Focus on Pain

*What’s on my mind? Pain boxes.

I suspect you’ve seen a pain box, even if you haven’t heard the term (unsurprising, since I may have just made it up) - it’s when something dangerous or deadly is happening in a comic, generally involving the potential or active infliction of pain, and the very locus of violence, the center of pain, is ‘boxed’ off by the comics artist in a square or circle or some sort of shape, and filled in with a deep color (usually red) that stands out from the rest of the page.

Pain boxes.

I first became aware of their existence in Desolation Jones, where J.H. Williams III and José Villarrubia used them to extensive effect as part of their overall visual scheme. This week, pain boxes appear in two different comics: The Immortal Iron Fist, in which the title hero is slashed across the knee by a giant robot (and Matt Fraction is now up to three consecutive writing credits on entirely separate comics featuring giant robots, which may be a record), and the book reviewed below, in which a hungry zombie’s mouth is circled as it lunges toward a helpless infant in the page’s foreground.

Pain boxes. Where did they come from? What are their plans for humanity? What hamburgers do they like to eat? These are the most important questions facing the world, so if anyone has any insights on the origins and development of pain boxes in comics, please feel free to post below.

Zombies Vs. Robots #1 (of 2)

Far be it from me to denigrate the still-current thing for zombie comics; at this point, they’re as much a staple of horror comics as they were of horror film in the period just following Dawn of the Dead. But I have to confess that the only reason I picked this thing up is artist Ashley Wood, who has that special tendency to still somehow pop up in unexpected projects despite being a fairly well-known ‘name’ creator. Or maybe I’m just not reading the internet from the right angle.

Zombies Vs. Robots appears to be something of a all-around IDW Publishing lark; Wood provides all art and design, while IDW Editor-in-Chief Chris Ryall writes and IDW Co-President Robbie Robbins aids Wood with the lettering. Ryall and Wood have consistently worked on IDW’s horror magazine Doomed, both together and separately, so the project seems like a bit of a recharge effort in between issues, and perhaps a way to limber up before the launch of Wood’s latest ongoing comics effort, D'Airain Aventure, which will sport writing by Ryall and regular Wood collaborator T.P. Louise. This will be IDW’s third current ongoing Wood comics series, accompanying the dormant Popbot and Lore, and actually I don’t think Wood is quite finished with his art duties on the Metal Gear Solid: Sons of Liberty licensed series either. This book is only two issues, at least.

And as far as these things go, it’s good work. It’s really only a horror book in the loosest sense, as Ryall’s script is far more interested in the situational absurdity of the premise, which involves various types of robots working to protect the final human baby on Earth from hordes of ravenous flesh-eaters. Many lovely brands of robots are introduced, a perfectly absurd backstory is presented (it involves time-travel), a zombie or two gets squished, and nobody knows what to do with a crying baby.

I’d be useless to get any further into the plot, since it’s so obviously not the point here. The point is Ashley Wood, and he won’t disappoint readers ready for him to do his thing. I mentioned a few weeks (months?) ago that Wood has finally managed to attain a perfectly pleasing balance between the hazy atmospherics of his personal style and representational clarity of storytelling with his work in Doomed, and that style is carried forward here in a more expansive space. Wood’s character art is now scratchier than ever, yet solidified and expressive. His backgrounds are often a crazed concoction of jagged lines and zippy dots, but they do coalesce into surprisingly clear environments. Sequences are marked off by simple color schemes (this is a color book, though you might not even realize it from Wood’s segregated uses of hue), there’s occasionally over ten panels on a given page (it goes up to thirty), and yes, there’s still the occasional jump into all-out smeary mood, for one special splash in particular. As a comics art showcase, a show-us-what-you-can-do forum, Wood demonstrates his ample skill, a more beguilingly diverse one than some readers might have expected from his earlier works.

A good-looking book, with IDW’s expectedly high production values. The type of book you can buy on an impulse, thinking the cover looks nice, and probably have that impulse rewarded by the similar aesthetics of the inside.


The Prestige

*Review Nugget Dept: Warren Ellis has mentioned that Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. #10 was informed by his reading of the Brendan McCarthy-powered Solo #12, and the reader can read some pretty clear parallels into the new issue’s barrage of fantasy sequences. The dark revamped Forbush Man uses mental powers on the team to send them off into psychological prisons of despair, each of them approached in a slightly different way. I particularly liked Captain Universe’s journey through a Ruins-like superhero Earth; while I suppose one could read the issue as something of a statement on the emotional dead-end of ‘dark’ superhero books, there’s always been a distinct touch of self-reference to Nextwave from the writing standpoint. Obviously the more vivid material comes from art team Stuart Immonen (pencils), Wade Von Grawbadger (inks), and Dave McCaig (colors), their chameleonic approach to Ellis’ little stories a bit more like J.H. Williams III/Dave Stewart burning through specific visual evocations in Seven Soldiers than McCarthy and co.’s organic spins on a core style. It’s still a technical wow, mind you.

And I have to admit, since this is the first I’ve encountered of Marvel’s current controversial packaging procedures: 24 pages of comic and 24 pages of ads does make for a choppier-than-average reading experience, particularly in as art-driven an issue as this. And two of those pages of ‘comic’ are the recap page and the letters page, so really the sequential content is only the second biggest element of the package, which does trigger some sort of primal ‘wrong’ switch in the funnybook-reading curves of my brain.

Batman/The Spirit #1

Much in the way that issue week’s issue of 52 was supposed to be “a full length 22-page adventure” and just plain ol’ wasn’t, this one-shot special was solicited on DC’s site as Prestige Format, yet arrived at comics stores as a plain vanilla pamphlet (complete with advertisements), albeit a longer one than usual at 40 pages of comics. Not too bad for $4.99 (given the industry standards), but still a little irritating to this consumer.

Essentially, Batman/The Spirit is a special introductory book meant to familiarize readers with Will Eisner’s famed creation, in preparation for next month’s launch of his new solo book from writer/artist Darwyn Cooke. Hence, Batman is rolled out, as is co-writer Jeph Loeb (who joins co-writer/penciller Cooke and inker J. Bone). The story is an exceedingly simple thing, despite its costume of narrative convolution: most of the Spirit’s villains team up with most of Batman’s villains to strike at a police convention in Hawaii where Commissioners Dolan & Gordon are staying, prompting the title heroes into action. “Every great cop in the country will be there!” exclaims Robin, underlining the story’s emphatically light, throwback approach.

It’s all pleasant enough in the manner of a special episode of a cartoon or something, and it certainly looks pretty, especially under the sun-drenched paradise kiss of Dave Stewart’s daytime colors, providing a nice aura of relaxation and low-stakes for a story that doesn’t need to do anything to strain itself. All the best bits come in waves of characters just walking around a hotel and interacting with each other, before the inevitable team-up mechanisms growl their way into gear, and evil is duly stomped. There’s plot ‘twists,’ yes, but save for a beguiling sense of adult sexuality to the goings-on, none of it particularly registers as striking or outstanding. Just a decent, mid-tempo superhero book, good-looking.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if loading up the book with playful work involving the title characters’ extensive supporting casts isn’t kind of a self-defeating act for a book that’s so clearly primed to lead into a series - the Batman cast almost always arrives at greater impact through shorthand, since they’re the ones everyone is more familiar with, and the Spirit cast seems to largely draw power from their relativity to better-known characters. Certainly Denny Colt himself remains something of a cipher at story’s end, obviously a bit friendlier a guy than Batman but largely vacant a presence, which isn’t all that great a sign for a character that’s about to headline his own series.

Ah, but maybe that’s part of Cooke’s plan, focusing on the atmosphere and the non-title characters; it seems valid enough for 22 pages (bigger than Eisner’s whole newspaper supplement, let alone his original stories). We’ll see how he does without known DC properties to hang his hat on.

Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1 (of 2)

Meanwhile, this actually is Prestige Format, and all the better. Writer/artist Howard Chaykin is generally capable of looking at his books as a unified design whole, so he benefits more than usual from a total absence of advertisements. The first 11 of this book’s 48 pages are all the more striking for Chaykin’s ability to bank on having five sets of images facing one another, introducing a good portion of the cast through his signature repeating page layouts, maintaining a nice, steady beat between iconic images of action and breathless expository narration. It’s the sort of thing that’s only ever going to happen when Chaykin’s writing and drawing, immediately placing his recent affinity for acting as artist-only for superhero books at an evident disadvantage.

Indeed, it’s becoming awfully clear that traditional contemporary monthly superhero comics simply don’t play to a lot of Chaykin’s strengths. If he’s not writing the book himself, his art seems to lose the beauty of control that forms half of its appeal to me, as its forced to respond to outside stimulus that can’t ever quite grasp the style the way Chaykin does. There’s a certain tendency toward brawny action set pieces that Chaykin generally won’t tackle in the same way as most current superhero artists - he’s too enamored with texture and page breakdowns to throw himself into big splashes and hammering fights. His character designs don’t lend themselves all that well to the freestanding visual ideal that many superhero fans enjoy seeing in these artist-outliving characters; Chaykin’s versions of familiar properties inevitably resemble the usual Howard Chaykin cast dressed in superhero masquerade, which is fitting for the artist’s Tezuka-like recycling of designs as a means of maintaining a company of ‘performers,’ but isn’t much in keeping with today’s Marvel/DC outlook.

And really, his personal interests are just plainly a bit… different.

I have no idea what Green Lantern fans are going to make of this thing, but I can certainly say it’s now fully a Howard Chaykin book, which is to note that it’s not much of a space-faring superhero comic at all. Technically the plot is all about the Rann/Thanagar War, which Guy is supposed to be arbitrating a peace settlement in, though Chaykin happily dispenses with any notion of details or particulars or established continuity, all the better to tackle things on a purely metaphorical level (though he is keen enough to make a who's side are you on joke, knowing the line's pre-Civil War superhero history) - he even intentionally positions Guy as the perfect hero for the book, as he doesn’t really know anything about the machinations of Rann and Thanagar.

Really, both sides are just vehicles for Chaykin to play with his usual interests in politics, a disgust with the conservative outlook (Thanagar) coupled with even greater distaste toward the disorganized, sleepy state of liberalism (Rann). Guy sits in his bar, often in a dress suit, often flirting with women and generally being a boor, looking for all the world (universe?) like the traditional Chaykin semi-hero, now a little more bitter and especially caustic. There’s green rings and stuff, and sinister alien races, sure, but even those are only symbols for Guy’s broken-down sense of justice. There's hardly even much plot advancement (or rather it advances before you even know it), but it seems far more organic in Chaykin's hands than most of his other recent projects.

I think it’s the kind of thing that’s well worth handing a two-issue series to a strong creative vision to execute, though it’s surely going to appeal to established Chaykin fans more than anyone; actually, if it attracts any new readers, it’s pretty much fated to make them interested in prior Howard Chaykin works rather than prior Green Lantern and/or Guy Gardner books, as they’re never going to find quite the same experience. The plot darts around from location to location at almost the furious clip of Time2, characters crack odd jokes and strut through heavily decorated rooms. Images, images, textures, textures. Chaykin’s still an odd duck among superhero artists, but this is pretty easily the most satisfying of his genre works of recent vintage. Suggesting, therefore, that the trick is not for he to come to the genre, but to force the genre to come to him.


Looking for that paradise zone.

*Glorious Home Cinema Dept: I don’t have a lot of time for much of anything anymore - I think I’ve seen five or so total films in theaters, I’m still only up to opponent #3 in Shadow of the Colossus, and my dvd time is sorely limited. Which I suppose is why I dearly like what few chances I have to sit down and watch something (whether pressing buttons or not) to be fairly close to optimal. I just don’t have many second chances anymore.

And yet I still find myself occasionally slamming into a wall. For example, the other day I finally found time to watch the R1 Miramax dvd of Avalon, anime personality Mamoru Oshii’s fourth and (thus far) final live-action film. I always find it compelling to watch dedicated animation directors weather the requirements of live-action, especially when it’s as stubbornly individualistic a talent as Oshii, who’s managed to reconfigure a certain segment of ‘serious’ anime filmmaking around his personal interests in dense atmosphere, slow contemplation, and man-machine chilliness (most famous film: Ghost in the Shell). Accordingly, his live-action work has been weird, experimental, and oddly diverse considering that two out of the four features he’s completed have involved his Panzer Corps. Universe (also seen in the old Dark Horse-released manga Hellhounds and the anime Jin Roh: The Wolf Brigade, both of which Oshii wrote).

Avalon doesn’t have anything to do with the Panzer Corps. Completed in 2001, it’s obviously intended to some degree as a ‘response’ film to 1999’s The Matrix, which took some inspiration from anime sources, but also acts (to my mind) as something of an extended homage to Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 religio-allegorical high art sci-fi thingy Stalker. And mixing Tarkovsky and Wachowski turns out to be a pretty interesting endeavor - the movie (which, by the way, was shot in Warsaw entirely in the Polish language), concerns a young woman who’s one of the world’s most talented players at a sprawling virtual reality MMOG that’s all but taken over the lives of huge groups of young people and has a tendency to make some players rich in underground markets and leave others literally brain-dead. It’s probably a more believable plot today than it was half a decade ago. Anyway, our heroine is haunted by the calamity that destroyed her awesome party of players back in the day, and obsessed with finding a secret Easter Egg zone called Avalon, where she believes she’ll be able to confront one of her beloved teammates that’s gone missing.

This means plenty of walking around and thinking about stuff, punctuated with bursts of action. Fittingly, the ‘real’ world is shot in ruinous sepia tones while the game appears in faded yet fuller colors. Just like in Stalker, a mystery bald man appears to guide people through a color world of strangeness, instructing them on odd, seemingly nonsensical moves to make and things to accomplish for the purposes of finding the secret room that they seek - Oshii happily replaces the realm of the soul’s isolation with video games, while extending Tarkovsky’s motif of helpless humankind relying on irrationality to sort through unknowable mysteries of living and dying. I’ll be frank: Oshii’s no Tarkovsky, and while the latter could make gross financial limitations sing, the former leaves many frayed edges showing, to the point of recycling shots we’ve already seen no more than fifteen minutes into the picture. Tacky!

Yet, Oshii is at least a resourceful director, and longtime scripting partner Kazunori Itô is a smart writer, and some interesting tricks play out. The film’s slightly dodgy special effects are relegated mostly to the gaming portions, where they suddenly look perfectly fitting as the product of a highly advanced game that nonetheless has room for improvement in the next generation’s sequel. The last fifteen or so minutes are exceedingly clever, approaching virtually (ha ha) the same core conflicts of the Matrix from an expansive, arguably more spiritual viewpoint. It’s the sort of film that, for all its faults, you’re glad you stuck it out with.

But that Miramax dvd, man - it’s the first dvd in a while that actually made me feel insulted through its presentation. I don’t really care that the package tries to sell the movie as an action film; hey, it’s gotta move some copies, and Miramax clearly felt that they’d do better playing obfuscation games than catering to the Mamoru Oshii live-action filmmaking fanbase in the US (membership: probably triple digits). Except… they fooled around with the movie itself, deciding that obviously American audiences would have no idea what was going on in the movie and that extra expository voiceover material during several of Oshii‘s 10,000 ‘wandering around the city’ sequences would be needed for the English dub. Except -- oops! -- I didn’t think the movie’s plot was all that hard to figure out at all, and the added voiceovers never accomplish anything except repeating information that the viewer is almost always given through dialogue anyway. Also, apparently the translation intentionally omits much of Itô's Arthurian myth-play in the script, since I guess Americans don’t read either.

So, why didn’t I just listen to the original Polish? Oh, I did. But joy of joys: the English subtitles are nothing more than a transcription of the English dub script, which means that all that extra exposition winds up appearing at the bottom of the screen anyway, even while nobody is saying anything onscreen!! Wow, Miramax sure covered their bases there! I know the company had a longstanding reputation with playing slice-'n-dice with their Asian acquisitions, but I can't recall any particular point where they expressed quite so much open contempt for the intelligence of their audience. It's really sort of sad, and it probably distracted me from the film.

Ah well. I think the UK dvd release of the film (not from Miramax) is a proper 'big kid' version, so maybe interested parties can import that or something. It's a nice movie, but I hate having my rare viewing experiences soiled.


It feels good to post on time.

*It's like I'm in a mid-century social engineering film and I've just grasped the virtue of washing behind the ears and setting out the cutlery just right.


Punisher War Journal #1, Casanova #6 (as Geoff Klock put it regarding the latter title, "If you can’t get into this, kill yourself now, because ain’t nothing good comin' your way.")

Seven Sons (AiT/Planet Lar, a book of a reconfigured folk tale, nice art)

Rock Bottom (AiT/Planet Lar; at first I thought I put in too many rock-themed analogies, but then I remembered that the book is titled Rock Bottom)

*Right. We start with -


The Comics Journal #279: The full list of contents isn’t going up until Wednesday on the Journal’s site, so I’m not 100% sure, but I do believe I have a longish analysis piece on the Gilbert Hernandez book Sloth in this issue, and possibly also a lil’ capsule review of the Canadian comics-and-drawings compilation Nog a Dod. The feature interview is with the ever-awesome Joost Swarte, who’s also got a career retrospective collection coming in 2007 from Fantagraphics. Also: Johnny Ryan, Sammy Harkham, more. So take time out to buy this issue, even if you don’t have the money - the dog won’t turn on you if he goes just one day without eating.

Ok -


Acme Novelty Library Vol. 17: Another year, another Acme arrives with the dying of the leaves and the graying of the skies. This is the first of the Drawn & Quarterly issues, though I’m pretty sure Chris Ware is keeping the format identical to last issue (64 pages in hardcover, though it’s a buck more at $16.95), so as best to preserve aesthetic continuity. Too bad - I was hoping 2011 would see Ware design a second version of the infamous Acme cardboard comics stand for the sole purpose of storing each issue with perfection. Anyhow, this is the second half of the ‘introduction’ to Rusty Brown, featuring all your favorites. Probably other stuff in there too.

Ulysses: Meanwhile, if it’s reprints of vintage spacey Eurocomics you’re after, Heavy Metal is reprinting this 64-page album by Jacques Lob & Georges Pichard, originally presented to English-language audiences in 1978, though the comic itself dates back earlier. I think this is only volume 1 of 2, if my knowledge of early HM is sound. Anyway, saddle up for skimpy metal costumes and general curiosity.

The Dark Horse Book of Monsters: The fourth installment of Dark Horse’s compact hardcover house anthology of horror, featuring all the usual suspects. Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson present the adventures of cats and dogs, Mike Mignola provides a new Hellboy short, Gary Gianni illustrates classic prose (this time by William Hope Hodgson), and other folks do other things. Arvid Nelson’s and Juan Ferreyra’s story is posted in full online, to act as a preview.

The Art of Brian Bolland: Of course, the big spenders out there might just be interested in Image’s $49.99 hardcover, a 176-page retrospective of the artist’s career. Or hey, how about the $79.99 deluxe signed edition? Lots of pretty pictures.

Batman/The Spirit: This this week’s theme at DC - Prestige Format. Oh yeah, Prestige Format is in town to class your longbox right the fuck up. First, we have what basically amounts to the debut of Darwyn Cooke’s run on The Spirit, a 48-page, $4.99 one-shot facing Eisner’s boy up against an obvious choice. Co-written by Jeph Loeb, with inks by J. Bone. Here’s a preview, sans dialogue.

Guy Gardner: Collateral Damage #1 (of 2): Also in Prestige, we’ve a got a similarly 48-page (yet dissimilarly $5.99) first issue to a Green Lantern Corps. miniseries by writer/artist Howard Chaykin, the first of these all-out superhero projects that Chaykin is tackling from both the script and drawing angles. The preview already makes it look a bit better than Chaykin’s recent art-only projects; note his signature use of repeating layouts and angles to emphasize the camaraderie between like-minded characters. Could be interesting.

Immortal Iron Fist #1: What the… no Civil War tie-in?! This is negligence! Iron Fist ought to spend at least a page or something punching Iron Man in the iron sternum - that’s like 25,000 copies right there! Oh, wait… ok, ok. There was a preview story in that Civil War: Choosing Sides thing the other week. Whew! The racks are now safe for co-writers Ed Brubaker & Matt Fraction and artist David Aja, and this new ongoing series. I certainly hope Onslaught Reborn acknowledges Cap’s current status quo…

Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. #10 (of 12): This one, of course, knows the lay of the land.

Punisher MAX #41: Shootings and veiled references to other books.

Ghost in the Shell 1.5: Human-Error Processor #2 (of 8): Wrapping up the first of four storylines that were discarded in Masamune Shirow’s quest to squelch any lingering yelps of human emotion from Ghost in the Shell 2. Added bonus: almost no CGI!

52 #30 (of 52): The second week in a row with no back-up feature, as 52 presents an all Bat-Family bonanza, apparently written solely by Grant Morrison, which acts as a retroactive lead-in to the writer’s current run on Batman, which is actually on hiatus until February as John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake present a four-issue fill-in storyline. Three cheers for fun!


Back to the ol' schedule.

*Eddie Campbell is now blogging. Up now are posts on (respectively, bottom upward) spousal titles and the tangled printing history of From Hell. Add this site to your clicking repertoire.

Rock Bottom

This is another recent graphic novel from Ait/Planet Lar, 112 b&w pages for $12.95. It’s from a pair of Ait/Planet Lar vets, writer Joe Casey and artist Charlie Adlard, who’ve previously teamed up on Codeflesh, a book I’ve not had the opportunity to read, though every summary I’ve encountered suggests that it’s greatly different from this current collaboration.

Rock Bottom is essentially a fable, though it doesn’t entirely disrobe from the costume of superhero comics; not only do we encounter a man with an amazing bodily state, but a child is saved from danger in a metal-crunching bit of death-defiance. The rescue might be halfway an accident and halfway a reaction to a danger caused by the rescuer himself, but that doesn’t stop the iconography from triggering familiar pulses in the reader’s brain, reminding them of writer Casey’s various and sundry superhero works, many of them featuring flawed characters staggering toward some brand of grace. It’s a familiarity the book might benefit from, as Casey has otherwise endeavored to script a short tale of human faults and the hardening of the soul, one where the most excellent bit of daring a person can manage is escaping their self-devised environment of stony emotions and interrelations as blank as granite.

Unfortunately, the book itself comes off as strangely blank itself. It’s not that there isn’t a lot of emotion and angst in here, it’s that so much of it seems schematic and inevitable-as-formula that much of its intended power simply fails to register for me. The plot sees one Thomas Dare, a blues pianist going though a rancorous divorce, literally turning to stone bit by bit. Naturally, it’s a gradual physical manifestation of the state of his soul, though a scientific rationale is also duly provided. Like clockwork, Thomas (though his own volition or the machinations of fate) runs down the list of once-loved ones and distant familial relations, confronting metaphors for human distance and generational stoicism, aided by a comic relief lawyer friend and a conflicted doctor. It’s the type of plot that’s obvious enough that once its presence is discerned, most of its of its remaining moves can be anticipated in the abstract, though the details might ultimately cohere in a different way. If you’re expecting shafts of enlightenment to gleam down upon Thomas’ craggy brow eventually, well, that is to be expected.

Artist Adlard adopts something of a fine-line approach here, eliminating all shading from his art save for the murky textures of Thomas’ hardening skin (and a certain similar surface), so as to emphasize his growing physical displacement from the otherwise stark world. After a while, there’s an evident difference drawn between physical and emotional states, as Thomas grows worse and worse, even as his personal life slowly runs with blood. Casey also applies flashes of media irony and a realities-of-medicine hospital subplot that steadfastly refuses to cohere with the main action, until it is finally subsumed into Thomas’ final lunge toward something lasting; I suppose we’re meant to see how others discover themselves through the protagonist’s transformation, but the story’s combination of predictable plot movements and stock character confrontations serve only to underline the tinny nature of the book’s introspective music.

Or, in other words, the creative team can’t quite break below the surface, even as their characters give off all appearance of doing so.

Still, there may well be some appeal to those more attuned to the surface pleasures of this type of story than I, with all its tragic forehead furrowing and heroic grasping of wisdom and latent sentimentality, as Casey and Adlard do at least manage a sense of devotion to their craftsmanship. I couldn’t say it did much for me this time around.


Reviews and such in... oh, ten or so hours. I'm settling.

*Well, this is the end of my glorious Thanksgiving vacation, so let’s celebrate with beauty: Alan Moore being interviewed by Gareth “Gaz Top” Jones in 1987 for the kids’ program Get Fresh, which I have never seen but appears to have been shot inside the future. Rarely have two more bountiful heads of hair come into such close contact - the wide shots suggest they’re ready to launch into a war to end them all, but luckily Swamp Thing is standing behind the two of them to keep the peace. Sweet dreams, tired world.


Everything is Reborn

*Confusion Dept: Ok ok... wait. Some of us (like me) had a lot of difficulty with this topic the last time it came up, but now the ground has shifted again - according to DC’s solicitations, next week’s issue of Batman (#659) is now going to be the first issue of the four-part fill-in storyline, and writer Grant Morrison will be back in issue #663 with Andy Kubert doing the art, even though there was supposed to be an issue in the interim with Morrison’s script and another artist, which I guess isn’t happening now. Certainly I’m without a clue as to what’s actually going on, so I’ve elected to blame everything on 52 from this moment forth, regardless of evidence. GOD DAMN YOU, 52!!

Actually, if Dan DiDio is to be believed in his print column this week, the writing team is only seven scripts away from polishing off the entire project, so I don’t even have this excuse to lean on.

*So I read the new issue of Garth Ennis’ John Woo’s 7 Brothers, and it was determinedly mediocre. It’s devoted almost entirely to backstory (some of which is inadvertently revealed in the inside front cover’s summary of last issue), with the series’ real villain eventually introduced to kill off last issue’s fake villains. Characters sit around and express disbelief at what’s happening, only to eventually come around, as they always do in this sort of thing. It’s wholly inoffensive and sleepy. I’d have had no idea Ennis was scripting had I not known ahead of time. Dull.

On the other hand, I’ve found myself oddly intrigued by another one of Virgin Comics’ current ongoing series, Ramayan 3392 A.D. (aka Ramayan Reborn, an earlier title that can still be glimpsed on Virgin’s website). It’s a comics update of the Ramayana, ancient Indian literary epic and Hindu text concerning the journeys of Rama, only set in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi setting in the manner of a fanciful myth-powered Heavy Metal serial. And it’s compelling in that way, though I can’t even elucidate much of particular excellence regarding the visual or textual component - writer Shamik Dasgupta does decent work with feeding the ancient tale into modern sci-fi action style (despite the deployment of constant footnotes explaining specialized terms to the reader) and artist Abhishek Singh manages some very attractive panoramas of glowing warfare and jut-edged doom (with appropriately downcast, painterly colors by Ashwin Chikerur). I just can’t place my finger on anything that blows me out of my seat.

And yet, I find myself interested. Maybe there’s just something to be said for a sturdy, attractive dip into ancient stories, sugared and smoothed as it might be to relate to the contemporary audience that creators Deepak Chopra & Shekhar Kapur have targeted (neither creator seems to have taken a direct creative role). I don’t know. But it’s a book that’s caught my attention.

Seven Sons

Of course, you don’t need to look to Virgin for reincarnations of classic tales. For example, AiT/Planet Lar recently released this $12.95, 120 page b&w graphic novel from Alexander Grecian and Riley Rossmo, presenting once again the classic tale of the Skillful Brothers or the Clever Brothers or whatever... you’ve heard of it. There’s a bunch of siblings, they all look alike, and each has a special power. One gets in trouble, and the others systematically take his spot so that any means of execution the authorities can think of fortuitously happens to prove ineffective. It’s the sort of primal tale that has a way of slip-sliding across cultures and times, easily taking on new attributes as it makes it way to each fresh environment.

This one takes on a slightly more action-oriented stance, moving the whole works to the Old West of 19th century California and positioning the titular brothers as Chinese immigrants caught up in a wave of hate following the accidental death of children in a local river. As such, it’s impossible not to read a certain racial tension into proceedings (though Grecian and Rossmo are subtler than average on that point), and perhaps a hint of uncertainty about the literal transferral of another people’s legend into the storyteller’s home environ.

As if to beg the question, there’s also a framing sequence involving a young graffiti artist literally hearing the tale from an elderly bookstore owner in a present-day city, though the resolution of that wing of the book is less indistinct; it will come as little surprise to discover that stories are made for retelling and art thrives on outside influences, but it’s a thoughtful enough addition.

Mostly, this is a very nice collection of visuals set toward embodying a number of primal themes about grief and fidelity and acceptance, and unfettered vengeance. There’s some truly impressive set pieces in here, sooty inks and curling lines wrapping themselves into smoke and destruction, and the rending might of fate that runs through so many old, passed-down stories of this type. If you’ve heard it all before, at least it’s an energetic rendition in its blood, thunder, etc.

Also included is a nice ten-page essay in which Grecian details exactly which versions of the tale he mixed and matched elements of the comic from, with a little talk on the tale’s penetration of culture and art in the English-speaking world, thus rendering it partially an extension of the book’s own themes. It’s a good little package, assembled with some thought, though it’s the visual element that’ll attract and capture much attention, I expect.



*52 Dept: By cracky, this is a full-length issue. It’s a Thanksgiving feast of two additional pages!

