Elsewhere in 2009

December 30, 2009

This isn’t really a “Best of 2009” list, as I don’t feel like I read enough comics from places other than Japan to make that kind of list with a sufficient degree of authority, but I didn’t want to neglect books that I really enjoyed this year. I’m not going to say that all of these books are equally entertaining or good in the same ways; I’m not shooting for an equivalent level of quality. I’m just saying that these are the books that lingered in my memory and that I’ll return to again in the future. I’ll subdivide the books into “New Stuff” and “Continuing Stuff.”

New Stuff:

The Adventures of Blanche, written and illustrated by Rick Geary, Dark Horse. Comics by Geary are always a cause for celebration, and this collection of stories about a feisty musician traipsing through genre-based dangers was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises.

Asterios Polyp, written and illustrated by David Mazzucchelli, Pantheon. I’m always a little surprised when someone describes this book as technically brilliant but cold. I thought it had a very solid emotional core beyond the astonishing level of craft.

Johnny Hiro, written and illustrated by Fred Chao, AdHouse Books. This book didn’t do nearly as well as it should have in pamphlet form, so let me extend my heartfelt thanks to AdHouse for collecting the existing issues plus unpublished material. It’s simultaneously a winning genre mash-up and a warm, grown-up romance, and it’s a treat.

Masterpiece Comics, written and illustrated by R. Sikoryak, Drawn & Quarterly. What do you get when you combine great works of literature with classics of comic books and strips? In Sikoryak’s case, you get breezy, inspired work that displays great versatility, intelligence, and a sense of fun.

Mijeong, written and illustrated by Byung-jun Byun, NBM. It’s not as good as Run! Bong-Gu, Run!, but this collection of short stories is never short of very, very good and is often brilliant.

My Mommy Is in America and She Met Buffalo Bill, written by Jean Regnaud, illustrated by Émile Bravo, Fanfare/Ponent Mon. Gloriously sad and sharply observed, this book offers one of the freshest looks at childhood and grief you’re ever likely to find.

Nightschool: The Weirn Books, written and illustrated by Svetlana Chamkova, Yen Press. A comic featuring vampires and teenagers that doesn’t make me roll my eyes until they water? What strange magic is this? It’s actually just Chamkova fulfilling her prodigious promise as a graphic storyteller.

Stitches: A Memoir, written and illustrated by David Small, W.W. Norton and Company. Aside from being strikingly drawn, I think this is a beautifully shaped memoir, functioning perfectly as a story in its own right. The fact that the terrible things Small relates actually happened just adds a layer of disquiet.

Underground, written by Jeff Parker, illustrated by Steve Lieber, colored by Ron Chan, Image Comics: There should be more snappy genre comics like this, you know? It’s a smartly executed thriller set in the perilous depths of a cave in the Appalachians.

Continuing Stuff:

Aya: The Secrets Come Out, written by Marguerite Abouet, illustrated by Clément Oubrerie, Drawn & Quarterly. I was briefly afraid that this was the final volume of this wistful, multigeneration soap opera about life in the Ivory Coast in the 1970s. Fortunately, there seem to be at least two more volumes still to come of Aya and her unmanageable friends and family.

Empowered, written and illustrated by Adam Warren, Dark Horse. I’m so glad that Dark Horse released a pamphlet chapter of this ongoing series of graphic novels, as that might help to build the audience it deserves. Smutty and sweet in equal measure, it’s as sharp a parody of super-heroics as you’re ever likely to find.

Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip, written and illustrated by Tove Jansson, Drawn & Quarterly. This is a golden age of reprints of quality comic strips, and this is my absolute favorite of the bunch.

Salt Water Taffy, written and illustrated by Matthew Loux, Oni Press. Two brothers embrace the weird on a seaside vacation. This is my go-to all-ages recommendation, by which I mean I’m as strident in suggesting adults buy it as I am in suggesting that kids will like it.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the Universe, written and illustrated by Bryan Lee O’Malley, Oni Press. As long as this book is releasing new volumes, it will be on any list of this nature that I write.

Yôkaiden, written and illustrated by Nina Matsumoto, Del Rey. This witty fantasy-adventure got even better with the second volume. Now we have to wait for the third.

The Shôjo-Sunjeong Alphabet: L

December 30, 2009

“L” is for…

And while it isn’t technically shôjo, I don’t like to imagine a world where anyone who’s read this book doesn’t love it…

Also, there are roughly one billion yaoi titles that start with the word “Love.” I leave it to you to tell me which are the best.

What are some of your favorite shôjo and sunjeong titles that start with the letter “L”?

