Tuesday, May 26, 2015

POBB: May 20, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
May 20, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, or maybe I should call it Vampirella in the Brown Bag.

In the 1970s, Vampirella was a newsprint styled magazine.  It became a comic book.  It reverted back to a magazine, albeit glossier, then returned to comic book format a second time.  Dynamite publishes no less than three Vampirella titles at the same time, and there’s another on the way.

Not much I can add to Legendary Vampirella.  This book rocks.  Back in Legendary, the Big Bads in their pursuit of the amnesiac Red Sonja announced themselves as Vampirella's enemy by tearing her Scarlet Club a new one.  While Vee intended on helping Red Sonja anyway, the wreckage made it personal.  That vendetta continues. 

In this chapter Vampirella demonstrates her feminist side by relying on the women of Steampunk.

Some of Vee’s confidants and allies are in fact based on reality. 

Pancho is Pancho Barnes.  Pancho was an honest to goodness adventurer in the vein of Indiana Jones turned movie stunt pilot. 

The art by David Cabera expresses the extreme pleasure Vampirella takes out of life.

Vampirella’s bedmate is a really obscure character from literature.    If you read the book, or saw one of several movie adaptations, the name Rudolph Rassendyll will plague you, as it did me.  I had to look him up.  Why shouldn't you?Thanks, wikipedia.  

The name dropping however isn’t important.  Vampirella demonstrates a positive attitude toward sex, and writer David Avallone puts her on equal footing with James Bond.  The sexual liberation isn’t the only aspect Vampirella shares with Bond.

After disposing of the stormtroopers, the Big Bads make Vampirella an offer they feel she cannot refuse.

Yeah, it’s a little too late to kiss and make up.  Kurtz though drawing from the wellspring of Citizen Kane also embodies the nut-bar Colonel Kurtz more from Apocalypse Now than Heart of Darkness.  His political ambitions seem less and less likely to bear fruit now that Vampirella knows him, but just as the story appears to be coming to a close, Dr. Moreau interrupts with a surprise designed specifically to kill our lady of darkness.  Will the thing succeed? Find out at the stirring finale, which spotlights Vee’s resilience.

Vampirella takes the title character into different territory.  When Vampirella killed her brother Drago to rid herself of the curse her arch-nemesis inflicted, she inherited a kingdom.  She is the queen of the Nosferatu.

Full-blooded author Nancy Collins could have blown that off, using the implication as a mere backdrop.  Instead, Vampirella attempts to rule.  Her first act seen by the reader.  To shut down a blood farm.  

This was another easy out for Collins if she chose to take it.  She could have simply said that feeding on blood was wrong.  Vampirella is one of the few allegedly altruistic vampires that can justifiably argue this side.  Only under the most desperate circumstances does Vee feed on humans.  Those occasions can be counted on fingers and toes in a span ranging from the seventies to present day adventures.   Vampirella's supreme control of her thirst distinguishes her from her ilk.  In any case, Collins establishes Vee's willingness to accept blood as a necessity to nourish her kingdom.  She's simply not willing to take the blood.  

As the story continues, Collins sketches a day in the life of Ella Normandy, Nosferatu queen.  Eve holds court.  She meets a loyal, royal relation.

She learns about the brother she had to kill, and the insight exemplifies Collins' fine skill.  Collins drops a moving short horror story amidst the normal trappings of Vampirella.  That tale within a tale focuses on Drago and his human wife. 

Despite the relative quiet unfolding of this Vampirella issue, Patrick Berkenkotter's artwork doesn't lose a tic of quality.  Berkenkotter is known better for his depiction of pulchritude and violence.  Here, he takes advantage of the opportunity to present realism in expression amidst an argument, Vee's foul mood and the contentious countenances of various plotters seeking to overthrow Vampirella's rule.  Berkenkotter even approaches the drama in the flashback with Drago subtly.  He furthermore originates characters as the story progresses, and you can appreciate the diversity he gives to the uniformly grotesque Nosferatu.

Vampirella teams-up with Dynamite’s other femme fatale Jennifer Blood in a Nancy Collins’ tie-in to The Swords of Sorrow.  I’m not reading the main title.  So I have no idea what’s going on there, what the swords of sorrow are, etc.  Fortunately, I didn’t need any previous knowledge.  This is just a really well-written Vampirella team-up book with some underlying themes that enhance the plot rather than muddle it.

The story opens with Vampirella encountering the Pacifica Slasher, uncovering his secret and rescuing a would-be victim.  Vee calls such a chain of events Thursday.  The guy would have been toast had it not been for a convenient escape phenomenon probably triggered by a Sword of Sorrow.  Vampirella naturally follows.  She ends up on a parallel earth populated nevertheless by certain people in the know.

Throughout the story, Collins assumes Vampirella is self-explanatory, and only includes strategic mentions of her updates.  Collins spends more time informing the reader about Jennifer Blood.  This is a wise decision since multiple generations have been exposed to Vampirella in some form or another.  Even if a comic book reader has never once read one of her adventures, they still know of her.  Jennifer Blood, not so much.

Jennifer Blood is a massive train wreck of a character.  I’m glad I ignored her book because I doubt I could find it plausible for a few seconds.  Benevolent vampire hottie from Drakulon is a helluva lot easier to accept.

Jennifer Blood is on the same trail but from a different starting point.  Collins’ villain only assumes the identity of a serial killer.  He’s much more than that.  Nevertheless, Collins sticks to crime terminology to explain his actions and that tiny touch further grounds the story into Kolchak territory; i.e. monsters prowling in the modern world and being mistaken for ordinary human refuse.

This split is also seen in the artwork.  Artist Dave Acosta keeps Vampirella squarely in superhero/action territory.  She rescues the damsel in distress.  She high kicks the bad guy and dives right in for more danger.  She tucks a dagger in her boot like Modesty Blaise might and drops from the sky as if she were a Kryptonian from the shadows. 

Jennifer Blood is a different sort of animal with a different type of arena.  Acosta’s Jennifer Blood is seedy in disguise amidst seamy surroundings.  She works out, and she’s blunt with axes and blades.  

In terms of characterization, Collins, while not shying away from Jennifer Blood’s less savory past, treats her like a protagonist rather than hero.  Blood likes killing, and she targets the villains of the world because she possesses a margin of decency.  Vampirella is as always an outright champion.  She likes humans and doesn't want to see them harmed.  While Vampirella and Jennifer Blood do not get along, their personalities entertain with friction as well as an overall union in the hunting monsters that would prey on the innocent.  I look forward to the next issue.

Django and Zorro finishes with a massive upheaval of the Archduke of Arizona and his fledgling empire.  While Django becomes a narrative archaeologist on slave culture, with an insider's view, he leads a revolt of the natives the Archduke forced into servitude.

Oh, and he kills that son-of-bitch.

Anvil's death is not really a spoiler.  It's the way Django kills him that proffers the dark humor of Django's personality.

Equally impressive Don Diego De La Vega confronts the so-called Archduke with a derision of his selfishness and divine right.  

Every precise word of Don Diego's speech is remarkable in that as you read you realize that only Zorro could have possibly have said such dialogue.  This is how Don Diego really feels.  He is absolutely sincere in his belief that the nobility must serve the common good.

As Don Diego speaks it seems so obvious that he is in fact Zorro, yet the Archduke is so wrapped up in his blind vision that he can't see it, even when he puts on the mask.  You become aware that secret identities in general are often protected by the self-delusions of others.

Tarantino and Wagner drop their focus to Zorro and Django, but they also with artist Esteves Polls, visually cue The Mark of Zorro with its extras filled finale.  

Taking Django and Zorro into consideration with the classic, the message is clear.  Zorro is a symbolic catalyst.  Wherever Zorro goes the downtrodden rise up and overthrow their cruel oppressors.  He inspires others, even the cynical Django, to follow the conscience.  From start to finish Django and Zorro is something special.

I was really hoping A-Force would be something big, but it’s just odd, and that’s because it relies on Marvel’s big house cleaning Secret Wars as its story shaper.  

Baroness? What the hell?

So, based on what I gleaned from this book...A version of Dr. Doom has somehow taken over or established a barony and appointed She-Hulk as its Baroness.  She and a team of super heroines protect the barony from menaces like this issue's Megalodon, an actual prehistoric shark displaced by parties unknown.  Although a seeming Utopia, Doom has laid down rules to obey.  Else punishment results.

A-Force isn't like X-Men, which is just the female X-Men kicking ass and being superheroes.  The personalities of the Avengers feel disconnected resulting from I don't know...growing up in a barony? Mind-Control? You decide.  That's not what I came here for.  I wanted banter based on long friendships, a good story and cool uses of superpowers.  What I got was confusing characterization that undermined the super powered woman fighting giant shark scenario, which should have been an easy sell.

