Monday, December 25, 2006

Oracle’s Nemesis, Checkmate’s Blindspot and Deep-Sixed Villains

Here is FanBoywonder’s pre-holiday’s picks. We’re taking a break for the holidays. See you after the New Year.

Birds of Prey #101

The Upshot from DC Comics: The new Birds of Prey pay a heavy price as one of their own becomes the target of a government sting designed to put Oracle out of business for good. Even with the added power of her new operatives, can Oracle prevent Manhunter's true identity from being exposed?

Regular readers of FanBoyWonder know that this is a book we’ve liked for a long time but beyond our blogging its praises to high heaven; it’s remained very much a successful sleeper title.

However, with issue 101, it appears that writer’s Gail Simone gamble to shake up the former status quo team of Oracle, Black Canary and Huntress in favor of a wider and rotating roster of players is paying off. A newer, wider roster not only serves to reinvigorate things creatively but the addition of new heroes such as Manhunter (fresh from her title’s new and we hope permanent reinstatement) will, with luck, attract more attention to his book.

Writer Simone has even injected some of that uncertainty about the book’s new direction into the story as Oracle notes how much she misses her best friend Black Canary who has moved on from the team and Oracle wonders if her new batch of operatives—some near strangers, will work.

Meanwhile, Simone has given us two things we’ve most wanted to see in this book from the start—both a worthy adversary for Oracle and unwanted government attention—in this case it’s a twofer in the form of a new female Spy Smasher.

Apparently Oracle/Barbara Gordon and Spy Smasher/ "Katarina” have a history together—perhaps dating all the way back to Oracle’s days with the Suicide Squad, if we are to believe the hints that have been planted.

We welcome this development of an adversary who Oracle can’t easily roll over (no pun intended) but we really want to know what happened to the Calculator—Oracle’s opposite number and information broker for the Villains Society.

Just before One Year Later, Calculator was on the verge of madness in his attempt to hunt Oracle but that storyline was dropped like a hot potato. At least throw us a bone as to what happened Gail.

We would be remiss if we failed to mention the art—Nicola Scott’s pencils and Doug Hazelwood’s inks were in total concert. This was perfect art for an average comic book story—clear and competent but not flashy and on time even. We hope this art team sticks around a while.

Our favorite moment this issue—as Barda jumps from the helicopter to take out the military jet pursuing them, Judomaster and Huntress enjoy a good double entendre laugh over the name of Barda’s weapon—her “Mega Rod.” And we thought Fanboys had dirty minds.

Checkmate #9

The Upshot from DC Comics: The Black Queen deputizes the big guns in an all-out bid to keep Pawn 502's mission alive!

A few issues back, we noted that this book may be too smart for its own good. The same could be said for its writer Greg Rucka. While we are very much an admirer of Rucka’s work and consider him to be a quite skilled wordsmith, his blind spots as a writer can often be his own worst enemy.

During his run on Wonder Woman, Rucka gave Diana, a 60-year-old character, a uniquely fresh perspective and truly unique insights into her character but this is also the same writer who during last year’s The OMAC Project mini-series (this title’s predecessor) told a six-issue story that lacked both a beginning and an ending and which the story’s central story moment (Wonder Woman’s killing of Maxwell Lord) inexcusably occured in another title.

In Issue 9 of Checkmate, several unnecessarily unanswered questions weigh down what otherwise should have been a quietly competent installment of what we have previously called a “procedural drama.” It’s not that Rucka is hostile to the reader but in this title, he is definitely not reader friendly—he plows ahead at full speed with his story and it’s up to the reader to keep up/remember all that’s going on—if you want a recap, try Wikipedia

Cases in point: Black Queen Sasha Bordeaux refers to the Department of Metahuman Affairs honcho as “Sarge” but the reader is not otherwise clued into his name. Long timers like FBW can surmise by the title on cover “Hearts of Steel” and by the character’s metal prosthetic left hand that it’s “Sarge Steel” old Charlton Comics character that in the DC Universe is the covert government operative. But why do we have to guess this?

Second point: At two key points in the plot, Black Queen threatens to “deputize” first the D.M.A. and later the magicians known as Shadowpack but the reader is not told what that means. In press interviews, Rucka has talked about Checkmate, as a United Nation’s chartered organization, has the legal authority to “deputize” anyone from Superman to the Boy Scouts to legally subject those deputized to act under Checkmate’s authority.

We don’t immediately recall if this has been spelled out in previous issues but it’s sure as heck NOT explained in this current issue. A sentence or two is all it would have taken—“Sarge Steel, Paragraph X of Checkmate’s UN sanctioned charter permits us to deputize any organization and/or individual we deem necessary in order to perform our mission”…or some such.

More is the pity for the things that Rucka did get right in this issue. The inter-agency rivalry as D.M.A. busts Kobra operatives for political reasons, screwing up Checkmate’s chance to plant an agent undercover—something we’re sure NEVER happens in the “real” world.

White King Mr. Terrific has selected his White Bishop and it’s the Thinker, the computer program Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). We generally like the way Rucka has handled Mr. Terrific in the pages of Checkmate but Mr. T is a member of the Justice Society of America.

If Rucka and JSA writer Geoff Johns can figure out a way to share in such a way that doesn’t compromise the character, that’s great. But if push comes to shove, Mr. T should go JSA all the way baby.

We also really liked the aforementioned inclusion of Shadowpact in the story—not so much we like the characters but because Rucka has cleverly acknowledged that this gritty “real world” covert intelligence agency co-exists in a universe with otherworld beings of magic.

In such a world, it makes perfect sense to use such talents to perpetuate a magic-generated illusion as Checkmate engineered prison-break of the Kobra prisoners (including their undercover operative).

As we said, Rucka is a smart storyteller but we’re nine issues in and this title has only scratched the surface of its unrealized potential. Scratch harder Greg or we fear “Checkmate” will be this book’s epitaph.

Secret Six #6

The Upshot from DC Comics: The final issue! The Secret Six take on Vandal Savage in his mountain lair, and not all will live to tell the tale! You can't miss this one!

It’s impossible NOT to compare this mini-series to last year’s Villains United, to which Secret Six is a sequel. We’ve heard in many quarters that it was a mistake for DC to title this follow up series “Secret Six” as it lost half of Villains United readers—but this title while good over all (despite a couple really weak middle issues) was clearly inferior to its “Villains” predecessor.

The art by Brad Walker and Jimmy Palmiotti, while dramatically improved by issue Six from the aforementioned weak middle issues, couldn’t compare to the Villains United art team of Dale Eaglesham and Wade VonGrawbadger—but Simone’s story was also weaker this time around.

The magic of these bad-guy protagonists had faded somewhat in the year between series. The inclusion of the immortal Vandal Savage and Scandal’s father as the book’s antagonist was a mistake—and hey? Wasn’t Savage dying not too long ago in a story arc of JSA Classified?

Instead of Savage, we really wanted to see a rematch between the Six and the Society because that’s where the real drama is.

Simone also managed to undo some of the rehabilitation of the Catman character that she had so deftly pulled off in Villains United—it’s too soon, if ever for him to be tongue and cheek after having once been reduced to the pathetic husk of a man during Brad Meltzer’s run on Green Arrow.

Yet we couldn’t help but laugh during the fight scene with Catman and Cheshire. Those who missed the Villains United series last year should know that Cheshire used Catman to father her latest child (she has also had a child with the former Titan and current JLAer Speedy/Arsenal).

After a page worth of serious fighting, Cheshire, while spitting out blood, proposition’s Catman—“Let’s do it. Right here, with the battle raging around us. Make love to me Thomas.”

To whit, his reply—“Cheshire, your womb is the most dangerous weapon I’ve ever faced. Worse than that—I can’t believe I’m seriously considering it.”

That scene would have actually been funnier if Simone hadn’t fallen back a few too many times on the sex angle—between Cheshire and Catman and with the Scandal/Knockout/Deadshot love triangle, as well as with Vandal Savage wanting Scandal, the aforementioned lesbian, to sire him a grandson—this title was one issue away from degenerating into a Benny Hill-like—everyone chasing each other with pants around the ankles—sex farce.

We might be persuaded to give this group another go if they get back to what made Villains United great, the bad-guy vs. bad guy civil war.

52 WEEK 33

The Upshot from DC: Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning illustrate a special Christmas issue featuring more on the Batwoman! "I have brought my family here today…to show to you that underneath the powers of gods long dead…we are as human as the rest of you." Plus, The Origin of Two-Face by Waid and Mark Chiarello.

Actually, the issue description is wrong again. Jimenez and Lanning are no where to be seen in this issue. Actually the only thing we consider worth commenting on this week is the fruitless scene between Batwoman and Nightwing.

He is so seemingly smitten he gives this stranger who is wearing his mentor’s symbol a “real” batarang. This is just yet another tacit attempt to force us to accept this new Batwoman at face value with little offered in the way of proof.

We hate to keep harping on Batwoman’s sexual identity but that is ALL the information we have been given about this character. She’s a lesbian and she is the once (and future??) lover of Renee Montoya—a character we actually know and care about (and perhaps the new Question??).

Actually, in the story we find out that Kathy Kane was raised Jewish (hence the Menorah) So Gay, Jewish and Female—this isn’t a character; it’s a focus group composite sketch. If DC gives her a disability, that would be yet another demographic she could belong to.

Let’s all pray for a Festivus miracle and hope that Batwoman is given a full personality for the holidays.
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