“This World is Jam-Packed With Dark Nature Spirits!” COMICS! Sometimes I Have No Option But To Take Refuge In Fictional Horrors.

こんにちは! Konnichiwa, culture vultures! This time out we spread our black, black wings and set our beady, dead eyes on the delightful island nation of Japan! Yes, Japan! Home of almost 200 volcanoes, a literacy rate of near 100%, the British car industry(*) and…MANGA! Japan! A tectonically unstable but most artistic archipelago indeed! Japan! Contra all those Jô Shishido (宍戸 錠) Yakuza movies Japan is one of the safest and least violent countries in the world, with as few as two gun-related homicides a year (Yes, America: two). Sometimes, though, such a haven of civility is fertile ground for horror. (SOCIOLOGICAL SPOILER: it’s probably the repression.) Hai! It’s Junji Ito (伊藤 潤二)! It’s Horror (帽子掛け)! It’s MANGA!!! It’s COMICS!!! (*) N.B. intended as timely BREXIT based satire not #CASUALRACISM.

 photo frageyeB_zpsrfbo05ro.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

Anyway, this...

FRAGMENTS OF HORROR Story & Art By Junji Ito Translation & Adaptation by Jocelyn Allen Touch-up Art & Lettering by Eric Erbes Cover & Graphic Design by Sam Elzway Edited by Masumi Washington & Nick Mamatas (he writes real books too!) Fragments of Horror © Junji Ito 2014 Viz Media, $17.99(US), $21.00(CAN), £10.99(UK) (2015)

 photo fragcovB_zpskrp3ulik.jpg

Yes, Manga! Better yet, Manga by Junji Ito (or 伊藤 潤二 or Itō Junji)! Recap: I don’t know anything about Manga. Which on one hand is good; I’m coming at it without preconceptions and my like or dislike is as pure as unicorn poop. On the other hand it isn’t so good, because there are a lot of Manga Experts out there, so I might find myself squealing delightedly over what is commonly considered by the cognoscenti to be the Manga equivalent of Rob Liefeld. Hypothetical elitist disdain be damned, I like Junji Ito (I’m sticking with that permutation of his name as it’s the one on the book). I liked GYO and UZUMAKI (both of which are currently available in one volume hardback editions from Viz. Plug! Plug! John sez, “Buy ‘em from Brian!”) and since Junji Ito was the one what did them, my picking up FRAGMENTS OF HORROR was as inevitable as death itself. But, y’know, a bit more fun.

 photo fragfanB_zpsbxwwgvrd.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

Physically FRAGMENTS OF HORROR is a sturdy medium sized hardback, sporting a thoughtfully designed dustjacket and cover combo (firm stock, silver ink, bas relief; suh-weet). As an object it feels like someone was, you know, bothered; which is nice. Oh, yeah, it reads right to left as is the habit of our Japanese chums, but don’t worry, you’ll soon crack the habit. And it’s worth the minuscule adjustment of optical tracking required because within are eight tales of fetid fun; ranging from the eerily affecting to the utterly repugnant, with the odd stop at Black Humourville along the way, just so it doesn’t all get a bit too much, a bit too one note. Junji Ito knows pacing isn’t just what you do in The Delivery Suite and Junji Ito also knows tone isn’t just short for Tony when you’re shouting across the pub. Which is more than can be said for most North American genre comics creators. As all those drunks in dated melodramas who put their boozy fists through accusatory mirrors can attest, fragments of anything which has shattered vary in size and sharpness. And so it is with these fragments of horror.

 photo fragdissectB_zps5krpsiqd.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

Ayup, it’s a horror anthology, so the tales are less than lengthy, thus I’ll have to skirt around too much detail while, hopefully, managing to give you a pungent enough tang of the pleasingly acrid taste of the ghastly goods on offer. And so in the order in which I happened to remember them:

Dissection-Chan: I don’t even know what this one is, well, except it’s horrible. Which is kind of the point of horror so: win. Playing doctors and nurses as kids isn't creepy enough for Junji Ito so the pair of tiny terrors herein go further and play coroners and corpse. But then they grow up and playtime turns into..well, precisley. It’s probably the kind of bilious bon-bon people pigeonhole as Ito-esque, being a kind of diseased shaggy dog story (a Cujo?) leading up to imagery Ito’s clearly built the whole thing around, and has obviously taken a quite excessive, if not unseemly, pleasure in delineating. I bet his talented little tongue was stuck out and he had his face about an inch from the paper; like when you used to do an ornately cross-hatched “Bub” from Day of The Dead (1985) on your rough book, while far away a voice droned interminably on about The Corn Laws and their perpetual Repeal.

Futon: The natural indolence of the typical young male is taken to horrific extremes in a story no doubt used by Japanese HR Departments to prevent the Western “duvet day” phenomenon gaining traction in their fine land.

Tomio/Red Turtleneck: Bizarrely this features the same young couple who were in ‘Futon’; weirder yet the bloke, Tomio, again taps off with a randy witch while the doughty lass, Madoka, has to cope with the malefic consequences. Psst! If you are called Tomio and are shacked up with a Madoka, and you know Junji Ito, uh, I don’t want to read too much into this but it probably couldn’t hurt if you scarpered sharpish because ol’ Junji’s got a Wagyu beef (和牛) with you. If you knicked his girlfriend and then cheated on her with a randy witch, well, I’d definitely consider going to ground under a fake name.  Maybe put a continent or two between you. Open a bait and tackle shop and learn to enjoy solitude and sunrises. Better than waking up with scissors in your eyes. Anyway, Junji Ito’s vengeful fixations (legal note: I jest) aside this one is a darkly amusing tale of a shagabout whose big head suffers when he puts his little head where it shouldn’t have been. Namely, in a randy witch. Or is it all a manifestation of a castration complex brought on by guilt at dipping his wick in the randy witch? I don’t know and it doesn’t matter, because it definitely features a bit where a live cockroach is crammed into an open wound. Something for everyone in this 'un!

Wooden Spirit: The vast property porn audience of such UK televisual verrucae as Grand Designs (rich couple build unfeasibly expensive house shaped like an abstract philosophical concept) and Property Ladder (a pair of profoundly un-endearing estate agent “characters” help indecisive couples to buy a house, because apparently that’s entertainment) is catered to in a tale which combines erotica, architecture and the fairy tale trope of the evil stepmother. It’s a queasily eerie tale which is both timely and timeless, and one not recommended for people with a thing about eyes. Yes, EYES!

 photo fragbirdB_zpsyl6qltaj.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

Blackbird: Survival at any price? is the question ‘Blackbird’ asks you, and it won’t stop staring at you accusingly until you answer in the affirmative, at which point it cackles so unnervingly you inadvertently let a bit of poop slip out.  ‘Blackbird’ features the phantasmagorical sight of a bird with the face of Pete Burns (the recently deceased frontman of the band ‘Dead or Alive’. Or is that just ‘Dead’ now? Too soon, huh?) and then it gets seriously foul, before finally twisting your mind into strange new shapes so you can accommodate the thoughts it births.

Gentle Goodbye: Melancholy ghost story for anyone whose emotions are still functioning after the flaming shit pit that has been the year 2016. Beautifully and subtly done stuff. Not at all what people expect from Junji Ito, even though he’s as good at inducing quiet heart ache as he is at gooshy upchuckery.

Magami Nanakuse: Bizarre physical comedy ensues when a young fangirl meets her favourite author, only to discover s/he is a bit of a nutter. Which is unusual because writers are usually so well adjusted aren’t they? Probably works best if you know which author Ito is ripping the piss out of. Knowing his humility it's probably himself, but it doesn't seem like it. Let's pretend it's Neil Gaiman. See, now it's hilarious!

