Pretty maids all in a row

December 23, 2010

I saw a story on the BBC about these all-girl pop groups that are cropping up in Japan under the sponsorship of just about everyone, from corporations to vegetable growers associations to urban redevelopment committees. And it reminded me of the truth that, when you put four or more attractive people in a row and give them some common purpose, your chances of achieving your aims improve at least slightly, depending on how appealing those four or more young people are.

They can come together by inspiration or design, it really doesn’t matter all that much. Origins in inspiration are obviously more highly regarded than manufacture, but, one or the other, people can still develop attachments to even the most cynically constructed assemblages. If they look good standing in a row, if their types connect in comforting ways, you’re in good shape.

The tale of local-produce promotional singing sensations mentioned above also reminded me of the truth that success replicates, even if you’ll never quite capture the lightning in a bottle that inspired the original. Entire comics companies have been born out of a desire to replicate the grim and gritty success of Wolverine. Intriguing notions become franchises, for better or worse.

In the case of the cast of Kiyohiko Azuma’s Azumanga Daioh (Yen Press), they are the best they are at what they do, and what they do is be funny and cute, particularly funny. Azuma’s ensemble seems to have inspired a host of imitators, temperamentally balanced groups of girls with their weapons set on “charm.” That they will almost certainly never rank any higher than second place, given that it’s unlikely that Azumanga Daioh will ever drop from first, isn’t reason for them not to exist. People didn’t stop writing plays about crazy, southern drunks after Tennessee Williams or musicals about neurotic people after Stephen Sondheim.

Of course, not all of these imitations fully justify their existence. I thought the four cute girl students of Ume Aoki’s Sunshine Sketch (Yen) were totally forgettable, like adorable collectibles rather than proper characters, in spite of their promising art-school setting. The music-club girls of Kakifly’s K-On (Yen) are just better enough that I can see myself spending a few volumes with them.

Yes, there’s the serious one, the loud one, the dingbat, and the rich girl. Yes, there’s the obnoxious teacher who should probably find another career. Yes, they go to the beach and wear kimonos and maid costumes. They basically go through all of the Stations of the Cross. But I enjoyed their company, and I got a reasonable number of chuckles out of their delivery of admittedly familiar situations. I can even abstractly appreciate the thoroughness with which Kakifly has abetted the audience’s wish fulfillment – there isn’t even the silhouette of a male character to present competition.

But, at the same time, I’m not the author’s ideal reader, either. I didn’t read the magazine, then collect the paperbacks, then watch the anime, then download the soundtrack of the anime, then buy the DVDs, then collect the figurines, play the video game, and track down the sexy fan comics, all while discussing with my friends which character I’d ideally like to marry, judging them for their choices. If that sounds like I’m judging the franchise for being cynically commercial, I’m not. Kakifly and company took a successful formula, turned it into something likable, and built a mini empire out of that. It’s better than building an empire based on something awful, right?


From the stack: Akayko

December 19, 2010

I’m not going to claim that I’ve loved everything of Osamu Tezuka’s that I’ve read. Pinocchio remodels are right after Peter Pan tales in the list of things that make me lose patience, so I’ve only sampled Astro Boy (Dark Horse). Swallowing the Earth (DMP) had a crazy verve that couldn’t quite compensate for its ultimate clumsiness.

Ayako (Vertical) adds another to the roster of Tezuka works that I just can’t fully endorse, and I’m still figuring out why that is. It’s a sprawling, serious-minded saga of familial disintegration, which can promise all kinds of good times, but those fail to materialize in this case. Tezuka is on his almost-best behavior here, and while it makes me feel rather shallow for saying so, I wish he’d worn the lampshade a bit more often.

The weird and marvelous thing about Tezuka is that the puckish quality of his storytelling – the human tempura, the pansexual masters of disguise, the just-a-trunk warriors – doesn’t diminish its force. He can still make moving and persuasive arguments about morality, family and leadership without resorting to austerity. It seems that, without those flights of fancy, his gruesome assessment of selfishness and cruelty becomes almost exhausting, even rote.

The title character is the illegitimate daughter of the patriarch of a family of landed gentry trying to hold onto their property after the end of World War II. Ayako is the fulcrum of all of the family’s greedy, sexy secrets, and she suffers accordingly as her extended clan vent their frustrations, ambitions and shame on her. Given the structure of her life, it’s hard to imagine how she could emerge as a proper character, and she really doesn’t. She’s an acre of family land where the bodies are buried.

With her rendered somewhat useless in terms of specific reader empathy, who’s left? Ayako’s half-siblings seem united only in their willingness to abdicate anything like responsibility or conscience. Her prisoner-of-war older brother is spying for the occupying forces. Her sister is dabbling with the socialists, politically and emotionally. Even her amateur sleuth youngest brother is unwilling to translate his curiosity and surprisingly developed sense of justice into sustained action.

