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.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

Nijigahara Holograph: I don't think I'd want this comic to be three dimensional

Nijigahara Holograph
By Inio Asano
Published by Fantagraphics Books



I've been a fan of Inio Asano ever since I read his excellent book Solanin, which was a lovely slice of life story with wonderfully realized characters and lots of well-earned emotion. His two-volume collection of short stories, What a Wonderful World!, was pretty good too, but around the time that I read those series, I'd heard rumors of an excellent earlier work focused more on horror than on young people trying to find purpose.

Now that I've finally read Nijigahara Holograph, I can see some of the seeds of Asano's later themes, but here they're mixed with some really disturbing psychological stuff, possibly stemming from a sort of cultural hopelessness, maybe the same sort of thing that Kazuo Umezu explores in Drifting Classroom. But this is pretty different, being the sort of elliptical, somewhat impenetrable style of Japanese horror, with only slight hints of the supernatural and a lot of difficulty figuring out just what the hell is going on.

So, what's it actually about? The story jumps back and forth in time, alternating between following a group of kids and teachers at an elementary school and then checking in with them eleven years later as they're still reckoning with the things that happened. A lot of the details get teased out over the course of the book, so it takes a while to figure out what exactly happened in the past and how it is still affecting everyone in the present.

Much of the oddness seems to surround a spooky series of tunnels that some of the kids pass when walking between home and school, and there are also a bunch of butterflies that may or may not be supernatural that regularly appear in huge swarms. It's only slightly creepy, and the build to some eventual reveals is slow, but we eventually see that several of these kids are rather troubled. There's a transfer student who doesn't seem to get along with anyone, to the point of angrily lashing out at anyone who tries to get close to him. There's another kid who is a bully, with some of his misanthropy stemming from the way all the other kids treated a girl who he liked. And there's also a teacher who was assaulted when trying to defend a student and is slowly losing confidence in herself and feeling like she has nothing to offer the children in her care.

In the present, we check in with everyone and see how the events of their past messed them up, and the book slowly builds to some reveals that eventually show how some original sins led to a great deal of suffering. It ends up being pretty effective, if not especially scary, although there is one very disturbing scene in which someone who seemed to be a kindly character turns out to be one of the main sources of the horror that has been affecting everyone.

In the end, I'm not completely sure what to make of this story. I think I can see what Asano is going for, examining the way past sins can affect the present and looking at how small decisions can spiral out to result in larger consequences. I think there might be a bit of social commentary going on, looking at how the failure to give children the love and support they need can result in pretty severe consequences later in life.

Whatever the case, the book ends up working fairly well, but I'm glad Asano went in a different direction in his later works, trying to focus on how people can struggle to live and thrive in a difficult world. There's a place for horror and nastiness, but I think Asano is better suited for positivity and hopefulness, as well as capturing the moments of beauty in life. He manages to do that here too, even amidst all the psychological anguish:



So, I'm glad I read this so I could see some of the evolution of a great cartoonist, and I'm excited to see what Asano does next. Whatever it is, I expect that it will surprise and delight me. Don't let me down, Asano-san!

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Multiversity: And I thought getting one degree was going to be expensive...

The Multiversity
Written by Grant Morrison
Art by Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, Cameron Stewart, Chris Sprouse, Frank Quitely, Ben Oliver, Doug Mahnke, Jim Lee, et al.


I really want to like Grant Morrison. He’s written some of my favorite comics of all time, and most of the time, even his less successful projects are crammed full of interesting ideas. But something seems to have happened to him over the course of the last decade, most of which he has spent slaving away in the halls of DC Comics. There are stories about him filling notebooks with concepts for reimaginations of various characters pulled from the forgotten margins of the publisher’s 70-plus year history, and there are his extended runs on series like Batman, Action Comics, 52, and Final Crisis, much of which has since been paved over by rebooted continuity. It seems like at some point, he became so engulfed by all this silly, spandex-clad nonsense that it seemed to grow in importance, as if it all really meant something and really contained the key to, I don’t know, the meaning of life or some profound shit like that (his memoir, Supergods, seems like a cry for help from within these trenches).

That’s about the only way I can explain this odd mess of an “event” series that probably only mattered to dedicated Morrison fans. He seems to have taken one last big swing at sorting out the mess of DC mulitiversal continuity, as if that’s a goal that anyone should aspire to. So, this series not only posits yet another threat that promises to destroy Earths across the multiverse, but in fighting it, the heroes (none of whom actually come from the “true” DC universe that all of DC’s other comics take place in, as far as I can tell) discover the makeup of DC’s multiversal reality, and all 52 variants in said reality are defined (with a few “unknown” Earths left over, in case somebody gets a really neat idea for an Elseworlds story somewhere down the line).

