Archive for the ‘Manga’ Category

Paging Rick Santorum

February 15, 2012

Forget about your Lost Girls, Big-Ass Comics or Milo Manara. Ladies and gentlemen, I present, for your edification, the single most erotic page in the entire history of sequential fiction.

–Gents, you may want to bring a kleenex for this–

Click here, if you dare.

(Link does not contain nudity, but is still probably not SFW)

A few words about Tezuka’s Buddha

September 10, 2010

After re-reading Phoenix, I recently decided to re-read Buddha. As was probably the case with many English readers, Buddha formed my first exposure to Osamu Tezuka’s more serious works. And it’s a good starting-point for Tezuka, containing as it does many of his stylistic themes, habits and quirks. E.g. formal play (as when characters break through the panel walls); cute animals; a broad humanism; his famous “star system” (although there are fewer cameos and roles for his regular cast than in some of his other works); the juxtaposition of cartoony figures against quasi-realistic backgrounds; patchgourds and the little pleased-to-meet-ya guy; and above all the wild variations in tone from pathos to bathos and back again from page to page — and sometimes even within a single page. It’s also his longest single continuous narrative thus far published in English and, I would guess, probably his longest one in any language. [Phoenix, for mine, being more a series of short stories connected through theme and the occasional cross-over character; while Astro Boy and Black Jack, although longer, are episodic by nature.]

The result is a vast epic, by turns raucous and calm, deeply respectful and irreverent, tragic and comic (see what I mean about the variations in tone?). In terms of the Buddha’s own personal journey, the climax comes at the end of Volume 4, when he achieves enlightenment — uh, SPOILER, I guess, in the way that you’d spoil The Passion by revealing that Jesus gets it in the end. I mean, the whole point of the Buddha is that he achieves enlightenment; that’s why he’s called the Buddha, the name meaning “Enlightened One”. But Tezuka fills his pages with secondary characters, each of whom has a gripping, moving story to tell and so you barely notice that there’s nowhere really for the nominal protagonist to go, or grow, after halfway through the series. Indeed, I had forgotten how much of this series is given over to business with other characters than the Buddha himself.

That said, I felt a slight dip in the series around Volume 6, when Ananda is introduced. I’m not sure that the series needed another bandit to be converted by the Buddha, or another figure who hates the caste system, or another woman whose muteness is cured by the Buddha. Tezuka seems to be repeating himself here, with diminishing returns. But things pick up again in the final volume. Another quibble — I thought the telling of the Four Encounters (where a pre-enlightenment Siddharta first encounters death, disease, old age and asceticism) was somewhat fumbled. This is one of the greatest myths in the world, and Tezuka rather hurries over it in his haste to cram in as much of human interest as possible.

(And I still bloody hate those Chip Kidd dust-sleeves on the hardcovers)

Still, these are minor quibbles with a monumental, deeply moving epic worthy of its subject matter. If anyone was going to draw a three thousand-page manga biography of the Buddha, I’m glad it was Tezuka.

Recommended? Absolutely.

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.

So Long, Farewell, Auf Wiedersehen, Adieu

July 19, 2009

Good-Bye. Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Drawn and Quarterly, 2008. $19.95, 208 pages.

Impotence, death, full-bodied rashes, symbolic exhibitionism. Prostitution, incest, foot fetishism and the exploitation of Hiroshima. Yoshihiro Tatsumi definitely has a singular vision of post-war Japan. It’s a bleak vision, so bleak it makes Chris Ware look like Andy Runton. In Tatsumi’s seedy world, men are perverts, Johns, and/or frustrated in love, sex and work. Women are prostitutes, strippers, and/or frustrated themselves — generally with a good helping of tears.

There’s nothing in Good-Bye that will surprise anyone who’s read either of the two previous volumes of Tatsumi’s work published by Drawn and Quarterly (The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo). Tatsumi is definitely mining, here, the same vein of deadpan despair as in those earlier volumes.

Still, it’s a rich vein, worth being mined. You couldn’t exactly call it nihilism — that would suggest a sort of editorialising that Tatsumi generally doesn’t bother with. Instead, he simply and plainly lays out the bare facts of these hopeless lives, and has his characters plod on through. Sometimes they yearn, sometimes they cry, but mostly they just endure.

I can’t think of anyone else in comics who makes comics quite like this. Ware is the obvious comparison: Ware too has a pervasive sense of despair. But he also has a sense of humour, which Tatsumi has never betrayed — unless these stories are meant to be funny, in which case Tatsumi has a sense of humour blacker than a black hole. Ware also sometimes indulges in the kitschy sentimentality of miserabilism; his depressing tableaux sometimes verge on tears-of-a-clown material. (Don’t get me wrong; I still think that Ware is one of the greatest cartoonists of all time).

Tatsumi, by contrast, generally doesn’t engage in this kind of thing. You rarely get the sense, which you sometimes get with Ware, that Tatsumi is whispering in your ear, “Look at how sad all this is.” One exception is the story in this volume, “Life is so sad”, which is every bit as (uncharacteristically) unsubtle as it sounds. But for the most part, Tatsumi’s tone is flat, unemotional — “without affect”, a psychiatrist might say.

There a few stumbles in this volume. “Life is so sad” is one of them. Another is the cod-psychoanalysis at the end of “Woman in the Mirror”, which shows Tatsumi’s understanding of queer sexuality as not much more advanced than Osamu Tezuka’s in MW. But on the whole, Good-Bye nicely rounds out a trio of works by a great cartoonist, a chronicler of life at the fringes of society and normality.

Recommended? For those with a strong emotional constitution.

I read some comics, and then I had some thoughts

October 12, 2008

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.

Some things I’ve read lately

November 3, 2007

Most recent depressofests I have endured: Funny Games, Anatomy of Hell and Irreversible.

Funny Games is one of those have-your-cake-and-choke-on-it movies about how, like, the viewer is totally complicit in cinematic violence, man, and that means YOU. The best thing about this strategy for the writer/director Michel Haneke is that, if you like the film, he’s right, and if you don’t like it, he’s still right. Emo rating: when I slap you, you’ll take it and like it. I didn’t like it.

Anatomy of Hell was alternately dull and ridiculous, a softcore porno scripted by Sartre. The female character’s vagina is memorably described as “The horror of Nothingness that is the imprescribable All.” That might sound pretty entertaining; it wasn’t, although the bit with the garden-tool was (unintentionally) funny. Some enterprising nerd should dub the soundtrack and subtitles onto a real porno. Emo rating: Gerard Way writing an apparently good comic.

Irreversible was much more like it, an amazing, deeply unsettling and virtuosic bit of film-making. The two infamously gut-wrenching scenes are as unflinching as the cutting scenes of In My Skin. Plus, the DVD has the most disturbing film clip ever,* for a song from the soundtrack (by one of the Daft Punk guys). Emo rating: Ivan Brunetti when he’s off his meds.

* Yes, even more disturbing than that Aphex Twin video.

Onto the graphic novels!

Path of the Assassin, Volumes 1 & 2. Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Dark Horse, 2006. $9.95 each, 320/312 pages.

At the risk of losing all my manga-credibility, I have a confession to make. I’ve never been able to get into Koike’s and Kojima’s more famous samurai epic, Lone Wolf and Cub. I can appreciate the artistry on display in the volumes I’ve read, but it just never grabbed me. And Koike’s Crying Freeman (with Ryoichi Ikegami) is just flat-out ludicrous, with one of the silliest “high concepts” ever: “A sensitive young artist is mind-controlled to become the world’s deadliest assassin. The one thing they can’t control? His tear-ducts!” If you thought Crying Superman was the height of graphic novel kitsch, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

So it was with considerable trepidation that I approached these first two volumes of yet another manga series from Koike and Kojima.

