Sunday, November 30, 2008

As surprising as it may seem, shojo manga doesn't automatically receive good reviews around here

Here's three volumes that I wasn't crazy about (although it should be noted that none of them are terrible or anything).  Find out why:

Captive Hearts, volume 1
By Matsuri Hino



Fans of Matsuri Hino's popular series Vampire Knight might be surprised at this series, since it's kind of goofy and silly, rather than dark and broody.  Actually, it does retain some of the angst, but it's more in the romantic comedy style of "I hope I don't do anything to screw up my relationship with this person", rather than the life-or-death worries of the bloodsucker-based book.  No, this is an earlier series (Hino's first serialized manga, in fact), and it goes for the comedy, in that weird Japanese way that seems so odd to Americans, if only because it embraces the supernatural without any irony whatsoever.  

That paranormal aspect comes from a curse that has condemned members protagonist Megumi's bloodline to always be subservient to a rich family that one of his ancestors wronged at some point in the past.  He hasn't had a problem with it before his current college age because the family disappeared on a trip to China when he was young, and he and his father (who had been their butler) inherited their fortune.  Megumi was content to live the life of a lazy student, until word came that Suzuka, the teenage daughter of the rich family was discovered to be alive.  She was the only survivor of the accident that killed her parents, and she has been living in China with an adopted family ever since.  To make matters worse, the family curse kicks in once she appears, and not being used to it, Megumi finds himself compelled to call Suzuka "Princess", carry her in his arms, pamper her endlessly, and generally make a fool of himself whenever she's around.  But she's not very comfortable with all this, and he hates acting that way against his will, so hilarity ensues:



Yes, comedy is the name of the game here, although it sometimes gets overshadowed by the lovey-dovey stuff; that is, Megumi finds that Suzuka is a genuinely nice person who doesn't like all the attention he gives her, and he quickly develops feelings for her beyond the involuntary urges he experiences (hmmm, does that make this an allegory for teenage hormones?  Probably not).  She also dedicates herself to finding a cure for his curse, and he tries to make the best of it, leading to lots of humor centered on embarrassing oneself in public (the Japanese love that stuff, since they are so reserved and polite).  There's also plenty of slapstick, which usually comes from Megumi's dad smacking him when he does something improper in front of Suzuka.

And so it goes, with occasional bits of romantic-comedy misunderstanding or drama caused by the curse.  It'll probably last a few more volumes until it all peters out and comes to a "now we can live happily ever after!" conclusion, but I think this is all I need to read.  I do wonder about the underlying psychology, however.  Is Megumi meant to satisfy a sort of female urge for someone to take care of them?  I'm sure girls would like somebody to wait on them hand and foot, but throw in a bit of real romantic longing underneath that, and it's like a perfect combination, right?  As a non-member of the target audience, it seems a bit calculated to me, but that might be distaste for the forced-submissiveness nature of the plot.  Hino probably just put together something that she would like to read; I can't help it if I'm not a teenage girl.

Two short stories round out the volume.  The first, "Real Storm", is about a girl in love with her teacher.  There's some wholesome material!  Actually, it wouldn't be a problem, except that the teacher seems to return the affection; even if it's not a full romantic relationship, the whole idea is kind of gross.  That subject does seem to be a little less taboo in Japan than in the United States; isn't there a similar plot in Cardcaptor Sakura?  Anyway, the story is all about learning to stand up for yourself and deal with the emotional changes that come with adolescence, so it's not all bad.  There's also an interesting bit about how it's hard for girls, since they mature faster than boys, but when boys catch up, they often kind of overcompensate and hurt girls.  Man, I'm not ready for my daughter to be a teenager, that's for sure.

The second short story is called "Let Time Freeze", and it's a simple bit about a girl who has fallen in love with her lifelong friend, and isn't ready for him to move away and go to college.  It works well enough for a short romantic piece.  So I guess the verdict for the volume is: not for me, but not bad either.  That's the problem with shojo; it's often quite removed from appeal, but when it's good, it can transcend genre and demographic limits and be something great.  Captive Hearts isn't one of those, but I wouldn't tell teenagers to avoid it.  Make of that what you will.
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St. Dragon Girl, volume 1
By Natsumi Matsumoto



When the first chapter of this series ran as a preview in Shojo Beat, here's some of what I had to say about it:  "The huge eyes and severely pointed chins remind me of Arina Tanemura, and unfortunately, so does the occasionally hard-to-follow action."  After making my way through the entire first volume, I think that stands up, although the action gets easier t
o follow as the series progresses.  In case you missed that earlier review, the premise is this:  Momoka is from a family of martial artists, and her longtime friend/secret crush Ryuga's family uses magic to fight demons.  In order to protect his cousin Shunran from a serpent demon who decides to take her as his bride, Ryuga summons a super-powerful dragon spirit, but in one of those oh-so-wacky manga complications, it ends up entering Momoka instead of him.  So she has the power of this awesome spirit, but Ryuga can control it by sealing it off with his magic, so they have to work together to defeat the bad guy.  And there's your formula for future chapters: bad guy (demon or otherwise) surfaces, Momoka tries to fight him, Ryuga shows up at the last minute to unseal the dragon, the day is won, yay.  But actually, the main conflict of the series isn't really about who the bad guy of the week is, but rather the developing romance between Momoka and Ryuga.  She likes him, but he acts standoffish and derisive, often driving her to try to defeat the bad guys without him or thinking he doesn't care about her.  But he's just reluctant to show his feelings for her, and he always comes through in the end.

This series does seem to skew a bit younger than the other two mentioned in this post, and that view of romance shows it.  There's a lot of angry sentiments along the lines of "Fine!  I don't care about you either!" and lots of slapsticky punching of Ryuga when he's too much of a tease.  Oh, boys!  Will we ever be able to understand them?  Really, it's pretty enjoyable overall, with some fun action and clean, clear artwork.  But like everything else here, not really my cup of tea.  It's plenty appropriate for that middle school age range though (notwithstanding another plot about student/teacher romance.  That's not a theme I was expecting).
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We Were There, volume 1
By Yuki Obata



Like all the volumes mentioned here, I originally experienced this manga when it was previewed in Shojo Beat.  This one was kind of short though; here's the gist of my review:  "...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."  Well, now that I've read the whole first volume, I can say that it's not too terribly bland, and it might actually work pretty well as a character-based drama that develops over a long period of time.  The story involves a girl named Nanami and her relationship with a boy named Yano.  She's a high school freshman (or "first year", since this is the Japanese school system), and she ends up on the student council with him, but while he is popular with all the girls, he rubs her the wrong way, coming off as arrogant and obnoxious.  But soon enough, she finds herself taken with him, developing an attraction that he seems to reciprocate, at least partially.  Later, she finds out that his previous girlfriend was killed in a car accident, so she feels like she can't measure up to his dream girl that was taken away from him so awfully.  When she confesses her crush to him, he casually asks if she wants to go out with him, but she wants to know if he actually likes her, leading to this kind-of-sad scene:



But while that's unfortunate for her, it's also a good character moment; he honestly isn't sure if he likes her romantically, and he's not going to just lie to make her happy.  This throws a bit of a kink into their relationship, but they eventually work it out.  It's a pretty realistic depiction of a teenage friendship that might develop into something more.  I like that; by the end of this first volume, we're still seeing the beginning stages of their relationship, and it's nice to see a story that isn't just lapsing into cliched conflicts and misunderstandings.

But while this sounds like something right up my alley, I'm a bit put off by the fairly generic shojo art, which contains lots of toned patterns, shots of the sky, and close-ups of faces.  It's not unappealing, but it just kind of sits there on the page, with little to really keep interest focused.  And Nanami is kind of a boring protagonist, with little to really distinguish her from the other girls that get excited over Yano.  There's just not really enough of interest here to want to see where the story goes; if I was told this was the only volume of the series, I would have no problem if this was the end of the story.  Of course, your mileage may vary (it's always a good idea with shojo to remember that I'm quite a ways away from the target demographic); maybe this is right up the alley of drama-loving teenage girls.  But I'll be incredibly surprised if it becomes the next Fruits Basket, that's for sure.
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These reviews were based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Ex Machina: God is dead. Or maybe he's just, like, a big computer, dude

Other stuff from me: I've got a review of Pax Romana #4 up at Comics Bulletin.  That's the final issue of Jonathan Hickman's latest series, and I thought it was pretty good.

Links:  The Fortress of Fortitude posted scans of this cool issue of an old Harvey horror anthology called Alarming Tales, in which all the stories within were done by Jack Kirby.  It's not at the level of his later awesomeness, but it's still some pretty neat stuff.  Check it out.

I'll also recommend Lucy Knisley's blog, in which she posts regular comics she drew.  I especially dug this one, in which she and her boyfriend go to an incredibly expensive Chicago restaurant and have their minds blown by the crazy, delicious food.  She has been getting some attention lately for her book French Milk, and it definitely looks like she's a talent to watch.

Ex Machina, volume 7: Ex Cathedra
Written by Brian K. Vaughan
Art by Tony Harris



I've been reading this series since the beginning, but I decided to switch to waiting for the trade collections at the end of the storyline before the one collected here.  Maybe my tastes have changed, because while I have been curious about the series, I haven't missed it as much as I thought I would, considering that it used to be one of my favorite ongoing series.  Maybe it's my ever-increasing antipathy toward superheroics, or maybe the lack of a regular dose of Brian K. Vaughan-written comics (now that Y: The Last Man has ended and he's not writing Runaways anymore) has decreased my affection for his style, but apparently I'm not chomping at the bit to read more about everybody's favorite superhero mayor.  Still, I did enjoy this volume quite a bit, but the distance from the material does allow me to take a more clear-headed look at it, seeing some flaws and prompting examination of what I do or don't like about the series.

Really, if there is anything that I might find myself liking less, it's Tony Harris's artwork.  He's not a bad artist, but as I focus on more non-mainstream comics, it seems closer to superhero standards than to the stuff I'm liking more these days, like the Hernandez brothers, Eddie Campbell, or Sean Phillips.  It might be the kind-of-garish coloring that does it, or maybe just the poses that characters often take, but it's a bit stiff-looking and not as nice as I used to think it was.  I do like that Harris makes some idiosyncratic choices though; he often seems to capture characters in mid-motion, with their lips curling into odd configurations, and their hands making odd gestures:




For a dialogue-heavy book, it adds some interest to scenes that could easily end up being little more than talking heads.  The expressions and body language aren't unrealistic, but rather like photographs of people having a conversation, capturing non-posed, unglamorous movements that do a good job of conveying the emotions they are experiencing.  It's a good match for the series, since so much of the best material sees characters discussing politics and such, rather than big action scenes.  But when the action does show up, Harris definitely doesn't disappoint, making it exciting and often brutal.  One climactic bit of nastiness had me cringing; it's pretty effective stuff.

Harris also delivers some great imagery in the form of the trippy visions that Mitchell Hundred experiences, including one in which he envisions decaying, zombie versions of all the people near him who have died, and another that sees him have some sort of possible divine contact.  And this storyline sees some of his niftiest covers, too (although the cover of the trade collection itself is kind of bland, if you ask me).  So really, any complaint about the art is kind of silly, now that I think about it.

I guess that means complaints should be leveled at the writing.  The story here is an interesting one, although it does seem a bit slight.  It might be the switch to reading a whole arc at once rather than in monthly installments, but Vaughan's technique of jumping around in time leads to some nice moments and a bit of an unsatisfying whole.  Some of that is by design, intended to leave the reader with questions about where everything is going, but intentionally unsatisfying is still unsatisfying, isn't it?  

So, mayor Hundred gets summoned to Rome to meet with the Pope (that would be John Paul II, since this takes place in 2003).  What exactly is the purpose of the visit?  Is it a good political move?  What does the Pope stand to gain?  Will being on foreign soil open Hundred up to an attack of some sort?  And heck, why not throw some discussion of the existence of God into the mix?  It ends up being pretty compelling, with plenty of Vaughan's sharp, engaging dialogue and quick plotting.  In the flashback scenes that open each issue, we see how belief in God has informed some of the events in The Great Machine's superhero career, but now that Hundred has left that behind, what is he going to gain from this brush with "holiness"?

Again, it's interesting, but having experienced much of the series in single-issue format, I'm starting to think that that might be a superior way of reading it.  Vaughan does a great job of structuring each issue for maximum effect, with flashbacks to Hundred's pre-mayoral days that inform the current story, and scene transitions that comment upon each other, as if characters in one scene are continuing a conversation from the previous scene, even though they are often not connected by time, space, or relationship.  But while this works great as a 22-page story, it can get maddening when read all in a row, ending up as a bunch of references to unseen scenes, foreshadowing of events that we might or might not get to witness, and cliffhangers that are less compelling when they get resolved on the following page.  In an age of stories "written for the trade", it's nice that Vaughan is going in the opposite direction, but when that hinders the enjoyability of the trade that gets collected anyway, it's not necessarily a virtue.

But enough complaining; I feel like I'm nitpicking here, when I actually liked the story quite a bit.  The frustration comes from seeing all these hints and prophecies about the future of the series while knowing that it will probably be at least six months before I read any more of it.  I'm sure Vaughan has a plan for where things are going, but the constant raising of more questions can get aggravating.  I want to learn more about Pherson, Hundred's arch-nemesis.  I want to know what happens to eventually cause Hundred to fall, as we saw would happen in a flash-forward in the first issue (or was that misdirection?).  I want to know more about the origin of Hundred's powers, and how this is going to help or hinder him in the future.  I find the cliffhanger prophecy at the end of this storyline hard to believe, but it's still kind of maddening, because I want to know how it will pan out now!  

Luckily, there's a bit of a respite from all these questions in the final issue collected here, which tells the story of police commissioner Angotti in a series of flashbacks.  Vaughan has done this before with other supporting characters, and it's a good breather, offering some nice character development in between the major plot disruptions.  It's a good example of his writing skill, and a probable reason as to why the series remains bearable when the plotting gets tiresome.  Nicely done.

So, while I still like the series, I'm not feeling that it's one of my big favorites anymore, for various reasons.  It seems to be a rare case in which reading the issues as they come out is actually preferable to picking up the collections; I'll have to consider whether I want to switch back to that more-frequent format.  But I don't plan to stop reading anytime soon; even with some minor frustrations, this is still an incredibly enjoyable, entertaining series, and barring a disastrous turn in the storytelling, I don't plan to give it up before finding out how it ends.

Monday, November 24, 2008

This week, blogging will suffer

Expect light posting this week; I've got family visiting for the holiday.  But you never know, maybe I'll get the urge stay up until five in the morning pounding out an in-depth examination of ACME Novelty Library #19 one day.  But don't count on it.

In link-type content, here's a big archive of Posy Simmonds' comic strips for the UK newspaper The Guardian.  Awesome.

New comics this week (Wednesday, 11/26/08):

Batman #681

The final part of "Batman RIP"?  That's the word, anyway.  Who could the Black Glove be?  I hope it's that chick Batman was ogling.

Body Bags One-Shot 

It seems like this Jason Pearson series shows up with a special or something every so often, but that's about it.  Pearson does get some work here and there, but it would be nice if he could stick to something for an extended period.  I like his artwork.

DMZ #36

More Brian Wood excellence.  I only just read a volume of this, and I'm ready for the next one now.

Garth Ennis Battlefields Night Witches #2 

By not buying hardly any single issues these days, I'm missing out on this series until it gets collected.  That makes for a painful longing to read this kind of thing, but I'll get to it someday.  God, I love Garth Ennis war comics.

Glamourpuss #4

Dave Sim does more of whatever the hell he feels like.  I'm not buying this series any more, but I'm still curious enough to flip through it when I see it.  Because where else are you going to see an exploration of the works of Alex Raymond coupled with bizarre spoofing of the fashion industry?

Jack of Fables #28

I've gotta get caught up on this series someday too.  Jack is a fun character.

Mouse Guard Winter 1152 #4

Whoa, another cute mouse issue shows up!  These are what, six months apart now?  I've completely forgotten what is going on, but I imagine I'll pick it up.  Recommendation: wait for the trade, which will probably be out in 2010.

Northlanders #12

Hey, speaking of Brian Wood.  Vikings, here I come (when it's collected, eventually).

Runaways #4

Boy oh boy, I don't enjoy what I've read of this version of the series.  I see that Takeshi Miyazawa will be illustrating an upcoming arc, which might make it more palatable, but Terry Moore just doesn't have a very good grasp on the voice of the characters.  Unless you're a completist, I say avoid.

Tales To Suffice #1

A one-man anthology series from Kenny Keil, published by Slave Labor Graphics.  Judging by the preview (which can be found on the official site), it looks kind of webcomicky, with maybe a touch of Michael Kupperman or something like that.  Maybe decent?

Thor Man of War

The final one-shot in the Matt Fraction-written series of stories involving Thor mythology.  The others have been enjoyable, so I would say go for this one if you liked them.

Transhuman #4

Jonathan Hickman actually finishes another series.  I quit on this one, but it's still enjoyable, even if I don't know how well the "mockumentary" aspect works.  But throwing lots of ideas out can leave you with some that aren't perfect; you still end up with some quality.  Keep it up, Hickman.

Umbrella Academy Dallas #1

The follow-up to the original miniseries which I enjoyed immensely.  This one should be interesting, seeing where the story goes next.  But please, get the Gabriel Ba cover; the Jim Lee version is hideous.

Unknown Soldier #2

The first issue of this Vertigo series got some good attention; I'm quite curious to check it out, probably when it gets collected.

Wasteland #22

More post-apocalyptism; I'm already antsy to read this new storyline.  Dammit.

Welcome To Hoxford #4

And another new series that I'm eager to check out at some point.  Ben Templesmith works too fast for me to keep up; I still haven't read the last two volumes of Wormwood.  And he's got another one coming right on the heels of this (I'm still waiting for more Fell though).  Dammit again.

Bat Lash Guns And Roses TPB

I read three or four issues of this series before deciding not to continue, but that's just because I have to be discerning; I can't buy everything that catches my eye.  But it's a pretty decent western, with some really good art by John Severin.  Check it out if that's your kind of thing.

Comics Are For Idiots Blecky Yuckerella Collection GN

Johnny Ryan!  This collects his strip that I think runs in some alternative weekly newspapers.  Like anything else he does, it's hilarious stuff, but confined to four panels or so, it's mostly just gross-out gags.  Angry Youth Comix is probably funnier, but this is still some damn good humor.

Drop-In GN

Canadian cartoonist Dave Lapp's book about teaching art in a Toronto youth center.  I bet it's interesting reading.

Jobnik GN

This autobiographical GN about cartoonist Miriam Libicki's stint in the Israeli army has been getting some press, although not all if it is good.  I saw her at Wizard World Chicago last summer, and I wasn't all that impressed with her artwork.  It's still an interesting story, and that's at least worthy of a look.  

La Muse GN

This is a pretty decent webcomic about an unconventional superheroine who usually uses sex to make the world a better place.  Now you can buy a print version, but really, you can read it online for free.  I always have to point that out.

Mesmo Delivery Vol 1 GN

Lots of people have been talking about this Rafael Grampa graphic novel, and it's one that I really want to check out.  It looks pretty awesome, in kind of a Frank Quitely/Geof Darrow/general awesomeness way.  I guess I can buy it now.  You can see a PDF preview on Adhouse's site.

Mr Scootles GN

This book got some press a while back because its creator was screwed out of the rights, or something like that.  It looked interesting back then, and I guess it's finally coming out.  I did get a PDF of the book a couple weeks ago, so maybe I should read it and try to write something up.  We'll see if that ever happens.  Here's a preview on Platinum's Drunk Duck site.

Sloth TPB

Gilbert Hernandez's Vertigo GN from a couple years ago gets the softcover treatment.  This one is weird, and I'm not sure I was able to follow the story all that well, but it's still good reading (surprise, right?).  As is often the case, Jog has about as good a review of the book as you are likely to read.

Tiger Tiger Tiger GN

Scott Morse.  That guy makes a lot of comics.  This one appears to be semi-autobiographical, about the struggle to make time for both art and fatherhood.  Probably pretty good stuff.  Here's a couple preview pages.

Ultimate Hulk Vs Iron Man Ultimate Human TPB

If you're at all interested in superheroes in the Ultimate Marvel universe, this might be worth reading.  It's a miniseries by Warren Ellis and Cary Nord, about, well, Hulk and Iron Man fighting the Ultimate Leader.  Although, I'm an Ellis fan, and I didn't bother with it.  But if you feel like it, go for it.  I'm sure it's not terrible or anything.

Gaba Kawa GN

Rie Takada's one-volume shojo manga about a demon girl who falls in love with a human isn't too bad.  I reviewed it as it was serialized in Shojo Beat, so you can read my take here, here, here, here, and here.  I guess I'm saying go for it, if it's your kind of thing.

Go West Vol 1 TP

From the creator of Dokkoida! (a series I haven't read, but wouldn't mind checking out), it's a western comedy about a Japanese girl searching for her family in the Old West.  Sounds like fun.  I wouldn't mind giving it a look, given the chance.

Honey And Clover Vol 4 GN

You might have heard me say that this series is exellent.  I stand by my claims; don't miss out on this manga.

Toto The Wonderful Adventure Vol 3 GN

Another manga I wouldn't mind giving a try; I've heard good things.  It's sort of a takeoff on The Wizard of Oz, with a globetrotting adventure slant.  Maybe someday, as I say with a good 3/4th of the comics I mention here.  
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Everything?  Probably.  If you don't see anything around these parts for another week, just keep waiting longer.  Don't worry, I'll make it back.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Bottomless Belly Button: As with much of the comic, that title elicits a "huh?"

Still not much in the way of links, but I should point out Sean T. Collins' review of Hellboy: Darkness Calls, which does a better job than I would have ever been able to do of actually explaining the plot of that series.  It might seem hard to follow as you read it (I just kind of went with it, enjoying the artwork and the long fights), but there is a lot going on in there.  Check it out.

The Bottomless Belly Button
By Dash Shaw


I would call this book a fascinating work, if not a perfect one.  But that's not a slight against it; sometimes a bit of imperfection makes a book that much more fascinating, and that's definitely the case here.  Dash Shaw certainly isn't erring on the side of cautiousness; he lets everything hang out in this massive 720-page book, and it ends up being an intensely personal work that touches on some deeply-felt emotions and lays bare its characters' souls.

Really, if there's any complaint about the book, it would be the artwork, which can look kind of crude at times (one character's beard stubble looks like a polka-dot-containing circle drawn on the lower half of his face, for instance).  But it's deceptively so; while characters sometimes look a little stiff, and they usually sport wide, circular eyes, there's a nice subtlety of expression here, with plenty of techniques used to display emotion and some nice mood-setting backgrounds and landscapes.  In fact, instead of hiding the artistic awkwardness, Shaw all but highlights it, using non-standard visual signifiers like obvious arrows that show motion:


Or placing words in the panels to point out bits of visual information that might not have been evident from the art alone:  



And he doesn't stop there; there are all sorts of formalist touches, like cutaway diagrams or floor maps of the house where most of the story takes place; the intrusion of a dispassionate narrator who points out the different kinds of sand and water; the insertion of long bits of text; varying the size, shape, and placement of panels; and even leaving large sections of pages blank to isolate panels and change the flow of reading.  And when he pauses these in-your-face techniques to spend a few pages filling a tight, twelve-panel grid with a detailed scene of a female character getting undressed, it's an arresting moment that becomes notable for its matter-of-fact nature.  This all really calls attention to the "comicness" of this story, using the medium in unique ways that wouldn't be possible on film or in prose.

But as interesting as all that artistic noodling is, without a decent story to hang it on, it would be little more than cheap flash (like some other books I could mention).  Luckily, Shaw has built the structure of the book on a solid foundation of character.  The plot involves the dramatic turmoil that results in the Loony family when the parents decide to get a divorce after forty years of marriage.  The three adult children and their families return home for the "event", partly to help their parents figure out how to work things out, and partly to try to deal with it themselves.  It's kind of reminiscent of a Wes Anderson film, with a disconnected family trying to relate to each other in a sad-but-funny manner.

This all works so well because Shaw defines the characters, both in their personalities and in the way the interact with each other.  We focus mostly on the adult children; oddly, the parents don't seem very emotional about what's going on, as if they settled things long ago and are just carrying them out.  Oldest brother Dennis takes it the worst; he's sure that something is going on under the surface and is determined to get to the bottom of it.  It's a realistic portrait; divorce can be hard on adult children, and being with the family in the house he grew up in puts Dennis in the frame of mind of a child, even though he now has a wife and child of his own.  As he searches the house for "clues" and ends up going through old mementos, the situation becomes sadder and sadder for him.

Middle child Claire is less affected by the whole thing, at least on the outside.  Having gone through a divorce of her own, she doesn't see it as a big event.  Instead, she uses the opportunity to try to grow closer to her own teenage daughter and her sister-in-law.  But she still deals with some emotional issues of her own, especially in a dream sequence involving her ex-husband that reveals that she hasn't dealt with things as well as she thinks she has.

Youngest brother Peter is kind of the odd man out in the family, never feeling like he belonged.  Shaw demonstrates this quite literally by depicting him as a sort of cartoon frog, with a rounded head, bulbous eyes, and three-fingered hands sporting Mickey Mouse gloves.  It's an odd choice, since he looks so freakish next to all the relatively normal-looking family members, but a poignant moment ends up making the depiction rather sad and forlorn.  In his mid-twenties, he is kind of adrift, but he manages to make a connection with a girl who works in a day-care center on the beach where the family's house is built.  It's a sweet relationship, even though we realize well before Peter does that he's falling for this girl much more than she is for him. 

Finally, there's Jill, Claire's daughter who is going through her tumultuous teenage years.  She gets to interact with most of the other characters, and it's interesting to see her outlook change as she realizes who her family is and how it works (or doesn't).  She has an encounter with a friend early on that seems to mirror her grandparents' situation: the friend and her boyfriend have decided to break up, but not for another week, allowing themselves to ease out of the relationship.  Of course, while they seem dispassionate about the breakup, it's revealed that they are both much more upset than they are letting on.  In comparison, the grandparents kind of have the same attitude; do they also have strong feelings boiling under the surface?

It's a great ensemble piece, as each character gets their own bit of the story, and it's all engaging and fascinating to watch, probably because we can recognize ourselves, or at least basic human truths, in the way everybody interacts.  Shaw stages it wonderfully, jumping back and forth between storylines expertly; a scene in which Claire is cutting Jill's hair while Dennis is pawing through notes and photographs in a crawl space and Peter is hanging out with his new "girlfriend" sees pages bounce back and forth from setting to setting, and it's as fascinating to watch as a dramatic movie or stage play.  Shaw almost seems to structure everything intuitively, and it makes for great reading.

And the matter-of-fact presentation also helps.  With the lengthy space in which to work, Shaw spends a lot of time detailing small moments and gestures.  He shows many moments that don't normally get panel or screen time, including casual nudity while characters are changing, showering, or urinating (or in one case, masturbating).  It ends up giving a bit of a voyeuristic feeling to the story, but not in a salacious way; it's more like the characters aren't hiding anything from the reader.  That way, when we see them weep uncontrollably or sweat in embarrassment, it doesn't seem like they are performing for an audience, but that we're viewing them honestly.

So, yes, it's an excellent book, and Dash Shaw is a talent to watch.  He's got a daring style and a bottomless imagination for ways to communicate using the comics medium, and he uses these talents to deliver some beautifully humanistic moments involving realistic characters.  Don't let the thickness intimidate you; this book is not to be missed.
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By the way, Dash Shaw has a really nice animated "trailer" for the book which you can view here.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Real: I sure feel like it is

I could link to some stuff here and there, but I'll just go with this one:  blog pals Tucker Stone and Noah Berlatsky are collaborating on a sort of tag-team review of Showcase Presents The Brave and the Bold.  That should make for some good reading.  Here's the first installment.

Real, volume 2
By Takehiko Inoue


Takehiko Inoue is an incredibly talented creator, delivering high-intensity drama that often either involves matters of life or death, or makes seemingly normal events seem that way.  This series would be one of the latter, and it's amazingly compelling reading, looking at real-life scenarios and putting readers right inside the heads of the characters, viscerally causing their emotions to leap right off the page.  It makes for a great read, and it's fascinating to see Inoue accomplish it so effectively.

This second volume of Inoue's series about wheelchair basketball takes a bit of a step back from advancing the plot, spending some time developing the characters instead.  The three leads each get their own plotline, barely even interacting with each other for the whole volume.  First, the recently-injured Hisanobu Takahashi deals with the emotional repercussions of being paralyzed and realizing he'll never play basketball again.  It was obvious that he's going to end up playing wheelchair basketball with the others as soon as he got injured in the last volume, but Inoue isn't going to just plop him in a wheelchair and have him join the team; he's exploring what the loss of mobility and freedom does to somebody, especially one that is as sure of himself as Takahashi is.  He says that he's going to walk again and keep playing basketball, but it's obviously a front, and we see the emotion come pouring out:





As a counterpoint to Takahashi's anguish, we see Nomiya's own emotional turmoil as he watches what would have been his last high school basketball game from the stands.  Without Takahashi's lead or Nomiya's skill, the team ends up floundering, and Nomiya has a similar emotional meltdown as he watches:


We see some flashbacks to his time playing with the team, and he remembers how important it was to him and how passionate he was about it, causing him to get that much more upset when he realizes it's all over.  It's tough to watch, especially since we've come to like the character and know that he's caught in a tailspin.  Will he be able to break out of it?

But the real meat of the book is the story of the third lead character, Kiyoharu Togawa (unfortunately referred to as Kiyohiku on the back cover).  After getting his ass handed to him by a better wheelchair ball player last volume, he's consumed with bettering himself, in classic manga style.  This means rejoining the team that he previously walked out on, and while he has a new resolve, they don't necessarily like the idea of him coming back and taking a position of leadership again.  It's a good conflict, but it gets taken over (for now, at least) by a lengthy flashback to before Togawa lost his leg to cancer, as he was discovering the competitive urge and the desire to better himself.

This flashback (or series thereof) starts out as a memory of Togawa's friend Azumi, but Inoue slips into an omniscient narrator voice in the captions as the story shifts to events that she couldn't have known about.  We see that Togawa became interested in track, but his father insisted that he play piano instead.  It's the classic Japanese father-son conflict that probably comes up in at least two thirds of the narratives produced by that culture; Togawa's father wants him to succeed at piano like he was never able to, but Togawa has discovered a new passion: running.  It turns out he's really good at it, and even has a chance at the national junior high meet.  Of course, we know what's coming in his future, so the buildup to what must eventually happen is excruciating.  But it's great drama, especially as Togawa's father comes to realize the importance of the sport to his son; it's like a miniature version of one of those family bonding movies.

Inoue's storytelling is pretty amazing here; it seems too obvious to have Togawa's cancer ruin his victory at the national meet, so he throws us off by seemingly showing him failing early on.  This turns out to be a dream, making us think that maybe he'll succeed after all.  But as the lead-up to the nationals continues, Togawa begins getting pains in his leg, and the terrible moment becomes all but inevitable.  It's powerful stuff, and Inoue actually ends the book on something of a cliffhanger, so we won't get to find out exactly what happened until the next volume.  Devious!

Inoue's plotting is incredibly effective, but it's made possible by the beautiful artwork that he delivers on every page.  The techniques he uses to convey emotional intensity are amazing, giving his characters a real expressiveness both in facial expression and body language.  I was especially floored by some of the techniques in the track sequences:


That page is notable for the "jump cut" between the race and the piano-playing, but that first panel is stunning.  I love how the runners' bodies are angled so low to the ground, increasing their perceived speed.  And the speed lines are mostly on the ground in front of them, drawing the eye in that direction and creating the perception that they're going to run right off the page.  But it gets even more impressive; later scenes are even more dramatic, and the background drop out altogether:


Look at the physicality of that figure!  And while he is surrounded by speed lines that make it look like he's moving incredibly quickly, the ones around his body are more sparse, and the lines on the ground are drawn parallel, making it look like Togawa is running right on top of those lines.  That's fast.  And then there's this page, which increases the perceived speed by angling the runners to look like they're charging down a steep hill, then contrasts it with the expressions of the spectators:



That's beautiful stuff.  And it's not all that Inoue manages; in addition to the excellent character work throughout, he delivers some incredible images in other places, like a flashback to Takahashi's accident that's shocking in its violence:


Or an emotional panel of Takahashi that recalls classic Japanese brushwork:


It's an amazing-looking book, and one that hits you right in the heart with its emotional storytelling.  I can't wait to check out the next volume; hopefully we'll get more interaction between the leads and continued growth of the characters.  But whatever Inoue does, it will surely be worth reading; he has demonstrated the ability to enthrall with any story he wishes to tell.  There's no stopping him.

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

This week, money being spent is unavoidable

Actually, I think there's only one that's a must-buy, but there are a few others that I'll probably end up getting, because I am hopelessly addicted to comics.

But first, I wanted to note that Becky Cloonan has a nice, creepy little story up in this month's MySpace Dark Horse Presents.  There's also a cool "Witchfinder" story by Mike Mignola and Ben Steinbeck.  Is that related to the Hellboy-verse, or something standalone?  It seems like it would make for a good series.

Okay, on with the show:

New comics this week (Wednesday, 11/19/08):

Age of the Sentry #3

I wouldn't normally bother with this series, since I dislike the Sentry character, but it's been getting raves around the comics interblogs for being a fun Silver Age-style romp.  Maybe I'll check it out, if I get the chance.

Air #4

So has this series gotten good yet?  I read the first issue and wasn't too impressed, but people who read through the first arc or so (like Neil Gaiman, for one) said that it got especially good a few issues in.  Is that true?  Or does it continue to suck?

Atomic Robo Dogs of War #4

I've only read the first two issues of this new miniseries, but they were as good as you would expect if you enjoyed the original mini.  So I bet this will still be fun.  Keep it up, Robo!

Castle Waiting Vol. 2 #13

As I say every time a new issue of this series comes out, I really need to read this sometime.  I'll probably try to get that collected version of the first volume from the library whenever I get to a lull in my "to read" pile.

Ex Machina #39

I sure miss reading this series regularly.  When is that latest collection coming out so I can get my dose of superheroic mayor-ness?

Fantastic Four #561

I don't know if people are still interested in this Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch run on the series, but I've read a few issues, and while it's not terrible, it's definitely not their best work.  I enjoy Millar's work when he writes big action, but his ideas are often not as clever as he thinks they are, and I don't think he's really all that good with characterization.  This issue sees some decent action, and some nice imagery from Hitch, but since it involves time travel, there's a big logical flaw that kind of ruins the whole thing.  Hopefully others will understand what I'm talking about, but ask me in the comments if you're curious.  So, uh, read it, maybe?  Or don't, I don't care.

The Goon #30

Eric Powell continues to roll on with the big conflict.  Let's see some punchin', and knives to eyes!  Yeah!

Greatest Hits #3

Hey, how about this series?  Is the verdict positive now that it's mostly over (it's only four issues long, right?)?  

Pax Romana #4

Jonathan Hickman's latest mindbender comes to a close here.  I really enjoyed the last issue; he's throwing a lot of crazy stuff onto the page and making the reader just try to keep up.  I don't know if it's as good as The Nightly News, but it's been very interesting, and I like that Hickman is stretching himself and coming up with interesting stories rather than sticking to similar subject matter.  He's an exciting new creator; I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.

Samurai: Legend #3

I haven't seen anything about this Marvel/Soleil series; any word on if it's good/decent/readable?  It looked pretty, but who knows if that's all there was to it.  I think this is the second-to-last issue.  Somebody let me know!

Uncanny X-Men #504

I glanced through some of the issues from the Matt Fraction/Ed Brubaker run on this series, and I wasn't too impressed.  Maybe it was the awful Gred Land art, or maybe it was a forced attempt to be cool, but it just didn't seem too interesting.  But it looks like that might change with this issue.  Fraction scripted it alone, and Terry Dodson provides the art; it sure looks nice, and it's got some of the old Fraction magic, like Beast and Angel recruiting the world's greatest Nazi superscientist-hunter, or Emma taking a tour of Scott's mind and finding that it is populated by sexy versions of all the X-women (did I mention that Terry Dodson is the artist?).  Seems like it might actually get enjoyable and fun; check it out, at least for this arc.

Spirit Special #1

DC has this one-shot collection of Spirit stories from Will Eisner's original run as a tie-in to the upcoming Frank Miller movie.  I'm sure it will seem pretty incongruous to any viewers of the movie, but it's always cool to see Eisner comics available on the stand.  The stories here are "Sign of the Octopus", "Black Alley", "Sand Saref", and "Bring in Sand Saref".  I know I've read those last two, but I'm sure they're all good; Eisner was awesome.  Check it out if you want to understand how deeply Miller is sure to misunderstand his appeal.

Archer & Armstrong First Impressions HC

I've never read this Valiant series by Barry Windsor-Smith, but it's supposed to be quite good.  I guess this is my chance.  This book collects issues 0-6, and it will cost $25.  Is it worth grabbing at a library?

Best Of Vampirella Vol 2 Modern Masterpieces TP

I've barely read any Vampirella comics (I think only that collection of Morrison/Millar stories), since the character really doesn't appeal to me, but this one is notable for containing a story by Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner.  That one is probably pretty good; I could see myself reading it.  The other one is by James Robinson and Joe Jusko, to which I say "eh".

BPM GN

An interesting-looking graphic novel about a DJ searching for the "perfect beat", whatever that means.  It's by Paul Sizer, and you can read a good portion of the book online at his website.

Crogan's Vengeance GN

New from Oni Press, it's the first in a projected sixteen-volume series by cartoonist Chris Schweizer, following the adventures of the eponymous family over the course of several generations.  This first one is a pirate story taking place in the 1700s.  It looks like an enjoyable series; I recommend Greg McElhatton's review of this volume.  You can also read a 29-page preview at Oni's site.

Dead Space HC

I didn't read any of this "space zombies" series by Antony Johnston and Ben Templesmith, but it looked decent enough.  Maybe I'll check out this collected version.  I hear the game is pretty good too.

Fables Vol 11 War And Pieces TPB

And here's the must-purchase release of the week.  I'm a sucker for anything Fables-related, so I'll probably be rushing to the store to get it as soon as possible.  I think this is sort of a prelude to the current arc (which was originally going to be the ending arc of the series, before Bill Willingham decided to just get it over with and keep the book going in perpetuity).  I can't wait to read it.

Freakangels Vol 1 HC 

Didn't this come out already?  Well, it's worth mentioning either way, being a print version of Warren Ellis and Paul Duffield's webcomic.  Sure, you can read it for free online, but if you fetishize the dead trees, go ahead and spend the $28.  I've only read a little of it, but it seems pretty good, being a post-apocalyptic techno-punk story, or something like that.  I need to go through the archives and consume the whole thing one of these days...

How To Draw Stupid TP

Kyle Baker's intructional comics book.  Probably rather entertaining, whether you're actually trying to learn from it or not.

Jack Kirbys The Demon Omnibus HC

Yet another big Kirby book that I will have to acquire someday.  God, I love Jack Kirby.  This stuff is great.

Lagoon HC

Lilli Carre's new graphic novel.  After reading her story in Best American Comics, I want to check out more of her stuff.  This one looks good, but don't take my word for it; here, read Noah Berlatsky's review.  And you can check out a slideshow preview at Fantagraphics' site.

Love On The Racks HC

A prose book all about romance comics.  Maybe interesting reading, but I don't see anything about excerpts, and that's really what would make it a worthwhile books.  But who knows, maybe it's good reading.

Lucha Libre Vol 1 TP

A collection of the first five issues of the European style adventures of various masked wrestlers.  I enjoyed the series, although it didn't survive my purge of anything non-essential from my buying list.  It's pretty fun stuff though, so check it out if you haven't before.

Petey & Pussy HC

John Kerschbaum's book about a set of violent human-faced animals seems strange and funny.  Here, have another preview slideshow.

Punisher By Garth Ennis Omnibus TPB

Marvel is getting as much Ennis Punisher work out there as they can.  This collects his less-regarded mainstream Marvel universe work on the character, including the 12-issue "Welcome Back, Frank" story and its follow-up series, along with Punisher Kills the Marvel Universe.  There's some pretty good stuff here, full of that gross-out humor and contempt for superheroes that Ennis does so well, but it's definitely not his best work.  Still, if you want to see Frank Castle blow Wolverine's face and balls off and run him over with a steamroller (probably because he's annoyed that Wolvie keeps referring to himself as "the ol' Canucklehead!"), here's your book.  99 bucks, if you can afford it.

Stans Soapbox The Collection TP

A collection of the columns that Stan Lee used to write in Marvel comics.  I don't know how essential this stuff is, but it's probably entertaining in small doses.  Read too much of it though, and I bet you'll never want to hear the word "excelsior" ever again.

Swallow Me Whole HC

I thought this book came out a while ago.  Maybe it's only just getting a direct market release.  Whatever the case, it's one that I definitely want to read.  It's by Nate Powell, and it's about two siblings growing up with mental illnesses, I think.  Probably sure to show up on lots of "best of 2008" lists.

Tezukas Black Jack Vol 2 TP

More rogue surgery from Osamu Tezuka.  I'll end up acquiring this series someday.

Yokaiden Vol 1 GN

A new series from Nina Matsumoto, creator of the webcomic Saturnalia, and famous for creating manga-style images of the cast of The Simpsons.  I hadn't heard of her before, but I do like the artwork she's got on her site, and the concept of this series (a boy adventures through the world of Japanese monsters) intrigues me.  I might try to check it out sometime.
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Is that everything?  Probably not.  Oh well, it's not like there won't always be more to read.  Always!

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Pamphleteering

Here are some recently-read pamphlet-format comics; I seem to mostly talk about collections or graphic novels these days, so how about something different?  Thanks to Oni Press for sending them my way.  And now, from worst to best:

Uncle Slam Fights Back
Written by Ande Parks
Art by T.J. Kirsch



It might just be because this book seems irrelevant after November 4, but reading it was a chore, even though I do generally agree with the writer Ande Parks' politics.  This is meant to be satire, with the titular Captain America-esque superhero going senile and supporting the Republican right, prompting his sidekicks, a robotic dalmation named Fire Dog and a sexy FBI agent, to try to snap him out of it by taking him to the Republican National Convention.  Cue lots of "jokes" about the country going to hell; people being blinded by fear; rampant, mindless patriotism; John McCain being really old; and the manipulative jingoism and faux-religiosity of the right wing.  A lot of this definitely comes out of anger toward the people perpetrating this kind of divisiveness on the country, but while I respect that feeling, it comes off here as just as hateful as the those Parks is condemning.  At the end of the day, all that has been accomplished is Uncle Slam has regained his mental faculties, through the process of beating the snot out of those he disagrees with.  That seems like an enjoyable exercise, and it was probably pretty cathartic for the creators, but you know what's even better?  Uniting the country and electing a candidate who can change things and bring an end to this sort of obnoxious fearmongering.

So, I dunno, maybe if I had read this when the Republican convention was going on, I might have enjoyed it, but after several more months of ugly campaigning and a victory for good, this book ends up being out of date and kind of sad.  Maybe if it was actually funnier (it's mostly just angry) it would be an interesting time capsule or something.  And I don't want to complain about the art, because it generally accomplishes its goal of rendering the action in an expressive, cartoony manner, but there are times when it's hard to follow what's going on, especially in the opening flashback.  Overall, it's not worth reading.

Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen #3 (of 5)
Written by John Layman, Tom Peyer, and Jim Massey
Art by Robbi Rodriguez



Well, this series has either suffered some unfortunate delays and setbacks, or wasn't really all that well-conceived in the first place.  While the series was already on a pretty slow schedule, the TV writers' strike certainly didn't help it; with the myriad delays, the last few issues are showing up well after The Colbert Report abandoned the joke.  Even fans of the show probably aren't going to be too interested in seeking out the series.  

That might not be an issue if the series was really funny and enjoyable, but something was lost in the transition between TV and comics.  While the original animated shorts mined humor out of throwing a lot of silliness on the screen for a couple minutes at a time, the comic isn't paced nearly as well and ends up being fairly boring and unfunny.  The loss of Colbert's voice acting (and the proximity to his on-screen image) hurts; while he brings his own arrogant persona to the cartoon, the character in the comic comes off as an obnoxious idiot.  It just doesn't really work, maybe because it's trying to tell an episodic serialized story about an alien invasion that Tek must fight rather than a short one-off involving some goofy alien encounter or something.  Of course, the Jim Massey-written backup story tries to do exactly that, but other than some humor involving Tek's nudity, it doesn't pack enough jokes into its length to capture the energy of the source material.

Robbi Rodriguez's art does a pretty good job of detailing the strange alien world of the series, but he doesn't quite make it as funny as it could be.  His Tek is more of a dumb-but-capable action hero, rather than an inept doofus.  He does manage to fit in some funny sight gags, like Tek disguising himself to look like the many-eyed bad guys by drawing a bunch of circles on his face, but the story would benefit from a lot more in the way of funny details worked into the corners of the drawings, Mad Magazine-style.  Darwyn Cooke's cover does a much better job of capturing the humor of the concept, but there was probably no way he was going to illustrate the whole series.

It's too bad; I like Massey and Rodriguez's Maintenance quite a bit, but this just doesn't really measure up to either that series or the original Colbert TV show.  It's something I want to like, but secondhand affection for the man whose name in the title isn't enough.

Wasteland #20
Written by Antony Johnston
Art by Christopher Mitten and Chuck BB



I greatly enjoy this post-apocalyptic series, so it's no surprise that this issue would get a thumbs-up from me.  But it's notable for being one of those one-shot issues that falls between story arcs.  These don't get included in the trade collections, so you have to pick up the issue if you want to read the entirety of the series.  And while this one isn't necessarily essential, it's one of those that does a good job of filling in the details around the edges of the main story.

The story here (which is illustrated by regular artist Christopher Mitten, which is a first for one of these one-offs) sees some kids in the city of Newbegin hear a street storyteller tell the tale of the founding of the city by Marcus, a villain in the main story of the series.  The kids don't really believe him though, and they offer their own versions of the story to each other, each believing theirs is what actually happened.  It's a nice look at the way legends grow over time and when developed by somewhat isolated societies (one of the versions came from somebody in a traveling caravan).  And while the "official" version from the storyteller is very mythic and sanitized, the other ones reflect their tellers, with a young boy spinning a story of violence and conquest, and the caravan-originating story reflecting mistrust of the powerful.  It's very interesting stuff, and who knows which one comes closest to the "truth".

But most interestingly, the stories themselves are presented as pages from a storybook, with text on one page and an illustration on the facing page.  Chuck BB, of Black Metal fame, provides these illustrations, which adds to their storybook quality, since his style is so different from Mitten's.  It's a striking contrast to the regular look of the series, and it definitely makes the tales seem more like legends than something that actually happened.  I especially liked this illustration:



That sword is gigantic!  It's a good issue, and I'm quite psyched for the next story arc.  Also of not here is the text piece at the back; it discusses dog tribes, which look to be featured in that upcoming arc.  So that's another reason to pick it up.  I do really dig this series.  Check it out if you haven't before.

The Damned: Prodigal Sons #3 (of 3)
Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Brain Hurtt



I'm on the record as loving the original miniseries to which this is a sequel (here are some of my reviews of the individual issues), so it's not too surprising that I would really like this follow-up as well.  It's a shorter story (with another three-issue series slated to follow soon), but it definitely packs a punch, introducing Eddie's brother Morgan and setting up dual storylines, with Eddie exploring the land of the dead while Morgan tries to keep some demon gangsters from destroying Eddie's body so he can't come back to life.  This leads to some crazy scenes in which Eddie's corpse gets pummeled and shot in a grotesquely humorous manner, along with some real menace from the demons and creepiness from the ghouls that haunt the afterlife.  There are some mysteries that continue to deepen, as Eddie learns about the curse that his father brought upon the family and the extent to which he is tangled up in demonic rivalries.  It's excellently done, as always, with some exquisite artwork by Brian Hurtt.  I really can't recommend this series enough; it's got a great combination of nice writing, excellent art, and compelling plot.  I can't wait to see where it goes next.

Also of note is this post by Cullen Bunn, in which he talks about the process of adopting a child and how that affects his writing of the series.  Interesting stuff. (hat tip: Scott Cederlund).
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And that's everything for today.  More content tomorrow!

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sukiyaki Western Django: Takashi Miike rules


Sukiyaki Western Django
Japan, 2008
Directed by Takashi Miike

When I heard Takashi Miike had a new western movie, I was stoked to see it.  And I wasn't disappointed in the least.  It's as strange and bizarre as you would expect if you've seen any of his other movies; as a fan of his, it was exactly what I was hoping for.  It's a strange hybrid of western movie tropes and Japanese style, infused with Miike's weird energy.  

The story supposedly takes place in Nevada, but it's a Nevada populated entirely by Japanese people (with one exception; Quentin Tarantino has a small but enjoyable role) and containing some very Asian-looking buildings.  Interestingly, the dialogue is all in English, but it's so heavily accented that my friend and I ended up turning on the subtitles anyway; the pronunciation and rhythms of the language are not very easy to understand.  The plot is a goofy, somewhat self-aware appropriation of obvious western/samurai tropes, taking a definite inspiration from Yojimbo/A Fistful of Dollars, with a stranger entering a town divided between two warring gangs and stirring up a huge battle.  But Miike puts his own unique spin on everything, like the gangs being color-coded, with one in red and the other in white.  

But even if it's kind of formulaic (and what western isn't, really?), Miike delivers it with such style that you can't help but get into it.  The gangs wear elaborate clothing covered with silk-screened designs, and they have crazy philosophies involving Shakespeare or samurai swords.  Everything is shot incredibly stylishly, from the over-saturated colors of flashbacks, to dynamic, over-the-top action, to goofy-cool touches like a burst of flower petals exploding from an bullet wound rather than a splash of blood (not that blood is in short supply or anything), or a dance scene set to didgeridoo music.

So overall, it's awesome.  Unless you're bothered by unrealistic, eccentric takes on beloved genres.  Myself, I'm usually ready to follow Miike wherever he leads, and I wasn't disappointed in this case.  If you like his stuff, or weird Asian movies in general, don't miss it.
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I included that trailer above because most of the other ones I saw on YouTube gave away several of the best shots of the movie; it's much better to see those in context.  But if you want more of a taste, there are several complete scenes to watch, including the aforementioned dance scene, a bit from an early face-off, or this great scene involving samurai swords.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shojo Beat: Chicks dig vampires

Hey, get this: I thought it was going to be tomorrow, but it turns out that today marks two years of writing on this here blog.  How about that?  Normally, for milestones like this, I try to link to what I consider good or notable posts, but I don't feel like doing the work today.  Hey, I've got a kid; it's impressive that I can muster the energy for the content I do manage to write.  So, enjoy:

Shojo Beat
December 2008



So this is the Vampire Knight issue (as opposed to other issues that only seemed like they focused on that series), which means a special section dedicated to Matsuri Hino's series, and also lots of other vampire-related content, including mentions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight, and Cirque du Freak.  That special section is a "guide" to the series, offering eleven pages of content, including a story summary, a timeline, a "relationship chart" (which I can only assume was inspired by my own work), fan art, a crossword, a brief look at the anime adaptation, and a good deal of other stuff.  This kind of seems like overkill, but an offhand mention that Vampire Knight is the top-selling manga that falls under the Shojo Beat umbrella makes it understandable.  Anything to keep those girls reading about the bloodsuckers.

