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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

Miggy Mouse's Sweets & Treats
By A.T. Pratt

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.

By Ben Passmore

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.

Not On My Watch
By Isabella Rotman

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.

By Eleanor Davis

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.

Here's a very brief sample of the kind of thing you can expect to see in this awesome movie: