*Thank god this horrible week is over. Oh christ.

*I did manage to get a Jeff Smith review out, so that's something. Abhay did a really nice post at the other site too. Dick Hyacinth finished his Ultimate 100 Fusion List.

I'm not the first to say it, but gosh - not too much of the ol' manga on there, huh? Less than 10%. There's several reasons for that. My gut tells me a big one for the purposes of a list like Dick's is that VIZ and Tokyopop and the like just aren't as aggressive as, say, Drawn and Quarterly or DC in getting books into the hands of print and wide-focus online media outlets, a situation aggravated by the fact that manga publishers deal primarily in long, continuing series, making it harder to find a 'hook' for the audience when writing a piece for a probably none-too-familiar audience. As far as the comics-focused internet goes, heavy manga sites tend to focus on only manga (or very manga-ish) books, thus booting them from Dick's list, and the same obviously goes for anime magazines that traffic in manga (so, all of them).

That kind of knocks out a lot of possible areas for Best Of action, and every little bit counts with a list set up like Dick's; it's no shock that broad-reaching Vertical's done-in-one Tezuka tomes loom high over the rest, nor that all the manga that 'crossed over' from my list happened to be one-volume projects.

But maybe this is a mere shock from a larger movement happening beneath us. As comics criticism becomes more entrenched in wide-focus venues -- your slick magazines and daily newspapers and pop culture websites -- I suspect the emphasis of coverage will lean even more heavily on books, those things on Amazon and in big chain stores, sent easily and weightily through the mail, familiar and supple in the hands of the wide readership. New graphic novels, yes. Big collections of superhero material, yes. Ropin' and herdin' of small chapters from different places, yes.

For manga in the US, though, the book is not the collection of a series. The book is the series, often released every two months, like clockwork, quick enough and big enough to overwhelm the tired, space-strapped reviewer. It'll be like how there's always less reviews of issue #3 of a superhero miniseries than issue #1, only writ large in the venues reaching for comics as zones of coverage.

It doesn't seem unrealistic to me. It also doesn't bug me, since I don't read all that much of that stuff anyway, but you can bet it'll have an effect on critical consensus things like Dick's list, and perhaps a slow ripple across the growing idea of what the 'best' comics will look like to the wider public.

Meanwhile, I suspect the critical scene surrounding manga-as-manga -- the connoisseurs and crazy fans of whatever 'manga' will embody as a term -- shall develop on its own, on the internet, and maybe other places. What will it look like? How will it engage with the wider world of comics? Will I ever afford a nicer brand of liquor? These are the questions that torment me when I should be at a gym or reminding myself how to present in public. What a wonderful world.

*Hey, I haven't said a thing on Marvel's hot hot deal with French publisher Soleil Productions to release European comics in English, have I? Eh, maybe that's because their first title, due out this May, is Alessandro Barbucci's & Barbara Canepa's Sky Doll.

Now, there's nothing really wrong with Sky Doll. It's got a decent enough sci-fi adventure story with a focus on religious/spiritual political struggle. Visually, it's got one of the slicker anime fusion styles I've seen, and I do mean anime; the storytelling fundamentals are straight-up Western density, almost nothing like the poise and flow of most genre-similar manga, but the series has got those candied cartoon stylings down cold for the in-panel designs. Some extra Disney Magic is mixed in too, probably because the creators have worked on some projects for Disney Italy (if Lambiek is right, Barbucci did some duck work too, and he's a teacher at the Italian Disney Academy), but it's extra fitting considering the primordial Disney effect on the anime 'look.' I do believe the creators have cited North and South American comics as influential as well, so let's not get too confined.

But, as a launch book? In Marvel's big attempt to introduce European comics (well, Soleil's) to way more Direct Market reader than would usually have such easy access? It strikes me as odd, for three main reasons.

1. Sky Doll is not finished. I mean, in Europe. I've read this stuff, and believe me - it's at a logical enough stopping point between chapters, yes, but it's not done. And it took six years to get the three extant albums out, the most recent one hitting the shelves in early 2006. Yet, Marvel seems to be pushing it as a three-issue miniseries, which I can't imagine is going to go over well with curious new readers interested in checking out those faintly smutty Eurofunnies, only to find out that there's no ending, nor the promise of one, nor even the promise of more than 44 new pages vaguely in the future (unless Marvel puts out the Spaceship Collection album of short stories). I mean, that can't be how you win over the Direct Market.

2. Oh, the reason I've read the stuff already? Because, contrary to Marvel's claims that the series is "now finally presented in English," the damned thing just came out in the US, from a different publisher, in English, a year and a half ago. I specifically mean the Summer 2006 special issue of Heavy Metal, which collected the whole affair as a $6.95 magazine. Sure, go ahead and joke that Heavy Metal's translations don't count as English - I've read more than my share of head-throbbers, but Sky Doll's localization was merely stiff as a board. They also slapped a Julie Strain metal bikini cover on it, which was charming, but... the material has been released. Hell, a bunch of shops probably have it in their bins somewhere. Maybe Marvel's not counting on their target audience to know, or care. But Heavy Metal... it's not an obscure thing. The stuff's out there.

3. And that raises questions of format. From what I can gather, Marvel is presenting Sky Doll initially in the pamphlet format, at one issue per album, under the MAX banner. Variant cover available! It'll be 64 pages per issue for $5.99 a shot, which suggests that there'll be ads, since there's only 44 pages of story in these things.

Now, like I just mentioned, Heavy Metal isn't the best format ever. It's a floppy magazine, the translation isn't great, the aesthetics aren’t exactly consistent... but, it did present the material in a somewhat oversized format, like I suspect the art was designed to be read in, with no ads to block the flow of each chapter/album, for $6.95.

Meanwhile, Marvel plans to charge $5.99 per issue. At that price point, with that page count, I'll hazard a guess that the format will be typical pamphlet, which means the art will be smaller. Will the ads be pushed to the back? I hope. It'll have the original covers -- unless Marvel gets nervous over anatomy -- and maybe the English adaptation will be smoother, but beyond that it's a total of about $11 more for what might be an even weaker format than the Heavy Metal release. That just doesn't strike me as very clear thinking. Maybe Marvel just presumes its core readership doesn't look at comics not published by them (or DC)?

Anyway, it bugs me. We might probably (hopefully?) get a nice English release of the big ol' collected edition when all is said and done, unless Marvel plans to shoot for the standard North American trade paperback size too. Anyone have more info on this? Maybe instead of ads there'll be bonus features, or some of the short stories. That would make things a lot more interesting...



*This week is going to kill me, if I don't hang myself first. Sorry; you're not going to hear from me until Wednesday night at the earliest. Not even the shipping list feature. Just buy whatever has the nicest cover stock. Um, All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder #9 is out; that's a comic! The new Mark Millar/JRJR Kick-Ass thing? Other things too.

Maybe I'll get to buy my comics on time?


Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway


The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #6 (of 6)

Column #16 (on Hideshi Hino, of the scary manga)

at The Savage Critics.


Well, look what the cat dragged in.

*I'll admit it, readers - I was lost. I didn't think I had it in me to return to my comic book column over at the other site. Truthfully, I was ready to pack it in. Move to the woods, live the sweet life of stealing honey and gnawing on bark. The real life.

But then, I got a very special letter in the mail from eight-year old Becky out in the breadbasket of our nation (provided we live in the US). I'd like to share it with you.


Dear Jog,

How are you doing? I'm doing good now! I wasn't doing too good yesterday, because poppy and mommy didn't have money to feed me, and I was dressed in a potato sack with potatoes still in it and the potatoes were too hard to eat. I had no friends and I was really sad. But then I read your thrilling exegesis on Batman: The Cult and my dolly came to life and started dancing, and poppy started puking Sacajawea dollars instead of Hennessy! Now everything is great. I love you.

Little Becky


Well, this one's for you, lil' soldier: the life and times of Hideshi Hino, master of manga horror. Dance with your dolly. Dance.



In praise of the scissors of my youth.

Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway

When I was 14, I was the perfect age for Steve Purcell's Sam & Max. Funny animals and reckless violence, but nothing too harsh. It was 1995, and a big new collection of Sam & Max comics had just been released. I was still a year or so away from tossing out most of the comics in search of grander things, like going to bed with a girl so all my anxieties would vanish in a puff of orgone, which is exactly what happened.

But I never tossed out my Sam & Max book. It looks like this:

Er, it looks like that only scuffed up and falling apart.

