Saturday, January 24, 2009

Destroy All Superheroes: "Nana" 5 Review

Nana vol. 5
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe
Translation: Tomo Kimura

Capsule review: Hotel room trysts bookend Nana 5 as Nana and Hachi chase rock & roll fantasies and true love. Yazawa Ai's elegantly angular work gives the drama a fashion magazine gloss as new characters rise to prominence in the narrative and wishes fulfilled promise complications galore in this gripping, pivotal outing.

I had an epiphany during the recent Internet brouhaha over a certain caped crusader’s sudden passing. With stark clarity, I realized I have absolutely no emotional investment in that character, nor in any of his costumed compadres. Their lives, their deaths, their conflicts mean nothing to me after all these years. I remember as a teen I moped all day when I read about Jean Grey’s death. When DC killed off Superman in the 1990s, I was somewhat interested. Then I read the story and found it severely lacking except as a nakedly obvious publicity ploy and sales gambit.

And now, at this late hour, the bloom is definitely off the funeral lily. Because they constantly die and resurrect, because their stories seemingly have no end and the conflicts, plots and subplots endlessly repeat in a self-contained loop, because ultimately they’re nothing more than brand names and corporate logos, mainstream superheroes have achieved a flattening of effect. Or perhaps it's merely another example of the Law of Diminishing Returns. There are only so many times you can exploit the familiar, and there’s little drama or excitement amidst this colorful (or sometimes murky) frenzy, even when scripted by skilled writers. It’s meaningless. I’d be about as sad if someone murdered the Trix Rabbit.

So what fictional comic book characters do I care about? Thanks to the insanely appealing creative work of mangaka (that’s “comic book writer/artist” to you and me, Russ) Yazawa Ai, I’m absolutely obsessed with the soap operaish world of Nana, Hachi and all their friends. It’s all goopy, lovey-dovey drama queen stuff, but it’s compelling and addictive and fresh in a way Bat-this and X-that haven’t been in years. It’s happening as you read it!

I could say as much about Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, but instead of “goopy, lovey-dovey drama queen,” substitute the words “gory, gut-wrenching horror zombie freak.” When Kirkman kills a character, it’s as if he came to your house and personally punched you directly in the stomach.

Yazawa hasn’t killed any of her cast so far, but volume by volume, she shows no reluctance to torture the reader with each new story development. In Nana 5, she places Nana and Hachi in the front row for a Trapnest concert back in Hachi’s little hometown. On guitar for Trapnest? None other than Nana’s ex-boyfriend Ren, the spike-haired Sid Vicious of J-Pop. As Hachi sends desperate mental commands for Ren to take notice of Nana, Trapnest completes their set and exits the stage. No reaction, at least as far as Nana and Hachi are concerned.

Backstage, it’s a different matter entirely. Bassist Takumi takes the usually perfect Ren to task for screwing up a song, and Ren rushes for some private time to make a quick cellphone call to his old friend Yasu: “Yasu?! Why’s Nana here?!”

In Yazawa’s glamorous version of Japan, even drug abusing rock gods have tender hearts. And a fierce, Vivienne Westwood-wearing punk rock girl, as hard and as vulnerable as any stray cat or Holly Golightly, finds herself looking foxy in sunglasses, black cami tank and ragged blue jeans (Yazawa clothes all her characters in exquisitely specific outfits; you could hit a hip shop in Kichijoji or Harajuku and put together any of the cast’s exact looks), making her way to Ren’s hotel for one final confrontation, and to return the key that unlocks the chain around Ren’s neck…

Things in Nana, as in life, seldom go as planned. But Yazawa takes these moments and turns them into page-burning cliffhangers. And it’s here, in volume 5, major events change both Nana’s and Hachi’s lives forever. And this is because when she's not meddling in Nana's love life, Hachi assigns herself to a "secret mission" she's all too eager to tell everyone about-- finding a boyfriend for herself. Candidates abound. Bald lawyer Yasu, Nana's sweet natured but somewhat naive bandmate Nobu, underage man-whore Shin, and the Trapnest fangirl's idol, Takumi. Hachi is forever plagued by selfishness, indecision, unrealistically romantic notions and a flighty nature, and yet Yazawa makes her a sympathetic charmer.

As Hachi says, "It's been a roller-coaster, but what an amazing day!"

But still, there's a strange melancholy that hangs over the series' signature “Hey Nana” narration:

Hey, Nana… I totally adored you. I wanted to be like you. I still feel that way to this day. So please… Sing for me one more time.

What happens down the line to Nana and Hachi that separates them and gives birth to this sad, dreamy reverie? Do the pressures of rock star fame alienate Nana from Hachi? Or... does something even worse tear their platonic love apart?

Vivid characters and heartbreaking situations and no idea whether we’re bound for joy or despair. Now that’s how you make a reader care about your protagonists. Sorry, superheroes, for all your sturm und drang and your plastic crap on clearance at Wal-Mart, you just can’t compete with Nana. And its plastic crap at Animate and Mandarake.

No Music, No Life: "Nana" 4 Review

Nana vol. 4
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe
Translation: Tomo Kimura

Let me tell you right now the outfit that Sachiko wears in scene where she inadvertently faces off with Hachi outside the restaurant where she and Hachi’s boyfriend Shoji work just absolutely kills me! What is that… some kind of fleece Alpine bonnet? With dangling puffballs? And her backpack matches her full-length skirt; obviously, she made both of them herself… she’s a fashionista with a pixie cut!

Sorry, I have a weakness.

On a cold night, Nana Osaki keeps her hapless-in-love friend Nana company as they wait in the parking lot outside for Shoji to get off work. Hachi learns Nana is from some frigid prefecture where snow is common, and listens as her punk friend sings some soft song to the night….

That’s when Yazawa Ai brings Hachi, Shoji and Sachiko together for a tearful confrontation where the painful truth emerges. The build-up is exquisite, as is the payoff. Nana sticks up for her friend, ready to pound the two-timing Shoji right in the face with one of her ring-laden fists. And Hachi? She’s the one who’s been betrayed, and this after waiting a whole year, saving every yen for the move, sacrificing everything to live her dream for both of them. How does she react?

Nana volume 4 is like an emotional elevator for Hachi and the hapless readers. Up- Hachi’s growing fascination with Nana. Down- Shoji. Up- tickets front row center for a Trapnest concert in her hometown. Down- no one to go with. Up- Black Stones’ first Tokyo show. Down- Nana’s gosu-rori groupie Misato.

The middle section depicts the show itself, and Yazawa throws in a lot of little reportorial details. The place only holds a limited number of standing-room-only bodies, the cover includes a ticket for a free drink. I once ordered a Coke at one of these shows and the bartender looked at me like she’d just met Forrest Gump live and in person. Oh yeah, I’ve been to quite a few shows here in Japan; only we don’t call them “shows” or “concerts” here. The preferred term is “live.” You might tell a friend the next day, “I went to Black Stones’ live last night.”

“Where was it?”

“At the live house.”


The show takes place in a small venue somewhere in Shinjuku (Check out local landmark, the Epson building, as Junko and Kyosuke drive past on their way to the show). After the first band, the crowd’s ready to split, but Hachi and Misato (in sausage roll hair, her floral and petticoated skirt and knee-socks, she looks like a living doll) perform a little impromptu sketch:

Hachi: Ya wanna know what? This next band is, like, the best band in the world!

Misato (shouting): I totally agree! Doesn’t Blast just totally rule?! The singer, Nana, is amazing! Her voice is so strong and beautiful!

Their interest piqued, a few curious onlookers filter back into the live house. Yazawa makes even the extras stand out. There’s the tall girl in the spiky, modified-ducktail haircut and star print tee who wants to know if the band’s all girls, her friend in the plaid beret, the buzz cut dude wearing a slick motorcycle jacket and his pal with the rolled-up sleeves and sweatband on his wrist. Everyone seems to be fully accessorized. It must be a blast for her to come up with these distinct and accurate hipster looks. I’ve seen these people! At lives!

And then Blast takes the stage, Nana tying a rose to the mic stand.

There's even a chance the show might've taken place in Shin-Okubo, a neighborhood just a stop from Shinjuku on the Yamanote Line. It's certainly close enough for Junko and Kyosuke to drive there, and there are a few live houses just outside the station within easy walking distance. In fact... here's one now. You've seen the Nana version of a live show in Japan, now here's the real thing. Melt-Banana at Earthdom, September 2007:

What it lacked in Nana-like elegance and fashionability, it more than made up for in energy and power. Melt-Banana's total sonic attack destroyed eardrums and the crowd moshed with frantic intensity. I ended up hobbled like an oldster, leaning on my umbrella as if it were a cane, my body sore, but my heart soaring. Welcome to my world!

That’s at least one of the many ways this book gets its addictive hooks in you- presenting the familiar and the ultra-dramatic side-by-side. Like the semi-similar Love & Rockets, Nana presents a heightened reality filled with situations that are similar to things you’ve been through, only amplified for fictional effect. Nana is an unrepentant soap opera, in comics form. And that Yazawa Ai is a fiend. Pure evil, I tells ya! She created these characters, all the cute girls and pretty boys, put them in a fun milieu and set them into motion with Nana and Hachi as the story’s beating, bleeding, loving hearts, their every action creating emotional chaos, making the readers want more, more, MORE.

Pure wickedness.

If the Nanaishness is too much for you, check out my Melt-Banana show reviews here and here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Batman and S.E. Hinton, Together Again-- "Showcase Presents Batman and the Outsiders" 1 Review!

Showcase Presents Batman and the Outsiders
Publisher: DC Comics
Scripts: Mike W. Barr and Marv Wolfman
Art: Jim Aparo, George Perez, Bill Willingham, Steve Lightle, Dan Day, Jerome Moore, Alex Saviuk, Jan Duursema, Rick Hoberg, Trevor Von Eeden, Romeo Tanghal, Mike DeCarlo, Sal Trapani, Pablo Marcos, Bill Anderson

Capsule Review: Batman quits the Justice League and forms a new team with Black Lightning, Metamorpho and a group of would-be heroes he conveniently finds lying around somewhere. They all learn to love and share and care while battling less than menacing villains, then team up with the Teen Titans and Ronald Reagan in this fast-paced artifact from a kinder, gentler time when samurai could kill at will and Batman would just mildly disapprove.

Batman stewards a group of outcast greasers as they fight for respect against the socs in a small Oklahoma town. When Johnny Cade accidentally kills head soc Bob Sheldon, he and Ponyboy take it on the lam, and Batman must make a desperate choice between justice and his new friends. This massive black and white volume reprints some of S.E. Hinton's finest, most moving works of young adult/superhero fiction.

Actually, in this collection, Batman can’t get any of the stupid, jerky Justice League for Jerks to help him invade Markovia, a fake-ass sovereign nation along the lines of Latveria, the Grand Duchy of Fenwick or Mipos to rescue a key Wayne Enterprises employee, so he throws a bat-hissy and quits the group, then runs off to take care of business himself. Coincidentally enough, Markovia is absolutely crawling with B-list super-powered weirdos eager to join an overly emotional basketcase in a bat-costume on his highly personal quest for whatever he thinks justice is this month.

And that’s how Batman forms the Outsiders. OUTSIDERS ROLE CALL!

Cambot... Gypsy... Tom Servo... Crooooowwww...

No, no, no. No more silliness. There's Geo-Force, a super-powered prince with a name like a forgotten Ted Turner-produced 1980s pro-environmental cartoon for kids; Halo, a perky amnesiac whose brainlessness would overwhelm even Melody of Pussycats fame; Metamorpho, the zombie-faced guy who can change into anything as long as his own leering face remains attached; Black Lightning, whose lightning isn’t black but who gets that name because that’s how we identified our African American heroes back in the day; and Katana, the fierce sword-wielding Japanese woman made up of about a thousand samurai clichés and a bad haircut.

What’s funny about Katana is her sword isn’t actually a katana. I mean, she code-named herself after a weapon she doesn’t even use! That’s almost like Batman wearing his bat-guise and calling himself the Great Canadian Grizzly Bear.

While fondly remembered, none of the stories here are exactly classics. The villains lack interest and threat (Agent Orange? Force of July?), the dialogue tends toward the clichéd or expository, the personal conflicts aren't particularly compelling. And the entire justification for Batman’s quitting the Justice League is pretty arbitrary. Conveniently, the State Department asks the League to stay out of Markovia, and that means not only can’t they help Batman, but also Batman can’t take covert action on his own. But don’t Superman and the others regularly act against various threats without Justice League sanction? Don’t they have some kind of plausible deniability? Is anyone going to be fooled if Batman quits the League, completes his mission, then rejoins his buddies in their little super-club a year or two later (as he apparently did)?

And even though his close friend is involved, it seems Batman is suddenly interpreting his anti-crime mandate pretty liberally. Suddenly, it's imperative that he save everyone on Earth from everything. And he just as whimsically narrows it again when Black Lightning tells him Katana’s killed three people in cold blood—she immediately admits as much-- and Batman shrugs it off. Just eggs and omelets, I guess.

Come to think of it, it’s amazing how lightly Katana gets off in this more genteel 1980’s comic. If this were “re-imagined” for today’s audience, the killings would’ve been lovingly rendered in photo-realism but digitally colored with blood everywhere and a lot of murkily rendered shadows. And then she’d brood over her justifications for the next five issues and Batman would snarl at her in between disembowelments. And bowel movements. Nowadays Batman gets pissed when Batgirl stops a guy’s heart temporarily, but just twenty years ago, slashing them to death with a razor-sharp sword was okey-dokey.

