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.