I'd probably at least heard of Sam & Max before; the stuff had sure been around for long enough. Purcell had been working on the characters -- a gun-toting dog in a suit and a naked lagomorph who go around solving funny cases as 'freelance police' (and what else are so many pop culture private eyes?) -- since his younger brother created them, leaving his comics around for Steve to deface with comedy. The older Purcell then took the characters to art school, and eventually into the enchanted and very stable world of b&w independent comics publishing with 1987's Sam & Max: Freelance Police Special Edition, released through Steve Moncuse' Fishwrap Productions (c'mon, you remember Fish Police). One issue was released.

Purcell was a friend and peer of then-upcoming comics artists Art Adams and Mike Mignola, but he never worked as heavily in comics; Adams would illustrate his script for the 1988 Gumby's Winter Fun Special at Comico, while Mignola would draw Rusty Razorclam, President of Neptune from 1996's Dark Horse Presents #107, and those two works make up just about all of Purcell's non-Sam & Max sequential work, save for his goth-tinged Toybox stories from Piranha Press' Fast Forward #3 (1993) and Dark Horse's Hellboy Christmas Special (1997). (EDIT: And, as Nat Gertler points out in the comments, there's always Marvel's Defenders of Dynatron City tie-in series!)

Not that the dog 'n bunny stuff threatened to crack the Earth's plates - various shorts appeared via Fantagraphics (Critters #19, #50) and First Comics (Grimjack #52), Comico released an issue in 1989 (Sam & Max: Freelance Police Special), Epic published another issue (Sam & Max: Freelance Police - note the subtle flavors of these titles) and a collection of shorts (Sam & Max Freelance Police Special Color Collection) in 1992, with unrealized plans to do a multi-artist miniseries titled The Sam & Max Show, Adams and Mignola onboard to contribute.

But perhaps the most crucial comics began release in 1990, when Purcell began drawing Sam & Max strips for The Adventurer, the catalog magazine for computer game publisher LucasArts. Purcell had begun working there in art and animation, and his characters essentially became the Howard and Nester of the publisher. LucasArts was one of the giants of graphic adventure gaming back in the genre's glory days, and Sam & Max eventually got their very own game, Sam & Max Hit the Road, in 1993.

Which, now that I think about it, is probably how I first really heard of that stuff. It's also, more or less, why this thing exists:

Yes, it's a new reprint of that ol' 1995 collection, updated to include all subsequent completed Sam & Max comics. Which ups the page count by less than 30, since Purcell became even less of a frequent comics person as years passed.

All of the older book's contents are included, save for its back cover art (and if you look real close at the front cover, you'll see that its center drawing is actually an alternate version of the old cover's art, rather than a detail). The fold-out parts of the old book have been converted to double-page splashes, with one of them even integrated into a preexisting larger story (unless that's how it was to begin with, and it got changed for the initial trade). There's 45 color pages, with one of the b&w stories from the old book restored to color, although other once-color stories remain in b&w, and some of the newer color strips are also now in b&w. One of them has also apparently been redrawn in part, to cover a sudden lack of photographic images present in the original.

The new book -- smaller than a typical trade paperback at 9.25" x 6.5" -- is published by Telltale Games, the people behind the successful current series of episodic Sam & Max computer games; it's probably not too much of a leap to suspect that the book is poised to act as a 197-page, $19.99 supplement to the gaming stuff, arriving at around the same time as a dvd collection of the 1997-98 The Adventures of Sam & Max: Freelance Police kids' television cartoon to bring all bits of the franchise back into print.

It's all right; how many young Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fans even knew that stuff started out as a comic? As far as multimedia franchises go, Sam & Max might lack the Turtles' popularity and prolificacy, but it's got a sense of consistency that's inspired some loyalty across stretches of years marked by false starts, or simply nothing. When the pieces do appear, none seem terribly out of place.

I think that's a good way of thinking about Purcell's comics too: nothing quite out of place. Reading this stuff again after a few years really hammers home how orderly Purcell's chaos tends to be - his short comics are perfectly tuned little gag machines, right from their earliest professional examples. While Purcell's art becomes more assured in terms of draftsmanship as time passes, there's little hesitation about where to insert just the right aside, or how to get a faux activities page to flow.

His longer stories (and I think the longest one in here is 30 pages) are more anecdotal, seeing the characters march around from set piece to set piece ("Spontaneous combustion! What a stroke of luck!"), sometimes with only a broad connecting theme to guide them, but the pacing is so assured that nothing even seems aimless; I don't know if there was much improvisation going on at the drawing board, but Purcell's grasp of panel-by-panel build from small gags to big one always at least gives the illusion of order. Even jokes that seem to serve no purpose other than to amuse Purcell himself, like a habit for mixing up Sam & Max's names in homage to his brother's old comics, hang inside his world with such conceptual authority that the reader presumes they must mean something. They fit.

It helps that Purcell always draws his animation-ready characters into a detailed world, although the exact type evolved over the years. Early tales are heavy with mock noir shadows and touched with Will Elder chicken fat, and the former sort of takes charge of the latter as time passes, and Purcell continues to revise his work in a more design-heavy direction. Note the transformation of Max from his puffy, tactile 1987 self:

To the slick, geometric construct of 1998:

(don't ever say 'geometric construct' again, Sam)

The latter shorts -- and Purcell hasn't drawn any long Sam & Max stories for print since 1992 -- see the artist's world contort totally into a curved, funhouse mirror type of reality, perhaps aimed to bolster the property's then-running cartoon show with a lighter, more 'direct' look than the heavy elements of the earlier comics. It's still detailed, and carefully composed, but moving in a different direction.

But even Purcell's current (dormant) Sam & Max webcomic, without a cartoon to promote, has continued the artist's move into animation territory, albeit through an illustrational, almost concept drawing approach, maybe inspired by his time working at Pixar (he has a writing credit on Cars).

I can't say I like it much; finally, Purcell's work seems frozen by its own composition, his character art somehow both distractingly frantic and utterly inert. What's Max even doing in panel #1 above? Is he screaming? His jagged word balloon and its mechanical letters suggest otherwise. Is he pointing (incorrectly) to his neurons? Flashing a gang signal? Mugging for the reader? It'd make a nice dvd cover -- and indeed, cover art and single-page images are all the 21st century Purcell work included in this book -- but it doesn't lend itself to very interesting or even intuitive reading, and that's setting aside the clunky, annoying, mandatory-for-reading 'animated' elements of the strip.

(needless to say, the project then went on to win the 2007 Eisner for Best Digital Comic; did I mention it's only 12 pages long?)

But I'm off-topic. The stuff in this book is slick, and it's slickness that sets Purcell's work apart from comics with similar subject matter.

Sam & Max wasn't a new thing for comics. Its violent, wordy funny animals subject matter hearkens back to many old pieces of animation, yes, but even its specifics -- its cheerily obtuse heroes, its its romantic soak in urban squalor, its fascination with cornball Americana -- have comics roots in the likes of Bill Griffith's newspaper strip Zippy, or Bob Burden's b&w Flaming Carrot Comics.

Burden, like Purcell, did one of those Gumby comics with Art Adams at Comico (Gumby's Summer Fun Special, 1987), and he continues to write the very irregular Gumby comic today; it's a very weird book. Not because weird stuff happens (although it does), but because it's charged with this aging man's anxieties, while seeking to act as this licensed character kids' comic. It's Gumby, yeah, but it makes use of this peculiar melancholic iconography and set of themes so that it seems more an appropriation of Gumby for personal, even gently political ends. It's like those stretches in Flaming Carrot where the wild 'n violent zany hero would wander around dying factories in his steel town home, spitting poetry. Only... Gumbesque.

I can't imagine Steve Purcell making a comic like that, not that he needs to or anything. He's a showman on the page, and every line of Sam & Max is ready to entertain as many as readers possible. The dog and the bunny crack wise at great length, like the vaudevillians that inspired the old Looney Tunes. They're never saying anything that you can't read the first time. There's the occasional political(ish) joke, but little discernible political point of view. The mayhem is lively, but the stories' rambunctious stylings underscore how nobody's ever really hurt, even when people die for plot purposes. It's got the kind of edge Mom might roll her eyes at, but not take away from you; it's cutting, like safety scissors.

But there's still some great lines after all these years, and I mean that in both ways. It's hard work making good, disposable, undemanding comics entertainment, and that's what Purcell does in this book. That I now own two versions of this collection is a testament to my fondness for the material, even as I look back and realize there's nothing much hidden in there that went over my head when I was 14, save for jokes about rollover bars or flamboyant west village gadabouts. The depth I see now is only in Purcell's developing visuals, and their ways of keeping things moving.


