Conclusion of a stellar (lunar?) run: Review of Moon Knight (2016) #10-14

Thanks to Marvel’s ‘Legacy’ reboot, a new Moon Knight series with a new creative team has started recently (more on that in a later blogpost). The last 5 issues of the Lemire/Smallwood run have been collected as trade paperback vol. 3: “Birth and Death” (even though the story arc is titled “Death and Birth” in the individual comic books), and if there was any justice in the world, this comic would now show up on all of those year-end best-of lists for 2017 (it doesn’t – more on that in a later post). For what it’s worth, here’s why you should read it anyway.

Language: English
Authors: Jeff Lemire (writer), Greg Smallwood (artist), Jordie Bellaire (colourist)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comics/series/20488/moon_knight_2016_-_present

Previously in Moon Knight: Marc Spector has escaped the mental asylum, but his friend Crawley is being held captive by the god Anubis. And Moon Knight has yet to confront Khonshu, the god who created him.

In the beginning of this new story arc, Moon Knight seeks out Anubis. They strike a deal: if Moon Knight succeeds in rescuing Anubis’s wife Anput from the Overvoid (a parallel dimension reminiscent of ancient Egypt, except that people ride on giant dragonflies through the air and pyramids float above the ground), Crawley will be released. This story is intertwined with another, Moon Knight’s origin, the two strands alternating in segments of 3-6 pages each.

Marc Spector (right) and his new friend Steven Grant in Moon Knight #10

The flashback to Moon Knight’s past starts early, in Marc Spector’s childhood. We learn that already back then he created an imaginary friend (or so his psychiatrist says), Steven Grant, who later becomes an aspect of his own personality. And Marc is already visited by Khonshu who introduces himself as Marc’s real father.

Later, we see Marc as a U.S. Marine in Iraq when he gets dishonorably discharged because of his mental illness. He stays in the region and becomes first an illegal prizefighter, then a mercenary. On a mission to plunder an archaeological excavation site “near the Sudanese-Egyptian border”, he turns against his employer, Bushman, when the latter ruthlessly kills the archaeologists. Spector is defeated by Bushman and left to die alone in the desert, but Khonshu resurrects him.

Then we’re back in the present again and Marc faces Khonshu. I won’t spoil the outcome of this confrontation, but let’s look instead at that last transition from past to present in detail: in issue #14, p. 4 we’re in the desert in Marc’s past. Then on p. 5, Moon Knight in his ‘Mr Knight’ persona in the white suit is in the mental asylum again. He enters a room where he is greeted by his “good friends Bobby and Billy and Doc Ammut” – hybrid creatures of asylum staff and mythological figures. They subdue Mr Knight and give him an injection which knocks him out.

On the first panel of p. 6, we’re in the Egyptian temple in the desert again, where Khonshu carries the dying Marc Spector onto an altar before the statue of Khonshu. Marc asks, “Wh-what is this? What’s happening to me?”, and Khonshu replies: “This is a flashback, Marc. It is being intercut with the present.” On the next panel, the unconscious Marc is put on a table too, but this time by Bobby and Billy in the mental hospital. Khonshu’s voice continues though: “Time means little here.” This back-and-forth goes on for the next 4 panels of the page and so does Khonshu: “So past and present intermingle. They blend together and become one. Just like different aspects of your broken mind. The moment of your birth is here and there. It is then and now. All times lead to this instant.”

As past and present are about to fuse, the middle axis of the page no longer serves as a mirror axis that separates the two columns in the 2 × 3 panel layout of p. 6 in Moon Knight #14. Also note on the right panel how the hospital couch onto which Marc is fixated to undergo eletroconvulsive therapy has turned into an Ancient altar.

This is the most (delightfully) confusing and metafictional transition sequence, but there are many more of these mind-bending moments in this comic, and they are the main reason why it’s so brilliant. Add to this all the clever design, layout, composition and colouring decisions that Jeff Lemire, Greg Smallwood and Jordie Bellaire have made and you get one of the most remarkable superhero comics in recent history.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

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Random notes from the 2017 ComFor conference

Regular readers of this weblog might have wondered why, after 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015, there was no blogpost on the 2016 ComFor (German Society for Comics Studies) conference. There is a simple reason for that: I hadn’t attended last year’s conference. Two weeks ago, however, I took the trip to Bonn where this year’s conference (topic: “Comics and their Popularity”) took place. Please note that the following notes are not intended to adequately summarise the respective conference paper; instead they’re rather subjective and random – hence the title of this blogpost.

