Upcoming 1/23/2008

Okay, I just have to say this. There’s no grief quite as unsettling and, frankly, often distasteful as nerd grief. To me, at least.

Now, on to this week’s comics releases.

AdHouse delivers the third issue of Fred Chao’s delightful Johnny Hiro, featuring a night at the opera and 47 Ronin Businessmen.

I don’t know how I’d feel if the protagonist of Masashi Tanaka’s Gon (CMX) actually ate baby penguins. He hasn’t (yet), so I’m looking forward to the third volume of this beautifully drawn manga. It promises vengeful baby wolf cubs, hungry piranha, and possibly psychedelic mushrooms.

Wow, two pamphlet comics in one week! The second comes from Fantagraphics in the form of the 10th issue of Linda Medley’s enchanting Castle Waiting. And hey, the revised Fantagraphics site has reasonably useful permalinks!

Wait, make that three floppies, all of which I love! The 19th issue of Jimmy Gownley’s funny, observant Amelia Rules! arrives via Renaissance Press.

The year in fun (2007)

From a fun comics standpoint, 2007 was absolutely awesome. You know how I know? I had a hard time keeping the list below to 26 items. Okay, it’s an arbitrary number, and I could have just listed everything, but I thought I would make a stab at some pretense of discernment.

I’m not saying these are the best comics of 2007, though I’d put several in that category. I’m never entirely comfortable with that label, because I haven’t read everything and worry that my tastes are too narrow to make a reasonable stab at such a project anyways. But I have no trouble telling which comics I had a lot of fun reading, so here they are.

(Doesn’t the jump create a breathtaking level of suspense? Well, doesn’t it?)

(Updated because I can’t keep my years straight.)