Comic Books Hate You, George Washington

*As grave a threat as any of our dead leaders have faced.


Golgo 13 Vol. 13 (of 13): Flagburner


Fantastic Comics #24 (The Next Issue Project #1)

The Punisher: Force of Nature and Punisher War Journal #16

Reich #1

All at The Savage Critics! Where I posted a lot this week!

*Federal holiday? Fuck that noise; General Washington surrenders to FUNNIES on Wednesday.


(and in case anyone's wondering: no, the new format debut of The Comics Journal is not on Diamond's list for this week... I even checked through the whole Merchandise section, where Chip Kidd's recent novel The Learners cavorts in ecstasy with replica Iron Man helmets and an official The Spiderwick Chronicles board game - I shall never again know such sheer occasion)

Golgo 13 Vol. 13 (of 13): Flagburner: The end of days, friends. Review here. As often happens, VIZ has a ton of stuff coming out at once, like The Drifting Classroom Vol. 10 (of 11), Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vol. 13 (of 18), and the reprinted Uzumaki Vol. 3 (of 3).

Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway: Once upon a time, there was a man named Steve Purcell who made comics about a dog (in a suit) and a rabbit(ish thing) that had comedic adventures as 'freelance police.' A bunch of different publishers (Comico, Epic, LucasArts, etc.) released those comics in various forms (specials, miniseries, catalog strips), and then Marlowe & Company collected them into a 1995 book titled The Collected Sam & Max: Surfin' the Highway, because Internet puns were really funny in 1995. Then: the book went out of print, the comics trickled away to nothing, and Sam & Max built up a substantial cult following via their computer game and television cartoon appearances. Then: used copies of the collection started going for $100+ a pop. Now: party's over, since Telltale Games (of the current Sam & Max computer game series) has issued this spanking new $19.99 softcover edition, minus two words in the title, and plus 25 pages of heretofore uncollected stuff. Preview here, to the right. Production info here. Order direct from Telltale this month and they'll throw in Episode 201 of the game, featuring the writing of Jeff Lester, contributor to noted webpage The Savage Critics, OMG. A signed, limited hardcover will be out later. Signed by Steve Purcell, not Jeff Lester.

Paul Goes Fishing: The newest of Michel Rabagliati's wistful, well-regarded semi-autobiographical comics, this time a 208-page hardcover, published by Drawn and Quarterly at $19.95. Pregnancy, family and adulthood are the topics, and it'll probably be worth your time. Nine pages are here.

Maakies with the Wrinkled Knees: Ah, who can resist another 120-page landscape-format hardcover collection of Tony Millionaire's famous fun? More pages here. It's $19.95, from Fantagraphics.

Walt Disney Treasures Vol. 2: Uncle Scrooge: A Little Something Special: Being a 160-page sampler of the beloved Carl Barks creation's life in comics, with stories & art by Barks, Don Rosa, William Van Horn, Marco Rota, Romano Scarpa and, doubtlessly, others. A Gemstone softcover; $16.99.

Aliens Omnibus Vol. 3: And if that's not enough reprints for ya, how about another 376 color pages of Dark Horse's US and UK licensed comics from 1993-94? Note that this one's loaded with interesting folk, as it contains the Jim Woodring/Kilian Plunkett opus Labyrinth, the Dave Gibbons/Mike Mignola/Kevin Nowlan one-shot Salvation, the Peter Milligan/Paul Johnson story Sacrifice, and the Ian Edginton/Will Simpson storyline Rogue. That's $24.95 less to carry around.

The Programme #8 (of 12): This comic also involves Peter Milligan, but does not involve Aliens, in the licensed creatures sense.

More Old Jewish Comedians: Another 10" x 10" 'storybook' from Blab! and Fantagraphics, another 36 pages of Drew Friedman's portraits (see Tom's example). This week also sees a similar artbook from 'Shag' (Josh Agle), Shag: A to Z, following the letters of the alphabet.

Cherubs! Paradise Lost: Huh. It's a new Bryan Talbot project, albeit only written and laid out by him; Mark Stafford is the artist. It's an antic comedy/adventure (initially conceived as an animation project) about murder in Heaven, and lil' anjils teaming up with a stripper and vampires and the like. I think it was first announced last year by publisher Desperado as a miniseries, but now it's a $14.99 graphic novel.

Zorro #1: I've heard nice things about Dynamite Entertainment's The Lone Ranger, and I guess it's done well enough for them to prompt a similar revival, this time written by Matt Wagner, with the art of Francesco Francavilla. Preview here.

The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #6 (of 6): And that's all for that, for now. Dare you look?

Gødland #21: Who can resist more from Joe Casey and Tom Scioli? Casey's also got Youngblood #2 from Image this week.

The Spirit #14: Introducing the new regular creative team of writers Sergio Aragonés & Mark Evanier, and artist Mike Ploog; who knows how it'll turn out, but I suspect curiosity will be high.

Loveless #22: Ooh, featuring the return of Danijel Zezelj to art duties on this Brian Azzarello-written Vertigo western. That's worth a flip.

The Immortal Iron Fist: Orson Randall and the Green Mist of Death: As one Mr. Frank Castle demonstrated last week, there's no need anymore to wait for an Annual when there's funnies that need air. Hence, another one-shot Iron Fist flashback collection, with art by the likes of Lewis Larosa and Russ Heath. Marvel's also got The Order #8 ready for the Fraction fans prepared to start counting down (up?), as well as the now-limited series' first trade collection.



Final Crisis

Golgo 13 Vol. 13 (of 13): Flagburner

Basically, it ends as it began.

I don't mean that just in terms of plot, although English edition editor Carl Gustav Horn has been thoughtful enough to arrange a little symmetry, in that the very last story of this newest, longest, VIZ-published run for Takao Saito's nearly 40-year old creation specifically references the first story from way back in Vol. 1, which saw superassassin Duke Togo head off to Iraq during the presidency of Bill Clinton to foil a supergun plot.

, in contrast, takes place in the twilight of the Clinton years, and chronicles Duke's manful effort to clinch the 2000 election for George W. Bush, at the behest of a disgusted White House gardener who's hell-bent on restoring dignity to the Oval Office. Can Golgo 13 sabotage the Florida recounts? Preferably in a manner involving outstanding use of a sniper rifle? Moreover, will there be a non-explicit but unequivocal panel of Bill Clinton 'in action'? The answers, dearest reader, are inside your heart.

It's not much of a story. It weighs in at only 39 pages, with no chapter breaks. Apparently, it ran as a one-off in the March 17, 2001 issue of Big Comic, making it the newest story of the VIZ run, even postdating Saito Pro's heretofore omnipresent numbering of its G13 inventory. It reads like an especially rushed current events tie-in; nearly everything about it is cursory, filling in the requisite storytelling blanks with avalanching exposition and the unfettered, predictable awesomeness of Duke Togo.

The plot makes no sense (er, that's less than usual), hinging entirely on characters identifying the most crucial stack of ballots in the state of Florida, in spite of several concurrent recounts. I don't even think the history is completely sound -- wasn't Bush's margin of victory over 300 ballots at the time of the recount halt? -- and the requisite factoids become grating over such a short span of pages. In sum, it's a formula lump, though probably not without interest to US readers, for the obvious reasons.

And it brings these 13 books around in a rather neat circle.

But that's not all this last volume does. Two new backmatter essays are included, offering different inside perspectives on the very being of Golgo 13. Former G13 editor Takashi Fukuda (who also wrote The Orbital Hit, from back in Vol. 4) provides a rambling, somewhat tongue-in-cheek short essay, eventually arriving at the metaphorical suggestion of bunkoban manga collections as prayer books for bored commuters, and suggesting that the aloof, nationally disinterested adaptability of the Duke Togo concept originates with the Japanese detachment from organized religion:

"If the main character of Golgo 13 was an Islamist, his actions would be severely limited, and there would be instances where the story could not proceed. The same thing would apply were he a devout Christian. Having no religion isn't the same as having no nationality, but it certainly wouldn't help to be thus limited in the turns the plot could take... if I were to summarize, I'd say cultures with a Christian background probably do not give birth to heroes other than those who take pride in brute strength."

