Category: graphic novels

Is There a Hierarchy Among the Arts?

tezuka_osamuLast weekend I wrote up a recommended reading list as a permanent page, and as I came to the end I briefly considered adding a section for comics, but decided against it because my goal was to direct people to higher art; pop culture already has enough promotion.

While thinking about some of the graphic novels I may have added, I noticed that most of them were works that I’d only really recommend to someone specifically interested in the medium. I took a look at the general fiction section and considered whether I’d encourage anyone to read them before even the relatively lighter works, like The Things They Carried or The Napoleon of Notting Hill, and the answer was no, I wouldn’t.

Why is this? It’s not as though I’m only working from a small sample size; I’ve read dozens of these works, including those that are commonly cited as the best of the medium, like WatchmenThe Dark Knight Returns, a few works by Tezuka Osamu, as well as some more niche titles like Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths or A Bride’s Story. Are comics just inherently an inferior medium? How would one even go about comparing different media?…

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Oh, My Goddess! v. 48 (75 Books LXVIII)

Fujishima Kosuke’s Oh, My Goddess!, a series approximately as old as I am, has finished; Dark Horse published the last volume earlier this year. I was a relative latecomer to the comic, picking it up only in 2007, I believe, when it was already approaching twenty years old. I was able to blow through most of it that had been published up to that point fairly quickly, since someone must have dumped the first twenty volumes or so at a local Half Price Books. I had to pick them up a few at a time, since I didn’t have that much spare cash in college, and also had to figure out what order Dark Horse’s initially unnumbered volumes ought to be read in. Still, the best way to read OMG is probably to marathon several volumes at once, take a break, read several more, and so on.

That isn’t to say that the series is bad, but rather, it’s very uneven. There were some story arcs that I enjoyed, but several others I was happy to just skim through quickly and get to the next good part. Generally, the best story arcs were the least ambitious, and Fujishima did much better at more-or-less slice of life material than action or large narratives.

Which shouldn’t be surprising, really. Our hero, Keiichi, is very much an everyman character, but a very likable one, and he’s an everyman who, by chance (or fate, I suppose) gets to star in the platonic ideal of nerd wish-fulfillment stories when the beautiful, traditionally feminine goddess Belldandy shows up and starts living with him. Comedy ensues, new characters come and go, we have our occasional dramatic moments while exploring this character or that’s backstory, and so on. My favourite moments, though – the ones I remember best – tend to be relatively simple things. For example, Keiichi deciding to buy a nice ring for Belldandy, killing himself for a couple weeks working lousy part-time jobs to get the money for it, then going to buy it once he has the exact amount he needs only to realise that he forgot to account for sales tax. Another: Keiichi goes to apply for graduation from college, only to be told that he’s not eligible because he didn’t get any credit hours for a second foreign language, so he’ll need to stay a little longer; this one’s a favourite because almost the exact same thing happened to me when I applied for graduation.

So when Fujishima got more ambitious, as I mentioned when talking about volumes forty-seven and forty-one, I lost interest fairly quickly. Unfortunately, this final story arc took years to resolve, and by the time it finished I’d nearly forgotten how it started. If you’re wondering why I’m being a bit vague, that’s why, and it’s the peril of long-running, serialised stories – I simply forget plot points over time, and I don’t want to go back and re-read things that, in this case, I didn’t enjoy much the first time around.

Getting to the ending, it’s fine. It’s roughly what I expected, though I would’ve thought that we would see more appearances of characters from throughout the comic’s run, or at least some of the main ones. Fujishima seems to enjoy hamming it up, and honestly I would’ve liked to see some of these guys who, in real-time, we haven’t seen in years.

Regardless, I’m just glad that the series finally got its happy ending. Perhaps I should go back and re-read some of the early volumes soon……

Read More Oh, My Goddess! v. 48 (75 Books LXVIII)

Genshiken Second Season v. 6-7 (75 Books LXII – LXIII)

Kio Shimoku’s Genshiken: Second Season is a tough comic for me to review, because I can’t help comparing it to the original run of Genshiken. Part of what I liked so much about the original, though, was that I could relate to it back in college. Since then, though, not only has the comic changed significantly, but I’ve changed as well.

