Thursday, August 27, 2015

Comics for the one-percenters

Over the past few years, I've met the crew from One Percent Press at shows like CAKE or the Chicago Zine Fest, and they've been kind enough to give me a few of their comics for review. Now that I'm trying to blog more regularly, it's about time I took a look at some of their stuff:

Broken Summer and Super Mega Buds
By J.P. Coovert
Published by One Percent Press




J.P. Coovert appears to be one of the "stars" of One Percent Press, contributing a number of diary-style minicomics and also these enjoyable books targeted at younger readers. Of these two, Broken Summer is the highlight for me, following the adventures of some kids of varying species (a human, a dog, a bird, and a troll, I think) living in a fantasy world, as they hang out, play video games, and listen to music. It's fun, low-stakes stuff, with the biggest drama coming when Sam (the bird) attempts a magic spell and the others think he is about to accidentally summon a demon. But don't worry, nothing bad happens. In fact, the book goes to lengths to do the opposite, with the friends supporting and encouraging each other as they have fun together, whether that means finding a way to include Flik (the troll, who broke his butt skateboarding) when they go to see his favorite band or make sure James (the human) has fun at the swimming hole, even though some girls are there and he's self-conscious about his body. It's good-natured young-people stuff with a magical bent, which gives Coovert a chance to show off some artistic flourishes, like the way Sam's neck elongates and piles up like spaghetti when he chants his magic spell, or the cool cut-away design of the gang's clubhouse. While I wouldn't mind seeing some actual adventures from these characters (which I think happens in a couple of other volumes), it's fun to see them enjoy themselves together as friends.

As for Super Mega Buds, it's much more slight, taking the form of a short minicomic following the adventures of two color-coded pals as they go on adventures in outer space and take on the evil Dr. Bionical's army of robot frogs in Sector X. It's a videogame-inspired romp, with enjoyable action and some neat flourishes involving spot colors, cool weapons, and goofy power-ups, leading up to an expected reveal, but for the short time that it lasts, it's a lot of fun.
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Press Start...and Fight
By J.P. Coovert
Published by One Percent Press



Coovert's other main contribution to One Percent's line is the minicomic series Simple Routines, which, in the couple of issues I've read, is a pretty, uh, routine diary comic, with Coovert spending a few panels at a time detailing an event that happened to him on a particular day. They're not awful or anything, but there's little that makes them stand out as more than just "this is what happened to me today," without the the minimalistic grace notes of John Porcellino or the ability to highlight specific emotional moments of James Kochalka, to name two exemplary takes on the genre.

Luckily, Coovert finds a way to break out of the confines of his simple diary comics with this pair of comics. Press Start seems to start out in the format of Simple Routines, with some four-panel strips involving Coovert's girlfriend (wife?) Jacie getting a job which will require them to live apart for a year, and his ensuing despair as he worries about growing up and accepting adult responsibilities. However, when he can't find the inspiration he needs to make some comics, he goes to play a video game, and suddenly falls out of the borders of the diary strips into an adventure that fills the entire oversized pages of the comic. This is one of those metaphorical adventures though, so while he starts out having fun and goofing off, he quickly gives up when faced with a formidable obstacle, gets stuck doing an unpleasant grunt-work quest, and gives into some destructive impulses that lead him to the true target of his anger, the symbol of the "guy" who is taking Jacie away from him.

It's an interesting bit of self-examination from Coovert, and he uses this expanded format to make it pretty visually exciting as well. And then he even includes a smaller minicomic called And Fight in which he creates a more preferable outcome to his encounter with his imaginary nemesis than what happened in Press Start.

While I'm not especially taken with Coovert's diary comics, I do like his art style and imagination quite a bit, so it's cool to see him do something different. He definitely has the chops to create some great adventure comics, and even tackle some stories with emotional heft, so I look forward to seeing him do more along those lines.
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Rough Age
By Max de Radigues
Published by One Percent Press



While much of pop culture seems to find the teenage years to be endlessly fascinating, I think I've reached the "cranky old man" phase of my life, in which I find myself less and less interested in the activities of dumb kids. It's not that I had a bad adolescence, but it wasn't a magical time either, just a part of my life during which I mostly wanted to move on and be an adult already. Luckily for me, this graphic novel, by Belgian cartoonist Max de Radigues, seems to share a similar point of view, even though it is almost entirely populated by teenagers. Instead of glorifying these kids' lives, it highlights their boredom, aimlessness, and awkwardness. This makes it seem more realistic than many depictions of youth, seeing its cast hang around, smoke, fight, cheat on tests, try to figure out how to relate to the opposite sex, and just generally try to survive their awkward transition to adulthood. There's little in the way of plot or character arcs; it's really a collection of moments following a bunch of characters who go to school together, presented in an almost minimalistic style, with thin lines and simple features defining the characters against nearly blank backgrounds. There's not much to it, but many of these moments seem so true to life, whether it's one kid worrying about whether a girl will go out with him and then, to his horror, accidentally doing something that will probably make him hate her, a kid trying to dry off a t-shirt with a hair dryer because he absolutely had to wear that shirt to school that day, or some kids getting annoyed at the couple that won't stop making out all the time. There's enough specificity here to make things realistic, and while it's all very low-stakes, that's realistic too. If you have to relive your teenage years through fiction, you could do much worse; here, it's neither an ordeal to be survived or a great time that you never want to end, but simply a period in which nothing all that special happens, just a passage to adulthood. Sounds about right to me.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Fables: Happily ever after?

Fables, Volume 21-22
Written by Bill Willingham (with Matt Sturges)
Art by Mark Buckingham, et al.
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo



These two volumes form the finale of Vertigo's long-running Fables series, and I'm happy to say that they ended up being rather satisfying. The series struggled for direction at times, especially after resolving the main plot which had been driving it from the beginning, in which a terrible threat known as the Adversary had driven a number of characters from fairy tales and nursery rhymes from their magical homeland, leading them to take up residence in the "mundane" world, where they hid among regular, non-magical humans and planned to fight back against the conqueror of their homelands. From what I understand, creator Bill Willingham had originally intended to end the series with the big battle against the Adversary, but due to the success of the series, and probably some affection for the characters and the world he had created, he decided to go ahead and end that story, but keep the series going and see what happened next. The results were definitely interesting, but there were times that Willingham seemed to be struggling to come up with what to do next or how to keep things moving.

Luckily, he seems to have figured out how to give the series more of a focus and drive: go ahead and end it after all. With an ending in sight, the last volumes of the series finally seemed to give him a purpose, and after shifting the pieces into place, he sets about building to a pretty momentous final conflict with literally world-shaking stakes. He sells the idea that nobody is safe by unceremoniously killing off several fairly major characters, and as he builds up to a final battle, the scale of the players involved increases to barely-comprehensible levels, until one wonders whether the pages will be able to contain the bounds of the conflict.

And then he takes a sort of sidestep, the details of which I won't spoil, but suffice to say that the characters seem to find a way to break out of their set patterns and long-lasting personality conflicts to find a way to resolve things for the greater good. Is that a cop-out? Perhaps, but Willingham seems to find a way to keep from killing all of these beloved characters that seems satisfying and in-character. And it helps that he doesn't stop there, but spends several dozen more pages skipping forward in time to see what happens to nearly every character in the series over the ensuing years, decades, and centuries. It's a great way to offer some closure, but still leave things open-ended, allowing readers to imagine an infinite number of possible stories that could have happened, or may happen someday.

I shouldn't have taken so many paragraphs to get to it, but a special shout-out must be given to Mark Buckingham's art, which seemed to get better and better over the course of the series and reaches another level in the final volume, where he uses some gorgeous watercolor shading to give everything a magical sheen that emphasizes the fairy tale quality of the stories while still keeping things grounded in a semblance of reality. I especially love the Jack Kirby influence he brings to the crazy monsters that are all assembled for the final battle, but he's just as good at drawing out the tension in confrontations between characters, selling the horrible violence that gets visited on some old favorites, or playing up the menace that comes from some characters seeming to embrace horrible destinies. It's beautiful stuff, and I'm kind of sad that I won't get to see him do it any more. I'm sure he'll find something to fall back on, though.

So: is this the best ever Fables story? No, I don't think so, but it's still lovely, heartfelt, and enjoyable, a satisfying finale that makes me happy I read the series through to its conclusion. Coming up with an ending to any long-running series is hard, since everyone has their own expectations, theories, and hopes for their favorite characters, but Willingham and company (some great artists get to contribute to the various short pieces explaining what happened to all the major and minor characters, and it's a treat, as always, to see them put their own spin on the familiar figures and surroundings of the series) manage to finish things off about as well as could be hoped for, and that's saying something.
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A word about the elephant in the room (with some hints at spoilers, maybe?): Bill Willingham is known for his conservative politics, but I often find it difficult to find them reflected in Fables, even though some seem to have no trouble reading some right-wing message or other into various stories. In fact, I often find it fascinating to try to find a viewpoint that Willingham might be expressing through these stories, since what I do find tends to be pretty progressive (which probably stems from me placing my own biases on what I read). The big conflict in this final issue seems to be representative of cultural forces that have been at each other's throats for ages, but the final resolution looks for a way to avoid bloodshed, to put away past curses and move on. I don't know if you want to read Israel/Palestine, Republican/Democrat, or some other conflict into that, but whatever you choose, it's clear that both sides are represented fairly equally (although Rose Red seems to be the aggressor, but also the one who makes the conciliatory gesture that brings about peace), with neither one meant to be completely at fault. Instead, they're caught up in conflicts that extended so far into the past that the reasons behind them were almost completely forgotten, and only by recognizing their mutually assured destruction can they leave their grudges behind. Of course, the solution is to completely break contact and stay as far away from each other as they can, in order to ensure the safety of not only themselves, but anyone else who might get caught in the collateral damage. I'm not sure what that says about Willingham's take on any real-world situation, since we don't have multiple universes in which to distance ourselves from our enemies...

There's also an interesting bit in which Rose Red, who has been acting as a servant of the universal force of Hope, decides that Hope is actually a force for evil, leeching off everyone who has ever labored under the delusion that things will get better. This could well be a dig at Barack Obama's presidential campaign and what Sarah Palin has called "hopey changey stuff", and while I don't necessarily agree with the idea that hope is a negative concept, it's an interesting approach, looking at how what many perceive as a force for good might not be all that beneficial. This kind of stuff is what makes me enjoy this series, even if its worldview can be interpreted in a way that I find disagreeable. It's not didactic, forcing readers to accept a certain philosophy in order to understand what the story is about (like, say, Ayn Rand or Starship Troopers). Instead, it leaves things open to interpretation and debate, and it's all the richer for it.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

CAKE 2015: I finally get around to writing about some comics

I brought home many comics from this years Chicago Alternative Comics Expo, so it's about time I bothered to review some of them, isn't it? Here, try these on for size:

Vreeland, Book One
By Chad Sell
Self-published



I've enjoyed Chad Sell's comics for years, but while stuff like his webcomic Manta-Man or his illustrations of contestants on Rupaul's Drag Race demonstrate his sense of humor and his artistic chops, this comic is more personal. It's the story of the four years he spent after college living in Ann Arbor, Michigan, taking care of his grandparents as they began to reach the age where they had difficulty completing everyday tasks like driving to the store or operating the tractor they use to clear the snow from their driveway. It's sad and affecting stuff, and Sell's art works wonderfully to bring his grandparents to life and demonstrate both the love they feel toward each other and their confusion and consternation at their situation. The art style is somewhat simplified and cartoony, but Sell uses it masterfully in a way that makes emotions perfectly clear, and his pacing matches the characters' lifestyle in a way that brings us into the situation and shows us how the years have accumulated around them and why they would be troubled by the idea that they can no longer manage to survive as they always had. It's a lovely, moving story, and while it's available to read for free online as Sell is creating it, I prefer it in this format, printed at a size larger than the typical comics page. I look forward to reading future chapters, even though I wonder how well my tear ducts will be able to handle them.
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Tits! The Spiny Northern Maid
By Caitlin Skaalrud
Published by Talk Weird Press



In this short-but-effective minicomic, Caitlin Skaalrud defines a believable taxonomy of mermaid species that live in various lakes and rivers throughout an alternate-universe North America, which serves as great background flavor for the introduction of the title character, a mermaid named Titanica who is living in captivity. Her treatment seems especially cruel when we learn that she is sentient and intelligent, but still gets treated like a zoo animal. When she spots the story's other main character, a female college professor who gives the lecture introducing us to the different species of mermaids, she is enraptured, leading to an incredibly erotic dream sequence and a cataclysm that may or may not be part of the same fantasy. It's a striking story that quickly introduces and explores a fascinating, memorable concept, making for a great short story that leaves the reader wanting more. Good stuff, and enough to make me want to check out more of Skaalrud's work.
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Miggy Mouse's Sweets & Treats
By A.T. Pratt
Self-published



