Sunday, September 19, 2010

Collection catchup/manga emasculation/graphic novel grotesquerie

Links:  Dean Haspiel is serializing his first novel, Post-Disaster Adventure Chronicles, online; here's the first chapter.  It's about "the day money stopped"; sure, I'll read it.

Also serializing online: Mark Andrew Smith and Matthew Weldon's graphic novel The New Brighton Archeological Society.  Check it out, it's pretty.

Online, but not serialized: Lucy Knisley's new minicomic, Salvaged Parts, which is all about her recent breakup with her boyfriend.  It'll cost you $2, but it's worth it.

Twin Spica, volume 1
By Kou Yaginuma

This manga series has been getting a lot of praise as a good sci-fi series, and also some complaints about the cutesy cover art, but from what I can tell regarding this first volume, that image of a big-eyed, red-cheeked girl holding sparkly stars in her hands is a pretty darn good example of what is to be had inside.  Maybe things tend more toward hard SF in future volumes, but this one (which, as with most manga series, is concerned with introducing its concept and characters, so isn't necessarily indicative of future quality) is all shojo emotion, seeing a teen girl named Asumi strive toward her goal of being a spaceship pilot by entering the Tokyo Space School.  All the conflict here comes from interpersonal relationships, beginning with Asumi's father, who she thinks will disapprove of her choice for tragic reasons that are explained later on at the most dramatically appropriate moment.  Later, when she gets to her entrance test, we see her try to get to know and cooperate with her fellow applicants, who run the gamut from friendly and supportive, to curt and withdrawn, to obnoxious and self-centered.  It's obvious where the main thrust of the series will be, and that's in the emotions, friendships, and rivalries between these kids, along with what seems like some well thought out sciencey stuff.  Should be fun.

The volume also includes two "flashback" chapters to Asumi's childhood, although I suspect they were actually published first, as a sort of "try out" for the series, and they're also quite good, cranking up the emotion and sadness to incredible levels.  After the reveal of what happened to Asumi's mother and why her father might not want her to go to space school, one would expect tear-jerking stuff, and Yaginuma doesn't disappoint here; it's very well done, especially at conveying little Asumi's honesty and difficulty understanding what happened, as well as her father's continuing sadness and tired exasperation at the ordeals of single fatherhood.  Yaginuma does an excellent job here of writing believable characters, and the art conveys their lives really well, with the only oddity being characters' puffy hands that make it look like everyone is wearing dishwashing gloves.  It's a pretty nice-looking book, and it reads really well too.  We'll have to see where things go in future volumes; I bet it's up.

By Matt Kindt

Sometimes, writing about a book that you find to be just okay, rather than somewhere closer to the ends of the quality spectrum, can be pretty difficult.  I'm finding that to be the case here, with Matt Kindt's Vertigo graphic novel about a guy named Sam who experiences two lives in what seem like alternate timelines, which is a good concept but has an execution that left me somewhat cold, for reasons I'm having trouble articulating.  It does start out well, with Sam living through a terrible day that sees the apparent collapse of society due to terrorist attacks and natural disasters, then waking up in a world where none of that happened.  As the story progresses, he switches between worlds each day at the same time, with his two lives contrasting each other, eventually finding some connections between the two and facing some sort of decision about which world he wants to choose to continue in.  The early going is pretty interesting stuff, as he ends up doing some awful things in order to survive in the apocalyptic world, then comes back to what seems like a pointless existence in the other reality, barely able to function in a job he hates and a relationship with a woman that seems more interested in accumulating furniture and decorations for her apartment than anything else.  It's a fascinating contrast, looking at the complacency of modern life and how it would shock us to have to suddenly fight for our lives and cope with everything we know changing, and then how, after dealing with that upheaval, what it would be like to be thrust back into the previous lifestyle.  Kindt does a great job of illustrating the scariness and violence of the apocalyptic reality, as well as the dull boredom of middle class life in the life that's more like the "real world", and he uses some interesting techniques to differentiate the two, like a color scheme (if you can call it that; there appear to be only two colors used in the book, a dark blue and a light tan) that switches the dominant shade depending on which reality is being depicted, allowing for some nice ways to depict memories of one world experience while in the other, or attitudes and emotions that Sam is experiencing showing how his lives are bleeding together.  There is also a sort of "news ticker" that runs along the bottom of each page, incorporating the page number in each headline, demonstrating what is important to people in each reality; one mostly features celebrity gossip, while the other is a constant stream of death and violence.

This all works really well, but where Kindt stumbles, as far as I can tell, is in trying to wrap everything up and give meaning to the experience.  Sam ends up discovering a person who seems significant in both realities, and he sets out to determine what is going on, eventually leading him to a course of action that could determine which life he wants to live.  It seems like an attempt to give the whole story a complete dramatic arc, but it ends up seeming less like a natural progression, and more like an ending that was tacked on.  It might have been better if the story had stayed more down-to-earth, with Sam taking action that affects his own life and working to incorporate what he had learned and how he could change his life into both realities, without ever resolving which one would survive.  The dramatic, exciting ending does fit a world in which life as we know it has already ended, but I still found it unsatisfying.

But who knows, my reaction might not necessarily reflect anyone else's, and the book certainly drew a reaction.  It's got some great stuff, with some expressive art and a nice format, but it's just not what I wanted it to be, I guess.  How's that for an objective judgment?

The Unwritten, volume 2: Inside Man
By Mike Carey and Peter Gross

Well, this series continues to hit my metafiction-loving buttons, although with this second volume, it gets more like a typical Vertigo series, one with on ongoing mystery as to what the hell is going on, and lots of barely-explained supernatural forces jerking people around.  It's still pretty cool though, with it's main character, the Harry Potter knockoff Tommy Taylor discovering his powers as a fictional character made flesh and freaking out as crazy shit keeps happening, like Frankenstein's monster just wandering into the story to compare notes, or him and his pals ending up in the middle of some sort of ghostly Nazi memory.  There's some fascinating ideas about the power of fiction and how people experience it, with a chapter involving two kids who get so caught up in the Tommy Taylor books that they think magic is real, and their father becoming near-hysterical as he insists on the magic of imagination and childhood innocence in the face of evidence that what it is going on is not good.  The bit with the Nazis is pretty strange too, with Tom and his companions confronting Joseph Goebbels (or some facsimile of him) in a living nightmare that came about because of his distortion of the novel Jud Suss into an anti-Semitic propaganda film.  And perhaps best of all, the final chapter takes a break from the main narrative to visit a world of cute animals like something out of A.A. Milne or Beatrix Potter, where a foul-mouthed rabbit turns out to be a man who was trapped in a fictional narrative, which turns out to be a really creepy fate.

Two books in, and it's not all that clear what this series is going to be about, as Tom is only just discovering his true nature and whatever undefined powers he has.  Maybe he's eventually going to settle into a series of quests into pieces of literature, meeting other fictional characters and fighting whoever the villains are that are shaping the world through fiction, or maybe Carey and Gross are going to go in a completely different direction.  Whatever the case, as long as they keep exploring the ways fiction affects the world and coming up with crazy metafictional ideas, I expect I'll be powerless to resist their thrall.