Whispering Woman: This is for all those middle class parents who palm the tricky business of bringing up their kid onto a paid stranger. Or maybe it’s about getting too involved in your work. It’s definitely about how people use kids to get back at other people, but here it’s in a savagely literal way. Kids always make horror worse don’t they? Unless you’re a sociopath. In which case, congratulations, 2016 is certainly your year!

 photo fraginspB_zpsn2z47ppv.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

Aside from the ostensible subject matter part of the appeal of MANGA! for me is seeing tentacle rape, oops, no, wait, it’s seeing how people in Japan live (or lived if its LONE WOLF). All the little things the creators take for granted but strike me, some five thousand miles and change away, as odd. But not odd in a racist way, I hasten to add so swiftly I risk doing myself a mischief. Things like a young couple living in one room, a father and daughter living in a house so unchanged the government accord it “A Registerd Tangible Cultural Property” (like Howard Victor Chaykin!), the shape of the buses, the food on the plates (no chips?!), the boxy architecture, the fact that Louise Brooks’ bob rightly remains cross-cultural visual shorthand for sultry, the sense of family which is both impressive and oppressive, the sudden swathes of wild nature beyond the boxy cities with their chip deficient Louise Brookses riding differently-shaped buses to visit sour faced in-laws. Just, you know, the stuff of life; beige days. And it’s important not to underestimate the importance and skill of Junji Ito in creating a convincingly mundane environment. That way when the bad stuff turns up to tear it all up it resonates just that bit deeper, and just that shade darker. Sure, it takes some serious horror chops to get cosmic horror out of some idle arse staying in bed all day. But throw in a psychotropic fungus and a passing randy witch and you need to have a sturdy hook of reality from which to suspend your disbelief. Junji Ito’s hook is robust enough for even my handy-man dad to curtly nod in appreciation.

 photo fraginlawsB_zpsebg9hjes.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

According to the ridiculously self-effacing note in the “back”, FRAGMENTS OF HORROR is Junji Ito’s return to the horror trenches after several years drawing cats and, uh, stuff. As diffident as the Japanese are reputed to be(#CASUALRACISM? Or #SWEEPINGGENERALISATION?) it seems ridiculous that someone at Junji Ito’s artistic level should be so, and so sincerely so at that. This isn’t a pose; the dude’s really unsure whether he provided satisfaction. He even thanks his editor for rejecting his first attempt at one strip and making him start from scratch. Can you imagine a Red Hot North American Genre Comics Creator doing that? They’d pitch a shit fit and it’d all end in tears and no mistake. Someone would be collecting their P45 and it wouldn't be the Red Hot North American Genre Comics Creator. Listen to an editor! Chance'd be a fine thing! While I found Junji Ito’s humility refreshing, I think I should just take this opportunity on the behalf of every man, woman and child in the West to say, don’t sweat it, Junji Ito, FRAGMENTS OF HORROR was VERY GOOD! Welcome back and don't be a stranger!

 photo fragdaddyB_zpsr70v9mzi.jpg FRAGMENTS OF HORROR by Junji Ito

NEXT TIME: If we are all still above ground, some more reality avoidance via the medium of - COMICS!!!

"Gara Gara!" COMICS! Sometimes They Are MANGA!

Konichiwa! What follows is almost Zen like in the purity of its pointlessness. Unless…unless you are one of the three living people who have not already read these old manga comics. Comics which are now available again in a new series of petite omnibooks. So someone must not have read them, right? C’mon, throw me a rope here!  photo LWCwaveB_zps1eb44615.jpg

Anyway, this…

If you have never read any of the manga comics and are a bit trembly about starting then this one’s for you! Because cards on the table; fox in the henhouse; monkey in the nunnery; I know sweet FA about the manga comics. When it comes to the manga comics I’m not your man. Gah! So, given my impressive indolence when it comes to the appreciation of other cultures I just read these as comics. Just opened ‘em up and read ‘em. Treated ‘em like comics, see. Crazy.

LONE WOLF AND CUB OMNIBUS VOLUME 1 Art by Goseki Kojima Written by Kazu Koike Translation by Dana Lewis Lettering by Digital Chameleon Lone Wolf and Cub created by Goseki Kojima & Kazu Koike Dark Horse comics, $19.99 (2013)

 photo LWCcovB_zps8fe5a2c3.jpg

Hey, as far as I can tell (and I may tell a lie, inadvertently) these comics originally appeared in 1970, as indeed did I. Bouncing Buddhas, these comics are as old as I am! Luckily they seem to have aged somewhat more gracefully. Unlike Lone Wolf & Cub I was not originally created by Goseki Kojima & Kazuo Koike and serialised in Weekly Manga Action Magazine, nor did I form the basis of a television series and a string of successful films before being reprinted in English by FIRST! comics in 1990 and, following FIRST’s demise (but no demise in the thirst for these comics) thereafter by Dark Horse Comics. This is Dark Horse’s second third (thanks, Ben Lipman!) go round at the material. This iteration is digest sized but impressively girthed. It’s a thick little brick of a book is what it is. This edition of Omnibus Vol.1 ends with Half Mat, One Mat, a Fistful of Rice in case anyone with an incomplete collection of the previous volumes wanted to know when to hop on board.

At the back of the book there are some author bios from which I cravenly cribbed the previous factual bits and a glossary of terms pertinent to the Edo period Japanese setting. Initially you’ll be flicking to this glossary every time you meet an unfamiliar word but you’ll soon get caught up in the flow of the narrative stream and your insecurity will erode to nothing as you use context to impose meaning; much as you do with your native language. English, I ‘m talking about English there, in the case of our American friends. Look, I don’t want the elbow patches and chalk dust connotations of a glossary to put anyone off; it’s useful and a nice touch but you’ll be too busy reading some 700 pages of great comics to bother with it, or as the experts would have it: 700 pages of great manga.

 photo LWCdadB_zps44187c34.jpg

Don’t worry about the words and the possibility of babel-jabber. In fact the translation by Dana Lewis reads smoother than a lot of English speaking comics writers’ work. Since the top names in US comics write like they learned English via correspondence course (and a lot of the lessons went missing in the post) I’m not sure who this reflects best on. The only jarring note is struck when sometimes the speech of the peasantry mimics that familiar from Westerns; this may sit oddly atop the images of Edo period Japan (“Consarn that dangdurned Emperor!”) but the genres have enough surface similarities to make this decision explicable. And it does create a clear divide between the scrofulous ones and their betters (who aren’t; they never are). On reflection this contrast between the earthier utterances of the proles and the formal rigidity of their masters nicely reinforces the divides. It’s such a good translation that it enables the quiet genius of the original writing to shine. Lone Wolf & Cub does many things but one of the things it does best is present a portrait of a repressive society and all the unhealthy sexuality and violence roiling beneath the social constrictions. The storytelling is remarkably convincing in its period detail although, full disclosure, I am neither Japanese nor a historian; so the fact that there aren’t any car chases and no one checks their wristwatch is the only level of historical accuracy I can vouch for.

I hear that all reviews must now contain some words about the art. So, yeah, let’s do that. Sadly I have sod all reference for Japanese art except for that Great Wave by Hokusai I had on a calendar once and a picture of a lady with a squid I saw in The Guardian the other week; one that was altogether too rude by half. Luckily for all of us inadequately prepared reviewers Lone Wolf and Cub has a built in entry point for palettes moulded by the North American comics tradition. The sentient reader will note that the cover to this first volume is by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley. This dynamic duo provided the initial run of covers for the FIRST reprints (followed by Bill Sienkiewicz and then, I believe, Matt Wagner. Pedigree stuff there, kids). The art of Miller and Varley’s Ronin (DC Comics, 1984) had been cheerfully blatant about showcasing its debt to the work of Goseki Kojima and Miller had vocally championed Lone Wolf and Cub in interviews at the time. Miller’s stylistic lifts are revealed to even my uninformed eye at certain points in this volume (the straw of hats, motion lines forming figures, etc and etc) and nowhere are these lifts more apparent than in the graveyard scene which closes out this book. That’s how good Goseki Kojima is here; Frank Miller took a leg up from him to reach his pinnacle.

 photo LWCstoneB_zps15e5abd6.jpg

And make no mistake Goseki Kojima is damned good here. The world the series inhabits is concretely defined with clear demarcations between the austere human constructs and the lush natural sweep of the land itself; the similar socio-economic demarcations between the folk populating the book are also succinctly sketched. So much so that one who knows less than zero about Edo period Japan grasps instantly and easily a wealth of information about what was seconds ago unknown and alien. And then there’s the action. The savagery of which, with its barrage of brutality and people coming apart like mud in heavy rain, is never in doubt. The violence in Lone Wolf and Cub is awful in exactly the right way.

 photo LWCviolB_zps53aff7fe.jpg

Lone Wolf & Cub is, I guess, primarily about Fathers and Sons. It can’t help but be about Fathers and Sons because when you are an itinerant assassin for hire saddled with a son, every day is Bring Your Child To Work Day. Usually comics about Fathers and Sons continue the bad rap Dads have. This very comic might be about how bad this dad is too, it’s hard to tell; it’s open to interpretation. He clearly loves his son and this love is reciprocated. Lone Wolf so loves his cub in fact that he is taking him to Hell with him. Sometimes you can love too much. Obviously Social Services might have something to say about having the kid feign drowning to lure an enemy into an unarmed swim or riding his dad’s back in a swordfight with a mirror strapped to his head in order to provide a surprise advantage.

 photo LWCpolB_zps41056c90.jpg

But there aren’t any Social Services, or indeed any form of supportive infrastructure for those less fortunate. Which is odd because everybody here is paying taxes, some people are paying so much tax it is killing them. And you pick this up as you go along; Lone Wolf and Cub is really quite political. But it is so in a very gentle way. The squalor of the peasantry, the machinations of their betters (who aren't; they never are. It bears repeating) and the way a whole Society can be its own worst enemy are powerfully but subtly conveyed by every page. But never, ever, in a dull, dry or dreary way. All that smart stuff is smuggled in under cover of a series of chapters that hop from genre to genre with no sign of sweat or effort. There's a chapter with the grubby brio of High Plains Drifter but set in a spa town; an episode recalling nothing less than Inspector Morse; an excursion into religious symbolism; a prison break revenge saga cum murder mystery; never a dull moment is what, I'm saying.

 photo LWCkidB_zps1ed8dc05.jpg

Lone Wolf & Cub is truly humbling in its mastery of comics and the heights of entertainment it reaches. It's from the past and another country and they really do things differently there. For the duration of Lone Wolf and Cub it’s hard not to think that they do things better.

