Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Ghostbusters Takes the Snap...

... finds Raindog open in the flat. Raindog to the 20... 10... TOUCHDOWN RAINDOG!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

More on The Onion A/V Club's "Best Comics of the 00's" list...

Here's a snappy essay pointing out various flaws in the Onion A/V Club's "Best Comics of the 00's" list. It mentions some of the Japanese works that really should have been on that list. A list of "best of" comics that doesn't include Japanese works is intrinsically flawed. Actually, all "best of" lists suffer from being exclusionary by their very nature. Not everything can get on a limited list. But this one has a pretty big fault, roughly the size of that famous one in California that so worried Lex Luthor-- it ignores the majority of comics in the entire world.

The comments make for some great reading, as well. Specifically because Noel Murray of the A/V Club makes an appearance to discuss all the furor the list has generated. Murray's one of my favorite A/V Club staffers and I always enjoy his reviews. Let's look at what he's saying:

"Well, if someone made a "Best Music of the '00s, Except Hip Hop, Because Not Everyone Listens to Hip Hop, And That's Totally Fine" list, I think people would be calling bullroar on that too."

What if you released a list of Best Music Of The '00s and included no classical? Because that's actually fairly common.

If Rolling Stone or Spin releases a "best music" list with no classical or jazz, it wouldn't be nearly so surprising as it would be if they left off hip hop-- although they may stick some select classical titles on there just to cover their asses. If The Source releases a list that's totally hip hop, or Vibe releases a similar list that was entirely hip hop or R&B with no college radio rock or country music, who could argue with their logic?

But if Time magazine or Entertainment Weekly releases a "best of music" list without including classical, jazz or hip hop... something would be pretty stinky. And people would quite rightly don gas masks or at least clothes pins (do those even help, outside of cartoons?) when approaching the list. The Onion A/V Club is a more general pop culture media outlet, so the manga exclusion is pretty obvious.

Our comics coverage has always been manga-lite, but I'm not sure "don't care" is the right word. We dabble; we just don't delve. But again, your criticism is fair, and perhaps we should look into finding someone more manga-literate to supplement our future coverage.

Not necessary, actually. "Manga-literacy" is a redundancy. Literacy will suffice, and the A/V Club obviously has tons of that. Just read some Japanese comics with the same critical eye you read Western works. You don't have to approach manga as if it's an alien species. I don't read a manga and judge it based on manga tropes or even a vast understanding of Japanese culture; I read it and judge it based on my experience reading literature of all kinds, prose included. In fact, that's the standard by which I judge any comic I read.

I do take issue with the idea that lists like this don't "help anybody" though. I go back to my earlier comment: It depends on who you think lists like this are designed for. If you're deeply into comics, you're right, our list probably just confirms what you already know. If you read comics casually, you're likely to find some new things to check out. And if you're a complete novice... well, I offer a variation on what I asked Sean earlier: Do you not feel that the books on this list are, generally speaking, well-worth a reader's time?

I'm agree with Noel on some of these points. These lists are not only helpful-- perhaps even more so when fatally flawed like this one-- but almost always entertaining. Except... by leaving out manga from the list, you've accidentally cut this hypothetical "casual reader" off from most of comics culture. And some of the absolute best comics creators and their work. Takahashi Rumiko, Yazawa Ai, Ito Junji, Tezuka Osamu, Koike Kazuo and so many more; we're not talking about the merely good-- these are world class creators who have impacted the overal medium to a level that would probably shock the Ameri-centric comic book reader.

Like me. When I discovered this, I realized I'd been living in a comic book cell, like a cloistered monk who eventually forgets there's a sun causing that shaft of light that travels up the wall every day.

It's exactly like making a best of list and neglecting Alan Moore, Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, Warren Ellis, Los Bros Hernandez, Robert Crumb, Moebius and so forth. Oops!

And I definitely think the list's selections are worthy. The many I've read really did rock my socks. Again, it's not what's on there that's the problem. It's the absence of a huge chunk of comics that should be on there-- and not the individual ones we always have qualms about (Walking Dead, for example, is one of my top 10 comics of the past decade, and it received a mention but also didn't make the list), but specifically the lack of manga inclusion.

At the least, the list has sparked some good discussions, especially at our site, where we're almost to 600 comments. And if it's revealed that we tend to range too narrow in our scope, that's valuable criticism to hear.

Absolutely. That's really the only point I wanted to make about the list, too narrow a scope given the time span covered and the nature of the A/V Club itself. It's time to embrace ALL comics as comics, not as separate entities.

Putting out an opinion and getting people discussing it is a function of making these kinds of lists on the A/V Club, right? I'd say mission accomplished. In this respect, at least, the Onion A/V Club's list is perfect. And I don't mean that ironically. This kind of discourse is helpful. And fun! I know I've thoroughly enjoyed it.

This has been the most entertaining couple of days I've had as a comics fan since Eddie Berganza defended Supergirl.

Anyway, I seriously doubt Noel Murray will read this-- or much of anybody for that matter-- but I appreciate the way he's taken time to discuss the reaction with people and the way in which he's done it. And just because I like to snark a bit here and there, I hope my reader doesn't think any of my response is based on that ol' Internet rage. When we're talking comics sometimes we have to clarify this, and that's kind of depressing.

In closing-- Nana. Buy it, Noel.

Interesting Responses to my Nana Diatribe at The Onion A/V Club...

Well, two nice responses. I wrote a lengthy discourse on why Nana should have been included on the Onion A/V Club's "Best of 00's" list. And by lengthy, I mean it spread over three or four comments. And I got two very nice replies. One mentioned the Jack Kirby's Fourth World books as one of the list's omissions, and I agree completely. Those books not only contain some incredible stories-- "The Glory Boat" and "The Death Wish of Terrible Turpin" come to mind-- but DC did an excellent job of packaging the material. The books are handsome and went a long way towards redeeming DC in my eyes.

And the other response was from Dirk Deppey of Journalista!, who had this to say:

Dirk Deppey
25 Nov. 2009 11:10 AM CST
While I would certainly agree that NANA is the most polished and mature work of Ai Yazawa's career, if you're going to recommend a single work to non-specialist readers, I'd have to go with her previous series, PARADISE KISS. Done in a (relatively) economical five volumes and full of passion, drama and sex, it's the first work that Yazawa created after her creative breakthrough in GOKINJO MONOGATARI ("Neighborhood Story") and the first flowering of the artist in full mastery of her craft from start to finish.

Ai Yazawa is the Gilbert Hernandez of Japan, a world-class cartoonist who should be far better celebrated beyond her nation's borders than she is. I strongly suspect that the reason she isn't has to do with her chosen genre: soap opera. Which is a damned shame.

The Gilbert Hernandez of Japan. That is high praise indeed. I like that. No, I love it. Am I wrong in imagining this as an endorsement of my comparison of Yazawa Ai to Alan Moore and Jack Kirby? Am I over-reaching?

I have to admit I overlooked Paradise Kiss because I'm not really a regular reader of shojo manga (girl's manga) and because Nana piqued my interest due to my having been here in Japan during the Nana boom following the release of the live action adaptation-- which was probably as big here in its way as Spider-Man 2 was in the US. Every woman I knew between the ages of 20 and 30 rushed out and started buying Nana books. The table in the breakroom in my office was piled high with them for a few weeks.

Can you imagine that? What if you worked at a company and following the release of The Dark Knight all your co-workers started showing up toting Batman trades? Yeah, pure fantasy.

But in Japan, something similar frequently happens. For one thing, more people have probably read the comic being adapted compared to any American comic book movie. And if they haven't, the seem to in the lead-up to the film's release or during its theatrical run. When the final movie adaptation of Hana Yori Dango (which, as the top selling manga of all time is probably also the best selling comic book of all time)-- ingeniously titled Hana Yori Dango Final-- was released in 2008, I had to referee dozens of discussions of the movie versus the comic among my students. When 20th Century Boys came out, many of them carried out their resolutions finally to read the comic.

But Nana? Wow. The response was enough to make me want to read it myself. That and its music industry setting. And all it took was one volume to hook me. That's how good Nana is. But now Dirk Deppey has me wanting to read Paradise Kiss and Gokinjo Monogatari.

Now I'm going to read their "Best Books of the 00's" list and, sadly, I probably won't have any comment to make about it. I'm not sure I've read anything published this decade. I tend towards the older stuff for some reason. Wait! No, I've read Freakonomics and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Whew! Now I don't feel like such a dumb ass.

Nana Sales Figures as of 2006...

According to what I've found via a cursory online search, as of 2006 the first fifteen volumes of Nana had sold 34, 500,000 copies. And that was only good enough to make it number four on the list. I'm not arguing sales quantity equals quality, just that certain big shots in the United States seem to be all turned around as to where the "real" comic books are coming from these days. Even with manga in a slump, it's still far and away the pop cultural leader in sequential storytelling.

I'm not saying manga are aesthetically superior. Some books are, some are not. Just that those of us who sneered at them in the past need to re-evaluate from a broader viewpoint. My conclusion is manga fandom is comic book fandom. American books starring characters like Superman and the X-Men are the niche books.

I'll go so far as to say it's time to start talking about Yazawa Ai-- among others-- in the same conversation with the likes of Alan Moore and Jack Kirby. She probably has more fans and there are probably more people in the world who can name characters she's created and tell you what they've done. Again, that probably sounds a lot like "quantity equals quality," but believe me-- in her case, the quality is also there.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Onion A/V Club's "Best Comics of the 00's" List About What You'd Expect

Apparently, despite the "’00s [being] a turbulent time for the comic-book business," competition from Japanese comics made zero impact across the world during the decade. The Onion A/V Club's list is a pretty standard, largely American-centric and limited comic book reader's view of the best comics of the past ten or so years, heavy on the big names. It's even illustrated with that same "two people hugging in the blue, snowy woods" image from Craig Thompson's Blankets we've seen a billion times.

There's James Kolchaka! There's The Acme Novelty Library! Look, in a stunning surprise appearance, there's Alan Moore! How'd he get on there? For you mainstream mesomorphs-in-colorful-tights people there's Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely's All-Star Superman.

Black Hole, check. Persepolis, check. All in all, it's a good list. Just a very obvious one, if you're totally unaware of the comic book as a world phenomenon. No Drifting Classroom. No 20th Century Boys. No Nana.

Can you think of a comic in the past decade that's had as massive an impact on comics culture taken as a whole as Yazawa Ai's Nana? Not only is it a quality book-- Yazawa's ostensibly girly-girl soap opera romance is full of surprising literary touches and arguably the most adult and honest view of young female sexuality outside of actual prose (definitely light years more advanced than most depictions of the same seen in American comics)-- and while sales are not generally indicative of quality, I'd hazard a guess Nana has probably sold more copies than DC's entire published output for any given month. It's probably been read by more people than all the books on the A/V Club's list in total as well.

I don't have the sales figures to back that up but I feel reasonably confident making that statement. I'll do the research later tonight and either crow about it or eat that crow. Raw, with feathers intact.

In its own way, Nana is every bit as seminal a work as Watchmen. It's even inspired not one but two movies, the first of which was as slavishly faithful to its source material as Zack Snyder's version of Watchmen pretended to be. In terms of overall impact, I'd rank Nana higher on the scale. It may surprise you, but there are probably more people worldwide who know who Nana, Hachi and Junko are than know Ozymandias, The Comedian and Nite Owl II. Actually, more people may know the cast of Nana than know any of the X-Men.

I don't see people walking around dressed like Rorshach outside of a Halloween party. Granted, I live in Japan so I have no way of knowing what American comic fans are doing these days. But hardly a week goes by here I don't see a Nana-wannabe.

