Tuesday, September 27, 2016

POBB September 21, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 21, 2016
Ray Tate

Well, it’s about time.

Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series 2016

This week the Pick of the Brown Bag critiques the latest issues of Aquaman, Green Lantern, Hellboy and the BPRD, Micronauts, The Mighty Thor, Rom, Tomb Raider, Wolverine and Wonder Woman 77.  I’ll also examine Dark Tales from the Vokesverse.  I'm also on Twitter: #PickoftheBrownBag.

Neil Vokes is one of your reviewers’ favorite artists.  That said, I’m not completely sold on everything he does.  His anthropomorphic stuff left me cold because I’m just not into anthropomorphism.  No humanoid animals I’m glad to say populate this just in time for Halloween collection.

Dark Tales of The Vokesverse opens with “Walpurgis Knight,” which has so many awesome ideas in it that I don’t know where to begin.  

Suffice to say Walpurgis Knight is a Mexican wrestler in the tradition of El Santo, whose birthday Google recently celebrated with a terrific little doodle.  A girl seeks Walpurgis Knight’s aid in finding her sister who has been spirited away by a neoclassic crypotoid.  The story is by Jack Herman.  The art balances over the top bravado with genuine heroic imagery just like the genre.

Skipping the very slight “Wicked West” short short, “Marc of the Vampires” is a weird one that seems to be about a vampire that doesn’t know he’s a vampire.  

The story may even be deeper than that.  The narration suggests psychological tampering.  In any case, the stark black and white illustration characterizes the contrast of good vs evil.  Vampire or no we know who’s the good guy here.

The lengthy “Dead Air” also by Jack herman shows Vokes’ at his lightest in an almost Mad Magazine styled caricature.  

The zombies come out to play throughout the story which takes the form of a typical Night of the Living Dead scenario and makes it scathingly political.  Of course, this is precisely the kind of thinking that crowned Trump the Republican nominee.  So, hey, good prediction there.

“Bedtime Story” relates an Inquisitor tale with a bite at the end, and last but not least  “And Eternity Shall Beckon” presents a damn clever Falconer story.  The Falconer is Jack Herman’s and Neil Vokes’ version of Captain Kronos from Hammer studios, whom Vokes also brought back in Flesh and Blood an official Hammer comic book.

In 1954 Hellboy touches down on Fletcher’s Ice Island with BPRD Cryptozoologist Woodrow Farrier.  Their mission: to discover what the heck did this.

Woodrow after questioning the men, dealing with some 1954 racism and scouting the scene of the attack enthusiastically posits something legendary.

Hellboy has other ideas.

Whenever any hero heads off to search the ice for a whosawhatsit, you can look to source material John W. Campbell’s “Who Goes There?”  Campbell's novella was already filmed twice as The Thing.  Of course, there have been overt, cheap knocks offs, but the best homages go beyond the shape-shifting treasure in the vault.  For example, in The X-Files Mulder and Scully thawed out mind-controlling prehistoric worms.  Doctor Who reaped the awesome episode known as Seeds of Doom.  Mike Mignola and Chris Roberson in Hellboy grant an identity to the beast, but that turns out to be a McGuffin, and the real fun begins when Hellboy starts searching for the creature’s home.

Mignola and Roberson tease the reader with a perfectly good traditional explanation, but then they allow the details of Stephen Green’s artwork to cast doubt upon those expectations.  As it turns out, Hellboy isn't a tribute to "Who Goes There?" Instead, it wears the novella as a facade, and when the trap door set by the writers drops open, the reader is delighted by the cliffhanger.

Previously, Aquaman was imprisoned on the surface for the sinking of the U.S.S. Pontchartrain.  Mera attempted diplomacy but found that many in the U.S. Government wanted Aquaman’s head.  Some for revenge over the flooding of U.S. cities in Throne of Atlantis.  Others just out of principle.  In the end, Mera broke Aquaman free, which led to Aquaman battling the Superman from another universe.  Scoring victory out of numbers, Superman left Aquaman with a stern warning.

