Archive for the ‘Comic’ Category

Calling Dr. Laura

I have a long-standing tradition of buying just about every comic (meaning, I guess, graphic novel) I see. Mostly because there are so many interesting ones and ever since I bought Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow by Anders Nilsen I’ve become intimately aware of just how much a random purchase can affect you. This comic, which I bought on a whim last week, deftly fits into the niche carved open in recent years of literary acclaim by a favorite cartoonist of mine, Alison Bechdel. Like Bechdel (who offers a thoughtful blurb on the back of the book) and her focus on the queer aspect of her coming of age, a central story in this book is that of author Nicole Georges grappling with her own homosexuality and relating those feelings to her mother. You might not pick up on that initially, however, as the book presents itself as largely about a call Georges made to the infamous Dr. Laura about her absentee (and presumed dead) father. Heavy stuff, for sure, and even more-so because the book goes out of its way to present itself in a pretty thoroughly memoiristic style. You’ll recognize the fastidiously created panels and arrows to obscure details from Bechdel’s technique, although Georges separates herself by mixing and matching entire styles of drawing to suit the age she’s describing. It’s an amusing trick, and creates some cool contrast between the childish interpretation of her early life (sort of XKCD style bad) and the super intricate versions of her life in Portland.

All of that might give you the sense that the book is heading in a lot of different directions, and you’d be absolutely right! To clarify, it’s good. And thoughtful. And the sort of narrative I think we need more of. But it’s also pretty brutally unfocused. There are a few different stories happening here, and while you might dig that sort of alt-oregon vibe (vegans, farm animals included) it also makes for a story which feels pretty hap-hazardly compiled in the vein of some of its successful contemporaries. With a unique art style but some middle-of-the-road “plotting” (organizing the events Georges chooses to highlight, not critiquing the actual things she experienced), the book definitely comes off as more experimental art-book and less sequentially told story. No shame there, either, but if you’re more plot-intensive like me it’s a bit of a bummer. Given the title of the book and the way it’s built up, I really thought the call and its surrounding events would be contextualized within the book more clearly, and that the relationship between the central conflict and the early instances of family frustration which plague Georges could be more clearly linked.

Ultimately, I really love the aesthetic and space for the “alt” mentality this story reflects. I suppose my only request would be that they be told a bit more coherently (even the most interesting family history can become mundane without proper plotting and presentation) and that Georges continues to refine her style in a way which doesn’t feel so clearly derivative from the Fun Home brigade. Otherwise, though, this is very quick read and a gritty, emotional romp.

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And this is volume 2.

Eek – worst artwork ever…

Anyway, here we have the continuing saga (brought to you by the wonderful Osamu Tezuka) of Japan/Germany in the late 1930s.

On the one hand, Sohei Toge continues his efforts to preserve the documents indicting Hitler as a Jew. Things get pretty drastic as the secret police seek to push Toge into revealing the contents – and several years (and quite a bit of traveling around Japan) lead him to a breaking point. Elsewhere, Yukie Kaufmann (mother of the Aryan Adolf) seeks to develop a relationship with Toge, and her son reports that he is doing all too well at the Adolf Hitler School. Very little mention of the Jewish Adolf, so perhaps for a later volume.

Overall, this is a very Toge oriented book. So much so, in fact, it manages to craft some very genuine (and truthful) moments out of what has quickly extended into a very pulpy tale. The middle of the book, focusing on the fight between an inspector and Toge, is particularly effective. I distinctly felt as I read through that portion that something very monumental was happening, and the great physical and psychological depths the characters were pushed to broke them down in the way war narratives (particularly of WW2) pushed people past the imagined limits of humanity.

It was elemental, strong, and thought provoking. By contrast, the moments which followed, eeked out in pulpy melodrama, were a bit drab. Interesting, of course, because they’re added a bit of heft from Tezuka’s magic, but also a bit by numbers.

Tezuka still excels at elaborate, large-form drawings. His scenes of nature – elements, rain, fire, mountains are truly awe-inspiring.

A strong series, to be sure. Now I actually have a reason to collect the other volumes!

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I don’t review books as often as I should. As with most things – I’m working on it.

Partially this is so you have a written record of the things I like, and so that you might check them out, but also (and perhaps legitimately relevant) is that I like to have my thoughts recorded in case I ever need to come back to it. At the very least – a short (accurate) summary might help me.

First, what is this book? I go into more depth here than I might otherwise because this book, like many I may come to write about, is a bit outside the mainstream. Even for fans of author Osamu Tezuka (a big influence of mine, and one of the best Japanese manga artists in history) this is one of the less known works.

In fact, my copy is from a 1990s print run that didn’t actually flip the text (it’s old-school left to right) and has some pretty horrific cover-art. The one here, you might say, isn’t SO awful. Well… perhaps you can get over the frankly bizarre mish-mash of Hitler and Japanese geisha/schoolboy (holding baby?) Anyway – the volume #2 image is ugly as sin.

The first book of five introduces the three main plotlines. There is the story of Sohei Toge, who happens to be in Germany during the 1936 Olympic games when his brother is killed. In addition, two young German boys living in Japan at the same time (one Jewish, one Aryan) attempt to remain friends during the increasing hostilities in the lead-up to WW2.

Aryan Adolf has a complex relationship with his father, and while he initially doesn’t want to join the Hitler Youth – he’s sent off to Germany at the close of the first book.

Jewish Adolf is rough and tumble, and while his parents thought Japan would offer them protection from the evils of the Nazi regime, his father is asked to visit the Consulate (a dire fate, we imagine) at the close.

Toge, who has just discovered the importance of the Wagner statues, is forced back to Japan just as he is getting close the mystery.

As I mentioned above – I’m reading an old copy of this manga. It does come (as older volumes tended to before the advent of the internet) with a neat foreword from Tezuka interpreter Frank Schodt. In addition, volumes of the manga come attached with year-by-year accounts of happenings in the 1930s (and presumably the 1940s). These are very neat, and hopefully (although I can’t answer if they have) were retained in the contemporary Viz reprint.

As far as a review goes – I found the first book fairly engaging. Tezuka, even at his best (Ode to Kirihito) could still peter out into slapstick. Thus even his mature works have a tendency to sabotage themselves from the lofty critical comparisons (as the Japanese Tolstoy, for instance) one might like to make.

That said, there’s very little of that in the first book. The story weaves together complex political ideology (and a time period rife with pre-conceived generalizations about a complex and thorny period of history) intermingled into a fairly erudite plot. There are a lot of names, and enough perspectives to keep the pages moving fast. In fact, a lot of the pages take a bit longer than normal to read through. Plot plays a large enough part here to often outweigh the visuals – although the large-scale scenes of Nazi gatherings are fascinating.

Tezuka uses all the techniques he’d acquired up to this point for this large-scale epic. His infamous male-female dynamic is at work for Toge, and an interestingly choreographed sex sequence recalls the playful panel arrangement of Kirihito or the fantastic experimental work of AX. Reflections, pictures, and some lucid dream imagery really spice things up.

You can also feel touches of Monster, which I think copied quite a bit from the overall atmosphere of turmoil suggested by the novel. It’s interesting to note that Tezuka lived through the fire-bombing of Osaka during the war – there’s a real sense of history in-laid between the noir-ish (and perhaps a bit unsure) plotline. That’s the real strength, I think, the sense that you’re reading a vastly different (amazingly ambitious) perspective on the war.

I also must commend Tezuka for pulling a Laurence Sterne and using a black page to simulate darkness. I’m always a fan of any attempt to really push forward the comic panel (film still / book page / etc.) for more artistic use.

I want to see where this series goes. I really love Tezuka’s work, and his desire to challenge the medium and, here especially, forward a deeply political/moral/personal tale makes this a series worth picking up. At least for now.

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Still keeping on.

Really though, pretty soon the number will actually be less than 20 to go! So, sort of, we’re getting there.

34. Dragnet

An over-arching story (anyone who knows me can guess that I love this style the most)! What makes this one kind of cool (it’s actually a tad hum-drum – ack!) is the swordplay. Retsudo schemes with the head Yagyu (they’re pretty much ready to declare war at this point) to take out the Ogami. They come up with a tricky plan – to utilize a police net to capture the elusive assassin.