From the stack: Yôkaiden vol. 2

December 30, 2009

“I’ll never understand you optimists,” mutters sentient paper lantern Lumi in the second volume of Nina Matsumoto’s Yôkaiden (Del Rey). “Sure you will!” beams protagonist Hamachi. I think that’s a great joke, sunny and a little sneaky, and it captures just what I like so much about this book.

Hamachi and Lumi are making their way through the dimension of yôkai, spirit creatures that range from mischievous to menacing. Hamachi is searching for a water demon he believes murdered his grandmother, and Lumi is along for the ride. This time around, Hamachi turns to a ninetails, a venerable fox demon, for information and, as you might expect, the ninetails wants a little something in return. Three somethings, in fact.

Simple soul Hamachi takes Christina, the 999-year-old yôkai, at face value, and why wouldn’t he? She’s prosperous, huge, warmly maternal, and only sly around the edges. Lumi’s certain she has a hidden agenda, and of course she does. Yôkaiden doesn’t run on surprising twists but on witty embellishments of familiar material. You can always be reasonably certain that Hamachi’s sunny disposition and cup-half-full approach will see him through, but you don’t know exactly how. That’s the charm.

Well, that’s part of the charm. There are also the fresh variations on classic yôkai, the nervy insertion of urban legends of more recent vintage, excerpts from Inukai Mizuki’s “Field Guide to Yôkai,” sharp dialogue, and vivid characters, human and otherwise. There are references aplenty, both in the text and the art.

Matsumoto seems to be having particular fun with yôkai hunter Zaigô, who has followed Hamachi to the yôkai dimension to bring the boy safely home. A couple of steps behind Hamachi, Zaigô has his own misadventures, and Matsumoto frames him in endearingly familiar ways, calling to mind books like Lone Wolf and Cub to Vagabond. Those are just flashes, of course, and the bulk of the book bears Matsumoto’s quirky visual style – energetic, endearing, and just the right degree of gruesome.

It’s always nice to see a creator with a real facility for wit, and Matsumoto’s manifests itself in words and pictures. There are plenty of comics about yôkai, and many of them are very good. Bright, breezy Yôkaiden is right up there with the best of them.

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

From the stack: Nightschool vol. 2

December 29, 2009

Yen Press has been doing well in terms of series that sell well and by catching attention with adaptations of popular properties. For my money, they also made one of their smartest choices was hiring Svetlana Chmakova to create a new series, Nightschool, for their magazine, Yen Plus. It’s as poised a supernatural adventure as you’re likely to find on the manga shelves.

What immediately strikes me about the series is how sure-footed it is. Chmakova has assembled a crowded cast and a host of subplots, but nothing feels extraneous or self-indulgent. It’s indicative of just how memorable her characters are that I never felt the need to flip back through the first volume and remind myself of any particular details or developments while reading the second. She doesn’t burden the book with exposition or reminders, and things move at a clip, but Chmakova doesn’t leave readers behind in the process.

In spite of the crowd and the bustle, Chmakova has also managed to keep her protagonist front and center, at least in terms of reader perception. Alex, a young witch searching for her missing sister, is just right. She’s smart, resourceful and funny, and she’s also a little frightening. The second volume doesn’t go much further to revealing what her dark secret might be, but it reinforces just how formidable Alex is. As a nice bonus, Alex is such a force to reckon with because she’s worked hard to become so.

She’s not so formidable that she doesn’t seem at risk, though. Chmakova has arrayed a variety of forces in opposition to Alex, from snotty, secretive classmates to rival supernatural clans to self-appointed anti-monster vigilantes. Add that to the search for her missing sister and you have a young woman with a very full plate. Alex’s agenda doesn’t keep her from engaging with the world around her, though; there are some terrific, revealing scenes of Alex’s enrollment in the school where her sister taught that are sprinkled with comedy and menace, along with the introduction of even more new characters.

It’s just a very entertaining book, certainly for its skillful execution and partly for the pleasure of watching Chamkova juggle. Nightschool is drawn very well, and the dialogue is snappy, but the spectacle of Chamkova piling on this and that without ever letting things crush under the weight is as engaging as the story and presentation.

Please stand by

December 27, 2009

I forgot to mention it earlier this week, but Flipped will be on a brief hiatus during The Comics Reporter’s Holiday Interview series. I’m very flattered that Tom Spurgeon has provided a home for the columns, and I was also flattered that he asked me to participate in the series. It’s here, a lengthy chat on the craziest Osamu Tezuka manga I’ve read to date.

License request day: Rescues

December 25, 2009

We’ll take a break from the usual license request agenda today. I’ve been trying to think of something seasonal to highlight today. Unfortunately, I’ve already asked for Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men, so I can’t go with the whole “reason for the season” angle. While it doesn’t feature a virgin birth, reliable sources inform me that Makoto Kobayashi’s Chichonmanchi does launch with a virgin death, but I try to cap this blog at PG-13, so I’ll hold off on that for now.

