Tuesday, December 13, 2016

POBB December 7, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 7, 2016
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, a weekly blog dedicated to current comic book reviews.  This time around I'll be looking at All-New Wolverine, Aquaman, Batman, Batman Meets Steed and Peel, Big Trouble in Little China/Escape from New York, King's Cross, Nova, Superman and Wonder Woman 77 Meets the Bionic Woman. First, two disappointing tryouts...

I really wanted to like Star Wars Doctor Aphra, but this thing is just schizoid.  On the one hand Kieron Gillen's story about a dodgy, futuristic archaeologist could be really entertaining if not being undermined by the distracting and unnecessary Star Wars references.

Doctor Aphra is an engaging scoundrel but Han Solo doesn't hold a license to the archetype.  Nor captains in love with their ships like the original James T. Kirk.  Neither archaeologists such as Lara Croft and if you're in space River Song.  My point is Doctor Aphra is a variation on many themes.  Her personality is interesting and strong enough to carry at least a few stories.  Tying her into a Star Wars tapestry in my opinion does a disservice to the character, and it's one of those not exactly Star Wars bugaboos.  We get the almost C-3PO and near R2-D2.

Somebody just spray painted them in KITT colors.  Mind you, they're like evil mirror universe duplicates of gold and blue.  We also get a dark-furred Wookie.

These attributes just seem to be unnecessary grafts.  Although I'm certain there are Star Wars fans thinking the same thing about Doctor Aphra.  Why is there a space archaeologist in my Wookies and 3POs?

With the Batgirl team behind Motor Crush, how can the book fail? Simple.  Make female star Domino Swift a drug addict.  For those that care, Motor Crush refers to illegal street motorcycle racing conducted by professionals and amateurs alike. The prize is a drug called Crush.  Motor.  Crush.  Get it?  Anyway, because of the value of the prize, the racing also resembles extreme roller derby or charioteering if you prefer.  I expected a cross between Batgirl and Speed Racer.  Instead I got a subpar version of the "Fastest Car on Earth" episode from Speed Racer.  The difference lies in the willingness of the participants.  Some whacked out girl dosed Speed with a highly addictive substance to force him into driving a GRX engined car.  Speed with the help of his parents and his team beats the addiction and returns behind the wheel of the Mach 5 to race again.  As far as I can tell, Domino just likes the Crush.  Not to my tastes.

The Bionic Woman meets Wonder Woman in 1977.  The run-in occurs during a suspicious fire possibly set by Castra a new terrorist group.  During the fire, Jaime and Diana bond over super-powered heroism, and it's a sublime shared universe encounter.

Jaime is more of a strange penny from Wonder Woman's perspective, but the Amazon takes it all in stride.  Wonder Woman is an already known quantity in Jaime's POV.  In keeping with The Bionic Woman's themes, Wonder Woman discovers the exact nature of Jaime's abilities accidentally, and Jaime who seldom lied about her abilities on the series doesn't bother to blunder an unbelievable explanation. 

Jaime is in Washington for a reason.  The OSI from the bionic duet and the IADC from Wonder Woman confab over Castra.  Jaime is on site for the meeting, and Diana is one of the IADC's top agents.

Not everybody's on board in the He-Man-Woman-Haters Club.  Jack Hanson he of the bad seventies toupee and Burt Reynolds mustache grown in defiance of middle aged pudgery immediately attacks Jaime's and Diana's genders.  Diana comes to Jaime's defense, which is just as casual cool as you expect.  As the meeting continues, however, it appears that the Club sidelined Jaime and Diana.  Fellow IADC agent, Steve Trevor being more progressive than you probably remember apologizes for the delegated body guard duties.  Though these duties place both heroes in the right place at the right time to investigate a Castra attack.

Andy Mangels story combines the best of both worlds and brings a lot of Lynda Carter's and Lindsay Wagner's deliveries to the dialogue.  Meanwhile while working under the warm colors of Michael Bartolo and Stuart Chaifetz, artist Judit Tondera captures the actresses' body language and expands their displays of power in the classic comic book tradition.

A triumph of girl power, Wonder Woman Meets the Bionic Woman is a treat for a gamut of fandom: the television shows, the icons, universe crossovers and the comic books.

The conclusion to Batman Meets Steed and Mrs. Peel surprises on a number of levels.  The least unexpected element is the grudging truce between villains and heroes when faced with a common enemy.

Batman's life saving for Mr, Freeze is neither campy nor juvenile.  Serious versions of Batman rescued his foes from certain death on numerous occasions.  The animated incarnation of Batman exhibits enormous empathy with Mr. Freeze that carries over to his guest appearances in Batman Beyond.

In this sense Batman, Robin and the Avengers share a motif of humanity.  The Avengers in particular frequently treat their enemies ruthlessly, but it's also perfectly in character for Steed to apply reason to a nemesis he thinks redeemable.  During his appeal, no pun intended, you hear the late great Patrick Macnee's charming voice.  The scene is that characteristic.

In addition to these qualities Ian Edginton's story possesses psychological, philosophical and science fiction depth.  The richness would have been at home in a dramatic representation of the Dynamic Duo teaming with The Avengers.

Each issue of Batman, Steed and Mrs. Peel subtly built up the story to the satisfying reveal.  It started with the White Star Diamond, spotlit the new versatility of the Cybernauts and concluded with the implied man behind the curtain.  All sauce for the goose to an even greater surprise.

Tom King's latest issue of Batman is the companion piece to the previous chapter.  In the current Batman, Bruce writes a letter that's transcribed through the narration.  Unlike the first pen pal, brutally pragmatic, Batman takes a more existential viewpoint.

He touches upon his parents and the inherent humor of costumes.  Then of course, Batman goes dark, maybe darker than ever.  Batman self-reflects on his psychological damage, that's actually his sanity.  

It sounds like an oxymoron, but when you read the book, you'll understand.  The recipient of Batman's letter already knows.  That's key, and recognition just draws Bruce deeper into mentioning things we never knew about the origin of Batman.  King includes the startling moment where Batman became an atheist and while not explicit, it's so overt that Batman's abandonment of faith needs not be stated.  

Batman becomes an atheist not at the moment when he witnesses his parents die.  The murders shake his belief, but the boy still maintains his learned tenets.  That changes.  Oh, and by the way, juxtaposed with the soulful narration, Batman swathed in Mikel Janin's art beats the crap out of every one of Bane's personal stronghold guard.  Sweet on the eyes.  A stone creating ripples in the brain.

Peter J. Tomasi dares to write the Lois Lane from another universe with a personality and interests that lie outside household concerns.  Oh, you wag, you're trying to write Lois as modern woman and a former ace reporter for The Daily Planet.  I'm impressed with moxie.

Lois appears to be interested in a journalism job at a local newspaper in Hamilton County.  The trouble is Frankenstein Agent of SHADE appears to accuse and deal with Hamilton Horn editor Candice.   Frankie believes her to be something other than human.

Is Frankenstein correct and SHADE on the side of good?  Naturally, it doesn't really matter entertainment wise.  Frankie's explosive means of finishing a mission for SHADE places Lois in danger, and when that happens Superman enters the picture.

Why do we like Frankenstein vs Superman or vs Batman so much?  The fact is that Frankenstein is older than Superman.  Oh sure.  This version is not.  Grant Morrison created Frankenstein as a substitute for the Martian Manhunter in Seven Soldiers of Victory.  DC actually dabbled with the creature in the seventies in The Phantom Stranger backup feature Spawn of Frankenstein.  The literary figure though dates back to 1818.  Maybe there lies the answer.  Frankenstein and Superman and Batman are iconic characters.  Seeing them go toe-to-toe satisfies on a primal shared cultural level.  

In addition to the expected fisticuffs, Superman benefits from a Lois Lane that's more experienced in science fiction matters and a quirky sense of humor that underlies all of Tomasi's works.

Frankenstein faces Wilford Brimley.

Artist Patrick Gleason partners with Tomasi for the writing, and artist Doug Manhke who first illustrated the patchwork man for Morrison contributes the big blustery artwork perfect for the battle of giants.  Mahnke furthermore imbues Lois from another universe with visual sparks of life that should make other artists that dehumanized the character hang their heads in shame.  Yes.  I might be wrong about Lois.  She may very well be alive.  Not a robot and in the right hands not just defined by her husband and son.

The Fisher King heads NEMO.  The King has a beef with Aquaman that goes deep.  He's one of Aquaman's oldest enemies with oodles of resources now at his disposal.  He doesn't want to just kill Aquaman.  He wants to destroy his very idea.  To that effect, he intends to expunge Atlantis from the bottom of the sea.

The King instigated a war between the Untied States and Atlantis, and now, Aquaman must turn back the tide.  His first question is a natural one.  Is Atlantis responsible?

Aquaman plots his strategy, and this time, everybody's on board.  They recognize the soundness in his tactics and do not challenge his authority.  They still bring some pessimism to the table, but Aquaman is about hope, and the evidence is there.  He'll just need a master detective to confirm the whole story.  Fortunately one is on the way.  Writer Dan Abnett simply doesn't turn his back on smart and artist Phil Briones thrives on spectacle, while putting faces to Naval battles increase the dramatic impetus.

This second issue of King's Cross massively improves on the downer of a premiere.  Ming the Merciless' reported demise was greatly exaggerated.  Well perhaps not greatly.  Turns out Dale did him a good one by tossing him in a howling void.  Ming as we saw previously tricked the famed magician Mandrake into freeing him, but he did so cunningly by pretending to be a demon, counting on Mandrake's innate goodness to win out over the false temptation Ming as a demon promised.  Now freed to the outer reaches of Mongo, Ming used amazing science fiction to physically move bits of his empire through time and space to earth.

The Defender of the Earth gathered, and now, they seek to once again thwart Ming's plans for takeover this time by geographic infestation.  Jeff Parker focuses on Flash Gordon in King's Cross, and as a result we get ample examples of insane daring-do.

This swashbuckling attitude benefits the book greatly and washes away the very depressing malaise of the debut.  Parker draws upon the idea that Ming likes Flash Gordon as an adversary.  He provides The Emperor with ample entertainment, and for the first time in the longest time, Ming must work to win.

