Pod people

May 31, 2010

I don’t know if I’ll ever actually enjoy the thought of my voice being recorded to subsequently be shared online, but I do enjoy talking about great manga with smart people. Ed Sizemore recorded a Manga Out Loud podcast about Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra… (Vertical), subject of the latest Manga Moveable Feast.

I’m weirdly excited about the upcoming Manhwa Moveable Feast, mostly because I really did not like those Color of… books, and it will be a nice change to come at the subject from a different angle.

License request day: Song of the Wind and the Trees

May 28, 2010

As the current Manga Moveable Feast nears its conclusion, I thought I would consider the unlicensed Keiko Takemiya. It’s widely known that she was likely the first person to professionally publish a boys’-love comic, and yet her available-in-English work is science-fiction shônen. There are admittedly some shônen-ai underpinnings, at least in my view, but what about some unvarnished Takemiya male-on-male romance?

For that, I would love to see her Song of the Wind and the Trees licensed by some hardy publisher. In the current discourse on the manga industries various commercial woes, some have argued that boys’ love and yaoi seem to be relatively immune to the downturn. But this is a 17-volume series that’s over 30 years old, and it’s not clear to me that the yaoi audience is particularly interested in classic material. I’m not saying they aren’t; I’m just saying that I don’t know if they are.

It would take a publisher that’s demonstrated a commitment to archiving classic comics, which would point at Fantagraphics. Since that publisher’s manga imprint is being helmed by shôjo manga scholar Matt Thorn, and since Thorn is a colleague of Takemiya’s in the Faculty of Manga at Kyoto Seika University, the pairing seems even more apt. Also, Song of the Wind and Trees was originally published by Shogakukan, the publisher that’s partnered with Fantagraphics to a degree. Still, 17 volumes of 30-year-old manga is a risky proposition.

So what’s it about? Here’s a bit of what Wikipedia has to say:

“Serge Battour is the son of a wealthy man and a Roma woman. Taking place in the late 19th century, the story is a recollection of his memories of Gilbert Cocteau at Laconblade Academy in Provene, France. The story has themes of class prejudice, racism, homophobia, homosexuality, incest, pedophilia, rape, prostitution, and drug abuse.”

That entry also notes that Takemiya refused to allow it to be published until she was promised that it would be run uncensored. It was, and it won awards, and it’s widely considered one of the first major works of shônen-ai to be published professionally.

Here’s a link to Shogakukan’s nine-volume release of the series. It might be more reasonable to ask someone to publish Takemiya’s much shorter In the Sunroom to help fulfill the need for a representation of her boys’-love work, but why not dream big?


May 26, 2010

When Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra… (Vertical) was first released in English, I remember there being one of those mildly contentious discussions about branding. The publisher seemed to be marketing it as shôjo (comics for girls), which led to a prompt reminder that the series had originally run in a shônen (comics for boys) magazine, Asahi Sonorama’s Gekkan Manga Shônen. While Takemiya is undeniably one of the founders of modern shôjo, the original target demographic for To Terra… was undeniably shônen.

The original demographic of To Terra… presents some interesting topics of discussion. While a number of women work in shônen, I strongly suspect that wasn’t the case back in the 1970s. This adds another aspect of Takemiya’s status as a trailblazer. She was also one of the very first creators of shônen-ai, manga that focuses on romantic attachments between two men. I find Takemiya’s shônen-ai inclinations very much in evidence in To Terra…, a flavoring that feels wonderfully transgressive in retrospect.

Now, I’m not going to pretend to know exactly what the regular readers of Gekkan Manga Shônen might have expected when they cracked open a new issue of the magazine. It was also home to Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, so one might reasonably guess that it trafficked in ambitious science fiction and fantasy. But back then, was it commonplace for shônen fans to see so many boys making eyes at each other?

It is now, of course, or at the very least there’s an open invitation for some fans to overlay whatever kind of sexual tension they like on protagonists and their allies and rivals of the same sex. The fujoshi phenomenon of imagining what non-canonical pairings has gone from subversive to seemingly inherent in manga marketing, at least in some imprints. (It’s hard to believe anyone at Square Enix thought the audience for Yana Toboso’s Black Butler was exclusively composed of young male fans of ass-kicking domestics. Interestingly enough, Square Enix published the reprint of To Terra…)

It’s always dangerous to assume intent on the part of a creator. To Terra… is clearly about yearning, for home, for family, for connection. Perhaps that pervasive wave of need is leading me to project more personal yearnings onto the characters. But what I know of Takemiya’s creative history and what I see on the page leads me to conclude that I’m not making such a big leap.

It’s easy to view Jomy Marcus Shin, leader of the telepathic rebels who long to take their place in Terran society, and Keith Anyan, the ultimate product of humanity’s repressive methods of breeding and upbringing, as (forgive the pun) star-crossed lovers. There’s a connection between them that transcends their individual symbolism, and there’s a degree of tragedy that doesn’t seem confined to their representation of warring generations. I believe that Takemiya is calculatedly leading the reader to wonder what might have been between these two if they’d been allowed to make their own choices, if they hadn’t been burdened by racial, spatial destiny.

And let’s face it. Keith is kind of a man whore. Wherever he goes, he seems to draw the hypnotized eyes of frailer male figures. I can’t be alone in seeing the just-kiss-already tension between Keith and Seki Ray Shiroe, the brash young man who rejects cultural norms even as he excels in the point-by-point qualities that society seeks to foster. Seki seems obsessed with Keith beyond his standing as a rival; their encounters are deliciously charged with a desire to transgress, if you know what I mean.

Also among Keith’s conquests is Makka, a closet Mu, if you will, who demonstrates a self-destructive level of loyalty to Keith at the expense of his genetic kin. Keith’s dismissive control of Makka is one of the more unsettling aspects of To Terra… for its cruelty. Keith recognizes Makka’s fascination, and he uses it. He’s moved beyond the cat-and-mouse business with Shiroe to something more functional and more unsettling.

But, of course, the core question is whether or not Keith and Jomy can overcome their respective societal programming to reach some kind of accord. I’m reluctant to spoil the answer to that, but I will just note that To Terra… is a tragedy. And back in the day, shônen-ai, even when cloaked, didn’t offer many happy endings.

I tend to be of the opinion that accurate characterization of a comic’s demographic matters mostly in the way that knowing that allows you to trace the evolution of a those demographics over time. The fact that a noted shôjo creator was able to create a long-form science-fiction epic for a shônen magazine and infuse it with so much shônen-ai tension is a part of the fascination of To Terra… It suggests fluidity and evolution in the medium, and it suggests that the work was both ahead of its time while being very much of its time.

Upcoming 5/26/2010

May 25, 2010

Before I get into this week’s ComicList, I wanted to do some linkblogging.

There are two pieces celebrating the CMX catalog. Over at Mania, a quartet of writers compiles a list of “20 Must Have CMX Manga.” The Good Comics for Kids crew focuses on tween- and teen-friendly titles in “The GC4K Guide to CMX Manga.” Pieces like this are important, as DC has already dismantled its CMX web site, and all links to title information now go to a listing for the second issue of the Brightest Day mini-series. That strikes me as both telling and tastelessly ironic.

Over at The Beat, Rich Johnson takes manga’s pulse in an interesting overview. Johnson was DC’s Vice President of Book Trade Sales Sales during the early days of CMX before helping launch Yen Press for Hachette. Over at Robot 6, Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson examines some of Johnson’s points, finding cause for disagreement. I’m particularly smitten with this passage:

“The graphic novel market boom of the early 2000s was due in part to the fact that publishers started serving the other half of the population. For a long time there were no comics for girls; then suddenly, there were, and the girls bought them. Dismissing their tastes as Rich does (or by complaining about comics being too pink and sparkly) ignores the fact that their money is just as good as any Dark Horse fan’s. Certainly, the opening of the manga market to more literary titles is a welcome development, as is the fact that many indy publishers are now embracing manga. That’s the kind of book I like to read. But the comics market is much bigger than me and my tastes. Girls like to read about schoolgirls with superpowers. You can tell them that’s stupid, or you can publish comics they like (keeping in mind that even genre fans can distinguish between a good comic and a bad one). One of those is a winning business strategy, and one isn’t.”

