Tuesday, December 29, 2015

POBB December 23, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 23, 2015
Ray Tate

This week in the Pick of the Brown Bag, I choose the best and the worst from the following yield: All-New X-Men, Batman and the Man from UNCLE, The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage, Henchgirl, John Carter Warlord of Mars, Justice League 3001, Patsy Walker a.k.a. Hellcat, henceforth known as Hellcat, Spider-Woman and the new title Boom title Venus. 

John Carter Warlord of Mars follows well trod terrain. Though the story’s a little stale, I’m still recommending the comic for the artwork.  

Illustrator Ariel Medel just lavishes lessons in anatomy to these panels.

Neither are these figures expressionless models.  All of the attention to detail and emotion turns an otherwise trite exercise into a beautiful tapestry enhanced by the colors of Nanjan Jamberi.

After two impressive issues, Henchgirl I’m sorry to say loses its balance.  Instead of following through with central character Mary’s reform or her slippage back into the arena of crime, writer/artist/creator Kristen Gudsnuk instead isolates Mary and her friends in their apartment.  An alien invasion rears its ugly head, and I was completely flummoxed by this development.  I was under the impression that Henchgirl’s universe was strictly low-level, but Gudsnuk without warning amps everything up to DCU standards, if not execution.  Gudsnuk’s ghoulish sense of humor doesn’t always hit the right notes.  Of course comedy is subjective.  So, a Superman/Lois Lane parody incorporating realistic damage just may be up your alley.  Not mine.

The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage returns with the same creative team that made this title such a sleeper hit.  At least with me.  The original miniseries established a husband and wife team of ghost-breakers, but this partnership lay in the past.  Hwen, the husband, died in battle, but Shan refused to take that lying down.  She searched for a means to bring back his ghost, and now she’s trying to grant her ethereal match substance.

Doctor Mirage wasn’t just another Dr. Strange rip-off.  Instead writer Jen Van Meter kept the supernatural elements in check and interlaced them with reality.  The magic wasn’t outlandish.  Even the otherworldly realm Shan visited didn’t fetch too far.  She created a system of rules that really made sense.  For example, ghosts crave objects of power; this is their currency.  They barter favors for stories.  The setup resulted in a 1970s style television series vibe contained within a comic book, and this worked out quite well with artist Roberto De La Torre’s comic strip sensibilities.  The combination exhibited Modesty Blaise styled visuals meshed with a Second Sight narrative.

In Series Two, Dr. Mirage begins the second stage of her plan.  The way to Hwen's substance lies with a scroll.

Unfortunately, due to the damage done to Shan’s and Hwen’s home, the scroll lies in tatters despite being locked away.  Thus begins Shan’s quest for another copy of the scroll.

Van Meter must be credited for eliminating the possible quest angle right from the start.  The plot doesn’t follow a gamey rhythm, which is refreshing.  Instead, Shan knows right from the start where she can find another scroll.

Before we get here though, Shan and Hwen must tackle money issues.  One of the keen elements in the previous Dr. Mirage is that although Shan does pro bono work, she’s a paid professional not a superhero.

The opening job is an interesting one.  The vignette seems straightforward, but Shan and Hwen uncover numerous twists, indicating that this was no mystery for a mere amateur sleuth.  It needed Dr. Mirage’s involvement.

Back on the hunt for the scroll, Van Meter sets Dr. Mirage apart again from its magic-based peers by bringing in a conversation about sex magic and LGBT issues, but this is sauce for the goose.  The purpose of the visit is to encounter arch magic user Selene and her family, create unforeseen havoc and introduce a massive enigma for Dr. Mirage to solve.  Outstanding. 

So remember how I stated that all roads lead to Tigra? 

Without Tigra, Hellcat would not exist.  Patsy Walker flashed her red hair long before Tigra.  In fact Patsy Walker is older than Spider-Man.  

Only Nazi fighters like Captain America can boast an earlier creation date.  Surprisingly, Ka-Zar can also claim such longevity.

After conquering the racks with her own series, Patsy disappeared for over twenty years.  She next showed up in the 1970s’ Amazing Adventures which spotlit the Beast.  

Because the Beast owed Patsy a favor, he introduced her to the Avengers where she expressed a desire to become a superhero.

Avengers #144

The outfit belonged to Greer Grant Nelson alias the Cat alias Tigra.  

Avengers #147

The statement Patsy made could be truer in the context of fiction.  Greer became the Cat in an attempt to recreate the Super-Soldier formula.  This time by Dr. Joanne Tumolo.  So it is theoretically possible that Greer secreted excess formula, and it was absorbed into the suit.  When Patsy donned the literal Cat suit, her body may have soaked up some of the formula, now mixed with Greer’s pheromones.  In other words, Patsy absorbed a bit of Tigra, and Tigra is why she became a superhero in the first place.

The nineties saw the end of Hellcat.  Driven nuts by her second husband Damien Hellstrom, Patsy Walker commits suicide.  Lots of people were pretty cutesy with the diminishment.  That’s what you get for marrying the Son of Satan, and so forth.  I however believe that the death of Hellcat was just another indication of the corrupting dank of the period.  Fortunately, Hellcat didn’t stay dead.  At the advent of the twenty-first century, Hawkeye in an attempt to save Bobbi Morse instead freed Hellcat from Mephisto’s realm.  

Thanks to the success of Squirrel Girl and Marvel’s/Disney’s laudable bid to address gender equality, Hellcat returns.

At first Hellcat seems like a carbon copy of Squirrel Girl.  There’s pro-feminist artwork.  That is Hellcat’s breasts aren’t dropping to her knees or pushed up to her chin.  However, there were very few instances in which this happened.  Artists by and large consistently drew Hellcat as a normally proportioned athletic woman not a bad girl.  Artist Brittaney Williams is merely following a tradition.

The art in Hellcat however is a unique type that’s been influenced by cartooning, especially manga.  I’m not suggesting that Williams’ illustration is lacking.  It’s just different, but it’s also the user-friendly ilk of Erica Henderson’s Squirrel Girl.

I generally like Williams’ work on Hellcat.  Though I’m not fond her taking artistic license at times to opt for the super-deformed style of manga.  That’s not a dig at Williams.  I just don’t like this technique at all.

In terms of tone, Hellcat frequently mimics Squirrel Girl.  Hellcat meets up with somebody that seems to be a villain but turns out to be misguided and misjudged.  Hellcat instead of beating him up—okay, she hits him once— becomes friends with Ian.  

This is the positive nurturing message definitely seeking the female demographic.  It’s how a lot of people imagine the media that women will like.  What they fail to consider is that a helluva lot of women went to see Mad Max: Fury Road  and Fast and Furious as well.  A whole kit and caboodle of women wouldn’t be caught dead at a Rom-Com.  To presume that you can pigeon-hole women into liking specific genres is folly.

So, Hellcat was in danger of becoming too friendly and too kind and too overtly aimed at a specific audience, but halfway through the book, writer Kate Leth departs from the path of acorns.  She characterizes Patsy as unsinkable despite facing several churning waves.  That persona agrees with Patsy’s past characterization.  Given her rotten history, Patsy easily wins the contest for most resilient Marvel character.  Of course, it wasn’t all bad.

Leth makes good use of Patsy’s deeper roots in Marvel history.  This aspect sets Hellcat farther away from squirrel country.  Don’t worry if you don’t know who Buzz, Heddy or Tubs is.  Leth and Williams explain through dialogue and art; if you still can’t quite make it—editorial is there for you.

The second issue of Spider-Woman improves on the first.  The now unexplainably pregnant Spider-Woman follows Captain Marvel’s advice and goes to a special maternity hospital specializing in aliens.

As you can tell, the Skrulls in Spider-Woman are a might different from the Skrulls in Groot, and they hold a grudge.

I don’t exactly know how Spider-Woman became known to the Skrulls as the slaughterer.  I assume this occurred in a Bendis Skrull Invasion related title, which I thoughtfully skipped over.  However, the art by Javier Rodriguez and Alvaro Lopez spells out how just much Skrulls hate Spider-Woman.  I mean, they even know her by her secret identity.  That’s how you know a villain hates you.  He takes the time out of his busy schedule to find out not just what you call yourself but who you really are.

This issue of All-New X-Men isn’t as interesting as the debut.  Cyclops does a lot of angsty scene chewing after being locked up.


In sharp contrast, the X-Men and National Lampoon have a pizza party.

It’s no surprise that the best scenes belong to Wolverine, now being portrayed by the artist formerly known as X-23.

Yeah, just about every moment focused on Wolverine is priceless.  Writer Dennis Hopeless integrates her new status, her relationship with boyfriend Angel and her mutant abilities all in one awesome package.

Justice League 3001 is simply amazing.  Though known more for his funny, Keith Giffin teams up with erstwhile partner J.M. DeMatteis to produce a dead serious issue of Justice League 3001.  If you haven’t been paying attention to this title, now’s a good time to do so.

Briefly, in the future, Umbrella-like organization Cadmus expanded to a planet.  Firestorm becomes a key figure, and he clones his colleagues from the Justice League.  This isn’t a typical cloning process.  Rather it’s more like a Dollhouse splice.  Cadmus fused the Justice League’s memories with those of host bodies.  Sometimes the host’s attitude overwhelmed the persona of the Leaguer.  This occurred in the case of Superman, killed last issue.  In other instances, the visa-versa, such as in the case of Wonder Woman.

Terri possesses the power of the Flash but retains her self.  Batman was a perfect blend, and Guy Gardner improves with the sex change, while his host asserts herself rarely.

The story was so far amusing with Lois Lane appearing to be the League’s patron turns out to be their worst enemy, especially for Superman.  However, she proved to be just as incompetent as the Justice League reborn, which behaved more like the League created by surprise Giffin, DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire.

Things started to change when the genuine Supergirl showed up.  Giffin had some fun with her, but last issue he created a threat deserving of the League’s mettle.  The Scullions, seemingly unstoppable robots programmed to kill the Justice League.

The key to Justice League 3001’s lies in the way in which the League behaves, and how Giffin and DeMatteis upends the whole clone basis for the book.  Giffin indicated that Firestorm could clone the League over and over again as needed.  So, Superman could come back in a much better form.  Except now he cannot.  The Scullions destroyed Cadmus World and the technology behind the cloning.  Such a move creates urgency, and the League’s self-sacrifice gives credence to the characters.

The saga unfolds with flashback to how the League escapes the wrath of the Scullions, and it all rests on Batman’s shoulders: from ordering Guy Gardner to outmaneuvering Supergirl to save her life.  This is so Justice League and why every fan of the team, Supergirl and/or Batman needs to pick up book. 

The Man from UNCLE movie was at once a masterful reboot and a synch to the classic television series.  I was as usual surprised that Warner Brothers was behind the whole affair.  The question of rights however turned out to have a double boon. Without them, DC a Warner Brothers property wouldn’t have done this splendid team-up between the 1960s Batman and the Man from UNCLE.

The team-up begins with UNCLE agent Napoleon Solo dealing with THRUSH in the sewer.  Note the typical nondescript 1960s fashions.  It’s a little surprising to see killing in anything associated with the 1960s Batman series, but that’s the milieu of UNCLE.

As the story progresses, Napoleon investigates and discovers a Batman villain’s quest to join THRUSH, thus making her doubly dangerous.

Olga, Queen of the Cossacks is an actual Batman villain.  She was portrayed to the hilt by Anne Baxter.

We get none of Baxter’s comedic nuances with Olga.  Rather, writer Jeff Parker and designer David Hahn turn Olga into a credible THRUSH asset.

The story comes to a head when Ilya Kuryakin arrives in the nick of time to save Solo.  Unfortunately, they soon find themselves both back in the clutches of the wayward femme fatale, or should that be nefarious babushka?

Ilya is correct.  He instead extricates Solo and himself out of Olga's trap through a most clever means that also strikes at the heart of what UNCLE is about.

At the same time, Batman and Robin follow a breakout of the Penguin, and the dirty bird gets the upper hand on the Dynamic Duo.  Penguin for some reason always focuses on Batman’s ride.  This isn’t the first time Penguin has attempted to abscond with the Batmobile.  The man has taste.

Although it seems that the Man from UNCLE tops Batman’s role in the book, the encounter with Penguin leads up to a fairly impressive cliffhanger that’s all Batman.

Venus is the least inhabitable planet in the solar system.  It’s the closest natural equivalent to hell.  It’s heat can destroy the bonds that hold organic matter together.  So those aware of the planetary fact may wonder exactly how this comic book’s premise can even be considered.

The Venusian pioneers head to a terraformed Venus, but it’s still a pretty nasty place to visit.  The idea in Venus is that terraforming doesn’t work like the ill-fated Genesis Project of Star Trek lore.  Rather it’s a slow and painstaking process that only edges a planet to the very cusp of earth standard.  You still need to work to make your dreams of colonization come true.  This particular group of human space travelers must work harder.

Venus brings to mind Star Trek Voyager.  Some may consider Voyager to be the red-headed stepchild of the Star Trek universe, but shut up.  I liked Voyager, and I like Venus as well.

The Federation appointed Kathryn Janeway Captain of Voyager right from the getgo.  It’s easy to see the parallel between she and Commander now Captain Pauline Manashe.  

Janeway early on was forced to delegate Starfleet duties to her quarry the Maquis.  This was due to the damage wrought by an Unfathomable Cosmic Entity called the Caretaker shooting them, almost literally, to the Delta Quadrant.

The mission to Venus may not have encountered a UCE, but their quest faces tragedy before they even land on the wretched planet.  The ship gets diced by an unexpected meteor shower.  This necessitates the need for a change in command structure.  Things get worse from there.

The classic power-source turned time-bomb situation was used well in all the Star Trek incarnations, and Venus’ creative team uses it equally well to force the crew from the relative comfort and safety of the ship to the shaky transport systems that will cart the survivors to the first Venus base.

Venus is exciting Star Trek friendly fare that features a conflict of characters and a strong female lead.  The art more than excellent, and the science fiction aesthetic solid.

Always Remember.  Every road leads to Tigra.

Monday, December 21, 2015

POBB December 16, 2015

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 16, 2015
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag returns with reviews of We Are Robin, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Thor, Justice League United, Justice League and Batgirl.  

Before we begin, let me just say that.  Yes, I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and it was damn good.  J.J. Abrams said that the viewer would love the new characters as much as the old ones, and he was right.  I felt more while watching this movie than any of the prequels.  It's magnificent.

As for the comic books...

Justice League may at first feel like wheel-spinning because the League now only consisting of Wonder Woman, Power Ring, Cyborg, Mister Miracle and Steve Trevor haven’t moved from the the battle-scarred site where the Anti-Monitor killed Darkseid.

The death of Darkseid called their opponents from Apokolips.  Kanto, Steppenwolf, Lashina and Kalibak.  

Wonder Woman, also the narrator, catches up the reader on the status of the other Leaguers.  They haven’t budged from their new roles as New New Gods.  This also adds to the feeling of deja vu.  However, a lot happens in this evocative Francis Manapul illustrated issue.  With Geoff Johns, he reintroduces Big Barda.

Barda and Scott pick up their interplay as if the cosmos hasn’t been rebooted several times over.  Their relationship triggers some deeply buried feelings in Steve and Diana.  Johns clarifies the Superman/Wonder Woman relationship that nobody buys.

It looks like that this idea will be going away soon.

In addition to the main contention, Metron begins to unfold his ultimate plan, but some weird things happen at the Rock of Eternity.

That’s Mary Batson, Billy’s sister, portraying a magical version of Doctor Who’s emergency programme one.

Finally, Myrina Black and her daughter Grail plot something foul for the now deceased Darkseid, but is this the smart thing to do?  I say you drop Darkseid's body on Venus and be done with it.  In any case, despite the familiarity, this issue of Justice League has a lot going for it.

Justice League United ends its run by returning Adam and Alanna Strange back to normal.  Adam metamorphosed into a nigh omniscient cosmic entity that fused with the Zeta Beam.  

Quite frankly DC sucks at facilitating such cosmic beings.  Spies and Silver Surfers just don’t work in the DCU.  I have a feeling that Jack Kirby tailored his New Gods and Galactus’ power cosmic for each comic book company.

Adam's condition allowed him to pick out bad spots and send Justice League away teams to put out the fire, few people liked this turn of events.  Myself included.  That's what the trouble alert is for.

Writer Jeff Parker recreates the origin of Alanna whom Jeff Lemire transformed into a native human.  Parker though finds a means to tie her back into the planet Rann.  Whether or not this was his intention is anybody's guess, but I lean toward a planned restoration.  Perhaps, not Adam Strange's resurrection, but definitely Alanna’s.

The main part of the story details how Adam Strange merged with the Zeta Beam in the first place, and man, oh, man is that confusing.  For one thing, the mission involves the House of Secrets.  The House was indirectly featured in Justice League Dark.  Constantine won the House of Mystery in a poker game, and it became JLD’s headquarters.  If we accept that the House of Secrets and the House of Mystery are sister structures, then the idea of the House of Secrets being some kind of extra-dimensional parasite falls short of a good explanation.

We Are Robin ties in with the Robin War, but you don't actually need to know that.  The book opens with Commissioner Gordon now Batman working with Dick Grayson.  

Writer Lee Bermejo implies a helluva lot in these scenes.  First and foremost, Gordon must have deduced Bruce Wayne and Batman were one in the same.  Probably a long time ago.  So when Batman returns maybe he’ll just not mention it.  Two, Gordon reveals why he not only accepted Batman but also Robin, a teen sidekick.  

This idea of child endangerment was first proposed in comics by Frank Miller in The Dark Knight Returns.

Sure.  Others outside of comics floated the idea around, but Miller was the first to put it into print.

Gordon's rationalization at once satisfies in context, and it also brings up a lot of history in the way children sometimes had to grow up faster in the United States.  You can see examples of maturation in movies and television programs set in the depression or during a time of war.  Children would sink their savings from a paper route into a rationed food budget or to supplement the income of sisters struggling to be surrogate parents after their fathers were drafted and their mothers passed.

Anyway, Gordon and Grayson work on behalf of the Robins.  When last we saw the We Robins, they fought a Talon.  One of the scientifically undead assassins controlled by the Court of Owls; introduced by Scott Snyder in Batman and nested in time by Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray during the Jonah Hex chronicles of All-Star Western.  

The gist of this is that the Court of Owls have always been terrorizing Gotham City, and they in fact looked to groom Dick Grayson as the ultimate of Talons.  The Court even referred to the Nth Talon as the Gray Son.  

Batman dismantled the Court of Owls…

…but this left the Talons to fend for themselves, and it seems that they got organized, got even crazier and decided to go to war against the Robins.  The ultimate purpose to choose among them the Gray Son.

Premise..meh, but Lee Bermejo uses this fuzzy basis for great effect.   The Talons really believe that Red Hood and Red Robin will stage a blood match for them, and you know what? Before the new 52, this probably would have happened.  Once again, everything in the new 52 is better.  Red Hood is the mean one, as Superman referred to him in Batman and Superman, but he’s sane and a member of the Batman Family that includes Tim Drake aka Red Robin.  So, he’s not going to kill Red Robin for the greater good.  Nope.  They’re going to totally screw the bad guys’ plans and in an energetic way.

