Go to: Emily Carroll
At the end of Sailor Moon Vol. 4, most of the Sailor Senshi, including Sailor Moon herself, were kidnapped by the evil Black Moon clan and imprisoned on Planet Nemesis. The impulsive Chibi-Usa had a run-in with arch-villain Wiseman. Things were looking pretty dim for our heroes. The first half of Vol. 5 continues this downward spiral to global annihilation. Actually, it races to its climax with the manga's typical breakneck speed. And this usually means that things can get rather chaotic before they finally settle down.
Naoko Takeuchi is not the most thorough draftsperson, and that’s a disadvantage here because this story arc could have benefited from some more fully realized backgrounds. We go from 20th century Tokyo to the 30th century Crystal Palace, to the interior of Nemesis. But the figures never seem to walk through any kind of stable environment, which can be a little disorienting. Her incessantly rushed pacing also means that the story never gets much of a breather despite a lull in the action created when the senshi return to the 20th century to recuperate. But after what feels like one short conversation, they’re pulled back to the future for their showdown with Black Moon.
This is where the Sailor Moon's art dissolves into a series of highly abstract battle scenes filled with tremendous explosions of cosmic energy and glittery screentone. The panels are as pretty to look at as they are hard to follow. Amorphous energy-based attacks aren’t the easiest thing to illustrate convincingly, and clarity was never Takeuchi’s strong suit. Some physical weight is imparted to the encounters when Nemesis suddenly materialises out of nowhere and hurls giant shards of itself onto the Earths surface. Sailor Moon fights can be a lot like Dragonball fights in that the supporting characters end up becoming hapless witnesses while the hero singlehandedly takes on the Big Bad, the former only achieving victory through attaining a higher power level. In this case it’s Sailor Moon pitting her “Legendary Silver Crystal” against Wiseman’s “Malefic Black Crystal.” Caught between the unleashing of two near-infinite power sources, the senshi can do little more than get out of the way. But it isn’t just the senshi that suffer from a lack of strong character moments. Like the Dark Kingdom from the first arc, Black Moon is casually discarded by Wiseman when victory becomes imminent. Prince Demande has a smidgen more personality than Queen Beryl. At one point he even seems to question Wiseman’s orders. But when he descends into madness after comprehending Wiseman’s truly evil nature, he becomes virtually irredeemable. And it doesn’t exactly help that the members of the Black Moon clan are thematically and visually very similar with those of the Dark Kingdom.
What keeps the Black Moon arc (The “R” arc to followers of the animated version) from becoming a boring retread of the first arc is the complicating presence of Chibi-Usa. She started out as incredibly annoying, but the creepy Freudian subtext from the last volume is made obvious here when Wiseman suffuses Chibi-Usa with his dark energies, endowing her with a sexy adult body. Chibi-Usa looks like a fetishized version of her own mother Neo-Queen Serenity (Sailor Moon’s future adult form), and the first thing she does with her newfound powers and “Black Lady” appearance is to hypnotize, capture, and seduce her eventual father Tuxedo Mask. Eeek! Thanks to her cooperation, Wiseman comes close to destroying the Earth. If Sailor Moon is to have any hope of defeating him, she has to quickly reach out to this estranged daughter from the 30th century whom she barely knows, and who also happens to be almost nine hundred years older than her despite looking and acting like a bratty kid. That’s got to be perplexing!
Even then, the tide only turns after one of the good guys commits the ultimate act of self-sacrifice by violating a most sacred taboo. This arc mentions several laws forbidding the manipulation of time but never gets around to explaining how or why those laws have been put in place. It’s best to just go with it since bending or breaking them moves the plot forward, and that last one sets up a final clash between good and evil. This action-packed volume isn't about nuance or careful world-building, but about hitting as many emotional high points as possible.
Besides, what's a time-travel story if no one in it breaks any of the rules?
During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.- Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
As one of the vast majority of humanity who doesn't celebrate this most perplexing of American holidays (Thank you Ruben Bolling), I admit that we are united by our burning hatred/acquiescent participation in the orgy of mind-numbing consumerism that runs the world. U.S.A! U.S.A! Now who wants to buy me a new iPad Air?
