Welcome to the fifth instalment of this little Labour Day series. Initially I wanted to write about a more recent Warren Ellis comic, but now that Freakangels (or FreakAngels) is going to be adapted as an anime, let’s return to its first volume from 2008, illustrated by Paul Duffield. The story is loosely based on John Wyndham’s novel The Midwich Cuckoos from 1957: a couple of children (twelve in Freakangels) are born in an English village on the same day with strangely colored eyes and telepathic abilities that allow them to control other people’s minds and to communicate mind-to-mind. Ellis then deviates from Wyndham in that the children, at the age of 17, somehow trigger a cataclysmic event that leaves London half in ruins and partially submerged, and probably kills quite a few of its inhabitants. The story begins six years later when the children are 23.
A few people try to get by in post-apocalyptic London, organised in different antagonised factions. Those living in Whitechapel are led by the aforementioned children, who are called Freakangels. Due to their supernatural powers, the Freakangels are able to protect and care for the ordinary inhabitants: Kirk, for instance, keeps watch on a tower for days without having to eat; Caz distributes fresh water with a steam-powered cart built by another Freakangel, KK; Jack is always out on a boat scavenging; and Sirkka operates a machine gun to defend them against invaders. It is not only the Freakangels’ proverbial great power, though, that makes them take on this great responsibility. They also feel guilty about bringing on the “end of the world” (unbeknownst to the ordinary people) and want to make up for it.
Not all Freakangels accept this role as leaders and guardians. Karl likes to keep to himself and shields his mind against the other Freakangels’ telepathic communication; Luke manipulates and exploits others for his own gain; and Mark has left London and the Freakangels altogether. Still, by and large, the Freakangels appear to be popular among the inhabitants of Whitechapel. On his way to the market, Kirk is offered milk and cheese by a farmer. “Anytime you need anything, you just let me know. It’s the least we can do for you watching over us.” Kirk replies: “Nice of you to say so. But, really, it’s the least we can do for you, all things considered.”
Note how they use plural pronouns, which tells us that their statements not only hold true on a personal level but also on a political: the society of Whitechapel is a typical oligarchy in which few people – the Freakangels – have power over many. Regardless of their popularity, the Freakangels were certainly not elected, but simply assumed the role of leaders because they could.
In a way, Freakangels is classic Warren Ellis: democracy has failed, and superpowered, self-empowered individuals wield great power. The only question is, in what light does he portray this oligarchy? While the majority of the Freakangels appear as benevolent or at least likeable characters, their interactions consist mostly of infighting – ranging from harmless bickering over fisticuffs between Kirk and Luke to outright hostility that almost turns lethal (between Mark and the others). Luke in particular is a threat to the status quo and is about to get either expelled or killed by the other Freakangels.
Thus the power structure in Freakangels is a fragile one that can only be maintained with much effort – and maybe only as long as the Freakangels’ terrible secret about their involvement in the “end of the world” is kept. But who could replace the Freakangels as leaders? It looks like the ordinary populace will always be at the mercy of greater powers. In this Warren Ellis comic, the core principle is once more: might makes right.
Perhaps the lack of willingness of some people to comply to lockdown regulations is related to the lack of shocking imagery in the media. Hardly any images of people suffering from Covid-19 are shown in the news, which makes the threat posed by this disease appear abstract and remote. Which brings us to this month’s topic.
Susan Sontag’s last book to be published in her lifetime, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003) is a long essay, or short monograph, of about 120 pages. Its topic is mainly war photography, but also other photographic depictions of human suffering, and their effects on recipients. She even briefly mentions comics once (p. 100 in the Farrar, Straus and Giroux edition): “As everyone has observed, there is a mounting level of acceptable violence and sadism in mass culture: films, television, comics, computer games.”
Yeah, right. More interesting are Sontag’s observations of the difference between photographed and hand-drawn violence, her example being Francisco Goya’s series of etchings, Los desastres de la guerra (p. 47):
That the atrocities perpetrated by the French soldiers in Spain didn’t happen exactly as pictured – say, that the victim didn’t look just so, that it didn’t happen next to a tree – hardly disqualifies The Disasters of War. Goya’s images are a synthesis. They claim: things like this happened. In contrast, a single photograph or filmstrip claims to represent exactly what was before the camera’s lens. A photograph is supposed not to evoke but to show. That is why photographs, unlike handmade images, can count as evidence.
