Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Torpedo: A Comic Review!

Publisher: Cross Cult
Writer: E.S. Arbuli
Artists: Alex Toth, Jordi Bernet

There are many artists whose work I love, but few whose art sends me as delirious as Alex Toth's. Toth did a number of superhero books, but his forte was period action, especially when it involved classic cars and airplanes. Toth would envision the panels as scenes snipped from contemporaneous films, so you'd almost expect to see Errol Flynn stride in with a dame on each arm, or James Cagney pop up with a tommy-gun and start blasting away at Humphrey Bogart while Ingrid Bergman gazes through a curl of cigarette smoke as she lounges seductively near a piano, or a dishevelled Rita Hayworth curled up in bed, wearing your pajamas.

I can't really review E.S. Arbuli's writing here because for some reason, I ended up with the German edition of Torpedo. All I know is, Cross Cult did Torpedo proud; it's a handsome book. I love how companies are going to this "textbook" style binding with strong, modern graphics on the covers. Dark Horse prints a few book along this style, the European "album" format. The interior pages are in lush black and white, and if it suffers in any way, it's from being smallish; I suppose Dark Horse's Creepy and Eerie archive books have spoiled me rotten . I'm sure they have. Torpedo's dimensions are smaller than letter-sized paper, slightly larger than digest-sized. Which means some of the linework, especially in Toth's stories, gets lost and the panels tend to look a bit busy.

But that's a very minor problem. Once you focus your eyes and pull the book a little closer, the art looks quite beautiful. Toth handles the visuals on the first two installments, entitled "Torpedo 1936." And true to form, he brings Torpedo's 30s milieu to life. It's like reading some gangster flick of the time. Toth uses silhouetting extensively throughout, befitting the dark events. Cigarette smoking gangsters rattle away with machine guns and blaze away with .45 automatic pistols. Toth works loose and textural, with slashes of black to give energy and movement to the images. It's some of his finest work, but apparently he didn't feel his sensibilities meshed with Arbuli's, despite the mid-30s stuff he depicts so well. At least visually, he's right at home.

Jordi Bernet takes over and even signs his name in a little box, Toth-style. His drawings are very similar as well, a bit more rough-hewn, almost as if Joe Kubert decided to copy Toth while filling in for him; this creates a welcome consistency and the transition from Toth to Bernet isn't as jarring as you might expect. Since this is my first encounter with the man, I know very little about Bernet. I'm deeply impressed and excited by what I see here. He exhibits all of Toth's strengths-- well-planned minimalism, heavy black spotting, the accuracy in details, the clean, sensible panel arrangements. His Torpedo is slightly more rat-faced than Toth's, but who really cares about that when the artwork is this stark, this beautiful? Neither artist strays from the three-tier format, and as a result, the pages are so easy to follow, it's like letting your gaze slither along a length of silk wrapped erotically around some curvaceous body...

Too bad I stupidly ordered it in German! The German dialogue coming out of these gangster's mouths makes trying to read this an exercise in dadism for me. Like a David Lynch joke. And since I know only a smattering of the language, very confusing. I'm only pissed at myself, though. While had this book listed in their English titles, if the page mentioned anything about German, it was in Japanese, a language I'm much more familiar with but still can't read! I immediately went back and ordered an English-language edition. That's how intrigued I am with the artwork here.

And illustrates my mania for anything Alex Toth. Some company or other needs to do a compilation of his work, or get Bravo for Adventure back into print. That's Toth doing what he most wanted to do-- a old-fashioned story about Errol Flynn flying airplanes. It's ridiculous the work of an industry giant like Toth is so elusive these days. Your best bet is Image's fine trade paperback Zorro collection, but as nice as it is to have such a concentration of Toth's work, it's not representative of his finest stuff.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

More Nana Blogging: Nakashima Mika's Drastic Change

Yazawa Ai's comic series Nana spawned two film adaptations. The first was one of 2005's major hits; the sequel, from the following year, not so much. Singer Nakashima Mika proved an inspired choice to play Osaki Nana, but she had to make a physical change from her familiar romantic image to play the hard-edged rocker. Apparently, one of her trademarks is her long, lush hair, most of which had to go. This caused a row in the press. What would her fans think? Would they react negatively and abandon the balladeer?

Here's the result:

Move over Watchmen: Nakashima looks as close to the comic version as you're likely to find in a human being. Her acting is adequate in the part, but the film's conception of Nana isn't as edgy as the comic's. Nakashima plays Nana in a low-key, understated style that conveys her cool in the dialogue-heavy dramatic scenes, but not her underlying emotional instability and anger. But what she lacks in fire, she more than makes up for with her natural performing charisma, and her Nana explodes with energy during the musical sequences, as Nakashima skillfully displays her as someone who almost literally lives to sing on stage, in front of adoring fans. Of course, she hasn't acted since Nana 2's less than stellar box office, and that was four years ago.

I recently bought Nana volumes 18, 19 and 20, so I've immersed myself in Nana and Hachi's tragically romantic Tokyo milieu once again. Inspired, I decided to catch up with Nakashima Mika's current look. Behold:

Wow! It's hard to believe that's the same woman. For the most faithful adaptation of the Nana comic and one that's truer to Yazawa's angular, fashion-inspired drawing style, I recommend the anime series. But to see Nakashima Mika embody the character in live action while adorned in actual Vivienne Westwood clothing, you should check out the first movie. It's actually quite enjoyable and features a vivacious performance by Miyazaki Aoi as Komatsu "Hachi" Nana (her nickname is a dual joke-- it's a dog's name and also the Japanese word for the number 8, as opposed to nana, which means 7) and a surprisingly sympathetic turn by Hiroaka Yuta in the thankless role of Hachi's failed boyfriend Shoji.

Both Nana movies are available from Viz Media, the company releasing the wonderful English-language version of the manga. Plus the anime. The Japanese DVD release is difficult to find in my hometown here and, when available, seems to lack English subtitles. So I was happy to get this. On a semi-related note (if you enjoy Japanese cinema), Viz also released the wonderful Linda Linda Linda, but only in a full screen version. I really wish they'd put out a letterboxed edition of this movie.

While I thank you for making these movies available in North America, Linda Linda Linda deserves a more artful releases, Viz. It's actually the more artistic of the two films and the one I watch more often. Other than that small caveat, it's now clear to me Viz Media is one of my favorite comic publishers, right up there with Dark Horse and Fantagraphics.

Captain James T. Kirk Discusses Nana...

Greetings, People of the United Federation of Planets--

As a Starfleet captain in command of the USS Enterprise, I rarely have time to sit and read. So when I do get a chance to head back to my quarters for some Kirk-time, I want my reading material to be something special. That's why I usually have the computer archives call up a classic volume of Ai Yazawa's 21st century comic book series Nana.

You might think it strange that a man responsible for the lives of 430 highly trained and dedicated crewmembers would become so caught up in the fictional world revolving around the loves and lives of a group of fashionable young people in and around Tokyo. But consider this-- the pressures of a 5-year mission of exploration and interstellar diplomacy have broken men from time to time. I'm thinking specifically of Garth of Izar, a captain whose exploits at the Battle of Axanar are still required reading at Starfleet Academy. I submit if Fleet Captain Garth had availed himself of Ms. Yazawa's comics, he might have found a release from his own troubles by focusing on those of the two Nanas and their friends.

And perhaps he might not have gone mad and ordered his crew to annihilate the peaceful beings of Antos IV. How fortunate his people recognized in this illegal, immoral and horrifying order the symptoms of insanity and justifiably relieved him of his command. We can only hope he receives the treatment he needs and the compassion he deserves at the mental health facilities on Elba II.

Shin's been arrested for marijuana possession? But what about Blast's big TV performance? Although I had studied the books in my 21st century literature class in high school and had even written many a paper on them, events of Nana 18 proved especially turbulent for me as I re-read it for the thousandth time.

I can't help but think of the time my Enterprise crew and I encountered the same dikironium cloud creature on Argus X that had, years earlier during my posting as a junior officer aboard the USS Farragut, killed 200 of my fellow crewmembers. I became dangerously obsessed with destroying the creature-- an obsessive state I found mirrored in several Nana characters. Nana for singing, Ren for drugs, Reira and Shin for each other. Through Ms. Yazawa's tortured cast of characters, I was able to come to grips with guilt I still held from earlier events...

And overcome it.

This, indeed, is the power of any good work of fiction, be it a comic like Nana, or a lithofilm of one of the narrative aura projection classics of the kind found among the psychic plant-minds of Tychus IX. A famous novelist from Zeta Orionis, a planet circling the far left star in Orion's Belt constellation(as seen from Earth) wrote a classic using the theme, "Let me help." He recommended those three words even over 'I love you'. Ms. Yazawa's characters, however, would argue that love is also necessary and no less important.

Of course, we've all seen the many film and holographic adaptations of this story over the years. Some have even updated the setting to various eras and planetary colonies of more recent vintage. Like the works of Shakespeare, Nana remains an evergreen and a source for the works of others. It's even been translated-- or so I've heard-- into Klingon, for a people not known for their tenderness. No doubt something has been lost in the translation. Nana has even proven surprisingly popular on Vulcan, home planet of our own science officer Mr. Spock. Apparently, the story's sometimes violent feelings appeal in a cautionary way to the Vulcans and their impressively subdued emotions.

Mr. Spock himself has become quite addicted to the series as well, despite its familiarity among learned Vulcans of a certain age. Of course, he's drawn to the punk rock Nana, and cites as the reason her "fascinating volatility, quite human and therefore, extremely illogical." I, however, prefer Hachiko's more traditional femininity. Dr. McCoy, the ship's chief medical officer, claims never to have read a single chapter and to have never watched any of its many adapted versions. But he seemed to know a surprising number of facts about the character Nobu when communications officer Lt. Uhura and helmsman Lt. Sulu became engaged in a heated debate over his merits as a friend to Nana, as well as his place in her band the Black Stones as a guitarist and lawyer.

When Mr. Spock asked the good doctor about his expertise, "Bones" (as we've nicknamed him) noticeably flushed, then muttered something about "damned Vulcan curiosity" and claimed to have left some important cultures unrefrigerated back in the medical laboratory. He quickly exited the room.

Recently, during some much-needed shore leave, I was able to visit Tokyo and tour the Ai Yazawa Cultural Museum. Numbers of school children, all excitedly discussing their favorite Nana moments in a polyglot of languages, surrounded the larger-than-life bronze statue of Ms. Yazawa. It did this star trekking rocket man a world of good to see new generations being exposed to this literary classic.


Captain James T. Kirk, USS Enterprise, NCC-1701 (commanding)

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The New Spider-Man Flick Has a Director!

And it's Marc Webb, who recently directed the "Golden Globe nominated Best Picture (500) Days of Summer," according to the press release Sony Pictures dropped in my email inbox.

Here's how they justify their choice:

Commenting on the announcement, Amy Pascal, co-chairman of Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Matt Tolmach, president of Columbia Pictures, said, "At its core, Spider-Man is a small, intimate human story about an everyday teenager that takes place in an epic super-human world. The key for us as we sought a new director was to identify filmmakers who could give sharp focus to Peter Parker's life. We wanted someone who could capture the awe of being in Peter's shoes so the audience could experience his sense of discovery while giving real heart to the emotion, anxiety, and recklessness of that age and coupling all of that with the adrenaline of Spider-Man's adventure. We believe Marc Webb is the perfect choice to bring us on that journey."

Actually, it was merely because they wanted bloggers, entertainment news pundits and random jackasses to make bad Spidey-puns based on Webb's name. Like the one in the subject line for Sony's email announcement, "A New Webb For Spider-Man." Oh you clever ducks!

I refuse to pun. Too obvious. All the good ones will be taken. Plus, while I may be a scummy, degenerate comics blogger, I like to pretend to at least some dignity. When I'm not typing my entries naked but for striped toe socks and filled with rage at DC's latest mistreatment of Cassandra Cain, that is.

All stupidity aside, this news sounds encouraging to me. It gives me hope they not only hired James Vanderbilt, who wrote the screenplay for Zodiac, one of my favorite films, but also chose a director without slam-bang summer tentpole event action movie experience. Of course, the same directorial approach failed miserably for the Fantastic Four films, but it could work here. I hope it does. I haven't seen (500) Days of Summer, but I did read part of the screenplay. The English-language tabloid Asahi Weekly has a regular feature where they take a new film release and spotlight a couple of scenes from it, with lots of vocabulary and cultural-explanation notes for Japanese ESL learners. Webb's romantic comedy flick was last week's selection.

Speaking of ESL, here's a little gem from the press release:

Written by James Vanderbilt, Webb will work closely with producers Avi Arad and Laura Ziskin in developing the project, which will begin production later this year.

What is that? A misplaced adjective phrase? I highly doubt James Vanderbilt-- talented screenwriter though he may be-- wrote Marc Webb. Unless this is an argument in favor of more sex education in our schools. When a boy writer and a girl writer love each other very much, they put their laptops on top of each other and nine months later, they have a first draft.

Chances of these three teaming up for the new Spider-Man? I'd put them at around 50-50. Or less. But I'm pretty happy about the choice for director and screenwriter. Now they need a solid Peter Parker and Mary Jane. I would like to note , Mr. Webb, I'm available starting June 1. I do have some headshots I could send you...

Does this news mean Valerie D'Orazio over at Occasional Superheroine and I will get our wishes-- Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Zooey Deschanel as Black Cat?

Heck, I want Zooey Deschanel to play Spider-Man in this movie.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Is Jim Sturgess Going to Play Puny Parker?

Flash Thompson reporting here, dudes. You know, I hate that punk, Peter Parker. He's a nerd, a geek and I have it good authority he smells like wheatcakes. Yeah, a couple of guys from the team were giving ol' Puny Parker a swirly and they said he totally smells like wheatcakes and maple syrup. He lives with a couple of creepy old people, too.

And if he doesn't stop messing around with Liz Allan, I'm gonna have to kick his puny ass for him. I don't know why she'd even give that science-geek the time of day when there are football superstuds of the gridiron, like yours truly, Flash Thompson, around. You know how many TD passes I had last season? Man, I was on fire.

Anyways, they're making another movie about my main broseph, the amazing Spider-Man and for some reason they're putting that little snot Puny Parker in it. Can't figure out why, but there you have it. As president of the Spider-Man Fan Club, it's incumbent upon me, Flash Thompson, to tell you about these things. The only question is, who will play Puny Parker?

Well, I suggest that old lady who used to do the "Where's the Beef?" commercials back in the 80s.

I saw one of those on Fox's Funniest TV Commercials of All-Time TV specials last week. She's got the look, the voice and the same wussy-ass presence about her, plus it'd be funny as hell to see the look on Puny Parker's face when he gets a load of her playing his part. Of course, she's probably dead by now. She was like a million years old back then. Or maybe they could get one of those skating babies from that bottled water commercial.

But no, they're maybe getting this guy Jim Sturgess to play Puny Parker. He's some kind of English kid who was in that musical Beatles movie a couple of years ago.

I was supposed to take Liz to see that but she said she had to study and the next thing I know, I ride by the library to see who with and it's Puny Parker! Man, I was so pissed.

I waited around to kick Parker's ass, but this alarm went off and the Lizard came out of nowhere right through a window and started tossing me around-- although I'm pretty sure I landed a couple of my patented Flash Thompson haymakers on his green, scaly face-- and then all these cops were running around and the next thing I knew, Spider-Man was saving my life but he left me all webbed up and hanging from the wall and it took all night for the cops and firefighters and stuff to get me down and I was like a zombie at football practice that next day and Coach made me run extra windsprints.

It sure was cool seeing Spidey, though. I'm sure if he'd known all the trouble I got in with Coach, he'd want to kick Puny Parker's ass, too. Maybe some of the guys and I will knock back some cold ones and go looking for Parker tonight. Liz says she's studying or something, so I got nothing better to do.

Jim Sturgess, huh? I wonder who they're gonna get to play me? I think they oughta get me to play myself. I mean, Brad Pitt was pretty close to my awesomeness in Troy, but he's an old man now. Almost as old as that "Where's the Beef?" lady.

Man, that shit cracks the Flashmeister up!

Your bro,

Flash Thompson

Monday, January 18, 2010

Here's How Nana and Ren Met...

The Nana anime is a very faithful adaptation of the comic. The character designs are dead-on matches for Yazawa Ai's elegantly angular, fashion-inspired artwork. These are people about whom their clothes say as much as their dialogue and actions. The red dress Nana buys is probably an actual dress available at the time.

Although the conversation beginning at 3:15 tells us quite a bit about how Nana's priorities differ from Ren's, at least during that stage of their relationship. Along those lines, I really wanted to post the clip where Nana tells Ren it's a good thing she didn't have an orgasm on stage during their last show. Or "live," as it's called here in Japan. Now that's a woman who loves singing in front of a crowd. I can't remember if Yazawa Ai included that little detail in her comic; it's been over a year since I read this "flashback" story about how Nana and Ren met, fell in love, then split.

It's funny, but it also illuminates Nana's desperate need to perform. Because the thrill of it is so close to having sex. Or better. Perhaps she likens the emotional exhibitionism and rawness in front of so many people to the more private kind. For someone so guarded and self-protective as Nana, this might be her purest form of release. Just like Yazawa Ai to make her pretty, pretty characters so complex.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Hoping For the Best for Yazawa Ai...

This stuff is going to be old news for the hardcore manga readers out there.

I was reading Nana 19 last night-- a Valentine's Day-themed story I wish I'd saved for February-- and decided to flip to the back to read "Junko's Place." If you've never read Nana, "Junko's Place" is a bonus feature where the characters hang out at a pub owned and managed by Junko, a minor character in the main storyline. She was once Hachiko's best friend but due to her inherent common sense and the stability of her own relationship, has been relegated to an occasional appearance here and there, usually trying to talk sense to Hachi.

And yet she gets her own pages in the back of the book. Which she promptly skips, leaving other characters in charge. "Junko's Place" is where Yazawa Ai showcases fan art and makes fun of herself, where Nana and Hachi give into fangirl urges to stalk characters from Yazawa's Paradise Kiss and other neglected characters can show up and comment on the real-world behind the scenes stuff that goes with being a popular comic book artist in Japan whose works have inspired all kinds of ancillary merchandise, TV animation and motion pictures.

Finally, there's a short message from Ms. Yazawa herself. Due to publication lag, English-only readers like myself are a little behind the times. But sometimes things echo. In 2007, she suspended work on Nana due to health problems. The current Viz Media volumes hit right around this time. So in number 17, she discusses a health check-up, in 18 talks about having had surgery and quitting smoking and in 19, some kind of relapse that required an ambulance. That's scary.

What's scarier still is, something similar happened again in June, 2009, but after the initial announcement... no news at all. It's like deja vu. One of those strange moments of synchonicity. She could have been writing about last summer. The most recent Nana released in Japan was #21, which was fifth on the best-seller's list for single volumes last year, with 1,505,575 copies sold. The first four places on the list were held by four consecutive volumes of One Piece. After the suspension notice, nothing.

I'm hoping whatever news Ms. Yazawa chooses to release will be good news, and I wish her a speedy recovery. As addicted as I am to Nana, I can wait it out (possibly watching the Viz Video DVD set of the TV animated series will help some). What's more important than the comic book drama is the real life drama-- and for that, we definitely want a happy ending.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Star Trek: The Key Collection 1: A Comic Review!

Star Trek: The Key Collection 1
Checker Book Publishing Group
Scripts: Who knows?
Art: Nevio Zeccara and Alberto Giolitti

Before all the kids went gaga for wars in the stars, they were into trekking among them. Well, my group of friends were anyway.

The only time I could catch Star Trek was around noon on Saturdays, brought to viewers by channel 38, an NBC affiliate out of Tallahassee. This was before cable, so I’d have to tune the TV, meaning I’d actually have to rotate the antenna atop the house—and even then there was no guarantee I’d get a clear picture of Captain Kirk, first officer Mr. Spock and the always irascible Dr. McCoy. More than half the time, it looked as though they were trekking through the snowy Antarctic wastes in search of the South Pole instead of... oh, hell, I dunno... Klingons or Klingoffs, the mugato, the salt vampire, Red Jack, space Nazis or some damned future thing or other.

And then there were the days when I'd prefer to get out of my pajamas and into the sunshine and maybe play kickball.

Luckily for me on one of my extremely rare TV-averse days, Gold Key Comics came through with far out sci-fi adventures featuring the starship Enterprise and its multinational crew of mostly white people from the United States, plus Mr. Sulu and Lt. Uhura. But, much like channel 38’s broadcast, Gold Key’s Star Trek series suffered from intermittent availability in my area. Judging by the cover dates in this book, it must have been published on a sorta quarterly basis. I sometimes lucked into an issue depending on the unknowable ebb and flow of comic book distribution and whether or not I got to the convenience store first. Usually, I either forgot Star Trek existed as a funny book or else read it at the spinner rack and spent my money on a Spider-Man and some Tangy Taffy or a Chunky instead. So I probably owned no more than three issues of this series when it was in print.

Many years later, as a college student, I bought a battered, somewhat musty-smelling copy of Gold Key’s trade paperback reprint series The Enterprise Logs, which contained two of the monthly issues I once owned and read literally to pieces over the course of many boring meals with my family.

So here's Checker Publishing Group with Star Trek: The Key Collection 1, collecting the first eight issues of Star Trek. Apparently written and drawn by people who had never seen a single episode of Star Trek, the comic frequently goes off on wild tangents Gene Roddenberry and company might never have imagined. Spock and McCoy look familiar—their distinctive mugs must have been easy to caricature from publicity photos. But Kirk all too often looks more like George Lazenby in a green turtleneck than William Shatner in his familiar gold tunic (or the less frequently seen green "casual" wrap number). He’s also given to shouting things like, “Yipes!” But I guess even this stalwart starship captain can be forgiven a childish outburst here; after all, a full sized a paper-mache replica of the Eiffel Tower was about to fall on him. At least he fares better than poor Scotty, rendered by the artists a lanky red-head.

His shirt is green, too. Which is… you know… wrong. And doubly so because some generic guy named “Foster” and an anonymous character both get red shirts.

But that’s okay, because Uhura makes exactly one appearance and while she looks a little like Nichelle Nichols… she's white. There’s even a Barbarella-looking red-head doing her job later on who may be her as well. The transporter room is some kind of fishbowl operated by Sulu, who looks a lot like a young George Takei. But he manages to sneak into maybe one other panel. No sign of Chekov.

But that kind of randomness makes these stories a delight. Where else can you see the Enterprise shooting flames like a Saturn V rocket as it soars through space and a mere hundred or so feet over faux Paris and pseudo-Rome? Or the Enterprise crew hiking around with backpacks and Flash Gordon-style zap guns on their hips? Or Nurse Chapel with what appears to be a red Phrygian cap on her head? In these stories, Kirk, Spock and the rest deal with hoary space opera clichés such as human-eating plants (what do they eat when they can’t get people?), intergalactic voodoo and alien pirates armed with a youth ray—a de-aged McCoy tells his horrified captain, “I’m fit as a fiddle and ready to rocket, Jimsy!”

This scene does not appear in any of the stories in this collection.

Yeah, it’s probably for the best the authors of these gems chose to remain anonymous, but Italians Nevio Zeccara and Alberto Giolitti handle the art. They seem to have been influenced more by their own fancies and the early newspaper work of Alex Raymond than whatever reference material Paramount Studios sent them. And with the decision to shoot the art for this book from printed comics with their fat halftone screens-- rather than the original drawings (I’m guessing they’re lost to history or else simply unavailable)-- the overall effect is one of nostalgic whimsy. It’s not quite TV Star Trek but it’s a damned sight more fun than any of the later, more accurate comic book adaptations.

I’m quite taken with Giolitti’s clean old school stylings. As a kid, I was happy when Alden McWilliams took over later and Scotty started looking like James Doohan and the colorist got everyone's shirt the right color, but these days Giolitti is my top Trek comic book artist bar none.

The psychedelic Saul Bass-inspired photo covers are also especially cool. My favorite is number six’s, where the cover copy breathlessly informs Spock, “Think fast, Mr. Spock! A freak impulsion is creating GALACTIC DISASTER!” Since Spock has nothing to use to fight this impulsion—freak or otherwise—save for own two hands and his natty blue sash, he looks justifiably concerned. It’s a still from the famous “Amok Time” episode of the series and Leonard Nimoy’s velour costume is in full effect.

More awesome than Next Generation, more entertaining than Enterprise, less continuity-busting than the last Star Trek movie-- Star Trek: The Key Collection 1.

Maggie the Mechanic: A Love and Rockets Book: A Comic Review!

Maggie the Mechanic: A Love and Rockets Book
Story and Art by Jaime Hernandez

This is one big, fat book! In it, we learn Maggie stands a mere five feet tall and Hopey is even shorter.

Collecting Jaime Hernandez’s earliest Love and Rockets stories, Maggie the Mechanic takes us back to the days when beloved indie comic star Maggie was… a… you know… mechanic. But not just any kind of mechanic. Maggie was a pro-solar mechanic and part of a team headed by the famous and glamorous pretty boy/tough guy Rand Race. But pro-solar mechanic Maggie inhabits a world unequally split between the fantastic and the not-so-mundane. As an adventurer, Maggie’s stories are equal parts Speed Racer, Jonny Quest, Terry and the Pirates and Thunderbirds; back home, she lives among the punk rockers, cholos and vatos of Huerta, better known as Hoppers. After throwing Maggie into many crazy adventures in exotic locales—jungles complete with dinosaurs, deserts full of bandits and revolutionaries and women wrestlers—Hernandez gradually dials back on the sci-fi elements and turns up the knob on the social realism and soap opera.

But for that, you'll need the next two books.

One of the funnest aspects of Maggie the Mechanic is watching as Hernandez gains confidence as both an artist and a storyteller. This is most evident in the growing simplicity and boldness of his page layouts. From his early pages— crammed full of tiny panels and textural movements like cross-hatching and diagonal lines to create tone variations— to the later ones where panels become larger and the figure drawing more assured and less hidden by flash and busyness, Hernandez’s visual skills improved at an alarming rate during the period covered in this book. Story by story, you can see a lot of Moebius- and Wally Wood-inspired inking give way to larger, open spaces and bold blacks and perfectly balanced negative space of Hernandez’s mature work.

And although Hernandez fakes a lot of his cars and buildings, there's something so accurate and natural about the characters inhabiting these spaces the fakery becomes more timeless than photorealism would be, so that a "Locas" story is like looking at a classic Archie story or Dennis the Menace strip from the 1950s. You know, with lesbian sex and live show violence.

Here and there a story drawn with a radically altered drawing style is folded into the chronology, and you can directly contrast ur-Jaime with Jaime-prime. Check out the stylistic gulf in both writing and drawing between the sixth installment of "Mechanics," drawn in 1983 and the short “Hey Hopey!” from 1985 immediately following it. The former is the climactic episode of a multi-part science fiction epic set in Zhato, an imaginary country, and has as its signal image a huge panel full of all kinds of rendering techniques depicting some sort of wild jungle scene where a dinosaur and a spaceship sink into a quagmire and an underwear-clad Maggie clings to Rand Race while dangling perilously from a futuristic helicopter (breaking the fourth wall in her dialogue, no less). The latter simply has punker Hopey taking a bath then stapling up band flyers while having an argument about her sexuality with her insensitive younger brother Joey.

One of my favorite stories is “Maggie Vs. Maniakk,” in which comic-obsessed Maggie relates her abortive career as a superhero sidekick. Jaime pulls out all the visual stops, giving us something akin to Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko times cosmic Jim Starlin… with a Clash soundtrack. Mario Hernandez supplies Maniakk with hilariously overripe dialogue that’s a dead-on parody of Stan Lee’s supervillainese, and Jaime closes the story with his three main locas, Maggie, Penny Century and Hopey; maybe this prefigures the shift in storytelling concerns from the fantasy-inspired to the more naturalistic. Maggie, true to character, imagines something romantic, Penny something heroic and Hopey something vengeful and murderous.

"100 Rooms" is an early classic as well, as Maggie and Hopey experience a wild party at Penny’s mansion. While Hopey disguises herself as a waiter, Maggie finds herself in the arms of a mysterious stranger. Some of the story extras straddle the line between the superheroic and the naturalistic; the overall effect is one of a world where the banal is threatened by a strangeness that lurks around every corner. It also reads like a try-out for the bizarre decadence of Hernandez's late period "Wigwam Bam" storyline.

Hernandez's most successful meshing of punk world sensibilities and newspaper strip action is "Las Mujeres Perdidas," where Maggie-- again in various stages of undress-- journeys on a picaresque adventure with pro wrestler/revolutionary Rena Titanon while Hopey back in Hoppers deals with such heavyweight issues as heavy metal party animals calling her haircut "rad."

Speaking of Hopey's hair, Hernandez shows off his early mastery of observational storytelling with a short sequence in which our beloved Hopeymonster goes to an old school barber for a boy's haircut. Hernandez then jumpcuts from the barber shop to a newly-barbered Hopey sporting a gender-transgressive slicked-back look and then another wonderfully observed panel where she musses her hair into its more familiar spiked do, with a shower of tiny strands. How many other comic book artists could lavish so much attention on one of life's little in-between moments like a girl getting her head buzzed by some old duffer and make it so charming and readable?

As the book continues, the mechanics increasingly give way to las locas, Maggie and Hopey confine themselves to the decaying early 80s environs of Hoppers and one gets the sense Jaime’s own storytelling interests are shifting as well as he became more interested in his characters and their relationships. Farewell rockets, hello love. We're left to wonder just how the pro-solar adventures fit into the series’ continuity. Were they “real” or only stories from Maggie’s imagination? And does it really matter? While the weird and supernatural would sometimes reassert itself—especially during Hernandez’s unfortunately short-lived Penny Century series, only recently, with Love and Rockets New Stories has Jaime again openly dabbled in strictly comic book-inspired scenarios.

