More NonSense: World Citizen

The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics
The Smithsonian Collection of
Newspaper Comics
Leading of is the death of pioneering historian and archivist . Tom Spurgeon has links to the best tributes on the web. But for a useful intro to the man's life and career, there's Kristy Valenti's article from a few years back. Blackbeard's death reminds me how much the komiks industry could benefit from even more individuals working to preserve its own cultural heritage. And I'm sure that the same could be said of the comics and cartooning communities of many other countries.

Update: Margalit Fox writes Blackbeard's obituary at the New York Times.

Sean Michael Robinson looks at the creator's rights situation at TOKYOPOP. What a mess.

Jason Thompson writes about the seminal work Akira.

JK Parkin and Rich Johnston round up online reactions to Action Comics #900, where Superman apparently renounced his U.S. citizenship (I haven't read it myself). Huh? I get the allegorical value of the character as the embodiment of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way". But I don't get how he could even be properly identified as an American citizen within the comic book universe. Sure, Clark Kent's documented as an American. But how does any government establish Supes' citizenship when he prefers to operate under a secret identity? Presumably, he doesn't pay taxes or have a registered U.S. mailing address under the name "Superman". He doesn't carry a driver's license. He's already a self-identified Kryptonian, which would make him a prime target for Birther-style attacks if this were real life. Was he naturalized or given honorary citizenship at some point? Heck, given who he is, it wouldn't surprise me if he was already declared an honorary citizen by every democratic government. If true, that would make him more than just a U.S. citizen. And there's an even bigger problem: What government could even legitimately claim responsibility to control or limit his activities? He's Superman! If he wants to join an organized protest, what government's going to prevent him?

But the bottom line is I don't see how Supes can renounce his citizenship without revealing its legal basis in his dual identity. Otherwise, it's just a ruse if he continues to secretly enjoy the rights of a U.S. citizen as Clark. And it seems unlikely for the government to just accept the word of a costumed mystery man that he's American (let alone an agent who would take orders from them), especially one who's already confessed to being an alien.

I realize that within most comic books, the law has a way of either not applying to superheroes, or applying to them in very arbitrary ways. There has to be a suspension of the normal laws to make the genre work. And this looks like another example of that. Illogical as it is, Superman is accepted as American despite the lack of proper documentation. That's how the law in the DC universe works, at least for the purposes of this story. And the purpose could be nothing more than to push reader's buttons, stir up enough controversy to get into prime-time news programs, and get people to buy more comic books.

Update: Rich Johnston reminds us that the Pre-Crisis Superman was an honorary citizen of every UN member nation.

Then there's the UN General Assembly scene from Superman IV (1987) in which Superman announces his intention to save the world from Nuclear annihilation. Action Comics #900 isn't really that original after all.

Nadim Damluji on the Arabic print version of Superman. He's Clark Kent and Nabil Fawzi? The man gets around.

Chris Sims gives some classic Action Comics cover art some love. Great choices.

Michel Martin, Mike Luckovich, and Stephen Hess discuss the racial politics of the Birther Movement "cartoon" on VPR. Here's a portion of the transcript:
Mr. LUCKOVICH: I just want to make one point, that image that that woman, Marilyn, whatever her name is, with Obama as the small monkey, first of all, that's not a cartoon. That was something she Photoshopped. And it was crude and it was racist. And cartoonists are always sensitive. We want to make people think - we even want to tick people off occasionally, but we don't want our symbolism to overwhelm our message.
And so when I'm drawing a cartoon, I will try and get my point across, but I still want people to understand my point and not lose it on the symbolism. I would never show Obama or an African-American as a monkey. That's just racist. And we know the history of that.
MARTIN: Because why?
Mr. LUCKOVICH: Because throughout history that has been a way of dehumanizing African-Americans. Now, the fact that Obama's African-American, I think it has been good for cartoonists in that he sort of has transcended race and we are able to show in ways that we're not so cautious now. And I think that's a good thing for white people and black people, that we're able to look at him as just a human being now. And I think that's been a good thing...
I think she knew it was racist. I mean, you have to be pretty stupid not to know that wasn't racist. I think she was just - I think she's got some racist tendencies and it came out in that - in what she did.
Tom Spurgeon reacts.

Andrew Wheeler spells it out clearly.


Kare Kano Vol. 21 (And the rest of the series)

Kare Kano Vol. 21 by  Masami Tsuda
Kare Kano, along with Cardcaptor Sakura, was the first shojo series I managed to read all the way to the end. The latter series continues to be well-loved, and its English language translation is enjoying a second life through Dark Horse. But in skimming the various online tributes to TokyoPop, Kare Kano is, at best, mentioned only in passing. That's kind of sad, because like a lot of shojo manga released during TP's early days, there was nothing similar to it at the time. Manga that dealt with normal high school students confronting normal high school problems were still a rarity. So I've retained a lot of affection for Kare Kano, even as I've come to recognize it as a juvenile work that's no longer meant to speak to me as an older reader.

