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.


Recycling

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.


Dean’s list

January 22, 2006

Since Michael Dean has spent several issues of The Comics Journal evaluating the journalistic standards of web sites and on-line personalities (whether they purport to be journalists or not), the temptation to examine his contributions by the same criteria is strong. And if I could resist temptation, my life would be very, very different.

Dean’s criteria for what’s considered journalism were as follows:

“1) it was about a newsworthy topic or issue, not just selling a product or promoting a company; 2) the reporter asked questions of people; 3) the sources of the story’s perspectives and information are identified; 4) the story reflected the reporter’s research into the context and implications of the story’s subject.”

Because it’s the meatiest of Dean’s articles in TCJ #273, I decidd to look at “Comics and Corporations: Creativity Under Contract” from the Newswatch section.

Newsworthiness: It clearly is. Dean cites extensive discussions on Warren Ellis’s The Engine and other message boards to reinforce the substance of the issue, and quotes blog entries from creators and Heidi MacDonald’s The Beat (one of the sites evaluated in his series). Two recent developments in particular are cited: the posting of a draft work-for-hire contract between DC and Dave Sim, and the rather heated discussion of the content of Tokyopop’s contracts with the creators producing its OEL titles. The topic of creator’s rights and work-for-hire versus ownership certainly bears substantial scrutiny, so this criterion is absolutely met.

Asking questions: The answer would be, “Yes and no.” Dean spoke to a number of people for the article, and he quoted a number of message board and blog postings related to the issue. The primary interview subjects are creators such as Sim, Kurt Busiek, Neil Gaiman, Steve Leialoha, and others, along with comics creator representative Harris Miller. (I’m not quite clear precisely what Harris’s role as a representative is, though agent or attorney seems most likely.)

Unfortunately, Dean speaks to very few representatives of the comics publishing industry. There’s a brief response from Image’s Erik Larsen to a claim from Comicon’s Rick Veitch about ancillary rights for a reprint project. Whether Veitch’s comments were obtained through interview or from the message board thread cited in the previous paragraph is unclear. No follow-up response to Larsen’s denial from Veitch is included.

A number of interview subjects make strong statements about Todd McFarlane’s contractual and residual practices. There are no rebuttals from McFarlane or indications that Dean had attempted to obtain them. That said, McFarlane’s legal battles with various creators, notably Gaiman, have been covered widely in TCJ and a number of other venues.

Smaller publishers such as Alias, AiT/PlanetLar, and IDW are characterized as being mindful of potential movie development, and Alias’s Brett Burnett does comment on the subject.

Miller makes a characterization about Marvel’s position on “incentive bonuses,” and Dean notes that Marvel’s Joe Quesada wasn’t available for comment.

A significant portion of the article tracks Sim’s abandoned negotiations with DC to contribute three pages to a Fables project. Sim provides considerable detail on the situation, but there is no comment from anyone on the DC side, nor is there any indication that Dean made inquiries that went unanswered.

Identification: Again, the answer is “yes and no,” for many of the same reasons. Sim, Dean, and others characterize what they believe to be the corporate philosophy of DC and Marvel, but without confirmation or denial from anyone from either company, it can only be considered supposition, however plausible it sounds. Here are some examples:

“‘It seems to me a case of: Do you want the work or don’t you?’” (Sim on DC)

“‘My hunch is they’d be loathe to require such things, since they then would be obliged to pay for my travel expenses.’” (Peter Bagge)

“More upsetting to DC was probably [Sim’s] suggestion…” (Dean)

“DC apparently judged that…” (Dean)

“…almost as though the publisher was haunted by the prospect of a single right remaining in the possession of the creator.” (Dean)

Perhaps identification isn’t the problem so much as balance. Contracts are between two parties, and the perspective one of those parties is significantly underrepresented in the article. I’ll readily concede that DC and Marvel might be utterly unwilling to discuss contractual details and negotiations for any number of reasons. More evidence of an attempt to include their perspective would have been welcome, though. (And while a number of creators cast doubt on the prospect of doing truly creator-owned work for a company like DC, no one saw fit to mention that Peter David just took Fallen Angel from DC to IDW.)

Research, Context and Implications: Dean is transparent about his process and intentions, even if they weren’t fully realized. (Few to no creators were willing to send TCJ their work-for-hire contracts, as Dean had requested.)

The focus on Sim seems to undermine the context and implications. Given his well-documented partiality to self-publishing, Sim seems like an odd creator to choose when examining the work-for-hire situation. Unlike the relatively unknown Tokyopop creators, there’s no imbalance of power in Sim’s negotiations with DC.

If the undertone from the Big Two is “Take it or leave it” (which is undermined by Harris and a number other creators who talk about negotiable page rates and other contract variables depending on factors such as stature), I can think of few creators more likely to leave it. But, as Sim has nothing to lose from discussing the situation, and since he had already made his contract public, I can’t help but conclude that Sim received the focus because he was the only creator willing to talk frankly and at length about a specific contract. And while it’s interesting (if one-sided) reading, it hardly seems illustrative of the wider issue.

As the thread on The Engine indicated, the real meat of the work-for-hire and creator’s rights issue is with more inexperienced creators at the beginning of their careers. They’re the ones who are more likely to struggle with the “take it or leave it” conundrum in the interest of launching their careers, and I’m a bit at a loss as to what they can learn from Sim’s experience with DC.

Dean’s stated aims for the piece are to answer the following questions (and I’ve added numbers in brackets for my own convenience):

“[1] What kinds of employment choices do today’s creators have? [2] Is there any difference between working for Marvel or working for DC? [3] What are the most important contract-related concerns and issues facing comics freelancers today? [4] What impact has the success of comics-based movies had on industry contracts? [5] Are today’s contracts negotiable or inflexible for comics creators? [6] To what extent are today’s comics freelancers able to share in the profits from their work?”

I’ll run through them and see what answers I was able to derive:

[1] Choices are numerous, depending on what the creator’s ambitions are and what level of control they’d like to retain of their work.

[2] The differences seem to be mostly in terms of accounting, though it varies from creator to creator. (The possible impact of exclusive contracts isn’t really explored in the article, which might have provided some dimension.)

[3] This remains unclear, as the pitfalls faced from someone like Sim are rather different than the ones faced by, say, Rivkah. But if full ownership of one’s work is a priority, then they should stay far away from work-for-hire on Marvel and DC’s trademarked characters.

[4] For some creators, the impact of possible movie deals is substantial, but mostly in the realm of smaller, independent publishers who make pursuit of such deals a priority and factor it heavily into their business plans. Marvel and DC don’t really sell specific stories or a single artist’s aesthetic to movie studios so much as trademarked characters, so it’s difficult to imagine a situation where someone working on Spider-Man or Superman today would see a specific change of circumstances based on a movie project. (Of course, if they’re writing a tie-in project or a title that gets a bump from a recently released film, they might see more royalties or incentive bonuses, but honestly, how often have Marvel and DC been able to really capitalize on a successful film?)

[5] It depends on the creator, their stature and popularity.

[6] Again, it depends on the creator, and also the publisher.

To sum up, I’d say Dean fully meets the first criteria and rates something of an incomplete on the other three.


Blockbusters

January 21, 2006

Comic Book Resources has posted Diamond’s Top 50 Manga for 2005, along with the previously released Top 100 Comics and Top 100 Graphic Novels. (Scroll down.)

As I suspected, Whiskers McNinja made a respectable showing beyond the top 100 GNs, with the other seven volumes of Viz’s Naruto scattered across the manga list. As David Taylor predicted, Dark Horse’s Samurai Executioner did much the same, with four other volumes joining its top 100 GN entry.

None of DC’s CMX titles cracked the top 50. I vaguely remember mention of a plan for DC to target their traditional comic shop audience for carry-over to the CMX line (or was it the other way around?), but the publisher’s only entry is Dead Boy Detectives at #10, a digest-sized Sandman spin-off. (The first two volumes of Neil Gaiman’s legendary Vertigo title are still showing up in the Top 100 Graphic Novels chart.) David Taylor talked about DBD in his look at Diamond’s Top 50 Manga for July 2005.

Even Tenjho Tenge didn’t show up, despite regular appearances on the monthly list when a new volume arrives. The category that defines the year-end list seems to be titles that are evergreen performers, though, with consistent interest and steady sales of older volumes as new readers sign up. (Look at how many installments of Fruits Basket appear.) Tenjho Tenge might not be in that category, relying more on an existing base of readers.

After DBD, Dark Horse’s MegaTokyo Vol. 3 is the second best-selling OEL book, landing at #13. Only one of Tokyopop’s OEL books made the cut, with Warcraft Vol. 1 popping in at #23. I thought Keith Giffen’s excellent Big Two pedigree might give I Luv Halloween a bump. Giffen is present on the list, though, having provided the adaptations for the three volumes of Tokyopop’s Battle Royale that landed at 28, 32, and 33.

The manga adaptation of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (Disney Press) came in at #29.

There’s only one hit for Del Rey (Negima Vol. 5 at #46). Given their bookstore focus, it isn’t particularly surprising. Del Rey’s titles usually arrive in bookstores weeks before they show up at a comic shop. (Chris Butcher explains why.)

I’m looking forward to Brian Hibbs’s annual look at BookScan’s graphic novel numbers for the year, mentioned in this thread at The Engine.


Digestion

January 20, 2006

Diamond’s top 100 comic book and graphic novel lists are up at Newsarama. In the GN category, there aren’t really any surprises in terms of manga. Here are the nine books that made the cut:

  • #52: FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST VOL 1 TP, $9.99, VIZ
  • #53: FRUITS BASKET VOL 7 GN (Of 14), $9.99, TKP
  • #56: SAMURAI EXECUTIONER VOL 3 TP (MR), $9.95, DAR
  • #72: FRUITS BASKET VOL 10 GN (Of 14), $9.99, TKP
  • #74: FRUITS BASKET VOL 9 GN (Of 14), $9.99, TKP
  • #81: FRUITS BASKET VOL 8 GN (Of 14), $9.99, TKP
  • #83: GHOST I/T SHELL 2 VOL 1 MAN MACHINE INTERFACE TP (MR), $24.95, DAR
  • #85: NARUTO VOL 6 TP, $7.95, VIZ
  • #94: FRUITS BASKET VOL 11 GN (Of 14), $9.99, TKP

Okay, I’m a little surprised that there aren’t more volumes of Naruto in there. Maybe it’s because the anime-driven boost was relatively recent, and Vol. 6 has had most of the year to benefit from re-orders, like Vol. 1 of Fullmetal Alchemist. The solid presence of Fruits Basket makes sense, as it’s been a steady performer since it debuted. Were I to guess, I’d say other volumes of Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist aren’t much farther down past the 100 mark.

Samurai Executioner is a perennial favorite from Dark Horse, and while the Ghost in the Shell book is on the pricey side, it’s also over 300 pages long, associated with a popular anime, printed in full color, and has a nearly naked woman on the cover.

As a side note, some digest-sized collections from Image and Marvel also did well, including the third volume of Marvel’s Runaways series.

Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that people are trying to decide if Diamond is a mildly irritating quasi-monopoly or the arch-nemesis of art and beauty and joy.


And they could fight crime

January 19, 2006

The other day, my partner and I were talking about books, and he excitedly told me that Susanna Clarke is working on a sequel to Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. He isn’t as given to nerdy enthusiasm as I am, but he loves the book, and he hopes that the sequel will focus on Arabella and Lady Pole.

I liked that idea a lot, and offered my own suggestion.

“They could team up and track down rogue faeries.”

And this is why I shouldn’t ever be allowed to write fiction. Pretty much all of my favorite ideas involve taking secondary female characters from existing stories and having them team up and fight crime.

When there was word of a Defenders re-launch at Marvel a few years ago, I immediately decided that it should feature Valkyrie, Hellcat, and Moondragon forming a psychic/supernatural detective agency and fighting crime.

While watching re-runs of CSI, I declared that their next spin-off should feature Lady Heather, the woman from the little people convention, and the no-nonsense clerk from the porn distributor abandoning their careers to team up and form a detective agency and fight crime.

If J.K. Rowling ever writes additional books with the Harry Potter cast, all I ask is that it features Hermione Granger and Luna Lovegood as aurors. Mismatched magical buddy cops! Come on!

While I could probably carve out a decent enough niche with this, I know fan fiction when I smell it, and I’ve made various people promise to kill me if I ever go down that road. And besides, there are enough people writing awful novels without me jumping into the mix.

Take The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova. I got this as a Christmas gift, and it makes sense that someone would give it to me. It’s a revisionist take on a juicy bit of lore – Dracula, in this case – and I like those kinds of stories. But it’s also another in the line of faux-scholarly, faux-deep thrillers of The Da Vinci Code‘s ilk.

I can’t quite bring myself to abandon it, partly because it was a gift, and partly because it’s unintentionally hilarious at points. (Kostova seems to have a singular hatred for librarians and archivists. I’m barely a fifth of the way into the book, and it seems like a dozen of the poor souls have met horrible fates already, just because they know how many copies of Bram Stoker are on the shelves.)

But the characters in the book are brilliant scholars in the same way that the characters in Mary Higgins Clark novels are talented, successful, and independent. They are because the author says they are, even though their every word and deed convinces you otherwise. And that can be very, very funny.

Very often it isn’t, though. Sometimes it’s just grandiose and dull, and I wonder why I’m lugging this thing around. Then, some kind, tweedy soul will show up in the rare books archive or at the documents office of the Smithsonian, and I know I have to keep reading to learn his grisly fate.