Thursday, September 22, 2016

BaTorpedoes are a go!

There is a quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson that a teacher in middle school once taught me that I've always come back to and I believe Batman #637 is an unusually apt case to apply it. "For everything you have missed, you have gained something else." This isn't an issue that does a lot of heavy lifting. On a narrative level, there isn't all that much movement, nor are we given a wealth of new insight into the inner workings of our protagonist. What it does offer in abundance is action and .

PREVIOUSLY: Batman was busy brooding his way through a steak out, and was joined by Nightwing, aka Dick Grayson the first Robin, who rightly thought that his best friend could use some emotional caregiving. Meanwhile the current criminal kingpin in Gotham has a thorn in his side in the form of the mysterious Red Hood, who has been interfering with his operation. To combat this nuisance, Black Mask has taken on the services of unstable Arkham frequent flyer, Mister Freeze. Batman and Nightwing's mission takes them to Gotham Harbor where Black Mask's men are expecting a pretty large delivery. The freighter delivering it blows up and our heroes spot the incendiary, Red Hood, who leads them deftly on a chase across the rooftops of Gotham until they find themselves inside a warehouse. There, they are confronted with Black Mask's absconded delivery: A.M.A.Z.O., a homicidal android with the powers of seven members of the Justice League.

Which brings us to the top of this issue. This issue's cover rectifies all my complaints with issue #636. The image depicted actually reflects what happens in the issue. Again, the proportions are off, however this time it is quite clearly an intentional choice to emphasize the physical threat posed by our issue's obstacle. The obvious nature of playing with the proportions creates a heightened realism that both plays into the fantastic nature of DC superhero comics but contrasts with the pulpy realism of a Batman detective story. Overall, this cover feels incredibly dynamic and quite possibly the best so far in this run of Batman.

We open with a preamble in villain HQ. We won't see much of Black Mask this issue, but he basically book-ends this chapter in the story. In this overall story arc, he'll prove to be our tritagonist. However, in the first leg of the story, there really isn't all that much room for him since it is devoted to really showcasing how Red Hood is three steps ahead of everybody. And while it is admirable to attempt to keep all your important characters threaded throughout the entire narrative it is a bit of a problem that this first scene with him is a slight variation of what we saw in his appearance last issue. In case you didn't read that particular installment, it basically fell into the category of "wacky hijinks." Except this time the same basic bullet points are hit with Black Mask's latest hire in the room with him instead of down the hall.

Black Mask is sitting across a desk from Mister Freeze, flanked by his superego with a pulse, David Li  some nameless craggy-faced mafioso. Spoilers: do not  get attached. This scene really reads as an human resources or employee rights compliance manager's worst nightmare. Mask is playing it as cool as a cucumber, trying to play the role of the understanding authority figure in the hopes of keeping a modicum of control over Freeze, but Victor is clearly not on the same wave length. He's that guy who has read the manual inside and out, wants to do his job, and is pretty intolerant of the bullshit of workplace pleasantries.

This "Mr. Nice Boss" attitude adopts really rings true, not only to the readers who recently saw him essentially torture one of the Bat-Family nearly to the brink of death, but also to Freeze who really doesn't like being talked down to and has already gone through at least two of Black Mask's tech guys while they were constructing his cryo-suit because of perceived slights.

I think, "ghaaaah!!!!" sums up my reaction nicely.
With that in mind, we can conclude that the rando on Black Mask's left was born utterly without a sense of self preservation, when he opens his mouth to delivery a pretty snippy retort with all the bitchiness of an inter-office e-mail about properly labeling food in the break room fridge.
For his efforts, he is promptly and surprisingly unexpectedly turned into a mobcicle, courtesy of Freeze's brand spanking new mafia-issue cryo-gun. Because Freeze is a True Neutral gamer who gives absolutely 0 fucks (or 32 fuck Fahrenheit).

Now, as horrifying a way to go as being frozen to death in the span of a heartbeat, the art takes it one step further by lingering on this sight of our brand new human ice sculpture long enough for the guy's face to crack into a dozen pieces and fall to the ground. I'm not sure if it's come up in the blog thus far, but I really don't do well with body horror. It makes me squirm in my seat and makes me eagerly wish to be elsewhere.

So, as much as these Black Mask/Mister Freeze scenes feel like a big, blinking arrow pointed at the back burner of your stove, it does a neat little bit of character work establishing our villains' different temperaments and objectives.

Speaking of objectives. now that the sense of symmetry behind Black Mask's has been ruined, Li finally remembers to mention why he's in this scene. Apparently, Amazon's tracking number never confirmed the delivery on that giant killer robot-sized package they ordered, and I suppose opening a live chat to request a re-delivery still was a pain in the neck way back in 2005. Well, good thing they just acquired the services of an unfeeling, unstable, easily instigated cryomancer...

The bulk of the remainder of the issue depicts Batman and Nightwing's struggle against  Amazo. I'm going to forego a play by play of the fight, because it really defeats the purpose of a visual medium. Instead, I am aching to talk about what this kind of fight scene represents.

