Comic book reviews, Fête de la Musique edition – part 2: Black Science #35-36

This is the second short review blogpost (of three) in which representations of music in current comics are surveyed.

Black Science #35-36
Language: English
Authors: Rick Remender (writer), Matteo Scalera (artist), Moreno Dinisio (colourist)
Publisher: Image
Publication Dates: May – June 2018
Pages per issue: 22
Price per issue: $3.99
Website: https://imagecomics.com/comics/series/black-science

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: ● ● ● ● ○

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Upcoming talk: Has Akira always been a cyberpunk comic?

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

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


Politics in Warren Ellis’s Trees

Happy Labour Day! And welcome to the second blog post of what is now a series of posts on Warren Ellis and politics. (If you’re wondering why Ellis and why politics, read last year’s post here.) This time we’re going to look at the first couple of issues of Trees (Image 2014-2016, art by Jason Howard).

Trees is a science fiction story set in the near future. The comic starts as a collection of episodes that are only loosely connected through the ‘Trees’ phenomenon, extraterrestrial pillars that have landed on various places on earth. There are three settings that are visited repeatedly and extensively in the first few issues:

  • Cefalù, Sicily, Italy. This part of the story centers on Eligia Gatti, a young woman whose boyfriend Tito runs a neo-fascist gang. Tito sums up the situation: “Mafia to the south of us, ‘Ndrangheta to the north, the government collapsing, and us in the middle. Cefalu is ruined. Someone needs to take control of things.” (#2). This is the ‘strong man’ rhetoric once again: government has failed to protect society from crime, so a few individuals take matters into their own hands. Only this time, Tito’s gang merely seeks to replace organised crime by their own flavour of it, using mafia-like methods such as extortion. Furthermore, the gang members are clearly portrayed as villains, and as the story progresses, Eligia tries to break free from the fascists.
    However, Eligia’s emancipation is not achieved through a reinstatement of governmental power. Instead, she turns to another individual who stands outside the law (as evidenced by his gun-wielding), the enigmatic elderly Professor Luca Bongiorno. Thus Ellis doesn’t provide a proper solution to this case of government failure.
  • Spitsbergen, Norway. A group of young scientists from all over the world lives and works at an Arctic research facility. Due to the harsh climate, they live an isolated life removed from the rest of society. Ellis portrays this quasi-anarchy as a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the scientists are free to go about their work as they please without much supervision, and they don’t have to worry about food and housing. On the other hand, any possible conflicts are difficult to resolve because there is no impartial authority: when Sarah suggests to Marsh that he should return home, saying “I don’t think it’s even been legal for you to have been on station for two and a half years”, he answers, “So send someone up here to arrest me” (#2). Clearly, government has little power over the inhabitants of Blindhail Station. Marsh even implies that their life is a regression to barbarism: “What’s civilized? We live in bears-that-eat-people country” (#1).
  • Shu, China. This appears to be a fictional city which has formed around one of the Trees. Access to it is restricted, but once you’ve managed to get inside the city walls, it turns out to be an artist colony of utopian qualities. We see Shu through the eyes of Chenglei, a young artist from rural China (or, as a citizen of Shu puts it, “from Pigshit Village in scenic Incest Province”) who is overwhelmed by the freedom and permissive attitude he finds there. The Shu story arc is Ellis’s love letter to anarchy. Unhindered by government authorities, Chenglei is for the first time in his life able to explore his sexuality, while back in “Pigshit Village […] people are still beaten by their own families for being gay”, as Chenglei notes in a later issue (#6).

In all three scenarios, Ellis asks what happens when governmental power loosens and anarchy (in different degrees and different flavours) sets in. The overall picture he paints is ambiguous – he shows both the risks and the opportunities of anarchy – but this exploration of anarchy can also be read as a refusal of authoritarian forms of government: clearly, the future as Ellis imagines it does not lie in governmental law enforcement.

It should be noted that some of the other story arcs in Trees are more explicitly political, but they only become important in later issues.


The best manga of 2016? Review of Orange and Knights of Sidonia

Are the manga that almost everyone put on their best-comics-of-2016 lists really so awesome? (Spoiler: yes, they are.) Or was the actually best manga a completely different one that was overlooked by most? In this little two-part blog post [EDIT: read part 2 here] I’ll review two titles from each of those categories.

