This is what happens when you don't buy comics until Friday, or read them until Sunday.

*Yeah, I don't think the world is itching for another Batman #681 post at this very moment; there's plenty out there right now, and I doubt I'd have much of substance to say in a formal review. It was a rocky read (which was to be expected; I mean, when a monthly comic book storyline undergoes significant production delays and its final chapter then shows up with 10 or 11 extra pages appended out of nowhere, that's like a 9 out of 10 shot for antics behind the scenes), and it still didn't manage to resolve much.

And I don't even mean the plot - the whole running theme of 'Batman cannot escape his past, struggle as he might for evolution' sort of vanished, leaving an issue-length extrapolation on the Batman is Prepared for Anything trope that Morrison had already quite sufficiently explored in a prior issue when the whole back-up personality deal served as a funny plot point. It was an oddly straightforward issue, full of little anti-climaxes that seemed less purposeful than a means of locating the storyline's emergency exit.

I did like the Joker's parts; if he's the chaotic aspect of Morrison's narrative persona, it's pretty funny to have him concede to just sort of inventing the whole red/black motif out of stuff he half-remembered from somewhere else, only to get bumped out of the comic by an entirely silly coincidence courtesy of a different agent of chaos. Dr. Hurt's decidedly relaxed attitude toward supervillainy and its risks ("But you chose to be here") was good for a smile; I dunno if he's Old Scratch, but his super-nebulous nature casts him as the sheer idea of a Bat-villain, an every-villain, leading the jaded voyeurs of the Black Glove to their ruin via their own demands for wild, hero-killing kicks.

Hey - didn't this issue make the news for its hungry promise of Bat-killin'? Morrison was right that the Black Glove's identity was kinda obvious; he all but spelled it out (albeit in the abstract) in their first storyline last year, which cast the viewers as, well, maybe readers demanding more and better murders from their entertainment. If All Star Superman was filled with God and the sun and inspiration for the people, this one puts us all in league with devilry, possibly even complicit in keeping the hero married to the past. Surely Dr. Hurt's mission is of similar corruption to that going in Final Crisis, but here Morrison's solution boils down to superheroes outliving the whims of the monied public, maybe living across multiple publics in a big, long history. Which is all real, of course.

Still, none of these ideas particular cohere into much of a story, which is fine if you appreciate Morrison's allusions and weavings and such as their own overriding virtue, but it kinds of stinks at the end of the dramatic build the last few issues had been managing pretty well. And what of the big story? The evil future? Damian? If this was all leading up to Batman is Always Prepared against the worst corruption, with the entire supporting cast hustling in to save the day off-panel while a helicopter crashes and everyone scratched their heads, I can only conclude that this has been an awfully bloated, overextended mega-storyline indeed.

I dunno; maybe it's fitting that this thing looks to be ending as a tacit acknowledgement that the past keeps repeating itself and nothing quite resolves and we're not even bound to know who Batman is at the end, since this has been a segment of an ongoing series and a total history from the first issue, the battle continuing on and on and on... christ, this is more depressing than Seaguy! And I'm not even convinced it was supposed to be!

Oh well, two issues of finale to come, prior to the Bat-determining postscript, then a post-postscript, etc...


A Feast of Volcanic Desire

The Manga Guide to Statistics

Here's a new item published by No Starch Press, a 224-page b&w softcover, priced at $19.95. It's both authentic, straight-from-Japan manga and a valuable book of learning, which seems almost redundant to me, since I've already learned so many important things from manga over the years.

Really! Were you aware a woman can walk around outside in only her boots? FACT: As long as she can turn invisible, it's not indecent - it's sci-fi! Did you know I dash off to work every morning with a slice of toast in my mouth? FACT: Makes you go faster, and half the time you bump into your crush (the restraining order suggests she's catching on). I can't even recall the last interaction I had with another person that wasn't informed by Kazuo Koike, to whom I attribute my great success: a free parking spot, and I can cut a motherfucker's arms off with one swipe. I weep afterward, but only when parking!

This particular book, however, is educational in a more specific way: it's an introduction to basic concepts of statistics, in which a lot of information is conveyed courtesy of the comics form, with dialog and gags and an ongoing plot and things. The authors are Shin Takahashi and "TREND-PRO, Co., Ltd." with the former tackling the general stats content and the latter hammering it into delightful manga form, possibly in a small, antiseptic cube. The book's Preface identifies ''re_akino" as the writer and Iroha Inoue as the artist of the manga pages; it's above-average dōjinshi caliber stuff, very cute and clean.

And if you don't count the all-text Appendix, there's easily more comics in here than anything else, although later chapters become somewhat heavy with charts and formulae. Text-based information and schoolbook-style exercises follow each manga chapter, although they also start to intrude upon the manga itself toward the end of the book; the chi-square test doesn't really lend itself to the comics form, I admit. If you're planning to use this thing for book-larnin', I'd recommend you always go through the text pieces along with the comics, since the text occasionally offers clarifications that presumably couldn't fit into the manga without sounding really clunky, which strikes me as a bit of a failure of the whole 'comics' conceit, particularly given the number of panels surrendered to graphs or lists with a character's head and a word balloon poking in.

Still, speaking from the position of someone who uses Google calculator routinely in his working day, and brushed off his undergraduate math requirements with the easiest core option he could locate (which it turned out was mostly filled with underachieving English and Theater majors of similar inclination), I imagine this'll probably serve as a decent introduction to basic concepts -- data types, deviation score, probability, hypothesis tests, etc. -- or maybe an easy refresher. There's plenty of one character reacting with horror to another's explanations, so as to soothe the anxious student's nerves through easy relation. Cute girls too.

Oh, didn't you expect the cute girls? Allow me to elaborate!

Probably the most striking thing to me about this book is the above-mentioned ongoing plot, which kicks off with 17-year old Rui getting bowled right the hell over by an unspeakably cute guy Dad brings home one night from his work in market research. Within panels the girl is expressing the greatest interest in her father's job, to the point of requesting a private tutor for a little one-on-one instruction - perhaps by, um, maybe someone from Dad's job!

Naturally, poor frustrated Rui-chan winds up not with her marketing idol, but a total nerd who reads shōjo manga and must collect himself upon seeing girls in their school uniforms. Mr. Yamamoto is a goddamned whiz at basic concepts of statistics, though, and soon young high school-aged Rui finds herself oddly... distracted by her older tutor's mastery of stats!

Yep, you got it: we're looking at one of those 'female pov' comics that's actually unadulterated male fantasy. And a very manga/anime-fluent fantasy, not merely content to use comics magazine response cards and schoolgirl outfit preference polls as fodder for examples (ramen prices & bowling scores too, in all fairness), but to position its terribly compelling teacher as just the type of mildly perverted milquetoast male protagonist that may well match right up with the studious consumer of this kind of educational tome. Shit, you don't even need to relate to girls, fellas - just demonstrate your prodigious stats skills and the (youngish) ladies will soon grasp your under-the-glasses appeal!

Granted, the book is entirely cute 'n flirty about its adult working man/sub-age-of-majority high school lass plotline; everything is charged with comedy, if not quite the sort of comedy that would obstruct the fantasy. No, by the time Rui-Rui is dressing up in her new sailor suit getup to catch Our Geeky Hero's eye -- which is entirely focused by that point on divining hypothesis tests from poll data tracking how males and females prefer being asked on dates, tee hee -- we're entirely into a light farce of desire, one that strikes me as awfully frantic and more than slightly insulting in its pandering, but maybe wisely so, I dunno. It's stats, and the segment of Japanese readers liable to pick this up know what they want, and as Dirk Deppey once remarked, "heterosexuals are weird."

Don't ask me what the appreciably different, smaller, focused manga readership of North America will think. Is it cute? It strikes me as especially straight-from-Japan, so maybe that's enough.



Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper

This should be out with the new comics this week. It's the latest from Kevin Huizenga (KH.14, for your checklist), which I do believe is intended as the start of his third ongoing series with as many publishers. Buenaventura Press does the honors this time; it's a 32-page b&w pamphlet, priced at $3.95.

At risk of oversimplification, I'll call this a video game comic. In fact, it's almost precisely the opposite kind of video game comic than the last one I reviewed, the First Second-published Prince of Persia, which connected to its source material mainly through basic setting and cultural-mythical inspiration, and a distinctly literary take on the games' visceral connection with time. It was a heavy work, which promoted the virtues of those proper contemporary comics you might spy on some big box bookshelf, to the side of the superhero things and a bit away from all the manga.

Huizenga's comic, on the other hand, is not a thing of literature; it's a one-on-one fighting game comic. And its focus is squarely on the game; there's probably less story in here than most actual fighting games, which perhaps places its sympathies with the wing of gaming commentary that suggests we'd all be better off tossing the whole 'story' notion altogether and focusing intently on design and play. And if the First Second book was analogous to the pageant of gloss and handsomeness a high-profile game release can be, this Buenaventura production is the oddball personal concoction you might hear about on a message board and download for free, poking around to figure how the hell it works since there's no instructions included and it looks to be poking at whatever genre reveals itself at first blush.

But even then, I suspect I'm selling Huizenga's work short. This isn't so much like a game as it's supposed to be a game, albeit as a comic - the artist refers to it as "an open source comics game" on the back cover. There really aren't any instructions included either; I expect we're meant to observe Huizenga's play and follow up with our own, arriving at individual discoveries. You'll recall a few of these types of strips popping up in Huizenga's anthology contributions (Blood Orange had a few, I think), so you know he's been playing for a while. I'm sure it's no coincidence the same style was used to kick off Ganges #2, in the form of Glenn Ganges becoming enveloped in an obscure Asian PC fighter, as a sort of overture to the FPS corporate madness that would follow.

Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper isn't an overture to anything, though. It's strip after strip -- ranging from 1/8th of a page to over 3 pages in length -- seeing one simply-designed, oddly-named character ("#1 Song"; "Bride to Be") encounter a challenger, then deciding whether to Fight or Run, unless the other character chooses first. All a Running character needs to do is evade the challenger's attacks until they're out of range, while a Fighter must give it their all, to the finish. There are many special moves to witness, from sticky tongues to bodily multiplications, to character leaping into and out of one another, or ripping down the sun and moon to use as weapons.

The only character we're told anything about is Chopper, a humanoid-looking thing and well-balanced choice who's granted a whole stats page full of unhelpful numbers and opaque trivia. "Events are not what he would basically describe as wrong with him." Yet you'll get to 'know' a lot of characters the way you become familiar with fighting game characters: through their handling. Minimal designs filled out by how they get around their world, which is all combat, so moves are all that matters. Unless you Run.

As you might have guessed, the comic is loaded with studies of movement and creative fragmentation of the page, the 'game' screen expanding or contracting to sell the swiftness of Chopper's moon chop or afford Kid Cocktail a few beats to react after growing six new legs and preparing to stomp his challenger. One segment is devoted entirely to Chopper mutating into an increasingly dense web of heads and limbs and torsos, panels starting out flat screen wide to catch it all, but then breaking off into small panels so as to indicate that only details of the bigness of Chopper are possible, until he falls apart from his own ambition and #1 Song (a mildly alarmed cartoon piggy thing) wins without moving at all.

It's a funny, dizzying experience, particularly when Huizenga's later matches reveal the logic behind his design. Chopper faces off with Hander (who has a hand for a head), who opts to Run. During his flight, Hander leaps onto his head/hand for better traction, tricking Chopper into leaping onto his own head, winning Hander's escape. Minder (box for a head) encounters Make a Wish (vortex for a head), and their Fight causes all the world to break off into cubes and swirls, both characters leaping into one another's zones of influences, panels within panels, frames within frames, striking at anything resembling their foe to inflict damage.

It certainly helps that Huizenga is a fantastically talented formalist, always willing to twist the field of play in some novel way; I imagine a few of these matches would seem unimpressive as isolated in a larger book somewhere, but together they really convey the chaos that lies at the heart of high-stakes fantasy combat where so many elements can take such damage. I suspect future developers won't make as interesting a use of the levels. But then again, player levels in a lot of games aren't quite as fine.

They'll all do well to make note of the possibility of Huizenga's simple construct, which sees Chopper's final match turn into a big Run, his flight going on so long it becomes his life, passing through symbols of youth and progress and heartbreak and love, until he catches fire and his head ascends into the cosmos, so all the world may live in his shadow. Until, one presumes, some other player kicks it down and chucks it at some tough motherfucker's face, since life's got no story once you look at it long enough, as a simple plane of activity for things to tromp on. And boy, this thing can play forever.


I hope the highway thaws for Thanksgiving.

*A lot of connecting fiber behind.


The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (say, this is an anime movie! that's not a book at all)

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo (this used to be an anime tv show, but now it's a book! an animator drew it, though)

*A very diverse time ahead.


The Comics Journal #294: Mmmm, a feature interview with Jason. The Journal did a shorter 'interview' with Norway's finest a few years back, but it was only a panel transcript; this one ought to be the treasure trove. Plus: Liō's Mark Tatulli and early Barney Google. More.


Mesmo Delivery: Finally out in Diamond-serviced stores - Rafael Grampá's high style book of blood, a 56-page, $12.95 AdHouse softcover. A trucker on a mystery haul gets into trouble at a stop, in both the expected and unexpected ways. Nice looking thing. Preview here; my review here.

Fight or Run: Shadow of the Chopper: I really loved the opening segment of Kevin Huizenga's Ganges #2, which perfectly evoked the feeling of toying around with some strange foreign freeware computer game, pat-seeming play mechanics stretching unexpectedly into something of accidental vision. This new Huizenga release a bit similar, a 32-page, b&w, 7" x 8.25" Buenaventura Press pamphlet depicting lil' combat guys going one-on-one in a game of fists or flight. No words, no story; all page-stretching action and bold new characters with unexpected powers. Maybe a little transcendent evolution too, if you behave. Only $3.95!

The Umbrella Academy: Dallas #1 (of 6): In which the popular Gerard Way/Gabriel Bá weird superhero series returns for a second go. Only $2.99 for 32 ad-free pages. I thought the first one of these was a very solid genre piece, if a lot more traditional than I think some of the commentary surrounding it let on. Still, I'm up for tradition when the stuff works this well. Take a look.

Black Jack Vol. 2 (of 17): The next 304-page Vertical collection of 14 tales from across the scope of Osamu Tezuka's time with his famed super-surgeon. High melodrama and mad medicine for only $16.95. Heartbreaking sample story here. As with the prior and subsequent volumes, note that a limited edition hardcover will eventually be out (Direct Market only) with a bonus story Tezuka didn't feel like reprinting in the Japanese series this is all based on.

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo Vol. 1 (of 3): An anime tie-in manga, as only a longtime animator like Mahiro Maeda can bring it: actually not half bad! He's even the guy who directed the source material - hope you're up for aristocrat vampires in Space Europe! My review here.

Berserk Vol. 26: Ha ha, holy shit - I keep forgetting how many of these things are out there. But Kentarō Miura's saga of swords 'n slaughter (est. 1988) keeps pressing onward; vol. 33 just popped up in Japan last month. From Dark Horse, as always; preview here.

Rocky Vol. 2: Strictly Business: And from the 'stuff I never thought would be seen again' file comes a different brand of translation - another 112 pages of Martin Kellerman's story-driven funny animal youth goings-on strip from Sweden. Slideshow here; preview here. Man, vol. 1 came out in 2005, didn't it? $12.95.

Comics Are for Idiots!: Blecky Yuckerella Vol. 3: And then, there's always Johnny Ryan's four-panel strip to come through in the clinch. Also from Fantagraphics; $11.99 for 104 b&w pages. Slideshow and bonus wallpaper here, snot-green of course.

American Elf (Book 3): You've read the interview, now breathe the sensation of 2006 and 2007 as known through James Kochalka's daily sketchbook diary. It's all online too. Your $19.95 wins you 192 searing color pages.

The Best of Tharg's Future Shocks: Ah, good old Tharg. How many sorry souls did he tempt into the absolute zero night pit of comics? Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Neil Gaiman, Steve Dillon, John Smith (just in case you thought everyone hit in America) and several others appear in this 160-page log of possibilities. It's $26.50, from Rebellion.

Harvey Pekar: Conversations: Being a $22.00 University Press of Mississippi compilation of nearly one quarter of a century's worth of chit-chat with the American Splendor creator, maybe (hopefully?) forming a miniature portrait of the vast changes that took hold of comics distribution and shaped the potential of independent work. Or hell, maybe Harv talks about bills in an entertaining manner for 240 pages, I dunno. Edited by Michael G. Rhode.

Holy Sh*t!: The World's Weirdest Comic Books: Jesus f*cking Christ: a 128-page tour of 50 or so oddball funnies by Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury. I've heard it's funny, but also kind of like the internet as a book. From St. Martin's Press; $12.95.

Drop-In: A new 160-page book by Dave Lapp, presenting scenes from the artist's time at a drop-in youth art center in inner-city Toronto. From Conundrum Press, $17.00; worth a flip.

Sloth: New to softcover - Gilbert Hernandez's very fine 2006 Vertigo original about young people dreaming themselves into reality, 128 pages for $14.99. My review here. I think Drawn and Quarterly's gonna have a new edition of Adrian Tomine's Summer Blonde softcover from 2003 as well - that's Optic Nerve #5-8, all single-issue stories. The high school one (#8) reminded me of every single person I knew when I was 15.

Unknown Soldier #2: Vertigo is now also your home for action with a conscience. I liked issue #1 good enough.

Thor: Man of War #1: This is the newest in Marvel's line of Matt Fraction-written Thor one-offs that lean heavy on the big action and mythic beats; the prior installments are Thor: Ages of Thunder and Thor: Reign of Blood. This time around: vs. Oden! Have a look.

glamourpuss #4: Dave Sim reveals it all, again.

Garth Ennis' Battlefields: The Night Witches #2 (of 3): More small Russian women propped up on cockpit cushions, dropping bombs on (or near) things while a sensitive German guy frowns at stuff. I like it. Look.

Savage Dragon #141: No rest for Erik Larsen. I think every Image character is in here, possibly including Jim Valentino from his autobiographical works.

Batman #681: Who is the Black Glove? Who will be Batman? Who is writing this book in the future? Some of these questions will be answered in this spellbinding, extra-length (40 pages!) extra-cost ($3.99!) final chapter of R.I.P., unless they've been answered already! You never know!



Anime to Manga: Path to Glory

Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo Vol. 1 (of 3)

One of the funny things about manga's growth as a presence in North America -- coupled with the growth of information about manga -- is that the observant reader can easily track trends and movements that diverge from what's usually seen in Japan itself. Case in point: anime tie-in manga. There's a whole bunch of it perched on the shelves of any big box book retailer you can name, even though, in all candor, most of it absolutely stinks.

Oh, don't get me wrong - anime has left an appreciable mark on Japanese comics, mostly in terms of in-story visual designs. You'll be hard-pressed to find a big-ticket shōnen anthology out today that isn't chock-full of glossy, smooth-featured character designs that seem ripped right out of something probably playing at 2:30 AM on satellite network; so goes the contribution of cultural marginalia (with exceptions) to a mainstream, faltering as it might be.

But actual, honest-to-god manga based on anime is somewhat rarer, perhaps in that anime itself is a 'rarer' thing, and often based on some preexisting manga anyway. These franchise comics don't have much of an aesthetic reputation, as they're often by their committee bosses as as little more than a long advertisement for whatever show they're tethered to, accomplishing every important goal by merely appearing in print. The best talent isn't exactly drawn to the stuff, and the standards are rarely high, judging from what get printed, yet there's a rather large amount of the stuff out and about in North America, no doubt owing to the 'manga' scene's origins as a corollary to anime fandom. They used to call anime Video Comics, so I guess it's not too much to view manga as Immobile Animation.

There are exceptions to the rule, however, like when a tie-in manga somehow winds up getting drawn by the anime's director. A rare thing, but it's what we've got here.

Mahiro Maeda has had a long history with anime, one that got an early start. His first professional job came in 1982 when he was still a university student; the soon-to-be landmark television series Super Dimensional Fortress Macross needed warm bodies to keep its sprawling production active, and Maeda tossed himself in. The connections he made (plus a few extant ones) led to his joining up with the nascent amateur production company Daicon Film, to work on the animated opening film for 1984's Daicon IV (or, the 22nd Japan Sci-Fi Convention, nicknamed 'daicon' for being held in Osaka, the 'O' of which can be pronounced 'dai,' resulting in the dai-con; a 'daikon' is also a white radish common to Japan, hence the veggie imagery). The company would soon cut a deal with toy giant Bandai to produce a full-blown theatrical feature, and change its name to Gainax.

Maeda kept on with the young studio, eventually going so far as to co-direct a promotional video for an abortive film project, R20, in 1991, although his best-known work at Gainax is probably his most limited: designs for the destructive Angels of 1995-96's megahit Neon Genesis Evangalion. In the meantime he became known as a talented animator and designer, working on several Hayao Miyazaki features (Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind; Castle in the Sky; Porco Rosso), and flitting from studio to studio as need be; he performed key animation on the anime portion of Kill Bill for Production I.G., and directed segments of the anthology films The Animatrix and Genius Party Beyond at Studio 4°C.

However, most of Maeda's directorial works would be for the studio he'd co-found in 1992, the gaming cinemas/trailers house turned high-output, qualitatively varied anime factory GONZO. I can't say I'm much of an admirer of a lot of GONZO's output - far too many of the projects I've seen appear content to lean on fan-friendly concepts and pandering otaku bullshit as an excuse for mediocre execution. Sure, I've got a soft spot for some of it -- in its best moments, 2005's anti-capitalist quasi-superhero tv series Speed Grapher comes off as a deranged villain-of-the-week anime take on some forgotten Pat Mills comic -- but mostly I get the impression there's little real inspiration and lots of they'll-love-this-get-it-out-yesterday at work.

Maeda's own GONZO projects tend to be the big exception; they've only gotten more idiosyncratic as time has passed, and his 2004-05 Gankutsuou: The Count of Monte Cristo television project marks the current extreme. All of you who've secretly believed for years that what Dumas' classic tale really needed was homoerotic space vampires will be delighted enough by the story, but I suspect most in-production attention was paid to the series' striking, garish, very nearly headache-inducing visual style, a veritable Photoshop fiesta of layered textures, glowing colored lights, bejeweled CG backgrounds and miscellaneous golden-gilded decadence. Why is it in space? Because space is prettier.

I can't say it's always successful -- it's a bit like Lynn Varley's coloring in The Dark Knight Strikes Again, in that many will find parts (and some the whole) to be impossibly ugly -- but it is enough to sort of take you aback on the visual merits, which is more than can be said for a lot of television projects. Particularly coming from GONZO.

Still, it seems anime alone wasn't nearly enough for Maeda, because he also wound up drawing his very own manga version of the same stuff, 2005-08 (so, it began as production on the anime series wound down), from the pages of respected seinen anthology Afternoon. It's still Dumas in space -- it's got to tie in with the anime's conceptual specifics, after all -- and it's still essentially a vehicle for visual ideas (the writer is one Yura Ariwara, who doesn't appear to have any other manga or anime credits), although it's a somewhat different thing. In fact, the key point of reference doesn't seem as much the television series at all as the aforementioned Mr. Hayao Miyazaki.

Maeda has often cited Miyazaki as one of his key influences, on top of literally working on a bunch of his films, and it's not hard to see the man's famed 1982-94 Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind manga as something of a touchstone for Maeda's manga style (although the Nausicaä manga wasn't a tie-in; it came before the anime). His character art shares a little bit of the delicate quality of Miyazaki's, as well as some evident European comics influence - some of Maeda's hallucinatory full-page techno-organic alien spreads suggest he may have been gunning to be the Druillet to the older artist's Moebius.

Yet Miyazaki's Nausicaä also sported a complicated, detail-intensive plot, highly expansive but more tightly-wound than the dreamy philosophical wandering of those European masters. Maeda isn't much for wandering either, but Ariwara's scenario is mostly a rearranged streamlining of Dumas' original, making the fairly character-dense source material simpler; it all feels a lot like a Heavy Metal version of a classic adventure, and not something like the Lob & Pichard Ulysses either, where the whole content is made weird by the telling, but more a sci-fi 'take' on essentially the same content (thus far), albeit with scenes and characterizations shifted, all of it bedecked with some eye-catching visuals.

There's some value in how Maeda handles himself, though, particularly given his background. Unlike Miyazaki, many of Maeda's panels seem dashed-off, almost like he's composing storyboards. Location details have a minimal, hand-drawn quality, only solidifying when a big panel is needed to really set a scene or deliver some kind of impact.

As a result, it seems like a reversal of the more-is-more ethos explored in the Gankutsuou anime, as well as a telling inversion of the usual manga appropriation of the anime 'style,' so often done to give a comic a glaze of slickness. In contrast, Maeda's formidable animation experience seems to give his comic a more personal feel, which I find both endearing and sort of fitting for a guy who still does key animation sometimes, and knows the core of it all in simple drawing.

Your mileage may vary, of course. It's not a stellar work of storytelling, or anything that'll shed much new light on the source material for now, though I found it to be attractive and entertaining nonetheless. I realize Maeda's art won't be to every taste either - those solidifying splashes and big panels have a way of sacrificing clarity for kick, and I suspect the sparser panels will strike some readers as merely unfinished. But I took it as a good chance to witness a new development in a notable man's long career, and a neat departure from what I've come to expect from this kind of manga. My experience is atypical, I know, but so are those Maeda often means to supply, so I think we're even.


Seriously: sorta creepy.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

This here's a movie from 2006 that just came out on R1 dvd this week; it's also the newest 'prestige' anime release to come around after an intermittent North American theatrical run. Better still: it's directed by Mamoru Hosoda, who's possibly been put in line to one day perhaps be called... the new Hayao Miyazaki! The new new Miyazaki!

Granted, Hosoda seems a more applicable candidate than fellow traveler Makoto Shinkai (Voices of a Distant Star; 5 Centimeters per Second), his apparent co-finalist in the internet's ongoing Who Wants to Be Japan's Next Hayao Miyazaki imaginary reality show. Honestly, Shinkai has nothing in common with Miyazaki beyond a surfeit of ambition, a zest for humanist fantasy, and theatrical exclusivity for his recent longform works. In contrast, Hosoda was once selected to actually join Miyazaki's Studio Ghibli as a director, on the strength of his prior, apparently very impressive Digimon franchise short films.

Yep, he's the guy who was supposed to direct 2004's Howl's Moving Castle before he either got fired or quit (it's not all that clear) and sensei stepped in to take the reins. Hosoda bounced back pretty quickly, though, making his official feature-length debut on the 2005 franchise picture One Piece: Omatsuri Danshaku to Himitsu no Shima, which supposedly doubles as a rather withering allegory for his time spent at Ghibli. Hey, if I was heading up one of those big multimedia things, you bet your goddamned ass I'd have Naruto settling all my personal grudges. That'd be the first order of business!

All of this put Hosoda in perfectly good company, by the way, since Miyazaki has proven remarkably tough to replace, or even supplement beyond studio co-founder Isao Takahata. Other former Ghibli directorial tryouts include Mamoru Oshii (all-around legend, began planning a picture called Anchor in the late '80s; never got made), Tomomi Mochizuki (original Ramna ½ director, made a 1991 Ghibli tv special called Ocean Waves; production got out of hand, nothing further resulted) and Yoshifumi Kondô (longtime Ghibli animation director and general protégé, directed Whisper of the Heart in 1995; died of an aneurysm in 1998). The time was probably as ripe as it'd get for a full-blown original feature from Hosoda, something aimed squarely at a general audience, a film both populist and idealistic.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time was the result, adapted by screenwriter Satoko Okudera from a literary work by Yasutaka Tsutsui; it'd be one of two films of 2006 based on Tsutsui material, alongside Satoshi Kon's Paprika. The animation was produced at the Madhouse studio, albeit with longtime Ghibli hand Nizo Yamamoto serving as art director and Gainax big man Yoshiyuki Sadamoto providing character designs. It's all very bright and sunny, with half-empty mid-afternoon schoolrooms given just the right nostalgic gloss, and buzzing street scenes kept scrubbed fresh of too much smoke or ennui. It's a romantic piece -- to a fault, really -- and a very very nice anime, surely the type you could show to grandma, which is maybe a little valuable these days, if you're into that.

The story (which I'm totally planning to spoil, btw) concerns the adventures of young Makoto, a spunky 17-year old girl straight out of shōjo manga central casting. She's cute but sort of clumsy! Loves to eat but can't cook! Kicks the plot off by rushing out the door, late for class! No toast in her mouth; this is a sophisticated picture! Soon an accident in the science lab leaves her body charged with a strange power, the contours of which are revealed in a subsequent accident (she's clumsy!) involving a speeding train - the girl, yes, can leap through time! In that she has to literally get a running start and break through the barrier of reality to behold the unfathomable mechanics of reality (played by computer graphics) and land somewhere else. No multiple timelines, no Primer or anything - it's her, retaining all memory and experience, jumping the hell around.

The initial charm of the movie is that Makoto uses her amazing powers strictly for personal comfort or immediate gratification -- singing karaoke for hours, acing pop quizzes, stopping her little sister from eating her favorite pudding cup -- and the obligatory sticky situations that all time travelers inevitably get caught up in are applicably minor. There's nothing flashy with the animation work either; it's almost entirely controlled character stuff, aften very amusing, with all the careful modulation of 'realistic' portrayals that animation allows.

A big test comes when one of Makoto's guy friends confesses his longstanding crush to her, naturally prompting her to leap out of the way of awkwardness... except, she can't do that with longstanding feelings, plus she can't un-remember what she's been told (even if the boy never tells her), causing her to try and avoid him at all costs, which puts a strain on their friendship and eventually collides other circumstances Our Heroine has set into motion with her hi-jinx, and so on and so on.

It's all very low-key -- the most spice comes from a funny recurring gag in which members of Makoto's suspect she's about to commit suicide over some trouble or another -- but the movie makes certain to convey how these events aren't very minor to the teenagers experiencing them. Hosoda and Okudera maintain a sort of sympathetic adult distance from the action, often playing events for silly fun or overt slapstick while quietly underlining how much these events mean to his high school cast through slow-building character work.

Or, to give an example, a comedic set piece seeing Makoto attempting over and over again to fix up two classmates via after-discovered personal information (so she knows they're perfect for each other!) might be mostly zany antics on the surface, but it's ultimately kinda moving in revealing how much romantic travails mean to all these high school characters. In the best of these scenes, the film allows the time-travel aspect to function as a simple, effective metaphor for developing maturity, with the young heroine learning from her mistakes and becoming more prone to confronting her problems wisely then leaping out of their way.

But, I suppose a modestly charming, small-scale work like that won't make anyone The New Miyazaki (regardless of Miyazaki's own interest in projects of that sort), so Hosoda & company gleefully chomp down on way more than they can swallow, to some odd effect. The picture's last half-hour sees it launch into a dramatic chase scene, which it then deflates with an anti-climax as if to point out the absurdity of having such a thing in a movie like then, and then goes and throws in the dramatic climax anyway. This conflict in tone soon becomes distracting.

There's soon a whopper of a plot twist, the kind that's so ridiculous it's sort of awesome - the boy-who-is-a-friend that liked Makoto is actually another time-traveler from an unspecified point in the future, where Shit is Different. And even as wild a contortion like that kinda winds up working, in that the film carefully positions the second leaper's motives as arguably more frivolous-romantic than Makoto's: he just popped back in time to view an awesome, eventually-lost painting he was really itching to see in person, and since he overshot his mark he decided to stick around, enroll in school, etc. Hey, hooray for youthful spirit.

However, this expands the work's scope past its functional breaking point. Its simple, effective core metaphor suddenly explodes across the ages into a tribute to pure, enduring love thrown against the ache of separation (a boyfriend transferred across the ocean... of time, that is), all booming and power ballad-ish and bigger than us all, which clashes badly with the tight focus of the rest of the film. If anything, Hosoda's narrative viewpoint teeters away from adulthood, just as Makoto swears a vow to meet her true love somewhere in the future, someday. Her face beams, and clouds flow past. Time! Waits for nobody! It's all very sad, but uplifting, and about love and things!

I think it's kind of gross, actually. I mean, putting aside how none of these 17-year old kids ever seem to have gone on a date before, or even so much as considered seeing more than one person for the entirety of high school, should a person to date hypothetically appear, am I alone in thinking a promise of eternal love waiting across however many decades, totally ruling out the possibility of ever growing or maturing into a slightly different person, is a wee bit creepy? I'm only 10 years out of high school myself, and I do remember thinking I was a pretty different guy at 17 than I was at even 14, so I'm not sure I'd even buy this if I was the age of the characters, but I'm totally not feeling it as an adult. Is this uplifting? Really? What happened to the gentle detachment of slapstick?

It strikes me as more a case of Hosoda (and screenwriter Okudera, and hell, maybe original author Tsutsui) shooting for the biggest, most sweeping themes possible, losing track of where the message is going in the process, not unlike his heroine's bouncing back and forth in chronology. Amusingly enough, the final result is almost precisely the sort of self-damaging romantic idealism-as-arrested adolescence Makoto Shinkai critiqued in 5 Centimeters per Second, wherein the sad-eyed hero can't get over that pure first love, even as said love goes on to live a happy and full life with her mature adult husband. Granted, Shinkai's film is an inferior work in almost every way (if, to be fair, shooting for a way more sophisticated concept with less in the way of resources), but I think its message remains less conflicted.

Maybe I'm just weighed down by my heart of stone. Shoot, maybe the film's going for subversion, or least enough tonal equivocation to suggest alternate readings. I can outline one of those in my head, from a conversation here and a possibility there, that Hosoda and his crew are only treating Makoto to the greatest, temporary indulgence of her moony dreams, with maybe a sad little understanding beneath it all, grown people knowing it can't last.

Yet animation -- not the medium, the actual things moving as you see them -- tells a story of its own, and Hosoda's does nothing but support Makoto's point of view by the end, a loud, sequence-of-drawings affirmation of sitting around forever for a perfect moment, replacing a different point of view for little apparent reason beyond making an audience feel nice. That's not like the Miyazaki I know. His works are buoyant and playful, but always spiked with a deep understanding of peril. There's often a whiff of cynicism to set the triumph of wonder into sharper relief, the steady uncertainty of an old student radical become powerful and mainstream. A sympathy for children, but a keen, coherent one.

I don't see a lot of that in here, as good as Hosoda's work can be. And it is quite good at times. But we're still stuck with the Miyazaki we've got, as mild a debit as that may be.


Digression Strong

*Like a thing unto iron.


Batman: Cacophony #1 (of 3)

Travel (in which Yuichi Yokoyama and you board the inhuman mystery train, forever)

*Exotic Animes Are Forever Dept: Yeah, I fell of the wagon and went on one of my 'internet fansubs of olde tyme Japanimation' kicks again. Forgive me for what must follow; the comics list for this week is only a short dozen or so paragraphs down.

Blazing Transfer Student: I like a myth best when it explodes, so I think the most value I took from this 1991 two-volume OVA was the warm, fuzzy, altogether renewed knowledge that the famed animation studio Gainax never really reached some poison point after Neon Genesis Evangelion whereupon its incandescent artistry gave sudden way duller works. Turns out they always had one toe dipped in shit! Ha ha!

All right, all right - I'm already being too hard on this little number, an obvious labor of love from director/animation director Katsuhiko Nishijima, the auteur behind 1986's Project A-Ko, that friendly old fandom favorite, initially planned as a porno OVA but ultimately graduated to a feature-length otaku hodgepodge of sci-fi comedy. Perhaps it was fate that Nishijima's path would cross with the archnerds-turned-pros of Gainax; perhaps the middleman was character designer Yuji Moriyama, who'd worked on A-Ko as Nishijima's co-writer/character designer/animation director, as well as tackling animation direction duties on Gainax's landmark 1988-89 OVA opus Gunbuster?

This thing's no Gunbuster, that's for sure, but it's got a somewhat similarly conjoined adoration-criticism of old-school anime tropes going at its core. It's more like what Gunbuster would have been if the whole thing had stayed like the silly first episode, only here it's a school-of-young-toughs, Tomorrow's Joe parody. And it does deserve some style points - not content to merely rattle off zany bits of '70s genre arcana, it adopts an interesting, thick-outlined mangaesque visual approach, almost like it's trying to force the chunky 'look' of period anime into a slicker, smoother-running holistic design. It works pretty well! It is fun to look at.

I dunno about the rest of it. There's lots of veering between loud antics and seemingly low-key bits of spoofing, and I'm pretty sure I missed 40% of the latter at minimum anyway by virtue of having not been a 10-year old Japanese boy in 1972. The story's about a kid who transfers to a school where literally everything is decided by fighting. At least half of both episodes are spent on long, absurd, kinda tedious boxing matches where genre conventions are stretched to the breaking point - the entire second episode's fight centers around Our Hero trying to deliver his 'finishing' punch, but he gave it too fancy a name so he can never quite announce it beforehand without getting beaten and beaten, and you can't deliver a final move without announcing it, right? That kind of humor.

Mostly I laughed at broader stuff; there's some funny digs at genre sexism, with the love interest spending much of one episode wearing a sign reading "TROPHY." The next episode preview at the end of episode one totally spoils the end of the show, which I thought was unreasonably funny, because I'm simple. It's a nice show; raises a smile. It probably does a fine job of indicating what Gainax's stuff would have looked like a whole lot more like if its main creative forces hadn't been as ambitious or difficult or frustrating or pretentious. Sweet-natured, nice to look at, critical (but not too much!), happy and fannish and goofy. Appreciative. Kind of a bore.

The Labyrinth Real Estate - File 538: This one's a half-hour OVA from 1987, written and directed by Mamoru Oshii. He's hands-down one of the best-known anime directors alive and working today, so I'm not gonna recite his curriculum vitae or anything; however, I do think it's worthwhile to note that Oshii was also one of the first directors ever to work in the OVA format, back in the early '80s (with Dallos), and he was certainly the one that stuck closest to the ideal of the anime home video format as a means of personal expression, free of the production limitations and content restrictions of television, or the budgetary demands and length requirements of movies. And even by '87 it'd all pretty much begun to devolve into a glossier, bloodier, boobier version of whatever was on tv, but Oshii kept the dream alive.

This was actually part of an abortive ongoing series of short projects called Twilight Q, intended to provide a forum for eager directors to craft unencumbered, arty suspense tales of skewed reality - can you believe it didn't sell?! Oshii's piece centers around one of his favorite motifs as a writer, the vortex of repeating time (see also: 1984's Urusei Yatsura: Beautiful Dreamer; 2004's Ghost in the Shell: Innocence), in this case serving as an all-purpose metaphor for getting pinned down by work, money, domesticity, anything.

It's mostly an ominous mood piece, very heavy on carefully composed still (or mostly still) images manipulated with small animations or light effects, with lots of voiceover narration. A down-on-his-luck detective takes a surveillance case concerning a father and his young daughter. Upon breaking into their room -- a place that clearly hasn't been occupied in forever -- he discovers the ready-to-print confession of the father, who was also once a detective fallen on hard times, and indeed eventually accepted a job watching a father and his daughter, despite no record of their lives (or their home, for that matter) to be found anywhere. Gradually, the former detective found his identity slipping away, until he realized that he actually was the father, and somehow hired himself, with all his universe orbiting that little girl, and one of his few serenities being the knowlege that he'd eventually get hire our present detective. Who is, of course, also him.

Or is it all the sweaty summer dream of a desperate writer, struggling to cook up a salable idea? Also: why are airplanes turning into fish? Is it a free-floating symbol of the capricious creative drive? Is the little girl a goddess? Could she take Haruhi Suzumiya in a fight? A dance-off? And where the hell's the basset hound? So many questions.

I liked it all a good deal, but I'll confess I liked it more after I read Justin Sevakis's review at Anime News Network, which presented the background needed to suggest a fascinating crypto-autobiographical/biographical reading, in that Oshii's father really was a struggling detective, and that the film was made in a sort of dead zone in Oshii's own life, roasting in an apartment after he was done with Urusei Yatsura but before Patlabor got off the ground (amusingly, with the aid of writer Kazunori Ito and character designer Akemi Takada, both of whom worked on Twilight Q's only other produced segment, Reflection - A Knot in Time). It lends an added sensation of going nowhere in life to the proceedings, of inescapable settling, of 'sons' becoming fathers.

Hell, I'm kind of piqued by another branch of the family tree. I don't know the exact chronology, but Oshii did have a young daughter he eventually lost contact with for about 20 years, which casts the project's familial aspect in a very different light. Oshii would eventually meet the girl again, when she was an adult, and their reconciliation provided one of the inspirations for his more recent film, this year's The Sky Crawlers. I wonder if the circle has again come around, in a temporally freer way.

*Now the anime is silenced.


Petey & Pussy: I like John Kerschbaum's comics a lot, and just when I started wondering where he'd gotten to, here comes an all-new, 128-page hardcover saga of the man's delightful funny animal characters with scary human heads. Gags aplenty, kissed by slapstick gore and surrealism, if my guess is right! Lush art too. From Fantagraphics. Large preview here.

Fuzz and Pluck: Splitsville: But don't let one pair of talking beasts from Fantagraphics deter you from flipping through this long-coming, 240-page collection of Ted Stearn's 2001-08 series, splitting up his meek teddy bear and cocky plucked rooster duo into a dual adventure that totally involves pit fighting. There's a huge (albeit subdivided) preview at Stearn's Flash-based homepage, if you click "comics" up top - otherwise, slideshow here.

Swallow Me Whole: Nate Powell's new book, a 216-page, $19.95 (though Diamond's list says $14.95) b&w hardcover from Top Shelf. Two stepsiblings struggle with mental troubles in a visually impressive fugue of familial love and absorbing ailment. I'll recommend this. My review here; a preview here.

The Lagoon: Being the first longform comics work from Lilli Carré, whose 2006 Top Shelf project Tales of Woodsman Pete got some good attention. This one's from Fantagraphics; $14.99 for an 80-page hardcover focused on the reactions of individual members of a family to a sweet song from a strange thing somewhere out there, underwater. Preview here.

Veeps: Profiles in Insignificance: Also from Top Shelf, but not at all a comic - it's actually a 296-page, $19.95 hardcover book of fun facts and anecdotes relating to every damned US VP that was ever seated, written by Bill Kelter with illustrations by Wayne Shellabarger. Preview here, homepage here, official blog here. It's fun, I enjoyed it.

Archer & Armstrong: First Impressions: Oh shoot, I've got a soft spot for this one. This was 'the Barry Windsor-Smith series' Valiant started up in 1992, spun out of its Unity crossover. And you'll apparently be getting to enjoy those early Event tie-in issues as part of this new $24.95 hardcover collection. No offense to Jim Shooter (already being shown the door at this point) & Bob Layton, who co-created the series with Windsor-Smith, but the stuff doesn't really hit its stride until BWS takes over as sole writer/penciller as of issue #3, at which point it becomes a funny, easygoing story of a spiritual superfighter/reprobate immortal odd couple zipping around the globe having adventures. This goes up to issue #6 (counting #0); Windsor-Smith wrote up to issue #12. I hope the new coloring doesn't kill the art. With a new cover by Michael Golden and a new short story by Shooter & Sal Velluto, which ought to be the only non-BWS stuff in here.

Skitzy: The Story of Floyd W. Skitafroid: Reprints, o my reprints! This one's a new edition of a 1953 work by illustrator, painter and children's book author Don Freeman, tracking the adventures of a man who literally splits into a carefree artist and a dour workaholic. It's $19.95; samples from an older edition here.

Leonard Starr's Mary Perkins On Stage Vol. 5: September 18, 1961 to March 9, 1963: You too, Leonard. Classic Comics Press shall accomplish the reprint. Anticipate 264 pages of lavish newspaper strip drama-among-the-dramatic for a $24.95 toll.

Jack Kirby's The Demon Omnibus: All of it will return to print ALL OF IT ALL OF IT ALL OF IT. Herein rests 384 color pages comprising all 16 issues of the King's 1972-74 project of devilish appeal. It's $49.99.

The Spirit Special #1: Parts of this will return to print too, since there's a movie and all (I hear Frank Miller cut the giant squid, the fucker). Herein rests 32 color pages comprising four tales of Will Eisner's original creation. Only $2.99!

Stan's Soapbox: The Collection: Oh god yes, even the fucking text pieces will be reprinted. This is for the Hero Initiative, though, so it's not quite the same. Compiling every last madcap missive from the muddy middle of Marvel mammoths and marginalia, 1967-80. Video hype here. It's a $14.99 softcover, although pricier limited editions should be out later.

The Punisher MAX #64: Marvel!

Foolkiller: White Angels #5 (of 5): MAX!

Punisher War Journal #25: Howard! Chaykin!

The Punisher by Garth Ennis Omnibus: Marvel! Knights! Yeah - $99.99 will net you the complete 'funny' Punisher -- including the whole of Welcome Back Frank and the early Kills the Marvel Universe one-off, plus all pertinent issues of the ongoing Knights series and that one Double-Shot -- from the writer who later switched it up to grander effect. One-stop shopping for all your 'wonder what he did with it beforehand' needs.

Conan the Cimmerian #5: Corben and cohorts.

Youngblood Vol. 1: Even this, friends - even Liefeld shall ascend to the altar of reprints in this golden age. A 168-page, $34.99 deluxe hardcover ($75.00 signed 'n numbered!) collecting the original 1992-93 storyline. That's a good time. Ha ha, remember how "issue #5" was actually a back-up story in an issue of Brigade? Man, those comics sold hundreds upon hundreds atop hundreds of thousands of copies. Boy. Do note that this is the exciting revised edition of the material, which has been entirely re-written by Joe Casey, with pages swapped around and all-new Rob Liefeld art added when necessary. The ending's different too. The rest of that Brigade issue: not included. Preview. Run toward the reader. Run.



Further selections from the action comics scene of Mars, the traditional planet of war.


Ah, Yuichi Yokoyama; he may be on track to become the most-lauded art manga auteur in English-speaking lands, as far as that'll take you.

This is a new softcover PictureBox edition ($19.95, 208 pages) of a 2005 project, which I believe was initially published in France (as Voyage) before getting picked up by domestic patron Comic CUE for a Japanese release the following year. That probably says something about Yokoyama's hometown popularity, and maybe Japan's art manga scene as a whole. Maybe pastures are greener in North America - a lot of people around here really liked Yokoyama's prior book (New Engineering), at least one prominent source has already placed this new one among the best comics of the year, and PictureBox already has his most recent work (Garden) on its schedule for 2009.

I'm not surprised the praise is still coming. Travel may be a bit different from Yokoyama's last book -- perhaps just different enough to keep it fresh and singular in the minds of readers -- but it's working under just the same concept as New Engineering, a mission of theory that has guided all of Yokoyama's work as a mangaka. Put simply, the bowl of humanism is well and truly kicked, and only by inhaling works stripped of psychological representation into our cultural lungs can new ideas truly blossom and images maintain a sense of bottomless revelation, of active eternity. His praxis: Naruto.

