It's Muh Date of Birth.

*I have managed to elude the icy grasp of death for 24 years now, so my day must be spent in birthing-related activities. I've already got a pineapple full of ice cream, so it's going smoothly so far. See you all tomorrow.


Different peeks at classics.

*UPDATE (7/31/05 1:23 AM): Nice little article on Naoki Urasawa's Pluto from the English-language version of The Asahi Shimbun, which insists that it's Japan's leading national newspaper so who are we to argue? Plenty of quotes from Urasawa on his thinking behind the story, a bit of biographical stuff, info on Pluto's popularity in Japan, and even some comparison of the character remake dynamic with US superhero comics, an observation made in my own review. Did I mention that Chapters 20 and 21 are now out? Because they are; time to feel the burn of monthly cliffhangers, just like Urasawa's Japanese readers! (Found at Pata's lovely manga site, Irresponsible Pictures)

*Definition of the Day Dept:

Pleasure -

(1.) The state or feeling of being pleased or gratified.

(2.) A source of enjoyment or delight.

(3.) Amusement, diversion, or worldly enjoyment.

(4.) Sensual gratification or indulgence.

(5.) One's preference or wish.

(6.) The finding of a lost cache of back issues of Viz’s late, lamented manga magazine Pulp for one dollar per book. Sure, the snippets and random chapters of ongoing serials don’t make a lick of sense on their own, and I already own some of it in collected form anyway, but, to evoke the hoariest cliché possible, I’m reading it for the articles right now. The final issue, Vol. 6 No. 8, from August of 2002, features a lengthy multi-writer slash ‘n burn essay extravaganza titled “Manga Hell!!” which covers all of the sinful things the manga world can offer, including the worst of translated and untranslated work, tales of unscrupulous publishers, coverage of Osamu Tezuka’s sex satire Rally Up Mankind! (which desperately needs to be out in the US), and a tribute to gekiga writer extraordinaire Kazuo Koike, once a government bureaucrat by day, professional mahjong player by night, now best known for his disreputable cheeseball collaborations with Ryoichi Ikegami (Crying Freeman, Wounded Man) and his far more acclaimed work with Goseki Kojima (Lone Wolf and Cub, Samurai Executioner), though his scripts have graced everything from Golgo 13 (where, as Dan Coyle pointed out on this site, Koike got his uncredited start) to a Go Nagi epic titled Hanappe Bazooka involving a young fellow with a cosmic-powered penis for an index finger. If you ever find old issues of Pulp, you ought to buy them, as there’s a wealth of now-lost information within.

Gødland #1

Well, this is something. It’s a new creator-owned ongoing series by veteran writer Joe Casey (of The Intimates fame) and artist Tom Scioli. And it’s basically an attempt to create a modern-day Jack Kirby comic, complete with Kirby-style art and a loose, space-faring plot and tons of fighting. Everyone’s emotions are worn on their sleeves, and weird, wild action is the point of it all.

And, given that, it’s a good book. Keep in mind that (blasphemy!) I’m not nearly as versed in The King’s sweeping career as I ought to be, and I’m certain that there’s a lot of tiny crumbs of homage and tribute that I’m totally missing, but as a breezy fight book it’s perfectly ok. The key is probably Scioli’s art; despite adopting a positively slavish Kirby style for the ongoing action, Scioli resists coating his visuals in the amber of perfect simulation, bringing some good energy and movement to the story. Scioli was previously responsible for Image’s game-based Freedom Force and a self-published Kirby-style book titled The Myth of 8-Opus, which won a 1999 Xeric Grant and prompted some (shall we say) diverse reactions. His tight, exacting style sometimes encompasses so many familiar Kirby tropes at once, it seems almost 'hyper-Kirby,' multiple Kirbys at once, just like a certain scene in the book itself wherein the protagonist, bold astronaut Adam Archer, is confronted with dozens of mirror replications of himself in a secret cave on Mars; each replica infuses him with energy, granting him amazing cosmic powers - take whatever metaphor you please out of that.

Casey has stated in his weekly column with Matt Fraction (which also sports some nice art samples) that the book is even being produced in the classic Marvel style, with Casey providing Scioli with a (mostly) page-by-page plot breakdown, Scioli then determining all of the page layouts and panel positioning on his own, and finally Casey plugging dialogue directly into Scioli’s finished art. While not the most nuance-inclined means of creating sequential tales, it’s probably fine for a loopy cosmic fight book of this type, though Casey seems to be uncertain as to what note to strike with his script. There’s elements of direct parody, like the Stan Lee-type opening captions (unfortunately, the book arrives hot on the heels of a similar and more successful Lee/Kirby tribute experiment in Grant Morrison and Cameron Stewart’s Guardian). There’s bits of starry-eyed Silver Age wonderment, like a long monologue delivered by Archer whilst wandering the blighted terrain of Mars and uncovering its secrets (excellent candied coloring by Bill Crabtree, by the way). There’s some fairly flat ‘modern’ jokes, like a random villainess’ addiction to cable news, or Archer halting his fight dialogue to wonder why he’s bothering to talk in a heated battle. Indeed, like the art, Casey appears to be attempting every sort of tone a writer can manage when working with Kirby-style art in 2005, but this time the effect is scattered, like Casey just can’t yet figure out how to present the book.

Ultimately, though, the book is about largely brains-free fighting, the story flashing back and forth from Archer’s origins to a battle with a Lockjaw-type space canine. We sometimes cut away to seemingly unrelated heroes and villains, clashing in medias res, and a stock personality supporting cast hovers on the sidelines. But yeah, punching and Krackle and space things, all the way.

It’s intended as a long series; Casey says he’s already working on issue #8. I have to wonder how long the book can sustain itself, and where it will go. Casey’s books are usually slow-starters for me, though this one is fleet on its kisser-socking terms, and they tend to develop into other things over time. Whatever this book develops into, it at least has the attractive violence thing down, turning back to an earlier age, like several books currently on the stands, but its gaze more fiercely focused on a particular point than is sometimes found.


A Creeping Sadness...

*I am everywhere and I see everything. First for today, we have my latest column, based on true events from the gritty floors of the comic shop. See a blogger's life and limb - in danger! This is hard-hitting column writing as you like it and can't live without. It also features great suggestions for what to name your next bowling team. Hope you like it.

*And now - say, look there!


I have a new review of several recent incarnations of Nightjar, the aborted Alan Moore/Bryan Talbot serial turned Avatar series-of-miniseries by Antony Johnston and Max & Sebastian Fiumara. I cover both the initial miniseries and the Hollow Bones prose book, with bonus consideration of Avatar’s place as a publisher. At Comic Book Galaxy. Hope you like it too.

*And as for this little ol’ site:

Suicide Club (Jisatsu Circle) Vol. 1 (of 1)

I bet you’ve heard of a movie bearing this title. It was released in 2002, written and directed by Shion Sono. It’s played a bunch of film festivals, and it’s out on R1 dvd.

It’s the one that starts out with a 54-member strong schoolgirl gaggle holding hands, counting to three, and leaping en mass into the path of a roaring subway car, sending a geyser of blood sloshing onto the walls, the rails, and all passerby.

This is the official manga adaptation, titled Jisatsu Circle in its homeland, released in 2002, written and drawn by Usumaru (or, if you prefer, Usamaru) Furuya, veteran of the esteemed alternative manga anthology Garo, author of the excellent two-volume Short Cuts, and contributor to the likes of Secret Comics Japan, which reprinted portions of his Palepoli strip. Being in love with the man, I was obviously interested in checking this thing out, as the movie (which I have not seen) has built up quite a reputation, and Furuya is a formidable, idiosyncratic talent. And I’m very sorry to say that it’s a disappointing combination, though not without certain charms.

We’re back in scanlation country, as you can see. But why, you might be wondering, would this one-book adaptation of a somewhat visible film not already be licensed for US release, especially considering that the author has had multiple works brought over here already? There’s a few possibilities. Perhaps, because of the film version’s notoriety, the license is prohibitively expensive. Or maybe it was just the content of the book; believe me when I say that some of this stuff gets pretty extreme, with scenes of chilly, muted violence and explicit sexuality, all of it centered around schoolgirls. It’s not prurient material, I assure you, but it’s not exactly coy either. Maybe all the shrinkwrap in the land couldn’t persuade a US-based company to bring this book over. I don’t know.

As I’ve just said, I haven’t seen the film, but I’m told that the manga borrows the title and aforementioned opening scene only, then essentially becomes its own work, with very little plot connection to its source material; this divorce of drive is instantly made plain through Furuya’s orchestrating of that infamous train scene - there’s no ocean of blood, but a mass of oddly clean bodies, piled up on the tracks with the occasional errant arm or leg sitting off to the side. It’s an understated spin on such a grabbing start, and might bode well in the minds of some readers.

And you’d be forgiven for getting even more excited over Furuya’s initial charting of the life paths of Kyoko, a sharp, happy girl, prone to typical teenage distractions and concerns, and Saya, a haunted waif who’s been prostituting herself to teachers and businessmen even since her father went away to the mental hospital. They used to be inseparable, but Kyoko eventually discovered romance and got sidetracked away from her friends (as some teens do). In the meantime, Kyoko became pals with a strange girl named Mitsuko, who had a cult-like club going strong, filled with sad and lonely girls who love her like a god. It’s the same club that jumped in front of that train. And Saya was the sole survivor.

Furuya isn’t busting out the dazzling feats of adaptable style that he flaunted in Short Cuts; the look of this book is quiet, ominous, and menacingly blasé. Nondescript buildings belie the presence of awful pain, lurking inside the hearts of young girls. Each and every girl (and there are crowds and crowds of them) looks utterly individual, and often pained. There’s a wonderful scene of tattooing on a school rooftop, with countless skirt and blouse-clad lasses laying modestly as their peers gash an identifying club membership into their ears, evoking the classic maturity ritual of getting one’s ears pierced, but with a far more sinister connotation. Furuya is obviously using his plot as a vehicle for a message about mass teenage pain, angst and loneliness manifesting in extreme forms, resounding throughout the years, one sadness jumping from one person to another.

