Thursday, December 30, 2010

Swag report: I'm not sure why I got this

I don't usually post the PR-type information, but the goofy nature of this oddball request, combined with the opportunity for something free that I don't really need or want, was, well, not exactly irresistible, but at least worth a "what the hell, why not".  So, when given the opportunity to plug The Guardian Project, I sort of half-jumped at the chance.

And what is The Guardian Project?  Well, it's Stan Lee's latest "superhero franchise", and it's affiliated with the National Hockey League, with a superhero representing each team, although it's not certain whether they will battle villains (perhaps from the Canadian league, or the NFL) or each other, or even do much superheroing at all beyond appearing on posters.  The press releases make no mention of comics or animation, although the characters are all designed by Neal Adams.  At this point, the main intrigue involves the order in which each hero will be revealed, with fans (of the teams, presumably, since nobody knows anything about these characters) voting concurrent with matchups between teams throughout the month of January 2011.  I guess that's kind of fun?  For somebody?

If you're interested, you can find out more at the official website, or you can vote for your favorite hero/team at a Facebook page.  You can also follow a Twitter feed for up-to-the-minute hockey/superhero news.

So, what prompted me to so blatantly sell out?  None other than this signed Neal Adams poster, an image of a bunch of heroic figures, somehow obscured mysteriously by shadows even with myriad light sources sprinkled throughout their midst:

Perhaps I should have given this "whoring myself out" concept some more consideration...

Monday, December 27, 2010

Grinding the AX: The shift from adult to kiddie is whiplash-inducing

This is the third part of a continuous blog through the first (and hopefully not the last, no sir) volume of the AX anthology:

"The Brilliant Ones"
By Namie Fujieda

In a book like this, it's kind of stating the obvious to say a story is weird, but this one is odd in a different sort of way, in tone as well as subject matter.  It seems to be a parody/satire of school-set manga full of idealistic teachers and friendly students.  The teacher exhorts his students to "shine" and hold on to their dreams, but it's a pointless encouragement, a "do your best" with no basis in reality.  This is brought home (sort of) when a student disagrees with the teacher, stating that he'll never have a chance to shine, since he has a terminal illness, and then promptly explodes into thousands of maggots (in a non-gory fashion, as if he simply transformed into a bunch of little blobs).  The teacher won't give up on him though, and he gets the students to collect as many of the worms as they can in a box, but after doing so, the box gets shelved in the back of the class and forgotten, until one day, the narrator of the story, some girl, looks inside and sees the worms all eating each other and getting bigger, then transforming into some sort of moth creature and flying out the window, giving the teacher the chance to claim that the dead kid got his chance to shine after all.  The end.

So, what the hell, am I right?  I can't say for sure, but this all seems to be a spoof of that sort of "you can do it!" cheerleading that adults give kids that's little more than lip service.  The teacher here is a perfect example, all strenuous statements with no substance, more interested in possibility than actuality.  He wants statistics to prove his success, not caring about the kids once they leave his class, so even with a lost cause like the dead kid, he's trying to find some way to prove that he's right.  But once the kids he supposedly wants to succeed are out of his sight, he forgets about them, as does everyone else, unless they do something newsworthy that allows him to once again claim success.  Is that all a stretch?  Probably, but there's still something in the weird mood of the story, the pointless excitement of the teacher and the blase attitude of the kids when such shocking things happen to their classmate.  It's gotta be representative of something, right?  Maybe it's just a statement about the vapidity of school manga, but it's still really arresting and unique.

"The Tortoise and the Hare"
By Mitsuhiko Yoshida

This story marks something of a left turn for the volume, a shift to more all-ages fare from the wacky adult hijinx.  It's a retelling of the classic fable, or actually a sequel, starring the grandsons of the original racers.  The rabbit is sure he won't get lazy and make the same mistakes, so the tortoise comes up with a way to outwit his competitor and win anyway.  It's an odd lesson for the kids (who probably aren't reading this anyway), that lesser-talented people need to resort to trickery to get ahead, but it's still applicable.  Plus, Yoshida's art is lovely and lively, full of nicely anthropomorphosized animals and rich natural backgrounds.  It's an interesting break from the format of the volume, but an understandable one given the talent on display.

"The Twin Adults"
By Kotobuki Shiriagari

And it's back to strange goofiness, with two entries in what appears to be a series of minimalistic stories starring two naked bald guys who sit in a bare room/landscape and fuck with each other.  In the first one, one of them sculpts an idol and decides that it's a god for him to worship, leading to pointless conflict between the two of them.  In the other, one contemplates the nature of existence, wondering if he or anything around him actually exists, allowing the other to play disgusting jokes on him regarding the nature of reality.  It's all quite silly, but funny nonetheless, and the art is interesting, reduced to basic calligraphic brushstrokes and a little bit of greytone shading.  I would love to read more of this series; it's pretty nuts.

"Haiku Manga"
By Shinbo Minami

Two more minimalist stories, although they're more gentle and poetic (hence the title), starring a father who teaches elliptical lessons to his son, with a haiku featured in each.  They seem nice, and cute, but there's not much to them.  As a four-page interlude in each issue of a magazine, it might be a nice series, or it might just be forgettable.  Certainly not terrible though.

"Mushroom Garden"
By Shinya Komatsu

This is another kiddie/all-ages story, but a beautifully realized one, following a young boy who causes an infestation of huge mushrooms to engulf his entire medieval-ish town, but in a non-threatening way, more of a bit of fantastical wonder than anything scary.  There might be an intended bit of symbolism of some sort, or it could just be a flight of fancy, but it's a beautiful story either way, full of densely-detailed pastoral imagery and a rich world of cobblestones, gears, and machinery, all ready to be consumed by fungi.  I don't know if this is part of a longer series, but if it is, I would love to read more.

"Home Drama: The Sugawaras"
By Einosuke

And we're back to the weirdness, with a scene of a family eating dinner, the patriarch looking on ecstatically as his feral children rapidly consume noodles like monstrous beasts.  It's hilarious and horrifying all at once, with close up, fish-eye views of the father's laughing face as his family ignores his conversation and messily wolfs down everything in sight.  The art is full of stipply detail, but almost completely background-free, drawing the focus directly on the man's face as he feigns pride to cover up his horror at where he life has led.  It's a striking portrait of modern life, beautiful in its ugliness.


And that seems to be it for this installment; more to come before too long, one hopes.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less: I only have about 30 more days to go...

Posting is very light these days due to craziness in my personal life from pending familial incrementation.  We'll see how well I can continue with the content, since I don't want people to forget I exist!

Links: This tribute to Harvey Pekar that Dean Haspiel did for Entertainment Weekly is really nice.

Via Sean T. Collins: I may have found my new favorite webcomics artist: Emily Carroll.  This recent strip of hers, "His Face All Red", is pretty amazing.

Via Alan David Doane: John Roberson has made a 2002 anthology done to benefit William Messner-Loebs called Working for the Man available for free download.  Looks good; I missed it the first time around, so lucky for me.