Thus, the first part of this tale you’ve seen before. Itto is picked up by an outside authority, resists, is dragged into the enemy lair, and readies his escape – but! Where it gets good is in the last act. Not only does Itto unleash the gun technology he got from the Gunsmith of Sakai in an earlier volume, he also takes on three Yagyu assassins at once. This wouldn’t be remarkable either, however the technique two of them use (in which one member captures the blade and sacrifices himself, while the other goes in for the attack) remains one of the more distinctive maneuvers used in the entire series. It still sticks out three years later.

Other than that, things are fairly straightforward. The plot doesn’t have extreme contours, it ends on an auspicious walk-out, and it’s yet another instance of the terrifying presence of Itto. But at least we get the hint things will only continue to boil between the Ogami and the Yagyu.

35. Night Stalker

I really love this story. Primarily because it covers an area (logging) that really won’t be seen again too deeply in the rest of the series. The story is simple – blisteringly simple. Daigoro happens to witness a murder (a man assassinates a high-ranking woman while she watches a logging demonstration) and he’s chased all over the surrounding forest until Itto appears and resolves the situation.

But what’s awesome here is the lack of dialogue. It’s almost completely pictorial – and these stories creep up every so often. Koike can pen a great yarn, but it’s also fun to see Kojima take center stage every once in a while. It’s very, very cool to see Daigoro-centric stories and minimalist use of dialogue. Throw in an intriguing narrative – this remains a memorable tale.

36. Cloud Dragon, Wind Tiger

Pretty cool title – fairly straightforward story. You’ve seen shades of this before – what happens when a retainer loses his leader? Well, generally they cling to those ideals for a while (or banish them in the case of the Zodiac Gang) until they get a chance to reclaim the past through a fight with Itto.

This is the story of one of those retainers, and the fairly meager existence he eeks out after Itto (as Shogunate executioner) kills his Lord. The man, now named Hozuki, spends the next four years quietly tending the gravesite – mourning the loss of his friend and liege. This would be fine, of course, except for the young warriors who trample through the gardens and disrupt the site – then decide to challenge Hozuki and are summarily killed.

Enter Itto, who turns down the 500 ryo payment to resume his four year-old fight and a final chance to settle the score with an old sparring partner. The story ends, as per usual, with a reserved and melancholy natural meditation.

Not an exceptional story, though the title metaphor (regarding the lifelessness of a Samurai without his Lord) is really quite fitting. It taps into the generational gap that Itto and Daigoro toe – particularly as the times around them are at complete upheaval. A straightforward, reserved take on the retainer dilemma.

37. Inn of the Last Chrysanthemum

The plight of the prostitute is one of the more intriguing concepts to come out of the series. It pervades every bit of the storyline, and creates a situation with commentary replete and thoughtful regarding the nature of gender roles and enforced labor.

In this story the focus is only marginally on the Ogami (who function something like Golgo in this one) as they enter a brothel and monitor the life of a young prostitute. This woman was forced, tragically, by the machinations of an estranged social-climber. Itto steps in at the last moment to clear things up and make a fitting point about familial devotion.

This story has always stuck out to me as unusually designed / almost messy? There’s a panel near the end where Itto strikes someone with a sword – and the blood spatter is horror-film-esque with all the blood. That said – the flowers look lovely (and reminiscent of that story some books ago with the ownership tablet). I remember this tale as blurry, a bit cliche, and another perspective in the evolving understanding of the female in ancient Japan.

38. Penal Code Article Seventy-Nine

A simple story of the human condition, and the importance of loyalty. Daigoro, while waiting for his father, wanders off from a temple and ends up the victim of a scared thief. He’s given the full brunt of the law, and only when the lady-thief steps in does he finally get his freedom. He runs off, knowing all too well the saga of a wolf-child.

As I said – simple. Sometimes the stories are more about exploring Japanese culture, and this one serves primarily as an exploration of the very odd punishment codes in Ancient Japan, as well as the life of a female thief. These Daigoro studies are also pretty endearing, and here we have one the emphasizes just what a brave little boy he is.

Overall, this is an alright volume. Despite having some less than thrilling stories, it actually has some very memorable moments. Dragnet starts off memorably, and Night Stalker looks unlike any other episode in the series. Excited to revisit the next chapter!

