More NonSense: The Best Of 2016

Andrew Aydin, John Lewis and Nate Powell
Andrew Aydin, John Lewis and Nate Powell (via National Book Foundation)
March Book 3 is the first graphic novel to win the National Book Award.

Amazon lists the top 20 graphic novels for 2016.

Michael Cavna lists the best graphic novels of 2016.

Charlotte McDuffie on her late husband Dwayne McDuffie and the awards established in his memory.

Sacha Mardou on the female characters created by Dan Clowes.

 Zulkiflee Anwar Unlhaque aka Zunar arrested again, this time for sedition against Malaysian Prime Minister.

Alanna Bennett on the growing divide between Harry Potter fans and their beloved franchise. Perhaps the most infamous recent example was the charge of cultural appropriation over J.K. Rowling's History of Magic in North America.

But not everyone is agitating for greater inclusiveness. Angelica Jade Bastién covers the growing racist backlash from some parts of superhero fandom. Both trends could probably be connected to a larger national conversation. But I wonder what this says about how franchises are created at different points in time and how different kinds of individuals end up gravitating towards them?

Alex Vadukul on Hong Kong's first female kung fu star, Angela Mao. Most people will recognize her as Su Lin in Enter the Dragon.

Erin Gloria Ryan on the surging demand for self-defence classes since Nov 8. These types of articles are usually written when people worry about a perceived increase in violent crime or terrorism while focusing on male students and instructors. But marginalized individuals such as women, minorities, and the LGBTQ community have always had their own specific self defence needs.

Sean Kleefeld, Tyler Amato, John Seavey, myself are ready to say goodbye to 2016.


50th Trek: Redshirts

In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I'm writing a series of posts discussing a favorite example of Star Trek related media.

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.

Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas By John Scalzi.
Redshirts: A Novel with Three Codas
By John Scalzi

One inescapable part of being a 21st century consumer of popular genre entertainment is the impossibility of ignoring any discussion about the multitude of tropes it generates. Televised science fiction is no exception in this regard. And Star Trek is often credited with inventing, or at the very least popularizing, many sci-fi tropes. As I pointed out in my look at The Physics of Star Trek, the venerable franchise has already generated a considerable amount of discussion from fans possessing differing academic credentials. But the most accessible way to examine the unreality of fiction is through the use of metafictional devices. Irony and self-reflection are the order of the day, especially when dealing with works that are already decades old. What’s the point anymore in denying that one isn’t watching or reading a work of fiction? Named after one of Trek’s most well known conventions, Redshirts begins very much the way most fans would probably expect. But in order to fill over 300 pages, author John Scalzi pushes the conceit to its logical extreme.

That conceit was already touched on in the 1999 comedy Galaxy Quest. In the film, the cast of an old sci-fi show are made to reprise their roles for the benefit of a group of naive aliens who've confused the show for footage of real events. As a result actor Guy Fleegman (played by Sam Rockwell) is filled with fear that he will die at any moment because his role on the show was a redshirt - a random crewmember who looses his life in one episode. Guy’s terror mounts with every dangerous situation they face until he’s eventually convinced by one of the cast regulars that he could be instead playing the plucky comic relief. He undergoes a quick personal transformation, especially after someone else dies dramatically in his place.

In the novel, a group of ensigns working for the intergalactic organization named the Universal Union (affectionately called the Dub U) have just been assigned to the starship Intrepid. The ensigns treat this like any other assignment until they all realize they’re replacing dead crewmembers. In fact, the Intrepid has a notoriously high turnover rate because crewmembers keep getting killed on every away mission. Even odder, every mission is composed of at least one bridge officer. While they might occasionally endure bodily injury, they’re apparently immune to death. The bridge officers are entirely oblivious to this oddity even when it's pointed out to them. But the rest of the crew lives in a state of constant terror, just like Guy. They make themselves scarce whenever one of the officers are nearby. And they’ve developed a bizarre set of superstitious behaviors designed to minimize the body count, based on which officer they’re accompanying on a mission.

If this was the full extent of the novel, it would be nothing more than a clever parody of a famous television show. But these redshirts refuse to be just glorified extras, they want to be the heroes of their own story. So they make a point of getting to the root cause of this enigma. And without giving away too much, they’re eventually confronted with the absurdly fictional nature of their own existence. Scalzi's redshirts are actually competent scientists, which makes their observations about the universe they live in all the more painfully ironic.

