8/31/2009

The Impossible Dream


Coco uses a Polaroid instant film camera in the Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends episode Everyone Knows it's Bendy
A few days ago I caught a television news report on the latest attempts of the Impossible Project to revive . For those not familiar with this group, here is a part of their mission statement:
Production of analog Instant Film stopped in June 2008, closing the factories in Mexico (Instant Packfilm production) and the Netherlands (Instant Integral production).

Impossible b.v. has been founded with the concrete aim to re-invent and re-start production of analog INTEGRAL FILM for vintage Polaroid cameras...

The Impossible mission is NOT to re-build Polaroid Integral film but (with the help of strategic partners) to develop a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new optimised components, produced with a streamlined modern setup. An innovative and fresh analog material, sold under a new brand name that perfectly will match the global re-positioning of Integral Films.

This dream is, as their own title implies, doomed to fail. The main advantage of instant film was obviously the "instant" feedback, something easily surpassed today by a fast digital camera possessing a large LCD screen. There will always be a few diehards who prefer the tactile qualities of film, which I get. But even if the project invents a new version of instant film, for the vast majority of casual photographers, this is rendered irrelevant by the convenience of modern technology.

But I have a soft spot for the quixotic, and part of me likes the idea of an analog alternative to our digital world. So as much as I don't see this project going anywhere, I wish these people good luck.

8/30/2009

The Miyazaki Connection

Up movie poster from Pixar Animation StudiosI watched with my niece Pixar Animation Studios latest animated feature Up yesterday, which she really enjoyed. For my part I thought this was Pixar's technically most accomplished feature. I liked the gorgeous visuals and the pastel color scheme. How could I not be charmed by an old wooden house being held aloft by hundreds of multi-colored translucent balloons? Also pleasing were old style touches such as the black and white newsreel footage and an interlude that summarizes a married couple's relationship which recalls classic silent films. And I think this is the most successful synthesis of classic character design and 3D modeling yet seen on screen. the film's major failing is that the interactions between the lead characters are a bit too finely calibrated. It was pretty clear that the old codger and the overeager boy scout would become best friends by the end of the story, which deflated much of the dramatic tension. But I thought it was an interesting first attempt for Pixar to create a sympathetic senior citizen character in a children's story.

It's been pointed out by some critics that the Pixar house style is in some way informed by the work of . IMO this is easy to overstate. It's true that Pixar honcho John Lasseter has expressed admiration for Miyazaki, and has produced several english dubs of Miyazaki's features. But I think Miyazaki's influence is more general than specific in nature. Like Akira Kurosawa before him, Miyazaki's successful brand of film making has a knack for flattering Western sensibilities while appearing foreign and exotic. And in Hollywood where animation is dominated by big studio concerns, the individual stamp found in every Studio Ghibli feature is an alternative model for Western animators to emulate. This is what Pixar has arguably more or less achieved with their body of work. Lasseter has become identified with the Pixar style as much as Miyazaki has with the Ghibli style. But Lasseter and Miyazaki possess very different styles as auteurs.

The most that could be said about finding something in common between Up and Miyazaki's oeuvre is that Up shares a similar romantic fascination with escaping the mundane by taking flight, both figuratively and literally. Even here the film's approach is relatively constrained. For a movie about a flying house the flying sequences are all too brief and claustrophobic, especially when placed next to works like . Even the targeted destination is itself pretty mundane - a postcard view from a generic South American jungle. The closest Miyazaki film I can think of that Up has in common is , in that it is an adventure story where the heroes prevent a two dimensional villain from raping and pillaging nature (Unusual because Miyazaki's most memorable villains tend to have redeeming qualities). But the character archetypes and plot of Up owe more to classic Hollywood comedies to be directly compared to Miyazaki's environmental fable. Even the ending of Up has to make concessions to Hollywood-style mawkish sentimentality.