  • 10, 20, and 30, by Morim Kang (Netcomics): Korean josei, basically, following three women of different ages and temperaments as they manage romance (or the lack of it), work (or the lack of it) and family (or an excess of it).
  • Aya, by Marguerite Abouet and Clément Oubrerie (Drawn & Quarterly): In my defense, this came out really early in 2007, so I must have been confused and thought it was on last year’s version of this list. Because seriously, it’s one of the best graphic novels of the year and delightfully fun to boot. A sensible, ambitious young woman in the prosperous Ivory Coast of late 1970s keeps her head as the people around her leap into amusing, romantic misalliances.
  • Azumanga Daioh Omnibus, by Kyohiko Azuma (ADV): It’s tough to pick which delights me more: the resumption of publication of Azuma’s Yotsuba&!, or this big fat bargain collection of his very funny comic strips about a group of high-school girls and their eccentric teachers.
  • Black Metal, by Rick Spears and Chuck BB (Oni): Antisocial metal-heads discover their secret destiny while playing old vinyl backwards. Very funny, with appropriately and appealingly crude visuals.
  • Bloody Benders, The, by Rick Geary (NBM): I should probably feel some kind of regret that Geary will never run out of gruesome tales to fuel his Treasury of Victorian Murder series. I don’t, because they’re consistently brilliant, informative, insightful, and unsettling. For the high-minded voyeur in all of us.
  • Empowered, by Adam Warren (Dark Horse): Warren is amazingly skilled at walking a thin, frayed tightrope between lurid spandex cheesecake and a witty repudiation of the same. Terrific characters and genuinely funny, imaginative takes on potentially repetitive scenarios make all the difference.
  • Flower of Life, by Fumi Yoshinaga (Digital Manga): When people bemoan the fact that so many manga titles center on the trials and tribulations of high school students, they can’t be talking about this one, can they? I’m just going to come right out and say it: it’s every bit as good as Antique Bakery, which means it’s absolutely great.
  • Gin Tama, by Hideaki Sorachi (Viz): This one’s all about attitude: coarse, goofy, hyperactive attitude. A fallen samurai takes odd jobs in a world that’s handed the keys to alien invaders. There’s enough canny satire to balance out the low-brow antics, making this book a very pleasant surprise.
  • Glister, by Andi Watson (Image): A really delightful combination of fantasy, manor-house comedy, and singularly British sensibility. This book manages to have a warm heart and a tounge planted firmly in its cheek.
  • Honey and Clover, by Chica Umino (Viz): Okay, so this goofy, romantic tale of students at an art college is still being serialized in Shojo Beat and hasn’t come out in individual volumes yet. It’s hilarious.
  • Johnny Hiro, by Fred Chao (AdHouse): In a year that offered more genre mash-up comics than I can count, this was probably my favorite for the underlying realism of the young couple at its center. Giant monsters and ninja sous-chefs are just part of the challenges urban life presents to Johnny and Mayumi.
  • Moomin: The Complete Tove Jansson Comic Strip Book Two, by Tove Jansson (Drawn & Quarterly): Everyone knows these strips are timeless, international treasures, right? And that Drawn & Quarterly deserves some kind of cultural prize for getting them back in print? Okay, just checking.
  • My Heavenly Hockey Club, by Ai Morinaga (Del Rey): Under the flimsiest pretext of sports manga lurks a goofy love letter to two of my favorite deadly sins, sloth and gluttony. Easily the best screwball comedy that came out last year.
  • Northwest Passage: The Annotated Collection, by Scott Chantler (Oni): A handsomely produced collection of one of my favorite comics of 2006, featuring treachery and adventure in colonial Canada.
  • Parasyte, by Hitoshi Iwaaki (Del Rey): Okay, so the art is dated and, well, frankly just plain bad in a lot of ways. (Many of the high-school girls in the cast look like they’re pushing 40.) But there’s just something about a boy and the shape-shifting parasite that’s taken over his hand that warms my heart.
  • The Professor’s Daughter, by Joann Sfar and Emmanuel Guibert (First Second): There are certainly better, beefier works by Sfar, but this is still charming, beautiful stuff, with Sfar’s endearingly cranky voice getting a lovely rendering from Guibert.
  • Re-Gifters, by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew and Marc Hempel (Minx): A snazzy little story of romance, martial arts and self-esteem that avoids every single Afterschool Special pitfall through solid characterization, tight storytelling and spiffy art.
  • Ride Home, The, by Joey Weiser (AdHouse): I have yet to find a gnome living in my car, but maybe it just knows I’m on to it thanks to this charming, all-ages adventure about embracing change.
  • Scott Pilgrim Gets It Together, by Bryan Lee O’Malley (Oni): This series of a young slacker in love just gets better and better, which hardly seems possible. Great characters, a spot-on kind of magical realism, and plenty of twists and turns to keep things fresh and moving.
  • Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil, by Jeff Smith (DC): The Mary Marvel sequences are enough to put this on a Decade in Fun list, but Smith’s re-imagining of the origin of Captain Marvel is delightful from top to bottom.
  • Shortcomings, by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly): Not all comics about whiny losers who are unable to sustain interpersonal relationships are intolerable. Some, like this one, are absolutely delightful and have what may be the year’s best dialogue.
  • Suppli, by Mari Okazaki (Tokyopop): Damnation, how did this one slip under my radar for so long? In this beautifully drawn josei title, an advertising executive throws herself into work after the end of her seven-year relationship. It’s exactly the kind of book tons of people have been begging for: funny, intelligent, moving and grown up.
  • Umbrella Academy, The: Apocalypse Suite, by Gerard Way and Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse): It’s hardly the first comic to portray the super-team as a dysfunctional family, or maybe even the 50th, but it’s a clever, fast-paced, wonderfully illustrated example all the same.
  • Venus in Love, by Yuki Nakaji (CMX): Aside from the novelty of its college setting (as opposed to the shôjo standard, high school), this book has ample low-key charm. A straight girl and a gay guy become friendly rivals when they realize they have a crush on the same classmate.
  • Welcome to the N.H.K., by Tatsuhiko Takimoto (Tokyopop): I can take or leave the manga this novel inspired, but the source material is tremendously appealing reading. It’s like if David Sedaris wrote a novel about straight, dysfunctional Japanese people.
  • Wild Adapter, by Kazuya Minekura (Tokyopop): Charismatic, emotionally damaged boys pose their way through the stations of the noir cross. Mostly style, but what style, and a reasonable amount of substance to keep you from feeling entirely frivolous. (If frivolity isn’t a worry, you can easily ignore the substance.)
  • From the stack: Johnny Hiro

    It seems like mash-ups of genres are the hot new genre. If I was forced to recommend just one from the growing throng of comic-book examples, it would probably be Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro (AdHouse Books). It makes imaginative use of its source material without a trace of hipper-than-thou cynicism, features endearing and sympathetic characters, and is genuinely funny in its own right.

    Johnny and his girlfriend Mayumi are much like any other young urban couple navigating life in the Outer Boroughs. They work too hard, wish they had a better apartment, and struggle to make time for each other in the face of competing demands. Since those competing demands include giant monsters on the rampage and gangs of vengeful sushi chefs, their struggles are a bit heightened.

    Not too much, though. There’s something charmingly everyday about the craziness Johnny and Maiyumi encounter, and that’s because the couple is so functional. They love and trust each other, and they make choices based on that connection. Chao helps put the lie to the argument that happy couples make for boring stories.

    That’s partly due to the care Chao takes in portraying the mundane aspects of their lives. For every scene of improbable and exciting derring-do, there’s something equally recognizable and poignant. In the second issue, Maiyumi settles into the couple’s new sublet as Johnny tries to snag a lobster for the highly-strung chef of restaurant where he busses tables. The antic and the down-to-earth sequences are equally effective and mutually supportive in the narrative as a whole.

    Chao’s illustrations execute this balance perfectly. It’s great fun watching a giant ape peek into the window of Maiyumi’s office or watching Johnny scramble up a fire escape as cleavers fly. It’s also delightful to see the way Chao invests something as familiar as an apartment walk-through with wit and warmth. (I could probably read an entire comic about Maiyumi introducing herself to the cats that come with their new one-bedroom.)

    Things never stray too far into the realm of meta-commentary, even with potentially jarring celebrity cameos. I was pleasantly surprised that a first-issue drop-in from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg didn’t derail things entirely. A second-issue visit from Vogue food editor Jeffrey Steingarten is even more organic and effective, though that might owe to my fondness for Iron Chef America.

    The highest compliment I can pay to Johnny Hiro is that it reminds me very favorably of Avenue Q, that snarky-sweet Broadway riff on Sesame Street that deserved every Tony Award it won (and more besides). While Chao’s approach is gentler, he strikes quite the same balance between pop-culture fluency and genuine feeling.

    (This review is based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.)

    Upcoming 9/19/2007

    This isn’t one of those weeks where you can complain about the overwhelmingly mainstream nature of the manga market. (I guess you could, but there are sufficient counter-examples to undermine your position.)

    Yen Press releases the eagerly anticipated first volume of Keiko Tobe’s With the Light: Raising an Autistic Child. (Okay, it’s eagerly anticipated by me, but I’m sure I’m not alone.) Isn’t it time that Yen or Hachette built a web site for its graphic novel line? I can’t even find information on the book on the Hachette site. Edited to note that I didn’t look hard enough: Connie from Slightly Biased Manga pointed me toward Yen’s starter site. The logo looks kind of funereal to me.

    Fans of Keiko Takemiya’s To Terra… (and I’m one of them) will be happy to see the arrival of the first volume of Andromeda Stories from Vertical. Fans of Keiko Takemiya who happen to live in Vancouver will be even happier, as she will be paying a three-day visit to the University of British Columbia Sept. 19-21. Details are here. Once again, I find myself wishing I were in Canada.

    For as long as Viz runs Chica Umino’s Honey and Clover in Shojo Beat, I will recommend you pick up the new issue of Shojo Beat. I already got mine at a bookstore, but the Umino-enriched magazine shows up in comic shops tomorrow.

    Okay, this next one runs right down the middle of the bookstore aisle, but that doesn’t mean Kyoko Shitou’s The Key to the Kingdom (CMX) isn’t a promising and engaging fantasy series debut.

    I really enjoyed the first issue of Fred Chao’s Johnny Hiro, sent to me by AdHouse. It’s funny, imaginative and sweet, and the second issue arrives in some comic shops tomorrow. (Chao has a delightful blog with lots of sketches, pages and designs.)

    From the stack: The Ride Home

    There’s nothing like a good quest to drive a graphic novel, and the central plot in Joey Weiser’s The Ride Home (AdHouse Books) serves admirably. Nodo is a van gnome, happily occupying a family’s broken-down wheels until a fateful day when they take the cat to the vet. He escapes the keyed-up feline only to find himself lost and homeless in an urban landscape.

    As in all stories of this type, he makes friends, foes and stumbles across the possibility of romance during his search for his misplaced home. Weiser populates the urban landscape with repurposed fantasy figures who’ve found their own niches in a modern setting. There’s a river dragon who’s relocated to run the city’s sewer system. A group of gnomes have set up housekeeping in the park and are appalled at Nodo’s modern ideas of habitation (and his hat), offering the sure-to-be-irresistible prospect of “righteous twelve-hour work days, and gnomish tradition.” Then there are the hungry junkyard trolls.

    But there’s also Flora, a spunky gnome who lives in a station wagon. She offers Nodo shelter and assistance while he hunts down his red van, patching him up when his quest goes astray.

    You don’t need a map to see where it’s all going, but Weiser is generous with wit and warmth, keeping the familiar from becoming stale and sprinkling in unexpected twists and turns. He resists the urge to overstate his story’s morals, letting them unfold in a cheerful, episodic fashion. It’s an extremely friendly book, but it never overdoses on sentiment or cuteness.

    Weiser has got a clean, appealing style of illustration, focusing on charming character design and some exciting set pieces. My favorite intersection of both is probably the one involving a helpful herd of cows with a keen ear for pathos. (Just trust me on this one.)

    While Weiser has several mini-comics under his belt and has contributed to some high-profile anthologies like the Flight books, The Ride Home seems to be his first full-length graphic novel. It’s an extremely accomplished debut, and more importantly, it’s an awful lot of fun.

    (This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

    Pace yourselves

    The run of relatively low-key weeks is apparently over, as the comics industry unleashes an avalanche of interesting-sounding new releases and new volumes of much-loved series. (The ComicList even goes so far as to pull out a manga-only version of the Wednesday roster.)

    The Aviary, by Jamie Tanner (AdHouse): The publisher sent me a review copy of this, and it’s a very odd work. Visually, it reminds me of Rick Geary’s work on the Treasury of Victorian Murder series (see below) with a bit of Rebecca Kraatz’s House of Sugar (Tulip Tree) thrown into the mix. Tonally, it’s somewhere near Renee French territory, but bleaker and more caustic. It’s going to take a few more readings before I can pin down exactly how I feel about it, but it’s certainly interesting, unsettling, and great looking.

    King of Thorn, by Yuji Iwahara (Tokyopop): You’re probably sick of me mentioning how much I loved Chikyu Misaki (CMX), but that’s the reason I’m so excited about this series. Iwahara demonstrated a great blend of complex plotting, thoughtful characterization, and stylish visuals, and I’m hoping those qualities recur in this series.

    Shojo Beat (Viz): I love a lot of the series in the Shojo Beat roster, but I generally don’t bother to pick up the magazine since I’d rather buy the ones I like in digest form. But this issue features and excerpt from Osamu Tezuka’s groundbreaking shôjo series, Princess Knight, so it’s a must-buy.

    Re-Gifters, by Mike Carey, Sonny Liew and Mark Hempel (DC-Minx): Interest in the Minx initiative aside, I loved My Faith in Frankie (DC-Vertigo), also from this creative team. I’m glad to see them reunited.

    Treasury of Victorian Murder Vol. 9: The Bloody Benders, by Rick Geary (NBM): I’m cheap, so I generally wait for these to come out in paperback, but I’m a huge fan of Geary’s retellings of twisted crimes from days gone by. I’m completely unfamiliar with the featured case this time around, so this installment should let me increase my stores of grisly trivia.