I first read Genshiken early in college, and loved it right away. The setting, a college anime club, doesn’t sound all that exciting, but it has a few things going for it. At the time, anime was just starting to take over as my primary hobby, and I was also getting very involved in one of the student organisations at my university. Furthermore, I could see a lot of myself in two of the main characters, Sasahara and Madarame, and the whole cast seemed like a group I could see myself hanging out with.

Now, Genshiken is rather open-ended, and doesn’t really have an overarching story, and since it’s basically about the club it could conceivably just go on forever, with new characters being introduced at the beginning of each school year. However, it started with Sasahara at the beginning of his freshman year, and we follow him over the next four years as he grows from a being a socially awkward nerd not quite comfortable with his own hobby to him graduating having become fairly self-confident and getting a job within the comics industry. It sounds simple, but I can’t help but think back on my university years while thinking about it, the people I met, how I changed over those four years, and the Genshiken cast feels like they were a part of it. Beginning and ending with Sasahara lets us see a full “generation” of members, giving it a feeling of closure and mirroring the experience one has with a real university club, where by the time one graduates it’s a mostly different group of people from one’s freshman year.

However, a few years after Genshiken ended, Kio decided to continue the comic, picking up where the original run ended. At this point, he could either basically do the same comic again, or take it in a new direction. The former would probably be enjoyable but a bit pointless, so he changed it. That’s probably for the best since otaku culture has changed, and it makes sense for a comic about that scene to change with it. For me, though, this presents a couple of problems. First, I’m several years out of college by now, and secondly my interest in anime and that whole fandom has severely dwindled. Furthermore, the Genshiken members are now almost all women, which is in keeping with trends in both Japan and the United States, but makes for a completely different dynamic, and one that’s much more difficult for me to relate to.

So already, from a purely subjective standpoint, this is no longer the comic I enjoyed back at college. There are also a few changes in tone, I think. Previously, especially after the first volume or two, the characters were relatively realistic; I could see most of these guys existing in the real world. Now there are two major characters, Sue and Kuchiki, who come across as much more off-the-wall than anyone else. They were introduced late in the original run, but receive much more attention now. The plot has also, as of these two volumes, taken a turn where Madarame, the nerdiest nerd of all of them, has built up a small harem. Now, Genshiken as a harem comedy isn’t totally out of left field, I suppose; Madarame isn’t really more implausible of a chick magnet than a lot of harem protagonists, and Kio is doubtlessly aware of this and knows what he’s doing. It’s just an odd development.

Honestly, Madarame is almost the only reason I’m still following Genshiken. The comic is fine, I suppose, but not a must-read at this point, and I just don’t care about any of the new characters. Besides, I’ve been following this story for so long now that the sunk-cost fallacy has taken hold, so I suppose I’ll just keep tagging along for as long as Kio wants to keep writing it.…

Read More Genshiken Second Season v. 6-7 (75 Books LXII – LXIII)

Joan (75 Books LV – LVII)

Now we move on to an older, shorter work from the mid-1990’s by Yasuhiko Yoshikazu, Joan. It’s a work of historical fiction, about a young woman named Emil who’d been raised as a man near the end of the Hundred Years War, who sees visions of Joan of Arc urging her to follow in her footsteps and serve the French king. I can’t say how historically accurate the work is overall, aside from the fictional Emil, but the last volume includes a short essay by Chojun Otani, a scholar of French literature, who says that Yasuhiko came to him for help in his research, so he’d apparently made at least some effort in keeping the work as accurate as the story allows.

