December 29, 2009

Tomorrow is Indy Comic Book Day!

I'm sure almost everyone reading this already knows, but in case you missed it, tomorrow is Indy Comic Book Day, part of Indy Comic Book Week.

Please go to your local comic book shop tomorrow and show some love for small press and self-published comics! I will be doing my part, work-permitting. If I make it, I will be sure to post what I got. Feel free to share your list in the comments when you get back from your store!

December 28, 2009

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Antique Bakery Volume 3

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga

I hope that Digital Manga won't be offended that I didn't try the scratch and sniff cover, given that I got this from the library. I'm afraid I don't know where that strawberry has been!

What I do know is that this is Yoshinaga at her best, throwing a grouping of characters (our established set of four men plus others that wind their way in and out of the world of the bakery) into the mix and letting them interact in ways that are both comic and touching.

We start with a pair of "reporters" who are thrown into comic sketches because of their assets and a remote location for the baking team. The usual comic problems of Ono and women crop up (not to mention that he ruined several of the other competing bakeries with his sleeping around) but in the end, both reporters and bakers manage to do okay.

Of course, nothing stays stable long at the Antique Bakery, and soon Ono's mentor comes calling--and wants to bring Ono back with him to France! What lengths will Tachibana go to keep Ono? And oh yeah, by the way--just how many people has Ono slept with, anyway? This was a fairly dramatic section, as we get Ono's past history and see that while being a baker is natural for him, he went through quite a bit of pain (both emotionally and physically) to get where he is.

Obviously, Ono stays in the end, and we're off to a wedding where Kanda gets to show off his pastries and we peer further into the history of Tachibana, who seems to have had trouble keeping his hands off his female peers. (This leads to one of my favorite lines in the book--"Sakkiko was small-chested, so I thought that it was true love this time...") We also see a hint at a possible future romance, but maybe I just misread the story.

Last up is a story that seems rather out of place, as a seemingly uncaring mother ignores her child. But there's a link to the Bakery that isn't what you expect. In the end, all is revealed, we learn more about another of the cast that surprises even his fellow workers, and Yoshinaga leaves this trade with a patented bit of comedic cheapness by Tachibana.

I've mentioned before that at heart, Antique Bakery is a sugary set of stories fitting with the setting and this is no exception. There is some conflict this time around, but it's never serious. Like in a good sitcom, you worry that things may be changing, but by the end of the episode/chapter, all is reset to normal. We do learn more about each character in this volume, but it's not as though the Bakery is really ever going to lose Odo. The fun is in watching our cast react to the situation presented to them by Yoshinaga.

It's Yoshinaga's ability to shape a fun read out of basic situational comedy--and use homosexuality as a running gag without it feeling stereotypical or forced into the narrative--is what makes Antique Bakery so good. By this volume, the premise is pretty well set up, so the jokes come faster, especially recurring gags like Ono's sluttyness. It's all helped along by gorgeous line work that focuses on the characters and gives the reader just enough background to understand the situation. Reading Antique Bakery is sometimes like watching a stage play...the actors and their lines are the focus and the viewer/reader can fill in the rest as needed.

I'm sad because my time with the Bakery is almost up--there's only one more volume to go. But if you are looking for a manga that doesn't take itself too seriously but revels in great character interplay, you should order a copy of Antique Bakery to go. You'll be glad you did.
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The Muppet Show Comic Book: Meet the Muppets

Written by Roger Langridge
Illustrated by Roger Langridge
Boom! Studios

I'd been hearing really good things about Boom! Studios' new adaptation of the Muppet Show from those who still read comics in single issue form, and I admit it took all my willpower to trade-wait this one. After all, I'll take a look at anything Muppet-related and I loved Langridge's Marvel comedy work.

However, I had no idea that Mark Waid had been kind enough to produce a comic book just for me, and get Roger Langridge to write and draw it.

Thanks Mark! It's awfully kind of you.

Adapting a very visual property to comics can be a tricky thing, but Langridge does an amazing job of capturing the magic in a way that not even the last Muppet Movie (Muppets from Space) was able to do. All of the bad puns, visual gags, and sense of family are there, right down to little background details, such as people passing by backstage as the main characters talk.

How well does Langridge get it? The first page is a Muppet News Flash, talking about how the Muppets have moved to comic books. When you turn the page, not only does the splash page feature darn near everyone from the old show, Statler and Waldorf start their heckling early and often, with the wordplay being every bit as good as the program ever was.

Each issue reads like an episode of the original show, with Langridge even going so far as to retcon the awful Gonzo origin from Muppets from Space. Kermit and his internal struggle gets center stage in issue one, as the gang try to help their fearless leader feel better, leading to a powerful closing number. Fozzie can't find his funny in issue two, leading to skit after skit getting canceled so Fozzie can try something new. Watch as Langridge puts Fozzie in settings from Elizabethan England to the Beatnik Bear.

Gonzo's identity is the key to issue three, where an insurance agent won't give the theatre group coverage unless he knows every species in the show. I can't help but think this is a subtle commentary on Langridge's feelings about revealing who Gonzo "is." His payoff answer is perfect, and in my opinion far more fitting for the character. Last up is Miss Piggy, and while her story is the least interesting of the four, it's still a fun read as Piggy falls for a mystic's scam and goes off the paranoid deep end.

Mixing things up over the course of these issues are episodes of Pigs in Space, Veterinarian's Hospital, Muppet Labs, and even the Sweedish Chef get their spots and are spot-on in voice. (This is no mean trick in the case of the Chef.) I was shocked to see the Koozebane planet and the Talking Houses show up. That's not just giving us the feel of the show--that's giving us the actual show!

The only thing missing are multiple musical numbers, which was okay with me. Trying to add song to a soundless medium strikes me as a bad idea. We get a few musical numbers here and there, however, which is fitting within the theme of the show.

As with the best all ages comics, Langridge gives us a set of stories that are perfectly appropriate for children but can be appreciated by adults. There's nothing in Muppet Show you can't show a child, but there's also nothing in this comic that's too childish for an adult reader. Again, that was the beauty of the Muppet Show, and something that I think has sometimes been missing in modern uses. Jim Henson and company found a way to make a show that worked for everyone, and Langridge gets it.

I was so happy with how well Langridge *wrote* the characters that I almost forgot to mention his character designs. You can tell this was a labor of love, because Langridge took pains to get even the most minor of characters (Walter the janitor!) to look as much like the original as possible. Gonzo comes of looking a bit weirder than usual, and Sam the Eagle is a bit more rounded than I would have pictured him in comic form, but those are minor changes.

In fact, oddly enough the only character that Langridge seems to have trouble depicting consistently is Kermit. His mouth, which depends so heavily on the puppeteer, is just a bit too tricky for Langridge to keep the same panel to panel. I think his compromise--go for the expression rather than a Kermit who only looks one way--was the best option.

All good trades have bonus material, and this is no exception. We get to see an unpublished Muppet Show comic that Langridge wrote for a Disney mag that went under and served as his pitch to get the gig in the first place. There's also a one-page gag strip with Fozzie and Statler and Waldof that did see print and is a perfect example of what Langridge wanted to bring to the table.

In an afterward, Langridge indicated that he originally planned to use this assignment to get his pitch published in a trade(!) and move on, but that it's picked up a life of its own and he hopes to be doing it for a longer period of time. I'm glad to hear that, because I can't see anyone else stepping into his shoes and doing work this good every month.

I understand there's now an ongoing series for the Muppets, with Langridge on writing and artistic duties. So not only was this mini-series seemingly created for me but now Boom! is going to create even more comics exactly how I would have wanted them to be.

That Mark Waid is a pretty nice guy!
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Nana Volume 2

Written by Ai Yazawa
Illustrated by Ai Yazawa

I'm glad I decided to stick with Nana, because I really enjoyed this second volume, as the characters set up in the first trade start to interact and new possible conflicts form as our dual protagonists meet on the way to Tokyo.

After a chance meeting on a train, the Nanas end up coveting the same apartment, leading to a rather unlikely (but still fun for the reader) sharing arrangement in which the two opposites start the ever-awkward process of learning to live together.

The Nana with a boyfriend starts to get her life together, and though she loves her no-longer long distance boyfriend, she's also seeing that at 20, there's a lot of field yet to be played. After all, her new manager is pretty cute. How will she deal with the possibilities Toyko has to offer, given her flare for the dramatic? And what of the advice of her older friends?

Meanwhile, singer-Nana gives a jaded look at the other Nana's world, offering sarcastic one-liners and trying really hard to be hipper than everyone else in the room. Yet she still has ties to her own past, and can't quite seem to let go of the man she (sort of) followed to Toyko. By the end of the volume, the past starts to catch up to her. Is that necessarily a bad thing?