Well, I needn’t have trepidated. This is excellent stuff, the sort of unputdownable, must-get-the-next-volume experience that this manga reader is always looking for but rarely finds. What makes the difference, from LW&C, at least, is the characterization. The leads here aren’t ciphers like Ogami Itto, but roguish allies and friends who live by their wits. Their interplay is enjoyable, and drives the need to read on and find out what they do next.

Also, ninjas doing cool shit trumps samurai doing cool shit.

Warning–there are some seriously dubious sexual attitudes on display. But I, for one, thought they got away with it (barely!) thanks to the general 70s and pulpish vibe.

Drifting Classroom Volume 8, Kazuo Umezu. Viz, 2007. $9.95, 192 pages.

Aw, yeah. The previous volume dragged in the middle, and gave us less of the stark raving bugfuck craziness that this series trades on. But this volume is a fast-paced return to form, several panels inducing laugh-out-loud horror.

Yes, laugh-out-loud horror, and I don’t mean that it’s campy. Umezu fans, you know what I’m talking about.

Walt and Skeezix Book Three, Frank King. Drawn and Quarterly, 2007. $29.95, 400 pages.

Yes, believe the hype. Gentle, understated masterpiece etc. etc. Three volumes in, and we’re starting to see some of the strip’s most famous feature, the ageing of its characters. Wee Skeezix, introduced as a mere stripling in Book One, is old enough to go to school by the end of this volume. What’s remarkable about these changes is how imperceptibly they occur, just like in real life.

The only work I can think of that does something similar is A la recherche du temps perdu. There’s a remarkable scene towards the very end of those books where the narrator suddenly realizes that he’s grown old, and so has everyone he knows. What’s startling about the scene is that it should have been obvious that, while he was out chasing Albertine and being generally neurasthenic, the narrator was getting on in years. But he hasn’t ever thought about it, and nor has the reader–or this reader hadn’t, at any rate. The message: one day you’ll wake up and realise that you’re a sad old fuck and your life will soon be over. That sounds like a platitude when explicitly stated, but it really resonates when it’s experienced over thousands and thousands of pages.

And if it was good enough for Proust, it ought to be good enough for King.

In this volume, Madame Octave continues her fiendish schemes to take Skeezix away from his adoptive father, Walt. But the anxiety is overall much more subdued than the last volume. Here Octave pops up more as a nuisance than as the sinister embodiment of early death that she seemed before. The general tone is rather dreamier and more romantic, as Walt’s relationship with Blossom blooms (sorry). In keeping with the more romantic tone, King draws several strips in a striking style that I don’t remember from previous volumes, a lovely impressionism which is all shadows and light, silhouettes and dappled splashes of white, clouds of hatching that emanate from street-lamps. It’s beautiful stuff in little black and white (well, yellow) panels.

So: buy it and be reminded of your own inevitable mortality. Memento mori, suckahs!

I’ll rip off your head and s**t down your neck

March 7, 2007

Hey, it’s still Wednesday in my part of the world.

***

Ultimate Muscle, Vols 14 & 15, Yudetamago. Viz, 2006. Each $7.95, 232 pages.

…and then there’s the really weird contest manga, like Ultimate Muscle. Addicts of Death Note may recognise the title as another part of Viz’ Shonen Jump imprint. That was, frankly, all I knew of it until leafing through these two volumes in a used bookstore. What convinced me to buy them was a scene two-thirds into Volume 15, where, well, I’ll just show you the scene:

hollywood-bowl2.jpg

(Click to embiggen; apologies for my crappy scanning un-skills)

That’s Hollywood Bowl, toilet-themed superhuman, making his grand entrance on the (literal and figurative) throne. Ultimate Muscle protagonist Kid Muscle is in the bottom right corner, freaking out at the Bowl’s bling. The two proceed to have a very silly wrestling match, all part of the “Superhuman Olympics” which are evidently the plot engine for the series right now. These Olympics involve outlandish characters competing with one another to become the “superhuman champion of the world”, sometimes through wrestling matches, and sometimes through three-legged races or giant pachinko machines. These two volumes take us through several of these unlikely qualifying rounds.

