Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi
Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions
The Ultra Series is a long-running media franchise that has yet to hit it big in the Western Hemisphere. But anyone growing up in Japan and many parts of East Asia within the last 50 years should be familiar with at least one incarnation of the basic idea - a gigantic, powerful alien, usually clad in red and silver, merges with a human host to fight monstrous threats to civilization. Naturally, the original Ultraman from 1966 is going to have a certain nostalgic pull over his many successors. So back in 2011 Shogakukan launched a soft reboot/sequel as a manga series, now being translated into english by Viz Media. This gives newcomers an easy point of entry into the franchise, while trading on the commercial appeal of pre-existing properties. So how does the first volume stack up to expectations?
Unsurprisingly, the manga works pretty hard to get the fans on its side. There's a brief introduction to the original Ultraman, host Shin Hayata, and their adventures in the 66' TV series. A much older Shin is in the manga to bequeath his role to a new Ultraman, but not before he gets to suit up one last time and kick monster butt. An old villain makes an unexpected reappearance, and there are other f* yeah! moments, such as the reveal of the new Ultraman armour, or the first time Ultraman whips out his traditional finishing move, the Specium Ray.
But the story's awkwardly paced. The beginning section contains 2 time skips: the first to establish the intervening decades between the TV show and the manga, only to move ahead another 12 years after dumping a lot exposition on the reader. All this amounts to no one understanding how Ultraman's powers work, and It feels like an unnecessary way to stretch out the narrative. Is it a byproduct of the time constraints imposed on the creative team of writer Eiichi Shimizu and artist Tomohiro Shimoguchi by the tight publishing schedule? This sluggish start is followed shortly by over 100 pages devoted to a single fight scene, which is an extreme example of the kind of decompressed action sequence that has become mandatory with shonen manga since Dragonball.
Thankfully, this is where the book picks up steam. The panel-to-panel action flows effortlessly and Shimoguchi seems to be enjoying himself when drawing all the exaggerated poses and over-the-top hand combat exchanges. His enthusiasm almost makes up for his relative indifference to rendering environments and background details. Given the number of Ultraman pinups found throughout the volume, Shimoguchi is clearly having a ball updating these classic characters, even if his redesigns resort to the jagged, overly-busy industrial aesthetic that ends up robbing Ultraman of his usual sleek, spandex-clad appearance.
The extra level of detail used for the hero, depictions of violence somewhat more graphic than anything found in the TV show, and mystery surrounding the transmission of his powers inserted into the story, signal that this Ultraman isn't aimed at kids anymore. This is a beefier, edgier hero for a new age as the book's cover boldly claims, or maybe for the aging fan looking for a way to revive the past.
Drawing Assistant: Jason Fischer
Letters: Dustin Harbin
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Bryan Lee O’Malley seems to be growing up as a storyteller. The Canadian cartoonist made a name for himself by capturing the desultory lives of privileged, self-absorbed people in their early twenties. With his latest graphic novel Seconds, he's moved on to privileged, self-absorbed people in their late twenties facing down a quarter-life crisis. It's similar to ground covered by compatriot Michael Cho in Shoplifter. But where Cho was ruminative, O'Malley can't help but be a little mischievous. He mixes the mundane with ambiguous fantasy elements, which keeps the overall tenor comparatively lighthearted. O'Malley hasn't completely left his gamer roots behind, but he subtly mixes those references with time-altering supernatural forces that tempt the protagonist with a taste of omniscience. Isn't that sort of like the multiple reboots, power-ups, and additional lives offered in video games?
This is a beautifully crafted comic. Manga has influenced its fair share of Western cartoonists, but the last decade has witnessed the emergence of a generation of creators, not to mention critics and fans, who were nurtured by the manga boom, absorbed the kawaii aesthetic, and married it to their own native sensibilities. This is most obvious in O'Malley's quasi-chibi figures and wide-eyed facial expressions. But it runs deeper than such superficialities with his solid black and white compositions, excellent readability, and steady pacing. O'Malley gives the impression of effortlessly transitioning from intimate close-ups to wide-angle shots. He's careful with how his characters inhabit their environments - what space they occupy in a single room or even an entire building. And O'Malley isn't shy about using quiet moments or panels focusing on inanimate objects to establish mood.
Though O'Malley's black and white art (with assists from Jason Fischer) is satisfying on its own terms, Nathan Fairbairn's colors have helped transform it. O'Malley's thick lines have a certain organic quality that easily lends itself to the indie comics aesthetic. The usual coloring techniques used in mainstream superhero comics would ill suit it. But Fairbairn's understated approach is a perfect match that makes the art far more accessible to the casual reader. He keeps the palette simple and the rendering flat, which makes the figures pop out. The shock of red hair from main protagonist Katie practically defines the book's color scheme. And since the story is about a chef working in a restaurant, the colors add necessary appeal of the book's requisite food porn. One effect that's impossible otherwise is how the atmosphere takes on an eerie orange glow when something supernatural takes place. This sets the story apart from the b&w comics that would have had to resort to distorted panel borders or other similar devices to suggest the same thing.
The title Seconds contains multiple meanings. It can refer to second servings of food. It can refer to the seconds of a clock. Second guessing a decision or second chances in life. Within the book it also refers to the name of the restaurant founded by Katie and where she worked for several years as executive chef. She's succeeded in moulding her startup into one of the city's best restaurants. But she feels unfulfilled. As she closes in on her thirtieth birthday, Katie is looking to shape a new course for herself. And as with many adults her age, she's beginning to re-examine her life as she takes into account the effects of her past choices. The story gets going when she stumbles upon a macguffin which allows her to alter her personal history in limited ways.
As with any "be careful what you wish for" morality tale, the outcome is predictable. Katie's first revision is fairly innocuous. But as she becomes accustomed to abusing her power, she gradually loses sight of other people's humanity, even as she gains the boyfriend and restaurant of her dreams. O'Malley and Fairbairn are able to modulate the book's signature visuals as Katie's poorly thought out revisions allow unwanted supernatural forces to invade her reality. The world becomes more twisted and abstract, populated by strange creatures that trouble no one but her.
Seconds' principal shortcoming is the protagonist herself. While other characters populate the book, they never achieve any significant impact beyond being objects who Katie treats with varying degrees of importance. So the reader is largely stuck in her head. Katie's personal failings are the stereotypical flaws of a person her age, socio-economic standing, and first-world country status mentioned at the top of this review. O'Malley is able to make Katie more engaging through the disembodied voice of a sympathetic third person narrator (whom she argues with from time to time), but otherwise she's not very likeable. The problem is that O'Malley seems hesitant to make her truly suffer. There's a sense of increasing unease as her revisions produce unintended results, and her actions do come back to bite her in the ass. But nothing ever seems to pierce that impenetrable armour of innocence. Without the plot structure enabling the magically-driven conflict, she actually seems to regress as a person. Katie never quite makes it past the stage of amusing cartoon character to actual human being. She starts out cute, and she finishes up just as cute. So there's little sense of growth or maturity from the experience.
"There are things we can't change, and we just have to accept that." Katie states authoritatively towards the very end. Sounds pretty grown-up. But the comic's concluding pages strongly imply that Katie's triumph is complete: she gains everything, loses nothing, and still can't see past her own nose. On the contrary, the world still revolves around her. Maybe she'll evolve in the next ten years.