Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Manga Binge: These three are about as different as could be

Monster Hunter Orage, volume 2
By Hiro Mashima
Published by Kodansha Comics

Shonen manga and video games (especially RPGs) are a pretty good match, with elements from the latter like gathering a group of heroes, leveling up, and using helpful skills or items fitting right into the former, and if the creator is talented, the results can be more than just seeming like watching somebody play through the game. Hiro Mashima, creator of Fairy Tail and Rave Master, is such an artist, exhibiting an influence from One Piece's Eiichiro Oda, but not quite going so far over the top with exaggeration or wackiness. The result is a pretty entertaining romp through what could be a generic fantasy-quest thing, taking the framework of the game, a multiplayer affair which sees small teams of characters traveling the countryside and, yes, hunting monsters in order to sell whatever can be scavenged from their corpses, and using it to tell the story of the excitably dim young Shiki as he pursues his goal of finding and defeating the ultimate dragon (read: end boss) along with a pair of female companions and other various friends and foes they meet along the way. There's a lot of talk about equipment and rules involving a guild that oversees the hunters, but the main conflict in this volume is centered around Ailee, the daughter of Shiki's late master, who, after being burned in the past, has decided she can go it alone in this harsh world, not needing anybody to help her. Will she be swayed by Shiki's bravery and friendship? If you don't know the answer to that question, you don't have much experience with shonen manga.

Sure, it's fairly standard stuff, but Mashima adds so much personality and character that readers shouldn't mind. Shiki's irrepressible attitude is fun to watch, as is the way he interacts with his friends, who treat him with either irritation or bemusement. The monster designs are probably straight out of the game, but Mashima gives them some real energy and, again, personality. It's a pretty lighthearted take on what could be dull, angsty material, even finding excuses to clothe the cast in bikinis for a key battle at sea, since fan-service is another essential aspect of shonen manga. There's a lot to like here; sometimes all it takes to rise above the generic nature of source material is a talented person to adapt it.

xxxHolic, volume 17
Published by Del Rey Manga

I knew next to nothing about this series going in, and after reading this volume, I don't know if I can say I know much more, but that's the nature of trying to follow a series when starting at the seventeenth installment. I can say that it's a really stylish manga, full of ethereal touches and a spooky-yet-grounded atmosphere, a nice showcase for the art and storytelling skill of CLAMP. The plot, from what I can discern, involves a magical wish-granting shop which used to be run by a woman named Yuko, but she either died or disappeared due to events in previous volumes, and her apprentice Watanuki has taken over. He is assisted in his duties by two fancily-attired young girls, a rabbit-like creature that drinks a lot of liquor and speaks in the third person, a "pipe fox spirit" that looks like a cross between a weasel and a snake, and a friend who seems somewhat ambivalent about being Watanuki's errand boy. The main story in this volume sees Watanuki tasked with acquiring a mystical red pearl for a monster called the Joro-gumo, who previously ate his right eye (he has a magical replacement or something, and you can tell by his eyes being different colors on the cover and shaded differently on the inside). This involves traveling via dreams (since he can't physically leave the shop) to a placidly wrecked apartment and finding out what is going on with the abused girl who lives there. It's pretty creepy, mostly due to the girl's indifference to the awful physical torment she has gone through, with her even seeming to view it as her fault (a possible correlation to real-life patterns of abuse, which brings a feeling of tangible horror into the fantastical milieu). There's also some intrigue (of a sort; everything is pretty slow-paced in this manga, with emotions kept buried under layers of seeming indifference) around Watanuki and his role as the keeper of the shop, as well as an unseen love interest and various internal struggles regarding Domeki, the errand boy character. It's all pretty odd, following a rhythm that is kind of hard to key into when starting this late in the series, but effective, communicating an atmosphere of magical strangeness and mystery.

The lovely art certainly helps, defining the contours of the shop quite well but keeping to an almost minimalistic style for the backgrounds and the near-emotionless character art, which makes the flourishes of detail really stand out. Tendrils of smoke from Watanuki's fancy pipe snake across pages and throughout panel layouts; magical seals are intricately-designed patterns; curls of hair cascade from the head of the abused girl like a waterfall; the Joro-gumo, who takes the form of a beautiful woman, conveys a predatory sexuality; a Lovecraftian creature outside the walls of the shop sprouts myriad creepy eyes and attacks Watanuki with smoky tentacles as Domeki defends him with a cool weapon that Watanuki had just gifted him. It's lovely work throughout, and it's easy to see why it and its creators have gained a fan-base. There's definitely something here, a memorably spooky feel that pervades everything, a sense that anything can happen, but in a way that is very rigidly defined by rules, making for a series that is both disturbing and comforting, something that sticks in the subconscious and takes up residence. These CLAMP ladies certainly have talent.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, volume 10
By Koji Kumeta
Published by Kodansha Comics

This series is one of those that, once the premise is established in the first volume or so, can be picked up at any point and followed, since each chapter is another gag-fest in which the eponymous Teacher of Despair and his students explore some cultural phenomenon or quirk of society, listing example after example of, say, ways people promote themselves or how people can profit from disaster. It's often hilarious, and even if not every joke lands (or is understood by those unfamiliar with Japanese culture), there are so many that a good percentage of them work. This volume sees discussions of three-way standoffs (in the rock/paper/scissors tradition, such as a bride, a groom, and a mother-in-law), good deeds done with the intent of receiving gratitude, the ridiculous third alternative taken when one can't decide between two options, breaking bad news via a "soft landing", and things parents don't know (stemming from a pun involving the Japanese term for wisdom teeth). As always, Koji Kumeta manages to weave each concept through a bunch of ridiculous variations, his quirky cast commenting on the topics as befits their defined personalities. There are probably an endless number of subjects Kumeta could cover, and he seems to just bum-rush each one, pouring out as many gags as he can conceive (including regular lists of examples, usually accompanied by Zetsubou-Sensei crying something like, "I'm in despair! I've lost hope in a society that profits from disaster!") until he fills the requisite number of pages. It's pretty damn enjoyable, sure to elicit laughs.

As funny as the writing is, the appealing art sells the series really well too, paring the visual information of the characters down to an almost minimalistic level. Everyone sports solid black circles for eyes and chunks of black shapes for hair, with most of the students distinguishable through their silhouettes, even though they all wear the same uniform. Background art alternates between detailed and spare, and various examples are often illustrated by tiny figures, almost like diagrams. It almost seems like Kumeta could limit things to simple text, which might be why he uses the regular page layout (which seems to be a manga-only phenomenon) in which the full figure of a character stands alongside the panels, sometimes even blocking panels from being visible and often making for an awkward reading order. Since Kumeta is mostly interested in his characters spouting verbal jokes, he seems to go back to this layout again and again, using it on nearly half of the book's pages. He does do interesting things with it on occasion, having characters sit or lean on the panels, but on the whole, it's one of those things that can be a distraction rather than an aid to enjoyment.

And then there's the other aspect of the series which always gets commented on: the constant barrage of cultural references and untranslateable jokes. Previous volumes of the series, which were published by Del Rey, featured copious (yet far from exhaustive) endnotes explaining many of these, especially the various celebrities and politicians that Kumeta mentions or the song lyrics he references in his chapter titles. This Kodansha-published volume doesn't come anywhere near that level of explanation, sticking mostly to references that directly affect the plot or characters, explaining only what is absolutely necessary to understand what is going on. It's a shame, since that on its own probably cuts the number of comprehensible jokes in half, making most of the lists of examples into gibberish. The level of care that had gone into the series previously was palpable (but maybe just not very cost-effective, since it must have been a ton of work), but while it's not quite as excellent as it once was, the series is still pretty damn hilarious, like little else on the shelves. More, please.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Groo watch: Sergio Aragones Funnies #3

The first Groo appearance in this issue is right on the cover, with the mindless barbarian appearing in the audience of a bullfight:

And a random issue of the series shows up in the midst of Sergio's Hoarder-ish studio:

That's pretty much it for appearances of the character himself, but I did notice his swords leaning up against one of Sergio's file cabinets:

And on the letters page, which is mostly taken up this month with Sergio thanking his friends and colleagues who have written in, he drops this comment to Mark Evanier:

Looks like the Conan crossover is actually finally happening...

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Manga Binge: Those kids and their newfangled roller skates

Air Gear, volume 19
By Oh! Great
Published by Kodansha Comics

I knew next to nothing about this series going in, except that I think the artist is known for cheesecakey depictions of (often-young) women and that it was about kids fighting punks on rocket skates, or something like that. Sure enough, that's pretty much the case (when it comes to the latter, at least; the fan-service is surprisingly minimal here), although eighteen previous volumes of story have rendered whatever happens hear nearly incomprehensible, having something to do with warring teams of skaters fighting over "regalia", whatever that means, and competing in tournaments to gain mystical powers (maybe? I dunno) and/or status in the rocket skate world, I guess. The main character, Ikki, suffered some sort of betrayal and defeat from some evil, powerful twin pretty boys, and he has to overcome a crippling self-doubt, but once he does, things are back on for some crazy, high-flying action, which ends up being quite fun, at least when it happens. There's too much downtime getting to the action, but maybe this is one of those volumes that's mostly in between the exciting stuff. The last chapter or so starts a big "match" though, so the next volume will probably be wall-to-wall skating and jumping nonsense, with lots of technobabble about the skates and jargon regarding moves and techniques and such, along with plenty of convoluted interpersonal relationships that probably make sense to readers who know who the hell these people are. Whatever the case, it's all depicted in a really dynamic, exciting style, with expressive characters and lots of personality. It's easy to see why this series is popular (at least, I think it is. This is a thing, right?); it's pure shonen action, all about building teams of friends and being the best at some ridiculous activity.

But beyond the stylish action and expected story convolutions, there's some really nice artwork here, from the baroque character designs (I especially like a girl who has dozens of bobby pins scattered throughout her flowing locks and the kid who wears a giant, floppy top hat covered with safety pins, not to mention the various teams who gather to raise Ikki's spirits, such as some gorillas wearing clothes and sunglasses and a group of lock-step-marching Russians) to the wild sound effects. Check out this one, what appears to be a "Gyaaaa!" that is plated in metal armor:

And there's one pretty amazingly expressive scene in which a despondent Ikki goes flying off a cliff, disintegrating into a maelstrom of memories:

That's pretty awesome, and it would probably be even more so if I was a long-time reader familiar with whatever is going on in all those little tatters of flashback panels. That's the hand you're dealt when you pick up a random volume this late in the series though, but at least the artist knows to throw in entertaining stuff like this:

I don't know if I'm sold enough to read any earlier volumes (or later ones, for that matter), but I do recognize how effective this sort of thing can be, and that sense of anything-goes style really sells me on the artist himself. This Oh! Great guy is one to check out further (although Tenjho Tenge probably isn't the place to start...). I hope I'm not disappointed.

Bonus! A neat throwaway crossover gag:

Gotta love a good Zetsubou-Sensei reference.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Manga Binge: Yup, it's sexy vampires

Until the Full Moon, volume 1
By Sanami Matoh
Published by Kodansha Comics

As much as this is a "Hey, vampires are hot right now, right?" type of comic, it's got some kind of fascinating gender stuff going on, such that I don't really feel qualified to discuss it, since it would be better handled by Noah Berlatsky or one of the other Hooded Utilitarians, but I'll give it a try anyway. The story involves an aristocratic vampire named David who gets engaged to his cousin Marlo (I guess that's okay for supernatural creatures; this isn't the first time I've seen it given a pass for them), who is from a werewolf family, but doesn't get all hairy at the full moon. No, Marlo is a boy, and he turns into a girl, upping the forbidden love quotient of the comic considerably. This relationship causes all kinds of turmoil, but mostly externally, with another family whose daughter had eyes on David and an old girlfriend of Marlo's insisting that the wedding be called off, even hurling the occasional anti-gay slur at the young couple. The parents are totally supportive, and David doesn't care what Marlo looks like; he loves him for who he is on the inside. Marlo has some misgivings, although he seems be slowly accepting his love for David, most of his uncomfortableness coming when he is male, since he prefers to express his love in his female form. It's all very interesting in its smashing of gender boundaries; is Marlo representative of a gay/transgender person, ashamed of his uncontrollable urges but flowering under the love of somebody who loves him for him? Is David gay or bisexual, not caring what form his lover takes? He is described by other characters as a womanizer, so his love seems to be independent of outward sexuality. How does the vampire/werewolf aspect fit in? Is it indicative of uncontrolled sexuality (vampires) and burgeoning womanhood (werewolves), or is it just zeitgeist-chasing window-dressing? What about the odd chapter which transposes the couple to an ancient woodland village, with David being a traveler who happens across a clan whose members transform into either wolves or women in the full moon, with Marlo still feeling left out, unable to become a woman until he experiences David's love? That seems to reverse the gay stigma, but still leaves Marlo feeling ashamed, unable to experience sexual maturity without the expression of another's love? Is that an attempt at alleviating criticisms about male/male love being okay as long as one of them turns into a woman by making him a person who is supposed to turn into a woman but can't? Does any of this make any sense outside of the context of being an excuse to depict lots of scenes of guys making out?

That all seems like a lot to explore, and I'm obviously left with more questions than answers, but unfortunately, the whole thing is buried under some rather atrocious artwork (not to mention the one-dimensional characters, with David rarely doing much more than repeating that he loves Marlo ad nauseam) that looks like the artist saw some Ryoichi Ikegami manga in the 70s and said, "Add some flowery backgrounds to that and I'm set; I don't care what styles gain traction in the future, this is what I'm sticking with!" This is some eye-burningly hideous stuff, full of rounded chins, wide foreheads, big shoulders, ugly clothes, and mullets and big hair galore. Characters are ridiculously inexpressive (especially David with his constant stone-faced declarations of love), except when they need to shout and turn into cartoonish caricatures in the Rumiko Takahashi style that sees them in profile with their mouths turning into wide-open gaps in space. It's an all-around horrific package, making any attempts to glean a message a real chore.

Oddly, the cover is drawn in a completely different style, masking the horrors within, and there's also a backup story drawn in that style, which is such a departure that it seems like it must be drawn by a different artist (perhaps an assistant?). Even weirder, the backup appears to feature the same characters, but in a different continuity (to use the parlance of an entirely different genre) altogether, one that sees them experience strangeness during the full moon, but of a non-gender-bending sort. Just what is going on here is confusing; it would have been nice to get some sort of behind-the-scenes explanation or something.

So, as interesting as the ideas behind the story are, the comic that they are wrapped in is quite the slog to experience, ugly, boring, and just plain not good. Unless you're looking to write a better essay than this and explore the gender issues with some substance instead of nattering on about not quite getting it all, don't subject yourself to this. It's really not worth it, even for the pure train-wreck factor.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Manga Binge: Hacker spies, Lord of the Flies, and weaponized mice

Bloody Monday, volume 1
Written by Ryou Ryumon
Art by Kouji Megumi
Published by Kodansha Comics

Computer hackers seem like they should be cool on principle, but seeing somebody frantically typing away at a keyboard as text scrolls across a screen or little progress bars inch toward completion is actually pretty boring, which is why movies got over their brief fling with the idea something like twelve years ago. That hasn't stopped this manga from trying to make it cool though, pitting an teenage nerd who protects the innocent through his computer skills against terrorists and creating an espionage-based conspiracy around him. Also, there is fan-service, since something has to be done to alleviate the tedium of processors at work.

That might not be completely fair, since the focus here is really on the conspiracy, which sees high school student Takagi caught up in a bioterrorism plot and a false murder accusation toward his father, a spy at a secretive interior Japanese ministry called Third-I. He gets his friends and fellow school newspaper club members involved, somehow not recognizing that their sexy new teacher is actually an evil spy intent on sabotaging his efforts, while also trying to protect his sickly younger sister and clear his father's name. Writer Ryou Ryumon seems to be going for the long game here, still introducing major players in the story by the end of this first volume, and while he comes up with some interesting threats and effective imagery (which includes an odd effect in which Takagi's eyes turn cat-like, with slitted pupils, whenever he's really getting into his computering), he also wastes a lot of time with gratuitous scenes of breasts and panties and the various flirtations and affections between Takagi and his friends. It's a weird book, hovering between violent action-adventure and juvenile goofiness. That probably just means that it's a shonen comic, typified by scenes in which Takagi does something awesome like unleashing a virus that links a peer-to-peer network of computers into a distributed processor, cracking encryption that would take a regular computer ten years in only ten minutes, prompting amazed comments from onlookers who can't believe how great he is. It's kind of silly, but entertaining in a fairly dumb way, with some surprisingly gruesome violence, and hacker techniques that seem based on real technology rather than fantastical Hollywood pseudo-technical jargon. Take that as you will.

Cage of Eden, volume 1
By Yoshinobu Yamada
Published by Kodansha Comics

A bunch of people trying to survive on a mysterious island full of strange phenomena after a plane crash; where have I heard that one before? It looks like Lost's influence has even spread to the manga world, but this series isn't really that derivative, at least not as of this volume, focusing less on sci-fi mysteries and more on action (and fan-service), along with some stuff about societal breakdown. This plane, which was carrying a class of Japanese high school students home from a school trip to Guam, ends up on an uncharted island full of prehistoric creatures, everyone left to fend for themselves when attacked by monstrous birds, sabre-toothed tigers, and a freakish thing that looks like a gigantic cross between a wolf and an alligator. It's pretty exciting, with some cool action sequences and a compelling hook (namely, "WTF is going on?") to keep readers interested, but the characters are pretty thin, and occasionally actively obnoxious, especially the pompous brainiac and airheaded flight attendant that the protagonist initially gets saddled with. The creature designs, which are based on real prehistoric animals, are especially good, covered with neat-looking stripes, spots, and patterns, and seeming alien and threatening to the panicked survivors of a tragedy. For a diverting bit of action-movie escapism, this isn't bad at all, and if it built the characters to have more than one dimension and eased up a bit on all the leering panty shots, it could turn into something pretty good. Chances are though, it'll continue on its present course until the entire cast is either eaten or rescued, and that's fine too. We all need some junk food in our diet.

Mardock Scramble, volume 1
Written by Tow Ubakata
Art by Yoshitoki Oima
Published by Kodansha Comics

Now this is a pretty good manga, or at least one that has some some neat sci-fi ideas, character arcs, and interesting action. It follows a homeless girl who is "rescued" by a well-to-do man who, after giving her a new lease on life, promptly attempts to murder her. Luckily for her, she is rescued from a deadly explosion by a scientist who replaces her burnt skin with a synthetic substance that increases her sensory abilities, allowing her to "feel" every object around her as if everything was connected by an invisible web, and also to manipulate electrical devices through an ability kind of humorously translated as "snark". She gets recruited into a quest to stop any further murders by the man who tried to kill her, joined by a shapeshifting mouse named OEufcoque. Yes, OEufcoque, which is just one of the crazy names in the book, names that include the girl herself, Rune Balot, the murderer, Shell, and an assassin named Dimsdale Boiled. Those are my current favorite example of Japanese versions of English-language names.

Anyway, this fight against the forces of evil isn't all happy-go-lucky; Balot herself is depressive and suicidal, which makes for a change from the usual manga protagonist, but a believable one, considering what she has gone through. It's nice to see her gain some confidence as she begins to master her new abilities, and the resulting scenes of action and violence are pretty nicely done, notably a fight in which OEufcoque morphs himself into a protective bodysuit for her and helps her dodge and strike multiple attackers, making different weapons appear in her hands for the most effective ass-kicking. Yoshitoki Oima's art handles all of this really nicely, adding weird flourishes to the morphing effects and lots of dynamic angles to the fights and chases. Faces end up looking a bit off, especially on male characters, but at least Balot comes off as a believably meek and quiet victim, rather than some bodacious, top-heavy vixen. It's pretty good times all around, and a series that should definitely be one to watch as further volumes appear.

Monday, September 12, 2011

One Soul: It's like, we're all the same person, maaan

One Soul
By Ray Fawkes
Published by Oni Press

There's something about the combination of words and pictures in close proximity to imply narrative through sequentiality that makes comics ripe for formal experimentation, and it's always fascinating to see what different artists come up with when telling stories with the medium, from the seemingly simple process of conveying motion and the passage of time from panel to panel, to the complex experimentation of a Chris Ware or Richard McGuire. Ray Fawkes seems to be attempting to position himself among the latter with this book, which establishes a strict formal conceit from page one and then continues it through to the finale, managing to weave a large number of stories together and gesture toward some grand statement about life in the meantime. No matter how successful you find the result to be, you have to admit that it's a pretty virtuosic display, worth reading just to see how well Fawkes pulls it off.

That conceit? It's a doozy: the book follows eighteen characters from birth to death, with each one given a single panel on every double-page spread, allowing readers to watch as they all mature at the same rate over the course of their lives, drawing conclusions and comparisons and witnessing juxtapositions and patterns both implied and inferred. The eighteen lives are scattered throughout history, from the stone age up to the modern day (or the last few decades, at least), and each of them experiences a unique arc, with some lasting longer than others, and all of them eventually ending with death, after which their unique panel remains solid black. Reading becomes an incredibly stimulating exercise, as one tries to keep eighteen different storylines in the memory, while still paying enough attention to see how they seem to be influencing or reflecting each other across time, not to mention figuring out how everything fits together, and what exactly Fawkes is attempting to say about the human condition through this elaborate construction.

Impressively, each story works on its own, although they obviously wouldn't be as compelling presented on their own. There are, among others, what appears to be a Sumerian priest who learns the power of language and uses it for his own gain, a shepherd who struggles to control his gay impulses, a doctor who witnesses untold suffering and death during the Black Plague, a slave who craves a freedom he'll never realize, a showgirl who luxuriates in the adoration of her audience, and a soldier who survives World War II, but never recovers from the psychological damage. Such varied experiences, spanning the whole of human history, become universal through their juxtaposition, with images and captions occasionally repeated from character to character, and struggles with religion, the randomness of life and death, and finding meaning in the vastness of existence resonating across the centuries, visual and emotional patterns forming across panels and years to bind humanity together as a whole. Fawkes manages to convey a wealth of information solely via images and internally narrated captions, forming a sort of stream of consciousness(es) that lasts for entire lifetimes. It's breathtaking from the first page to the last.

From an artistic standpoint, Fawkes' linework is effective, but occasionally a bit simplistic, struggling to get details like facial expressions and motion across. Hands are especially awkward, fingers either composed of undefined parallel lines or squared off into club-like shapes.However, moments like this are only a small, irregular distraction, the majority of the art demonstrating elegance in its simplicity, defining emotions well, capturing the essential information of moments perfectly, and attaining a minimalistic beauty that turns groups of lines into volleys of arrows or the pattern in the grain of wood, stark shapes into expressionistic displays of emotion or violence. On the whole, it's marvelously effective work, a perfect demonstration of the book's message.

In the end, that message could be viewed as a trite platitude about everyone being part of the same collective soul indicated by the title, but even if Fawkes is leaning in that direction, he has crafted a pretty effective vehicle to steer readers steadily toward that endpoint. Whatever your feelings on that new-age-y idea, it's hard not to get to the end of the book without being moved, since the sheer accumulation of lifetime moments and emotions is kind of exhausting, each page steadily driving toward the next, eighteen different lives inexorably moving forward until they can't go any farther, and yet, somehow continuing into a sort of afterlife, always questioning what it all means and how everything fits together. It's a marvelous attempt to wring some sort of meaning out of the inexplicable, to force an order and structure on the impossible mystery of life and death. If, in the final reckoning, the book isn't completely satisfying, then that can be blamed not on Fawkes, but on the universe itself.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Manga Binge: Lawyers, animals, and dinosaurs, oh my

Having been sent a stack of manga volumes for review, I'm going to plow through them as fast as I can and let you know what I think. Here's the first batch:

Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, volume 2
Written by Kenji Kurouda
Art by Kazuo Maekawa
Published by Kodansha Comics

The Phoenix Wright games are tons of fun, combining point-and-click style mysteries with exciting courtroom action and throwing in plenty of wacky characters, crazy twists, and hilariously implausible murders, each case being resolved at the last minute by the put-upon hero who manages to elicit a witness-stand confession from the real culprit just in time to save his always-wrongfully-accused clients. It would seem like a no-brainer to adapt these characters to the comics form. The results aren't quite as satisfying as the games, if only because reading about Phoenix working his lawyer-y magic just isn't the same as solving the mysteries and winning the cases yourself. But judging by this volume, the manga series is a worthy attempt, managing to capture the indelible images of Phoenix jutting his finger forward and shouting "Objection!", rival prosecutor Miles Edgeworth shaking his head in amusement at the hopelessness of Phoenix's case, and the judge's gavel slamming down to announce a not-guilty verdict, and even throwing in moments like Phoenix presenting the wrong evidence by mistake and the over-the-top confessions of the real culprits.

This second volume of the current series (a previous series was published by Del Rey consisting of translations of doujinshi, or fan-made manga) works well on its own, even though it continues a story begun in the first volume. It seems that the first two chapters of that story took a while to get things started, since all the characters are quickly introduced via a summary page, and the details of the case are only just discovered here, allowing the real courtroom action to begin. It's a goofy mystery about a murdered rich man whose brother was obsessed with spiders, with said brother being the only suspect, but certain strange details not quite adding up. Phoenix triumphs, of course, determining the true guilt at the last moment. The second half of the book is taken up with a single standalone story about the murder of a theme park performer who was trapped in his bulky costume, making for "the world's smallest locked room mystery". It's not quite as satisfying of a case, requiring a leap in logic that doesn't seem to follow directly from the evidence at hand, making it less like a case from the game and more like a story about an amazingly intuitive lawyer, if that makes any sense.

All in all, it's a pretty fun manga, if not as good as its source material. One niggling complaint would be the depiction of Phoenix himself, who seems just slightly off-model. His hair is especially troubling, looking less like the spiky, swept-back strands of the game and more like pieces of pointy plastic bolted onto the sides of his head. It's not a deal-breaker, but it's a sign that this isn't quite on the level of the game. If you can get past that and enjoy it for what it is though, you'll have a good time. Take that!

Animal Land, volume 1
By Mokoto Raiku
Published by Kodansha Comics

This is one strange series, from Mokoto Raiku, the creator of Zatch Bell!!, which I've never been able to figure out either. The concept here sees a human baby discarded by his mother, Moses-style, found by a tanuki, and adopted to be raised in an animal-filled wilderness. That's all well and good, the beginning of a saga of cute animal/child antics, but Raiku pitches everything at an operatic level of emotional intensity, characters constantly screaming in agony or joy, tears flowing from eyes like torrential rivers, everyone seemingly moments away from complete nervous breakdowns, not to mention bloody death from ever-present predators. It's an odd tone, not really suited to the child audience that the cute animal designs indicate.

As for those designs, yes, that teddy-bear-ish figure on the cover is a tanuki, but it doesn't really resemble either real-life Japanese "raccoon dogs" or their usual cartoon depictions. Raiku treats them more like people in animal costumes, complete with moustaches and breasts for the adult tanukis; it's bizarre, and rather off-putting, but maybe it's an attempt at a more cartoonish version of reality, one that is heightened in its emotion, drama, and even violence. Later, a wildcat joins the cast, but he wears clothes, a patterned shirt, shorts, and scarf, standing out from the other "naked" wildcats that he battles, but with no other characters treating it as if it's at all odd. The scale is all out of whack too; the wildcat towers over the other animals as if it is ten feet tall. Who knows what the intent is here, but it's certainly unique.

The story itself looks like it will follow the adventures of the child and his adopted tanuki tribe as they make their way in the violent animal world, with the kid effecting big changes on the ecosystem due to his ability to talk to all the animals, who were previously incapable of inter-species communication. This makes for a startling change from the usual Japanese depiction of man at odds with the placidity of nature; instead, this story seems to be about man bringing order and harmony to the harsh, violent animal world. Again, that's unique, but it doesn't really seem to make sense, unless it's all supposed to be a symbol of childlike innocence breaking down interpersonal barriers and calming violent natures.

However it's supposed to be interpreted, it's a pretty rousing adventure, with emotions dialed up to eleven, most notably in a scene in which the entire tanuki village works together to save the sick child by piling themselves around him in an igloo shape to produce warmth, all screaming together in support of the inspiring adoptive mother tanuki. It's a crazy scene that's completely free of ironic distance, bare emotion laid onto the page, and it's not alone; the whole volume is full of similar moments, including a brutal fight between the clothes-wearing wildcat and several other cats who are trying to attack the tanuki village, with the baby shouting encouragement from the sidelines. This manga seems to be trying its hardest to make readers feel, dammit, to get invested in its weird, cartoony animals and their desperate fight for survival. Even cynics might experience some stirring of the heartstrings, but a mind distracted by all the oddities that fill the rest of the story makes for a confused reading, and that's probably not the actual intent. Still, it's not like much else in the comics world, so fans of Japanese oddities may want to check it out. Everyone else, be forewarned: you might not be ready for this.

Gon, volume 1
By Masashi Tanaka
Published by Kodansha Comics

Gon has been one of the perennial manga titles to be published in the West, possibly the first Japanese comic I can remember seeing, and there's a reason for that: it's incredibly fun, easy to read, and gorgeously illustrated, simple in its disconnected tales of a little dinosaur who beats up on the tougher members of the animal kingdom with ease, yet exquisitely expressive in the emotions it manages to lend to animals' faces and hilarious in the havoc wreaked on anything and everything that gets in Gon's way. Plus, being wordless, it's easy to translate, so there's that.

Even if there were words, language wouldn't be much of a barrier here, since the action is so wonderfully conveyed that there is no doubt as to exactly what is going on. Masashi Tanaka's hyper-detailed art sports incredibly dense cross-hatching that gives the naturalistic setting and realistic animals a texture that seems tactile, as if the reader is right there among the forests, mountaintops, and rivers in the stories. The sense of movement is amazingly palpable too, such that even a tiny dinosaur headbutting a huge bear and sending it crashing through a series of trees is somehow believable through the sheer sense of speed and force that the art conveys. It's not all action though; the intensity is leavened through Tanaka's hilariously exaggerated facial expressions, including the evil eye that Gon gives anyone who crosses him and the panicked disbelief on the face of a beaver whose pond is usurped by grand reptilian dam-building plans. Every page is just gorgeous, full of life and energy; there's not really anything else like it.

That said, the one thing that inhibits this edition is the price; at $10.99 for a slim single volume, it would be a better deal to seek out the CMX editions of a few years ago, or even the Paradox Press version of the series which came out back in the 90s. For a book that has seen previous release at a lower price, this version just seems prohibitively costly. But do seek the book out if you haven't read it previously; it's definitely something that everybody should see, just to experience some lovely art and the possibilities of what can be done with a simple, effective concept and pure wordless storytelling.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Zahra's Paradise: The obvious thing to say would be that it's anything but

Zahra's Paradise
Written by Amir
Art by Kahlil
Published by First Second

Journalistic comics seem to be on the rise in recent years, but as important and essential as that movement is, what's possibly more interesting is the offshoot sub-genre of current-events-influenced fictional comics, books which draw inspiration from real-life events, but aren't beholden to the often-unsatisfying open-endedness of reality. That may be a glib way of looking at things, but reducing the messiness and complexity of non-fiction to something that can be communicated simply and effectively through characters that don't exist outside of a book's pages is a commendably challenging task in itself, and when done right, it can inform and educate, leading readers to seek out more information, and motivating them to do so by weaving a moving story and getting them emotionally invested through the creation of characters that could well be real people, even if they don't live beyond the confines of the story.

That's what "Amir and Khalil", the pseudonymous creators of this book, have done, and the results are no less than enthralling and moving, placing readers on the ground during the chaos in Iran following the presidential election of 2009, and in the hearts of a mother and son searching desperately for their missing son/brother, who disappeared in the middle of the protests. Their search leads them all over the Iranian capital of Tehran, from the jails and the courts to the hospitals and morgues, all to no avail. But while their efforts are fruitless, readers are taken on a tour of modern Iran, along with commentary on the religious regime and people's varied reactions to it, demonstrations of the many abuses of power being inflicted on the people, and a sense of steadfast refusal to bow to oppression. If there's any message that stands out from the torrent of information and emotion that fills this book, it's that the people and culture of Iran are thriving, even under the smothering cloud of the old men in power. Characters constantly quote revered poets and celebrate their beloved heritage, finding strength in their love of their homeland and their fellow people, demonstrating love and forgiveness even while fighting what seems like a losing battle against the forces of evil. It's powerful stuff, full of deserved feeling, both exciting as a voice for the people of Iran and educational to those of us looking in from the outside.

On the art side, the book looks fantastic, sporting cartooning that places its characters right on the line between generality and specificity. Hassan, our narrator and tour guide, is given the most simplified features, usually drawn in profile and resembling an Osamu Tezuka character, but others, from the belligerent copy shop owner to the hirsute prison guards, seem as real-life as they come, and everyone looks Iranian, unmistakably garbed and comported as citizens of this place of monumental change. That setting comes to life as well, from the buildings covered with images of the Ayatollah, keeping watch on citizens like Big Brother, to the small spots of solace in bedrooms and courtyards, to the solemn sight of lines and lines of newly-dug graves. The use of the comics format is excellent as well, keeping the eye moving along from panel to panel, taking in the events and the people they affect, but occasionally breaking out into expansive cityscapes and expressive layouts that turn a search through morgue records into a morbid chess game, a bureaucratic paper trail into an Escher-esque maze, or the very powers that control Iran into a horrific machine that chews up and spits out its people with unending regularity. It's gorgeous stuff, full of life, and effectively demonstrative of the anger that fuels the oppressed populace.

Beyond the compelling, ripped-from-the-headlines story and the lovely art, there's plenty else to pay attention to here, from the symbolic names of the characters on down. The paradise of the title is the name of the massive graveyard on the outskirts of Tehran, named after the prophet Muhammad's daughter. The mother searching for her son is also named Zahra, giving the story a symbolism about the lost "purity, dignity, generosity, and grace" that the prophet's daughter represents. What's more, the missing son is named Mehdi, which is another name for the Mahdi, the messianic Hidden Imam of Islam, demonstrating how the religious figures clinging to power are fighting against their people's very hopes and dreams in doing so. That's just one fascinating bit of cultural commentary, something even an outsider can grasp out of an intimate portrayal of a land and its people, something that is full of meaning for Iranians but also welcoming to those looking in from elsewhere.

While the subtext is interesting, the absolutely vital depiction of Iran is where the book truly comes to life. This is a place where even though people may be hanged in the street (via crane, a morbidly true detail) for the crime of homosexuality, woman struggle to demonstrate what little femininity and intelligence they are allowed,  taxi drivers take what small vengeance they can for their country's mistreatment by world powers, informational and organizational campaigns are waged in copy shops and on the internet, millions-strong throngs take to the streets when an election is stolen from them, people use what influence and skills they have to help each other find some measure of solace in the face of impossibility, and the mothers of the children lost in the continuing struggle pour out such evocative lamentations that one can't help but be moved. It's a beautiful, inspiring portrait of humanity, and one that is essential in understanding a vital part of our world today.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Miniature comics make for good reading too

By Becky Cloonan

Becky Cloonan's art is always something to behold, and this minicomic (which, interestingly, was originally published in a Japanese anthology) is no exception, being full of moodily shadowed forests, agonized expressions, and visceral violence. It opens on a naked man stumbling through some snowy woods and then flashes back (with occasional beautiful panels that stand out from the dark shadows of the main story with their delicately filigreed lines) to his quest to slay a monster and the emotional pain that brings him, for reasons that are slowly revealed. It's a wonderful bit of dark action, an excellent demonstration of Cloonan's art skills as she provides lived-in details of the medieval world, the creepy wild woods, and the desperation and resigned determination so plain on the characters' faces. Beautiful work, and being a self-published minicomic, a definite labor of love from Cloonan, an example of how telling these stories is like satisfying a need to get the work on paper and in people's hands. Passion!


The Death of Elijah Lovejoy
By Noah Van Sciver
Published by 2D Cloud

Noah Van Sciver tells an interesting historical story in this minicomic, but he limits the content of the actual comic to the specific incident indicated by the title, explaining the background in an opening text piece so that the action can start immediately with the sequential art proper. Elijah Lovejoy was an abolitionist preacher and newspaper publisher in St. Louis who spoke out against the public lynching of an escaped slave, which led to a crowd gathering to kill him and destroy his printing press. Van Sciver depicts the standoff/siege, in which Lovejoy and his supporters holed up in a warehouse and tried to stay alive, running out of ammunition and making desperate attempts to keep from being burned out. It's harrowing and terrible to see the violence play out, barely understandable in this modern age to see such physical, visceral hatred over the issue of words being spoken against slavery. Van Sciver's art is pleasingly (and somewhat disturbingly, in this nasty context) cartoony, but he doesn't skimp on detail, and all the action is clear and understandable, with some nice touches like the blots of ink that splatter onto the page over bullet impacts. It's a fascinating little tale, an informative history lesson and a glimpse into the past of our country that should not be forgotten.

