License request day: Filament

April 30, 2010

A Manga Moveable Feast is always a good opportunity to see what else the creator has to offer. The weeklong look at Iou Kuroda’s Sexy Voice and Robo (Viz) led me to request for Japan Tengu Party Illustrated, and I’d already asked for Kuroda’s Nasu. By the time the feast focused on Kaoru Mori’s Emma came around, I’d already issued a plea for Otoyomegatari, which is her only other major ongoing work. (Note to self: look into Violet Blossoms at some future date.) So let’s see what’s in store for fans of Yuki Urushibara.

The answer is “Not a whole lot,” but what’s there certainly seems to be worth a look. Filament is a collection of Urushibara’s shorter works that was published by Kodansha in 2004.

“She Got off the Bus at the Peninsula” is about a single mother who takes over the family’s isolated grocery store (conveniently located next to a popular suicide spot). “The Labyrinth Cat” is about a helpful feline who helps humans navigate their baffling apartment complex. “Bio Luminescence” was created under her pen name, Soyogo Shima. I’m not having much luck figuring out what the collection’s title story is about, but the book also contains two of what might be described as Mushishi-verse tales, moving the action into contemporary times and featuring different characters.

Based on the episodic nature of Mushishi, I think it would be fascinating to see a grouping of Urushibara’s shorter, unconnected works. Plus there are apparently several color pages in Filament, and I’d love to see her work in that state, since the Mushishi covers are so gorgeous.

She also has a new ongoing series, Suiiki, which is running in Kodansha’s Afternoon magazine. It’s about a girl who mysteriously travels to a different world every time she dozes off. I don’t think it’s been running long enough to generate a paperback just yet.


If you like Mushishi…

April 29, 2010

I’m a big fan of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey), and I’m a big fan of episodic manga in general. I particularly like Urushibara’s thoughtful, expansive take on her subject matter. For this installment of the Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d do something a little different and play a round of the “If you like…” game, finding titles that share qualities with Mushishi and that fans of the series might also enjoy.

If you like the meditative, gentle quality of Mushishi, then I strongly recommend you pick up a volume of Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz), written and illustrated by Yuki Midorikawa. This shôjo series has a number of qualities in common with Mushishi – an isolated but basically good-natured protagonist, a stand-alone approach to chapter storytelling, and a wide variety of supernatural forces on display. Like Urushibara, Midorikawa is concerned with the coexistence of the mortal and the mysterious, positioning her hero as a sort of diplomat between humans and yôkai, the often mischievous minor demons of Japanese folklore. I find Urushibara and Midorikawa’s visual styles to be similar as well, though whether that’s a selling point for you or not is a matter of taste.

If you just can’t get enough of an optically challenged guy in a trench coat, then Mail (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, might be the book for you. Like Mushishi’s Ginko, Mail’s Reiji is a man with a mission, though his approach is far less benevolent. He can see ghosts, and he can exorcise them with his trusty firearm. While Urushibara is focused on rural folklore, Yamazaki leads his hero through ghostly urban legends. As with Mushishi, there’s no real underlying narrative, though Reiji gets a nifty origin story, just as Ginko does. Yamazaki’s art is crisp and imaginative, and Mail is excellent companion reading for The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), also illustrated by Yamazaki and written by Eiji Otsuka.

If you want your well-informed protagonist to be a whole lot meaner, then look no further than Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack (Vertical). I’m not saying that Ginko is the nicest guy on the block, but he’s positively cuddly next to Tezuka’s mercenary, antisocial surgeon. Black Jack, you see, is so contrary that he won’t even bother to become a licensed physician, no matter how legendary his surgical skills are. Perhaps that’s because he puts “First, do no harm” after “Run a credit check” when it comes to patient care. Black Jack may not have a diploma hanging on his wall, but his nigh-supernatural abilities as a physician put him in tremendous demand with the desperately ill and their loved ones. He has no cuddly bedside manner to offer, but he will travel the world to cure you, if you can afford it. (Black Jack also has the creepiest sidekick imaginable, a sentient tumor named Pinoko trapped in a child’s artificial body, even though she’s been around for 18 years.)

If you just can’t get enough of pesky microbes that influence day-to-day human existence, there’s always Moyasimon (Del Rey), written and illustrated by Masayuki Ishikawa. Unlike the magical microbes in Mushishi, the bacterial supporting cast of Moyasimon can be found in any respectable taxonomy of the tiny. Sometimes they’re beneficial, sometimes they’re malignant, and sometimes they can be both. And where better to ponder their myriad qualities than in an agricultural college? And who better than a student who can actually see and speak to them? That’s what his nutty, fermentation-obsessed professor thinks, and if Tadayasu wanted a normal life, he shouldn’t have signed up for manga stardom. Only one volume is available so far, and the comedic results can be a little scattered, but the series shows a lot of promise.

If you like a little more wrathful judgment in your episodic manga, then unwrap a volume of Presents (CMX), written and illustrated by Kanako Inuki, to see terrible things happen to awful people. This is the title that inspired John Jakala to coin the immortal term “comeuppance theatre,” which has subsequently served countless manga bloggers, me included. In these three volumes, the selfish, greedy, stupid, and neglectful get what’s coming to them just as they grab for what they think they deserve, and Inuki stages these moments of karma with real glee. Mushishi is all about the balance of things, of sometimes opposing forces being restored to equanimity and learning to accept that neither acts with malice. There’s malice aplenty in Presents, which offers a refreshingly nasty change of pace as that malice boomerangs back onto the people who send it out into the karmic ecosystem.


Swinging the AX

April 28, 2010

Speaking of people and things that start with the letter “A,” Brigid Alverson shares some joyous news at Robot 6: that Top Shelf has solicited its eagerly anticipated AX collection of alternative manga. Here’s the blurb from the Top Shelf newsletter that just arrived in my in-box:


PREORDER TOP SHELF’S JULY RELEASES IN THE CURRENT DIAMOND PREVIEWS!

The new May Diamond Previews catalog has THREE great titles available for pre-ordering: Top Shelf’s first foray into the world of alternative Manga with AX (VOL 1), the debut volume of James Kochalka’s new all-ages series DRAGON PUNCHER, and Renee French’s THE TICKING, finally coming back in print!

AX (VOL 1): A COLLECTION OF ALTERNATIVE MANGA

Edited by Sean Michael Wilson

Compiled by Mitsuhiro Asakawa

– A 400-Page Graphic Novel with French Flaps, $29.95 (US)

– Diamond: MAY10-1136

– ISBN 978-1-60309-042-1

Ax is the premier Japanese magazine for alternative comics. Published bi-monthly for over ten years now, the pages of Ax contain the most creative and cutting-edge works of independent comics from the world’s largest comics industry. Now Top Shelf presents a 400-page collection of stories from ten years of Ax history, translated into English for the first time! This groundbreaking book includes work by 33 artists, including Yoshihiro Tatsumi (A Drifting Life), Imiri Sakabashira (The Box Man), Kazuichi Hanawa (Doing Time), Akino Kondoh, Shin’ichi Abe, and many many more!

I was starting to worry that this might wind up on my “most anticipated titles” list for three years in a row.


The Seinen Alphabet: A

April 28, 2010

Welcome to the first installment of The Seinen Alphabet! As you can see, I’m going to take a slightly different (and marginally less lazy) approach this time around, with snippets about magazines and individual titles (licensed and still yet-to-be translated) primarily targeted at adult men and creators who’ve worked in the category. As you’ll hopefully see, seinen seems like one of the more fluid demographic categories, sometimes seeming more aimed at people who just plain like good comics. But don’t worry! I’ll try not to skimp on the boobs and violence that seem so at home in some seinen quarters. Without further ado…

“A” is for…

AFTERNOON, a monthly manga anthology published by Kodansha. Many excellent comics been serialized in this magazine, some of which have been published in English, and some of which are high on the list of titles I’d like to see licensed. (In the former category is Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi, which is the topic of the current installment of the Manga Moveable Feast.) Here’s the link to the magazine’s website.

One of those is by Hitoshi ASHINANO, and it’s called Yokohama Kaidashi Kikō. I’ve written about that book here.

Staying on the subject of unlicensed seinen, devotees of culinary manga yearn for an English-language version of ADDICTED TO CURRY, written and illustrated by Kazuki Funatsu and serialized in Shueisha’s Weekly Young Jump. Over 30 collected volumes of the tale of a struggling restaurant are in print.

One of the most well-known seinen titles is probably Katsuhiro Otomo’s AKIRA, which has been available in English for many years and is being re-released by Kodansha USA. Many people cite AKIRA as their gateway manga, and it’s been adapted into a highly regarded animated film. The manga originally ran in Kodansha’s Young Magazine.

CMX has released the four volumes of ASTRAL PROJECT, written by marginal (also known as Garon Tsuchiya of Old Boy fame) and illustrated by Syuji Takeya. It’s a meditative piece of science fiction, sprinkled liberally with social commentary, and it’s excellent and odd. It originally ran in Enterbrain’s Comic Beam, a rich vein of clean-burning seinen ore.

One should always take the opportunity to mention the godfathers when such opportunities present themselves, so I’ll note that Viz published Osamu Tezuka’s ADOLF, a five-volume thriller about three men with that unfortunate name, including the one who made it so infamous. ADOLF originally ran in Bungeishunjû’s Shukan Bunshun. I’ll also note that another seinen work by Tezuka, AYAKO, is due for publication in October 2010 by Vertical.

Both of these either fall into or were inspired by the seinen subcategory known as gekiga, offering realistic drama based on real-world concerns and complex interpersonal relationships. While Tezuka can be credited with a lot of the building blocks of what we consider modern manga, we must cede ownership of the gekiga movement to Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Some of Tatsumi’s startling and bleak gekiga stories have been collected by Drawn & Quarterly as ABANDON THE OLD IN TOKYO.

One of the most interesting things about seinen is that it seems like such an equal-opportunity category to me. Many of my favorite works have been written and illustrated by women. Perhaps this is because many seinen magazines are less for the vague demographic of “adult men” and more for “people who still like comics after adolescence is over.” I could be wrong, but it seems like more women and girls read seinen and shônen than men and boys read josei and shôjo, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that a respectable number of women create seinen and shônen.

One of those women is Kumiko Suekane, creator of AFTERSCHOOL CHARISMA, which originally ran in Shogakukan’s IKKI and is now being serialized online by Viz prior to print publication. It’s about a high school for clones of famous and infamous historical figures. If you’ve ever yearned to read of the teen adventures of bishie versions of Napoleon, Freud, and Hitler, this is the comic for you. I didn’t even know that I’d yearned to read such a thing until Viz made it possible.

Another is Moyoco ANNO. She’s worked in shôjo (Sugar Sugar Rune) and josei (Happy Mania), but I believe one of her biggest hits runs in a seinen magazine, Kodansha’s Morning. It’s called Hataraki Man, and I want very badly for someone to license it. She’s also done a one-volume series called Sakuran for Kodansha’s Evening.

So, what starts with the letter “A” in your seinen alphabet?

Updated: I can’t believe I forgot another great creator, Hideo AZUMA, who has worked in a variety of categories during his career. He also created a wonderful autobiography, Disappearance Diary, which was published in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon. One of his seinen titles, Yakekuso Tenshi, was serialized by AKITA SHOTEN in its Play Comic anthology.

Updated again: In the comments and on Twitter, the redoubtable Ed Chavez, who has probably forgotten more about seinen than I’ll ever know, unravels Wikipedia’s web of lies and assures me that Denkeki Daioh, a MediaWorks magazine, falls in the seinen demographic. I thought it did, but all of the references I could find indicated that it was shônen, so I blinked. (Maybe it’s just targeted at developmentally arrested adult males. It would hardly be the first entertainment to do so.) Anyway, this allows me to celebrate not only the brilliantly funny KIYOHIKO AZUMA, but also his AZUMANGA DAIOH (Yen Press), simply the funniest four-panel manga ever to be made available in English. (I’ll get to Yotsuba&! later, presuming the four million magazines that start with the word “Young” don’t push me over the edge as I work on the “Y” entry.)

And JTabon reminds me of INIO ASANO, that gifted portrayer of disaffected youth. Viz has published Asano’s single-volume solanin and two-volume What a Wonderful World! solanin originally ran in Shogakukan’s Young Sunday, and What a Wonderful World! ran in Shogakukan’s Sunday GX. Asano was recently profiled in The Daily Yomiuri and credited with “stories of youth that would be too alien or embarrassing for full-fledged adults.” As a full-fledged adult, I have to take issue with that, though I do tend to view them with a little bit of what I can only describe as old-man smugness.


Last straws

April 27, 2010

Over at Robot 6, Sean T. Collins asks an interesting question:

“[W]e’ve probably all permanently dropped a comic, a character, or a creator we once got something out of. My question for you is, What was it, and what did it?”

Here are the two last straws for me with Marvel and DC.

In fairness, I didn’t expect much from the re-launch of the Avengers brand, since I had no affection for the “Disassembled” arc that paved the way for it. But this was when morbid curiosity held more sway in my purchasing decisions, so in spite of a team roster that looked like a Marvel house ad from 1982 and a writer who had drastically fallen out of my favor, I gave it a look. The comic itself was tolerable up until the point that two of the hold-over characters (Iron Man and Captain America) talked in a Mamet-in-spandex way about how awesome the previous 15 pages had been. It’s one thing to drastically remake a franchise into a blandly wide-screen, marquee-friendly property, but the self-congratulatory tone was just too much.

Do I even need to explain myself with this one? Following a needlessly brutal first issue in which an amiable, B-list supporting character is murdered, we get some needlessly brutal back story on how that character was raped. Beyond the baseline grossness of the actual events depicted, there was the very real sense that this thing and its tone and its study-hall gravitas was going to be the company’s tent pole for years to come, so I got while the getting was good.


Upcoming 4/28/2010

April 27, 2010

It’s always handy when a theme emerges in the items that catch my eye from the current ComicList. And it’s nice that this week’s theme centers on great female protagonists.

Okay, so it’s not so nice that there’s such a long wait between new issues of Stumptown (Oni Press), written by Greg Rucka, illustrated by Matthew Southworth, and colored by Rico Renzi. It’s about a hard-living Portland private investigator trying to figure out why the daughter of a casino owner disappeared, and trying to stay alive until she finds the answer. The third issue arrives Wednesday.

If you like suspense but prefer your protagonists a little less seedy, I’d recommend the fourth volume of Fire Investigator Nanase (CMX), written by Izo Hashimoto and illustrated by Tomoshige Ichikawa. Nanase is a plucky arson investigator who shares a complex relationship with the Firebug, whose name says it all. It’s a fun procedural with likeable leads.

Moving to the awesome shôjo front, we’ll start with the eighth volume of V.B. Rose (Tokyopop), written and illustrated by Banri Hidaka. Heroine Ageha is a budding handbag designer who goes to work for a bridal shop, then falls in love with the shop’s lead designer. Ageha is impulsive and talented, and Arisaka is bristly and businesslike. They have great chemistry, and the bridal-shop sparkle is undeniably eye-catching.

There’s also the fourth volume of Kimi Ni Todoke (Viz), written and illustrated by Karuho Shiina. Good-hearted, socially inept Sawako continues her campaign to win friends and influence people after years of being dismissed and avoided as the class creepy girl. This time around, she throws down with a romantic rival, though it’s entirely likely that Sawako won’t realize that she’s throwing down.

Those two titles alone make this one of the best shôjo Wednesdays imaginable. If a new volume of Itazura Na Kiss came out, I would burst into a cloud of sparkly chrysanthemum petals.


The Manga Moveable Feast: Mushishi

April 26, 2010

Ed Sizemore is hosting the current installment of the Manga Moveable Feast over at Manga Worth Reading. This time around, the focus is Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey). Here’s a Flipped column on the series that I wrote for The Comics Reporter. I’ll be posting more Mushishi-related content later in the week.

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In a chapter of Yuki Urushibara’s elegant, episodic drama Mushishi (Del Rey), master of ceremonies Ginko informs a boy that mushi, the mystical bugs Ginko wrangles, “aren’t your friends. They’re just some strange neighbors of yours.” That’s as nice a tonal summary as anything I can concoct.

Mushi are an ancient part of the environment, and their influences can be extremely malignant to their human neighbors. Mushishi (or “mushi masters”) like Ginko help manage the interactions between humans and mushi, mitigating human suffering when possible. Sometimes no such mitigation is possible, and that’s one of the many intriguing aspects of the series.

Ginko isn’t an exterminator. He’s a scholar and a physician of sorts. He’s also a wanderer in the tradition of Kung Fu‘s Caine, traveling from village to village to learn about little-known mushi and aid and educate their human neighbors. Aiding and educating feel secondary to Ginko’s own quest for knowledge; he’s not precisely mercenary, but he isn’t sentimental or especially altruistic. He isn’t a particularly nice person, and I like that.

I also like that he isn’t entirely predictable. In many of these wanderers’ tales that are more about glimpsing the places and people they visit, the wanderer can be the least interesting element of the narrative, carrying the camera and reacting to what he finds. Ginko certainly fills those functions, but he’s also an agent of change, assessing the situations he finds, divining their sources, and determining appropriate action, if any is actually warranted. In addition to being kind of a grouch, Ginko is also a realist, and not every situation can be fixed in any meaningful way.

Ginko, with his trench coat and ever-dangling cigarette, isn’t on a quest. There’s no fixed end point to his work, as there will always be new things to learn about mushi and people who run afoul of them. It’s a job, and it’s one he’s particularly suited to doing, but he doesn’t demonstrate any pilgrim’s fervor or scholar’s mania. He’s got a matter-of-fact nature mixed with an arch inscrutability that spares him blandness. He also attracts mushi, which keeps him from lingering anywhere for too long.

Urushibara demonstrates great creativity and variety in the manifestations of the mushi. Some scenarios can be quite gruesome and perilous; others are benign and almost pastoral. Her approach is a patchwork of bits of folklore, spikes of horror, an appreciation for setting, an undeniable environmentalist bent, and a keen eye for human nature. Like bacteria, the mushi have no particular motive beyond survival, but their side effects can be terrifying.

Intriguing as the effects can be, Urushibara doesn’t settle for a blend of fantasy and horror; she seems much more interested in viewing the mushi and their effects through the prism of human relationships and society.

In one particularly gruesome story, a strain of mushi devours and impersonates human children, and a mother cares for them with the same fervor she would lavish on her own children. In a gentler but still disturbing outing, a girl is granted the gift of sight by a mushi that lives in her eyes, but things progress to the point that she can never stop seeing, and the gift becomes exhausting. Some mushi have an ironic knack for uniting lovers at an awkward or untenable price. But only some of the tales traffic in monkey’s paw irony; Urushibara is just as taken with quaint, unsettling oddities as she is with life-and-death drama.

Urushibara is not quite the artist she is a writer, but her writing is so deft and subtle that saying she’s not as good at drawing is almost a compliment. The strongest visual elements of Mushishi involve its varied settings. Ginko travels through snow-covered mountains, misty valleys, craggy seashores, swamps, and serene farms, offering a rural visual feast. Her renderings aren’t strictly realistic; Urushibara isn’t composing picture postcards. But the settings are unerringly evocative. They have moods all their own.

There isn’t as much variety in her character design. The people who populate her stories generally look average, even a little fragile in the context of the rural vistas they inhabit. But they are average people living generally simple lives, so the choice is appropriate if not especially eye-catching. And Urushibara does grant them a full palette of expression and emotion.

That isn’t to say that she isn’t capable of some breathtaking flourishes. My favorite comes in the second volume, when Ginko visits the mushishi library. Its frail, fetching copyist is infested with mushi that enable her to do her work. When Ginko’s stimulating presence leads the mushi to act up, the results are stunning. Words fly through the air and leap across the walls. Since the sequence is grounded so well in the copyist’s sad history and her ambivalence, the effect is even stronger.

With intelligent writing and often lovely art, Mushishi is an excellent episodic series. Aside from occasional glimpses of Ginko’s past, there’s little in the way of subplot or undercurrent. The drama is contained in the individual chapters rather than in wondering what happens next or how it will all end. That makes Mushishi a vivid and satisfying read, and also a relatively undemanding one. You can pick up a volume at random and not worry about being lost. So many multi-volume series feel like they demand a level of commitment and investment, but Mushishi lends itself to casual reading. That said, I can’t imagine picking up one volume and not wanting to read the others, at least at one’s leisure.

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