Horn himself pens the second, longer essay, a fine tour of his history with and interest in the character, juggling mentions of Mack Bolan, The Day of the Jackal and Mr. A alike. Due tribute is paid to Maurice Horn's The World Encyclopedia of Comics, Studio Proteus founder Toren Smith, the anime-heavy sci-fi BayCon '86, and Osamu Dezaki's 1983 Golgo 13 anime movie, mentioned at last. We learn of Horn's custom underpants, gifted by the aforementioned Mr. Fukuda. He invites us to consider him when he was 'shotalicious.' We do. And what of the motives of Duke Togo? How does he select his missions? What are his inner workings?

"He reduces complex moral questions to black-and-white... this reduction is not a consequence of his worldview as such. Rather, it is like that of a chemist or a distiller, in which he begins with the raw materials of a world in spectrum, this color and that pleading their mix of history, reasons, and rationalizations before him. Should the mix in turn make it through the hidden complex pipework inside him, the cold twists of probabilities, risks, angles, and tactics, he will accept the job."

Like a machine, then. Makes sense.

But it's not the only means of making sense. Duke Togo may be an often incredibly blank character, but he's appeared in so many comics over such a long time that countless 'readings' of him might exist. What of Saito's own suggestions, from the bonus sections of earlier volumes? Or the words of various commentators? Or the stories themselves? Often times, that last group does a fine job of saying nothing at all.

Which is the other way Vol. 13 wraps in the way Vol. 1 unfolded: there's not much G13 in these stories, although his presence is undoubtedly felt.

No more is this evident than in the last 'big' tale we'll get for a while, The Serizawa Family Murders (Story #100, November 1975), a 148-page first-in-English example of a specialized form of G13 saga: the 'origin' story. The scare quotes are there for a reason. Remember that old Superman thing, the 'imaginary story' where we'd get differing visions of the cast's futures? That's kind of what's going on in these tales, although Saito & company are looking backward, and have taken to heart Alan Moore's admonition that all these stories are imaginary; thus (if this one's a representative example), the Golgo 13 'origin' story has someone uncover something that might be the One True Origin of Golgo 13, although we never quite know for sure. All the better for a character that, by all rights, ought to be well into his 60s by now.

This one's among the more unique G13 yarns we've seen, focused entirely on the domestic and ambitious in its scope, leaping around from the the post-war ruins of 1946 to the 1961 cusp of the economic miracle, then beyond toward the stable then-present of 1975. The plot follows a pair of hard-luck police detectives who encounter a strange quintuple murder. A father is dead, along with four of his sons; oddly, none of them seemed to have served in the war. The mother is soon found floating in a nearby river. The daughter and a servant are missing. All that's left is a young boy, who won't talk, and is soon taken under the guardianship of a distant relative, a master sniper.

The detectives are doubly shamed by their inability to crack the case, and the obvious derision the occupying Americans view them with. Time passes, and the boy grows into something else, a cosmopolitan Japanese for a revitalized modern Japan; one of the detectives becomes obsessed with uncovering his secrets, especially after the missing daughter and servant reappear with their own mysteries, but the boy's too slick, too... awesome.

If this all seems a bit Frank Castle, don't worry - Saito and company have an especially devious background developed for their young maybe-Duke, and a bombastically nasty coming-of-age. It's entertaining as a story, in spite of plentiful obsessive detective clichés and a distracting (if time-saving) reliance on the ol' Xerox machine, but its fascinating as a grimy pop cultural parable, crystallizing the end of the WWII imperial drive as the death of ancient loyalties. The growth of Golgo 13 is presented as the rise of the New Japan, one slick and deadly, an international force to be feared, beyond the constrains of old moralities. An anti-hero for a new, troubling, exciting age.

Of course, that might all be bullshit. Saito and company say so. There's a perfect little ending in here, suddenly cranking the familiar Duke Togo tropes into gear, and punctuating our little cultural fable in the only appropriate way: with a perfect, between-the-eyes shot of ambiguity. He's still got a Republican to put in office afterwards, but I prefer to consider the bigger story the end of this current series. We'll know more at a later date; we've learned a lot already. But the big picture of stony Duke Togo is still obscured, maybe for everyone by now. Four decades is a long time. There's a million perspectives, and one very storied character at the center.

And he's not talking.



No reviews on this site?

*Later today. I've been busy reviewing fake Golden Age comics and the many fancies of Frank Castle elsewhere. In case you didn't see them.


Snoozin' Away

*Hey, still some time to write some sweet nothings to Alan David Doane for his comics retailing poll. I just finished off 2000 words' worth now.

*Which means I don't have a lot of time to lavish on this week's adventures of the Punisher (tomorrow, maybe!), but I would like to get something down about the dream I had the other night. It was a 'chain dream,' of the type you sometimes see in movies or television shows - the dreamer wakes up from one dream, only to wind up in a different dream, and so on so forth.

I get this kind of dream sometimes when I know there's something I have to do as soon as I wake up; it hooks me through anticipation. In this case, I had to check a website pertaining to my job. Who knows how many links of the chain I went through before I woke up for real. Ten? Fifty? I only recall three links of this one.

1. I wake up. My apartment is larger than it usually is, and sunlight is flooding the room. I head over to my laptop, and notice that my two roommates are behind me. One of them is blogger Dick Hyacinth; he looks like a young Gary Groth (I don't know what he really looks like; bear with me). The other one is my younger brother; he tells me that since he's moved his stuff to the other side of the apartment, we don't see each other very often. I bend over to plug in the laptop, but the plug won't go in all the way. The power strip starts belching sparks; those assholes said it was shockproof!

2. I wake up. Much to my dismay, a legal hearing is going on in my very large, well-furnished apartment. This pisses me off, since I can't get to my laptop. I head out the door (since I'm suddenly on the first floor of my building), and decide to get some money from the ATM down the street.

On my way, a family of joggers cross my path; almost all of them are women and girls with pale skin, and hair so blonde it's almost white. I wait for them to pass, and try to continue on toward the ATM, but it's blocked by a nervous young women attempting to explain to a group of people that she didn't mean to just utter a racial slur. Her explanation only digs her in deeper, and I'm so embarrassed to be standing there that I give up on the ATM altogether.

I decide to check that website on one of the public computers at the library across the street. I'm blown away as I step inside; all of the technology inside is cutting-edge, which I instantly understand is due to the local college annexing the building. I sit down at one of the fancy computers, but the screen asks me for a password. The guy sitting at the computer next to me tells me that I have to belong to a fraternity to log in. I close my eyes, and try to recall a jingle I made up to help me get down an old password from law school.

3. I wake up. It's dark, and my television is on. It's a special, hosted by Stephen King, on the greatest horror movies you've never heard of. He's up to #2 on the countdown, and it's a movie Joe Perry of Aerosmith spearheaded back in the '70s. I can't believe I've never heard of it; it looks neat, if a little heavy on the optical effects. Then Stephen gets to #1, and it's some Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie; he must be playing tricks. I suddenly recall that Paul O'Brien reviewed this show on The X-Axis, in a week with no X-Men comics. He gave it a B, noting that it was little more than King reading from a book he wrote. UK-only, I think.

I turn on the lights, and notice that my apartment is almost empty. My books are all gone, and the carpet is different. It's too clean. My laptop is waiting for me, but there's a clear plastic dustcover over the keyboard, with a child's marker drawings all over it. I realize it's something I used to have a few years ago, but I'd lost it. I hear a noise behind me, and turn. My bed is suddenly made. Neatly. I hear a rustling in the kitchen. Somebody has gotten inside my apartment.

And... that's all I recall.

Thinking back on it, I can track where some of the dream elements came from. For example, Dick Hyacinth posted the other day about laying around sick in his living room; hence, he's laying around in my dream. I don't get to see my younger brother much anymore, since we live in different states. The racial awkwardness by the ATM was likely prompted by comments made the prior day by Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, concerning the state primary chances of Barack Obama. Hey, I've read a lot of deluxe horror movie books released only in the UK.

I'm not sure where Aerosmith came from. Or the pale women. Or Paul O'Brien, or the frat library, or Stephen King, or my apparent terror of neatness.

I did get to check that website. Nothing important was there.


The winter weather advice was right on.

*It only took two hours for my 22-mile drive home.

*As was pointed out in yesterday's comments section, I totally missed a particularly interesting release for this week: Little Nothings Vol. 1: The Curse of the Umbrella, a 128-page English-language collection of Lewis Trondheim's comic blog. Do enjoy this lengthy preview. From NBM, $14.95.

