Delayed Reactions

*This is a big one. This post, not


What It Is (Lynda Barry's new one; certainly worth experiencing)


Tank Girl: Visions of Booga #1 (of 4) and Dead, She Said #1 (of 6)

At The Savage Critics!

It was a holiday.

*Valuable Weblinks Dept. #1: Buy Alan David Doane's comics. Many hot deals remain, like a complete run of Seven Soldiers for $20. Or Eddie Campbell's Batman: The Order of Beasts for a buck. You know how much gas a buck will get you? A slap in the face!

*Valuable Weblinks Dept. #2: Tucker Stone will liveblog an all-day review of the Uncanny X-Men Omnibus Vol. 1 -- that's 850 or so pages of '70s X-Men -- starting this Saturday at about 10:00 AM EST. I tried liveblogging the Oscars once; by the end I was cracking jokes about Tom DeFalco-era Fantastic Four comics, as my family wept in the parlor. Good luck to you, Tucker!

*Valuable Weblinks Dept. #3: I've never worked on a legal document that didn't contain a knee-slapping French joke. All the judges call me Joe French.

*Remember - the Direct Market is a desert until Thursday. Show up Wednesday and your delegates will not be seated.


The Comics Journal #290: Another $11.99 edition, this time featuring a roundtable essay jamboree on David Michaelis's Schulz and Peanuts (featuring, among others, R.C. Harvey and Monte Schulz), an interview with Matt Madden, a Bill Randall column on Daiskue Nishijima, a quintet of Bob Powell horror comics (his Colorama was in Art Out of Time), a selection from Bill Schelly's forthcoming Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert, and so much more. Put the pages in your mouth and taste.

What It Is: Lynda Barry on the creative life, which might as well be life itself. Drawn & Quarterly, $24.95. Review here.

Speak of the Devil #6 (of 6): The fatal end of Gilbert Hernandez's Dark Horse tribute to knives, trash and bedlam. Only two free pages this time.

Skyscrapers of the Midwest: Being the much-admired series by Joshua Cotter, now tucked away into a 288-page, 6" x 9" monochrome hardcover. Only $19.95. AdHouse is the publisher, and has the preview. Wild heartland fantasy and childhood anxiety, beautifully drawn. Give it a look if you didn't get the pamphlets.

Heartburst and Other Pleasures: Concluding (unless I'm totally wrong) Rick Veitch's suite of self-published reprints for his Epic Illustrated-era material, although the title story here was originally released as Marvel Graphic Novel #10 in 1984. It's the satiric odyssey of young Sunoco Firestone, who discovers vast inner power and the love of a pretty green girl. I got an old, water-damaged copy of the '84 original years back, and the most water damage was to this page, which was a really great discovery. This new, 64-page edition will have refurbished colors and six extra stories, including the original Veitch/Stephen R. Bissette sequential version of Alan Moore's The Mirror of Love. Many samples here.

Judenhass: A new, 56-page book by Dave Sim, extending his current fancy for 'photorealism' comics into an extended reflection on the currents of Jew hatred that fed into the Nazi genocide of WWII. Preview here.

Angry Youth Comix #14: This issue of Johnny Ryan's comic promises to reveal The World's Funniest Joke, so it ought to make you really happy.

Eric Stanton: The Dominant Wives and Other Stories: Another huge, cheap ($14.99!) softcover book of smut from Taschen, this time collecting 576 pages of bondage funnies from the fetish illustration legend and longtime Steve Ditko studiomate. Keep your eyes peeled; you never know who might be inking! Excerpts here.

The Nearly Complete Essential Hembeck Archives Omnibus: Oh lord, speaking of bang for your buck - Image is ready and willing to accept $24.99 in exchange for 912 pages of b&w Fred Hembeck drawings and stories. Intro by Stan Lee. Samples here.

Starman Omnibus Vol. 1 (of 6): Well, Kirby's all finished, so it's on to DC's next $49.99 omnibus project - a full reprinting of writer James Robinson's much-admired 1994-2001 superhero epic. This initial volume collects issues #0-16, so you can relive the Zero Hour tie-in magic, then watch the work flower. Art by Tony Harris. I've never read any of this; actually, the only 'big' works of Robinson's I've gone through are his well-meaning but not very satisfying Witchcraft series for Vertigo, the first of which directly preceded Starman in 1994. This will surely be the easiest way to get all of it in hand.

Jack Kirby's O.M.A.C.: One Man Army Corps: Oh, shit. I guess Kirby isn't finished. What we've got here is an all-in-one DC hardcover -- $24.99 for 176 pages -- collecting the King's eight-issue 1974-75 opus. The hair will be high and the fists will fly.

Superman: World of Krypton: MORE REPRINTS, MORE MORE. I have the sneaking suspicion that the only thing anyone recalls at all about this Walter Simonson-written 1987-88 miniseries is the presence of a certain 27-year old penciller named Mike Mignola - and buddy, that's enough for a trade. Or maybe not, since DC is pumping this $14.99 sucker up to 192 pages with the first issue of John Byrne's The Man of Steel revamp, and assorted Krypton tales from something like 10 other Superman comics.

John Byrne's Complete Next Men Vol. 1: It will never end. All comics will return, including the ones you drew as a child. But for now, IDW begins its b&w 'phonebook'-style reprint of Byrne's signature 1992-94 series. This 432-page, $19.99 tome contains the 1991 kickoff graphic novel 2112 and the first 12 issues of the regular series, with the M4 backup stories included. Should I mention Dark Horse's Savage Sword of Conan Vol. 3, a similarly-styled (and $19.95) compilation of '70s magazines (#25-31)?

The Dangerous Alphabet: From HarperCollins; Neil Gaiman's new children's book, with illustrations by Gris Grimly, $17.99. Preview here. I found this in Diamond's helpful Merchandise section, along with an $18 "Space Robot" - no wonder they didn't want the little fucker in space, if that's all he's worth.

No Pasarán! Vol. 3 (of 3): I'm a tool, so I'll always remember Italian comics master Vittorio Giardino for his naughty Winsor McCay spoof Little Ego, but here's the 72-page, $14.95 conclusion to one of his Max Fridman spy stories, set in the Spanish Civil War. It'll probably look like this. NBM is also offering Vol. 2 again this week, plus Rick Geary's A Treasury of Victorian Murder Vol. 5: The Mystery of Mary Rogers.

Appleseed Vol. 2 (of 4): Prometheus Unbound: In case you were wondering, this is the stuff that formed the basis of both the 1988 OVA and the 2004 movie; it also more-or-less wraps up Masamune Shirow's 'main' plot, with the next two books drifting away into obsessive tactics until the series chokes to a halt. It's $14.95, in the right-to-left format. Dark Horse (with DMP) also has Berserk Vol. 23 this week; I anticipate nothing much will happen, in an attractive manner.

Studio Space: A new $29.99 softcover prose project from Joel Meadows & Gary Marshall, spun off from a recurring feature in the magazine Tripwire, just as Todd Hignite's similarly-themed In the Studio grew out of Comic Art. Featuring peeks into the minds and working spaces of 20 different artists, such as Mike Mignola, Frank Miller, Joe Kubert, Jim Lee, Howard Chaykin, Walter Simonson, Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons, Sean Phillips, Duncan Fegredo, Sergio Toppi, Tommy Lee Edwards, Adam Hughes, George Pratt, Tim Bradstreet, Tim Sale, Phil Hale, John Bolton, Alex Ross and... one other person? Image is the publisher, and a $49.99 hardcover is also available. A few pages.

Marvel 1985 #1 (of 6): This is a long, long in the making (as in, the script was done in 2005) project from writer Mark Millar, something about Marvel baddies entering 'our' world after Secret Wars, and a 13-year old mega-fan is the only one who knows the secret weaknesses that can stop their terror spree, or something. The initial hype behind it was that it was going to employ a state-of-the-art fumetti visual style, and was going to be very, very expensive to produce. Then a few early images were released to... mixed reactions. Then the whole project vanished for a while, and now it's back and ready to go, with art by Tommy Lee Edwards. Here's some pages, containing a succinct portrayal of the economic tug crossover Events have on the devout readership, from the writer of Civil War. The whole setup seems like a 'serious' mirror image of Millar's current Kick-Ass; funny how time lines things up.

Jimmy Zhingchak: Agent of D.I.S.C.O.: I can't say I was expecting Virgin to release a $5.99 humor one-shot steeped in '80s Bollywood tropes, yet it will indeed appear in stores that sell comic books. From writer Saurav Mohapatra and artist Anupam Sinha. Also from Virgin: Dan Dare #6 (of 7).

The Immortal Iron Fist #15: Penultimate issue of the current team's run, although Ed Brubaker's absent from this issue and Khari Evans is sole penciller. See. This week also has the second hardcover collection of the series, picking up everything besides this.

The Legion of Super-Heroes #42: There's a lot of things out this week.

Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1: Like delayed endings to certain 25-issue superhero runs that began almost precisely four years ago. Which, if you average it out, makes it a very snappy bimonthly project! Featuring everyone.

All Star Superman #11: Grant Morrison release #1 for the week. The penultimate issue of this series' regular run, seeing a terrible threat reveal itself as Clark Kent prepares for Superman's death. Action-packed preview here, once you scroll down. Could Lex Luthor's use of "retards" be a nod to a different All Star series?! At this point I'll be sad if Batman doesn't show up for two panels in issue #12 to give us all a goddamn...

Batman #677: Grant Morrison #2, also part 2 (of 6) of the Batman R.I.P. saga (wouldn't you like a handy checklist?). Morrison got really excited over some plot twist in this issue at his New York Comic Con panel, crowing that he couldn't believe that nobody had thought to fuck around with Batman in this particular way before. I like the cheesy Knightfall-style bloody bat-logo at the top right of every tie-in; synchs up with the very '90s hellish future Our Hero is struggling to avoid. Speaking of the '90s, there's few artists of the day I associate with Batman closer than Kelley Jones, and he's got the first of 12 issues for the horror-themed Batman: Gotham After Midnight this week, written by Steve Niles.

Final Crisis #1 (of 7): Yeah, have a look; that does indeed appear to be Anthro on the first page.



Another Vacation Gone Forever

*No new comics until Thursday, which means Diamond doesn't issue their weekly list until Tuesday afternoon, which means no weekly comics feature on this site until late Tuesday. Diamond could suddenly delay Final Crisis #1 until October, so I insist on having the completed list handy.

*It was a nice Memorial Day weekend; we all had a cookout, and my parents took me up to the cemetary to tour their plot. They're last in their row out toward a curve in the road, so my mother has asked for the inside seat, lest a passing car clip her toes. The rest stops gave out free coffee and tea on the drive back to my building.

*I also saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull this weekend, and I didn't like it much. I mean, if there's gonna be computer animated critters popping up and mugging for the camera, you might as well have them wearing shades and riding skateboards - you've already crossed the line. To say nothing of the instant classic 'swinging' scene, which had one of my friends clutching his head and saying "George Lucas," the name itself being a pejorative. I did think it was wrong to instantly blame all the dumb stuff on Lucas, although I didn't want to invoke the 'gymnastics 1, dinosaurs 0' bit from The Lost World: Jurassic Park in front of a crowded theater, or anywhere, ever, without the safety of the internet in front of me.

Um, the motorcycle chase was neat? I liked the noisy '50s Red Scare nuclear America parody parts; it's too bad the '50s-specific stuff vanishes totally after 45 or so minutes. I didn't think it was much like a sci-fi B-movie at all, which was inevitable, I think, given how many expectations an Indiana Jones movie has - he has to solve silly puzzles and encounter gross bugs, and the magic item has to somehow kill the main villain (Cate Blanchett looked nice but her character was so boring), and there has to be cliff-hanging derring-do. All this one did was make the typical 'magic' ending extra-thick with Science!, like an overthought superhero revamp.

And, you know, even that might be kind of fitting for a battle against those godless Commies; there's a bit of throwaway dialogue near the end where Blanchett expresses enthusiasm for the collective will on display vis-a-vis the film's big treasure, and it sort of approximates the seed of theme. The early parts of the movie made it seem like the muscular Saturday serial adventure of the early films would crash into the moody, anxious nature of the atomic sci-fi pictures of the time in a more substantive way, and I'd have liked to see that.

Generally, I think the heavy use of computer animation may have left the movie's world more pliable than usual, and more prone to crossing the line from wild and thrilling to distractingly silly. It all brought to mind one of Dennis O'Neil's old Mediaview columns from Epic Illustrated (#26, Oct. 1984), wherein he reviewed the then-new Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and asserted that the Indiana Jones movies were structurally less action serials than prime silent era comedies - there's something to that, and I'd add that even in the silent era itself the line between Buster Keaton and Douglas Fairbanks was pretty thin. If we look at it that way, the sproinging tree limbs of the new Indy film puts it closer to the anything-goes edge of silent comedy, with people falling out of airplanes and leaving holes in the ground, or Snub Pollard crashing his car and careening miles across town. Snub Pollard was awesome, yes, but his thin line had Daffy Duck on the other side, if you know what I mean.

Yeah, I haven't seen Temple of Doom in the better part of a decade, but Kingdom of the Crystal Skull seemed closest to it, with the oddball horror stuff replaced by even more family-friendly laffs. Although what it really reminded me of was the 1988 Indy anime ripoff Crystal Triangle, which saw a Japanese Dr. Jones type of guy race against Soviet (and American!) forces to uncover a similarly secret sci-fi finale, with some ancient Biblical secrets and Lovecraft tossed in to boot! It was absolute bullshit, but exactly the sort of bullshit I'll happily sit through, which is more than I can say for the newest from Spielberg & Lucas.

*One good thing did come of it, though - I found a free 'abandonware' download page for the 1996 LucasArts action-RPG Windows extravaganza Indiana Jones and His Desktop Adventures. Sure, it controls a bit clunky, and you'll probably forget about it forever after playing two of its randomly-generated quests, but man... at least this one's got real nostalgia going for it with me!


"Come On Come On! Remember to Forget to Forget to Remember"

What It Is

This is the much-anticipated new book from Lynda Barry, her first with publisher Drawn and Quarterly. I don't think it's out in Direct Market stores just yet, but some large bookstores should have it right now. It's a 208-page hardcover, sized at 11" x 8.5", priced at $24.95. You won't easily gloss it over on the shelves.

That's reassuring; Barry may be an experienced, influential figure in alternative comics -- her signature weekly strip, Ernie Pook's Comeek (which D&Q will reprint in five collected volumes starting later this year), has been running for over one quarter of a century -- but she doesn't have a terribly pronounced presence in book form. Most collections of her work are out of print, and even highly-acclaimed recent books like 2002's One! Hundred! Demons! (from Sasquatch Books, collecting material from Salon.com) can be tricky to find offline. But D&Q, fully in spite of its size, excels at getting its projects into a broad range of venues, often with a supple backing of varied media attention.

It'll be interesting to see what those sources make of What It Is, a colorful, sometimes cacophonous mix of 'How To' writing instruction, philosophic text and creative autobiography, adopting the visual attributes of anything that might meld words and pictures, be it comics, collage or activity workpages. Steeped in personal reflection and lessons learned from valued teachers -- not to mention the author's own Writing the Unthinkable seminars -- it's as crisply straightforward in presentation as any student could like, yet as elusive and challenging in certain passages as the questions it confronts, those Barry deems fundamental to the individual human experience.

Memory, imagination, myth, thought, meaning, image - all are addressed, perhaps in so individual a manner that those looking for basic writing instruction from a glance at the cover might find it all unduly digressive, a bit arty for adequate tutoring as to the arts. But I'm not sure how else this book could have read, given Barry's take on the inseparability of creation and being, the impossible beauty of transubstantiating the several species of recollection, the immaterial, into the experiential.

The bulk of the book's space is occupied by a 133-page section titled, appropriately, What It Is. As you can see, the paper stock is blue, the images themselves appear to have been composed on sheets from a yellow notepad, and all of the text is handwritten, with certain words displayed in cursive, just as a typical comic book dialog bubble might set some words in bold. Other elements of the page include drawings, as exuberantly doodled as any Barry has done, and 'found' elements pasted down among the rest. Across the scope of her narrative, Barry suggests the importance of everything we can see that she has done.

For most of the 'blue' section, the narrative alternates between two modes: (1) text and drawing-heavy narration, tracking some of the author's experiences from childhood forward; and (2) "Essay Questions" illuminated through intensive mixed-media displays, involving bits of old textbooks, altered photographs, childlike scribbles, snatches from a cache of elementary school assignments dating back to the 1920s and other miscellaneous objects. The overall texture is that of a deeply purposeful scrapbook; when Barry opts to plug in a 13-page story that first appeared in McSweeny's, it looks as if she may have literally cut the pages out of copies of the original publication, laying it all down on her yellow base.

Both modes are autobiographical; that becomes clear very quickly. There's a telling bit later on in the book in which Barry presents some of her initial mixed-media designs for the Penguin Deluxe Classics cover of Little Women she was commissioned to do - her initial plan was rejected by the art director for not looking enough like 'her' work, a reaction she found both funny and sad (I wonder what that art director made of Frank Miller?). As such, Barry's 'mode one' narrative begins with her initial childlike inability to segregate living things from images, which she uses as a springboard for discussing how some images are indeed alive in the manner of memories and imaginings. Images are the base of Barry's concept of 'writing' -- in contrast to events or impressions -- and as the narrative proceeds, realizations and metaphors spring up to accompany the girl's growth.

"We don't create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay." So declares Barry as she muses on the transportation of reading, which in the uncertainty of recollection can become just as vivid as 'real' experiences. She tells of her favorite mythic monster, the Gorgon, who helped her understand her own mother, although she also explodes the notion into a larger metaphor of passive media consumption -- watching television -- as turning one to stone, both to the effect of pleasurably destroying oscillating life emotions (even providing some creative inspiration!), and freezing the recollected life into a prepared flow of images while rendering the viewer perfectly still. I have to wonder if the reader of a comic would be any less still if the characters could stare out past the fourth wall, but I presume by this understanding that the reader's involvement with filling in the gutters would transport them inside the work.

All of this is bolstered by Barry's 'mode two' creations, which aren't so much answers to her omnipresent queries ("We do not know the answers," she remarks up front), as marshallings of how the contours of those questions can be understood through creative work, writing presented as the natural extension of reading. There's an excellent image repeated twice (with some variation) in the book, depicting Barry as a child seated in a darkened room, a square source of light transfixing her - the initial impression is that of a television, but Barry's linework within the light source suggests a scribbly drawing of shapes, that which lays close but cannot immediately be grasped without desire. It's perhaps the best of several visual metaphors at work in a book not lacking for anything of the type.

Connections pile up as the narrative goes on. Barry does not address drawing as drawing-for-comics, but insists on the power of writing by hand: drawing words. This is linked to the concept of childhood 'play,' which can be very much like work to a young kid left alone. But just as kids give up many forms of play as they grow self-conscious to societal standards of behavior, so do people stop creating when confronted with democratic or academic decrees of what 'good' art is; this does not sit well with Barry, whose advocation of creation, writing, is in the form of a personal means of expression best kept far away from the concerns of audience or commerce, in that way that one needn't take the stage to breathe.

Ah, but Barry is a respected, successful artist, one who did eventually revise that book cover! This not unimportant facet of her experience forms the concluding pages of the blue section, in which the eventual demands of art-as-work extends the societal concept of 'good' art into Two Questions the author finds surrounding her work, as she works: "Is this good?" and "Does this suck?" She depicts it as a paralyzing dichotomy, abrogated only by a temporary abandonment of the very concept of 'good' work when actually creating (Marion Milner's On Not Being Able to Paint is duly cited). After all, Barry characterizes her own career as a cartoonist as accidental; to invoke one of her own explanatory tales, writing is like setting your life free from a can, and while fame or fortune or even a living wage cannot be guaranteed, being out of the can is its own powerful joy.

The rest of the book serves to spur action or reflecting regarding what has gone before. There's a 37-page pink section titled Activity Book -- a good portion of which served as D&Q's Free Comic Book Day giveaway for 2007 -- which provides more pointed, exercise-driven instruction from Barry and her cast of characters (a multi-eyed beastie called Sea-Man, a helpful Magic Cephalopod), much of it taking the form of expanding memory points into environments, keeping the hand moving at all times, basic steps to shore up (or establish) the bond between thought and language. A 15-page green section called Let's Make a Free Writing Kit focuses on tools to use in furthering your exercise, and a 22-page orange section, Notes on Notes, serves as both a slightly obscure appendix -- letting the reader see what Barry was doodling while working on other pages -- and a further extension of the artist's always-writing ethos, always personal.

But maybe it's the most appropriate way to 'end' a book that can't have an ending. What It Is surely isn't going to lead anyone into creating a commercially viable or particularly entertaining work, because it aches to address the creative impulse on a more primal level, one of sheer self-satisfaction as a means to assure one's self of simple aliveness. As a result, it can only end with the end of life itself, and can otherwise spread into every evocative and opaque form, neat or unruly. This book is all of that, but it's mostly a success in embodying how emphatic Barry is about her means of creation, and how far inside she's ready to climb.


I hate 48 hours without a post here.

*Last night I had a dream that I was traveling with a bunch of acquaintances from high school. Not even friends; just faces I'd generally recognize.

Upon stopping to eat, we saw a haunted house attraction sitting nearby, apparently without any carnival or whatnot to support it, and we decided to go in.

We had a tour guide, who did little but show us from room to room. It seemed like any other dimly-lit house, obviously abandoned for a while, with a mildly creepy yellowish '70s sense of decor. Things sat on tables, chairs were left sitting uneven. I kept wondering what was so haunted about the place, until I noticed the smell.

"It's a gas leak!" I shouted running for a clearly marked fire exit (this being an attraction-for-profit, after all).

Upon reaching the outside, the tour guide congratulated me and handed me a stuffed animal with a tag on it reading MEDIUM. Maybe he had us on a stopwatch? I was pretty pleased to have won, but I couldn't help but thinking:

"How do they stop people from going in twice?"

*Conclusions Dept:

This is the All Star Superman #12 cover; I think #11 is out next week. There's a lot to like about this image, particularly in how it solidifies Lex Luthor as the nastiest Superman doppelgänger of them all, and how Solaris the Tyrant Sun is kind of soaking him in rays from the background - an evil sun for an evil Superman. The image as a whole also makes for a nice contrast with the famously kindly, relaxed cover to #1.

But what I hadn't realized until now is that there'd been something of a recurring visual motif across the covers, depicting some supporting character clutching a weapon while Superman appears to go bad in the distance. In issue #2 it's Lois, mistakenly believing that Superman is plotting bad things for her. In issue #4 it's Jimmy, the directions reversed to depict his (needle) gun-clutching flight from a Superman that's become his own evil twin through infection. Now, it's Superman himself that hides from Luthor-as-Superman, which I think neatly compliments the series' arc of the hero taking on his own mortality, externalized as a gaggle of alternate visions of himself.

Meanwhile, later that same month (August), Morrison is also kicking off a two-issue thing called Final Crisis: Superman Beyond, a Doug Mahnke-drawn thing (with a 3-D sequence) promising "an unforgettable, hyperdelic journey from the streets of Metropolis, through the 52 worlds of the multiverse, to the haunted court of the King of Limbo" with "the Man of Steel and his alternate-earth counterparts." Which makes it sound like as much of an All Star Victory Lap as a Final Crisis tie-in, which is fine by me.

*And on that note, I should mention that I really liked the Final Crisis Sketchbook that came out the other week. I was pretty cynical about it at first -- how can you not be cynical about what's so transparently a $2.99 advertisement? -- but I thought it did a vastly more efficient job than DC Universe #0 in piqing my interest by simply letting the Event book's writer and artist (no doubt carefully arranged and transcribed through editorial) enthuse about their work to the reader. It did make Final Crisis seem fun and interesting, although I readily admit that DC Universe strived mainly to make it seem important vis-a-vis continuity and forthcoming publishing ventures and the like, which is itself a (perhaps overriding) quality of these things that doesn't click with me so much...



*Right in.


B.P.R.D. 1946 #1-5 (of 5)

Color of Rage (Kazuo Koike, out of a comfort zone)


Sky Doll #1 (of 3) (and everything that little title can mean)

at The Savage Critics!

*Never a dull seven.


(no, the new issue of The Comics Journal is not on Diamond's list for this week - preview here anyway)

The Bottomless Belly Button: Being Dash Shaw's massive 720-page brick of a graphic novel from Fantagraphics, tracking the Loony family as a six-day family reunion brings separation, mystery, longings, hauntings, and terribly sad comedy. Preview here, Table of Contents here, character intros here. 'Dad' or 'Mom' variant covers available! Really! I'll have a review up once I'm finished reading it.

Skim: I've seen this $18.95 hardcover graphic novel sitting in bookstores for months -- and it's been getting talked up a bunch in broad-sweep media outlets -- but I guess the Direct Market is only now ready to enjoy it. It's a 140-page b&w production from cousins Mariko (writer) & Jillian (artist) Tamaki, following the tangled private lives of outsider-type private school girls in 1993 via an illustrated diary-as-comics format. Suicide, homosexuality, Wicca and affairs with older lovers figure in. From Groundwood Books. Some preview pages here.

Explainers: The Complete Village Voice Strips (1956-66): Golden Age of Reprints - charge forward! Now we've got a 568-page landscape-format Fantagraphics presentation of Jules Feiffer's classic early weekly strip, tackling every topic under the sun. Gary Groth's intro is here, and a big preview is here. It's $28.99. Fanta also has a dandy new $18.99 softcover edition of the first volume of Hank Ketcham's Complete Dennis the Menace, covering 1951-52.

Rebel Visions: The Underground Comix Revolution 1963-1975: Fantagraphics released a hardcover version of this, Patrick Rosenkranz's modular chronicle of the day and its people, back in 2003, but be aware that this new $34.99 softcover has been expanded and revised, with a new visual design. Foreword here, video & audio info here, preview here.

Comic Arf: The latest in Craig Yoe's always-striking Fantagraphics collections of funnies on the cusp of finery, or vice-versa. I read through a copy at the NYCC this year, and the standout feature is a long stretch of famed cartoonists finishing a deliberately incomplete Milt Gross strip from the '20s - Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Peter Bagge, Kaz, Johnny Ryan, Jaime Hernandez, Mike Mignola, Bil Keane (who's actually pretty damn funny!), Mort Walker and many more contribute. You'll also get a tribute to Dudley Fisher, a nightmarish kids' strip by Walt Kelly, a suite of anti-war cartoons from all over American history, and more. It's $19.99 for 120 pages.

