A Bisected World.

*This week's column provides a tour of my mind and my world. Weak bellies need not apply!

*Doubling Up Dept: Apparently, Amazon.com thinks that VIZ is starting up their release of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys this October, instead of the 2008-or-thereabouts release purportedly requested by Urasawa himself, who did not want his later work to appear prior to the conclusion of the earlier Monster (vol. 2 of which is newly out in bookstores). If this updated schedule holds, there’ll be much rejoicing among Urasawa fans, many of whom consider 20th Century Boys (which is still ongoing in Japan, having already filled 21 books of collected material) to be the famed writer/artist’s crowning achievement.

*And in other manga news (much of it found at Tom Spurgeon’s), Yoshihiro Tatsumi is living large. Not only is Drawn and Quarterly prepping their second hardcover volume of the author’s greatest hits, Abandon the Old in Tokyo, for a Fall release - complete with an ultra-rare North American Tatsumi appearance at the San Diego Comic-con as a ‘special guest’ - but the septuagenarian gekiga pioneer can also currently be found in the Spring 2006 issue (#176) of famed literary publication The Paris Review. He’s not the first comics artist to grace those august pages, of course - Renée French was featured in the Fall 2004 issue (#171) with an excerpt from her now soon-to-arrive book The Ticking. But there’s little doubt that Tatsumi, whose name three years ago was recognizable in English to only the most devout students of manga history, is experiencing a fresh wave of international renown.

I picked up that Paris Review issue just today, which is to say I physically picked it up and walked it over to the reading area of the bookstore - I didn’t plunk down the $12 for purchase. Tatsumi’s art graces the cover, and there’s a 13-page ‘sketchbook’ section inside that has nothing whatsoever to do with sketches - it’s actually a series of completed pages of art plucked from context and presented to the reader untranslated. There’s a nice prose introduction to Tatsumi’s work, and information as to which stories the pages derive from (no word on if these particular stories will be appearing in English in D&Q’s upcoming book), but generally it’s just an opportunity to admire the artist’s downcast urban milieu and appealingly simple character designs. Nice, but I might have been more persuaded to fork over the twelve bucks if those pages had been devoted to an actual story - the allotted space would have been perfect for an otherwise untranslated 8-pager, plus the introduction, plus a few supplementary drawings. Oh well.

In yet more Tatsumi news, he’s also been tapped to provide the jacket art and design for the upcoming Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the Ryunosuke Akutagawa prose collection Rashomon and Other Stories. Quite impressive the level of attention mustered over the last year! Be sure you read through that entire link for another juicy tidbit - according to Fantagraphics’ Eric Reynolds, Frank Miller is providing art and design for a new edition of Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow at the specific request of the reclusive author. Which raises an awful lot of questions. Did Pynchon just happen to enjoy the Sin City film, and wander over to the comics? Is he a longtime Frank Miller fan? Just a Dark Knight kind of guy? If so, did Pynchon enjoy DK2? And what are his opinions on All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder? Hey, Pynchon did write a 4000+ word introduction to George Orwell’s 1984 three years ago, and I can think of a way to make the first All Star trade a lot more special…

Planetary #25 (of 27)

Drawing ever closer to the grand finale (finally?) of writer Warren Ellis’ and artist John Cassaday’s seven year tour of worldwide pop geography, we arrive at something of a compromise. It was perhaps always necessary for Ellis to eventually jettison the book’s segmented organization, examining one aspect of popular culture per issue, in order to build up some form of closure to its ongoing plot. The very best issues of Planetary managed to smoothly integrate their selected homage into the megaplot, giving the reader a sense of the book’s events coursing naturally though an encyclopedic universe of skewed wonders. That approach doesn’t easily surrender an ultimate climax, however, as level as it is in its one-per-chapter rapid-fire setup. Unfortunately, last issue’s plot-centric drawing together of the strands didn’t inspire much confidence in me regarding the story's final sprint toward completion, with the main cast eating up many a page standing around and talking about things that were frankly rather obvious from simply re-reading prior issues - it was maddening in its treading of water in serial form, and I expect it’ll come off as little more than gratuitous audience hand-holding when read collected. Not as much deficient in quality, mind you, as grossly unnecessary.

This issue is a good deal better, and it’s interesting that its structure seems to evidence a compromise between the need for independent closure and the (sub)genre examination that has been the series’ lifeblood. For the first half of this issue, we get an explicit revisiting of an earlier outing, issue #11’s Nick Fury pastiche Cold World - even this issue's title, In From the Cold, is positioned to spark the memory. Protagonist Elijah Snow confronts super-spy colleague John Stone in the one place on the globe where the Four (those wicked Fantastic Four analogues) cannot detect them, and revelations spill out regarding events as far back as issue #4. Naturally, action occurs, and I appreciated the book's efforts at providing an organic means for Snow to slither his way into his foes' inner lives, even if some of the plot details come off as somewhat absurd when actually set out in order (do all accomplished spies predicate the success of their missions on the target happening to find them in the process of committing a crime, then chasing them in exactly the right way?). Then again, we are dealing with people ripping off their skin to reveal The Devil's Paw ("...it had killed a hundred and eighty people before I ever laid eyes on it."), so such matters aren't much of a distraction.

Then, about halfway though, the book suddenly snaps into a traditional 'Elijah stands around and listens to stuff' bit of genre play, as we all learn the true origin of the Four - I particularly love how artist Cassaday draws the pre-transformation Four as utterly identical to the famous Marvel characters they cruelly subvert, and Ellis does a great job of recasting the tireless scientific drive of one Reed Richards into the ultimate in self-absorbed will-to-power adventurism. Not to spoil too much, but the quartet zip through dimensional bleed to encounter a rather Apokoliptik alternate Earth populated with a race of newish gods who seek to expand their hegemony throughout the known multiverse.

Joining the science-hero drive of one zone of Kirby creation to the cosmic outlook of another is clever of Ellis, and the implications produced (the Marvel icons are subverted while the DC icons are simply taken from the evil side of the anti-life equation) are interesting. And moreover, it's a natural means of guiding the story further along while imbuing the Planetary megaplot with even more sweeping significance - Ellis resists applying an artificial 'countdown to destruction' means of creating suspense to the proceedings, instead opting to use the Four's communications with the gods as an illustration of their insatiable hunger for thrills and new knowledge at the expense of everyone else, the very antithesis of Snow's natural-born need to 'save' things.

Even the concluding revelations regarding Evil Reed's powers fit in, though they're not exactly innovative - I'm not sure if Grant Morrison was the first to extend Mr. Fantastic's stretching powers to the mind as well as the body, but Fantastic Four: 1234 was the first place I saw the idea in action. What matters is that the implications tie into Ellis' ongoing questioning of Snow's motivations - he was already the Fourth Man, and he didn't know it, and maybe now he's something else he wasn't aware of. More and more dug up by this archeologist of the weird, his own mind providing some of the richest ground for searching.

Now that's what I expect from Planetary.