Monday, April 11, 2016

POBB April 6, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 6, 2016
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag a weekly review of comic books.  In this blog, I pick the worst and the best of the comic book yield.  Comments are welcome, and if you haven't the time to digest the entirety of the reviews, check out the abridged versions on Twitter #PickoftheBrownBag.  This week I look at Batgirl, Black Panther, Black Widow, Doctor Who, Henchgirl, Miss Fury, the new book Rough Riders and Vampirella.  I also have capsules of the movie Spy and the television series pilot for Wynonna Earp.

In this issue of Doctor Who, the final chapter of an exciting “alien” invasion story, the Doctor reveals what was in the suitcase.  Now, one can argue that the devices are whacking great contrivances.  However, this particular creature the Doctor fights takes great pleasure in ridiculing humans and reveling in the species’ “weakness.”  The Doctor’s reveal implies that the enemy is wrong.  Humans aren’t primitives.  They’re primates.  Just different.

Once the Doctor unleashes the devices on the bad guys, all hell breaks loose.  Which of course is exactly what should happen in Doctor Who.

As the creatures begin their assault on the United Kingdom, the Doctor gets to the heart of the matter.  He spots a chink in the armor and exploits the hell out of it.  The Doctor’s tactics lead to a fitting comeuppance for the classic Doctor Who villains.

Writer Robbie Morrison escalates the extra-species attack through Rachael Stott’s and Ivan Nunes’ big budget artwork.  It’s not often that a comic book attempts to mimic the scale of a war.  The scope of the whole enterprise adds to the wonder of how the Doctor will combat the impressive organic technology of the beasties. 

Suffice to say Morrison comes up with something fairplay, that’s perfectly plausible given the Doctor’s raw cunning.  After the explosive finale, watch for a spiffy gender-swap of quintessential heroic imagery and an uplifting character-driven ending.

The Rough Riders is actually good.  Let me explain.  I like to try new things, but I usually get burned by them.  At least, I tried American Monster and Devolution, but I usually return to old faithfuls like Doctor Who and Batgirl.  It doesn’t always run that way.  I’m reading American Vampire in collected form.  I loved Southern Cross, but on the whole I try new things with some trepidation, based on experience.

The premise of Rough Riders sounded dodgy.  I get the whole historical roots thing but why? Why would future President Teddy Roosevelt become the leader of a group of historical adventurers? And is that it? Is that the whole idea? It’s more like a sketch.

So, I flipped through the book.  The initial flip-through allows me to gauge the artwork.  If the artwork stinks, I can put the book right back on the shelf.  Pat Olliffe is the artist.  Olliffe is a favorite.  Therefore, I had to try Rough Riders.

Color me surprised when writer Adam Glass first homes in on a proper historical injustice.  One terrible incident in the past catalyzed the rise of unions and ultimately OSHA.  A pair of greedy, evil, corporate fat cats at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory thought it would be a good idea to prevent its staff from going out for breaks by locking them in.  Thus, when a fire ignited, it spread to kill over one hundred trapped employees, mostly seamstresses.  The bosses easily slipped out onto the roof through their private exits.

In Adam Glass’ alternate history, Teddy Roosevelt isn’t just an ex-soldier, a soon to be Governor, next President, he’s also a hero from the Penny Dreadfuls.  That seems a bit much, as does his act of heroism, until Glass displays Teddy’s mortal feet of clay.

Ah.  You see, it’s not interesting to see Teddy address social injustice through the practice of Batman, and you start cogitating.  If this story is meant to represent the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Tragedy, then doesn’t time change with Teddy’s action?  Doesn’t progress slow because it didn’t receive the needed impetus?  The rescue however comes with a bitter followup.  Teddy’s not a superman.  He’s just a man.  A resourceful man, but just a man.  The death he witnesses weighs on him, granting him depth, but also giving history the impact needed to cement unification of workers and ultimately the birth of the watchdogs.  Glass thought things through.

As the story progresses, Roosevelt’s origin unfolds, and Glass makes Teddy’s transformation into a comic book crimefighter seem perfectly natural.  When he reacquaints Roosevelt amidst a plethora of movers and shakers of the time, you know that Glass is a student of history and respectful of that history.  Rough Riders is definitely worth your time.

Miss Fury returns to comic books in Dynamite’s new number one.  For those not in the know, in 1941, extraordinary artist and writer Tarpe Mills created Miss Fury for the comic strips.