All right, no. Not exactly, but sort of, in that Yokoyama's process for actually making comics scrubbed of the human element appears to involve supercharging virtually every element of the page with the sort of broiling, uncontainable energy I most commonly associate with shōnen manga, although certainly the artist's approach to design looks nothing like any boys' comics artist I can think of. Paul Karasik -- who provides a new Introduction to PictureBox's edition -- compares Yokoyama to Jack Kirby as investing characters with "an urgency that is often much greater than the action demands." I'd agree, but I'd expand that to even non-living items and machines, all of which throb and thunder through Yokoyama's world with exactly the same maniacal drive that powers his people - in this way, his world is truly flat.

Karasik also cites Bernard Krigstein as a fellow practitioner in chilly manipulations of time and space; I do think there's something to that, but mainly in the contrasts betrayed by process. At EC, Krigstein was often confronted with standardized page layouts -- lettering already included, so no funny business! -- which he then bisected and trisected, panel-by-panel, cracking and chiseling so as to control the flow of narrative action. Yokoyama, sitting one ocean and half a century away, has characterized his own approach as focusing on the development of key single images, then stretching a 'narrative' forward and backward in time as responses to the core; he is a painter by training, and deems his approach "serialized painting."

In this way, both artists seem to embody certain core attributes of their comics traditions. Krigstein is deliberate, taking apart the pieces of form he's been given to rearrange narratives, always thinking, always considering. Yokoyama is improvisatory, flying by the seat of his pants to concoct whatever seems to follow his core 'paintings,' no matter the direction, trusting that it'll register as some insightful narrative in the end.

That's not to say Krigstein never improvised, or that Yokoyama is thoughtless -- or even that a pre-Code genre artist and a 21st century art manga guy are totally representative of their own artistic cultures, which are fluid as cultures are -- but I do think these approaches are indicative of a somewhat fussier, thought-heavy approach to the 'art' of North American comics, in opposition to the dreamier, more freewheeling explorations of manga. I mean, I suspect there's a reason why so many 'alternative' manga artists sport scribbly 'brut' styles, all very immediate in spilling over the page. And while Yokoyama doesn't sport one of those styles, his work is entirely manga.

There is an easier way for a reader to grab hold of all this, by the way. Just imagine that all of Yokoyama's comics take place on Earth-Awesome, wherein everything is so fucking awesome. That doesn't mean awesome things are always occurring on Earth-Awesome, but that every occurrence is, by virtue of merely happening, infallibly awesome.

So, that brings us to the epic saga of Travel. I mentioned above that it's a tiny bit different than New Engineering, and by that I mean it's a wordless, full-length single work, instead of a collection of shorter works dotted with the odd word balloon. This benefits Yokoyama fairly well, in that he's able to stretch his routines as long as he'd like, joining them together like passages of music in a solid composition.

I'll try not to ruin the twists, but the book's plot concerns three men who buy train tickets and board a train, and then try to find good seats on the train. That's part one, which takes up 1/4 of the book. In part two, Our Heroes look at all of the things the train passes, while the reader's perspective occasionally darts outside for a wider view. Then they all get off the train at their stop. The end!

But naturally, it's the manner by which everything plays out that matters. Men in black and white and tan and striped hairdos stride through corridors with maximum purpose; doors whoosh and whip open with incredible force. A stray glance at a man's carrying case is paced so as to suggest the smuggling of nuclear secrets; any random meeting of eyes with some other passenger is granted all the tenseness of a crucial metting to change the world, until one man slowly reaches into his jacket to pull out... a book! Weird architectures loom and curl; personal attire bubbles and spatters in odd designs and angry textures. The simple act of light shining through the clouds and casting shadows on the train is enough to transform the entire world into another reality, and then someone lights up a cigarette and it's the greatest moment in all of human history. Until the next one!

As with New Engineering, Yokoyama's character art is funny and appealing, while his panel flow remains perched on the very edge of comprehensibility; I noticed that most of part 2 had its scenery flowing from left-to-right, while the book reads right-to-left, and I presume that's to force the reader into a tighter consideration of what they're seeing, although it also nags at the whole thing's readability, maybe intentionally. I get the feeling the book's visual ethos is summarized by its design (credited to Jessi Rymill), with a dust cover bearing images of Yokoyama's faces on its front and bodies on its back, removable to reveal a psychedelic pink and yellow and green and blue image of a train roaring right at you, although it's more the impression of a train than anything that might look like it works. Still, you know what's coming.

However, in case you ever do get confused, Yokoyama is kind enough to include a set of annotations in the back of the book, fittingly devoted to almost nothing other that dryly describing what's happening on any given page:

"18 > The passenger in the second panel is carrying a comb in his pocket."

"30-31 > There are copier paper, thermal fax paper, files, and other stationery goods and documents visible in the bag."

"79 > The passengers witness a lightning strike."

"110 > The man who was reading seems to have noticed that he is being watched, but just as he took notice, the train exited the tunnel and light hit the window."

This initially seems perverse, like the artist is deliberately trying to do exactly what everyone knows is mortal sin #1 in delivering a commentary. I couldn't help but feel it was all adding up to some odd breakdown or punchline ("148 > The men's images are hazy in the passing windows. Yesterday I threw my dog's bed at him in play and now he avoids me. In the third panel, you can hear grandma calling me to eat. No grandma, I am drawing trees.").

But it actually makes perfect sense for what Yokoyama is doing, allowing himself to act as a detatched human perspective on the matter, should the human reader desire such a thing. After all, reading Yokoyama describe his pages in prose allows us to process the information as our own images, redolent with the human bias. Yokoyama's comics are meant as something different, foreign in the only way he can truly be foreign to humanism, and as such there's no repetition at all.

I liked this book, as I did Yokoyama's last one. But I wonder if I'm getting something different out of it than many other readers (surely that'd make the artist happy!) - a lot of the reviews I've read focus on the humor of Yokoyama's scenes, the absurdity that hangs over all this crazy action performed by strange people, all the busyness adding and adding until you can't help but laugh. That is an element, but it's more of a laugh at the void to me.

There's always something deeply menacing about Yokoyama's art when I look at it; all of his activity feels so energetic that it's violent, like finding a seat on the train is a prolonged struggle, albeit one to be faced with stoicism. There are never beginnings or endings to his stories, only these compositions of frantic action, which I presume will continue long after the work has finished, just as it went on a long time before anything started, Yokoyama's key 'paintings' spreading out forever like an unchecked invader species upon a placid world.

And what about his concept; is he using the mechanisms of fighting adventure manga to indicate how these children's action comics are dehumanizing, how certain comics strip the human experience down to visual clichés and supplant meaningful connection with distraction unto violence? Might he be a (*gasp* *choke*) humanist in disguise?!

We may never know; the artist speaks in two ways in this book, prose and comics, and both are devoted solely to a simple daily procedure turned inside-out. It's got some hidden beauty, but its like a sparkling carcinogen, hovering around as it does its deadly work on your inside.


Yes, I still do link posts.

*Golgo 13 Dept: Because it's too good to leave buried in the past - Todd Ciolek (of Anime News Network's gaming column The X Button) has written in with some info regarding the beloved Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode NES game... turns out planner/director/writer/graphic designer Shouichi Yoshikawa has a website. With parts in English! Like a whole section devoted to posting his Golgo 13 script!! Damn, they were Nazis in the original?! Pour a stiff drink, gird your loins with frames and animated gifs, and relive the magic to the smooth sounds of two decades passed.

Also: an English-language interview with Yoshikawa, loaded with minutia, fragmented J-gaming history (dirty arcade block-breakers!) and the 'auteur' theory of '80s game development. Read that too.


So, funny thing - I polished off yesterday's post before going to bed and guess what was waiting for me when I woke up?

Batman: Cacophony #1 (of 3)

This will be out on Wednesday; it's a new Batman miniseries, marking the return of filmmaker Kevin Smith (of the current Zack and Miri Make a Porno) to superhero comics writing. These days Smith is (mostly) associated with expansive tardiness as far as comics go, but it's worth remembering that he was one of the bigger writers working in the genre back around the turn of the century, with his Daredevil and Green Arrow runs benefiting from a mix of publishing prominence (both were high-profile relaunches), controversy and the still-tingly sensation of a well-known figure from outside of comics seating himself in the middle of ongoing continuity and seizing the reins.

That last bit got tricky, though, as time went on; Smith's presence on the scene faded, leaving some projects vastly delayed, or simply abandoned. To some, this (lack of) behavior became indicative of an unflattering perception: comic books as a second-class creative pursuit, something you can pop into with enthusiasm when you feel like it, only to brush aside when 'big kid' art forms beckon. I doubt it was intentional (this is a guy who financed his first feature in part by selling off most of his comic book collection), but it happened.

And it wasn't just Smith's not making a lot of comics that did it -- I think everyone realizes that working on movies as an established name talent tends to offer way greater financial benefits than writing superhero comics, even as an established name talent -- but the idea that you can start things in comics and just not finish them, whether for a long while (Spider-Man/Black Cat: The Evil that Men Do) or at all (Daredevil/Bullseye: The Target).

But I think the general issue has since evolved in recent years, to the point where Smith is more a special case than emblematic of anything. Today there's not so much critical focus on comics not getting finished (Damon Lindelof aside), as comics getting finished as little more than items by which the creators might attract attention from one or another big kid artform. Since those considerations don't easily apply to superhero comics of the DC/Marvel ilk, where it's all likely to be owned by a corporation in the end anyway, the big concern in that arena is that writers of prose (or whatever) won't appreciate the mechanics of the comics form, leading to stilted, overwritten funnies of muffled-to-negligible visual appeal. Which happens enough in superhero comics as it is.

I mentioned yesterday that I couldn't recall enjoying any of Smith's superhero comics; having read this one, I still can't. However, it's kind of interesting, here in 2008, how much Smith's approach feels like that of a (perhaps stereotypical) prose or film writer of limited comics experience; I haven't seen much of Smith's work as a filmmaker, though know he's often characterized as greatly favoring dialogue over visual consideration, and nothing in here offers any persuasive analogy to the contrary.

This is a very wordy comic -- I spotted two panels that cracked triple digits -- with nearly all of the narrative burden heaped on captions (three narrators this issue alone) and extensive character shtick give-and-take. It's pencilled by Smith's longtime friend/actor Walt Flanagan (previously of various IDW projects written by View Askew cohort Bryan Johnson), with inks from superhero veteran Sandra Hope, but Smith is always the dominant presence. The chit-chat only dies down for workmanlike-at-best action sequences marked by stiff character art and a shaky grasp of spatial properties (the Joker's cell at Arkham seems about the size of my office building's cafeteria; maybe he worked his way up to the luxury suite?), and one gets the feeling that this is the best use of the visual element anyone involved can come up with.

Well, there's also Onomatopoeia, one of the book's villains and a prior Smith creation (with Phil Hester in Green Arrow), but he mostly winds up embodying the limitations of the approach. You see, he's a masked superkiller who says sound effects, and... ah, that's all. I mean, he shoots people too, and the guns make their own sound effects, for example, but Onomatopeia also says the sound effects before or after they actually happen. And while I can imagine this working as at least a cute visual gimmick (I haven't read Green Arrow, so maybe Hester did it better), that'd still require a more sophisticated interaction of words and pictures than this comic can muster. As it is, it's an odd scripting joke that gets dull after three panels.

The rest of the issue is about as lively. Smith's tone alternates between semi-comedic routines among supervillains and dark 'n gritty scenes of Batman brooding extravagantly while interrupting Mr. Zsasz -- who's now logged so many murders on his person he's thinking about carving up his penis -- in the midst of the usual mayhem. That means pop culture references and screaming children held at knifepoint with their dead parents resting under bloody bedsheets in another room! Our Hero is greatly upset, since his parents got killed too, so his vows (via caption) to end the madness while putting CERTAIN WORDS in ALL CAPS before taking the bastard down via homage to the feature film Robocop. So it goes.

For all its many words, there isn't really much of a story in this thing, but we are told that Maxie Zeus (as: the zany villain with a 'realistic' gloss) has converted a lost cache of Joker venom into a designer drug that's hooking the kids, prompting Deadshot to pursue a contract put out on the Joker's head by the parent of one particular kid who launched himself off a roof while high. The situation also offends the Clown Prince's sense of aesthetics, prompting gang war in Gotham after Onomatopia helps bust him out of lockup, for reasons that remain a mystery at issue's end.

As you can probably tell, 'children in peril' is the dominant motif of Smith's script, whipping up some shocks while possibly serving as the means by which he could later aim for gravitas, since superhero comics are, as everyone knows, Serious Business. The subtitle Cacophony is an obvious nod toward the writer's supervillain creation, but I guess it's something Batman will have to sort through to accomplish some goal or another. I don't know.

I'm not compelled to stick around and find out. Nothing in this issue suggests that anything of originality or depth will later occur, or that any entertainment won't come slathered with gloomy pretense and recited with all the care of the Joker blowing up a schoolhouse full of children, which he does on the last page. After setting it up with dialogue, of course, and following it with Zeus making a reference to his wacky old costume and Onomatopia saying a sound effect after we've read it. I think it's supposed to be funny because it's so shameless? Eh, I didn't laugh much at the rest of it either.


My Productive November

*Scout's honor! It's been very productive! Just not in re: comics reviewing, but I'm trying to change that!


The ACME Novelty Library #19 (and it didn't help that this became one of those situations where I got on a huge research kick, and soon I was re-reading the Quimby the Mouse collection and Dan Raeburn's monograph and The Comics Journal's Chris Ware interview -- that's issue #200 -- and then I got bad enough that I started buying stuff I didn't have, like that Lost Buildings book/dvd he did with Ira Glass... well, at least I supported public radio)

*And at least there isn't another heap coming to seal my fate. Heaps dominate my ill-omen dreams.


Powr Mastrs Vol. 2 (of 6): Yes, it's the second PictureBox installment of C.F.'s conversational tour of New China, with at least one (1) beheading and one (1) ejaculatory money shot thrown in for good measure. I liked the first one. It's 104 pages, 16 in pulsing full color, for $18.00; preview here.

Big Questions #11: Sweetness and Light: I'd say this Drawn and Quarterly pamphlet series is Anders Nilsen's strongest sustained work overall (in that I'd probably want to see issue #2 of his excellent The End before putting it up top): a dreamy, expansive suspense narrative catching humans and (talking) animals alike in a web of philosophical brooding, as doomy clouds drift. Unfortunately, the earlier, non-D&Q issues are really tough to find (although some are available for purchase online in lavish photocopied 'reprint' format), but don't let that dissuade you from flipping though - it's a striking series, even excerpted.

Wet Moon Vol. 4: Drowned in Evil: New from Oni - the latest in Ross Campbell's moistened epic of relationships and secrets. It's 184 pages for $14.95.

Stray Toasters: Being a new Image softcover edition of Bill Sienkiewicz's 1988-89 solo fantasy frolic, a fevered mashup of murder, family, household appliances, a lawyer, a demon on holiday and a hard-boiled hard-luck badass straight out of Frank Miller (Elektra: Assassin had wrapped the prior year); I haven't read this book in years. It's $24.99 for 224 pages, with annotations (which might be worth a look on their own).

The Ted McKeever Library: Book 1: Transit: I can't say I'm all that familiar with the work of this popular artist, as I only know of his collaborations with other writers (e.g. 1993's The Extremist w' Peter Milligan; 2004's Enginehead w' Joe Kelly... man, remember that one?). He's just one of those guys who've mostly fallen through the cracks in my reading. Looks like this new series of Image hardcovers might be a decent way to catch up, although I suspect even the devout might want a look at this 156-page, $24.99 debut, in that it's slated to contain the unpublished ending to McKeever's heretofore incomplete 1987-88 urban rot series from Vortex Comics.

New X-Men by Grant Morrison Ultimate Collection Vol. 3 (of 3): More reprints?! Ok, here's a softcover edition of the old third-'n-final New X-Men hardcover from back in the day (2004); still 336 pages, but now a pricier $34.99, because you shouldn't have waited. I rather liked Here Comes Tomorrow, myself.

A Treasury of Victorian Murder Vol. 6: The Beast of Chicago: This isn't a reprint, just Diamond once again offering the $8.95 NBM softcover edition of Rick Geary's 2003 chronicle of H.H. Holmes and his infamous house of horrors at the time of the World's Fair. Preview; bigger preview.

Lucky Luke Vol. 13: The Tenderfoot: This also isn't a reprint, at least as far as North America is concerned, although the content -- from creator/artist 'Morris' (Maurice De Bevere) and writer René Goscinny (also co-creator of Astérix) -- dates back to 1968 (it was tome 33 of the original release). Not much of Lucky Luke has been seen in the US, although it's one of those enormous Franco-Belgian comics god-things that you probably should behold once or twice, even if the comedic/historical adventures of its cowboy hero don't suit you. From Cinebook; $11.95 for 48 album-sized pages. Preview here.

Gravel #6: I didn't expect Oscar Jimenez to stick around as this Warren Ellis (story)/Mike Wolfer (script) Avatar series' regular artist, but I guess he is? He was the original penciller on Ellis' relaunched Stormwatch, before Bryan Hitch came aboard and the whole thing mutated into The Authority (well, with some help from the Chris Sprouse/Kevin Nowlan-illustrated WildC.A.T.s/Aliens one-shot); interesting to see him again. Ellis and Avatar also have Anna Mercury #4 (of 5) this week.

Jack Staff #19: Grist.

B.P.R.D.: The Warning #5 (of 5): Davis.

The Savage Dragon #140: Larsen.

Captain Britain and MI: 13 #7: Hitting and stars and red and sword.

100 Bullets #97 (of 100): One step closer to the edge! Er, this looks like the most interesting new thing out from DC-and-thereabouts this week. I mean, there's little doubt that the big seller of the week will be Batman: Cacophony #1 (of 3), which marks writer Kevin Smith's return to superhero comics, but I'm really wracking my brain here and I don't think I've ever enjoyed a Kevin Smith superhero comic. Maybe a $17.99 softcover reprint of Darwyn Cooke's Batman: Ego and Other Tales (with Paul Grist, Tim Sale and Bill Wray) will do the trick?



Once per year, jetting forward and back.

The ACME Novelty Library #19

I can hardly imagine comics without Chris Ware. He's just too tightly bound to my development as a reader; it'd be like trying to envision a novel without having learned half the alphabet.

Sure, I read a lot of comics before The ACME Novelty Library (est. 1991), but it was Ware's early work -- most crucially the oversized issue #4, the second half of Quimby the Mouse -- that kept a toe or two held in the lake of mid-to-late-'90s comics, grime so caked on its surface the water burned. Those mournful, achingly romantic cat 'n mouse diagram funnies and animation approximations forced me to rethink how 'comics' could work, at exactly the time I needed to consider qualites other than plot progression or in-panel detailing. And as a special bonus: diagrams became mournful and achingly romantic! Ware forced the argument of form, and, in that, he became inseparable from comics itself. For me.

And, oddly enough, my appreciation for the artist's much-vaunted technical mastery hasn't dimmed, though my tastes have changed. Ware's style is utterly individual, and very surface-pretty, but it's rich; those layouts and colors and letters may be formidably handsome, yes, but you can also notice how he holds the eye on repeating images in his unshakable little boxes, bouncing you from still scene to still scene, popping impact out of large panels then contracting, composing itself, refusing to become undone in the way that manga panels may tilt, but pulsing with an undeniable rhythmic force.

The artist himself has compared this approach to the composition of music. Some find it merely clinical, or chilly; I often think it lends Ware's world an impossibly tense feeling of barely-controlled emotion -- be it anger or sadness or (yes!) mirth -- like an ache coiling up in the guts of his characters and his society, gradually receding just when they can't take any more, fading behind the beauty of Ware's natural scenes or crisp urban visions, mounted like curios of serenity in a cabinet. He does love his Joseph Cornell.

But the feeling always returns, with needling inevitability.

Not that I expect that to be pleasant or attractive for every reader either, but Ware's edge-of-composure-but-still-so-so-very-composed aesthetic seems so utterly vital to his stories that it can't go without my due identification. Plus, it's adaptable - from the newspaper funnies iconography of Quimby the Mouse to the 'gag strip as emotional abuse' conceit of Big Tex, all the way down to the recent, sprawling mind-as-architecture schemata of Building Stories -- perhaps Ware-the-architect's quintessential vision of the human experience! -- there seems no limit to the ways in which reality can appear, in any form, of any form, as a metaphorical volcano perpetually on the verge of eruption, be it of humor or fantasy or (sure, most often) despair, but never... quite... spilling... over.

It goes deep, and Ware's way with adaptation doesn't even end there. Probably the least discussed of the artist's skills -- since it necessarily requires access to multiple versions of the same stuff -- is his way with breaking apart and recomposing preexisting pieces into new, entirely cohesive works, with not a line out of place or a movement jarred.

All the material in this particular issue (for example) initially appeared as weekly comics in The Chicago Reader from 2002 to 2004. Now they're part of a book, The ACME Novelty Library #19, which is actually chapter three of a much longer work titled Rusty Brown. That'll be its own book one day, and everything will come together at that time, but for right now Ware's aptitude for arrangement assures that this latest number of his continuing one-man anthology will nevertheless offer a full and self-sufficient experience - it'd damn well better, being a $15.95 hardcover comic of 72 pages and only coming out once a year and all!

In other words, some artists keep one eye on the bookshelf when setting up their serials, but Ware's vision demands every format be ready and able to perform on its own; it seems a natural extension of his fascination with construction, yet it doubles as a perfect virtue for today's slowed pace of serialization.

Hence: ACME #19. Have I mentioned it's a big sci-fi special? Sci-fi/horror, even?

That's not a new thing for Ware either, mind you; his 1987 professional debut, Floyd Farland, Citizen of the Future, was a full-blown Eclipse Graphic Novel of droll future paranoia, later supplanted in dystopian theme by the consumerist happy hell of Tales of Tomorrow. More pertinently, his Rocket Sam strips presented the classic motifs of interstellar settling and human-robot relations as blunt metaphors for the futility of interpersonal communication; he continues with same ideas here, albeit as a full-blown story rather than an accumulation of mean gags.

But don't go thinking that's all it is. The fantasy only takes up half of this issue; we soon discover that the story we've just gone through was written (as prose) by in-serial protagonist William K. "Woody" Brown (father of the titular Rusty), and holds a special place in his heart as an artifact of a time when he was young and in love and on his own in late '50s Omaha, the saga of which takes up the second half of this issue.

It will surprise nobody familiar with Ware to reveal that the two halves compliment (and often mirror) one another, and that the total package will tell you all you need to know about how sad-looking Mr. Brown (oh that Schulz influence!) wrote his story and hardly wrote anything more, and indeed how he got into that room to stare sadly at his old work, and why he might be so nostalgic. You don't need to have read any prior installments of Rusty Brown to get a full experience, although there's obviously some treats tucked away for the devout.

I personally liked the 'sci-fi/horror' first half a good deal more than the 'longing and heartbreak in a period setting' second half. Granted, the first half draws added power from the second half, just as the second half becomes clarified by the first, so it's hard to really break them apart. It's not even all that accurate to call the first half a simple 'story,' as it soon becomes evident that we're not so much reading Brown's work in the form of a comic as reading it along with him from inside his head, as he subjectively experiences it, occasionally swapping out something from the text for something that the text causes him to remember - Ware wittily unveils this aspect in a bit where a narrative caption describes a color that seems improperly presented in the comic itself, as if Ware-the-artist has made a blatant coloring error (but... but everyone loves his coloring! and those letters!!). Do add to that the fact that the story's in-text narrator also happens to be classically unreliable, because this is a work of suspense and thrills!

So, in summary, we've got a (prose) story being told in flashback by a narrator that's not telling the whole truth, presented through the retrospective (comics) gaze of a reader who's not reading the stright text, which makes a bit of sense in that the reader is also the story's writer, and the narrator is his own self-insertion, although the narrator and the reader/writer don't necessarily have the same motives, and do not lie in the same way, and indeed sometimes undercut one another, unbeknownst to either of them. Got it?

Remember, this is all the product of an artist whose breakthrough short story, I Guess (aka: Thrilling Adventure Stories; first published in Raw Vol. 2 No. 3), took the form of a Golden Age-style superhero short with all of its words replaced by an ongoing monologue from a man reflecting on his youth. This new fantasy is like an evolution of that early work, though it also hearkens back to a very particular attitude of alternative comics artists of a certain age from the United States, a pointed discomfort with the (American) medium's childish origins and genre slant, and a continuing need to process the stuff of supposed juvenilia into 'mature' works, right in front of the reader.

More than once does Ware furrow his narrative brow at the chest-thumping nonsense of unadorned sci-fi genre pieces -- in such painful contrast to his sensitive-but-flawed sad sack hero's passion for expression!! -- and it's hard not to read it all as fist raised for those who struggled against the bullshit and hackwork of a certain other artform, ha ha, to arrive at damaged works of undeniable passion to be growled over but finally, secretly proud of, like... well, like Chris Ware comics! Wouldn't you know?!

Even then, however, Ware is careful to submerge his self-aggrandizing in the stuff of perspective:

"But the things I wanted weren't always what the other kids were interested in..."

That's Woody in the second half, foreshadowing both his abridged creative life and the isolation he'd always feel, and perhaps signaling the presence of Ware personal preferences over everything he might say. He's a bit like Warren Ellis, really - a very particular voice and a very specific set of concerns, stamping his fingerprints all over any genre or plot he and his not-dissimilar set of characters might come across, to the point where he raises criticisms that he's one-note, or tedious. Ware, of course, is even more steady on that path, in that he directly controls the visual aspects of his stories and needs not concern himself with continuing characters he won't always direct; I wonder if the conceptual contortions of this genre story of his aren't a way of admitting, on the page, that his 'voice' rarely dissolves into the tone of character. All of them, awkward and downcast, are so close to him: creator; reader; character.

Er, don't let any of that make this comic seem intimidating. Ware goes to great lengths to make the sci-fi half as readable and immediate as possible. It's about a colonizing mission to Mars that becomes troubled when needed supplies don't arrive, causing narrator Rusty (yep) to crack up into a mass of fear, violence and sexual obsession, coupled with some nice bits of vintage pseudo-science explanation; the visual style is very 'contemporary Ware' (save for a few panels of video transmissions done in Ware's outline-free Floyd Farland style; nice callback!), and all those little boxes work fine for building up a sense of confinement - the gnawing subsumed emotion of society as the specter of Martian death! Hell yeah! There's even some decent visceral jolts, including a bit with a guy eating his own fingertips; if you're a big animal lover, there's one part with a dog that's going to kill you.

I suspect Ware's working in a pastiche of various period writers' styles, although I'm not up on '50s prose sci-fi to comment; there's an undercurrent of misogyny to a lot of it that's played out more in the issue's second half, though I wonder if it's not saying something about the genre's period as well. Clearly Woody (and thus Rusty) is a man of troubled relations, as evidenced by the issue's '50s-set second half, seeing Our Man trying to hold down a job while fixating on his first real sexual relationship, an on-and-off extended fling with a woman who's obviously not set on monogamy.

It's another one of Ware's jazzlike takes on his beloved themes, and I daresay at this point you'll either like it or you'll not. He gets a bit cute with how the 'real' half informs the fantasy, although there's a great bit where Woody's broken glasses and subsequent half-clear vision recalls the slow frosting of Rusty's space helmet as he wanders the black depths of space on a mad chase. Woody has a chase of his own, a flight up a long set of stairs that prompts the issue's obligatory bravura explosion of time and space, with panels growing smaller and piling up into childhood moments, the horror of the issue's genre half transformed into the discomfort of personal recollection - there's no rest in the world of Ware!

As always with this artist, it's maybe best to take this comic as a grand blueprint of a character's tortured emotional path through life. Ware seems a builder at heart, and while he no longer provides cut-out projects for his readers to play with, he makes certain to bookend his new comic with the image of a mighty (and oh so phallic) rocket and the same machine in cross-section, so that we can be certain to know exactly how it works when we've finished with the comic.

Right before that, at the close of the story proper (until it's reconfigured as one portion of a larger story proper, of course), we see a second sci-fi story by Mr. Brown, this time presented in plain, objective text. It's a short, sad one, seeing a lonely man riding on a rocket into the future, at a speed where life passes him by much faster than he actually ages. He's far more macho than Woody Brown, and not nearly as maniacal as Rusty-the-sci-fi-character, but he shares their awful isolation, and their sense of time passing, out of control, leaving everything they wanted to do out of their hands. Nobody can exit the ride, and only some form of night awaits them at the end.

It's the Chris Ware way. He doesn't literally map life and the cosmos this time, but it's his stars you're under nonetheless.