Wednesday, January 20, 2016

POBB January 13, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
January 13, 2016
by
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag.  In this blog I choose to review the worst and best from the comic book racks.  I also tweet itsy-bitsy reviews on Twitter: #PickoftheBrownBag.  Our reviews this week include Agents of SHIELD, All-New Wolverine and X-Men, Batman/Superman, Batman and the Man from UNCLE, The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage, Doc Savage, Doctor Who, the Mighty Thor, Onyx, the Radioactive Spider-Gwen and Red Sonja.  First, Catwoman.


It's tradition.  Detective meets an old friend that you never heard of.  Friend gets murdered.  Detective vows to find killer.  In the case of Catwoman, Selina met with her favorite fence that you never heard of last issue.  The fence talked her into stealing a diamond with a reputation.  When Selina returned with the gem, she found her fence dead and under the scrutiny of New York's finest.


Frank Tieri's Catwoman creates a fairplay mystery in a short span of pages.  Selina makes for a fine detective.  Her cunning, pessimism and observation combine to ferret out the culprit.  The satisfying explanation provides the opportunity for a beautifully orchestrated escape that’s pure Catwoman; addresses a side effect from DC's penchant to place their protagonists by and large in fictional cities and grants resonance to staple supporting characters despite they're not actually being present.

As Tieri’s tale continues to unfold, Selina scratches past the surface to uncover ties to Gotham City.  


Don’t worry.  I’m not spoiling anything.  Clayface is just a henchman.  He is getting around this week. 

The girl helping Selina is Alice Tesla, an Ann Nocenti addition to Catwoman’s mythology.  It’s nice to see her again, but her presence indicates more than just favoritism.  Frank Tieri is very much a comic book writer.  He doesn’t just introduce his own ideas.  He utilizes past contributions as well.  Batman Returns, Nocenti’s run, the new 52 Clayface.  There’s no ego involved.  He’s simply out to entertain with the best story he can craft using whatever is available to him.


Inaki Miranda and Eve De La Cruz aid and abet Tieri with a stunning visual pulp presentation.  The warm glow of street-light colors and breezy blues offset dynamic action and a calm, cool cat.

Batman/Superman takes place in the World's Finest's past.  These gents are the bona fide articles.  Superman's all powered up.  Batman is Bruce Wayne in high detective mode.  They’re not quite friends yet.  So if you're persnickety, Tom Taylor’s past fancy likely occurs during the interim between the Justice League's first and second published adventure where Batman and Superman admit that after their first encounter they started working as a team.

Taylor's tale begins with a disaster in space.

The presence of a black, possibly lesbian astronaut pays tribute to a pair of ground breaking real life astronauts.  The late Dr. Sally Ride was gay.  Dr. Mae Carol Jemison is the first black woman in space.  Diversity always exists.  When hate filled demagogues start blistering the air shut them down with history.  

Of course, one can argue DC isn't really being as open as all that.  Since, they're essentially having the black "guy" die.  Yeah, this is a Superman comic book.  He doesn't let people die.


Superman's rescue of Commander Randall is full of John Williams' theme song.  It's staged perfectly with a subtle repair followed by Randall's vision of her extraterrestrial savior.  This is where you must compliment artist Robson Rocha for his perfect pacing.  The panels of the comic book create its rhythm.

Superman's actions recall the best of the character.  Grant Morrison went out of his way to depict Superman as kind of arrogant.  Geoff Johns shot for tough.  Taylor aims for hero and succeeds.  The rescue serves as the perfect intro to the world of Superman and an important prologue to the main story.

Superman’s rescue dovetails into the advent of a mystery, and when there's mystery, there's Batman.  Especially if the dying clue demands him.  

Batman also gets a spectacular introduction.  Taylor wisely pits Batman against a foe that completely overwhelms police.


You need a vigilante or a hero to take down something like Clayface.  If you're confused about the Karlo reference.  It's just a superficial change meant to support the new 52's unspoken edict of returning DC to its roots.  Basil Karlo was the first Clayface, an Edgar Wallace styled baddie first introduced in the nineteen forties by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.  The monstrous form of the name arose at the cusp of the sixties in the guise of Matt Hagen.  The architects of the new 52 combined the two and gave Clayface a Batman Animated Series edge.


Superman comes off as the better man in this early encounter with Batman.  He really tries to get on Batman's good side, and Batman's fairly unreasonable.  This initial friction however subsides when Superman and Batman travel to the scene of the crime.

Taylor takes the classic methods of a parlor room detective story and extrapolates far beyond its confines.  He then introduces an insidious idea that pisses off both Batman and Superman.  Nothing unites these two more than injustice.


Fitting for the World's Greatest Detective, Batman solves the puzzle quite quickly, and Taylor reveals the culprits at the conclusion.  It's not important to know who did it.  Although one of the characters is a well known persona.  The how and the why are the important things.  So damn good.


In the previous issue of Batman and the Man from UNCLE.  Olga, Queen of the Cossacks, joined THRUSH.  At the same time, the Penguin attempted to steal Batman’s ride again, and do in the Dynamic Duo, using dynamite of course.  This dastardly death trap failed at the about the same time that Napoleon Solo and Ilya Kuryakin extricated themselves from Olga’s not so tender mercies.  We left off with a suspicious mass breakout from the Arkham Institute.


There’s a lot of cleverness to be found in the second chapter of Batman and the Man from UNCLE .  The story opens up with Batman playing on the Penguin’s ego to make the bird squawk about his employer.

Thanks to artist David Hahn, Batman resembles Adam West, but his brilliant mind is ubiquitous to the best of Batman in any incarnation.  Batman doesn’t seem like Batman when the writer dumbs him down.  Jeff Parker does the opposite.  So Batman immediately becomes Batman.  Not just the Adam West Batman.  

The interrogation coincides with three separate threads that will weave together near the conclusion.  


Bruce Wayne intends to display a new satellite at a swanky party.

Anybody see the insider joke?

UNCLE suspects Mr. Wayne to be linked to THRUSH.  The way Mr. Waverly hashes out the circumstantial evidence adds conviction to what would otherwise be a ridiculous charge.


Meanwhile, THRUSH recruits the Arkham escapees whether they like it or not, and you can bet your Quatloos where they’ll be heading to next.


The twists and links such as a Waverly/Alfred connection are perfectly reasonable, and UNCLE and Batman lore ground the story in a strong fusion of pop culture iconography.


Batman and the Man from UNCLE furthermore benefits from a feminist angle.


And you know that if Barbara Gordon is in attendance, Batgirl can’t be far behind.


The Silversmith is a magician par excellence, and his skill in the use of mirrors cannot be matched, but is there truth in the rumors?  Do people that take part in his reflective trickery seem different afterward?  Even insidious? The Doctor and Josie intend to find out.


The third issue of Doctor Who starring the eighth Doctor and whole-cloth companion creation Josie Day is perfect.  George Mann's story is interesting.  The adventure is complex enough that it requires the Doctor's interference.


The Doctor is in superb form.  The pacing for this standalone adventure is well measured.  Mann and artist Emma Vieceli moreover create an army of ghoulish creatures that neatly straddle the genres of science fiction and horror.  In short, everything you want in a Doctor Who maniac-of-the-week tale can be found right here.


Doc Savage and his modern cohorts face a made-to-order earthquake extortion scheme that somehow involves a dead parachuter.  Hear that twilling? It’s the unconscious quirk Doc Savage issues when curious.


The meat of the second chapter begins when Doc and his most recent aide-de-camp Longshot investigate and discover a clue that echoes back into Doc’s past.  It turns out that Doc Savage had a group of recurring arch foes not just John Sunlight.

The reason that Doc’s antagonists seldom returned is that they died within their own plots—a common pulp malady.  Doc sometimes rescued them from their evil tendencies via brain operations and re-education at his Crime College.  

This peculiar method of eradicating crime can solely be credited to Doc’s defacto creator Lester Dent.  While other writers have in the past found Doc’s practice uncomfortable and equated it with lobotomy, the actual adventures tell a different story.  Doc’s method of brain surgery was precise.  It did not involve parlor butchery with an ice pick.  Most importantly, Doc’s surgery was fictional.  Therefore, it could be and was perfect.

In any case, the current case pulls in a flashback to another adventure which writer Chris Roberson dubs the Golden Horde.  Although, this story never took place in the canon, Roberson recalls details from Man of Bronze, The Golden Peril and They Died Twice.  


The guest appearance of Princess Monja is welcome especially under the expert illustrative ability of artists Cezar Rejak and Dijo Lima.


In DC’s run of Doc Savage Doc secretly wed Monja and had a son.  Roberson suggests nothing between the two apart from friendship.  In the books, Monja was very interested in Doc Savage, but Doc was a romantic misfit due to his upbringing.  Monja though seen in action would be a good match.


Shan Fong-Mirage in attempting to discover a means to bring substance to her ghostly husband Hwen, unwittingly catalyzed the release of a dark foe that proceeded to “kill” the spirits inhabiting an old friend’s residence.  This issue Shan and Hwen attempt to correct their errors.  


The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage is such a pleasure.  The art by Roberto De La Torre and the writing by Jen Van Meter make this book seem like an adventure comic strip from the nineteen sixties and seventies.  Its realism is key to the success of the story.

The magic in Dr. Mirage is limited.  We’re not in Ditko/Lee Dr. Strange territory.  The magic is bound by rules and protocols.  The ghosts are merely shades of their former selves.  The magic is ritualized.

The story begins with Shan attempting to discover the fiend’s identity.  He ends up being Denis De Walt.  The name will mean nothing to anybody.  It’s not a spoiler.  He was your basic garden-variety pervert that turned to blood magic.  Women died at his hands, and that proved to be his downfall.

His identity isn’t important.  Van Meter’s more interested in what he is and what’s his plan.  It’s a doozy, and it makes sense given the axioms of the magical world.


The revelation forces Shan to do something she really doesn’t want to do.

This whole sequence with its authentic depiction of frustration could very well be De La Torre’s best to date.  You really get the sense of how much Shan doesn’t want to revisit Linton March, a tie-in to the first Dr. Mirage series that I didn’t expect.

The last defender of her planet Onyx traveled to the earth to eradicate the Spore, an intelligent alien contagion.  The earth she met was a future world, in our respect, that knew of such things as mutants and telepaths.  They never met aliens before, but they knew that such encounters were inevitable.  They didn’t count on the Spore or Onyx.


Onyx quickly earned the trust of the human, female members of the military—especially the telepath Abby—sent to investigate the original incursion.  Things went snafu quickly, and Onyx found herself at the deep end of a Spore-General Mount fusion.


Two surprise rescues define the pleasing conclusion of Gabriel Rodriguez’s and Chris Ryall’s love letter to Rom The Space Knight.  In addition to that, Ryall and Rodriguez map out the relationship between Onyx and Abby, bring it in a slam-bang battle against one grotesque monster, and distinguish the white-armored cyborg from  the noble Rom with a bittersweet farewell.  I recommend the whole miniseries.

Thor meets Loki, who appears to be part of Makelith’s Round Table of Evil but also the same Loki that Al Ewing more or less reformed.  That said.  Loki is Loki, and above all, he’s a trickster.  So, he very well may have his own agenda to promote.

Thor however isn’t willing to listen too long to Loki’s weaving words because unbeknownst to Loki, he and the Thunder Goddess have a history.


Yes, that’s the Cat-Loki from The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl.

The first strike, arguably justified, demands a response.  So, Loki calls forth an army, but it doesn’t go as planned.


While Thor and Loki battle, the rest of Army Loki fight amongst themselves.  Mind you, it’s still not as bad as the Doctors arguing and undermining each other in IDW’s horribly disappointing The Four Doctors.  Since Loki is a villain, the squabbling is pretty amusing.

In addition, Thor has even bigger bats to deal with in the belfry.

I’m betting that Jason Aaron was inspired by the abandoned Allied plans of using bat-bombs against the Axis. 

Russell Dauterman and colorist Matthew Wilson have been just hitting the bullseye ever since they joined The Mighty Thor.  This issue however grants you an example of Dauterman’s more subtle art.  Take a look at the “trustworthy” Loki.


If you didn’t know him, you might fall for such a face.  The liquid eyes, the pitiful expression.  You might give him five dollars because he forgot his wallet and wants to get home.  You might give him your number.  He’s drawn just so perfectly as a trap.

Robert E. Howard created Red Sonja in the short story “Shadow of the Vulture.”  A comic book fan of Red Sonja would probably fail to recognize this gunslinging, saber-rattling Ukrainian as the chainmail bikini wearing gal of her dreams.  

It’s fair to say that most of Red Sonja’s comic book existence is owed more to Roy Thomas than Howard.  Stan Lee rewarded Thomas with the Conan properties, and Thomas decided to reintroduce Red Sonja as a Barbarian styled mercenary that fit right into Conan’s world.


I bring this up because Marguerite Bennett’s Red Sonja departs remarkably from Marvel’s and Dynamite’s She-Devil.  Oh, she’s still in the Conan age of weirdness.  She’s still a Hyrkanian.  She even wears the very same uniform that Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith tailored in the debut Conan.

Bennett changes Sonja’s persona.  She’s almost a light-hearted nevertheless dangerous lass seeking adventure.  She’s not the pragmatic, hard-edged brigand from past comics series.

Never without a sense of humor, this version of Sonja is more likely to crack jokes and without the encouragement of ale.  The Sonja of the past was a loner.  This Sonja has friends.  Before Dynamite, Sonja would only bed the man who defeated her, as demanded by the goddess that saved her from the madness and the helplessness she felt after being raped.  

Her libido was never addressed because Sonja simply was the best.  Nobody could have her.  Nobody would have her.  When Sonja arrived at Dynamite, the story of Sonja became legend, but Bennett really throws that whole limiting of sex idea out.  This isn’t surprising given Bennett’s liberal approach to sexuality.  In Bombshells, she dared to characterize Batwoman as more than just a toaster that talks tersely and demonstrated Batwoman’s love for Maggie Sawyer in greater sensual detail.


In the new Red Sonja, Sonja’s sexuality is as a part of her as it is to anybody.  We see her dream and imagine about sex and sexually charged imagery in between scoping out the changes in Hyrkania.

So that’s the outline.  Does this mean anything?  It’s difficult to say.  On the whole, the change in mood and attitude brings a farcical atmosphere to Sonja’s new premiere.  It’s not Monty Python and the Holy Grail nor Blackadder.  However, it’s also not something Lionsgate might produce.  

The story begins with Sonja slicing and dicing a monster.  That’s in synch, but Sonja is friendly toward the King of Hyrkania.  She’s a welcome sight at court, and that’s just bizarre.  However, I can’t really gripe about these changes since Thomas did the same thing.  People got used to Thomas’ version of Red Sonja.  Some probably never read “Shadow of the Vulture,” which is really good and really short.  So, no excuse.  Given that how can I object to changes in characterization that was artificial to begin with?

What I can say unequivocally is that Aneke illustrates Red Sonja beautifully.  She brings out the sparky emotions that Bennett conveys in her dialogue.  She illustrates Sonja in stylish action, often graceful sometimes brutal.


Radioactive Spider-Gwen is another head twister.  Artist Robbi Rodriguez creates a terrific frenetic duel between Spider-Woman and the Green Goblin.  The fellows in orange are his robot servants.  That would be enough.


Read the narration though, and you may think you’re reading a novel.  Writer Jason Latour goes deep into Gwen’s psyche, and it’s not all pretty.  Spider-Woman is a hero, but there’s so much more to her than that.  


The multiple facets unmasked in the narration fuse together to form a realistic individual that’s basically good but not without pettiness, pride or want.  


Wolverine, the artist formerly known as X-23, learned that a group known as Alchemax Genetics cloned her.  Being a clone of the original Wolverine, Laura naturally felt responsible for her sisters.  Alchemax, almost assuredly government black-ops, doesn’t particularly care for X-23’s velvet glove approach.  They intend to expunge Laura and her clones from the face of the earth.  After thwarting a clone’s attempted assassination in Paris, another showed up at Wolverine’s apartment.  This led to a chase, lies, a betrayal and a threat.  

In the current issue of All-New Wolverine, Laura seeks help from Dr. Strange, and Tom Taylor’s super hero drama takes a breather to emphasize comedy.


One of the best things about this story—in addition to the comedy—is that Taylor immediately does the smart thing.


I mean why does Dr. Strange wear the all-seeing Eye of Agamotto if he’s not going to use it?  Taylor knows that it’s only an initial read anyway, but it’s the first thing Dr. Strange should do, and he does it.

Dr. Strange decides that despite being unsure about the clones, he will offer any aid he can to Laura and her charges.  Alas, the furniture of the occult proves to be too much temptation for Bellona.

The doorway lets loose an other dimensional beast that escapes Dr. Strange’s abode.  Wolverine, the clones and Dr. Strange combine their strengths in an attempt to corral the outr√© ogre.

The battle’s of a freewheeling sort until Taylor sneakily brings back the drama for maximum impact.  All this and David Lopez’s fantastic artwork make All-New Wolverine a comic book fan’s comic book.


All-New X-Men is super-fun.  This story could have soured in so many ways, but Dennis Hopeless keeps things light and bouncy.

There’s still a serious message conveyed, but it’s executed as straight up super-hero versus poorly outclassed super annoyances with more or less fair, put upon police officers caught in the middle of a bad situation.


One bullet fired, and All-New X-Men would have been something else, but that’s not what Hopeless pitched.  Cyclops wants to get away from his dickish older self.  He wants to be optimistic and the inspirational leader that he is and was.  Artist Mark Bagley seems to be having the time of his life with these youthful X-Men and Hopeless’ emphasis on humor.

Marc Guggenheim’s Agents of SHIELD has one foot in the Marvelverse and the other foot in the Marvel movie/television franchise.  It mainly works.  Guggenheim comprises the team from the television series: Phil Coulson, Daisy “Skye” Johnson, Melinda May, Fitzsimmons, Bobbi Morse and Mike “Deathlok” Peterson.  So, as you can see from the cover Bobbi is Mockingbird.  Deathlok is also Henry Hayes, who I’m guessing is the Marvelverse version of the character.

The Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes (goodbye, David Bowie)  aren’t merely superficial.  The Agents of SHIELD must learn why somebody using Iron Man armor burst into the Pentagon.


This leads to a pleasing melange of Marvel universes.  Phil must gain this information from an old friend mentioned numerous times on the television series.


The answer to that question promises to be the meat for a really good series.  After I’d say about the 1980s, SHIELD was seen by the superhero community as untrustworthy if not the bad guy.  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby intended SHIELD to be Marvel’s UNCLE.  The central plot point promises to keep the tarnish off SHIELD and keep Phil Coulson consistent with his television persona.

That said.  The most startling smack in the face occurs with Leo Fitz and May.  First, Fitz is a complete one-eighty from his television counterpart.


Second, he’s not remotely interested in Jemma Simmons, who in this issue has problems of her own.  Nevertheless, recommended.  

Agents of SHIELD also works well in the art department of German Peralta and Rachelle Rosenberg.  Peralta matches faces to actors, while maintaining action packed art and oft realistic setting.  Rosenberg’s colors imbue a unique, warmer aesthetic that’s also got one one foot in the comic book world and one foot in the more advanced computer color treatments.



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