You don’t know where that’s been

October 21, 2010

March Story (Viz), written by Hyung Min Kim and illustrated by Kyung-il Yang, does not lead with its best foot, in my opinion. It’s nominally in the “comeuppance theatre” category of storytelling in that it’s largely episodic and features terrible but avoidable things happening to guest stars with a protagonist swooping in to try and minimize the damage. But unlike my favorite examples of comeuppance theatre, bad things don’t happen to these people because they themselves are bad, but because they’re kind of dumb. I’m going to put the rest of this entry behind a jump, because it’s less of a review than a spoiler-filled, inexplicably obsessive discussion.

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From the stack: Grand Guignol Orchestra

October 18, 2010

“I like an anything goes approach,” Kaori Yuki assets in one of her creator’s notes in the first volume of Grand Guignol Orchestra (Viz.) This statement is about as close as Yuki comes to understatement anywhere in this paperback. And that’s fine.

Given that Grand Guignol Orchestra is a sort-of period piece about a group of musicians who fight zombies, one should only expect so much restraint, and given that it’s by Yuki, one would be lucky to find any restraint at all. It’s not one of her defining characteristics, and I can’t imagine that it would really be one of her strengths.

I say this as someone who hasn’t read a ton of Yuki’s work. I found the first couple of her Godchild to be visually impressive but so clumsily translated and adapted that I couldn’t bear to read any more. Camellia Neigh’s work on Grand Guignol Orchestra is much more fluid and lucid, though still tinged with that special brand of Yuki madness. Her stories will probably only ever be mostly lucid, I suspect, because she’s very invested in atmosphere and, as she confesses, “anything goes.”

There’s an undeniable charm in the idea of musicians being the only thing that can destroy zombies (zombies that look like dolls, no less). It’s sort of like Mars Attacks!, but much more sincere, and the music isn’t just a gag at the end. The orchestra itself is more of a combo, starting with three members and adding a fourth by the end of their first adventure. Membership seems limited to the androgynous and the thuggish, though only half the regular cast is properly developed in this first volume.

Yuki is fond of twists, and things are seldom entirely what they seem. She has mixed success with the reveals; sometimes they’ve got a creepy jolt, sometimes they’re just mildly confusing. But it’s nice to see some narrative punch mixed in with the faux-European aesthetic (which you cannot deny is lovingly, sometimes ravishingly rendered) and the sly-cool cast of characters.

As is usually the case with Yuki’s work (in my admittedly limited experience), the real successes come in the form of smartly conceptualized horror. In this case, it’s the guignols themselves, disease-stricken innocents who’ve become a kind of cracked-porcelain zombie. Yuki adds a layer of sweetness and powder to the decay, which always makes it more unsettling, at least in my opinion.

But while Yuki’s work always has its points of appeal, I’m never entirely sold. She strikes me as having the potential to become a more commercial Junko Mizuno if she could just strike that balance between creative focus and intellectual abandon and emotional shamelessness. Yuki seems to be always on the verge and never quite there, at least yet. But I do love to see a reliably popular creator in any comics category who also seems at least a little bit deranged.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. Grand Guignol Orchestra was originally serialized in Hakusensha’s Bessatsu Hana to Yume.)


MMF: After School Nightmare

September 30, 2010

Sean (A Case Suitable for Treatment) Gaffney is hosting the current Manga Moveable Feast, which is focusing on Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare. Looking back on this column I wrote for The Comics Reporter, I realize I don’t really have anything to add, so I will lazily reprint the column here.

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In a lot of manga aimed at an adolescent audience, the characters’ objectives are sunny and straightforward. Do your best! Be true to yourself! Learn! Grow! Befriend! Love! You can dress those objectives up however you like and contextualize them in sports or sorcery or pop stardom, but the bottom line is basically the pursuit of happiness.

What makes a book like Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare (Go! Comi) so alluring is that it’s about the aversion of unhappiness. The objectives here are just as straightforward, but they’re bleaker and probably more honest. Keep your secrets. Hide your flaws. Try not to hurt anyone more than you can avoid, but a teen’s got to do what a teen’s got to do.

Mizushiro’s introduction to the English-reading audience came courtesy of Tokyopop in the form of the two-volume X-Day. It’s not a bad little book, but it suffers from inflated expectations. The synopsis promises a plot by moody loners to blow up their school, but the reality is much more subdued. It’s a dysfunctional character study, and it has its moments, but it ends up feeling like an old After School Special. Everyone learns a valuable lesson, which is rather disappointing.

But in X-Day, Mizushiro did demonstrate the will to go to dark places, and the book’s promise is fulfilled in After School Nightmare. Go! Comi tagged the ten-volume series with the line, “This dream draws blood!” It does, both figuratively and literally.

Mashiro Ichijo is an upstanding student. He works hard, he’s polite to his classmates, and he’s in the kendo club. He also has a vagina, but that’s a well-kept secret. It may not stay that way after Mashiro is enrolled in a special class by the school nurse. One day a week, Mashiro reports to the infirmary to drowse into a dream world where he must battle his classmates for a mysterious key that leads to an even more mysterious graduation.

Mashiro’s paranoid protectiveness of his public persona becomes heightened as he tries to determine which of his classmates are joining him on the subconscious battlefield. An aggressive kendo team-mate, Sou Mizuhashi, claims he knows Mashiro’s secret. Mashiro is simultaneously attracted and repulsed by what he perceives to be Sou’s uncomplicated masculinity, and Sou demonstrates a kind of unsentimental attraction for Mashiro in return.

Mashiro’s feelings for sweet, sunny Kureha Fujishima are no less complicated. He knows Kureha’s in the class, frozen in a traumatic moment from her childhood, and he wants to protect her. (It’s what a real man would do, after all.) Mashiro’s ambiguous gender allows Kureha to return his feelings; he’s not entirely male, so he’s not the object of terror she finds most men to be. But are Mashiro’s feelings sincere, or is he just role-playing, trying to meet ingrained expectations? That’s a question you could ask of any of the principle characters.

Mizushiro gets terrific mileage out of the question, spinning the love triangle over most of the ten-volume series. Mashiro, Kureha and Sou are all trying to reconcile their respective damage, and to varying degrees they do that by modulating to meet the expectations of others. But Mizushiro doesn’t romanticize that; secrecy and denial are the obstacles to the characters’ forward motion towards whatever graduation entails. They have to accept what they don’t like or what they fear about themselves. They have to stop caring how others see them.

It’s less her story than Mashiro and Sou’s, but I found Kureha mesmerizing from beginning to end. She represents a number of overly familiar character types — the pony-tailed princess, the unwitting beard, and the victim who’s never healed properly — but she doesn’t embody any of them. She’s too sturdy, surprising, and strange. And while Mashiro and Sou waffle and flail (entertainingly, I should add), Kureha evolves. And she does so without losing any of her radiance. If anything, she gains in radiance, especially in the dream sequences.

As to those subconscious throw-downs, do you remember those occasional sequences where the X-Men’s Danger Room would malfunction, plunging one or more mutants into a personally resonant horror? It’s like that, except every Thursday. Mizushiro is playing with allegories throughout the series, but she doesn’t shy away from brutality. After School Nightmare is one of the few shôjo series I’ve seen with sequences that could be scored with a Pat Benetar song.

Even with ten volumes at her disposal, Mizushiro finds room for so much. In addition to the emotional and metaphysical violence, there’s a lot of tenderness here. Not much sentiment, but that’s welcome. All she needs are three messed-up people trying to survive.


Upcoming 9/29/2010

September 28, 2010

Only one item really pops out at me from this week’s Comic List:

Did you like Hitoshi Iwaaki’s Parasyte (Del Rey) but wish it had more contemporary art? Vertical can accommodate you in the form of Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles. It isn’t as smart as Parasyte, but it has a number of elements working in its favor.

I like the protagonist, for one thing. Hikaru is a high-school girl who, for reasons yet to be fully articulated, isolates herself from her fellow students via headphones and a media player of some sort. This state continues until her body is invaded by an interstellar entity on the hunt for a vicious killer. Hikaru and her uninvited guest must engage with people to find the poor soul who’s hosting this monster, known as Maelstrom.

As I suggested earlier, I also like the art. It’s clean and imaginative, packed with detail. The best way I can describe it is to ask you to suggest a muted combination of Yuji (Cat Paradise) Iwahara’s imagination and Kio (Genshiken) Shimoku’s obsessive-compulsive streak. Tadano doesn’t quite reach Iwaaki’s gory heights of imagination, but Tadano is also more persuasive in rendering the quieter moments.

The first volume is equal parts introduction to Hikaru and the concept and ensuing mayhem. It’s a solid starting point, and I’m looking forward to seeing her develop as a heroine and person. 7 Billion Needles was originally serialized in Media Factory’s Comic Flapper and was collected in four volumes. Comments above are based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.


From the stack: Secret Avengers 1-4

September 16, 2010

It seems as though Marvel and DC had a bad month in August, seeing big sales drops which subsequently led some people to wonder if $4 is too much to expect people to pay for a 22-page comic. I don’t really have a position on that, as I don’t buy that many pamphlet comics and I flunked the one economics course I took in college. But I did feel like mentioning that there’s a Marvel comic I’m enjoying a lot. It’s Secret Avengers, written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Mike Deodato.

