Communal Bathing is Fun

Sparkling Generation Valkyrie Yuuki by Kittyhawk.

Today's guilty pleasure reading is the "onsen" scene from gender-bending magical girl comedy Sparkling Generation Valkyrie Yuuki (Gosh, what a mouthful!) by Kittyhawk. All that's left now to take place is a beach episode, and oh yeah, a school festival misadventure at Montrose Academy.

The Other: Stories from Closed-off Places

One factor contributing to the respectability of the comics medium is subject-matter. When Art Spiegelman's opus Maus: A Survivor's Tale won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, it prompted the expected round of "comics grow up" articles from the mainstream press. This was a comic that had the audacity to depict the Nazi Holocaust by drawing its characters as anthropomorphized animals. Although the novelty of the graphic novel has since faded, it's no longer unusual for news publications to include comic book reviews, especially if the book's subject-matter is considered weighty enough to warrant serious attention. Today I'm going to examine two such works that attempt to lift the veil behind authoritarian states that have already received considerable media coverage both in the past, and during the present so-called war against terror.

The Complete Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.
The Complete Persepolis

I only managed to finish Persepolis last week - the critical darling of the mainstream press from a few years back. Set in post-revolutionary Iran, it is the bildungsroman of the author Marjane Satrapi. The book made Time magazine's Best Comix of 2003 list and was awarded a prize at Angoulême. Recently it has been adapted into an animated feature. It's easy to see how this story would get the attention it did. Iran has been labeled an enemy of the West and a source of international terrorism. Satrapi has the added advantage of being an insider. At its heart the real conflict is the inner battle typical of the western-educated elite of many non-western countries: The progressive, secular world view clashing with cherished religious beliefs. An only child of a liberal Muslim family residing in Tehran in the 1980s, Satrapi's rebellion against religious authority as an impetuous teenager causes her parents to send her to Austria. But like most exiles, she's ill at ease in her new environment. The culture shock and isolation eventually get to her. She returns to Iran where she experiences reverse culture shock. At first feeling lonely and depressed, Satrapi resolves to improve herself. When she leaves Iran for the second time, she has developed into a confident, more mature woman.

On paper the author's tale of growing up in modern Iran sounds fascinating. Anything that opens the country to a world that regards it with fear and suspicion, humanizes its citizens, and provides some historical context is a commendable act. So readers are now aware that not everyone in Iran is a card carrying Muslim fanatic. Also important to the work's premise is how the age-old conflict between Arabs and Persians colors the modern-day war between Iraq and Iran. The decision to tell this story as a comic seems particularly clever. As a prose work it would have disappeared amongst all the autobiographies, but as a graphic novel it stands out as something less academic and more accessible.

All of this doesn't change my feeling that subject-matter aside, this is a rather uninspired comic. Marjane Satrapi's use of narrative captions and small panels doesn't particularly make good use of the comic medium. Indeed she doesn't have much to say about it. There's not anything particularly sophisticated about her word-image balance that would make it better than most illustrated prose. While her simple black and white art is easy to follow, it doesn't flow easily from panel to panel. Much of the pace depends on the often digressive narrative text. This lack of grasp of panel transitions makes for a rather disjointed and jerky narrative. As for her characters, while Satrapi is a good enough artist to capture the likeness of a person with a few lines, but there's still something generic about the way they move and act and speak.

Sadly, this applies to the main character of "Marji" herself. She makes for a somewhat interesting kid living in what to western eyes is unusual circumstances. But as she moves from adolescence to adulthood, she doesn't transcend the usual cliches found in coming-of-age tales. She experiences teenage alienation, takes drugs, looses her virginity, falls in love with the wrong guy, breaks-up with him, falls for another guy, gets married. The events themselves aren't the issue, but the banal manner in which they are told. I wanted to like the protagonist, but I didn't find myself caring for her when I finally put the book down. Instead I was making unfavorable comparisons to David B's much more accomplished autobiography Epileptic. This leaves me in two minds about Persepolis. On one hand I can't begrudge the success of a book. But I wouldn't recommend it as a shining example of the comics medium.

Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea by Guy Delisle.
Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea

Pyongyang is a travelogue by Canadian Quebecois comics creator Guy Delisle. It chronicles his two month stay in that city working as a liaison between a French animation studio and the North Korean animators the company has outsourced its work to. All North Korean animators work at the state-controlled Scientific Educational Korea (SEK). During his time there, Delisle stayed in one of three hotels built to house foreign expatriate workers. He was never allowed to leave the hotel unattended. At all times he was required to be accompanied by a state-assigned guide or translator.

Right of the bat Delisle takes some self-conscious pride in being an outsider to the system. He brings a copy of George Orwell's anti-totalitarian novel 1984, noting that none of the locals seem to recognize its subversive nature. He even lends it to his translator at one point, which predictably produces an upset reaction later on. He also brings CDs of music designed to provoke the locals (reggae, jazz, and electronic music artist Aphex Twin) and even smuggles in a transistor radio - a contraband item.

Delisle is an entertaining storyteller. He's a cynical and funny observer: taking note of little details from the local fashions, to the immaculate condition of the city streets, to the ubiquitous and strangely similar portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il. Throughout the book he peppers his story with the kind of information accessible to him from outside of North Korea, but never shares with the locals. For example when discussing the reunification issue between North and South Korea with his translator (which he insists on calling "captain" Sin), he doesn't argue against the claim that the United States is the primary opponent to blocking reunification, but expresses his opinion to the reader that North Korea's own poverty and military build-up are a bigger obstacle to reunification. As a westerner, he is constantly aware of the of the censorship, paranoia, and repression which the North Koreans do not address. The only time he can talk freely is when he is around colleagues and other members of the expatriate community, which constitutes an island of cosmopolitanism carefully segregated from the rest of the population.

At the same time, the North Korean government never let's an opportunity to propagandize to anyone go to waste. Every weekend Delisle is invited by his guide to visit some national monument or site dedicated to the cult of Kim Il-Sung or Kim Jong-Il. he dutifully follows his guides around, but it soon gets to be too much for him. When asked by them what he thought of America after seeing a museum exhibit depicting alleged war crimes commited by American soldiers during the Korean War, Delisle makes light of those atrocities in an attempt to sound fair and balanced. They are not amused his response.

This is a significant limitation of Delisle's story. He knows how totalitarian the North Korean regime is, and wonders whether his guide and translator do: "Do they really believe the bullshit that's being forced down their throats?" But they in turn seem equally convinced that Kim Il Sung is the greatest leader on Earth, and North Korea is the world's greatest nation. His inability to cross the huge gap in perception between foreigners and locals is what prevents Delisle from coming up with anything more insightful a conclusion than that ordinary North Koreans have been cowed by fear of retribution from the state - something he had already learned from Orwell. Delisle is no Joe Sacco. He's never able to penetrate the exotic strangeness of the country, or get past the ideological mask and connect with the North Koreans as individuals. I imagine that his guide and translator probably saw him as an odd and condescending westerner. But that's to be expected given the restrictions placed on him. Between the hotel and his job at the SEK, Delisle didn't have the time or the initiative to do much else. Considering these circumstances and the immensity of the cultural divide, the most he could probably ever hope to do was bond with his hosts over a good meal and a bottle of Hennessy.


Linux Humor

Now this is really geeky. Randall Munroe knocks the more prominent Linux distros. Thank God for the internet. But wow! Ubuntu received the most unkind cut.

XKCD by Randall Muroe.


Animania Festival 2008: So Many Joshikousei

Animania Festical 2008.

 Yesterday I finally did what I've been avoiding since 2004 - I bought a new set of SLR camera lenses to replace the ones I've been using up to now. When I made the move to digital photography, I continued to use my old Nikon 35 mm lenses (Backward compatibility is a wonderful thing). But they've aged rather badly since then. The rubber started to come loose, and on one lens the Aperture adjustment became unresponsive. Retirement was inevitable. The last straw was the Brisbane Supanova convention. Too many photos came out flat, blurry, or suffering from a bad case of lens flare. I couldn't shoot with my equipment anymore if I wanted acceptable results. So after much deliberation I purchased a pair of Nikkor DX lenses with VR capabilities: One wide angle and one telephoto. They're not my top choices, but given my present financial situation, they were all I could afford. The ones I really want alas still remain wishlist items. In certain respects their handling and performance is inferior to my old lenses when they were in top condition. But they make up for that by returning to me the wider angle view I lost when I started to shoot with a DX body. In addition the VR feature has saved what would have been otherwise unusable photos.

Why am I relaying all this? Because what eventually got me to buy new photographic equipment is the topic of this post: Today's Animania Festival . The most appropriate word to describe the one day mini event would be "intimate." It occupied the fifth floor of the local Holiday Inn, filling the hall and the four conference rooms - One for vendors, two for anime screenings, and the largest for main events like the cosplay competition. Running from 10 AM - 4 PM, the organizers kept things moving by packing the schedule with activities like games shows, demonstrations, karaoke, contests, all carried out by a small but enthusiastic group of staffers from (I presume) the main convention in Sydney. It's a typical anime-themed convention. But the franchise's local success has lead to the announcement of a second Animania for Brisbane later this year in September. What anyone would have to look forward to in another Animania is beyond me.

The other big news (It's big news if you're a cosplayer) is that the Animania franchise is participating in the selection of representatives for the World Cosplay Summit. I'm not familiar with the event, but the Japanese government seems to support it as a means to promote the country's "soft power" abroad. Only two contestants showed-up to fill the two spots for the next stage of the preliminaries to be held in Sydney, so there was no real suspense about not qualifying. Unlike the usual cosplay contest, the participants, in addition to performing a cosplay skit, were asked a series of questions from a panel of judges, reminiscent of a beauty contest or job interview: They had to field the usual obvious queries like "Why do you think you should represent Australia at the WCS?" or "How would you improve your act?" Off course every contestant wanted to go to Japan. I myself would like to tag along with them just to watch Japanese otaku in their native element.

Comics-wise there's nothing to talk about. This is a pure fan convention - more celebratory than critical. Not a single manga or anime professional was seen or heard. The only panel being held was about cosplaying. Substance was never Animania's strong suit. But today I had new equipment I was dying to field test, and that's what I did. My first photo post is already up with more on the way.


A Look at Free Comic Book Day

Free Comic Book Day has come and gone. I'm mostly skeptical about the event's ability to bring in new readers. Much of its success or failure depends on the particular retailer's ability to attract people who would usually not step into a comic book store. There are three of them within a block of each other at Brisbane's commercial center. One didn't bother to participate. The second allowed only one free comic per shopper. The last hung balloons on the walls to lure customers up to its 3rd story entrance. While business was brisk, it didn't seem like anyone besides the usual comic book crowd was shopping inside. I thought I'd evaluate three books for their ability to attract potential readers.

IGNATZ, published by Fantagraphics.

I'm pleased to see this book being offered during FCBD. None of the material is self-contained, but excerpts of much longer stories. As a sampler it's pretty much what I would expect from a high-end art comics line published by Fantagraphics, which is to say it's good, mostly non-genre work. David B's autobiographical Epileptic was a masterpiece of surreal storytelling. His sequel Babel, which continues to record the mental deterioration of his older brother, seems no less accomplished. Another intriguing feauture is Kevin Huizenga's stories of everyman hero Glenn Ganges (Also published by Drawn and Quarterly). So is Richard Sala's gothic retelling of a classic fairy-tale in Delphine.

All of the stories are worth examining further, but your mileage may vary. A certain aesthetic can be found in most of the comics: The solid, organic, line-work, the monochromatic coloring, the six-panel grid, and the European-leaning definition for "international." It doesn't showcase flashy black and white manga-style, or cute anthropomorphic art. Unfortunately the cheap printing quality doesn't do it any favors. The IGNATZ acronym feels clumsy and pretentious. I doubt this comic book line will attract readers who aren't already familiar with Fantagraphics' output, but those who are beginning to explore the medium beyond the confines of formulaic entertainment will want to read it.

DC Universe 0, Published by DC Comics.
DC Universe 0

Technically not an FCBD offering, but the retailer was giving it away. I'm obviously not the first to say this, but DC's and Marvel's super-hero lines have difficulty pulling in new readers. What do you expect when the publisher chooses to advance a convoluted shared universe mired with decades worth of continuity? DC Universe 0 is structured like a movie trailer: A short teaser is followed by a portentous full-page ad tying the story to the upcoming crossover event Final Crisis. DC's biggest names are under threat: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Spectre (So what else is new?). A super-villain society is formed that worships a dark new god. And a long-dead hero returns in a flash of lightning.

if you don't get the references, then you're not hard-core enough. The person this is meant to appeal to, other than the longtime fanboy, is the older lapsed reader - someone who's at least been around since Crisis on Infinite Earths and has been out-of-touch. I'm sure there are plenty of them out there. Heck I'm one of them. And no I'm not really interested in returning from the look of things here. It's all too depressing just thinking about it.

Amelia Rules! by Jimmy Gownley.
Amelia Rules!

Hey, a comic book that's meant for kids. Appropriately cute artwork for the target audience. According to its creator Jimmy Gownley, he is abandoning the pamphlet format for paperback, which is a better fit for the bookstore market (news source here). The lead story is surprisingly weighty because it ties in with a larger work about a reservist father drafted to fight in Iraq. Unfortunately the subject-matter threatens to crush any forward momentum. As the characters try to make sense of a war they cannot understand, the number of talking-head panels increases, and the info-dump eventually grinds things to a halt. If the execution isn't quite successful, I imagine that children grappling with these very issues will find it relevant. Not the most whimsical material for its intended demographic.

Some Notes:

I'm dissapointed that none of the retailers I visited stocked copies of Gegika. That would have made an excellent stylistic contrast to IGNATZ, and a counterpoint to the more mainstream Shonen Jump. The latter book's excerpts should be familiar to its readers, but otherwise mostly confuse the uninitiated, except for Slam Dunk, which Viz seems to be banking on as its next hit. I didn't need to pick-up All Star Superman #1, already owning a copy. It's a logical choice - being largely free of the trappings of the DC Universe, and revisiting Silver-Age concepts familiar to the general public. It's well-written and drawn, but I doubt it will interest anyone who thinks Superman is old-fashioned, and the whiff of nostalgia inevitably creeps into the story. I also glanced at Tiny Titans #1, which was something of a disappointment. It's funny and cute, but unless the six year olds this is aimed at are fanboys themselves, many of the jokes are going to go over their heads.