Hellboy: The Companion: If you happen to be following the various Hellboy family titles in pamphlets rather than trades you've definitely heard of this, since its extreme lateness (I think it was first due in 2006) has become something of a running joke. But now it's here for real, and a mere $14.95 will net you 200 pages' worth of Official Handbook-type joy. Contains a timeline of events stretching from before the dawn of humankind up to the present day, and info on all 17 trillion characters attached to the series, including some that never quite got to appearing on the page. You can read editor Scott Allie's intro here. Also out this week is the trade collection of Hellboy: Darkness Calls, from creator/writer Mike Mignola and artist Duncan Fegredo, with two new epilogues, one drawn by Mignola.

Grendel: Devil Quest & Grendel: Devil Child: Meanwhile, Matt Wagner's creation gets a pair of $14.95 lavished upon it; the former (64 pages) is a compilation of that painted serial Wagner did in the back pages of Grendel Tales in the mid-'90s, while the latter (56 pages) collects a 1999 miniseries written by longtime editor Diana Schutz with art by Tim Sale and colors by Teddy Kristiansen. The current Grendel: Behold the Devil miniseries also has its penultimate issue (#7) out this week.

Tim Sale: Black and White: Oh - speaking of Sale, Image has an expanded, 272-page hardcover edition of his career retrospective out, now accounting for his work on Catwoman and the television show Heroes. It's $39.99.

Mushishi Vol. 4 (of 10): Yeah, supposedly this lovely Yuki Urushibara manga is now set to conclude upon the completion of its 10th volume, which shouldn't arrive for a bunch of months. Not that Del Rey's quarterly English edition is likely to overtake it. Ah well, many more Mushi ahead for us.

Swan Vol. 13 (of 21): Gosh... my lack of faith may be showing here, but I'm kind of amazed that CMX is still plowing through Kyoko Ariyoshi's 1976-81 shōjo ballet classic. I'm not even reading it and I feel like I ought to point out its continuance. So there!

Tank Girl: Visions of Booga #1 (of 4): God, I'd totally missed that IDW was going to have another one of these things. This time Rufus Dayglo performs full art duties for writer Alan C. Martin, with Ashley Wood doing the covers. It's a long storyline involving a "transcontinental Kerouackian odyssey," which is suppose is not to be confused with Peter Milligan's Joycean odyssey from a decade and change back. Pages pages pages.

Dead, She Said #1 (of 6): Another IDW debut, this time seeing Bernie Wrightson apply ink to his pencils in the comics form for the first time in a while. It's a Steve Niles story about a private eye who's shot dead, but gets back up anyway. Exciting futuristic video preview here.

Gødland #23: Cosmic reset - threatened! Scroll down for preview.

The Programme #11 (of 12): National unity - ruined! Behold the end of the American family.

War is Hell: The First Flight of the Phantom Eagle #3 (of 5): Wartime romance - soured! Never avert your eyes.

X-Men: Divided We Stand #2 (of 2): Anthology series - contains art by Frazer Irving! Lookit.

The Boy Who Made Silence #3 (of 12): Shhh.

Incredible Hulk Omnibus Vol. 1: Upcoming film - promoted! Contains Lee, Kirby, Ditko, Kane, Romita, Buscema and others across Incredible Hulk #1-6, Tales to Astonish #59-101 and Incredible Hulk #102. It's $99.99 for 752 pages, and no dount available by the popcorn when the time comes.

I.R.$. Vol. 1: Taxing Trails: From Cinebook, a $19.95 English-language collection of the first two (1999 & 2000) albums in Belgian creators Stephen Desberg's & Bernard Vrancken's action series about the dangerous exploits of a two-fisted branch of the Internal Revenue Service, dedicated to uncovering all the financial secrets that good citizens might try to hide. Short preview here. There is a comic for every occasion.



"King... I'm glad you're my buddy. Do you mind going to hell with me?"

Color of Rage

This is from Dark Horse, an all-in-one edition of a swordplay manga from 1973. It's $14.95 for 416 b&w pages.

I strongly doubt there's many of you out there that haven't heard of writer Kazuo Koike, he of the famous Lone Wolf and Cub and many other comics about powerful men (and Lady Snowblood) wandering around days of yore and cutting people. He's joined here by artist Seisaku Kano, a frequent collaborator heretofore unseen in English; the team's biggest works appear to be a money-and-girls opus called Auction House (34 vols.), some saucy-looking thing that roughly translates to Experimental Doll Dummy Oscar (19 vols.) and a doubtlessly hot-blooded number titled simply Brothers (9 vols.). Kano has also been active in girlie pin-up art, as the cover up top might suggest.

Color of Rage (which goes by the alternate title Colored inside the book) only seems to have lasted for two volumes, beautifully subtitled Let's Go, My Friend! and God Damn It, My Friend! - I couldn't tell you why, but I can identify some telling differences between this and Koike's other 'period' action comics. For one, while Koike has always strived to provide little educational tidbits in his stories, this is the first of his samurai-type works I've seen to adopt something approaching an overarching academic thesis, that the state of the lower classes in Edo period Japan was analogous to that of slaves held contemporaneously in the United States.

To better illustrate this idea -- and provide many thrills for the waiting audience -- Koike whips up an odd couple premise about a pair of men trapped on a slaving vessel in 1783. One is King, a black man from America, and the other is Jöjirö, a Japanese man known to King as "George." Don't ask how they met or wound up in chains in the middle of the ocean, because Koike ain't telling. Anyway, the ship sinks, and Our Heroes wind up wandering around Japan looking for A Place to Belong.

As such, this is also the first of Koike's works I've seen that features a person of a totally foreign culture as one of the primary characters, who shoulders a large portion of the narrative. And it doesn't go all that smoothly, truth be told... well, let me describe the first chapter.

The epic begins with King and George sinking into the murky depths, which are extra-murky due to what I presume were originally deep oceanic colors being reproduced in black and white. King and George slice the feet off of other members of their chain gang, then swim to shore. A pair of frowning (so: evil) people pass by, and Our Heroes grab their legs and take their clothes.

Then there's a flashback to life on the boat, at which point King and George participate in a largely incomprehensible mutiny while the ship sinks; artist Kano has a decent way with gekiga character art -- joining the hewn-from-rock sternness of Takao Saito with some of the inky grace of Goseki Kojima -- and he manages a few nice splashes of sooty page design, but his action staging is convoluted whenever it's not focused on moment-by-moment gesture from a fixed perspective.

Now sitting ashore (again), King and George fashion a makeshift bomb to break the chains binding them to the severed feet, then set off for a way to free their ankles from the remaining shackles. The first blacksmith they find is in the middle of making love to a woman, and George must hold King back from being driven wild at the very sight ("Oh... urr... urr..."). The blacksmith breaks the shackles, but he and the woman are alarmed at King's appearance.

Setting off again, the pair run across a gang of men chasing peasants who've tried to abandon their village because there's no way to eke out a living, a crime punishable by death.

"They're just like slaves then."

"Peasants and slaves are no different."

King grits his teeth as he watches men and children put to the sword, but when the pursuers prepare to rape a young virgin he leaps into battle, George close behind. The villains are killed, but the naked girl is so terrified of appearance that she backs right off a cliff and plunges to her doom. George then informs King that he'll have to hide his face behind bandages to keep the population of Japan from freaking out, and King is understandably angry. But then he thinks of that poor girl falling down, with a panel of waves crashing against the rocks added for emphasis, and he weeps manly tears before covering his face. He and George again set off.

I think it's clear from this that Koike's heart is ultimately in the right place, even as he lacks the command of cultural nuance necessary to keep his work from becoming troubling. King wouldn't be the first Kazuo Koike character to be driven to physical action by the sight of fucking, after all, but there's an especially ugly connotation to that particular image in that context which I don't know if Koike totally grasped, even as it seems obvious to a US reader - I mean, he's an escaped slave!!

Or, it could be that Koike was picking and choosing stereotypes to spice up what would have to act as a sexy swordplay thriller for its readership, trusting that the overall message would offset things.

There's some pretty disquieting stuff in here; one episode, fit for a 42nd street exploitation picture, sees King and George forced to bow for a passing noblewoman's palanquin, which then gets delayed behind a poor family's stuck wagon. King, using his near-superhuman might, lifts the wagon out of the way before the guard can cut their way through. But the noble is piqued, and forces King to lift the wagon back in place, then to strip off his clothes and lift the wagon ever higher as she laughs and laughs. A poor, innocent girl (of course) throws herself in front of King to stop the humiliation, which gets her skewered and sparks a melee that ends with King ripping the noblewoman's clothes off and forcing her to eat mud as he chokes her to death. Koike does manage to restrain himself from throwing in a heroic rape scene, so the business never quite reaches Wounded Man-caliber misogyny, but its mix of sick thrills and attempted social justice is queasy nonetheless.

