Thursday, May 14, 2009

Mini manga musings

Before the real stuff, some links:

This interview with Felipe Smith is pretty interesting; for those who don't know, he's a Western cartoonist who is working on a manga in Japan called Peepo Choo.  I kind of liked the volume that I read of his series MBQ (which you can read about here), and he's got a crazy, frenetic, interesting style that I would like to see more of.  Hopefully Peepo Choo will get imported.

This overview of David Mazzuchelli's career is very interesting.

I always like seeing original art and/or sketches.  Here's the title page of a Gilbert Hernandez story in the upcoming Love and Rockets volume.

Joe Infurnari has an annotated version of his Eisner-nominated webcomic Vs. up at Act-I-Vate.

Hey, I'm disappointed that Joseph Larkin didn't respond angrily to my review of The Arcade of Cruelty like he did to Kevin Church.  That would have been amusing.  I guess I'll have to settle for secondhand obnoxiousness.

Here's an interesting look at Osamu Tezuka's adaptation of Crime and Punishment.  Looks like one to look for the next time I'm in a used bookstore in Japan.

Have I mentioned that I'm up on Twitter now?  I've had an account for a while, but I've actually been using it recently, so there's another way to receive my questionable wisdom, even more scattershot than usual.

Oh yeah, I also reviewed Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers #1 over at Comics Bulletin, and I talked about the most recent episodes of Dollhouse and Fringe at The Factual Opinion.

Finally, the real post.  I've gotten behind on a few books, and the longer I wait, the less I seem to be able to come up with a lot to say about them, so I'm going to throw a few of them together into a post of short reviews.  I hope it's readable.

20th Century Boys, volume 1
By Naoki Urasawa

It's hard not to automatically compare this series to Monster, since that's the most-recently-completed of Naoki Urasawa's translated works.  And it's not completely inapt, since Urasawa has some of the same themes going on here, like conspiracy and paranoia.  But he seems to be going for more of a look at memory, as well as a contrast between youthful idealism and adult complacency.  Plus, he's being especially ambitious, setting up a world-spanning conflict and telling stories with a multitude of characters in different time periods; he's as great a storyteller as ever, and while much of this first volume seems to be setting things up, it's a blast to watch him work.

The plot here involves a group of guys who grew up together in late-60s Japan, forming a club and getting up to the usual youthful shenanigans like swiping porn magazines and coming up with grandiose plans involving heroism and secrets.  Thirty years later, Kenji is a regular guy working at his family's convenience store and looking after his sister's baby.  But when strange things start happening that somehow seem related to his experiences as a kid, he begins to investigate, and may soon end up caught up in something much bigger than he ever expected.  For one thing, there's a sort of cult forming, and it seems to be based around his and his friends' club.  The symbol that one of them designed, which looks like an eye set inside of a hand which is set inside another eye, is popping up in places connected with murders and disappearances related to the cult, and the cult's enigmatic leader, who is only known as "my friend", seems to be taking his teachings straight from the experiences we see in flashbacks to Kenji's childhood.  It's freaky and chilling, and who knows where it's going to lead.

It's compelling stuff, and Urasawa really builds to a sense of something creepy going on that's beyond the grasp of the characters, giving the readers just enough of a sense of what's going on to make us feel like we know what the characters should do, but not enough to actually understand what is going on.  It's very effective and exciting, and it really keeps you guessing and wanting to find out what is going to happen next.  But beyond the larger plot, the small incidents work really well too, whether we're watching Kenji and pals be rescued by the outcast Donkey and his running skills in the past, or seeing the adult Kenji try to convince his friends that there's something weird going on while at at wedding before giving up, getting drunk, and singing karaoke.

It's great stuff, full of well-realized characters and memorable incidents (the boys getting excited about the 1969 moon landing is another highlight); I'm really excited to read future volumes (all 21 of them, I think).

One-Pound Gospel, volume 2
By Rumiko Takahashi

This second volume of Rumiko Takahashi's boxing manga (read my take on the first volume here) indicates why it only lasted four volumes (as opposed to the dozens of installments of her more popular series, like Ranma 1/2 or Inuyasha), as it already seems to get a bit tired here.  Not that it's not entertaining, but for the two multi-chapter stories in this volume, Takahashi seems to have settled into a formula, with boxer Kosaku Hatanaka struggling to meet his weight limits, sneaking food, barely qualifying, crushing on his nun confidant Sister Angela, and winning through a combination of luck and determination, with plenty of goofy slapstick along the way.  It's entertaining, but diminishing returns seem to have set in already; hopefully Takahashi spun some interesting changes into the final two volumes of the series.

Of the two stories here, the first is the more enjoyable one, with Kosaku going up against an old rival named Taro Matsuzuka, who was humiliated by having all his teeth knocked out when he decided not to wear headgear.  There are some pretty funny wrinkles, with Kosaku having to drop a weight class to match Taro, who has do do the opposite and bulk up in order to get to Kosaku's level.  Their eventual match is a highly enjoyable bout, with both fighters struggling to prevail and uttering oaths about honor and dedication.  It's fun stuff, especially when Kosaku reveals his true motivation:

The second story isn't as good, possibly because it gets a bit silly.  Kosaku is still obsessed with Sister Angela, and he's pressuring her to become his girlfriend, which is of course impossible, since she's a nun.  Is this supposed to be plausible because knowledge of Catholicism is limited in Japan?  That seems doubtful; if Kosaku regularly goes to confession, he must know about vows of celibacy, right?  Yet the pressure continues, to ridiculous extents.  And I'm sure that she will eventually relent, with the two ending up as a couple.  We even get some nice hints that she is starting to fall for him; a more mild, believable romance would be preferable, but Takahashi seems to prefer to go over the top.

Maybe I'm just too used to cute shojo romances; or, I might be bitter at the outcome of the match in this chapter, since it is kind of silly, with all parties being happy and content.  It's not perfect, but there are still some enjoyable moments, especially Kosaku butting heads with Angela's Abbess.  Overall, it's still a pretty good volume of a fun series.  If all goes well, Takahashi will turn things around in the second half of the series and deliver some exciting, funny boxing action along with cute romance.  Here's hoping.

Dogs, volume 0: Prelude
By Shirow Miwa

It's always nice to see seinen manga get translated into English, since so much of the market focuses on shonen and shojo books; material aimed at adults is something we need more of.  Series like this aren't great art or anything, but can be the equivalent of fun action movies that are filled with stylish violence.  This particular series is an interesting case, if only for the volume number; it's like something taken from American superhero comics, which often have a "number 0" issue published as a sort of origin story, often coming out after other issues in the series.  I thought that might be the case here, with mangaka Shirow Miwa putting out a series of origin stories for his characters (who seem to be a team of assassins or something, although they don't actually come together in this volume).  But it turns out this was sort of an introductory volume of the series, published in 2000 and 2001, with a second volume following in 2005.  It's similar to the model of Love and Rockets or The Invisibles, with a series being relaunched, but continuing from where it had previously left off.

Anyway, this volume isn't necessarily all origins, but more of a series of introductory stories for its characters, with each of them getting their own one- or two-chapter bit in which we can get to know them.  First, there's Mihai, a hitman who was tasked with raising the illegitimate son of his gangster boss.  When the son grew up, he turned on both his surrogate father and his real one, murdering Mihai's girlfriend and killing his father to take over the criminal empire.  Now Mihai returns and ends up facing off with his protege and learning what caused him to turn on his loved (and unloved) ones.  

Next, we meet Badou, who seems to be the comic relief of the team.  He's a goofball P.I., although he refers to himself as an "information broker", snapping pictures and "gathering sensitive data" to sell to the highest bidder.  When he ends up stumbling on a local mob boss in the midst of kinky sexual escapades, he becomes a marked man, going on the run through the city and trying to survive the waves of mobsters that are out to kill him.  Just when we think he's in an impossible spot and is going to die, it turns out that he gains impressive gun skills when deprived of nicotine, so (since he had been unsuccessfully searching for a cigarette all chapter) he is able to shoot his way out of trouble.  Amusing?  Yeah, pretty much.

Things get more serious with Naoto, the sole girl of the group.  She fits into the "silent but deadly" action girl trope, the kind of character that Garth Ennis mocks in The Boys.  We see that her parents were murdered when she was a child, the killer leaving her with an X-shaped scar on her chest, perfectly centered for aesthetic notability when she ends up topless (which happens in-story, but we also get to see her naked image, along with the other three male characters, on a fold-out poster in the inside front cover of the book).  After the murder, she was taken in by the killer and raised to be a killer herself, constantly trying to better herself so she can kill him and take revenge.  Except...maybe she was mistaken, and everything she has always believed is wrong.  The truth comes out in a dynamic knife fight, making for some nice action:

And finally, things take a strange turn with the story of Heine, who lives in a sort of underground city of criminals.  The book, which had seemed to take place in a modern city, takes a sci-fi turn here, when Heine discovers a prostitute girl who has small, angelic wings growing from her shoulders.  It turns out that she's the subject of genetic experiments, and thus highly valuable to certain people (i.e. pimps).  Heine ends up rescuing her, with the help of Badou, and we learn that he is also an experimental product, having a Wolverine-style healing factor that allows him to take plenty of bullets without falling.  That's an odd addition to the mix, but it also makes for some pretty stylish, dynamic action.

Overall, it's a pretty enjoyable book, if not a very deep one.  I'm not sure what the eventual status quo will be, since the team (if that's what they are) doesn't even get together here, so who knows what sort of business they will get up to in volume 1 and beyond.  But judging by Miwa's skill at exciting action here, it should make for some crazy action, and hopefully some good reading.  I can't say this is anything world-changing, but I can dig some violent gun- and sword-play that doesn't spare the blood and sex.  I imagine it won't be anything less than satisfying.

Hmmm, those musings weren't all that mini.  Hey, it's good to get caught up.  Stay tuned for more writin'!