Monday, September 7, 2009

Kazuo Umezu (Assorted Works)

The Drifting Classroom sounds pretty silly to the Western ear (still, a more apt description of the plot than Cowboy Bebop). Especially when you pick up a volume and see nothing but screaming kids standing stock still on the cover. You certainly don't think the book is going to involve infanticide, giant silverfish, Stockholm syndrome, and mass child suicide.
If you're a fan of horror, do yourself a favour and find out why Umezu is known as the Stephen King of manga.

Every volume (there's 11) of Umezu's seminal piece of work is full of mind-altering, gut-shattering horror. Imagine that you were in a world where everything and almost everyone was trying to kill you, you were starving, thirsty and tired, and you had to find the will to live. Not only that, but the will to fight off giant, unthinkable monsters, to diffuse a group of adults from going insane or killing or eating you, to defend yourself from being enslaved by anyone bigger than you, and to make food out of poisonous earth, air and water.
Umezu understands everything that makes life unbearable and pits it against everything that makes it livable.


In Reptilia Kazuo Umezu takes the reader back a time in Japan when a member of your household being a shapeshifting snake woman was serious business. The story's strength comes from the enclosed spaces that young people in Japan inhabit. Japan is already pretty small, but when it comes to the rural villages, if somebody in your family wanted to eat you whole with their snake gullet, well, it wasn't like there was much room for you to run off and hide in.

Umezu's first big success, Reptilia shows (in three stories) why the overshadowing, lurking, hulking beast is far scarier in the days before telephones, instant messages and child protective services.
Part of the horror is how fearless the snake woman is in these stories. She gallivants about before the young girls in her custody. She threatens them, using set-ups to show them just how powerless they are to resist her desires. She's the quintessential evil parent: she understands the imbalance of power in her favour and does everything to abuse it.

Umezu's use of seeping, bloody shadow was never put to better use than here. One can almost picture him as F. W. Murnau coaxing the demon into the frame, turning over the boulder of his medium and finding that, indeed, real gruesome stuff dwelt beneath.


In Cat Eyed Boy Umezu does a neat trick: he exploits the cheesiness of bad horror, and evokes, like Rodriguez managed to in Planet Terror, real horror. The premise is thinly veiled: Cat Eyed Boy understands that wherever he treads, monsters seem to follow. He's like a monster magnet. Or maybe that just saves Umezu having to come up with good reasons why a thousand-armed monster should be attacking a random Japanese family.
Also, in a country that's cat-crazy, it doesn't hurt in the fan service department to have your main character be a nubile, boyish cat.

Plot devices disappear, and things that mattered stop mattering for no reason, and people behave inexplicably against social conventions. But, hey, that's the fun.

Cat Eyed Boy himself never seems particularly horrified or put upon to always be winding up in these scenarios, which deflates the logical aspect of the horror, falling back of Lovecraftian beasties to deliver a more visceral punch to your jugular.

That all being said, I'm not sure that I recommend Cat Eyed Boy. The "It's So Bad It's Good" crowd probably won't find it cheesy enough, and the gore porn crowd will find it relentlessly tame. It's more for cat-lovers who also enjoy b-movies of the not-entertaining variety.

I know that sounds harsh, but I did enjoy the book.


In the Scary Book series, Dark Horse attempted to serialize some fairly psychological streaks in Umezu's mane of dark horror, with mixed results. Like, the title of the series.

The first book, Reflections, is two novellas, the first of which has a good premise: a beautiful girl is forced to confront the ugliness within when her reflection steps through the mirror and takes over her life. After the initial "There's a gremlin on the side of the bus!" has worn off, Umezu forgets that he's writing horror, and veers into mystery. The remainder of the story is fairly non-scary, which clashes with the intended purpose of the book (as posited by the title), which is really just bad marketing, but it hurts you, the reader, to have to reconcile the imbalance, especially if you're familiar with Umezu's body of work.

The second half of Reflections is far superior, concerning a feudal Japan servant whose relationship with his warlord master is meted out with eye-for-eye justice one way but not the other, until a rapid series of reversals in the end pages make for one of Umezu's most satisfying conclusions ever.

The middle volume, Insects, is either ridiculously camp, or a failed exercise in "What's an unusual phobia?"

With so many creepers and crawlies to choose from, Umezu goes with a fear of butterflies to explain why little Megumi, daughter of a widower, starts to go insane. But are the butterflies real, or just a product of her fracturing mind? Who cares! All I could think of reading this book (yes, all 232 pages are about a young girl seeing horrific butterflies) was that scene in The Simpsons when Bart mutters, " one suspects...the butterfly!"

The final volume, Faces, goes out swinging with the best material in the series. The first half, admittedly tritely-titled, Fear, concerns a self-loathing shrinking violet sister of a beautiful woman with a fiancee, and how she comes to tend her sister when the older of the two loses her beauty in an accident. To assuage the growing darkness inside her sister, young Aiko lures in other beautiful girls from the neighbourhood so that the now-hideous Momoko can murder them and steal theri faces. Fans of Umezu will realize this was probably a prototype for the far superior Orochi: Blood. But the face stealing is unique enough to stand its own.

