The Speed-Elvis connection

May 8, 2008

There was a nice piece on the origins of Speed Racer on NPR’s Morning Edition.

I don’t really have any interest in seeing the movie. I’ve never been able to stay awake through any more than ten minutes of any of the Matrix movies, and the advertisements for the Speed Racer movie make me feel like a seizure is imminent. But the radio piece offers an interesting look at the property and its cross-cultural appeal.

Risky business

April 7, 2008

Writing for The New York Times, Matt Richtel reports that blogging can be fatal:

“Two weeks ago in North Lauderdale, Fla., funeral services were held for Russell Shaw, a prolific blogger on technology subjects who died at 60 of a heart attack. In December, another tech blogger, Marc Orchant, died at 50 of a massive coronary. A third, Om Malik, 41, survived a heart attack in December.

“Other bloggers complain of weight loss or gain, sleep disorders, exhaustion and other maladies born of the nonstop strain of producing for a news and information cycle that is as always-on as the Internet.”

Pace yourselves, people.


February 22, 2008

This was kind of weird. I’m used to seeing the “filled with sex and violence” and “monsters and superheros that seem to dominate” charges against manga in pieces in U.S. media outlets, but in The Daily Yomiuri? I’m always in favor of people saying nice things about Tomoko Ninomiya’s Nodame Cantabile (Del Rey), but the negative context for that praise seems strange to me in a Japanese newspaper.

More free dairy products

February 12, 2008

It’s not a direct follow-up to yesterday’s piece in The New York Times, but it’s interesting to see how many groups are dealing with the possibilities of distributing content free on the web in addition to or instead of through traditional print models. This time, it’s the faculty of Harvard:

“‘In place of a closed, privileged and costly system, it will help open up the world of learning to everyone who wants to learn,’ said Robert Darnton, director of the university library. ‘It will be a first step toward freeing scholarship from the stranglehold of commercial publishers by making it freely available on our own university repository.’”

This all sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?

“The publishing industry, as well as some scholarly groups, have opposed some forms of open access, contending that free distribution of scholarly articles would ultimately eat away at journals’ value and wreck the existing business model. Such a development would in turn damage the quality of research, they argue, by allowing articles that have not gone through a rigorous process of peer review to be broadcast on the Internet as easily as a video clip of Britney Spears’s latest hairdo. It would also cut into subsidies that some journals provide for educational training and professional meetings, they say.”

The interesting difference is that nobody seems to think there’s a reasonable argument that free content will support those traditional models. In fact, aside from the gatekeepers of those traditional models, nobody seems to care much whether it does or not.

Real girls in the real world

February 7, 2008

I was reading this article on Juno in the latest Entertainment Weekly, and I just wanted to ask. There is a furious bidding war underway for the graphic novel rights, isn’t there?

Anyway, it’s not a perfect article, as it resorts to a lot of generalizations that make the piece less persuasive than it could be. (Sound familiar?) But it’s interesting, especially if you compare the sorry state of female leads in current films with the on-going discussion of female characters in super-hero comics. As screenwriter Diablo Cody puts it:

”I think women are often positioned as a support structure for men, and that’s certainly not been my experience. Some women want to be heroes!”

And while the magazine works really hard to paint actress Ellen Page as a stereotypically mopey outsider, she does fire off some great quotes, like this one:

“For the most part, the options for young actresses have been limited to Princesses and Mean Girls. ‘You either have the rich Laguna Beach thing, where the only thing they’re worrying about is what jeans to wear to impress Bobby,’ says Page, ‘or you have the girl who dresses in black and cuts herself.’”

(Just as a disclaimer, I haven’t seen the movie yet, and while general opinion seems to be overwhelmingly favorable, I’ve hated lots of movies that have enjoyed that kind of acclaim. [I’m looking at you, Sideways.] I just liked some of the parallels.)

Bait and switch

February 1, 2008

I think this is one of those cases where the person who wrote the headline had a slightly different agenda than the person who wrote the column, because the article itself scarcely mentions comics at all. Hilariously, the one comic it does bring up is The Plain Janes from Minx, and when you think about how much effort they’ve expended trying to put daylight between their books and manga…

Tip sheet

January 24, 2008

So you want to write about comics for and by women. Or your editor has told you to write about comics by and for women. Before you get started, there are two recent examples you might want to peruse. This one is awful. This one is much better. Yours can be even better than the piece in The Guardian, if you remember some basic points.

Don’t conflate “comics” with “super-hero comics.” The latter is a subset of arguable size of the former, and you’ll open yourself up to all kinds of nitpicking from people like me if you fall back on that kind of shorthand.