In any case, the story gets off to a slow start, as Yasuhiko spends a lot of the first volume setting up backstory and just getting Emil into the king’s army. Once it gets going, though, it’s very good. As in Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin, he does an excellent job quickly establishing each character’s personality and motives, which is important in a work that’s only three volumes long. Though Emil is the protagonist, St. Joan does the most to advance the story. It’s Emil’s visions of her that motivate almost everything she does, and Emil’s resemblance to Joan tends to remind everyone she meets about their own relationship with her. Yasuhiko takes an interesting approach, really – like many people, the artist is clearly fascinated and inspired by Joan’s life, so one could easily see him just writing a work about Joan herself. Instead, he takes an indirect route, and besides Emil’s visions we get to know the saint entirely by second-hand accounts. Though unusual, this method was very effective; somehow, there’s a feeling of loss from every character so powerful that by the end, I started admiring Joan myself, even though she only appears a few times.

The events of the plot occasionally feel disconnected from each other. In particular, most of the second volume, adding up to a large part of the whole work, focuses on Gilles de Rais. He is a fascinating character and fits right in thematically, but the overall story and Emil’s development would hardly change at all if this part were radically shortened or, perhaps, even excised entirely.

I mentioned in my reviews of Gundam: The Origin that Yasuhiko’s art is excellent, especially the watercolour pages. I was pleasantly surprised to find, then, that the entirety of Joan is in colour, which is unusual for Japanese comics. As in Origin, many pages have a dominant colour, while certain characters or some other focal point will be a strong contrasting colour. 

Joan is out of print, since it was published by the now-defunct ComicsOne. It doesn’t seem too hard to find online, though you should definitely check the condition. My copies looked worn and the second volume’s spine detached while I was reading it, even though they didn’t seem too roughly handled. That said, it’s well worth checking out.…

Read More Joan (75 Books LV – LVII)

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin v. 8-10 (75 Books LII – LIV)

So, I’ve already talked about Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin twice before, so I think I just have a few things to add. The eighth volume does pick up where the fourth left off, having finished Char and Sayla’s backstory. Yasuhiko Yoshikazu’s art is still excellent, and I especially like the colour pages with the watercolours. He also continues to be very good at characterising Gundam‘s large cast, even those who are only around for a chapter or two.

I will say that reading almost all of this comic in the same year was the right move, even though I hadn’t planned to do it that way. I always have a hard time following serialised work, whether as it updates or via the compilation volumes like these. When so much time passes between relatively short updates in the story, the pacing gets completely screwed, and one tends to forget events and characters from early parts in the story, which also makes it more difficult to tie together any themes or motifs that the author may have intended. The last volume comes out in December, so I may well finish the series this year.

On a side note, each volume features a short essay or comic by a special contributor, where the writer or artist talks about what Gundam or Yasuhiko’s works generally mean to him. For the ninth volume, this was done by Shinkai Makoto, the director of Voices of a Distant Star, 5 Centimeters per Second, etc. If you know anything about Shinkai’s work, you expect him to talk about clouds, and he does not disappoint – most of his essay gushes over Yasuhiko’s landscapes with a special mention of “the intricate expressions of the clouds.”

Anyway, the series is a fairly significant investment, with twelve volumes at about $20 and change each. However, Vertical’s editions are excellently done, and so far this has been one of the best comics I’ve ever read and worth every dollar.…

Read More Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin v. 8-10 (75 Books LII – LIV)

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Omnibus 3-5 (75 Books – XLV-XLVII)

I was a fan of Kishiro Yukito’s original Battle Angel Alita, which I finished at about the time the omnibus edition of the sequel, Battle Angel Alita: Last Order began, but I fell behind on the Last Order release for a long time. However, I figured there’s no better time to knock out a few graphic novels in a row than when you’re supposed to read seventy-five books in a year and it’s September and you’ve only got forty-three.

Anyway, as much as I liked the original, I’m not a big fan of this one, and during the fourth omnibus volume, which is entirely taken up by extremely long backstory material, considered dropping it. It’s not a bad comic, really. The art is still solid, the action is still very enjoyable, and I like most of the characters. However, Kishiro is very self-indulgent now. So, he’ll do things like switching to a cartoony, almost chibi art style in the middle of an otherwise serious scene, give Alita a cat’s tail for no reason that I can discern, and though the original had plenty of over-the-top character designs and some silly moments, he really takes these up to eleven in these volumes. These things can be enjoyable in small doses, but it can give a reader whiplash as we move from one mood to another, often in between panels, and as a result the whole thing is much less coherent than the original. It seems like he needed his editor to rein in some of these ideas to make a more consistent product.

