Monday, August 30, 2010

Collection catchup: Gods and suicides and lesbians, oh my

Elsewhere: I reviewed the second volume of Demo at IndiePulp; it's really good (and hopefully the review isn't bad either).

Links:  This Sophia Wiedeman (The Deformitory) comic at Top Shelf 2.0 is quite good.

This partly animated comic by Vincent Giard is also pretty great, a cool example of the way animation can be used effectively in comics rather than as a distraction.  I've got to check out more of this guy's work.

I'm also curious about this new Japanese comics anthology which is available in English for the Kindle (or really any platform, since Kindle books can be read on Iphone, PC, etc.).  It got attention because Shintaro Kago has some comics in it, which makes it his first officially available English work, but from what I understand, it's only a few gag strips, but he'll have a longer-format story in the second issue.  I dunno, maybe I'll get a subscription or something.

So, here's my latest collection of (probably) shorter looks at stuff I've read recently:

Godland, volume 5: Far Beyond the Bang!
Written by Joe Casey
Art by Tom Scioli

Some comics hit my buttons just right that I love them intensely while having trouble expressing the reasons for doing so beyond "Wow, that's awesome!"  The Jack Kirby riff that Joe Casey and Tom Scioli do here is a perpetual winner, and they manage to nail the feel of the King's cosmic bombast perfectly, with the shouted proclamations and the world/galaxy/universe-shaking implications of the fights made perfectly clear.  They keep things going at a breakneck pace, with hero Adam Archer dragged into interstellar cosmic battle with forces he barely understands, while back on Earth the villainous Friedrich Nickelhead launches a political takeover for the super-criminal set.  There's some weird social/political commentary going on, but Casey never sits still long enough to make it seem didactic, and the gigantic action and bizarre character designs by Scioli constantly dazzle the eye and grab hold of the mind.  It's the almost-too-big-to-comprehend Kirby-style godly morality that I dig most though, as in a scene in which an evil being prepares to influence the evolution of two warring species on some distant planet, declaring "Eventualism now!", before being attacked by two other baroquely attired space-farers who declare, "We bring forth the anti-pillage! Prepare to defend your religion!" before being sent 12,000 years into the future (taking them to our present) to face the results of the evolutionary shepherding that was inflicted on the winners of the species war.  It's totally nuts, and also totally awesome.  I can't get enough of this madness; it's the closest anyone has come to recreating Kirby, and it comes from understanding that you can't just keep trotting out the New Gods or the Fantastic Four and running them through the same old adventures; you've got to push the limits, explore new frontiers, come up with your own exciting ideas.  That's exactly what Casey and Scioli are doing here, and it's glorious to behold.  I wish it would never end.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, volume 2
By Koji Kumeta

The second volume of a manga series is often the place where the series really gels, and that seems to be the case here.  The first book was mostly focused on introducing the cast, including the ostensible main character, a suicidal teacher who exudes despair and hopelessness, trying to convince everyone he meets of the pointlessness of life.  The focus often turns to his wacky students though, who include his opposite number, a girl who is so optimistic that she can find a bright side to everything, as well as an ultra-precise neat freak, a shut-in, a boyfriend-obsessed stalker, a panty-flashing immigrant who threatens to sue everyone for sexual harassment, a refugee who barely speaks Japanese, and a girl who tries to stand out, but ends up being completely ordinary.  Having spent the first volume introducing all these goofballs, mangaka Koji Kumeta, who is apparently well-known as a satirist, can now just have goofy stuff happen and see how everyone reacts.  Sometimes a theme is established early on, like when Zetsubou-Sensei refuses to list grades on students' report cards, since life is better when you're ignorant of bad news, or when the Tanabata Festival, in which people write down wishes and hang them from trees, sees everyone sharing their wishes (and culminating in the teacher hanging himself from a tree).  This lets Kumeta riff on a theme, throwing out jokes left and right, having each character do something goofy that fits their personality, and always filling at least one panel with a list of examples of whatever the topic of the day is, usually making obscure references to Japanese culture that have to be explained in the footnotes.  Other times, something bizarre happens, making for a bunch of strange jokes, like a chapter in which a character claiming to be Admiral Matthew Perry (who forcibly opened Japan up to trade with the United States in 1854) shows up and goes around opening everything he sees, including a boy's zipper, the school's pool, and (in a failed attempt) Zetsubou-Sensei's heart.  Another story sees everyone travel back to the teacher's hometown, where his family apparently has an arranged-marriage custom in which anyone who looks into someone else's eyes has to marry them, which leads to all sorts of hijinx.  It's a totally ridiculous comic, but it's frequently really funny, even in the comedy that actually translates.  And that's a qualifier that must be made, since so many of the jokes are based on obscurities of Japanese language and culture, or pop culture and events that nobody on this side of the Pacific knows much about.  The extensive translator's notes do their best to explain things, but even with that resource, one gets the feeling that a lot of material is going right over their head.  But that's okay, since it just seems surreal and strange, and what does work, like the running jokes about things like a line of stalkers or a balding student that everyone ignores, is often laugh-out-loud funny.  It's that brand of odd, deadpan Japanese humor that you see in four-panel strips and the like, mixed with the loud proclamations and elaborate setups of other manga, ending up being a delightfully quirky collection of goofiness that makes just enough sense to be enjoyable. 

Batwoman: Elegy
Written by Greg Rucka
Art by J.H. Williams III

I'm just about the last person on the internet to say this, but this is a pretty damn good comic.  If more superhero books were like this one, the genre wouldn't be a tiresome slog of soap opera plot developments and gratuitous violence.  This is a pretty simple deal about a crime fighter who stops a city-threatening scheme while balancing a private life and discovering a connection to a villain, while making some nods to a larger continuity that seems interesting enough to seek out more information or ignore as suits your purposes.  There's also an origin flashback and hints toward future plots that may or may not get around to happening, but that doesn't matter, because as an introduction to the character, this collected version works really well, telling a rousing story and quickly and memorably defining the characters.  It's really solid storytelling, although I must say that my favorite moment is when a fight between Batwoman and her arch-nemesis, a crazy lady who only speaks in quotes from Alice in Wonderland, is interrupted by a bunch of beast-men that just come rampaging through and start tearing into everybody.  It ends up being explained, but when it happens, it's a crazy "what the fuck?" moment, the kind of thing that can only happen in superhero comics.

But of course, the thing to talk about here is the art, by best-of-his-generation artist J.H. Williams III.  Without him, this would be an above-average exercise in Batman emulation, but he raises it to the level of the sublime, giving people realistic human motions and expressions and filling pages with dazzling layouts that propel the action excitingly across the page while highlighting the heightened-reality nature of superheroics with an art deco flair.  The great thing about it is that he does all this, encapsulating small actions in lightning-bolt-shaped panels, tilting frames and enclosing them in bat-themed shapes, turning panel borders into curlicued swirls of psychedelia when Batwoman is dosed with a hallucinogen, while still making all the action and movement perfectly clear.  During the flashback/origin story, he manages to transform his art into an imitation of David Mazzuchielli's work on Batman: Year One, but as the story progresses toward the present, it subtly metamorphoses into Williams' style, with a bit of Tim Sale or Sean Phillips.  It's pretty gorgeous work, worth all the acclaim it's received.  If the story ever gets finished, I'll try to read it as well, which is more than I can say for most Batman-related nonsense.

Cinderella: From Fabletown with Love
Written by Chris Roberson
Art by Shawn McManus

The Fables franchise must be a tough one to get right, since what seems like a fairly easy story to handle (Cinderella as a spy, working with Aladdin to uncover a magical threat to the "mundane" world) comes off as fairly rote here, with little in the way of suspense or surprise, no real action to write home about, and some especially tiresome attempts to smoosh together fairy tale stuff with the real world.  Maybe it's the first-person narration, which constantly hangs over the proceedings, working in as many fairy tale references as possible, without much wit or humor.  It could be the fast-moving plot, which never sits still long enough to gather any sense of import, or the occasional shoehorning of a dumb moral into things.  The tiresome subplot about Cinderella's shoe-store employee screwing things up by selling magical shoes (like the ones from that fairy tale, you know, the one with the shoes that never stopped dancing) certainly doesn't help.  Whatever the case, writer Chris Roberson just doesn't have the feel for the Fables world that Bill Willingham and Matt Sturges do, as if he's managing to take things both too seriously and not seriously enough.  Artist Shawn McManus does his best to make it work though, turning his style into a reasonable facsimile of Mark Buckingham's distinctive work on the main Fables title, with some nice, thick lines, big expressions, and nicely anthropomorphic animals and monsters.  If it wasn't for him, this would probably be eminently skippable, but as it is, it's worth a look for Fables completists, but far, far from essential.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Wizard Chicago 2010: Yeah, whatever

I wasn't originally going to go to Wizard's Chicago show this year; the lineup of guests and such interested me very little.  But sometimes fate, or certain disreputable individuals, conspire to lure one in.  Apparently, when I described the show as "increasingly irrelevant" in my C2E2 roundup, that rankled the Wizard folks, so they invited me to come interview their CEO, Gareb Shamus.  I guess that's an opportunity I couldn't pass up, so I got to go listen to him give his spiel about how great the show was and ask him why the hell Rod Blagojevich was a special guest.  You can read the results over at IndiePulp, along with my thoughts on the convention proper, which can be summed up as "I don't think I ever need to go again."