And luckily, the book’s also regaining some energy from last issue’s mild torpor. I’m not the world’s biggest fan of the Lex Luthor/Steel subplot, but it does manage to spark halfway to life when it decides to operate on the level of pure metaphor, so this issue’s focus manages to entertain. The whole old vs. young thing gets maybe a bit too Kingdom Come at times, but it’s sprinkled with a little more cynicism; it’s not just old-school characters concerned about those irresponsible youths, but established veterans blanching over the flexibility of identity and corporate branding in an oversaturated superhero market. It’s a pretty effective irony that so many of the new characters here are revealed to have built-in expiration dates on their effectiveness as heroes - how many aborted twelve-issue ‘ongoing’ series are out there, with so many more waiting for the axe? A curious moments of self-criticism, though maybe as much a critique of the market and readership as well (see also: that subtext of Infinite Crisis I’m assured exists).

Not that any of this will help DC with allegations that their big series aren’t really about much other than the contours and philosophy of, well, DC comics, while Marvel’s monster Event at least tries to engage with the political world at large, but it does loan 52 a certain intermittent pulse of purpose beyond the nitty-gritty of showing us how Gotham City managed to get by without Batman (and speaking of which: I do believe next issue is the all-Morrison, all-Batman installment).

Plus: Egg-Fu, madness, thanksgiving via chainsaw, and pulse-pounding climax involving Wildcat pounding down alcoholic beverages alone in dark and silence. Yes.

Punisher War Journal #1

The first thing I did was check the legal indicia. Ah, no ‘The’ in front of the title. Good. Good. I washed my hands five times, touched the light switch twice with both arms, and got down to reading.

Speaking as someone who hasn’t actually been reading the core Civil War miniseries (preferring to flip through on the stands and live vicariously through the internet), I couldn’t tell you in good faith exactly how well this variant-powered Event tie-in/property revival debut issue actually synchs up. And mother what a fine recipe for sales a variant-powered Event tie-in/property revival debut issue is in 2006. There’s even a Spidey guest appearance! I’d have liked to see the Civil War logo emblazoned in gleaming foil, personally, perhaps polybagged with trading cards and a sample issue of Dirt. Frank Castle, you are truly the Son of Sassy!

But getting back to the comic, I can certainly appreciate its virtues as a tie-in, if taken in the abstract. It greatly expands on Frank’s role in Civil War #5, stretching back in time to cover what he’s been up to beforehand and subsequently coloring the events of the main book from his unique point of view. It’s as sure an approach as any, allowing for any number of little jabs at the core crossover -- buckle up for throwaway lines about established characters acting unbelievably, or jokes about Spider-Man’s new costume -- along with cute little nods toward the title character’s history, references ranging from The Punisher Armory to Microchip. If Frank’s gonna shoot up the Marvel U again, he might as well be aware of his history in it as he participates in this lucrative alleged turning point.

Really, Civil War may prove to be a blessing in disguise for this book; the general upheaval of the crossover does provide a fairly sturdy platform for relaunching Marvel U Frank, an instantly catchy motivation and direction served up without much fuss. Basically, Frank thinks this whole Civil War business is counterproductive nonsense, and decides to embark on a quest to discover who’s been equipping supervillains with dangerous technology. Shootings ensue. Nothing more efficiently encapsulates the book’s direction than Frank’s first two pages, which see him plotting a real-world menace’s death in true Garth Ennis MAX style, only to have his stakeout interrupted by Stilt-Man tromping through town. Can’t avoid that stuff in 616.

Ennis proved long ago that the Marvel-reading world has the appetite for both a serious(ish) and non-serious Punisher book, so it seems natural that one of each could exist at once. Writer Matt Fraction does a good job of maintaining a bit of the familiar flavor of the character that Ennis has spent years building up, while throwing in some of his own particular interests and flourishes - interesting that both this book and Casanova would feature a giant robot attack on the same day. But the book’s sense of play is augmented a bit by a few skillful bits of character work, like Stilt-Man momentarily pausing to reflect on the niceties of vigilante behavior while Frank steams ahead in a Golgo 13-like state of amoral zen. Ariel Olivetti’s line art and Dean White’s color art emphasize this tone with painterly realist visuals that make certain to occasionally morph into comic exaggeration, or toss up a background gag or two. The character work can be stiff (Captain America on the last page stands out particularly), but it seems like a cohesive enough approach.

Maybe it’s just my draft-dodging side kicking up, but I’m already looking forward to how this book plans to pull its Civil War themes into an ongoing concern; it already feels pretty organic, considering how can’t miss it appears as a contemporary Marvel marketing concept, and I’d like to watch it exist in a postwar world, one where enlisted men will have to melt in to the societies (and superhero universes) they once left behind.

Casanova #6

Meanwhile, writer Fraction’s creator-owned Image book sees the penultimate issue of its first storyline, and everything’s going really well. By this point, artist Gabriel Bá has established enough of a cozy visual signature that he and Fraction can play simple tricks like switching up the book’s single color from green to purple and make it seem kind of searing. This is nothing if not a vivid book on several levels, hellbent on wringing every last drop of possible effect out of its 16 pages so as to demonstrate the authority of its format; there are many things to say about Casanova, but nobody’s complaining that it gives too little in terms of base content.

This is one of those nearing-the-end-of-the-storyline issues where what seemed to be disconnected one-off adventures suddenly begin to attach to one another to form a grander plot, and Casanova has plenty of room to work with: there’s both a six-paragraph text recap on the inside-front cover and a page 2 reminder of past plot points from Image Comics Executive Director Eric Stephenson (who’s become an amusing recurring semi-character), though some readers might still feel like flipping through their back-issues to get the most out of it. Meanwhile, the issue’s modular plot involves Casanova going undercover (again) to locate a secret map to a hidden stash of money, though everything is quickly interrupted by the machinations of a megaplot that just won’t sit still any longer. Even the issue’s big fight sequence takes place off-panel, all the better for mysteries to tumble into one another.

It’s good. You can forget about picking up the book starting with this one, since it’s going to be way too tied up in its own initial endgame to welcome much of anyone, though the past five issues have all been fairly good with the self-contained plots and the continuing enigmas. I say you should start from the beginning; it’s late enough that I can promise you that this one does not run low on steam approaching its hiatus, and the concept is firm enough that one can imagine all sorts of future possibilities lurking beyond the horizon of next issue’s wrap-up. I would like you to become enveloped in this.


This post is me showing up at your house with a single can of cranberry sauce, especially if you don’t observe Thanksgiving.

*This here post is a wee little bit late, attributable to the fact that I just now obtained Internet access at my parents' house. Yay! With luck (and time), tomorrow's post will have more extensive content, and possibly be up at a real world time somewhat closer to what the time stamp on the post says.

*I should, however, make a quick recommendation for Todd Hignite's In the Studio: Visits with Contemporary Cartoonists, from Yale University Press. For some odd reason, I'd convinced myself that there was going to be tit-for-tat interview material in the book, but it's actually a bit more airy and elegant: nine popular cartoonists are showcased, offering comments (even miniature essays at times) on their influences and procedures, all of the commentary accompanied by extensive illustrations of pertinent works and materials of inspiration.

Different talents approach it different ways - Dan Clowes devotes his space almost entirely to weird and interesting materials he's collected over the years, while other artists have a bit more of their own stuff displayed. Hignite (who's also the founding editor of Comic Art, where some of this material first appeared), pops up every so often for introductions and analysis, some of it extremely dense with information. It's a great mix of the personal and educational, and a fine source of access to these creators. Chris Mautner has a review up, with some stuff on other publications-on-comics. You should check it out.


Travel day.

*Yeah, I’ve got to get straight to traveling up north for the Thanksgiving holiday after work today, and the packing up for that has put a crimp in the blogging for today. Also, not that there won’t be stuff up tomorrow, but my schedule is also gonna make it real tough to buy any new comics until Friday, so I’m not going to have reviews of new comics up until the weekend. Although that really just means I’ll be reviewing slightly less new comics. If you want a new comic review today, here’s Abhay Khosla (scroll down) on why Civil War is in the running for best crossover ever. I'll 'see' you all tomorrow, by which I mean I'll be staring at everything you do through your computer monitor.



*A lot to get to, sooo...


The Looking Glass Wars: Hatter M #4 (of 4)

Blade #3


Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 1

*Ok, ok...


Moomin: The Complete Tove Jannson Comic Strip Book 1: I saw a copy of this 8.5” x 12” beastie SPX where it debuted; I didn’t have the spare $19.95 on hand to pick it up, but suffice to say it’s yet another impressively-mounted collection of a classic newspaper strip to arrive in a half-decade that’s been stinking with the things. Really, these are fantastic days for fans of vintage strips, and here’s where enthusiasts of Jannson’s beloved creations get their moment in the sun. There were a number of Moomin children’s books, of course, but here we’re looking at Jannson’s own run on the official newspaper strip, 1954-60. It was syndicated across 40 countries in its prime, but never broke into North America, so there’s a whole new audience ready to be piqued. Here’s a preview. I’ve really liked what I’ve seen of this stuff.

Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon Vol. 6: Meanwhile, Checker gets back to their own classic strip project, aiming to put creator Raymond’s run on the seminal sci-fi strip back into print. If my estimate is correct, there should be only one more volume to go.

The Comics Journal Library Vol. 7: Harvey Kurtzman: Another sure-to-please archive of words and pictures, this time all about the famous talent from EC, Mad and elsewhere.

Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow: New from Anders Nilsen, published by Drawn & Quarterly, a collection of letters, photos, comics, and drawings compiled in tribute to the author’s fiancé, who passed away in late 2005. Nilsen also has a new issue of his bizarrely compelling ongoing series Big Questions (#9), all about the lives and adventures of a flock of birds and the curious environment they live in.

Lucky: A collection of stories by Gabrielle Bell, new from Drawn & Quarterly, which is having a really big week of releases. Some of Bell’s stories are quiet, unadorned autobiography or semi-autobiography, while others launch into delicate magical realism. The material collected here I believe are mainly loose, wordy diary comics, “the exact type that sends your average doltish champion of punchy-kicky books into anti-elitist apoplexy” in the words of Tom Spurgeon, who has a good interview up, though I think material from other sources (Kramers Ergot) seeps in as well. Official preview.

Swamp Thing Vol. 9: Infernal Triangles: Here’s something I wasn’t expecting - the third trade collection of Rick Veitch’s run on the beloved Vertigo precursor, with the heretofore uncollected (I think) Swamp Thing Annual #3 thrown in as well. This’ll be the penultimate Veitch collection, as it ends with the Invasion crossover issue (#81) that sends Swampy on his infamous journey through time. Jamie Delano’s in here too.

New X-Men Omnibus: No need to wait for anything with this; in a single, brick-like, 1096-page $99.99 color hardcover package, you too can now own writer Grant Morrison’s entire run on Marvel’s mutants, from Quitely to Silvestri, with Kordey and company in between. Action, homage, widespread destruction, jarring visual jumps, and all the Xorn a reasonable person can possibly handle, without any of that bitter retcon aftertaste.

Blab! Vol. 17: Gosh - a new Blab! I’ve really fallen behind on Blab!, haven’t I? Umm… I’m sure it’ll look nice? God, I’ve lost my grip on Blab!…

World War 3 Illustrated #37: Unnatural Disasters: Also in anthologies, the new installment of the comics magazine that aims to please the left side of all of us. This issue focuses on man-made disasters all over the world.

Angry Youth Comix #12: Laffs.

Red Menace #1 (of 6): Wait, didn’t we just have a superheroes-in-the-‘50s political miniseries from Wildstorm? The American Way? Was that about something else? I guess if sales are to be believed, nobody much remembers it anyhow. This one’s from Danny Bilson & Paul DiMeo of the current The Flash: Fastest Man Alive series, joined by a third writer, Adam Brody of television’s The O.C. Who knows? Pencils by Jerry Ordway, so that’s something to bank on…

Elephantmen #0: This warrants a bit of explanation. Elephantmen is Richard Starkings’ creation, currently an ongoing series from Image. The nominal protagonist of the series, Hip Flask, started out as a mascot for Starkings’ Comicraft lettering service. In 2002, Hip Flask made his comics debut in a one-shot titled Hip Flask: Unnatural Selection, which featured writing by Starkings and Joe Casey, and art by Ladrönn. That’s what’s being reprinted here, now under the banner of a #0 issue for the ongoing Elephantmen series. The remainder of the Hip Flask comics drawn by Ladrönn all pertain to the ongoing Mystery City storyline (with the 2003 Hip Flask: Elephantmen one-shot acting as a prologue and the 2005 Hip Flask: Mystery City #1 providing the formal first of three issues), and will presumably be reprinted in collected form once the storyline is finished in 2009 or whenever. Just so you all know what to expect.

Gødland #14: Meanwhile, Casey and Tom Scioli have their own series to continue, as a monthly schedule looks nice and realistic again. And for an even speedier release, Casey also has the second issue of his Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes II miniseries out this week; I’d totally not realized it was a bi-weekly book.

Casanova #6: Also out from Image, the new issue of this reliable performer, the penultimate issue of the 16-page wonder’s first storyline. It’s now tied with its sister book Fell in number of issue produced, and primed to pass it out, though it too will go on a short hiatus after issue #7.

Punisher War Journal #1: But meanwhile, Casanova writer Matt Fraction will also helm this much-delayed relaunch of Frank Castle as a participant in the Marvel Universe, killing supervillains and tying into the almighty Civil War. Art by Ariel Olivetti. We still haven’t gotten close to the Great Punisher Overload of 1993, where we had three ongoing series plus The Punisher Armory plus whatever specials and the like were coming out - I was 12 for that, and The Punisher War Zone was my favorite, for some reason.

John Woo’s 7 Brothers #2: And the other contemporary Punisher scribe continues his journey into Virgin Comics, as the eponymous team is assembled and perhaps something is set into motion.

52 #29 (of 52): Brian Bolland handles the origin of the Joker, and other stuff occurs.

Asterix and the Falling Sky: Oh, hey! It’s the newest Asterix book, in Diamond-serviced Direct Market stories at last. Asterix, of course, is one of the godheads of Franco-Belgian comics, written and drawn by surviving co-creator Albert Uderzo, but this latest adventure sees him getting into some rather… interesting territory. You see, there’s these rival outer space forces zipping around the Earth. One of them is comprised of soft, ‘funny animal’ type creatures who share space with a bunch of musclemen superhero clones (that type is all the same, ha ha!), the leadership of which has a nasty habit of barging into foreign lands to relieve them of their destructive weaponry. They are struggling against the Nagmas (look closely), a destructive horde of shifty, Velveeta-hued insect things who’ll stop at nothing on their mission of conquest… no no, that’s really the iconography at work, here in the 21st Century, I swear. Most comments I’ve read place this somewhere near the bottom of the Asterix pantheon in terms of quality, but I think it just might be worth flipping through to enjoy the potential high-profile spectacle of a culture anxiety meltdown, right on the page.


Hooray for disgust!

Welcome to the N.H.K. Vol. 1

Ah, now here’s some manga comedy the way I like it: clingy and uncomfortable, dark as midnight, perched right at the edge of despair. I guess some of the characters in this book are meant to have a redeeming characteristic or two, but nothing much is capable of rising to the top in as thick a body of liquid self-loathing as this. Warms the heart.

Welcome to the N.H.K., published in English by TokyoPop, is perhaps most vividly a testament to the power of otaku self-loathing. It’s actually a comics adaptation by artist Kendi Oiwa of prose novels by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (which apparently featured some illustration work by Yoshitoshi ABe); the property has been successful enough in its prior forms that a television anime version has also recently aired, though I believe the manga is still ongoing in Japan. As such, it’s kind of unexpected that the manga is as hard-edged as it is; maybe it lightens up later in its run and eases into a friendlier role as a tart-flavored romantic comedy of some sort (hell, I'd even bank on that), but the satire in this initial volume is pretty vicious, and all the more entertaining for it.

The plot follows young Satou, who has dropped out of college to lead the contemplative life; that means he (literally) hasn’t left his apartment in years. He’s a hikikomori, part of a social phenomenon that’s seen Japanese youth retire to their small abodes and essentially drop out of polite (or really any) society. Satou is also an otaku, a virgin, and quite possibly mentally unbalanced; he sometimes dreams of a conspiracy hatched by the NHK public broadcasting station, bringing the country irresistible anime that transforms good people into hopeless fanboys, and there’s nothing worse than a fanboy in this manga’s world. Satou sometimes teams up with his misogynist neighbor Yamazaki for the purposes of creating the world’s greatest hentai computer game, but his chief preoccupation is with cute Misaki, a young woman who’s made it her personal ‘project’ to cure Satou of his horrid membership with the Nihon Hikikomori Kyoukai, the true N.H.K., the secret alliance of hopeless people in a pop-sunk society.

I thought this was a pretty funny book, all the better for the extent to which it’s willing to take its perversity. As is necessary in such comics, there’s an ugly ring of understanding to much of it; a trip to an otaku-targeted maid café becomes drenched in the male gaze, as Satou explains how simple things like the texture of an employee’s apron evoke memories of pornographic computer games. Concepts like moé -- that diabolical state of paternalistic affection toward largely helpless, adorable female characters -- are dissected, parodied, and driven to their nasty conclusions, as the boys (by way of example) conclude that the most moé lead character possible for their erotic computer game would have to be a maid-robot space alien based on a childhood friend who’s the lover of the male character in a previous life and also fatally ill and suffering from Alzheimer’s and burdened with a split personality. Gotta keep that protective instinct humming!

It’s all in the service of making a pornographic computer game (a text-based bonus feature in the back beautifully pokes at the madness of the pursuit), so naturally Satou also views child pornography for ‘research’ material. Some of it’s obviously just lolicon modeling work, but why not take on the pure stuff too (“That Russian stuff was pretty hardcore, but the Americans’ were the raunchiest.”)? Soon he’s crouched in the bushes by the local elementary school, camera in hand, horrifying poor woman-hating Yamazaki that he’s crossed the line from obsessing over drawings of way underage girls to actual underage girls. It’s a comedy! And funny! I swear!

Really, I can’t imagine how much longer this tone can be maintained. There’s already suggestions that the book might soon lighten up into a more typical romantic comedy; the presence of Misaki certainly indicates that, as does, frankly, the apparent popularity of the work. And yet, on other pages, the book seems more ambitious, ready to take its withering, informed gaze to the larger scope of a nation, as suggested by Satou’s meeting with a former classmate, a compulsive pill-popping working woman, his exact opposite, a success, yet just as paranoid and rigid as he, and oddly sympathetic to his nerdy plight.

Who knows where it’ll go, but I like it where it’s at now. I readily admit that some readers will find its sense of humor hopelessly bleak and its characters largely revolting. But it's gratifyingly extreme in the way few inside-fandom satires are, while managing a keen sense of social observation and an honest wit. And it's not dismissive or superior in the way that many of these works might be; rather, it seems a genuine product of thoughtful self-disgust, or at least an observer willing to get in touch with the real pleasure of doing things that rightful folk might find grotesque. And who better to wield the whip?


A beautiful true story.

*A few days ago, I found myself sitting in an elevated hallway, a sort of tunnel connecting a local mall to a fancy hotel, with a certain theater positioned off to one side in the middle. There was a band coming to that theater; actually, they were already there, since I was staring out the window of that hall at their tour bus, watching people move things. There were tables in the hall, a Starbucks, and lots of people in suits wandering back and forth at the end of the workday.

I was dressed pretty nice too, since it was the end of my workday, but I was merely sitting around - a bunch of friends from up north wanted me to meet them at the show. They were traveling down for the first time, and they’d also need me to guide them in via cell.

But it got kind of boring, you know? Watching people standing around and smoking cigarettes. I had the best seat in the hall; perfect view of anyone entering or exiting the immediate vicinity of the theater. I had a coffee, which was nice.

Yet people kept walking back and forth. Back and forth, back and forth. It was inevitable, I guess, that I’d eventually get up and follow them, into the fancy hotel.