But that’s the point, I think – that moral compromise is kind of an incurable cancer, and that people, no matter what they were like at the beginning, are doomed once they take that wrong step. A tale like that can have compelling moments, but I think that progressive decay as a narrative structure becomes exhausting after a while. It certainly does here. It’s a harangue at the characters and the culture they inhabit, not an argument in which the audience can engage, which is usually the nature of Tezuka’s morality plays.

Since I’m (obviously) still working out my thoughts on this piece, I’ll point you to a couple of better-argued pieces on Ayako (which I didn’t let myself read until after writing the above). First up is Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey, whose evaluation tracks with my own. Then, there’s Alexander (Manga Widget) Hoffman, who finds a lot to admire in the work.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)


From the stack: Genkaku Picasso vol. 1

December 14, 2010

Between my fondness for Usumaru Furuya’s “Palepoli” strips in Viz’s Secret Comics Japan and my abiding love of episodic “psychic helper” manga, Genkaku Picasso (also from Viz) seemed likely to be a slam dunk. It’s not.

It’s about a high-school student who suffers a near-death experience and resumes life with the ability to see traumatic auras around his classmates, then capture their distress on his sketch pad. If he wants to continue to fend off premature death, he has to help these shrouded people with their issues. He’s the self-isolating type, so this isn’t a natural set of responsibilities for him, but at least he’s got the nagging, tiny ghost of a dead friend to prod him into doing the right thing.

There aren’t many surprises in the various adolescent traumas that our hero must confront, so the book’s interest is reliant on Furuya’s ability to layer compelling weirdness onto things like eating disorders, over-identification with pop idols, and daddy issues. There are some intermittent flourishes, some dollops of lurking nastiness, but the kids are on the dull side, and their woes need more verve than Furuya seems inclined to provide.

In fact, I sometimes found myself wondering if Furuya hadn’t determined on creating a satire without having any particularly novel observations on his subject other than “these are things that routinely happen in these stores.” The chapters sort of ramble through a set number of pages, not in an idiosyncratic, arrhythmic way, but in a “I have 20 pages of story to fill 50 pages of magazine” manner. I invariably lost interest before each tale’s conclusion, and I ended up concluding that, with Furuya, less may be more. He seems at his strongest when he’s being concise.

Part of the book’s problem might be that the protagonist, Hikari “Picasso” Hamura, isn’t especially pleasant company. He’s crabby when engaged, which can be a fun quality in a fictional character, and I wanted to like the fact that he doesn’t yearn for his classmates’ approval like so many of his shônen peers. But Hamura needs to be dragged into things too much, and he carps too much about how difficult his lot is. Beyond being annoying, it doesn’t read as organic. It feels more like a vamp, and a routine one at that.

The apparent time-killing gives me occasion to actively look for things that annoy me, even though I find Genkaku Picasso to be drawn very well. By volume’s end, I was improbably put out with Hamura’s pouty, blush-bruised lips. I know that the lips should barely have registered, that I had been given time to fixate on something minor and off-putting while so little was actually happening, and that it was less about the lips themselves than the fact that I’d had so little else to fill in the gaps of a rather lazy satire of a familiar formula.

I’m still looking forward to Furuya’s Lychee Light Club, due out from Vertical in April. It promises a much higher degree of adolescent perversion without any filter necessitated by placement in a shônen magazine while still being able to twist shonen conventions into knots. Maybe it was overly optimistic to expect that from Genkaku Picasso?


Upcoming 11/24/2010

November 23, 2010

The last time I wrote about 7 Billion Needles (Vertical), Nobuaki Tadano’s manga homage to Hal Clement’s Needle, I neglected to mention the retro cover design, which is terrific. You know that smell that used paperback stores have? The look of the book evokes that smell, and the proportions of the book support it. The contents of the book don’t quite evoke that pulpy nostalgia, but they hint at it, and they’ve got their own charms.

In the second volume, Tadano inches forward with his meta approach to the tale of two warring aliens who crash on Earth and proceed to mess up the life of an isolated high-school girl and threaten the people around her. If Ultimo (Viz) is kind of a bland, accidentally creepy look at the endless battle between good and evil, 7 Billion Needles seems intent to play with the construct in ways that are perversely endearing. These moments aren’t the meat of the book, but they are the spice, and they’re welcome. They enliven what might otherwise be a standard, well-executed bit of violent angst.

And it is well-executed, even without the twists on the formula. This time around, Hikaru confronts a trauma from her past. With the encouragement of her new friends, she goes to the village where she spent her childhood and confronts the reason she’s shut herself off from the people around her. Of course, the ostensibly heroic entity sharing her body and the monstrous being they battle complicate the sentimental journey with plenty of menacing action.

This series really is a pleasant surprise. Of the four series Vertical has debuted this year, my expectations were probably lowest for 7 Billion Needles, but it’s smarter and more interesting than I had anticipated. Go read Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey’s review for a thoughtful take on the book.

So what else is due this week? There’s the seventh issue of Secret Avengers (Marvel), a very enjoyable spin-off of a comics franchise I’ve long found really horrible, so that’s nice. It’s also one of the only successful attempts I’ve ever seen to make super-heroes “proactive.”

There’s also the debut of Kakifly’s K-On (Yen Press), a well-liked four-panel comedy about a high-school music club. It originally ran in Houbunsha’s Manga Time Kiara Carat.

What looks good to you?


Upcoming 11/17/2010

November 16, 2010

I read the second volume of Hisae Iwaaka’s Saturn Apartments (Viz) last night, confirming my feeling that this is one of the best new series of the year. (I feel that way about several titles in Viz’s SigIKKI program, but which one of them I like best depends on which one I’ve read most recently.) For those who need a refresher, this is slice-of-life science fiction about the people who wash windows on a satellite habitat orbiting an environmentally devastated Earth.

Though episodic in a lot of ways, it does follow a single protagonist, Mitsu, who is following in his late father’s footsteps in a perilous, under-appreciated profession. Mitsu spends a significant portion of this volume considering his father’s legacy, or perhaps trying to construct what that legacy might look like. He talks to his father’s co-workers, now his co-workers, about how his father approached his work and, less directly, how he might have felt about it. As a neophyte, he’s also asking about the specifics of a dangerous job he still hasn’t mastered, so there’s an extra layer of intention in the question-and-answer sessions.

I enjoy series that have a strong grounding in a particular profession, whether that profession is realistic or fanciful. The grubby-fantastic quality that Iwaaka gives to her cast’s working world is very appealing to me, and I like the ways she resists canonizing her characters as salt-of-the-earth types. While she draws them in an innocent, vulnerable style, she writes them with a bit more frankness. The get cranky, hold grudges, drink too much, work too hard, get careless… they behave credibly and recognizably, in other words.

Other noteworthy items on this week’s ComicList include the 9th volume of Takehiko Inoue’s extraordinarily good Real (Viz). Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi named it her Pick of the Week, because she has excellent taste that way.

The other highlight of the week has to be the second collection of Linda Medley’s Castle Waiting (Fantagraphics). The publisher describes the comics as “witty and sublimely drawn fantasy [that] eases into a relaxed comedy of manners,” which is perfectly true. It’s really a treat of a series, one that I bought in pamphlet form and will buy in its collected state, which almost never happens.

What looks good to you?


From the stack: Cross Game vols. 1-3

November 8, 2010

There’s a conversation that almost always starts when someone mentions a sports manga like Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game (from Viz’s Shônen Sunday imprint). Those among us who left athletic pursuits behind as soon as society permitted it (basically, once we had completed our high-school physical education requirements) ask if the comic is about sports or about people who play sports. Will we, as conscientious objectors to competitive athletics, be asked to care about the minutiae of some particular sport, an interest many of us cannot be bothered to fake even for loved ones, or do we just need to like the characters and let the details wash over us?

While the details of baseball matter to a certain extent in Cross Game, they’re easy enough to ignore in the wake of the characters, a complex and sympathetic group who also manage to be idiosyncratic and funny a lot of the time. In other words, Cross Game is undeniably about baseball, but it’s not so much about baseball that people who don’t give a fig about the sport won’t find their price of admission paid in a variety of other ways.

One of those ways is Adachi’s own idiosyncratic nature as a creator. The tone of the three-volume introduction to Cross Game shifts a great deal from chapter to chapter, sometimes page to page, but the shifts work. Low comedy sits comfortably next to innocent romance, just as sly slice-of-life isn’t out of place near unexpected tragedy. It really is marvelous to watch Adachi mix and match but still make all of these disparate bits seem like they’re part of the same whole.

Part of that has to be due to his fluid art style. It’s got innocence to it and simplicity of line, but that doesn’t keep it from exhibiting strength and wonder. I sometimes think that’s one of Tezuka’s greatest contributions to cartooning – abundant evidence that something can be simultaneously cute and forceful, goofy and moving, delicate and muscular. Adachi lives up to Tezuka’s example nicely, even throwing in some of the master’s bits of fourth-wall breakage. He also does a nice job with the small modulations of a cast that ages about five years over the book’s three volumes.