The conference started on Friday, December 1 with the “Open Workshops”, i.e. papers outside of the conference theme of “Comics and their Popularity”.

  • The first presentation was by Zita Hüsing (Bonn) on “Being and Nature: The Significance of the Southern Space of the Swamp in Alan Moore’s The Saga of the Swamp Thing” in which she put forward connections between tropes of the American South and Swamp Thing, e.g. that both are hard to kill – no matter how badly they are maimed or burned down, they always come back from the dead. As was remarked in the discussion afterwards, however, it’s interesting how writers after Moore, such as Jeff Lemire, have expanded Swamp Thing’s backstory into a cosmology that shifts the focus from the local to the global.
  • In the second paper, “Batwing, Batflügel oder Flügel-Bat. Die onimischen Einheiten im Comic” (“onimic units in comics” – all translations mine), Rafał Jakiel (Wrocław) looked at the names (poetonyms) of characters in superhero comics and identified characteristics such as their straightforward iconicity: for instance, Killer Croc is simply a murderous man who looks like a crocodile.
  • Daniela Kaufmann (Graz) then presented “A Study in Black and White. Zur Signifikanz der Farben Schwarz und Weiß im Comic” (“on the significance of the colours black and white in comics”). Starting from Kazimir Malevich’s Black Square – featured e.g. in Nicolas Mahler’s comic Lulu und das Schwarze Quadrat – she proceeded to Krazy Kat and the racial ambiguity of both its creator George Herriman and its eponymous protagonist.
  • This was followed by Elisabeth Krieber‘s (Salzburg) paper on “Subversive Female Performances in Visual Media – Phoebe Gloeckner’s and Alison Bechdel’s Graphic Narratives” which also considered the musical adaptation of Fun Home and the film adaptation of Diary of a Teenage Girl.

Unfortunately I missed the next two talks by Karoline M. Pohl and Sakshi Wason, respectively, who closed the “Open Workshops” section after which the papers on the “Popularity” theme began.

  • The next presentation I attended was by Véronique Sina (Cologne / Tübingen) on “Comickeit is Jüdischkeit. Über das diskursive Zusammenspiel von Comic, Populärkultur und jüdischer Identität” (“on the discursive interplay of comics, popular culture, and Jewish identity”). Her main examples were the comics of Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Harvey Pekar, and she also discussed Jonas Engelmann’s hypothesis of popular culture as the dissolution of identity.
  • Pnina Rosenberg (Haifa) talked about “Mickey au camp de Gurs: Political criticism and auto censorship in comics done during the Holocaust”, in which she presented three picture books made by Hans Rosenthal during his internment at a concentration camp in 1942.
  • The first keynote of the conference was given by Julia Round (Bournemouth), titled “Canon or Common? Sandman, Aesthetics, Intertextuality and Literariness”. She discussed the ongoing struggle about the status of comics in general and Sandman in particular as literature (also: high vs. low art, “graphic novels” vs. comic books), how this is affected by the Romantic author notion around Neil Gaiman (“Mr Gaiman is the Sandman” – Clive Barker), and how this discourse comes to the fore in fan discussions at neilgaimanboard.com.

Saturday, December 2:

  • In his talk on “Batmans queere Popularität. Ein comicwissenschaftlicher und kulturhistorischer Annäherungsversuch” (“Batman’s queer popularity. An approach from the perspective of comics studies and cultural history”), Daniel Stein (Siegen) discussed how Batman is appropriated as gay by some readers, while others are gripped by ‘queer anxiety’, i.e. the fear that their beloved character might officially become gay.
  • Laura Antola‘s (Turku) paper “Marvel’s Comics in Finland: Translation, ‘Mail-Man’ and the popularity of superheroes” portrayed the eccentric figure of ‘Mail-Man’, a real-life translator and editor who also answered fan mail in the letter pages of Finnish Marvel comics from 1980 onward.
  • “Das Popula(e)re und das Signifikante. Der Comic als Antwort auf die Krise liberaler Erzählungen?” (“The popular and the significant. Comics as an answer to the crisis of liberal narratives?”) by Mario Zehe (Leipzig) discussed Economix by Goodwin/Burr, Le Singe de Hartlepool by Lupano/Moreau, and Lucky Luke: La Terre promise by Jul/Achdé as examples of comics that show the limits of cosmopolitanism.
  • Stephan Packard (Cologne) talked about “President Lex Luthor, Wakanda und der osteuropäische Schwarzwald. Zur populären Ideologie der Fiktionalität in Comics” (“President Lex Luthor, Wakanda and the Eastern European Black Forest. On the popular ideology of fictionality in comics”) and the sometimes problematic connection between fictional things and their real-world counterparts. A striking example is the recent “Alien Nation” story from Captain Marvel vol. 1 (2017) which is partly set in the “Black Forest”, albeit a Black Forest that doesn’t look anything like the real one in South Western Germany and is located, according to a caption, in “Eastern Europe”. Packard unfolded a compact theoretical framework which included the categories of fiction theory discussed by Marie-Laure Ryan such as the ‘principle of minimal departure’, but also Theodor Adorno’s ‘categorical imperative of the culture industry’, among others.
  • Lecture hall IX at Bonn University during David Turgay’s talk. Photograph by Ronny Bittner

    The next paper was David Turgay‘s (Landau) highly interesting “Das Alternative im Populären: Eine korpusgestützte Analyse von Mainstream-Comics” (“the alternative in the popular: a corpus-based analysis of mainstream comics”) in which he examined the panels of 150 American comic books from 1996 and from 2016 with regard to six criteria: politics / social criticism, narrative peculiarities, artistic peculiarities, metafictional elements, absence of fighting, and absence of text. The results of the analysis showed a significant increase of these criteria over time, but overall these characteristics (which David Turgay interpreted as the influence of independent comics) still occurred less often in 2016 than expected.

  • In his presentation on “Der Fluch der Graphic Novel aus (hochschul)didaktischer Sicht” (“the curse of the graphic novel from the perspective of (tertiary) education”), Markus Oppolzer (Salzburg) discussed the dreaded g-word again, but he also mentioned Conan the Librarian from the film UHF – as a librarian myself, I can’t believe I had never heard of him before!
  • Dietrich Grünewald (Reiskirchen) talked about “Grenzgänger. Comics und Bildende Kunst” (“border crossers. Comics and fine art”) and how fine art such as paintings are used in comics, e.g. as background details in Volker Reiche’s Strizz.
  • Christian A. Bachmann‘s (Bochum) contribution was probably the one with the longest title: “Slippers and music are very different things, oder: von high key to low key. Zur Darstellung populärer Musik in Bildergeschichten des 19. und Comics des frühen 20. Jahrhunderts” (“from high key to low key. On the depiction of popular music in picture stories of the 19th and comics of the early 20th century”). Among his examples were Billy DeBeck’s Barney Google and Richard F. Outcault’s Buster Brown.
  • Kirsten von Hagen (Gießen) presented a paper on “Tintin und die Recherche: Von der ‘ligne claire’ Hergés zu den synästhetischen Traumsequenzen bei Heuet” (“Tintin and the recherche: from Hergé’s ‘ligne claire’ to Heuet’s synesthetic dream sequences”). Stéphane Heuet adapted Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time as a series of comic volumes using a ligne claire style.
  • Martin Lund (Växjo / New York) gave the second keynote on “Jack T. Chick, a Popular Propagandist”. With over 260 ‘Chick tracts’ since 1961 of which an estimated 900 million copies have been distributed, Chick might have been “the most widely distributed comics creator in the world” (Darby Orcutt 2010 – but see also https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_comic_series). Chick’s comics are a wellspring of knowledge on topics such as evolution, abortion and climate change; for instance, did you know that “global warming experts pray to Ixchel“, the Mayan “goddess of the moon and creativity”? But seriously: according to Martin Lund, the Chick tracts were never intended to convert unbelievers to Chick’s twisted beliefs, but rather to reassure those people who already were on his side.