The whole culture and history of these familiar-looking heroes is different, and you might like that, but I didn't.  Loki's back to being a woman, and she's the guardian of Captain America Jr. and the raven-haired gal.  Medusa's looking for any opportunity to usurp She-Hulk's rule over the realm.  Captain Marvel is off, and the friendships between the women lack the resonance drawn from the sliding six-year scale of history that Marvel traditionally followed.  

This is also another case of really good artwork going to waste for a subpar story.  I mean if you're a fan of female super heroes, you want to see them at their best, and Jorge Molina gives you that in spades.  

No, Jill Lepore, these women do not look like porn stars, and I'm certain quite a few adult performers keep in tip-top shape like a minority of regular folk.  The Avengers look like athletes.  

Learn the difference.  If Jorge Molina continues to be part of the series, I'll definitely pick this up in trade or hardback.  The art is worth it.

John Shaft determines who murdered Arletha the woman he loved, and proceeds to beat him to death with his bare hands.

David Walker's conclusion to Shaft results in the grindhouse hero fully matured.  Throughout the book you saw how John Shaft could have had a happy, normal life, sublimating a killer instinct honed in Viet Nam, with the sincerity of love and purpose.  Thanks to the events depicted in Walker's superb hard-boiled treatise John Shaft is an outlier. 

Our final contender has a long and esteemed history.  Douglas Adams is best known for creating multi-media hit The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.  Lesser known is that Adams was a writer and script editor for Doctor Who during the mid seasons of the Tom Baker era.  The novel Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency was in its rough draft a script Adams wrote for Doctor Who.  So, if you notice a similarity between Dirk Gently and The Doctor, you're not seeing things.

The main difference between the two besides of course a different character history is that Dirk Gently doesn't believe in randomness.  He sees the universe as inexorably connected, and will go to absurd lengths to prove the point.  The Doctor is a scientist and therefore much more rational.  Even if he appears mad, the Doctor always has a method.  Dirk Gently not so much.

The bag theft leads to a hunt in which Gently is unaware of being the quarry.  The jovial, perplexing Gently is in good hands with writer Chris Ryall, and the fun art by Tony Akins and company adds to the bounce of the whole absurdity.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

POBB: May 13, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
May 13, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  In this week’s docket it’s Black Cross, Captain Marvel, Joe Frankenstein, Legendary Green Hornet, Reyn, Southern Cross and Thor.  I’ll also review the new Max Max movie.

Before Thor reveals her identity to readers, but nobody else, she attacks the Destroyer with Odinson, Freya and a whole cadre of women from Marvel as backup.

These hootenannies usually fly one way or the other.  The writer may not be familiar with all the characters, and he'll give them throw away lines while concentrating on his star.  

The presence of the guest stars merely act as a colorful backdrop representing the larger universe and as fan service should any character be a particularly hot commodity.  

Alternately, the writer can be so in tune with the cosmos in which he works, that every character rings true and has a part to play.

As you can see by the examples, Jason Aaron strikes a decent balance.  As a result, the battle against the Destroyer turns into a rather exciting mini-foray.

Then quit acting like one.

Thor strives to be worthy of Mjonlir's might.  She insists that she can fight the Destroyer alone, but this isn't just any battle.  The All-Father Odin wants that hammer back in the hands of his son.

When the smoke clears, Odinson has a heart-to-heart with Thor, and this considerably lightens the mood since Thor makes as about as good a detective as Inspector Clouseau.

Russell Dauterman illustrates the entirety with his customary skill.  Thor looks formidable as do the guest contingent.  Should Dauterman ever tire of this gig, Avengers could be in his future.

Captain Marvel returns to earth, but instead of parties and welcome wishes, she finds death.

Introduced way back in seventies Ms. Marvel, Tracy Burke was Carol’s photojournalist friend turned mentor.  Carol hired Tracy as editor for her magazine.  Tracy as we learned in a previous issue was battling cancer, and she passed away while Carol pursued her space adventures.

Tracy left Carol a legacy of personal items.  These things reveal important moments; not just in the relationship between Carol and Tracy but also those shared by Tracy and her lover Teddy, also dead.  Writer Kelly Sue DeConnick grants more flesh to these second and third tier characters than most writers imbue to their stars.

DeConnick handles Tracy’s gay lifestyle overtly, which indicates just how much Marvel has evolved as a provider of literature.  It should be known that Marvel was always on the forefront of this particular battle.  The editorial board which allows for writer whim to seep through the adventures occasionally gave the staff freedom when depicting different orientations.  

The Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu #33

Colleen Wing was the first bisexual woman depicted in comics.  This was done however with extreme subtlety.  You had connect the dots to Marvel's magazine line.  Oh, and it's hardly a big deal now, but the relationship between Iron Fist and Misty Knight was certainly something remarkable back in the day.

