12/27/2012

Avatar The Last Airbender: The Promise Part 3


Writer: Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
Artist: Gurihiru
Letterer: Michael Heisler

Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

Go to my reviews of parts one and two.
[Warning: Spoilers ahead]

The Promise occupies the gray area between The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra. As it stands, it often feels like an additional season of the the former. And it contains plenty of the requisite fanservice. But whereas the TV series tended to meander a lot, the graphic novel is far more succinct to the point of feeling truncated at times. Supporting characters don't always receive equal attention. And just as the narrative's primary conflict is quickly introduced, it's just as quickly expedited in the last volume.

The common theme found in the two TV serials is that of diversity. The Last Airbender had a simple fairy tale premise that supported the idea that diversity was preserved through the separation of the four "nations". Not that this principle was strictly observed when the hero travelled the world with a multinational gaggle in tow. But Aang did treat the territorial boundaries between them as inviolable, and the basis for rejecting the Fire Nation's conquest of the Earth Kingdom. Legend of Korra takes place in a historically grounded setting where boundaries, both external and internal, are more realistically portrayed as fluid. It's the task of The Promise to link the two in such a way that the fairy tale, with its quasi-mythical racial divisions, and the postcolonial adventure, composed of a multicultural pastiche, are seen as belonging to the same timeline. It accomplishes this on the surface level by supplying all kinds of fanservice-friendly filler material foreshadowing the birth of the airbender acolytes, the metalbending police force, the United Republic of Nations, the recorded union of Aang and Katara. But the third volume also does most of the heavy lifting regarding the evolution of the beliefs and philosophies of its youthful cast, particularly that of Avatar Aang and Fire Lord Zuko.

That the strife ultimately revolves around  the psychodrama between these two characters should not come as a surprise to fans. What is different is the lack of an obvious archvillain to externalize the narrative's conflict, something both TV serials used as a convenient scapegoat and as a way to bring the issues into stark relief. And without a villain to rally against, it turns out that Aang functions as the role of principal antagonist while the usually impetuous Zuko is proven to actually be on the right side for once. Aang is the rigid traditionalist worried about safeguarding cultural purity, while Zuko is desperately seeking a logical way to avoid an impending second world war between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. Aang's promise to Zuko, which was given in part one, serves to further raise the stakes by personalizing the dilemma.

Aang carries out his Avatar-defined duties

I've felt however from the beginning that this plot point was a weakness of the story. That Aang would even seriously consider offing his good friend Zuko, let alone quickly assenting to carrying out such a grim oath if it ever became necessary, seems less likely than the possibility that he would have actually killed his mortal enemy Fire Lord Ozai in the TV series finale. Not even some mystically-infused dream at the beginning of this volume could convince me otherwise. Didn't Aang already surpass those methods after communing with this guy? So the eventual showdown between the two felt anticlimactic, repetitive, and unoriginal. Another scene that particularly irked me was a conversation where Aang describes the compassion he exhibited throughout the ATLA series as a kind of character "flaw". Coming from him, the statement rings false and the message being conveyed comes across as a little too on-the-nose to me.

In case I've given the wrong impression that this is an introspective work, this volume is packed with more action than the last two parts, with the battle between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom armies and the colonists forming its centerpiece. The series unique mixture of hand-to-hand combat and humor is very much still in force, with the trio of Sokka, Toph, and Suki using similarly disruptive guerrilla tactics to what they did in the ATLA finale to very much the same comic effect. Mind you, the juvenile quips don't always work, especially with older readers. One character is reduced to a running joke about how he managed to land a total babe for a girlfriend. That gets old real fast. And there is a downside to cramming so many characters within a graphic novel. Some of them, like Ozai and Mai, simply vanish from the story. Others, like Earth King Kuei and Iroh, make only brief, perfunctory appearances. But the biggest disappointment is how Katara gets transformed from independently minded badass to Aang's supportive girlfriend. I get that she needs to hang out with her beau, but she doesn't get to do anything cool on her own time anymore. Not even to chew out Sokka and Toph for behaving like idiots.

Kataang wins again!

But wait! Is that queen bee Azula staging her big comeback? Maybe fans will finally get to see another rematch in the future.

12/22/2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey


The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has the difficult task of adapting to screen a much-loved book, functioning as a prequel to Peter Jackson's established Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and laying the groundwork for yet another film trilogy. Needless to say, something had to give when trying to navigate these varied and sometimes conflicting goals. Fans of the book will note the many liberties taken to the plot in order to make it fit with the preexisting films. Fans of the film trilogy will enjoy the sensation of revisiting a familiar world. Not everyone will be satisfied with the attempts to balance the lighthearted quest story of The Hobbit with the world-spanning epic of Lord of the Rings. The film is rife with flashbacks and jump cuts, and most of the scenes feel drawn out and repetitive, especially the action set pieces. After awhile, the orc attacks start blending into one another. The dinner party near the beginning in particular seemed to go on forever. Protagonist Bilbo Baggins comes across as the everyman hero he's supposed to be, and the confrontation between him and Gollum is everything I had hoped for. But his personal story often gets lost in the shuffle. All that additional material results in a rambling story that constantly shifts back and forth between the Dwarves quest to kill the dragon Smaug and the White Council's investigation of the Necromancer threat. I'm not sure if Jackson's desire to cram the film with so much minutiae or the studio's hunger to profit from the franchise was more important in the final decision to produce a trilogy, but the film ends at about halfway through the book, leaving me to wonder just how effectively can Jackson stretch things out to have enough material to produce two more films.

But this franchise is still a veritable juggernaut, and it's going to perform well enough at the box office to earn its keep. And for all it's flaws, I enjoyed The Hobbit. I'm admittedly too much of a Tolkien fan not to want to watch every film twice.

12/21/2012

"Then I guess this is it"

From Crisis on Infinite Earths #1

If the apocalypse began today, so far it's proven to be a massive disappointment. We're missing out on a cool ending.

12/18/2012

Get Jiro!

Written by: Anthony Bourdain and Joel Rose 
Pencilled and Inked by: Langdon Foss
Colored by: José Villarrubia and Dave Stewart
Lettered by: Todd Klein

As a disinterested reader, I initially wondered if Anthony Bourdain's graphic novel debut Get Jiro! would turn out to be the kind of vanity project too abstruse with its particular obsessions to enjoy. As it turns out, I was only half right. The comic does indulge in the kind of topics Bourdain deeply cares about, and it eventually looses me before the end. But it's a tale told using a medium with a reputation for geeky obfuscation.  So what's wrong if the foodies and gourmets bring their eccentricities and obnoxious tics into the comics community? Get Jiro! is the kind of story that could not have been conceived anywhere else.

The story works to suck the reader in by framing itself with traditional pulp conventions found in spaghetti westerns, crime dramas, and samurai epics, most central being the anti-hero taking on the establishment. Naturally, the whole comic is steeped in the ethos of rugged individualism. In a dystopian version of Los Angeles, pop culture has become dominated by food culture. Imagine if in the real world the Food Network was the only television station around, and the only true celebrities were celebrity chefs. For everyone but foodies, that sounds like a nightmare scenario. But the real horror as far as the book is concerned are the social inequalities being perpetuated in the name of good food. Located at the city center are the finest dining establishments patronized by the glitterati, who willingly line up for hours. The further one travels from the center, the cheaper and dirtier the eateries get, and the more ethnic the composition of the neighborhoods. There is some form of strict segregation being enforced which prevents easy access to the inner part of the city for the residents of the outer rings, although it's never really explained how it came into existence or how it exactly works.

The unofficial rulers of Los Angeles are two chefs who command their own factions like mob bosses, with each faction ruling its own turf. The two chefs could be conveniently labelled as the "snob" and the "hippie". The former demands the highest standards and finest ingredients, the latter supports a number of social causes like veganism and using only locally grown organic produce. Despite being mortal enemies, they've managed to maintain a fragile truce. I've had very little exposure to Bourdain's TV shows. But I'm left with the strong impression that these two figures embody his pet peeves, because they're basically straw men shown to be hypocrites who quickly betray their beliefs to obtain wealth and power. The snob is willing to finance his empire of sophisticated dishes with trashier fare, while the hippie conveniently contradicts the nonviolent core of her ideals for the same ends. The satire throughout is fairly heavy handed.


Into this setting arrives Jiro, a sushi chef with the aloof bearing of a Japanese warrior, who sets up his sushi bar at the edge of the city. He's a finicky type who literally cuts down his customers for not observing the proper table etiquette, which reminded me of the "Soup Nazi" from Seinfeld. The difference is that Jiro's devotion to perfection is held up as an admirable trait, and his reputation spreads so far and wide that the snob and the hippie try to recruit him to their side. What happens next will be familiar to anyone who's seen Yojimbo or A Fistfull of Dollars. Jiro isn't about to give up his independence, so he manipulates both sides for his own benefit while befriending other indie chefs who are fed up with the status quo. Eventually the whole city is engulfed in a war between the big two. Through it all, Jiro remains an enigma. We never learn much about his background or his motives beyond wanting to be left alone to practice his profession. If this story contains any official message, it would be that real chefs should be free to be chefs.

Get Jiro! is far more clever than it is compelling. Between the avarice of its villains, the quest for culinary purity of its protagonist, and a barely repressed contempt for the poor saps who have the bad taste to order something as vulgar as California Rolls, there's not much room to maneuver, let alone arrive at a middle ground. And there's no denying that the text engages in so much inside baseball that it never fully transcends its own self-involvement. The closest thing the story has to a sympathetic portrait of the ordinary consumer are two fat cops who possess such impeccable taste that I doubt they would ever be caught scarfing down a box of donuts. One of them even worries about loosing his restaurant reservation as the gang war erupts all around them. That's actually kind of funny.

The art has its own way of appealing to the reader that surpasses the text. Obviously, the book has many scenes devoted to food porn. Whether it's frying baby eels in olive oil, demonstrating the proper technique for cutting into a fish to paralyze it without killing it, or displaying all the raw ingredients needed to make a pot au feu. Langdon Foss draws in a clear line style which is complemented by the saturated color palette of José Villarrubia and Dave Stewart. The end product is superficially reminiscent of the look and feel of many a Heavy Metal short story. Only this time, the characters aren't just hacking each others limbs, they're slicing animal parts as well. Scenes of detailed food preparation are often juxtaposed with scenes of extreme violence in which the same kitchen implements are being used to maim and kill humans. The results are sumptuous in appearance, but also kind of repulsive. Whatever personal philosophy being endorsed, ideology being preached, or traditional cuisine being championed as more authentic, cooking is always portrayed as a bloody vocation. And more often than not, this is used to reinforce very masculine forms of self-expressions.


If you've already read Get Jiro! and want to get rid of the aftertaste with something more sweet, go read Kitchen Princess or Antique Bakery.

12/16/2012

12/13/2012

More NonSense: The Earth is F**ked Edition

Occupy Comics Black Flag

The title is obviously taken from Brad Werner's presentation at the American Geophyiscal Union conference in San Francisco: "Is Earth F**ked? Dynamical Futility of Global Environmental Management and Possibilities for Sustainability via Direct Action Activism". Coming from a group of scientists and academics, this is an uncharacteristic call to arms against the status quo. And with that, we count down to the end of the world as told by believers in the Mayan calendar.

Speaking of activism, here is Alan Moore’s Essay for the Occupy Comics Anthology.

Watch the anime-inspired Greenpeace video for their Detox our Future campaign.

Climate change deniers are hard to convince. What else is new.

In one of the odder moves to jump on the 2012 bandwagon, Australian prime minister Julia Gillard issued her own tongue-in-cheek announcement.

The second season of Doomsday Preppers recently began airing on Nat Geo Asia. I wander about the tenuous grasp on reality exhibited by some of the people in the first two episodes. Here's my review of season one.

Alex Kane notes the sillier side of this December 21st hullabaloo.

Watch Decay, a zombie movie filmed by physics PhD students at CERN's Large Hadron Collider facility. I can't even begin to imagine how cool that must have been to film.

Know what? If the doomsayers are right, my fat ass will be among the first to fall to the starving cannibal horde.

Here are Hollywood's dumbest apocalypses put on film.

In case you're not frightened enough, here are the ways technology can run amuck and kill us all.

The Chinese government is treating 2012 believers as serious threats.

Watch this lovely video based on Carl Sagan's Pale Blue Dot.

Annalee Newitz gives school survival tips to young geeks. I wish someone had given me this advice when I was younger. It could have helped.

I missed the memo stating that geek dads are the new MILFs.

Batman is superhumanly tough. How else could he still be fighting crime, despite enduring a long injury-prone career.

Is Superman Boring? No more than most superheroes who've been around for decades.

12/10/2012

Sundome Vol. 1

Created by Kazuto Okada

I've read enough harem and magical girlfriend comedies to notice how creators love to write about romantic couplings that begin from a vantage of inequality. Whether it's the tsundere uppercutting her would-be boyfriend. Or the alien goddess lowering herself to the role of a mere mortal's loyal servant. Or other playful variations of Japan's intricate social hierarchy. But the unconventional relationship in Sundome comes closest to a dominant/submissive sexual partnership. Not that anything explicit actually takes place. The book can be described as one big tease. The title itself when translated into english is "stopping the moment before", which is a generally accurate description of the events in the volume.

Hideo Aiba is your standard wimpy male protagonist found in shonen manga. He's a member of the Roman Club, a group devoted to seeking out boyish adventures such as investigating ghosts, UFOs, and other paranormal mysteries. The members must remain virgins in order to preserve the club's youthful vision. To the rest of the high school's student body, they're just a bunch of otakus. But the club members also maintain high marks in order to get into a good college and have a successful future career. The club's "Old Boys" (school alumni) give out scholarships to members who manage to graduate with their virginity intact. But they also make this goal virtually impossible to achieve by sending "assassins" to strip them of it. Needless to say, these actions foster a certain degree of paranoia.

Then one day the beautiful Kurumi Sahana transfers into Hideo's class. She becomes immediately popular with all the boys in school. Hideo is no exception, and almost quits the club to pursue Kurumi. But when she expresses an interest in joining, he reconsiders. The other members naturally suspect that she might be another assassin, but are too flustered in her presence to object.


This silly premise in itself doesn't necessarily separate it from other rom-coms aimed at young readers. But the sexualized imagery certainly does. The story is characterized by juvenile fascination with prurient subject matter. Hideo's infatuation when first meeting Kurumi is expressed through his massive erection, drawn as a fairly obvious bulge in his pants. What perks Kurumi's interest in the club is their secret book on masturbation techniques. And when she confronts Hideo about it, she first asks him to demonstrate how to jerk-off, then rather bluntly states "Even if we were the last two people on Earth, I'd still never have sex with you. No matter how much you beg or cry, I’d never let you come". Hideo accepts these terms as long as it doesn't mean outright rejection. And he happily describes agreeing to this  arrangement as putting on a "collar".

So begins an erotically charged, yet oddly chaste affair. Hideo is so desperate to please Kurumi at every turn that he often performs tasks that are well outside his comfort zone. He willingly courts injury and humiliation to keep himself within Kurumi's good graces, and for the small yet titillating "rewards" she doles out to keep him happy. Kurumi scolds him for showing weakness and praises him when he completes a task. The extremity of this behavior is going to be off-putting to a lot of readers. Manga fans who prefer their rom-coms be more innocent are going to balk at the level of abuse Hideo tolerates. Kazuto Okada doesn't use any of the usual manga tricks to glamorize his characters. While they might be sexualized, they aren't exactly sexy. Kurumi's emaciated form in particular is a gloomy mirror image of the petite figure ideal found in moe manga. All the characters look awkward and twisted, and the mood is exacerbated when they're surrounded with oppressive black stippling. The situations Hideo and the Roman Club face parody conventional manga tropes e.g. the constant panty shots, the indirect kiss, standing up to the school bully, the "test of courage", and other school club hijinks. But they're drained of much of their usual cuteness. And without the PG-13 filters, this brings to the fore the teenage cast's angst and obsession with sex.


Towards the end, the promise is held out that there may be more to Kurumi torturing Hideo than mere self-amusement. But the overall mood of this volume is one of abasement punctuated with moments of real intimacy, raunchy humor, and intense slapstick. Most of the adults who read this are going to wonder why Hideo puts up with Kurumi, and it would be hard to argue against the idea that what he needs most is to grow a spine. But beneath the surface, Sundome is a work that adolescents can relate to. Lurking within it's emotionally clumsy narrative is the dawning realization that nurturing a deeper, more mature connection with another human being sometimes involves the discharge of bodily fluids.

12/07/2012

12/02/2012

Animation: SuperF*ckers


Go to: YouTube,  by James Kochalka (via JK Parkin)