Friday, October 31, 2008

The Best American Comics 2008: Oh boy, here we go again

Holy cow, two posts in one day?!  I haven't been this prolific for months and months!  That's assuming I actually finish this post before tomorrow...

The Best American Comics 2008
Edited by Lynda Barry
Series Editors Jessica Abel and Matt Madden



For some reason, this annual volume always seems to inspire strong reactions in me (and I'm not the only one, if this infamous Beat post from last year is any judge).  I think it's the same reaction the people have to awards shows: "That [movie/song/show/comic/book/TV commercial] was all right, but I don't think it was the best of the year!  What about this other [band/play/music video] that I loved?  If you're not including it, that means you think I have bad taste!"  And so on.

But that's not really the point of this sort of thing, is it?  It seems like it's really all about spotlighting what the editors think is superior work, with the book's title being more succinct than We Think These Comics Are Pretty Good, In Our Opinion (2008 Edition).

Still, inclusion in this volume lends some respect, and it can be irksome to see a comic that doesn't seem to deserve said respect.  Thus, legions of complainers are born!  So, with that in mind, let's dive right in, shall we?

The comics stories in the book are presented in alphabetical order by the creator's name(s), so that seems like as good a method of discussing them as any.  But first, there's an introduction comic by the year's guest editor, Lynda Barry.  Myself, I've never really liked Barry's work, and this isn't really any exception.  She has some interesting personal anecdotes about experiencing comics like The Family Circus and the strips in Playboy as a child, and other ruminations on how we experience comics, but I don't think it holds together too well, and the complicated layouts are hard to read without enriching the reading experience at all.  I know people like her comics and all, but she just doesn't do anything for me.

But she's just the editor.  Let's look at the actual "best American comics of 2008" (which, it should be noted, came out between the eligibility dates of August 31, 2006 to September 1, 2007):

"Burden"
By Graham Annable

This is a good little story about a guy taking care of his brother's business after he moved away.  Or is it?  In the end, we find out that something else is going on that colors everything we've seen up to that point.  It's pretty nicely done; Graham Annable has a cartoony look that belies his background in animation; he does a great job of expressing subtle emotion without being realistically detailed.  I love this page, in which the main character visits his dad, who is distracted by a handheld video game:



Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yeah, I would say so.

War Fix (excerpt)
By David Axe and Steve Olexa

I reviewed this book back in the spring of 2007, and I thought it was quite good, a fascinating look at the pursuit of the adrenaline rush brought on by war journalism.  I was surprised that more people didn't talk about it, but maybe its inclusion here will get more discussion started.  In this excerpt, we see writer David Axe leave for Iraq and experience the horrors of war firsthand.  It's a pretty good example of the book's contents, and it really showcases Steve Olexa's complex artwork.  In fact, it's one of the few stories here to use non-traditional layouts; nearly every other story is composed of rectangular grids of panels, with little variation.  A lot of "artcomix" stick to this simple structure, but artists in the mainstream (including the non-superheroic offshoots that aren't quite "indie" enough to normally be considered for a book like this) often seem to try to mix up the panel layouts and experiment with the form a bit.  I happen to like that sort of thing quite a bit, and I definitely would have preferred to see more "realistic" artwork in the book.  But that's more about my tastes than any measure of quality.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, and I recommend reading the book if you haven't had the chance.

"Trouble"
By T. Edward Bak

And now we get to the complaints.  This is apparently supposed to be a slice-of-life story, but it's not a very good one.  Two teenage girls lay around, watch TV, yell at a younger brother, discuss sex, and wrestle.  But not in a compelling manner or anything; no, it's a plotless bit of fluff that is probably supposed to be realistic, and the main interest is probably the frank discussion of sexuality and the swearing, but it's just boring.  The ugly art doesn't help either; it looks like it was done with a kids' marker set:



This is the kind of thing that pisses people off about anthologies like this.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Definitely not.  In fact, there are at least three better choices that cover similar subject matter in the "Notable Comics" section at the back of the book: Gabrielle Bell's "Hit Me", Ariel Schrag's "Shit", and Lauren Weinstein's "Horse Camp", all of which were in the Stuck in the Middle anthology (which I reviewed here).

Strips from Dykes to Watch Out For
By Alison Bechdel

Here we've got six somewhat random chapters of Alison Bechdel's biweekly strip from between August 9, 2006 and February 21, 2007.  As Bechdel states in the book's endnotes, she tries to keep the storylines of about a dozen characters running in real time while still injecting current news and politics into the background (or foreground) of the story.  It's kind of hard to tell from the excerpts here, but it seems like she does a good job of it.  The problem is, what we see is pretty limited; to get the full effect, you probably have to either read the strip as it comes out or comsume it in large chunks at once.  But it's obviously good work, so you can't fault the editors for wanting to include it.  I wonder if they made the best selections though; the most compelling storyline that we get a glimpse of involves two characters nearing a possible dissolution of their relationship, but there are also some strips included that don't even involve them.  Why were these particular strips selected?  Was it an attempt to showcase as many characters as possible?  It might have been better to try to focus on one storyline, to give the best demonstration of Bechdel's storytelling.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Maybe?  Probably?  Bechdel has been included in all three extant volumes of this series, and while she definitely deserved it for Fun Home last year, the editors don't make the best case for her inclusion with this selection.  If you're going to include a strip that runs in alternative weeklies, how about Keith Knight? 

The Salon (excerpt)
By Nick Bertozzi

But here's one I can definitely get behind.  This was one of my favorite books from last year (here's my review), and it certainly deserves any attention it hasn't already gotten.  Bertozzi's tale of art, murder, and magical absinthe was fascinating, and the excerpt chosen here is one of my favorite bits from the book, in which Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque work out some art theories that eventually led to the development of Cubism.  And, I'm happy to say, the excerpt also includes the infamous nude scene that got a retailer arrested for distributing obscene materials to a minor.  They didn't let the idiots scare them away from it; good for them.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.

"The Thing about Madeline"
By Lilli Carre

This short story sees a woman who has an alcohol problem come home one night to discover another version of herself sleeping in her bed.  Her other self ends up taking over her life, and she gets forced out and strikes off to start anew.  It's really nicely done; Carre introduces the character just enough to make us care about her, so the ensuing weirdness really strikes a note of horror.  I really like the loose-limbed expressiveness of the characters, and the way Madeline becomes more and more disheveled as she loses control of her life is wonderfully sad:



What's the story about?  I'm not sure exactly, but it might be looking at the way people can settle into a rut to such a point that they don't even recognize themselves anymore, and the only way out of it is to reinvent yourself completely.  Or that might be hokum; the story is still really good.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I would say yes.  The 2006 volume of this series had an excerpt of Carre's Tales of Woodsman Pete, and I wasn't too impressed with that, but this has made me completely reevaluate her.  I'll have to try to read more of her comics.

"Hopscotch"
By Martin Cendreda

This is a short one, only four pages long.  It's about two kids who are apparently homeless, hiding from adults by day and emerging at night to play in the streets, building fabulous structures out of discarded boxes.  It's a joyful little story, and Cendreda has some nice, expressive energy:



Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Eh, it's pretty lightweight.  I don't know if Cendreda's art is so dazzling that you have to recognize this as better than almost everything out there.  But it's definitely not bad.  It's a cute, fun story, and I can't fault it for that.

"The Monkey and the Crab"
By Shawn Cheng and Sara Edward-Corbett

In what is apparently an adaptation of a Japanese folk tale, a monkey cons a crab out of a dumpling in exchange for a persimmon seed, since the seed can be planted to grow a tree that will yield more persimmons.  But when the tree grows, the monkey comes and steals the fruit and murders the crab.  Then the crab's son and his friends (an egg, a bee, a pile of poop, and a, um, fondue pot?) plot justice/revenge against the monkey.  I'm not sure what the point of this is; maybe the original tale has some sort of moral (beware of crafty people who want to take advantage of you?  Revenge is never satisfying?), but it seems like just an exercise in weirdness here.  The art style is minimalist, with blank white backgrounds surrounding the characters, but Cheng and Edward-Corbett do give the creatures a good expressiveness:



The two creators split the art duties, with Cheng illustrating the first half of the story and Edward-Corbett handling the rest, but they share a similar enough of a style that it's not too noticeable of a switch.  Overall, it's a decent story, but kind of arbitrarily strange.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Again, it's not bad, but I certainly wouldn't classify it as better than almost everything else out there.  That's my damn opinion, take it or leave it.

"Seven Sacks"
By Eleanor Davis

I've heard that Eleanor Davis is a really good young cartoonist, and this story (along with the cover of this volume) proves that popular opinion is correct.  It's a short tale, in which a ferryman carries a series of increasingly disturbing-looking creatures across a river, all of whom are carrying sacks containing something alive (one of them says it's rabbits).  They all seem to be going to some sort of gathering; what could it be?  We never find out, but we experience the freakiness of the situation along with the ferryman, and wonder if he should have done anything to find out what was going on or stop it.  Davis does a great job, giving the characters a nice expressiveness, which is especially impressive with the ferryman, who isn't drawn with a high level of detail.  But she really makes you feel what is going through his head, through the simple addition of a tiny sweat drop, or widened or narrowed eyes.  And the creatures are especially well done, looking increasingly weird and scary.  The backgrounds are beautiful, making it look like a placid, autumnal forest, which is all the more unsettling when all the strangeness enters the picture:



It's a very effective piece, perfectly paced for maximum effectiveness.  Nicely done.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Certainly.  Davis is definitely one to watch.

Strips from The City
By Derf

Another selection of the kind of strips that run in alternative weeklies.  I'm not too impressed by this one though; it seems to be about politics and current events, with occasional stops in the territory of the observation of the strange people the creator has seen.  But you know you're in dnagerous territory when the first strip compares George W. Bush to Hitler (specifically, the waning days of the Bush administration to Hitler in the bunker, with Bush urging his "troops" to fight on through a Fox News microphone).  Even if the art was excellent, that sort of thing would make me roll my eyes and check to see how long this section lasts.  But the art here is anything but; it's all lumpy, ugly people against poorly defined backgrounds.  Not a strip that I would seek out eagerly each week.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I say no.

The Saga of the Bloody Benders (excerpt)
By Rick Geary

Rick Geary's Treasury of Victorian Murder series is great, presenting grim, true historical tales in a very matter-of-fact manner and using his detailed-yet-offputting art style to give the stories maximum creepiness.  This is a good one, about a family of strange immigrants in Kansas who murdered and robbed several travelers before disappearing.  The excerpt here covers a good section of the story but leaves you wanting to find out the details of what happened.  It's a great tease for the rest of the book.  Yes, this is good comics.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Rick Geary is great.

Strips from Will and Abe's Guide to the Universe
By Matt Groening

I haven't really liked what I've read of Matt Groening's Life in Hell strip, but I had never seen his strips starring his sons.  That's too bad; I loved these selections, which do a great job of showing the weird logic in the way kids see the world, and how funny it can be to have them describe what is important or interesting to them.  I loved it; I'll have to check out the collected version of these strips if I get the chance.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure, although this is the third (and not the last) alternative weekly strip in this volume.  Are the comics in those newspapers really that great?

"Mammalogy"
By Eric Haven

This starts out as a silent, prehistoric nature story, as a dinosaur chases a little rodent around.  That's interesting enough, but then we flash forward to the present day for a dumb story in which a superhero named The Mongoose fights a lizard monster.  Ha ha, aren't superheroes lame?  I'm sure the anatomy and action are supposed to look incorrect and awkward, because you have to emphasize the fact that guys in tights are stupid:



There is one funny line, in which the girl being rescued asks if the furry-costumed Mongoose is a "furvert", but other than that, this is pretty boring.  There's also a pointless framing sequence around the superhero bit, in which a pudgy, bespectacled guy (apparently an author stand-in) watches the fight on TV.  I guess this is supposed to be about the eternal war between reptiles and mammals, but whatever.  It's not a good story.  Maybe if Haven had stuck with the dinosaurs, he would have had something.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  God, no.  Indie comics shouldn't have to be about how lame superheroes are anymore.  Move on already, people.

"Gold Diggers of 1969"
By Jaime Hernandez

In this flashback to the childhood of Maggie, one of the main characters in Jaime Hernandez's "Locas" stories, we see her tag along as her mother worries about paying bills and taking care of her kids, since her husband is always away on business, and she is about to give birth again.  It's a nice look at the characters' past; in addition to Maggie and her mom and sister, we also see a teenage Izzy and Blanca and Maggie's aunt Vicki, who is already busy being a wrestler.  The story is probably most effective for those who are familiar with the characters, but even newcomers should be able to relate with a woman who is worried about providing for her children and the way she relies on family and community.  Jaime uses a neat art style here, stripping his level of detail down to minimal levels and presenting the story in tiny panels, with the characters appearing as more cartoony, even super-deformed versions of themselves:



But he still has enough mastery of cartooning to make the characters wonderfully expressive.  Look at the way that little line under Maggie's mom's eye gives her a look of exhaustion.  Wow.  Any visit with these characters is nice, but Jaime uses every chance to deepen their personalities and build on their rich history.  Great stuff.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes.  Jaime Hernandez is a master.

Strips from Underworld
By Kaz

I generally like what I've read of Underworld, but these are not very good.  Ugly characters say nonsensical things, and sometimes it's mildly funny.  The cartooning is decent, but nothing to write home about.  This one amused me though:



I guess this is supposed to be silly cartoons for adults, but the adult aspect is pretty much limited to some violence or naughty words.  Yawn.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I say no.  Another alternative weekly strip?  Come on.

"Cousin Grampa"
By Michael Kupperman

Michael Kupperman's Tales Designed to Thrizzle is some really funny stuff, but this story seems to have been chosen because it is surreal and impenetrable, and thus more artsy.  An old man wanders past some weird stuff and ignores it, choosing to watch TV instead.  Compared to the laugh riot that Kupperman can deliver, this one is pretty boring.  If it was my only exposure to Kupperman, I wouldn't bother reading anything else by him.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'll say no.  Kupperman has much better stuff than this.

"Turtle, Keep it Steady"
By Joseph Lambert

Now this one I like.  It's a version of the old tortoise-and-hare story, with the competitors playing drums.  The turtle lays down a steady beat, but the rabbit goes nuts, pounding out a frenzied rhythm while drinking and making out with a girl rabbit at the same time.  Guess who wins?  There's not much to it, but Lambert makes it enormously entertaining by giving all the animals (both the performers and the bystanders who dance to the beat) a nice expressiveness.  He also comes up with a nifty depiction of the rhythm, with word balloons containing abstract shapes that represent the beats:



Yeah!  That's pretty cool.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'll say yes.  It's pretty short and inconsequential, but with neat comics ideas, fun characters, and a cool atmosphere, what else do you need?

"Cupid's Day Off"
By Evan Larson

Cupid, who has begun to take his job too seriously, treating it like he's on military assignment, decides to take a vacation, leaving the equipment in the hands of his assistant with instructions to mess with it.  But she feels bad about all the unhappiness in the world, so she decides to remedy it by shooting everything she sees with cupid arrows.  This leads to some enormously funny bits:



When Cupid finds out, he's pissed.  What will he do?  It's a pretty funny little strip, and Larson has a nice, cartoony style that fits the story perfectly.  Fun stuff.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Maybe?  Light and inconsequential again, but still pretty enjoyable.

Berlin (excerpt)
By Jason Lutes

I had heard that Jason Lutes' series was quite good, but until now, I had never read any of it.  After this excerpt, I feel that it is imperative that I get my hands on the series as soon as I can.  It's a really well-done historical comic, looking at the titular city in the 1920s and 30s.  We see people struggling with poverty and the collapse of the banks, the rise of National Socialism, and the prevalence of anti-Semitism.  Even in this small sample, it's a good portrait of the contents of the series, exhibiting Lutes' grasp of character and setting, and his well-defined artwork.  He gets the locales down really well, and the characters look realistic, like we're watching real people live their lives.  Plus, there's humor and action:



Yeah, I've gotta read more of this.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I think it's safe to say yes.

Percy Gloom (excerpt)
By Cathy Malkasian

I heard this was a really good graphic novel, but I never got a chance to read it.  I hope to rectify that someday, and this excerpt only makes me want to do it soon.  We see the title character as he reminisces about his wife, whom he loved deeply.  But she joined a cult called the Funnelheads, and she ended up dying in a suicide ritual.  It's a sad story, and Malkasian's expressive linework gives Percy and those around him real feeling, even when using such a cartoony style:



Again, I gotta read more of this.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Again again, I think it's safe to say yes.

"The Teachers Edition." (excerpt)
By John Meijas

This looks to be a minicomic about teaching art at an elementary school in the Bronx, which does seem to be a good subject for a comic.  And what we get here is a nice story, but I hate the ugly sort-of-cubist art style that Meijas uses:



I do think he captures some interesting moments here, but he ruins most of them with the art, which just turns me off.  Eh, maybe it's just me.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  I'm conflicted, since I do think it has the seed of something really good, and maybe the art is just not to my tastes.  So, maybe, depending on whether you can live with/actually enjoy the art?

"Graveyard"
By Sarah Oleksyk

A young woman works the night shift at an all-night print shop, and she befriends a homeless junkie, even becoming attracted to him.  She tries to help him out, and it seems like she might be making a difference, but as often happens, the addiction gets the better of him.  It's a really sad tale, and it's all too real, looking at the toll that drug addiction can take not only on the users, but also the people who care about them.  Oleksyk sells it really well, doing a great job of capturing the movements and expressions of her characters:



It's quite good; I've gotta see if I can check out some more of her work.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Definitely.  Weighty subject matter sways me, I guess.  But the excellent cartooning and good grasp of character certainly helps too.

"The Forbidden Zone"
By Kevin Pyle

This story takes an interesting approach, presenting the imaginary adventures of some kids as if they were soldiers in a war comic, but occasionally dropping back to the "real world" narrative:



It's an interesting idea, and there's some decent character work with the kids, but there's not much to it.  I think this is part of an ongoing story in Pyle's book (series?) Blindspot, but there's little indication of that here, so the story has to stand alone, it seems.  And it kind of fails on that level, abruptly ending with no real resolution.  But that could be seen as realistic, since adventures end when kids have to go home for the day.  

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Not quite.  Beyond the "war comics" idea, there's not enough there to be especially good.  A nifty gimmick does not a great comic make.

George Sprott (1894-1975) (excerpt)
By Seth

I haven't read much of Seth's work, not because I dislike him or anything, but because what I've read of his doesn't make me want to rush out and get my hands on his comics as soon as possible.  But this excerpt of his strip that ran in The New York Times Magazine changes that; it's excellent.  It's a look at the life of the title character, an explorer, writer, and TV host, told in one-page strips composed of tiny panels that seem filled with life and detail, even in their cartoony simplicity.  Seth makes the accumulation of details about Sprott's life fascinating and compelling, presenting his story with some nicely-designed pages and good character art.  Here, we mostly get interviews with acquaintances and relatives, along with some first-person reflection on life and some funny struggling by an omniscient narrator to communicate the essence of Sprott's life, but failing, only managing to recount the dry facts.  Even in this small portion of the story, we get some really poignant stuff, like the remnants of Sprott's life left over in the hotel room where he lived:



And there's much more.  Man, that's another cartoonist I've got to try to read more of.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes. 

"The Thanksgiving Series"
By Chris Ware

This series of five New Yorker covers (which Ware collected as Acme Novelty Library #18.5) get presented here in their entirety, printed sideways for awkward reading.  In typical Ware fashion, it's a nice collection of stories (or images that tell stories), looking at the lives of people and their families around the holidays.  There is one misstep though, and that's the fourth installment, which sees a pigeon named Penrod get berated by his wife to go collect food.  I usually enjoy the goofy stories where Ware anthropomorphizes animals or objects to an absurd degree (like "Branford, the Best Bee in the World", from Acme #17), but this one seems especially nonsensical (pigeons are afraid to go outside on Thanksgiving, because birds die on that day, I guess?) and pointless, and it interrupts the flow of the human story that the rest of the covers are telling.  Seems like a waste of space.

But Ware redeems himself with the last entry, which is a highly detailed look at the life of the older brother of an old man who appeared on the other covers.  The brother died in World War II, and the page collects a bunch of memories about him from his brother, with the little stories cascading down the page in tiny fragments.  It's beautiful and emotionally affecting, everything that Ware does so well:



Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Yes, although the only essential page is the last one.  Still, Ware is a genius, and even if the other pages aren't perfect, this one more than makes up for them.

American Born Chinese (excerpt)
By Gene Luen Yang

This is another of the books that I really liked in 2007, presenting three interlinked stories that deal with the subtle and unsubtle racism that Asian-Americans deal with.  The excerpt here is a section from the most autobiographical of the stories, about a boy who wants to fit in with the other kids, and thus resists the friendship of a new kid who is a recent immigrant to the U.S., since he wants to distance himself from that which makes him different from the other kids.  It's a good bit of the story, and it makes you want to read the rest of the book.  Hopefully, people won't be put off by the fantasy and outrageously offensive sit-comminess of the other parts of the book.

Is it really one of the best comics of the year?  Sure.  Here's my review, for my full opinion on the book. 

So overall, that makes (approximately) 18 stories out of 26 that I think qualify for the description in the book's title.  Not a bad percentage, really, considering differences in taste.  Would I make any changes?  Well, obviously I would select a different lineup if I was in charge (you can see my picks for the best comics of 2007 for a lot of what would probably make it), and there are a few here that I think definitely do not belong, but it's a good collection, better than the 2006 edition, and probably better than 2007 (I didn't read that one, but I didn't think the list of inclusions was really up my alley).  It's definitely worth a read.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Dororo: I'll take Osamu Tezuka artwork over cheesy CGI any day

More movie talk below, but I also wanted to mention that I watched Exiled last night, and it was excellent.  It's a gangster/crime movie by Chinese director Johnnie To, and it's full of the sorts of stuff I love in movies like that, like brotherhood among criminals, bonding moments during downtime, and operatic shootouts.  The opening is incredible, in which four gangsters gather around a fifth who has gone into hiding with the intent of either killing or defending him; they have a shootout, and then stop, help him unload all his furniture from a moving truck, then sit down for dinner together.  I love it.  If you dig that sort of "honorable gangster" movie that's kind of a subgenre in Chinese and Japanese movies, be sure to check it out.

Dororo
Japan, 2007
directed by Akihiko Shiota


Since I'm such a nut for the manga, I figured I had to check out the recent live-action adaptation of Osamu Tezuka's weird/cool unfinished series.  And the verdict is: not as good as the source material.  Surprise, surprise.  Of course, that's kind of to be expected; doesn't everybody say "the book was better" about any movie adaptation?  And yes, taking an episodic series and turning it into a coherent two-hour story is not exactly easy, but this seems like an oddly piecemeal job.  It might have been better to take the concept and build a new story on it, but the writer(s) of this version took a few stories, changed some stuff around, and added their own elements wherever they felt like it.  It ends up being pretty unsatisfying as a movie, and especially so if you're familiar with the source material.

Although really, aside from the origin story (which has its own changes, including the odd choice to make Hyakkimaru's prostheses of somewhat magical origin) and the finale (which reworks the "wall" story from volume two, but more on that later), they really only convert one (1) of Tezuka's episodes to film.  That would be the one with the moth demon that married a rich guy and fathered a bunch of monster babies that ate the townspeople's children.  Outside of that encounter (which has some nice, creepy visuals, like caterpillar monster kids slithering all over the interior walls of a house), Hyakkimaru's quest to kill demons and regain his lost organs amounts to little more than a montage of him fighting monsters that combine the rubbery designs of Power Rangers bad guys and some silly-looking CGI.

Also puzzling is the casting for Dororo, which pretty much gives away a twist regarding the character's nature that crops up in the third volume of the manga.  I found that odd, along with the age of the character, who looks to be teenage or older here, but I thought was around ten years old in the original.  I guess working with a child actor would have been too difficult?

And then there's that finale.  That story involving two towns separated by a crumbling wall was one of my favorites in the whole series, but the movie elides the entirety of the interesting conflict (which involved demons spurring the people to senselessly kill each other out of regional pride so they could feed on the dead bodies) in the original story and makes it all about Hyakkimaru's showdown with his father and brother.  I do realize that father/son conflict is the basis of most Japanese movies, and it was certainly an aspect of the original story as well, but this version got pretty damn tiresome.

So, I wouldn't recommend the movie, even if you don't have experience with the manga.  Read the Tezuka instead; that will give you hours more entertainment than this silliness.
-----

If you're interested, you can check out the trailer to the movie here.  And here's a clip from the 1969 anime adaptation of the series, which lasted 26 episodes and actually came to a decisive conclusion (episode list here, if you're interested).  Finally, here's the opening cinematic from the 2004 PS2 game Blood Will Tell, another adaptation of the series.  Since I've become a Dororo connosieur, I'll have to check that one out sometime.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Solanin: I think it's safe to say that I liked it

A note before starting: I've noticed that this book has been an object of discussion around the comics interblogs (Jog, Chris Butcher, and David Welsh, for example), but I've avoided reading any of those until I was able to finish the book and write my own take.  So stay tuned around these parts, I guess, in case I end up feeling like I need to react to others' opinions.  Discussion is good!

Solanin
By Inio Asano



Why don't we have more manga like this in English?  For that matter, we could use more comics like this in general, but the fact that this book, which isn't about young boys fighting, vampires, or dudes making out with each other, got published in the West at all is not only noteworthy, but quite hopeful for those of us who want to read more manga geared for adults.  

With this book, Inio Asano has crafted a beautifully realistic, down-to-earth slice of life that most adults should be able to identify with intimately.  Haven't we all been aimless youths struggling to come to grips with the responsibilities of adulthood?  Here, Asano focuses on a group of young twentysomethings, led by Meiko, a girl who recently graduated from college and lives in Tokyo with her boyfriend Tanabe.  She hates her office job, and ends up abruptly quitting after being assured by Tanabe that he can take care of them.  But he's not in much better of a position, only working part-time as an illustrator.  Meiko has what she figures is enough savings to get through a year, so she figures she has that amount of time to figure out what she wants to do, or resign herself to boring office work for the rest of her life.

It's a realistic, if not everyday, situation, and Asano nails the details, from the boredom that soon strikes Meiko when she has nothing to do but sit around her apartment all day, to the strain it puts on her relationship with Tanabe.  In fact, that relationship is kind of the centerpiece of much of the story, and one of Asano's triumphs here.  They way they interact with each other is so complicated and lifelike, they feel like real people.  While Tanabe initially supports Meiko's decision, he soon comes to resent her and worry that he won't be able to provide for both of them.  They end up fighting a lot, but also demonstrating a lot of tenderness toward each other.  It's a beautifully, achingly real depiction of two people struggling to figure out how to become adults.

Part of the reason this all works so well is Asano's gorgeous artwork, which captures the characters and setting with a wonderfully true-to-life, lived-in feel.  Meiko, Tanabe, and their friends don't seem like perfectly clothed and coiffed manga heroes; they look like somebody you would meet on the street, with messy hair and normal outfits.  And they aren't all blandly good-looking either; Meiko in particular is kind of plain, but Asano still manages to capture her beauty while making her look fairly average:



Asano's environments are also perfect for the story, looking like the normal streets, shops, and dwellings that we see every day.  But they're so detailed in their normality, that it's almost like looking through a window at a scene playing out in front of you:



This aspect gets emphasized in occasional chapter-heading illustrations that show some of the backgrounds without any characters, demonstrating the amount of detail that Asano put into every image:



It's amazing stuff, beautiful in its mundanity.

As the plot progresses, Meiko and Tanabe begin to pin their hopes on Tanabe's band, which he started with some friends in college and still continues to mess around with.  In what is either a last attempt to hold onto youth or an effort to keep dreams of artistic success alive, Tanabe quits his job and decides to put all his energy into music.  For a while, the theme of the book becomes the struggle between artistic integrity and being able to put food on the table.  But man, if Asano doesn't make the fight seem worthwhile, with performance scenes that capture the energy of making music (or observing the process from the outside):



But, this being a realistic book, sometimes dreams don't work out.  Eventually you've got to put away those fantasies and be a grown-up, unless you're one of a very select few.  So while the thrill of rock and roll grips the characters for a while, eventually real life seeps back in, and the young lovers have to figure out what they're going to do.  Highly emotional exchanges result:



And, in one of the less realistic, though no less effective, twists of the book, something tragic happens, and the book heads off toward another theme: dealing with loss and grief.  It ends up being some powerful, emotional stuff, and Asano can handle it as well as he could everything else.  He has a great grasp of character, from both a writing and artistic perspective, and he really puts you right in the scenes along with his characters, making you feel the emotions along with them.

It's just beautifully done, with the entire thing building up to a wonderfully cathartic moment that will bring tears to your eyes (unless you're made of stone).  But lest you think it's all serious scenes of emotional breakdowns, there's plenty of moments of comedy that keep things from getting too heavy and introspective:



It makes for an exquisitely complete package, assured in its storytelling from the first page to the last.  This is exactly the kind of book that fans of manga who want to read mature, adult work have been hoping for, and if there's any justice, it will lead to much more in that vein being released.  But for now, let's celebrate what we have, and that's an excellent comic that satisfies on every level.  I'll be impressed if a better example of comics comes out this year.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Monday, October 27, 2008

This week, I might have to spend money that I don't possess

Damn, lots of good stuff this week:

New comics this week (Wednesday, 10/29/08):

Amazing Spider-Man #575

This issue, J. Jonah Jameson loses his arms because he confuses Spider-Man with a terrorist sleeper cell.

Astonishing X-Men Ghost Boxes #1

If anyone cares anymore, this is apparently a fill-in issue/miniseries or something that will help Simone Bianchi get caught up on art duties on the regular series (art is being done by Alan Davis and Adi Granov, who I'm sure make quite the complementary pair).  Looks like he's following closely in John Cassaday's steps.  Oh, is the book any good?  Who the hell knows?  You don't expect me to read anything X-Men related, do you?

Boys #24

Ennis, with Robertson.  I can't wait until it's collected.

Garth Ennis Battlefields Night Witches #1

Ennis' newest wartime endeavor, telling the story of female Russian bomber pilots in WWII.  I almost always dig Ennis' war comics, and I can't wait to read this one (eventually).  Art by Russ Braun.

Garth Ennis' Streets of Glory #6

Yet more Ennis?!  I didn't read any of this western series illustrated by Mike Wolfer, but I haven't really heard good things.  Should I bother?  Anyone?

Hellboy in the Chapel of Moloch #1

A one-shot, actually illustrated by (gasp!) Mike Mignola!  Sweet.  No idea what the story is, but I bet it involves a chapel of some sort.

Jack of Fables #27

More of Jack's shenanigans.  I haven't been following this series, but I hope to get caught up at some point.  This issue features Hillary Page's backstory, or something.  Damn, I wanna read it.

Jazz Cool Birth One Shot

I talked to author Gary Scott Beatty at Wizard World Chicago this summer, and he even gave me a couple comics that he wrote to check out.  I never did get around to reviewing them (sorry, Gary!), but I would call them interestingly flawed.  However, this book, which he also illustrated, won the Xeric award, and it looks pretty interesting, telling a Jazz-age murder mystery and sporting some nifty 50s-style art.  I might have to check it out.  Here's a preview page.

Kick Drum Comix #2

More Jim Mahfood!  The first issue looked nice, so I bet this will also be cool.

Kill Your Boyfriend

A new printing of Grant Morrison and Phillip Bond's tale of youthful rebellion (of the murderous, anarchic variety).  It's all right, but not Morrison's best work.  I recommend Jog's analysis of the comic; that guy is smart.

Marvel 1985 #6

Mark Millar's weird-ass miniseries ends, and I wonder if Tommy Lee Edwards will ever get to illustrate anything worthy of his talents.  He's a damn good artist, and I hope he doesn't spend his whole career on crap like this.  I read most of the issues of this, and it's pretty stupid, with a bunch of lame nonsense about how nasty supervillains would be in the "real" world (or the Mark Millar version of it, anyway).  The art is pretty, but you have to suffer through a terrible story to see it.  Let's all try to convince Edwards to get Warren Ellis or Matt Fraction to team up with him on something cool and independent like Fell.  He's much better than this.

No Hero #2

Warren Ellis.  Juan Jose Ryp.  Superhero violence.  You know the drill.  Let me know if it's worth picking up in trade, I guess.

Northlanders #11

More Brian Wood Vikings!  This issue kicks off a new storyline, sporting art by Ryan Kelly!  I bet it will be good.

Rex Libris #13

Wow, James Turner is getting these out quick these days.  I think the story of our heroic librarian is drawing to a close, but I'll enjoy it while it lasts.

Ultimate Spider-Man Annual #3

Another case of pretty artwork, with duties on this annual being handled by Patsy Walker: Hellcat's David LaFuente.  I'm not complaining though; he's perfect for this sort of thing, and while I don't usually bother with this series, it's still chugging along and doing its thing well.  If something happened to Stuart Immonen, LaFuente would be a worthy replacement.  Fun superheroics; I might bother reading more of those if they were more like this.

Wasteland #21

This is one of those standalone issues that falls between story arcs on the series.  This one tells the story of the founding of Newbegin, with illustrations by Chuck BB.  I'll be getting it, yessir.  Never mind, this is actually the start of a new storyline.  I'll get the collection, but I do recommend reading the monthly issues if you can spare the couple extra bucks.

Acme Novelty Library Vol 19 HC

Is this actually coming out this week?  Wow, it's early this year.  Looks like we're back to the ongoing "Rusty Brown" serial, with this volume focusing on Rusty's father, a high school teacher.  Will he have an American Beauty-esque awakening at the sight of Chalky White's teenage sister?  I doubt Ware will do anything triumphant; maybe he'll end up in jail on charges of pederasty.  I can't wait to find out.

Adventures Of Tintin Collectors Gift Set HC

Ah, the expensive stuff that I'll never be able to afford.  If you always wanted a pricey collection of one of the best comics series of all time, here's your chance: it's a seven-book set, with each volume containing three installments of the series, for $150.  Enjoy your prosperity, you rich fuckers.

Bat-Manga Secret History Of Batman In Japan

Chip Kidd's book about, well, what the title says, hopefully containing many examples of that sort of work.  I would love to check this out sometime.  You can get it in softcover for $30, or pay $60 for a fancy hardcover with an extra comics story.  Tough choice?  Not for me (I'm poor).

Bernie Wrightsons Frankenstein HC

It's a new version of the novel, interspersing all of Bernie Wrightson's famous illustrations (which I think were originally published in a portfolio) among the complete text.  It's oversized at 9" x 12", and it'll run you $29.95.

Detective Jermain Vol 1 TP

A new manga-esque graphic novel from Misako Rocks! (Misako Takashima, I think), who is probably best known for doing illustrations for Dan Savage's "Savage Love" sex advice column.  I thought her first book, Biker Girl, was terrible, but maybe she has improved.  This one is about a teenage girl detective and her sidekick/love interests.  Worthwhile?   Eh, probably not.

Ghost Omnibus Vol 1 TPB

The latest in Dark Horse's series of thick value volumes.  I never read this series, and I don't know if it's any good (probably not), but a good portion of it is drawn by Adam Hughes, so it looks nice, especially if you like the cheesecake.  Eh, why do I even bother to mention this...

God The Dyslexic Dog Vol 2 TP

This comic is supposed to be good.  I've been meaning to check it out for a while now.  Looks like there will be another volume to obtain.  Here's the series' home page, if you want more information.

Joker HC

Dunno if this is worth reading, but a lot of people seem to be talking about it.  Brian Azzarello, Lee Bermejo, supervillains, violence, you know the drill (crap, I'm repeating myself).  Maybe I'll look for it at the library; it sounds interesting, but not really something I would want to own.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen The Black Dossier TPB

Here's some damn good comics.  Alan Moore, Kevin O'Neill, lots of content, a chance to blow your mind.  In cheaper format now, only costing you twenty bucks.  Here's my review of the book, if you want to know exactly how much I loved it.

Mammoth Book Of Zombie Comics TPB

I'm sick of zombies, but there does appear to be some decent stuff in here, including Scott Hampton's adaptation of Robert E. Howard's "Pigeons From Hell" and something or other by Hideshi Hino.  Is that a recommendation?

Man Of Rock Biography Of Joe Kubert TPB

Probably a good story.  Joe Kubert is pretty awesome.

Myth Of 8-Opus Wrecks TP

I've got to read this sometime.  This volume collects the first five issues of Tom Scioli's pre-Godland Kirby-influenced series.  Looks pretty sweet.

Roadkill Jim Kowalski Adventure GN

Matt Fillbach's new graphic novel, about some sort of zombie contagion that has to be fought by the title character, a paranormal trucker.  Could be enjoyable.  Here's a preview.

Screamland Vol 1 TPB

The collected version of the miniseries about monsters as movie stars.  I reviewed the first issue here.  I could see myself checking out the full book.

Sshhhh GN New Printing

Jason!  I haven't read this one.  I guess it's my chance to get it.  But probably not at the week, lest I blow my meager comics budget for the rest of the year.  Uh, it's apparently his first full-length work, with a series of silent stories depicting the life of a bird character.  Man, I really gotta read it.

Shock Festival HC

From IDW, this is a sort of mockumentary book about a bunch of fictional exploitation films, with illustrations in the form of movie posters.  I like the idea; it could be pretty enjoyable reading.

Speak Of The Devil HC

Ooh, I've heard that this Gilbert Hernandez series was quite good, so here's the collected version.  I might have to wait until a softcover version is out to buy it, but I do really want to read it.  Uh, preview?

Tick The Complete Edlund GN

I used to love this cartoon, but I haven't really read hardly any of the original comics.  Here's the chance though, since this volume collects all twelve of the issues that creator Ben Edlund did, under one cover for $35.  Spoon!

Token

Another Minx volume straggles out.  This one is by Alisa Kwitney and Joelle Jones, about a Jewish girl and an old Spanish lady forming a friendship in South Beach in the 80s.  I would definitely check it out, given the chance.

Venice Chronicles HC

Pixar animator Enrico Casarosa's travelogue about the title city.  Sounds kind of like Guy DeLisle's Pyongyang (or maybe Shenzhen, but I haven't read that one), without the political content.  Probably quite nice-looking; maybe worth checking out.

Akiba Manga Guide To The Akihabara TP

Kodansha America publishes this guide to the famous Tokyo shopping district.  Looks like they're still dipping their toe into the American market.  This might be all right, if the subject interests you.  That wouldn't include me, unless I end up taking an unexpected trip to Japan.

Batman Death Mask Collected Edition TP

I guess I gave up on this manga Batman story before it ended, but it was pretty interesting.  Nothing mindblowing, but it's cool to see a different sort of take on the character.  Here's the collected (digest-sized?) version, for only $9.99.  Check it out, I guess.

Parasyte Vol 5 GN Del Rey Edition

Man, I'm behind on this series; I never did get to the fourth volume.  Hopefully, I'll be able to catch up at some point.  In the meantime, I recommend John Jakala's look at volume 4.

Travel SC

Yoichi Yokoyama got some attention for his New Engineering last year (I do plan to try to read it sometime, someday), and here's his new one, in which some guys take a long train journey, and nothing else happens.  He's an interesting fellow, this Yokoyama; I really need to check some of his stuff out.
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Yeah, that's a lot of stuff.  I've got some reading to get to, at some point.  I love comics.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Bluesman: Given the name of the blog, this seems right up my alley

In case anybody missed it, here's the funniest thing I've seen this week: Chip Zdarsky's notebook of Marvel Comics story ideas.  It's a milk-snortingly hilarious collection of sexual pairings between characters, lampooning the popular trend of "serious" attempts to make superhero comics "adult" while still obsessively making sure all the characters' powers are used correctly and whatnot.  Or maybe it's just funny because he says "fuck" a lot.  Whatever.

And, although I realize this is kind of old, I wanted to point out this article about Shigeru Mizuki's manga about war.  It's got some fascinating details about his experiences as a soldier in World War II and the manga he created about the subject.  There's even a translated story called "War and Japan" which deals directly with the atrocities committed by Japan and how the nation should deal with them instead of trying to ignore and forget them.  It finishes with a personal anecdote that I find amazingly emotional, dealing with themes like guilt and forgiveness.  Check it out if you haven't before.  And how about some translated Mizuki manga here in the West, please?

Bluesman
Written by Rob Vollmar
Art by Pablo G. Callejo



Who doesn't love the blues?  It's a quintessential American art form that makes for great listening today, but many of us probably don't stop to consider its true origins.  In our current, fairly enlightened times, it can be easy to forget some of the ugly racial history of the United States and how entire groups of people were treated as subhuman, even though the law had supposedly declared them equal.  Rob Vollmar and Pablo G. Callejo examine this culture in Bluesman, a story about a traveling musician in the 1920s, and it's a fascinating look into an era that few of us even realize took place.

While the story of Lem Taylor is fictional, it seems all too real, as we see him and his colleague Ironwood Malcott travel through Arkansas looking for work.  Lem plays guitar, and Ironwood piano; they end up in a small town called Hope, playing in a bar on the outskirts of town.  And even though they're lucky enough to be offered a chance to travel to Little Rock and record their music, circumstances soon transpire that dash their hopes forever.

Of course, if Ironwood, an older, more experienced man, had any restraint, all might have turned out okay.  But even though Lem begs him to do otherwise, he ends up chasing after a girl, getting involved in a lovers' quarrel, and causing a violent scene that leaves Lem on the run and afraid for his life.  This also drags in a local sheriff, who gets stuck in between trying to solve the mystery and trying to hold off a mob of angry white people who are aching to participate in a lynching. 

It's a pretty engaging story that Vollmar weaves here, and Callejo does his best to bring it to life, but he makes the decision to use a "woodcut" style that might hamper the expressiveness a bit.  In the early chapters especially, the art often seems pretty awkward, with the thick lines perhaps causing some lost definition.  Still, Callejo does a fine job of making characters expressive, and I especially like the way he distinguishes them racially.  Black characters, who make up the majority of the cast, don't just have extra shading to make their skin darker, but their features seem more African, especially in the prominent, rounded cheekbones:



Callejo does seem to have some problems depicting hands, sometimes contorting them into odd shapes or making fingers look like disconnected ovals:



But he makes them look good in other scenes; I especially like the skeletal appearance of Ironwood's hands when he plays the piano:



The art does improve as the book progresses, and Callejo turns in some really nice work, using techniques that call to mind Thomas Ott's scratchboard art at times, and showing that when he puts in the time to use finer lines, the details really sing:



I do wonder at the effectiveness of the depiction of music, however.  While it's not a huge part of the story, some key scenes see Lem and Ironwood playing the blues, and Callejo usually depicts the music as notes running along the top of the panels:



Not being a musical person, I don't know if these notes mean anything, or would sound anything like the actual tune being played; rather, they seem like a visual signifier for generic "music", and they don't seem to convey anything besides the fact that music is being played.  That's a difficult feeling to convey in comics, and artists have tried a variety of effects to that end, like crazily distorting the notes or showing them flowing through the artwork itself.  But the version used here isn't especially effective, seeming kind of stiff and at odds with the characters' reactions to the music.

The story takes several twists and turns, but it eventually leads to a big, satisfying climax, although it might be a little over the top with everything that happens.  It's nicely done though, and as a cap on the emotional arc of the story, it works beautifully.  And there's also a nice epilogue that immediately calls said climax into question.  It's a nicely-written book, and a great look at an era that wasn't all that long ago, even if it seems so far away.  Let's not forget the lessons of the past, all right?

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Black Diamond: Bypassing everything else out there

In case I don't get around to mentioning it, some movies I saw recently: Burn After Reading is pretty entertaining, if not anywhere near the Coen brothers' best work. I did like the oddly distancing stylistic techniques, like the bombastic score that made it sound like everything was important and world-shaking, when in actuality it was pointless nonsense. Good times, even if it's not going to be winning any Oscars.

On the other hand, The Visitor might be my favorite movie of the year, with an affecting story of personal connection among unlikely people, and a heartbreaking examination of the effects of the U.S. immigration policy. Damn good movie; check it out if you get the chance.

Also, I've got a review of Criminal volume 2 #6 over at Comics Bulletin. That's a good series.

And to business:

The Black Diamond: Get in the Car and Go
Written by Larry Young
Art by Jon Proctor



Damn that Graeme McMillan. His introduction to the collected version of The Black Diamond is so insightful, any attempt at critical analysis that I attempt could invite charges of plagiarism. It's a nice bit of preparation for the book, going over a lot of the themes and ideas, but not going too over the top with the praise. That's why he makes the big bucks, I guess.

But it helps to have somebody like McMillan to splash some water on you before you jump into the pool, because simply reading the back-cover summary won't prepare you for the story within. Larry Young seems to promise a "love-letter to the 1970s drive-in movie", but he delivers something much stranger, more of an examination of storytelling, full of misdirection as to where the plot is headed and what it's really all about.

But that main high-concept is a good one: 50 years in the future, the air travel industry has collapsed, and it has been replaced in the United States by the eponymous elevated intercontinental highway where miscreants and nonconformists can live away from the regular Joe Sixpacks. Dentist (orthodontist?) Don McLaughlin's wife is the daughter of the Black Diamond's designer, and when she is kidnapped from a conference in Baltimore, he has to race across the country from his home in San Francisco to save her. That's a great plot-starter, and while it's not like Young doesn't deliver some thrills related to "Doctor Don"'s quest, he also spends entire chapters ignoring it while characters have conversations that only occasionally involve the plot. It could be called Tarantino-esque, especially since the dialogue is quite mannered and not at all "realistic" (not that that's a problem; Young can write some pretty entertaining backs-and-forths), but this even takes a step beyond the film auteur's stylish postmodern revamping of old genres; these characters don't just discuss pop culture, but the mechanics of storytelling itself.

There's also the gradual encroachment of a larger conflict, as the government decides to end the lawlessness of the Black Diamond, sending the army to clean things up. This provides some interesting commentary about global politics and the U.S.'s reliance on oil (a fanciful notion; we're supposed to believe there will be any left in 50 years?), but it ends up providing an odd separate narrative that frankly isn't as interesting as the main one. And even that main "gotta save my wife" quest, which does have some great moments (see below), ends kind of abruptly. Overall, the story doesn't take as much of a narrative arc as a rising curve that just kind of stops. It's definitely an odd duck of a story, and while Young does acknowledge it with his "meta" ending (which even goes so far as to step out of the story and provide script excerpts and a sort of author insertion via captions, it's still kind of unsatisfying.

Or is it? As mentioned, Young is definitely participating in some misdirection, and he seems to delight in confounding expectations. He's busy describing the rules of how stories work, so why not blatantly break those rules? Whether this bothers you enough to be a dealbreaker probably depends on how adventurous you are in what you like to read, or at least what sort of tolerance you have for Young's shenanigans.

And of course, you might or might not like Jon Proctor's art, which has its own stylized appeal (or lack thereof). The character work in early chapters could charitably be described as awkward:



But he does noticeably improve on that front as the story progresses (even if we still occasionally have trouble telling characters apart). And even at those opening stages, the real appeal of his artwork begins to shine through: the dynamic design sense. The sleek lines of cool cars and the long stretches of roadways make for some excellent page design:



And his thick, ragged brush strokes provide some wild rubble and explosions, along with some expressive sound effects:



As the book progresses, Proctor's designs get more and more out there, eventually leading to crazy art-deco panel layouts filled with eye-searing washes of fluorescent color:



And in the finale, he turns the army's presence into repetetive, iconic imagery that calls to mind Soviet propaganda:



It's striking stuff, and a large part of the appeal of the book. Young's storytelling has a freewheeling quality that might lose the reader at times, but the book is rarely boring to look at.

Overall, I don't know if I could recommend this unreservedly; it's too quirky and strange for somebody expecting a bunch of car chases or something. But if you're willing to open your mind a bit and try to let Young's weird energy in, it's incredibly enjoyable, and unique enough of an experience to be pretty noteworthy. If that sounds like your kind of thing, well, you've probably already read it, but if you haven't, do check it out.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.