Sunday, December 3:

  • Michael Wetzel‘s (Bonn) paper was titled “‘Graphic Auteurism‘: Von Kreativität und Copyright im Comic” (“On creativity and copyright in comics”). An interesting hypothesis was that the popular concept of a ‘Romanticist notion of authorship’ is flawed because Romanticist authors such as E. T. A. Hoffmann actually deconstructed authorship.
  • Next was Joachim Trinkwitz (Bonn), one of the two conference organisers together with Rolf Lohse, on “Auteur-Serien im Comic” (“auteur series in comics”) and their different forms as magazine serialisations and collected editions, using the examples of V for Vendetta, Black Hole, and Jimmy Corrigan.
  • Lukas R. A. Wilde (Tübingen) then gave the only paper of this conference that was (at least partially) about manga. Titled “Public Domain Superheroes, Jenny Everywhere und dōjinshi. Die Comic- und Manga-Figur als meta-narrativer Knotenpunkt der Partizipationskultur” (“The comic and manga character as meta-narrative node of participatory culture”), it presented the niji sōsaku / sanji sōsaku cycle (dōjinshi based on official franchises, dōjinshi based on dōjinshi, …), ‘Second Order Originals’ (detextualised characters such as Sherlock Holmes), the concept of Open Source characters (e.g. Jenny Everywhere), the kyara-kyarakutā distinction, and a new “participatory kyara” from the political far-right in Germany named AfD-chan.
  • The last talk of this year’s conference was given by Jörn Ahrens (Gießen) on “Der Comic ist das Populäre. Zur populärkulturellen Gestalt eines Mediums der Massenkultur” (“The comic is the popular. On the popular cultural shape of a mass culture medium”) which examined the reception of 100 Bullets in a review of The Comics Journal and the problematic implicit notion therein of what ‘quality’ comics should be.

In comparison to previous ComFor conferences I attended, I had the impression there were more papers on superhero comics, but there were definitely even less on manga. Then again, I guess the organisers simply didn’t receive more submissions on manga, so it’s up to all manga researchers to do something about this skewed manga/non-manga ratio next year. Another point about the programming that’s always somewhat problematic is the integration of conference papers in English: this year there were 7 out of 24 papers given in English which were distributed among Friday and Saturday, so it must have been unattractive for non-German speakers to attend the conference. It will be interesting to see if the ComFor conferences can improve in the areas of both comics internationalisation and attendee internationalisation in the years to come.


Sequential art at the 57th Venice Art Biennale, 2017

This year’s Biennale is once again a spectacular art show and, like the 2013 Biennale, counts a famous comic artist among its participants (see below). It is still open until November 26. These are all the sequential artworks I’ve seen there:

At the Central Pavilion in the Giardini, Kosovan artist Petrit Halilaj has made a wallpaper (ABETARE, 2015) out of his old Albanian alphabet book. On some pages it contained picture stories such as this one of the fable of the fox and the crow.

Abdullah Al Saadi keeps Diaries (2016) in the form of leporellos stored in metal boxes, ostensibly inspired by the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of his notes contain possibly sequential images.

In his All Images from… series (2015), Ciprian Mureşan copies pictures from books – monographs of painters such as Correggio or Giotto, or museum catalogues – on a single sheet of paper, thus juxtaposing (and overlaying) formerly separate images. It would be interesting to find out if the arrangement on the sheet of paper corresponds to the sequence of pictures in the book, or to the order in which Mureşan drew them.

Our Naufrage 1-10 (2014) by Hajra Waheed apparently tells the story of a shipwreck of migrants. Maybe this arrangement of the paintings on a shelf is already sufficient to speak of juxtaposed sequential images.

Some of the exhibited works were rather old, such as this sequence of photographs taken by János Vető of a performance by Tibor Hajas from 1978.

At the national pavilions in the Giardini, we find a work that isn’t sequential itself but includes an actual comic: in Takahiro Iwasaki‘s Tectonic Model (Flow) from 2017 at the Japanese pavilion, one of the books is a copy of the second volume of Katsuhiro Ōtomo’s Akira.

At the Hungarian pavilion, these two sequences by Gyula Várnai are meant to be part of the same work, E-Wars. One shows photographs of an ISIS missile attack overlaid with a mathematical formula supposed to represent an “algorithm also used by Google to collect user information” (pavilion leaflet). The other sequence adapts the animated opening of the Soviet children’s science television show Хочу всё знать (“I Want to Know Everything”).

At the Arsenale, we find works by the only famous cartoonist at the Biennale: excerpts from The Unwanted (2010) by Joe Sacco, mounted on large boards, arranged with some other artworks, and dispersed throughout the room that accommodates the national contribution of his native Malta. I’m not sure if reproductions of a rather old comic displayed in this way contribute to the acceptance of comics into the world of ‘high art’, but maybe it’s better than nothing. The whole story can be read at The Virginia Quarterly Review where it was first published. There you can see how entire panels were cut off from the page as displayed at the Biennale, pictured above.

Jean Boghossian‘s exhibition at the Armenian pavilion is distributed between Palazzo Ca’Zenobio and Santa Croce degli Armeni. At both sites, his Livres brûlés can be seen (and one even flipped through) – paper objects with marks made by fire.

It’s no coincidence that the drawings by Radenko Milak at the Bosnian pavilion look like film stills, as he also directed an animated film which can be seen as well at Palazzo Malipiero.

EDIT: I just remembered there’s one more comic. While The Aalto Natives by Nathaniel Mellors and Erkka Nissinen at the Finnish pavilion is an animatronics installation, the pavilion leaflet contains this one-page wordless comic which sums up the plot of the installation.


Manga reviews, Halloween 2017 edition: Scary Lessons, Doubt, Naru Taru

Halloween is around the corner again, and that means reviews of recent and classic horror manga here at The 650-Cent Plague. Today’s three titles show once more how diverse this genre is, and that there are manifold (maybe even medium-specific?) ways for comics to elicit fear from their readers.

Scary Lessons (絶叫学級 / zekkyō gakkyū, lit. “Screaming Lessons”)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Emi Ishikawa
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2009-2017 (original run 2008-2015)
Number of volumes: 20
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/scary-lessons/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=35025 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-86719-846-2

A horror manga for the shōjo demographic, can this possibly work? Well, it sure did scare the bejesus out of me – this is definitely the most frightening manga of the ones I’ve reviewed so far. Each chapter is a self-contained episode with a different cast of characters, only loosely held together by a framing narrative with a Crypt-Keeper-like narrator. All stories mostly take place at school (hence the “Lessons” part of the title) and have middle-school girl protagonists who are concerned with the usual things: boys, clothes, mobile phones, puppies, classmates… Each protagonist wants something, but when she gets it, it goes terribly wrong. In the first episode, for instance, a girl desperately wants a handheld gaming console, finds an abandoned one on the street and keeps it, but it turns out to be cursed and the game on it seems to affect people in the real world, even causing their death.

While death and violence do occur in this manga, they aren’t depicted that explicitly. In another episode, a girl is hit in the face by glass shards, but only her body from the chin down is shown in that panel. Still, I’m not sure if this manga is suitable reading material for readers of the same age as the middle school protagonists.

Another similarity to EC horror comics is the moralising and the gleeful twist ending in most episodes: our heroines eventually become aware of their vices and the mistakes they’ve made and resolve to behave better in the future. But often it’s already too late and they have to pay for what they’ve done.

Due to their self-contained nature, the individual stories are fast-paced and lack subtlety, but otherwise this first volume is a finely crafted manga, though I’m not sure if the suspense can be kept up for the remaining 19 (!) volumes.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: at the end of the fourth episode, when our young protagonist goes home and thinks she’s safe, only to find the killer is already waiting for her there.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Doubt
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yoshiki Tonogai
Publisher: Carlsen (originally Square Enix)
Years: 2010-2011 (original run 2007-2009)
Number of volumes: 4
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~200
Price per volume: € 7.95
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/doubt/18200 (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=18068 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-551-754431

Protagonist Yū is a high school student who plays a mobile game called “Rabbit Doubt” which is based on “Mafia” a.k.a. “Werewolf” a.k.a. “Murder in Palermo”. In the beginning of the manga, he meets his five fellow players face to face for the first time and becomes friends with them. Then, however, the game turns into deadly reality when they are abducted and one of them murdered.