Given how many volumes there are of Nana, I was actually surprised that our co-heroines met this quickly. I figured there would be near misses leading up to a big scene, but instead, Yazawa gives us the stranger on a train scene. I thought maybe that would be all, but then she came up with the amazing idea of having them live together. It's positively preposterous, but I love it.

Once the players are set in place, Yazawa turns on the comedy, using the oddly paired couple to create as many funny situations as possible. Everything from worrying about another girlfriend (who even gets a name) to the type of glasses to use in the house to the unknowing love of Ren's band fills the pages with laugh after laugh.

But behind the jokes are two very interesting storylines which ground the humour. Singer-Nana is by no means ready to give up all her old connections, as we see by the end of this trade. She's oddly unconcerned about her money situation, too, or how she's going to manage. The other Nana, by contrast, is trying hard to establish her own life. She gets her own place, gets a job, and strives to show she can do things on her own. But will that independence lead to a break with the friends she had? A woman of extremes (as opposed to the singer-Nana, who plays it close to the vest), will she take living her own live too far?

Yazawa also does a nice job with the artwork, especially when it comes to the characters' clothes. Nana with a boyfriend keeps changing outfits and Yazawa gives each a distinctive look at fits well with a clothes hog. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast also dresses sharply based on their personality. There were a few scenes that looked like they were taken from a photo and drawn over, a technique I thought was interesting in limited doses, as it's used here. We also get a few super-exaggerated moments, but those are few and far between and are always appropriate to the scene.

About the only thing that's a bit odd is Yazawa's multiple in-jokes, referencing other manga, anime, and even herself here and there. They're fun but a bit distracting at times because I wasn't expecting so many breaks of the 4th wall. I'll be interested to see if they continue.

Nana is probably a textbook example of why you should almost always give manga two or three volumes to settle in. (After all, for those used to reading American comic books, how many took 5-10 issues to get going?) While I found the first volume to be a little slow-going, there was a seed in there that had the potential to grow into something really fun to read. Those who told me that Nana was well worth sticking with were totally right. With this volume, those seeds sprouted into a full story that I can't wait to continue in volume three!

December 27, 2009

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I Love Bad Movies Volume 1

Edited by Kseniya Yarosh and Matt Carman
Contributions by Cristina Cacioppo, Matt Carman, Byron Case, Alan Gamboa, Elliott Kalan, Joseph Kirkland, Sarah Marshall, Laura Martin, Dan McCoy, Ben Shapiro, Alex Smith, Scott White, and Kseniya Yarosh
Illustrated Essays by Jeremy Jusay and Anja Verdugo

I'm a huge fan of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and Rotten Tomatoes, so I Love Bad Movies is one of those zines that feels like it's written with me in mind.

Over the course of a little over 40 pages of text, Carman and Yarosh collect a series of essays that skewer absolutely terrible movies, sometimes lovingly, sometimes with a biting wit that only the worst of movies can deserve.

The zine starts with an explanation of how it happened, as a lack of something to watch turned into an obsession with picking up cheap VHS tapes to find all the bad goodness available from people with just enough money to produce a film. They even offer some tips on starting your own collection.

From there, it's into the movies themselves, as the contributors skewer a few movies I knew (The Stuff and Road House), a few movies I knew I wanted to avoid (Alien: Resurrection being at the top of the list), and an awful lot of movies with Winona Ryder. (Apparently, she loves bad movies, too, having been in so many of them!)

Each contributor has their own way of presenting the movie. Some just describe the plot and tell their favorite awful scenes. Others pull quotes from the movie. One contributor talked about his personal connection to the film and how his view of the movie changed radically on re-watching. The variety of perspectives helps keep this zine fresh, even if the movies included are absolutely rotten.

I was surprised to see the two graphic essays, but I thought they were a nice addition. One used panels to show the stupidity of the movie and the other was more of a personal piece about how the creator was influenced by Winona Ryder. They're sprinkled into the rest of the essays, giving a nice breakup to the primarily text zine.

The final essay is a plea for watching an entire bad movie and not just "the best part" as defined by Youtube postings. It's very tongue in cheek, but I can see the author's point. Sometimes, you have to slog through all of Starfighters to understand its awfulness. (Not really--I don't advise anyone watching Starfighters, not even the MST3K version.)

The editors promise another edition of I Love Bad Movies early in 2010. I can't wait to see what they and the contributors come up with for what the promise will be an issue dedicated to relationships, love, and sex. Because, as we all know, there's never been a bad good movie in that vein.

You can pick up a copy of I Love Bad Movies at a zinefest or by going to their Etsy site. If you or someone you know is really into bad movies, it's definitely worth grabbing. After all, sometimes reading about a bad movie is just as much fun as watching it!

December 26, 2009

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Barefoot Gen Volume 3

Written by Kiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Kiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

Picking this one back up after having a miserable time getting the third volume in from the library (I finally just had to get it off the shelf).

Gen, his mother, and his newborn sister are still trying to survive, wondering if anyone else managed to stay alive in the aftermath of what they're still calling a flash bomb. Can they dare to hope? Gen must know the truth before they move on, in a touching moment that is at the same time horrifying.

Unable to stay near Hiroshima, they move on to the house of a childhood friend. But friendship means nothing now, and they are treated badly. As Gen and his mother dodge accusations, insults, and beatings, they must keep trying to live. It's a hard thing to do for any survivor, as Gen learns when he takes a job caring for one of the burn victims.

In this volume, Gen's desire to live trumps all other problems and it's his unbreakable will that shines through, giving this volume a sense of hope that was missing in the first two parts of this story. Given how horrible things are, I wonder how long this can last, but the story even ends on an uplifting note for the first time.

As with the other parts of the story, Nakazawa plots the story to allow Gen to see all that happened to the survivors of the nuclear blasts. This time around, it's the reluctance of those unaffected to help their fellow man, the way even family members deserted those who needed them, the easy and common accusations of theft, and the general lack of caring that is so striking against the good nature of Gen and his mother.

There are quite a few uncomfortable scenes, though less sheer horror as Gen and his mother find a tenuous home in a shack on their friend's property. The only really major scene of gore is when Gen helps the burn victim, who is plagued by maggots and filth that his family refuses to clean for fear of catching the bomb's disease. However, that's not nearly as bad as the thought that a man could refuse to care for his own brother.

Most of this volume is spent showing the survival instinct of the characters. Right or wrong, they are doing what they feel is best to stay alive. Gen learns that pride is not worth much if it means dying and watches as his mother gives up her dignity to keep on fighting, just as he must do with the burn victim. It's fairly easy for me to sit here and type judgment on those who refused to help their fellow man--but how would I react? I can only hope that I'll never know.

Barefoot Gen is a difficult series to take in, but the messages it contains are so powerful that I think everyone should read it. That goes double for all those who want to bring fire down upon those who disagree with them politically. The horrors of war are stark and last for generations. Nakazawa shows that lesson on every page. At the end of this volume, the people are only just starting to get some sense of stability back into their lives, and I fear that stability won't last. One thing is for sure--the horrors I see in this series will stay with me for a long time.
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Barefoot Gen Volume 2

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

The second volume in Mr. Nakazawa's 10-volume story of being a Hiroshima survivor, told through the viewpoint of Gen, a young boy who at this point has lost all but his mother and newborn sister. Still not sure of what has occurred, mother and son must try to survive amongst the dead, the dying, and the cruel. Gen tries everything to help his mother, begging, singing, and fighting off those who would take from him what little he has.

In the process, we see the sheer horror of what has happened, as Gen watches the dead explode in the river, the dying lose the skin off their bones, and that tragedy does not often unite a people--it only makes the divisions worse. Nakazawa uses a few plot twists to make sure that Gen sees all of the aftermath, from burning bodies to uncaring doctors, to radiation sickness. Not a stone of cruelty from the bomb is left undisturbed.

Again, there's not much I can say about this other than it is an unflinching look at the aftermath of war, and how those who pay the price are not the generals and the leaders, but the common people. No matter what the conflict, war hits the poor and the immigrant the worst of all, and sometimes not even friends are willing to help. Nakazawa shows us how hope gives way to grim reality and his maturation of Gen is astounding. The art is dark and shows every bit of gore you want to see. I even flinched from the page more than once. Be warned that this is not your average manga. This is using the graphic medium to its fullest potential for telling a hard story.

Sometimes, it seems that it's better to be dead than to be a survivor. As bad as it is for Gen and his mom right now, I'm sure it's only going to get worse.
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Barefoot Gen Volume 1

Written by Keiji Nakazawa
Illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa
Last Gasp

This is to Japanese culture what Maus or Yossel is to Jewish culture. Written and drawn by a survivor of the Hiroshima bombings, it's a rather thinly veiled account of what happened to his family. From what I can understand, he wrote several other comics about the same material before doing this 10-volume set.