As you can see, Miss Fury alias Marla Drake was vicious.  She quickly made herself an enemy to criminals and the Nazis.  Dynamite reintroduced Miss Fury a few years ago and kept her fresh in the Masks miniseries.  No matter who drew or wrote her cases, each writer and artist kept her decidedly lethal, lithe and intellectually superior.

Corinna Bechko is the latest scribe to take on the hero.  Her premiere issue is worthy of following in the footpads of previous efforts and of course the original.  In addition, Bechko adds to the myth of Miss Fury by evolving Marla Drake into a veritable Hedy Lamar.

I actually never considered these shared attributes before.  Socialite Marla was always intelligent and savvy about the climate of World War II.  Bechko’s extension of that intelligence into a field of science certainly fits and parallels Lamarr’s development of a frequency-switching invention.

The Miss Fury comic strip was the first good girl strip illustrated by woman.  Miss Fury’s costume left little to the imagination, and Marla often wore lingerie, sexy styles or on occasion tastefully stripped out of them.  Hedy Lamarr wasn’t ashamed of showing her body in film.  In Ecstasy, hers is one of the first nude scenes in the history of serious cinema.

Bechcko’s implications are never tedious.  They instead bestow more depth to Marla.  At the same time, she gives artist Jonathan Lau a lot of room to ply Miss Fury’s stock and trade.

In or out of skin-tight panther costume, Miss Fury is a hellion.  You do not want to mess with her.  Her investigation into a very personal robbery takes her through numerous period settings and grants her the opportunity to demonstrate her willingness to cross nigh any line in a fight. 

Black Panther also returns to the racks this week, but his debut issue is less of a success than Miss Fury.  The whole premise just flies in the face of the Black Panther.  Where’s T’Challa’s intellect? All I see is an overwhelmed royal.

True, writer Ta-Nehisi Coates indicates that the strife in Wakanda is being magically or mutantly fomented, but that’s not enough.  The writer also implies that the strife was always there and that the magic-user/mutant is being used by an Al Shabaab like brotherhood.

The fairness of T’Challa’s court suffers.

The Dora Miljae are enforcers introduced by Christopher Priest.  The crime is the execution of a supermely unjust man, but it appears that T’Challa’s Wakanda now must tolerate traditional asshole Chieftains.

While the wondrous technology of Wakanda still exists, it just serves as a glorified backdrop.

Oh, look a Parrot Ship!

John Byrne got the Black Panther and Wakanda.  Back in his run of The Fantastic Four, he brought the Panther in for a cameo.  He then had T’Challa provide bearers to accompany the FF, in grand, white bwana custom.  Byrne though introduced a twist.  The bearers were simple robots.  T’Challa would not order his people to follow the path of racism.  That is the beauty of the Black Panther.  He’s not what you expect.  

The stereotype of Africa is a continent torn in tribal warfare, even back in the sixties.  Trevor Noah has proven this not to be the case, but the myth still persists.  Yes, there are monsters in Africa, but there are monsters on every continent, save Antarctica.  The human species produces monsters through an adherence of superstition, greed and a lack of education.  In times of economic uncertainty these monsters can elevate to positions of power.  

Wakanda existed to defy stereotype.  Wakanda is a technological Utopia.  The country’s royalty shared the wealth of Vibranium with the people.  There is equality in Wakanda because it’s logical.  One member of the Wakandan Royal Family is T’Challa.  He is also the Black Panther, an intelligent super-hero who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.  He will do everything in his power to protect the people of Wakanda, and extends that shield to the world.  I see that Black Panther and that Wakanda in The Ultimates.  I don’t see these definitions in the new Black Panther book. 

Black Widow offers more story this time around, but those just looking for sweet Chris Samnee artwork won’t be disappointed.

The story takes place before Black Widow goes “rogue” and explains why she stole the McGuffin, whatever that might be.  The story furthermore hints at why she cut a swathe through SHIELD in her premiere.  

Waid’s tale is a hoary little beast of blackmail from Russia, without love.

I really had a hard time swallowing the story.  I mean how many legendary Russian agents can there be left in the Marvel Universe? Arguably the greatest of the Cossacks is Natasha her own bad self.  Second her first deceased husband the Red Guardian.  Next would be the first female Red Guardian.  Followed by retro-plant Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier.  You would think even with Marvel’s sliding scale of time, Iron Man and the white Nick Fury had wiped out most of these fellows and femmes.  So how can such Russian legends keep popping up when you least expect it?

Nevertheless, this is the story we’re stuck with, and of its type it’s mostly harmless.  I’m even impressed over how Waid turns Mariah Hill into an even shittier agent.

