Wednesday, October 5, 2016

POBB September 28, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
September 28, 2016
Ray Tate

Welcome to the last roundup of September 2016.  This week I review two different Doctors in two different Doctor Who books, Batgirl, Blue Beetle, King’s Quest, Spider-Gwen, the Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, The Titans, X-Men 92 and the new title Surgeon X.  If you haven't time to enjoy the rich Corinthian leather of the Pick of the Brown Bag, I'm also on Twitter: #PickoftheBrownBag.

Surgeon X posits a world where...Well, I'm not sure how this works.  Surgeon X reminds me of an eighties Dystopia/Apocalypse film.  Some vaguely hinted at threat dissolves the United States.  Parrot-haired punks take over.  Various states link up into sections or units.  West Coast Camp.  East Coast Camp.  South Deliverance.  Canada.  The point is to create a vivid reason for the heroes to quest or survive with modern to cutting edge weaponry but without the backup of law enforcement or organized government. 

If you're lucky you get something like Cherry 2000 which is a futuristic, terrifically entertaining action adventure love story.  

If you're unlucky you get Hirsute Bikers on the Road to Nuclear Holocaust with an obligatory guest-appearance by Sid Haig.  Killed off in the first reel.  

Surgeon X looks like it takes place in a modern setting--which negates some of the appeal of the anarchy genre.  Somebody upgraded cars and advanced medicine, but otherwise there's nothing special about the backdrop.  It's redder.  I'll give it that.  But no Macaw tressed ne'er do wells causing explosions.

Well, yeah.  There are those ambiguous rioters.  You can't help but think the sheep faced terrorist group wear baaaaad masks because Anonymous claimed the Guy Fawkes visage from V for Vendetta as their own symbol.  Can't upset Anonymous.  They know how to hack.  Oh, and by the way.  "Love is a battlefield."  Pat Benatar taught me that.

Surgeon X bases its descent on antibiotics, which is quite frankly weird, but not in a good way.  The government metes out antibiotics to the wealthy while the poor and middle class get shorted.  

See.  That doesn't work because I don't know what bacterial infliction the populace is at risk for.  Is it a superbug? Is it MRSA?  Is it an epidemic of amoebic dysentery? All the above?  Nobody appears to be dying in the streets.  Those low-face masks that seem so popular wouldn't be worth didley-squat in a world teeming with bacteria and free floating protozoans.  So, it's hardly a plague.

Yeah.  I can't see this.  President Obama already took steps to eliminate such doom.  In 2011 he issued an Executive Order requiring advance notice of manufacturer discontinuance.  The FDA encourages companies to produce dwindling drugs.  The very existence of the FDA precludes such a pessimistic scenario.  All it would take is a large enough percentage of manufacturers to bow out of antibiotic manufacturing to force President Clinton's hand to create government run factories.  Or are we saying Trump wins the election? In which case, yes, Surgeon X is absolutely plausible.  Carry on.  Oh, and I'm aware Surgeon X takes place in England.  The U.K. is an American ally.  We wouldn't allow this to happen even if they did allow Brexit.

The central conflict in Surgeon X, the trigger that creates Surgeon Xappears to arise when surgeon Rosa Scott issues antibiotics to a girl that needs them.  

The removal of this girl's kidneys creates an artificial requirement for antibiotics, but quite frankly, I can't figure out why Surgeon X felt the need to remove her remaining kidney.

Nothing in this story makes medical sense.  Antibiotics are rationed for no good reason.  Dialysis is still around, but they're healing legs with foam, which I'm guessing was manufactured by a drug company.

Perhaps if the narrative were straightforward I could have gotten a better grasp of what's going on.  The story begins with a disaster at a debate that introduces Surgeon X. 

It then flashes back to Rosa Scott's days as a regular surgeon at the aforementioned hospital and flops into meeting Rosa's sister Martha, also a doctor.  Rosa Scott quits over the antibiotics thing, but rather than ply her skills in another country--they do exist in Surgeon X, she tries for a noxious imitation of Blackjack.

The present coalesces out of the flashback where we get a meaningless shootout.  The "exciting" escape leads to a jarring twist in the plot that launches Surgeon X into another genre entirely, unless this cliffhanger bomb is related to the muddle of the detective/romance thing splat in the middle of the kidney conversation.   Not recommended.

The Doctor, as stated, appears in two titles this week.  The fourth Doctor concludes his battle against the Medusa, and the current Capaldi Doctor discovers a house with too many rooms.  

Capaldi's Doctor with new companion Hattie travels into an enigma involving what appears to be an ordinary family.

The puzzle will not fool any Doctor Who fan, but Rachael Stott's jaw-dropping art polishes the raw material and sets the visually multifaceted gem in solid gold.