Imagine that!

Granted, even a shitty comic can have a huge impact. Sin City and 300, I'm looking at you. All of DC's company-wide crossovers of the 00's as well. But I mention these things to give you an idea of just how important Nana is to comic book culture as a whole and how ridiculous continued American resistance to and ignorance of all the good comics that are actually out there beyond our pre-conceived notions has become. There's no excuse for overlooking these books, especially when the American mainstream is so moribund-- and indie comics for that matter; if I read one more self-eviscerating or overly twee autobiographical comic that looks like it was drawn by a clever art school student I'm going to vomit-- and we're discussing "turbulent times" for the medium.

Nana is damned good and deserves to be on that list based on its literary merits. I'd definitely put it ahead of Bone and Y: The Last Man. I'd also put it ahead of some of the comics that almost made the cut, like Astro City and The Walking Dead and those by themselves are awesome. That's just how good Nana is. I can't stop evangelizing for Nana.

And I won't.

When asked about the lack of manga on the list, A/V Club staffer Noel Murray responded:

Speaking personally, I feel like manga is one of those subjects that you either give yourself over to completely or you don't even try to speak about in public. I've read just enough to know that I'd sound ridiculously underinformed if I tried to select the best of it.

I encourage manga fans to post their favorites here though.

I can understand because I felt the same way just a few years ago. Now I can't agree with that mindset or the reluctance eeven to try it creates. All it takes is simply broadening your point of view. Psssh. You don't even have to do that, really. All you have to do is read manga as you would any other comic. You don't have to be an expert on manga itself to enjoy quality writing and art. I'm not.

You just approach it not as a manga-obsessive but as a comic book fan with a more universalist, catholic outlook. After all, why limit yourself to the output of US or Canadian publishers? You don't eat just one kind of food, do you?

Or do you?

Manga is simply comic books. Time to put some new names on the damned list. And then you'll discover comics as a medium and a world industry are healthier and more robust than you'd imagined.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Re-Giftment of Re-Gifters

Yesterday was a cold, rainy day. The kind my mom would call "dreary." I had to bike it back to my apartment during my dinner break and decided to eat at MosBurger on my way back to work. Which meant I needed a book to read while eating a teriyaki chicken burger. I tried Charles Portis' True Grit (the upcoming Coen Brothers version has me interested in the novel again) and then briefly considered Haruki Murakami's After Dark. Instead, I chose the only other book handy that would fit in my pocket-- it had to fit there so I could keep it dry underneath my clear plastic raincoat and winter jacket...


I was not a big fan of the whole Minx imprint phenomenon. The name irked me, as did the concept of "competing with manga," as if manga were somehow the enemy of comics.

Also-- and this was my biggest worry-- from initial reports it seemed Minx was not a creator-owned line.

I believe a creator should own his or her work, without limits, without questions. If you write a novel or short story and someone publishes it-- depending on the contract-- you still own it. In the 1930s, 40s, 50s and beyond, the choice for comic book creators was "Sign on the line that is dotted or go sell shoes." And, ironically (or tragically), most of them would've made more money and worked under conditions of less stress and lived longer if they'd chosen the latter.

This situation existed because comics were initially a throwaway junk entertainment created mainly by gullible rubes for little kids. So publishers felt free to set up a model of indentured servitude, to pay writers and artists a pittance for the "privilege" of seeing their efforts in print while raking in the dough from movie, TV and toy deals for themselves. I see no reason in the 21st century for this idiotic tradition to continue at either Marvel or DC and-- as we've seen recently-- neither do the courts. So if some big company does an imprint of this nature, it seems like the perfect vehicle for other business models, the way regular book publishers do things. Especially since, like novels, most of these books appear to be one-offs with complete stories rather then series to be endlessly exploited.

