7/27/2014

The Karate Kid (1984)

The Karate Kid (1984), from Columbia Pictures. Director: John G. Avildsen, Writer: Robert Mark Kamen.

It’s been said that 1984 was a really good time for the kind of movies that would go on to become staples of contemporary pop culture. So to celebrate this 30th anniversary, I’m going to ramble on about my personal favourite from that hallowed year, The Karate Kid, a movie that has helped shape my individual nerd identity and awareness of how Asia is portrayed in the West.

I was still a kid living half a world away from Hollywood back then, and one of the first things my peers commented on after seeing it was that the karate sucked. A lot of it was blamed on the character of Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio), who starts out as the proverbial 90 lb. weakling, but happens to know a few karate moves, and ends up as a 90 lb. weakling with a few more karate moves under his belt. None of the main cast looked particularly impressive by the standards of traditional martial arts cinema. And yet those awkward, stiff techniques shorn of accompanying acrobatics and complicated stunt work were a curious revelation. TKK debuted during the tail end of the “kung fu” craze and the emergence of the even wackier ninja craze. But whether portrayed by Hong Kong or Hollywood, Asian martial arts were still largely set within a pseudo-fantasy world. They had to be taught in monasteries or small villages hidden high within remote mountaintops as far as the movies were concerned (and still are). And they were usually performed by larger-than-life action hero types. But when high school bully Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) threw an unremarkable front kick at new kid Daniel, causing the latter to keel over in extreme pain, the raw violence drew attention to the fact that many ordinary teenagers were already practicing martial arts up and down the country and were using those same skills on each other, either through tournaments such as the one seen in the movie, in the dojo, or on the streets. TKK presented a far more mundane portrait for the Asian martial arts, making it impossible to dismiss them as mere nonsense that could only happen in the movies.

TKK did still draw from its fair share of classic martial arts tropes, which I quickly picked up on in the style-vs-style clash between the Cobra Kai karate dojo and Keisuke Miyagi (Noriyuki Morita). The former is an analog of Japanese karate, or more accurately an Americanised freestyle version of it, which emphasizes speed, power, athleticism and forceful movements. On the other hand, Miyagi's surname is a shout out to the Okinawan founder of goju-ryu karate Chōjun Miyagi. In the movie, the students of Cobra Kai were training to execute fast and hard punching combos with military precision while Daniel was being taught a series of gentle, flowing parries that resembled a bird flapping its wings by carrying out a succession of dull household chores. Just in case anyone watching missed the point, the movie’s signature move is called the “crane technique”, a reference to the White Crane school of Chinese boxing (kung fu), believed to have strongly influenced the local karate traditions the real-life Miyagi studied. This animal symbolism is kind of a big deal to martial artists. Famous teacher Ip Man was probably borrowing from White Crane and Taijiquan folklore when he penned the story of how the legendary figure Ng Moy invented Wing Chun boxing after witnessing a crane lay the smackdown on a snake by using subtle, light movements. So when tiny Daniel mopped the floor with the beefier Cobra Kai members at the “All-Valley KarateTournament”, it’s meant to be a slight dig at modern karate’s extravagance. By practising the older Okinawan art, Daniel had access to a store of wisdom that emphasised ideas like softness conquering hardness, technique overcoming raw power, and gentleness diffusing aggression. Now, if you could have told me all this at the top of your head, then congratulations! You're either a martial arts otaku, or you had a strict sensei.

Hercules (1997) from Walt Disney Pictures. Written and Directed by Ron Clements and John Musker.

I was less able to recognize the geopolitical components since I was then still unfamiliar with American history. I wasn’t yet aware that the Vietnam War was a national tragedy for the United States. It would be two years before Oliver Stone’s Platoon taught me how America saw Southeast Asia during the Cold War as some kind of quagmire. And it didn’t occur to me that Cobra Kai head instructor John Kreese's (Martin Kove) “no mercy” philosophy, boot camp style training, mischaracterization of Miyagi’s peace offering as a challenge, and underhanded tactics could be blamed on him being a “Crazy Vietnam Veteran”. If Kreese were a real person alive today, he’d probably blame TKK for contributing to the pussification of America. As for his opposite Miyagi, his membership to the all-Japanese 442nd Regimental Combat Battalion was the first I ever heard of the unit. So it took a bit longer for me to grasp that Kreese vs Miyagi embodied another message: “Vietnam War bad, World War II good.”

More recently viewings have impressed on me just how much the movie’s subtext comments on Reagan-era America. Behind a superpower bullish of its military prowess (this was the age of he-man types like Stallone and Schwarzenegger) were concerns about the negative impact of US exceptionalism abroad, and a growing suspicion that the country’s prestige would eventually lose to the expanding economic clout of the Far East, namely former enemy Japan. Boy, drivers sure do like those fuel-efficient cars. And kids are into Japanese culture, especially that martial arts stuff.