Don’t wait too long to bring up manga. As Tom Spurgeon noted yesterday, “it’s weird reading an article about female comics readership where manga is the 11th graph below Wonder Woman, Minx and the Smurfs.” It could successfully be argued that the ascendance of comics for girls and women in the United States is significantly dependent on the popularity of manga.

Expand on manga and its various demographics. For a lot of people, the appeal of the category is its variety, and that variety extends to sub-categories. Saying that shôjo is a category of comics targeted primarily at girls is fine, but you’ll look smarter if you note that the category contains not only stories about fantasy and romance but science fiction, adventure, comedy, sports, horror, slice-of-life, and so on.

Don’t make the mistake that shôjo is exclusively the domain of a female audience, or that it’s the only kind of manga that girls and women read. Naruto and Bleach wouldn’t be bestsellers without a healthy female audience, and Fruits Basket wouldn’t achieve its numbers without some y chromosomes in the audience. (Books like Naruto, Bleach and Fullmetal Alchemist also give you the chance to note that girls already like super-heroes, though perhaps not the ones that immediately come to mind.)

Name names. If you’re writing about manga, you’ll sound more informed if you throw out a few titles that provide examples of the subject. If you want to write about manga targeted primarily at girls, pick up a copy of Shojo Beat. If you want to write about manga targeted primarily at boys, pick up a copy of Shonen Jump. Both are available at just about any bookstore, if not the supermarket. Both of these magazines feature several series with varied subjects and artistic styles, the better to help you avoid stupid reductions about subject matter or visual style.

Do some independent research. There are excellent resources available on manga, including Paul Gravett’s Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics and Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide. You might not be able to work in everything you learn about the art form, but hey, they’re great reads, and they’ll help you frame your questions and make sensible comparisons. (For bonus points, and if you’re looking for a slightly rounder survey of what the contemporary comics industry looks like, you might also check out Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Everything You Need to Know, which combines introductory pieces and samples from various categories.)

Don’t make Gail Simone do all of the heavy lifting. Even if you’re focusing primarily on super-hero comics (which you should specifically note as often as is practical), you’ll end up with a more interesting piece if you cast a wider net for sources. There are plenty of interesting women making comics and coming at it from different perspectives who would probably be happy to talk to you.

If Simone is one of your primary sources, try not to forget that she’s an excellent writer of super-hero comics. She’s not just a rabble-rouser who identified an unfortunate trend in super-hero comics. She’s also one of the better practitioners of the genre, blending action, character development, and humor into her stories.

Don’t believe everything a publisher tells you. Yes, DC is to be congratulated for developing the Minx imprint, but they’re hardly the first publisher to target an audience of teen-aged women with original material. Tokyopop’s been doing it for years, to name only one, and they’ve gathered a roster of creators that’s packed with talented women.

Don’t think that a woman finally serving as the regular writer for Wonder Woman is the beginning of the trend you’re covering. If anything, it’s a rather belated example of a trend that’s been healthily underway for some time. Super-hero comics are sort of the last guests to arrive at this particular party, and some could argue that they just found their invitations, so you have to decide whether you want to flatter your sources or examine their efforts in a larger context.

Literacy and calluses

January 22, 2008

I’m still one of those strange geezers who relegate cell phone use to emergency road service and ordering pizzas, so I’m always a little puzzled by new and exciting uses for these items. The latest I’ve seen is covered in this piece from The New York Times on the increasing popularity of novels written specifically to be read on a cell phone. These digital, on-the-fly novels are apparently making the transition to print in Japan, and they’re making lots and lots of money in the process.

“Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists, touching off debates in the news media and blogosphere.

“‘Will cellphone novels kill “the author”?’ a famous literary journal, Bungaku-kai, asked on the cover of its January issue. Fans praised the novels as a new literary genre created and consumed by a generation whose reading habits had consisted mostly of manga, or comic books. Critics said the dominance of cellphone novels, with their poor literary quality, would hasten the decline of Japanese literature.”

I mean, I can’t even add spaces and punctuation when I try to compose a text message.


January 12, 2008

I really enjoyed Tom Spurgeon’s piece on comics coverage from mainstream news outlets. I thought this sentence from the concluding paragraph really hit the nail on the head:

“At some point, however, comics needs to stop being flattered and start being covered, pulled apart, questioned, challenged and dissected.”

