12/30/2010

Castle Waiting Vol. 1

Fantagraphics recently released the long-awaited second Castle Waiting hardcover. I have yet to get my hands on it, but I thought it would be nice to end the year with a look at the award-winning first volume. Linda Medley isn't the only comic creator to reinvent classic fairy tales. Other fantasy writers have exploited the source material to delve into the dark recesses of the human psyche, engage in narrative deconstruction, or update universal archetypes to more contemporary settings. In contrast, Castle Waiting is resolutely kid-friendly and consistently light hearted. While there are small hints of violence and an abstract recognition of the struggle between the forces of good and evil, what's given prominence are interpersonal relationships, especially those centering on the private lives of women.

This handsomely produced volume, which collects the entire series up to that point, can be divided into three sections. The first, The Curse of Brambly Hedge, comes closest to an obvious retelling of well-known fairy tales, in this case Sleeping Beauty. But the focus is on the peripheral characters such as the wise woman and the castle's staff. After the awakened princess suddenly departs with her Prince Charming, her ladies-in-waiting convert the castle into a refuge.


For the rest of the book, Medley tends to be much more oblique with her references. This keeps the plot from becoming too familiar or predictable. The next part introduces the character Lady Jain Solander, former Countess of Carabas, fleeing from her abusive husband and searching for the castle (Alert readers will notice the tangential connection to Puss in Boots). Upon arriving at the "Castle Waiting", she finds it occupied by similarly obscure characters from other tales. The rest of the book is spent on Jain familiarizing herself with the castle's inner workings and the other residents.

The last part shifts attention on the eccentric Solicitine nun, Sister Peaceful Warren. As her backstory takes up a third of the book, she basically hijacks the series, and becomes the volume's most fleshed-out character. But this section is also where Medley's own particular concerns are most pronounced. Like any fantasy series, Castle Waiting is attentive to world-building. But there is no over-arching conflict to focus the narrative. The series simply meanders at a leisurely pace, content with introducing the reader to Medley's oddball cast. It's as if Medley is taking pleasure in sharing a newly discovered treasure trove of fairy tales featuring overlooked minor players. At first, Jain occupies center stage. But her back story is only partially revealed before Peace steals the spotlight.


Medley's narrative choices compliment her down-to-earth viewpoint. She's particularly concerned with exploring topics typically associated with women: domestic violence, marriage, relationships, and children. Jain's story quietly addresses the issue of spousal abuse. Later on it's explained that the Solicitines are a heterodox monastic order who draw inspiration from the story of St. Wilgforte, the "patron saint of unhappily married and independent women." They are in many ways as much a women's shelter and support group as they are a religious organization. Jain and Peace's experiences are indicative of the other characters. All the conflict that takes place in Castle Waiting are deeply personal in nature, and scars them in different ways. This is at the core of the book - people finding ways to overcome past emotional damage with the help of a surrogate family, or in the case of the Solicitines, the power of sisterhood.

Castle Waiting isn't heavy-handed or cloying with it's characters. Medley continuously uses humor to diffuse tension, and to expose delusional behavior. The enchantment that causes Sleeping Beauty and her prince to fall in love at first sight is made to accurately portray them as two impulsive teenagers running away to elope (Which makes the dumbfounded reaction of the entire castle all the more hilarious). Medley is thus able to explore some of the darker aspects of of the original material while being able to poke gentle fun at it from a more modern and shrewd perspective. She's also very adept in creating comic pairings to keep the reader engaged. This is necessary since Castle Waiting is a comic which is heavy on dialogue. Compared to her contemporary Jeff Smith, Medley's art is more strongly influenced by classic children's fantasy illustration as well as comic books. So while she's a brilliant conveyer of facial expressions, her character designs don't have the cartoony exaggerations of Smith. And she's still whimsical enough to portray various fantasy elements like the anthropomorphized animals and mythical beasts that populate her world. The quality of her line is a lot less geometric and more organic in execution. As this volume represents a decade worth of output, there's a noticeable evolution in Medley's art in which she learns to loosen up her style and employ weightier strokes, making her character designs more attractively stylized. The change occurs between The Curse of Brambly Hedge and the Lady Jain arc. But from the beginning she's already a phenomenal artist with a knack for creating unique-looking individuals.


Castle Waiting volume one is tantalizingly incomplete. The book is absorbing, but it stops quite suddenly after the Solicitine arc, leaving a number of unanswered questions about Lady Jain's past. It's not exactly clear what direction Medley intends to take the series. Is she working towards a larger story arc which will draw together the various narrative threads? Or will she simply continue with her intimate character-driven explorations? Either way, Castle Waiting is wonderfully imaginative, and a rare gem of a comic book possesing qualities which are accessible to a larger audience, whether it be children or adults.

12/25/2010

Season's Greetings

Merry Christmas! May your days be merry and bright.

Image cross-blogged with my photoblog.

12/22/2010

Thank you, Mr. Deppey

Dirk Deppey's announcement that he was leaving Fantagraphics caught me by surprise. I've never corresponded with Dirk, nor have I personally met him. But as one of many minor bloggers who have been propped up by Journalista in the past, I'm deeply grateful for all the support I've received from him. I'm also very appreciative that Dirk was one of the few comic bloggers who exhibited an ongoing interest in the Filipino comics industry. There aren't too many writers whose attention encompassed so many areas of the medium. And I think that it's safe to say that Journalista was an important pitstop for many comics fans. His online presence will be sorely missed. And I wish him well in his future endeavors.

I'll probably have more to say, after his official last post. His departure raises many questions, not least being: What is the future of Journalista, the TCJ.com site, and Fantagraphics' own manga line? Hopefully, a few of those questions will get some kind of answer by later today.

Update:

Dirk Deppey has officially ended his tenure as a blogger at TCJ.com, and there's very little hard information on why he was let go. Dirk claims that the parting was amicable, and he implies that the reasons behind it were economic, although that doesn't necessarily preclude other explanations, like more sweeping changes in company direction.

As expected, the tributes have been sprouting-up all over the Web. They point to Journalista's role in single-handily ushering the comics blogosphere into existence. Noah Berlatsky describes how Dirk encouraged the nascent voices of bloggers like himself, and Sean Kleefeld explains how Journalista was once the most important source for general online news coverage in the industry. He believes that with Dirk's departure, more idiosyncratic and personal reportage will come to dominate the blogosphere. I thought that Dirk was never shy about expressing his own opinions, and this imbued Journalista with its own particular flavor. But I agree that the breadth of his coverage remains largely unparalleled, which is why his link-blogging provided an invaluable service to true fans of the medium.

At any rate, it sucks to be unemployed during the holidays. Hopefully Dirk will find a way to bounce back after some well-deserved R&R.

The Grabbers Pt 1

Go to: Evil Twin Comics by Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey

The sordid history of copyright practices within the comic book industry, told in comic form.

Climate Change

12/21/2010

Cookies

Go to: Hark! A Vagrant by Kate Beaton

It's that time of the year again.

Dean Haspiel on Harvey Pekar

Go to: EW Harvey Pekar Tribute by Dean Haspiel

Milkmaids

Go to: Eight Maids A-Milking by Jesse Hamm

Sickness

Go to: xkcd by Randall Munroe

Will I be this uncompromising when my time comes?

Photo Lust: Nikon D7000

Thom Hogan has posted a very positive review. I'm not usually prone to upgrade sickness. And I'm actually pretty happy with my present body. This is the rare exception that's sorely testing me. But in the end, it's not going to happen. Not without divine intervention.

12/20/2010

Love is in the Bag Vol. 1

by Ace Vitangcol, Jed Siroy, Andrew Agoncillo, Ryan Cordova, Glenn Que

Love is in the Bag is one of the more successful ongoing efforts to create a high profile komiks series. It's been lavishly produced (by local standards) as a set of thick trade paperbacks, and more recently made available as an iTunes download for iOS devices. Launched in 2008, it's also another example of "Pinoy Manga" - a byproduct arising from Filipino fans love for Japanese comics and animation inspiring some younger artists to mimic its visual vocabulary and plot conventions. Written by Ace Vitangcol and drawn by Jed Siroy, Love... is an uneasy mix of shojo and shonen manga elements that, as far as volume one goes, have yet to congeal into a more convincing story.

In any case, Love... starts out as a shojo romance. The main protagonist is Kate Menella, a teenage wallflower who has a crush on star basketball player and big man on campus Calvin Jacobs. The twist is that every time she becomes overly excited, she transforms into a handbag. No explanation is given as to the origin of this condition, and no one seems to even question its existence - it's just another wacky manga premise that everyone within this type of story takes for granted. Everyone except for Calvin himself. That boy can be pretty oblivious at times. Not to worry, Kate's best friend is the brash swimming-team captain Kara Francesco. And for some reason she's hellbent on playing matchmaker with Kate and Calvin.

Unfortunately, this can't disguise the basic dullness of the transformations. Kate turning into an inanimate object whenever she sees Calvin quickly becomes repetitive, and it exposes how flat the characters are without the distraction of romantic complications. When Kate finally builds-up enough nerve to sit and talk to Calvin, the conversation is still mostly occupied by awkward silences and meaningful glances. These two sadly, have nothing in common. Kate is a rather passive presence without the urging of Kara and her cohorts. While I get the impression that Calvin is meant to be seen as likable as many a clueless shonen protagonist, he comes across as just dense. When not around Kate, he's even a tad insensitive to women. At some point a shonen-style rivalry with another talented athlete is introduced, but this doesn't generate as much heat as hoped for. This is mainly because his rival comes across as only a slightly more douchey version of Calvin, who also happens to get along with him.


The derivative nature of the plot is also reflected in the art. All the requisite elements are there from the big hair, sailor uniforms, and the usual zip tone effects. But the anatomy always feels a bit off, the backgrounds are perfunctory, and the page layouts aren't anything special to write home about. If the art is trying to emulate mainstream shonen manga, the linework isn't polished enough to match that standard. While not without its charms, it still looks rough around the edges.

The creators of Love... are in the process of completing volume five, so it's safe to say that the series has a well established fanbase who find the story's cute romance and high school intrigue entertaining enough to keep purchasing it. But judging from the first volume alone, this comic isn't greater than the sum of its parts, nor does it say anything very interesting about the themes and conventions it borrows heavily from.

12/17/2010

Beethoven!

Peanuts by Charles Schulz
Happy 240th, !

Ruins

explorer

12/14/2010

The Walking Dead #79

by Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard, Cliff Rathburn, Rus Wooton

One challenge of writing a post-apcalyptic series is coming up with new ways to keep the cast of characters out of balance. They can never be allowed to become truly comfortable with their surroundings. This isn't easy with zombie horror since the threat is basically a faceless horde - something devoid of personality or intelligence. So it's not surprising that within the subgenre, the center of attention becomes the conflict between the living characters. How do they react to the crisis? And how do they succeed or fail to maintain common human bonds without the framework of a civilization to help them? In Robert Kirkman's entertaining black and white series The Walking Dead, the high point was the story arc were the survivors, having just ensconced themselves inside the remains of a maximum security prison, had to face the threat from the dystopian town of Woodbury led by the heinous Governor. There's nothing more terrifying than having to take on a better-armed and well-organized foe who's bent on your complete destruction.

Since the Woodbury arc, the series has felt a bit rudderless as the cast regrouped and travelled towards Washington DC. The last arc had them situated in a walled-off community that was the complete opposite of Woodbury - an honest attempt to recreate an idyllic middle-class suburban enclave. During this time the zombies were largely regulated to the background as the living humans struggled with issues on how to run a small, totally isolated, community: How do you integrate back into society after having been on the run for so long? How do you settle power disputes? How do you handle interpersonal conflicts and keep everyone happy? How do you deal with the misfits and the criminals? But the most pertinent question for the genre-savvy reader would have been "When is this all going to fall apart again?" The last chapter of the arc closed with an ominous reminder that this was probably going to happen sooner rather than later.


This issue starts out with things returning to normal after the drama of previous chapter. The story jumps from scene to scene as each character resumes their normal duties. But it's obvious that at least some of them are still on edge, and a few are anticipating that something awful will occur at any moment. When two people discuss their inability to sleep, one remarks "It's good to know I can still be scared." This is the calm before the storm, and Kirkman is clearly telegraphing what's about to happen. The issue then intercuts between an organized attempt to clear the outer wall of zombies and a conversation between two of the community's founding members. As the zombie-clearing party begins to realize that the undead presence is more substantial than first anticipated, it begins to dawn on the two founders just how shaky the foundations of the world they've built for themselves. The two scenes collide with Kirkman's usual ominous cliffhanger ending. What is probably most pleasing to fans is that after a prolonged absence, the zombies have emphatically taken center stage.