The story does start off kind of intriguingly, with some freaky monsters called The Gentry that seem pretty unstoppable destroying some universes, some “haunted” comics (which are actually the various comics that make up this series) popping up on various Earths and causing the people who read them to get sucked into the conflict, and one of Morrison’s pet characters, Nix Uotan, first setting off to fight the Gentry and then becoming corrupted by them, giving the first “bookend” issue of the series its cliffhanger ending.


But before getting to the concluding bookend issue, Morrison dives into the real meat of the series, which are a bunch of one-shot stories taking place on various Earths. Some of these tie into the larger story, while others are just variations on standard superheroic tropes or Morrisonian takes on other creators’ styles. Let’s look at each one:


Society of Superheroes, illustrated by Chris Sprouse, is a pretty enjoyable take on superheroes as old-fashioned pulp characters, with Doctor Fate, Immortal Man, the Atom (the original Golden Age strong-guy-in-a-mask, not the guy who shrinks), and a few others fighting an invasion from another alternate Earth, leading to lots of fights with bad guys like Vandal Savage, Lady Shiva, and Felix Faust. It’s decent enough, especially since Sprouse’s art makes most any story look good, but it’s also pretty grim, with the battle between heroes and villains turning into a years-long war that leads to untold death and destruction around the globe. With its easy to follow action (something Morrison can do well when he’s teamed up with the right artist), this ends up being one of the better installments, although it ends with a portentous indication that seems to point to something important happening in the big series finale, but when that finale does roll around, this issue doesn’t really end up mattering to the big picture.


The Just, illustrated by Ben Oliver, seems to be Morrison’s attempt to slot superheroes into another genre, the teen soap opera. On this Earth, Superman, Batman, and the other heroes we’re used to are all dead, and their children are left to sort of fill their shoes. However, there’s also no crime, due to an army of super-robots that Superman left behind. This means that all the superpowered children are left to hang around and exhibit angst and ennui, while legacy versions of heroes, like Green Lantern Kyle Rayner and Green Arrow Connor Hawke, spend their time restaging past battles in the abandoned wreckage of their original locations. The issue ends up being kind of interesting, like a better-thought-through version of Mark Millar’s Jupiter’s Legacy, with character relationships that are fleshed out quite well (Superman Chris Kent and Batman Damian Wayne are at odds, mostly because Batman is dating Lex Luthor’s daughter, while other heroic offspring spend their time worrying about parties and fame) and a mystery that seems to tie into the larger Multiversity plot (but, like many of these one-shots, doesn’t really). Unfortunately, it ends with a cliffhanger that seems like it could go somewhere interesting and exciting, but we’ll never get to see what that is.


Pax Americana, illustrated by Frank Quitely, is probably the most ambitious of these one-shots, since it provides Morrison with a chance to take on one of his perpetual adversaries: Alan Moore. Yes, this is Morrison’s take on Watchmen, using the Charlton characters (Blue Beetle, the Question, Captain Atom, etc.) that Moore used as inspiration for his magnum opus, inadvertently setting Morrison on the course of jealousy and antagonism ever since. With Quitely providing the art, Morrison is free to go crazy with formal ideas, a non-chronological plot, and pages that stick to a rigid format (he uses variations on a 4x2 grid here, rather than Moore’s 3x3 structure), but while it certainly looks good, it doesn’t rise to the level he’s shooting for. Instead, it’s kind of a bunch of nonsense and riffs on the characterization of the versions of the various figures from Watchmen. The take on Captain Atom/Dr. Manhattan is interesting, with the fractured chronology pushing scenes that take place in the past toward the end of the issue, revealing the character struggling with his loss of humanity and being given purpose by the man who will later become president and engineer his own death, for reasons that don’t necessarily make sense. In the end, it’s kind of sad, a naked attempt by Morrison to reckon with his primary influence’s most influential (if not necessarily his best) work, and he comes up short, creating something mysterious and empty, without the fully realized characters and bold ideas of the original.