Times have changed. While Japanese pop culture continues to be popular, Japan itself is no longer seen as a threat. Fast forward to the year 2010, Beijing is the new center of power, and there’s the widespread perception when it comes to America, its best days might be firmly behind it.*

Johnny Bravo (1997-2004) from Cartoon Network. Created by Van Partible.

But back in 1984, sunny California was still the land of opportunity. So Daniel and his mom Lucille (Randee Heller) uproot themselves from the rustbelt state of New Jersey to seek out new opportunities in San Fernando Valley. Daniel feels immediately out-of-place as if they had moved to Paris, France. Even the more enthusiastic Lucille thinks they’ve alighted on the land of the blondes, confirmed when Daniel catches the eye of the pretty Ali Mills (Elisabeth Shue), then gets into a fight with the equally Aryan-looking Johnny. There’s classism mixed with personal jealousy with an undertow of ethnic rivalry. Both Ali and Johnny come from wealthy families, and there’s no way Johnny is going to lose his ex-girlfriend to some working class, greasy-haired, soccer playing, Italian interloper sporting a thick Joisey accent.**

What has often been described by critics as a coming-of-age tale acquires the features of an assimilationist fantasy when Daniel and Miyagi bond over bonsai trees, and later over karate. Given the murder of Vincent Chin two years earlier, the Miyagi character is an odd assemblage of personality traits designed to counter the era’s anti-Japanese xenophobia. The movie takes great pains to point out that he’s more Okinawan than Japanese. He’s a decorated soldier who fought for the Allies while his wife and unborn child were sent to the infamous Manzanar prison camp. And he doesn’t drive a Honda, he owns a fleet of classic cars made in Detroit. “Wax on, wax off” isn’t just good karate training, it’s a patriotic act when used on the proper vehicle. In short, Miyagi is a model citizen who contributes his knowledge to society by teaching Daniel, in the process Americanizing the Okinawan martial art.

I’m certainly not the first to point out that Miyagi is basically Yoda - the exotic-looking, pidgin-speaking, balding, ageing martial arts master counciling his impatient young padawan through the use of pithy (and eminently quotable) statements not to give in to fear, anger and hate. If the increasingly ruthless Kreese preaches “Mercy is for the weak. Here, in the streets, in competition. A man confronts you, he is the enemy. An enemy deserves no mercy…” Miyagi advises “First learn balance. Balance good, karate good, everything good. Balance bad, might as well pack up, go home.” Miyagi symbolically heals the racial rift, first during his youth as a valiant soldier, then later by passing on his traditions to his Caucasian student. And Daniel goes on to kick the crap out of his tormentors.

The Matrix (1999) from Warner Bros. Pictures. Written and directed by "The Wachowskis".

If this sounds implausible, that’s because it is. A plot in which a rank amateur learns to beat the experts after training for under 2 months using some very unusual methods? A comically over-the-top arch villain? The eccentric sensei that embodies every trope of the genre? The old-fashioned notion that you can earn the bully’s respect by beating him up? It’s just as hokey in 2014 as it was back in 1984. And yet, it still kind of works. The movie’s interactions still sound fresh and believable, and the generally excellent cast inhabits their characters with utter conviction. Miyagi in particular could have been a dud, but Morita’s nuanced performance keeps him from coming across as too dull and serious. He becomes an actual person. That scene where Miyagi drunkenly re-enacts his own shocked reaction to the news of how his wife and child died during childbirth is surprisingly gut-wrenching even after 30 years. Macchio and Morita have an undeniable onscreen camaraderie that emotionally anchors the movie, but even the supporting characters come off pretty well despite being given little screen time (Needless to say, the story doesn't pass the Bechdel Test). What I particularly liked when I viewed TKK for this post were the scenes between Macchio and Heller, as they have the kind of relaxed verbal exchanges you’d expect from a mother and her teenage son.

If any character threatens to unbalance the movie, it’s the sneering, swaggering Kreese. His all-consuming hatred for all things weak doesn’t rise above the level of classic pulp villainy. When he instructs one of his students to put Daniel “out of commission”, I could practically see him twirl his virtual moustache. Kreese sometimes feels like he stepped out from another movie that possessed more guns and lots of zombies. But Kove also plays him as such a detestable human being that he raises the stakes and energizes every scene he’s in. So if Miyagi is Yoda, then I guess this makes Kreese a more musclebound Emperor Palpatine.

Kung Fu Panda (2008) from DreamWorks Animation. Directed by John Stevenson and Mark Osborne. Written by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger.

With its gorgeous backdrops, TKK is a very pretty film. It probably helps that 80s Southern California looks positively wholesome and innocent after a 30 year gap. In contrast to the frenetic pacing and busy camerawork of today’s cinema, TKK’s pacing is leisurely, especially the iconic middle section where Daniel and Miyagi hunker down to train. It’s all about the journey as Daniel learns to wax the cars, sand the floor, and paint the fence.  I’m still taken in by the surrounding natural beauty of Leo Carillo Beach where Daniel tries to master the crane technique, even though the smart-ass within me is irked that all he’s doing is clumsily attempting a stylised jumping front kick. On the other hand, the climactic tournament scenes are surprisingly brisk by today’s standards. The famous fight montage set to the corny youth anthem “You’re the Best” by Joe Esposito is a marvel of simplicity, but efficiently conveys the necessary information. The final freeze frame of Miyagi smiling at the camera might seem almost too abrupt. Wouldn’t a Michael Bay have shown Daniel and Ali sharing a passionate kiss while the enraptured crowd swells around the two, accompanied by an exploding fireworks display in the background synchronised to a booming power chord progression played on an electric guitar, and Kreese being arrested for paederasty to the jeers of his now former students? God, how I hate the Transformers.

Like many youth-oriented movies from the 80s, TKK is so sincere with its message, so lacking in irony, so devoid of any self-aware winking at the audience or clever metatextual devices. This movie as it is would not likely be shot today, unless you count the 2010 remake. And the producers reduced the age of its characters from teenage adolescents to tweens in order to make the story more plausible to current fans. TKK quickly spawned a bunch of Hollywood imitators using similar plot devices: The persecuted hero, the Oriental master, the inept White student, the training montage, the tournament as showdown. But none of them could follow the original’s sound advice and find the delicate balance between the hokier elements and the human drama. The cheesy fantasy and the strongmen soon made their way back. But in truth, they never really left. This was the 80s, after all. Take Bloodsport which premiered only 4 years later. I’m not knocking that movie as it has its charms. But it's just one example of how far the genre was moving away from the adventures of an affable pipsqueak. Come to think of it, the closest thing I've recently watched that faithfully follows in the spirit of TKK is Dodgeball.

Oh well. Why don't I finish this post with a panel of the original Karate Kid putting the beatdown on Superboy, because Val Armorr is the boss! That's one big snake he wrangled there.

Karate Kid #12 (1978) from DC Comics. Written by Bob Rozakis. Pencils by Juan Ortiz. Inks by Bob McLeod. Colors by Anthony Tollin. Letters by Milton Snappin.

_____
*The Chinese title for the 2010 remake translates as Kung Fu Dream, a much more literal description since Japanese and Okinawan culture plays no significant role in the movie.

**While I wasn’t initially impressed with the 2010 remake, I did like how the casting of Jaden Smith is a nod to how martial arts have played a huge role in African-American life. The dearth of African-Americans in the 1984 original is a much bigger omission when watched in 2014. How would the movie have turned out if Daniel LaRusso were Black?

7/18/2014

Technical Problems

Typhoon Rammasun/Glenda. Image via BBC News Asia.

Hi, my corner of the world was recently battered by a powerful typhoon that knocked out power for most of the city. As a result, I have not been able to engage in my usual online activities, and will not be able to for a while at least. Honestly, I have no idea when things will get back to normal, so updates will be spotty. I'm so sorry guys, and please stay safe.

7/10/2014

7/07/2014

Martial Myths: Boxers & Saints

Boxers & Saints By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien
By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien
(Spoilers ahead)

Late 19th century China experienced numerous outbursts of anti-foreign and anti-Christian violence. But it was the incidents in Shendong province that would set the stage for the "Yihequan," (Wade–Giles: I Ho Ch’uan) - sometimes translated into English as "Boxers United in Righteousness” (or alternately “Righteous and Harmonious Fists”). This grassroots organisation would inspire, and lend its name to, the mass movement now known in the West as the Boxer Rebellion or Boxer Uprising (1898-1900). After spreading throughout northern China, the Boxers would converge on Beijing and lay siege to the city’s Legation Quarter with the aid of the Imperial Army. This was where foreign expatriates and native converts to Christianity from all over the country sought refuge from the growing violence. But the Boxers would not succeed in ridding China of its foreign presence. Troops from eight nations finally arrived in Beijing, protected the Legations, defeated the Chinese forces, plundered the city and the surrounding countryside, and summarily executed any suspected Boxer. While the immediate repercussions of the Boxer Rebellion were a great calamity, in the long-term their actions would help radically transform the face of China.

What some contemporary Western observers noted about the Yihequan was their unusual method of calisthenics (popularly labelled today as “kung fu”). On the one hand they claimed that they could strengthen their bodies to become immune to the effects of conventional weapons. But the Yihequan also believed that they could channel the gods of legend and popular opera and acquire their mythical powers and abilities in the heat of battle. This kind of magic thinking is rarely taught nowadays to martial arts students. It might even be a source of embarrassment if ever bought up. But it’s the one aspect of the Boxers Gene Luen Yang latches on to as a way to get into their heads. In his latest graphic novel Boxers & Saints, Yihequan magic becomes an all-consuming religious experience equal in power to the mysticism of the Catholic Saints. It’s an idiosyncratic approach that allows him to conveniently sidestep some of the historical complexities while touching on themes of great personal significance.

Boxers & Saints By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien

The comic itself could be described as a comparative study of two kinds of spiritual journeys, mirrored by the two-volume structure. While they could be read separately, they're really meant to complement one another. The first and larger volume focuses on Little Bao, a peasant boy from a small village in Shan-tung province (Yang uses Wade-Giles throughout the comic). Yang simplifies and streamlines the complicated tangle of events that occurred during the Uprising by making the fictional Bao the center of Boxer activity. Unhappy with how foreigners disparage local customs and throw their weight around without fear of reprisal, Bao studies martial arts under itinerant folk hero Red Lantern Chu, learns the magic ritual of spirit possession from an eccentric mountain sage, inspires the youth of his village and others to take up arms against the “foreign devils”, and establishes the “Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.” In the beginning, Bao’s goal is as clear and simple as it is honorable. But as with so many crusaders, things quickly become muddled the closer he gets to achieving those goals.

The second volume tells the story of an unnamed girl who grew up in an adjacent village, but is treated as an outcast by her own family due to the circumstances of her birth corresponding to the numerically-based superstition that Four is Death. After being labeled a “devil” by her own grandfather, she becomes fascinated with a visiting Christian missionary, as foreigners are often called devils by the locals. Deciding that she has more in common with them than her own family, she attends catechism classes, begins to experience visions of the life of Joan of Arc, converts to Roman Catholicism, and takes the name Vibiana. When she is physically abused for her religious conversion, Vibiana runs away from home. This takes place a few years before Bao instigates the Boxer Rebellion. But as the Rebellion heats up, their two paths eventually intersect.

Boxers & Saints By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien

Of the two, Bao starts out as the more relatable character. He only wants to defend his poor community from those overbearing outsiders. The first act of his story can even be described as an origin tale. His father is attacked by villains, which motivates Bao to seek both revenge and justice. He then acquires a superpower after going through a few trials to prove that he is worthy. Yang’s economic cartooning style keeps everything pretty assessable. When Bao uses spirit possession for the first time, the sky is filled by the presence of various gods dressed in colourful opera regalia, then he himself embodies one of the gods. It’s reminiscent of Billy Batson transforming into Captain Marvel. As coloured by Lark Pien, this transformation provides a stark contrast between the impoverished countryside and the gaudily dressed opera characters.

The problems for Bao begin when he expands his mission from protecting the weak to defending all of China. As the mountain of bodies of not just soldiers and missionaries but also women and children begin to accumulate, Bao is goaded on by the god Ch’in Shih-huang, first emperor of China. Ch’in’s an Old Testament kind of guy, and his message to Bao is unambiguous - He has to be completely ruthless in his war against the foreign devils. But Bao is presented with a paradox. He’s being led on to fight for China by a story. But the longer the war lasts, the more he’s forced to ignore other equally important tales that emphasise compassion and mercy. As he’s reminded during the burning of an ancient library, “…What is China but a people and their stories?” Bao is torn between his patriotism and his humanism, and B&S offers no answer on to how to resolve his internal conflict and fashion a more effective synthesis. The political and personal remain irreconcilable domains, and the Boxers' quest to save China is doomed to failure.

Boxers & Saints By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien

Vibiana’s attraction to Christianity may have been based on less than honourable motives, but this makes her a more well-rounded character. Her lifelong struggles with her adopted faith are in fact perfectly in line with a long tradition of doubting Thomas figures found in Roman Catholicism. Her supporting cast is also largely composed of people struggling with faith each in their own unique way. While Bao’s visions are unambiguous, if terrifying, Vibiana is constantly being led astray by her spiritual communions with Joan. Vibiana speaks to Joan directly, but is often left more confused than enlightened. At one point, she even considers joining the Boxer Uprising since the Boxers seem to parallel Joan’s own military career. Towards the end, Yang weighs the two lives in favour of Vibiana’s more introspective quest over Bao’s more outward expression of belligerence. Faith should never be confused with absolute certainty. And judging from the act of self-sacrifice she performs to help Bao, Vibiana would have probably been at the very least recognised as a martyr by the Church had she existed at the time.

Boxers & Saints By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien

And thanks to that Catholicism, Yang can’t help but engage in the heavy-handed ecumenical tendency to mould the followers of other faiths into Anonymous Christians. In American Born Chinese, he inserted the character of Tze-Yo-Tzuh into the story of the Monkey King as a thinly-disguised Christian analog. In B&S he links the bodhisattva Guan Yin to Jesus Christ. Thankfully, he isn't as emphatic in conveying the message, though the practice can still strike a discordant and not entirely convincing note.

B&S is Yang's most ambitious and complex work to date reflecting his particular worldview. Due to Yang’s peculiar passion for exploring the dimensions of his faith, the comic can sometimes feel like a tangential investigation of the Boxer Uprising and of China itself. Let’s ignore/downplay whatever socio-economic factors contributed to widespread discontent and the rise of the Yihequan, and just imagine that it was an exclusively religious conflict. And who cares that infighting within the Imperial Court and Army hastened the demise of the Boxers. The final panel of B&S is a mournful portrait of Beijing (Peking) being burned to the ground as it's being sacked by foreigners. But as tragic as that all sounds, the war did have the effect of limiting the scope of Western colonialism within the country, and the modern China that would emerge after 1900 has noticeably gone down a far more secular path.

Boxers & Saints By Gene Luen Yang. Colors by Lark Pien

7/02/2014

Webcomic: The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis

Go to: Tor, by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Purvis

Villainous Canadian Stereotypes

Superhero Girl by Faith Erin Hicks

Go to: This Nonsense by Faith Erin Hicks

Two words: Baby Seals.

6/25/2014

Webcomic: Carriers

Carriers by Lauren Weinstein

Go to: Nautilus, by Lauren Weinstein (via Heidi MacDonald)

6/09/2014

Godzilla (2014)

Godzilla (2014)
via Godzilla Movies

Gojira (Godzilla) created by Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya

(obligatory spoiler alert)

This was a surprise. I mistakenly assumed that Hollywood’s second attempt at Godzilla would be a remake of the 1954 original, like the 1998 misstep, based on watching trailers showing a very cranky Bryan Cranston screaming about humanity being sent back to the Stone Age, or a mournful Ken Watanabe mentioning a creature that couldn’t be killed from way back in 1954. While this is still an origin tale of sorts, the titular character is closer to the King of the Monsters of the 60s and 70s - Defender of the Earth from the truly nasty kaiju out there to get us. And that’s good news for those of us who want Godzilla not to be a villain that has to be vanquished at the end, but a hero who can come back to face new foes.

There are a few things you have to accept to enjoy this type of Godzilla film. For one, the people don’t matter so much. They might occasionally lend assistance, or be a nuisance. But mostly, they’re there to bear witness to the awesomeness that is the kaiju showdown. Those aforementioned trailers put Cranston front and center to sell the film to the public. His tragic relationship with Juliette Binoche during the first act of the story does provide emotional ballast, but with his death the human interest falls on the steadfast but dull Aaron Taylor-Johnson. This turns out to be a smart move. Did anyone in their right mind really think that Walter White taking on Godzilla was a good idea? The conflict between Cranston and Taylor-Johnson is mercifully settled by the time the kaiju first lock horns. More importantly, the totally perfunctory depiction of Taylor-Johnson’s family troubles mostly avoids the kind of mawkishness that’s always put front and center in effects-laden Hollywood blockbusters. So we’re not really forced to care about whether he’s ever reunited with his wife and kid.

Having said that, I am a little disappointed that Watanabe is simply used as the film's resident Asian. Some of the early scenes are set in East Asia, namely the Philippines and Japan. Yet the people in charge are mainly Caucasians. Even in San Francisco where much of the story takes place, people of color are pushed to the margins. At least Watanabe doesn’t die in the first 20 minutes, so that’s progress. On a side-note, why does the military keep calling Godzilla by that name when Watanabe first refers to him (or her) as Gojira?

Another important feature is that the military has to be pretty useless against the kaiju. It’s a relief that the film doesn’t resort to the usual jingoistic recruiting message about joining a band of brothers, despite the Taylor-Johnson character being a naval bomb disposal expert. He does his job with a minimum of wisecracks, and he’s so devoid of personality that the role could have been split into different officers for every other scene. The film also avoids the opposite cliche of portraying the military as incompetent jack-booted thugs. They’ve been ordered to do whatever it takes to stop the kaiju, but they’re at best bothersome pests, except at the end when Taylor-Johnson conveniently does something heroic. The act does slightly undercut Watanabe’s oft repeated pronouncements that it’s hubris for Man to think he can control nature.

A major stumbling block is the sparsity of kaiju action. This is another peculiarity of the series. Godzilla doesn’t appear until halfway through the film. And director Gareth Edwards adopts an understated approach that some critics have declared “boring.” Quite a few times the camera pans upward from ground-level to reveal an impending kaiju beatdown, only to cut-off at a crucial moment. We’re not allowed to have a really good look at Godzilla until the climactic battle. Personally, I can understand how this could be a huge problem given the dearth of compelling human drama. But I also don’t mind the restraint. One of the challenges of Pacific Rim was holding audience attention, largely accomplished by staging increasingly complex fight scenes with correspondingly higher stakes. Nevertheless, the dog-piling of action scenes could become tiresome at times. By keeping most of the kaiju action offstage, the moment when Godzilla gets the upper hand feels a lot more satisfying. And it helps that this film has some of the most gorgeous cinematography found in a 2014 summer blockbuster.

Ultimately, Godzilla is an incomprehensible protagonist/walking deus ex machina. Watanabe is convinced that Godzilla's there to restore balance, but never gives solid evidence to back it up. Why would a 350 foot tall prehistoric creature who looks like a cross between a dragon and an angry bipedal crocodile even notice, let alone care about the lives of millions of tiny San Franciscans? Is that even a meaningful question to ask of such a film?


6/07/2014

Webcomic: Solo

Solo by Hope Larson

Go to: Solo by Hope Larson

6/03/2014

Not Fit to Print: See Something, Say Something


Go to: Michael Kupperman, by David Rees and Michael Kupperman (via Tom Spurgeon)

5/24/2014

5/19/2014

Webcomic: Hobotopia

Hobotopia by Adam Koford

Go to: Hobotopia by Adam Koford

5/18/2014

5/12/2014

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle
Colors by Lucie Firoud and Guy Delisle
Translated by Helge Dascher

Cartoonist Guy Delisle has carved out a special niche writing about strange foreign lands. That’s his approach to Pyongyang and Burma Chronicles. Noting the strangeness of a place may not be particularly insightful analysis, but it works perfectly for Delisle. His stockpiling of numerous insignificant details mirrors how most clueless Westerners experience the rest of the world. Delisle has become the spokesperson for early stage culture shock because he never achieves true mastery of his subject. Not that he seems to care. Even when set in a country that would supposably be more familiar to Delisle’s readers, Jerusalem: Chronicles from The Holy City still follows in the footsteps of those past travelogues. But when the same style is applied to this more ambitious work, its homespun charms are stretched and bloated, and ultimately exposed as a kind of affectation.

Delisle’s cartoon avatar always begins his journey as a blank slate, as if he’s never travelled abroad or did any prior research, and this ersatz naiveté mimics the gap between tourist and native. In this case, his self-enforced blandness provides a peculiar contrast to his tumultuous surroundings. Jerusalem is, above all else, a city mired in identity politics. Delisle acts perplexed when it’s explained to him that the international community doesn’t recognize the city as Israel’s capital (which left me incredulous. Is he that unaware of the Arab-Israeli conflict?). The first visible symbol of how identity has altered the landscape is when Delisle visits a checkpoint at the infamous West Bank/Israel separation wall and watches as the guards fire tear gas into the crowd when responding to a minor disturbance.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

That wall becomes a favorite motif of his, a metaphor for a country defined by every kind of barrier. Delisle learns to avoid the “Ultra-Orthodox” Jewish enclave Mea Shearim, especially after noticing a sign that warns outsiders to stay away. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is managed by six Christian denominations whose representatives behave like rival street gangs. After watching a news report about a celebration at the church that comes to blows, Delisle makes the banal remark “But when you think that Christians can’t even set an example in a conflict that’s polarized the world for so long, it’s a bit depressing....” then thanks God for being an atheist. Delisle visits the once bustling city of Hebron, now the battleground for Palestinians and Jewish settlers fighting over the Cave of the Patriarchs. Netting is hung above the streets to protect Muslims from garbage tossed at their direction by the settlers. And he tries to come to grips with the clash over the two most high profile religious landmarks in all of Jerusalem, the Wailing Wall and the Dome on the Rock, noting the queer alliance between conservative Jews and fundamentalist Christians who believe that knocking down the mosque to rebuild the temple is a prerequisite to bringing about the Apocalypse and the Second Coming of Christ.

To a nonbeliever like Delisle, these barriers present a huge headache. It makes the city a confusing maze of no-go zones linked by disparate forms of public transportation serving different segregated neighborhoods. When he gets lost and accidentally drives into Mea Shearim during the Sabbath, he’s attacked by an angry mob. It complicates normal routines like shopping and driving the kids to school, not to mention exploring the rest of the country. Extremely paranoid airport security makes Delisle's occasional brief trips abroad almost intolerable. His most self-aware line is delivered after he learns that the border authorities have rejected his request to conduct a comics workshop in Gaza. A colleague informs Delisle “They said, ‘The guy who draws comics? Forget it.’” This causes him to wonder “Maybe they've got me mixed up with Joe Sacco?” Like many of the expat community he regularly interacts with, Delisle is vaguely sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians. As in Burma, he’s accompanying his significant other, who works for the humanitarian organization Médecins sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). And as with Burma, it’s also the source of his emotional detachment. Delisle knows the assignment will last only a year and that he will not develop a deeper relationship with the place. But each of Israel's varied groups believe they have an irrefutable connection to this slither of land which precludes everyone else's claims. The Palestinians in particular appear to have no choice but to keep fighting for their ever-shrinking share of territory if they don't want to loose it to an implacable foe. Palestinian cartoonists and illustrators in Gaza are prevented from getting work in Jerusalem. But as an outsider and rootless cosmopolitan, Delisle has the freedom, or rather the privilege, to leave at any time.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

And as with Burma, it’s not really about the host country itself, but about Delisle’s own bumbling efforts to adjust to said country’s weird customs. In smaller doses, his everyman schtick can be amusing. The multi-ethnic setting provides plenty of opportunity for Delisle to exercise his gift for caricature. But spread over a discursive, three hundred page graphic novel, the facile storytelling can start to grate. Do I really need to hear about every quiet spot or nice place to grab a bite? Or every bothersome checkpoint? Must I listen about how difficult it is to find good housekeepers or babysitters? Or Delisle drawing himself complain about how he’s too harried from taking care of the kids to actually draw? Jerusalem was the first Delisle travelogue I found a chore to get through at around the halfway point. Delisle also spent a fair amount of time recounting his domestic situation in Burma. Problem is his family portrait is equally nondescript. His SO’s job at MSF is barely discussed, let alone her unique viewpoint on the situation, and his two generically cute children are sort of a black hole that suck up much of Delisle’s time and energy. This saps reader interest the way being forced to look at someone else’s family vacation pictures would drain most people.

The lack of an overarching narrative over such a lengthy book draws attention to the limitations of the art. Delisle employs the occasional splash of intense color to break up the monotony. This just underlines the ugliness of the monochrome color scheme, exacerbated by the geometric flatness, minimal characterizations and wide-angle perspective. Delisle’s overall aesthetic hasn’t evolved much since Pyongyang, but at this point his commitment to it starts to either look like a withdrawal into a protective shell, or maybe a form of artistic laziness. Whatever the reason, Delisle remains mostly a master of the incidental.

Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City by Guy Delisle

5/04/2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Image via Collider
Spider-Man, Gwen Stacy, Aunt May, Green Goblin, and Electro created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko
Rhino created by Stan Lee and John Romita Sr.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a bloated sequel that harks back to the superhero films of the nineteen nineties, mainly because watching it caused me to make unfortunate comparisons with the Avengers-centric Marvel cinematic universe. Every entry of that series has pulled-off the feat of building off the momentum of the previous outing. Take the recent Captain America: The Winter Soldier which manages to draw together narrative threads that began way back in Iron Man, it comes across as a crucial middle chapter of a much grander tale as it does a Captain America story. But when Spider-Man confronts the villain tag team made up of Electro and the Green Goblin, I was uncomfortably reminded of the random villain pairings from Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Then, and now, they didn't make much sense as partnerships other than coincidentally sharing a common foe.

It doesn’t help that this film’s villains are so flat. Heath Ledger's memorable turn at bat as the Joker and Tom Hiddleston's fan-favorite portrayal as Loki helped enliven their respective hero-villain conflict. But Max Dillon/Electro (as played by Jamie Foxx) is your standard loser/obsessed fanboy who simply gets caught up in the whirlwind of events. He also looks like a poor man’s Dr. Manhattan. And while Dane DeHaan struggles mightily to impart some pathos into the sickly Harry Osborne/Green Goblin, he’s hampered by a script that that has his character grow increasingly loopy. Throw in Paul Giamatti’s overacting in his bit part as the Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich, and the whole thing begins to feel very cluttered. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone might be a charming couple playing star-crossed lovers Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy. Unfortunately this isn’t an indie romantic-comedy, but a big, noisy action blockbuster with way too many subplots to keep track of. Even the central mystery of the disappearance of Peter’s parents, clumsily introduced in the first movie, never quite succeeds in inspiring the desired emotional catharsis, and kinda gets lost in the film’s massive fight scenes.

As for the fight scenes themselves. They’re spectacular and colorful, and make for pretty desktop wallpapers. There's something to be said for using New York as the stage for all those superhero battles. And it's fun to see Spidey interact with the locals (even if Stan Lee's requisite cameo is more pointless than usual). But they still can't totally eliminate that annoying weightlessness to Spider-Man whenever he swings through the city streets, a side effect of heavily depending on CGI to animate the action.

All this material is being crammed into ASM2 because of Sony’s hasty attempts to catch up to Marvel. They’ve already announced their intention to ramp up their Spider-Man film output. ASM2 in particular is burdened with conveying the message that OsCorp is the big bad behind most, if not all of, Spider-Man’s rogues gallery. The tactic might work out for them in the long run, but for now the audience has to contend with this hot mess.

4/20/2014

Journal Comic: Tessa Brunton

Tessa Brunton

Go to: The Comics Journal: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, by Tessa Brunton

4/18/2014

Free Speech

xkcd by Randall Munroe

Go to: xkcd by Randall Munroe

4/08/2014

Journal Comic: Ducks

Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Go to: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Journal Comic: Danica Novgorodoff

Danica Novgorodoff

Go to: The Comics Journal: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, by Danica Novgorodoff

4/03/2014

Webcomic: Tüki

Tüki by Jeff Smith

Go to: Boneville by Jeff Smith (via Heidi MacDonald)

3/27/2014

Webcomic: Prospect Park Dusk

Prospect Park Dusk by Mike Dawson

Go to: Study Group Comics, by Mike Dawson (via Lauren Davis)

3/24/2014

She-Hulk #2 and Moon Knight #1

She-Hulk #2  By Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, Muntsa Vicente, Clayton Cowles, Kevin Wada.
She-Hulk #2

By Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, Muntsa Vicente, Clayton Cowles, Kevin Wada.

She-Hulk created by Stan Lee and John Buscema.

Issue #2 continues the process of establishing She-Hulk as her own star. Having opened  a solo law practice in Brooklyn, Jennifer Walters must now go about gathering a supporting cast. Such is the case with most distaff heroes that they’re usually playing the role of supporting character. But She-Hulk has as good a chance as any to make it as a lead given her profile and overall likability. Writer Charles Soule understands this, and gets to showcase her as a badass as well as a struggling lawyer in this issue.

The two characters introduced are her landlady Sharon King and eccentric paralegal Angie Huang, neither particularly intimidated by Jennifer’s reputation as a superhero. Sharon’s a former mutant and Charles Xavier student who lost her superpowers during the events spinning off from House of M. Now she rents out building space to superhuman-owned businesses. Angie has a bit of a mysterious past and insists on keeping a creepy-looking macaque monkey with her at all times. No doubt, more of the building’s numerous residents will pop up in the future. But for fans looking for a familiar face, Patsy Walker, aka Hellcat, joins the practice after she and Jennifer go out for a night about the town, and then storm a secret AIM facility against Jennifer’s better judgement.

She-Hulk #2  By Charles Soule, Javier Pulido, Muntsa Vicente, Clayton Cowles, Kevin Wada.

The new setting not only appropriately reflects Jennifer’s own position as a female character trying to step out from the shadow of her more famous namesake, but as one of the few superheroes who doesn’t maintain a secret identity. So it makes sense that her superhero career and her day job should mesh more intimately and more openly. Jennifer isn’t Matt Murdock - a lawyer by day, masked crime-fighter by night trying to keep the two separate. And judging from the “blue file” first mentioned in issue #1 and how issue #2 ends, Soule is particularly interested in exploring just how being a superhero would affect her law practice, and vice-versa.

Moon Knight #1  By Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Chris Elliopoulos, Adi Granov, Bill Siekiewicz, Skottie Young, Katie Cook.
Moon Knight #1

By Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Chris Elliopoulos, Adi Granov, Bill Siekiewicz, Skottie Young, Katie Cook.

Moon Knight created by Doug Moench and Don Perlin. 

Moon Knight is Marvel Comic’s sort-of Batman knockoff, except he’s crazy in his own special way. Or is he? That’s the topic being explored in this premiere issue: Is former mercenary Marc Spector suffering from Dissociative Personality Disorder? Does he have brain damage? Is he acting on behalf of the god Khonshu? Or is he being possessed by an alien entity? The metatatextual explanation for those conflicting answers is in the various interpretations stemming from the work of past creative teams. But rather than attempt to untangle the character’s peculiar continuity, new writer Warren Ellis has a couple of talking heads give their two cents before the comic arrives at a tentative conclusion. Information is presented as fractured, coming from different sources, and not all of it is reliable. They’re pieces that have to be assembled and sifted through in order to arrive at a working theory on what makes Spector tick.

This is a deliberately paced comic that feels longer than its nineteen pages, thanks to artist Declan Shalvey. Much of the narrative’s meat and potatoes is the titular hero helping the police track down a serial killer at large in New York. Shalvey’s atmospheric panels combined with the shadowy tones of colorist Jordie Bellaire transform the city into the kind of vast and mysterious place full of concrete canyons and underground lairs that could hide the kind of villain Moon Knight pursues.The character’s redesign is particularly stylish and calculated to pay homage to classic pulp heroes. Spector is driven around in an automated white limousine, and he eschews the usual spandex for a white suit, white gloves, and a white bag over his head. When donning this attire, Bellaire leaves him uncolored with the white of the paper untouched. He’s literally a black and white figure, and the jarring contrast to the murky world he inhabits makes him an almost spectral presence. The theatrical effect reverses the usual urban crime-fighter MO of hiding in the shadows, and when a cop points out that his fashion sense will make it easy for the serial killer to see him coming, he nonchalantly responds “That’s the part I like.”

Moon Knight #1  By Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, Jordie Bellaire, Chris Elliopoulos, Adi Granov, Bill Siekiewicz, Skottie Young, Katie Cook.

The comic is a pretty good showcase for Bellaire. As Moon Knight descends into the city’s dark belly, he eventually finds the hulking, blood-soaked killer, saturated in pure red to match Spector’s own empty white. Their battle is a classic color-coded case of brain vs brawn, or good vs evil. And as Spector later confronts Khonshu over his own true nature, the colors gradually shift to dark grays and blacks that swallow him up.

Cosmic Inflation Explained

PhD by Jorge Cham

Go to: PhD by Jorge Cham

3/16/2014

Webcomic: Super-Enigmatix

 Super-Enigmatix by Richard Sala

Go to: Super-Enigmatix by Richard Sala (via Heidi MacDonald)

Webcomic: Blindsprings

 Blindsprings by Kadi Fedoruk

Go to: Blindsprings by Kadi Fedoruk (via Lauren Davis)

3/13/2014

Science is Sexy

 Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

Go to: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

3/11/2014

Gallery: Crash Landed

Crash Landed by Ken Hermann

Crash Landed by Ken Hermann

Crash Landed by Ken Hermann


Reminds me of Jason Turner's The Explorer.