A.T. Pratt was one of my favorite discoveries at this year's CAKE. While his somewhat grotesque art style isn't necessarily my favorite, the intricacy and imagination of his work is astonishing. His hand-crafted minicomics are full of flaps and cutouts, turning them into three dimensional objects that are incredible just to look at. This one, for instance, is a poem/fable about a mouse who finds a candy factory in an underground tunnel and lets his greed and gluttony get the best of him, with some pretty gross results. What's especially cool about it though is the way it folds out into a "splash page" of the mouse, with flaps that had added interactivity on previous pages now adding depth and volume to the image:



It's pretty amazing work, indicating that Pratt's brain seems to work on another level from everyone else's. I'm genuinely fascinated by what he does, and I'll be sure to keep an eye on him and see what he does next.
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Goodbye
By Ben Passmore
Self-published



I discovered Ben Passmore at last year's CAKE when I picked up the second issue of his weird post-apocalyptic comic Daygloayhole. I don't know if I really understood that one, but I sure enjoyed reading it, and the same is pretty much true of this minicomic. It's full of the same philosophical musings, expressive cartooning, and goofy humor, just on a smaller scale and in a sort of stream of consciousness flow. It starts out with a look at the myth about how humans used to have four arms and legs until Zeus split them into separate humans, taking that as a prompt to examine human loneliness in a way that seems serious until he undercuts it with a joke about group sex. Then he's off to a great scene in which a self-styled anarchist at a coffee shop is annoyed by a loud conversation between what seem like a couple of vapid girls only to be surprised by what he finds when he confronts them. The comic careens to other scenes, including an extended bit in which a bunch of identical guys argue about the possibility for people to change, and other scenes of apocalyptic doom. It's strange and funny and personal, and I love it. Passmore is a real talent, with a flair for clear art and expressive characters, and he's got a unique style of writing that might be hard to fully understand, but is tons of fun to read. I'm going to try to get my hands on everything he does.
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Not On My Watch
By Isabella Rotman
Self-published



With this minicomic, Isabella Rotman has created a great resource for combating rape culture, one that could change the world for the better if it gets in enough people's hands. It's full of great information, letting people know that they don't have to stand idly by, but can be an active force for good in the fight against sexual violence. It's presented in a cheerful, helpful manner, with a host character/narrator speaking to the reader and other characters, including a backwards-baseball-hat-wearing dudebro, letting them know about the terrible statistics around sexual violence and offering the knowledge of what can be done to prevent it. What's especially nice is that it assumes that people have basic decency and, given the tools, will rise to the occasion and work to make the world a better place. By offering tips on how to defuse potentially harmful situations, look out for friends, or even just let people know that rape jokes aren't cool, this comic provides a great education on a vital area of modern culture that needs to change as soon as possible.
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Fuckwizards
By Eleanor Davis
Self-published



This is a lark, a short, silly comic in which two seemingly genderless characters have a magical sex fight, adopting and attacking each other with both male and female sexual characteristics. It's only a few pages long, but it's full of imagination and weirdness, an example of Eleanor Davis' particular ingenuity when it comes to the language of comics. She's able to utilize clear imagery to convey action and movement that's easy to follow without using any words (aside from sound effects). It's funny, sexy, and kind of gross, and like pretty much nothing else out there. I wouldn't call it an essential read, but if you like Davis and want to see her having fun, it's definitely worth a read.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Kung-Fu Klassix: The Avenging Eagle

The Avenging Eagle
Directed by Sun Chung
China, 1978



It's always good to encounter an awesome old-school kung-fu movie that I hadn't seen before, and if this one isn't considered in the top tier of the classic Shaw Brothers period, it should be. It opens on a man riding a stumbling horse through the desert, about to die of thirst. He gets rescued by a good samaritan who give him some water, but he's immediately suspicious, sure that the guy is a policeman trying to catch him. The guy assures him he's just another wanderer, but before too long, they are attacked by another group of riders who reveal that the first guy is named Chik Ming-Sing, he's a member of their gang who has deserted, and they intend to bring him back. After he fights and kills them, with help from the good samaritan, he reveals his backstory.

He was raised from childhood by the evil Yoh Xi-Hung, the leader of a gang of criminals and a vicious man who brought up a large number of children in a life of violence and bloodshed, training them to be fierce killers. The best of these he named his Eagles, and the 13 of them formed a formidable force that did his evil bidding as he sought money and power. Chik was one of the best of them, but in one raid, he was wounded, but managed to escape and pass out in a forest. He was found by a family who took him in, patched up his wounds, and nursed him back to health, which made him reconsider his whole worldview. This display of love and charity made him question his ruthless upbringing, but after recovering, he still went back to rejoin the Eagles.

However, immediately after his return, Yoh announced that they had discovered one of the remaining generals who had once imprisoned him, and he sent Chik and some of the other Eagles to kill him. And wouldn't you know it, it's the guy who's family nursed Chik back to health. Chik tried to stop them, but the other Eagles butchered the family, including women and children. Still, Chik stuck with Yoh and his gang, because they were the only family he knew.

Back in the present, Chik and his mysterious helper fight off some more of the Eagles, and he reveals that his ultimate goal is to track down one Cheuk Yi-Fan and die at his hand. In another flashback, he tells of how the Eagles were sent to murder the entire family of an official who was one of Yoh's enemies, but while the others gleefully killed everyone they could, Chik's heart obviously wasn't in it. The last person alive was the official's daughter-in-law, and Yoh, seeing that Chik was beginning to question his life of violence, forced him to kill her, even after she revealed that she was pregnant. Cheuk Yi-Fan, the official's daughter and the husband of the murdered woman, was absent at the time, so after Chik ran away from Yoh's clan, he swore that he would seek death at Cheuk's hand to balance the scales of justice.

At this point, the astute viewer will probably be able to determine the identity of the man helping Chik gain revenge on his enemies, but the ultimate reveal doesn't come until later, when the two of them decide to storm Yoh's stronghold and confront the villain together. This leads to an epic battle, as they fight off innumerable henchmen and confront Yoh himself, who, in the tradition of these sorts of movies, is the toughest foe of all, even though he is an old man. Things get especially dramatic when Yoh reveals that Chik's ally is actually his worst enemy and tries to convince him to come back into the fold so they can rule the criminal empire together, leading to a nail-biting, brutal finale of a fight that leaves Chik's ultimate decision to the very last second.

This is exactly I want martial arts movies to be: an operatic display of emotions as related through intricately choreographed violence, with plot twists and last-second reveals, men fighting for justice and villains receiving their gory comeuppance. The fights here are pretty great, and full of the wacky weapons that guys would carry around in old-school kung-fu movies, like spikes attached to chains, brass rings, weird hammers, short knives, and clawed gauntlets. Chik wields one of my favorite weapons, the three-sectioned staff, and Cheuk mostly fights with his bare hands, until he reveals that he has blades hidden in his shoes that attach to his armored wristbands. It's all pretty awesome, and it's beautifully structured in a way that leads up to that big, dramatic finale that's up there with some of the best cinematic martial arts fights ever. This one is a keeper, and one that belongs on the list of great martial arts films. I can't believe it took me so long to see it.
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Here's a very brief sample of the kind of thing you can expect to see in this awesome movie:

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

My new vampire powers should manifest themselves soon...

In a rather fortuitous bit of timing, my family recently visited a friend of ours who lives in Japan but was visiting the United States, and she brought some gifts for us. One interesting thing she gave to everyone were some facial cleansing masks that, when worn, supposedly give a person the appearance of things like a panda, a Kabuki performer, or a member of KISS. Since she knew I like manga, she got me this:



That's right, it's a JoJo's Bizarre Adventure face pack! Opening it up reveals that the mask is patterned after the evil stone mask from Phantom Blood (it says a Stardust Crusaders mask was also included, but I only got the one):



The instructions on the packet containing the mask have a somewhat terrifying visual demonstration:



Instructions are also included in English, reading 1) After cleansing, prepare your skin with the lotion. 2) Take out the mask sheet and unfold it. 3) Place it over your face. 4) Transform into a vampire. 5) Remove the mask after about 15 to 20 minutes,

What kind of horrible magical remedies do they sell in Japan? What will happen to me if I try it? I guess I'll find out soon...

