Peepo Choo Vol. 1

Peepo Choo Vol. 1 by Felipe Smith.
Peepo Choo is an irreverent, cruel, and utterly tasteless work that derives great pleasure in upsetting the delicate sensibilities of comics fans from both sides of the Pacific. It's closer to the acerbic Welcome to the N.H.K. than to the gentle Genshiken. The book is also chock full of gratuitous scenes of extreme violence and sexual promiscuity. Frankly, its intemperance is rather entertaining, at least to me.

This is partly due to the unusual status of its creator Felipe Smith as one of a few foreigners who have established a toehold in Japan's manga industry. Smith possesses the jaundiced perspective of someone who has experienced genuine culture shock from having to live abroad and navigate between the customs of more than one country. Peepo Choo was originally written for the Japanese market. But unlike most manga, its message could also be read as being deliberately aimed at Smith's fellow Americans. In some ways it is a very personal form of expression about personal identity. But it's an identity largely mediated through popular forms of entertainment that inform, distort, and limit an individual. And it's about how the growing cross-fertilization between heterogeneous media entities often leads to more misunderstanding, mainly because they can often leave a false (or incomplete) impression of their respective cultures. Smith is relentless and wide-ranging in his attack, and he's probably biting off far more than he can chew. I suspect that to many readers, his need to constantly unsettle them with hyperbolic displays of the outlandish and repulsive will be off-putting, as well as a distraction from the point he's trying to make. For others, Peepo Choo just might hit a little too close to home. And then there are those who will dismiss it out of hand as not being real "manga". But his voice is a unique amongst America's younger manga-inspired creators, and his no-holds-barred approach is refreshing, even if it's flawed.

Peepo Choo Vol. 1 by Felipe Smith.

Then there's the art, which breaks free of the conventions of shonen and shojo. According to Jason Thompson, Smith was influenced by seinen mangaka Tatsuya Egawa. I can begin to see that in Smith's caricature, his use of manic facial expressions and body language, realistic body proportions, and his predilection for drawing curvaceous women. This is a darker, more sardonic kind of manga that few English-language readers usually see. Peepo Choo is as much a showcase for Smith's formidable draftsmanship as it is his takedown of pop culture. The story and its varied cast wouldn't be as effective except for his artistic talents: whether its trashing the inherent homoeroticism of American superheroes and the kawaii aesthetic of Japanese anime in equal measure, parodying the the gore of slasher flicks, the sweat-drenched sex of porn videos, the gun-totting morality of gangster films, or just rendering the actual streets of Chicago and Tokyo. Smith gleefully switches from the cute to the grotesque, or from the minimal to the highly detailed. He bends and twists the plot to breaking point in order to accommodate whatever it is he wishes to draw. But the art-shifts also serve to highlight the contrasting personalities and inner worlds of his various cast members.

Peepo Choo Vol. 1 by Felipe Smith.

The plot itself is nothing more than an excuse for the worlds of America and Japan to collide into one another, in the most colorful way possible. At least that's the setup for this volume. Three Americans inexplicably accompany each other on a trip to Japan: Gill runs a comic book store, which is a cover for his real job - a hulking assassin who finds sexual enjoyment in his work. Store clerk Jody looks down on his largely asexual customers while claiming to be a player, even though he's actually a virgin. And then there's Milton, a kid who puts on a tough-looking facade to hide the fact that he's an otaku and a fan of the bizarro anime series "Peepo Choo". They're mirrored by a similarly eccentric Japanese cast: Takeshi Morimoto is a yakuza enforcer who idolizes gangsta rap and hip hop. He's seemingly unaware that this obsession, not to mention his sociopathy, has already alienated his girlfriend and colleagues. And there's Reiko Kawamori, a teenage gravure idol who despises her pervy fans, and whose only "friend" is the school's most unpopular girl - naturally, she's an otaku. The international meet-ups are only getting started by the end of volume one. But if what's happened so far is any indication for volume two, expect the inevitable culture-clash to be monumentally ego-crushing, and possibly life-ending for some. Of this crew of misfits, the two who come closest to being sympathetic are Reiko and Milton. Reiko seems to be fed up with the sexism she encounters on a daily basis. Milton embodies the dashed hopes of American otaku, and perhaps of Smith's as well, who've come to realize that the Japan of their imaginations doesn't line-up with reality. After he notices that his cosplaying is earning stares from Tokyo's residents, Milton thinks "I know this feeling too well. I just never thought I’d feel it in Tokyo. There's hostility in the air."