    And here’s the daunting list of new volumes of manga series I enjoy:

  • The Drifting Classroom Vol. 6, by Kazuo Umezi (Viz – Signature)
  • Emma Vol. 4, by Kaoru Mori, (CMX)
  • Inubaka: Crazy for Dogs Vol. 3, by Yukiya Sakuragi (Viz)
  • Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Vol. 8 (Viz – Signature)
  • Sgt. Frog Vol. 13, by Mine Yoshizaki (Tokyopop)
  • Wild Adapter Vol. 2, by Kazuya Minekura (Tokyopop)
  • I will rename it "The Month of David"

    Each June, comics publishers seem to join forces to drive me to poverty. Based on the latest Previews catalog, 2007 will be no exception. At least the weather will be warm.

    The manga arrival of the month would have to be Masashi Tanaka’s Gon, in a new edition from CMX. Wordless, gorgeously illustrated stories about a tiny dinosaur who defends “the friendly and furry from the mean and hungry.” Sorry, Avril. (Pages 96 to 98.)

    I’ve enjoyed a lot of comics either written or written and drawn by Andi Watson (Little Star, Love Fights, Paris, Princess at Midnight), so I’ll definitely give Clubbing (Minx) a look. It’s been illustrated by Josh Howard of Dead @ 17 fame. (Pages 113 to 115.)

    In a couple of cases, well-written solicitation text was enough to interest me in books even though I knew nothing about them or their creators. First up in this category is Jamie Tanner’s Aviary from AdHouse Books, which promises “a world of mysterious corporations, foul-mouthed robots, drunken ghosts, amputee comedians, wealthy simian pornographers, and canine scientists.” Why not? (Page 215.)

    I really liked the first volume of Kye Young Chon’s DVD (DramaQueen), about a dumped, possibly delusional young woman and the two slackers who give her renewed purpose (or at least are weird enough to distract her from despair). And now DramaQueen is offering the first four volumes. When they go Diamond, they don’t mess around. (Page 292.)

    A new arrival from Fanfare/Ponent Mon is always worth a look. This month it’s Tokyo Is My Garden by Frédéric Boilet and Benoît Peeters. “With the collaboration of Jiro Taniguchi” is an effective extra inducement. (Page 295.)

    The other Spring First Second release I’m eagerly anticipating (in addition to The Professor’s Daughter, recently given five stars by Tangognat) is Eddie Campbell’s The Black Diamond Detective Agency. Many gorgeous preview pages are available at First Second’s web site. (Page 300.)

    Not everyone likes to buy even great books in hardcover, so kindly publishers almost inevitably offer soft-cover version eventually. Houghton Mifflin will roll out a paperback version of Alison Bechdel’s justly acclaimed Fun Home in June. (Page 312.)

    I know nothing about Byun Byung Jun’s Run, Bong-Gu, Run! (NBM), but the preview pages at the publisher’s web site look absolutely exquisite. I may not like painted comics as a general rule, but I’m a sucker for watercolors. (Page 328.)

    It’s been out for ages, but I’ve made a personal vow to mention Bryan Lee O’Malley’s wonderful debut graphic novel, Lost at Sea, at every opportunity, because I love it. Oni is releasing a new edition. Even if you aren’t eagerly anticipating a new volume of Scott Pilgrim, give it a look. (Page 329.)

    Not being much of a webcomic reader, I didn’t check out the Young Bottoms in Love portal very often, but I liked what I saw when I did. Now Poison Press is releasing a print collection for geezers like me who don’t want to squint at a computer screen. Lots of talent, 328 color pages, $22. I can’t complain. (Page 335.)

    As with Aviary, the solicitation text for David Yurkovich’s Death by Chocolate: Redux (Top Shelf) sells me. If anyone honestly thought I’d be able to resist “a series of bizarre, food-inspired crimes” investigated by “an unlikely hero comprised of organic chocolate,” they just don’t know me very well. (Page 364.)

    From the stack: PROJECT: ROMANTIC

    Project: Romantic (AdHouse) is one of the most exuberant books I’ve read this year. Beneath its sleek, Good-&-Plenty-colored cover lies an appealing riot of colors, styles, and narrative tones.

    I admit that I anticipated the book with some stereotypes in mind. The prospect of a group of alternative cartoonists telling romantic stories suggested the potential for glumness to me. That’s certainly part of the emotional palette here, but it doesn’t come close to pervading. If anything, the book could just as easily have been called Project: Comedic, given the general light-heartedness and good nature of the stories.

