Wednesday, March 1, 2017

POBB February 23, 2017

Pick of the Brown Bag
February 23, 2017
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, a weekly review blog of comic books.  On the docket, Action Comics, Batman and Wonder Woman 77, Elektra, Future Quest, Scooby-Doo Team-Up, Rough Riders and the new books Heathen and The Old Guard.   If you haven't time for the meatier reviews, you can always check me out on Twitter #PickoftheBrownBag.

If you can’t see the number on the cover, enlarge the graphic.  Done? Okay.  So, you may note that this is issue 974 of Action Comics.  According to the Grand Comic Database that’s about right.  However you may wonder why DC is now reverting back to the original numbering system.  Normally, they don’t do this unless the story bears some sort of historical weight.  You may think that judging by the cover the tale qualifies, but honestly, it’s only mildly interesting, and that’s merely because it’s paving the way for an artificial shakeup in the Superman line of books.  So let’s start with a little history lesson.

Superman began "leaping over tall buildings in a single bound" in 1938.  That version of Superman lasted until the onset of the seventies.  In other words, the Superman that fought the Nazis and infrequently appeared in the Justice Society was the same Superman that uncovered Supergirl and as a boy joined the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Two years later Superman becomes a member of the Justice League of America.  This is a historical marker, as opposed to a fictional one.

In the nineteen seventies, Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams restored Batman's darker roots.  At the same time, Adams modernized artwork away from what was called the house style.  The treatment of Batman was successful.  So, DC attempted to do the same with each of their characters.  Including Superman.

The new look eschewed expired anatomic license.  Period fashions, cars and haircuts accompanied the bid for realism.  The Superman cast moved from The Daily Planet to television reporting which allowed for the addition of new Clark Kent foil Steve Lombard.  

I also suspect the success of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, debuting one year earlier, influenced the new careers in the same way Emma Peel of The Avengers strongly directed the changes in Wonder Woman.  Comic books are syphons when it comes to pop culture.

The 1970s version of Superman endured until 1990 when DC made a concentrated effort to rejuvenate Superman comics yet again.  

Previously, DC preserved all of Superman's legend and lore between two parallel earths.  However, John Byrne's Man of Steel expunged the entire history of Superman.  Restorations--Lex Luthor, Lois and Lucy Lane, Lana Lang, Perry White, Jimmy Olsen, Batman--occurred in the miniseries.  If it wasn't in Man of Steel, it didn't happen.  Supergirl for example never existed.  Neither at first did the Justice Society or the Justice League for that matter.  The 1990s incarnate of Superman flew until the new 52 Superman expunged him.  

The events in the new 52 are well known, and most can be reviewed in this very blog.  Summarizing, Superman died.  A Superman from another universe based on the 1990s Superman protects the earth.  I experienced trepidation in accepting this avatar of Superman as genuine, but he finally stepped up to the plate in the recent "Multiverse" arc.  

Yes.  Despite a wobbly start, and a forgettable middle, this is a new version of the 1990s Superman.  A frequently very dull version, but a true one nonetheless.

DC are going to be playing up the whole identity of Superman in the upcoming months.  When you cut through that confusion of fiction you're left with only four historical versions of Superman.  None distinct enough to be considered an entirely new character.  They're all one.  It's important to remember this because the Superman left standing in the aftermath of DC's fictional sleight of hand is going to be the same Superman, with a few tweaks, introduced in the new 52.

The story begins with Superman and Steel trying to save Lana Lang, now gifted with the powers of Superwoman.  Lois Lane, also granted powers, died in Superwoman.  The abilities that killed Lois and debilitate Lana are somehow connected with the death of Superman.  Superman refuses to leave Lana's side, and this is one of his excellent moments.  Superman works best when he is a symbol for optimism and hope.  His staying to help Lana in any way he can despite the consequences adds more chips to his cache of heroism.

Why would he leave? At the same time Steel and Superman bring Lana to the Fortress, sphincter in any universe Hank Henshaw leads an able team to Superman's Fortress of Solitude.  Though not the one where Lana recuperates.

Superman from another universe arose from a miniseries called Convergence.  It established that he married Lois and had a son.  This alternate Superman later relocated to new 52 Superman's earth.  In so doing, he kept a low profile but also maintained his own Fortress of Solitude.  So, in short, two Fortresses.

Make that one!  One Fortress!

The streamlining of discrepancies begins.  DC also thoughtfully introduced a new lousy Clark Kent.  Cloying, annoying and stalky, this Clark Kent makes me love Superman from another universe.  Though not Lois Lane.

Make no mistake.  Although I've grudgingly accepted Superman as a bland real deal, I still loathe the spark-free Lois Lane.  This ennui emanation has been hit by Anti-Vita Rays.  She's even slower in this story.  Tedious.  Insipid.  Plodding.  A fashion disaster to boot.

The Powers That Be ham-fistedly attempt to restore Lois' reputation as a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist.  

Snarky Lois

She's got a little dart board for Superman/Clark Kent comparisons.  She maintains a small apartment to create a pretense of being unmarried Lois Lane.  Her next genius step is to take Clark up on his date offer.  

Suffers No Fools Including Clark Kent

She's naturally overwhelmed by Kent overstepping every boundary known to man and gains nothing but a whole can of creepy from the experience.  

Darwyn Cooke's and Tim Sale's Kryptonite

All this occurrence proves is Lois' stupidity and inexperience, which shouldn't be.  

Superman Family #183

Lois Lane, the real Lois Lane, wouldn't have been thrown at all by Kent's overtures however serial-killer like.  She would roll with these punches.  Crack jokes, and tear Clark a new one.

If Batman can't get the lowdown on the Clark Kent enigma, what hope does a pale version of Lois Lane have? Do what you're best at Lois.  Be a stereotype mom in Laura Ingalls Wilders' Little House on the Prairie in Hamilton County.

Somebody save me from the scintillating dialogue.  I've never seen such a lifeless family.  Hopefully, when DC streamlines Superman we'll get rid of the Lois-Bot or program her with some semblance of vim and vigor.

Ultimately I cannot recommend Action Comics.  It's neither pivotal to the upcoming Big Stupid Event nor engrossing as a story within itself.  The characterization is flat as a pancake except for the goofy scary version of Clark Kent.  All the best scenes occur in the Fortress of Solitude, but none of these are likely necessary for your understanding of what will follow.

Batman Meets Wonder Woman 77 however is fantastic.  Batman reminisces about the time he met Wonder Woman at his parents' charity auction.  Ra's Al Ghul attends, and both he and the Nazis want two books on Greek legends.  Young Bruce Wayne darts off into the maze with one of the books, and "exit pursued by a bear."

Ra's treats Bruce as an adult threat and trails him with his League of Assassins.  Their progress heralded by throwing stars.  Typical Ra's.  Crazy old man probably thinks shish kebabing a little kid pays him some kind of weird honor.  Wonder Woman also traverses the maze with young Talia in tow.  Naturally, Amazon and Immortal meet and find each other adversarial.  This leads to much enjoyable Wonder Woman battle.

Diana finally catches up to Bruce.  His location acts in two ways.  First it signifies important Batman continuity and second it facilitates Wonder Woman and Batman coming together in a unique fashion.  The message that brings Wonder Woman to Bruce also spotlights one of Wonder Woman's frequently forgotten godly gifts.

Oh, and everybody lays into the Nazis.  They're bitten, bitch-slapped, shot, concussed and gravitated.  Justly so.  Wonder Woman in addition engages in numerous sets of Bullets vs. Bracelets.  Not to be missed.

Created in the early nineteen eighties by Frank Miller, Elektra was a retroplant in the life of Matt Murdock.  She was a heretofore unknown girlfriend, that addressed tragedy by seeking vengeance for her murdered family.  

Not exactly breaking new ground, especially in comic books.  However, what made Miller’s Elektra distinct was the old Chinese proverb: “He who seeks vengeance must dig two graves.”  Instead of dedicating her life to prevent the injustices visited on others, Elektra became an assassin.  She re-enters Matt Murdock’s life, but it’s a short visit lasting about ten issues before being murdered by Bullseye.

No need to mourn Elektra.  Yes.  I went there.  It’s comics.  Daredevil and his former mentor Sticks’ mystical Ninjas restored Elektra to life and purified her soul.  Enough that she became a super-hero fashioned in the framework of Xena during the mid-nineties.

I have a great fondness for this series as well as the Jennifer Garner movie that spawned from it.  Nope.  I don’t care what other critics have said about the film.  I like it.  I own the DVD.  I've watched Elektra several times.  So there.  

I’ve never been that keen on the merciless assassin because that’s just a one-note character incapable of carrying her own stories.  The wheel turns again with Andy Owens' newest incarnation.  The tale takes place in Vegas where Elektra appears to be readjusting to being alive.

I can't be certain, but it looks like Marvel wiped out Elektra's immediate history.  Alternately, given Elektra's character, she could simply feel that the depicted moments are the most memorable events in her life.  

The rest--such as being a Thunderbolt--do not matter.  Whatever the reason, Elektra gambles, drinks and looks fantastic as a blonde in haute couture.  Yes, Lois, that was another barb at you.  Before long she finds something of interest.  Chatting with a barkeep and noticing the things that makeup cannot hide for long.

Elektra the assassin would not care about another woman's trauma, but this is the restored Elektra.  As she did with Nina McCabe in the aforementioned 1990s series, Elektra empathizes.  That's really bad news for the abuser.

