Upcoming 10/5/2011

It’s a huge week of eagerly anticipated arrivals on the ComicList, so let’s get right to it!

Drawn & Quarterly releases the collection of Kate Beaton’s super-smart, super-funny Hark! A Vagrant strips. I’ve read some of these online, mostly in the context of someone linking to individual strips and rightly noting how super smart and super funny they are, but I’ve resisted reading all of them, because I wanted to hold the book in my hands and enjoy all of these comics in dead-tree form.

NBM delivers Takashi Murakami’s Stargazing Dog, which is about a down-on-his-luck guy who gets through tough times with the help of his loyal canine companion. Early word on this is that it’s lovely but will probably make me cry buckets, so I’ve stocked up on handkerchiefs. Here’s a preview.

If you missed it in hardcover (as I did), Emblem Editions gives you a paperback opportunity to enjoy Scott Chantler’s Two Generals, which portrays World War II through the eyes of average soldiers. Chantler is a marvelous cartoonist, as evidenced by his Northwest Passage from Oni Press, so I’m really excited about this one.

Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects (Vertical) reaches comic shops. I reviewed the book last week; it’s excellent, particularly for fans of Tezuka’s unique brand of noir.

Viz is also dumping a ton of new titles on the market, many of which were discussed in the current Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week and Bookshelf Briefs. Of the series I’ve not yet personally mentioned, I would highlight the fourth volume of Kazue Kato’s increasingly excellent Blue Exorcist and the ninth volume of Yuki Midorikawa’s always lovely Natsume’s Book of Friends. I’m also led to believe, by a reliable source, that Toshiaki Iwashiro’s Psyren becomes a lot better than the first volume would suggest, which is certainly possible; most of the first volume of Blue Exorcist was flat-out awful, and that’s become one of my favorite shônen titles.

But enough about my incipient poverty; what looks good to you?


Previews review August 2011

Okay, I normally don’t dwell on this sort of thing, but I just have to make an observation about the covers in the DC section of the current Previews catalog. These are mostly the second issues of the publisher’s big re-launch of its super-hero line presumably to make it more accessible to people who wouldn’t normally pick up a comic about Superman or Batman or Green Lantern. Here’s my observation: the covers of these comics look exactly like these comics have looked for the last twenty years, possibly pinpoint-able right to the late 1990s. So this should be interesting, since it really does seem like an example of the scientific method. If all other things are equal, and DC changes one thing – the volume of back story in play to theoretically confuse or bar a casual reader from entry – will people who did not previously care about the Justice League suddenly start caring about the justice league? Time will tell! Let’s move on to things I will actually purchase!

Princess Knight vol. 1, written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, Inc., AUG11 1232: The most actually exciting thing in the catalog is the English-language debut of Tezuka’s game-changing shôjo classic. Some of us have been waiting years for this to happen. Years.

Hark! A Vagrant, written and illustrated by Kate Beaton, Drawn & Quarterly, AUG11 1018: Beaton’s super-smart comics “takes readers on a romp through history and literature — with dignity for few and cookies for all — with comic strips about famous authors, their characters, and political and historical figures, all drawn in Beaton’s pared-down, excitable style. This collection features favourite stories as well as new, previously unpublished content. Whether she’s writing about Nikola Tesla, Napoleon, or Nancy Drew, Beaton brings a refined sense of the absurd to every situation.”

Two Generals, written and illustrated by Scott Chantler, Emblem Editions, AUG11 1060: This is the soft-cover edition of Chantler’s acclaimed historical graphic novel.

Tesoro: Short Stories 1998-2008, written and illustrated by Natsume Ono, Viz Media, AUG11 1256: This volume collections some of the earliest professional work by the gifted creator of series like Gente and The House of Five Leaves. So you should probably buy it.

There’s also the 2011 edition of The Best American Comics from Houghton Mifflin. I’ve made it this long without reading one of these, so I doubt my streak will be broken, though the guest editorial duties of Alison Bechdel may make me waver.

