Technical difficulties ride again!

*As usual on this site.

*What? Another Alan Moore interview on the now briskly-selling (at least at San Diego) Lost Girls?! Sure, but the Onion AV Club's chat gets into the nitty-gritty of the work's construction, revealing some things I'd not known before - apparently, Moore abandoned his usual thousand-page scripting procedure after the early chapters, and 'wrote' the rest of the book by drawing it out in thumbnails and explaining to artist Melinda Gebbie what he wanted in regards to detail, adding dialogue only to the finished art. Quite a departure for Moore, though the 16-year creation period for the work is hardly typical either. Good reading.

And also at the Club: Brian K. Vaughan and his MP3 player.

Q-Ko-chan Vol. 1 (of 2)

I cannot wait to see how this thing does in the current manga market. There’s so many familiar tropes at work, so much that will remind any halfway seasoned reader of what they’ve encountered before, yet all of it filtered through a narrative viewpoint that’s halfway unique to its author and halfway derivative of a totally separate idiosyncratic take on manga/anime genre material – it’s confusing enough on first read, but baffling once you sit and consider the big picture. I find myself more looking forward to lurking on manga message boards and seeing what dedicated manga readers think than actually anticipating the second half of the story itself. And that’s a failing on the book’s part, yes. Actually, the only real success here rises from writer/artist Ueda Hajime’s visual acumen, and the mood conjured pursuant. And even that seems as much repeated as refined from earlier work, though it’s no less worth discussing, and even just as valuable.

Hajime’s only other work released in English so far is another two-volume series, the 2000-01 manga adaptation of the anime FLCL. This book, originally created in 2003-04, is an awful lot like FLCL, specifically Hajime’s envisioning of it on the comics page. You’ve got your disaffected young man, distanced from the one parent in his life and emotionally connected to a distant older sibling. You’ve got a circle of friends, including a sweetly standoffish semi-love interest. You’ve got a girl from beyond the stars who drops into the young man’s life only to camp out in his home, plus a robot who sometimes devours the boy into its body as both a symbol and literal manifestation of augmented strength, and a sinister, militaristic male authority figure who’s in conflict/understanding with everyone else. You’ve got a general sense that the process of growing up has begun, but is far from finished. The similarities are often striking, sometimes even more so when Hajime engages in self-conscious reversals of the basic FLCL elements: the parent is a mom (not a dad), the sibling is emotionally distant (not physically off playing baseball), the girl and the robot are literally the same entity, and it’s the boy who augments the robot’s strength. It’s all so much clearer when seen in reflection, you know?

Which isn’t to say that the plots are identical. Hardly. I’ll try my best to synopsize, though be warned that (again, as in the FLCL manga) clarity of plotting is absolutely not Hajime’s strong suit. Indeed, on my first reading the book was very nearly incoherent from a plot perspective, though a second go-through helped out a lot. Basically, Earth has gotten caught in the middle of a conflict between alien races, the technological droppings of which have served to cause all sorts of changes (yes, it’s kind of like Super Dimensional Fortress Macross initially). Devices called Pure Bombs have gone off, apparently altering the planet’s ecosystem to the point where international unrest has become the norm. At some point, Japan’s infrastructure crumbled and fascism rose, leading to a mass draft and mobilization onto the mainland, resulting in massive loss of life (and the literal vanishing of a bunch of people), a short civil war, and the establishment of 13 Special Wards as a place for certain people to live. Alien technologies (and indeed, aliens) are still around, and young Kirio Muji’s mother is working on some of them for Special Operations Unit Black Hare, which is often in conflict with various other military forces, even though a confident, half-ominous mainland operative seems to have an interest in her. Kirio also has a sister named Furiko who’s prone to fainting spells. One day, a weird young girl shows up at Kirio’s house (following the appearance of a giant robot with a big Care Bears heart on its chest), trying to rip off her own clothes.

Please pilot me! Pilot me right!” she implores.