How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
By Sarah Glidden

So what is the deal with Israel anyway?  That's the opening (and closing) question of this book, and its answer certainly shifts over the course of the read, at least for its author and central character if not the reader.  In 2007, Sarah Glidden took a Birthright trip to Israel, expecting to confirm her beliefs about the region and its longstanding conflicts, but hoping to learn more by experiencing it firsthand.  And luckily for readers, she takes us along for the ride, allowing free access to what she saw and heard, as well as her interpretations and emotions, and her attempts to make sense of them.  It's fascinating, enlightening, educational, and moving, an "only in comics" journey through a historically complicated land, and also the head of the person doing the traveling.

While Glidden is Jewish, she makes it known right away that she tends to lean to the anti-Israeli side of the region's conflicts, so the entire journey is a struggle for her, an ongoing attempt to reconcile her views and her knowledge of history with what people tell her, with the propaganda (from both sides) that she hears, and even with what she sees with her own eyes.  It's an emotional experience, for her and the reader, and an informative one, both in the historical anecdotes that she relates (did you know that Hebrew has only been a spoken language in modern times for a little over 100 years?) and in what she witnesses during her trip (apparently, Bedouins are an even more oppressed minority than Palestinians in Israel, but they have no fiery religious/nationalistic conflict to draw attention to themselves).  And impressively, she never makes it a dryly narrated series of geographical scenes, but brings life into the entire journey through conversation with other travelers, bits of history, occasional flashbacks to earlier times in her life, and imaginative flights of fancy in which she interacts with historical figures, holds a mental court over whether the guide is biased toward Israel, and comes up with other clever ways to illustrate what could be boring bits of exposition.  The book never flags, always remaining interesting through its multi-level approach of a vast, nearly incomprehensible subject.

And that's the true triumph here: readers will come away from this book feeling like they know a bit more about Israel, but also understanding that whatever they think of the situation, it's several thousand more times complicated than they could have possibly imagined.  Glidden's attempts at preparation for the trip are kind of laughable; she states that for several weeks beforehand, she "spent every spare moment reading about Israel...start[ing] with the beginnings of recorded history and working [her] way forward."  That's the amount of information required to even form a basic foundation of knowledge on the subject, without taking into account the millions of personal accounts, feelings, interactions, events, and so on, even within the last century.  Glidden probably realized the folly of her pursuit afterward, and while she doesn't make a big deal about it, she does present herself in a somewhat self-deprecating light, often making incorrect assumptions about people or acting in a know-it-all manner.  Afraid of being "brainwashed", she seems wary of a pro-Israel bias everywhere she goes, and a few traveling companions (her friend Melissa and the tour's guard, a young man named Nadan) often set her straight, or at least question her statements and make her rethink her positions.  While she doesn't finish her journey with reversed opinions, she does seem to have a fuller understanding of the region, and a realization that most people involved have good reasons for thinking the way they do.  Hopefully readers will feel the same way.

But even if they don't, if they feel that Glidden is hopelessly biased herself, they should still enjoy her storytelling acumen here, especially in her evocative art, with its ligne claire lines simplifying characters down to a minimal, yet expressive cartooniness and gorgeous watercolors adding life through warm skin tones, dusty desert browns, lush greenery, and deep blue water.  While many scenes consist of characters talking or listening to a speaker, the panels never just feature repetitive figures and word balloons; instead, Glidden fills them with background detail, jumps around to see the expressions of various people, or comes up with interesting ways of conveying information, like having ghostly historical figures appear in the scene, making a landscape model being viewed come to life with miniature armed forces, or having herself converse with people in photographs (which are amazingly depicted, by the way, the black and white images converted to gray watercolor brushstrokes).  It's never boring, and often is the opposite, being arrestingly fascinating and emotional, especially in a centerpiece scene that sees Glidden break down crying during a speech about peace, a cascade of mental imagery flooding the panels and making the onslaught of emotion she feels completely understandable and relatable.  It's just one tour de force in a book full of them.

Maybe that's the crux of this book: the combination of personal and political.  For so many, that emotion is inseparable from their stance on the conflict, along with an additional confusing layer of religious beliefs to muddy the waters even further.  Glidden has performed the admirable service here of directly approaching what she believed to be true, and attempting to share the small bit of understanding that she gained from the situation.  That she manages to convey it so efficiently and, yes, entertainingly, is a testament to her skill, a demonstration of her firm grasp of the language of comics.  Everyone who reads this book will come away enriched, and whether they agree with Glidden's opinions or not, they can see the real people and history that sit beneath the political and religious posturing, and understand the need for peace.  That's the impossible dream, but people like Glidden are the ones doing what they can to bring it to life.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Ghostopolis: TenNapel knows how to bring the beasties

By Doug TenNapel

Doug TenNapel often gets lumped into the all-ages category of comics, but his work often deals with pretty complex issues and emotions, featuring well-developed characters and interesting relationships; it’s definitely not something that should be shunted into the ghetto of “kiddie stuff”. Plus, he comes up with crazy worlds to explore and monsters for his heroes to fight, and depicts it all with a dynamic, tossed-off style that really brings everything to life. It’s always tons of fun, fast-moving and exciting, like a well-done animated film.

This particular entry in TenNapel’s oeuvre sees a young boy named Garth get accidentally sent to the afterlife by a bumbling ghost hunter, leading to an adventure involving revolutionary politics among ghost kingdoms, human incursion into death’s realm, family connectedness, and the rekindling of ectoplasmic love. While Garth does meet up with his dead grandfather, try to understand the poor relationship between his mother and her father, and learn to appreciate life, the story barely slows down for him to breathe, as he gains a skeletal horse and ends up in conflict with a man who has managed to take control of the various ghostly kingdoms (including mummies, zombies, boogeymen, and goblins), eventually joining a revolution to depose the evil leader. Meanwhile, Frank, the aforementioned ghost hunter, follows him into the afterlife with the help of his spectral girlfriend Claire (whose last name is Voyant, ha ha), and he gets to learn lessons about love and courage as well. It’s a rollicking ride, full of twists, chases, and supernaturally-powered battles, and it’s pretty funny as well, with plenty of exaggerated reactions and amusing dialogue.

TenNapel’s artwork is what really sells that humor, along with the action, excitement, and emotion, and his detailed world-building is something to see. He uses a somewhat scratchy line, but the roughness is lessened by clear coloring, and while the big-eyed character designs might appear awkward at first, they end up being endearingly emotive. In fact, he manages to wring quite a bit of expression even out of the loyal horse skeleton, and his designs for the various other dead creatures and background denizens are tons of fun to look at. The kinetic action is pretty great too, with lots of chases (an early escape from some dinosaur skeletons is a great way to introduce the dangers of the afterlife) and fights, and a final battle that manages to keep growing in scale to an awe-inspiring spectacle.

This might be the best work that TenNapel has done in his career, a mature examination of familial love and responsibility, the value of life, and the usual themes of courage and responsibility that doesn’t shove these aspects into the readers’ face, but incorporates them into a fun adventure in an imagination-fueled world. It should be interesting to see what he comes up with next, but at the rate that he cranks out comics, we shouldn’t have long to wait.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

A Drunken Dream: Been there, done that

Webcomics links:  This one isn't all that fresh, but Hans Rickheit's Ectopiary looks as delightfully weird and creepy as the rest of his work.

