January 31, 2011

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Candy or Medicine Volumes 2-6

Written by Various Writers
Illustrated by Various Artists
Edited by Josh Blair
Self-published

I picked up a stack of this anthology a little while back but just now got around to reading them. I like anthologies and I like mini-comics, so it seemed only natural that I should give this one a try, especially since it's so inexpensive at $1 an issue.

Unfortunately, I have to admit that with the exception of Volume 6, the results are a little too uneven for my taste. A lot of the work seems rushed or unfinished. In a few cases, the work is just bad. I can deal with primitive art if the story is interesting, but in a few cases, there's neither artistic appeal or a good idea.

I appreciate letting folks express themselves, but there's a reason why I don't try to do a mini-comic of my own: I can't draw. I understand my limitations. In several cases, it feels like the enthusiasm is there but the talent is not. As a result, the overall effect of the anthology is not as strong as it could be. When there are good stories in the first few volumes, they're buried too far into a mix of things that probably would be best left for more seasoning.

Things are pretty sparse, at least for me, in volumes 2 through 5. I liked Colin Tedford's "The Eternal Soup", a lighthearted take on the questing genre. "Love is Blind" opens Volume 4 with a sick joke that uses its two-page spacing very well. Most of the rest in these volumes suffer from the problem of feeling unfinished that I mentioned above.

I did think Volume 6's stories were a lot better, which means I'm inclined to check out more and see if that's a trend. It opens with a one-page inept detective by Ariko Kitsu and transitions into a longer piece by Jason Viola that takes up five pages and uses all of them quite well. An enterprising young man offers to stop a case of bullying via a trial at school. The parody of a real court works perfectly, and the ending gets a nice dig in at the trial lawyers. I enjoyed this one a lot, and it was definitely the highlight of my reading. The rest of the stories are just okay, but they're drawn fairly well and I thought the ideas worked better than the comics that dominated volumes two through five. Rob Jackson's ending on the back cover reminded me a bit of something Aragones might do. All in all, Candy or Medicine 6 was head and shoulders above the other four.

After reading these five books together, it's hard for me to know where I stand on the Candy or Medicine series. It has the potential to be quite good, as Volume 6 showed, but there's also a lot of comics that probably didn't need publishing. Still, at a dollar a pop, it's worth it to take a chance and see what you might get. I've certainly spent my money in worse ways on comics over the years. If you want to check out the series, Candy or Medicine has a website that you can find here. Start with Volume 6 and see what you think. This is definitely something for those who are willing to experiment not those who want a sure thing.

January 30, 2011

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Hotwire Volume 1

Written and Illustrated by Various Creators, including Michael Kupperman, R. Sikoryak, and Tony Millionaire
Fantagraphics

You have to give Fantagraphics a lot of credit. They are willing to take publishing chances that I don't think anyone else with a name as big as theirs is willing to try. Take Hotwire, for example. This anthology is filled with some extremely offensive material, even for me, and I'm not easily shocked. Yet this is only the first of three collections of similar material. The market for a book like this has to be small, and I give Fantagraphics a lot of credit for putting this out there, and in such a nice format, to boot.

On the other hand, for me personally the content was a bit too uneven to make it an anthology I'd want to read more of right away. I can appreciate edgy comics, but I don't like it when artists just try to see how much they can get away with, replacing ideas for shock value. Unfortunately, there's just a bit too much of that going on here in my opinion, and it drags down the collection.

The stories from the people I knew were quite good. This collection has the original printing of Sikoryak's Garfield meets Faust mash-up, Mephistofield, one of my personal favorites from Masterpiece Comics. Tony Millionaire's entry is bizarre, of course, and Kupperman once again manages to lovingly skewer 1950s comics with a Sunday Serial-style strip that features a pair of kids who are ultimately useless to whatever semblance there is of a plot.

There were also a few neat stories from people I didn't know, such as Glen Hedd's Mindless Thrills, which hit on just about every pre-code comic trope or The Visions of Rasputin by Mike Wartella, another story that clearly drew inspiration from the old horror comics, with its vivid, not-quite-right colors and blocky illustration style.

Perhaps the best comic after Sikoryak's is My Gun Is Long, by Mack White. White draws an interesting twist to the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory, using some ideas I already knew and some ideas that I think he came up with on his own. Unlike most conspiracies, he even makes it seem almost plausible. There's a cool sense of logic in the protagonist/narrator that allows this comic to work. White's storytelling here is excellent.

Unfortunately, stories such as this one, or even the weird tales such as the one where a girl tries to reach an understanding with a circus monkey or the quick gags where a woman gives birth to the anti-christ, are buried in comics that are just plain bad. I don't understand the appeal of comics where people make the most offensive jokes possible, daring someone to censor them, without stopping to see if the joke is even funny. Guess what? They're not funny and they're not clever. I've seen better ideas on the inside of men's room stalls than some of the doodles or inbreeding "jokes" that find their way into this collection. I'm not a prude by any means, but if you are going to try to be tasteless, at least be clever about it.

Overall, I can't recommend Hotwire unless you have a high tolerance for offensive comics. There are some good stories in here, but they're not enough to shine their way past the problematic comics that are not very good at best and extremely offensive (for offensive's sake only) at worst. Be aware that this is an anthology that has great potential, but also great risk, in terms of how you might like it. Not unlike a real hot wire, the results of reading it may hurt you.

January 29, 2011

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A Drunken Dream and Other Stories

Written by Moto Hagio
Illustrated by Moto Hagio
Fantagraphics

[Edited to add: Thank to Ed Sizemore for pointing out to me that Fantagraphics' copyright dates in this book are flawed. In an otherwise great presentation, copyright dates for book publication--instead of serialization--were used. I have no idea why. If anything, the original publication dates make these stories even more impressive. Corrections to my review have been made accordingly. -Rob]

I think it's a bit of odd role reversal that while Top Shelf is starting a new manga line with the most edgy material they could, Fantagraphics, which is no stranger to comics that border on the offensive, kicks off their new manga series with a collection of some of the prettiest (and sad) manga I've ever read.

There's nothing wrong with either approach, of course, and I think there's a place for both in the English market, but I have to admit, I'd have picked Fantagraphics as the place that landed Ax. Still, it's hard to argue with Moto Hagio as a beginning of a new manga line. This new series seems like it might do for manga in English what Fantagraphics is already doing for Peanuts, Krazy Kat, Steve Ditko, and others--make work that's usually found in lesser editions (if at all) into works of art in and of themselves by gracing them with strong packaging and production values.

I'm very excited about this prospect, because while I love my popular manga, as any frequent reader knows, I also want to see what else is out there, particularly comics that have historical value. They're not going to get a wide audience, but as the manga audience ages, there's a need to help them find things that a bit more akin to Linda Medley or Love and Rockets than, say, Naruto might be. If this first volume is any indication, we as readers are in for a treat.

Hagio is a manga pioneer, one of the first female cartoonist to show that shojo manga could be more than where male cartoonists went to slum while they waited for better gigs. Japan, unlike America, seems to have recognized that there was a market writing comics that did not exclude young woman, and shojo manga thrives today. (In fact, while there's still a set of definitions between girl's, boy's, men's, and women's comics--can you imagine comics written for women in America that have a wide distribution?--I'd wager that the lines are extremely blurred.) Her importance to the manga canon is part of why she was chosen as the first creator for this series.

I am not, however, a manga historian. I barely know the history of western comics, let alone those from the other side of the world. I just know that I wanted a chance to see what manga looked like when written before I was born, and Fantagraphics gave me that chance here in this collection. The results definitely leave me looking for more.

At first glance, the manga in this collection looks a lot like the shojo you see today. There are the usual fine lines, the emphasis on character over backdrop, and a drawing style that displays an almost painful beauty within the characters. That's all fairly standard stuff, but it's like reading old Jack Kirby--this is seeing it done for the very first time. No one was telling Hagio this is what shojo manga should look like. She was doing it on her own, side by side with other manga-kas, some remembered and some forgotten.

Now, like other pioneers, this work is not perfect. Some of the artistic tricks you see here will be done better by later artists. Hagio's crowd scenes are not drawn all that well, and her characters seem to move stiffly, especially by today's standards. Especially in the earlier stories, there's a need to stay within the bounds of more traditional cartooning. You can see designs that look closer to Tezuka than Yoshinaga, and the trademark exaggerations that come to mind when you think of manga are not present at all. I'm also used to far more expressive faces than you get here in these stories, where the characters seem like the have a far more limited range of emotions they're willing to share.

Despite these minor issues, however, the overall quality of the artwork is very good, especially when you consider that some of it is now 40 years old! There is an aching beauty in Hagio's linework that makes the stories all feel like something from a fairy tale, no matter how realistic the material. Even the most typical shojo story in the collection, about a young woman who feels that her life has reached it end because of romantic tragedy gets an air of unreality, which is fitting because of the main character's desire to have humanity gain wings like the angel. Not even a semi-horror story, where Siamese twins have a parasitical relationship, comes off as dark or gritty--Hagio's pen will not permit it.