She’s unaware she’s being targeted by two different parties.  The Russians and Black Widow.  Since Black Widow reads lips, I suggest that Waid slyly implies that maybe all of Natasha’s violence against SHIELD has a grain of truth to it.  Natasha probably enjoyed humiliating Hill.  I would.

Batgirl reaches a fiftieth double-sized issue.  This chapter concludes her battle with the Fugue, a villain from humble origins that became a serious threat to the Dynamic Daredoll.  In previous issues, the Fugue insinuated himself in the life of Batgirl, first using false memories to create the ruse of a college friend while working at chipping away at Babs’ mind.  This issue Babs forms a new Birds of Prey out of her friends and allies: Black Canary, Frankie, Harper and Spoiler.

As in previous incarnations, Babs tackled the world with gusto.  In this story, she evolves to become the CEO of a clean-energy production facility in the heart of Burnside, suburb of Gotham.  Fugue uses this idea as well as her old enemies to bait Gothamites to their own destruction.  He furthermore intends to lay the blame at Babs’ feet.

All of this animosity derives from Babs picking off the Fugue when he was a mere bank robber.  She saw him as a young girl and never forgot him.  Now, the Fugue gathers hers enemies in a bid to destroy Batgirl.

The story separates into multiple fights, but writers Cameron Stewart and Brandon Fletchers create an interesting theme throughout Batgirl that draws the bouts out of the traditional game-like chapter play.

Blue Bird is Harper, and her fight against the Killer Moth is in intriguing for a number of reasons.  Making his new 52 debut, the Killer Moth is Batgirl’s arch-enemy, but Batgirl’s origin which reflected the origin of Miss Fury has undergone some editing.  So, she never actually became Batgirl through a masquerade ball, nor did she encounter the Killer Moth preying upon Bruce Wayne.  The Killer Moth is now a human being in a costume with a gadget, but he’s even more callous, living up to his name far more than the modern monster became.  Harper’s strategy involves electromagnetism, which when introduced out of costume was her forte.

Harper next travels to Spoiler’s fight in order to aid her against the Jaw Breakers, a pair of samurai sword wielding motorcycle riders that Batgirl busted in another book.  There’s no posturing among the ladies.  Spoiler’s happy to have the help, and Harper, not that more experienced, doesn’t lord over her comrade.

Frankie gets the code name Operator, and she goes after Corporal Punishment, a decidedly stupid in name and deed villain.  Corporal Punishment was seen in holding when Batgirl and the Spoiler infiltrated the GCPD.  She’s like a dumber hulk.  So, outwitting her is out of the question.  She has no wit to out.  Frankie must find a way to out-muscle her, and here’s the only real link to the broader Batman universe.  She commandeers a police Batman exoskeleton, becoming a dark Iron Man.  This is so outside the purview of Batgirl that it stood out like the proverbial sore thumb, but there’s so much good in Batgirl that it outweighs the wincing inclusion of Bat-Suit-Operator.

Case in Point.  Black Canary faces down Velvet Tiger.  Again, the match indicates a change-up of dancing partners.  Velvet Tiger is Batgirl’s enemy.  She was her last major foe in the Bronze Age, and she recently slinked back into the new 52.  The beauty of the story is that Fletcher and Stewart use Velvet Tiger as the experienced super villain.  She even makes the point of logically priding her superiority over the rest of the Batgirl revenge squad.  That prowess allows Velvet Tiger to force herself to remember and to collude with the Canary, in a reversal of Cat-Canary motif, thus precluding the need for feeling the potentially bone crushing sonic cry.  Something she is well aware of and wanting to avoid.

Velvet Tiger’s contribution and revenge against Fugue leads to a thematically different final fight between Batgirl and her latest foe.  First Batgirl easily eliminates the idiotic Dagger Type, the goofball Boy George wannabe murder is art.  Then, when she faces Fugue, the story takes an amazing turn.  Batgirl takes risks that turn the tide at great cost, but just as easily as she casts out these crimefighting nets, by the end of the book, all is well and given a historical context that tributes Yvonne Craig.  The finale of Batgirl before she returns in DC’s Rebirth event is far better you could possibly expect it to be.  The end-game between Batgirl and Fugue is simply astonishing, and the ease in which she downs her enemy is inspiring.

Vampirella moved to Hollywood with her werewolf beau Tristan and her gentleman’s-gentleman Coleridge for some peace and quiet.  Unfortunately, a peeping tom or paparazzo lured her outside one night in costume.  Suddenly, Vampirella was an internet sensation.  Ironically, vampires of legend cast no reflection, nor can they be seen in photographs or film, sometimes.  I mean, it’s all hokum.  Hollywood pillaged vampires a long time ago, and depending on the writer or director, vampire presence fluctuates.  No matter.  Vampirella is a different kind of vampire.