As much as celebrity, pop culture, and other such nonsense dominated the con, I was determined to find some good comics, and while the artist alley section, which is usually my favorite place at these shows, was dominated by crappy pin-up artists (and zombies.  So many fucking zombies.  When will that fad ever end, goddammit?), I managed to find a few artists that I liked, or at least had an art style that caught my eye in the midst of the various Jim Lee and Mike Deodato wannabes.  Mike White has an appealingly cute style on his comic Amity Blamity (formerly Pigtails & Potbellies), which is coming out in print next year from SLG, but is being serialized online now.  The humor isn't anything to write home about, but that little girl and pig are pretty adorable.  Adam Fotos' Dragon and Goat seems kind of similar, with cute characters and nice coloring, but pretty rote, newspaper comic strip style humor.  Jason Week's Billy the Dunce, on the other hand, is quite nicely illustrated and fairly funny, from what I can tell.  The current storyline features a cool fight scene, so that's always nice.

Matt Chicorel was the only creator I actually bought anything from, that being the first two issues of his minicomic Buzzpop.  He has an appealing style full of characters with long, thin limbs, sort of like a less-cluttered Jim Mahfood, and he appears to be weaving together a sort of narrative about various slacker crime-fighter characters that mostly just hang around and talk.  It's enjoyable, and while much of the two issues were filled with concert posters and the like, the quality of the comics themselves showed a marked increase over the course of a few years of work.  I'm curious to see how he developed after that, but I can always read what he has posted online and try to acquire the next two issues.  The first issue was also shared with Travis T., whose Drop Dead Dumb isn't bad, but hopefully he is able to do something besides imitate Daniel Clowes.

But aside from the mainstream guys who usually make it to these shows (I always like to talk to Chris Burnham, and Geof Darrow is nice to see, although I don't think he's put out any comics in about five years.  Not much interest in the likes of Billy Tucci, J. Scott Campbell, Joe Maduriera, Greg Horn, and Arthur Suydam though), there just wasn't much to see. So, determined to come home with some sort of comics, I scoured the dealer stalls for deals, and came home with the following pile of stuff:

You can see Lauren Weinstein's The Goddess of War, both issues (or are there more?) of Howard Chaykin's Time^2, a book called Epoxeye by John Pham, Young Lust #8 (featuring a bitchin' Daniel Clowes cover), Video Noire by Eduardo Risso and Carlos Trillo, the collection of the Brian Azzarello-written Deathblow series, Farel Dalrymple's Pop Gun War, All Flee! by Gavin Burrows and Simon Gane, Mat Brinkman's Teratoid Heights (which was only two dollars!), volume 6 of Osamu Tezuka's Phoenix, four volumes of Astro Boy, two volumes of Iron Wok Jan!, and one volume each of School Zone and Swan (all the manga volumes were also two bucks.  Score!).  Oh, and a free crime novel by Andrew Grant called Even that came with the purchase of Deathblow from the Crimespree booth.  Not a bad haul.

So I didn't come away too unhappy, and those are some quality additions to the collection, if I ever get around to reading them along with everything else I have yet to get to.  So there you go: comics could actually be found at the Chicago Comic Con, if you knew where to look.  But next year, I'm not going to bother looking.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Pamphleteering, of the harder-to-obtain variety

Elsewhere:  in the past week or so, I reviewed Neil Young's Greendale and Billy Hazelnuts and the Crazy Bird for IndiePulp, so read those if you can't get enough of me.

Link: this posthumous comic by Harvey Pekar is pretty poignant.

And here are reviews of stuff you don't necessarily find lying around your local comic shop:

By Geoff Grogan
Buy it online

There are some comics that I don't understand but still find pretty fascinating, and this is a prime example.  As with Look Out!! Monsters, Geoff Grogan is doing some really interesting combinations of styles, contrasting deep subjects with simplistic imagery.  Here, the story (as it were) sees two superwomen fighting as they fall out of the sky, followed by an extended bit in which a naked woman tries to survive alone in a wilderness before meeting a man who first aids her, then turns into some sort of demon/goat monster that rapes her, impregnates her, and (apparently) steals her unborn child.  All this is tightly drawn and precisely colored with what appear to be crayons, aside from an opening page that uses Grogan's "torn up newspaper" backgrounds.  Then the story takes a strange turn, becoming a collage comic that combines old fashion photographs; trippy images of space, the moon, stars, and desert landscapes; characters and cars from old romance comics; and word balloons and captions that alternate between those romance comics and Silver Age superhero comics.  It all seems to be an attempt to combine these parts into a narrative of cosmic/magical revenge by the woman against her attacker, perhaps as an insanity-induced fantasy.  It's striking and weird, requiring a lot of work from the reader to put everything together and interpret what Grogan is going for.  What that goal is exactly is pretty indistinct, but it might be an attempt to demonstrate the emotional pain and chaos that comes from victimhood, as the woman (a sort of archetypical character, with nothing to define her beyond her gender) first imagines her attacker/abuser to be monstrous, then herself to be a magically-powered avenger.  But she's still wrapped up in emotional turmoil, trying to understand what happened, so her thoughts of heroic wish-fulfillment ("You already possess the means to defeat your foes!  Power is not the only answer!  Events have occurred which require a key...and wisdom is that key!") get mixed up with thoughts of love, acceptance, and rejection ("I can't live without him! I--can't--give up!").  Does that make sense?  I can barely follow it, so I'm really not sure if it's what Grogan was trying to do, but it's still something that draws the reader in, a gorgeous object that makes one want to understand it.  Grogan's comics are really like nothing else out there, and their large size and eye-catching artwork really makes them something to behold.  If you're interested in stretching your mind a little bit and being wowed by something totally unique, do check it out.

pood #1
By Sara Edward-Corbett, Kevin Mutch, Fintan Taite, Tobias Tak, Lance Hanson, Henrik Rehr, Adam McGovern, Paolo Leandri, Mark Sunshine, Bishakh Som, Andres Vera Martinez, Chris Capuozzo, Hans Rickheit, Jim Rugg, Brian Maruca, Connor Willumsen, Geoff Grogan, and Joe Infurnari
Buy it online from Blurred Books

It might have been Kramers Ergot #7, or maybe it was Wednesday Comics, but really big comics seem to be a trend these days, and it's neat to see different creators trying their hand at coming up with ways to use huge pages.  Newsprint is a good way to present them too, making it seem like the comics section of a Sunday newspaper and delivering a good amount of content without being too expensive.  This latest entry in the burgeoning "medium genre" is like an independent version of Wednesday Comics, offering creators both known and unknown a chance to experiment with big layouts and participate in a cool project.  And like any anthology, it has its ups and downs, but there's plenty of good art and neat ideas on hand to make the experience an overall positive.

On the down side:  Kevin Mutch's "Super Love People" is an odd bit of surreality in which a deformed naked blue woman wanders a desert and gets eaten by a rock monster; I don't get it.  "Nevertheless Alive", by Henrik Rehr is an abstract comic, a mass of non-representational imagery covering a whole page with boxes drawn here and there to highlight a close-up of the mass of abstraction; it's not terrible, but abstract stuff doesn't necessarily fit in with everything else.  Mark Sunshine's "Work Projection Administration" is a bunch of small, nonsensical figures cluttered all over a page; there's a ton of text, but damned if I can figure out what any of it means.

On the up side, everything else is at least readable, if not great.  Sara Edward-Corbett's front-page strip "Babysitters" makes for a good "face" for the project, seeing a bunch of panels clustered around the winding image of a snake and following the goofy adventures of various kids plotting against each other in a scheme to make money at the titular job.  In the "cool layout" department, Tobias Tak's "Don't Forget to Remember Not to Forget" uses a cool circular layout to follow a character wandering through a symbolic dreamscape, and Bishakh Som's "Sunita" takes a cool futuristic building and weaves a story about its inhabitants through inset images, text boxes, and arrows.  Taking a more straightforward approach, "Cloverleaf", by Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri, is an interesting sort of ghost story of a paved-over neighborhood done in a Silver Age style.  Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca's "USApe" is a funny spoof of an over-the-top pro-America bit of propaganda, done in a more simple, cartoony style than Rugg usually uses.  Connor Willumsen's "Fiddle Song" is a Western tale of revenge done in a series of small-ish panels cascading down the page, managing to be dynamic without featuring much motion and demonstrate emptiness without using really large panels.  And Joe Infurnari uses a cool technique in "Rammy & Soupy in: Dreams of Flight" in which a story about a couple of train-riding hobos' conversation is interrupted by a colorful memory that bursts through the page.

It's a pretty great package overall, and you can really see the artists flexing their creative muscles to come up with something cool.  Hopefully this will be an ongoing series, and we'll get to see even more development along those lines.

Lose #1-2
By Michael DeForge
Buy them online from Adhouse Books/Koyama Press

Wow, no wonder Michael DeForge is a rising talent.  These two issues of his personal "do whatever I feel like" series are quite impressive, packed full of weird, detailed imagery, such that it's only a matter of time before he's a recognizable figure in the independent comics community.  He has a flair for cute cartooniness, but also grotesquerie, especially making things look wet and slimy, dripping with sweat, ooze, and mucous. It's nightmarish stuff, but fascinating, the kind of pictures that really stick in one's head, with well-defined characters and interesting, if truncated, plots to boot.

The bulk of the first issue sees a fairy creature named Nesbit cast into hell for mouthing off to his creator (a gross, tentacled monster), leading to various adventures with monstrous creeps as he tries to contact the person in charge and explain that he's only there by mistake.  There are also cameos by all manner of recognizable comics and animation characters, from Bullwinkle and Astro Boy to Jimbo and Sof' Boy, adding a bit of self-commentary about the life of a cartoonist to the mix.  There are also a few shorter strips, like the gag-panel series "Dogs in College" ("Lately, I don't even know if I enjoy walks"), and a "group of teenage assholes" take on superheroes in "Young Green Lantern".  It's really cool stuff, an assault on the senses that leaves you wanting more.

The second issue calms down a bit, spending most of its pages on a couple of simpler stories, one of which is a creepy-as-hell horror tale about a kid who makes a pet of a giant spider/maggot that carries around a decaying horse head.  It's very gross, but also engrossing (see what I did there?).  The other bit is a sequel/continuation/alternate version of "Cave Adventure", a strip that DeForge did for Top Shelf 2.0.  It seems like a spoof of dungeon-crawling adventures, but it manages to work in some uncomfortable business involving violence and cannibalism.  It's grotesque, striking stuff, tons of fun.

These are some highly enjoyable comics, hurt only by their mostly unfinished nature; it's like we're only seeing fragments of what DeForge is capable of.  Hopefully he'll get a chance to do a longer graphic novel or some full-length stories in some anthology or other, but I'll try to get my hands on whatever he does, because this is some great material, even if it does keep me up at night.

Tragic Relief #8-9
By Colleen Frakes
Buy them online at Etsy

Colleen Frakes is another rising star, able to weave compelling stories in an effective, cartoony style.  These latest issues of her minicomics series are enjoyable, although #8, "Revenge!", is a pretty simple little story about a man and a woman, both super-spies, who are trying to kill each other.  #9 is more substantial, containing the first part of Frakes' latest long-form work, "Basket Ogress", which looks to be a neat story about stories.  Two girls at a sleepover tell each other ghost stories, but when one relates the tale of the Basket Ogress, a giant woman carrying a basket made of snakes who catches and eats bad kids, the ogress herself shows up, smashes a hole in the house, and carries off one of the girls.  The girl left behind sets out on a quest to save her friend (accompanied by her suddenly-talking cat), who manages to stall getting eaten by telling more stories to the ogress, all seeming to come from (or at least are inspired by) Native American mythology.  It ends on a cliffhanger, which is enough whet appetites for the upcoming tenth issue, but what's here is quite exemplary, full of simply-defined characters that come to life through Frakes' gorgeous brushwork and some really neat details, like the basket woven of snakes, the empty eyes of the ogress, and the inclusion of Native American-style artwork in the stories.  I can't wait to read more.

There's also a short, wordless story called "The Hunt", which was inspired by Frank Frazetta, and it follows a jungle girl as she chases a tiger through the jungle, then comes across a book and imagines herself in other types of stories, before continuing with her regular activities (i.e. running from the tiger when it's his turn to hunt her).  It's a cute little series of pages, notable especially for the way a female cartoonists approaches a sexy, scantily-clad female figure, giving her wide hips and normal-sized breasts, and focusing on athleticism rather than provocative poses.

So, yes, Frakes is another exciting talent to watch rise, although she has already established a track record of complete stories (see my review of her book Tragic Relief here).  She's still constantly getting better though, and her love of making comics is obvious; I'm excited to see what else she can do.

Hmm, that was long.  Well, more minicomics to come soon, along with whatever I pick up at Wizard World Chicago this weekend (yes, it turns out I'm going), and continuing reviews for IndiePulp.  I'm a writin' machine!

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour: I'm partial to the earlier, funnier stuff

One link: HBO has a comic by Jonathan Ames and Dean Haspiel called The Birth of Super Ray available for free download as a promotion for their show Bored to Death.  Looks good; I always enjoy me some Haspiel.

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour
By Bryan Lee O'Malley

Is there much to say about this final volume in one of the best comics series of the 21st century?  Everything that could be (and has been) said about the first five volumes holds true here, from the goofy comedy and likeable characters to the video game references and fun action.  There's a nice conclusion to the love story that works as a shutting of the door on this portion of Scott and Ramona's relationship as they embark on the grand adventure of their future together, a nicely hopeful and romantic send-off that should warm the heart of anybody who has ever been in a long-term relationship.  Scott makes the rounds of his ex-girlfriends as he gathers his energy for the final showdown with Gideon, he fights his a doppelganger that represents the mistakes that he wants to forget before realizing that it's part of him, and does more of the growing up that's been nice to see over the last few volumes.  It's good times all around.

So, since that's not much of a critical analysis, here are a few of the things present in this volume that I've really enjoyed about the series:


I love the way the characters just casually mention that they're characters, or remember stuff that happened in previous volumes.  It fits right in with the acceptance of video game tropes and wacky fantastical ideas as if there's nothing strange about them.  The world of the series is a heightened version of reality, where people have recognizable characteristics and personality traits, but exhibit outsized emotions, break out into fights or songs, and treat it all as perfectly normal.  That's awesome.

-Reader inclusion (culpability?)

The fourth-wall-breaking even goes so far as to draw the reader into the story, as if we are affecting the plot and characters just by observing them.  It's a fascinating idea, a sort of communication directly between the author and the reader, and it's an element of that metafiction that isn't used all that often, entwining all involved with the comic, fictional and real, together.  It's a good example of the inclusiveness that makes the series so enjoyable, rather than a part of a hipster/gamer/comics/manga subculture.  Everyone can get something out of it!

-Odd captions

This is a subset of "metafiction", but I've always loved the goofy captions (if you can call them that; maybe "on-panel text" would work better, since they're often more like descriptive subtitles or non-onomatopoeic sound effects), which seem like part of the video game references but don't always fit into that idiom (unless they're meant to represent a narrator shouting out things like "Scott wins!").  They're another entertaining layer of communication between O'Malley and the reader, even in scene transitions like "Anyway" or "Soonish".

-Cute, slick art that continues to develop new facets

O'Malley's art is always described as "manga-influenced", but that's only part of it.  His characters do have big eyes, but they're different from most of those you see in manga, more round, with thicker outlines and smaller irises.  The face and body shapes are different too, with chins usually being round rather than pointed, and bodies more squat, with thicker feet.  The style is unique to O'Malley, and he draws from all sorts of influences.  That said, there's one moment in this volume reminiscent of fighting manga like Dragonball Z or Fist of the North Star that was pretty great.  The use of bursts of lines (sometimes for speed, but also for energy or emphasis) and lighting effects are really nice here too, as seen in the image above.  It should be fascinating to see what O'Malley will do next now that he's free from the chains of a long-running series and able to go in any direction he chooses.

So, is that it for this volume?  A few notices of neat stuff and a general good vibe?  I hope that's not all that comes across, since I really do love this series, and it's been one of the highlights of the 2000s so far in terms of comics.  As fun as all the fighting and video games and funny lines are, it's the grounding in character that has made it all work, the way the people populating this goofy world, their friendships and relationships with each other, seem real, giving readers an anchor to hold on to in the midst of all the craziness.  Seeing Scott holding down a job and being responsible, having a great time playing music with his band, spending quality time with his friends, and embarking into the unknown with a serious girlfriend is a great jumping off point in a wild journey that, for all its over-the-top fighting and silliness, is a recognizable symbol of the tumultuous years of our youth.  One can only hope that we can all look back so fondly on that time in our lives, remembering the highs and learning from the lows.  Whether we collect coins and extra lives or just hang out in bars and make jokes with our friends while trying to win over our dream girl, we're all human.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Sort of Autobiography: Cool comics ideas still exist

Elsewhere: I reviewed Kathryn and Stuart Immonen's Moving Pictures over at IndiePulp; it's quite good (the book, that is).

A Sort of Autobiography
By Warren Craghead
Download it and make it yourself!

With the onset of digital comics, an infinite number of possible ways to use the medium has erupted, and even the weirdest experiments are now visible for any number of people to experience.  This is great for comics fans, who can now experience the sort of odd idea that creators might not have shared with the world otherwise.  Warren Craghead's A Sort of Autobiography is a fascinating example, using the tools provided by the site to create a series of three-dimensional comic strips, with each in a series of ten cubes representing a moment in his life, separated by decades.  Some of them seem to simply place an image on each side of the cube (with one side of each working as a "title page"), while others wrap images around the surface, and several working to make faces representing Craghead at that cube's age.  It's a neat way to use the medium, if you can call it that.

The first five cubes represent Craghead's life through 2010, starting with 0 years old in 1970 and progressing through the age of 40 at present.  The 1980 cube (10 years old) shows an image of his childish face, with word balloons showing a flurry of imaginative images: superheroes, monsters, etc.  Age 20 in 1990 is more jumbled, as if Craghead was still figuring himself out at that point (as most everyone is), mixing doodles, scrawls of paint, scribbles, and other mixed media; was he figuring out what sort of artist he wanted to be at this point?  2000 (Age 30) is much simpler, showing images that look like they came from various booklets; perhaps at this point, he was more focused on his work, if not necessarily complete.  The present cube, showing him at age 40 in 2010, is a flurry of tiny images, eyeballs moving back and forth all over the surface, driven by ever-present clocks, alternating between work and sleep imagery.  It's as though, at this point in his life, Craghead (the eye/"I"?) feels busy, entrenched in a life of unceasing activity.

And then, as the rest of the comic lurches into an uncertain future, things take an uncertain turn.  The 2020 cube (50 years old) is composed of computer-like imagery, all square, pixel-style lines, with text in operating system "windows" or drop-down menus.  The words "drone" and "smoke" seem prevalent; perhaps Craghead is worried that he will eventually fade away in an increasingly technological world.  The age 60 cube (2030) seems to follow that idea, making him appear as a block of wood with a face, with trash littered all around and faded signs tacked to the surface.  By this point, he seems to expect that he'll be forgotten and ignored.  The 2040 cube (age 70) moves even further, with its imagery taking on an abstract, impenetrable feel, letters that might or might not be words scattered around the diagrams that might be what's left of distorted images of Craghead's face, and age 80 in 2050 seems like an even rougher, more distorted version of the same.  And it all ends ag age 90 in 2060, with an urn resting in a field of blackness, a depressing ending to an increasingly uncertain existence (although, given that somebody cared to cremate and preserve the remains, there's still somebody who cares).

Does the whole thing work as a comic?  Sure, if you want to put the work into interpreting it, not to mention the assembly time, which can make for a fun little craft project.  Craghead seems to have approached the project as a challenge, and I think he succeeded, capturing the different stages of life and their attendant emotional subtext well, along with an uncertain, seemingly pessimistic view of the future, but one that reflects the very real possibility of old age that brings obsolescence and decay.  It ends up being a sweeping, fascinating portrait of a life, and given the talent Craghead shows in assembling it, it hopefully won't end anywhere nearly as negatively as he fears.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Selected panels from Yoshihiro Tatsumi's Black Blizzard, presented with minimal commentary


Large foot in foreground: effective.

Lots of falling down.

Drinking.  Also: foreshadowing.

Tezuka pose + large, innocent eyes.

Puffy smoke.  Moral murkiness?

Squiggly line in the rain.

More falling, even in flashback.

Realization.  Flight.  Regret.

Cops in pursuit.

Also shadows.

Close call.

Whoever drinks the potion loses a hand; danger in foreground again.


There he goes again.

Happy ending.

1956.  Young creator + super-fast production schedule + hackneyed plot = compelling, fast-moving, exciting story, surprisingly.  Talent, eagerness on display, very interesting read.  Good?  Not especially, but still worth a look.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Inception: That's what happens to the viewers

2010, Directed by Christopher Nolan

God damn is Christopher Nolan a hell of a director.  He might be best known for his pretty good Batman films, but movies like this, which are full of imaginative ideas but grounded in humanity, are where he really hits hard, and this might be his best yet, finding near wall-to-wall perfection, from the script, to the cinematography, to the acting (what a cast!), to the music.  Wow.

The thing with this one is, it's such a compelling concept, bursting at the seams with potential for exploration, and constantly coming up with new ideas of exciting stuff to do with the world of dreams.  Dreams aren't really new ground for movies to cover, but Nolan somehow seems to make it fresh by giving the dreamscapes a banality, a just-barely-beyond-reality sheen, with only slight discrepancies and optical illusions creeping in at the edges, and even the really crazy visuals still grounded in that realism.  It's far from the phantasmagoric freakshows of something like The Cell, and for the type of espionage-style tale being told, it works perfectly.  But Nolan still manages to surprise and astonish, with setpieces like an extended zero-gravity fight scene or an avalanche chasing characters down a mountainside.

He also managed to offer up such tantalizing ambiguity in the storytelling that a cottage industry of theorists has already sprung up all over the internet; the plot itself is rather straightforward, but there's enough room for questioning that all sorts of possibilities for alternate takes reveal themselves with a bit of thought.  Sure, the final shot offers a simple either/or explanation for the final resolution, but one could scour the entire film for clues as to the "real" story.  Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio was the one whose mind was being invaded the whole time!  Or maybe he was the recipient of the inception that fed his whole motivation, not his wife!