By the way-- notice how Maggie twice rips her pants with similar curved sound effect lettering, once in spectacular fashion in a half-page panel that's absolutely gorgeous. I wonder if this was a common occurrence in the punk rock world of the late 70s and early 80s with all the tight jeans everyone seems to have been wearing.

In later stories, Jaime Hernandez would have Maggie’s heart rip in much the same way—over and over. With this hefty slab of a book, you can see how it all began. Maggie the Mechanic is a comic library essential.

Shoot! This is a reading essential.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Ami (from Puffy AmiYumi) Recommends...

According to the Puffy blog, written by Ami herself, Kuragehime is the comic you should be reading. Well, she didn't exactly put it that way. She was waxing poetic about jellyfish she saw recently at an aquarium and was reminded of Higashimura Akiko's hit manga series, Kuragehime. That's Princess Jellyfish to you and me, Russ. I don't know what Kuragehime is about. Perhaps it has to do with a princess who's a jellyfish. Or a jellyfish who's a princess. Or maybe that's just her name. Ami digs the art, story and pacing and declares it to be, "Just how I like my comics."

Ami's not alone in thinking so. According to Brad Rice at the Japanator blog, Kuragehime was the fourth most popular comic for women in 2009. Or fourth most popular women's comic. I'm not sure how they correlate the numbers-- are they based on purchases by gender or by intended audience? Because One Piece is the second most popular comic for men, but I know plenty of women who read it and love it. I don't know what kind of gender crossover between intended readers exists in Japan. Nana, my current favorite, is ostensibly shojo manga, meaning "girl's manga," yet I read it unashamedly and recommend it to all our students to help with their English skills; some of the high school dudes I teach cock an eyebrow at me when I tell them I love Nana, but that's fine by me. And with 176 million copies of One Piece in print, I can't imagine all those have been stockpiled by guys alone. A high school girl recently told me she'd been reading Slam Dunk, the basketball manga. I haven't read it, but I'm guessing from its title and subject matter it's supposed to be shonen manga, or a boy's comic.

Vive le difference, I always say.

So will I take Ami's advice and give Kuragehime a try? More than likely, if it's translated into English. It takes me two or three days to translate a single page of Japanese-language comic into romaji so I can begin figuring out what's happening. But looking at Higashimura's artwork definitely makes me believe Ami's onto something here.

I just like knowing Ami can occasionally be found reading comic books. Now I'm wondering what Yumi reads. And do they swap books back and forth like we used to do in study hall in junior high?

A Tale of Three Conans...

As I've discovered over the years, Conan looks like this in Japan:

Which often causes people to cast funny looks my way when I'm asked if he's popular in America and I have to explain how in the U.S., Conan looks like this:

Thankfully, hardly anyone here has a clue about the late night talk shows in the States, so I probably won't have to explain the royal screwing NBC gave this Conan:

I've also found most Japanese people I talk to-- once they've grasped the concept of the American pulp hero Conan-- still prefer Detective Conan to our sword-wielding barbarian. Much in the same way I prefer Conan O'Brien's humor to Jay Leno's.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Nodame Is Stalking Me...

It's so strange. I barely gave Nodame Cantabile a thought before Ueno Juri started staring at me from those doughnut posters. Then I bought the manga... and now I can't escape her!

Today at work, my bosses were playing Nodame Cantabile: Final Movement First and Second Volumes, a CD of classical selections inspired by the movie adaptation of the popular manga and TV drama series. Lots of J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart and Ravel, plus a few others.

This reminds me once again of when I worked for Nova and the movie Nana came out, our Japanese staff piled volumes of the manga high on the lunch table in their tiny breakroom. As a comic book fan, I really dig living in a country that's so comic crazy people actually buy the comic after they see the movie, or see the movie because they read the comic. Or buy the soundtrack album to the movie based on the comic and play it all day at the office where I work.

Spidey 4: A Webcrawler No More!

That's a little more Stan-like. I was mostly wrong-- a new Spider-Man movie will get made, it just won't be Spider-Man 4. Thanks to script delays who knows what else behind-the-scenes shenanigans, director Sam Raimi and stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst are off the Spider-Man franchise, which will now apparently be-- jargon I loathe coming up-- "re-booted." With a new director and a new cast. It's set for release in 2012, by which time the world will no longer exist. That's the bad news.

The good news is, the new screenwriter is Jamie Vanderbilt, who wrote one of my favorite movies of the past 10 years, Zodiac. The new movie will start over, with puny Peter Parker as a high school student and the awesome kick-ass super-jock Flash Thompson throwing his weight around and letting everybody know who's really the Big Man on Campus, or BMOC, as the kids say. Flash Thompson is really cool and all the ladies... OW! You're breaking my arm, Flash! Cut it out, dude!

Okay, he's gone.

I guess "re-booting" is the newest Hollywood paradigm, thanks to the success of the Batman and James Bond franchises and the new Star Trek flick. Got a movie series you've run dry of ideas for? Just start over at the beginning with a new director and cast! Now we can remake... er... "re-imagine" movies that are less than a decade old! It's the best form of double dipping.

Oh, sorry. "Re-imagining" is out, what with the failures of such reimaginings as Planet of the Apes, Rollerball and Death Race 2000. Re-booting. That's what we do. We boot, then run it into the ground, then re-boot and do it all over again but with more flash and even choppier editing and louder music and more CGI so it's bigger and better but still essentially the same thing. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, it puts asses in the seats!

But I don't know-- a good, solid screenplay and just the right casting in the leads could revitalize Spider-Man after the underwhelming third movie. It's just that I was stoked to see Raimi and Maguire back in webtastic action, hopefully going out on top rather than slinking off like... some... Marvel... villain... person...

I got nothing. I used up all my vitriol on the concept of "re-booting."

Monday, January 11, 2010

Comic Book Series I Have Loved...

There haven't been too many series I've followed for extended periods. I used to just jump in and out on a monthly basis, giving The Amazing Spider-Man a ride for a few issues then switching to Batman. But every once in a while, there'd be a comic that would capture my imagination to the point of obsession. A comic that I enjoyed so much, I'd think about it between issues, wonder about the characters, draw them and write my own little fictions about them. These, then, are those comics...

1) Sgt. Rock/Our Army at War. To me, these are essentially the same comic. Sgt. Rock and his over-the-top yet strangely affecting adventures in WWII. I learned to read from these comics and maintained a collection of them from about age 4 to age 13 or so.

2) Micronauts. My friends and I loved the toys. Suddenly, there was this comic combining Michael Golden's slick art with a Star Warsian feel. Writer Bill Mantlo and Golden turned a licensed toy comic into a space opera epic, at least for the first twelve issues or so. I first got into it via issue 2 and bought it as often as possible even when it became a direct-only book. Somewhere early in Micronauts: The New Voyages, I finally fell out of the Microverse and resumed my normal size.

3) Uncanny X-Men. My superhero gateway comic. Before I got into Uncanny, I'd mostly just read a Batman, Superman, Spider-Man or The Incredible Hulk here or there, but it was a casual interest. This was the first ongoing superhero soap opera where I ended up caring more about the characters than their adventures, where I saw my own growing awareness of the world-- and subsequent pass through puberty into snotty, individualistic teenagerdom-- echoed by the book's growing sophistication. Looking back on it, Uncanny seems overwritten and overwrought, but at the time it was a revelation. The first issue I bought was #94, from a friend who had an almost complete run in a cabinet at his house. Actually, I accidentally ripped him off. In exchange for borrowing my left-handed fielder's glove for softball at school, he let me buy all his X-Men comics for a dollar each. I got 94, 95, 96, 97, 98, 101 and a few others and paid less than ten bucks. This was also the only comic I subscribed to, but that was much later during John Romita's art run. A victim of my abandonment of comics at age 16.

4) Fantastic Four. John Byrne's storied run. Whatever else people may say about the guy, Byrne took Marvel's moribund flagship title and brought back the fun and family togetherness. Byrne combined a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby feel with science fiction concepts and produced a few classic tales of his own. Who could forget "Terror in a Tiny Town" from Fantastic Four #236 where Dr. Doom exacts his most devastating revenge against Reed Richards yet, or the annual where milk from some Skrulls who have been hypnotized into thinking they're cows affects an isolated community in a terrifying, Twilight Zone-inspired way? Byrne even managed to parody Walt Disney and Neal Adams-- in the same character!

5) Judge Dredd. The American color reprints from Eagle. For a year or so I lived in a Dredd-induced post-apocalyptic nightmare world. But it was fun. I especially loved Brian Bolland's impossibly detailed work, but Mike McMahon and Ron Smith also piqued my interest. Another one that fell during the Great Comics Purge.

6) Cerebus. Another weird find. I bought #5 at a flea market and it hooked me immediately. The local comic book store owners also recommended it, so it became one of my "pull" titles. But this only lasted a few months because by then I was outgrowing comics altogether. I loved it enough it affected my personal drawing style-- for a while, I did everything slightly caricatured, with heavy shadows and lots of inky black.

7) American Flagg! A cool comic with a mature storyline that spoke to my maturing teen-self. As an art aficionado, I found Howard Chaykin's drawings sweet enough I began imitating him in my notebooks at school. Lots of heavy, pointy eyebrows and angular lines. Another book I stopped reading when I gave up comics.

8) New Mutants. This one I liked because it felt like The Uncanny X-Men, but the characters were all my age, so I could identify with them. I was immediately drawn to Dani Moonstar, possibly because Chris Claremont seemed so in love with her he made her the book's star... until he replaced her with Magik, who did nothing for me. Too gothy. I gave up New Mutants when Bob McLeod left, but when Bill Sienkiewicz took over, I jumped back in and read it right up until I abruptly cancelled all my monthly pulls at the comic book store.

9) Nexus. The Dark Horse series. The comic book store owners who encouraged my reading of indie comics over Marvel and DC's output championed this book, but Nexus looked too much like Cyclops of the X-Men. I did admire Steve Rude's clean artwork, though. When Dark Horse put out an origin book in 1992 and announced a run of Nexus mini-series, I finally caught the bug. Although I'd recently been dabbling in speculation thanks to the likes of Todd McFarlane, Jim Lee and Rob Liefeld, it took Mike Baron and Steve Rude to make me want to read comics again rather than just store them in plastic.

10) Every Valiant book. I got into this with the first issues of several of their titles and it became the first company whose entire output I bought each month. I still have a lot of these in a box at home. My favorites were Solar and Harbinger. Archer and Armstrong was cool, though. Who can argue with Barry Windsor-Smith's art? Not me!

11) Gen13. This light and stoopid comic-- heavily derivative of X-Men and New Mutants to the point where Marvel should have looked into a lawsuit-- kept me entertained with its trendy, misbehaving characters and tasty J. Scott Campbell artwork even as I deplored the submental writing and storylines and plot threads abandoned almost as quickly as they began. This was a dark time in my life, but Gen13 provided a bright spot. I even drew a couple of sample pages with the characters in a futile attempt to break into comics. The writing improved vastly-- Adam Warren especially brought a new and fresh intelligence to the series-- and Gen13 became less dependent on old X-Men plots but it still had the feeling of a road-to-nowhere ride. The high point is Adam Hughes's "Ordinary Heroes," a two-issue miniseries. Not only is his characterization of the teen heroes spot-on, but he makes their mentor look exactly like Clint Eastwood. It also appears to take place in Atlanta, Georgia, which is just down the road from where I was living at the time.

12) Hellboy. Anything Hellboy, including BPRD. I fell in love with Mike Mignola's artwork via his Bram Stoker's Dracula movie adaptation for Topps, so I first picked this up just to gaze at the pages. But before long the weird storytelling grabbed me and now I'm a die-hard fan of Hellboy and friends; I buy the monthly books whenever I find them and then I buy them all over again as trade collections. Currently my favorites are anything where Mignola collaborates with Richard Corben and anything drawn by Guy Davis, although that's not to take anything away from any of the other Hell-artists.

13) Lone Wolf and Cub. One of-- if not the-- greatest comic book series ever written and drawn. Dark Horse got me addicted (despite its consisting of twenty-eight volumes at a ridiculous 9.95 each) when they started putting out their little reprint books. This book destroyed my anti-manga stance. It also ended my interest in Frank Miller's work, because I realized everything I liked about him, he stole from Koike Kazuo and Kojima Goseki. If Koike Kazuo isn't the finest writer of pure adventure comics the medium has ever produced, I want to know who is so I can worship him or her. And the late Kojima is comics' ultimate storyteller, a producer of sequential work so vivid and perfectly paced, it's like experiencing a movie. He should be mentioned alongside Will Eisner and Bernie Krigstein whenever comic fans talk about this kind of thing.

14) Love and Rockets. Not since The Uncanny X-Men had a comic possessed my imagination so. I have no idea how this came about. I think I bought an issue of volume 2 one day on a whim and the next thing I knew, I was spending all my money on reprint volumes, almost trembling with anticipation whenever I scraped up enough cash to buy one. Love and Rockets turned back my comics-enjoying clock and gave me that old joy of discovery once again. Here we are almost 10 years later and I still buy everything Maggie and Hopey I can get my hands on here in Japan.

15) Swamp Thing. I read an issue here and there back when Alan Moore was writing it, but it never really clicked until DC started putting out the trade collection. Now I own them all, multiples in fact-- I bought some here in Japan I already owned but left back in the US.

16) Batgirl. The Cassandra Cain Batgirl, not the current one. I don't have a lot of interest in the boring new series, sorry. This is one I started picking up because the artwork confused the hell out of me, but I quickly fell in love with the concept, mostly because of its unfulfilled potential. Eventually, they revealed they had no idea of ever fulfilling it. The frantically paced early issues, when the concept was at its purest, work best. After that, it's hit-or-miss, although Rick Leonardi's run on art certainly looks wonderful. After a false re-start in Bludhaven, Cass abruptly lost her book and the next time we saw her, she was a horrible Dragon Lady caricature of herself. Since then it seems the powers at DC have deliberately done everything they can to destroy the character and alienate her fanbase. Sorry we liked your book, DC. Won't do that again. I'm still convinced this Batgirl could've been something vicious and sweet, like Kill Bill starring Zhang Ziyi instead of Uma Thurman, or DC's answer to Koike Kazuo's Lady Snowblood. Seems like they could never decide if this was a cutesy-pie title for kids-- a common failing for books starring teens, especially female teens-- or something disgustingly violent and dark. I would've gone for the latter, but no one asked me. Now why did I like this again?

17) Nana. Not so much a collection as it is evidence of an addiction. Has there ever been a book as packed with soap opera-ish drama as Yazawa Ai's Nana? If so, I don't want to read it because money and time are limited commodities. Dirk Deppey of Journalista! called Yazawa the "Gilbert Hernandez of Japan." Imagine that! I think that's an understatement, because as much as I admire Mr. Hernandez's work, that admiration is a distant echo of my insane love for Ms. Yazawa's. Only the X-Men and Maggie and Hopey have ever swept me into the characters' world in the same way Nana and Hachi have. This book is my current craze and I can't get enough of it.