The first thing that becomes apparent when reading these pages is that instead of the sticking with Batman's internal monologue, as it was last issue, this time we are in Nightwing's head. Were this an ensemble title, switching between the various POV's of our characters would feel absolutely normal, but this feels like an odd choice to be proverbially guided through a solo title by someone other than the eponymous hero.

Still, reading the two issues back-to-back, there is a sense that Batman and Nightwing's internal monologue's complement each other. Last issue expressed a melancholy nostalgia, longing for the simpler days back when Dick was Robin and his constant companion. In contrast, Nightwing's narration implies both a sense of unceasing wonder at as well as a keen understanding of Batman. Nightwing has forged his own path and become quite a different hero and leader than Bruce, but his internal monologue all but states that he grew into the man he is today because even under Batman's fairly rigid supervision, he did allow space for him to be his own person.

In fact, I think Batman has lasted as long as he has because of it. If Batman hadn't allowed for Dick-as-Robin to be a buoyant quipster took the edge off Batman, allowed him to appear more as the more disciplined adult to Dick's boisterous child instead of the very alienating Batman who lives on a steady diet of brooding, tactics, and a thirst for justice. Batman molded Robin/Nightwing into one of the most socially/emotionally connected heroes in the DCU simply by allowing for Dick's personality to shine through, while Robin/Nightwing tempered Batman into the more... "friendly" isn't the right word, um... cooperative and morally accountable man who would end up not only the crux of his own local network of crime fighters, but also the master strategist of various iterations of the Justice League. Even in modern stories, when they team up together in the hands of a good writer, they still mostly only ever seem to bolster each other's strengths, and rarely ever diminish one another.

Batman's a badass, lest we forget... 
Last time, I mentioned that a character like Amazo exists to give a super-powered team like the Justice League a challenge to use their powers creatively or team up in unexpected way, being that he is a character who can do anything they can do. However, when a character like Amazo faces off against one or two heroes, neither of whom have superhuman abilities, you get to see a different type of fight that you don't get to see often-- no holds barred.  Heroes generally fight to subdue, not kill or maim. But that's with living, sentient foes. With a an android, particularly one that is programmed specifically to kill heroes  and is singularly equipped to do so, heroes don't need to pull their punches and what would come across as sociopathic violence against, oh, say the Riddler or Deathstroke is actually pretty satisfying when done against a kill-bot.

It's kind of like watching the X-Men rip a sentinel to shreds. It's a great way to demonstrate how utterly effective combatants our heroes can be while side-stepping the general taboo against heroes killing. And yes, Batman is that good. He throws a bunch of flash-bang grenades right in Amazo's face just so that he'll be too distracted to notice the exploding batarang Batman lodged in his leg. Which detonates and destroying all but the cybernetic framework of his leg.

Admit it, you feel ill just looking at that.
Nightwing stabs his fighting escrima into it's ears and Batman even stuffs his eyes with plastic explosives, so when Amazo accesses Superman's heat vision, he effectively burns out his own eyes. Again, this would be ruthless behavior if Batman used these kind of tactics on another living being, but because Amazo is a heartless murder droid, it negates those concerns and allows the reader to marvel at Batman and Nightwing's battle prowess and general badassery.

Of course being a R.O.D.O.K. [Robotic Obstruction Designed Only For Killing], all this does is slow him down. That's when it comes time for Batman to call in the the big gun. That's actually an odd yet apt word choice because Batman famously doesn't fight with guns. With the tap of a key fob, the Batmobile hones in on their location and reaches their destination. I'm sure it's using the same technology that UBER is beta testing. Now, of all the numerous toys built into the Batmobile, you'd think there would be EMP guns (actually according to the wiki, there's one of those on the utility belt, but I guess they needed the fight to last the length of the issue), flame throwers, or some other specific weapon designed specifically to target artificial threats (I imagine he has to take out a lot of gun turrets). Instead, do you want to know what we get? A torpedo bay mounted with four torpedoes pops out from the roof of the Batmobile. I told you he was bringing out the big guns. Torpedoes: they're the difference between a smart car and the ultimate BFG.
KIT never seemed the same after joining the NRA.

And yes, it's excessive, but boy is it satisfying for Batman to actually have a good time instead of standing around moping like he'd been doing in the first two issues of this story. We don't see the body, but he doesn't come back up for another round, which usually means in ongoing editorially driven narratives that he'll be back... eventually. But for now though, they have the ultimate question of who was that delivery, including a large cache of super villain weapons and a killer robot, meant for.

However, I can't help but view this less as a battle against a villain than as an obstacle du jour to be overcome. Amazo basically comes across as simply being the wind up murder toy this issue needs to occupy its heroes for the length of the issue. He doesn't have any clear objective other than, "destroy, destroy!" I'm not saying that a arch villain shouldn't utilize catspaws and underlings to carry out their aims, but Amazo is such a tabula rasa within the context of the story who doesn't even seem like he was a deliberate choice, but just an all purpose bad guy who popped out of the random villain generator. Our heroes could have been hitting a weeble for 22 pages, for all the impact Amazo has on the narrative.

Elsewhere, Black Mask is on the line with his supplier, presumably trying to get a refund or replacement for his order. However, the Amazon Customer Service Rep is being less than helpful. Granted, it's hard to justify re-crediting a buyer when the merchandise in questions has been stolen and/or destroyed, but it isn't as though Black Mask was culpable. Surely they had the tracking number, undoubtedly. They should know that he is not liable for the loss.

Supply and demand's a bitch, ain't it?
This all-too-familiar exercise in frustration is cut short when Black Mask gets a call from who else but the fly in seemingly everyone's ointment, Red Hood. This is such a clever reversal from the first scene, where we saw Mask being affable and patronizing of Mister Freeze as he conducted a business transaction, but is now on the receiving end of Hood who is being snarky and confident, knowing that he holds all the cards. And in these last few moments, we find out about something else Masky was expecting in that shipment that is absolutely a game changer: an entire shipping crate of kryptonite.

As I stated earlier, this isn't exactly a plot intensive installment in the story. If you pick up this issue hoping for heavy character work or a story that keeps you guessing, this isn't going to satisfy you. However, if you were looking for an issue that is a one big, fun extended fight scene that shows off just why Batman is a force to be reckoned with, this is exactly what you've been looking for.

Next week, we'll be checking in with Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur again. It's getting really hairy in that book. Thanks in no small part to the number of cave men in the story.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Past the Expiration Date: Beta

I know you thought we reached our apex of bad X-Men TAS episodes back when I covered Jubilee's Fairy Tale Theatre... and suddenly I wish I'd make a joke about Shelly Duvall in that one. Sigh. Life is always so much clearer in hindsight.  Alas. However, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Many people accuse it of being the outright worst entry in the series, but I would argue that it is simply the most remarkable of the bad episodes.

In "The Fifth Horseman," the show runners were probably blitzed and tosses together a bunch of elements from the comics that aren't strong enough to form their own distinct plots then merges them together in ways that don't make sense. The basic premise is that Beast is taking Jubilee on an educational trip to Latin America where they foil a plot to revive Apocalypse.

Before I continue, however, I feel like we need to ask ourselves an important question that will perhaps guide us through this experience: how does a writer adapt years and years of storylines and characterization into easily digestible 20 minute episodes? When adapting a comic like X-Men into mostly stand-alone episodes, you would think that the ethos would be to distill the essence of the story you're trying to tell into something that can be easily digested in a half-hour's viewing. "The Fifth Horseman" takes quite a different approach, as we shall see. 

After the opening credits, we are introduced Caliban, a former Morlock (not that he'd ever appeared in the series before now) and now a Horseman of Apocalypse. Instead of working with other Horsemen though he is working with Ahab's Hounds. The hounds are from one of the X-Men's many dark futures, Days of Future Past. They are mutants enslaved by humanity because their particular abilities make them ideal tracker/hunters for mutants. living outside of captivity. There is no reason to make these guys henchmen of Apocalypse except that their character designs are more or less uniform and less complicated than the actual Horsemen. 

Trick or Treat! Give me your soul!
Also, this just might be a matter of taste, but the less conventionally human a character in this series is, the more likely they will look like butt-ugly nightmare fuel with the budget cut animation of these last episodes. Caliban's face looks more like a kindergartener's "spooky" Halloween mask than a fully believable face, albeit even that of someone with a physical mutation. Of course having light up irises and blackened out whites of the eyes isn't helping on that front. 

The episode isn't even a full minute in and we can already see that the writers don't know how to adapt the material. Perhaps the writers had forgotten that the rest of the Horsemen were still on the proverbial chess board. Perhaps they knew the show's number was up and didn't want their character design for the Hounds to go to waste. Regardless of motive, the result is that this feels like a story cobbled together from the scraps of other stories. 

Recruited from the same leatherbar as Trollverine.
The Hounds themselves are pretty nondescript and in the future I probably won't be citing them much as individual characters, but just to prove I did the assignment... one is big and either hunchbacked or has muscles on his muscles on his muscles, making his head look lower than his neck. The other two are both dollar store knock offs of Green Lantern. The female uses hers to form energy boomerangs while the male (who has pretty decent mutton chops) uses an energy whip. I'll be shocked hereafter if I refer to any of them individually moving forward. They might as well all be joined at the hips for all the individuality they're given. 

They are tracking down a boy who is intended to be a sacrifice, but he manages to escape. Have I mentioned Caliban's primary ability is tracking? As in he can actually sense the presence of other mutants? He had one job...
They stole the set design from Yogurt's Temple in Spaceballs.

This comes as quite a setback to Caliban's master, Apocal-- Fabian Cortez?! Um, okay, yeah, Cortez, who is communicating with his beloved master Apocalypse who is now a floating extra-dimensional ghost head in an Incan temple. Yeah, again this episode is just throwing elements that have nothing to do with each other in. Of course, you could make the argument that the series was forever doing that with Mystique except for the fact that they were forever addressing the fact that her sense of allegiance was sticky to say the least. Instead, this just feels like the writers were playing X-Men Mad Libs and accidentally submitted it for production. Either that or they were limited to voice actors who they could afford on their newly limited budget and they were determined to fit Fabian Cortez into an Apocalypse story somehow. 

We then cut to the pre-Columbian temple that serves as villain HQ in this episode. Cortez and the Apoca-head exposit that they needed that mutant boy for a ritual sacrifice at a specific time (a Celestial alignment, natch). Cortez needs to find Apocalypse a new mutant, who has to be particularly powerful, in order to fit their needs. Oh, and Apoca-head gives a very threatening "don't fail me again" before he fades away. But what kind of threat can be given by an incorporeal head floating in an ether of nothingness? It's about on par with when a parent tells their kids to behave because Santa's watching. 
Worth all those Nobel Prize snubs over the years.

Elsewhere, Beast is parked outside a shop waiting for Jubilee to get some supplies for the their trip. It's one of those rare episodes in which in lieu of his usual blue X-briefs, he has opted to actually be fully dressed, decked out like he's going on safari. He's also wearing thick glasses in this episode so that they don't have to take the extra time to animate his eyes. Jubilee comes out of the shop with a box of groceries and I right away it becomes obvious that she is once again off-model. And I mean from the previous episode. This cheap animation studio cannot maintain a sense of consistency from episode to episode. Jubilee has purchased a little gift for Hank in the store: a "World's Best Teacher" mug. Oh, I'm sure that all the grocery stores in South America are always fully stocked with "World's Best Teacher" mugs. In English. Again, in the Peruvian Andes. 
This totally feeds into Cortez' pre-existing god complex.

Back at Club Cortez, Caliban returns empty handed. Just to demonstrate his rage, he uses his powers to remove the enhancements that apparently he gave Caliban, reducing him from a big, roided out behemoth into a wormy looking little green guy. Okay, backstory time. Cortez has the ability to supe up other characters existing powers. As I said, Caliban is a mutant tracker, so how they thought they could use Cortez to explain his big Horseman form is amusingly stupid. This is the sort of mental gymnastics that has to happen when a series kills off its biggest antagonist a season and a half before it goes off the air. Having proven his point, he restores Caliban and orders him to seek out another mutant powerful enough to house Apocalypse's essence. 

Meanwhile, Hank and Jubilee go from excellent adventure to bogus journey when due to a lack of a roadmap, Beast apparently loses the ability to see their surroundings (see what happens when they forget to animate your eyes?) and nearly drives their jeep off a cliff. They continue on foot and go immediately to a rope bridge across a waterfall. Okay, I guess we can Allan Quartermain/Indiana Jones/Scrooge McDuck to the list of things this episode is throwing at the wall to see what sticks. I love that in their line of work, they don't even question how strangely convenient to find a rope bridge literally right next to them. Between his book smarts and her street smarts, there is not one genre savvy bone betweeen them. 

Something about Jubilee's voice triggers Caliban's mutant detecting powers... and it also triggers some flashbacks of some much better animation of Jubilee. Although that seems to be for the audience's benefit (apparently the animators either thought we were stupid or saw it as 72 fewer frames to animate), as Caliban will later be shocked to discover who it is he has found. 

Despite being lost and clearly nowhere near what few cellphone towers existed in 1997, Beast is more focused on sussing out the origins of the temple. Despite having a lot of surface-level Incan indicators, upon closer inspection it's Mayan. He also has to dispel the notion in Jubilee's head that the Mayans were cannibalistic murderers. Sigh, the problem with having Jubilee being the only student-aged member of the cast is that she makes the education offered at Xavier's look incredibly under-achieving. 

Maybe that's why so many X-Men become part of the teaching staff. They don't have any real-world skills. In the comics, you see them teaching things like temporal mechanics, quantum biophysics, aerial combat, and outer space survival skills [sidebar, the Jean Grey School's courses are listed on Kitty Pryde taught a course called "Ethics 101: Forgetting Everything You Ever Learned From Emma Frost, and it's probably my favorite of the lot. Meanwhile, Gambit teaching sex ed is undoubtedly, objectively the worst.]. Seriously, the only one who could survive a normal 9-5, is Iceman, who somehow ended up with a fairly "average Joe" degree in accounting. 

That little "the more you know" moment feels a little out of place, even when it's coming out of human text book Hank McCoy's lips. By that token the fact that Jubilee is familiar with ancient Meso American cultures at all sounds a bit suspect. Still, that little bit of info counts as the episode's educational lesson, such as it is. 

Beast's translation of a Mayan stele (because of course in addition to everything else he knows, we can add ancient Mayan) culminates in the realization that the temple was consecrated to Apocalypse, then as if on cue the Hounds attack. 
Yup. These guys are totally typical of modern Peru. 

Much to Caliban's chagrin, he recognizes his quarry as Jubilee, with whom we are inferred has a standing relationship. I'm just going to assume that they definitely played extended sessions of gin rummy or something off-screen somewhere whenever there was a Morlock episode. He saves her from falling down the waterfall after one of the Hounds breaks the rope bridge. This seems to be framed as altruism, but he's just keeping the new Apoca-bod from getting ruined. With Jubilee captured and Beast in tow, he leads our protagonists to the Temple of Apocalypse... or the other one, since they were apparently already at a Temple of Apocalypse.

Oh, and we scored the jackpot! Behold the Apocalypse cultists. I'm dying here. I love when Americans try and fail to respectfully depicts other cultures. Believe it or not, modern Peruvians do not dress like pre-Columbian Incans... not even pre-Columbian Incans with Apoca-lips.
CaveBeast gets hella shoulder pads. 

Cortez uses his powers on Beast to turn him into a hyped up feral version of his existing powers, causing him to grow much larger, bursting through his clothing... except for his shorts because Standards and Practices would not be cool with exposing young viewers to Dr. McCoy's big blue butt. Again, how do Cortez' abilities work? Somehow, making Beast even more apishly bestial involved making him grow big blue spikes along with back and forearms. Well, it was the 90's. Spikes were totally in vogue. 

This is chilling and it would be cool if cruel, impenetrable logic didn't have to keep rearing it's ugly head. Cortez' powers are to amp up a mutant's existing abilities, which in Hank McCoy's case don't include a funny feral temperament. Was Wolverine originally supposed to be in this episode? 'Cause that would have made a lot more sense. However, does imply that Apocalypse granted him this new power, granting the ability to turn people into roided up primitives seems pretty dubious. How would you control them? Why do the Hounds all look like they only got the muscle treatment? This makes no sense. Oh, and like I was saying about being able to control the primitives? Yeah, uberBeast just goes bounding off and Cortez couldn't give any fewer fucks. 

He is only too happy to retreat to the bowels of the temple where he can report to Apocalypse that everything has been fixed and collect his brownie points. Caliban interrupts the seance, which ticks Cortez off. He suggests that maybe he can find a different mutant to be Apocalypse's vessel, which only serves to aggravate him further and accuses Caliban of... well, from the tone it sounds like an accusation of betrayal, but the actual spoken text could easily be replaced with simply being accused of "being a decent person." In short, no. Caliban doesn't get a third go at recruiting a victim. 

Later that night, CaveBeast is leaping about until he arrives at their jeep. Even for an amped up Beast, it's fairly impressive that he managed to leap across that waterfall. And that's when I notice that even in ripped up khaki shorts, still he sports his x-belt buckle. Granted in the animated series, the X-belts/badges function as communicators, but they are a hemisphere away. My guess is that it's his security blanket. He totals the car, flipping it over and knocking out its contents, then finds a picture of the team, the new (and now-broken) World's Best Teacher mug, and a polaroid of him and Jubilee. Well that triggered something in his primal brain, so he bounds off into the night. 
I'm still not comfortable with the new animation's
obsession with giving Jubes cleavage.

The following day there are three planets (asteroids?) hovering in front of the sun, meaning the Celestial alignment is at hand and thus it is Apocalypse O'clock! The hounds bring forth Jubilee, who is now dressed in Mayan garb, including a feather headdress. And it dawns on me that this is the third episode in a row in which Jubilee ends up in a ridiculous outfit. Cortez conducts the ritual while Jubilee pleads to Caliban, reaching his better angels. Caliban pleads to take him in Jubilee's place, but Cortez scoffs at the notion, and makes some really racist remarks about Caliban being a Morlock. 

Because insulting your hired muscles' family right before
an critical event always goes well...
Did the writer not understand that Morlocks are just mutants who tend to have physical mutations or otherwise are denied passing privilege and have abjured mainstream society? Granted, elitism and sycophantic behavior sound like they'd go hand in hand with racism, but this really sounds like episode doesn't quite grasp what the Morlocks are. 

Well, badmouthing the Morlocks seems to be the straw that breaks the camels back and he strikes against Cortez, only to be subdued by the Hounds. Cortez disempowers Caliban, turning him back into the mousy little guy he truly is. This is yet another aspect of Cortez's newly revised power set in this episode that I don't buy in the episode. Ignoring the fact that I don't know how Apocalypse managed to subject him to his Celestial technology to grant him the new powers, I'm not buying this on/off switch kind of transformative power. On a physical level, there are questions to be asked about this ability to create the mass that is added to/subtracted from Caliban and the hounds when he transforms them. More to the point, I don't buy it in the story because it makes the story feel a bit too pat. If Caliban had been a series regular and this had been a story about his temptation, removing the gift would have basically been like his personal reset button for the next episode.

Floating around like Glinda the Good.
The temple starts to shake as Cortez preaches the glory of he who walks behind the rows Apocalypse. A green swirling portal appears with Apocalypse on the other side. Cortez offers him Jubilee, but just then we have an attack from a wild were-badger/CaveBeast. While they are busy contending with the big, spiky blue behemoth, Caliban uses the distraction to unstrap Jubilee from the sacrificial altar. Remember what I said about Cortez' powers acting as a reset button? Yeah, he resets Beast back to standard issue. Man, does this episode have absolutely zero consequences.  CaveBeast's entrance includes busting up all the pillars in the joint, which were apparently all weight-bearing. This causes the temple to cave in on itself, because in addition to copying off Temple of Doom this episode had to crib a little off of The Last Crusade. Everyone manages to escape except for Cortez. 
Here's Johnny!

Outside, Jubilee assuages Caliban's sense of guilt over having been a party to the events of the episode by reminding him that his better nature prevailed in the end, and convinces him to go with them back to New York. Of course, we'll never hear from or of Caliban again in the series, so a fat lot of no consequences on that front, either. 
This isn't sexual at all...

Back in the now caved-in temple, Cortez apologizes to his benefactor that he has no powerful mutant to offer up as his vessel, but Apocalypse is a glass half full guy, considering Cortez is pretty damn powerful in his own right. His essence enters Cortez (paging Dr. Freud) and instantly transforms into a fully incarnated Apocalypse. He stares directly into the "camera" and laughs menacingly as we fade to black. Oh, what portentous story arc does this presage? None. We neither see no hear from Apocalypse again for the duration of the series. Such a fucking waste. 
Worst "Oh-face" ever. 

As bad an episode as "Jubilee's Fairy Tale Theater" is, it's still amusing in it's failures. And it realizes that it's a light and fluffy palette cleanser of a diversion. "The Fifth Horseman" fails on a number of levels. It is a plot element loaf with characters from very disparate corners of the X-Men universe jury rigged together with very little rhyme or reason. It hinges upon a prior relationship that the show retcons into existence in order to propel Caliban's arc and thus the viewer has no reason to feel invested when the show comes across as making shit up on the fly. There is no investment in our antagonist either, since he is neither as nuanced as Magneto or Mystique, nor as imposing as Apocalypse himself, or as scene-chewingly delightful as Mr. Sinister. He's just some jerk. I think the greatest sin of all is that nothing that happens in this episode has any weight behind it. Jubilee's abduction, Caliban's compliance with evil, Beast's transformation, they all get resolved in under the span of 20 minutes, including opening and closing credits, without we the viewers learning anything new about our main characters and not enough about our focal character. The events just unfold and then then are never remarked upon again. Not even the the return of Apocalypse gets any follow up. 

When it comes down to brass tacks however, the quintessential failure of this episode is that if you remove the character names, it becomes apparent that this really isn't an X-Men story. It's a story out of a pulp dark fantasy/adventure story from the 1930's that had some X-Men force into it. Not that throwing these characters into something out of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E Howard, or HP Lovecraft can't work, but the story has nothing to do with them the mutant metaphor, or the X-Men's extended metaphor of found family and community. This isn't even their story on a narrative level. Jubilee gets damseled pretty damn quickly in this story and Beast is effectively a cave troll. This episode is about Caliban discovering his own sense of agency. But he's such a thinly characterized depiction of the Caliban from the comics that again, he could have easily been any character from the X-Men's past, let alone one who had to be retconned in because the writers forgot to include him in any of the previous Morlock episodes. 

This feels less like an episode of X-Men than it feels like proof that writers, voice actors, and animators earned a paycheck in between "Jubilee's Fairy Tale Theatre" and our next episode. And speaking of episodes that don't feel like X-Men stories, the next time I cover X-men TAS, I hope you like WWII era Captain America because Wolverine is having flashbacks in "Old Soldiers." Next week, however, we're headed back to the mean streets of Gotham as I continue covering Batman: Under the Red Hood.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Attack of the Fifty Foot Onomatopoeia

This might just be my inner 10-year-old, but everything about T-Rexes is amazing. [Sidenote: I turned 10 in the Summer of 1993 when Jurrassic Park first premiered, so I felt that way quite actively at the time.] I'm back in Marvel territory covering issue #2 of Moon Girl & Devil Dinosaurs, and readers trust me when I tell you this book is a delight.

Brief recap on Devil Dinosaur. He's from a prehistoric world called the Valley of Flame, which, depending on the era of publication, is either the past of the main timeline, an alternate reality, or a faraway planet. He's a mutant T-Rex with red skin, augmented size, strength, and intelligence, and fiery red eyes that actually look pretty amazing.

Brief Recap on Moon Girl. Lunella Lafayette is a hyper-intelligent 9-year-old girl living in Manhattan. She has trouble connecting with her parents or with anyone at school, but the latter is mitigated by the fact that she has been applying and re-applying to the various schools for super geniuses in the Marvel Universe. Her other important goal in life is to find a way to get rid of or nullify the effects of the Terrigen cloud out of concern for her well-being.

Last issue, while using her newly-invented Kree detector, Lunella found a strange glowing orb she determined to be a Kree Omni-Wave Projector, which created a portal in the middle of the school yard when her gym teacher decided to be an ass. Meanwhile, in the Valley of Flame, Devil Dinosaur and his caveboy constant companion Moon Boy battle the evil tribe of cavemen, the Killer Folk, and manage to capture their mystical totem, the Nightstone in the process. Quelle coincidence! It is a dead ringer for Lunella's Omni-Wave Projector! The Killer Folk manage to beat him within an inch of his life trying to get it back before it vanishes only to be replaced by the other side of the portal opened in present day Manhattan. The Killer Folk head into it in search after their Nightstone, and Devil Dinosaur enters in hot pursuit after Moon Boy asks to be avenged with his presumably dying words. Arriving in Lunella's schoolyard, Devil Dinosaur chases the Killer Folk and they flee to the subway. Devil Dinosaur managed to sniff out Lunella's plot relevance and takes her by the backpack as he wanders out into the streets of New York.

And now you're caught up. For a fairly simple story, there is already a lot of weird minutiae involved. Just wait and see if we ever find out this thing's history because the Omni-Wave Projector goes back deep. For now however, let's see where Devil Dinosaur was headed...

Lunella, rightfully, question whether or not this is really happening as DD stomps his way through the crowded streets of Manhattan. I have to admit I'm impressed that in her panic she has held on tight to her Kree Omni-Wave Projector (hereafter: KOWP). I'm a little confused because the first couple panels of the issue depict things from Lunella's line of vision and you can clearly make out two sets of fingers  on either side of her glasses. How the hell did she manage to cling tight to that thing? My guess is that she has a low level anti-gravity device built into her swatch watch.

This peaceful, if whiny, trek through the city comes to a grinding halt however when he is assaulted by sound effects! Sound effects with police officers attached! It's actually pretty wonderful how much the use of sound effects plays out as a visual component of the storytelling in this sequence. The use of onomatopoeia  has fallen out of popularity in the past couple decades as comics have skewed more towards dour realism, but the way they interact with the panel can range anywhere from madcap to unsettling.

Fortunately, this is an all ages story, so we get mainly wacky hijinks sound effects as DD crunches the hood of one car under his foot and his tail sends another crashing into a fire hydrant. With the car sirens running, guns shooting, water gushing, and every one of DD's own movements causing a rumble all their own, it becomes a cacophony of  noises that even drown out the word balloons. Since DD is functionally a mute character, it's a great way of demonstrating his POV.

As someone with attention deficit, this entire page speaks to me.
I know that in the past couple years, police departments across the US have been under deep scrutiny because of various very legitimate claims of abuse of power, particularly toward the African American community, but in a such a fun and apolitical book like this, I can't help but believe that these police officers shooting at Devil Dinosaur when he has a young girl of color dangling from his incisors was not intended as social commentary, particularly because the officers are black and latina, respectively. Instead, I'm arriving at the conclusion that this book functions heavily on the notion that adults are useless and/or incompetent. Five minutes in Lunella's POV makes that painfully apparent.

To get his attention, Lunella has to grab a remote control golden snitch out of her bag. Again, she is keeping that KOWP from falling from superior thigh strength or something. And no, I wasn't exaggerating. It pretty much is a golden snitch. It's a little, golden flying insect. And the remote control looks like  Good thing she guessed that theropods aren't color blind because the shiny thing makes all the other sensory stimuli vanish. Congratulations, Lunella. You have mastered the art of the dangling carrot technique.

Again, her inner monologue shows a bit of a disconnect from the action at hand, albeit less so than last issue's instance. She's analyzing the scientific problem, yes, but the immediacy of being suspended in the air with only a dinosaur's tooth separating her from a long fall seems to be helping her stay grounded in what needs to be done in the moment. Of course, summing it up as "I have to get rid of the big, red lamebrain," does not help endear me toward her.

That;s using your head, DD.
However, the impromptu planning session goes flies out the door when the KOWP slips out of her arms and she reaches to save it in a big swooping gesture, only to completely forget about the remote control. It falls to the ground with a "drop" sound effect. The snitch dies in the air and DD seems to regain his focus, as though the snitch had a hypnotic effect on him. And he is did not wake up on the right side of the bed because he lets out a roar (without dropping the girl hanging, so acknowledge the skills) and goes on a combination rampage/battering ram session as he plows his way through street lights, cars, mailboxes, and buildings, using his big old noggin.

Meanwhile, the Killer Folk are down in the NYC Subway-- at Yancy Street Station, to be precise. Again, that's another continuity gem ridden in the rough of this story which neither of our protagonists are at all aware of and won't get paid off until next time, so I won't spoil the surprise just yet. From the shadows, Thorn-Teeth, Gurf, Rachacha, Tharg, and Thok (your guess is as good as mine which one is which) observe the world they now find themselves in: the language, the clothes, the exchange of money for goods and services, etc.

Then we are treated to a page-long argument, but whereas last issue their language was translated for the reader's benefit, now we sit through a page of the writer's made up language accompanied by some wild gesticulations. It's like when an idiot finds themselves confronted with someone who doesn't speak English so they start shouting all their words, saying them slowly and making huge motions, as though one could break the language barrier by sheer force of will. I seem to remember Jackie Chan's character in Shanghai Noon attempting this relentlessly with a tribe of Native Americans. Their solution was peyote. No, it didn't solve the language gap, but at least he shut up.
The more he gestures, the less we understand.

You get the impression that none of the Killer Folk who made it through the portal represent their traditional leadership, and now there is a bit of a struggle for command as they try to settle course of action to take. They do all commit to a plan and launch an assault on the unsuspecting commuters and we hear them uttering a few words of English.

I think the intent in the writing is that we are supposed to be shocked that a bunch of Homo Habiles are already picking up modern speech in what could have only been an hour or two at most, but I'm honestly kind of shocked that in the cultural melting pot that is Manhattan Island, they miraculously managed to only overhear anglophones. English makes up only 51% of the languages spoken in New York, so the fact that we don't have a weird mashup of English, Chinese, Hindi, and Russian seems like a longshot granted by the nature of the medium.

They got swagger. 
Improbable foreign language immersion aside, the next thing we see, it's night and the Killer Folk come up from out of the subway, now bedizened in contemporary apparel, albeit not always worn appropriately. One of them has a necktie around his neck while another is wearing a wrist watch around his bicep. It's worth applauding the fact that the artist resisted the temptation to put the one female member of the contingent in gender specific clothes. After all, it's likely that these guys aren't even all that high up in their world's food chain, so I suspect the concept of a socially constructed gender binary and its relation to apparel is a bit beyond their understanding. Of course, the fact that the token girl is wearing a purse for a hat should make that perfectly clear in far fewer words.

Meanwhile, under a bridge (it's where all the cool mutant T-Rexes hang out these days), Lunella and Devil Dinosaur seem to be squabbling over the KOWP. Lunella seems to have pieced together that DD has near human sentience because she's actually talking to him rationally. Neither one of them is holding the KOWP and it seems to be the crux of their fighting. She just wants to go home, but he is not letting the KOWP out of his sight.

Sad DD is the most huggable DD.
Now, I know I'm going to be saying this a lot in my coverage of this title, but Devil Dinosaur's expressions are adorable. Yes, the giant carnivore is cuter than the little girl. The one panel that particularly hit home was when Lunella accuses him of not knowing what it's like to have a family to go home to when we the reader know that DD lost the only family he's ever had minutes before arriving in our world. His eyes go from their usual fiery appearance to small and low as he looks down at her and grumbles "Rr-roo..." And my heart just goes out to this poor soul. I suppose it's only fair to acknowledge that I kind of hate humanity with a vengeance right now (I keep reminding myself that the election season is almost over), so I'll invariably relate to the plight of a sad animal over a human being in a heartbeat.

Of course, Lunella has her motivations as well. She explains that she needs it to somehow prevent the Terrigen cloud hovering in the atmosphere from eventually infecting and transforming her. Apparently, she has somehow deduced that she has the Inhuman gene.

I don't know which subsequent question this raises to be more interested in. Is the existence of the Inhumans now so common knowledge to the general populace that they now have access to self-administered tests to detect their Inhuman heritage? Am I right in understanding that neither of her parents tested positive for the gene? It's already a recessive gene to begin with so I'm starting to wonder why. Of course, we could later discover that they aren't her birth parents, but this wouldn't be the first instance of the family member of a newly activated Inhuman not being Inhuman too, such as Ms Marvel's brother Aamir, whose body rejected it either because he's a latent mutant or he prayed it away/has denial issues.

"Dumb dog, why are you following me?
I ain't got a crumb, dog. How about letting me be?"
Devil Dinosaur does finally let her go with the KOWP in hand unimpeded. He does try following her, but it's adorable how she treats him like a dog she found, telling him "No! Stay!" Of course, being a dutiful T-Rex, he looks pretty dejected that his new friend his giving him the brush off. I think it's only fair to acknowledge that Lunella is kind of awful, but in ways that feel very much in keeping with being a nine-year-old and a child genius. She is so used to thinking she is always the smartest person in the room that she is frequently (unintentionally) belittling to those around her, but we are only on issue #2 on what I hope will be a very long run, so this is a good place to start and give her room to grow as a person. Despite her pronounced lack of people skills, she does have the wherewithal to thank him for not eating her.

Of course, she's not out of his line of vision before we hear her shouting and getting cut off mid-sentence. Concerned, Devil Dinosaur searches high and low for her, including under a truck under a dumpster, and up in the moon. Okay, You know how I said he has quasi-human intelligence? Maybe it's mitigated by the fact that people are getting stupider these days. His IQ must adjust to the median human intelligence whenever he's transported to the modern day. Yes, that's just head canon to explain his hunting prowess. He's a goddamn T-Rex for crying out loud, the girl isn't going to be under a dumpster. Of course, the more I think about the part with the moon, that was probably a moment of Devil Dinosaur remembering another friend he lost just recently and having a moment of quiet reflection.

Not to far away, we see what has befallen Lunella as she is in the clutches of the Killer Folk, who have procured an even better grasp on the English language, as well as some police equipment, having recently gotten the jump on some of New York's finest. Okay, I can understand a couple of cops being no match for a T-Rex, but a bunch of cavemen about the size of 3rd-grader? Wow, even for a world full of super beings, these cops fail to measure up.

This book continues to be a charming romp of a book. While there are no actual "deal breaker" problems with it, I do feel it's only fair to acknowledge that it does some acrobatics in order to achieve some of its ends, primarily the Killer Folk learning English in an afternoon, but otherwise this book has components that I think of as classic Marvel. One of our leads is effectively a misunderstood monster with a heart of gold and the other is a super genius as out of step in the modern day as the dinosaur is. Throwing them together and allowing for that push and pull between them brings something to the table that feels both timeless and fresh and I'm very much enjoying where this title is going.