Monday, December 28, 2009

What Would Happen If a Massive Earthquake Struck Tokyo: Tokyo Magnitude 8.0

Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 is an anime series exploring the very real possibility of a devasting earthquake striking my favorite city-- Putney, Georgia. No, no, no. I'm kidding. I'm being a kidder here. It's Tokyo at the epicenter of the oft-predicted and anticipated second Great Kanto Earthquake. I haven't seen the anime, but I'm giving serious consideration to buying the film comic.

The image of the famous Shibuya scramble, its giant Starbucks and iconic, cylindrical Ichi-Maru-Kyu building with everything wrecked and ruined is startling and effective. In that it startled me to see a place I often visit completely devastated and abandoned and it effectively made me want to see the anime and buy the comic.

Tokyo Comic Book Report: December 2009

Christmas in Tokyo is glitzy and romantic. Young couples stroll the gaily decorated streets of fabulous entertainment destinations like Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku. Christmas music fills the air along with extreme right-wing nationalist harangues broadcast over loudspeakers from vans decorated with the "rising sun" flag. There's both a chill and a feeling of magic in the air and a comic book geek's thoughts lightly turn to...

Hitting up Blister in Harajuku for the latest American monthly comic book magazines. Unfortunately, this time around the pickings were pretty slim. I must have hit Blister at an off time. The most recent offerings from DC and Marvel were available, but not stocked very deeply. There were absolutely no issues of Batgirl to be had either on the main shelf or in the back-issue bins, no new Astonishing X-Men, very little Dark Horse other than Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Conan the Cimmerian and one BPRD title. However, if you want a nearly-complete run of Wildstorm's Gen13 series, you're in luck; they have practically every issue, plus some from the earlier volumes. I didn't buy any of them. The ready availability of Gen13 is probably not a good sign for that title (I can't believe it's still being published), but I imagine the scarcity of everything else points to robust sales here in Japan for those titles.

I bought the fifth and final issue of the Batman: Unseen miniseries with a Doug Moench script and Kelley Jones art. While I'm not a big Kelley Jones fan, the comic looked oddball enough to attract me, and I had yen to burn. Actually, I gave it a try because I was desperate.

In this story, Batman takes an invisibility formula and turns into slightly more of an asshole than usual (I don't understand the big deal about Batman taking super-steroids and getting 'roid rage or going insane with power under the influence of some H.G. Wells invisibility formula when for the past few years he's been written as a borderline psychotic anyway). And Jones makes Batman's silly bat-ears look as though they're three feet long. And gives the Caped Crusader a pinhead on top of a grotesquely bulbous body.

I noticed from Dark Horse's house ads (and even in the Conan letter page) they're positioning themselves as even more of an alternative to DC and Marvel as they trumpet their standalone titles. Counterprogramming for those of us burned out on massive crossover storylines and the expectation from the Big Two that we're just dying to buy 20 comics a month to get a complete plot... which they'll just un-do and render superfluous as soon as it becomes inconvenient or problematic for the next giant crisis. Well, maybe most superhero comic fans do like those kinds of things because they seem to top the sales charts.

But for me, these enforced participation in crossovers interrupts the narrative flow of whatever monthly I'm reading. Case in point-- just when I was starting to enjoy New Mutants, all developing story threads get temporarily tossed as the team crashes headlong into an boneheaded issue where they fight zombie versions of their old enemies because of "Necrosha X," some overarching X-title event that just seems the tiredest, least essential crossover so far. I couldn't even enjoy the return of a couple of familiar characters from the first New Mutants series.

I bought this issue because I'm following this one title; it was nothing but yawn-inducing superheroic fisticuffs (nice Adam Kubert cover, though), so not only has Marvel failed to interest me in buying other books to follow this inane storyline, they've killed a lot of my interest in New Mutants as well.

This just makes me like Dark Horse even more. It's simple-- they publish more of the titles I enjoy than any other company and I rarely feel ripped off or insulted after reading them. Their books give you a genuinely pleasurable reading experience that doesn't feel like a hollow marketing stunt masquerading as a story. I even bought odd-sized Empowered special, "The Wench with a Million Sighs." My final purchase consisted of 5 Dark Horse books, two issues of Marvel's New Mutants (one of which turned me off) and a single DC offering.

But since Blister's shelves seemed as bare and uninviting as the Cratchits' pantry in A Christmas Carol, I didn't spend too much time there. Also because there was just too much to see in and around Harajuku. Lights, Christmas trees, beautiful young people walking together in pairs. A river of red brake lights on Omotesando-dori competing with the glittering decorations in the trees lining the street.

Kinokuniya behind Takashimaya in Shinjuku still has a decent selection of graphic novels, heavy on the mainstream stuff, although Alan Moore's works are heavily represented. This is your most reliable source for newer English-translation manga volumes; they have a relatively huge selection that compares favorably with American chain bookstores. I picked up Nana 18 and 19 there. At Tower Records in Shibuya I bought the last battered copy available in Japan of Jaime Hernandez's Love and Rockets Library (Part 1): Maggie the Mechanic. Tower carries a lot of Fantagraphics' books, but they don't seem to be stocking Love and Rockets New Stories; I buy those from

Tower Records has also expanded their English-translated manga section onto a second shelf. Not as extensive as the stock at Kinokuniya, but still worth a look.

And that's what a comic book Christmas in Tokyo was like in 2009.

Happy Birthday Stan Lee!

Wow! Face front, True Believer, and hang loose! Stan Lee is 87 years young today. What can I say about Stan Lee that hasn't been said before? I mean, other than Stan Lee won the decathlon gold medal at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

He really shouldn't have been there. In March of that year, President Jimmy Carter declared a boycott of the Summer Games to protest the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan. Undaunted, Stan "The Man" Lee had himself smuggled into Moscow Olympic stadium and, despite being 57 years old, set several world records during the decathlon event.

In the aftermath of Lee's stunning victory, the Games descended into chaos. General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev demanded the International Olympic Committee invalidate Lee's results and several nations filed official protests. An embarrassed President Carter was forced to issue a proclamation naming Lee an American hero and patriot despite his having ignored the presidential order. And when asked by reporters about his heretofore unknown athletic prowess, Lee simply smiled and replied "Excelsior!" He then soared majestically into the clouds.

Nine years later, the Soviet Union was no more but Stan Lee was still hard at work creating new heroic worlds to the delight of children everywhere, and he continues doing so to this day. He even occasionally writes about some of these in comic book form.

Excelsior, indeed, Stan Lee! Many happy returns of the day!

Thursday, December 24, 2009

A Very Macabre Christmas To You All!

And one to me as well. This year I received my traditional Jack Kirby gift, volume three of DC's wonderful Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus series, completing the set. I also got Drawing Words & Writing Pictures by Jessica Abel and Matt Madden; it's "a definitive course from concept to comic in 15 lessons." I hope to put that one to use.

But the strangest aspect of my Christmas this year was getting two big-ass horror tomes! My mom gave me Bernie Wrightson's illustrated edition of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. What a heavy book! It must weigh at least a pound and a half. A pound of that is Wrightson's artistic brilliance; you really need to see his full-page illustrations. My sister-in-law gave me Eerie volume one, the Dark Horse archival reprinting of the first five issues of Eerie magazine. A full two-fifths of my Christmas gifts relate to horror this year. My brother and I decided my ideal holiday is somewhat along the lines of Tim Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. I haven't been this amused with what Christmas gifts say about my family and me since the year he and I both gave each other The Godfather on VHS.

By the way, Eerie volume one is gorgeous. Check out the listed staff artists from Eerie #3's masthead:

Eugene "Gene" Colan, Reed Crandall, Steve Ditko, Frank Frazetta, Rocco Mastroserio, Gray Morrow, Joe Orlando, John Severin, Jay Taycee, Angelo Torres, Alex Toth and Al Williamson.

That's some incredible line-up of comic book art mastery. Has there ever been such an assemblage of talent in any discipline? I can only make analogies to the first USA Basketball "Dream Team" from 1992 or any given Major League All-Star team from any year from the 1930s to about 1960. Of course you don't get every artist in each issue, but you almost always get a Frazetta cover and if you don't, you have to settle for Gray Morrow.

Who doesn't like axe murders and rotted corpses staggering forth from the swamps seeking vengeance against those who robbed them of life? Especially at Christmas time!

One Piece Is Setting Records!

Whenever I ask my students here in Japan about their favorite comics, someone invariably names One Piece. So it's not surprising to learn the recently-released 56th volume has a record-smashing print run of 2.85 million.

Still, the number boggles the mind. How many prose novels have print runs as large? Murakami Haruki's latest novel 1Q84 had its print run increased by 100,000 to 480,000 copies when it proved to be an enormous hit, but I'm not sure of the total. The current prose record-holder is Dan Brown for his book The Lost Symbol with 6.5 million. For a comic book to be even in that general vicinity, that a national newspaper would run a story on it and that it has 176 million copies in circulation in a nation of roughly 127 million people is quite an achievement and a testament to One Piece's pop cultural impact since its 1997 debut.

For more perspective, the 300 ranked monthly magazines in the U.S. sold 6.24 million combined copies in October of this year. The single best-selling comic that month was DC's Blackest Night #4, which moved 137,086 units. While it's not really fair to compare directly a single volume of a manga series-- especially one printed in graphic novel form-- to books that come out as monthly magazines, you can still draw some inferences about comic book readership in Japan versus that in America. To wit, many more people are reading comics in Japan than in the United States.

And most of those people probably don't give a shit about Blackest Night.

Oh, and the previous sales leader in Japan was a comic book about basketball. Are there any comics about sports in the U.S.?

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Do You Like Classics Turned Into Comics?

This is the intersection of graphic novels as a literary form and traditional... uh... literary forms. Publisher's Weekly has a story about various companies and their Classics Illustrated-style efforts to mesh all those old library books we're supposed to have read with a fresh new approach involving sequential art.

Well, maybe not all that fresh. I bought grimy copies of Classics Illustrated comics or something similar from a flea market just outside the city limits back in the early 1980s. The original line of Classics Illustrated goes back to 1941. Their adaptations were highly condensed and, in some cases, somewhat sanitized. But they were limited by page counts and the mores of the time; literary classics might contain scenes to make young readers uneasy or question authority or do something un-American or-- God forbid-- pro-Red!

Today companies seem to be taking advantage of what I hope is a more sophisticated readership and the increasing willingness of bookstores and libraries to stock comic books. You know, graphic novels. This means they can include episodes from their adaptations of things like H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds that past audiences might have found distasteful or challenging. Even much maligned Marvel has a line of these hoity-toity books and they seem to be doing it full tilt boogie, or at least making the attempt. From the article:

Ralph Macchio, editor of Marvel Illustrated, a line of comics adaptations, says the company wanted to “take some classics and give them the full treatment; we didn't want to skimp or compress, [but] to do justice to the full flavor of the novel.”

Well, I'm as guilty as any comic fan when it comes to bitching and moaning about what the American companies are doing wrong. This is a case where I think they're doing right. Rather than a severely expurgated version of these stories, which really just serves as a quaint but pale substitute for the original prose-- and perhaps even a sub-literate one at that-- it seems like today's publishers are trying to make these legitimate adaptations in their own right.

And it's not just Marvel. Papercutz has the original Classics Illustrated label, but Penguin is doing Puffin Graphics (oh baby, I've got to get their version of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage, by the way). You can read about the others in the PW article. Some of these companies are taking a novel, inspired approach and putting out Shakespearian adaptations with manga-style art. Okay, so sticking Macbeth and Lady Macbeth on a ringworld in distant solar system may not be the way to go, but otherwise why not try to tap into that demographic? As long as the words are Shakespeare's, the art can look any old way you think might get some 14-year-old excited about reading stuff originally written 400 years ago. Other authors could benefit from this approach, too.

After all, doesn't your mind's eye view of Huckleberry Finn resemble Monkey D. Luffy? A little? Oh come on, he's wearing a straw hat, for the love of corn!

While these new books seem to be relying heavily on the familiar-- lots of Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens and James Fenimore Cooper-- there's a reason these books have become classics. And that's their enduring richness. These books are rarely the same twice and often reward re-reading with new insights and new excitements. So why not adapt them again and again, taking different approaches each time?

Whether or not these books sell... that's a different story. I hope they do. And I hope they fulfill Classic Illustrated's original mission-- get people interested in reading for fun those books whose cultural reputations teachers have ruined for generations by forcing them to read.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Iron Man 2 Trailer...

Oh wow, it's been a while, huh? I hope you enjoyed three-quarters of the trailer for Iron Man 2. I really need to fix this template if I'm going to do things like this, huh?

The first movie had a brief run here in Japan last year and I finally caught it on Star Channel Sunday night. Now I like Jon Favreau and Robert Downey, Jr. a lot but I had zero expectations going into this movie. Sure, the first image I saw a couple of years ago featured a fairly faithful version of Iron Man's earliest armor, which garnered a certain amount of good will from yours truly.

But I'm just not that big an Iron Man fan, even less so now that he has crazy cyber-nano virus whatever garbage as part of his powers. I mildly liked him when he was just a rich alcoholic war profiteer with a suit. The movie's Tony Stark?

Played to the hilt by Downey, Jr., he makes being an irresponsible cad with unlimited resources, fame and power look every bit as fun as I imagine it would be. Favreau's direction is surprisingly crisp and assured in the action sequences. After all, I knew he'd have no trouble eliciting good performances from the cast-- Gwyneth Paltrow is quite charming, Terence Howard provides conscience and kudos for Favreau for getting some evil-eyed intensity from Jeff Bridges. I still picture Bridges as the Dude and it's hard to get past that; now I'm looking forward to his turn as Rooster Cogburn in the Coen Brothers' adaptation of Charles Portis's novel True Grit.

But this is really Robert Downey, Jr.'s movie and he-- more than anyone-- really makes it hum.

Where do I place Iron Man on my list of Best Comic Book Adaptations? It's not quite as powerful as The Dark Knight, my reigning champ. But it's roughly as enjoyable as Spider-Man 2, my strong #2. By the way, #3 is Superman: The Movie. And to be totally honest here-- I usually hate comic book adaptations. Well, the mainstream superhero ones anyway. I enjoyed Ghost World and A History of Violence and both of those seemed well divorced from their source material. Although in Ghost World's case, it would've been better had they been a bit more true to the original story's melancholic, alienated tone rather than turn it into a joke-fest where a lot of the lines seemed forced. It takes a lot to impress me with a comic book movie and, as a film, it has to stand up against non-genre films. Few do.

Which is why I believe both Fantastic Four movies to be rotten lumps of celluloid shit, for example. So if I tell you I enjoyed Iron Man, that's saying quite a lot.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

And My Final Word on the Earth One Concept...

At least until the actual books come out and I have a chance to read them. And it is this-- I really don't think they need to start with origin stories. Unless at some point an origin flashback is necessary for the plot to proceed and the story themes to develop, there's no real reason to rehash how Superman and Batman came to be. One thing that made All-Star Superman work so well-- besides the outstanding quality of the writing and art-- was that it gave us an iconic, fully-developed Superman.

Sure, Grant Morrison did a lot of nostalgia referencing in All-Star Superman, but note the verb tense. Did. It's been done and done well. Ditto for numerous retellings of Superman and Batman's beginnings. All-Star Superman took elements necessary to the stories but freed the Superman concept from the creativity-crushing effects of having to shoehorn monthly plots into this overarcing universe narrative. Instead, we readers got a basic, cleaned-up Superman who seemed fresh yet comfortably familiar.

I know there are more fans who feel if the story's not part of the ongoing DC narrative-- if it's not "canon"-- then it somehow doesn't count than fans like me who simply want a good story taking the best elements of the characters. To canon fans, quality is sometimes secondary. They want to feel as if the story they're reading is part of the character's official biography. Otherwise they feel cheated.

Actually, the characters don't need to be "rebooted" or "revamped." They're fine as they are. They just need all the years of crap surgically removed and allowed to stand on their own again. And hopefully these Earth One books will do that for Superman and Batman and let us see exactly what it is we so enjoy about the two of them in the first place.

But I honestly don't want to read one hundred pages of something that seems like a half-assed Smallville adaptation or a paler version of Batman Begins.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

More on DC's Earth One Experiment...

This new book series does pose some interesting questions. Who is the audience for these books-- comic readers or readers in general? Will people who don't normally read comics decide to buy these because of the format, or will they continue to ignore them because they don't read comics? Will the price point be off-putting to some people who are already feeling an economic burden having to buy twenty or thirty comics a month just to get a complete story? Is DC going into competition with itself (I felt this way about Marvel's Ultimate line and was wrong there, it seems)? Do regular comic readers need all that continuity baggage in order to feel more invested in the stories?

I foresee an immediate appeal to myself if the stories and art are up to snuff, but I wonder if they're ultimately doing these for an audience of one.

And I'm far from the typical "modern comic reader."

After all, I once called for the complete abandonment of the monthly magazine, an idea that gives ordinary comic shop patrons nightmares. While I prefer the novel format, I worry these new books might end up being mere curiosities, making a big splash due to their newness but in the end, not self-sustaining.

So it's a risk, and a calculated one. If it doesn't work, at least we'll have a few interesting books to read and a marketing concept to dissect. And I've long championed new formats for sequential storytelling. I'd love for this to work, moreso if the books themselves have any kind of quality. In fact, I'd love for them to push the concept even further.

DC's Earth One Graphic Novels: Haven't I Been Asking For This All Along?

Or something similar.

Anyway, I never thought I'd type this sentence but: Way to go, DC! Finally, bookstore-type books without the accumulated baggage of seventy-plus years of continuity. There's Superman: Earth One with J. Michael Straczynski writing and Shane Davis drawing. I haven't read any of Straczynski's comic book work but I occasionally enjoyed Babylon 5 while eating frozen pizza, which gives you a horrifying glimpse into the sparse nightmare that was my life in the mid-1990s. Shane Davis? Never heard of him at all. And then there's Batman: Earth One with Geoff Johns scripting and Gary Frank doodling away. I'm fairly familiar with Johns and I'm quite the fan of Frank.

Not that I'm taking credit for this idea in any way, but I believe I frequently begged, cajoled and threatened suicide over just such a project. In fact, when I asked for something similar on my old blog two or three years ago, someone on Live Journal called me an idiot. Or a moron. I can't remember which. And now it seems DC is fulfilling my wish and I couldn't be happier.

Depending on how the creative teams execute this concept. As Noel Murray of the Onion A/V Club writes:

The last thing the genre needs are more drawn-out revisitations of old mythology. ("Oh look, Krypto's back. Again. And here's how Clark Kent met Lex Luthor. Again.") Enough with the nods and winks to the fans. Here's hoping that if this series is really aimed at new readers, it'll actually be new.

Yeah, no cutesy, nostalgic stuff. Just get on with telling rock-solid stories with these characters. No cross-overs, no comic booky nonsense. While I want them to avoid nostalgia, I hope they do clean, iconic versions of Superman and Batman without pandering to the kind of nihilistic "the world is a nasty, horrible place so we want nasty, horrible anti-heroes" of the kind we've been getting via All-Star Batman and Robin and even a lot of the regular monthly books. Don't try to compete with Watchmen and don't try to rewrite The Dark Knight Returns or Batman: Year One.

Don't pre-suppose our interest in Supes or Bats or their supporting casts and use that as an excuse to shorthand the character development or get lazy with the writing. Just treat these books exactly like you would if you were writing prose novels.

The only thing I'm not thrilled about is that these are series rather than stand-alone graphic novels. I'd prefer they allow creative teams to do one-offs free of all constraints save those imposed by real literary stylings. Especially free of the need to create a "tentpole" property and then fall into the same traps as the magazines have-- no real development of the protagonists, stories that never end and an ever more burdensome need to maintain universe-wide continuity as opposed to just story continuity.

Single books would be really revolutionary. Imagine how suspenseful a Batman story would be if you felt the Caped Crusader were actually in some kind of jeopardy because you had no idea if he would survive in the end.

