Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Dragon Puncher: Everyone's dream job description

Dragon Puncher
By James Kochalka

James Kochalka's cute, exuberant style is a perfect fit for kids' comics (and also, oddly, raunchy superhero spoofs like Superfuckers), and this newest book of his manages to pare his style down to a minimum while still retaining a lively sense of play, some hilarious dialogue, and some interesting stylistic techniques, including the incorporation of photos into the artwork (or vice versa, considering that the bright linework is drawn on top of photographic backgrounds of peaceful nature scenes).  That last element is possibly the most interesting here, as the small cast of characters, consisting of the eponymous punchmaster, a tag-along monster kid named Spoony-E, and their prey, are "played", respectively, by Kochalka's cat, his son Eli, and Kochalka himself, with parts of their faces appearing to peek out through holes in their faces, making it seem as though they are wearing costumes and playing parts in this silly drama.  Kochalka makes his two main characters "act" especially well, with only their eyes and noses actually being visible, and choosing photos that manage to perfectly convey their emotions, which would be excitement and enthusiasm in the case of Spoony, and suspicion and wariness for Dragon Puncher (a perfect use of narrow-eyed cat expressions).

Kochalka himself pops up later as the slimy object of their hunt, and his whole face is visible, giving him the chance to overact to his heart's content, grimacing and scowling in a pretty hilarious approximation of a feral beast.  This book was obviously a ton of fun to make, and while it's short (all the better for the multiple, regular readings that its target audience will demand), it's a lot of fun to read as well.  It's about as simple as one of these stories can get, and there's no message to be taught (except maybe "kids can help out", if you want to stretch), making it a frivolous bit of silliness.  If anybody is going to lead the way in quality kids' comics, it's Kochalka.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Minicomics mayhem, part two

It's about time...

Salvaged Parts
By Lucy Knisley
Buy it online at Knisley's blog

Lucy Knisley's diary-style webcomics are a pretty great example of the autobio genre, winningly cute and humorous but also interestingly self-examining; maybe being regularly posted for free online helps, but she's been successful in print as well.  And with this minicomic, she has managed to bridge the gap between the two, in a way, offering it as a digital download for the price of two dollars.  It's a way to signify that this is something less frivolous than the cute cat images and descriptions of delicious foods that often fill Knisley's regular posts: an examination of the emotional impact of the (amicable, yet still difficult) breakup with her boyfriend of several years.  It's a heartbreaking grouping of several short pieces, as Knisley considers the empty bed frame left when her ex takes his mattress a symbol of her situation, has a chance encounter with a childhood possession that helps remind her of what is important to her, and receives a beautiful gift from her grandfather that helps her get through her heartache.  As is usual for Knisley's comics, it's all wonderfully illustrated, full of great uses of comics as a visual language to communicate concepts and emotions, with the images combining with the ever-present descriptive captions (a necessity, when communicating a personal message such as this) to become more than the sum of the parts, a beautiful, sad little comic that triggers universal emotions and helps its author deliver her message, shouting her feelings out into the void where then can be recognized and understood by all of humanity.  This is the exciting new frontier of comics in our digital world, and Knisley is leading the way forward.

Also recommended:  Make Yourself Happy, Knisley's collection of various webcomics, including several sessions of hourly comics (in which a cartoonist draws one two-panel strip for each hour that they are awake in a day), a travelogue of a trip to Paris, and a recipe for homemade pickles!

Good Minnesotan #4
By Nicholas Breutzman, Toby Jones, Kevin Cannon, Joshana Anderson, Tom Kaczynski, Neville McKinnie, Luke Holden, Megan Hogan, Raighne Hogan, Justin Skarhus, Zak Sally, Sean Lynch, Noah Harmon, Lupi, Joseph Nixon, Steroid Party, Sarah Tulius, Maddie Queripel, Ed Choy Moorman, Eric Schuster, Dan Moyer, Martha Iserman, Lizardman, King Mini, Buck Sutter, Anna Bongiovanni, Mayme Donsker, Will Dinski, Reynold Kissling, Tim Sievert, and Eric Ruby
Buy it online (eventually?) from 2D Cloud

Wow, that's quite a list of contributors, isn't it?  This "issue" of a minicomics series that gathers a bunch of diverse work together from various cartoonists and other artists who live in Minnesota is actually several little booklets, all bound together in an illustrated slipcase, making quite a deal for five dollars.  As with any anthology, it's something of a mixed bag, containing professional-level short pieces by established creators, more messy, experimental stuff from lesser-known talents, and some random photos, sketches, and bits of art that seem thrown in to fill out the package, yet manage to fit the theme of "oddball stuff from up North".  Notable stories include Kevin Cannon's "A Brief History of the Fram and the Men who Loved Her", a bit of history about a ship that several explorers used to try to be the first to the North (and later South) Pole, which contains plenty of Cannon's signature cartoony wit; Tom Kaczynski's "Ransom Strange", a sort of Daniel-Clowes-meets-Richard-Sala bit about a weird doomsayer; Sean Lynch's abstract "The White Dot", which manages to make streaks of ink seem interestingly intense; Lupi's "The Poo Lagoon", about a trio of young people who wonder about the source of the feces they find floating in a public hot spring; Megan Hogan's bizarre "Geirdoz", a photo comic starring some knitted creatures; a weird fable by Anne Bongiovanni  about some kids burying their mom and eating the onions that grow on her grave; a funny one-pager by Will Dinski about the fate of an Evel Knievel wannabe; and a hilariously over-the-top barbarian story by Tim Sievert.  The rest of the sketches, photos, and comics might not be up to that level, but they're mostly interesting at the very least, and some of them make for strikingly different styles, offering a pretty wide range of talent and material, all united by geography.  Not a bad package at all; if you can get your hands on it, by all means, check it out.

So...Buttons #1-3
Written by Jonathan Baylis
Art by T.J. Kirsch, Mr. Alan, David Beyer Jr., Tim Ogline, Thomas Boatwright, and Danny Hellman
Buy them online from Baylis' site

This series of minis is masterminded by Jonathan Baylis, although he takes the Harvey Pekar route, handling the writing while various collaborators provide the art.  The first two issues, which came out in 2007 and 2009, respectively, seem to follow Pekar's lead as well, telling autobiographical stories about various subjects, from Baylis' childhood, to his relationship with his girlfriend (and later wife), to what is probably the highlight of the series, a story in which Baylis took a tour with his uncle on the aircraft carrier where the latter served in Vietnam.  There's a marked increase in quality as the series progresses, with the first issue containing some pretty amateurish art by David Beyer, Jr. and a "Mr. Alan" (and some quite nice work by T.J. Kirsch, who contributes to every issue here, and can be seen regularly illustrating the webcomic She Died in Terebonne), as well as several pieces in which Baylis awkwardly faces the readers and addresses them directly.  The second issue works much better, showing real development in storytelling skill, and some wonderfully cartoony art by Kirsch.

And then with the third issue, which only came out recently in Fall 2010, Baylis and company switch tacks entirely, telling a suite of fictional horror stories (making for a slightly confusing first story, which stars a Baylis lookalike who narrates a gruesome breakup tale) that effectively communicate a dark, creepy mood and atmosphere.  Beyer illustrates two stories here, and he has really grown since the first issue, lending a great deal of nastiness to what could be fairly rote vampire and zombie tales.  Kirsch is back for a lighter piece as well, rounding out what could either be a brief departure for the series or a bold new fictional direction.  Whatever the case, it's kind of fascinating to read these issues all in a row and see Baylis and pals hone their craft over a few years.  Hopefully, the wait for the next issue won't be as long.

Written by Nicholas Breutzman and Shawn Feltz
Art by Nicholas Breutzman
Colored by Raighne Hogan
Buy it online from 2D Cloud

This isn't really a minicomic, but it kind of feels like one, having the feel of something personal and hand-crafted.  Nicholas Breutzman co-writes and draws an affecting story about a high school kid with an interest in art forming a sort of relationship with a teacher, and finding out that the man isn't the best role model.  The story is full of the awkwardness and intense emotions of the teen years, and it ends up being pretty sad, as the teacher, who seems interested in encouraging his students who show artistic talent, turns out to be something of a sociopath, demonstrating this through his cold, unfeeling attitude toward the subjects of the art that he shows off to his young charge.  There's a creepiness around this guy, leading to a somewhat expected scene between him and a female student, but it's not sensationalized, just something that happens.  In fact, the whole story seems to take the shape of a simple incident or memory, rather than an eventful bit of TV-ready drama. Sometimes things just happen, and we're left to puzzle over them for years, or, if we're the creative types, turn them into art.  Breutzman certainly put together something interesting, a small sliver of what seems to be a vibrant, realistic scene, one that lives beyond its pages.  It's unsettling and affecting, and certainly worth the time it takes to read.

Temperance: Sometimes I feel dumb

By Cathy Malkasian

It's hard to figure out how to approach this book, because it's an intimidatingly rich work, full of symbolism and moody art, but put together in such a way that interpretation could take in any number of directions.  Cathy Malkasian doesn't do a lot of hand-holding here, just plopping readers down among some strange, slightly fantastical characters and letting us catch up.  And she doesn't sit still either, racing forward in a plot that involves closed-off societies, beliefs influenced by lies, mystically-powered (and possibly fictional) characters, and what appears to be a conflict between knowledge and faith.  It's all lushly rendered in spooky gray tones, with lively, somewhat pudgy characters always striving forward toward their dubious goals, so even if it seems hard to understand, it sure looks beautiful.

Ah, but that story: it's divided into three parts, with each section marking a striking shift in the direction of the plot.  The first seems like an intimate character piece, with a violent, seemingly insane (adoptive?) father abusing his "daughters" as he speaks of building a huge "ship" out of stone, where they can be protected from some undefined enemy.  The two girls argue about the rightness of his actions, with short, chubby Minerva defending Pa (the only name by which he is known throughout the book) and the taller, prettier Peggy accusing him of kidnapping them, making up his "enemy", and generally causing chaos and committing unspeakable deeds.  When Pa tries to rape Peggy, a nearby young man comes to her defense and is savagely beaten by Pa as Peggy runs away, but Minerva manages to convince Pa to spare his life.

This all seems to be setup for the second part, and the real centerpiece of the book.  Jumping forward a few decades, Minerva is now living inside the big stone edifice, which is known as Blessedbowl, acting as the leader of a society composed of people Pa supposedly rescued from the attacking enemy, while the patriarch continues to fight great battles outside of their safe haven.  However, she quickly reveals to readers that this is all a lie; Pa had tricked everyone into coming there and destroyed their villages himself, and she is making up all the messages from him that she claims to be receiving.  Meanwhile, poor Lester, the young man who came to her rescue in the first part, is doting on her as her faithful husband, a half-crazy amnesiac waging defensive campaigns against the birds and the moon, which Minerva has told him are spies.  After so many years of lies and manipulations, Minerva is tired of the culture she has fostered, and she is seeing it grow out of her control as legalistic people start to come up with their own interpretations of Pa's words, and Lester's memory seems to slowly be returning.

As another strange complication, this section of the book is narrated by Lester's wooden leg (Pa cut his leg off to keep him from escaping), which Minerva, despairing at her inability to conceive children, removes and carves into a child who shares the name of the book.  While he is an observer in the book's second section, he takes the center in the third, as he (having begun to walk, in an inexplicable but somehow fitting turn) escapes Blessedbowl and sets out to find Pa, and after finding him, accompanies him on wanderings through a mostly-deserted wasteland in search of Peggy.  When they eventually find her, she appears to have formed a society of her own, this one based around knowledge (symbolized by books) rather than lies.

So, what the hell is going on here?  One could take several interpretive approaches (or simply view the story as a surreal fantasy), but it certainly seems that Malkasian is going for a look at religion, with its made-up stories and ridiculous rituals that seem so real and so important to believers, along with its exclusionary tendencies, building up "protective" walls against dangerous nonbelievers and painting innocuous outside elements as threats.  It's a scarily familiar portrait, especially in the way the leaders can lose control of their followers as human nature seizes on whatever it can to gain power and influence for ever-smaller groups of like-minded people.  And then there's the competing group, Peggy's reason to Minerva's faith in lies, which is optimistically shown to render the impotent power behind the religious delusions powerless, and even reaches out to form a connection to those who have closed themselves off, with the truth setting them free.

Or maybe that's way off; there are certainly a ton of details and bits that beg for closer examination, like Pa's deranged obsession with Peggy (an attempt to sway nonbelievers?), Temperance's compassion for Pa even when he knows the terrible things he has done, Lester's recovered memory being facilitated by nectar from trees, Peggy's ghostly nature suggesting that she might be a figment of Minerva's imagination or an aspect of her personality, or why Minerva preaches Pa's message so strenuously after suffering abuse at his hands.  It's a lot to take in, something to occupy the mind for weeks as various explanations are considered.  That's the sign of a good allegory, or at least one that seems like a vibrant collection of symbols, neither too simplistic to take seriously nor too complex to make any sense at all.  Malkasian clearly has poured her heart into this story, bringing the characters to life even as they act to make readers think beyond the story itself.  It's a beautiful book, and one that will stick in the mind for some time after reading it.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Koko Be Good: No, not the gorilla

Elsewhere:  I wrote about this season's first two episodes of Fringe over at The Factual Opinion.  It looks like that show and I are stuck with each other.

Links:  Chris Burnham's 24 hour comic, Snake Punch, is pretty fuckin' awesome.

It looks like Lucy Knisley is doing a series of prints that sum up the Harry Potter movies in comics format.  I love her work; this is really cute stuff.

And hey, USA Today has a new Hellboy comic written and drawn by Mike Mignola; how about that?

Koko Be Good
By Jen Wang

It’s about time comics had its own Manic Pixie Dream Girl, isn’t it?  For those who don’t know, that term was invented by the film critic Nathan Rabin to describe the sort of flighty, irresistible romantic interest, such as Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, a person who might seem to be a lot of fun in a fictional context, but would probably become insufferable in real life.  That certainly seems to describe the titular character that Jen Wang has created here (with the romantic angle deemphasized, however), although she comes at it with a knowing eye, with the character being enjoyable to watch as she bounces from scene to scene with lively energy, but actually alienating everyone around her with her antics.  It ends up being an interesting examination of the character, what makes her tick, and how she relates to others, placing her in a realistic world and allowing her exaggerated nature to push against its boundaries.

Wang’s take on Koko is enticing, detailing just enough background detail to hint at what might have made her the way she is: she’s near-homeless, so she often gets by through mooching and stealing, and then covers up for her behavior through being entertainingly loud and obnoxious.  A meeting with the book’s other lead, a young man named Jon who is pining after his older girlfriend and planning to move with her to Peru, inspires her to change her ways and, as the title indicates, “be good”.  What that means exactly is something she spends the book working out, and it’s fascinating to see how she approaches it, attempting approaches as varied as donating to charity, volunteering, and even selling all her possessions, often unsure whether she is doing the right thing, making any difference, or just fooling herself.  It’s a mature bit of storytelling on Wang’s part, refusing to supply easy answers or cheap sentiment, and building to an emotional crescendo that, even though it is cribbed from the Jack Nicholson movie About Schmidt, is no less effective in its punch to the gut.
It’s a lively tale, full of antics and personality, and some lovely artwork.  Wang’s fluid style is gorgeous to behold, grounding cartoony characters in a realistic environment, which, while it is never named, appears to be San Francisco.  Watercolored browns and greens give everything an earthy tone, situating the story squarely in the real world and keeping the goofy antics from getting too bright and cheery; there’s a somber tone underlying the comedy, a sad disconnectedness that makes the not-exactly-worldshaking conflict about finding oneself some weight. 

As for those characters, they’re a marvel of design, especially Koko herself, who, with her round face, big eyes, high forehead, and wide mouth, wears a succession of exaggerated expressions that make her immediately endearing, the kind of person who has no filter for their entertainingly frank thoughts, yet is charming enough to make that obnoxiousness funny rather than mean (at least at first).  There’s a brightness and excitement to her face, but also an edge, a sense that she can turn at a moment’s notice toward spite, anger, and derision.  But, since she’s trying to change her ways and be a good person, Wang ably depicts her struggling with herself, warring against her nature and trying to act differently from the person she has trained herself to be.  It’s a complex characterization, and fascinating to watch.

The book as a whole is not quite perfect, with a subplot involving Koko’s teenage acquaintance (and sometimes accomplice) Faron never really given the space it deserves; his home life, with his activist sister, her derisive boyfriend, and his hidden love of musical theater, suggests an interesting story in itself, but it doesn’t get enough space, and it doesn’t seem to fit in with the A-plot’s theme of self-betterment.  It’s still a nice bit of writing and characterization on Wang’s part, as is Jon’s enthusiasm about his girlfriend and their upcoming adventure, which seems to be slowly and sadly crowding out the hopes and dreams he had before he met her.  Wang’s characters are full and rounded, and if anything, we want to spend more time with them than the meager moments the book gives us.

This is a hell of a debut, an excellent work by an artist who, with her first full-length story, announces herself as a major talent and a huge rising star.  This doesn’t seem like the work of a beginner; its solidity and dimensionality, in both its art and storytelling, is impressively mature.  Hopefully, Wang will have a long and fruitful career, gifting readers with characters like this, that we want to spend as much time with as possible.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Drifting Classroom: The end, which surprisingly didn't come from everyone screaming themselves to death

The Drifting Classroom, volume 11
By Kazuo Umezu

And so ends one of the crazier comics to be made available in recent memory, and, as happens so often in manga, it's a slight letdown, in that everyone didn't die horribly, screaming all the way to their doom.  No, it's a somewhat happy ending here (from one point of view, at least), with only minimal death and gore, but there's plenty of classic Umezu insanity on hand, and a slightly hopeful (but still mostly pessimistic) outlook for the future.  The best moment (for providing an "Oh, shit!" reaction, that is), which demonstrates that even in the course of wrapping things up safely, Umezu still wants to deliver nutty violence, comes when a severed arm (introduced at the last minute as belonging to a guy who is apparently living in both time periods due to being caught in the explosion that sent the kids to the future) violently saves the day at the last moment:

Yeah, that's what we all came for.  The rest of the volume mostly sees the kids decide they can get back home by creating a psychic connection channeled through a comatose member of the group and all wishing to go back to the past really hard.  Surprisingly, it doesn't work, but there ends up being a reason for that, fitting Umezu's metaphorical look at the horrible world created for Japan's youth in the 1970s.  The kids end up stranded in the future, left to repopulate the world and survive on their own, and they vow to make the best of it, with a little bit of help from their long-dead parents.  In Umezu's world, there's no magical, last-minute escape from the situation in which the younger generation find themselves, and they're going to have to figure it out on their own, no matter how difficult things are going to be.  It's as optimistic as things get in this barren post-apocalypse, and it fits right into the extremely exaggerated tone that Umezu has kept up throughout, as the kids go from being horrified and murderous to excited about their brave new world.  Chances are, they'll all eat each other before the month is out, but there's a slight glimmer of hope, just like the dim flicker of a chance that society won't collapse after all the strain adults have placed on it.  Cheers!

And that's it for this particular horrible (or horribly, hilariously enticing) vision of Umezu's, although he's crafted plenty more over the course of his long career, meaning there must be a wealth of insanity just waiting to be placed in our hands.  There is one short story, "The Wish", that rounds out the end of this volume, and it's a good monkey-paw fable, about a kid who wants the hideous puppet friend that he cobbled together from garbage to come to life, which of course actually happens, but only after he has moved on to his next enthusiastic pursuit (actual friends!), the creepy thing showing up to wreak murderous revenge after being so callously discarded.  That's the Umezu we all love; let's see more, please!

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Empowered: She's getting there, slowly

Empowered, volume 6
By Adam Warren

As fun as it is to have Adam Warren create a short story, one-shot, or miniseries like Livewires, Iron Man: Hypervelocity, Galacta: Daughter of Galactus, or Titans: Scissors, Paper, Stone, a long-running series is where he really shines.  Sure, Warren's cool sci-fi concepts, awesome action, dynamic art, eye-catching character designs, and hip, humorous, jargon-packed dialogue can all come out in a shorter work, but with the chance to keep telling stories in a continuous narrative, Warren reveals a wonderful facility for character, working over the course of six volumes and counting to flesh out personalities both central and peripheral, and demonstrating believable growth and change, getting readers invested in their fortunes and occasionally breaking hearts both real and fictional.

This volume continues the fallout from the disastrous ending to the previous installment, in which the villainous Willy Pete fried a number of superheroes, and generally caused a ton of mayhem and destruction.  While the big event came to a conclusion, its effects resonate through the entire volume, provoking revelations about what happens to superheroes that die in this world (Warren cannily avoids use of the word "zombie"), revealing a terrifying enemy for Emp to face, and demonstrating her strength in the face of adversity.  It's crazy, exciting stuff, full of all the usual humor and worldbuilding, pop/nerd culture references (yaoi and scanlation are the highlights this time around), and sexy, sexy, sexiness.  The small moments are what really stand out though, like a scene in which Emp and Thugboy share a tender moment following an argument about her risking her life, or the scenes in which Sistah Spooky continues to reveal the incredibly sensitive little girl that resides under the tough shell of anger and shame that we see has been shattered by the death of her lover.    Her flashback scenes are especially heartbreaking, showing her at her most vulnerable and lonely, demonstrating just how open she was to the coercion of the devil coming to bargain for her soul.  Warren even manages to combine this deft hand for character moments with his innovative sci-fi ideas, showing that Spooky's dead lover, Mindfuck, had implanted a "mnemonic emulation" of herself in Spooky's mind to comfort her in the midst of her worst memory.  It's a touching revelation, demonstrating the depth of feeling Mindfuck had for Spooky, but also incredibly sad, with Spooky stuck with a small comfort, but also a reminder of her failures, a ghost that refuses to let go.

Spooky is fast becoming a favorite character, one that continues to grow and develop, and will almost certainly end up being a key player in upcoming volumes.  Warren is certainly building a long-running mega-plot here, revealing the disturbing depths of his world and planting seeds for future conflicts that promise to be huge.  That's the other thing he does so well with a long-term series, fleshing out a fascinating world that is full of quirks and weirdness.  As volumes continue to be added, he keeps filling in the margins here and there, revealing a simmering conflict between powered and non-powered people, adding in bits of history, and showing the extent to which super-powers have permeated this world through glimpses of TV shows like "Super Dirty Jobs", in which a perky superheroine cleans up "mutagenic poo" and fishing for sea monsters with "anti-cherubim", or a radio show involving superhero fantasy leagues that are based on how popular various good guys are, or how many people the bad guys kill.  It's fascinating to see Warren's mind latch onto some throwaway idea or character design and make it work as part of his cohesive whole.

So, surprise, surprise, this volume was another good one.  By this point, you're probably either in Warren's corner or aren't going to venture anywhere near it, but it must be said, this series just keeps getting better and better.  Maybe it's seeing the main character continue to gain confidence (and getting upset at her when she beats up on herself, since, yes, people have flaws), or learning new details (like her origin, which is one of the most nonchalant in superhero comics history, although there are sure to be more revelations to come), or getting excited when she succeeds, but whatever the case, every panel spent in this world is worth it, enough to make one begin counting the days until the next volume appears.  Let's hope it doesn't take too long to get here...

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Peepo Choo: Now I want to read Buboe Sore

Elsewhere: I wrote about Werner Herzog's film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? over at The Factual Opinion.

Links:  Here's a tie-in comic to that Hero Tomorrow movie that I wrote about a while back, although I don't know if anybody who hasn't seen the movie would be interested...

This site, which features a bunch of short sci-fi comics stories, seems interesting.  I'm not sure about the quality of art or writing, having only sampled a little bit, but I like the idea of world-building on such a vast scale.  Maybe worth a look, and it could end up turning into something pretty cool.

Peepo Choo, volume 1
By Felipe Smith

Felipe Smith certainly seems to be living the dream, having been recruited by Japanese publisher Kodansha to create this manga series, and then having his work be translated back into English by the domestic publisher Vertical.  He's achieved modest fame on both sides of the Pacific!  Interestingly, his comics fit into the category that doesn't have a whole lot of traction in the West, at least not in the manga section of the bookstore: the sexed-up, ultra-violent, fairly nonsensical seinen genre, aimed at adult (or "adult", if you prefer) men.  That sort of thing might rule the superhero corner of the American comics market (with a chaste, "cover up the naughty bits and censor the swears" pussification) and provide entertainment for legions of train-riding salarymen, but it's mostly unheard-of over here, lost among the piles of sparkly shojo and spiky-haired "I wanna be the best" shonen.  And after reading this volume, maybe it deserves that lower profile; it's mostly brainless, goofy nonsense, full of blood and tits and cackling laughs and garish, stupid cultural misunderstandings.  Keep it hiding on the shelves of not-so-similar material, and it still has the power of shock, something for people to happen across and goggle at the depravity to be beheld.

Not that it's a worthless exercise in nihilism or anything; Smith is actually quite entertaining in his skewering of cross-cultural fandoms and enthusiasms, and his look at the way Japanese and Americans manage to distort and misappropriate each other's culture is funny and insightful, if incredibly hyperbolic.  Several characters get introduced in this first volume, tied together only tangentially or thematically, but obviously on their way to crashing together as the story continues.  These include a Chicago fanboy of a Japanese cartoon who assumes everyone in Japan is obsessed with it, making it a land of cheerful, cartoonish togetherness; a psychotic yakuza enforcer who thinks he is emulating American gangbangers; a busty teen model/schoolgirl; and a mask-wearing hitman who takes a creepy, sexual enjoyment in the rivers of blood he regularly spills.  They're all destined to collide when the hitman (who moonlights as a comic store owner) takes a trip to Japan for a hit and brings some employees along with him, for little discernible reason.  Smith only just gets started on the expected meet-ups; most of this volume sets up the characters' expectations of what Japan/America is like, sure to dash them all in the most effectively heartbreaking fashion.

That might be the ultimate aim, but Smith seems to just enjoy coming up with displays of grotesque behavior, with the dial turned up to eleven.  Violence, whether caused by sadistic yakuza or efficient hitmen, is gory and disgusting, with brains and intestines flying and blood spurting everywhere.  Sex, whether real or imagined, is less alluring than kind of gross, the naked breasts covered with drops of sweat (and possibly other fluids), people contorting into weird, unsexy positions, the women all so topheavy that they seem about to burst out of even the most modest garments.  Most of the Americans seem to sport sneering faces, mocking those who like things they don't understand, whether they are superhero fans characterizing manga and anime as weird and nonsensical (and rightly so, if the titular anime is any example, being full of gibberish language, puke, shit, and stupid dancing), or fans of that very Japanese media calling cape comics overmuscled and homoerotic.  All behavior is taken to the extreme, making for an entertaining, if somewhat exhausting, romp through Smith's take on humanity's worst impulses.

It's a pretty ridiculous collection of craziness, and while it seems like a parade of freakishness as of the end of this volume, it looks like it could go in interesting directions, as Smith takes his established weirdos and bounces them off each other to hopefully entertaining ends.  Or maybe it will just be more boobs, sex, blood, and mocking laughter; either way, it should be pretty fascinating to watch, if only to see something the likes of which doesn't appear on American shelves as often as it could.  There's room for art of all stripes in comics, and the id-engaging, over-the-top appeal to base impulses is as good as any.  More of this, please.