The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes

As much as I’ve loved super-hero comics, I’ve never really enjoyed super-hero cartoons. (Don’t even get me started on super-hero movies. I haven’t liked one since the second Tim Burton Batman movie.) The cartoons tended to seem overly simplified and overblown to me. They either didn’t have any character continuity at all, which made them suffer in comparison to the ongoing comics, or they handled it so baldly that I felt like I was getting a history lesson.

It’s been a while since I’ve read super-hero comics regularly, mostly because they’ve become mope-y and insular beyond even my ability to tolerate. I do have a super-hero cartoon that I love, love, love. It’s The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, which airs on Disney XD (though I’ve been catching up on it on Netflix). Here are some of the reasons why I’m so smitten:

  1. The episodes can be very funny. Part of the fun of the comics is the banter and bickering among the heroes, and writer Christopher Yost does a great job with that. The banter is character-driven rather than writer-specific. The Hulk is a riot. I always thought that character’s addition into the Avengers’ comics canon was a mistake that was hastily and appropriately rectified. He just didn’t work as a part of a team, what with his portrayal elsewhere in Marvel’s shared universe. Here, there’s no other portrayal to consider, so he can be cranky and troublesome, but you still believe he wants to do good with this group. He’s smart in an instinctive way, and he likes to needle people, which yields some great lines. There are also some fun, subtle jokes. I thought it was terrific that the Avengers ended up fighting an alien robot in a drive-in movie theatre, since the tone of the episode was very much in keeping with the kind of creature flicks that ran there.
  2. The episodes that I’ve watched (about half of the first season) are very exciting. The Avengers face big stakes – massive prison break-outs, the Masters of Evil, alien invasion, a takeover by gamma monsters, etc. Even more importantly, those stakes tend to be external to the fact that the Avengers exist. (At a certain point with any super-hero property, a lot of what they do consists of reacting to villains who want revenge.)
  3. There’s a good division of attention among the characters. Someone clearly cares enough to track the way the characters interact and to make sure everyone gets time in the spotlight. There’s a consistent team dynamic that consists of specific individual relationships, which is something the comics don’t manage all of the time, so the show certainly gets extra points for that. And nobody gets marginalized because of power levels: Thor and Hulk are the best at hitting things, but everyone believably brings something to the table – Hawkeye’s skill, Wasp’s energy and speed, and so on.
  4. The gang’s all here. Aside from the horde of villains that crash in and out of the narrative, there are tongs of supporting characters to add spice. You can’t seem to do an adaptation without Nick Fury lurking on the periphery, obviously, but it’s nice to see Jane Foster driving an ambulance, Pepper Potts rolling her eyes at Iron Man, Doc Samson helping out with gamma-related issues, and so on.
  5. There’s good subplot management. The act of teasing to the next big thing while in the midst of the current big thing was always essential to my enjoyment of super-hero comics. That element is very much in place here. Yost is very good at suggesting the current adventure is part of a larger threat, adding a level of excitement and interest.

Now, the series isn’t perfect. The team’s roster needs more women. Wasp is a terrific character, an enthusiastic adventurer who holds her own rather than the dingbat girlfriend she was for so long in the comics. But, as much fun as it is to see the closing team shot at the end of the credits, it’s always sad to see Wasp doing solo duty when it comes to representing women. This might be rectified; Carol Danvers has appeared and taken steps toward her super-hero destiny. In the episodes I’ve watched, the Black Widow has played a significant (though morally ambiguous) role, and Mockingbird made a great impression as a SHIELD agent. But I want to see another super-heroine in the credits, if not more than one.

Also, the theme song is kind of terrible. Rhyming “one” with “won” always grates on my nerves; some couplings only work in print. And yes, that’s picky of me, but I’m a Sondheim devotee, so my expectations of lyrics are very high.

But if you’re like me, and have fond memories of when super-hero adventures were fun to follow, then you really should give this series a try. It’s terrific.


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.

From the stack: Tenjo Tenge vol. 1

From my point of view, there are tons of reasons to dislike Oh!great’s Tenjo Tenge, which is getting a second English-language release, this time from Viz. The first source of complaint, obviously, is its disastrous first English-language release from DC’s lamented CMX imprint. CMX edited the raunchy, violent series for content, which triggered outrage among members of the most likely core audience for the book.

That decision, hardly genius, gave CMX a permanent black eye among a number of particularly enthusiastic manga fans. No matter how many excellent titles they published, they were always the greedy, tone-deaf censors who violated the purity of Tenjo Tenge. (Repeat the last part of that sentence to yourself.) Years later, when DC cynically shuttered its manga imprint, people were still crowing that they got what they deserved for the shoddy way they treated the series. Of course, some of us couldn’t muster that particular brand of schadenfreude.