The second story, The Coincidental Letter, is the most imaginative of the series. Yoko, a wrathful little girl (starting to notice a trend?), composes a hateful letter to no one in particular, labels it and mails it only to find that the made up person exists, and the details of the letter translate perfectly to her life. This sets off a chain-reaction of coincidences leading to a fantastic, breathless conclusion.


Orochi: Blood has two sisters going through a similar dynamic to the sisters in Fear. Only this time, the self-loathing, angry, supposedly lesser sister, Lisa, is saved from a car accident by a whimsical girl named Orochi who then falls fast asleep for many years, only to awaken, un-aged, at a time when Lisa, and her 'perfect' sister Kazusa, are much older, with Lisa tending to Kazusa's sickbed.

The strength of Orochi comes primarily from the titular character, watching her traipse in her tiny-bodied way around inside massive panels of gothic detail, observing in secret, like a crafty hobo, the lives of Lisa and Kazusa, as they fall further into the stereotypes that their families, and the readers assign them, and further from the truth.

MINX 2007-2008 (The Good and the Trite)

I just found out that the MINX line of DC graphic novels was canceled a little over a year ago, due to retailers ghettoizing the line, not including the books in the "coveted" teen fiction section. Truth be told, I noticed while in Chapters last, that the MINX line was erroneously placed outside the Manga section (MINX was conceptualized and created under the auspice that increasing numbers of girls reading manga might want something different in years to come), outside the graphic novel section and outside the teen reading section. Where were they, you ask? Between the humour section and a section dedicated to bizarre cultural interests. Since each MINX tome (every book is 176 pages long; not a good way to create freshness within your line, guys) is about some different sort of girlie clique, I sort of get the last part, but humour?

So, in honour of this dead line, and to make up for thrashing Token last post, I wanted to rank the volumes in terms of my desire for you to read them.

1. Ross Campbell's Water Baby (picture above)

Easily the most unique, emotionally thought-through, subtext-laden story in the line, Water Baby tackles unusual, often unlikeable characters, gives them believable voices, and never takes the easy way out of a scene. Fights feel real and bitter. Unresolved feelings linger and hide under newer and newer blankets of denial. Truth stings, and deceptions surprise.

But the real feat of Water Baby is making lesbian characters ring with pure reality. By not having the characters parading their sexual orientation around with the unabashed freedom of a naked Pamela Anderson running down a beach with a silk scarf, we're allowed to accept them for who they are. Reminders are slim, suggestions and allusions are scarce, and dart away like minnows when noticed.

Brody gets her leg bit off by a shark. Louisa gets her life bit off by her needy, repulsive friend. Jake, Brody's ex, beaches himself on Brody's sofa. The object, drive Jake home across several states. The complication, these are not three people who were meant to be in close quarters for that long. Throw in a tart of a hippie hitchhiker (not the biggest barrier break, I know), who's attraction to Brody might not be what it seems, and you've got one of the most confounding, engrossing, enraging road stories ever told for the teen crowd.

MINX books are about girls falling in love. They're pretty cliche that way. But Water Baby takes that concept and asks "What other loves are there to fall into?"

2. Mike Carey's Re-Gifters
The creative follow-up to the book that helped inspire the MINX line, My Faith In Frankie, Re-Gifters reunites Mike Carey with artists Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel. Both books survive on Carey's intimate understanding that you need to play with what's expected from a story to produce an emotion in the reader that's unexpected. Frankie ends with a relationship triangle that resolves itself the way readers and viewers probably wish more love triangles would end. Re-Gifters delivers the goods by setting up plot devices and blowing them away, revealing the underlying themes which both the reader and the characters will ignore before the end.

A Korean-American girl, known as "Dixie", living in LA makes a life for herself as a hapkido martial artist. Things can complicated when her disciplined life and her private life collide and intermingle, forcing Dixie to re-evaluate what's missing from both.

3. Cecil Castellucci's The Plain Janes and Janes In Love
While a few of the MINX books are about artists (groan), this one pays off because the talent that the artists have derives not from their inborn, whimsically self-unappreciated genius, but from their die-hard willingness to explore what they can do. The Janes are a group of four girls from wildly different backgrounds and social interests, all named Jane, who come together over lunch at school and decide to turn their city into an art project. The love interests (until volume 2, Janes In Love) take a back seat to the girls and their exploits (dressing all the fire hydrants up as Christmas trees, etc.) drumming up support from the younger locals and inspiring fear and reactionary hostility from the police and the adults.

After having it pounded into our heads throughout many, many years of public school that you have to be creative and expressive, it's nice to see what would happen if some kids actually took it seriously, and went beyond the constraints of societies accepted codes to do it.
4. Derek Kirk Kim's Good As Lily

About equally as good as number two and three on this list, Good As Lily takes a Freaky Friday/Multiplicity-esque concept and puts it to good, philosophical, epistemological use. Grace Kwon gets beset one night by the inclusion into her life of herself at 6, 29, and 70. You kind of have to forget the whole time paradox issue of why none of the versions of herself remember coming back to the newly 18-year-old version and having this little exploratory journey, but there it is.
Another wonder is why the older versions don't take advantage of the time difference to, say, stop a war or a murder, or help us invent practical, personal use jetpacks or something. Oh well.

