Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Zot!: This portends well for Scott McCloud's return to fiction

The posts, they continue to be written.

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection
By Scott McCloud

Scott McCloud is deservedly famous for his comics on comics theory, but his other well-known work, Zot!, is also pretty highly regarded, at least by those who were around for the 80s black and white boom.  A few years ago, I read a collection of the series' first storyline (which was in color, and thus not part of this volume), and while it wasn't bad, it left me wondering what the big deal was.  But now that the rest of the series has been collected, I understand why it is held in such high regard.  After those first ten issues of bright, fun, and fairly lightweight superheroics, McCloud took some time off, and returned with an attempt to do something different and tell some more ambitious stories.  As the series went on, he even dropped the superhero aspects for the most part, choosing instead to focus on realistic human stories.  While that might not seem too shocking today, at the time, it had to be pretty groundbreaking.

While the book shows its age in the obviously youthful mindset of its creator, the still-developing artwork, and the simplicity of the plots (not to mention the way it clings to the safety of the superhero genre), it holds up quite well, providing some entertaining stories and good characters.  McCloud especially did a good job in developing his main character, Jenny, as a sort of depressed teenager who dreams of leaving her ugly, mundane world behind for the brightness and excitement of her sort-of-boyfriend Zot's futuristic, utopian alternate reality.  She seems very real, in that self-obsessed teenage way, and her despair at the broken world around her is hard to watch.  But then Zot returns to her life, and begins turning everything upside down by sometimes whisking her away for adventures fighting goofy villains in his world, and other times deciding to live in the "real world" and try to fight crime and make things better.  In a telling moment, Zot stops a mugging on a trip to New York City, and doesn't find crime-fighting as easy as he does in his dimension:

The contrast between the two worlds becomes a major theme of the series, and while McCloud does allude to some interesting metafictional ideas (time doesn't seem to flow correctly on Zot's world, and everything there seems based on Earth history in some way, as if it is an actual fictional construction that is somehow interacting with the real world), he never really explains them fully, probably because he became more interested in small, realistic stories and less in the big, fantastical superheroics.  In one of the best stories, a supercomputer named Zybox comes to Jenny's world and begins controlling people's minds, trapping Jenny and Zot in artificial mental constructions of reality.  This gives us an entire issue in which Jenny seems to be going crazy, as her friends and family have no memory of Zot and think she is making everything up.  To add to the emotional punch, one scene sees her search her diary for something about her experiences with Zot, but all she can find is references to her parents' divorce.  It's as if she really did make everything up just to escape a painful reality, and it's incredibly hard to watch.  Sure, the idea of being "trapped in a world you never made" is hardly a new one, even twenty years ago, but McCloud executes it very effectively, especially in a scene in which Jenny thinks she sees Zot, but he turns out to be an illusion:

Unfortunately, that issue might be the high point of Jenny's character development; she spends the rest of the series wishing to get away from her world and move to Zot's.  Her parents' divorce even turns out to be real, and not just a part of Zybox's illusions, but we don't see much reaction to it; it simply stays in the background.  That's actually an interesting move on McCloud's part (he avoids the big dramatic family confrontations), but it seems like it should have been addressed eventually, especially after he made the move toward more human, emotional stories.

The other main character, Zot, turns out to be kind of bland.  He's relentlessly cheery and optimistic, and while that makes for some fun scenes when he's facing off against villains, he almost comes off as moronic on Jenny's world.  That's kind of the nature of the character though; he's an idealized hero from an idealized world, unfettered by doubt and pessimism.  Luckily, there are a few moments in which we see him react emotionally to failure and death, a possibility that was never a factor in his world:

McCloud definitely did his best to make him as real as he could, but against the realistic backdrop that increasingly consumed the series, he still seems pretty shallow.

The other, minor characters do come off pretty well, from Jenny's brother Butch, who alternates between teasing and supportive; to Woody, another love interest of Jenny's who is in the unfortunate position of competing with a near-perfect superhero.  Jenny's friends are a well-defined gang as well (especially in the later stories, when they start getting stories that focus on them), consisting mostly of comics nerds who spend a lot of time playing role-playing games.  A punk named Spike seems particularly realistic; he's an obnoxious Wolverine fan who puts together crudely-drawn comics stories and wants to kill anything that moves in their gaming sessions.  Not exactly pleasant, but I've spent time around plenty of little punks like that.

So the characters are pretty good, but how about the stories they live in?  As mentioned, the first two thirds of the book are more straight-up superhero stories, with Jenny and Zot fighting various supervillains, mostly in Zot's world.  They're pretty entertaining, with the occasional stand-out chapter (like the aforementioned head trip being the best).  A goofy bit in which Zot impulsively signs a sponsorship contract for soda pop and ends up under the thumb of a Kingpin-like corporate criminal isn't bad, and a conflict with cyborg artist Dekko gives McCloud an opportunity to show off some cool modern-art imagery:

One other story sort of stands out, in which Zot's nemesis 9-Jack-9 menaces him and some interplanetary diplomats.  It's striking, in that it's darker than most of the stories and deals with death and war, and Jack's target, the young daughter of the diplomatic family, is like a version of Jenny whose depression and desire for escape from her life is taken to extreme, suicidal limits.  But it doesn't really work all that well; McCloud seems to have been trying to inject darkness and try to tell deeper stories, going so far as to reveal a connection between Jack and Zot's uncle Max.  It ends up being a weird tonal change that seems off, especially in Zot's bright, cheery world.  Maybe this is part of what sent McCloud in the other direction, finding emotional depth in the smaller, more mundane moments, rather than drama and death.

Really, the best parts of the "Heroes and Villains" section of the book are the occasional beautiful little moments, like a scene during Zybox's mental takeover of Jenny's earth in which he causes the entire planet to join together in a shared dance:

Or the incredible futuristic cityscapes that McCloud obviously enjoyed drawing:

And here and there, he managed to capture some moments of real natural beauty as well:

There's also a two-part story that McCloud didn't illustrate due to being on his honeymoon; it ended up being finished by Chuck Austen, but the small layouts are included here, and it's a nice, fast-paced action story.  It's a good example of the way McCloud was trying to push himself in new directions and tell different types of stories.