This difference, however, does not diminish the potential of handmade pictures “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” (p. 44). At another point in the book, Sontag refers to a treatise on painting by Leonardo da Vinci (pp. 75-76):
Leonardo is suggesting that the artist’s gaze be, literally, pitiless. The image should appall, and in that terribilità lies a challenging kind of beauty. That a gory battlescape could be beautiful – in the sublime or awesome or tragic register of the beautiful – is a commonplace about images of war made by artists. The idea does not sit well when applied to images taken by cameras: to find beauty in war photographs seems heartless. But the landscape of devastation is still a landscape. There is beauty in ruins.
Sontag traces this ambiguous perception back to Antiquity (pp. 96-97):
Plato’s Socrates describes how our reason may be overwhelmed by an unworthy desire, which drives the self to become angry with a part of its nature. […] Plato appears to take for granted that we also have an appetite for sights of degradation and pain and mutilation.
It would now be all too obvious to turn to depictions of war and violence in non-fictional comics, e.g. those by Joe Sacco or Keiji Nakazawa, and see if the effects described by Sontag with regard to photography can be found there too. But wouldn’t it be more interesting to examine fictional depictions of war and violence? These are largely absent from Sontag’s text (except for Jeff Wall’s Dead Troops Talk, which, however, is based on a real conflict), and while they probably lack the power to incite viewers to anti-war activism, some of the other effects should hold true regardless.
Consider the beginning of Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed from 1985. Set in a post-World War IV (see Jason Thompson’s review at https://www.animenewsnetwork.com/house-of-1000-manga/2011-07-21) future, the 2nd and 3rd page form a lovely double-page spread of a war-ravaged cityscape. One cannot help but be reminded of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s spectacular renderings of Neo Tokyo after the cataclysm in the middle of Akira (which was probably published too late to have been an inspiration for Shirow). Both creators have a fondness – and talent – for drawing both buildings and their destruction. Add to this a few carefully placed vehicles (another forte of both Shirow and Ōtomo) and you get “beauty in ruins” indeed.
Note, however, the corpse hanging out of the tank in the foreground. His firearm lying on the ground before him, we can imagine that he was shot just as he was about to climb out of his tank which maybe had got stuck in a chasm, and also one of its chains had come off. This soldier is only a tiny figure, but it shows that the conflict that presumably caused the destruction of the city is a recent – perhaps still ongoing – and deadly one. As the only human figure in this panel, the reader might empathise with him, but there is no blood or wound visible on him, and we don’t get to see his face. This body isn’t exactly an appalling sight; it hardly disturbs the beauty of the ruins.
A few pages later (p. 34 in the German edition by Feest) we get to see quite a different depiction of a dying soldier. The protagonists, Deunan and Briareos, defend themselves against an attack by mercenary-type combatants. Deunan shoots one of them with an automatic rifle. The force of the hail of bullets is so strong that it not only kills her opponent but also chips off pieces from the surrounding walls. In panel 3, his body gets folded up by the impact so that we don’t see how badly he gets wounded, but in panel 4, black blotches rise from his chest, up to the level of his head, so that it looks like he is bleeding from his mouth, which is wide open as if in a silent scream. The last panel shows him lying on his back, his speech bubble containing only a sort of open-centre asterisk that may signify his last breath.
A pretty grisly scene, if you think about it. Sure, he was only a villain. Granted, Deunan acted in self-defense. And yet, someone’s life was just cut short, and we don’t even know why they were fighting. Deunan isn’t completely cold-blooded (let alone malicious), as the look on her face tells us when she looks back at her target (panel 6). But Shirow’s art aestheticises death so successfully that we don’t think about it in such existential terms. One powerful device is ‘slow motion’ in panels 3 and 4 in which the figure and the surrounding debris seem to be frozen in mid-air. Another is the convincingly imagined circle that the shots have carved out of the walls (although strictly speaking it was the villain’s weapon that caused it, as shown on the previous page), a rendering of a physical effect once more reminiscent of Ōtomo, e.g. in Dōmu (1980-81) – a ‘safe’ kind of violence as it appears to affect only things, not living beings.