And for something more up-to-date, Kevin Church has begin yet another new webcomic: The Line, which is about people working at a restaurant, and appears to be in the same continuity as The Rack.  Should be enjoyable, methinks.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories
By Moto Hagio

With Moto Hagio being so highly regarded in manga circles as an influential creator who helped develop the shojo genre of comics intended for girls, it's nice to finally have some of her work available in English.  Fantagraphics and editor Matt Thorn have ably stepped up to the plate here, compiling a career-spanning collection of Hagio's short stories, one which demonstrates her acumen with stunning visuals and deft characterization, and especially a nice grasp of human relationships.  It's like a quick class in what we've been missing out on for all these years.

The stories are presented in chronological order, stretching from 1971 to 2007, and it's fascinating to see the artist develop as the book progresses.  The early stories can be a bit rough, with somewhat clunky, obvious characterization but an obvious eagerness to take advantage of the storytelling techniques that the comics medium offers.  The first story, "Bianca", sees two young girl cousins form a brief relationship, with the narrator, remembering years later, relating how the eponymous girl would escape the pain of her parents' impending breakup by dancing in the forest.  It's pretty rote and melodramatic as a plot, but Hagio lends a real emotional, expressive beauty to Bianca's dancing, capturing swirling motion and graceful movement against a lovely natural background:

"Autumn Journey" is similarly dramatic, seeing a young man seek out a famous author named Meister Klein, supposedly as a fan, but actually for personal reasons, forming a brief connection with Klein's daughter, with the story building to an emotional crescendo as he leaves.  It's nothing revolutionary, but Hagio uses the same  techniques to bring an emotive feel to the art, with the flowers that Klien's daughter tends filling the panels and lines swirling about to evoke memories and emotional reactions much the same way speed lines convey motion:

"Girl on Porch with Puppy" is another simplistic story, a seeming attempt to capture the feel of a Ray Bradbury story, of whom Hagio is an avowed fan.  It's about a free-spirited young girl whose family and their friends all disapprove of her desire to frolic with her puppy, which seems to be a strange reaction at first but becomes an ominous, oppressive force as more and more people take part, with the background never being fully explained, allowing it to be taken either as an allegory or some sort of science fiction story in which nothing is as it seems.  The story is something of an exception in this volume, in that it is less focused on relationships and interpersonal connections, but it does take an interestingly fresh emotional, mood-focused approach to what could be a rote look at a sci-fi totalitarian society.

Things get a bit more complex in "Marie, Ten Years Later" and the title story, with the former being a poignant tale of missed chances and the unhappiness that petty jealousies can bring, and the latter a sci-fi experiment in past-lives romance and boys' love (albeit one that uses a bit of a cheat, with the "bottom" character being a hermaphrodite rather than a full-on male) that's mostly notable for its muted colors, with a red/pink tint adding a kind of eerie mood that reflects the ominous shadow of the nearby planet Jupiter.  These are decent enough, but they're only a hint of what Hagio would develop into, at least as the later stories indicate.

"Hanshin: Half-God" is where things get really good; it's an incredible story, full of psychological layers and fascinating ideas, following a pair of conjoined twins who seem unable to make their symbiotic existence work.  The narrator, Yudy, is the intelligent half of the pair, but also the ugly one; in contrast, her sister Yucy is beautiful, but mentally incapable.  Sure enough, the latter gets all the praise, even though she depends on her sister for survival, being unable to take care of herself in the slightest.  Yudy becomes resentful of her more attractive twin, angry that she gets the attention when her beauty is only on the surface.  And to make matters worse, it turns out that Yucy's dependence on her sister extends below the surface as well; doctors find that Yucy is leeching nutrients from Yudy, and if they aren't separated, they will both end up dying.  When the separation does occur, the twins switch places, with Yucy withering away and dying, and Yudy becoming beautiful and soon being physically indistinguishable from her sister, causing her to regret any negative feelings she once had and question her very identity.  It's a heartbreaking story, and a fascinating examination of the way women and girls are praised for their looks and not expected to be intelligent or take care of themselves, literally separating these two aspects of the female existence to demonstrate the false dichotomy.  When Yudy's beautiful and intelligent halves recombine, she is unable to process it, ending up being less than the sum of her parts and feeling broken and sorrowful for her resentment toward parts of herself.  That's the damage that society does with its schizophrenic insistence that both the surface and the depths are more important than the other, and Hagio captures this achingly beautifully.

She follows up that amazing bit of psychological complexity with "Iguana Girl", another fascinating examination of female relationships.  This highly symbolic story follows the life of Rika, a girl whose mother sees her as an iguana, finding her ugly, dumb, and clumsy.  While everyone else sees her as a normal girl, she grows up seeing herself as a subhuman lizard due to the emotional abuse heaped on her by her mother, who vastly prefers her second child, which she sees as a regular human girl.  It's hard to watch, a picture of the ugly way parents can treat the children who don't live up to their expectations for whatever reason.  As Rika grows up, she eventually learns to live with her perceived appearance, seeing other people as various animals that fit their personalities, and finding love with a man who she sees as a bull, one who can't be hurt by her reptilian coldness.  Up to this point, the story is a sad look at a difficult childhood, but the real message is revealed when Rika's mother dies, and at the funeral, her body suddenly appears to her daughter as an iguana, making Rika realize that the whole time, her mother was seeing her as just like herself, and heaping her self-hatred upon her daughter.  The symbolism suddenly comes into focus, revealing the story as a look at the ways parents can transfer their own issues their children without even meaning to.  It's a stunning work, one that brings tears to the eyes as Hagio manages to somehow make the goofy appearance of lizards in human clothing poignant and full of meaning.

Those two stories are definitely the high point of this volume, but there is still more to come, with the long-ish "Angel Mimic" seeming like a fairly rote, if well-told, bit of college romance between a student with emotional issues and her professor, until an ending revelation snaps everything into place, closing on a heartbreaking image of emotional outpouring.  "The Child Who Comes Home" is another weepie, with a mother acting as if her young son who died in an accident is still around, inadvertently making her older son feel less important to his family, the ghost of his younger brother still haunting him as he tries to live up to its impossible example.  It's a bit less melodramatic than some of the other stories, with less in the way of huge emotional outbursts, but its conflict works as a believable look at inter-family dynamics, and there are some wonderfully sad moments of storytelling.  Finally, "The Willow Tree" is a short, almost completely wordless story in which a girl with an umbrella standing under, yes, a willow tree watches a young boy pass by every day, seeing him grow up and form a family of his own, until his connection to the girl/tree is finally revealed.  It's slight but beautiful, as the tree and its surrounding area slowly change over time, the glimpses we see of the boy seeming like snapshots of a rich life that we only get a small peek into, which makes that ending revelation that much more moving.  It's lovely work all around.

