Monday, April 18, 2016

POBB April 13, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 13, 2016
Ray Tate

The Pick of the Brown Bag is a weekly review of comic books.  Here I review the best and the worst of the current yield.  This week my subjects consist of Batman/Superman, Black Canary, Catwoman, Doctor Who, Radioactive Spider-Gwen, Starfire and the third Wonder Woman 77 Special.  You can check out the tiny reviews on Twitter: #PickoftheBrownBag.

Four stories comprise the latest Wonder Woman 77 Special.  Two of the stories stand out.  Christos  and Ruth Gage draw Wonder Woman into the fight to stop the ivory trade.  

It's the perfect issue for Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor to address.   The butchery of elephants is a tragedy that Wonder Woman might have missed on her travels through history.  Steve's experience in criminal investigation certainly may grant him greater knowledge of the subject.  Being the good guy that he is, Steve developed a strong distaste for the crime, but he can only prevent the slaughter in a small way.

The story establishes Wonder Woman as individualistic and not bound by politics.  She may wear a uniform that reflects the United States, but she only sees its laws as suggestions.

The Gages' tale allows for numerous moments that could have arisen on the television series.  The strong female guest star.

The second strong female guest star.

The clever turnabout that allows Wonder Woman to go through her superhero routine.

One more thing makes the Gages' story superior.  The message is still pertinent.  The ivory trade exists.  

You may wonder whether or not the focus in the seventies was worth it.  It was.  Though the trade exists.  The world condemns it.  Ivory is sold but usually only on the black market.  Those that buy know not to flaunt it.  Those that sell in the open are idiots soon to be imprisoned.

The second best story of the special occurs at the anthology's conclusion.  Amanda Delbert pits Wonder Woman at saboteurs of the American/Panamanian alliance.  Tres seventies.  The real surprise however arises from the deep.

The budget for such a creature would have broken the television series, but in the comic book, Charybdis is a beautifully illustrated monster that Wonder Woman must tame, but not before Steve and Agent Diana Prince set themselves up as husband and wife undercover.

The terrific mini-spy subplot works as well as the Wonder Woman versus the behemoth part.  Delbert portrays Diana's guile, skill and sense of humor.

Successful but problematic in consideration of Wonder Woman television continuity Marc Andreyko opens the book of tales with an amusing Clayface invasion of Paradise Island.

The premise is that Wonder Woman is made of clay, but this doesn't make sense given the presence of Drusilla, Wonder Woman's sister.  

Two clay statutes given life? It's more logical to deduce that Wonder Woman's mother had experience with men, an experience that soured her on the practice despite producing two wonderful girls.

Going past this caveat, you get an entertaining short story that creates an intrinsically sensible comeuppance for the Batman villain, but Andreyko's contribution would work better in the modern or Bronze Age continuities.

The most disappointing tale is unfortunately Trina Robbins' short.  She starts out with another seventies cultural phenomenon.  This time with guest star Alex Cord.

But a revelation takes the story into science fiction territory.  I would have preferred the tale remain grounded.  Of course that may have been asking too much of the television series as well as Robbins.  Taken for what it is, Wonder Woman is still in excellent form.

A plethora of artists contribute their talents.  Richard Orban, Christian Duce, Dario Brizuela, Andrea Ponce, Cat Staggs, Staz Johnson and Wayne Faucher all never let you forget you're not just reading Wonder Woman, you're reading about the Lynda Carter Wonder Woman and the Lyle Waggoner Steve Trevor.  Colorists Romulo Fajardo, Kelly Fitzpatrick and Laura Martin keep the red, white, gold and blue shiny.  In other words, these tales are bright and optimistic.  So are Wonder Woman's hues.

Superman's been through hell lately, and leave it to one of the few books that actually thrives on continuity to notice.

The point of all this is that writer Peter J. Tomasi known for his nuttier take on Batman and Damien decides to zag with a strong exploration into Batman's and Superman's friendship.

At first Batman thinks that Superman came to him for help.  Then he offers it any way.  Alas, for the Man of Steel, there is no help.  He instead asks Batman for a favor.

That doesn't stop Batman from expressing himself about Superman's impending doom.

The hunt for Supergirl reestablishes her as Superman's "secret weapon" as well as intertwining Batman with her history.

Yes, it helps that Supergirl is a hit television series and DC finally noticed, but Tomasi's story would have worked regardless and probably would have ended up exactly the same way.  Oh, and there's some World's Finest action involving Zodiac monsters, but this is routine in comparison to Tomasi's meaningful Batman/Superman/Supergirl dynamic.

Roman Sionis began his villainous career at the beginning of the modern age.  Created by Doug Moench and Tom Mandrake, he has the dubious honor of being the strange boy next door to Bruce that was dropped on his head at birth.  No.  Seriously.  That's his origin.

When his parents died he made the infamous Black Mask out of the coffin, a bizarre homage to the Lone Ranger carving his guise out of his murdered brother's vest.  Once masked Sionis went on a giallo murder spree that involved suffocating his victims with masks sealed to their faces.  At the same time he gathered a gang of thugs he dubbed the False Face Gang.

After this debut, Sionis was largely forgotten until Ed Brubaker resurrected him as a wannabe gang boss in Catwoman.  He still used the mask motif, but Brubaker underplayed the ritualistic pattern of his kills.  

The new 52 reintroduced Black Mask as a cursed mask.  So now it's Frank Tieri's turn.  Happily it's a good one.

Tieri runs with the idea of a cursed mask, but he makes that mask Sionis specific.  Not only is Roman the lunatic behind his mask but also his father.

Tieri furthermore crafts s believable historical animosity between the Sinonises and Selina.  At the same time, he introduces a love interest/partner in crime for her younger self.