Reading Peepo Choo is a provocative, but taxing experience. Smith's satire isn't exactly subtle (Yes, yes, fans are delusional weebos. Thanks for clearing that up!). And I have my doubts as to whether Smith's need to top himself with progressively shocking imagery will lead to something fruitful in the end. But I'm in for now. The monstrous reflection it presents to the industry is fascinating, and I'm curious to see just how far Smith can take it. He's done well to capture those feelings of vertigo and alienation often experienced in our media-saturated world. It isn't often that such of-kilter manga makes it to the shelves of local bookstores.

Peepo Choo Vol. 1 by Felipe Smith.


Archetypical for Japan

The recent (and ongoing) tragic events in Japan brings out the good samaritan within the art community:

Art for Japan by Meg Hunt
by Meg Hunt

Geisha Girl and the Bonsai by Stanley Chow
Geisha Girl and the Bonsai by Stanley Chow

Help Japan poster by Zac Neulieb
Help Japan poster by Zac Neulieb

Japan Earthquake 2011 no.1 by Linda Yuki Nakanishi
Japan Earthquake 2011 no.1 by Linda Yuki Nakanishi

Help Japan poster by Rob Dobi
Help Japan poster by Rob Dobi

Help Japan poster by Signalnoise
Help Japan poster by Signalnoise (via François Hoang)

8.9 by Aled Lewis
8.9 by Aled Lewis
Help Japan! project by Anthony Brian Villafuerte RN
Help Japan! project by Anthony Brian Villafuerte RN


Japanese creators react to the 2011 Sendai earthquake and tsunami...

...through art.

Haruhi Suzumiya prays for the victims of the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, by Noizi Ito
Haruhi Suzumiya prays for the victims of the
March 11 earthquake and tsunami, by Noizi Ito
Son Goku and Arale Norimaki, by Akira Toriyama
Son Goku and Arale Norimaki, by Akira Toriyama
"Smile" series, by Takehiko Inoue
From the "Smile" series, by Takehiko Inoue
Billy Bat characters, by Naoki Urasawa
Billy Bat characters, by Naoki Urasawa
via Rich Johnston and Anime News Network link-blogging: here, here, here, here...

Sending best thoughts and wishes to those in Japan


Age of Reptiles: The Journey, and Tyrannosaurus Rex

There's one school of thought that unequivocally believes that dinosaurs are awesome. The opposing side thinks they're overrated. The truth is that dinosaurs couldn't care less what we think of them. They are beyond us. Not that this stops us from imagining them in fiction as a potential threat to our very existence.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey
by Ricardo Delgado, Jim Campbell, Tony Ong

Ricardo Delgado's previous Age of Reptiles outings were wordless soap operas full of murder and revenge, starring realistically drawn dinosaurs. But in The Journey, he pulls back from those pulp storytelling devices and turns towards a more familiar animal concern: the annual migration. In this case, a migration of herds of large Cretaceous-era herbivorous dinosaurs moving between different grazing grounds, not unlike today's migrations of megafauna in the Serengeti and Maasai Mara. And as with todays animals, the dinosaurs must run the gauntlet of hungry predators and rough terrain.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey by Ricardo Delgado, Jim Campbell, Tony Ong.