The plot shifts into more of an escape room / Fermat’s Room kind of setting when the kids explore their prison and are confronted with puzzles such as locked doors and corresponding keys, all the while suspecting that one of them is in fact the abductor rather than a victim. Like with Death Note and other similar manga, the author unfortunately doesn’t have much faith in the initially simple but intriguing premise (in this case, the “Mafia” game) and keeps adding more and more elements, characters and game rules in an attempt to stretch out the story.

Although Doubt (and its sequel, Judge) has found a place in some ‘best horror manga‘ lists, it has more of a mystery / detective thriller vibe to it because Tonogai takes great care to present all facts and details of the setting in great clarity to the readers so that they can guess along with the characters who the killer is. Which is a shame, because the first 50 pages set quite a different, subtle and atmospheric mood, which is then abandoned in favor of a still suspenseful but more ‘economic’ storytelling.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when a guy believed to be dead suddenly comes alive again.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Naru Taru (なるたる / narutaru, English title: Shadow Star)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Mohiro Kitō
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2001-2006 (original run 1998-2003)
Number of volumes: 12
Volumes reviewed: 1
Pages per volume: ~215
Price per volume: out of print (cover price € 5)
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=2394
ISBN: 3-89885-148-6

While swimming during her summer vacation, eleven-year-old Shiina finds a cuddly little alien on the bottom of the sea. The alien, Hoshimaru, can’t talk but has supernatural powers such as flying. An E.T.-like friendship begins. But then Shiina meets other children who also have alien companions, some of which are using their powers for sinister purposes.

Naru Taru has a reputation for starting harmlessly and then turning dark, deconstructing various shōnen manga tropes along the way and thwarting readers’ expectations. Some label it a horror manga, but I’ve just finished vol. 2 and at this point it’s more supernatural thriller than horror, although it’s hard to say which direction the story will take. From what I’ve read about the series, things are about to get darker still. Chances are that I won’t find out anytime soon, because the later volumes in particular are hard to find at reasonable prices.

Apart from this genre-wise ambiguous story, what makes this manga stand out is Mohiro Kitō’s art. As in his previous manga, Wings of Vendémiaire, there are many weird design ideas, but the true charm lies in how he depicts his characters and objects: from all angles, employing a real 360° ‘camera’, not shying away from daring foreshortenings.

Scariest moment in vol. 1: when another girl, Akira, quietly slits her wrists with a razor, it’s creepier than all the supernatural fighty-fighty before.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


The Champions #10 ‘controversy’: Did Mark Waid defend internment camps?

Back in July, Aaron Kashtan concluded his short review of Champions #10 which had come out that same month with the following words:

I’ll have to think twice before buying any more Mark Waid comics, and I say that as someone who’s been a fan of his for almost 25 years.

As a regular reader of both Aaron Kashtan’s weblog and Mark Waid’s comics, I had to check out this comic book for myself. Aaron’s problem with Champions #10 is that writer Mark Waid “defends” the fictitious internment camp in which most of the story is set (or maybe even internment camps in general?) and portrays it in an insensitive manner. Several other people have shared this sentiment on the Internet, e.g. Joe Glass at Bleeding Cool, but not that many to qualify it as a full-blown outrage. Anyway, here’s how I see Champions #10, and please note that this is only about the comic and not about the opinions of Aaron Kashtan or Joe Glass or Mark Waid (who identifies himself as a “liberal” and “progressive” writer for what it’s worth).

In the current status quo of the Marvel universe at the time of Champions #10, the villainous organisation Hydra has taken over the United States, and Inhumans (basically a superpowered alien race living among humans) “are being imprisoned in camps across the country”, as the introductory text puts it. The first three comic pages show life in one of these camps in a nutshell: behind the idyllic appearance, a surveillance regime is in operation in which merely talking about escape can get inmates killed immediately.

The action then switches over to the Champions, a superhero team consisting of (Miles Morales) Spider-Man, (Amadeus Cho) Hulk and Viv (daughter of Vision). They locate their missing fourth member, Ms. Marvel, in one of those camps, and set out to free her. After managing to break into the camp and incapacitating the guards, they face the unexpected problem that “some want to go, but some want to stay”, as Hulk says on p. 14 (or 15 – not sure whether the first page after the cover already counts as part of the story). Ms. Dawood, one of the detainees, expands: “What’s happening here is brutally unjust, but we and our children are well cared for here. Out there, we would be hunted relentlessly. It would be a life of fear and desperation. Some of us are willing to make that trade and fight, even though we may not win. But those who stay may be made to pay for their escape, and that terrifies them.”

So far, so good, but then Hulk comments (still on p. 14): “Trust me, as an Asian American, I have a deep historical hatred for internment, but we might have to retreat and try some other–“. This is the crucial point (the rest of the story is of no importance here): Hulk’s comment links the fictitious camp to real-world history. Even though (or rather because) he doesn’t really say much, it triggers questions in the reader’s mind such as whether Hulk thinks that the US government that imprisoned Japanese Americans (and also Korean Americans – Amadeus Cho is of Korean descent) in WWII is morally as bad as Hydra, or whether he feels that the conditions of living are as bad in the camp he is standing in as they were in WWII internment camps. Such ideas might be offensive to Asian Americans – but they are not explicitly expressed in the comic. (Who knows, maybe Hulk is merely thinking, it’s wrong to imprison someone because of his or her race, then and now.) Even if they were, it would be Hulk who has these controversial opinions, not Mark Waid. In the end, Amadeus Cho is only a teenager who hasn’t experienced WWII internment camps, so why should his opinion have such a weight that it could be mistaken for the ‘message’ of the whole comic or its writer? Waid could have devised a better stand-in for himself to broadcast his opinion, if that had been his aim.

Besides Hulk’s comment, is the plot point itself offensive that some of the inmates choose to stay imprisoned in this particular camp rather than break out? How can Ms. Dawood say she is safer inside than outside the camp when she all but witnesses the execution of two other prisoners? One could argue that, once outside the camp, Inhumans would have a good chance of escaping and hiding from Hydra by using their superpowers. However, the inmates are probably safer inside the camp, for as long everyone plays by the rules and doesn’t try to escape, no one is executed. This is an important difference from real-world Nazi concentration camps, many of which were death camps with the purpose of ultimately killing all inmates. Ms. Dawood is also right about “being well cared for”: from what we see of the Inhuman camp, it looks like they live in spacious, well-kept houses with their own lawns. This is an important difference from real-world Asian American internment camps in WWII, in which conditions were miserable.

However, the problem of Champions #10 lies not in the story but in how it is told. The comic has a serious problem with its pacing and crams too much action into too few pages. The situation of the Inhuman inmates and the opinions of their two conflicted groups are relayed mainly through the Champions instead of the Inhumans themselves, because they have already turned into a raging mob and are busy fighting each other. It’s also telling that – after the camp wall has been breached and the guards have been taken out – it’s up to the Champions to come up with a solution to the problem of approaching Hydra reinforcements. The Inhumans, even though they have superpowers too, are relegated to passive victims in need of rescue. And even though there are “hundreds” of inmates in the camp, the Champions only ever talk to two of them (not counting the terrified Inhumans they first meet on p. 10), so the majority of the Inhumans – despite their portrayal as heterogeneous – lack not only agency but also their own voices.

To sum up: is it allowed to allude to real-world internment camps in a superhero comic book? Of course it is. But if the comic is poorly written and the subject matter is not treated with the necessary sensitivity, don’t be surprised if people are offended. That being said, this whole ‘controversy’ seems to be a non-issue along the lines of Action Comics (2011) #1 / “GD” and Batgirl (2011) #37 / “But you’re a–“ (both of which I haven’t read though).


Sequential art at documenta 14

The 2017 edition of the documenta art show ended on September 17 with a slight increase in visitors, but also a financial deficit. While the danger of a discontinuation of the exhibition series seems to have been averted, many visitors (including this one) felt disappointed or at least underwhelmed with regard to the majority of art that was on display.

Like five years ago, the documenta didn’t include any proper comics as far as I could see, but lots of sequential artworks that fit Scott McCloud’s definition of comics. Here are some of them (only from the Kassel portion of the show, not from Athens which co-hosted this documenta):

The Fridericianum venue was almost entirely taken over by works from the National Museum of Contemporary Art (EMST) in Athens. This array of 192 inkjet prints is XYZ 1550 – Placebo 97 from 2015 by Lucas Samaras. Their arrangement implies a vague sequence, and each of them is composed of multiple panels.

Most works from the EMST were rather old, though, such as this painted Newspaper Book from around 1962 by Chryssa.

A clever piece of conceptual photography in which two photographers pass by each other on a staircase, also out of the EMST collection but by Belgian artist Danny Matthys: Brabantdam 59, Gent, Downstairs-Upstairs from 1975.

Another Greek work in the Fridericianum: Diary (Robinson Crusoe) from 2008, a book with sewn lines by Nina Papaconstantinou.

Prints of photographs from documenta 2 (1959) by none other than Hans Haacke.

Images in Matter from 1995 by Rena Papaspyrou. On closer inspection, these ‘books’ made of stone, metal and wood bear faint ink drawings.

Over at the documenta Halle, the long embroidered canvas Historja (2003-08) by Britta Marakatt-Labba supposedly tells the history of the Sami people.

At the Neue Galerie, a kind of storyboard (Atelierul: Scenariul, 1978) by Geta Brătescu is exhibited next to the corresponding video.

Grimmwelt Kassel is the successor of the old Brothers Grimm museum and was used as a documenta venue for the first time. The primary exhibit here was The Blind Merchant (1989-91) by Roee Rosen, a kind of revision or reinterpretation of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice with illustrations, some of which consist of multiple panels.


Sascha L., islamist and Dragon Ball fan?

“This is you when you watch a new chapter of Dragon Ball Super”

Due to internet connection problems, The 650-Cent Plague had been on hiatus for some weeks, but now it’s back with another anime-related news item that I just can’t resist to share. In an otherwise serious and sad story, here’s a hilarious detail that doesn’t seem to have been picked up by any other media on the web: last month, the trial of Sascha L. from Northeim (Germany) began, a former supporter of the Islamic State who had built a bomb which he planned to use against German policemen or soldiers. This part of the story is well known and had also been reported in international media (e.g. Washington Post).

The regional daily newspaper, Braunschweiger Zeitung, revealed some details of the court hearing in an article by Johannes Kaufmann in its September 21 issue (not freely available online), including this one (my translation):

By now he [Sascha L.] would have renounced all radical plans, and he would be ready to participate in an opt-out program. Why, then, had he put up a flag of the Islamic State and an oath of allegiance to the ‘caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in his cell, assessor Petra Bock-Hamel wanted to know. ‘I don’t like white walls,’ was Sascha L.’s reply. After speaking to a psychologist he would have actually wanted to take the IS flag down, ‘but then there was Dragon Ball Super on television, and unfortunately I forgot about it.’ Later, judicial officers had photographed the walls of his cell – with flag and oath.

Several things are remarkable about Sascha L.’s statement, but the most striking of all is the way in which it is reported in the newspaper article: no explanation at all is given what “Dragon Ball Super” actually is. As comic experts, we know that it is a current anime series by Akira Toriyama, a sequel to his earlier series Dragon Ball / Dragon Ball Z, and even if we haven’t watched it ourselves, we have some idea what Toriyama’s art style looks like and what the story is about. But how many of the newspaper readers would know? One might have expected at least a gloss in brackets such as “… Dragon Ball Super [a Japanese animated series] on television…”, but no more is said about that subject in the article.

By leaving readers in the dark, Kaufmann relegates the nature of the TV show in question to an unimportant aspect – which it most likely is. But there are probably quite a few readers who wonder: what is this TV program that has the power to distract viewers from important tasks? And is there something about this Dragon Ball Super show that makes it particularly appealing to islamists? Then again, maybe we should be thankful for every moral panic that did not happen. One can all too easily imagine alternative newspaper headlines for the same subject along the lines of: “JAPANESE CARTOON CREATES ISLAMIST BOMBERS”…