These stories are pleasant to look at, even when they are dealing with the subject of death. It's a quality of draftsmanship that spills out across every page in A Drunken Dream, something that I don't think later artists can capture, despite being technically more sound than Hagio. An analogy for my superhero friends: Few would argue that Barry Kitson isn't technically superior to Ditko, but while I like both their versions of Spider-Man, Ditko managed to portray him a way that held the essence of the character in a way that Kitson cannot. That's the same feeling I got when reading Hagio. She is not the best shojo artist I've ever seen, but her work has a quality that sets it apart, simply by how she uses her art. It is both the building block upon which better artists have come along and is something that I don't think can be recaptured.

I am not, however, an expert or an artist, so take my ramblings here for whatever they're worth. I feel more strongly when I am discussing story rather than artwork, and the stories in A Drunken Dream are absolutely incredible. From the opening tale, Bianca, I was instantly hooked. An elderly artist talks about a painting inspired by a girl she only knew (and barely liked) for seven days. Yet in a few short pages, with a touch of fantasy and a dose of reality, we as the reader can completely believe that Bianca affected this artist's life and will until the day she dies. The dialog is perfect, the plot is tight, and the story is effective regardless of the reader.

That latter point, to me, is what makes any comic really sing. Sure, you can attract the usual suspects to your comic, but is there appeal for more than one type of reader? That's what separates a good storyteller (such as Tite Kubo) from a great storyteller (Rumiko Takahashi) in my opinion. Hagio sits firmly in the great storyteller group, based at least on the stories collected here.

If anything, the stories just get better from the solid opening of Bianca. Girl on Porch with Puppy could easily be a Twilight Zone episode, with a creepy sense of unreality undercut by the joyful expressions of the characters. Autumn Journey is ahead of its time for 1971, I think, dealing (as does Bianca, from 1970) with the idea of families torn apart in an age when the bonds of marriage started to mean more open splits instead of quiet affairs. Keep in mind this is a time period where in the United States, they were still debating it if was okay to have vampires in comics and a storyline *against drugs* was almost squelched. Talk about cultural differences!

Conversely, A Drunken Dream, the title story (rendered in muted colors), seems more appropriate to 1980, the date it was first published, than 1985, when it was collected in book form. The hopefulness of a fictional world where we live on other planets just smacks me as something that we realized by the 1980s was highly unlikely, but Hagio uses that hope to set up a tragedy that seems to care nothing for time. Far more grounded in reality is Marie, Ten Years Later, where a grouping of three friends is shattered for good. Despite being written three years before A Drunken Dream, the two stories could not be more different in tone. While both have a somber mood, Marie shows us that life is not a science fiction of endless hope. We make life decisions and sometimes they're the wrong ones. That's a feeling that definitely echoes throughout this collection, as I'll talk about shortly.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Hagio's later stories are also quite strong. Angel Mimic, which I referenced above, is most similar to what comes to mind at the notion of shojo manga, but Hagio puts her own spin on it by making the female protagonist extremely intelligent, able to believe in angels but also discuss theories of evolution with her typical shojo hero, a professor. Angel Mimic shows that there's no reason why tropes can't be used to good effect, another sign of a quality creator in my opinion. (I will warn you that the artwork this time absolutely SCREAMS 1980s, so don't be fooled by the copyright date inside the book. It's as much as product of the 1980s as Max Headroom.) Similarly, Iguana Girl involves elements of fairy tales into a domestic drama where a mother and daughter cannot connect to each other, despite a bond that should bind them. The common idea (mother versus daughter) gets a new twist in the hands of Hagio.

If there's one thing that surprised me about all of the stories in this book, it's the overall sense of sadness. Hagio's characters never seem to be happy. They're either regretting a decision, mourning a loss, or hoping life can be different. If they wish for something, that wish is delivered in the most cruel way possible, or in such a way as to undercut its value somehow. I really feel bad for her characters--they lead such terrible but lovely drawn lives! I don't know if this is a theme in Hagio's work or a result of a conscious decision of the editor, Matt Thorn. Either way, it makes for reading that is completely satisfying, but will leave you reaching for a tissue now and again, unless you have the hardest of hearts.

There are a metric ton of people who liked A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. I'm not even going to begin to pretend that my contribution here makes a lot of difference. This book made just about everyone's "best of" list in 2010, and definitely would have made mine had I read it a month ago instead of recently. It is not the best manga realized in 2010 (I think All My Darling Daughters is superior), but without work like Hagio's, there could be no Fumi Yoshinaga or Ai Yazawa. A book like this should be must reading for those who want to know how the shojo we know today came to be.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories is not just for lovers of girl's manga, however. It's a book worthy to be read by anyone who likes good comics with a touch of fantasy and a touch of sadness. As with any book by a great creator, the appeal is almost universal, and should not be bound by the possibly dismissive label of being "for girls." To do so is insulting, both to the potential reader and to Hagio herself. Hopefully, this will be the start of getting Hagio's name on the same pillar as Tezuka, which is clearly where she belongs.

If by some chance you haven't read this manga yet, you owe it to yourself to find a copy right away. Don't be scared by the 1970s look of the art or the idea that these stories were originally written to a girl's market. This is one of those books that is not to be missed. It's destined to be a classic.

January 28, 2011

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Quick Hits: Time and Again Volume 1

Written by JiUn Yun
Illustrated by JiUn Yun
Yen Press

Baek-On is the type of person you'd rather not be associated with. He's a drunkard, a loudmouth, and a money-grubber. Unfortunately, he's also an exorcist, and if you need a ghost removed, you need him. Along with his partner Ho-Yeon, they travel the country to eliminate spirits, though sometimes their methods may not be quite what the clients had hoped for. This is what they'll do...Time and Again.

I'd really hoped to like this one, but in the end, it just didn't work for me, despite being recommended by a blogger whose taste I usually trust. The premise is one that intrigues me (I'll read just about any ghost story), and I try to read as much manhwa as I can find, because I want to expand my horizons.

I even liked the idea that Baek-On is a bit of a jerk. After all, some of the best characters who deal in magic or spirits are unlikable personally, even if they have a quality that redeems them. The twist that ends the opening story even worked really well for me.

The problem I had with this one, however, is that the storytelling itself is horrendously muddled. I found this manhwa hard to read because I often had to flip back and forth through the pages, trying to figure out what was going on. I felt like I was reading a comic where certain pages had been ripped out of the book, and the impression for me was maddening. Unlike most of the other manhwa I've read, Yun's lines did not carry the visual appeal of, say, Bride of the Water God, so I wasn't willing to forgive some storytelling transgressions the way I am when what I am reading could easily be framed on the wall.

I'm going to give this one a second chance, since the library has volume two, but right now this doesn't look like a series I'm going to follow with much further. It's a great idea, but the execution is lacking, at least for me. There's a lot of rough spots here that would need a quick ironing out before I'd recommend it. We'll see what happens with volume two.
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The Very Real Story of a Real...Gay Kid Issue 1

Written by Katie Omberg
Illustrated by Katie Omberg
Self-Published

I first picked up some of Katie Omberg's comics at SPX 2009, and I was happy to hear she's working on a new series that started around the time of SPX 2010. This mini-comic is the beginning of a chronicle of Katie's working her way through her sexual identity. Here she's somewhere in the fourth or fifth grade, trying to go along with the other girls and having no idea she's gay. It's a time for reading magazines for older girls, giggling along to all the silly surveys, and snatching glances at the popular features in the grocery checkout lines.

(For those who are younger, there used to be a lot more magazines available for teenagers at the grocery store than there are today, so it really was a big thing to read a few pages here and there while waiting in line.)

Everything changes for Katie the day one of the stories she stumbles upon is about being a lesbian, and that's where we are by the end of this comic, with several more issues promised in the future.

This is a different kind of personal comic for Omberg, who normally works with stories of her adult life. In a time period where there is a strong focus on what happens to gay kids during their school years, a comic like this is important. Like the "It Gets Better" project, young men and women need to see that they aren't the only ones who go through the struggle of identity. I'm really glad to see Omberg, a cartoonist who happens to be gay, using her art to get a positive message out there, even if that message admits that hey, things are scary when you first start thinking you might be gay. She is in a place where she can talk openly about her sexuality (not everyone is), and does so. We need more of this.

Omberg's art is still as basic as it was in her earlier comics, but she lays out the story very well, and has a clever homage to the teen magazines with the cover. (I wasn't able to find an image, sorry.) My only slight quibble with this one is that it's a little on the short side, and I'm thinking that maybe this series will read best when all of the parts are collected together. It's hard to know where to start and stop things when it's a larger work broken down, and I think maybe Omberg stopped a bit too soon here. It will be interesting to see how the length changes in the different parts.

Regardless, we need comics like this one. I'm really glad that Ms. Omberg is taking the time to chronicle her struggle, and I'd definitely recommend this one to anyone who enjoys reading personal stories or who might relate to finding their personal identity. You can read more of what Katie Omberg is up to at her blog.

January 27, 2011

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Mermin Volume 5

Written by Joey Weiser
Illustrated by Joey Weiser
Self-Published

It's a battle by the sea shore as Mermin makes his final stand to resist those who want him to return to the land of Mer. But will his fight for freedom cost him the life of his human friends? The tide is ready to come in, sweeping us all up into the conclusion of the first story arc of Mermin!

I'm really sad to see this be the end of the Mermin story for a little while, but I am impressed by the work Weiser did on this series, especially here in the final issue of the first part of Mermin's adventures. While there is plenty of room for more stories within the world he's created, I also felt like I had a satisfying ending. As I've mentioned previously, I'm impressed with Weiser's ability to make this series work as single issues, while also allowing it to be part of a larger story. This time, that idea is expanded to the point where we have an ending to a leg of the journey, but as Toby correctly notes, there a SO many questions left unanswered that I am left wanting more. This is good comic book storytelling, and you rarely see it anymore. Some of the writers for major companies could learn a thing or two from Weiser's pacing.

In terms of the story itself, this is mostly an action issue, befitting all the buildup we've had in the past few issues. Mermin must try to keep his freedom while also protecting his friends. The trouble is that it's almost impossible for him to do so, and like other powerful characters, Mermin forgets that his strength can do terrible damage. That was a nice touch, and even though things are at an all-ages level (so I'm not convinced anyone is really going to get hurt), it was nice to see that danger presented. Mermin is not a pure character, which we know because he's clearly hiding something from the reader and his friends. It's good to see that lack of purity extends to forgetting the consequences of his actions.

Speaking of actions, Weiser again does a nice job with the battle, making it feel confusing while not leading the reader to scratch his or her head about what's going on. The pacing of the battle worked well, with just enough pauses, and I love some of the dialog that happens during the fight. It's kinda fun to see these cute creatures going at one another like this. It's like observing a tense "battle" between sibling kittens. You're worried one of them might get hurt, but the sight is too adorable to make them stop.

I'm a big fan of Joey Weiser's work, and this series is among the best things he's done so far. There's a note in the back saying that Mermin will return, though he's not quite sure in what form just yet. I know I can't wait to find out what happens next. In the meantime, why don't you go on to Wieser's website and catch up now? Trust me, this is a coming you're going to want to have been a part of from the beginning. I think it's got a lot of sleeper potential once it ends up in a more widespread format, and I for one will be glad to say I was reading it from when Mermin was just a tadpole. If you start now, you can make the same lame joke, or perhaps even a better one. Either way, Mermin is a series not to be missed!
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Nightschool Volume 4

Written by Svetlana Chmakova
Illustrated by Svetlana Chmakova
Yen Press

Things are moving fast for Alex. Not only has she lost her sister, now she's lost her home. On the run, even Alex's friends start to turn on her, for fear of the danger. Meanwhile, the young Hunters want revenge for the death of their friends and are in hot pursuit. As if that's not bad enough, the secret lurking within Alex and others finally reveals itself, as the time to take over the world has come. Can anyone stop this mess? Is anyone actually who they think they are? It all comes to an explosive conclusion in the final volume of...Nightschool!

After volume three seemed to be a bit stuck in place, it was a tad odd to get into volume four and find that someone had jammed the accelerator. There is so much action in this final volume that it's almost too hard to keep track of everything that's going on. The third trade acted like we had a lot of time to complete the series, then suddenly there's a rush on to reach the ending. I have to admit that's a pacing problem that does cause me to like this series a little less than I did before. I don't know how much of this was from the author and how much was a decision by the publisher, but I feel like this manga would have been better served going to five books instead of four.

The story itself, however, does a good job in the space allotted trying to tie everything together. All of the characters we've met play a part in the conclusion, and I don't think there are any loose ends. There's only one problem--the way this story ends is, well, kinda unfair. If you've already read the series, I think you'll know what I mean.

Without saying too much, I'll try to explain. Chmakova opts to do something that I've always felt cheapens the reading (or viewing) experience in order to make sure that everything works out okay for her characters. That takes away the sense of danger for me, which really hurts the overall feel of the manga. Why should I care if Alex or one of the hunters is in danger of death if the author isn't willing to actually kill someone? Further, the dramatic ending doesn't seem to have any costs attached to it. There's some serious magic going on in the final pages, but it doesn't seem to have any price to pay, other than leaving the people involved pretty tired.

I don't care for Orson Scott Card, but I agree with something he wrote about putting together fantasy or science fiction: Magic must have a price you pay. Otherwise, it's not realistic. That may seem a bit silly at first blush--after all, magic powers, vampires, and shape-shifters aren't going to appear in our world anytime soon. But there must be a sense of realism within the world to make things work. Magic on the scale of the conclusion of Nightschool needs to have a cost, and I didn't see one. I'm afraid that's a big problem for me.

It's really a shame that Nightschool ends on a cheat with no consequences, because I loved how most of this volume proceeds. The action is ramped up page by page, certain mysteries are explained, and we even get a great set of battle sequences. Chmakova does a really nice job of making normally innocent characters look creepy and keeping the action sequences as clear as possible, even while using a whole ton of shonen action lines. The pacing of the battle also felt just about right, with characters entering and exiting the fight in a way that felt natural to me. As each wave of participants falls, a new set takes their place, leading to the dramatic climax--that really wasn't.

Chmakova promises more in this world, and I think I'm up for reading it. I'd like to know more about what the hunters do, if the evil contained in this part of the story will return, and how characters will deal with their knowledge of what went on over the course of those days. On the other hand, I'm no longer as excited to read it for fear of another entirely too convenient ending. The problem with the Nightschool is that it has enough danger and violence to be a teen-level manga but has the finishing touches of one written for all ages. I hope that in her next foray into the series, Chmakova will pick an age level to work with, preferably an older one that allows her to be darker and allows bad things to happen to her characters.

Nightschool is worth reading, but be aware that the ending is a bummer. Strong art and characterization pushes it past this problem, and it's still the best OEL manga I've read so far. Yet I can't help wondering what might have been had Chmakova been willing to take more risks with her characters, and that's what keeps this from being something that I highly recommend, despite it being on last year's favorites list. It's still a good series, but it also has some serious flaws in the ending. Be aware of that before you start reading. I do, however, look forward to more manga from Chmakova, who is definitely quite talented. Once you read this series, I think you'll agree. This is a good start to what I hope will be a long and fulfilling career for her. Nightschool is worth reading so you can say you've been here from the start.

January 26, 2011

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The Ray Bradbury Chronicles 1-3

Written by Ray Bradbury
Adapted by Various Creators, including Dave Gibbons, Bernard Krigstein, P. Craig Russell, Tim Truman, John Van Fleet, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood
Bantam

After a few frustrating reading sessions with Ray Bradbury, I figured I needed to see if it was the stories or the author that was the problem. Bradbury had been one of my favorite short story writers, and now I was starting to feel like maybe my taste had moved on.

A little while back, I picked up these comic adaptations and figured they were worth trying. I'd either enjoy them, and feel that I'd just hit a bad batch of writing from a creator I like or I'd find them to be mediocre and just move on.

So which was it?

The truth is a little bit complicated. I definitely liked these a lot better than the collection of new short stories, but after finishing all three together, I also came to realize that Bradbury may be an author that's best in small doses for me these days.

The problem with Bradbury is that since he is full of so many ideas, once you start reading too many of his tales together, its' clear that a pattern emerges--he doesn't really stop to polish or finish them. I tend to suspect Stephen King of the same thing. They get an idea, and plow on for however many pages the story requires to hit an ending, and bam, they're off to the publisher.

Bradbury actually confirms this, talking about how one story was written in two hours. Two hours. You don't stop to revise something that was written on a typewriter in two hours. It's just not possible. As a result, the quality is extremely uneven, a trait that bothered me a lot less in the past but comes to my mind now. Like King, the idea either hits or it misses. When it hits, it's amazing. When it misses, look out.

There are some definite hits in these collections. What I noticed was that my favorites are the ones that go outside of Bradbury's comfort zone while still keeping his general theme of the positives of life. Marionettes, Inc. (adapted by Ralph Reese) uses robots as a way to avoid the drudgery of life. What happens when that robot wants a life of its own? The results are predictable to anyone who reads fiction like this on a regular basis, but the way it's presented by Bradbury makes it stand out. Similarly, The Toynbee Convector (adapted by Ray Zone and Chuck Roblin) explores what happens when a man with a positive hope uses lies to get us to a better place.
But here's the thing. We get similar ideas in the stories Punishment Without Crime (adapted by Ralph Reese), also about a robot taking the place of a human, and A Piece of Wood (adapted by Mark Chiarello), also about making the world a better place through some deception. I liked those stories, too, but they echo just a bit too much of ones already adapted in this series. Was this a bias on the part of the editor or a sign that Bradbury repeats himself?

Though most of the stories here do feel comfortably familiar (sometimes too familiar), two stories in the third collection stand out as being darker than usual for Bradbury. The Aquaduct (adapted by Bruce Jensen)is about a city that relies on tragedy to keep it alive. In a telling introduction, Bradbury notes he's not even sure he likes the story! Similarly, the Veldt (adapted by Timothy Truman) has a rather gruesome end for absentee parents, though of course the theme of the need for family is vintage Bradbury.

Most of the other stories revolve around Mars or the wonders of space. They involve whimsy, nostalgia, and a general fear of losing the past. No matter how young he was when he wrote these stories, Bradbury always was an old man at heart. That may be part of why I liked him more in the past. As I've chosen to live more in the now, stories that revel in what was don't appeal to me the way they used to do.

I've spoken a lot about the content of the stories, but not as much about the adaptations themselves. They appear to be extremely faithful, based on the few I already know. Some use a lot of text boxes to incorporate Bradbury's prose, while others (usually the better ones) try to make things feel more like a running dialog. The editor clearly wanted people who mostly worked in the style of P. Craig Russell, as a lot of the art has the same feel--though obviously not the same skill--as his contribution. I like that a lot of them gave us an old-school splash page that hearkens back to the days of old pre-code horror comics (Dave Gibbons probably doing this the best of those who tried). John Van Fleet's adaptation is of course quite different, making it stand out from the rest. I love the pasted-on feel of his lettering.

Overall, the results are solid if unspectacular. It was a cool idea to include one EC adaptation in each volume, and Wally Wood's interpretation of There Will Come Soft Rains totally blows the modern one (by Lebbus Woods) out of the water. It's never a good idea to try and beat a master at their own game. Like Bradbury's prose, these adaptations tend to play it safe. I wish they'd gone for more variety, but given that Bradbury talks about how proud he is to collect the BC daily strip, I'm not sure a more challenging approach to his work would have been authorized.

For comics readers who are also fans of Bradbury, these are definitely worth seeking out, as they stay close to their source and have the same sense of wonder and whimsy, with the occasional dark edge. If you want your adaptations to be more radical, or find Bradbury boring, then this is not for you. In my case, with three sets of Bradbury stories in a little over a month, I'm probably okay with letting this author rest for a bit. I still enjoy the man's work, but not in the way I once did. Unlike Bradbury, I don't think we were better off in the past.

January 25, 2011

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A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 4: Rumiko Takahashi Hates Men? Since When?

My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

I hadn't planned on doing any special posts in this series just yet, but something came up over the weekend that changed my mind. I'm sure at least some of you reading this are on Twitter, and as you know, sometimes you see things on Twitter as you're flipping past the retweets, the jokes, the announcements, and the little slices of life that stops you dead because it catches you by surprise.

Such was the case when one of my twitter friends shared a personal joke about Rumiko Takahashi hating men. If you had seen me when I read over the tweet, I'm sure I looked like one of those cartoon characters with their jaw dropped to the floor. I might have even exclaimed "You've got to be kidding me," but I don't think so because I don't recall being chastised by my wife, since this was in a Walgreens.

A few questions later, I found that my friend created this joke because it apparently makes the rounds of comment threads in anime. I'm not a big fan of spending hours on message boards, having done my time in the message board trenches when I was in college and it was IMPORTANT to always have my say. (It's a phase that everyone goes through. Don't sweat it if you're doing it now, dear reader, eventually the desire will pass, much as old manga slips out of print.) Thus, I had no idea that there was a little clatch of people trying to make the argument that anime "is castrating men by making male protags spineless and dominated by women..." and of course that means that Takahashi is doing it, too.

The broader idea is ludicrous, of course. Maybe I'm watching the wrong anime, but everything I've seen either beats both genders about the head just about equally or gives a preference to the male characters. Still, it seems there are people who decry any slight against the idea of masculinity while clutching to their stories that treat women like objects (at best) and often kill or toss them aside, all while drawing them in the most demeaning way possible, so it really doesn't shock me that those are also the kind of people who frequent message boards to warn the world against the grand conspiracy against men.

Oh wait, there I go being a sissy again, I guess. *shrug*

At any rate, since I am spending a year singing her praises, I figured this was as good a time as any to approach the idea of Takahashi's attitude towards men.

The first thing I want to cover is my own opinion. Now I don't claim to be a Takahashi expert. I haven't read everything she's ever written or watched all of the anime adaptations. However, I've read enough to know that Takahashi likes putting men and women in comedic situations together. As a writer known for physical romantic comedy, especially ones aimed at young men and women, it's only natural that there is going to be a lot of violence heaped on the main characters. Sure, Ranma is punched, kicked, and verbally abused--but it's not to make the female characters around him look better. It's because, as anyone who's ever watched a slapstick comedy knows, getting hit is *funny.* This is analogous to saying that Warner Brothers was trying to defame cowboys and hunters by having Elmer Fudd and Yosemite Sam get blown up every time they showed up in a Looney Tunes short. It's so preposterous, you'd think the folks were saying in with their tongue planted firmly in cheek.

Apparently, however, that's not the case. I spent time doing some internet searches on variations of "Takahashi hates men" and every time I found a message board related to the subject, somebody felt she was against the male gender. Sadly, it kinda seemed like there wasn't much of an argument against the idea, either.

I just don't see where this is coming from. The woman is clearly hard on her characters, but I see it going towards both genders. It's not like life is easy for anyone in the stories I've read so far. Kagome is dragged into an increasingly dangerous set of battles in InuYasha, when I'm pretty sure she'd be happy just to go to school. My memory is spotty on the Rumic World stories, but I seem to recall bad things happening to just about every protagonist in those shorter works.

This is not a gender conspiracy, it's a creator who seems to revel in doing things to torture her characters, whether in serious terms or in playful fun. It's an exercise in exaggeration, and to say that Takahashi hates men is to a level of insecurity that makes me feel sorry for the people exercising that argument--if I wasn't too busy laughing at them.

In the case of most of Takahashi's stories, you aren't meant to take things too seriously. If you're getting all uptight about a story where a lake turns people into half-cats, half-pandas, and half-pigs, perhaps you better look again. I really started chortling at the whole idea that keeping InuYasha on a leash was a sign of where Takahasi thinks men belong. Because if we extend that logic out to take the premise seriously, are we supposed to believe that Takahashi believes all men are demons who will take what they want if they aren't restrained? If she wanted to tell stories like that, I'm pretty sure she'd be writing for magazines targeted at people who aren't 15 year old boys.

I mean come on here. Most of what Takahashi has written for the past thirty years is shonen manga, and what isn't shonen is seinen. Unless you seriously believe that young teenage boys are going to read these manga and internalize insecurities while their older counterparts read Maison Ikkoku and think, "Boy, I'm a loser who doesn't deserve a professional woman!", then it's clear that any agenda Takahashi might have intended isn't going to enter the mind of her targeted readers. You know what is? How funny it is when someone gets bonked on the head or how great it is to read about some loser in a boarding house that isn't me.

Sometimes a comedy is just a comedy. Reading things into the narrative to make yourself feel better because you can't hold a stable relationship with a woman is sad, and again, I'm feel sorry for these people, except that I'm betting they've got softcore pinned up on their walls and think Jim Balent's comics and High School of the Dead are great examples of using female characters.

Hold on now! Am I being unfair?

You bet--I'm using exaggeration to make my point and to generate a laugh or two. I don't seriously think that every person who dislikes Takahashi's portrayal of men is a guy who can't get a date, but I also know that in an anime world that has life-like pillows of female characters, I think there's some insecurities that come out of the woodwork, and a popular, longstanding female manga-ka is an easy target.

My bottom line is this--Takahashi likes to write funny stories where her characters do outrageous things. No one is going to claim that people can control the ocean or fight so hard that they destroy an entire ice skating rink, so no one should claim that because Ranma takes a beating or InuYasha has a choke chain or that Godai is an amiable idiot that Takahashi wants us to think that all men are to be submissive. If that's her goal, then she certainly failed, because the millions of boys and men who've read her manga in several nations are all still functioning quite nicely, going on to healthy relationships, bad relationships, or no relationship at all. They're good people and bad people, the same as they'd have been without Takahashi's help.

If Takahashi committed a sin, it's trying to get girls to want to read comics, too, by making sure that her female characters get the same attention as her male characters. Heaven forbid that the page time be devoted equally between the genders. It might mean a whole extra demographic starts to read comics! The horror!

Don't worry, friends, mainstream Western comics will make sure those girls don't get any further than the gates of manga.

I think I'll leave the last word to Takahashi herself. This is taken from an interview in Shonen Sunday, and I found it on the excellent Rumic World tribute site:
"I don't have any resentment towards men, however they behave that way because they are the main characters. If they did not it wouldn't be nearly as interesting. I think I am hard on the female characters too because of what they have to endure!! They have to withstand a lot because they are the main characters."

I couldn't have said it better myself, Ms. Takahashi. As with any good comedian or writer, there are no sacred cows in Takahashi's work. It's part of what makes it so good. Next week, we'll return to the world of Ranma 1/2, assuming my masculinity can handle it.

January 24, 2011

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White Elephants Number 1-4

Written by Katie Haegele
Self-Published

I honestly don't know the first time I went to a rummage sale, but I do know the first thing I remember getting at one--a record of Beethoven's 3rd Symphony. And this was not an ironic purchase--at the time, vinyl was still the main way you listened to things and there were a fair number of people picking up 8-tracks.

So yeah, it was awhile ago.

I mention this at the start of this review because White Elephants is Katie Haegele's excellent series chronicling her adventures in the summer yard sale-rummage sale season, usually with her mother. Ms. Haegele's been doing this zine for several years now, and each one is a loving tribute to the idea of finding treasure amongst that which others want to give away.

If there's such a thing as a target audience for a zine, I *am* the target audience here.

Over the course of the four volumes, Haegele talks a lot about the different things you encounter at yard or rummage sales, from things that are an absolute steal to people who don't know yard sale etiquette to the times where it's mildly uncomfortable because you don't want to upset the person who owned these things in the first place. (I know I always feel a bit bad when I walk away from a yard sale and don't buy anything at all. It's not a value judgment on you, seller, I swear!)

Though the zine itself is themed around the sales, like all zines there is definitely an element of the personal, which only increases as the size of the zines themselves do. From a few veiled references to her personal life in the first edition, Haegele slowly ramps up how much she's willing to talk about herself. By the fourth installment, things have changed so much that it's almost more personal zine than a chronicle of the yard sales. This may turn off some folks who are only interested in the bargain hunting, but I like that Haegele opens up as time goes on. Reading these, you can't help but get to know the writer, and it's nice to see she's more than just a person who can spy a good deal in a bin of old clothes.

One of the best parts of bargain hunting is finding new things to do with older items. Sure, it's cool when you find a wormy chestnut picture frame, but what are you going to do with it? This is where many bargain hunters go astray, but not Haegele! She's got a plan for her things, which she often shares with the reader. It's neat to hear how she's going to use things for zine supplies or household items. I wish I had been better at that during my heyday at such sales.

If you aren't a person who frequents yard or rummage sales or flea markets, it's hard to explain the fun in the finding. They're like a scavenger hunt without a specific objective, or a treasure map with the destination listed but not the prize. Haegele understands this very well, and I think she does a great job of putting the feeling into words. I had a great time reading these zines, and I hope to see Haegele at the next Philly Zinefest so I can pick up her latest adventures in collecting.

Ironically, my copies of this zine are something of a white elephant now, because they are almost surely out of print. That's the nature of the media--they're designed to be temporary and shared in the now. However, you can go to Haegele's website to learn more about her and see what she's doing for her current zine projects. If they're anything like White Elephants, you're in for some good writing.

January 23, 2011

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Incredible Change-Bots

Written by Jeffrey Brown
Illustrated by Jeffrey Brown
Top Shelf

Once upon a time, there was a planet of robots who lived under one ruler. When a democratic transfer of power is questioned, the planet devolves into war. Wrecking their planet, the robots free to find another place to carry on the fight. That planet? Earth.

Now these morphing machines threaten all of humanity in their unending quest to win. Can anyone survive the onslaught of the Incredible Change-Bots?

I can't believe how long it took me to get around to this one, given how much I used to like the old Transformers cartoons and also how much I like Jeffrey Brown. Since I knew a sequel was coming out soon, I figured it was time to get this one off the shelf. My only regret is that I didn't do it sooner.

Brown's story is part loving tribute to the toys of our childhoods (he and I are close enough in age to share what was marketed to us in our formative years), part merciless skewering. I expected a parody of course, but I had no idea that Brown was so good at satire and being witheringly sarcastic at times within his writing. From his decision to make the Optimus Prime analog a jerk who actually causes more problems than he solves to hitting just about every cliche over the head (a dawn attack, a love affair that makes no sense and comes out of nowhere, an ending that clearly sets up future stories and so on), Brown crafts a tale that fires on all cylinders--so to speak.

The jokes begin early and often. Brown's names for the vehicles are just about worth the price of admission alone. Stinky is a garbage truck. Eject is a giant cassette player. Siren is a cop car. Shootertron has a big gun. My personal favorite is Microwave, a spy who can shoot a mini-robot named after popcorn. Are any of these really that far out of place from the original Transformers?

From there, the story takes a twisted version of the original Transformers pilot and lands the robots on earth. In this case, the Change-Bots basically blew up their old world ("That sucks," they remark in classic Brown deadpan) and travel together until a religious conflict fractures an uneasy peace. On earth, they face the dual problem of energy needs and desire to beat the crap out of each other, and that drives most of the comedy and satire for the rest of the book.

One of the things that makes this book work so well is that none of the robots are heroic. In fact, they're all a bunch of jerks, not unlike the superhero parody created by James Kochalka, SuperF***ers. They look down on each other, make withering remarks, and seem more interested in personal gain than in doing anything that would help their cause. The whole war starts because of petty jealousy, and those squabbles continue here on earth.

The other neat part is how many little things Brown gets right. There's the pair of low-class humans who are the one side's only friend. Meanwhile, the Army makes deals with the "evil" robots, complete with diabolical weapons and amazing technology. There's a bit of death, a bit of life, and sentimental moments that are immediately turned into comedy, because this is a satire, not a serious story.

What makes the book work however is that Brown doesn't just sling it together as a series of jokes or sketches, as we see in most parodies. Instead, this book has an actual plot, with ebbs and flows. There is a backbone on which the jokes are placed, and that makes all the difference. The gags are all the better because they blend in with the plot, rather than stopping the plot dead to do something funny. That's the difference between a good parody and a bad one. Good parodies can survive on their own as a story. Incredible Change-Bots does this perfectly.

Brown's artwork here is nowhere near as good as he's become over the years. The human characters look particularly primitive, and the background scenes are often just a few scribbles. He tries harder on the robots, but even those aren't going to win any art awards. (I can't wait to read the new book, which will be drawn with Brown's more practiced hand. It's clear he works hard to be a better cartoonist.) Still, Brown manages to get several good visuals into the story, such as the Army General doing the evil finger waggle or giving the robots enough facial expression to show fear, anger, or sarcasm. He also does a really nice job with the action scenes, which feel about as fluid as you can get when dealing with robots. You can tell Brown read a lot of Marvel comics, because his angles are always askew, which helps with the feel of movement. I also liked the coloring job, which is nice and garish, just like the Transformers cartoons were.

Incredible Change-Bots is a great parody of a toy beloved of all those who were at child for at least part of the 1980s. I never got the ones I wanted (the toys were too expensive), and I have no idea if Brown had them, either. Regardless, he's captured the wonder and magic of the idea and completely blown it to pieces with irony. I wouldn't have it any other way, and neither should you. Do yourself a favor, child of the80s---get a copy of Incredible Change Bots before the new one comes out. You'll be glad you did.

January 22, 2011

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Karakuri Odette Volume 1

Written by Julietta Suzuki
Illustrated by Julietta Suzuki
Tokyopop

I almost didn't make it in time, but the library managed to find this book for me so that I could participate in this month's Manga Movable Feast, Karakuri Odette.

The Manga Movable Feast (or MMF for short) is a chance for those of us who hang out on Twitter to all write about the same series. We've discussed things as different as Yotsuba&! and To Terra over the past year. Sometimes the feast is about a well known work like One Piece, but other times we'll look at books that might be a bit under the radar. I think Karakuri Odette fits that description, so I'm hoping we can drum up some interest by our collective writings.

This month's host is Anna, at Manga Report. You can read her introductory post here, and a permanent link to the all of the MMF posts is here.

On first blush, Karakuri Odette is the story of a robot trying her best to be human. This is not really a new story, as it goes all the way back to Pinocchio. It's not even the first time we've seen this in a manga published by Tokyopop (Chobits). Yet this manga, unlike the other stories I've read, takes the concept and moves it into very different territory, particularly for one featuring a cute girl robot. That's what really makes Karakuri Odette sing for me (and I suspect others, as well). Suzuki knows there's more to this story, and over the course of these chapters, begins to explore it.

In most robot wants to be human stories, the main character spends a lot of time showing how much more caring an decent they are, and if they're lucky, they get to be human in the end. I don't see that happening here. In fact, Odette learns quickly that being human might just be the worst thing that can happen to her, and pulls back on her desire. That frees up the rest of the volume to telling stories of how Odette can long to be more like those around her, but at the same time retain the advantages of being super-strong or harder to harm. Odette is looking for a way to make it as both a robot and a person. There's a big difference there, and it's one Suzuki exploits for stories that don't read like the same ones we're familiar with in this genre.

I also appreciate that while Odette is a cute girl robot with potentially male admirers she is not oversexualized. We don't get a character with oversized breasts, a desire to (comically or otherwise) love all the males around her, and she's not, at least so far, subject to anyone's lurid fantasies. This is a female robot character who is being respected for who she is by the writer, not treated as an object. That automatically puts this one above Chobits for me, because even though she can be reprogrammed, Odette seems to have her own personality.

The theme of this manga is a character's search for how to be human, not how to be an object of love for someone else. The difference is crucial. While love and relationships are a part of being human, it's not all that being human is about. It seems like the idea of love turns the plot of most robot-to-human stories. I feel like Suzuki is looking deeper at what it means to be human, such as making sacrifices or trying to do the right thing. Yes, you can do that within a love story, but I feel like the meaning is stronger when you're helping a friend or struggling to understand the everyday concepts that maybe we take too much for granted.

Suzuki even gets a subtle dig in at some other humanoid robot tales by introducing a character who exudes personality and is seemingly more realistic than Odette. Yet, as we quickly see, it's all superficial. Trying to be happy all the time is just as fake as anything else. There's a lesson in there for all of us, not just Odette.

Despite being the opening of a series, the first volume feels very much fully formed right from the beginning. We get the premise, a few main characters, and a quick look at how Suzuki is going to approach the concept of the book. This may stem from Karakuri Odette's origins as a one-shot story. Either way, I like being able to get into this story right away and not having to warn readers that it takes time to build. Odette is a bit innocent, almost like a slightly older version of Yotsuba, but with more self-control in order to avoid giving out her secret. Her creator seems capable of anything, yet you never feel as though he'll be a deus ex machina. The supporting cast is small, but I love the idea that Odette's friends at school are not the best examples of humanity for her to model after. They're shy or brash, aggressive and sometimes petty. None of them would win model children awards, and that, too, fits into the message of this manga. Humanity isn't something you can craft perfectly, not even in the original organic models.

I've gone all this time and haven't even talked about Suzuki's illustrations. This is an extremely well drawn manga. Odette is pretty without being sexualized. Each character is distinctive enough that I can pick them out without needing narrative direction. The pacing of the panels works well, keeping an even flow that allows the drama and comedic moments to have the time they need to develop. Everything is crisp and clean, with a lot of emotion in the faces. That's no mean feat given that the main character is a robot! I'm really impressed with the strong artistry in this one, and I hope to see more of that in the future.

Karakuri Odette was a pleasant surprise for me. I love finding new manga to enjoy, and this one is an early contender for my favorites list. I really hope the sixth and final volume is released soon, but in the meantime, I'm definitely going to have fun reading the other four volumes available in English, as long as they are as good as this one. I recommend Karakuri Odette strongly, and urge you to pick up a copy for yourself. You'll be glad you did!
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Cat Paradise Volume 2

Written by Yuji Iwahara
Illustrated by Yuji Iwahara
Yen Press

The evil spirits start to reveal themselves, as they take advantage of an opportunity in the school library to take down a chunk of the protectors trying to keep the spirits on their side of the barrier. With humans separated from their cat pairs, can they prevail when one of the spirits tries to give them a severe case of arachnophobia? The stakes are deadly in what continues to be the oddly named Cat Paradise!

I almost gave up on this one after the first volume, but hell, it has talking cats in it, and the library had the next volume, so I figured it was worth sticking with it. Nothing lost other than a bit of time. I hate to give up on something after just one volume, because often things need time to build.

Just to review briefly, my earlier issue was that this manga felt too much like a paint by numbers. There were quite a few elements I've read before in other stories, but none of them had any original spin on them, at least to me. The characters were flat and the dialog was weak, which meant there just wasn't anything for me to hang my hat on.

I'm still not going to count this as a favorite, but Cat Paradise definitely got more interesting this time around. For one thing, Iwahara upped the level of danger, making me believe he was capable of killing off several characters. That's a storytelling hook for me--if the writer is willing to take major players off the board, that means he or she is going to keep the reader on their toes. I definitely stood up and took notice this time, rather than just turning the pages without much interest.

The second thing I liked better is that the characters seemed like they were more individualized rather than clones of either other manga characters or each other. I started caring about what happened to them, especially during the big battle scene, because I could actually tell one person from another. This is never going to win a lot of points from me in terms of characterization, but at least there are markings on the face of the cardboard cutouts.

Lastly, I found the battle itself to be more interesting. The situation is far more dire because of the ramped up level of danger, the attack by the villain is a diabolical trap that plays into a common fear of many people, and there's a great pacing that keeps the fight moving through most of the volume without feeling played out. It's just as exciting on page 50 as it is on page 1. The artwork in the battle scenes feels better here, too. There's a use of facial expression, "camera" placement, and shadow that I don't think we saw as clearly in volume one.

I'm still not overly fond of the general story, as I don't think it's fleshed out enough for the reader to take notice (evil stuff wants to rule the world is a definite trope). However, I'm hopeful that things will pick up in volume three because the action definitely got moved up here as the evil spirits definitely overplayed their hand. Our human-cat protectors know what's going on--but can they stop it? I wish there was more to it than the basic save humanity plot, but if we keep on moving, I'm far less likely to notice the vanilla storyline.

Cat Paradise is never going to make a best-of list for me personally, but I liked it better here than I did in volume one. I'm going to finish it now, since there are only 5 volumes anyway, but I don't see a strong need to recommend this to anyone, unless you must read anything featuring cats (and hey, who can blame you?). Your mileage on this one may strongly vary, but I find it to be an okay read that just doesn't reach the level of good--at least not yet.

January 21, 2011

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Booster Gold Volume 1 52 Pickup

Written by Geoff Johns and Jeff Katz
Illustrated by Dan Jurgens and Norm Rapmund
DC

I picked this up totally on a lark, fully expecting not to like it. I'm not a fan of the direction of DC comics since Johns and Morrison basically took over control of the universe, and what little I've poked my head into at the bookstore by Johns recently really didn't thrill me. As if that wasn't enough, the premise is time travel, something that usually doesn't grab me, either.

But for whatever reason, I enjoyed this one a lot more than I expected to. Maybe it's because Johns is a bit more restrained here, scaling back on the brutal scenes of murder and gore. Maybe it's because Jurgens draws a great comic book, and the visuals here are as good as ever. Or maybe it's that Booster is part of the DC Comics world that we won't ever get back, and this is a link for me, however fragile. Either way, I had a lot of fun reading it.

Booster, in the wake of 52, is just about to put his life back together when Rip Hunter tears it apart again in the name of saving the multiverse. Now Booster must fade into obscurity as he hops about trying to patch holes created when someone messed with everything in the time-space continuum. But if Booster has his way, he won't do it alone--after all, what good is being able to change time if you can't save your best friend? Can this new job save Ted Kord? Only time will tell!

The premise means that, not unlike Exiles, we get to romp through some great times in the DC Universe. Booster battles Sinestro when he's a Green Lantern, challenges Jonah Hex to a drinking match and meets a moralizing Barry Allen, amongst other things. Though the mission is serious, a lot of the tone is not. For the first time in a long time, I actually smiled and laughed at a DC comic book. Though Johns cannot help himself and insists on having one serious moment that hits a sour note, the general take on things is entirely more old-school than you'd expect. Since I prefer that way of writing, I enjoyed this one immensely.

Whenever I read a book like this, I wonder why DC (and Marvel) can't do more books like this and less ones where people are literally ripped in half or vomit blood. It clearly can be done, but too often it's with lesser-known characters, which means the sales are lower. Why not try this with Batman or Spider-Man and see what happens? The results might surprise you, guys. Maybe you can start selling above 100,000 copies a month again.

Filled with great drawings of much of the DC Universe by Jurgens to a possible return of a man who was wronged, Booster Gold has a lot to offer any reader who takes a chance on it. It's not amazing comics, but it's good old fashioned fun. Readers looking for comics that feature good stories without as much of the unneeded violence should definitely check this one out.
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One Piece Volumes 2 and 3

Written by Eiichiro Oda
Illustrated by Eiichiro Oda
Viz

In this set of volumes, Luffy, our stretchable Pirate who can't swim, goes head to head with one of his own kind, Buggy the Clown. The Clown is a ruthless Pirate who lives for destruction, with a town in his grasp that only Luffy and his friends can save--if they decide to stay on his side of the fight!

Later, Luffy encounters a pirate who lives in a treasure chest and prepares for a new adventure in a town that faces a threat from yet another pirate without honor. It's hijinks and high adventure in these two volumes of One Piece!

I finally broke down and started reading One Piece late last year, even though I had a few reservations. It's a shonen manga, which I seem to like more than I used to, based on current reading habits, and it's really long. The two factors held me back in the past, but now I'm on the One Piece ship and looking forward to the voyage. After all, sometimes there's a reason things are popular, even if I personally will never understand why so many folks like Ferris Buehler's Day Off.

I mentioned last time that if I hadn't already been intrigued by the story of Luffy, the introduction of clown pirates would have sealed the deal. That means that the bulk of my enjoyment this time around comes from the idea that a band of clown pirates a) exists and b) was considered perfectly normal on other ships. I mean really, how can you not admire the innovation of Oda in creating such a world? I love it when comics make the extraordinary seem perfectly normal within the contexts of their world. That makes the entire setup far more plausible, even if it's "just" a comedy like One Piece.

I admit that I was a bit disappointed that the clown pirates aren't a bit more buffoonish, given that they are clowns. We get some great verbal and physical comedy at the opening of the second volume, but after that, the clowns turn into serious opponents. I guess that's necessary for the shonen to operate within its genre, but I do think Oda missed a chance here to make the whole thing even more absurd.

As it stands, the arc with Buggy the Clown is still very good. Each of our major characters gets a chance to be a part of the action, and the danger for Luffy feels very real. Just how can he defeat a person who is effectively a human lego? The answer is perfect, and allows for a revenge match sometime in the future.

Behind the brawling in this arc, however, are some strong positive messages. Luffy shows his determination in the face of adversity, refusing to leave the town in the hands of the killer clowns. Zolo shows that honor can win the day, as long as you keep your integrity (and inner organs). Nami learns that treasure doesn't always involve money. Even a dog provides a role model for young kids reading this series. Sure there's action in the fine shonen tradition, and the jokes are what draws me into the story. But I also like that without trying to preach, Oda shows that doing things the right way will ultimately win the day, even if things look bleak.

Maybe I'm old fashioned, but I appreciate it when a creator puts an affirmative message in their story--as long as that message doesn't overpower the story itself. Oda does a great job of this, I think, and it's part of what makes One Piece stand out as such a good comic.

As much as I enjoyed the clown arc, I have to admit to being a bit disappointed at what comes after. The story of the man in the treasure chest felt like filler. It's a cute enough idea with its own moral, but I'm hoping that this was a setup for something bigger or that we avoid one-shots like that in the future. I'm also not sold on the new arc, but hopefully it will pick up as I read the next few volumes of the series. It's probably not fair for me to want every villain to be as outrageous as a clown pirate that can chop himself to pieces, but it's Oda's own fault for setting the bar so high this early on!

These early volumes of One Piece are still a little rough around the edges when it comes to the art. The characters are consistent, which is good, but you can tell there are times when Oda has an idea that's just a bit outside of his ability to portray it. I do love the addition of three kids that look like the items they're named after, and so far, the villains of the piece have enough distinction between them that it's easily to tell them apart. Part of the fun for me should be watching Oda's art catch up to his storytelling ability. I already love his dialog and plotting--when I start getting into the art, too, this manga is really going to sing.

Given how late I'm getting on the One Piece bandwagon, I'm not really expecting to have anyone start reading the series because of me. Rather, this is probably an amusing romp for those of you who are already somewhere in the 50s, volume-wise, nodding sagely as I sing Oda's praises. Give me some time to catch up, folks, and I'll be right there wit you. One Piece is definitely a series I plan to keep reading for a long time.

January 20, 2011

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The (Old) Woman Question

Written by Athena Currier
Illustrated by Athena Currier
Self-Published

One of the cool parts of reading mini-comics is that because of their small size, creators can use them for a variety of purposes--getting readers interested in an ongoing character, telling one-shot stories that don't need a book to fill, or experimenting with ideas. In the case of The (Old) Woman Question, webcomic creator Athena Currier takes on the tricky subject of the way our society treats older women.

Currier uses the mini-comic format to good effect, mixing her own commentary with illustrations that are often quite comic, yet they get across the point of what happens when a woman ages. Whether it's using the Monopoly man to point out how older gentlemen are valued in the world or showing pie charts indicating that young men are most interested in chest sizes, the pictures help move the story along in a way that shows the ability of Currier to use the medium to tell her story.

Sure, this could be told in a traditional zine format in text only (and probably has been, as the idea itself is not exactly new). But it's the visuals here that grab the reader and make them want to find out what Currier has to say on the subject of gender inequality. Once we're hooked, Currier can then spring her surprise--she doesn't have an answer!

You see, Currier correctly notes that while men get to be with multiple women, older women are expected to be on their own, abandoned to the point of being the poster child for a service that will rescue them when they are alone as aging spinsters. There's just not a lot of hope for older woman in today's society, which is clearly wrong. On the other hand, there's also no magic bullet to save the day and rescue these women. There must be a better way--but what? Currier doesn't know and doesn't pretend to, either.

I've had this mini sitting around entirely too long, so it's unlikely you can find a copy. However, Ms. Currier does run a webcomic at Action Athena. It's worth checking out, as her storytelling skills are quite strong, as this mini shows. I haven't read much of it yet, but perhaps this review will make some of you interested enough to give it a try.

January 19, 2011

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Lone Racer

Written by Nicolas Mahler
Illustrated by Nicolas Mahler
Top Shelf

An aging racer's life is slowly going into decline. He can only afford a small home, his wife is most likely dying, he can't concentrate on his semi-relationship with a former model past her prime, and his friends are boozers whose best days are long past them. He's still trying, but the next generation is too extreme for him to compete.

Our racer is at a crossroads in his life, but what will the next step take? Will he keep trying to turn the corner, or accept an offer to move into a life of crime? Ultimately, does it even matter? That's the problem when you're a Lone Racer.

Normally, this is not a book I'd choose to review these days. I read it awhile ago, it's older (from 2006), and it's not part of a series or by one of my favorite authors. Heck, even the subject (car racing) is far from near and dear to me. Nothing about this book screamed out for a review, so why did I do it?

The answer is that this book packs a great story into an easygoing, flowing narrative style where we never do even learn the protagonist's name. He's every racer who ever stayed on a few too many tracks, every baseball player trying for one last shot and finishing with a sub-par batting average or high runs against average, and every football player that hangs around training camp after getting cut over and over again. The sport doesn't matter, because you can easily recognize this lone racer in a variety of forms--and that's part of what makes it work so well.

The other key to this book's quality is the humanity of the main character. He's not vain beyond normal standards. He's not out to beat the odds or be a superhero. This is a guy whose life is falling apart to the point that he seriously considers robbing a bank. He's as ordinary as anyone whose best years are behind them, and it's easy to relate to his struggles.

That's what makes the ending of the book so satisfying. Because the lone racer is a common guy, we can easily see him failing or succeeding, and the book works fine either way. The ultimate fate of the racer is even left up to the reader, his last line closing things perfectly while leaving it up to you to decide if he's changed his life or not by the end. I love a book that can manage to both give us closure and also leave us thinking as we close the pages. Lone Racer does that in a way I don't see very often.

Mahler's illustrations in this book are quite primitive, but they work for the narrative. The racer is just another guy and his world is rounded and dull. The illustrations ebb and flow as needed, with no worries about proportion or skill. The story does the work here, with Mahler's lines giving us what we need to see, minus any bells and whistles. It's a style that's not going to work for everyone (and certainly not for every book), but it meshes well with the story being told here.

Lone Racer is a book I don't think most people would grab if they saw it on the shelf, which is a shame. It's a gem of a story in a small package that shows the story of what it's like to age and to need to start giving up the dreams of youth. The challenges the racer faces are familiar--perhaps all too familiar for some--and Mahler's presentation of the challenges is brilliant. Lone Racer is a good book for anyone, but I think works especially well if you find yourself trying just a bit too hard sometimes to keep the magic of your youth, whenever that time was for you. If you see this book, don't hesitate to grab it. I think you'll be glad you did.

January 18, 2011

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A Year of Rumiko Takahashi Week 3: Akane and Ranma's Early Days (Ranma 1/3 Vol 2 and Vol 3)

My year-long look at the work of Rumiko Takahashi continues here. A great creator deserves a whole year of examination! You can find all of the posts here.

Now that the main players are in place, things can really heat up in this romantic action comedy. As Ranma and Akane try to figure out if they like or hate each other, characters appear out of nowhere (sometimes literally) to offer their romantic affection to the athletic Akane and her dual-gendered fiance, Ranma.

Follow along here in the early days as we learn that Ryoga really does have a reason to hate Ranma, contests in this town have a way of getting entirely too dangerous (and too romantic), and that competitive ice skating is a lot more interesting than it looks on television. If that's not enough for you, just wait till you step into the shower with Shampoo, the Chinese Amazon. (On second thought, maybe that's not such a good idea.) It's all here in the second and third volumes of Ranma 1/2!

We're still in the part of the series I've read before several times, but I think if anything, the jokes are even funnier and more meaningful, as I can now see some of the little things that Takahashi was slipping into the narrative from the beginning that was not as easy to notice the first time (or even the second time) around. The relationship between Akane and Ranma feels like a classic comedic case of love-hate on the surface, with a lot of "I don't like you but that doesn't mean someone else gets to have you instead" going on in the narrative. Ranma and Akane will fight various characters in order to prevent them from getting to date the other. Beneath that idea, however, is something more. Let's look at that for a minute or two.

Because there's so much going on with the action and jokes, it's easy to lose track of how Ranma and Akane are feeling about each other. Ranma fights Ryoga as a matter of personal pride, sure, but he only seems to care about the tussle when Ryoga gets the hots for Akane. Similarly, while Akane may punch Ranma at every opportunity, she's not willing to give up on him, even in the face of the extreme danger Shampoo personifies. As early as the ice skating team up, we see Ranma and Akane working together to defeat their common enemy, and the results are both well-executed and touching. There's several vulnerable moments there, especially in the dialog of the two characters, that show Ranma and Akane really do care for each other.

Provided, of course, they let their pride down long enough to admit it. One of the things I'm looking forward to seeing once we get past the volumes I've already read is whether these two can put aside their differences and admit they actually like each other. It's what all good love-hate romantic couples do in the end--the question is whether Takahashi goes that route or keeps them apart to further the humor.

The interesting part of all this is how Takahashi manages to wed the romantic interests to the action, keeping things as shonen as possible. We rarely slip into thoughtful romance, and most of the time, it's ridiculed in the jokes, such as when the male skater Mikadao fantasizes each of his encounters with the women he meets, including the female version of Ranma. (Kuno, who returns in the next set of story arcs, similarly has outrageous ideas about love that are made up of easily-burst bubbles of sentiment.) All of the characters who want to form romantic encounters do so out of either storybook notions or crazy traditions. Thus it's easy for a boy to laugh at the silly idea of love as long as the main characters refuse to acknowledge that it could happen to them.

Given that the rejection of love as personified in a shojo manga, the use of love as a way to drive the comedy (so many male characters falling in love with the girl Ranma, for instance), and the fact that affection is seen almost as "icky" by both the boyish Akane and the main character (Ranma), it's going to be interesting to see if Takahashi can transition things to make it palatable that Akane and Ranma should get together. The seeds are definitely here in these early stories--I'm just not sure if the plan is to have them take root. Time will tell, and if all goes well, I should find out here in a month or two.

Beyond the setting up of the pattern of romantic attraction and repulsion that will drive a lot of the stories in the volumes to come, this set of chapters also shows that things in Ranma 1/2 will move at a manic pace. No sooner is the Ryoga storyline postponed than we meet the deadly gymnast who will stop at nothing to be the champion, giving Akane a foe as a change of pace. Following hot on the heels of that bout, Ranma and Akane battle first the skating pair, then Ryoga, then Shampoo, who literally bursts in at the end of the skating storyline. It's plotting at a breakneck speed, which I guess is pretty normal for 1988 but feels so packed now in this era of stretching stories out as long as possible. Best of all, the blending here is almost seamless, as both characters and readers transition quickly to meet the new menace, whoever he or she may be. My question is why Takahashi can do this, but other writers can't?

Ranma 1/2 is such a fun read, filled with wit, battles, and a romantic pairing that works--even if they try hard not to admit it. I'm enjoying re-reading this series a lot, and I hope I've encouraged a few people to pick this one up if they haven't already. Next week, we'll concentrate on just how outrageous the ideas in the manga start to get, as if they aren't already!

January 17, 2011

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Richard Stark's Parker Book One The Hunter

Written by Richard Stark
Adapted by Darwyn Cooke
Illustrated by Darwyn Cooke
IDW

Sometimes there's nothing scarier than a wronged man.

Parker is a wronged man.

A criminal by profession, Parker was double-crossed by his wife and a shady partner who wanted the entire take. Somehow, he lived and burned with revenge. This is the story of a man determined to get back at those who tried to kill him, no matter what it takes. He'll even go so far as to take on the entire mob if the job requires it. Like a force of nature, Parker doesn't care who he has to kill to or who gets in his way. He is only Parker...the hunter.

There are two things that really struck me when I read this book. The first was Cooke's illustrations. I'm certainly a big fan of his work, but I feel like he knocked this one out of the park, using shading, pacing, and panel construction to great effect. This comic had the feel of dark crime fiction, with everything muted but dynamic.

The second thing that really struck me was just how brutal and violent the book is. Parker is a one-man wrecking machine, willing to do anything to get what he wants. He cheats, he threatens, he maims, and he kills. It doesn't matter how horrible the crime is in this book, if Parker feels that will get him what he wants (whether it's disfiguring his own wife's dead body or ruining the business of an old friend), that's exactly what Parker will do.

After finishing this book, I honestly wasn't quite sure what to think, mostly because of that latter attribute. I am no stranger to dark books or stories where horrible things happen. I also have no real issue with period pieces, as long as they're well written. Sure, it's rough reading material that's clearly racist but was acceptable at the time or watching women be merely props in a noir picture, but by placing it within the proper context, I can deal with it--provided I like the story.

Even within these tales, however, there's usually something redeeming about the main character. Marlowe might use slurs, beat innocent people up here and there, and use women for all they're worth, but at heart he's a good person. He's doing a few bad things to right a greater wrong. Further, I don't think Marlowe would ever kill someone just to get the answers he was seeking, unless they were a horrible person. Robert E. Howard's anti-heroes don't mow down people who aren't already in need of killing, and, moving into the comic world, the Punisher (when written right) won't kill just to meet his objective.

There's a morality that grounds these characters within their worlds, which are often cesspools of sin and vice. They can get knee-deep in the muck, but it's always with a clear head on their shoulders. Parker, on the other hand, wades in without so much as a pair of galoshes. He's absolutely ruthless in his pursuit of his goal, almost to the point of being a robot. If there is any shred of morality in the man, I can't find it. There's no code of honor, no desire to protect friends, and the only wrong that needs righting is personal. His pride has been hurt by a wife that betrayed him and a man who though he was smarter than Parker. And Parker, come hell or high water, will see them pay for it, until he gets back what is rightfully his.

As a result, Parker is not a character you are meant to like. Longtime readers of my reviews will know that I read books primarily for character, and I always try to find a way to link up to the character, even if they're the villain of the piece. I can admire Dr. Doom's sense of honor or read to see how a writer will interpret the Joker's twisted outlook on the world, for instance. The trouble I had with Parker is that there's absolutely nothing to like about him. He's amazingly good at killing people to get what he wants. That's his thing. He's cruel, he's without morals, and in this book, he comes out the winner.

Parker is an intelligent man, with cunning to spare. Instead of turning that into a force for good, he uses it for personal gain. He's a guy we'd expect to have a hard fall, but the man keeps on using his fists (drawn super-creepy in multiple places by Cooke) and just enough guile to get his way. Ironically, though his main character is just as evil as the rest of them, Stark's story here relies on the fact that most criminals, no matter how powerful, are basically dumb. I have to admit, the fact that Parker doesn't suffer here for his brutality bothers me. Because he's no better than the rest, I don't want him to do well. When he does reach his goals, I almost feel like the unseen god that controls such morality plays went off for a bathroom break and let Parker off the hook. Normally, I roll with whatever the author chooses to do, but here I wanted a type of closure that Stark wasn't going to give me. Even now, I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

Because I was unsure, I asked for some help. David Brothers, of the excellent Comics Alliance and 4th Letter took me up on the request, giving me a few ways to look at Parker as a character. Like me, David is a fan of crime stories, and he said he's run into the same problem I had with Parker, namely that the protagonist is just a total bastard. What do you do in that case? His suggestion was to admire the craft, but hate the craftsman. In the case of Parker, that means admiring his ability to get what he wants, even though what he does to get it might be horrible.

I can definitely see this as a strategy. After all, just because I disagree politically with several comic book writers does not mean I don't find their books to be really good. I can dislike the personal attacks a notable writer-artist makes with regularity and still want to read his comics over and over again. Why not apply the same principle to a fictional character?

Trying this with Parker definitely helps. Stark and Cooke do an amazing job of showing just how terrible Parker is as a human being, yet also how skilled he is in the art of deception and murder. The choice of descriptive language, which Cooke uses to frame certain scenes, is perfect for this world and setting. Cooke's stark depictions of murder and brutality mesh well with the text sections he's preserved, giving an overall feel of seediness that stays with you after you finish the book. You have to give Cooke credit--he could have tried to ratchet things down a notch or two for a modern audience (particularly in the handing of the women in the story), but instead, Cooke lets you have it with both barrels, much like Parker himself. We get the story of Parker, warts and all. That's exactly what a good adaptation should do.

Fans of Darwyn Cooke shouldn't be surprised by the quality of the illustrations. I've hinted at it here and there but I want to call out a few examples before finishing up this review. Cooke changes his page formatting almost at every turn, varying between stunning splash pages, nine-panel setups of the Kirby-Ditko vintage, and a constantly shuffling six-panel pattern, with the panel breaks occurring both randomly and naturally within the text. Within each panel, there is an intensity that drives the narrative. No space is wasted, no character is given a chance to breathe. People stare out at the reader with crazed eyes, shadows loom menacingly at the corners of the panel, and though the artwork resembles 1950s Art Deco more than Will Eisner, you can tell Cooke is using his ideas to make the story come alive off the printed page. Perspectives are off, keeping the reader on edge. If you aren't careful, Parker might just punch *you* while trying to take down his enemies! The whole effect is stunning and I think you could make an argument that this is Cooke's best work. (It's also more like what I wished his Spirit series had been.)

Overall, this book isn't going to be for everyone. The character is unlikable and the story is raw in its brutality, without even a hint of redemption in Parker or anyone around him. You have to work really hard to get past that flaw, even if you're used to dark stories, as I am. Once you do, however, two things come to light. The first is that Stark created a character who's every bit as smart as your average hero--but without one shred of decency. That in and of itself makes this work unique, if a bit hard to swallow at times. The second is that Darwyn Cooke is an unbelievable artist, one that I would follow on to just about any project. His craft here is off the charts. Be warned that the subject is a tricky one to like, but don't let that stop you. Hunt down a copy of this first Parker book today. Those who like crime fiction are in for a treat--even if you want to take several showers to wash off the stink of the characters. It will be worth the water bill.