Another part is that he writes well, particularly in terms of creating engaging, root-worthy characters with a few simple strokes. We meet average kid Ko Kitamura, son of the local sporting goods franchise and an indifferent athlete, and we’re introduced to the four Tsukishima sisters, heirs to the local batting cage and café. It’s clear that Ko is our core protagonist, but it’s equally clear that the manga isn’t really about people standing around and admiring him. It feels like an ensemble piece, even if it isn’t in its secret heart, but it’s always nice when a creator goes to the effort of camouflaging the obvious conclusion.

The first collection reads in a breeze, and I’m fairly sure that the only reasonable response when setting it down is, “That was really, really nice.” The rather odd back-cover text suggests that Cross Game “will change your perception of what shônen manga can be,” which might be asking too much of it, but it’s got an off-kilter quality – a willingness to give its subject a sidelong glance rather than charge at it — that certainly helps it stand out from the pack. It’s unusual and, partly because of that, kind of lovely.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. You can read the first chapter on Viz’s Shônen Sunday site.)


Another nostalgia experiment

October 28, 2010

I fell into a nostalgia pit trap this week after seeing the write-up of the online leader ballot for DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes. That was always a fun element of the franchise back in the day, and I generally enjoyed the issues written by Paul Levitz, so it seemed like a reasonable enough excuse to give the new series a chance. After learning that the shop had sold out of the Beasts of Burden/Hellboy One-Shot , I grabbed a copy of Legion of Super-Heroes #6.

First of all, this series could really use a “Previously” page. Levitz is pretty scrupulous about inserting little tags introducing his main characters on first appearance, but there seems to be a fair amount going on that might be helpful to know. This issue is one of those “between big events” chapters that allow the cast to go off and do lots of little things that show what might be considered everyday life for a team of super-heroes in the future. Most of this involves them talking about or to a new character I don’t recognize.

He’s called “Earth Man,” and he apparently just recently switched to the Legion’s side after being a big, anti-alien xenophobe. And, again, he’s called “Earth Man.” Get it? Yeah. Oh, and he’s apparently started a sexual relationship with Shadow Lass, an alien, so he can’t be all that xenophobic, right? (Maybe he’s like one of those homophobic closet cases, scoring with aliens on the down low and making a big deal about hating them in public. I can’t believe I just typed that.) His power is to borrow the powers of other people, and most of them are aliens, which means he wouldn’t have any powers at all if he drove all the aliens off of his planet, but nobody ever accused bigots of being geniuses or writers of being coherent satirists.

Anyway, Earth Man is grumpy, square-jawed and uninteresting, U.S. Agent 2.0 (or whichever iteration we’re up to at this point), and having a lot of characters focused on him isn’t particularly entertaining or promising. It suggests that future issues will spend a lot of time interested in the evolution of Tea Party satire guy, and that’s not something I’m keen to pay for.

The back-up story has some extremely specific references to events or issues from Levitz’s first run. Cosmic Boy (who seems to be the current leader) visits the academy where they teach young heroes to possibly be Legionnaires at some point in the future. This is an opportunity for Cosmic Boy to be mopey about how hard and dangerous it is to be a Legionnaire, especially to be their leader, which isn’t a tonal element that ever worked in the past in this franchise and seems kind of 1990s to me. The worst bits of this sequence, aside from some confusing cutaways to unrelated plot points that involve women napping with their dead boyfriend’s clothing, are some really bad character designs for the trainees, both aesthetic and conceptual. By the end of the story, Cosmic Boy decides to step down as leader, which is sure to be a great confidence boost for the cadets, and the election begins.

I suppose I should comment on the art, though I’m not sure if any of these people draw the series regularly. Francis Portela draws the main story, and the pages have an interestingly light line, but there are an awful lot of weirdly heightened facial expressions. It also must have been an interesting meeting when the creative team sat down and decided to focus on costumes that combined all of the worst elements of everything the cast had worn previously. Shrinking Violet and Lightning Lass appear in a total of two panels, and my eyes still hurt, but that might owe more to the really unfortunate juxtaposition of colors.

Phil Jiminez and Scott Koblish do better with the back-up piece. Nobody looks like they’re mugging in a school play, but I have to bring up the character designs again, because they’re really bad. Gravity Kid is very “leather bar… of the future!” which I don’t object to at all personally but doesn’t really translate very well in this context. Dragonwing , with her transparent kimono, padded thigh-highs, and magenta dreadlocks, is the definition of a hot mess. Duplicate Girl sort of embodies the previously discussed costume issue – her look is a very awkward attempt to update the kind of thing she wore previously and ends up looking like PTA Lady.

It all makes you wonder if it went through any editing process. Things don’t really hang together at all. Bits seem like they’re chipped off the good raw material the Legion concept offers, but a lot of stuff seems random and sloppy. I’d suspect it would be most interesting to people who might be curious as to where it would fit into the team’s awfully muddled publishing history. I’m that guy, and it’s still not that interesting


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