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: It certainly lives up to the title

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood, Volume 1-2
By Hirohiko Araki
Published by Viz Media



Prior to reading these two volumes, I knew very little about JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, having only read the spinoff graphic novel Rohan at the Louvre. I've been interested in checking it out though, since it's purported to be pretty nuts, which, as I now know, is a pretty accurate description. This manga is something that has to be seen to be believed.

While a portion of the series had previously been published in the United States, this is the first time the original volume of the series, which began in 1986, has been available here, and if it starts off this crazy, I can't wait to see where it eventually goes. At face value, it seems like a fairly typical shonen manga, with young men battling each other with impressive displays of physical and mental fortitude, wise mentors, loyal companions, a series of battles leading up to climactic encounters, and lots of angst, but Hirohiko Araki makes his particular weirdness known early on. From what I've seen of his work, one of his signature stylistic tics is characters contorting their bodies into bizarre positions, and sure enough, one of the first things the main antagonist does to demonstrate his villainy is kick a dog in what's either an anatomical improbability or a case of very extreme foreshortening:



These two volumes are full of this kind of stuff, with characters moving their arms and legs into strange configurations, usually while emoting heavily. (Araki's other signature is incredibly weird fashion, but we'll get to that later.) One early fight scene is especially crazy, with our hero attacking his antagonist so ferociously that his body assumes Liefeldian proportions:



And when he strikes, the other guy's leg appears to telescope inside of his body:



This sort of thing is kind of hilarious, but it's also an essential part of the book's appeal; with every page turn, you wonder what strange anatomy will pop up next.

Ah, but what about that story? While it seems to fit into a standard shonen manga format, it's got its own quirks and weirdnesses, including presenting a version of history in which the awesomeness has been dialed up to 11 (and then maybe another 11 for good measure), plenty of gory horror visuals, and as a method of fighting that makes no sense, but seems like a cool idea, so why not go with it?

Our tale begins with a prequel about an ancient stone Aztec mask that priests wore when making human sacrifices. When blood splashes on it, it shoots out tendrils into its wearer's brain, granting them terrible powers. Fast forward to England in 1868, when a thief decides to loot a crashed carriage. The man inside isn't dead though, and he wakes up thinking the thief is helping him out, so he offers him a favor in return. Twelve years later, the thief is dying, and he cashes in his favor by sending his son, Dio Brando, to live with the rich man's family. But when he gets there, he immediately sets out to ruin the life of the family's son, Jonathan Joestar, and claim the inheritance as his own. Oh, also, the father owns the stone mask, which will be important later.

Fast forward another seven years, and Dio is about to realize his plans, having spent that time tormenting JoJo while still claiming to be his friend. He's about to poison the father, but he's caught in the act by Jonathan, who is now strong enough to beat him up. Jonathan heads off to find an antidote for the poison, and while he's gone, Dio steals the stone mask, planning to uncover its secrets.

To get the antidote, Jonathan has to go to the bad part of London: a slum called Ogre Street, where Victorian street punks roam, ready to murder anyone they see. He's quickly accosted by a group of these weirdos, and their leader is a guy named Speedwagon who has what appears to be a razor-edged bowler hat:



Jonathan defeats the punks, but he refuses to kill them, demonstrating that he is a true gentleman, so Speedwagon helps him find the antidote and decides to join him as a loyal companion, filling the role of the guy who gets freaked out by all the craziness happening around him and amazed by the hero's awesomeness.

While this is going on, Dio is wandering the streets, getting drunk on "Cronenberg Dead Zone" liquor:



He decides to test out the mask's power when he gets in a fight with more of the toughs that apparently roamed the streets of 19th century England at night. He does so by putting the mask on one guy's face and stabbing his friend, causing blood to splash on the mask. It turns out that this grants the guy vampire-like powers, including incredible strength, a reversion to youth, and the ability to suck blood through the fingers after jamming them into someone's neck (or, as we later see, other parts of the body). Dio only manages to survive when the sun rises and he finds that these vampires also burn up in the sunlight. Armed with this knowledge, Dio heads off to confront the Joestar family, and sure enough, he dons the mask and gains its awful powers.

This leads to a pretty epic battle, as Dio easily destroys the cops which were there to arrest him, but Jonathan is so pure of heart and such a badass strongman that he manages to fight the ultra-powerful vampire to a standstill, and, as the family's mansion is burning down, pursues him with suicidal abandon in an attempt to destroy the monster. It's intense, ridiculous stuff, and we understand the stakes because characters are freaking out at the horrors Dio is capable of or Jonathan's heroic attempts to stand up to him:



In the aftermath, it appears that Dio is dead, but we know it can't be over so soon, and sure enough, we learn that he survived and escaped to live another day, recruiting other villainous guys (including Jack the Ripper) to serve as his henchmen. Luckily, Jonathan gains a mentor to teach him how to fight such powerful enemies. That would be a weirdo named Zeppeli (named after Led Zeppelin, as Araki reveals in the second volume's backmatter), who first introduces himself to Jonathan by punching him in the solar plexus, which somehow heals his injuries:





Yes, it's time to reveal the series' strange superpowers, which are based on breathing techniques called "Hamon" that send ripples through one's body, controlling the blood and granting amazing abilities. It's ridiculous and nonsensical, but so are pretty much any explanation for superpowers, so I choose to go with it and enjoy the bizarre explanations of each technique.

Jonathan, Zeppeli, and Speedwagon set out to confront Dio and his gang, which leads to more crazy fights, including one in which Zeppeli insists that Jonathan defeat a henchman without spilling any wine in the glass he is holding, as well as the revelation that Dio can resurrect zombies, including some knights who defended Mary, Queen of Scots from that dastardly traitor, Queen Elizabeth I (did I mention the strange take on history?). That's about it for these two volumes, with the third seeing the end of this particular storyline, but definitely not the end of the series, which I believe is still continuing today.

I don't know how well I'm conveying the sheer craziness of all of this, since the plot doesn't sound all that different from something like Dragon Ball or Yu Yu Hakusho, but it's the kind of thing that has to be experienced to understand. However, I can still highlight some of the particular goofiness, like the breathless narration that describes, say, the importance of sports in 19th century England:



And aside from the aforementioned bodily contortions that the characters do, there's the build of the characters themselves. Araki mentions in the backmatter of the first volume that big muscles were in vogue at the time, with stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruling the silver screen, so he designed his characters in that mold, but he kind of went overboard, giving Jonathan and Dio huge barrel chests, tree trunk legs, and arms so massive that they seem unlikely to be able to move at all. There's a great scene midway through the first volume in which Jonathan and Dio compete in what I think is supposed to be a college rugby game, and it's one of those hilarious illustrations of strength in which a character simply cannot be stopped:



And then, of course, there's the insane fashions that Araki comes up with for his characters. This being the Victorian era, there are a lot of poofy collars, billowing sleeves, capes, and top hats, but Araki adds plenty of bizarre flourishes, like the feathers that adorn Dio's jacket here:



I also like this goofy cape/deerstalker hat/ascot/tiny bow tie/fingerless gloves/checked sleeves getup that Jonathan wears when he's going to confront the lowlifes in the slums of London:



And this one is pretty crazy too, with it's high-waisted pants, loose belt, huge collar, sideways hat, and shoulder harnesses:



The whole series is full of these strange outfits, and it's fun to see what sort of crazy fashions Araki will come up with next. He often uses chapter intro pages to showcase these, and one definite highlight is the emphasis on the Britishness of the characters by emblazoning outfits with the Union Jack:



There's also the prevalent gore, which is strikingly nasty. Characters shedding a lot of blood and shrugging off the damage they take is a pretty common shonen manga trope, but Araki goes above and beyond here, with most fights leading to blood spraying all over the place and all sorts of gross bodily damage being inflicted on people. It gets pretty gross at times, with body parts being skewered:



Limbs exploding:



And skulls being casually shattered:



I don't know if all of those examples are enough to convey the insanity of this series; like I said, it really has to be read to be believed. The funny thing is that by the time I finished these two volumes, I found myself getting used to it. There was still the occasional moment of disbelief at the sheer craziness, but after immersing yourself in this kind of nonsense, you start to accept it. That's part of what makes it so fun to read, I suppose.

I'm certainly excited to read the final volume in this volume of the series, and then go on to whatever comes next. From what I understand, this is just the launching point for an increasingly lengthy and complicated series that spans multiple generations of the Joestar family and eventually leads to globetrotting adventures and ever-more-crazy powers and battles. If the whole thing is as wild and weird as this initial story, I'm on board for the whole ride.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Love and Rockets: Can I request more "movies"?