This draws attention to the paradox of Star Trek's appeal. Like many science fiction authors, Scalzi is pretty critical about how science is often portrayed on televised sci-fi. It’s rules are often inconsistent and continuosly altered to serve the narrative. The redshirts often give voice this analysis. A bridge officer who’s an obvious analog for Pavel Chekov is exposed to a life threatening disease, but is saved at the last moment by a literal magic box. He’s horribly mangled by killer robots, only to fully recover a few days later. When the redshirts debate about a possible method for time travel, they note that the only reason it could possibly work is if the procedure included one of the bridge officers. And they’re completely mystified by the sheer number of nonsensical deaths suffered by the Intrepid’s crewmembers: Longranian ice sharks, Borgovian land worms, Pornathic crabs. Weirdness piled upon weirdness.

Star Trek’s fanciful vision of space exploration looks more anachronistic today than it would have back in the 1960s. And yet the franchise is often cited as an inspiration that made actual space exploration a reality. The science might be iffy, but its optimistic view of the future proved to be enduring. Even Scalzi’s critique is made from a position of affection for the television show. His protagonists have an unfortunate tendency towards quippishness, but they’re an intelligent and mostly sympathetic bunch who work together just as well as any Starfleet crew. Enough so that when one of them dies, the demise comes across as wasteful.

Redshirts runs out of plot before the book ends. The last third of the book is a lengthy meditation on the nature of fiction and its connection to reality, written as 3 lengthy codas. Scalzi explores the intimate relationship between writers and their creations. The fear writers have that the characters they hurt and kill on the page are truly suffering somewhere out there is thematically similar to the 2006 film Stranger than Fiction. The codas are tonally dissonant and focus on a completely different set of characters, so that it’s best to think of them not as the conclusion to the main story, but as a separate, if related, body of work. Unnecessary perhaps, but one that rounds out Scalzi’s own metafictional examination. Overall, he took kind of an awfully crazy journey to get there.


Ether #1

Ether #1. Story: Matt Kindt Art: David Rubin Variant Cover: Jeff Lemire.
Story: Matt Kindt
Art: David Rubin
Variant Cover: Jeff Lemire

Coming on the heels of Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange movie, the completely unrelated Ether promises the reader yet another magical romp through a multiverse populated by odd beings and even odder technologies. This is exactly the kind of comic book series one would expect from author Matt Kindt, known for being the creator of the hyper intricate ur-conspiracy Mind MGMT and the ongoing undersea murder mystery Dept H. But the comic displays a lighthearted approach not usually found in his past works. This owes a lot to Kindt’s artistic collaborator David Rubin. It’s only during the last few pages that the comic transitions into something more recognizably like Kindt when the atmosphere becomes more oppressive and terrifying.

Rubin’s art resembles that of Rafael Grampá, and that quality of cartoonish exaggeration is essential to the comic’s world-building. The first alien encountered is a gruff, giant purple ape-like creature called Glum, the self-described gatekeeper to the alternate worlds of the multiverse. Other weird denizens include the Bloody Screecher, a bird resembling a canary that wears an unsettling, toothy grin. Or the Magic Bullet, a projectile that resembles an unborn fetus. While Rubin doesn’t spend nearly enough time exploring the streets of Agartha, the capital city of the magical world known as Ether, his bathing the setting in an otherworldly combination of vibrant ruby, emerald and cerulean hues is charming enough.

But the true oddball in this place is Earthling and main protagonist Boone Dias, who dresses like a more dashing Ghostbuster and whose personality could be described as a mix of Egon Spengler, Sherlock Holmes, and Indiana Jones. Boone discovered the Ether years ago and has since refashioned himself as the mighty explorer of an exotic new world. He’s apt to use adjectives like “beautiful” and “fascinating” when describing the wonders of the Ether. And like so many white males before him, he’s more than a little condescending towards the natives and what are to him their backward superstitions. Nonetheless, the rulers of Agartha admire his rigorous scientific mind, and he’s been often called upon by them to solve various crimes. Boone has even cultivated a rivalry with a would-be Moriarity figure whom he grandiosely describes as his most dangerous adversary.

And the Ether isn’t half as interesting as the opulent detail found in the comic’s twist ending. Rubin’s illustration of present-day Earth makes it into a dystopian nightmare. And even Boone himself reacts by seeming to shrink in stature. But the reader has only seen the world through his eyes. How much of his experience is real or imagined? Or the product of evil machinations of yet-unseen parties? Kindt has set up another twisted puzzle for us to untangle.


The Gods Lie

The Gods Lie (Kamisama ga Uso wo Tsuku), By Kaori Ozaki. Translation: Melissa Tanaka
Kamisama ga Uso wo Tsuku
By Kaori Ozaki
Translation: Melissa Tanaka

A complicated truth that every child eventually has to figure out is that all the adults they look up to are flawed individuals who will even betray their trust from time to time. It’s a painful lesson to learn, even within the most stable and supportive family environment. But the main protagonists of The Gods Lie are brought together by similar personal loss, which renders the lesson all the more heartwrenching during the latter half of the book. It’s a heady mix of budding romance, death, and abandonment, compressed into an intimate domestic drama that takes place over the course of one summer. But Kaori Ozaki uses a delicate touch that preserves the essential sweetness of her characters.

The two youngsters at the center of the story start out as typical manga archetypes. 6th grader Natsuru Nanao loves soccer. But he hasn’t yet learned to comport himself around girls, and they’ve in turn mostly snubbed him. But he takes notice of reserved tall girl Rio Suzumura. The two strike up a friendship when Natsuru asks her to adopt an abandoned kitten he found under a bridge, since he's unable to keep it. Rio and her younger brother Yuuta live alone and unsupervised in a rickety old house because their father apparently spends long stretches in the Pacific Northwest as a commercial fisherman. This strikes a chord with Natsuru, since he’s being currently raised as an only child by an overworked single mother.

Matters come to a head when Natsuru’s beloved coach is hospitalized and he finds himself clashing with the new coach’s diametrically different teaching style. When summer break arrives, he lies to his mom and ditches soccer camp. With nowhere else to go, he ends up moving into Rio and Yuuta's house. Now, manga readers will recognize some of the tropes of this living arrangement. There are the awkwardly intimate sleeping situations, Japanese bathing humor, learning how to socialize at the dining table. There’s even scenes involving the requisite summer festival and visit to the beach. On the surface, Ozaki’s own controlled linework doesn't vary much from the conventional seinen style.

However, these elements aren’t exploited to generate the usual silly misunderstandings found in much commercial manga. Both Rio and Natsuru approach playing house with the quiet earnestness of children struggling to find their place in the world. Both are able to find a sense of purpose in their lives by substituting for teach others absent parental figures. As they settle into their respective roles, a tranquility they’ve been desperately craving descends on the household. It isn’t long before both feel something approaching love.

Summer has to end eventually, and a series of unexpected revelations throws the makeshift family into turmoil. Rio and Natsuru’s house playing serves as a temporary respite from the actual complications adults face in daily life. Coming to terms with this messiness is an inevitable part of growing up. But as Rio and Natsuru also learn, so is keeping as much of the messiness at bay for the sake of protecting the happiness of the people under their care.


More NonSense: The Trump Effect

10 Cartoonists React to Trump Winning the Election: Kendra Wells
10 Cartoonists React to Trump Winning the Election: Kendra Wells
The 2016 U.S. Election was an unmitigated disaster. That nation's two major political parties fielded two deeply unpopular candidates, and ironically the less popular of the two still won due to a longstanding institution called the Electoral College. It's the 2000 Election revisited, so signs don't point to the system being rigged against his party. Donald Trump's ascension is concerning for people around the world who still believe in democratic values, as it only cements an ongoing global trend of nominal democracies now controlled by intolerant authoritarian figures like the one I have to live with. So while the outcome was shocking for half the electorate, his rise was a very foreseeable event. But for the planet's sake, America's hallowed democratic institutions had better be more robust than they've so far proven to be this year.

On a note more pertinent to this blog, Trump's presidency will most probably have a chilling effect on intellectual enquiry and creative expression, especially in the already fragile comics industry. Here's more commentary from Sean Kleefeld, Tom Spurgeon, Heidi MacDonald, Tim Holder, Humberto Ramos, ComicsAlliance,

Did you know that Peter Kuper drew a comic predicting the Donald Trump Wall for Heavy Metal Magazine in the July 1990 issue?

Seth T. Hahne lists the 75 Best Comics by Women.

J. Scott Campbell redraws Riri Williams, after dismissing the negative reactions towards his original cover illustration for Invincible Iron Man.

R.I.P. Leonard Cohen (September 21, 1934 – November 7, 2016).


More Nonsense: Ms. Marvel Will Save You Now

Three Marvel interpretations of Kamala Khan surround fan Meevers Desu as Ms. Marvel at the Denver Comic Con. By Sean McCabe.
Three Marvel interpretations of Kamala Khan surround fan Meevers Desu as Ms. Marvel at the Denver Comic Con.
Mallika Rao on why Ms. Marvel Will Save You Now.

Barbara Calderón interviews Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez.

Sean T. Collins lists the greatest graphic novels of all time.

Heidi MacDonald on the contradiction that is Wonder Woman as a U.N. Honorary Ambassador.

R.I.P. Jack Chick (April 13, 1924-October 23, 2016). Tributes by Benito CerenoSean Kleefeld, Heidi MacDonald, Joe McCulloch,

Just a reminder: Scott Adams is nuts.

Charles Russo deciphers Bruce Lee vs. Wong Jack Man.

Lucasfilm sues New York Jedi over trademark infringement. I've been wandering when Lucas/Disney would go after any of the numerous lightsaber academies.