But it is the time of year when many of us turn our thoughts to the neglected and abandoned. So what better way to mark this time of year than to ask for the rescue of three terrific titles that have yet to see their entire runs printed in English?

In fairness, Makoto Kobayashi’s Club 9 has been published in English in its entirety in Dark Horse’s defunct Super Manga Blast, but it hasn’t been collected in its entirety. It’s a sweet, hilarious tale of a country girl who goes to work in a big-city host club. Sophisticated slapstick is difficult to achieve, and this is one of the finest success stories I can conjure. Three of the five volumes of the series are still available from Dark Horse, and I suppose I could try and track down all the back issues of Super Manga Blast, but I gave up back-issue bins when I gave up super-hero comics.

Is there a title that’s inspired more seemingly fruitless yearning than Even a Monkey Can Drawn Manga by Koji Aihara and Kentaro Takekuma? Viz serialized some of it in its defunct Pulp magazine and published one volume, but there are two more out there, shivering and hungry in some sad corner of manga limbo. Is that a just fate for this hilarious parody of instruction manuals and the manga industry as a whole? Do those of us who have read and loved the first volume deserve to be left hanging like this when we yearn to see what heights of satire and questionable taste Aihara and Takekuma reach in later chapters? That sounds pretty Grinch-y to me.

Once upon a time, before Taiyo Matsumoto’s Tekkonkinkreet won an Eisner and GoGo Monster blew many of our minds, Viz tried to publish a little series called No. 5. The two volumes Viz published tanked rather spectacularly, but this was before everyone recognized that Matsumoto is a genius, right? Times have changed, haven’t they? And while releasing Matsumoto may not exactly be printing money, perhaps it’s time to give the rest of the eight-volume series? This was also before Viz had its excellent SigIKKI initiative, and guess where No. 5 was originally serialized? That’s right: IKKI magazine. Perhaps the time is right to at least try and publish it online to see if there’s more of an audience today than there was in 2002?

While I won’t repeat myself on the subject, I’ll just throw out a reminder that it’s rather tragic that we only ever got two volumes of Atsushi Kaneko’s Bambi and Her Pink Gun from Digital Manga. What rescues are on your wish list?

From the stack: The Summit of the Gods vol. 1

December 24, 2009

The overwhelming impression I took away from the first volume of The Summit of the Gods (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) is of maleness. I’m not talking about machismo or swagger, which would be tiresome, but of certain qualities that, fairly or not, are often assigned to a Y chromosome. Author Yumemakura Baku and illustrator Jiro Taniguchi aren’t so much making an argument for that kind of assignment as simply presenting it as a given.

It’s about mountain climbers living and dead and the impulses that drive them to risk everything in pursuit of peaks. I will readily confess that those impulses are utterly beyond my comprehension. I enjoy the outdoors, I really do, but when I’ve been in a magnificent natural setting and seen occupied sleeping bags dangling from the face of a cliff, my powers of empathy fail completely. It’s an activity that combines perilous heights, continuous effort and self-imposed discomfort, none of which track with my concept of recreation.

This notion of conquering something that dwarfs oneself is one I ascribe primarily to heterosexual males, which I know is neither fair nor accurate. I’ve known plenty of women who consider a vacation squandered if it doesn’t include the risk of injury and exposure and the onus of carrying out their own waste, but “Because it’s there” will always be the original domain of the straight guy to me. Nothing in Summit of the Gods shakes this association, but nothing in it makes me roll my eyes at the characters that embrace the “Because it’s there” mentality.

Part of this is because Baku and Taniguchi resolutely establish mountaineering as a subculture. The true believers, the ones who live for the peaks, are not normal people. Habu, the climber who consumes the bulk of the creators’ attention, is almost afflicted with a kind of cliff-face Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s so fixated on the idea of climbing peaks that others haven’t or doing so in ways they haven’t that there’s no room for anything else. He quits jobs if they interfere with his climbing, and he alienates other climbers with his bluntness and obsession. Habu is intuitive and gifted, but he’s reckless and he dismisses the contributions of his partners. It’s telling that you can’t quite figure out which quality rankles his fellow mountaineers more, the danger or the snubbing.

It’s also telling that Habu becomes the object of fixation of another character. Years after Habu’s greatest accomplishments in the sport, climber-photographer Fukamachi crosses paths with Habu in Kathmandu. Fukamachi has just survived an expedition to Mount Everest that ended badly, and he encounters Habu when both are pursuing a camera Fukamachi believes belonged to George Mallory, who vanished off the mountain in 1924 during his third attempt to reach its peak. As much as Fukamachi would like to trace the provenance of the camera, he’s equally fascinated with Habu’s career as a climber and what led him to a life of obscurity in Nepal.

It’s difficult to characterize Fukamachi’s fascination with Habu. It’s neither clinical nor worshipful, and it isn’t confined to Habu’s link to the camera. There’s no homoerotic charge to it, or even envy of an alpha male. Habu doesn’t inspire unvarnished admiration; his joy in climbing is difficult to share as it’s so specific and fierce. He’s even pathetic in some ways. While the motivations of Fukamachi’s interest in Habu aren’t clear, the interest itself is credible because it mirrors the ways readers are probably engaged in Habu’s story, even as that engagement mirrors Habu’s fascination with mountains. Maybe Fukamachi wants to discover Habu’s secrets for the same reasons Habu wanted to conquer mountains – because they’re formidable and dangerous and just plain there. It’s an intriguing bit of parallel structure.

Taniguchi is the ideal illustrator for this kind of material that has both epic scale and intimacy. If the crux of your story is the estimation of landscapes and people, it behooves you to find an artist that can capture the menace and nuance of both, and a writer is unlikely to find anyone better at that than Taniguchi. (As absent as women are from the narrative, it’s nice to read in a text piece that a woman made the collaboration possible, playing matchmaker for Baku and Taniguchi.) Taniguchi is probably the foremost renderer of the middle-aged man that I can think of. They wear their experiences, which is even more evident in a story like this that tracks Habu through the years. Just watching the ways that Habu ages is fascinating. And as far as landscapes and the physicality they demand of puny humans, do I even need to bother praising Taniguchi on that front? Icy cliff faces, Nepalese back alleys, Tokyo urbanity, leafy mountain trails… there’s no setting Taniguchi can’t conquer.

The Summit of the Gods is involving on its own terms as a story of individual evolution and rigorous adventure. It’s more interesting to me in the unobtrusive but pervasive way I read it as being gendered, like a French noun. There’s no value judgment in my observation of that gendering, and I don’t believe the creators were trying to make one about the virtues of a kind of masculine spirit of conquest, but it is a fascinating characterization of a subculture that seems to have born of that kind of maleness. It’s just there.

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

Highs and lows

December 24, 2009

Over at About.Com, Deb Aoki surveys a lot of the year-end lists of best graphic novels to assemble a list of the most acclaimed manga of 2009. Every title on there is on my list of Eisner-worthy books, which means I’m either a cutting-edge taste-maker or that I’m unpardonably middlebrow. It could mean both, who can say? One other conclusion one can draw is that Viz had a really great year in terms of publishing quality manga.

December need not be all rainbows and sunshine and fond looks back, though. Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey inducts some works into her Manga Hall of Shame. This leads Kurt (Yen Press) Hassler to mount a forceful but cordial defense of one of Yen’s inductees.

The Shôjo-Sunjeong Alphabet: K

December 23, 2009

“K” is for…

And a shônen-ai supplement…

What are some of your favorite shôjo and sunjeong titles that start with the letter “K”?

Upcoming 12/23/2009

December 22, 2009

I’m sure there’s a lot to delight many people on this week’s ComicList, but I find myself underwhelmed and a little bit relieved by that. My “to read” pile is sufficiently tall to get me through the upcoming holiday, so taking a break from compounding the problem is welcome.

There is one book of particular note this week, though I already own all of the comics collected in it: Evil Twin Comics releases More Than Complete Action Philosophers, written by Fred Van Lente and illustrated by Ryan Dunlavey. Van Lente and Dunlavey take a wild and wooly approach to educating about the lives and belief systems of some of history’s great philosophers, and the results are always lively and informative. I have a particular nostalgia for this title, as I discovered it at my first visit to a Small Press Expo and got my copies signed by Van Lente and Dunlavey. (“Keep thinking!”) If you enjoyed R. Sikoryak’s marvelous Masterpiece Comics (Drawn & Quarterly), then this would be an excellent piece of follow-up reading.

If you want something to read right now, here are some links:

  • Kate Dacey runs through the shipping list and tracks some of the recent Best Manga of 2009 lists that are out there. The most recent example is Deb Aoki’s excellent list of Best Continuing Manga of 2009.
  • Writing for CTV News, Reed Stevenson takes a look at Europe’s manga market. Any article that starts with a Van Gogh anecdote and uses Paul Gravett as a source is worth a look.
  • Over at The Comics Journal, Shaenon K. Garrity weighs in on the state of manga translation and the question of authenticity versus readability: “The thing is, you can’t have both.” Let it be known that I favor readability.