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This is a portion from the Will Eisner biography (A Spirited Life) I’m reading right now:

“P.S. – Lady Luck for the past couple of months has been awful – not even comic book quality.”

This is correspondence between Will and “Busy” Arnold – his publisher.

It nearly broke my heart to read this. For a man as hard working (and legendary) as Eisner to be summarily trashed really wounded me (mind boggling, I know).

But those stories about the early comic industry always portray such a hustle, a verve to be recognized and respected and create good work.

I identify! Totally. That’s the goal – quality material. And I just put myself in his shoes when I read that and – wooh – I felt his pain.

It’s so hard to throw yourself in and truly feel for something, only to be rejected. Hard indeed. And a bit of toughening up I’ll have to do.

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This is a panel from the 2009 book A Drifting Life by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. It’s a drawn autobiography about his influence in the comic-book world.

The fascinating thing in reading about the creation of the comics business from the 1940’s to the 1960’s – in Japan and America – was the tremendous balance between art and commerce created in the fledgling industry.

The same anxiety that Will Eisner felt as a 23 year old kid running “Police Comics” is mirrored in the creation of “Gekiga” comics by Yoshihiro Tatsumi. Or the battles for creative control waged by a young Osamu Tezuka. These situations revolved around young creators doing massive amounts of work – sometimes hundreds of pages a week – in an effort to make the medium profitable.

Beyond that, all three were enamored with the idea of creating bold stories. They drew their strength from their tremendous work ethic and their efforts to legitimize alternative art.

Incidentally, A Drifting Life won the 13th Osamu Tezuka Cultural Award and two Eisner Awards – rather fitting.

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Ah. Another one. Terrific.

The Twenty-Ninth: Floating Spirits/Lanterns for the Dead
(Labeled differently from Table of Contents to actual story…)
The first of the sixth book is pretty spare. Closer to the one-shot stories of the first book, it focuses on yakuza etiquette and tells a very gekiga-esque story about male honor and machismo. The best part is really the idea of the floating lantern – imbued as it is with a rather vivid imagistic symbolism.

The Thirtieth: Deer Chaser
Like the previous tale, this one comes with a hook. This time it’s the concept of the “deer-chaser”, or the groups who would stage duels and rake in cash in the process. Makes good on the ox-horse demon motif of the last book, but other than that it’s fairly simplistic combat.

The Thirty-First: Hunger Town
The rather straight-forward story of a food-mongering official and the surrounding effect on a series of villages in the area. Best for its opening panels, which combine a snap-shot flip-book style of storytelling unlike anything yet seen in the series. Also very cool for including a small dog (the first of its kind as well) and his humanizing effect on Daigoro.

The Thirty-Second: The Soldier is the Castle
By far the strongest, most interesting story in the batch. Beginning with a strange, ornate hiring ceremony involving buddhas, talented killers, and 1,000 ryo – it’s clear the stakes are high. What transpires is a crafty plot hatched by a desperate han to use Itto to kill a group of Edo officials and take the heat off han leaders.

While the initial slaughter is typical, the methods used are intriguing. Itto adopts a total-war tactic to ensure his success, and ultimately does battle with a Kurokawa encampment (readers will remember them as the allies of the Yagyu, ambivalent enemies of the Ogami.) Itto uses the installed, repeating-fire blaster from book 5 to full fruition – leading astute readers to theorize further Wolf-Kurokawa conflict.

The Thirty-Third: One Stone Bridge
And, remarkably, we have a two-episode arc. Nifty. This one focuses primarily on things from Daigoro’s perspective, as we see the ugly effects of the fire-maneuver in the last chapter.

The primary purpose of the chapter is to:
A. Prove Itto’s impossible strength
and, more importantly,
B. Align the Kurokawa against the Ogami. They finally make good on the (three or so) attacks against their organization and definitively elect to aid the Yagyu clan.

So, while I would rank this book as one of the less interesting (relatively predictable storylines, less fascinating historical diversions) it does have the handy effect of beginning the transition to the next act of the storyline. Itto, who at the beginning of the saga had relative freedom, is now faced with the (unfair) mobilization of the Yagyu clan and the (relatively warranted) interference of the Kurokawa ninjas.

Expect the stories to get weirder, cooler, and more intricate.

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