Now I'm not sure what the status of creator-ownership is with these properties. Brian Wood, writer of the Minx book The New York Four, states in a comment on The Hooded Utilitarian blog Minx was "100% creator-owned," but some other comments muddy the issue for me. I don't understand legalese, unfortunately. I'd like to know if these books fall out of print with DC, could the authors then take them to another publisher. Or could they publish sequels to these books elsewhere? Do the creative teams, in fact, own the contents and characters outright?

I hope so.

Beyond my personal beliefs as an artist, I had an aesthetic qualm as well. A lot of the Minx books seemed to be about girls with purple hair and tattoos. Like a bunch of dudes got together, watched Foxfire and Buffy the Vampire Slayer and then went off to write about rebellious teenage girls. This is all well and good, but what about some diversity in the pro-diversity line up? Where was the quiet desperation of a more simple life? Too boring? Not demographically suitable?

Then I found out the awesome Mariko Tamaki, author of the sublime Skim, was writing a book for them and so I decided to sample a title while I waited for her Emiko Superstar. As the flagship offering, The Plain Janes would've been the obvious choice (especially since it seemed to be one of the few Minx books actually written by a woman), but I went for Re-Gifters because Jen Dik Seong there on the cover looked kind of forlorn and plain. The Plain Janes have each other, poor little Dixie has just her bag and shoes.

Fortunately, Re-Gifters proves surprisingly entertaining. Light and charming, with a feisty protagonist. But not perfect. I'm still not sure why she has to get "thrown spectacularly off her game" just because she has a crush on a boy in her hapkido class. Dixie could just as easily have been inspired to greater athletic glory and then realized she was alienating him via beating his ass repeatedly. That would have been a more interesting and original take on her internal conflict.

Of which writer Mike Carey supplies her a-plenty. Because Dixie lives in a post-Rodney King Los Angeles of racial conflict, family obligations, high school pecking orders and hormonal urges. No wonder she's so spiky (as her friend calls her at one point). The kid makes mistakes, stupid ones even. She's endearingly human. The art by Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel is appropriately scratchy and loose, with lots of stray lines adding energy. Very cute, but with an edge. It occasionally brings to mind Sergio Aragones, of all people.

So yes, despite my initial negativity, I enjoyed Re-Gifters. Then, I forgot all about Minx and Dixie. Until yesterday. Re-reading and re-enjoying Re-Gifters while shivering and wet and eating a hot teriyaki chicken burger. That's how I spent my dinner break. Too bad this imprint didn't last, especially if it was totally creator-owned. I think comics need more of this kind of stuff, even if it does feature purple hair and tattoos-- with emphasis on the creator-owned. Now I want to read Emiko Superstar and The New York Four.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Comic Book Reading List...

To be more accurate, my comic book reading list. I haven't abandoned this blog. I've just been very busy writing short fiction lately and reading. Reading. Always reading. Currently I'm reading Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer, Kurt Vonnegut's Armaggedon in Retrospect and Bernard Malamud's The Natural.

It may surprise you to know the Roy Hobbs in Malamud's book is an asshole. Much closer to the familiar modern athlete with his selfish appetites than the semi-mystical knight-errant of the Robert Redford movie.

But since this is ostensibly a blog about comic books (yeah, we needed another one of those), here are the comics I'm currently in various stages of reading and writing about for future entries:

1) Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind volume 1 (Viz's "Perfect Collection" version)
2) Le Chevalier d'Eon volume 1
3) Nana volumes 15, 16 and 17
4) Watchmen for the millionth time
5) Love and Rockets New Stories volume 2
6) New Mutants issues 2, 3 and 4.
7) The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century: 1910
8) 20th Century Boys volumes 1 and 2

And now for your entertainment, the Japanese trailer to Miyazaki Hayao's science-fantasy masterpiece, Kaze no tani no Naushika:

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Jackie Chan and Michael Golden Fans Rejoice... Spartan X: Hell-Bent-Hero-for-Hire Will Return!

I learned from the artist himself this weekend plans are afoot for a reprinting of Michael Golden's wickedly cool Jackie Chan comic series Spartan X, with a conclusion to the story arc left incomplete by its unfortunate demise.

This fulfills one of the items on my Ultimate Comic Book Wish List. Other items include:

1) a Cassandra Cain storyline that doesn't make me want to vomit
2) a reprinting of Marvel/Curtis' Planet of the Apes magazines
3) a Xi'an Coy Manh/Dani Moonstar series
4) the abandonment of massive crossover stories
6) more Nana
7) an Alex Toth collection
8) more Nexus
9) world peace

Two down, for a pathetic 20% success rate. We're going to have to step up our game, people. But I'm happy anytime there's a chance for some Michael Golden sequential work. There are few things I enjoy more than Jackie Chan movies and Michael Golden's art. Okay, there are many things I enjoy more. But Jackie Chan movies and Michael Golden's art are things I nevertheless enjoy immensely, and to have one directly related to the other is very, very sweet.

Also happy about this even though there's not a chance in hell most of them will appear in the story:

From The Rotarian: An International Magazine, February 1954

"Everything in the modern home is controlled by switches -- except the children." That is one editor's reminder that Solomon's advice on use of the rod is largely ignored these days and that children do about as they please. One thing they do is to read comic books. Children were the principal market in the U.S.A. last year for some 70 million.

That fact isn't especially deplored by Miss Margaret Scoggia, specialist in teen-age interests at the New York Public Library. "I feel that if a child enjoys comic books," she told a newspaper interviewer, "his interest is in something which is also found in books. Frequently the interest can be led into books." Her views find support from Drs. Lauretta Bender and Reginald S. Lourie in the American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, in which they say, "The comics may be said to offer the same tiype of mental catharsis to its readers that Aristotle claimed was an attribute of the human drama..."

Other experts aren't sure it works out that way. Dr. Frederic Wertham, psychiatrist at Queens General Hospital, told a New York legislative committee that crime comics not only interfere with formation of good reading habits, but tend to develop attitudes of brutality and callousness.

Obviously, here is a problem. Will it correct itself? If not, what should be done? Voluntary self-discipline by publishers-- perhaps with a seal of approval from a trade association for comics meeting certain standards-- has been suggested. Ethical publishers say it would only guarantee the market for competitors who don't play by the rules.

Does the problem simmer down to parental control? That's the question we have put to several representative women, wives of Rotarians. You see their answer here. -- The Editors.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Don't You Want to Spiral Into Horror?

I know I do, despite Halloween's being over. I'm thinking it's about time to revisit Ito Junji's nauseatingly good horror comic Uzumaki.

It begins with those simple words. They might lead you to expect some sort of nostalgia trip, a charmingly funny autobiographical tale of young love in a small, seaside town. But look closer. Now you begin to sense something ominous in the moody sky, a black lighthouse on a stark, rocky jetty. The girl's hair and skirt stir in a wind that must be unpleasantly cold, rather than refreshing, and we see only her back, alienating us rather than drawing us in the way an image of her face might. And the grass.

Look closely at the grass.

As I've written before, Uzumaki is the only comic I've read in years that actually scared me. And more than that, it left me feeling... well, disturbed is too strong a term... uneasy. It presents such a progression of horrors, each building on the last, I actually felt a growing dread with each story. Have you ever truly been frightened by something you've read? Horror comics-- even DC's relatively tame offerings in the 1970s-- used to keep me awake nights but years of hard living have put callouses on my imagination. I can read EC's best without flinching. Twisted Tales? Not a problem now. 30 Days of Night did nothing but disappoint me on almost every level, and while I enjoy The Walking Dead, it's more for the intense action and characterizations rather than its fright value.

But Uzumaki? Uzumaki brings back that easily creeped-out child I used to be.

I really wanted to do a Spookey Month entry on Uzumaki, but I haven't read it in several years and don't have it with me here in Japan. If I'd been smarter, I could've bought it back in September. But nope.