Monday, July 30, 2007

UPDATED: Demo: Quite the melange of tastes

UPDATE: I've added images to the post, so now you can see examples of what I'm talking about.

Well, within the spectrum of "youthful angst illustrated in a manga-esque style", anyway. I've been meaning to write about this ever since I finished it, but I haven't been able to gather my thoughts sufficiently, or something. I was planning to do a sort of review of each of the twelve chapters/issues, and I guess I'll still do that, but the ones I liked less might be limited to a few sentences and an art sample. We'll see how it goes.

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Becky Cloonan

I pretty much missed this series when it originally came out, since I was just getting back into purchasing comics regularly, and while it looked interesting, I guess I didn't want to take a chance on it. But my tastes have changed since then, and I've discovered that I like Brian Wood's writing and Becky Cloonan's art, so I've been meaning to read this for a while now. And now that I finally have, I think it was worth the wait. Yes, some chapters are better than others, but it's an interesting project to see develop, and I especially like the way the theme of the book seemed to evolve as the series progressed, going from "teenagers with superpowers" to "young adults living their lives". I'm also amazed at Cloonan's art, especially the way she varied her style to fit each individual story. So anyway, I think I'll take a look at each of the stories and offer my thoughts.

1. "NYC"

This story starts off right in line with the original purpose of the book, showing a young couple running away from home to live in the big city. The girl, Marie, has some sort of psychic powers, and her mom has been forcing her to take medicine to suppress them all her life. So along with running away, she's going cold turkey and trying to control her abilities. It seems to be a metaphor for the pent-up feelings of youth and the desire to break free of the control of your parents, teachers, and whatever authorities you feel are holding you back. But at the same time, it's scary, and you worry that you'll hurt or even destroy yourself and those you love with this newfound freedom. Or, it could be more literal, speaking about drugs like Ritalin, that many young people must take to suppress their "hyperactivity". I've never taken them, but I could see the feeling that these are being forced upon you to squash your creativity and individuality, and wanting to get free, but still feeling like you won't have any control over yourself if you do. It's an interesting idea to think about, especially in how the story begins with a flash-forward showing the kids happy in the city and ends on a note of hope.

Cloonan goes for a scratchily-rendered manga style in this chapter, and it works pretty well. The best bits (art-wise) were when Marie was trying to control her powers:

But other than that, I think the art gets much better in later chapters.

2. "Emmy"

This chapter has a less-rough manga feel, about a teenage girl who never speaks, due to the power to compel people to obey her and the unfortunate consequences that resulted when she got angry and spoke without thinking. I suppose it's a metaphor for the guilt we feel when we say something hurtful and instantly regret it. This is especially true for adolescents, whose emotions seem to be in constant turmoil (that's how I remember it anyway). It's a decent little story, but far from the best of the bunch. As I mentioned, Cloonan uses an interesting variation on her style, but remains manga-influenced:

As always, it's very nice-looking.

3. "Bad Blood"

Another teen angst tale, this one about the agony of growing up in a broken home. A teenage girl goes to her father's funeral, bonds with her step-brother, and complains about the family that she never knew. Eventually, she discovers that she shares a trait with other members of her family, and since I'm belaboring the metaphors in each chapter, this seems to be about how you can always connect with your family, even if you don't get along with them. Or maybe I'm reaching.

The art style seems to shift slightly away from a manga influence in this chapter, and a lot of blacks are added, fitting the funereal atmosphere:

Looks nice, but this is another of my less-favorite chapters.

4. "Stand Strong"

Ah, now we're getting away from the teen-angst material. A young man working in a small-town factory resists his heritage (his father and grandfather also worked there), hoping to make some illicit money and escape from the small town with his friends. But then he realizes that his friends only want him around because of his super-strength, and his family loves him for who he is.

There's some really nice character art in this chapter, with James (the protagonist) arguing with his girlfriend about money:

And later realizing why his friends really want him around:

Some nice dynamic scenes too, like this one of James breaking into a building:

Beautiful stuff. I love the sunburst effect when he uses his "powers". I think this chapter is where Wood and Cloonan realized they wanted to go with the series, with the stories shifting to subjects of adult responsibility and relationships, with characters in their twenties rather than teens. Cloonan's art shifts become even more obvious, really setting a distinct tone for each chapter. I should also mention that she closes nearly every chapter with a quiet landscape shot, or something similar, punctuating the story with a nice image. Very cool.

5. "Girl You Want"

This one is a nice story about a girl who assumes the visual form of whatever the person looking at her wants to see, physically changing to match their mental image. I think. She describes it in captions as people "filling in the blanks" about her without even realizing it, but as it's depicted, she often changes into the person's fantasy girl (if they're a guy). The plot thickens when she meets a girl who sees her as she is, and her appearance stays the same. So then she becomes obsessed with the girl, thinking that they will be lovers or something. Eventually, she realizes that she doesn't know anything about the girl, and was doing the same thing she hated about everyone else, projecting her own image onto the girl and seeing her as she wanted her to be. It's a good reversal, and a nice bit of writing.

And the art is also very nice, filled with shadows to reflect her inner mood, but breaking away from Cloonan's usual style when illustrating the forms she assumes when people look at her:

Again, perfect atmosphere for the story. Have I mentioned that I really like Becky Cloonan's art?

6. "What You Wish For"

This one is a bit different from the usual story, with a just-married guy flashing back to his childhood when he revisits the old neighborhood. He was a mixed-race (white and Asian) kid, and he got a lot of comments from neighbors and schoolmates, eventually growing to hate them. Things boil over one day when the guy across the street kills his dog, and the kid's latent psychic powers kick in, bringing all the dead animals in the neighborhood back to life and slaughtering all the neighbors. It's pretty creepy, and it leads to a lesson that you can't let hate consume you. Actually, it kind of reminds me of American Born Chinese.

The character art is nice, with thin, clean lines defining the characters. However, there are some excellent illustrations of animals, whether depicting living ones, like Ken's pet dog as an adult:

Or the creepy zombie animals, like the dead puppy:


7. "One Shot, Don't Miss"

This might be the most famous issue of the series, since it was nominated for an Eisner award. It concerns a soldier in Iraq who has the ability to never miss a shot. To tell the truth, I don't know if it's one of the best-written chapters of the series, but it's rather striking, especially the shadow-filled art style that Cloonan uses, which makes everyone's face look the same, with blank spots for eyes and darkness around their nose, mouth, and cheekbones:

It emphasizes the faceless nature of soldiers, how they're just cogs in the military machine. And that's the point of the story, that the protagonist doesn't want to be just an instrument of destruction. He joined the army to provide for his family, but then the country went to war, he got sent halfway around the world, and people are expecting him to use his skills to kill possibly innocent people. While manning a checkpoint, he is faced with a car that is trying to speed through without stopping, and he can't bring himself to kill the driver, so he shoots out the tires. Having gone against orders, he gets discharged and sent home, disappointing everyone, including his wife. It's a tough situation, but if I was in the same situation, I don't think I could bring myself to kill someone. Sure, now he's going to have to find a way to provide for his angry wife and infant kid, but how do you balance the well-being of your family against someone's right to live? That's the question behind this story, and it's left up to the reader to decide; all we see is the uncertainty of his future.

That said, while it does raise an interesting point, it does it kind of ham-handedly, with gung-ho officers and fellow soldiers berating our hero, crowing about how he'll be so good at killing when he gets the chance, and belittling him as a coward when he is unable to take the crucial shot. And his wife isn't any better; sure, she's worried about their future, but shouldn't she be able to put herself in his shoes? And the car that runs the checkpoint is little more than a plot device; we never find out if its occupants were terrorists, or even see their faces. So it's kind of unsatisfying, and an odd choice for the award nomination, probably only getting noticed for the political content.

8. "Mixtape"

This might be my favorite chapter of the series. It's a simple tale of a guy whose girlfriend committed suicide, but left him a tape to listen to in his Walkman. When he plays it, she appears in front of him (in his mind, at least), and he gets to have one last day with her, walking around the city and visiting their favorite spots. Or so he thinks; she informs him that he never really considered her and usually just focused on himself. It's a sad conversation, but a lovely character piece.

And Cloonan's art is excellent, as always. I love the image of the girlfriend with ribbons of tape swirling around her and entwining her limbs:

Good stuff; one of the best chapters in the book, in my opinion.

9. "Breaking Up"

This is another good chapter, and probably the first one that doesn't deal with any superhuman abilities. Sure, one character mentions that he remembers everything everyone says to him, but that's just a photographic memory, isn't it? This "ability" factors into the story (which is about a couple doing what the title says) in that as they are talking, he remembers various events throughout the history of their relationship, both good and bad. It's really well done, in the manner of real memories: jumbled together without much context. A very effective presentation. The couple's conversation is heartbreaking; it's sad and true-to-life, a conversation that happens every day to somebody. It's just a fact that couples grow apart and eventually break up, and it's rarely a pleasant experience. But when you see the flashbacks, you can see how they ended up at that point, even though they did have some good times. Good writing, if you ask me.

And the art is excellent as well. Lots of thick outlines and shadows, reflecting the serious nature of the conversation. And there are some great designs, like this shot of the heat rising from their coffee cups like the dark clouds gathering over their relationship:

Beautiful stuff (am I getting redundant?).

10. "Damaged"

This is an interesting chapter which uses the premise of the series to fool the reader (and protagonist) into thinking a character has psychic powers, but then it turns out to be a scam. It's a good twist on the "formula". A twenty-something New York businessman is approached by a homeless girl who seems to know everything about him and tells him she can help him learn to feel something in his empty life. He ends up seeing her regularly, giving her money because he feels sorry for her; the two seem to be getting friendly, until he discovers that she is scamming him, and something tragic happens. It's another nice little character piece, and even though these later chapters don't seem to be as heavy on the metaphors as the earlier ones did, it seems that this could be a commentary on how we tend to sabotage our relationships by telling little lies or misrepresenting ourselves, and eventually that comes back to haunt us.

The art is a bit more manga-inspired in this chapter, especially in the case of the girl, who has a pointy chin and larger-than-normal eyes. It's a good way of emphasizing her seeming innocence. Cloonan also does a neat trick where the thin lines defining characters are outlined with greytones, as in this beautiful picture that I'm going to go ahead and call my current favorite panel:

There are some nice photo-manipulated backgrounds too, as well as some other neat visual tricks. Definitely one of my favorite chapters, in both art and story.

11. "Midnight to Six"

I don't think this story involves superpowers at all; it's just the tale of three friends (two guys, one girl) who decide in junior high to live by "The Slacker Pledge", which states that they will attempt to do the minimum required in terms of school or work and "live life to its fullest". Ten years later, they are all roommates, and they work the night shift at a grocery store, cleaning up and stocking shelves. One of them has taken the pledge to heart, expecting to follow it for the rest of his life, but the other two are starting to strain against the pledge's confines, hoping to actually have careers and do something with their lives. So they end up spending the night fighting amongst themselves about their ideas of how to live life, with the girl (since girls are much smarter than us dumb guys) finally snapping and telling the others to grow up. It's a pretty nice character piece, but definitely not my favorite story of the bunch.

The art is also pretty nice, with nothing much to really distinguish it like in some of the other chapters. More manga stylings, especially in the opening junior high sequence. Cloonan does use those stylings well, however:

12. "Mon Dernier Jour Avec Toi (My Last Night With You)"

I'm not sure what to think about this final chapter. Rather than provide a statement that wraps up the series, or something like that, we get a series of images of a young couple, accompanied only by the words of a poem/song about their last night together. The images are certainly beautiful:

But the words have an air of finality. I suppose it's up to the reader to interpret, and I thought it might be a suicide pact. The final image (which doubles as the back cover of the book) shows them seemingly flying over a building, but maybe they're both jumping to their deaths. Or maybe I'm just morbid and cynical. It's certainly a beautiful chapter, but I found it slightly unsatisfying as an end to the book. But really, that's okay, because I also like ambiguity.

So, as a whole, the book has its ups and downs, but it's a really nice collection of stories, and it improves as it goes along. I definitely like Brian Wood's writing (his book DMZ is one of my favorite series currently being published), but Becky Cloonan's art is arguably the star here. I'm very impressed with how she was able to vary her style to fit each story while still providing clear, coherent storytelling. This book is a testament to her skills, and I would recommend it for that reason alone. So if you missed it the first time around, it's definitely worth checking out.

By the way, I've read that the single issues contain some significant "backmatter", with sketches, essays, and other behind-the-scenes material. Even though I have the collected edition of the book, I might seek out some of those issues someday (especially my favorites among the bunch) and check them out.

That's my last post for tonight. I don't know when I'll get another one done, since I rely on my scanner so much. God forbid I use words to describe a picture! We'll see what I can come up with in the interim.