Thursday, March 25, 2010

Meanwhile: ...Scott McCloud is high-fiving everyone in celebration

Elsewhere: I contributed a blurb to Flashlight Worthy's list of comics by women featuring female characters, along with such luminaries as Joe "Jog" McCullough, Sandy Bilus, Noah Berlatsky, David Welsh, Katherine Dacey, and several others.  Go, read.

Meanwhile: Pick Any Path. 3,856 Story Possibilities.
By Jason Shiga

The "choose your own adventure" style of storytelling is an interesting one, but the gap between potential and realization is a big one.  It's hard enough to write a good story, but to together one that has branching plotlines and multiple resolutions and can still capture the attention of a reader can seem not even worth the effort.  So thank god for thinkers like Jason Shiga, who with this book manages to not only weave a compelling story in this style, but uses the comics format in interesting and innovative ways while doing so.  It ends up being a fascinating book, one that encourages the reader to pore over its pages for clues and details, figuring out the secrets that Shiga has buried within them.  It's an ambitious work, and one whose reach mostly manages to keep from exceeding its grasp.

That story?  It starts out simply with a kid at an ice cream store making a choice between chocolate and vanilla, but things soon spiral off into craziness, as he ends up in a mad scientist's lab, with the choice of several different inventions to try out, with wacky results no matter which branch of the plot is followed.  There's time travel, mind-reading, and other shenanigans, and while it's fun, delving into its secrets eventually reveals a surprisingly moving (and maybe even a bit awe-inspiring) story underlying the goofy antics on the surface.

The real appeal, though, is seeing what neat idea Shiga will come up with next.  His comics panels connect to each other every which way, with trails between them stretching across pages, weaving around and through each other, and leading from page to page via an ingenious tab system.  It's like a physical version of Scott McCloud's infinite canvas, and it works perfectly intuitively, especially when the time-travel plot loops back upon itself, or when the main character gets caught in an infinite cycle of calling himself names.  Shiga even comes up with some wonderfully effective ideas, like an illustration of a coin flip that actually seems like pure chance, or a couple of  "secret codes" that equate finding the correct story path to cracking a safe.

If there's any complaint to be had, it would be the semi-crudity of Shiga's art, which sees all the characters sporting circular heads and gaping red oval mouths, but he uses the style well, keeping the story moving and emphasizing the weirdness and wild ideas.  It's easy to follow, providing a welcome opposite number to the daunting complexity of the story's structure.

Yes, comics could certainly use more deep thinkers like Shiga, who are willing to push the limits of the medium and still use it to tell good stories.  The far extents of what can be done have yet to be reached, but we can probably rest assured that he'll be right there on the front lines, coming up with new ideas that blow all our minds.  Who knows what's coming next, but it'll be a blast to see.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Black Jack: I apparently can't make this flow together very well

Hey, I'm still alive!

Elsewhere: In my absence of posting, I did manage to finish some writing, reviewing PunisherMAX #5 and Siege #3 for Comics Bulletin.

Links: I thought this story that the Same Hat! guys posted from Epic Illustrated by Keiichi Koike was pretty great.

Hey look, Salgood Sam has a webcomic called Dream Life.  It's purty.

I'm not really all that interested in Savage Dragon, but this announcement of a indie-creator-focused series of stories along the lines of Marvel's Strange Tales or DC's Bizarro Comics interests me.  We'll see if I ever read any of them.

If I was anywhere near New York, I would definitely try to make it to the Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art for their NeoIntegrity exhibit, which Connor Willumsen informed me about.  It contains work by over 200 incredible comics artists, mostly of the indie variety.  Damn, that looks like something to see.

And now, some fairly unfocused thoughts on the two most recent volumes of Black Jack that I read.

Black Jack, volume 3 and 4
By Osamu Tezuka

Black Jack: still badass - Volume 3 has what might be the most famous example of our awesome surgeon's skill, as he ends up performing surgery on himself in the middle of the Australian Outback, while fighting off attacking dingoes at the same time.  Holy crap.  There's also a story in which he replaces the skin of a dying man as a favor to a lost love (the guy wanted to get rid of a tattoo; it's a long story).  And he gets to explain why he charges patients so much in a typically pompous statement (which gets undercut by his kindness in the same story):

And check out how he manages to chase off some gangsters who want to kill one of his patients:

Ha ha, guts are stinky.

Tezuka: still a weirdo - Man, Tezuka could sure come up with some crazy stuff, including a case in which an African country is struck with a plague that makes people and animals physically shrink until they end up dying at the size of babies:

Or a boy who has a heart condition that Black Jack solves by surgically connecting him to his mother until an organ donor can be found:

And there's plenty of other acts of medicinal awesomeness, but at some point, the parade of amputations and reattachments, open heart surgeries, and who knows what else starts to blur together.  But then something will stand out again, like a chapter in which BJ has to cut Pinoko open to remove a poisonous pill from her intestines before it dissolves.  It's pretty amazing how Tezuka could make this all seem fresh, over and over again.

Black Jack gets a nemesis - Volume 3 sees the introduction of Dr. Kiriko, a sort of opposite number to our hero, who functions as a proto-Kevorkian, offering patients a high-priced, painless suicide rather than curing them.  He's a good character, with a similarly dark appearance, sporting long white hair and an eye patch.  The two of them end up fighting over a seemingly doomed patient:

It's a pretty cool idea, and hopefully he'll show up again.

The Star System works - The regular Tezuka "actors" show up in these volumes as always (with an especially good one being Acetylene Lamp as a good-hearted bandit in a sort of Western-themed story), but perhaps the best use yet is one chapter that features a cop and pickpocket who both frequent a Tokyo train line and have had a long, adversarial relationship over the years.  They're "played" by Acetylene Lamp and Mr. Mustachio:

Which gives them instant characterization, painting the cop as the mean persecutor and the pickpocket as a sort of lovable scamp.  As of their first appearance, they seem fully realized, and their long history as Tezuka characters lends weight to their history together.  It's pretty impressive that Tezuka could make this work, and it's a technique that he used incredibly well, something that few others have even attempted.  The story itself ends up being pretty good too, with Mustachio injured and Lamp blackmailing Black Jack into healing him so he can go on to pick pockets another day.  Ah, bromance.

Continuity creeps in - These chapters are all stand-alone, functioning as single units that don't flow together as a serial story.  But it's interesting to see the continuing elements that show up from time to time, like recurring characters or mentions of past cases.  Notable examples here include a sailor who shows up having fallen for Black Jack's lost love, a woman whose reproductive system he removed due to cancer, taking away her femininity.  And a man carrying a valuable package in the subway gets bumped by a familiar face:

Of course, the way these stories are presented out of the order in which they are published does have the opposite effect at times.  Pinoko's status is kind of in constant flux; at one point she'll show up as Black Jack's capable assistant (he even says she's a doctor herself at one point), then a couple chapters later she'll be a child attending elementary school.  It's an odd consequence of the presentation, but it's certainly no dealbreaker.

Tezuka guest stars - Tezuka inserted himself in his comics pretty regularly, usually as a gag or cameo, but there's one story in volume 3 that sees him show up as a regular character, a doctor that Black Jack encounters:

It's another case in which the Star System works, since Tezuka was a doctor himself, and he had developed a sort of persona as a kind person, so he works perfectly in the story.  It also gives him a chance to do something funny with the pimples he would always draw on his nose:

It's yet another fun use of his regular techniques.

Metafiction is fun - And speaking of enjoyable techniques, the fourth wall-breaking gags that Tezuka often used are another thing he did really well, whether it's characters commenting on how many pages are left in the story, people smashing through panel borders:

Or the occasional wacky joke/self-insertion:

Those always crack me up.

Car crash watch - There isn't a huge amount of vehicular damage in these two volumes, with the automotive wreckage limited to a standard pedestrian run-down:

And a car chase that includes another moment of tossed-off silliness:

So in lieu of automotive damage, how about an awesome plane crash?

Awesome art: still in effect - As great an artist at Tezuka was, his techniques could begin to feel almost rote simply through sheer volume.  So it's always great to see something new that makes you realize all over again how incredible he was.  For just two examples here is a scene of an earthquake interrupting an operation that's startling in its jostling intensity:

And a description of the circulation problems caused by gigantism that's demonstrated by a remarkably effective image of a tiny heart in a big body:

That's the mark of an amazing artist there, and there's always something to grab onto with Tezuka, some astonishing flourish that makes you excited to be reading his comics.