It also makes no sense Batman would attempt to hide his civilian identity from his teammates, yet constantly hang out with them as Bruce Wayne and tell them about all the stuff Batman makes him buy. With Superman, the whole “Clark Kent wears glasses” disguise is part of the willing suspension of disbelief, but here there’s really no logical narrative reason Bruce Wayne (depicted as a dorky ass by Barr, more like Clark Kent played by Christopher Reeve than the familiar drunken playboy version) has to be so solicitous of Batman’s new allies. I can understand why the dimwitted Halo can't figure it out, even when Bruce Wayne is constantly taking her on shopping trips (which, by the way, is more than a little disturbing; she’s about 15 and looks 25 and he’s roughly twice her age and it comes off as a Pretty Woman kinda thing which is just… it’s... it's gross).

But what about Katana and Geo-Force, who have the capacity for higher thought? It stands to reason they’d notice Wayne and Batman are the same guy at some point.

Logic problems aside, each issue of the Outsiders comes across as an action-packed, streamlined example of mid-80s comic book entertainment efficiency. Barr keeps the narrative moving and moving fast. There are subplots galore, such as the secret of Katana’s blade and Halo’s amnesia, but the main stories themselves rarely last more than an issue or two. The abrupt scene changes can make for some choppy reading for those of us now accustomed to slow-moving, drawn out origin arcs full of post modern self-referential dialogue ripped off from Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino, but also makes these condensed comics crackle.

Jim Aparo’s clean art scans like Neal Adams lite, with a few Alex Toth touches. Just simple, straightforward, easy-to-follow visual storytelling. No funky shaped panels or jumbled pages, no relying on “widescreen” panels to avoid drawing backgrounds. Here's what happens when you take Aparo's art and sculpt it:

You get something that's a reasonable facsimile of an actual human being. Believable proportions, yet still recognizably heroic. Not every comic book artist translates so well into three dimensions.

Aparo contributes one of the few halfway decent Tokyo backdrops in Western comics when the Outsiders head to Japan to pursue all of Katana’s personal mysteries. As someone who’s lived in Japan for almost five years, I’m very sensitive to visual verisimilitude whenever superheroes make the Pacific leap to my adopted home. Aparo’s Tokyo streets are somewhat wider than in the real city, but he makes up for it by carpeting them with little dots accurately representing the teeming, urban crowds. You are rarely alone in Tokyo. Aparo also makes an attempt to carbuncle the buildings with advertising. It’s been a while since I read the Chris Claremont/Frank Miller Wolverine miniseries, but I don’t remember being nearly so convinced the characters were actually where the story claimed they were. Jim Aparo does at least as good a Tokyo as the TV show Heroes; not perfect, probably not exact if you’ve actually lived here, but close enough for superhero work.

Visual verisimilitude is one thing, characterization is another. Katana is one of a long line of arrogant, angry Japanese in American comics, probably dating back to the blatant propaganda of WWII. She's very much in the mold of Sunfire, the second Dr. Light and Silver Samurai. It’s like half the people in comic book Japan are angry yakuza or members of ancient ninja clans clinging to a devotion to Bushido via Hollywood and Michael Crichton. And the other half are their innocent victims. I don't think I've ever read a Japanese character in an American comic book that made me believe the author had done anything more in terms of research than watching Charles Bronson and Toshiro Mifune in The Bushido Blade, or part of the Shogun miniseries.

And yet, I still find her engaging. She's the Wolverine of the group, a welcome antidote to Geo-Force's blandness and foil to Halo's dippy blonde routine, especially once Barr sticks the two of them together in a surrogate family relationship.

On a related note, now that I've learned Buffy the Vampire Slayer devotes a few issues to Japanese settings, I'm going to be checking that out soon.

About halfway through the book, there’s an Outsiders/Teen Titans crossover with bucktoothed turncoat Terra as a major player. I quit reading Teen Titans just prior to the Terra storyline, having pledged my loyalty to their competition, Uncanny X-Men. Thus I have no idea of the importance of this brattish bowl-cut kid in Titans lore. In the 1980s, you weren't allowed to read both books and blood-drenched rumbles between fans were commonplace at conventions. I remember one time Sodapop...

So I want to ask longterm Titans fans-- was Terra always so obnoxious? She’s like the uncute mutant offspring of Lauren Tewes during her coked-up Love Boat days and Molly Ringwald during the first season of The Facts of Life, but with Jo Polniaczek's worst tendencies and none of her good points. Wolfman even gives her some faux tough girl dialogue about only giving her friends her "name, rank and serial number."

It’s no coincidence Geo-Force and Terra have similar powers and costumes, and George Perez fills lots of tiny panels with dozens of leaping, punching figures with surprising clarity. Maybe not so surprising considering that’s Perez’s reputation after all these years, but it’s still impressive to come across it almost by accident in a book about the Outsiders. Dr. Light, once and future rapist, makes an appearance and, thanks to the soul-crushing, plot-hole-riddled slop that was Identity Crisis, he has a retroactive creep-out factor that threatens to spoil every page he’s on. Finding him in an old comic like this is like finding someone’s soiled underwear when you turn back the covers on your supposedly clean and unslept in motel bed. Can't fault Wolfman or Barr for another writer's drippy doings years after the fact.

The book's happiest surprise is the Trevor Von Eeden issue. It’s jarring to see Von Eeden’s expressionistic drawings after hundreds of pages of Aparo old school formalism. The collision of Barr’s stripped-down script and this almost avant-garde art approach makes for some fascinating creative dissonance that might’ve propelled this book to A-list status. After all, the 80s were a time of artistic experimentation and super-star pencillers. Just think of Frank Miller on Daredevil as his art turned uglier and uglier (he contributes the cover to Outsiders Annual #1, reprinted here, and it looks almost stodgy) over the years, Bill Sienkiwicz tossing around oceans of black ink on New Mutants after a deathly dull Sal Buscema run almost killed that book, and the amazing Steve Bissette/John Totleben run on Swamp Thing back home at DC.

And I don’t mean to kick Bill Willingham while he’s taking so many shots lately, but his art here comes off like the poor man’s John Byrne, minus a lot of the appeal. It's adequate and probably worked better in color, but in the reprint it looks like lots of tiny tic-tac lines that give everything the same monotonous texture. It probably worked better in four-color than here in black and white, but von Eeden’s thick-thin edginess and heavy spotted blacks pop off these pages much more powerfully than Willingham’s bloopy Byrneisms. Much more to my taste is the Dan Day/Pablo Marcos Paul Gulacy rip-off from Outsiders issue #13, even with the wonky, distorted figures.

Well, it probably sounds as if I hate Batman and the Outsiders, but actually this book is a lot of fun. There’s even a guest appearance by Ronald Reagan at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. How’s that for a straight-from-the-time-capsule moment? Willingham probably loved drawing that story.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Nana's Putting the Band Back Together and This Time, They're on a Mission from God: "Nana" 3 Review

Nana vol. 3
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe
Translation: Goto Koji

Is apartment 707 cursed? Who was killed there and just how did this bloody murder go down? Nana O, relaxing in her bubble bath with a cigarette would certainly like to know, and a freaked out Hachi would love to tell her- if only she could stay on topic and stop digressing into speculation about Ms. Yamada's gruesomely old and wrinkly love life...