Should I mention that the chapter ends with King pausing by the wounded girl's door, causing her to miraculously spring awake while King flashes George an 'a-ok' signal? Because this stuff gets as sentimental -- even self-congratulatory -- as Koike cares to be. Another episode has Our Heroes gambling their way up to enough money to rent prostitutes, which leads to a battle with mean yakuza, George lecturing on how prostitutes of the time are also like slaves (he does this a lot), and King pontificating on how he could never exploit a woman like that after the life he's led. "Your words cut my heart like thorns. It cooled me down for sure," smiles George, whom I guess is condescending enough to constantly talk to people about exploitation without ever planning to do anything to stop it, the shit.

All that said, there's some entertainment to be had from this book, particularly once the story hits its second half and a long framed-for-murder storyline allows Koike to work his talents for propulsive plotting. There's not much of an ending, more the suggestion of one, but Koike's concept does manage to tighten just enough to provide a climactic vision of a lone lawmen fighting off all comers in the freezing snow as an allegory for the enlightened man's struggle against the prejudice of a society. I can't call it all that artful, but I do think there's some value in witnessing this type of cross-cultural struggle work itself out on the page, even though, to be frank, you can get better Koike swordplay or eccentric action from a lot of other places.

Oh, there's also a 40-page bonus story about a young punk who runs into legendary swordsman Shimizu Jirocho and learns a valuable lesson about stabbing motherfuckers who deserve it. It's like an Saturday morning end-of-cartoon PSA, only with Flint teaching the kids how to lose an eye like heroes. So at least the book sends the reader away with a spring in the step.


Old Black Magic

B.P.R.D.: 1946 #1-5 (of 5)
(or, B.P.R.D. #39-43, if you like)

I've said before that B.P.R.D. is probably the most consistently good ongoing series out there in the Direct Market, and there's little here to shake my resolve, despite the presence of a mostly new creative team, working with a unique set of main characters and providing such a noticeably different overall 'feel' that it almost seems like a totally different title - which, granted, it is, if you only look at the subtitle and issue numbers on the front cover. Credit must go to creator/co-writer Mike Mignola and editor Scott Allie for not only keeping the quality level high, but affording each new piece of the Hellboy jigsaw its own special character.

That's not to say all of it's necessarily superior work; critical reaction to the recent 'character' miniseries has been pretty mixed (although I liked Lobster Johnson: The Iron Prometheus good enough, and haven't started with Abe Sapien: The Drowning), and even B.P.R.D. itself took a few storylines to find its legs.

And, given the differing textures of the Hellboy line, some reactions are perhaps bound to lean on personal preference; for me, the recent Darkness Calls storyline in the main Hellboy book handily reasserted the core title's status as visual spectacle first, planted atop a patchwork mythology that's gotten so big that the narrative now seems preoccupied with sewing together more patches, when it's not in the midst of a three and a half-issue fight scene.

I did enjoy it, mind you. The story lays itself out with terrific panache, Mignola's idiosyncratic plotting is bouncy as ever (I love his way of building up characters as massive threats, only to bump them aside in favor of unexpected, possibly improvised developments), and artist Duncan Fegredo is just as fine as we all expected. And I'll readily admit that, for some, admiring Mignola's mustering of diverse world mythology into a cohesive fight comic schema is its own pleasure, maybe an overriding one.

But dammit, I like B.P.R.D. more. It's a more constrained series, despite its large cast, and keenly focused on personal questions of identity and mortality that tend to get drowned under the thunder of Hellboy proper. It's a more writerly series, but with no loss of visual appeal; regular artist Guy Davis can work the grotesque like almost nobody else in front-of-Previews comics, but the delicacy he brings to his character art compliments each set of philosophical troubles Mignola and co-writer John Arcudi present their cast, fresh ones every storyline. All in the form of superior action/horror pop comics, with hardly a jolt in its arrow-straight continuity.

Well, until now.

As the title suggests, 1946 is set in the past; it follows the adventures of Hellboy's 'father,' Prof. Trevor Bruttenholm, as he investigates the many weird things the Nazis were up to when they weren't bringing a certain lil' devil to Earth. This particular plot serves to flesh out a throwaway concept from the early Hellboy storyline Wake the Devil: Project Vampir Sturm, an ill-fated Nazi attempt at forming an alliance with Count Vladimir Giurescu, a notorious blood-sucker.

Giurescu is still a player in the main Hellboy book (he popped up in Darkness Calls), and another popular face from the wider Mignola mythos turns in a key appearance -- seriously, this stuff is as friendly to completists as Alan Moore's ABC line at Wildstorm -- but 1946 is mainly focused on Bruttenholm's uneasy investigation of the project's terrible aftermath, including a frequent give-and-take with Varvara, a callous, white-clad little girl who's Head of Arcane Studies and Esoteric Teachings for the USSR. Wholly interested in amusement and novelty, and wielder of the impossible Hell power of Little Dolly Katiya -- so impossible that we never actually see it used in-panel, maybe because the very sight would drive us mad!! -- she's Bruttenholm's demonic opposite in every way, and likely the unique antagonist of this wing of B.P.R.D., should future stories develop.

(although this is a Hellboy family book, so I guess she could have appeared in the background of one panel from a short story back in 1998 or something)

The new contributers to this story are co-writer Joshua Dysart (previously of various licensed books at Dark Horse), penciller/inker Paul Azaceta and colorist Nick Filardi (both of the Image series Grounded). I was impressed by how Azaceta, even through his thick outlines, managed to preserve some of the gentleness of body that Davis typically brings. His characters look outwardly stolid yet somehow easy to hurt, and Filardi's dim, drained colors ensure that world looks always ready to hurt them, with sudden blasts of red, green and blue marking moments of overt violence. As a work of the past, it has a mournful quality.

Dysart and Mignola certainly follow through on that - while all of the Hellboy books are at least nominally 'horror' comics, this is the most purely horrific of all of them, in that it deals specifically with the atrocious implications of those ever-familiar Nazi villains, linking the pulpy nature of sci-fi stuff with the truth of human experimentation. It's far darker than Mignola typically goes; glimpses of Hellboy's oncoming apocalypse krackles with Kirby, while the characteristic battles of the B.P.R.D. zoom in on the softness of the individual's flesh.

Not here; Bruttenholm uncovers systemic, forced transformations, and a bravura mid-story set piece sees Allied soldiers of every stripe losing their shit epically at the hands of the half-there ghosts of the past. And pint-sized Varvara emerges as not so much wicked for her deeds, but for devouring it all as simple, jolly fun ("Little Dolly Katiya thinks your ethical sensitivity is silly."). Could this be some type of... unease over the Hellboy line's frequent darting into historical brutality?

It's a line that must be toed with care, and the story does wobble a little as it approaches its finish. I don't know how much Mignola directly contributed to this story -- he can be an extremely assertive writer, sometimes going so far as to provide thumbnails for his artists to follow, although he also tends to give artists like Davis greater leeway -- but its endgame bears what strikes me as 'his' stamp, in that the narrative dissolves into a breakneck action scene from which the main character eventually stumbles out of, only to exchange words with some other character so as to wrap up some (not all) loose ends. This particular slam-bang finale even rolls out some of the franchise's goofiest villain types, which threatens to render the whole thing tonally disjointed in the ugliest way.

That doesn't happen, in that the creative team has done enough work that the sight of an enormous, half-metal half-meat giraffe is more disturbing than anything. A crazed fatalism hangs over the whole climax, even as things explode and villains rant. In the end, the only hope left is that the world's monsters can hold a capacity for kindness, even as its sweet little girls might be demons inside.

Don't ask me to guess how this brand of storytelling might sustain itself over multiple adventures -- nothing further has been yet announced -- but what it does here is demonstrate once again the pliability of Mignola's concept, and a willingness to delve into even the hurtful background of campy doctors and strange beasts. Not bad for an extended reflection on secret origins.

Computer Issues...

*...have kept me away longer than I'd have liked. Sucks when you can't type. I'll probably have something later today, though...



*Just put me under.


MOME Vol. 11 (Summer 2008)

Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go (that's the old manga)

Plus a new RPLC collection of capsules, including David Chelsea's 24 x 2, Leah Hayes' Funeral of the Heart, Jirô Taniguchi's The Ice Wanderer and Other Stories, Matt Broersma's Insomnia #3 and the first 1/3 of the anime Kaiba.

And a film review of the recent box office success story Speed Racer.

*A little calmed down...


Rex: This should be something - a new English-language edition of a 1995 graphic novel by Danijel Zezelj, a very fine artist who tends to shine brightest when left to his own devices on the page, although North American readers haven't seen much of that. Granted, this is an early work, dealing with a framed man's revenge after prison turns him into an animal, but I suspect some striking content will still appear. The publisher is Optimum Wound; it's 80 b&w pages for $9.95. Sample images here.

Casanova #14: Last issue of the second storyline, and last issue period for a while. Matt Fraction & Fábio Moon have the answers you need: why are you where you are, and where are you going, when? Preview here, if you dare look.

Wacky Packages: A $19.95, 240-page Abrams hardcover devoted to vintage gag stickers, 1973-74. I'm sure the included essays by contributing artists Art Spiegelman & Jay Lynch will raise some interest. More info here. I found this tucked away in the famous Merchandise section of Diamond's list, along with the fancy-sounding Medieval Wooden Sword, available in small, medium and large (the small is seven bucks cheaper than the medium, but the large is only two bucks more - that's how they get you with popcorn too).

Captain Britain and MI-13 #1: In which Secret Invasion spawns what was supposed to be a new direction for Excalibur a while back, but is now a new ongoing series from writer Paul Cornell, of last year's fine, underread Wisdom miniseries, a disarming study of British cultural identity via myth and popular entertainment, in the form of a mutant superhero team book. It looks like many of the characters are back for this one. Here's what the UK's finest look like when Skrulls need beating; Leonard Kirk is the penciller.

Batman #676: Marking the start of writer Grant Morrison's Batman R.I.P. storyline, the climax of his run on the title thus far. I liked the preview a lot; not only does it beg yet more New X-Men comparisons, it's just the kind of high-energy plot threading that Morrison specializes in when it's time to get things wrapped up. And hey: tacit acknowlegement of the futility inherent to affecting broad change in major shared-universe superhero properties on page one! I guess you can also pay $2.99 for the Final Crisis Sketchbook, if you really want to look at 32 pages of Morrison's least revealing script notes and J.G. Jones' preliminary drawings.

newuniversal: shockfront #1 (of 6): Being the return of Warren Ellis' New Universe revival, now with Steve Kurth on pencils. View. To mark the occasion, Marvel also has Psi-Force Classic Vol. 1 this week, rounding up the ol' #1-9.

Sky Doll #1 (of '3'): Friendly reminder - this series doesn't actually end at #3, that's just as far as it's gotten in its native Europe. The creation of Alessandro Barbucci & Barbara Canepa, it's the anime-influenced religious/political sci-fi action genesis of Marvel's new line of pamphlet-format translations for Soleil Productions' graphic albums, $5.99 a pop, robo-nipple apparently erased from the final cover of this debut issue. Can a pretty automaton find her destiny? It's a decent little story (so far), and might do well for those who didn't already read it when Heavy Metal released all three chapters of its English edition as a single $6.95 magazine less than two years ago. Preview here.

B.P.R.D.: 1946 #5 (of 5): Fun and thrills in the far past end here. Look at the monkeys. Next month will see regular co-writer John Arcudi return as Herb Trimpe(!) and Ben Stenbeck provide art for individual one-shots set in, respectively, the nearer and farther past. Guy Davis is back for the next present day miniseries in July.

Parasyte Vol. 3 (of 8): Japan is full of odd beasts too, and they love to curl the skin. More alien mutation from Del Rey.

Manga Sutra: Futari H Vol. 2 (of 5): This also isn't really only five volumes long; it's just how far Tokyopop has committed in its effort to bring Aki Katsu's long-lived, still-ongoing marital relations educational comedy to English letters. You might not find it -- nearly 400 pages for $19.99 -- at your local bookstore. I sure haven't.

The Punisher MAX #57: Shootings; ammo running low.

New X-Men by Grant Morrison Ultimate Collection Vol. 1 (of 3): Yeah, looks like they're putting out the old hardcovers as $34.99 paperbacks. So, five bucks more than before.

Cloud Vol. 1: It's bound to happen. This week, some of you are gonna walk into your local Direct Market comics retailer, flush with cash and ready for spending, but no sooner will you enter the store than your eyes will pop out and your heart will explode, and you'll howl: "This is it! The Kingdom of God has arrived on Earth!" Close, but no such luck, readers - you've merely come face to face with a $48.99 magazine/artbook dedicated to the sensitive, eponymous hero of Final Fantasy VII. Its 122 color pages are filled with pouty images, perfect for pinning on your locker or headboard, or simply placing atop your pillow in anticipation of your weary face. There's also an appearance by Gackt, because really - what forum isn't fit for Gackt? An enclosed dvd will preview Final Fantasy XIII and many other wonderful things. It took me three years to beat Final Fantasy on the NES, but it sure felt good when I did.



Wait, that bottom one isn't a comic at all...

*There is so much in this world.



24 x 2 (David Chelsea; Top Shelf, 48 pages, $5.00): Any new comics release by Chelsea is cause for celebration - his David Chelsea in Love is one of the great autobiographical comics, and I've never read a thing of his that wasn't visually assured to an astonishing degree. He works mainly in illustration, however; maybe the most prolific he's been sequentially in recent years is through his various 24-Hour Comics, drawn under the gun at an average of one page per hour. It's a fairly wide practice, devised by Scott McCloud, often leading to stripped-down, stream-of-consciousness work, hopefully acting as a useful creative exercise.

This pamphlet collects two of Chelsea's nine (so far) such projects, and they may be the most visually splendid examples of their kind I've seen. Thoughtful too: the first, Everybody Gets it Wrong!, is a tongue-in-cheek broadside against the state of autobiographical comics, advocating the first-person perspective as the only means of staying true to experience, particularly in dream sequences. This leads into a suite of helpful examples, sacrificing exactly none of the artist's Winsor McCay-type panache in the process. The second tale, Sleepless, expands the concept into a full-blown adventure in noirish point-of-view surrealism, luxuriously stippled in a manner that couldn't possibly have been done in 24 hours... yet it was! Don't let the concept put you off - these are supple, worthwhile comics by any measure.


Funeral of the Heart (Leah Hayes; Fantagraphics, 120 pages, $14.95): Billed as a graphic novel, this is actually a quintet of illustrated prose stories by Hayes, an illustrator and member of the band Scary Mansion. The twist is that everything -- from the letters in each word and the logos of each title to the curling lines that form the body of each character -- is handcrafted via scratchboard. This perhaps inevitably results in the prose acting more specifically as design elements than often seen, with whole pages sometimes graced with only three lines, or set off by facing pages of utter blackness; these are short stories, as you might guess.

Hayes works mainly in the mode of melancholic yet blackly fantastical character portraits, with her distressed protagonists often running into allegorical strangeness of some sort. An apologetic couple can no longer swim in their pool after a young boy drowns; later they discover a weird, sparkling clean bathroom underground, only to have the dirt of their guilt pour in. Two young girls are physically joined by their hair, until one of them has enough and breaks away; the other one is sad, but her hair assures some reunion. A man has a job holding down ducks so they can be slaughtered in a special restaurant, and he loves his wife, and he loves the ducks, and he has a nice duck at home and there is so much affection, but then the wife grows ill; feathers fly.

All of it's written in a half-whimsical storybook tone I suppose is meant to collide with Hayes' downcast subject matter and plaintive drawings in a sad-funny way; I found it to be mawkish and simplistic on the whole, if occasionally enlivened by some interesting uses of landscape in the visuals. Only The Needle, a time-spanning account of girls haunted by a death figure, manages any lasting power; it's there that Hayes' fable symbols radiate just beneath the blackness of reality, peeking out sometimes in scratches, obscure but more than capable of effect. The rest of it seems too deliberately drawn in comparison.


The Ice Wanderer and Other Stories (Jirô Taniguchi; Fanfare/Ponent Mon, 246 pages, $21.99): Here we've got a fat collection of six semi-recent Taniguchi shorts, initially published in various Big Comic-related anthologies between 1994 and 2003, and concerned with men and the wild. Well, except for a (possibly autobiographical) tale of a young aspiring mangaka in the early '70s, which seems to have slipped in due to a passing mention of a periphery character's brother dying at sea. At least it offers some balance - the first half of the collection deals with hard ice, while the second turns to deep water.

Taniguchi's visuals are immaculate as ever -- the newer stories seem to be using digital techniques to render incredibly precise woodland and mountainous regions -- and his zest for period detail gets a great workout in the many time periods on display, but this isn't home to his best writing. Now, we haven't yet gotten English-language access to the man's most acclaimed solo work, so my viewpoint is necessarily skewed as to what his 'best' writing might be, but I've found him to work better either in collaboration with another writer (especially Natsuo Sekikawa of The times of Botchan and Hotel Harbour View) or in such a way that his visuals can shoulder most of the storytelling burden (so, The Walking Man). These comics, on the other hand, tend to portray simple, earnest conflicts and goals that must be met, with time always taken for characters to explain to us the import of discovering the secret graveyard of the whales or killing that damned bear that's haunting the grizzled hero's life.

Probably a good relaxer in the middle of a big anthology (though the less said about a distressingly oedipal coming-of-age heartwarmer the better), and obviously very attractive, but not especially compelling. I think it's telling that the best of this collection's segments are inspired by the works of another writer, Jack London. In the title tale, London himself is a character, trying to avoid hunger in a search for gold while finding inspiration in an old man on a holy quest; here Taniguchi's gift for dramatic realism is at its most potent. And White Wilderness is an expansive comics adaptation of an early portion of London's White Fang, isolating the war between sled team Bill & Henry and a pack of hungry wolves as panorama of lingering doom hovering over opposing forces gone wild and wilder. Says something for collaboration, even if involuntary...


Insomnia #3 (of 3) (Matt Broersma; Fantagraphics/Coconino Press, 32 pages, $7.95): This is the gala 25th release of Fanta's and Coconino's Ignatz line of fancy pamphlets (oversized, dustjacketed, sturdy), marking the completion of one of its first series. Granted, you don't need to have read issues #1 and #2 to enjoy this one, since each chapter is essentially its own self-contained thing, but it's here that Broersma pulls together some shared characters into a detailed story that clarifies the series' grand theme, and maybe shines some new light on prior segments.

I do mean detailed - armed with a talkative narrator, dense layouts and a large cast, there's probably more words in this issue than the other two combined. And while I did miss the rhapsodic visuals and minimal character strokes of the artist's earlier (and otherwise stylistically diverse) stories, he proves just as apt with this look at a burnt-out television producer's search for his lost (runaway?) wife, a journey that pulls him deep into the life-as-playacting world that's surrounded his family. You might call it an LA thing, but Broersma's gently-sewn connections to his earlier stories form a web of identities, fluid personalities that need to shift so as to survive the death of dreams, or affect their realization. Sharp stuff, deadpan but poetic; they're all worth reading.


Kaiba ep. 1-4 (of 12) (dir. Masaaki Yuasa; Madhouse, approx. 24 min. per, airing on WOWOW): Back when the first episode of this ongoing anime series (from the director of Mind Game) aired, I deemed it "What If... Osamu Tezuka co-founded Métal Hurlant?" Now that we're 1/3 of the way through, I'd like to amend that; the visual style is still as described, but the writing has more or less developed into Ghost in the Shell as a silent era melodrama, crossed with a television chase show.

No, really - set in a world where memories can be extracted from the body in the form of little plugs, thus abrogating the impact of death and seeing much exploitation of the poor by the rich, the show concerns a titular mystery man with a hole in his chest, explosive psychic powers and a busted memory capsule who travels around, sometimes in different bodies, while searching for a lover he can barely recall. Along the way he meets up with various people -- a new batch every episode, naturally -- who try to live decent lives, but mostly suffer a lot.

Kaiba must also stay one step ahead of the awesome Sheriff Vanilla, a fat, horny lawman who either wants to haul Kaiba away or make sweet love to him, depending on which body's in play. Of particular interest is a cute girl body, the shell of a kindly, optimistic lil' street peddler, a dreamer, whose mother sacrificed to buy her pretty boots of hope, but then she gradually sold her memories to put food on the table, and grew cold, cold toward the little girl, and had her body sold and her memories destroyed so as to buy back her own memories, but oh -- oh dear readers -- they only served to remind her of the love she had just, in fact, destroyed!!!

I mean, that's some fucking melodrama there, but it's supercharged with great visual designs and some awesome cartoon effects - my favorite is probably the gadget that lets someone access the memory plug of another by opening up a big thought bubble over the subject's head, which can be literally stretched open and climbed in. The show also has a funny tendency to mix 'modern' or perverse concepts in with its visual style, so as to make, say, someone's body exploding after an epic sex scene more palatable - it might get tinny later on, but the reptile pleasure centers of my brain totally went bananas at the sight of Kaiba dodging a huge slapstick gunshot in bullet-timeish slow motion.

In its best episodes, these elements work in concert to give the show a truly unique feel. And even at its worst, such as an episode where Kaiba assists a pair of anxious brothers searching for Grandma's secret treasure (spoiler: the treasure is LOVE), the style still covers for an awful lot, at least on the first viewing. I find it difficult to complain too much; it's like this show was built for me. And if you happen to enjoy early 20th century Biograph shorts and Osamu Tezuka and Fantastic Planet and ambling Heavy Metal serials about fucking society, man - enjoy your stay in PARADISE.



Speed, if only you'd use the force and listen to your car, you could finally get this engine started.

Speed Racer
(the 2008 movie, naturally)

This met pretty much all of my expectations, including the negative ones, plus what I like to call 'adjust-for-error' expectations, which come into play whenever I hear a lot of mainline movie critics comment on a picture's excessive nature.

It's a simple concept: if you're writing a lot of reviews for a big, visible media outlet, chances are your acclimations as to style or volume are going to drift toward the conservative, since that's where most big studio films sit, and coverage of big studio films is mandatory in terms of servicing the wide readership. I'm not saying you'll become more inclined toward liking big studio films, but I think you'll internalze their aesthetic norms, so as to cause deviations (especially coming from another big studio film!) to stand out as especially harsh. And hey - that matches up with the perspective of a lot of filmgoers.

But, for me, when I hear a lot of broad media critics say Speed Racer is a pounding assault on the senses like dipping my eyeballs into the cotton candy mixer while riding the salt-shakers or something, I might be fooled into thinking it'd be like the first 15 minutes of Irreversible extended to feature length, with automobile racing and Chim Chim in place of face-crushing in the Rectum. Luckily, I know to adjust for error these days, and, sure enough, writers/directors Larry & Andy Wachowski did not burn out any parts of my brain that hadn't been gone years ago.

Could have used a little more attempted burning, actually. The big, crucial problem with Speed Racer is exactly what I anticipated - at 135 minutes, it is just way too fucking long, in such a way that the film seems unbalanced. I mean, I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that Speed Racer ought to fly by; one of the (probably unintended) effects of the original anime's famously fast-talking English dub was that it seemed the characters themselves could never entirely keep up with the show's pace, particularly in concert with the plotting's one-thing-after-another ethos.

There's no fast talking in this movie, and I don't think it would have helped. There is a great opening race where the camera literally dives in and out of characters' heads to dole out scene-setting flashbacks and tie them up with the present - it's pretty, and pretty economical in its storytelling, and even inspired in its use of the Ghost Car -- that old video game time-trial standby -- as a visual metaphor for Speed's twin obsessions with being the best and being close to his lost older brother. But after that you're in for a tall stack of reels stuffed with familial angst (alas, Rex Racer!!) and corporate chicanery (will Speed sell out to powerful business interests, aka Evil?!), and dabbed with Spritle/Chim Chim antics for comic relief; if I was 12, I'd have been shouting for more cars.

Now, the kid 'n monkey stuff was also present in the original anime, as was some of the angst and chicanery. The Wachowskis do recognize the concept of 'family' as the core of the overall Speed Racer concept; always, in every incarnation, Speed is backed by his close-knit circle of friends and relatives, and the overriding dramatic element is that Rex Racer is always missing, causing the family unit to be incomplete until the resolution of the overarching Racer X plot, and thereby, more or less, the series. I always liked the setup of the '60s anime and manga, where Rex simply has a big fight with Pops Racer and severs his connections with home; it's very relatable, and allows Speed, optimistic shōnen hero that he is, to always keep hope alive that someday he'll meet his brother again.

The Wachowskis opt for a different approach - as in the ill-fated 1997 anime update Speed Racer X, Rex is believed dead from racing, adding a lot more permanence to the family break. For the movie, this translates to multiple scenes of guilty head-wringing, melodramatic tearful chit-chats and unconvincing suspense over whether or not Speed will also die and shit. It's like wading through syrup at times, and smacks of trying to add some older-skewing 'maturity' by making things frowny. It also doesn't help that Racer X is kinda poorly developed in terms of the family theme; he mostly acts as this tangential superhero cop who inspires Speed, which I guess reinforces his 'death' from the family, but also puts him at arm's length from all that crying he's caused.

Worse in terms of stretching things out is all the corporate shenanigans, a fine example of a 'simple-complicated' plot, in that a very basic story is fancied up with extra characters and double-crosses and digressions so as to make it appear more complex, even though you can still pare it down to 'Speed must win the big race to beat the bad corporations' without losing much of substance. And indeed, that paring down is pretty much what the initial cartoon and comics did, trusting that slimy cheats and sneaks didn't need to be thoroughly labeled as such.

Some have also expressed special annoyance with an anti-big business message coming from a nine-figure budgeted Warner Brothers film, although it didn't strike me as any different from your typical boilerplate Hollywood populism, wherein the workaholic city dweller typically recovers his or her soul in a bucolic setting, and the Chipmunks and Josie & the Pussycats struggle with the music industry, and etc. etc. I was more annoyed at all the wheel-spinning detail of the Speed Racer Universe Commercial Racing Business and Relevant History -- all of it at least as polished and done-over as the special effects but not nearly as compact -- and the Wachowskis' tendency to self-aggrandize by having characters refer to the racing set-pieces in hushed tones as True Art.