After having introduced and developed several new characters, it's just about time for the next major reshuffling. It's a hallmark of the series that each arc gives the reader time to become emotionally invested in the cast, only to terminate them in random and unexpected ways. Even the most central characters have been put through the ringer. That this hardly feels cheap or exploitative is due to the high emotional tension maintained throughout, and the gritty realism imbued by the art of Charlie Adlar and Cliff Rathburn. So while it's become predictable at this point that someone has to die, the ever-changing and engaging ensemble keeps The Walking Dead a terrifying and absorbing experience, even after an odd 79 issues.

12/11/2010

Inside The Nobel Prize

Go to: Nobel Price by Mattias Adolfsson

Getting Back Your Security Deposity

Go to: My Ex by Jeffrey Brown

12/06/2010

Kanto Inc. #1

Japanese comics and animation have a long and convoluted history in the Philippines. While anime has more or less been a constant presence on network television since the 1970s, manga has taken longer to establish itself. The reason becomes more apparent when walking into any well-stocked book or comic book store. All of the manga being sold are English-language translations from American, and occasionally Singaporean, publishers. So Filipino readers are only going to read something like, oh say, Emma because a CMX published it. This is in contrast to most televised anime, which are usually dubbed in Tagalog.* Filipino fans are largely dependent on foreign publishers for legitimately licensed manga. So a truly hardcore, self-consciously geeky, mangacentric, otaku subculture would only emerge after the widespread dissemination of such printed material to the local population.

I was barely around to witness the birth of Filipino otakudom. But it's no surprise that just as with western otaku, it wouldn't be long before a generation of fans would try their hand at producing manga-inspired comics. By all accounts, the high-water mark for Filipinized manga was the emergence of Culture Crash in 1999. Founded by James Palabay and Elmer Damaso, it was a comics anthology-type magazine featuring Filipino talent. At a time when all the old-style komiks publishers had vanished or were inactive, Culture Crash and a few other start-ups presented a brief opportunity to revive the industry. The magazine boasted professional-quality production values and art, drawn mostly in the "manga style". It published 14 issues before running out of money and closing up shop in 2004. Its creative staff have since moved on to other projects.

One of the former Culture Crash creators is Melvin Calingo (aka Taga-Ilog), who continues to self-publish his own comics. He and wife Joanah Tinio-Calingo launched a new series at Komikon 2010 called Kanto Inc. However neither of them is illustrating it. Art duties have been handed to Kilayman, who I'm unfamiliar with. This decision might have been made to suit the lighter tone of the story. Kilayman is extremely adept at rendering comical facial expressions. He's so good I wish sometimes that he cut down a bit on the intimate face-pulling in order to establish the setting more clearly. But he's clearly got a good handle on drawing fundamentals, and unlike other artists he isn't trying to cover-up any glaring technical weaknesses. His gift for caricature makes him quite capable of delineating the appearances and personalities of the characters.


The story in itself serves a local twist on your usual shonen-style cohabitation brought upon by odd circumstances. Guinevere Garcia is a recent college graduate who, like a lot of young Filipinos, is forced by limited options to work at a call center. However she's fired from her job after being unable to deal with a client who keeps insisting that his computer is under the control of a dwende. Fortunately, she's soon offered another job by an eccentric and very wealthy foreigner. He's looking for a live-in computer instructor to tutor him. However, his creepy lolita daughter may posses supernatural powers, and may have been partially responsible for getting her fired from her previous job. Despite these reservations, Guinevere is leaning towards taking the job, especially after learning about the various perks. It's obviously just the beginning for a longer tale. While not the wackiest idea put out, the premise sounds like it might be a solid enough foundation to attract younger manga fans.

If there is one criticism that can be leveled against the comic book, it's that the aschan format's print quality is inevitably ill-suited to reproducing the artwork, which relies on many gradations and zip tones. That's standard operating procedure for a lot of contemporary manga. But the laser printer/photocopy paper look muddies a few of the visuals. If Kanto Inc. manages to gain an audience, the comic would be better served in the future by superior reproduction in a trade paperback reprint.
___
* Of course the really hardcore fans are either going to purchase the American-produced DVDs, or acquire the anime through more illegal means.

12/02/2010

I'm Back!

Go to: Get Your War On by David Rees

Feel the Power!


That's the strength of Hercules, old man!
Bring it on B#$ch.