Monday, November 16, 2015

Jupiter's Legacy: Its real legacy will probably be a not-very-good movie

Jupiter's Legacy, Volume 1
Written by Mark Millar
Art by Frank Quitely
Published by Image Comics

You never know what you're going to get with Mark Millar comics. Actually, that's not true. You can usually guarantee that you'll get something "edgy", characters speaking "cool" dialogue, some concepts that seem new and exciting until you realize that they're mostly just tropes recycled from other, better creators and given the ol' modern Millar take (preferably pared down to something that will be easily adapted into a movie), and, if you're lucky, some pretty good superhero action. So why bother with his latest tiresome thing? In this case, his co-creator makes it worth a look. You can always expect Frank Quitely to deliver great artwork, and this is no exception. He makes the action and character interplay here work really well, enough so that you almost forget about the empty shell of a story that Millar has delivered.

Here's the thing with Millar: he tries to seem relevant, or at least new, when he's creating these takes on superheroes, but there's never anything going on below the surface. In this case, he seems to be going for a generational story, possibly commenting on where society is now versus where it was when superheroes were first created. But he doesn't actually have anything to say about either generation or time period; they're just the latest mold into which he can pour a violent superheroic conflict.

I probably don't need to get into specifics, since what I just described is something that Millar has done time and again, but let's look at how this story doesn't hold up. The comic kicks off in 1932 with a small group of friends going on an expedition in search of a mysterious island in the Pacific Ocean that their leader saw in a vision. We find out that after they found the island, they were given superpowers (how they got them is treated as a big secret, but later we find out that it was just aliens who apparently wanted to make America great again) and came back to change the world, pulling the United States out of the Great Depression and ushering in several decades of heroism. Fast forward to 2013, and now their kids are living as entitled celebrities, lacking the moral character of the earlier generation and feeling like there's nothing left for them to do, since their parents have already defeated all the villains.

So, there's at least an idea there, with a conflict between generations (although why did it take the heroes more than 50 years to have kids? Shouldn't there be at least one more generation there in between the original heroes and the ones that were presumably born in the 1990s?), maybe something about Millenials being left adrift and older generations not understanding why their kids don't share their values, not noticing how the world is crumbling around them? Unfortunately, the kids don't actually have enough drive to actually engage their parents in a battle of wills, so the main plot conflict ends up being between the Utopian, the leader of the heroes, and his brother Walter (who I guess is called Brainwave, but I don't think that ever comes up in this volume of the series), who has felt like the Utopian has been holding him back all these years, insisting that the heroes only fight evil and not get involved in politics (this begs the question of how exactly they pulled the US out of the depression in the first place. Just by leading by moral example and encouraging people to work harder?). So, Walter convinces the Utopian's son Brandon that his father has been holding him back and it's time for him to lead. For some reason, all the other heroes (only one or two of which actually get names or speaking parts; where did these dozens of other heroes, and the villains they fought, get their powers, anyway?) not only take Walter's side, they get on board with the vicious murder of the Utopian, his wife, and his daughter. But that can't be the end of things, so the daughter, Chloe, escapes (not through any demonstration of agency of her own; no, she gets rescued by her boyfriend, the son of a supervillain), going into hiding and raising her son in the increasingly dystopian world that Walter and Brandon soon create. We catch up with them ten years later, with the kid being raised to believe in heroic ideals and secretly using his powers to fight for good, until, of course, he gets discovered, his family is exposed, and they have to stand up against the forces of oppression.

But that will have to be a story for another volume, since this is just the first installment of a series that may or may not ever be completed in comics form (it will probably get turned into a movie first). For now, all we have is this volume, which has precious little going on below the surface. If we're meant to buy into this world at all, we should get a sense that heroic conflicts have been going on for decades, but there's nothing to suggest how the existence of these amazing people has changed the world, and other than a few mentions of fights against villains, we have no idea what they've been up to for the past 80 years. We should be able to tell that the tension between Walter and his brother has been simmering for so long that it has finally come to a boiling point, but there's no sense of shared history between them, there's just arguing meant to advance the plot.

