From the stack: Dragon Head Vol. 5

December 31, 2006

Minetaro Mochizuki’s suspenseful survival drama Dragon Head (Tokyopop) has been strong since its debut, but I think it improves markedly with the fifth volume. After four installments of escalating suspense, Michizuki takes time to explore the psychology of his characters and the philosophical issues surrounding their circumstances. The tension doesn’t abate so much as it deepens with the additional development of character.

It isn’t as if Mochizuki has been neglecting these aspects of the story up until now, but he hasn’t addressed it with this degree of directness. I find myself more invested as a result. If you’ve been resisting Dragon Head because of a perceived emphasis on action melodrama over more substantial story elements, you might reconsider. (If you’re avoiding it because of a distaste for graphic violence, you’re still making the right choice.)

(Spoilers for the fifth volume from this point forward.)

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From the stack: Glacial Period

December 30, 2006

I knew if I put together any kind of year-end list prior to January 1, some publisher would drop one more book that should be on it. Sure enough, NBM released Nicolas De Crécy’s Glacial Period on Thursday, proving that the year isn’t over until the fat, genetically modified dog sings.

It’s the first of four books produced in cooperation with the Louvre, inviting comics artists to offer their interpretations of the great institution. De Crécy looks backwards, setting his story far into the future when Europe has been buried under ice and snow. A group of archeologists are tracking down rumors of a great fortress and stumble across the museum.

They’re a group straight out of central casting – the macho adventurer, the heiress, the bookworm, and the hapless assistant – but De Crécy is playful enough to toy with reader expectations of their roles. Familiarity gives way as you see them interact with each other and react to their discovery.

And they aren’t essential to begin with. The real hero is Hulk, the genetically modified dog mentioned earlier. Bespectacled and articulate, the chunky hound can smell history like some of his ancestors could detect truffles. He bristles a bit at the foibles and insensitivities of his human companions, but he’s largely resigned to them. He knows the expedition would be doomed to failure without him.

Glacial Period has something of the rambling quirkiness of Tove Jansson’s Moomin (Drawn & Quarterly). The discovery of the Louvre is fodder for amusing philosophical detours, with the explorers wondering if its creators were literate or merely pictographic in their communication. (Imagine the scholars who found the Lascaux cave paintings evaluating Delacroix and Monet in the same terms.) One arranges the portraits in what he believes is a pictorial history of the culture’s inception, peak, and decline. And De Crécy also extrapolates beyond how the viewer sees art to give equal time, letting the art get its own word in on its audience.

It’s good, imaginative fun, and it’s beautifully rendered. From the stark landscapes of the early pages to the packed imagery of later passages, De Crécy balances composition and detail wonderfully. The palette of soft pastels, moving from cool to warm, is gorgeously applied.

I had some initial reservations about the book’s price — $14.95 for 80 pages – but those faded in the face of the book itself. It’s beautifully produced and carefully annotated; I wouldn’t call it a bargain, but it’s worth it.

Glacial Period is a delightfully imaginative, even loopy look at art. I hope NBM publishes the rest of the graphic novels created through the initiative.

(A preview of the book is available at NBM’s web site. There’s also an article [in French] on the book’s debut at the Louvre at Actua BD, found via The Comics Reporter.)

Tween scene

December 29, 2006

There’s some good reading on comics for tweens floating around this morning. First is an interview at Comic Book Resources with Jim Rugg, who will be providing the art for Cecil Castelluci’s Plain Janes for DC’s Minx line.

Rugg provides an interesting look into his creative process, how his approach to Plain Janes differed from his work on the much-loved Street Angel (Slave Labor Graphics), and the impossibility of pleasing all the people all the time:

“In order to maintain the commitment necessary to produce a comic, I need a high level of enthusiasm for the material. I’m not trying to make work for some future audience, I’m trying to make a page or scene or story that appeals to me. I value clarity when I’m designing a page or sequence but to imagine what other people want is impossible because every single person wants something different.”

I think the please-yourself approach tends to result in the best comics (and any creative work, really). It can also result in some pretty terrible ones, depending on who exactly is at the helm, but even then I’d rather see something awful that comes from a specific, personal place than a comic by committee.

That brings me to the one point of the interview that made me shake my head a bit. I think Rugg has some generally good points about brand names being less meaningful in the long run than the quality of the product they represent, but this argument struck me as kind of circular:

“The only way a name matters is if it’s something atrocious, something hard to remember or pronounce – Minx is fine, and just in case it does matter, DC commissioned focus groups in order to test various names. Minx won. So assuming that the name of an imprint/company does matter, I will defer to the teenage girls in the focus group rather than my opinion or the opinion of other adults.”

Oh, well, if the focus group liked it… It’s probably just a personal aversion, but focus-group endorsement actually makes me less enthusiastic about a marketing choice, even though I know a lot of my beloved manga lives or dies on audience feedback. But I’m a geezer. And probably kind of a hypocrite.

(For supplemental reading, check out Jennifer de Guzman’s inaugural column at Comic World News, where she talks about the migration of talent from smaller publishers like Slave Labor to Minx.)

Elsewhere, conversation continues on the great Archie experiment. Johanna Draper Carlson has been doing a fine job of tracking reaction and developments, and ICv2 has a column from comics retailer Steve Bennett on the subject. Bennett makes the (to me) reasonable argument that presenting different versions of iconic characters for specific audiences is a good thing:

“Meaning, this isn’t an either or situation, you can have classic and post-modern versions of characters existing side by side with each other. DC is already selectively practicing this. To appeal to the mainstream super-hero reader there’s the Trial of Shazam Captain Marvel and for everyone else there’s Jeff Smith’s upcoming rendition of the classic incarnation. It’ll probably come as no surprise that I prefer the utter wish fulfillment of the original, but until a lot more kids start coming into Dark Star I can’t ignore the way copies of Trial of Shazam has been flying off our shelves.”


December 28, 2006

Kids read comics! And they write about them for newspapers! In West Virginia, of all places!

I was happy to see this piece in the Charleston Gazette linked at MangaNews, partly because I think it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a graphic novel mentioned in a West Virginia newspaper, and partly because it’s about one of my favorite books of the year, Gene Yang’s American Born Chinese.

High-school student Lesley Cruickshank reviews the book, interviews the creator, and throws in some recommended titles for good measure.

Here are some of Yang’s favorites:

“For younger teens who enjoy ‘American Born Chinese,’ he recommends ‘Usagi Yojimbo’ by Stan Sakai, ‘Bone’ by Jeff Smith, and ‘anything by Raina Telgemeier.’

“For older teens, he suggests ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson, ‘Small Stories’ by Derek Kirk Kim, ‘Persepolis’ by Marjane Satrapi, ‘Missouri Boy’ by Leland Myrick and ‘Maus’ by Art Spiegelman.”

And here are Cruickshank’s picks:

“I would add to the list the ‘Fullmetal Alchemist’ series by Hiromu Arakawa, anything by Neil Gaiman (graphic novel or otherwise), the ‘Fables’ series by Bill Willingham, ‘Transmetropolitan’ by Warren Ellis and, my favorite, the ‘Preacher’ series by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, which (supposedly) will be an HBO show soon.”

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Fullmetal Alchemist and Preacher recommended in the same sentence before.

Wired, indeed

December 28, 2006

So I’m doing a quick scan through Yahoo News for anything manga-related, and I find that the folks at Wired are still doing their level best to endear themselves to the comics-reading public. This time around, Eliza Gauger has written a positive review of MBQ (Tokyopop), pausing briefly for some breathtaking displays of cooler-than-though hostility:

“As someone who is entirely sick of anime and the manga style, which come prepackaged with their repugnant followers (white, fat, mousy-haired, wire-framed and lacking in personal hygiene), I was initially iffy on anything that followed the style.”

Don’t worry, though. Someone in the subsequent comments covers it:

“It’s ironic that this is how the non-tech crowd views Wired‘s (and in particular this blog’s) readership.”

