Archive for May, 2010

Incognito v. Detroit Metal City

May 24, 2010

Incognito. Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips and Val Staples. Icon, 2009. $18.99, 176 pages.

Shorter review: Oh wait you guys I think I already read this when it was called Sleeper

Longer review: Narrative artists recycle tropes, motifs, characters, settings, moods, plots, even dialogue, and they do it all the time. It’s called schtick or, if you prefer, style. As is well known, Warren Ellis has exactly one protagonist, on which he has written a hundred variations. Garth Ennis basically writes the same story over and over again. And that’s just to pick the two most obvious examples from “mainstream” comics; if we broadened our focus to consider the alt-comix crowd, the list would grow even longer  (Ware, Crumb, et al.) Sometimes this repetition bothers the reader;  sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve had my lifetime quota for Ellis protagonists, but can still handle Ennis–de gustibus non disputandum est, I guess.

So I can’t really account for why Incognito‘s trip back to the well rubbed me the wrong way, but there you go. Brubaker and Phillips already did this comic a few years ago, this mash-up of noir and off-brand supervillainy, and they did it better the first time. The only addition is a dash of Fight Club-esque satire of white collar disaffection, but even that seemed more half-arsed than anything.

I generally like Ed Brubaker well enough, but I couldn’t tell whether Incognito was the product of mercenary cynicism or just a mediocre vision. I’m not sure which is worse but at any rate it’s not a dilemma that speaks well of the book.

Recommended? No.

Detroit Metal City Vol. 1. Kiminori Wakasugi. Viz Media, 2009. $12.99, 200 pages.

This, on the other hand, was excellent, a mad, silly comedy about the Japanese death metal scene. The basic set-up is farce genius: protagonist Soichi Negishi is a sweet-natured nice guy whose main wish in life is to be loved for his gentle, twee acoustic pop songs. Sample lyric: “When I wake up in the morning/You’re there making cheese tarts.” The text doesn’t use the phrase, but it seems pretty clear to me that Negishi is, or wants to be, a shibuya artist (the shout-out to Pizzicato Five helps cement this impression).

The only problem is that Negishi only finds (unwanted) success as Krauser II, the deranged front man for up-and-coming death metal band Detroit Metal City. And try as he might, Negishi can’t escape the scabrous, profane and occasionally dangerous lifestyle of his alter ego. Comedy ensues.

And does it ensue. The comedy here has basically two sources: (1) the contrast between Negishi’s gentle, “true” self (in a telling detail, his favourite film is Jean-Pierre Jeunet quirk-fest Amélie) and the over-the-top shocks of his alter ego; and (2) the inherent ridiculousness of death metal. Both sources are richly and adeptly mined; honestly, this is the funniest manga — and I’m talking laugh-out-loud-funny — I’ve read since (the lamentably unfinished in English) Octopus Girl. Which means, yes, this is funnier than Sgt. Frog (which, it must be said, I never really warmed to); more notably, it’s even funnier than Jones favourites  Cromartie and Yakitate!! Japan. Special mention to the Tetrapot Melon Tea gags; that shit is gold.

It helps that the stories here, at around 15 pages each, are shorter than the manga standard of around 20, so they never outstay their welcome. The one caution I would sound about the series is a doubt whether the premise is fertile enough to justify multiple volumes. To judge from the first volume, it’s not yet clear whether DMC is a one-trick pony. But in any case, this first volume is as close to perfect comedy as anything I’ve read in a long time.

Recommended? The highest possible recommendation, although it should be noted: this manga is most definitely not for the easily offended.

Warlord versus Phoenix

May 10, 2010

About nine months ago, I caused some minor controversy among Vince Colletta fans with my review of The Essential Thor Vol. 4, where I repeated the old charge that Colletta was overly fond of erasing pencil detail that he didn’t feel like inking. To which controversy my response was, naturally: there are Vince Colletta fans? As I suggested in the original post, even if Colletta had never erased anything, his thin, feathery line was all wrong for Kirby’s work on Thor.

But I was recently reading DC Showcase Presents The Warlord, featuring Mike Grell’s titular pulp hero. Warlord was a lost world fantasy about an undiscovered land inside the hollow earth, where dinosaurs roam amongst semi-barbaric human tribes and the ruins of a long-lost and technologically-advanced civilization. So: hardly Proust, but competent enough as a genre entertainment. Thanks to Grell’s layouts, the action is usually easy enough to follow (with a few exceptions), and I’ll be damned if the stories don’t positively zip along.

Anyway, for the first chunk of stories in the volume, Grell is credited as sole artist (as well as writer), but eventually he is joined by Colletta on inks. And blow me down, the inks actually mesh with Grell’s pencils. Maybe Colletta wasn’t so bad after all, at least not when paired with a suitable artist. And judging from the work in DCSPtW, Grell’s cut-rate Neal Adams pencils were well suited to Colletta.

That said, Warlord is far from the best of its genre. For mine, that honour goes to Mark Schultz’ late, lamented Xenozoic Tales aka Cadillacs and Dinosaurs, which likewise mixed modern- and future-tech with pulpy adventure amongst the dinosaurs and barbarians. That series is long-since defunct and unlikely ever to be finished up; owing no doubt to the long time it takes Schulz to draw, he now makes his living primarily as a writer. Shame that, as Schulz’ lush artwork  (heavily influenced by Wally Wood and Alex Raymond) and exotic locales are sorely missed.

***

Lest you think I’ve been solely rotting my mind on mediocre reprints from the 70s, I’ve also been re-reading Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix for the first time since they came out. (And is it really already seven years since Viz published the first English volume?). Tezuka evidently considered Phoenix his masterwork, and it’s hard to dispute the man’s own judgement.  Among those of Tezuka’s works thus far translated into English, it’s matched in seriousness of intent perhaps only by Buddha and (my personal favourite) Ode to Kirihito. And in sheer scope it surpasses both of those, sweeping as it does across thousands of years, from Earth to far-flung galaxies.

How disappointing, then, that when Tezuka gets around, in Volume 2, to sharing the grand philosophy behind the series, that it turns out to be the lamest, most sophomoric philosophy imaginable.  See, the microcosm is just like the macrocosm: elemental particles contain miniature suns and orbiting planets, eachteeming with their own life.  And the macrocosm, well that’s just like the mesocosm: “the whole universe is only a single cell in a living creature”. Sheesh. I haven’t seen this much one-too-many-bong-hits “philosophy” since I Heart Huckabees (which, admittedly, I liked regardless).

Ah well. Even Homer nods. And this misstep aside, Phoenix is excellent. Reading the volumes in quick succession, one after another, only brings home the cleverness of Tezuka’s bold structure, as characters and various sci-fi conceits recur across volumes, as distant memory, or transformed, or reincarnated. Fittingly, the only constant is that symbol of immortal life herself, the Phoenix. Phoenix gets the highest possible recommendation from, its minor flaws notwithstanding.


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