Scares of the Empty Night

*I do hate going two days without a post somewhere, but I'm busy. Work to do all over. Candy to eat tomorrow. There's an election coming? Good to relax with some political reading. Keeps the mind agile. Vapors rising from the band downstairs; a real young men's herbal society. Heat rises, kids. New review tomorrow, god willing.


A big bowl of candy that is comics.

*What's better than anything I wrote last week? News that the heavy 'alternative' manga anthology AX -- descendant of the grand old Garo, and currently up to Vol. 65 -- is getting an English-language airing as a 400+ page Top Shelf sampler sometime in 2009. You've heard about it already, but now you're hearing it here.

I've looked at a tiny bit of the stuff in Japanese - lots of striking visual diversity, very impressive on the surface. Hopefully the English book won't glom onto the more established (ha ha) names; I'm not saying they ought to preserve the magazine-like 'artist showcase' features of the anthology or anything, but this would be a good chance to expose readers to some artists doing interesting work today, as opposed to scrapbooking smaller works by mangaka already afforded some (valuable!) retrospect. I'm just sayin'.


Prince of Persia (with general thoughts on games-as-comics)

solanin (with general thoughts on manga-as-a-plunge-from-a-cliff)

*So yeah, I didn't even buy last week's books until today. Don't fret; nothing can stop my insatiable futurism. I am seated, yet I have no bottom.


Speak of the Devil: Collecting the well-regarded 2007-08 Gilbert Hernandez miniseries into a $19.95 Dark Horse hardcover. It's another of Beto's 'movies' that exist inside his Love and Rockets stories, this time a sexually-charged (if rather front-of-Previews modest) knife-kill thingy, pregnant with eye-pops and not a few winks. It's good, buy it, etc. Preview here; my review here.

ACME Novelty Library #19: Man, I just know I'll nail the cut-out project this time. You'll never see my tears again, Chris Ware. A $15.95 color hardcover; 78 pages. Rusty Brown this time; Drawn and Quarterly.

Or Else #5: New from Kevin Huizenga, and isn't that all you need? This is his Drawn and Quarterly series that used to collect his minicomics stuff (sometimes updated), but I'm not sure if anything in here hails from there. Contains a comics adaptation of a Giorgio Manganelli story about a foreigner in a land of religious war, plus updates on household animals, several important questions, and exclusive previews of the next 19 issues of Or Else ("OE 13: The ambassador is visited by four ghosts. Glenn explores the underground zoo."). All in 40 pages; $4.95.

Bourbon Island 1730: A First Second release of a 2007 book by artist/co-writer Lewis Trondheim (who must release 20 books per year at minimum or the bomb in his heart goes off; this made his 2004 'retirement' pretty hopping) and co-writer 'Appollo' (Olivier Appollodorus), concerning pirates and treasure and colonialism and racism and all the stuff. Big sample here. It's 288 pages, $17.95, and Trondheim, and thus worth checking out.

Man of Rock: A Biography of Joe Kubert: A 220-page Fantagraphics prose release by Bill Schelly, being just what the title says it is. Slideshow here; Tom Spurgeon interview here.

Travel: Nice - the second PictureBox release of manga by Yuichi Yokoyama, this time a 208-page account of stuff that's observed when a group of people go on a train ride. Being Yokoyama, I presume the observations made will be those as glimpsed through the fiber of reality from an alternate dimension devoid of human preoccupation. It's $19.95, and includes an introduction by Paul Karasik, plus a 'commentary' by the artist that consists of almost nothing but dryly recounting what is happening on page after page, which is oddly helpful in a comic like this. Preview here.

Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan: Oh shit, some good manga this week. This one's from Pantheon, a 352-page collection of 8 Man artist Jiro Kuwata's 1966-67 Adam West-inspired take on the character, which has never before been collected in book form, anywhere. Which means that it's not a complete collection - co-authors Chip Kidd & Saul Ferris simply couldn't find some of it, plus they're holding stuff back for a possible volume two (not to mention a 32-page piece that'll only appear in the limited edition hardcover, not out this week), but helpful re-caps will step you around the missing passages. Note that the pages aren't scanned either, oh no; additional co-author Geoff Spear photographed every last one on its own, for that extra touch of crinkled authenticity (think Peanuts: The Art of Charles M. Schulz). Plus: lots of color pictures of vintage toys and a new interview with Kuwata. It'll run ya $29.95. Note that DC is running some delightful cross-promotion this week via their $9.99 collection of Yoshinori Natsume's Batman: Death Mask, the newest of the Bat-manga.

Joker: And, on the other side of the planet - a new hardcover tome about the title villain's adventures in a crime comic that's eventually a superhero comic, sort of like a certain superhero movie is also a crime movie. It has its moments? Here's my review; from writer Brian Azzarello, penciller/sorta-inker Lee Bermejo and mostly-inker Mick Gray; $19.99 for 128 pages. Previews here and here.

No Hero #2 (of 7): This will also be a violent superhero comic. I hope someone else's ears come off!

Hellboy: In the Chapel of Moloch: Just in time for Halloween, a whole damned $2.99 comic book written & drawn by that Mike Mignola fellow of Cosmic Odyssey fame. Looks like old times.

Hellblazer: The Family Man: Also home for the holidays - volume 4 of the complete Jamie Delano, wrapping issues #23-24 and #28-33 into a $19.99 softcover. Note that this arrangement skips the Grant Morrison/David Lloyd and Neil Gaiman/Dave McKean issues, but includes the Dick Foreman/Steve Pugh issue #32, which I'm pretty sure has never been collected anywhere; the Morrison/Lloyd stuff is in the Hellblazer: Rare Cuts trade, while the Gaiman/McKean story most recently graces Constantine: The Hellblazer Collection, which was released in conjunction with the 2005 film (I'd say you should go for the old Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days compendium from 1999 instead; or, you know, look for the issue itself). There's probably two of these Delano softcovers left to go, if they're gunning to throw in the Hellblazer Special: Bad Blood miniseries from 2000; do note that Delano (on top of the hardcover project he's doing with Jock) is also set to pop up with a new short in next month's #250, along with Lloyd, Eddie Campbell, Peter Milligan (the new regular writer!), Brian Azzarello, Rafael Grampá, China Miéville, Keanu Reeves... wait, one of those is wrong...

Kill Your Boyfriend: However, your Morrison reprint jones will probably be satisfied by this new $5.99 edition of a 1995 one-off. A young lady's wild side sprouts when she meets a cute agent of actualization, and they show some people a thing or two. Art by Philip Bond & D'Israeli. I've never been much for this book; Tucker Stone compared it to Wanted (sélection officielle of the 2009 Festival International de la Bande Dessinée d'Angoulême, enfoirés!) in the new issue of Comic Foundry, which strikes me as apt, in that both works adopt a satirical posture that quickly gets lost in a rush of image-conscious transgression fantasy (although Millar hoists the banner of satire back up in the last five or so pages of his book to claim literary victory over you). Still, if you haven't read it: here it is.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Black Dossier: And here's a $19.99 softcover edition of the Alan Moore/Kevin O'Neill project that wrapped up America's Best Comics in terms of involvement by its creator, 3-D glasses still included. My review is here.

The Tick: The Complete Edlund: More more reprints more. I've never read any of creator Ben Edlund's 1988-93 series, but interested parties might want a look at this 400-page, $35.00 collection of the original 12 issues, plus the non-Edlund 'pseudo' issue #13 from 2000, early newsletter comics and various bits 'n pieces. Still from New England Comics.

Garth Ennis' Battlefields: The Night Witches #1 (of 3): Kicking off a new series of miniseries from Dynamite that'll function essentially as a continuation of writer Ennis' irregular War Story project at Vertigo, but with multi-chapter tales. I presume the difference with Marvel's extremely similar-sounding War is Hell series is that writers who aren't Garth Ennis might participate in the latter (if there's even going to be more of it). The initial artist is Russ Braun, and the subject matter is Soviet bombers piloted by women in 1942. Here's some now. Also from Dynamite this week is a dispatch from a more formal DC refugee, The Boys #24. Meanwhile, Ennis' Streets of Glory ends at Avatar with issue #6.

Giant-Size X-Men: First Class #1: Halloween! Terror! Bite into the apple and taste the razor of Jeff Parker! Wait, I mean that as a compliment! Also this issue: Roger Langridge! Preview!

Heavy Metal Eerie Special: By which they mean the usual Fall 2008 special; no particular Warren content. It is Halloween, though, so we do get a treat in the form of The Telescope of Charon, tome 2 (of 4) in Éric Liberge's damned cool 1996-2005 undead society series Mister Mardi-Gras Ashes, last seen in the 2006 Halloween Special. How time flies, and space fills.

Bernie Wrightson's Frankenstein: Okay, it's Halloween and shit, right? Got it? So how about a new Dark Horse edition of Wrightson's 1983 opus of illustration, adding 47 famously intensive full-page images to the Mary Shelley original? It's a $29.95, 9" x 12" hardcover, with an introduction by Stephen King. Have a look.



No caps; no solutions; all future.


This the latest selection from the sparse VIZ Signature line of (sometimes) deluxe, (sometimes) idiosyncratic manga. It's a fat $17.99 softcover - 432 pages, slightly larger than average and decked out with those fancy French flaps that inevitably make themselves annoying for the first and last 30 pages of your reading experience, though they look so damn pretty. All of the original color sequences are preserved, except for one that, for some reason, isn't; you'll notice. The work was serialized in 2005 in the weekly seinin anthology Young Sunday by writer/artist Inio Asano (later of the well-regarded Nijigahara Holograph), with "Drawing Assistants" Yuichi Watanabe & Takashi Kondo.

That last bit's worth a digression. A 'drawing assistant' can be just about anything -- most likely a background renderer, digital effects specialist or part-time inker, although it can mean a full-blown co-penciller at times -- and it's rarely a job that's even acknowledged in a book's credits, but it's something that's often present in manga production, especially given the rigors of a weekly series. Someone call me out if I'm wrong here, but I sincerely doubt that, say, Takeshi Obata actually drew every last thing in (the weekly) Death Note; no offense intended as per the hard work Obata doubtlessly puts in every day, but it's helpful to remember that Japanese artists typically aren't possessed by a supernatural work ethic or some genetic proclivity toward funnybook ultra-production - some of them are just the beneficiaries of a system that's attuned to enhancing the speed of production.

It's nothing unique to Japan, no - many English-language comics have gotten themselves produced through some studio system or another since the beginning. Even today, a sole 'art by' attribution is no absolute guarantee that said artist isn't employing background assists or uncredited inks, or Photoshop help or whatnot. As such, we deal in necessary fictions when looking at or reviewing comics; we trust in the credits, secure in the canard that the party-as-signatory is accepting sole responsibility for his or her work. In that way, Assistant X's fuckery becomes (rhetorically and philosophically) the Artist's fuckery, as opposed to 'curse you Vince Colletta, serpent of Eden!!', which is the refrain an inker might attract for his individualism in the credits box.

But I wonder if the practice hasn't had a particularly deep impact on the character of weekly popular manga. It's no revelation that Japanese comics place a greater premium on visual quality than most North American pop comics; readers expect it, editors demand it. And inherent to that 'quality' is consistency, as well as palatability to the target audience's tastes, particularly concerning high-output comics, which are often of the highest profile. I presume concessions are often made, be they simplifications for the sake of getting it out, or getting one's own style into a basic enough state that Assistant X, Y or Z can pinch hit effectively when push comes to shove - and since today's Assistant X is eminently likely among options to become tomorrow's Mangaka A, it's little wonder that the differences between generationally similar artists working at the same demographic are often matters of subtlety, imperceptible to the new reader.

Granted, a seinin artist isn't quite so constrained; the older audience tends to be slightly more liberal about surface aesthetics, allowing for blunter variations in visual approach. There's typically a wider latitude granted for a story's subject matter, and the plot's progression is probably not so commanded by readership reactions as it often is in works aimed at younger audiences. Yet the strictures of speed and populist visual appeal remain, and by god they must chafe against long, personal stories, even as a lot of undeniable appeal must rise from those very burdens - a bunch of Japanese comics artists didn't simply get together and decide that crackling panel-to-panel flow and vivifying page layouts were the superior application of sequential principles, after all. A lot of the time it's just quicker to draw than every damned thing inside every little box.

I raise these concerns not just because it's awfully big of Asano to credit seemingly everyone in his studio (right down to Satoshi Yamada as... the gofer!), but because they sort of plug into the comic itself, getting its thematic motor running a little bit. More than anything else, solanin is about opening your pretty young eyes one year and discovering, to your dismay, that you're actually not particularly good at anything you love to do, or at least not talented or determined enough to make your way through the kind of life you want on your own terms. Slowly, you realize that life is mostly a struggle to maintain some sense of satisfaction and dignity amidst a thousand compromises; every joy is fleeting and every love is fragile, though happiness still exists in the cracks between boredom and concern.

Now, make no mistake: this is far and away the weakest comic I've read of Asano's, if also his most conventional, and almost certainly his most North-American-mainstream-palatable (it's also his first official English-language release). Expect none of the magical realism or eerie symbols that mark Asano's earlier and later books; this one's a full-bore post-collegiate navel-gazer, composed when the artist was 24 years old and very, very very very much a young artist's work, down to the bone. Buckle your seatbelt for similarly-aged characters narrating their conflicted inner states, at great length, often in wide panels left fortuitously blank or black (because speed is key), as they trudge down that long road toward 'adulthood,' however it ought to be defined.

The more-or-less protagonist is Meiko, a dissatisfied young adult burning away her days at a boring office job full of people she despises, then coming home to catch a glimpse of her layabout part-time illustrator boyfriend. Naruo was the first guy to get her belly fluttering back in freshman year, and suddenly it's over half a decade later and she's still not entirely convinced he's the match for her, being the type to snooze through shitty advertising campaigns while half-heartedly practicing twice a month with the ol' university rock band, featuring two additional character types: the luckless-in-love macho dude who's doomed to labor at his family's business; and the sixth-year undergrad manchild with an eminently sensible (if also dissatisfied) sales clerk girlfriend/surrogate mommy.

One day, Meiko decides to quit her job, which sets off all sorts of financial and interpersonal complications. The band decides to 'get serious,' immediately leading to qualms over artistic integrity. Relationships threaten to unravel, while old longings sprout back up. Song lyrics are most certainly displayed on the page. There's a big, melodramatic plot twist smack in the middle, the kind that demands a chapter-length flashback to ensure that the impossible poignancy of it all hits the reader square between the eyes, in the manner of the compressed air cannon from No Country for Old Men. If I tell you the book's title refers to a song composed by one of the main characters, an ode to fragmenting romance and/or youthful identity crises, is there any doubt that the very number will be performed come story's close, in concert, as a climactic eruption of emotional catharsis?

And it's not that you can't do anything interesting with the basic concept; as I've mentioned before, solanin's plot is extremely similar to that of Seiichi Hayashi's 1970-71 youth angst landmark Red Colored Elegy, which I suspect (having not yet read it) draws a lot of its power from Hayashi's ferocious-looking application of sequential/cinematographic traits for the purposes of splashing his characters' internal states across their society.

This comic, meanwhile, is one of those works that gestures futilely toward moody, disorganized realism (with characters musing such deep thoughts as "The way I see it, adults are made of 'who cares?'") while simultaneously leaning on melodramatic beats to keep itself moving; the result is melodrama, but dull. It's like Asano can't quite commit to telling his story apart from popular story mechanisms, but doesn't really want to dive into straight soap opera; his indecision mirrors his characters', but doesn't guide his work away from feeling assembled improperly from an instruction manual. Even some of the slice-of-life chapters wind up organized as uplifting little moral fables, horrid things - a vignette with an old man sending letters to his dead wife approaches the Naoki Urasawa standard for toxic bathos, only stripped of Urasawa's sparkling pace or propulsive storytelling longview.

Still, if I didn't already know Asano would be a better artist (and indeed was, as evidenced by his 2003-04 two-volume story suite What a Wonderful World!), I'd say there's some strong potential on display in this book. The visuals are often quite nice, if a bit heavy on some garish digital tinkering (I blame Vince Colletta!); Asano's character designs are especially funny and revealing on their own, with Meiko looking ingeniously pretty-but-not-that-pretty, and often wonderfully, subtly expressive.

There's also a nice dose of caricature to some of the minor personages, with a particularly awesome emphasis on shitty Japanese mustaches. The storytelling is smooth, and occasionally powerful; one great bit has a guy wiping out on his bike then rising up in palpable, wild pain mixed with the humor of disbelieving that by god, did that just happen?, and I've gotta admit the inevitable rawk 'n roll finale has some muscle behind it, not to mention a clever absence of the goddamned never-ending narration that every character in the book gets a crack at.

Moreover, Asano does succeed a little at the fractured narrative of anticipation, something that would absolutely rule Nijigahara Holograph. There's flashbacks in this work; nothing fancy or particularly challenging, but usually well-positioned to dole out information. And even here, Asano has a talent for undercutting his characters' stated motivations by showing them doing something else, be it in the future or the past. Small conversations secretly snowball into life-changing effects, only visible later in the book; characters prepare to do one thing, then suddenly back off, always second-guessing themselves. A conversation might begin to sound like a declaration of love, until it slips away from the characters' control and reduces them to bawling over everything they've lost in their lives. It's a pity that the whole book isn't strong enough to get these moments shining, but they are zones of verisimilitude that lend the work a certain, momentary virtue, like life has managed to shortly poke through life's compromises.

I don't doubt that these concerns hung on Asano himself. His 2008 Afterword reveals what will probably be obvious to most: that the comic came from his own insecurity over being a 'success' in manga, and his anxiousness over whether he could keep getting work out that was true to himself. The finale of his book is an odd one, lingering on momentary happiness while seeming to gently blame its characters for their own lack of drive. It seems ambiguous, but it's utterly sensible as a low moan from the speed corridor of weekly manga, where vigor is mandatory and concessions seem required for entry. I can't say I was all that fond of this comic, but it did rouse my sympathy for the ache behind it, a genuine one a bit poorly presented. I'm glad Asano kept at it, as I'm happy to know the future.


"There are many ends before the end, Yahhhr. What you see is little somethings of future."

Prince of Persia

I can't recall when I first played a Jordan Mechner computer game; it was probably on a video game console, actually, since my old Tandy 1000 was never much good for play. I'd never really known what a game designer did back then - all the games I'd liked in the '80s seemed to come from Japan, and half their credits were laid out in the jaunty patois of NES coding, like excerpts from an especially frivolous medieval epic presenting the lineage of cartridge kings in a forgotten tongue: The Opus of Yuki's Papa. Games might as well have dropped from the sun, so downplayed was the human element in that new and risen morning.

Eventually, I got a clue. It's possible I first ran into some variation of Mechner's 1984 professional debut, Karateka, which remains striking in its attention to character animation and its holistic, cinematic grasp of the playfield, a left-to-right plane with you on the left, the villains on the right, and the viewpoint occasionally wiping or cutting from one point (your play) to another (programmed enemy activities) in order to create suspense, or maybe just a sense of life.

Indeed, it was perhaps one of the first games to use non-interactive graphics in the middle of play as a means of substantively suggesting the possibility of life away from the player's viewpoint, and thus foster a greater desire to explore a teeming virtual world (er, however much you can 'explore' a rigid left-to-right map). All of its primeval cut scenes are 'in-game,' every location you see can eventually be visited, and every character you glimpse can ultimately kick your ass. It was a hard game, even sporting an infamous alternate ending wherein the lady love you're striding to rescue cracks your neck with her foot if you're so rude as to approach the romantic finale in your combat stance. I always liked that better than the heroic end, although I guess it begs the question as to why the girl needed to be rescued in the first place.

But it was 1989's Prince of Persia that cemented Mechner's reputation. You're a young man in a dungeon, and you've got to amble and hustle and leap to make your way up, down and around each level map, all of which are 'levels' in a palace you're invading so as to (again) save a lady love from some fuckwit. The new division of 'levels' was glued with time; you have an hour (as in an actual, at-your-chair realtime hour) to save the day, effectively replacing the spatial with the temporal as the game's primary means of evoking a wider, fantastical life.

Funny then that none of that is what makes Prince of Persia stick in my memory. It doesn't really pop for me at all as a 'world,' not on recollection. No, I vividly recall movement, in both the scampering and scrambling of the player's character and the visual clatter and jolt of the game's many spiked traps and collapsing floors. It's a very tactile game, in that your character moves with some real weight through an environment liable to break away (or at least sink into the floor so as to trigger a helpful gate!) at any time. And while I can watch videos of play whenever I want, when I think back to it I can only see running and heaving, ascent and decent, all of it frantic, a struggle against time.

In the end, I think I got stuck in Mechner's temporal cement, seeing his work not as worldbuilding but a study in activity: narcissism by way of avatar, maybe, but I find it hard to fault a game that gave so many their first peek into a credible, virtual reflecting pond.

Time is also a major concern for this new, 208-page official licensed comic from First Second. Water too, but in the manner of literary metaphor. Everything is very literate in this book, which may seem odd in reference to the not terribly elevated standards of video game comics, but this is the same publisher that set its last licensed book apart by having Eddie Campbell convert an unproduced screenplay into something vividly uneven, so maybe expectations ought to be adjusted. Heaven knows my experience with Mechner's game put a wholly different brand of anticipation into me.

You see, I think the comics form has long ago proven itself excellent at processing movement across its oft-segmented panels and pages. Sequences can stretch and squash time, with layouts evoking (or merely depicting) space, thereby affording the artist many ways in which to guide a character (or the reader) through an environment. This strikes me as rather analogous to my own play with Mechner's original game, so encouraging of obsession with activity within segments. There was so little plot, but so much to work with, given the stuff of the game and the aptitude of the comics form! The book itself seems to acknowledge this aspect, marking everything from its logo to its online preview with iconic displays of the Prince running.

But there's little movement in the comic itself, and nothing all that responsive to the mechanics of that first game. I suppose it's more aligned with the story-gameplay partition of modern 3D action/adventure/platform games (although remember, I haven't played the modern sequels), only without all that 'gameplay' stuff, since this is a book, and books are for storytelling, right? Despite some sites crediting him as a writer, it doesn't appear that Mechner was even involved in the comic's creation much beyond some creative direction and story suggestions (he's still credited first, though).

I don't know what he'd necessarily have brought, however; in a 12-page afterword, Mechner expresses a great admiration for the works of Pratt, Bilal and Schuiten, all good and proper European greats, but very illustrative and measured in terms of craft, and literary in storytelling approach. Even as delightful a formal frolic as Schuiten's symmetrical NogegoN (written by his brother Luc) is more concerned with the effect of symmetry as a concept on the story's characters than any particular visual or visceral effect on the reader.

I admire the hell out of all of those folks, but I do wish that some influence could be taken from slightly more recent (like, at least 1990s?) developments in French-language comics, something to press the boundaries a bit more. It seems so plain to me that comics and gaming can interact in a deeper, more intimate way, especially given a franchise with roots that expanded the limits of its own medium of origin, and in a way that seemed very applicable to the spaces and times of comics storytelling, and the potential for that dynamic illusion of movement!

But that is not the book we've got here. All of my theorizing is to throw into sharp relief that this Prince of Persia comic is polished and sophisticated in a way that will be familiar to readers of the literary-inclined comics of today. It's ok on that ground, and a hell of a lot better than your average video game comic, although it didn't strike me as especially fine.

Most that you'll need to know is in the visuals of LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland (with colorist Hilary Sycamore), sturdily designed in the manner you might expect from veterans of illustration for children's books and animation, and very placid in terms of layouts and perspective. Panels tighten up at the right moments when action is necessary, with dense pages sometimes counterbalanced by dramatic splashes. The images are sometimes bloody, but able enough cartooning takes the edge off, along with that very deliberate pace.

The writer is A.B. Sina, a poet and essayist making his comics debut; he avoids most of the pitfalls that plague established writers new to the form, primarily a disinclination to trust in the visual aspect (maybe his work in poetry affords him a better perspective). His story is not based on any particular Prince of Persia game, but draws from the old tales that informed the premise of the franchise to create a sibling work.

Mechner mentions in the Afterword that Sina had noted that in such Eastern works "the characters' conflicts and relationships tend to be with the structure of reality itself, the structure of consciousness, rather than with individual psychological issues as we tend to focus on in the West," and his broad concept does reflect that stance. The story is split between the 9th and the 13th centuries. In the former, we follow Guiv, a muscular, violent guy that's just stormed from his palace after nearly being executed for trying to murder the adoptive brother that's become romantically involved with his biological sister. Animal guide in tow (Yoda-talking peacock variant), Guiv ventures to a citadel where he eventually becomes a veiled prophet and a king of beasts, even as trouble brews back home.

Meanwhile, 300 or so years later, Guiv's words have become an excuse for the local ruling class to crack down on dissent while soaking in decadance. Spunky princess Shirin ventures into the harsh outside world and discovers Ferdos, an angular Guiv doppelgänger who's been raised in secret, steeped in 9th century lore, and living in the ruins of Guiv's old homestead. Needless to say, deeper connections are later revealed, and while Sina's storytelling gets somewhat cluttered in its self-aware referencing of earlier bits of its own lore -- for a while, Ferdos insists on referring to himself and Shirin by the names of Guiv's brother and sister, since he's been schooled in the lore -- it does pack some power in its theme of destiny.

The point-by-point plot progression of this book isn't as important as its study of time. And again, I don't been the heart-thumping bodily time of the early Prince of Persia, but a distanced study of history's currents allowing one era to possibly inform a later one up the river, although pollution is also very possible. There's an attempt made to visually differentiate the book's era via color schemes -- a technique that vanishes and reappears, seemingly at the whim of story particulars -- but I found Sina's ways of bonding the centuries though symbols to be more interesting.

As mentioned above, water is very prominent, both as a representation of time's passage (by the end of the story, page-sharing scenes set between the eras are literally bisected by a river, in case anyone didn't quite get it yet) and a general font of life: humble saviors from both time periods are guardians of the water, the stuff's flow is central to the power of the 13th century's royal family, and learned, compassionate Ferdos' (again, sometimes literal) command of the water provides a point of contrast with the fiery killer that is Guiv. But even scholar Ferdos encounters a time to pick up the sword, just as Guiv cradles the babe while clad in combat-ready badass lionskin; nothing is absolute, goes the message, though Sina noticeably declines to forward a whisper of redemption to theocratic hypocrites in power.

What's really not absolute is their society, nor that of the princes of Persia. The name Ferdos suggests the poet Ferdowsi, and Sina's tales seem most like the famed Shâhnâmeh in their demonstration of people's passage from a fixed landscape, old actions informing the new across the changing character of ages: the structure of reality.

And while the stories wrap up in the expected climactic confrontations and unforseen fulfillment of prophesies -- to say nothing of a nasty big bad getting toasted unto death just inches from life-giving and very profound water!! -- they join in declaring that living is to begin the process of dying, for princes and their kingdoms, like the old bones sitting forever in Guiv's citadel, like these new stories left to inform our modern society, which too will decline. What will we make of it?

I kind of wish this book made a little more of the stuff it had in front of it, to not only say something about time and stories -- possibly in a manner less blunt than closing the thing on an image of a book, which we're helpfully told is meant to be closed -- but to become filled with the varying aspects of time that cut across different art forms. As it stands, it's a decently-mounted, modestly-troubled, thoughtful-if-unspectacular work that I hope can drift prominently down the waterway to inspire later licensed comics to attempt grander union of societies. The potential has always been there, and the ambition surely exists. I pray for newer realities, startling as my vision first moving from far left to far right, sharp as lavish frames of animation breaking my neck.


Beauty Labyrinth of Comics

*Did I tell you my downstairs neighbors have started a band? They're practicing right now, so I'm sorta stretching my arms out by the computer and feeling the beats as they rise like steam. It's like a Turkish bath in here. Of sound.

I'm thinking of printing out a full-length review of tonight's session and slipping it under their door; I know I'll have touched their hearts when I leave for work tomorrow and they're all lined up on the stairs to slap by face.


Joker (an upcoming hardcover presentation of tough guys and smiles from Brian Azzarello & Lee Bermejo, among others)

Death Note II: The Last Name (which is a 2006 feature film, but I try and sort out the manga too)

*But that's why I live next to the fire escape.


I Live Here: Your high-profile comics fusion experiment of the week, maybe the year. Unless I'm totally mistaken, this Pantheon-published, Mia Kirshner-spearheaded project is four small books tucked into a hardcover package, with each volume serving as a "paper documentary" of a troubled place in the world where people's stories need to be told. In terms of comics (or thereabouts; the whole thing seems very words-and-pictures oriented), Ingushetia will feature new work by Joe Sacco, Burma will have a piece by Kamel Khélif (a French-Algerian artist with whom I'm not familiar), Juárez will see art by the excellent, elusive Phoebe Gloeckner and Malawi will contain a children's book-styled piece by writer J.B. MacKinnon and illustrator Julie Morstad. Sacco-specific preview here; huge overall preview here. It's $29.95.

Drawn and Quarterly Showcase, Book 5: Continuing the eponymous publisher's irregular series of self-contained works by interesting young(ish) cartoonists; the impression is that no new edition needs be released until enough good work is found, which isn't a bad thing to foster. I'm most looking forward to new work by T. Edward Bak of the fine Service Industry, but there's also stuff by Sweden's Anneli Furmark and Finland's Amanda Vähämäki. It's $19.95 for 120 pages.

solanin: Being an all-in-one VIZ collection of a 2005 slice-of-life manga series by Inio Asano, he of the much-admired horror piece Nijigahara Holograph. I believe this is his first book to be licensed for an official English-language release; it's about a young woman and the office job she hates, and her struggling illustrator boyfriend and her freedom and her boredom. Sounds familiar. Actually, it sounds just like Seiichi Hayashi's 1970-71 lingering youths landmark Red Colored Elegy (in English this year from Drawn and Quarterly), although I'm sure this latter work is 7,000% more straightforward and contemporary mainstream-palatable. And Asano could certainly go places with it. It's 432 pages for $17.99; Japanese sample here.

Hellsing Vol. 9 (of 10): Meanwhile, Dark Horse has manga about hitting and monsters. I think the final chapter of the serial is due in Japan next month, so that volume limit is an informed presumption. Are people still reading this? I remember it being pretty popular a few years ago. Elsewhere among the penultimate, seek out Naoki Urasawa's Monster Vol. 17 (of 18), in which things nearly end, but do not. And then to reverse the trend, there's the second-from-start Real Vol. 2, for basketball needs at the moment.

Death Note Box Set: Or you can pay $99.99 for this, which'll run ya roughly cover price for the 12-book series, throwing in the How to Read Official Handbook for free. Plus: a cool fold-out.

Trains Are... Mint: In which Manchester artist Oliver East follows England's train tracks from station to station, and transforms the experience into a travel journal of soft color images and personal reflection. This hardcover tome collects the first three of East's minicomics (and the fourth is online). Here's a Derik Badman review of some of the stuff, and here's a preview. From Blank Slate Books; 124 pages for $24.99. The same publisher (sprung from the founders of the Forbidden Planet International comics retailer) also has We Can Still Be Friends this week, a $12.99 book of autobiographical shorts from German artist Mawil (of the 2003 Top Shelf release Beach Safari) Many samples here.

French Milk: A 208-page 'drawn journal' by cartoonist Lucy Knisley, concerning a stay in Paris with her mother. It's been getting some good notices, and Tom Spurgeon has an interview (that seems to have been kidnapped for the moment) (EDIT: and now has returned). From Touchstone; $15.00.

The Cream of Tank Girl: A new 208-page, $29.95 hardcover art book devoted to 20 big years of Alan Martin's and Jamie's Hewlett's creation, including many images from the artist, commentary by the writer, a previously unseen comic, script excerpts, recipes and much more. From Titan. Found in Diamond's cast-iron Merchandise section, along with a $395.00 Thor, Lord of Asgard 1/1-scale helmet; perfect for any occasion, like parties, weddings or muggings.

Dungeon Monstres Vol. 2: The Dark Lord: Two more monsterous side-stories in the enduring Joann Sfar/Lewis Trondheim creation, this time with guest art by 'Andreas' (Martens) and Stéphane Blanquet. Published by NBM at $12.95.

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation: I can only hope writer Jonathan Hennessey and artist Aaron McConnel capture 1/10th of the volcanic eros of the 23rd Amendment in this comic book adaptation of the bestselling thriller. From Hill and Wang; $16.95 for 160 pages.

Heavy Liquid: Huh, I plum forgot we were due for a new $39.99 hardcover edition of Paul Pope's 1999-2000 Vertigo series, now with revised coloring and 12 pages of bonus materials (so, 256 pages in total). It's about a man, a drug, a life, and other matters connected to sci-fi noir and the artistic pursuit. The Comics Comics editorial crew mass-reviews the series here, with pictures (though not of the new colors; what will Frank Santoro think?!). Also in '256-page hardcovers from Vertigo this week,' we've got Y: The Last Man Deluxe Edition Vol. 1, collecting issues #1-10 for $29.99.

Unknown Soldier #1: More Vertigo! I liked writer Joshua Dysart's work on B.P.R.D.: 1946, and he apparently spent a month in Uganda conducting research for this new ongoing series/character revamp about a doctor who starts hearing voices that urge direct action against the violence all around. Here's some art by Alberto Ponticelli. Note the presence of cover artist Igor Kordey; haven't seen him in North American comics for a while.

The Spirit: Femmes Fatale: More reprints! This one's a kinda tie-in to the upcoming Frank Miller motion picture opus, and kinda hilarious in that it's dedicated exclusively to the character's many encounters with sexy women. That's 192 pages of Will Eisner for $19.99.

Elektra by Frank Miller Omnibus: But if it's Miller himself you crave (and you somehow don't have this stuff already), cede your $74.99 for the full 1986-87 Elektra: Assassin miniseries (still Miller's finest hour, if you ask me), the 1991 Elektra Lives Again album (at a reduced size, I presume), and pertinent issues of Bizarre Adventures (#28) and What If...? (#35).

Aetheric Mechanics: Another 48-page one-off from writer Warren Ellis' and publisher Avatar's Apparat line of comics from a place where comics developed differently (if that's still the concept). It follows the well-received Crécy, and features an investigation by detective Sax Raker during a 1907 war between Britain and the ever-hypothetical Ruritania. Little more is known, but motifs of foreign threat and possibly insensitive derring-do present themselves readily. Art by Gianluca Pagliarani, whom I believe did the Wolfskin Annual a while back. It's $6.99.

Sky Doll: So it goes - the first hardcover product of Marvel's alliance with French publisher Soleil. I don't think this 144-page, $24.95 collection of this Barbara Canepa/Alessandro Barbucci anime-informed sci-fi politico-religious/media satire is due to be oversized or fancied up or anything, but it's a fun little series (if incomplete as of now), and I'm sure the production values will be higher (and the English localization better) than the magazine-format version of these comics that Heavy Metal put out a while back (second one down). Preview images; my review of the first chapter. And if your Eurocomics tastes run a bit vintage, Cinebook has Thorgal Vol. 4: Archers, a $19.95 collection of Vols. 8 and 9 (both 1985) of the original Jean Van Hamme/Grzegorz Rosiński album series.

Haunt of Horror: Lovecraft: And here's that suite of Richard Corben adaptations and transformations of various stories and poems, now a bookstore-ready $19.99 hardcover, just in time for All Saints Day. See preview pictures.

Criminal 2 #6: Things don't get much better.

Final Crisis #4 (of 7): Woah, look what the cat dragged in. Now with 100% more Carlos Pacheco! And after you're finished sifting through the red remains of the heroic DCU, writer Grant Morrison also has Final Crisis: Submit, a one-off team-up between Black Lightning and Tattoo Man -- art by Matthew Clark & Norm Rapmund -- which I think is supposed to explore the darkness and futility of the anti-life world, or possibly the Final Crisis release schedule.



Events preceding, surrounding and acutely subsequent to my theatrical viewing of the 2006 live-action feature film

Death Note II: The Last Name

4:10 PM: It was 50 minutes before work was through, and I still could't entirely believe the second Death Note movie was actually showing, in an actual theater, that actual night. I mean, it might have been one of those two-day US releases where a film hits a few hundred screens per night, which isn't as 'limited' as a five-screen NYC run or a one-off festival showing, but not a shit-ton of even the not-so-limited theatrical engagements extend the hand of fellowship outward to central Pennsylvania. Especially Lancaster. That's a mighty odd place for the notebook to drop.

So I called Chris Mautner to confirm what we were doing. I was going to pick him up from work, then he was going to take us from his house to his friend Craig's place, at which point Craig was going to drive us to Lancaster; all the switching of vehicles made it seem like we'd be participating in subterfuge, much like the space-filling suspense busywork that got the manga all the way up to 12 volumes.

Seriously: some of those 108 chapters seemed like nothing more than characters recapping recent plot maneuvers in an exciting-seeming manner while sweating. But I guess those are the spaces wherein the reader is supposed to pause their actual reading and start dreaming up what sort of contortions the premise might go through next, and how the story's razor-sharp-and-just-as-thin characters might react.

It's a little like a modern superhero Event comic, really, in that a lot of its impact comes from the reader anticipating the implications of this-or-that plot twist upon this-or-that favorite character. The difference is that Death Note actually follows through on a straight-line plot, thus requiring those many moments of Does He Know That I Know That He Knows That I Know to allow for the private audience participation that seems to power its lingering fandom.

And shit - it's worked! The movie's come to Lancaster! They'll be projecting it onto a cow! Only a powerful fanbase can manage that.

5:20 PM: After wriggling my car through the garage, pressing across town and mistaking a city post office for the parking lot to Chris' workplace (it happens), I finally made human contact.

Chris was idly reading a comic by the side of the road; mother always taught me to hide those things under the blankets, and I always listen to mother. I was filled with rage, but Chris calmed me down by directing me through traffic, across several highways and around winding, bucolic paths to his home. Soon I was cool as can be, except for the bit where we passed a Masonic village; I've got family in the Knights of Columbus, so I think if I meet one of those folks on their own turf I have to challenge them to a duel.

6:20 PM: "I read a plot summary of that movie," said Chris' wife, over dinner, "and it sounds interesting."

You all know the premise of Death Note, right? It's about this genius kid, Light Yagami, who's handed a 'Death Note' by a bored shinigami (death god) called Ryuk; anyone whose name is written in the Death Note must die, in the manner that's been written (or from a heart attack by default). Light opts to use the Death Note to cleanse the world of crime, leading him to adopt the public identity of a Old Testamant-type god of justice called Kira. There's roughly a million rules involved with the use of a Death Note, which creates a lot of potential for twists as the forces of earthly justice, spearheaded by an eccentric boy detective (and fellow genius) called 'L,' seek to take Kira down. Need I mention that Light's own father is also on the task force?

Many more characters pop in, ranging from investigators to Kira fangirls to additional shinigami. Multiple Death Notes wind up on Earth, leading to numerous Kiras. You might get the impression that there's some moral justice theme going around, but you'd be mostly wrong; writer Tsugumi Ohba (in the series' 'Official Handbook' How to Read) has been pretty open in declaring the series devoid of any substantive ideology or subtext, and Light does indeed spend about five minutes of reading time as a conflicted figure before diving headfirst into megalomania.

L isn't exactly sweetness and laughs himself, and I strongly suspect a lot of the series' entertainment is supposed to come from watching the two of them trample any sort of socio-political decorum in their desire to outwit the other, with the law unhesitatingly resorting to secret arrests, mass surveillance and open-ended detention of suspects; oh, ok, someone usually says 'gosh, this is illegal!' at which point they're instantly shot down and nobody speaks of it again. So, you're meant to be rooting for Our Heroes to crack the fuck down on freedom of the press so as to grab that gold ring; Ohba has expressed delight in the series getting published as a shōnen manga (nominally aimed at young boys), insofar as that demographic would be more inclined to accept the work as sheer entertainment, without concern for any political implications.

But Death Note is hardly a typical shōnen series; some have deemed it 'neo-shōnen' due to artist Takeshi Obata's pretty boy character designs, obviously meant to attract a female readership, but I tend to see its characters' demented desires to be on top and be the best and win win win -- the 'contest' played with reckless disregard for human life and freedom -- as a nasty little subversion of the typical shōnen theme of struggling hard toward victory.

And surely Ohba -- as much as he'd like to play Ryuk, dishing out death for no reason beyond his desire for distraction -- understands that pure entertainment can easily act as political suggestion; it's important, I think, that very few of Death Note's driven characters ever 'win,' and all their friendships are cast as matters of expediency or outright lies. Those that don't die by series' end are left ruined or unhappy, unless they've never been awfully happy to begin with. There's a tiny fragment of old gekiga soul in there, hating on the optimism of a growing nation in favor of cruel, poverty-stricken facts of the street. Death Note's poverty is moral, mind you, as its Japan is past the boom and beyond the bust, and the very opposite of solitary.

I didn't say any of that at dinner, obviously. Hell, I only paraphrased Evelyn's (Chris' wife's) dialogue. Did I mention that all these timecodes are estimates? I think I made jokes about I-CY the iPod penguin; like, there ought to be i-Ice that turns to i-Water when there's hot beats. How we all didn't explode from that feast of hilarity is a mystery for the ages.

6:45 PM: Chris was again the director as Craig drove us into the looming darkness that is Lancaster at nightfall. I hadn't seen the first Death Note movie (also 2006), but Craig had. It didn't cover a lot of the manga - only the first two and one half volumes, up to Light agreeing to (gah!) join L on the task force that's searching for him. Even then there were some alterations; I'd heard the second movie even had an updated ending, which it'd sort of have to unless it was planning on screaming through 1000 pages of comics on its own.

7:15 PM: Ah, the Lancaster theater! A small popcorn and a small drink was $11.50 - how modern!

It was a really great scene in the lobby. The first Amish guy I saw was cosplaying as Mello. "Matt is my second-favorite character, English." His horse came as Light's dad; the mustache was perfect.

No, I'm sorry, that was a horrible lie and a worse stereotype. I should know better than to impugn the fine city of Lancaster and the good Amish people with my cruel humor. I beg your forgiveness. Anyway, soon it was time for the movie to begin, so we all hustled into the barn.

7:30 PM: Previews! The 2005 Nana movie! The 2002 Ping Pong movie! Other trailers that all looked sort of the same! Teenagers asking each other out on dates! The magic of movies!

Lots of teenagers in the crowd too, including a loud bunch of female cosplayers; some dude yelled at them to be quiet, so he could savor the subtle grace of Love*Com the movie. There were also a couple of metalheads around - I guess Death Note is kinda metal, what with the demons and dying and portent. I even spotted a few older folks, presumably looking to check up on the recent Asian cinema. Poor assholes.

7:40 PM: Yes! The movie! Death Note II: Death Noter! My 16-year old foreign film purity impulse clawed at my gut when I realized the picture was dubbed into English, but I managed to keep down my popcorn. Chris later told me that it seemed like the English cast was the same as the Death Note television anime's; this turned out to be mostly true, although the heretofore female shinigami Rem had inexplicably been changed into a guy, a fact that did not escape the metalhead sitting to my left. Metal for truth, motherfuckers.

7:42 PM: A palpable mass eyeroll flowed through the crowd as Dani California blared over the titles; it made a little sense to me, though. Japan doesn't have the hugest film industry around; you're probably more likely to touch a national mass audience through manga, which is what Death Note did. But other cultures are (far) more amenable to movies, so it's maybe worth everyone's while to plug in a pair Red Hot Chili Peppers tunes -- Snow (Hey Oh) plays over the end credits -- to shore up the international appeal. I'd hoped for a montage of Light killing people set to Love Rollercoaster, but no luck.

There wouldn't be much in the way of flair on the whole, although maybe that's a fitting tribute to the puzzlingly acclaimed, bland-as-sand art of Obata; and yes, I used to feel it was mildly striking that he even managed to keep the story moving through Ohba's prickly thatches of dialogue, but I've since realized that such a skill should maybe be something more 'up the stairs from the cellar of competency' than any particular virtue, you know?

Now, he's never terribly bad, mind you, but give the guy a less cluttered writer and he's a popular, unspectacular craftsman, squarely set in the anime-informed contemporary shōnen tradition, if more prone to adding lots of glossy details. Granted, I'll pretty much always take a mid-level shōnen dude over, say, a mediocre Wildstorm house style guy, if only because the culture of manga is more competitive and generally demands a stronger grasp of storytelling fundamentals just to get yourself in the door -- and breaking into American comics is no walk in the park to start with -- but that doesn't make Takeshi Obata any more interesting to me.

Anyhow, the titles looked like the opening to a television series; Chris noted that Death Note would work really well as a North American cable show, and I agree, but the film felt composed more in the manner of tv movie from years back. I haven't seen many other works by director Shūsuke Kaneko (only 1995's Gamera: The Guardian of the Universe), but he doesn't seem to have much of a personal style going; a lot of this Death Note movie felt anonymously professional.

7:50 PM: Also, the opening is pretty goddamned choked with exposition, capped off by Ryuk delivering a big, clunky line in the manner of "LITTLE DO THEY KNOW THAT YOU'RE KIRA, EH LIGHT, HYUK HYUK!!!" Which begs the question: is anyone besides those poor foreign cinema connoisseurs in my Lancaster audience going to see Death Note II: Guns of the Patriots without being at least mildly aware of the setup? Even given foreign export concerns?

8:20 PM: Still, two things managed to really stand out. First off, the movie's pretty damn campy, almost surprisingly so, given that what little I've seen of the anime was solemn to a fault. And it turns out camp is a tone that works pretty well with Death Note, from Light's manga-derived hairdo (which has him looking like he just escaped from a Monkees cover band) to a guy standing up at a Sakura Festival after a transmission from Kira and screaming something like "NOW IT'S THE KIRA FESTIVAL!" to great applause. And when in doubt: have L eat a snack or wheel his chair in slowly at the bottom of the frame.

This both dulls the series' edges and gives the actors some room to play. The only character anybody's likely to match up with its performer is Light's dad, played by no less than Chairman Kaga from Iron Chef (no 'stache, sadly) although Erika Toda has a high old time as emergency backup Kira/infamous Goth Lolita anti-love interest Misa-Misa (who's sort of toned down, sorta) and Ken'ichi Matsuyama ably runs through the library of tics that make up L's character. The kids in the back loved L, cheering his first appearance and delighting at his every move. Anything even remotely sexual got a lot of hoots and whistles too; Death Note isn't a very randy series at all, so there was a lot of room for creativity. Shit, maybe its asexuality encourages that.

8:50 PM: Second standout - lots more women. I imagine this too was done with an eye toward export; manga may have a reputation in North America for creating/reviving a lot of the interest of girls and women in comics, but Death Note's stance as per the ladies boils down to "they're stupid."

I don't mean that it's overtly misogynistic -- Light is overtly misogynistic, although the trait's part of the ugly thrill of his anti-hero persona -- but that each and every female character is presented as: (1) a total goof; (2) utterly ineffectual; (3) window dressing; (4) useful bait; and/or (5) a quickly-dispatched minor threat to any of the awesomely gifted male characters. And while those male characters are mostly (but not uniformly) 'bad,' they're charismatically adorned in a way that the women never, ever are. It's all so oddly sexist for a comic that's supposed to be reaching out to female readers, although it's succeeded splendidly, for all its faults.

The movie is different. There's a woman on the Kira task force who says lines sometimes. Light's younger sister gets a somewhat more active role. Most profoundly, the entire Yotsuba Group subplot is ripped out in favor of an ambitious newswoman's quest to prove herself, eventually with the help of a Death Note; it's a modification of a certain chess piece character's role in the manga, allowing her a bit of wicked laughter and flair. Not all that stunning a leap, but there's some effort made.

9:10 PM: Man, I sure didn't know this thing was two hours and twenty-one minutes long going in. Fuck.

9:30 PM: Problems cropped up later on in the picture. The campy feel -- never backed by any affirmative stylistic stamp -- vanished as things got climactic. The pace got lumpy, like the film was trying hard to work in many favorite plot points without a lot of regard toward overall consistency; it's a feeling old-timey anime viewers will know well from '80s OVA, many of which were created as little more than fancy mementos for fans of a manga or something, secure in knowing that the fans would be happy just seeing favorite moments move. Fan product; Death Note II had that feel.

But I later realized the problem was more fundamental. Part of the great success of Death Note in the west, I think, is that it's a plot machine first and foremost, not unlike many 'mainstream' comics in the US. It's a little diabolical in that way; there's nearly no human element discernible. Every character is barely more than an accumulation of amusing/endearing traits, with virtually no depth. All effort is put toward cooking up the best twists and the most badass plot points, to the extent that the comic seems like it's written by one of Ohba's chilly boy wonders, or maybe a bemused shinigami who doesn't really 'get' humans.

And it's good at what it sets out to do, though every page I turned left no desire to ever turn back, save for purposes of clarification. Moreover, it leaves little of substance to translate to a different medium beyond a recitation of said twists and plot points (and I suppose actorly evocations of said amusing/endearing character traits), which were developed for the purposes of stringing a comics serial reader along for years. Plop a bunch of them into a 140+ minute film, and they don't quite lend themselves to crisp artistry. But what the fuck else can you do with Death Note, have L perched in his chair eating pudding for two hours?

I suspect a more inspired director could have known better what to cut, what to preserve and how to present it all; director Kaneko has mentioned wanting to add a father-son focus to the material, but it can be unforgiving in its monomania.

9:50 PM: The same traits leave Death Note (in any iteration) especially prone to spoiling, so I'd better warn you before revealing that Misa kills Light in this one.

Ha ha, no, that doesn't really happen; the real (updated) ending, which I'm now going to reveal, is a trickier thing.

Basically, the movie grafts compatible bits of Vol. 12 of the manga onto the big Vol. 7 climax. It even plays around a bit with manga readers' expectations, in that L's original death scene goes almost just how it did in the manga.

But -- to the delight of fans everywhere, I'm sure -- the movie L manages to counteract the effects of Rem's use of the Death Note by writing down his own name with a 23-day delay of effect, thus rendering himself invincible and saving the world from Death Note III: Who Wants to Pay Money to See Near and Mello on the Silver Screen? [CRICKETS CHIRPING]. Light is undone, and must face his horrified daddy, who gets to survive the film more (I suspect) because the timeline didn't get to the 'he dies' plot region than for any cognizable theme. Realizing the story is over, Ryuk scratches Light's name in the book, and that's that.

Well, there's also a hero's sendoff for popular L, who's already had a 2008 spin-off film, L: Change the WorLd, set within his final days on the planet. While no doubt fan-pleasing, this does lead the movie into the queasy position of adopting an ends-justify-the-means attitude toward L's use of (let's face it) torture among other abuses.

The manga may have been cold in knocking the guy off, but it fit with Ohba's nihilistic concept of the story's action as an unforgiving process of conflict, and his take on characters driven wildly to succeed at any cost. It all ends in shit or unfulfillment; even Near, the 'winner' of the manga, will just go on looking for the next case, the implication being that he'll eventually screw up and die and get replaced, ad infinium. There is no virtue in this friendless perseverance, and all victory is illusion. The non-heroes do rotten things, but to no particular good (beyond ours and Ryuk's delight, of course!).

The movie? Well, L did what he had to do, and at least he got the bad guys in the end, which makes everything a-ok! Is that more immediately satisfying? Because it's also kind of fucking gross.

10:00 PM: Should I mention the heart-tugging One Year Later epilogue? Probably not, since nothing happened. As Chris whispered to me: "One year later... EVERYTHING'S THE SAME!"

10:05 PM: The movie also came with a dvd-ready bonus documentary after the credits, in which everyone talks about the joys and challenges of whatever. It was one of those things where they keep flashing the title at you after every talking head segment, which was useful since I tend to forget where I am and what I'm doing every five minutes or so. Wait, where'd the shower go?

10:35 PM: Out of the theater, into the night. Black trenchcoats lined up waiting for rides on the sidewalk. I guess we were the 'old nerds' of the bunch.

11:10 PM: I had to have a map drawn for me to get back on the highway, so all-consuming was my fear of Masonic influence.

11:35 PM: I found my way back to the highway, after only a few wrong turns. I decided that I still enjoyed myself at the movie, despite my many misgivings, maybe for the simple occasion of why is the red light going on behind the temperature icon?

11:36 PM: I could hear bubbling under the hood as I approached. I grabbed a rag in advance. The radiator cap was hot to the tip of my finger. I counted to five, headlights ripping past me on the night highway, and I pushed down on top of the rag and twisted, and the thing vomited orange down to the road. Fuck me. Fuck.

11:40 PM: I took a piss off the side, down a little slope beyond the guard rail. I turned back and saw steam still rising. Lucky I have a spare cache of coolant in the back, not that it might do me much good.

11:55 PM: Cup by cup, I combined the engine's cooling with my replenishment of coolant. It was better when the trucks weren't passing by, since they shook my car and their lights knocked off my aim. I spilled very little. Cup by cup. I imagined a drunk driver slamming into the back of my vehicle, ripping my belly open with torn, scratching metal and plastic. Cup, cup. The block was still hot.

12:20 AM: I tried to move it; got half a mile before the light went off again.

12:35 AM: The best part about calling AAA is when they ask you if you're in a safe place. Yeah, I guess.

12:45 AM: Chris and Evelyn were unbelievably kind on the phone, getting me names of local garages in anticipation of the tow, although I hoped he could lift me home. It was good just to have human contact.

12:55 AM: I wondered about the psychological effect of spaces. Cars and trucks grew sparse. Lights kept the long road visible, but there was only a metal box far behind me and a blue Attractions sight way on the inky horizon. A single light from a home shone from way up a hill, and across from that there was the subtlety of the eastbound lane. I began to crave personality, in the way that even being alone in an office leaves traces of connection with people. There was nothing out there.

1:10 AM: It wasn't bad. The stars were out, and it was only cool. I had a jacket, and a blanket in the car. The flashers blinked yellow, on and off. I was only anxious for the lack of activity. I fixated on the headlights of oncoming vehicles, pacing back and forth.

1:25 AM: A man pulled his car over, way in front of me, and asked if I needed help. I said no. He was the only one who'd stop.

1:30 AM: I heard a snap in the grass behind me. I hoped it wasn't a bear or anything; I might have to get in my car and close the door.

1:40 AM: Youths zooming by called me a faggot. I wondered if the tow guy should have called me back.

1:50 AM: The tow's bubbling lights appeared. I was getting tired, which would have been the main peril in my situation, though a mild one at that. The driver apologized for taking so long: "It's been a busy morning."

2:10 AM: It was good to talk to someone, with the progression of my life halted. It was like taking a drink after a long trudge through humid woods. There's so much occasion around, that blackness has a little residual power as an isolating element, a dehydrator.

2:40 AM: "Hmm," I thought, "I hope he lets me off at an ATM."

2:55 AM: They can't drive you home. A mile and a half. I've been out later.

FINIS: Who's out on the streets of my town at 3:00 AM?

- Me

- The tow guy, turning around and driving off in the opposite direction.

- The person filling their working car at a gas station. They probably consider this 'morning' too.

- The young guy sitting at a computer in a Barack Obama campaign office, downloading hope. Or porn. Or both, given tabbed browser technology.

(there are flashing lights and sirens and fire trucks race down the street)

- The man sitting on the steps of his(?) building, waiting for something.

- The guy in a hoodie passing by me on my left. A car pulls up behind me and I hear the guy from the steps get in, his greeting indicating a work day. Morning for him.

- Two young fellows laughing and carrying on with a cell phone in an alley by a hotel.

- Whomever is driving the street-sweeping machine slowly up the main drag right before the turn to my street.

(the red lights reflect off anything metal from down my street)

- The firemen milling around the two fire trucks, three blocks up from my place.

- The older man seated outside a building that smells like smoke, his face melancholic. He's not dressed for anything that's morning for him. I don't know his plot. I barely know mine. I'm still a sponge, and I absorb what he's feeling. I tell myself to walk straighter, because it's not so bad for me. The lights flash all the way up my street while I'm walking in the middle of the road. It's not so bad.


Infinite Jest


This is due out in two weeks; it's an original hardcover comic, $19.99 for 128 color pages, from writer Brian Azzarello, penciller Lee Bermejo, majority inker Mick Gray, colorist Patricia Mulvihill and letterer Robert Clark. Do note that Bermejo additionally inked 19 pages himself, all of which are dutifully identified on the credits page - DC might be calling this a 'graphic novel,' but its roots in comic book culture are firm.

That isn't to say they don't stretch out, though. This book is actually a lot of things, most broadly a genre hybrid of the sort that's been very popular in the 21st century so far: the superhero-crime mix. It's done well for writers like Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker, and it did far, far better in a certain movie from this past summer. That leads to another aspect of this project - whether intended or not, it will functioning as support for The Dark Knight, although it's not really set in the 'world' of that film. Rather, it's a continuity-neutral thing that happens to sport a similarly gritty tone, not to mention the same, famed villain; as luck would have it, Bermejo had even drafted an Ichi the Killer-type ripped-mouth character design apparently before the movie makeup had been unveiled.

This also isn't the first time Bermejo and Azzarello have teamed up for a supervillain-focused project; it'll be hard not to take this book as a sequel-in-spirit to the pair's well-regarded 2005 Lex Luthor: Man of Steel miniseries, particularly in that both comics embody themselves as Azzarello's personal concept of what these long-lived bastards 'are.' Granted, this new work studies the Joker from the outside, while the earlier series crawled into Luthor's personal philosophy, but they're both efforts at expressing a total vision of their title characters. And I daresay this new work is a better fit for the writer, in that its outsider perspective matches Azzarello's often uneasy-feeling work in the superhero genre, while letting him stretch out in his crime comics comfort zone.

The fact that a hugely popular movie happened to straddle that same zone? Gravy.

I liked this book good enough. It's a sturdy piece of trans-genre craftsmanship, getting the job done with a minimum of fuss and a few worthwhile dabs of inspiration. I suspect it'll go over really well with a lot of superhero readers, and maybe attract a few curious bookstore browsers. It's 'serious' in a comic-book-superhero-characters-are-serious-business way, 'realistic' via the 'less funny costumes, more pulpy drama' tradition, and 'grim' in a manner that nonetheless accommodates underworld lifers who never use the really dirty cuss words and slimy strip joints in which no nipples are visible at any time. Hey: the movie was PG-13 too.

This puts Joker in the fortuitous position of writing off its own corporate-imposed limitations as akin to its monied movie cousin's own corporate-imposed limitations, with the added, only-in-comics perk of extreme violence! Bring your appetites, gorehounds, 'cause this one's got a man staggering around with all the flesh below his neck flayed from his body (save for gloves of skin left on his hands), a gunshot ripping a massive hole in another fellow's head (after which he is hanged upside-down from a tree), and, in maybe the most lurid moment of all, the Joker relaxing in bed atop the ragged corpses of a freshly-slaughtered elderly couple, their good linens caked with grue.

Rest assured that all of this mayhem does result in the inevitable punishment of those horrid fuckers, with the good-slams-evil strictures of the superhero form left unmolested in the wake of all chaotic pontificating. This is a high-profile DC superhero comic at heart; expect much noise, and no subversion. If you're thinking at this moment that the comic might annoy you, it will.

But there are pleasures to be had, on the book's terms. Bermejo & Gray do a good job of whipping up some filthy Gotham locations -- very lived-in, and negligently at that -- populated by characters that seem molded with a butter knife from melting candle wax. Everyone looks like they've had a hard life, even the Joker, under his occasional silent clown mugging, and that mist of exhaustion spreads to the reader.

I mentioned up top that Bermejo inks certain pages; they're noticeably rounder and richer than Gray's, but doled out at a pretty steady clip, and accompanied by an interesting coloring technique from Mulvihill that leaves certain, emphatic panels and close-ups washed in a painterly style (or is it the inks that are tactically washed?), with the rest of the action laid out in flatter hues and deeper blacks. It's a bit like what Gene Ha & Alex Sinclair are doing in Top 10: Season Two, but much subtler, and it winds its way through both inkers' approaches so as to make the whole book rock between variations of clarity, like everything is being seen on your 30th hour without sleep, and you can't help but drift in and out, in and out.

It's a smart means of presenting Azzarello's story, which sees the Joker released from Arkham -- everyone's uncertainty as to how or why becomes a decent running gag -- and determined to reestablish himself as king of the Gotham underworld. We follow his quest through the eyes of ex-con and wannabe tough guy Jonny Frost (a man made by the Joker, in reversal of one Joe Chill making the Batman), who tags along as an eager puppy while Our Villain encounters various 'realistic' versions of Batman rogues gallery favorites, ranging from a mostly-the-same Two Face to an amusing hipster/drug casualty edition of the Riddler.

I keep putting 'realistic' in scare quotes because it's obviously more the gloss of the real being lathered onto vivified noir tropes and melodrama; it's like Gotham is such a fucking paradise of crime that its best criminals have gotten eccentric with their decadent deformity, thus providing for a crime comic caffinated enough to embrace of lot of fairly zany supervillain concepts, not to mention all the viscera a former Northstar editor can muster. Happy puppy Jonny quickly becomes the kind of small domesticated dog that's terrified of its master, but slightly more terrified of not being fed; things get complicated.

Be aware that this little journey through familiar faces doesn't quite proceed along the Jeph Loeb sightseeing trail - Azzarello is a witty, crafty writer, and much attention is paid to the title character's little jabs and puns. He tells a few straight-up jokes, but he mostly comments on little absurdities and toys with the other characters' familiar traits; a late-in-the-game conversation with Two-Face all but twirls around the two, full of doublespeak and twin meanings, curving around a marital subplot as a metaphor for the union of two and burrowing its way into the non-titular hidden anxieties, all while cracking wise about blades hidden in fingers and gorillas toting machine guns. It's a bravura bit of dialoguing, its stylization fully backed by the narrative's garish posture.

Beyond the particulars, it's a less striking story. Azzarello's Joker is more human than usual, prone to tantrums of anxiety between his oddball atrocities. He even weeps into his ad hoc Harley Quinn's belly ('Harley Quinn' here is apparently any woman the man can find to dress up right and play along), and becomes prone to panicking over the unavoidable shadow of the Batman.

He's probably justified; when the proper superhero elements finally swing in, they clatter badly against all that gross crime comic overindulgence. This Joker might rape with a smile (oh yeah, that's in here too), but he totally freaks out at the sight of -- *gasp* -- his henchmen having been socked in th' kisser and tied up/laid out for (one presumes) the (unseen) boys in blue! And while I don't have anything against capes 'n tights tropes that reached their full flower in an era where the industry had sworn a blood oath never to question the virtue of judges, it all looks mighty silly intruding upon a shock show like this.

But even then, Azzarello is clever enough to tie the arrival of orthodox superhero tropes to the physical arrival of Batman, whom the Joker loathes as the man who's "got his hands on the rug," ready to pull away the berserk crime side of the comic in favor of costumed justice. Muses Jonny, at a critical moment:

"There will always be a Joker.

"Because there's no cure for him.

"No cure at all.

"...just a Batman."

Now that's not terribly poetic, not in the way the rest of the writing sometimes is. Shit, it doesn't even make sense unless you're a dedicated Bat-reader, fully plugged into the Joker-Batman yin-yang across however many works (and the finale of this one marks study #13,476). Its contrast with the criminal words in the criminal world is telling. Azzarello and his artists might throw in a climactic panel to 'answer' the image seen on the book's cover in a superheroic way, but the cover's the cover, and their hearts seem to lie in the long arm of the crime side of this book, bloody murder or not. That they deny it all in favor of (super)heroism -- thus tacitly condemning the reader for enjoying the bleakness the book had been so gleefully trafficking in -- is like an exploitation film acting to dismiss all its craziness with a finale of social good.

And not one of the transgressive, strike-against-society exploitation films either. It's goopy, energetic entertainment about damned, doomed men, some getting to hell faster than others, all accomplishment steeped in craft, all profundity that of striking mechanics. But I'm ok with those qualities. Less forgiving types than this Catholic boy needn't consider popping the shrink wrap.


Two posts in one day?!

*Yes readers, only one thing could prompt a double-dose of posting on this saintly Monday in October: the 50th anniversary of Paddington Bear. Goddamn does that bear like marmalade. Goddamn.

So, while you might have suspected that some silly catastrophe prevented my posting that Deitch's Pictorama review earlier (like, say, my not writing it fast enough), thus mandating its appearance this afternoon, you'd nevertheless be totally, unutterably, 1+1=3 wrong on that count.


Mesmo Delivery (coming soon: body fluid thrill power!!)

Deitch's Pictorama (no, seriously, this went up eight or something hours ago, so you might have missed it)


Crossed #1 (of 9) (Garth Ennis, Jacen Burrows, zombie-like social collapse)

At The Savage Critics!

*It had nothing to do with Columbus Day either. Fuck that noise.


The Comics Journal #293: What's in this issue? Almost certainly nothing by me, but who cares - Bob Levin interviews S. Clay Wilson! Laughs and learning ensue. Also: Tom Crippin chats with Alex Robinson, R.C. Harvey reports on editorial cartoons, the Center for Cartoon Studies presents works from its 2008 graduating class, and more. More!


Breakdowns: Portrait of the Artist as a Young %@&*!: This is Pantheon's tall (14" x 10"), thin (72-page), $27.50 hardcover collection of Art Spiegelman's early work and related materials. Well, specifically it's a softcover facsimile edition of the original 1978 collection of the artist's formal experiments and assorted storiess, Breakdowns: From Maus to Now (the Maus in question being the original 1972 short), bound into a hardcover and sandwiched between an added compilation of Spiegelman's 2005-06 comics serial from The Virginia Quarterly Review (topic: his early development) and a new prose essay on the origins of the initial collection. Dick Hyacinth has a nice review here. Found in Diamond's well-heeled Merchandise section, along with a $22.99 Ninja Straw Hat, for those who hate money and invite punches.

Jamilti and Other Stories: A new Drawn and Quarterly hardcover collection of short works by Rutu Modan, she of the Actus Tragicus comics group and last year's critical hit Exit Wounds. Preview here; 120 pages, $19.95.

Moresukine: Uploaded Weekly From Tokyo: A cute-looking NBM collection of Dirk Schwieger's popular interactive webcomic, wherein the Tokyo-based German expat spent the first half of 2006 performing 'assignments' sent to him by readers curious about aspects of Japanese culture, then posting short sketchbook comics chronicling the results. This $15.95 release is designed to mimic the Moleskine notebooks Schwieger recorded his missions with (the title is the Japanese pronunciation of the English term), filling out its 176 pages with bonus comics by various webcomics folk (James Kochalka, Ryan North, etc.) charged with meeting a Japanese person in their city and having a conversation with them. Samples here.

Grant Morrison: The Early Years: Being Timothy Callahan's critical survey of various aged funnies, including Zenith, Animal Man, Doom Patrol, Arkham Asylum and the Gothic storyline from Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight, all of it topped off with a big interview. Note that this is a revised Direct Market edition, with a new piece on the topic of Morrison's first-ever 2000 AD story. Published by Sequart; 280 pages, $22.95.

Grant Morrison's Doctor Who #1 (of 2): And speaking of early works, here's the first of two IDW pamphlets ($3.99 a pop) reprinting Morrison's various 1986-88 stories from Marvel UK's Doctor Who Magazine, featuring art by John Ridgway, Tim Perkins and an 18-year old Bryan Hitch. Have a look.

Sentences: The Life of MF Grimm: A bunch of people really liked this 128-page b&w biographical comic from Vertigo, so here it is again in a $14.99 softcover. Preview.

Madman Atomic Comics #11: Allred.

RASL #3: Smith.

Conan the Cimmerian #4: Corben and company.

Captain Britain and MI: 13 #6: Stabbings and horses.

Foolkiller: White Angels #4 (of 5): Frank.

The Punisher MAX #63: Castle. All cuteness aside, neither of these Gregg Hurwitz-written series are very good, which is a shame; both of them have capable visuals, and I did like the wryness Hurwitz brought to his initial, gleefully trashy Foolkiller project. But White Angels is like an Annual-length story stretched painfully into a miniseries via uninteresting 'mismatched partners' shtick, while the proper Punisher book has adopted the high '90s 'Frank is moved by the suffering of some people and fights for justice His Way' style, with extra cussing and extravagant brooding added to demonstrate how MAX it is. Too bad.

War is Hell: First Flight of the Phantom Eagle: Meanwhile, Garth Ennis' most recent MAX project gets a $24.99 hardcover; it's a Howard Chaykin-illustrated tale of WWI aviation, nominally a revival of an old Marvel war character but actually another of Ennis' detail-oriented battleground sagas of human affairs, this time concerning a daring-looking young pilot who discovers that War, indeed, is Hell. Neither the best nor the worst of that lot, but the average tends to run pretty high - if you're chomping at the bit for Battlefields to launch later this month, this'll probably be to your liking.

Marvel Adventures The Avengers Vol. 7: Weirder and Wilder: If you like that Jeff Parker fellow, here's an $8.99 digest collection of that all-ages Avengers comic he writes (issues #24-27, to be exact). Also this week: issue #29 of the continuing series. Plus: Monster-Size Hulk #1, with Jeff Parker on the lead story. Further: The Age of the Sentry #2, seeing Jeff Parker in the Silver Age. Jeff Parker is forever.