CHANGING MY MIND? - The Brave and the Bold 31
I've not been a fan of J. Michael Straczynski's run on "The Brave and the Bold." I thought he wasn't a good match for a series of one-shot stories with a rotating cast of heroes. I thought he often tried to fit too much story into the page limit, making the end result overwhelming and the pacing rushed.
Then I read this week's "The Brave and the Bold" #31.
It's never pleasant to be faced with proof that you're wrong. The human brain has a natural tendency to resist or outright ignore evidence that conflicts with the beliefs it has already formed, even when the new facts are correct. Especially when they're correct. And in particular when the brain in question is to be found inside the head of someone who, on a regular basis, writes their opinions on the internet.
Admittedly there's a bit of an out for me in this case. I'm a huge fan of Straczynski in general and so in that sense the latest issue simply gave that part of my brain the weapon it needed to sneak up on the other part that had criticized the series, strike it over the back of its abstract metaphorical head, and drag it back into some dark neural pathway to do unspeakable things to it. After which I could soothe my ego and still claim to have been right all along.
I'm not saying my opinion's been changed on previous issues. What I'm saying is that with this "Brave and the Bold" Straczynski's shown he has what it takes to tell a remarkable story under the structure of the series. I liked this. I liked this a lot. And part of the reason I was so impressed is that there were parts of this I did not like at all. By taking some big risks and by reviving and oldie-but-goodie moral questions, this story drew me in and forced me to react, sometimes in agreement, sometimes not. But on the whole I connected with it so strongly I can't help but feel immensely satisfied to have read it.
Oh, right. I've been rambling and there's a comic book I should be getting on about, isn't there? Here's the set up: the Joker, imprisoned in Arkham, has developed a neurological condition that's put him into a coma that will ultimately kill him. You'd think the thing to do would be to take this as some sort of sign from God and let the bastard finally die. But then, this is the DC universe and there's an actual all-powerful spirit of justice whose full time job is to kill twisted psychopaths and who still hasn't gotten around to the Joker. So I guess the doctors on staff at the Asylum figure God doesn't work in such subtle ways and decide to cure him anyway.
To do that, they need to deliver a small compound to a precise area deep within the Joker's brain. So they (literally) call in Ray "Compassion" Palmer, who sees no problem with letting the Joker die. Palmer only reconsiders when he's told the treatment has no guarantee of working, and might even hasten the Joker's demise. So the Atom shrinks down and is sent into the Joker's brain, where he gets caught in an electrical field inside the Joker's synapses and starts to see flashes of the villain's memories.
This is where a number of people will most likely start to hate the issue, assuming they didn't already get angry about the idea of saving the Joker's life in the first place. Because Palmer sees brief flashes of the Joker's early life. The forever changing and unreliable past of Batman's greatest nemesis has always been an intriguing mystery, the sort that spoils if let out into the light. There are going to be some fans who hate the idea of seeing the Joker as we see him here. It's a tremendous risk to take. But for what it's worth, I think the early flashbacks effectively build to an incredible speech by the Joker about why he is who he is that occurs at the story's climax. Straczynski writes an excellent Joker, I hope I get to read his take on the character again and in greater depth another time.
After all that, the ending feels almost disappointingly weak. The resolution is ambiguous, as it should be, but Palmer's motivations for making the choice he makes aren't as thoroughly explained and justified as I'd like. But after everything leading up to it worked so well, at least for me, it's a small matter at that point.
Is this enough to make me completely rescind my plea that DC give Straczynski an ongoing title instead? No, because also he's been able to insert deep, thought provoking character studies like this one into ongoing works just as well as he's done here. But this is a comic book I loved, and even though I suspect some Joker fans in particular will have problems with the story, I'm still going to strongly recommend it. HE'S HIS VERY OWN "ALL WALK INTO A BAR" JOKE - Cowboy Ninja Viking 3
There is perhaps an even greater moral quandary than the conflict between killing the Joker and letting him live. That would be, of course, the question of how inappropriate is it to laugh at mental disorders. On the one hand, the fact that people have their lives impaired or destroyed by such debilitating conditions is a tragedy. On the other hand, in certain cases the concept turns out to be comic gold. For example,
Image's miniseries "Cowboy Ninja Viking" by AJ Lieberman with art by Riley Rossmo. Now in its third issue, the series follows its protagonist, Duncan, a man with multiple personality disorder who's been specially conditioned by Dr. Sebastian Ghislain, a brilliant scientist of questionable ethics, to become a living killing machine. Duncan's personalities have each been altered to have a unique set of skills, in his case the mix is a cowboy, a ninja and a viking.
Watching the three communicate inside Duncan's head has been the greatest joy of the series so far, and now with issue three we meet two more so-called "triplets". First up is Emerson, a man who's been given the personalities of a World War II infantry soldier, a demolitions expert, and, for some reason, an Amish man. Later the reader's introduced to Grear, a mix of a sniper, a karate expert, and a gourmet chef. She's trying to kill Duncan. She's also his ex-wife.