Oh, never mind- it’s just Hachi’s (the comic character formerly known as Nana Komatsu) imagination running away with her again. You know, like when she talks about the Demon Lord who’s intent on destroying her and her boyfriend Shoji’s secret lover, Sachiko. Even Shoji plays along with the last one; it’s one of Hachi’s adorable personality quirks that she invents imaginary people from time to time.

Yeah, that Hachi is a quirky person all right. She’s flighty, insecure, energetic, outgoing and loyal, especially where her new friend Nana Osaki is concerned. When Nana’s ex-bandmate Nobu hits town and the two put on an impromptu concert in the apartment, Hachi’s smitten with the idea they should form a new group and challenge rock stars Trapnest for musical supremacy. She’s also obsessively reflective and secretly picks apart her self-perceived flaws mercilessly. After sending Shoji one too many text messages, she lambastes herself as a selfish jerk…

Then it turns out there really is a girl named Sachiko. And if anything, she’s even cuter than Hachi. She just started working at the Denny’s-like restaurant where Shoji’s employed. Hachi had better watch out!

Now Yazawa Ai’s turning the drama volume knob up to 11 on the Marshall stack that is Nana. Lost jobs, mysterious bald lawyers with multiple ear-piercings, potential extracurricular love interests, new jobs that flat-out suck due to imperious office seniors. And just when everything was going so well for the girls.

Well, it wouldn’t be drama or even a story without conflict. Nana’s conflicts are rarely the physical kind. No one’s ever trapped in a burning building… wait!

No one’s trapped in a burning building are they? Are the Nanas safe?

Because that would be too much… Whew! That’s what becoming a Nana addict does to you. You start staying up late nights worrying about Nana and Hachi, about Shoji and Sachiko. The only people you don’t worry about are Junko and Kyosuke; they’re too self-possessed and rock steady to cause concern. In fact, they’re so together Kyosuke can talk freely about the past love who broke his heart and all Junko will do is laugh at his pain and tell him, “Nice teen years, dude.”

Junko and Kyosuke are cool, but if Yazawa had to write a series about their lives, it'd be pretty snoozeworthy and wouldn't inspire film adaptations, like the two Nana flicks, starring Nakashima Mika:

Huh. That still looks like something out of the Sin City movie. Some enterprising Frank Miller fan could add some spot red on Nakashima's lips there. Feel free, Miller fans! But I'll stick with Nana.

A true master of delicious character (and reader) torture, no sooner does Yazawa establish a status quo than she starts tearing it (and our souls) apart. Not just with the appearance of Sachiko, but the also the joining of the cast of Shin, the underage kid with a string of lovers that would be the envy of a Lothario twice his age and further developments in Nana’s and Hachi’s growing platonic love affair. Some of the plot points you can spot before the characters do- calculatedly fascinating nonetheless, perhaps even more so because of the “slow motion train wreck” aspect- others are more surprising.

And her art continues to grow on me. I’m not so sure the gray-toned photo backgrounds work every time, but we’re not here for a Tokyo travelogue. With the plots growing primarily out of the character’s choices and decisions, internal and external conflicts (the emotional kind), the elegant, angular figure-drawing carries the story visually rather than the settings. Not that Yazawa doesn’t give a sense of place; after all, apartment 707 is almost a character in itself, and the stylish Nanas need equally fashion-forward environments in which to love and hate. That's where Jackson Hole (home of the Jackson Burger- Hachi swears by them) and Sabrina, the funktacular vintage store where Nana finds her first Tokyo job, come in.

As I’ve written in my previous reviews, one of my favorite aspect of Yazawa’s artwork is the specificity of outfits. I’m a huge fan of Japanese street style, and I’m always buying FRUiTS, CUTiE (it's for independent girls!) and sometimes even Zipper magazines to check out the latest fashion trends here. I mean, you can’t always take a trip to Shibuya, Harajuku or Omotesando, so you have to absorb this stuff somehow!

Here's Nakashima Mika in full-on Nana regalia:

Nana Osaki sports rocker chick-wear, possibly from Black Peace Now, the gothic and Lolita fashion line you find in punk/goth boutiques all over; it's infinitely cooler than anything at Hot Topic and ten times more expensive. Or maybe some smaller shop, like the punk store I found just off Takeshita-dori a few years back. The name escapes me (it was something like "Up Yours!" or "Fuck Off, You Bastards!" or "Sit on it, Fonzie!" or something equally outre... I'll go back someday and take some photos and the name won't be anything like that and I'll be embarrassed), but they had Wehrmacht caps for punks intent on giving straight society the finger. Nana's usually dressed in lots of black, visible bra straps, plaid asymmetrical miniskirts, heavy engineer boots and her signature piece, the zippered motorcycle jacket.

Hachi is sort of hime-gyaru, “princess girl,” a femmy look usually sported by women in their late teens or early 20s. It’s like big sister to the gyaru style bursting out of the 109 building in Shibuya. Check out her belted blue dress on the comic’s cover- vaguely 50s style, sort of timeless but with the cutesy touches of knee socks and open-toed pumps with high heels. And then there are the Blast boys, wearing creepers while they back Nana musically during their practices. No matter which character, Yazawa’s art must be a boon to cosplayers.

In the bonus story, “Junko’s Place,” Yazawa continues to blend the supporting cast as bald cat Yasu and the androgynous Nobu visit Hachi’s friend at her snack bar, only to find it’s closed. Ambitious gal, that Junko. Probably working another job or guest starring in another comic for some extra bucks or something.

And here's a bonus for you- movie Nana Nakashima Mika singing her 2007 hit, "Life," the theme song to a TV drama adaptation of another comic series called... Life. Probably launching a billion late night drunken karaoke renditions, although many of the people I know pop in to sing a few songs in the middle of the day:

Yazawa Ai is my own Demon Lord... Demon Lady... she has me hooked on this series, hooked madly. I haven't fallen this hard for a comic since the day I picked up Love & Rockets on a whim. In fact, there's a superficial similarity between the soap opera-ish doings in Nana and those in Love & Rockets. You know, two young women living their lives, some punk rock and... er... there it pretty much ends.

PS- Nana cosplay is pretty popular. Here is a link to a couple of Taiwanese girls doing just about the best Nana/Hachi duo I've seen. See? Yazawa's specificity of costuming makes it easy!


Monday, January 19, 2009

Can't Get Enough Nana in Your Comics Diet: "Nana" 2 Review

Nana vol. 2
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe
Translation: Goto Koji

What happens when one girl named Nana meets another girl named Nana? Will physics allow two Nanas to occupy virtually the same physical space, or will the universe die screaming as anti-matter and matter collide, ripping apart the space-time continuum? Actually, all potential problems are solved when punk Nana Osaki notices girly Nana Komatsu’s personality resemblance to a famous dog and renames her friend Hachi. Thus reducing the Nana surplus by one and saving reality as we know it.