Kim deals with the reality of Grace's situation nicely, not supplying her with a barn or something to hide her selves in, or giving her a bunch of friends and family who would be easily fooled into believing she has two new sisters and a new grandmother who she never mentioned before. He balances the absurd with the practical, allowing his characters to act out and be goofy, reining them in for the serious stuff.

The real meat, though, is in watching Grace cope with her situation, as she tries desperately to keep on track with her life, despite the fantastic scenario, in keeping a failing school play from crashing and burning. You want to be Grace, and have that access to yourself throughout life, to know what mistakes to accept, and what triumphs to recognize.

5. Aaron Alexovitch's Kimmie66

A fairly well-conceived future (although I think we'll be a little further along by the 23rd century) in which the internet is a lot more physically interactive than it is now. Kimmie66 wins points for being the only MINX book to set the scope of the story beyond the little bubble of the main girl's peripheral friends and family.
Despite the futuristic setting and concepts, the story's relatable. Telly is an online vampire who gets a suicide note from a friend she's only known virtually. And when a little research reveals that this now missing Kimmie66 was the daughter of the head of one of the biggest hardware companies in the world of internet business, Telly has to grope for any and every hidden talent she possesses in order to bring the truth to light.

6. Rebecca Donner's Burnout

Burnout begins the next phase of this list: books that aren't wholly amazing, but are worth it for a couple reasons. The two big draws here: incest and an irregular conclusion.

Unfortunately, I'm lying about the first one, and the second one I can't go into without giving something away. Suffice to say, this is the one MINX tale that doesn't follow the beaten plot path.

Back to the incest. He's her stepbrother. It's a question that seems to be coming up more and more in the popular media (since the advent of Jerry Springer): is it wrong to love someone romantically if they're related to you by blood indirectly? More importantly, does it even matter when you're living in a tiny logging town with no social stimulation?

My favourite line from the MINX description, "Desperate and confused, Danni wrestles with what she's willing to sacrifice as she confronts first love, family secrets and the politics of ecoterrorism..."

7. Mariko Tamaki's Emiko Superstar

While MINX tries to appeal to different ethnic backgrounds, the stories mainly concern white and Asian girls, which is fine, but I think if they really wanted to bolster their cred as a multicultural imprint, they might have expanded their horizons a little.

Oh well, you write what you know.

Inferior to The Plain Janes and Good As Lily in terms of being about an artist, the concept is still worth looking at. Emiko starts off another boring summer as a babysitter when she stumbles upon the diary of the closeted lesbian mother of the child she's minding.

Combine that with Emiko getting spontaneously invited to an art show held (gasp!) at an abandoned factory, and suddenly the friendless Japanese girl is a celebrity. Only, the spoken word she's passing off as her own genius is really a closeted lesbian mother's diary.

The story does handle nicely the tension between Emiko's desire to be as original and innovative as the artists she falls in love with, and her fake presentation of her own genius at an age when being fake seems like the only safe way to survive.

My problem with it stems from the glamorization of artist culture, and how it fails to touch on the vacuity of it. In other words, it reads like someone who wishes they'd found such an underground collective of hip and talented wizards.

8. Andi Watson's Clubbing

Hipsterism is a difficult subject to portray. You want the hipsters you're trying to relate to drawn into the story, but you don't want to alienate them by not walking the walk, talking the talk. On the flip side, hipsters are incredibly annoying to those millimeters and beyond across the other side of their purposefully marked line. For hipsters to enjoy a book that could be construed as a cynical attempt to exploit their devotion to their hipness it takes a leap of faith. For the unhip, it takes patience. And resisting the biological urge to close the book.

Unfortunately, the above paragraph could be the lead-in for most of the bottom half titles. But that's MINX's deal: selling the same story over and over, to slightly different hipnesses. In Andi Watson's Clubbing the hipness is British slang. The book comes equipped with a lexicon before the obligatory collection of MINX previews (which makes each book about ten percent larger than they would be otherwise) to help you understand what the people were trying to say in the book you just read. I wish publishers would put these sort of things at the beginning. So long as they don't spoil the story, why wouldn't you?

The story here concerns Lotte, a trendy, iPod-toting teen who commits a felony (I'll let you guess) and as punishment must spend the summer at her grandparents' golf course. Teen romance, classic literary references, and murder mystery ensues. It's soooo relatable.

9. Brian Wood's The New York Four

The pretension should ooze off that title enough to let you know this is where you should put the book back down, but no. Ryan Kelly's artwork is too alluring and you read it anyway.

What's shocking is that Wood's other books (Local, Demo, DMZ), are all genuine, in-depth portraits of hipster life. They don't gloss over the surface even if they do glamorize it. It's glamorizing of the Tarantino variety, and that makes it okay.

What shocks me about The New York Four is how closely it resembles The Plain Janes, without throwing anything in to make it interesting. Should the four spunky girls from different backgrounds all join a research group for fast cash? Who cares? Should the main girl date her sister's boyfriend? No. But why not? Does anyone want a list of underground bands that probably suck, and they'll never hear or have access to? Well, now that you mention it...

If you try to blot out the dialogue and plot the book actually serves as an okay guide to getting around New York City. So maybe it should've been filed in the maps section.

10. Mike and Louise Carey's Confessions of a Blabbermouth

Question: should you indulge your fifteen-year-old's desire to publish a book just because you're an accomplished author?

Answer: what the fuck is wrong with you, Mike Carey?

Generally blameless, Mike Carey co-authored this exercise in misery with his daughter Louise, presumably in an attempt to capture the true voice of youth for a youth-targeted imprint. While most of these stories are about youths longing to achieve great things with their lives, they're written by those with the life experience to know what's important about that.

Aaron Alexovitch's art is not enough to save the book, but it is enough to draw you in, and force you to reconcile why such great art should ever accompany such disengaging writing.

The story does almost nothing of interest besides it being about a girl and her blog. Unfortunately neither the authors, nor the lead character, have an ounce of introspection to see what grand generalizations result in, and how being a social outcast isn't always the result of being awesome.

I should mention that if I were to re-review Alisa Kwitney's Token I would put it in the slot above this one.


So, it's pretty hit-and-miss (with the misses outweighing the hits in terms of sheer volatility), but one thing I will say for MINX is the range of body-types that are presented. In a world where many artists display no range of physical interpretation between characters MINX's leads are easy to tell apart, and defy popular trends for the most part. The result is that the character of the women shine through their body traits and you take them on as people.

That might sound naive or shallow, but I think it's true that readers approach female characters differently. Male characters are generally allowed to be unique individuals, but females are expected to fit into one of several preconceived notions. It's like the difference in costume variety at Halloween time, as revealed by the Sex In The City movie. Woman can be witches or sex cats, but men can be virtually anything. MINX, had it lasted longer, may have played a role in helping reverse that trend.

(And I'd like to note that the books from MINX that I like, I really like, even though I've taken a chair to the side of the company's head more than once. The top five titles should be taken as straight-up recommendations. I just wouldn't want you to venture into the shallower waters if you thought that one good MINX book will invariably lead to another.)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Token (Alisa Kwitney)

If you let them, the books that DC publishing house Minx produce can take on the narrative quality of an F My Life page (not sure what that is? Google it, but don't say I didn't warn you). You're supposed to believe that each story comes from a different author, so why does it feel like they're being churned out by some drooling, betentacled hive mind?

The idea behind Minx is that girls in the West are drawn to the comics/graphic novel medium, but don't know where to go to read voices they can relate to. In Japan, for instance, the terms Shonen and Shojo exist for the purpose of delineating comics designed to appeal to boy interests (shonen) and ones designed for girl interests (shojo). They figured that out long ago. But in the West there's no defining terminology beyond the pre-established genre headings that apply to all fiction (romance, sci-fi, horror, lit, etc.).

Minx's tagline is "Your Life. Your Books. How Novel." As if curt, tacky puns are what every young woman aspires to.

What Minx does manage to achieve, despite the blur-drizzle narratives, is a collection of books that address a wide-ranging variety of young women from different social, racial, sexual, and financial backgrounds. And I'll hand it to them for being the first publishing house that comes to mind when I think about books that deal with lesbianism.

Alisa Kwitney's Token, however, might be the exception that proves the rule (is that image meant to look like a pie chart of teen romance cliches? And why is her dad's arm six feet long?).

Until I read Token I was at least quietly bemused by the standard voice and pacing and artistic ability on display in Minx books, and entertained by the variety of adventures these budding young dames found themselves in. But here, it's almost as if the executives reached a point where they realized, "Hey, we don't always have to be pushing the envelope. Let's just tell a boring as mud, average, run of the mill romance story with no surprises or dramatic depth. We've earned it."

I hope most girls will be insulted by the story of a drop-dead gorgeous teen, Shira, who believes she's uncool and ugly for no explained reason, attracts the interest and romance of a shoplifting Spanish boy who looks like he might've slipped and fallen of the cover of a GQ catalogue, as well as the interest of a group of (gasp!) mean girl schoolmates. Stop me if I'm blowing your mind. I mean, who comes up with this stuff?

So Shira decides to start shoplifting. Maybe in retaliation to her lawyer father becoming romantically linked to his secretary. Maybe to get closer to the glitzy movie stars from the 50s who she daydreams about and obsesses over. Maybe just to feel alive! Who cares! If the thieving served any purpose besides to attract the Spanish boy's attention, and to set up a plot conclusion, it may have been worth the inclusion, but Kwitney doesn't bother to connect the dots between Shira's psychological state, the reality of her life, and the symbolism behind an addiction to stealing, and feeling like a token.