I’m an Avengers fan from way back, and while I haven’t read any of their titles or crossover events with any regularity since Brian Bendis took over, I do like to check in from time to time when some new phase starts to see if any of them click with me. Avengers and New Avengers, both written by Bendis, didn’t click with me. New Avengers looks great, but it’s packed with pet Bendis characters and the kind of dialogue that I find grating after a while. Avengers looks horrible to me, and the cast is more thematically assembled than emotionally functional, if that makes any sense.

Secret Avengers has a few interesting things going for it beyond the fact that it isn’t being written by Bendis. It’s one of those “proactive super-team” concepts where a group of heroes tries to prevent problems rather than just reacting to them. This has never, ever worked to my knowledge, whether we’re talking about Extreme Justice or Force Works or what have you. But it actually works reasonably well here, at least in the first arc.

I think it works because the characters seem like competent grown-ups. They don’t have the kind of interpersonal chemistry that a lot of great Avengers groupings have had in the past, but they work well together, and Brubaker has collected an interesting mix of abilities, backgrounds and character types. That’s always a good choice, but it’s an even better one when there’s an actual narrative point to it. Steve Rogers, formerly dead Captain America who is apparently neither dead nor Captain America now, recruited people based on what they can do and what they know, and that makes sense to me.

This is also one of the more… well, only… interesting portrayals of Steve Rogers that I’ve ever seen. In the past, he’s been the ridiculously perfect icon that everyone tries to please. In Secret Avengers, he seems like an actual leader rather than an object of idolatry. The way Brubaker writes him, he strikes that confident position that suggests, truthfully or not, that consensus has already been achieved, that the people he leads are all on the same page, and that he trusts them to contribute to the best of their abilities. He’s the kind of figure you can see people wanting to follow.

I also like the cast, which is filled with interesting second stringers like the Beast, War Machine, and Valkyrie. Some of them have no previous connection to the Avengers, but all of them bring something interesting to the table, and none of them seem like a ridiculous, meta-driven choice. I’m particularly pleased to see Valkyrie, as she gets to be the demigod muscle. That role usually goes to a guy, and it’s great fun to see a woman in the bruiser role, and to see it not being presented as any kind of big deal.

Deodato’s art is more on the competent side than anything else. It’s attractive enough, and I always understood what was going on, but his body types are disappointingly similar. It’s not just that gymnast Black Widow and warrior Valkyrie have basically the same physiology; almost all of the men look like they could swap heads without difficulty as well. It’s not offensive, just kind of dull.

But overall, if you’re craving an Avengers comic where the characters seem functional and heroic, Secret Avengers might be a good choice.

(I also like Avengers: The Children’s Crusade, but I like it for reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with whether it’s a good, accessible comic. I’d guess that it requires a doctoral level of familiarity with Avengers back story to make much sense, given that it references a good dozen major Avengers stories of varying vintages. A good half-dozen characters enter the fray every time you turn around. But I like it because it holds the promise that the Scarlet Witch will be redeemed after an unfortunate “women can’t handle power, especially when they’ve got babies rabies” turn, and also because Wiccan and Hulkling are the cutest gay couple in comics, bar none.)


From the stack: There’s Something About Sunyool

September 13, 2010

The title of Youngran Lee’s There’s Something About Sunyool (Netcomics) is accurate, though it takes a while to figure out what that something is and if you’d like to see more of it. By the time I’d finished the first volume, she had gone from blandly quirky to confidently madcap, and I was very much in her corner.

Sunyool is the illegitimate daughter of an ambitious politician, and she joins his family rather late in life. She’s an unruly, borderline cynical teen-ager before she goes to live with her dad, but her father eventually sees the advantages in having an attractive, marriageable daughter in his political arsenal. When she reaches her early 20s, he offers a slate of matrimonial candidates for his now fully cynical daughter to evaluate. Any of them could further his career, so it’s only a matter of which beau strikes her shifting fancy.

I always feel a certain resistance to arranged-marriage comedy, particularly when it isn’t a period piece, but Youngran Lee approaches it with such a bemused smirk that it’s hard to get too bogged down in my western perceptions. Sunyool sees the set-up as an unavoidable lark, a chore with benefits. While there are bits of her selection process that are kind of cute, it isn’t until she selects and weds the nicest of the candidates, Sihyun, that things really fall into place in a comedic sense.

The newlyweds address the fact that they don’t know each other very well, and they admit that they’d like a real marriage, at least in contrast to all of the marriages in their immediate circle. Sunyool may be in it mostly for the laughs, but she’s not immune to romance or lust, for that matter. She and Sihyun come to appreciate each other’s attractive attributes, and they eagerly anticipate the moment when their marriage of convenience will become a real love match. (They’re so eager and ardent that they make their respective best friends kind of nauseous, which is funny and reassuring to readers who might have been feeling the same way.) Then things fall apart through no fault of the lovebirds, and Lee’s capacity for cynicism fully reveals itself.

Through it all, Sunyool displays a withering capacity for bluntness and an uncanny instinct for deflating the smug, the bullying, and the deceptive. And since she moves in political circles, she never suffers a shortage of victims. This mutant ability to prick a hypocrite’s balloon is likely the “something” of the title, or at least it is for me. It might also be her ability to adapt to given circumstances, which is also charming and enviable. She’s cannily playing a game of low expectations, which even she admits, but she’s not immune to possibility. I’m looking forward to seeing her refuse to suffer new fools and roll with life’s nastier punches as the series progresses.


Manga Moveable Feast: Yotsuba & Ultra Maniac

September 5, 2010

It’s sometimes diverting to consider what comics a comic-book character might enjoy. Yotsuba, the titular heroine of Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! (Yen Press), is pre-school aged and strikes me as more of a doer than a reader anyway. She might enjoy Masashi Tanaka’s wordless, hyperactive Gon (CMX), since it’s got lots of animals in it. But Gon is seinen (it ran in Kodansha’s Morning), and I’ve heard tales of some little kids being perfectly horrified by this story or that. Yotsuba’s pretty sturdy, but you never know what’s going to touch a nerve, as with real kids.

Given her various phases, she might also be really taken with Akira Amano’s Reborn, just because it features a toddler with a gun. Yotsuba seems like she enjoys a little more grit in her crime drama, so maybe Reborn might be too silly.

I don’t think she’d have much patience for her own comic. Thinking back on my tastes as a five-year-old, I can’t remember having much interest in slice-of-life narrative. I might have liked the fact that the protagonist seemed to interact exclusively with people older than herself, since those were also my companions of choice. Back then, I tended to read a lot of Casper and Richie Rich. It now strikes me that Casper was wasting his afterlife, and I think Yotsuba would click more with the Ghostly Trio. I was a child in the early 1970s, so I can’t possibly judge how any other kid dresses, but even I knew Richie looked like a tool, no matter how swank his mansion was. He was like Thurston Howell the Fourth.

I liked to read up, so my pre-super-hero drug of choice was Archie. More accurately, it was Betty and Veronica. Like the gay uncle I would someday become, I think I wanted to advise them both to trade up even then, and they cultivated a lifelong interest in unlikely female friendships. But gender politics aside, I always liked reading about their part-time jobs, their dates, and their various high-school woes. It didn’t do a thing to prepare me for actual high school, which was horrible, but it was a nice safe space in which to imagine what high school might be like, at its best.

There’s something of that to Wataru Yoshizumi’s Ultra Maniac (Viz), an all-ages, five volume shôjo series about a magic-school dropout who transfers to a regular human junior-high school in our world. (Junior high school was even more horrible than high school, but I can’t remember any specific pieces of fiction lying to me about that.)

Nina, the inept witch, meets Ayu, the pretty and poised seventh-grader who’s carefully cultivated a calm, cool and collected exterior because the boy she likes said that’s what he likes. Ayu helps Nina out with something minor, and Nina tries to return the favor with magic. Alas, Nina sucks at magic, so Ayu usually ends up in some humiliating state. Betty and Veronica cross over with Lucy and Ethel. There are some genuinely funny bits in the early going.

It might be disappointing when Yoshizumi turns her attention to romantic possibilities for the girls, but she does something unusual. Instead of romance driving a wedge between the girls via jealousy or feelings of abandonment, it brings them closer. Nina works hard to help Ayu be happy, and Ayu returns the favor. They’re prepared to make sacrifices for each other because they genuinely like each other and friendship comes first.

That’s an idealistic message, obviously, but it’s leavened by the fact that Yoshizumi’s female leads have great chemistry. Their various love interests aren’t really anything to write home about – nice boys, but nobody to lose sleep over, if you know what I mean. What they aren’t is domineering and jerky, as some shôjo princes can be. They respect girl power even before they realize how much of it Nina and Ayu can wield when they put their heads together.

Re-reading the series to write this, I see some flaws that weren’t evident the first time through, as it was released by Viz. There’s a long chunk in the later volumes with a rather generic rival rearing her pretty head. She’s nowhere near as vivid or internally consistent as the stars, so it’s hard to take her mischief seriously. There’s also something mawkish about her motives, and bits of her back story are a little on the bleak side. That’s not necessarily a fatal flaw, and Yoshizui has doled out disappointments and sadness prior to this, but it still seems tonally off.

But Yoshizumi corrects before she wraps things up, giving Nina a lovely and unexpected reward for her good intentions and occasionally successful good deeds. And Yoshizumia consistently rewards readers for sweet, well-drawn stories featuring a generally charming cast. It’s on the short side, it’s got magic and romance and comedy, and it gives younger readers a completely unrealistic glimpse into the terrifying world of junior high. What more could you want?