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.
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.