Abnormal Psychology is Their Pride and Joy

A column article by: Ray Tate

Welcome to Tate Necessarily So. This week I look at the latest issue of Avengers Academy and Thunderbolts. We'll go owl-hunting with reviews of Birds of Prey, Catwoman and Nightwing, turn our gaze upward toward the Legion of Super-Heroes, Justice League and Supergirl, study the absurdity of The Simpsons and travel to Collinsport for Tim Burton's and Johnny Depp's Dark Shadows.


Pick of the Brown Bag


Avengers Academy #30

Christos Gage, Tom Grummett{p}, Corey Hamscher{i}, Chris Sotomayor{c}




Avengers Academy is a chatty "will they" or "won't they" Avengers vs. X-Men sidebar. The will they or won't they aspect however does not refer to sex. Rather, will the neophyte mutants throw their lot in with the X-Men or the Avengers? Yawn.

The discussion focuses on the return of the Phoenix Force, whether or not it can be harnessed for good by Hope -- joke's on you Newbie Mutants, and the Japanese Internment camps of World War II. Fortunately, Christos Gage does know how idiotic a parallel the latter is even though he knows in the context of the fiction somebody would bring it up. He pays the comparison only lip service. No need to drag a real world historical tragedy into a fictional Big Stupid Event.

Take That Bendis!

I'm still recommending Avengers Academy for Tigra fans. Tigra engages in a page and a half battle against Big Bad mutant Sebastian Shaw. Not only does she survive, Shaw compliments her as a formidable foe. Tom Grummett illustrates the melee. Grummett takes full advantage of Tigra's feline agility, as she somersaults out of Shaw's grasp and maneuvers rapidly into stratagems he's ill-prepared to counter.


With green eyes. Excellent.


Thunderbolts #174

Jeff Parker, Delclan Shalvey, Frank Martin Jr.{c}


I've been buying Thunderbolts for quite a while now since Jeff Parker took over. Abhorrence isn't the explanation for the absence of Thunderbolts from this column. It's a difficult book to review. So much of Thunderbolts is based upon surprise that any review I concoct would give away the reveals. I try to keep my column spoiler-free, and Thunderbolts just drips with them. What's a reviewer supposed to do?

Enough time has passed to add my voice to the chorus of critical acclaim, and I feel no obligation to keep plot developments from months ago secret. If you still want a spoiler warning. That was it. 

After a disaster that destroyed the Raft, a prison/T-Bolt recruitment center, a group of T-Bolts decided to take advantage of this opportunity to escape amidst the chaos. Unfortunately, things went awry quite quickly, and the team found themselves and T-Bolt tower traveling through time and space. During their journey, they met such luminaries as the Invaders, King Arthur and the original Thunderbolts, led by Baron Zemo under the guise of Citizen V.

Last issue, Techno killed his younger self, a moment that exemplifies the differences between Thunderbolts and every other title. Parker exploits the fact that the main characters are villains. The modern, swinging Spider-Man might look at his younger self -- with his naive, ethical backbone and strong, stable marriage to Mary Jane -- in disgust, but he'd never kill himself. Killing isn't in a superhero's nature. Oh, they might cross the line if millions of lives are at stake, but they wouldn't throw a tantrum and shoot themselves. Villains however do not adhere to such ethics. Murder is in their nature. Abnormal psychology is their pride and joy.

Techno's killing of his younger self as one might expect disrupts the time/space continuum. In a nod to DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths, the skies turn red. Mind you, colorist Frank Martin Jr. puts as much oomph as technology will allow in those Red Skies. The cosmic disaster looks more organic. If memory serves, the coloring of the Crisis era was still dependent on zip-a-tone sized pixels. 

His cohort artist Declan Shalvey possesses the rare ability to imbue salaciousness in the illustration while making the characters wide-eyed innocents that are caught in situations way, way above their collective heads. 

Little Satana

Note the cute comic strip dots for eyes. You probably couldn't get away with that in a superhero book, but in Thunderbolts the artistic license is perfectly suitable, especially when contrasted with Satana's hilarious stripper costume.