And boy - it was fucking fancy. I used to constantly dream of hotels, magnificent, labyrinthine plush structures, back when I was in college. This was a pretty nice one, if hobbled by the handicap of being real. I fit in pretty well, having not been changed from work, and I soon found out just what all those people had been milling around the area for:

Success Magazine!

No, I swear. It was a launch party for an actual magazine titled “Success Magazine.” It didn’t take long for me to realize that this was the most brilliant thing I’d ever seen. The magazine itself was… Success! As must be all the people circling around the party! Why, I could literally feel my social station climbing in my belly just by tagging along! Success!

So I walked around a bit and nodded gravely and knowingly at people -- Success needs no vulgarity of language -- and drifted toward the back of the reception area since my sudden assumption into the echelons of self-made privilege had warranted a trip to the men’s room.

And Jesus Christ what a men’s room! Lovely ivory décor, striking utility fixtures, and classical music piped right in! It seemed even louder in the stalls, where it counted the most! It was by far my classiest use of the toilet in months, but the pleasure didn’t end with flushing. They had champagne hand soap at the sinks, folks. I mean, champagne hand soap alone isn’t anything huge, but as the wafer-thin mint at the climax of a repast of nigh aristocratic defecation? Perfect.

I hope I didn’t mix my metaphors there.

Anyway, upon leaving the restroom, I figured I’d best be getting back to the hallway; they were serving appetizers in honor of Success, and I didn’t want to mooch actual foodstuffs off anyone (besides, I didn’t have a nametag). It was like leaving Avalon, that walk back to the hall; the echoes of the heroes of Success dimmed behind me as reached the tables by the windows. It was totally dark outside now.

And there was a man in my perfect seat.

An awful, awful man. His beady, shifting eyes skittering around toward the street, as if to suck the very souls from the workers below. How awful! How desperate! I certainly didn’t look anything like him, and he was in my beautiful, perfect seat.

It was then, dear friends, that the realization of what was truly happening hit me in the back of the head like a brick.

I had lost my wonderful place…

(wait for it)

…because I’d gotten distracted by Success.

(please refrain from throwing flowers toward the stage)


An Omnibus of Tries


Another side-effect of the growing popularity of a foreign culture’s popular art here in English-language environs: the whiplash of seeing an artist doing something that you’d never expected, but that they might have spent years pursuing. It’s the tunnel-vision of language, and the time-lapse of publishing manga in English - an artist may well be accidently branded as something (a ‘samurai’ guy, a ‘harem’ fellow) by English-language fans, leaving them vulnerable to the shock of a sudden, assured ‘debut’ in another style way down the line.

So it’s all the more interesting for me to come across a venture into a heretofore unexplored style by a popular artist that broadcasts just as much hesitancy from the creator's side of things as the reader's. Hiroaki Samura is well-known in the US for his Blade of the Immortal series, about samurai and the supernatural. It’s been a constant presence at Dark Horse, which has now opted to release this one-off collection of Samura’s short non-Blade works, three stories in sum. And yet, for this particular instance, the artist’s new ‘debut’ actually feels like one, since it genuinely was a new type of comic for Samura to draw upon its 2002 compilation in Japan. He even employed a pseudonym, despite these new works being published by the same Kodansha that put out Blade - that fake name was Takei Teashi, which is a pun on the English phrase “Take it easy.”

And that makes some sense, as it’s apparent that the works collected in Ohikkoshi are meant more for fun and experimentation (and perhaps a bit of thematic exploration) than providing the most polished, assured storytelling experience. Don’t get me wrong, Samura maintains a very high level of visual craft throughout -- and he’s quite open in his Afterward about how much he directed his uncredited assistants to do -- but the loose structure of these pieces evidence more of a desire to stretch the artistic legs than necessarily come out looking good, and I do think that reads may be a bit disappointed or put off by the tone. That doesn’t mean they’re bad stories, or even particularly incomplete, but they may require a certain adjustment to the self-conscious, somewhat nervous approach Samura employs, even while indulging in genre tropes.

Of the three tales, little needs be said of the autobiographical Kyoto Super Barhopping Journal (Bloodbath at Midorogaike), save that it’s eight pages long, self-explanatory, kind of funny, and reminiscent of the sort of thing that appears as a bonus short in a collection of works, which is essentially how it functions here. And that someone along the line apparently couldn’t decide on which part of the title goes in the parentheses, so it’s displayed in different ways at different times. If that’s indeed a localization error, I’ll cop to that being the only one I could find; this is a very nicely-designed book.

So, of the two bigger stories, the 58-page Luncheon of Tears Diary (Vagabond Shoujo Manga-ka) was chronologically first and easily emerges as the more experimental. Indeed, it feels largely improvised, following the bizarre life trajectory of a young woman who starts the story as a naïve 18-year old shoujo artist, ends the story as a wizened 34-year old manga superstar, and becomes a wide variety of things in between, almost all of her misadventures involving calamities with men. Samura mentions that the story was inspired by various eras of French pop music, but it seemed most reminiscent to me of Doris Wishman’s 1965 exploitation cinema classic Bad Girls Go to Hell, with the largely dependant female character wandering from location to location, encountering many forms of pain and exploitation along the way.

It’s sometimes as unsavory too; the work oscillates between a lightly tongue-in-cheek and overtly parodic tone, but I do find it kind of difficult to laugh at a forced deflowering, or a woman being forced into prostitution to pay off her debts, no matter how many wacky facial expressions Samura and/or his assistants whip up, and I don’t think the author’s no-doubt knowing homage to various unsavory popular genres (Yakuza, women-in-prison, etc.) supercedes such queasy juxtaposition of sex, violence, comedy, and writing exercise noodling. That last element is maybe the most pertinent; the whole story really does feel like the obviously talented author simply hasn’t a clue of what he’s doing (maybe intentionally so), and probably doesn’t really care what sort of cumulative impact his lightning-paced outlay of genre tropes and loud gags might have, so long as the enthusiasm is kept high. I can only add that there’s a very thin line with me between “Take it easy” and “I don’t care.”

But there are pleasures, and I could not say Samura doesn‘t care. Surely his visuals are too energetic for that, and he does manage a overarching theme for the whole messy episode. Samura’s point seems to be that pain and heartbreak are necessary to infuse a body of work with depth, and that a naïve creator can only truly create naïve, superficial works. The funniest parts of the story for me are the early bits in which a shoujo manga is created in a manner straight out of Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, with careful considerations made as to which boys are actually reading girls’ comics, and what sort of bodies those boys might be interested in leering at, the male gaze invading even apparently female-dominated territory. But Samura cares about art, and he believes that the comics form is capable of more than titillation. It’s very weird that he would tell such a story in the language of lowdown genre; maybe it’s really about how the stuff of trash can transform into compelling artistry in the right hands. A kindly wish, but Samura doesn’t quite have those hands yet.

If there’s any overarching theme in this book at all, it’s that of life experience trumping all else, and sadness leading to greater achievements in life and art. The book’s main presentation is the 168-page Ohikkoshi, a five-part serial that essentially acts as a standalone graphic novel. The plot follows a klatch of art students through their romantic and comedic personal affairs. It’s an environment Samura knows well; as mentioned in this interview, he’s an art school dropout himself, having gone off to work on Blade of the Immortal just prior to graduation while in the process of paying another student to do his final project for him. Samura says he only went to art school because he liked the manga artists there, and there’s a real sense of ennui and drifting to Ohikkoshi. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we rarely see any of these students doing work.

It’s a much calmer, more standard-styled work than anything else in the book. Actually, it’s quite thoroughly clichéd as a romantic manga comedy, complete with the generically bland nervous nerd male protagonist, a love triangle with two women, a pair of nondescript male friends who don’t do much, etc. And yet, this is by far the most successful work in the book (good thing it’s the longest, eh?), and I think there’s two big reasons.

First, Samura is working considerably (though not entirely) within genre tropes, and he clearly knows how manga genres work. This is the kind of story that reminds you of how clichés become clichés - because they can be very effective when used in a sufficiently skilled manner. Secondly, and more importantly to me, Samura is very, very good with characterization, especially the female characters. That may not have been evident at all from the other stories in this book, but it’s clear as a bell here. Samura lavishes time on Akagi and Kobarukawa, the obligatory opposites in the nondescript male’s life, and they emerge as fully-formed, genuinely endearing figures, enough so that, by the end of it all, the story is essentially about them rather than the boring male ‘lead’ character, and it’s all the better for it.

Ohikkoshi is smattered with nervous storytelling tics and faintly irritating bouts of self-reference - I don’t mind characters turning to address the reader, or even making the occasional joke about storytelling bumps and shortcuts, but around the second time Samura drew attention via caption to the fact that he couldn’t be arsed with setting up a new sequence through the story and was just going to jump over to something else, well, I rolled my eyes. Take it easy! There’s also a good number of strange digressions, including a subplot about an Italian assassin and the history of Japanese noodles in the Italian market that, while funny, isn’t nearly as good as the author apparently thinks it is, given the space it’s lavished with.

But all that seems to fade by the end. There’s a real warmth to this story that I don't often get from even allegedly romantic works. An authenticity to the setting and characters (yes, even the underdeveloped ones have their moments of genuine power) that both livens the book and goes a long way toward bolstering Samura’s theme of experience as artistic fuel. You’ll actually come to understand the personalities of these kids, their desires and barely-expressed hopes. For all its posturing just-a-comic artificiality, there’s a soul of empathy and deep understanding behind the pages. Hell, the story’s ending breaks out on the more dire romantic comedy tropes ever, one that by all rights should brand the work as pandering, intellectually insulting garbage, but goddamn does Samura make it into something transcendent. Putting song lyrics onto the comics page almost never works, and it continues to not work here, but I was willing to excuse an awful lot by the end of this book, it had so trapped me with its cast.

And again, life fuels art. I wonder if the image of certain characters abandoning what they’re doing to find themselves is a bit of autobiography itself for someone who left art school to pursue his love of comics?

So this is a turbulent, endearing work. I think it’s very flawed, but also very interesting in the way that only a real talent’s hazardous steps toward something not entirely familiar can be. Surely there’s no self-delusion: in that Afterward, Samura himself deems the works collected here as “just another average achievement.” He’s both right and wrong, but his honesty will take him places, with the skills he obviously has.


This book is getting ahead.

*52 Dept: This seems to be ‘bulldoze the lingering plots’ week in 52, as the creative team zips around with reckless abandon, sweeping off notions that began months (or even only weeks ago). It’s very weirdly paced at times - early on in the issue, Montoya and the Question warn Batwoman (remember her?) of the horrific threat posed to her life by Intergang; a handful of pages later, Our Heroes beat the shit out of Intergang (in church!) and ruin their evil prophecy, but they vow to return or something. Points for speed.

But many qualms remain. Does the Intergang Bible really have that many prophesies in it pertaining to recent events? And far more importantly, is the Question going to exhibit the Death Cough every time he appears now? Because I love the Death Cough - it’s one of my favorite bits of dramatic shorthand. Every time the Question hacks up a lung, as pertinent to his condition as it might be, I feel like it’s Week 28, Day 2, Year 1896, and he’s suffering from Consumption, and I’m sure the Death Cough goes back way farther than that in the annals of literature and drama. I tend to hold onto coughs for a long time myself, so I always try to imagine myself as a melodramatic figure of tragedy. Books like this made me this way!

We are reminded three times in this issue that it’s Week 28, Day 2, including once for a single page of Lobo zipping away from danger, followed immediately by a bizarre jump of two days that itself lasts for only one page; it feels like some sort of caption error, and I think Lobo & Company’s big final stand would have worked a little better if maybe the one-page Lobo bits had been scattered throughout the issue rather than hooked together, to better convey the passage of time. It’s also kind of strange seeing more than one splash page in this book, and so close together - there’s a real sense of trying to wrap things up and move on to the next scheduled developments, as time and space are running short. Or maybe there’s outside concerns; I’d hate to think of all the last-second alterations that go into a book like this, and the presence of several splash pages and a jumpy pace suggest to me the presence of editing scars, and a need to fill space with something post haste.

All that said, the Red Tornado subplot does manage to finish (or at least develop into a new environment) with a certain degree of humor and panache, the chaos of this wrap-up at least met by the frantic nature of the plot. You can never scream “52” enough when your head’s attached to random junk. What sort of adventures await the severed talking head of Red Tornado? I don’t know, but I think we can all hope it eventually teams up with Dr. Fate’s Helmet and the Emerald Head of Ekron to save the day in the end, bringing this strange motif of severed heads and talking headgear… wait for it… to a head. Heads cut off, plots cut off… is this a message?


There's also one of those letters pages where they print stuff by angry fans.

*Apologia Dept: Sorry Diamond, you were right the other week. According to Marvel’s solicitations, Eternals has now been extended to a seven-issue miniseries. Now that I think of it, 1602 wound up having a longer-than-expected final issue as well, though not an entirely additional final issue - and there still wasn't an ending! I wonder what's going on with this one...

Elsewhere in the solicitations: The Punisher Presents: Barracuda MAX is apparently a five-issue miniseries.

Blade #3

Also on my mind in those solicitations? Blade. It seems issue #6 is going to be a “special self-contained issue!” Like I mentioned the other day, Marvel has also drawn attention to the self-contained nature of this issue, though not next issue (which is indeed “special,” if mostly for the holiday connection) or issue #5 (which simultaneously manages a variant cover, a Wolverine guest appearance, and a Casualties of War tie-in, kind of a sales-boosting hat trick), even though I presume they’re also going to be more-or-less self-contained. You’ve got to keep reiterating a book’s assumed strengths, I guess. Can’t run forever on cover pull-quotes from cast members of an already-cancelled television series.

But anyway, Blade’s kind of gotten to me, here by issue #3. It’s a crowded, slightly messy book, but it’s sorting itself out. It makes for a nice comparison with artist Howard Chaykin’s last superhero series as artist, the infamous Hawkgirl, written by Walt Simonson; that one basically got more and more messy as it went along, until issue #56 rolled around and characters started revealing they were thousands of years old and villains jumped out of nowhere and the giant cosmic vagina-with-teeth opened in a wall and ate everything and Hawkgirl swung a mace until someone fired a gun and everything exploded and the story ended with a joke about blogging, which to my mind is like flying the white flag. It was a bizarre run, more interested in goofy superhero horror stuff than anything - you could feel it liquefying by the end, perhaps under encouragement to get back to the concerns of the DCU.

Blade is smoother than that. Issue #1 had problems with balancing present-day sequences with tales from Blade’s past, and I see that difficulty has largely been resolved by making the past a tighter corollary to the present. Issue #2 also managed to have some fun with Doombots and time-travel, as Blade teemed up with Dr. Doom’s mom to fight vampires in the past, and possibly wound up orchestrating his own present-day problems in the process. In this issue, Blade goes on a date with a woman he found on the internet; she’s a vampire, and Blade feels the need to take her down, but all sorts of practical problems spring up from this simple exercise. There’s also one of those classic bits where a drunkard looks at something bizarre and unexpected, then looks to his bottle as the punchline (he doesn‘t smash it, sadly). And then the whole bit later fits into the plot, believe it or not.

It’s an interesting enough plot in that it takes time to just babble around, exploring the logical (and somewhat illogical) repercussions of Blade’s mission-in-life and relating it to his past for an issue’s length, and then stops itself when there’s not much else to be said, even though the plot itself never quite ends. It’s a downbeat piece, complete with Young Blade run out of town for accidentally killing humans instead of vampires, suffused with a general acknowledgement that super-senses and amazing strength can’t really save a person from doing anything but flee from the law’s answer to their lawbreaking ways. It doesn't all make complete sense from a 'the hero must escape!' perspective, but one gets the feeling that the title character is spending much of this issue trying to amuse himself with solving problems through smarts rather than strength; not a damn thing works on more than a superficial level. It’s a resigned, genuinely anti-heroic comic, in that the antihero neither believes in nor benefits from tenants of (super)heroism.

It’s good to see that writer Marc Guggenheim seems to be laying off the frentic action, maybe to play more toward artist Chaykin’s strengths; the action’s a bit more reserved now, leaving Chaykin’s characters to stalk around ominous streets and hallways. The old-timey sequences remain the best, visually, affording Chaykin lots of time to play around with costuming and décor - lots of textures everywhere. His contemporary superhero style is still comparatively fast and loose, but I think Edgar Delgado’s colors are more calming than Michelle Madsen’s work on Hawkgirl, which I felt emphasized the harshness of Chaykin’s inks to a somewhat garish degree. I like that Blade changes his facial hair around across issues; one of those minor details I appreciate picking up on.

The book's kind of grown on me. Hopefully Marvel's efforts at promotion will accomplish something, though you'll have to forgive me my uncertainty on that point.


I am out of titles. It had to happen. I really considered just hitting keys at random for this one, like sfidkbzknf. This is the new frontier.

*Seven Soldiers Dept:

That's the great strength of superhero comics - internal psychological conflicts can become actualized. Inner dramas can be played out as literal, world-shaking battles… 'Seven Soldiers', seen from that perspective, is all about superheroes on the couch, trying to deal with all the strange and unusual feelings they've been having these last few decades, and it's no coincidence that so many characters in the book are seen attending self-help groups or undergoing therapy. There's also the matter of my own tendency towards severe and crippling depression, and the way in which I use my work in comics to unearth, personify, and come to terms with a lot of painful and difficult emotions. I'd like to think that these comics allow us to discuss things like hope and failure, love and loss, confusion and certainty, by effecting the alchemical transformation of hurt and self-doubt into wonder.”

Grant Morrison looks back with Ian Brill on the recently-completed megaproject, over at Newsrama. Lots and lots of tasty stuff on Morrison’s writing process for the various issues (a discussion that spills out into chat about his most recent projects, like Batman and The Authority), including some eye-opening chat on late-game alterations, the effect of leaving revived characters to the hands of others (“I honestly don't expect anyone to actualize the potential of these characters, but I'd like to be proven wrong.” ) and the effect Morrison hopes Seven Soldiers #1 might have as a single issue. He also explains that Zatanna bit thusly:

When Zatanna casts the cards in the final issue, she's making a connection with the reader, inviting us to join her in making sense of 'the passage of a few people through a very short space of time' as Guy Debord so poignantly described his life and that of his friends, and by extension the lives of us all.”

Oh just read it.

The Looking Glass Wars: Hatter M #4 (of 4)

This has been a thoroughly odd series. In case you don’t recall, it’s an older-skewing, comics-format, Image-published sidestory to Frank Beddor’s young adults prose novel series The Looking Glass Wars (Book 1 now out in the US). The comic is written by Beddor and Liz Cavalier, with art by Ben Templesmith. This is the final issue of the first miniseries (two more are planned), extra-sized for $3.99 with 36 pages of story.

The plot, briefly, concerns Hatter Madigan, a royal bodyguard of Wonderland, who’s searching around our world for lost little Alyss, the heir to the throne who had to flee a nasty coup. Madigan is a master of blades, all the better for fighting our world’s junkies of Black Imagination, a substance that turns men into monsters. He’s not shy about it - at one point early on, he hops on his horse and lets his blades twirl around his back like a speedboat, leaving a stormy mist of dismembered body parts and grue in his wake.

All of which, mind you, takes place in the context of a story that often seems reminiscent of an ‘80s children’s television cartoon; there’s also a wicked Baroness who lives in a (literally) b&w world because she’s obsessed with hooking children up to an evil machine and sucking their imaginations right out. It’s really sort of Care Bears or Muppet Babies, except for the gory throat slashings and maimings that tend to pop in. One would expect this sort of thing to be impossibly disjointed, and while it is certainly jarring it somehow manages to succeed through its curious sense of conviction. It doesn’t as much draw attention to itself as a gory revision of children’s stories as assert its independent existence as a strange hybrid of whatever Cavalier & Beddor find interesting, clash be damned. This makes it no less batty, but it does at least seem organic, even while spitting out thought bubbles like:

What a completely outrageous lie. There’s a very strong scent of imagination emanating from her with overtones of boldness and sensuality. It’s really quite… intoxicating.”

The bit about the overtones made it funny. For me.

The crucial component, as it’s been for every issue, is Templesmith. His art takes on a decidedly jaunty beat at times, playfully cooking up images like an ominous crystal-powered imagination sucking machine that somehow retain the flavor of a child’s drawing; his actual drawings of children are also pleasing, big detailed heads atop pyramid lumps of bodies. It’s the perfect tone of hyperactive adolescence to adopt, right down to the weight given to the title hero smashing mightily though things, his body slowly descending to the ground over three panels as villains flee his fury as shadows in the background.

There’s still more to come, as has been announced before, so don’t expect an awful lot of closure. Being the first segment of a bunch of sidestories to a larger work that’s only 1/3 complete doesn’t offer a lot of chances for wrapping it all up with a bow. I could have done without the extended homage to Neil Gaiman’s Delirium too, I think. But Hatter M has proven itself to be a weirdly compelling thing, as far as disposable action stories go, possessed of a unique sense of being and an honest eccentricity that pushes it a little ahead of the pack.


A light, gentle week.

*Thank heavens.


Project: Romantic (new AdHouse anthology, on lovin')

review nuggets #1 (featuring Eternals #5, Wisdom #1, Batman #658 and 52 #27)

Peepshow #14

review nuggets #2 (Featuring Jonah Hex #13 and American Splendor #3)

*So let's get to it. Let me know if I didn't mention anything, or what you're interested in. This all looks kind of skimpy...


Train Man: A Shojo Manga Vol. 1 (of 1): For those keeping track at home, this is Del Ray’s piece of the Densha Otoko pie. You see, Densha Otoko is this gargantuan megahit cultural phenomenon multimedia thingy in Japan, based on the allegedly true story of a hopeless nerd who one day summoned his inner might to stop a drunkard from bugging women on a train, then turned to the internet for advice on what to do when one of the helpless flowers sent him a gift to express her undying gratitude. This heartwarming reaffirmation of traditional gender roles led to a bunch of dates no doubt chock-full of ‘what a nerd!’ humor and heart-tugging sentiment that I guess the internet got hooked on or something, and then relevant posts got compiled into a book, and later got adapted into a movie and a television series and no less than four separate manga, this one being the version for young girls. The first chapter is online. With all candor, I can’t imagine much of anything I’d like to experience less than Densha fucking Otoko, going on the synopsis, which does sap my interest in comparing all the various manga versions that are coming over (VIZ and CMX also have their own editions). Although once my blog posts are adapted to interpretative dance, you’ll all buy a ticket, right?

Southland Tales Book 2: Fingerprints: Hey! This thing. I think the movie is due for a US release in April of 2007.

Luba: Three Daughters: The third and apparently final post-Palomar collection of Luba stories from writer/artist Gilbert Hernandez. If you didn’t get the pamphlets, you can now get this.

Fury: Peacemaker: A collection of the recent Garth Ennis-written miniseries, which I read as pamphlets. It's actually a little better than it might initially seem to be, with a fine, energetic first chapter and some interesting plays on Ennis' usual Men of Honor in War themes. But in the end, it's just another Garth Ennis war comic, this time with corporate-owned characters and little to bump it up to the level of the better War Stories entries. But if you're itching for Fury to tackle Nazis and team up with weathered, honorable comrades, it's well executed enough.

Astro City: The Dark Age: Book 2 (of 4) #1 (of 4): I think that’s the correct issue makeup for what’s going to be dominating Astro City for the near future. I kind of skipped out on the first Dark Age storyline, but I’ll catch up eventually.

52 #28 (of 52): In which Red Tornado does something. Also, Dale Eaglesham does the origin of Catman, unless somebody else does something, which I guess they might.

Civil War #5 (of 7): It’s going to be a good week for Civil War! I can feel it! I mean, the last issue of Daredevil: Father is also coming out this week, so that’ll divert all the ‘extremely late’ talk to something else. Way to take that bullet for the team, Joe Q! Ha ha, no, I’m just kidding: everyone would still talk about the new Civil War for the next month if the pages all came out blank.

Blade #3: How do you when self-contained issues of comics are on the low ebb? When the solicitation for a new issue of a series devoted entirely to self-contained issues feels the need to point out that this issue, in particular, is self-contained. Maybe we’re just being toyed with in anticipation of issue #5’s Casualties of War tie-in?

Sock Monkey: The “Inches” Incident #2 (of 4):Run! It is a cataclysm!

Absolute DC: The New Frontier: In which the crimson gristle of living meat is frayed once again under the metal scream of the chainsaw; Leatherface and family return… oh wait, no. Mixed it up with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre #1. This is some $75 Darwyn Cooke thing. Sorry.


One of those posts where you'll just want to presume none of the links are safe for work.

*That was a bad weekend. With some luck, it’ll bottom out as the worst in a while, if only by future comparison. It’s a new day, the sun is up again, etc.

*Cinema Dept: It’s not often anymore I spot a brand-new dvd and snap it right up for purchase, but that’s what happened this week with Something Weird’s long-awaited release of the 1963 mondo classic Ecco; as always, these special editions go out through Image Entertainment - the full title is Ecco/The Forbidden, to account for the second feature.

If you’ve never heard of a ‘mondo’ movie, a little background is in order. Back in the ‘60s, there was a certain international fad for shocking travelogues, documentary films emphasizing the bizarre, revolting, and titillating aspects of life across the globe. Usually, copious amounts of footage was faked, or the (generally withering, sarcastic) narration would intentionally spice up captured footage for the sake of sensationalism. The trend began in Italy, with the release of 1962’s Mondo Cane, from directors Paolo Cavara, Gualtiero Jacopetti, and Franco Prosperi; I believe Jacopetti was a disillusioned newsreel editor, who ached to produce something a bit more downcast and fleshy, and Mondo Cane wound up packed with bizarre, perhaps mostly somewhat real scenes of irradiated fish living in trees, cargo cults in the jungle, and curious death rituals. It got nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Song (More), made tons of money, and opened the floodgates for dozens and dozens of increasingly garish, nasty pageants of truthiness to come. I commend to you David Kerekes’ and David Slater’s fascinating book Killing for Culture (due for a brand-new updated printing coming soon from Headpress) for a peek at how far the genre went.

It’s easy to see where mondo came from; the early documentaries of Robert Flaherty thrived to an extent on the novelty of the odd ways of inaccessible cultures, and some of that stuff was staged and covertly fictionalized too. It’s easier to see where it went; echoes of the mondo movie are all over television programs promising sensational video footage and snarky commentary, and the style is no less popular today.

The trick is, Mondo Cane itself actually did have a certain amount of skill put into its making; it has clear themes, a driving (if crushingly obvious) irony-fueled editing scheme, and a coherent worldview behind it. The title indicates A Dog’s World, and that’s precisely what’s offered; as the film cuts from dogs being devoured in Asian nations to pet cemeteries in the US, from a bull’s beheading to the goring of humans in a contest with a similar bull, Mondo Cane cinematically posited that all of humanity’s myriad peoples are joined through differing flavors of delusion, suffering, and irrationality. Tellingly, many copycats just took the Mondo (the World), and deleted the aesthetic impetus for its examination, though the glee with money was probably the same all around.

Anyway, that’s the long way of getting to Gianna Proia’s 1963 Mondo di notte numero 3 (World by Night 3), eventually retitled Ecco or This Shocking World, depending on which country you’re in. The World by Night series was supposedly a fizzy, pre-Mondo Cane travelogue of international nightlife, exactly the sort of thing that prompted the making of Mondo Cane in response. Accordingly, part 3 (supposedly armed with copious footage from #2) became a ‘modern’ mondo movie, though I thought it was interesting in that it was still early enough in the genre’s cycle that it attracted filmmakers of some genuine skill. Ecco is presented in lavish, faded 2.35:1 widescreen, a testament to fallen beauty. It boasts an especially sour narration by George Sanders, and a blunt sense of irony on loan from Mondo Cane, along with the bits of animal killing and barely-repressed cultural elitism.

But it has visual aplomb like few others do, and some of its (again, probably contrived) scenes are occasionally outstanding, like a long movement of troublesome Swedish teens driving around and destroying things, culminating in an amazing sequence of young men begging for change with hubcaps while agog middle-aged spectators watch a pair of kids get it on atop a parked vehicle. Or the numerous song and dance numbers (an Oscar nomination has an effect on a genre, you see), often eminently watchable, including a great strongwoman burlesque act and a psychedelic strip show in the markets of France. Or the underground college sword fighting club in Germany, with young men dressed in amazing black goggles, whipping one another across their faces with blades. If it’s staged, it’s staged with style! Never mind the more reflexive moments, like a stage-bound scene taken from the Grand Guignol, or an utterly bizarre, self-critical finale with an Italian woman getting annoyed with a photographer trying to film her ascending a sacred place’s steps on her knees. A sea of flesh in a Japanese good luck ritual takes on a hallucinogenic aspect as a crowd of hundreds swarms and writhes.

Also: animals die. This is always the most touchy bit with these films, and you’ll see little relief here. A whaling expedition is examined in extreme detail, and reindeer are stabbed through the heart by herders (or, in one memorable sequence, purportedly castrated by human mouth, though it’s hard to see what’s going on). No human death footage this time; it was still early in the day for that. A more complete accounting of the contents can be found in this review.

There were an awful lot of these films throughout the '60s and '70s, and they were genuinely influential and popular. But they were just disreputable enough that they've been swept under the rug of history and largely ignored in studies of international film of the time, or 'documentary' filmmaking as a whole. I suppose some of the appeal of these things is their lost nature, as if the sick thrill of exploring odd new places aross the globe has radiated out of the films themselves, and saturated the very act of finding and watching them. Fittingly ironic for films such as these.