Things don’t descend into shounen smut, however, as Kirio simply dumps her in his closet and shows her off to his friends. “Ha ha! She’s like our dog,” one of them mentions, but the girl (who’s also the robot – don’t worry about spoilers, it’s on the back cover) is just happy to be fed and have her heart literally filled by Kirio, and his weathered child-of-war courage, though it’s possible that Furiko holds an even greater power. And if all of this is starting to sound a little unsavory, FLCL transmuted into some moe disasterpiece, I’m willing to bet that’s part of the point, something to be built up and later knocked down. A bit of the subversion is pure text, like Kirio beating the shit out of some slavering pervert otaku, and the same otaku literally having his skin ripped off and his innards liquified into the power source of a giant goth lolita robot (did I mention there’s more robots? – my favorite is ‘Native-Americanko-chan,’ complete with feather on her head). But moreover, there’s the ongoing theme of Kirio having to drop his exterior and relate to others as equals, not just inferiors or helpless things – a message regarding the oft-paternalistic mindset focused on helpless, worshiped, glassy-eyed anime/manga females?

There’s more to the plot. The Earth is still spiraling out of environmental control. There’s talk of building an ark for the young to escape in. We catch chunks of half-explained international politics and secret dealings straight out of Masamune Shirow. But none of it matters all that much, fortunate since it’s as often derivative, choppy, and plain old inchoate as it is intriguing or subversive. Heaven knows it’s missing the anime FLCL’s Grant Morrison-like aptitude for mixing furiously unique concepts with an adoration for classic genre elements to form a singularly effective pop experience. But what it certainly retains is Hajime’s art, and his manga FLCL’s evocation of youthful melancholy amidst a landscape of unnervingly blasé chaos.

Q-Ko-chan opens with a truly superb image: soldiers screaming in hyper-realistic agony as a delightfully cute giant robot tromps around a hellscape of explosions and dirt, a great overture, though I wish it could have been in its original color like some of the others bits of the book are (and while I’m talking production, I really wish the person who did the English lettering had picked a better penname than ‘Alan Smithee,’ which has always denoted to me a person so disgusted with the final state of a work that they cannot bear to attach their actual name to it – unless that was the point, or ‘Alan Smithee’ is by unfortunate happenstance the guy’s actual name). Hajime’s character art is utterly lovely, thoroughly simple yet bursting with emotion, his lines sometimes shifting to scratchy lightness or heavy shading to match the mood of certain sequences. He does a marvelous job of differentiating the harshly-drafted aircraft flown by humans with the smooth, cartoonish technology of outer space. His action scenes have calmed down from FLCL, and they now flow quite marvelously. His use of white space is striking, his various tones unique.

But more than anything, maybe even overcoming the plot itself, there’s the sense of longing hovering over Hajime’s visuals. The aim of the plot thus far is summed up in two pages at the end of chapter 5, in which a little kid screams out that another of those giant alien robots has become her friend, but the adults in the area only want to know how it can be used to kill. Again, none too innovative a notion – the robots, we discover, come from a Universal Child Welfare Organization (oh that space bureaucracy!), and it won’t take much to grasp the theme of adults using for ruin what the future might use for betterment. But you'll feel it. Every element of Hajime's art comes together in this book to give off a palpable feeling of wandering around a wrecked, dead place and hoping for something better and knowing in your chilled adolescent heart that there's probably nothing of the sort in wait. Even aliens and robots can't lift the malaise, though at least they look like something fun and different. The way Hajime's silly mecha designs gallop and swirl through the air - it's poignant, those delicate children playing at heroism as murder burns all around.

"Let's play the way a couple of girls would!"

And again, that's not too different from what Hajime did when handed the reins to FLCL. It's probably best for publisher Del Rey to credit him as FLCL's creator, as misleading as that is - this book is close enough to what's come before that you might as well let everyone know, just in case they liked it there. You'll find problems in this book, but its strengths are potent, as cozy as they may seem, and I cannot say they don't have a special appeal.