Wednesday, April 19, 2017

POBB April 12, 2017

Pick of the Brown Bag
April 12, 2017
Ray Tate

Welcome to the Pick of the Brown Bag, I’m Ray Tate, your host and critic.  This week I review Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows, Heathen, Hellboy BPRD 1954, The Mummy, Micronauts, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Supergirl, The Titans, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and The Unstoppable Wasp.  First, I look at new books Black Panther and the Crew and X-Men Blue. "Sink me."  I'm a poet.

Black Panther and The Crew establishes a new Black supergroup in 1957 known by the title sobriquet.  The interesting looking team appear to be mercenaries for hire, but as we learn in the story, there’s more to them than that.

The idea of a hero pretending to be a villain in order to clean up the streets is a tried, true and honorable one. 

Uh, oh.  You hoods forgot to give the Green Hornet a piece of the acton.

That’s a mark in this book’s favor.  I also like how writer Ta-Nehisi Coates takes advantage of a largely superhero free era of Marvel Comics to grant Black Panther and the Crew a sense of clean history.  That history will grow richer with the choice of more familiar characters lining up in the roll call of the present.  

You can suggest that Coates is taking a liberal stance against law enforcement, and this may be off-putting to certain readers, but to deny the facts is futile.  For whatever reason, racism is alive and well in the twenty-first century.  More’s the pity.  Corruption if not the outright recruitment of Nazis in police ranks combined with broken laws feed the monster.  It doesn't help that there’s an Executive Branch and Congressional majority favorable to sheets and swastikas.  However, Coates isn’t really out to relate a one-sided discussion nor make a general statement about the law.  This is not a knee-jerk response.  Our reality is a backdrop to a superhero-centered catalyst.  Black Panther and the Crew is definitely a Marvel book, and Coates found the perfect Marvel voice to represent overall skepticism.

Misty Knight is one of the first Black female superheroes in comic books.  She may not have worn a costume, but her bionic arm makes her count.  She historically predates Storm by a few months.  The difference between the two is that the blaxploitation movement in cinema and The Six-Million Dollar Man influenced Misty’s creation.  These notes echo in Jackson Guice's photorealism.  So, Misty has a more urban background including the NYPD and a successful career as a private investigator, partnering with Colleen Wing under the aegis of Nightwing Restorations.  

With this past, Misty can see everybody’s point of view and look at the practicalities associated with the police.  Haze and Malik, a Crew member’s family, asks Misty to investigate what could be the suspicious death of a superhero.  Misty’s not so sure.  

Nor is she against the progress that Malik sees as a threat.  Indeed, it’s progress that allowed Misty to receive the gift of a bionic arm.  Misty's open mind shaped by mostly linear continuity doubles her worth as a point of view character.  This is smart writing.  

As Misty continues her investigation, we see her experience draw out well hidden clues even as the city begins to take steps to quell racial tensions.  The solution is once again pure Marvel.

Because the Americops are a product of Stark Technology, they aren’t quite the chilling symbol they could be, but that’s a good thing.  If Coates had simply made them a Brave New World or 1984 symptom of Dystopia, then the twist would have immediately forced readers to question the altruism and history of Tony Stark.  You don’t want that.  Tony Stark’s tech isn’t perfect but to suggest he would build it that way is horrible.  You can even imagine his reasoning to create such things.  If he didn’t do it, a less positronic engineer would, and that would be a nightmare.  Besides, Misty’s arm is one of the original Stark productions, hinted at way back in the seventies in Iron Fist #1.

Despite this being their first meeting, Iron Man knows Misty Knight by sight.

Perhaps that’s the best part about Black Panther and the Crew.  It’s a book with a sense of fair-play.  The skeptical themes driven by Misty Knight make the story a credible detective story.  The realism of racial prejudice is checked by the fantasy of the Marvel Universe.  Coates accounts for everything, and for that reason Black Panther and the Crew is a perfect premiere. 

X-Men Blue on the other hand is not.  It’s in places fun, and it’s certainly less confusing than other X-Men titles.  Better than mediocre X-Men Gold, but there’s still a lot of “so what” associated with X-Men Blue.

If you haven’t heard, the original Uncanny X-Men in their younger forms traveled to the present day of Marvel proper.  They’ve been interacting with Marvel proper, for a few years now.  Not everybody though.

Black Tom Cassidy is a classic X-Men foe.  He's so classic, that I know who he is.  Tom's hilarious dialogue is a plus.  In fact, most of the character interaction is an asset, but I don’t particularly understand why the original X-Men are doing what they’re doing in the first place.

The Avengers protect the earth.  The Defenders take care of business in magical realms.  The X-Men traditionally want to show that mutants can do good.  The Fantastic Four explore and combat the unknown.  The Crew, just created, protect the streets of the 1950s to probably the 1960s.  I don’t know what these old/new X-Men are about, and I don't think writer Cullen Bunn knows either.

Yeah.  That was scintillating.  It's like Bunn leapt at the opportunity to write the X-Men without really thinking his goals all the way through.  To be fair, this is only the debut issue, and maybe Bunn will iron out the whats and whys as time progresses.  Mind, you.  This book doesn't actually have much of a hook other than look kids the band's back together.

I'm not saying that it's wrong to bring back the original X-Men as a team.  Nope.  Indeed, X-Men Blue with a mostly streamlined continuity is light years ahead of X-Factor, which naturally hurt my head.  There should however be a reason for the reunification.

In the above scene, Cyclops blows a gasket, and I don't actually know why he immediately assumes the worst.  It's like somebody hit a big red button and reverted Cyclops to humorless stick in the mud.  Like he never experienced the friendliness and sense of family in The All-New X-Men.  In an issue of Dennis Hopeless' and Tom Grummett's mostly wonderful series, Cyclops sets up Wolverine and Angel on supposedly independent missions just to orchestrate the repair of their relationship.  That's the kind of story I wanted to read.  Fisticuffs yes, but also something that possesses interpersonal depth.

All-New X-Men #12

Cyclops is not pulling the strings of X-Men Blue.  By the end, the kids' benefactor and sponsor stands revealed.  It should be a big deal, yet the X-Men’s history undermines the impact.  I also question his depiction.  Artist Jorge Molina's art is appealing throughout, but why is our mystery man snarling while giving a good-job-well-done speech?  In contrast, Dr. Doom would have been ebullient, smiling despite the metal mask and prepared a catered repast to celebrate a victory.  To buffet, my X-Men! This guy stands snarly, says his piece and doesn't so much as provide them with wine and cheesecake.

Ultimately, I would have felt better if one, the X-Men explained why they decided to reunite.  Two, they had learned about Black Tom’s piracy through other avenues and not be connected to the "spoiler man" at all.  Three, they had more substance.

Aaaaarrrrrrr!  There be X-Men in this week's Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows.   Charles Xavier first approaches Peter Parker at a surprise birthday party.

This isn't however where the latest Marvel alternate universe chapter started.

Why even keep Magneto in the shadows when you've got him spouting "Master of Magnetism" boasts and sporting a recognizable bucket on his head?  Already, there's just too much X-Men and not enough Spider-Man Family.  It looks to me like a world-building exercise.  Here's the fresh opportunity to flesh out new versions of familiar X-Men.  Can we do this without creating a continuity induced brain freeze?

So, the answer's no then.  Wolverine and Jean Grey married with a tyke is kind of mind-blowing.  It's like Marvel saying.  Yep, we went there.  How do you like it?  Strange.  Maybe a little too strange for me.  It gets stranger when Cyclops steps onto stage.

Cyclops' infodump is already boring and you can visualize the choke of juxtaposed history feeding it.  How on earth can a new X-Men continuity be overwhelming when it just started?  Somehow these X-Men manage it.

Then there's the idea of taking too great an advantage of the Renew Your Vows earth.

Damn, Beast.  Were you sleepy? Are you somehow the lesser of the multiverse Beasts? I've seen Hank dodge way more complex attacks.

The free reign elements and the dum-dum-dum, surprise at the conclusion turn what could have been a fun extrapolation into a stupid exercise.

One of the best issues of The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl and certainly the strongest chapter of the story.  Though normally a done-in-one comic book, Occasionally writer Ryan North gets a notion that requires expansion, and it's always a surprise.  This apparent quickie soon turned into a two parter, then three, and bang, Squirrel Girl now has an archenemy.  Melissa Morbeck.

She doesn't seem like an impressive figure, does she? Although artist Erica Henderson puts a certain visual spin on her that sort of advertises her as something special.  In any case, Morbeck is a genius, and this issue explains how she came by that honestly, superbly melding reality with fiction.