However, Furuya’s intent is confounded by his adherence to too-typical horror tropes, with the suicide urge essentially manifesting itself as a body-hopping demon, craving more and more kills. This type of B-level thrill structure eventually overpowers the author’s allegory, with girls suddenly running around tossing tattlers and folks getting too close to The Truth off of stairwells like it’s a mass Giallo outbreak, complete with dopey cops unable to pick up on what‘s happening. There’s an inquisitive teacher who seems scary but then turns out to be helpful, dumping out the backstory (which he learned about on the Internet) like a classroom lecture. There’s even a race against time at the climax. And I suppose this sort of material could have worked, in some capacity, except it upsets the bleak, isolated tone of so many earlier pages; even the mandatory train bit was understated, but we end up with screaming and fights, all the louder from lack of blood. And that’s kind of a downer.

True, Furuya pulls his themes together by the end, and there’s a nice little grace note tucked away in the climax, as friends finally discover how to really talk. But I can’t help but wonder if this would have been a far more effective work had Furuya not merely distanced himself from the film, but from typical dramatic expectations; his characters could have benefited from spending more time in their haze and doubt, the horror gently covering them, just like the gorgeously pale colors of the opening sequence. But no, Furuya edges closer to what we expect, and we’re all poorer for it.

Though as far as comics adaptations of movies go, it sure beats the hell out of its superhero equivalents. I wonder if fans of the movie got upset over the near-total plot departures? Or maybe those fans were conditioned to expect the unexpected, both from the film and from Furuya, in the event they had heard of him. If you haven’t heard of him, as shaky as this particular work can be, I recommend you search out more, now that you have. At the very least, get Short Cuts, available from Viz; a talent of this type needs some money spent on it.


Comics you can buy in English, today!

*And comics you can't, tomorrow! But let's not wish our lives away.

*Absolutely fascinating response to Dirk Deppey’s excellent Chobits/Love Hina analysis from the new issue of The Comics Journal, right here on the Journal board. I’m referring specifically to the long post by freelance Viz editor (and Journal contributor) Shaenon Garrity that ends up comparing Chobits to The Dark Knight Returns. You might want to read the whole thread and/or Dirk’s review in the issue itself (and maybe Chobits itself, since Shaenon and Dirk both reveal the ending), or at least one page back to brush up on the otaku concept of moe, which I recall a pair of FLCL crewmembers describing as a fleeting sense of flawless innocent eros in a female anime character; the goal in crafting an anime girl, for some, is to achieve moe, as they put it. It was creepy.

*Comment On Current Events Dept: Call me a pervert or a provoker, but I think the terribly dirty and very very pornographic (and Not Safe For Work) ‘Hot Coffee’ sequence for Grant Theft Auto: San Andreas would have been even more destructive and obscene and lethal to the faint of heart and small animals if the male character ever took off a stitch of clothing even once. As it is, the version of the minigame I saw resembles a quasi-interactive David F. Friedman softcore job circa 1966 when obscenity standards still dipped down to cover anything below the waistline, save for the female derrière. Thank god the likes of The Notorious Daughter of Fanny Hill have risen from the pop culture cemetery to become the last crucial pebble necessary to snap loose the cliff holding a game loaded to exploding with rampant crime, absurd amorality, blood and gore, and total disregard for authority polite or otherwise, sending the whole affair plummeting into ‘AO’ territory, regardless of any satiric or exaggerative intent. I’m serious thinking that Trey Parker and Matt Stone got incredibly mad over the theatrical grosses of Team America: World Police and, out for revenge, secretly built an interdimensional teleporter that has now beamed us all into an episode of South Park. I just hope it’s a good one.

JLA: Classified #10

Prior storylines in Justice League Clearinghouse have included an unofficial Seven Soldiers prelude (which sort of stood well on its own, dodgy art aside) and a sequel to a kinda-popular miniseries that itself was a sequel-in-spirit to an incarnation of the Justice League concept from back in the ’80s. And now, a Warren Ellis storyline that’s been sitting in someone’s drawer since 2003.

Not that such quibbles really matter; the first three issues of Desolation Jones was also written a ways back, and that turned out perfectly well (of course, a lot of credit needs to go to the art team on that one too). But Ellis’ first issue on this book seems to be particularly susceptible to a certain brand of latecomer’s disease: it hearkens back to something from the future.

I don’t really know when Ellis completed his scripts for the first wave of his new Marvel output, the books themselves hitting the stands in late 2004, but there’s no denying that Warren Ellis in DCU superhero mode is almost eerily similar to Warren Ellis in Mighty Marvel Mode. In particular, this issue resembles some of his work on Ultimate Fantastic Four in several regards. There’s the playful, flirtatious relationship between Reed+Sue/Lois+Clark. There’s the hard-bitten supporting character who suddenly begins spitting out Ellisisms left and right, General Ross in UFF, Perry White in JLA, with the good editor spouting Bad Signal-worthy snappers like “Lane. Kent. I am your editor. Prepare to die.” or “People kill themselves every day. In fact, I intend to kill you myself after I have drunk your blood.” or “You are bargaining for your life, Lane. Make it very good.” I’d be more inclined to accept this sort of thing on its own terms if these characters didn’t sound so much alike, which raises to mind the image of Ellis giggling behind his word processor rather than the voice of an actual character. There’s also the obvious discomfort with certain aspects of superhero tradition; Wonder Woman tells us her superhero name this issue for the sole purpose of insinuating how dumb it is, hearkening back to the humorous name-swaps from bits and pieces of Marvel’s First Family (to be fair, Bendis and Millar indulged in more than a bit of that in their issues as well). And don’t forget the Big Action and issues not as much ending as running out of space, though that sort of thing shows up sometimes in Ellis’ creator-owned work as well (see: Ocean). Even the self-pitying researcher’s suicide recalled a Marvel sequence, though that one was in Iron Man #1.

So what’s going on? I presume that Ellis has simply found a groove to work in with his modern company superhero work, though I have to wonder if he might have opted to revise tiny fragments of his long-delayed JLA script into work he knew would see print sooner. That’s pure speculation, mind you, but it provides an interesting theory to describe the air of familiarity surrounding this book.

But still, even subtracting similarities to earlier/later work, Ellis seems on firmer ground when working with his own creations rather than with icons. Sure, Tokyo Storm Warning wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t the front-to-back disaster of Ultimate Nightmare. Conversely, I certainly can’t recall off hand any established property work Ellis has elevated to the level of Planetary or the aforementioned Desolation Jones, unless you’re willing to count the thoroughly scrambled and reconstituted StormWatch that was The Authority. Even in the Ultimate universe, there’s characterizations that need preserving, certain boundaries that don’t exist in Ellis’ more liberated titles, and Ellis works best liberated. Even if you subscribe to the notion that a lot of his work is essentially superhero stuff in sci-fi masquerade, it’s still more effective superhero stuff than his actual superhero stuff, no matter how much piss he aims to take out of it.

Which returns us to the story at hand. Mysterious suicides are all over the place at LexCorp, and Lois and Clark are out to chart the connections. Meanwhile, Batman gets dressed and zips around town to uncover some foreshadowing left on a dead corporate whistleblower’s computer. Meanwhile, Wonder Woman says hello to some people and watches an island explode. To Be Continued! Sure, as Ellis warned us in today’s Bad Signal, “…I figured I may as well hit the high points and do "my" Superman scene, my Batman scene, etc, just the once. Eats up some space and probably makes it a little slow to kick off, but JLA comics rarely have the "transformation" scenes that are to my mind central to superhero fiction.” Except, this issue doesn’t really have those, unless Batman’s transformation involves putting his costume on while listening to expository police broadcasting (although Ellis does have fine taste in manga, as the most recent Signal indicates).

But what the hell; I thought Ultimate Fantastic Four was doing all right as a big loud superhero thing by the twelfth issue of Ellis’ run. Iron Man is mostly enjoyable (not to mention the most fully immersed in Ellis’ pet themes), when it actually comes out. Even Ultimate Nightmare had some ok art, and the art here is better than ok; Butch Guice has a shadowy realist approach, heavy on the haggard skin curvature and inky detail. He sports the occasional clever trick of layout, like having Clark staring off to the left of a top panel, contemplating an event that actually happened right on the flipside of the page edge he’s glaring at. There’s some good work with contrasting Bruce’s scar-laced, pained body with Clark’s smooth lily-whiteness. And Michael Stribling’s cover doesn’t look nearly as bad in your hands as it does on your monitor; Batman doesn’t look as much stiff as statuesque, iconic.

The only icons within the book are Ellis icons, though. Still, if you’re willing to put up with the usual tics (or if your really enjoyed Ellis’ recent Marvel work), you’ll probably enjoy this nostalgically pre-dating stuff. Maybe a good build will be in the cards.


Things from other places + review.

*Vital update from yesterday - my shop got in a hot little copy of Combat Zone, and I decided to check it out (on the stand; there’s no way I’m blowing twenty smackers on it). Good news! A quick scan with my neoconometer comes up 100% clean! It actually looks like a lot of combat-chat between soldiers with things sometimes exploding toward the reader. Anyone actually purchase this thing?

*Common Sense Validated Yet Again Dept: Andy Diggle, writer of the Event-crippled Adam Strange, more-or-less confirms exactly what we’d all suspected. Just to close the book on that one; if only I’d done that around issue #5 of the miniseries. And that wasn’t the only Infinite Headache mentioned at the Rampage today, although this latter situation was hardly impossible to anticipate either.

