January 31, 2006

The following contains spoilers for Young Avengers Special #1 (Marvel).

Can anyone remember the last time a comics character actually reported a sexual assault to the authorities? I can’t. The protagonist in Dramacon didn’t. Sue Dibny never got the opportunity in Identity Crisis. And now it’s revealed that Kate Bishop can be added to Ragnell’s depressing list of characters who have been raped.

I had switched over to trades on this title, but a friend suggested I pick up the special issue because it tied into things that have been on my mind a lot lately. I’m glad I did, because it’s an extremely well-written comic filled with nuanced observations about Allan Heinberg’s cast of young heroes. Kate’s sequence is good, too, particularly for the textured back-and-forth between Kate and former super-heroine Jessica Jones.

But I’m still left wondering if, well-written or not, comics need any more unreported rapes. Obviously, sexual assaults go unreported all the time in real life, no matter how much we all wish they didn’t. In this particular fictional context, though, it seems to be the default setting, and that makes me extremely uneasy.

In the story, Kate is assaulted by a stranger in the park. In the aftermath, she talks to a therapist about the crime and she learns self-defense, but she doesn’t inform the police or tell her family. While the crime isn’t her only motivating factor for becoming a costumed heroine (she also has her late mother’s example of social conscience, doing what one can with the means they have available), it’s significant.

“You can do your best to make sure that what happened to you ever happens to anyone else.”

Except that she didn’t, really, because she never tried to get the man who raped her off the streets.

The friend who recommended the special to me had to talk me down a bit. She pointed out that the apparent disconnect isn’t really implausible, given an adolescent’s sometimes abstract and developing concept of justice, especially in a world full of vigilantism, where the role models are often disguised and apparently unaccountable. And she noted that the crime isn’t Kate’s sole driver for what she does; she was already inclined to follow in her mother’s footsteps.

And wow, do I hope I’m not sounding like one of those twits who think young readers can’t handle anything challenging or complex, but it bothers me that there are so many instances of this. Sexual assault can be portrayed well in any medium, and Heinberg arguably does well with it here. It’s specific to Kate, and it’s portrayed with sensitivity. Even if they aren’t the choices I want Kate to make, they’re believable as her choices.

But why do writers never think to show a victim going through the justice system? Reporting the crime, getting support from their family, testifying against their attacker, and seeing the criminal punished?

(It isn’t just comics. A couple of years ago on All My Children, the soap’s premiere heroine was brutally raped, then spent roughly a week’s worth of episodes meticulously destroying any physical evidence, then months concealing it from her friends and family. When she finally did report the crime, after a near nervous breakdown, her attacker went free because of lack of evidence. The victim had another mini-breakdown, killed him while in some kind of fugue state, and was eventually acquitted.)

And maybe Heinberg will follow up on what happened to Kate down the road, show her realizing that her quest for justice and safety will be incomplete until she gets justice for what happened to her. But the initial impression of the incident will stand in ways that make me uneasy, as I said.

I think it’s because of the fact that YAS #1 is such a good comic that this nags at me so much. Beyond being crafted well, it’s thematically necessary, showing what drives the Young Avengers to do what they do. It’s a special in the very best sense of the word, providing added insight and extra layers to the ongoing series. (The sequence with Wiccan was particularly lovely for me, with its underlying themes of gay kids finding what heroes they can, and one of the only recent portrayals of the Scarlet Witch that doesn’t make me livid.)

But can’t we have one portrayal of rape in comics where the victim gets direct, conventional justice for what happened to them? Does it always have to be this way?

(Edited because verbs are our friends.)

Monday mangallany

January 30, 2006

There’s a truly ludicrous quantity of good manga arriving at comic shops this week, so just be warned. The second volume of Eden from Dark Horse, the fourth volumes of Genshiken and Nodame Cantabile and the second of Love Roma from Del Rey, and You Higuri’s Gorgeous Carat from Blu are among the offerings. At least now I know who to thank for this kind of ridiculous product dump. Hugs, Diamond! (Seriously, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the opportunity to read entertaining manga. I’d just prefer that it didn’t all show up at once.)

Speaking of entertaining reading, David Taylor takes a very thoughtful look at the recent Tokyopop layoffs and the swirl of conversation they’ve triggered. After quoting some coverage from ICv2, David notes:

“…but even they have to add the caveat at the end of the report that this isn’t anything to do with OEL and that the entire OEL scene plays only a very small part in the whole scheme that is Tokyopop (and by the way this is the second time in a Tokyopop report that they have used that paragraph), to me just draws more emphasis to the fact that OEL is a big possibility behind this. It’s like someone telling you to stand in a corner and not think about orange penguins, and that will be all you think about!”

I’m still looking for response or follow-up to Heidi MacDonald’s report of rumors about orders to stop work on projects in the OEL line.

Entirely unrelated to that whole brouhaha, I interview Jake Forbes in this week’s Flipped. Once again, a charming and intelligent comics professional was suckered into doing all the heavy lifting while I lobbed nonsensical questions at him. Come for the insight. Stay for the amphibian poetry.

Edited to add: I knew I was forgetting something. Yay! I was wrong! As Johanna Draper Carlson and Greg McElhatton note, there is more Kindaichi Case Files coming from Tokyopop, due in April.

Edited again to add: Rich Johnston has a rumor round-up on the Tokyopop situation in this week’s Lying in the Gutters.

Just grim

January 29, 2006

The problem with me and Netflix is that I have a terrible memory for which movies got really horrible reviews, and I’m too lazy to check on the Movie Review Query Engine before I add something to my list. So essentially I sit at my computer and put things in queue vaguely remembering that I heard something about a given movie at some point, but I can’t remember quite what, and how bad could it be?

It could be as bad as The Brothers Grimm, that’s how bad. There are movies that are Netflix bad, ones you’d have regretted paying to see in a cinema, but it’s only a couple of hours of your life at home, and it’s not like you have anything better to do.

Then there’s The Brothers Grimm. The seconds it took to add it to my queue? I want them back. The effort wasted by postal employees bringing it to my home and carrying it back to the nearest delivery facility? I regret it deeply. It was freakishly windy out while we were watching it, and my partner eventually said, “Even Mother Nature hates The Brothers Grimm.”

I haven’t yet seen Brokeback Mountain, and I’m prepared to believe that Heath Ledger is wonderful in it. But I think that, before he’s even nominated for another major acting award, he should have to do around ten really good films as atonement for his work in this… thing.


January 29, 2006

Just how many books about ruthless Italian nobles can the comics market sustain? Two came out this week, Borgia: Blood for the Pope (Heavy Metal) and the second volume of Cantarella (Go! Comi). I bought both, but I’m obsessed.

They’re very different animals, obviously, with Borgia taking a more strictly historical approach, cheerfully emphasizing the lurid details. It’s a little odd, as the physical object reminds me of a children’s book, oversized, hardback, and brightly colored.

Of course, I can’t remember any children’s book covers that had a buxom noblewoman sneering out at me with her dress hanging off her shoulders, but this is Heavy Metal, not Little Golden Books.

And the cover is perfect, mingling sex (the aforementioned noblewoman), violence (a black-clad assassin drawing his dagger, which come to think of it probably connotes sex as well), politics, and religion (tonsured Cardinals evoke both). The illustration is laced with cracks, suggesting a timeworn mural. It’s lurid, but those cracks try and lend it just a smidgen of dignity.

And that’s the consistent approach of the book. It’s got an introductory piece by Antoni Guiral, providing background on the historical period and the book’s creators (writer and “psycho magician” Alejandro Jodorowsky and illustrator Milo Manara, “one of the ‘princes’ of sensual and erotic comic books”). It’s informative enough, particularly in filling in some of the details of the events that follow, but it isn’t essential if the reader just wants to get to the beheadings and boobs.

Both are in ample supply in the lushly illustrated pages that follow. While Jodorowsky’s script does present a reasonably comprehensive look at Rodrigo Borgia’s rise to the Papacy (and the adolescences of his passel of quasi-legitimate offspring), it leans heavily on the juicy bits. There’s scandal, scheming, madness, and murder on virtually every page. The Borgias demonstrate a breathtaking range of venal behaviors, and Jodorowsky is scrupulous in including them.

It would sound weird to describe Manara’s illustrations as restrained, given the subject matter, but that’s my impression. The images are carefully rendered, rich in sense of place and detail. Faces are expressive, and body types and language are varied. It’s also beautifully colored. And while Manara doesn’t shy away from anything lusty or violent, it rarely seems particularly voyeuristic. (The exception to that is a protracted schoolgirl catfight towards the end that concludes with lusty kisses and nuns with whips. Don’t they all?)

The production team made a rather irritating choice with the lettering. Every bit of dialogue is printed in bold italics, no matter what the tone of the conversation. It essentially puts everything at the same volume, loud and urgent. With so much sensational material splashing across the page, a little nuance to the text would have been welcome.

Ultimately, though, Borgia is what it is – a lusty history lesson. It’s perfectly content being both informative and titillating, and it somehow manages to balance both pretty well. With this clan, I guess that shouldn’t be entirely surprising.

You Higuri’s Cantarella is what it is, too. Higuri uses the Borgias as a starting point to explore her own themes, and it works very well. In the second installment, young Cesare sinks further into his dark, supernatural destiny, but finds comfort in the companionship of conflicted assassin Michelotto. It’s not as tightly paced as the first, but Higuri has less ground to cover, focusing more on character than set-up.

She also ramps up the shônen-ai elements. Michelotto’s kiss-him-or-kill-him dilemma is compelling, and Cesare’s battle with his darker impulses plays off of it nicely. Higuri has managed to present these characters in a way that’s sympathetic but not naïve. There’s a nice mix of melodrama and unexpected emotional delicacy. And it’s just so pretty, with plenty of historical detail rendered through a shôjo aesthetic.

If I had to choose between the two, I’d almost certainly go with Cantarella. Borgia is an entertaining oddity, but I prefer the emotional urgency of Higuri’s fictionalization to the tawdry accuracy of Jodorowsky and Manara.

Quick comic comments

January 28, 2006

Defenders 5 (Marvel): The plot of this mini-series feels like about a dozen other Defenders stories and about a hundred other super-hero stories. An all-powerful super-villain remakes the world in his image, leaving a handful of protagonists to put things right. Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis, and Kevin Maguire don’t do anything to reinvent the story, but they invest it with enough character-specific humor to make it a very enjoyable read all the same. The creative team doesn’t go overboard with meta observations, striking a nice balance between straightforward storytelling and knowing smirks at how familiar this all is.

Fallen Angel 2 (IDW): Writer Peter David’s combination of complex character interactions, dark humor, and underlying supernatural mysteries make for very entertaining reading. David reveals more about Lee’s background and gives a better sense of the dynamics of the shady citizens of Bete Noire. Unfortunately, J.K. Woodward’s art seems even less suited to the script this time around. Dive bar Furor’s takes on an inappropriately elegant sheen. The use of black and white to distinguish flashbacks makes those sequences look washed out or unfinished. And at certain points, it looks like characters have been cut and pasted into the frame. There’s some very nice work with light and shadow, creating some interesting effects, but there’s also a stiffness that doesn’t fully express the nuances of the story.

Polly and the Pirates 3 (Oni): Ted Naifeh could easily have delivered six issues of comic counterpoint between his heroine’s primness and the seedy, shabby pirates who think she’s their princess. It’s a great and durable joke, and Naifeh finds lots of riffs on it. In this issue, though, Naifeh puts Polly in a position to learn the difference between doing what’s proper and doing what’s right. It isn’t a huge tonal shift, and it doesn’t hamper the comedy and adventure, but it does give Polly extra layers of complexity and sympathy. Polly and the Pirates could serve as a textbook for mini-series pacing, with new revelations and twists cropping up in each issue and a consistently appealing underlying vibe. It’s great fun, like a terrific kid’s novel brought to illustrated life.


January 27, 2006

At Written World, Ragnell decries the overuse of sexual assault as a means for comics writers to give female characters added layers. Ragnell concedes that there are some examples of the effective use of this plot device:

“I honestly didn’t care much about it in Identity Crisis. I mean, it was pretty vile, but it was about the only horror that could explain away the irrational actions of the Justice League.”

Kalinara of Pretty Fizzy Paradise backs this position up in the comments section:

“(Sue Dibny’s rape in IDC actually wasn’t that bad in this respect, as having it set so far back in her past that it made it clear that she *had* overcome it and continued to be strong and capable up to her death. And they needed something truly vile to motivate the JLA-ers toward that end.)”

and at Pretty, Fizzy Paradise:

“And you know what, maybe I’m being selfish, maybe rape survivors do like seeing so many characters recover from being raped to become strong happy women, but I’d like to see it a little less. Comics are escapism for me, and while I like lots of drama and angst…I could do with a bit less hitting close to home thanks. I don’t mean cut it out entirely. But save it for something like Identity Crisis, where you need something that monstrous to motivate the heroes into crossing a line.”

And, oh, I could not possibly agree less. I think the worst possible reason to include sexual assault in a story is to give other characters motivation to act. And I can’t think of a worse offender in that category than Identity Crisis.

I think Brad Meltzer very purposely concealed Sue’s reaction to the rape because it wasn’t about her. It was about what the powerful people in shiny spandex do when they fail to protect someone. Even a glimpse into Sue’s emotional state would have probably undermined the intended effect of including the incident at all: to incite the characters (and, via a graphic depiction of the act, readers) into positions they would not normally have taken without appearing merely vengeful.

In narrative terms, she was cast aside so that the heroes could avenge their failure to protect her by committing an act of violation of their own, maintaining a vague sheen of moral ambiguity. In experiencing one of the most personal violations imaginable, Sue became a plot device – a symbol of the failures of the people around her rather than a character in her own right. She’s dehumanized out of necessity, serving instead as a symbol of the innocent. It happened to her, but her reaction is immaterial, discernable only via readers’ assumptions. And her reaction is immaterial because it would have been too disruptive to the quasi-moralizing Meltzer was trying to sell.

It’s not her story; it could have happened to any associate of the Justice League, which reduces something real and specific and horrible to something lurid and inflammatory. It cheapens the subject by turning it into a generic catalyst.

GLAAD nags

January 26, 2006

GLAAD has announced its nominations for “fair, accurate and inclusive representations of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community” in comics. I saw them first at The Beat, and Dorian and Johanna have commented on the list. (GLAAD has since posted the full list of nominees, so you can skip the Variety site, if you’d rather.)

I have such a mixed reaction to this whole enterprise. While I can kind of understand the rationale for concentrating on mainstream comics for the nominees (i.e. comics by Marvel and DC), the “beggars at the feast” quality of it all unnerves me. It’s depressing to feel like the organization is purposely lowering its standards to raise its profile. (I’m glad that Young Avengers got a nomination, though.)

There have been really good comics published in the last year that have rich, varied portrayals of LGBT characters. There’s Capote in Kansas from Oni, Off*Beat from Tokyopop, Only the Ring Finger Knows and Antique Bakery from Digital Manga, and Rica ‘tte Kanji!? from ALC. And if all it takes is a gay or lesbian supporting character to make a book eligible, I’d much rather see nominations go to Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Oni) or even Tricked (Top Shelf), though the latter wasn’t one of my favorite books of the year. It certainly meets the “fair, accurate, and inclusive” standard, though.

Seriously, can any genre of comic books really be considered all that mainstream? With Marvel and DC seeming to become more and more focused on an insular, Direct Market audience, “mainstream” seems like a painfully relative term. I can find Off*Beat and the DMP books in more places than I can Strangers in Paradise or Gotham Central. Same with Tricked and Scott Pilgrim.

Has anyone ever walked into a comic shop because GLAAD recognized a title? And if someone is going to walk into a comic shop for the first time because of GLAAD’s nominations, is that really the list of comics you’d recommend? Why not promote lesser-known titles with superior portrayals rather than try and ride on some shaky definition of what “mainstream” is?

From the stack: YURI MONOGATARI Vol. 3

January 25, 2006

While yaoi is making considerable headway in the manga market, yuri is taking a bit longer to make its mark. ALC Publishing specializes in the category. I really enjoyed ALC’s release of Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, a charming romantic comedy.

Their latest anthology, Yuri Monogatari Vol. 3, is hit and miss. A collection of stories from Japan, America, and Europe, it features some promising talent. As a whole, it gives off a vaguely amateurish vibe, and while the enthusiasm is infectious, the actual work is of mixed quality.

It opens with Hiromi Nishizaka’s “Hydrangea.” I’ve heard that a lot of yuri is kind of a bummer, with tortured love ending badly for all parties. Nishizaka does interesting work constructing a complex love triangle, and she resist the urge to tie things up neatly. But it’s a depressing way to launch the book, with tears, selfishness, and cynicism.

Things lighten up considerably with Beth Malone’s “It Takes All Sorts.” A longtime couple, who happen to be space pirates, are determined to get the spice back in their relationship. They set off in search of a third party to perk things up, and run-ins with a tentacle monster, a kinky telepath, and an androgynous space cop ensue. It sounds like the worst kind of porn, but Malone’s light touch turns it into light parody. Unfortunately, her illustrations are pretty crude and feature some weird anatomy and odd perspectives.

Another couple is the focus of “Flights of Fancy” by Sergio Aviles. Regan and Angela are taking turns framing their relationship through classic movie genres. Aviles puts his protagonists in an action flick, a detective noir, a western, and a swashbuckling adventure. It’s visually impressive, and the idea is a lot of fun, but the reader never knows enough about the protagonists to get much out of their fantasy versions. There are also some lettering problems in the piece, with dialogue breaking oddly over word balloons without attention to phrasing.

Akiko Morishima provides a cute illustrated report on Yuricon ’05. It’s a nice intermission for the fiction pieces, and Morishima has a charming style.

In Kristina’s “Overboard,” sullen Missy is trapped on vacation with her older sisters. They’re taking the tacky tourist approach to the trip, while Missy wonders aloud if humans are naturally evil. (Don’t ask me why.) A misunderstanding brings Missy in closer contact with one of the locals, and she gets the transformative travel experience she was hoping for. It’s nicely drawn, and the quiet moments work best. The pacing is a little odd, though, and the dialogue is stilted.

Things conclude with Althea Keaton’s “Marked.” In it, a young punk looks back on her first days of independence, hanging out with other punks and learning that people aren’t quite what they appear. The story is drawn in a loose, art-comix style that suits it perfectly. While the grungy aesthetic is distinct and the material is at times harsh, the underlying themes of discovery, anxiety, and unexpected kindness are nicely universal. It’s the strongest piece in the collection.

I think just about any anthology is going to have its highs and lows, and Yuri Monogatari 3 is no exception. There’s considerable dedication to the genre on display, but it doesn’t always manifest itself in good storytelling. It’s an interesting read, but it doesn’t leave me wanting to pick up the other two installments.

Me, myself, and I

January 24, 2006

This is going to be one of the costlier Wednesdays in recent memory, but I don’t really mind, as it promises to be a fun mix of books. Here’s my excessively self-referential look at the week’s highlights.

Fantagraphics delivers Comics Journal Library #6: The Writers. Lots of people are looking forward to the reprint of the Harlan Ellison interview, but I’m all about the chat with Steve Englehart.

Go! Comi has second volumes of three titles. My pick of the week would be Cantarella. (Nothing against Tenshi Ja Nai!!, which I’ll no doubt pick up eventually.) If that’s not enough Borgia action for you, there’s also Borgia – Blood for the Pope from Heavy Metal.

IDW offers the second issue of Peter David’s re-launched Fallen Angel. We’ll see if the painted art grows on me.

From the “better late than never” file is the final issue of Marvel’s Defenders. I’ve really enjoyed this series, even though it doesn’t feature c-list super-heroines forming a detective agency and fighting crime.

Oni’s Polly and the Pirates #3 provides more comedy and adventure from Ted Naifeh. Joy!

It isn’t listed on the NCRL site, but the second volume of Bambi and Her Pink Gun is due from Digital Manga. I picked up the first out of morbid curiosity, unable to resist the title but expecting to be put off by the gratuitous violence. I ended up liking it a lot more than I probably should have. I guess there are always exceptions.


January 23, 2006

This week’s Flipped is up. I’m not sure the world needed another review of Dragon Head after Rose Curtin, Jog, and Heidi MacDonald had their say, not even factoring in a recommendation from Bryan Lee O’Malley. (I’m still not quite sure how it’s “manga for the rest of us,” but that’s neither here nor there.)

Because I can’t resist a theme (or even the appearance of one), I also reviewed X-Day, one of the titles I received via MangaTrade. It’s an interesting book, and it has a lot of strong points, but I’m kind of glad I didn’t pay for it. I’m going to put it on my “available for trade” list, if anyone’s interested in giving it a look.

I have to admit that the column is kind of a fallback offering. I started off intending to write about the Viz-Tokyopop Big Two question, but after David Taylor, Johanna Draper Carlson, and Jake Forbes have weighed in on the subject, what is there to add?

Okay, maybe just one thing. I did come up with a really tortured anime analogy:

You know those cartoons where five or six formidable robots join seamlessly to form an even more formidable robot with the power to raze cities and send foes spiraling into the heart of the sun? That’s Viz.

You know those cartoons where a protagonist tries to scrabble out a living in a landscape made barren of resources by the greedy machinations of some military-industrial complex? That’s Tokyopop.

Okay, it really only applies as far as license acquisition goes, but I liked it.