March 31, 2008

I went to Columbus to visit relatives over the weekend. As usual, I had a delightful shopping experience at The Laughing Ogre – good selection, friendly staff, etc. While wandering around the city, I happened upon two other comic shops that weren’t open during their posted hours. It was pure chance that I stumbled upon either store, so I’m not outraged or anything, but it did strike me as an odd and not at all encouraging trend. I’m just saying.

I also did an informal Barnes & Nobel/Borders compare-and-contrast. The Columbus Borders reinforced my perception that they have a better selection of comics and graphic novels. Again, if Barnes & Noble takes over Borders, I hope they let Borders set the course for graphic novels and manga. I tend to pre-order anything that I suspect won’t ever show up in a Barnes & Noble, but the last thing anyone needs is a smaller number of outlets that will carry interesting graphic novels. Just ask Dark Horse.

Also, this struck me as kind of depressing. There once was a funky, interesting neighborhood called The Short North in Columbus (think Dupont Circle in Washington) that seems to be kind of a victim of its own success (as is Dupont Circle, which has too many pricey shoe stores to be funky and interesting any more). It’s kind of gone mall, if you know what I mean. The great gay bookstore that was there forever has been shoved several blocks north of its former neighborhood.

Drama, drama, drama

March 28, 2008

Over at Comics Should Be Good, Danielle Leigh once again demonstrates her great taste, listing her top five current shôjo series. This reminds me that it’s time to make a few more Great Graphic Novels for Teens nominations.

The sixth volume of Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare (Go! Comi) features some juicy forward plot motion and some ruthless character development. Back when I used to watch soap operas and participate in that branch of online fandom, many of us would decry what we called “Knight in Shining Armor Syndrome.” Mizushiro thrills me to no end by ripping one of her characters to shreds for indulging in this kind of behavior. Seriously, you won’t find a more psychologically acute melodrama in this category.

The 19th volume of Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop) makes me geek out a round of “The Gang’s All Here.” After some extensive focus on individual characters, Takaya rounds everyone up for what feels like the beginning a very satisfying endgame. It’s a testament to the excellent work she’s done developing her cast that I’m delighted to see so many of them return and that their complex dynamics are still so clear and emotionally effective. As usual, threads that previously seemed extraneous are woven into the story’s larger tapestry, which tells me that I should just assume that everything matters. It’s a marvel, and it really shouldn’t be dismissed on the basis of its commercial success.

“Mature Content” rating be damned. Teens are probably reading Ai Yazawa’s Nana (Viz) anyways, so I’m throwing the ninth volume into the mix. More to the point, if there’s a better portrayal of the fallout of capricious behavior, I can’t think of it. The happy, shiny world of the entire cast has been thrown into disarray by an unexpected turn of events, and friendships, romances and careers are fundamentally changed. Yazawa doesn’t give the material anything resembling a punitive quality, but hard choices and hurt feelings abound, taking the well-crafted soap opera to a higher level. And Yazawa even reveals the secret origin of Trapnest. (I have to watch the movie, as Kate Dacey swears they’ll seem less cheesy. I don’t know how that will alter the reading experience, to be honest.)

Mergers and acquisitions

March 26, 2008

There’s so much food for thought today.

  • I agree with Tom Spurgeon that the notion of an unholy alliance between Borders and Barnes & Noble is not displeasing. There are significant differences between the two chains that I wouldn’t like to see lost, though. I wouldn’t want to see Borders follow suit with Barnes and Noble’s approach to graphic novel buying. I’d much rather see Barnes & Noble’s offerings expand than Borders get trimmed.
  • I could be wrong, but when a key part of a comic publisher’s marketing strategy seems to be the plugging of unsanctioned leaks of future plot developments, there’s a problem.
  • That said, I would probably favor Marvel’s Secret Invasion over DC’s Crisis thing if I were still reading American super-hero comics. Of course, the fact that Secret Invasion is being written by the person who made most of my favorite Marvel characters unrecognizable to me in the first place would probably mute my enthusiasm, as opposed to if it were someone else cleaning up after that person. That whiff of apologetic desperation would be as irresistible as sautéing onions. (I couldn’t stop myself from taking a look at the preview pages at Entertainment Weekly, and wow, some of that dialogue is hilariously awful.)
  • Okay, speaking of that hilariously awful dialogue, Luke Cage’s “Hey, man, I need a solid, ASAP” prompted a friend to wonder if I wasn’t quoting slash fiction. I am deeply disappointed that there don’t seem to be entire sites devoted to Power Man/Iron Fist slash, but maybe it’s too easy.
  • Steve Bennett’s ICv2 column on Marvel’s and DC’s reluctance to embrace a manga aesthetic (and Direct Market retailers’ varied willingness to stock the product at all) is interesting, but I think it overstates things a bit. I agree that Marvel and DC show a bunker mentality with regards to their franchises, but I think Marvel’s project with Del Rey for a separate line of manga-style X-Men treatments is a promising model for the kind of product Bennett is talking about. I think a lot of the Marvel’s and DC’s existing audience would scoff or howl at the strategic introduction of a perceived manga aesthetic to the product they buy with such regularity, and I’m unconvinced that either company could convincingly bring successful elements of whatever that aesthetic might be to the table to begin with. That leaves the Marvel-Del Rey outsourcing model as the obvious solution – don’t change your primary product, but offer targeted side products to a different audience with the assistance of people who already know how to reach that audience. It just seems much more likely that the target audience for a shôjo-styled treatment of the X-Men or Wonder Woman would be prompted to pick up the “real” version than the other way around.
  • As for the Direct Market missing the manga bus, I’m decreasingly of the opinion that all retailers are fools if they don’t stock manga. Entrepreneurs seem to function on something of a financial razor’s edge to begin with, and there are probably plenty of places that already sell manga in their communities. It seems like it would take a remarkable amount of strategizing and effort for a local comic shop to compete with a Borders or Barnes & Noble. Do I like to walk into a comic shop and find a healthy selection of manga? Sure, but only if someone on the staff is knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the category. Token efforts lead to neglected stock, which seems worse than not bothering with manga at all. (I do think such retailers are dumb if they don’t make it a widely-known practice that they’ll order any kind of comic their customers want if they don’t see it on the shelves, but that applies to all kinds of comics.)

  • Rumor patrol

    March 25, 2008 has some additional information on the potential for a Borders takeover, highlighting some recent corporate developments that might make such an acquisition attractive. Apparently there are rumors that none other than Barnes & Noble is eyeing its rival, which did wonders for the price of Borders’ stock shares.

    Update: ICv2 follows up on the stock story here.

    Upcoming 3/26/2008

    March 25, 2008

    Some picks from the ComicList for Wednesday, March 26, 2008:

    Do you need anyone else to tell you that Hiro Mashima’s Fairy Tail (Del Rey) is a very entertaining fantasy adventure? Probably not, but I’ll chime in with my agreement anyways. Mashima isn’t aiming exceptionally high here, offering unapologetically mainstream entertainment about quirky wizards and their comic quests. It’s a very good example of an increasingly crowded field of comics that offer storytelling that’s as amiable as it is accomplished. The characters are lively, the art is eye-catching, and the stories are fast-paced and varied.

    I think it’s smart of Del Rey to introduce the series by releasing two volumes at once. Endearing as it is, it’s also fairly lightweight, so doubling the quantity available should help to cement it in readers’ affections to a degree that a single volume couldn’t, at the same time drawing more critical interest than the series might have enjoyed otherwise. As I said, there’s a lot of competition in the field of amiable, accomplished, mainstream entertainment, especially on the manga shelves.

    So yes, there’s nothing wrong with a comic that only wants to entertain. Allow me to contradict that assertion by wondering if Eiji Otsuka and Sho-u Tajima’s MPD-Psycho (Dark Horse) has enough on its mind. Part of the reason I’m so fond of Otsuka’s The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is the writer’s ability to fold deeper issues into superficially engaging stories. Imaginative gore and varied psychoses aside, MPD-Psycho seems to be vamping along, and I’ve got the feeling that it’s really going to need some larger purpose to keep me from losing patience. Up to this point, it’s read like a collection of creepy grace notes (like barcodes on people’s eyeballs) in place of a driving, meaningful narrative.

    Along with Charles Berberian, Philippe Dupuy has created the wonderfully entertaining Mr. Jean, star of Get a Life (Drawn & Quarterly), and Maybe Later, a nicely modulated look at their creative process. Drawn & Quarterly offers a solo work from Dupuy, Haunted, which sounds a lot less down-to-earth but very intriguing.

    Villard offers a handsome paperback collection of David Petersen’s first Mouse Guard mini-series. In addition to the beautifully rendered, smartly told story of courageous rodents, there are plenty of extras that make the $17.95 price tag very reasonable.

    Best. Analogy. Ever.

    March 24, 2008

    Tom Spurgeon on Osamu Tezuka’s MW (Vertical):

    “It’s like Vincent Minelli’s Taxi Driver, or Frank Capra’s Deer Hunter; I had a hard time taking my eyes off of it, although I can’t say I enjoyed every minute of the reading experience.”

    If he’d likened it to Ethel Merman’s disco album, that would obviously have been going too far, but as it stands…

    On the third day…

    March 22, 2008

    … our hardwood floors shall glow with renewed finish. In the interim, my brain will be addled with the residual rattling of the sander and the polyurethane fumes.

    Monstrous women

    March 20, 2008

    Naoki Urasawa’s Monster (Viz Signature) improves with each volume, and the fourteenth book in the series is marvelously tense. Urasawa plays around with his timeline, jumping back and forth, and the chronology is a bit hard to construct at times, but that barely matters in the face of the sheer quantity of revelations and twists that emerge.

    In my opinion, the series is never as good as it is when it focuses its attention on Urasawa’s female leads. Nina Fortner, good-hearted twin of the titular beast, and Eva Heinemann, bitter ex of the manga’s saintly protagonist, Tenma, bask in the limelight in this volume. This makes me a very happy reader, and they’ve both achieved almost Shakespearean heights by this point.

    Nina is an updated, self-actuated Cordelia with a sprinkling of Ophelia in the mix. Kind and honest, often to her disadvantage, it’s impossible not to fear for her even as you appreciate her resourcefulness (which neither Cordelia nor Ophelia ever possessed). Her hunt for the ruthless Johan parallels Tenma’s, but while Tenma is utterly resolute, it’s difficult to predict precisely what Nina will do if she finds the fiend. To me, that’s a lot more interesting, and I hope she wins the scavenger hunt.

    I’ve loved the wildly soap operatic Eva from the beginning – her contempt, her bitterness, her utter self-absorption, mixed with just enough trashy abandon to keep her from being entirely unsympathetic. Miserable as she is, she can still laugh (drunkenly, acidly, ruefully) at her circumstances. In recent volumes, she’s risen from Regan-and-Goneril level (admirably conniving but ultimately monotonous) to that of Lady Macbeth. Formidable as Eva’s rage is, void of compassion as her value system may be, there’s a tiny core of decency and compassion, and oh, how she hates that. It’s increasingly clear that her fury at Tenma stems not from what he cost her in terms of status and security but what he’s done to her steely, amoral certainty. She’s a tragedienne of the highest order.

    Slack and slash

    March 19, 2008

    Lars Brown’s North World (Oni Press), a collection of Brown’s webcomic, is a sometimes frustrating collection of strengths and weaknesses. Brown displays some good instincts in the development of concepts and characters, but his grasp on pacing and structure needs work.

    He’s constructed some concurrent narrative elements that are mutually supportive in smart ways. Young adventurer Conrad wants to move to the next level of his profession; he’s stuck at the “giant beasts” plateau and wants to face the kind of menaces that “get the bards to come to [him] for a story.” Just such a challenge comes his way, but it forces him to return to his hometown after an absence of several years, just in time for his ex-girlfriend’s wedding. He’s also estranged from his family to some degree, particularly his disapproving father.

    So Conrad is juggling career issues, possibly unwanted romantic closure, and unfinished emotional business that ties into his autonomy as an adult. The book has promising architecture, thematically linked but tonally varied. Unfortunately, I don’t think Brown is enough of a juggler to keep things in balance. There’s a lack of focus. It’s a book where everything almost works, but the storytelling is nowhere near as tight as it needs to be to succeed.

    Conrad is a promising protagonist, and he’s at a believable impasse between adolescent self-indulgence and fully realized adulthood. Conrad isn’t so immature that he can’t listen to people who care about him, like his father, but he’s not so confident that he can figure out when his ex is jerking him around. (She’s always jerking him around in punishing, passive-aggressive ways, flirtatiously flaunting her current happiness when she isn’t trying to reel him back in.) It’s unclear as to whether a life as a bard-magnet adventurer would be Conrad’s best happy ending, and that’s all to the good. (He’d definitely be better off if he bought his ex a nice place setting and skipped the wedding.)

    But Brown can’t quite seem to shape scenes in ways that give the story momentum. Sequences always feel like they’ve run too long, to the point that the concurrent narrative elements lose energy. A subplot that could have been illuminating and even mildly amusing – Conrad runs afoul with some present-day punks who are just as obnoxious as he used to be – goes on for what seems like forever. The subplot provides some fight sequences, but those aren’t really Brown’s forte as an illustrator, so they don’t really serve to change the pace of the proceedings.

    It’s a book that’s badly in need of some rigorous editing. I don’t mind a story unfolding casually when that approach serves it, but there’s too much going on in North World to allow this much lingering. It’s somewhat against my nature for me to call for fewer slices of life and more plot, but this story needs to move farther and faster than it does.

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

    (Updated to note that I can type the same wrong thing over and over, even though some part of my brain knows better. I don’t know where “Caleb” came from.)

    Warren words

    March 18, 2008

    K.D. Bryan offers thoughtful commentary on the third volume of Adam Warren’s Empowered (Dark Horse), and extrapolates the discussion to consider contemporary super-heroines in general:

    “So my major problem here isn’t that Empowered vol. 3 has taken a misstep because an intelligent, thoughtful writer tried to deepen the series – taking the comedy out of the equation in two of the chapters to provide contrast between how she is treated and the true potential she wields. No, my real problem is that so many more well-known superheroines aren’t being given the same basic consideration as Empowered.”

    Well worth your reading time, as is Bryan’s comment on my reaction to the book.

    In other Adam Warren news, Marvel editor Tom Brevoort counts Warren’s Livewires (Marvel) among his “Unknown Greats.” I agree that this is a terrific comic, and it’s fascinating to read about just how meticulous Warren was in the process of creating it.