Here’s one more brief review of a current comic in which music is represented.
The Hellblazer #20-22
Authors: Tim Seeley (writer), Davide Fabbri (penciller), Christian dalla Vecchia (inker), Carrie Strachan (colourist)
Publication Dates: March – May 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: In this Hellblazer story (“The Good Old Days”), John Constantine’s ex-girlfriend Margaret Ames is possessed by the soul of a criminal that has escaped from hell. John tries to magically locate Margaret through an object, a t-shirt that she had worn. It is a band shirt from John’s old band, Mucous Membrane, and this shirt is the only representation of music in those three issues. But it works remarkably well: not much is disclosed about Mucous Membrane (the members of which were last featured in Hellblazer a couple of issues earlier) except that they hadn’t been particularly successful, as evidenced by John having had “fifty of [these shirts] sitting in a moldy box” and having stayed at “rot holes” at that time. But from our knowledge of John’s background as an angry punk in late 70s England, and from their name, we get a pretty good idea of what their music must have sounded like. Interestingly, the band logo looks slightly different in each issue, event though it’s supposed to be the same shirt and it’s the same art team on all three issues…
The rest: It is a sick joke that DC cancelled Hellblazer just in time for its 30th anniversary special. But the writing had been on the wall for some time. While Tim Seeley (and his predecessor, Simon Oliver) nailed the dialogue more often than not, DC assigned a string of artists to this book who were mediocre at first and then gradually became worse. Which makes me wonder why they bothered to “rebirth” Hellblazer in the first place.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.
Black Science #35-36
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: Dimension-travelling scientist Grant McKay and his ex-wife Sara are stranded at the ‘Interdimensional Institute for Marital Restoration’. In issue #35, said Institute sends Sara to another dimension in which her dream of becoming a musical actress on Broadway has come true. Sara is shown performing in her musical on three panels; musical notes around her speech balloons (plus her dramatic poses) indicate that she’s singing. It’s hard to tell what the music is supposed to sound like – if it is being performed by an orchestra or band, we don’t get to see it. Which says quite a lot about Broadway musicals and the end to which they are invoked here: to Grant and Sara, it doesn’t matter which genre the music belongs to, what the lyrics are about, or whether it is good or bad; the only thing that matters is that Sara has made it to Broadway.
In issue #36 there is another instance of music being performed. Grant and Sara are in a dream-like world in which they attend a wedding party. They meet old friends there, except everything and everyone looks like it’s 1920. Once more the music is depicted in three panels: the first two show wedding guests dancing, and in the background of the third we see the musicians playing; apparently a four-piece jazz band. Interestingly, there are no floating musical notes here, and before the musicians are shown, the only things that indicate music is being played are the dancers and a character prompting Grant and Sara to dance too.
The rest: The series is already announced to end with issue #42, which is a pity. Still, having the same creative team (except for the colourist) create a story of almost 1000 pages is a rare treat nowadays, and it makes for a coherent and homogeneous comic. Black Science is a complex and finely crafted psychological science fiction story – perhaps one of the finest in comic form.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
Fête de la Musique is a worldwide celebration of (live) music that takes place each year on June 21st. In comics, depictions of music abound, and due to the purely visual nature of the comic medium, comic creators have found a vast variety of ways to represent the auditive medium of music. Here are some random examples from current American comic book series.
Authors: Mark Waid & Ian Flynn (writers), Audrey Mok (artist), Kelly Fitzpatrick (colourist)
Publisher: Archie Comic Publications
Publication Dates: April – June 2018
Pages per issue: 20
Price per issue: $3.99
The music: Both the regular cover of #31 and the Adam Gorham variant cover of #30 show Archie Andrews with a guitar, so you can tell already from the outside that music plays a certain role in this comic. In these two issues, the Spring Dance at Riverdale High is on, and Archie – instead of going there with either Betty or Veronica, his perennial love interests – is supposed to play live music there with a backing band. But for various reasons the band doesn’t show up. A replacement is found just in time with Josie and the Pussycats, a band that has its own Archie Comics title but co-exists in the Archie universe. This must be the first time they appear in the main Archie comic though, as Archie is apparently not familiar with them yet.
Despite the frequent occurrence of music in Archie, it’s often depicted unrealistically. The main problem in this particular instance is that Josie and the Pussycats are booked at the last minute, when the event has already begun, but they still seem to perform well with a guitarist and lead singer they have never seen before, let alone rehearsed with. But who knows, maybe “I’ll Never Let You Go”, the song they’re shown performing, is a ubiquitous, easy-to-play standard in the Archie universe, and not the obscure (probably made-up by Waid and Flynn) song it is in the real world. Apart from that, the performing musicians are depicted authentically; even all their instruments are plugged in.
The rest: After some artist shake-ups, a competent team with Mok and Fitzpatrick has been found at last who will hopefully stay around for some time. And even in its third year, Waid’s writing is still rock solid. Except for his tendency to take on big issues and then handle them with a certain heavy-handedness (see also Champions or his current Captain America run): recently it was disability (Betty’s car accident and miraculous recovery), now it’s gun-wielding at a high school. It will be interesting to see how Waid and Flynn resolve this.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Happy May Day everyone, or ‘Warren Ellis Day’ as for some reason it has come to be known in this little corner of the Web. This time we’re going to look at politics in Warren Ellis’s classic, Planetary (art by John Cassaday). Planetary was published in 27 issues by Wildstorm/DC from 1998-2009. As far as the main story is concerned, the political setup of Planetary is a standard Warren Ellis one: it’s a conspiracy of supervillains who pull all the strings in this world, and the democratically elected governments of the world are powerless against them. It takes superheroes – vigilantes, rogues, operating outside of the law – to protect the world from these supervillains.
There is more going on here, though. Among the earlier issues (collected in Planetary Book One, not to be confused with Planetary Volume 1 which only contains #1-6), some stand out in particular from a political perspective because they comment on real-world political events and figures. Of these, we’ll discuss issue #2 (“Island”) here (but #7 and #8 are also noteworthy in this regard).
“Island” is mostly set on “Island Zero”, a fictional island that “forms the far north-western tip of the Japanese archipelago. Also the closest island in the group to the Eurasian landmass – specifically, Russia”, says Shinya Fukuda, a Tokyo-based employee of the Planetary organisation. He continues, “It’s off-limits, due to an issue of war legality still under arbitration. Basically, we think it’s ours, and the Russians think it’s theirs. One of our prime ministers visited Yeltsin to try and iron it out last year, but, you know…”
Another Japanese character, the terrorist Ryu who plans to overthrow the Japanese government, describes Island Zero like this: “The last island between Japan and Siberian Russia. Unpopulated because of its nature as a political football. The Russians claim it as spoils of World War Two. We, naturally, claim it as part of Japan. Legally, this island is a nowhere thing.”
Ellis probably alludes to the Kuril Islands dispute here, even though they are located north-east of Japan, not north-west. The status of the Kuril Islands has been settled in several treaties which say they belong to Russia (as the successor of the Soviet Union). The Japanese government accepts these treaties, but claims that the four islands closest to Hokkaidō do not belong to the Kurils and are therefore not part of the treaties. Another difference between the disputed Kuril Islands and Island Zero is that the former are not entirely uninhabited: almost 20,000 people live on three of them, while on the fourth there’s a Russian border guard outpost.
The interesting thing in Planetary, however, is how the two aforementioned Japanese characters – only one of which is a fanatic nationalist – talk about Island Zero: “we think it’s ours”, “we claim it as part of Japan”. Why do they include themselves in the pronoun? It’s the government that does the claiming, so why do Shinya and Ryu adopt this claim as their own? What would Shinya and Ryu specifically gain if Russia ceded Island Zero to Japan? Sure, if Island Zero was part of Japan, Ryu could go on his hiking trip there without the risk of getting caught by the military, but the reason he goes there in the first place is precisely its remoteness due to its disputed status.
For Shinya and Ryu there’s nothing at stake in the dispute over Island Zero, so they probably don’t really “think” and “claim” much about it. More likely, there are some common but oversimplifying conflations at work here: of state and nation, of individual citizen and nation, and of state and individual politician. As abstract entities, states can’t think or claim anything – politicians such as the Japanese prime minister mentioned by Shinya can. And while it can be said that some views are more prevalent in a given nation than others, the assuredness with which both Shinya and Ryu include all Japanese people in their “we” creates the illusion of a completely homogeneous society in which everyone agrees with their government.
It’s particularly problematic that it’s the Japanese society, because this basically repeats the old prejudice of a purported Japanese conformity that borders on blind obedience. It seems like in the world of Planetary, governmental authority is only questioned by superhumans (who are powerful enough to stand above it anyway). Ryu says he wants to topple the government and become “paramount leader of Japan”, but he never says what his problem with the current government is. He is dismissed by Shinya as having “that Yukio Mishima, Aum Shin Ryko [sic, i.e. Rikyō] smell about” him. However, Aum Shinrikyō had their religious doomsday beliefs and Mishima wanted to restore the divinity of the Emperor. What does Ryu believe in? One of his followers says to him, “I believe in your theories. I believe in armed resurrection and revolution and nerve gas and acceptable casualties and all the rest of it.” But what are Ryu’s theories? Ellis doesn’t say. Ideological debates don’t seem to interest him. Apparently ideology is something for fanatics and terrorists, who make for good plot devices – but these characters must be wrong, because they’re the villains, so their ideology must be wrong too and doesn’t need to be discussed. Neither do we learn much about the political beliefs of the protagonists, the three superhero members of Planetary – they’re the good guys, so if they believe in anything, surely it must be right after all…
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?
Authors: Max Bemis (writer), Jacen Burrows (artist), Mat Lopes (colourist)
Publication Dates: November 2017 – March 2018
Pages per issue: 20-25
Price per issue: $3.99
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: ● ● ● ○ ○
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?
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
Price: € 6.50
Website: http://www.tokyopop.de/manga/tokyopop-manga/shojo/yotsuba/1836/yotsuba-band-13 (German)
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)
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)
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: ● ● ● ○ ○