Tuesday, July 28, 2015

POBB: July 22, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
July 22, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, the weekly blog for comic book reviews.  This week I look at Bart Simpson Comics, Batman 66, Frankenstein Underground, Harley Quinn and Power Girl, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Justice League 3001, Marvel Zombies, Spider-Woman and We Are Robin.

Bart Simpson Comics is a winner with the return of Homer’s nerds from the television episode “Homer Goes to College.”
Benjamin, Doug and Gary fix their problem by consulting an expert on the every man.  Unfortunately, they bore him to sleep.  No problemo.

Bart comes up with the perfect time-wasting, addictive game, but as all parties grow richer and richer, Bart goes on a power trip.  He discovers the consequences of hubris.  Courtesy of John Zakour, Rex Lindsey, Dan Davis and Art Villanueva.

The second story by Tony DiGeralamo mashes The Last Starfighter with some realism and Kang and Kodos.  The aliens capture Bart.

Bart’s natural aptitude for video games does not translate into any usable fighting skill, but he still manages to find a victory over the alien overlords, neatly illustrated in fifties style by Mike Kazaleh and Villanueva.

While you can argue that Digeralamo’s story bears some resemblance to “A Pharaoh to Remember” from Futurama, I’d make the point that these similarities are ubiquitous to the ruling theme.  Furthermore, the finale recapitulates the beginning of the tale for a creative capper.

Incidentally, for those not in the know, Kang and Kodos made their official debut in The Simpsons proper—that is not in a “Treehouse of Horror.”  So their appearance here is not a breach of “the flexible reality” the show maintains.

Justice League 3001 is shaping up into a very entertaining Keith Giffen book, complete with signature story features.  You can think of Justice League 3001 as a cross between Giffen's wry 90s Legion of Super-Heroes series, the one in Mando format, and his 90s Bwa-Ha-Ha-Ha Justice League.

For example, a Giffen commentary on media idolatry and ego occurs on the first page.

The media personality, I'm afraid both my spellcheckers forbade me to type her name, interviews Ariel Masters, the leader of the Justice League but in reality their greatest enemy.

Ariel fits Giffen's quirky sort of humor.  Not only does he pervert Lois Lane into a villain, he places an ostensibly intelligent person into power but brings her down with idiots.  He did the same thing to Maxwell Lord.  

Giffen and friends introduced Lord as a mover/shaker, a cool man in control.  He's felled by the antics of Blue Beetle and Booster Gold.  Maxwell Lord returns in Justice League 3001 for one of two amusing, fourth-wall-breaking FAQ pages, reminiscent of Giffen's Legion.

Lord refers to one of the most inappropriate moments of darkness where the Powers That Be at DC told fans in no uncertain terms.  Fuck you.  We hate you all, not just Ray Tate.  

Instead of uploading a thoroughly distasteful image.  Enjoy this image of puppies.

Before the dank abyss of comic book writing boiled and bubbled, Justice League luminaries Giffen, J.M.DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire reunited to create Super-Buddies, a revisit to Giffen's old League.  

The thing is their outright comedy had been mostly finished long before Blue Beetle's decapitation by dum-dum.  Justice League Classified was meant to get the stories that had been languishing in an already paid-for slush pile on the racks.   

According to Comic Book Urban Legends, Kevin Maguire changed an innocuous ending to protest the dark turn DC had taken.  He did something similar to preserve Mary Marvel’s dignity.  By doing the former, at least, Maguire established that the Super-Buddies existed in a parallel universe, a kinder universe, despite DC's insistence it no longer had such things.

Anyway, Maguire’s former cohort Giffen's emphasis that Maxwell Lord is not the same Maxwell Lord from the depressing dreck means something.  I interpret the explanation thus: there will be drama in Justice League 3001, but it still will be fun.

Also in play, Starro.  Giffen always thought differently about Starro.  

He never took the giant Starfish remotely seriously, and he still treats the creature as a goofy phenomenon.  Supergirl speaks for Giffen in Justice League 3001.