*But if you're still in a Direct Market Mainstream mood, the ever comics-friendly (and now freshly redesigned!) The Onion AV Club has a whole lot of comics-related features readied, like a San Diego con report, feature interviews with Brian K. Vaughan and Geoff Johns, and a run-down of recent comics. I'm not a fan of Vaughan's writing, but he gives a pretty good interview:

"I genuinely am sort of an emotionally stunted man-child, so if I just write to the top of my intelligence, it sounds like a teenager. I don't have to... I remember reading an interview with [Brian Michael] Bendis where he talks about going to the mall and listening to kids, and that just sounds sort of creepy, like a pedophile thing, to me. I don't do that."

So much more sitting there for you above.

*Oh, and I got that new issue of RES (Vol. 8, No.4), The Comics and Animation Issue (oddly, they've not yet updated their site to reflect the occasion). I've not read an issue of the magazine, and my spirits sank within six pages, as they unexpectedly felt the need to explain Matthew Vescovo's extremely simple cover art, depicting a man leering over a fence, the grass indeed greener on the other side. I really didn't need an 'About the Cover' blurb to educate me as to the powerful meanings inherent to the piece; I expect nobody will, but there it is. Fortunately, I was made happy again by the doubly unexpected presence of Tom Spurgeon on the contributors page. The Comics Reporter himself presents a nice profile of Marjane Satrapi on tour in the US, and an essay on Mark Newgarden, whose career retrospective collection, We All Die Alone, is coming soon from Fantagraphics; it's basically an introduction to the man and his work.

Actually, there's the sense of an introduction around the entire issue, which strikes me as plainly targeted to a novice audience, the comics-curious. The animation content is a little deeper, with a longer article on the making of stop-motion animation, reviews of software, and various peeks into history and cutting-edge studios. In contrast, the comics bits are centered around artist profiles and analysis of their places in history. There's also non-comics/animation material scattered throughout, and the occasional reference to the issue's dvd insert, which only subscribers receive, so just try to ignore that. Still, as a comics-for-beginners presentation, they cut a wide swath and will probably hold interest. The issue is $5.95, and is on the stands now.

Hellboy: The Island #2 (of 2)

Ah, contrasts. White cover on #1, black cover on #2. Furious, feverish image and suggestion with a touch of chat in the former, a sprawling load of information with shreds of action in the latter. You might be tempted to call this issue unbalanced, but it only aims to counteract the issue before it. Yet there are similarities too; just as last issue’s cryptic dazzle provided a visual treat for everyone and a storytelling head-scratch for novices, this issue’s straightforward major plot revelations seem targeted entirely toward the Hellboy hardcore; happenings hinted at in Seed of Destruction are expanded upon, with the plot citations stretching as far forward as the recent, uncollected, and apparently difficult-to-find The Third Wish miniseries. Truly, this last one is for the die-hards, and I imagine newer readers will find much of this edition’s informational outlay beautiful yet distant, and not in the ethereal manner of last issue, but shot through with the nagging concern that less-acclimated readers are missing something. Because they are.

Yeah, this is Mignola’s last ‘full’ issue. The next of the forward-moving continuity miniseries will be Darkness Calls, with Lee Bermejo adding finished art to Mignola’s script and layouts. However, as announced this issue, there’ll also be another Mignola-written two-issue mini before that, a Hellboy tale set in the past with framing sequence art by Mignola himself, and the lion's share drawn by Richard Corben. It’s titled Makoma, or, A Tale Told by a Mummy in the New York City Explorer’s Club on August 16, 1993. The mere thought of a Mignola/Corben teaming provides an ironclad guarantee out of this reader toward another Hellboy purchase (although I’m sure I’ll check out at least a few issues of the first Bermejo mini too). A Lobster Johnson miniseries is hinted/teased at as well; I was banking on more Amazing Screw-On Head, but maybe that'll arrive closer to the television program’s debut.

I really liked last issue, on the whole; Mignola’s dedication to his ever-tightening style is enthralling to see played out on the page, and nobody can do heavily visual pulp foreboding in quite the same way. This issue is a bit of a come-down in comparison, though still lavishly mounted. On one hand, it was disheartening to see Mignola resort to the archaic ‘witty character takes a jab at the storytelling to cover the writer’s ass’ trick (“Jeez, pal. I’ve known some guys who could talk, but you win.”), especially on a book as heavily edited and re-edited as this one. And on the other hand, it is an awfully lovely infodump, all 14 out of 30 pages of it, deployed in the same style as the folklore and myths so many Hellboy tales in the past have used as their backing. But this time, we get the story of a Spanish chaplain who learned the secrets of three golden tablets which sport the top-secret (and plot-convenient) History of Everything inscribed upon them, leading us into a summary of what’s really been going on in the semi-Christian backdrop of the Hellboy universe, with the origins of a certain portion of Hellboy’s own person thrown in for added flavor. Naturally, it’s gorgeous-looking stuff, with wispy skeletal spirits summoning tiny pops of flame and the yellow mass of the melted golden tablets matching the yellow blood of their memorizer and storyteller, the tablets internalized via color linking; such sophisticated visual-thematic cohesion is to be expected of Mignola at this point, and he absolutely does not disappoint on that front.

Honestly, he doesn’t seriously disappoint on any front, even if this issue seems a tad soggy with background info. Why begrudge the man a chance to indulge in longview noodling, here in his final full issue? When the storytelling is still this skilled? When the visuals are still this potent? It’s not every writer/artist that can take a lengthy break from producing anything beyond short stories, then return for a big finale, and still look like he’s going out at the top of his game. No, from a plot standpoint, this is not the place for a new reader to discover Hellboy. But from a purely optic position, sure. It’ll do just fine.

Of course, so will almost anything in this series.


What you expected, eh?

*Dang, that's a lot of original productions in there along with the collections and pamphlets here in


The Cute Manifesto: Hopefully poised to do better business than writer/artist James Kochalka’s American Elf collection, though I don’t know if “A powerful mixture of philosophy and comics that can literally change your life forever” will be more palatable than a big block of whimsical slice-of-life anecdotes. Still, fans will absolutely want it, even if only as a career-spanning extended statement of intent; the book collects Kochalka’s infamous ‘Craft is the Enemy’ letters to The Comics Journal (read ‘em here - ooh, will Jim Woodring’s response be reprinted too?!) as well as a bunch of notable minicomics. Sure to be inquisitive, yet undeniably cute.

Hellboy: The Island #2 (of 2): The last issue to be written and drawn by Mike Mignola for the foreseeable future. That’s reason enough to pick it up, right? The story is more frenzied and abstract than usual, but I liked it a lot, and I really want to see what Mignola does with the second half.

Dead West: The latest release from the Teenagers From Mars crew of Rick Spears and Rob G., a zombie western about a bounty hunter who reluctantly protects a pregnant whore against the undead, self-published by Spears‘ Gigantic Graphic Novels. Rob G. did some nice work on the duo’s last project, the AiT/Planet-Lar noir outing Filler, even though the script didn’t do the trick for me. This one seems more gregarious, and it might make for better entertainment.

Hee: Evil evil gag cartoons by Ivan Brunetti, in this sequel to his similarly-intentioned Haw. Expect single-panel disgust and malicious feelings all around.

Alan Moore’s Hypothetical Lizard #3 (of 4): I really dug the first issue of this; one of Antony Johnston’s smoother translations of a Moore prose work to the comics form, with some lovely art by Lorenzo Lorente. But I didn’t dig it quite enough to go to Internet lengths to track down issue #2; just seeing it sitting in a store will be prompting enough, thank you. Still: pretty good.

Albion #2 (of 6): And in other not entirely Alan Moore news, we have this. It’s pretty tight so far, I don’t think my having heard of none of these revivified English supercharacters has damaged the reading experience; just think of it as Terra Obscura, which also sported dozens of near-forgotten characters utilized to amusing effect by the plotting arm of Moore and the executing fingers of divers hands. No, it’s not as good as a pure Moore script, but it is good…

Promethea Book 5: However, this is great. Oh, how I went on and on about this thing, especially the final issue; now you get to enjoy the End of the World in hardcover splendor, with a revised pull-out poster version of issue #32. I don’t need to say anything more, save for the fact that you really shouldn’t make this your first Promethea purchase; go back to Book 1. The rest of you already know what you want, so have at it, and let’s hope for a softcover before the actual conclusion to all things.

City of Tomorrow #4 (of 6): Hmmm, I really need to get working on that Time2 survey I was planning. Soon, very soon.

JLA Classified #10: In which DC dusts the cobwebs off a six-stack set of 2003 Warren Ellis scripts and presents it to an artist to draw (Butch Guice, in this case). I know Desolation Jones was also written a while ago, before any artist was attached, and that turned out ok. And the same thing will be happening with Jack Cross, I believe. It’s like the rays of the sun just lighting our eyes right now, innit?

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq: Hey! Look what’s actually coming out! Sure, Marvel might be pushing it out the door with a broom and locking up behind it, with nary a peep emitted on the advertising front, but wow - it’s really being released. For those who haven’t heard of this tumultuous tome, it’s a chronicle of events concerning the real-life 82nd Airborne, and its time fighting the most recent War in Iraq. The title was originally announced as a 5-issue miniseries back in late 2004, though it allegedly spent a considerable amount of time in production, with a number of artists signing on and dropping out mid-project for undisclosed reasons. But why would any ever-lovin’ Mighty Marvel Maven not want to hop aboard the good ship’s maiden 21st century voyage into fact-based comics?

