10/14/2017

A City Inside

A City Inside, By Tillie Walden.
By Tillie Walden

A City Inside Is a tone poem crafted with appreciable virtuosity. It begins with an unnamed young woman lying on a divan while conversing with an unseen individual. From the manner of their conversation, it becomes apparent that the woman is inside a therapist’s office and preparing to go through some form of regression therapy. She enters into the requisite dream state by being gently absorbed by the divan. The sequence works because of how it’s illustrated by Tillie Walden with beautiful minimalism. The divan’s sloping form and repeating patterns make it appear as if the woman is floating on the surface of a large body of water. And when she sinks into the divan with the assistance of the therapist, the sequence recalls the experience of baptism or of retreating into the innocence of one's childhood.

The central conflict which prompts this bout of self-examination is a personal struggle - at its most abstract it’s a choice between love and freedom. Or maybe it’s between stability and personal growth. Or reality or fantasy. The message is open to interpretation. Whatever the case, the struggle is viewed as a reverie composed of a series of phantasmagorical images. The therapist serves as the narrative voice which ties them together, since the woman remains silent once she goes under. But the overall impression of her life is of someone constantly seeking solitude. We first see the woman as a little girl growing up in a large house located in “the South.” The narrator claims that she was happy living with just her father to keep her company. But virtually every panel portrays her being alone with her thoughts, engulfed by the long shadows cast by the house and her rural environment. It doesn’t actually come as a surprise when the narrator says that she left her father when she was only 15, “trying to escape those southern ghosts.”

A City Inside, By Tillie Walden.

When we see the woman again, she’s already a young adult living contentedly in the sky. She spends her time writing stories about nonexistent places she wants to visit. Then one night, she meets another woman bicycling past her home. The two begin a romantic relationship, which brings them both back to earth. Only this earthbound existence doesn’t suit our protagonist, who begins to contemplate leaving her lover. But the uncomplicated narrative belies the artistic challenge of capturing its contrasting environments. Walden accomplishes this through her skillful use of black and white composition. Inky shadows and silhouette figures balance areas of bright white, and the resulting shapes generate a pleasing rhythm throughout the comic. Textures and patterns create subtle visual motifs which are better appreciated through repeated readings. On a more surface level, Walden’s quiet, dreamlike imagery evokes the surreal landscapes found in the work of classic cartoonists Winsor McCay and George Herriman.

The resolution to her conflict is as fantastic as it is ambiguous. As the therapist’s voice makes the woman consider her future, the surreal landscape she inhabits suddenly expands into an immense and beautiful city. Every object and structure within it embodies some part from her life. But as she wanders the empty metropolis as a much older figure, her final thoughts turn to the people she knew, cared for, and eventually left behind. It’s still a future the woman has yet to choose when she comes out of her reverie and leaves the office. And that tantalizing conclusion makes for a more appealing comic.

A City Inside, By Tillie Walden.

Video: 30 Days Timelapse at Sea

Go to: JeffHK, by Jeffrey Tsang (via Jason Kottke)

10/07/2017

Wonder Woman #31

Wonder Woman #31,Story: James Robinson Art: Carlo Pagulayan Inks: Sean Parsons, Jason Paz, Scott Hanna Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr. Letters: Saida Temofonte Covers: Bryan Hitch, Alex Sinclair, Jenny Frison  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.
Story: James Robinson
Art: Carlo Pagulayan
Inks: Sean Parsons, Jason Paz, Scott Hanna
Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr.
Letters: Saida Temofonte
Covers: Bryan Hitch, Alex Sinclair, Jenny Frison

Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

The Wonder Woman run of writer Greg Rucka, with artists Liam Sharp and Nicola Scott, set a pretty high bar for future creators, reversing most of the controversial aspects of the New 52 version began by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, and restoring many classic elements. This new story arc by writer James Robinson (making his return to DC Comics) and artist Carlo Pagulayan is okay, I guess. But it definitely feels like a much more conventional take on the character. Moreover, the arc unfortunately dips into a bit of continuity porn. I thought the whole Rebirth initiative meant we didn’t have to worry about this any more. But here’s the the official summary of this issue from DC’s website:
Spinning out of the pages of DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH and JUSTICE LEAGUE: DARKSEID WAR, legendary writer James Robinson (JSA: THE GOLDEN AGE, STARMAN) comes on board to answer one of the biggest questions of the year: Who is Wonder Woman’s brother? Taken away from Themyscira in the dead of night, the mysterious Jason has been hidden somewhere far from the sight of gods and men…but his life and Wonder Woman’s are about to intersect in a terrifying way, bringing them face to face with a cosmic threat they never imagined!
I suppose it was too much to hope for Geoff Johns to forget about this last minute revelation from his run on the Justice League. It was simply put on the back burner while Rucka was allowed to tell a very different story. I really would have preferred that DC went back to Diana being sculpted from clay. I was even under the impression that Rucka’s run had erased the whole storyline of Diana being the love child of Zeus and Hippolyta. But I guess our Chief Creative Officer’s master plan for the DC Universe included biding his time until he could rope another writer into continuing this plot thread. And now we have Robinson.

