An evolution in detection

*This week’s column is a pretty straightforward look at my reactions to Ryoichi Ikegami’s 1970-71 Spider-Man manga, roughly 60% of which Marvel got translated back in the late ‘90s. I didn’t read any of that, though - I read one of the five Japanese tankoubon collections, which (perhaps not unexpectedly) was still in Japanese. But it was only four bucks! See if I learn anything from the encounter.

*Of course, there’s plenty of manga to read in English. For example, you could (and indeed should) go out and buy Del Rey’s Love Roma, which I’m enjoying a lot. Sometimes I stand around at the shelves and flip through Haruhiko Mikimoto’s franchise-friendly Mobile Suit Gundam: École du Ciel, since Mikimoto (also a seminal anime character designer, veteran of the Hideaki Anno-directed Gunbuster as well as that other mighty space-faring franchise, Macross) is a damn pretty artist.

The internet might have things waiting for you too, thanks to the beatific beings at Kotonoha, like a slice of Satoshi Kon’s 1990 one-volume series Kaikisen. Kon is best known as an anime director of feature films (Perfect Blue) and television series (Paranoia Agent), but just as he served as Katsuhiro Otomo’s protégé in the animation business, so he worked as an uncredited assistant on the Akira manga, and other Otomo comics works. You’ll see a lot of Otomo’s style in Kaikisen, which involves vaguely sinister mermaids and local tourism and culture v. commerce and stuff. Heck, thorough internetting types might even find a 1984 short from Otomo himself (I’d really love to see a collection of his short stories pop up on bookshelves around here). But be careful, the internet is also full of dirty pornography, and nobody wants to pollute their souls with that, even if the page compositions are pretty neat.

Fell #1

Really the most interesting thing about this new ongoing series from Image is artist Ben Templesmith, and how he seems to be progressing as a stylist. Writer Warren Ellis alludes in an essay in the back of this issue to a certain fatigue that Templesmith appears to suffer from, in regards to his successful vampire work on IDW’s 30 Days of Night franchise. Actually, I think this series might constitute Templesmith’s first extended work away from horror or sci-fi, and his style seems to be shifting with the change in focus.

Templesmith has often worked in a smeary, mood-drenched style, though his foreground figures had a tendency to melt into the total space of the panel, giving his pages a dull, indistinct look. Ashley Wood, in comparison, could usually pop his characters out of the mix, combining visual elements with a defter hand. But just as Wood’s own style tends to shift with time and projects passing, Templesmith’s overall style has taken a turn toward the more straightforward, with sharply-defined character art becoming the focus of his panels, uniform hues washing individual environments to suit the story’s changing moods. Street scenes are blue, the police station and its aging Lieutenant a dull rust, a local bar as warm and gold as a hearth. Which isn’t to say it’s all schematic; a fight scene is suddenly plunged into red, and certain page elements defy their denoted palettes - a red dress, a pink shirt, and always Detective Richard Fell’s blonde hair, gleaming like a torch, his keen intellect just itching to explode out of his skull.

Fell is the titular protagonist of this book, but the title might as well refer to what has happened to him. Once a crime-solver from the never-glimpsed wonderland of ‘over the bridge,’ he’s now been moved (under shadowed circumstances) to Snowtown, a city built by maniacs and possessed by eccentric energies; it’s gotten bad enough that concerned citizens have begun putting up protective symbols on buildings, a means of warding off the unfriendliness that seems to permeate the place. Fell doesn’t seem delighted to be stuck there, but he can’t resist showing off his amazing skills of deduction to random folks he meets, and he even cracks the case of a neighbor’s odd alcoholic death before he's unpacked his things.

The mystery doesn’t seem to interest Ellis very much; he pretty much gives it all away on page 2, and later resorts to Fell stumbling onto some key case-solving information in an alley at night. It’s not as much brilliant thinking as sheer luck, though that might also be one of Fell’s traits, one he's less inclined to blad about to everyone. But anyway, the real point here is getting to know the characters and the city (which, under Templesmith’s watch, is just as much a character), and Ellis keenly draws out Fell’s genuine smarts and gentle arrogance. There’s a troubled supporting cast, including no less than two female characters who’ve been into ‘cutting.’ Fell himself experiences a certain violation of his flesh, the running motif perhaps relating to Snowtown’s tendency to climb under the individual citizen’s skin. But the attractive, somewhat caricatured faces that Templesmith gives them goes a long way toward humanization; I detect a bit of Sam Kieth dripping into the character art, especially the nose and ears of that barkeep, and it’s good that such improvements aren’t melting away into a blur.

I suppose I should say something about the format, but I don’t think I have much of interest to offer. The $1.99 price tag is welcome, and the use of no less than six panels per page (classic grids of nine are predominant) and copious dialogue extends the book’s reading life to something generally indistinguishable from a typical-length pamphlet of six additional pages. As I noted before, Ellis offers up a four-page essay on the origins of the project, with script excepts and citations to real-world influences included. There’s certainly nothing wrong with this setup, and the book appears to be strong enough from this introductory material to offer some good entertainment at a low(er) price in the coming months. Well worth a read.