And here are new volumes of ongoing series that you should seriously consider buying:

That’s… like… a lot.


Random weekend question: independents day

There’s a ton of excellent manga that fits neatly into certain categories and story genres. And there’s vast variation within those narrow-only-on-paper segments of the market. But what are some of your favorite manga that defy easy categorization?

Here are three that come to my mind:

  • Love Roma, by Minoru Toyoda, Del Rey, five volumes: With its chunky, low-fidelity art and funky comic rhythms, this series turns high-school romance on its head in some delightful ways.
  • Peepo Choo, by Felipe Smith, Vertical, three volumes: It’s a junkyard dog of a comic that you can’t help but love in spite of the fact that it will probably try to bite you at least once.
  • Red Snow, by Susumu Katsumata, Drawn & Quarterly, one volume: Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s indie shorts get most of the love when it comes to gekiga, but this rural-focused collection of magical-realist tales is my clear favorite among D&Q’s manga offerings.

What are your picks?

From the stack: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

There are several very welcome text pieces in Drawn & Quarterly’s handsome production of Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths – a foreword by Frederik L. Schodt, extensive translation notes, and an afterword by the creator. My favorite extra has to be an interview with Mizuki in which the legendary mangaka is simply not having it.

He’s not being difficult or unpleasant, but he’s not really game for the standard questions that legendary cartoonists generally get asked. His answers tend to be much shorter than the inquiries that triggered them. He won’t play into the “trailblazing artiste” narrative, nor will he won’t deprecate himself. He won’t list his influences, trash commercial comics, or paint the creation of Onward… as an artistic or personal struggle.

Of course, my favorite bit of the interview is when Mizuki is asked which of his works he’s most proud of and would like to see made available in English:

SM: I would have to say GeGeGe no Kitaro.

I would have to agree with him. Grateful as I am to have any of his work licensed and in translation, it feels kind of odd to start with one of his darker works. It would be like if Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako had been licensed before anyone had a chance to read Astro Boy. Of course, GeGeGe no Kitaro is a Kodansha property, some of which was published ages ago in the publisher’s bilingual comics initiative, so that complicates things. It’s also beloved and probably very expensive, so one can’t precisely fault other publishers for not waiting. Of course, Onward… was a Kodansha property as well, originally serialized in Gekiga Gendai, so it’s nice to see the publisher continue to work with other houses rather than keep everything for themselves.

And Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths has numerous merits in its own right beyond being part of Mizuki’s body of work. It’s based on Mizuki’s experiences as a soldier serving in Papua New Guinea during World War II and portrays the hardships and ill use average soldiers endured at the hands of their superiors. These abuses range from routine, almost desultory physical punishment – “New recruits are like tatami mats: the more you beat them, the better they are.” – to the overall military culture that paints surrender as the worst kind of shame and promotes dying in battle, no matter how senseless and futile the effort, as every soldier’s highest calling (aside from victory, obviously).

Mizuki doesn’t need to do much beyond merely portraying this mindset in order to condemn it. His cast of everyman grunts doesn’t pontificate about its fate. They gripe about the shortage of food, the isolation, the grueling routine, the danger and disease. The overarching injustices they face and the ways that these will doom them always loom, and the soldiers are keenly aware of them, but they’re rarely addressed directly in the text. This is welcome, because it keeps subtler, more effective condemnation from becoming an obvious screed, and it’s also natural in a way. It makes sense to me that these powerless people are reluctant to address the fact that their day-to-day suffering is almost certainly for nothing, and that the people responsible for their fate know that and don’t care. As a result, it’s a very straightforward, chronological narrative. The soldiers arrive, conditions deteriorate, they face unthinkable danger and impossible choices, and things end badly. The approach serves Mizuki’s aims well.