The saving grace comes in the form of a group of old ladies in Shira's life, her grandmother and her grandmother's friends. Their dialogue is witty, uplifting, unexpected and inventive. If the book had turned itself on its ear and taken the perspective of Shira's best friend, aging, retired actress, Minerva, it could've reached something approaching valuable.

As it stands, you just want to ditch Token in Shira's box of meaningless stolen treasures.

Oldboy, Vol. 1-8 (Garon Tsuchiya)

Now an award-winning major motion picture in Japan, and an in-the-works major motion picture in Steven Spielberg's future, Oldboy tells the tale of an average top-of-his-class gentleman who enters into a life of post-education work and boredom, who gets kidnapped and imprisoned in a Being John Malkovich-style floor-between-floors prison for ten years. Equipped with nothing more than a TV and a bed, the man comes to forget his name and most other details about his past as his unexplained and inexplicable situation drags on.

Then one day he's unceremoniously released, left to deal with what's happened to him and to pick up the pieces of his old life. But who would spend the unthinkable amount of money needed to keep someone in the secret prison for so long? And why?The absolute dearth of dialogue, and the big-panel shots like the one pictured above make Oldboy read almost like a flipbook. Or a film. But read it too quick and you'll deprive yourself of all the fine, intense drawings.

In hindsight, the story is almost ludicrous. It derives from pulp fiction-style mayhem, but reins itself in from violent indulgences. Most of the violence, like all good violence, is in the dialogue. But since the story is so simple, one can't go into too much detail without giving most of the plot away.

It's no-holds-barred, rollicking fun, with a slice of existentialism to serve.

One thing I wonder is if the title is a reference to Lao Tzu, the founder of Taoism, whose name translates as, "Aged Child". In an age where a book came out called "Rejuvenile" about why it's bad that people are holding on more and more to the events of their childhoods, I think it's high time we started thinking about how significant these events in our past are, before, like Old Boy, we get locked up in the cages of our hearts when adulthood sets in.

Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography (Andrew Helfer)

Morgan Freeman once chided the idea of Black History Month, since American history, as he saw it, is black history just as much as white history. Still, it's difficult to find a good biography on a black person from before the last twenty years that doesn't have to do with race relations. It's a sad reality, but reality no less.

Helfer's Malcolm X is sober, and a sobering tale.

Skimping on subjectivity, Helfer sticks to the facts as he sees them. The result is a low-key, friendly marriage of race relations and time document. By keeping unwaveringly to Malcolm's story, the book avoids minimizing or compartmentalizing his role in the liberation movement, or the liberation movement itself.

The book also avoids making judgments or suppositions, a difficult task for any biographer. Helfer sticks to a omniscient narrative, entering in quotations that are either factual or irrelevant if inaccurate.

The book is text-heavy, but somehow it flits by. The illustrations are inventive in their arrangement without being senselessly artistic, and the picture content features a nice balance of mundane and horrifying. The drama, and the background necessary to understand the drama, is presented starkly, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions.

There's a shirt now that reads, "Rosa sat, Martin walked, Barack ran" and while that's an awesome sentiment, and nicely put, I think it belies our desire to see the liberation movement as a thoroughly peaceful one on the part of those fighting for their freedom. It's pleasant to think that everyone was as peaceful as Martin Luther King and Ghandi. It's not as pleasant, or inspiring, to think that the 'freedom-fighters' required leaders that inspired violent responses, and that perhaps that violence was justified.

Malcolm X: A Graphic Biography shows how one man, almost destroyed in his youth by various vices, rose to a position of power, and impassioned his people to respect, trust, and defend themselves by any means necessary. He flipped from being an absentee father to his people, to being their protective, militant mother. Like a cowboy, he was forced to ride alone, terrorized by infighting, ousted by his friends and followers and loved ones. Yet, in a country that loves nothing better than a good cowboy he was treated like a madman, a zealot, and a criminal.


Essential reading for anyone interested in race relations, racism, and American history.

Prayer Requested (Christian Northeast)

Northeast has been getting some flack for the apparent vacuousness of his art exercise, Prayer Requested, in which he found inspiration for a book of illustration by looking for prayers published on the internet. It's hard to deny Northeast's technical ability and visual, interpretive imagination, but what seems to be in question is the worthiness of his attempt, which I think some are guessing is just a simple hook to ensnare the religious-minded and the gimmicky.

Part of the problem is that the book's text is muddled and unprofessional, embarrassing in its syntax, and sometimes deeply, ugly private. These aren't the voices of poets or professional writers: they're people. Just people. And what motivates someone to post a prayer on the internet? Is the hope that someone will notice? Is it the belief that inside electric cables and LCD screens and html is some uplink to a higher power?

Why doesn't Northeast include some idea of the religious background of each writer to lend a context, a hint, a clue? To answer my own question, perhaps it's to whitewash spirituality of religion. Save for a few "God"s here and there.
Northeast's visual skill clashes with the poor writing to such a degree that the mind has a hard time reconciling why someone with such prowess would waste time on such a fast-paced book, and, cynically, leads one to believe that it's pure capitalism. But I think there's something deeper at work here.

