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 This collection features favourite stories as well as new, previously unpublished content.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.

 

From the stack: Wandering Son vol. 1

This phenomenon may have been before your time, but do you remember those movies of the week that dealt with social issues? Recognizable small-screen stars would grapple with family strife, illness, and other bits of contemporary malaise, ultimately (though conditionally) triumphing by the end of two hours, where we’d often see Michele Lee or Lindsay Wagner walking serenely on a beach or joyously pushing a child in a swing. Freeze frame.

As with any subset of entertainment, the quality of these outings varied widely. There’s only so much you can do with a big issue in two hours (minus commercials), which tended to necessitate a lack of nuance and a reliance on the star’s charisma to carry the audience through all the exposition. My favorite of these has to be The Last, Best Year, where Mary Tyler Moore helps Bernadette Peters make end-of-life choices after Peters learns she has a terminal illness. It’s great because it forgoes lessons about living wills and detailed diagnosis in favor of what’s going on inside the characters’ heads and hearts. I mist up just thinking about it.

I mention this genre because it does tenuously relate to Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son, which recently debuted from Fantagraphics. It’s kind of a big-issue manga, as it deals with transgendered people, but it’s the best kind of big-issue anything, because it’s so measured and tender and treats its characters with so much respect. Since Shimura doesn’t need to confine her story to 120 minutes or 120 pages, she has the leisure to explore the issue entirely through the characters immersed in it. The time it takes to tell their story is dependent entirely on Shimura’s commitment and the interest of her audience. (The story has been running in Enterbrain’s fifth-genre marvel, Comic Beam, since 2002, so both the commitment and the interest must be substantial.)

Her protagonists are fifth graders in the same class. Shuichi Nitori has transferred to a new school, and he immediately bonds with Yoshino Takatsuki, the girl at the next desk. Both respond to activities and aesthetics that are typically assigned to the other’s gender. Nitori likes to bake. Takatsuki cuts her hair short and covets her father’s old school uniform. Shimura gently shows Nitori and Takatsuki noticing these resonances and starting to recognize what they might imply.

Of course, the characters are 11 years old, so Shimura keeps their evolving feelings and knowledge on the abstract side. One of the most impressive things about this debut volume is how age-appropriate the protagonists’ thinking is. Shimuri isn’t writing about transgendered people issues; she’s writing about two kids and the way they feel. It’s mesmerizing how she can do so with such simplicity and directness while still giving the content often heartbreaking weight.

As Nitori and Takatsuki inch towards a more complex understanding of a part of their identities (and back away from it from time to time), we meet their families and friends. Most fascinating to me is Saori Chiba, who seems to have a precocious understanding of her classmates’ states of mind. Of course, she’s also 11, so understanding a part of a concept doesn’t give her any guidance on how to act on that knowledge. She’s a great catalyst character, interesting in her own right, invested with contradictory feelings and motivations.

It’s often argued that the key element to any successful manga is a relatable protagonist. Shimura has crafted hers so meticulously and is revealing their natures so carefully that it’s virtually impossible not to be deeply invested in them. In part, it’s the actual portrayal in this volume, but it’s also the tremendous potential they have. I want to see them age and mature, struggle and succeed, and find their ways to lives that give them happiness and peace. I don’t think there’s any more a reasonable person could ask of a story like this.

Wandering, not lost

I had a great time discussing the first volume of Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son (Fantagraphics) for the latest Manga Out Loud podcast, though I bailed before the talk switched to the anime, as I’m avoiding spoilers. Speaking of that marvelous book, Glen Weldon includes it on his list of “Five Recent Graphic Novels You Really Shouldn’t Miss” for NPR’s Monkey See blog.

In other news, Viz triggered mild panic when it listed the fourth volume of Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game as the final volume on its Facebook page. After panicked inquiries from overly invested geeks like me, a Viz rep hastened to reassure us that it was a typo and that they will publish the series in its entirety. PHEW!

 

To note, or not?

I was lucky enough to take part in a lively discussion on Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son (Fantagraphics), which will air at Manga Out Loud sometime soon. We all took a few minutes to ponder the usefulness of end notes. I’m very pro on the subject. I think they almost always add value and let the translator and adapter focus on flow and voice rather than info-dump. But I wanted to throw the topic out for discussion. Notes: yay, nay, or depends?

 

Upcoming 7/6/2011

It’s a big ComicList this week, so let’s get right to it:

I just have to restate my Pick of the Week, Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son (Fantagraphics). After a few delays, we finally get our hands on this acclaimed series about two transgendered kids navigating early adolescence. This debut has already earned a bunch of pre-release acclaim, and I’m really eager to read it.

Kodansha USA kindly continues publication of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei with the ninth volume, where Del Rey left off. As things stand, this dense, often scathing satire is probably the most off-kilter thing that Kodansha is publishing, so it’s great to see it return. Now, how about picking up Masayuki Ishikawa’s Moyasimon to continue the trend? I thought the second volume was a significant improvement on the first, which was okay enough in its own right, and I’d love to read more.

Speaking of funny manga from Kodansha, Vertical releases the sixth volume of Kanata Konami’s Chi’s Sweet Home. I reviewed it for the latest round of Bookshelf Briefs. I’m glad to have that venue for shorter reviews, especially when all I basically have to say about a series is that it’s still really good.

I have two highlights from the rather long list of Viz Media releases:

First up is the second volume of Yellow Tanabe’s Kekkaishi 3-in-1 collections. I enjoyed the heck out of the first three volumes, and I felt much the same out of the stories collected this time around. It’s just a super-solid, emotionally satisfying shônen fantasy-adventure.

Second is the ninth volume of Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You. I’m a bit behind on this series, but I’m determined to catch up soon, because I love the combination of postmodern and utterly sincere application of shôjo romantic tropes.

What looks good to you?

 

Making 2011 Eisner book

There’s just under a month left for eligible voters to cast their ballots for the 2011 Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards, so I thought I’d take another stab at evaluating the odds of this year’s nominees in the Best U.S. Edition of International Material – Asia. First, here’s a list of winners in this category from the last few years:

  • 2010: A Drifting Life, written and illustrated by Yoshihiro Tatsumi, Drawn & Quarterly
  • 2009: Dororo, written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical
  • 2008: Tekkonkinkreet, written and illustrated by Taiyo Matsumoto, Viz
  • 2007: Old Boy, written by Garon Tsuchiya and illustrated by Nobuaki Minegishi, Dark Horse

And here are some manga titles that have won the Best U.S. of International Material before it split into two categories:

  • 2005: Buddha, written and illustrated by Tezuka, Vertical
  • 2004: Buddha
  • 2002: Akira, written and illustrated by Katsuhiro Otomo, Dark Horse
  • 2001: Lone Wolf and Cub, written by Kazuo Koike and illustrated by Goseki Kojima, Dark Horse
  • 2000: Blade of the Immortal, written and illustrated by Hiroaki Samura, Dark Horse
  • 1998: Gon Swimmin’, written and illustrated by Masashi Tanaka, Paradox Press

The last three years indicate a leaning towards stand-alone or shorter series, but looking at the history of the category shows that lengthy, sprawling series aren’t necessarily at a disadvantage. Voters have a perfectly understandable appreciation of the work of Tezuka. Given that all of the honored comics are by men and were originally published in magazines that targeted a male demographic, one might also indicate a certain leaning in that direction. One can also detect a leaning toward series that have loyal readerships in comic shops. It seems less true in recent years, perhaps partly because of a seeming contraction of manga sales in those venues.

Now, on to this year’s contenders:

Ayako, written and illustrated by Tezuka, Vertical: If we add the fondness for Tezuka with the recent leaning toward done-in-one titles, we would be very foolish indeed to discount the odds on Ayako. That said I don’t consider it one of Tezuka’s best works. I found it too bleak and too literal, but bleakness and literalism has never discouraged Eisner voters in the past, and the automatic (and deserved) prestige of a Tezuka title is considerable. Even voters who don’t read any comics from Asia likely know who Tezuka is, and name recognition is sometimes the voter’s best friend. Odds: 2 to 1.

Bunny Drop, written and illustrated by Yumi Unita, Yen Press: Marvelous as it is to see a josei title garner a nomination, I think the outcome here will be that it’s an honor just to be nominated. That’s in no way a qualitative evaluation of Bunny Drop, which is easily one of my favorite ongoing series currently in release. I just doubt that it has much of a crossover audience between readers who primarily enjoy comics from Japan or Asia and the Eisner voting pool at large. If the nomination has encouraged more people to read the series, then that’s as good as a win, in my opinion. Odds: 25 to 1.

A Drunken Dream and Other Stories, written and illustrated by Moto Hagio, Fantagraphics: Ask a pool of manga pundits which mangaka suffers most from a shortage of work in translation, and I would wager that Hagio would be very close to the top of the list that emerges from that discussion. Like Tezuka, I think there’s a general level of awareness of and reverence for Hagio, even among people who may not have read her work. She’s a quality brand, in other words, and that standing has a certain force. Fantagraphics is also a quality brand, even among people who don’t read much that they produce, so an endorsement of Hagio in the form of publishing a handsome collection of her work, combined with Hagio’s own qualities as a creator and her well-received 2010 visit to the home convention of the Eisners may well work in her favor. Odds: 5 to 1.

House of Five Leaves, written and illustrated by Natsume Ono, Viz: I’m never quite sure how much my assessment of Ono as an emerging presence among the comic cognoscenti is accurate and how much is an experiment in the power of positive thinking, but I’m very pleased to see her nominated in this category, even if I don’t think she’ll win. House of Five Leaves is one of those titles that are intriguing at their beginnings but really gain in strength and force as they go along. If a voter was basing his or her choice on the first volume, I don’t know how that sampling would hold up against the other nominees. It’s not a flashy or immediately arresting series, lovely as it is. As noted above, ongoing series shouldn’t be discounted, but ongoing series that rely on cumulative artistic effect may not fare as well. Odds: 20 to 1.

20th Century Boys, written and illustrated by Naoki Urasawa, Viz: Urasawa has three nominations this year (the others being in the Writer/Artist category and Best Ongoing Series for this title), which is about standard for him since Viz started releasing his work through its Signature imprint. He has yet to win. Perhaps the multiple nominations split the sentiment in his favor. Perhaps voters don’t like his work as much as nominating committees do. Given the sheer volume of nominations he’s received over the last five years or so, he should clearly have cemented standing as a quality brand by now, and his smart thrillers are as comic-shop friendly as anything in this year’s slate. I personally like 20th Century Boys best of any of Urasawa’s licensed works, so I would have no objection whatsoever to its winning. History suggests to me that it probably won’t. Odds: 10 to 1.

What do you think? If you could vote, which title would you choose? (In my perfect world, A Drunken Dream and Other Stories and Bunny Drop would tie.)

 

Upcoming 4/27/2011

It’s one of those weird weeks on the ComicList where all of the highlights have already been mentioned elsewhere, so let’s use the lull for some linkblogging!

Okay, I will just remind the Diamond-dependent that the third volume of Natsume Ono’s Eisner-nominated House of Five Leaves arrives in comic shops on Wednesday. It’s one of the books discussed in the latest round-up of Bookshelf Briefs. One other SigIKKI arrival worth noting is the third volume of Seimu Yoshizaki’s Kingyo Used Books, which Johanna Draper Carlson reviewed at Manga Worth Reading.

The dearth of new comics arrivals did not deter the denizens of the Manga Bookshelf from offering a Pick of the Week (or four). We just piggybacked on the Rumiko Takahashi Manga Moveable Feast for a themed list of recommendations. Speaking of the feast, today’s list of links indicates that this will be a lively installment of this always enjoyable effort.

The Toronto Comic Arts Fetival continues to develop as a highly desirable manga event with the announcement that Fantagraphics will debut Takako Shimura’s Wandering Son there.

But enough about manga that we can already or will soon be able to read. Sean (A Case Suitable for Treatment) Gaffney looks at the top properties lists of the big three Japanese publishers to see what we have, what we don’t, and to examine the likelihood that we’ll get the rest.

 

The business end

Here are some of the week’s links that focus on the business end of manga:

At Robot 6, Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson speaks to Vertical‘s Ed Chavez about their new investors, Kodansha and Dai Nippon, and Ed reassures Vertical fans that the publisher will be better able to do the things it loves to do:

If there will be any changes, I think it’s that Vertical will hopefully eventually be the Vertical that everybody is familiar with. It wasn’t until last year that Vertical started producing more manga than anything else, and I’d like to bring us back to being the source of Japanese content in English, because as much as you know I obsess over manga, maybe too much sometimes, I enjoy their novels, I enjoy their nonfiction, I’m a huge fan of Kentaro’s cookbooks. I love the versatility, I love being able to present and be a curator to a catalog like that, and I want to get back to that.

At its blog, Tokyopop talks about some of the realities of the market, particularly as they relate to unfinished titles:

This probably comes as a surprise to a lot of manga fans, since you tend to be a very ’net-friendly bunch, but the percentage of our sales that come through Amazon.com and other online retailers is a fraction of that of the brick-and-mortar stores. There are some notable exceptions (BLU titles, mature titles, and some of our back list), but the vast majority of sales come through physical retail stores, and if something disappears from the shelves, it becomes exponentially more difficult to hit our sales targets.

One of those brick-an-mortar retailers, Christopher (Comics212) Butcher, appreciated Tokyopop’s frankness but questioned the tone:

Some of the finer points are disagreeable to me personally (particularly the enthusiasm for print-on-demand, though that at least is somewhat tempered by describing it as an ‘emerging’ technology) but at the core of the article is a very real problem; the combatative attitude between this Tokyopop employee–and really Tokyopop in general–and their fans. You don’t start off an answer to a frequently asked question on your website by complaining about your customers.

Speaking of publisher-consumer interaction, Fantagraphics shared the cover design of the first volume of Shimura Takako’s eagerly anticipated Wandering Son via their Twitter feed and said that their planned release schedule for the series was two volumes a year. This led to some discussion of the format (hardcover) and price ($19.99), which may be a barrier to entry for people used to paying around $10 for an individual volume. I’m irresistibly reminded of the time that Fantagraphics decided to package Love and Rockets reprints like manga (inexpensively and in paperback) to attract its audience to… you know… good comics.

 

From the stack: Set to Sea

After the announcement of one of my favorite annual award programs, the Great Graphic Novels for Teens, I decided it might be fun to look at all of the books in the top ten this year. Since the list is always interesting and varied, it’s less of a homework assignment than a usefully structured pleasure.

I wish I could claim some metaphorical design in my first choice, but it was made at random. There’s nothing random about Drew Weing’s Set to Sea, though, which publisher Fantagraphics describes as “part rollicking adventure, part maritime ballad told in visual rhyme.” If that last part sounds a little pretentious, don’t worry. Fantagraphics’ solicitations always sound a little pretentious, even when they’re absolutely true.

Weing’s story does have the shapeliness of a poem, and it has the careful structure of a three-act play. It follows a would-be poet as he becomes an unwilling participant in the kind of seafaring adventures he tries to set to verse. In spite of his imposing size, he’s a tentative sort, and the brutality of life at sea takes a while to penetrate. When it does, he still maintains his artist’s viewpoint, and Weing neatly persuades us that art of any sort is better with some life experience to inform it.

That may seem to be a little ironic, given that Set to Sea is Weing’s debut graphic novel. He’s an experienced creator of webcomics, though, and that’s where this book was born. Consequently, each page is a single panel, but each of those panels is so attractively detailed and evocative that the storytelling structure never feels rigid. Instead, it comes across as economical and precise while still filled with event and emotion. It’s a quick read, but it’s very satisfying, and it just invites you to revisit the story again.

You could read it online, obviously, but the physical package is very handsome and worth the investment. In dimension, it’s like a diary or sketchbook that a traveler would carry, appropriately enough. Kevin (Robot 6) Melrose listed its cover as one of the best of 2010, and he’s quite right. The book itself wound up on a number of Best of 2010 lists, including Andrew Salmond’s and Martin Steenton’s at Forbidden Planet International, Brigid Alverson’s at Robot 6, and the Vulture blog of New York Magazine, and Glen Weldon of NPR’s Monkey See counted it among his most memorable comics and graphic novels of the year.

Set to Sea offers a wonderful beginning to this little project of mine. It’s artistically successful on every front, but Weing’s substantial craftsmanship never overwhelms the simple, heartfelt story he’s telling.

Other reviews in this intermittent series:

You can nominate titles for the next Great Graphic Novel for Teen List, and you can take a look at the current batch of contenders.

 

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?