The visual style can be jarring at times. Mizuki paints lushly realistic backdrops and peoples them with cartoonish figures. That isn’t problematic by itself, as I’m more than happy to embrace the combination of cartoonish and gruesome in works like Tezuka’s MW and Ode to Kirihito. There are moments when Mizuki’s particular stylization is not just dissonant with his subject matter but directly at odds with it. This is particularly evident in more violent scenes when body parts are flying, and Mizuki’s strict adherence to his character aesthetic sometimes results in panels that look more ridiculous than horrific. He’s also dealing with a large cast, and individuality tends to get lost in terms of design and simple space to develop characters thoroughly. Ironically, it’s the higher-ups who make the strongest impression. Again, that fits, since they’re the ones with the most agency, and it reinforces the brutal expendable status of the rank and file.

It’s an effective piece on the whole, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. The overall level of restrained sincerity is welcome and makes the piece stand out in the field of autobiographic comics. I’m also pleased that Drawn & Quarterly chose to mark the occasion of Mizuki’s proper English-language debut with proper introductory pieces providing an overview of his career and impact. If it doesn’t seem like the ideal piece to use for Mizuki’s reintroduction, it certainly does him credit.


Upcoming 4/13/2011

My Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week should surprise no one, but it’s hardly the only item of interest on the current ComicList, which is jam-packed.

It’s always worth noting when Drawn & Quarterly publishes a Japanese comic. This time, it’s the English-language debut of Shigeru (GeGeGe no Kitaro) Mizuki in the form of his semi-autobiographical Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths, a tale of “the desperate final weeks of a Japanese infantry unit at the end of World War II.” I would note that this doesn’t sound like it’s in my usual wheelhouse, but Drawn & Quarterly manga seldom does, and I almost always end up being glad I read it or even liking it a great deal. I’m really, really looking forward to Mizuki’s Non Non Bâ, so this will be a nice warm-up.

In an almost certainly, possibly immeasurably lighter vein is the fourth book in Matthew Loux’s Salt Water Taffy series, Caldera’s Revenge. If you aren’t familiar with these quirky, funny comics, they feature a pair of brothers who spend a memorable summer in the surprisingly mysterious seaside town of Chowder Bay, where they encounter giant lobsters, restless spirits, and legendary eagles who steal hats. Just the kind of thing you would have wanted to distract you when you were stuck in the sticks with no television.

Tokyopop is kind enough to release new volumes of two of my favorite shôjo series: the sixth (and final) volume of Julietta Suzuki’s Karakuri Odette, and the 12th volume of Banri Hidaka’s V.B. Rose.

In other, non-Cross Game and, for that reason, lesser Viz news, there’s the second volume of Yuuki Iinuma’s Itsuwaribito, which seems like a series that could go somewhere interesting, though this volume didn’t particularly impress me.

What looks good to you?

From the stack: A Single Match

If I had to pick a favorite boutique comics publisher, it would probably be Drawn & Quarterly, simply for the volume of work they’ve released that I really, really enjoy. If I isolate the portion of their catalog devoted to Japanese comics, their success rate is somewhat lower. I appreciate their efforts to bring avant-garde manga to English-reading audiences, but I don’t always particularly enjoy the individual works.

I like the work of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, particularly his autobiography, A Drifting Life., and his early genre work, Black Blizzard. I found Seiichi Hayashi’s Red Colored Elegy more of its time than enduring. Susumu Katsumata’s Red Snow was pure pleasure, but Imiri Sakabashira’s The Box Man struck me as a fleeting, flashy fever dream. I’m happy to report that Oji Suzuki’s collection of short stories, A Single Match, wound up on the positive end of the spectrum, though that wasn’t an instantaneous verdict.

Suzuki has a very distinct rhythm and sensibility, and it isn’t immediately accessible. His stories have a quality that’s both dreamlike and naturalistic, and it took a few stories for me to yield to the style. In dreams, you find yourself recognizing people and places you’ve never been before, accepting circumstances that are totally alien to your experience and constructing memories that you claim as your own, even though you know that they aren’t. It’s a bit unsettling to see that illogically coherent frame of reference captured so precisely on paper, and since the experience of dreams isn’t an entirely comfortable one to begin with, the feeling of unease can be magnified.