The fun starts when Shoji, Nana K’s long distance boyfriend, sends her a special text message: “Cherry blossoms R blooming!” and tells her he finally got into art school. So she quits her video store job, runs through the snow in her monster lace-up platform boots, jumps the shinkansen for Tokyo for their long-awaited reunion. She’s saved her money, waited ever so patiently and now all her dreams are coming true…

If only Nana K can be patient for a few hours more. The shinkansen’s delayed due to snow and there’s only one empty seat- empty but for a sinister looking black guitar case guarding the sleeping girl in the window seat next to it. This girl is nothing like Nana K; she’s all dressed up in black, looks like an erotic vulture in her leather jacket, thigh-high fishnets and clunky engineer boots.

Nana K’s decision to take the seat changes both of their lives. And her name!

You know, with the comic series emerging as one of Japan's top-selling titles of all time and the 2005 film adaptation spawning even more Nanamania, a sequel became inevitable:

Nana 2 debuted in 2006. Again, Nakashima Mika starred as Nana O, the fame hungry punk rocker. But Miyazaki Aoi didn't reprise her role as Hachi. Why? What do I look like, Japan Film Insider? Whatever the reason, Ichikawa Yui took over the role. The sequel wasn't as big a hit as the first, and a few people I've talked to about it recently expressed their disappointment with both movies, and their preference for the animated series. Oh well, at least Nose Anna returned as Junko!

Anyway, back to the comic review.

And so Yazawa Ai finally brings our two Nanas together, on a snowbound train aimed at Tokyo. Through various circumstances and perhaps the machinations of Nana K's personal deity/devil the Demon Lord, the girls end up as roommates in a funky Tokyo suburb along what I’m guessing is the Sumida River. I base this on my own scientific Nana research, consisting of going to Tokyo and looking for a river. I wanted to go to Kojima-cho to look for Jackson Hole and have a Jackson Burger (Hachi's favorite food), but a nasty cold and frequent chilly downpours caused me to limit myself merely to reading about it, and having Wendy's in Shibuya instead.

Yazawa also begins weaving together the supporting casts. At first it seemed as though we were going to be treated to parallel narratives but Yazawa skillfully mixes the very different characters to create dramatic tension and humor.

Nana K’s impulsive nature comes to the fore as she falls head over heels in platonic love with her slightly sinister, definitely mysterious doppelganger. If fate and coincidence are to be recurring themes, then it certainly seems that Nana K’s intuition serves her well. Because the story cannot happen unless she appends herself to Nana O’s life, works her way into the center despite their differing backgrounds and outlooks. Failing that, both characters and all their friends would be out of work and they'd end up hanging around Junko's snack bar all day. And we would have nothing to read.

Nana K is a reckless romantic, while Nana O is coolly self-possessed. But how will her punk rock façade hold up when living with a girl who loves Trapnest, the very band her own lover abandoned her to join (to the point of adorning their shared pad with a massive fannish poster of the group)… with her love crazed, puppydog-like-in-her-clumsy-enthusiasm roomie? That’s the origin of the name Hachi.

Hachiko was a dog who waited at Shibuya Station every day for her college professor owner even after he died. A symbol of loyalty, she’s immortalized in a statue outside the station, and the exit to that area is named after her: the Hachiko Exit. People say if you stand there long enough, the one you’d most like to see will eventually walk by. You can speed up the process by simply text messaging that person and arranging a rendezvous beforehand. But given the mob usually lounging around the Hachiko statue, you should probably wave a flag.

Nana, meet Hachi, your very own loyal, loving pet girl friend.

I think we can all agree Nakashima Mika is perfect as Nana O. She's also a big-time singing star in her own right, and released an album called The End: Nana starring Mika Nakashima that features her songs from the second film. Her comics connection continues- last fall she had a hit song with the theme to the TV drama adaptation of the comic Life.

And despite falling victim to the law of diminishing returns, the movie certainly looks like the comic:

Volume 2 is where the story really gets going, where Yazawa sets up Hachi’s fascination with Nana’s shadowy past. It’s strongly character driven, with Hachi’s manic energy linking her with her namesake, entangling them both in each other’s lives. Things don’t so much happen as Hachi makes them happen, from wheedling her way into her dream apartment with Nana, to finding a job at a hip vintage clothing store, to spending all her money getting set up in Tokyo.

Beyond the addictive charms of the lead story, Yazawa gives us the fun and frivolous “Junko’s Place” backup story, where the Nana cast break the fourth wall while remaining totally in character. Their awareness not only of their existence as fictional comic book characters but also of the cast hierarchy is hilariously meta. As much as I love the narrative, as I accumulated volumes I found myself flipping back to "Junko’s Place" to catch up on Jun and her boyfriend and their little area of the Nana world. Every time Yazawa hints that Junko’s restaurant might close due to lack of business only intensified my obsession. What if Junko’s Place does close? What will she do? What will we do?

Good god… Nana is a drug. You should have to get a doctor’s okay before buying it. A prescription or something, and your health should be carefully vetted before they hand it out. On the other hand, some stressed out, over-worked mothers here are actually turning over all their parental responsibilities to the Nana comic series and allowing it to raise their children:

PS- Note how the covers actually tell a wordless little story of a day in the lives of the two Nanas. On the cover of volume 1, Nana O wakes first and reads the paper in their cozy little dining alcove, Hachi takes longer to get dressed but appears on volume 2, they have breakfast, go downstairs on volume 3, and on subsequent covers do some shopping, have lunch, ride the trains...

Pretty sneaky, Yazawa Ai!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Bad Things Come in Threes: “Batgirl" 3 review

Batgirl 3
Publisher: DC Comics
Writer: Adam Beechen
Penciller: Jim Calafiore
Inker: Mark McKenna

Colorist: Nathan Eyring

Capsule review: Batgirl issue 3... A couple of pages of boring exposition followed by a couple of pages of standard-issue fight scenes do not a story make. You'd also think the writer might've taken time to... you know... actually read some of the main character's previous title in order to develop a characterization more consistent with... Oh to hell with that-- you'd also think the writer would at least give the main character a personality worth reading about. But three issues in, that'd be expecting too much of this paltry, hackish miniseries.

The pointy people come out to play courtesy of J. Calafiore’s jagged artwork in Batgirl #3. Why bother to threaten people with a sword when you could just slice them open with the side of your face, or the edge of your shoulder?

With a decidedly mediocre script by Adam Beechen and Calafiore’s spiny art and “widescreen” layouts, this issue is the very definition of "filler." Crimefighter comic book generica. We know there’s a big confrontation coming between Batgirl and David Cain, but it takes place in issue 6 so Batgirl has to do something between the first issue and the last. And what that is, apparently, is swipe the storyline of the old Street Fighter video game. Lots of henchpeople for Batgirl to toss around while her energy bar gets lower and lower until she reaches the big Boss Fight at the end, interrupted by clumsily written cut scenes.