Sometimes Lone Wolf & Cub is still as a pond; sometimes Lone Wolf & Club dances like the fire. But Lone Wolf & Cub is always EXCELLENT! Because Lone Wolf And Cub is always – COMICS!!! (or MANGA!!!)

(I’m worried about the kid though.)

Wait, What? Ep. 122: Capespaces

 photo 6678aa2c-363c-4307-b576-8abdee988126_zps6f245e13.jpgFrom Bandette #4 by Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover. It's pretty damn delightful.

Hey, everyone!  Next week is a skip week!  Do you hear me? SKIP WEEK.

Show notes?  Oh yes, there are certainly show notes. RIGHT AFTER THE JUMP.


0:00-3:08:  Welcome to the opening!  Topics include: Internet woe explanations; sexy talk; waffles; beard pics; etc. 3:08-4:35: And right off the bat we have a potential conundrum -- when it comes to the week's books, we are woefully under read.  What to do? What to discuss?  Graeme confesses to reading Moranthology by Caitlin Moran and rereading the awesome Marvel Comics: The Untold Story by Sean Howe. Graeme also gives Jeff the biggest opening for a joke comic book title ever and Jeff gets paralyzed with the possibilities. 4:35-10:05: So we talk about Age of Ultron #6. Dont't worry, it's only for five minutes.  No, really.  We set a timer. 10:05-31:21:  Don't pay attention to these time codes.  It really was five minutes and when the timer went off we were already talking about the, um, Ultron to Age of Ultron's Vision:  The "Days of Future Past" storyline by Claremont and Byrne from Uncanny X-Men.  We consider it kosher to continue talking about that piece past the timer.  Does it hold up?  Was it really good to begin with?  Discuss. Also covered:  The X-Men Chronicles; that one issue of Uncanny X-Men with Captain America and Black Widow on the cover; Chris Claremont and his greedy delight; John Byrne and "drawing right"; the great twitter account @JohnByrneSays, Who's Who in the DC Universe; and more. 31:21-45:53: Jeff's out of blue question for Graeme: Top Five Comic Book Capes. (Jeff swears he didn't bring up this topic just to bitch about the wasted potential that is Todd McFarlane's Spawn). Also discussed: The Vision; Freak Flags; Steve Ditko; more stuff. Come for the cape references, stay for the game of "The Blind Leading The Blind" with regards to Spawn publication schedules and collaborators. 45:53-1:04:59: And in part two of "The Blind Leading The Blind": Jeff tries his best to explain "Moe" while describing the very odd concoction that is Stan Lee and Hiroyuki Takei's Ultimo. 1:04:59-1:05:21: Intermission One. 1:05:21-1:21:18: And we're back, with Graeme still suffering PTSD from reading Stormwatch #19.  It leads into a bit of what was being discussed earlier -- what changes in a creator's work as they age that makes them less palatable even as they retain everything that's identifiably them?  And, conversely, creators who still had all of it even as they got older?  Don't ask about those odd faux-Frink noises made by Jeff -- he still can't figure out why he made them. 1:21:18-1:22:04:  And then, just when you expect it least:  we answer questions from Whatnauts posed to us back in December of last year!  Yes! Woo! Got your nose! 1:22:04-1:29:10: Miguel Corti on December 6th, 2012 at 11:00 pm asked: "What current artists are the best at comics storytelling? I don’t mean the best illustrators or the best frozen pose/cover artists, I mean, from panel to panel, who can carry the story, draw your eyes across the page, and not interfere with the story being told? It seems to me that comics are blessed with many a good illustrator, but there aren’t many competent cartoonists. Is this the fault of the artist or the writers who don’t know how to script for them?" Mentioned by us:  Chris Samnee, Al Ewing, Avengers Assemble (the Age of Ultron issue), Jackson Guice, and others. 1:29:10-1:34:04:  Joel Greenlee on December 7th, 2012 at 7:08 am said:  I was wondering if you guys have read either of Harvey Pekar’s final books, “Not the Israel my parents promised me” or “Harvey Pekar’s Cleveland” I think they’re great, but I’m a lifelong Harvey fan a Clevelander as well. Could I get some non-homer perspective from you guys on the books if you’ve read them? Discussed: Harvey Pekar, Alan Moore, R. Crumb, Gary Dumm, Joe Zabel.  Not mentioned: Paul Giamatti and Hope Davis, although they were great. 1:34:04-2:04:04:  Matt Miller on December 7th, 2012 at 9:47 am said:  By what rationale does Jeff continue to buy DC Comics? Under the new management structure, hasn’t DC proven itself to be Marvel’s equal (at least) in lack of respect for creator rights, poor retailer relations and overall creative bankruptcy? Discussed: DC, Vertigo, Injustice: Gods Among Us, Marvel, Stephen Bissette, a terrifying number of indie publishers, Monkeybrain, Double Barrel, The Best of Milligan and McCarthy, Bandette, and the super-strong slate of Eisner nominations. 2:04:04-end:  Closing comments!  Skip week imminent!  Shortened engagement to follow! The Joker's daughter! Nixon! Thank you and good night!


Yeah, I kind of went out in a blaze of exclamation points at the end there, didn't I?  Well, that's what happens when a vacation looms, I guess.

Anyway, I haven't seen this one on iTunes yet which has me a little bit worried but, eh, it's been working pretty great for us so far...so maybe you'll see it sooner rather than later?

But either way, you have full unfettered access to the episode below.  See, really?  Look!

Wait, What? Ep. 122: Capespaces

As always, we hope you enjoy and thanks for listening!

Wait, What? Ep. 103: Churls on Film

PhotobucketThey had me at "Kpow!": Gil Kane Atom slugs Gil Kane Green Lantern, from Justice League of America #200.

And so it's that time again, O Mighty Whatnauts.  Join us behind the jump for show notes and kvetching, 'kay?

So, first things first:  sorry for the bad run of luck we've been having vis-a-vis technical difficulties. Graeme starts out the podcast echo-y as all hell but fortunately it gets much better about half an hour through...because we have to stop the call and start again.

In fact, at one point after Graeme and I had been talking for ninety minutes or so, Skype just up and died on me in a way that--unlike other times--caused the recording program to crash out as well, making it look like we'd only have a half-hour podcast, talking about little more than detox diets, Marvel sales strategies, and how Graeme's library system is so much better than my library system.  Thank goodness, I found the temp file and was able to find instructions on the Internet on how to make it editable.   So, you know... hooray for the Internet!  It'd be nice if something other than hard liquor could now make my hands stop trembling but...eh.  What are you gonna do?

And on that note of melancholic resignation...show notes!

0:00-7:00:  Greetings!  Also, because apparently we don't use Twitter properly:  what did we just have for lunch?  Because Jeff is doing an elimination diet and Graeme has had experience with those.  Yes, this is about as far from Waffle Talk as we can get, alas.
7:00-14:31:  Superior Spider-Man!  Graeme has an update for Jeff as what might be going on there with that upcoming event.  Is Dan Slott giving us the Spider-Man comic readers want?  The comic he wants?  Both? Neither?
14:31-29:50:  Then we discuss Marvel's current sales.  It is probably pretty easy to figure out how we got from the previous topic to this one.  Because Jeff had yet to purchase Sean Howe's Marvel Comics: The Untold Story we didn't spend the whole podcast talking about the book, but Graeme does tell me a little bit about the book.  We manage to once again work in a mention of Sean's amazing Tumblr, Graeme uses the word "spectacular" and Matt Fraction gets mentioned--so please check those boxes off your Wait, What? bingo board.
29:50-37:56:  New comics! Which is to say: old comics!  Yes, Jeff was a little strapped for cash last week and so tried to live life the Graeme McMillons way...by checking books out of the library. Because it is not Graeme's magical Portland library, Jeff's picks are a little more off the beaten path but worthy of discussion anyway.  First up:  Empire State by Jason Shiga.  Also, Jeff exhorts Graeme to check out superstar-in-the-making Jason Shiga in Derek Kirk Kim's Youtube comedy series about struggling cartoonists, Mythomania.  See Jason Shiga before he becomes Judd Apatow'snext superstar!
37:56-39:39: And then....tech disaster!  We end up having to break off the call to get Skype to behave.
39:39-47:32: Back to books! Jeff sums up his feelings on Empire State before moving on to 120 Days of Simon by Simon Gardenfors, a book so impressive Graeme didn't recognize the name despite having actually read it.  (To be honest, Jeff isn't so crazy about it, either.)  If the idea of a cartoonist traveling cross-country to be befriended by strangers and fans, Jeff recommends the similar-but-far-superior Red Eye, Black Eye by K. Thor Jensen (the title of which Jeff, in true Jeff-like fashion, reverses when he discusses it).
47:32-58:39:  Saving the best for last, Jeff discusses Hikaru No Go by Yumi Hotta and Takeshi Obata.  He didn't read it quite far enough to have a very solid understanding of the game Go (I say that we know it here in the States as Othello which is utterly wrong) but actually liked it quite a lot.  (Now that he's three volumes in, he can say he likes it even more!  And that Go is not Othello.)  We talk about how this is exactly the kind of educational but addictive comics that manga can do so well.
58:39-1:12:01: Also in the old stuff that is awesome category, Jeff discovers the first two issues of Ostrander and McDonnell's Suicide Squad are on Comixology (first issue is ninety-nine cents!) and re-reads them for the first time in almost thirty years.  Somehow, despite there being eleven panels on the page, these are widescreen comics before widescreen comics were invented.  Also read by Jeff on Graeme's recommendation Justice League of America Annual #2 with the formation of Justice League Detroit, as well as issues #107 and #108 of JLA featuring the return of the Freedom Fighters.  And Graeme makes JLA #200 sound pretty damn great as well. (See above for proof.)
1:12:01-1:22:04:  Comixology...Submit!  It's not some crazed BDSM fad that's sweeping the nation, it's the new program coming from Comixology that allows people to get their own self-published books on Comixology (for a 50% cut of the proceeds).  Is it a good deal, especially considering the very quiet launch of Hunt Emerson's app of his own material.
1:22:04-1:37:02: Jeff had an uncomfortable moment with Uncanny Avengers #1 on Comixology, but Graeme, having read it, apparently had even more.  We also discuss Fraction's Iron Man which is now coming to an end, and which we both admit we want to see where it goes.  And Graeme also has two great bits of semi-related behind-the-scenes Marvel info, courtesy of Sean Howe's book.
1:37:02-end: Graeme tries to make Jeff guess which book he recently read and enjoyed? [Hint: it's really not the book you would expect.  Certainly, Jeff didn't.]  And which book he also read but cannot discuss?  [You can probably figure this one out.]  As is our wont, we also talk related sales figures and the like until Jeff, weakened and famished, convinces Graeme to issue his mystical cry to end the podcast.  One step closer to Ragnarok!

The show should have already popped up on your RSS feed of choice or made its appearance felt in the luminiferous ether that is iTunes...but you can also gather friends around a table, conduct a little seance, and conjure it here, should the spirits move you:

Wait, What? Ep. 103: Churls on Film

And, as always, we hope you enjoy!

Verse Chorus Verse: Jeff's Capsule Reviews from 6/8

Does it bode ill for my reviews when I can't think of a clever thing to say while convincing you to follow me behind the jump for capsule reviews?  It probably is, isn't it?  Ah, well.  I just finished watching the screen adaptation of The Black Dahlia.  I mean, I'd heard that movie would be bad, but there were wrong casting decisions, terrible direction, and some bad mistakes in adapting Ellroy's skeezy epic to the screen. As a quasi-fan of Brian DePalma, it's a painful, painful movie to watch.  And I blame it for my inability to bring you a witty intro: the movie is a like a form of slow-acting toxin to the higher brain functions. Anyway, after the jump:  lower brain function reviews of Empowered: Ten Questions for the Maidman, Invincible Iron Man #504, Witch Doctor #0, and more.

EMPOWERED: TEN QUESTIONS FOR THE MAIDMAN:  Maidman -- the cross-dressing vigilante of Adam Warren's Empowered universe -- gets his own one-shot with alternating black and white sections by Adam Warren and color sections by Emily Warren. It was a book I wanted to deeply like, but really only admired. You can read this one-shot as a deconstruction of Batman (Maidman is one of the few non-powered superheroes in the Emp universe and easily the most feared), a deconstruction of Batman analogs (in some ways, this is the funniest issue of Midnighter never published), or maybe even a spoof of the cape industry's current trend in Mary-Sueisms.  Alternately, you could also take it as a face value, with Warren using the same gimmicks to get the reader to like Maidman that Johns or Bendis or a host of others use these days -- (a) introduce character; (b) have everyone talk admiringly of character; (c) show character doing something impossibly awesome; (d) profit.  Empowered: Ten Questions... shows Warren as being as skilled a practitioner of the current bag of comics writing magic tricks as anyone currently working.  I'm glad he at least has his own little universe to toy about with, but I wish I could get more worked up about a more-or-less OK one-shot...in no small part because I worry about him getting it yanked out from under him if the sales aren't there.  Vexingly OK.

INVINCIBLE IRON MAN #504:  Really interesting to read a book where the regular writer is caught off-balance by the obligatory line-wide event when the same guy is writing that event, too.  I mean, that two page scene with Tony and Pepper is really quite good for what it is.  But the meat of the issue, where Tony goes to Paris because one of the hammers of the Worthy has landed there, is underwhelming. Fraction clearly built the issue to that last page climax but it feels like that's the only thing he's trying to  accomplish.  So when you get to that last page, it definitely has some punch to it but it also eaves you feeling super-empty and annoyed immediately after.

Also, that last page what feels like part of an ongoing tug-of-war between Fraction and Larrocca. Instead of focusing on rendering that kinda-important pile of stones Tony is on top of, Larroca focuses on the building beside it.  It doesn't feel quite like a "fuck you" from one collaborator to another, but it does suggest painfully opposing goals\.  $3.99 price-tag + ineffective storytelling + forced event crossover=AWFULness.

POWER-MAN & IRON FIST #5: Similarly, last issue of this miniseries turned out very meh in the end despite my modest expectations.  Wellinton Alves' work ended up rushed and ugly, and Van Lente's script tried to do wayyyy too much in too short a time.  Not only do both heroes have romantic relationships resolved in this issue, but a mystery is solved, fight scenes are had, and the creepy Comedia Del'Morte are...well, frankly, I have no idea what happened to them.  It's a shame because I was won over by so much less with that back-up story from Amazing Spider-Man. (On the plus side,with very little rejiggering, Van Lente and Alves could re-tool this as an arc of the post-Morrison Batman & Robin and it'd fit right in.)  I'm tempted to get all Rex Reedy on you and say this puts the EH back in "meh," but I won't...in part because it was AWFUL.

SECRET AVENGERS #13: Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! No. CRAP.

WALKING DEAD #85/WITCH DOCTOR #0:  Although I like the swerve Kirkman made with this storyline a few issues back, I don't know if there's really much more going on than that.  I suspect as we come 'round issue #100, Kirkman's biggest flaw --his ability to dramatize character development is rudimentary at best, and so he has to have scenes where his characters explain their motivations to one another for us to get it --  is getting more and more apparent. While I'm at it, Charlie Adlard's biggest strength -- drawing a large cast of characters to keep them easily identifiable without resorting to any flashy tricks -- may also be hindering this book:  the dramatic scenes either run to the inert or the occasionally overheated.  Energy, ambition and craft have gotten these guys farther and higher than anyone would've suspected and I in no way mean to diminish their achievement.  But I think if this book is going to make another 85 issues, they're going to need to shake up their skillsets for a change, not their storyline. OK stuff.

As for WITCH DOCTOR #0, despite having very little interest based on the material I'd seen online, I ended up enjoying the hell out of it.  Everyone [by which I mean at least me] has always wanted to write a biologic explanation for vampires, a la Matheson's treatment in I am Legend, but writer Brandon Seifert really goes to town here. Lines like "his saliva's got the usual bloodfeeder chemistry set-- vasodilator, anticoagulant and an anesthetic--plus some interesting mystical secretions.  I think one's a anterograde amnesiac--" make my heart go pitter-pat, and Seifert has a lot of them.  I can easily see how it might feel dry to some, but to me it showed a commitment to research and world-building I think you really need to make a series about a doctor (even a mystical one) work.  As for Lukas Ketner's art, it's enjoyably quirky, especially when it chooses to go detailed and when it decides to loosen up: panels of this remind me of Wrightson, others of William Stout, and still others of Jack Davis, and I could never figure out when the next swerve was going to happen.  VERY GOOD stuff and I'm definitely on-board for the first few issues of the regular title now.

WOLVERINE #9:  Not the most recent issue I know, but so much more satisfying than issue #10, I figured you'd forgive me for writing about it instead.  I mean, to begin with:  God damn, this is some gorgeous looking work.  Daniel Acuna (who I guess is doing both the art and the colors) really sold me on this story about a mysterious assassin (Lord Deathstrike) and Wolverine both trying to hunt down Mystique on the streets of San Francisco. But I should point out that there's three full pages of wordless action that feel perfectly placed in the script and I think writer Jason Aaron should really be commended for having the confidence to let the art do its stuff.  And there's also a hilariously over-the-top assassination scene at the beginning that I loved.  I suspect this book is going to have diminishing sales in no small part because Aaron just can't keep away from writing Wolverine's adventures with a strong dash of the absurdly extreme, and a larger audience for this character really want this stuff served straight-up.  I can understand that desire (especially when you get issues like #10 where it's Logan vs. the Man with the Jai-Alai Feet) but when you get such an artist who can sell you on both the sweet & sour sauce of Aaron's mix of awesome and absurd? It's really pretty satisfying.  This was one hell of a  VERY GOOD issue.

UNCANNY X-FORCE #11:  I guess this is what you can do with okay art and good characterization--you can make me care somewhat about stuff I wouldn't ordinarily care about. I missed out on the original Age of Apocalypse stuff powering the plot here and yet, thanks to a forty-issue Exiles habit, I'm pretty familiar with what's going on.  In fact, arguably I'm too familiar as I felt like I was at least a beat or two ahead of the plot at all times.  But at least some of the time I was surprised by what the characters said or how they said it.   I still quietly pine for the awesomeness of the first five issues, but this was on the high end of OK for me.

SECRET AVENGERS #13: Seriously, though.  Do you need to know why I thought this was terrible?  Well, let's just say when your plot about a Washington invasion hinges on the fierce determination of a congressman who also happens to be a magical negro mutant, and that leads to Lincoln from the Lincoln Monument and all the dinosaurs from the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History rising up to hold the line, then I think it's safe to say things have gone wrong.  Weirdly, I could've bought it in a DC book -- for whatever reason, I expect the surreal and the schmaltzy to intermingle more freely there -- but here it seems like a big ol' misfire.  Again, to sum up:  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! No. CRAP.

And that's my week in pamphlets.  As for my TRADE PICK....

BAKUMAN, VOL. 5:  Oh man, how I love this series.  It's not an easy sell, I know, and I'll be the first to admit that first volume is more than a little forced.  And in fact, here in volume 5, there is still a surprising number of misfires:  for example, there's a chapter here about an artist who is so committed to proving his worth to his writer that he draws pages outside her window in the middle of a blizzard and it's really treacly and ineffective. And there are more than a few hilariously cynical moves by the writer and artist to pander to their publishers:  in more than a few places, the editors and publishers of Shonen Jump are treated with a degree of reverence that borders on the fanatical.

On the other hand, Bakuman has changed my understanding of how manga is created so much I've since read other titles with new eyes --I doubt I would've enjoyed my thirteen volume romp through One-Piece nearly as much without it. And even more than that, I'm totally a sucker for the way Ohba and Obata have introduced so many different young manga creators and then blurred the lines between enemies and allies so much you realize none really exist.  As a book about the comics industry properly should, Bakuman is very much about who you have to decide to trust and the possible long-term implications of those choices.  But it's also a book where competition doesn't preclude comradeship and that totally hits a sweet spot of insecurities and needs I didn't really know I had.  Really, the series is so very far from perfect it's kinda painful...and yet the last four volumes now have been some of my favorite reading of the last year.  VERY, VERY GOOD for me, but you really not might feel at all the same.

Fifteen, Four, and Twenty: Jeff on Being A Guest Star, and on 20th Century Boys, Vol. 3

First off, if you enjoy the roguish way in which I stammer and hum on my way to making a point, you'll probably enjoy my first guest appearance over at the Fourcast!, Fourth Letter's podcast, wherein I chat with the charming and sensible David Brothers and Esther Inglis-Arkell about Mark Waid's run on The Fantastic Four, the differences between DC and Marvel, and (very, very briefly) about how Jack Kirby might've handled The Transformers. I really enjoy listening to the Fourcast!, especially the way David and Esther represent their Marvel and DC fan positions. It's kinda like sitting down to watch a cartoon dog and a cartoon cat battle it out, and seeing them approach things with humor, intelligence, and respect, instead of very large anvils--and so I was pretty gratified to show up and play the podcast's version of the always off-guard animal control handler who ends up cranking his head crazily around his neck trying to take it all in. My thanks to David and Esther for having me on.

Now, then. After the jump, a few words about the third (and second) volume(s) of Naoki Urasawa's 20TH CENTURY BOYS.

20TH CENTURY BOYS VOL. 3: There was a page from volume two--that page where Kenji loses his shit, yelling "Donkey!!!" and lunging at the guy who killed his friend--that literally almost knocked me out of the chair--Urasawa just perfectly paced the sequence leading up to that page, and then used this incredible combination of tricks to make Kenji's reaction as visceral as possible.

I'm cheating you and Urasawa a fuckton here because the pacing leading up to this page helps give this so much power, but still: look at that. First panel tight close-up, second panel medium shot, third panel another close-up (but not as close as the first panel). And each panel is from a different angle. But thanks to the continuity of the one panel and those fifty kajillion speed lines, it all feels unified: it's like a movie shot where the handheld camera shakes at just the right moment, giving a feeling of chaotic spontaneity, of all shit busting loose. (And check out how Kenji appears to be battling those speed lines in the first two panels--they're all but breaking on his body like water--and in the third panel they're behind him, pushing him forward.) Sweet Jesus.

Although Volume 3 didn't have a similar single page that knocked me on my ass in the exact same way, it has at least three showstopping suspense setpieces, two of which are stacked right on top of each other: Kenji finds himself face-to-face with the mysterious Friend in a packed stadium; a ticking bomb scenario plays out differently than you would think; and a gathering of people at a mini-mart has disastrous consequences.

(God, there it is again. Keep in mind how the page reads from right to left--see how the action of the last panel breaks out of the grid, showing how the pulling of the baby out of her arms is showing things literally going out of control?)

In each of these, Urasawa benefits not only from his insanely strong storytelling chops, but his ability to make you care about characters and then put them in breathtakingly tense situations. Because of the structural similarities to Stephen King's IT, the comparison between King and Urasawa comes pretty quickly to mind and I wholeheartedly recommend that anyone who enjoyed King's books to check this series out: to call Urasawa a world-class storyteller is actually an understatement.

And as a fan of both Urasawa's PLUTO and MONSTER, I'm fascinated by the way those books and this one is informed by the plot device of memory. Although not as much a keystone of PLUTO (at least as far as I've gotten into the story), both 20TH CENTURY BOYS and MONSTER revolve around characters who must remember their own past in order to avoid catastrophe. I'm curious as to what extent Urasawa uses this motif as simply a way to craft a story with maximum amounts of suspense (in such a story, the action of the plot unfolds in two different directions, with events in the present gaining sudden momentousness based on what's uncoverd in the past, and events of the past gaining poignance knowing what we do about characters in the present) or to what extent he believes such a motif to be a truism. For whatever reason, I'm more than happy (unfortunately) to consider Japanese creators within the context of their country's history, and I find it interesting to consider how Urasawa's tales take place in countries rebuilt after World War II in images seemingly markedly different from the images those countries held during the war. Whatever sympathies he might hold for those raised in and under those new images, to forget what occurred before is to invite disaster. I'll be interested to see how that might play out in later volumes of 20CB. As I said before, it's EXCELLENT stuff, and I hope you consider checking it out if you haven't already.

Jeff Asks: Hey, Is Manga Dying?

Don't get me wrong--I'm not asking if, y'know, manga manga, that whole ginormous industry over in Japan is dying? Nor am I asking if, like, collections of Naruto or Bleach are sitting there rotting on the shelves.

But is the manga industry in America dying? I'm totally reluctant to ask such a question--not least because I'm totally in the dark about how something like, say, publication schedules in Japan can allow American publications to catch up (like with Sgt. Frog, I think) and all sorts of other mitigating factors.

It was one thing when the sixth volume of Yotsuba&! never shipped from ADV. And it was another thing when DMP announced it was cutting eleven publications from its monthly publication list and the fourth volume of Flower of Life would be coming out in May, 2009. Although frustrating, these events made a certain amount of sense to me because these were smaller fish in the manga pond, and maybe their ambitions had outstripped their ability.

Similarly, although incredibly pissed and frustrated that volume 13 of Beck Mongolian Chop Squad, originally promised for September 2008, is not listed for June 2009 on Amazon's website, I can similarly see how Tokyopop has been over-extended for some time now, and any number of short-sighted strategies are coming back to haunt it.

But, you know, where's that second hardcover of Tezuka's Black Jack? (For that matter, why did the first hardcover volume have an exclusive story but a non-updated table of contents?) Where's volumes 11 and 12 of Jojo's Bizarre Adventure from Viz, while Amazon still lists Vol. 13 as scheduled for release in April of 2009? Why are major publishers cutting huge corners, dropping titles from their publication schedule unannounced, if not because, you know, they have to?

I don't know. I guess I'm just pissed because if I had hopped on the scanlation train, I'd be long since finished with Beck by now.

So, what's the scoop? Is the great manga implosion happening? Or am I just pulling a big Chicken Little about the whole thing? As Hibbs would say: What do YOU think?

Around the Store in 31 Days: Day Three

I'm not the biggest fan of most Japanese manga; largely this is down to the common tropes that comprise the majority of what's been brought over -- the big round eyes and so on.

But there's a handful of pieces of manga work that I think are utterly terrific.

My number one favorite series is after the jump!

I love me some DEATH NOTE.

Part of it is that it is largely unlike any other manga that I've ever read, the other part is is it unlike any Western comics that I have ever read, either.

First of all: there's very little action of any kind. There's plenty of suspense, and plenty of twists and turns, but almost none of it is resolved with "action" -- you're not going to find a lot of car chases or shoot outs or fighting or any of the things that most comics tend to revolve around.

Second: there's a whole lot of interior dialog. I haven't counted or anything, but there are certainly entire chapters which are exclusively, or almost exclusively, told in thought balloons; and, at a guess, nearly half of the comic is just people thinking stuff.

Because DEATH NOTE is about mind games... it is about trying to out-think your opposite number, like a delicate dance on a chessboard, trying to stay three and five moves ahead. There are rules. Lots and lots and lots of rules, and new ones get added each chapter, but never in a way that invalidates the previous ones. Instead they build and spread and grow with the story.

DEATH NOTE is an incredibly tight, thoughtful and suspenseful piece of comics work, and is very much like a bag of potato chips: once you start, you don't want to stop, you want to keep eating and eating and eating, seeing what new twist and turn is coming up next.

Western comics have larger eschewed the notion of thought balloons over the last decade or so (here is an excellent essay by Steven Grant from a few weeks ago [Edit: heh, no that one was from 2005, THIS ONE is from a few weeks ago that I was thinking of. Read both!] on the subject) There's been some small movement to retake the tool, lately, probably most notably Bendis' somewhat strange usage in MIGHTY AVENGERS, so to see a work not only use them extensively, but to utterly rely on them to move the narrative forward is an utter treat.

Above all else DEATH NOTE is smart and clever, and Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata really do an amazing job of keeping both the characters as well as the audience on it's toes. What's nice is that, even though the book is really about murder and death, there's really very little violence and gore to it. While the books are rated 16+, almost every bit of that is for thoughtcrime (as it were)

There's bits of it which are better and worse than others: the first three volumes are pure comics wonderfulness, it lags out a bit in 4 and 5 (that's the section with the evil corporation, right? I didn't like those parts), and roars back in six, but, even at its worst, the mind games on display are intelligent and utterly clever.

Just because I've wanted to say something about it for weeks, and haven't found a space, let me briefly mention the anime of the same that's airing on Cartoon Network. Do you remember those old Marvel cartoons from the late 60s which were like straight swipes out of Kirby Komics, but they'd animate one arm, or a mouth talking. The DEATH NOTE anime is very much like that -- it's only slightly animated, but it is always moving because they've got the camera moving around the drawing (and it is much better scored) The anime does a reasonably good job of adaptation, but if you've only seen the cartoon, and not read the books, the comparison might be LEAGUE OF EXTRA-ORDINARY GENTLEMEN versus, um, LXG (or as the ads called it: ELL! ECHS! GEE!) -- they're just not the same thing at all.

Anyway, even if you "don't like manga", this might be a series for you -- it is smarter in plot and scope than virtually anything else on the stands.



Exile From Yaoiville: Jeff Looks at Flower of Life.

Flower of Life is one god-damned strange little book, let me tell you that. I picked it up based on the strength of Shaenon Gaerity's review, but by the time I'd gotten my hands on a copy I'd long forgotten nearly every particular of that fine review. In the store, looking at the cover, which features tousled-hair young men behind a foreground of brightly colored sunflowers, I was positive I was about to cross the border into Yaoiville, a hamlet that only a few years previous was little known but had now become a popular destination spot for peripatetic manga readers. Not only had I never read yaoi, I had read next to nothing about yaoi, and so my depth of knowledge was little bit like that panel in Scott Pilgrim where everything Scott knows about Rome has a question mark next to it. If pressed to guess, I'd have said that yaoi is a bit like slash fanfic? But without the licensed characters? Which means it's all about the rich characterization? And the, uh, sex? So as I sat down and began to read Fumi Yoshinaga's story of a young man attending a new school after surviving a bout of leukemia, I was expecting, at any page turn, for some kind of groping to happen, or awkward crushes to be developed and tremblingly confessed, or....I don't know? Hazing? Spanking? Characterization-rich scat play? All I know is, for the next 170+ pages, absolutely none of that proceeded to happen.

In fact, reading Flower of Life, I got the impression Yoshinaga was deliberately playing with audience expectations (which I assume are more knowledgeable, and thus realistic and measured, than my own): when hot-headed blond Harutaro Hanazono (the leukemia recoverer) meets and clashes with reserved dark-haired Kai Majima, I figured it a done deal these two would be involved in a passionate embrace by the end of Vol. 1, but the characters barely have an ounce more respect for each other at the end than at the beginning; when it turns out two teachers are shown kissing, I expected a Brokeback Mountainy poignant "love that dare not speak its name" subplot to develop but Yoshinaga turns that on its head as well. Instead, the events of the first volume are all about Hanazono becoming friends with a chubby little dude named Shota Mikuni who is such the embodiment of good-natured kawaii he looks a bit like a baby seal with a backpack--a friendship about which Hanazono is so passionate, possessive and consumed by, I again assume Yoshinaga is teasing her audience. (On the other hand, again, I know bupkis about this topic, and maybe Super Chubby Boy Love Weekly is a hugely successful magazine in Japan or something.) Like Shota himself, this relationship is very cute, good-natured and--as far as I can tell--innocent, and pretty god-damned charming to read.

The other theme, plot, whatever you want to call it (I just thought of it as "more guys not getting it on in a book I assumed was about guys getting it on") in Flower of Life is about manga and otaku: Shota, Harutaro and Kai are in manga club together, and I'm sure it's no coincidence that Yoshinaga follows each scene of the boys sussing out how to draw manga with scenes of the teachers passionately groping each other. I couldn't tell you why precisely, but considering the twists the teachers' relationship takes, I think Yoshinaga is trying to make a point about manga and its rules. (Once you know them, you can break them, maybe?) Additionally, Yoshinaga's Kai Majima is a mercilessly dead-on (and yet affectionate) portrait of a particular type of socially clueless fanboy--he's a manga otaku, but I've heard that exact blend of blathering obsessiveness and quasi-Asbergerian obliviousness from gamers who will not shut up about their fifteenth level Paladin, from comic fanboys who have to tell you why Hulk is stronger than Thor, and from videogamers who will not rest until they recount why Sony screwed up this generation of video game consoles for everyone. (Don't get me started, but trust me--they did.)

Of course, Shaenon's review sums all this up (and more) so I have absolutely no excuse for being as pleasantly surprised by Flower of Life as I was. (After all, it was her write-up that made me order it.) And yet, my hope is someone might read this review, pick the book up, and also be pleasantly surprised: it's quite possible that Yoshinaga is so talented, and Flower of Life so charmingly light and good-natured that, no matter how prepared you are going in and how good your short term memory is, you'll still be delighted by it. If you come to it with an open heart, I think you'll also find it Very Good stuff.

