Ultraman Vol. 2

Ultraman Vol. 2, Story: Eiichi Shimizu  Art: Tomohiro Shimoguch.i  Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.
Story: Eiichi Shimizu 
Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi

Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions

The second volume of the Ultraman manga reboot is paced exactly like the previous one, with smaller scenes building up to a massive decompressed fight beginning at the halfway point. But the action begins sooner, even as the manga continues the process of reintroducing elements from the original TV series while expanding the cast of supporting characters. In the last volume, it was revealed that original Ultraman host Shin Hayata had been permanently altered by his time bonding with the Giant of Light so that he retained a portion of the mysterious alien’s powers. Even more inexplicably, he passed those abilities on to his only son Shinjiro. Now that Shin has been injured in his battle with old nemesis Bemular, will Shinjiro take up the mantle of his father and continue to defend the planet from alien threats? This volume gives a definitive answer, but not before raising a whole host of thorny issues about the new Ultraman’s true purpose. Volume one ended with the introduction of this strange being:

Ultraman Vol. 1, Story: Eiichi Shimizu  Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi,  Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions

Fans of the TV series will recognize this Edo to be a member of a race of evil aliens who were once Ultraman’s mortal enemies. So why is he not just a member of the Special Science Search Party, a.k.a the Science Patrol, but actually the one giving the orders? Since when has the SSSP become a covert organization, with its own complement of Men in Black covering up the existence of aliens? And how does Shinjiro fit into their plans?

The people who will probably end up helping him in getting to the bottom of this conspiracy are Endo, a determined police detective, and Rena, a teen idol and Ultraman superfan. Acting as foil is taciturn SSSP agent Moroboshi. At this point, everyone’s personality is broadly defined. Endo’s dislike for blindly following orders is going to get him into trouble with the bad guys. Rena’s nothing more than a damsel-in-distress and potential love interest. And Moroboshi is a dick towards Shinjiro because he’s the workplace newbie. Shinjiro himself still lacks any agency as the reluctant hero following in his father’s footsteps. He’s likeable in his desire to do the right thing, which makes it easy for Edo to manipulate him.

The most obvious departure from the entire franchise is that the new Ultraman is no longer the result of a magical transformation. Shinjiro has to don an armored suit built by the SSSP to fully replicate all of Ultraman’s superpowers. This has a number of significant consequence for the manga. This Ultraman now works for The Man, so he loses most of his customary independence. Gone is the larger-than-life kaiju-battling action, replaced by street-level violence. Shinjiro has to spend half the time worrying about keeping the fight away from innocent bystanders or rescuing trapped civilians. And the now human-sized enemies behave more like criminals and terrorists attempting to blend into the general population than traditional world-conquering villains. The true big bad could be hiding anywhere, including the SSSP. This is a superhero for a more paranoid era.


Just So Happens

Just So Happens by Fumio Obata.
by Fumio Obata

In the debut graphic novel of Fumio Obata Just So Happens, Japanese transplant Yumiko has made the city of London her home for the last several years while working at a design firm. As she walks to work, she monologues about preferring the “noise, chaos, busyness, energy, and openness…” , and in being immersed in a place crammed with different lives “with different roots and cultures.” To emphasize her point, Obata (he is also a Japanese transplant living in Great Britain) pulls back to reveal a bird’s eye view of Yumiko surrounded by London’s varied denizens. Yumiko exultantly proclaims “And somehow I managed to create my own little space too.” This is the familiar claim of any immigrant who has done good. But there’s a price to pay for her successful assimilation. Whenever she spots her compatriots on those crowded streets, Yumiko subconsciously recoils from their presence. It takes her boyfriend innocently pointing this out for Yumiko to notice, and she becomes flustered at her own behavior. Soon enough, Yumiko is forced to confront her discomfort when a sudden death in the family forces her to return to her home country in this elegant and understated story about how hybrid cultural identity functions within a globalized framework.

These themes have been tackled before by Adrian Tomine and Gene Luen Yang. But there’s less interest in how racial discrimination divides mainstream society from immigrant communities which looms large with Obata’s American counterparts. Neither does he explore the politics of escaping from the repression of the old world found in Marjane Satrapi. Obata eschews those stark binaries. What is going on in his story is much more mundane and personal. At first glance, Yumiko has very little in the way of defining characteristics. Her ability to blend into her environment has made her fairly unremarkable. But as she performs her duties during the funeral service, her experience of reverse culture shock leads to some very subtle changes over the course of the book. She looks on with dismay at the many petty details of the ceremony she has to deal with, initially rejects the customs of a culture now alien to her, only to later reassess how her relationship with her separated parents contributed to her decision to study, then later work abroad. In the end, there are no overt changes or melodramatic conflicts. Just a quiet rapprochement with the country and family Yumiko had long believed she had long outgrown. In its interiority, JSH possesses a meditative autobiographical quality.

Just So Happens by Fumio Obata.

