One of the pleasures of reading Emma is observing the evolution of the art of creator Kaoru Mori. As expected for a historical drama, everything is drawn with an eye towards detailed accuracy. But a comparison between the first and this latest volume reveals how far Mori has developed as a cartoonist. The drawings become more meticulous and the cross-hatching more intricate. At the same time the line-work becomes more confident and sensual, the panels for every page become more numerous, yet never overcrowded. The figures become more rounded and the faces more animated. The marriage of quiet understatement with the expressive qualities associated with manga makes Emma an interesting work. Beneath the surface restraint lies intense emotions which are incrementally revealed as the story unfolds.
For all its seriousness, Mori regularly injects a good deal of humor throughout the proceedings. The exotic Hakim Atawari may, or may not be, a faithful representation of an Indian prince, but his ostentatious behavior feels like something out of a Bollywood musical. The assertive and impulsive Countess Monica Mildrake has qualities reminiscent of tomboys and overprotective big sisters found in manga. There's also Emma's clumsy best friend and roommate Tasha and the witty barbs between the Jones siblings. These supporting characters go a long way to livening the narrative.
In volume 6 the forces arrayed against wealthy merchant's son William Jones and low-born maid Emma finally act to destroy their relationship. Volume 5 revealed the background of William's parents. The older couple had married despite societal disapproval, but the stress caused from trying to fulfill unreasonable social expectations did permanent damage to their marriage. Contrasting this with Emma's and William's response to their crisis in volume 7 helps put in perspective the difficulties that lie ahead for them, while suggesting some basis to hope for a happier outcome.
Throughout the course of the story, Kaoru Mori has taken the opportunity to develop Emma's charms. She's naturally intelligent, serious, industrious, and emotionally mature. Her quiet and dignified personality have earned her either admiration or befuddlement amongst her colleagues at Haworth. She's more than a match for the likes of William's fiancee Eleanor Campbell and the frivolous upper-crust girls she associates with. But like William, her main weakness is her fatalism. She confesses that she went along with her forced separation from William because she believed this was the only reasonable course of action to take. She should have resisted William's courting her. They didn't belong to the same class. He was already arranged to a more suitable mate. So as compensation she didn't resist when circumstances led her away from her beloved.
Meanwhile William's character has gone through considerable character development. In the first volume he was indecisive and passive, then acquires a newfound determination to carry-out his familial obligations. In this volume he develops enough resolve to speak against the prevailing class structure, symbolized by Viscount Campbell. And thanks to the assistance of Hakim, he manages to reunite with Emma, and they learn to find strength in one another.
The traditional upstairs-downstairs romance has become something of a cliche, but here it's somehow made fresh. Perhaps it's the the way one culture is being seen through the eyes of an outsider. Kaoru Mori's fascination with England, and her obsession with maids in particular, is so genuine it's infectious (Japan has recently become known for its maid cafes). No facet, however small, is too insignificant for her, whether it's the clothes the people wear, their mannerisms, the tiny gestures, the rules of etiquette observed, the tableware they use, the furniture and decor. It's this unadulterated love for her subject that allows Mori to conjure a world that feels authentic, yet also full of romanticism. The banter between the household servants and the pride they take in their work serves to heighten the self-indulgence of the upper-class. Chatty London society types condescend to their rural counterparts. The established aristocracy sneers at the rising bourgeois. And foreigners observe all this with utter bemusement. The class hierarchy is conveyed without coming across as a social studies lesson. That is a remarkable achievement for any young cartoonist.
Harvey Pekar has been producing his American Splendor comic book for thirty-odd years, mainly as a self-publishing effort. He's collaborated with a number of artists, most notably Underground Comix cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Gary Dumm, and Frank Stack. But the voice expressed has been consistently that of a working-class individual finely attuned to everyday reality's potential to be a source of many small pleasures and equally acute frustrations. He was doing autobiography before it became a dirty word associated with alternative comics. None of today's indie creators can quite match his ability to mix personal angst and social/political commentary within the confines anecdotal story-telling. And of course none of them has managed to denounce David Letterman as a corporate shill while appearing as a guest on Late Night.
Despite the Letterman connection, Pekar continued to work in obscurity until the recent American Splendor biopic in which he sometimes plays himself. That project and his retirement from his job as a file clerk at the VA hospital he worked most of his adult life marked as important a milestone as his bout with cancer less than a decade ago. First Dark Horse, and now DC/Vertigo publish his work. Hopefully the exposure to a wider audience has brought new readers. A more immediate effect of his recent fame is that a new crop of artists have been brought in by his publishers to illustrate his work. Vertigo's first American Splendor series included a diverse collection of talent from Eddie Campbell to Richard Corben. The results were predictably mixed.
This second series continues to recruit artists from both mainstream and independent comics. But the sequel does seem to be a bit more consistent. Ed Piskor channels Crumb in making Pekar look like the cantankerous slob of those early stories. Chris Weston's meticulously detailed line-work is well suited to capture the pain experienced from tripping and falling down on the front steps of a house. Zachary Baldus shadings complement the 50s setting of a disreputable movie theater where a younger Pekar used to work.
These post-movie American Splendor books chronicle a Harvey Pekar mellowed by age and fame. In the first story I'm No Help he indulges a young fan who only knows him from watching the film. In Restraint he takes pride in not causing a scene when a pharmacist refuses to refill his prescription. And in The Kirkus Reviewer he notes that he hasn't put down criticism of his work in a long time, but feels compelled to defend the merits of his graphic novel Macedonia. As a reader of his earlier stories, it's a interesting development in his character. Even the story of his youth is filled with a certain longing that could only have come from many years of reflection and the affect of attempting to capture fading memories. Welcome to the late period of Harvey Pekar's career.
Jesus is a naif blonde. Satan is a lute-playing sorcerer. And caught in the middle is your standard shonen hero. It's a showdown between good and evil at a small seaside village in Croatia. Don't ask, just click.
"Putting on a mask and helping people isn't impossible...you'd think all these guys talking about it online every day, at least one would give it a try..." says the adolescent protagonist of Mark Millar's latest comic book series Kick-Ass, apparently unaware of the activities of real-life vigilantes. His obsession with superheroes leads him to imitate their conduct: He works-out to improve his body, dons a costume and mask, and goes on nightly patrols looking to fight crime, yielding predictably disastrous results.
Set not in a fantastic superhero universe, but a facsimile of the mundane world, this is a fairly unpleasant story of a very unlikable character. Dave Lizewski is a lonely, depressed person seriously out of touch with reality. In his first foray into crime-fighting, he antagonizes a trio of black teenagers by calling them "homos" - Not the smartest thing a skinny, short, white kid should be saying to a group of African-Americans. In his second effort he fights a group of Puerto-Ricans adults. His excuse for repeating such self-destructive behavior? "The beast was friggin' in me, man." Expect plenty of swearing and random pop-culture references that usually passes for witty dialogue in a Millar comic. John Romita Jr.'s art is good, but perhaps a little too cartoony to evoke the gritty, urban, atmosphere the story seems to be demanding.
Mark Millar's fans might enjoy this series, but so far, aside from the art, I can't find anything here worth pursuing.
Small cities bequeath small fan conventions. So it is with the Supanova Pop Culture Expo being held this weekend in Brisbane, a show that breaks barely above 10,000 people in attendance. That's on the order of twelve times smaller than Comic Con International. But this is the biggest event of its kind in the city. There is nowhere better to go to without leaving the state of Queensland. The venue is so intimate I seem to run into the same cosplayers every year.
The biggest celebrity guests for this year were Jewel Staite of Firefly and Stargate Atlantis, and Teryl Rothery of Stagate SG-1. Given that Firefly and SG-1 are no longer airing new episodes, that feels like something of a step down from last year's Aaron Douglas of the continuing hit series Battlestar Galactica. The Supanova franchise is modeled after the typical geeky pop culture mishmash that is most American comic book conventions. Every year the organizers manage to wrangle some actors, writers, comic book artists, and other stateside professionals to visit Brisbane and mingle with the local talent and aspiring fans. This year's artists who made the trip to Australia included Ms Marvel cover artist Greg Horn (whose art adorns the Supanova promo) and Marvel Zombies cover artist Arthur Suydam. Unfortunately I don't find either of their respective works particularly interesting.
I'm tired so I'll let the pictures do the talking. Photos of today's convention will be posted at some point within the next week or two on my photoblog.