As always, the main attraction of the comic is Delgado's art. He gets to draw an astonishing variety of animals. The thundering herd of herbivores is composed of all manner of saurapods, ceratopsids, hadrosaurs, ankylosaurs, and who knows what else is included. It's veritable eye-candy for dinosaur enthusiasts and a Mesozoic version of a National Geographic special, sans the portentous narrative voice-over. There's a dangerous river crossing that's reminiscent of the wildebeest crossing of the crocodile-infested Mara River. But despite this wide-angle perspective, Delgado never shakes off his sympathy for carnivorous therapods. The only individuals who are differentiated throughout the entire story are a mother tyrannosaur and her children as they try to keep up with the herd. Their more intimate struggle for survival serves as a counterpoint to the entire herd's movements, and they end up stealing the show. Emphasizing the family drama is a traditional method for anthropomorphizing animal behavior, and it's something Delgado has used in the past. Delgado also resorts to uncharacteristic facial expressions to more easily convey his subjects emotions. On the whole though, he remains on the bleeding edge of dinosaur research - his multi-colored creatures are among the most anatomically accurate portrayals in comics.

While the story is often punctuated with flashes of violence, this is ultimately a deliberately paced comic. Everything, even death, gives way to the steady beat of the herd's migration. The conclusion provides no catharsis. Just a quiet end to all that wandering. Admittedly, this kind of grand-scale storytelling will not appeal to everybody. Delgado's one concession to Hollywood's traditional portrayal of the prehistoric environment occurs when the herd crosses a desert, reminiscent of America's wild west, while fighting off a large pack of dromaeosaurs. But by following the herd through an ever-changing landscape, he does manage to evoke a more lush and alien world that existed millions of years before humans would walk the face of the earth.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey by Ricardo Delgado, Jim Campbell, Tony Ong

If The Journey is a prestigious documentary shot in widescreen, then Tyrannosaurus Rex is a cheesy B-movie deliberately injected with bad dialogue, acting, and full of cheap imitation gore.

Tyrannosaurus Rex
by Mark Kidwell, Jay Fotos, Jeff Sornow, Jason Arthur

The advanced publicity to Tyrannosaurus Rex states "These aren’t your granddaddy’s dinosaurs!" Granted the comic hews closer to the fast, lean, birdlike creatures of the Jurassic Park franchise than to the tail-dragging lizards of yore. But in most other respects, its denizens come from old-world Hollywood - the one where man and dinosaur coexist uneasily, and women were clad in revealing fur bikinis. Actually, that's one area where the comic unfortunately disappoints. Anyone hoping for more cavegirl-style fanservice should just skip this comic. While the cover shows a dinosaur eying a skimpily-clad brunette, it never quite happens. At least not within the panels. At best, the humans are secondary characters who only bear witness as the dinosaurs run amuck.

Tyrannosaurus Rex by Mark Kidwell, Jay Fotos, Jeff Sornow, Jason Arthur

As for the dinosaurs themselves, they're okay I guess. They're drawn in that fussy mainstream style that contains a copious amount of line hatching to suggest tiny details, but exaggerates anatomy for dramatic purposes. The overall effect is that every figure appears somewhat rubbery, especially the dinosaurs when they're being contorted into all kinds of odd combative poses. The comic reminds me of the island scenes from the 1933 film King Kong, but sans the love interest - the titular character stalks the jungle while being hounded at every opportunity by rivals bent on its destruction. The only thing that matters is getting the message across that the t-rex a total badass (interestingly, the tyrannosaur is similarly colored to the one in The Journey). In contrast, the environment it inhabits is unremarkable. The dinosaurs are often crammed into barely fitting panels and closed-in on all sides by generic jungle foliage. The unrelenting close-ups do create a constant sense of claustrophobia. Whatever background details that do get drawn remain fairly sketchy and only supply minimal information about the setting.

This leaves the humans with the role of odious comic relief, especially the lone hunter tracking the t-rex. He's got no chance and he knows it. So all he can do is complain incessantly, and provide the set-up for the lame gag that ends the story. But who's going to care about that bozo?