That describes the entirety of this book, but there's so much more to what Hagio offers, and it's obvious to see how her rich characterization, deft plotting, and expressive artwork made a mark on the industry, her influence extending to much of what is now the shojo and josei genres of manga.  While much of her work remains to be revealed to Western audiences, this book makes for a wonderful primer on what she has accomplished throughout her career.  Hopefully it will be far from the extent of what we will get to experience.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Unsinkable Walker Bean: He certainly is

The Unsinkable Walker Bean
By Aaron Renier

If one were to judge by the cover, this book would appear to be a heroic adventure starring a brave boy on the high seas, but the interior tells a different story, at least regarding the eponymous young man’s bravery. He ends up spending more time shedding tears (sometimes of sadness, but usually of fright) than swashbuckling, which might be a bit offputting to those expecting the typical fearless tot. However, it ends up being a canny move on creator Aaron Renier’s part, grounding young Walker Bean as a normal kid caught up in a frightening world of pirates and magic, just trying to save his grandfather’s life and survive multiple shipwrecks and attempted executions. The similarly-aged companions that he picks up have similarly flowing tear ducts as well, with the end result seeming more like the exaggerated emotions of Japanese manga than a deficit in guts among the heroes. And while the adult characters aren’t as weepy, they are often demonstrably less competent and more easily manipulated, so the combination of openness and intelligence that the main characters show makes them the real center of the story.

As for that story, it’s a pretty good one, seeing young Walker tasked with returning a cursed skull to a pair of monstrous “merwitches” who dwell in the ocean’s depths, a quest that forces him to jump in well over his head, bouncing back and forth between his naval captain father and a ship of pirates, both of whom fall under the sway of a mysterious, possibly inhuman doctor who wants to use them and the skull for his own nefarious ends. It’s a fast-moving tale with lots of twists and turns, and Walker develops nicely as a character throughout, making the best of his circumstances and using his strengths as an inventor (coming up with ideas like retractable wheels on a ship for traveling on land) to find solutions to his problems when his small stature makes him seem powerless. There’s also some of the standard “power of friendship” stuff, but it’s not very sappy; Walker allies with two young members of the pirate crew, but there’s a lot of mutual distrust, and some of the actions he takes in pursuit of his noble goal end up hurting them and betraying their trust. It’s a surprisingly deep look at realistic human relationships, especially those among the volatile emotions of youth.

While the story is a good one, much of the fun to be had comes from Renier’s detailed environments, which are beautifully depicted in a style similar to European artists like Joann Sfar and Lewis Trondheim, even down to the album-size dimensions. It’s a quirky world, full of distinct characters and crazy ideas, and Renier packs it full of detail, often using double-page spreads to present a scene like a battle between ships that features inset panels corresponding with cannon fire, or chase through the crowded market in a seaside town that sees Walker and his friend Shiv weave in and out of people in a path across the pages that clearly communicates what is happening even though there are multiple images of them scattered throughout the scene.

Special recognition should also be given to colorist Alec Longstreth, who adds life to the images through gorgeous hues that perfectly define the oceanic environments, from the blues of the ocean and the browns of ship timbers, to the sickly green pallor of Walker’s cursed grandfather, to the eerie green glow of the evil skull and the harsh red of its word balloons when it tries to taunt Walker into doing the wrong thing. Even scenes that take place in the dark manage to use color to make the images clear, using dark greens and blues to define everything without overwhelming the linework.

It’s a beautiful book, full of energy and life, an extensive world to explore and well-defined characters to inhabit it. And while it comes to a satisfying conclusion, the closing pages promise a sequel, which is great news, since there’s plenty more here that Renier can explore, more adventures to have and inventions to construct, more crazy personalities to meet and monsters to fight. It’s shaping up to be an excellent series, and Renier definitely has the talent to keep it going for a long time to come.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Grinding the AX: I'll take motorcycles over random nonsense, please

Continuing with the (ir)regular looks at Top Shelf's AX anthology (the first part is here):

"Enrique Kobayashi's Eldorado"
By Toranusuke Shimada

This is a different sort of thing than the previous stories in the volume, but it's certainly welcome.  It's an apparent bit of nonfiction (except, wait, a word balloon in the first panel reveals that it is fiction, so it fakes the truth well), as author Shimada relates how he was enlisted to translate a book about motorcycles for a friend who owned a Brazilian Eldorado NRA.  Shimada then relates the story from the book, taking him and his friend on a journey to post-WWII Brazil and describing how a motorcycle shop owner received assistance from two German engineers as they designed and began to release a line of motorcycles, until it turned out that they had a terrible secret (which probably isn't too hard to guess, given the date).  It's a fascinating story, and one that I thought was true until I tried to look up information about the brand of bike and found nothing, then spotted that easily-forgotten word balloon.  Shimada tells it well, revealing details at the right pace, throwing in recurring gags, adding some meta-humor as he and his friend interact with the scenes that they are observing, and detailing everything in a consistently thick, cartoony line.  This story might be different from the tales of urban ennui and trippy freakouts in the rest of the book, but that doesn't make it any less good.

"The Neighbor"
By Yuka Goto

This story about a couple of antagonistic housewives goes back to the heta-uma or "bad-good" style, using crude, fairly ugly drawings to make a point about the ridiculousness of its plot, or something.  There's a woman who is annoyed with her neighbor, and they have an escalating conflict that eventually erupts in a ridiculous fight scene, although that ridiculousness mostly comes from the awkward, stiff art, making their shoves and flying kicks looks hilariously silly.  That has to be on purpose, and it's amusing for it, but that's about all there is to it, unless one wants to extrapolate some sort of statement on society from the intensity of what is a pretty dumb conflict.  It's probably best to just chuckle and move on though.

"300 Years"
By Mimiyo Tomozawa

Aaand, it's back to the incomprehensible, with a nonsensical "story" about a girl who goes to the eye doctor, who diagnoses her as cross-eyed and treats her by having her do a "sit on this and spin" for the length of the title.  It seems like it's supposed to be funny, although it also seems like it just doesn't translate; a line like the doctor's "it's like 'crossed eyes=masturbation, googly eyes=free sex', maybe" might be some sort of pun in Japanese, but it just doesn't make sense in English.  There is a kind of funny bit in which we see that she sees the pudgy, bald doctor as handsome through one eye, a dog through the other, and a scribbly mish-mash together, but other than a head-scratching, "huh?", that's about all there is to get out of this story.

"Black Sushi Party Piece"
By Takashi Nemoto

I haven't read Takashi Nemoto's other Western release, Monster Men Bureiko Lullaby, but if this story is any indication (and judging by the descriptions I've read), I doubt I would enjoy it.  The somewhat crude art, which alternates between simplistic figures and detailed, messy bodily functions, is sometimes interesting, but the "story" is sort of a stream of consciousness litany of sex and weirdness, with nothing really holding it together except Nemoto's desire to draw as many penises as he can.  There's one bit that reminds me of a Shintaro Kago concept, in which a character says, "If you shag too much with one partner, cock can spread to the woman apparently", with Nemoto going on to depict women with penises growing in various horrific configurations from their bodies, but then moving on to some other nastiness a few pages later.  This is gross, transgressive material, but it's not really interesting, just tiring.  The best part of the story is the title page, which contains an organic intricacy and detail that hints at much more than the story actually holds:

"Puppy Love"
By Yusaku Hanakuma

This is another weird one, but it's got a goofy, deadpan sense of humor that saves it, which is probably a good  indication that Yusaku Hanakuma's other comic available in English, Tokyo Zombie, is one worth checking out.  This story sees the wife of a character sporting Hanakuma's signature Afro design bear children that turn out to be dogs.  That's right, plain old dogs.  Being animals, they don't survive as well as humans, whether because their mother doesn't have enough breasts, or being murdered horribly as society turns a blind eye.  It's silly, and definitely meant to be so, but there's something poignant about the way the man cares for his children and treats them like people while everyone else doesn't care.  There might be a societal analogy to be read into the story here, something about people's uncaring, self-centered nature, but that's probably too much of a stretch.  It's probably best to think of this as a goof, and it's a pretty good one.

