I don’t like horror comics. But to get into the Halloween spirit, here are some short reviews of more or less recent mystery/thriller manga:
Limit (リミット / Rimitto)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Keiko Suenobu
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2012-2013 (original run 2009-2011)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3
Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Contrary to popular belief, Japan isn’t actually overpopulated. The Japanese population is just very unevenly distributed: outside of the crowded metropolitan areas, there are vast wildernesses. This fact is what makes the story of Limit credible. On its way to a summer camp, a bus with schoolchildren crashes in a forest. Only a handful of them survives the crash, and now they have to endure until help arrives. Which takes days.
In this Lord of the Flies scenario, the greatest challenge for the schoolchildren is not to survive in the wilderness, but to get along with each other. One of the girls in particular who was always bullied in school before now sees the opportunity to take revenge. Through occasional flashbacks to their lives before the bus accident, all of the survivors are well characterised, making for a suspenseful read.
Scariest moment in vol. 3: when they find the dead body of one the girls. Somehow I hadn’t seen this coming.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Knights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2010-today (original run 2009-2015)
Number of volumes: 12 so far (14 in Japan)
Volumes reviewed: 1-12
Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 7.50
Knights of Sidonia, which I’ve mentioned before here, is a weird mix of genres: mecha sci-fi action, harem slapstick comedy… and also space horror and body horror. It takes some time to get used to this, particularly if you’re familiar with Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier, more homogeneous manga, but now, as the series approaches its end, it’s beginning to make sense.
The story revolves around humans in mechas and spaceships fighting against an alien race called gauna. At first, both sides look very different: humans with their angular high-tech machinery on the one hand, the biomorphic gauna on the other. But the lines become blurred when humans build mecha/gauna hybrids and the shapeshifting gauna start imitating mecha pilots.
Scariest moment in vol. 12: when a gauna engulfs an entire mecha – apparently without killing the pilot…
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Kirihito (きりひと讃歌 / Kirihito sanka)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Shōgakukan)
Years: 2009-2010 (original run 1970-1971)
Number of volumes: 3
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~270
Price per volume: € 16.90
This one is a bit older, but it has only relatively recently been published in English (2006) and German (2009). Kirihito is a medical thriller about a mysterious disease that turns people into dog-like creatures. A young doctor, the eponymous Kirihito, is sent to a remote village where this disease has broken out in order to investigate and find a cure – or so he thinks. He soon learns the hard way that the disease is infectious indeed.
The pacing is off, the story has its issues (e.g. the problematic portrayal of women) and drags on for too long (even though this is only the first of three volumes) – but the art is vastly superior to that of most living mangaka. Although you could argue that his cartoonish style would be more suitable for a humorous story, the sheer amount of Tezuka’s daring design ideas is astonishing.
Scariest moment in vol. 1: towards the end of the volume when Izumi, Kirihito’s fiancée, finds out that her own parents are not quite free from blame for Kirihito’s disappearance.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Most of the texts examined in my “[theory] – in comics” series of blog posts stand well on their own. With Hal Foster, however, I feel that he has more to say about postmodernism than what he does say in “Postmodernism: A Preface”. So I decided to simply introduce another one of his texts here and see how it can be applied to comics: “(Post)Modern Polemics”, an essay contained in Foster’s collection Recodings from 1985.
From a scholarly perspective, “(Post)Modern Polemics” still isn’t the essay one would hope for – Foster conjures his statements out of thin air, rather than grounding them on either theory or proper empirical observations. Nevertheless, it’s an interesting opinion from an art critic who was paying close attention to what was going on in the art scene at the time. In his essay, Foster proposes a dichotomy between two concepts of postmodernism, “neoconservative postmodernism” and “poststructuralist postmodernism”. In this regard, the essay is similar to “Postmodernism: A Preface” in which Foster also proposes a postmodernist dichotomy (‘postmodernism of reaction’ and ‘postmodernism of resistance’). It should be noted, though, that Foster doesn’t claim that all contemporary art falls into one or the other of these two categories. Thus there are four possibilities for any given work of art from the mid-1980s or later: it might be neoconservative postmodernist, poststructuralist postmodernist, some other kind of postmodernist, or not postmodernist at all.
Neoconservative postmodernist art is characterised by “eclectic historicism”, “elitist allusions”, “ahistory” (i.e. it “denies historicity”), an “affirmative” stance, narratives of “masterworks” and “seminal artists”, “fragmentation”/”dampening out of connections”/”entropy”, “patriarchalism” and “phallocentrism”. Poststructuralist postmodernist art, on the other hand, is the opposite. It “questions the truth content of visual representation”, is marked by “deconstruction” and “critique”, and is concerned with “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”.
Can we find some of these characteristics in contemporary comics? For instance, Grant Morrison’s Multiversity is not only one of the outstanding comics of 2014/15, it’s also a comic that looks and feels very “postmodern”, what with breaking the fourth wall and metatextual remarks on comic books. I’m going to look at The Multiversity #1 (pencilled by Ivan Reis, published October 2014) only here.
Several of Foster’s keywords are concerned with history. Although Multiversity is set in the present, with some futuristic elements, there are a few instances of the past – buildings such as the Brooklyn Bridge (p.1) from the 19th century, or the villain “Lord Broken” who looks like a historicist mansion. A Rubik’s Cube, one of the symbols of the 1980s, can be seen on p. 2 and will play a role in a later issue of the series. Then there are historical costumes: Mr. Stubbs, protagonist Nix Uotan’s monkey sidekick, is dressed like a pirate. Most strikingly, the superhero Crusader (modeled after Captain America) wears a medieval scale armour – or rather, one of these superhero costumes that look like a scale armour but appear less encumbering and more tightly fitting than a real scale armour would be. (In the same issue, Aquawoman wears a similar costume.) On his chest he wears a cross symbol similar to a Knights Templar cross. All of these historical elements seem to be instances of “historical eclecticism”: they all appear in the present alongside each other, and we don’t learn anything about the context from which they were taken. That being said, I’m not sure whether this makes the comic as a whole “ahistorical”, as there are only very few of these elements there at all.
What about patriarchalism and “phallocentrism”? Let me put it this way: the first four major characters in this story – Nix Uotan, Thunderer, Earth-23 Superman and Captain Carrot a.k.a. Rodney Rabbit – are all male. Then Harbinger, the artifical intelligence with a female face, briefly appears before letting the men take the stage again. Vice versa, let’s look at the female characters with a talking role, which you can count on the fingers of one hand: the landlady (talking on 3 panels), the President’s secretary (4 panels), Earth-23 Wonder Woman (2 panels), the aforementioned Harbinger (10 panels), and Aquawoman (5 panels) – five characters on 40 pages, and, except for Harbinger, not particularly glamourous ones at that. So Multiversity appears decidedly male-centric. I don’t think Foster means this to be a sufficient condition for neoconservative postmodernism, though.
“Elitist allusions”? Most of the characters in this comic have previously appeared in some obscure other comics, and it takes an expert on DC comics (and Marvel as well) to recognise them all.
“Masterworks”? Grant Morrison refrains from dropping his own name or otherwise inserting himself as the “master artist” in the story, but the beginning does invoke a kind of masterwork narrative: it is about a “supposedly haunted comic from DC” (Morrison’s own The Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1, published a few months later) which Nix Uotan is so excited about that he wants to review it “in the form of a live dissection”.
While there are definitely traces of neoconservative postmodernism in The Multiversity, I’m not so sure about poststructuralist postmodernist elements. Superficially, The Multiversity seems to “question the truth content of visual representation” (I think we can safely extend this to include textual representations) when we read the sequence of caption boxes (pp. 3-5): “Do we have your complete attention yet?” – “Whose voice is this speaking in your head anyway?” – “Yours?” – “Ours?” – “Stop reading.” – “Continue to read.” – “Do as we tell you.” – “The choice is yours.” This is a nice gimmick, but the questioning stops there. The rest of the comic does little to break the fourth wall; it is based on the fiction of visual representation in order to achieve a reading experience that might be engrossing but not actually immersive.
Neither is Multiversity a proper critique of comics or anything. Mr. Stubbs says things like “comic books can damage your health” and “d’ya think it’s normal to be reading the comics at your age, boss?” However, Mr. Stubbs is hardly a voice of authority, being not only a chimpanzee (i.e. not as intelligent as a human – even though he can talk) but also apparently a pirate from the 18th century with accordingly outdated opinions. Thus the reader gets the opposite message: comic books are healthy reading matter for adults.
What about “the interconnections of power and knowledge in social representations”? One thing Foster possibly means by this is that postmodernism dissolves the traditional union of artistic medium and content, i.e. the notion that a certain form of expression should represent only a certain subject matter and vice versa. Does Morrison say anything in The Multiversity that feels out of place, provocative, or outrageous for a superhero comic? You could argue that part of The Multiversity is about daring and relevant issues of race and power, too – a white proprietor collecting rent from a black tenant on one earth, a black man being both Superman and the US president on another – but in essence, it’s still a story about superheroes fighting supervillains. It’s not as if Morrison had hijacked a superhero comic book and turned it into a political pamphlet. The old paradigm of medium-specific decorum remains intact. (For a different take on The Multiversity and race, see “They Make Us Like Them: On Identity and Gentrification” by Kelly Kanayama at Women Write About Comics.)
To conclude, we have to be careful not to confuse “(Post)Modern Polemics” with a methodology that can be readily applied to comics (or any other work of art, for that matter). It’s not some test that tells us whether something is ‘postmodern’ or not. Reading a comic through Foster, however, makes us think about many different issues such as race, gender, power, identity, historicity and representation, and how they are connected to larger postmodernist ideas. Neoconservative or poststucturalist postmodernist ideas are at the bottom of many contemporary works, but rarely visible at the surface. If we have unearthed some neoconservative postmodernist notions that inform The Multiversity, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad comic, or Grant Morrison a bad person. Then again, Foster’s essay is titled “(Post)Modern Polemics” for a reason: perhaps he wants to encourage critics to take up a stance for once.
For some clever observations on The Multiversity #1, particularly regarding its backstory, see “The Multiversity Annotations, Part 1: This Review is in the Form of a Live Dissection” by David Uzumeri at Comics Alliance.
Last time at the Biennale, Robert Crumb’s Genesis was prominently exhibited, which was already a pleasant surprise from a comics perspective. But who would have thought there was going to be a comic specifically made for the Biennale (Francesc Ruiz’s, see below) this time?
As always, there are probably works of sequential art that I’ve missed, so the works featured here (click images to enlarge) are just an incomplete selection. All works are from 2015 unless indicated otherwise. The Venice Art Biennale still runs until November 22.
A surprisingly large number of papers on manga were presented at this year’s conference of the German Society for Comics Studies, which was held in Frankfurt last weekend. Unfortunately I couldn’t hear all of them (among the ones I’ve missed were Sven Günther’s paper on Thermae Romae and Sylvia Kesper-Biermann’s on Barefoot Gen), but here are brief summaries of the ones I did attend:
- Rik Spanjers spoke about Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths. In this classic manga set in the Pacific War (as well as in his other manga), Mizuki employs a distinctive art style in which cartoonish characters clash with photorealistic backgrounds. Spanjers explains this art style with Mizuki’s attempt to adequately represent the horrors of war. For instance, the opposition between these two distinct art styles mirrors the opposition between life and death in the story, etc.
- Marco Pellitteri presented results from a survey on the arrival and impact of manga in several European countries. He attributes the success of manga in Europe mainly to two circumstances: the adoption of the ‘authentic’ tankobon format for translated editions, and the simultaneous broadcasting of anime series on European television channels.
(Naturally, there is some overlap with my own PhD research, but also one major difference: when one tries to identify similarities and differences between so many different comic markets and within such a long time frame – 1970s to today –, the perspective is necessarily much wider, and the results coarser. Which doesn’t make it less valid, of course.)
- Lukas Sarvari introduced three manga drawn by Kazuo Kamimura: Shinanogawa (1973-74, written by Hideo Okazaki), Furious Love (Kyōjin kankei, 1973-74, written by Kamimura himself), and Lady Snowblood (Shurayuki-hime, 1972-73, written by Kazuo Koike). Each of them is set in a different period of Japanese history: Shōwa (1926-89), Edo/Tokugawa (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912), respectively. However, Sarvari’s hypothesis is that these manga tell us more about the time in which they were made than about the time in which their stories are set. Thus they convey views about the nihonjinron discourse, Japanese exceptionalism, and fascism that readers today might feel uneasy about.
- Christian Chappelow identified similar elements in two manga about Adolf Hitler: Hitler (Gekiga Hittorā, 1971) by Shigeru Mizuki and Adolf (Adorufu ni tsugu, 1983-85) by Osamu Tezuka. Both manga can’t really be regarded as anti-war stories and lack a critical stance against nationalism, militarism and fascism. Chappelow suspects that this is the reason why Mizuki’s Hitler hasn’t been translated into a European language yet.