If the story sounds a little too thin, much of its emotional impact comes from the wonderful art which combines European-style illustration with Japanese aesthetics and subject matter. Obata’s meticulous ink lines are overlaid with luminous watercolor washes to produce an impressionistic effect. Once the story moves to Japan, the results are almost magical. The setting is rendered with a quiet dreamlike quality, particularly the abstract-looking mountainous landscapes. As much as Yumiko feels disconnected from her surroundings, it’s virtually impossible not to feel a little captivated by the country’s natural and architectural beauty. Obata does like to regularly pull away from his characters and view them from overhead. This transforms the ordinary urban settings they inhabit into a strange floating world.

Given that much of the story takes place inside Yumiko’s head, the most important character after her, not to mention its most prominent visual motif, is a masked Noh theater performer whose act she once witnessed during a summer festival. Drawn to the performer’s ability to balance stillness and dynamism, fierceness and control, Yumiko is haunted by its ghost when she returns to Japan. Her own detached sorrow during the funeral becomes mirrored by the anonymity of the performer’s mask, as well the slow, mournful and ambiguous gestures. The theater's restrained beauty and codified movements exquisitely captured by Obata are an expression of a search for a transcendental realm which subsumes the individual ego. As she struggles to separate her own desires from the conflicting advice offered by her mother and father on how to live her life, the performer invades her space, and she intermittently enters into the spiritual plane where she comes face-to-face with not just the performer, but her own previously unacknowledged emotional turmoil. These are the most intense scenes within the book, and Obata’s otherwise cool palette becomes warmer, harsher and more vivid.

And afterwards, Obata offers no grand theories or sweeping statements addressing the turmoil experienced by many transplants arising from their liminal status. Only simple observations perhaps drawn from his own life. These are lessons he finds best explored through the eclectic language of a visual artist.

Just So Happens by Fumio Obata.

Webcomic: Some Other Animal's Meat

Some Other Animal's Meat by Emily Carroll.


Star Wars: Shattered Empire

Story: Greg Rucka Art: Marco Chechetto, Angel Unzueta, Emilio Laiso, Phil Notto Colors: Andres Mossa Letters: Joe Caramagna  Star Wars created by George Lucas.
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Marco Chechetto, Angel Unzueta, Emilio Laiso, Phil Notto
Colors: Andres Mossa
Letters: Joe Caramagna

Star Wars created by George Lucas

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Shattered Empire is one of the media tie-ins to the The Force Awakens written by Greg Rucka covering the thirty year gap since the end of Return of the Jedi. While the four issue series does feature the main protagonists from the older film, its purpose is to set the stage for the events of TFA via the introduction of a few new characters who will never be seen or heard from again. Their personal connection to one of the film's cast members will be immediately recognizable to anyone who’s seen TFA . But as with most tie-ins, the revelation is more of an afterthought retrofitted into the timeline with no noticeable effect.

If the comic drives home one point, it’s that the conclusion of ROTJ didn’t spell the end of hostilities between the film’s two warring factions: The Empire and the Rebel Alliance. The story begins in media res with the final stages of the fateful Battle of Endor, but seen through the eyes of a young married couple. Shara Bey is a crack A-wing fighter pilot participating in the Rebel Alliance attack on the second Death Star, while Kes is one of the commandos led by Han Solo during the concurrent ground assault on its force field generator. They're reunited at the victory celebrations on Endor, and begin to look forward to civilian life and raising a family.

It's not long before those plans are put on hold. Now on the losing side of the intergalactic struggle and acting on posthumous orders from Emperor Palpatine, the scattered Imperial forces are nevertheless determined to make the Alliance pay dearly for every world they liberate. Shara and Kes are separated for such long stretches by their respective deployments that Shara begins to feel torn between her loyalty to the Alliance and her desire to lead a more peaceful existence. The comic arrives at a satisfactory solution to the couple's predicament in the end, while leaving the greater conflict between good and evil still very much in the air since this is something being addressed in the film.

Naturally, the story contains a number of continuity nods. The more obvious ones include a mission to wrest the planet Naboo from the Empire led by Leia Organa which acknowledges The Phantom Menace as officially still a part of the Star Wars canon. Then there’s a mission led by Luke Skywalker to retrieve a sacred Jedi object which references The Clone Wars and foreshadows his enigmatic role in TFA. These actions might still have repercussions in the upcoming films of the franchise or, as more likely the case, they could just be empty filler. But within the context of the comic alone, their plot threads are largely disconnected from one another. The more established characters Han, Leia and Luke et al, aren’t clearly fleshed-out, dependent largely on readers’ pre-existing emotional investment from watching the original Star Wars trilogy.

If there’s any reason to buy this comic, it’s the gorgeous Star Wars space battle porn. A few other artists get involved, and the resulting visual contrast in their styles can be jarring. But Marco Chechetto handles the bulk of the pages. His interpretation of faces can come across as a little too smooth and static, but he possesses a serious command of the futuristic technology, especially the franchise’s numerous spaceships. His action set pieces are densely packed without sacrificing legibility. And his art lends a certain grittiness that enhances the impression of a lived-in universe vital to the franchise. Colorist Andres Mossa holds things together with a subdued but eerily artificial palette that bathes the technology in fluorescent blues and the natural world in umbers and sepias. Overall, Chechetto and Mossa come closer to replicating the visual aesthetic of the film than any of the other artists presently working on the various Star Wars comic titles.