It’s weird to see excitement about an outlet like The New York Times covering comics terribly, just because it’s the Times doing it. And while it does get kind of irritating to see reporters swap “manga” and “anime” in those smaller-market papers that write stories about clubs at libraries and high schools, I would rather read a hundred of those articles than some strangely condescending piece on comics growing up and getting serious that uses Marvel’s Civil War as an example.

It seems like the larger and better resourced the outlet is, the more likely they are to swallow a publisher’s agenda whole, which is precisely the opposite of how it should be. To keep harping on the Times, it’s exceedingly strange to me that there’s such a disconnect between their critical standards (publishing comics from interesting talents and reviewing books by Adrian Tomine) and their willingness to commit accessory to hype when Marvel or DC has a story of questionable merit to flog.

Maybe it’s because I spend so much time reading the comics blogoshere where these spandex event comics are routinely recognized as ghoulish, franchise-prolonging stunts even by people who like them. Maybe I’ve bought too much into the concept of high-profile journalistic prestige and recoil when I see the Times or Newsweek looking dumb in easily avoidable ways. I’m not really sure, nor do I really have many ideas as to how to ameliorate the state of affairs. Cordial, constructively critical letters to reporters and arts editors? Consistent use of the “super-hero” modifier before “comics” when it’s appropriate?

I think I must be one of six or seven people who actually read Entertainment Weekly, because I don’t remember seeing anyone mention a piece by Jeff Jensen in the January 11 issue about how much he’s always loved Marvel comics. Seriously, that’s the beginning, middle and end of it for five heavily illustrated pages. With everything that’s happening in comics as a medium, EW’s big comics think piece comes down to how Jean Grey made some guy feel squishy when he was 10 years old?


Updated to note: Kate Dacey-Tsuei has posted an excellent comic wish list for the new year, including some helpful suggestions for print outlets trying to cover the subject.

Random Thursday thoughts

January 10, 2008

I’m in one of those phases where reading comics and writing about them seem to have overtaken me a bit. There are three or four reviews I’ve got drafted in my head, two or three column ideas bouncing around up there, and feedback overload from all of the good “best of 2007” lists floating around. The best thing to do would be to just sit down with these various books and get to writing (after I read Rutu Mordan’s Exit Wounds again, because critical consensus has me feeling like I’m missing brilliance and just seeing general excellence), but I keep getting distracted by new comics that show up.

As expected, Nextwave: I Kick Your Face (Marvel) was very, very funny, and I’d love to see more of it (collected in paperback). There was one sequence that was kind of jarring, featuring some perhaps-too-astute parodies of the kinds of spandex stylings that normally exhaust me. I recovered, obviously.

I’m still not quite sure what to think of the preview copy of Hell Girl that Del Rey sent me. It’s shôjo comeuppance theater by Miyuki Eto where terrible things happen to horrible people after good people prone to immediate gratification consign their tormentors to hell with the help of an urban legend with a web site. I think I need to read more of this before I render any kind of verdict, but there are some really discordant things going on here.

And a whole bunch of Viz books I really like have come out lately. I like Naoki Urasawa’s Monster so much better when it doesn’t focus on plaster saint Tenma, and I’m constantly and pleasantly surprised by Urasawa’s ability to structure a thriller in surprising but entirely coherent ways. I sense a whole lot of Tenma on the immediate horizon, but the book’s pleasures will definitely outweigh the dullness of its protagonist. More Nana more often makes me happy, even when the story itself makes me very, very sad. I love how Ai Yazawa is playing with and rebalancing the naïve/worldly dynamic between her two leads. And the handy thing about having the kind of large, well-crafted cast that has assembled in Fullmetal Alchemist is that you can do an entire volume where one lead barely appears and the other doesn’t show up at all and it will still be riveting.

And now, some links:

  • Christopher Butcher takes a very thoughtful, well-informed, in-depth look at some of the items from my 2007 manga news round-up.
  • Johanna Draper Carlson rounds up some recent manga news items and offers her own thoughts. (Pop quiz: Does Dark Horse actually publish any shôjo, or just manga titles from other categories that people who like shôjo might enjoy?)
  • The Occasional Superheroine looks at Newsweek’s discovery of women who write comics and finds it wanting. (When I read the piece at Newsweek’s site, there was this horrible sidebar ad about some wrinkle cream showing a woman who had been retouched to look like something just this side of moldering, because physical representations of life experience are apparently to be fought with all the vigor science can muster. It seems to have been taken out of the page’s ad rotation, and while the replacements are surprisingly low-rent for an outfit like Newsweek, none seem to be actively thematically opposed to the page’s main content. Yay?)