What Northeast is showing us with these segmented mini-stories is that spirituality has no boundaries; you can't judge one person's spirituality without judging all spirituality. He's stripping the prayers of their identities and offering them new ones. What's especially interesting is how what any of the people in the book are asking for is something anyone might ask for, except for the religiously disinclined the direction of the desire is sent inward instead of outward. But the yearning is the same.

The growing atheist population in the world may be distancing itself from the religious population for reasons of guilt and improved intelligence and greater communication access, but we may find ourselves looking back some day far in the future and realizing that embarrassing though it may seem, our religious counterparts were a natural and necessary part of our development, worthy of understanding and compassion. And maybe they're not too different from ourselves and our own convictions.

If Prayer Requested has a fault it's in the pacing. The books skirts by, succinct but rushed, no words wasted but no words particularly grabbing in and of themselves. Northeast's often off-symmetrical design sense doesn't take long for the eye to compute, and not a lot of symbolism or cleverness sustains the reader's interest toward dissecting the visual treats.

An unusual book from the ordinarily very literary Drawn and Quarterly.

Lucifer, Vol. 1-11 (Mike Carey)

A spin-off series of Neil Gaiman's landmark Sandman books, Lucifer begins as an episodic, day-in-the-life-of-the-lightbringer tale, quickly evolving into a labyrinthine, often nonplussing, epic which spawns dozens of characters in a myriad of locales, factual and mythological.

Unlike Gaiman, Carey's imagination for unique voices is slim, so the characters will blend and blur if you're not paying attention. But like Gaiman, Carey has a flair for pacing, staggering plot arches, and interweaving mythos and drama. The question will be, how much of that staggering and interweaving can you handle. Take a step back after closing the last page and you'll notice that the 2000+-page story wasn't a complex one in terms of actual events. But in the middle of the fray it feels like too much has happened to hold it all together.

The story picks up where Sandman left off, but after an indeterminable length of time. In Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists, Lucifer Morningstar finally grew too contemptuous of his position as God's shadow and abdicated. After locking up hell and kicking out its last few hangers-on, the devil opened a jazz club called Lux where he seems to be its only patron along with his non-hetero-life-mate, the split-faced, marble-mouthed daughter of Lillith, Mazikeen.

It looks like Old Scratch is going to hunker down to an eternity of near solitude in his creator's universe, learning the piano, and drinking from fluted glasses. But when Carey picks up the pen, it's home-is-where-your-rump-rests for Lucifer as he gets caught up in countless intrigues and conflicts and wars all centering around ownership of existence. And, yeah, some other existences get created, and yeah the furtherance of life as everything knows it gets put on the brink more than a few times, but hey, isn't that supposed to be the fun?

The trouble for me starts with the fact that while Gaiman's Endless are silently, supremely confident about their superior roles in the universe, and think nothing of how every culture's individual mythos can somehow coexist without canceling each other out (which always made me suspect that the cultures were less fact, and more collective imagination manifest), Carey's essentially Judeo-Christian reality takes its rules so seriously that you begin to wonder why it concerns itself with the rules of other mythos/cultures, since the buck appears to stop with the capital G God. So references and occurrences that take place within the realm of these other cultures take on a kind of lip service quality, robbing them of any real dramatic worth. That said, what Carey manages to communicate using the Judeo-Christian symbols is astounding.

Where Carey's writing and plotting fail, the art succeeds, since, like Sandman, this project attracted a big crowd of big talent. Everyone from Peter Gross to P. Craig Russell to Ted Naifeh was brought in to draw an issue or three and the result is a visual smorgasbord that moves things along when Carey gets bogged down in philosophical meandering.

The greatest triumph of the series is Carey creating an entirely plausible and engaging yarn about what could happen in the modern universe if God and the devil were really beings that had to live with one another, and deal with old grudges.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Push Man and Other Stories (Tatsumi Yoshihiro)

Not for the faint of heart, Tatsumi's work uses simplicity of line and expression to evoke the depths of human emotion.

And I mean depths.

Infanticide, rape, and fecal matter are par for the course in any Tatsumi compendium (those published by Drawn and Quarterly), although not requisite. For instance, the titular tale concerns a man whose job it is to push people onto the Japanese subways, to cram in as many passengers as possible. He begins to question the nature of his role in society, and loosens the bonds on his concept of conformity, with hauntingly poetic results.

Born at the beginning of the second world war Tatsumi grew up a witness of Japan's ugly side. But even by the time he was in his twenties he was disturbed by the morality of his people as it expressed itself in the cities. The stories in Push Man (as well as his other compendiums of shorts, Abandon the Old In Tokyo and Good-Bye) are all rooted in real things he'd witnessed, and in that way they're justifiably presented: entertainment as horrifying historical enlightenment.

If you can stomach putting your arm around Tatsumi's shoulder you might find it stuck there.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Trial of Colonel Sweeto (Nick Gurewich)

Gurewich is the modern day Gary Larson, except Larson’s body of work far exceeds Gurewich’s, and Gurewich is way dirtier and crueler. Whereas Larson’s jungle explorers get picked off by giant insects and wave their arms frantically about staring eyes, Gurewich’s undetailed expressions are on one hand subtly menacing, mean-spirited, or malicious and on the other hand the opposite of all those three. Plus there’s a whole lot of fucking. The true genius to Gurewich, though, is his ability to snap between drawing styles seamlessly. One week it could be an Edward Gorey tribute, and the next week it’s a Bill Keane parody. I’m still most partial to Gurewich’s own style, but the breadth of his talent is staggering. AND HE’S ONLY 27!

The trial of Colonel Sweeto is the be-all-end-all collection of Gurewich's indefinitely hiatus'd webcomic, Perry Bible Fellowship. It's a shame that in today's market, the recognition of talent and genius is more often what causes artists to stop in their tracks, as opposed to being what spurs them on to create and create. I suppose it's a product of many artists using their successful medium as a portal to what they really want to show the world. Whether that's a singer turned actor. Or an actor turned photographer. Or what have you.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Dogs and Water (Nils Anders)

Another Scandinavian artist (like Jason) with a sense for simplicity. Dogs and Water tells the tale of a possibly post-apocalyptic desert wasteland where a man with a backpack is journeying. He runs into an assortment of characters in the wasteland, all of them out looking for different things, not finding them. He converses with his sole companion, a teddy bear. He eventually stumbles upon a crashed helicopter, lodged in the side of a massive pipeline. The pilot is dying, and lies on the ground beside the pipeline. He begs the backpacked man to shoot him. The story is about desperation, loss, confusion, desire, and ultimately solitude, all favourable themes in my book. The artist chooses not to use the traditional boxes to divide scenes, instead allowing the images and the words to float in space like debris.

Not for all tastes, although those who adore the book will find comparisons to David Lynch and Gus Van Sant.

Phoenix, Vol. 1 - 13 (Osamu Tezuka)

Unarguably the single greatest achievement in the career of the most influential mangaka (Manga cartoonist) in Japan's history, Phoenix rockets back and forth across the temporal plane from volume to volume, telling tales of future and past, that each get a little closer to the present as the volumes tick by. After only the first few volumes the greater design comes into focus: Tezuka is telling the history of the universe.

And what retelling of the history of time would be complete without a lot of rumination on the nature of time and man's mortal role in the universe (unless you're Larry Gonick)? While the phoenix (Hi no tori, in Japanese, meaning 'firebird') owns the name of the series, he/she/it and its many manifestations is mearly a backdrop, or a point of obsession for the real characters, stepping in only as a greek chorus to manipulate the characters, or a god descending from the ink, and Tezuka does not exhaust any one way of revising the reader's concept of what the phoenix is. In one volume the phoenix becomes puppeteer to a scientist who will be allowed to witness the universe as himself a god, in one volume the phoenix will remain an elusive shadow to an artist who seeks to represent the firebird's glory in a painting or else lose his life to a sinister, commissioning lord, and in another volume a red herring of a bird is captured and warred over by rivaling Japanese lords, as they vie for the phoenix's blood and eternal life.

My personal favourite story, Strange Beings (half of Vol. 9), does the old 'time flows backwards' trick to tell the story of life and the universe as a never-ending backwards loop, involving the life of a girl (raised as a boy by a murderous tyrant) who unintentionally becomes the universe's private, eternal mother Theresa.

The cultural effects of the Phoenix saga may have been even more far-reaching had Tezuka not perished before penning its conclusion, presumably set in the modern day. But maybe that's for his readers to accomplish.

This is a sculpture of the famous firebird, which sits just outside the Osamu Tezuka museum in Takarazuka, Japan (20km northwest from Osaka).

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

A Treasury of Victorian Murder (Rick Geary)

Grim and moody as crime scene photos, but without the vulgarities of similar efforts, Rick Geary (famous for his work on the National Lampoon magazine, and Heavy Metal) paints a pitch-perfect portrait of the famous murders of the late 19th century. Everything from The Saga of the Bloody Benders (my favourite), to Jack the Ripper, to H. H. Holmes, the Beast of Chicago. You’ve probably never heard of most of the killers or victims in these stories, but you’ll never, ever forget them.

For more info:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

I Killed Adolf Hitler (Jason)

There are a lot of things that could turn you off about Jason.

1) He’s been called the Alfred Hitchcock of graphic literature.

2) His drawings are spare.

3) His dialogue is spare-to-non-existent.

4) His characters are all people bodies with expressionless animal heads.

5) His non-linear storytelling style could have some putting more effort into reading than enjoying.

What amazes me is how much tension, mood, suspense, and texture Jason is able to derive from expressionlessness, and rudimentary shapes. What keeps me coming back to Jason is the invention, nuance, commitment, and humour inherent to everyone of his panels. Unlike some wordless story-tellers, Jason is near-perfect in his ability to change points-of-view, and show an object or a space several times in order to control the reading tempo, without boring you, erroneously adding details to the background, erroneously mixing in uncomplimentary emotions. In Jason's world, every detail is of the utmost importance.

