Saturday, May 21, 2016

I Hate Fairyland: For pretty good reasons

I Hate Fairyland, Volume 1: Madly Ever After
By Skottie Young
Published by Image Comics



Skottie Young is one hell of a talented cartoonist, able to bring a liveliness to his characters and settings that make his images really enjoyable to look at. While he usually works in a cute, expressive style that's fun and kid-friendly (as evidenced by his regular "baby variant" covers for Marvel or his work adapting the Oz books), it seems like he might have gotten tired of the kiddie stuff and wanted to unleash his id, and I Hate Fairyland is the result.

With this creator-owned series, Young still works in a cutesy style, but he twists it into an exuberant nastiness, telling the story of Gertrude, a little girl who gets transported to a magical kingdom and sent on a journey to retrieve a key that will allow her to go home, but instead of a quick, exciting adventure, her quest drags on for 27 years. When we join her after all this time, she's a jaded, profane, hard-edged force of nature, rampaging through this magical world in her ever-futile search for her magical MacGuffin, but still stuck in the body of a six year old.

That setup gives Young a chance to just go nuts with violence and come up with all sorts of crazy variations on this type of portal fantasy story, filling the world with weird creatures and landscapes, and then having Gertrude destroy them in ever more inspired ways. His cartoony expressiveness goes so over the top that it becomes grotesque, and each new issue of the series gives him a chance to see how far he can go. If Gertrude faces some sort of barbarian character, it's not enough to give him one or two giant battle-axes; he needs 10 huge weapons strapped to his back. If Gertrude gets maimed in a fight, she doesn't just have a black eye, she looks like she's been run over by a steamroller (luckily, by Fairyland rules, she's able to shrug off most any bodily harm). It's pretty hilarious to see what sort of craziness Young will come up with next, and since he's obviously having so much fun, the reader can't help but go along for the ride.



Young also works in plenty of good running gags, like the way Gertrude manages to kill a succession of cute narrator characters, or how her constant swearing is replaced by terms like "muffin fluffer" or "what the spell". And the driving plot of the book works well too; rather than just being a violent rampage through a magical world, he gives Gertrude obstacles to overcome and enemies to face, all leading up to a climactic conflict that's pretty satisfying while also setting up an interesting direction for future volumes.



Overall, this comic ends up being highly enjoyable, if only because Young's exuberance is highly contagious. His funny, mean-spirited take on these familiar tropes is tons of fun, and it's a great way to exorcise demons and push back against the cutesiness of these types of stories. I'm excited to see where he goes next, and with the imagination that's on display here, I expect it will be great fun to accompany him on his continuing journey.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Kitchen: Another nail in the Vertigo coffin

The Kitchen
Written by Ollie Masters
Art by Ming Doyle
Published by DC Comics/Vertigo



Remember when the Vertigo label on a comic book used to mean something? It's not that every comic released by DC's mature readers imprint was great, but there was a certain level of quality to be expected. And there were many pretty great comics, from the early days of Sandman, Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, and Shade the Changing Man, through to 100 Bullets, Transmetropolitan, Y: The Last Man, and Fables. But these days, the imprint seems to be a victim of the continuing terrible management decisions made by DC (including the recent kerfuffle surrounding the firing of longtime Vertigo editor Shelly Bond), and if you want an example of how far Vertigo has fallen, The Kitchen is a perfect example.

The premise behind this series seems solid: in New York in the 1970s, three members of the Irish mob get sent to jail, and their wives end up taking over their business dealings, which leads to lots of power struggles and violence. It would probably make for a decent movie (although more of a middling crime drama than a prestige picture), but in this form, the story just kind of sits there on the page, without being very engaging or making the characters and their motivations compelling.