Still, there's probably something... there in the differing approaches of this movie and its source material. The very first story in the '66 comic/'67 anime pits Speed and his family against an evil bunch of capitalists who want to steal Pops' hot hot engine plans; there's a famous (well, famous to me) bit where Speed would rather smash the windshield of his beloved Mach 5, upon which the plans were inscribed, rather than let them fall into unclean hands. The trick is, that story begins with Pops trying to sell the plans to that same large business, only to be rejected and later made the target of thieves.

That makes perfect sense for Japan in the mid-'60s, seeking its fortune in rapid business development - the big money folk aren't bad, they're just bad when they're bad. In contrast, you won't find a large business in the Wachowskis' movie that isn't prone to lies and/or heartless self-interest. Individual people in the system might have some good in them, but only when they act against the interest of the larger entity. At best, those fully in the system can sit back and not get in the way of the Little Guys when they no longer have a dog in the fight. Like I said, Hollywood populism, but still reflective of the environment the action must take place in.

And I've gotta admit - those races and fights are damned neat. I really appreciated how no attempt was made to make the many, many special effects seem 'realistic'; instead, all attention was focused on achieving consistency inside the movie's candy-colored bubble world. In terms of comics and animation-based movies, this positions Speed Racer as a sort of an evolution of Tim Burton's unreal, style-heavy approach to Batman (or Warren Beatty's Dick Tracy, what with all the villain make-up and solid colors) by way of the youth-focused green screen mania of Spy Kids, while also acting as a beneficiary of the Japanese tokusatsu tradition, with its own roots in kabuki and bunraku theater. All the cars could jump in bunraku; ask any scholar. Don't forget the video games either - the Wachowskis had to have known the gaming comparisons were coming, and they embrace moments of video game logic as movie logic, like calling those life-saving bubbles 'quick saves.'

The attention to detail is very fine, enough so that you can even suss out on the fly the 'rules' of these huge races where some gizmo or another might be totally ok while others are total cheats - all the 'good' tricks are either totally defensive or used to enhance movement, while the 'bad' ones are offensive or intended to impede the movement of another vehicle. Hitting with your car is ok -- that's just natural, I guess -- but hitting with an external apparatus is not. Thank god Speed never uses the homing bird; the story might have had to pause for exposition on relevant Speed Racer case law (corrupt, no doubt)! On a fanservice level, I especially liked how the action worked as an enhancement of the show's style. There's a ton of spinning, and colorful opponents with cartoonish weapons, and nearly every member of the Racer family is amazing at hand-to-hand combat. There's speed lines and a gratuitous shōnen fight scene homage and everything.

Yet there's also build at work; the visual design of the races grow more and more garish as the movie goes on, which seems natural in building an action movie to a climax, but it also serves to push each newer, bigger finish closer to the realm of the abstract, until Speed is finally blurring reality with his car, his passion for winning pushing him a little ways out of simple human experience itself, in that even non-superhero figures like himself are a little more than mortal by their examples.

More of that would have been nice, or at least less wheezing along the way. Speed Racer is good enough to stick with -- most of the sluggish bits are helpfully loaded up front, and it's an impressive work of ship-in-a-bottle worldbuilding -- but I wish I could have seen something that would make me rue my correction for error, and blow past what I'd expect. God, to see Speed crack the frame of mortal comprehension with the might of computer matter behind him - there's his victory! That's his finish line!


Dangerous Work to Do

Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go

Ah, Speed Racer. Your fast-talking, two-fisted racing adventures refuse to die. I remember watching it on summer vacations with my family when I was young; we didn't get a lot of cable channels at home, so flipping around on the hotel television at night was part of the vacation experience. The best shows were Mystery Science Theater 3000 and that classic anime.

You probably won't miss this item on the bookstore shelves - DMP's put together some of the fanciest packaging I've ever seen for a North American manga release, let alone a 'vintage' project. A mere $39.95 gets you a pair of 300+-page hardcover dustjacketed books, roughly the same size as Vertical's old Buddha hardbacks, with about a year's worth of digital restoration work performed on the innards - some of it still looks fuzzy and rough, but I suspect the source materials weren't prime. All of it's stuffed into a sturdy white, blue & red slipcase. No offense to France, but I get an American feeling from those colors; must be the project's proximity of release to a certain critically-reviled Hollywood picture, the latter no doubt responsible for the former's very existence.

It's looking like I'll be seeing the movie in, oh, 38 hours or so, and I'm of two minds. Many of the negative reviews I've looked at (and there's plenty to choose from) deem it overstimulation to the point of incoherence or genuine discomfort, which sounds suspiciously like what I’d expect from Speed Racer: The Motion Picture going in. On the other hand, it's apparently 135 minutes long, which kinda gives me the 'uh-oh' face - I dunno if any Speed Racer-derived work ought to push the two and a half hour mark for one-sitting consumption. Shit, I could barely read more than one of this manga's storylines at a time.

And while I'd like to tell you a little more about the genesis of that manga, I have to admit that I don't actually know much; for all its surface appeal, the DMP package is damned lousy at putting anything in context. What's for sure is that Speed Racer is at least the co-creation of Tatsuo Yoshida, a veteran manga artist who co-founded the famous Tatsunoko Production Co. with his brothers at the dawn of 'modern' anime in the early '60s. The studio developed the Speed Racer anime as one of its early projects; it aired from 1967-68. However, the manga apparently began to run in boys' magazines in 1966, perhaps in promotion of the still-upcoming show, which has prompted various sources to describe the manga as both the basis for the anime and an anime tie-in.

Furthermore, while credited to Yoshida, there's apparently some question as to how much of the comic he actually drew; Jason Thompson has suggested (in Otaku USA Vol. 1 No. 5) that the manga's visuals may have been provided by an uncredited Jiro Kuwata of 8-Man, presumably working from Yoshida's and/or Tatsunoko's story concepts. Granted, Thompson also places the date of the manga's publication at 1968, though I've seen scans of magazines supposedly from 1966 bearing the series' title among its contents (fifth one down). Can nobody solve this mystery? Maybe the Wachowskis have all the answers. I'd hate to peel them away from Doc Frankenstein, but does anyone have their email?

The reason I'm going through all this background is because the Speed Racer manga is a pretty odd read. Many of its 10 stories match up with the anime's storylines in terms of plot, but there's often crucial differences - the manga is consistently rougher, more prone to resolving things with enormous fights and action sequences. There's much less Spritle and Chim-Chim (note that DMP's localization retains all of the 'classic' English names), and more of the feeling of a shōnen action series, with Speed always pushing himself to win, but extending the hand of friendship to fallen foes as well.

Narrative consistency is not a high priority - one story might see Speed is a world-class racing legend, invited all over the world, while the very next might highlight his struggles with Pops to even let him compete on a pro level. The Mach 5's special gadgets appear gradually, sometimes without introduction, and sometimes with introduction after they've already been seen.

As a result, these manga stories feel premised on early drafts of anime plots, and subsequently forced to shift focus mid-serialization to cope with concept modifications. Nowhere does this strike me as more evident than with the Racer X material - the manga's second Racer X storyline is a virtual remake of the first, even going so far as to straight-up recycle seven or eight pages' worth of art (while still trying to acknowledge the first story as in-continuity!!), and it provided the basis for the anime's first Racer X story. I wonder if Tatsunoko wanted more consistency between the projects as the anime's air date drew near? Did the manga even continuously run? Certainly it reached an end, as the Racer X mystery is curtly wrapped up on literally the last page of the series.

But as much as the presentation seems like a missed opportunity, there's still some value to these comics. I couldn't call Speed Racer a great manga, but it's maybe interesting to look at as an example of a 'midlist' manga of the period, a high-competency, low-inspiration thing, probably one of many that filled publications of the period. We get some of the Tezuka, and a little of the oddball Umezu, but not too many real B-grade action efforts; Speed's exploits may not be the most graceful, but they're cleanly, assuredly drawn in a manner that helps the greater inspiration of other projects to register.

And yeah, at their best, some of these comics do approximate the one-thing-after-another appeal of the anime, which never did let limited resources get in the way of non-stop skidding and exploding and Speed Racer leaping into action. An invitation to a desert race might lead to a sabotage accusation, a car-vs.-camels showdown, palace intrigue, a two-person race jazzed up with deadly scorpions, a nation's full-blown hostile takeover, hungry vultures, giant cannons bombing a Palace of Doom, and Speed pulling off awesome backflips to shoot the guns right out of villains' hands, only for it all to culminate in Our Hero cradling a rifle atop a desert castle spire, wating for his errant racing foe and boy prince to arrive back: "When you get back here, I'll teach you a thing or two about discipline." Go, Speed Racer!

I don't think that was in the anime, being the kind of stuff that gets smoothed down on the way to the screen; if only the work at large seemed more jolted with that early fire, instead of seeming malformed. Die-hard Speed freaks will still probably want this stuff, as might devout manga students happy to see it at all, but don't expect any revelations - that potential seems lost behind the walls of translation and trans-media adaptation, in spite of all good intentions.