And that's part two.  More coming before too long, if we all clap our hands loud enough.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Drinking at the Movies: This book could stand to get me more tipsy

Drinking at the Movies
By Julia Wertz

Julia Wertz is a charismatic personality, energetic, funny, profane, witty, and good at telling stories about the mundanities of her life, making them interesting and enjoyable even while pointing out that they are kind of obnoxious and self-centered. Unfortunately, she can’t draw very well at all, which drags her autobiographical comics down to the rudimentary level of quality typical of the minicomic/webcomic “isn’t my life interesting?” genre, managing to stand out in that crowd only through sheer force of personality. But that’s apparently meant to be part of the appeal, a lo-fi look at the struggles of early adulthood, tinged with plenty of humor and self-deprecation. While Wertz’s webcomic, The Fart Party, is autobiographical, this book has more of a specific focus, telling the story of her move from San Francisco to New York and the subsequent struggles with employment, living arrangements, relationships, and drunkenness as she learned to survive in the big city. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll be disgusted and appalled by Wertz’s frank descriptions of bodily functions and sailor-like use of profanity. That seems to be the intent, anyway.

While this standalone volume might have been a chance for Wertz to stretch a bit, using longer-form storytelling to detail a bigger swath of her life than what happened last week, she still seems to be stuck in webcomic mode, splitting everything up into one- or two-page stories, detailing various moments, and occasionally stretching out into longer tales, but rarely utilizing a structure more complex than “and then this happened.” That’s the nature of a life story, of course, and nobody’s story fits into a neat narrative arc, but Wertz seems to be actively resisting any sort of plot, choosing to string incidents together without an eye for structure, making for a repetitive bunch of bits in which she complains about her jobs, has problems with her crappy apartments, and gets drunk with friends. There does seem to be a bit of slight growth over the course of the volume, but not really enough to justify why Wertz felt that this portion of her life required being called out and detailed. The most interesting things happen in the margins, such as Wertz’s occasional worries about her recovering drug-addict brother who she left behind in San Francisco, prompting guilt when he relapses. She occasionally contemplates the political situation in the country but doesn’t take any action, making such scenes seem shoehorned in to show that she has some awareness of the world outside herself. As enjoyable
as spending time with Wertz must be, it’s hard to see why one would want to spend this time with her, unless the reader is a friend of hers, or feels like they want to be one.

The art certainly doesn’t help make things any more compelling, acting as a very basic way to detail what happened. Wertz’s characters have very little variation, stiff paper dolls perched in similar poses from page to page, the same expressions frozen on their face. Variations in facial features manage to demonstrate emotion well enough, but if one examines them, the realization that nearly every person has eyes that combine what looks like a numeral 6 with a big “loop” with a squiggle for an eyebrow on the other eye gets distracting, prompting the search for some difference. Furrowed brows (single diagonal lines over the eyes) and bulging eyeballs do show up here and there, but it’s just one example of the limits of Wertz’s artistic skill. Her noodle-like limbs, solid black hair, and overly simple clothing are others; there’s not much to dazzle the eye at all, except possibly the occasional anthropomorphic objects that suggest where Wertz could shine if she ever ventures outside the realm of autobiography.

It’s not fair to judge the book by what the reader seems to think it should be rather than what it is, but whether Wertz is going for a redemptive story about maturity or not, a string of amusing incidents held together by amateurish artwork doesn’t really make for a satisfying read. Wertz does seem to attempt a sort of arc, although it jumps straight to her having cleaned up her act and grown up a little in the final pages, with little leading up to it in the parade of funny incidents in the rest of the book. It makes for a conclusion, but not one that is earned, which is unfortunate. Wertz has enough personality to make a story like this entertaining, but not enough skill at crafting that story to make it flow like it should, and that’s a shame, seeming like a missed opportunity. As it is, it’s a fun couple of years to watch in Wertz’s life, and little more. Back to the party of farts.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk: That title refers to what I feel while waiting for the next volume

Elsewhere: I contributed to a "Best Graphic Novels of 2010" list for Flashlight Worthy Books, spotlighting The Unsinkable Walker Bean by Aaron Renier, which isn't actually my very favorite book of the year (that's still to be determined), but is definitely one that I think could stand to get more attention.  Other contributors include Jog, David Welsh, Tucker Stone, and Brigid Alverson, so check that list out; it's good stuff.

Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, volume 1: Refuge of the Heart
By Ben Costa

In this exciting age of comics ubiquity, you never know what you’re going to find, whether you’re looking at literary comics, imports from foreign countries, young adult comics, or, in probably the category most choked with volume, webcomics. A huge wealth of quality comics can be found online, and some of the best of them even get a chance to make it to print, sometimes through the recognition of organizations like the Xeric Foundation. Ben Costa is one such recipient of a Xeric grant, which allowed him to bring out a print version of his webcomic Pang, the Wandering Shaolin Monk, and the world is better for having it available. Costa’s comic is a fascinating bit of historical fiction regarding the Shaolin Temple and its role in the takeover of the southern regions of China by the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century. If that sounds like a dry bit of textbook learning, the comic is anything but, following the impressionable, sheltered young monk of the title as he stumbles into events he barely understands, trying to make his way in the world after events lead to him leaving his temple, the only home he has ever known. Costa fills the book with humor and personality, movement and color, activity and life, making sure to fill in the edges of the panels with realistic detail and informative footnotes, but centering on Pang, giving him a relatable voice (with modern inflections and slang) and emotions, his open expression conveying the fear, excitability, and meditative calm that he experiences.

In fact, the depiction of the main character is one of the interesting things that Costa does; unlike the other characters, who sport a variety of facial shapes and distinctive features, Pang is presented as a sort of blank slate, his round head and dot eyes seeming only slightly more detailed than a smiley face. It may be an attempt to allow the reader to project themselves onto the character, imagining what it would be like if they were playing the role, but he still ends up coming off as expressive and relatable, especially when he’s flustered or determined. And Costa fills everything in around him so well that he soon seems like just another denizen of this colorful world.

Costa’s innovative tendencies don’t stop with his main character either; he is constantly mixing things up and going in unexpected directions artistically, using Chris Ware-style captions to begin or end spoken phrases or to semi-comedically comment on the action of the panels, and laying the panels themselves out in a different order than the natural reading progression, directing readers all over the page with arrows (and sometimes making things more confusing than they need to be). He uses thick, definitive brushstrokes surrounded with gorgeous colors that really make the environments pop, but these clean lines get messy and less defined in action scenes, signifying the rush of adrenaline and emotion that sets them apart from more placid domestic moments. It’s a pretty bold statement of artistic expression, never sitting still, always shifting and moving, capturing a living history.

It’s a pretty impressive achievement, obviously well-researched, but still exciting and full of character. While the book starts off with Pang entering a busy town and learning about the life of the people, much of the volume is taken up with a flashback detailing what happened to make him leave the temple, allowing Costa to spend page after page on huge battle scenes and big action. Later, the fighting catches up with our hero, and he has an extended fight scene while wearing a giant wooden collar as a form of shackles; along with historical scene-setting and deft characterization, Costa has a flair for action choreography as well, which is a must when depicting martial arts. It’s easy to see why he was chosen for a grant; this is one talented cartoonist, an artist with a vision that seems to burst out of his pen and onto the page (or leap from his graphics software onto computer screens). With this volume only signaling the start of a lengthy epic, it should be amazing to watch where he goes next.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Set to Sea: The poetry of a life of violence

Webcomics links: Blogger and sometimes comics writer Sean T. Collins and Matt Weigle are doing a webcomic called Destructor, which is apparently a colorized (and expanded?) version of a previous story of theirs.  Looks like one to follow.

James Stokoe has the still-unfinished beginning of what was originally intended to be a bonus story in an Orc Stain collection before it got out of control.  What's there is pretty awesome so far.

Set to Sea
By Drew Weing

These days, even artsy publishers like Fantagraphics are doing print versions of webcomics; it’s becoming obvious where the future of the medium lies. The impeccable taste for which they are known is still in effect though; Drew Weing’s seafaring character piece fits right in to their stable of quality comics. The book (and the webcomic before it) presents one page-size panel at a time, following a hulking mountain of a man who longs for the sea, but as a subject for his poetry rather than a locale for adventure and exploration. He doesn’t get a choice in the matter though; he gets shanghaied early on and ends up as a deckhand onboard a merchant vessel, uncertain of his skills or his place on the ship, but eventually working his way up the ladder of command and finding contentment in the life about which he had dreamed. It’s pretty simple, straightforward stuff, seeing a man out of place in his life finding acceptance and purpose and even discovering that the artistic expression that he wanted to realize could only come from experience.

This is all rather nice, but what makes the story work is Weing’s excellent art, which uses a perfectly steady, confident line to bring the characters to life, setting them against beautifully detailed backgrounds that ground their exaggeratedly cartoony faces and physiques in a realistic world, then drop out at moments of high emotion or excitement for maximum impact. The unnamed protagonist is a wonder of expression, huge and awkward in most situations, with a smallish head standing atop a gigantic body, with big, hairy, three-fingered hands dwarfing anything he holds. It’s not until he spends years at sea that he finally grows into the role which he seemed born to play, eventually seeming at home as a larger-than-life seaman rather than an awkward, clumsy social misfit.

The book itself is a nicely-designed object, measuring in at a small five-by-nine inches, which ends up being the perfect size for the detail-packed panels, enough space to define the world without making it seem like an overwhelming display of stuff. Weing even manages a bit of subtle reader identification with his main character; holding the little book in ones hands makes one identify with the would-be poet as he does the same with his volume of disappointing poetry.

Overall, the experience of joining this large fellow on his life’s journey is a delight, if a fairly short one. It’s a small book in length as well as size, able to be read in a single sitting, but it’s good enough that it invites multiple journeys through its pages, allowing explorers to marvel at the fluid movement of the characters, the chaos of an inter-ship battle, the choppy waves and calm harbors, the joys of a life lived and savored.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grinding the AX: Too much to take in all at once

I may be late to most of the discussion that has occurred around Top Shelf's AX anthology of "alternative manga" (notably the great tweet-fest that happened back in September, which I would have loved to participate in if I had gotten to the book by then), but it's still something that begs to be written about, even if just to point out all the neat stuff contained within.  I'm finding it too overwhelming to do all at once though, so it looks like this will be the first of several posts, covering a few stories at a time.  Take that, coherent structure!

"The Watcher"
By Osamu Kanno

This first story certainly kicks things off with the weirdness, seeing a couple watching from their house as a drunk/homeless guy with a knife stuck in his head gets pissed on by a dog.  She then proceeds to strip naked and dance while the man acts as an announcer, or something.  It's kind of hard to tell, since the art, which might be "bad-good" or just plain bad, consists mostly of their oversized heads wobbling atop stiff bodies as they stand around and don't do anything.  There's probably some sort of message here about Japanese society and people's tendency to ignore the bad things going on in the world in favor of their own dumb interests, but it's just strange and kind of gross, without being very appealing.  Not the best way to start off this anthology, but luckily, things get better pretty much immediately.

"Love's Bride"
By Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Now this is more like it.  Tatsumi has kind of become the leading art-manga personality on this side of the Pacific, so a collection like this wouldn't be complete without him.  This story is kind of typical for him, if a bit less bleak than he can get, seeing a guy heartbroken after a breakup, with the only comfort being his weird relationship with a monkey in the local zoo.  The usual inability to communicate leads to some awkwardness and a humorously profane implied ending, with the best scene being the one where the guy tries to show his feelings for his girlfriend by imitating the monkey's mating call:

Like most Tatsumi, this can be really depressing stuff if you let it, all about the grind of modern life (or Modern Times, a reference seen in the guy working in a factory filled with gears) reducing people to unhappiness and isolation, our very progress de-evolving us back into animals.  But really, it's a funny bit of deadpan humor, with our hero finding happiness in the only person who will accept him, who just happens to be non-human.  Heartwarming!

"Conch of the Sky"
By Imiri Sakabashira

And we're back to the weird and surreal.  This seems to be a dream scene (or possibly a drug trip) in which a narrator describes people aging, nightmares and tentacles infecting the denizens of a house, a train running through different parts of his body, and people and creatures running around in chaos, all illustrated with plenty of strange imagery surrounded by lots of black.  There's some pretty striking stuff going on here, like an opening image of, well, read the caption:

Or a train emerging from a tunnel of guts and innards, or monsters intermingling with people and modern technology, or, you know, any panel in the story.  There seems to be a feeling of anger at old people, perhaps showing an antipathy toward an older generation, or just authority in general, but it's mostly just a bunch of strangeness that is, nonetheless, kind of arresting in its unique freakiness.  These early stories seem to be setting the mood for the bizarre, along with the somewhat mundane.  It's apparent that this anthology can contain all manner of stories; you never know what's going to come next.

"Rooftop Elegy"
By Takao Kawasaki

See, here's something completely different.  This one sees two hapless fellows stumble upon one another on a rooftop, one being a suicidal salaryman and the other a Golgo-13-style hitman.  When the latter indicates that he'll kill the former, he suddenly gains a new appreciation for life.  But there are several more twists and turns to be had in a short space, such that it all seems like a parody of hard-boiled tough-guy stories, with the art that combines shadowed realism with awkward proportions, wacky faces, and goofy poses only exacerbating this feeling.  Whether this was meant to be the case, or if it is just a bit of off-kilter badassery crammed into a few pages, it's pretty entertaining stuff.  And, you know, there's the usual commentary about the meaningless of modern life and whatnot; that seems to be a developing theme here...

