3/31/2008

Men of Tomorrow and The American Dream

If Siegel and Shuster had done business with honorable men, their lives — and the lives of their families — would have been far different. But they didn’t. Harry Donenfeld was a crook. Jack Liebowitz was a two-faced socialist who abandoned his principles in the name of corporate profits. If there’s a Hell below, I’ll surely meet both men there. No: Siegel and Shuster struggled financially for decades, and while each died earning stipends that DC Comics had been shamed into paying them, these sums were nothing compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars the company had reaped over the decades and continues to reap, a gluttonous middle finger thrust into the face of the American Dream.

- Dirk Deppey on the sordid history of Detective Comics conduct toward Superman creators Jerome Siegel and Joseph Shuster.


I'm pretty much in agreement with those sentiments. However Judge Larson's decision limited itself to the creation of Superman in Action Comics #1. He upheld a previous court ruling rejecting DC's dubious claims that the company had significant input into the creation of the story:
The thrust of defendants’ argument was made and rejected by the Second Circuit in the 1970s Superman copyright renewal litigation, and is thus precluded as a matter of collateral estoppel here. In that litigation, defendants’ predecessors-in-interest presented much of the same evidence now submitted in this case to argue that this additional material transformed the entirety of Siegel and Shuster’s pre-existing Superman material published in Action Comics, Vol. 1, into a work made for hire. The Second Circuit rejected this argument, elaborating: “In the case before us, Superman and his miraculous powers were completely developed long before the employment relationship was instituted. The record indicates that the revisions directed by the defendants were simply to accommodate Superman to a magazine format. We do not consider this sufficient to create the presumption that the [comic book] strip was a work for hire.” Siegel, 508 F.2d at 914. This conclusion forecloses any further litigation on the point of whether Shuster’s additional drawings when reformatting the underlying Superman material into a comic book format or other facts related to such a theory such as the colorization process for Action Comics, Vol. 1, or the party responsible for the illustration of the cover to the magazine, rendered all or portions of the resulting comic book a work made for hire.

Which sidestepped the issue of ownership for subsequent works created under work-for-hire conditions. As Deppey puts it:
...few if any original concepts and/or characters currently in use by major comic-book companies can so easily be demonstrated to have been created and produced outside the premises of the company before being licensed for publication. Two borderline examples — Dan DeCarlo’s co-authorship of Josie and Marv Wolfman’s creation of Blade — have already been struck down by the courts as having been created on a work-for-hire basis. From the perspective of the larger New York corporate-comics industry, then, this really isn’t going to change anything save, perhaps, the way that DC Comics’ accounting department deals with Superman. And even there, changes won’t become immediately apparent until the other issues in the Siegal case are resolved. Until that occurs, DC Comics is still entitled to create and publish new Superman comics, and Warner Brothers is still entitled to make Superman movies and license the characters out to third parties for lunchboxes and whatnot.

So there won't be an avalanche of creators from the thirties or forties successfully reversing copyright for comics created under work-for-hire conditions back to themselves. Nonetheless the story of DC's screwing of Siegel and Shuster is the story that defined the one-sided nature of the relationship between publisher and creator for the next several decades. And it's important that some justice be served for their years laboring for less than honorable people.

3/30/2008

Truth and Justice

After seventy years, Jerome Siegel’s heirs regain what he granted so long ago – the copyright in the Superman material that was published in Action Comics Vol. 1. What remains is an apportionment of profits, guided in some measure by the rulings contained in this Order, and a trial on whether to include the profits generated by DC Comics’ corporate sibling’s exploitation of the Superman copyright.

- Judge Stephen Larson in the conclusion of his written opinion accompanying the decision to grant copyright to Jerome Siegel's heirs.

...Still, despite its limited scope and remaining unfinished details, this is a historic ruling rich with symbolic significance. And in a poignant coincidence, the judge issued his order on the same day that Grant Morrison's homage to Siegel and Shuster in All Star Superman #10 hit the stands.

- Jeff Trexler on the decision.

