8/30/2010

Invincible #72

By Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley, Cliff Rathburn, FCO Plascencia, Rus Wooton

Tech Jacket backup story by Robert Kirkman, Audrey Sitterson, E.J. Su, Ron Riley, Rus Wooton

My futile attempts to keep up with the world of serial comic books continues. As you can see, I'm still way behind.

Invincible is one of the more successful ongoing endevours to fashion something resembling a shared universe through the efforts of a single creator. Technically, Invincible belongs to the Image Universe. But no one's taken that idea seriously since the publisher's own muddled attempts in the early nineteen nineties left much of the Direct Market in shambles. Like those cantankerous Image founders, creator Robert Kirkman treats his comics creations like an autonomous fiefdom. Admittedly, his spin-off serials haven't fared as well. But within the pages of Invincible, he has managed to assemble a large cast of supporting characters that both pay homage and poke gentle fun at DC and Marvel's properties, while serving as a backdrop for the teen melodrama that is Mark Grayson's (a.k.a. Invincible) life.

Invincible is structured as a series of arcs that tracks Mark's growth as a superhero that starts out reminiscent of Marvel's early Spider-Man. And like a few Marvel comics from the seventies, there are numerous plot threads being advanced at any time. But the one that has propelled Invincible for most of its history is Mark's conflict with his father Nolan and the Viltrumite Empire. His showdowns with increasingly dangerous Viltrumite foes have pushed the overall tenor of the series towards the apocalyptic, making Mark more comfortable with using extreme measures in order to protect his family and loved ones. Mind you, this isn't the most subtle character development - Kirkman's dialogue tends to be a bit stiff and his characters are usually declaring their thoughts and intents for the benefit of the reader. But that to has its own retro charm, I guess.

As villains go, it's hard to beat an interplanetary-level threat like a race of bloodthirsty, world-conquering supermen given that only one is needed to crush all of Earth's armies. This also gives Kirkman an excuse to indulge in some extraordinarily brutal super-powered brawls. Since this is an Image Comics title, the blood flows more freely and doesn't shy away from depicting grisly disemboweling scenes. The series clearly shifted into higher gear when Nolan (a.k.a. Omni-Man) murdered the members of the Guardians of the Globe; then fought Mark to within an inch of his life. Mark's most involved battle so far was an epic multi-issue affair with the virtually unstoppable Viltrumite warrior Conquest - which left Mark, his half-brother Oliver, and his girlfriend Atom Eve badly hurt.


Issue 72 is the second part of the latest story arc The Viltrumite War. Kirkman organizes his stories so that the more exposition-heavy issues set up the proceeding action-oriented issues. In this case, Mark's reconciliation with Nolan in Issue 71 and preparations to take the fight to the Viltrumite Empire are interrupted by a sudden appearance of a small force led by Conquest himself. What follows in 72 is pure mayhem, dominated by Mark's rematch with Conquest.* it would be difficult, to say the least, to top that first fight. And yet Kirkman manages to do just that in one issue by upping the stakes and increasing the gross factor.

The rest of the creative team has settled-in into illustrating Kirkman's scripts. Since taking-over the pencilling duties from co-creator Cory Walker, Ryan Ottley has pretty much become the Invincible artist - his slightly exaggerated style imbues the characters with a certain muscular grace. And while this issue isn't the best example of the work of colorist FCO Plascencia, every drop of blood and gut spilled is rendered in loving detail - with bright reds and oranges.

Invincible is as solidly professional a comic to come out of the Direct Market, just as long as the reader doesn't mind getting a little queasy.

___
* Tech Jacket, another Kirkman creation, appears as a supporting character, and in a forgettable backup story.

8/29/2010

Finally, it's over!

Go to: Set to Sea by Drew Weing

8/27/2010

Satoshi Kon (October 12, 1963 – August 24, 2010)

Scene from Tokyo Godfathers
With feelings of gratitude for all that is good in this world, I put down my pen.

Well, I'll be leaving now.

- Satoshi Kon

8/26/2010

Unicorn Man

Go to: Diesel Sweeties by Richard Stevens

8/22/2010

Burma Chronicles

In one of the more self-reflexive moments of Burma Chronicles, creator and main protagonist Guy Delisle notices a reproduction of a few Tintin panels. "Good old Tintin! That guy is everywhere!" he says admiringly. Like his predecessor Hergé, Delisle spins tales set in far-away exotic places. But whereas the Franco-Belgian master's stories reveal the clear-cut divisions of their colonialist and Cold War era settings, Delisle lives in the murkier post-colonial, and post-9-11, present. In Shenzen and Pyongyang (which I reviewed here) he is an agent of globalization - he supervises the tedious inbetween work that virtually all major studios, still using traditional animation, nowadays dole out to inexpensive Asian labor. In Burma Chronicles he accompanies his wife Nadège, an administrator for Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders). While Nadège has to contend with the increasingly secretive and controlling military junta that rules Burma (or Myanmar as they prefer to call the country), Delisle works part-time on his comics while being a stay-at-home dad who takes care of the couple's infant son Louis.