If this seems like a mild adventure for Elektra, you're correct.  The merit lies in the execution.  Pun not intended.  What this first issue does is introduce the new-lease-on-life Elektra for an audience unfamiliar with the history and re-engages Elektra's fan base.  The fact is that Elektra seems like so much more than a mere premiere.  Owens' pithy writing, Juann Cabal's, Antonio Fabela's and Marcio Manyz's cinematography creates the impression of a fantastically directed and elegantly written television pilot.  In addition, there's more to the story.  Elektra's balance of the scales is set in the casino owned by Arcade, and he's got his beady eyes set on a scarlet-garbed challenge.

I'm always willing to try something new that's in my wheelhouse. Heathen by Natasha Alterici seemed like the ticket, but I'm going to warn you right now.  The art on the cover doesn't match the interior.  The interior artwork in my estimate is nevertheless aesthetically pleasing in it's painted approach.

Heathen posits a new twist to the myth of Wagner's Ring Cycle.  Brynhild is the Shieldmaiden of Odin who betrays her fealty to the Lord God-King.  As punishment, Odin strips away Brynhild's immortality, preserves her in sleep and surrounds her in flame.  This may seem cruel, but Odin is never cruel in these stories.  The punishment isn't forever.  A man brave enough to fight the flames can rescue Brynhild and end her imprisonment through love.  In the Nibelungenlied that man is Sigfried, a mortal hero of the Vikings.  In Heathen, the spirited Aydis hopes to be the one.

As you can see, Aydis is a young woman, and Heathen is a lesbian themed version of the old story.  That in itself is not new.  Xena Warrior Princess addressed the Nibelungenlied in an emotional series of season six episodes.

Heathen goes a little farther than Xena.  That Xena and Gabrielle were lovers there can be little doubt, but the restraint of television practices and standards were not quite as loose back then.  Xena benefitted from being a syndicated television series.  The lesbian undertones would never have passed on a network.  

Heathen addresses the lesbian lifestyle head-on.  It spotlights the rejection some face not because of a lack of love but because of the stubbornness of conservative culture.  "Lucky" Aydis succumbs to the demands of society.  Aydis however comes from a progressive open-minded family.  Aydis' father rather than see his daughter unhappy arranges drastic means to help her find her own way.  The gods also appear to be on her side, wanting her to succeed in finding and freeing Brynhild.  There's clearly more to the story, and fortunately for the reader, it's related in strong writing and artwork.

Greg Rucka returns to the creator-owned arena with The Old Guard.  Teaming up with artists Leandro Fernandez and Daniela Miwa,  Rucka introduces a cast of immortal warriors Andy, Nicky, Joe and Book.  The focus lies on Andy, who likes a good lay and seeks death.  In between, she leads her friends on various missions that interest them.  The current one involves innocent lives at risk, but this proves to be anything but a routine rescue mission.

The look and feel of The Old Guard reminds me of a modern take on Modesty Blaise.  Modesty created by Peter O'Donnell is a retired thief who with her life-long friend Willie Garvin undertake missions for the British Government and find themselves on-call to deal with the indecencies of the world.  

Although Modesty isn't an immortal, she is a legend.  Andy's directness and her design reflects Modesty's personality and singular appearance.  The difference lies in Andy's grittiness.  Willie referred to Modesty as "The Princess," and the nickname fit.  Modesty got her hands dirty, real dirty, but she insisted on elegance and class when outside of the mission.  Andy is a pragmatist with little concern for luxury.  At the same time, Andy bears an unmistakable dignity.  In the art and the writing, nothing touches her.  Likewise, Modesty appeared to drift through the world never actually being part of it.  Modesty seemed to be otherworldly.  Andy is.

Rough Riders returns in a gathering of eagles chapter two debut.  The story takes place during the assassination of President McKinley.  Vice President Theodore Roosevelt vaults to a leadership position, and for some reason, he wants his old comrades the Rough Riders to join him.

I'm willing to give writer Adam Glass some leeway, but President McKinley's assassination is a historical fact.  The culprit caught.  His motive of mental illness well understood.  However, the last Rough Riders series spun the McKinley-era Spanish-American War with alien involvement.  So perhaps Glass will be drawing aliens into the fray.  In any case, it's great to see the Rough Riders again in the fine fettle of Pat Olliffe's artwork.

The way Glass reunites the team is full of fun and character.  There's also several twists in the return.  Monk Eastman is once again in demand.  In the first series, the Rough Riders disposed of the racist criminal in a comical fashion.  They seem to genuinely need Eastman for this excursion.

Once Harry Houdini and Jack Johnson retrieve Eastman, they go to see Thomas Edison.  Edison is much surer in his mastery of technology not to mention more arrogant.  

