9/30/2009

Small Press Expo 2009: Karen's Take



I've gone to SPX for the past three years, and while it sounds like a negative thing, I'm actually glad to say this has been the first time I wasn't totally overwhelmed as I stepped into the show room Saturday afternoon. I really can't shit on the spirit of SPX, because ultimately, what's so bad about a bunch of people doing what they love without the pressures of big industry to think about? I mean, there are certainly some things which come to mind, but I would never wish for SPX to cease.

What I mean is after coming to SPX several years in a row, seeing table after table of melty neon, screenprinted bicycles, and scribbled heartbreaks just doesn't have the same kick as it used to. The upside to that is after years of all those minis which initially caught my eye and finding that yeah, they're pretty cool but ultimately after one or two reads end up sitting in a pile on the bottom of my book shelf (because is there any accessible way to store a bunch of minis?) I don't feel like I want to/have to take that chance anymore. Partially because I feel like I know what I'm getting into with most of the subject matter and emotionally don't give a shit anymore, but also because I'm seeing many of the same things I've seen in years past AND it's like five bucks more than it used to be. I get the whole "It's the recession and we wanna make a profit, too" bit or whatever, but if mainstream comic readers are gonna shell out four dollars for twenty-two pages of content for their weeklies, how am I supposed to pay ten dollars for your ten page mini? I know it leads to touchy ground when concerning the value of art as an object, craft, time spent and whatever else you wanna talk about, but sometimes you just gotta be like, come on.

Coming from a standpoint of a little bit more discerning tastes, I found, as Sammy said, there were a lot more new ideas present at SPX this year. He mentions the book Remake, which I too think is a great signifier of seeing how artists and writers are applying different methods to tell their stories and create the worlds in which their characters live.

SPEAKING OF WHICH, one of the biggest bummers of SPX for me was being too big a baby to talk to Pendleton Ward, creator of the show Adventure Time who has also done some work on the equally awesome TV series The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. He wasn't an exhibitor but I saw him walking around the show room. His work as well is definitely in the same vein of the wacky/exciting/hilarious adventure-driven entertainment that kids are enjoying these days, and in a lot of ways I feel like is a return to type of stuff I enjoyed before too many things were just rip offs of rip offs and everyone was afraid of negatively influencing our young, impressionable minds.

Haul Highlights:


I had seen one of the panels that C.F. did for this floating around the internet about a month ago, so I was really psyched to get this and see what it was all about. I read a couple Simpsons comics and books when I was younger, so I thought it'd be awesome to see what these artists could do for them. There are shorter, one page gags as well as some longer stories, but there's really not a notably bad one in the bunch-- a difficult feat for most anthologies.


Think Bart the General times ten, only made by talented people. (If you haven't seen that, just skip to the 3 minute mark and watch to the end to get the idea.)


I had been waiting for Matt Furie's third installment of Boy's Club to come out since I finished reading the last one almost a year ago. Every issue perfectly captures that all too real absurdity of what happens when any group of friends live together and end up being way too comfortable and real with each other.


This is the first issue which is one long story, rather than the last two which are broken up into strips or shorter vignettes, and I have to say, I liked the chopped up format better. I think that sort of rapid fire, ADD quality suits his humor better because each punchline comes from out of nowhere, like say when someone taps you on the shoulder and then when you look there's a butt in your face. I'm also a huge fan of anything that uses internets humor beyond thinking it's awesome to make an ironic lolcat joke. It's no surprise then that "Feels good man" became a meme (nevermind that article, just check out the images), and that he's adopted putting on sunglasses as a way to make anything a million times funnier (PS: It does).


9/28/2009

Small Press Expo 2009: Sammy's Take


The 15th Annual Small Press Expo was this past weekend in Bethesda, MD, and with Comics popularity in mainstream media at an all time high, it’s both refreshing and disappointing to see what the new generation of creators are bringing us. The show--usually dominated by autobiographical comics and other typically "indie" books--had more Sci-Fi and other genre based talent than ever, but there was still a lot of the same stuff i've seen every year.

People are starting to break away from the archetypes of what "indie" comics are and coming into their own, it's inspiring to talk to someone like Frank Santoro and hear his actually radical ideas about where comics are going, and where they should be.

I went to a panel called "The New Action" featuring Mr. Santoro along with Kazimir Strzepek, Benjamin Marra, and Shawn Cheng about "action" comics and their place in the independent comics world as well as where the genre is going in comics as a whole. At a place dominated by sad-ass comics about exes and your parents dying, it's shocking to see comics creators that want to have fun, hopefully "indie" will start to mean "independent" again and not simply "everything but super heroes".

Here's the best of my SPX '09 haul:


Although it was a freebie, Philly Comix Jam's What Makes a Man Dress Up Like a Bat? is definitely worth mention. The newspaper style comic has a bunch of stories about Batman, none of which are anything we've seen before, or anything DC would ever publish. With the recent disappointment of Wednesday Comics, it is awesome to read something that uses the format well. Watch out for Philly.


More of a funny-book than super hero comic, Remake stars Max Guy, an Astro Boy/Inspector Gadget hybrid who, while a hero, doesn't really give a shit as long as he's having fun. Irresponsible and headstrong, Max Guy will straight up kill you for calling him a "gay robot", but is also too immature to let his roommate have a girlfriend. It appears kid friendly but is really a mature work about things a young super hero would do, like not understanding their powers or blowing stuff up for the hell of it.


Ross Campbell is best known for the chubby chasing Wet Moon series and Water Baby. His sci-fi mini epic Mountain Girl tells the legend of Iha-Naga of the North Mountains journey across Pangea, where Gods fight spirit animals and Iha-Naga fights them both. On a quest to kill the beaver god Wishpoosh, she meets, and eats, a spirit bear, using one of his rib bones to impale the giant beaver. Each of her victims becomes a meal, gaining their power with it's flesh. It's comics like this that make you miss old fantasy comics and Corben Heavy Metal stories.


After seeing the "New Action" panel, I had to check out Benjamin Marra's comics. Inspired by Miami Vice, 70's sexploitation, Italian action movies and explosions, Marra's Night Business is a no bullshit comic about two dudes who own a company that protects strippers from pimps and murderers. A masked man is running around killing off the sexiest exotic dancers in "The City", forcing partners Johnny and Steve to take action, patrolling the streets looking for "The Slasher". Marra's story could be construed as ironic, but it's far too honest for irony. When action of this kind was being produced for the big screen and television, comics were in outer space and revisiting The Hobbit.

We've caught glances of this seedy underworld in comics like Cloak and Dagger and some other super hero titles that take place in the city, usually using the "streets" as a lesson in reality. I've never read an entire series that's been dedicated to this strange era in action. With drug lords, dark alleys, guns and fast cars, Night Business feels like something you'd watch when you were 9 years old when you were supposed to be in bed. Did I mention Marra has a tattoo of Charles Bronson with the words "revenge" under it? Yea, his comic is that good too.