Stott's perfect optic characterization of the Doctor as an old/young man is enough to warrant your attention, but her design of architecture is astounding.  Stott is more than a simple point line perspective artist.  She's a draftsman.

George Mann’s plot involves a new form of time/space scavenger.  These creatures reminded me of banshee.  However, the figures have little to do with the question.  They are merely clues, but their potential appears to be growing by the conclusion.

The fourth Doctor's finale is reminiscent of the classic television episode "The Pyramids of Mars," yet familiarity does not breed contempt.

The early chapters differed significantly.  Writers Gordon Rennie and Emma Beeby unfurled a mystery that introduced a Professor and his adventurous daughter Athena James, who later becomes the Doctor's defacto companion. 

The Doctor traveled to this era with his stalwart friend Sarah Jane Smith.  Sarah Jane unfortunately succumbed to the demands of history.  

Having spotted herself among the exhibits in Lady Carstairs' ghoulish gallery Sarah knew she could not avoid her fate. 

Carstairs is aided by Cyclopes clad in Victorian garb.  Beeby and Rennie explain their manifestation as well as the Medusa’s appearance in one fell swoop.  At the same time, the Doctor Who scribes use a mutiny to lend credibility to the plot.

Sutekh in “Pyramids of Mars” possessed people, and the altered states relied on the capabilities of the actors.  Spectacular by the way.  Brian Williamson handles the possession element in “Gaze of the Medusa” artistically and with great skill. 

Of special note, the colors are actually better effect-wise than the old series could ever possibly muster.

Sutekh was an ancient alien assumed to be a god, but this was no mere ruse, nor did he have feet of clay.  The Osirians were an ancient, dead people “whose brains were like spiral staircases.”  Sutekh looks upon the Doctor and the Time Lords as an inferior species.  The Doctor agrees.  Next to the Osirians, the Time Lords are children.  The Medusa on the other hand is plain and simple a criminal.  Though filled with guile and power, she’s no match for the Doctor.  The threat lies in what she will do should she be loosed.

The way in which the Doctor triumphs also exhibits a stark contrast.  The Doctor defeated Sutekh through a combination of chance, circumstance and knowledge.  For “Gaze of the Medusa,” the Doctor carries the instrument of shame from a race that failed in their mission to contain the horror.  The Doctor can end the Medusa in a page, but because he’s the Doctor he offers her a reprieve.  This may seem like a characteristic of future Doctors, but the fourth Doctor had his merciful moments.  Sutekh did not warrant such consideration.

“Pyramids of Mars” ends with a quick epilogue where the Doctor and Sarah realize how a future event will materialize.  “Gaze of the Medusa” benefits from a longer epilogue.

The restoration of Sarah Jane still carries consequences that are perfectly depicted in an expression that Elisabeth Sladen would have made when performing such a scene.  And before the finale gets too heavy, Beeby and Rennie leave the time travelers with an inside joke for old Doctor Who fans.

The Blue Beetle is solidly entertaining with its mix of sublime super heroics and friction between Ted Kord and Jaime Reyes.

Jaime doesn’t find the scarab nesting in his back a boon like Ted does, nor does Jaime really think super-hero is a good career choice.  Ted on the other hand just doesn’t take no for an answer. 

That’s Teri Magnus working for Kord Industries.  Metal Men creator Will Magnus’ cousin or sister at a guess.  She’s part of a theme for which Keith Giffin just isn’t known.

The Blue Beetle is an old character.  He originated in the forties as a spiritual descendent of The Green Hornet.

He would go on to wear light chainmail to become a more distinctive mystery man. 

Steve Ditko premiered a new Blue Beetle for Charlton Comics in sixties Captain Atom.  

This was a means to an end.  Ditko quickly disposed of Dan Garrett to create a second Blue Beetle named Ted Kord.  Ditko also introduced a mystical connection involving the scarab.  However, Ditko’s Dan Garrett possessed magical powers.  Ted Kord merely took the name, not the magic.

This second Blue Beetle became the most popular and familiar to modern audiences.  His first appearance in DC Comics occurred during The Crisis on Infinite Earths, and that’s where writer Marv Wolfman suggested that Garrett did bequeath the scarab to Ted Kord, and it still radiated sorcery.

The still non-powered adventuring Blue Beetle had a healthy run in his own title at DC Comics, but when Keith Giffin got a hold of him, things changed.  Blue Beetle certainly wasn’t dour, but Giffin turned him into one-half of a comedy duo that needs no further explanation.

Later, a writer named John Smith with artist Scott Eaton created the Vertigo series Scarab.  I vaguely recall Smith in an interview referring to the Scarab as a defunct Blue Beetle reboot.  A means to rescue Blue Beetle from the bwa-ha-ha-ha-ha that brought him added fame.

