Debuting this week: Yōkaiden

November 26, 2008

Nina Matsumoto’s Yōkaiden (Del Rey) has a lot of things working in its favor, but the one that really sells it for me is its wry authorial voice. The peppering of sly, smart humor elevates what might otherwise be a fairly generic folklore tour.

Yōkai are spirits that range from benign to mischievous to deadly, and Hamachi is crazy for all of them. The orphaned boy wants to learn and teach about the spirits and prove to suspicious humans that everyone can get along. The people of his village think he’s kind of simple, and they’re kind of right. When Hamachi’s surly grandmother dies, apparently at the hand of a yōkai, Hamachi sets off for their dimension to find out the truth.

Since Hamachi is so well-informed about and enamored with yōkai, Matsumoto has no trouble introducing the various types either in the narrative or in end-of-chapter pages from Hamachi’s journal or in the form of excerpts from “Inukai Mizuki’s Field Guide to Yōkai.” (Mizuki is Hamachi’s inspiration and predecessor in human-yōkai diplomacy.)

Applying a consistently light-hearted tone, Matsumoto presents varied encounters between Hamachi and the objects of his obsession. He saves one from a trap, avoids having the skin of his feet removed by another, protects a surly, talking lantern from bullying, and so on. The individual episodes are fine, but it’s Matsumoto’s wit that really carries things along.

Hamachi is never smarter than he should be, and Matsumoto is able to maneuver him in and out of trouble with imaginative little flourishes. She gives the yōkai amusingly distinct personalities, peppers the dialogue with tart anachronisms (from schadenfreude to Kelsey Grammer), and is game for the occasional, amusing digression. (When the villagers learn of grandma’s fate and Hamachi’s quest, they engage in a discussion of just what kind of irony the situation embodies.)

Matsumoto has a solid visual sense as well. Her character designs, human and yōkai, are varied and charming, and her storytelling and layouts are clear and energetic.

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

Now, here are some other highlights from this week’s ComicList:

  • The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 (Dark Horse)
  • Mushishi Vol. 6 (Del Rey)
  • Tezuka’s Black Jack Vol. 2 TPB (Vertical)
  • Honey and Clover Vol. 4 (Viz – Shojo Beat)

  • Comics Rx: Lauren C’s entry

    November 26, 2008

    Here’s Lauren C.’s prescription for the comics industry:

    “Prescription for the comics industry? Give indie creators a better chance to get their work to major bookstores.

    “Okay, maybe that’s just me projecting.”

    Comics Rx: Matthew’s entry

    November 25, 2008

    Here’s Matthew’s prescription for the comics industry:

    “Refocus on quality instead of quantity. 300 Wolverine titles a month is oversaturation. Also end the mega- summer- cross-over events that will change the publisher’s universe forever. The few issues between events that don’t actually deal with the events seem like tossed-off filler. At the very least, don’t do the big events every flippin’ year!”

    From the stack: Crogan’s Vengeance

    November 25, 2008

    It’s never easy to blend instruction or a morality play into an adventure narrative (or any kind of narrative), but someone at Oni Press has a knack for finding properties that do that well. James Vining’s First in Space and Scott Chantler’s Northwest Passage both managed to be simultaneously entertaining and educational, and now Chris Schweizer’s Crogan’s Vengeance pulls off the same trick.

    When Eric Crogan gets into some minor, modern-day mischief, his father plucks a story from the family tree to reinforce the importance of making good choices in bad situations. Dad starts with “Catfoot” Crogan, a young sailor who found himself mixed up in piracy and politics in the very early 1700s.

    Catfoot isn’t particularly ambitious, but he has a good skill set for seafaring. Too bad his unstable, sadistic captain takes an immediate loathing to the lad. When pirates set upon the ship, the crew is forced to choose between defending themselves (and almost certainly dying) or throwing in with their attackers. They choose the latter in the first of several junctions where Schweizer pits pragmatism against morality.

    It’s both fortunate and unfortunate that Catfoot is a natural strategist. His plans put him in good stead with his new captain, but they inspire lethal jealousy from other superiors. And while Captain Cane would rather intimidate a ship into surrendering its cargo, he won’t scruple to murder an entire crew if they don’t play along. Cane has his own moral code about piracy, and while Catfoot isn’t persuaded by it, he knows it’s better than the bloodthirsty approach of Cane’s second-in-command, D’Or.

    So what’s a basically decent quasi-pirate to do when Schweizer presents him with an even higher-stakes impasse? The fun is in finding out, and I won’t spoil it, but I will say that Schweizer has a real feel for the tone of morally murky subjects. His assessment of pirate life is frank (though not graphic) but not preachy or overstated. He never romanticizes the pirates’ criminality, but he acknowledges that degrees of depravity that can exist within a criminal subculture. And he argues persuasively that decency can survive in that subculture and emerge as something unique and purposeful.

    It’s a great-looking book. Schweizer’s engaging, energetic cartoons keep the story moving along very nicely. There’s a lot of chatter, which is necessary if Schweizer is to describe the pirate milieu in a useful way, but varied page layouts and good pacing keep the talky bits from stalling the action. In fact, they’re an essential part of the action. Keith Wood’s design for the hard-cover presentation is very handsome, giving off a classic vibe that isn’t stodgy.

    I suspect that it’s the kind of book librarians will love, sturdy, smart and snappy. Better still, Schweizer promises fifteen more looks into the sprawling Crogan clan, from explorers to escape artists to secret agents. (It would be nice if the Crogans had some noteworthy women on the family tree, but you can’t have everything.)

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

    Comics Rx: ahavah22’s entry

    November 25, 2008

    Here’s ahavah22’s prescription for the comics industry:

    “What’s the best way to save the comic book industry, you ask? Take some pills and call me in the morning.

    “Specifically these pills should consist of these fail-safe strategies:

    “1. Take a page from the video and audio entertainment worlds and make graphic novels of all types available free or for a low “rental fee” on the internet, with advertisement revenue going straight to to publishers. Let’s face it; most manga is already available for free on the internet, but only the pirates (if anyone) profits from this practice. In addition, you can’t rent manga or graphic novels easily from online site a la Netflicks. So the smart thing to do would be to set up legitimate legal sources for free or low-cost entertainment media.

    “2. advertise more! I honestly think most people’s ignorance about the literary, entertainment and artistic value of modern comics comes from lack of exposure. Now that more varieties of graphic novels are coming out, appropriate advertisement aimed at niche audiences of all different stripes could definitely help with sales. For instance, a realistic manga about a family dealing with their autistic son called With the Light could be advertised to parents and educators of special-needs children. I personally lent it to a special education teacher I know who normally has no interest in graphic novels, and she loved it!

    “3. Make the government (and, therefore, all tax paying citizens) pay for it! I currently feed most of my manga diet via my public library, and am always surprised when I enter a library that lacks a graphic novel section. Yes, some of our poor underprivileged youth are live near libraries that lack a product that will keep them coming back for more. More graphic novels available in public libraries= more traffic within these libraries by irresponsible youth= more revenue for the libraries with late and lost book fees! Let’s educate our local politicians and librarians on the benefits of a large, diverse graphic novel section, and everybody wins!

    “Well, that’s my $0.2 on how to save and revive the comics industry.”

    Comics Rx: Jamie Coville’s entry

    November 24, 2008

    Here’s Jamie Coville’s prescription for the comics industry:

    “Often we are trying to bring non-readers into the comic industry. Either by getting them into a comic book store or hoping they visit the graphic novel section of the bookstore. This is extremely difficult and it typically takes a media event to do this. Buffy Season 8, Captain America dies, Obama and McCain bio-comics. This is great and more of the same should occur.

    “I think the opposite also needs to be done. We need to bring the comic industry to non-readers. Now more than ever as traditional outlets begin to feel the pinch. Putting GNs into bookstores has helped publishers by giving them an additional revue stream. I think we need to find more places to put comics, and use formats that fit those delivery systems. Traditional comics wouldn’t work in bookstores and while I love GNs and read them almost exclusively, a different format would likely be needed in different markets.

    “One avenue I’m really surprised no company has taken advantage of is breakfast cereal. Don’t tell me Spider-Man Sugar Pops or whatever wouldn’t sell to kids. Especially if there were a Spider-Man comic book inside as a gift, with an ad for a subscription and say the next issue in cereal boxes 1 or 2 months later. The same could be done for Naruto and any other character that appeals to kids (Bone, etc..). If something like this could be worked out it would be a great way to reach children.”

    We have winners!

    November 24, 2008

    Nineteen people entered my Black Jack Preventative Medicine Giveaway to vie for six prize packages. I used the highly scientific approach of assigning each entry a number, writing them down on small pieces of paper, putting them in a cereal bowl, averting my eyes, and picking winner at random. I drew the Grand Prize winner first so everyone would have an equal shot at the deluxe editions.

    The Grand Prize of deluxe hardcover editions goes to:

  • Jamie Coville!
  • The five soft-cover prize packages go to:

  • Rob McMonigal!
  • Francene Lewis!
  • Matthew J. Brady!
  • Johanna Draper Carlson!
  • ahavah22!
  • Thanks to everyone who entered, and watch this week for all entrants’ prescriptions for the comics industry.