Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Fight Club 2: I am Jack's pointless sequel

Fight Club 2
Written by Chuck Palahniuk
Art by Cameron Stewart
Published by Dark Horse Comics

I used to be a huge fan of Fight Club; for a while, I said it was my favorite movie (I still think it's one of the few cases where the movie is better than the book). However, as the years wore on and the passions of youth faded, I realized that it hit me at the perfect time in my life, right when I was in that "idealistic young man" phase and thought that the insights it offered about men being feminized, relegated to meaningless jobs, and pacified with mindless consumerism were profound. I do still think there's some bite to the story, and the movie is so stylishly presented that it makes for a hell of a thrill ride, enough so that it's not just easy to miss the story's secondary moral about the dangers of giving yourself over to a charismatic demagogue, it almost makes the fascism that rises out of this demagoguery seem attractive.

Interestingly, that arguably makes Fight Club as relevant as ever, even though it's very much of its time, reeking of 90s slackerism and pre-9/11 ennui. But while a case could be made for Fight Club as an examination of exactly the sort of white man's fear of irrelevance that has led to the rise of Donald Trump, the comics-format sequel has nothing in the way of relevance to modern times. It's a strange attempt to recapture the magic of the original, but it never offers a reason to revisit these characters, a desire to look at how society has changed in the 20 years since the book's release, or anything more than some noncommittal gestures at new and interesting ideas.

Frankly, I'm kind of baffled as to why this even exists. I'm sure Chuck Palahniuk doesn't need the money, but if he did, he could surely have made more of it by writing a true sequel novel and selling the screenplay rights. Maybe he was so bereft of ideas that no book editor would accept them, so he went with the comics industry, which will instantly bow down before any hint of wider celebrity that deigns to approach its ranks.

So, the story that Palahniuk has apparently been waiting 20 years to spring on us is that Fight Club's narrator, here called Sebastian for some reason, but also sometimes referred to as Running Wolf, has basically gone back to his boring life as a corporate drone, now medicated to keep his alternate personality in check and trapped in a loveless marriage with Marla (they also have a kid who seems to be exhibiting strange tendencies involving an obsession with explosives). But! Marla is bored, so she has been swapping out his pills with a placebo in hopes of reawakening Tyler Durden and finding some passion in her life. Except we also find out that Sebastian's psychiatrist has been regularly hypnotizing him in order to bring Tyler out and let him secretly work on taking over the world.

Based on this opening, maybe Palahniuk had something in mind about the idealism of youth quickly succumbing to the easy complacency of family life. Or, when he reveals that Tyler has been operating a corporation that provides paid military contractors to countries around the world (which is apparently the only societal concern that Palahniuk has picked up on since 1999), one wonders if he's trying to comment on the way American society is happy to spread death and destruction as long as it's happening on the other side of the world. Both of those ideas are a stretch though, and Palahniuk doesn't do anything with either of them. Instead, he sets up a plot involving the kidnapping of Sebastian and Marla's son, Sebastian trying to infiltrate the ranks of Tyler's army (which still operates out of the crappy house they lived in together), and Tyler apparently planning to destroy the world in a nuclear holocaust. There's also a nonsensical subplot about Marla organizing an army of her own through a support group of kids with progeria who get a stand-in for the Make-a-Wish Foundation to parachute them into war zones for some reason, and Robert Paulson (the man with the bitch tits) seems to have also risen from the dead as some sort of zombie minion, I think?.

To tell the truth, I don't really know what was going on, and I found it hard to care. Palahniuk's main objectives here seem to be to wander through a vague plot without much in the way of forward momentum, make a few jokes that fall far short of the thrilling transgressiveness of his early work, and compliment himself on the way Fight Club has become a cultural touchstone. He even has himself show up in the story to advise the characters on what to do when the plot seems to have stalled, but the joke doesn't really work, since there doesn't seem to be any drive to the story either before or after that point.