Yudetamago is a joint pseudonym for writer Takashi Shimada and artist Yoshinori Nakai. Nakai’s art is nothing to write home about, but its light, cartoonish feel carries Shimada’s goofy scripts. Between them they simultaneously parody and indulge in the conventions of contest manga, such as over-the-top contests, unfair judges with a grudge against the hero, and so on. The result works perfectly well as light, semi-surreal action comedy, with an emphasis on the comedy.

And in grand comedic tradition, most of the laughs come at the expense of the nominal hero. Kid Muscle is the son of former superhuman champion King Muscle (who was himself the hero of a similar series by the same creators in the 80s). Not unusually for a comedic hero, Kid Muscle is sleazy, lazy, cowardly, clumsy and not too bright. On the other hand, he’s got a good heart (or so we’re told), so we’re inclined to root for him. More importantly, he takes a good pratfall.

Kid Muscle’s plain design also makes him an effective straight man against his bizarro competitors, many of whom are based on ideas submitted by readers. Kid Muscle is basically a buff guy in a luchador mask. But his opponents include Hollywood Bowl; Sly Scraper, who is half-man half-skyscraper; and Bobby Wasabi, whose special move is “Sensational Sushi Paper!” It’s the rogue’s gallery from Dick Tracy on LSD.

Ultimate Muscle is much like what you might expect if Garth Ennis wrote manga. Gruesome, bloody violence alternates with occasionally very funny toilet humour, characters who are walking punchlines, and comical nudity (we see Kid Muscle’s pixellated member several times), all of it wrapped up with a general disrespect for guys in silly costumes. If Hitman had been called Wrestler instead, we might have got something like Ultimate Muscle.

Although I doubt even Ennis could have come up with Hollywood Bowl.

Recommended? If you’re in the right sort of mood, it’s a fun diversion (albeit nothing spectacular). Well, it made me laugh, anyway.

IYL: Iron Wok Jan!, Hitman, wrestling

PC Alert: On the one hand: (1) All the superhumans are men, and women appear to be sex objects/love interests, at best; (2) there are several crude or tasteless gags; and (3) there are more than a few gratuitous panty and bent-over shots. On the other hand, (4) most of those shots are of Kid Muscle’s apparent main squeeze Roxanne, who is spunky, tough, independent and doesn’t swoon over “her man”. Above all, she’s drawn realistically. She’s not quite a Crumb girl (or a Little or Hernandez girl, either) but she’s definitely not anorexic. Also, (5) despite the setting of the superhuman olympics, international fans aren’t depicted as stereotypes. On the whole: PC approved.

I was looking back to see if you were looking back at me to see me looking back at you

March 5, 2007

Death Note, Volume 10, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. Viz, 2007. $7.99, 208 pages.

John likes cats. Susie knows that John likes cats. John suspects that Susie knows that he likes cats. Susie thinks that John suspects that she knows that he likes cats. John believes that Susie thinks that he suspects that she knows that he likes cats. Susie suspects that John believes that…

How much more of this nonsense can you take? In principle, I could invent ever more elaborate sentences tracking the relation between John’s and Susie’s mental states, and I could keep doing so ad infinitum. But in practice, most people’s comprehension starts to run out somewhere short of infinity–probably around the third or fourth iteration, in fact. After “Susie thinks that John suspects that she knows etc.”, you start to need a diagram.

By my count Death Note, in this tenth volume of its English translation, is up to approximately one hundred and twenty-seven iterations. That’s one complicated diagram.

The Death Note series tells of role model student Light Yagami, who finds an occult “Death Note” that gives him the power to kill anyone by writing their name in its pages. Being an upstanding and righteous young man, Light decides to use his new found powers for good.

Naturally, he does this by executing criminals he judges to have been treated too lightly by the justice system. Light adopts the secret identity of “Kira” and instigates a wave of vigilante terror that makes the Punisher look like an idealistic defence attorney. The Japanese police freak out and establish a special task force to find the true identity of Kira, and of course the head of this task force is Light’s own father.

Unable to catch Kira, the police soon turn to the mysterious L, a famed sleuth who quickly becomes Light’s nemesis for the rest of the series. Plot twists abound, and we are continually given new revelations about the Death Notes and the occult powers behind them. But the bulk of the series sees Light, as Kira, trying to outwit those, like his own father or L, who would try to keep him from his righteous task. And that’s about as much as I can say; as for the plot of this tenth volume, I can’t even begin to explain it without revealing important plot points from earlier volumes.

Takeshi Obata’s art is as reliable as ever in this volume. There’s no tricks or showing off, the art existing solely to serve the plot. That’s not to say Obata is untalented; on the contrary, his very unostentatious realism has helped keep the series believable. And Obata is well above average at many things, such as rendering the chilly, sterile environments of modern life. He evidently relishes drawing clothes, too, to judge by the loving attention he pays to folds and creases in fabric, even on the slightest background character in a crowd scene. These small bits of realism add up, along with his clean character design and well flowing transitions, to ground the story far better than more cartoony or super-kinetic art could.

And boy, oh, boy, does Obata like drawing pretty boys/young men. At least, I hope he does, because Tsugumi Ohba’s script means he has to draw an awful lot of them. Not only protagonist Light and his nemesis L but also, as the series progresses, Mello, Near and (in this volume) Mikami, each of them physical, moral and intellectual reflections of one another, pretty, skinny young men with moptops and stylish clothes. It’s not yaoi–there’s no overt sexual tension between any of these prettyboys–but it’s certainly the stuff that slashfic is made of.

Through all this, the biggest attraction has remained Light himself, the ruthless, sociopathic mastermind who out-machievels Machievelli. No matter how convoluted his plans become, it’s still a treat to see him coolly hoodwinking his antagonists with bluffs, double-bluffs, triple-bluffs…all the way up to one-hundred-and-twenty-seven-tuple bluffs.

Or maybe it’s more than 127. I lost count myself, somewhere around the middle of the series when its complexity started to grow exponentially like some cancerous Mandelbrot set. Ten volumes in, the series is still mighty entertaining, what with its addictive cliff-hangers and Light’s games of intellectual chess. But Death Note feels increasingly burdened by its own internal logic and continuity. Unlike some other long-running series, the past returns again and again, as Light wonders, for instance, what L can infer from an incident five volumes back. At least the end is now in sight, with only one or two more volumes to go.

And then all the Death Note addicts will have to find a new drug.

Recommended? Definitely, apart from diminishing returns as the series continues. If you start the series, you’ll probably feel compelled to finish it. And, for God’s sake, start with the first volume.

IYL: Brian K. Vaughn’s work, e.g. Runaways, Y the Last Man; serialized dramas like The Wire and Battlestar Galactica; thrillers or mysteries from the perspective of the villain e.g. American Psycho.

No Ito for you, bunny!

March 4, 2007

At Same Hat!, confirmation that Dark Horse will not be printing any more volumes of Junji Ito anthology Museum of Terror. A dark, dark day indeed for the forces of good.

bunny.jpg

The series sold poorly, apparently. There might be a couple of reasons for that: (1) the book didn’t seem well distributed, either in the Direct Market or in bookstores; (2) the book wasn’t well marketed; and/or (3) the rough, early material in the volumes they did publish scared off readers unfamiliar with Ito’s later work.

But for some reason I feel like picking option (4)–blame Joe Quesada.

Are you happy now, Joe? You made bunny cry.

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.