So: there's Kath, who starts out as the ringleader that convinces the other two women to take up their husbands' business while they're indisposed, mostly as a way to make ends meet for their families (although I think Kath is the only one with children, and they remain pretty much unseen until they play into a climactic moment between her and her husband, so there's not really anything in the way of stakes to get the reader on board for why they need to do this). Raven, Kath's sister, is initially hesitant, but somewhere down the line she turns ruthless and violent, a character arc that happens without much in the way of motivation. As the third member of the crew, Angie starts out kind of scared, but she quickly becomes enamored with the lifestyle and seems to revel in the violence.

As the plot proceeds, it takes all the turns you would expect: meetings with more established mafia figures, deals struck in order to solidify power, assassinations of rival gang members, and so on. When the husbands are unexpectedly released from prison (for no real reason other than dramatic purposes), this kicks off a war as the wives fight to keep their hard-gotten gains from being taken away from them. This is supposed to be the moment of actualization, in which they are faced with the choice of going back to their old lives as housewives or continuing down the path that they have forged as independent women (while the book is set in the 70s, the era of Women's Lib, there's little acknowledgement of the politics of the era; the time period is really just an excuse for costuming choices). Instead, it seems like they're going through the motions; there has to be a big enemy to face in order to have a dramatic climax, and while the series does throw in some late flashbacks in an attempt to flesh out the women's relationships with their husbands, it's too little, too late in the way of character development.

So there's little to speak of in the way of plot or character, but gangster stories are all about style, so if the execution is good, sometimes shakiness in other areas can be forgiven. However, as much as I think Ming Doyle is a pretty good artist, either this type of story is not her forte, or she was too rushed to turn in work that added much to the series. While much of the art is fine, with fairly realistic body language and facial expressions, there are many bits of awkwardness that draw attention away from the impact of the story and leave the reader with the feeling of watching mannequins trying to mimic human actions and failing. This includes characters that don't seem to be able to drink from glasses correctly:



Doors being kicked in with oddly stiff legs:



Punches that look like hands being awkwardly thrust into people's faces:



A sex scene in which the characters' legs don't seem to follow any recognizable human anatomy:



And all manner of choreography that doen't make sense, like this bit in which a guy is apparently backhanding Kath with his left hand while somehow bruising her right eye:



Doyle also seems to struggle with guns, which often don't seem to fit into characters' hands very well. Here's a bit in which a character shoots her lover, and she apparently manages to hook her hand through her purse's handle, pull out the gun, shoot it, and then remove her finger from the trigger between panels:



And here's another odd moment, in which I think what's supposed to be happening is that the man is being hesitant about shooting the woman, so she takes the gun away from him, but it comes off more like the gun just jumps from one person to another between panels:



If the man is supposed to be hesitant, his forceful manner in the second panel seems to go against that idea, leaving any hesitation to be (poorly) demonstrated by the depiction of his hands in the third panel. Or maybe he was surprised when the phone started ringing, giving her the chance to grab the gun? If that's the case, the blase sound effects don't help; they don't seem like a jarring, distracting interruption. Instead of a loud "BRRRRIIINNGGG!" it's almost like someone is standing off-panel and saying the words "ring ring".

The book is full of strange moments like this, little continuity errors like a guy who in one panel has a gag over his mouth but doesn't in the next, or characters that are much too easy to confuse with each other (in one bit involving a truck heist, I was sure that a character that was hiding in the truck was the mob boss that had hired the women, but that apparently wasn't the case). The dialogue is often poorly edited too, full of phrases come off as stilted rather than realistic like "Stay the fuck out've this, lady!" (why make "out've" a contraction, since the character is saying "out of" rather than "out have"? Wouldn't "outta" sound better?). And while I'm nitpicking, why is the image on the book's cover made to appear as if it has been creased? Is it supposed to be a magazine pinup that the characters posed for that somebody tore out and folded up to keep in their wallet?

It's this kind of poor quality control that seems indicative of a huge drop in Vertigo's fortunes. I can't believe somebody in the editing department looked at this book and said, "Yes, this is exactly what we want to publish." I don't think this was ever going to be a great series, but its failures on nearly every level, from plot, to characterization, to art, to basic copy editing, are kind of astounding when coming from an imprint that used to be synonymous with a certain level of quality. With this pointless dreck, I think I can officially say that those days are over.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Sacred Heart: The kids either are or aren't all right

Sacred Heart
By Liz Suburbia
Published by Fantagraphics Books



Is Liz Suburbia the next Jaime Hernandez? That may seem like a bold claim, but with this graphic novel, Suburbia cements herself as a great cartoonist who seems to be following in the path laid down by Love and Rockets, creating a believable sense of place and capturing her characters' emotional lives, while inserting just a bit of the fantastical. This book is an assured debut, and it sees Suburbia mature from a creator of interesting minicomics into a full-fledged talent that will hopefully be delivering quality comics for years to come.

This book follows the lives of several teenage characters in a small town, but it focuses mostly on a girl named Ben and her relationships with the kids around her. She has a platonic friendship with a boy named Otto that morphs into something else, but isn't necessarily a deeper connection. She also worries about her sister, Empathy, who she doesn't see as much as she would like, and she nurses a crush on a popular boy who seems to be out of her league in more ways than one.

As the book progresses, Suburbia mostly just lets us see Ben and the other kids' lives play out, and we watch as they fall into and out of relationships, worry about dumb stuff like who is going to which party, and congregate around the requisite local rock band. But there's something odd and kind of sinister going on under the surface: dead bodies keep showing up, and the kids seem oddly accustomed to this happening. Plus, it takes a while to realize this, but there don't seem to be any adults around. Is this taking place in modern-day America, or is it actually post-apocalyptic (possibly after the Rapture)?

Suburbia mostly leaves the answers to these questions ambiguous, which allows them to function symbolically, making teenage issues like fitting in, growing up, and forming adult relationships seem like the most important thing in the world, which is exactly how they feel to someone at that age. But she doesn't hit readers over the head with all of this, instead opting to leave things mostly unsaid and just let us watch as the kids live their lives and try to figure out their place in the world.

And that's where the book really shines. These characters all seem fully realized, acting like actual teenagers who are still figuring out who they are. Sometimes they're obnoxious and dumb, and other times they demonstrate real love for each other; in other words, they seem almost painfully real. And we don't just get this feeling about the main characters; Suburbia often creates montage scenes that check in with a number of kids in the community, demonstrating that each and every one of them is someone worth caring about:



I especially like how this isn't just an exercise in teen angst or boredom (although the characters do spend time laying around and watching movies); Suburbia makes these kids' lives seem fun as they get excited about the next concert, party, or school dance. The kids drink alcohol and have sex and just goof around, enjoying the freedom that youth provides. The future may not be certain, and things get more uncertain and ominous as the book heads toward a close, but they'll enjoy their lives while they can, which seems like an appropriate outlook for the future in 2016.

I haven't talked much about the art here, but it's a key part of what makes everything work, from the relatable setting, to the body language, to the slightly surreal feeling that pervades throughout. One thing that I love is the way Suburbia depicts music, with the sound created by a rockin' band taking the form of blobs of energy emanating from the stage:



Everything in this book is just incredibly well done, creating a story and characters that are relatable while still remaining a bit off-putting, which, as an adult, is kind of how I view teenagers anyway. There's plenty here to marvel at, and Suburbia handles it all with such assurance that I can't help but feel that I'm seeing a cartoonist in complete control of their medium. If she's this good her first time out of the gate, I can't wait to see what she does next.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Two Brothers: Putting the "novel" in "graphic novel"

Two Brothers
By Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba
Based on the novel The Brothers, by Milton Hatoum
Published by Dark Horse Comics



Comics don't get much more "literary" than this, do they? Of course, this book borrows its pedigree somewhat from the source material, a novel by the Brazilian author Milton Hatoum, but it's kind of an outlier in American comics, focusing on the sort of material you usually get in novels by somebody like Jonathan Franzen: the history of a family and their internal conflicts over a few decades, with lots of symbolism and a bit of historical import. And that's cool; comics can always use more in the way of literature for adults.

Luckily, with two great creators like Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba on board (there's no indication who drew what, although most of the character art looks like Ba's work to me), this is still a pretty great read, even though its origins are pretty clear from the ever-present narration. But while much of the plot and internal emotions of the characters are relayed through text, Moon and Ba use the art to bring it all to life quite beautifully, creating a wonderful sense of place in the small Brazilian town of Manaus.

So, the plot: interestingly, while it centers around the eponymous brothers, Yaqub and Omar, a pair of twins born to a Lebanese family, the two of them aren't really the main characters, or at least they're the ones about whom we're not as privy to their internal states. Instead, we see them through the eyes of the rest of the family, especially their father, Halim, as well as the book's narrator, who isn't revealed as a servant boy who lives in the household until several chapters in.

If you couldn't tell from the cover image, there's a rift between the brothers, with the more studious Yaqub spending a good portion of his childhood in Lebanon after Omar attacked him and scarred his face in a fight over a girl. On Yaqub's return, the two of them are quickly at odds, but not overtly. As their mother's favorite, Omar ends up being a no-good playboy and layabout, and Yaqub commits to his studies, eventually leaving home again and moving to São Paulo to become a successful businessman, but never letting go of his antipathy toward his brother.

And so things proceed, with grudges and emotions simmering over years, Halim (who, as we learn in a chapter that flashes back to his and his wife's early relationship, never really wanted children) getting more and more angry at how his sons turned out, his wife Zana focusing more and more on lavishing attention on Omar while he wastes his life on alcohol and loose women, and the narrator trying to understand how he fits into all of this (he believes that one of the twins is his father, but his mother, a native Brazilian servant who grew up working in the family's home, won't confirm or deny his suspicions).

And through it all, we see the city change as it grows from a seaport (riverport?) focused on fishing and shipping into something more modern, with industry supplanting poor people's homes and starting to squash the more creative parts of the culture. Some later chapters are focused on student movements that get cracked down on by the authorities, and this probably has more relevance to Brazilians who understand exactly what events are being referenced here, but it's still evocative of the changes to world culture that took place in the twentieth century.

And, well, that's about it. There aren't any earth-shattering moments of personal discovery or dramatic revelations that undercut what happened earlier; it's just the story of a family that tore itself apart across several decades while their country changed around them. It's sad, but that's literary fiction for you.

It's still a beautiful book though, with Moon and Ba bringing Hatoum's imagery to life in ways that make the setting feel incredibly tangible, whether they're depicting the vibrant Amazonian foliage that seems to burst with life and color even in black and white:



Or the bustling activity of the town's port:



While the narrative text drives much of the book's plot, Moon and Ba don't rely on it to tell their story; they're happy to use wordless sequences to provide a much more visceral sense of action and emotion when it's called for, as they do in a scene in which the narrator's mother takes him on a boat trip up the Amazon to visit her home village, and they get caught in a storm on the way home:




There's another excellent sequence late in the book in which the narrator has a sort of panic attack related to some of the violence that he witnessed:




These are just a couple of the examples of great comics storytelling that Moon and Ba deliver here; they're certainly not just illustrating a text story, but using the medium to its full extent. I really do wish we had more comics like this in the United States, but until we do, this is one of the ones that can sit on shelves alongside all of the literary award winners. It's that good.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Things get more bizarre, believe it or not

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 1: Phantom Blood, Volume 3
By Hirohiko Araki
Published by Viz Media



Man, oh man, the first two volumes of this series were crazy, and I kind of loved them, but if anything, things get even nuttier here in this final volume of the first part of the series. When we left off, Jonathan Joestar and his compatriots were in pursuit of the evil vampire Dio, but they had to stop to fight some medieval knights that Dio had resurrected as zombies. We get the rest of their fight here, and it's full of goofy moments, including a breathlessly narrated revelation of the knights' awesomeness:




First, Jonathan battles Blueford, starting out by fighting him underwater (where he can't use his Hamon breathing powers) and then facing off against his crazy prehensile hair:



He ends up defeating him by punching him so hard that it destroys not only his body, but also the evil in his soul (or something like that):



Then, it's time to fight Tarukus, who Araki draws as a massive giant towering twice as tall as the rest of the characters, with a chest that's as wide as a car and an armored breastplate that makes it look like his abs come in a 16-pack. He's nastier than his compatriot, which he demonstrates by picking up some random guys and squeezing them like fruit so he can drink their blood:





JoJo ends up fighting him in some sort of medieval contraption in which they both have unbreakable collars locked around their necks, which are then attached to a chain that connects them through holes in the ceiling. It's weird and complicated, and at one point JoJo gets his neck broken but still recovers enough to do this:



Did I mention the prevalent gore in this series? It's totally nasty/awesome, which is as good a descriptor of this manga as any. This gets demonstrated again in a scene in which Dio is turning some villagepeople into zombies, and a woman begs him to spare her baby, so he promises that neither he nor any of his followers will harm the baby. But! When he turns her into a zombie, this happens:




Yes, this manga has a scene in which somebody eats a baby. Holy crap!

So anyway, Jonathan and his pals (which include some more Hamon masters who showed up from Tibet) eventually confront Dio, and all sorts of wackiness happens during the fight. At one point, they get attacked by a guy who had a bunch of snakes coming out of his head, and this happens:



Dio is crazy powerful, so nothing seems to hurt him, This gets demonstrated when JoJo manages to mostly bisect him with a sword, and it barely seems to slow him down:



But the good guys win of course, both through overwhelming virtue and also the support of their allies (there are two separate moments in this volume in which one of Jonathan's pals gets dismembered but manages to provide one last bit of support before dying). However what appears to be Dio's final defeat occurs about 70 pages before the book actually finishes, so you know he's going to somehow survive for another battle. And sure enough, we learn that he managed to cut his own head off before JoJo's Hamon energy completely destroyed him, and one of his minions absconded with his remains so he could menace JoJo another day.

Thinking he's found a happy ending, Jonathan gets married and heads off to America on a honeymoon. But Dio has managed to sneak his head onto the ship, and he's decided to take over JoJo's body and spread his vampire evil in the New World! Oh no! But don't worry, the first part of the series is almost over, so Jonathan manages to sacrifice his life to stop Dio, leaving his pregnant wife as the only survivor. Which leads us to...

JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 2: Battle Tendency, Volume 1
By Hirohiko Araki
Published by Viz Media



The second part of the series picks up 50 years later in 1938, with the hero this time around being Jonathan's grandson, Joseph Joestar. This JoJo is kind of different; he's more of a troublemaker, and he's got a temper and a snarky attitude, often getting in confrontations with people, making them angry, and then predicting what they'll say to him in response:



He was born with the ability to use Hamon powers, so he's already pretty awesome when the story starts, and he'll presumably learn even more amazing powers in his continuing adventures. These start happening when Speedwagon, who in the gap between part 1 and 2 has become a rich oil magnate, discovers a weird underground temple in Mexico that contains more of the stone masks that turned Dio evil, as well as a weird pillar in which a humanoid, possibly alien figure seems to be in stasis. Could this be the source of the evil masks? Is it an example of humanity's ultimate evolution? Probably!

Since this is 1938, Araki gets the chance to use Nazis as some secondary villains, with them capturing Speedwagon and transporting the pillar man to their base in Mexico (sure, Nazis hung out there sometimes, right?). But before Joseph gets a chance to confront them, he has to fight Straizo, one of Jonathan's allies from the end of part 1, who decided to use the power of the masks in the temple in Mexico to gain immortality and attack Joseph in New York. This leads to a pretty crazy fight, which begins with JoJo introducing Straizo to his little friend:




After JoJo wins, he heads down to Mexico on a motorcycle, giving Araki a chance to put him in cool-guy poses and show off his bizarre take on human anatomy:



There's an amusing fight involving a Nazi assassin and a cactus, and Joseph tries to sneak into the Nazi compound by donning a rather unconvincing disguise:



Amusingly, this doesn't work in the slightest, so we're spared any scenes of gay panic in which Nazis hit on him and get grossed out when they find out he's a man.

And then things get crazy again, when we learn that the pillar man, who the Nazi commander has decided to name Santviento, is a super-powerful vampire type who can quickly learn modern language, contort his body to fit through tiny vents or wear people's bodies like a skin, and somehow feed off people by consuming them with his entire body. This leads to all sorts of nastiness as he destroys pretty much everyone in the base, and plenty of crazy stuff when JoJo fights him:



 

But since this is only the first volume in this part of the series, Santviento ends up being something of a minor, easily defeated threat. JoJo does manage to beat him in a pretty awesome fashion by using his weakness against sunlight, but then he learns that this pillar man is only one of several from around the world, and they'll be waking up and attacking humanity soon. Join us next time for more crazy nonsense!

So that's where we stand at this point of the series, which has since gone on for dozens of volumes that presumably get ever nuttier as they go on. I'm fascinated to read more, since there's no predicting what sort of nonsense Araki will come up with next. Some of what he does is par for the course for shonen manga, with characters coming up with new uses for their powers and shouting out the names of their attacks, but Araki seems particularly inspired, having JoJo do things like use Hamon to shatter his motorcycle goggles and send the shards of glass flying at bad guys, or having the evil Straizo decide the name for his eye-beam attack is "Space Ripper Stingy Eyes!" Combining this with his bizarre grasp of anatomy and fashion, Araki is sure to keep the craziness flowing, and I'm excited to see how he'll break my brain the next time. Bring it on, JoJo!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

The Bad Times: Yes, famine is no fun

The Bad Times
By Christine Kinealy and John Walsh


It’s often not very fun to be negative about a book that’s well-meaning, and this one is about as well-meaning as they come. It’s about the Irish Famine that took place between 1846 and 1849, and it tries hard to be authentic and educational. Unfortunately, it’s just not very good, with broadly-drawn characters that don’t seem very much like real people, plotting and dialogue that is descriptive without providing much in the way of relatability, and rudimentary artwork that doesn’t really capture the tragedy of the events.

You know you’re in for trouble when the book starts with a text introduction that explains who the main characters are and how they relate to each other, rather than trusting the story itself to reveal this organically. We do get something of a feel for the three teenaged leads as the famine slowly sets in and their families begin to suffer, and the approaching dread as their families worry about how they’re going to be able to survive is fairly effective. But much of it is pretty ham-fisted, with characters stating their feelings explicitly, breaking the “show, don’t tell” rule often.

What’s more, sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly what is going on, as in this scene, when one of the teens wakes up and goes outside to find that disease has struck his neighbors:



At least, I think that’s what’s supposed to be happening there. Are the townspeople just hanging out in the street and wailing at their misfortune? It’s not very clear.

Those pages also give an example of the regular use of the Irish language, which requires readers to regularly flip to the glossary in the back of the book to understand what people are saying. It’s meant to add authenticity, but it ends up just being cumbersome. This is also true of occasional references to events or political figures, such as the Irish nationalist leader Daniel O’Connell, which are often mentioned with little explanation. While this sort of thing might be meant to encourage readers to learn more, it doesn’t make for a very satisfying read.

The book isn’t total ineffective; there are some scenes of real tragedy, with things getting worse and worse for everyone as the characters’ families begin to be unable to find work, get forced out of their homes, and slowly starve and die. But there’s little in the way of nuance, with people either being good and generous or evil and greedy. The villains of the book might as well twirl their moustaches as they oppress the poor and starving populace:



Overall, it’s not a worthless book; there’s something to be said for depicting tragic history in an unflinching manner. But while this book does do that, it doesn’t make the characters compelling enough to really feel that tragedy, and it doesn’t fill in the details well enough to help readers get a full understanding of the events. Good intentions mean something, but they’re not enough to actually create a quality product.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye: Comics will break your heart, and so will Singaporean politics

The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye
Presented by Sonny Liew
Published by Pantheon Books



Sonny Liew has always been an excellent cartoonist, but with this book, he really takes things to the next level, both in terms of artistic style and in the depth of his writing, as well as his ability to use the comics form to create something truly unique. Here, he "presents" the story of the title character, a fictional cartoonist from Singapore, and the book functions as a collection of that man's work, including the various comics he created throughout the twentieth century, excerpts from his sketchbooks, illustrations he made, and an autobiographical comic that gives context to his work. In addition to all of this, Liew adds documentary-style comics that show Chan in the present, and even occasionally adds himself as a character to explain things to the reader. It's a fascinating collection of techniques, and it's convincing enough that one occasionally wonders if Chan was a real person.

But no, it's all fiction, and that's probably for the best, since Chan's story isn't a very happy one. Like many creators throughout the history of comics, he had a hard time, slaving away at his art for decades without receiving much in the way of acclaim or success, yet feeling like he couldn't give up. It's a portrait of the artist as somebody who has something to say, even if nobody is listening.

And what he does have to say is where things get really interesting, since it gives Liew a chance to study the history of Singapore, from its status as a British colony, to its occupation by Japan in World War II, to its struggles to achieve independence, to its brief merger with Malaya, to its eventual status as an independent nation ruled by a near-dictatorial regime. As the book progresses, we see Chan use his comics to address current events and support the people he saw as leaders in his nation's struggle for justice, only to become disillusioned as infighting between these leaders led to power struggles and new versions of oppression. The book functions as something of a history lesson, and it's rather educational, providing insight into the changes that Singapore went through over the decades.

That all sounds kind of dry, but Liew makes it sing by having Chan take inspiration from a variety of sources. He starts out as an imitator of Osamu Tezuka, with a comic about a boy who discovers a giant robot and uses it to defend student protestors who are being beaten by British authorities:



Later, he imitates the EC war comics of Harvey Kurtzman to look at how Singapore was caught in the middle between the Axis and Allies during World War II and its aftermath:



Then, he gets inspiration from the British comic Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future to create a sci-fi story about Earth struggling to get out from under the thumb of alien rulers:



He follows that with a Pogo-style allegorical funny animal strip that satirizes Singapore's merger with Malaya and its political fallout:



He goes the superhero route with Roachman, a vigilante who helps people deal with injustices in a changing Singapore:



He creates a Mad Magazine-style satire of Singapore's "official" history, in which the ruling party pats themselves on the back, insists that everything they've done is for the good of the people, and papers over any injustices they've committed:



And perhaps most fascinatingly, he takes inspiration from both Frank Miller and Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle to present an alternate history of Singapore in which a different party came into rule, but things seemed to end up much the same:



It's a pretty amazing collection of styles, and it makes for a great way to guide readers through the history of a country that they are most likely not familiar with. Interestingly, Liew sort of sets Chan up to fail by having him insert didactic commentary into his comics, turning them into political treatises rather than can't-miss entertainment. His sci-fi story about alien oppression ends up being an examination of real-world political figures and their struggles. His version of Pogo is so full of impenetrable allegory that Liew has to appear alongside the strips to explain what they mean. It ends up being a demonstration of how an artist's passion to make a statement dooms him to failure and obscurity.

But that seems to be by design. Liew is sympathetic to Chan and his struggle to have his voice heard, but he doesn't turn him into a history-changing genius. Instead, he's an obscurity, a minor figure that provides Liew with a chance to examine the history of his own country and explore how idealism can so easily turn into oppression. It's a fascinating work that demonstrates Liew's mastery of the comics form, and it's one that has a great deal of value, both in helping to understand the history of Singapore and in examining the benefits and drawbacks of the artistic lifestyle. If that sounds like something you would be interested in, don't miss it.