Happy 70th Birthday! Sometimes the never-ending battle is worth it.

Pretty Face Volume One

Pretty Face Volume 1
Cross-dressing is one of those familiar romantic comedy conventions that goes in and out of style, but will probably never completely vanish. The protagonist gains access to, and is allowed to remain close with a love interest by being disguised as the opposite gender. She won't reveal her true identity for fear of being rejected. But if the relationship is to proceed beyond the platonic level, the disguise has to be discarded. There's the rub, and the catalyst for all kinds of situational humor. Think of Viola in Twelfth Night, or Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot.

While cross-dressing characters continue to show-up in mainstream entertainment, their traditional comic role has been transplanted into Japanese manga. Sometimes it's a case of playing with the appearance of androgynous-looking bishonen and bishojo: Haruhi Fujioka of Ouran High School Host Club, or the princesses of Princess Princess. But in the short-lived series Pretty Face, creator Yasuhiro Kano comes-up with a most unlikely premise for a romantic story, and proceeds to milk it for all its comic worth. High school bully and karate fighter Masashi Rando is involved in a school bus accident that leaves him horribly disfigured and in a coma for a year. When he finally recovers, he discovers that his parents think he's dead and have moved away leaving no forwarding address. Even more upsetting is that he now wears the face of Rina Kurimi, a girl he secretly likes, because Dr. Manabe, the surgeon who fixed him up, used a photo of her found amongst Rando's personal belongings to reconstruct his face. This gross incompetence progresses into criminal misconduct when he decides to perform a sex change operation on the comatose Rando, who fortunately at that moment regains consciousness. After fleeing from Manabe's clinic, he runs into Rina, who mistakes him for her missing twin sister Yuna Kurimi. Overjoyed by the sudden reunion, she drags him home where he is welcomed back into the family with open arms and no questions asked. Rando's first instinct is to run away, but decides to stay in order not to hurt Rina's feelings. He resolves to track down the true Yuna while continuing to masquerade as her.

Still with me? The real fun begins when Rando/Yuna enrolls at his old school and settles-in with Rina and her friends. He forgets to use the women's toilets, gets involved in the old rivalry between the karate and judo clubs, fends off the advances of a lecherous male teacher, makes excuses to avoid the annual medical exams, all the while dealing with Dr. Manabe's constant suggestions to get rid of that "unnecessary appendage." He initially tries to solve these problems by exploiting his newly acquired good looks and "feminine" charms, but can't help falling back on his old habits of resorting to physical violence. Ironically his actions, which branded him as a delinquent as a boy, now draw so much unwanted attention that an instant fan club is formed by his horde of male admirers. There's nothing subtle about Rando. He's the typical shonen roughneck with a heart of gold. While he acts like a jerk, he's completely devoted to, and highly protective of Rina, happy to be at her side. Rina is herself a rather bland character and no less a manga cliche. Generically quiet, sweet-natured, and smart, she was already conveniently crushing on Rando before his supposed demise.

Yasuhiro Kano has a strong proclivity for drawing cute high school girls. He gets rid of the dorky-looking male Rando in the first half dozen pages of the story. After his transformation, Rando/Yuna is shown in a number of compromising poses that emphasize his attractiveness while threatening to expose his masculinity. Look at the volume #1 cover for example. Would the uninformed person seeing it on a shelf at Borders think that was a boy? At one point he dons a pair of large fake breasts at Manabe's insistence, which convincingly makes him more effeminate than any live actor could by wearing makeup and prosthetics. Unfortunately he can't remove them for the next 24 hours, so he tries to hide them by wrapping them tightly in bandages, with predictably disastrous results. Only with pictures can characters be designed to provide fan service that simultaneously titillates and flummoxes the reader. Kano is also pretty adept at rendering comically exaggerated expressions and cartoon violence, which he uses to good effect to illustrate Rando's gender confusion and ferocious outbursts.

I don't know if it was a lack of commercial success or a decision on Kano's part to end the series, but Pretty Face reached only six volumes in Japan. Weirder manga have lasted longer than that. It's a fairly innocuous product despite Viz giving it a mature content rating. Just lots of goofy fun for young readers.

3/24/2008

Parting is Caustic

How do otaku say "goodbye" when they must part ways? From Genshiken by Kio Shimoku.

3/21/2008

Moe Maid

Kaoru Mori pokes fun at some of the usual tropes found in manga on her website. John Jakala offers translations. This one strip sums it up.

3/19/2008

RASL #1

If there is anything about reading serialized comics that one can take away, it is that one should not judge the quality of a story based on a very partial reading. The early chapters of Jeff Smith's hugely popular comic series Bone were likened to the work of Walt Kelly. But whether due to artistic evolution or conscious design, it would later quickly advance into the realm of adventure fantasy. Yet on rereading all of Bone, it becomes apparent that this narrative shift was anticipated from the very beginning. With this in mind, examining the debut of Smith's new series RASL is an intriguing exercise.


Bone was one of those rare comics creations that received both tremendous commercial success and high critical praise. Jeff Smith could have parlayed that into landing a lucrative deal with an established publisher. And yet with RASL he returns to his black-and-white self-publishing roots. Even more interestingly, instead of publishing the series in thicker "graphic novel" volumes, he chooses to work in the traditional pamphlet format as he did in Bone. Working within these limitations, each pamphlet forms the outlines of a single chapter within a larger work. The first issue becomes the prologue. Smith is adept at this kind of pacing, and in this case he thrusts the reader right into the action. A unnamed art thief is in the middle of a heist which doesn't go smoothly. Fortunately for him, he has the uncanny ability to jump between dimensions. How he acquired this goes unexplained, but it grows increasingly evident that someone may be aware of his ability and is after him for unknown reasons. This is all that is needed to set-up the narrative. The protagonist is introduced, a conflict is framed, and a number of mysteries are presented to draw the reader in.

Smith is as skilled a cartoonist as ever. He seems to have no problem drawing gritty urban settings as he did valleys and the forest filled with talking animals. His art thief is as unpleasant a character as the Bone cousins were small and huggable. It's still the same cartoony style which triggered those Walt Kelly comparisons, but adapted to a very different subject-matter. There isn't a whole lot of humor, but there is a great deal of forceful energy. Smith uses very little dialogue for this issue, but instead employs the technique of narrative captions as a way to reveal the character's inner state. He manages to avoid the trap of dumping too much information by carefully balancing captioned panels with silent action-filled panels. But the restraint also serves to control the pace of the story. Only a few details are revealed by the end of the issue before it ends. But this serves only to raise more questions.


Where Jeff Smith will eventually go with RASL is the most interesting mystery of all. Just as in Bone, Smith is taking his time establishing the tone of the narrative. Only gradually will its contours be revealed. That he lets it unfold within the confines of the pamphlet comic is itself an important choice designed to keep readers engaged. He succeeded before in building and maintaining a fanbase for more than a decade, and he has the clout to repeat his success in today's radically different market.

3/09/2008

Budo

Cultural Stereotypes
Budo: The Art of Killing
Before the latest anime and manga explosion in the West unleashed the sailor-suited schoolgirl on so many impressionable teenagers, there was the sword-wielding, high screeching, side-kicking, martial-arts hero. This was one of the most familiar images I saw perpetuated by popular media in the eighties: from film, television, comic books, to literature and video games. Japan's martial reputation is an element of the West's general wariness towards the country dating from the last World War (and going back even further). The typical view of Japan could be described as: a geographically isolated country, racially and culturally homogenous, its people raised in cramped, austere conditions to be obedient to authority, conformist, polite, disciplined, hardworking, patriotic, militaristic, inscrutable. Can't forget inscrutable. The qualities which supposably made Japanese soldiers capable of fighting to the last man helped push Japan's post-war growth. Not surprisingly the country's economic success was met with trepidation and xenophobia in some quarters, exacerbated by worry about America's possible declining status as a world power.[1]

Fiction and Reality

Off course the Japanese romanticize their heritage as much as anyone else, and their bushi,[2] whether it's the or , get the glitzy media treatment just as much as cowboys or medieval knights in Hollywood. Fiction is one thing. What about the reality behind the larger-than-life image?

One of my early influences spurring my nascent interest in legitimate Japanese (and East Asian) martial culture was the Japanese film Budo (Einaru Budo).[3] It's been a long time since I first saw it but I recently happened to watch it again. Interestingly my memories of the movie are different from the version distributed by cult label Synapse Films: First, in line with their catalogue of horror and exploitation flicks, its title was changed to the rather unfortunate Budo: The Art of Killing. Second, a voice-over narrative track has been added that I don't recall hearing those many years ago. Both of these changes, in my opinion, have macekred the product. But I'll elaborate on this later.

Someone hearing the Synapse title might get the impression that what they're about to witness will be some kind of slaughter-fest. Nothing close to that happens. There are only two scenes of simulated death: The first one, which actually begins the movie, is a discreet theatrical reproduction of seppuku.[4] But the bulk of the picture is taken-up by demonstrations of practitioners of the sword, the halberd, miscellaneous Okinanwan weaponry, judo, sumo, aikido and karate-do. It's not comprehensive, just a survey of the more well-known disciplines. Not surprisingly, the sword (kendo, iado etc.) receives the most exposure, while karate-do receives the most attention among the empty-handed combat forms.

The film is of interest to enthusiasts because of the content and the personalities that appear in it. First, to anyone interested in what actual budo looks like, what's being exhibited here is far more authentic than what's shown in popular entertainment like, oh say, Naruto. But I suspect that most lay-people would be turned-off by the lack of flashy acrobatics or various special effects that regularly accompany fictional onscreen hand-to-hand combat. The demos by themselves are fairly typical: Budoka are either performing solo, attacking inanimate objects (sandbags, wooden boards, bamboo stalks, tree trunks etc.), or performing together in various choreographed or improvised fight sequences. No one is getting intentionally hurt.

Second, the producers managed to round-up a couple of highly respected budoka to perform some of the demos. Yoshinkan aikido founder Gozo Shioda gets to throw-around three partners in his free fighting demo. Famous shito karate exponent Teruo Hayashi shows-off his skills with the tonfa, kama, and nunchaku[5], and performs a few karate kata.[6] Modern-day swordsman Taizaburo Nakamura slices bales of straw with a katana. Takamiyama, the first foreign sumo champion, trains with his fellow wrestlers. It's a not unimpressive list.

But watching an hour and a half or demonstrations would become pretty tedious to the uninitiated. The film tries to break the monotony by taking the budoka outdoors. kendoka cross swords in rice fields, at night, in forest groves, on temple grounds, in front of the majestic Mount Fuji. Karate-ka train in the snow and on the beach. In one bizarre scene, one of them is conditioning his hands by repeatedly striking a locomotive.

Interspersed between the various demos are scenes of Japanese life. Some of them bear a direct connection to budo, such as actual classes and training sessions, tournaments, equestrian events, a smith forging swords, or sword polishing scenes. Others like religious festivals or Zen Buddhist monks meditating are more obtuse in their connection. Others like Noh dances blended with various kata simply look cool. Using Japan as a backdrop may seem cliche now, but it's used to great effect here to heighten the exotic beauty of the fighting disciplines. They're all attractively shot like some commercial from Japan's board of tourism.

In the end Budo isn't so much a documentary as a promotional video. It takes no critical stance about its subject matter, supplies no real historical information, offers no analysis, makes no attempt to differentiate between koryu bujutsu and the gendai budo,[7] shows no candid interviews with the personalities that appear in it. The film makes no attempt to dispel the mystique associated with the Japanese martial arts. While it's nice to watch, its spiritual lessons do not cut too deep.

The Art of Killing


For me the most cringe-inducing part of Budo: the Art of Killing is the voice-over narration. I can understand why it was added. For afficianados like me, watching famous budoka in action can be very engrossing. But for everyone else a film with neither plot nor dialogue, and a seemingly endless succession of demonstrations would probably get repetitive after fifteen minutes. Judiciously placed narration could inform and educate the audience about what they are watching. But the narration in this case does neither. In fact it's peppered with many half-truths and generalizations.

For one thing the narrator goes overboard in selling the deadliness of these various fighting arts. During an early kendo kata performance he intones "As real swords are used, great skill is required as the least mistake means certain death." How many times does that happen? During the filming of a judo free fighting session one judoka passes-out after being successfully choked. The narrator warns "Should one loose consciousness...he will die if left alone." Throughout the film, words like "severe", "cruel", "pain" and "death" are repeatedly used to emphasize the severity of the training, which lasts a lifetime since no one ever achieves perfection. Wow, a lifetime of pain and misery. They must be dropping by the hundreds everyday in Japan. Why would anyone want to send their kids to karate class after listening to this?

Then there's the usual self-aggrandizing claims made on behalf of their respective disciplines: Judo allows the smaller man to defeat the bigger man. With aikido, the person can defeat the opponent without raising a single blow. But The karate expert can kill a man with a single blow. The most historically inaccurate statement made in the film is when the narrator basically says that karate (and Okinawan weapons) was designed to fight against the sword. Seriously now. At the time the movie was produced the relative novelty of Japanese budo gave them a certain invincibility that still tends to persist today even as decades of exposure have made them less strange, and their assertions less credible.

The narration falls into the trap of cultural stereotyping when it conflates bushi philosophy with Japanese values: "The samurai lived to die a beautiful death. In this life philosophy of the samurai lies the typical mind of the Japanese man. he seeks after truth, through the sword, the soul of the samurai and cultivates his heart to be a sharp as the blade..."

Really? Well somewhere along the way, the Japanese man got tired of his spartan existence, decided to become an otaku, and hang-out at maid cafes in Akihabara.

Without the narration, Budo is a rather pretty, if noncritical portrait of the Japanese fighting arts. With the narration Budo: the Art of Killing becomes cheap and exploitative, and begins to feel a bit like a recruitment video for an eighties new-age cult.
______

[1] The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers by Paul Kennedy was a seminal academic work published at the time. Published in 1987, it traces the rise and fall of the great colonial empires and predicts the rising influence of China, Japan and the European Economic Community (EEC) as well as the decline of the Soviet Union and the United States.

[2] Bushi (武士) is a Japanese word for warrior. It combines bu (武) meaning war or martial, and shi (士), meaning gentleman. The warrior-class is more commonly known as samurai outside of Japan.

[3] is a term for the Fighting Arts - bu (武), meaning war or martial; and dō (道), meaning path or way. The latter is a Buddhist term referring to a "way of life" or a "path to enlightenment" connoting that Budo is a spiritual discipline with the purpose of defeating the ego.

The other term for fighting arts is - combining bu (武) with jutsu (術), meaning art, science, or craft. The word emphasis the practical objectives of combat and war rather than achieving spiritual goals.

[4] is the term for the ritual suicide practiced by the bushi. Popularly known as hara-kiri.

[5] , , and are various Okinanwan weapons.

[6] is a preset pattern of techniques executed solo or with a partner/s. the term is usually translated into English as "form."

[7] generally refers to the classical military arts practiced during Japan's feudal era. These include kenjutsu, naginata-jutsu, sojutsu, kyujutsu, bojutsu, jojutsu, ninjutsu etc. Alternately called kobujutsu or kobudo.

Gendai Budo refers to the Japanese modern fighting systems developed since the Meiji era (1868–1912). These include aikido, judo, karate-do, kendo, naginata-do, kyudo etc.

3/01/2008

American Born Chinese

...I would've saved myself from five hundred years' imprisonment beneath a mountain of rock had I only realized how good it is to be a monkey.
- Monkey King, American Born Chinese

Don't ever be ashamed of who you are...
- Norman Osborne, Spider-Man (2002)

The quandary that confronts all immigrants is how to reconcile their background with the culture of their adopted country. This is a particularly acute problem to the second generation immigrants caught between the upbringing of their parents and the lure of the surrounding world. Do they assimilate into the new culture, even if it means abandoning many cherished customs and beliefs? Or do they continue to cling to their roots, even when it causes friction with the general population? Or is a third way possible that treats culture as a font of received wisdom to inform the individual, while avoiding the dangers of falling into the reactionism caused by rigid adherence to tradition or immutable identity? The last option sounds the most enlightened to me, but given America's tortured history of race relations, is the hardest course of action to implement. While appealing in its simplistic arguments, the first two options taken to extremes leads to mistrust and divisiveness.



Take Shortcomings protagonist Ben Tanaka. He has an allergic reaction to any assertion of ethnic identity, especially his own. He thinks he's wise and color-blind. He believes he is a well-adjusted American even when other people observe he is weighed-down by deep self-hatred. Not surprisingly his relationship with his more racially-conscious girlfriend self-destructs in a spate of mutual recrimination.

Ben would have hated reading American Born Chinese, the critical darling of 2006 by Gene Luen Yang. All three protagonists in this ambitious comic book are in various stages of denial about their racial identity. Each begins with their own separate narrative, but their stories eventually converge into the same revelatory experience. The first is a retelling of the origin of the legendary Monkey King (Sun Wukong). Snubbed by the rest of the gods and asked to leave a heavenly banquet, he takes his anger out on them.


Effectively declaring war on heaven, he begins his arduous training in order to meet whatever they throw against him. But along the way he also expresses a desire to be more like the very deities he is rebelling against. He begins to wear shoes and stand upright. He makes individual visits to each god in order to demand to be recognized by them as "The Great Sage, Equal of Heaven."


In the second narrative, American-born Chinese Jin Wang moves with his parents from San Francisco's Chinatown to Suburbia. Jin isn't too happy about being one of the few ethnic Asians in class. He endures the faculty's well-intentioned but ignorant attempts at friendliness, and the usual schoolyard bullying from his White classmates, in the hope that he'll one day be accepted by them. Ironically his best friend will turn-out to be Taiwanese-born immigrant Wei-Chen Sun.


He later develops a crush on a pretty girl called Amelia, but his own lack of self-confidence gets in the way of developing a relationship with her. This leads to a rift between him and Wei-Chen and a dramatic shift in the story.

The third narrative is about the very Caucasian-looking Danny putting-up with one of the regular visits from Chin-Kee, the very embodiment of every outrageous Chinese stereotype developed by Hollywood from the buck teeth down to the pigtails, and accompanied all the time by his own laugh track. The results are hilarious, but so horrible for Danny that every visit has resulted in his transferring to a different school to escape the shame of being Chin-Kee's cousin.


Given the differences in tone of the three narrative tracks (fantasy, slice-of-life realism, and comic farce) this could easily have been a big mess, but it isn't. Gene Yang keeps everything under control with clever pacing and fluid and clearly defined art. As one track gives way to another, their respective themes provide a counterpoint to each other, and eventually reinforce the central message without smacking the reader over the head with it. And it is an overall positive message of rapprochement with one's ethnic heritage without demonizing the mainstream culture.

While important, this rapprochement is only a provisional answer to the quandary of the immigrant experience. The book doesn't break-down the wall that keeps the mainstream and minority cultures apart. It doesn't go far enough to examine the very origins, uses, and effects of culture. As a result both American and Chinese cultures come across as unalterable, and even incompatible. This is mainly due to Yang focusing on each Chinese protagonist's individual problems. The Caucasians are strictly secondary characters, so there is no reciprocal experience on their part to question their own ethnocentrism, precluding any kind of final reconciliation. The limited focus may be a conscious choice on Yang's part. While American Born Chinese is not the most in-depth look at the issue of the immigrant and minority experience in America (It never claims to be), it succeeds wonderfully in mapping-out the smaller territory it explores.