Hurts so good

March 31, 2005

I just have to get this out of the way: Lea Hernandez is awesome. At The Great Curve, she offers a rallying cry: “Comics need hurting. Go on, hurt them.” I plan to hurt comics at least three different ways before lunch. Four, if I don’t get too bogged down with work.

Okay, so yesterday the clerk at the store actually asked me why I wasn’t buying Countdown. I calmly explained my inoculation theory, which he accepted without suspending my nerd license. I swear he glanced accusingly over his shoulder at the new issue of Secret War, though.

So what’s my first impulse after escaping new comics day with a shockingly low price tag? Run to the grocery store and buy food? Flip through the stack of seed catalogs and place an order? Make a donation to the local animal shelter? Nope. The shop door had barely closed before I was telling myself to stop at the bookstore on the way home to buy some manga.

I resisted the impulse, but only because laziness triumphed over instant gratification. I’m sure the next couple of days will find me slurping on a mocha as I try to decide between Tramps Like Us, Wallflower, and Othello. (Who am I kidding? I won’t escape with only one.)

Speaking of manga, Franklin Harris does a fine Manga 101 article for the Decatur Daily News. At Bloggity-Blog-Blog-Blog, Laura Gjovaag has been sampling some manga titles and is looking for more recommendations. Go forth and inundate her at your earliest convenience.

Laura also shares the interesting news that the wonderfully entertaining Girl Genius will be published on-line. Kaja Foglio explains that pages will be available one at a time, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, replacing the floppies. Here’s Foglio’s thinking on the move:

“Graphic novels will still come out once a year (through Diamond Book Distribution, hooray!), but we’re suspending the production of the periodicals. This will free up a lot of my time, save some trees, and cut our overhead at a time when we really need to do something. Plus, I have to say, periodical comics serve two functions; one as a frequent reminder that we exist—sort of a placeholder; and two as a cheap entry point for new readers experimenting to see if they want to commit to the series. The Girl Genius comics, at the higher end of the price scale and on a quarterly release schedule, didn’t really do this as well as a more frequent Web presence will.”

That’s a really interesting approach, and if I had enough caffeine in my system, I would probably drone on about the influence of manga’s publishing approach, the rise of different distribution methods, and a bunch of other stuff. But I’m still kind of foggy, and I’m certain smarter people will cover that territory.

Mad ideas

March 30, 2005

The blogosphere is considering the case of Grant Morrison, and all the talk of mad ideas overflowing has reminded me of one of my favorite comic-book stories of all time. It’s not by Morrison, though I have to wonder if he didn’t read it at some fairly critical developmental juncture.

The run in question is Steve Gerber’s Headmen/Nebulon arc in Defenders 31 to 40 and Defenders Annual 1. It’s easily the best Defenders story ever, and probably one of the most interesting stories Marvel has ever published. It’s never been collected for reprinting, though it could easily fit into the Visionaries or Finest line of trade paperbacks. Chances are it would show up in the second Essential Defenders volume, should Marvel choose to publish one.

But, really, this is a story that begs to be collected on its own, reprinted in color to do full justice to the wonderful art by Sal Buscema (inked either by Jim Mooney or Klaus Janson). Plus, it’s rather painful to contemplate it sharing a binder with Defenders 30, “Gold Diggers of Fear,” where the non-team faces the dreaded menace of Tapping Tommy.

Morrison gets a lot of credit for dense, high-energy weirdness, but Gerber got there first, and this arc is a wonderful example. The story starts with the Headmen, an utterly narcissistic group of geniuses, kidnapping millionaire superhero Nighthawk. They intend to use him to infiltrate the Defenders. Instead of using methods as mundane as mind control, they actually transplant one of their member’s brains into Nighthawk’s body. (Arthur Nagan, the group’s putative leader, has something of a surgical fetish. It’s how he wound up with his head sewn onto a gorilla’s body.)

The Headmen are united by their belief that their intelligence entitles them to rule the world. They’re also linked by a variety of cranial mishaps. Jerry Morgan is a scientist who developed a shrinking gas concurrently with Avenger Hank Pym. Unfortunately, the gas only shrunk the bones in Morgan’s head, leaving him looking a bit prunish. Grade-Z mystic Chondu’s power rests in his brain, thus the necessity of the transplant. Bodacious Ruby Thursday has replaced her head with a malleable, cybernetic orb, for reasons of efficiency and productivity.

They generally consider violence beneath them, preferring to rely on political, economic, and scientific subterfuge to achieve their ends. They want to use the Defenders to further those ends, luring them into their clutches to alter their brain waves. But the Defenders twig to the brain swap, and the nefarious scheme is only partly successful. A battle for Nighthawk’s brain ensues, ending with the organ in possession of Jack Norris, currently inhabiting Nighthawk’s body thanks to Dr. Strange. (Norris is also the ex-husband of Barbara Norris, former inhabitant of the body currently in use by Valkyrie. Does your head hurt yet?)

Before Jack can return to Dr. Strange’s home with the brain, he’s kidnapped by another would-be conqueror, Nebulon. In a previous run-in with the Defenders, Nebulon tried to melt the polar ice caps to make Earth a fitting environment for his squishy, aquatic species. This time around, he’s been banished by his people, and he’s taken it upon himself to liberate humanity from… well… their own stupidity. In the grand tradition of EST and other self-help movements I won’t mention because they freak me out, he develops Celestial Mind Control, urging the common herd to embrace then destroy their inner bozo. Clown masks are involved in the self-improvement process.

So, two rival ideologies are in place: the Headmen, who rely on humanity’s predictable stupidity to advance their agenda, and Nebulon, who wants to elevate humanity into a state of advanced uniformity. Plus, brains are still floating around. Poor Chondu, evicted from his own brain, gets stuck in the body of a fawn. Then, his team-mates transfer him into a powerful but hideous artificial body of their own design, complete with bat wings, a forked tongue, tentacles, and a horn coming out of his forehead.

Nighthawk has it a bit easier. All that’s needed to set him right is a visit from acclaimed Russian neurosurgeon Tania Belinsky. Tania’s turn-ons include experimental brain surgery, communism, and fighting crime in Moscow as an outlaw vigilante, the Red Guardian. With all the issues of identity, conformity, power, and ideology swirling around, Tania is a fabulous addition to the cast. Her tart observations on the insanity are a consistent highlight.

Best of all is her interaction with Luke Cage. The hero for hire is brought in by Nighthawk as extra muscle to compensate for the frequent absences of the already unreliable Hulk. Watching capitalist Luke and communist Tania spar and spark is a treat, and, ideological differences aside, they share an entirely believable mutual respect. (And no one can convince me they aren’t hot for each other.)

While all of the competing forces steadily converge, there are tons of amusing side-tracks. Valkyrie does a stint in prison for destruction of property. (She trashes a restaurant while trying to keep Chondu from stealing a new body.) Since she’s under an enchantment that prevents her from hitting another woman, she can’t rely on violence to protect herself. Lame super-villains like Plantman, the Porcupine, and the Eel turn to Nebulon and his Bozos to learn to be all that they can be as criminals. Jack is such an irritant that Nighthawk eventually pays him to leave. (It’s nice that the obvious point-of-view character, regular guy Jack, is allowed to be so distinctly obnoxious.)

In other words, it’s 31 flavors of carefully modulated and paced craziness that culminates in the most excellent Annual. It’s funny, thoughtful, intelligent, satirical, and just plain weird in ways that Marvel hasn’t been since.

I think it’s the best Defenders story because it most fully articulates the book’s premise. Gerber has described the non-team as an encounter group, and that’s very much in evidence here. While their interests often intersect, their temperaments clearly don’t. There’s an appropriately loose feeling to their association, and yet they’re the perfect protagonists to pit against this particular group of would-be conquerors. They don’t have the organization of the Avengers or the family structure of the Fantastic Four, so they can be more contemplative, more oblique in their approach. The arc is more of a philosophical argument as it is a slug-fest, though there’s plenty of action.

Many have described the story as ahead of its time, and it probably was. It would be interesting to see what a contemporary audience thinks of it.

Absence of malice

March 29, 2005

Reflex tells me I should be delivering some rant about how unpleasant the pending mega-super-consequential crossovers are likely to be. But something odd is going on. It’s as though Avengers: Disassembled and Identity Crisis were the last shots in an unpleasant but necessary course of inoculations, and I am now immune to the lure of Big Two Event Comics.

The stories as solicited don’t grab me, and experience tells me that I don’t care for these particular writers telling these kinds of stories. So, I’m just going to avoid them, unless I hear really spectacular word of mouth from people who wouldn’t otherwise enjoy these kinds of comics. I don’t begrudge Marvel or DC for publishing them or doing what they please with their properties. I’m just not going to spend my hard-earned money on them. Fair, right?

John Jakala, in a shameless bid for the Kurt Busiek Award For Talking Sense About Comics, broaches this at The Low Road, and he’s absolutely right. A few months ago, I had a similar epiphany, and I put out a call for comics that wouldn’t make me feel ill-used as a consumer… comics that entertained without qualification, that you didn’t need to squint at to find the good bits. And while I still read a lot of Big Two stuff, I’m a lot more ruthless about dumping titles when they fail to please because, as John says, there are just too many alternatives out there.

Manga alone has been like the most welcoming refugee camp imaginable: dozens and dozens of diverse titles to choose from with subject matter for almost any taste and availability that makes the Direct Market look like a shop that specializes in pre-Soviet Russian coins. Just look at Postmodern Barney’s entry from yesterday, running down all of June’s manga offerings. (I just looked at them for what’s in it for me, because I am terribly selfish.)

And of course it isn’t just manga. There’s tons of stuff out their, independent and mainstream, that offers pure, undiluted pleasure. Heck, I’m still sampling stuff from the recommendations I got months ago, and I love to find new, weird, inventive, exciting, fun stuff from sources like Comics Worth Reading and iComics and Comic Book Galaxy. And the blogiverse is always clueing me into something I should try, as are the columnists and reviewers at Comic World News. It’s easy to find better comics.

Okay, so this week’s shipping list doesn’t exactly support my argument. It’s looking a little lean in terms of comics that won’t make you feel dead inside. (This is your cue to contradict me with choice morsels that arrive tomorrow. I feel you should know that if the comic you’re about to recommend features zombies, you face an uphill climb.) But there’s always next week.

And there’s y’all. What have you been reading lately that really surprised you in a positive way?

(Update: Speaking of awesome comics that make me happy to be a fan, BeaucoupKevin has posted a wonderfully written review of the great big book of Bone, covering pretty much everything I would have said, but better, and with much less effort on my part. Go read.)

From the stack: HENCH

March 28, 2005

Comics that look closely at the super-hero genre face a number of pitfalls. In some cases, they can lapse into the gooey state of a love poem. In others, their smug cynicism can be off-putting to the readers who actually enjoy the genre they examine. The best, to my way of thinking, focus on character and story over genre comment.

In Hench (AiT/Planet Lar), writer Adam Beechen and artist Manny Bello look at super-heroes from the ground up, not unlike Kurt Busiek’s Astro City (Wildstorm). It follows the rather unimpressive career of Mike Fulton, a super-villain henchman. Beechen and Bello take a very straightforward approach to telling Mike’s story, and it’s wonderfully effective. While they use the faintly absurd aspects of capes and crime for comic effect, they never stray from the story’s human core.

Mike is an ideal central figure for a story like this. He’s a former college jock whose promising career was cut off by an injury, and he’s never stopped wondering what might have been and missing the thrill of athletic demi-celebrity. He’s got a wife and son he loves, but work is a low-paying grind. My usual reaction to that kind of fictional dilemma would be “Suck it up,” but Mike beats me to it. He knows he could have it a lot worse and that his dissatisfaction doesn’t do him any credit, and that awareness manages to soften what might have been a dismissive response to his plight.

Another failed jock introduces him to the high-risk, high-return world of the super-villain henchman. After a bit of waffling (and a frankly hilarious introduction to some of his potential employers), he takes a gig with an evil sorcerer that turns out to be as lucrative as it is exciting. It’s not a perfect equivalent to the cheers of football fans, but it’s a lot closer than working in a warehouse. He knows it’s wrong and that he’s got a lot to lose (his family, his freedom, his life), but henchman work is both easier and more exciting than his everyday life.

A botched heist sends him to prison, and he’s determined to give up the job. But when his son is diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, he’s faced with mounting medical expenses and no easy way to cover them. He rationalizes his return to henchman work, even though he knows it’s not his only alternative. Not surprisingly, things deteriorate from there. Heists go wrong, his family is fragmented, and Mike continues to allow difficult circumstances to drive him to bad choices.

But the thing is, he knows they’re bad choices. He knows there are harder, more honest alternatives, because he sees his wife successfully embrace them. Mike routinely chooses what he perceives to be the path of least resistance, at least partly because of the camaraderie of the henchman subculture. He tells himself that these guys (even the super-villains he works for and super-heroes he fights) are like him: people with families and responsibilities just trying to get by. On some level though, he knows that’s not true, and circumstances keep cropping up to illustrate the fallacy of his thinking.

It all culminates in a dark night of the soul that frames the story. Mike finally finds himself in an utterly impossible situation that could force him to cross a line he’s always resisted crossing. At the same time, his belief in the essential humanity of the people under the masks is drastically shaken. As he looks back on his henchman career, the difficulty of his choice becomes increasingly clear. It’s terrifically controlled, progressive storytelling, building from amiably comic to disastrous while never losing its focus on Mike. Beechen always tells his story through Mike’s faulty lens, giving the story focus and humanity.

Bello’s fine visuals match Beechen’s work. He proves equally deft at the kitchen-sink moments as he is at the masked slugfests. I’m particularly taken with his nods to classic comic panels by the likes of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and others. Instead of being coy in-jokes, they illustrate the absurdity of a regular guy in out-sized circumstances.

Hench is a fine and balanced piece of work. It’s driven by character and kept to a very human scale, despite its super-heroic trappings. In a sub-genre that can lapse into excessive sentiment or arch superiority, this is a standout example.

June is busting me all over

March 27, 2005

Blast you, manga publishers! Why must you release so many titles I love in the same month? Looking through the June 2005 Previews is like a vision of future poverty.

Just look at this entry from Digital Manga Publishing:

“Ono has come a long way since the agonizing day in high school when he confessed his love to handsome Tachibana. Now, some 14 years later Ono, a world-class pastry chef and outed playboy has it all. No man can resist Ono’s charms (or his cooking skills!) but he has just found a new position under a man named Tachibana. Can this be the only man who resisted his charms, and if so, will the man who once snubbed the ‘magically gay’ Ono get his just desserts? And how the heck did a former middleweight boxing champion wind up as Ono’s cake boy? Digital Manga happily serves up the opening volume of Antique Bakery.”

Oh, Antique Bakery… you had me at “hello.”

But DMP isn’t content to tease me with hot guys baking. No, they have to throw the strangely compelling Bambi & her Pink Gun at me, too. Fiends.

Del Rey offers another volume of Othello, and a collection of short-story romance, Perfect Day for Love Letters.

Tokyopop doesn’t have any new titles that grab my eye, but what am I supposed to do in the face of new volumes of Sgt. Frog and Kindaichi Case Files?

And Viz… don’t even talk to me, Viz. The preview edition of Shojo Beat will arrive, along with several entries in its companion digest line. Then there’s more Whistle! and Case Closed. Conspiring with Viz is Miki Aihara, creator of the brilliant Hot Gimmick. Aihara unleashes the first volume of Tokyo Boys and Girls on the world. Aihara goes for a double play with the ninth volume of Hot Gimmick, which promises to focus on one of my favorite supporting characters. Yes, outgoing little sister Akane gets her digest in the sun.

Sigh. Anyone need some yard work done? Or some plasma?

The gay

March 26, 2005

Oh, please.

Minutes after expressing my love for Young Avengers, I see Fanboy Rampage’s link to that message board thread that’s left Ed in a state of rage. And you know what? Young Avengers will be my favorite comic ever if only writer Allan Heinberg will deliver all the godling-on-gamma-irradiated-monster action I can handle, in the Mighty Marvel Manner.

First, what are the chances that will actually happen? Frankly, I’ll need immediate cardiac care if Marvel allows them to so much as hold hands.

Second, this is what worries the retailer from the thread? The possibility of a gay relationship being portrayed in an all-ages mainstream book?

What about a young, brainwashed woman gouging her own eye out on panel in Teen Titans? What about another young woman being systematically brutalized, then murdered, over the course of the “Gang War” crossover in the Batman books? What about Hank brutalizing Jan on-panel in Ultimates? What about an entire family — including a baby in a high chair — being murdered on-panel in JSA? What about women being coerced into prostitution, then brutally assaulted on panel in Catwoman? What about Identity Crisis, for fuck’s sake?

Get some goddamned perspective.

Great. Now I’m grumpy. And I’m swearing. Please excuse.

Let it all go

March 25, 2005

Not much time to write today, as company’s coming for the weekend, but I do have to get something off of my chest.

Sure, we all had reasons to be wary of Young Avengers. The pre-release press was mystifying, the character names were (and are) dire (intentionally), and the whole idea just seemed like a ticking time bomb of badness.

But now, two issues in, it’s clearly shaping up to be a darn good comic. There’s no reason to be ashamed any more. There’s no reason to couch your praise. Come out, y’all, and open up to the love that only cautiously speaks its name.

My name is David, and I love Young Avengers. There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?


March 24, 2005

Lots of good stuff in the comments section of the Cheeky Angel/Fruits Basket compare-and-contrast. In addition to a healthy mix of opinions, Stephanie links to a fascinating piece she wrote on visual flow in manga at her LiveJournal. Also, Mitch gives his own thoughts on the two titles at his blog.

(Of course, Blogger picks today to take a break from copying comments to my e-mail. And yes, I checked the settings, so it’s not just me being tech-stupid. Though it was very perceptive of you to identify that possibility.)

Speaking of Fruits Basket, David at Love Manga looks at ICv2’s tally of graphic novel sales in the Direct Market for February. I’m kind of surprised at how far down the list one finds ADV Manga’s Cromartie High School, considering how much crossover love it’s gotten in the blogosphere. I’ll be interested to see the BookScan numbers on it, since ADV seems to have spared no expense on marketing this thing in bookstore chains, what with all the special display units. And the digests themselves are strikingly designed, which can’t hurt.

More on this later, but the manga-in-translation industry clearly has designed its publishing schedule to drive me to poverty on a quarterly basis. Glancing through the issue of Previews that came out yesterday, I should just start sketching out my cardboard “will work for manga” sign now.

Shô-nen-jo showdown! FRUITS BASKET vs. CHEEKY ANGEL

March 23, 2005

What has Fruits Basket (Tokyopop) got that Cheeky Angel (Viz) doesn’t? I found myself wondering that as I read the first volumes of each. Both are appealing sitcoms that mix shôjo and shônen elements, and each have attractive mainstream visuals. But Fruits Basket is a sales juggernaut, and Cheeky Angel… well… isn’t.

So I guess my real question is why aren’t you reading Cheeky Angel?

That isn’t to say that Fruits Basket is bad. Natsuka Takaya’s gentle fantasy has a lot going for it. Takaya has assembled a likeable cast, set them up with an interesting (if underdeveloped) premise, and strikes a nice enough balance between comedy and romance.

The first volume introduces readers to Tohru, a homeless orphan so cheerful and optimistic she makes Pollyanna look Goth. Inadvertently camping on their property, Tohru meets some members of the mysterious Sohma clan. The Sohmas are laboring under a curse linked to the Chinese Zodiac. When they’re hugged by the opposite sex, they turn into animals representing different zodiacal signs.

Yuki Sohma is one of Tohru’s classmates. He’s opted for public school as a means of escaping the isolation of the family curse, though he’s still standoffish. Cousin Kyo actually wants to break into the family circle, as he represents a zodiacal sign that didn’t make the cut (the Year of the Cat, tricked out of the running by the Rat that Yuki channels). Add water, and you’ve got a love triangle with Tohru drawn to both princely Yuki and hostile Kyo.

They’re pleasant enough company, but I’m more interested in the supporting cast. I’m especially taken with Sohma cousin Kagura, who’s hilariously bipolar. (Of course, her too-brief visit to the family does raise the unpleasant question of just how the Sohma family manages to keep from dying out. Since they can’t touch anyone of the opposite sex in an affectionate way – family aside – without turning into animals, how does the bloodline stay alive, short of bestiality or incest? Maybe that gets cleared up in later volumes.)

The first volume busies itself with setting up Tohru in the Sohma household. Since her living relatives are either hapless or awful, and the cursed clan is really taken with her and her mad housekeeping skills, it’s the best solution all around. And it puts her in the thick of the drama, putting the Sohma secret at risk and heightening family tensions even as Tohru gives them something in common. (I do have a production quibble: sometimes, the translators seem to have opted to run some of the word balloons and captions in an unflipped order, and sometimes they go in a western direction. It’s a little sloppy and it distracted me when it happened.)

It’s a promising foundation for Fruits Basket, if nothing particularly stunning.

Cheeky Angel has a bit more going for it, to my way of thinking. Its characters are more complex (but still likeable), and its premise is more personal and focused, which makes the comedy/romance balance more resonant.

As a child, protagonist Megumi meets a genie who grants him a wish. Megumi rashly asks to be made the “manliest man on Earth.” The genie gets the wish wrong, either accidentally or on purpose, and turns typical boy Megumi into a girl on track to become the “womanliest woman on Earth.” The genie has been fairly thorough, so that only Meg and close friend Miki remember that Meg was ever a boy.

By the time the girls reach high school, Meg is a stunner, the kind of girl who makes boys go stupid just by walking past them. And, Meg discovers to her horror, boys aren’t that far from stupid to begin with. While Meg isn’t exactly bemoaning her gender switch, she hasn’t exactly modulated her behavior to match her new body. She’s every bit the rambunctious ass-kicker she was as a boy, and the student body of her school provides a host of worthy victims.

Foremost among them is smug, aggressive Genzo, whose plan to establish himself as the school’s alpha male is thrown off track when he falls madly in love with Meg (right after she gives him a pounding for his rudeness and insensitivity). Meg is aghast, in part because she worries that Genzo is exactly the kind of boy she’d have been. Genzo forms an uneasy alliance with a number of Meg’s other admirers, all of whom are undeterred by the fact that the object of their desire is much more inclined to flip-kick them than blush and giggle at their advances.

Fortunately, Meg has Miki as a confidant and tour guide to the life of the high-school girl. Conventional Miki wishes Meg would try a bit harder to act like the girl she is. At the same time, she can’t resist teasing Meg when signs of femininity crop up. Miki is a great Ethel to Meg’s Lucy, smart, level-headed, supportive, and appropriately dubious of the whole scenario.

Creator Hiroyuki Nishimori makes the most of the conflicting emotions that arise from the premise. Issues of gender, identity, and adolescence make great fodder for smart, twisty, character-based comedy. It covers a lot of the same territory as the interesting (and seemingly vanished) Your and My Secret, but it does a better job of investing the material with thoughtful, smaller moments, softening some of the stereotypes in the process while playing up what those stereotypes might mean.

So why is amiable, average Fruits Basket topping the charts while ambitious, interesting Cheeky Angel rests somewhere in the middle? I wonder if part of it isn’t the level of anxiety inspired by the subject matter. It might be easier for some readers to identify with a boy who turns into an animal over one who turns into a girl. And since the boy doesn’t view turning into a girl as the worst thing that’s ever happened and immediately undertake a quest to reclaim his rightful plumbing, that effect may be compounded.

Of course, it may be as simple as packaging. Fruits Basket wears its cuddly fantasy elements on its sleeve, while Cheeky Angel takes a soapier approach to its trade dress.

But, really, you can’t read Fruits Basket all the time, can you? Surely there’s room for gender-bending battle-comedy-teen romance on your shelves, too?

Best. TCJ. EVER. (Probably.)

March 22, 2005

Found via Love Manga, The Comics Journal will be devoting its 269th issue to shôjo manga. Yes, you read that properly.

I had a somewhat mixed reaction to TCJ’s Manga Masters edition, but this sounds right up my alley. Best of all, editor Dirk Deppey has picked writers who have a real passion for the material. I’m particularly excited to read Matt Thorn’s interview with Moto Hagio and Lea Hernandez’s piece on how shôjo has influenced her own work.

Sure, the prospect of TCJ reviewing shôjo titles is a little unsettling. But the range of topics and approaches listed in the solicitation indicates a sincere appreciation of a manga genre that’s a personal favorite. This edition seems like it will make up for the absence of women creators and the short shrift mainstream titles received in Manga Masters. (I hope.)

It almost makes me wish Deppey hadn’t made a “no more Dave Sim screeds on the Void” promise in the letter pages of the most recent issue. I can only imagine Sim’s reaction. Emotion! Everywhere, emotion!