Naturally, images of a real-world, present-day war would always be more shocking than those of a science-fiction conflict, even though the former can at the sime time have that “challenging kind of beauty” too. Perhaps the ability of images “to awaken, shock, wound the viewer” depends on two variables: on the one hand, the degree of the relationship of their content to reality, and on the other, the inverse degree of aestheticisation of their form. In itself, the choice of pictorial medium, i.e. whether it is a photograph or a drawn comic, probably doesn’t matter as much. As Sontag says herself, “A narrative seems likely to be more effective than an image” (p. 122), without acknowleding that ‘image’ and ‘narrative’ need not be mutually exclusive.
At the end of the same year in which Western manga readers were treated to the first translated volume of Yoshitoki Ōima’s A Silent Voice, her new series was already launched in Weekly Shōnen Magazine in Japan. The first chapter of To Your Eternity consists of a whopping 80 pages, so it might make sense to review it as if it was a standalone comic.
To Your Eternity (不滅のあなたへ / Fumetsu no anata e) chapter 1
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshitoki Ōima
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2018 (originally 2016)
Number of volumes: 12 so far in Japan
Website: https://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/to-your-eternity/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=137169 (Baka-Updates)
Another reason for reading the first chapter on its own (besides safely staying in the year 2016) is that the story takes some wild turns in the subsequent chapters, and it is perhaps too soon to make judgements about the coherence of the plot or lack thereof before the series has come to its conclusion. Anyway, in these first 80 pages, the story is quite straightforward, yet far from predictable or unoriginal. It starts with some sort of alien or supernatural life form getting “cast unto the earth”. Stranded in a barren ice desert, it assumes the shape of a dying arctic wolf. The alien/wolf returns to a teenaged boy living all alone who used to keep the ‘old’ wolf as a pet and who now doesn’t notice that this wolf is merely a ‘copy’ of his old one.
At this point we learn that the setting is a pseudo-medieval one. The boy has been left behind by his tribe who went away looking for a better place to settle in a warmer climate. Now, after five years, the boy decides to follow them, in the company of what he believes is his wolf…
Naturally, the transition from a romance manga set in 21st century Japan such as A Silent Voice to the fantasy genre of To Your Eternity is a harsh one. Then again, the life-and-death stakes of a fantasy manga might make for the kind of highly dramatic and emotional story that plays to Ōima’s strengths. However, once more it is the subtler emotional nuances that Ōima conveys so convincingly, e.g. when the boy tries to smile even though he realises things are looking grim – or, conversely, when the facial expressions of the alien/wolf remain inscrutable even though we would expect him to react according to the basic instincts of an animal.
Occasionally we get to see glimpses of Ōima’s artistic genius, as in those incredibly detailed panels where heavy outlines and lots of white space speak for themselves. For these panels to stand out, Ōima counterbalances them with more conventionally drawn (though still finely executed) panels with hatching and screen tone. Despite the fantasy setting which yields lots of animals and exotic clothes, tools and architecture to depict, Ōima doesn’t get lost in details; she has a story to tell and does so efficiently.
Ultimately, comics are a serial medium in more than one way. By virtue of its author, To Your Eternity will always be regarded as a sequel of sorts to A Silent Voice, and these are some huge shoes to fill. But while A Silent Voice might be the more emotionally engaging read due to its more familiar setting, To Your Eternity has the one advantage of feeling delightfully fresh and highly original.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
In my blogpost on the 2019 Venice Biennale, I mentioned that Darren Bader had set up a comic book vending machine there, which however failed to dispense a copy for me. In the meantime, the artist and his gallery have kindly provided me with some copies of the comic book in question: Scott Mendes’s Venice (or is it “Scott Vendes’s Menice”?).
There are two ways to approach this item. On the one hand, it is part of a work of installation / conceptual art, which in turn is part of Bader’s oeuvre. One could now try to decipher all the references in it – the name-dropping ranges from ancient saints to contemporary artists and other celebrities – and make connections to Bader’s artistic strategy to see how the comic fits into the larger picture. On the other hand, one could simply regard this comic book as a comic book and see if we can get anything out of reading it. In other words: as a comic, is it any good?
First, the facts: while it is a standard staple-bound US format comic book, it is rather long at 32 pages without advertisements (except for two probably fake ones on the inner covers). The writing is credited to “Moses Hosiery” (which may or may not be an alias for Bader himself) and the artwork to two design companies, Suite Sixsixteen and Oliven Studio. By and large, the artwork is of a high quality: the linework is detailed but without any shading, which is made up for by the nuanced colouring. The colouring, however, shows a propensity for garish contrasts which at first glance lend a deceptively cheap appearance to the whole art.