Grear and Emerson both work for the mysterious Blaq, who's forming a mercenary team composed entirely of triplets and plans to become exceedingly wealthy as a result. He wants Duncan on his side. Duncan isn't interested. So Blaq's willing to compromise by allowing Duncan to refuse as long as he's a corpse. Duncan is, as you might imagine, also resistant to that option.
Lieberman presents a running inner dialogue for each of the triplets that is a constant source of fun. Highlights include Duncan's trio reminiscing about a drug trip that ends in the ninja complaining about the film "The Last Samurai" and Grear's chef getting unhappy about how no one ever eats her cooking because she inevitably has to kill them first. But the fight scene between all three (nine?) of them is hilarious from start to finish. It's impressive that Lieberman's able to handle a scene with so many different voices present and never allow it to get out of hand. With the introduction of the additional triplet characters, each working as well as Duncan does, the series has taken what was already its strongest point and multiplied it.
I have only one minor complaint. Riley Rossmo's art, while providing a distinct style to the book, can be confusing in wide shots where at times it's difficult to identify which character is which. But that doesn't prevent me from enjoying the book in the slightest. "Cowboy Ninja Viking" is a series that sounds too ridiculous to work and then somehow ends up being exactly the right amount of ridiculous. SIMPLY ODD, ODDLY SIMPLE - Terminus Tales Presents Platypus Vs. Monkey #1
Two of the books I'm writing reviews for this week impressed me with how smart they were. The third book is called "Terminus Tales Presents: Platypus Vs. Monkey #1." In this comic, a gritty hard-boiled detective attempting to drink away his past, who is also an anthropomorphic platypus, fights a monkey that was shot into space by the Soviet Union only to be rescued by misguided aliens, genetically and cybernetically enhanced, and then sent back to Earth. Oh, the platypus also has a plucky red-headed sidekick. Who is, like everyone else in the comic, a normal human. Based on that summary, you should already know whether or not you're going to like the comic, because there isn't anything more to it than that.
I'm not necessarily saying this is a bad comic. I wasn't especially fond of it, but I have to admit that it's good at being what it sets out to be. If I mention that in this book a platypus wearing a blue suit and fedora and carrying a pistol fights a monkey with a robotic laser tail that hates America and randomly spouts notable quotations of Soviet leaders and your reaction is "hmmm, that sounds like something I would like to read", then chances are you would enjoy it.
It does not introduce an over-the-top premise and then waste time dawdling around with character introductions. It gets right to the fight scenes, which as mentioned earlier includes gun and fistfights between a platypus doing his best to pull off a impression somewhere between a film-noir detective and Bruce Willis in "Die Hard" and a monkey whose violent hatred of capitalists and fervent love of the Soviet Union makes Ivan Drago look like Ayn Rand.
It has none of the genre self-awareness or comedic characters of something like, say, The Tick. Instead "Platypus Vs. Monkey" employs an absurdist approach to premise, appearance and dialogue but then makes the characters take what they're doing quite seriously. But it should be noted that there are a number of comics that start with an over-the-top idea and then somehow turn it into something duller that it sounds, and that is not at all the case here.
"Platypus Vs. Monkey" is actually the first story in this book, an anthology assembled by newcomer Terminus Media. The other two full-length stories are not worth mentioning and, if you pick up the issue, not worth reading. The second is a story in which a Lara Croft-knockoff heroine with superpowers and a tight bodysuit fights zombies, which immediately set off all sorts of low quality alarm bells that turned out to be entirely correct. It's followed by a story about a young woman who uses her super powers to defy her father, the Devil, and is entirely forgettable.
The final comic, however, was a surprisingly fun short piece. Entitled "Peek-A-Boo", it is a three page story in which a little girl is about to be eaten by a Pikachu only to be saved at the last moment by CSI Miami's Lieutenant Horatio Cain as played by David Caruso. It is done with no dialogue whatsoever. I did not just make that up. But somebody else did, and then put it in a comic, which you can read. In fact you can see the pencil sketches here
, but it's more impressive in color.
ALSO ON MY MIND-
On the whole, this was a good week of comics, and there are of number of books I could have mentioned here but didn't. Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy's new Vertigo-published series "Joe the Barbarian" released its first issue, and my full review of that can be found here
. Jeff Smith's "Rasl" tied in a history of everyone's favorite scientist, Nikola Tesla, with the backstory of the book's hero in an issue that was a good read. Fred Van Lente and Greg Pak continue to do excellent work on "The Incredible Hercules", which raps up the Assault on New Olympus arc with its next issue. And this week's penultimate issue of the arc continued the backup with Jeff Parker's "Agents of Atlas," who can be seen elsewhere in this week's "Avengers vs. Atlas" #1, a good place to jump on with the team if you've yet to start reading their books.