In the comments, Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi helps demolish the initial argument about the declining demand for comics for girls and the underestimated relevance of piracy with some page-view figures from scan sites. Those two birds never stood a chance!

Want some manga for grown-ups? Viz provides with the eighth volume of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, which is my favorite Urasawa title to be released in English so far. It feels like it should be able to save a category, you know?

In the mood for something in the classic vein? Vertical offers the 11th volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack.

Looking for a Japanese take on the comic strip? Tokyopop delivers the first volume of Kenji Sonishi’s Neko Ramen, about a cat who works in a noodle shop.

Wondering if Del Rey is still licensing manga? Well, there’s the debut of Fairy Navigator Runa, written by Miyoko Ikeda and illustrated by Michiyo Kikuta. It originally ran in Kodansha’s Nakayoshi shôjo magazine and is about one of those pesky magical girls.

I might not be finished with my Marvel spite purchases. After seeing some preview pages from the first issue of Secret Avengers, written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Mike Deodato, I have to say that the idea of the Black Widow and Valkyrie fighting side by side is very much to my theoretical taste, as I’ve always liked those two heroines a lot. I do think someone needs to get Deodato a subscription to Vogue as quickly as possible, as he’s been drawing the same “sexy evening dress” since before Heroes Reborn.

Oh, and speaking of Marvel purchases, non-spite category, I entirely agree with this review of the second issue of Girl Comics, particularly for the nice things said about the contributions by Faith Erin Hicks and Colleen Coover. On the whole, I found the second issue to be much stronger than the first. I do totally hate the fact that the Scarlet Witch is painted as the villainess on the cover, but I’m sure that’s an inadvertent jab at my deep, deep bitterness on the subject.

Everyone’s headed To Terra…

May 24, 2010

Another round of the Manga Moveable Feast is underway, hosted by Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey and examining To Terra… (Vertical), written and illustrated by Keiko Takemiya. I’m looking forward to seeing what people have to say about this book, which I think is very much in the “underappreciated gem” category. I’ll have my contribution ready on Wednesday, but in the meantime, I thought I’d repost a portion of an old Flipped column that looks at another Takemiya work, Andromeda Stories. The original column was posted at The Comics Reporter.

Andromeda Stories is a bit less layered, and its story is a bit more conventional. A peaceful society is infested with robotic creatures that ruthlessly remake it into an armed camp, devouring its natural resources in the process. A handful of escapees offer resistance and are joined by alien survivors of the robots’ previous invasions.

There’s considerable set-up in the first of the series’ three volumes. Takemiya lines up her pins with efficiency, but the operatic qualities seem muted as a result. There are lots of characters to introduce, sometimes twice. (To appreciate the full horror of the robot’s influence, Takemiya gives readers a sense of what the victims were like before and what was lost.) It’s heavy on plot, and it’s deftly delivered, but it lacks the moody sweep that To Terra… had from its first pages. Fortunately, that sweep kicks in with the second volume and builds through to the end.

One thing that particularly strikes me about Takemiya is her facility at showing fractures among people who share a purpose. In Andromeda Stories, those conflicts are personified by Prince Jimsa, raised in hiding and believed by many to be the world’s only hope against the robots. Interpretations of how his role will play out vary, and Jimsa is more focused on protecting his fragile, ambivalent mother than being any kind of savior. Given the number of genre elements that are woven in along the way — a secret twin, a group of extraterrestrial conspirators, a warrior woman from space, good robots, bad robots, a kindly whore and an even kindlier gladiator — it’s rather remarkable that Takemiya can juggle them all and still convey the story’s emotional core. She even finds room for comic relief.

First Kang, then Gargamel

May 22, 2010

Up has kind of been down this week, and I ended up deciding to make a spite purchase outside of my normal boundaries. This would be the first issue of Marvel’s latest Avengers relaunch, written by Brian Michael Bendis, illustrated by John Romital, Jr., inked by Klaus Janson, colored by Dean White, and lettered by VC’s Cory Petit. (This is another reason I shifted over to manga: fewer creator credits.)

Sean T. Collins assured me that the comic wasn’t half-bad, and he’s right; it’s not. There are some funny bits that I really liked, and they were funny because they fit the characters that delivered them. But it’s still not what I’d describe as a particularly good Avengers comic for the same reasons the last major relaunch wasn’t a particularly good Avengers comic. It’s not really about people doing things that define them as Avengers; it’s about people talking about being defined as Avengers, and not in any qualitative way, even by this author’s tell-don’t-show standards. It’s even more insular, assuming sufficient previous knowledge so that they don’t even need to trot out any shorthand. The reader is being reassured that this is just as Avenger-y as anything they’d previously liked about the franchise, which indicates a certain degree of insecurity, and that insecurity isn’t unwarranted.

The scene where Steve Rogers, the former Captain America, tells everyone why they’re there, just killed me. It opens with this:

And then moves on to this, because maybe the reader couldn’t intuit this stuff on their own and need to be told:

First of all, where are the big office chairs with the trademarked character logos on the back? The only chair at all is that spindly Shaker thing under Hawkeye, though it kind of looks like Wolverine is also sitting down, though he could be on a chaise. I also love that Thor looks like Brittany from Glee – tall, blond, stupid and bored half to death. He looks like he’d be texting if he had his phone handy. But beyond those nitpicks, I’m totally reminded of another big cartoon franchise thanks to Steve’s insistence on reducing his team-mates to catch-phrases. I really couldn’t help but think of the Smurfs.

If you want a more in-depth and serious consideration of the comic, please read this entertaining round-table over at Comics Alliance. I’m going to get to work on my Unified Smurfette Theory of Super-Team Rosters.

Orphan refugees

May 21, 2010

I know I’m getting my Kübler-Ross all out of order. I started with anger, then moved on to depression, and now I’m going to backtrack to bargaining. These are confusing times. And while it seems kind of ghoulish to be looking for new homes for orphan titles, one does what one feels one must, you know? Everyone has their own unfinished CMX title that they’d most like to see rescued, so I’m going to focus on three.

First up is Usumaru Furuya’s 51 Ways to Save Her, which generated a lot of excitement when it was announced. It’s a survival drama, which is always promising, but more important is the fact that it’s by the gifted, bizarre Furuya. There just isn’t enough of his manga available in English, and while I would have loved to see CMX be the one to rectify that, I’d be equally happy to see Vertical swoop in on a rope, cutlass clenched in its teeth.

The other two titles are CMX’s classic shôjo offerings, Kyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan and Yasuko Aoike’s From Eroica With Love. The most logical target for these titles is Fantagraphics. They’ve tasked shôjo scholar Matt Thorn with establishing a manga imprint, and Dirk Deppey was just bemoaning the fact that Swan would go unfinished. I’m not asking them to start over again, and Swan’s Shueisha origins might be tricky for Shogakukan-affiliated Fantagraphics to navigate, but it would be a lovely gesture to fans of classic shôjo. It would also seem like an enticing opportunity for Fantagraphics to clean up some of DC’s messes and then gloat about it. I’m just saying. Aside from the fact that classic shôjo doesn’t sell very well, it seems like a solution with no down side.

I don’t even know where to start with awesome Hakusensha shôjo like My Darling! Miss Bancho and Stolen Hearts that really just began, but maybe Yen Press would like to beef up its shôjo offerings? They could put those profits from Twilight and Black Butler to really good use.


May 20, 2010

Now that I’ve got the negativity out of my system, I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate some of my favorite CMX titles. I can pick ten with absolutely no difficulty at all. The difficulty is limiting myself to ten.

Astral Project, written by marginal, illustrated by Syuji Takeya: This series is very difficult to summarize, which is almost always indicative of a title I really like. It’s about a young man who is investigating his sister’s apparent suicide and learns the secrets of astral projection. He meets others who can do the same thing, finding romance, friendship, and mystery along the way. There’s some deeply cynical social commentary and a paranoid government subplot, plus a profound fixation on improvisational jazz. In short, it’s a funky, unpredictable series with a lot on its mind.

Chikyu Misaki, written and illustrated by Yuji Iwahara: Misaki and her father move back to the rural hometown of her late mother to learn that the community’s legendary lake monster is real and adorable. Also heading to the snowy hamlet are kidnappers, their vengeful victim, and a raft of stock types who transcend their formulaic origins over three frisky, sharply observed volumes. The art is gorgeous and surprising, and the characters and their interactions are absorbing.

Crayon Shinchan, written and illustrated by Yoshito Usui: This is one of those rare instances where I experienced the anime first. I still prefer the anime, but there’s a lot of crass, sneaky comedy in these comics. The formula is pretty basic but very productive: horrible little Shinchan shocks and mortifies the adults around him with his complete lack of anything resembling a filter. He’s curious about all of the things grown-ups dread discussing with each other, much less with kids.

Emma, written and illustrated by Kaoru Mori: If there’s a consistent caveat in the heaps of abuse DC is receiving for their handling of CMX, it’s gratitude that we got all of Mori’s gorgeous costume drama about a shy maid and the upper-middle-class guy who loves her. Mori ended up weaving a very rich tapestry that looked not just at class but at characters, the people who lived within the Victorian strictures that threatened to keep Emma and William apart. You can read a lot about the series in the Manga Moveable Feast dedicated to it.

Gon, written and illustrated by Masashi Tanaka: Gon’s structure is even simpler than Shinchan’s. A baby dinosaur wreaks anachronistic, wordless havoc on those creatures foolish enough to disturb his naps or disrupt his dinner. The series is beautifully drawn with positively eye-popping levels of detail, and it’s got terrific energy and emotional punch.

Monster Collection: The Girl Who Can Deal With Magical Monsters, illustrated by Sei Itoh, original concept by Hitoshi Yasuda/Group SNE: A comic book based on a card game that was never actually marketed in North America? Shouldn’t that have been just unbearably awful? This one defied all reasonable expectations by being sly, well-written and exciting, and maybe better for the fact that nobody had any idea what the original game was about. Even the frequent fan service is presented with winking good humor, and the characters are unfailingly likable.

Omukae Desu, written and illustrated by Meca Tanaka: I have a well-established fondness for entertainments about people who deal with dead people. This one folds in lots of stupid-funny bureaucracy and some endearing coming-of-age elements. Madoka can see dead people, and this ability lands him a part-time job with the astral agency that helps escort the recently deceased to their next incarnations. As you might expect, many of these spirits have unfinished business. As you might not expect, Madoka’s agency contact is a guy in a bunny suit who is a big believer in his employer’s ridiculous theme days. Fun stuff.

Penguin Revolution, written and illustrated by Sakura Tsukuba: Any shôjo series starring a girl who un-ironically declares her desire to become a civil servant is bound to get my attention. Alas, plucky Yukari must first make it through high school and work as a talent agent before she can settle into civil service. The talent agency focuses on young male idols, all of whom are forced to cross-dress during their down time to throw the press off their trails. That applies to their handlers, too. This is the kind of goofy, mildly romantic shôjo that’s very much to my taste. Warning: no actual penguins appear in this manga.

Presents, written and illustrated by Kanako Inuki: There isn’t enough shôjo horror, if you ask me, or at least enough shôjo horror that doesn’t involve obnoxious supernatural boys with lots of hair and patriarchal attitudes. Presents shows what happens when bad things happen to horrible people, which can be delightfully diverting. Mistress of Ceremonies Kurumi is probably supposed to look innocently adorable, but just looking at her gives me the shivers.

Swan, written and illustrated by Kyoko Ariyoshi: It’s probably impossible to calculate the good karma points that will go to whoever decided to try and publish this ballet masterpiece in English. We all know the conventional wisdom that classic shôjo doesn’t sell, and I don’t think Swan ever flew off of the shelves either, but wow, was it bliss. It follows the often brutal career trajectory of a gifted young ballerina and the troupe of dancers who try to put Japan on the global dance map.

There are at least five other titles that were serious squeakers for inclusion on this list, or would have been if more volumes had been published. I think just looking at these ten titles makes you realize what the folks behind CMX were able to accomplish during their too-short run. What were your favorite CMX titles? Feel free to mention them in the comments, or just heap abuse on DC, because that isn’t going to get old here for a while.

Birthday book: Underground

May 19, 2010

It’s Steve Lieber’s birthday, and if you’d like to mark the occasion while scoring a really good mini-series in the process, I recommend you pick up the collection of Underground (Image), illustrated by Lieber and written by Jeff (Agents of Atlas) Parker. Lieber and Parker tell the tale of a principled park ranger trying to protect a cave system from greedy developers and trigger-happy thugs, and it’s a nifty bit of genre entertainment that doesn’t usually get much play in comic-book form, unless someone folds in vampires or werewolves. Here’s my review of the first issue. The series held up nicely throughout, and I’d love to read a sequel.

I need a break

May 18, 2010

Among manga bloggers, myself included, it’s widely believed that the only times DC executives encounter the letters “CMX” in a row is when they get a particularly crappy tray of tiles during a game of Scrabble. Back in the days when Paul Levitz was in charge, you could make bank that he would barely mention DC’s manga imprint during his nine-part year-end interviews with ICv2. When they launched the Minx imprint, Karen Berger acted over and over again like DC was inventing comics for teen-aged girls, resolutely ignoring the manga market until enough people asked “What the hell is she talking about?” And even when forced to admit that there were all kinds of comics for teen-aged girls, she never noted the fact that her employer published some of them. When Diane Nelson took over for Levitz, it surprised absolutely no one that CMX was not among her talking points, probably because DC didn’t have the right to repackage CMX properties in other media, so who cares? We need a goddamn Green Lantern franchise with legs, and we need one now.

The popular gallows humor was that ignorance was bliss. The imprint may not have gotten any marketing support or recognition from their corporate masters, but perhaps they were so far off the radar that they were immune from scrutiny entirely and that they could just quietly go on publishing interesting, entertaining comics from Japan. Alas, this trend came to an end today. Someone at DC remembered CMX long enough to realize that they could save money by axing it.

Now, if you ask me, this move seems driven at least as much by timely opportunism as by economic realities. There’s that hideous ICv2 white paper that has manga limping towards the care home, along with layoffs at Viz and the uncertain state of other publishers. So DC could just pull the plug and point obliquely at the general state of affairs and pretend to be vaguely regretful. I’m sure economic realities played a part, and possibly a significant part, but it’s easy to interpret the imprint’s history as DC just not giving a shit.

So, yeah, I don’t really think much of DC, but I haven’t for a long time, and CMX was pretty much the last tether of interest the publisher held for me. And it was not an insignificant tether, because Asako Suzuki and Jim Chadwick did terrific work picking titles and presenting them. They did the best they could in the face of what seemed like limited resources and corporate indifference. Hell, they did better than you could possible imagine people would under those conditions.

But seriously, fuck DC. I think I’ll buy a copy of that new Avengers comic just out of spite. I probably won’t read it, but I’ll buy it.