The woman she speaks to is Charlotte her new agent, and throughout Kate Leth’s amusing followup, she will learn the truth about Vampirella.  Leth takes Vee to places she’s never been before.  A comic book convention specifically where she reveals even more to her internet fans.

The stunts immediately draw the attention Leth’s Big Bad, ensconced in the Hollywood horror genre.  She decides to keep Vampirella close and casts her in the role of horror host.  This places Vee in the perfect position to investigate murders that happen before the camera and in the theater. 

Previously in Angel and Faith, Archaeus recruited Drusilla and her vampire minions in a fight against Angel and Faith.  The stakes were Magic Town.  In attempting to lure,  the magic to his side, Archaus gave the manifestation the gift of mobility through a bronze statue.  Archaeus attempted to build an army under the guise of a family, but Angel and Faith would have none of that.

As much a battle between philosophies as well as fisticuffs, the conclusion to Angel and Faith naturally progresses to an unpretentious final battle that singles out Archaeus and ultimately reveals his true intent.

The battle wages with characteristic dialogue…

…and although sacrifices will be made, the epilogue draws upon Whedonesque humor.

If you haven’t checked out Angel and Faith in chapter play form, pick up the collected story.  It’s a remarkable work by Victor Gischler, Will Conrad and Michelle Madsen.

Henchgirl begins with a heist.  Mary, Monsieur Butterfly, Bud and Coco attempt to steal a fabled gem.

The story plays out as one might expect, and you admire creator Kristen Gudsnuk’s tip-toeing through the tropes of the crime sub-genre, but Gudsnuk has surprises in store for the reader.  You don’t quite know what’s happening until Monsieur Butterfly explains.  From there, we see the ramifications of Butterfly’s ploy, and the violence is equally shocking.  An impressive issue.

Saturday Afternoon at the Movies

Spy is a smart, genuinely funny comedy.  Melissa McCarthy is the star, but the rest of the cast provide her with remarkable back up, and in some cases they’re given a spotlight to steal.  This is true with Jason Statham, who demonstrated his comic chops as Handsome Rob in The Italian Job.  Here he essays Rick Ford, an uber violent, yet inept agent that goes rogue, and acts that way.

McCarthy plays Susan Cooper, ostensibly a handler for a super-agent like James Bond portrayed by Jude Law.  What I feared about Spy was that this would be a fish out of water story, and/or a rather painful parody followed with a series of unfunny fat jokes.  I was instead pleasantly surprised.  A series of unusual events places Susan Cooper in the field.  However, she’s a full CIA agent.  Explained in the film, she chose to be a handler.  So, this isn’t like taking somebody completely out of her element and dropping her in an entirely unfamiliar setting.  She’s rusty, but she’s also good.  Though humiliated.  The pitfalls involve fashion, a chain of lousy covers and a running joke about allergic reactions.

The plot would have served as a strong straight spy film.  Susan must find out where the Big Bad of the piece is hiding a nuclear weapon.  What makes Spy a comedy however is the execution, the performances which in some cases would teeter over the top, if not for the fact that Susan calls bluffs.  So, the larger than life balloon is punctured within the context of the film.  One-liners enhance the comedy; cruelty is kept to a minimum, except when the characters are supposed to be cruel.  Sexual slapstick arrives in the magnificent form of a would Italian Lothario spy named Aldo.  Spy is a definite must see, and you’ll want to check out the credits.

The pilot to Wynonna Earp essentially paints an alternate universe springing from the comic book series created by Beau Smith.  In that respect I liken it to Elmore Leonard’s last novel Raylin and Justified the television series based on his novels and short stories.

In the series, Wynonna Earp is portrayed brilliantly by Melanie Scrofano, but she is a different character with a different history.  Although, you can see this young, monster fighter becoming Smith’s more assured abomination ass-kicker.

Earp returns home to Purgatory wants she discovers one of the few people she love in the town dies.  Her investigations discover that it wasn’t a peaceful death, and it appears fate is calling upon her to Buffy up.  Earp does not want this responsibility, but when the Big Bads kidnap her sister Waverly, another excellent character and portryal by actress Dominique Provost-Chalkley, she faces the monsters down.

To say more to would give the game away.  Suffice to say that judging by the pilot Wynonna Earp is going to quickly be a favorite.

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