The smaller, sweeter stories are often the best - As much fun as it is to see all the goofy jokes, gruesome surgeries, and awesome ideas that Tezuka would throw into the series, the stories that really stick in the memory are the ones that establish well-drawn characters and situations that tug at the heartstrings, which is yet another thing Tezuka did so well.  A girl with a beautiful voice nearly loses it, but Black Jack manages to cure her after insisting that she remain completely silent for a full year.  A mother makes a connection with her disowned son, who cares for her more than the other children she is so proud of.  A young boy who once helped nurse a bird back to help is in turn saved when the bird keeps delivering money to Black Jack for his medical treatment.  A cancer-stricken medical student strives to save just one fellow cancer patient while he has the strength.  Every story has something fascinating about it, but these tales where Tezuka put together simple situations and characters that feel like real people struggling to survive are the ones that really stand out, and make me want to keep coming back for more.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Manga Mania Month overtime: Drifting Classroom never stops satisfying or horrifying

The Drifting Classroom, volume 10
By Kazuo Umezu

Kazuo Umezu appears to be attempting to blow everyone's minds with the sheer insanity he's producing here (or he was forty years ago, but despite its age and specificity of cultural commentary, this series is vibrant and modern, not a relic of the past).  Each new volume presents fresh horrors and depravities to witness, and one can only hold on and enjoy the ride, never knowing what's coming next.  This book sees a character who disappeared something like six volumes ago show up again, having inexplicably aged into an old woman and only staying alive long enough to utter a few cryptic words about a "paradise" near Mount Fuji.  So, since there's nothing left for them where they are, the kids all set out across the wasteland to see what they can find.  There's a lengthy scene in which they spend a good 30 pages trying to cross a deep ravine, culminating in an awesome bit of chivalry as Sho helps an unconscious classmate bridge the gap:

And then it's on to "paradise", which turns out to be an old theme park populated by murderous robots, including some awesome dinosaurs and what appears to be a decrepit version of Marilyn Monroe:

Wow, that's a disturbing image, especially given that we see her both before and after the freakishly sexualized damage to her exterior, with the supple, healthy-looking "skin" crumbling away to reveal the inhuman horror underneath.

After this, the situation manages to devolve even further, as the kids get more desperate and violent with hunger, eventually resorting to all-out war between the two factions, and a final battle to the death between Sho and Otomo.  But first, there's a scene in which they discover a computer which, in a bit of deep irony, speaks to them about the wonders of the future, even while it comes shuddering to a stop against a backdrop of a barren, destroyed wasteland.  Umezu makes this scene both funny and disturbing, with the old-school dials-and-switches machine sporting a goggling robotic eye and a ridiculous faith in the validity of its predictions of the glories of the future:

But that's just an interlude before the big final conflict, which sees Otomo's gang resort to cannibalism, and leading to some of the most striking moments in the series' history, as the kids guiltily proceed with their horrible deed:

And the way Umezu draws out the fateful moment as the selected kid consumes the results of said action is just terrible, fraught with trepidation, guilt, disgust, fear, and, yes, hunger:

This volume is chock full of such incredible moments; Umezu has gained confidence by this late point in the story, and he's able to deliver on such bits of terror as the moment when the robot dinosaurs populating the theme park wake up to terrorize the already-brutalized cast:

Or the gasping suffocation of some kids who get caught in a cloud of toxic gas:

Maybe it's the fact that these are children dying such horrible deaths, but even after all the mayhem and gore that we've seen throughout the series, Umezu makes each new demise felt; reader's can't help but cringe at the fear and horror of what happens.  Or gasp in shock, as in the regular "holy shit!" moments, like some of the older kids murdering a group of first graders for their food:

Holy shit!  Or the robot lady crushing another kid's head:

Shit.  And when everything devolves into mayhem and warfare, the deaths come fast and bloody, but they never seem like routine:

Holy. Shit.  Man, no matter how many times I see kids die horribly, I don't think I'll ever get desensitized.  At least, not when Umezu does it, since he's sure to plop readers right down in his terrible world and make it feel like a real death rather than a shocking stunt.  It's amazing, and pretty incredible to see the extent to which he is able to take things.  There's only one more volume to go, and whether or not Umezu can manage to "believably" end things, perhaps by finding a way to return the survivors to their own time or just massacring them all and fading to black, it's been a hell of a ride, and one that should stand the test of time as a work of comics like nothing else in the history of the medium.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Manga Mania Month overtime: The Ghost in the Shell causes adaptational conundrums

Elsewhere: I reviewed Girl Comics #1 over at Comics Bulletin.

I'm trying to get back in the rhythm of blogging, although this week probably isn't going to be the best for that.  Still have a few manga volumes to catch up on (even though I didn't get as maniacal in February as I had hoped), and then much much more to read.  It never ends!

The Ghost in the Shell
By Masamune Shirow

How often does the adaptation of a work overshadow the original?  It's certainly something that does occur; how many people think of the original novel when they hear the name The Godfather?  And when you get into the anime/manga industry, things can get even more entangled, with multiple adaptations and variations of titles confusing matters and muddying perceptions.  That certainly seems to be the case with Ghost in the Shell (whether the title contains a definite article or not), which has seen two movies, several seasons worth of a TV series, video games, and probably novelizations and who knows what else.  But it all started with Masamune Shirow's late 80s/early 90s manga series, so it's interesting to go back and see how the franchise has changed and what has remained from the original concept.

And while common wisdom usually states that the original version of any property is the superior one, that's not necessarily the case here; the anime adaptations managed to streamline and simplify some of Shirow's ideas, while still presenting them in interesting ways and making use of the medium of animation to bring them to life.  The later versions are probably more satisfying overall, but the original definitely has its charms, being a more wild and wooly accumulation of Shirow's obsessions and mental processes, along with a showcase for his artistic skill.  Also, given the age of the series, it's interesting to see how far ahead of his time Shirow was, breaking ground with the sort of examinations of sci-fi ideas involving humanity and technology that many others would follow.

(A quick summary for those who might not be familiar with the series: taking place in the "near future" of 2029, although one that seems pretty far off given the outlandish technological ideas on display, the story follows the adventures of Section 9, a division of the Japanese Self Defense Forces that tracks cyber-crimes and terrorism.  The main character is the sexy and tempestuous Major Motoko Kusanagi, although other members of the team get plenty of panel-time as well, and while several cases are investigated, they eventually come together in one big showdown involving an escaped artificial intelligence called The Puppeteer, and Kusanagi ends up striking a deal that changes everything for her, and has pretty major ramifications for humanity in general.  That's the story in a nutshell, but the approach was a bit different at the beginning, as we'll see.)

The anime adaptation (that is, the original anime movie, which came out in 1995) followed a similar plot to the one described above, although it condensed several of the cases into one, and made the Puppeteer plot more of a central throughline, while the manga kind of works as a high-tech procedural, eventually derailing into the story of Major Kusanagi's decision and the philosophical discussions that come with it.  In fact, that sort of discursive dwelling on minutiae is one of the things that comes through in the original work; Shirow spends a lot of time examining all sorts of weird ideas that strike his fancy, from the impenetrable inter-departmental politics of Japan's law-enforcement and government, to specifications of weaponry that might or might not exist in real life, to the workings of complex robotics systems, cyborgs, and mental computer networks.  He obviously put a lot of thought into these various subjects, and while his ideas don't always come across perfectly clearly (whether due to a language barrier or otherwise), the passion he has for them does.  The author's notes at the end of the volume are certainly illuminating in this respect, if a bit difficult to parse due to incorrect page numbers.

The other thing that shows up here that didn't make the transition to animation is Shirow's sense of humor.  As  seems to be the habit of many manga artists, he fills the margins of his pages with cartoony little gags, funny faces (which stand out by being simplified abstractions in the midst of all the heavily-detailed artwork), and bits of unique weirdness that brand the project as something personal.  The treatment of the Fuchikoma robots, which in other versions seemed to be futuristic tanks, is especially interesting for how Shirow anthropomorphizes them, adding cartoony mouths, sweat drops, and hilariously Tyrannosaurus-like little forearms:

That sort of thing didn't manage to make the transition to any adaptations, which all seem to take everything very seriously.  A little humor goes a long way.

Shirow certainly makes use of his medium, filling pages with futuristic detail in the heavily-rendered, Katsuhiro Otomo-influenced style that was popular at the time.  It's an impressive bit of world-building, and while the reader may be confused at being plopped down in a complex world of espionage and corporate/governmental intrigue, that certainly works along with the lived-in art to make this feel like a fully-realized world full of people and activity.  The detail can work against him at times though, with action often seeming like a confused jumble of speed lines and difficult-to-parse movement:

Even so, it's fascinating to see what Shirow will come up with next, even if you're familiar with the other versions of the story.  The Puppeteer plot might not be as action-packed here as in the anime, but it's full of page after page of thought-provoking ideas about the sub-molecular nature of reality and the need for AI to combine with human irregularities to survive.  And he's not content to limit things to talking heads debating matters; instead, he comes up with innovative ways of depicting the ideas that are as fascinating visually as cognitively:

So: is reading the original work necessary, or even worthwhile?  What's the better version?  Does it really matter?  The anime might have taken Shirow's work and made it work better as a 90-minute bit of action, philosophizing, and visual pyrotechnics, but the original has its worthy aspects as well, and it bears the mark of a more individualistic, iconoclastic creator.  Overall, it's probably less satisfying than its successors, but it's still pretty fascinating, and it certainly shouldn't be ignored in favor of the newer hotness.