Wonder Woman #31,Story: James Robinson Art: Carlo Pagulayan Inks: Sean Parsons, Jason Paz, Scott Hanna Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr. Letters: Saida Temofonte Covers: Bryan Hitch, Alex Sinclair, Jenny Frison  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

Frankly, this development is jarring given the Wonder Woman comics that have been published in the last year. It obviously doesn’t fit with the existing material, or the direction being mapped out before Robinson took over the series. It’s very much an artifact of the New 52 era. And a noticeable effect of its insertion is that the comic moves away from Diana’s strong female cast to a more male-centered focus Johns seems to prefer. The resulting narrative where the villain plots his revenge and stages a comeback is a lot more formulaic. The cast now includes New God Darkseid, his daughter Grail, the yet unmentioned Jason and other sons of Zeus, named and unnamed. However, to anyone coming to the comic from the recent Wonder Woman film, the opening page spread is reminiscent of the climactic battle between Diana and Ares. Since her film counterpart acknowledged the god of war as her “brother,” this would appear to be a misdirection meant for them.

The comic contains a few more references aimed at the film audience. The capable Pagulayan draws a certain mysterious figure to resemble hobo Clark Kent as played by Henry Cavill from Man of Steel. That’s also another misdirection. And Diana herself is clearly meant to resemble Gal Gadot. So I’m glad he didn’t attempt to make Steve Trevor look more like Chris Pine. Otherwise, Pagulayan works in the idiom established by past Wonder Woman artists within the last twenty years.

Overall, this is a somewhat unsatisfying introduction to the new arc. Half the comic is taken up by an underwhelming fight between Grail and one of DC’s C-list characters. And there’s a lot of exposition to get through which slows down the pace. Maybe the arc will make more sense in future instalments, but so little happens in this comic past the fight. More immediately, this feels less like a Wonder Woman story than the setup for an event story which just happens to include her.

Wonder Woman #31,Story: James Robinson Art: Carlo Pagulayan Inks: Sean Parsons, Jason Paz, Scott Hanna Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr. Letters: Saida Temofonte Covers: Bryan Hitch, Alex Sinclair, Jenny Frison  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

Cartoon: Eye of the Storm

Eye of the Storm A dispatch from San Juan, Puerto Rico by Rosa Colón.
Go to: The Nib, by Rosa Colón

10/04/2017

More NonSense: SPX 2017 Edition

SPX 2017 banner.
Go to: SPX

Heidi MacDonald on this year's SPX.

Rob Clough on this year's SPX.

Kat Overland on this year's Ignatz Awards.

Matthias Wivel on Jack Kirby’s late foray into autobiographical comics, Street Code.

Tom King and David Finch talk about their creative process when writing Batman.

Seth Simons on the current neglect of The New Yorker’s Cartoon Bank, which licensed cartoons for secondary use. Cartoon Bank was established by Editor Bob Mankoff in 1992, and bought by the New Yorker in 1997:
The Cartoon Bank was a windfall for cartoonists, who in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s witnessed the market for single-panel gag cartoons dwindle from a handful of publications to virtually only The New Yorker. “I remember one particular check early on, probably my second or third check from the Cartoon Bank, was close to $8,000,” said one longtime cartoonist who was involved in the Cartoon Bank’s earliest planning sessions, and who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “As time went on, the returns weren’t as great, but they were still good—they were still two or three thousand dollars a month.” Alex Gregory, a contributor since 1999, described similar numbers. “I would regularly get checks for one or two thousand dollars,” he said. Mankoff, who had a bird’s-eye view of the company’s financials, spoke of cartoonists receiving residual income to the tune of $30,000 to $40,000 annually. The 1998 Times report notes that one cartoonist, Peter Steiner, had by that point received more than $30,000 in royalties for a single cartoon
In 2008, Mankoff handed off leadership of the Cartoon Bank to Condé Nast, who, it quickly became apparent, planned to operate the business with a lighter touch. “I consulted with them for many years after I left, urging them to support this business and commit to this business,” Mankoff said. “For their own reasons they decided that they’re not supporting it. There aren’t really any employees left. And those people who used to do those things”—licensing, custom books, original art sales—“have been let go. The people there are absolutely well-meaning, but they have no real idea of what this business is, who the cartoonists are, how you might leverage and maximize it.” 
Over the following years, the well dried up. The cartoonist who described an $8,000 check he received early on said he now sees at most a few hundred a month. Gregory said the same, as did several other cartoonists who I spoke too.
Mimi Pond lists the top ten graphic memoirs.

Matt Furie takes legal action using the DMCA against various alt-right groups.

Steve Foxe explains why Marvel's latest initiative, Legacy, won't save the company from declining sales.

Chris Ware on writing characters who come from a different background from him.

Charles Pulliam-Moore points out that the X-Men and the Mutants are not an ideal analogy for race, something I've been saying for some time now.

David Lewis on Muslim representation in comics.

Hayao Miyazaki and his portrayal of the supernatural.

Kevin Smith profiled by Abraham Riesman. Smith's early films wedded the 90s slacker ethic with unapologetic geeky obsessiveness, foreshadowing our pop culture landscape. However, his particular brand of storytelling hasn't aged very well. But while Smith has fallen out of favour as a film auteur, he's successfully reinvented himself as an online presence.

The Big Bang Theory serves as a continual reminder that Hollywood is committed to perpetuating the geek stereotype. Unfortunately, this tends to highlight some of the more negative aspects of fandom to the television audience.

Anders Nilsen explains why senators should vote NO on "Graham-Cassidy, the latest Republican attempt to dismantle Obamacare and rob people of their health care."
Anyone who follows my work at all closely probably knows that I have published two books about a particular illness and death and its aftermath. In March of 2005 my girlfriend at the time, Cheryl Weaver, was diagnosed with cancer – Hodgkins Lymphoma. Despite an initially positive prognosis the disease failed to respond to treatment, and in November of that year the disease killed her. In my books I didn't delve too deeply into the details of our particular odyssey through the health care system, but one relevant fact is that Cheryl didn't have health insurance. For several months before her diagnosis she had been dealing with a variety of what felt like unrelated, inexplicable, minor health issues. She hadn't gone to see a doctor because, at the time we couldn't afford it. The simple fact is that had she had insurance she may well have had a chance. And her story is far from unique. Lack of health insurance literally kills people every single day in America. Wealth should not determine who gets care in this country any more than it should determine who has access to the justice system or the political process. It doesn't have to be this way.
Lynda Barry has an advice column.

Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered on September 28th, 1987. It bestowed upon our pop culture landscape the great Patrick Stewart, the finest actor to ever grace the hallowed franchise. He would immortalize "Make it so," "Tea Earl Grey," "Shut up Wesley," not to mention his patented "Picard Manoeuvre." TNG's first season was pretty rough. And by that I mean it was practically unwatchable. But even early TNG succeeded in expanding the franchise with ideas that would go on to become essential to its worldbuilding.

Inhumans sounds like a crappy show made 20 years ago.

RIP Len Wein (June 12, 1948 – September 10, 2017). The legendary comic book writer was the co-creator of popular characters such as Swamp Thing, Wolverine, Nightcrawler, Storm, and Colossus. Bronze Age creators like Wein were among the first working professionals to rise from the ranks of organized fandom, and their work expressed sensibilities which placed them a lot closer to our modern fan-driven market.

TCJ posts an interview with Len from The Comics Journal #48, August 1979.

Sean T. Collins et al. lists the top ten film performances of the late Harry Dean Stanton (July 14, 1926 – September 15, 2017).

RIP Hugh Hefner (April 9, 1926 – September 27, 2017), founder of Playboy magazine, notorious for its glamour pinup pictorials. But at its height, Playboy also published notable cartoonists such as Jack Cole, Harvey Kurtzman, Will Elder, Jules Feiffer.

9/30/2017

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, by Kabi Nagata.
By Kabi Nagata
Translation: Jocelyne Allen
Letters: Karis Page
Cover Design: Nicky Lim

My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness opens with mangaka Kabi Nagata attempting to have sex while inside a Love Hotel room with an escort she hired from a lesbian escort agency. She’s sitting on one end of the bed wearing a terrified expression on her face. Nagata is 28 years old, never been kissed, never been in a relationship, and has only recently come to the realization that she prefers women. She’s spent most of her youth suffering from bouts of depression, manifested in her life as eating disorders, acts of self harm, an inability to hold down a steady job, or form lasting friendships. So, off course she’s scared. The book’s opening (and its risque cover) initially produced an expectation that this would be a story of sexual hijinks, the stress of dating, and the difficulties of being single in the modern world. But I suspect that those thoughts were conditioned by the consumption of too much Hollywood entertainment. What actually follows is an extended and earnest bout of self-examination, gradually leading Nagata to the realization about how much she’s been suppressing her own sexuality in order to fulfill her own preconceptions about responsible adult behaviour.

Nagata’s focus is narrow. She talks about the toll depression took on her own health with great candor. By her own telling, the problems began when she dropped out of university. The resulting loss of a sense of direction would make her extremely anxious. But even securing a part-time job fails to deliver for Nagata the sense of belonging she desperately craves. On the contrary, her self-harm and eating disorders escalate to the point she has to be hospitalized. In one of the most harrowing moments in the manga, Nagata is overcome by an intense desire to eat while in the middle of her shift. She starts stuffing a bowl of uncooked instant ramen into her mouth, but is forced to stop when she notices how the hard noodles have torn into her gums and caused Nagata's mouth to bleed.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, by Kabi Nagata.

But this isn’t a tell-all book. Nagata’s increasing self-awareness forces her to confront how her emotionally stunted relationship with her parents has shamed her into feeling completely inadequate as a functioning adult. There’s a lot of ground to be covered here which Nagata declines to explore in greater detail. She also keeps her portrayal of other supporting characters similarly nebulous. They’re mainly described as either being disapproving or supportive towards her. Every act of kindness shown to her tends to overwhelm the inexperienced Nagata. This includes the escort from the book’s opening. As a mangaka, her primary source of information about sex are the doujinshi she’s read. And as a client, Nagata prefers to ignore the economic nature of the transaction she initiated and would rather project an artificial intimacy to their encounter. But it’s arguably an illusion she needs to maintain just to make it through what is to her a new experience.

The loosely drawn chibi style Nagata employs is both very conventional and a little unusual. Mangaka often use it for the bonus material included at the end of a manga volume, and it helps establish a tone of breezy intimacy between author and reader. But it’s not something typically employed for the long-form narrative. The most eye-catching part of the book's design is the pleasant tri-color scheme (black and white, plus pink) which belies the subject matter within. Otherwise, this aesthetic can sometimes appear a bit too generic.

My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness, by Kabi Nagata.

But it’s not hard to feel for Nagata. Her vulnerability is genuine. And it’s painful to witness her toil so hard to achieve any sense of self-worth after a decade of feeling useless. Whatever Nagata’s particular circumstances, there’s something all-too familiar about the struggle to overcome loneliness.

9/16/2017

Sheena #0 & #1

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #0 Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo Art: Moritat Colors: Andre Szymanowicz. Letters: Thomas Napolitano Covers: Emanuela Lupacchino, Fabio Mantovani, J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Ryan Sook. Sheena created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger.
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #0
Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo
Art: Moritat
Colors: Andre Szymanowicz.
Letters: Thomas Napolitano
Covers: Emanuela Lupacchino, Fabio Mantovani, J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Ryan Sook

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo Art: Moritat, Dimi Maheras Colors: Moritat, Casey Silver Letters: Thomas Napolitano Covers: J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Ryan Sook, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Carli Ihde, Michael Atiyeh, Cosplay Photo.  Sheena created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger.
Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1
Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo
Art: Moritat, Dimi Maheras
Colors: Moritat, Casey Silver
Letters: Thomas Napolitano
Covers: J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Ryan Sook, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Carli Ihde, Michael Atiyeh, Cosplay Photo

Sheena created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger.

Despite being one of the more popular characters from comics Golden Age, Sheena has fallen into partial obscurity as the jungle queen archetype declined in popularity. I should note that I don’t really follow the character, which makes it difficult to trace her history. Sheena has bounced from one publisher to the next, with her continuity being adjusted along the way. Sheena was transplanted from Africa to South America during the 1980s, distancing her from her original but regressive “Darkest Africa” setting. Her last comics appearance was published by Moonstone Books. That series took its cue from a reboot written a decade earlier by Hollywood writer Steven E. de Souza for Devil’s Due Publishing. As was his habit, de Souza located Sheena in the banana republic of Val Verde (the same settings of the movies Commando and Predator). Her biological parents were changed to be an American man and a local woman. I presume this was done to avoid the equally regressive convention of a displaced white saviour living with the natives and becoming their leader/greatest warrior. This latest incarnation from Dynamite Entertainment follows in the steps of the de Souza reboot.

Sheena held one advantage over other jungle queens which has kept her from completely vanishing from our collective memory - her iconic appearance. Jungle queens have always catered to adolescent males. But Sheena popularized the fashionable leggy blonde who wore an impractical leopard-skin swimsuit, a choice which allowed for both the display of ample cleavage and maximum freedom of movement. It’s a  look that’s been shamelessly copied many times, with diminishing returns. And none of her imitators could claim to be the first female character to headline her own title, making Sheena a pioneering figure for the statuesque “Amazon” beauty as heroic lead. The prevalence of this body type in comics has since come under considerable criticism for promoting a pretty narrow view of women in general, and rightfully so. Not that the Dynamite comic makes any apologies for this piece of the character's legacy.

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #0 Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo Art: Moritat Colors: Andre Szymanowicz. Letters: Thomas Napolitano Covers: Emanuela Lupacchino, Fabio Mantovani, J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Ryan Sook. Sheena created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger.

Hiring Moritat to be the series regular artist certainly doubles down on these qualities. But he’s still a bit of an unconventional choice. His anime-influenced aesthetic is a departure from the more familiar good girl art of past cartoonists. Moritat’s beautiful women are not what is often referred to as classically proportioned. They’re all voluptuous torsos and limbs that go on forever. His figures are elongated in a way that the anatomy doesn’t always seem to properly hold together. Sheena is drawn with juvenile facial features which imbue her with an unexpected and strangely elf-like bearing. This is further enhanced by the digital coloring which gives her darker skin tones than past versions. Moritat’s Sheena seems like a deliberate move away from the more traditional caucasian-looking portrayal of the character. But she also doesn’t resemble anyone hailing from any country in the real world.

This hazy exoticism extends to the rest of the story. The plot requires Sheena to enter an ancient ruin already covered up by jungle overgrowth. Despite its state of advanced decay, the structure’s various boobytraps are still in working condition because off course the are. Now I realize that Val Verde is a fictional nation, but seeing as how it’s also supposed to be located in South America, I found it odd that the ruin’s architectural details more closely resembled ancient South Asian art than anything found in pre-Columbian cultures. Later on, Sheena defends the tribal inhabitants of the jungle from the armed goons of a greedy multinational corporation bent on strip mining the place. The portrait of the natives are fairly generic: diminutive brown-skinned people who wear loincloths, carry primitive spears, and live in thatched houses. The attempt simply feels lazy. I could also point out the dissonance of seeing lemurs, which are native to Madagascar, included in the cover.

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #0 Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo Art: Moritat Colors: Andre Szymanowicz. Letters: Thomas Napolitano Covers: Emanuela Lupacchino, Fabio Mantovani, J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Ryan Sook. Sheena created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger.

So at this point, there’s not a whole lot to recommend the comic if you’re not already a fan of Moritat’s brand of cheesecake. Or the alternative covers drawn by other artists. The most intriguing part of the story right now is that Sheena has experienced at least two separate encounters with flying drones being operated by an unidentified male university student or professor searching for something lost in the jungle. It’s kinda creepy that someone has the ability to spy on Sheena from the air, even though those encounters are purely accidental.

But for me, the most baffling sequence involves a camera. While prancing around the ancient ruins, Sheena finds an abandoned 35mm SLR camera which still contains a canister of exposed film. Despite her unfamiliarity with the device, Sheena instinctively pockets the canister. After she escapes and reaches the open air, Sheena unspools the film from inside the canister and examines a single frame of what is now a magically processed roll of color negatives. WTF! Just because virtually everyone takes pictures with digital equipment these days shouldn't be an excuse for this kind of slapdash storytelling.

Sheena, Queen of the Jungle #1 Story: Marguerite Bennett, Christina Trujillo Art: Moritat, Dimi Maheras Colors: Moritat, Casey Silver Letters: Thomas Napolitano Covers: J. Scott Campbell, Sabine Rich, Ryan Sook, Moritat, Andre Szymanowicz, Carli Ihde, Michael Atiyeh, Cosplay Photo.  Sheena created by Will Eisner and Jerry Iger.

9/09/2017

Calexit #1

Calexit #1, Story: Matteo Pizzolo Art: Amancay Nahuelpan Colors: Tyler Boss Flats: Dee Cunniffe Maps: Richard Nisa Letters: Jim Campbell Flags: Robert Anthony Jr. Assistant: Philip W. Smith II.
Story: Matteo Pizzolo
Art: Amancay Nahuelpan
Colors: Tyler Boss
Flats: Dee Cunniffe
Maps: Richard Nisa
Letters: Jim Campbell
Flags: Robert Anthony Jr.
Assistant: Philip W. Smith II

Secession has become a regular part of American political discourse because it’s mostly just wishful thinking. The consequences for any state attempting to secede would be disastrous. Without outside intervention or the state's declaration of independence inspiring a much wider popular uprising throughout the country, the U.S. military would face fewer obstacles and easily outmatch any local standing army. And if the federal government does become a truly fascist regime as some well-heeled liberals fear will happen in the near future, it won’t have any compunction operating in the most ruthless manner to suppress even the most nominal opposition. All of these anxieties inform the bleak setting of Calexit, a collaborative effort from writer Matteo Pizzolo and artist Amancay Nahuelpan. The comic doesn’t actually begin with California’s declaration to secede. It shows what happens after the U.S. National Guard has been sent in to keep the upstart state from leaving the Union. This is a story of the resistance being driven underground and seeing no option but to wage asymmetric warfare on the occupying forces and their collaborators.

Calexit is not a subtle work. The comic extrapolates the country’s divisive political climate since the 2016 elections and dials it up to eleven. There’s no doubt who the story's fictional president is meant to resemble, both in physical appearance and his word salad style of oration. A throwaway line about certain retail chains boycotting the first daughter’s fashion line mirrors the real world administration’s all to familiar nepotism. And let’s not forget its flagrant xenophobia. Calexit quickly reveals that the action which triggers California’s defiance is an executive order signed during the president's second term, calling for “the immediate deportation of all immigrant civilians not recognized as U.S. citizens.” To quote the words of a wise man in order to summarize the effects of the process, "Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering"

Calexit #1, Story: Matteo Pizzolo Art: Amancay Nahuelpan Colors: Tyler Boss Flats: Dee Cunniffe Maps: Richard Nisa Letters: Jim Campbell Flags: Robert Anthony Jr. Assistant: Philip W. Smith II.

The main villain however is Father Rossie, the government’s point man in rounding up California’s immigrant population and squelching the resistance. He’s the kind of over-the-top James Bond villain who loves to watch people squirm while he monologues about how they’re all going to die. He’s also drawn to look like a latter day Steve Jobs when he was finally succumbing to cancer, with a dash of the creepy Mr. Burns for good measure. Playing Princess Leia to Rossie’s Governor Tarkin is the headstrong Zora McNulty, an immigrant on the run and a leading figure in the resistance. We know she’s a big deal because several well-off L.A. residents would sooner die at Rossie’s hands before revealing to him Zora’s whereabouts. And Calexit even has its own Han Solo figure in Jamil, a happy-go-lucky smuggler inadvertently caught in the conflict between the two.

Jamil is the main POV character, and his ability to get along with both sides allows us to witness the terrible conditions of the occupation. He supplies a Guardsman anti-depressants because they’re not exactly legal. Jamil has a friendly conversation about his profession with Rossie. He passes by an entire neighborhood razed to the ground by a pro-government militia without batting an eye. The comic’s main contention is that internal divisions within the state had already doomed California even before the federal government put boots on the ground. Many of its residents would have supported the executive order had it been enacted in real life.

Calexit #1, Story: Matteo Pizzolo Art: Amancay Nahuelpan Colors: Tyler Boss Flats: Dee Cunniffe Maps: Richard Nisa Letters: Jim Campbell Flags: Robert Anthony Jr. Assistant: Philip W. Smith II.

This topicality makes it complicated to assess Calexit as an object. There’s a rawness to the art that imparts an unfinished quality, especially in the flat color palette. There’s also a sense of urgency throughout which transcends the usual objective of producing a comic book. Calexit presents an extreme forecast of the future in the hopes of heading it off. This urgency has only grown since its initial conception. Pizzolo explains in the afterword that when he was writing Calexit, “We didn't know the winning presidential candidate would lose California by nearly 2-to-1, a margin of almost 3.5 million votes. We didn't know the day after that President took power, the largest mass demonstration in history occurred, and the state with the largest turnout was California. We didn't know that California’s two major international airports, LAX and SFO, would be blockaded by furious protesters… I think one thing we can all agree on is that shit’s been hurtling into the fan at an accelerated pace lately.”

Of course, we could still end up being spared a second term.

8/31/2017

More NonSense: Jack Kirby Centennial

Comic-Con International 2017 Souvenir Book cover illustration, Jack Kirby Tribute by Bruce Timm.
Image via The Beat

Jack Kirby, the King of American comics, would have been 100 years old this August 28. The Jack Kirby Museum has a number of events celebrating his centennial.

Kyle Pinion recommends 10 must-read single issues from the King.

Jeet Heer on the King.

Walt Simonsson talks about the influence of Kirby.

Comic-Con International has made its Kirby's 100 tribute book available for download.

Marvel has a Kirby tribute page.

Heidi MacDonald has a few images of Kirby.

Kabuki Nagata of the Japan Times reports that digital manga sales might have overtaken its paper counterparts. That's a huge portent from the world's largest comic book market.
Thanks to smartphones, many people have changed how they read manga, with a myriad of e-comics just a few taps away on their handsets without the need to carry print versions. 
The rise of digital manga is also changing the landscape of the traditionally closed manga businesses as well. Seeing growth potential, many firms, not only existing publishing houses that dominated the era of paper comics but also tech and overseas players, have jumped into the market with manga apps. 
In the meantime, people in the industry say the paper market is likely to keep shrinking and its future remains uncertain. Some are seriously concerned about the fate of manga magazines, which have long served as mediums to introduce new titles, as their role is being taken over by smartphones.
Congratulations to the 2017 Hugo Award Winners.

Asher Elbein acknowledges the work of colorists and letterers.

Geoff Johns, Holy F*&!

8/27/2017

Solanin

Solanin, By Inio Asano Assistants: Yuichi Watanabe, Takashi Kondo Translation: JN Productions Touch-up/Letters: Annaliese Christman Design: Amy Martin.
By Inio Asano
Assistants: Yuichi Watanabe, Takashi Kondo
Translation: JN Productions
Touch-up/Letters: Annaliese Christman
Design: Amy Martin

It’s no longer an original observation to point out that the boundaries between adolescence and adulthood have become hopelessly blurred. Stories about contemporary youth working through the disappointment arising from quashed dreams, failed relationships, unsatisfying career trajectories, while wondering when they’ll grow up, are familiar territory, especially to an audience living in developed nations. Nowadays, personal crisis is simply to be anticipated with every major turning point. I blame the economy for our present melancholia. At any rate, when Solanin was first published in english back in 2008 (the year I began this blog), there weren’t any manga around that closely resembled it. Most manga being translated at the time could probably be stereotyped as being focused on the more juvenile end of the emotional spectrum: fantasies featuring rebellious boys showing off their cool fighting moves or doe-eyed girls immersed in maudlin romance. But manga readers were already growing up, and publishers had to keep up by dipping into a greater range of works from Japan. Solanin can be excruciatingly beautiful in its down-to-earth realism. It’s a manga that will most likely resonate with anyone who's ever been accused of being a slacker, a dreamer, a snowflake, or a man-child. At over 400 pages, it’s an extended meditation on youth struggling with the contradictions of a modern society that pays lip service to self-expression while demanding its members tamp down on all that nonsense and grit it out. Making his official english language debut, creator Inio Asano doesn’t attempt to find an answer. He just keeps it intimate and personal with a small cast.

Solanin arrived when Naruto and Fruits Basket were still defining the manga aesthetic to many western fans. Asano’s art (with help from his credited assistants Yuichi Watanabe and Takashi Kondo) could still be recognized as manga in appearance, but certainly less kawaii in execution. His youthful cast often look uncomfortable inhabiting their own bodies. They haven’t yet completely shed their baby fat, or the gangly forms of their teenage years. And there’s the half-assed facial hair found on the male characters serving as a constant reminder of oncoming maturity still delayed. The visuals are not only as detailed as anything found in manga, but realistic to the point that they’re clearly being photo referenced. The overall results are not exactly attractive. Sometimes the cluttered backgrounds can even be a little distracting to the action taking place in the foreground. But the Tokyo of Solanin definitely feels lived-in: an actual city haphazardly composed of narrow and overcrowded streets.

Solanin, By Inio Asano Assistants: Yuichi Watanabe, Takashi Kondo Translation: JN Productions Touch-up/Letters: Annaliese Christman Design: Amy Martin.

Asano’s meticulous approach is designed to convey the mundane existence of Meiko Inoue, a twenty something women stuck in a dead end job working as one of Japan’s countless office ladies. She cohabits her riverside apartment with her boyfriend Naruo Taneda, whom she calls Taneda. He’s also ensnared in his own thankless work routine he couldn't care less about. Meiko sees in her colleagues nothing but moral compromise. “Adults are made of ‘who cares?'... As long as I’m not caught, who cares?... They pay well here, so who cares?” When she finally can’t stand being surrounded by their mediocrity, she quits. Meiko’s now free to pursue her passions, only to discover she has no clue as what to do with all her free time. Her unemployed status makes Taneda the primary breadwinner of the household, something he gradually comes to resent. Asano’s careful tracking of the growing fiction in their relationship is one of the highlights of the manga. Taneda says all the right things wanted from a supportive boyfriend when Meiko announces her decision to quit. But the subtle sadness expressed by his face and body tells an entirely different story. Taneda fails to meet Meiko’s eyes whenever they begin to have a heartfelt conversation. Before long, his inability to communicate his true feelings causes Taneda to fall into a funk.

But Taneda finds likeminded company in the form of his friends Rip and Kato. The three had formed a rock band during their time in college, and they continue to maintain it as a hobby of sorts. In the meantime, Rip and Kato have each settled into their own respective rut. Neither of them believe they’ll ever achieve anything of great consequence with the band. However, it’s not long before Meiko begins to prod them into taking it more seriously. This sets up the principal thematic conflict: whether it’s better to reach for your dreams even when they’re obviously unrealistic. Or is it better to coast through life knowing your limitations?

Solanin, By Inio Asano Assistants: Yuichi Watanabe, Takashi Kondo Translation: JN Productions Touch-up/Letters: Annaliese Christman Design: Amy Martin.

Asano spends the first half of Solanin slowly ramping up the tension between his young quartet. It’s delightful low-key stuff built around elliptical conversations that first seem to be heading somewhere, only to veer off when something new catches their attention. The little arguments that Meiko and Taneda have are the kind of fights which stem when people circle around the main topic they’ve been studiously avoiding. These many interactions work because of the expressiveness of Asano’s character designs. But there’s a huge plot twist that occurs at the very middle of the story which slightly alters the tone of the manga. What began as a quiet slice-of-life narrative suddenly becomes more dependent on noticeable dramatic beats to propel it towards a slightly more conventional destination. The kind expected of any emotional account of the performing artist trying to make it big in the industry. It isn’t an unambiguously happy conclusion for Meiko and company. Far from it. But Solanin sacrifices some of its initial realism to arrive at it.

For all that, the manga’s climactic concert scene is a thing of beauty. Comics as a visual medium can’t reproduce the aural qualities of music. But Asano manages to capture the mood of the concert through a forceful series of wordless panels. Witnessing their kinetic release as the band powers through with their instruments is immensely gratifying since it comes after many pages of rehearsal sessions that seem to go nowhere. It’s the one glorious moment of clarity they've been seeking, knowing that the complications of their lives will inevitably overtake them again.

Solanin, By Inio Asano Assistants: Yuichi Watanabe, Takashi Kondo Translation: JN Productions Touch-up/Letters: Annaliese Christman Design: Amy Martin.

8/20/2017

Spy Seal #1

Spy Seal #1, By Rich Tommaso.
By Rich Tommaso

The anthropomorphic spy thriller Spy Seal is unlike any comic currently being published in this genre. Rich Tommaso sets the story in jolly old London during the Cold War era. Russian spies are afoot and causing mayhem throughout the city. But this isn’t a modern, gritty tale about the moral compromises that have to be made in order to uncover terrorist plots and save innocent lives. There isn’t any wallowing in the “dark side” as Dick Cheney once described it. Tommaso’s comic is a homage to classic high adventures starring a dashing protagonist facing off against an array of dastardly villains speaking with funny foreign accents. Only in this case, the hero happens to be a talking grey seal. Along the way, there’s government intrigue, elaborate assassination plots, beautiful femme fatales, and a macguffin that will presumably send everyone involved in a high stakes hunt to various exotic locales. Tomasso demonstrates an ability to capture the rhythms and plot points that propel this kind of story forward. The result is a fairly entertaining page turner.

It’s also a very pretty comic story inspired by the visuals of Hergé. Tomasso tempers the absurdity of his anthropomorphic cast by drawing them in the ligne claire style. There’s an attractive minimalism being demonstrated which unites what turns out to be a surprisingly wide variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles walking about the streets of London. The clean, geometric shapes and flat, pop aesthetic of his color palette gives the bustling metropolis a certain period glamour. And of course, the comic’s retro style instantly recollects The Adventures of Tintin to anyone who has ever read them. This is especially true during a bizarre rooftop chase, as these types of action scenes are a staple of every Tintin comic.

Spy Seal #1, By Rich Tommaso.

If there’s one glaring weakness, it’s that none of the characters have come into focus yet. They mainly fit into broad archetypes without any sharply defined individual traits to set them apart. This is particularly true of the titular protagonist Malcolm Warner, who already enters the comic with a set of useful skills as an ex-military man and jiu-jitsu exponent. While those make him handy in a fight, he doesn’t exhibit any curiosity or independent initiative. This unfortunately draws attention to the largely accidental nature of his involvement with the main plotline. If Malcolm wasn’t in the right place at the right time, and if he didn’t catch the attention of a certain undercover operative, he would have carried on oblivious to the events around him. Needless to say, there's some clunky exposition exchanged between the characters before the actual adventure can begin.

But there’s also a tiny hint of sardonic humor that keeps it from being just a nostalgic retread. The comic’s first act takes place in an art gallery where several of the works on display are vaguely reminiscent of Damien Hirst installations of preserved dead animals. Naturally, the remains of real world creatures have no noticeable effect on the gallery’s patrons. Why should they? It’s just Art.

8/13/2017

Mister Miracle #1

Mister Miracle #1: Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads Letters: Clayton Cowles Cover: Nick Derington  Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.
Story: Tom King
Art: Mitch Gerads
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Cover: Nick Derington

Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is a major milestone of the medium. But his densely packed cosmos told through an interconnected web of comic book titles has never been sustained in any meaningful way past the original vision of its creator. And if we ignore the occasional appearances of main antagonist Darkseid, and the Forever People, the Fourth World has largely receded from the New 52 DC Universe. In short, most new comic book readers are probably unfamiliar with its continuity. But in their attempt to revive the adventures of Darkseid’s wayward son Mister Miracle, Tom King and Mitch Gerads make no concessions for them. In fact they double down on the titular character’s tangled history with his evil father with a rather abstruse, nonlinear tale that updates him for a less heroic age. Gone is the swashbuckling hero of the 1970s who defied Darkseid’s totalitarianism with a string of impossible feats of escape. What we have instead is the weary veteran who acts like he can no longer stem the rising tide of evil. Sort of like the gloomy Luke Skywalker as seen in The Force Awakens, but only more depressing.