There are a few other problems, but they’re difficult to discuss without giving away too many spoilers. Two major characters are killed off-screen, for example, but only one of the other characters ever mentions this and no one seems particularly bothered by it. One of the most notable features of the world of Alita is the violence and casual cruelty, but in the first comic there was some gravity attached at least to deaths of main characters that Alita interacted with, so the violence actually had some effect on the audience. Here, it’s just something that happens, like the two were just inconvenient to the story so Kishiro just wrote them out.

In any case, I’d highly recommend the original Alita to anyone interested in graphic novels, assuming one has a high tolerance for violence. Last Order is probably worth reading if you’re a big Alita fan, but otherwise, unless it improves significantly in the second half, you’re probably going to be safe skipping this and just sticking to the original.…

Read More Battle Angel Alita: Last Order Omnibus 3-5 (75 Books – XLV-XLVII)

ToraDora vol. 7 (75 Books – XLIII)

I wrote about the first two volumes of Zekkyo’s comic adaptation of ToraDora way back in July 2011, and volume three a few months later. Since then, each volume has continued to follow the anime fairly closely (I haven’t read the original novels, so I can’t make a comparison there), and my opinion of it has remained consistent from volume to volume. The character art is good, the jokes generally work, the drama is, perhaps, a bit melodramatic at times, but that’s just part of the style. It does have a high school setting, which I almost always dislike, but I’ll give it a pass since I’ve been following the story for so long.

The things I’ve complained about previously are still around; background art is rather plain, it’s a bit wordy, and there are a few annoying localisation choices. Too much saying “like” and “totally,” and using kaicho instead of “class president,” which is especially distracting because one moment you have a character talking like a stereotypical valley girl, then they’ll throw in the obviously Japanese kaicho. Again, though, it’s not too bad, and the translation does a decent job overall at giving each character a distinct voice.

So overall, it is a solid enough adaptation. The fact that I’m seven volumes in, four years after starting the series, is proof enough that Zekkyo’s doing something right. The strength of the original story shines through, so while it’s not a must-read by any means, if you’re a fan of the anime and want more of this story, by all means check it out.…

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Seraphim 266613336 Wings (75 Books – XLII)

There are three notable things about Seraphim 266613336 Wings. One is that it has the most unwieldy three-word title I’ve ever encountered. The second is that it’s another Kon Satoshi comic, but one he did with Oshii Mamoru (of Ghost in the Shell and Patlabor fame). The third is that, like the other Kon comic I’ve read this year, it’s unfinished.

Now, the story is an interesting one – the premise is that the world is plagued by a disease called “seraphim,” which causes its victims to hallucinate and to gradually grow wings out of their back. Much of the world is already dead (and Japan was apparently wiped out entirely), so the WHO sends out two men and a dog called the Magi to escort a girl, Sera, who seems to be immune to the disease and possibly the key to finding a cure, back to her homeland in central Asia. It’s fairly wordy, which is something that Oshii is known for, but everything does move at a quick pace with some action thrown in.

The main problem, of course, is that the comic just stops halfway through. In Opus, we at least have some idea of how the story was going to end, since it was almost done. Here, I have no idea, and that’s why I’m not going into a lot of depth here – I could only really recommend Seraphim to people who are big fans of the authors. Otherwise, you’re in for the frustrating experience of half of a story. A very good story, admittedly, but it’s not a satisfying experience.

Dark Horse’s edition does include two essays at the end of the book. One is just a page by Watanabe Takashi, editor at Animage when that magazine originally serialised Seraphim in 1994 and 1995, which gives some background on how the comic was originally conceived and why it was discontinued. The other is by Carl Gustav Horn, editor of the English edition, which is just under thirty pages and gives a lot of background on the creators, the publisher, the setting, and so on. It’s well-written and certainly interesting to anyone who’d like to know about the manga publishing industry, Oshii and Kon, or some points about the work itself, but it feels like overkill for a half-finished graphic novel.

In any case, if you’re a Kon or Oshii completist or just don’t mind never finishing a story, Seraphim is worth checking out. Otherwise, you’re perfectly safe sticking to their better-known, finished works.…

Read More Seraphim 266613336 Wings (75 Books – XLII)

Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (75 Books – XXXVII)

OConnor PhDAs a Southerner, Catholic, and fan of literature, one can easily guess that I’m a fan of Flannery O’Connor. If you haven’t read Wise Blood or her short stories, do yourself a favour and check them out. Her excellent collection of essays, Mystery and Manners, is also some of the best work I’ve read about literature.

When I heard about Fantagraphics Books releasing a collection of her cartoons, though, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Skill in one medium certainly doesn’t necessarily transfer to another, and most of these were originally published for her college’s student newspaper. Besides, there’s probably a reason she ultimately focused on writing rather than cartooning.

Ultimately, The Cartoons is pretty good for what it is. They’re certainly better than anything I saw in my university’s paper, at the very least. A lot of her subjects are topical to something from the particular issue a cartoon was published in, like a special art exhibit at the school or student government elections, but they’re mostly things that anyone who’s been to college can identify with. They’re not laugh-out-loud funny, but are enjoyable to read throughout.

O’Connor’s cartoons are almost all linoleum cuts, which makes the book unusual and interesting in itself, though the angular caricatures are a style you’ll probably either love or hate; I like it, personally.…

Read More Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons (75 Books – XXXVII)

Opus (75 Books – XXXV)

I imagine all of my readers already know Kon Satoshi, but if you haven’t seen his films (Perfect Blue, Millennium Actress, Tokyo Godfathers, and Paprika) and TV anime (Paranoia Agent), go watch them. Even if you’re not especially interested in anime, they’re excellent and worthwhile for anyone interested in film. Before he started working in animation, though, he did comics, including the unfinished Opus, published late last year by Dark Horse.

The story starts with an artist working on the climax of a comic he’s making, when a character he’s about to kill off manages to break out of the fictional world and drag him from the real world into the comic. From there, it goes back-and-forth between the two worlds, in a style similar to what Kon would later do in Millennium Actress. There are, of course, a lot of stories with similar premises about people finding themselves in the world of movies, games, or fiction generally, so while it’s not totally original, Kon’s treatment is solid throughout, and one gets the feeling that there really is a fully-developed world in both the real world and the comic world, or at least the parts of the comic that the protagonist, Nagai, got around to drawing. Kon uses similar themes in his later work, and though Opus isn’t as fully developed as his animation, it is interesting to see him start thinking about things that will later show up in Millennium Actress, Paprika, or Paranoia Agent.

One problem that emerges from mixing these two worlds is that the tone of the story shifts wildly from scene to scene. For example, near the climax there’s a joke when Nagai is speaking to the protagonist of his story, Satoko, about how he based her design off of his girlfriend. A few pages later, and we get to a scene in his comic about a child-murderer who kidnaps and molests (and quite likely worse – we don’t see everything he does) little girls. Part of the joke in this story is that Nagai is a stereotypical comic artist, slightly nerdy, not especially strong or brave, who doesn’t fit in at all with this dark, gritty setting he’s created. So, the tone goes back-and-forth throughout the book, but the whiplash from at least this moment is too much.

The art is decent, but nothing to write home about, really, and the panel layouts are mostly conventional. Those primarily interested in comics as a visual medium can safely skip this one.

I should also point out that Kon left Opus unfinished when he began work on Perfect Blue, and never did go back to complete it. Dark Horse did include his draft for what seems to be almost the final chapter, which is interesting because the story gets even more meta and goes right through the fourth wall, but there’s still no real conclusion, which makes the story frustrating to read. It’s still worthwhile, though, for those interested in this type of story, and a must-read for those interested in Kon’s work.…

Read More Opus (75 Books – XXXV)