Honorable Mention: Any series Mike Allred is handling art for and/or writing.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Oh No! Spider-Man 4 Script Problems Threaten to De-Web Wallcrawler!

Or some such nonsense. Sometimes I can channel the spirit of Stan the Man and sometimes I can't. This is obviously one of those can't times. In fact, I'm having as much trouble with this post as Alvin Sargent is with the screenplay to Spider-Man 4. It's giving him such a terrible time they've postponed shooting indefinitely; it was scheduled to start next month. And they've moved the Thor movie into Spidey's sweet May 2011 opening date.

But have no fear, True Believers-- this movie will get made. And hopefully it'll be better than Spider-Man 3, which had its moments but was very much a "tell, don't show" kind of flick with just too much plot, none of it particularly interesting.

As a comic book doofus with a blog no one reads, I feel obligated to share some of my asinine opinions about Spider-Man 4. In fact, as a comic book blogger, I'm contractually obligated to make a complete ass of myself by being a total blowhard about all of these superhero movies. It's an implied contract between me, the dork and you, the reader. But a contract is a contract, so here goes!

According to the story, director Sam Raimi wants John Malkovich to play the Vulture. I think that's a swell idea. He's a little too Malkovich to become the part totally; I think we're still going to see him as "John Malkovich essaying Marvel Comics' the Vulture" but he's got the look and we know he can menace on film. But here's where things get a little screwy. The studio wants names to draw in suckers... er... I mean viewers. If you're spending 400 million on a movie, you want asses in the seats. So at one point they were thinking Anne Hathaway as the Black Cat.

Insert needle-scratching-record sound effect here.

That's a really bad idea if you're going all Malkovich on us. Plus, they already muddied the Peter Parker-Mary Jane romance in the third movie. Putting another romantic rival for Pete's affections in this one would seem like a rehash of movie few, if any, are particularly fond of at this point. Also, Anne Hathaway has reached the point where she, like Malkovich, is Anne Hathaway on screen. She's a fine actor in her own right, but one major problem superhero movies have to deal with is willing suspension of disbelief, and the more big name stars you pack onto the screen the more difficult it is for the audience to believe in the story.

Call it the "Batman Franchise Effect." Jack Nicholson alone was a minor distraction in the first movie, but at least he was playing to type, and Kim Basinger wasn't that huge a star at the time. Christopher Walken was not much competition for the megawattage of Michelle Pfeiffer in the second movie but things were starting to get crowded with Danny DeVito. Again, perfect casting somewhat spared us. If Kim Basinger had appeared again, it would have been Hollywood overload. Which the third movie suffered mightily from with Val Kilmer, Chris O'Donnell, Nichole Kidman, Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey, who was already too Jim Carrey for his own good. Kilmer alone might have pulled it off, or Kilmer and Kidman, but instead of enjoying a Batman adventure, audiences were starting to play Spot the Star.

And the fourth movie? Batman & Robin? The tendency towards glitz and camp begun in the third completely overwhelmed the meagre story. George Clooney, Alicia Silverstone, Uma Thurman, Chris O'Donnell and Arnold Schwarzenegger. These kinds of casts are fun for things like Ocean's 11, 12 and 13 but when your main character is a guy in colorful longjohns too many red carpet habitues can spoil what little veracity the film can muster.

But this is just my way of thinking. Obviously, studio executives think in a completely different, more inhuman way. Veracity and suspension of disbelief mean nothing to them compared to spectacle and cost-benefit analyses and Q-ratings. This is a world where Nicholas Cage almost played Superman, and these clowns were fine with that.

And no doubt a Spider-Man 4 with Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, John Malkovich, Anne Hathaway, Miley Cyrus, Lindsay Lohan, Balloon Boy, Octomom, Elizabeth Taylor, the late Dean Martin and the late Sammy Davis, Jr. making a swingin' cameo with the late Frank Sinatra plus the cast of TV's Glee in all the supporting roles and a special appearance by Ellen Page and Michael Cera reprising their Juno parts (they'd be on a whirlwind romantic tour of Manhattan and run into the Wallcrawler outside an abortion clinic) would recoup its costs and be a fairly solid summer hit...

But we'd have to read all the whining, complaining posts about how much we actually hate it on the Internet. There'd be a new "nuke the fridge" meme as lame as the current one. "Flip the spider" or "meet the Juno" or something like that. Spider-Man 4 would set the Tweeter world ablaze with hatred, send hordes of comic bloggers into hastily typed crescendos of exaggeration and rape metaphors, which in turn would set off a counterattack of offended feminist bloggers followed by an opposing outburst from conservative bloggers, then general recriminations and backbiting, friend against friend, brother and sister against each other, and, finally, the movie would not quite live up to its record-settting expectations and some entertainment pundit would use it as the centerpiece of an essay full of tortured, circular logic about how the superhero movie genre is dead. And the whole damned thing would start all over again.

Can we risk that, Marvel? I think not.

Leave out the Black Cat. Simplify the storyline and get back to the emotional content that made the first 2 Spider-Man flicks so enjoyable. That way you could avoid all those over-expository lines from the third one, like when Sandman says, "I'm not a bad man, I've just had bad luck," but all we'd seen so far was a lot of nothing. Give Spidey one strong villain like the Green Goblin or Dr. Octopus, or at the most two.

And if you must stick the Black Cat in there, I suggest Zooey Deschanel.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The 'Nam Volume 1: A Comic Review

The 'Nam Volume 1
Marvel Comics
Writer: Doug Murray
Penciller: Michael Golden and Wayne Vansant
Inkers: Armando Gil, Bob McLeod, Pepe Moreno, John Beatty
Colors: Golden, Phil Felix

I was going to do a post looking back at 2009 but I realized I have nothing much to say about the year and its comic book controversies. I’m not even sure what my “Best of” list would contain other than all the volumes of Nana and 20th Century Boys published during the year, a few archive books from DC, Dark Horse and Marvel, and Love and Rockets New Stories 2. The biggest mainstream event of 2009 as far as I was concerned was not "Blackest Night" or some similar crossover or any creative-team change at the big companies but the return of Xi’an Coy Manh and Dani Moonstar to monthly adventuring in New Mutants.

But right at the end of the year, Marvel hit me with this—the long overdue return to print of The ‘Nam, their ongoing series from the late 1980s. Remember the late 80s and its 60s revisionism? A look back finds Prince and Tears for Fears doing psychedelia… De La Soul as well. And the release of the Beatles’ catalog on CD for the first time.

This led to a spate of so many movies about the Vietnam War they became a genre unto themselves. Marvel Comics was right there with Vietnam-vet Doug Murray providing punchy, realistic scripts—within the limits of the Comics Code of the time, that is—and Michael Golden combining realistic renderings of combat equipment with slightly cartooned figures. The ‘Nam takes place in “real time,” meaning each story occurs roughly a month or so after the last.

According to editor Larry Hama's introduction, the plan was for the initial protagonist, a naïve and genuinely decent everyman figure named Ed Marks, to experience a 12-month tour or duty in country, then rotate back to “The World,” and other characters to take his place. Readers would learn the ins and outs of combat the same way our young infantrymen did—one soaking wet boot step at a time.

As much as I love Sgt. Rock and Easy Company and the Losers, Warren's groundbreaking failure Blazing Combat and other vintage war comics, The ‘Nam beats them as a realistic depiction of war and yet it's strangely sanitized. The new realism inspired by movies like Saving Private Ryan, Black Hawk Down and the Band of Brothers miniseries plus “shock and awe” imagery from the local news may cause readers to find The 'Nam almost quaint with its clean imagery (the inking by Beatty is especially slick and tasty). There’s a little blood and no gore, most killings taking place tastefully off-panel.

