From the stack: Johnny Hiro

July 23, 2009

For me, the cake of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books) is the relationship between the titular protagonist and his fetching girlfriend, Mayumi. As a bonus, Chao slathers plenty of icing on the cake.

untitledJohnny and Mayumi are young, in love, and living in New York City. That means they work too hard, live in a kind of crappy apartment, and never seem to have enough money at the end of the month. But they have each other and all of the affection, support and loyalty one could hope for; they also have cats. Those things go a long way to compensate for the overworked, underpaid grind.

They also have distractions. Johnny is sort of a mayhem magnet. Simple errands can thrust him into the thick of a swarm of knife-wielding kitchen ninjas. A night at the opera can end at sword-point, surrounded by laid-off IT guys who’ve taken up the way of the samurai to avenge their failed dot-com. Peaceful slumber can be disturbed by a hauntingly familiar, dauntingly large lizard that’s eye-level with their walk-up.

Other similarities to Spider-Man aside – he’s got the beautiful girlfriend, the Manhattan setting, and the struggling 20-something thing down – Johnny isn’t exceptional or adventuresome. He’s tenacious, though, and he’s developed a resigned acceptance to the nuttiness. (He’s a little more prone to being starstruck, though, as evidenced by the eclectic celebrity cameos Chao throws into the mix.) I’m crazy about Mayumi; as Chao draws her, she’s lovely in the way real people are lovely as opposed to more conventional comic-book arm candy.

So basically, what we’re dealing with here is a loving, functional couple dealing with the occasional outburst of genre mash-up, based on whatever Chao pulls out of the pop-culture junk drawer. The results are generally terrifically entertaining, and I don’t think there are nearly enough loving, functional couples at the center of popular entertainments. It doesn’t always work perfectly; some of Chao’s pet pop culture isn’t always mine, and some of the celebrity cameos end up feeling a little strained. Overall, though, it’s crisp, warm-hearted, smart entertainment.

The book runs on affection – Johnny and Mayumi’s affection for each other, Chao’s affection for New York, and Chao’s affection for the sci-fi and fantasy tropes he folds into his stories. I’m still surprised (and disappointed) that this book didn’t survive in pamphlet form, but I’m thrilled that Chao and AdHouse provided a handsome collection of the published and unpublished issues of what was supposed to be a six-issue series.

(I periodically nominate something I’ve read for the Young Adult Library Services Association’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens list, and I did that with Johnny Hiro. Anyone can nominate a title here, provided they aren’t nominating their own work or something published by their employer.)


From the stack: Dogs Prelude Vol. 0

July 22, 2009

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I suspect that Shirow Miwa is as much of a fan of Cowboy Bebop as I am. Miwa’s Dogs Prelude Vol. 0 shares a lot of that anime’s best qualities – vivid characters, an engaging look, and a lightness of touch that keeps the noir elements from going overboard. If anything, Miwa does a slightly better job on that last front.

dogs0That isn’t to suggest that Miwa’s milieu is a pleasant one. The book’s linked short stories are set in a futuristic dystopia full of sometimes terrible people doing what they need to do to get by. Like all good noir casts, the characters all have dark and painful secrets to tote around as they navigate these murky waters. Fortunately, Miwa doesn’t seem inclined to dwell. He doesn’t exactly minimize the suffering on display, but he doesn’t put it on a pedestal either.

I felt for Mihai, the aged killer looking for a quieter dotage. I enjoyed laughing at the misfortunes of Badou, the one-eyed snoop who can’t seem to make it through a day without inspiring gun-toting thugs to chase him down. Resilient, rough-trade Heine’s attempts to rescue an innocent prostitute offered a nice mix of mayhem and sentiment.

dogsbI was largely unmoved by the tale of Naoto, the young girl raised to be a killer by the man she believes murdered her parents. It’s in that segment that Miwa comes closest to flat, straight-faced noir, and while it’s executed well, it lacks the dollops of quirky, what-the-hell humor that characterize the rest of the book.

The most consistent and engaging quality of the book comes from Miwa’s illustrations. He’s prodigiously gifted with action sequences and character design, and it’s in drawing that his light touch really shines. He favors thin, elegant line work instead of the thick marker of despair so many cartoonists bust out when crafting a noir tale. Miwa isn’t afraid to go over the top with both violence and comedy, but it’s all anchored with subdued, dilapidated settings that don’t feel ostentatiously dystopian and, of course, the well-written, likeable cast. The look of the book is sleek, stylish, and frequently silly; it’s a great mix.

As the rather complicated title indicates, this volume of Dogs serves as a precursor to the evidently more structured ongoing series that launches in August. I’ll definitely check in if only to bask in Miwa’s gorgeous drawings, and I’m guessing I’ll stay for the quirky characters and cleverly conceived scenarios.


