Cover Design: Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen

あずまんが大王 1年生[新装版]| Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen | Azumanga Daioh: Supplementary Materials Volume 1
あずまんが大王 1年生

So that's what the post-Yotsuba&! version of Azumanga Daioh looks like. The minimal design, resembling a high school textbook, eschews the more conventional style used in the MediaWorks covers. I wouldn't mind getting my hands on Shogakukan's 10th anniversary editions partly because they will most likely not be reproduced in English by Yen Press (here). But I'm also enough of a nerd to want to own at least one Japanese language version of a preferred manga.

Update: Here are the rest of the Shogakukan covers:

あずまんが大王 2年生[新装版]| Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen | Azumanga Daioh: Supplementary Materials Volume 2
あずまんが大王 2年生
あずまんが大王 3年生[新装版]| Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen | Azumanga Daioh: Supplementary Materials Volume 3
あずまんが大王 3年生

Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen by Kiyohiko Azuma. Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen by Kiyohiko Azuma. Azumanga Daioh: Hoshuu-hen by Kiyohiko Azuma.


Photo Lust: Olympus E-P1

Olympus E-P1 Pen Digital Camera (Silver) w/ 14-42mm M.Zuiko Digital Lens (Silver)
Olympus E-P1

A compact camera body that uses interchangeable lenses, comes from a classic design lineage, has DSLR sensor image quality, and costs just a fraction of the price of a Leica body? Yes please.

Fully Booked

Fully Booked graphic novel section.

Returning to Manila after more than a decade, I've notice the significant growth of the Graphic Novel sections in bookstores. As with the U.S. this growth can be attributed to riding on the immense popularity of manga. A satellite market for American publishers, most manga in the Philippines are English language translations published by the likes of Viz or Tokyopop. What I find surprising is the strong presence of alternative comic books. The Fully Booked branch at the Rockwell Center had a graphic novel section composed of several shelves larger than the manga section. Much of that section was composed of Marvel and DC trade paperbacks. Even most Borders Books branches I've been to didn't have as large a collection of works from smaller publishers. Who in Manila reads these books? What's the extent of the overlap, if any, between the manga, alternative and superhero audience?


Something Will Happen

For this post I'm going to indulge my inner political junkie. I hope not do this too often.

More than twenty three years ago the Philippines was facing its own election crisis. Despite reports of widespread election irregularities, President was declared the winner. His rival called for coordinated strikes and mass boycotts of the media and other businesses owned by Marcos's cronies. Despite the popularity of these efforts, the turning point of the crisis was when certain government and military officials broke with the Marcos regime and set-up headquarters at two military camps in Manila. Goaded on by the local Cardinal/Archbishop, protesters congregated outside the military camps to act as human shields. Soon the crowds swelled to hundreds of thousands. A contingent of marines approached the camps but were blocked by people in the streets. This scene has been immortalized by photojournalists - nuns kneeling in front of tanks while the crowd around them lock their arms in order to block the troops. The marines retreated without firing a shot. This event was followed by a series of military defections which swelled the ranks of the opposition and inexorably led to the end of the Marcos regime.

Three years later protesters gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing to demand for more democratic reforms. Despite attempts by the police to disperse the crowd, their numbers soon swelled to a hundred thousand. Many of these protesters were college students, but they were strongly backed by working class people tired of government corruption. The protests at Tiananmen Square were mirrored in local college campuses and other public protests in other cities throughout China. The government was initially divided on how to deal with the protests. Attempts were made to negotiate with student leaders. But after seven weeks the Peaple's Liberation Army was sent into Beijing in the early hours of the morning. After a tense standoff the military fired on the protesters. The Square was cleared and the military continued to effectively block any attempts to enter it. The events after the crackdown were immortalized in images captured by journalists also unable to enter the Square, but watched from hotel balconies: A lone unidentified man successfully blocked a line of tanks before he was pulled away by the police. Despite demonstrations from other places in reaction to the crackdown, particularly Hong Kong, the government had effectively squashed the popular uprising.

At this time things have reached crisis levels in Iran. Reports of widespread election irregularities have been accompanied by massive street protests. Not suprisingly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah has sided with incumbent and fellow conservative President . He's endorsed the election results and condemned the street protests (here). There seem to be no legal means left to challenge the election results. A crackdown seems imminent. I'm no expert in Iranian politics, so it's not clear to me where the sympathies of the Iranian army and police lie. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are presumably with Ahmadinejad. But they don't constitute all of the army. Nor do I know the extent of the opposition's overall influence. If the military is ordered to fire on civilians, and if the opposition receives no support from within the establishment, then the street insurrection could end very soon.


Pluto Vol. 1

Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka , Vol. 1 by Naoki Urasawa.
As much as the I've grown to appreciate Osamu Tezuka's importance to the comics medium, it's safe to say that my younger self wasn't exposed to his work at anywhere near the level that a certain generation of Japanese fans were as children. So I can only guess at the visceral reactions from anyone over the age of thirty when Naoki Urasawa's interpretation of Atom was revealed in the pages of Pluto. If hardcore Japanese fans are like hardcore fans everywhere else, some must have hailed Urasawa a genius while others must have wanted to strangle him for desecrating their precious childhood memories. As a long-time Star Trek fan, I was tempted to make comparisons with the case of J.J. Abrams recent re-imagining of the original Star Trek cast. But this is the frickin' god of manga we're talking about, so I wont.

Pluto is Urasawa's retelling of the very popular and influential "The Greatest Robot on Earth" arc from Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy (Atom) manga series - something capitalized on by crediting both Urasawa and Tezuka in the title's byline. For those interested in reading the original Tezuka story in English Dark Horse published this story several years ago in paperback format. While it would be considered a model of brevity by today's standards, it is considered the first Astro Boy story to be told on an epic scale. The action-based tale of fighting super robots thrilled its preteen audience while building on Tezuka's arching themes of robot-kind's struggle for acceptance in a human world that treats them as slaves. Even the world's most destructive and villainous robots are but tools under the control of corrupt and greedy humans.

While Tezuka's robot combat could be seen as a metaphor for the arms race that took place during the Cold War, Urasawa's recall the more recent Gulf Wars. Some of the robot characters in volume one are veterans of the 39th Central Asian War - an invasion carried out to bring stability to the "Persian Kingdom." As the built-in programming known as the Robot Laws prevents the taking of human life, the robots fought and destroyed one another. The returning robots have been living amongst the general human population for several years when the story begins. But an unknown enemy starts targeting seven of the world's most powerful robots for elimination. One of those robots is main protagonist inspector Gesicht, a Europol detective investigating the case.

Graphically, Pluto pays homage to Tezuka, even utilizing his star system. Urasawa is very adept at facial expressions, and he seems to have relished adapting and expanding on Tezuka's considerably large ensemble of characters. Urasawa's more heavily cross-hatched and stippled style is less likely to provoke the accusations of racism that were raised against the more caricatured Tezuka approach (Although Urasawa still draws too many Westerners with large noses for my tastes). At the same time what he saw buried in the original story that appealed to him starts to become apparent. Firstly while Urasawa is able to draw objects which mimic that sleek futuristic design aesthetic typical of the 60s, what he really excels at and loves to illustrate is that decaying Central European ambience: Old neighborhood houses with narrow streets, classical facades, crumbling castles, ordinary people at work, large family gatherings in tiny rooms and children at play.

Secondly while volume one alludes to underlying tensions between the larger human population and the more powerful robots, the human-robot dichotomy is used to bring to the forefront Urasawa's interlocking pet themes: the nature of evil, the power of memory, and the indelible stamp of childhood on someone's identity. Robots were programmed not to harm humans. But as robots become more sophisticated, they acquire more human characteristics: They sleep, dream, eat, drink, get stressed and fatigued, fall in love, marry, and raise families (Volume one doesn't go into detail how any of this works). Isn't it possible they could learn to develop murderous intentions towards humans as well as other robots?

These themes converge in the set piece of this volume - the relationship between North 2, one of the seven robots, and Paul Duncan, a composer living in seclusion in Scotland. North is hired to be Duncan's butler, but what North really wants is to learn music from the master. Meanwhile Duncan is undergoing a creative crisis which is related to a childhood trauma regarding his belief that he was abandoned by his mother. North stoically endures Duncan's constant verbal abuse and disbelief that a weapon of mass destruction could want to be something more. The conclusion to their tale, which has North managing to uncover crucial information about Duncan's past, is heavy-handed in its application of sentimentality. In the pages of Monster, this might not have been so obvious. But when grafted to Tezuka's original material, Urasawa's stylistic predilections become more visible.

Any adaptation raises the issue of faithfulness to the source while updating it to more contemporary tastes. Urasawa is a fine manga-ka and shows a great deal of respect for Tezuka's work. Whether the reader enjoys Pluto will depend on their acceptance of the particular tropes Urasawa brings to the story - a meditation on identity, memory and human nature. I suspect that most Western readers will approach Pluto as Naoki Urasawa fans, having read Monster, rather than as Osamu Tezuka fans. They will find themselves mostly happy with the effort.