That is the genuine, accept no substitutes, Supergirl, whom Giffen strangely does respect.  Perhaps, this is due to his writing the character before, in persona or in various guises, when the Superman Family were erased from DC history.

Supergirl lands on Starro's planet just as the League begin fighting the beast's drones.  The fight is due to Guy Gardner, now in femme form actually pulling off something smart last issue.

These changes are not merely superficial.  Giffen takes great delight in confusing Gardner's traditional right wing nut characterization.

And it's really weird seeing Batman fighting alongside of Guy.  Batman is in fact more interested in curbing Superman's stupidity.

The final panel suggests that no matter when, the Bat is willing to confront “whatever remains, however improbable.”

Harley Quinn and Power Girl addresses the theme of extremism vs hedonism, but don't worry the entire creative team still delivers the laughs.  

Artists Stephanie Roux, Elliot Fernandez and Paul Mounts relish demonstrating a wide gamut of expression from the characters rarely seen in comic books and more probably watched in a Chuck Jones cartoon.

Harley Quinn displays surprising cunning when faced with a robot that wants to do to Harley what the GOP wants to do to Planned Parenthood.

Amanda Conner and Jimmy Plamiotti are the only writers that focus on the intelligence that allowed Harleen Quinzel the opportunity to earn doctorates in psychiatry and medicine.  Psychiatrists also must acquire medical degrees, don't you know.

So buried beneath that pile of insanity is a brilliant woman.

Before Harley happens upon the solution to her problems, Conner, Palmiotti and the artists orchestrate a hilarious huddle with the hip black dude alien straight from the seventies.  You can almost hear the mellow in his voice.  I mean this is really subtle and funny, it's a gem of a scene fixed amid the slapstick.  Sorry.  No spoilers for this scene.  It must be experienced.

Just when you think Palmiotti and Conner drop the funny switch down a few degrees, they introduce a new group of super-heroes.

Their relationship to Vartox is the key to their formation.  The weirdest thing about all of this lunacy is that Palmiotti, Conner, Roux and company form the same needs for every superhero comic book but using the central idiocy of Vartox.

Harley's Batman 66 doppelgänger debuts, and this is a decidedly different version of the henchwench.  She is in fact Dr. Holly Quinn whom the Arkham Institute treated. 

As you can see from the recap, she was victimized a little differently from the Bruce Timm/Paul Dini creation.  The exposure to the machine gave Quinn a Jones to emulate the Joker, whom she sees less of a lust object and more of a role model.  

In other words, she wants to be the Joker's Robin, and please no jokes about the relationship between Batman and Robin.  He adopted him at eight, after the boy lost his parents to tragedy.  That hasn't ever changed.

Writer Jeff Parker keeps the antics campy, such as when Batman's naïveté facilitates Harlequin's trap, but Batman 66 has a lot going for him.

When The new 52 premiered the creative teams played up Batman’s belief in redemption.  This facet contrasted the darker, less humanistic vigilante from the post-Crisis.  Batman for example remanded custody of Poison Ivy to the Birds of Prey, because he felt they were a good influence on the villainess.  The Earth Two Arkham Asylum was turned into an amusement park when that Batman's Rogues Gallery had been cured of their madness.  It's nice to see the original Bat-Optimist want to help his villains as much as he wants to protect Gotham City.

The second story I'm sorry to say is a lackluster affair and contrived to allude to Mad Men.  I never saw the show.  So maybe fans will better enjoy the insider jokes.  Anyway, I can't fathom why Babs Gordon is seeking a temp job.  Everybody knows she's a librarian. They need not find summer jobs like teachers.  So what's the deal?

The temp job just seems to be a setup to place Babs in the right place at the right time.  The Gotham villains want a new image and feel the ad firm can deliver.  Babs outwits them of course, but her battle of wits just lacks the punch, figuratively and metaphorically, of her Batgirl what-if.  

Nonetheless, excellent artwork by former Batman Adventures artist Ty Templeton and Tony Avina.  Love the glittery Batgirl costume.

We are Robin continues to intrigue with a realistic follow up to the impressive debut.  The Robins battle the Big Bad's homeless army to save introductory figure Duke from being beaten to death.

The Robins however learn that crime fighting isn't all fun and games, and no matter how many you are, you're still going to take some knocks.

At the same time, the Robins do not work alone.  They have a secret benefactor who is also a master of disguise.

One Robin is in contact with an “imaginary friend” who seems to predict what she may need for the fight.

All these factors make We Are Robin fascinating.  Add engaging characterization, a decent portrayal of the younger generation and artwork by Rob Haynes and Jorge Corona that lends to the fluid action, and you've got a comic book that's remarkably entertaining.

Marvel Zombies flood a sector of Battleworld and only Elsa Bloodstone, legendary monster fighter can stop them, but can she stop herself from becoming her father without losing the edge that he honed?

The answer to that would be yes.  Marvel Zombies is hilarious and engrossing with Elsa resisting pragmatism to save a disease-free kid from the horde.  

In most zombie media, the zombie menace is mostly treated as a disease or infection, spread through a bite.  Zombies apparently still can make saliva, or their mouths are the perfect breeding ground for whatever the hell it is.  More reason why zombies don’t make one bit of sense.

Elsa’s antics and dialogue offer the reader a riotous ride, and the scripting makes the most of its unusually cleverer than most brain-eating plague.  Even if you’re not a zombie fan, and I’m not, Marvel Zombies has much to offer. 

Spider-Woman goes on a road trip with Ben Urich and the Porcupine, who wants to reform, but finds himself facing a problem.

Yeah, it looks bad for the Porcupine, and Spider-Woman probably isn’t the best person to tolerate a reforming super-villain, despite the fact that she’s also a reformed super-villain.

On the other hand, Jess is genuinely concerned about the Porcupine when Wild West refugees attack.  

The free wheeling story by Dennis Hopeless turns shockingly dramatic, and artists Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez give their all for a remarkable aesthetic.  

Spider-Woman needs to be on your subscription list.

Ron Marz and Ian Edginton tie in the latest issue of John Carter Warlord of Mars with Edgar Rice Burroughs’ The Synthetic Men of Mars, which basically transplanted Frankenstein to Mars.  Burroughs’ however did not plagiarize Shelly.  Rather, the John Carter novel is a good example of an homage, and Burroughs’ speculation that tissue could be be grown in test tubes was prescient.

The beast from last issue’s rather mediocre investigation becomes interesting with this tie-in and hints at a fate of Dejah Thoris that her Jeddak John Carter will not allow to come true.

Much swordplay follows with a lovely end to the creature that caused all the trouble.

Frankenstein his own bad self returns in the conclusion of Mike Mignola’s, Ben Stenbeck’s and Dave Stewart’s Frankenstein Underground.  Mignola frames the story in terms of an ancient war.  The explorers of the underground released the darkness, and now a demon of Cthulhu proportions roams free unless Frankenstein can discern his purpose.

Despite the punchy action, Frankenstein Underground is more philosophical and more merciful to the creature than most works.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

POBB: July 15, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
July 15, 2015
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, a weekly review of comic books.  This posting I look at Black Canary, Gravedigger, Justice League, King: The Phantom, the Martian Manhunter, Reyn and Simpsons Comics.

Simpsons Comics is exceptional for its sweetness.  The story starts when Homer visits Bart at basketball game held by Springfield Elementary.

Now, let's dissect that for a minute.  In terms of past history, Homer parking a car in a gym with the rationale that all the spaces were filled is one of the least offensive and damaging things that he has done either wittingly or unwittingly to embarrass one of his kids.  Keep in mind also that Homer is in fact a genius, and he has a crayon pressing against his brain that explains his special form of reasoning.

Chief Wiggum doesn’t miss a beat, and Homer agrees to take in Ralph while Wiggum and his wife go on a second honeymoon.  Once again, Homer is being remarkably sweet.  Meanwhile in the B story…

Seems pretty tame for the Simpsons, doesn’t it? Don’t worry.  The B Side of the book quickly flips into the surreal where Lisa’s love for animals nets her a whole world of trouble.  I like that writer Ian Boothby follows the themes of the television series.  Even good deeds bite back, and Lisa's laudable love for nature is no exception.

Lisa's story while distinct in most aspects does not stay in a vacuum for long.  In a surprise move Boothby unites the threads of both tales in the finale, but before that occurs, Homer turns into a father figure for Ralph, thereby instilling jealousy in Bart.  Homer’s not doing this out of spite, however.  He genuinely thinks that Bart wants nothing to do with him.  As far as Homer’s concern, he’s just babysitting Ralph.

The art by Nina Matsumoto, Andrew Pepoy and Art Villanueva is outstanding.  The expressions of resentment, envy and abashment on Bart contrasts the overt happy looks from Homer as he has fun with Ralph.  The team execute great moments of visual silliness at the father and son picnic and Milhouse falls victim to a moment of hilarity that’s hammered home by his hopelessness.

If you grew up in the seventies, you probably saw photo-books of Star Trek.  Still photography shot on set  adapted the episodes into book form.  The medium is only strange now in hindsight.  It wasn’t odd back in the day because nobody knew any better.  It certainly beat the old Viewmaster.

My God, Jim.  Just how old am I?

John Byrne, artist, writer, wit and raconteur, attracted my attention with his latest Star Trek photo-book since it features the enigmatic Mr. Seven from “Assignment Earth.”  

I can’t really review the photography in this story.  Suffice to say, it looks like legitimate Star Trek.  While some images that will look familiar to Trekkers, Byrne puts together an absorbing story and creates an entertaining team-up with Kirk and Seven.

Reyn takes an interesting turn in the characterization.  Kel Symons and Nate Stockman introduced Warden Reyn as a kind of monster slaying Conan in knight's armor.  He also had a direct line to the goddess Aurora, who is a little less deific than originally thought.

While traveling through a bloody swathe of tentacles and hairy legs, Reyn encounters Steph.  Steph turns out to be a witch, but her sorcery relies on Clarke's Law rather than magical forces.

Reyn's and Steph's talents soon bring them to the attention of the Salamanders, who seek to bed the women and rule the land.  Neither Reyn nor Steph are fans.

Steph, Reyn, Steph’s father and Steph’s fellow techno wizards invade the Salamanders' headquarters, and what they discover instead of a pure castle keep is a spaceship filled with alien life forms and lethal a.i.  

In this issue, Reyn finds himself oddly at peace with the situation while the more techno savvy of the group panic. 

Reyn despite lacking his companions' scientific knowledge  readily figures out what transpired.  He really embarrasses the group of science aficionados.  His keen observational skills and deductive powers trump their pure knowledge base.   A flashback makes explicit what by now the reader should have inferred.

The pivot of events is as lovely as the artwork, and Reyn’s moment of serenity contrasts the final sanctions to come.  In short, Reyn is a terrific, action-filled space opera that freshens science fiction traditions.

Justice League is thoughtful, exciting and different.  The story begins on Apokolips.

Spoiler Ahoy!

Spoiler Ahoy!

Two former bitter enemies lie in the same boat thanks to Lena Luthor who turned out to be an agent of Darkseid.

It's no surprise that Superman employs heat-vision surgery on Lex.  That's what Superman does.  He goes out of his way for even the people that he doesn't like.  It's the right thing to do.  It's the Kent thing to do.

Darkseid knows what makes Superman tick, but you'll have to wait for the ramifications of his plan because we cut to earth where Grail is about to hand Wonder Woman her ass, or visa versa.  My money's on Diana, Princess of the Amazons.  Always.

I was mistaken about Grail.  I thought the presented character to be this Myrina Black that Darkseid had been looking for since issue one of new 52 Justice League.  Grail however is the daughter of Myrina and Darkseid.  Myrina is, like Wonder Woman, an Amazon.  Grail is half-Amazon/half-monster.  I'm still sticking with the original wager.  Metron's former friend Mobius however interrupts the outcome.  

The expression on Wonder Woman's face is a testament to Jason Fabok's and Brad Anderson's skills.  Just looking at Diana's countenance clues you in to her complete bewilderment.  She has never seen anything like Mobius before.  Nobody in this universe has.

This universe that is...

Because Johns wanted a body associated to the eponymous stick of furniture on which Metron sits his buttocks, what is clearly the Anti-Monitor now gains the added sobriquet Mobius.  I haven't changed my opinion.  Christening the Anti-Monitor Mobius is bone stupid, but overall, the amendment is a minor caveat given how musical that chair turns out to be.

While Justice League is more engrossing than it has been since Grant Morrison left the book.  Not everything in Justice League should be met with applause.  Johns repeats a mistake frequently made in the post-Crisis.  He implies that Myrina Black is a first Wonder Woman.

For those not in the know, Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are nearly eighty years old.  Because comic books cannot ignore time, every once in awhile these heroes undergo rejuvenation.  Back in the day, George Perez reintroduced Wonder Woman as a new, young character.  Wonder Woman was even less experienced than Superman and Batman, who had already established themselves.  

The renewal left a hole in DC's World War II continuity, specifically with Roy Thomas' All-Star Squadron.  Thomas had no choice but to substitute lesser known 1940s female powerhouses such as Miss America in Wonder Woman's place.  

You may think.  What's the difference?  The difference is that the first issue of All-Star Squadron began the recall of the actual Justice Society of America history.

The above scene actually alludes to a classic comic book cover.

Now imagine Miss America suddenly took Wonder Woman's place.  It's a silly concept, but if time travel exists, will exist, if history can be interfered with, ridiculous things like retro-planting heroes would happen all the time.

Black Canary took the place of Wonder Woman in the reshaped Justice League of America history until finally Grant Morrison replenished the League by ignoring, or merely paying lip-service, to fake history and instead relying upon the strength of pop culture.  

Morrison rightfully restored Wonder Woman to prominence.  I like Myrina Black's character design.  I might even like the character, given enough exposure.  I just don't want the post-Crisis confusion to metastasize again.

Martian Manhunter is a frustrating experience.  Though technically well-written, writer Rob Williams is broaching a lot of new material here that loses J’onn’s charm and creates what’s essentially a new character.

I imagine J’onn’s state, assuming that’s J’onn, is the result of his consultation with new character Helen.  I'm always happy to welcome a brainy girl to any comic book universe.  Helen seems to combine the roles of Dr. Erdel, who first brought J'onn to earth, and J'onn's sometime companion Diane Meade.  That may be somewhat sexist of me, but based on the scant information given, I'd say Helen's relationship with J'onn is less about science and more about humanism.  She seems to know and care for him.  The trouble is the long time reader of the Martian Manhunter's adventures doesn't.

Some may rightfully argue that the fact that Williams and artist Eddy Barrows imbue such gravitas to Helen exemplifies their skill.  Well, kind of.  It's just that when you've read a lot of comic books, you begin to absorb a sort of short hand.  You know the tropes associated with the history of each character, and you know what elements of a new origin represent the old traditions.  Helen is intriguing, but whether or not we'll find out more about the character is moot.

Williams' research into the history of the Martian Manhunter cannot be in doubt.  He'd be a fool not to since it's all out there for him to read, and he has access to DC's legendary archive.  He could be forgiven for most errors regarding the guest stars, but Superman says something unconscionable. 

What? No love for Supergirl!  

At a guess, Williams is more familiar with the post-Crisis Superman, not the current model.  When John Byrne reintroduced Superman, he specifically intended Kal-El not to be just the Last Son of Krypton, but the last.  Byrne's essay in part meant to eliminate the extended Superman Family that Kal-El acquired over the years.  There were so many Kryptonian survivors in the pre-Crisis that they founded a new planet.

Byrne felt that these characters undermined the power of Superman.  Needless to say, Byrne's Superman didn't have a mighty cousin.  Of course, while that version was still in play, Smallville decided to change course.

Supergirl returns all the time.  She's ingrained in the comic book community's psyche.  By the cusp of the post-Crisis, the bona fide Supergirl, Kara Zor-El reappeared.  In Superman: The Animated Series, Superman found Supergirl in suspended animation on the Kryptonian moon Argo.  In the new 52, Supergirl had her own series, foreshadowing what's going to be stupendous in the fall.  

You may suggest that Williams' overlooking of Supergirl is small potatoes, but is it? From the story's point of view, I suppose it is, and it may fall in the category of DC's new tag line: continuity doesn't matter so long as the story is good, yet knowing that Superman has a cousin means something to the tale.  Superman is trying to connect with J'onn, but by ignoring his cousin, Superman just seems disingenuous and becomes the liar that he's accused of being by every character from "Truth."

On the upside, I like that the promises of the cover do not really fruit in the way expected.  J'onn is not a brute force hero.  He's much more subtle, and his powers myriad.  Jo's defeats the Justice League not by turning into the monster on the cover, except when he does.  He instead employs tactics in keeping with the old J’onn J’onzz.  I’m also intrigued by the Saudi Arabian sneak thief who has bitten off more than she can chew and is more than meets the eye.  No, she’s not a Transformer, at least not literally.  Still watching this one.

Black Canary follows up its debut with a strong second issue that begins with Dinah training her band in hand-to-hand combat and gunplay.  

Dinah’s familiarity with firearms might alarm some older fans, but Black Canary isn’t Batman.  The reason she seldom used firearms is that she didn’t need them.  Her skills in martial arts and her devastating sonic cry was enough.

Lori Loughlin as the Black Canary from the Birds of Prey Television Series

The reason behind the training lies with the mysterious Ditto, who seems to communicate through song.  

Ditto's ability gives Dinah a special rapport with the McGuffin.  Meanwhile, the old lead singer returns to generate sparks, but she seems not to have anything to do with what’s going on, and the enemy just may have a familiar face.

The sleight of hand here is that Brendan Fletcher and Annie Wu reintroduced Black Canary almost with a clean slate, but if you look at her connections with Batgirl, and you go farther back, neither Cameron Stewart or Brendan Fletcher denied the past.  Batgirl’s and Black Canary’s new 52 Birds of Prey history exists.  Since they crossed over with Batman, that exists as well, and Canary already stated she was a member of the Justice League.  In any case, the revelation puts a nice capper on the cliffhanger.

King’s Phantom finishes the first story with the thwarting of an assassination attempt at a peace summit.  The actual Phantom does most of the investigative work, and that makes sense since Walker is a journalist.  That said Lothar’s relationship with Karma a witch from the King’s Watch allows him access to the Seven Nations’ Conference.  

Humorous repartee ripples through the dialogue of Walker, Guran and Lothar as they make a momentous statement based on epiphany.

I really enjoyed this Phantom series, and I liked Sandy Jarrell's and Ryan Cody’s artwork.  It’s clear there wasn’t a lot of time between issues.  Cody did a decent job, providing illustration that moved the story forward and could be very subtle at times.  It was a disservice to Cody to include a prologue from King’s Watch.  Michael Laming’s artwork is light years ahead of most in terms of quality.  Cody should not have to endure the comparison.

Gravedigger is pure pulp goodness.  The story could have come out of Blackmask magazine, been published as prose by Hardcase Crime and filmed as a sequel to Prime Cut.

Professional Criminal Digger McCrae cools his heels at a resort owned by Sergio Castellari local Miami mob boss, or at least connected.  Digger becomes involved with the boss man's daughter Eva.  Surprisingly, the boss is liberal when it comes to his daughter.

Jealous wannabe boyfriend Dominic isn't, and what he cannot have, he will kill.

The rotten put up job forces Digger to go on the run, and while giving Dominc’s boys the slip, he runs into an old acquaintance.

If the Rated R, grindhouse glory courtesy of Christopher Mills doesn't attract your attention, the art by former Batman Adventures artist Rick Burchett must.  Highest recommendation.