Thursday, December 29, 2011

Webcomics Shoutout: Curio

Since posting has been light lately (insert standard excuses here), here's an attempt to get the writerly juices flowing:

By Mai K. Nguyen
Published online

It's always impressive to see the quality comics that are posted online for free reading, making for a great avenue to discover new talent. Mai K. Nguyen appears to be one such undiscovered gem, if the pages that have been published of her comic Curio so far are any indication of what she can do. With fewer than two chapters of what could stretch into a long-form masterpiece posted so far, she has already established a likable character, run her through an emotional wringer, and nudged her into a fantastical world full of gorgeously-designed supernatural detail.

It's beautiful work, seeing an almost-ten-year-old girl named Vivi struggling with the ramifications of her mother's sickness, frustrated that nobody believes she is old enough to handle the truth of the situation, and desperate to regain a gift which her mother had just implored her not to lose, thrust suddenly into one of those fantastical haunted houses which are bigger on the inside than the outside and granted mystical knowledge and a quest to regain not only her own property, but the soul of a friendly ghost, and probably also defeat an evil wizard of some sort. It's fast moving stuff, but Nguyen makes it work beautifully with her clear-lined designs and gorgeous coloring, lending an appealing energy to the story that spurs one to keep on clicking to see what's coming next.

Her character design is something special too; Vivi is a marvel of expression and childlike vulnerability, her thin legs and rosy-cheeked face protruding from a bulky sweater and scarf, unkempt hair topping her frame like a cute mop, large eyes and mouth conveying sadness, fear, anger, and determination as only a kid can.


The story is only just getting started, with Nguyen hinting at much fantastical adventure to come, but with this beginning, there is every reason to expect a satisfying romp that doesn't spare the emotion. I can't wait to read more.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

An old-school comics crossover

Reading the first volume of Fantagraphics' Mickey Mouse collections, I came across this strip, which featured what appears to be a cameo from a familiar doggie policeman (click to enlarge):

Is it just me, or does that look a whole lot like Krazy Kat's Offissa Pupp?

It's entirely possible that this is a coincidence; maybe this is a generic "cop" outfit and Mickey's Floyd Gottfredson just drew it on a dog. But I'd like to think he was giving Krazy's George Herriman a shout-out, having two stars cross paths briefly, just for fun.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Drops of God: Some dudes just don't shake sufficiently

The Drops of God, Volume 1
Written by Tadashi Agi
Art by Shu Okimoto
Published by Vertical

It's pretty impressive how well manga series are able to take seemingly mundane activities and transform them into emotional, revelatory experiences for characters, and not just in an amusingly exaggerated manner either. This sort of thing occurs all across the spectrum of subject matter, from sports to cooking to most any corner of the human experience (and beyond, expanding to include fictional pursuits like monster collecting or rocket skating), prompting scene after scene of one character explaining the intricacies of, say, internal medicine to a novice, who exclaims excitedly about how they never realized how amazing the subject of note could be, but while it might be something of a cliche, it rarely gets old. No, when done well (which is more often than not, at least based on what has managed to cross the Pacific), these scenes manage to believably convey passion, not just from the experienced person who wishes to pass on their knowledge, but also the novice who is beginning to see a whole new world open up before them. There's something about the earnestness on display and the participants' exaggerated reactions (which can vary from a surprised interest to a full-on freakout, depending on the tone of the series) that sucks the reader right in, not only entertaining them with formula-disguising stories, but often also educating them and getting them as interested in the subject as the characters. It's quite the feat, especially considering how often it is replicated.

The subject at hand in this particular series, which has been much discussed over the past few years and is finally seeing an English-language release, is wine, which is exactly the sort of field that features multitudes of arcane knowledge that can seem impenetrable to outsiders and a insular passion among its proponents, as well as an aura of sophistication that creates a barrier for entry to the layman; in short, it's perfect for a series in which a character discovers a new world of experiences to savor. Here, that entry-level individual is Shizuku, the son of a famous wine critic who stands to inherit his father's vast collection of vintages if only he can identify twelve great wines from throughout the world and one that rises above them all, the eponymous "Drops of God". However, while his father knew as much about wine as anyone on Earth, at the beginning of the series, Shizuku has never even tasted the stuff, his father having put him through unconventional training (tasting things like pencils and belts, learning to decant wine perfectly) that gave him superhuman senses of taste and smell but left him with no actual knowledge about wine whatsoever. This leaves him completely unprepared to enter the vast world of wine-drinking, so he teams up with Miyabi, an apprentice sommelier who has just enough knowledge about wine to be amazed at how quickly Shizuku grasps the concepts, and how he can identify and compare vintages with one taste or smell.

That's a pretty good basic foundation for a series, and the creators throw in plenty of other complications to keep things interesting, like a rival for the inheritance who is a talented wine critic in his own right, Shizuku being assigned to the wine division of the beer company he works for, and drama involving various restaurants and wine-sellers that the characters get involved with. But at its basic level, the series is all about the joy of drinking wine, and it manages to convey that incredibly well through scenes in which the tastes provoke visions for Shizuku and others, as if drinking the wine is a trigger for an extrasensory experience:

It's a little goofy, but as a way to demonstrate an enrapturing experience, it's surprisingly effective, especially  because of the interesting pencilled style of the images, a unique look for a mainstream manga like this. It also works as a way to visualize the amazing abilities of Shizuku, who, as a standard manga protagonist, is constantly blowing everyone's mind with his wine-tasting skills. Interestingly, he's not the expected arrogant, hotheaded jerk that so often fills this role, but simply a young man with some father issues who finally finds a door into the world that he grew up just outside of. He starts out hesitantly, but once he takes his first taste of wine, he's hooked, eager to learn more, and the reader gets sucked in alongside him, ready to accompany him on this journey and find out as much as possible about the subject. It's an entertaining series, full of interesting characters and plenty of knowledge (expect to learn more about the grades of French vineyards that you ever thought possible) that is conveyed not dryly, like a textbook, but organically as part of a story. And a fun one at that, with a continuing quest that will take years to finish and a classic manga competition between gifted rivals. There's plenty to enjoy here, and if one follows the advice of the characters and seeks out the wines discussed, there's plenty more to experience outside of the book as well. That's a value-add if there ever was one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Love and Rockets: How is it possible that Jaime keeps getting better?

Love and Rockets: New Stories #4
By Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez
Published by Fantagraphics

There's one beautiful, affecting page in the Jaime half of this latest issue/volume of Love and Rockets, seeing a morbidly obese woman reflecting on her marriage as her husband returns home, recalling the ups and downs of their relationship and how he fell out of love with him and then back in, all without letting him know about her inner emotional turmoil. It's absolutely lovely, and even tear-jerking, contrasting a person's silent, impenetrable exterior with the multitudes contained within and suggesting a fascinating life story briefly glimpsed in single panels, as if we're peeking through windows and guessing at everything that is going on. What's even more incredible is that this is the first page of the book, a tossed-off aside to Jaime's main story, showing the full extent of the world that exists all around the main characters. That's the level of skill he's working with here, and it's an excellent indicator of what is to come in the rest of "The Love Bunglers", which concludes here to powerful, resonant affect.

The finale of the story Jaime has been telling over the past couple of annual issues is a moment of bravura comics storytelling, but the buildup to it in the opening portions of this issue is pretty great a well, the kind of "hangout" comics that he has been doing for years (decades, really). We see the characters living their lives, with Maggie planning to open a garage, Ray pledging to provide the venture's startup money as an excuse to get close to her, Angel having some romantic escapades before leaving for college, and other characters orbiting around the edges of the story, all portrayed in a lively manner that makes their down-to-earth activities enjoyable and attention-grabbing, offering readers an experience akin to spending time with friends. It's what one expects to see when reading Love and Rockets, and Jaime has been doing it so consistently for so long that his excellence has become expected, the deft characterization and art that captures the movements and rhythms of life with just a touch of cartoony exaggeration transformed into a ho-hum normalcy. It's the curse of familiarity, but luckily, the greatness is still there when you stop to look at it. My favorite aspect is the flourishes of expressive body language that the characters display, like Maggie changing her clothes while making a phone call:

Or Angel bending over to plant a kiss on the object of her affection:

There's a flashback chapter similar to last year's "Browntown" story, although not nearly as devastating, in which a friend of Maggie's relates what happened when the Chascarillos returned to Hoppers after the events of that story, with her uncomprehendingly trying to pick up her friendship with Maggie where they left off without understanding the cause of the emotional turmoil Maggie and her family are going through. It's as nicely done as everything else, every image narrated in a believably pre-teen voice, concerned with the affairs of adolescents, puttering along with a nice, amiable rhythm before receiving its own abruptly tragic ending. It's very effective in what it does, quickly establishing its characters at a specific point in their lives and illuminating another heretofore-unknown area of Maggie's past.

Ah, but as nice as these stories are, they all seem to be prelude to the dazzlingly virtuosic end of this chapter in the Locas saga, which breaks format from the usual straightforward storytelling to engage in some formal play before taking some jarring jumps forward in time to see Maggie and Ray's relationship play out over several years. It starts with a scene in which Maggie and Ray separately realize they need to be together, with a page of mirrored panels that sees them rushing toward a middle ground. The imagery indicates that they are already most of the way there, their surroundings continuing off the panels as if their worlds are already blending together, the characters themselves steadily moving closer and closer together, until Ray is pulled off course in the last panel with what turns out to be a devastating distraction:

This is then followed up by a two-page spread that sees a number of individual moments from throughout the characters' lives (and also throughout the course of the series; see here for annotations), each panel offering one character's view of the other, with the corresponding reverse view situated on the opposite side of the spread. It's a beautifully moving collection of memories, a lifetime of shared moments piling together and forming a sort of jigsaw puzzle image, or at least a portion of a whole that still seems to fit together seamlessly. And then Jaime plunges forward with abandon into the future, giving readers short glimpses of everything that transpires in the characters' relationship, but still making each moment satisfying and heartfelt. It's a leap headfirst into what seems at first to be a sad life apart before Maggie and Ray inevitably fall back into each other's orbit, capping things off with an ending of sorts, as least for now. This could signal an end to the current era of Locas stories, but these characters are less figures of Jaime's imagination than real people alive in the minds of readers everywhere at this point, and even if another story featuring them never appears, we can rest assured that they will continue to live on, somewhere, sometime.

Oh yes, there are also some stories by Gilbert in this volume, but compared to the excellence on display in Jaime's milieu, they're pretty negligible. Killer and Fritz co-star in a vampire movie that's all about youthful attitudes toward the future or peer pressure or something, and then Fritz meets with a male friend (ex-lover?) for an afternoon of conversation that is pointedly, purposefully meaningless, dancing around any subject of substance and sticking to philosophical absurdities, refusing any questioning of themselves or each other, perhaps as an attempt to enjoy each other's company without getting too involved. Both stories are nice enough, the vampire thing being a decent example of the recurring "B-movies" that Gilbert has been returning to in recent years, and the conversation scene having a nicely playful air, but it all ends up being pretty lightweight in comparison to the fantastic artwork and storytelling on display in the other half of the volume. Hopefully some brotherly competition will spur Gilbert to take things up to another level, because as of 2011, Jaime is handily winning the "Best Hernandez" competition.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Comics is a never-satisfied mistress

I find myself unable to muster any sort of comprehensive reflection, but I did wish to note that as of yesterday, this blog is now five years old, which is a surprisingly long amount of time for any sort of endeavor, especially in this fast-moving, attention-starved modern world. Thanks to anyone who reads for stopping by and paying me some attention; I really do appreciate it. It's been a good time, and if I can ever get my act together to post some more, it will continue to be so for some time, barring the ever-approaching collapse of society. Until then, regards, and hopefully we will be in communication again soon.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Holy Terror: In which comic books do not reflect reality

Holy Terror
By Frank Miller
Published by Legendary Comics

The general consensus in the past few years seems to be that Frank Miller has lost his mind, and this book could be seen as evidence in support of that notion, if one is so inclined, what with its apparent view of Al-Qaeda as a highly-organized terrorist network capable of mounting assaults on American cities with missiles, fighter jets, and nuclear bombs constructed in bizarre underground catacombs. It's pretty hard to take it seriously though, even as the propaganda Miller has described it as; he might have opinions about the "war on terror", but if his concept of the terrorist threat is anything like he presents it here, he may well be as crazy as everyone says he is. As a reworked Batman comic in which stand-ins for the Dark Knight and Catwoman fight a convoluted Islamic terrorist plot  (bombs filled with nails and razor blades, followed by jets shooting down a stand-in for the Statue of Liberty, and finally a nuclear bomb that would seemingly render all the other attacks moot) that all takes place over one night, it's certainly an over-the-top spectacle, full of sex and violence, hard-boiled, Miller-style narration, and increasingly messy artwork that speaks of either a dedication to an aesthetic of purposeful ugliness or just plain laziness.

Whatever the case, it's a weird-ass comic, lurching from a protracted scene in which The Fixer (not-Batman) chases Natalie Stack (not-Catwoman) across some rooftops, with the pair fighting violently and then making out for several pages, to a series of explosions that are hard to make out, to scene after scene of the pair attacking and brutally killing the resourceful bad guys and torturing the survivors for information, and then rushing to a finale in which they have to stop a nuclear bomb from being detonated, all set to a badass tone, exactly the tough-guy, "not in my city" swagger one would expect from Miller, yet occasionally interrupted for mourning of the dead and half-hearted political commentary. As propaganda, who knows if it's effective, since anyone with a grasp on reality will roll their eyes at the idea that this is meant to be a reflection of real life. It could be seen as an attack on the entire religion of Islam, rather than the actions of some fringe extremists, but aside from the opening quote of "If you meet the infidel, kill the infidel" attributed to Mohammed, these terrorists are mostly from Central Casting, bearded Middle Eastern types with either anger or terror on their faces, generic bad guys of the type that have started to be pointed out as offensive as Americans expand their horizons to realize that not all Arabs/Muslims/brown-skinned people are the religious fanatics seen in entertainments like this.

The one exception to this standard terrorist portrayal is a young woman who, in an odd scene, hangs out on the roof of a club in the rain, flirts with a young man, takes what she says is her first drink of beer, then proceeds inside to the dance floor and blows herself up. The purpose of this scene is unclear; perhaps it's a statement about the way terrorists rob young people of their futures through their religious fanaticism? It's a bit of a departure from the propagandistic attitude of the rest of the book's terrorists, and it seems like a poorly-realized attempt to add some depth to the story's purposely dimensionless conflict. It does give Miller a chance to draw the girl's ass in a tight skirt though, and he uses some interestingly gestural art to depict her scene of rainy reflection, ink smeared into the shape of a figure that almost has to be unconsciously discerned:

That sort of thing is probably the main appeal of this book; Miller does some pretty amazingly expressive stuff here, including setting that opening chase in a rainstorm that is depicted on the page as slashing lines of ink that seem gouged into the pages, or using groups of clumped-together fingerprints to depict explosions. It's often quite gorgeous, with hard-hitting violence and nice, noirish shadows, but then it will be followed by oddly shaky figurework, pages full of faces that look like they were scrawled on napkins, and some really awkward images of the main characters swinging through the air and contorting themselves into odd positions:

Miller also takes pains to point out the human cost of the terrorist attacks, filling several pages with grids of people's faces, presumably meant to be portraits of the victims, and then gradually fading them out until reaching a striking two-page spread consisting entirely of blank panels. That works well enough as a way to emphasize the death toll of the imaginary bombing spree, but the odd thing is that it is repeated when our heroes tear through a group of terrorists, the bad guys' faces all joining their targets in little inset panels surrounding the action:

What could be the purpose of this? If this is a work of propaganda, why emphasize that this enemy is just as human as the "good guys"? It seems to counteract Miller's purpose of portraying them as faceless, evil monsters, but maybe he's trying to emphasize that they are defeatable, and in the end, just as dead as those they chose to terrorize. It weakens the popcorn aspect of the book, and raises the ugly possibility that Miller doesn't care how human the enemy is, he still considers them worthy of torture and murder. Like much of the rest of the book, it's a weird choice.

And what of the political caricature which pops up on occasion? Several pages consist of panels depicting political figures (Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Nancy Pelosi, Kim Jong Il, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and plenty others) making speeches (or just making faces), interspersed with either scenes of terrorists preparing for battle or Arabic leaders similarly shouting into microphones. What is the purpose of these scenes? Is Miller trying to point out the uselessness of politics when facing a real (imaginary) threat? He might be trying to emphasize the heroism of the soldiers, the people on the ground doing the actual fighting, but that's kind of undermined by having them be pretty useless here, the evil plot only able to be countered by a lawless vigilante.

In the end, this book is kind of a mess, more of a statement on the state of Miller's mind than anything else, and said portrait is neither consistent nor flattering. Tellingly, the final page sees a police official (the Commissioner Gordon stand-in) sitting in his home, irrevocably changed by the events of the story, terrified for life by the violent actions of the enemy (and probably the good guys too, really). Is this Miller's thesis statement, his cry for help to a world that he no longer recognizes? If that's the real propaganda, that everyone should be forever afraid of a shapeless, faceless, all-powerful enemy that can never be defeated, or even comprehended, it's a pretty sad one, for anyone who chooses to believe it, but especially for its creator.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Minicomics, and others not so mini

So...Buttons #4
Written by Jonathan Baylis
Art by David Beyer, Jr., Thomas Boatwright, Fred Hembeck, Eric Kim, T.J. Kirsch, Tim Ogline, Paul Salvi, Noah Van Sciver, and Paul Westover

If you've read any of the previous issues of Jonathan Baylis' minicomics series, you know what to expect with this one: autobiographical stories illustrated in a range of styles, possibly adhering to a theme of some sort. The theme for this issue is "movies", sort of, along with various somewhat-tangentially-related anecdotes. Baylis alternates between talking about his history and discussing movies and directors that he likes, touching on subjects like the New York Mets, origami, his time as a Marvel Comics intern, Jewish comedians, King Kong, Robert Redford, Sam Fuller, Jim Jarmusch, Dino DeLaurentiis, and OCD M&M eating, always lending a personal touch, as if he's having a conversation with the reader, a sense enhanced by his on-panel appearances. It certainly helps to have a number of talented artistic collaborators; regular series artists T.J. Kirsch and Thomas Boatwright bring a nice, cartoony familiarity to their particular subjects (candy, Star Trek, and Redford for the former, Kong, Jarmusch, and Alfred Hitchcock for the latter), while Fred Hembeck brings the Marvel Bullpen to life wonderfully, Noah Van Sciver gives New York sports fandom a nervous, jittery energy, and Eric Kim lends placid romanticism to the subject of origami. It's really nice work all around, another installment of good autobiographical comics in the Harvey Pekar mold. Baylis can probably keep doing this for quite a while to come, and he definitely should.

More More Mores
By Joey Jacks
Self-published; buy it from Quimby's

I always hate to get into a pointless "is this a comic or not" argument (even with myself), but it's hard not to at least address the issue with this minicomic/zine, which consists entirely of abstract drawings like the one on the cover, without any narrative linking them other than similarity in style. But whether or not it's worthy of the label of "sequential art", it's still pretty fascinating, all sorts of weird shapes smashed together to make whatever the reader/viewer wants to interpret it as. Are these topographical maps? Alien landscapes? Circuit diagrams? Inscrutable flowcharts? Who knows? The level of detail, which seems random, yet calculated, forming different configurations on every page, makes for page after page of examination, even if you have no idea what you're really looking for/at. There's little like it, which makes Joey Jacks a minicomicker to watch; I'd love to see what else he can do.