In addition, there's a nice video game section which mentions several upcoming titles and includes a page about the best game heroines (the list includes Samus Aran, Princess Zelda, Chun-Li, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and, for some reason, the chick from Mirror's Edge).  And a blurb about vampire-themed games, of course.

The preview chapter this month is from a series called Heaven's Will, but I can't remember a thing about it, outside of thinking it was kind of lame.  Looking back, it's about a girl who doesn't like scary stuff, but (get ready for irony) she is constantly followed around by ghosts that only she can see.  She ends up meeting a strange guy who exorcises ghosts, and he decides to help her.  He also dresses as a girl for some reason, and he has a vampire pal that can turn into a wolf.  And, it's very boring, maybe because the main character is so weak-willed that she seems like a empty void at the center of the series.  Who knows, maybe it gets better, but the short excerpt here doesn't make me want to search the series out.

I'm not sure why, but most of the chapters this month didn't exactly wow me, so hopefully I'll have something coherent to say about them.  None of them are bad (except Haruka, but that's a given), but it seemed like a bunch of fairly inconsequential stories ended up all appearing during the same month.  Or maybe I was just in a weird mood while reading them.  Uh, read on?

Vampire Knight
By Matsuri Hino

And with this chapter, a thousand slash fanfiction writers are born.  I won't spoil what exactly happens, but there's a moment here that is incredibly homoerotic, seeming like something that "that type" of fan siezes on rabidly.  It works pretty well in the context of the series too though, entangling the leads further into their weird, screwed-up relationship.  Plus there's some actual action, which is rare but always welcome in this perpetual mope-fest.  There's also a scene where Kaname tells Yuki he loves her, but you know Hino's not doing anything to upset the balance of the Yuki/Kaname/Zero love triangle, so I predict many more uncertain gazes and hesitant conversations in the future.  Not a bad chapter overall, even if there is still too much of the tiresome vampire politics that I'm always complaining about.  I'll keep reading.

Honey and Clover
By Chica Umino

While this is one of my favorite series, it's been only good, not great, lately.  My theory is that it's because of the continued absence of Morita, the most entertaining character (there's even an extended in-story callback to the Twister scene from around six months ago).  But it looks like that might change soon; however, for the time being, we've got more decent stories about our cast.  The two chapters this month mostly focus on Takemoto, who is struggling to complete his senior project and graduate (not to mention find a job).  He realizes here that he's not yet ready to be an adult; he hasn't figured out what he wants to do yet:





He ends up overworking himself and stressing out about his future, to the point that he gets an ulcer and ends up in the hospital, prompting a visit from his mom and step-dad.  He ends up deciding to continue on at the school for another year, which is an odd decision for both the character and the creator.  Maybe this is representative of a common Japanese struggle to come to terms with adulthood (see also Solanin, possibly my favorite comic of 2008), but it seems kind of like wheel-spinning on Umino's part, keeping her characters from growing because it's easier to tell stories with them in the same familiar situation.  That's unfortunate, but hopefully it's just a small bump in the road.

Umino still gets the chance to deliver at least one moving scene, in which Takemoto flashes back to a memory of his late father:



It's a beautiful look at the way we hold on to precious memories, and scenes like this make the series worthwhile, even if I don't like the direction in which the characters are going.  Hey, every series has an off chapter or two, and if this is the low point, I can't complain too much.

Honey Hunt
By Miki Aihara

And...the series starts to get ridiculous.  Last month, Yura seemed to do well at her audition, and so she gets a callback this month.  She ends up accidentally meeting the director of the project, and sharing a bowl of the noodles that they will be promoting.  Wow, what a coincidence, right?  I don't think it's spoiling anything to reveal that this meeting was the actual audition, since it's pretty obvious while it's going on.  But it works in the story; we can see that the director uses this method to get the most authentic reaction he can:



But that's not the ridiculous part.  No, that comes when Yura gets the part, and finds out it's some sort of strange noodle-themed TV show (as Chris Butcher would say, Japan), and she'll be starring alongside Haruka, a famous pop star who we learn is actually the twin brother of Q-ta, Yura's love interest.  Q-ta is also a pop star, and he'll be doing the music for the show.  And this is the ridiculous bit: Haruka discerns that Q-ta likes Yura, so he makes a big show of giving her a congratulatory kiss in front of everybody, prompting Q-ta to do the same.  Oy.  That's just silly, especially in a country where that sort of public display of affection/invasion of personal space is taboo.  But it's probably not meant to be taken too seriously, and it makes for decent drama with a bit of a humorous edge.  Not bad; Aihara makes some pretty entertaining manga.  This is one to keep an eye on.

Crimson Hero
By Mitsuba Takanashi

Volleyball action!  I'm always excited when this series gets around to actual on-panel competition, and what we see here is pretty exciting, enjoyable stuff.  Takanashi does a really good job of depicting the athleticism of the characters and the intensity of the matches; whenever a match becomes the center of the series' drama, I always dig it:



And it's good that the game gets some prominence, because the off-court drama is not some of Takanashi's best.  This game, Nobara's team is playing a school that almost always makes it to the national tournament.  The top player on the other team was established as pretty villainous a couple months ago, but we learn here that not only is she mean and avaricious, but she turned her back on her friends to gain a position on the starting roster.  If only she had a moustache, she would be twirling it ferociously.  It's not really necessary to establish this backstory; she's already the bad guy, and any drama involving her and her teammates only distracts from the main characters.  I suppose Takanashi could surprise me and come up with something really good, but, well, I'll be surprised if that's what happens.  But still: volleyball!  I should stop complaining.

Sand Chronicles
By Hinako Ashihara

I had thought this series might be nearing the end of its run, but Wikipedia says it ran for ten volumes in Japan, so it definitely still has a ways to go.  And that's nice; it's been consistently good so far.  The last few chapters have been hard to read, since the drama was amped up to high levels that were uncomfortably realistic.  But this month is the "tension release" chapter in which everything gets worked out, or at least brought back down to a livable level.  When we saw them last, Daigo told Ann that he would call her when he had things figured out, but three months have passed, and he still hasn't called.  Ann is still waiting (fairly) patiently, hoping he'll be able to figure things out.  But Daigo is still agonizing over how to be the best boyfriend he can, worried that he'll do more to upset her when all he wants is to help her and be there for her.  He gets a good pep talk from his boss, who gives him the perspective of someone with years of relationship experience:





Meanwhile, Ann has a realization of her own when a friend of hers who had been bouncing from boyfriend to boyfriend, never forming a relationship that was anything more than superficial, actually finds someone she cares about and establishes a meaninful relationship with him.  She tells Ann about how with other guys she always expected something from them, but with this guy, she wants to do things for him and make him happy.  It's the kind of epiphany that can result when you actually form a real, mature relationship, and that's something I love about this series: the way it looks at romantic relationships beyond the surface level, getting into the meat of being someone's partner.  This is exactly the sort of thing that stories for teenagers should be about, rather than stupid romantic comedy movies that make it seem like everything is going to be all right after the guy interrupts the girl's wedding to give a stirring speech.  I dunno, maybe lots of young adult stories are like this, and I'm just not familiar with the stuff that teen girls read.

But back to the story!  While it does take a realistic approach to relationships, it's not above the romantic moments, like the touching reunion that Ann and Daigo have here.  I may be a cynical bastard, but I'm not so stone-hearted that I don't get moved by scenes like this.  As always, well done.
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Hey, that didn't turn out as bad as I thought it would.  I don't know why I always think this stuff is going to suck; must be low self-esteem.  Next month: more in this vein!  Be there!