Orange (orange) vol. 1panel from Orange #1 by Ichigo Takano
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ichigo Takano
Publisher: Carlsen Manga (originally Shūeisha and Futabasha)
Year: 2016 (originally 2012)
Number of volumes: 3 so far (completed with vol. 5 in Japan)
Pages: ~190 (+ 30 pages backup story)
Price: € 8
Website: https://www.carlsen.de/serie/orange/72643
ISBN: 978-3-551-71324-7

Orange is the highest-ranked manga in the aggregate ranking of 2016 year-end lists, so it certainly is the most popular among critics. But is it also the best? If you only go by its synopsis, you wouldn’t think so: 16-year old Naho mysteriously starts receiving letters from the future, written by herself at age 26. The letters are mainly concerned with Naho’s new classmate Kakeru, who will die next year, and adult Naho wants teenage Naho to prevent this.

Magically travelling back to one’s teenage days is not a particularly original premise for a manga – cf. the recent ReLIFE by Yayoisō and 31 I Dream by Arina Tanemura, and of course Jirō Taniguchi’s 1990s masterpiece, A Distant Neighborhood. The new spin in Orange is that 26-year old Naho doesn’t travel back in time; she only sends letters but can’t control what her 16-year old self does, and 16-year old Naho doesn’t know anything about her future except for what she reads in the letters.

This makes for an ideal starting point for the compelling exploration of a theme that was also central to Taniguchi: regret. One could even argue this works better in Orange, because although 16-year old Naho knows what she is supposed to do (according to the advice in the letters), she often can’t bring herself to do it, or decides against it, or simply misses the opportunity. The letters don’t change who she is; they don’t turn her into another, more courageous, person.

Add to that some gorgeous artwork (masterly use of screen tones!) and you get an almost perfect manga. Almost, but not quite: what took me by surprise was that the story is partially set in the time of adult Naho, and – not unlike the much-reviled epilogue to the final Harry Potter novel – I don’t think this works all that well. While the manga demographic terms of shōjo and josei are often problematic, this distinction might be at the core of the problem here: a reader can identify with either Naho the wife and mother or Naho the high schooler, but probably not both.

Another potentially problematic element is the unlikely plot device of sending letters back in time in an otherwise realistic setting, which as of vol. 1 hasn’t been explained yet. An unconvincing explanation at the end can still ruin a series that had been good up to this point (I’m looking at you, Nobuaki Kanazawa), so we’ll have to wait and see how this is handled in the four remaining volumes of Orange.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Knights of Sidonia (シドニアの騎士 / Shidonia no kishi) vol. 14
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Tsutomu Nihei
Publisher: Egmont (originally Kōdansha)
Year: 2017 (originally 2015)
Number of volumes: 14 so far (completed with vol. 15 in Japan)
Pages: ~170
Price: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/knights-of-sidonia/
ISBN: 9783-7704-9240-4

Ostensibly, this penultimate volume of Knights of Sidonia has little to do with 2016: the original Japanese tankōbon was published in 2015 already and this German translation only this year. However, the 15th and final volume, which is yet to be published in German, came out in the US last year, so I would have thought the conclusion of the series would make a bigger impact on the Western manga scene.

Instead it seems to have gone by unnoticed – it wasn’t on any of the best manga/comics of 2016 lists -, which is a shame because of the historic significance in the field of science-fiction manga that this series has already earned itself due to its scale (surpassing Tsutomu Nihei’s earlier magnum opus, Blame!, by 5 volumes), its ambitious genre-bending, and its modernisation of the venerable mecha genre.

I’ve sung the praises of the series before, but how does a a single volume hold up when judged individually? In the case of vol. 14, it’s an above-average volume because many exciting things happen in it: there’s an alien infiltrator aboard the mothership Sidonia, Mrs Hiyama the talking bear makes several appearances, we get to know the enigmatic captain Kobayashi better, we even learn something about protagonist Tanikaze’s origin, Tanikaze gets a new mecha model, etc.

That being said, Knights of Sidonia might be a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts – or rather, being precisely the sum of its parts, with each new volume adding to the enjoyment of reading, rather than merely replicating it. For each awesome scene, there’s a sequence where it’s hard to figure out what’s going on (particularly the space fights), or an unlikely twist that’s only there for shock value. But put together, there’s a lot of awesomeness over the course of this series.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Manga reviews, Halloween 2016 edition: Shi Ki, Detective Ritual, Parasyte

Continuing the ‘tradition’ from last year, here are some more reviews of relatively recent creepy manga:

Shi Ki (屍鬼 / shiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Fuyumi Ono (original story), Ryū Fujisaki (manga adaptation)
Publisher: Egmont (originally Shūeisha)
Years: 2013-2015 (original run 2007-2011)
Number of volumes: 11
Volumes reviewed: 1-4

Pages per volume: ~190
Price per volume: € 7.50
Website: http://www.egmont-manga.de/buch-buchreihe/shi-ki/ (German publisher), https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3770481163

In a remote Japanese village, a mysterious epidemic breaks out. One by one, several villagers become anaemic and then die. The local doctor, Ozaki, resolves to find out the cause of the supposed disease.

What starts promisingly as a suspenseful medical thriller soon (in vol. 3 at the latest) turns into a generic vampire story if there ever was one. It turns out that the family who recently moved into a castle-like mansion near the village are vampires who suck the blood of the villagers and turn them into vampires too. Part of vol. 4 is even told from a villager-turned-vampire’s perspective and leaves no doubt about what they are.

That being said, this manga has some things going for it: on the one hand, it manages to keep up some of the suspense even after the vampires have been clearly established as the cause of the deaths. Plus, the art style is truly distinctive – characters are elongated and twisted, faces become fine-lined caricatures, stark contrasts are employed and inverted again. In some instances Fujisaki relies too much on photo-referencing though, resulting in overly flat compositions.

In any case I don’t think I’ll read the remaining 7 volumes anytime soon.

Scariest moment in vol. 4: the little vampire girl with the puppet.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

Detective Ritual (探偵儀式 / tantei gishiki)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Authors: Ryūsui Seiryōin (writer), Eiji Ōtsuka (storyboard), Chizu Hashii (artist)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Kadokawa Shoten)
Years: 2011-2012 (original run 2004-2009)
Number of volumes: 6
Volumes reviewed: 1-3

Pages per volume: ~170
Price per volume: € 6.50
Website: https://www.mangaupdates.com/series.html?id=15089 (MangaUpdates)
ISBN: 978-3-8420-0134-3

Detective Ritual is more of a mystery than a horror manga, but it’s sufficiently creepy to be included in this Halloween-themed review post. Set in the near future or an alternate present, the story is about two rivaling detective organisations aiding the police in murder investigations, one government-sponsored and the other a group of precocious teenagers. The former, however, becomes the target of mass murder themselves…

The artwork is competent but unremarkable (except for the eccentric character designs) – the biggest draw of this manga is its irreverent attitude towards the detective genre: time and again, the initial, overly convoluted explanations that the detectives offer as solutions to the murder cases turn out to be wrong. There’s also a nice metafictional sub(?)-plot about a former detective who has become a writer of mystery novels.

This is certainly a manga that stands out by virtue of its weirdness, but it’s hard to really like it.

Scariest moment: the first of the eponymous ‘detective rituals’, a gruesome mass decapitation which is re-visited several times.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

Parasyte – Kiseijuu (寄生獣 / kiseijū)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hitoshi Iwaaki
Publisher: Panini Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Years: 2016- (original run 1988-1995)
Number of volumes: 10
Volumes reviewed: 1

Pages per volume: 278
Price per volume: € 8.99
Website: http://www.paninishop.de/parasyte (German)
ISBN: 978-3-95798-893-5

Parasyte is a horror manga classic, but its publication in German began only this year, probably in order to exploit a renewed interest in the property that has been sparked by the recent anime adaptation.

In the beginning of this story, worm-like space aliens fall on earth and crawl inside the heads of sleeping, unsuspecting people to take over their bodies. While the infested humans still look like before, the aliens are able to transform their heads into claws and fangs with which they prey and feast on other humans. When one of the aliens tries to take over teenaged Shinichi’s body, though, the infestation goes wrong: instead of settling in Shinichi’s brain, the alien is only able to take over his right arm. From now on, Shinichi and the intelligent, talking alien in his arm have to learn to get along, and ultimately work together to fight the other, less friendly aliens.

Despite all the gore and horror there’s also a lot of humour in this manga, and in addition to that Iwaaki even manages to insert some environmentalist messages. The artwork has a bit of an 80s feel to it, but some of the transformation sequences are downright trippy.

Scariest moment: that famous scene in chapter 1 where an alien-infested man’s head splits open, turns into a huge mouth and bites a woman’s head off.

Rating: ● ● ● ● ○


Shōjo manga roundup: Tempest, Namida Usagi, Kimi ni todoke

Continuing from last week, here are some more short reviews of current (or at least recently translated) shōjo manga.
Hime from Tempest despairs of his male body.

Hime despairs of his male body in Tempest.

Title: Sonnensturm (テンペスト / Tempest)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yuiji Aniya
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Pages: 158
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/sonnensturm/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (of 3 volumes in German so far; volume 4 is scheduled for May)
ISBN: 978-3770481514

In the near future, earth’s entire male population is wiped out by a solar storm – that’s probably the eponymous Tempest (not to be confused with the manga Blast of Tempest / Zetsuen no Tempest). However, the remaining women figure out how to reproduce by hybridising egg cells. Only female children are born this way, until the 40th century, when a boy is born – our protagonist Hime. Trying to fit into this all-female world, he pretends to be a girl. Which goes well until his friend Kou wants to have children with him…
Such a story must be a real treat for anyone interested in gender issues. Homosexuality, social pressure and acceptance, radical feminism, family and reproduction politics, it’s all in there. It’s also interesting from a reception perspective: how easily does the reader “forget” that Hime is a boy? Can it be read as a yuri manga? On the other hand, Tempest doesn’t work well as a science fiction manga. Apart from some advanced data visualisation technology, we don’t see much that tells us we’re in the future at all.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
There's also a subplot on photography in Namida Usagi, but that's quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

There’s also a subplot around photography in Namida Usagi, but that’s quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

Title: Namida Usagi – Tränenhase (なみだうさぎ ~ 制服の片思い / Namida Usagi – Seifuku no kataomoi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ai Minase
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2009)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/namida-usagi-traenenhase/
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 2 volumes in German so far; vol. 3 is scheduled for March)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3770481347

Ai Minase’s name might ring a bell, as she was an assistant to Arina Tanemura on the classic magical girl manga Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Namida Usagi was off to a good start: in this high school love story, the stereotypical roles of powerless girl and powerful boy are reversed when Momoka, a fairly average girl, falls in love with her reclusive and unpopular classmate Narumi. However, this setup is already revised at the end of the first volume. After the holidays, Narumi returns to school with shorter hair and without glasses, and suddenly he’s popular with all the girls. This makeover (which the author claims to have made by popular demand) ruins the whole manga for me, as it looks like it continues from this point as just another bog-standard romance manga.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Title: Nah bei dir – Kimi ni todoke (君に届け / Kimi ni todoke)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Year: 2010 (originally 2005)
Publisher: Tokypop (originally Shūeisha)
Pages: 192-208
Price: €6.95 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=875_742
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 18 volumes in German so far; vol. 19 is scheduled for April)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3-8420-0071-1

Her classmates avoid 15-year old Sawako because she looks like Sadako from The Ring. The only one who doesn’t find her scary is Kazehaya, the most popular boy in class – but then again, Kazehaya is nice to everyone…
I learned about Namida Usagi through a review in AnimaniA, which said that is was nowhere near as good as Kimi ni todoke. In the end I checked out both series, and AnimaniA was right. Although the character constellation in Kimi ni todoke (shy girl meets popular boy) seems generic at first, the subtle storytelling makes more than up for that. Particularly by the second volume, the focus is more on the girls Sawako tries to become friends with than Kazehaya. In other words, this manga is more about friendship than romance, at least so far. Will this series continue to be as enjoyable over the course of more than 20 volumes? I’m willing to give it a try.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○