9/25/2009

Verve & Snap: Paul Pope's Escapo

John Ford kept coming to mind as I finally got the chance to read Paul Pope's Escapo because Pope's highly-sought-after, long out-of-print graphic novel (let's call it a graphic short story, or graphic novella though, it's more fitting) moves along with the same kind of iconic rarification of characters, images, and locales as John Ford's work. And just as importantly, like Ford's work, Escapo plays-out in sweeping, big-ass single-page panels and double-page spreads--the comics grammar equivalent of Ford's signature widescreen images--all wrapped around a deeply felt, melodramatic unrequited love plot.

"Ford has never been sufficiently appreciated for the verve and snap of his visual storytelling..."

That's a quote from Andrew Sarris' The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968, noting the critical focus on director John Ford's storytelling, melodrama, and supposed worker-bee film direction over his visual style and flair. Besides establishing my point that there's a distinctly Ford-like feeling and visual style in Escapo, I like that quote from Andrew Sarris because in many ways, Paul Pope's critical reception is the opposite of John Ford's: It's all about Pope's verve and snap. What that leaves out is the deep caves of feeling behind his deceptively developed characters, the rush of sex and love and fear careening through his characters, even if they sometimes seem to only be smoking and babbling on about this or that.

In Wednesday Comics, Adam Strange is a knowing icon, a handsome hard-ass, fighting through every strip with existential abandon. Everybody in 100% is squirming and just because Pope too looks and maybe seems to act like his characters, doesn't mean he can't do a kind of comics surgery on their psyches and make a comic about how damned lost and confused they all are (less than a year after September 11th, mind you and not long after another post-9-11 comic, Heavy Liquid). Speaking of Heavy Liquid, that upside-down, hazy single-page spread of "S" injecting the titular liquid is not only a brilliant illustrations (and the most perfect visualization of the feeling of opiates, maybe ever) but a stylistic flourish that makes events of the comic palpable. As Pope bragged, his Batman sweats, and bleeds, and all that...

What I'm saying is, there's emotions in Pope's work and that's easily forgotten or pushed to the side because he's sick with his pen and ink and tucks all this emotion in very sexy people doing very cool things. That said, Escapo is also arguably, Pope's most hit-you-in-the-gut direct piece of storytelling. It all builds to a devastating and then life-affirming climax and it's got all the cool shit you expect from a Paul Pope story.

Beginning with a strange, almost overture like beginning, illustrating the birth of Escapo in graphic detail--it is, in a sense Escapo's first "escape" through dangerous circumstances and parallels his (sorry) leaps and bounds through narrow, water-filled canals as a big-time circus performers (though not too big-time, an important detail) many years later--Escapo kicks-off on sensory overload. Dashes of ink, thick and thicker bounce across the pages, sometimes motion lines, sometimes the dialogue of a carnival barker, sometimes drops of sweat dripping from the increasingly-aware-of-his-mortality main character.

From there, it's very much that aforementioned "verve and snap" as Pope, in one of his awesomely laborious action sequences--it's about 19 pages--presents a stunt by Escapo, moment-to-moment, step-by-step, pausing a little over halfway through when Death shows up in a filling-with-water pipe/tube thing to tell Escapo his time's come. Escapo being an escape artist and all, bargains with Death (represented as a gangly skeleton who speaks like he's from a Bergman movie) and holds-off Death (and death of course) until his next stunt.

The moment's awesomely surreal but classicist too, a simple physical manifestation of the main character's fears, that becomes more powerful because it totally slows down the extended action sequence: From being chained up and elevated, to breaking free, to navigating his way through a grinder, to falling into a cage to battle a tiger, to some more grinders, to a tube of rushing water...to Death. And so yeah, it's a big, show-offy, unrestrained piece of narrative storytelling, but it's distinctly Ford-like in that it defines its character through action, physicality, and even, occupation.

But then Pope's story takes a fascinating turn, almost entirely inward, as every panel, page, and sequence of Escapo following the introductory stunt is tightly wrapped around Escapo's insular concerns. Namely, his own mortality and a his love for a tight-rope walker. The comic doesn't become any more wordy or less action-packed, but these two obsessions--love and death, core obsessions/themes for most art--flutter through every subsequent page. The next escape sequence is just as well-wrought, but it's now dominated by Escapo's sudden confrontation with death and so, he's second-guessing every move he makes, and thinking of everything that could/might go wrong. Pope, simply by hinting at the spectre of death and failure, mindfully removes that verve and snap from the action.

At the same time, there's Escapo's very old-school quasi-courting of the Tight-Rope Walker. Watching her perform, slackjawed, Escapo says, "She's the most beautiful girl in the whole world, I declare." A few scenes later, other circus performers mock Escapo for his heart-on-the-sleeve affection and the otherwise daring character shuffles away in silence. His friend and maybe manager--who bears a resemblance to a young Hemingway--scoffs at the others with a simple, declarative, "You guys are a buncha bastards." You can hear John Wayne uttering that line, the whole scene anchored in Ford's blend of mean, mean reality bumping up against starry-eyed romantic idealism and refusing to fully fall on either side of that binary.

Where the comic goes from there, I hesitate to explain in-detail, but Pope artfully weaves the realization of death of the first escape sequence through Escapo's romantic idealism and the two meet-up, appropriately under the circus tent. Apparently rejected by the Tight-Rope Walker and diving into a bizarre, hollow metal creature full of water, while chained-up, Escapo just kinda rests there in the water--like Benjamin in The Graduate, Herman in Rushmore--purposefully pushing the possibility of escape and in a sense, committing suicide. In a final burst of hard-assed reason, he thinks "Aw, she's not worth it" and bursts out of the creature, now unchained, to an adoring crowd. The Tight-Rope Walker, stiff upper lip, is on the verge of tears--why we don't totally know, it's a beautiful piece of ambiguity in the straight-forward tale--and Escapo says to himself "I'm alive..." and the story ends. A deeply moving, in-the-gut simple affirmation of life and living.

Now, why is this still out of print??

9/23/2009

Powerful Panels: Jack Kirby's Black Panther

Of course, we all know Jack Kirby as "the King of Comics" for his creation of much of the Marvel Universe and his wide breadth of more experimental work later on. He’s known for his furious work ethic and due to that the quality of his work can vary sometimes, especially late in his career. These variations can lead to big surprises--things that maybe wouldn't exist if Kirby was more consistent-- when, in the middle of a decent Black Panther comic, you get an engaging and deepy emotional page of Black Panther crawling for his life through the desert.

This three-issue arc’s main thrust consists of a monster running amok in the Black Panther’s kingdom, Wakanda. The Black Panther is off doing his own thing when his plane is hijacked and crash lands in the desert on his way home. The page grabs you at first because it’s such a contrast to what’s going on in the main monster storyline. Here the Black Panther isn’t battling a supervillain or confronting political issues, like in many comics of the time, but rather the real-life effects of nature and a dying body.

The tone of the page, and especially the above panel, parallels Morrison’s recent run on All-Star Superman. Here is a superhero on his dying breath struggling mentally to keep hope alive. Kirby and colorist Irene Varnitoff show the Black Panther’s face as a man on the brink of death by severe dehydration. It’s the same slow death as Superman, where the mind has time to think about what’s coming. Both heroes refuse to accept defeat as Superman inspires hope in those around him in his final days, and Black Panther talks about hope similarly--as the vital component to life. Each hero's ultimate strength come from a spirit that “yields no grounds to the demons of darkness.”

