Birthday books: the Palomar stories

February 1, 2010

It’s Gilbert Hernandez’s birthday, and it’s tough to pick a particular book to recommend because he’s incredibly talented and surprisingly prolific. (That’s a lovely combination, isn’t it?) I’ll let sentiment guide my choice and point you to his Palomar stories, which originally ran in Love and Rockets from Fantagraphics and have been collected roughly 36 times in about as many different configurations.

I would recommend you go with the handsome, affordable, focused paperbacks in the Love and Rockets Library: Heartbreak Soup, Human Diastrophism, and Beyond Palomar. For those of you who aren’t familiar with Palomar, it’s a small Central American town populated with interesting, complex people. It’s also populated with a variety of kinds of stories and tones, gritty realism one moment, magical realism the next. Hernandez really builds that web of community in these stories, exploring ties of family and friendship, lingering grudges, outside influences, sex, love and death.

It’s also fun to play “if you like” with the Palomar stories, because there are so many possibilities. People who have been enjoying the comics on Viz’s SigIKKI site might like these, not because of any specific carry-over in style or content, but because they’re so good in ways that are specific to Hernandez’s talents. People who like soap operas, particularly smart, place-grounded ones like EastEnders, will find a lot to like as well. (Full disclosure: I’m only really familiar with the early going of EastEnders when it was really ambitious in its combination of economic reality and emotional intensity. I have no idea if it’s still any good.) And fans of the sensual, dreamy, unsettling movies by Pedro Almodovar will feel right at home, especially with Hernandez’s leading lady, sexy, formidable Luba.

And since I’m on the subject, and since Hernandez is relatively prolific, I’d love to hear which of his non-Palomar comics people would recommend. I need to catch up.

Update: Via its Twitter feed, AdHouse mentioned that today is also Jim Rugg’s birthday, so you could celebrate that by picking up a copy of Afrodisiac, which Rugg created with Brian Maruca. I reviewed it here. Or you could pick up a copy of Rugg and Maruca’s Street Angel from SLG, which is having a sale at its web store through Feb. 3, also discovered via that publisher’s Twitter feed.


Upcoming 1/27/2010

January 26, 2010

Beyond offering some enjoyable and promising material, this week’s ComicList gives me the opportunity to review a couple of likeable titles that I received from the publishers.

Remember how the producers of Saturday Night Live used to try and turn characters that worked in five-minute sketches into the stars of full-length movies and how rarely that worked? That could have been the fate of Afrodisiac (AdHouse Books), the powered-up pimp who guest-starred in Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s terrific Street Angel mini-series (SLG). Fortunately, Rugg and Maruca are smart enough to keep their creation in sketch contents, assembling an amusing “best of” volume of adventures that satirize both blaxploitation and, to a lesser extent, the ups and downs of a super-hero franchise. Afrodisiac pays homage to the marginally distasteful, fad-driven characters that publishers like Marvel created over the years, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, taking him just far enough beyond his predecessors to make the joke worth telling. The formula is basic – the unflappable, irresistible flesh peddler keeps his neighborhood and stable safe from the schemes of stupid, greedy white guys like Dracula and Richard Nixon. Those stories are fun, but I liked the random covers even better. They suggest a publisher trying to build a character franchise by any means available, wedging him into crossovers, true-romance comics, and even a Marvel Knights-style revamp. Afrodisiac isn’t ambitious in its satire, but it’s smartly presented and consistently amusing. It’s just right for its aims and given its raw materials.

Miku Sakamoto’s Stolen Hearts is another worthy entry in CMX’s roster of amiable, endearing shôjo manga, and it has three elements in particular that work in its favor. First, it’s about maintaining an established relationship, which I always like. Sunny, short Shinobu and scowling, tall Koguma get their romantic act together fairly quickly, allowing Sakamoto to spend the rest of the volume cementing their bond. They work together in Koguma’s grandmother’s kimono shop, which covers the other two aspects. I like the detail Sakamoto expends on kimono culture. I’m partial to books that focus on a specific activity or enterprise, as it adds an extra layer of interest to the proceedings. Last but not least is Grandma, who falls into that category of funny, formidable senior citizens that I enjoy so much. Grandma’s product maybe old-fashioned, but her business practices are aggressively modern. Her marketing schemes set the stage for profits and push the romance forward.

Now, on to the rest, though that hardly seems like a fitting phrase for the range and appeal of the items I haven’t yet read.

I’m not quite ready for the fifth volume of the breathtakingly beautiful, not-always-entirely-coherent Bride of the Water God (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Mi-Kyung Yun, but I’ll certainly catch up at some point. This is one of those titles that’s best read in the bathtub with a glass of wine close to hand, possibly sparkling. I’m glad to see that Dark Horse is sticking with this series, as it gives me hope that the rumored solicitations for new volumes of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent will someday result in me being able to purchase new volumes of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent.

Last Gasp concludes its admirable effort to release Keiji Nakazawa’s deservedly legendary Barefoot Gen. The ninth and tenth volumes arrive Wednesday. What more do I need to say?

You’ll probably need to lighten the mood a bit after that, so how about a little super-dense comedy about a suicidal schoolteacher? Yes, it’s time for another volume of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). This installment promises a visit to a hot spring, and I can only imagine what bizarre tangents such an excursion will yield. I also really like the color palette for this cover. It suggests both delicate gentility and decay. This series was among my favorite debuts of 2009.

So was Karuho Shina’s Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (Viz), a delightfully off-kilter shôjo title. Thinking about the subject of yesterday’s Flipped column, it occurs to me that this book is a delightful subversion of the peasant-prince model. The heroine of this book is so socially disadvantaged that she doesn’t even realize that the boy of her dreams is probably already in love with her. But I’m confident that she’ll catch on in time, and then I will cry and giggle in equal measure.

And if you’re curious about this week’s debuts from Tokyopop, tangognat has you covered with reviews of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Portrait of M and N.


Elsewhere in 2009

December 30, 2009

This isn’t really a “Best of 2009” list, as I don’t feel like I read enough comics from places other than Japan to make that kind of list with a sufficient degree of authority, but I didn’t want to neglect books that I really enjoyed this year. I’m not going to say that all of these books are equally entertaining or good in the same ways; I’m not shooting for an equivalent level of quality. I’m just saying that these are the books that lingered in my memory and that I’ll return to again in the future. I’ll subdivide the books into “New Stuff” and “Continuing Stuff.”

New Stuff:

The Adventures of Blanche, written and illustrated by Rick Geary, Dark Horse. Comics by Geary are always a cause for celebration, and this collection of stories about a feisty musician traipsing through genre-based dangers was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.

Asterios Polyp, written and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, Pantheon. I’m always a little surprised when someone describes this book as technically brilliant but cold. I thought it had a very solid emotional core beyond the astonishing level of craft.

Johnny Hiro, written and illustrated by Fred Chao, AdHouse Books. This book didn’t do nearly as well as it should have in pamphlet form, so let me extend my heartfelt thanks to AdHouse for collecting the existing issues plus unpublished material. It’s simultaneously a winning genre mash-up and a warm, grown-up romance, and it’s a treat.

Masterpiece Comics, written and illustrated by R. Sikoryak, Drawn & Quarterly. What do you get when you combine great works of literature with classics of comic books and strips? In Sikoryak’s case, you get breezy, inspired work that displays great versatility, intelligence, and a sense of fun.

Mijeong, written and illustrated by Byung-jun Byun, NBM. It’s not as good as Run! Bong-Gu, Run!, but this collection of short stories is never short of very, very good and is often brilliant.

My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill, written by Jean Regnaud, illustrated by Émile Bravo, Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Gloriously sad and sharply observed, this book offers one of the freshest looks at childhood and grief you’re ever likely to find.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books, written and illustrated by Svetlana Chamkova, Yen Press. A comic featuring vampires and teenagers that doesn’t make me roll my eyes until they water? What strange magic is this? It’s actually just Chamkova fulfilling her prodigious promise as a graphic storyteller.

Stitches: A Memoir, written and illustrated by David Small, W.W. Norton and Company. Aside from being strikingly drawn, I think this is a beautifully shaped memoir, functioning perfectly as a story in its own right. The fact that the terrible things Small relates actually happened just adds a layer of disquiet.

Underground, written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Steve Lieber, colored by Ron Chan, Image Comics: There should be more snappy genre comics like this, you know? It’s a smartly executed thriller set in the perilous depths of a cave in the Appalachians.

Continuing Stuff:

Aya: The Secrets Come Out, written by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, Drawn & Quarterly. I was briefly afraid that this was the final volume of this wistful, multigeneration soap opera about life in the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. Fortunately, there seem to be at least two more volumes still to come of Aya and her unmanageable friends and family.

Empowered, written and illustrated by Adam Warren, Dark Horse. I’m so glad that Dark Horse released a pamphlet chapter of this ongoing series of graphic novels, as that might help to build the audience it deserves. Smutty and sweet in equal measure, it’s as sharp a parody of super-heroics as you’re ever likely to find.

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, Drawn & Quarterly. This is a golden age of reprints of quality comic strips, and this is my absolute favorite of the bunch.

Salt Water Taffy, written and illustrated by Matthew Loux, Oni Press. Two brothers embrace the weird on a seaside vacation. This is my go-to all-ages recommendation, by which I mean I’m as strident in suggesting adults buy it as I am in suggesting that kids will like it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, written and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Oni Press. As long as this book is releasing new volumes, it will be on any list of this nature that I write.

Yôkaiden, written and illustrated by Nina Matsumoto, Del Rey. This witty fantasy-adventure got even better with the second volume. Now we have to wait for the third.


Previews review October 2009

October 7, 2009

The October issue of Diamond’s Previews catalog offers lots of promising material from all over the place. Let’s get down to it.

EmpoweredComicI’m always happy to see more of Adam Warren’s brilliant Empowered. This time around, Warren and Dark Horse take a different approach, offering the struggling super-heroine in “traditional comic-book format.” It’s 32 black and white pages for $3.99 featuring two stories – a desperate battle in a secret, super-hero mausoleum and the always-alliterative musings of the Caged Demonwolf. (Page 26-27.)

StolenHearts1It’s always wise to keep an eye on CMX’s shôjo offerings, as they’re usually pretty charming. New this month is Stolen Hearts, written and illustrated by Miku Sakamoto. It’s about a girl who befriends “the most intimidating guy at school” and becomes involved in his family’s kimono shop. I’m always looking for underrepresented careers in manga, and kimono model certainly qualifies. It was originally serialized in Hakusensha’s Hana to Yume. (Page 120.)

AfrodisiacA few years back, the big blogosphere hit was Jim Rugg and Brian Marucca’s Street Angel from SLG. A much-loved supporting character from that book gets a shot at solo stardom in Afrodisiac from AdHouse Books. It’s written by Maruca and drawn by Rugg and promises “cats, gats, spats, and feathered hats.” (Page 188.)

KingofRPGs1You may know Jason Thompson as the author/editor of the invaluable Manga: The Complete Guide, but he’s also a creator of comics. He’s authored King of RPGs, illustrated by Victor Hao, for Del Rey. It’s a “send-up of manga, gaming and geek culture,” which is subject matter well within Thompson’s sphere of experience. Thompson is also updating the guide and giving away manga over at suvudu.com. (Page 242.)

Talk about long-awaited! I can’t remember the first time I heard about Fanfare/Ponent Mon’s Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators, but it appears at long last in the pages of Previews (page 250, to be precise). I can’t find any information on Fanfare’s site, but if Korea is half as good as Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, it will be a must-buy.

TreasuryFamousPlayersI’m crazy about Rick Geary’s Treasury books, but I’m cheap so I wait for the paperback versions. Happily, NBM slates the soft-cover version Geary’s A Treasury of 20th Century Murder: Famous Players for publication. It examines the murder of early Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor. (Page 271.)

I loved Crogan’s Vengeance, Chris Schweizer’s first look at the long saga of the Crogan family and its cross-century adventures. The second volume, Crogan’s March, is due from Oni Press, looking at life in the French Foreign Legion. (Page 274-275).

MercuryThe gifted Hope Larson delivers her next work, Mercury from Simon and Schuster. It looks to be a mystery surrounding a magnificent mansion in Nova Scotia. But really, it’s Larson, and that’s pretty much all you need to know. (Page 285.)

Even with setbacks, the last few months might be pinpointed as the beginning of Tokyopop’s comeback tour. They announced a bunch of titles in August, and one appealed to me in particular. It’s Kou Matsuzuki’s Happy Café, a romantic comedy set in a restaurant. I find it very hard to resist romantic comedies set in restaurants, even if they feature that old warhorse, the clumsy shôjo heroine. It was originally published in Hakusensha’s Hana to Yume. (Page 289.)

notsimplePage 301 promises more goodness from Viz Signature. My poor, poor wallet, how you will weep. New to the imprint are Natsume Ono’s not simple. Ono is the creator of House of Five Leaves, and I’ve become very intrigued by her work. not simple is told backwards and follows a young man as he travels the world in search of his sister. It was originally published in Penguin Shobou’s Comic Seed! and was later picked up by Shogakukan.

AllMyDarlingDaughters1And, of course, Viz triggers squeals across the internet by offering more manga from Fumi Yoshinaga. It’s All My Darling Daughters featuring an adult woman who still lives with her mother until mom’s new boyfriend drives a wedge into the family. It was originally published in Hakusensha’s Melody.

Last, and certainly not least, Yen Press continues to rack up manga karma by rescuing Kiyohiko Azuma’s Azumanga Daioh Collected Edition from limbo. This makes me so happy that I will simply run the solicitation in its entirety: “The classic returns! This four-panel comedy chronicles the everyday lives of six very quirky high school girls. Meet the child prodigy Chiyo, the animal-loving Sakaki, the spacey out-of-towner Osaka, the straight-laced Yomi and her best friend Tomo, and the sports-loving Kagura throughout their high school lives. As the first four-panel comic to gain popularity in the U.S., Yen Press is proud to present the complete fan-favorite in a single volume, complete with all the original color pages and an updated translation so new and old readers can enjoy the best, most authentic Azumanga available!” (Page 306.)


From the stack: Johnny Hiro

July 23, 2009

For me, the cake of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books) is the relationship between the titular protagonist and his fetching girlfriend, Mayumi. As a bonus, Chao slathers plenty of icing on the cake.

untitledJohnny and Mayumi are young, in love, and living in New York City. That means they work too hard, live in a kind of crappy apartment, and never seem to have enough money at the end of the month. But they have each other and all of the affection, support and loyalty one could hope for; they also have cats. Those things go a long way to compensate for the overworked, underpaid grind.

They also have distractions. Johnny is sort of a mayhem magnet. Simple errands can thrust him into the thick of a swarm of knife-wielding kitchen ninjas. A night at the opera can end at sword-point, surrounded by laid-off IT guys who’ve taken up the way of the samurai to avenge their failed dot-com. Peaceful slumber can be disturbed by a hauntingly familiar, dauntingly large lizard that’s eye-level with their walk-up.

Other similarities to Spider-Man aside – he’s got the beautiful girlfriend, the Manhattan setting, and the struggling 20-something thing down – Johnny isn’t exceptional or adventuresome. He’s tenacious, though, and he’s developed a resigned acceptance to the nuttiness. (He’s a little more prone to being starstruck, though, as evidenced by the eclectic celebrity cameos Chao throws into the mix.) I’m crazy about Mayumi; as Chao draws her, she’s lovely in the way real people are lovely as opposed to more conventional comic-book arm candy.

So basically, what we’re dealing with here is a loving, functional couple dealing with the occasional outburst of genre mash-up, based on whatever Chao pulls out of the pop-culture junk drawer. The results are generally terrifically entertaining, and I don’t think there are nearly enough loving, functional couples at the center of popular entertainments. It doesn’t always work perfectly; some of Chao’s pet pop culture isn’t always mine, and some of the celebrity cameos end up feeling a little strained. Overall, though, it’s crisp, warm-hearted, smart entertainment.

The book runs on affection – Johnny and Mayumi’s affection for each other, Chao’s affection for New York, and Chao’s affection for the sci-fi and fantasy tropes he folds into his stories. I’m still surprised (and disappointed) that this book didn’t survive in pamphlet form, but I’m thrilled that Chao and AdHouse provided a handsome collection of the published and unpublished issues of what was supposed to be a six-issue series.

(I periodically nominate something I’ve read for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and I did that with Johnny Hiro. Anyone can nominate a title here, provided they aren’t nominating their own work or something published by their employer.)


Upcoming 6/24/2009

June 23, 2009

Let’s take a quick spin through this week’s ComicList, shall we?

remakeI can’t remember if it was in Mad or Cracked or Crazy, but many years ago there was a great parody of Casper, the Friendly Ghost called “Casper Kaspar, the Dead Baby,” where Wendy convinces Casper to take revenge on the irresponsible parents who let him die. I swear this comic exists somewhere. It lingers with me because it was a punchy, successful attempt to insert some kind of logic into a beloved children’s property. (Updated: Tony Salvaggio points to the story from Crazy, which was written by Marv Wolfman and illustrated by Marie Severin, of all people. Thanks, Tony!) AdHouse sent me a copy of Remake by Lamar Abrams, which is a venture into roughly similar territory. Abrams applies certain realities to Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy, reimagining him as a powerful but otherwise average robot kid called Max Guy. Max is an average little boy in the vaguely unpleasant ways little boys can be average – easily bored, self-indulgent, prone to tantrums, and given to sadistic curiosity. It’s a nice conceit, and Abrams executes it with a notebook-in-study-hall style that suits it well. Unfortunately, I’ve never found average little boys to be very good company, even when I was one. Your mileage may vary.

Much more to my liking is the sly, sweet, smutty super-hero satire delivered by Adam Warren in his ongoing Empowered series, now in its fifth volume from Dark Horse. This time around, our heroine continues to face the disdain of her obnoxious heroic peers and some fractures in her relationship with best-friend Ninjette and boyfriend Thugboy.

I’m less likely to love but equally likely to buy the fifth volume of Hiroya Oku’s violent guilty pleasure, Gantz. I’m not proud.

Enthusiastic praise from folks like Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey has finally penetrated my thick skull and driven me to check out Taka Amano’s Kiichi and the Magic Books (CMX). Its fifth volume is due out tomorrow, and I have a couple of the earlier ones winging my way via standard delivery.

Del Rey has lots of manga on the way. My personal favorites are Ai Morinaga’s My Heavenly Hockey Club (now in its eighth volume) and Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (which reaches volume seven).

hellcatUpdated: I almost never look at the Marvel section of the ComicList, so I missed the listing for the collection of the Patsy Walker: Hellcat mini-series, written by Kathryn Immonen and illustrated by David LaFuente Garcia. I liked the first issue and made a mental note to pick up the trade eventually, as the shop cut back on its orders after the first issue and there were never any shelf copies by the time I got there. Anyway, it looks to be a refreshingly fun take on one of my longtime favorite C-list characters. (Thanks to Tom Spurgeon for giving the list a more careful perusal than I did. And thanks to Marvel for passing on the hardcover collection of this series and going right to paperback.)


Upcoming May 20, 2009

May 19, 2009

The quantity of really good product in this week’s ComicList has forced me to flee to an undisclosed location. Okay, not really, but I will be on the road, and I’m not really sure how much connectivity I’ll enjoy. I’ve got some posts lined up, but tweeting and email may be at a minimum. Now, let’s move on to the haul:

kurosagi9Johnny Hiro vol. 1, by Fred Chao, AdHouse: Charming genre mash-up comics grounded by a wonderful romantic relationship between young lovers trying to make their way in the big city. It includes three stories that saw print as singles and two that didn’t.

Clover Omnibus, by CLAMP, Dark Horse: 512 un-flipped pages from the hit-factory manga-ka collective. Kate Dacey is quite excited about this, which is always an excellent indicator.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Serice vol. 9, by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki: More afterlife adventures with the otherwise unemployable. One of the most reliably entertaining and smart series out there.

The Lapis Lazuli Crown vol. 1, by Natsuna Kawase, CMX: Endearing, well-executed shôjo fantasy-romance, which I reviewed here.

Flower of Life vol. 4, by Fumi Yoshinaga, DMP: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that I think this is Yoshinaga’s funniest series. It’s a smart, endearing look at high-school students with all of the customary Yoshinaga flourishes – great characters, quirky twists, marvelous dialogue, and stylish art.

Mijeong, by Byun Byung-Jun, NBM: You can click here for a preview of this likely lovely manhwa from the creator of Run, Bong-Gu, Run!

Fullmetal Alchemist vol. 18, by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz: One of my favorite shônen series keeps plugging along.

Oishinbo vol. 3, by Tetsu Kariya and Akira Hanasaki, Viz: The A la Carte collection has offered an introduction to Japanese cuisine and sampled sake and other libations, and now it moves on to noodles and dumplings. I always like carbs after drinking too much.

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka vol. 3, by Naoki Urasawa, Viz: I can’t wait to find out more about Urasawa’s take on Astro Girl. The brief introduction in volume 2 was very, very promising.


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