I bring all of this up because Giffin adheres to a magical origin for the scarab turning Jaime Reyes into the Blue Beetle, and he ties in Dr. Fate as an immortal adversary.

Dr. Fate briefly served in Giffin’s Justice League and never appeared to have a problem with Ted Kord or the mystical scarab he wore as a belt buckle, but what if that was only a shard of the true Blue Beetle focus and Jaime now sports the full Blue Beetle?  This motif is the most interesting.

The current issue of Batgirl is easily Hope Larson’s best to date.  Everything about it is pure Batgirl and writing goodness.

Have you ever watched a movie where a person’s knocked out, and they’re out for hours?  Discounting chemical knockouts which will clock you.   

We’re talking punches and saps.   The truth is that nine times out of ten if a person is knocked out for more than five or six minutes, they need medical attention.  Normally, a person snaps to if they’re not badly hurt.  So, the opening scene where Babs regains consciousness quickly but groggily is one of the most accurate I’ve seen.  As is the care for checking for concussion.

Larson next makes Babs an inspiration, and just as in the previous Batgirl volume, where Babs inspires Gotham Academy’s Maps and Olive, she makes a point not to discourage her admirers.  Nor to suggest this is a sport too dangerous for girls.

Batgirl entered the ring to search for clues to the cadre after her friend Kai.  This allows Larson to employ Babs’ eidetic memory in an unusual way.  She taps into the file cabinet of photos snapped by her eyes before she was knocked out.

Batgirl's conclusion drives her into battle against a new Moth.  Batman villain Killer Moth as I have said in a previous review became Batgirl’s archenemy.  That Moth was revamped into a ridiculous monster post-Crisis, and in the new 52 reimagined as a more realistic mercenary.  Larson’s Moth neatly carries over the animosity between Batgirl and her traditional enemy, beefs up the character’s skill without metamorphosis while drawing upon Japanese motifs.

The death of Aqualad in Titans has been greatly exaggerated.  Writer Dan Abnett teases with more Watchmen possibilities as he details Abra Kadabra’s hatred of Wally West.  Meanwhile, Donna confronts Roy about his confession of love, and we revisit Mal Duncan and Bumblebee.  Wally also reconnects with Linda, and Nightwing is surprisingly in the dark because his memory of Kadabra has been expunged.

I admit I had very little interest in The Titans before trying an issue.  I’m not a huge Teen Titans or Titans fan.  It’s always been the strength in writing and artwork that pulls me into their adventures.  Even so, I usually wander out quicker than Lilith does.  Abnett has a good feel for the characters, and he’s eliminated most of the things I disliked.  He replaced weighty continuity with memories and friendship, which was supposed to be at the core of The Teen Titans, but frequently got lost.  Rather than deny the new 52, Abnett works around the phenomena to present a story that feels fresh with characters that are assets rather than albatrosses.  Furthermore, characterization and plot intricately link.  In past volumes of The Teen Titans, one or the other.  Rarely both.  Either the plot betrayed the characters, or the characterization led to a soap opera.

King’s Quest in a way does the same as The Titans.  Ostensibly, this story was about the rescue of Dale Arden, but when the Defenders of the Earth found Dale, she didn’t need saving, except from herself.

This is a classic example of losing oneself in the part.  Dale set herself up as Empress as a survival tactic and a means to save the aquatic people of Coralia, but she failed to take Nietzsche to heart.  “…if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you…” 

Dale’s not quite so far gone, I’m happy to say, and this issue of King’s Quest is about the most upbeat the title’s been since its conception in King’s Watch.  I can’t really say much without giving away.  I’ll instead discuss the technique.

I’ve read lots of books where companies squander licensed characters to bad artwork and equally bad writing.  King’s Quest features none of that.  Ben Acker and Heath Corson value the characters.  Artist Bob Q draws them beautifully.

Dale went a bad way, but not permanently.  The love she feels for the Phantom, the female descendent of the last lineage Phantom is genuine.  There’s no Flash Gordon jealousy.  He’s cool with Dale’s choice, and he probably still doesn’t know whether he and Dale knocked boots or not.  Booze was involved.  Memory loss as well.

Prince Valiant finds an interesting place, that flies in the face of his comic strip continuity, but that’s not what King’s Quest is anyway.  It wasn’t what King’s Watch was either.  A nod to Buffy the Vampire Slayer keeps the knights on the chessboard.  The secondary cast, interesting in their own right, takes the helm.  Finally, a clever plot twist at once preserves Mandrake’s willpower and sets up the next King’s Features/Defenders of the Earth mini.