What most Western studios cannot or will not replicate is Miyazaki's attitude towards nature. In Up nature is something pristine and innocent for people to admire, or a resource to exploit and destroy. It's a typically Western viewpoint that can lead to a zero-sum game. But in Miyazaki's most memorable stories, probably informed by Shintoism, nature is to be revered. Nature is a dangerous entity that can fight back when pushed to far, and even when battered and buried by the detritus of human civilization (As in ) it still possesses great potency. Nature can hide the mighty , or ancient gods and spirits. But in Up, nature hides a multi-colored version of the Road Runner.

8/28/2009

We Come To Praise Him


Pat Oliphant's Ted Kennedy cartoon


From the Daily Kos. In a collection of mostly romantic and laudatory editorial cartoons, Oliphant's drawing is notable for being ambiguous and melancholic.

8/25/2009

Short Pamphlet Reviews

Pissing All Over The Superheroes

Invincible War cover
Invincible #60-65
by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn, Fco Plascencia

One of the pleasures of reading Robert Kirkman's comic series Invincible is watching him construct a universe through interconnected story arcs that feels both straightforward, but multi-layered. His characters aren't complex, but he manages to balance the ever growing ensemble by deftly switching between the the interactions of main character Mark Grayson a.k.a. Invincible - The son of an extremely powerful superhero who was revealed to be an agent for a world conquering alien race called the Vitrumites, and his supporting cast. Much like the best of the nascent Marvel titles of the sixties, there's an engaging naivete to the cast, and a sense of wonder watching a new world unfolding. But I have to wonder how long Kirkman can keep this up before his creation becomes too byzantine, or too weighed down by its own internalized status quo.

There have been recent moves to connect the title to a larger shared universe that could be said to have culminated in issue #60. Lex Luthor stand-in Angstrom Levy has gathered an army of Invincible's villainous alternate Earth versions and unleashed them on the world. This provides an excuse for cameos from all of Image Comics superhero lineup. Much bloody chaos ensues. The whole thing turns out to be one gratuitous gimmick and a prelude to a knock down drag out fight between Invincible and a Vitrumite soldier sent to keep him in line. The superhero population is largely incapacitated. People die, including an important supporting character. Another's boobs get bigger, literally. But her powers start going all wonky. Half a dozen plot points for future arcs are sprinkled throughout. Mark reaches an important turning point, and suddenly this series has gotten a lot more complicated. Oh boy.

Power Girl hits Ultra Humanite repeatedly
Power Girl #1-4
by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray, Amanda Conner, Paul Mounts, John J. Hill

And speaking of gratuitous there's Power Girl. Is there any superhero so obviously derivative with such a convoluted history? Female characters possessing superpowers and ample cleavage should be easy enough to sell. Just look at Cutey Honey. But at DC she's ranked lower on the totem pole than Superman, Wonder Woman, and Supergirl. Given how DC sometimes treats even marquee properties like Wonder Woman like shit, what chance does Power Girl have of moving up from being a magnet for puerile big boob jokes? Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray attempt to develop her civilian identity and supporting cast. But the battle between her and the Ultra-Humanite feels indifferent despite the over the top scheming from Humanite. Actually I'm put-off by the attempt to update the classic supervillain with a more distasteful violent origin. More humor is used in issue four, but it's not enough to block-out the bad taste from reading the last three issues.

Batgirl #1
by Bryan Q. Miller, Lee Garbett, Trevor Scott, Guy Major, John J. Hill

Hey, another derivative character. This is a passing of the Batgirl mantle from Cassandra Cain to the often abused Stephanie Brown despite the latter girl's reservations. Meanwhile the original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, broods as if she's trying to be Bruce Wayne. The issue's pretty confusing as the reader is simply dumped into the story mid-stride without prior explanation. But then, who cares about Batgirl outside of the rabid Bat fans.

Ultimate Comics Avengers #1
by Mark Millar, Carlos Pacheco, Danny Miki, Justin Ponsor, VC's Cory Petit

First, that's not what the title on the cover says. Second, they aren't called the Avengers in this issue. Oh look, they've bought Mark Millar back along with his trademark wit, or what passes for wit in these pages. In fact he picks up from where he left off determined to ignore as much as possible the intervening events. But then again no one seems to care. The Ultimate line hasn't been around that long, but this already feels like a reinstatement of some long-standing status quo.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man #1
by Brian Michael Bendis, David Lafuente, Justin Ponsor, VC's Cory Petit

This is even more insistent about the return to the status quo. Six months since a massive tsunami submerged New York and things have returned to normal? Then again Spider-Man's public cred has never been higher, so maybe that counts for something. Brian Michael Bendis is still writing the title, and this has given it a consistency not found elsewhere in the Ultimate line. I haven't kept up with it lately, and this relaunch has yet to convince me to return to the ongoing teen soap opera that is Peter Parker's life.

8/23/2009

Tablet Needs: Macbook Touch


Macbook Touch. Designer: Tommaso Gecchelin. The core of this concept is a technology he calls iSpine. Like the spine of a book, the tech avoid excessive compression on the screen, yet allows the laptop to sit in multiple viewing positions. Go from a normal laptop with screen and touchscreen board - to a large widescreen canvas for drawing, presentation or movie watching. To keep everything minimal, ports like power, the mini display, and additional USB are externalized on a “Magic Dock” to keep most of the laptop slim and clean of an array of holes and plugs.
An interesting concept from Yanko Design. I like the idea of a light, foldable, tablet computer. Though it sounds expensive if marketed as a netbook. Link by jkOnTheRun.

8/22/2009

Low Moon


Emily Says Hello panel from Low Moon by Jason
Norwegian cartoonist Jason has hit upon a formula that has earned him cult status, made him a critical darling with the mainstream press, but will probably never grant him widespread popular recognition. His style is characterized by sparsely detailed landscapes populated by gaunt anthropomorphic animals. Their blank facial expressions and and communication through long silences are very much informed by the "less is more" modernist aesthetic. It's what's supposed to be read between the lines, so to speak, that matters. With Jason, his uniform-sized panels are the modular units from which can be arranged in numerous ways in order to construct his narratives.

Low Moon marks a change in format. All of Jason's past translated works were self-contained graphic novels. This book is a collection of different tales organized into four panel pages. The title story was originally serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine Funny Pages section. Billed as a "chess western", it shows how Jason's stripped-down approach is used to inform old cliches with wry deadpan humor. Chess matches are treated with the same life-and-death seriousness as real gunfights. Similar clever touches can be found in the other stories of this collection. For example in Proto Film Noir, an adulterous "prehistoric" couple attempt to eliminate the woman's husband. But he keeps returning from the dead every morning completely unaware of what has transpired the previous day.

Low Moon panel from Low Moon by Jason
But every story inexorably ends badly for the participants, usually with some kind of a narrative twist. In Emily Says Hello, an assassin carries out a succession of hits in exchange for escalating sexual favors from his female client. But this ends tragically for the client. In the most convoluted story &, a man burglars a house to raise the money for his dying mother's operation while another man murders all of his rival suitors for a woman's hand in marriage. Both their tales end disastrously, and they end up drowning their sorrows in the same bar.

Jason is an immensely skilled artist capable of manipulating his self-restricted vocabulary to stretch space and time. Low Moon moves in a slow burn as the two antagonists move closer to their eventual showdown. In what is probably the best story in the book You Are Here, time moves more quickly as a father and son attempt to deal with the alien abduction of the father's wife. The father builds a rocket while the son grows up and has a life of his own. Eventually they pile into the rocket, and things end badly, but perhaps a bit more emotionally than with the other stories.

You Are Here panel from Low Moon by Jason

All the stories are informed by a similar absurdist aesthetic. But not all are equally successful in execution or have equal depth or meaning. While the father-mother-son dynamic gives You Are Here a higher degree of emotional resonance, others like & feel more like an empty formalist exercise, while Emily Says Hello comes across as a bit too sophomoric. This book is a useful introduction to Jason's oeuvre. But given their varying qualities while having a similar tone, it's probably better that the stories be read separately rather than in one sitting.

8/20/2009

Whatever You Like, Dear Frog


Nude Maryanne (Mary Anne) Tom and Frog King

I weep because my golden ball has fallen into the well

Vector Desktop Wallpaper

8/17/2009

ELMER

Reading ELMER, the latest opus of Filipino cartoonist Gerry Alanguilan makes apparent how much he is rooted in old-school comics storytelling. His character renditions and particular attention to detail looks like something that compare with the best black and white independent comics. The dark fantasy elements, creeping sense of dread, and punctuated violence, are descended from American comic book's pulp traditions. Even Alanguilan's religious adherence to the nine panel grid structure and heavy use of first person textual narration makes ELMER appear very traditional when compared to contemporaneous efforts.

Jake Gallo brings up history from ELMER #1
If Alanguilan's sensibilities seem a bit retrograde, they are not there to draw attention to themselves but to serve the story that he's interested in communicating. In this regard he succeeds in telling a deeply felt and humane narrative. If one takes the premise of recently sentient chickens living amongst humans literally, then certain aspects of Alanguilan's world-building rests on shaky ground. For example, the chicken population's preference to integrate into human society rather than seeking to build their own autonomous culture is an unrealistic representation of real world international relations. But ELMER goes out of its way to avoid specific political allegory. Nor does it show any interest in addressing the science fiction underpinnings of its own premise. Human and chicken sentience are simply presumed to be similar despite their physiological differences. Instead, the human-chicken conflict functions more as a general metaphor for the way people fear what they don't understand and as a source of paranoia for protagonist Jake Gallo. Like most malcontents he's willing to blame outside circumstances, which in his case is a perceived human prejudice against him as a chicken. Jake and his siblings are summoned to take care of their dying father Elmer. His views undergo a change after learning more about his father's mysterious past and his friendship with a farmer called Ben.

While the comic is meant to be inclusive, Alanguilan taps into his own cultural background for raw material. Many rural people in Southeast Asia in general, and the Philippines in particular, live in close proximity to chickens and other farm animals. But the fighting rooster also plays an important part in Filipino iconography. During the early period of their sentience, some chickens use their cockfighting prowess to terrorize humans. The brutality of these attacks only exacerbates the war between the two species. One doomed character is described in admiring terms by his fellow chickens because of his exemplary sabong performance. ELMER doesn't use the chickens as a stand-in for any particular group. But on some level it plays with the fear of being overthrown by the things we subjugate. Alanguilan's chickens are drawn with far more grace than his stiff-looking humans. But even they pale into insignificance when compared to the richly detailed Filipino landscapes. This could be the influence of my own memories, but there's a sense of nostalgia that permeates ELMER's provincial setting which feels derived from Alanguilan's real life. But any preconceptions of pastoral innocence are violently subverted by the terror of many thousands of suddenly self-aware chickens being led to their deaths.

Farmer Ben walks back to his house in ELMER #2
There is are sentimental and cliched aspects to the domestic drama that threaten to derail the whole narrative as the personal revelations start to accumulate. But ELMER is counterbalanced by many nice little character touches. Chickens have their own standards of beauty as well as a sense of modesty. What seems like one normal looking chicken to the reader is quickly reprimanded for being naked in front of others. They also have varying ethical attitudes. When two chickens taste pork for the first time, one reacts with quiet gusto while another is horrified to having eaten another farm animal. I like how most panels are drawn from a chicken's point of view, so that a sudden human appearance, even a friendly one, can seem quite ominous.

Farmer Ben witnesses dying sapient chickens in ELMER #2
it's a shame that more people won't be exposed to ELMER because of the issues I've mentioned before. This is a work deserving of wider recognition from a creator who's learned to bend the conventions surrounding his craft to tell an intimate story that I think many would appreciate. But Gerry Alanguilan has chosen to work with a threatened species, the Filipino comic book pamphlet.
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This is the first review based on copies purchased at the Metro Comic Con. I'll be slowly going through my small pile of komiks in future posts. In the meantime I've been posting pictures at the photo-blog from the con starting with this entry.

8/14/2009

What's Taking Them So Long?


The Wonder Woman Chronicles Vol. 1 covverFrom Amazon. DC doesn't often treat her like one of their Big Three.

Design Classic: Da Vinci War Machines


Leonardo da Vinci tank
I caught a bug during the Metro Comic Con, so I've spent the week on my back. During my convalescence I got to see the first episode of the unfortunately titled series Doing DaVinci from the Discovery Channel. In this episode they attempt to reconstruct Leonardo da Vinci's circular battle tank. I've developed a dislike for the channel's over-reliance on documenting build team exercises. It often feels like a lazy excuse to avoid actual educational content. I was hoping for once that the series producers might place these designs within its actual historical context instead of simply repeating ad infinitum how much of a genius Leonardo happened to be. Nope. I guess not.

Leonardo da Vinci assault chariot

8/12/2009

Metro Comic Con 2009: Pinoy Nerd Prom


Attending a Filipino comics convention for the first time is a curious experience. To begin with they're still relatively new to the comics scene and there still aren't that many of them. Not surprisingly they emulate the American model and draw interest primarily from the local hardcore fanbase. But comic books on the whole continue to be marginalized by the mainstream. This has had a profoundly negative effect on local talent. Unable to support themselves due to a dearth of publishers, most have had to work for the DC and Marvel assembly lines. Thanks to the internet, this form of global outsourcing is easier than ever. Whatever international success earned is being parlayed by some of them too re-ignite languishing interest in local comic books.

The first Metro Comic Con was held last weekend at the convention halls of the massive SM Megamall complex. Most shoppers went about their business probably unaware that it was taking place. It's a bit depressing that the biggest news to come out of the con was the launch of the Watchmen DVD and the Filipino theatrical release of G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra. But it's not as if anyone who appeared in the movie was there to promote it. The barely manned and fairly large booth which was prominently located near the entrance kept playing a video loop throughout the con.


For all the market dominance by American publishers and the American subsidiaries of Japanese publishers, none of them had set up their own booths. No one from America bothered to show-up if they were invited at all, leaving the convention floor to the local dealers. Of course I didn't expected it from a first-time event. Whatever talent was in attendance was strictly homegrown. This turned out to be beneficial as it did help make the con feel more relaxed and intimate. I had zero interest in the people who work for War Machine and whatnot, but I did derive some satisfaction when indie creators like Gerry Alanguilan and Budjette Tan signed my copies of their books. Most of the unknown creators at Artists Alley tended to draw in a manga influenced style, which felt a little too derivative for my tastes. But I got the impression that business was for the most part good. Given the tenuous foothold Filipino comics have in comic book stores and bookstores, creators are dependent on good word of mouth and their fans showing up at conventions.

Once the convention going crowd increased after noon the exhibit halls became tightly packed for both days,spilling out into the adjacent areas inside the mall. Compared to their American counterparts, Filipino fandom isn't as bifurcated. This could be easily attributed to the small and ostracized geek population. But Filipino comics fans ease with anime can also be explained by the country's position as a nexus of Western and Asian influences. Fans from my generation grew up watching reruns of American cartoons as well as dubbed versions miscellaneous shojo and shonen anime, which included virtually every mecha series to come out of Japan until they were banned sometime during the martial law years. So the super-hero/manga divide isn't as contentious. What is new, and possibly alienating to older fans, are the otaku trappings like cosplaying or console MMORPGs which are being nurtured by the convention circuit. I've probably seen some of the most elaborate costumes from any fan-oriented event this weekend. Conventions have become an essential social outlet for many younger fans. The majority of attendees I saw were at least in their teens and evenly composed of both sexes.


While there was plenty of enthusiasm found on floor of the the Metro Comic Con, no one had any solutions to the problem of the comic book industry's current meager state. The event didn't seem to reach past the devoted fanbase towards a more mainstream audience. Without the help of publishers with a substantial bookstore presence, individual creators will either have to continue with their own efforts to set up legitimate publishing businesses or continue to depend on breaking into the American market.

8/01/2009

Tie a Yellow Ribbon

I concede that I cannot match Mr. Marcos when it comes to experience. I admit that I have no experience in cheating, stealing, lying or assassinating political opponents.
- Corazon Aquino (January 25, 1933 – August 1, 2009)