Tuesday, January 3, 2017

POBB December 28, 2016

Pick of the Brown Bag
December 28, 2016
Ray Tate

Your friendly, neighborhood weekly comic book review blog says aloha to 2016 with reviews of Batgirl, Future Quest, Harley’s Little Black Book, James Bond, The Mighty Thor, Rom, Romulus, Scooby-Doo Team-Up and The Titans.

Harley Quinn appears in two contenders this week.  In her eponymous Little Black Book, Harley must battle Superman.

Sound familiar? If no, then you’re not much of a comic book historian.  Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti with Neal Adams spoof All-New Collector’s Edition #56 better known as Superman vs. Muhammad Ali.

Believe it or not, I never read this special.  These $2.00 tabloid-sized monsters were rare finds because they existed at a time when comic books were sold in Woolworth’s not specialty comic book shops.  I distinctly remember reaching for Superman vs. Wonder Woman only to see it snatched away by a taller boy.  I was lucky enough to read Superman vs. Spider-Man, a collection of Batman reprints, and that’s about it.  So, I’m not exactly sure how close to the source material the writers and artists are hitting.  Most of my knowledge is hand-me-down.  For example, I know that Neal Adams was one of the original talents behind Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, and it's a real coup to nab him for Harley Quinn's Little Black Book.  

What I can say is that even without the first hand experience of Superman vs. Muhammad Ali, Harley Quinn’s Little Black Book is laugh out loud funny.  It’s also independent of continuity.  So we don't need to worry about other universes and Lo-Bots.  Superman is the real deal Superman.  We even see him disguised momentarily as mild-mannered Clark Kent.

This gag is a callback to Christopher Reeves and Gene Hackman in Superman.

The story begins on Coney Island Beach where one of the Scrubb interrupts the basking Harley and Tony.  According to wikipedia and the Grand Comic Database, the Scrubb is the same alien species that demanded the Ali/Kal-El bout.  This one does not make a good first impression.

Harley lacks super-powers, but as she states in the story, she does know how to fight.  That makes her itching to take on Superman in order to eventually bring the beat down on the Scrubb’s champion and save the earth.  

Harley’s Little Black Book isn’t just a yuk fest.  It’s in addition a very clever fairplay troubleshoot against the aliens.  The story also acts as a nostalgic tip of the hat to Superman history.  Right from the start Palmiotti and Conner affectionately poke fun of Superman’s fondness for telephone booths.  They remember little nuggets of trivia that give the book texture as well as genuine valid points of argument.

At the same time, they “don’t tug on Superman’s cape.”  We get ample moments where Superman does what he does best.

Mind you.  Harley’s comment may refer to an old Superman themed joke.  As the story progresses, Conner and Palmiotti compare and contrast the force of nature Harley Quinn and the super straight arrow.  Although sometimes they’re both baffled by the goofball Scrubb.

Rather than eschew the Wonderful World of Krypton motifs of Superman comics, Palmiotti and Conner embrace it.  They furthermore hinge the story’s solution an old trick Superman picked up from a friend.  

Also on board for the main event, the classic versions of Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen, minus the bow tie.

At this point, you probably expect me to ask why isn’t Jimmy Olsen black.  Nope.  Skin color doesn’t factor into this because Harley Quinn’s Little Black Book is meant to be the quintessential versions of the heroes and supporting cast members.  My complaint about Action Comics is equally valid because at that moment, DC had the opportunity to move their books closer to the successful television series.  No explanation needed because Rebirth is a tweak of the new 52.  Furthermore, because Neal Adams is drawing, Jimmy actually looks like Jimmy Olsen rather than Maggie Sawyer.  Lois Lane looks like Lois Lane with a mod haircut.  In other words, there’s something about them that resonates their visual history.  You know who they are.

Steve Lombard

It’s always wonderful to see Neal Adams’ Superman.  The aliens give Adams a lot of leeway for imagination, and the reader also witnesses Adams’ flair for comedy from an almost Jack Davis like double-page spread of beach-goers to the slapstick expressions of Rat’Zar, the Grand Poobah of Scrubb.  Adams in addition has a remarkable flair for illustrating Harley Quinn.  That would seem counterintuitive since Quinn is usually cartoony, often exaggerated, and Adams is a realistic artist.  Nevertheless, Quinn becomes one of Adams’ masterpieces.

