It’s ‘differently abled’ now: Review of Moon Knight #188-193

Regular readers of this weblog might have gathered from earlier posts that the two previous Moon Knight incarnations, the Ellis/Shalvey run and particularly the Lemire/Smallwood run, ought to be regarded as highlights of the superhero genre of this decade. Now that the first storyarc in the first six issues of the latest Moon Knight run (#188-193 in the annoying new “Legacy” numbering) has been completed, it’s time to ask: how does it hold up?

Language: English
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), Jacen Burrows (artist), Mat Lopes (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Publication Dates: November 2017 – March 2018
Pages per issue: 20-25
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

In the afterword to the first issue, artist Jacen Burrows says, “Moon Knight has been in a sort of creative renaissance since Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey relaunched the character in 2014, all the way through the amazing arc recently completed by Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood and company, and we hope to continue this by making the next important chapter in Marc Spector’s life thought-provoking, intense, a little scary, and a little funny.”

It’s reassuring to read that Bemis and Burrows decided to honour the – ahem – legacy of Moon Knight instead of wiping the slate once again, as some previous Moon Knight authors have done. The first issue (#188) is even entirely told from the perspective of Dr. Emmet, Marc Spector’s psychiatrist, a character created only recently by Lemire and Smallwood. Telling a story about a character from the perspective of his or her psychiatrist isn’t a new device. Neither is the introduction of an ‘evil twin’ sort of villain, a character similar to Moon Knight who is set up as his rival. However, combining these two devices to the effect that Moon Knight himself doesn’t directly appear in the whole first issue is quite a daring move.

The second issue (#189), however, introduces another villain, “The Truth”, who is chased and confronted by Moon Knight. The concept of Moon Knight’s split personality disorder (Marc Spector / Steven Grant / Jake Lockley) is expanded to the effect that he now, more deliberately than before, switches between his personalities so that he has e.g. Jake Lockley do all the dirty work. Jake is the personality that contains Moon Knight’s darkest, most violent and ruthless aspects, from which the other personalities are kept clean.

In #190, Jake and Marc have a conversation about this in his (their?) mind. Jake says, “Kid, you sliced me off your personality and sent me to live among freaks, addicts, and criminals. There are things you don’t want to know. […] Look. Steven is the wealthy benefactor. Khonshu is our connection to the bigger picture. You’re the voice of reason. And I deal with the grimy leftovers. You built us this way.” Just how great the divide between these personalities is becomes clear later in this third issue, when Marc visits his ex-girlfriend Marlene and finds out that, unbeknownst to him, as it were, she had been dating Jake instead after having split up with Marc.

Khonshu does a lot of talking too, as he is the narrator for most of this story. In #191, he dispenses a peculiar theological lecture to Moon Knight in which he suggests that the Lovecraftian Old Ones, the Judeo-Christian God, and Ancient Egyptian Ra (father of Khonshu) are one and the same. However, as always, we can’t be sure whether Khonshu is really a supernatural individual or just another aspect of Moon Knight’s twisted mind.

Meanwhile, the other supervillain, who calls himself Ra because he believes he’s the avatar of this Egyptian god, has teamed up with The Truth and lured Moon Knight on a remote island. In the final issue of this storyarc (#193), Moon Knight and Ra fight. It’s not a very fair fight because Ra is a pyrokinetic, whereas Moon Knight doesn’t have any superpowers. Or so one might have thought, but then Steven Grant figures it all out: “Khonhsu. Are you saying […] if Sun King’s [i.e. Ra’s] belief is a part of him, and in some weird metatextual way relates to his abilities, that, in a way, Marc has powers of his own?”

Some weird metatextual way indeed. The power which Moon Knight’s delusion grants him is only his near-superhuman tenacity (“the power of crazy”), but doesn’t that also mean Ra got his pyrokinetic ability because he became mentally ill? More precisely, ironically it was Dr. Emmet who gave him ideas about Egyptian mythology and thus unintentionally awakened his superpower. Quite a problematic plot point, but then again, this is the Marvel Universe, where people acquire supernatural abilities through gamma rays and the like, so why not through the sheer power of imagination…

So the writing is a mixed bag of good and not so good ideas. As for the art, it’s more than solid, even beautiful. Jacen Burrows’s style is perhaps best compared to Frank Quitely’s, with its thin clear outlines and little shading. However, while there are many clever compositions and layouts to be found here, Burrows’s art lacks the groundbreaking creative force and the eagerness to experiment for which his predecessors on the title, Smallwood and Shalvey, will be remembered. An unfair comparison, perhaps, but unavoidable. Nevertheless, I’m looking forward to finding out where Bemis and Burrows are going to take Moon Knight – this still has the potential to turn into another historic run.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

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Judith Butler’s gender performativity – in comics?

Judith Butler’s article “Performative Acts of Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory” from 1988 (Theatre Journal 40.4, pp. 519-531) is, of course, a classic. But when it gets reduced to the buzzword of ‘gender performativity’, there’s a danger of missing all the implications of this concept, so it’s still worth reading the original article. Building primarily on Simone de Beauvoir and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Butler’s basis in this essay is the sex/gender distinction: a gender isn’t something one is born with – it is constituted during one’s lifetime. Furthermore, Butler says, the gender binary (the idea that there are exactly two genders, male and female) is likewise artificial. As is the prevalent “system of compulsory heterosexuality” in which “‘attraction’ to the opposing sex/gender” is seen as “natural”. (The term ‘heteronormativity’ isn’t used by Butler yet.)

Butler’s groundbreaking idea is that, as the title already says, gender is consituted through acts of performance. What is a performative act? Butler doesn’t explicitly define that, but hints at a wide range of possibilities: “acts, gestures, the visual body, the clothed body, the various physical attributes usually associated with gender”. Her only example is a “transvestite” who is not further described. This transvestite challenges the binary male/female distinction by combining traditionally female clothes with physical features usually seen as male, or vice versa.

This seems to be a crucial point that often gets overlooked: performative acts aren’t only ways of speaking, dressing and moving, but “the gendered body acts its part in a culturally restricted corporeal space”. While these corporeal restrictions can be overcome to some extent through clothes, make-up and surgery, it’s important to always consider physical attributes as potential acts of gender constitution. Comics might be interesting objects to analyse from this perspective because they’re good at rendering visual performance acts but not so great at depicting movement or sound (e.g. the tone of one’s voice – though this can be used for humorous effect, as I’ve noted here).

Frank Miller’s comics have frequently been accused of misogyny and sexism, but his Rōnin (DC, 1983-84, colours by Lynn Varley) has been lauded for a strong female main character, Casey McKenna. Casey isn’t exactly a feminist role model either, but that’s not the point here – let’s look at how her gender is performed.

As head of security of a futuristic corporation, Casey wears a gender-neutral uniform that isn’t much different from those of her male subordinates. (At least for most of the first half of the comic – things get weird after that, including her clothes.) It isn’t so tight as to reveal much of her physical features as female either. Only when she stands next to them, the shape of her body appears female, with a waist-to-hip ratio usually associated with women, and the subtle curve of her chest. The pose she strikes, hip slightly thrust, might also be read as female. Her face is a combination of traditionally male (bushy eyebrows) and female (long eyelashes) features; others such as the angular jaw and full lips are more of a stylistic peculiarity of Miller’s applied to male and female characters alike. Thus Casey’s gender is indeed somewhat complex. It needs to be, if 1980s superhero comic readers were to accept her as both tough (a traditionally male trait) and sexy (traditionally female).

The gender of two other characters in Rōnin is interesting because they are not human (three if we count the rōnin himself, but… it’s complicated; if you’ve read the comic you’ll have noticed I’m trying to avoid spoilers this time): the demon Agat, and the Artificial Intelligence Virgo. Agat’s ‘natural’ form is roughly human, but without genitals. His (Agat is referred to with male pronouns) overly muscular, broad-shouldered body can be read as male though, and consequently he later assumes the form and identity of male human character.

Virgo, on the other hand – referred to with female pronouns and even jokingly called a “lady” (and, later, a “bitch”) – is “the sentient computer who commands every function of [the corporate complex,] Aquarius”. She interacts with people both through voice alone and through an audiovisual screen signal on which a blurred, ‘scanlined’ head of a maybe elderly, perhaps female person is visible, possibly wearing earrings. This character is reminiscent of the AI “Mother” in the film Alien (released only four years before Rōnin), but it’s unclear whether Virgo was programmed by humans to look that way – as a powerful and wilful AI, she might have chosen her screen persona herself.

All that being said, we haven’t even talked about the characters’ words and actions as performative acts yet. A scene highly relevant to this matter, for example, is at the end of the comic when Casey accuses the rōnin of unmanly behaviour. But I’ll leave this analysis to others.

Butler’s concept of gender performativity doesn’t explain everything about gender and sexuality, but reading comics with her theory in mind helps us to ask important questions in this context: which characters can be identified as male, female, or something else? (And which can’t?) On which criteria (i.e. performative acts) are these identifications based? Do these acts conform to a traditional gender attribution in a character or are they conflicting? Is the gender attribution of a character stable or does it change in the course of a story? Is all this likely to be the creators’ intention, or a product of their subconscious, or a reading “against the grain”? If the gender configuration in a comic is presumably intentional, what is its function in the story? And is Frank Miller really a sexist?

Index to all “[theory] – in comics?” posts on this weblog


The best manga of 2016? Review of Yotsuba&! and Kimi ni todoke

2016? Yes, that’s right, we’re still not finished with that year. This time we’re going to look at some ‘problematic’ middle volumes of long-running manga series: how come first volumes and, on rare occasions, final volumes get all the media attention while all the volumes in between get none? If I remember correctly, Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! vol. 13 was included on only one best-of-2016 list and consequently didn’t make the master list, while Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni todoke volumes 23 and 24 were not nominated at all but ranked among the best-selling shōjo manga of 2015 in Japan. Wouldn’t it be possible for a manga series to start out strong and then get even better in the course of the series, as its creator ‘finds his/her groove’?

Of course, this kind of progress is a rare thing. Most manga series are on a more or less steady downward slope, their creators eventually running out of ideas but still milking the proverbial cow until the readers’ loyalty is exhausted and the series cancelled. Another reason for ignoring middle volumes is that reviews of them work differently regarding their purpose as reading recommendations; typically, potential readers want to know whether the first volume is worth reading, and when they read it they make up their own minds about proceeding to the next volume. Still, some middle volumes stand out from the rest, some are good jumping-on points, and some are nothing special but keep up the high quality of a series and are simply better than most other manga volumes of the year, and consequently deserve a spot on a best-of list. So let’s talk more about middle volumes.

Yotsuba&! (よつばと!) vol. 13
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kiyohiko Azuma
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 13 so far
Pages: ~220
Price: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/yotsuba/1836/yotsuba-band-13 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2916-3

Previously in Yotsuba&!: Yotsuba is a five year old girl living with her single father.

Some people say each Yotsuba&! chapter is self-contained and they can be read in any order, but then you would lose track of the ever-growing cast (the neighbours’ daughters, their respective friends, and so on) and not get the references to earlier episodes, such as the camping trip in the previous volume.

This 13th volume is remarkable due to several unusual things:

  • There’s one episode that isn’t primarily humoristic in tone, as Yotsuba wakes up at night, doesn’t find her father sleeping next to her and wanders around scared in the dark and slightly creepy house.
  • Yotsuba’s grandmother is introduced, the only character (besides Yotsuba’s father’s friend Yanda) who isn’t overly friendly to her. It’s Yotsuba’s father’s mother, of course, as Yotsuba’s biological ancestry remains a mystery.
  • In the last episode, Yotsuba and her father have a make-believe swordfight, but the imaginary weapons are visualised for the readers to see.
  • A seemingly insignificant scene is referenced much later: in the beginning of the volume, a little bird hops towards Yotsuba on the street as if to greet her, and several chapters later, Yotsuba sees it again when she is with her grandmother who teaches her bird names.
  • The vignettes at the end of each chapter sometimes add twists to the respective episode, as in the first one of this volume: in the beginning of the chapter, Yotsuba gives a stick from her camping trip to the neighbors’ girl Asagi who doesn’t know what to do with it, but in the closing vignette, she has hung it on the wall as a decorative sort of key holder.

Overall, this is an above-average volume in an above-average series. On this level, the release of every new volume should be given attention.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Kimi ni todoke (君に届け) vol. 24
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 27 so far in Germany, 29 in Japan (ends with vol. 30 in March)
Pages: ~175
Price: € 6.95
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/nah-bei-dir-kimi-ni-todoke/1523/nah-bei-dir-kimi-ni-todoke-band-24 (German)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-2325-3

Previously in Kimi ni todoke: Sawako and her best friends Yano and Yoshida have at last found boyfriends, but as they enter their final year of high school, the threat of separation due to different university and career choices looms over all of them.

The last two volumes focused on Yano and Yoshida, but in vol. 24 we’re more or less back on track as the actual protagonist Sawako is once more at the center of the story. Sawako realises she wants to go away for university, but she is afraid of admitting that to her boyfriend. And that is, basically, what happens in this volume.

When re-reading the entire series up to this volume, I was surprised how fast-paced the first 2-3 volumes seem, and how glacial the pace has become now. As noted before, Karuho Shiina largely avoids the danger of repetition inherent in a ‘talking heads’ type of story by employing ever-changing page layouts. On the other hand, sometimes the character proportions are still slightly off, and I can’t help but feel that a little sloppiness has crept into the art. As strong as the manga series is overall, at this point it has been manoeuvred into somewhat of a trough, and it remains to be seen if it rebounds for the final six volumes.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Review, Jirō Taniguchi memorial edition: Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth

Jirō Taniguchi passed away on this day last year. Here’s another review of one of his lesser-known manga which was published already 30 years ago in Japan but only last year in Germany.

Ice Age Chronicle of the Earth (地球氷解事紀 / Chikyū hyōkai jiki)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Schreiber & Leser (originally Futabasha)
Year: 2017 (original run 1987-91)
Number of volumes: 2
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages: 270
Price: € 16,95
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=44314
ISBN: 978-3-946337-05-8

For readers who only know Taniguchi from his later works such as A Distant Neighborhood, it may come as a suprise that not long before that he created a straightforward science fiction (or ‘science fantasy’) manga. Chronicle is set in a future in which Earth is gripped by a new ice age. Takeru is the young manager of an arctic mining outpost, and when the climate suddenly gets even harsher and the mining facility is about to break down, and all aircraft to and from the mine have either crashed or been ambushed by pirates, he decides to lead a small team on ground vehicles south to seek help.

Near the end of this first volume there is some supernatural mumbo-jumbo about an ancient prophecy and aliens that are revered as gods by the native tribesmen, but until then, Chronicle is almost pure ‘hard science fiction’ with impressive, detailed depictions of the mine, machinery, and vehicles. Considering the time it was serialised, it’s impossible not to compare this manga to Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira (1982-90). Like Ōtomo, Taniguchi placed relatively cartoonish figures – sometimes almost caricatures – on minutely drawn backgrounds, and occasionally he zoomed in on his characters to portray them in marvelous naturalistic detail.