Just to impress how bad things have become, King quotes the introductory text from the original Mister Miracle #1, dated from April 1971:
Is he a master of spectacular trickery or is he something more? You will have to decide when you confront the strangest, most incredible superhero to appear in comics! You will see what he does! You will wonder how he does it! But always waiting in the wings are his two greatest enemies: the men who challenge him—and death himself!
That final part leads to the comic's opening scene: A two page spread of Scott Free bleeding out on a bathroom floor after he has slit his wrists, apparently in an attempt to commit suicide. He’s rushed to the hospital by his wife Big Barda. The rest of the story becomes more fragmented: Scott recuperates while experiencing flashbacks, visions, hallucinations. Or is he being manipulated by unseen forces? Is he actually still dying on that bathroom floor or a hospital ward?

Mister Miracle #1: Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads Letters: Clayton Cowles Cover: Nick Derington  Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.

Gerads is key to creating this sense of unreality. His lo-fi art is the antithesis of today’s slick, digital production values. Or more accurately, it’s just as slick as anything in mainstream comics. But crafted to appear more analog. Colors are washed out. Lines are blurry, as if the printing plates might have been improperly registered on the offset press. There are printing artifacts such as halftone and moiré patterns. Some of the pages looked taped together.

And there’s certainly nothing heroic about how the characters are drawn. Gerads’ down-to-earth representations make Scott and Barda look about as ordinary and vulnerable as anyone in reality. The couple spend most of the comic shuffling about in their cramped home. The only parts which betrays their otherworldly origins are visits from Highfather and Scott's sort-of brother Orion. That and the ever present threat of Darkseid. Almost every page is organized into the nine panel grid. Its primary effect here is to make the setting very claustrophobic. But with every grid, one panel is blacked out and populated with the words “Darkseid is.” As the comic reaches its end, more panels are randomly blacked out, until the story arrives at an entire black page occupied with nothing but those words.

Mister Miracle #1: Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads Letters: Clayton Cowles Cover: Nick Derington  Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.

This will probably resonate with many anxious Americans experiencing the creeping sense of authoritarian rule undoing years, even decades, of progress. Witnessing epressions of hate and intolerance becoming more common. Or even just the vague sense of existential dread permeating modern life. If things seem desperate enough, might death seem less like an enemy, but more a relief from suffering? What happens when your own mind becomes the trap? How do you punch away depression and paranoia? But King and Gerads do show two crucial scenes where Darkseid’s message is absent. It’s the readers’ and Mister Miracle’s lone slither of hope.

8/06/2017

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22, Story: Ryan North Art: Erica Henderson Colors: Rico Renzi Letters: Travis Lanham Logo: Michael Allred  Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.
Story: Ryan North
Art: Erica Henderson
Colors: Rico Renzi
Letters: Travis Lanham
Logo: Michael Allred

Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.

One of the pleasures of reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is how the series has made no concessions to alter its offbeat tone to better fit into Marvel’s regular churn of crossover events. The Squirrel Girl comic is better characterised as Marvel Universe adjacent. And that’s fine as long as Ryan North and Erica Henderson can get to keep producing one of the best, not to mention the funniest, comics being released by the beleaguered publisher. So while every other series feels like it’s getting sucked into the dark vortex that is Secret Empire, our titular character is vacationing in the Savage Land and hanging out with dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best!

The reason Doreen Green and her roommate/fellow computer science major Nancy Whitehead get to hang out with dinosaurs is because they entered an online programming contest which claimed to award its winners “unspecified fabulous prizes.” Well, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all. No siree. For the reader expecting some kind of twist, it’s delivered at the very last page. But North and Henderson spend half the book carefully ratcheting up the anticipation of their arrival at the Savage Land, so the real emotional payoff is watching Doreen and Nancy geek out and identify every species they set their sights on, all the while dropping knowledge about the Mesozoic era. See, comics are educational.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22, Story: Ryan North Art: Erica Henderson Colors: Rico Renzi Letters: Travis Lanham Logo: Michael Allred  Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.

The comic is naturally a playful subversion of the Lost World trope. It turns out that the Savage Land is now accessible via commercial airlines (even to airlines arriving from Latveria). The Land itself (or at least part of it) is being run as a wildlife preserve, complete with the usual tourist amenities such as hotels and tacky gift shops (which Doreen just loves). More importantly, everything seems to be running smoothly with nary a rogue dinosaur in sight eating any of the staff or guests. Suck it, you incompetents who run Jurassic Park!

So the mayhem promised by the comic’s Frank Frazetta-inspired cover has yet to be delivered here. But we do learn two significant things. Nancy likes cute boys who know their dinosaurs (even if they hail from Latveria). And Squirrel Girl will definitely get to ride a pterosaur (I'm envisioning the mighty Skybax rider) at some point, because it’s what she now wants out of life.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22, Story: Ryan North Art: Erica Henderson Colors: Rico Renzi Letters: Travis Lanham Logo: Michael Allred  Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.