The comic book ends with the biggest bombshell of them all, but it's not a surprise for the reader to see Annie Oakley amongst the living again.  The question is what are the repercussions of Edison's experimentation on Annie's body?

Scooby-Doo Team-Up brings Scooby and Gang to Gopher Gulch.  Home of Quick Draw McGraw.  Everything Quick Draw is here, from Baba Looey to Snuffles the mooching hound.

The Fastest Ghost in the West draws the ghost breakers to Gopher Gulch, and it's the unexpected identity behind the sheet that creates the most delight.  Sholly Fisch and artist Scott Geralds have a whale of a time orchestrating some slapstick in the flexible reality of Scooby-Doo, and the likenesses to the Hanna-Barbera stars is spot on.  Nothing more to say about this splendid issue because it's all about the surprise.

A devourer straight from the family photo album of Cthulhu decimated the Space Force as they attempted to protect the Galaxy.  Only Space Ghost remained.  When the devourer returned, Space Ghost, Jan and Jace contended.  The creature opened a vortex and escaped in pieces to earth.  There Space Ghost, Jace and Jan crash-landed the Phantom Cruiser.  It was now up to the earth heroes Birdman, the Impossibles and the Quests to stop the monsters.  They are joined by frequent enemies Dr. Zin and Jade, a new member of the Impossibles, Deva Sumadi and a new Mightor during the birth of Frankenstein Jr.  Last issue, Frankie had the monster on the ropes, but the returning Herculoids interfered.

The younger heroes operate Frankie, and Igoo's well meaning decking forces a rescue from Birdman and Mightor.  Though the book is more serious than the average Hanna-Barbera adventure cartoon, writer Jeff Parker still sneaks in judicious bites of humor to alleviate the mood.

The Herculoids come from a world where robots are evil.  They jumped to the conclusion about Frankie, but in the end it turns out their interference wouldn't mean much of anything.

Because of this nullification, you can ignore the original conceit of the Herculoids origin covered in a past issue of Future Quest.  This cannot be considered canonical in terms of the cartoon series which never once attempted to explain the Herculoids.  Although robot armies did feature in several episodes.

As previously mentioned, Future Quest not only provides a massive menace for the Space Stars to fight, the book also covers origins.  Johnny and Hadji met up with Ty, and he found a club with links to the creature.  Any Hanna-Barbera fan would recognize that club.  Ty naturally becomes Mightor.  

In another review I remarked on how the introduction of a new, black Mightor was a good move toward diversifying the cast.  However, I loved the old Mightor.  I don't just grasp onto a character because it's progressively correct.  I would have liked to seen more of the old Mightor, and this issue I get my wish.

The meeting of Mightors is so incredibly cool, and Parker's dialogue for Mightor is perfect.  It captures his prehistoric characterization and his evolved wisdom.  His experience with the club gives Ty an out and allows the first Mightor to approve of Ty, an important step in any succeeding hero's career.

When Ty reunites with his friends, we find them preparing for war against the abomination.  It's here that Space Ghost reveals himself and compliments all the Space Stars.

Space Ghost is wickedly awesome.  Parker treats him with the respect that is due to this legend of cartoons.  There's no hubris in Space Ghost, unlike a certain emerald space traveler.  Trekker's Ron Randall provides superb illustration.  Igoo never looked better.  A muscular Tara suits a more athletic lifestyle on a hostile jungle planet.  Youth and age differ the characters.  Cartooniness of the Impossibles contrasts the muscular anatomy of Mightor.  Ty's wide-eyed awe differs from Mightor's mien of knowledge, and Space Ghost issues the grandeur of an old hero.

Saturday Afternoon at the Movies

So, let me just add my voice to chorus.  Go see Lego Batman and John Wick Chapter 2.  The movie you may have missed and I watched on DVD is Survivor.  

Milla Jovovich portrays Kate Abbot a security expert in the U.S. Embassy in London.  She uncovers a terrorist conspiracy and must rabbit from expert assassin The Watchmaker, playing against type Pierce Brosnan, to save millions of people.  

Phillip Shelby's script is clever with well drawn action characters that neatly encompass a shorthand of depth.  The chase is exciting and tense with masterful direction by James McTeague.  The support cast including Robert Forster, Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Roger Rees and James D'Arcy create a terrific ensemble.  I furthermore like that the performances and writing do not play as expected.

The centerpiece of the film is the hatred the Watchmaker feels for Kate Abbott, whose tenacity and intelligence proves to be a constant thorn in his side.  Brosnan is neither charming or witty.  The Watchmaker is not an honorable professional from the old school.  Instead, he is a greedy amoral monster that finds no amusement or respect in Abbott's fortitude or conscience.  He sees her as a blight to be wiped out.  Jovovich is of course in fit and fine form as yet another capable female hero, who is far more down to earth than her Alice.  Hopefully we'll see Kate Abbott again in another adventure.

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