But the real good stuff comes in the final third of the book, as McCloud almost completely does away with superheroics and tells small, down-to-earth stories about Jenny and her friends and family.  The best section is probably a quartet of stories, each focusing on a single minor character.  There's Jenny's mom, who reflects on the past and her crumbling marriage.  Ronnie, a young comics fan who hopes to write his own someday, and his flighty, bohemian girlfriend Brandy each get their own chapter; Brandy's is especially poignant, since we see the personal troubles behind her cheery exterior.  And Jenny's friend Tracy is another good subject, as she deals with her awakening as a lesbian.  It's a sad, realistic depiction, as she is ashamed of herself and longs to be normal; this leads to one of the best moments in the series, after she ends up sharing her feelings with Zot:

Some of the other chapters work pretty well, although an issue-length conversation between Jenny and Zot about sex comes off (probably purposefully) as awkward and unsatisfying, and (as McCloud admits in his notes) a chapter in which Zot wanders around New York trying to find crime to fight and struggling with the backward concept of racism is a bit heavy-handed.  But overall, it's an excellent set of stories, and at the time, for a fun superhero book to step away from its roots and start telling such low-level stories must have been nothing less than mindblowing.  While this sort of thing is commonplace these days, it's fascinating to see some of the medium's early steps toward maturity.  If nothing else, McCloud's developing artwork is exquisite; his real-world images are beautiful and emotionally evocative:

So, while I wouldn't call this a masterpiece, it's a great document of a moment in comics history, and a good source for those who are curious as to whether the creator of Understanding Comics and Making Comics can actually follow his own advice (answer: he can).  McCloud's notes about what was happening in his life as he was making these comics, how he views them now, and his reflections on the themes of the work also make for fascinating reading.  He states in the afterword that he has plans to return to creating fictional comics, and after seeing what he can do (and how much more he has improved in the years since) I for one can't wait to find out what he has in store.

Monday, September 29, 2008

This week, da da da, something something

I got nothing in the way of catchy titles.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 10/1/08):

Army@Love Art of War #3

Rick Veitch continues his follow-up miniseries to his excellently bizarre Iraq war satire.  I'll be all over this when it gets collected.

Batman #680

So, do we find out who the Black Glove is this issue?  My guess:  uuuuuuhhhhhh, how about Orca, the whale woman?  Nobody would be expecting that one!  From what I've heard, this story seems interesting enough to check out sometime, but not enough to spend money on.  But maybe that's just the art; if it wasn't so godawfully ugly, I might think it was genius and eagerly await each new installment.  So hopefully it will be collected quickly, and then I can get it from the library.

Boys #23

It's a new storyline for Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson's enjoyable superhero satire.  I'm really digging this book, and I'm bummed that I have to hop back off the monthly train.  But I'll be waiting for the next collection with bells on.

Challenger Deep #2

Crap, I'm behind on the various Boom! Studios series; I still need to read the first issue of this one, about underwater danger in the deepest part of the ocean.  I hope it doesn't suck.

Doktor Sleepless #9

I guess I missed the last issue, because this one is supposed to begin a new storyline.  Who knows what's going on with Warren Ellis' weird series, but if it's your thing, you'll probably enjoy it.  I wouldn't mind checking up on it, and maybe I'll be able to catch up someday.

Four Eyes #1

Joe Kelly has a bunch going on at Image these days, and here's another series of his, about a Depression-era kid escaping to some sort of fantasy-land.  Art is by Max Fiumara, and if the interior is anything like the cover (you can also view a short preview at that link) it seems like a new style for him.  This could be all right.

House of Mystery #6

I think this ends the first storyline?  No, I checked, and it's the start of a new one, about exploring the house's basement.  I had to drop this series, but I was enjoying it while I was reading it.  Unless the solicitation text is incorrect, this issue features art by Mike Allred.  Sweet!

No Hero #1

Warren Ellis' newest Avatar series "starts" (there was a #0 issue that already showed, and as with Black Summer, it was the actual first issue of the series).  It's about the lengths to which people will go to obtain superpowers.  Art by Juan Jose Ryp.  That 0 issue got things rolling with the interesting premise, so I'm quite curious to see how it all turns out.  Not that I'll be reading it before it's collected...

Red Mass for Mars #2

What was this series about again?  I think it had something to do with a superhero in the future, with terrible secrets, or something like that.  Man, Jonathan Hickman's books tend to come out really slowly, don't they?  I think I'll be skipping the rest of the series, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't at least give it a once-over, because Ryan Bodenheim's artwork is pretty nice.

Top Ten Season Two #1

This is the big release of the week, at least in terms of pamphlet-format single issues.  Even though Alan Moore isn't contributing to this new four-issue miniseries, but co-creators Zander Cannon (who is writing and providing layouts) and Gene Ha (who is doing the finished art) are on board, and it looks to be quite pretty.  I can't wait to read it.

Against Pain HC

Ron Rege, Jr.  I gotta say, I haven't been too thrilled by the work of his that I've seen; it seems like the messy contents of a teenager's notebook.  Kind of like Gary Panter, another artist that I just don't get.  Eh, maybe somebody will convince me of their merit someday.  But probably not; I'm stubborn.

Alcoholic HC

I've been looking forward to this Vertigo graphic novel written by novelist Jonathan Ames and illustrated by Dean Haspiel.  It's a semi-autobiographical story about an Ames stand-in, which might or might not be of any interest, but Haspiel's art is always great, so I'm sure it will look quite pretty, at the very least.  Hopefully I'll get a chance to read it.

American Widow HC

This autobiographical comic by Alisa Torres is about her life as the wife of a man who died in the World Trade Center tragedy, and it sounds like wrenching stuff.  The art is by Sungyoon Choi, and it looks pretty nice (this USA Today article contains a couple images).  According to J. Caleb Mozzocco, it's not a great comic, but it's still an interesting story, so I could see taking a look at it.  
Aya Of Yop City HC

I never did get to read Marguerite Abouet and Clement Oubrerie's Africa-set graphic novel Aya, and now here's its sequel, following up on the characters.  Man, I should really try to get to these someday.  New York Magazine has an excerpt.

Black Heart Billy Color ED TPB

This Rick Remender/Kieron Dwyer series sounds crazy as all get out; it has to do with a robot foiling a Nazi plot to turn people into hippie zombies.  Yeah, I dunno either.  Apparently it originally came out in 2000 in black and white, but this new edition is in color from IDW, and it'll cost you $19.99.

Boys Vol 3 TPB

Hey, I mentioned that I dig this series, right?  Here's the latest collection, getting you up to date through the most recent storyline.  If you haven't read it, and you want to get your mind blown by superheroes failing to stop 9/11, check it out.  It's good stuff.

Broken Girls GN

No idea if this book about girls at a reform school battling their drug-crazed fellow students will be any good, but it's a concept that could definitely lead to some cool action.  Here's a preview.

Cairo SC

Speaking of Vertigo graphic novels, here's a recent one that might or might not have received some acclaim.  I know I didn't especially like it, but it was kind of interesting.  The little bit of Air that I've read doesn't give me too much hope for creators G. Willow Wilson and M.K. Perker, but they might still prove me wrong.

Dark Tower Long Road Home HC

Hey, it's the second Dark Tower miniseries.  I stopped reading after the first one, which wasn't terrible or anything, but the exquisite artwork wasn't enough to hold my interest.  I did read the first issue of Treachery, the newest mini, and wasn't too impressed; apparently it hasn't gotten better in my absence.  But if this is your sort of thing, don't let me stop you.

Digger Vol 1 TPB

This looks like a cute sort of kids' book about a wombat who enters a Wonderland-esque fantasyland and carries on with the adventuring.  Here's a preview.

