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Monday, November 03, 2008
This message brought to you by Yukiya Sakuragi and volume eleven of Inubaka.
So, you know how some people keep insisting that manga is the great hope of the comics industry, because the lack of sexism and misogyny won't drive new readers away the way super-hero comics allegedly do? (And how those of us who have been reading manga for longer than the current shojo boom hear this sort of thing, and just shake our heads?) Well, I bought Ral Grad, the new manga from Death Note artist Takeshi Obata. And while it's twisted in the ways I usually like I'm not sure I'll be picking up any future volumes.
That sort of thing? All over the damn book. Hell, Ral's primary motivation to become a hero is so that he'll have ample opportunity to grope women. This was published by Viz, as part of their Shonen Jump line. So it's a kid's comics.
And I'm not calling for a ban on the comic, or hoping to prompt an outcry, or anything like that. I'd just like to take this opportunity to remind people that, you know, Japanese comics are just as bad, if not worse, than American comics when it comes to the whole sexism thing.
And on a lighter note:
So, the message for this ad seems to be: if I use their product, I'll miss out on seeing hot guys make out. Yeah, I think I'll go without Bluetooth accessories for my phone a bit longer, in that case.
IDW finally manges to put out a book I'll buy. I mean, sure, it'll cost about $1 to $2 more than it should, but it's Doctor Who! Of course, I'm not optimistic about it's sales potential. Doctor Who is pretty much a cult show in the U.S. Comic books are a niche market. Comic adaptations of TV properties are even more of a niche market...you see where I'm going with this, right?
This week, the comics controversy was over how manga aimed at adult men doesn't sell, and those people who like manga aimed at adult men should just shut the fuck up because manga isn't for YOU, it's for girls!
Gosh, that sounds familiar...where have I heard that before? Oh, yeah, when female fans of super-hero comics ask if they could have a little less misogyny in their escapist entertainment, please? Now, some folk might say that "turnabout is fair play." I think it's just slightly hypocritical, myself. Especially since it's not a question of "boys manga" not selling while "girls manga" is. It's a question of "adult manga for men and women" not selling while "manga for teens and preteens" is. As usual, go read what Chris says for a good approach to the topic that doesn't mince words and has the added benefit of coinciding with my own position.
Of course, my mind gets to turning on these things, and somehow my own experiences don't seem to jibe with everyone else's reality. For example, when I worked in the comic shop, where everyone said that the adult manga is selling like gang-busters, most of our customers were teenage girls and little kids. In fact, apart from blatant fan service titles for which I know we have guaranteed sales with a couple of customers, I tend to avoid ordering too heavy on more mature titles. But when I go to my local chain bookstore, who do I always see in the manga aisles? Not teenage girls. Nope, I see Asian male UCSB students, Goth and hipster girls in their late teens/early 20s, and a smattering of jock and skater-type teenage boys. (Hey, guess who I always catch reading the yaoi when I stroll the aisles? Hint: I think American manga publishers are idiots for not licensing some manga aimed at actual gay men...particularly gay men who might not identify with wispy, effeminate eunuchs, but are still of an age where they're looking to the mass media for role models.)
Now, my own manga tastes tend to the eclectic, so I can't really draw any broad conclusions based on what I like. I mean, I like Yotsuba!, xxxHolic, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, Monster, MPD Psycho and Reiko the Zombie Shop. Crap, based on how the Japanese categorize manga, those are all aimed at adult men, aren't they? Well, maybe not MPD Psycho, but you wouldn't know that from the way it's being marketed in the U.S. Well, maybe my tastes have simply evolved...what's on my "discontinued manga shelf"? City Hunter, Worst, Apocalypse Meow and Ginga Legend Weed. Dammit. Oh, and a handful of Inu Yasha volumes I pre-ordered but never read before dropping the title because, seriously, they're still looking for that damn jewel?
Well, what manga specifically for boys am I reading? Musashi #9...that's about a female spy. Reborn...that's about a toddler who trains people to join the mafia. Death Note...that's about a sociopath. Inubaka...that's about a girl working in a pet shop. Tsubasa...that's more of an ensemble comedy/continuity porn book. Welcome to the NHK...no, that's a biting satire of otaku culture. Dammit! Don't I read any manga about young boys fighting so that they can become the best fighters so that they can win the big fight! Everyone keeps telling me that's what shonen manga is all about! Wait, there was Ranma 1/2...no, that's finished. Damn! Kindaichi Case Files maybe?
Well, what about the girly manga? Surely my tastes align with the mainstream with my girly manga! Let's see The Wallflower...no, that's a total inversion of the formula. Angel Sanctuary...no, that's apocalyptic melodrama with extra bonus incest. There's a ton of Fumi Yoshinaga stuff...no, that's yaoi, or may as well be. Fruits Basket is pretty cliche-ridden. Oh, wait, of course! Yu Watase! All of her comics are about a spunky yet clumsy girl who somehow manages to get all the pretty boys to fall in love with her! It's damn near the Platonic ideal of a shojo manga. Yes, all of them.
So, yes, I think this whole controversy is just a little bit silly. Though, I do think those rushing to defend the primacy of teen and pre-teen manga would do well to glance over the history of American comics. You know, that form that used to publish works in a large variety of genres for multiple age ranges...and is now something like 90% super-hero books written for teenagers and adults. Avoiding the stigma of "that stupid kiddie stuff" now might be a good idea.
Flash: The Fastest Man Alive #13, by Marc Guggenheim and Tony Daniel, published by DC Comics
I'm hard-pressed to think of what the point of this comic was. If we are expected to take DC creative types at their word, that the entire point of this Flash series was simply to kill off Bart Allen so that we'd be grateful that they brought back the "one, true Flash," it strikes me as nothing more than proof that there is a death fetishism running rampant through modern super-hero comics. That interpretation certainly seems borne out by the comic, in which it is emphasized over and over again that Bart Allen isn't "worthy" of being the Flash. A more likely explanation would be that, rather than ignoring the fans, as super-hero publishers are often accused of doing, DC looked at the steadily declining sales of the title, replaced the creative team (a better creative team, that was actually starting to do something interesting with the title, in my opinion), and went out of their way to give the vocal message boarding and blogging fans what they seemed to have wanted: Bart dead, Wally back. Which leads to a final issue that's frankly a creative train-wreck.
The Highwaymen #1, by Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman and Lee Garbet, published by DC/Wildstorm
A near future crime-caper with snappy dialogue, slick art and action-movie ludicrousness that doesn't devolve into self-parody. In other words, a good, surprising little treat that appears to have snuck in under the radar. Two ex-, well, secret agents supposedly, but it's not quite clear, are activated when a (supposedly) rogue element in national security attempts to track down a decades old secret. There's just enough of a teasing and ambiguity in this introduction to make it plausible that we don't quite know who the good guys are supposed to be, but the tale is told so strongly and entertainingly that finding out more promises to be fun. Garbet's art is new to me, and he has a very good sense of storytelling, with good action scenes, and unique and expressive characters. Visually, it reminds me slightly of a cross between Steve Dillon and Frank Quitely, without aping either of those styles, but occuping a kind of middle-ground between them.
Gintama volume 1, by Hideaki Sorachi, published by Viz
I was looking for something high concept, but not too serious, and I got it. Mostly. In an alternative Japan, aliens have invaded and corrupted the government. To secure their position, they've outlawed the samurai and confiscated all their swords. But, really, that's all just a pretense for allowing Sorachi to draw anachronistic technologies and funky aliens in his farcical samurai comedy. And farce it is, with broad characters and slapstick comedy, and an oddly literal approach to comedy and jokes that seems at odds with the surreality of the situation. Many of the characters are stock types to the point of stereotypes: ooh, the hard-bitten tough guy, the wacky nerd sidekick, the tough-girl side-kick, the crusty landlord with a heart of gold, the mysterious ally/enemy from the past, etc. It's hard to tell whether the characters are meant as parodies of the type, or simply the result of lack of experience as a writer. But there's the root of something there, and Gintama wouldn't be the first manga with a rough opening to improve in later volumes. The art, scrunchy and distorted, but with a careful detail, has some attraction, and between that and the potential in the work, I think I can give it the benefit of the doubt for a couple of books.
Black Diamond #1, by Larry Young and John Proctor, published by AiT/Planet Lar
The Black Diamond is the kind of high-concept, patently ludicrous idea you might have expected to see in a movie from one the less reputable production companies in the late 70s or early 80s. And I say that with love. I was a kid who grew up on Hawk the Slayer and Cannonball Run and Radioactive Dreams, and it probably warped me into the kind of person who, frequently, will value entertainment value over "logic." And so, this book, which suggests that American conservative movement would build a transcontinental highway and abandon it to gear-heads, criminals and filthy hippies in order to keep normal surface roads safe for family values voters. It's the next logical step to every car chase movie ever made. And while Young puts together a plot, something about a wife being kidnapped by terrorists, thus neccessitating the mild mannered dentist hero to embark on a cross-country drive, it's really just a pretext to set up the potential for mayhem. If there's a significant flaw in that, it is that this issue serves only as prologue: we don't get to see the mayhem. Though a short back-up strip by Dennis Culver provides a humorous insight into daily life on the Black Diamond. Jon Proctor's art on the main story is highly stylized and expressionistic. I suspect it's probably going to be too stylized for many readers, those accustomed to a slicker, more commercial style, but for me it works on this book.
Elephantmen #9, by Starkings and Moritat, published by Image
The outstanding sci-fi comic does a quiet, "day in the life" story about Hip Flask trying to get home with some groceries. It's a short seeming story, but it still is typical of the deft characterization and humanity that informs the Elephantmen series as a whole. In just a few pages we get a telling character sketch about Hip, a truck driver, some peril and an action sequence. It could almost act as a model for comics shorts.
MPD Psycho vol. 1, by Sho-U Tajima and Eiji Otsuka, published by Dark Horse
I'll admit I have something of a preference for the dark in my manga. I've been waiting eagerly for this series, particularly after the spectaculr Kurosagi Corpse Deliverey Service, also by Otsuka. This is a bit of a different beast from that series, though. While Kurosagi is ultimately optimistic, this is a much more pessimistic book, viewing humanity through a far more jaundiced view. It mixes the horror, sci-fi and thriller genres, with heavy elements of paranoia through a conspiracy sub-plot. Oh, and the protagonist is a detective with multiple personalites. One of which is a killer. The brutality of the book probably deserves some special mention. It's shocking and graphic, but it never comes off as lurid or titilating or pandering. Thanks to Tajima's clear, smooth-line art style and carefully detailed work, the horrible nature of the crimes are presented almost dispasionately and analytically. It's that coldness that communicates the horror.
See, even though I don't work in comics retail day to day anymore, I still assist my former employer by helping set order levels on the manga titles. Because there's a hell of a lot of them, and he's not that familiar with them. And I'll be honest, my first reaction to seeing the solicitation for Nymphet was "What the holy hell? A comedy series about an eight year old girl trying to have sex with her teacher? Who the fuck thought this would fly in the US, and why do they still have a job?" My second reaction was "Gee, as much as it might amuse me to see Mike go to jail, I'm not sure I want it to be for selling this comic." And so, I declined to order it.
Now, I'm not a prude. Far from it (just ask poor, put upon Mike). I'll happily order hentai manga for the store, sexually suggestive yaoi, and risque manga titles of all genres from all publishers. And even though I understood that this particular title was not anything other than extraordinarily raunchy (no actual sex is in the book, in other words), I didn't feel that sexually suggestive material featuring elementary school age children was a good fit for the store. And seeing some of these sample pages, out of context as they are, hasn't persuaded me that I made a mistake.
In the long run, I think a title like this would have done more harm than good in the US marketplace. We've all been sort of bracing for a big manga backlash from the forces of social conservatism and religious authority, and this could easily have been the book that tipped it off, as the mere suggestion of sexuality in children is enough to set off major moral crusades in this country. You can sort of see it happening already, with the "all manga is porn" responses that have appeared in reaction to this news. And as stupid and short-sighted as those responses are, I have trouble seeing the "CENSORSHIP! CENSORSHIP! WE DEMAND OUR LOLI!" responses from some of the books defenders as any more helpful.
The Plain Janes by Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg, published by DC/Minx
Being pretty far removed from the target audience for this book, both by age and gender, I wonder if that makes me a better or a worse judge of its quality. It reads a bit like some of the better shojo manga out there, with a dramatic, if not melodramatic, emotive approach to story, placing its emphasis on relationships between characters instead of plot. But a little more plot wouldn't have hurt, as new girl Jane, eager to reinvent herself in a new town after her parents fled the city in the wake of a terrorist incident, forms a new clique with three other girls named Jane. By the rules of high school cliquedom, that these four girls would so easily become good enough friends quickly enough to form an underground art collective that peppers the city with conceptual and installation pieces...well, it seems unlikely, and a bit too conveniently handled in order to hurry the plot along. But those quibbles of pacing and convenience aside, the story does have a nice emotional resonance that I suspect will mean more to someone not quite as old and jaded as I. Although, if I can inject a small complaint over one of my pet peeves: the gay best friend character? Who adds nothing to the story other than to be the "gay best friend" type of character? Yeah, I don't need to see that character in anything anymore. Jim Rugg's art is nicely matured here from his earlier work. He strikes a nice balance between a realistic and a cartoony style, which allows him to very clearly show emotion and action, but still caricature and exaggerate characters for whatever effect or mood the scene calls for. If there is a fault, it's the sometimes odd choices of "camera angle" which just call attention to themselves for their peculiarity. Just because Gil Kane could pull off an up-nostril shot, that doesn't mean they're always a good idea.
Countdown #51, by Paul Dini, Jesus Saiz and Jimmy Palmiotti, published by DC
Judging by online critical reaction, I seem to be in the minority in enjoying this comic. For what it's worth, it's not that I necessarily disagree with any of the more intelligent and perceptive critics who have been disappointed by this book. It's just that: what they call a slow story, I call deliberate pacing. I also can't get too bothered by the the somewhat insular appeal of this book. Let's be perfectly honest: this isn't going to be anyone's introduction to the DC universe. And while overtures to new and returning readers who aren't caught up with all the intricacies of contemporary continuity are always appreciated, I don't think a book that's designed specifically to appeal to the regular super-hero reading audience has to necessarily go out of it's way to pretend that "every comic is somebody's first." Even the much maligned scene from Justice League of America which reappeared in issue #50 works within that context, as it establishes a benchmark by which events in other DC books can be placed on a time line. Given that the title of the series is "Countdown" that seems like an acceptable use of a few pages every couple weeks. All that being said, I actually do enjoy this book. Dini has a good ear for dialogue and the voices of the various characters, his plotting is very deliberate, and the co-writers and artists lined up for this series have all done good work which I've enjoyed in the past. No, it's not the super-star line-up of 52, but it's competent craftsmen who know how to tell enjoyable super-hero stories in service of the corporate properties.
Manga Catch Up: Some manga titles I've been reading, that I don't believe I've talked about before.
Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs, by Yukiya Sakuragi, published by Viz A very, if not deliberately, cute comedy about a dog-crazy girl and the misunderstandings and adventures she gets into because of her infuriating naivete and love of dogs. It has good, if somewhat unremarkable art, with the exception of highly realistic and exquisitely rendered dogs. And in a really nice change of pace for a story about a naive girl in the big city, there's so far not a hint of any romantic subplots.
Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki, published by Dark Horse A comedic horror/mystery series with engaging art in an original style, with a wacky cast of characters who, in any other title, would be really messed up, but just fit in perfectly and work here? What is not to love?
Mushishi by Yuki Urushibara, published by Del Rey I was actually a bit underwhelmed. Oh, the art is lovely, to be certain, but the stories are so...vague and ephemeral. Yes, I understand that what we're going for here is more tone and "bigger picture" effects than any emphasis on plot or character would allow. But the end result is something that feels a bit hollow.
Reiko the Zombie Shop by Rei Mikamoto, published by Dark Horse I can't even begin to adequately describe how much I've come to love this comic. I'm not sure if it's the super-cute artwork, or the utterly depraved over the top gore, the absurdist black comedy, or the intersection of those three elements, but it all comes together in a glorious totality of cute girls and horrific violence that puts the most ambitious torture-porn producing shlock producer to shame. And, to its benefit, unlike the torture-porn films, the women actually legitimately kick-ass and take no grief.
Welcome to the NHK by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Oiwa, published by Tokyopop Unlike the various iterations of Train Man that have come out in the last year, this is not the story of a nerd who comes out of his shell and discovers the wide world outside of fandom. No, this is the dark mirror of that story, about a shut-in who only falls further and further into more and more depraved and soul-numbing depths of misanthropic nerddom. There's a bit of "there but for the grace of" feel to the enterprise, especially as this is no gentle mockery of the foibles of nerds, but rather a vicious evisceration of all their negative personality traits.
I hate the kind of scuttlebut that says "if you don't support Book X it will be cancelled" because the suggestion that a book is on the cancellation bubble is usually enough to get it pushed over, but since there seems to be concern over the survival of Aquaman, I thought I'd take a moment and say that Tad Williams has been doing a bang-up job with the title since he's taken over, adding a nice, lightly humorous touch to a super-hero adventure title that retains the best elements of Busiek's revamp while bringing the title more in line with a traditional Aquaman book. It's good stuff, in other words, and you should give it a shot if you haven't yet.
Speaking of which...I've been enjoying Will Pfeiffer's run on Catwoman a great deal since the start...but if there are any dead babies in upcoming issues, I'm done with the book. I put up with Nazis buzzsawing children because I trusted that Johns was going somewhere with it, and y'know, Nazis are bad. But killing a baby we've known for over a year, who actually brought something new and interesting into the title character's life...no, that's my limit. Consider yourself on notice, Pfeiffer.
I love comic book fans. "Oh noes, a not very good picture has been released to the internet! Clearly the movie is going to suck! I'm going to go on every message board I can find and make a Brokeback Gotham joke to express my displeasure!"
Apart from Doctor Who, the only television I've been watching much of lately is the new BBC Robin Hood series. It's overall good, but the "family appropriate" heart it wears on its sleeve is very telling and overpowers the stories a good deal of the time. If anything, the series is a bit too bloodless. When even the villain of the piece is making metatextual comments about how the hero is stupid for not just killing him already, you've perhaps pushed your "the hero doesn't kill" rule too far. But, apart from that, I enjoy it, and I'm continually fascinated that even the BBC was willing to put a children's show on the air that's basically a thinly veiled condemnation of the "war on terror" and Britain's and America's domestic policies in response to it.