And what of the actual feints toward politics and relevance? The little we see of Walter's plan to fix the US economy (before the Utopian shuts him down for no discernable reason) is basically gibberish:

Really, Millar has no real idea of how superheroes would realistically affect the world outside of how they affect the plot. After we jump ten years into the future, we see that Walter and Brandon's plans to make everything better have failed, turning the world into an Orwellian nightmare in which any remaining heroes or villains are hunted down and presumably executed. But why did their plan fail? In what way did it make things worse instead of better? Why did they turn to rigid control of the populace rather than promoting personal freedom? I could probably come up with some answers to those questions, but Millar doesn't even bother; he needed an evil empire for his remaining heroes to fight against, and even though characters occasionally speak lines of dialogue that makes this all sound relevant, it's really all just a poorly-thought-out plot being hammered into place.

So, empty as this comic is, is it worth reading at all? Well, Frank Quitely certainly does his best to paint as pretty a picture as he can on top of this fragile eggshell, and if you're willing to be generous enough to Millar to accept that there's absolutely nothing going on below the surface of this superhero fight delivery device, I suppose you'll be able to enjoy it. Quitely sells a sense of scale in superhero comics like few other artists, so it's fun to watch him detail the large battles and amazing feats the characters get up to (although there are fewer of these than there really should be; like I said, there is no sense of what the world is actually like with all these costumed characters flying around). There's little sense of personality in anyone beyond the six or seven main characters, but Quitely does what he can to fill panels with other people, interesting costume designs, and nice-looking settings. And there's at least one cool superheroic fight scene of the type that Millar excels at, with characters using their powers in interesting and exciting ways and the day being won while badass proclamations are uttered:

If more of the book was like that, helping us understand why we should care about what happens to these people rather than just assuming that their lives are important because the text says so, maybe there would be something here. And who knows, maybe Millar will take the time to detail more of what happened in the characters' pasts and explore what must be a backstory that took place during the huge time gaps of this volume (he has also done a prequel series called Jupiter's Circle, illustrated by Wilfredo Torres). But somehow, I doubt it, and I'll be surprised if there's ever any suggestion that there was some actual thought put into this other than how much money it can make when it gets turned into a movie. So, when does volume 2 come out?

Monday, November 9, 2015

Sword of Honor: I might be obsessed with Musashi Miyamoto now...

Sword of Honor
By David Kirk
Published by Doubleday

That Musashi Miyamoto was an interesting fellow, wasn't he? Reading even a basic account of his life gives a picture of a fascinating person, one who wandered Japan fighting dozens of duels, developing his own swordfighting style, formulating a philosophy, and ending up as a highly regarded author and artist. It's no surprise that he's a figure that has resonated across centuries and continents, inspiring retellings of his life in the form of prose biographies, films, and manga (to name just a few examples).

And here's another one to go on the pile, taking the approach of a historical novel with Miyamoto as the main character. This is actually the second in a series, with the first entry, Child of Vengeance, following Musashi's earlier days and climaxing with the battle of Sekigahara, in which, based on what we learn in this book, he would have fought on the losing side, but fled in order to avoid dying for a pointless cause. This book picks up almost immediately afterward, with Musashi having realized the unfairness of the system of samurai honor that would compel a man to die at the whim of his lord, whether that means being struck down in battle or ordered to commit seppuku for whatever reason a man's master deemed necessary.

At first, Musashi lives outside of society, subsisting as a hermit in the wilderness, but he is eventually forced to interact with society, and his rage at an injustice leads him to set out on a campaign of (fairly random) action against what he sees as a corrupt system. When he is targeted for assassination by the Yoshioka swordfighting school for some perceived slight against their honor that he can't even remember, he heads to their home base of Kyoto to confront them, leading to an escalating series of confrontations and duels that culminates in an incredible bloodbath of a battle.

Through all of this, we get a fascinating view of 17th-century Japan, not just from Musashi's perspective, but from other characters as well, including the Yoshioka swordsman sent to kill him, the de facto head of the Yoshioka school, and the captain of the Tokugawa clan who has been charged with keeping the peace in Kyoto and sees Musashi's battle against the Yoshioka as an opportunity to sway the populace toward supporting the new shogun. Musashi's battle against the impenetrable edifice of the feudal system makes sense to him, but getting other points of view provides a wider perspective of how people fit into this society, and why they might fight to uphold practices like seppuku that seem insane and brutal from a modern perspective.

What's more, while Musashi's cause may be righteous, he isn't let off the hook for his failings or given the unassailable position of a social savior. He gets a conscience of a sort in the form of a women he befriends, a blind immigrant from the Ryukyu islands who questions the meaning behind his actions and tries to dissuade him from proceeding down his ever-more-violent path. This relationship gives him a fascinating inner struggle along with his outer battles, leading to a classic dramatic conflict in which he almost gives up on his quest for justice/vengeance/recognition, only to be drawn back in to a fight that turns out to be almost apocalyptic.

David Kirk's writing style captures the era and the characters incredibly well, bringing the period to life without getting bogged down in overly descriptive explanations of things like honorific terms or the different ranks within clans. In fact, he mostly sticks to English, referring to people mostly by their given names rather than family names, and only using Japanese terms for specific cultural concepts like seppuku, substituting other terms where appropriate (like "the Way" for Bushido or "masterless" for ronin). It makes for an easily-understandable reading experience that doesn't require additional study into Japanese history to follow.

And then there are the fight scenes, which are pretty amazing. Kirk has a way of putting the reader right into the middle of the action, describing movements moment-by-moment while making the reader feel each motion and impact, conveying the way the body moves, the instinctual reactions that Musashi makes, the exhilaration of victory, and the exhaustion of lengthy battles. This works wonderfully, and as the book proceeds, the scale of the fights build and build, until the climactic battle that pushes the adrenaline into overdrive and delivers on the expectations that had been building for the entire book. It's an incredible experience, one that won't quickly be forgotten.

As someone with an interest in Japanese culture, I found this book fascinating, and I highly recommend it. I'll be watching for the next installment, which will hopefully get to Musashi's duel with Sasaki Kojiro. In the meantime, I've got plenty of other Miyamoto-related media to consume...

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Kung-Fu Klassix: Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter
(a.k.a. Invincible Pole Fighter)
Directed by Lau Kar-Leung
China, 1984

I had been wanting to see this movie for years, and now that I've had the chance, I'm happy to say that it's pretty awesome, if not in my personal martial arts movie canon. It stars Gordon Liu (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Dirty Ho), which is always a sign of quality, and it's full of really good action, often pitched at an operatic level in which the characters' strong emotions are demonstrated in the ferocity of their fighting. 

The plot kicks off with a battle in which the Yang family, who are loyal to China's royal family, are betrayed by the evil Pan Mei, the queen's father. I'm sure these events have some historical significance, but to somebody who doesn't know their Chinese history, it's basically just political scheming for power. The battle is pretty great though, with the seven Yang brothers using their family's deadly spear technique to kill dozens of enemies before they ate overwhelmed by hordes of guys with spring-loaded weapons that wrap around their spears (and arms and legs), holding them immobile and rendering them helpless and easy to kill. It's a bloodbath, but most of the brothers go down fighting gloriously, and their father, who wields a cool bladed staff, only falls after being shot full of arrows, jumping to the top of a 15 foot tall family tombstone, screaming curses while covered in blood, and dying standing against the monument in a defiant stance:

Only two of the Yang brothers survive the battle (although I think at least one other brother was captured, but he's never seen again). One of them, the sixth brother, is driven mad after seeing his father and brothers betrayed and slaughtered, and he returns home to his mother and sisters, where he spends most of his time either in a near-catatonic state or attacking anyone who happens to be nearby, which forces the women of the family to fight him, including his mother, who wields an awesome dragon-headed staff that was gifted to the family by the emperor. He's played by Alexander Fu Sheng (The Avenging Eagle), who died in a car accident during the filming of the movie, so he kind of disappears at a certain point without playing what should have been a major part of the final battle.

Meanwhile the fifth Yang brother, played by Gordon Liu, seeks refuge in a monastery (after being helped out by a hunter played by director Lau Kar-Leung [Dirty Ho, Legendary Weapons of China]). This isn't exactly a philosophical movie like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin though, so even though the abbot (Philip Ko, Eastern Condors) initially refuses to allow him to become a monk because he's too caught up in seeking vengeance, he overcomes their objections through force of will, shaves his own head, and insists on staying. Having cut off the head of his spear to avoid being recognized as a member of the disgraced Yang family, he decides to learn the monks' method of pole fighting, although he objects to their use of non-lethal methods. They mostly practice on wooden wolf dummies, working out ways to defang the animals rather than kill them, but he demonstrates the superiority of his methods by just smashing the dummy. You would think they would just kick him out for his behavior, but he somehow manages to win them over, mostly because it's necessary for the plot. However, we do get one goofy fight in which Liu attacks a wolf dummy that the abbot manipulates like a puppet, and one pretty awesome fight in which the abbot tries to stop him from heading off to rescue his sister, who was kidnapped by Pan Mei. This scene is probably the highlight of the movie for me, with some amazing acrobatics and some great acting by Liu, who is so determined to save his sister and achieve vengeance for his family that he simply cannot be stopped:

It's also the source of the movie's title, which references the eight symbols of Taoist cosmology, with Liu managing to rearrange the furniture in the monastery mid-fight to create an arrangement of these symbols on the floor:

Having proved his point, I guess, he heads off for a pretty brutal final battle with Pan Mei and his men, a scene that sees him and his sister just destroying guys left and right, whether they're stabbing them with poles or carving them up with their father's bladed staff, or, in one memorable moment, when one guy gets impaled with a pole, then Liu hits the pole so hard it goes flying out his back and impales a second guy:

At one point, it looks like they might not be able to prevail against the large number of men, but the monks show up in the nick of time to turn the tide of battle, and even though they fight non-fatally, they use their wolf-defanging methods to do some pretty nasty stuff:

And then, of course, the good guys prevail and, in a somewhat distasteful manner that's still in keeping with the film's level of violence, murder the traitor while he's cowering in defeat.

Overall, it's definitely a good film, with some great fight scenes and a level of emotion that gives the battles real stakes, but the way the monks so easily capitulate to Liu's perversion of their way of life and the cartoonish level of violence in the final battle end up making this one less than fully successful. The film does seem like kind of an end of an era, a sendoff for the old-school kung fu stories of the 70s just as the industry was about to shift in favor of more modern, stunt-based films like Jackie Chan's Police Story (which came out in 1985). This is a pretty good way to go out though, and it's definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Assassination Classroom: Don't call it Ass Class

Assassination Classroom, Volume 2-4
By Yusei Matsui
Published by Viz Media

The first volume of this series was a pretty darn good setup, establishing a situation that allowed for comedy, heart, and a bit of menace. So how do the next few volumes follow up on that? Unfortunately, I think they lean a bit too heavy on the comedy. Instead of the kids trying to learn new ways to assassinate their alien teacher, most of the time is spent on wacky hijinx, and any actual threats come from other sources.

Those other sources include: a sexy professional hitwoman who poses as the class's English teacher (she fails miserably and ends up persuaded to try to be a good teacher), a robot who acts as an artificially intelligent student (Koro-Sensei upgrades her and teaches her to work together with the other students without disrupting the class), a sniper who tries to take out Koro-Sensei during a class trip (he fails and is inspired by Koro-Sensei to learn to be a better assassin), and Koro-Sensei's "brother", who looks like another student but has shapeshifting hair that works the same as Koro-Sensei's tentacles (Koro-Sensei defeats him in one-on-one combat). That last one is one of several false teases about Koro-Sensei's past, but like all the rest of them, it doesn't really lead to anything, and the brother (or whatever he is) ends up whisked away for training so he can try again later, rather than joining the class so we can learn more about him.

Those threats are all dealt with rather quickly, which means that the rest of the time is spent on either goofy comedy or heartwarming teacher-student inspiration. Both of these occasionally connect and lead to scenes that are either pretty funny or feature genuine emotion (or both), but the ratio of hits to misses is much lower than I would like. Sometimes we get jokes that don't work so well in a Western context, like the assassin/teacher lady trying to get information about Koro-Sensei out of the students through inappropriate physical contact:

Sometimes we get weird cultural references:

Sometimes we get fourth-wall breaking:

And sometimes it's just silly:

There are definitely some funny jokes here (I liked the way Koro-Sensei got so enthusiastic about a class trip to Kyoto that he writes a massive travel guide for the students that covers every possible eventuality, including what to do when a fellow student is kidnapped, which actually happens), but they're surrounded by a lot of dumb ones, as well as more of that inspirational material that doesn't always land. Again, there's a bit of a cultural divide here; one of the main conflicts is that this school encourages students to be their best by treating the lowest-ranking students (that is, Koro-Sensei's class) as second-class citizens to be looked down upon and viciously mocked. In Japan's competitive educational environment, kids can probably relate to that sort of thing, but from a Western standpoint, it's just kind of weird. And unfortunately, it's one of the main sources of drama, whether students are fighting back against bullies or trying to overcome systematic pressure, like the school's principal, who insists on keeping them at their lower tier as a lesson to all the other students. That means we get too many stories in which Koro-Sensei inspires his students to overcome expectations, when I'd rather be seeing them work on their assassination skills.

I suppose it's not fair to judge a comic by what I would like it to be instead of what it is, and maybe I'm just far enough outside the target audience that I can't relate to the characters, but it ends up falling short of my expectations. Maybe it will eventually get back to assassination attempts as Koro-Sensei's deadline for destroying the earth approaches, but I expect that if I keep reading it, I'll just have to accept it for what it is. I guess it will have to do, but I wish the comic would strive to be its best the way its main character encourages his students to do. Come on kids, you can kill that lovable, inspirational alien! I believe in you!

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Kung-Fu Klassix: The Kid With the Golden Arm

The Kid With the Golden Arm
Directed by Cheng Cheh
China, 1979

So, there's this honorable society that's tasked with escorting a shipment of gold to a region that has been hit by a famine, but there's also an evil gang that wants to steal the gold. That's enough of a plot for a kung fu movie, right? I guess so, because that's what happens in this classic film. It's pretty much non-stop action, with the good guys, led by Yang, who has one of those big swords that has rings attached to the blade (guys in old kung fu movies are pretty much defined by their weapons), trying to fend off the bad guys, let by the eponymous fellow, whose arms are apparently so strong, they can fend off anybody's blade:

The good guys also have two guys called Long Axe and Short Axe (which is something of a misnomer, since he carries two axes), who keep score of how many bad guys each of them has killed, Li Chin-Ming and Leng Feng, a pair of star-crossed lovers who regularly bicker about Li's sense of honor even when his life is in danger, and Hai Tao, a wild card who kind of wanders into the battle on his own as a drunken goofball (but not really a drunken-style fighter) who can kick everyone's ass.

On the bad guy's side, there's Silver Spear, Brass Head (who wears a helmet that makes his headbutts pretty deadly), and Iron Robe (who wears, yes, metal clothes as armor, but also carries a razor-sharp fan), as well as a group of guys called the Seven Deadly Hooks, although they get dispatched pretty quickly by the Axe brothers.

The plot seems pretty straightforward, with each side having a clear goal, but there are a surprising number of subplots that pop up related to things like Li Chin-Ming and Hai Tao's rivalry (when the former is poisoned with a "Sand Hand" attack, the latter sticks him in a furnace to burn the poison out of him) or what's really going on with Yang, who seems like a pretty crappy swordsman for a well-respected leader of upstanding individuals. The bad guys make various attacks and lay traps that take out a bunch of  the unnamed members of the team as the good guys try to complete their journey, and various members of both sides meet gory ends (a specialty of director Chang Cheh, who reunites the cast of Five Deadly Venoms here for quite satisfying results). It's a bunch of inevitable fights, but they're mostly pretty awesome, starting out kind of rote, with movements that aren't all that impressive, but the challenge and effort ramping up with each subsequent battle, leading up to a final showdown between Hai Tao and Golden Arms, with twists sure to reveal themselves as betrayers and double-crossers make themselves known.

Much of the action ends up being pretty great, with an early weapon-based battle between Hai Tao and Iron Robe being the point that the action really kicks into high gear:

After that, things get extra awesome, with a battle between the Axes and Silver Spear being nothing shot of epic and the final duel(s) involving Golden Arms, Li Chin-Ming, Hai Tao, and others all acting as gripping, Shakespearean drama full of moments like this:

For a movie that's little more than one fight scene after another, this one is pretty cool, full of great action and drama that makes sense among all the punching and stabbing. If you're looking for some cool old-school kung fu involving a bunch of different styles, some wacky weapons, and some amazingly choreographed battles, you can't go wrong here.

Monday, September 14, 2015

One Piece: Still awesome, 75 volumes later

One Piece, Volume 75
By Eiichiro Oda
Published by Viz Manga

If you were expecting this latest installment of this long-running series to be some sort of special anniversary volume with a big climactic moment or anything, well, be prepared to be disappointed, since it's just the next in the series. But you can also expect to be excited, since it's the latest volume of One Piece, which is rarely less than awesome. And while there appears to be plenty of time to go before this current storyline wraps up (it has lasted nine volumes so far, with at least two or three to go, I expect), things are definitely heating up here, with some big plot developments taking place, several exciting battles being set up, and an endgame in sight.

Should I try to explain the plot? Sure, why not? So, the Straw Hats are on Dressrosa, which is ruled by the dastardly Don Quixote Doflamingo, who has enslaved much of its population in a particularly cruel manner, using the power of one of his underlings to turn them into toys, after which they are forgotten by all their loved ones. The previous volume ended with a last-second defeat of the person who was controlling all these toys by Usopp, resulting in the sudden transformation of a ton of toys into angry pirates and gladiators, who are now all ready to rise up in a revolution against Doflamingo. First among these is Kyros, who was once the greatest of Dressrosa's gladiators before the king's daughter tamed his heart. He had been turned into a toy soldier, but now he's back to almost full strength (he only has one leg, but that doesn't seem to slow him down at all), and he immediately storms Doflamingo's stronghold and chops his head off. But it turns out that this Doflamingo was just a puppet composed out of the "strings" that the real villain controls with his powers, and he responds by initiating his fail-safe plan: the Birdcage, in which he surround the entire island with a giant cage of razor-sharp strings, trapping everyone inside. He then starts controlling random people with his puppeteer powers, forcing them to start attacking everyone around them. He announces that people can either try to survive long enough to kill him, or they can kill all of the Straw Hat crew and their allies, at which point he'll drop the birdcage. Oh, and he's put a huge bounty on their heads, and since the country seems to mostly be populated by ruffians, you can guess what choice they make.

And that's the setup for the rest of this story arc, with Luffy and the various good guys on his side, including rival pirate Trafalgar Law, samurai Foxfire Kin'emon, Dressrosa's former King Riku, his granddaughter, the gladiator Rebecca, and even Luffy's long-lost pal Sabo (who we last saw in volume 60 and we learn is now a high-ranking member of Luffy's father Dragon's revolutionary army), all teaming up to fight their way to Doflamingo, facing opposition from bounty-seekers and the Navy (who have decided to try to maintain the status quo), and some support/rivalry from the various pirates and gladiators who have been freed from their toy-based slavery. There are sure to be plenty of twists and turns, but it looks to be non-stop action from here until Luffy presumably defeats Doflamingo in a huge battle.

But even though this volume is mostly setup, it's still pretty action-packed, with some awesome stuff happening, such as an attack by Pica, by one of Doflamingo's minions who can control rock, in which he takes the form of a huge, animated portion of the landscape:

When he tries to punch Luffy and pals, it's as if they're being attacked by an entire village:

There are also some of the series trademark moments of emotion, as when Princess Viola explains to her father why she believes in Luffy and his crew:

And there's plenty of the series great humor, of course, with my favorite moment involving Usopp, the most cowardly member of the Straw Hats, being hailed as a savior after defeating the person who had enslaved everyone, and the words he is barely able to utter being misinterpreted as a call to follow him:

There's plenty of other stuff to enjoy here, and the next volumes promise much more, including another element of the series that I always like in a flashback to Law's childhood, where we'll learn why he hates Doflamingo so much. Stories in this manga can take a long time to build, but when they get moving, little else can match them for energy, inventiveness, emotion, and general awesomeness. I expect the next few volumes to be exciting and moving; I just wish I didn't have to wait another six months or more to read them...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Assassination Classroom: Schools are strange in Japan

Assassination Classroom, Volume 1
By Yusei Matsui

Well, this is certainly an odd manga, but one that's also pretty enjoyable. It sort of takes the form of an inspirational teacher-student story, but one with a skewed morality and a strange combination of hopefulness and menace. It's like a more sincere, less reference-laden Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei mixed with occasional action and tentacle imagery.

I suppose I should explain the premise: there's this alien who has destroyed most of the moon, and he plans to do the same to the earth in a year's time, but during that interval, he wants to be the teacher for the remedial class at a Japanese junior high school. Since he appears to be unkillable by the world's military forces, it's up to his students to assassinate him before the deadline is up, but in the meantime, he'll do his best to be a good teacher and connect with and inspire them. Yes, that's really weird, but it's a chance for lots of strange humor, as the kids try to enact gun- and knife-related violence (which is perfectly safe, since they use rubber knives and guns that shoot BBs which are deadly to him but harmless to humans) against a smiling creature that is continually taunting them and egging them on.

The cover of the volume (and future volumes) reflects the appearance of the teacher character (who is given the name Koro-Sensei, a play on a Japanese term meaning "hard to kill"): a grinning smiley face atop a mass of tentacles, usually clothed in a goofy mortarboard-cap-and-gown outfit. He's a bit of an enigma (we do get a vague hint at an origin that will probably be explored later), with no real motive for wanting to destroy the planet or inspire a bunch of schoolchildren, but as this first volume progresses, we actually get to know him a bit, seeing how he reacts to the kids as they attempt to kill him. While he easily escapes every assassination attempt (we're repeatedly told that he can move at mach 20, which gives him the chance to do things like style someone's hair while they're trying to stab him), they do occasionally manage to surprise and fluster him, revealing a personality that conflicts with the happy-go-lucky exterior he usually presents, one that's kind of petty and childish.

Most interestingly, and in what is probably the best source of the comic's humor, he seems to be trying to make a real connection with his students. When a kid tries to kill him by throwing an exploding baseball at him, he offers pointers on how to be a better pitcher. When a girl who is a whiz at chemistry but little else tries to poison him (by politely asking him to drink the poisons she made), he teaches her about the value of writing skills and the importance of communication. And most amusingly, he makes a genuine connection with a troubled student who is excited to get the opportunity to kill a teacher, showing him that there are authority figures who care about him (and also want to blow up the planet).

But in addition to all these positive effects he has on people's lives, Kuro-Sensei also manages to occasionally shed his happy exterior and become genuinely menacing. An early assassination attempt in which the ostensible main character of the book, a boy who has an incredibly improbable hairdo (even for a manga character), is bullied into trying to kill him via suicide bombing, makes Kuro-Sensei angry, at which point he exploits a loophole in his promise not to hurt his students, telling them that he has no compunctions against killing their families, friends, and anyone else he feels like if they displease him. He also gives a glimpse of what might be his true face, which is pretty horrifying:

It's a canny choice on mangaka Yusei Matsui's part: there's plenty of silliness here, ranging from slapstick comedy and wordplay to wacky behavior and the cognitive dissonance of a teacher encouraging his students to murder him, but underlying it all is a sense of danger and a looming threat that will eventually have to be addressed. Manga series like this can often drift conceptually from where they start out, so I'm curious to see what happens in future volumes. Will we just get more stories about school-related inspiration and wacky attempted murders, or will plots develop in other directions? I'm definitely interested in finding out.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The exquisite punk expressiveness of Liz Suburbia

Over the past several years that I've attended the Chicago Alternative Comics Expo (CAKE), I've made a point to stop by Kevin Czapiewski's table and pick up some comics by Liz Suburbia. He has plenty of other stuff that he distributes through Czap Books (including his new graphic novel Futchi Perf, which I'm eager to check out), but ever since he turned me on to Liz Suburbia, I can't get enough of her work, and since her comics take the form of small, photocopied minicomics, they usually only cost about one or two dollars a pop, which is a great value. Really, she should be much more widely recognized (which may be currently happening with the release of her new book Sacred Heart from Fantagraphics); she has a great eye for expressive characters, and one of the strongest cartooning styles out there.

But just what is it about her books that grabs me? It think it's that, among the many cheaply-printed minicomics I've read, hers may well be the best at quickly establishing interesting characters and situations in a way that immediately draws me in and gets me invested in whatever is happening to them, and the beautiful cartooning that does so much with simple black and white linework doesn't hurt either.

Some examples: in The Crusher, we get a simple, nearly wordless depiction of a boxing match and its aftermath, but the way Suburbia depicts it with alternating savagery and tenderness is beautiful. Turbo Mutt is a comic about sex in which all the intercourse is imagined (either through a bit of phone sex or just a fantasy about some strangers), but the way the acts are depicted as a jumble of body parts and orgasmic expressions splashed across the page communicates the universal appeal of sex and the strange way humans are affected by it. Eat or Be Meatball is a sort of sci-fi story in which some young people convicted of "an unspeakable crime" are sentenced to relive their lives, hoping to reconnect with each other at some point, which leads to a terrible sense of constant deja vu. It's a goofy/weird/cool idea, but one that also resonates with the human experience of isolation and the joy of finding someone to connect with.

Cyanide Milkshake is Suburbia's ongoing anthology series, and if the two issues I have (#4 and #6) are anything to go by, this is where she throws all her ideas at the wall, whether they be short comics about her dogs, fake ads for silly products, short autobiographical strips or illustrations, parts of a serial story about a couple surviving in a post-apocalyptic society, long, hand-lettered rants about punk philosophy, or whatever else she feels like doing. It's thrilling to see her work in this fashion, with funny observances, personal memories or observances, silly jokes, and fascinating stories all bumping up against each other and forming a beautiful, coherent whole.

I can't get enough of this stuff; just check out how well she conveys energy in something like this bit of feminist punk rock:

Or this bit of Jaime Hernandez-influenced musical enthusiasm:

Or this example of her sense of humor:

Her comics aren't all punk and attitude; there's plenty of room for quieter moments or jokes about human nature, but as cartoony as her figures are, they're true to life and expressive as hell. I think she's a talent that's incredibly underexposed, and I hope that her new book draws more attention to her incredible work. I, for one, can't wait to read more, wherever I can find it.