“Tale of Remembrance” is an extraordinary example of this real-but-not approach. Narrative perspective seems to shift before you realize it. Inky blackness frames indelible images like a forlorn, faceless girl floating in the sky. Specific impressions that seem like memory are transformed into unsettling visual metaphors. Emotional undercurrents run from tender to suggestively menacing. It’s quite a reading experience, and it’s certainly not the only one of its kind in this collection.

Even the more ostensibly straightforward stories like “Mountain Town” keep you on uncertain footing. In this piece, a boy accompanies his father to return a scooter that he’d used for a part-time job. The journey is fraught with tension, unspoken and verbalized. The boy seesaws between uncomplicated comfort in his father’s company and painful awareness of the man’s shortcomings. Suzuki’s illustrations here are generally fairly concrete, though there are flashes of abstraction, like a memory is being filled in with a raw, emotional conceptualization.

As much as I ended up enjoying this collection, I have to admit to initial unease and impatience. It’s not a work that grabs you from the first page, and I’m not even sure the works are best appreciated as a single reading experience. They were published in Seirindo’s legendary alternative anthology, Garo, and I found myself wondering how they would have read in that context. The notion of getting a small dose of Suzuki’s work in the midst of a variety of other styles and subjects was appealing to me. When I read the stories again, I’ll sprinkle them in between other works to see if my theory is correct.

And I certainly will read them again. It’s nice to be challenged by a work, especially when the work rewards you for rising to that challenge. And I would happily read any of Suzuki’s work that Drawn & Quarterly chooses to publish, though maybe not all at once.

Previews review February 2011

The findings from the current issue of Previews aren’t as extensive as they sometimes are, though there are new volumes of plenty of appealing series. And there are two exciting debuts on the artier end of the spectrum.

First up is Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths from Drawn and Quarterly (page 281). Here’s the rundown:

A landmark publishing event by one of Japan’s most famous cartoonists. Shigeru Mizuki is the preeminent figure of Gekiga manga and one of the most famous working cartoonists in Japan today. Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths is his first book to be translated into English and is a semi-autobiographical account of the desperate final weeks of a Japanese infantry unit at the end of World War II. The soldiers are told that they must go into battle and die for the honor of their country, with certain execution facing them if they return alive. Mizuki was a soldier himself, and he uses his experiences to convey the devastating consequences and moral depravity of the war.

It was originally serialized in Kodansha’s Gekiga Gendai in 1973. You may recognize Mizuki as the creator of GeGeGe no Kitaro. Drawn and Quarterly also plans to publish Mizuki’s Non Non Bâ, which earned top honors at Angoulême in 2007. A large quantity of his work has already been published in French.

Next is Usumaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club from Vertical (page 316):

The Lychee Light Club is considered Usamaru Furuya’s breakthrough work. Originally designed as an experiemental project Lychee’s themes of youthful rebellion and deus ex machina destruction, and attractive designs eventually won over a new generation of readers and critics, leading the way for Furuya to take on his many recent high profile properties.

A surreal yet touching horror comedy Furuya’s Lychee Light Club that mixes elements of French Le Théâtre du Grand-Guignol and with modern day pop culture tropes and is set in modern day Tokyo. Shocking, sexy and innovative, the Lychee Light Club is at the pinnacle of modern day Japanese seinen manga (young adult comics).

It was originally published in Ohta Shuppan’s fascinatingly rangy Manga Erotics F.

So those are the highlights. Tomorrow, I’ll give readers another opportunity to pick a title for me that could be either intriguing or awful.

Upcoming 12/22/2010

It’s a jam-packed ComicList this week, so much so that I must engage in speculation: if I could only pick one of the thumping stack of Viz Signature titles that are arriving this week, which would it be? Keep in mind that I’ll buy all of them at some point, but that’s a lot of books, you know?

So, to start, I would theoretically postpone purchase of the SigIkki titles on the assumption that I’m up to date on having read them online and thinking that a little more distance between reading them on the web and in a physical book would improve the experience. That’s three out of the mix, and they’re really good, so ouch. And there are still three left.