    Creators who are familiar to me (Debbie Huey, Hope Larson, Junko Mizuno, Aaron Renier) deliver appealing work, as expected. (Mizuno’s “Lovers on a Flying Bed” is especially stunning, an intense, dreamlike fable in her adorably disgusting style.) But the overall quality of the work is very high. There are a lot of delightful discoveries here.

    I’m particularly crazy about the “Sweetie ‘n’ Me” shorts by Joel Priddy. The four pieces take a sunny, funny look at the domestic life of two mad scientists. I could have happily read an entire collection of these stories; my favorite would have to be the meditation on the pros and cons of their “starter island.”

    Kelly Alder effectively heads for the darker end of the romantic spectrum with his gruesomely metaphorical “In & Out,” one of the few black-and-white pieces. Evan Larson’s “Cupid’s Day Off” seems to owe a lot visually to James Kochalka, but I like the story’s combination of wit and coarseness.

    The book is primarily short narratives, four to eight pages in length, but there are also one-page strips and evocative pin-ups. The visual styles of the creators range wildly from cartoon-cute to stylish and elegant, with just about everything in between.

    The variety, to me, is the greatest strength of the book. It’s like going to a tapas restaurant, with a whole lot of small plates of intense flavors on offer. Not all of them are precisely to my taste, but there’s always something to cleanse the palate coming up next. Even the ones I don’t especially like feel like they belong in the book.

    Project: Romantic is just plain fun. It’s packed with appealing, diverse work, and it’s well worth a look.

    (This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)

    Eye candy

    Four things of beauty for the day:

    • Bryan Lee O’Malley offers his take on Hope Larson’s Salamander Dream.
    • MetroKitty assembles brilliant collages of the clenched fists and parted lips of Essential Tomb of Dracula.
    • John Jakala shares a page from Tintin Pantoja’s pitch for a manga-influenced Wonder Woman.

    You're always a day away

    Another week, another opportunity to ponder the mysteries of the ComicList. Some weeks I get lucky, and Del Rey titles show up earlier than they do from Diamond (as with the excellent Genshiken vol. 7). Some weeks I’m left to writhe in jealousy as everyone else gets Love Roma vol. 4 before I do. MangaCast has a preview of Del Rey’s shôjo version of Train Man, which I believe is due in bookstores today, if not in comic shops tomorrow.

    I’m curious about Project Romantic from AdHouse, but it wasn’t a book that I was confident in buying sight unseen. I’m sure I’ll get the chance when I hit Columbus for the holidays.

    The concept for Hero Heel (Juné) tickles me, focusing on unexpected romance among actors in a super-hero TV show. Pick your favorite Heroes actors and play along!

    Looking for something in a chic, josei, nouvelle manga style? Fanfare/Ponent Mon is releasing a new printing of Kan Takahama’s Kinderbook.

    Mmmm… Greek food. Fred Van Lente and Ryan Dunlavey travel to the cradle of democracy for Action Philosophers #7: It’s All Greek To You.

    Oni releases the second issue of Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt’s The Damned, a solid fusion of mob drama and supernatural weirdness.

    I’m intrigued by 12 Days from Tokyopop, either in spite or because of its faintly nauseating premise. Here’s a preview from editor Lillian Diaz-Pryzbyl.

    And of course, there’s always Death Note vol. 8 (Viz – Shonen Jump Advanced). MangaCast notes that the first volume of this series keeps popping up on Japanese best-seller lists.


    It seems that John Jakala is not alone. At Read About Comics, Greg McElhatton looks at the first two volumes of Drifting Classroom (Viz – Signature) and finds them really, really loud:

    “With The Drifting Classroom two of its eleven volumes are now translated, and I can’t help but wonder if publishing the other nine books could somehow result in a worldwide shortage of exclamation points thanks to its relentless intensity.”


    And in this week’s Flipped, I take the really ill-advised step of reviewing Osamu Tezuka’s Ode to Kirihito (Vertical), in spite of the fact that tons of people have already done it really well. Here are some more successful examples: