Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: A Look Back in Review of a Year That Was!

Now is the time of the year where we high-powered, in-the-know comic book bloggers focus our mighty minds on the endless task of telling you, the lowly reader, what to think about the year you just experienced for yourself. Here on my own personal Mt. Olympus, I have gazed far and seen many wonders which I will now relate to you from my god-like perspective as an all-powerful force for good, able to grasp the entire comics industry in my palm and shake it like as if it were but a pair of dice and yet bend it to my will so that the results when I toss it always come up in my favor...

Actually, I spent the first four or so months of 2010 in Japan, the final 8 looking for a job and my comic book obsessions have always been peculiar to myself—so what I found noteworthy this past year is probably going to seem a bit skewed. Enjoy the When Comic Books Ruled the Earth retrospective, Top 10 style!

10) Green Lantern? You Poor, Poor Bastard. You probably shouldn't judge a movie by its trailer, but you certainly can determine if it's something you'd like to see. And Green Lantern isn't something I would like to see. Not even as an in-flight movie on my way back to Japan. (November)

9) Onion A/V Club Writer Fired for Writing Review of an Unpublished Book. And becomes endlessly repeated in-joke on the message boards there in the classic A/V Club tradition. What if you were assigned to write a review for a book that hadn't been published yet? How would you handle it? Hopefully, you wouldn't do what this guy did and write a review of it anyway. It cost him his job, spawned a minor war of words between a comics blog and various A/V club regulars and now we have to put up with a lame-ass reference to this incident on practically every comment thread at the Onion. (December)

8) Cassandra Cain Returns to DC Continuity. And for once, Cass-fans don’t have to take to the web to angrily denounce it! While the in-story reason for her absence doesn’t appear to make any sense and despite some rude treatment the last few years at the hands of various writers and artists, Cass bounced back in 2010 courtesy of… Fabian Nicieza? Who saw that coming? She made a 5-page appearance in Red Robin #17 and was appropriately bad-ass and taciturn. Thanks, DC! (November)

7) Scott Pilgrim vs. The World Changes the Game… and Flops! Edgar Wright's colorful and fun adaptation of Bryan Lee O’Malley's Scott Pilgrim graphic novels garnered positive reviews but couldn't turn them into ticket sales. The end result is an odd little one-off comic book movie adaptation with a game cast and a crackerjack soundtrack that’s probably destined for cult status. (August)

6) Spider-Man Musical Determined to Kill Its Cast. Spider-man Broadway musical all about your friendly neighborhood guy who wears webs on his costume and swings from webs while spinning webs debuted with impressive production credentials—Julie Taymor as director and co-writer, music by Bono and the Edge. How could this thing fail? Massively! Apparently, the Sinister Six took offense at their lack of inclusion and sabotaged the whole thing. $65 million, a disastrous opening night, brutal reviews and a stuntman in the ICU… and a legend is born! (November/December)

5) Walking Dead Kills for AMC. AMC’s The Walking Dead series debuted to much acclaim and… uh… killer ratings. Then producer Frank Darabont axed all the writers. Okay, I should have made some kind of zombie-related joke there. I’m sorry. I let you down. I let my family down. Through six episodes, Darabont and his team took Robert Kirkman’s comic characters into places strange and unfamiliar. It’s “loosely adapted,” I suppose. While I’m a huge fan of the books, I’m glad they’re not just throwing those stories up on the screen. I like the idea the TV show can still hold surprises. Especially the second season debut where Rick gets turned into a zombie and eats Dale. Oops! Spoiler alert! (October/November/December)

4) Meanwhile, Batman Rises. This time with Pop-n-Fresh as his sidekick for more warm-from-the-oven storytelling fun! Director Christopher Nolan scored a huge financial and critical hit with his The Dark Knight sequel, buoyed by the late Heath Ledger’s Oscar-winning turn as the Joker. As befitting such an anarchic character, a lot of ridiculous rumors have been swirling about this production—including the ever-popular “Robin Williams as the Riddler” and "Cher as Catwoman" ones that pre-date modern European history—but one thing is certain: it will be called Bram Stoker's Tyler Perry's Crow T. Robot's The Dark Knight Rises: The Motion Picture Part One: Fellowship of the Rings (Human Centipede). (October)

3) Yazawa Ai Released from Hospital. Renowned mangaka Yazawa Ai continues to recover from a mystery illness that led her to lay down her pen and ink and put her massively-popular serial Nana on indefinite hiatus. While it seems unlikely she’ll continue her work anytime soon, we wish her a happy and healthy 2011. Take care of yourself, sensei. Your fans will always love you! (April)

2) New Spider-Man Movie Series! You can’t keep a good money-making franchise down. People love Spider-Man and they also love Spider-Man movies… with cash. So when Sam Raimi, Tobey McGuire and Kirsten Dunst decided they didn’t want to make anymore Spidey flicks, you didn’t expect Sony and Marvel to just give up, did you? Now they’re taking advantage of our adoration for all things Webhead by combining it with our uncritical acceptance of that other Hollywood phenomenon, the “re-boot.” Director Marc Webb and stars Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone will take the Spider-Man movie franchise into bold, new directions. By which I mean, yet another re-telling of the origina story but in 3D and updated with even quicker editing and stylistic flash for today’s audience for whom the years 2002, 2005 and 2008… probably occurred before their birth. My New Year's resolution: Stop being so cynical. (January)

1) Al Williamson and Dick Giordano Pass. These hurt. I’ve been an Al Williamson fan almost as long as I’ve been a comic book fan and I spent years trying to learn how to draw like him before giving up. His lush ink line and flawless figure-work will always set the standard and when I think of high adventure and science-fantasy, the settings will always look as though they flowed from Williamson’s brush. His influence extended beyond the illustrative medium-- it's hard to see Han Solo with his strapped-down sidearm, super-tight pants and tall boots as anything other than the cinematic descendant of any number of Williamson's sci-fantasy heroes. Dick Giordano was not only an inker par excellence, but he was also an editor and later Vice President/Executive Editor at DC and editor-in-chief at Charlton Publishing. He brought a clean, sharp look to DC’s house style-- particularly in collaboration with Neal Adams and George Perez-- and mentored many young inkers. While some of his views generated controversy, there's no denying his immense positive impact on the look of superhero comics. Another great loss. (June/March)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Yazawa Ai... Still No News...

Despite it being Christmas today, I find my thoughts turning once more to Yazawa Ai, the mangaka responsible for the Nana series. Nana is an addictive read, but it's been on hiatus since August, 2009, after Ms. Yazawa fell ill for a second time and had to be hospitalized. She apparently recuperated enough to leave the hospital in April of this year, but recovering her health has rightfully taken precedence over writing and drawing.

Funny the things you think of as the hours tick by on that most special of holidays. In Tokyo, young lovers strolled along the gaily decorated streets of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Harajuku. For them, Christmas is a romantic night. How like an episode of Nana it is. Let's hope the empty winds of winter don't extinguish love's flame. And let's hope Ms. Yazawa continues to recover in peace and that 2011 will be a happy year for her.

Did I Ever Show You This?

Mr. Spock vs. Cousin Oliver by ~supergaijin76 on deviantART

When I was studying graphic design, some friends and I talked about forming a Cousin Oliver fan club. This was the only fruit of that discussion. Fortunately.

The Mighty Elephant Warrior!

Mighty Elephant Warrior by ~supergaijin76 on deviantART

Someone should put an army of these guys into a comic. Maybe someone already has. This was a character design I did a long, long time ago before I moved to Japan and I had this insane idea I might get a job doing art for a living!