The whole thing ends up being a mess, one that has nothing of interest to say and no real reason to say it. The one slightly clever idea that Palahniuk comes up with is that Tyler Durden is a self-propagating meme that has existed for thousands of years, but his choice of comics as a medium (and Cameron Stewart as an artist) sort of shoots him in the foot in that respect, since that's the sort of idea that comics writers like Grant Morrison have been tossing off in their sleep for years. Palahniuk seems to recognize his desperation, since he spends the entire final chapter of the story having the characters berate him for coming up with a dumb ending. If only they had let him know about the beginning and the middle as well, not to mention the very conception of this comic, which fails on pretty much every level to justify its existence.

Monday, August 29, 2016

One Piece: A storyline finally ends, in predictably awesome fashion

One Piece, Volume 79
By Eiichiro Oda
Published by Viz Media

This is it; after around 12 volumes, Eiichiro Oda finally hits the big finale of the current One Piece storyline, which has seen the Straw Hat pirates fight in increasingly high stakes battles to liberate the nation of Dressrosa from the tyrannical rule of Don Quixote Doflamingo. In the previous volume, the various battles between characters reached their conclusions, leaving only the big showdown between Luffy and Doflamingo, and it seemed like it was almost over. However, Oda manages to drag it out for a few more chapters, ratcheting up the drama and turning it into an expectedly epic final confrontation that allows the entire nation to contribute to the victory.

That's a great example of how well Oda paces the series; even though this battle has lasted multiple volumes and hundreds of pages, it doesn't feel like it's padded. The stakes build and build, with the fates of thousands of people in the balance, and while the good guys are sure to prevail, they end up doing so not just through determination, but by rallying an entire kingdom.

So how does Oda take a fight that seemed to be drawing to a close at the end of the last volume and drag it out for several more chapters without making it seem tiresome? He has Doflamingo briefly knock Luffy out, meaning that our hero needs about 10 minutes to recover his strength for a final attack. But during that time, the "birdcage" that Doflamingo has placed around the kingdom is contracting, and it's likely to cut everyone to ribbons before that 10 minutes is up. So that gives everyone, from the Straw Hats' remaining allies, to the surviving gladiators and pirates, to the members of the Navy, a chance to struggle as hard as they possibly can to buy Luffy enough time to get back on his feet:

And then, when Luffy is just about ready, the coliseum announcer from the gladiator battles earlier in this storyline makes sure everyone in the kingdom knows exactly what is going on and who the man fighting to take down the tyrant is:

This makes for an incredibly rousing moment, with the entire kingdom cheering for Luffy and lending him their emotional strength. And sure enough, the final confrontation is awesome and epic, about as satisfying a finish to one of these lengthy storylines as the series has ever done. Oda is a master at building emotional stakes and then paying them off in spectacular fashion, and this is just the latest example.

So what's next? With the battle wrapped up, the rest of the volume provides some nice closure, including a look at how Luffy's childhood pal Sabo survived his apparent death and eventually made it back into his life, and it starts setting up what's to come by introducing a new antagonist, a guy so tough that he survives a suicide attempt in which he jumps from a city in the clouds:

That's funny stuff, a great way to show us that this guy is going to be a major threat. I'm sure it will be another dozen volumes or so before Luffy gets around to fighting him, but I'm happy to wait that long, because it's sure to be awesome.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure: Is it getting more bizarre? Maybe!

Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, Part 2: Battle Tendency, Volumes 2-3
By Hirohiko Araki
Published by Viz Media


At some point, if you're writing about a long-running shonen manga series, you reach a state in which you just scan pages and say, "Check out this crazy/awesome thing!" With Jojo's Bizarre Adventure, I think I might have reached that point after only six volumes. I mean, just look at the impossible anatomy in this splash page:

That's a depiction of our hero, Joeseph Joestar, and his rival/ally, Ceasar Anthonio Zeppeli, about to fight each other on the streets of Rome. I love how Caesar (the guy on the right) has upper arms that appear to be about four feet long, and how Joseph's neck seems to be sprouting out of his pectoral muscles (he's also pulling a total brokeback pose, making it look like his upper body has been severed, rotated 90 degrees, and then reattached).