The story is of a ‘dream within a dream’ variety which allows for a surreal plot, as the cover already suggests. The protagonist is modernist painter Giorgio de Chirico who somehow happens to live in present-day Venice. He’s clearly not having a good day: after getting up he falls down the stairs, then gets washed out onto the street by some sort of flood wave, and in the end he even gets swallowed by the pavement. And these aren’t even the weirdest events in the story. Like I said, this is a dream in which strange things happen. Adding to the confusion is the number of languages in which the dialogue is written: English, Italian, French, Portuguese, and Hebrew.
Depending on your taste, you may find this comic either unnerving or fascinating. It’s definitely something different than e.g. the latest issue of X-Men. And despite its surrealism, it portrays a Venice that readers who have ever been there will instantly recognise with all its water, pigeons, seagulls, and tourists from all over the world.
If you’re interested in obtaining a copy of this comic book, perhaps it’s worth trying to contact Galleria Franco Noero to see if they still have any left.
One of the last manga Jirō Taniguchi had been working on before he died (on this day, three years ago) was The Millennium Forest. Designed to span 5 volumes, the small fragment that he was able to complete has been published posthumously.
The Millennium Forest (光年の森 / Kōnen no mori, lit. “light-year forest”; German title: Im Jahrtausendwald)
Language: German (originally Japanese)
Author: Jirō Taniguchi
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Rue de Sèvres / Shōgakukan)
Year: 2018 (originally 2017)
Number of volumes: 1
Pages: 78 (comic: 43)
Price: € 20
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/hardcover/im-jahrtausendwald/96224 (German); https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=152591
The publisher(s) clearly intended this book to be more than just another manga. Almost half of the pages are editorial texts, layouts, sketches and other preparatory drawings, and obituaries. Whether this 20 € book (albeit in full colour and hardcover) is a cynical rip-off or a dignified tribute to Taniguchi is a matter of debate. It may be tempting to extrapolate from the information given in the afterword and the bonus material and imagine what a manga series The Millennium Forest might have become. But let’s look at what it is.
The protagonist is 10-year old Wataru. One summer, he leaves Tokyo to live with his grandparents in a remote village situated in mountainous woodland. The story is set in an unspecified past – if we take Wataru for Taniguchi’s alter ego, the year would be 1958 – but it could just as well take place in the present day. After all, relocating from town to country or vice versa is a timelessly popular topic in Japanese fiction. At first, Wataru doesn’t get on with his schoolmates. When wandering in the woods one day he walks into them, and they dare him to climb a tall tree. To everyone’s surprise, including his own, he manages to climb higher than any of the local kids before. The kids are impressed, they make friends with Wataru, and he makes peace with living in the countryside.
That’s one way to summarise this little story. Another would be to speak of the forest as the actual protagonist, or at least as a character in its own right; a forest which mysteriously appears out of the ground as a result of an earthquake, and which is populated by fantastic creatures that only vaguely resemble birds, rabbits, and maybe serows. One could also mention that Wataru possesses the gift of speaking with trees and animals. And that that the tree he climbs saves him from falling down by catching him with a twine.
Are these supernatural elements really necessary? Of course it could be argued that this was meant to be a much longer story which would have placed more emphasis on the fantasy aspects and integrated them more tightly into the seemingly mundane setting, and ultimately conveyed an environmentalist message through them. But as it is, The Millennium Forest would have been a simpler and perhaps stronger story without any supernatural bits. The most powerful of Taniguchi’s manga had always been the firmly realistic, semi-autobiographical ones, such as The Walking Man or Chichi no koyomi.
But we haven’t even talked about the art yet. Over 40 oversized pages (22,5 × 28 cm) painted in watercolour are quite a treat. Taniguchi’s impressive skill in this medium shows in all the subtle modulations, particularly on characters’ faces. At the same time, distinct outlines retain the clarity that is evident in all of Taniguchi’s art. As for the landscape format of the book – the afterword emphasises the difficulties of launching such a product in the Japanese book market – it doesn’t do much for me; a square or regular portrait format would probably have worked just as well. If anything, it obscures the reading order of the panels on some pages, but that might also be due to the flipping by the German publisher.
Recommended if you can check it out from your local library, or for those who wish to complete their collection of Taniguchi’s manga (although there always seems to be ‘new’ material by Taniguchi getting translated).
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture, edited by Anna McFarlane, Graham J. Murphy, and Lars Schmeink, has been published last month. This book contains a chapter co-authored by Lars Schmeink and myself, titled “Akira and Ghost in the Shell (Case Study)”, on pp. 162-168. Rather than discussing the manga, this short text focusses on the theatrical anime versions (Ōtomo 1988, Oshii 1995) and their relation to cyberpunk. (For Akira the manga and cyberpunk, see my earlier journal article in Arts.)
The Routledge Companion to Cyberpunk Culture contains many more chapters of which some deal with comics and anime and might be of interest to readers of this weblog. Follow the link to the publisher’s website for a table of contents. While the printed book is a bit on the pricey side, consider recommending it to your library for acquisition, borrowing it via interlibrary loan, or purchasing the e-book version.
[UPDATE: added 8 more lists – AiPT, Broken Frontier, ComFor (German), Comic.de (German, multiple mentions only), Comicgate (German, unranked), Diamond via The Beat (comics + GNs), Tor Online (German). Arrows next to entries indicate that their rank went up or down compared to the previous version.]
Once more I compiled a little ‘master list’ out of some best-of-2019 lists on the Internet. Each title was assigned between 1 and 30 points, depending on either its rank, or on the number of titles in an unranked list (full explanation here).
THE TOP 25 COMICS OF 2019:
- House of X / Powers of X by Jonathan Hickman, Pepe Larraz and R.B. Silva (207 points)
- Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me by Mariko Tamaki and Rosemary Valero-O’Connell (171) ⇩
- Die by Kieron Gillen and Stephanie Hans (120) ⇧
- Rusty Brown by Chris Ware (110)
- The Immortal Hulk by Al Ewing and Joe Bennett (106) ⇧
- They Called Us Enemy by George Takei et al. (102) ⇩
- Clyde Fans by Seth ⇩, tied with
Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky and Marco Checchetto ⇧ (95)
- Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen by Matt Fraction and Steve Lieber (92) ⇩
- The Hard Tomorrow by Eleanor Davis (88) ⇩
- Mister Miracle by Tom King and Mitch Gerads (87) ⇧
- Spider-Man: Life Story by Chip Zdarsky and Mark Bagley ⇧, tied with
The Walking Dead by Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard ⇧ (82)
- These Savage Shores by Ram V and Sumit Kumar (79) ⇧
- Harley Quinn: Breaking Glass by Mariko Tamaki and Steve Pugh (75) ⇩
- When I Arrived at the Castle by Emily Carroll (74) ⇧
- Witch Hat Atelier by Kamome Shirahama (70) ⇩
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood and Renée Nault (66) ⇧
- Hot Comb by Ebony Flowers (61) ⇩
- DCeased by Tom Taylor and Trevor Hairsine (60) ⇧
- Bitter Root by David Walker, Chuck Brown and Sanford Greene (59) ⇩
- Good Talk by Mira Jacob ⇩, tied with
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat. The Complete Color Sundays 1935–1944 ⇧ (57)
- Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba by Koyoharu Gotōge ⇩, tied with
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso ⇧ (55)
Given the usual dominance of Anglo-American list sources, it is almost a pleasant surprise to see as many as two manga within the top 25. As for European comics… Alice Oseman is British, does that count? [Update: Oseman’s Heartstopper dropped out of the top 25 to 28th place. It’s still the highest-ranking European comic.]
The following lists were evaluated: A.V. Club, Adventures in Poor Taste, Book Riot, Broken Frontier, CBC, Chicago Public Library, ComFor (German), Comic.de (German, multiple mentions only), Comicgate (German, unranked), Comickunst (German), Diamond via The Beat (comics + GNs), Entertainment Weekly, Forbes, GameSpot, Goodreads, Gosh (adult, kids), The Guardian (Rachel Cooke, James Smart), io9, Kono Manga ga Sugoi! via Anime News Network, Oricon Top-Selling Manga in Japan by Series via Anime News Network, Paste, Publishers Weekly Critics Poll, Readings, School Library Journal, Spiegel Online (German), SyFy Wire (Best New Comic Books, Fangrrl), Tagesspiegel (German), Tor Online (German), What Culture, YALSA.