11/27/2009

Beasts of Burden #1-2



Beasts of Burden is a deceptively cute comic. Or at least it would be had it not first appeared in Dark Horse horror anthologies. Written by Evan Dorkin and drawn by Jill Thompson, this gorgeously illustrated series blends the hoary practice of anthropomorphizing the secret lives of pets with the premise that the suburbs hide some truly horrible things. The original short stories - some of which have been made available online - were supernatural monster of the week adventures featuring a Scooby Gang of dogs and cats for protagonists. They earned enough critical acclaim for Dark Horse to flirt with the idea of an ongoing series. The first two issues of the planned four issue run pick up where the shorts left off, and mostly conform to the original episodic formula. But there is a hint of laying the foundations for future world building should the series continue past its limited run.

Most of BoB's appeal hinges on the art supplied by Thompson. The delicately painted washes imbue everything with a soft glow that is appropriate to children's literature. It lends a picturesque quality to the the town of Burden Hill and the surrounding forest environment that can still just about convey that primal sense of dread kids feel for the things that go bump in the night.

Beasts of Burden 1 panel 1
Beasts of Burden 1 panel 2 But the art suggests that the story is meant to be read by at least older kids: While Thompson is clearly capable of rendering characters in a far more mawkish style, she applies restraint to the anthropomorphizing of the cast so that they still mostly look and behave like normal animals. Thus the violence is also less cartoony and has real consequences. Dorkin and Thompson make a concession to the narrative convention of using the animal's breed as a shortcut to underlining or contradicting the individual's personality: The Pug is pugnacious, the Jack Russell Terrier is excitable, and the Doberman looks mean but is actually a big coward. If this was a movie made today, the animals would be enhanced or rendered entirely in creepy looking CGI, while voiced by highly paid actors (Like here). So I count it as a good thing that the reader has only the comic art as a reference for now.

Beasts of Burden 2 panel Issue #1 is somewhat hindered by the need to reestablish the characters. While there is an attempt to minimize the info dump, the dialogue is sometimes hampered by the regular referencing of past events. The supernatural threat that eventually reveals itself is visually impressive, but seems to be mainly there to demonstrate the demon fighting credentials of the Scooby Gang.

Beasts of Burden 1 panel 2 In Issue #2, the gang has been shouldering more responsibility in protecting Burden Hill. But the series then veers unexpectedly into far more ambiguous territory when the threat turns out to be internal in origin and too mundane for their supernatural training to handle. And the ending is the most shocking so far delivered by the comic.

11/26/2009

Evolution: Live with It

A lesson on a global phenomenon called evolution
Keith Knight is no stranger to courting controversy
Let the feces slinging begin

11/24/2009

Bad Movies: 2012

Never ascend Mount Everest without the proper climbing equipment

Like all of Roland Emmerich's disaster movies, 2012 is full of spectacle but lacking in the "sense of wonder" aspect. Introspection was never the director's strong suit. Science and myth are cheerfully misinterpreted for plot convenience. Grandiose statements are delivered with hackneyed dialogue. But I liked this movie far more than The Day After Tomorrow. The unbelievably rapid sinking of the entire state of California was a lot more visually impressive than the deep freezing of the city of New York. The destruction of the world by what was basically a planet-wide earthquake had a certain sadistic appeal. Trying to outrace the ash cloud from the eruption made (slightly) more sense than trying to outrun slowly moving frost by hiding in the . is a preferable everyman to . And somehow managed to deliver with utter conviction the crappiest "rally the troops" speech Emmerich could force on an actor.

11/21/2009

You See Hentai, You Say Porn


Magical Girl Pretty Sammy by AIC. Google her, or anyone, with the filters off

Human Rights and Catholic groups, EU representatives, and government agencies, have praised the signing of the Republic Act 9775, also known as the Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009. Tarlac Rep. Monica Teodoro, one of the co-authors of the bill is quoted to have said:
The passage of this landmark bill is very timely since we are going to commemorate the 20th year of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child on Nov. 20...

Now that we already have a stringent law against child pornography, we can efficiently prosecute perpetrators who produce, use and distribute child pornography,
The bill seems to have widespread support, or at least no particularly strong opposition, from the local press so far:
This is one law that while long overdue, is still welcome. If properly enforced then it would be integral in cleaning up our country's reputation for being a place where pedophiles, local and foreign alike, can roam free, victimize children, and get away with almost anything. However, like most well meaning laws in this country, there is always the distinct possibility that it will die a natural death due to lack of interest by law enforcement officials and agencies. The legislative department has done its part. It is now up to the law enforcement agencies and the local governments to do their part and protect our children from the worst kind of predators in this planet.
Or this editorial by Fr Shay Cullen:
There is no total and absolute right over anything or anybody in the world. If the freedom of action of some is harming and allowing the abuse of others, especially children, then action must be taken to protect the vulnerable and the victimized. One right must not be used to violate another right. Besides we all have a moral responsibility to protect children and bring violators to justice. Industry has a social responsibility to make their services child safe just like any other product. They must put children before profits.

Fans of anime and manga who have heard the news, have reacted rather negatively because the law's authors supposably targeted hentai. According to ANN the bill's authors described hentai as Japanese pornographic cartoon that depicts children in explicit sexual activity. The source the site seems to be referencing is here. Teodoro's views are paraphased:
She explained that the said images of real and indistinguishable children in films, digital images or computer images, whether made or produced electronically or mechanically; drawings, cartoons, sculptures or paintings depicting children in an explicit sexual activity are just some of the visual depictions considered as child pornography materials.

The news has rippled throughout the fan community and raised the usual knee-jerk denunciations over government censorship. Sankaku Complex notices a larger trend of crackdowns in other countries:
The theatre of moralism seems a popular political pastime of late. Loli bans have been proposed in Japan, and passed in the US, UK and Australia. Perhaps such histrionics prove a useful distraction from poor economic stewardship...

The proposed bill itself obviously didn't single-out hentai or anime or manga. An earlier version of the bill can be downloaded here (Link by Gerry Alanguilan). I don't know how close this document is to the final version that was passed, and I can't find a copy of the signed law at the moment. So take it as you will. But here's the portion that's most relevant to artists:
(b) "Pornographic or pornography" refers to objects or subjects of film, television shows, photography, illustrations, music, games, paintings, drawings, illustrations, advertisements, writings, literature or narratives, contained in any format, whether audio or visual, still or moving pictures, in all forms of film, print, electronic, outdoor or broadcast mass media, or whatever future technologies to be developed, which are calculated to excite, stimulate or arouse impure thoughts and prurient interest, regardless of the motive of the author thereof.
(c) "Mass media" refers to film, print, broadcast, electronic and outdoor media including, but not limited to, internet, newspapers, tabloids, magazines, newsletters, books, comic books, billboards, calendars, posters, optical discs, magnetic media, future technologies, and the like.
(d) "Materials" refers to all movies, films, television shows, photographs, music, games, paintings, drawings, illustrations, advertisements, writings, literature or narratives, whether produced in the Philippines or abroad.
(e) "Sex" refers to the area of human behavior concerning sexual activity, sexual desires and instinct, and their expressions.
(f) "Sexual act" refers to having sex or the act of satisfying one's sexual instinct.

I'm not a legal expert, but the writing in this version strikes me as a very very broad and inclusive view of criminal pornographic material. Too broad. And the phrase "impure thoughts" bears the marks of moralistic Catholic preaching at work. The bill was also a general anti-smut proposal, unlike the later version which gained traction for being anti-child pornography.

The excerpt quoted by the press coverage:
...any representation, whether visual, audio, or written combination thereof, by electronic, mechanical, digital, optical, magnetic or any other means, or a child engaged or involved in real or simulated explicit sexual activities

Does the child in question have to be real, or can the person be completely simulated like a cartoon drawing or CGI?

I managed to find a copy of the law online. This answers my questions of what constitutes a child. The law's coverage is still very very broad:
For the purpose of this Act, a child shall also refer to:

(1) a person regardless of age who is presented, depicted or believed to be a child as defined herein; and
(2) a computer-generated, digitally or manually crafted images or graphics of a person who is represented or who is made to appear to be a child as defined herein.

(b) “Child pornography” refers to any public or private representation, by whatever means, of a child engaged in real or simulated explicit sexual activities or any representation of the sexual parts of a child for primarily sexual purposes.
(c) “Child pornography materials” refers to the means and methods by which child pornography is carried out:

(1) As to form:

(i) Visual depiction – which includes not only images of real children but also digital image, computer image or computer-generated image that is indistinguishable from that of real children engaging in an explicit sexual activity. Visual depiction shall include:

(aa) undeveloped film and videotapes;
(bb) data and/or images stored on a computer disk or by electronic means capable of conversion into a visual image;
(cc) photograph, film, video, picture, digital image or picture, computer image or picture, whether made or produced by electronic, mechanical or other means;
(dd) drawings, cartoons, sculptures or paintings depicting children; or
(ee) other analogous visual depiction...

(emphasis mine)

Take time to read the entire document. It's not lengthy.

The law also imposes heavy penalties on the exhibition, sale, and distribution of this material. What's particularly draconian is how it leans heavily on digital media: from internet cafes to ISPs to the content hosts to eliminate all child pornography. To quote a small part of the law:
SEC. 6. Duties of an Internet Content Host. – An Internet content host shall:

(a) Not host any child pornography on its Internet address;
(b) Within seven (7) days, report the presence of child pornography, as well as the particulars of the person maintaining, hosting, distributing or in any manner contributing to such Internet address, to the proper authorities; and
(c) Preserve such evidence for purposes of investigation and prosecution by relevant authorities.

An Internet content host shall, upon the request of proper authorities, furnish the particulars of users who gained or attempted to gain access to an Internet address that contains child pornography materials.

And just how are they going to police this?

To be honest, I'm not surprised by the mainstream response in the Philippines. No one wants to make light of the issue of enacting protections for the rights of children from physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. Local politicians have a history of grandstanding when it comes to protecting the morals of its citizens, making it difficult to discern their motives. During the Martial Law years, President briefly attacked mecha anime for being a corrupting influence on children. Of course, that's a very different situation from minors being forced into child pornography, which this law is clearly intended to fight against. Still the law did IMHO err so strongly on the side of protecting children that it's frustrating that there wasn't more balanced critical analysis on how this could affect freedom of expression and its enforceability.

Photo Portraits: Andy Warhol Polaroids of Sports Champions


Muhammad Ali, 1977Dorothy Hamill, 1977Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 1978Chris Evert, 1977O.J. Simpson, 1977John McEnroe & Tatum O'Neal, 1985
Danziger Projects

11/20/2009

Hot Stuff


Osaka (Ayumu Kasuga)in the Azumanaga Daioh story titled Osaka's Half Day.

Ugh, I can't eat that kind of spicy stuff

Azumanga Daioh Desktop Wallpaper

11/18/2009

Sinking Feeling

Shueisha's Shonen Jump characters
Honestly, the situation in Japan where comics are released in weekly anthologies is a very abnormal one. Everyone has become accustomed to it and deals with it like it was nothing, but people overseas think that producing comics of this quality on a weekly basis is insane. ... Yeah, it really is insane.
- Naoki Urasawa
A bit more doom and gloom: More reports about the decline of the manga magazine industry. Simon Jones disagrees with the analysis that the industry's growing focus on its hardcore fans is the cause rather than a symptom of other causes.

11/16/2009

Underpass

One of the most high profile books to come out of Komikon was magazine conglomerate Summit Media entering stepping into the world of Filipino comic book publishing (Oh sorry, I meant graphic novel), the largest company to make the move so far. The material for this foray is from a commercial standpoint a safe choice: Underpass is a modest horror anthology of four stories written by some of the more recognizable genre creators in the Philippines. Summit must be hoping that horror's popularity will translate into healthy sales. They certainly put considerable care into the packaging: This is a handsome square bound softcover volume printed on thick, glossy, and fully colored paper stock.

Horror fiction of course has a long literary tradition, and comics has its own rich history with the genre. But for mass appeal, horror is most successful in film. The genre is one of the more successful in Filipino cinema. The medium's nature of combining visual and temporal elements has an unmatched way of building terror that can't be easily replicated by comics. Not that it ever stopped the komiks industry from producing numerous horror titles during its heyday. The stories in this volume settle on being dark, creepy and disturbing. And despite the underpass metaphor, there's not much that overtly connects them beyond the genre itself.

The opening story Sim by Gerry Alanguilan is a straightforward tale of someone receiving a phone call from beyond, with predictably deadly results. His contribution is the one that sticks closest to horror films. Alanguilan possesses the cleanest, most direct, and easiest to follow art in the book. The story itself is slight.

Sim panelsJudas Kiss adopted from a story by David Hontiveros is plodding, literary, and didactic. It's the story of a man being haunted by the ghosts of his wife and brother, whom he murdered. It contains a twist ending that more experienced readers will see coming. The surreal imagery and day-glow secondary colors employed by artist Oliver Pulumbarit gives the impression that the protagonist is going through a really bad acid trip. This is the least successful story of the collection.

Judas Kiss PanelsKatumbas, also by Hontiveros, is closer to fantasy-inspired superhero adventure of the Buffy or Trese kind. The story about a supernaturally empowered warrior battling demons and spirits is intriguing but feels incomplete as an episode of an ongoing series. The art supplied by Ian Sta. Maria is the slickest, most detailed, and most likely to appeal to mainstream tastes. But I need a bit more out of the narrative before I'm willing to commit.

Katumbas panelsSpeaking of Trese, The Clinic, by Trese co-creators Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo is itself a shout out to one of their earlier stories. As the subject matter is about a supernaturally run clinic that performs illegal abortions (abortion is illegal in the Philippines) and collects the infant souls, this is no doubt the most unsettling and unpleasant story in the book.

The Clinic Panel 1The Clinic Panel 2The Clinic Panel 3The Clinic Panel 4
Underpass is a solid effort. But I don't find the material within original or consequential enough to be a satisfactory reading experience. Mainly, it's because I'm pretty jaded to the old fashioned horror formula which relies on a "gotcha" ending for impact. And I find these kind of stories thuddingly moralistic. But this brand of entertainment should strongly appeal to local tastes, which might bring a few more readers back to the komiks medium.

11/14/2009

Dead or Alive

Son Goku versus Superman
Wizard Magazine fanboy centerfold

In his latest CBR column, Steven Grant lets loose his strongest indictment of the moribund state of superhero comics at Marvel and DC and their imitators. Unable to sell new properties to a largely disinterested fandom, many publishers are stuck in a holding pattern of continuously attempting to revive or reinvigorate a bloated lineup of decades-old properties that have become largely irrelevant to most of the present day audience:

For all the comic book philosophy of the superhero as the next stage of human evolution (really just a mutant iteration of the old "Fans are Slans" riff) creatively they've hit a dead end, save for the occasional irruption. The superhero genre may not be the Titanic, no icebergs in sight, but everyone's still just rearranging deck chairs now. That's how the companies want it, because they're no longer marketing creations. They're peddling brands. Branding is everything now, and it's almost always more profitable to cash in on a long-established brand than to create, develop and market a new one. The superhero as brand name might be with us until the end of time, now, but the superhero as expression of genuine creativity is pretty much dead.


Which is true only if you don't look beyond the confines of the direct market. As Noah Berlatsky points out, cast a wider net and it becomes apparent that superheroes continue to have massive popular appeal and media exposure: From Sailor Moon, to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, to Twilight. I would also add for good measure the popular Avatar the Last Airbender and Harry Potter franchises, even though their fans are more likely to see them as belonging to the fantasy genre, as two Western examples. And manga is very much where it's at right now for readers looking for recent and exciting power fantasies. So there's more life in superheroes than what is found in the Big Two:

On the one hand, you might argue I guess that Steven's tendency not to see the super-heroes all around him is of a piece with the status quo among the big two; that is, if they could only start to think about super-hero stories in different ways, maybe they wouldn't be so perpetually shitty. Perhaps they could finally start telling stories somebody cared about, and maybe even come up with some new heroes that were different from the old heroes in ways which would allow them to appeal to a broader audience.

But really, I think that's too harsh on Steven and not sufficiently harsh on DC and Marvel. The truth is, DC and Marvel seem pretty thoroughly irredeemable. Steven was right; they're creatively D.O.A. They're going nowhere and changing nothing, and the chances of either of them ever coming up with an exciting, marketable new concepts is roughly the same as the chances of a monkey crawling out of my butt and handing me a power ring. So, yeah, I think it's important to recognize that super-heroes are still popular, but not because doing so will help DC and Marvel. On the contrary, I think it's important because, until you realize that super-heroes are doing just fine, you can't really understand how truly lame Marvel and DC are.


To give Steven the benefit of the doubt, he has demonstrated more openness in his definition of superheroes in the past, as he wrote in this review found in one of his columns:

Who says the Japanese don't do superhero comics? It surprises me how many manga, like X and SILENT MOBIUS, are thinly disguised superhero comics, and so is BASILISK, which glories in the simple plot of two Shogunate-era ninja clans whose chief members are all blessed with bizarre and idiosyncratic "techniques" (read: "superpowers) fight each other to the death for not much more reason than they're told to. Toss in heavy doses of sex/nudity, violence and weepy soul-searching, and voila! The best X-MEN story ever. And that's not a complaint; with its uncomplicated storytelling and extreme character explorations, it's growing on me.


My quibble with that statement is I don't believe those manga are "thinly disguised superhero comics". That's still too ethnocentric in its wording because it sounds like (Whether intentional or not) the Japanese were trying to sneak their own version of the superhero into the direct market underneath the radar of the corporate establishment. Most manga are made for their native audience. And while the Japanese don't use the same terminology as Americans, I would surmise that most professional mangaka have a pretty clear idea that they're producing fantasies for kids. And other than a few exceptions, they don't seem particularly keen on consciously paying homage to their American counterparts.

So I'm certain that Steven understands there's more to comics than the direct market or North America. But as a market veteran, this is the territory he knows best and what he rants about most in his columns. And that habit tends to produce certain blind spots. But as long as the reader understands the narrowness of his focus, it's impossible to deny the veracity of most of his arguments.

11/12/2009

Emma Vol. 9

Emma volumes 8 and 9 collect several filler stories focussing on the secondary and minor characters of the comic. And I do mean minor. The first story of volume 9 deals with the Mölders household pet squirrel Theo getting lost in the woods for one night. And the last story is about three off-panel opera singers who sung in a performance that William and Eleanor attended. As these stories have no bearing on the main narrative of William and Emma's romance, they aren't exactly essential reading. But they still make for a compelling showcase of Kaoru Mori's considerable skills. The story of Theo demonstrates that Mori is just as capable of drawing nature as she is capturing the nuances of Victorian England. She manages to evoke Theo's isolation without unnecessarily anthropomorphizing the squirrel's behavior:

Theo is lost and alone in the woods.
The story about Dorothea and Wilhelm pays careful attention to tiny details that adds up to a highly charged erotic tale about the married couple that deftly shifts between past and present:

Dorothea and Wilhelm hold hands.

A bit of their background revealed explains how much passion plays an essential part in their relationship, especially given Dorothea's flair for the dramatic:

Dorothea on horseback.
In contrast, the last and longest story about one rising opera singer's unrequited longing towards his colleague is a rather sweet and funny tale about young love, and young people's dreams and ambitions. It has the most tenuous connection with the other stories in this volume:

Alan confesses to a prostitute.
The story of William and Hakim's first meeting in India is a reminder of the comic nature of their friendship, but is in itself a funny tale of how two boys from alien backgrounds manage to bond over sport. Their meeting pretty much defines their relationship from that point:

Hakim compliments William's appearance.
The story about two Haworth maids spending a day on a shopping trip is a nice slice of life look into the world of ordinary working women. For such a short story it feels meticulously researched:

Polly and Alma in a store.
Mori is not an artist who skimps on the backgrounds. They're essential to creating her authentic Victorian environments. Indeed, for a project like this, they are as important a character as the people who inhabit them:

Louise and her maid Amelia.
Alan's flat.
Since these are additional stories, they basically serve to round out characters the reader is already familiar with. There are no major emotional climaxes, not counting Theo's tearful reunion with his owner. Just a lot of small character studies. But there is also an overwhelming sense of Mori's mania for the Victorian era. Having completed her main narrative, she's not yet ready to part with her beloved period. But this is an obsession not for something wholly imagined and fantastic, but for something grounded in a particular reality that is still foreign to her. This grants to all of Emma greater believability while still allowing the manga to be full of romance.

11/09/2009

The Salon

Some random thoughts on The Salon, which I enjoyed very much since its original webcomic incarnation. The post is a bit pedantic.

Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso discuss theory
1) There is a clever conceit in The Salon for fine-art lovers to latch onto: That the experiments of the painters and are linked to the story's magical blue . There is an aesthetic contrast: is the first modern art movement to unambiguously reject the traditional notion that a painting is a metaphorical window into a world created by the artist using perspective techniques to produce the illusion of 3D space when seen from a single point of view. But the cubist depicts an object from multiple points of view, breaking-up and reassembling the object so that foreground, middle-ground, and background all coexist at the same depth, denying painting's illusory power. On the other hand, the blue absinthe that the main characters imbibe affirms that power by allowing them to literally step into the world of the painting being viewed. It's a fantastical notion similar to ideas used in children's literature and science fiction, and it's the kind of premise that comics were made to exploit. Fortunately Nick Bertozzi is up to the challenge. He doesn't actually establish a definite causal relationship between Cubism and the absinthe: Braque and Picasso's creativity are not particularly motivated by the absinthe. Nor do they emphatically reject it. Where he succeeds is in visually blending all the elements: He is equally adept at conveying both fantastical and abstract environments, as well as the more down to earth squalor of early twentieth century . And he skillfully quotes from artists as diverse as to Picasso.

Gertrude and Alice discuss Leo with Georges
2) As the story progresses, the historically based elements play a more prominent role, particularly the Braque-Picasso and Gertrude-Leo-Alice relationships. Nevertheless the fantastical murder mystery frames the entire story and serves as a mcguffin that informs the characters motivations and behavior. But Bertozzi still conforms to the broad outlines of his cast's real world histories. For example, Braque and Picasso's artistic collaboration is transformed into a heroic team-up. While disapproval of the romance between and is reinterpreted as cowardly and traitorous. and are regulated to sidekick status. This is obviously not historically accurate. But the urgency arising from the mystery gives The Salon a manic energy that wouldn't be found in a more straightforward biography. The comic never finds a perfect balance between fantasy and history, and in the end the former becomes an afterthought as the story becomes more character driven.

Braque and Picasso discuss comics
3) An ongoing comic-related, and postmodern concern, is the undermining of the traditional hierarchy between high and low culture. This is most clearly and self-servingly attempted in causally connecting a strip as partial inspiration to a famous proto-Cubist Gertrude Stein portrait. But a more common technique is to lay bare the relationship between sexuality and fine-art: From controversial nude photo-sequences (A kind of proto-comic), to Gauguin's nubile Tahitian girls, to art dealers selling erotic pictures on the side. Art serves to express and satiate sexual impulses. Mostly male impulses. If possible, wouldn't some people fuck a painted nude made real? This high/low blurring is embodied in Picasso. His "heroic" persona is linked to his tempestuous romances, his sexual peccadilloes, his love for cartoon art, his openness to the intellectual arguments of Braque, his own natural talent, curiosity, and obsessive attention to detail.

Braque and the Steins discuss Gauguin
4) In contrast to the many pages devoted to formal Cubist theory, the influence of on modern art receives little attention. There's a throwaway line of Picasso using African masks on his nudes, something Picasso actually denied. But Picasso was influenced by Gauguin's Tahitian nudes. Back then (And now) the art of so-called primitive cultures was seen as flat, geometric, abstract, symbolic, and possessing exaggerated proportions - qualities considered admirable in modern art. Primitive cultures were characterized as being more natural and sexually free. Gauguin is said to have described Tahiti as an earthly Arcadia. Most present day critics would consider those views as naive and distorted. The murderer is eventually revealed to be frankenstein-style recreation of Gauguin's Tahitian teenage mistress made from mixing paint and the blue absinthe: A dark mirror of Gauguin's passive figures. Bertozzi's critique of Gauguin's Primitivism isn't as extensive or thought-out as his examination of proto-Cubism. But Gauguin is nonetheless a larger than life figure here. So it's fitting that the thing that stops his monster is something created by Picasso, the heroic figure who has learned from the example of the master.

11/05/2009

Trese: Mass Murders

Trese: Mass Murders A weakness of the first two volumes of Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo's popular series Trese was the lack of any particularly clear direction in the comic. Sure the confluence of traditional Filipino legends with modern urban settings might sound clever at first. But despite the Filipino setting, Trese conceptually and visually still stuck a little too close to its Hollywood and mainstream roots to feel original. Its creators seemed to be randomly tossing ideas left and right from zombies to drag racing tikbalang to test what worked. And the character designs were a bit empty and cliched: Whether it was the wisecracking sidekicks the Kambal or the unflappable hero Alexandra Trese (This became something of a personal pet peeve: Who the f#@k wears a dark trench coat in Manila?) There was energy and potential, but for the most part the stories felt a little erratic.

Still, some very successful and long-lived serials began from similarly tentative beginnings. And if Trese turns out to be one of these, then the first eight stories will be looked back as early fan-pleasing efforts necessary to build the audience for the comic's survival. Much of this latest volume focuses on the laying the foundations for future world building. A great deal is revealed about the history of the Trese clan and Alexandra's own personal background. While not adding any depth to the character, this provides much needed context missing in the previous stories. The arc that introduces the nearly unstoppable ancient war god Talagbusao produces not only the series first truly compelling villain, but is also the first time that Trese effectively conveys a sense that there is a complex universe full of interconnected beings and interdependent relationships instead of just a haphazard menagerie of monsters for Alexandra to fight.

This is also the first volume where Kajo is fully comfortable with his black and white style. It can take awhile before an artist settles into a reliable shorthand for portraying his or her cast. His figures are less clumsily staged, and while backgrounds are not his forte, the former rough cross-hatching is replaced by fluid line work which is far better in evoking a setting and a particular mood:

Trese: Mass Murders strip club And the choreographing of action scenes has become a lot more dynamic and economical:

Trese: Mass Murders guardian All of this is a good start for a healthy run. Whether Trese becomes the Pinoy equivalent of Hellboy or just another also-ran will depend on how well its co-creators can build on the work found inside this volume.

11/03/2009

From Japan with Foreboding

Lucky Star (らき☆すた, Raki☆Suta)

Anime adaptation of the Lucky Star yonkoma

People who enjoy their manga via translation are often incognizant of the very specific conditions which nurture the stories they read: Most of them have actually been around for some time before being exported to other countries. The result of reading what is essentially a backlog of material is that certain things might be slightly passe by the time they leave Japan. For example, while the traditional long-form serial is far from dead, it may have already peaked in Japan. Well-known scholar Frederik L. Schodt points to the changing trends in reading and demographic patterns that are having a significant effect on manga:
The big problem in Japan is that the bubble in the industry has definitely burst for both anime and manga. I think it's probably worse than many of the official statistics reveal. I was in Tokyo in May - and I go to Tokyo every year to watch trends - and the thing that drove the point home to me is that on the train, almost no one is reading manga. That's a huge, huge change from ten years ago, huge. On top of that, you have a new era in Japan where there's a declining population of young people, which is still the main readership and market for manga and anime. So publishers and producers of shows are confronting this very stark reality that fewer people are buying their products, and there are fewer people to buy their products. It's not only that they are buying less, but that there are fewer people to buy them! So no one knows what's going to happen yet.
Which is reinforced by Jason Thompson:
But for all their cultural clout, weekly manga, like newspaper strips and network television, is a fading medium. Except for Weekly Comic Bunch (which skews towards an aging readership anyway), all the existing weekly magazines in Japan are at least 20 years old; recent attempts like Comic Gumbo have been failures. Publishing a weekly manga magazine requires tremendous resources, and with the fragmentation of media, perhaps the generalist audience required to sustain these massive magazines is dwindling. Oddly, there are no weekly shojo manga magazines (although there are several biweekly ones), possibly a sign of shojo's smaller economic footprint; a few weekly shojo magazines were published in the 1960s but never caught on.
But on the other hand, this benefits yonkoma in much the same way that many American webcomics are gag strips that take advantage of the internet:
Yonkoma manga is easy to make, easy to read, and—surprisingly considering its low profile in the U.S.—very successful. While other manga magazines' circulations dwindle, yonkoma manga is the fastest growing area of the manga industry. Four-panel series such as Lucky Star are increasingly being adapted into animation and merchandise. There are many magazines devoted solely to four-panel manga. Online and cellphone manga is overwhelmingly four-panel-oriented, as it's the easiest type of manga to read on mobile devices, and some yonkoma webcomics, such as Hidekaz Himaruya's Hetalia Axis Powers, have even become hits and made it into the big time.
Minami-ke (みなみけ?, lit. The Minami Family)

Anime adaptation of the Minami-ke yonkoma

What's the connection between the World Wide Web, Japan's aging population, and the growing fetish for kawaii schoolgirls? Is the nostalgic longing for fatherhood as youth and childhood become a more and more prized commodity really partly to blame? Is there perhaps a general cultural malaise at work here?

One thing for certain is that as Japan changes, so will the manga industry. A larger trend that neither writer mentions is that Japan as a nation might be developing a less American-centric view of the world even as Japanese publishers continue to sell to the American market. What kind of manga are going to be produced under the influence of these trends within the coming decades?

New Format, Same Combative Attitude

The Comics Journal 300
Over the past few years I've noticed smarter critical commentary on the Net, but it's scattered all over the place, buried in the usual mountain of frivolous, tepid, dimwitted, unreadable fanboy drivel. There's no single website you can visit and anticipate a range of interesting sensibilities on an equal footing, so one of my goals is to distill the best criticism and journalism we can into a single site. - Gary Groth

It's no secret that newspapers and magazines are suffering because so much of what they've traditionally done can be done on the web, faster and cheaper. We decided therefore to redesign the editorial and physical format of the magazine to take advantage of what print's best at -- upscale production values, longer prose, more permanent content -- and bring the Journal's mandate for criticism and commentary to the web with a vengeance. - Gary Groth

If the magazine's arrogance, whether a clever marketing ploy or come by honestly, wasn't much appreciated by publishers or talent, and often not even by most fans, it was the right approach, making THE COMICS JOURNAL indispensible reading for several years, and a bracing antidote to the sycophancy that by then increasingly earmarked other publications. Virtually nobody claimed to like the Journal, but virtually everyone read it.- Steven Grant

Among its reviewers the Journal has a contingent of solid, trust-worthy writers: Kent Worcester, Rich Kreiner, Shaenon Garrity, and Kristian Williams, but they tend to get drowned out by crankier and less-informed critics, writers who mistake abrasiveness for insight. The magazine’s review section does seem too diffuse and scattershot. I’m never quite sure why some books get reviewed and others don’t. There’s a lot of good critics on the web now – Rob Clough comes to mind right way. The most promising prospect for the next incarnation of the Journal is to recruit these writers (I know Clough has already signed on). - Jeet Heer

For me, I've been happiest with the Journal when it pursued other visions — Tom Crippen working out why super-heroes matter and why they don't, for example, or Dirk's marvelous shojo issue. The larger, bi-annual approach seems like an opportunity to go further down that road...I'd love, for example, to see what Kristy Valenti or Bill Randall would do if given carte blanche with an issue. Gary will always be the Journal, in some sense, but one of the things he's done right over the years, in my view, is to have the courage and the generosity to let other folks pursue their own idiosyncratic ideas and interests with his ink and his press. - Noah Berlatsky

Everything will be free. We’ll maintain an archival copy of the current website for our online subscribers — more on that soon, I promise — but the new site will have no “subscriber area” or special features that need a password to access - Dirk Deppey