Aquaman sent Murk out to investigate, and Murk has finished his report.

Aquaman now takes a page out of Batman’s book.  He visits the most likely suspect.

Then expands his search to trace the evidence.  All in all, this is a sound investigation, and Dan Abnett’s characterization of Aquaman as a pensive, self-reflective leader only enhances the quality of the story.  At the same time, Abnett builds on Aquaman’s cast.  The elder leader Koah wishes to draw Aquaman’s attention to the importance of ceremony.  He creates some strife between navy and CIA, Atlantean equivalent.

It’s also nice to see diversity among the cast of Atlanteans, and not just white people with blue eyes and white people with purple eyes.  Inside Aquaman joke.  Look it up.

Regent Tula is once again Aquaman’s attack dog.

She’s come a long way from being Aqualad’s dead girlfriend.  On the surface Black Manta who killed the Fisher King of the criminal organization NEMO cements his status as the new Long Liver.

All of this is done in Scott Eaton’s lush pencils, Wayne Faucher’s edgier inks and Gabe Eltaeb’s vivid colors nevertheless beneath the sea.

In the last issue of the Micronauts, an Acroyear named Rath killed our hero Oz, last of the Pharoids and first in microverse scoundrels.

The action results in the most familiar of Acroyears dueling Karza’s man.

Not every comic book based on a toy line drew upon a depth of storytelling, but The Micronauts like Rom used the designs of the toys as artistic bases for literate space opera and an alien invasion epic that were at least equal to the science fiction from pulps of yore.  This issue of Micronauts does the same.  

If you enlarge the above graphic, and maybe you needn’t, Acroyear speaks thusly: “I thought I was the last of my kind.  And now It pains me to see that I am not.”  That’s the kind of dialogue that goes beyond a simple good guy must kill bad guy simplicity.  As suggested in previous issues of The Micronauts, something went awry with the Acroyears.  The red Acroyear appears to be on the side of the scruffy heroes, but he’s also self-aware that the rest of his lot were something that should never have been.

Acroyear Rath killed Oz, but as the story progresses, you see things aren’t quite so simple.  Cullen Bunn’s tale is one of time travel and preserving history.  So,  Oz must live.  The Time Traveler makes him live in the only, improbable way he could survive.

A future shock accident simultaneously explains Oz's longevity and completes the classic Micronauts roster from Marvel Comics without replicating it.  Biotron in Marvel comics was a thoughtful individual, and while Biotron and Microtron were meant to echo  C-3PO and R2-D2, they didn't mimic the Droids' personalities.  Bunn further distinguishes the pair.  

With the added power of Biotron to their ranks, the Micronauts escape, and the focus shifts to the duel between Baron Karza and Force Commander.  In Toy Land, these two figures were set up to be archetypes of their existential allegiances.  The Powers That Be at Marvel however already set up their story to feature the Space Glider as the hero.  This left little for Force Commander to do.

In this current series of Micronauts, Bunn beefed up Force Commander somewhat as a lawful neutral antagonist.  He heads the Ministry of Science, whereas Karza leads the Ministry of Defense.  They were friends and allies.  Now because of their different approaches to determining the nature of the Entropy Wave, they are enemies.  Force Commander is still however pretty damn useless.
Bunn however never meant for him to be anything bout loud background noise.  So in that respect, Force Commander served his purpose.  The Micronauts free now follow the advice of The Time Traveler, and Karza follows the Micronauts.  In the end, through Bunn’s sophisticated characterization and Max Dunbar’s and Ander Zarate’s art lightning strikes twice.

That compliment also applies to Rom.  Our gallant Space Knight is still hunting Dire Wraith, but these Wraith are far more powerful than the hobgoblins from Marvel Comics.  They’ve rooted into human history and honed dark magic and dark science to infest without fear.

Rom’s appearance catalyzes numerous deviations from the Dire Wraith plan.  As with previous Rom stories, the Dire Wraiths are keen to learn the secrets of the space armor fusion.  Rom and his fellow Space Knights, not yet present, are the metal nuts the Dire Wraiths keep failing to crack.

The Dire Wraiths do not just duplicate humans and dump the bodies when finished.  They replicate through a virus-like infection.  Rom however sees a use of what the Dire Wraith’s view as an inevitable assimilation process.

Sometimes though guile isn’t needed.

Writer Chris Ryall makes a point that Rom isn’t a Dire Wraith deconstruction.  The Dire Wraith’s create convincing lies that frame them as peaceful homesteaders, but Camilla didn’t ask to be infected.  In a courtly manner, Rom seeks her permission to let the infection grow for awhile, allowing he and his allies to get closer to the enemy.  Free will is always the calling card.  Rom doesn’t manipulate Camilla.  He asks.  

While Rom and Camilla extricate themselves from the Wraiths, Rom’s other ally Darby Mason reconnects with her Air Force contacts and forms a plan to strike at the Dire Wraith’s strongest outpost.  This plan instigates a Trojan Horse that plants Rom in the heart of Dire Wraith territory.

You know I had a feeling this issue of Green Lantern would be good.  Probably one of the best.  I read the blurb in Previews, and I said to myself.  This will probably be a good one.  That’s because it doesn’t pit the Green Lanterns against any of the new Lucky Charms Lanterns.  It gets down to the promise of Rebirth.

Jessica Cruz once became possessed by Volthoom, the entity manifesting as the Power Ring from the Crime Syndicate.  Volthoom parasitized her because she was weak, but Jessica  overcame her fear and her anxieties.  A Green Lantern Ring chose her to be bearer.  That’s a pretty strong vote of confidence.  

This is what I wanted to see.  Jessica challenging herself to deserve the ring.  I didn’t want to see her suddenly being a nondescript ring wielder that green blasts red-vomit spewing Red Lanterns.  Taste the rainbow.  I find the whole concept of ROY G BIV jewelry weak and frequently distasteful.  Now, a Halloween story that depends upon fellow Green Lantern Simon Baz making precisely the right cookie to please his Mom? Sign me up.

This is about the Green Lanterns not some lame Starburst slugfest.  Because the dilemma is all on Simon, Jessica relaxes and tries to source the root of Simon’s personal crisis.  She then helps him make the cookies.

The story’s absolutely charming because the underlying themes all involve family, friendship and being who you are.  Because the story is so grounded, Ronan Cliquet’s artwork becomes even better looking.  

It enhances the realism and authentic emotion of the story.  The dialogue in turn imbues the artwork with a sense of meaning.  Green Lantern is a space cop book that actually says something.  I just want this depth to continue.

So if the cover didn’t clue you in to the big plot point.  Jane Foster teams up with Thor.  How is this possible?

I’m going to give you a hint.  Your first thought is wrong.  That’s not Loki pretending to be Jane Foster.  Nope.  Jane Foster is Thor.  Writer Jason Aaron comes up with something far more interesting than a simple shape-shifting trickster and the explanation for the team-up impacts historically on the Marvel Thor mythology.  In addition, the reveal strangely impacts on the recent Battle World miniseries that spanned across the Marvel titles.

So I can’t really talk about all of what’s happening, but even without the central journey into mystery, The Mighty Thor is still a pretty damn fine comic book.

Staple villainous Marvel organization Roxxon is now headed by Dario Agger, who also happens to be a Minotaur.  He’s got a floating island and belongs to a cabal of fiends that lend credence to what a lot of people think about the one percent added to what a lot conspiracy nuts think about the one percent.