The parallels continue with the end of this Black Panther page and the finale of All Star Superman. The conclusion of Superman shows him sacrificing himself to save the sun thereby saving Earth. Morrison makes Superman/Jesus allusions all throughout the twelve-issue run and the ultimate fate of Superman is left ambiguous. He may return as a clone or maybe he is alive in the heart of the sun. Superman represents a god-like persona and even in defeat, through sheer force of will, turns things around.

Kirby was working with the same ideas decades before, undoubtedly influencing Morrison. Although Black Panther doesn’t represent anything more than human, the strange robot in the last panel becomes a kind of hero to a superhero; a God. God basically is this unknown thing and for all we know could be this crazy giant robot. It’s Black Panther’s saviour here and something that he summoned seemingly from will. Kirby changes from thought bubbles to speech in this panel making the robot’s appearance almost an incantation from Black Panther. In Kirby’s Black Panther and Morrison’s Superman, God is rooted in humanity. Humans are able to create, construct, and continue forward via hope and belief--and those things alone, the reality of such things don't matter--despite being surrounded by unknown and terrible conditions.

Kirby has always been especially interested in the idea of Gods and mythology. Galactus, in his first incarnation in Fantastic Four, represented and God, and years later, Kirby would illustrate a Silver Surfer graphic novel that begins with an introductory, full-page spread of Galactus’s opened hand with the Silver Surfer and cosmic rays bursting out. A comic book creation myth.

Galactus' hand is in the same similar position to the Black Panther’s hand with sand pouring off his fingertips. The thickness of the sand and the appearance of Kirby’s trademark cosmic circles give it a supernatural quality. Almost as if the sand is being created by the hand. It gives the impression that the Black Panther is willing life to surround him and not the more reasonable opposite. The robot that appears, created by Black Panther just as well. It’s a more cynical approach in that man has manufactured God, but it’s hopeful because man has that enormous power. Kirby’s idea of God shifts from an all powerful tyrant in Galactus, to a more human-based one similar to the Silver Surfer. Kirby sees the ability to hope in the face of impossible odds or to shape even shifting sands on his dying breath as representative of this nature.

9/21/2009

Nathan Fox, Illustrator.

Happened to notice the book above in Barnes & Noble earlier this evening. It's the paperback edition of Philip Plait's Death from the Skies!, a notable when it came out awhile ago hard-nosed pop science book that attempts to take on "end of the world"/disaster scenarios. What grabbed me, what I caught from maybe twenty feet away, was the increasingly sophisticated and immediately recognizable work of comics artist Nathan Fox.

What first came to mind were those Penguin Classics editions with covers from noted comics artists that've been slowly rolling out to the public over the past bunch of years. Fox's work here seems both way louder and less obsequious. There's more of a collaboration going on here, as end-of-the-world type stuff seems right up Fox's pulp on steroids style alley. Less an artist doing their own, sometimes sorta moronic "take" on a literary classic, and more an artist bringing their illustrative skills towards explicitly marketing a book, a science book. Especially the kind of science book that's intended for people that need a big, beat-ya-over-the-head awesome cover to grab them because they're rarely gonna just wander into the 'Science' section of a bookstore.

There's something actually horrifying about Fox's image and something deeply absurd about it too. This fits right in-line with author Philip Plait's attempt to take a much mocked, tabloid-ized topic like the world ending very seriously, all the while essentially debunking the hysterics that come along with floods, asteroids, and fires. The look of horror, on the person dead-center on the cover, his clenched teeth and fear-filled eyes precariously balances the image's intention between genuine, palpable terror and a kind of up-the-ante sci-fi apocalypse silliness.

Additionally mocking is the way Fox surrounds the runners-in-terror spouting with deadpan, comic book exhortations: "Run!!!", "Ahhh", "Help!". And then there's what they are running from...not just an asteroid hurtling towards earth but an asteroid, on top of some kind of end-of-days fire, on top of some kind of biblical flood. This stacking of the horrible, makes it both particularly scary and just really funny; everything is going wrong in that image.

These are Fox's strengths as an artist as well. He's a king of depicting chaos, things falling apart. His current work Dark Reign: Zodiac is all about the impossible, the unthinkable--a group of villains far more evil than the ones that beat the heroes in Secret Invasion. Replace the asteroid/fire/flood ready to envelope the people below with Galactus and you've got the final sequence of the last issue of Zodaic! And hey, it's a hell of a lot better than the cover to the hardback:

9/18/2009

The Negative Zone: Stir-Fried Manga


In "Playing Around with Food," the final story in Fish, Sushi & Sashimi—the fourth volume in Viz Media’s Oishinbo À la Carte series—Yamaoka and Kurita are busy considering dishes to be served at the banquet for their upcoming wedding. In "The Breath of Spring," collected in Vegetables, the series's fifth volume, a photographer for the Tozai News confides to Yamaoka his anguish over the fact that he's in love with Kurita, who, he believes, wants to marry Yamaoka. The latter's response to this is that it only seems that way since the two of them work together so closely and, besides, he plans never to marry. Finally, "The Taste of Chicken, The Taste of Carrots," the story which closes Vegetables, opens in the apartment shared by the now-married Yamaoka and Kurita.

This mildly confusing and increasingly perturbing narrative scatter-shot is a result of the "À la Carte" portion of the series's title, which is the clever-ish name for Viz Media's scheme to introduce the long-running culinary manga to American readers in "bite-sized chunks of story arranged by subject that add up to a full-course manga meal."

Clearly Oishinbo isn't Naruto and it's attraction to readers has far less to do with narrative continuity than it does to the interesting and engaging way that it presents Japanese cuisine. And yet, it is also not simply an illustrated recipe book. The relationships between the reasonably well-drawn characters and the drama created by the interplay between the Tozai News staff and those associated with the Teito Times's "Supreme Menu" have a lot to do with why the series transcends its culinary focus.

Oishinbo has been around for more than 25 years and its run in Japan now totals over 100 volumes. It's not difficult, then, to see why Viz may have been reluctant to take on the project of importing the book comprehensively. The issue, however, goes well beyond Oishinbo, which, at the end of the day, is still a very good series and one that I imagine I will continue to read. What is really at stake here is the lack of respect for comics as a form at a cultural and academic level that allows such editorial violence to be done to a unique series.

On a message board for one of my classes a student and I got into a discussion about the ramifications of academicization of art. Clearly, the danger inherent to this process is that in the process of theorization, the increase in understanding and definition comes at the price of wonder. At the same time, the benefits of responsible academic study of art forms, which range from the defining of formal constraints to the establishment of shared vocabulary and context for the serious discussion and appreciation of particular media, outweigh the potential risks. Indeed, with academic and culture legitimization of comics as a form alongside novels or poetry or films, there would likely be an increase in public demand for interesting and truly thought-provoking comics for which there is at present only a limited market. Even more important, such concerns such as respect for the text, without which publishers feel free to dice up and serve comics in whatever arrangement they want, will become part of the conversation as editorial decisions are made.