Letterer: Michael Heisler
Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
In my review of The Search Part One I mentioned how Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko were so effective in drumming up interest in the fate of Zuko’s mother Ursa. Now that they’ve supplied a definitive answer to one of Avatar fandom’s most nagging questions, I’m less sure I needed an answer to begin with. Ursa was not a major onscreen presence within the actual series, and The Search confirms that the reason for her absence is because she chose for it to be that way.
What made such a minor character so interesting has a lot to do with the way women are portrayed within Avatar The Last Airbender. While ATLA is rightfully loved by fans for its youthful, proactive, female characters, the same can’t be said of their adult counterparts. Most of them are either absentee or passive mother figures lacking any real agency. The few who stand out are unattached and/or are villains (Hama). By contrast, the adult men are actively engaged father figures within the series, whether for good (Chief Hakoda, Iroh), bad (Fire Lord Ozai), or somewhere in between (The Mechanist).* This lopsided family dynamic seems to be temporarily subverted in the one episode were Ursa appears in flashback sequences. It’s not just her sudden disappearance that’s intriguing but the character herself. What kind of person would marry a young prince Ozai, raise two kids with him, and go so far as to help her husband usurp the throne? There was an element of moral ambiguity, personal complexity and perhaps even cunning and worldly ambition suggested by her brief appearance quite unlike that of the other women in the series.
The actual Ursa in The Search doesn't quite measure up because her backstory recycles so many soap opera tropes that she morphs into a tragic cypher: Star-crossed lovers, forced into a loveless arranged marriage, the long-suffering wife and mother. It’s fairly retrograde and the creative team of Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru studios mostly sticks to coloring between the lines. When the plot twist at the end of Part One is predictably revealed to be a red herring initiated by Ursa to fluster Ozai, it completely backfires and heaps more abuse on an innocent Zuko. This quickly crushes her one anaemic act of defiance and provides another unnecessary excuse for Ozai to mistreat his son. Ursa's difficult decision to aid Ozai and leave her children behind is meant to evoke sympathy, but the divine intervention that magically removes her from the narrative also keeps her from having to live with the consequences of her actions. So the twist also comes across as a contrived way to preserve the ATLA status quo.
Another recurring ATLA motif that plays a role in The Search is sibling relationships. This is seen in the affection demonstrated between Katara and Sokka contrasted with the fratricidal actions Azula directs toward Zuko. The book gets rather heavy-handed when it introduces a pair composed of an elderly woman who has spent most of her life searching for a way to reverse a debilitating curse affecting her older brother, the duo’s other member. That's one more self-sacrificing female archetype, just in in case Ursa alone wasn't enough. Such familial devotion is a given for Katara and Sokka while the lesson goes over the head of Azula, who proceeds to betray the pair at the first opportunity. Unlike Zuko, Azula was a unique character in ATLA for being unrepentantly evil, though her emotional isolation turns her into a lower-level Lady Macbeth towards the end. Azula then suffers from some villain decay in The Search. Her behaviour has turned so incredibly erratic (Gurihiru’s portrayal makes her suitably madcap) that she’s treated more as a nuisance than as a credible threat by the cast. Zuko has become so competent in neutralising Azula's deadliest weapon, her lightning bending, that the fight scenes between them, which should be the coolest part of the comic, have dropped off in intensity. That’s a bit unfortunate given that The Search reveals enough of Azula's background to show that she’s as much a victim of Ozai’s upbringing as Zuko was. Probably more in some ways given her position as favored child. The book doesn’t quite make that connection, missing out on turning Azula into a more nuanced character, though it does manage to bring out the cray-zee.
While I’ve dinged The Search for some of its storytelling choices and its old-fashioned gender roles, those choices do fit into the carefully constructed box designed by Bryan and Mike. Ursa may not be as potent a force as I've hoped for, but she is still one of a few flawed figures who have made morally dubious decisions that place her in a gray area between good and evil. And if the plan is for Azula to get a better handle on her fragile mental state, this could reposition her to claim the label of conflicted teenager formerly monopolised by Zuko. Comparing The Search to their work in The Promise, Gene and Gurihiru have become more efficient manipulating the numerous moving parts of the ATLA universe. This arc comes closer to duplicating an episode of the series, and this makes for a more manageable narrative. The cast is now limited to a few important characters, and the plot focuses on one problem at a time. Even its unresolved ending is structured to be a jumping-off point for future entries. Now that Ursa and Azula are both re-entering the game, the comic version of ATLA has become a tad less settled.
* This pattern still persists in The Legend of Korra despite this series being set seventy years after the events in ATLA.
One of the more unique tactics of the incipient Civil Rights Movement was the publication of the 1958 comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Narrating the now historic actions of Rosa Parks and the subsequent boycott of the Montgomery bus service under the guidance of Martin Luther King Jr, its stated purpose was to spread the message of passive resistance and nonviolent action. The comic book would inspire a young John Lewis to become an activist himself. So it’s not surprising that he would call on the medium with the publication of his recent three-part autobiography March. The congressman has written before about his time as one of the Movement’s most important figures, but this is a story worth retelling. John Lewis is a true-life hero and an adherent of nonviolence. As in 1958, the choice of employing the graphic novel format to spread the same message seems calculated to reach a younger generation, especially those who may not be all too familiar with these events. If nothing else, it serves as a timely reminder that the battles of the Movement are only over half a century old.
March begins dramatically with the brutal 1965 showdown known as “Bloody Sunday” at Edmund Pettus Bridge. Just as the police are about to overpower John and his companions, the scene suddenly shifts to Washington DC on the morning of the 2009 Presidential inauguration. Much of Book One is about the Congressman recalling his life story from early childhood in rural Alabama to his successful efforts combating racial segregation at the lunch counters of Nashville. Most of the text is John’s first-hand account (assisted by co-author Andrew Aydin) of those events. Reading this book, I’m struck at how harrowing it must have been to be raised as a second-class citizen. But at no point is John beaten down by his circumstances. Nor does he ever express any self-doubt or self-pity. Rather, he questions the status quo at every turn: Whether protesting the inhumane treatment of the chickens at his parents’ farm, choosing to sneak out to school over his father’s demands that he work the fields during harvest season, or noticing the material disparity between institutions catering to “White” and “Colored". During a formative summer trip to Buffalo, New York, he’s exposed for the first time to black and white people living and working side-by-side. By the time John becomes aware of the work of King, he’s already primed to take on segregation as a personal cause. The overall impression taken from John's own testimony is that of a quiet young idealist possessing enormous reservoirs of determination.
The book initially tries to frame the autobiographical elements using an impromptu conversation between the congressman and an unexpected woman visitor accompanied by her two children. But this generates some clunky expository dialogue and the transitions between the different settings feel forced. This device is dropped at the hallway point, though John continues to tell his story to no one in particular. While he is credited as the primary author of March, much of the book’s effectiveness as an actual comic has to go to artist Nate Powell. Nate has to take John’s words, organise them, and translate them into visuals. This often results in text-heavy panels with long horizontal captions. The text itself becomes occasionally redundant when combined with the imagery. Thankfully, Nate has a solid grasp of page composition. The images never feel crowded, and judicious use of negative space and wordless panels helps improve the pace and balance the art.
Much of the visceral impact of March comes from the visuals themselves. Some, like Edmund Pettus Bridge or the Nashville sit-ins are already iconic. Nate doesn’t forget to do the same with some of John’s more personal moments: His panic at having possibly killed a baby chick, seeing the bright lights of Buffalo for the first time, or on first reading King’s philosophy of nonviolence. But for the most part, his meticulous black and white washes and slightly cartoonish figures give the whole book the feel of looking at musty archival photographs or viewing stills from old news footage. This use of BW imagery to capture the past feels appropriately nostalgic, that is until someone starts yelling out the word “nigger” and the ugliness of the era comes out.
Perhaps that’s because the past that March recalls isn’t actually so remote.
Just in time for the 30th anniversary of the Transformers early next year. I was raised on 80s animation, so this tickles my nostalgic fanboy yearnings. "You got the touch, you got the power!"
Go to: PC Weenies by Krishna M. Sadasivam
After a very long installation process (which included an eleven hour download), Mavericks is finally running on my MacBook. Almost all software but my scanner driver is compatible with the new OS. So hurry up with it Epson.
No one could ever accuse Mind MGMT of being easy reading. Its first story arc “The Manager” took full advantage of the comic book format to simultaneously present multiple streams of information. Every piece of real estate is crammed with data: The covers, margins, even the marks on the pages. Needless to say, the story benefits from a multiple careful readings and a willingness to find hidden patterns in all the visual cacophony. Add to that, there’s the cruel irony in returning its protagonist Meru back to square one at the end of the arc, wiping all her memories of the events. “The Futurist” is no less dense a narrative. It’s primary advantage is that to the reader who’s made the effort, this second arc is made easier by being an extension of the first, expanding on the information already gleamed and moving the story forward with new revelations and characters. Both form into one huge chunk of a story, and a more rewarding experience than most of the conspiracy-laden serials that have lately become popular television fare.
At the heart of Mind MGMT is Meru. While she started out investigating “Amnesia Flight #815,” which led to her uncovering the activities of the clandestine Mind MGMT and its top agent Henry Lyme, the comic kept dropping hints that Meru herself has a mysterious past and vast untapped psychic abilities. Much of the dramatic tension comes from the fact that she’s largely dependent on Henry to find the answers but the reader is already aware that he is not to be trusted. As the two set about gathering the ragtag crew of former agents (see my review of #7), it becomes apparent that his former colleagues don’t completely trust him either. Nonetheless, they end up forming a kind of substitute family to Meru, particularly the world-weary Duncan, the titular futurist. His codename comes from his ability to instantaneously read the minds of those around him for up to a 15 mile radius, which has the effect of allowing him to perfectly foresee all their short-term future actions. For Duncan, this clairvoyance has made his life and relationships dull and predictable. The character was introduced way back in the first issue, but now provides a skeptical counterpoint to Henry’s manipulations. When the comic presents his unhappy backstory, his thoughts and impressions are cataloged on the side of the pages next to the panels instead of integrated into the image, unlike in most comic books.
But what occupies the margins in the earlier chapters are excerpts from Meru’s true-crime book “Premeditated,” which tells the story of a woman named Julianne Verve who murdered her husband and two children. The words in the book uncannily mirror the actions in the panels. And as Meru’s quest progresses, this interaction makes increasingly evident that her personal connection to Mind MGMT predates her own investigation of it. But since so much text is strangely not incorporated into the panels as captions but pasted on the side, the overall effect is not that of a work created by a singular vision but an assemblage of story clippings pasted together. This impression is further compounded by the treatment of the comic pages themselves. As with The Manager, the pages in The Futurist draw attention to the use of the comic book format by employing blue border markings similar to those found in illustration boards. A few pages have been torn out while others have been mysteriously redacted. The comic itself is an imperfect document - incomplete, heavily edited, and an unreliable record of events. Much like the works fashioned by Mind MGMT's powerful psychics.
Even though Mind MGMT seems to relish drowning the reader in a mass of information, the plot as narrated within the comic proper is actually very propulsive - an exciting globe-trotting adventure that takes its cast from around the United States to North Africa, to the legendary Shangri-la - Mind MGMT’s secret headquarters hidden amongst snow-capped peaks. And for those with enough patience, the payoff answers a few questions about Meru, which finally has her stepping out of Henry Lyme’s shadow.
I don't have to imagine hard that it's 1976. Just remember back to the time when Star Wars had just hit the scene. As someone who loves the film itself but isn't too interested in the whole "Star Wars Universe", I'm still kind of dumbstruck to have witnessed a pop culture phenomenon emerge from a naive fantasy about tie fighters, Death Stars, lightsabers, space smugglers, Jedi, Jawas, and that quasi-religious vaguely New Age invocation "May the Force be with you."
Not bad for a homage to those Flash Gordon serials.
Remember when Man of Steel was harangued for its Apocalyptic/ 9-11 imagery? This controversial project will be inevitably criticized for tastelessly mixing harrowing real-world events with silly, juvenile superhero fiction. It also highlights the photographic medium's inauspicious status as fodder for so much appropriation in postmodern art and design. A situation only exacerbated in the age of Google Image Search and Instagram. The photographs Butcher Billy chose are some of the most memorable images ever produced in the Twentieth Century, which is what helps make this project immediately disturbing, and so though-provoking.
You might laugh at her, but chances are you'll meet a few people who act this way during your lifetime. Batman during the 90s, for example.
After reading Ayn Rand, I'm looking forward to Supercrash.
Having given the nod to Osamu Tezuka’s classic creation, Give My Regards to Black Jack goes in a different direction from its predecessor. While they both have a doctor as their main protagonist, the latter series is set in the more down-to-earth milieu of Japan’s healthcare system. The manga’s intent of exposing its flaws falls into familiar territory of the individual fighting a corrupt system. It’s a curious blend of serious social critique and manga tropes.
Author Shuho Sato front-loads the story with a bevy of statistics in order to impress on the reader the true scale of the country’s health care industry. Eight thousand students graduate from medical school annually and go on to become interns for two years at various teaching hospitals. Interns are overworked and underpaid, forcing many to take up part time jobs elsewhere despite a chronic lack of sleep. Our hero Eijiro Saito graduated from Eiroku University, the manga’s equivalent to Harvard, and is interning at the university hospital. The guy starts his career full of pep, boasting of surviving on only two hours of sleep a night. But he’s dirt poor, so he moonlights at the E.R. of an affiliated hospital. While there, his naive outlook is quickly shattered. He learns that the E.R. only accepts traffic accident victims due to a legal loophole that allows the hospital to overcharge to the patient’s insurance policy. Japanese hospitals are usually understaffed and Saito has to operate on patients he has no business treating without proper training. When he objects after being forced to deal with a particularly gristly accident victim, his immediate superior tells him “...if he’s got to die, you might as well cut his abdomen open...”
Things aren’t much better at Eiroku. Once his rotation training begins, he’s exposed to the unseemly underbelly of hospital administration. Surgical procedures are decided on dollars and cents as much as they are on the patient’s welfare. University professors are often revealed to be incompetent or indifferent doctors. Bureaucracy is often a hindrance and leads to interdepartmental conflict. It’s all pretty demoralizing. But what particularly offends Saito is the old boys network (Japanese medicine here is very much a male-dominated world) that informally links the nation’s hospitals to its medical schools, creating a kind of industry-wide web he disparagingly labels the “medical mafia.” Doctors obsessed with social climbing and prestigious positions often obscure the advancement of more qualified physicians.
None of this would be strange to people who regularly consume medical dramas. But Sato backs it up with liberal sprinklings of facts and figures. His storytelling has a certain muckracking quality, and for all I know he may have an axe to grind. With each department rotation, Saito gets involved in cases were his personal ethics often conflict with the orders of the department heads. These dilemmas seem grounded enough to be based on actual events. The hospital settings are lovingly rendered in detailed realism, which can be disconcerting to more squeamish readers when Sato illustrates several medical procedures. While I’m not qualified to comment on the accuracy of his research or the merit of his arguments, his characterizations often lack subtlety. Baby-faced Saito seems to only function through extreme moods, swinging wildly from joy to despair. In many ways, he’s your typical hot-blooded shonen protagonist. And the doctors can be distinguished by how they’re visually portrayed: The doctors Sato disagrees with all look haughty and a bit affected. The good doctors are naturally all rebels possessing rugged facial features which he loves to draw in extreme closeups just as they’re staring into the distance while wearing an expression of fierce determination.
Sato can sometimes be dismissive. Even when his antagonists put forth arguments that deserve a more considered response, he employs his art to present them as venal, condescending towards patients and subordinates, and self-serving. They’re the villains, they’re wrong, and Sato brooks no room for more nuanced take on the issues. A chapter showcasing a doctor running a private clinic as being a more dedicated caretaker than the staff at a large hospital is really no more sophisticated than the message found in Doc Hollywood.
Give My Regards to Black Jack is a flawed work. Its topical focus and heavy-handed approach isn’t going to appeal to everybody. While the art is accomplished, it's stiff and awkward, and can look gloomy and oppressive at times. And Saito isn’t a particularly well-rounded character. But to give Sato the benefit of the doubt, I’ve only reviewed the series' first three volumes. Its interesting that such a dissenting voice has managed to keep the series going and I’m curious to hear what people who are more informed about Japanese medicine would have to say about it.