The key, perhaps, lies with the writer, one Mr. Karl Zinsmeister, also editor-in-chief of American Enterprise Magazine, official fan-addict glossy of The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy and Research, a noted conservative think-tank with ties to The Project for a New American Century, an “educational organization whose goal is to promote American global leadership,” which counts such modern policy superstars as Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and Jeb Bush among its founding members. Also, Publishers Weekly dubbed his last book about the 82nd, the prose-based Boots on the Ground: A Month With the 82nd Airborne in the Battle for Iraq “…both a conservative polemic and a vivid portrait of American infantrymen in action” featuring “pages and pages of splenetic rants against the anti-war movement and Zinsmeister's fellow journalists, whom he dubs "left-wing, cynical, wiseguy Ivy League types.”” (I found it on Amazon)

This has perhaps dribbled a concern or two onto some minds as to the political slant of the book, but I say: why not? Even if it’s more 'polemic' than 'vivid portrait,' it probably can’t be much more grating than the opposite-aisle likes of SPX 2004, and Marvel is perfectly free to deploy as many frothing neo-con bon-bon boxes into the Direct Market as they see fit (not that the book is 100% ironclad guaranteed to even be such a thing, but I must admit that the weight of circumstantial evidence is, er, weighty). But damn, they sure don’t want to make a big deal about it, and this is Marvel we’re talking about. Maybe they’re just concerned about the quality of the book, and the fact that it’s a $20 original graphic novel being sent out into the bad old Direct Market, its quivering body denuded of spandex?

Also, Dan Jurgens did the art, and I’m not a huge fan.

Is it time to dust off my old theory that the project may have been initially cleared as 'balance' for Marvel’s ill-fated peace-themed 411 miniseries (the final issue of which was never published), then languished in production hell as time and artists wore on, and the political heat cooled?


A Revisiting for the Future!

*I have no cute lead-in to


Tales Designed to Thrizzle #1 (funny collection of reprints and new stuff from short-form comedy master Michael Kupperman)

Astonishing X-Men #11

And, of course, the final installment my gigantic Golgo 13 examination. Why not start at the beginning, though?

No cute closing either. Sorry, all.

*UPDATE (07/25/05 11:49 PM): I loved this. Eight pages of heaven from Tsutomu Takahashi & Go Ohinata. Read it.

*I think the chatter surrounding All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder has quieted down a little by this point, with assorted sides of the Frank Miller debate settling into their newly redefined grooves; gratifyingly, the reactions to this latest Bat-exploit did not fall solidly down the party lines forged in the cleansing flame of The Dark Knight Strikes Again. Certainly this DK2 fan was, on the whole, underwhelmed by the latest revivification of ye olde tropes ‘n trappings, as consummately Millerian as they might have been (which as I’ve said before, is preferable to the typical line-up of Bat-clichés, though it’s really only a transferal from one parallel path of well-trodden dirt to its neighbor; it's curious though how the Miller school has heavily influenced the standard formula for Batman storytelling while remaining remarkably pure in and of itself, accepting augmentation only from Sin City and other Miller works – the stream of influence seems to flow only one way).

But now, with the singeing glare of collective scrutiny on the new work’s flesh cooling to a blood-tightened blotch, maybe a most distanced perspective is warranted, an examination’s impatient scorch steamed away by submersion in the coolant of history. Time can give us a new perspective, a stronger understanding of weaknesses in a contemporary work, and a necessary recalibration of our psychic equipment as critical readers.

It will also let me talk about Spawn again, which is what I really desire out of my Monday evening.

Spawn - Batman

Amusingly, the book kicks off with a disclaimer, noting that the story does not take place in the ‘official’ Batman continuity, and that it’s actually intended as a “companion piece” to The Dark Knight Returns. After completing the book, I was left in abject disbelief that anyone could be shocked or taken aback by the overtly humorous tone of DK2, the ‘official’ Dark Knight sequel; Miller had been injecting heroic doses of mockery into that very timeline years earlier! Perhaps the mere presence of Spawn invalidated the title from consideration in the Dark Knight canon, or caused readers to involuntarily wipe their memories clean as to the specifics of the team-up?

Spawn is a hard book to like these days, although the damn thing still sells to a remarkably steady clientele, judging from the charts. It’s nothing like what it used to be, one of the most white-hot hype books on the market, Wizard once ranking arch-foe Violator along with Magneto, Dr. Doom, and the Joker as one of the top four supervillains in all of comics (aw, let’s not pick on Wizard today – like the Kindly Ones, it merely serves its cruel purpose, and can usually be ignored or confounded). Yes, Al Simmons as fallen far, and many of his once-fans rue their youthful Wednesday purchases, or at least lament the demise of the book’s original conception as a finite series. But even non-fans know Spawn; if you happen to be a particularly hardcore follower of such obscure talents as Frank Miller, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Dave Sim, Brian Michael Bendis, or some combination thereof, then there’s no way you can avoid an encounter with rotten old Al. This is kind of how I like to picture Spawn: a nondescript angsty superhero wandering through the backwoods of a half-dozen acclaimed creators’ catalogs, a recurring figure throughout the troubled journey of ‘90s comics, subtly taking on the properties of diverse talents into his blank form. He’s like Zelig (only recruited from the blackest pits of Perdition), or maybe Forrest Gump, but more proactive (plus, we already know he’s a denizen of Hell).

So here he is stumbling across Mr. Bruce Wayne in a 56-page special, although I shouldn’t underplay the moment of the occasion; released in 1994, this wasn’t even Batman and Spawn’s first meeting (that would be the similarly-titled Batman-Spawn: War Devil from earlier in '94, not 1991 as I'd foolishly put down at first, thanks Gardner!), nor was it the first Spawn-related teaming of writer Frank Miller and artist Todd McFarlane (that would be Spawn #11 from 1992), but it would be the first crossing of both characters with the talents that defined them directly controlling the action, and the mid/immediately post-Deathmate Image still had enough capital with fans to make the book seem like a special event.

And, much like a more recent special event, Miller adamantly refuses to infuse the proceeding with what you’d think would be an appropriate level of portent; the big difference between this Miller Batman/Image Founder rendezvous is that McFarlane seem to get the joke, while Jim Lee’s work on All Star Batman remains supplely oblivious at best, rendering the moments of diminished clarity all the more glaring for lack of synch with the story’s tone. This book, however, meets Miller on his chosen turf, McFarlane drawing all of the required robots and fights and missiles with a calculated twinkle; it helps that McFarlane is one of the stronger artists among the Image founders, his pin-up prone aesthetic sufficiently detailed and muscled but also prone to whispers of caricature, round and flat heads exaggerated in members of the supporting cast, his rippling heroes possessing a certain elasticity of form, bending and curving like (*gasp*, *choke*) cartoons, in contrast to the marble carvings of Lee and Liefeld and Silvestri. As a storyteller, McFarlane is mostly sufficient, though his work on the big action climax, a siege on a ritzy cruise ship, becomes hopelessly convoluted, largely because McFarlane doesn’t seem to have much of a sense of environment, rendering everything as generic rooms with no sense of progression, occasionally in direct contrast to Miller’s trademark narration (which specifies the appearance of a crowd, which McFarlane simply declines to draw). Plus, like Jim Lee on All Star Batman, little (or even big) details slip past him; more than once does Spawn’s mask simply disappear without warning, evidencing either a total disregard for visual continuity or the insertion of pages intended for later in the book where they didn’t originally belong, re-drawing be damned. And yet, there’s also no sense of continuity to the sizes of everyone’s chains and cowls and other personal accoutrements, but it’s a strength, obviously a brand of exaggeration for effect rather than mere clumsiness; for example, McFarlane’s Batman has a cape that ranges from body-length to spanning five stories of a nearby skyscraper, depending on the mood he’s going for. Batman’s white eyes squint and bend with anger, and a manga-type crisscross bandage sometimes appears on his mask when he’s hurt; obviously, he’s plugged into the heart of absurdity at the center of Miller’s script.

Speaking of which, it’s largely generic team-up stuff caffinated with the Miller touch, with Batman starting off in Gotham, using wicked sci-fi power gloves to sock the kissers of evil robots who appear to be powered by the severed heads of homeless men (you know, the sort of thing Grant Morrison is usually praised for pioneering in modern Bat-comics). The trail leads back to New York and the mysterious clinic of Dr. Margaret Love, whom eagle-eyed readers will instantly recognize as a character from Miller’s much-altered screenplay for Robocop 2, currently being adapted to comics at Avatar as Frank Miller’s Robocop; she‘s pretty much the same character here, though adapted to fit into Spawn’s back-story, a seemingly benign bleeding-heart social liberal with vile plans of technological domination of human free will underneath (libertarian subtext is go!). Batman is fooled by her kindly exterior, however, and ends up on a collision course with that other hero of the title.

And, as so often happens in these things, they fight. They fight again and again, with Bruce eventually having to crack open the proverbial sci-fi closet to live up to Al’s damnation-fueled abilities. And though the two eventually agree to team up, culminating in a triumphant double-page splash of the dynamic duo rushing off into battle, Batman still really hates him. Frankly, ‘Batman hates Spawn’ can be used as a tidily shallow summary of the book’s theme; if you happen to think that Alan Moore’s work on Spawn seems to drip a certain dislike for the titular avenger, you really need to check out this book. Miller sets the relationship between the two heroes up as a classic generational conflict, handily playing off the young rebel posturing of the Image founders at the time. Batman constantly berates Spawn as a “punk,” with zero discipline and grotesque methods; I distinctly recall somebody on the Comics Journal message board, in a thread now lost to the ages, reasoning that Batman’s occasional use of the term ‘boy’ evidenced an evocation of race and class differences (rich white Bruce Wayne disrespecting impoverished black Al Simmons), and I wouldn‘t put it past Miller to toy with such notions. Batman certainly bosses Spawn around and refuses to respect him, even after the two nominally put aside their differences. Basically, Batman is a gigantic asshole, much like he is in today’s in-continuity books, though not funny; while Miller is making points about the chafing relationship between old-school corporate icons and the newest stars of today (and probably the fans and creative types behind the same), other writers have apparently only picked up on the ‘asshole’ bit. And maybe certain readers are the same, though I don’t see how anyone couldn’t laugh at the book’s final image: a perturbed Spawn standing around in close-up with a Batarang embedded in his skull, his soulful green eyes pleading a certain “Gosh, can‘t our generations get along in this crazy world?” Don’t fret, Al; the Batman of this timeline would come around to respecting the new methods in DK2.

So while it’s not exactly a resounding masterpiece, Spawn-Batman is a fun little superhero book equipped with a certain level of wit and insight, with art that matches the flavor of the story. It’s probably unfair to compare this stand-alone work to the first issue of a series if indeterminate length, but the creative partnership involved seems much more communicative here, more responsive. And for those who take their glasses half-full, perhaps this earlier book can evidence what to expect from Miller’s Batman in the future, a cruel man in a humorous world, even the dumbest of heroes gifted with something to say.


Astonishingly little time!

*I’m so out of time for today; weekends are crazy stuff.

Astonishing X-Men #11

Well hully gee, I guess we can call this issue an improvement over the last two, if only because the action follows something resembling a logical course as per the confines of its individual world (could someone explain to me again why, in the last issue, there were cutting laser beams set up as defense in a room packed with wires that presumably do something to power the mansion?). Sure, this issue is apparently loaded with environmental contradictions with Chris Claremont’s Excalibur, for those who monitor such continuity-centered matters (and as much as I‘m itching to joke about how nobody really cares what happens in Excalibur, honesty demands otherwise; it’s a top 30 Direct Market book, at least top 50 even before the recent House of M tie-ins, so obviously some people care enough to keep plunking down cash). But taken on its own terms, the issue sort of works, at least once you accept the whole ‘psychic communication with alien technology’ thing.

Why, writer Joss Whedon even deposits a little line with Wolverine indicating that there might be a reason behind those vast killscapes of two issues prior managing to inflict exactly zero fatalities despite the Danger Room being freed from the bounds of non-fatal control and capable of mutating reality to its every whim. Professor X directly addresses the amusing decision to have artist John Cassaday depict the Danger Room’s sentient form as a female robot with dreadlocks. Heck, I even rather enjoyed the means of dancing around the grievous injuries sustained by several X-Persons last issue; sketchy as it was, it at least made sense given the situation, with so many mutants gathered in one place. And yeah, I saw those telltale ropes the good Prof. had rigged up to help him drive the truck; nice use of suggestion, Mr. Cassaday! If this team doesn’t have explanations planned, at least they recognize their own plot gaps and are willing to try and fill them up after the fact.

But, even granting all that, dubbing this issue a triumph over its immediate predecessors is kind of backhanded; it’s still just a really long fight scene, which I like a fair amount, though we sort of did that already last issue. Not to mention that the tale is following the standard-issue ‘cocky new villain studies the heroes and beats them down, only to be fought to a standstill by underestimating a seemingly weaker member’ arc, now entering its latter portion (next up: the team regroups to reach victory - together!). And, of course, the general idea behind the story isn’t terribly original (nor is the snigger-worthy villainous moniker of ‘Danger’), but it’s not like the first six issues of this book were much different on that front; it’s just that the first storyline moved at a brisker pace, and seemed to have real purpose. This one isn’t overcoming the feeling that these six issues are largely padding on the road to better-planned things, and six issues is too much padding by any measure.

The bit with the axe was fun, though, and I liked the big scary robot, so I’ll call this a slight pull upward in quality.


The Newest Superstars of Exotic Japanimation!

*My new column is up; obviously, I can’t stop thinking about San Diego. I tried to hide my jealousy behind a cloak of mockery in last week’s column, but just as Hawkeye could not be held by a Cloak, neither could my true self. So, just for this week, here’s a more serious look at what I’ve heard from reading reports of this year’s Nerd To-Do. I do still make jokes about pancakes and bears though.

*Anime is in the air! I sort of got myself into the mood for checking out the recent scene through writing my hopefully not too gaffe-laden Golgo 13 thing from yesterday, and then Warren Ellis started talking about Paranoia Agent in Bad Signal today, so I decided to tour the aisles of my local Best Buy and Suncoast, without actually buying anything, of course, because anime dvds are insanely expensive.

I had to remind myself as to what exactly Paranoia Agent was, but I soon realized that it could only be the much-hyped 2004 tv series from largely-adored theatrical anime director Satoshi Kon, a one-time protege of Akira director Katsuhiro Otomo. Kon most certainly made a name for himself as an individual filmmaker, though I must confess I’ve never seen anything past his feature debut, Perfect Blue, which fascinatingly opted to create an original giallo (mystery-based slasher film) in anime form; the Dario Argento influence was heavy in that one, and Kon smartly used the properties of animation to cast reality into doubt in ways that live-action couldn’t quite manage. The ending was fairly stupid, but then, so are the vast majority of giallo endings (Young Hero: “OH MY GOD! So you’re the killer, Mr. Anderson!!” Mr. Anderson: “Ha haaaa! And now all the whores and Jezebels will pay... whoops!” [Mr. Anderson falls off the roof to his death.] Young Hero: “But... we’re on the ground floor...” [THE END, Copyright 1973] ). Kon seems the type to subvert typical anime cliches, his next two films dealing with the fantasy world of an aged performer and a trio of street people who find a baby (Millennium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers, respectively). Paranoia Agent concerns a possibly supernatural little boy who becomes involved in murders; it’s out on four dvds, having only required half a regular television season to tell its story (I presume it also aired late at night on a satellite network, as it seems like that sort of show). Ellis says he detected some Cocteau in later episodes, and Kon seems like the type to go for that, just a little more inspired by the wider cinema world while too many anime releases don’t appear to be inspired by anything beyond earlier anime.

But that’s not always a negative; a few years ago, a fellow named Makoto Shinkai made a short anime OVA titled Voices of a Distant Star. I use the generic term ‘made’ because it’s practically all that fits the situation; the film was written, drawn, colored, and animated by Shinkai alone, using assorted home computer art tools. The look of the film was quite impressive, with its ultra low-budget origins just barely poking through. The story, however, was a fairly naked romance-tinged high school homage to an earlier OVA classic by a bunch of scrappy young bastards, 1988's Gunbuster (which is still not on R1 dvd, by the way), directed by future Neon Genesis Evangelion mastermind Hideaki Anno. Both feature a young girl zipping off into space to battle an amoebean alien horde, the niceties of light-speed travel keeping her young while time creeps past at normal speed back on Earth, with her friends. Still, Shinkai’s spin had enough sentiment and angst to sort of carry the burden, and now it seems Shinkai has crafted a feature-length film (presumably with a proper crew this time), The Place Promised in Our Early Days, involving youths in an alternate universe Japan trying to escape into another reality. Plus: additional high school romance and pining with dewy eyes and stuff. Here’s the official site. Visually, it seems quite nice, so it has that at minimum.

But enough with the killings and sci-fi; how about some two-fisted negotiation?! That’s apparently what we’re up for with Yugo the Negotiator, a low-priced ($14.95) series about the world’s greatest freelance negotiator. In the first release, he goes to Pakistan to diffuse a hostage situation. Drafted in that heavy, tall style with the pale colors that ‘realistic’ anime always seems to sport. Looks strange enough to work.

And if you’re looking to go even cheaper, I saw a copy of the 1986 feature film adaptation of They Were 11 for $9.95. None other than Moto Hagio, recent feature interview subject at The Comics Journal, was the creator of the original manga. It’s a shoujo mystery in space, as a crew of eleven space cadets discovers that only ten of them are supposed to be on board; unfortunately, they don’t know exactly which one of them is the uninvited extra, and what exactly that party wants. Did I mention my love for older anime?

Hell, I was delighted enough to discover that the 1986 anthology film Neo Tokyo, one of the old Streamline Pictures licenses, was back in print, and now on dvd. ‘Neo Tokyo’ is not the project’s real title (that would be Mani Mani); Streamline decided that a faux Akira tie-in would be in order, since the film sports the anime debut of Katsuhiro Otomo (ah, see how we’ve come full circle?), directing one of the segments. Otomo would later direct bits of two additional anthologies, the long-missing Streamline licence Robot Carnival from 1987, and 1995's Memories, all segments of which were based on Otomo manga stories, though the man himself only directed one - it was a curious allegorical story about militarism and social indoctrination titled Cannon Fodder, done in a vehemently non-‘anime’ visual style, with some truly superb use of 3D graphics. It seemed like Otomo was driving entirely toward new frontiers. Alas; most reviews of his recent feature, Steamboy (itself due on dvd this Tuesday), indicate a big leap backward in storytelling, if modest continued advancements in visual acumen.

And no discussion of dashed expectations can be complete without mention of my favorite anime character designer in all the world, Yasuomi Umetsu, who was quite a popular artist during the ‘80s and early ‘90s. He was also one of the segment directors involved with Robot Carnival; it was his directorial debut, and he cracked it pretty much out of the park with a solemn rumination on dolls and creation and love and all of those things. And then, seeking total creative freedom, he went into porno. And his first epic in that field, Kite, turned out to be a huge crossover success in Japan (tantalizing the raincoat crowd and garden-variety otaku alike with its intense, bleak story of young assassins in love) and a huge controversy in the US, blowing through no less than three dvd editions before the damn thing finally appeared uncut. His second project, Mezzo Forte, later got adapted by Umetsu himself into a (non-porno) tv series, Mezzo DSA, which is apparently out now on three dvds. I’ve been told it largely treads water in the Umetsu canon; I heard he had a Korea-based feature coming out, but that seems to have vanished. He doesn’t even do a lot of designs anymore. Kind of sad.

And that’s what I saw in the anime section. Do people really buy all of this stuff? It’s a damn load of money...


... the rest of a special feature...

Duke Togo in America - A Retrospective of the Localized Golgo 13, Part 2 (of 2)

(You can access Part 1 from right here, although if you got here from Part 1 itself you probably don't need to click it, or maybe you do, I don't know)


V. A ‘Hit’ Video Game Get It That’s A Pun

It would be several years before Duke Togo would return to US shores, and this time his adventures would be more accommodatingly packaged; Lead Publishing remained in charge, but their presentational focus had shifted, perhaps considering the American unfamiliarity of the tankoubon format to be a blow against the salability of Golgo 13 in the area (keep in mind the still-hesitant status of many US-based comics companies in committing to the trade paperback form in those days). A new approach would be in order.

Thus, in 1989, Duke reemerged in the vastly more familiar format of the typical comics pamphlet, though the Direct Market still wasn’t the focus of Saito Productions’ attention. Rather, a second layer of marketing would be added, a classic multimedia piggyback – the first 48-page issue of this new series, containing the 1971 short The Impossible Hit, would be packaged with a new packaging of Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode, Duke’s 8-bit Nintendo debut. And at least one half of the equation would prove to be quite a widespread success, in a certain quiet way.

It’s not much of an understatement to note that whatever popularity Golgo 13 might currently possess in the US can, in most cases, be traced directly back to Top Secret Episode, a genuine cult classic of console gaming. My hazy memories suggest that this isn’t even a case of nostalgia taking hold over the tenderized brains of former or lifetime NES addicts now approaching the age of 30; I distinctly recall Top Secret Episode being nominated for a handful of awards in the year of its release (1987) by Nintendo Power, noted in-house Nintendo of America propaganda arm cum tips ‘n tricks rag. Obviously such accolades cannot be accepted as a genuine symbol of quality (no more than one can embrace the omnipresent and thoroughly fee-based Nintendo Seal of Quality as a hallmark of the same), but we can at least perceive a certain buzz surrounding the project, especially considering that it was a “3rd party” (not in-house Nintendo-produced) game, produced by the now-defunct Vic Tokai.

But let’s not underplay the influence of nostalgia either. Much of the recognition surrounding Top Secret Episode does not stem from its gameplay but its style, its attitude, even the cadence of its atrocious dialogue. Sure, Duke often throws out a contemplative non-verbal “…..” in the manga as well, but it’s the game in which such verbal inscrutability is taken to almost comical extremes, the constant beats of silence working classically against what was obviously intended in its native tongue to be a demanding, complex plot, approximately 4.7% of which is comprehensible in the finished product, so dire is the translation (don't just take it from me, read what looks like the full script at the first link on this page). From what can be discerned, the story of the game finds Duke hired by the conveniently fictional FIXER organization to play James Bond across the globe, hunting down a biological weapon that he's been framed for involvement in the theft of. Absent is any sense of moral ambiguity, with no trace of the real-world political backdrops that so often inform the comics. Simplification is the key, with black-and-white villains scheming to dominate the globe. It’s probably incorrect to say that Duke’s character is particularly different or has gone through 'softening' (like I say here); a more accurate analysis would suggest that he’s simply never put in a situation where he’d need to make a troubling moral choice. It’s tough to seem amoral when you’re fighting malevolent talking brains and your own clone, as we all know from experience.

And even here I expect I might be delving too deep – what about the sex? Yes, there’s 'romantic interludes' in the game as well! It’s nothing ‘AO’ worthy, just some bedroom soft talk with a quick cut to the exterior of the hotel, silhouettes embracing in a window, then lights out. We all know what’s happening, of course, as your health level immediately skyrockets back to its maximum level, pre-dating the gameplay-incentive frisky antics of Grand Theft Auto by many years. After being exposed to this, particularly in the edit-happy universe of the contemporaneous Nintendo of America, what kid would ever remember silly things like the actual interactive portions of the game, a goulash of touchy side-scrolling, target-based 1st person combat, barely-interactive sniper sequences, and 3D item-collection dungeon crawling (and pity the poor kids who threw away the instruction manual with the box, since that’s where all the maps are included).

But I like Top Secret Episode, as a game. It’s one of those hardcore early(ish) NES titles that didn’t take any guff, a lengthy, demanding adventure in the tradition of Rygar, designed to be plowed through in one long sitting with no passwords and no saves, but fortunately a boatload of continues (yet not unlimited continues – no hand-holding here). A notoriously complicated stage-select code was hidden away, for those desperate to jump to a certain area, but the emphasis was on patience and work and time, a certain inflexibility of challenge that I find missing from a number of mass-targeted contemporary games, especially plot-heavy games of this sort.

Having scored a copy of the game fairly early on, I never completed it until many months later (then again, it also took me literally years to beat the original Final Fantasy). But that gave me time to pour over The Impossible Hit, the first Japanese comic I ever read, and probably one of the longest continuously-held comics possessions I’ve ever had; how Duke survived the years of my youth when so many others fell is a mystery for the ages. Perhaps his legendary stamina extends so broadly that he has transcended the bounds of fiction itself.

Or maybe I just appreciated the book too much to harm it; after all, there were four big pages of helpful hints for solving the game included in the back! I still like the book a lot, though, and not for the strategy guide. I’ve written earlier that each Golgo 13 story can act as a sufficient introduction to the character, so ample is their self-containment. But some introductions are more sufficient than others, and The Impossible Hit is damn near flawless. Remember when I mentioned the inevitability of the ‘Duke is Awesome’ scene in each of these stories, where some character takes time out of their busy role in the plot to express their admiration of Duke’s inarguable awesomeness? This story is essentially a ‘Duke is Awesome’ scene extended to feature-length.

It’s not a long feature; the switch to pamphlet format essentially guaranteed that only the shorter Golgo 13 outings could be presented without resorting to multi-issue storylines (which were plainly not an option for a pack-in item as far as Saito Productions was concerned). But it’s an effective tale, a splendid hook. The plot involves Duke assassinating a businessman from a Manhattan hotel room balcony, then accidentally knocking a spent shell off the ledge, down to the street below, attracting police attention (needless to say, Duke is awesome but not infallible). A pair of detectives soon arrives to grill poor Duke, but as the mechanics of the assassination are scrutinized, it becomes obvious that only a brilliant man could have pulled it off. A distance of over 500 yards! A significant wind factor! Performed at sunset! Exclamation upon befuddled exclamation pours out from the detectives’ mouths, the praises of Golgo 13 implicitly sung again and again and again, sweat pouring down their mortal brows as Duke smokes and relaxes. They finally release him on a lack of cause; the natural final implication is that the man is simply too awesome for American justice to hold.

It’s a great little flag-bearer of what makes the concept behind the character work, and seems perfectly tuned to attract a reader to further adventures. Unfortunately, only one additional issue of the Lead Publishing pamphlet series was released, containing another 1971 piece, Hopper the Border. I have no idea if this second issue was released to comics stores or if there was an additional gaming tie-in.

There was an additional game, 1990’s Golgo 13: The Mafat Conspiracy. It was a much shorter thing, this time mixing Rad Racer type driving sequences in with the side-scrolling and maze crawling, plus adding the possibility of failure to the inevitable sniping scenes. The (better translated) plot presented another spy scenario for Duke, this time following the trail of a missing scientist into the heart of the evil organization of Mafat. There’s a bit more of the manga feel to this one, courtesy of the somber, blood-soaked ending, which naturally stood out from the usual NES crowd. Still, it’s not as individual a game, not nearly as eccentric and energetic as Top Secret Episode, though probably still worth plunking down five bucks for.

VI. In Which Duke Togo Makes History, Sort Of

Video games weren’t the only place you could find Duke on your television screen in the US around that time; while the gaming business had been huge business for years prior (and would be for years following), there was another media movement that was just then gaining steam in the US.

I must confess to having an affinity for 1980’s Japanese animation, the violent stuff, the wild and untroubled original video animation (OVA) that strode the Earth like so many mastodons in the days of home videocassette dominance. The advent of home video provided freedom for anime producers; more money and time could be expended on a project than would be possible under the constraints of a television series. The project could last longer and provide greater profit than a theatrical film; even put into series form, movies could only come out so often. The content guidelines of theaters or television obviously didn't apply. Plus, the consumer could be made to pay for each tape, even with only a half-hour of footage on each – what a deal! Projects built for the OVA form thus proliferated rapidly throughout the ‘80s, but the effects of videocassette would not only be felt in Japan.

Anime fandom built in earnest in the US through the exchange of bootleg tapes, the ease of copying becoming an enabling force for non-Japanese fandoms to grow. Slowly, anime (though many relied on the delightfully outmoded term ‘Japanimation’ at the time) built up its following, creeping from university gatherings to conventions; it had always had something of a presence on US television, but often in heavily altered form, dialogue constantly omitted or added or improvised in dubbing, violence cut, and complex material toned down. But here – here was the real thing, the thrill of uncut animation striving to be better. It was a happy accident that a wash of gory programs and films happened to pop up in Japan at the building of this nascent US movement (see my earlier note on content restrictions evaporating); the hunger for more ‘authentic’ anime was fed all the more easily through the very existence of such temptations, I think, a happy inadvertence indeed. One must wonder if the now-fortified attitude of many US otaku, united in vehement opposition to any and all editing and censorship in manga and anime (taken to occasionally absurd degrees) stems from this near-formative shock of the new, a faux-genetic fandom strain of conditioned resistance to all of those old edited television shows, a bootleg-powered revolution of the mind (insert your favorite scanlations-as-bootlegs-of-today rhetoric here).

Eventually, people started getting the idea that properly licensing anime and releasing it directly to videocassette would be a profitable thing. One of the most familiar of these early licensing companies was Streamline Pictures (founded in 1988 by controversial television anime localization vet Carl Macek), notable for its ambition (even getting anime aired on TBS in the wee hours), its mainstream-oriented advertising, its in-house troupe of dubbing performers, and its cherry licenses. Early sleeve copies trumpeted that the viewer would forget they’re watching a cartoon (a blatant appeal to the curious 'cartoons = kiddy stuff' non-fan); no enthusiast of the time could forget those signature ‘Not For Kids’ stickers affixed to so many of those packages. But fans of other marginalized forms were pursued with equal vigor; many of their early releases bore the brand of ‘Video Comics,’ cannily hitching the anime wagon to the contemporaneous 'ZAM! CRASH! Comics R So-Fist-Eee-Kated' scene (not actual name). It made sense; most of these releases were adaptations of manga anyway. And oh, what releases they were! The blood-drenched Fist of the North Star movie (hilariously trying to cram years and years of comics story into two hours of punching), the cheeseball classic Vampire Hunter D (actually based on prose novels), the still-MIA anthology feature Robot Carnival, the endless ‘80s OVA revivals of ‘60s and '70s classics like Casshan: Robot Hunter (most recently remade again as the live-action Casshern), 8Man After, and the hysterically dire Babel III.

And there, presiding over everything, was Golgo 13.

The feature anime adaptation of Golgo 13 was older than most of these releases, having played Japanese theaters in 1983; it was directed by Osamu Tezuka cohort Osamu Dezaki, in his signature style of heavy, detailed character designs occasionally freezing mid-action into burnished ‘manga’ panels for special punctuation. Dezaki’s work was (at least in my mind) strong among the myriad influences behind the anime sequence in Kill Bill, with Golgo 13 itself getting a specific visual citation in the sniper scene.

That wasn’t the film’s only contribution to ongoing animation history; Golgo 13 also featured one of the first-ever onscreen integrations of 2D and 3D animation in a feature-length animated film, as a blocky CGI helicopter circles outside a skyscraper window, the traditionally-animated Duke running around inside. Hardly a project exists these days without some use of such tricks; sure, it looks garish and clumsy today, but history is rarely made in a photogenic manner.

The film was a natural pick-up for Streamline, fitting in nicely with their feature and OVA centered release patterns (mustn’t test the spending of the non-hardcore audience with too long a series at this point), and boasting copious blood and sex to up the vital transgression factor. A few changes had to be made; the original CGI title sequence was chopped in favor of a simpler English-language sequence, and the title itself was expanded to The Professional: Golgo 13, the character’s name alone apparently deemed not enough to entice the buyer (it's unclear as to the role Saito Productions might have played in the name change, though I'll get to that in the next section). The initial tape was released in 1992, if my records are correct.

As I’ve said before, I’ve got a soft spot for blood-and-thunder ‘80s OVA and anime movies, even patent garbage like M.D. Geist (its lack of worth I could gladly provide a theorem for, if Paul O’Brien would kindly draw me a graph). But The Professional: Golgo 13 is maybe my favorite of them all. More so than any similarly animated video nasty, the film thrives in a profound state of moral decay, with Duke acting as hero only because he’s somewhat less of a bastard than the other characters. And that’s only at first.

The plot is initially strung together from assorted manga adventures that Duke has had in the past, now brought to life for us all to enjoy, but an overarching story soon emerges: Duke has killed the son of influential tycoon Leonard Dawson, and Dawson will stop at nothing to have Golgo exterminated. Money is spent. Authorities are purchased. A female relative is sold off for rape at the hands of a crazed killer to secure his services. Rival assassins are summoned. And through it all, Duke remains coolly oblivious to anyone’s pain, blowing away weeping informant traitors (their families having been threatened) and tearing through legitimate and illegitimate authority alike. Eventually the sorry truth behind the Dawson hit comes out, but the real revelation is that Dezaki and company understand Golgo to be an essentially horrible entity, exactly as inhuman as everyone claims he is in those ‘Duke is awesome’ moments, but to his detriment rather than for his pomp. Maybe a number of installments of the manga get into this sort of feeling too; I haven’t read nearly enough to be sure. But it seems to me that Dezaki and company accomplish with Saito’s character what Garth Ennis brought to one Mr. Frank Castle: an embracing of the madman within, a certain age’s idea of a fantasy antihero transmuted into another age’s villain though sheer force of honesty. The exclamation point is duly added to the sentence in a sad, sensationalistic, but ultimately ambiguous closing scene, giving us a possible Golgo 13: The End, much in the way Ennis did with that other long-lived comics icon, decades later.

The end would eventually come for Streamline too, which never lived to usher the US anime scene into the more profitable dvd era and its eventual breakthrough into the mainstream; it was bought out in the early '90s by the ailing Orion Pictures - as history has shown, the diagnosis soon turned out to be terminal. Several of its titles dropped into licensing hell, that null zone of uncertain release rights, and some of them have not yet returned to the land of purchase. Golgo 13 was eventually picked up by a newer company, Urban Vision, and was re-released on videocassette; the long-coming Region 1 dvd debut of this now 22-year old film is currently anticipated for August 30th, with fans pulling for the restoration of that original title sequence, the hunger for purity still strong.

In the meantime, a grand total of one additional animated Golgo 13 project was produced, 1998’s Golgo 13: Queen Bee, a one-hour OVA pilot for a revival series that never got cleared for takeoff. Dezaki returned to direct, the project likely having been initiated due to his work on a successful, similarly structured Black Jack OVA series and theatrical feature (based Osamu Tezuka’s benevolent medical mercenary hero, essentially Duke’s polar opposite), and it was a treat to see his style in action again. But in a sad reversal of how the rot at Duke’s core in the original movie provided a strong contrast with the careful moral positioning of his first video game, Queen Bee largely resembles The Mafat Conspiracy in that it takes everything from its equivalent prior outing and shortens it and generally brings it all down a notch. The story involves Duke getting hired to kill a free-spirited (and oft-unclothed) Earth Mother commander of a guerilla army far away in the South American jungle, a situation that implicates the closest associates of a drug-addicted candidate for President of the United States. Granted, it was only intended as the first episode of a series, but its orphan status can’t help but make it look like a single unit, inviting comparison to its vastly superior predecessor. It’s readily available on dvd though, if you want to check it out.

But not every US-released title in the anime world got orphaned by a collapsing licensing company. Indeed, some of the companies that were around in the Streamline days remain active today, sometimes in powerhouse roles given the current prevalence of Japanese comics and animation.

I presume you’ve heard of Viz?

VII. The End of the Past

Viz is probably best known today as the mighty publisher behind ultra-mainstream manga anthologies Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat, as well as a whole slew of varied digests. But they’ve been at the manga game for a long time. They’ve put out their fair share of anime too. And while they never scored the US license to Duke’s animated adventures, they did have their role to play in the (thus far) final Golgo 13 comics to see a US release, in 1991.

Indeed, Viz even also titled their series The Professional: Golgo 13; note how they did this a year before Streamline's similar re-titling. It strikes me as an attempt to create a new North American ‘brand’ for old Duke, across media. I know none of the behind-the-scenes details of the US release, but I have to wonder if Saito Productions suggested the new title to offer their headline character a better shot at US recognition. It was to little avail; the Viz series folded after three issues, which only served to serialize a single, lengthy story: The Argentine Tiger, from 1982.

It’s maybe most fascinating to contrast Viz’s approach of nearly 15 years ago to the current manga-in-America status quo. The marginalized status of manga releases in the US at the time required many more concessions to the Direct Market-favored formats; the books were all ‘flipped’ (reading left-to-right) for one thing, not something you often see in a Viz book of today. Instead of digests, we have pamphlet-sized books, about as thin as what you’d expect to see alongside X-Men and Batman (each issue was 48 pages, like the Lead pamphlets), albeit with a flat binding. In a step beyond what even Lead was willing to do with the localization effort, the story has been colorized, though the job is credited to Saito Productions itself, suggesting either some pre-existing color special in the material’s past or an adamant desire to ‘play ball’ with US format. The price was also quite tall: $4.95 per issue, only two dollars less than the cover prices of the gorgeous partial-color 168 page Lead tankoubon. Surely such a fee didn't aid in the book's popularity among US readers.

But all anime and video games considered, it’s comics where Duke fits best, and this series reaffirms it. I utterly adore the cover of issue #1, with a strapping, shirtless Duke toting a huge gun and grinning, perhaps because he has the deadliest flatulence in all of Buenos Aires, the folks behind him duly distressed. The story follows the expected fact-inspired hi-jinx formula, with Duke hired to take down hidden ex-president of Argentina, Juan Peron (who only faked his death, don't you know), eventually going undercover as a patient at a well-guarded hospital to pull off the job. He also meets a sweet young girl who’s connected to the target, and the story doesn’t blanch at presenting Duke with a moral choice, nor does it blink at his instantaneous response. She never did anything to him but give a little kindness and figure out the mission, and that’s enough as his dispassionate finger curls around the trigger. He also snipes an oncoming Sidewinder missile clean out of the air from the cockpit of a jet. Because, while cruel, he must remain awesome, and that’s the balance Saito and his crew know how to strike in their chosen medium, that of the character’s birth.

VIII. “..…”

And then, nothing. As far as comics are concerned.

Supposedly, Viz has made plans to bring Duke back on certain occasions; in 2002 they went so far as to pursue Hellblazer and Punisher MAX mainstay Tim Bradstreet for new cover art on a prospective series of US editions, maybe looking to flirt with North American comics fans interested in a character a little closer to what they’re familiar with (and ooooh, shades of Streamline’s own comics-courting hype from back in the day!), but things didn’t pan out. Thus, we are left to look over what we have.

In sum:

- The four Lead Publishing tankoubon, Into the Wolves’ Lair: The Fall of the Fourth Reich (Vol. 1), Galinpero (Vol. 2), Ice Lake Hit (Vol. 3), and The Ivory Connection (Vol. 4), are the biggest consolidation of Golgo 13 comics out in English. Unfortunately, they’re also the hardest to locate. You can do what I did and bumble upon a bunch of them in a near-abandoned manga section at a random comics store for cover price, but the relative rarity and deluxe presentation have doubtlessly jacked up the fee at most knowing locations. Still, these are some of the nicest US editions of Japanese comics I’ve seen, even though they're flipped, which doesn’t raise much of an issue for me. Ah, but that’s another essay!

- The two Lead Publishing pamphlets, The Impossible Hit (#1) and Hopper the Border (#2) can be found for fairly cheap online. Being video game tie-ins (well, at least I know the first one was since it was packaged with the game itself and features a small strategy guide in the back), there were probably a lot of them printed, and you shouldn’t need to shell out more than two or three bucks each, if even that. They’re both older stories, early ‘70s stuff, but self-contained.

