"What would a grown man want with such foolishness?"

*Just for a bit of follow-up, Seijun Suzuki’s Tokyo Drifter was really great, though I expect you’ll need to have already built a hearty appreciation for the raggedness of low-budget quickie filmmaking to not get distracted while viewing. I’m pretty sure the film, made in 1966, was shot and edited in under a month, using only however much money Japanese trash film outlet Nikkatsu was willing to apportion, and certain scenes simply don’t execute as well as Suzuki probably would have liked. But that makes the scenes that do work marvelously seem almost miraculous.

The plot (which apparently has acquired a reputation for being difficult to understand - I found it to be fairly basic, albeit jumpy and somewhat over-reliant on the viewer drawing inferences) is on its surface pure Yakuza cheese, with talented young killer Tetsu the Phoenix navigating the waters of the Japanese underworld, trying to go straight with his beloved master, and clashing with his rival and opposite, Tatsu the Viper, and malevolent gang boss Otsuka. But the film is really about curious manchild Tetsu’s semi-liberation from foolishly outmoded concepts like ‘loyalty’ and ‘duty’ to business and family - ingrained virtues in Japanese life. Indeed, Yakuza are compared to ‘straight’ businessmen throughout, and all are found to be at-heart nihilistic and grasping, creating a world unworthy of anything but drifting through, sticking to one’s personal guns and individual friendships. Needless to say, the parallels between the action on-screen and the director’s at the time fast-disintegrating relationship with the studio heads at Nikkatsu are difficult to miss.

Although I doubt it was the subtext that upset Nikkatsu; more likely it was the strange, child’s daydream aesthetic at work in the film, a high-contrast b&w beating prologue giving way to gorgeous colors, decorative sets, and action scenes so stylized that they more closely resemble interpretive dance than anything viscerally violent, though there is a good old-fashioned saloon brawl near the end to hang your hat on, involving Yakuza, foreign military men, Western dancers, and some really great English. Lead villain Otsuka is usually filmed either from behind his back or in extreme close-up pulled directly against his black sunglasses - not that his identity is a secret or anything, its just that his mystique is that intense. One character is constantly reading manga and giggling, perhaps giving another clue to Suzuki’s inspirations (he’d later briefly work in anime, co-directing with Shigetsugu Yoshida the divisive 1984 Lupin III: Part III television series and its accompanying 1985 movie, Lupin III: Legend of the Gold of Babylon; on the latter of those projects the duo reportedly replaced future Ghost in the Shell director Mamoru Oshii, who’d been prior Lupin director Hayao Miyazaki’s personal selection). Costumes and hues are very important, with the ‘innocent’ Tetsu spending half the movie sporting a boyish powder-blue suit, until his life experience changes it to grey, and he finally rises again (like a Phoenix, right?) in pure white, the final battle taking place on an ivory stage, all but Tetsu and his lady love clad in primarily black.

Did I mention that characters constantly sing or hum the film’s theme song? Or that Tetsu’s full name is ‘Tetsuya,’ the same name as the actor playing him (Tetsuya Watari)? It gets a bit Brechtian at times. Statements like that make me think that perhaps it’s best to view one or two of Suzuki’s earlier, more subdued films, as he really is a sturdy, accomplished craftsman in terms of direct narrative, one that became interested in trying new and difficult things under the restrictions he had - only watching loopy pictures like this might give one the impression that he’s some sort of idiot savant.

So yeah, worth seeing, out on dvd, etc. Suzuki’s next film would be 1967's infamous Branded to Kill, which would not only end his career at Nikkatsu, but get him blackballed from the Japanese film industry for about a decade. He’s still out there working intermittently, despite being an octogenarian. His 21st century output consists of 2001's Pistol Opera and 2005's Princess Racoon, the latter of which just got released to UK theaters - the Guardian has a recent interview with the director.


This is just plain great. It’s 56 pages of b&w great from Fantagraphics for only $9.95. Nothing else this week even came close, let me tell you.

I’m a little ashamed to admit it, but from the vantage of middle age, I can say that the initial spark for many of the Pussey stories came from some misplaced, low-grade desire for ‘revenge.’ Spending years in a room working on stuff that nobody likes in a debased medium for no money can take its toll on your self-esteem.”

So says writer/artist Dan Clowes in his new two-page comics-format introduction; created between 1989 and 1993 as a recurring feature for Eightball, and first collected into a single volume in 1994, there’s been a lot of time for Clowes to reflect on the work, well over a decade’s worth of industry shifts and pop culture redefinition. But time, in Clowes’ eyes, has come not to make irrelevant Mr. Dan Pussey (pronounced 'poo-say'), title character and ultra-nerd (apparently co-created with Doofus mastermind Rick Altergott, who contributes but a single archival sketch to the presently collected work), but to vindicate him, ‘nerd’ culture having become an awfully big business. “Has our world become so terrifying that even the masses now seek assurance in what was once the sole province of the socially unfit?” asks a bemused Clowes, having already admitted that he at times saw the character he developed as an alternate world’s version of himself (nothing new for Clowes, as is evident to anyone who’s stared at the name ‘Enid Coleslaw’ long enough). Times do change.

Unless they don’t.

At times this is a shocking book, in how very little it’s been left behind by its age. It’s a satire. A comics industry satire. Very few artistic works date faster than satire, especially satires tethered to a specialized community in a specific time. And yet, Pussey! often remains disconcertingly fresh, from its opening pages depicting the relocation of young Dan to an ambitious live-in comics studio interested in leaving the world of superheroes behind by publishing “super-champions,” which are of course entirely different, to the recontextualization of the ‘primitive’ sequential aesthetic onto the gallery wall. Concerns are circular enough to warrant plenty of cringing laughs today, to the point where a post by Warren Ellis on The Engine from less than two months ago can find its near-perfect comics encapsulation on page 26 of this book, as Our Hero spends four panels staring intently at a blank sheet of paper as he tries to conjure up a story not involving superheroes or associated tropes (can't award it full points though, as Pussey is devoted to servicing new trademarks, not those he's grown up with).

Still, we are given a general milieu - Dan Pussey is a hopeless young superhero fan who’s been picked up as a house penciller for the fledgling Infinity Comics Group, eventually sprouting into the hottest artist in the industry thanks to rampant speculation, the judicious paying off of certain comics magazines, and maybe just a little bit of genuine talent for drawing men in tights. He’s guided by Doctor Infinity, company founder, personal mentor, and (naturally!) holder of all rights to the properties, a diabolical blend of all the worst characteristics of Harry Donenfield, Bob Kane, and Stan Lee, yet always allowed to exude a certain charisma under Clowes’ expert supervision. You’ll find him revolting, yet strangely convincing, his strip club visits and relentless self-promotion somehow unable to dim his determined glimmer.

There’s a few other characters surrounding Pussey, and granted disarming personality - my favorite is Infinity scripting workhorse Jackie Roth, a sunglasses-wearing semi-hipster no less attached to those superfolk than everyone else, and no less sad in his more photogenic way (a one-page argument with his girlfriend is a small gem of things said and things implied). There’s also overt caricatures, the likes of Art Spiegelman (a pretentious, vaguely exploitive boor - “Payment? Artists don’t get paid! That’s not art, that’s prostitution!”) and Fantagraphics’ own Gary Groth (literally flipping through a thesaurus to find fresh ways of lambasting works) turning in thinly-veiled appearances. But mostly we're kept close to Pussey, arrogant and clueless and prone to wandering through various areas of our comics world, but only in pursuit of money and sex.

He gets both before the book is done, but nothing is left untouched by a poisoned art's curling fingernails. There's a wonderful masturbation sequence in here, Our Hero's mind drifting out of control from fantasy women to women he knows to aspects of his own juvenile romantic idealism and latent homophobia (instilled by his parents) to the real joy - finding great old comics in unexpected places! Ah, that hits the spot! It's perhaps notable that by far the weakest section of the book is the only one not to feature Dan, a six-page sequence set at a convention, detailing Doctor Infinity's awful treatment of creators throughout comics history. Granted, this is also material that's been gone over many times in the past, plus I've never been to a comics convention so I can't tell if the sequence's itchy mix of rampant promotion, 'honoring the greats,' and slipping on rose-colored glasses is at all accurate - it certainly makes for a bleak, uncomfortable bunch of pages, but it's not quite as funny as the rest of the book because Clowes' extraordinary grasp of detail doesn't seem to be as present. Or at least I can't make it out from my own experience.

The very best parts of the book seem utterly lived-in, the parts on speculation funny because Clowes really knows his shit (the advice about looking for new 'hot' books to sell within a month rather than older comics is pretty much sound from my limited experience), the strained interactions between Pussey and another comics fan, one that likes the art but not the same types of comics he does, working because you feel Clowes has been there at some point. Actually, most of us have been there at some point, even though Clowes is at that moment in the narrative leading us into a look at the place of 'alternative' comics in the early '90s. A pinch of (relative) universality among the specific helps. As does the evergreen appeal of nerd and elitist jokes, funny comics titles (I really loved Emergency Elf Patrol), and Clowes' old-fashioned funny pictures, every mole and wrinkle captured on every distinctly revolting face, the beautiful hardly spared.

Nobody is spared at the end of this book, a withering look at the future of the industry as relegated to the museum, only the most obnoxious and unrelenting of hype allowed to survive as an icon of the new sorry nostalgia. The ripped-off are dead or dying, and the world ready for something new. After all the cutting lampoon, it seems like a fitting finale, the whole goddamned industry and all of its godforsaken excuses for art wiped from the planet? A richly deserved fate? Ah, but Clowes cannot totally let go of Mr. Pussey, his final words harkening back to a very silly time in the silliest of worlds, everything just slightly tragic in its folly, the epic hero brought low, but his foolish accomplishments no less real than anyone else's. It's this squeeze of warmth that gives the work a lasting final impact, yet another aspect of it to carry right through to the present.

An older book, but so immediate that its reprinting seems less a filling out of the catalogue than the fulfilling of a current necessity. Read this.