*In case you haven't heard, Charles Hatfield's & Craig Fischer's Thought Balloonists is a really good review blog, and this week's two-pronged review of writer/penciller Darwyn Cooke's run on The Spirit is as good as ever.

*And: SRL.


Winter Weather Advisory in Effect for Tuesday and Wednesday

*I was out driving yesterday, and what a blast! By which I mean my heart almost blasted out of my chest thanks to the sheet of black ice the highway had the temerity to transform into. I guess rolling whiteouts and 50 mph wind gusts don't mix, especially below zero. I only lost control once, though, and thereafter vowed never to leave my bedroom again. I'm sure the office will understand.

On the same road, 100 or so miles north, there was a 68-vehicle pileup. Cars. Trucks. Tractor-trailers. A hydrogen peroxide tanker, which luckily didn't breach.

Bed. Yes.


Wasted #1 (Nov. 07) (recreational misadventures from Scotland)

and, in another place,

Infinity Inc. #6

*Oh, there's a new Dark Horse Presents out online, with a lil' Manga by Gilbert Hernandez, fun and games from Fábio Moon & Gabriel Bá, and more. I'm putting up a link because I know I always forget to check back every month...

*More Marvel stuff catches the eye than usual -


Reich #1: I've heard a lot of nice things about this pamphlet-format project from Elijah J. Brubaker, a serious-minded comics biography of Dr. Wilhelm Reich, he of the Orgone sex energy. Sample pages here. Only $3.00. It appears publisher Sparkplug already has the next two issues ready for sale online, if Diamond's service isn't tickling you.

Jellaby Vol. 1 (of 2): A new project from Flight assistant editor Kean Soo. Or, at least new to print; this story of a young girl and a monster pal has been running online since 2005, but now Hyperion Books for Children is releasing a 160-page color tome (over half of it all-new) at the magic price point of $9.99 (hardcover also available for $18.99). There's still 62 pages online, if you want a big sample.

The Next Issue Project #1: Fantastic Comics #24: Truly, the potential for trainwreck fascination runs high with this new Image endeavor, creating Golden Age-proportioned 'next issues' for long-dead series, with a crew of veteran writers and artists utilizing public domain characters for new stories. The showpiece for this 64-page debut (tackling the 1939-41 Fox Comics anthology) will doubtlessly be Joe Keatinge's & Mike Allred's homage to Fletcher Hanks' Stardust the Super Wizard, but Erik Larsen, Bill Sienkiewicz, Fred Hembeck, Ashley Wood, Tom Scioli and others are in on it too; as you can see, some adopt 'period' styles, while others work modern. Will the novelty be worth your $5.99?

Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front: For those itching after that gigantic Fantagraphics brick of Willie & Joe comics, this week brings the relief of Todd DePastino's Mauldin biography, published by W.W. Norton. Is this even out in bookstores yet?

ClanDestine Classic: In case last week's revival lit your burning spirit, Marvel now has a hardcover collection of what I think is all the major past material for creator/writer/penciller Alan Davis' strange family. Your fee nets you the Marvel Comics Presents debut (#158), Davis' run on the 1994-95 The ClanDestine title (issues #1-8) and the two-issue 1996 continuation X-Men and the ClanDestine. All for $29.99.

Dominion: Conflict 1 (No More Noise): What does Masamune Shirow love? Not finishing series! How far did Dominion get? This far! Now smaller, reading from right to left; $14.95.

B.P.R.D. 1946 #2 (of 5): More of this.

Ghost Rider #20: Now written by Jason Aaron of Scalped and The Other Side (and that one issue of Wolverine), with art by Roland Boschi. Here are pages. Oh, did I just mention Wolverine? Aaron's starting a run on that too, with this week's #62.

Punisher War Journal #16: The first outing for new regular artist Howard Chaykin, also of 'that one issue of Wolverine' fame; I've fallen way behind on this book, so I'll just jump back on now. It's two months of side-stories, then the reintroduction of Jigsaw. Matt Fraction is the writer. Also in Castleville this week is The Punisher MAX: Force of Nature, a one-shot by prose writer Duane Swierczynski (who's relaunching Cable next month with Ariel Olivetti, formerly of... Punisher War Journal) and artist Michel Lacombe. All your Punisher preview needs are somewhere behind here.

Fantastic Four #554: Being the start of writer Mark Millar's and penciller Bryan Hitch's (and inker Paul Neary's) follow-up project to The Ultimates, a 16-issue Marvel U extravaganza divided into a quartet of 4-issue stories, each focusing on one member of the venerable team, and apparently their romantic lives. As such, this first segment introduces an ex-girlfriend of Reed Richards (quoth Millar, "What kind of girl would give a geek like Reed an erection?"), and I think some kind of utopian parallel Earth. Maybe? Preview here, and at the prior link. I actually do think the Big! Big! stylings of this creative team might be a decent match for the title, although the combo effect of 'Ultimates team' and 'Millar returning to semi-frequent comics after Civil War' would probably lock in the same massive sales if this was Royal Roy.

Fantastic Four: The Lost Adventure: And in other FF news, here's a $4.99 one-shot approximating the original plan for Fantastic Four #103 before co-creator Jack Kirby left; bits of his art were recycled into a flashback sequence in the John Buscema-drawn issue #108 (also included as a bonus), but now inker Joe Sinnott has filled out the original art, and Stan Lee appears to have scripted the whole thing anew. It looks like Marvel's abandoned its earlier idea to produce an alternate version with Kirby's pencils fancied up via digital effects and colors, which could have been sorta neat, like SRL reanimating a rabbit. Preview here; I really hope Stan the Man inserts footnotes like this everywhere, gradually building up to a Masamune Shirow-like schizo-crescenso of obsessive detail. That would really pop.



I accessed the future for today's comic!

Wasted #1 (Nov. 07)

This is a new, Scotland-based comics magazine, published by Bad Press Ltd. and edited by 2000 AD and Detective Comics veteran Alan Grant. It's essentially a follow-up project to Northern Lightz, a prior Scottish comics anthology that Grant contributed heavily to, and ultimately came to co-own with Jamie Grant, he of the digital inks and colors on All Star Superman. The latter Grant's Hope Street Studios is also involved with the production.

North American readers shouldn't count on finding this at their local shop; it has been implied that Diamond has already rejected the magazine for distribution, owing to certain content issues that several of you may have already deduced.

Ah, but we live in a 21st century of robot hover boots and steam teleportation, so everyone can simply download all 52 full-color pages for just under $4.00. You'll have to go through a Google Checkout process; the comic is accessed via a Flash interface, allowing for some easy scrolling (don't bother with the zoomed-out option), assorted advertisement & table of contents hyperlinks, and a mostly clear reading experience, although the fine print gets a little garbled.

So, what kind of interest might a drug-themed anthology have for, say, a reader that hasn't smoked anything since he was 20 years old? That answer's a little tricky, since this isn't entirely a drug comic. Actually, there's a disclaimer up front noting that nobody involved with the magazine promotes the use of drugs, and none of the project's strips (ranging from a quarter of a page to seven pages long) take a particularly 'hooray drugs' stance.

And that's only in reference to the especially drug-related pieces; as can be gleaned from this preview, a good portion of Wasted is devoted to drug 'culture,' which seems to include everything from motorcycles to 'enlightenment' to fashion to pretty girls with large breasts. Plenty of those; even a strip devoted to a female stoner eventually boils down to her bosoms, which speaks more of the boys' club atmosphere of vintage underground comics than the high times that inspired projects like this.

Among the artists are several Northern Lightz contributers and new(ish) UK talents recruited through internet open calls. I believe everyone retain ownership of their creations. Editor Grant writes a good deal of stuff, with some small appearances by name creators like John Wagner & Simon Bisley (yes, Shit the Dog), Gary Erskine (as an inker) and Frank Quitely (on the cover). The stories are heavy on would-be bad taste and basic sex jokes; the level of visual skill on display varies as widely as you'd expect, with some accomplished cartooning sitting next to work evocative of deeply average webcomics.

Ambition is low in terms of storytelling. Among the more sophisticated material is Grant's and penciller Gibson Quarter's War on Drugs, in which top US drug enforcement agent Johnny Kunt, complete with stars-and-stripes sunglasses, creates mayhem amidst the narcotics trade. I laughed twice: once at a 'the US tortures people' gag involving the assassination of JFK, and again at a one-page sequence of a man climbing into a giant smoke-filled bubble ("the inflatable chillout chamber") and prancing down a hill, only to be shot down by an Apache helicopter. That was a rather high average for the project, although Grant's and Jon Haward's Tales of the Buddha also has a certain cornball charm.

The rest, unfortunately, is boring enough that I began to fixate on the various ads for UK head shops and seed distributors. It was nice seeing an ad for Alchemy, which struck out its place in comics history by publishing the early, US underground-influenced works of Bryan Talbot, himself a former head shop proprietor. Head shops were a vital distribution outlet for the US undergrounds too, and their decline left independent comics floating until the rise of the Direct Market facilitated the distribution of 'bridge' works. Today, when the Direct Market fails, there's the internet.

Anyway, I probably shouldn't be reflecting on these things to distract myself from reading a comic, so I can't recommend this one. The few bright points are greatly dimmed by things like a seven-page sequence of pretty girls shooting zombies and demons, then taking a shower to clean themselves off. Is that drug culture? If so, it is therefore clear, through logic and possibly science, that a large number of today's Direct Market comic book readers are on drugs, possibly at this moment. Now if you'll excuse me, I have today's 80th ounce of coffee waiting for me; gotta stay ahead of the headaches!


It's about to be 60 degrees in Pennsylvania in February.

*Next week it'll be an ice storm that literally freezes me in place while walking to the car.


The Arrival (this is an acclaimed comic)

and... um, I talked a lot about movies (which are not comics), like No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood. It's the time when they all get rereleased, you know.


Narcopolis #1 (of 4) (Jamie Delano's return to funnies)

At The Savage Critics!

*I hope I freeze on my building's sidewalk; I think the landlord has to chip me out then.


Crickets #2: At this point, it's a bit weird even seeing a new pamphlet-format release from Drawn and Quarterly, given their successful focus on deluxe bookshelf items (plus statements from artists like Adrian Tomine characterizing their continued support of the form as "a courtesy"), but here's the much-delayed sophomore issue of Kramers Ergot mastermind Sammy Harkham's one man show. Contains chapter two of the horror serial Black Death, and a batch of standalone shorts of various types. It's $4.95 for what I presume will be 32 three-color pages, if it's anything like last issue. You'll know your shop has stocked a copy when the see the cover from all the way across the room; don't be afraid to let the triumph rise in your belly.

Albert and the Others: Also from D&Q this week is a new Guy Delisle release, specifically a North American edition of a 2002 collection of wordless strips on the topic of men, which was itself a sequel of sorts to Aline and the Others, a 1999 collection of strips about women, released in North America by D&Q in 2006. Not to be confused with Delisle's autobiographical books about trips to China (Shenzhen: A Travelogue From China) and North Korea (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea) A few samples, to help you out.

Hotwire Comics #2: The newest volume of editor Glenn Head's anthology of miscellaneous capers, published by Fantagraphics. Review here. Note that the debut installment is being offered again at the same time.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret: Now from Diamond, straight out of early 2007, and headed to your local store - it's writer/artist Brian Selznick's mystery of words and drawings, set in the Paris of early sound film. Lots of info at the official site. A Scholastic hardcover, 526 pages for $22.99.

Incognegro: No, it's not a Ludacris companion volume to last year's MF Grimm biography, although it is an original Vertigo hardcover. Written by Mat Johnson with b&w art by Warren Pleece, the story concerns a Harlem reporter passing as a white man to investigate the arrest of his brother in Mississippi. It's 136 pages, at $19.99. See some visuals here.

Aqua Vol. 2 (of 2): I've heard nice things about this Kozue Amano series, which started out in 2001, got retitled Aria after a publisher jump in 2002, and is now set to finish with its 12th Japanese volume (so, the 14th in total) this March; the 2002 incarnation of the material saw partial English-language publication by ADV in 2004, and now the whole thing is being released (or rereleased) by Tokyopop. It's supposed to be one of those relaxing, plot-light, 'drift through a fantasy world' type of manga, the kind you'd read anthologized chapters of on the train in order to distract yourself from the crushing futility of your everyday life. Follow the pretty exploits of gondolier pilots on the terraformed Mars! Pretty!

The Bakers: Babies & Kittens: I do believe this is the first of Kyle Baker's animation-influenced slapstick family comics to be released by Image, an $18.99, 96-page color hardcover. Can baby and kitty learn to live in peace? Samples of the style.

Scud: the Disposable Assassin #21 (of 24): I've never read more than a few pages of writer/artist Rob Schrab's '90s-born comedic robot suicide action brainchild, although I know a lot of people remember it fondly. Schrab has since become a writer for film (Monster House) and a director for television (The Sarah Silverman Program), but he and Image are now set on finishing off the comic, in anticipation of an all-in-one volume's release later this year. Considering that this issue resolves a cliffhanger from 1998, there may be something of a learning curve involved for the newly curious, but take a look.

Clandestine #1 (of 5): And speaking of '90s moments that passed me by, here's a revival for writer/penciller Alan Davis' superpowered bloodline concept. Preview.

Omega: The Unknown #5 (of 10): It's tempting right now to turn this series into Countdown to Gary Panter (in issue #7), but there's plenty of eagle-seizing fun in the present.

Infinity Inc. #6: Peter Milligan; new artist Matt Camp.

Abe Sapien: The Drowning #1 (of 5): None can stop the Mignola march. This is the latest of the Hellboy universe 'character' miniseries, offering a solo outing for the green fish guy. Story by Mignola, art by Jason Shawn Alexander. This whole line tends to be of admirably high quality.

Krazy and Ignatz 1941-1942: A Ragout of Raspberries: Oh my, it's the penultimate volume of Fantagraphics' Krazy Kat Sundays collection, now well into the color era. Be aware, however, that the end of the series will simply prompt Fantagraphics to go back and retool the old Eclipse collections of the earliest Sundays, if that's still the plan.

Albion Origins Vol. 1: Your Golden Age of Reprints oddity of the week. 'Odd,' in that this Titan hardcover appears to be designed as a tie-in volume to the already somewhat obscure 2005-06 Albion miniseries that Alan Moore masterminded at Wildstorm, aiming to revive a lot of old British comics characters. I guess a 112-page collection of vintage suspense and adventure comics (featuring characters used in the Moore project) could use any added value branding, though. Details here; $19.95 in US cash.


Link Reads

*I knew little about it save for the title until today, but Drawn and Quarterly's new Philippe Dupuy collection, Haunted, is now one of my more anticipated books for 2008. Here's two stories, for your sampling pleasure.

I'd only known of Dupuy's solo work from his segments of Maybe Later, the autobiographical book he put out with frequent collaborator Charles Berberian (published in English by D&Q in 2005); his portions didn't nearly as smooth as Berberian's, but they benefited greatly from ferocious candor and an appealingly restless visual style. This new (to English) stuff preserves that dalliance of line, while offering some nicely-focused comedic/philosophic fantasy. Give it a look.

*And while you're at it, look around at the rest of that first linked site, Words Without Borders, an online international literature magazine that's devoting this month to eight English translations of comics from five continents, often with extensive notes included. The visual quality varies a lot, but it's well worth going through. And don't miss Nicole Rudick's revealing interview with the always-excellent Gipi.

*Oh, I saw There Will Be Blood, which I liked a lot. In the context of writer/director P.T. Anderson's small, impressive catalog, it's essentially a counterpoint to the divisive Magnolia, in that its similar focus on interpersonal, often parent-child relationships is maniacally focused on a single lead character instead of legions, and its brushes with the questionably divine reflect a futile, catastrophic longing for an interventionist God, as opposed to the capricious unification of strange weather. My theater was also kind enough to crank Johnny Greenwood's thump 'n yowl score to ear-destroying levels - no mournful indy pop singalongs here!

I'm actually glad I saw No Country for Old Men so close to it; both films have a great respect for landscape, as both a 'character,' and reflective of the actors' inner states. The Coens' work is subtler, and more complicated, in that they tease out the shifty, human frailty of their characters, while implicating the land as an awful constant. Anderson, meanwhile, favors symmetry; Daniel Day-Lewis starts the movie as a slave to the land, falling down holes and spitting on rocks, and ends in it as a rich, mad bastard (sans basket) in a wholly artificial environment. Along the way, religion and capital become intertwined, with the latter ultimately consuming the former.

That ending seems to be the major stumbling block for many viewers; some find it silly and abrupt. It does get silly, but scary-silly -- for all the suspense mechanisms of the Coens' film, they didn't have anything that made me as uneasy as Anderson's last scene -- and I feld Anderson built up to it well, in terms of ramping up the misanthropy of Day-Lewis, facilitated by his increasing wealth. It's no deep thought on the film's part to suggest that money corrupts, but I did appreciate the absurd extremes Anderson pushes his depiction of wealth and amorality toward, ending in bloody ecstasy befitting a man richer than god.

I'm sure it helped that I didn't see Day-Lewis as purely wicked until the very end; I've read some critics going on about the relentless evil of the character, which strikes me as silly and wrongheaded. I always felt that Daniel Plainview was human, if increasingly compromised by greed and loathing; even in the film's early segments he acts primarily out of self-interest, yes, but Anderson and Day-Lewis spend enough time on bits of character shading -- prodding H.W. into understanding his line of work, basking smugly in stopping that little girl's abuse -- that the character at least exhibits signs of adhering to some personal code of ethics. But it's no accident that H.W.'s big character change occurs at the same time as a big money breakthrough. Sliminess leads to callousness, with violence and madness to follow. It's no wonder Sean Collins considers the work horror-influenced - by the end, Day-Lewis is practically playing a Cenobite.

And, as always, there's some nice little touches. Way near the beginning, there's a bit with baby H.W. being dabbed on the brow with oil; that can be read as a baptismal gesture, but in Catholic terms it's also reminiscent of the Ash Wednesday mark, representing a reminder of death and the need for repentance, both traits that will affect the character greatly...


Dancing with Deliberation Through the Magic Kingdom

The Arrival

Much is said by the cover alone. Of the two figures in the center, one is unadorned, the other whimsical. An impression of foreignness is given off, but both are realistic, and logically occupy the same space. The book will trade heavily in impressions, but its logic will bring some trouble.

This is unquestionably among the most honored books you're likely to find on the shelves right now. It just won the Fauve d'Or best comic prize at this year's Angoulême International Comics Festival. It's also received honors from the New South Wales Premier's Literary Awards and the Children's Book Council of Australia, and has appeared on many 'best of' lists, sometimes at the top. The US edition, a handsome $19.99 hardcover, is published by Arthur A. Levine Books, a division of Scholastic.

The author is Shaun Tan, an Australian creator of picture books, political cartoons and animation concept art. His gift for dazzling visuals is evident on every page of this project, a wordless account of a man's experiences in the new world he's immigrated to, hoping to establish a home for his wife and daughter to later join him in. And I really do mean a new world.

It's a sturdy fantasy to behold. Tan works in pencil, in a heavy realist mode. His human characters are actually nearly photorealistic, and cleverly made to 'act' in a manner evoking silent film, where gesture and expression are vital. Tan furthers this theme through his use of monochrome 'tints,' even adding artificial damage to some images, which also suggests the crumbling photographs of a scrapbook. The weight of age rests on everything; all of the people, even the apple-cheeked kids, are ancestors.

As you've no doubt seen in previews somewhere, Tan also pairs his human figures up with a wide variety of fantastic symbols, all of them as tactile as a wall or a cat, sometimes layering and layering elements to the point of visual overload. These aren't all familiar symbols either; many are suggestive of moods, or evocative of broad feelings, as are the towering structures that dot the world.

So, when Tan's everyman leaves his house at the start of the book, we can readily see that his homeland is in acute distress. The high, slate walls of local buildings are sketched over with lines and cracks, rising up toward uneven roofs - these are rows of homes a (large) child could knock over. On top of that, spiny and black tendrils wrap and whoosh around the alleys, darting up and down. We see an arm, or the suggestion thereof, here and there; are they dragons? Maybe. Or they could be famine. Or war. Other horsemen too. But we trust they are bad, all details left for the back of the reader's head.

The new world the traveler arrives in is different; there are white balloons and odd little beasts, curved architectures and sun patterns, obscure technologies and unreadable writing. This, of course, forces the reader into the same awed, uncomprehending position as the immigrant. No worries, though - everyone in the new world is kind and helpful, and blind to race or creed. Our man encounters several other migrants, all of whom share their own tales of flight -- marching off to war only to lose a leg and a town, evading faceless giants that vacuum up churches and leave blank stones -- all while helping him to establish the new face in society, so that his family might come over and complete the cycle, by showing even newer people around.

This very simple story, and those very heavy images, are presented in an astonishingly controlled array of grids and splashes, timed out expertly into visual beats. I swear, you can dance to this book. There is probably a mathematical formula out there that will result in this book. It is airtight. Often, individual rows of panels dictate shifts in viewpoint, or content.

For example, Tan expends half the page above on establishing the arrival of a fleet of airboats. Their gentle approach is bolstered by the size of the sky, in which they seem to flutter like feathers, contrasted with the large human figures in the foreground. But the next row of panels render the people tiny, so as to present the moment-by-moment landing of one of the crafts, actually quite large. The final row again breaks focus to follow our man (and his wiggly pal) as he approaches and interacts with agents of the boat itself.

It's a basic one-two-three pace, although sometimes broken up into faster, alternating beats. Note the out-in-out-in perspectives of the below page, the darting viewpoints creating a sense of poking invasion on the body; the fourth row breaks the pattern, signaling the end of our man's physical examination, but still retaining the anxiety of his inability to understand the new world.

Other pages adopt different, but equally intuitive manners of expression. One double-page spread contains nothing but tiny images of shifting clouds, given alternating tints to convey the passage of time. Another spread depicts a single sprout bursting and mutating over four long rows, each one indicative of a season, with the sprout adopting seasonal characteristics to match. Patterns and page designs recur, so as to establish familiarity and contrast, and convey the immigrant's growing familiarity with his new home.

I was greatly impressed by how simple Tan's visual pacing was, and how much it did to render his layered images easy to digest. Tan's own notes on the project suggest that he's not very familiar with comics at large, and essentially broke his illustration approach down into simple applications of cinematographic principles to the page - this again feeds into the silent film motif, and explains the artist's flair for long pullbacks across panels. Tightly measured, of course. Accessibility seems the goal, and Tan succeeds richly; his fantasy images are never hampered by showy tricks or tortured arrangements, all the better to soak in those rich impressions.

But, at the same time, The Arrival is a seperate, more disquieting fantasy. Taken on a literary level, it is a fable of a society of friends, a melting pot of a strange, constant simmer. There is no exploitation beyond the grinding, perhaps automatic clank of industry, pictured as a characteristically large engine running in the back of a workshop. There is no racial strife, no homeland quarrel transplanted to new soil. All of the threat in this new world rises from misunderstandings: of commerce, language, fauna.

In contrast, the threats the drive people away from their original homes are immense. Godly. Seemingly beyond understanding. Even when young men march off to war, we are denied any glimpse of the other men, the ones that blast legs off before falling under bullets and bayonets. It is not a war; it is war. The former can be understood in human and political contexts. The latter is as good as a flying tendril, be it poverty, or a menacing giant, manned by pogrom. We don't see the men, though.

It's a fitting approach for conveying the impact of massive social or political or economic threats on individuals, even as it strips them of the awareness that many conceivably would have of their situations' contours. But my real concern is one of juxtaposition; by presenting the old world troubles as so mighty as to defy human understanding, then positing a new world bereft of obvious dangers that cannot be overcome through simple understanding, the book effectively eliminates the potential for progression.

The new world is a pure haven, with only conformity necessary to enjoy its fruits. But will that steaming engine ever scald or crunch a worker? Tan's pencils are too precisely furious to suggest that it won't, but I'm not left with the impression that his people could ever stop it. People don't do anything wrong. They are hopeful, yet ineffectual.

In that way, a weird charge of resignation jolted my ride through this smooth, well-tuned book. I don't fault its idealism, nor its narrative simplicity. Its visual power can't be denied. But that very power, that layered symbolism, proves as ominous as wonderful when read as a whole, a reading encouraged by the book's mechanics. It works in metaphor, yes; an editorial cartoon in this style would be one thing, but this is a book of pages, which serve to round an environment, and thus suggest the implications of that environment. It is a fable of hope, yet focused enough on small movements that the reader comes to think of the individual stones as well as the spires, and trips down the steet more than the street itself.

What a beautiful kindgom to be in, and what a shame to be faced, by implication, with only the chance for another escape when the icons come to snarl.


Felt like I had to write something about a movie; sorry.

No Country for Old Men

***I am going to ruin a film right in front of your eyes so watch out for spoilaz***

I've been trying to catch up on some of the movies I missed last year; luckily, the OSCAR NOMS meant that five of them showed up again at a theater near me (although I don't think There Will Be Blood would have opened until now anyway; didn't see that yet). This is the newest Coen Bros. project, based on a 2005 Cormac McCarthy novel I haven't read; I hear it's very faithful. I saw it after Michael Clayton, the recent George Clooney vehicle that's also up for Best Picture.

It's maybe worth putting the pair together. They've got exactly the same type of opening scene, for example: a monologue by a deep-thinking, voice-of-reason character, delivered over scattered shots of telling environments. In No Country, it's Tommy Lee Jones' world-weary sheriff, a good man (as we'll discover) talking about his life as a force for law in this decaying, violent world, and the young killer he once sent to death. His quiet words are matched by dusty landscapes - words and images collude to establish a whole of plain, violent potential.

In contrast, Michael Clayton opens with the stammering, jittery confession of Tom Wilkinson's madman lawyer, sputtering out dramatic disclosures and vivid descriptions of his place in a torturous legal society. As he yelps, we see only the cool, dim halls of his law firm; the predominant effect is one of simple conflict, of one man loudly tearing away the curtain of a place that would otherwise seem civil.

These openings underscore the difference between the two movies. Michael Clayton is fairly entertaining, but its stabs at high-mindedness are shallow, and sit awkwardly in its thriller framework. I understand that flawed super-lawyer George Clooney's quest to recover his soul and overcome amoral isolation and all that is supposed to be a deep-thinking character study that just happens to involve muder, madness, secret documents, covert investigations, narrow escapes, big money and an Evil Corporation that's poisoning America's Farmers. That's pretty hard to miss, given the many shots of Clooney's soulful eyes, and the surplus of overtly metaphorical conversations between Our Hero and various characters. Why, Clooney even gets to stare at several highly meaningful horses, for the sake of symbol and poetry, I think! Two times!

But themes are screamed at us, often; a confrontation between Clooney and some rich guy he's trying to help out of a jam is sticky with pacing, chattering acting!, climaxing with no less than the man's wife smashing a whiskey glass to alert us of her husband's futility. I liked Tilda Swinton's twitchy performance as the ambitious in-house counsel for the Evil Corporation, but that doesn't make her any less a simplistic villain (and one saddled with the supplementary role of wicked career woman to Merritt Wever's simple, salt-of-the-earth farm gal/font of inspiration for tortured male lawyers), ready to be knocked down when George Clooney saves the day with wisecracks and revelations and surprises and swarming police - but he still frowns through the closing credits, because this is a serious film, gang, with serious speeches and serious horses.

Plus, there's a scene where George Clooney has an important talk with his young son, and 'the sad music' plays. Just like in Full House.

No Country for Old Men also marries insight and suspense and melodrama and other things, but the Coens form a steady, complimentary whole. Josh Brolin is a Vietnam vet turned hunter/scavenger near the US/Mexico border. The time is the early '80s; the film is more than happy to play up period notions of ideals giving way to material greed (or so it's typically remembered), along with Sheriff Jones' worries of increasing criminal brutality. As such, Brolin happens upon a litter of corpses one day, the product of a drug deal gone awry, and winds up making off with a bag full of cash. He quickly finds himself on the run from dangerous folks, foremost among them murderous Javier Bardem.

I didn't know what to make of Bardem at first. He initially seems like a cartoon, with an atrocious pageboy haircut sprawled atop his head, and condescending speeches on causality creeping from his smirk. Sometimes he decides who lives and dies with the flip of a coin. I won't need to explain the implications of his weapon of choice: a cattlegun. But crucial lines are added to his character sketch. He respects active personalities, and loves to torment passive sorts. He fancies himself a simple agent of fate, beyond moralty, revealing total self-regard. More than anything else, he is prideful, and seems to act through a perverse set of values.

Being an apparent master tracker/assassin, he's been sent to get that money back. A game of cat-and-mouse ensues with the unexpectedly resourceful Brolin, their bloody struggle gradually growing to entrap Brolin's good lady wife, her bitchy mother, several drug dealers, a Texas titan of finance, Mexican gangsters, a succession of hotel clerks and shopkeepers, special guest Woody Harrelson (as: a rival money hunter), various hapless motorists, several dogs, and, eventually, Sheriff Tommy Lee Jones, although he mostly listens and observes at first.

It's sturdy, suspenseful work, with a keen use of silence and bursts of gory violence. And as it widens its scope, actions and words alike begin to form a portrayal of fluid morals and human flaws - a recurring motif sees Brolin peeling bills out of his magic bag to get what he needs, while Bardem orchestrates grand speeches and acts of intrigue to get where he's going. The former, wounded, bribes a passing group of drunken kids to get him a shirt, right off one of their backs. The latter is often considered insane because he believes his principles, gross as they are, happen to be more important than financial gain. He's called a ghost; he seems possessed with superhuman control.

The characters become fascinatingly rendered, and believably planted in their environment. That's fortunate, since the film's thriller coating slowly dissolves as Jones, a man reluctant to get caught up in the situation at all, attains character primacy. As soon as Jones leaps into a 'hero' role, the suspense plot abruptly resolves itself: Brolin is shot dead by a crew of characters who just entered the movie about ten minutes before, and the money vanishes. It's sort of implied that Bardem recovers the funds, but we don't know. At this point, the conflict becomes totally philosophical; Jones and Bardem never meet, but both men are driven by values, played out in their private final scenes. This structure suggests the vitality of philosophy beyond simple moral tests and events, and the ongoing crawl of life beyond noteworthy adventures (and suspense plots!).

This willfully anticlimactic construct hasn't worked for all viewers, but I found it to be a canny extension of the Coen's focus on landscapes -- what endures if not the land itself? -- and detailed character motivations (which may well be a simple translation of McCarthy's work). Many die as a result of Brolin's and Bardem's chase, but what are the implications for the ones who survive, and the things they've come to represent? It seems, sadly, that they must continue to live.

Bardem's final scene is a brilliant mix of subtle play on his established traits, and crashing, almost cosmic retribution. He's just finished polishing off his latest victim, after an especially long bout of bemused detatchment and killer coin-filpping. He's driving away, eyes fluttering from side to side; we've already seen how careful he is, what with his paranoid mannerisms. But suddenly, perhaps because he's so busy looking out for danger, he's sideswiped by an oncoming car.

Tumbling out of the wreck, his arm badly broken, he encounters a pair of kids. The sequence mirrors Brolin's encounter with the drunks earlier. Hearing sirens approaching, Bardem grimaces, offering bloody money to one of the kids for his shirt. He's been hurt before, but never quite unexpectedly. He has no words about fate, he only has money to offer. We've seen him pick Brolin's buckshot out of his leg before on his own; now, has to ask one of the kids to tie the shirt for him to form a sling. He hobbles away down the street, and out of the movie.

In this one scene, the Coens deftly, completely undercut the extra-human nature of their villain, now that a plot in which a supervillain is needed has ended. It's not the first connection made between him and Brolin -- for example, they both say "hold still" while hunting prey, Brolin a beast and Bardem a human -- but it's the first in which the connection is made to emphasize Bardem's humanity, after all the build given to him. This is how the Coens mark Bardem as truly, totally awful: by showing him in the muck. It isn't even so much that he killed all those people; it's that he's a horrible, pretentious shithead who merely knows how to do his job in a better-than-average manner. He's no ghost. He can talk and talk all he wants, but he's still going to wear that fucking haircut. He is ridiculous coming in, and the Coens ensure he is ridiculous going out.

This is his 'defeat,' in that the screen finally allows us to see him as a compromised human. It's perhaps the only resolution that matters for a character like him. He is, in the end, a creature in this world, and our final look at him hobbling away, pained and broken, is damning. Even if he completed his mission to get the money -- and the Coens don't even allow him that certainty -- the implication, I think, is that he will wander the bad country forever, unsatisfied, until his arrival in Hell. Like the boy Mr. Jones spoke of at the top.

Whether the lawman will arrive there himself, in spite of all his dignity, is the true ambiguity of the film. He too, is only a man, and his viewpoint is undercut, if more gently, when an even older man reminds him that the darkening of society he sees is merely an illusion of age - the violence has always been there. That's why the country is not for old men; it never has been, although the country and men endure.

But Jones has retired, cut himself off from the country, away from the catchy web of killings he's stepped through. If there is any major theme, it is that humans are flawed, and can never know enough, although the 'good' ones can divorce themselves from aspects of the land. At the beginning of the film, Jones admits to being part of the world. At the end, he's woken up, though the dreams linger above the steady dirt.