Coming up with alternate takes on the plot is a fun exercise, but however one chooses to interpret the film, the fact remains that it wouldn't be so striking without its emotional core.  That's where the real heart of the film lies, the foundation that makes the rest of the film work, in the way that DiCaprio is wracked with guilt over the death of his wife, and especially the abandonment of his children.  That repeated memory of his last glimpse of them is heartbreaking, with him forced to flee without ever seeing their faces; it's enough to make a parent break down sobbing.  And the love for his wife, the refusal to let go of her even as her memory is destroying him emotionally, seems so real, so painful.  The whole thing could be a metaphor for the pain and guilt of abandonment following a suicide, or even something less dramatic like a divorce.  There's a real beating heart (if one wrapped in barbed wire) underlying all the structural and visual play of this movie, and that's what makes it all work, what haunts the mind after the conceptual pyrotechnics have faded.  Yes, Christopher Nolan: one hell of a motherfucking filmmaker.

Monday, August 2, 2010

Collection catchup: Vertigo-go

Elsewhere: I reviewed Jason's Werewolves of Montpellier over at IndiePulp, and I hope it's not a spoiler to say I liked it.

The Unwritten, volume 1: Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity
Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross

If there's any (sub?) genre that gets a free pass (of sorts) from me, it's metafiction, especially stories in which  characters discover their fictional nature.  I don't know why, but that sort of thing really pushes my geek buttons, maybe because of the exquisite existential horror of finding out that you're not actually real, that some unseen higher power is controlling you (this might also explain my atheism).  So I'm kind of predisposed to like this series, which involves a character who was supposedly the inspiration for the hero of a Harry Potter-like series of books, but might actually be that character, somehow pulled into the real world.  There's a lot of mystery and intrigue involving the ways fiction and reality overlap (especially geographically), some violence and gore, and plenty of weirdness, like an assassin who can reduce objects down to their component words, which kind of ties into that fictional/existential horror I was talking about.  At this point in the story, there's much to be discovered and explained, but so far I'm liking the ideas being explored, especially the way a globally popular character can come close to an actual religion.  There's also a one-off story about Rudyard Kipling that establishes a centuries-long conspiracy in which powerful men use writers to reshape world history, which gives the whole thing an even more epic sweep.  So, yes, I'm liking this one, and I'm quite interested to see where it goes next.  I'll keep my fingers crossed for an appearance from Kilgore Trout.

DMZ, volume 8: Hearts and Minds
Written by Brian Wood
Art by Riccardo Burchielli and Ryan Kelly

The chief triumph of DMZ is the way it has made the experience of life in a war-torn country relatable to Americans for whom such a notion is near-impossible to comprehend.  By placing the war zone right in one of the most familiar cities in the country, we get the shock of seeing the violence, damage, and chaos in a familiar context, rather than half a world away.  And Brian Wood has managed to keep exploring aspects of war and conflict, keeping readers on their toes.  This volume sees one of the best examples of this motif so far, in a Ryan Kelly-illustrated story that takes the foreign-seeming concept of suicide bombers and terror cells and makes it seem understandable, which is no small achievement.  Usually, we think of these people as crazed religious zealots, following an inexplicable moral code, but Wood makes us realize that all it takes to exploit people is tragedy.  Someone who has lost everything and feels that he has nothing left can be manipulated into doing terrible things, and Wood shows how through a look at an organization that gathers men whose families have died and combines a support group style of "therapy" that is actually designed to keep wounds fresh along with military training that brainwashes the men into unquestioning puppets, the perfect formula for unfeeling killing machines.  It's horrible to witness, and suddenly the thought of people so broken that they'll indiscriminately sow terror and death makes sense.  All it takes is an onslaught of death that ruins lives, and the soil of fanaticism is fertile for planting the seeds.  It's a short story that seems (so far) to be a kind of pause in the main narrative of the series, but it's one of the most powerful ones that Wood has included in the series so far.

As for the main part of the book, which seems to wrap up the ongoing "Matt works for an increasingly dictatorial political leader" plot, I'm not sure what to think.  It sees like Wood may have rushed to end it, since it all seems to fall apart at once, but that is the way of political fortune.  He does spend time on the plot involving the atomic bomb which Parco Delgado (the aforementioned charismatic leader) acquired in a misguided attempt to be relevant on the world stage, showing how this was basically just a bid for power that overrode all the pure-sounding rhetoric about peace and brotherhood.  And Matty himself follows a similar path, getting caught up in the pursuit of power rather than actually trying to help people, eventually ruining everything he fought for over the course of his years in the DMZ.  It's hard to watch, but seeing all the ways in which he has made the wrong choices, it's kind of expected.  A new character gets introduced here, a female DJ running a station called "Radio Free DMZ", and while we have yet to see her face or hear her name, maybe she's on her way to being Matty's replacement as the voice of the people, the person striving for truth and justice rather than power.  We'll see how it goes; whatever happens, I'm excited to see what happens next.