This sort of thing is par for the course for Hirohiko Araki, who commits these crimes of anatomy on nearly every page of his comics, but that's part of his charm; you never know what sort of weirdness is going to come up next, with strange poses and anatomical impossibilities only being one part of the goofy whole. He also gives his characters strange, nonsensical methods of fighting, such as Caesar's soap bubble attacks:

And there's the prevalent gore, which we'll get to soon. The plot for these volumes sees Jojo and his pals searching for more of the evil "pillar men" like the guy he defeated in the previous volume. He and Caesar (who is the grandson of Baron Zeppeli, the teacher who trained Joseph's grandfather Jonathan back in the first part of the series), follow a lead from some Nazi friends of theirs (this part of the story takes place in 1938, and since they're in Italy, why not hang out with Nazis?) and check out some tunnels under the Colosseum, where they find that three weird dudes have just woken up and are preparing to take over the world or something, and they need to find some mysterious gem in order to do so. And if you thought the anatomy was strange before, just look at these guys, who seem to be about fifteen feet tall, with their legs taking up 70% of that height:

Santviento, the pillar man that Joseph previously defeated, was apparently at a lower power level than these guys (who are named Wamuu, Esidisi, and Kars), because one of them takes out Joseph and Caesar pretty easily, despite Joseph's ridiculous new special attack:

I love the display of power that Araki depicts here, with Wamuu nearly obliterating Joseph with some sort of wind attack:

It seems that these guys have been menacing humanity for thousands of years, and they've previously killed many other members of the "Hamon tribe," the people who use the breathing techniques that give Jojo and his pals the psychic powers to pull off awesome attacks. But through his arrogance, Joseph manages to impress them, and convinces them to give him a month to train and grow more powerful so that he can be a better match for them the next time they fight. And this being a battle manga, the all-powerful, evil bad guys say "Sure, why not?" and plan to meet them for another round in 33 days. They do, however, come up with a clever way to ensure that he won't run away:

So, we're off for a classic bit of shonen manga training, as Joseph and Caesar seek the master that trained Caesar in the way of Hamon. This brings them to Venice, where they encounter said master, who confronts them in an amusing manner and reveals a surprising identity:

Yep, that would be Lisa Lisa, who Araki notes in the volume's backmatter was kind of groundbreaking at the time (1986) as a female character who was strong both physically and in terms of personality. In reality, I don't know if she's really all that strong of a character; she mostly falls into the role of the mean trainer who forces her trainees to accomplish the impossible, but she's not a stereotypical giggling schoolgirl, so perhaps that's a positive change from the norm for female characters in manga at the time.

Anyway, they all proceed to Lisa Lisa's secret island training facility, where they have to face lots of impossible trials that demonstrate the awesome potential of their powers. After almost a month of training, they've definitely leveled up their powers, which is a good thing, since when Joseph goes to face his final test, who should he find waiting for him but Esidisi, who now appears to be wearing a costume that is stitched into his skin and includes cords wrapped around pegs that have been driven into his abs:

The two of them battle each other while standing on top of spikes, and there's plenty of weird and goofy stuff, like a bit in which Esidisi has a crying fit after Joseph cuts off his arm:

He also reveals that his secret power is heating up his blood and injecting it into people's bodies, boiling them from the inside out, which he demonstrates on the corpse of Joseph's ally in an effective example of the series' memorable gore:

That's the moment of the prevalent nastiness that Araki brings to this series. There's also this gross attack, in which Esidisi shoots his veins out of his fingernails:

Jojo eventually manages to defeat Esidisi in a spectacularly gory fashion, but it turns out that he had stolen the red gem that he and his pals were looking for, which in a lucky coincidence, Lisa Lisa had in her possession the whole time. So the gang heads off to intercept the gem, which they learned had been sent to a town in Switzerland, and when they get there, they face off against Kars, who we learn has the ability to extrude blades from his limbs in a fashion that puts Wolverine to shame:

However, he meets his match when he runs into the Nazi officer Stroheim, who seemed to have been dismembered and killed during Jojo's fight with Santviento in Mexico. But he's back, and he's been turned into a cyborg through superior Nazi technology!

After they recover the gem and fight off Kars, who escapes to menace them another day, Jojo and company decide to go after the bad guys, who appear to be hiding in an abandoned castle. We learn a bit about Caesar's tragic backstory, and then he has an epic battle with Wamuu, in which he demonstrates a new technique in which he turns his soap bubbles into deadly blades:

And then he dies heroically, while managing to recover the antidote to the poison that Jojo has been infected with, and Jojo and Lisa Lisa mourn for their fallen ally in a typically over the top manner:

And that's pretty much it for these two volumes. I believe the next installment will be the final volume in part 2 of the series, so we should get some especially epic battles to finish things off, hopefully leading to anticipation of more craziness to come in part 3 of the series.

So, what have we learned after all of this? This certainly isn't great literature, and it often comes off as incompetent and haphazard, but there's a definite charm to it. Shonen manga like this that involve drawn-out battles follow a very particular formula, with characters constantly coming up with new, crazy techniques and innovative uses of their powers, often delivering long monologues about what they and their opponents are doing in the split seconds that take place while punches are being thrown, leading to lengthy battles and attacks that take multiple pages to play out. There's an emphasis on strategy, with characters regularly revealing that they have anticipated the other's attack and preemptively countered it, only to have their own strategy undone by the other guy's anticipation of their anticipation. It's crazy and complicated, and Araki is great at coming up with surprising ways to have his heroes prevail against what seem like impossible odds.

So yes, the series delivers the pleasures that so many shonen manga provide, but I can't emphasize enough how utterly weird Araki's sensibilities are. Whether he's clothing his characters in strange fashions, contorting them into bizarre poses, or destroying their bodies in ever more grotesque displays of viscera, you never know what you're going to see upon the next page turn. I'm fascinated by this series, and I can't get enough of its strangeness. I can't wait to read more, and I hope to be surprised, grossed out, and amused for many volumes to come.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Kid stuff, but not really

Night Air
By Ben Sears
Published by Koyama Press

Perhaps I don't pay as close attention to the comics scene as I used to, or maybe the world of comics has grown large enough that it's impossible to do so, but this is a case where I discovered an artist whose work is right up my alley, but who I didn't know about before I met him at CAKE. I love his art style, which seems equally influenced by European comics like Tintin, the animated films of Studio Ghibli, and role playing video games like the Zelda series, but he brings all this together to craft his own world, which features a rich, fascinating mix of boy adventurers, blocky robots, menacing monsters, and haunted castles.

The story here involves a boy who seems to be just traveling around the retro-futuristic fantasy land and having adventures with his robot pal, and they end up checking out a castle in hopes of finding treasure, only to get trapped within its walls by a malevolent ghost-entrepreneur. I love the way Sears has his heroes just go along with the strange stuff they find, coming up with a plan to defeat the bad guys using the power of friendship. He gives things just enough menace that there seems to be real danger, while still letting his characters use their wits and resources to prevail.

Sears' art is just lovely, using a thin line and plenty of rich colors to fill the pages with detail, and he includes enough background information to make the world seem like a living, breathing place, full of exciting and fantastical happenings, which we're only just getting to experience one small corner of. I loved this book, and I'm really excited to read as many more of Sears' comics as I can.

By Melissa Mendes
Published by Alternative Comics

With this graphic novel, which was originally published as a series of minicomics by Oily Comics, Melissa Mendes tells a pretty fascinating story about a group of kids (the title character, a girl who is about 10 years old, and her two brothers, with the younger one being around six and the older one a teenager, as well as a couple of her friends) trying to understand the events going on around them. But before diving into any dramatic happenings, she just lets us spends time with these characters, giving them realistic relationships with each other and their parents, showing them bickering with each other or begging their parents to get a dog, and letting us see glimpses of their parents as they struggle to make ends meet and keep up a good relationship with their children.

But while these scenes of daily life are going on, we get hints of more adult concerns that are going on around them, especially in the teenage brother's job at a pizza place, where his boss seems to be going through a crisis of some sort. There's also an odd plot about the younger kids discovering a secret hideout in an abandoned building, and these two plots converge in what turns out to be a harrowing adventure that occurs when the kids' parents finally get a chance to go out and have some adult time (which, as a parent, might have been the most agonizing part of the book for me).

This isn't any sort of grand artistic statement or a book that reveals untold depths when examining the lives of children, but it's a good story told well, and one that manages to capture some real truths about how kids see the world, and due to that, it ends up being quite good. I'm glad I got a chance to read it, and I'll be sure to look for some of Mendes' other comics in the future.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Cathy G. Johnson brings the talent

By Cathy G. Johnson
Published by Koyama Press

By Cathy G. Johnson
Published by One Percent Press

Cathy G. Johnson was a special guest at CAKE this year, and while I had looked at their art in previous years and thought it was really nice looking, now that I've actually read some of their comics, I can see why my fellow organizers wanted to highlight their work. Johnson has some great cartooning skill, utilizing simple lines for character art and delineating faces with dot eyes and triangle noses, but also filling panels with gorgeously moody shadows and evocative watercolors. Johnson's art and storytelling leave a lot unsaid, forcing readers to puzzle out what characters might be feeling, but making them compelling enough that we want to do so.

Gorgeous is an interesting character piece following a couple of rebellious young punks who get chased out of a house party, get into a car accident due to their stupidity, and end up hanging out with the girl who they crashed into as she waits for a mechanic shop to open in the morning so she can get her car fixed. It's an interesting portrait of disaffected, carefree youth, one in which these characters hint that maybe there's something going on under the surface, but then reverse themselves suddenly and turn out to be worse than we expected. And fascinatingly, Johnson chooses to leave them there and follow the other character instead, providing a glimpse of things from the other side of the equation and an understanding of how people's actions affect others, both positively and negatively.

Jeremiah is another somewhat minimalist graphic novel, following the title character as he lives and works on his father's farm, has a strange, at least somewhat sexual relationship with a younger girl that seems like she might be related to him, and becomes enamored with the stranger that his father hires to help out. It's an odd story, one that gets odder as it progresses and things start happening that don't really make sense, but the way that Johnson details Jeremiah's confusion, uncertainty, and inner struggles makes him compelling, and when he finally takes an action to pursue his desires instead of letting others rule him, it's thrilling. I'm still not sure what the symbolism of everything means (maybe something about the oppression of small-town life or a religious upbringing?), but it's a fascinating work to consider, and it's full of absolutely beautiful watercolors that capture the alternating bright beauty and oppressive shadows of Jeremiah's life.

It's obvious from reading these two books that Johnson is a young talent to be reckoned with, and they have cartooning skill to spare. I'm always amazed when an artist can do so much with what seems like so little, and Johnson is a perfect exemplar of finding just the right line and tone to evoke emotion or draw the reader in and make them examine their characters. I'm excited to see someone like this continue to develop and mature as an artist, and I can't wait to see what they do next.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Moving, Silly, and Cute

Sit and Think About What You've Done
By M.R. Trower

Transgender people seem to be in the spotlight in the United States at the moment, but as with any minority, it can be hard to understand them when you're coming at the subject from a position like mine; that is from the perspective of a white male heterosexual whose experience is deemed the "default" and who doesn't have to question how they fit in to society. That's why I find stories in which members of minority groups describe their experience so valuable; they provide me with understanding that I wouldn't have otherwise.

Of course, that perspective makes these stories all about me, which is the opposite of their usual intent. I don't need my sensibilities catered to; I have pretty much the entirety of western literature available for that. But I still get a lot out of this type of story, and I'm glad that people are willing to share them with me.

That's what M.R. Trower does with this minicomic; it's a sort of diary of their experience following their top surgery, a detailed look at the physical toll the surgery took on their body, the swirl of emotions that they felt, the support received from friends, and the fact this is just one step along the way in their life. It's moving stuff, full of raw emotion that doesn't pull any punches, a nearly direct pouring of feeling from Trower's head onto the paper, and it's a beautiful document of humanity, a glimpse into another person's experience that's immersive and heartfelt. I applaud Trower for their courage in sharing this story, and even though I don't think it's purpose is to educate people about the lives and travails of trans people, I found it immensely rewarding to get to share a bit of a life that's so foreign from my own.

Papa Time
By Max Weiss
Self-published (although I got it from One Percent Press)

And now for something completely different. This one is just silly, a stream-of-consciousness story (literally; Max Weiss notes on the inside from cover that he scripted it in this manner, then later adapted it to comics form using techniques learned in Frank Santoro's correspondence course), about a young woman who meets a friend in a diner and tells her about a guy she just met and fell in love with. He's a nondescript, balding, middle-aged fellow, but she is now in love with him, and the reasons for that, as well as the rivalries she soon finds for his affections, all sort of make sense, at least from a comedy perspective. It's goofy, funny stuff, and Weiss's fairly simple art makes it all work by highlighting the characters' expressions in a humorous manner and mixing simple character art with fairly dense shading and texture in the backgrounds. There's really not much to this thing, but what's there is pretty enjoyable in its strangeness. I liked it well enough.

Come Back Soon
By Rachel Bard

If I was going to give out an award for the cutest comic I got at CAKE 2016, this would win hands down. It's tiny, measuring about 1 inch by 2 inches, and it's one of those little minicomics that's formed by folding a single piece of paper into a short comic that's only a few pages long. What makes this one special though is that Rachel Bard manages to use this limited space to tell a cute story about a lizard going on a trip to an island, checking out all the animals he saw there, and drawing pictures of them. Then, he makes a little comic of his own called "New Animals that I Found", and Bard includes it as an even tinier minicomic tucked into the last page of the comic! It's a beautiful little piece of art that tells a simple story, and an ingenious use of a comic within a comic to demonstrate both Bard's creativity and that of her character. I loved it, and I love that this is the kind of amazing work I can find at CAKE each year.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Slices of CAKE: Jon Drawdoer does some cool drawings

Mindfulness Comics #2
By Jon Drawdoer

Jon Drawdoer is a fellow CAKE helper-outer and all around nice guy, and he's gifted me with several of the comics that he's made over the past few years, so it's about time I got around to writing about them. Jon is an interesting fellow, and I'm loving the way he is using the comics format to explore some of his inner thoughts in Mindfulness Comics. In this issue, he ruminates on his "second adolescence and interpersonal communication, but the bulk of the issue is taken up with a sort of visual essay about how he tries to consider the way his mind works as a function of his body's physical processes, and how looking at things this way is kind of liberating, since it allows him to refrain from getting too upset if his emotions get out of control or he becomes too self-critical. Since these are functions of his body's chemicals (or as he puts it, drugs going through tubes), taking their actions personally would be like getting angry over a sneeze.

As someone who has had my own struggles with depression and controlling my emotions, I find this to be fascinating, and the way Jon looks at things is definitely worthy of consideration. He details his own process of meditation, demonstrating the value of taking the time to understand why he feels the way he feels and thinks the way he thinks.

And since this is a comic, the visuals play as much of a part as the words here. Jon fills pages with intricate, near-abstract swirls of imagery that play off what he is saying beautifully, illustrating the snarl of the mind's inner workings and the attempts to begin to understand it, if not actually control it. It makes for a lovely, near-breathtaking illustration of a concept that's hard to wrap your head around. I'm really glad I read it, and it will continue to give me plenty to think about.

With Jon's newest comic, Hello, he seems to go in a more stream-of-consciousness direction, using mostly wordless imagery to depict all sorts of odd transformations and scene changes. It would probably make a cool animated short, with one odd tableau leading to another and lots of clever shifts between styles. It's in bright, striking color, and it appears to have been created digitally, making use of computer-created art alongside hand-drawn imagery (and maybe even some photo manipulation) to come together into a strange, fascinating whole. I dig it.

With these two releases, I feel like Jon has really come into his own as an artist to watch, and I'm excited to read more of his work.