Make nouvelle friends, but keep the old

December 27, 2006

Spinning off of the praise for The Building Opposite (Fanfare/Ponent Mon), ICv2 takes a flattering introductory look at nouvelle manga. And despite the sometimes frustrating process of actually getting my hands on the stuff, I’m all in favor of these books getting a higher profile than they currently enjoy. ICv2 zeroes in on the retailers who might benefit from keeping them in stock:

“Retailers in urban areas, college towns, specifically those who do well with alternative comics should definitely consider carrying the Fanfare/Ponent Man line of Nouvelle Manga as well as the thematically related gekiga titles of Yoshihiro Tatsumi (The Push Man and Other Stories, Abandon the Old in Tokyo) published by Drawn & Quarterly.”

And while you’re at it, order a few copies of Sexy Voice and Robo (Viz). I swear you won’t regret it.

Speaking of slightly overpriced comics with that cosmopolitan savoir-faire, the highlight of Thursday’s ComicList is Glacial Period from NBM. It’s by Nicolas De Crécy, one of the contributors to F/PM’s Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, and it sounds intriguing, even at roughly $15 for 80 color pages. A post-apocalyptic look at the Louvre? Why not?

Also promising is DC’s Huntress: Dark Knight Daughter collection. I’ve got a lot of nostalgia for the Earth 2 incarnation of the Huntress, daughter of Batman and Catwoman. (I’m extremely protective of the current incarnation of the character as well, mostly because I resent the hypocritical way that Batman treats her like a moral inferior. But that might have changed since the last time I picked up a DC book, so who knows?) Anyway, Helena Wayne always struck me as a potentially great character in her own right, beyond her intriguing heritage, so this will be a good opportunity to read some of her adventures that I missed the first time around. (I’ve also gone from despising Joe Staton’s art as a teen to viewing it with nostalgic fondness in the intervening years. I’ve mellowed with age.)

Project X continues over at Digital Manga, this time probing the origins of 7-Eleven. The fifth volume of Dragon Head is snuggled in the middle of Tokyopop’s long list of offerings.

More best

December 27, 2006

At Entertainment Weekly‘s web site, Ken Tucker unveils his choices for the best comics of 2006:

  • Best Miniseries: Dr. Strange: The Oath (Marvel)
  • Best New Series: The All New Atom (DC)
  • Best Independent-Publisher Comic: Scott Pilgrim and the Infinite Sadness (Oni)
  • Best Graphic Novel: The Left Bank Gang (Fantagraphics)
  • Best Reissue Part 1: Walt and Skeezix: Book 2 1923-24 (Drawn & Quarterly)
  • Best Reissue Part 2: Popeye Vol. 1: “I Yam What I Yam” (Fantagraphics)

  • From the stack: ES: Eternal Sabbath Vol. 3

    December 26, 2006

    Isn’t it nice that I keep finding new titles to talk about ad nauseum? Welcome, ES: Eternal Sabbath, to the roster of pet comics.

    The third volume of this character-driven science-fiction tale builds upon the strengths of the first two, delving deeper into Fuyumi Soryo’s well-rounded cast of flawed protagonists and strangely sympathetic antagonists. Everyone learns more about the foibles of being human, often to their cost.

    Soryo is extremely adept at combining event and emotion, keeping the narrative moving forward in conjunction with the incremental development of character. As gifted medical researcher Kujyou tries to introduce otherworldly Akiba to the sensibilities of human interaction, she realizes her own shortcomings in that area. It’s a fascinating approach to a familiar theme – explaining the everyday to the alien, but with an unqualified instructor at the helm.

    It’s difficult to find young Isaac, Akiba’s malevolent clone, entirely repellent. His origins represent the worst of human inquiry, and while his actions are often appalling, he is essentially what people have made him, just like Akiba. Soryo is building towards a confrontation that’s almost certain to be tragic.

    If you’re looking for a smart, sensitive thriller with a richly developed thematic framework, then you really should try this book.

    From the stack: Line

    December 25, 2006

    Yua Kotegawa’s Anne Freaks (ADV) has earned a fair amount of critical praise this year, and deservedly so. It’s a bracingly executed piece of teen nihilism. It makes sense that ADV would support that with release of another of Kotegawa’s works, Line. (And since it’s only one volume in length, readers can be happily certain that the publisher won’t abandon it in the middle.) Line isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s an energetic diversion for readers who want more Kotegawa.

    In it, a pretty, popular high-school student finds a cell phone at the train station and finds herself racing against time to prevent a string of suicides. Chiko fights the clock and what she fears are her own failings of compassion, picking up allies along the way and finding reserves of strength and ingenuity that weren’t immediately apparent.

    This is familiar territory for action-movie aficionados, where creators have realized that the cellular phone is a much more versatile prop than the personal computer. Sitting at a keyboard is so 1990s, but the jarring ring of handheld communication still has the power to put events in motion and keep them there. It even borrows a bit of emotional resonance from suicide black comedy Heathers, with Chiko’s clash of popularity and conscience.

    She’s an appealing lead. She’s not as overtly unkind to marginal students as some of the kids in her circle, but she doesn’t contradict her friends’ casual cruelty or try and prevent it. She’s an unlikely friend to the despondent, but that makes her increasing commitment more involving.

    In a clever twist, Kotegaway gives Chiko a sidekick who, under more conventional plotting, would be the lead of this kind of story. Bando is bright and ostensibly kind to the classroom rejects, but she’s even more detached than Chiko fears Chiko is. Readers might be conditioned to a certain response to both Chiko and Bando, and Kotegawa plays with those expectations in fun ways. The dollops of shôjo-ai between the two add an additional layer to their dynamic.

    In spite of intriguing characters and a promising plot, the narrative itself doesn’t maintain momentum very well. Line feels too short to exploit all of its possibilities in the way Anne Freaks can. I’m not going to criticize Kotegawa for sacrificing pulse-pounding action for character development, because the choice caters to my tastes, but the tension of the story never seems to reach its full potential. It’s appealing in its slightness, though.

    Long-term horoscopes

    December 23, 2006

    Ed Chavez at MangaCast cast out a net for people’s licensing wish lists. I’m not much of a follower of scanlations, but there are some creators and individual books that drive me to begging.

    I loved, loved, loved Sexy Voice and Robo and would buy just about any of Iou Kuroda’s work. Shaenon Garrity feels the same way, judging by the latest installment of her Overlooked Manga Festival:

    Nasu, incidentally, was Kuroda’s previous work, a collection of short stories connected only by the fact that they all involve eggplants. I want Viz to publish it so badly that I hurt all over.”

    I’ve wanted to read Marimo Ragawa’s NYNY since I saw a couple of pages from it in Paul Gravett’s Manga book.

    Most of the licensed works on the short list of this year’s Angoulême festival look great, but I’d definitely devour Shigeru Mizuki’s Non Non Bâ and Daisuké Igarashi’s Sorcières.

    Anything by Moto Hagio would be appreciated, and hey, Otherworld Barbara just wrapped up in 2005.

    Paradise Kiss and Nana are on my list of much-loved manga, so I’d be happy to see some of Ai Yazawa’s earlier works in translation, like I’m Not an Angel and Neighborhood Story.

    He isn’t Japanese, but I was introduced to his work in Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, so I’ll take another opportunity to beg for someone to publish some of Fabrice Neaud’s work.

    Did anyone ever confirm this license from Iwahara (Chikyu Misaki) Yuji?

    Speaking of confirmation, Brigid went right to the source and heard from Fanfare/Ponent Mon that The Building Opposite will be arriving in Spring 2007. F/PM also promises more Jiro Taniguchi (The Ice Wanderer) and Kan Takahama (Awabi) in the near future if I remember my Previews catalogs correctly.

    Manga Recon’s Katherine Dacey-Tsuey offers her own lists of exciting titles that are scheduled to arrive, including a lot of books I’m eagerly anticipating. None quite so much as To Terra, especially after seeing Chip Kidd’s cover design, thoughtfully posted by MangaCast’s Jarred Pine.

    Of course, more Yotsuba&! would always be gratefully accepted. It’s been so long that it would feel like a new arrival, y’know? And won’t someone rescue poor Bambi from limbo?