Not that group.

About this time, readers of the POBB that aren't familiar with Squirrel Girl are probably saying to themselves.  Wait.  They let a parody of superheroes join an actual team in the Marvel Universe? 

The joke's on you faithful, but non-nutty reader.  Squirrel Girl existed in the Marvel Universe since the eighties.  She debuted in Marvel Super-Heroes where she teamed up with Iron Man to, believe it or not, take down Dr. Doom, with squirrels.  Truth.  

Anyway, more than just exposition, the New Avengers link constructs the door for a faux classic villain to step through.

Werner Schmidt represents an archetype present in numerous science fiction movies, from Donovan's Brain to They Saved Hitler's Brain

From The Invaders #2

His creation dates back to 1975, but thanks to artist Erica Henderson, Werner looks like he may have stepped out of a 1940s Captain America comic book.  He's even clunkier than he looked in Frank Robbins' art.

While Schmidt seems to exhibit the typical brain in a jar amok behavior, North suggests there's more going on here than meets the eye.  Maureen, Doreen’s visiting mother, as the subtle voice of wisdom triggers the click in Doreen's mind.  In this way, North  characterizes Doreen as intelligent but still young.  In need of occasional direction.  

DC’s first depiction of a same-sex marriage gets undercut by the biggest manbo-idiot of the post-Crisis era.  

Good for you, Babs.

I wouldn’t mind Dick Grayson’s appearance in Batgirl if it actually meant something.  Had he paid a call on Batgirl to get help with a particular case, not knowing that a wedding was in progress, that would be different.  The moron however cannot table the meeting with Babs, which would have been the rational, human thing to do.

His characterization in Batgirl is a throwback to the bad old days of Nightwhiner, the selfish, arrogant sphincter who never owned up to his own problems. 

Oh, boo-hoo! Cry me a river, Bat-Boy.

That version of Nightwing vanished in the new 52.  Instead, the Powers That Be—primarily Kyle Higgins and Scott Snyder—gave us a man we hoped Robin would grow up to be.  A thoughtful, caring individual who’s also one helluva detective and probably the best acrobat on the planet.

So, yeah.  Grayson disrupts Babs, and rather than excuse himself because of—you know—the wedding, he demands the center of attention.  He baits the head bridesmaid to join him on the rooftops and even snatches the wedding ring.  Jeopardizing the nuptials.  

Grayson’s a thoughtless jackass in this story, and he’s not welcome.  This tale didn’t need to be.  It undermines the characterization that erased yon imbecile from the past, and the vignette, such as it is, just doesn’t make any sense.  Guy Gardner wouldn’t behave like Grayson did.  That’s how bad this was.

On the bright side, Batgirl doesn’t reach the low depths of Batgirl vs. Justin Bieber.  Throughout the story, Batgirl is intelligent and above board.  Luke Fox, currently dating Babs, exhibits unquestionable maturity and tolerance.  Dinah and her band Black Canary play at the wedding.  Her cameo is inviting.  The imagery of the wedding is as beauteous as as a wedding should be.

This whole Grayson thing could have been avoided.  The writers could have put Grayson in a tux, once he realized what was going on.  They could have had him act all grown up and have him dance with Dinah or Frankie.  Instead, he suddenly listens to the Batgirl/Robin shippers; neither she or Dick went on record in the new 52.  Bleah.  I say.  Bleah.

The story opens in Buffy the Vampire Slayer fashion.  The new Big Bad waylays Topo, the little bad who attempted to corral the homeless and desperate of Gotham City into an army.  The Big Bad sponsored Topo for his own reasons, and this reveal also explains where such a tiny individual got his bombs.  As you may have construed from my caginess, the identity of the Big Bad is juicy.

We Are Robin is somewhat episodic, but the quality of those episodes is homogenous.  In addition to the Big Bad scenario, we tour where one of the Robins, Izzy, works and meet the thorn in her side.

Writer Lee Beremjo demonstrates what fiction is good for.  Izzy's situation is based in fact.  The fiction, the optimism, arises in the Robins, inspired by Batman, binding together for justice and defensive strength.

The Robins recently defeated the Little Bad's army and saved Gotham from going up in smoke.  They too have a sponsor.  Alfred Pennyworth.

Alfred is surprisingly hip in his practicality.  Because of the nature of the Robins, their headquarters is a semi, and he provides them with just the necessary tools to enhance their already impressive athletic prowess.

While recounting a focus on Izzy, that has a beginning, middle and end, Beremejo adds detail to a post-Batman Gotham and establishes a potent major villain to vie against the Robins.  At the same time artist Jorge Corona works well within the youthful structure of Beremejo's totality.

If you haven't been paying attention, the Justice League are now the new New Gods.  The transformation began when Batman secured Metron's infamous Möbius Chair.  Mister Miracle at the time believed this switch to be a Metron ploy, and he appears to be correct.  That's not going to stop Batman writer Peter Tomasi from having some fun.  

Tomasi is my favorite Batman writer of the modern age.  I've had more fun with Tomasi than Snyder, who needs a big arc, and Johns, probably the most serious of the Batman writers.  Ironic.  I know.  Snyder and Johns are good, but Tomasi knows no bounds.

Tomasi combines the dramatic...

...with the insane.

The serious....

...with the strange.

Tomasi's Batman is a Batman for all seasons.  He is a contemporary Bob Haney.  Tomasi's Batman teamed up with members of the Justice League frequently in Batman and Robin, and every one of these issues is a gem.

The Justice League one-shot is just as entertaining and nuts.  The story opens with Tomasi bringing out extra dimensions in Batman.

Batman doesn't protect Gotham City alone.  His allies are always the Batman Family and Jim Gordon.  Gordon puts up with a lot.

The exchange between Batman and Jim Gordon exemplifies Tomasi's quirkiness.  I mean.  Think about it.  Gordon just wanted a relationship with a “normal” world’s greatest detective that dresses up like a giant bat.  Out of the context of history, that's madness.

As the story progresses, Batman uses the chair for completely rational reasons...

...that to the outsider look utterly bonkers.

Batman is mostly a straight man.  The humor evolves from Batman's perfection as a detective and as a crimefighter.  In Tomasi's library, Batman simply does things so far outside the box, that you cannot help but laugh, especially because these methods are often so effective.   Giving Batman a super chair just makes things worse.  For the criminal.

As you can see, Tomasi loves continuity, and he sees no problems in combining Batman with other superheroes or fitting him in a superpower world.

In addition, Tomasi isn't afraid to portray Batman making mistakes.  The difference is that Batman makes unique mistakes.  He doesn't trip or blunder like a normal man.  No.  When Batman makes a mistake, it's spectacular and because he's such an ideal, it's funny.

The Chair and the seated should be symbiotic.  That's why the Chair and Metron are made for each other.  Metron's mostly lawful neutral.  Batman is chaotic good.  He takes the chair back in time, and does what's natural.  The Chair gives in to most of Batman's whims and magnifies his intellect just as it does with Metron, but the Chair will not grant Batman the thing he most wants.  The Chair will not allow Batman to change history. 

It would be very easy to overlook artists Fernando Pasarin's, Matt Ryan’s and Gabe Eltaeb’s parts in all of this.  Tomasi’s story is that powerful, and it gibes with the auteur author’s oeuvre.  To do so however would be a crime.  Pasarin’s pencils offer an extraordinary detailed skeleton in which Ryan can cast his shadows and Gabe Eltaeb can shed cosmic light.  The art frequently conveys the absurdity of the whole situation.

The illustration also highlights just how evil one man can be and how angry a good man can rage.  Justice League Batman  from beginning to end is just a stunning testament to the value of the comic book medium as an art form.

Welcome to Justice League 3001.  In the future, Firestorm takes over Cadmus and implants the DNA of the Justice League into volunteer hosts.  Think of Jadzia Dax of the Trill in Deep Space Nine, though without the alien pod-worm thing.  Also in the future, Keith Giffin era favorites Booster Gold and Blue Beetle, via time travel, and Fire and Ice courtesy of magic.  

Justice League 3001 is a pretty decent set up, and can offer some fair amusement.  For example, the Justice League tried to free a planet Starro had conquered, only to discover it was legal.  The result: Starro Ambassador amongst the League's ranks.  

During the Starro debacle the bona fide Supergirl showed up, and Giffin introduced the subplot of another Batman taking out trash on the classic Legion of Super-Heroes prison planet Takron-Galtos.

This issue, Giffin reveals the identity of the Batman, and it's a let down, but I'm not sure that it was supposed to be anything else.  One of the methods of comedy is to hyperbolize and deflate.  So the lackluster discovery could have been Giffin's intent.  

Comedy is subjective, and I didn't particularly find anything funny in this issue of Justice League 3001.  There are however points of interest.

Upon seeing Firestorm, I realize how appropriate a choice he is to be the vehicle of Giffin's skewed vision.  Firestorm is an expert in body to body fusion.  Part of him is a physicist, the other a fan of the superheroes.  He's the perfect choice to bring back the Justice League to another time and place.  

Giffin's characterization of Guy Gardner in the body of a woman is intriguing.  Guy was a macho, conservative figure in Giffin's run of Justice League, that is before he suffered brain damage to turn him into a liberally minded sensitive modern man.  It's a pleasure to watch Guy evolve into a decent human being when faced with diversity that eschews conservatism.  No knock on the head needed.  Supergirl's characterization is decent, and Giffin actually appears to like the Girl of Steel, but everything is going to pale to Melissa Benoist's performance.

On the whole, I could enjoy Giffin's newest incarnation of the League in a detached manner.  I could point out things that were fascinating from a writer's perspective.  I could notice the history.  I couldn't though experience empathy with these characters.  I couldn't get into the book.

Previously, the Capitol City of Barsoom is dying.  John Carter and Dejah Thoris set out to find a means to save their world.  In the most recent chapter, a freak sandstorm knocks down their flier, and rogues capture them only to accidentally release a new menace.

Writers Ron Marz and Ian Edginton aren't trying to break new ground in John Carter Warlord of Mars.  They're instead sticking to their guns, telling compelling stories and letting artist Ariel Medel bring the excitement.

The current issue is entertaining through these normal aspects as well as striking characterization of not a Big Bad but a genuine antagonist.  Aron the last of the Orovars is at once regal, intelligent, arrogant, callous and noble.  Recommended for the fans of Edgar Rice Burroughs and classic science fiction.

Hellboy and the BPRD 1953 is just a pair of dull vignettes with the first, a take off on And Now the Screaming Starts, being slightly more interesting.  In the story, Hellboy tackles a disembodied hand that turns into a demon that he can wail into.  

The second is a tale within a tale where Hellboy is just a listener.  This short relates Professor Bruttenholme's and his friend Harry Middleton's encounter with a Kelpie.  The Kelpie is a curious fairy tale beast that looks to be combination of whiskey and a sea-horse.

Better than Coffin Hill could have ever hoped to be, Black Magic benefits from the most likable of Greg Rucka's female protagonists.

Rowan Black is a witch, and she's a detective.  She's also quite personable, a sharpe difference.  The police procedural part of Black Magic is well done.  I'd really expect nothing less from Rucka, who being a novelist knows the value of research.  The magic section is offered lightly.  It has a Hammer feel to it.  Juxtaposing a subtle supernatural world with an authentic, contemporary environment.

Though the subject matter as well as the brief nudity draws the book into the mature audience level, but Rucka actually attempts to enact comedic relief in the story, and he succeeds.  I think it's fair to say that Rucka isn't known for his funny moments, and that's an aspect that I always felt missing from his works.  He remedies that with Black Magic, and he seems to be trying to prove less and simply have fun writing.  That fun is infectious.

Called out of a Wicca circle and onto the job, Rowan motors to a hostage crisis.  This is Rucka's forte, tense, dramatic.  So I would expect this episode to be excellent, and Rucka doesn't disappoint.  Neither does Scott who is better known for her straight superhero action.  The black and white washes and magazine format really turn Black Magic into a unique reading experience.  It grants the book a more tactile quality and strangely enhances the reality of the situation.

When Rucka finally brings in the magic and not just Wicca rite, he also triumphs through containment.  Those expecting something wild and wooly like Dr. Strange will be disappointed, but those who count The Devil Rides Out in their favorite movies list won't be.

Howling Commandos of SHIELD is the Marvel version of Creature Commandos.  It's not bad just not distinguishable.  Apart from the inclusion of Jack Kirby monster Orrgo nothing would make me choose Howling Commandos over the old Creature Commandos comics, or reliving their exploits in the current issue of Justice League United.

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