Like many fans, I was introduced to the series via its hilarious anime adaptation. Produced by Ganiax and mostly directed by Hideaki Anno, it was naturally a big deal to America's emerging anime fandom. The series makes it to around the halfway point of the manga before stopping abruptly. According to its Wikipedia article, Anno and creator Masami Tsuda disagreed over the comic tone of the anime, which led to Anno quitting as director and Tsuda refusing to let the series to go forward. But after reading the entire manga, I'm actually okay with that. The story changes dramatically over the course of 21 volumes before arriving at a fairly unsatisfactory conclusion. And it's the conclusion that I decided to reexamine. Warning: Spoilers ahead.

Kare Kano Vol. 21 by  Masami Tsuda

The best parts of the manga are those that deal with the rivalry/romance between star pupils Yukino Miyazawa and Soichiro Arima. In their relationship, Tsuda manages to capture something of the power politics that is the main preoccupation of most teenagers. Yukino is the school's most popular freshman student, who always maintains a cool and level-headed exterior. This hides a desperate need for social approval accompanied by an obsession with keeping up appearances. At school she appears immaculate. At home she's a bit of a slob. Then into her life appears Soichiro, who outdoes her in virtually every academic area. And he's a whiz at kendo to boot. On the surface, they appear cordial to one another. But it isn't long before Yukino is plotting to backstab him at every opportunity. As the story progresses, fierce rivalry is replaced by mutual respect, then romantic love. Tsuda does an exemplary job in fleshing out these two people's respective personalities, as well as the natural evolution of their relationship. There's a good balance of lighthearted personal interactions followed by awkward introspection that feels very believable for adolescents.

The series loses its focus the further away it moves from this premise. It didn't occur to me at the time, but a lot of the narrative structure involves Tsuda making things up as she goes along. She tries to expand the cast beyond the two leads early on, but almost none of them receive the care and attention that Yukino and Soichiro get. Some start out as complications to Yukino and Soichiro getting together, or as failed attempts to build a love triangle. Later on, some get paired off into their own romantic relationships. But these couplings feel extraneous. Then the series takes a weird turn when it dives into Soichiro's sordid past. The slice-of-life setting and humor of the earlier volumes are replaced by soap opera histrionics. Imagine a series that starts out like The Office turning into something more like Dallas. Soichiro's wealthy family, with all its accompanying intrigue, comes to the fore. Soichiro, who starts out as a slightly insecure teenager with a hint of emo in him, transforms into a bona fide tortured soul struggling to conquer his inner and outer demons. It's a tonal shift that upends the balance of the story. After all the shenanigans, the resolution in Vol. 20 feels too pat and involves an annoying retcon which changes the career trajectories of Soichiro and Yukino.

Kare Kano Vol. 21 by  Masami Tsuda

Vol. 21 is basically an extended epilogue. The first part has the circle of friends wrapping up their high school careers. The second part flashes forward sixteen years later to reveal their adult selves. They reunite for at least one day to attend a rock concert performed by one of their own. Rereading this volume reminded me how uninteresting the cast happens to be. During my first reading, I had enough difficulty following the characters. And it only dawned on me later how broadly they're portrayed: There's the artist, the talented writer, the seamstress, the doctor, the jock, the former fat kid, the moe-bait, the budding musician. Other than the two leads, no one made a lasting impression on me. They're serviceable as a supporting cast, but are less successful as an ensemble. They fall flat when compared to some of the manga characters that has come out since then. Their romantic lives aren't as complex as those in superior josei series like Nana or Paradise Kiss. They don't have the nice balance of quirky traits found in more memorable seinen comedies like Azumanga Daioh and K-On! Actually, they're not even as memorable as the cast of Cardcaptor Sakura. But then again, they don't have magical powers working in their favor.

This volume confirms the triumph of reassuring domestic fantasy over the uncertainty of a future full of possibility. Everyone lives happily ever after - No one breaks up since high school. Everyone is still with their first love. Everyone succeeds in their chosen careers. Friendships remain steadfast and unchanging. Even the old band is still together after sixteen years, and performing at the Budokan no less. It's far removed from the high school politics of the early volumes - replaced now by sweet marriage porn. And then there's the the squicky fantasy pairings that are to be expected from shojo love stories. Kare Kano isn't as adventurous as some other manga. For example, all the romances are perfectly heterosexual. But from a Westerner's perspective, vol. 21 contains one disturbing semi-incestuous relationship that takes up a considerable amount of attention. This involves Sakura, the teenage daughter of Yukino and Soichiro, and Hideaki Asaba, Soichiro's best friend from high school and now the couple's part-time nanny. What's particularly troubling is how it's described as "destiny" by the parties involved. Love is a strange thing.

Kare Kano Vol. 21 by  Masami Tsuda

But for many fans, Kare Kano's biggest letdown is the fate of Yukino herself, arguably the most interesting character of the series. Yukino starts out as a somewhat nerdy overachiever. But as she falls in love with Soichi, she gradually sheds her ambition. Yukino's average family background makes her a more relatable individual, while Soichiro's genius and bizarre family history makes his problems far more removed from reality. But her stature in the manga is later reduced to that of Soichiro's companion when the series shifts its attention to him. Sixteen years later, that arrangement hasn't changed. She's married to an outstanding but overworked police detective, she needs help raising her own kids, her friends have landed glamorous jobs, while she's entered into the Arima family's medical tradition. Unfortunately, she's described as being only a doctor of mediocre talent. Apparently it's destiny for people from normal families to be outshone by people who descend from family lineages overflowing with extraordinarily brilliant, but emotionally damaged egos. Hey, at least she's happy...


More NonSense: Shameful Practices

Jack Kirby
Jack Kirby
Gary Groth's refutal of Jim Shooter's revisionist account of the infamous battle between Marvel Comics and Jack Kirby, over the ownership of his original art, is a reminder of how the troubled relationship between individual creator and company is still very much an unsettled issue. Just ask Joanne Siegel.

Matt Thorn posts on how TOKYOPOP negatively affected the quality of translations through driving down the wages of translators. His "reap as you sow" thesis also connects TP's treatment of it's OEL creators to the greed and shortsightedness that has plagued the comic book industry ever since the first publishers paid next to nothing for original content, while retaining all the rights: 
TokyoPop could have worked to nurture a mature customer base and remain relevant, but they were, in my opinion, similarly hobbled by greed and shortsightedness–greed and shortsightedness that tainted the entire North American manga publishing industry.
I'm sympathetic to the situation of underpaid employees, and even more sympathetic to creators being forced to give up their creator rights. Given how relatively little manga was being officially translated at the time, it's hard for me to confirm whether  TP's translations were any worse than previous efforts. And if anything, they read better than most fan subs. Almost any professional effort was bound to look better in comparison. So what do I know. Brigid Alverson, Kate Dacey and Daniella Orihuela-Gruber have reactions.

George Takei's petition against the rumored casting of the film adaptation of Akira might be jumping the gun a bit, although it's not a surprising reaction given Hollywood's history. That doesn't hinder those who feel that Caucasians are underrepresented enough on the big screen to protest Idris Elba playing Heimdall - Multiculturalism be damned.

Akira is an iconic Japanese work - set in Japan, filled with Japanese characters, dealing with issues that were pertinent to Japan in the Eightees. So I'm not expecting much after it passes the Hollywood studio treatment. I'm still laughing at Dragonball Evolution and Godzilla starring Matthew Broderick. It isn't so much the issue of casting (athough that can be symptomatic of it), as to the way the tampering involved in these adaptations tends to result in a race to the bottom. But I wouldn't mind being pleasantly surprised if the movie turns out to be any good.


On TOKYOPOP: Followup

Sam Humphries chronicles TOKYOPOP's history
Rob McMonigal sings its praises
Brigid Alverson reminds everyone why the publisher matters

Fruits Basket by Natsuki Takaya
I'm not qualified to directly comment on leadership skills or his individual character. But I find it fascinating, notwithstanding his contributions to the industry, how much goodwill Levy's lost in the last few years. Of course, it doesn't help when he's previously expressed a desire to move on to something else. There's nothing wrong with pursuing new interests. But the timing only exacerbates the perception that Levy's jumping ship, rather than deserving of a well-earned retirement/victory lap, as his farewell message spins it. It's certainly not the best way for the founder of a groundbreaking company that introduced manga to the masses to go out on.

Whatever drawing power once had vanished when it lost its crucial  licenses. And given the number of choices now available, the publisher no longer appears as essential as it once was. That in itself is a testament to its success in popularizing manga. But like many corporations defined by strong egos, it's hard not to see how its attachment to, and inability to transcend, its founder's vision influenced the company's successes and failings. Levy was the right person to come along at the right time - exploiting the burgeoning manga market in the U.S. with his "100% Authentic Manga" marketing strategy. It effectively encapsulated the prevailing ethos. But then the industry finally caught up to TP's practices, and the books no longer looked as uniquely authentic. Attempts to bolster and redefine its product-line, like , were met with lukewarm responses at best. Maybe external factors were ultimately more important to its demise, as Levy himself has argued. But in his own public statements, Levy hasn't demonstrated any interest or foresight in fostering a stable TP that could continue to exist after his tenure. That's the downside to a founder equating the company to his own efforts.