Birthday Book: Doonesbury

July 21, 2009

mayjuneThe Comics Reporter notes that today is the 61st birthday of Garry Trudeau, creator of the essential, still-vibrant Doonesbury. I don’t talk about comic strips as much as I probably should, but I’ve loved them longer than I’ve loved comic books, and Doonesbury is one of my all-time favorites.

It’s hard to point to a specific Doonesbury collection, because all of them have something significant to recommend them. I’m disappointed to see how much of the Doonesbury catalog seems to be out of print. I remember a visit to my older sister’s house during my teen-aged years when I saw a neat row of slim Doonesbury paperbacks like Ask for May, Settle for June, As the Kid Goes for Broke, Do All Birders Have Bedroom Eyes, Dear? and lots of others.

The strip has always struck just the right blend of topical satire and ongoing, multi-generational soap opera for me. Trudeau can deal with challenging subjects – war, AIDS, divorce, unemployment, you name it – with grade, humor, and a wonderfully consistent tone. There’s really no such thing as a “very special Doonesbury.” They’re all pretty much special because of the affection and intelligence Trudeau applies, regardless of specific subject matter.

As I said, it’s said to me that there doesn’t seem to be a big, hulking Doonesbury collection that spans the strip’s history. The closest to that seems to be the Flashbacks: Twenty-Five Years of Doonesbury (Andres and McMeel), but it’s 15 years old and only 331 pages, so I’m not sure how comprehensive it can be. The publisher also lists it as “out of stock.” Why are some these great, ambitious strips so intermittently available in collected form?


Upcoming 7/22/2009

July 21, 2009

The books on this week’s shipping list may not appear on any best-seller rosters, but they certainly top the Comics That Delight David List. And though Viz is clearly trying to leave me impoverished with periodic front-loading from its Signature line, I can’t help but be happy at so many wonderful arrivals.

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I mean, just look at that. Who couldn’t be happy?

Okay, technically, Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea is not on Diamond’s shipping list for the week, but it’s on the “what’s arriving” list at my local shop, so that’s all that really matters to me. You can read an extremely generous sample of this marvelous title at Viz’s SIGIKKI site. It’s an alluring combination of fantasy and environmentalism, which seems to be Igarashi’s stock in trade. Play to your prodigious strengths, I say.

The fish may be disappearing in Children of the Sea, but they’re popping up on tables all over the place in the latest volume of Oishinbo: Fish, Sushi and Sashimi, written by Tetsu Kariya and illustrated by Akira Hanasaki. If you haven’t treated yourself to a book from this series yet, here’s the short version: a know-it-all young journalist is working on an “Ultimate Menu” for his newspaper, and his blowhard father is working on a “Supreme Menu” for a competitor. Father and son detest each other, and I honestly can’t blame either of them, but their over-the-top dysfunction is often a lot of fun, and the food facts are absolutely fascinating.

The fourth volume of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto arrives, continuing Urasawa’s extrapolation on a classic Astro Boy story by manga grandmaster Osamu Tezuka. It’s a rich suspense story with great characters, terrific art, and heartbreaking, slightly creepy child robots. What more could you want?

It wasn’t nominated for this year’s Eisner for Best U.S. Edition of International Material – Japan, which is unfortunate, but if Takehiko Inoue’s wheelchair-basketball opus Real isn’t nominated next year, it may actually qualify as a scandal, because the two volumes that have come out so far this year have taken the series from excellent to transcendent, and I have no reason to expect that the fifth volume will buck that trend in any way. I tend to refrain from doing full reviews on new volumes of ongoing series unless something changes drastically, but I’ve decided to loosen up on that policy with Real, because it’s simply one of the best ongoing series on the shelves, and it’s rather neglected.


What happens in Vegas…

July 20, 2009

… has nothing to do with what’s about to happen in San Diego at the 2009 Comic-Con International, except for the fact that I might actually go if it were happening in Vegas. I love comics, I really do, and there are some great-sounding panels and activities (which I cherry pick in this week’s Flipped), but I can’t see taking a plane and everything that entails just for a comics convention. I’m going to SPX this year, but that’s an easy and pleasant drive for me to one of my favorite metropolitan areas. If CCI moved to Vegas, I could combine it with a bunch of other destinations that I really love, like Zion National Park in southern Utah and… well… Vegas. (And yes, I know that exhibitors are concerned that their potential convention customers would be waylaid by shiny, jingly slot machines and the like and not spend anything on comics. That’s a perfectly reasonable concern, but as usual, I’m coming at this from an entirely selfish perspective.)

Update: Speaking of cons, there’s a terrific roundtable on girls and fandom up at Robot 6.

Elsewhere at The Comics Reporter, Tom points to this article about someone snatching up domain names of people, including an emerging queer performer, to post virulently anti-gay evangelical comics. (I know they aren’t just anti-gay, but that’s what initially got my hackles up.) Nothing communicates a heartfelt desire to share one’s faith like ambushing people expecting something completely different while robbing an artist of a potential venue to promote his or her work.


Sing… sing a song…

July 20, 2009

clovercoverI can’t bring myself to skim when I’m reading for pleasure. If the book is awful enough, I’ll abandon it entirely, but if it doesn’t hit that threshold, I feel compelled to read every word. This can be a problem. It certainly was when I was reading CLAMP’s Clover (Dark Horse). The book is beautifully drawn, economically plotted, often moving, and includes some of the worst poetry I’ve ever read. It includes that awful poetry dozens of times, and, masochistic completist that I am, I felt obliged to read them every time.

“a bird in a gilded cage,
a bird bereft of flight,
a bird that cannot cry,
a bird all by itself”

cloverblackThese are the lyrics of one of the lynchpin characters, a chanteuse whose untimely death did not, unfortunately, take her songs with her. They’re portrayed as so moving that even isolated psychics can be stricken by their beauty, but I was reminded of the reject pile from my high-school literary magazine.

“Letting me forget with your voice and your touch;
Breaking off the chains that bind my heart and feet”

Now I’m not going to say that my taste in lyrics is impeccable. Sure, I think Stephen Sondheim is a god, but I also liked Air Supply back in the day. But I could hear Air Supply’s awful, awful lyrics being sung, backed by lushly cheesy orchestrations with achingly sincere vocals. In Clover, I have nothing but the words over and over again. I wish there was an advanced version of that greeting-card technology that would allow me to actually hear a song rather than just read its maudlin lyrics. While Dark Horse has done a beautiful and generous job producing this collection, it doesn’t sing when you open it.

cloverwhiteWell, okay, it kind of sings when you open it, because the illustrations are very, very beautiful. The four members of CLAMP trade duties, and Clover was drawn by Mokona with assistance from Tsubaki Nekoi and Satsuki Igarashi, with story by Nanase Ohkawa. What’s most striking to me is the use of negative space. Backgrounds are rather scant; panels float on fields of white and black, creating a precision of emotional effect. It also highlights the elegance, verging on sensuality, of the juxtaposition of the panels.

Lyrics aside, it’s got a story that’s economical and moving, as I said earlier. It’s about immensely powerful psychics identified by the government for possible intelligence and military use who turned out to be a little too powerful for that government’s comfort. The psychics try to find comfort and peace within the restrictions of their daily lives, and some are more successful than others. The collection is less a beginning-to-end narrative than a timeline-jumping look at a group of interconnected characters, a core event, and the things that led up to it. There are some nicely understated moments and many lushly angst-y ones.

“Now, come close to me,
I’ll sing an endless song,
God, please tell me,
Redder than red, the truest love.”

But, god, those lyrics.

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License Request Day: What Did You Eat Yesterday?

July 17, 2009

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cover1Many may feel that I’m squandering this week’s license request on a sure thing. There are few manga-ka who have had as much of their work translated into English as Fumi Yoshinaga, so the licensing of her current food-fixated comedy, What Did You Eat Yesterday?, seems like a given. But you know what? I like saying nice things about Fumi Yoshinaga, so you’ll just have to put up with it.

What Did You Eat Yesterday? is being serialized in Kodansha’s Morning magazine, a font of some of some of the best manga currently available in English and a reliable resource for wish-list composition (just slightly less reliable than Kodansha’s Afternoon). It’s about a gay couple’s life as viewed through the prism of what they eat. One’s a lawyer who’s a gourmet cook; the other is a hairdresser who, if I know Yoshinaga, probably can’t make toast. There’s usually a disparity of culinary ability in her couples. Two volumes have been published so far, which seems kind of slim, but if English-reading Yoshinaga fans have demonstrated anything, it’s their willingness to wait.

cover2Quite a bit of time elapsed between publication of the third and fourth volumes of Yoshinaga’s charming high-school comedy, Flower of Life (DMP). While fans would rather have had the concluding volume sooner than later, the results of this poll over at The Manga Critic indicate a healthy level of regard, tardy or not. Even more persuasive are the trends of this Manga Critic poll on hotly anticipated titles for the second half of 2009; Yoshinaga’s Ôoku (Viz) is right up there in the lead.

As anyone who’s read Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery (DMP) knows, the results are almost always magical when she turns her attention to food. (And food never seems to be too far from her mind.) So whoever delivers this book to English-reading audiences will be regarded warmly and highly by lots and lots of people. If Kodansha ever gets its stateside operation up and running, it would be an outstanding debut title.