Batgirl is ambitious, but it really needed more issues to comfortably carry out the entire story.  The main story centers on Spoiler being hunted by a Gotham Yakuza. 

The trouble with this issue is that it relies on the flashback to do too much.  Introduce a Japanese godmother.  Bring the Spoiler back into the adventures.  Give a reason for the conflict.  Explain Batgirl’s informant.

In addition to the return of Spoiler, Batgirl tackles four other plots.  

Babs and her friend Nadimah approach Burnside residents to gather data for their urban planning project.  

At the same time, Babs must deal with Frankie wanting to be her partner and gaining an implant from Batgirl's Q to combat her multiple sclerosis.

Finally, Babs also fosters her budding romance with Luke Fox, the artist formerly known as Batwing, and she's forgetting things which is near impossible given her photographic memory.  This may have something to do with a dream that's not a dream.

Ultimately, writers Brendan Fletcher and Cameron Scott juggle too many balls.  Overwhelming the reader.  The audience can't become invested in what’s going on because the writers fail to explore the plots in a meaningful way.  Unfortunate because all the ideas are good, and each should have been evolved in single spotlight issues.  In other words, introduce the Japanese Yakuza first.  Spoiler interferes in a second.  Batgirl gets wind of the hit on Spoiler.  Batgirl saves Spoiler from the Yakuza.  Batgirl kiboshes the gang in Burnside as a result of her urban planning project.  Batgirl learns about Frankie.  Batgirl connects with Luke as she remembers her “nightmares,” etcetera, etcetera.  That’s six to seven issues.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is stuck in the sixties, literally.  Only her friend Nancy remembers Squirrel Girl, and a certain doctor of her acquaintance.

That of course is Dr. Victor Von Doom, a bug-shit crazy Doctor Doom from the eighties, who also knows Jubilee.

The best part of this brief affair is how Doom, a man of intense propriety refers to Jubilee by her full name: Jubilation.  I mean.  Seriously.  How can you not love that?  As the story progresses, events grow whackier.  

Punisher fans for example are going to hate themselves for not picking up Unbeatable Squirrel Girl since he has his first cameo since Battle World or Secret Wars or whatever right here.  I don’t know what’s funnier.  The Punisher’s reaction to Doom.  The Punisher referring to Doom as Doc.  The Punisher smiling as the Punisher not Frankencastle.  The Punisher accepting cosplay as normal.  The Punisher saying “My Bad.”

You’re probably saying to yourself by now that this Ryan North doesn’t know jack about the Marvel Universe.  How else could he characterize the Punisher so badly.  Guess what? Since Marvel did a soft reboot, the Punisher characterization is valid.  For all I know, the Powers That Be at Marvel are trying to humanize Punisher back to his beginnings in The Amazing Spider-Man.

North also scribes some ego-laden dialogue for Doom that’s a pleasure to read.  North balances Doom’s brilliance, with his evil and his narcissism.  The only thing Squirrel Girl fans might object to is the lack of Squirrel Girl.  Wrong.

More serious Marvel fare can be found in the latest issue of Thor.  The Thunder Goddess must deal with Cul, brother to Odin, and his Thunder Guard in a duel on Bifrost, the Rainbow Bridge.

Fortunately, the numbers change when Heimdall chooses sides.  No prize to the one who figures out which.  Heimdall transports Thor to Alfheim, home of the Light Elves, currently being slaughtered by Dark Elves, designed straight from the movie Thor: The Dark World.

While Thor rages to stop a war, our cover god Loki plies his trade in a bid to find a place at Malekith’s table of evil.  The question of course on everybody’s mind is what’s Loki playing at?

Yeah, my sentiments exactly.  After Al Ewing put in so much work to redeem Loki, it doesn’t look like Thor writer Jason Aaron is going to poison the mead.  Loki also likes the new Thor.  This looks like a classic Loki scheme to eliminate a greater evil, and I can’t imagine another character from Thor doesn’t feel the same way.