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An Early Christmas Present: Breakdowns by Art Spiegelman

One of my uncles surprised me today with this book, Breakdowns by Art Spiegelman, which, according to the back cover blurb is "the legendary and long out-of-print 1978 collection of comics by Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Maus." So while I was a 10-year-old geek obsessed with Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Micronauts comics, the cognoscenti were reading Spiegelman's amalgam of funny cartoon drawings, repurposed newspaper art, cubism, expressionism and the original 3-page "Maus."

I haven't finished reading it, but I have paged through it and the breadth of Spiegelman's art styles has already impressed me. But I was most affected by a couple of small details in the at-times emotionally harrowing autobiographical introduction. Foremost is a scene where young Spiegelman is trying to draw Tubby, only to have his father ask him to come help pack for vacation. It turns into a lesson in space management that comes into sharp relief when the father discovers Art is engrossed in his funny book and snatches it away, shouting, "It's important to know to pack! Many times I had to run with only what I can carry!" It's easy to understand why.

I'm reminded of Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, also a Jew. He managed to escape Europe in the 1930s, but according to P.D. Smith's Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, Szilard developed the lifelong habit of staying largely in hotel rooms with a packed suitcase always at the ready. It's important to know to pack.

The elder Spiegelman's Holocaust memories suffuse his son's recollections of childhood, and this becomes more apparent in two other episodes-- one where the family is returning home after a party where a former member of the Sonderkommando continues to be socially snubbed and another where Art is working on the first "Maus" and visits with his father's now elderly friends and they jibe each other over whether one's Siberian gulag was a "country club compared to Auschwitz." It's even referenced in minor moments, such as the day Spiegelman dreams of owning a dog and his mother replies, "Even before Auschwitz your father was afraid of dogs."

Obviously, it was an omnipresent theme in the Spiegelman house, informing even later tragedies. As trite and weathered an observation as it is, I can't help but wonder if these things become your inheritance in the same way your mom's hair or your father's mouth or both of their mannerisms and concerns repeat themselves in you. Almost genetically. Both my parents lived through the Depression, but my father, having been born the year it began, bore the marks of growing up dirt-poor the rest of his life. And so now so do I, unlike a lot of my friends who had Boomers as parents and so have a kind of carelessness to their optimism.

You know, despite almost all of them being on the anti-anxiety medications I've eschewed because I'm too far gone to even ask for help.

Anyway, I really had only the most basic knowledge about Art Spiegelman and his work, and now I've got this gorgeously designed and art-rich-- in full color-- book to experience. It's one of the best gifts I've received in a long time!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

A Holiday Message For Some Kid in Toronto...

We don't do this often, but just this morning we here at When Comic Books Ruled the Earth received a special request from a young Canadian lass to contact dear old Santa Claus "in the interest of love and holiday magic" or some such youthful nonsense. Seeing as how some of our employees here are former toy workshop elves who have maintained their ties with the Big Man at the North Pole, we now present:

Santa Claus has prepared a video message for Scott with his PNP - Portable North Pole console.

Knives thought you would like to watch it!

To watch it, click here:

To ask Santa to make you a personalized message, go to

New Mutants #18: A Review!

New Mutants #18
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Script: Zeb Wells
Art: Leonard Kirk
Colors: Guru eFX

As history has shown us, Dani Moonstar and Xi’an Coy Manh are my two most beloved comic characters. It was hard not to love Dani—writer Chris Claremont let her take over as her book's de facto lead character and many of their adventures were told largely from her point of view, at least until Claremont’s pet character Magik (she appears to have touched on many of the underlying BDSM elements in his writing more effectively than Dani ever could) joined and supplanted her.

Why did I like Xi'an? Because if ever a character needed reader support, it was her.
Poor Xi’an barely got a chance to do much of anything beyond being kind of awkwardly formal before Claremont blew her up in a castle. The kids mourned her for about half the next issue and then it was Carnival time in Rio. Sic transit Xi'an. it wasn’t until she returned to the book years later that I really began to appreciate her thoughtful, nurturing nature and the hidden coil of steel inside.

When Marvel announced they were bringing back the original team for a regular ongoing, it was like a nostalgia fan’s dream-come-true. Writer Zeb Wells showed a deft touch with the characterization early on—his New Mutants are older, somewhat wiser but still with recognizable personalities. Dani is still tempestuously angry, Sam is still a nice guy to a fault, Xi’an is still responsible and caring… but with a few darker elements to round out her personality. Unfortunately, we no longer live in a world where a monthly comic stands on its on, and all too often the team’s story got lost in X-Book crossovers, some of which resulted in the main characters being reduced to mere cameos in their own book. For shame, Marvel.

Now Wells and artist Leonard Kirk are telling their own self-contained epic, its name a callback to a “classic” storyline from my wilderness years when I abandoned superhero comics for novels and short stories. I have no idea how the new story relates to the old, but I do know the re-cap on the first page sets a new record for the use of the word “Limbo.” This is apparently where some evil (is there ever any other kind in comics?) United States scientific/military organization has turned kid mutants into scarred, tattooed killers and it seems to be at least partially the New Mutants’ fault. Kirk goes nuts with the double-page spreads while our heroes fight these post-Goth freaks—one doesn’t have a face, just what appears to be a large stoplight in its place and another is covered with disgusting red scabs; so much so, his name actually is Scab.

Wells and Kirkman manage to keep readers on track even with all those modern storytelling quirks like flashbacks that jumpcut to present time (when I was a child, comics usually relied on funny-bordered panels to do this) and the endless fighting. Punch, kick, stab, blast. Almost the entire book is one big fight scene in some kind of hell world reminiscent of some of the weaker Buffy the Vampire Slayer episodes.

You know, when that dork Riley Finn was hanging around and the main villain was a Frankenstein’s monster made from dead soldiers, demons and robot parts, but the even mainer villain was something called “The Initiative,” which functioned similarly to Wells’s “Project Purgatory.” In short, I hate stories about military guys mixing it up with demons and other such nonsense. Didn’t do much for me on Buffy, doesn’t impress me here.

Mainly because it's so damned ugly. Not Kirk's art; it's rock solid. The setting. The mood. While I’m sure if there’s a hell, it would also be ugly but that doesn’t mean I particularly want to spend any time there with a bunch of stock mad scientists and stalwart military men doing the ol’ “the end justifies the means” routine. Especially when it also involves specifically trying to push my gross-out buttons with scenes of surgical mutilation and lunatic doctors covered with gore.

But what does impress is how-- despite the reliance on wall-to-wall mayhem and self-consciously edgy story elements-- Wells manages to keep up his strong characterization. Especially of Dani.

There’s a moment where Dani’s tough-chick façade threatens to give way and it’s a startlingly real reaction for someone trapped in such a hellish scenario. It's a well-observed moment that finds the secret cause of Dani's hard-ass stance, and shows Wells knows his cast inside and out (I just don't want to see their insides quite so often)-- it's one that hearkens back to the first few issues of the original series. Wells's choice adds layers to an already enjoyable character.

That’s the kind of stuff that made me read the original New Mutants despite its frequent descent into silliness and/or barely-concealed sexual fetishism and keeps me reading the new version even with all the blood and guts and plot encroachment from other books.

As for Xi’an? She doesn’t get to do much here. And in a universe where Professor X can receive a brand-new clone body and completely human-looking androids and cyborgs frequent their local Starbucks, just what in the hell kind of justification is there to stick Xi’an with some kind of Robocop-inspired bird claw thingy for a leg? Either design her something that doesn't look like it weighs 500 pounds or get that woman some bionics… STAT!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Renee Witterstaetter has a book on Nick Cardy's WWII service coming out!

It's called Nick Cardy: The Artist at War; she's got a write-up on her blog explaining how it came about. The regular signed hardcover is 128 pages and comes with a DVD for $39.99, but there's also an edition with an original Cardy sketch (WOW!) for $150. And if you're interested you have to order it directly from Eva Ink or from Diamond Solicit.

I dig me some Nick Cardy art, but his wartime service is part of his life I know absolutely nothing about. Well, let me correct that-- if his Wikipedia entry is correct, Cardy was in the 66th Infantry Division and designed their "black cat" patch and later served as an assistant tank driver in the 3rd Armored Division. He got two Purple Hearts. Now I know a little bit about Cardy's military career.

Cardy was one of those artists I'd frequently heard of but had never really given much thought to when he was doing covers and interiors. TwoMorrows Publishing's Comic Book Artist magazine had a real 1960s-70s focus and they'd occasionally run a small black and white image of one of Cardy's many DC covers. It's kind of difficult to judge someone's artwork at that size, but it was enough to get me thinking, "Nick Cardy's one of those guys whose work I really need to investigate." It wasn't until I moved to Japan and DC started putting out those Showcase Presents: Teen Titans books bursting at the seams with Cardy-ian goodness that I really caught on.

Wow! What I'd been missing!

Nick Cardy is an incredible artist. Strong anatomy and traditional storytelling skills-- but with this unique loose zig-zagging ink line to model shadows on his figures; it gives them a three-dimensional quality traditional feathering can't match, and the swirling quality denotes movement and energy. Cardy's figures have weight and form, but they also seem to dance around the page. As a result, he's now one of my all-time favorites and something of an influence on my own little doodles. I spent quite a lot of time between my ESL classes laboriously copying Cardy figures-- alongside my various clumsy Alex Toth rip-offs-- in my sketchbook and failing miserably to match him.

If you've caught the Nick Cardyfluenza from me, you should also check out TwoMorrows's Nick Cardy: Behind the Art. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my wish list. Wanna add it to yours?

Friday, December 10, 2010

Scandal! Tothgate at the Onion A/V Club!

Just a little hyperbole to get your morning started. And mine. I don't often read the comic book coverage at the Onion A/V Club, but this morning one article jumped out at me: "An Apology from the A.V. Club." I thought it would be some smart-ass amusement, but it turned out to be sincere. Apparently, one of their correspondents wrote a Comics Panel review for Genius Isolated: The Life & Art Of Alex Toth, a book that won't be published until July, 2011.

Oops. Busted. Writing a review for a book that won't be published for another 8 months is either the most amazing example of clairvoyance the world has ever seen, or else someone's need to contribute and earn a little holiday cash overwhelmed his or her good sense. As A/V Club editor Keith Phipps writes in his apology:

I don't want to speculate on the writer's motivations, but I can say that in no way was the publisher of the book, IDW, involved. This sort of behavior is absolutely unacceptable, and we will not be working with the writer again in any capacity going forward.

In short, someone did something stupid and got fired for it, just in time for the holidays! Do you realize what this means? It means bankruptcy and scandal and prison. That's what it means. One of us is going to jail - well, it's not gonna be me!

I just hope there's some sort of Christmas miracle in this person's future. Perhaps involving an angel second class and a life-affirming lesson about how a single person's existences touches that of many others, ending with all the Onion A/V Club writers joining in and singing "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" segueing into "Auld Lang Syne," while Zodiac MotherFucker counts up the monetary contributions.

Also, I want to take this time to reaffirm my own sense of journalistic integrity, even if this is merely the blog of an opinionated dumbass with too much time on his hands. I hereby renew my most sincere promise all my reviews will be of real comics I've actually read. Some of the reviews themselves may or may not be faked, but the comics will always be real already-published books and magazines you can buy (or illegally download, if that's your thing) for yourself. Actually, come to think of it, some of the comics may not even exist.

Furthermore, in the interest of full disclosure here, I don't even exist. I'm a fictional human created by a comics-loving collective of woodland creatures. Chipper field mice do the typing on this tossed-out laptop the animals found (put into working order by a brilliant but morally suspect rat), while a clever old owl does the thinking and dictates the words. There's a shy deer involved and several not-very-bright rabbits, but their contributions are as yet indistinct and hazy. Somewhere lurking in the mix is an evil old crocodile, so ancient his hate has been building in darkness for untold centuries...

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Cass Came Back: Red Robin #17

Red Robin #17
Publisher: DC Comics
Script: Fabian Nicieza
Pencils: Marcus To
Inks: Ray McCarthy

It took forever. First I had to move all the way back to the United States from Japan, get a job, work on Black Friday, get paid, show up on a day the comic book store happened to be closed, bust my ass at work one more afternoon, then write a third-party, out-of-state post-dated check under an assumed name while wearing a disguise (a white linen suit with matching fedora, dark sunglasses and a bushy black mustache) but I finally experienced the long-anticipate return of Cassandra Cain to the the pages of a DC funny book.

And , to be honest, it’s been so long since I read (or even wanted to read) an in-continuity DC monthly, I have no idea what’s going on in this story. This one stars Tim Drake, a character I've long loathed for some random, idiotic comic book fan reason. He’s graduated from the Robin costume to the Red Robin one and I don’t know if this is a step up or merely a sideways one. But that’s not important right now. What is important is Cassandra Cain. This is the only reason I bought this comic. I freely admit I’m one of those insane, impossible-to-please Cass Cain cultists and I had to see how scripter Fabian Nicieza handled her.

So how do I feel about Nicieza's take on Cass? The opening scene is pretty clichéd—somehow superheroes always show up whenever someone’s being mugged. They jump from the rooftops just in time, kick a little ass, then disappear into the night, kind of how Rambo always knows what tree to hide in out of all the trees in the jungle so he can drop down on some unsuspecting commie soldier. Are there dozens of other muggings, burglaries and murders occurring at the same time? Probably. The whole superhero gig seems like a complete mis-allocation of resources. But these scenes are pretty effective in letting a reader figure out a character’s modus operandi.

In this case, it’s Cass conveniently showing up at one of your standard issue street muggings. Nicieza has Red Robin narrate throughout the brief action sequence—he’s a little awed, gives us Cass’s backstory and lets us know in no uncertain terms she’s badass: “Cassandra Cain, the former Batgirl, remains one of the most dangerous fighters on the planet.”

As for Cass herself, Nicieza depicts her as fairly taciturn and off-putting, and it's a welcome change for a character that has been written so randomly and poorly over the past few years-- when the DC creators can be bothered to include her in a story at all-- she's developed an almost tesseract-shaped personality. Nicieza's Cass drops subject nouns, speaks in short declarative sentences, doesn’t mince words, seems to understand some language other than English (Nicieza uses the classic Claremont "I'm speaking foreignese!" trick with the greater than/less than signs) but doesn’t deign to speak it herself. And when she finishes the conversation to her satisfaction, she jets without so much as a “By your leave” or a “Kiss mah grits, Mel.” She’s obviously a woman who lets her actions speak for her—which is how she should be.

Admittedly, Cassandra Cain fans have a reputation for being a little... shall we say... twitchy. And yet it turns out it's not that difficult to please this particular Cassfreak-- all it takes is writing a version of the character I can recognize from having read and enjoyed her monthly and suffered through all the horrible, intelligence insulting versions of her that have been foisted on us since. She’s in Red Robin #17 for five short pages and it’s the best Cass moment in years, without a wrong move or one of those fan-infuriating non sequitor moments (Navajo code speak? Drugged into murderous insanity? Anything by Adam Beechen?) that plague practically every Cass appearance since DC canceled her monthly book.

This is practically a gift to us from DC and Fabian Nicieza, so savor this while you can, Cass fans! God knows how the next scripter will write her when she shows up again. Happy-go-lucky wisecracker? Glitter-covered pole dancer with a snake fetish? Techno-savvy goth geek working for Naval Criminal Investigative Service?

Penciller Marcus To and inker Ray McCarthy provide clean artwork and assured storytelling; this is a sure way to get on my good side. To refreshingly uses a variety of panel shapes and sizes rather than those tiresome “widescreen” panels featuring stiff, static imagery so many other artists use these days. To does throw in some stretched horizontal panels, but he frequently breaks up pages vertically as well for pacing and variety’s sake. And he actually draws through actions—a criminal points a gun, gets a batarang in his hand, then crouches and clutches his wound in pain and there aren’t any cheats—lazy close-ups that serve only to fill space with a minimum of drawing effort and confuse readers. Late in the book as a contrast to the all the action, there's a nice 3-panel sequence where a woman I believe is called Lynx glides into Red Robin’s arms. To is an artist who actually creates the illusion of movement just like the pros used to do before tracing porn frames and mis-using Poser became all the rage.

In fact, To's work looks a bit like Alan Davis-light; it bears enough surface similarities to Davis in the way he handles various eyes, mouths and the fairly naturalistic (yet still heroic anatomy) to charm me even more. Combined with McCarthy's easy-to-read inks, it's appealing. Cass’s new costume is a bit clunky, with weird armored shoulder pads and ridiculous straps that serve no obvious function, but I like how To’s ditched the most idiotic superhero accoutrement of them all—the cape. Instead, he gives Cass a stylish short scarf. I probably appreciate that more than most because I designed a retro-ish Batgirl costume for Cass a while back that featured an extremely short cape as an accent piece similar to Spider-Man’s under-arm webs. Hey, I thought it was pretty cool. Obviously, it’s not necessary here now that Cass has relinquished the Batgirl role.

Finally, Bruce Wayne shows up as Batman in his own redesigned costume. It looks like combination of the outfit he wore in the Tim Burton Batman films and a Bryan Singer X-Men movie costume… but what’s this? Batman, the biggest prick in the whole DC universe actually shows… warmth? He hugs Red Robin, smiles, then actually says something about having fun?

This is the first time in years I haven’t wanted to slap his Bat-face. Maybe they’re going to stop trying to out-Miller Frank Miller and undo all the damage so many mediocre writers have done to the Bat-books since The Dark Knight Returns and Year One. Ever since, DC's scripters have increasingly written Batman as a teeth-gritting sociopath with all the charm of a pre-heart enlargement Grinch on three-day coke binge. I can't deny it's made him more popular than ever, but I prefer to read about human beings. Even human beings dressed like bats.

Did I just write a positive review for a DC comic starring a character I hate, featuring a cameo by one I'm overly sensitive about and another by a character who usually makes me wanna barf? Well, wonders never cease!

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Dude's Stolen Paintings!

Steve Rude posted a stolen painting alert on his Facebook page. One is a Harry Anderson original given to Rude by the artist's daughter and the other two are by Rude himself-- a Nexus cover and an interior page. Rude sent them to an art restorer for estimates and when he felt the quotes were too high, requested the work be returned. For whatever reason the restorer apparently kept them and may or may not still have the art in his possession. Obviously, Rude wants back what's rightfully his and-- because it's been a year since his initial complaint-- has decided to put out the word to his fans in hopes of speeding the process along.

"The case went before the [Arizona] Attorney General in August and it could be many more months before anything is done," Rude wrote.

It's not as if art theft was a rare or even new phenomenon, especially of comic book pages. Compared to fine art, comic book pages are relatively cheap but still valuable enough for key pages to go for handsome prices on the secondary market. Comic book pages also have the advantage of being numerous enough that it's difficult to keep track of ever single original floating around and to establish provenance. A page might change hands dozens of times. In this case, since two of the pieces are paintings, it's difficult to imagine what this person plans to do with them. Especially now that Steve Rude has the word out about them.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Michael Golden Receives a Lifetime Achievement Award from the University of Maryland!

Would you like to learn more? Just check out Renee Witterstaetter's blog for the full story and some neat-o photos of the event. Golden's artwork is dazzling and I want to congratulate him on this well-deserved honor.

Out of curiosity, I went to to see if Marvel had published a second volume of their classic The 'Nam series reissue-- and yes, they have! It's kind of expensive, though, even with Amazon's usual discount. $21.59, down from a list price of $29.99? Seriously? You can get Fantagraphics's Blazing Combat volume in paperback now for $13.59! Granted, The 'Nam is 240 pages in color while Blazing Combat is 220 in black and white, but 8 bucks difference when the garish coloring in The 'Nam volume 1 is the book's weakest point? I've been consistently unimpressed with the color reproduction in Marvel's 80s-era reprints. It looked great on newsprint or whatever paper they used back in the day, but on today's fashionable glossy white stock, it's too hard-edged and over-saturated. It detracts from the linework. This is one area where I have to admit DC beats Marvel-- color reprint books. So with that in mind, I'm really not convinced by Marvel's pricing for this book especially when you can still get the hardcover version of Blazing Combat directly from Fantagraphics for $28.99.

And yet I still have the desire to look at Golden's art (and wax nostalgic with the New Mutants kids, for that matter; that's another Marvel reprint series I end up buying despite price anxiety). Hmm. The 'Nam or Blazing Combat? Whichever one you choose-- actually, I consider both indispensable to my comics library-- you still get John Severin!

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Steve "The Dude" Rude's Offering Some Black Friday Specials!

If you're interested in that kind of thing. You know-- marker sketches (some in color), calendars, sketchbooks, prints and other fun items from one of the all-time comic book art greats.

Speaking of Black Friday and holiday shopping-- what are your holiday comic book-related wants? I'll share a few of mine:

1. Manga Studio EX 4 (Smith Micro Software, Inc.). Your very own digital comic book studio with every tool you could possibly need; you supply the talent. I've been messing around with version 3 for a while now and it's pretty powerful, especially its rulers function. Version 4 offers even more features. Yeah, if I got this I'd finish that graphic novel I've been working on for 10 years. And it would be awesome!

2. Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s edited by Greg Sadowski and John Benson (Fantagraphics). 320 pages of horror stories from the EC era. I've never read any of these, but I'd love to. Many of the greats are represented: Al Williamson, Jack Cole, Steve Ditko, George Evans and Wally Wood. I could care less about the story quality. I mean, I'm sure they're all pretty cool. I'm just jazzed by the prospect of such a huge slab of weird stuff from all these cats.

3. Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth by Dean Mullaney and Bruce Canwell (IDW Publishing). I've long bemoaned the lack of Toth-related books. Image offers the indispensable Zorro (indispensable not for its lackluster stories but because it contains the highest concentration of Toth's sequential work available anywhere), but previous retrospectives are out of print and his comic book work is spread thin throughout a pile of expensive archive books. This book and the upcoming Setting the Standard (edited by Greg Sadowski... hey, he made this list twice!) go a long way towards correcting the error. Come to think of it, as an obsessed Toth fan, obviously I need both of these new books.

4. Al Williamson's Flash Gordon: A Lifelong Vision of the Heroic by Al Williamson, edited by Mark Shultz (Flesk Publications). Williamson passed away earlier this year, a crushing loss. Williamson is another surprisingly neglected artist; there have been some nice reprint volumes available at times, but not nearly enough considering his artistic stature. I will forever consider Al Williamson the finest illustrator ever to draw a comic story. Heroic space fantasy was his meat-n-potatoes, and what could be finer than Al Williamson drawing the greatest space adventurer of them all? I also want Al Williams Archives Volume 1 (also from Flesk).

5. X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan Volume 1 by Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin (IDW Publishing). Williamson continues to get his due.

6. Indoor Voice by Jillian Tamaki (Drawn and Quarterly). I love her loose and evocative linework on the graphic novel Skim (gloriously written by her cousin Mariko, by the way), so how could I not want this as well?

7. The Art of Jaime Hernandez: The Secrets of Life and Death by Todd Hignite (Abrams ComicArts). A long overdue look at the work of one of comics' finest storytellers.

Yeah, I could easily go to 10 or 20 of these but I'm going to leave off at lucky 7. It's Thanksgiving Day!

Monday, November 22, 2010

Michael Golden on WBOC 16!

Renee Witterstaetter posted this on the Eva Ink Publishing/Eva Ink Artists Group feed on Facebook and I'm sharing it here.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Onion A/V Club Interviews Charles Burns!

And I don't mean Charles Montgomery Burns. Oh lord, I can't believe I did that. Shameless dork humor, ladies and gentleman! Charles Burns has a new book out, X'ed Out. Look, I have no idea what it's about other than some guy wanders a bizarre, vaguely ominous dreamscape while looking like a vertically-scaled version of Herge's TinTin. If you've ever wanted to see a guy whose nose has rotted off eat a maggot with a human face, this is the book for you!

And me!

Oh yeah, the Onion A/V Club interview. It has a bizarre digression into how Roger McGuinn couldn't figure out George Harrison's guitar sound until he watched A Hard Day's Night (not that I'm complaining; I'm an arch-digresser and pop culture addict full of esoteric, useless trivia of a similar sort), but the interview also touches on Patti Smith and William S. Burroughs, plus it includes some shop-talk about Burns's former coloring technique (one of my graphic design professors colored his jobs the same way) and the performance anxiety of possibly ruining a finished page by dripping gouache onto it. Hell, you can read! Why am I telling you all this?

X'ed Out is going on my Christmas list, by the way. It's exactly the kind of thing I like. Getting something inappropriate makes the holiday a little surreal, which is just how I like it. Like last year when my sister-in-law gave me Dark Horse's Eerie Achives Volume 1 and my mom gave me... er... Dark Horse's Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein (which weighs as much as one of the bodies Dr. Frankenstein experimented on, I might add) and I spent Christmas night wandering the gaily-lit, gorgeously decorated Harajuku and Shibuya wards of Tokyo, holiday music in the air and lovely young couples walking along window-shopping and basking in the glow of love. Christmas night is probably the most romantic night of the year in Japan, much more so than either Valentine's Day or White Day.

Monsters, romance and Tokyo. Definitely my most memorable Christmas. This year will be noseless maggot eaters, I guess.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Sequence of Photos Showing the Dude's Working Method!

Today on Steve Rude's Facebook page, they've posted a gallery of photos showing the Dude hard at work on his Superman painting for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF). As you flip through the photos, you get to see the artist go from blank illustration board almost to completed work.

Steve Rude's ability to block in a well-proportioned, dynamic figure never ceases to amaze me. Of course, that's the result of years of professional work, but also Rude's never-ending learning phase. He's an artist I admire not only for his body of work but also for his approach to art-- you don't freeze at some point and say, "Well, I'm good enough." It seems a lot of young artists look for "style" first and once they've accomplished that-- a series of visual tricks usually copped from whatever artists were hot during their formative phase-- they stop and say, "Now I'm an artist."

And that's a shame. Perhaps in some cases, it's a profitable shame. I can think of a few really big names who got incredibly rich beyond Jack Kirby's wildest imaginings during the 90s by pushing schlock and they're still doing schlock today. But as a young artist why deny yourself the opportunity to grow? Art is a lifelong process. Rude started strong, but he's only gotten better over the years. So he doesn't own Mark McGwire's baseball, and maybe that's a deterrent to some. But I'll take the lifelong art student any day of the week and twice on Sunday.

Friday, November 5, 2010

2011 Just Got Creepier... and Eerier!

According to a story in USA Today, Dark Horse's Creepy revival will switch to a bi-monthly publishing schedule next year. I don't think I can over-emphasize how wonderful this news is to horror comics fans like myself. Perhaps I should go out and commit a dozen or so ax murders or become a vampire or werewolf or some kind of soggy, shambling zombie in order to celebrate.

While I was living in Japan, I had more yen than I knew what to do with. Saving it was obviously out of the question, so instead I began spending it on various hardcover archive series. Dark Horse's Creepy and Eerie reprints top my list of favorites. The stories in the early books are kind of spotty-- overly tame and reliant on the same-old monsters and Eastern European settings that must have seemed pretty hackneyed even in the 1960s. But there's no arguing with the artwork-- Al Williamson, Alex Toth, George Evans, Steve Ditko and more, plus atmospheric covers by none other than Frank Frazetta. While I haven't bought any of the later volumes, my memory of quick peaks in the afternoon at various convenience stores around town leads me to believe the stories grew more explicit and gruesome over the years.

The quarterly Creepy comic, however, has proven pretty elusive. Somewhere around here I think I have issue 2, but I wasn't able to find any of the other issues in Japan. I don't think I've even read any online reviews. Hopefully the more frequent scheduling will translate into greater availability.

For me. Weird. When I was a kid reading comics, I never in a million years would've thought Creepy would become one of my favorite titles. And as a grown-up dork reading them in the 1990s, I never guessed both Dark Horse, Fantagraphics and Viz would end up becoming my favorite publishers.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A Halloween Grudge Match: Tomie vs. Jenifer!

Frankenstein's Monster versus the Wolfman, Lycans versus Vampires, Billy the Kid versus Dracula, Freddie versus Jason, O'Brien versus Leno-- these are a few of the heavyweight horror match-ups we've thrilled to over the years. However, the most cataclysmic struggle for horror supremacy would have to be the war between Ito Junji's Tomie against Bruce Jones and Bernie Wrightson's Jenifer. One is an immortal beauty who drives men insane with lust and obsession.

The other also drives men to madness... but is somewhat less physically attractive.

Let's get ready to rrrrrrrrrruuuummmmmmmmmmblllllllllle!

Tale of the tape: I have no idea how to do a tale of the tape on these two fighters. Since she's an unearthly beauty, Tomie is probably taller than average, perfectly proportioned and with the ideal height-to-weight ratio for a young woman of her age. Jenifer looks kind of like an earthworm, so I'm guessing she's a bit under 5 feet. Advantage: Tomie

Tactics: Tomie definitely has the advantage of reach and mobility. Jenifer can rip grown men apart with her bare hands or eviscerate them with those nasty teeth. Both girls frequently exert some kind of mind control over men to have them do their dirty work-- but we've only seen Jenifer capable of controlling one fella at a time. Tomie can work her mojo on groups. So one-on-one, Jenifer would easily beat Tomie, I doubt it would come to that. Tomie would send scores of would-be lovers after Jenifer and overwhelm her foe. Advantage: Tomie

Enemies: Tomie has a multitude of enemies. Her lovers tend to go mad and kill her and there's the delightfully amoral Tsukiko who battles her for three installments. Jenifer just has the one dupe narrator, and he kind of sucks. Sure, we can blame Jenifer's mental hold on him for his indecisiveness but essentially, he's a weak-willed nothing who doesn't engender much sympathy-- he's certainly not as likable as Tsukiko. Advantage: Tomie

Powers: Jenifer is as strong as she is hideous. She also uses some sort of hypnotic control over her victims; apparently, this affects males exclusively-- the primary victim's wife is revolted by Jenifer and soon leaves. Tomie also possesses a similar faculty-- which seems to affect only males as well. However, Tomie can regenerate entirely from the smallest cell remnant. In fact, even her organs have acted as cancers that have metastasized until the host body is overwhelmed and transforms into a duplicate of Tomie herself, complete with Tomie's personality. While Tomie appears to avoid physical conflict, it's clear Jenifer's attacks on her would simply result in more and more Tomies until they swarm Jenifer and kill her. Advantage: Tomie

Story: Tomie's stories are cooler and there are more of them. As grotesque as they sometimes are, they lack the raw, visceral power of Bruce Jones's nasty short. "Jenifer," the story, is 10 pages of nauseating horror with a twist ending worth of Rod Serling. Ito Junji's stories tend to ramble with a lot less focus. We're also unsure of Tomie's motives-- does she want to be loved? Is she just randomly malicious? Jenifer undermines the family unit and perverts parental love in the name of self-preservation; she's a leech. Advantage: Jenifer

The clear-cut winner here is Tomie. I imagine a scenario where Jenifer has somehow manipulated some schmoe into taking her to Japan, where he-- near the point of nervous collapse or suicide-- proves no longer useful. Rescued by a handsome high school boy on a class trip, Jenifer begins to take over his life, all the while committing horrific murders in order to feed. Unfortunately, Jenifer has chosen as her prey someone who interests Tomie. Sensing her foe, Tomie begins working her wiles on several boys of her class and makes it known she wishes her rival to vanish.

The initial assault fails. Tomie discovers the mutilated corpses of her entourage. Enraged beyond reason, she confronts her crush and forces him to show her into his house. His parents have been murdered by Jenifer and their bodies remain in the living room, a sight that barely registers on the determined Tomie. Jenifer ambushes Tomie as she reaches the boy's bedroom. The fight lasts but a moment and Jenifer feeds on Tomie's entrails.

Soon after, Jenifer's hair turns lustrous and black and her teeth begin to recede. As her entrapped lover-pet watches, she begins to walk more upright and the knotty deformities that mar her body lessen. She even appears to have a beauty mark under her left eye-- which is itself no longer a moist, dark orb, but rather something... alluring.

Meanwhile, the blood splatters in the hallway have begun to grow (no matter how hard you scrub with bleach you can never get rid of all of them). They bulge and seem to quiver ominously, almost as if they're reacting to sound. The boy now hears Tomie's voice whispering to him, overpowering Jenifer's mental hold. He grows confused, ever more desperate-- just as Jenifer grows ever more human and beautiful. Tomie's personality begins to assert itself within Jenifer and she speaks with Tomie's voice. Now there are multiple Tomies living within the house and Jenifer is completely consumed. Having no more use for the poor high school boy, they discard him and walk off into the night together. The boy goes mad and a few days later, Tsukiko (now at a new school) reads about it in the paper and shudders, glad she no longer has to deal with Tomie.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

A Very The Walking Dead Halloween to You!

Here's an Onion A/V Club interview with director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, Green Mile, The Mist) about his upcoming TV series adaptation of Robert Kirkman's zombie apocalypse epic The Walking Dead. I'm more a fan of Kirkman's comic than I am of Darabont's films, although I have watched and enjoyed Shawshank several times (it's my oldest brother's favorite movie of all time). But it's the zombie apocalypse factor and my love for all the haggard survivors Kirkman throws at us month after month that has me anticipating the show's premiere the way those roamers outside the prison stronghold anticipated sinking their moldy teeth into human flesh.

Remember that storyline? When Rick and his group holed up in the prison (issues 13-48)? And katana-wielding Michonne showed up? And then the Governor came and things went all pear-shaped? Yeah. That was so cool.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Steve Rude's Big Barda!

I wish I could post the actual image here, but Steve Rude's latest commission is a sparkling color marker drawing of one of my favorite comic book characters-- the underrated, under-used, under-respected Big Barda! I love the look of Rude's marker works, too. Markers are fun to use-- you can lay down vibrant colors quickly, and if you're really skilled, make your drawing look almost like a watercolor.

Obviously, Rude is miles better than I am at it, so I seethe with ineffectual jealousy every time he unleashes another one of these drawings into the wild. Where they run happy and free among the tall pines and frigid glacial lakes of our last frontier.

Rude gives Barda her familiar Kirby-esque physique-- Barda, as her nickname implies, is not a petite thing. The person who commissioned this piece asked for her to wear Mr. Miracle's cape. I'm wondering if he meant something like, "Wrapped in it with bits of skin showing through while she lounges on a bearskin rug," but in Rude's rendering one can imagine Scott Free trapped and in peril once again (as far as Big Barda knows, anyway) and Barda's found his cape. Fearing the worst, she's ripping down walls in her determination to rescue her life-partner. You could write an entire narrative based around this single image, and that's just more evidence of how awesome Steve Rude's artwork is!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

A New Michael Golden Interview!

It's a short one, publicizing his art show at the Mosely Gallery at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, running through December 2 this year. The questions are pretty standard stuff: How did you start drawing? What are you working on now? And advice for aspiring funny book drawrers?

It's good to read Golden is working on several projects right now. I wonder what they might be...

By Special Request of the Dude...

Here's a link to Steve Rude's Ebay auction to benefit the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. It's a snazzy Superman painting and the proceeds go to a good cause. The Rudes say this is Steve's way of giving back, especially after everyone was so generous to him recently.

The painting itself is epic. It's a powerful, somewhat Fleischer-esque Superman surrounded by flames as he wards off a meteor no doubt imperiling innocents on some inhabited planet, perhaps even our own! I love Rude's Silver/Bronze Age Marvel character work-- you don't see him take on DC's heroes all that often, but when he does it's magic.

And now it's time for a cartoon:

Sunday, October 17, 2010

An Ito Junji Halloween 3: Tsukiko, the Girl Who Fought Tomie!

Tsukiko is a student at Hanadagaoka High School. She looks pretty fresh-faced and innocent with her pixie cut and elfin features. But she’s something of a shark, too. She uses her access to the Photo Club’s equipment and dark room to support a racket—she takes photos of boys and sells them to lovesick girls. And it’s not so much that she profits from her friends’ unrequited love; she over-profits. As she readily admits in her narration, “My friends tell me which boys they’re into. I snap their pictures, then charge through the teeth.” She’s been known to charge up to 10,000 yen (roughly 100USD), but offers her pal Michiko a 70% discount.

Like a drug dealer stringing along her addicted customers, Tsukiko isn't shy about jacking up the price. With everything going her way, she becomes full of herself, more than a little cocky. She's an arch-capitalist, working the free market angle without competition and little fear of legal reprisal. She's also her own best customer. She’s secretly in love with the slim, good-looking Yamazaki—but not above lying to him about profiting from the photos she takes. She tells him they’re for another girl and that they’re “strictly pro bono,” then giggles to herself in her room that night that her lie was just a white one. “Gray, maybe.”

But she's setting herself up for a big fall, too. Hubris and greed tend to pay off in misery in Ito Junji's dark world.

It doesn’t take long for transfer student and Ethics Committee member Tomie to catch onto Tsukiko’s business. She confronts the burgeoning paparazzo and confiscates all the photos in the name of school spirit. Strangely, Tsukiko’s customers side with her against Tomie. They’re totally in favor of letting Tsukiko exploit their feelings. Maybe these candid photos are a bit addictive. What would we think of her if Tsukiko were selling caffeine pills or even amphetamines to fuel late-night cram sessions? After all, Japanese high school kids are constantly preparing for massive multi-subject exams in addition to their club activities and occasional part-time jobs.

Cultural aside: I knew a high school girl who was a weekend fry cook at Denny’s, despite her high school’s express rules against any kind of employment. Then again, she couldn’t have cared less about all the tests she failed—her ambition was to become a flight attendant, not get into Keio or Tokyo Universities. And she made it!

Well, the last thing you want to do whether you’re a boy or a girl is attract Tomie’s attention. Tsukiko shows another facet to her personality-- she's got quite a temper.

Tomie tricks Tsukiko into shooting her and discussing money-- Tomie is well-regarded for her beauty, Tsukiko openly suggests her portrait might fetch as much as 100,000 yen (roughly 1000USD). Just as Tomie plans, a faulty member overhears Tsukiko and the girl ends up suspended from school and grounded at home. Merely angry before, the unhappy Tsukiko vows revenge. But something strange has happened to every single photo she took. Putting on her school uniform-- most high school kids do this before setting foot on school grounds, even during vacation periods-- Tsukiko dumps dozens of prints out an upper story window.

Now Tomie is the angry one. And a story that seemed to be an almost naturalistic portrait of two girls who just don't get along turns into a suspense story worthy of Alfred Hitchcock-- Tomie's Ethics Club cronies actually pursue Tsukiko with murderous intent. It's no longer a game and Tsukiko feels the sting of betrayal from one very close to her heart.

Things get even worse when an apparently cheerful Tomie shows up at the disgraced Tsukiko's apartment bearing convenience store snacks. Tsukiko's parents are gone and the girl now has to face a Tomie in her very own bedroom, an invasion of her personal space. Tomie has already destroyed Tsukiko's academic and social life-- albeit aided by the girl's own foibles. Now she attacks where Tsukiko should feel safest. Tomie is a monster who hides in plain site, for whom an ordinary afternoon is no deterrent. She's the poisonous friend.

Despite the lightness of her tone and contrite pose, there's definitely something menacing about her visit. She won't let Tsukiko leave the apartment, she makes small talk full of veiled menace, tells fanciful lies based on things she believes Tsukiko might like to hear-- and, most disquieting of all, she's brought a couple of boys from school who seem to live now to obey her every command. It's almost like an attempt at intimidation drawn straight from a yakuza film, all smiles and politeness masking sinister intent.

Things go horribly wrong for everyone involved in a turn reminiscent of some of the more lurid and grotesque scenes in John Carpenter's 1982 remake of The Thing, or a dream sequence from a David Cronenberg film.

Most of Tomie’s enemies are one-shot rivals, but Tsukiko carries the lead role through three chapters, one of the more extended and cohesive Tomie narratives. That she’s morally compromised and something of a stinker herself makes her all the more complex and attractive as a narrator. She’s engaging and fun, obviously not above a lie here or there, capable of ripping people off, but she's also completely open and honest with both herself and the reader. This makes her sympathetic, although she might easily have been something of a villain in a more conventional manga school romance plot. Certainly she benefits from running into someone or something much worse than herself. It's not every day someone as extortionate as Tsukiko meets an immortal engine of destruction.

Despite her flaws-- or because of them-- Tsukiko seems fresher than a lot of the other characters—a collection of sexually-obsessed men and boys driven to insanity, perversion and murder, or fragile, doll-like girls haplessly destroyed or absorbed by Tomie. With her gift of self-awareness, she reminds me of one of the self-eviscerating narrators from a Daniel Clowes story-- though she thoroughly lacks their self-loathing-- and her eventual fate has the same melancholic air about it as Enid Coleslaw's in Ghost World. While some of Clowes's narrators are the unreliable sort (Random Wilder and Mr. Ames from Ice Haven spring to mind), Tsukiko strikes me as completely honest as she relates these events in confessional mode. Otherwise, the leap from school comedy-drama to horror would be too jarring. Why else would she admit to her scam in the first place and her own crush on Yamazaki?

Because we can trust her, and because she apparently trusts us, we're free to like her.

The ultra-feminine Tomie contrasts with her androgynous foe Tsukiko. Got to love Tsukiko's Willy Wonka tee.

Unlike many of the other female characters in the Tomie series, Tsukiko is an active rather than passive character, and has enough charm and depth to carry her own stories. You know, Tsukiko, the girl photographer—maybe working for a school newspaper, a kind of Japanese high school Kolchak. As far as I know, she hasn’t turned up in any of Ito Junji’s other tales, but it’d be fun to see her investigating the paranormal and squeezing her friends for a few bucks here and there to keep herself in film and lenses. She’s just that likeable. And, once again and not to spoil the ending, but it’s not as if she gets off scot-free; her lies and crimes against her friends are what get her into this huge Tomie-mess in the first place, and have lasting consequences for her.

The driving age in Japan is 18, but Tomie exists to violate laws and mores. But I guess if you had access to a Porsche 911, you might not let a little thing like not having a driver's license stop you from flaunting it. I suppose this could be after high school graduation, but Ito Junji leaves it ambiguous.

Once she’s in your life, there’s just no getting rid of Tomie.

Friday, October 15, 2010

An Ito Junji Halloween 3: More Tomie!

Here's a delightful image of Tomie, Ito Junji's dangerously beautiful and malevolent school girl. He depicts her looking winsome, but note how she's above the viewer, just out of reach. And the ominous decrepitude of the setting. Why is she barefoot here? What is that peering out from the window?

Tomie is the epitome of that ever-popular stereotype: the gorgeous girl with a heart of stone. The "mean girl." The most popular girl in school, her physical attractiveness concealing cruelty. There's often one in stories set in high school, with the TV series Freaks and Geeks being a notable exception. Well, McKinley High did have Vicki Appleby, but she was actually a pretty well-rounded character-- she even gave Bill Haverchuck his first kiss.

However, in Tomie's case, she's not a spoiled suburban princess or upper middle class schemer at some posh private school where the jaded student body play twisted sexual games with each other. She's some kind of immortal freak. She's literally a monster. And not just one monster. If you were to somehow ingest even a cell of Tomie's body, something hideous would happen.

Maybe a Tomie-tumor would grow inside you, causing intolerable pain until surgically excised. Then it would start speaking and grow into another perfect Tomie. Or if she were by chance murdered in your bedroom with her blood staining your carpet, the plastic floor liner might take on her shape and rise up to seek vengeance. If you were to come into possession of a single strand of her hair and affix it to your scalp, you'd end up with a lush jungle of silky locks-- inside your body.

Versatile and complex, Tomie can embody any number of fictional types, inhabiting them in chilling ways. The formidable romantic rival, the malignant best friend, the deadly seducer, the judgmental moralist. She also functions conceptually as the living repository of male fear of female carnality, of the persistence of overwhelming sexual desire, of simple jealousy and vanity, even the perversion of motherhood.

Tomie walks among the various characters and delights in destroying them, in drawing out their inner demons in a deliberate assault on perilously thin veneer of civility and propriety. Tomie does not destroy them so much as make it virtually impossible for them not to destroy themselves. I suppose her major attribute must be sexual, but Tomie herself remains surprisingly chaste. She's certainly aware of her power over men and women and subverts it to her own ends. I just can't remember if there's actually a moment in any of the stories where she actually engages in sexual activity. She mostly lets her enemies grow more and more depraved with their desires-- the need to possess her completely in ways they never can, or to become as impossibly beautiful as she is-- and the end result is usually a murder or a mutation.

Then, more Tomies.

My favorite Tomie story is the three-part saga of Tsukiko, Tomie's most persistent enemy. Tsukiko-- by the way, even though I lived in Japan for 6 years, the tsu sound at the beginning of a word is still my most difficult phoneme-- is a high school student and budding young photographer who misuses her skills in order to make a few yen off lovesick girls-- she photographs their crush-objects and sells them the prints for a neat profit. She readily, even cheerfully, admits to it in her narration: "I also sell dreams to the pathetic and lovesick."

She's a charmingly amoral girl with a boyish pixie cut and nursing her own case of urequited love.

Already morally compromised, she runs afoul of a Tomie who is ironically serving as head of the school's Ethics Committee. When Tsukiko takes some snaps of Tomie that reveal something unexpected and horrifying, things take a dark turn from something akin to high school romantic comedy in the first installment to a Hitchcockian suspense thriller and finally into Lovecraftian grand guignol over the next two. It's one of the more cohesive Tomie narratives, and Tsukiko makes a worthy foe and narrator.

But is she protagonist or antagonist? Even if the story is told from Tsukiko's point of view, Tomie is the main character of the meta-series. In the climax, Ito seems to explain Tomie's origins and adds a peculiar and haunting grace note that calls into question just who or what Tomie is-- victimizer or victim herself. Perhaps Ito is arguing she's both.

And that's the final intriguing thing about Tomie-- she's both victimizer and victim. She never asked to be this way; it was thrust upon her by somewhat obscure means. And we're never sure of the relationship between the Tomie in one story and the Tomie in another. Ultimately, is she really so capricious and malignant, or is she merely acting out from the trauma of whatever process and abuse made her Tomie? Do you find her a sympathetic monster?

Shh! Shh! Here she comes now...

Sunday, October 10, 2010

An Ito Junji Halloween 2: Uzumaki

Goshima Kirie is a delicate, pretty girl who lives in Kuruozo-cho with her parents and little brother. It's a typical seaside town, possibly having recently become a suburb or bedroom community of some larger metropolis like so many places along the rail lines in Japan have over the years. Kirie goes to school a couple of towns over so she's not around to see some of the strange things happening around her home neighborhood lately. Oh sure, he boyfriend Shuichi's dad is acting a little off, staring at snails and compulsively swirling his miso soup. But at least he seems happy about his new enthusiasms.

A more pressing concern is how haggard Shuichi looks, and the strange concerns he confides to Kirie one evening...

Ito Junji's Tomie is a somewhat fractured narrative, the stories only loosely connected to each other through the title character. And even she's not exactly consistent throughout. Uzumaki, on the other hand, is a tighter story made up of a series of increasingly depraved short stories. It's Ito's magnum opus and arguably the best horror comic ever created-- well, I don't argue about it. I know it's so. Even the mildest horror comics had the ability to keep me awake when I was an imaginative kid; it requires a stronger effort to disturb me these days, now that I'm a jaded old know-it-all asshole. And to date there has been one and only one.

Uzumaki cost me some sleep. And it haunted me during the day. I don't think I've ever had the experience of dreading turning a page before. If Ito had never done anything else, never created Tomie or Gyo (a big disappointment, by the way) or any of his other nasty delights, Uzumaki would be enough to cement his reputation as a horror master.

What Ito does here is make the reader complicit in the scares. It's the difference between walking along a brick wall and having someone jump out at you when you reach the end and walking along that wall thinking, "What if someone jumps out at me with a knife when I reach the end?" Have you ever had one of those friends who could draw you into a kind of magical fantasy world around twilight? Someone who starts whispering things about wookalars or serial killers hiding behind trees-- and the next thing you know, the slanting shafts of the last few minutes of sunlight, the long shadows and the chilly autumn wind become so haunted, you're absolutely convinced you're both about to be murdered?

Apparently, from anecdote's I've read, writer Charles Beaumont was one of those people. He could create a scenario out of pure imagination that would quickly bleed into the real world and draw in his friends until they were all on edge. I've had friends like that, and I've been that kind of friend. It's all in good fun, a little trip into the frame of a horror movie or the panel of a horror comic and just for a few minutes until common sense reasserts itself, you're in Ray Bradbury-land. Ito Junji is exactly like that in Uzumaki.

First he sets up a situation-- the spiral affects something negatively-- then reiterates it with a few horrific variations. And after a few stories in the first book, you're on guard for every little thing. Little vain about your curly hair? Someone's pregnant? Oh shit, I do not wanna see the results! Practical joker? Oh man, this is gonna be so bad! Slow mover? What's the spiral going to do to him? It acts like one of those "WARNING! GRAPHIC IMAGE!" warnings you run into at from time to time. You can't unsee these things. And once Ito branded my imagination with some of his ultra-grotesque imagery, I saw these things for days afterward, haunting after images flashing on and off whenever I blinked. And the anticipation, the dread was just that intense.

Eventually, the story takes a turn worthy of an H.P. Lovecraft short story, only not as clumsily written. There's a feeling of inexorability about Uzumaki once Ito establishes the pattern and begins magnifying the scale. The horrors go from personal-- spiral shapes inside the body-- to communal: a taifun approaching the city. The imagery becomes epic-- witness the structural changes within Kurozu-cho itself and the tragic results when several vessels of the Japan Maritime Self Defense Force attempt a rescue.

What chance do waifish Kirei and traumatized Shuichi have against the malevolent spiral?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

It's Gonna Be a Very Kick-Ass Halloween!

I love Robert Kirkman's comic-- and Charlie Adlard's art-- so I'm hungering (see what I did there?) for a bite of this show.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

An Ito Junji Halloween 1: Tomie

I love horror comics. I'm a tremendous fan of classic American horror books, artists and writers-- EC, Creepy, Eerie, Graham Ingels, Jack Kamen, Jack Davis, Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson, Bruce Jones, Archie Goodwin, just to name a very few (because I don't feel like doing a lot of Google research this morning). Marvel's Tomb of Dracula is probably my all-time favorite series from the mainstream publishers; I can't get enough of Marv Wolfman's pulpy prose and the artwork by Gene Colan and Tom Palmer is some of the finest, most atmospheric and effective stuff in comics.

But the horror king has to be Ito Junji.

To say Japanese horror differs from the American/European tradition is to make a mild understatement, and Ito is one of its foremost practitioners. He's not the most fluid anatomist-- his figures tend to be a little stiff-- but he's got a gift for rising tension and nauseating visuals that's unsurpassed. The overweight kid turning into a snail in Uzumaki is pretty gruesome but it's not a patch on the scene from one of his short stories where a teen holds his sister down and squeezes out long snake-like curls of white sebum from his acne-ridden face onto hers. Just typing that sentence nauseated me! Yeeeeuck!

Let me take a moment to recover. Okay.

What makes his stories all the more affecting is his use of fragile, doll-like female protagonists. His early series Tomie makes great use of this dichotomy. Ito pits various pixie-haired ingenues against the most beautiful girl in the world-- who just happens to be an immortal monster with an ego to match. Tomie gets sly, sexy, cat-like eyes to match her predatory nature, but her enemies are all wide-eyed, open-faced innocence. But it's not quite that simple. Ito also makes Tomie and her adversaries complex-- Tomie is evil but not without a sympathetic, put-upon quality and one of the girls who battles her is morally compromised right from the start. The series is inconsistent and the various story threads are only loosely tied together, but it's a lot of wicked fun.

I prefer the cover to this Japanese Tomie collection to the versions published by ComicsOne, or even those of Dark Horse's Museum of Terror series. Ito's painted art is more appealing than Dark Horse's murky digital creations. The Complete Tomie has a classic pop art quality and lots of atmosphere. Her pose is quite demure, as is her smile-- but there's something sinister about her eyes. I suppose the miasma o' horror swirling around her (kind of makes me think of the air in the bathrooms at my favorite bar in Athens, Georgia, back in the day) helps a bit, too. My cover qualms aside, you really need to buy all three volumes of Museum of Terror to meet Tomie and indulge in her peculiar delights. And other nightmares.