Trudging through the whiteout...

*Hot News on Superhero Creative Teams Dept: Oh, now Grant Morrison’s writing Batman too, albeit not until late 2006. Consider that old rumor half-confirmed. More interesting to me - apparently that creator-owned project with J.H. Williams III is drawing closer to reality, and it’s going to be a big one. And in Seven Soldiers news (scattered between the above two links), apparently the script for Seven Soldiers #1 originally wound up containing 100 pages worth of story, when there was only room for 30. The secrets of supercompression revealed! Also: Morrison would like to do additional Guardian, Bulleteer, and Frankenstein stories, though I really can’t fathom how he handles his current workload as it already stands.

Should I mention that I think Frank Miller’s cover for All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #4 is pretty funny (look to the bottom of the first link)?

*But mainly, working off of yesterday’s post, this weekend is going to be dedicated to the world of manga, and the bounty of releases it has recently provided for English-speaking readers. There’s even some nice new scanlations up in the usual places, including the conclusion of the first storyline in Daisuke Igarashi’s Witches; a contributor to the mighty IKKI, Igarashi will soon be enjoying his first proper North American release with a story in Fanfare/Ponent Mon’s hotly-anticipated Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators anthology. I actually wasn’t all that impressed with the first half of the initial Witches storyline (the tale is broken into two chapters, which together form half of the first tankoubon collection), but I have to say that viewing the work as a whole bumps it up to a solid ‘very good,’ though not quite ‘great.’

The plot concerns a haughty, emotional young woman who throws herself into mastering the powers of witchery after being spurned in love, ultimately returning to the sprawling multi-faith city where she used to romp, with vengeance in her heart. At the same time, a young girl receives whispers from ancient voices, the remnants of a declining religion, urging her to travel to the same city with a tapestry bearing a special message. You can perhaps already smell the deus ex machina coming, but Igarashi’s delicate visuals handily overpower any deficiencies in the plot, and the underlying theme of faiths-as-tapestries-as-modernity is pretty interesting, and individual scenes are really excellent.

There’s also a new chapter of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto out (#26), and it’s Astro Boy vs. Pluto, fast-flying fisticuffs as you favor it, True Believers! Actually, I do believe it’s the first ‘fight scene’ in the book that Urasawa doesn’t cruelly turn our heads away from, and it’s sufficiently anti-climactic in keeping with the story’s ongoing concerns about blocking the thrills inherent to robot fighting. And hey - feel free to toss the titular robot’s lethal liquid make-up into your consideration of the book’s WMD paranoia motif! Excelsior!

*Tomorrow, a review of Urasawa’s first solo US release, Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Vol. 1 (of 18). Yes, apparently VIZ put the man’s name into the official US title. But for now, a littl something that hasn't yet shown up on Diamond's release list, though I have it on good authority that some Direct Market shops have already gotten it in:

Scary Book Vol. 1: Reflections

Being the second book of work by manga horror god Kazuo Umezu to be released in the US - the first was VIZ’s Orochi: Blood. This one is from Dark Horse, a collection of two stories culled from Umezu’s long history of output; Umezu had quite a varied career, becoming a beloved humor cartoonist (Makoto-chan being his best-known series), a skilled craftsman of the romantic comedy, and even a popular musical performer. But it’s as a master of horror that Umezu is best known, with awards named after him, creators like Junji Ito citing him as an influence, and a long list of projects to his name, perhaps most notably the survival horror classic The Drifting Classroom (recently licensed by VIZ for US release, starting this August). He’s done a lot of stuff in the genre, and it’s good that US audiences are getting the chance to see more of his influential work.

But after reading this book, I’m forced to wonder if an apparent collection of miscellany of this type is the best way to ease readers into an admittedly older style of horror manga creation. The legal indicia cites a Japanese publishing date of 2003, which naturally leads me to believe that this is an English version of some Japanese compilation of various and sundry Umezu works, maybe stuff targeted at the completist (or at least devout) fan, and not the beginner, a position that many in the US will be forced by circumstance to assume. I only say this because both of the stories included here are wildly different in tone and setup, appear to be targeting entirely different audiences, and thus might be best devoured by a population more acclimated to the wider Umezu world, and able to pluck the most entertainment out of these smaller works.

The first story is the 170-page The Mirror; Dark Horse has not provided any dates or background information for these stories, so I have no idea how old it is or where it was first published, but it appears to be a shoujo-type story, not merely in visual approach but through its very storytelling intent, poised to offer nice morals about not being too vain and caring about others through its young female protagonist. Emi is a pretty, self-absorbed girl, prone to staring at herself in the mirror for generous stretches of time, and capable of mean things, like dumping her sweet, handsome boyfriend Mitsugu over seemingly nothing. But one awful night, she discovers that her very reflection has sprung to life, and embodies all of her worst personal traits. In short order, Emi’s reflection escapes the mirror, seizes Emi’s lovely clothes and fine house, and convinces everyone that the real Emi is an imposter. And she’ll stop at nothing to ruin everything dear Emi holds dear even to the point of menacing the girl with a sharp object, intending to - cut off her lovely long hair!!

There’s a cute satirical thrust to much of this story, evidencing Umezu’s interest in more that just gut-level shocks: despite the fact that both versions of Emi look almost exactly alike, nobody recognizes the real Emi because she’s not dressed as nicely as she usually does, and doesn’t exude quite the same stuck-up attitude anymore. Only the class nerd and his hyperactive sister (on hand to deliver some Makoto-chan comic relief, biting people on the ass and such) can look beyond the surface and recognize the real Emi’s true being, and it’s with them that Emi must plan her next move. It’s nothing grievously deficient, and I rather enjoyed the over-the-top pathos of the ending, but this is clearly Goosebumps-level material, and there wasn’t a second where I wasn’t keenly aware that I was really quite far away from the story’s target audience, and there wasn’t much in the work to truly capture my attention. It just sort of passed me by.

More to my liking was the 56-page second story, Demon of Vengeance, which isn’t as much a ‘straight’ horror story as a samurai drama so pumped up with cruelty and viciousness that it can’t help but land in the ‘horror’ bracket. The plot concerns proud warrior Muso Kondo an his young son, who are charged with guarding the boy heir of the local Lord - as good samurai, they must protect the young man with all of their lives and honor. Unfortunately, the heir is also a horrendous, diabolical brat, who takes great pleasure in exploiting his position to put Kondo’s son through the most awful tortures - climbing down sheer mountainsides to fetch ‘fallen’ sandals, carting the young heir around on his back, licking the heir’s dirty feet and being forced to eat rotten food for the lad’s entertainment. Eventually, Kondo can’t take watching it anymore, and lashes out against the heir only once. And this one breach of honor blinds the boy, and the Lord then devotes his entire life to making Kondo suffer for his lone mistake, crippling him, slicing off his arms, forcing him into hard labor, brutally torturing his son, and generally acting as the ruling party is free to act in a feudal system.

There is no nostalgia in this story, no honor at all. It’s clear that Umezu is cackling at the very idea of romanticizing (fetishizing?) an era of this sort, and sets out to devote his storytelling to stripping away any sense of decency whatsoever from the age. The art here rises to the challenge, adopting a workable swordplay action style, though those slightly creepy round Umezu eyes never quite vanish. There’s a neat double twist ending, sealing the author’s viewpoint - in a time like this, truly death is the only reward that any can hope for. It’s really no less winking in its social exploration than the prior story, though targeting a different demographic.

This spread of styles might make Scary Book a rough read; it feels like something that should be looked into by folks already interested in the background of a creator's work, after having enjoyed his major feats. Ah, but we don't always have such luxuries with manga. I really don't think this is a great introduction to Umezu's work, but it is an introduction, and the fact that it's here (and that more is on the way) is maybe enough to get some curious readers hanging on until next time. That's about the best I can realistically expect from this collection.