Almost exactly four years ago, DC Comics cancelled all their monthly comic book series, just to relaunch most of them again as ‘The New 52’. I hesitate to call this a proper reboot, for reasons I have discussed here before. Anyway, now (in May/June) they have done the same thing once again, at last dropping the ‘New 52’ label: approximately half of the monthly series was cancelled, while the other half was renumbered to #1.
Several other weblogs have taken a look back at the 3 1/2 years of The New 52, among which I particularly recommend Steve Foxe’s “In Loving Memory: All 68 DC Comics That Have Come and Gone Within the New 52” at Paste. The general consensus seems to be that The New 52 was a bold marketing decision that may have made sense commercially, but in terms of the quality of the actual comics, not much really stood out.
If I get Foxe right, 93 ongoing series had been launched at some point during The New 52. Out of these, 25 have been relaunched and continued to the present day, while approximately 47 were cancelled already before this latest relaunch (i.e. after the ‘Convergence’ crossover event). The former consist of mainstays such as Batman and Action Comics, while among the latter we find mainly obscure oddities that were probably doomed from their very beginning, e.g. G.I. Combat or All-Star Western.
This leaves us with ~21 titles that sit in the middle, having made it to their 40th issue, but not being continued in this new iteration of the DC comics line. From a commercial perspective, these comic books seem to have ultimately failed too. But wasn’t there something in them that might be worth remembering? Didn’t all the effort that creators put into them amount to more than a mere footnote in the history of American superhero comics?
With this question in mind I re-read all 40 issues (plus Annuals and the like) of Justice League Dark, the only New 52 series I happened to have collected from start to finish. (More precisely, I started from #9, then got the first trade paperback and #7-8 later.) Instead of summarising the story, I picked the following 20 most memorable moments in Justice League Dark, in chronological order of publishing, to show that this series (and probably others with mediocre sales performances) might deserve a second look.
3. JLD #1 Generally, Peter Milligan’s version of the Justice League Dark was much darker than that of the writers that followed. Almost all of our ‘heroes’ are shown to have a dark side. Madame Xanadu, for instance – otherwise a rather bland character – is shown to be addicted to some kind of drug. “How much of this stuff are you doing?”, she is asked by Shade, holding a phial in his hand.
4. JLD #2 In the first few issues, Milligan needs to introduce a lot of characters, and he does a brilliant job of it when it comes to Deadman. Deadman is a ghost, and the only way he can touch and be touched is to possess a living person. Things get awkward when he wants to do that to sleep with his girlfriend, who is not so keen (“You’re asking me to sleep with another man”).
5. JLD #5 What all JLD writers emphasise is that the JLD is quite a fragile superhero team. Consequently, the first break-up of the JLD already happens in the fifth issue (and it’s not going to be the last). “I’m going, and I don’t ever want to see any of you again”, says Constantine.
6. JLD #8 John Constantine and his irreverent attitude has been the biggest draw of this book for me. Madame Xanadu: “My ‘project’ didn’t last as long as I’d hoped, but… but I truly believe… that is has been worthwhile.” – Constantine: “Worthwhile my jacksey. We might as well all have stayed home and got pissed.” (Jeff Lemire came up with some good Constantine one-liners too when he took over in #9 – Steve Trevor: “Around ARGUS we’ve even taken to nicknaming you the ‘Justice League Dark.'” – Constantine: “That is the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.”)
9. JLD #10 A trio of villains, the “Demons Three”, are introduced on a splash page. The way in which they are presented is charmingly old-school: facing the reader, delivering a short monologue, speaking in custom lettering. Throughout the series, beautifully designed villains are depicted in this way, most notably “Black Boris” and “Blackbriar Thorn” in #12, “Blight” in #27, and “The Between” in #32. This ‘Monster of the Week’ pattern, however, becomes tiresome at some point and brings us such underwhelming villains as “Pantheon”, “Pralayah”, and “The Beyond Beyond”.
11. JLD #0 Each New 52 series got a ‘Zero Issue’ in which the origin story was told (similar to the later Secret Origins series, but tied to comic books rather than individual characters). A charming detail of this one (still written by Jeff Lemire, but pencilled by Lee Garbett) is that we get to see how Constantine got his iconic trench coat.
12. JLD Annual #1 Lemire’s story is hopelessly convoluted, but it’s a nice twist when the villain, Nick Necro, tells Zatanna that it was him who formed the JLD in the first place, in order to get the Books of Magic. “You weren’t so hard to get on the team, Zee, but can you imagine how difficult it was to convince anyone to put John Constantine onto a super hero team? I tell you, getting out of hell was easier.” Maybe a(nother) metatextual stab at the concept of the whole series?
14. JLD #15 The JLD is teleported to some kind of magical counter-world in which the JLD members turn into their opposites: the immortal, ageless Madame Xanadu turns into an old woman, Deadman becomes alive again, and Constantine can’t tell lies anymore. The latter aspect becomes relevant for the overall story arc when we learn that Constantine’s feelings for Zatanna are apparently true.
15. JLD #24 J. M. DeMatteis takes over as the new JLD writer, and he takes Constantine on a “Magical Misery Tour” on which he confronts his inner (?) demons. A well-written exploration of Constantine’s character – although one could argue it’s a little out of place in a team book.
17. JLD #27 In order to defeat the villain Blight, who is the embodiment of evil, Constantine and Nightmare Nurse decide to fight fire with fire and invoke the “Blackmare Curse”. This spell “drills down into the deepest pits of the soul… unleashing all the darkness there”, which turns the two into fierce monsters. Naturally, the Curse works better the more corrupted and depraved its evocators are. Thus we are given another little piece of the puzzle that is the true nature of John Constantine’s character.
18. JLD Annual #2 Another interesting spell is the “K’Am’Deva Curse” with which Zatanna rips Constantine’s heart out of his chest so that he loses all feelings for her, and all memories of ever having loved her. The explanation why they do this is that the bond between them acts as a “magical battery” for some supervillains. At the end of the issue the two get separated when Zatanna is sucked into a “whirling hole in space and time” (#35). Things get awkward when they meet again in the final issue.
19. JLD #35 Zatanna emerges in another parallel world in which she meets her father, Zatara the magician, who was supposed to be long dead. Zatara tells her he had found a “doorway through time” through which he took his wife and little daughter with him and settled in a world were “thought itself would instantly become manifest reality” and “no one grows older”. Wait – his daughter? Zatanna realises there’s something not quite right about Zatara’s story… I won’t spoil the ending, but ultimately this story turns out to be a nice version of the old ‘dream within a dream’ theme. On the flipside, this is once again not much of a ‘team book’ story, and it’s too bad the book is no longer drawn by Mikel Janin at this point.
Authors: Josh Tierney (writer), various artists
Publisher: Archaia (an imprint of Boom! Studios)
Pages: 90 (main story) / 176 (including short stories)
Price: US-$ 19.95
Sometimes, it takes little to make a good print comic out of a good web comic (e.g. Robin Vehrs’s Western Touch/Enjambements, reviewed on this weblog). Spera was a good web comic, too, and when its print publication was announced, I was looking forward to it. The concept of Spera was crazy, in a good way: the entire script was written by Josh Tierney, but every 3-8 pages (some of which have large “infinite canvas”-like layouts) the artist would change.
Over 40 artists contributed back then, which resulted in a variety of styles, and also in vastly different levels of quality. Sometimes you couldn’t even figure out what was going on in the illustrations if you hadn’t read Tierney’s synopsis at the start of each section. For the print version, it looks like Tierney (or his editors at Archaia?) wanted to have more consistent art, so the same script is now illustrated by only four artists: Kyla Vanderklugt, Hwei, recent Eisner Award winner Emily Carroll, and Olivier Pichard. Don’t get me wrong, all four of them are superb artists, and on average, the art is probably better in the book than in the web comic.
However, this printed Spera is no longer a bold experiment in comic-making. It’s just a run-of-the-mill fantasy story. The only element in the story that some readers will find interesting is the gender-bending aspect. Furthermore, the dialogue is often awkward and clumsy (“I want to be my own person, exploring secret dungeons and caves. I want to find things made out of gold and silver and trade them for cool weapons”).
On the other hand, the book is designed beautifully as a heavy hard cover volume with golden ornaments on the cover, a map printed on the endpapers, and other nice touches (but still reasonably priced). That’s one advantage over the online version. Still, overall I’m disappointed of how this book turned out, and I probably won’t read any of the following volumes (three to date). If only they had given this book another title, “Spera Reloaded” or something like that…
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
(via Major Spoilers)
Remember Bartkira, the comic mashup of Akira and The Simpsons (mentioned briefly here one year ago)? Based on this idea, Kaitlin Sullivan, in collaboration with many other artists, has made an animated short film. This fan film adapts the animated Akira film rather than the comic, so we get to see some new scenes and characters not present in Bartkira the comic.