The main difference between the two is their storytelling: Taniguchi seems to have aimed for a conventional adventure story, but threadbare plot devices such as a shaman’s prophecy fail to create much suspense. Perhaps the unorthodox, erratic plot structures of Taniguchi’s later masterpieces such as Chichi no koyomi or The Walking Man were his true forte. Strictly visually, however, Chronicle may well be Taniguchi’s most accomplished work.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Exhibition review: Craving for New Pictures, Berlin

Whenever there’s an exhibition with a (sub)title like “From Broadsheet to Comic Strip”, the question for the comic aficionado is: how much comics is there really? As a history museum, the aim of the Deutsches Historisches Museum (DHM) is to show how printed pictures changed the way ideas are communicated (with a focus on sensational news, propaganda, and education, the three sections in which the exhibition is organised). Thus the exhibits span from late medieval woodcuts to present day political cartoons, and such a wide time frame leaves little room for comics, of course. (There’s also a marked but neither exclusive nor explicit emphasis on Germany.)

Still, some items on display are noteworthy in this context. The earliest are broadsheet picture stories from the mid-nineteenth century – maybe not quite comics yet, but see Andreas Platthaus’s analysis of one of them in his opening speech which was also published in English.

Next to them we have a small section of early American newspaper comic strips (shown as facsimiles), and within it there’s the highlight of the whole show: two Katzenjammer Kids episodes, translated into German and published in Lustige Blätter des Morgen-Journals in 1905 and 1908 (!), respectively. Not quite as early but still remarkable is a German collected book edition of Felix the Cat from 1927.

Famous but seldom exhibited is Pablo Picasso’s two-part etching, Sueño y mentira de Franco (1937), also mentioned by Platthaus.

At the end of the education section there are three examples of the best-selling comic magazines in postwar Germany: Micky Maus #1 (a copy of the valuable original magazine is on display), Fix und Foxi from 1956 (original drawings by Werner Hierl plus published pages) and part of a 1974 Digedags story from Mosaik (drawings + published pages). As interesting as these comics may be, though, I find it hard to see the connection between them and the overall exhibition topic.

That being said, it’s still an exhibition worth visiting if your interest is not limited to comics alone, because there are many fascinating non-comic prints to see. Furthermore, the DHM currently also hosts the excellent and much larger show, 1917. Revolution. Russia and Europe, so your overall museum visiting experience might be better than my rating below suggests.

Craving for New Pictures: From Broadsheet to Comic Strip at Deutsches Historisches Museum, Berlin, is still open until the 8th April 2018.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Upcoming talk: Has Akira always been a cyberpunk comic?

In less than a month, I’m going to participate in a panel on cyberpunk comics at Michigan State University Comics Forum. Here’s the abstract for my paper, which is closely connected to my PhD research:

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, interest in the cyberpunk genre peaked in the Western world, perhaps most evidently when Terminator 2: Judgment Day became the highest-grossing film of 1991. It has been argued that the translation of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s manga Akira into several European languages at just that time (from 1988 in English, from 1991 in French, German, Italian and Spanish) was no coincidence. In hindsight, cyberpunk tropes are easily identified in Akira to the extent that it is nowadays widely regarded as a classic cyberpunk comic. But has this always been the case? When Akira was first published in America and Europe, did readers see it as part of a wave of cyberpunk fiction? Did they draw the connections to previous works of the cyberpunk genre across different media that today seem obvious? In this paper, magazine reviews of Akira in English and German from the time when it first came out in these languages are analysed in order to gauge the past readers’ genre awareness. The attribution of the cyberpunk label to Akira competed with others such as the post-apocalyptic, or science fiction in general. Alternatively, Akira was sometimes regarded as an exceptional, novel work that transcended genre boundaries. In contrast, reviewers of the Akira anime adaptation, which was released at roughly the same time as the manga in the West (1989 in Germany and the United States), more readily drew comparisons to other cyberpunk films such as Blade Runner.


The best comics of 2017: a meta list

[UPDATE: added 9 more lists – Hollywood Reporter, Comicbook.com, AiPT, ComFor, Comicgate, Comic Report, Unwinnable, 2× WWAC, plus some comments below.]

[UPDATE: added 8 more lists – ANN, The Beat, CBC, Entertainment Weekly, Major Spoilers, PW Graphic Novel Critics Poll, Tanuki Bridge, The Verge; arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]

Another year draws to its close, and that means: best-of lists! Once more I’ve compiled all the comics lists I found online into one ‘master list’. This time I’ve only applied my own ‘weighted’ method that takes into account the rank of a title on each list by assigning points from 1 to 30 (see last year’s list for a more detailed explanation), but I have included the number of lists on which a title is found in brackets for fans of the ‘traditional’ method (and used this number to break ties). Sources are indicated at the bottom of this blogpost. Please note that this post will probably be updated a couple of times as new lists are published.

THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2017:

  1. My Favorite Thing Is Monsters by Emil Ferris (335 points / 19 lists)
  2. My Lesbian Experience With Loneliness by Nagata Kabi (210 / 10)
  3. The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui (197 / 12)
  4. Boundless by Jillian Tamaki (178 / 10)
  5. Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (152 / 8) ⇧
  6. Spinning by Tillie Walden (151 / 8) ⇩
  7. Batman by Tom King et al. (119 / 7) ⇧
  8. S’enfuir. Récit d’un otage by Guy Delisle (117 / 8) ⇩
  9. Black Hammer by Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormston (116 / 6) ⇩
  10. You & A Bike & A Road by Eleanor Davis (112 / 6) ⇧
  11. Shade The Changing Girl by Cecil Castellucci et al. (104 / 8)
  12. Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino (95 / 4)
  13. Paper Girls by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang (90 / 4) ⇧
  14. Everyone’s a Aliebn When Ur a Aliebn Too by Jomny Sun (88 / 5) ⇧
  15. The Mighty Thor by Jason Aaron et al. (88 / 4) ⇩
  16. Coquelicots d’Irak by Brigitte Findakly and Lewis Trondheim (79 / 4) ⇧
  17. My Brother’s Husband by Gengoroh Tagame (75 / 5) ⇧
  18. Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka et al. (71 / 5) ⇩
  19. Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell (63 / 4) ⇩, tied with
    Siúil, a Rún by Nagabe (63 / 4) ⇩
  20. Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero by Michael DeForge (63 / 5) ⇧
  21. Golden Kamuy by Satoru Noda (60 / 3) ⇩
  22. Black Bolt by Saladin Ahmed and Christian Ward (59 / 3) ⇩, tied with
    Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples (59 / 3) ⇧
  23. Le Rapport de Brodeck by Manu Larcenet (59 / 2) ⇧

Two observations from further down the list:

  • It doesn’t seem to have been a particularly great year for (the international recognition of) German comics – the only one in the top 50 is Nick Cave by Reinhard Kleist (45 points / 3 lists) at #37. Part of the problem is that it takes so long for some German comics to be translated into English; if e.g. Ulli Lust’s Flughunde / Voices in the Dark would have come out in the same year in both English and German instead of 4 years later, it would have ranked much higher. The same is true for French and Japanese comics, of course.
  • Speaking of Japanese comics: with only 4 of them in the top 25, there’s still a clear divide in comics readership. Manga on lower ranks include Yakusoku no Neverland / The Promised Neverland by Kaiu Shirai and Posuka Demizu (50 / 2) at #33, and Fumetsu no anata e / To Your Eternity by Yoshitoki Ōima (49 / 2) at #34.

The following lists were evaluated: Adventures in Poor Taste, Amazon.com, Anime News Network, A.V. Club, Barnes & Noble (“new manga”, “comics”), The Beat (multiple mentions only), CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comicbook.com, Comicgate (German), Comic Report (German, multiple mentions only), Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, Goodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), Guardian, The Hollywood Reporter, io9, Kono manga ga sugoi (English translation – male, female), Major Spoilers Podcast, NPR, Paste (kids), Publishers Weekly (Critics Poll), School Library Journal, Syfy Wire (ongoing), Tagesspiegel (German), Tanuki Bridge, Unwinnable, The Verge, Vulture, Washington Post, Women Write About Comics (big press, small press).