Given this history, Selina's current heist involves the theft of the mask not just for the lucre but also for the vengeance.  Selina however discovers that she's not the only one who wants the mask, and at this point, Tieri restores the ritual associated with the mask first introduced during the origin story.  Once again, Catwoman is the perfect amalgamation of elements from multiple comic book periods.  It also doesn't hurt one bit to have talented artists like Inaki Miranda, Elia Bonnet and Eve De La Cruz in your corner.  Even if the story weren't so impressive, the gorgeous illustration in Catwoman would be enough to recommend.

Previously, Dinah Drake became the lead singer of a band rechristened Black Canary, Dinah's former sobriquet.  As time passed a Big Bad/time travel puzzle emerged.  In a subplot, a white garbed Ninja began to appear.  This turned out to be Dinah's aunt.  Together they're fighting a Ninja Death Cult and trying to discover the rationale behind the disappearance of Dinah's mother.

This issue of Black Canary is a love letter to the friendship and partnership of Dinah and Batgirl.  Brendan Fletcher's tale furthermore cements the legacy of the hero Black Canary within the new 52.

The story begins with Batgirl admitting to Dinah that she's a fan, of the band and of their lead singer.  This perturbs Dinah and only adds to the amusement of the reader.

Batgirl's enthusiasm, wonderfully portrayed by Moritat, convinces Dinah that they need to go out and punch something.  That something happens to be a thief of vinyl.

After a funny moment of recognition, Fletcher calms the duo down and gets to the nitty-gritty of the team-up.  Fletcher brilliantly utilizes Babs' photographic memory.  She's done this before in Bronze Age comics.  Fletcher however is one of the few writers that understands the extent.  Batgirl can recall anything, no matter how long ago seen, even glimpsed.

Investigating this distant clue pulls Dinah and Babs to a music studio, where Dinah reveals more of her mother's history and learns more.

These bites should sound familiar to any Black Canary fan.  The difference lies in the time frame and the streamlining of the history.  Black Canary's mother was never a Black Canary.  She had an interesting life as a sensei, and had a hand in her husband's crime cases.  It wasn’t however a costumed life.  Dinah’s parents also thankfully appear to lack personal strife.  Too often did writers tamper with that relationship, Golden, Silver and modern.  Ninja Death Cult is a breath of fresh air by comparison.

As Dinah and Batgirl fight the Ninja Death Cult, their various tactics and camaraderie make for an enjoyable bout with expert team-up choreography.  Fletcher furthermore adds what I suspect is a joke and nod to Spider-Gwen.

As I suggested in prior reviews, Gwen and Babs share a lot in common.  Kudos also go to Lee Loughridge for giving Babs purple eyes.  Not blue, but a step up from green.

Spider-Gwen picks up from Spider-Women Alpha, you don't need to know that.  Like Batman/Superman the main plot is underwhelming when compared to the fun of the Spider-Women interaction.

Marooned on Spider-Gwen's earth, Jessica Drew and Cindy Moon alias Spider-Woman and Silk soak in all the goofiness and engage in the unexpected pleasure and hilarity of the Bodega Bandit.

Spider-Woman smears a lot of egg on Gwen's face, but she quickly finds a strong thread and encourages Gwen to follow that web.

The Mary Janes' return is so welcome.  Part of what made Spider-Gwen so memorable is her role as a drummer in the band.  The wait was worth it.

Spider-Woman on the other hand is trying to get home to her new baby.  So she attempts another line to travel.

The inspired conversation between the two is just filled with character, a depth of continuity and comic beats.  When the main plot interrupts its annoying but thankfully disposed of quickly.  Even the epilogue, a heart to heart between Jess and Captain Stacy, is outstanding.

A cryptic message leads the Doctor and his companions Rose and Jack Harkness to a planet that a reliable source claims to be invaded by the Daleks.  When they materialize the Doctor discovers something quite different.

The Doctor's greatest fan leads to a number of expected jokes from writer Cavan Scott, but as the story continues, Scott takes a sharp detour into wtf territory.  It turns out the Daleks are innocent and another of the Doctor's old foes make the skies deadly.  Even more surprising, the Doctor is already taking care of business.

What's going on?  Has the Doctor traveled to a future where he already established himself?  Has he in the future become marooned and desperation forced him to rebuild his old hovercraft?  Or has the TARDIS transported them to another universe?  Lois Lane is on the case.

The debut issue of the ongoing adventures of the Eccleston Doctor bristles with the manic energy and themes of Series One.  Scott's intriguing story leaves the reader breathless and thirsting for more after unleashing a shocking cliffhanger that just screams Doctor Who.

Starfire, Stella and Terra finally get that vacation in Terra's realm and ninety percent of it is about sex, but not in the human sense.

Writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner create an almost all-ages alien sex manual that's frequently funny and always charming.  The lion's share of credit however goes to artist Elsa Charttier, whose user friendly cartooning goes a long way in making Starfire so appealing.

This is not to say the writing is somehow less important than the artwork.  The free love personality of Starfire hasn't ever been captured with such honesty or glee, and her kindred spirit with Terra reflects the differing social mores in extraterrestrial societies.

In terms of plotting, Starfire is particularly ingenious in that nothing really happens in the book.  At least superhero wise.  The story begins with drinking and a disco, follows with a sneaking back home; Stella totally hammered and Starfire and Terra becoming involved in an alien liaison, that's nigh Republican friendly.  I'm sure there are still religious right fanatics that would object to the scene.  Next up comes a heart to heart as the ladies slumber together in a giant sized super comfy bed followed by a visit at a massage pool, where things get a tad too chatty.  Finally, everybody goes back to the surface.  Nothing actually happens, but the art and the personalities make everything interesting.

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