Archive for the ‘Buy This Book’ Category

Buy this book: Concrete, Vol. 6 Strange Armor

February 25, 2007

Concrete Vol. 6: Strange Armor, Paul Chadwick and Bill Spicer. Dark Horse, 2006. $12.95, 208 pages.

The thrilling conclusion of “Year One” Week! Who will live? Who will die? Who will behave completely out of character to serve the demands of plot?

***

The film critic Joe Queenan once coined the phrase cinéma des voisins to describe a genre of film he had newly discovered. The phrase literally means “cinema of the neighbours”, and describes films that Queenan’s neighbours would probably like; in his own words, “anything sensitive, quirky or ethnic always hits them [his neighbours] where they live”. My Big Fat Greek Wedding is the acme of this genre–or maybe its nadir, depending on how you look at it.

Since I am a smart-arse snob like Queenan, I too have noticed a genre in my favoured medium that demands a pretentious French label. I call this genre bandes dessinées d’épinard which literally means “can you direct me to the restroom?” but, idiomatically, translates as “spinach comic books”.

You all know what spinach books are. Like spinach the vegetable, they’re good for you, wholesome, sustaining–and most normal human beings find them as exciting as half a strip of cardboard.

(Personally, I like spinach the vegetable. But I am a vegetarian and therefore not a normal human being. In any case, even if you like the vegetable, you get the idea)

For many years I assumed that Concrete, writer/artist Paul Chadwick’s long-running series about a bloke made out of rock, was pure spinach. What I heard of the series certainly encouraged that perception. Critics gushed about its quiet, meditative tone, or plots that revolved around environmentalism, population control, and the importance of eating your leafy greens.

No thanks, I used to think. I’ll skip to dessert.

Dark Horse’s recent re-release of the series in a cheap, convenient format of seven volumes has made me re-assess my earlier opinion. It did this through the revolutionary step of getting me to actually read the damn thing.

So let me first say this to anyone who’s stayed away from Concrete for the same reasons I did: Concrete isn’t just good for you, it’s good.

Chadwick’s stories are indeed contemplative and thoughtful, albeit often punctuated by bursts of action. But while too many books that try for such a tone end up wallowing in myopic introspection, Chadwick escapes this artistic dead-end through his passion for the world outside his studio, and by keeping his protagonists engaged in that world.

Concrete himself is a former speech-writer who, abducted by aliens, has his brain transplanted into a massive body made out of rock. Now possessed of inhuman strength and senses, Concrete does what anyone else would do in his situation. He becomes a celebrity. He also uses his fame, and the money it brings, to fund various National Geographicstyle adventures.

Chadwick’s art is consistently excellent, looking especially luminous in black and white. He also knows when to break the tyranny of panels, often (but never gratuitously) using unframed panels or using the figures themselves as the frame. Likewise, Chadwick’s writing is always good, with a deft sense of pacing and strong understanding of human psychology.

With all that said, this sixth volume isn’t the very best of the series. Just over half the book is given over to a five-issue re-telling of Concrete’s “origin” (that’s why this is a “Year One” book, folks). Frankly, the world could have done without this. Chadwick himself, humble as ever, cops to this story’s weaknesses in his introduction. The plot evidently derives from an aborted screenplay, and so there are several elements foreign to Concrete‘s usual sensibilities, like an unequivocal bad guy.

But even among these concessions to conventionality are some quintessentially Concrete moments, such as the scene where he returns to confront his ex-wife in his new body. I won’t spoil it for you, but the resolution to that scene is much truer to the gently melancholic spirit of Concrete than the violent denouement of the main plot. The art, meanwhile, is as good as ever, particularly the scenes in the alien environment. This is drawn as a Steve Ditko-esque abstract landscape, and the aliens themselves even look a little like Ditko’s Nameless Ones.

Stronger than the main story is the miscellaneous material that fills out this volume. One untitled story shows off Chadwick’s visual flair, with panels filled with Kirby-tech. In another story, “I strive for realism”, creator meets his creation a la Dave Sim or Grant Morrison. This story, along with the volume-closing “The building that didn’t explode”, presents Chadwick’s worldview.

For writers like Sim, Morrison, or for their fellow-traveller Alan Moore, the real world of science and nature isn’t interesting enough. They must resort to super-nature, to gods or God or mad ideas, one-part hooey to one-part hogwash, with a little delusional thinking for good measure.

For Chadwick, by contrast, the world is just as it seems in nature documentaries. Once you get past the macguffin of the aliens who transplant Concrete’s brain into his new body, there are no pixies, no fairies at the bottom of the garden. There is just the world, unadorned and as it is. Mystery and beauty, in Concrete, are immanent in the world itself, which needs no human invention to dress it up.

Hence “The building that didn’t explode”, which tells of how Chadwick and some fellow artists narrowly averted disaster in their youth and then ponders why they were spared:

“Was it destiny? The divine plan, that these stellar artistic creations were meant to shiningly soar forth, bringing light to dreary lives?

“No, that’s bullshit.”

Chadwick goes on to lay out his view of the world, which couldn’t be further from the hazy mysticism of Sim/Moore/Morrison. It is a “crazy casino” offering “capricious gifts” with no sense beyond what we put into it.

“I strive for realism” similarly aims to undercut superstition. When Sim and Morrison wrote themselves into their stories, meeting their characters, they used their soapbox to voice grandiloquent theories about the narrative structure of the real world.

By contrast, Chadwick’s biggest flourish in this story is an illustration of relativity theory, showing Concrete as a four-dimensional worm in time-space (a little bit like in Donnie Darko), extending in as many directions as Concrete has been in the past. A nice visual effect–but then Concrete himself points out that the artist has visually assumed motion relative to the earth. Since the earth itself is in motion, Concrete’s four-dimensional worm would actually carve out a “compound helix” path through space.

Such stories show Chadwick’s scientific rationalism, but Concrete is at its very best when Chadwick lets loose his naturalist passion, contrasting the rock-steady Concrete against nature, vast and unknowable. Chadwick’s keen eye for negative space effectively highlights nature’s majesty and scope in these scenes, whether on the ocean floor, deep in a woodland, or on the heights of Everest. His characters also often rhapsodize nature, as in the story in this volume where Concrete quotes at length from Frederick Harrison on mountaineering. Characters aren’t always mouthpieces for their author, but they’re surely voicing the author’s passions here.

The most striking story in this volume, however, is what at first glance appears to be a piece of fanfic, of all things about fourth-string X-Men character Dazzler. No, really.

The pseudo-Dazzler story doubles as an artistic manifesto from the young Chadwick for all his work (it was originally published in 1986). His Dazzler stand-in is a young mutant woman, “hated and feared because [she] can project light”, who only wants to be a performer. She complains about having to fight fantastic characters and wonders, “Have we nothing better to do?”

She certainly does, as she uses her powers to conjure up fantastic montages of surrealist scenes and realizes that her creative potential is unlimited. She can project whole films from her own imagination, without worrying about budget or temperamental actors:

“No limits! No budgets! No politics, no edicts and orders…a lifetime of pure, creative decisions…exploring what’s promising, what moves people, thrills them, amuses them…astounds them!”

Obviously, this character is really talking about the potential for comics. For more than twenty years, Chadwick has been tapping that potential to project a vision like nothing else, in any art form.

And that, my friends, ain’t spinach.

Recommended? Definitely. Readers new to Concrete, however, are advised to start with even stronger volumes in the series, such as any of 2-5.

IYL: Love and Rockets; “smart” sci-fi by Morrison or Moore; nature documentaries

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Buy This Book: Phoenix Volume 9

February 16, 2007

Check back later for Part 2 of the senses-shattering series on sexual morality. In the meantime, this is supposed to be a review site, so here’s a review.

Yes, that means no chicken-fucking today, either. But this book comes close, my friends–very close (check out page 224).

Phoenix Volume 9: Strange Beings/Life, Osamu Tezuka. Viz, 2006. $14.99, 208 pages.

***

Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix is one of comics’ great unfinished epics, fit to take its place alongside such literary oeuvres incomplètes as Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities or Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast. Like those works (Musil’s in particular), Phoenix is broad in scope and ambition, a vast, mad novel of ideas. Also like those works, Phoenix is not altogether incomplete. Although he may not have finished the entire series before his death, Tezuka did leave us with several relatively self-contained volumes, as vital and essential in their own right as anything else in comics.

He finished twelve volumes, in fact, between 1967 and 1988, which are being reprinted by Viz in new English translations. The latest volume, which contains the stories Strange Beings and Life, is the ninth in the series.

New readers will understandably be reluctant to pick up a series nine volumes in, but the Phoenix series is modular by design. Each volume stands alone and can be read independently of any of the others (except for the story Civil War, published by Viz in two volumes). Certain themes and characters recur from volume to volume, and Tezuka apparently planned to tie them all together in the end. But, as the series stands, there is no ongoing continuity of plot. None of the volumes spoils previous plots or assumes familiarity with what has gone before.

If anything, this ninth volume is, as marketing folks like to say, a natural jumping-on point. Its two stories perfectly illustrate the series’ range in setting, tone and genre. Strange Beings takes place in the Ashikaga shogunate (specifically, it seems, the fifteenth century), Life in the twenty-second century. Strange Beings tells the story of a young woman trapped in a temporal anomaly of which Alan Moore would be proud. After assassinating a nun for reasons not immediately obvious, Sakon no Suke must repent by developing compassion. Along the way, she will meet various strange demons out of Japanese folklore. Life, on the other hand, is an uncannily prescient bit of science-fiction, foretelling a not-so-distant future of clones and exploitative reality television. A cynical television producer, Aoi, tampers with human cloning for entertainment value. He, too, pays a terrible price and must flee civilisation to survive.

The stories are linked thematically, as Tezuka notes in a brief afterword, both featuring protagonists punished for their disrepect for life. They also both illustrate the quasi-Buddhist moral convictions of the entire Phoenix series: life demands respect, suffering demands compassion, worldly temptation leads people astray, the pursuit of immortality is folly.

Linking them further, as in all the Phoenix stories, is the mysterious figure of the Phoenix herself. Tezuka imagines the Phoenix as a sort of demi-god, representative of the life force, and cosmic moral arbitrator. In keeping with her mythic roots as symbol for immortal life, the Phoenix’ body has miraculous restorative and rejuvenating powers. These powers drive many of the Phoenix stories, as characters pursue her feathers, blood, the animal itself–a pursuit doomed to failure.

(Regular readers of the series will be pleased to note that the big nose character also appears in both stories, in different incarnations. No Mustachio, alas)

This simultaneous scope and unity is typical of the Phoenix series. Other volumes feature space travel, robots, aliens, reworking of Japanese myth, and quasi-historical incidents, all of them joined by a common philosophical core and the Phoenix herself. And as in most of Tezuka’s work, each volume itself varies in tone, with goofy slapstick, fourth-wall-breaking humour and cartoony flourishes page-by-page with psychedelic freak-outs, bloody violence and emotional heartbreak. Phoenix contains multitudes.

Tezuka wrote and drew both stories in this volume around 1980, so he’s in full command of his mature talents. There are hectic action sequences, two-page landscapes, sixteen-panel pages, violent motion that breaks the panel, cutesy character design, innovative framing and shading to mirror characters’ internal states. A special treat here are the Strange Beings themselves. Tezuka cuts loose with these bizarre, comical/sinister figures; a good comparison for Western audiences are the equally goofy/creepy demons in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away.

The Phoenix series is like little else in comics, with its combination of cosmic metaphysics, oddball spirituality, moral message, comic touch and genre tomfoolery. Apart from Tezuka’s own Buddha, the closest thing is Dave Sim’s and Gerhard’s Cerebus–not a combination that will endear Phoenix to many readers, but apt nonetheless. Unlike Cerebus, however, Phoenix never tries the patience of its readers, is much less polemical, and–it should go without saying–is infinitely more feminist.

Plus, it’s a billion times better than a certain other 1970s cosmic Phoenix epic.

Recommended: Absolutely. Buy this book. And then buy all the other Phoenix volumes.
IYL: Comic book epics like Cerebus or Sandman. Meaning-of-life books like Promethea or The Invisibles. Jim Starlin’s 1970s trippy, cosmic stuff.