Dario Agger made a deal with Dark Elf Malekith to plunder the resources of the Nine Realms.  The cabal wants a taste of the pie.  Agger’s not a sharing sort, oh, and that island’s ability to float turns out to be directly tied into Agger’s health, which the cabal threatened.  Thor and SHIELD Agent Roz Solomon find themselves in the unwanted position of rescuing Agger’s furry ass.  The cabal naturally put Thor and Roz on their list of annoyances, and Thor gets shot with a bullet, actually a nanobot that turns things into gold.  When the bullet drops on the island, in the most perfect visual of Murphy’s Law, the threat to New York and actually the Tristate Area becomes much, much worse.  

It shouldn’t come as any shock that Thor finds a means to turn away the threat.  What’s surprising is that her power goes far beyond that of how Thor is traditionally depicted.  What she does is on a Superman/Supergirl level, and that’s new.  That’s Thor embracing the Marvel movie sense of grandeur and awe, masterfully illustrated by Russell Dauterman and Matthew Wilson.  Even putting aside the rescue, the fight of the new Thor Rogues Gallery, the strange yet satisfying team-up, The Mighty Thor wows you on a personal cast level.  The Mighty Thor is like a nesting doll of goodness.

Wonder Woman’s latest 77 excursion entertains the reader with a fistful of short stories all exquisitely illustrated to gel Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman and Lyle Waggoner’s Steve Trevor to the comic book panels. 

“Revenge of Gault’s Brain” is a sequel to the television episode “Gault’s Brain,” which of course is about a crazed scientist’s disembodied brain seeking a new body.  

Now, this is the kind of episode that people point to and declare camp.  Fair enough.  However, what we have here is the first attempt to televise the Ultra-Humanite, and it has a pedigree.  There are plenty of disembodied brain stories out there, beginning of course with the super serious science fiction classic “Donovan’s Brain.” 

In the sequel, artist Tom Derenick throws the budget concerns out the window.  He illustrates Gault’s Brain nesting on peoples’ heads in a vaguely Cthlhuan nightmare, and he choreographs the finale battle between Gault and Wonder Woman on the psychic plane.  This trope has been used throughout comics, but thanks to Derenick’s redesigned Lyda Carter Wonder Woman as warrior armor and another Lovecraft nod, this one is special.

Writer Marc Andreyko furthermore adds little touches that make this story worth reading.  Diana recognizes Gault on security footage despite the mask.  She mentions Wonder Woman’s  ability to show up when needed as if she were another person.  Gault’s henchwench Tara, also from the television series, exhibits mercy.  Gault’s attempts to make his henchman useless to his enemies fails when put to the test against Wonder Woman’s Golden Lasso.  Steve is pretty strong in this one, and the IADC conducts a very realistic commando raid, emphasizing how dangerous Gault is.

In “World’s Collide” writer Amy Chu tunes in the seventies for a tale of Soviet spies and a hip new band called Superfunk.  

Chu peppers the dialogue with seventies slang while Brizuela keeps the look pure period.  The plot might have come from any seventies show, and it’s clearly a send up.  Chu however doesn’t just rely on the look and feel to sell her story.  LeRoi of Superfunk gets air sick.  Joe Atkinson, the director of IADC, chews out Steve and Diana for botching the assignment, albeit unwittingly.  Wonder Woman rides a big rig from a famous seventies icon to thwart the Soviets.  The double agent’s explanation for betrayal transcends the time, and Wonder Woman gives an innocent bystander a ride in her Invisible Jet to get him on time to meet President Jimmy Carter.  Cool beans.

Trina Robbins’ “The Man Behind the Curtain” pays tribute to the late great David Bowie in a story that seems to be straightforward but then takes a twist.  The rationale behind Danny Blue’s capture is actually very Wonder Woman, at least the stated purpose behind Wonder Woman.  To give boys and girls and alternative to the machismo of Batman and Superman.  Robbins, a Wonder Woman and female hero scholar, shows Wonder Woman seeing the good in everybody, and using not just fisticuffs but her presence to save the day.  Robbins creates a parallel between Danny Blue and Wonder Woman.  Both different kinds of celebrities.  Both decent human beings.  Maybe this is why Wonder Woman lets Danny Blue in on her secret, knowing that he’ll keep it safe.

“Seeing Stars” recycles James Bond’s You Only Live Twice.  Somebody’s capturing Soviet and American astronauts.  Is it Spectre?

Nope.  Writer Amanda Delbert uses the Bond plot for an alien takeover bid, but the real pleasures of the story can be found in an off panel Steve Trevor recommending Diana for the investigation to an old friend.  Wonder Woman teams up with an IADC double agent to safely travel to the Soviet Union.  They look good doing it thanks to Christian Duce.  Wonder Woman rescues the Soviets from an alien arsonist without being seen, very neat imagery that mimics the occasional need for secrecy on the show.  Wonder Woman changes into a new uniform for space travel, and it looks smashing, kudos to colorist Wendy Broome.  The nuclear threat is ever present, and Wonder Woman stands up for the Soviet astronauts, once again seeing the good in all who want nothing to do with war.

So Old Man Logan killed Gabby, Laura’s cute little clone, last issue.  Only, not.  Writer Tom Taylor isn’t sacrificing his far more engrossing story or his cast of characters to the Civil War.  Instead, he pays lip service to the Big Event with a battle royal between Wolverines in the sewers.

The fight is ephemeral.  Neither Wolverine can kill each other thanks to the healing factor, but the rationale behind the fight gains substance through the dialogue.  There’s an even better critique of these superhero wars after Laura’s dead-on accurate summary.  Moral of the story.  Never listen to Maria Hill.

Tomb Raider once considered a tits and ass character became a universally feminist icon the moment Angelina Jolie took over the role.  The games have since reflected a rise in woman power and eschewed the male gaze.  Although, one must also accept that even when Tomb Raider was a pixelated sex object, she still defied a male-dominated gaming world by simply manifesting as the main heroic character in a series of adventures.  Lara Croft was playable, not eye-candy background, and in the game all business.  In other words, the original designers may have emphasized a prepubescent fantasy, but the fantasy simply played along, waiting patiently for a makeover that mirrored her purpose and personality.

Writer Mariko Tamaki makes this issue of Tom Raider overtly feminist, and the story benefits.  In the last issue of Tomb Raider, Lara Croft infiltrated an asylum to find out what happened to her friend Sam Nishimura.  The villains posing as well-meaning mental health workers captured Lara.  

Ultimately the tale is simple.  Bad guys nab Lara.  Lara escapes.  The openly chauvinistic doctor raises the story to another a level.  It’s now not just about Lara vs. Bad Guys.  It’s Lara being a woman trashing an outdated patriarchy that evil organization Trinity, keeps in its back pocket like an old man’s wallet.

Some may argue this is a mere veneer and not true complexity, but I disagree.  Although the story outline is simple, there’s a visceral quality to the interrogation and it’s very clear in the artwork that these men hate women.  The casual nature of insult followed by the unhesitant brutalization makes Tomb Raider a little better than the average adventure book.  

The feminist angle is furthermore only one theme within Tomb Raider.  A lot of feminist action-works like to raise their female characters to a perfect level, but that’s a mistake.  It makes them less human.  Tamaki gets that.  She furthermore understands what it is she’s writing.  This is a comic book based upon a game with a claim to fame of a woman that jumps, leaps and runs through various mazes.

So here’s where Tamaki humanizes Lara Croft.  Lara makes mistakes.  Dumb mistakes that she treats with a chiding self-awareness.  These moments give Lara a winning personality and make her more than mere symbol.  It’s furthermore hilarious that Tamaki conceives of these instances during traditional gameplay setup.  This creates the idea that you regardless of gender are Tomb Raider, and you’ve blown it.  Your reaction is her reaction.