Love and Rockets: New Stories #7
By Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics



This latest volume of the Hernandez Brothers' always-ongoing series sees an interesting confluence of interests, in that it sees both brothers present comics versions of B-movies that exist within the world of their stories. This isn't anything new for Gilbert, who has been alternating between the ongoing adventures of his long-running characters and the weird movies they make for years, but it's interesting to see Jaime take the same tack. And while he's not new to sci-fi/superhero stories, this one is striking, since he seems to be competing with Gilbert in the weird, disturbing department. While Gilbert's readers are used to stuff like this (from elsewhere within this issue):



Seeing something like this from Jaime is kind of off-putting:



It's still pretty compelling though, with the "movie" (which Maggie and Hopey watch in a theater, although at first I thought it might have been one of the comics that Tonta's teenage friends were making, with the character based on Angel) following a disgraced space princess who is exiled to the "asteroid of sorrows" for the crimes she has committed, but once she gets there, she learns that consuming the blood of the creatures who dwell there gives her superpowers, and thus a means to revenge. It's dark, fascinating stuff, taking Jaime's penchant for depicting shapely women with a punk attitude and going in a fully nihilistic direction with it, making a scorned woman a terrible force of nature to be reckoned with.

That may have been the highlight of this year's installment for me, but the story around it, involving Maggie and Hopey meeting up to go to a reunion of their old gang in Hoppers is also very good, with the two of them reconnecting, pondering their relationships with each other and their individual significant others, and wondering if they made a mistake by not staying together. I expect we'll see more of this next year, and I can't wait.

As for Gilbert, well, I'm still enjoying the glimpses he gives of the movies that Fritz and Killer star in more than the characters' offscreen adventures, although one story called "Daughters and Mothers and Daughters" was quite good. It starts with Fritz as a baby, and it follows her, her mother, and her other relatives throughout the years, showing how choices and mistakes made echo through the generations. It's got a nice gravitas (even with glimpses of movies starring a ridiculous comedian named Ping Pong), and it offers some interesting insights into the characters' lives. The other "behind the scenes" stories throughout the volume aren't as good, but as we see how more and more of Fritz's imitators and doubles pop up, it's interesting to see how she becomes distanced from people, including what might possibly be her daughter. There's some compelling stuff to be had here, but I'm still not really feeling whatever Gilbert is going for here, whether it's meant to be Hollywood satire or just soap-opera-style drama.



The B-movies that he shows us though, that I'm into. The longest one here is "The Magic Voyage of Aladdin", and it sees a kid playing the title part, but the most meaty roles going to Fritz and a couple of other similarly-proportioned ladies who play Morgana Le Fey, Circe, and a captured damsel, all of whom have magical powers of some sort, with everyone getting into sometimes-violent battles and all sorts of other nonsense. It's pretty goofy, but it's lots of fun, and it's the kind of thing I look forward to in Gilbert's stories in each new installment.

So, who knows what to expect for next year, but I bet it will be good. For now, we can marvel at the quiet beauty of lovely scenes like this:

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

CAKE 2015: A Banner Year for Groo Sketches

This year's CAKE was another chance for me to get some new additions to my Groo sketchbook, and this batch is a doozy:


Zac Gorman brings his expressive, cartoony sensibility to the Wandering One. 


Evan Dahm makes Groo look pretty cool. 


Yes, this is a Groo sketch by JAIME FUCKING HERNANDEZ.


Derf gives Groo that signature Derf slouch. 


Drew Weing went kind of nuts here, fusing Sergio's style with Frank Frazetta in a "Death Dealer" homage. Awesome. 

Eleanor Davis went simple and cute, leading to another great representation of our favorite mendicant. 


Ed Luce drew his Wuvable Oaf character cosplaying as Groo (or is it the other way around?).


Kevin Czapiewski drew a great depiction of Groo wandering. 


John Porcellino did a nice Groo in his simplistic style. 


Zak Sally did a nicely grotesque image. 


Tom Kaczynski drew this nicely gory scene, with some spot color for added effect. 


And finally, Dash Shaw turned Groo and his swords into this cool, abstract image. 

Awesome stuff, as ever. Thanks to all these great artists for contributing to the increasing coolness of my sketchbook.