However it looks, time is dying. Parker eschews the easy way out, simply opting for the old alternate time-line bugaboo for instance, and he furthermore refuses to employ the paradox of traveling back through time to repair the damage. He doesn't deny that it can be done, thereby preserving a helluva lot of bad time travel stories. Instead, he hamstrings the T-Bolts' resources to preclude the tactic. Ultimately, Parker chooses a witty countermeasure to repair the damage, and it's only something a villain would think of. Something must be in the water. DC recently instigated a time travel story that supports logical protocols. Now, Parker does the same for Marvel.



The Court of Owls


Birds of Prey #9

Duane Swierczynski, Travel Foreman{p}, Jeff Huet{i}, Gabriel Eltaeb{c}


I don't like Travel Foreman's artwork. I cringed while reading the first issue of Animal Man. Well-written, sure, but I had difficulty looking at it. When I heard that Foreman was coming to Birds of Prey, I shivered. He's completely wrong for a comic book that focuses on beautiful superheroes beating the snot out of bad guys. I will say this. Foreman's art is better here than it is was on Animal Man. I'm still not crazy about it though.

I'll Just Slip Behind These All Consuming Shadows

Foreman sometimes turns the camera away from the Birds' faces because they're not actually his forte. Foreman's shadows can be obtrusive in some instances, but they obscure less detail than they did in Animal Man. Foreman actually makes an effort to show the Birds in action and a game attempt to present human anatomy as it should be depicted.

Ivy Ascending

Not all the attempts succeed. Humans stand erect. Their legs do not bend like horses.

Helllllo, I'm Mr. Ed...

Foreman however still appears to want to illustrate monsters rather than women. 

Talon of My Dreams

He seems far more engaged with the assassin, fretting over every feather in the Talon's cloak rather than any of the Birds' musculatures. Maybe he'll grow into The Birds of Prey. I'd like nothing more for him to prove me wrong. 

June Chung departed with Jesus Saiz, which is a damn shame. Gabriel Eltaeb's colors are merely adequate. He tries to add depth through brown shading to the flesh tones, but Chung opted for warmer pinks, and that option opened up wonders. Eltaeb's colors are drab by comparison.

Am I still staying on board the Birds of Prey flight? Of course. Duane Swierczynski's writing is absolutely stellar. The dialogue between the women grants verisimilitude to the camaraderie, and the speech isn't all plot oriented. Witty sparks frame the personae of the heroes. Starling for example makes a casual comment about digging Batman. Swierczynski channels Buffy-speak for Batgirl, which gels nicely with the sixties-reflective pattern Simone beat out for the Darknight Daredoll. 

Outside of the Justice League of America, Black Canary first appeared on earth one in The Brave and the Bold. Early discussion even proposed to make her Batman's paramour rather than Green Arrow's lover. Given a clean slate, Swierczynski placed the Birds in Gotham and solidified the sometimes fluctuating ties Black Canary had to Batman's home. All of Swierzynski's New 52 changes and tweaks prepared the team's involvement in the hunt for the Court of Owls. By doing so, Swierczynski makes the Birds something unique, the first team that's an extension of the Batman Family. Even the Outsiders a group that Batman established lacked such resonance.



Catwoman #9

Judd Winnick, Guillem March, Tomeu Morey{c}


Catwoman plans to steal an owl festooned dagger from the Penguin. A Talon has other ideas. Judd Winnick's story does two things beautifully. It characterizes Selina Kyle and lends sympathy to the the Owl assassin, who way back in the day was stripped of his status.

While Selina cases the joint with her partner Spark, mostly a cipher that could have been anybody, the Talon attempts to regain his honor by slaying the Penguin. Guillem March illustrates Cobblepott as a grotesque bird in the vein of the Tim Burton/Danny Devito version. Needless to say, I support this decision. His Catwoman is a dynamic adventurer, with linework plucking the strains of Joe Kubert.

The Owl and the Pussycat

Catwoman interferes in the killing for reasons that are all her own. Her ethical code is a little less graded on altruism. She doesn't rescue the Penguin because it's the right thing to do. That unusual morality comes into play later in the story when the Talon attempts to kill Spark, and in the conclusion of the story. Selina's rationale gives Catwoman a unique flavor and evolves a surprisingly moving stand alone chapter in the Court of Owls saga.



Nightwing #9

Kyle Higgins, Eddy Barrows & Andres Guinaldo{p}, Eber Ferreira, Ruy Jose & Mark Irwin{i}, Rod Reis and Peter Pantazis{c}


When last we left Nightwing, his reanimated ancestor William Cobb had skewered him with throwing knives. Things looked grim. 

Cobb sees Nightwing as weak because he defied the Owls and his heritage. As we learned in previous issues and in the mother ship title Batman, Haley's Circus was a training ground for Talons. Dick was meant to be a Talon. Dick of course really had no say in the matter. Boss Zucco murdered his family. Batman immediately took the orphaned lad under his scalloped wing, but is Nightwing better off as a mortal son of the Bat or would he have been stronger as a Talon?

Every hurt Cobb delivers to Nightwing is delivered to be insulting and humiliating. Each agony is drawn to be a reminder of everything Dick could have been. As Cobb relates his story and punctuates it with pain, Dick ignores him. He embraces his true heritage. He is the son of the Bat.

Dick suckers the Owl, just like Batman. He leads the Owl away from the target, just like Batman. He uses his knowledge of Gotham City, just like Batman. He denies the superstitious rubbish of destiny, just like Batman.

All these years of writers denying the obvious weakened Nightwing, but writer Kyle Higgins reinforces the ties between Batman and Nightwing. As a result, Dick Grayson becomes the strongest he has ever been.



Looking Toward the Sky


Justice League #9 

Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Alex Sinclair{c}


The good news is that the Justice League don't actually hate each other as inferred by some readers of previous issues. Batman and Superman are still the World's Finest. Bruce's little suggestion about "lunch" is right on the money when defining their friendship.

For the first time since the New 52, writer Geoff Johns makes an effort to integrate Cyborg. He could have come off as a third wheel on Batman's and Superman's play date, but instead, he fits right in with the crusading duo and contributes something unique to the mission.

Wonder Woman works well with the Flash and Green Lantern, who's still embarrassed by his admission courtesy of the lasso of truth. Again, I'm surprised to see that Geoff Johns has made Wonder Woman really entertaining. He and Jim Lee gives the Amazon a sense of humor and a sense of honor.

This issue is entitled "Villain's Journey," and Johns cuts his villain loose on Steve Trevor, Wonder Woman's plus one. I have to admit, I'm shocked to see such ghoulish violence perpetuated on a man, but in doing so, Johns inverts the paradigm. It's about time. Although, I never really wanted to see this kind of torture, do it on a man for a change.

That's not why Justice League earns only 3 Halls. The villain's rationale isn't very good, and neither are the strange and out of place flashbacks from Batman's and Superman's boyhood past. We didn't need either, and neither makes a lick of sense. If anything young Bruce Wayne would preserve any memory of his parents, even if "he doesn't have a favorite color." Superman not being picked for a basketball game? Oh, please. Cry me a River.

The Shazam back up feature just hurts, but I expect that since it's the worst thing to come out of the New 52. Even Milligan's Justice League Dark was better, and that was just abhorrent. So I didn't factor Shazam into the review. 



Legion of Super-Heroes #9

Paul Levitz, Francis Portella, Javier Mena{c}


This issue of the Legion of Super-Heroes is for Dream Girl fans. Ever since her costume change, Dream Girl has been a futuristic sexbomb fantasy, maybe even before that, but Paul Levitz changed the way fans perceived Dream Girl by establishing her as an effective leader of the Legion. He furthermore perceived that Karate Kid trained the non-powered Legion of Super-Heroes in the martial arts. Dream Girl was one of his prize students. Therefore, it should come to nobody's surprise that Nura Nal, Dream Girl's real name, kicks alien ass, and artist Francis Portella makes it his duty to highlight every muscle at work in Nura's form as she proceeds to stand up to a Giger alien's brother in spirit.

Nura Knock-Out

There's some plot building involving the Dominators, a kidnaping and a hilarious scene where Star Boy storms off in a floaty chair, but primarily this is the Nura Nal issue. Bask in it.



Supergirl #9

Mike Green and Mike Johnson, Mahmud Asrar, Dave McCaig{c}


What impressed me the most about this issue of Supergirl is that Silver Banshee, though introduced to the New 52 by the legendary George Perez, nevertheless looks quite effective when cut by regular artists Mahmud Asrar and colorist Dave McCaig.

Aside from the depiction of the Banshee, Asrar and McCaig have a field day sending Kara into power overload while detailing the sacrifice of another.

The look on the boy's face is superb. This is a picture that describes two thousand words. 

Mikes Green and Johnson edge out the doom and gloom from the previous incarnation of the Silver Banshee. Instead, they give the girl some resisting power that's amplified by Supergirl's example. In addition, while the power overload might seem too similar to the early moments in the series when Kara didn't understand the extent of her power, I feel that the writers create a somewhat different approach. Now, Kara knows the danger she poses to innocent earth people and takes the only way out, leaving behind one helluva cliffhanger.



Simpsons Comics #190

Carol Lay, Mike Rote{i}, Art Villanueva{c}


While I'm not entirely happy with the way the Simpsons writers have been punning recent internet phenomena -- Faceplate, really? Writer/Artist Carol Lay doesn't stop at the pun. Instead, she creates a story where the ratio of Likes and Dislikes on Bart's home page evolves a mystery.

The mystery takes readers to unexpected places and a surprising old friend. The story develops into a fascinating little war staged between Bart and our enigmatic guest. Lay also treats the story as a puzzle, setting up red herrings and false reveals in the scheme of things.

At the same time, Lay cleverly employs the slapstick we've come to expect from certain players in the show, and here her artwork speaks louder than the plot, animating a painful comeuppance that segues into complete nonsense. Though home set, Art Villanueva's colors still pop, particularly the flashes of red.


The Saturday Matinee


Dark Shadows

Weird and funny, Dark Shadows is a warm send-up of the soap opera, that I loathed. I used to marvel at the way the Collins family missed the obvious, what with the anemic girl with the bite marks on her neck, and the fact that their long lost cousin Barnabas possessed the same jewelry that should have been buried with the guy in the portrait. The founder's effect must have been working over time to spawn congenital idiots. I also never really thought Barnabas was all that rueful about his existence. He seemed perfectly happy supping on anybody unlucky to cross him.

Burton and Depp do not abstain from depicting the murderous aspect of Barnabas. Indeed, they demonstrate exactly how dangerous a vampire should be; not all sparkly, and Depp conveys a pathos that really does make it seem that Barnabas would rather be drinking anything but human blood. Michelle Pfeiffer is the perfect foil for Depp. Unlike the series, she figures out that he's dangerous right off and accepts that he's the vampire with the answer to solving the Collins monetary misfortune. She also dead pans jokes to explain away his obvious vampiric tendencies in a riotous moment that's pure comic genius.

The love story between Victoria Winters and Barnabas kind of gets lost in Burton's auteur themes of embracing otherness, but to be honest, you won't miss it. It's much more entertaining to see Eva Green's Angelique, the witch in modern day guise, fight Barnabas in spirit and body and darken the souls of all the Collins clan, until the grand finale which catches you by surprise by being quite dramatic. That finale also alludes to Italian films in which witches are not mere humans with special knowledge but actually a distinctive magical species.


Oh, incidentally. While I hated the show, I always enjoyed Jonathan Frid's portrayal of a blood-sucking monster. It's the whole regret thing I just never bought into and the plodding idiocy of the rest of the Collinses, mostly a great cast of actors, demanded by the scripting that wore me down.



Ray Tate's first online work appeared in 1994 for Knotted. He has had a short story, "Spider Without a Web," published in 1995 for the magazine evernight and earned a degree in Biology from the University of Pittsburgh. Since 1995, Ray self-published The Pick of the Brown Bag on various usenet groups, where he reviewed comic books, Doctor Who novels, movies and occasionally music. Circa 2000, he contributed his reviews to Silver Bullet Comic Books (later Comics Bulletin) and became its senior reviewer. Ray Tate would like to think that he's young at heart. Of course, we all know better.

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