I really don't have a lot to say about this, other than if you aren't moved by it, you need to check yourself for a heart condition because yours must be missing. Gen, the title character, is the son of a man who opposes the war and is scorned for it, as Japan whips itself into literal religious fervor to keep up the fight. As Gen's family is harmed more and more for speaking the truth, we we the reality that everyone else denies--no food, no ability to win, the suffering of the poor, and a dramatic increase in cruelty.

By the end, things look just about as bad as they can get--the kids are begging to try and save their pregnant mother, one child is off to find glory in battle to take away from the "shame" of their father's anti-war stance, and what little they have is taken away by the authorities.

Then it gets worse.

This first volume ends just as the bomb strikes, leaving Gen alone with his mother. His family is destroyed because the powers that be won't give up, but even among this horrible scene, there is the hope of his new baby sister. But somehow, I think more bad things are on the way.

Nakazawa is unflinching in his hatred for war and does not pick a side--he blames the Americans for dropping the bomb and the Japanese government for prolonging the war long past the point of probability. He also makes sure we know of the cost to Japan--citizen deaths, the cruelty scenes, and so on. This is one of those works that shows that a "graphic novel" can pull its own against any other form of literature.

I won't lie; this is a hard book to read. But I think it's well worth it, especially in this time of repeated calls to war from those within our own government. Sometimes, a reminder of the past is needed, and this gives it to you in spades.

December 25, 2009


Merry Christmas from Panel Patter!

Merry Christmas to those who celebrate it and Happy Day Off (I hope!) for everyone else!

Self-portrait by yours truly under my zine alias of Trebro. I'm no Jack Kirby, but at least I try to draw feet, unlike some other artists I can name. ;)

Panel Patter is busy opening presents, eating ham, and singing off-key to the Chipmunk Song. I will return to regular posting on Saturday, December 26th, with a set of reviews of Barefoot Gen's first three volumes. See you then!

December 24, 2009


Happy Holidays from Panel Patter!

Best wishes to all of you regardless of the holiday you celebrate this month! Rendering of your humble reviewer by my wife, Erica, of Black Light Diner distro!

Panel Patter is traveling to its in-laws for Christmas and will return to regular posting on Saturday, December 26th, with a set of reviews of Barefoot Gen's first three volumes.

December 23, 2009

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Incredible Hercules Volume 1 Against the World

Written by Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Illustrated by Khoi Pham, Paul Neary, Danny Miki, and Bob Layton, amongst others

Obviously towards the end of 2009, my reading habits have changed a bit. However, I am still reading capes comics, just not as many as I used to.

After all, if I stopped reading them all together, not only would my Mighty Marvel Marching Society card get revoked, but I'd also miss out on gems like Pak and Van Lente's Incredible Hercules, a book that did something I never thought possible--made me identify someone other than Bob Layton with the character.

(For those not in the know, Layton did some really cool minis in the 1980s that are worth grabbing if you can find them. I'm a little surprised they didn't get the trade treatment due to the new ongoing.)

This trade picks up the story of Amadeus Cho and Hercules shortly after their misguided attempt to help the Hulk fails rather miserably. (If you want to see my review of those issues, click here.) Herc and Cho are brought in by S.H.I.E.L.D. to become part of the Initiative. At first Herc is okay with this, trying to keep Cho out of trouble. But when he realizes his brother and nemesis Ares is part of the new program, and intends to use his power to abuse the Prince of Power, Hercules takes it on the lam with Cho.

Two against S.H.I.E.L.D leads to a wonderful blending of ancient myth and modern Marvel, as Pak and Van Lente weave the bad blood between the brothers and Herc's own troubled mythological continuity to turn Hercules into a raving lunatic, not unlike the savage Hulk of old. The only thing that can stop him? A old ally now working for the other side.

Once again, Pak, this time with Van Lente, shows his ability to use old Marvel stories to help him tell a new story. He does this in such a way that compliments the old work rather than stomp all over it. There seem to be very few writers capable of that these days, which is a shame. The writing pair show here how to use continuity as a strength, not a straight jacket.

The fight is not over just yet, as Herc and his brother must have one final confrontation as Cho decides the fate of S.H.I.E.L.D. There's an amazingly good conversation between Ares and Hercules here, about their relative popularity, followed closely by Hercules using his foibles to try and stop Cho from making a potentially fatal mistake. In the end, they seek solace and shelter from Athena, who warns them of more crossovers to come. (Damn it, Marvel, can I please read my cool comics in peace?)

A one-shot about a previously unrecorded adventure of the mindless Hulk (circa Hulk 300, when Mike Mignola was doing the art!) ends this trade, as Athena tries to warn Cho that he may have simply changed reckless allies. It features a lovely 2-page interlude by Layton that's absolutely gorgeous to look at and guest stars the Ever-Wrestlin' Blue Eyed Thing. Why? Because that's what was going on at the time this story is set. (See, Marvel/DC? This whole not stepping on the past thing isn't hard at all, is it?)

Herc and the Hulk fight against each other, then together, in the mighty Marvel manner, but in the end, Hulk is no happier than usual at this time, so he drifts back to the crossroads. His unhappiness stems from the unthinking actions of Hercules, which is Athena's point. Will Cho get the lesson in time? Probably not, because that would be boring. Only time and future volumes will tell.

I love everything about Incredible Hercules. Pak and Van Lente seemlessly weave everything from obscure Marvel Books (I love the editor's note acknowledging this) to every part of the Hercules myth they can mine for story material. The parallels between Herc's current life and mistakes he made in his past both give him depth we've never seen (not even from Layton) and ground these stories in Greco-Roman history the same way that Simonson grounded Thor in Norse myth.

Normally I'd be unhappy at the precocious child angle, but they even manage to make that work. Cho is wise in book smarts but lacking in experience. That's what Herc brings to the table, and what Cho must begin to grasp before it's too late.

There's also the fact that this is the most action I've seen going on in a little over 100 pages in a long time. Pak and Van Lente keep the story moving, giving only the briefest moments for the reader to breathe before going off and pounding you with more fight scenes between Herc and Ares. I'm not sure how they're going to keep that up over the course of more issues.

But just because it's action-packed doesn't mean they skimp on the dialog. I already mentioned Ares' speech about Herc's popularity, which hinges on the idea of the man behind the myth. There's also Black Widow's discussion of her awe for Hercules, and Herc's plea for a stop to vengeance. Those are the serious ones. I also love the comic bits, such as when Cho predicts Herc's eventual escape or the idea of a well-timed visit from a galactic defense lawyer or when Herc discusses Athena's birth. It all reads so very well it's almost a crime this is on a comic that probably doesn't have half the audience its other Hulk family books possess.

My only problem is that this is a book strongly tied to events in the rest of the Marvel Universe. Once upon a time, I'd be happy for that, but now I feel like I'll have to read most of the rest of the crossovers to get the background for the Hercules stories. I know world building is nice but I would have preferred this series get a bit further away from things, not closer.

But hey, if there's anyone who can make a crossover work, I think it's this team. If you haven't tried Incredible Hercules yet, and you have any love at all for mythology, clever writing, or Marvel Comics, you need to be picking this up in trade. I only wish I'd have started reading it sooner. Start reading it now so you don't feel worse than me!
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Or Else #2

Written by Kevin Huizenga
Illustrated by Kevin Huizenga
Drawn & Quarterly

Kevin's mainstay character Glenn Ganges thinks fanciful thoughts in this collection of mini-comics reproduced by Drawn and Quarterly. His wife, Wendy, also shows up, to give Glenn a foil.

She's pregnant in this set of issues, leading to the first major story, where Glenn wonders "aloud" (i.e. in pictures we can see) what it will be like to be the father, even worrying, quite naturally, that something may go wrong.

This transitions into a tale of Glenn's in-laws which is a conversation any of us could have. (This is the beauty of a Huizenga or I could easily be there with them.)

The middle piece is the most experimental, with Ganges talking about being at the library, when suddenly all of reality seems to explode around him into little Huizenga doodles, still-lifes, and even over-sized (for a mini comic) pages. It's an artistic abstract that I think is meant to show Glenn's mind (or that of the reader perhaps?) wandering while the pedestrian story is told.

Last in the Ganges stories is Glenn relating how he could not allow a religious family to think a red moon was the rapture, so he babbled out scientific fact after scientific fact about the concept of a red moon (which he, interestingly enough, did not even notice at first), lunar eclipses, and more. This of course all gets shown on the page, with small, intricate drawings illustrating each facet of Glenn's speech.