As this issue is effecting comics that are being published in this country today, so has it had serious implications for the publication of other literary works in the past. Jan Potocki's brilliantly ahead-of-its-time novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa suffered from a similar lack of editorial respect throughout it's publication history. Potocki's novel, which is an extraordinarily complex frame narrative of the Decameron/Tales of the Thousand Nights and One Night variety, was for years available only in editions that published selections of the interior tales and dispensed with the larger frame narrative. While I've little doubt that such publications proved to be wonderfully diverting story collections, they deny the tremendous complexity of Potocki's novel in its entirety. Only by reading the whole of the novel from beginning to end can a reader appreciate Potocki's astounding accomplishment and fortunately, thanks to Ian Maclean's translation published by Penguin, readers now have that opportunity.

Viz Media cannot be blamed for what was a business decision dictated by the exigencies of the marketplace and made possible by the lack of a proper academic framework for the study and analysis of comics as a form. Be that as it may, it is long past time for artists, readers and budding scholars to begin the hard work of establishing the theoretical and critical framework that comics deserve. Motion pictures were barely around for half a century before critics started taking them seriously alongside poetry and painting and music and there can be little doubt that this has had an overwhelmingly positive impact on movies as an artform. As admirable as the efforts of Will Eisner and Scott McCloud are, they are simply not enough. It is time for comics to take their rightful place as the ninth art, if only so we can witness the wedding of Yamaoka and Kurita.

9/16/2009

Powerful Panels: BPRD: 1947 #3

This two-page spread/one big panel, which illustrates the onset of a zombie attack, the moment-to-moment chaos, and to some extent the aftermath, is a prime example of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics' "invisible art", between-the-panels thesis. McCloud's work has dominated the brains of comics artists since the 90s and I'd even argue there's been something of a rote internalization amongst good, sophisticated comics to follow McCloud's thesis to a T. Sorta what I was saying on Monday about Jeff Lemire's Essex County.

It's not that it's bad but that it's kinda going through the motions of "smart comics" and that kinda bugs me. Though it's a masterpiece, at times, Morrison and Quietly's All-Star Superman certainly falls into the McCloud school, a little too much at times. That said, there's times when the "life between panels" thing still totally works and just blows you away, and Ba's two-page spread but not really a spread, is an example.

I want to try to free this as much as possible from the excellent, Dysart-scripted, Ba/Moon-illustrated series itself, and do a kind of "close-reading" of the panels/pages, because I think it works without knowing the characters' names or the plot. In short, a bunch of government agents are in a scary place and some zombies attack. It's all you need for this to really work.

The thing about the image above is technically, it's five panels. Though it looks like a two-page spread with some mini-panels in the righthand corner, the left side of the page, the agent being attacked, the other agents in-shock, is it's own panel and the right side of the page, moments later, the agents firing their guns, reacting is also it's own panel. Or is it? It is and it isn't.

If you look at the point where the pages meet, it doesn't exactly line-up perfectly, for example the elbow of the Agent with the Moustache doesn't move over into the other page, but the tomb to the far right of the left page--and in dead-center of the spread, if you see it as a spread--does roll over into the other page. Below is a close-up of the spread that's not totally a spread, illustrating the break in the page, the rolling over of the tomb, the omission of the elbow, and the two agents reacting (right) and the reacting agents' springing into action (left):

Besides it just being a piece of comics art that really, awesomely and cleverly messes with visual narrative expectations, the sort of scrunching of all this action into a spread isn't something you see a whole lot. That's to say, action-oriented two-page spreads are very thrilling and all, but more often than not, don't mean a whole lot. Personally, action in comics is something I kinda skim over, my eyes darting through the violence and sound effects quickly, just to get to the usually-predictable result. The two-page action scene spread can be awesome but it's usually just two pages allotted to convey "THAT GUY IS KICKING THAT OTHER GUY".

Not so here, where Ba (and Dysart) fill the two-page spread--that isn't a two-page spread--with so much information as to capture the chaos and emotionality of the action too. Just moving your eyes from left to right, you see the attacked agent screaming, the other agents totally in shock, then more zombies crawling out and by the time your eyes have moved to the far-right, the agents firing at the attacking zombies.
As a last brilliant touch, Ba includes a series of panels at the top of the right page to show exactly how the attacked agent is ripped apart. It's very George Romero to me, in the sense that it graphically moves-in on the gore, not only to give you some added cheap thrills but to really have you consider the horror of what's going on. Wisely, it's stuck up at the top of the right side of the page--or right panel--because Ba's constructed a page that's diverted your attention from the attack, which is going on to the left, and so, he throws up this kind of footnote of gore, so that you're reminded of what's going on even as you're now focused on the agents fighting the zombies and not the agent being ripped apart by them.

9/14/2009

Indie Comics Shortcut: Sad=Nursing Home

After reading the first issue of Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth (AKA Fall-Out Boy video, the comic book) and being entirely taken with it's wisely narrow (for now) scope, literate but not literary writing style and a general just kind of warm, maybe even Salinger-esque mix of ennui and homeliness, the month between #1 and #2 was too great and I went out and got a copy of Lemire's Essex County to hopefully get more of the same thing.

Essex County begins well--Book One is essentially perfect--and shows Lemire's thematics, etc. are fairly consistent. That he might be some kind of termite comics artist, running circles around a couple of ideas in comic after comic. And then Book Two begins and we're stuck with an old guy. A senile, crotchety old guy. And eventually he's going to put in a nursing home by a well-meaning though ultimately complicitous nurse. And then he is and it's sad.

And that's where I stop reading.

Did I mention the whole thing's wrapped around a "clever" bounce between the present and the past, brought on by the old guy's growing senility? And that it's a major-minor family-falling apart drama playing-out? It's possible that Essex County will redeem itself and be good or pretty good--which is all it takes for a "graphic novel" to get lots of press--but that's sort of the problem. Once Book One ends, the "smart, indie comic" gears start grinding a little too hard. I'll blame Chris Ware.

That condescending form of sympathy, all stemming from some juvenile sense that "the world's so terrible" then manifested in well-worn scenes of failure and regret...all funneling down to a nursing home. And I focus on the nursing home advisedly--because it's just sort of accepted as tragic and unfortunate, much the same way old age is dealt with in the comic (dead-pan, straight-ahead panels of wrinkled lips and sad eyes), like, there's not even the need for Lemire to render the details of old age or the nursing home well or creatively--simply showing it should be enough. This, coupled with Lemire's use--literally--of senility as a clever plot device undermines any and nearly all of the well-wrought sympathy in other aspects of the book.

While this sits in boutique comics shop at thirty dollars, I'd suggest digging-up a copy of Rob Osborne's Sunset City. It's usually sitting in the dollar bin or the 50% off trade bin, but it deserves much better, and touches on much of the same pathos as Lemire's book.

9/11/2009

Powerful Panels: Corpse Debris in Big Guy & Rusty

You read Big Guy & Rusty quick. In part because it's brevity kinda dares you to gulp it down in one sitting and in part, because it's basically an extended action sequence, with a ton of incidental dialogue. It's easy to read. It could be a word-less comic and work just fine.

And art-wise, Geoff Darrow's obsession with detail, has the strange effect of making you actually move through it faster. You trust Darrow's detail and though you could stop and stare into any of the pages for twenty minutes, you totally don't have to, to get what's going on. The details work on a subliminal level, they're not messy or confusing, so you like, absorb them by osmosis.


So, on an initial reading of Big Guy, you might whiz by the panel above, stopping to read the comic book villain declaration ("FOOLS!") and register the image as an explosion of debris--the accidental result of a bunch of maybe too forward-thinking scientists (there's Miller's Conservativism for you) recreating "the primordial ooze"--and leave it at that. But what you'd be missing is that a significant amount of the debris flying through the air are indeed, human bodies.

Besides it just being a particularly gruesome detail, it's a very realistic one. Giving some visual time to the carnage often passed over in those old Godzilla movies and in big, Hollywood action/event pictures..and the news when it's covering real-life violence and devastation. Darrow's clearly a nut--in the best sense of the word--and obsessed with the fun and insanity comics can create, but his eye for not only detail, but near-photo-realistic detail moves even his most comic book work into something very grounded in the real-world. The image, humans as debris, flying through the air no different than the pieces of building, invoked the specific, in-the-moment, broadcasted on TV horrors of September 11th...and the subsequent, sincere though problematic focus on those horrors.

Though it often leaned more towards rubbernecking, the insincere sincerity of "the human interest story", there was indeed, a heart-felt attempt by the nation at-large to feel empathy with those stuck in the buildings. To put ourselves in their shoes even though we knew there's just no way to grasp even a tenth of the confusion and everything else going on that morning. Frankly though, most of these attempts, on a public scale failed miserably. News reporters and journalist forcing narratives and melodrama onto a situation that was sheer chaos if you were in the buildings or on one of the planes. The movie United 93 is a particularly self-righteous, quasi-"objective" example. The interest with the 9-11 "jumpers" is another.

A kind of sicko web meme, the story of those that chose to jump instead of burn or be crushed is deeply moving and cuts to a kind of core, awesomely horrible issue of contingency and morality that we rarely have to face; a choiceless choice. Death or death. Still, the interest in the jumpers was putting a human face--or really, human body--onto what was more likely, a giant mass of faces and bodies...and metal and stone and steel. Darrow does a similar thing, taking the time to insert flailing human bodies into a explosive, destructive action scene.

The difference though, is of course 9-11 really happened and honing-in on certain images and events, didn't magnify the tragedy, it dulled it. Focusing on the jumpers seemed to be a kind of coping mechanism--an intellectualized, particularly extreme example that's therefore understandable. 9-11 in a single photo, but not the obvious photo (of the buildings blowing up) we're much too cool for that. The falling man was taken to even greater extremes when Jonathan Safran-Foer, a fairly loathsome twee-hipster author, culminated his 9-11 novel Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close with a flip-book of one of the jumpers, the sequence of images reversed, so that the jumper leaps upward. Ugh.

Darrow's panel here helps erase the intellectualized over-contextualization of the 9-11 and 9-11 jumpers and all that, bringing the visceral images and horrors of the event--and the specific like, sub-horror of the jumpers--back to their no-words, "can you even fucking imagine it" simplicity. That it comes from a comic made six years before the event is a healthy reminder that the sort of horrors of September 11th, though sometimes less politically loaded, occur all over the world all the time...even in Frank Miller's cartoonized vision of Industrialized Japan.

It's oddly appropriate that there's a distinctly "September 11th"-invoking image in a comic as fun and aggressively violent and American and jingoistic as Frank Miller and Geoff Darrow's Big Guy & Rusty the Boy Robot. Reading this along with 300, you're reading Miller in his final steps of transition--from a kinda cynical, skeptic Liberatarian to a Limbaugh/O'Reilly-esque right-leaning nihilist.

Remember that pill-popping, Nam' vet psycho Nuke from Daredevil: Born Again? Well now, it seems like Miller would write that character without the satire. It's symbolic that his 9-11/terrorism comic Batman: Holy Terror! is forever-delayed--the politics of the Right since 9-11 have been bouncing up and down and all around, twisting and turning, retro-fitted to the latest spin or flat-out lie. By the time it's drawn and written, who knows if the spiel Miller's giving readers will still align with the G.O.P's.

All that said, Miller's still a total legend and because there's a weird tension between satire and sincerity in a lot of his work, there's a great deal to unpack and figure out. Especially in Big Guy, which has all the xenophobia of 300 but frames it in a more fun and self-mocking style: Bubbling over with Darrow's insane art and wrapped around an updated Godzilla movie conceit. A strangely perfect comic to wrestle with 9-11 through...

9/10/2009

Birthday For Serious

So, today marks the one-year anniversary of this blog, which provides a fun excuse to look back at our--mostly slept-on--essays and rants and make a few quick announcement type things. So, first here's a quick "Best Of" or like, "Primer" for the blog...

Features
-Interview with Beanworld's Larry Marder

-"Better Than" List
-Watchmen WeekPrimer:
-"Powerful Panels: Akira #2" by Jesse
-"Joe Kubert's Tor: A Prehistoric Odyssey" by Monique
-"Art Comic Snobbery" by Karen
-"Powerful Panels: Pirates of Coney Island # 1" by Brandon
-"What's On Your DMZ House Party List?" by EVERYBODY
-"Powerful Panels: B.P.R.D: 1946 # 2" by David
-"Insert Rape Joke Here" by Karen
"Paul Pope: Mick Jagger of Comics" by Monique
-"Powerful Panels: Immortal Iron First # 21" by David
-"All-Star Superman Retrospective Fun Fest" by Jesse
-"Secret Invasion" by Sammy
-"X-Men Cartoon Over Homework Any Day" by Sammy
-"Scott Pilgrim #5" by Sammy
-"White Box Hero: Junior Carrott Patrol #1" by Jesse
-"Age & Sex in Unknown Soldier #5 and Black Hole" by Brandon
-"DMZ #41: Dee DMZ" by David
-"Anti-Confessional: Disappearance Diary" by Brandon
-"Beanworld Breaks Out" by Karen
-"Children of The Sea by Daisuke Igarashi" by Monique

And finally...if you look over to the icons on the left, they no longer send you to our individual emails but to our individual TUMBLRs. The idea was to expand how and where we talk about comics without clogging up this blog with less thought-out comics writing...as well as allow us all to talk about and highlight some non-comics stuff we're into lately. Below you'll find a link to each of our respective TUMBLRs as well as our personal Twitters, too. Of course, there's the blog's Twitter here which we've been kinda neglecting, but we'll get back to soon, we promise.

Brandon: Tumblr/Twitter

David: Tumblr/Twitter

Jesse: Tumblr/Twitter

Karen: Tumblr/Twitter

Monique: Tumblr/Twitter

Sammy: Tumblr/Twitter

9/09/2009

DIsney and Marvel: BFF

Last Monday, I went to check comics news as usual and like everyone else discovered, Disney acquired Marvel. I was pretty surprised, considering Boom Studios had just gotten the rights to publish Disney comics--including The Life and Times of Scrooge Mcduck and brand new serialized titles such as The Incredibles. What surprised me more, however, was the response from the internets: After the fun and games of “mash up” drawings and the clever “Face it Tigger, you hit the jackpot”, most responses were overly negative.