There’s no shame in losing to Fumi Yoshinaga and Naoki Urasawa, so I’m afraid that Natsume Ono’s charming Gente would have to wait. Much as 20th Century Boys is my favorite Urasawa series, I’m not quite as starved for a new volume of it as I am for the next installment of the final contender…

… the fifth volume of Yoshinaga’s Ôoku: The Inner Chambers. Yes, it’s got some adaptation issues, but I find that it takes fewer and fewer pages for me to adapt myself to them and throw myself into the very beguiling story.

And, just for clarity, here’s the order of choice for all of Signature’s avalanche:

1. Ôoku: The Inner Chambers vol. 5, Fumi Yoshinaga
2. 20th Century Boys vol. 12, Naoki Urasawa
3. Gente vol. 2, Natsume Ono
4. House of Five Leaves vol. 2, Natsume Ono
5. Children of the Sea vol. 4, Daisuke Igarashi
6. I’ll Give It My All… Tomorrow vol. 2, Shunji Aono

Vertical isn’t making things any cheaper.

I think the fourth volume of Kanata Konami’s Chi’s Sweet Home is the best yet. Konami really seems to have found a rhythm by this point and a solid handle on the comic potential of human-feline interaction. And I’m really looking forward to how Felipe Smith wraps things up in the third and final volume of the deranged cross-cultural theater-of-cruelty comedy, Peepo Choo.

And if you’ve never much cared for Marvel’s comics, I don’t know how meaningful this will be for you, but I’m really, really enjoying Secret Avengers. Last issue, Valkyrie, the Asgardian chooser of the slain, kicked the asses of a whole bunch of ninjas. That will either light a spark in your soul or not. The eighth issue comes out Wednesday, written by Ed Brubaker and drawn by Mike Deodato.

What looks good to you?

Update: Major omission alert!

Drawn & Quarterly gets its gekiga on with Oji Suzuki’s A Single Match, a “collection of hauntingly elliptical short stories.”

For your 2011 Eisner consideration

Submissions are being accepted for the 2011 Eisner Awards! I enjoyed cobbling a list of suggested manga nominations last year, so I thought I’d try again.

There could be a number of Japanese works that make it into the Best Short Story category, as both Fantagraphics and Top Shelf published highly regarded collections of short manga. If forced to pick just one story from Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, I think it would have to be “Hanshin/Half-God.” There’s a lot of terrific work in Top Shelf’s AX anthology, but the one that keeps coming to mind would have to be Akino Kondo’s “The Rainy Day Blouse & the First Umbrella.”

Whether or not any Japanese titles show up in the Best Continuing Comic Book Series category is always kind of a crap shoot. If one shows up, there’s a good chance it’s probably by Naoki Urasawa, so I wouldn’t be surprised or at all displeased if we saw 20th Century Boys or Pluto (Viz) in this roster. I would be surprised and delighted if we saw that stalwart, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, take a slot. The same goes for Eiichiro Oda’s One Piece (Viz), which experienced a big push this year and put Oda’s multifaceted gifts on flattering display.

The Best New Series category is tricky for similar reasons. You never know how they’ll define the category, and, hey, it’s not like the rest of the comics industry is hurting for good new titles. But if they want to mix it up with some newly launched (here, at least) manga series, here are four they might consider:

  • Twin Spica (Vertical), Kou Yaginuma’s heartfelt examination of a school for astronauts
  • Bunny Drop (Yen Press), Yumi Unita’s observant take on single fatherhood
  • House of Five Leaves (Viz), Natsume Ono’s alluring tale of an unemployed samurai who falls in with the right/wrong crowd
  • Cross Game (Viz), Mitsuru Adachi’s coming-of-age baseball drama.
  • Technically speaking, neither of the following titles was originally conceived of for kids, but I have no problem putting them forward as likely candidates for the Best Publication for Kids category. Konami Kanata’s Chi’s Sweet Home (Vertical) is charming and funny, and it offers a point-by-point run-through of the responsibilities of pet ownership, which is a great thing to hand a kid. Very few people don’t like Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! (Yen Press) for the simple reasons that it’s hysterically funny and wide open to just about anyone who cares to read it. It’s the kind of book that I think people want to read with the kids in their lives, which is certainly an enticement for voters.

    If there’s a category that’s hard to pin down, it would probably be Best Publication for Teens, partly because I don’t think teens really like being told “We know you’ll like this.” So I’ll go with two that are rated “Teen,” because I’m lazy like that. Cross Game has pretty much everything you could ask for from a coming-of-age novel: joy, sorry, confusion, comedy, great characters, and completely recognizable slices of life. Yuki Midorikawa slices up a more supernatural life with Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz), but it has hearts and smarts in common with Adachi’s baseball comic.

    Not much has changed as far as my Best Humor Publication recommendations go, at least in relation to Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). The aforementioned Yotsuba&! is routinely one of the funniest comics I read, and Kiminori Wakasugi’s Detroit Metal City (Viz) has a lot of vulgar high points.

    Unless there’s some utterly arcane bit of rules of which I’m unaware, there’s no reason on Earth for AX not to snag a Best Anthology nomination. It’s everything an anthology or collection is supposed to be, isn’t it? Purposeful, varied, significant, with bonus points for being frequently entertaining and nicely produced.

    Nominees in the Best Archival Collection apparently need to focus on work that’s at least 20 years old, so I suspect that might disqualify A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, but there’s plenty of material to choose from. Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako (Vertical) is perhaps not my favorite of his works, but there’s always Black Jack from the same publisher. There’s also Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s Black Blizzard (Drawn & Quarterly), which offers a worthwhile glimpse into his earlier, long-form works.

    Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material — Asia opens its own can of worms for me in terms of recommendation, because what I’d suggest would depend on what’s nominated elsewhere. I’m always for spreading the wealth, if possible. Assuming there’s an absence of comics from Japan in the other categories, I’d say these five are essential, though: A Drunken Dream an Other Stories (Fantgraphics), AX (Top Shelf), Bunny Drop (Yen Press), Twin Spica (Vertical), and Cross Game (Viz).

    It’s unfortunate that the Best Writer/Artist categories are divided into Humor and Drama, because the greats balance both. I would love to see Fumi Yoshinaga nominated, possibly in the humor side of the equation. Still, her year included All My Darling Daughters (Viz), new volumes of Ôoku: The Inner Chambers (Viz), and Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy (Yen Press), which seems like a perfectly reasonable excuse to nominate her for an award she’s deserved for years. I’d feel fairly secure in placing Moto Hagio in the Drama category, since that is the essential nature of the short stories collected in A Drunken Dream and Other Stories. They aren’t entirely void of humor, but…

    Chi’s Sweet Home’s qualifications for Best Publication Design may not be immediately obvious, but the care with which its reading orientation was flipped and color was added to each page are worth noting, especially in the ways that they opened the book up to a larger audience. There seem to be a lot of gorgeous, immense package jobs this year, slip-cased volumes that you could use as an ottoman, and there’s some snazzy design for books that doesn’t really enhance the actual comic in question, but the design for Chi’s Sweet Home served the product and was subtly beautiful at the same time. [Update: I’m reliably informed that the book was in color before it was flipped and translated.] The cover designs for 7 Billion Needles were perhaps less cumulative work, but their style and texture are real winners.

    What did I miss? What books and creators would you recommend for Eisner consideration?


    To celebrate Thanksgiving in the laziest way possible, I thought I would mention some ongoing comics that debuted (if only in print and in English) in 2010 so far for which I am grateful. And there’s still more than a month left.

    And here are some stand-alone works that made the year sparkle.

    The manga industry may be correcting itself, but we’re still getting great books, don’t you think? The images above are all linked to commentary of varying lengths. And added thanks to everyone who makes the comics blogosphere and twitterverse such a delightful place to visit.