This expurgation extends even to the soldiers' language. One character uses the acronym “REMF” rather than the whole phrase (the book offers a helpful glossary in the back so you know what things like “11Bush” and “hat up” mean) but for the most part “Cripes!” is the curse word of choice. Murray’s humane depiction of his characters and deliberate use of G.I. jargon combined with Golden’s eye for detail more than make up for some of the self-censorship and give the reader a taste for what it might actually have been like to spend a few months humping the boonies and being dusted off by slicks for guys in their late teens and early 20s caught up in this Southeast Asian quagmire. Our pal Sgt. Rock might be able to bring down Stukas with rifle grenades, but Marks’ comparatively restrained attempts at heroism are only scoffed at by his fellow grunts as a little “too John Wayne.” You do that stuff for real and you only get yourself and your friends killed. And in that The ‘Nam more than holds its own after 20-odd years.

Golden makes sure almost all the characters look appropriately youthful and confused, except for the grizzled vets—the bloated, corrupt Top, a kind of African American Sidney Greenstreet in tiger-camo and Staff Sergeant Polkow, a muscular hulk on impossibly tiny legs. Marks himself is sort of blandly blond and wholesome, a fitting masking agent for young readers. As he matures and learns the ropes, Golden gives him increasingly longer hair; I’m not sure but I think at the time, the army experimented with allowing soldiers a bit more individualism in terms of hair length and mustaches. Or else they just didn’t have any military barbers at the firebase.

A stand out story takes us into the psyche of America's enemies, as told by a "Kit Carson scout," a former Viet Cong who has never given up his fight for freedom despite switching sides. Through his tale, Murray gives readers a broader view of the conflict, putting Marks' story into context. From the Japanese occupation and French collaboration to early OSS/CIA misadventures (we basically invented the Viet Minh, who later became the Viet Cong we fought so futilely for so long... glad to know we don't do that kind of crapola anymore) to the early days of America's involvement, Murray fits it all into a concise and emotionally moving narrative, giving humanity to what had been faceless, anonymous figures in previous issues and deftly conveying the political complexities without condemning. As always in these early issues, the focus is on the every weary ground soldier, be he American or Vietnamese.

Throughout, and despite Comics Code limitations, Murray and Golden manage to provide a “you are there” feel for Vietnam combat circa 1966, and it's meticulously researched. Marks’ 23rd Infantry regiment really exists and served as part of the 25th Infantry Division “Tropic Lightning” with the distinctive jungle leaf/lightning bolt shoulder patch-- and apparently they actually engaged in the actions depicted in the series.

The book contains 10 solid issues of The ‘Nam, just enough to get to know Marks and his buddies, but it leaves you strangely hanging as he breaks 90 days and declares himself “short” in the last story. I think adding a couple of more issues and completing Marks' tour would’ve been helpful, but this is one of the finest war comics, a matter-of-fact antidote to the heavyweight soul searching and self-evisceration of flicks like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket, but without the self-justifying defensiveness of Hamburger Hill. And it contains none of the surrealism/absurdism of the blatantly pro-war epic Apocalypse Now. At least as long as it features Golden’s art. I’m also not sure how long Murray lent his expertise and writing skills to the series, because this comic was hard to find locally back in the day. I missed a few issues here and there and after Michael Golden left I also made my exit as a reader. The next time I checked, Marvel had finally destroyed Murray’s carefully crafted verisimilitude by sticking the asinine Punisher character in a story.

An ongoing complaint I have with these types of reprints is with the colors. I wish they’d remastered them somehow. This book is essentially a reprint of the 1999 trade (even the Hama introduction comes from that version) and the colors seem a bit too garish on this slick paper. I wouldn’t want them to over-model it with computers but they could have toned it down just a bit to match some of the look of desaturated newsprint while still maintaining the clean whiteness of the page for something more naturalistic. The recolored cover looks fantastic, with painterly tones that make Golden’s artwork pop, and there are some gorgeous cover reprints in the back. There’s even Pepe Moreno’s stark photorealistic illustration for the last trade printing.

I'd been banging on in this blog for a while about how we needed this vital series available again in affordable form and now here it is! Thanks, Marvel. Sometimes you do the sweetest things for me!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Nodame Cantabile... the Motion Picture

It's fairly new to me, but you probably know all about Ninomiya Tomoko's famous manga Nodame Cantabile (available from Del Rey), the story of Chiaki Schinichi, a promising young musical genius who's stuck unhappily in Japan because he's afraid to fly and Noda "Nodame" Megumi, the bizarre girl next door who lives in filth but can play piano like nobody's business. I bought the first volume yesterday, and how I came to do so makes for a very boring story. But you're so very into Nodame Cantibile you're just dying to know how I came to buy it. You're obsessed, a veritable Nodame Cantabile maniac so anything related to the manga has your rapt attention. Right? Am I right?

Eh, probably not. But here we are anyway.

It seems as long as I've been in Japan, I haven't been able to escape Nodame Cantabile. A few of my students are big fans of this series, and especially the TV drama adaptations, which were big hits in 2006 and 2008. And the anime. Still, I resisted for the longest time despite their breathless recommendations. We even have an ex-student who's off living the Nodame Cantabile lifestyle, studying music at a special music university and living in an apartment with a grand piano as her main piece of furniture, just like Nodame herself. Although I imagine this real-life Nodame keeps a nicer place; she's as fastidious as she is studious. But while I like Takahashi Rumiko, Kazuo Koike and everything Nana, I'm just not that susceptible every single manga that comes down the pipe. Some people are obsessed with Japanese comics as a genre; I only go apeshit over individual creators and their works if they meet my exacting standards.

However, I am very susceptible to the charms of Ueno Juri. For about a month now, her smiling image in character as Nodame has been gazing down upon us from front windows of the local Mister Donut franchises. I recognized her immediately, and understood from her pose (she's sitting at a piano as if she's energetically playing it, yet can still make eye contact with passersby) she wasn't selling doughnuts as herself, but as some TV or movie character. But who?

Oh, Nodame from Nodame Cantabile. Thanks, Internet!

Juri is the perfect choice to play Nodame. She has the looks and she's already shown some musical talent-- she had to learn to play the saxophone for her lead role in 2004's comedy hit Swing Girls. So this Ueno "Nodame" Juri/Doughnut campaign ties in with the brand new Nodame Cantabile big-screen adventure, the first of two sequels to the TV dramas. What do doughnuts and music have in common? Well, other than a doughnut slightly resembling a whole note on a music staff, I have no idea. But thanks the wonders of cross-marketing, doughnuts and Nodame Cantibile have been joined in holy matrimony and no "defense of marriage" proposition is going to split them asunder.

As I've said before, Japan is a wonderful place-- perhaps the best-- for comic fans and fans of comic book-based movies. Practically every single popular comic book, no matter the genre, becomes a TV show or movie at some point. Since I've been here, I've watched a TV drama adapted from Suenobo Keiko's Life (the theme song of which became a huge pop hit for Nakashima Mika, who played the punk-Nana in the movies based on that comic), had the plot to the movie 20th Century Boys related to me several times by various people, watched the hit first version of Nana, avoided the flop sequel and gone on a movie date to watch Rookies. Drama, sci-fi, romance. And of course, the Hollywood comic book adaptations invariably make their way here. Superheroes and crime. Now this. Nodame Cantabile starring Ueno Juri has caused me to try the manga.

Although now that I've watched the trailer, I think Ueno Juri acts like nothing resembling any type of human I've met in my all too short sojourn here on planet Earth. She's more than a little scary.