I read some comics, and then I had some thoughts

These are those thoughts.

Black Jack Volume 1. Osamu Tezuka. Vertical, 2008. $16.95, 288 pages.

English-speaking fans of Osamu Tezuka have been hanging out for this series for a long time, our appetites only whetted by an abortive two-volume attempt from Viz some years ago. To live up to our expectations, Black Jack would have to cure cancer, solve world hunger and get you laid. It doesn’t quite do any of these, but it’s still pretty good. There are some bravura cartooning sequences, even if it does take the reader a while to readjust from the long-form Phoenix and Buddha to the distinctly episodic structure here. There are no great themes on display, other than Tezuka’s usual humanism and his inclusive, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink view of life. But these are reward enough, once you get back into the Astro Boy-like groove of short, unconnected stories.

The biggest misstep comes from the title character’s sidekick, named Pinoko, who makes Poochie look like the sensational character find of 1997. Someone at Vertical decided to translate her dialogue as baby-talk; presumably it’s to mirror some analogous feature in the original Japanese, but it made me want to go out and shtwangle shome widdle toddlers. I’m not sure I can take another umpteen thousand pages of that. Otherwise, it’s easy to look forward to another sixteen volumes of this.

Recommended? It’s Tezuka. Of course it’s recommended.

***

Cat-Eyed Boy Volumes 1 & 2. Kazuo Umezu. Viz, 2008.  $24.99 each, 496/594 pages.

Cat-Eyed Boy belongs to that subgenre of children’s literature where monsters, aliens, animals or otherwise inhuman creatures are made to stand in for children. The aim (explicit or not) is to capture the experience of being a child — adults too easily forget how unlike us children are, how strange their minds and changeable their character. Cat-Eyed Boy himself is as convincing a portrayal of childhood as Yotsuba from Yotsuba&!, if a little more savage. By turns, he is proud, uncaring, empathetic, kind, cruel and always, above all else, unpredictable. At times he spurns the human world, at others he helps it out. He contains multitudes, and then some.

The stories themselves, however, suffer from mirroring their hero’s fickle character a little too closely. The earlier stories* follow the same sort of disjointed logic of children’s narrative that we find in The Drifting Classroom: then this happened, then that happened, then we all turned into giant bugs, then a monster came and ate some of us, then there was a flood and then and then and then we all had ice cream and went home the end. Only there’s something missing from Cat-Eyed Boy, something that grounded The Drifting Classroom; without it these earlier stories are, at best, curiosities for Umezu buffs only, and certainly not essential. Maybe it doesn’t have the same sort of luminous horror that surrounds the kids in Classroom. Maybe it’s that the illogic of children is externalised in Classroom while the kids themselves have solid character — the events they struggle against may not make sense, but the kids can be identified with; by contrast, that same illogic is internalised in Cat-Eyed Boy, who is himself something of a cipher. Maybe it’s that, unlike Drifting Classroom, the earlier stories in Cat-Eyed Boy just aren’t for adults. Maybe it’s that the earlier stories simply aren’t as good as Classroom. Hey, even Homer nods.

Or maybe it’s some combination of all these. That solution is suggested by the later stories in volume 2, some of which are truly excellent, approaching the fevered intensity of Classroom. It helps that Cat-Eyed Boy takes a backseat in these stories while we foreground on ordinary children, to whom the usual horrible things happen. In these stories we find that old Umezu magic again, that mixture of funny and scary and uh actually no I guess it’s really not that funny OH GOD MAKE IT STOP. Those stories are well worth the price of admission; it’s just a shame that the rest of the volumes don’t match that standard.

Recommended? Volume 2 starts with a continuation of a story from Volume 1, so I can’t recommend reading Volume 2 only. People who really liked Drifting Classroom will probably find the whole experience worthwhile, provided they can lower their expectations somewhat and hold out for the really good stuff in Volume 2.

* “Earlier” in the sense that they appear earlier in the two volumes. The reader is given no clue as to original publication dates.

***

The Immortal Iron Fist: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven. Matt Fraction, Ed Brubaker, David Aja and a thousand other artists. Marvel, 2008. $17.99, 216 pages.

It’s not hard to see why this book became a sleeper hit among the blogerati. It’s competent pulpish stuff — actually calling it “competent” is probably damning it with faint praise in this degraded age. This book collects a sequence of superhero comics that won’t make you want to gouge your own frontal lobe out; it wouldn’t necessarily embarrass anyone over the mental age of twelve to be caught reading it. In today’s market, I guess that makes it the graphic novel equivalent of War and Peace, only with more punching and kicking.

Personally, it didn’t quite float my boat the way it has many other people’s. A lot of the style seems lifted from Alan Moore — the fictitious backstory and period counterparts from (e.g.) Promethea, the steampunk ancestor stumbling across the natives from Tom Strong, the use of multiple artists from both those (not to mention Supreme).** There’s also a touch of the Bendis/Mack Daredevil, albeit without Bendis’ logorrhea or his inept plotting; like Mack, Aja and his colourists favour static, photo-referenced monochromes. I guess they think it looks mature?

To this are added various tropes from the tournament style of shonen manga. Indeed, the overarching structure is pure tournament: seven characters fight each other in a round-robin competition, using elaborate moves with fanciful names. It’s the most original thing the series does, to introduce these tropes (plus a couple of later plot twists which will be familiar to readers of Iron Wok Jan, Ultimate Muscle, Yakitate!! Ja-pan or any other tournament manga) to an audience presumably weaned on superhero comics and so unfamiliar with them. Frankly, I think I would have enjoyed this a lot more had they dropped the pretense of superheroics altogether and gone all the way with the tournament stylings. Give us 200 pages covering one duel, not to mention the hundred pages of training beforehand and dozens of pages for reaction shots. Now there’s a martial arts comic I could get behind.

Recommended? Way over-hyped, but enjoyable enough in its own right.

** I know Moore didn’t invent these, but they’re closely associated with his work.

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3 Responses to “I read some comics, and then I had some thoughts”

  1. MangaBlog » Blog Archive » Tokyopop talk, free online manga, Go Nagai speaks! Says:

    […] of Baby and Me at Marina’s Sequential Art Journal. Jones reads some newish comics, including vol. 1 of Black Jack and vols. 1 and 2 of Cat-Eyed Boy, at Let’s You and Him Fight. Julie reviews Kabuki Vol 1 Flower at MangaCast and vol. 13 of […]

  2. Jog Says:

    The VIZ books translated Pinoko’s dialogue the same way; I dunno what thinking went behind it (probably some analogous quirk in the original Japanese, like you mention), but it wasn’t Vertical’s idea alone…

    The best Cat Eyed Boy story was the one with the happy boy who has HELL ITSELF explode into his bedroom… that was the essence of Umezu there.

  3. Most disappointing of 2008 « Let’s you and him fight Says:

    […] I recounted here, I was disappointed with the first volume. It’s no Drifting Classroom, that’s for […]

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