As with his past works, Delisle blends political commentary with his own experiences working and living as an expat in these authoritarian states. There are strengths and limitations to this approach. Delisle isn't an investigative reporter, so his first-hand sources are mostly confined to street-level information acquired from co-workers, colleagues, friends and neighbors. But this has the advantage of making his commentary easier to absorb when the reader can observe how they affect Delisle and the ordinary people around him. During his yearlong stay in Rangoon, he accumulates a wealth a experience which he relates in vignettes composed anywhere from one page to half a dozen pages. For example, he mentions how the government literally cuts out offending material in foreign publications. He reveals that he lives near the home of celebrated opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and how she is referred to only as The Lady by the general population. He mentions seeing a Marilyn Manson t-shirt when out shopping, but that fans have to go to neighboring Thailand to buy his music recordings. He discusses the technical difficulties getting internet access when there are only two ISPs in the entire country: "...One belongs to a government minister, the other to his son.” All these anecdotes build-up to a picture of Burma as a country that despite its international isolation, its citizens are aware that they are being manipulated and have adjusted their behavior accordingly to deal with living inside a police state.* As with Pyongyang, Delisle conveys all this with his usual humorous and disaffected tone combined with an imitable drawing style which economically conveys actions, information and quick impressions to the reader.


One complaint I had with Pyongyang was that Delisle the character was never able to connect with the local population in any meaningful way. This could be explained by both the state's particularly hash form of totalitarianism and the nature of his job. But Delisle himself contributed to the problem with his own lassitude and sense of detachment. Delisle starts off being similarly ensconced within his expat bubble. He spends much of the early part of the book dealing with how his family settled into their new routine. As the book progresses, Delisle's world expands beyond his family, work colleagues, his fellow expats. He forms associations with local Burmese, particularly the community of Burmese cartoonists. He even begins to teach animation to some of them. The scope of the book also expands beyond seeing the country in purely political terms as Delisle takes a slightly bemused look at Burmese customs: from the incessant betel-chewing to the place Buddhism has in its culture. He also recounts through wordless interludes the various vacations he and his wife took during their stay. as a result, Burma Chronicles is far more rambling and episodic than Pyongyang. And some vignettes are more effective than others. While the political situation informs the entire book, it's obvious that this is primarily a memoir about Delisle's time in Burma.

This intersection between the personal and the political impacts the story in certain ways. The first is that for all the familiarity he develops with the local environment, Delisle remains a foreign visitor - namely a person from an affluent Western liberal democracy who can theoretically leave any time the situation becomes unpleasant. This is what actually happens towards the end as the junta makes the MSF mission virtually impossible to carry out.** Delisle travels to Burma secure in the knowledge that Nadège's position is just as temporary as all her previous MSF postings, and the reader naturally assumes that Delisle will come out of it more or less intact if he is to complete this book. The laid-back mood that permeates his travelogues keeps the reader at a slight distance from both the difficulties encountered within the host country, and Delisle himself.


The second is that even though Delisle gets to socialize with many Burmese in a more informal manner than with the North Koreans in Pyongyang, the book is unusually circumspect about them. He only directly names a few ordinary Burmese citizens, mainly his household staff. None of them are fleshed-out as his fellow expats. This inequality is a quite glaring omission in the book. The most generous interpretation of this is suggested by one incident: Delisle's of-the-cuff remarks to a visiting journalist come back to bite him when one of his animation students, a government employee, vanishes with no explanation. Delisle never feels like he's in danger. But he suspects that the student was punished for being associated with him. No one who makes critical remarks about the regime is ever identified within the book.

And this is where Burma Chronicles leaves the reader. It's entertaining and informative. It's not as forthright as a journalistic expose. Nor is it quite as intimate as it implies it could have been. But it's a tantalizing glimpse into a place that is little understood by many people from Delisle's background.
___
* On a personal note, the local conditions of Burma described in this book remind me of the Philippines under the Martial Law years, combined with the added burden of its pariah state status.
** In one of the more interesting conversations that Delisle records, an MSF employee offers several, not always flattering, explanations on why other international NGOs continue to work in Burma.

8/18/2010

Déjà Vu

Go to: Wonder Woman YA Pitch by Ben Caldwell
Perhaps his proposal has a marginally better chance of being accepted than Tintin Pantoja's unsucessful pitch from a few years back, if only because he already has a WW story published in Wednesday Comics. Then again, it was not necessarily that experiment's most popular entry.

Boy, was I late with this one.

8/17/2010

Far Out Conspiracy Theories

Go to: The Moon Hoax by by Darryl Cunningham
I was just watching the Mythbusters episode (not for the first time) referenced by this comic, and naturally picked up on the aspects that dealt with photography: such as the luminosity of the moon's surface makes it a useful source of fill light; that topography affects the direction of the shadows; that the lack of an atmosphere affects lighting conditions on the moon so that starlight is relatively faint and the sky is pitch black (not directly tackled in the episode). Phil Plait's description on his website is fairly self-evident, at least to me:
Pretend for a moment you are an astronaut on the surface of the Moon. You want to take a picture of your fellow space traveler. The Sun is low off the horizon, since all the lunar landings were done at local morning. How do you set your camera? The lunar landscape is brightly lit by the Sun, of course, and your friend is wearing a white spacesuit also brilliantly lit by the Sun. To take a picture of a bright object with a bright background, you need to set the exposure time to be fast, and close down the aperture setting too; that's like the pupil in your eye constricting to let less light in when you walk outside on a sunny day. 

So the picture you take is set for bright objects. Stars are faint objects! In the fast exposure, they simply do not have time to register on the film. It has nothing to do with the sky being black or the lack of air, it's just a matter of exposure time. If you were to go outside here on Earth on the darkest night imaginable and take a picture with the exact same camera settings the astronauts used, you won't see any stars! 
But the most entertaining part of the episode was watching Adam Savage replicate the low gravity conditions of the moon's surface via flying a plane through a series of parabolic arcs. Now that's a trip I'm curious enough to risk upchucking for.

8/14/2010

More NonSense: The Last Roll

It's been awhile since I did a photo-centric post, and dammit, I'm doing one right now. It's link-o-rama time:

Eastman Kodak rolled out their last roll of the venerable Kodachrome emulsion and gave it to Steve McCurry, of course. The photographic world wept, then moved on. Here are tributes from Matt Zoller Seitz, Mike Johnston, and NPR Radio's Brad Horn and Claire O'Neill. Oh, and National Geographic is going to produce a documentary on what McCurry shot with that precious last roll. Yeah, no pressure there. I loved that he used a digital camera to first check the exposure prior to using his film camera. Maybe I should do that next time.

Faro and Doris Caudill, homesteaders. Pie Town, New Mexico, October 1940. Reproduction from color slide. Photo by Russell Lee. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Speaking of the past in color, the Denver Post Plog has a beautiful gallery titled Captured: America in Color from 1939-1943. It's a nice selection of images from the Library of Congress, shot by photographers from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information.

League One side Southampton banned all photographers from their stadium during a weekend football game. How does the local press respond? Why not send in someone to draw cartoons about it?

Satire: Do you know that even terrorists hate being treated like photographers? "I resent being treated like I’m some sort of photographer.  The officer who stopped me had absolutely no evidence that mere photography was my intention, so what right did he have to detain me and delete my photographs."

They must have heard of Ron Galella. Andrew O'Hehir reviews the latest documentary about the infamous paparazzi photographer Smash His Camera.

Tech News:

German magazine Foto Digital reports presumably leaked information from Nikon about upcoming product releases. Reaction from Thom Hogan.

Ben Long explains why you should shoot RAW.

Not photography, but geeky nonetheless:

Reactions to the new Scott Pilgrim movie by Ben Kuchera and Matt Zoller Seitz. Are we all geeks now?

Go to Sleep!

Go to: Untitled by Harvey Pekar and Rick Parker

More NonSense: AACK!



On August 11, local time, cartoonist Cathy Lee Guisewite announced that she will end her syndicated newspaper strip Cathy on October 3. To be honest I haven't given much thought to Cathy because I haven't payed much attention to newspaper strips, or spent much time reading newspapers, in the last decade. But whatever one thinks of the quality of the strip itself (Its art generally failed to impress me), one has to admire Guisewite's achievements with the cartoon. Cathy has lasted more than thirty years, appeared in more than 1400 newspapers, and has been collected into more than twenty books. Those are impressive numbers that few cartoonists ever garner within their lifetimes. And from what I can tell, Guisewite is ending the strip on her own terms. Now that is truly amazing.

Jessica Wakeman on Cathy as the precursor to several popular TV shows.

Tom Spurgeon shares his thoughts.

Alan Gardner ponders on the possible replacements to fill the gaping hole left when Cathy ends.

Mary Elizabeth Williams declares Cathy a feminist icon. Lindsay Beyerstein begs to differ.

Shaenon Garrity breaks down Cathy's favorite expression.

MPR News interviews Cathy Guisewite.

Shaenon Garrity explains Cathy's appeal to Baby Boomers.

R.C. Harvey narrates the history of Cathy: pt1, pt2, pt3,

A few cartoonists offer tributes to Cathy in comic strip form.

(links are added as they appear)

8/12/2010

Black Lagoon Vol 6

Anyone who follows this blog will notice that I'm consistently behind the curve when it comes to reviewing new comic book material. I make no apologies for that. This is strictly an amateur effort written from the other side of the world. But I have let July and much of June slip by, so I need to get back into the habit of writing reviews again. It's really more for maintaining my sanity than anything else.

I thought I'd start with some manga since it's been awhile since I've actually read any, and picked Rei Hiroe's fan-favorite series Black Lagoon. Now, Black Lagoon easily stood out when it first popped-up in English translation in 2008. Aimed at a burgeoning market for young adults, it wasn't some shonen fight manga where the preternaturally gifted hero trains hard while spouting platitudes about peace, harmony, and that the only thing worth fighting for is to protect your loved ones. Nor was it some cutesy seinen title exploiting the moe angle. What Black Lagoon delivered was straight-up, testosterone-fueled, foul mouthed, hard drinking, gun-toting, John Woo styled action and mayhem. Definitely not for preteens, but perfect fantasy material for people who hate their jobs: Volume 1 is about a mild-mannered, Japanese salaryman named Rokuro "Rock" Okajima who quits his job to join the very band of American pirates who kidnapped him after he realizes that the corporation he loyally served was all too willing to sell him down the river. These pirates, known collectively as the Lagoon Traders, operate out of the fictional Thai city of Roanapur - your basic Southeast Asian den of iniquity populated by every conceivable lowlife from Chinese triads to the Russian mafia, each with their own representative badass for when things become inevitably hairy. This is a dude's idea of entertainment. But in true otaku fashion, most of the toughest badasses happen to fulfill some fanboy quotient. There's the Lagoon Trader's resident gunslinger Revy "Two Hands", a nihilistic Chinese-American assassin who wears tight tank-tops and even tighter cut-off shorts. The highlight of volume 1 was seeing her go toe-to-toe with Roberta, an ex-FARC guerilla who mops the floor with everyone while wearing thick eyeglasses and dressed in a maid's uniform. Similarly fetishistic characters are introduced in succeeding volumes along with the usual action movie types. In case this misleads unfamiliar readers, Black Lagoon is grounded in a facsimile of the real world, not in an alternate timeline populated with more fantastic elements. Its more ludicrous features operate within the parameters of the action movie genre.

Volume 6 marks the return of Roberta to Roanapur, after her exit in volume 1. But before we get to her, the book starts of with a story of the Lagoon Traders becoming embroiled with a counterfeiter on the run from her displeased clients. There's some high-tech skullduggery about the counterfeiting operation that complicates the plot. But it's not particularly well-explained before the guns are quickly bought out. The action first takes place in a church run by weapons-smuggling nuns; then to hotel rooms; a collapsing warehouse; and finally to the Lagoon Trader's own torpedo boat the Black Lagoon. Aside from the nuns carrying assault rifles, the scheme somehow manages to involve a motley assortment of characters including a cowboy from Florida (?), a recurring knife-throwing Chinese killer, a sadistic pyro, an androgynous pretty boy gunman, and a chainsaw wielding gothic lolita. It's all pretty mindless, fun, entertainment. And somehow it all gets resolved with judicious computer hacking.


The assassination of Roberta's wealthy patron prompts her to come back to Roanapur. This makes the local criminal warlords go into a tizzy, remembering how much collateral damage she caused last time. But before anyone can suss out her exact motivations, another maid also possessing deadly skills shows up and begins to tear up the place. It's at this point that the volume ends.

Rei Hiroe inculcates this volume of Black Lagoon with the usual frenetic energy and extreme action. But the book also showcases many of his weaknesses. His staging of fight scenes is always confusing: Filled with too many small panels, little foreground-background separation, oddly cropped compositions, too many close-ups, hard to follow sequences, and an over-dependence on speed lines. The art could be defended on the grounds that it enhances the over-the-top violence of the story. But while Hiroe is a more than a competent artist, his art isn't quite attractive enough or compelling enough to get away with it. This murkiness also extends to the pacing of his story. Despite being text-heavy for an action comic, the pacing tends to be relatively quick and relentless. The stories could do with a clearer set-up, and an occasional slowing down of the action. This volume also tends to suffer a bit from making Rock less of a in-panel presence - he's the only character to who isn't always trying to sound like a movie tough guy.


This isn't the strongest entry in the series. But pre-existing fans of Black Lagoon will find enough in this volume to enjoy.