The Occasionally Grotesque Powers of the Vampire

A column article by: Ray Tate

Welcome to Tate Necessarily So. This week Jonah Hex takes on the Court of Owls. Aquaman and Manta engage in war. The Flash encounters the hyperintelligent gorillas of Gorilla City. Superman raises a submarine. Bart Simpson pranks it up, and Vampirella fights for the soul of her friend Sofia.


Pick of the Brown Bag


The Court of Owls


All-Star Western #9

Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, Moritat; Gray & Palmiotti, Peter Scherbeger, Dan Green{i}, Mike Atiyeh{c}


Palmiotti and Gray pull a fakeout and a successful sleight of hand that emulates Poe's Purloined Letter to bring Hex's hunt for Court of Owls pawn Thurston Moody to an end. When last we left Hex it seemed that the anarchists of New Orleans had the upper hand. They were going to force him to sink a boatful of immigrants. Arkham had been arrested by legal forces friendly to the anarchists, and Cinnamon and Nighthawk appeared to have regretted for bringing Hex into their fight in the first place.

Yeah. Sucker.

After Hex, Arkham, Cinnamon and Nighthawk defeat the anarchists, Hex moseys onto the sweaty trail to find a terrified Thurston Moody. Instead, he finds a Talon.

After Hex returns to Gotham, presumably with Moody -- Wanted Dead or Alive, he finds an old ally checking on a men's only club where we see the Wayne blood run true. Though his Faro mates may not be so clean.

Justice Sprinkled with Cinnamon

In the back up story, Cinnamon and Nighthawk conclude a chapter in their lives and begin another. The satisfying finale to the prequel to the main story incorporates Cinnamon's trademark and the love affair established as a roost for Hawkman and Hawkgirl. Gray and Palmiotti still ain't sayin' if the duo have feathers beneath their buckskin, but with art like this, who cares?



Justice League


Aquaman #9

Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis{p}, Various{i}, Rod Reis{c}


Aquaman used to be part of a group called the Others. Black Manta bears a grudge against Aquaman and the Others. This issue of Aquaman focuses on Others member The Prisoner and reveals the source of the grudge. It's not what you think.

Geoff Johns earns credit for cutting out the expository dialogue and allowing Ivan and Rod Reis' superb, lush artwork to describe the Prisoner's powers. The Prisoner's abilities sort of combine those of Kid Eternity with the extra-sensory perception of Jeb Stuart from The Haunted Tank.

Sniper in the Village

While Black Manta duels the Prisoner, Aquaman and Y'awara, a jungle woman that possesses telepathic control of cats, reap revenge for Kahina, the Other's seer murdered by Manta. Mera learns from Dr. Shin what this whole thing is about. 

Apart from the Reis' artwork, there's not too much to recommend in this issue of Aquaman. It's not that Johns' story is bad. Indeed, the Prisoner is very interesting. However, the tale just doesn't advance until end. 

Manta attempts to kill another member of the Others. Aquaman affirms his love for Mera despite Y'awara's temptations. All these things replicate the themes of previous issue. The one new thing, the finale to the chapter, is so far out there that you just might feel as if you were slapped by fish. That's a pity because had Johns simply foreshadowed the ending, it actually would have had the gravitas to pull the book another seahorse.



Flash #9

Francis Manapul, Brian Buccellato{c}


Last issue, The Flash escaped the Speed Force and landed in Gorilla City, just as Gorilla Grodd had killed his father to take over the position of King. This issue the Flash finds himself Grodd's prisoner. Fear has canceled out the Speedster's memory. The gorilla elders however foresaw this time and see the Flash as their way out of the state of decay.

Manapul through the elders of Gorilla City characterizes the Speed Force as an evolutionary phenomena. It is the catalyst to Stephen Jay Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium which suggests periods of long stability among organisms amidst their environment "punctuated" with moments of rapid growth and speciation caused by the exposure of some physical stressor; a massive volcanic eruption for example that splits off an island from a peninsula for example thereby isolating the populace. In the case of Gorilla City, the stressor -- the energy lost by the Speed Force -- facilitated an increase in the intellectual capacity of this population of Gorillas. 

Threatened by the Flash and his import to the simian elders, Grodd imprisons the Speedster as a kind of false prophet, but spurred on by the memory of a teacher, the Flash regains his memory and learns that of the Gorillas legend about the Runner. The legend gives Flash the boost he needs to realize his full potential. He runs to save the world from the vortices that threaten to rip it apart.

Not So Fast, Flash

Whereas The Flash, like Aquaman, recapitulates previous plot points, writer Francis Manapul gives the reader something more -- the birth of Gorilla City, the reintroduction of Gorilla Grodd -- and reiterates those plot points in unique way to freshen them. By factoring in evolution, Manapul demonstrates a fully integrated scientific explanation of the Speed Force, and Manapul and Buccellato depict an exciting opening bout in what will be a long enmity between Grodd and the Flash.



Superman #9

Dan Jurgens & Keith Giffen, Dan Jurgens & Jesus Merino, Tanya and Richard Horrie{c}


Woeful. I mean, really? The Russians? The Russians! What is this? 1963? Taking a page from the John Birch Society, Dan Jurgens and Keith Giffen make the Russians the enemy once again.

A submarine suffers a breach, and Superman saves the day, much to the surprising consternation of the Russian sailors and the Russian military. Da. Ve vould rather die than be rescued by American superhero. Da. Ve vould rather see our comrades die than be saved by Yankee Doodle Dandy. Vere is moose and squirrel? Compare this implausible attitude to the outright joy of the Russian cosmonauts Superman rescued in the unjustly maligned Superman IV, reprised in the premiere of the Smallville comic book. 

Even if those Cold War relics were up to no good, it pays to put on the pretense of gratitude, thereby protecting the secret the Russian sub recovered at the bottom of the sea -- whatever the hell that might be, but Russians? Russians! You know, Iran has submarines. So does Pakistan. Neither country exactly an ally of the United States. Why Russians, who have been our partners since Gorbachev?

Meanwhile, Jurgens and Giffen screw the pooch with the completely uninteresting subplot of some poor schmuck named Spencer Barnes being outed as Superman by a blogger. Oooooo. A blogger! This ain't your grandaddy's Superman. 

This misguided claim is doubly remarkable since although being a Kryptonian, the Man of Steel still can't be in two places at once. While Spence's co-workers eye him suspiciously, Superman fights a femme Big Bad that I don't care about. So how can anybody think Spence is Superman?

As this subplot goes nowhere, Clark Kent finds himself in hot water with Lois for failing to pick up Lucy Lane. Unfunny dialogue meant to be snappy frames Clark's faux pas. Bravo. Last issue for me. Make my Superman Smallville.


Justice League Dark #9

Jeff Lemire, Mikel Janin, Ulises Arreola{c}


After Peter Milligan's run, I was ready to drop Justice League Dark. Then, I found out that new writer Jeff Lemire intended to reintroduce the Black Orchid for the New 52 and induct her into the team. Sold.

Created by Sheldon Mayer and Tony DeZuniga, the Black Orchid scored several solo adventures in Adventure Comics, followed by a back up series in The Phantom Stranger, her only connection to the mystical. She appeared again in The Super-Friends, and Neil Gaiman reintroduced her to the post-Crisis in a memorable four issue miniseries where Batman defined her the best: "I've heard of you. You fight crime. Your way is a good way. Quiet but valid."

Indeed, Black Orchid was a detective with a penchant for disguise and impersonation. She could be any of the cast in her mysteries and would reveal herself only after the trouble had been dealt with, leaving behind a mask and her calling card, a black orchid.

The mysterious Black Orchid has always been my favorite version of the character. When Gaiman redid the hero for the post-Crisis, he gave her an origin. She was the product of a botanist contemporary of Pamela Isely and Alec Holland. The biologist combined the DNA of the woman he secretly loved with a special breed of plant life. 

The miniseries led to an incredibly goofy Vertigo ongoing which dropped her unique look and the whole idea of the Black Orchid fighting crime. Lemire brings back the mystery of the Black Orchid as well as the crimefighting, albeit magically based crime. We don't know who The Black Orchid is or her rationale for picking up the good fight. What's known, from this issue, is that she's not a magic user and her mastery of disguise is organic, a super-power, though not necessarily shape changing ala Martian Manhunter. She furthermore can replicate any voice.

In the New 52, Black Orchid is a member of ARGUS, the agency that oversees the Justice League, or at least tries to. Justice League Dark opens with Steve Trevor visiting John Constantine. He delivers a proposal Constantine cannot refuse, or is this really Steve Trevor? Might he not be the Black Orchid in disguise? Perhaps Lemire actually made Black Orchid the hidden leader of Justice League Dark. 

"Trevor" acts as a less hands-on Jim Phelps for a kind of sorcery-based IMF to reform Justice League Dark. The team consists of core protagonists Constantine, Zatanna, Andrew Bennett, Deadman and the Black Orchid, on the team to keep Constantine honest and to provide physical backup for the magicians. She's definitely the Willy Armitage of the team. Their first mission should they decide to accept it is to retrieve an artifact exploited by Felix Faust and rescue Dr. Mist.

Lemire's approach is far more traditional than Milligan's. These characters are heroes, different kinds of heroes, but heroes none the less. Constantine is the only non-altruistic character on the team. He's out to pilfer magical jim-jams from the Black Room -- the Indiana Jones warehouse storing the Ark of the Covenant of the DCU. While the cast doesn't exactly get along, the banter is far less hateful and less damaging to the team dynamic. Lemire creates a more palatable early Avengers kind of attitude rather than a complete crippling dysfunction showcased in Peter Milligan's run.

Mikel Janin uses the Tony DeZuniga Black Orchid as his model. He discards her unique flower shaped cape, which I'll miss, and emphasizes her strength with moments of the Orchid hefting boulders and simply striking her foes with panache of course.

Curiously, Janin adds texture to the Black Orchid's costume in the form of roots, but it would be foolish to interpret this as a definite identifier to her post-Crisis history. I doubt Lemire will reveal the enigma of the Black Orchid so soon. The roots may simply be an edgier costume motif.

Janin's artwork is stunning and dynamic. It's realistic without looking like stiff photographs set in panels. Combined with Ulises Arreola's striking colors -- heavy on aesthetic purples, Janin's the perfect choice for this team that has one foot in superhero fare and one foot in spectral exploration.



Bart Simpson Comics #71

Michael Nobouri, John Costanza{p}, Phyllis Novin{i}, Nathan Hamill{c}; Michael T. Gilbert, Hamill{c}


Two clever and funny stories comprise this issue of Bart Simpson. In the first, Uncle Herb -- who on the series was voiced by Danny DeVito -- sends Bart a chemistry kit. Milhouse and Bart get right to work but in a half-assed way that suits Bart's lazy attitude toward instructions and systemized knowledge.

Blinded by Science

I used to have a chemistry kit as a kid, and this story brought back a lot of memories. I can certainly empathize with Bart and Milhouse's forays. Writer Michael Nobouri takes advantage of the flexible reality of the television series to create mischief and mayhem from Bart's science fiction creation. In turn artists John Costanza, Phyllis Novin and Nathan Hamill illustrate wild takes galore with this particularly cartoon antic to the pages. The free-wheeling attitude is emphasized in particular when Homer shows up in the story and experiences a close encounter of the Warner Brothers kind with a wall.

Creator and artist for The Wraith and Mr. Monster, comic book historian Michael T. Gilbert crafts a rare team-up between Bart and Nelson, one of Springfield's school bullies. Gilbert's singular style translates well into the familiar Groening design. Gilbert characterizes a multidimensional Nelson, drawing aspects of his broken home life as well as his inner sweetness exhibited when he dated Lisa. Bart and Nelson concoct a scheme to win a weird contest that depends on chaos. Perhaps though the funniest of the jokes occurs when Gilbert peers into the inner thoughts of the two rapscallions.



Resident Alien #1

Peter Hogan, Steve Parkhouse

Dark Horse

Quite an enjoyable adventure that feels like a reboot of the Martian Manhunter that didn't make the cut because of DC's very different plans for the old hero.

Our Resident Alien, a double play on words, crash-landed but quickly used his abilities to mask himself as Dr. Harry Vanderspeigel. Vanderspeigel finds himself drafted into Quincy territory since the previous town doctor was found dead.

Hogan's story suggests that there may be a serial killer at work while he eliminates one of the suspects and motives for murder. Vanderspeigel is interested in solving the doctor's murder as well, but the clues are few and far between, and MIBs are hot on the Resident Alien's trail.

Steve Parkhouse is perhaps the most surprising aspect of Resident Alien. Parkhouse was one of the original Doctor Who Magazine comic strip artists. His style on the strip was rougher and more photorealistic. Indeed, he frequently captured the likenesses of the actors, warts and all, and was easily the best renderer of the complicated sixth Doctor, he with the crazy quilt clown clothes. 

On Resident Alien, Parkhouse exhibits a much more streamlined style that judiciously employs fewer lines to design a looser more fluid narrative. Most of Parkhouse's work was in black and white, but his more evolved style compliments the color art and looks like it belongs in the modern age.



Vampirella #17

Eric Trautmann, Jose Malaga, Stefani Renee{c}


Enemy to Vampirella and all humanity, Von Kriest possessed Sofia last issue after the traitorous Vatican agent Schuld laid out the path for the former Nazi. In this issue, Vampirella tries to free her friend from the clutches of the monster, but she must not only contend against the malevolent spirit but also the Vatican's army Cestus Dei.

The Cestus Dei actually does some good in ridding the world of monsters -- more so than the real-life city-state, which actually protects monsters. However the obsessive fervor of the Church finds a home in Eric Trautmann's story. The Cestus Dei is perfectly willing to murder an innocent woman so long as a greater good can be reaped from her death. Vampirella is not.

That strange nature of Vampirella arises again. Vee is extraordinarily altruistic, a true champion despite being an alien blood drinker, but Trautmann doesn't forget those traditional trappings. Although Vampirella can bask in the sun and has her thirst under control, she still packs a vampiric wallop and attacks her foes at preternatural speed. 

At one point, Trautmann and artists Malaga and Renee strongly contrast Vampirella's beauty with the occasionally grotesque powers of the vampire. The scene in question will definitely make newbies refrain from defining Vampirella as merely a T&A book. Things happen in this story to Vampirella that simply do not happen in a glamour gal's title.




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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