I was really impressed by this part of the comic. Huizenga's illustrations look like more interesting versions of those found in astronomy textbooks. They're also so incredibly detailed, even at a reduced size. (I wonder what the original looked like--is Huizenga good enough to draw this well this small? I'm betting on yes.) Everything from a funny looking ancient philosopher to the old image of shrinking railroad tracks to Gamora(!) show up to help Glenn tell three probably bored-to-death people how the world works.

My favorite part? When Glenn scratches his chin at the end and wonders how he'll feel if it turns out Jesus shows up that night after all. It's like the whole piece was written for that one joke. That's a perfect mini-comic moment.

Rounding out the story is a brief talk about basketball and how it relates to the family history of an unknown narrator. It's an odd thing to include here, but has the same narrative feel as the Ganges sections, with the fanciful elements torn away. I think it's nifty that the story ends on the back cover of this edition.

This is not the place to start reading Kevin Huizenga's work, but it's definitely worth seeking out if you like his Glenn Ganges material for Fantagraphics (that's where I first discovered him). He is right at home in the mini-comics format and these short, fanciful tales are a treat to read for fans of Huizenga. Thanks to Drawn and Quarterly for reprinting them.
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Ooku The Inner Chambers Volume 1

Written by Fumi Yoshinaga
Illustrated by Fumi Yoshinaga

[First of all, an apology. I have no idea how to make my laptop accent the first "o" in Ooku. -Rob]

I've enjoyed the other two Yoshinaga titles I've read, Antique Bakery and Flower of life, so I was pretty excited about getting ahold of this manga, which combines a creator I like with an alternative history setting.

Those are two things that usually make a good combination for me. Unfortunately, Ooku, at least initially, didn't really connect with me as a reader, as I felt like I was spending too much time reading background that could have been filled in later and left me looking for the snappy patter that I love in Yoshinaga's works.

Ooku's alternative history is that sometime during Edo period Japan, a virus zaps the population of most of its men, forcing a radical change in culture. Women must become the main focus of life, while those men who are left are treasured commodities. This extends all the way to the government, where the Shogun herself is now a woman, with a large harem of men to display this power.

It's the house of the Shogun, or the Inner Chambers, which is the focus of Yoshinaga's series. After an origin for the "redface pox" opens things, we turn to Yunoshin, a young man who basically whores himself out to those in need. When faced with marriage, he flees to the inner chambers, where he encounters all sorts of ingrained rituals and conventions that are not one bit to his liking.

Luckily for him, they're not to the liking of the new Shogun, Yoshimune. Soon, she is testing convention left and right. Unfortunately for Yunoshin, there's one convention she can't stop--his death! Still, when one is the most powerful women in the land, there are ways to bend the rules. By the end of the book, Yoshimune and her trusted aid are making reforms unheard of in the chambers, right up to why women are playing at men instead of just being women in power. What will the Shogun do when she learns the answer?

Yoshinaga has to do an immense amount of world building in this first volume, and I think that put me off the book a bit. In her other works, we've been given a quick setup and let the characters charm you into learning more about the world they live in. This time, she's opted to go full-on origin story, and I think it almost stops the story cold. Had the first volume been entirely explanation, I probably wouldn't have wanted to keep reading, but luckily things start to improve when Yoshimune comes in and starts making people react to her. That's the type of writing I like from Yoshinaga and it gives me hope that she'll continue on that path going forward.

Instead of being engaging and quirky, for the most part, Yunoshin and his supporting characters are like audio-visual displays at a museum. Turn the page, read them explain the culture in which they live, and repeat as needed. This is made worse by Yunoshin's fate. After spending so much time focusing on him, we're then shifted to a new set of main characters within the same series. I admit, I felt cheated, even if the Shogun is a far more interesting character to follow around experiencing this world that Yoshinaga's created.

There are touches of Yoshinaga's ear for patter in the early goings, such as Yunoshin's family and the servant he eventually earns in the castle, but we don't see that endearing quality of her work until towards the end.

As she shifts focus to the Shogun, Yoshinaga seems to feel freed of the need to endlessly explain things to reader. (It still happens here and there in stilted dialog, such as when Yoshimune conveniently repeats her past to a character who already knows it.) That allows Yoshimune and Hisamichi to jump into this world and use their cunning to try and get their way in a very established society that resists change. The Shogun's very clever unpredictability is exactly the type of character Yoshinaga does well, and I wish she'd started with her and let the rest just fall into place as time went on. That would have made me a lot happier as a reader.

There are two other things that bothered me about this one--the text boxes to explain things we should have heard as dialogue and the half-hearted use of Shakespearean English for the characters. I found the former mildly annoying but the latter distracting to the point of not wanting to read further at times. (I wonder if this was a translation glitch?) Both seemed to happen less as the book went on, so I'm hoping it disappears for good in the next volume.

Overall, I think I wanted this to read immediately like a Fumi Yoshinaga book and didn't give it enough of an allowance for world building. Most first volumes feature a lot of setup, and this one is no exception. So I think I am going to like the rest of the story a lot better, particularly because I find the Shogun so interesting and her desire to get to the truth behind the lies of the Edo castle is a compelling plot that I look forward to following in the future. Even with that allowance, however, the start of this book is painfully slow at times.

I'm not ready to recommend this series to others yet until I read volume two, to see if some of the things that really bothered me go away and I get the Yoshinaga I know and love. I do appreciate the time it must have taken her to research this series, though, because she sure does know her Edo period culture, to be able to adapt it like she does into this mirror image. I also like that she slips in homosexuality without it feeling forced, just like in her other books.

(Digression: Is it wrong of me to be a bit saddened that this title gets an "explicit content" warning mostly because it has homosexual references when I read many a manga with similar heterosexual references that don't get an explicit content warning?)

Ooku, like the inner chambers it portrays, is a series that seems to have secrets it's not ready to reveal yet, preferring to keep the reader at a distance with block text and some exposition-heavy dialog. I hope that in the future we're able to get closer. In the meantime, I wouldn't put this on your must-read list just yet, unless you really like Yoshinaga or alternative history. I also wouldn't put it past Yoshinaga to blow my mind in volume two!
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Tarot Cafe Volume 5

Written by Sang-Sun Park
Illustrated by Sang-Sun Park

I haven't caught up with this series in awhile because the library didn't have anything past volume 4 for the longest time. This was really annoying because the previous edition ended in a cliffhanger, but I didn't like this series enough to want to own it.

This time around, Pamela and her friends help a musician out of a bad deal that may have taken others who were famous beyond belief but died young...or at least appeared to.

Helping is good, especially when you have problems of your own, but Pamela incurs the wrath of the thwarted dealmaker, and soon her life is in danger as she's thrown into a magical loop of remembering one of her most horrible life experiences. Can her friends save her in time? (Well, there's a volume 6, if that helps answer the question...)

This story takes up the bulk of the trade this time, and while it's exciting because Park really does make it seem like Pamela is doomed (no easy feat for any writer with a protagonist in danger), I have to admit to being a bit confused as to the proceedings, as they flip back and forth from past to present to nightmare just a bit too much for my taste. That's one flaw this series has that I wish it would correct. It needs some kind of device to help make sure we know when and where we are. I've seen other manga use darker page borders when we're going though a character's memories. It really helped me a lot and I wish Park did the same thing.

Our final story features a mysterious man who sits in a park and has a love for a child he barely knows. He wishes to know the child's fortune, because he can tell the kid is having a hard time of it. For while strangers usually mean danger, in this case the devil of a father he knows is far worse. Armed with her help, the man takes matters into his own hands and we get a nice happy ending, which is a refreshing change from the bittersweet victories that have been prevalent lately in Tarot Cafe.

Now that I'm back to reading Tarot Cafe, I remember why I liked it but didn't love it as a series. Park's art is stunning at times, and the stories not directly involving Pamela (such as the man and the boy) are very good. But I thought Pamela worked better as a framing device than a character in her own story, and as we go along, she's a big part of each volume. Her past is just too much of a muddle for me to really care about her. I wish Park was a little less obtuse about things in relation to Pamela. A mystery isn't a mystery if the reader is too confused to care.

That may just be me, however, so take that for what it's worth. I still like Tarot Cafe, and I'd recommend it to those looking for a book that uses a framing device to tell short stories. (I am a big fan of that style, as you may have noticed.) However, if you're looking for a clear-cut narrative, it's probably best to start elsewhere. And make sure you read from volume one--this is not a manga that's friendly for someone coming in at the middle. I will definitely keep with this one, if only to see what the future holds for the cast.

December 22, 2009

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X and the City

Written by Bill Roundy
Illustrated by Bill Roundy

This was the comic that drew my eye to Roundy's table, a satire using one of Marvel's many mutants, Northstar. He has the distinction of being the first character the House of Ideas labeled as being gay, back when that was more controversial than it is today.