Veggie Dog Saturn #5
By Jason Young
Published by Buyer Beware Comics

This is more of a traditional minicomic, fitting into the autobio/essay genre where the artist just does whatever he feels like. It's not bad, but it's not at the level of the previous two works. It is pretty decent for what it is though, with Jason Young relating stories from his childhood (including a pretty gross one about eating too much at a salad bar and puking in the bathroom sink), musing about the old "desert island records" question, and describing his one-time shoplifting habit, among other various subjects. Pretty standard minicomics material, but Young manages it well enough, with a nice caricature of himself sporting an ever-present beard and large, round, opaque glasses, and he has a facility for relating stories clearly, whether they are playing out silently or being narrated via captions. This isn't exactly something I would urge people to seek out, but it's worth picking up given the chance.

Various micro-minicomics
By Brian John Mitchell, et al.
Published by Silber Media

Brian John Mitchell and his various artists seem to pump out these tiny comics with regularity, and while they're not exactly revolutionary works of art that demand seeking out whatever the cost, they're unique objects, interesting to examine as art done under constraints, with one small image and some text on each miniscule page, which can alternately make for interesting minimalism or self-indulgent pointlessness.

Of the minis pictured above, the most interesting is probably "Poit!", which features stick figure art from Dave Sim (yes, that Dave Sim) that was completed and then scripted by Mitchell. There are actually two versions of the comic, both using the same art, but of the two, "La Jetee" is a bit more effective, presenting the sudden transitions that occur along with the titular sound effect as either hallucinations or shifting realities, while "WTF" turns them into a guy apparently going crazy, leading to the same result. It might have been better to limit this to one version, but it's an interesting experiment.

On the other end of the spectrum is Lost Kisses #21, which continues a series by Mitchell in which a stick figure both narrates his thoughts and comments "humorously" on them. Previous issues in the series have seen some tired exploration of typical male neuroses, but this one takes a bit of a departure, as the stick figure discusses time travel, which he believes he has been experiencing via seizures. Presented differently, this might be interesting, but the awkwardness of the dual narration and commentary ruins it, and the ever-grinning simplicity of the art makes the comics format of the story nearly pointless.

The Lost Kisses series also seems to have some offshoots, with Ultimate Lost Kisses #12 featuring art by Jeremy Johnson and telling the story of a pregnant teenager, and Extreme Lost Kisses #1, illustrated by Nick Marino, turning the stick figure protagonist into a pretty funny version of an action movie hero, all macho swagger, nonsensical plots, and constant violence. Both are a pleasant change, but not exactly the best of the bunch.

Mitchell definitely seems to do better when he branches out into varied subject matter, although recurring supernatural concepts like monsters and demons do seem to show up pretty regularly in these comics. "Monthly", which is nicely illustrated by Eric Shonborn, is kind of neat, about a guy searching for love, with the title and time period of his searches making sense after a revelatory twist. "Star" seems like it could also be interesting, following a traveling singer who is constantly being pursued by demons, and featuring some of the best artwork that fits onto these small pages by Kurt Dinse, full of moody, expressive shadows. It is a bit over-narrated though; Mitchell could stand to either pare down the language he uses or work on varying his style, since the declarative, staccato nature of his captions gets pretty repetitive over several of these comics. That probably wouldn't help "Vigilant" much though; it's a silly thing following some hooded figures who have apparently retreated from society so as to beat up ne'er do wells, with crude art by PB Kain.

In other genres, XO #7 continues the story of a sociopathic assassin who, in this installment, falls into drug-fueled debauchery and lets a woman get too close, but manages to survive a death threat through his sheer amorality. It's creepy in its depiction of a dead-eyed, near-emotionless killer, with pretty good art by Melissa Spence Gardner. Built #1 looks to start a new sci-fi series about a football-playing robot of the future who gains sentience and makes an attempt at freedom, and it's compelling and almost heartbreaking in its depiction of the robot's desire to live as more than a slave to violent entertainment. The art by Joe Badon is a bit scratchy and rough, but that's mostly just a style to get used to, and it works when depicting the action of the football game and the frantic flight of the robot.

Finally, the "Small Art Sampler" series contains some tiny paintings by Mitchell, all centered around various themes, printed in full color, but mostly just consisting of blobs of color. There is some attempt to explain the themes of each booklet through short text pieces, but they're pretty inscrutable, although I did kind of like the way the images in "Climb" resembled chain link fences. These were apparently all featured in a gallery show, which may have been a better manner of presentation, but they do make for an interesting collection of abstract art, and could allow one to make all manner of interpretations, if one was so inclined.

As always, it's nice to see Mitchell and pals making their attempts to expand the idea of what comics can be through contraction of the space used in the comics themselves. They're not always successful, but they're out there pumping these things out, obviously passionate about their art, and that's something to be admired. Hopefully they won't be quitting anytime soon.