Death, pie and divas

October 25, 2007

I’m a lazy TV viewer. I don’t really have much in the way of appointment programming, and why should I when I can turn on the TV at any hour of the day and find an episode from the Law and Order franchise? But I have fallen hard for Pushing Daisies (ABC). Given that it’s like a live-action fusion of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and Antique Bakery, how could I not? Here are ten reasons I love it:

1. The structure. Like many of my favorite manga series, the show has a strong premise (a guy can raise the dead briefly without consequence, or permanently if he’s willing to allow something else to die in the resurrected creature’s stead), a predominantly episodic format, and enough strong subplots to round out the hour.

2. The dialogue. “Just because I keep a bottle of vodka in my freezer doesn’t mean I have to drink it. Oh, wait… Yes, it does.”

3. The setting. There should be more entertainments set in pie shops. When things like pears in a gruyere crust can come up organically in conversation, I am happy.

4. The premise. They deal with dead people. I have no resistance to this.

5. The ensemble. Not only is each member of the cast solid in his or her own right, they have terrific chemistry, no matter how you mix and match them. The writers manage to juggle everyone’s subplots well too, so you get a good dose of everyone in each episode.

6. The look. Everything is as color-saturated and artificial as a splashy movie musical from back in the day, and it’s really comforting to me. Also, I feel strangely flattered that they spent so much money on design instead of just taking a camcorder into some PA’s aunt’s apartment.

7. The narration. Oh, Jim Dale… I thought I would be reduced to obsessively replaying my Harry Potter audio books if I wanted to enjoy your gentle, witty readings. I’ll still do that anyways, but you’re pitch-perfect once again.

8. The tone. There’s an overall sunniness to things that’s appealing, but it might become too much if there weren’t darker undercurrents. There’s balance, which is always appreciated.

9. It feels like a musical. Beyond having major Broadway talent like Kristin Chenoweth and Ellen (Little Shop of Horrors) Greene, the show feels like it could burst into song at any moment. I’m glad it doesn’t, but I love that vibe. (And I really love that it had a quick scene of Chenoweth and Greene belting out “Birdhouse in Your Soul” as they drove along in a paneled station wagon. Get out of my head, show!)

10. Chenoweth: I know I sound like the most stereotypical Broadway-loving homosexual in the world, but she is just peerlessly fabulous, partly because I find her a little frightening. Her performances always combine manic energy and unpredictable comedy with this kind of spooky precision that gives everything more force without making it seem artificial. She’s impossible, in other words, and I’m so glad she finally has a TV role that’s worthy of her.


Parallel universe

October 24, 2007

I like to follow the ongoing discussions about the evolution of bookstores and comic shops (or Big Boxes versus specialists, if you like), so I thought this article in The New York Times was fascinating. It looks at the existing state of Germany’s book market – where small shops and big chains coexist peacefully and seem to thrive in each other’s company:

“Germany’s book culture is sustained by an age-old practice requiring all bookstores, including German online booksellers, to sell books at fixed prices. Save for old, used or damaged books, discounting in Germany is illegal. All books must cost the same whether they’re sold over the Internet or at Steinmetz, a shop in Offenbach that opened its doors in Goethe’s day, or at a Hugendubel or a Thalia, the two big chains.

“What results has helped small, quality publishers like Berenberg. But it has also — American consumers should take note — caused book prices to drop. Last year, on average, book prices fell 0.5 percent.”

Alas, that delicate, consumer-friendly balance might be threatened by recent developments in neighboring Switzerland:

“Just across the border, the Swiss lately decided to permit the discounting of German books — a move that some in the book trade here fear will eventually force Germany itself to follow suit, transforming a diverse and book-rich culture into an echo of big-chain America.”

While I enjoy bargain-hunting as much as anyone, I do find the description of Germany’s book market kind of utopian. I’m still bitter about the closing of a mystery book shop in Dupont Circle, and few things make me depressed in quite the same way as those intermittent articles about independently owned, sometimes specialty book shops shuttering because they can’t compete with the seven or eight Barnes and Noble and Borders stores that have opened up.

Of course, I’m a total hypocrite, ignoring these socialist leanings whenever a coupon shows up in the mail. And general principle couldn’t keep me from laughing and laughing at Meg Ryan’s misfortunes in You’ve Got Mail, but I don’t think that had anything to do with her character’s profession.

Still, the article is well worth a read for a glimpse at another market approach to book sales, the competing interests of culture and economics, and lots of other related issues.


Upcoming 10/24/2007

October 23, 2007

It isn’t a huge week in terms of new comics arrivals, but there are some choice items.

The one I’m anticipating most eagerly is probably Mi-Kyung Yun’s Bride of the Water God from Dark Horse. It looks gorgeous, its folklore-rich premise sounds intriguing, and any series that starts with attempted human sacrifice is worth at least a look. Manga Recon’s Katherine Dacey-Tsuei thinks very highly of it, which is always a good sign.

Del Rey, Tokyopop and Viz are taking the week off, for the most part, but Go! Comi leaps into the breach with new volumes of four ongoing series. Of them, I’d definitely recommend Setona Mizushiro’s Afterschool Nightmare, which hits the five-volume mark. It’s still providing unsettling, emotionally complex new developments for its cast of identity-challenged teens. Then there’s Hideyuki Kurata’s Train + Train, which has been steadily improving since a rather lackluster first volume. The third ended in a surprising cliffhanger, with the Special Train students visiting a city beset by terrorists. I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out.

Next week, I’ll be in range of one of the best comic shops I’ve ever visited, so I’m sure I’ll be able to browse the four new releases from PictureBox. I’m especially curious about Yuichi Yokoyama’s New Engineering, though I suspect I’ll be more interested in “Public Works” than “Combat.” Chris Mautner picked it as his “book of the show” from SPX, a show that always seems to yield a number of amazing books.


(Rumic) Theater wing

October 23, 2007

This week’s Flipped features another Fandemonium interview, this time with Dylan Acres about the incredibly successful and delightfully versatile Rumiko Takahashi. Acres is part of a group that runs the Rumic World family of Takahashi-centric web sites.


Monday linkblogging, etc.

October 22, 2007

J.K. Rowling has revealed that one of the characters from her Harry Potter series of books, Hogwarts Headmaster Albus Dumbledore, was gay. It’s nice, but I’d have been more impressed if she’d actually revealed that in the text, ideally before the character died.

On the one hand, she seldom devoted any space to the private lives of the Hogwarts faculty unless it was essential to the narrative (Snape) or factored heavily into a thematically linked subplot (Hagrid and Madame Maxim). On the other, it seems like his one relationship was pretty punitively disappointing. On another hand, I still think poor Tonks was the biggest beard in the fantasy canon, and that anyone who thinks Sirius and Lupin weren’t totally in love is kidding him- or herself.

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While not everyone agrees on the tenor of that Tigra sequence from New Avengers #35, there does seem to be general consensus that Matt Brady’s Newsarama interview with writer Brian Bendis was the kind of tounge-bath seldom seen outside of the cozy, secluded nests mother cats create to welcome their newborns. Here’s one of my favorite responses, and probably the most comprehensive.

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So I don’t seem completely grumpy, I’ll like to two reviews of books published by Dark Horse that made me happy, both the books and the reviews. First is Greg McElhatton’s look at Kazuhiro Okamoto’s far-more-interesting-than-it-sounds Translucent, and second is Ken Haley’s praise for the first two volumes of Adam Warren’s better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Empowered.

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I love this sauce. I think it would be good on just about any kind of protein, and probably many vegetables as well. (Maybe someday I’ll point you to a healthy recipe. Don’t hold your breath.)

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Speaking of cooking, wow, I gave up too quickly on Kitchen Princess (Del Rey). I thought the first volume was pretty uninspiring, but I caught up with more recent installments via complimentary copies, and it definitely picks up steam. It’s still not life-changing, but there are lots of pretty pictures of food and some reasonably moving story material.


From the stack: Johnny Hiro

October 21, 2007

It seems like mash-ups of genres are the hot new genre. If I was forced to recommend just one from the growing throng of comic-book examples, it would probably be Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books). It makes imaginative use of its source material without a trace of hipper-than-thou cynicism, features endearing and sympathetic characters, and is genuinely funny in its own right.

Johnny and his girlfriend Mayumi are much like any other young urban couple navigating life in the Outer Boroughs. They work too hard, wish they had a better apartment, and struggle to make time for each other in the face of competing demands. Since those competing demands include giant monsters on the rampage and gangs of vengeful sushi chefs, their struggles are a bit heightened.

Not too much, though. There’s something charmingly everyday about the craziness Johnny and Maiyumi encounter, and that’s because the couple is so functional. They love and trust each other, and they make choices based on that connection. Chao helps put the lie to the argument that happy couples make for boring stories.

That’s partly due to the care Chao takes in portraying the mundane aspects of their lives. For every scene of improbable and exciting derring-do, there’s something equally recognizable and poignant. In the second issue, Maiyumi settles into the couple’s new sublet as Johnny tries to snag a lobster for the highly-strung chef of restaurant where he busses tables. The antic and the down-to-earth sequences are equally effective and mutually supportive in the narrative as a whole.

Chao’s illustrations execute this balance perfectly. It’s great fun watching a giant ape peek into the window of Maiyumi’s office or watching Johnny scramble up a fire escape as cleavers fly. It’s also delightful to see the way Chao invests something as familiar as an apartment walk-through with wit and warmth. (I could probably read an entire comic about Maiyumi introducing herself to the cats that come with their new one-bedroom.)

Things never stray too far into the realm of meta-commentary, even with potentially jarring celebrity cameos. I was pleasantly surprised that a first-issue drop-in from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t derail things entirely. A second-issue visit from Vogue food editor Jeffrey Steingarten is even more organic and effective, though that might owe to my fondness for Iron Chef America.

The highest compliment I can pay to Johnny Hiro is that it reminds me very favorably of Avenue Q, that snarky-sweet Broadway riff on Sesame Street that deserved every Tony Award it won (and more besides). While Chao’s approach is gentler, he strikes quite the same balance between pop-culture fluency and genuine feeling.

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


Newsstand linkblogging

October 20, 2007

At Blog@Newsarama, Kevin Melrose points to a piece in USA Today about declining manga sales in Japan:

“Sales of manga fell 4% in Japan last year to 481 billion yen ($4.1 billion) — the fifth straight annual drop, according to the Tokyo-based Research Institute for Publications. Manga magazine sales have tumbled from a peak of 1.34 billion copies in 1995 to 745 million last year.”

It’s interesting to me mostly for the fact that it truncates the customary introductory element of most mainstream media articles on manga (“Big eyes and speed lines!” “Kids love it!”), favoring market trends instead. On the other hand, I would have appreciated more detail on the distinctions between sales of manga on paper and consumption overall, though those might not be readily available.

As Icarus Publishing’s Simon Jones notes at his not-safe-for-work blog, falling pulp sales are less a new development than a continuing trend, and he suggests that this is less worrying than it might seem:

“Continually slipping sales is always a concern, but personally I don’t see why a distinction should be made between manga printed on paper, and digital manga delivered via cell phones, or manga delivered in the form of a videogame spin-off. Manga isn’t going away because the Japanese love manga more than ever… the art form is simply becoming divorced from its traditional medium of paper. Reports of its waning influence seem greatly exaggerated.”

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The New York Times also does a little trend-spotting, looking at the recent wave of comics created in part by pop stars like Gerard Wray, who’s writing the appealing Umbrella Academy for Dark Horse. Longtime comics reviewer and retailer Randy Lander is quoted in the story:

“Certainly the comics industry benefits from the press that the crossovers sometimes generate. ‘It brings in people from outside the medium and people who haven’t been to a comic store since they were a kid,’ said Mr. Lander, who also owns the Rogues Gallery, a comic store in Round Rock, Tex. ‘Every entry point we can get is a good one.’”

I’m surprised it isn’t part of a series, with follow-ups on TV and film creative types and prose authors who’ve broken in lately. But something tells me the Times has already done those articles, though the details have faded from my memory.

Anyway, I enjoyed the second issue of Umbrella Academy almost as much as the first, though I found I missed the kid versions of the characters. At The Savage Critic, Jog reviews it with his customary skill:

“…but there’s a sort of trust at work here between words and visuals that isn’t always seen in superhero comics.”

True, but who wouldn’t trust Gabriel Bá?

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Sigh. I love a lot of magazines, but Wired generally isn’t one of them. But the promise of ten pages written by Jason Thompson is worth the price of admission.