It seems that Jean-Paul is not afraid to have a one-night stand, and as he gets himself together for a lunch date with another mutant, the fling becomes a bit more complicated than he anticipated. Sometimes even a speedster has to take time to look at his life.

I really like what Roundy did with this. While the superhero trappings are cute for long-time Marvel fans like me, I thought the metaphor of running away from your responsibilities and possible commitment of a long-term relationship via a man who has super-speed was inspired. Toby, the random hook-up, tries to open Jean-Paul's eyes by closing them. It's another nice touch.

This is another short work, like Yes, Master, but it shows another side to Roundy's storytelling and is really a strong piece of writing. While I got it for the surface value, there's a good lesson to learn here. Either that, or, like Emma, I'm just a sucker for a happy ending.

If you see Roundy at a show, take a look at this one, and not for the obvious reasons. It's a well-crafted story that makes you think. I'll take that anytime.
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Pirates Take Manhattan

Written by Bill Roundy
Illustrated by Bill Roundy

Sometimes you just need a dose of total randomness and chaos in your graphic fiction to make your day sing. Forget logic and story construction for just a moment and revel in the unpredictability of a work done without forethought and plot.

That's the spirit to enjoy this 24-hour comic project by Roundy, who clearly was enjoying himself while putting together this hysterically random story.

Over the course of 24 pages, we get New York City Bridge Trolls (and you know, 24 pages of that would have been good enough for me), prophesies of the goat apocalypse, pirates aplenty, disco dancing, robots, ninjas, and even a bit of Greek myth thrown in for good measure.

While starting out almost coherently, Roundy uses the idea of chaos as a plot device, allowing him to throw in anything he'd like by the end, and he often does. Any one of the themes would have made for a pretty cool story. Thrown all together, they're a mass of comedy that had me laughing out loud as I turned the page.

As with a lot of 24 hour comics, the art is a bit shifty, as Roundy bounces from free-form pages to paneled work to using Aparo angles. The lack of consistency works within context, however. I also really like the scenes of trolls trying to fit in when not guarding the bridges. (Okay, I admit it, I want another book with the trolls taking center stage. Happy now?)

Sadly, I didn't see this one available on Roundy's website, possibly because it is a 24 hour affair. That's a shame because I thought it was really cool and would definitely recommend it to anyone who likes silly comics that don't take the medium too seriously. If you see him at a show, see if you can get a copy. I think you'll be glad you did.
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Yes, Master

Written by Bill Roundy
Illustrated by Bill Roundy

Who can resist a cover picture like that?

This is the short story of Igor, who loves Dr. Frankenstein, but it's unrequited, especially once a hunk of a monster is created. Igor may seem like a stupid assistant, but there's more to him that meets the eye, and nothing is more dangerous than a lover scorned. Watch as Igor takes matters of the heart into his own hands...

Yes, Master is extremely short but has the feel of a gothic horror story, if you take out the overnarration that plagues them. Igor is the lover who will do anything for his man, no matter what the cost. The ending is pitch perfect, leaving the reader with a truth that only they and one other know. It's a great job of storytelling by Roundy to capture that in only a few pages.

Artistically, Roundy is pretty basic, but he matches the story with the images, and his depictions of the increasingly jealous Igor is well done, as he watches the totally-in-love Frankenstein and his creation stroll around together.

Yes, Master is a cute little retelling of the Frankenstein story that I liked a lot. If you're looking for a new take on the tale, definitely look this up mini-comic. (You can find it on Roundy's website.)
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The Amazing Adventures of Bill #11

Written by Bill Roundy
Illustrated by Bill Roundy

I was attracted to Mr. Roundy's work at SPX this past year when I saw "X and the City" at his table, and so I took some time to sample a few of his other comics.

Amazing Adventures is Roundy's journal comic, which he updates roughly semi-weekly. This is the 11th mini and finds him doing all the things you'd expect a comic-writing geek to do. Thus we get to see him riding home from playing D&D, going to parties, drinking (a fair amount), and occasionally using the strip to communicate his feelings to a wider audience.

Roundy has a pretty good knack for capturing the most interesting thing and opting to illustrate it. These are not comics just to fill the day, which I appreciate. We get insight into Roundy's mind from the first one we see, where he sees his interrupting a fight as a continuation of his D&D character. In another comic, he admits to being a coveter of things (another comic reading/writing geek habit).

The most touching moment, I think, is where Roundy admits to that paralyzing fear that hits when you have a lot to do, preventing you from doing anything and making matters worse. I know exactly how he feels.

Most of the comics are lighthearted looks at Roundy's experiences, such as the dilemma of beer aftertaste, making out at a party, or reading about what they're doing to poor Sherlock Holmes.

Journal comics are a specialized type of comic that isn't for everyone. They tell an ongoing story that may wander a bit here and there across the page. I like seeing into the lives of others and finding ways I can relate to them. Roundy's comics are both interesting and and easy to relate to, if a bit on the rough side artistically. If you like diary strips, it's definitely worth grabbing one of his mini collections at a show (or on his website) and see what you think. I think you'll be happy with the results.

December 21, 2009

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Spider-Man: Reign

Written by Kaare Andrews
Illustrated by Kaare Andrews and Jose Villarrubia

There's always a lot of borrowing between DC and Marvel. Marvel had What if? and DC did Elseworlds. DC did an Invasion and Marvel did one, too, albeit 2 decades later. They both revamped their standby heroes left and right in the 90s.

So I really don't mean any offense when I say that this book is Marvel's answer to The Dark Knight Returns. To try and pretend otherwise is silly. (One of the first characters we see is called Miller Jansen for God's sake.) This is a book about a world where superheroes are banned from New York, Peter has retired from being a costumed vigilante, and the government is slowly taking freedom away from the populace.

In addition, old villains show up again, like Electro, Sandman, and the Scorpion, seemingly stronger than the wall crawler. And there's even J. Jonah Jameson playing the role of Commissioner Gordon, crying out for what has been lost. (Though this is ironic because of the hatred he always showed for Spider-Man.) About all we're missing is a Spider-Girl for a sidekick.

At first blush, then, this book is fairly derivative. However, there is a big difference, and that's in the nature of the focal character. Batman is driven by his obsession to prevent the crime that changed his life, and so is Spider-Man. But how they do about satisfying that obsession is entirely different, and that's what makes Reign a great read, despite the similarities in plot.

Reign begins with a broken Peter Parker looking very much like an old version of the weakling introduced by Lee and Ditko. He sees that the world has gone to hell, but despite remembering what happened the last time he failed to act, prefers to stay in the shadows. But of all people, Jameson won't let him stay buried.

Soon, as Peter battles personal demons in a nice touch, he also battles the forces of oppression as New York's only superhero. Jameson eggs him on, but there's only one problem. The old villains are back, too--and they're backed by the government. Only one thing can save him, in a twist that's perfectly fitting with the characters involved. I won't spoil it because it's a perfect moment and a real treat for long-time Spider-Man fans.

Given new purpose, Peter starts to take control of things while Jameson does what any good reporter does--gets the facts. They end up coming to the same conclusion while Andrews sets up some of the keys to the story. Peter is now ready to accept perhaps the ultimate responsibility--death in exchange for setting his city free.

Can he do it? Is there enough in the old man's tank (this Spider-Man is presumably 60 or so) to face his deadliest foes one last time? And even if he can, is it too late to thwart one more evil scheme? Jameson can only watch as his old nemesis--the man he hated for so very long--is the very man who can set him free.

Throughout most of the story, Andrews shows a man who is very much in conflict. Peter is ready to give up, but "the mask" won't let him. He talks about seeing things from a distance as he is born again. It takes a radical shift in his outlook to realize that Spider-Man is who he is and always will be. Once that change happens, Andrews shifts him into the man we knew, but with a slightly darker edge to match the new times around him.

As with any Spider-Man story, the supporting cast is extremely important. Jameson is shown as fiery as ever, his anger turned towards foes far more dangerous than capes. It would have been nice to see anyone else from the old guard, but the youngsters inspired to fight by Peter's example and Sandman's ever-conflicted villainy make up for the difference. The evil mayor is pretty much a cardboard figure, but that's okay when so many of the others are vibrant and cast perfectly.

Artistically, Andrews is a bit of a mixed bag. His faces are strong but the figures tend to fly out there without a lot of sense of proportion. It's a very loose style that shows off Spider-Man's flexibility but will not play well for you if you're a strict fan of realism. This is not the proportional accuracy of a Romita or the wild exaggeration of a Larsen. It's an odd formation where proportion is relative to the idea Andrews wants to show on the page, changing as needed, sometimes from panel to panel. I like it here because the whole idea of the story is fanciful, but I'm not sure I'd want a steady dose of that design style.

Overall, Reign is wonderful tribute to the idea of a character who can inspire hope by showing that the common man, even if he is a bit more powered than most, can still triumph through sheer willpower against a seemingly unstoppable force. While Batman strikes fear and inspires from dark caves, Spider-Man saves the day in broad daylight. Andrews' homage to Frank Miller is a fitting way to show that no matter the circumstances, Spider-Man will never give up, no matter how hard he might want to. That's a lesson we can all learn from.
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Ancient Joe

Written by Scott Morse
Illustrated by Scott Morse
Dark Horse

Scott Morse likes to play with mythology, as we've seen from other works, most notably Soulwind. In this, set in Cuba, Morse grabs a little bit here and a little bit there, even tossing in good old Ernest Hemingway for good measure. The result is a quirky little collection about a man called Ancient Joe, who came out of the sea and even tricked the devil.

The book blurbs make this sound like it will be really action-packed, but the truth is more subtle than that, as you'd exect from Morse.

Ancient Joe, who knows little of his past, is apparently immortal, or at least ages in the style of James Logan. He's not a superhero, though a child says he should be, given his looks, and he denies being a creature of myth.

What he is reminds me of a Madman-like figure who gets into odd situations (such as boxing a blind man to try and see the devil), drawn in Morse's signature style. (A Morse-Allred collaboration would be quite the thing to see, I wonder if they know each other...) We see a bit of his known origin, as well as the story of devil-trickery. Then it's time for serious work. Joe is concerned the devil may have taken his revenge on his wife. Only a damned girl who killed her brother can help, and what Joe discovers is perhaps most touching in its simplicity.

Leave it to Morse to make what in other hands would be a giant let down the perfect answer--one that, once read, leaves the reader feeling satisfied, not cheated.

This was set up to be a series, but I'm not sure if there are any other collections--the library doesn't carry them, at least. However, this holds up rather well on its own and is probably my second favorite Morse work, behind Soulwind. Fans of that series should pick this up right away. Morse also gives a list of helpful books in his afterward, which I think is pretty cool.

There is a lot of clever wordplay and dialog here, with people reacting to Joe in ways both normal and preposterously unconcerned. The rhyming sequences at the start hearken back to the days of epic legends, and this story is one of a journey on its first steps. I'd definitely like to see more, if it exists.

December 20, 2009

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Written by Grant Morrison
Illustrated by Frank Quietly

Grant Morrison is a man with a lot of ideas. This a person who can do everything from homages to Silver Age comic books to bringing dadaism to a fading superteam to making the X-Men readable again.

So yeah, not really all that surprising that he can come up with an anti-war story using unchecked animal experimentation and a talking cat. That's probably a typical shower concept for him.

Combined with the always amazing pencils of his frequent collaborator, Frank Quietly, We3 is a book that features a science that would appeal to many--animals designed to fight the wars of tomorrow.

It sounds like a great idea, if you are willing to overlook the cruelty involved. They're shown pulling off the perfect mission, but an ambitious Senator doesn't want any part of a talking biorg (as they're known). He likes the idea but not the particulars.

So the We3 (a rabbit, a dog, and a cat) must be put to death. But the project's main collaborator has other plans, and soon We3 are free--but do to what?

The same thing any other animal must do in the wild--survive.

The rest of the story consists of the government trying to kill the three without leaking the secret of the project to the world. Meanwhile the animals try to stay alive but keep seeing conflicting messages. They are to protect, but who falls under that category?

As they try to survive without "bossss st!nk" (as the cat refers to the military handlers), it becomes harder to function. Plus the military keeps upping the ante until it's too big for even the (presumably) apathetic public to ignore. Can they survive? Should we even want them to?

The end of the book is a bit predictable by Morrison standards, but makes my animal-loving heart smile.

I think the best part of We3 is definitely the pacing of the art against Morrison's typical twisted but fairly straightforward script. Quietly gives us a lot of action shots of the animals, particularly the cat. He also manages to draw the most perfect pictures of gore I've ever seen. People bleed all over the place in this book, with missing entrails and body parts, but it's all so very--polite. Each panel has so much detail packed into that you'll want to stop and re-read them or go back and review what you missed. We're talking about a person who takes the time to draw individual eyebrows--you owe it to Quietly to linger over his panels.

The most Morrison-like quality is the dialogue of the three animals. He manages to make it coherent without it feeling natural. Every time the dog or cat talk, the result is creepy. We know they shouldn't be talking, and their stilted speech ("R Gud" is typical) makes that sensation even worse. I wish he'd taken more time to flesh out the humans in the book, though--they're definitely stock characters speaking stock lines from any anti-government conspiracy film.

I thought a few of the touches were neat--the dog still sees his role as to help man, but can't tell how or who to help. The cat wants to just go its own way, as cats are wont to do. The rabbit is a bit stupid. They all end up in a few Frankenstein-like scenes, which appropriate to their nature. But all in all, it's just not very original, other than the basic idea.

Overall, I liked We3 a lot, but mostly because of Quietly's art and getting to see a robotic cat take on an army. The anti-war and unthinking technology parts have been done better elsewhere, however, and don't really add anything to the narrative. If you're looking for Grant Morrison's signature weirdness, it's all in the concept and not in the script. Still, the concept is a lot of fun to read and worth checking for. Just don't be expecting Doom Patrol-level goodness from Morrison here. Despite this being a book about killer animals, Morrison's writing is very human, at least for him.
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Click Volume 1

Written by Youngran Lee
Illustrated by Youngran Lee

I grabbed this randomly off the shelf from the library because I wanted to explore some new manga/manhwa. This is probably a good example of why I like to try comics series before I start to buy them.

I knew I was in trouble when the book opened with an attempted rape, which Joonha, our protagonist, attempts to foil. When he separates the pair, the girl responds, and I quote, "Who do you think you are? Why are you butting into my business? I worked..and worked my butt bring him here..."

Hey kids 13 and up! Girls say they don't want to have sex, but they don't really mean it! So just ignore pleas for help, ok?

I should have just stopped reading there, but I figured I'd see if it got any better. The answer, unfortunately, is no. That's the only honorable thing our protagonist does through 177 pages.

The whole premise is that Joonha, perhaps the most unlikeable main character I've ever read, is an arrogant jerk who thinks women are beneath him. This goes on for an interminably long time before we learn that in his family, people change gender sometime in the teens.

Now Joonha, who has turned into a girl, must deal with being a woman. Oh how funny! He gets embarrassed buying tampons! He wears the wrong underwear. He goes into the men's restroom and has to spend the rest of his life sitting down to pee.

But hey, at least he still fights like a man, because no girl could be athletic enough to have that kind of a fist!

I wish I was kidding.

There's just nothing good about this particular manhwa for me, other than the fact that Lee is able to draw very pretty students who could be mistaken for either gender. That works very well with the story being told, but the problem is that the story being told is frankly, offensive.

Domestic violence and verbal abuse pervade almost every page, with Joonha belittling his mother, father, and classmates. There is not a sense of playful fun in these comments, but hateful speech. (I understand that to an extent, that's in the mind of the reader to interpret, but I think it's clear from the visual clues and context that they are hurtful, not playful.)

Click seems to revolve around the premise that the idea of women being treated badly by society is funny and that being a transvestite is embarrassing for the person and funny to those around him/her. Perhaps that plays well with a certain group of people, but that person isn't me.

Just about every laugh line fell flat for me. I'm not above low-brow humour, far from it (I read The Goon, for God's sake!), but it has to be funny. These jokes had terrible set up and characters who I could never relate to as none of them (the childish parents, the clueless friend, the girl who wants the boy who's a jerk) appealed to me in any way.

If Click had been set up as a jerk of a boy who has to learn how to be a girl and realize how wrong he was, I think I'd have been okay with it. But as it stands, the humour seems to be driven by the idea that Joohna is right and girls are icky inferiors to their male counterparts, and transvestites are even lower than girls.

That's just not something I want to be reading. Click just didn't click for me, and I would advise against seeking it out.
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Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four: Silver Rage

Written by Jeff Parker
Illustrated by Mike Wieringo and Wade VonGrawbadger

[Note: I read this as it came out in single issues. Not sure if that changes the reading experience much on this particular title, but I like to mention it.]

First, a moment of silence for Ringo, who left us at an early age. He was never one of my favorite artists, but he worked on some great books over the years and with some really talented writers, such as Parker, Peter David, and Mark Waid. If this was his swan song, it was a nice way to go out.

In this series that I read as single issues, Spidey is swinging around when he runs into the Impossible Man, who needs his help. They rush to scene, where an alien is trying to take over the earth. When things are a bit too much for the old webslinger and Impy gets it in the face, Peter goes to the one family he knows can help--the Fantastic Four.

Soon we're off on a two-tiered adventure. While Reed looks for a way to stop the aliens, Spidey takes his place on the FF as they try to hold off the invasion. All may be lost unless two of Marvel's smartest heroes can work together--with a little help from their friends--to save the day.

This is everything Marvel used to be about, that's gotten lost in the Civil War and its aftermath. Civil War is telling great stories, but to me, this is what made Marvel unique. In this mini, each character does what they do best to save the day, and the fact that none of it would happen in the "real world" doesn't matter--this is a comic book. Props to Parker for finding a way to make it essential that Peter be involved--in team ups with the FF or other high-powered hitters, Spidey can sometimes be an afterthought. He also did a great job on the Peter-Johnny interaction, especially in book two.

Marvel used to do some minis that would be labeled, "Set before the events of.." and this is definitely one of those stories. I wouldn't mind seeing some other stuff from pre-Civil War, just as a reminder of what was, and probably will never be again. Am I too naive for modern comics? No, but that doesn't mean I can't like something that was straight out of the old Lee-Thomas playbook of the '70s, too.

I also thought the artwork meshed well with the story, something that's not always true with Wieringo. I think it's a bit of a stretch to ask him to draw demonic Doctor Doom, but the Impossible Man? A perfect fit. His exaggerated characters play well here, though it's possible I'm just changing my artistic tastes over time. (I did not care for his work on mid-90s Spider-Man at the time it was coming out, for instance.)

Spider-Man and the Fantastic Four is perfect for all ages, but especially for those who don't think superhero stories always have to be so grim and gritty. Sometimes, you just need to reach into the Silver Age and find what was best about it. Parker, Wieringo, and VonGrawbadger do that here, and the result is one of the best comics featuring these characters since Spider-Man and the Human Torch. If you can find a copy of this one in trade, it's highly recommended.

December 19, 2009

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Tanpenshu Volume 2

Written by Hiroki Endo
Illustrated by Hiroki Endo
Dark Horse

Mr. Endo notes at the end of this book that short story collections do not sell well and therefore publishers are reluctant to release them. That's a shame, because I like them quite a bit. Kudos to Dark Horse for publishing this second set of Endo stories, giving us another glimpse into the smaller works of the man behind the Eden series.

There are five stories this time, two of which are linked together and the last is a short humor piece which at first seems out of place but in the end has the same dark view of humanity that the rest of Endo's stories contains.

Hang is up first, a dystopian future with two protagonists and the cyborg head of a third. They wander through a world that hangs on hooked cranes, just as their lives hang rather precariously. Even something as special as sex seems tainted, somehow.

There's a really dark and depressive air hanging over this story, and it's made all the worse by the cheapening of the sexual acts. By the end, it doesn't seem like this will ever change for the characters, which I think is Endo's point.

Of the stories in this volume, Hang by far has the best art. the depictions of the dystopian world are stunning, particularly the long shots of the cities. The details Endo puts into the buildings and their ultimate fate is really impressive. I also appreciate that the sexual situations are drawn to flow with the story. (This is also true in Platform, where sex is an integral part of the narrative.)

Endo himself shows up in High School Girl 2000, featuring himself as a 29 year old struggling artist who seems to resent those who are still in school. The story takes us back to his own high school years, where he wanted to be an artist in the big Tokyo schools but fails. Now he's trying to have all that he could not then, even maybe a high school girl as a lover.

I have to admit, this was a bit uncomfortable to read, but I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that it's very easy to feel like Endo does here. How many people want do redo some (or maybe all) of their lives, to take more risks or to experience more things? He's tapped into a very viable emotion here, and given voice to things I think a lot of readers would prefer to keep buried. The answer given to "What is the meaning of life?", "Doing the same things over and over again," is as haunting as the very real possibility that it's true.

The two part story, Platform, was a bit of letdown for me. A son estranged from his criminal father and older brother still hangs in their shadow, spending most of his time with a one-armed side man whose grown tired of the Yakuza life. His father is having sex with a girl whom the son has liked from a distance. The son tries to hurt both by watching them, but it fails miserably. Things start to fall apart and by the end, the son has no one--his friend is dead, his father is hurt but not killed, and the girl leaves, even after giving him what he thought he wanted.

There are some interesting moments, like when the girl talks about the power men wish for over women or even an object as benign as a canvas or that the one-armed man is playing a con game, but the whole story just feels too melodramatic for my taste and goes in all the predictable places. That's not like Endo as a writer, but he mentions he was younger when that one came out.

Last up is Boys Don't Cry, which has a comic premise--two kids arguing about sexual preferences in typical teen banter--but in just a few pages gives the undertone of questioning that pervades Endo's short works, even the weaker ones like Platform. The two kids may just be outwardly playing, but the boy isn't sure what he wants, and the girl knows what she wants but can't have it. That's a lot more interesting than sullen estranged sons, even if it's only six pages.

Overall, I don't think the stories in this second collection were quite as good as the first. However, they still have the themes of living the life that you're given which I enjoyed very much in the first volume. I referred to it then as short stories that make you think, and the concept still holds here, if a bit more diluted. The artwork also is a bit less focused, possibly because it's his older material.

Tanpenshu is a good fit for those who like post-modern fiction and would like to see it in graphic form. I'd easily recommend this to anyone who reads people like Eisenberg or latter-day Atwood, as the themes are similar, even if the ages of the characters are younger. While this may not have made Dark Horse a lot of money, I appreciate their willingness to bring a different sort of manga to English readers, and I would definitely welcome more of the same.
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The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard

Written by Eddie Campbell and Dan Best
Illustrated by Eddie Campbell
First Second

As I get older and read more comics, I find that I am drawn more and more towards works that experiment with the medium. Funky panel construction, clever breaking of the fourth wall, mixing art with text--anything like that draws my eye to the comic.

Enter Monsieur Leotard, which features all of those things combined with the talented skills of Mr. Campbell, who I already liked from seeing his work elsewhere.

The cover image alone will give you some idea of the neat art tricks Campbell uses in the book, with words and a few features making up a face. This style provides the book with a quirky unpredictability that makes it one of the best I've read this year.

Monsieur Leotard is actually not one, but two people--an amazing daredevil cut down by smallpox and his shit-shoveling nephew, who opts to carry on the business of entertaining despite not having a lot of talent himself.

This is the theme of the book, as the new Monsieur Leotard gathers together his father's old teammates and takes them across the world and over time, ranging from the Franco-Prussian War to the time of Jack the Ripper (which I'm sure was a clever reference to another Campbell book, "From Hell") to even the beginnings of the 21st Century. Etieene, the real man behind the show, interacts with everyone from the Queen to Buffalo Bill to some rather famous creators.

At each step, Leotard is slightly self-aware, knowing that his life is playing out in "episodes" but not directly interacting with the reader. Somehow, he knows he must record his story but cannot figure out why. Once, he's even a bit blocked, but this is because his God has also run out of ideas, as we are told in a marginal story that plays out above him.

The marginal stories that pepper the book are just part of the fun of Monsieur Leotard from a visual perspective. Little characters act out scenes with short bursts of text throughout the book, breaking the 4th wall as needed. In other circumstances, Campbell draws like a child, has an acrobat leap across musical scores, imitates circus posters, and more, all with a paint-over-pencils technique that makes the book look like a watercolor collection.

Campbell even ages the characters over time in a way that keeps them both recognizable, reasonably portrayed, and yet also slightly heroic enough to perform larger than life feats--like breaking out a fellow carnie from prison despite being senior citizens. It's an artistic wonder that shows what a person can do with a graphic novel if they put their minds to it.

With all the wonder of the art, it's easy to lose sight of the delightful scripting by Campbell and Best. There are polite but lude jokes sprinkled throughout the work, such as the placement of Lenore's tatoos, a rude hot air balloon, or the idea of the talking bear and his relationship to his trainer. Other jokes are just silly, perhaps the best example being the reoccurring appearances of the human cannonball.

The banter of each character is crisp and unique. Leotard, his right-hand man Zany, and the rest all get their own voice. They can also be touching, such as when some characters are fine with dying, having lived a full life. The dark side of carnival shows gets a nod as well--human menageries that ripped people from their homes because they were different. I thought adding that aspect was a nice touch.

I don't know if there's a greater theme to this narrative that I'm missing, other than a man romping through history without grasping the significance. Leotard seems happy just to keep moving from episode to episode, rather than dwelling on live around him, a fact that he seems to realize only too late. Perhaps that's the meaning behind the jocular fun of seeing a circus troop save its own audience from a fiery fate or inventing spring shoes. Or maybe Campbell and Best just wanted to have some fun and see how many references their readers would catch. I always worry about trying to read too much into a story, be it text or graphic.

Regardless, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard has every right to claim both adjectives, as it's a visually stunning and verbally playful book that uses all the tricks of the comic book storytelling trade to great effect. I'm a little late to the party on this one, but if you haven't read it yet, either, you owe it to yourself to do so right away.
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A Treasury of XXth Century Murder: The Lindbergh Child

Written by Rick Geary
Illustrated by Rick Geary

Geary moves into the 20th Century but still writes about heinous deeds as his signature style and meticulous research takes on a case I'm less familiar with, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping/murder.

Charles Lindbergh became an American hero when he flew across the Atlantic ocean, proving that there will always be new feats to perform and adding to the growing feeling of American superiority. (It didn't hurt the slowly forming airline industry any, either.)

Soon he was famous enough to own multiple houses and have a bit of celebrity attached to himself. But tragedy strikes one evening, as his first child is stolen right out from under the family's nose.

How could this happen? Who kidnapped the child? A ransom demand is soon made but it only makes the situation worse. After a long period of delays and the involvement of those whose interest is serious and/or scandalous, a horrible discovery is made and the crime goes from extortion to murder.

The search for the killer takes some bizarre turns, but a likely culprit is discovered. The only problem? He insists until the end that he is innocent of the crime. An arrogant foreigner, long the bane of Good Americans everywhere, is convicted and all goes back to normal.

Or does it?

As he has done with so many other murder cases with ambiguous facts, from Jack the Ripper to Lizzie Bordon, Geary remains neutral about the official results of the crime, but points out many factors that give doubt to the generally accepted course of events. While there are quite a few pieces of evidence pointing to Hauptmann's guilt, Geary doesn't shy away from pointing out the prosecution's misdeeds, the possibility of a conspiracy, and some factors that just don't fit.

Unlike some of the other Geary murder books, I was not very familiar with the events he describes, so I can't speak for the presentation of the facts. However, the writing is exactly the same style as before, with each piece of the puzzle placed in chronological order. Geary lets the reader determine if there's something odd in the fact that a nervous dog never barked, no fingerprints were found in the room, or that John F. Condon felt the need to interfere in the proceedings.

There is a series of "what about...?" questions towards the back of the book, but they are more summary than speculation on Geary's part. I can sense that he may be a bit skeptical of the final results, but not enough to state this directly.

One change did occur with this book that I rather liked--each of the main characters get a bit of an epilogue. We learn about the claims of Lindbergh babies, the end of the Lindberghs and Hauptmann's wife, and Condon himself. I also liked the little bits of meshed history throughout, such as the involvement of J Edgar Hoover and the offer of help from Al Capone. Those extra touches make the series even better, I think.

My only complaint is that Lindbergh's politics are never discussed, and I think they should have been. Is it not possible that his fascist leanings helped stir the events? Or if they didn't, shouldn't that be noted as well? I would imagine most readers of this book (or their parents) are aware of Lindbergh's politics, so it felt like a major omission in the narrative.

Geary's line work is just as impressive here as ever, as his woodblock-like art captures each moment in a freeze frame. He has a lot of lines to draw on the suit styling of the early 20th Century, so many I wonder how he doesn't get severe writer's cramp drawing them! His faces are distinctive and expressive as always, and remind me of Victorian photos, even if we've moved into the movie age.

I really enjoy Geary's work, and am glad to see his move into the 20th Century is just as good as his Victorian-era books. His style works a bit better, I think, on the 19th Century, but it's still very entertaining and the factual approach to his subject never wavers from book to book. If you've only read his Victorian murders, you definitely need to travel through time with Rick Geary's newest set of Treasuries. You'll be glad you did.
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Arkham Asylum: Living Hell

Written by Dan Slott
Illustrated by Ryan Sook and Wade Von Grawbadger

Dan Slott writes light, airy comic books that make you laugh, right? This is the guy who brings you She-Hulk and The Thing. So I have to admit, seeing his name on this one surprised me. Could Dan Slott really handle the dark nature of a non-code book? The answer is yes he can.

This mini takes us into Arkham through the eyes of a new inmate--a sleezy investment banker who swindled millions of dollars who thinks pleading insanity will help him, until he's sentenced to the Asylum with Joker, Two-Face, and the rest. Now he has to survive with the worst Gotham has to offer in the worst spot of real estate in town (which if you think about it, is really saying something.) And oh yeah, it's about to get even worse than usual. Lucky him!

What's best about the story, though, is that the usual suspects are kept in the background. We only get a little Bats, Harvey, and the Joker, but those moments are priceless. Slott does a great job with the Joker, effortlessly alternating between the killer and the clown, a trick not many writers can pull off. I especially liked the Joker's disdain for the main character and his later insane plan for who to kill next.

By keeping away from the big names, we get to focus more on the story itself, a dark tale of survival in the hell hole that is Arkham. That's a statement that becomes far more literal as the story goes on.

It seems that way back when, Arkham had some additional secrets to hide, known of course to Jason Blood. They come to light in the wake of yet another breakout in the Asylum, and if the Demon can't stop them, all of Gotham may be at risk. (That's another fine move by Slott--with all those heroes in Gotham, why is Bats the only one who has to kep fixing Arkham? Did he sign a contract with the owners?)

Slott's story works around a great plot that only gets muddled when we hit the hard magic--it's clearly not his forte, but he tries his best. However, a slightly off ending isn't a problem for me when the rest of the story is so good. Slott weaves his large cast of characters in and out of the narrative at just the right moment without any part of the story feeling forced.

Living Hell shows how good Slott is at writing comics of any kind and I would recommend it no matter who was drawing the book. But Sook's art is, as usual, spectacular and perfect for this moody piece. I absolutely *love* his Joker. Heck, even the covers get into the act. They're drawn by personal favorite, the Goon's Eric Powell. (I wouldn't mind seeing him take a crack at Gotham sometime, incidentally.)

This was a great standalone Batman's world story, possibly the best I've read. If you are a Batman fan or a Slott fan and haven't read this one yet, maybe you deserve to be locked up in Arkham!

December 17, 2009

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A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Murder of Abraham Lincoln

Written by Rick Geary
Illustrated by Rick Geary

I can't believe it took me this long to get to Geary's take on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, given that a) I love Geary's Victorian Murder series and b) I have a long-standing interest in the Civil War.

Regardless, I've read it now, and as with all of the other Geary books I've read so far, I am glad that I did.

This entry in the series begins just a bit before the actual murder, setting the stage for what is to come later. The Union has just about won the Civil War, and Lincoln, fresh off a harrowing but ultimately decisive presidential victory, is ready to turn his eyes towards peace.

John Wilkes Booth and some fellow conspirators have other ideas, as they hope that a last-ditch effort to kidnap the Railsplitter will lead to Confederate independence.

Obviously, the kidnap plan morphs into something far more sinister, as Booth plots and Lincoln goes about the life of a victorious war president with a rather socially awkward wife. Geary, with his usual quiet and factual style, mirrors the life of these two important figures in American history until they combine into a tragic ending. Lincoln, of course, dies, and Booth, while alive ever-so-briefly, doesn't get the hero's welcome he hoped for once he flees south.

In the end, many lives are destroyed and the South still falls. Geary continues to mirror their paths, showing the Presidential Funeral train and Booth's flight at the same time. Conspirators are given their brief endings, while Geary turns a suspicious eye (notable because Geary is extremely balanced in his presentation of these events) to Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War who acted oddly before and after the assassination.

There really isn't anything new to be found in Geary's book, but that's not the point of reading the Victorian Murder series. What you can count on is a concise, factual account of the events, drawn in Geary's signature mock wood block style. (I think it works best when he's in the 19th Century.) He does some neat facial work in this one, giving booth a crazed look, Lincoln an almost bemused air, and captures the staring expression so common in 19th Century photographs.

Of note is Geary's belief that Mudd played some role in the conspiracy (often disputed) and that Mary Surratt may have been wronged. The brevity of the material also highlights just how preventable Lincoln's assassination was. (Insert your own thoughts about why it may not have been prevented here.) Sometimes, a shorter account gets to the point better.

Anyone who is a fan of Geary's other books will love this one, and I'd also recommend it to the Civil War buff in your family, especially if they're younger. This is better presented than a lot of the books for kids I've seen on the Civil War.

That doesn't mean it isn't for an adult, though. While it may not be 700 pages, but the effect of the visuals is moving to those with a strong attachment to America's 16th president. More so than any of the other books in this series, The Murder of Abraham Lincoln can pull at your emotions as Lincoln dies. Geary's book is a fine tribute to the end of the live of a man for the ages.