9/28/2009

Honey and Clover Vol 6

Honey and Clover volume 6 by Chica Umino.
Honey and Clover has turned out to be an odd series to wrap my mind around. I've spent a lot of time with art school students, so I recognize the broad types that Chica Umino is basing her characters on. But they're refracted through a different set of cultural values and popular conventions. Take Shinobu Morita: A perpetual adolescent whose narcissism and rule-breaking behavior is a constant source of irritation to every other character, but whose gregarious personality and oblique ways of demonstrating affection for even his beleaguered instructors differs from the disaffected attitude that is de rigueur to his Western counterparts. Then there's "Hagu" Hanamoto, a recognized prodigy who just happens to be shorter than average, but is the recipient of the sometimes overprotective behavior from the rest of the cast, particularly from her guardian Shūji Hanamoto. Like most relationships characterized as moé, this bond verges on creepy territory, at least to me, even with all the in-story justifications presented so far. And some of that creepy protectiveness is reflected in Takumi Mayama's attraction to the physically frail Rika Harada (While rejecting the far healthier Ayumi "Iron Man" Yamada).

Setting aside these reservations, Umino has fashioned some of the more beautifully layered cast of characters to be found within a coming-of-age manga. They're more interesting than the overly-wrought cast of . They're more subtly shaded than the cast of Flower of Life. They're as quirky in their own way as the members of . While the entire series is framed by two love triangles, Umino manages to establish within her small group some very well-rounded individuals whp credibly fumble their way through life the way real-world college students are supposed to.

Sensei Tokudaiji talks about the Search for self in Honey and Clover volume 6
By volume 6 the sustaining conditions for those two love triangles begin to weaken as the students begin to detach and establish their separate careers outside of the safety of art school. This inevitable development has a significant effect on reader-identification character Yūta Takemoto. As the student who's always felt overshadowed by his more talented peers, Takemoto has lacked a clear sense of purpose. As the end of his collegiate life draws ever closer, and his career prospects remain as dim as ever, he makes an impulsive decision to "find himself". Such a move is fraught with danger of sounding cliched. But it works because Umino has carefully laid the ground for his emotional breakdown in previous chapters. Character development isn't brought about by big dramatic actions, but through tiny increments and small revelations. At the beginning of the volume, a series of parallel conversations suddenly force Mayama and Yamada to consider how they've both subconsciously contributed to the continuance of Ayumi's unrequited love for Mayama. Another series of conversations also compels Morita to reveal that he's a lot more sensitive to Hagu's anguished attempts to live-up to demanding academic and social expectations engendered by her enormous talent.

If all this sounds kind of dour, the comic is, on the contrary, often pretty funny. The serious scenes last no longer than necessary. And Umino treats everything with a light touch. Some of the best conversations in the series tend to involve traditional social occasions, and the imbibing of copious amounts of alcohol, which is always entertaining for the reader. But the humor is never cruel. Well, not too much. There's no doubt that even when putting her characters through their paces, she's sympathetic towards them, as her perfectly engaging art elucidates:

Takemoto and company celebrates the good news in Honey and Clover volume 6
Takemoto and company get the bad news in Honey and Clover volume 6
See, unemployment is hilarious, especially when it really hurts someone you care about! And where would Honey and Clover be without a truly silly Hagu-Morita art-related showdown?

Morita shows how to make buns in Honey and Clover volume 6
Hagu shows how to make buns in Honey and Clover volume 6
Good times, good times.

9/22/2009

Callwork, A Call Center Life

Callwork, A Call Center Life by Hazel ManzanoOne of the more dubious effects of globalization in the Philippines is the explosive growth of the (BPO) economy, specifically the development of the call center industry in the last decade. It's a sector that the Filipino government, looking to attract more foreign investment, has been promoting as a "Sunshine Industry" and dropped millions of dollars for job-training programs. They predict that more than a million people will be working as customer-service representatives by 2010. Aside from advertising the obvious lower operating costs, the government also touts a large pool of highly educated, English-speaking workers who already possess deep cultural ties with America.

It's hard to deny the need for for any kind of employment during these recessionary times: Any job is better than no job. But setting aside the problematic and disproportionate nature of depending on capital from large multinational corporations to prop-up the local economy, working as a call agent sucks donkey balls. As anyone who has who has heard the tales of ex-employees (Or read User Friendly) knows, call work is a thankless job where (preferably) tech-savvy individuals have to deal with the whining end of customer relations. All the while everything they do, from the length of their bathroom breaks to the time spent on each call, is being carefully monitored by management. Filipinos also have to re-adjust their sleeping habits in order to accommodate to the schedules of foreign customers. They're only allowed to speak in English while on company grounds. And they're often on the receiving end of customer aggression when any hint of an accent is detected.

Callwork, A Call Center Life by Hazel Manzano: Monkey
Hazel Manzano worked as a call agent for several years before being promoted up the chain to middle management. She started a humor strip about working in a call center, which are archived online. But her latest cartoons now appear in the Sunday comics section of a national newspaper. Callwork, A Call Center Life collects the earliest of these strips in TPB format. While not autobiographical, they offer an insider's take on what's it like to work for a call center. So there's a lot of dirt dished-out: Illicit affairs, employee theft, personal hygiene issues, nighttime ghost sightings, bad eating habits, sleeping on the job, high absenteeism, high attrition rates, job hopping etc.

Some of the criticisms leveled against the work-humor strip Dilbert could also be directed at Callwork. On the surface it shows empathy for its characters and how their layabout ways undermine the corporate philosophy of impersonal efficiency. There's something deeply capricious about a company that times employees when they leave their desks and arbitrarily enforces English on the work floor. But Callwork doesn't go after the BPOs themselves. The employees might occasionally rail against their immediate supervisors, but they ultimately bow to the corporate hierarchy. There is more than one way to look at this: Either Manzano is simply standing firm with her on-the-floor perspective, or any potential critique is being gutted out by insider loyalty. I'd like to believe that there are employees out there with a more critical perspective than Manzano's.

Callwork, A Call Center Life by Hazel Manzano: To the Left
Callwork's ensemble cast is sketchily drawn, both literally and figuratively. There are a few circumstantial differences: One sleeps with her boss; Another vainly hopes to get promoted; Another frets about money. Overall they're not very distinct. They all possess preternatural quantities of geniality, which I suppose is really necessary for this line of work. The only character that stands out is a sarcastic call agent named Clover, who is also unfortunately wedded to the flaming queen stereotype. I get more than enough of that reading certain kinds of manga. As I haven't read her later work, I can't comment on whether her characters develop more clearly defined personalities. For the most part the humor found in this volume is affable but forgettable, and hardly to cause offense to Manzano's employers.

9/20/2009

Cartoonist Portfolio: Dave Perillo



Where have all the good comic book stores gone?

I finally discovered a Filbar's branch while wondering around Pasay yesterday. For those who don't shop for comic books in the Philippines, Filbar's was once the largest retail chain of comic book stores. Back in the early nineties when Image comics was moving ludicrous quantities of issue #1s, Filbar's could be found in every major shopping center. I remember going to every store trying to chase down copies of Jim Lee's initial run on WildC.A.T.s (Don't laugh at me). When my tastes changed, I started to gravitate towards Filbar's biggest rival Comic Quest (CQ), mainly visiting the branch located in SM Megamall. Looking back with an indie-loving/manga-centric point of view, there were never any really good comic book stores at the time, only stores with varying degrees of inadequacy. As the fortunes of the comic book industry in America turned from good to bad, and from bad to worse, so did Filbar's and the local . Every year I returned to Manila I would learn of more comic book stores closures. I dropped by the CQ Megamall branch when attending the Metro Comic Con and discovered it had moved to a smaller, less prominent, location within the mall. Its stock was more fixated on the Big Two. But the Filbar's branch I saw was a newsstand with some comic books sold behind the counter. I have yet to visit the branches in Makati, since I've lately preferred to patronize the bookstore economy. But overall the comics I'm interested in are getting harder to find.

9/17/2009

Wonder Woman #26-35

Wonder Woman: Rise of the Olympian and Birds of Paradise

Wonder Woman continues to be an underrated DC property and a very difficult character to interpret. While it's often claimed that her perfection makes her boring, she receives far less respect than male paragons Superman and Batman. Her original mission to bring "loving submission" to man's world elevates her above the conventional superhero M.O. of hitting bad guys, but also makes her a poor fit within a shared universe. The mission is a major stumbling block for most writers, so they tend to avoid in-depth exploration of the topic. And when the spotlight is shone on DC's more prominent superheroes, WW and her mission lose focus and she becomes just another colorfully clad crime-fighter.

Gail Simone has spent much of her run as WW writer building-up the character's in-Universe status as one of DC's greatest warriors. But the story arc Rise of the Olympian (Henceforth referred to as RotO) is her first extended look at her role as peacemaker/ambassador of Themyscira. But rather than address it directly, she approaches it through negation - Saying what WW is not. However her choices for opposites to define the hero comes across as a bit too transparent.

Wonder Woman #26 Rise of the Olympian: Introducing Genocide
Diana's opposite in RotO, the newly minted villain Genocide, is utterly annoying. A monosyllabic walking engine of destruction whose motivation comes from a preprogrammed desire to destroy WW and everyone close to her, she's more likely to inspire derisive laughter from some for her unoriginal nihilistic attitude and ludicrous appearance. This is character design at Doomsday or Carnage levels of bad: A throwback to the made-by-committee villains from the grim n' gritty early nineties.

What's particularly irksome is the clumsy execution of the action sequences. As a way of establishing Genocide's lethality, she mops the floor with WW in their first encounter and deprives her of her magic lasso. But the exact moment occurs off panel. This isn't much of a problem if it happens once. But a later moment when Genocide defeats the combined forces of WW's surrogate family and allies through paranormal means barely registers. It's explained during the fight scenes that Genocide utilizes a number of ambiguous magical powers. But while the artwork of et al. ranges from indifferent to pretty competent, it isn't evocative enough to make those battles look like anything more than regular superhero beatdowns, accompanied by the usual collateral damage. So the reader is treated to a lot of narrative text describing characters experiencing a sudden surge of negative emotions. Another problem with using a villain that's literally a distillation of true evil is that drawing direct comparisons between the fictional acts of violence perpetrated by Genocide to real world atrocities comes across as a cynical appeal for relevance that actually adds nothing of substance to the story.

Wonder Woman #32 Rise of the Olympian: Diana fights Genocide in New York
The b-story involving the sudden return of the Olympian gods after their kidnapping in Amazons Attack! feels awfully flimsy. Athena starts to waste away after losing all hope in the future of the Olympians (huh?). This causes Zeus to create the , which in RotO are resurrected mythological Greek male heroes, to replace the Amazons as ambassadors of peace. He also declares Achilles to be WW's replacement as champion. Predictably enough this zombie army under the command of an overbearing father-figure of a god completely fucks-up: Behaving more like conquering imperialists, they attack military vessels and bases in order to destroy their stockpile of WMDs. Their efforts to impose peace through force almost ends in disaster, and it's obviously calculated to contrast with WW's more measured disposition. If they're meant to represent the Amazonian mission gone terribly wrong, the impact is somewhat blunted by their complete lack of personality and unintentionally hilarious behavior like forcefully barging into the UN building to unilaterally declare world peace. Their existence is also rendered somewhat pointless by the later revelation that reports of Athena's death were greatly exaggerated.

Wonder Woman #31 Rise of the Olympian: Achilles rides into town and the UN
It's this kind of convoluted plotting that makes RotO a confusing mess: The creation of the Gargareans, the battle with Genocide, a late revelation of the true mastermind manipulating things behind the scenes, and a truly annoying time paradox, never quite cohere into anything logical. Rather than producing an epic tale, it feels as if Simone's ambitious goal to insert a little more gravitas into the proceedings have led her to turn in her dreariest WW arc yet.

One dubious effect of RotO is to alter the status quo in such a way that's entirely reversible down the line: This isn't the first time Diana has lost her royal status or been exiled from her Amazonian homeland. In the meantime she travels to Tokyo to deal with the fallout from the previous event. The plot is really just a pretense for WW to team-up with Black Canary and hit some bad guys. After the enforced solemnity of RotO, this story has Simone return to familiar form: Relishing in WW's fetish for combat, the patter of quips and one-liners, and the constant fan-pleasing insider-jokes. It's a lot more fun to read, even if the views expressed of Japanese pop culture are pretty dated to the eighties. But it's still disconcerting to see WW trash an intelligent human-like cyborg without a second thought when a few issues back she felt remorse for trying to destroy a barely literate mass-murdering golem.*

Wonder Woman #34 Birds of Paradise: Diana and Dinah aka Black Canary discuss Power Girl and Boob power
____

*Probably an example of this trope

9/12/2009

Photo Lust: Leica M9 and X1


Leica M9 M System Rangefinder
For a long time Leica's rangefinders have not been a good value. That didn't stop me from salivating like the proverbial Pavlov's dog when the Leica M9 was announced. It's a conditioned response.

Leica X1 Compact Camera
But what really intrigues me is the recently announced Leica X1. After reading the mixed reviews of the Olympus E-P1, I'm curious to see how well this camera performs.

9/08/2009

While I'm on this Topic


YOTSUBA&! Volume 6 by Kiyohiko Azuma

Yotsuba&! Volume 6 by Kiyohiko Azuma


Yen Press is finally releasing the loooong awaited sixth Yotsuba&! book along with new editions of the first five volumes, and with the seventh and eighth books coming soon. Yessss! Sounds like the English-speaking world might finally get caught-up with their fellow Japanese readers. Now to get someone to license Chi’s Sweet Home.

9/05/2009

The Creepy Side of Cute

Yotsuba&! Chapter 33: Yotsuba & Sunny Skies page 1 - Teru teru bōzu (Japanese: てるてる坊主; shiny-shiny Buddhist priest[1]) is a little traditional hand-made doll made of white paper or cloth that Japanese farmers began hanging outside of their window by a string. This amulet is supposed to have magical powers to bring good weather and to stop or prevent a rainy day. Teru is a Japanese verb which describes sunshine, and a bōzu is a Buddhist monk (compare the word bonze), or in modern slang, bald-headed. - WIKIPEDIA

Yotsuba&! Chapter 33: Yotsuba & Sunny Skies page 2 - Teru teru bōzu became popular during the Edo period among urban dwellers[2], whose children would make them the day before the good weather was desired and chant Fine-weather priest, please let the weather be good tomorrow - WIKIPEDIA

Yotsuba&! Chapter 33: Yotsuba & Sunny Skies page 3 - Today, children make teru-teru-bōzu out of tissue paper or cotton and string and hang them from a window to wish for sunny weather, often before a school picnic day. Hanging it upside down - with its head pointing downside - acts like a prayer for rain. They are still a very common sight in Japan. - WIKIPEDIA

Yotsuba&! Volume 5

That's just f#$*&d up! It's been raining a lot lately, which isn't unusual in this part of the world. But the weather's starting to mess with my mood.

9/04/2009

Trese Book 1-2

Trese: Murder on Balete DriveTrese: Unreported Murders

Trese: Murder on Balete Drive
Trese: Unreported Murders


Trese is the kind of conventional high concept series that could have come out of the nineties: A police procedural blended with a supernatural thriller. What it has going for it is the novelty of drawing from a completely different and, for Western readers, unknown collection of myths and superstitions. That's a lot of source material for writer Budjette Tan and artist KaJo Baldisimo to mine. With the possible exception of a homage to a certain local super-hero, these story references should not pose an insurmountable obstacle for unfamiliar readers. A lot of the fun comes from trying to figure out the rules of the game. These tales are packaged in a noir comic that would not look out of place in the contemporary Direct Market.

TRESE 1: At the Intersection of Balate and 13th Street
A limitation with the series is found in the protagonist Alexandra Trese. She's called in as a consultant by Manila's police force whenever the supernatural is suspected to be involved in a murder case. Little is revealed to the reader other than that she inherited this role from her father. Precious little information is added as the series progresses. And almost nothing about her inner life is divulged, including the slightest hint of what personally motivates her. She remains a cipher: A stoic and tough pose wrapped in a trench coat. All attitude, but devoid of personality. This works well enough in its original incarnation as an occasionally consumed episodic adventure. But it gets repetitious when read in trade paperback form. What gets particularly tiresome is how often she or some other character keeps name dropping her dad as a justification for her own magical expertise or as a substitute to explaining her numerous supernatural connections.

Baldisimo's art is pretty slick, but can't completely hide his stylistic weaknesses. For an urban fantasy that hops all over Manila, his backgrounds and cityscapes are often disappointingly nondescript, and strangely lacking in individual character in a comic drawn with chiaroscuro. Working with a limited palette is extremely difficult, and many times Baldisimo resorts to augmenting his inky shadows with line hatching in order to prevent the panels from becoming too muddy. But the results can look a bit disjointed. It feels sometimes like a mash-up between the styles of Frank Miller and Jim Lee.

TRESE 2: The Rules of the Race
Only towards the end of the last story in these two volumes does Tan begin to move the story forward, by implying that Trese's actions will have consequences down the line that may result in all-out conflict between the various supernatural factions. Cool, but that's a very long set-up for the first and possibly last story arc.

9/02/2009

More on The Mouse and the Tin Man

Disney LogoMarvel Logo

Transferring ownership of a major brand from corporate entity A to corporate entity B is a meaningless thing. All 21st Century entertainment corporations are invested in selling the same basic heroin. And make no mistake -- Marvel mythology is in the business of pushing opiates to the masses. No clear light can come of this, and I will not go "hoo! hoo!" about this deal like all the other fansite monkeys out there.
- Jeffrey Wells

... It's a mistake to think of Disney as beholden to the G-level Mickey Mouse cartoons of yore. Since becoming a Hollywood megalith in the '80s where formerly it had been basically the niche home of The Love Bug and other kiddie fare, the company's outlook has skewed ever more PG-14, the sweet spot of the film industry, income-wise. (Check out the pregnant teenagers and sex advice regularly doled out on the Disney-owned ABC Family Channel's original programming, and SOUTH PARK last season did a very funny episode about the company marketing sex as anti-sex.) Contrary to voiced expectations today that Disney will "clean up" Marvel content, Marvel content fits seamlessly into the current Disney approach. There's little chance Mickey Mouse or Donald Duck will abandon their G-ratedness anytime soon, but when was the last time Disney did anything with them outside licensing and theme parks?
- Steven Grant

After reflecting a bit more about the investor conference call about the Disney purchase of Marvel, I'm inclined to think that overall this is a good thing for both companies. During the call executives from both companies bandied about words like "synergy", "merchandise", "licenses", "brand" and "intellectual property". What this boils down to is that two very successful media companies decided to pool their resources to make even more gobs of money. Both are very good within particular markets, and both fill in each other's respective gaps: Marvel gives Disney a presence in the male youth market, while Marvel can benefit from Disney's huge international infrastructure. I don't believe that Marvel will simply be swallowed-up by Disney's corporate machinery because Marvel itself is a strong and highly recognizable brand. It's the reason why Disney is so happy with the deal, and they initially will not want to tamper with Marvel's current success. It's within Disney's corporate interests to maintain Marvel's independent brand identity. One thing that could force Disney to become more heavy-handed with Marvel is if most of Marvel's future media projects failed commercially. Otherwise, the money rolling in will keep both companies happy. On the publishing front, if Marvel wants to take advantage of Disney's bookstore presence, they may have to consider creating more bookstore friendly content in addition to their direct market material. However publishing remains a secondary concern next to other media.

What this deal will not necessarily do is alter the stodgy corporate nature of both companies. Disney's acquisition of Pixar bolstered its flagging animation division with fresh intellectual properties. Disney execs were salivating at the addition of Marvel's large collection of characters. However many of those characters are themselves several decades old, including the much touted Iron Man. Marvel has its own difficulties with fashioning new properties. But Disney seems to be okay with the accumulation of existing properties as an acceptable substitute to nurturing new creative ideas for now. This is one reason why even if the deal proves profitable, it leaves me a bit underwhelmed.

Outside link: ICv2.com has more commentary

... While two more begin to detach

Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi


This comes as no surprise, but Kodansha is saying its final goodbye to TOKYOPOP. Since this isn't exactly new, I assume that TOKYOPOP has been preparing for this day for some time. But this is still going to hurt both companies in the short term as they lose readers during a not so stable period for the market.

9/01/2009

The Mouse likes the Tin Man, then buys the whole Lot

The acquisition of Marvel offers us a similar opportunity to advance our strategy, and to build a business that is stronger than the sum of its parts.
- Robert Iger

Disney is the perfect home for Marvel's fantastic library of characters given its proven ability to expand content creation and licensing businesses. This is an unparalleled opportunity for Marvel to build upon its vibrant brand and character properties by accessing Disney's tremendous global organization and infrastructure around the world.
- Ike Perlmutter

It is a mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property. Disney's got much more highly recognized characters and softer characters, whereas our characters are termed action heroes. But at Marvel we are now in the business of the creation and marketing of characters.
- Ronald Perelman from Comic Wars: Marvel's Battle for Survival


Tom Spurgeon
listened in on the conference call, and asks the pertinent question of how this will affect the publishing side of things:
...the general notion that Disney isn't going to second-guess Marvel where they have expertise would indicate that the comics side of things stands a good chance of being left alone -- except perhaps in terms of a wider platform for book distribution. Disney's big book arms moved to HarperCollins from Hachette in 2007 as I recall; Marvel is I believe currently working with Diamond in the book market and people make fun of Marvel's book program a lot, even though there are isolated mega-successes.

Okay, the more I think about it, that's the comics industry question: Diamond.

Sounds like Marvel is going to have to consider changing its bookstore market strategy vis-à-vis Diamond at some point, in light of the Disney purchase.