But whatever valid criticisms can be made against its management, today's manga market is larger and more varied than ever, thanks in part to TP for its role in setting off the "manga revolution". It was for many readers their bridge to the world of Japanese comics. I believe finding those new fans was good for comics as a medium looking for greater mainstream recognition, especially in bookstores. And the boom helped pave the way for the likes of Vertical and Yen Press to release less conventional works.

Now I have to wonder how much of what did TP in could have an effect on other publishers?

On TOKYOPOP: Online Reactions

Notable commentary on the sad demise of one of the industry's most prominent North American manga publishers:

Long Live the Manga Revolution (a.k.a. Stuart J. Levy pisses readers off):


The facts are simple. Borders—our biggest customer—went bankrupt, owed us a lot money, which they didn’t pay us, and as a result we are in a very challenging situation, and have had to react quickly to the situation. We did need to let a few people go—and it’s horrible for everyone involved to ever have to let people go. We will continue to do everything we can to evolve the manga business and we very much appreciate the support of our fans, our partners, our creators, and out retail customers.

- Stuart Levy

Fourteen years later, I’m laying down my guns. Together, our community has fought the good fight, and, as a result, the Manga Revolution has been won –manga has become a ubiquitous part of global pop culture. I’m very proud of what we’ve accomplished – and the incredible group of passionate fans we’ve served along the way (my fellow revolutionaries!).

- Stuart Levy

Stuart Levy
Stuart Levy
Meanwhile, just yesterday Tokyopop Stu Levy blithely Tweeted:
Wow #GDC2011 [Game Developers Conference] is blowing my mind. Why have I been stuck in such an old-school, out-of-touch industry for so long?! (yes I mean books!)
To which one is tempted to reply, “I dunno, Stu. Why don’t you just leave?”

Not only does his tweet show an appalling lack of tact, but Levy’s ADD has always been the biggest obstacle to Tokyopop’s success. To give him his due, he comes up with great ideas — Tokyopop was way ahead of the curve on many things, from unflipped manga to the iPhone — but he seldom sticks with them long enough to bring them to fruition. It’s been obvious for years that he is bored with books; I remember watching him at NYAF a few years ago, dashing around with a film crew, making a mockumentary about cons. Remember that movie? No? Me either. This past summer, he sunk what must have been a boatload of cash into a bus that he (or someone) drove around the country with a bunch of college interns, promoting his America’s Greatest Otaku “reality show” (currently running on Hulu). Then he lays off one of his most experienced editors. The short-sightedness of this is mind-boggling. To make money, you have to sell something people want to buy. Tokyopop has teetered on the edge of irrelevancy for a long time, but good editors and marketers keep pulling it back. And then they lay off the editors and marketers.

Tokyopop cut significant numbers of staff a couple of months ago, blaming the Borders bankruptcy and the resulting losses to the publisher. At the time, Levy was seen publicly referring to publishing as an “old-school, out-of-touch industry”, which caused some consternation over his tone-deafness and timing. Now, his personal message in response to the company closing is perhaps inappropriately self-congratulatory. Included was this militaristic comment:
I’m laying down my guns. Together, our community has fought the good fight, and, as a result, the Manga Revolution has been won.

Maybe the revolution was won a long time ago and Stu Levy got bored during the time of peace.

- Scott Cederlund

A Media Company:

Priest by Hyung Min-woo
The collapse of Tokyopop is mostly due to the Borders crash, manga piracy and the general bad economic situation, on top of Kodansha taking their licenses back from Tokyopop, leaving them with no must-have titles. That's all the major reasons right there.

However, the collapse of Tokyopop is also informative because it shows how futile it is to run a comics company to try to sell movie licenses... at least, futile for a 'manga' company. For practically as long as Tokyopop and Mixx existed, even BEFORE Mixx published manga, Stu Levy was talking about selling the movie rights to manga -- first it was Parasyte. 14 years after Levy first blogged about trying to develop a Parasyte movie, what did Tokyopop manage to make? One TV show (which I haven't seen) which isn't directly based on any of their properties. One direct-to-DVD movie, "Van Von Hunter." And the "Priest" movie, which is so different from the original source material it may as well have a different title.

Jason Thompson

Maybe TP just went around things wrong. If Stu Levy wanted to make a media company, I feel like he should have started it that way instead of trying to get into movies and other media through comics. That notion has always seemed backwards to me- if you want to make a movie, fucking just make a movie! It might not be easy, but it makes a lot more sense than making comics to make movies. That's like making cookies and hoping they will turn into a cake in the oven!

- Becky Cloonan

Bigger Problems:

Sailor Moon by Naoko Takeuchi
Tokyopop pioneered the format that caused manga to catch on among teen readers: Unflipped, 200-page, black-and-white trade paperbacks selling for ten dollars each. They published Sailor Moon, the first commercially successful shoujo manga in the U.S., and kept the momentum going with popular series such as Fruits Basket (which ran neck and neck with Naruto in the sales rankings for a while) and their manga adaptations of Erin Hunter’s Warriors prose novels. Unfortunately, when Fruits Basket ended, Tokyopop was left without a flagship series, and they lost rights to many of their other popular series when Kodansha pulled their licenses in preparation for starting its own U.S. publishing arm.

Levy had more terrific ideas in a week than I’ll have in five years, but it often seemed like good initiatives never got the financial support or managerial oversight they needed in order to succeed. The TOKYOPOP website is a telling example: at the height of MySpace fever, Levy re-imagined the company’s web page as a social network where teenagers could share pictures, discuss manga and anime, and post fan fiction. Yet no one at TOKYOPOP anticipated the need for site moderators to remove copyright-protected material, prevent flame wars, or curate worthwhile content. As a result, the site quickly degenerated into a semi-literate mess, with high school students excoriating their French teachers and sharing tips on where to read illegal scans of favorite manga.

At the same time, however, I can’t help but wonder if TOKYOPOP’s real problem was deeper and more fundamental than Levy’s leadership. A quick glance at TOKYOPOP’s current competitors — Seven Seas, VIZ, and Yen Press — suggests that American manga publishers need a bigger, better-heeled partner to help them weather financial downturns, finance new initiatives, and distribute their product to retailers. (Dark Horse is a notable exception, though it has a large stable of original comic properties and merchandise to shore up its finances.) Almost all of the manga publishers that have folded in the last three years were small, independent companies that lacked the monetary resources to compete for A-list licenses and subsidize operations. That TOKYOPOP persisted as long as it did is testament to the quality of its books, and to the loyalty it engendered in fans whose first manga were Sailor Moon, Magic Knight Rayearth, and Parasyte.

Much as I'd like to blame all of this on Stu Levy and his pouring of TP's money into his pet projects, I think it was Borders that really broke things here. The chain was a big big manga haven, and bookstores are where the sales are - online purchasing is simply not as big as brick and mortar buys. When Tokyopop switched to Diamond as its distributor, then Diamond announced that it would stop shipping to Borders... it was over, really. Yes, there's Barnes & Noble, but they never got behind manga the way Borders did.

- Sean Gaffney

Some people kind of demonize [Stu Levy] online for ignoring and mucking up the manga publishing side of things, but I felt like he was a non-entity holding a carrot on a stick over the heads of everyone in publishing and really making them work for it. Everyone was trying hard to please him, probably when pleasing the fans should have been number one.

That being said, I wish that Stu had brought in someone else to be totally in charge of publishing. Someone with the talent and passion to publish good books that were commercially successful (or at least, moderately successful) or run Tokyopop more like a smaller manga publisher rather than the powerhouse it used to be.

Then again, losing the Kodansha licenses, having so many titles fail and the loss of Borders as a strong seller was perhaps too huge a blow in the long run, something that was too hard to fix no matter what. It probably would have helped to try and wipe the slate clean, but is that even a possibility when you think of all the Japanese licensors snubbed in the process? You certainly can’t publish manga in another language if no one wants to give you the rights to do so. Unless you’re a scanlator. And you can’t make money if you don’t have a solid place to sell your product.

- Daniella Orihuela-Gruber

I Hate Stu Levy:

Dramacon by Svetlana Chmakova
Circumstances and a few shrewd business deals handed Stu Levy the sun and the moon and a vigorous manga imprint besides. Key employees were able to negotiate deals with Japanese publishers that were the envy of the [granted, small niche] market and right up to the bitter end: Tokyopop was releasing books the fans wanted, the critics enjoyed, and which were selling. Divested of the OEL experiments and licensing missteps [we ALL want to forget Cine-Manga] it seemed like a leaner, focused Tokyopop would help lead the manga industry into the next decade.

All that going for it…

except the CEO was making reality TV shows, musing publically over why he’d ‘wasted’ so much time with books, and generally pissing on his fan base and core customers...

I Hate Stu Levy. His current ‘charitable’ efforts in Japan, no matter how necessary and admittably helpful in the ongoing crisis, smack of self-service and condescension. His abandonment of the business because it’s too much ‘work’ — even while honest work was producing books we all enjoyed — is lax at best and contemptuous at worst.

Also, Stu is closing Tokyopop while grimly hanging onto all rights to the OEL books that might be worth something — without putting any effort into realizing that potential — or releasing rights back to the original creators.

Also check out also the Manga Out Loud Podcast
MangaBlog link roundup
Deb Aoki link roundup
The Comics Reporter link roundup
The Beat contains the TOKYOPOP statement and Levy's personal message
Matt Thorn castigates its low pay and cost-cutting practices


Honey and Clover Vol. 7

Honey and Clover Vol. 7 by Chica Umino
Honey and Clover remains among the most mellow depictions of quarter-life confusion I've read in comic form. At it's heart is Yuta Takemoto, whose life journey took a more literal turn in volume 6 when he hopped on his bicycle and road it as far as he could. Trying to escape the feelings of "emptiness" threatening to overwhelm him, Takemoto's cross-country journey settles into the easy, steady rhythm that has characterizes the rest of the series.

Creator Chica Umino has never seemed particularly interested in capturing the urban bustle, preferring to to place her Tokyo art school next to open fields, bubbling streams, and rolling hills. So the Takemoto storyline plays into her strengths as an artist. Moving away from the city gives her ample opportunity to not only illustrate scenes of natural beauty, but also of small-town Japan. Takemoto visits many quaint-looking convenience stores run by little old ladies. In one amusing scene, a store manager generously cooks him lunch while regaling him with stories about visiting Los Angeles. A shocked Takemoto is forced to reflect on how little of the world he's actually seen, compared to his host. Early in the book, Takemoto resolves to visit as many temples as he can afford to enter. This happens after he marvels at the craftsmanship of a window in the Zuiganji Temple. in that sense, Takemoto's road trip takes on aspects of a pilgrimage. There's nothing overtly religious, as the inspiration is artistic in origin. But there's still something pleasantly nostalgic about Takemoto's desire to see as much of old Japan before the summer is over.

Honey and Clover Vol. 7 by Chica Umino

Of course, Umino brings Takemoto down to earth not long after. His bike breaks down, forcing him to seek shelter at a nearby temple. Falling asleep after talking to a resident cat, he wakes up to discover the building undergoing restoration. He negotiates with the foreman to work for them part-time in order to earn the money to repair/replace his bike. He finds the manual labor emotionally rewarding, and even considers staying. But all too soon he's on the road again, facing the same doubts and anxieties that first motivated him into leaving Tokyo.

Takemoto's journey is mirrored by Hagu Hanomoto's own inability to find artistic inspiration. Failing to meet the demands of her professors, Hagu only begins to find her voice again after witnessing the struggles of an even younger student put in her charge. It's an appropriately tender, cute and funny scenario. It's also a little obvious. It doesn't resolve everything. But it's emblematic of Honey and Clover's proclivity for small-scale incidents over big, melodramatic confrontations.

Honey and Clover Vol. 7 by Chica Umino

Speaking of confrontations, it didn't occur to me that's it's taken this long for distant romantic rivals Ayumi Yamada and Rika Harada to finally meet. The meeting itself is less interesting than the resulting consternation it causes among the other characters, particularly Takumi Mayama and friends. While they assess the percieved "damage" and debate the next course of action, they're suddenly interrupted by Yamada. What happens next is probably the best comic moment in the book.

With only a few volumes left, the series has quietly reached a turning point, particularly with Takemoto, who now seems to be crossing into adulthood. Studiously keeping away from excessive displays of angst, Honey and Clover shows no hint of abandoning its wistful, warm, low-key approach.

Honey and Clover Vol. 7 by Chica Umino


Sketchblog: Your Nice New Outfit

A Friday treat inspired by a Twitter conversation between Gail Simone and Marjorie Liu about who’s cooler, Black Canary or Black Widow, questionable Catwoman poses and panties. - Phil Noto
A Friday treat inspired by a Twitter conversation between Gail Simone and Marjorie Liu about who’s cooler, Black Canary or Black Widow, questionable Catwoman poses and panties. - Phil Noto
Go to: Your Nice New Outfit by Phil Noto


More NonSense: A Noble Profession

Mitch O'Connell
by Mitch O'Connell
Roy Edroso's article in The Village Voice about the lack of financial rewards within the cartooning profession has raised some controversy, such as the newspaper itself not paying some of its own cartoonists. The Voice responded with an announcement that said cartoonists will get paid after all.

Tom Spurgeon questions the validity of some of the Edroso's arguments.

Tim Krieder writes a similarly themed article on the state of cartooning.

Jeet Heer on the racial poilitics of Harold Gray and Frank King. This is a continuation of an earlier article on racism as a stylistic choice.

Anja Flower on yaoi and inverted gender identity.

Erica Friedman on yuri.

Sunday Comics DeBT breaks down the narrative structure of cartoons.


Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud.
I remember that when I first read Zot!, I found myself strongly identifying with the main characters in the comic. Examined from any angle, Zot! is a very youthful work - The creation of an ambitious comic book artist, unsure of his gifts, and still figuring out the medium's potential. It's a superhero story that struggles to be so much more. It's a sweet teenage romance. And I imagine that the comic is a sublimation of McCloud's own unspoken, possibly traumatic, adolescent experiences. It certainly confirmed my own anxieties about how much the adult world sucked. But that was a long time ago. Rereading Zot! more recently, I'm struck by how much of it comes across as earnest and sentimental. The original pull the characters had on me isn't there anymore. In its place is now a healthy dose of world-weary melancholy.

For those coming in late, Zot! was a 36 issue series created by Scott McCloud and published from 1984-1991. It's about how a teenage Jenny Weaver is accidentally whisked away to an alternate-universe Earth, which is portrayed as a retro-futuristic technological utopia. There she meets and falls in love with Zachary T. Paleozogt, or Zot for short, a costumed crimefighter. After their initial adventure together, their friendship is sustained by visitations to each other's home-worlds. Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection collects the series after its initial ten issue run, which was printed in color. Other than that, the issues not included are the work supplied by Chuck Austen in #19-20. Accompanying the reprinted material is extensive commentary by McCloud himself.

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud.

At the heart of Zot! are the differences between the two worlds, embodied by the contrasting personalities of Zot and Jenny. Trapped in the suburbs and bored with school, Jenny is sensitive, self-absorbed, and overflowing with ennui. It doesn't help that her absentee parents are going through a painful separation. Like many an adolescent in her situation, Jenny possesses a strong impulse to escape into fantasy. But in her case she can literally step into a different world. Zot's Earth has none of the problems of Jenny's Earth, and only seems to suffer from the occasional supervillain infestation. McCloud isn't a great artist - his figures don't always look like they properly inhabit their environments. But he manages to render some jaw-droppingly beautiful cityscapes on Zot's world. He also has a knack for designing visually striking villains, the chapters dealing with antagonists Dekko and Zybox being particularly impressive. It's a fun world to envision, no doubt. But even there McCloud's attention begins to waver. Over time, Jenny's Earth takes on greater prominence. Whether this is a reflection of McCloud's evolving interests, or perhaps due to the use of photo references, her Earth looks more nuanced and textured. Its natural beauty only makes Zot's more advanced world seem cold and antiseptic by comparison. And the problems posed by its flamboyant rogues gallery seem somewhat abstract next to the emotional hang-ups of Jenny and her friends. My younger self certainly felt greater resonance with the scenes of her bemoaning stuff like math homework, though those sentiments have become far removed nowadays.

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud.

One story that retains much of its emotional impact is "The Season of Dreams". Jenny wakes up to find that Zot is a figment of her imagination inspired by a television show. She's also been undergoing psychiatric treatment for her hallucinations. While this is eventually proven to be part of an elaborate ruse, it goes to the crux of Jenny's relationship with Zot and his world. Without his presence, Jenny has a complete breakdown that underlines just how dependent on him she's become, and to how desperately she wants, or needs, to escape reality. McCloud manages to convey Jenny's emotional fragility with wonderful conviction, and it remains the most powerful expression of despair and hopelessness found in the comic.

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud.

Zot himself comes across as a less interesting character with time. If Jenny always walks around as if crushed by defeat, Zot's default mode is pure ebullience. His optimism and self-confidence are a salve to Jenny's misery, and frankly that's a relief at times. But he's neither capable of maturing or being corrupted. That works in the earlier chapters when he's operating on his world. He's practically invincible there. But even when the tone of the series shifts and Zot experiences loss in "The Ghost in the Machine", he maintains his cheery attitude to the point of sounding amnesic. This dissonance increases when he operates on Jenny's Earth. In response to a question on whether he's ever been disappointed, he responds matter-of-factly "Haven't been so far." That's an odd answer from someone whose early efforts at being a do-gooder on Jenny's Earth have all been mixed at best. It seems that McCloud was signaling his unwillingness to follow the contemporaneous "grim and gritty" superhero trend, which is fine. But as the series becomes more realistic in its outlook, Zot's static nature becomes all the more incongruous.

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud.

A most curious experiment happens in the story "Ring in the New", a new year's party taking place in Zot's Earth. When Woody, Zot's rival for Jenny's affections, begins to examine the differences between the two worlds, he notices glaring inconsistencies. His findings are rather disturbing: "It's like someone went rummaging around in history and just took out all the bad stuff. What's left is nice enough, but it doesn't always make sense!" McCloud however refuses to arrive at any conclusions, pulling back as if realizing that he still wanted to maintain the notion that Zot's world is a viable alternate reality, or at the very least a symbol of a better way of life. But it conflicts with his implicit desire to move past the series original science-fiction setting.