It's not just about Morbeck though.  North truly must be commended for the brilliant sleight-of-hand.  Ostensibly, Squirrel Girl is a funny book.  Something not to be taken too seriously but definitely part of the Marvel Universe unlike say Harley Quinn which listens to the beat of its own drummer.  North though explains things that most readers probably just ignored.  Turning jokes into an insidious ploy.  Inconsistencies in the villain's plan become incorporated in a genuinely dramatic whacko personality.  Squirrel Girl is still funny, the animosity of a sun bear for example, but there's a definite unexpected edge to this one.

This issue of The Unstoppable Wasp represents a departure from the usual frivolity of Nadia Pym.  It also demonstrates how far writer Jeremy Whitley is willing to stretch the mood.

There's always been this under current beneath The Wasp.  Nadia is an escapee from the Red Room.  The place that produced the Black Widow.  Now, in the interest of honesty, even though it was created by one of my favorite Black Widow authors, I never liked the Red Room concept.  I preferred the Black Widow being a superb athlete that became an astounding spy for the KGB.  She just got better and better as she learned more fighting techniques.  However,  The Red Room has stuck, and I understand the gravity of being trained in the Red Room.  So for four pages, we watch Nadia deliver what she learned in the Red Room.  All of it foreshadowed.

Notice how Nadia's science lessons continue but turn into something a lot more serious.  The tone in the narration defines Nadia's distaste for violence.  The juxtaposition is clever and thrilling thanks to Elsa Charretier's amazing fight choreography and given extra emotional thrust by colorist Megan M. Wilson.

After the fights, we get back to the fun.  Oh.  Sorry.  Spoiler alert.  Nadia wins.  It's not the last issue of The Wasp.  That fun consists of a hilarious mispronunciation of Matt Murdock's name.  A visit to Matt's office, as Nadia promised and a great Jarvis moment that reinforces the uplift of the themes.  

Incidentally, some people might think this development ties into the success of Netflix's Daredevil.  I doubt it.  Matt Murdock and She-Hulk are always the attorneys of choice in the Marvel Universe.  Practically no other lawyers represent superheroes.  Upholding the tradition, no matter what Jen and Matt are in their own little corners, it doesn't matter.  They are stand-up officers of the court whenever guest-starring.

This issue of Supergirl does not quite begin the Batgirl team-up suggested by the cover.  Although one can argue that Batgirl is on the periphery, and that is true.  

Every breath you take.  Every move you make.

Emerald Empress on the other hand does fight the Kryptonian Cousins, but she’s aiming more to put the hurt on the Girl of Steel.

Their fraught filled first meeting lasts about four pages.  Actually, it’s a pretty good bout, acting like a short story with a beginning, middle and end that’s jazzily illustrated by Matias Bergara.  He’s got an enchanting cartoony style that’s enhanced by Michael Atiyeh’s bright colors.  Supergirl furthermore conceives a way to defeat the Empress all by her lonesome, and that’s a winning little moment.

The main slice of Supergirl focuses on Supergirl’s and the restored Superman’s first encounter.

I commented about Supergirl’s bizarre turn in a previous reviewWhat I didn’t predict was that some of the alterations were in service to Superman’s restoration and resurrection.  It just took time for Superman’s personal history to catch up with the adjusted history.

Supergirl’s new 52 history is likely intact.  With Superman’s past preserved, I now see no conflict in terms of plotting and the fall of events in Supergirl's debut volume.  The stories probably took place with this version of Supergirl’s naïveté and clunky earth-speak.  Supergirl only spoke Kryptonian when she arrived.  So, it's not a far stretch.  The youthfulness of the character though is a change from the more mature Kara Zor-El that beat the Worldkillers, befriended the Silver Banshee and staked a nutso Kryptonian at the near cost of her own life.

That said, Supergirl and Superman weren’t really close until much later in the new 52.  In the literal end Superman entrusted Supergirl with the Fortress of Solitude and believed the earth would be protected under her shield.  That’s a potent vote of confidence.  Superman and Supergirl did not connect in the post-Crisis.  In fact he spent more time with substitute Supergirls like Matrix rather than the original.

With this rewrite, Supergirl and Superman are and were far closer.  Bronze Age closer.  She knows about Lois and Jon, and writer Steve Orlando adds some more history between Lois and Cat Grant that's reflective of the television series.

Although Kara still finds the earth strange and primitive, she nevertheless doesn't let anything bring her down.  She exhibits a wonderful sense of humor and optimism.  For these lion's share reasons, the book is a must for any fan of Superman or Supergirl.  

I don't particularly want to disparage any of the writing in Supergirl, but when Orlando turned to D.E.O. matters, Phantom Drive technical espionage, I completely lost interest.  These are however tiniest sections of the whole.  The last page depicting a beautiful Batgirl to add to my collection gave me hope for the next issue.  Oh, and unlike the cover, Batgirl wears a scalloped cape which is what she she should be wearing.

Scott Lobdell expands Red Hood and his partners interaction and means of operation while relating a fascinating story.

That's Jack Ryder alias the Creeper reporting by the way.  His presence adds a feeling of consistency against the fake country of Qurac.  The handy stand-in for any territory on or in the ballpark of the Arabian Peninsula.

Lobdell portions his tale equally between the three Outlaws.  Bizarro's story shapes his characterization.  Lobdell for Jason pulls out an interesting psychological stunt, and Artemis has a surprise waiting for her.  All of it just well-written and illustrated by Dexter Soy and Veronica Gandini.

The Fearsome Five debuted at the cusp of the Bronze Age in The New Teen Titans.  Under the auspices of Marv Wolfman and George Perez, they became the Titan equivalent to the Doom Patrol’s Brotherhood of Evil.  Last issue, we learned that The Fearsome Five allegedly turned over a new leaf and opened a new business to help people deal with their superpowers.  So, is it true?

Nah.  They’re repellent individuals that reformed a repugnant group of monsters.  Their callousness is key to their villainy.  As written in the past, they’re not just willing to kill, they’re eager to kill.  Furthermore, they behave like a team, which balances the Titans main strength.

There is however something that the Fearsome Five didn’t expect, and that’s a second cavalry coming to the rescue in the form of Bumblebee.  

I’ve already spoken about Bumblebee in a recent Titans review.  Karen Harper used her scientific knowledge to psych up her boyfriend and mostly useless appendage Mal Duncan.  For the modern age of comic books, Bumblebee’s powers are internal, and she proves throughout the Titans that she knows how to use them to the fullest extent.  It’s really enjoyable to see Bumblebee turn these arrogant sphincters on their ears, and Brett Booth, Norm Rapmund and Andrew Dalhouse light them up for all their worth.

Natasha Alterici's Heathen goes in several directions that took me by surprise.  At first it seemed that the Norse Love Goddess Freya meant to harm our heroine Aydis or take her away from Brynhild to punish the former Valkyrie, but her reasoning is very different.  This leads to stories within stories and a good twist on the myth of Sigurd and Brynhild.

The Mummy concludes strong with Angel and Nebetah scaring the hell out of the so-called Pyramid Club heroes by accepting their mutual destiny.  The Sect of Anubis gets its just desserts, and the whole adventure concludes as an origin of a horror heroine that would have been right at home in a Monsters Unleashed from the 1970s.  Bloody, gruesome and cheerfully cynical--yes, I realize that's an oxymoron, thanks--it's the perfect hybrid of superhero and Hammer Movies.

Hellboy and the BPRD is a by-the-numbers spook show, but you know what?  It just works.  Mike Mignola's and Chris Roberson's latest foray reads like a good episode of a hypothetical Hellboy television show.  The 1954 setting aids the plot without blatancy.  Hellboy and new character Roland Childe split the Kolchak part.  Hellboy takes care of business in his usual blunt manner and Childe serves as the witness to the macabre.  BPRD Agent Sue adds knowledge and gains depth while Archie completes the double-act with Hellboy.  Hellboy however probably wouldn't read as well without Brian Chulla and Dave Stewart providing the visuals.  Remarkable compositions.

We conclude the reviews with The Micronauts.  The successful reimagining continues.  Oz leads his team of thieves to be heroes of the cosmos but never forgets the little picture.

Cullen Bunn and Jimmy Johnson drop a hostage situation filled with threat and maturity in a miniature sci-fi masterpiece.  

Max Dunbar's depiction of the scene captures everything: the rush of power in the captor; the strength of hostages Ro and Betty; the terrifying education of Ro's son Billy; the heroism of the Micronauts and the satisfying comeuppance.  What's more the incident occurs in a bright and fashionable room; kudos to colorist Ander Zarate.   There are no stylish shadows nor a disused madman's lair.  This scene could occur anywhere, and that infuses it with even more palpability.

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