Thunderworld Adventures, illustrated by Cameron Stewart, is probably the most enjoyable part of the entire series, and interestingly, it’s also one of the stories that has the most impact on the overall plot. It’s a take on the classic Captain Marvel stories of C.C. Beck, and it’s a hoot, with Captain Marvel and his various sidekicks facing off against Dr. Sivana, who, with the help of a bunch of his alternate selves from across the DC multiverse, has engineered his own version of the Rock of Eternity, created Sivana-imitating evil versions of Captain Marvel and his sidekicks, and also managed to add a new day, Sivanaday, to the calendar, during which he always wins. The resulting battles are fun and exciting, and Morrison comes up with inventive ways to use the crazy combinations of magic and technology that this milieu provides. And we see that what happens here even actually matters to the overall story, with the various alternate Sivanas causing more trouble in later chapters of the series and the issue ending with the Marvel family charging off to help fight the big bad guys. If the rest of the series had been more like this, maybe I wouldn’t be complaining about it.


The Multiversity Guidebook is an odd combination of comics and informational text, awkwardly slotted into the middle of the series. It features some scenes that pertain to the overall plot, with alternate versions of Dr. Sivana causing trouble for people on other Earths, including one where all the characters are cutesy kid versions of themselves and one where Batman is a freedom fighter in a techno-dystopian landscape. There’s also an interesting bit following Kamandi and some friends (including Ben Boxer, who is able to turn himself into BiOMAC, the Bio-factored One-Man Army Corps) as they investigate Darkseid’s tomb and find out about the origin of the DC multiverse, which is actually pretty interesting, and much better than the silly version of the Judeo-Christian creation myth that Geoff Johns came up with in Blackest Night. But then the book pauses in order to provide a map of the multiverse and illustrated descriptions of every Earth therein, and frankly, this collection of alternate versions of DC superheroes is pretty underwhelming. Look, there’s a steampunk Earth! Hey, it’s a vampire Earth! I guess this one is a sort of sciencey Earth? And maybe in this one everybody just has different names and costumes? After the umpteenth version of “Superman, only this time he’s dressed like a pirate/robot/woman”, you begin to wonder what happened to Morrison’s boundless imagination. And then the story kicks back in, and while it’s kind of cool that the characters are holding the very book you are currently reading and using it to discover the secrets underpinning their reality, one begins to wonder if maybe the creativity well is running dry, and this is all less of an exercise in possibility than one in inevitability.


And sure enough, we proceed on to Mastermen, illustrated by Jim Lee, in which Superman is a Nazi. Yawn. Morrison tries to wrest some interest out of the concept by having Nazi Superman try to reckon with the crimes that his nation has committed (but which he didn’t participate in; we see a flashback in which he returns to Earth after he apparently decided to spend three years in space right in the middle of World War II, and he is horrified to discover that the Holocaust occurred in his absence). There are some gestures at a plot involving Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters rising up to proclaim the spirit of the United States and fight back against their Nazi oppressors, but it’s all rather uninteresting, and like most of these one-shots, it doesn’t end up making a lick of difference to what happens in the series’ main plot.


Things seem to be looking up with Ultra Comics, illustrated by Doug Mahnke. This one seems to be Morrison’s bizarre take on Superboy Prime, who was the only superhero on Earth-Prime, the “real” world that we, the readers and creators of DC comics, live in. This is certainly the most inventive story in the series, breaking the fourth wall on nearly every page, with the main character and other, more sinister figures addressing the readers directly. The character himself is actually called Ultra Comics, and he’s the living embodiment of the actual comic that you’re reading, which is one hell of a goofy concept, and he gives Morrison a chance to let his freak flag fly and go nuts with all sorts of crazy ideas, like the fact that the comic is being read by thousands of people across a long period of time gives the character untold powers of imagination, as well as a chance to influence the reader directly and maybe even cause them to be endangered by the big villains of the series. He also comes up against some really bizarre villains, jumps around within the chronology of the comic itself in order to gain the power to fight the Gentry, and utilizes the demoralizing power of internet commenters as a weapon. I don’t know if it all really makes sense, but it’s one of the few places in the series where the old Morrison seems to resurface, and I kind of love it.


Unfortunately, things dive back into yawnsville with the concluding chapter of the series, which resembles nothing so much as Morrison’s own Final Crisis, which also featured versions of DC heroes from across the multiverse fighting against a barely-comprehensible threat. This one is mostly one long fight scene of the type that’s hard to follow because it’s on a large enough scale that it doesn’t really make sense. There are a few interesting bits, like when the various Dr. Sivanas trick each other into fleeing into alternate Earths that happen to be inhabited by heroes that can easily defeat them (for instance, vampire Sivana ends up going to a world where a team of monster-hunters led by Superdemon Etrigan take him out pretty much instantly), or a bit during the big battle when Captain Carrot, the rabbit superhero who follows cartoon logic, gets decapitated and has to reunite his head with his body before his superpowers stop working. 

The main conflict in most of this final issue takes place between a bunch of heroes and the corrupted Nix Uotan, who, it turns out, has managed to undo the Gentry’s plan from within, since by opening doors to every Earth, which they wanted him to do so they could invade and conquer, he allows all the heroes to come together and defeat them. Or something like that. We also apparently learn that the Gentry are called that because their ultimate goal is gentrification, which I guess is Morrison’s way of saying that DC continuity shouldn’t be cleaned up and made “proper”, but should remain crazy and hard to understand and full of all sorts of weird versions of stuff. But doesn’t this entire series (not to mention the whole “New 52” reboot) kind of go against that premise? It’s a weird, self-contradictory stance to take, if that’s even what Morrison is doing.

He takes an even weirder tack with the revelation of the Big Bad, a shadowy figure controlling the Gentry from behind the scenes and who, as far as I can tell, is meant to be a stand-in for the readers themselves. After this revelation, the story ends kind of anticlimactically, with this villain simply disappearing, maybe to return in a sequel that will probably never happen. But we do get a final statement of purpose from another Morrison pet character, the alternate version of Superman who is an African-American President of the United States, in which he threatens the readers of the comic and says he and his new team of multi-dimensional heroes are coming to get them.


That’s certainly an odd note to end on, with a threat to readers, apparently condemning them for not liking DC comics enough, but it’s kind of evocative of the strange nature of this series. On one hand, it’s Morrison’s chance to demonstrate the untapped possibilities of DC superheroes, spinning them off into different sub-genres and coming up with either new ideas or interesting ways to approach genre standbys. But on the other hand, it certainly seems to shows the limitations of superhero comics in a way that’s kind of dispiriting for fans of the both the genre and Morrison. If the best that the most imaginative man in comics can come up with when given a limitless field in which to play is a fourth-wall-breaking experiment (something Morrison already did 25 years ago in Animal Man) and a couple examples of the kind of action that should be filling comics shops every Wednesday, does that mean the genre as a whole is just withering on the vine? I don’t really think that’s the case, since there are plenty of solidly enjoyable superhero comics coming from a number of talented creators. Unfortunately, despite some glimmers of excitement, this series as a whole isn’t one of them.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

The many marvelous monsters of Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro

Shigeru Mizuki's Kitaro is a classic manga that's tons of fun, even though it's kind of an odd read. The pacing is strange, and it seems as if Mizuki was making up the stories as he went along, which sometimes means that Kitaro, a boy who interacts with yokai (traditional monsters and creatures from Japanese folklore), has powers that can easily defeat threats, and other times he gets taken out rather easily. Some stories wrap up in a few pages with semi-abrupt endings, while others drag on for much longer than is really necessary. That may be related to the era in which these stories first appeared; comics from the 1960s don't follow the same rhythms that we're used to these days.

But whatever the case, the comic is worth reading just to see all the crazy monsters that Mizuki included. Here are some of my favorites:

I like this hair monster, especially the way it seems to grow a pair of eyes as it's attacking Kitaro:



A collection of monsters welcoming some criminals to "hell":



I think I see a kappa in there, and I like the guy with the long neck. And also the regular human-looking fellow just hanging out in the back; he seems hilariously out of place among all the other freaky things.

I like the bipedal weirdness of this cat demon, as well as Kitaro's Plastic Man-style method of fighting it:



There's a story where Kitaro assembles a baseball team of monsters, who make a formidable bunch:



And the game's umpire is even crazier; he has tons of eyes, so he's a perfect choice to call the game:



Another memorably weird one is this eyeball/centipede guy:



In another case of "regular guys being freaked out by encountering spooky stuff", some guys end up boarding a train for dead spirits, who reveal themselves as creepy, sometimes inhuman skeletons:



Another interesting (if overlong) story sees Kitaro fighting a bunch of "Western yokai", which include a witch, a wolfman, Frankenstein's monster, and Dracula:




But their leader is this crazy guy named Backbeard:



Another long but enjoyable story sees Kitaro encountering this prehistoric ancestor of whales:



This one gives Mizuki a chance to create some giant monster action, which eventually leads to a fight between the creature and a huge robot:



Here's an amusingly goofy group of monsters who decide to rent out some office space:



I really like this giant head guy:



And this lady, who has prehensile snakes for hair and a gross mouth on the back of her head, kind of freaks me out:



I love the inventively bizarre illustrations that Mizuki came up with here, and even if the stories themselves aren't all that amazing, it's worth a read just to see what fantastically weird things will pop up next. If you like this sort of thing, I definitely recommend checking it out.