Marvel Team-Up #64

We gauge a work's maturity by the author’s willingness to reflect the modern world.  Comic books could have been considered "kid's stuff" simply because they were prohibited to explore certain areas of culture.  However even books without pictures depicting gay and lesbian characters were not widely accepted by the general public until the sixties.  Before this the most successful work demonstrating lesbian love was Sheridan Le Fanu's short story "Carmilla," but he buried the message beneath vampirism.  Thus, excusable.

In any case, Tracy’s sexual orientation is mere sub-theme.  Captain Marvel appears to be about death, and for awhile it seems that Ms. DeConnick is attempting a bid for the Alison Bechdel Medal of Honor.  Observe also that the women die as they do in any chick flick.  Slowly without spectacle. 

The tale continuously teeters on the line between sincerity and the maw of pretentiousness, but then you reach the end, and you realize, that no, Captain Marvel is taking the piss out of melodramatic twaddle.  

This is also where artist David Lopez's timing, not just his talent for a Chuck Jones range of expression comes in.  Without it, DeConnick's bash at maudlin sentiment would have fallen flat.  Captain Marvel instead is a remedy for saccharine.

Alex Braith keeps seeing immolated people on The Southern Cross.  She expects to be treated like a mental patient.  The Captain however believes her, though not in the way that she would like.

This idea of of seeing phantasms due to starship technology was first examined, albeit hilariously, in one of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics short stories.  So it's nice to see scribe Becky Cloonan resurrect a science fiction tradition.

Cloonan employs the mirages as a red herring as well as a symptom of her future world.  The clever twist also allows Alex to encounter the people she needs to answer her question.  

In this way, Cloonan recapitulates the mystery format in a new attractive skin courtesy of Andy Belanger and Lee Louridge.

Despite my spot-on deductions, Reyn is still just as exciting the first issue.  That’s because Kel Symons and Nate Stockman with Paul Little populate the starship with all sorts of lethal lifeforms.

Death by menagerie entertains by the bucketful, and Reyn still deals with the Salamanders that have taken over the world.  In addition, Reyn’s dawn goddess Aurora proves to be even more ephemeral although the reader can now see her as well as her champion.

In the steampunk world of Legendary, the Green and Brass Hornets team up to kick ass and compare notes.  This book is a blast from start to finish thanks to artist Brent Peeples and Mike Bartolo. 

Writer Daryl Gregory, in addition to focusing on the Green Hornet, also builds on the major bad behind the scenes of Legendary.  He does this through the eyes of rueful demon bride wife Lidia Valcallan.

The regrets of the femme fatale combined with the uber fighting create a free-wheeling atmosphere similar that of the cult television series with Van Williams and Bruce Lee.

Black Cross actually surprised me by touching on the Project Superpowers team introduced in the nascent days of Dynamite publishing.  Ostensibly this is what he book is supposed to be about, but it's been a slow burn.  

The public domain superstars--such as Black Terror, Green Lama and Lady Satan--were tricked into Pandora’s Box (urn) but released into the modern world in Alex Ross’ subsequent series.  

Warren Ellis doesn’t undo what mythology Ross established.  Instead, he explains this new incursion with a clever twist of mysticism and goes farther than the shinier Ross, in terms of mature content.

That's gotta hurt.  Ellis appears to be playing with the idea of giants in a world reflective of our reality.  In other words, the heroes and their hosts do not know their limits and therefore do not hold back.  The tone makes the gritty illustration of Colton Worley particularly apropos.

Last but not least, the Bride of Frankenstein unleashes ghoulish hordes on Joe Frankenstein and the Creature of legend.  In the process, the Creature relates his origins. Chuck Dixon while accepting the crimes outlined in Frankenstein, suggests that the years of solitude gave the Creature insight into his own violent nature.  

Young Joe will need all the protection he can get as the Frankenstein team assault the Bride’s headquarters in search of Joe's girlfriend, Skye, kidnapped as bait.

Graham Nolan's artwork is as impressive as it always has been, and he and Dixon make a perfect team, in synch with each other's ideas.  Dixon is more Elmore Leonard than Raymond Chandler, and as a result there's an underlying lightness to the whole affair that gives way to humor.

At the same time, there's a serious point to the entire exercise of everlasting evil that must be stopped.  

The Saturday Afternoon Movie

So here’s the thing.  One of my least favorite genres of film is post-apocalyptic.  Frankly, I think this form of cinema is too optimistic.  

The Day After is the most realistic post-apocalyptic film.  It tells it like it is.  Should some nut start a nuclear war, we’re all dead.  We die either quickly or slowly, but the human race ceases to exist.   

So, yeah.  Mad Max wasn’t on my RADAR despite Charlize Theron being in the film.  Then I found out that director George Miller invited Eve Ensler to consult.  For those not in the know, Eve Ensler is the writer of The Vagina Monologues.  That’s just her claim to fame, and The Vagina Monologues has gotten a bad rap over the years because people can’t get past the title and don’t know what it’s really about.  Doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that Eve Ensler is an activist.  She supports women subjected to horror.  I was going to say violence and rape, but frankly, those phrases lack the potency that they once carried.

Eve Ensler has encountered women that experienced genital mutilation and repeated gang rape.  See.  That’s horror.  Maybe horror isn’t specific enough, but it’s vagueness strikes with greater impact.  Anyway, when I found out that Miller wanted to give the women in his story greater depth, courtesy of Ensler, I started leaning toward seeing Mad Max.  Not quite there yet.  A kind of oh-I’ll-see-it-on-DVD kind of state.  What made my decision was this backlash by the so called Men’s Rights Movement.  

If there’s one thing men don’t need it’s a Men’s Rights Movement, and if the he-man-woman-hating promise keeping assholes protested Max Max then as a feminist, I felt I had to see the movie.  So I did.

Mad Max Fury Road creates a violent opera on the screen.  It can be overwhelming, and because of the caveats outlined in my preamble, I found the movie at first uninvolving.  I still felt good about my decision to see the film to spite the Men’s Rights Movement, but I just couldn’t grasp this thing in front of my eyes.  

I tried to think of the setting as an alien world and not a ravaged earth.  That didn’t work.  Too many tricked out vehicles of destruction.  Too many artifacts.  As I watched the film, I stopped trying to adapt it in my mind-set.  Instead, I just accepted the immersive domain as a metaphor, something I usually hate to do.  Suddenly everything fit into place.  Though Miller touches upon the reasons for the earth’s demise, it’s not really important.  Fury Road is about people and the future of humanity not the backdrop. 

The original Mad Max was a more or less contemporary revenge film.  Road Warrior turned the collapse of civilization into Grand Guignol entertainment.  In this same hyper-nucleated desert of death, Mad Max still roams.  He avoids mutants and people.  This version of Mad Max lacks hope.  Miller’s film is not a prequel.  It’s not in truth a sequel.  It’s a continuation and a beginning. 

It’s easy to see why the idiots in the Men’s Rights Movement would hate Fury Road.  If any of them had the courage to see it, they may start to question their own credos.  The feminist message in Mad Max is there, plain to see, but it’s there for a reason.  You cannot propose the end of civilization without the subjugation of women.  To do so however runs the danger of exploitation.  Miller did right.  He tapped a fount of knowledge for the actresses to draw from.  He didn’t shy away from the repulsive female hating nature of Mad Max’s enemies, and at the same time, he doesn’t drop into the madonna/whore trap.  These women are turned into both through male domination not by the director.  The director is the documentarian.

The Grand Mutant Poobah of the rock uses women as chattel to perpetuate the race in the image of his abhorrent design, but the tortures women experience go farther than that and must be seen to fully appreciate.  Enter Furiosa portrayed by Charlize Theron.  She seeks an alternative to the hell she experienced.  She seeks redemption for participating in this terrible masterplan, in the name of survival.  She seeks a memory of salvation and intends to abscond with those willing to escape.  The women that dare to think there’s something better than being enslaved by scum.

Tom Hardy assumes the role of Mad Max, and he at first comes along with Furiosa unwillingly as part and parcel of the horrendous perversion of culture that developed without democracy or even modern day tyranny, a cut above the abattoir fiefdom.  

The world of Fury Road is quite frankly unimaginable.  On this future earth, Hardy is terse and gruff, but far easier to understand than when he portrayed Bane.  Hardy lets his actions speak for him, but the level of acting in this movie is such that you can see the depth and nuance in his expression, and as he begins to hope again, the change in character is quite startling.

Mad Max is unabashedly an action film, but with it’s feminist message, the makers of the experience ask a question.  Are humans better than savages? By the end of the movie, you will know their answer.  Nicholas Hoult, who embodied Hank McCoy in the most recent X-Men films, is pivotal in conveying what Fury Road is really about, and he presents the importance with all the gravitas he can muster.  I walked away from Fury Road feeling even better about the choice I made.