Coffee and Beer Money
By Becky Hawkins

Becky Hawkins seems to be operating more in the stereotypical minicomics mold than Joey Jacks, filling her pages with autobiographical tales and self-analysis, in an appealing, if not exactly groundbreaking, manner. This issue of her "French Toast Comix" series sees her enjoying karaoke with friends, having adventures while working on a cruise ship, and lamenting her interpersonal skills and relationship difficulties. It's engaging stuff, especially when she relates an art-based epiphany or considers her unflattering depiction of herself. The shifts in artistic style are also interesting, some pages drawn simplistically and sketchily, others using rougher linework, some experimenting with heavy shadows, some filling in nice background details; she seems to still be trying out different instruments and techniques from strip to strip, sometimes just jotting down a gag or observation, other times putting together multi-page anecdotes, working toward a consistent, natural personal style. I'll be sure to keep an eye out for more comics from her; it should be interesting to see how she develops.

By Nick Edwards
Published by Blank Slate Books

Blank Slate's Chalk Marks series seems to be a less-artsy answer to Fantagraphics' Ignatz line, taking the form of large-size pamphlets with high production values, but containing more populist types of stories, in the sci-fi, fantasy, kids' adventure, character-based drama, and autobio genres. This particular entry by Nick Edwards is pretty excellent, a great dose of wacky cartooniness that fills pages with detailed whimsy and beautiful designs. It follows a boy named Nigel and his talking dinosaur Brian on an archaeological adventure  involving aliens, communicable diseases, and evil lizard-men, and it's funny, exciting, and adventurous in its cool use of the comics page, with the tails of word balloons and discriptive insets snaking expressively toward their objects, panel layouts taking unique forms like a tunnel winding across a two-page spread, and trippy inter-dimensional weirdscapes that seem like a cross between Steve Ditko and Brandon Graham. I wasn't previously familiar with Edwards, but after this, I'll be on board for whatever I can find by him, whether it's more adventures in this world (which is primed for further exploration, featuring likable leads, an arch-villain, a Basil Exposition-like dispenser of missions, multiple layers of secret civilizations and dimensions, and a sense of anything-can-happen fun) or something completely new. I hope I don't have to wait too long.

Monster Christmas
By Lewis Trondheim
Published by Papercutz

Lewis Trondheim is kind of a sure thing when it comes to making entertaining kids' comics, and this is no exception. This one is the second in a series (although, oddly, it is being published in English before the first book, perhaps in order to be out by the titular holiday) starring what appears to be super-deformed versions of the bird-creatures Trondheim uses to depict himself and his family in his diary comics, along with a four-armed, three-legged, ten-mouthed monster that sprang to life from the children's drawings and became a sort of family pet. This one sees them take a ski vacation, on which they end up meeting Santa and getting caught in the middle of a chase between him and another, more ferocious monster. It's funny and lively, told entirely through images accompanied by past-tense narration by the children, who relate all the details with a mixture of childlike wonder and incomprehension. Trondheim captures that kid's-eye-view of the action really well, the kids commenting on everything as if it's fairly normal, treating the crazy events as only slightly outside the norm, since most everything is new and exciting to children. The actions of the parents is especially well-depicted through this filter, with their irritation, exasperation, exhaustion, and fear conveyed mostly through captioned descriptions like "Dad says that to save Santa we'd risk getting ripped to pieces and smashed by the monster and that it might be dangerous. We say, 'Oh...okay.' So everyone gets back in the car to continue the trip". It's all wacky, lively, insightful fun, another entry in the growing library of good Trondheim comics for all ages that are available in English. Here's hoping for many more to come.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Homeland Directive: This could be a movie on paper, but somebody went and elevated it

The Homeland Directive
Written by Robert Venditti
Art by Mike Huddleston
Published by Top Shelf

Is the conspiracy thriller a very common genre in comics? Probably not, at least in the United States branch of the medium, so it's nice to see something a bit different from the norm, a sort of mainstream action-movie style of story, playing on the current era of heightened security and invisibly invasive lack of privacy to generate a feeling of paranoia and make a bit of a political point about the accountability of those in positions of power. It's a pretty smart, plausible story, seeing a fanatical Director of Homeland Security kicking off a complicated scheme intended to strengthen American security by murdering a large number of its citizens, with a doctor for the Centers for Disease Control suddenly caught in the middle of the plot and trying to survive a sudden target on her back, but somehow still bring down the bad guys with the assistance of a trio of men from the FBI, the Secret Service, and the Bureau of Consumer Advocacy (the most dangerous government branch of all, apparently) who caught wind of what was happening and decided to team up to stop it, barely understanding its full scope themselves. It all ends up as a book-length series of tense conversations and confrontations, leading to an expected resolution that restores the status quo, while hinting that there may be some merit to the villain's schemes, a realization that the vast amount of information that exists for everyone makes those in power walk a fine line between privacy and security, ever-cognizant of the ethics behind their actions, since a momentary slip in the sense of what is and isn't allowable in the name of "protecting the country" can lead to disaster.

On the story level, the book works rather well, if it does end up with a bit more talk and a bit less action than a cinematic adaptation would probably feature. This might be an attempt at a movie deal (which writer Robert Venditti, who also penned The Surrogates, has experience with), but luckily, Mike Huddleston is too good of an artist to slap something generic onto the page in hopes of Hollywood lucre. He infuses the book with a sense of gritty realism, wonderfully delineating characters' expressions and body language with his brushy linework during the many dialogue scenes, and differentiating what could have been interchangeable Federal agents well, while realistically capturing Dr. Regan's confusion and fear as her life is suddenly turned upside down. Huddleston could probably make scene after scene of people talking lively and exciting using simple black and white art, but his color work here is especially exceptional, often sticking to a limited palette, but regularly shifting into expressive hues that add to scenes' mood excellently, and bursting into boldly eye-catching colors in scenes of action or violence. Or just when the tenor of a scene requires; when Regan is speaking at a conference just before being targeted, she is surrounded by garishly bright reds, blues, yellows, and oranges:

A scene in which she sits in a hotel room discussing her plight with the agents is more understated, but an intricate wallpaper design hangs in the background, emphasizing her disorientation:

It's an especially effective demonstration of a technique that seems to be gaining in popularity in comics these days (see also: Xombi, illustrated by Frazier Irving), with pages and individual panels often marked by a particular color scheme dependent on characters and locations, lending an immediately recognizable tone to each scene upon first glance:

In another great demonstration of artistic versatility, whenever the villainous Homeland Security Chief meets with the President (a faceless, unnamed version of Barack Obama), deep, moody shadows suddenly add layers of moral murkiness:

It's lovely work all around, although it starts to seem a bit rushed near the end of the book, as more and more backgrounds are composed of cut-out and pasted-together images of buildings:

This wouldn't be an issue, but its repetition, along with the obviousness of its artificiality, makes it stand out. But next to everything else surrounding it, it's hardly a dealbreaker.

As nice-looking as the book is (and it's really, really nice, some of the best coloring on a graphic novel this year), it doesn't quite rise above the level of escapist entertainment, even though it does feature something of a message. It's fast-moving, with a sense of danger and excitement, but never a full-on, white-knuckle, can't-put-it-down grip on the reader. It will probably make for a completely decent movie starring Naomi Watts or Nicole Kidman someday, but nothing that will inspire lines in front of theaters or multiple Oscar nominations. That's fine; moms and dads need something to read/watch too.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

24 Hour Comics Day 2011: Am I alive?













Thanks to Challengers Comics, the best comics store in Chicago, for putting on the event, and thanks to all the artist there for letting me use them as subjects. This is a crazy event, but it's one of those things I can say I did, I guess.

If you're interested in any of the mentioned artists, here is a collection of links:

Megan Ansbach
Ryan Browne
Don Cardenas
Sean Dove
Dan Glassberg
Tom Kelly
Dave Losso
Brian Mead
Christopher Mitten
Mike Norton
Chris Revekant
Alejandro Rosado
Luke Smarto
Chris Smits
Jim Thomas

(If I missed anyone or need to update any of those links, please let me know)

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

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

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

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

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

xxxHolic, volume 17
Published by Del Rey Manga

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

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

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

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

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

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