Tyrannosaurus Rex by Mark Kidwell, Jay Fotos, Jeff Sornow, Jason Arthur


More NonSense Followup: Goodbye to all that

The Comics Journal

Without warning and little fanfare, the new TCJ.com site launched earlier today, under the stewardship of the people from Comics Comics. Dan Nadel and Timothy Hodler are now co-editors, with Kristy Valenti staying on as editorial coordinator. Meanwhile, Gary Groth will continue to work on TCJ's print incarnation. Gone is the blog format, replaced by an online magazine format categorized into regular columns, features, reviews and event listings. Holder introduces the new TCJ, and new content can already be found here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here...

This is very much a thorough scrubbing of the site. The archives are mostly incomplete. And all former online content is MIA, at least for now. Also unmentioned is the status of many of the old contributors.

All in all, this is a welcome change, especially after the last anemic site relaunch. Bringing in the Comics Comics guys is a smart way to recruit new talent who are much more in-tune with the web. Holder and Nadel will hopefully provide much needed editorial guidance as well as a stronger identity to TCJ's online incarnation, which is desperately needed in order to compete with other comic sites. But it does reinforce the impression that TCJ's online and print versions are becoming more and more like separate entities with diverging content, resources, and ongoing editorial priorities.


Tom Spurgeon notes the passing of the TCJ message board. He also interviews Nadel and Holder, covering the pertinent areas. Here's an excerpt, which answers a few questions:
...we knew from the start that we wanted to start fresh and produce a unified site. Sub-domains didn't work because we didn't see any reason to carve up the site into fiefdoms. So yes, the departure of Deppey's Journalista!, as well as the other previously existing sub-blogs, can be tied to our coming on board. Also, in regards to Journalista!, in these days of RSS feeds, there seems to be less need for that kind of comprehensive link-blogging than there used to be.
 Sean T. Collins recounts the disappointing history of TCJ.com:
In the absence of a strong vision like what Groth’s was for years in the print version, off-brand aspects of the magazine’s website — its Mos Eisley-esque message board; Noah Berlatsky’s pugnacious Hooded Utilitarian group blog — filled the void, to the dismay of many readers and creators, and even to the dismay of the people involved in those aspects of the site themselves. The problem was compounded when the Journal radically reduced its print output (it is currently an annual), leaving a relaunched website plagued by unwieldy design, hazy editorial focus, and sporadic posting by its contributors to pick up the slack. With the recent shutdown of JournalistaHU, and the relatively new group blog The Panelists, it was clear some kind of major change, likely one devoted to streamlining and focusing the magazine’s editorial output online, was in the offing.


More NonSense: Weird Wonderful Japan

Dr. Tenma by Faith Erin Hicks
Dr. Tenma by Faith Erin Hicks
Some linkblogging about that country's increasingly ubiquituous pop culture, manga, and random other stuff. Let's get to it then.

Patrick W. Galbraith examines the sexual politics and socio-economic aspects of maid cafés in Japan.

Erica Friedman surveys the Japanese manga magazines that are harder to pigeonhole. It's nice to know that Garo and Ax aren't the only perodicals bucking convention.

Tony Yao compares the runaway success of One Piece in Japan with its more modest sales in the United States.

Dale North drools over Haagen-Dazs Dolce and Dean & Deluca Ice Cream from Japan.

Oh, and the cherry blossoms are already in bloom. Sakura....

And if that doesn't satisfy one's curiosity about the country, there's Christopher Butcher's ongoing travelogue, accompanied by many personal photos.


Faith Erin Hicks draws Monster fan art and talks about her formative manga influences.

Speaking of influences, while I've been less than satisfied with Jason Thompson's 365 Days of Manga project, his ongoing House of 1000 Manga is more along the lines of what I hoped for in his online reviews. Individual posts are lengthy and entertaining, detailing the content of each manga and its cultural impact within Japan and the U.S. His review of the seminal series Sailor Moon makes me even more annoyed about its absence from bookstores.