Does Whatever A Parasite Can: Jeff Reviews HItoshi Iwaaki's Parasite

To say I'm on the late freight with regards to Hitshi Iwaaki's Parasyte is to drastically understate things: the Del Rey volume I'm reading shows the first Japanese volume was printed 'round 1990. And this isn't even the book's first go-round in the U.S., either: according to Wikipedia, the book was published by Tokyopop back when the company was known as Mixx. I can see why American publishers keep making a go of it. Although the protagonist doesn't dress up in a costume and go out to fight crime, Parasyte is the closest thing to a manga superhero book I can remember reading. The story is about a teenager, Shinichi, whose right arm is replaced by a shape-changing intelligent parasite that failed to take over his brain. With the alien's consciousness and shape-changing powers installed in his right arm, Shinichi struggles to keep his powers hidden from his family and schoolmates, and discovers that with a great parasite comes great responsibility: other, more successful, parasites have landed all over Tokyo and begun feeding on human beings, and are usually intent on destroying Shinichi whenever they encounter him. More than once, I found myself thinking Parasyte, with very few changes, would've fit pretty seamlessly into DC's failed Focus line--the first few pages of Chapter 2 in particular have the pacing and storytelling I remember from, say, Kinetic. On top of that, Iwaaki adds two horror staples--"aliens are among us" and "something else is inhabiting my body"--and whips the whole mix into a wildly enjoyable froth.

But frustratingly, even though Parasyte is such a high-concept confection it'd be a perfect transition book for superhero readers looking to branch out a bit, I think it would prove to be a tough sell--I found the cover of the Del Rey edition pretty god-damn cheesy, frankly, with a logo that's a shout-out to the heyday of Patty Smyth & Scandal, and a cover that's less terrifying than enigmatic: a hand with eyes? How scary is that? Also problematic is Iwaaki's art, which has a delightfully grotesque wackiness whenever the aliens are involved (it reminded me of Jack Cole in a few scenes) but is crushingly generic otherwise--it someone were to tell me Iwaaki learned to draw by copying aircraft safety cards, I'd totally believe them. The book also falls prey to Del Rey's cautious publication schedule: six months between volumes? I'd have been pretty pissed if I'd gotten hooked on this when it first came out.

Regardless, if you can get past such trivial concerns--and they are pretty trivial in the face of the book's other strengths--the first volume of Parasyte is a dynamite little read, well worth the time and money. A highly Good piece of work.

Weekend's End: Jeff Gabs About Manga and Movies.

Howdy. Here's what I've been reading and watching lately. God help me, I'm still so trained to write reviews in old school SavCrit style, you get it all in one big glop. I'd like to do something similar about the comics I've been reading, but can't quite tell yet if my week is going to open up enough to let me do so. Anyway, for now, here's what's what.

CEMETERY MAN: Cinematically, I've been in search of some satisfying lowbrow thrills and it really seemed like this cult favorite was gonna do the trick: after all, it's an Italian horror comedy based on a graphic novel by the creator Dylan Dog about a morose gravedigger who must not only bury the dead but kill them when they inevitably return to life. After all, it's got zombies. And boobies. And Rupert Everett at his deadpan best. And yet? Still not very good. It's designed to be a horror film for the Smiths set, with Everett being a proto-emo moper trying to separate fear of death from fear of life, and confusing, as the youth do, love and death, and passion and pain. But not only is Everett about five to ten years too old for the role to make any sense, the filmmakers run out of script about two-thirds of the way through and begin throwing anything at the screen to see if it'll stick, with Everett encountering different incarnations of the woman he loves and being led to greater and greater acts of violence and passion. And then they throw in an ambiguous ending to make the whole thing seem like a mysterious riddle, rather than a cobbled together waste of time. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Donnie Darko, except I liked Donnie Darko and thought it accomplished a lot of what it wanted to, while this flick was sub-EH. But there are still people who act like this movie was a greater invention than ice cream, so what do I know?

COMIC FOUNDRY #1: There's a lot to like in this first issue and a ton to nitpick, although I'm not sure it'd really be worth your time or mine to sort everything this issue has into those two piles. I think it's highly OK, although the mag should seriously get a good ad rep so there are ads for somebody other than Previews and Rocketship in there (if nothing else, a higher page count would make that price tag sting a little less). And this is probably really dickish for me to do since I can just email the guy and tell him directly, but I thought Ian Brill's fiction piece brilliantly parodied (although I think maybe inadvertently so) chick lit's over-reliance on brand names (Think The Devil Wears Prada, but with comic nerds) and cannily used the protagonist's superhero creation, The Reality Surfer, as a metaphor for youthful indecision. It wasn't the most brilliant piece of short fiction I'd read in some time, but it was effective. More than any other piece in the magazine--and, like I said, there's a lot of stuff to like in here--it makes the case that Tim Leong's ballsiness might really bring something new to the comics magazine marketplace.

CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN: Continuing in my search for cheap lowbrow thrills, I picked up the inexpensive Grindhouse Experience boxed set which has 20 films jammed onto five DVDs for a low price. Astoundingly, I found a good movie on my first try (although the transfer was, as you'd expect, terrible): Confessions of a Police Captain, an Italian cop procedural from '74 with Martin Balsam and Franco Nero that plays like a variation on Touch of Evil. Balsam plays the jaded police captain who starts the movie off by setting a killer off on a bloodbath, and Nero plays the idealistic district attorney investigating Balsam to determine just how corrupt Balsam actually is. (The great thing about the movie is that it's set in Italy, so corruption is never a question, it's just the degree of corruption). Despite the occasional shootout or stabbing, it's not really an exploitation flick, although it is the sort of film that sounds salacious enough to have played a grindhouse in the '70s. It is, however, a chance to see Martin Balsam play the shit out of a leading role, and to watch a film with insight into the urban Italian mindset of the day. While not exactly a diamond in the rough, it's a highly OK little flick and I'm glad I saw it.

DR. SLUMP, VOLS. 4 AND 5: Out of all of my guilty manga pleasures, this is probably the guiltiest since I miss being in the target group's age range by about thirty years or so. And make no mistake, Dr. Slump revels in its childishness, with cheap jokes built around the size of Tarzan's "dingy" or aliens trapped on Earth mistaking a toilet for a new spaceship, and stories sporting titles like "Yay Yay Wildland." But not only is all this nonsense executed with an infectious sense of joy, but Akira Toryama's cartooning chops are formidable--I'm shocked at how everything he draws is so appealing and visually consistent, be it robots, a parody of Golgo 13, the back of a TV set, or a valley at sunrise: it's all clearly part of the same kooky universe. I've been meaning to donate these volumes to the library forever now, but I find myself picking them up and flipping through them whenever I come across them. They're deeply goofy comics for little kids (and maybe not the sort of stuff you want to pass along unless you're comfortable explaining why Dr. Slump wants to see Ms. Yamabuki's panties so badly) but they're really quite GOOD.

DRIFTING CLASSROOM, VOL. 7: Probably the first volume where things lag a little bit. Of course, in the world of Kazuo Umezu's horror/disaster manga, a lag means only that after the flash flood is through ripping people to shreds, strange mushrooms begin to grow on all the food and tough decisions have to be made about whether or not the strange fungi should be eaten: it leads to a 30 page section where motivations get even thinner than usual and cruelty exists less for thematic purposes than to keep the chain of events clanking along. After that, however, we get deformed monster-children, a hasty religion devoted to the hero's mother, the new opiate of the masses, and a one-eyed Lovecraftian menace that threatens to devour everyone and everything. Vol. 7 suffers by comparison to the other books in the series as the pace flags just enough to suspect that Umezu is either vamping or winging it entirely. Still, quite GOOD and apeshit enough to make for a fun read.


FLOWER & SNAKE '74: Strange little impulse purchase, which I made in part because they mentioned Riichiro Manabe did the score, and his music for Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster is probably my favorite Godzilla score ever, and in part because I have such fond memories of the ultra-insane Sex & Fury which this seemed to resemble. Turns out it's not nearly as inspired (or inspiring) as the Lady Snowblood-styled Sex & Fury, and instead comes off a bit like Belle de jour if you stripped that film of all of Bunuel's lovely surreal touches and put an obsession with enemas in its place. Flower & Snake '74 is about Makoto, an kink-loving impotent clerk living with his pornography making mother, who is hired by his boss to break the boss' wife. The 70+ minutes of bondage and enema inducing are made watchable (unless, you know, that's your thing) by the novelistic approach to Makoto's character (he's been rendered impotent ever since childhood where he caught--and killed--a black G.I. making love to his mother) and, similarly, a cast that has the (very) slightest bit of depth to the personalities. (And it's pretty easy to make the case for Makoto, traumatized by the conquering of his mother by an American, representing good ol' fucked-up post-war Japan in the filmmaker's eyes). There's also a few shots-- such as when the bloody spirit of the murdered G.I. appears against a blood-red sunset--that are technically impressive. But, generally, unless you've got an annual subscription to Comic A-G, it's the kind of exploitation trash you're not missing much by skipping. Highly EH.

GOLGO 13 VOL. 7: As is the way with these volumes, Takao Saito makes us pay for the awesome (Sweet Jesus! Golgo 13 snipes a nuclear power plant!) with pages of technical research and blathering secondary characters. In the second story, G-13 ends up in a compact piece of gangster noir set in a small Nevada town, with the tale's highlight being a one-page knife-versus-gun fight that's an engaging and spiffy bit of page design. Finally, Takao Saito is interviewed by the charmingly insane Kunio Suzuki who gets bonus points for writing craziness like "Golgo 13 was the textbook of my life." If you've been digging Duke Togo 'til now, you'll probably think it OK.

JOJO'S BIZARRE ADVENTURE VOLS. 1-3: The Overlooked Manga Festival at Shaenon K. Garrity's Livejournal has become an invaluable resource for me, and as soon as I read her overview of JoJo's Bizarre Adventure, I knew I had to get my hands on it. The pleasing mix of epic scope (several generations of family and friends travel the world to fight a vampire who's taken possession of the patriarch's body and his superpowers; everyone has a psychic power based on a motif from the major arcana of the Tarot deck), astounding dopiness (many characters have names that are lame puns on '70s and '80s rock and pop performers; the art looks like the project was originally intended to be Street Fighter II slash fanfic) and over-the-top gorey horror tropes (how else to describe the fight scene that's largely a man being cut apart by a straight-razor wielding voodoo doll?) make it an entertaining, deeply dopey read. JoJo's Bizarre Adventures isn't without its significant weaknesses--at three volumes in, the story is deeply formulaic (like levels in a fighting game) and there are times when the author, Hirohiko Araki, gets bored or runs out of ideas and whisks his characters off to the next location and the next enemy--but it also takes frequent turns into the inspired, such as the section where the heroes have to fight a porn-reading orangutan on an abandoned oil freighter. So far, the book reminds me of what the early days of Image Comics were supposed to be: product so juvenile and energetic it's irresistible (as opposed to what the early days of Image Comics actually were, which was product so undisciplined and yet fiscally calculated it was simultaneously annoying and dull). I should really call this stuff highly OK, but considering how eagerly I gobbled down the first three volumes (and how much I'm looking forward to the next three) I guess I'll reservedly call it GOOD. It won't appeal to everyone, certainly.

LUCKY V2. #1: I loved how this issue uses the autobio up front to heighten the punch of the extended dream narrative in the back. It's not done in the way that you might think with recurring visual motifs or what-have-you, but through some brilliant tricks of pacing. By breaking the autobio stories into brief one or two page segments, and by continually excerpting her performance of the dream story in the back in a hyper-compacted fashion, the dream story, My Affliction, feels much, much longer and recreates the feeling of being trapped in an seemingly endless dream. It's really fucking brilliant, and makes the issue well worth the $3.95 cover tag. A VERY GOOD issue, and one that moved me from being a casual fan of Bell's work to avidly interested in what she'll do next. (By the way, is it wrong that Gabrielle Bell's style reminds me of J. Backderf's? I feel like I should be seeing more of a David B. influence, but that cover and the use of blacks really makes me think of Derf. Not that it's a bad thing, but I can't think of a tone more opposed to Bell's than Derf's.)


MONSTER VOL. 10: The most satisfying of this week's Viz Signature releases, and not just because it's about 30 pages longer than Golgo 13 and a dozen pages longer than Drifting Classroom. Although you'd think Naoki Urasawa's introduction of yet another kindly drifter (Grimmer, a former spy turned freelance journalist) would undercut the story's narrative tension, Monster succeeds by setting up any number of potential victims to be preyed upon by Johan's evil scheme, the mystery of Kinderheim 511, and all those crooked cops and violent gangsters lurking around every turn. Or maybe I'm just a sucker for long narratives jammed with characters and odd details (the strangely understated and creepy street sign for the Three Frogs Bar in Prague made the whole volume for me)--I thought it was a VERY GOOD chapter, in any event.

MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND VOL. 1: Eric Wight's first book from Tokyopop made me curse the heavens, not just because I'd spent money on the thing, but because the book could've been so much better if Tokyopop had treated the material as more than a simple IP grab: Graeme in his review gripes about the pacing of this book and what he suspected was an imposed three act structure on the story. And certainly, there's some really awful pacing choices in this book that seem designed to drag the story out for another two volumes. But even more frustrating than that are choices that suggest Wight really didn't consider his structure too much in the first place. In the opening few pages for example, the protagonist recounts the family curse that results in all of his ancestors dying a highly absurd death. As the hero finishes up, we see that he's been delivering a school report... and that all his classmates are monsters. It's not done in a way that maximizes the reveal, by the way: it's just done as a standard transition by someone telling a story without much thought for the best way to get the maximum impact from it. Similarly, once the supernatural setting is fleshed out, you can't figure out why the protagonist is so upset about the idea of dying, or even dying absurdly: all of his ancestors, including his ghostly parents, are still around, playing cards and telling stories. In this Addams Family lite setting, death is only one more moment on an unending continuum, making the protagonist's anxiety about it come across as deeply prissy.

The reason all this bugs me so deeply is that if there's one section of the American comics marketplace that should understand the importance of an editor helping a creator shape the material and maximize its impact, it would be one of the top three North American manga companies. I mean, Wight's panel to panel storytelling is good, his character design is appealing, and his art has a Bruce Timm-ish quality to it I really like--it wouldn't take much for someone read the material he has, criticize it constructively, and help him find the best way to present the material, and I get the impression that most manga companies in Japan wouldn't let it get out the door without that. But Tokyopop, like most of the other big comic companies here in the U.S., is more than willing to keep the overhead low, push the material into the marketplace, and reap the dividends, should there be any.

On the other hand, what do I know? Graeme gave it a Very Good, and the book's front, back and inside covers are practically leprous with blurbs from industry professionals praising the book. So maybe I'm wrong and I read this book on the wrong day or something. But it must've been a worse day than I realized, because I thought this was a frustratingly EH piece of work.

SAMURAI COMMANDO VOL. 1: You ever see that Sonny Chiba movie G.I. Samurai (also known in some places as Time Slip)? I stumbled across it on video a few years ago, and it's one of my favorite b-movies for both the elegance of its plot hook and its execution: a troop of Japanese Self-Defense Force soldiers on maneuvers end up back in feudal Japan and decide, basically, to conquer the country. Despite being armed with firearms, a tank, a helicopter and other modern weaponry, the soldiers aren't prepared for the combination of their own internecine conflicts and the power of their enemies. As I said, it's one of my favorite action flicks, so I got pretty hopped up to come across this manga by Harutoshi Rukui and art group Ark Performance reprinted by CMX: it's essentially the same premise, except that the Colonel of the Forces instead makes allies with the warlords of the past and together they declare war on the present. (Both the movie and the manga work from the same material, the novel, Sengoku Jieitai by Ryo Hanmura.)

However, while the Chiba movie balanced out the blabbity-blab with ninjas attacking helicopters, Samurai Commando (which appears to be only two volumes long) spends so much time setting up the premise, introducing the characters, and hinting at their backstories, and so by the time you've got gunfire and decapitations by samurai swords, it's too little, too late. It's a shame too, because the art by Ark Performance is dynamic and strangely airless in a way that I think fans of Jim Lee would like: this could have been, like Death Note, a nice little transitional manga for comics readers of the Big Two looking to branch out a bit. But instead, it's a very EH little manga, and given the choice between recommending it and suggesting you visit Amazon and pick up an out-of-print copy of G.I. Samurai for less than five bucks, I have but little choice but to exhort you to do the latter. Pity.

TRAIN_MAN VOL. 1: It's easy to see why this tale of a reclusive Internet introvert struggling to find romance with the help of his online community is wildly popular: it's nearly impossible to read this and not have your heart strings plucked, to the point where I found myself a little resentful of the brazen emotional manipulation. Each chapter gives the Train_Man a minor challenge that seems insurmountable to his sheepish soul, and each chapter shows him succeeding, with page after page of laudatory exclamations from members of his online community. And yet, to bitch about the first volume of Viz Media's Train_Man being sweet to the point of near implausibility is like chastising a teddy bear for being cuddly: that's what it's supposed to do, it's clearly marketed as such, and it's very effective at what it does (I'd be lying if I told you I *didn't* read the volume all in one breathless sitting). It's Good material, provided you've got a weakness for the cutesy, but I can't guarantee you won't hate yourself just a little for enjoying it.