Disney may be a Theme Park giant and the maker of countless “family” films, but that doesn’t make them strictly family-friendly. They aren’t going to turn around and make Marvel stop publishing Punisher MAX, or other titles because they are adult-themed, that’s bad for business. It’s also part of the demographic Disney's missing out on, the adolescent to adult males--the “non-family” man.

Disney also owns Miramax, a film distribution company that made its reputation on Kevin Smith and Tarantino and still releases ultra-violent stuff like No Country For Old Men. They're smart and understand the necessity of separating brands. If indeed, Disney has some concern about content of Marvel comics and how it would reflect on their corporate name, it seems reasonable that they might just move even more stuff over to MAX or herd a bunch of books to Marvel Knights or something. If you recall, when Miramax aquired Larry Clark's controversial Kids and caught some flack for it, the chairs of Miramax, the Weinstein brothers just created a one-off production company and all was well.

And at this point, Disney is first and foremost a big, all-over-the-place corporation and in that sense, this isn't all that different from DC Comics, a subsidiary of Time/Warner. From it’s outside of nerd culture exposure, DC gains the success of the film like The Dark Knight (which grossed $1,001,921,825), and DC superhero-themed roller coasters and action shows at Six Flags theme parks everywhere. One of the comments about DC after Dark Knight's huge success was how they didn't seem ready or really able to fully cash-in. Marvel won't have this problem, as they're now not only backed by a corporate giant, but one very savvy in marketing youth-oriented product.

Marvel has just become part of a larger thing, something that will open doors, not close them. Pixar has had a great relationship with Disney that has worked out for both companies, and I imagine their relationship with Marvel will be similar. Disney needs to grab the male demographic, and this is their way. Marvel’s animated movie game needs to step it up, and Disney may help them with that. The point is, with all this speculating as to how Disney will ruin Marvel, let's at least do some positive though equally ungrounded speculation.

Taking female Marvel characters and marketing them to young girls through Disney Theme Parks and movies as strong, non-princess role models is a positive thing. I would love to see my sister reading comics about Storm leading the X-Men rather than another comic about Cinderella doing something cute with mice or Belle being saved be the Beast.

Pixar's Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, recently visited Marvel, which is a good sign for the future of both companies. Pixar’s The Incredibles still stands as one of the best superhero movies to date, I’d say even better than any of the X-Men and Spiderman films.

Nerds are defensive, strange creatures that easily get upset when their worlds are touched upon by something outside their realm of comfort. The House of Ideas becoming a part of the House of Mouse is scary and potentially could be extremely damaging to comics as we know them, but really, they are two companies that like to make money, and won’t do anything to prevent that--“Nuff’ said”.

9/07/2009

Feminist Science-Fiction: Swallowing the Earth, They Were Eleven and Õoku – The Inner Chamber

Of all the many common misconceptions about Y the Last Man, perhaps the most stubbornly egregious, with the possible exception of the notion that it is great, is that it is essentially a feminist political comic. The fact is that there is nothing really feminist about the book. I would even go so far as to say that its portrayal of a world in which males of all species are summarily wiped out is decidedly anti-feminist, describing as it does a post-male society in which all of the former ills of the male-dominated world such as war and crime and lack of cooperation survive and are compounded by the fact that the women who remain are incapable of managing such tasks as maintaining the food and power supplies.

Perhaps the failure of the book as social commentary has something to do with the American approach to stories with political content, which tends to be heavy-handed to the point of tendentiousness. It turns out, though, that there is a latent tradition of feminist science-fiction comics in Japan that began—at least in my admittedly limited experience—in the late sixties with Osamu Tezuka’s Swallowing the Earth, continuing to this day with Fumi Yoshinaga’s Õoku – The Inner Chamber, and includes such works as Moto Hagio’s They Were Eleven. Each of these works has something real to say about the sexual politics of their day and each does so in an entirely unique and surprisingly sophisticated way. Moreover, these three comics are successful in part because they relegate the social commentary to a position that is secondary to, while also being a function of, their respective narratives.

Swallowing the Earth

Swallowing the Earth is the first of Tezuka’s long-form narratives aimed at an adult audience and typical of these works it turns on a seemingly unnecessarily complicated plot, which at times stretches the reader’s notions of plausibility. Of course, this is the central mystery of Tezuka’s greatness; the surface moral simplicity and convoluted plot structure belie the deep human truths and sophisticated moral universe he creates. The basics of the story are these: In 1932, Zephyrus, the daughter of a French scientist, marries a nefarious German—Tezuka regular Acetylene Lampe—who intends to sell his father-in-law’s research to the Nazis for military purposes. In the early forties, with France under German military occupation, Lampe steals the scientist’s work, sells it to the Nazi authorities, leading to the suicide of Zephyrus’s father and driving Zephyrus to flee to the tiny island of Mamoo off the coast of Guadalcanal with her brood of seven daughters. On Mamoo Zephyrus is joined by Miss Chritos, a scientist who worked for her father and who also suffered mightily at the hands of a man and the two of them, armed with the enormous horde of gold found buried beneath the sands of Mamoo and Chrito’s invention of a synthetic skin—Dermoid Z—that will enable anyone to completely change their appearance, devise a plan to destroy money, morality and men. And this is where things really begin to complicate.

Zephyrus’s plot to destroy the world order hinges upon the greed, lust and avarice of men. The fact that the women succeed in upending civilization attests to Tezuka’s pessimistic view of things. But this dim view of the males of the species alone isn’t enough to conclude that the book is ultimately feminist in its outlook. The harsh fate that is doled out to the rebellious Milda by her sisters for the crime of falling in love with the dopey alcoholic Gohonmatsu shows the latter to be more vengeful than anything else. But what is really at stake in this pot-boiling war of the sexes are the traditional gender roles that society has prescribed and how they are manipulated by the worst of our instincts. Of course men, being the traditional arbiters of power, are generally the beneficiaries of these manipulations. Tezuka's ultimate solution to this systemic injustice is to completely subvert this system by wiping away this age-old code of gender relations.

This is demonstrated in the book’s coda, which takes place twenty years after Gohonmatsu is executed by the sisters and Milda is taken back to Mamoo. When Milda urges Ropponmatsu, her son by Gohonmatsu, to make a pledge to revenge the wrongs done her by her sisters, similar to the pledge that they made to their dying mother, he simply laughs in her face. As he explains to Milda, whom he stubbornly refuses to call “mother,” such notions as sons, mothers and revenge no longer have meaning in their wholly altered society and thus her request is absurd. The significance of this rests not so much in the dissolution of traditional family relationships as in that of the baggage of manipulation and control which had become attached to them. Zephyrus was manipulated by her husband in his quest to attain money and power and she, in her turn, manipulated her daughters out of a desire for revenge. In the course of doing this, however, she robbed her daughters of their own humanity. That Ropponmatsu refused to perpetuate this cycle is testament to the relational purge that has resulted from the Zephyrus plot.