X-Men 92's latest arc started out excellently.  The X-Men provided security for Lila Cheney, the teleporting mutant singer at a major concert.  Lila however is a wanted woman, and not just by her fans.  Death's Head, the nineties Doctor Who Magazine bounty hunter, intended to collect.  Unfortunately, somebody boosted Lila's powers and teleported the X-Men, Lila, Death's Head and an anachronistic Abigail Brand head of SWORD to an unknown desolate world.  

This second story I'm sorry to say is a mish-mash of everything that makes me leery of becoming an X-Men comic book reader.

Too many characters for no reason.

And they just keep adding more.

And more.

A helluva lot of these characters are long-winded, telling me things I really don't need to know.

When actually I do want to know, they don't tell me.

Thanks I guess.  Who's Adam X? 

Then there's always the wtf factor.

Look.  None of this was necessary.  X-Factor, which used to be comprised of the original X-Men, work for the government, and appear to be headed by Havok and his better half Polaris, she with the green hair.  I can't for the life of me figure out why they're there.  This is a matter for Charles Xavier, since he is the custodian of the X-Men.  If the government wanted a hand in the detective work, I could buy them sending one agent from X-Factor.  En-Masse is just confusing and in context a waste of assets.

When Xavier shows up, you wish he hadn't.  Why do we need to know the entire freaking history of this mutant dude that's behind the mischief?  Magneto doesn't pertain here.  The Westchester Wars, whatever the hell they are, do not remotely impact, and neither does mention of Asteroid M.

So if Charles showed up, shut up and started looking into the disappearance with say Polaris as representative for the Feds, I might have had an easier path to enjoy the earth based investigation and the X-Men marooned plot points.  I could have even tolerated the wtf.  As it is Death's Head has the best line put succinctly in the book.

Thank you, Death's Head.  You're the only part of X-Men 92 that didn't make my eyes glaze over.

This issue of Unbeatable Squirrel Girl surprises in the same way an apparent monster-of-the-week episode of Doctor Who surprises.  You're following along.  You find things interesting.  The Doctor's battling monsters.  Witty, awesome, typical, Doctor Who, but then when you least expect it, the Zygons show up, and it's not a one parter.  It's two, not because of padding or exacerbating the point.  It's because the story needs a second part.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is a lot like that.  You're kicking around and watching Squirrel Girl break in a disused former villain as a super-hero.  

You're smiling and even laughing at the itty-bitty yellow marginal commentary from writer Ryan North.  The plot appears to be shifting into high gear.  Squirrel Girl goes on vacation.

That's a great crack, beautifully worded, and reminded me of the kind of counter intuitive speech of Douglas Adams "The ships hung in the sky much in the same way that bricks don't."

The story shifts back and forth from Brain Drain's war on crime... Doreen's at first hellish realization that electronics are forbidden in Mom's cabin.

The mystery seems at first a tame little puzzle.  Just the kind of thing that Squirrel Girl would like as a vacation activity.  You think you've got a grip on what's going on, but oh, no.  North and artist Erica Henderson who excels when illustrating small problems have other ideas.  It's giddily surprising, but it's not wtf because the writers foreshadowed something going on throughout the narrative.  So damn good. 

Spider-Gwen vs. The Punisher.  This is not the more mellow Punisher of Marvel earth proper.  Yeah, I know.  What kind of mess do we have if the Spider-Man Punisher can be considered laid-back and easy-going by comparison?  This kind.

Holy crap!  The reason why the heroes tolerate the Punisher of Marvel earth proper is that they all recognize that there's a human being buried deep in the psychopathic, methodical killing machine.  The Punisher in Spider-Gwen is scary crazy, and you may think giving him an Iron Man glove is kind of cute and kitschy, but it's all in the execution, literally.

That's not a Repulsor Ray.  That's a death beam.  Castle's glove is Stark Made, but it's made for war, and drawn in such a way that signifies not fantasy but military practicality.  It lacks the elegance of Iron Man's armor, even at it's clunkiest.  It's a claw.

Spider-Gwen and Punisher battle atop the rooftops, and Frank's callous disregard for human life can be seen in the physics of the beam.  Spider-Gwen dodges, and the beam rips through the residences and almost the innocent bystanders that live there.  Here is another stark contrast.  The Punisher would accept what he would refer to as some collateral damage, but he wouldn't go out of his way to cause it.  He wouldn't be so inhuman.

Spider-Gwen must win this fight, but writer Jason Latour doesn't make it easy for her.  This fight is about something, and it echoes back to the very beginning of why Spider-Gwen put on the mask in the first place.  As the battle winds down, the dialogue just grows more powerful, and everybody gets a chance to stand in the spotlight.  Even Jean DeWolff.  These marvelous speeches and brilliantly worded observations lead to the only conclusion that could have occurred.  Because when you've hit rock bottom, that's when the devil comes to bargain for your soul.

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