"Inside the Gourd"
By Ayako Akiyama

This one is kind of hard to parse, possibly being a magical-realist love story, or a fable of some sort, but it's interesting either way, and there's something romantic and poetic about the tale of a lonely guy who watches a caterpillar grow inside a gourd, seeing it as a girl growing up in a little house, and eventually being led to the actual house to meet the girl he had been viewing.  What does it mean? Anything?  Or is it just a neat little cyclical tale of love (and voyeurism)?  One suspects that it might be another comment about the inability to connect to people, forcing worried mothers to rely on magical ends to find wives for their sons, but it's a pretty gentle version of that trope, rather than a savage satire.  I'll keep an eye out for the Disney movie.

By Shigehiro Okada

Ah, more about the disaffection caused by today's society, or something.  This one is still comedy though, with a weird guy wearing women's clothing (as an attempt to "embody how the existence of the self is lost", or possibly just due to mental illness) wandering the streets and being mistaken for a performance artist by another strangely-dressed young girl, who proceeds to seduce him and then totally get skeeved out when he spouts a bunch of philosophical nonsense afterward.  It's pretty funny, with some art that's reminiscent of mainstream manga style but just a little bit dirtier and grimier.  But damn, these stories about modern life grinding people down to nothing are starting to run together already; it's probably best to not read these all at once to keep from getting either suicidal or contemptuous of those whining Japanese.

"Push Pin Woman"
By Katsuo Kawai

This one might be my favorite story of the volume so far, or at least the one that has stuck in my mind through its simple way of combining symbolism and plot.  The story is about a woman whose boyfriend left her for someone else, so to punish him, she pushes a series of push pins into his back, eventually making it look "like the scales of a beautiful snake".

He takes it, saying that the pain is "nothing compared to how I've hurt you", and then he leaves, his new lover removing the pins and leaving them scattered across the space between them, preventing the push pin woman from ever trying to reconnect with him.  I don't know why this resonates with me, but I love the way the plot is presented as if it is a real incident, but everything is symbolic, even her symbol of the push pins.  He may regret hurting her, but his new love can ease the pain, and that same purposely-inflicted lesson is what prevents the push pin woman from trying to win him back.  That's all there is to it, but it's so exquisitely simple (due, in large part, to the thin-lined, backgroundless art) that it becomes sort of profound.  To those of us who are easily impressed, anyway.

"A Broken Soul"
By Nishioka Brosis

I don't mean to be a broken record, but this certainly seems like another "modern life is soulless" sort of story, about a guy whose soul has broken, leading him to install a crank in his head as some sort of fix.  It doesn't make much sense, although the point seems to be that even though he is fundamentally damaged, he continues with his life, going through the motions as if nothing is different, and he continues to do so without any change after he has been "fixed".  You know the routine by now, right?  Eat, work, fuck, repeat, life is meaninless, etc.  There's not really anything new to say here, but the art is pretty fascinating, long, thin-limbed people holding the same poses, defined by stippled textures.  It might not be an interesting message, but it looks quite pretty.

"Into Darkness"
By Takato Yamamoto

And we're back to the "freaky dreamscape" template of story, this one seeming to be an erotic-grotesque thing about a young woman being tied up and possibly raped, or at least fantasizing about it happening to her. But the thing that sets it apart is the art, which consists of intensely-detailed swirls of mossily organic, slimy  imagery, demon faces and skulls peeking out from amidst the chaotic tendrils caressing her body, flowers and symbols of life mixing with death and decay, all wrapping around the core of orgasmic ecstasy.  Yikes.  Like a lot of this sort of story, I don't know what it means, but it's pretty amazing to behold, and it certainly leaves an impression.


And that's it for this session.  Back for more soon, hopefully.  Like I said, this is too much to handle in one go, so we'll see how much I can process for next time.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Weathercraft: Uh, wha?

By Jim Woodring

I must say, I’ve never understood Jim Woodring’s “Frank” comics, although I’m also not sure there’s much to understand, since they seem to be operating on a visceral level, presenting constant surreal, dreamlike imagery tinged with unsettling grotesquerie, seemingly wrenched from Woodring’s subconscious and onto the page without much thought as to what they are supposed to represent, if anything. This graphic novel certainly seems to invite interpretation, however, containing a narrative of suffering and discovery, but one does wonder if it is all an elaborate joke by Woodring, an attempt to show off a lot of weirdness and see how people try to explain it. If so, it’s a pretty great gag, and a really well-crafted one, from the flowery-worded jacket which introduces the characters to the slaved-over art that sumptuously details the phantasmagorific world, conveying its story completely through wordless action.

That story is a disturbing one, sure to leave residue in some readers’ nightmares; it sees a human-pig hybrid creature named Manhog get repeatedly tormented, whether through the torture of more powerful beings or just the pain and misery of his horrible life in the muck, until he pulls a nasty creature out of his throat, and upon destroying it, is suddenly gifted with something akin to sentience, an ability to reason and see beauty in the world. This doesn’t necessarily keep him out of trouble, but he does try to direct his own destiny, even discovering that he can manipulate the fabric of reality itself. He doesn’t end up any happier in the end, whether because his reasoning mind ends up making things as bad for him as they were before, or because he was being manipulated by godlike tricksters and never had any real control at all. It all seems to be some sort of comment on humanity, the cruelty of life and capriciousness of nature, with man in all his intelligence being only one slight step up from beasts and never able to truly understand the world. Cheerful stuff!

It’s certainly compelling though, especially because of Woodring’s incredible control over his artwork, which gives everything a realistic weight and texture, no matter how strange. His precise line is so consistent that nothing seems out of place here, and even the most bizarre inventions of his psyche seem to fit in with the more recognizable imagery. It seems like a fully realized ecosystem, although one we could never hope to understand, populated with creepy monsters prone to casual cruelty. There is plenty to disturb the reader, however, such as a pair of feminine beings who seem wrong, sporting backward-bending knees, winglike protrusions, and distended faces; their actions stand out as especially evil and manipulative as they gleefully show Manhog a parade of horrors, including scenes from what appears to be the “real” world that are, for him, the most disturbing sight of all.

So, does it all mean anything? Who knows? But it’s certainly a fascinating read, full of arresting images that seem like they are triggering some deep impulse in our lizard brains, and that’s a pretty significant achievement in itself. If nothing else, it’s often quite funny, as in a scene in which Manhog is bathing in a pond when a pair of what appear to be giant frogs walk up, open their mouths wide, pull out harps, and play a tune, encouraging him to sing along. If you can accept that as something entertaining and play along with its dreamlike logic, you should be able to enjoy the book at the very least, and maybe you’ll even feel like you get something out of it. I know I did, and even if it was just confusion, it was worth it.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

The Playwright: Oh, to be an aging, celibate, wallflower

Sorry to anybody who cares, but life has been crazy as of late.  I hope to have more new reviews up soon, but for now, I've got several that I wrote a couple months ago to be published elsewhere that did not end up being used, so I'll be posting them over the next couple weeks.  Enjoy:

The Playwright
By Eddie Campbell and Daren White

So, you want some literary comics? Well, this is your lucky day, since this new Eddie Campbell graphic novel is like the comics version of a Philip Roth novel, all about a boring middle-aged writer and his sexual hangups. That should get The New Yorker’s attention! But don’t despair, it’s not a stodgy attempt to win a Pulitzer, it’s an Eddie Campbell comic, which means plenty of striking imagery, some very enjoyable wordplay (assisted by Daren White, who also worked with Campbell on Batman: The Order of Beasts), and some interesting use of comics to make a mostly internal story lively and fun.

And yes, this is a very inwardly-focused story, taking place almost entirely inside the eponymous character’s head, with captions hovering over almost every panel detailing his thoughts, desires, worries, and fantasies, although they are related in the third person, providing some remove from the intimate details and making it less of a confessional and more of an examination of a subject. But it’s far from dryly analytical, instead painting a very human portrait of a flawed, lonely man who can’t help but constantly think of sex, when all he really wants is somebody to share his life with. He’s intelligent, and he’s managed to pour all his hang-ups and difficulties with relationships (especially his family) into his art, ending up successful and recognized, but still unhappy. He might be kind of pathetic, addicted to internet pornography, imagining every woman he sees naked (yet judging them for their imperfections, though he isn’t exactly an Adonis), and being too timid to form a bond with anyone outside of a obligatory interaction (his social life consists of hanging out at a local bar so he can imagine himself part of the crowd that comes in to watch soccer).

In anyone else’s hands, this would be a depressingly sad story of an achingly unhappy man, but Campbell manages to use just the right tone, making the flights of fancy funny and relatable and exaggerating the sexual obsessions to a degree that they seem kind of ridiculously recognizable rather than horrifying. The art varies from lusciously smooth curves depicting the fantasies, to harsh scratchiness when concentrating on the playwright’s awkwardness, always exhibiting a wonderful grasp of posture and fluid movement. The Campbellian details and flourishes are all here, but they fit within the structure of the narrative, contained within the regular panels marching steadily across the landscape-oriented pages.

While the potential is there for this to be a navel-gazing exercise straining for acceptability from the literary establishment, it’s anything but, full of live and spirit, recognizable in its exploration of human foibles and the difficulty of forming meaningful human relationships. One must exit one’s safety zone in order to make contact with another, and while that’s a big step, it’s a worthwhile one. That such a notion can be communicated so subtly, movingly, and entertainingly is a testament to Eddie Campbell’s skill. He’s a keeper.

Friday, November 19, 2010

The Boys: This is no fun, but it's like, real, man

Motion comics links:  I'm not usually interested in motion comics, which tend to be cheesy bits of limited animation with poor voice work, falling in between the two mediums and utilizing none of the strengths of either, making for the worst of both worlds.  But this one is interesting: Dean Haspiel's "Sex Planet", which retains the word balloons while adding Haspiel's own voice and adding a little bit of interest in the motion of graphical elements.  Still not as good as the comic, but actually not terrible.

For an example of the other kind of motion comics, you can watch a 40-minute-long adaptation of the first volume of Dan Hipp's Gyakushu on Hulu (!).  I wouldn't normally recommend it, but any exposure for that awesome series is worth pointing out.  Hipp has an interesting blog post about it, where he notes that he didn't really have anything to do with the adaptation, but the real notable news is that Tokyopop has finally made the third and final volume of the series available, if only through print-on-demand.  I know I'll be springing for it.

The Boys, volume 7: The Innocents
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Darick Robertson, John McCrea, and Russ Braun

Well, this is certainly an unpleasant read.  It's purposely so, however, an impressive bit of long-term plotting and characterization on Garth Ennis' part, the inevitable conclusion (but hopefully not the final one) of what seemed like silly poor-taste jokes at the outset of the series.  That's right, I'm not talking about the rampant rape, murder, baby-eating, and pedophilia that the super-characters in this series often get up to, but the dissolution of Wee Hughie and Annie January's relationship, which inevitably resulted from choices made and damages done at the very beginning of the series, then percolated under their every interaction up until the climax of this volume, in which they exploded to the surface with devastating results.  It's horrifyingly ugly to watch, like being present for a nasty fight between married friends and trying to look the other way while they air their dirty laundry in public.  That makes it a testament to Ennis' facility with characterization, as he turned what started out as mostly comedic bits of introduction to the world of the comic (that is, the accidental death of Hughie's girlfriend as some superheroic collateral damage, and Starlight's sexual-favor-requiring initiation into the world's premier super-team) and then explored their consequences, throwing the characters together and letting them develop a realistic relationship that stood out through its depth of emotion (as well as being one of the few bits of actual positivity in the series) then demonstrating the pain caused by hurtful secrets, tearing them apart in a scene that is painfully realistic in its depiction of the ugly things that emotionally injured people can do to each other simply through their words.

That's the real power of this series: the realization that the awfulness depicted throughout has consequences.  The horrible events that constantly occur aren't just there for jokes and shock value, but to show how the depravities of society can work their way into everything, polluting the best things about us and ruining everything.  It's a broken world we live in, and while Ennis exaggerates it by clothing it in spandex, horrible things still happen outside our windows, and it affects us all.  Maybe he can manage to bring things back around to some sort of happy ending, but it's looking less and less likely, and thus more and more like the real world.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

I guess this is what has been consuming my attention lately...

I had a blast reading MAD's Greatest Artists: Sergio Aragones - Five Decades of His Finest Works, but while it's a great book, full of hilarious cartooning and thousands of densely-packed gags, my obsessions run specific, so I was looking for any Groo appearances that I could find.  And lo and behold, here are some (but probably not all) of them:

Here's the first appearance that I found, from a piece about how the hippies from the 60s had grown up to be yuppies in the 80s, and this fellow is showing off some fashion that's definitely in poor taste.  The Groo crew started early with the self-deprecating jokes.

This  one is from "A MAD Peek Behind the Scenes at a Terrorist Training Camp" (times have changed since the 80s, haven't they?)

Later, "A MAD Peek Behind the Scenes at a Comic Book Convention" not only sees Sergio drawing his creation (and being ignored in favor of a woman dressed as a jungle chick):

But also people cosplaying as Chakaal:

And Sage:

This bit of background from "The MAD People Watcher's Guide to a Shopping Mall at Christmas" didn't scan well, due to being right in the center of the page, but I had to share it:


It's a "Groo's Cheese Dip" shop!

This fellow helping hold up the title of "MAD's Handy Clues, Hints, and Tipoffs that You're Really, Unquestionably, Without a Doubt Stupid" apparently doesn't take very good care of his comics.

Here's Groo eating in a basic training mess hall.

Here, he's a popular bit of tattoo art.

And here he figures in an evolved fish's visions of the world to come.

This detail from the intricate cover of MAD Super Special #62 sees Sergio exhausted while drawing Groo (and other stuff), and also sporting a huge moustache that makes up part of Alfred E. Neuman's jawline.

A Groo delivery truck (along with a Magnor one!) apparently caused this huge pileup in the title of "A MAD Look at Cars).

And it looks like kids enjoy Groo-themed pinball.

In later years, Groo's appearances seem to have dwindled to occasional copies of the comics, such as in the window of this comic shop:

Or on the field at this chaotic Super Bowl scene, for some reason:

Or even on Sergio's drawing board:

Or at a garage sale he's holding:

I don't think that silly mendicant will ever go away, and I'll be happy every time I glimpse him lurking in the corner of a Sergio-drawn scene.  Long live Groo!