Tokyopop's dramatic fall from grace under Stuart Levy's stewardship truly rankles Brigid Alverson.

Michael Arthur and Melinda Beasi on the shortcomings of BL manga and the appeal of "intimacy porn".

R.C. Harvey uses the comic strip Zits to showcase what comics can only do.

Rich Johnston on the extensive recoloring of the recent reprint edition of Tales of Asgard. To answer the question posed at the end: I myself tend to look at these things on a case-by-case basis. While there's no doubt that modern printing methods can produce superior reproductions with better coloring, that's separate from the issue of whether a totally new coloring style adds or detracts from the art. Sure, some artists might benefit from it. But does the more rounded, shaded, "sculpted" color rendering suit the flatter, dynamic, graphic, geometric figures of a Jack Kirby? It's not as if the comic can't be reprinted with better colors, but in a more complementary style.


Sulyap (Epilogue)

Go read Part 1 and Part 2

Komiks died? Don't you believe it! As the once great old industry and komiks slowly started to disappear, somewhere in the pit of our culture and our very humanity groaned a phantom pain that frantically willed new komiks into existence.
- Gerry Alanguilan mixing metaphors in the foreword to Sulyap

These stories and how they are told and drawn shows just how diverse and open minded we are not only to ideas but on how we look at the world. We take it and make it our own.
- Gilbert Monsanto in a back cover blurb

Ever since the collapse of all major publishing ventures, there has been a note of defiance, even desperation, coming from the komiks industry - A need to state in no uncertain terms that they are alive and well, thank you very much. But it's a tough message to get across when overall readership is down from historical record numbers. The reality on the ground is that komiks is now a niche industry. One that reaches a primarily local audience. And one that functions in the shadow of American and Japanese imports. There's nothing inherently wrong with that per se. But it's a scene were the options beyond self-publishing are mostly limited to several boutique publishers, like Mango or Visprint.

In many ways, Sulyap is a palliative to this situation. It's interesting to compare it to Underpass (reviewed here). The 2009 horror anthology was released by a leading magazine publisher, going a conservative route by selecting recognized industry veterans to work on a historically successful popular genre. The overall results were, from my own perspective, dull and formulaic. In contrast, Sulyap could be described as Komikon's showcase for talent deserving greater recognition. As far as I know, none of the featured creators were in danger of getting a major book deal at the time. And there's a conscious attempt to be inclusive about genre and mode. The intentions to exhibit the medium's breadth are admirable, even if the end results prove to be uneven.

Sulyap marks a generational shift in the industry. While the creators of Underpass were more polished and traditionally illustrative, Sulyap's creators draw from a greater variety of stylistic influences. Given the circumstances surrounding the creation of each individual work, all of their art evinces a personal choice. As I've pointed out, not all demonstrate equal mastery of their respective lexicons. But there is at least the potential for further growth.

Above all else, Sulyap is a celebration of a particular indie vibe - an unwillingness to let the lack of conventional publishing avenues* get in the way of creativity. This tends to get conflated with a certain degree of patriotic boosterism that brooks no criticism. "It's an industry built on sheer unapologetic passion for a historically unappreciated form of art, a passion shared by Filipino komiks creators across the decades beginning with Doctor Jose Rizal. Komiks has indelibly grafted itself into the very fabric of our culture and our identity as Filipinos that I truly believe that we cannot exist too long without komiks being created in some way" claims Gerry Alanguilan in the book's foreword. Yikes! How does one critique such an idealistic effort, especially after conjuring the image of a national hero, without sounding churlish? But of course, it really shouldn't stop anyone.

If nothing else, Sulyap shows an industry in transition as its younger creators continue to expand the medium's artistic range.
* which apparently includes publishing webcomics as well