I Killed Adolf Hitler is the story of a burnt-out hitman and his girlfriend connecting with a scientist who’s created a time machine that will send the occupant back to kill Hitler, but takes 50 years to recharge. This leads to a time-mishmash that’ll have you grabbing your forehead and shouting, “Who comes up with this stuff?” What’s so great about all Jason’s work is the utter seriousness with which he approaches the zaniness of his plots. Imagine that Ed Wood still made the movies he made, but as a genius storyteller, and a stellar craftsman. Instead of as a crackpot.

Fun Home (Alison Bechdel)

The opposite of Leviathan in almost every way. This is the wordiest, most literary graphic novel I’ve ever read, which is paced with a genius you might not suspect from reading Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For. Since she spent the years leading up to writing Fun Home on her fictitious lesbian comic strips, a niche genre if ever there was one, she’s developed a sense for writing however she damn well pleases, and the result is glorious. She doesn’t dumb down a single phrase, thesaurus a single hundred-dollar word, or string sequences together in an easy-to-understand manner.

It’s uninhibited art at its best.

Autobiographies ususally unfold chronologically, a by-product of the emotional source that drives a person to write an autobiography: nostalgia and fear of death/impermanence. Bechdel, instead, recounts her childhood, the realization of her homosexuality, and the accidental (possibly suicidal) death of her secretly gay father, in a way that’s almost like flipping through a scatterbrained photo album. Not to suggest there's a lick of carelessness in their arrangement: for Bechdel, the autobiography is a way to make sense of a mystery. Not just the reasons (or lack of reason) behind her father's death, but the thoughts and motives of everyone in her life, including herself. Everyone locked in their own, private emotional closet.

The irony of the title is drawn out in the humourless expressions of her family members, the perpetually austere locales, and the parade of unfortunate souls who enter the Bechdel family parlour to mourn their loved ones. And Bechdel evokes it all with a clear-handed grace, mindful of the balance between white space and the symbolic clutter that make up our lives.

For more info:

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Leviathan (Jens Harder)

Being wordless is something that can go either way in graphic novels. Either the images will command your will by their intricacies and majesty, or the esoteric nature of the images, or the mundane quality of their subject matter, will give your thumb a rapid little workout (but wouldn't you rather be playing PS3?).

Jens Harder's Leviathan is, so far, for me, the high water mark of wordless sequential art. The story, which is shockingly lucid, concerns the exploits of a...can you guess?

A leviathan.

That’s right.

A giant, underwater, monster whale-creature. A god of, and above, mortal beings.

It clashes with other such monstrosities, flexes its invulnerability on the humans who unwisely choose to tango with it, swims around (through a display of Kathryn Bigelow-esque, orgiastic vistas), and deals with the existential angst of being the only of its kind and with being virtually indestructible. In Harder's world waves spout up like a company of trumpets, currents surge with the feriocity of violins, and flesh smacks meatier than the tautest timpani.

A quotation from a relevant source, like Melville for instance, begins each chapter to set the mood, to honour Harder's inspirations, and to hint at the tempo for the art in the proceeding pages. Every page is packed with dynamic, daunting images of sealife (the hopelessness of the food chain), and depictions of the leviathan, the god of all creatures.

If doctor's and dentists and lawyers stocked this book in their waiting rooms, I'd...probably get out more.

For more info:

Y: The Last Man (Brian K. Vaughan)

A series so good that on the front of every volume is a different exclamatory quotation from a different, highly-regarded member of the upper echelons in the literary community. Stephen King calls it the greatest GN series he’s ever read. Which is both a huge smack down to the rest of the community, and utterly true.

You can think of it as my number one, desert island, eyes are about to be gouged out forever pick. So let's get it out of the way first.

Y is a Shakespearean in magnitude (and, often, in reference) recount of the last man on earth, Yorick, and his journey across the globe in a world of suicidal, tortured, drug-addled, samurai-sword-wielding, hormone-befuddled, grief-stricken ladies, all of whom are trying to move on in their futureless society, unknowing that the key to human survival is being carted around in secret by a group of American interests, all bent on keeping megalomaniac Amazons, and logical militaries, and ruthless ninjas, and, yes, even pirates, from severing that chance at survival for good.

Brian K. Vaughan has penned two other series (Ex Machina and Runaways) as well as some one-offs (Pride of Baghdad), each with a similar tone and artistic execution, but only in Y is his vision so thoroughly exacted, rich with timeless social commentary. Who else in the biz knows how to pack in pop culture references to make even the most outcast social misfit feel like an insider?

Art by Pia Guerra and Jose Marzan Jr. is at worst very competent, and at best stop-you-in-your-tracks arresting. At least once per volume (if not per issue) does the scene arrive where you remember everything that makes comics great in a single page-filling panel.

In expectation for the upcoming film version, Vertigo is releasing the series in five collectible editions, the first of which is already available through Chapters and your local, and much more deserving, comic boutique.

For more info: