11/29/2010

Martial Myths: Ip Man


Some time ago, I got to see Ip Man and its sequel Ip Man 2. A typical Hong Kong martial arts film usually functions as a series of set pieces designed to showcase the leads' physical prowess. So the genre's biggest stars are individuals who exhibit tremendous onscreen presence while executing balletic fight choreography. That's not an easy combination of attributes to find in one person. Donnie Yen certainly has the chops to fulfill that role. Ip Man is probably the most dynamic display of Yong Chun (Wing Chun) based combat in a feature film that I can recall, and I was impressed with the restrained use of wire-work. The tense battle between the hero Yip Man and ten Japanese budoka recalls the scene in Fist of Fury when Chen Zhen confronts a dojo full of incompetents.

Beyond the pretty hand-to-hand combat, there's a big pile of agitprop being worked into the crowd pleasing entertainment. Physical combat is an effective way to distill the good vs. evil dynamic. And past martial arts films have taken advantage of this to generate patriotic fervor, especially when the hero mops the floor with evil foreigners: Mongols, Manchu, Japanese, or Westerners. That's how indignant style vs. style arguments get started. And as with certain kinds of traditional literature, Hong Kong cinema plays fast and loose with the facts. The industry also gets to reinvent the lives of modern-age heroes like Wong Fei-Hung. With its numerous pro-Chinese (and pro-Confucian) statements, Ip man is one of the most unashamed efforts to incite populist sentiments since Bruce Lee played Chen Zhen.

For all its superior production values, Ip Man does feel like a regression. Its propaganda is not as subtle as that found in Jet Li's fictionalizing of another legendary fighter Huo Yuanjia in Fearless. It's facile message of Chinese unity contrasts with the real Yip Man's life. The historical figure was supposably an opium addict who moved to Hong Kong to avoid the Communist takeover of China. The political spin becomes more pronounced in the sequel when Yip Man confronts the British colonists who are consistently portrayed as cardboard villains. Thus the film presents an Asiatic counter-narrative: The citizens of Hong Kong are glad to be rid of those xenophobes (Beijing to Hong Kong: We own you now). The cliche of defeating the bigger and slower Westerner still pleases. The last act with its "we are all one" ending comes right out of Rocky IV. While the fight choreography is still very slick, the wire-work is far more obvious. The duel between Donnie Yen and costar Sammo Hung on a table looks comical next to the comparatively down-to-earth brutality of the fights in the original.

Which leads me to wonder: Is there anyone in Hong Kong who's working on the wuxia equivalent of the Revisionist Western? Anti-martial arts films that deconstruct the legends? To put it in comic book terms, does a chopsocky Alan Moore exist?

11/26/2010

Kapitan Tog #1-2

A stereotypical view of comics is that they're funny or they're about superheroes. And it's no surprise that superhero parody has become par for the course these days. Actually, Filipinos have been producing lowbrow superhero fare for quite some time now. The power of mimicry runs deep in local popular culture. So the Kapitan Tog mini-series by cartoonist Freely Abrigo is in a number of ways, part of a long comic tradition. Written as a pantomime, there's nothing subtle about it. This is old-school physical comedy that gets its jollies from the characters colliding into external objects and each other, resulting in varying degrees of pain and discomfort. The eponymous superhero's name "Tog" can be roughly translated as "head bump" (Think of it as an onomatopoeia for "thud"). That's really all the reader needs to know about him. The plot boils down to Kapitan Tog fighting a series of bad guys in a less than a competent manner. Much of the humor is contingent on how many different ways the hero manages to unnecessarily hurt himself within the span of twenty pages. Simply foiling a duo of bank robbers seems to take him halfway across the city, while smashing into every other signpost, building, and miscellaneous forms of public transportation. He's an oaf. But that's okay because he's an invulnerable oaf.


The art is what carries the comic. Abrigo is a cartoonist who honed his skills working on the Kulas newspaper strip. He draws in a sleek bigfoot style that looks very suitable for animation. His characters all posses a high level of manic energy and a limited emotional range that alternates between the two poles of confusion and hysterical laughter. This is a very broad approach to cartoon expression: Eyes bulging out the owners' skulls, bulbous noses, massive underbites, huge lolling tongues, hunching and rotund bodies. It's all very well put together. I'm not sure how much time elapsed between issues one and two. But there does appear to be a slight artistic shift between them. The mini-comics themselves are handsomely packaged with nice production values, but their respective designs are inconsistent with each other.

Kapitan Tog is hardly essential reading. It's fluffy, carefree stuff that doesn't take itself seriously at all. But it's an entertaining enough diversion, if for no other reason than to watch Abrigo play around with the genre. With only one issue left in the series, it will be interesting to see if he can top himself and deliver a strong finish.

11/21/2010

Taal Volcano Monster and School Run #1

Taal Volcano Monster vs. Evil Space Paru-Paro
School Run #1

As I noted in my post on the last Komikon, There's no shortage of young talent self-publishing their own mini-comics. They're entirely reliant on good word-of-mouth to generate sales at conventions and the comic stores willing to stock them. The Web is an essential part of their self-promotional efforts. Most will use a free blog service or a DeviantArt gallery. But there's so far no critical mass of creators who've taken the vital next step and produced fully featured websites running under a proprietary domain. There's still a lot of hesitancy to devote more of the time and money needed for creating a larger body of webcomics. So a lot of indie activity is still aimed at finding readers for their homemade black and white aschans. Philippine comics may not be dead. But outside of the medium's devotees, not too many know about it.

One indie komiks artist to recently emerge is Macoy Tang, whose mini Ang Maskot (The Mascot) garnered critical acclaim last year. Macoy draws in a stripped down, big-headed, cartoony style, that looks suitable for children's book illustration. It's an appropriate style, as his comics use humor to tap into the collective memory of a generation of Filipinos who wasted their time watching too much TV. He tweaks popular genres by placing them within a Filipino context.

Taal Volcano Monster vs. Evil Space Paru-Paro is a fond tribute to Japan's classic kaiju films. But this comic's Godzilla-like character doesn't live at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean or on Monster Island. Instead it lives within the caverns deep below Taal Volcano, a popular national landmark. And it doesn't surface to attack humanity because of nuclear weapons testing. Rather, it's disturbed by the noise pollution due to the increase in tourism to the area. Monsters need their sleep too. So it ascends to the surface (via a giant elevator) and incinerates the tourists with its "lava breath". After a little bickering, the army and navy agree that the air force should get to die first at the hands of the Taal Volcano Monster.


At a modest twenty pages, Taal Volcano Monster isn't so much a story as an extended gag strip. A Mothra stand-in shows-up for no good reason other than that's what happens in the movies. And the requisite knock-down drag-out battle takes place. Both monsters are drawn to look like cuddly plush toys, while the humans are mostly just tiny stick figures. Mass destruction rarely looked so cute.

While entertaining in it's own right, it's too slight to stand on its own as a professionally printed work. But as part of the newly published Sulyap anthology, it's a much better value.

On the other hand, School Run is a longer and more ambitious project. An ongoing series that's on its third issue, it's set in a near-future Philippines infested by zombies. No explanation is given as to what bought them into existence, though it's implied that the cause is viral in nature. The twist is that humanity has come to take them for granted, like at the end of Shaun of the Dead. People may live behind fortified houses and drive around in heavily armored vehicles. But that doesn't stop them from carrying on like they normally do. The zombies are blown in like the typhoons that regularly batter the country. As with any real-world inclement weather, they've just become another part of everyday life.


Unfortunately, the weather bureau underestimates the severity of one ultra-powerful "intertropical zombie convergence zone". People commuting to work and school are caught off guard and the death toll climbs to the millions. The story focuses on a group of elementary school students traveling by bus when the zombies reach Manila. Their driver is killed in the usual gruesome manner. And the first issue's cliffhanger ending raises questions on who will be around in the next installment. They may be kids, but if the comic follows the formula, the cast will get whittled down to just a few of the more resourceful and stronger characters. The smart money is on the thoughtful little girl who senses that something is amiss from the very beginning. But the other characters have yet to establish any emotional connection with the reader.

The first issue isn't particularly graphic by the genre's standards, although the possibility of baby-faced munchkins dying horribly one by one might disturb some readers. But that didn't stopped The Drifting Classroom. The departure from the usual horror movie casting is what's intriguing about the comic. So as perverse as this sounds, I'll be disappointed if no blood is spilled in the future.

11/14/2010

Komikon 2010 Part 2

Go read part 1

Here's a small sampling of photos I took at Komikon on Saturday:

The Sulyap contributors:



Macoy proudly shows his work at the Sulyap table, which was directly facing the hall entrance

 Veteran artist Jess M. Jodloman had a nice big table for his prints.

The Vibal table had some really nice looking and expensive books.

Komiks shirts in case someone wanted to show their Pinoy pride.

Jose Gamboa of Pacquaio: Winning In & Out of the Ring peeks out from behind his laptop. This was probably the most expensive komik sold at the convention.

Some pretty shojo-inspired art.

 Lyndon Gregorio clowns around before signing a copy of his latest Beerkada compilation.

Manix Abrera and his long line of admirers. In case you're wandering, he's also a rock musician.

 What were the most expensive comic books at Komikon? Why the foreign ones of course, like this pile of DC/Vertigo merchandise. For example,  How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less cost ₱1000.

Joanah Tinio-Calingo and Taga-ilog (I think). It was a long day.

Veteran artist Danny Acuña and his sketch art. He's pretty much a fixture at these kind of events.

Want to buy a complete season of your favorite anime in one disc? I'm not sure they're legal.

 Kajo Baldisimo signing some nifty looking Trese merchandise.

Syeri Baet interviews Jess Abrera while Manix looks on. Stop hogging the microphone Jess, or give Manix one.

And finally, some useless junk I would have purchased, if I had the extra cash.

 That's all for now. Tune in for future reviews of the books I found on Saturday.

Komikon 2010 Part 1


Going Small

As the nation's premiere event to showcase comics as an artform worthy of respect, Komikon is still a very young and fast evolving convention. Last year it partially left its original home in the hinterlands of the UP Diliman campus by splitting into two: A summer event at UP, and a fall event at SM Megamall, Mandaluyong (Or if you prefer, a dry and wet season event). They also teamed-up with the newly formed PICCA Fest to help increase their public profile. This year, Komikon's organizers decided to scale back to far more modest dimensions. The crossover with PICCA is gone. The biannual format was apparently popular enough to justify its continuation. But the change of venue from Megamall to the nearby Starmall caught most fans by surprise. The latter is a clear step down in the quality of facilities: The event space is smaller, the parking is terrible, and vehicular traffic at the building's location on the EDSA/Shaw blvd. intersection is hellish to say the least. But this arguably allowed its organizers to hold a cheaper, one day event. And they retain all the advantages of holding Komikon at a more easily accessible, heavily frequented, urban location.

Another dubious advantage of holding a smaller event is that it gave the impression of being better attended. Komikon hasn't released any official numbers for objective comparisons. But there's no doubt that cramming the same number of attendees and exhibitors into a hall half the size of last year's event, and for just one day, would produce more uncomfortably close social interactions. By mid-day the situation was getting positively claustrophobic. Exhibitors were already packed so tightly that many lanes could only accommodate a bit more than one-way foot traffic. So when anyone paused to examine the items, it caused traffic to a stall. And the line that formed at the Visprint table for the Manix Abrera signing was so long, it physically divided the attendees into two crowds.

Certain extras were also sacrificed for exhibitor space. The panel area had no chair seating, which forced attendees to mill around the stage, exacerbating the crowding situation. There was also no gallery space, which was an unfortunate loss. But the biggest casualty of the smaller con was the dropping of the Komikon Awards for this year. This is something the organizers would need to build momentum on if they want to cement their convention's reputation as the place to honor the industry's finest komiks creators.


That Indy Feeling

In keeping with this year's smaller venue, Komikon was light on announcements and book launches from the bigger names in the industry. The highest profile project was the opportunistically timed Pacquaio: Winning In & Out of the Ring by relative newcomer Jose Gamboa. His last project was last year's Laban! A Love Story. Three of the Special Guests were professionals known for their contributions to American mainstream comics: Harvey Tolibao, Stephen Segovia, and Carlo Pagulayan. Strangely, none of their work was prominently on display.

The individuals who truly ruled the floor this year were the local comic strip creators. The hugely popular Manix Abrera was there to sign the latest compilation of his Kikomachine Komix strip. He was accompanied this year by his father, the celebrated cartoonist Jess Abrera. The elder figure captivated attendees during a panel held for the two. But other cartoonists were doing well for themselves: Lyndon Gregorio, Pol Medina Jr., Michael David were some of the cartoonists attracting attention with their own strip compilations.


The smaller space and fewer announcements from established pros had a salutary effect on this year's indy creators selling mini-comics. They were out in force, which made them a more visible presence throughout the hall. Despite the appearance of pros like Tolibao, Segovia, and Pagulayan, there was a strong undercurrent of celebrating the people who love comics enough to fold and staple every copy of their work by hand. Unlike last year, this felt a little closer to some SPX events I've attended in the past. There was a variety of styles on display: from manga, to superhero, to genre entertainment, to art comics. This was a young and idealistic crowd. It seems that Komikon and similar events play a disproportionally larger role in engendering a sense of community amongst the present generation of creators. But in comparison, the webcomics scene is still underdeveloped. The event itself functions as a substitute for the dearth of major publishers and distributors willing to take a chance on them or komiks in general.

In lieu of an actual awards ceremony, Komikon has published an anthology titled Sulyap. The book collects stories from a few of its past winners as well as creators who established their reputations at the event. The book was being sold at a deep discount, and will be available in bookstores at some point. Komikon has also upped its game in other ways. The website was redesigned for this year to be slicker looking and a bit more informativ. And the con, for once, actually printed a somewhat useful event guide book, although there were not enough copies for all attendees. But at least an attempt at professionalism has started to inform the event's organization.


There's still a lot of painful growth ahead before it fulfills its potential. But overall, I found Komikon to be a satisfactory experience, and I would have easily spent more on the event had I more money in my pocket.

More photos in part 2. There will be people in them.

11/12/2010

The Push Man and Other Stories

"Comics" is a silly word, judging from the the number of attempts to supplant it with something that someone believed sounded more respectable: "illu-stories", "picto-fiction", "comix", "graphic novel", "sequential art". The term suggests something humorous and light-hearted. But it also has come to mean childish nonsense, especially of the spandex, masks, and capes-wearing variety. As creators became more artistically ambitious in the post-War era, there was the desire to distance themselves from the perceived limitations of "comics". They hoped the medium would one day be taken seriously as "literature" or "art". Meanwhile, a parallel development was also taking place in Japan. Manga was established as popular children's entertainment under the influence of the legendary Osamu Tezuka. But as the country prospered, manga creators would also push against industry restrictions. One of those people was Yoshihiro Tatsumi - the man credited for inventing the word "gekiga" ("dramatic pictures") in 1957 as an alternative to "manga" ("whimsical pictures"). His country has since come to recognize his contributions to the medium. But it wasn't until 2005 that there was a sustained effort to bring Tatsumi to the western world, initiated by alternative comics creator Adrian Tomine and publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Their first book was a collection of stories, originally published in 1969, entitled The Push Man and Other Stories. D&Q has since become the foremost purveyor of classic gekiga, with Tatsumi as its biggest star. Christopher Butcher has posted that The Push Man opened the floodgates for manga that "strove for realism, maturity, experimentation, seriousness, and to touch the human soul." - In short, Japanese alt-comics. What's interesting is that the seeds for this approach were already being sown more than forty years ago.

The sixteen short stories in this collection, mostly eight pages long, were produced for the magazine Gekiga-Young. According to Tatsumi, they were inspired by police reports and human interest stories found in newspapers. Their focus on the urban working-class reminds me of the stories in Will Eisner's groundbreaking graphic novel A Contract with God. Both are deeply interested in exploring the human condition through the experiences of social outcasts. But stylistically, they're far apart. Eisner still betrays his pulp influences: His caricature of familiar archetypes, the noir staging of panels, the preference for melodrama, and a morality that creeps in to punish the bad behavior of his characters. In contrast, Tatsumi is far less judgmental. There's plenty of vice to go around. But his stance seems more observational, as if trying to understand why people behave a certain way. While Eisner and Tatsumi eschew a more polished look for a style that's more organic and brush-like, Tatsumi's line is cleaner, and his pacing quicker and more economical in order to fit within the eight page count required by the magazine. For fans used to the more expansive layouts and copious emotional outpourings found in most commercial manga, this book will be quite the eye opener.


There is an underlying similarity to most of these stories. His protagonists are all similarly drawn as blank-faced, often mute, everymen. And I do mean men. The women function mostly as external agents who prompt a reaction from the male characters, which does date the material to some degree. Each tale begins with the main protagonist passively coping with the utter banality of his own existence. Tatsumi examines the dark side of the country's post-War boom by looking at the people who most of us generally choose to ignore: sanitation workers, factory workers, auto mechanics, pornographers, the unemployed, professional killers, or the eponymous "push man" who wedges passengers into crowded trains. All his antiheroes are impotent in various ways: sexually, financially, physically. As each struggles to solve their respective problems, circumstances hinder them or pull them down untill some snap in the process. In "Piranha", a man trying to please his wife deliberately hurts himself while at work in order to claim a one million yen insurance policy. When the money fails to improve their relationship, he mutilates her hand. "Test Tube" is about a sperm donor who fantasizes about a prospective client, only to be rejected by both the clinic and the woman. In "Black Smoke" an incinerator operator faced with the evidence of his wife's indiscretions leaves her after she falls asleep while a hot iron starts to burn some loose clothes. As he watches smoke rising from his house at a safe distance, he remarks "It’s a filthy city. Everything here is trash. Eventually someone’s gonna burn it."


But perhaps the best stories in the book are those in which Tatsumi is given more room for formal experimentation. "Who Are You?" is one man's meditation on his own powerlessness in the face of larger forces. Tatsumi's use of fragmented narrative generates a highly taut psychological drama that intersperses outside events with the man's own subjective perceptions of reality. In "My Hitler" a man obsesses over his inability to impregnate his wife, and worries about a giant rat invading his home. There are some beautiful sequences were he wanders the busy city streets which quickly dissolve into the rat-infested sewers beneath.


Given the generally bleak nature of his stories, it's important to acknowledge that Tatsumi's visuals avoid sensationalizing them. His characters are drawn so simply as to appear almost generic. But his cartoony style helps cushion the sometimes horrific imagery found inside. His linework is vibrant and imbues his backgrounds with a great deal of personality. The avoidance of unnecessary flourishes and straightforward panel layouts is the very embodiment of effective storytelling trumping virtuosic display. These stories demonstrate that Tatsumi was already a master of his craft in his early thirties. So it's gratifying that the success of The Push Man led to the publication of further collections of his work from D&Q.

11/11/2010

Subway Tragedy

 Go to: The K Chronicles by Keith Knight

11/05/2010

Incredible Change-Bots

The televised cartoons from the 80s make an easy target for parody. But it's only now in this decade that professional artists have emerged who cite them as a seminal influence. They're going to have fonder memories of those TV shows than the adults who dismissed them as sheer inanity. Jeffrey Brown clearly belongs to the former. Only someone who spent hours watching Transformers or GoBots could have come up with something like Incredible Change-Bots. Every page either recalls an actual episode, or at least creates the impression of something approximating it. Those old enough at the time might have correctly observed that the cartoons were an attempt to cash-in on the popularity of competing Japanese toy lines. But you probably had to be younger and more naive to really appreciate just how cool it was to see a car transform into a robot - admittedly, one that looked like a car being folded and turned inside-out. Incredible Change-Bots isn't a difficult comic to comprehend. It's about a war between two robot armies. But how readers engaged with the source material will affect their opinions as to whether this book is seen as just dumb fun, or just plain dumb.

Brown manages to tweak many of the familiar cliches found in many 80s cartoons: The trite life-affirming messages aimed at kids (A small robot is convinced that he's not totally useless with the line “But what if there was, like, a tiny tunnel or something, and they needed you to race through it?”), over the top proclamations (To everyone's annoyance, someone keeps repeating the catch-phrase “Time to take out the trash!”), absurd action sequences (One side has incredibly bad aim), or narrative loose ends (One robot's betrayal is completely forgotten and given no explanation). Then there's the many inside jokes made for the fans benefit (Big Rig and Shootertron are stand-ins for Optimus Prime and Megatron), silly code names (Big Rig, Shootertron, and all the members of the two warring sides called the Awesomebots and Fantasticons), the equally bizarre transformations (Unlike Optimus Prime, Big Rig has to carefully set up his tractor trailer), the sound effects (Incredible Change!). This book could have been ten times longer had Brown decided to explore every facet of the animated series. As it stands, ICB gets its point across without overwhelming the reader.


The story subverts the usual "good vs. evil" premise by portraying both sides as equally capricious and destructive. Everyone's an idiot, especially each faction's leaders. Brown injects a bit of contemporary politics by explaining the source of their conflict as that of Science vs. Faith. The Awesomebots and Fantasticons disagree over whether Change-Bots and Word Processors have descended from a common ancestor - A pretty funny thing for a bunch of machines to be arguing over. The Fantasticons rig an election, which prompts the Awesomebots to stage "an extremely well-armed peaceful protest", leading to the eventual destruction of the Change-Bot home-world. These issues are exploited less for serious commentary than for comic effect.


ICB is hardly a deep or meaningful work. But fans of the TV series should find this a quick and enjoyable reading experience. The humor walks the fine line between self-reflexive parody and affectionate tribute. This is well reinforced by Brown's artwork: The crude rendering, thick rubbery lines, oversized lettering, bright color palette, and blocky character designs evoke the feel of the original toy-lines and cartoons. The highest compliment I can give Brown is that he gets what made them so appealing to their intended audience.

Excuse me while I dig-up some old Transformers episodes.

11/02/2010

Stupid Reviews

Go to: The Fart Party by Julia Wertz

Gecken to Gleek

Go to: The Evolution of the Geek by Dan Martell