Flash's compatriots the Phantoms, Mandrake, Dale Arden and Zarkov also become more enjoyable in King's Cross when the natural wonders of Mongo present obstacles to their victory.

Parker in fact created the latest version of the Phantom.  Jen Harris debuted as Dale Arden's aide in King's Watch.  Parker also bestowed the Phantom's guise to Mandrake's long time assistant Lothar when the current Phantom, a friend of the previous Phantom, bravely sacrificed himself to save the earth.  Brian Clevenger then did a new Phantom series to fulfill the promise of Parker's Lothar/Phantom.  The legacy Phantom was in fact Jen Harris, and in Ben Acker's King's Quest, we learn she and Dale are on again-off again lovers.  So what am I leading up to.  I'm not certain if Parker intended for Jen Harris to be a Phantom, let alone gay.  However, he certainly has fun running Jen through the Phantom's paces.

In addition, Parker uses the idea of Dale Arden being the former Empress of Mongo superbly, and he doesn't stop the pulp imagination with mere Gopher Apes.  Oh, things escalate from there in ways that are utterly jaw-dropping and bound to make the reader whisper what the…Big kudos for artist Jesse Hamm's astounding bizarre visuals.

The story so far is that Snake Plissken and Jack Burton are two sides of the same coin.  Bobby Lui from Snake Plissken’s world brought Jack forward and sideways through time.  Along with Jack came Jack’s nemesis Lo Pan.

Lo Pan’s sorry state is perfectly in keeping with the comedy/action of Big Trouble in Little China and adds to the hilarity of this terrific mashupLo Pan though spectral can touch magical objects, and so with Bobby Lui’s scroll, he sets loose a most funny and unexpected menace.

Things just get zanier from there.

Long ago, when comic books were only a quarter, Marv Wolfman and John Buscema got together and created the Green Lanterns, that is for the Marvel Universe.  The Nova Corps served the planet Xandar and derived their awesome power from that world.  Richard Rider became part of the star force when Abin Sur bequeathed the power ring to him.  Whoops.  That’s the Green Lanterns as well.  Richard Rider became part of the star force when Rhoman Dey bequeathed to him the Nova Suit.  There we go.  

Honestly, I liked Nova.  The original series was beautifully illustrated and well-written.  The conclusion of the story played out in issues of The Fantastic Four.  The arc furthermore had a beginning, a middle and an end where Richie gives up the Nova powers and the suit and returns to earth.

Richie somehow replenishes his power and Nova returns, but I always felt that the writers that came after the classic Nova era dumbed down the character considerably.  So in most cases I stayed away from the new Nova adventures.  I also didn’t understand how the kid, Sam Alexander achieved Nova status.  This wasn’t Richie’s son, and Richie as far as I knew was the only human Nova.  Whatever.

James Loveness writing Nova changes everything.  Loveness wrote Groot.  I loved that series.  It was exciting, charming and lovely.  Can Loveness do the same for Nova?  Yes.  Loveness opens with Richie Rider visiting his mom.  He discovers his father died, and we discover this is Richie’s resurrection.  It doesn't actually matter.  Loveness sets this prologue up for people who quit Nova when the original story ended.

The old Nova segues to the new Nova, and the contrast is striking.  From homey environs to the cosmic.  From quiet melodrama to space action where young Nova does a favor for the absurd living planet Ego.  I swear.  Only John Byrne takes Ego seriously.

This is a good showcase for Sam’s powers, his wit and his intellect. It also serves as another goofy moment for Ego.  Loveness then drops our hero down to earth where Nova visits with his mom and sister before attending school.  There new, embarrassing problems arise and impressing the new girl becomes tantamount.  New Nova is a winner.

Lastly, Tom Taylor continues with “Enemy of the State” in The All-New Wolverine.  In previous chapters, we learned that Laura Kinney has a pheromone trigger that sends her into a berserker rage.  Somebody sent her a reminder.  The package catalyzed Laura, her clone/sister Gabby and Jonathan the Wolverine to head out to Logan’s cabin in the woods.  Laura couldn’t however guess the resources in her unknown enemies hands.  The result? Laura may have killed an entire town.  This did not sit well with Nick Fury, who sounds in Wolverine like Samuel L. Jackson.  Though Mariah Hill, no Cobie Smulders, gets the shitty SHIELD agent award again.  After engaging Laura’s services in previous issues of Wolverine and becoming almost a friend, Hill just totally throws her under the bus.

The “good guys” will never find her.  Laura hitched up with pirate associates of Logan’s.

Taylor deliberately sets up the pirates as rogues but not evil ones.  He convinces you of their moral character by tying them into Logan’s past, and we’ve seen the heart of gold archetype before.  Subsequent events continue the deception.

Not Evil! So, not evil!

These pirates however live up to the sobriquet.  Laura’s senses detect the darkest of crimes, but before she can act, Captain Ash’s schemes unfold introducing players old and new.  Dark, but not overwhelmingly so, and dramatic with strong dialogue and solid art.  Though what's up with the fulcrums above the lips?

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