Of course, no Frank Miller participation is immediately a good sign.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Dark Horse Comics, Why Must You Make Me Love You So?

Remember when all Dark Horse Comics had going for it were Dark Horse Presents and Aliens comics? And when they did adaptations of things like the horror movie Dr. Giggles?

I sure do. I put them at roughly the same level as the pre-Ultraverse Malibu Comics-- black and white comics featuring properties that held absolutely no interest for me. Then came the early 90's color boom and Dark Horse started publishing Mike Baron and Steve Rude's Nexus, John Byrne's John Byrne's Next Men and Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Of course Nexus and Next Men went on to become mega-blockbuster Hollywood hit movies with multiple Academy Award nominations and wins, and spawned entire cottage industries of Horatio Hellpop and Sundra clothes lines, a long-running TV series (Jasmine Loves Jack) and theme parks around the world. Just last week I visited Tokyo Ylum and bopped to the music of Mezz, a minor character especially beloved here in Japan.

Poor Hellboy just seemed to vanish without a trace. Whatever happened to Mike Mignola anyway? Is he still drawing?

Publisher loyalty is a concept that's foreign to me. I tend to buy books based on whether or not I like the creators involved or the characters rather than what logo is in the upper left corner. But increasingly I find myself enjoying Dark Horse's product. Their various Conan series, Hellboy and BPRD, their Nexus Archives and the Creepy/Eerie books as well. It hasn't escaped my attention they publish thousands of Star Wars-related books a month, either. They dared issue Ito Junji's sickening horror comics. For that alone they deserve praise. But they also reprinted Marvel's old Conan the Barbarian comic in full color, plus Savage Sword of Conan in an affordable "phone book" volume.

A few months ago, one of my students saw me reading an American comic and wanted to borrow some to practice her English. I chose a selection I thought might interest her and also give her an idea of the various genres and companies we have in the States. Batgirl, Astro City and Hellboy and BPRD. I really thought she'd dig Astro City, but it made almost no impact on her. Instead, she went gaga for BPRD. She loves Guy Davis' art and simply cannot get enough of Abe Sapien and Panya. As a matter of fact, Panya is her favorite comic book character now!

But it gets even better for the Horse and its readers. Just recently, the Onion A/V Club listed their "Best Comics of the 00's" and I ripped into them for not including Japanese comics. But it's interesting Dark Horse Comics managed to place three titles on that list: Achewood, The Goon and Usagi Yojimbo. Amazingly, I haven't read any of them. The Goon and Usagi Yojimbo have been on my "as soon as I get around to them" list for years now. Perhaps now is the time. Dark Horse has also won the most Eisners of any publisher two years in a row now. Hellboy: The Crooked Man certainly deserved its award; that mini just oozed quality, from Mignola's spare, moody script to Richard Corben's lush, disturbing artwork.

And get this-- Dark Horse has also re-vamped Creepy as a comic book-sized quarterly. From the pics I've seen online, this book looks gorgeous. The new Creepy is something (if I could actually buy it here in Japan) I'd be looking forward to with sweaty palms and heart palpitations for the full three months between issues. I checked out the online previews and it's everything I'd hoped when I learned they were doing this. Eric Powell's covers are appropriately Frazetta-esque, perfectly lurid and grotesque; The background colors-- especially the vivid red on the first issue-- are very reminiscent of the original magazine and even the cover copy has the correct typeface. They bring back that weird feeling from the days when both Creepy and Eerie lurked there on the bottom of the magazine shelf near the comic book spinner at the Kwickee store. Just a fleeting glimpse was often enough to send a chill down my spine or inspire nightmares. Forty-eight pages of black and white horror in the Warren Publications tradition-- they've even got Angelo Torres and Russ Heath!

That's what inspired this Dark Horse celebration. A little epiphany inspired by the existence of the new Creepy. I suddenly realized it was impossible for me to dislike a company that puts out Creepy? And the more I thought about it, the more I realized my apartment here is overflowing with comics, the bulk of which happen to have the Dark Horse logo. I'd honestly never really considered that before. Apparently, I like Dark Horse Comics.

A lot.