They Were Eleven

They Were Eleven differentiates itself immediately from Tezuka’s work, first in the relative tautness of its narrative, but more importantly in the fact that the feminist aspects of the book can be read as more or less intentionally capital-F Feminist. The story concerns a group of ten prospective students at Galactic University taking what is the final portion of the school’s entrance exams. This exam requires them to spend 53 days on a spacecraft adrift in an alien solar system, without anyone dropping out and without scrambling to be rescued. A wrench is thrown in the exam from the first moment when it is discovered that there are eleven students on the ship, instead of the expected ten. This immediately sows an environment of suspicion amongst the students, which is especially problematic for an exam which essentially turns on their ability to cooperate.

Moto Hagio is a pioneer of shojo manga that challenge accepted notions of gender and sexuality. Hagio explores these issues in They Were Eleven through the character of Frol, who by all external indications appears female, but is in fact a meneer, or an individual who is hermaphroditic in early life and only develops into one sex or another in adulthood. Frol comes from a polygamous planet in which the ratio of males to females is artificially maintained at 1:5. Only the first child in any family may develop into a male, the rest being hormonally induced females who are married off to a lord upon reaching adulthood. Frol is the youngest in his family and as such, should be fated to spend his life as one of several wives of a neighboring lord and this is precisely why it is so important that he gain acceptance into Galactic University, which would allow him to escape his wifely fate.

Although ultimately secondary to the narrative as a whole, the tenuous position Frol negotiates both on his home planet and on the ship is perhaps the most interesting part of They Were Eleven. Despite the fact that, as Gunga points out, the culture of women is highly developed on Frol’s home planet, Frol has seen plenty of his sisters’ weddings and they pale in comparison to man’s coming of age ceremony. As Frol says of his reluctance to settle into the feminine role his society demands: “If you only get to live once, I’d rather become a man and have that kind of fuss made over me.”

Of course, it’s not simply about having fuss made over him. Frol has made it to the final portion of the university’s entrance exam, an accomplishment that less than 0.1% of applicants achieve. Completion of a course at Galactic University will open all sorts of doors for Frol that would simply not be opened for the women of his planet. But first the group has to pass the exam and Frol’s outwardly feminine appearance is a major obstacle to that goal. The presence of eleven examinees on the ship means that everyone is under suspicion and the presence of an apparently female student when they are all supposed to be men brings Frol immediately under suspicion.

But it is really in the book’s final moments that it’s commentary about gender and sexuality move from a sort of standard lament of women’s positions in male dominated societies to something more forward looking and sophisticated. Having learned that they passed the exam, Tada is suddenly saddened by the realization that if Frol becomes a man, they will be unable to marry. But at this point, it is almost academic whether Frol ultimately becomes a man or a woman since he has passed the exam, which gives him a level of self-determination that was previously unavailable to him. Thus, Frol can choose to become a woman and marry Tada and still complete the university’s pilot training course and this changes his story from being one about how it is better to be a man than a woman, into one in which the value is placed on personal freedom and empowerment.

Õoku – The Inner Chamber

A whole lot of virtual ink has been spilt on Fumi Yoshinaga’s new series, so I think it will suffice to say that the story that it tells is an alternate history of Japan during the Tokugawa Shogunate, in which a disease that only infects young men has wiped out 75% of Japanese men. In response to the feminization of the society, the typical gender roles are reversed, with women stepping into the traditional positions of power, up to and including the Shogunate itself. In the world that Yoshinaga has created, men are subjected to the sorts of sexual commodification that women have been subject to throughout history. Young men are sold for sexual purposes by their families, although in this case the impetus for paying for sex is generally reproductive, rather than libidinous. And the circumstances of the Õoku, the hidden chamber that was populated solely by women during the historical Shogunate, are simply reversed.

What makes Õoku’s investigations of the implications of gender stand out is that they do not simply rest with these more quotidian details, but extend into the geo-political ramifications of women taking power in what is still, outside of Japan, a male dominated world. When a foreign dignitary is granted an audience with the Shogun, the latter must hide behind a screen and her words are spoken for her by a male attendant. Thus, even though necessity has dictated that women assume the reigns of power inside the country, it is deemed politically untenable to make these circumstances known to the outside world.

Another curiosity of the world created in Õoku is the fact that even though the initial epidemic of the man-killing disease only occurred a couple of generations back, it seems that those who orchestrated the shift from a male-dominated society to one in which the positions of power are held by women were able to do so in such a way that nobody remembers it being any other way. The older people in the villages talk of a time when men were more abundant and dominant, but these take on the character of myth. Thus when the no-nonsense Lord Yoshimune finds herself thrust into the role of Shogun when the previous ruler suddenly falls ill and dies, she decides to satisfy her curiosity about the strangely masculine nature of the titles and ceremonies of the aristocracy by mining the historical record for answers. This situation might at first strike a contemporary reader as somewhat implausible, until one considers that in a society that is largely illiterate, the process of manipulating history is that much simpler.

Though it is ancillary to my larger purpose here, it is impossible for me to focus at any length on this particular comic without at least commenting on the unfortunate translation. Though there were undoubtedly cues in the original version that led to this decision, the choice to render the dialogue into some approximation of Shakespeare’s English as it might have been spoken by Yoda was an unfortunate one to say the least. It is difficult not to conclude that lines such as, “Come here ere it gets dark, thou hearest?” are played for laughs, which is problematic in a comic dealing with subject matter as serious as this. I actually began two or three unsuccessful readings and had determined to give up on the book until I decided to write this very post. In all of the responses to this book that I’ve read, I don’t think one of them made mention of its faux-archaic language and I still can’t quite get my head around that. I’d much prefer to read a comic like Northlanders #17, in which characters set in historical periods talk like inner-city toughs, circa 2009, than one in which a writer badly reproduces a vernacular that nobody really knows anyway.

What it All Means

Setting aside the fact that each of these books employs the conventions of science-fiction in order to comment on the current state of gender politics, we are looking at three wildly divergent books. I think it highly unlikely that Tezuka sat down with the intention to write a feminist story. At the same time, as Frederick Schodt points out in his introduction to the Digital Manga Publishing edition of the book, Tezuka was writing in the annus mirabilis of 1968 and was clearly responding to the times. The youth of the Western world was enthralled by the counter-cultural juggernaut and free love, LSD and revolutionary politics were in the air—all of which show up in Tezuka's book.

Both They Were Eleven and Õoku were written and drawn by women and thus the feminist stance of each book is more fully realized. Here too, however, the differences outweigh the similarities. Hagio's story feels the most optimistic of the three, which perhaps is a function of its being a space comic. The students could be suspicious of each other and discuss the idiosyncrasies of their various cultures, but at the end of the day they would be signing up at an elite, pan-galactic institute of higher learning, with all the suggestions of a lower-case brave-new-world that entails. Further, being a shojo comic, one can interpret events as they relate to Frol and Tada as being in service to their romantic happily-ever-after ending, or one can read broader socio-political significance into them, as I have.

Having read only the first volume of Õoku, it's impossible for me to predict where the story will go or what conclusions it might make about life in our times. Be that as it may, it is clearly the product of a world in which a black man and a woman can be the chief competitors in the American presidential primaries, as opposed to one in which women in executive management of major companies were still more or less unheard of. Despite the many problems that women continue to face, we are now in an era where women can and do become heads of state of major nations and could conceivably hold any position of power. Thus Yoshinaga's decision to create a story which asks whether women will fulfill the promise of their trailblazing forebears when they finally achieve positions of power or will they simply repeat the mistakes of men is truly of-the-moment.