Essex County Vol 3 Country Nurse TPB

Another of the highly-acclaimed series that I have yet to read.  It's the final volume in Jeff Lemire's trilogy, and maybe I'll get around to them someday.  Someday...

Everybody's Dead TP

This zombie series looked interesting, but mostly because of Dave Crosland's artwork; he's pretty good.  But even if I wasn't already tired of zombies, this one's concept doesn't exactly appeal, with the survivors being lame frat boys.  Eh, I'm sure it goes for comedy and everything, but it doesn't seem like something I need to spend time (much less money) reading.

Gus And His Gang TP

First Second has this European western by Chris Blain, and it looks pretty nice, in that bug-eyed, gangly-limbed French style.  Here's a preview.

My Brain Is Hanging Upside Down HC

David Heatley's new book supposedly describes every sexual experience he has ever had, as well as his every encounter with a black person.  I've like what I've seen of Heatley's work (what makes it different from Gary Panter or Ron Rege?  I dunno.  But I loved the intimacy of "Portraid of My Dad", so at least I know what I can say I like about Heatley), so this looks like one to watch.  Here's some preview art at Heatley's blog, and an interview with preview pages at Newsarama.

Night Of Your Life HC

An interesting and kind of different sort of book from Dark Horse, this sees Jesse Reklaw doing four-panel interpretations of people's dreams.  Preview here.

Punisher MAX From First To Last TPB

Here's the little bit of Garth Ennis's mature-readers Punisher stories that I have read.  It contains The Tyger, The Cell, and The End (but not Born, for some reason).  All are quite good, with some nice art by John Severin on The Tyger and Richard Corben illustrating The End.  It's $15.99, which strikes me as a little expensive, but make of that what you will.

Rose TPB

A sort of side-story to Jeff Smith's Bone, detailing the history of a couple of characters.  It's actually fairly important (or at least revelatory) to the big fantasy narrative, but probably not essential.  Still, it's got some beautiful art by Charles Vess, so don't miss it if you've never read it.

Soddyssey & Other Tales Of Supernatural Law TP

I've heard that Batton Lash's Supernatural Law is pretty enjoyable, but I've never read it.  Here's a good chance to try it, with a recolored collection of stories for $17.95.  Spooky!

The Spirit Vol 2 HC

The second half of Darwyn Cooke's run on the latest revival of Will Eisner's character, and there are some pretty good stories here, especially the one that ends Cooke's run.  It's a nice-looking book too, so if you want to spring for the fancy hardcover, go for it; you've got my permission.

Sublife GN

From Fantagraphics, this is a collection of interesting-sounding stories by John Pham.  It's a 64-page, two-color, one-man anthology series, and it looks quite nice.  Here's Fanta's page, with a slideshow.

Gantz Vol 2 TP

More manga sex-n-violence from Dark Horse.  This is fun stuff, even if it's not exactly edifying.

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney Official Casebook Vol 1 

After playing this video game, I thought it would make a great manga, since it's full of crazy characters, weird cases, and goofy humor.  And here it is.  Hopefully, it will live up to the standard set by the games and not just be a quick-and-dirty tie-in.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Boy Who Made Silence: I don't fit that description

Hey, look at this!  I'm blogging!  It's been a while, but that's what happens when I stop reading comics for a couple weeks to plow through a long novel.  I was thinking of trying to write a review, but if I never get around to it, the short version is: Anathem is really good, especially if you like Neal Stephenson, science, and trying to comprehend made-up language.  Also, I feel like I should say something about David Foster Wallace, because he was one of my favorite writers, and I'm really sad about what happened to him, but I haven't taken the time to do some sort of post about him.  So if I never get to it, I'll just say that he was amazing, I loved reading his books, and he will be sorely missed.

But I was going to talk about comics today, so here:

The Boy Who Made Silence #6
By Joshua Hagler

This is the last issue of the first volume of The Boy Who Made Silence; it might be some time before the second half of the story comes out, so there will be some time to reflect on the story and try to decipher all of Joshua Hagler's beautifully bizarre imagery.  It's a strange series, full of amazingly realistic character moments that swirl to the fore through a haze of surreality and near-abstract artwork.  And, as Hagler reveals here in an afterword, it's a deeply personal tale, with many moments taken straight from his childhood memories and interpreted into this weird story of a deaf boy who has some sort of people-connecting powers.

This issue sees all the townspeople who have featured in previous issues gathered together to witness the baptism of Nestor, the titular deaf boy, in hopes that he will once again create the "silence" that enabled them to experience each others' lives in such an intimate manner.  The preacher gives a stirring speech about faith and then performs the ceremony, which leads to a crazy remembered scene from Nestor's childhood and some disorienting storytelling that involves turning the comic upside down and sideways.  

Is that a dull-sounding summary?  Maybe so; this series really has to be seen to understand what makes it so special.  Hagler's artwork is just gorgeous, with a combination of realistic and distorted imagery, evocative brushwork that fluidly matches the emotional intensity of the scenes, and colors that enhance the feel of the scene, from greens and browns to set the landscape, to the deep blues of the water during the baptism, to the near lack of color in Nestor's childhood flashback.  The character work is especially good, bringing out the bruised humanity in Pastor Buddy:

Or the distorted memories of how adults can look to a young child:

But the thing is, these all seem so real.  The pastor's crisis of faith in the face of terminal illness is exactly the sort of thing that happens every day, and it's made all the more fascinating with Hagler's revelation in the afterword that he grew up in a religious family but has since renounced his faith.  And the childhood memories of a father leaving his family (along with an imagined moment in which Nestor connects with his mom, who, as we've seen in previous issues, is not exactly a tender woman) are so incredibly raw, I found tears in my eyes while reading them.

I'm having trouble articulating what exactly it is that reaches out and grabs me by the throat, but I think it's Hagler's raw, unfiltered emotion, which pours off the page and refuses to be ignored.  As fascinating as it is to read Hagler's explanations of where some of the individual moments came from, they're not necessary to get the full effect of the story.  And even if it is sometimes difficult to understand how everything fits together or where Hagler is going, he still grounds everything in his down-to-earth characters, making you feel like you're experiencing these moments right along with them.

I'm probably not doing this book any justice, but it's such a fascinating, beautiful work, full of real emotion and humanity, that I can't keep quiet about it.  I urge everyone who has the chance to give it a try, since Hagler is a talent that shouldn't be wasted.  I hope to continue to read his amazingly heartbreaking comics for years to come.

Comics memery

It's all the rage! Starting with Tom Spurgeon, and meme-ified by Stephen Frug, the thing to do is take Spurgeon's list of "50 Things Every Comics Collection Truly Needs" and mark off what exists in your collection.

Stephen Frug added these guidelines:

Plain = Things I don't have
Bold = Things I do have
Italics = I have some but probably not enough (or, in my case, I'm uncertain whether I have this)
Underline = I've got (some of) this in collected form, does that count?

Here's my results, with my comments in parentheses:

1. Something From The ACME Novelty Library
2. A Complete Run Of Arcade (something to get whenever I have some money, someday)
3. Any Number Of Mini-Comics
4. At Least One Pogo Book From The 1950s
5. A Barnaby Collection
6. Binky Brown and the Holy Virgin Mary (I think I read this online)
7. As Many Issues of RAW as You Can Place Your Hands On (ditto what I said about Arcade)
8. A Little Stack of Archie Comics (I might still have some at my parents' house)
9. A Suite of Modern Literary Graphic Novels (I could always use more of these)
10. Several Tintin Albums (I've read a few, but I don't own any. Definitely something I would like to acquire)
11. A Smattering Of Treasury Editions Or Similarly Oversized Books
12. Several Significant Runs of Alternative Comic Book Series (I've got some Optic Nerve, and maybe a little Eightball, but that's about it)
13. A Few Early Comic Strip Collections To Your Taste (another one I could use more of)
14. Several "Indy Comics" From Their Heyday (I've got Love and Rockets collections, but I'm fairly clueless when it comes to most of that 80s black and white/indy stuff)
15. At Least One Comic Book From When You First Started Reading Comic Books
16. At Least One Comic That Failed to Finish The Way It Planned To
17. Some Osamu Tezuka (hell yeah)
18. The Entire Run Of At Least One Manga Series (Death Note. And hopefully Monster, eventually, among others)
19. One Or Two 1970s Doonesbury Collections
20. At Least One Saul Steinberg Hardcover
21. One Run of A Comic Strip That You Yourself Have Clipped (the time has passed for this one, I think, since there aren't really any current strips that are worth clipping)
22. A Selection of Comics That Interest You That You Can't Explain To Anyone Else (oddly, I can't think of anything that fits this category offhand, but I'm sure I've got something that fits. Maybe MPD Psycho, or some goofy superhero/Vertigo thing, or, I dunno, Joe Kelly and Chris Bachalo's Steampunk)
23. At Least One Woodcut Novel
24. As Much Peanuts As You Can Stand
25. Maus (I haven't even read the second half! What's wrong with me?)
26. A Significant Sample of R. Crumb's Sketchbooks
27. The original edition of Sick, Sick, Sick.
28. The Smithsonian Collection Of Newspaper Comics (this would be great to have, or at least read)
29. Several copies of MAD
30. A stack of Jack Kirby 1970s Comic Books (I could always use more)
31. More than a few Stan Lee/Jack Kirby 1960s Marvel Comic Books (More stuff that I should try to acquire)
32. A You're-Too-High-To-Tell Amount of Underground Comix (another something I wouldn't mind trying to get)
33. Some Calvin and Hobbes
34. Some Love and Rockets
35. The Marvel Benefit Issue Of Coober Skeber
36. A Few Comics Not In Your Native Tongue (I don't think I have any. Huh. I'll have to try to pick up somthin' furrin' sometime)
37. A Nice Stack of Jack Chick Comics
38. A Stack of Comics You Can Hand To Anybody's Kid (I could always use more)
39. At Least A Few Alan Moore Comics
40. A Comic You Made Yourself (sort of? Maybe? I should try to make something comics-y)
41. A Few Comics About Comics (according to Spurgeon, Animal Man counts)
42. A Run Of Yummy Fur
43. Some Frank Miller Comics
44. Several Lee/Ditko/Romita Amazing Spider-Man Comic Books
45. A Few Great Comics Short Stories (could use more)
46. A Tijuana Bible (I'm hoping to stumble across one of these in a yard sale or thrift store someday)
47. Some Weirdo
48. An Array Of Comics In Various Non-Superhero Genres
49. An Editorial Cartoonist's Collection or Two
50. A Few Collections From New Yorker Cartoonists

So there's my list, which is looking kind of sparse. I thought about trying to create some sort of visual signifier for categories that I don't think I will ever fill (those would be: Yummy Fur, Jack Chick, Coober Skeber, Sick, Sick, Sick, woodcut novels, Binky Brown, and Barnaby). Spurgeon invited suggestions, so mine would be:

51. Original art, or a sketch from a creator you like - not too hard to obtain the latter, if you ever attend a convention, or even a reading/appearance by a creator. And while the former can be pricey, it's cool to be able to own a bit of comics history that nobody else will be able to say they have. If I had to choose one category to lose, I would combine the Raw and Weirdo categories, or maybe the Arcade and "Underground Comix" categories.

All right, that was fun! Feel free to offer comments on my (poor?) tastes, and if I inspired you post a list of your own, let me know!

Monday, September 22, 2008

This week, I'll try to refrain from making a Christina Aguilera reference

I managed to write some actual comics criticism this week, with a contribution to the "Sunday Slugfest" of All-Star Superman #12 over at Comics Bulletin.  Go there to see me heap the predictable praise on Morrison and Quitely.  And then:

New comics this week (Wednesday, 9/24/08):

Back To Brooklyn #1

New Garth Ennis!  This is a mafia drama co-written with Jimmy Palmiotti, with art by Mihailio Vukelic.  Could be pretty enjoyable, with lots of potential for graphic violence.  Here's an interview, with a few preview pages.

Boys Club #1

From Beunaventura Press, it's a weird Fort Thunder-esque story by Matt Furie about some anthropomorphic animal buddies who hang out together.  I don't always go for that aesthetic, but who knows, this could be all right.

Dead #1

Ugh, another zombie book?  I wouldn't normally even bother to mention something like this, but this one is by Alan Grant, Simon Bisley, and Glenn Fabry, so it's at least worth a look.  If you like looking at freaky gore and such, that is.

Fantastic Four: True Story #3

I didn't get to read this issue ahead of time, but it's probably along the same lines as the previous two.  If you're enjoying Paul Cornell's adventure through fiction with the FF, I expect you'll continue to do so.

Hellboy The Crooked Man #3

Richard Corben finishes his latest Hellboy thing, and it's been incredibly good so far.  I can't wait to see how it finishes.  

My Name is Bruce

Dark Horse has this one-shot tie-in to Bruce Campbell's upcoming movie, in which he plays himself, fighting a Chinese demon.  That sounds pretty awesome, although I don't know how well the comic will be able to capture his magic.  It's by Milton Freewater Jr. and Cliff Richards.  Here's a short preview.

Northlanders #10

Part two (of two) of the second storyline in Brian Wood's Viking comic, illustrated by Dean Ormston.  Maybe I'll get to read it when it's collected.

Runaways #2

More of the Terry Moore/Humberto Ramos stuff.  I wasn't too keen on the first issue, so I won't be bothering to follow any more of it, so let me know if it gets any better.  I won't be holding my breath.

Samurai: Legend #1

The third series in Marvel's deal with French publisher Soleil, this one is all about the guys from the title, with a tale of ancient Japan, with all the honor and everything.  It's by Jean-Francois Di Giorgio and Frederic Genet.  It certainly looks pretty.

Station #3

Oh, man, I still haven't read the second issue of this space-murder mystery.  I did like #1, so I really need to catch up, and hopefully write something or other about it.

Wasteland #20

After the recent finish of the story arc that had been running, this is another of the one-shot issues that fills in some of the backstory of the series' world.  This one tells the story of the founding of Newbegin.  I believe it's supposed to be mostly prose, with illustrations by Chuck BB.  I think I'm going to have to switch back to trades on this series, but I'll get this one, since these issues don't get collected.  Should be good.

100 Bullets Vol 12 Dirty TPB

With this latest volume of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's awesome crime series, the trades return to the subtle numbering in the titles (Once Upon a Crime doesn't really have anything to do with "11", but like volume seven's Samurai, this one evokes The Dirty Dozen).  Looks like I'll have to update my increasingly complicated character relationship chart.  I can't wait to read it.

Abe Sapien TP Vol 01 Drowning

I haven't been reading the various BPRD series, but this origin story for one of the main characters looks interesting.  Art by Jason Shawn Alexander.  I've heard it's not especially great, but I'll probably read it someday, whenever I get caught up.

Absolute Ronin HC

Ah, Frank Miller.  He was weird even back in the 80s.  I've read this futuristic sort-of samurai series, and while it sure looks nice, it's kind of incomprehensible.  It's pretty well-regarded, but I would take several other of Miller's works over it (not All-Star Batman though).  Eh, maybe I should read it again sometime.  And if you want, now you can spend $99 to have a big version of it for yourself.  Don't throw your back out.

Barks/Rosa Collection Golden Helmet/Lost Charts Columbus Vol 3 TPB

In another of the nice-looking collections that Gemstone has been putting out, they've got a classic Carl Barks duck tale, followed by a Don Rosa "sequel".  These are always good.

Batman Black And White Vol 3 TPB

I've only read a little bit of this anthology series, but I've never thought it was all that great.  Of course, I think that was back before I really followed artists all that much, so I didn't really have the excitement of seeing, say, Brian Bolland put together a nice, short Batman story.  I'll have to reread some of these sometime, since there is definitely some good talent here.  For instance, this volume features Darwyn Cooke, Bruce Timm, Chris Bachalo, Sean Phillips and Dan DeCarlo.  Nice.

Black Summer TPB

Warren Ellis's violent tale of superhero war after one of them assassinates the President might not have been the shock to the genre that he was hoping, but it turned out to be pretty good, especially when the final issue rolled around.  Juan Jose Ryp provides some cluttered artwork, but it does the job.  Probably more for Ellis fans than anybody else, but it's not bad.

Hatter M The Looking Glass Wars Vol 1 TP

I never did read this weird tie-in to a series of prose novels, but I'll generally try anything illustrated by Ben Templesmith.  So here's a collected version for that purpose.

Marvel Boy Prem HC

I read this Grant Morrison/JG Jones series back when it came out, and it's pretty good.  I should reread it sometime and see how it holds up.  There are a lot of interesting ideas, and the character works well as a standalone deal, but apparently he's been shoehorned into the regular Marvel universe.  Ah well, at least people are probably interested in reading this now.  Or maybe they're just trying to capitalize on it being from the creators of Final Crisis.

Minions Of Ka GN

This is a strange-looking book from Arcana about the Catholic church using legions of the undead to take over the throne of England, I think.  Huh.  It's by Michael Furno, Michael Ahearn, and Chris Moreno.  Here's a preview, and you can also find a "trailer" on the site.  (comics aren't movies)

Red Rocket 7 TP Image Edition

Mike Allred's graphic novel about an alien clone who is involved, Zelig-like, in the entire history of rock and roll is pretty damn good.  Of course, I'm a shameless whore for Allred, but I still think it's a great book.  Check it out, if you haven't before.

Spaghetti Bros Vol 1 HC

Originally published in France, this series by Carlos Trillo and Domingo Mandrafina is about four Italian immigrants to the US, following their story over several decades, starting in 1910.  It looks like one of those decent crime stories, and I know Trillo mostly as a collaborator with Eduardo Risso.  It could definitely be worth a look.

Souvlaki Circus HC

Another weird one from Buenaventura Press.  This one is by Finnish artist Amanda Vahamaki and Italian artist Michelangelo Setola, and it's about, uh, I have no idea.  Lots of weird creatures doing strange stuff, apparently.  Sounds like a Buenaventura Press book.

Vertigo Encyclopedia HC

Well, if the regular DC and Marvel universes can have extensively annotated descriptions of all their characters and locations, why not Vertigo?  Actually, this is more of a cataloguing of all the various Vertigo series over the years, which means it probably has some interesting stuff in there.  

XoXo Hugs And Kisses 30 Postcards By James Jean

In another non-comics book/thing, we've got what are sure to be some pretty pictures.  I do like James Jean's art, don't you?  I bet these will look nice.  I don't know what else to say.

Girl Who Could Run Through Time Vol 1 TP

A CMX manga about a time-travelling girl.  Shojo, maybe?  Eh, it could be worth a look.

Tezukas Black Jack Vol 1 HC

Ooh, here's the big manga release for the next while.  Vertical is going all out with this series, and it's some good stuff, from what I've seen.  I'll probably try to finish reading Buddha and Phoenix before getting caught up in this, but I'll try to obtain all the volumes someday.  For now, you can check out Jog's excellent review of this volume.

Wild Animals Vol 1 GN

I think this one is actually a manhua (from China), adapted from a popular novel detailing what life was like during Mao's Cultural Revolution.  It's probably pretty fascinating stuff; I would love to check it out sometime.

With The Light Raising An Autistic Child Vol 3 GN

I never did read the second volume of this series, but I thought the first one was quite good, in an educational, after-school-special sort of way.  Maybe I'll get around to reading more of the series sometime.

And that's everything.  I'll probably skip the shop this week, even though I'm excited for the new 100 Bullets volume.  But I've got lots of other stuff to read, so that one will have to wait.  Who knows, I might manage to put together some content.  Stay tuned and see!

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Speed Racer: I don't know what's wrong with people

Speed Racer
Directed by the Wachowski Brothers

Man, this movie bombed big time, didn't it? What was it that people didn't like about it? Was it the strange melding of live-action and cartooniness? The impenetrable corporate-intrigue conflict that spurred the plot along? The silly kid-and-monkey antics? The sensory assault of the racing scenes? The lack of "realism"? The corny scenes about family togetherness? The general "kiddie" feel of the whole thing? The length? It's probably some combination of all of those, but now that I've finally had a chance to see the thing, I loved it, and probably due to most all of those factors. Sure, the corporate stuff was not exactly gripping, but it provided a good conflict to hang the series of awesome racing scenes on. The family stuff wasn't exceptional, but it grounded the characters and gave them a sense of realism, ensuring that they didn't get lost in all the heady futuristic eye candy. The scenes involving young, chubby Spritle and his chimpanzee pal Chim-Chim were pretty goofy, and I could see how they could rub some the wrong way, but I found them hilarious for the most part; that kid is a damn fine comic actor. As for the length, it's odd to see a kid-targeted movie stretch past two hours, but when it's full of so much to keep the attention, from frenetic action to eye-popping visuals, I'm not one to complain that there's too much of a good thing.

But those are the semi-negatives; everything else is super-positive, from the amazing candy-colored world the Wachowskis and company have dreamed up to the over-the-top racing action. I couldn't get enough of the visuals, and I personally loved the way they didn't strive for supposed realism. We all know this isn't actually happening, and it's all based on a cartoon, so why complain that it looks too cartoony? I'll take this kind of silliness over the military-fetish and wholesale property destruction of something like Transformers any day. In its best (non-racing) moments, Speed Racer achieves a sort of sublime mixture of "real" and "fake". I loved the way a fight scene on top of a snowy mountaintop pass saw falling snowflakes transform into manga-style speed lines in moments of action.

And the racing! It was just incredible, from the wacky styles of cars, to the wild technology (jumping cars! Wrecking balls! Beehive catapults!), to the amazing track designs. The way it all became such a viscerally contact-filled enterprise, with cars flipping and swooping around, smashing into each other, bouncing around and off each other, exploding in colorful balls of smoke, zooming around loops and corkscrews, performing all sorts of spins and twists, and just participating in such amazing vehicular mayhem, it's incredible that the Wachowskis managed to make it all so clear and easy to follow. As ridiculous as everything is, it makes sense, and it's amazingly fun to watch.

Those crazy visuals sure add to the appeal. Not wanting to repeat themselves, every new scene brings something new to the eye. I've often complained about animated movies trying to emulate reality perfectly, and that applies here; it's so much more fun to see imaginary worlds and ideas brought to life, with more oomph than you're ever going to see in the real world. That's something that the Wachowskis do so well; creating visuals that you've never seen before. The way the cars fly around and crash is amazing, and they still throw in new ideas, like a race through an ice tunnel that sees taillights and reflections streak across the field of vision.

I'm probably making it sound too good, but it's probably a reaction to the initial poor reception, since I did really, really like this movie. Check out that video clip above for a nice sample of the craziness that can be beheld, and a cool remix of the original theme song, which runs over the end credits. Now I think I'll go watch the movie again. Go Speed Racer, Go!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Rip-Off Theater presents: The Even Less Content Than Usual Setting

Eh, just because I'm immersed in a really long book and too lazy to finish reading and writing about various comics doesn't mean that I can't post anything.  Plus, I actually went to the comics store and bought some books, so I'll go the easy route and just post panels from the latest issue of The Goon.  Enjoy!

And I just love the artwork in this one.  Check out those beautiful shadows:

Expect more of this sort of thing until I get back on track with the reading of actual bloggable material.

Monday, September 15, 2008

This week, I've GOT to get to the comics store

Damn, I wasn't kidding when I said I might not write much, was I?  It's because I'm spending all my free time deep in the mind of Neal Stephenson.  Maybe I'll get to something later this week, but don't count on it.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 9/17/08):

Air #2

I wasn't too keen on the first issue of this Vertigo series, but who knows, it could get better.  Not that I plan to buy it or anything.

Age of the Sentry #1

I've never liked the Sentry as a character (here, you can see my review of his first miniseries), so I'm not really interested in this series about his earlier adventures, but it's notable for being written by Jeff Parker and Paul Tobin, with art by Nick Dragotta (sans Mike Allred, unfortunately) and some other guy (Ramon Rosas).  So it might actually be all right.

All Star Superman #12

And here's the big release of the week, the conclusion of Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's excellent run on this title, seeing the big showdown with a superpowered Lex Luthor, and the final answer to the question of whether Superman is going to die.  Which seems silly, but Morrison has managed to make his mortality actually seem like a real threat; I can't wait to see how he finishes it off.  It's been a great series, and while it will be missed, I'm always excited to see what Morrison will do next.

Atomic Robo Dogs of War #2

Gotta love the cranky, wisecracking robot fighting in WWII.  It's a good one; here's my review.

Billy Batson and the Magic of Shazam #2

I didn't read the first issue of Mike Kunkel's new, kid-friendly version of Captain Marvel, but it looked pretty good and got some good reviews.  I'll have to check it out sometime; it's probably pretty fun.

Castle Waiting Vol. 2 #12

Here's another series I've never read, but I often hear that it is really good.  I'll try it out someday.

DC Universe Decisions #1

Ah, here's the book that I highlight out of ridicule.  In one of the dumber ideas, DC is doing this thing where they have their superheroes get involved in politics, or something.  Of course, it will probably only involve the idealistic superheroes, so known liberal Green Arrow will support an Obama stand-in (I'm sure they won't actually use any real politicians) and Hawkman or some conservative type will argue in support of faux-McCain.  But I'm sure Superman or Wonder Woman will remain independent so as not to offend any readers.  It's written by Judd Winick and Bill Willingham, which is interesting, since Winick is an outspoken liberal, and Willingham has a reupatation as a conservative, so maybe they're supposed to balance each other out?  Ah, whatever the case, it will probably be a disaster.  Why anybody cares about superheroes getting involved in real-life politics is beyond me.  

Dead Space #6

I think this is the final issue of Antony Johnston and Ben Templesmith's space-zombie video game tie-in.  I never did read it, but it looked like it could be all right.  Like most of what I mention here, I might get to it someday.

Glamourpuss #3

More of Dave Sim's examination of Alex Raymond and fashion models.  I've bowed out of the series, but it has been quite interesting so far, and definitely pretty unique.  If you're still into it, I bet you'll keep enjoying it.

Greatest Hits #1

The newest thing from Vertigo, this miniseries by David Tischman and Glenn Fabry is about a Beatles-esque team of British superheroes that have had adventures from the 60s to the present.  Who knows if it will be any good, but it's notable that Vertigo is doing a superhero series.  They used to shunt the "mature" spandex stuff off to Wildstorm.  But here they are, and hey, maybe it will turn out okay.


Looks like Dark Horse is rereleasing their version of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy, in bigger volumes that combine two of the previous volumes for $14.95.  Not a bad value, and some pretty good comics.  I should try to pick it up, since I've only read a little of the series, and I'll grab anything by Tezuka that I can get my hands on.

Burma Chronicles HC

Guy DeLisle's new book, doing for Myanmar/Burma what he did for China and North Korea in his books Shenzhen and Pyongyang.  I thought the latter was quite interesting (here's my review), so I'd love to read this one.

Criminal Macabre: My Demon Baby TPB

I'm not a big fan of Steve Niles, and I've never read any of the various Criminal Macabre books, but I did talk to artist Nick Stakal at Wizard World this summer, and I like his art quite a bit.  So while I don't know if I would really want to read this, I could take a look, and I would recommend taking a look at it at least, since it's got some good artwork.  That's a weird recommendation.


This Image graphic novel from Raffaele Ienco is a sci-fi/horror story about the discovery of a new planet in the solar system, which, when investigated, unleashes some sort of ghostly alien protectors that gruesomely kill anybody who learns of their existence.  Sounds interesting.  Here's an interview with Ienco that includes several preview pages.

Janes In Love GN

From Minx, it's the follow-up to their very first book, by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg.  I really liked the first volume (although, like everybody else, I admit that it had a weak ending), and I'm excited to see where the new one is going.  I hope it's good (and I'm sure the art will be great).

Local HC

For those who waited for a collection of this excellent series, here's a nice complete volume.  It's hardcover, and it collects all twelve issues, along with the essays from each issue by writer Brian Wood and artist Ryan Kelly.  I totally dug the series, so if you haven't read it before now, I definitely recommend checking it out.

Loveless Vol 3 Blackwater Falls TPB

This volume collects the final issues of Brian Azzarello's western series, up until when it was cancelled.  I stopped reading the series around the tenth issue, but I keep hearing that it got really good, so I should really try to catch up on the rest of the series sometime.

Superman Kryptonite HC

It's the collection of the first storyline of the Superman Confidential series, by Darwyn Cooke and Tim Sale, detailing Superman's first experience with Kryptonite.  I read it, but wasn't too impressed, although maybe that had to do with the wait for the final issue to come out.  The art was definitely quite nice, but I don't think the story is worth $25.  Wait for a softcover, I say.

Aria Vol 3 GN Tokyopop Edition

I've heard that this manga series is really good.  I've got to check it out sometime.  Cute Martian gondoliers!

Art Of Vagabond Sumi HC
Art Of Vagabond Water HC

Viz is putting out both of these Takehiko Inoue art books, and I bet they look great.  I love Inoue's work, but I don't usually spend the money on this sort of thing.  Still, they're something I would love to take a look at.

Death Note Vol 1 Collectors Edition HC

I don't know about these collectors' editions, but if people want them, I guess they're a good idea.  For $19.99, you get an oversized hardcover version of the volume, including color artwork and maybe some other extras.  I love the series, but I wouldn't spend the money, and if you want to try it out, the regular $7.99 volume is a much better option.

Dragon Ball VIZBIG Edition Vol 2 GN

Ooh, I've gotta try to get this one.  I recently read volume 1 and loved it, so I need to read more.  I've gotta!

Make Love & Peace Vol 1 GN

This is from Aurora Publishing, which I thought was a Yaoi publisher, but this seems to be more of a straight-up hetero romance series.  It's about a couple in which the man is a cop, and it promises action along with the lovey-dovey stuff, so it might be pretty entertaining.  I don't expect to read it, but it would be one to watch out for.

Manga Sutra -Futari H- Vol 3 GN

Looks like Tokyopop is continuing to crank out volumes of this sex manual series.  I haven't read any of them, and I've heard they aren't great, but I'm still curious to check them out.  I'll probably get the chance at some point, since there are something like 20 volumes out in Japan.

Naruto Vol 1 Collectors Edition HC

Here's another fancy-pants collectors' volume of a hit Viz series.  Same deal as the Death Note one, with color art and whatnot.  I haven't read hardly any of the series, but I do want to at some point.  But again, this probably isn't the place to start.  But hey, it's right there in the title.

Path Of The Assassin Vol 13 Hateful Burden TP

Like I say with most Kazuo Koike manga, I would really like to read this someday.  And that's about all.

Speed Grapher Manga Vol 1 GN

This series seems pretty weird, with a seedy future setting and a main character who has the ability to make anything he photographs explode.  Maybe interesting?

Vagabond VIZBIG Edition Vol 1 GN

And finally, another big book of Inoue, since he doesn't already have enough material for the week.  Vagabond is an excellent samurai series, and this collects the first three volumes.  Viz sent me a review copy, and even though I've read the volumes previously, I'll probably try to reread this volume and see how much I still like it.  Hey, I dig Inoue, so I doubt it will have diminished in my opinion.

And that's everything.  I've really got to go buy comics, if only because of All-Star Superman.  But I've got lots of other stuff waiting for me, since I haven't bought any for a while now.  Lots of reading ahead.  And maybe I'll even post something here; you never know.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Shojo Beat: I'm a Halloweenie

Here's the review of Wolverine: Saudade that I mentioned yesterday.  With preview pages even, so check it out if you dig Euro-Marvel oddness.

Shojo Beat
October 2008

This issue gives plenty of time to get into the Halloween spirit, with all sorts of articles about the scary stuff.  There's a bit about putting together a costume, recipes for preparing spooky confectionary treats, instructions for making a candy-hauling pumpkin, a sampling of scary scenes in shojo manga, and a feature on creepy-cute Japanese monsters and toys (I like that they included GeGeGe no Kitaro), and some illustrations by artist Luke Feldman:  

In non-creepy content, there's a lame thing about vapid Japanese celebrities (of the Paris Hilton-like variety), some pictures from Design Festa, a spotlight on Arina Tanemura (since she doesn't get enough exposure from the magazine; I must say though, that I do kind of like the baroque aesthetic in some of the included illustrations from her upcoming Full Moon artbook), and a videogame spotlight that mentions Lego Batman and Spore.

But enough of that; it's manga time:

We Were There
By Yuki Obata

Nanami is a high school freshman (or "first year", since this is the Japanese school system), and she hopes to make friends at her new school, but all the other girls seem to want to talk about is the hunky Yano Motoharu.  She ends up becoming acquainted with Yano, and then ends up on the student council with him, but he rubs her the wrong way, coming off as arrogant and obnoxious.  That irritation probably signals attraction, and her relationship with Yano will probably develop, but there's not much to go on in this short preview.  We don't even get a hint of the dead girlfriend of Yano's that the recap page mentions.  So, I don't know if this will turn out to be any good, but the briefness of this excerpt might actually work against it, making it seem bland.  So my mostly-uninformed recommendation is against it, unless I hear otherwise.

Captive Hearts
By Matsuri Hino

In the other preview chapter this month, we meet Megumi, the son of a family of servants that inherited their rich employers' estate when they (the employers) disappeared on a trip to China.  So now he's happy to laze about in the lap of luxury, until his world is upended when Suzuka, the daughter of the employers, shows up, having grown up in China after her parents died.  To make matters worse, he finds that he, along with everyone else in his bloodline, is cursed to unquestioningly serve her family, so he finds himself inadvertently bowing and scraping before her and calling her "princess".  It's pretty embarrassing, but he can't bring himself to stop.

This series is by Matsuri Hino, creator of Vampire Knight, so that explains the fetishistic aura of domination and submissiveness, but she does seem to show a bit more humor here than in that series:

Megumi's dad especially seems to fit the role of the comic-relief.  And Suzuka seems like a sweet character, barely speaking any Japanese and learning to fit into her surroundings rather than filling the obnoxious rich-girl stereotype.  Or maybe she's just a near-mute moe girl.  It's an interesting setup, and it could be a decent series.  If you like Vampire Knight, this might be one to check out.

Honey Hunt
By Miki Aihara

The magazine's newest regular series continues to develop, and it's still looking interesting.  Last month, in the first installment of the series, Yura told her distant celebrity parents to "go to hell" for the TV cameras.  She thinks she ruined their careers, but she soon learns that nothing she can do will affect them; they're good enough at playing the press that they can weather any disruptions.  Meanwhile, Yura is being pursued by Keiichi, her dad's agent, to become an actress.  She isn't really interested, but she eventually decides to give it a try, in an attempt to hurt her mom in the only way she can see possible: by surpassing her.  So it looks like that's going to be the ongoing plot of the series, but there is plenty of room for complications.  I like the way the paparazzi are portrayed as vicious vultures, eager to snap up any scrap of "newsworthy" information:

And a potential love interest, a guy named Q-ta who sings for a band with the unfortunate name of Assha, is quickly revealed to be as desperately fame- and status-hungry as the rest of the celebutard crowd when he abruptly proposes:

The series seems to be developing into an enjoyably soapy show-biz drama.  I'm a little concerned about the passive nature of the heroine; knowing Aihara's track record with that sort of character on Hot Gimmick, I worry that she won't develop anything resembling a spine, but I'm always hopeful.  And the art looks pretty nice, with enough personality to avoid looking like just another generic manga.  Let's hope this turns into something special, or at least enjoyable.

Crimson Hero
By Mitsuba Takanashi

Hmmm, kind of a filler chapter here, with the main purpose of setting up some drama for the upcoming tournament.  With most of the drama within the main cast resolved, it's got to come from outside, so Takanashi uses this chapter as an opportunity to establish a rival for Nobara.  She and Kanako sneak onto the campus of Aiyu Gakuin, a school that they'll have to defeat in the upcoming tournament if they want to continue to advance, in order to scout out the team.  They witness a star player treating her subordinate teammates terribly, even going so far as to purposely injure one in order to secure a spot as a starter.  Nobara, being the outspoken proselytizer of sportsmanlike athleticism that she is, won't stand for it, leading to a corny confrontation:

I expect this will lead to some dramatic on-court action, but it's kind of obvious here.  But that's okay, it's nothing too egregious.  There's also some setup for future romantic conflict when a troublemaking boy takes an interest in Nobara, but that's a minor subplot, probably not to be explored for a while.  Eh, it's one of those middle chapters that's all about putting pieces in place for future plots.  I can't complain too much, but hopefully it will lead to some excellent volleyball scenes.  That's the best part of this series anyway.

Vampire Knight
By Matsuri Hino

Oh boy.  This chapter sees some shameless pandering to its (presumably female) readers, with a flashback featuring most of the vampiric Night Class as children.  They're so cute!  At least, that's the obvious reaction it's supposed to evoke.  Me, I like to think myself immune from that sort of reaction (although I've been known to fall prey to it in series that I obsess over).  In fact, I'm usually pretty bored by the intrigue among the Night Class anyway; I have trouble telling each brooding pretty boy apart from the next.  The main point of this seems to be to explore the tensions among the characters (yawn) and reveal the Kaname's parents, who were the vampire equivalent of royalty, committed suicide (or did they?).  I'm sure it will all lead to more dramatic revelations, but for now, I'm bored.  I was much more interested by last month's plot about Yuki's lost memories, which ended on a cliffhanger and is completely ignored this month.  Maybe we'll get back to it next month.  Until then, I won't spare any more brainpower on this tiresomeness.

Honey and Clover
By Chica Umino

You know what's interesting?  Chica Umino took a pretty big risk a few months ago when she wrote one of the most entertaining characters out of the series (although only temporarily).  Morita was probably the primary source of comedy, so sending him away for this long is kind of a bold move.  It might have been done to leave more room for exploration of Mayama's character and his relationship with Ayu.  Or maybe she was just trying to delay the development/resolution of the love triangle involving him, Hagu, and Takemoto.  Still, it leaves a big gap to fill, or maybe an opportunity to go in a less comedic direction with the series.

Well, not really; the series retains its funny tone and occasional serious, dramatic, poetic moments, but the comedy is probably a little less over-the-top (last month's gay minstrelsy notwithstanding).  But that Ayu/Mayama relationship is definitely getting a workout; Umino isn't content to stand still and wallow in the angst.  This month, Mayama's coworkers figure out what's going on between them and call him out on it:

And while he vehemently denies it, they're totally right.  It's something that manga characters (or any character involved in a romantic triangle) do, in order for an author to maintain tension, but Umino looks it right in the face, examining it and pointing out how cruel it is for someone to do that to a person they supposedly care about.  That's what I love about her; she loves to pick these tropes apart rather than just exploit them for dramatic purposes.

But she still brings the comedy, in scenes involving Ayu's terrible cooking skills (and the high regard that underclassmen show toward her):

And Hagu's artistic nature:

I love that panel; I spot Dali and Da Vinci there, but I'm not sure who the others are, especially that weird-looking girl.

So, unsurprisingly, this series continues to be excellent.  I love the combination of comedy and drama, and Umino's art feels quite unique.  We're lucky to get to read something this good over on this side of the Pacific.

Sand Chronicles
By Hinako Ashihara

In this other excellent series, we get a dramatic chapter that shows how well-developed Hinako Ashihara's characters are.  Last month, Ann met up with the runaway Fuji after having a really bad argument with her boyfriend, Daigo.  In an attempt to get Fuji to contact the family that is so worried about him, she applies for a job at his workplace, a host club.  There are some hijinx involving her working a somewhat disreputable job, but the real focus of the chapter is her relationship with Fuji.  As a pampered rich kid who was never happy, he's taken the opportunity to "find himself", getting his hands dirty and learning about the real world.  And while Ann isn't exactly in love with him (although I'm still suspecting she will end up with him in the end), she still cares for him quite a bit.  They also end up spending time with Haruka, a thirty-something coworker who supports four kids as a single mom.  She took Fuji under her wing, and he has learned a lot from her:

Ann is also in a state of flux at the moment.  Being a teenager is hard enough, but with everything she's gone through, she's unsure of a lot of things.  For one, she thought Daigo was always going to be there for her, but their relationship seems to be falling apart.  A scene of them awkwardly trying to have a phone conversation is just heartbreaking:

And Haruka's description of her children as her "hope" only serves to depress Ann further:

Ashihara has a real handle on the mental state of teenagers here; the constant mix of emotion and sense that personal events are of world-shaking importance comes through, but not to the point where it gets tiresome.  It just seems realistic, and compelling.  And sad; we want nothing more than for poor Ann to be okay.  Will she make it through her adolescence intact?  I sure hope so!  I know I'll be tuning in each month, eager to find out.

And that is all.  Probably not a huge amount of content in the near future; I'm finishing up a few books, but I just got Neal Stephenson's new book, Anathem, and I imagine that will overtake much of my mental space for a while.  But I'll try not to disappear or anything.