- Probably easiest of all to find is the three Viz issues of The Professional: Golgo 13, though you’ll want to buy them all together, as they serialize a single story. It’s in color, hues added by Saito Productions themselves. Issue #1 also sports an appreciation essay by James D. Hudnall, of Espers fame. I found the lot of them sitting in a dollar bin at a local store.

- The 8-bit NES games Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode and Golgo 13: The Mafat Conspiracy can be found with ease on eBay or at your favorite pawn shop, probably for five bucks each or less. Try to find copies with the instruction manuals, since there’s helpful maps in there, although I’m sure you can just download the same material from the internet somewhere if you’re stuck.

- The anime film The Professional: Golgo 13, has seen at least two US releases on videocassette, both of them missing the original titles. The first, from Streamline Pictures, might have multiple sleeves from assorted printings. The substantively identical Urban Vision release is cake to find on eBay dirt-cheap; Urban Vision will also be releasing a R1 dvd of the film on August 30th.

- Golgo 13: Queen Bee, the OVA follow-up, is easily obtainable on videocassette and a dreadfully overpriced dvd, both from Urban Vision; $29.95 for one hour, even with a director’s commentary?! Aw hell, that was the retail cost of FLCL too, and I didn’t complain there. It’ll make for a decent rental online, maybe.

And, at risk of belaboring my point, that is all.

It's strange, looking at this character, these books, these things, from a US comics reader's perspective. We're conditioned by so many Big Two offerings to know the history of our favorite characters, to recall tiny bits of trivia from long ago, to get the continuity straight. And some listen, and some complain about departures from what a character 'really' is. And even those of us that don't complain track these changes for sport. Characters are different from writer to writer, from medium to medium. We can see history in these changes, social and industry mores reflected.

And here is a character from that appreciated/feared/lionized world of manga, those crazy Japanese comics and those crazy big eyes, that seems to support the same history, the same study, even having rejected the burden of strict continuity.

And yet, we are denied that full view. We catch only glimpses of Golgo 13, Duke Togo rushing across our line of sight, ready for the next job. He remains as unfocused and enigmatic to us as he is to his targets, to his employers, to everyone but his die-hard fans. We can't know him, even though we know he's something we'd like.

Why, we wouldn't even know if his crosshair was kissing our necks right now.

He won't miss, you know.

We can be sure of that much, and the rest we need to guess about, from what little information we have.

Beyond that?



Same thanks as last time for involuntary help on years from Carl Gustav Horn, sighted on this lovely AnimeOnDVD thread. Hopefully, I didn't get my history of anime in the US too messed up; I was only there for some of it.


A posting about the recent cinema.

*It’s not often a new comics store opens within a decent driving distance of my home. But not only is that very thing slated to happen soon, but the owner is blogging up a storm about his experience in starting up a shiny new piece of the Direct Market. The place is called RIOT Comics + Culture, and it opens on new comics day, August 10th. I’ll have to stop by that day, but even if you don’t live anywhere near Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, the site is a good read for anyone interested in the minutiae of starting up a retail location in this crazy biz.

*I haven’t been to a lot of movies recently; haven’t had much time what with work and everything. But I had to make sure I took time out to catch 3-Iron (original title: Bin-jip), the newest film from Korean fan-favorite writer/producer/director/editor Kim Ki-duk to be released in the US, though he’s already got a new one out in Europe, Hwal. His last US release, Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, was my favorite theater-going experience of 2004, though I fear the bloom may be off the rose for that one among connoisseurs. I’ve been seeing complaints around about the latter film’s solemn use of faux-Buddhist rituals, drubbing the enterprise as ‘pop Buddhism’ for easy foreign consumption. Such complaints entirely miss the point; Ki-duk is actually a Catholic, in case you didn’t know, and I took the mannered non-rituals of the film as both an added layer of unknowing to the fable-like atmosphere, as well as indicative of a genuine desire to express universal spiritual themes through a distancing lens of secular mass in fundamentalist masquerade. Oh sure, looking back on the film a fair amount of it was heavy-handed. The gender politics were troubling, to say the least (I do believe that two of the film’s three female characters die quite horribly, and while violence toward women is obviously seen as ‘wrong,’ it’s employed as a motif entirely to provide the male characters with things to do penance for on their path to ultimate enlightenment). But the sheer personal drive behind it was overpowering; it’s one of the most purely intimate films I’ve seen in theaters in a long time.

Maybe I think this way because I don’t carry the baggage of a longtime fan, who’d have followed Ki-duk through his early exploitation-sounding epics like The Isle; even enthusiastic fans of that one tend to play up the scenes of animal abuse and simulated violence toward sensitive parts of the human anatomy, putting me in the mind of Cannibal Ferox (and why do people always use terms like ‘art house exploitation’ to describe these things instead of simply ‘exploitation’ - I hope it’s not just because the film’s well-shot, because I thought Jungle Holocaust was pretty nicely photographed too and that was just plain vanilla exploitation). So I don’t really know how this one-time ‘bad boy’ of Korean cinema has grown from first-hand experience, and maybe that frees me of certain biases, while leaving me uninformed in other areas. I just don’t know.

I liked 3-Iron quite a lot. I might have to concede that it’s best to go into this film completely blind, without knowing anything, but I really want to talk about some of the stuff in here, so keep on reading if you don’t mind my going through a lot of the film’s material.

It doesn’t start out very well, speaking of heavy-handedness - the opening shot is simply awful, an atrociously obvious visual metaphor, with harshly driven golf balls slamming against a net, a beautiful statue just out of damaging strike distance. “Oh god, here we go…” I thought. Frankly, the closing shot isn’t much better, but by that time my reaction was more “Ha ha, aw Kim, you card,” because it has the benefit of flowing out of Ki-duk’s phenomenal skill, the power of the continuous presentation carrying you right past the more thudding bits, just like in his earlier silver screen fable. Not to mention the humor; this film’s got some good comedy, kicking off right at the beginning, with our nameless protagonist (at least I don’t recall him having a name) languidly wandering down a street in a quiet still shot, lovely and haunting music playing in the background, until everything stops when our hero realizes he’s blocked someone into their driveway with his motorcycle, and he has to scurry back to move it. It’s a pleasant puncturing of mood, and makes up for that nasty opening shot quite sufficiently.

A plot soon develops, with our hero breaking into empty homes and living there while the owners are away, making sure to do good things like fixing appliances and washing clothes before he leaves; the old campsite rule, always leave it nicer than how you found it. Eventually he wanders into a particularly plush house, with a frail, battered model, wife to an abusive husband, also hiding around. She silently follows our hero, and the sequence soon seems ridiculous. How the hell doesn’t he see her? But Ki-duk keeps stretching it on and on, farther and farther, until you’re simply forced to accept it, even appreciate it. And then he has the sheer brass to turn this stuff into a literal plot point later in the film, though I’m getting ahead of myself.

You see, people seem to have trouble with the final third of the film, which delves into some very fantastical material. I don’t understand this reaction; the film is entirely fantastic and unrealistic right from the beginning. Like the fact that the male and female leads never talk (well actually… oh, you’ll see), with Ki-duk humorously building scenes around the audience never having to hear them speak, even when other characters are talking to them. And thusly the performances become slightly exaggerated, a Silent Era brand of expression acting and physical comedy poking through, low-key but present. And then there’s the title: 3-Iron. A golf club. That titular club gets used as a weapon, several times. You’d expect to see characters cracking each other in the heads with the thing, using it as a club, right? Well, that’s what rational, realistic people would do. But the characters here hurt each other by driving golf balls; they carry around small supplies of golf balls and drive them off the ground to injure others, occasionally pulling off some nice bank shots in the process. I assure you, it’s just as absurd in practice as it sounds here, but it works. I have to theorize that Ki-duk is doing this as another distancing technique, stripping the visceral impact of on-screen violence with copious absurdity to force us to consider the acts on a metaphoric level. There’s almost nothing resembling proper realism here; in one scene, a major character apparently kills someone by accident, but life just goes on. And naturally, along the way, our pair of lovers (I did mention the drifter and the battered wife fall in love, right?) help one another out, healing their mutual injuries, living transient lives in the houses of others, like happy and unconcerned ghosts, nothing outrageous or loud. There’s some really sensual scenes consisting of one foot touching another, then a kiss, then a tasteful fade to black. Helpful Ki-duk even uses the healing of the female lead’s bruises as a visual metaphor; it’s the healing of her spirit, folks.

But problems arise, and trouble pops in. We get a hyper-clichéd police interrogation sequence, and a cruel reunion with the wicked husband (who I have to say is quite brilliantly characterized, with just the right mix of self-delusion and pathetic lashing). But the young wife has learned much, and won’t be controlled, and her new strength is matched by the arrival into the plot of what I suppose some would call ‘magical realism,’ although nothing in the film has been particularly realistic thus far, and there’s already been bits of magic. Suffice to say, our hero basically develops A Power which just might prove to be the key toward unlocking the solution to everything. And in the end, we’re all weightless.

It can be puzzling trying to suss out what it all means; there’s a lot of layered themes, relating to materialism and objectification and the ephemeral state of mortality and stoicism and the need for mutual cross-bearing in relationships. The sound design is also richly layered, with some great use of audio effects (listen closely to the soundtrack when our hero feigns playing golf). It’s a handsome film, and a worthy expenditure of an hour and a half, so long as you can take some heroic doses of unexplained unreality in your cinema.

*In other movie news - what the hell?! The film adaptation of Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion has now apparently recruited P.T. Anderson of Magnolia fame as emergency back-up director for Robert Altman?! Cripes, I hope Keillor gets a decent Guy Noir sketch out of this situation...

*And, Golgo 13 Pt. 2 is go for tomorrow.