What we get instead in the last nine issues is a form of compromise. Zot becomes more of a supporting character in most of them while the series focuses on Jenny's circle of friends and family. Each of them is just as damaged as Jenny. And each of them is aided by Zot, who acts as an external catalyst for change and growth. After all the supervillains and high-tech action in the previous stories, the number of real-world issues being addressed is surprising in its scope: poverty, alcoholism, sexual identity politics, racism, crime, youthful idealism, loosing one's virginity, school bullying, social justice, divorce, the stifling environment of academic institutions and of suburbia itself. I never got to this point with my original encounter of Zot, which is the shame as I would have loved these stories. As it is, McCloud's tackling of these topics is usually broad and superficial. A few, like Zot and Jenny discussing sex, have a certain poignant awkwardness to them. Others, like Zot's unsuccessful attempts to understand crime on a different world, are a bit too obvious with their delivery. But overall, they are an entertaining brew of coming-of-age drama containing a dash of superheroics, and I can understand why they are so highly regarded among fans. Anyone who grew up reading superhero comics at the time would have had their views of the medium enriched by them. Zot! might not have the penetrating insight or formal experimentation of a Watchmen, but its approach is far more personable, and in its own way more effective. As for myself, I ended up adopting the perspective of Jenny's mother, a person already beaten down by life. As she watches the Zot-Jenny-Woody love triangle unfold from the sidelines, she ruminates "...and when did life become so trivial. When did all the magic go out?"

Zot! The Complete Black and White Collection by Scott McCloud.

Does the mundane finally triumph over the fantastic? Towards the end, Zot opens the portal between the worlds one last time for Jenny, her friends, and her family. As they escape to an Earth full of gleaming futuristic structures on flying cars, Woody reflects "We'll be back; we know we can't stay away forever. But just for a while… Just for a while…"


FF #1

FF #1 By John Hickman, Steve Epting, Rick Magyar, Paul Mounts, Rus Wooton.
By John Hickman, Steve Epting, Rick Magyar, Paul Mounts, Rus Wooton

We must begin again. We have to find some new ideas. - From the pages of FF #1

I haven't really been following any Marvel superhero serials lately, and I've never been the biggest fan of its marquee title The Fantastic Four. But this latest title change piqued my interest. Johnny Storm's death frankly didn't concern me. It's not like that kind of stuff didn't happen before. Neither did the news of Spider-Man joining the team. Actually, that's not entirely true for me as a onetime Spidey fan. This changing of the guard hearkens back to Amazing Spider-Man #1 and his loose association with the team ever since. But mainly, I was just curious as to what the hell the renaming of the team meant for the creative direction of the series.

Now, I'm under no illusion that this new status quo is in any way permanent. At some point Johnny will be discovered to be alive, and the series will revert back to its original title, to great fanfare no doubt. There's just no real incentive to deliver lasting change anymore. It wasn't that long ago that the team was emotionally torn apart by the events of Civil War. And yet here they are. More than any cast of characters in the Marvel Universe, the Fantastic Four seem attached to a particular milieu. So when I saw the FF#1 cover featuring them wearing those white uniforms that makes them look like astronauts, with their smiling, optimistic faces, I did get the sense that Jonathan Hickman and co. were going for a retro-futuristic look. The team has been renamed as the utopian-sounding Future Foundation. It's a nice fit for a pseudo-nuclear family who got their powers from going into space, and get around with flying cars. We're moving boldly forward, into the past. Even their new uniforms use an updated version of that old standby, "unstable molecules", which is admittedly pretty cool.

FF #1 By John Hickman, Steve Epting, Rick Magyar, Paul Mounts, Rus Wooton.

Then there's the newly extended family that Spider-Man meets. This includes Reed Richard's long-lost father, the Atlantean charges in the care of Susan Storm-Richards, and several other minor characters representing the races the original FF has had dealings with in the past. The dinner-table invocation, calling on disparate deities, is reminiscent of old fashioned sci-fi inclusiveness working as a substitute for real world ethnic diversity. There are other nice sci-fi touches like family squabbles over time-travel or whether they should terraform the moon. It's plain that there's a great deal of affection for the characters and the legacy they've built in the last five decades. The scenes dealing with interpersonal relationships are oddly touching in their familiarity.

Unfortunately, it won't be enough to appeal to anyone not already emotionally invested in the characters' history. Nor is it enough to make me care about the superhero shenanigans that inevitably intrude into this otherwise low-key episode. The staging of B-listers A.I.M. and The Wizard as potentially dangerous threats didn't come across as entirely convincing, and the big reveal at the end left me nonplussed. FF fans however will love it, and have fun sorting out its fallout in upcoming issues. I guess I've already had my fill of this type of soap opera.