Archive for the ‘Viz’ Category

Random review time

August 18, 2010

Children of the Sea Vol. 1. Daisuke Igarashi. Viz, 2009. $14.99, 320 pages.

HP Lovecraft hated fish. No, scratch that — he hated all sea creatures; he was nothing if not an equal-opportunity hater. To Lovecraft, our finny friends were monstrous, alien things; or, as he might have put it himself, they represented an unspeakable horror, a nameless revulsion and were all round just plain icky.  You can find this in various of Lovecraft’s works, but most notably in The Shadow Over Innsmouth  and Dagon.

This sentiment was echoed in manga by Junji Ito’s Gyo (not, incidentally, the only time Ito has echoed Lovecraft — witness the Cyclopean freak-out at the end of Uzumaki). In Gyo, sea creatures are horrors of the id, swelling up from the depths and irrupting into the natural order of things. They’re also, again, just kind of icky.

Children of the Sea represents the complete opposite of this sentiment. This is a manga about the wonders of the sea, and how its mysterious life-forms have their own otherworldly and sublime beauty, a beauty at risk but well worth saving. Igarashi’s art is serviceable at best when it comes to figure work and above the waterline, but below the surface, in the underwater scenes, displays an unpretentious and unobtrusive sense of wonder.

It’s also the most thoroughly YA manga I’ve ever read and, indeed, the most YA comic I’ve read since Chynna Clugston-Major’s Queen Bee. I’m so not the target audience for this; in the end I had a hard time appreciating it because of this. The low-key atmospherics and gentle plot development didn’t grab me enough to make me come back for a second volume, but it’s easy to imagine younger readers glomming onto it.

Recommended? If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably too old to appreciate this manga.

DMZ Vol. 8: Hearts and Minds. Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, Ryan Kelly, Jeremy Cox and Jared K. Fletcher. Vertigo, 2010. $16.99, 192 pages.

There was a bit of debate in the blogosphere, a few months back, about whether the eponymous protagonist of Dan Clowes’ Wilson was unsympathetic; and, as a corollary, whether narrative art requires sympathetic protagonists. I’m in favour of saying no to that latter question — Cerebus, for instance, spent long periods of his comic being pretty unlikeable but the series never suffered for it. (Insert obligatory disclaimer about Dave Sim’s political views).

With DMZ, many readers think we have another example of an unsympathetic protagonist. That is, a lot of people think the series protagonist, Matty Roth, is an unsympathetic, simple-minded douchebag in over his head. They’re wrong: Roth is a sympathetic, simple-minded douchebag well out of his depth.

At least, I thought so until I got to this volume. And now there’s a major plot twist which has me questioning not only whether Roth is still sympathetic but whether I actually want to keep reading a series where the protagonist has done what Roth has done. To keep reading after this, feels like an act of complicity in the darker side of US foreign policy.

Which is an odd sort of conjuring-trick on Wood’s part, since his politics seem to be even further to the left than mine. He’d surely be the first to condemn said darker side. And certainly Wood isn’t condoning Roth’s actions here…even so, I’m not sure I can keep reading a comic book where the lead character has become

[SPOILER]

a war criminal.

[/END SPOILER]

Maybe that’s just my hang-up, man, but if so, then so be it.

Recommended? No.

The Poor Bastard. Joe Matt. Drawn and Quarterly, 2001. $16.95, 176 pages.

Oh hey, speaking of unsympathetic protagonists…well, you can say this much about autobiographer Joe Matt: he’s not afraid to paint himself in the worst possible light. In this collection of stories from Matt’s Peepshow, he depicts himself as a tightwad, a creep, a jerk, a schmuck, a lowlife, a loser, a bum, a deadbeat etc. etc. etc.

And, brother, do I mean “et cetera”.

Seriously, has there been an autobiographical cartoonist since Crumb who has been so devoted to telling us all what a despicable character he really is? This is less “warts and all” than “all warts”.

Recommended? I enjoyed it, but, boy, your mileage sure may vary.

Advertisements

Phoenix 10-12

June 23, 2010

Phoenix Vols 10 & 11: Sun Parts 1 & 2. Osamu Tezuka. Viz, 2007. $15.99/$16.99, 344/344 pages.

Does doing it twice count as a motif? Because it’s striking that two of Tezuka’s best works, viz. Ode to Kirihito and the two-volume Sun (which is reprinted here as Phoenix Vols 11 & 12) feature protagonists with the heads of dogs. Well, okay, it’s a wolf’s head here in Phoenix, but still.

That’s not even the weirdest part of Sun, however. No, that dubious honour goes to the curious theology on display here. The gods are real, it seems, but not exactly how we imagine them. They’re more like political powers than spiriual ones. One of the chief conflicts in Sun arises from the introduction of foreign-born Buddhism into hitherto animist Japan. The Buddhist gods are thus presented as a sort of expansionist, imperialistic power being foisted on an unwilling populace.

And none of this metaphorically. We actually see the gods themselves in combat with the local forest spirits.

What makes this truly weird is that Tezuka had of course, a decade earlier, created a major, 2500-page biography of the Gautama Buddha. So what had previously been presented as a force for good is now seen as a foreign intrusion. Had Tezuka changed his mind? Or was he simply presenting another side of the story?

As with much in Phoenix, we’ll never know — Tezuka died before creating the final installment, which he had promised would explain how all the previous volumes tied together. In a way, I think it might have been best for Phoenix that Tezuka never finished; without the overarching web of connective tissue that a final volume would have produced, what we have instead is a series of volumes suggestively connected by theme, allusion and the occasional carry-over character. The result, I suspect, is richer than Tezuka’s grand plan could ever have been.

Recommended? Some of Tezuka’s best work, so yes. Don’t worry about starting a series at the end; the stories in Phoenix don’t, for the most part, tell a single continuous narrative from beginning to end, so it’s quite possible to start reading here.

Phoenix Vol. 12: Early Works. Osamu Tezuka. Viz, 2008. $14.99, 188 pages.

So in a way it’s fitting that the end to Phoenix isn’t some puzzle piece that connects all the dots, but rather this volume, which reprints work from decades before Tezuka had started the Phoenix saga proper. The Early Works of the title come from Tezuka’s days working on shojo manga, and it shows — there’s plenty of frilly, pretty stuff on display here.

Not that these works are entirely unconnected to the “real” Phoenix. They revolve around the immortal bird, which looks here much like how Tezuka would later draw it, and indeed it’s noteworthy just how similar these stories feel to the later, “real” Phoenix stories. Characters seek in vain to drink the immortality-giving blood of the magic bird. Futile, tragic wars are waged. Key figures are reincarnated in later eras. These Early Works really do seem like Phoenix 1.0.

So, as I say, it seems only fitting that the mad, sprawling epic of Phoenix should end with shojo romance and funny animals. In a work that spans millennia, and covers slapstick, war, fantasy, science-fiction, comedy, tragedy and everything in between, why not? Phoenix contains multitudes — and then some.

Recommended? Definitely, but only for those who’ve already read the other volumes.

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.