In this outing, Batgirl has teamed up with some chick in a costume from the Tron reject pile to find and kill David Cain, her biological father. But first they have to deal with Ravager, who's also angry at her own father and a small army of girls who broke into the Marvel universe and stole Deadpool’s dirty laundry. Daddy issues might make for an interesting subtext in a story about a young woman who wants to kill her old man, and you can imagine what a more inspired writer would do with the concept. But that would require effort, and the Batgirl miniseries is apparently all about doing the least a writer can do and still call it writing.

Actually, the biggest problem isn't the lame overly familiar plotting and yawn inducing "action" sequences. It's the stilted characterization. Beechen shows once again why he’s the Batgirl fan’s writer of last resort. It's not bad enough that he opens the issue with an on-the-nose fantasy sequence that hamfistedly puts his inability to grasp Batgirl on full display, but later he injects an unwelcome whiny note into Batgirl’s narration:

“It shouldn’t be like this. Nothing in my life should be like this. It’s not fair.”

You know, it’s nice that Batgirl has finally found a voice. It’s just too bad it’s such a wimpy, boring one and comes at the cost of all her other chops. Evidently a year as an ESL student teaches you mainly to be a bland costumed mope.

I remember a time when "fair" or "not fair" didn't enter to her thinking, when all Batgirl wanted was to be Batgirl. To kick ass and not worry about taking names because she wouldn’t have understood them anyway. When she exulted in her abilities to an extent that frightened her confidant Barbara Gordon. If she was having emotional problems, she punched and kicked some evil minion half to death and Batman would have to pull her off and lecture her with his own fists and feet.

Now the girl who once exposed her face to government agencies so she wouldn't have to mess with all that "secret identity" crap just wants that tired old cliché, the “normal life.” What a comedown for a formerly bad-ass character. With this miniseries, Beechen seems determined to strip away everything that made the character vital and replace it with standard-issue teen super-person emo borrowed from other, much more entertaining, sources.

What happened to the girl who frequently went toe-to-toe with Batman (in issue #50 of her old series she and Bats almost killed each other), who defeated the deadly Lady Shiva? It's a good idea to make things difficult for your protagonist, but in this issue, she has trouble fighting a cadre of characters so perfunctory they don't even have names or faces. Hell, she looks like Robin would give her a run for her money these days. Back in her original series she’d have cut a bloody swath through all these costumed geeks.

Oh, and by the way, at one point Batgirl was unique. A freak. Her father had to start her assassin training practically from birth and deny her language in order to channel it into physical expression. It worked that one time, and the end result was an isolated, emotionally stunted young woman who was so alone in the world she'd embrace even Batman's version of tough love.

Now it seems anyone at any age can learn to be Batgirl. All they have to do is pump iron and wear tights. And you might think someone brilliant enough to create an army of assassins would find a more secluded area for their training. According to this book, they practice down at the local gym inside some nondescript brick building that looks like it came out of a poorly-written and illustrated "How To Draw Boring Superhero Comics" instructional book. But with writing this dull, why expect the settings to be interesting? Early in the book, there's even a fight on a... yawn... decrepit urban basketball court complete with not-very-believable grunge and weathering.

I suppose it's conducive to a revenge-quest when the target spends his time being nefarious right there in your own hometown. Hey, even an otherwise colorless supporting character (who Batgirl apparently has fallen head over heels for despite only talking to him once or twice in the narrative) gets to travel to Indonesia. Batgirl, on the other hand, has to pursue her "Redemption Road" through local settings that wouldn't have taxed an old Apple IIC computer's graphic capabilities running a Scott Adams Questprobe adventure game. I don't know how comic book accounting works; maybe having Batgirl's target hiding out in some exotic locale would've strained the penny-ante budget and thought put into this... this... I almost hesitate to call it a "story."

I've always felt you told a story because you had to, because it was bursting to escape your imagination. That the story itself would justify the telling. Batgirl #3 is a comic that doesn’t justify anything, unless it's keeping Adam Beechen the hell away from telling anymore Batgirl stories.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

When the Cream Rises to the Top, Skim It Off: "Skim" Review from Last Year

Writer: Mariko Tamaki
Artist: Jillian Tamaki
Publisher: Groundwood Books

I wrote this last year, before Skim jumped onto all the "Best of 2008" lists. Well, at least one I know of. And it richly deserves its place there. I want to revisit it as I refocus this blog's direction.

Ahhh... the joys of being smart enough to see through the bullshit, but not so self-assured you can do anything about it or rise above.

It’s 1993, a Canadian suburb and Kimberly Keiko Cameron is 16 years old and depressed. Which- if I remember my own 16th year correctly- is almost a redundant statement. She's an alien among her peers and her friends and enemies at her all-girls school call her Skim because, as she explains, she’s not. Skim and her best friend Lisa are novice witches, and protect themselves (poorly) against the psychic bruising of high school life with pentacles, cynicism and sarcasm.

After a classmate’s boyfriend commits suicide, Skim finds herself under scrutiny as a “gothic” and an individualist. Almost everyone seems to think she’s next. Lisa expresses her contempt for the whole affair and everyone involved, while others opportunistically try to pad their school resumes and no one seems to care how the girl involved feels about this outpouring of well-intentioned but partially sham sympathy.

Skim herself has more on her mind than suicide and the sympathy fads of the herd-minded. She’s become interested in Ms. Archer, the exciting, free-flowing English teacher who tells her she has the eyes of a fortune-teller and fires her imagination.

Mariko Tamaki limns a first person narrative through Skim’s diary entries as the whole mixed-up drama unfolds. She presents Skim as a fully-realized protagonist, an introspective, occasionally self-doubting yet incredibly intelligent and perceptive young woman. Mariko handles this narration with skill, especially in scenes where Skim’s diary entries provide ironic counterpoint to the on-panel action. Early in the story, Lisa asks Skim how she broke her arm. “I fell off my bike,” Skim replies.

The truth? She tripped on her Wiccan altar and fell on her mom’s candelabra.

Throughout Skim, Mariko explores the myriad ways life's dumb realities confound our expectations, even if they're less than grandiose. It's not just that people say one thing and do another. It's also that it's tough to take photos of the cast on your right hand with your left when you're right-handed, just as difficult to illustrate broken-heartedness on the backs of your hands for similar reasons. Skim's first coven doubles as an AA group. Friends disappoint, parents fall out of love, the people we love prove to have their own agendas and leave us wanting our tarot cards back.

Skim may be down, she may be overly critical of herself and her classmates, but she's a thoughtful, intriguing human being, able to accurately question the motives of others even while her own judgment is somewhat clouded by her burgeoning teacher-crush, which plays out with an intensity that any of us who has ever loved someone too much will recognize (and perhaps feel thankful we've outgrown... hopefully). Despite granting her protagonist self-awareness, Mariko Tamaki never lets Skim become preternaturally wise beyond her years. Instead, Skim's narrative voice remains that of a believably bright teen, still unformed. Her dialogue and diary entries ring true. In fact, the dialogue throughout is fresh and naturalistic and Mariko shows a keen ear for the way teens and adults alike talk, think and express themselves.