Harley next pays a Christmas visit to Scooby-Doo and the Gang.  Harley and Ivy previously guest starred in Scooby-Doo Team-Up.  So, there’s always a danger of repetition especially in something as admittedly formulaic as Scooby-Doo.  Writer Sholly Fisch however creates an original new encounter between Harley and the sleuths.
As the story progresses so do the gags and a surprise mention of an untold tale or tales in which Harley Quinn met Dr. Thirteen and the Phantom Stranger.

Harley tags along with Fred, Daphne, Velma, Scooby and Shaggy as Mystery Inc. attempt to solve the haunting of a department store with the same sheet spectral shtick from the previous Team-Up.  You must admire Fisch’s moxie.  He’s practically inviting the reader to see a repeat, but no, the Ghost of Christmas Past and Present are entirely solvable not unadvertised super-villains or super-heroes in disguise.

Although the solution lies at the end of the story, the capture occurs in the middle of the comic book, and this is due to the complexity of the story.  It’s not just a mystery or Harley Quinn’s Ha-Has.  Fisch surprises the reader with apropos guest stars as well as allusions to Scooby-Doo Where Are You? continuity, which of course I’ll not spoil here.

Fisch’s able partner Dario Brizuela with colorist Silvana Brys draws a melange of different styles suitable for these mystery role players.  No matter what design he works in, everything looks great and blends together.

Ariel Olivetti brings depth and realism to the heretofore stylish cartoony Future Quest.  Even Jan’s uniform gains a little satiny texture.

There’s in addition a contrast to the way super-heroes look in comparison to real real people.

Mightor is supposed to be a godlike figure.  Essentially a prehistoric Thor.  Race Bannon is just a super fit secret agent.

It’s an interesting artistic experiment, and the heightened realism doesn’t distract you from the story until Olivetti renders Coil-Man from the Impossibles.

That’s the least disturbing image of Coil-Man from the book.  You can’t fault Olivetti’s sense of humor.  Yes.  That’s probably what a Coil-Man would look like in real life.

The story begins with Buzz Conroy’s Mom, Race and Devi leaving to join Mightor and Birdman in their fight against Omikron in Utah.  Omikron is keen to take Mightor’s club, which it empowered years ago.

Meanwhile enemies Dr. Benton Quest and Dr. Zin combine forces for the greater good, but FEAR isn’t interested in such a collusion.

The story by Jeff Parker reveals far more depth than one expects from Hanna-Barbera superhero cartoons, which mostly relied on elegant simplicity.  He emphasizes love, fatherhood, duplicity in villainy and tragedy in the origin of Space Ghost.  Despite introducing more mature elements to the tales of these beloved characters, their charming essence still remains.

In the Silver Age, lightning struck a chemically bathed Wally West, and he became Kid Flash.  Sidekick to Barry Allen.  Kid Flash, Robin, Wonder Girl, Aqualad and Speedy form the Teen Titans.  At the conclusion to the Crisis of Infinite Earths, Wally assumes the role of his mentor The Flash who sacrifices himself to stop the Anti-Monitor from destroying the Cosmos.  The new 52 is a whole cloth recreation of the earth.  In the new 52, the Teen Titans didn’t exist.  The heroes that comprised the team all had different origins, and manifested at different times.  Donna Troy for example is the youngest of the group, emerging as a homunculus from an unexplained crone’s magical stew on Paradise Island.

In Rebirth, Wally West returns.  It turns out that during the recreation of the new 52, some heroes from past continuities were captured and removed from time and space.  When Wally returns nobody recognizes him.  Eventually he convinces the Flash, Batman and the Teen Titans of his authenticity, but celebrations must be short lived because with Wally’s return comes the encore performance of Abra Kadabra, the magician from the future.

Dan Abnett writes some of the best science fiction in comics set inside action-filled narratives for each artist to actualize.  In Earth 2 he explores the pitfalls of creating planets out of nothing.  Aquaman is a full of sci-fi pulp and political intrigue.  For The Titans, instead of glossing over the paradoxes and character histories, he relies upon them for excellent storytelling.  He takes the mysticism out of the Speed Force.  The Titans form an alliance from true memories from times that didn’t happen.  

Batgirl is a standalone story reuniting Babs with Poison Ivy.  In the new 52, Poison Ivy isn’t exactly a villain.  More of an anti-hero.  She in fact debuted as one of the members of the Birds of Prey.  Batgirl though teaming up with Black Canary and Starling, in fact officially joined the team later.

Poison Ivy’s ambivalence toward human life and her unspecified history with Batman generates friction and distrust between she and Batgirl.  It must be noted however that Batman in fact approved of Ivy’s association with the Birds of Prey.  He believed that the Birds were a good influence on Ivy.  Furthermore, Gail Simone produced a very clever seasonal explanation for Ivy’s mercurial behavior that paralleled the life of plants.  So sometimes, Ivy’s genuinely benevolent.  Other times she’s downright evil.

Hope Larson’s done-in-one takes place aboard Ivy’s and Batgirl’s plane.  Ivy’s carting a prehistoric plant that she believed dormant.  Some unexpected turbulence creates enough stress to wake up the planet and from its perspective the alien environment causes it to grow with preternatural speed.  Neither Batgirl or Ivy expected exactly what they face. 

Artist Raphael Albuquerque emphasizes their almost comical surprise.  At this moment, you know that they’re in the same predicament, which won’t make their partnership any easier.

Larson’s story is filled with humorous exchanges and solid research.  Though ostensibly enemies, Poison Ivy and Batgirl save each other’s life multiple times.  Ivy in addition concocts the perfect means to keep the other passengers out of harm’s way, and there’s a lovely moment when Batgirl and Ivy boost each other’s morale.   Larson bases the plant on the real life Carrion Flower which as its name suggests attracts pollinating flies with the scent of rotted flesh.  Larson finds the perfect MacGyver for Batgirl to employ.  Throughout the book, she makes the point that neither Batgirl or Ivy can stop the plant alone.  Thus they must depend on each other, and the way that each character contributes is often uplifting.

Romulus is a secret order that balances the power of the world through persuasion and assassination.  They have done this throughout history.  Only, their apparent altruistic however extreme motives prove to be false.  The Romulus assassin Axis discovers the order's true goal, deems it justifiably insane and turns her sword against them.  She is not alone.   Her daughter knows the truth about Romulus, and when Axis falls, Ashlar picks up the gauntlet.
The story begins with Sozo a celebrity that’s actually one of the Illuminati, escorting Ashlar on a plane trip to meet her group.

The dialogue in the scene is about as funny as the book gets.  For the most part this is a serious duel between Romulus and Ashlar for the fate of the world.  The soberness of the situation is emphasized by artist Nelson Blake’s lupine design for Ashlar and writer Bryan Hill’s wolf themes.  

When the plane lands, Ashlar discovers an Illumanti camp setup for her and Caliban, her new mentor.

The remainder of the book details Caliban teaching Ashlar another way to fight that counters her intuitions.  At the same time, Ashlar's charge Nicholas rots in a Romulus cell, and they work at breaking his resolve.  Romulus is just so enthralling.  The art and the dialogue with an intriguing martial arts philosophy draws you into the pages.

The Dark Elf Malekith has taken over the Alfheim, the domain of the Light Elves.  Malekith also made a pact with Loki and Darrio Aggar the Minotaur head of Roxxon.  The League of Realms, a defacto supergroup comprised of representatives from the Nine Realms, opposes Malekith’s attempt to rule.  Their attempt to free the Queen of the Light Elves blew up in their faces.  In this second chapter, Thor now faces a former victim of Malekith’s in a suit of magical armor that forces her to fight.

The plight of the victim seen on page one cements Malekith’s malevolence.  The grin of spikes on the thing’s helmet becomes an irony rather than a testament to toughness.  While Thor battles the creature, the League of Realms take on Malekith’s forces.  The overmatched Dark Elves become cannon fodder, and Roz Solomon representing Midgard comes off as classic SHIELD thanks to Steve Epting’s stunning artwork.

We also get a few good Sif moments, a nasty Malekith showpiece and a Loki that you’re not quite sure about.  Again, Epting creates such emotion in his face that his conflict looks genuine not the cackling jackanapes from the old days.

Two more Space Knights arrive on earth in Rom.  This should be a cause for rejoicing, but the reunion is anything but happy.  The Knights attempt to eradicate Camilla Byers, infected with the Dire Wraith plague, but not yet turned.

These Space Knights are not Terminator and Starshine the Marvel Space Knights that used to accompany Rom.  Writers Christos Gage and Chris Ryall take advantage of the clean slate to create new Space Knights as well as a ranking system that creates even more disadvantages for Rom.

The conflict and the unreliability of the Analyzer that allows Rom and his fellows to detect Dire Wraiths comes to a head in the form of battle.  The Dire Wraiths of course attempt to take advantage of the discord but Camilla’s bravery turns the tide of battle.  Strong issue not to be missed. 

Last but not least, “Eidolon” ends with an attempted assassination, a damsel that stabs her way out of distress, bodies dropping on London streets and a vicious duel between the traitorous Eidolon and Bond, James Bond.

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