As a genre, science fiction has always lent itself nicely to working some of the complicated social and philosophical problems that people face. In the best cases, films such as Douglas Trumbull's Silent Running and Duncan Jones's Moon; novels such Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War and comics such as these, artists combine tightly-drawn, entertaining stories with insightful commentary on what it means to be human at a particular time and place. Whether it’s Tezuka’s crude sophistication, Hagio’s dewy-eyed space-optimism, or Yoshinaga's realpolitik in kimono and stays, the talented comics artists of Japan have been churning out great, oddball science-fiction with a feminist bent for more than four decades.

9/03/2009

The Plurality of Monthly Comics...

"Anyway, I think my point was I want there to be good books one shelves every month.
There are so many amazing creators just making graphic novels now and yeah sales and shit
but I want some fucking comics. And the idea that people wait for the trade to come out is
crazy to me. If there's a book I'm really hyped about there is no waiting you want it so bad you can taste it like acid in your mouth.

It's important to note that I don't think most creators should be making comics monthly.
Just drawing them slow and steady far ahead of time and then getting them out close together.
That's the theory anyway, I'll see how well it works for me in practice."
So, I left the comics shop today, with three things in-hand: Strange Tales #1, Starr the Slayer #1, and Sweet Tooth #1. The point is, LOOK AT THESE THREE, TOTALLY WEIRD, AND AWESOME BOOKS THAT DROPPED THIS WEEK. If I had a friend who only read trades or flat-out, didn't read comics at all, I'd hand them the tiny stack of Strange Tales, Starr the Slayer, and Sweet Tooth and hope they'll at least consider monthlies. Actually, it's inarguable proof of the plurality of monthly comics--something totally lost when it becomes a trade on a shelf of your Barnes & Noble.

Both of the major companies are represented in my purchases, though certainly in less conventional ways, but that sorta proves my point too. The savvy of even the big dogs can't be ignored, even when they soak you for crossover titles and raised price points.

Let's begin with Strange Tales, a mini-series where Marvel hands over any and all their characters to a bunch of "indie"--mind the quotes--big shots who do whatever they hell they want with them. For the record, it's what Wednesday Comics should've been (FUN)--it's also a sign of the savvy and fun Marvel forgets. I mean really, this comic would blow minds! Paradoxically, it has a great deal more weight than the "comix" all these dudes are (rightfully) celebrated for and it ends up really subversive, more so because it's put out by the very dudes it's kinda sorta parodying. And Marvel knew that going in. Strange Tales makes obsolete those unofficial, pamphlet comics in which some snarky art-school comics dude shows Wolverine smoking crack. It also acknowledges the big reality of comics, especially in the 2000s: Everyone's reading everything, no reason why Dash Shaw can't do a Dr. Strange story.

Then, there's Starr the Slayer put out by Marvel's "for adults" imprint MAX Comics and drawn by comics legend Richard Corben. The idea that a dude like Corben's given this kind of fun and freedom is itself exciting and the series is a clever re-up of an old-ish sword and sorcery character and essentially about how so many of those old-school comics dudes got pretty fucked. Again, Marvel with the savvy and disinterest in strictly upholding their image.

And lastly, there's Sweet Tooth, an auteur series put out by DC's "place for weird comics" imprint, VERTIGO and brilliantly priced at $1.00. Really, think about that! There's plenty of reasons to hate on the hustle that monthly comics can be, but let's not forget details like this. One could be cynical and call it a marketing gimmick and it is, but it's one that's kind to the buyer too and basically, exposes the comic to plenty of people that'd never touch it at a normal price.

As trades, which is unfortunately, how more and more supposed "comics fans" are reading stuff, a lot of this context and the minor nerd joys of leaving a store with three books this weird and only ten dollars (which is still a lot, yeah) less in my wallet, is completely lost. Just sayin' guys...

9/01/2009

A Look Back To The Future: Space Usagi

Like any and all good science fiction, Space Usagi combines the best parts of a lot of already existing works and welds them together into something unique. It obviously owes a lot to George Lucas, as the first merging of samurai and space, but also for popularizing the more general combination of science fiction and fantasy. Star Wars has been called a "space opera" which is essentially a Lord of the Rings straight fantasy story set in space, but Space Usagi feels like something closer to a "space opera" with all the archetypal elements of any good, classical narrative--a lost love, a wisecracking friend, and arch enemies--only rocketed into space...but not really even?

What is particularly interesting about Space Usagi is that it doesn’t play into the fact that it’s in space at all. It’s almost as if Sakai made up a Usagi Yojimbo conversion chart and simply transferred it into science fiction that way: the Lord’s castle becomes a castle space station, swords become energy swords, and a rhino’s horn is made of metal. When Sakai talks about how Space Usagi came about he says, "I love drawing dinosaurs and I could not draw them in Usagi Yojimbo" (SU FAQ) really downplaying the science part of the comic.

Usagi Yojimbo is a samurai genre comic and being in space doesn’t change its strip style all that much, it just makes it a little more epic. Space Usagi, like regular old Usagi, is concerned about his clan and it's future. The political intrigue, transported to space makes it a bit more serious. It isn't as intense as say the Dune series, but Space Usagi embodies the same strange reality of an ancient civilization in space. Volume Two Issue #1 of Space Usagi seems to pay direct homage to Dune Messiah in it’s opening scene when Usagi is practicing with Kill Globes.

The technology is worked in so seamlessly that when it Sakai uses it for dramatic effect it’s surprising. In one scene, Usagi is listening to the Lord speak to the clan with no real science fiction elements present. Usagi suddenly jumps at the Lord, appearing to slash at him, while loyal retainers all cry out against Usagi. In reality, Usagi had been slicing a ninja with a cloaking device. This would be a cliché (but still awesome) scene in say Lone Wolf and Cub or a Kurosawa movie, but here it adds the additional element of actually surprising the reader. Of course we’re not naïve enough to think Usagi evil, but the actual revealation of a cloaking device is surprising, all the more because we're still training our brain like, "Oh yeah, this is Space Usagi."

Sakai treats death with the same serious tone in Space Usagi as he does in Usagi Yojimbo. Just like in any Samurai genre work, death is treated with a special kind of reverence. Sakai translates that to comic form with a speech bubble with a skull inside suggesting a soul leaving the body. The characters who die, even the minor ones, have awful expressions of pain on their faces. In most comics of science fiction, bit characters are killed off without a second thought--think the new guy in every episode of Star Trek--but Sakai gives them unique faces and intense deaths.

One page shows guards waiting for the attacking ninja to burst through the door. When the ninja burst through they are shot down one by one similar to the opening firefight in Star Wars: A New Hope. Instead of the Rebel troopers quickly falling off screen Sakai has each panel on their actual death. This sequence focuses on one guard as the others around him fall which gives an even greater weight to his death in the last panel of the page.

2009 marks the 25th anniversary of Usagi Yojimo and coming in late November (according to Amazon.com) will come Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition. It will collect Volumes 1-7 but nothing of Space Usagi so you might as well go out and just buy it now.