At the same time, Skim’s something of an iconoclast as she demonstrates with a startlingly reductive view of Romeo and Juliet. This is in contrast with her pal Lisa, who talks independence and free thought but seems to constantly court acceptance.

In a hilarious scene, Lisa has talked Skim into accepting a double date with a couple of private school boys who appear dressed in their school uniforms and show nothing but contempt for Skim’s Shakespearean critique. Revealingly, their own view is informed solely by conventional wisdom and it's doubtful they’ve even read the play themselves.

Mariko’s cousin Jillian defines Skim’s world with loopy, swooping lines that give the illusion of movement, with furry drybrush and areas of deep black, plus lots of well-placed gray tones. Her storytelling is superb. This is a book of deeply felt emotions, of quiet moments, of conversations and silences. Jillian frequently looks away from the characters to focus on the minute, mundane yet keenly observed details of their surroundings in fragmentary still lifes, all those mood-building aspects. Jillian's figure work is gestural, active and energetic and she has an almost superhuman ability to find visual poetry in commonplace activities. Watch Skim’s mom crack pasta in half while making dinner, see the girls light cigarettes, argue in the bathroom or gleefully dance when cracking themselves up with the cruel humor of too-smart-for-their-own-good teenagers.

When was the last time you saw a comic book character twist open an Oreo to lick the cream filling? Jillian makes sure Skim moves and emotes in a distinctly different way than Lisa, than her mom. Each character is individualized and completely thought-through.

There are also single page images and double page spreads that freeze important moments- such as a momentous kiss- or else express narrative themes subjectively. Skim and Lisa attempt to invoke the spirit of the dead boy. They appear in silhouette on the spread’s lower right corner while trees created with bold brush strokes loom over them, a ghostly figure sitting on the left. Jillian uses more gray tones to give the illusion of depth, but also to give the scene a haunting, dreamlike quality. One of my favorite pages has Skim stomping out "I HATE EVERYTHING" in the snow after a false start. Another freezes a sequence of events involving a gaggle of ballerinas tossing a young Skim (dressed at the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz) and another girl (a soldier) out the door of a costume birthday party.

Skim's bitterly funny retrospective insight:

After a little while, Hien left. Hien's parents adopted her from Vietnam two years earlier and she never got invited to parties. Maybe she thought that's how people left parties in Canada. Asians first.

The cousins also deftly recreate 1993 with small details without allowing the book to become a nostalgia piece. Skim remembers giving a U2 tape as a birthday gift to the lead ballerina, her mother makes it a point to watch the TV show Sisters, and Skim dons a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt to attend the coven/AA meeting. There’s even a mocking reference to a guy with “80’s rocker hair and a turtleneck,” one of those style straggling holdovers from the previous decade. The concept of goth is so new, no one even knows what to call it. It's almost quaint to recall a time when we were more concerned about high schoolers harming themselves rather than massacring their peers.

Skim is an affecting, assured and impressive literary effort that doesn’t make me feel like an asshole for calling it a “graphic novel,” as well as a gorgeous hardcover full of lush art. It's my early pick for best of the year, but to be honest I don't know how many other graphic novels I'll actually read that aren't just collections of monthly books. I doubt any of those will sate the hunger for quality fiction about human beings and the amusing ways life disappoints and thrills the way Skim does.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Nananananana NaNAAAA: "Nana" 1 Review

Nana vol. 1
Publisher: Shojo Beat/Viz Media
Writer/Artist: Yazawa Ai
English Adaptation: Allison Wolfe

Translation: Goto Koji

When my Nana
Stands next to your Nana
I can’t define Nana
When it’s not Nana

I’ve got two Nanas
I’ve got two Nanas
And they go tweet tweet tweet tweet tweet like little birds…

Yeah, I could’ve gone with something even lamer, like a David Letterman flopping at the Oscars riff: “Nana, meet Nana. Nana, Nana. Nana, Nana.” But no, I felt like breaking out some Talking Heads. It’s more appropriate.

My mental dysfunctions aside, I have gathered you here today, dearly beloved, to talk about Nana, the lively Japanese comic series where two young women both named Nana wind up cohabiting apartment 707 while chasing their dreams, living their lives and occasionally eating Jackson Burgers.

But before we get to all the fun stuff that makes up the actual story, we have to travel westward along the Tokkaido Line rails for volume 1, the two-part prelude where Nana Komatsu (eventually she’ll be known as Hachi, but for now she’s still just Nana K) has just graduated high school and broken up with her married boyfriend. Acting on the advice of her best friend Jun, this Nana decides to stop objectifying men. Good idea, because the result is something approximating true love with guy-pal Shoji. But how can it last when Jun, her laid-back boyfriend Kyosuke and Shoji are all moving to Tokyo to attend art college, with Nana stuck in their Podunk hometown?

In another city, another Nana is also being left behind. Lead singer of Blast (short for Black Stones), Nana Osaki has had a hard-luck life; not as bad as orphan Annie’s but still pretty rocky. She’s a high school dropout thanks to a trumped-up prostitution scandal, thinks she killed her grandmother and now her band is falling apart.

Despite sharing given names, the Nanas are definitely a study in contrasts. The first Nana is scatterbrained and immature, barely capable of making it through the day without falling madly and foolishly in love with some unwitting guy, forever exasperating the more together Jun with her silliness and seeming amorality. The other Nana is a Vivienne Westwood-loving rocker who hides her insecurity behind tough talk and an evil demeanor.

Writer/artist Yazawa Ai Yazawa gives each of her characters depths that become apparent as the story progresses. Nana K is flighty and immature, but also blisteringly self-aware and capable of personal growth. Nana O is tough and cynical, but also vulnerable. Even the supporting characters have a welcome richness. Best friend Jun is sensible but often frustrated with Nana, while Shoji shows flashes of a temper and a love of drinking that keep him from being merely the pretty boy love interest. And Kyosuke? It’s all good to him.

Yazawa’s artwork is quite appealing but not mindblowingly cute like something by Takahashi Rumiko. While it’s certainly not realism, it is fairly natural at times, even with those Japanese visual tropes- you know, stock depictions of facial expressions and emotions, the happiness face with half-circle eyes, no nose and a big triangular mouth. Lots of tone effects that have more meaning for Japanese readers than they do for ignorant me. Yazawa’s figures have spindly, elongated bodies that make them look fashionable, elegant even. They're romanticized, sophisticated.

Let's take a break and look at an image from the wildly popular Nana film adaptation, starring the exquisitely cast Nakashima Mika as Nana O, and the almost-as-well-cast Miyazaki Aoi as Nana K:

Actually, they might be equally perfectly cast, but since the film isn't available here in Japan with English subtitles (you can order the region 1 DVD from, though), I haven't been able to see it. But from the publicity stills I've seen and the trailers I've watched, Nakashima looks as if she somehow stepped off Yazawa's drawing board directly into our world.

Now, back to the review...

Backgrounds are sparse, and Yazawa relies heavily on dot-screened photos for outside environs, so occasionally the reader will recognize a real-world location, as in the scene where Nana K and Shoji walk through a neon-lit cityscape that could possibly be Shinjuku. The end result is even more focus on the characters. Which is fine, because Nana is such a character-driven narrative. What’s really interesting about the art is Yazawa’s mastery of costuming; I’m guessing the stretched fashion art figure work isn’t accidental. All her characters are very outfit-specific, from Nana K’s girly-girl late 90s combos complete with platform-soled shoes (the story opens in 1999, after all) to Nana O’s Vivienne Westwood gear.

Oh yeah, the movie version. It was such a huge hit the Japanese staff at my job were briefly Nanafied. I don't mean they dressed like Nana O. But during the film's initial run, their break room suddenly became absolutely littered with copies of Nana comics! In Japanese, of course. I mean, when The Dark Knight came out, did American offices suddenly disappear under an avalance of DC mags? I sincerely doubt it. Ah, Japan, where millions of people actually read comics and love them.

Here's a photo of a Nana movie photobook. When a movie comes out in Japan- much like in America- it's accompanied by tons of ancillary merchandise. My favorites are always the "making of" books, because they come loaded with photos:

Also, Japanese punk is somewhat different than Western punk, at least the modern iteration. To me, Nana O is more goth than punk, although she's heavy on the punk flourishes. Seems like a more purist punk would be a little less name-brand conscious. If anything, I’d put her more in the visual-kei subculture, further evidence of which is provided later in the series when her gosu-rori superfan Misato shows up. Visual-kei is a gothic pop/rock music style beloved by the gosu-rori tribe, and features androgynous or downright feminine-looking guys and… well… Nana-looking girls. Look up bands like Glay, L’Arc-en-Ciel and Dir en grey to see what I’m yakking about.

Still, if you were interested in dressing exactly like either Nana, Yazawa provides enough visual reference to make it easy. To turn yourself into Nana O, all you have to do is hit Hysteric Glamour or some of the other “punk” shops along Takeshita-dori in Harajuku where the Vivienne stuff is readily available; for Nana K, one of the suburban malls will do…

Actually, the Shitoro Aeon mall in my city of Hamamatsu would be perfect for any would-be Nana K’s out there. I could see her shopping there for looks to impress, outfits she thinks of as sophisticated or mature that end up showing just how naïve she really is about love and life in general.

Her hometown actually reminds me a lot of the first place I lived here in Japan, a small, blue collar city called Toyohashi, in Aichi prefecture- Japan’s industrial heartland, where the cyberpunk unreality of the Tokyo skyline is almost as foreign or distant as it is to your average American. In these places life is more workaday, less magical. Bisected by an ugly gash of train and shinkansen tracks, hugged to the north by mountains and to the south by the polluted Pacific, Toyohashi is a pleasant and unpretentious city of just plain folks (Japanese variety), the kind of place where cute but average girls like Nana K dream of escaping to a better life via marriage or work in Tokyo as a flight attendant or fashion store employee.

Hey, I forgot to tell you- not only did Nana inspire a hit film and its hit sequel, but also an animated series. As you can see from this still, the character design draws heavily on Yazawa's artwork. Fittingly so:

That Nana O has the characteristic Yazawa angular look. In the stylistic home of large eyes, Yazawa's are standouts. She imbues them with an emotive intensity not generally found in the work of other Japanese artists.

That was the final aside. I promise.

Although certain story clues seem to place Nana K’s little hometown as further north than Toyohashi, these smaller cities are pretty much the same, nowhere places lying along the shinkansen lines between somewhere places like Osaka and Tokyo. You see them flashing by, identical stations, McDonald’s and Jusco department stores.

You pass them by, hoping for a better life, a romantic dream come true… until you’re something of a Nana yourself.

Nana is compulsively readable, with characters getting themselves into situations that Yazawa Ai devilishly leaves a-cliffhangin'. She's a wicked one, all right. The translation is nicely done- a few usages like "It's piss cold" and "What a sarcastic bastard" give it a bit of a spicy kick. Congratulations...

Warning: The Food and Drug Administration has determined that Nana is one of the most addictive substances known on earth. Buy this book at your own risk and don’t tell the DEA I told you to. A friend of mine bought me this in Kyoto and I’ve been obsessed with the Nanas and all their friends for about two weeks now. Run! For the love of God, run away from Nana before it hooks you and you end up like me, turning tricks in Kabuki-cho to feed the habit!

I’m so ashamed…

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Batman's Had an Accident... So May You All...

I thought about the silliest thing at today at work. My job is easy, so I tend to think about... eh... whatever. Lately, I've been really into reading Robert Graysmith's Zodiac Unmasked, so that's on my mind a lot. Arthur Leigh Allen-- was he the Zodiac? I tend to agree with Graysmith that he was. I've had Nana on my mind, too, because I recently picked up volumes 12 and 13 of that delightful and addictive series. Today, in between classes (and sometimes during them because my mind is great at multi-tasking), I pondered that jackass Batman and his latest zany predicament. Wow, this Bat-thingy story has really gotten people talking! My oh my. It sure dropped like a bomb on everyone, didn't it? A smart bomb or one of those ordinary stupid kind... only time will tell.

But given a few moments during the day to collect my thoughts about what this means to me as a comic book reading dork, what I came up with was this--

First, the Batman I used to enjoy reading died a long time ago. Frank Miller killed him and replaced him with a uber-fascist in bad need of anger management classes. And that story was actually compelling in a Leni Riefenstahl kinda way. Inspired by that success and all the press that went with it, lesser writers have really done a number on Bats' rotten corpse over the years since, culminating in what I think was his stupidest moment, the time he snarled at Blue Beetle and smashed a coffee cup in his petulant, childish rage. I mean, really, Batman has been a joke for years.

Second, and most importantly, I'd be way more upset if Yazawa Ai suddenly killed off Hachi or Nana. Or if Jaime Hernandez bumped off Hopey. Although I'm sure either creator would do those things in amazing ways, any of those deaths would certainly bum me out. More than just bum me out; they'd cut out my living heart for any number of reasons no standard-issue mainstream superhero bullshit can. To read Nana or Love & Rockets is to delve into rich and nuanced worlds where choices matter. Their storylines are way more compelling than the ongoing DC narrative, and much more dramatically and fictionally satisfying. Also, I know none of those characters would be coming back when it becomes financially advantageous to the authors for them to do so. Except maybe in flashback form.

So this new development? I feel pretty blase about it.

And don't forget-- there's always the Christian Bale Batman; his movie last summer was the best Batman story in decades. I also truly adore the Batman in the Batman: The Animated Series Batman from the 90s. Gotta get those DVDs! And even better, I have my Batman: Illustrated by Neal Adams books so the real comic book Batman can live again whenever I open the pages. These are what I've turned to time and again over the years as the ongoing monthly Batman increasingly lost his luster. Dead, schmead. If he's what you truly want, don't worry.

He'll be back in a year or two (at most, probably sooner), as dickish as ever.

But if Nana, Hachi, Maggie or Hopey die? I shudder to think about it! Losing them would be almost like losing actual human beings!