And, at the time the series first dropped, some of us were too busy being mildly revolted by the content of the series that survived the editing. And, beyond a negative qualitative assessment, we were left to wonder why DC would publish the series at all if they couldn’t adhere to the style and presentation of the original, since it was hard to imagine how it could be that much more tacky and obnoxious. It was still gross and juvenile and occasionally profoundly offensive, even with the softening.

Now, Viz is presenting the series in its shrink-wrapped, Parental-Advisory glory, because Viz can get away with that sort of thing, having built up a respectable catalog of mature and/or adult manga in addition to its vast reservoir of general-audience material. Please note the “and/or” I put between mature and adult, because it’s a continuum rather than a binary.

I would define “mature manga” as dealing with complex themes in thoughtful and imaginative ways. I would define “adult manga” as including explicit sex and graphic violence. A given title can certainly be both – Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo (Vertical), Osamu Tezuka’s MW (also Vertical), several of Fumi Yoshinaga’s yaoi works. And describing a title as simply “adult” doesn’t automatically imply that it’s no good; a book can pander all it wants as long as it does so with energy and force. Kazuo Koike defines good adult manga for me, because I don’t find his works thematically challenging, but I do find them engrossing for their structure and the ways his storytelling inspires his collaborating illustrators.

From my point of view, Tenjo Tenge is dumb, pandering trash, and the dumbness is the most unforgiveable quality. It’s about stupid boys who like to kick ass. They muck up the needlessly complex ass-kicking caste system at their new school. Neither lead is particularly likeable, nor are any of the members of the school faction that takes the boys under their wings. The structure of the series is basically “violence, violence, crude humor, violence, female nudity, violence, repeat,” with a truly egregious rape scene thrown into the mix to make the boys sad that someone touched their stuff, also serving to show how evil their nemeses are. That may be the surest way to make me hate a piece of fiction, and Oh!great makes the sequence even more distasteful than usual. (I did wonder, back in the days of CMX’s visual amendments, if that scene would be more or less offensive without the superimposed undergarments. It’s exactly as offensive.)

At some point, I should probably try and disclaim that I’m simply not the audience for this kind of things, because I’m generally not. I can’t really bemoan the fact that thug-brawl manga hasn’t hit it big here, simply because I don’t care to read it. But I really think, even factoring in matters of personal taste, this is just lowbrow and lazy and gross. I’m perfectly capable of liking adult manga. I’m just not in the market for bad adult manga.

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

From the stack: Maid Shokun vol. 1

As I was fulfilling my obligation to read Maid Shokun (Tokyopop), a question kept crossing my mind: is this what postmodern fan-service looks like? The cover promises to serve up a hearty tray full of pandering, and the concept – what is it like to work at a maid café? – invites the reader to impose all kinds of parenthetical phrases and subtext. But the series is really just about what it’s like to work at a maid café. Seriously, who does that?

In this case, Akira Kiduki and Nanki Satou are the ones who do that, and they did it for Comic Gum published by Wani Books. I don’t know much about Comic Gum, but it seems like the kind of magazine where fans of the up-skirt will feel right at home. This leads me to wonder what its target audience must have thought of a series that goes so far as to squarely consider the inner lives of women whose job it is to cater to one of their fetishes.

Kiduki and Satou are clearly and consciously creating tension between the services that the café provides – pretty girls in uniform cheerfully greeting guests as “Master” – and the fact that these employees are real women with complicated lives independent of their work. The maids display a fondness for their clientele that’s free of condescension; they like that they can provide these men with brief escape from their often bleak lives. But they’re very clear on the boundaries between occasional fantasy and the day to day.

The creators aren’t averse to letting things get messy. One customer loses sight of the aforementioned boundaries, which triggers a complicated series of responses among the café’s employees. It highlights the delicate balance those boundaries require to sustain the fantasy and keep it safe. Media attention proves to be a blessing and a curse for the establishment, and the maids are forced to consider the possibility of becoming an adult establishment. A relationship between two of the employees reveals homophobia in the workplace. Kiduki and Satou have a lot on their minds, and very little of it involves giving their readers a quick thrill.

Unfortunately, the series is more interesting conceptually than in execution. The creators are better at introducing ideas than incorporating them into a story, which results in a lot of chatter that’s more expository than involving. The characters inspire varying degrees of sympathy and interest. Some are clearly types – bossy girl Arumi, dippy innocent Chiyoko – but some show real potential – floor manager Haine, the most grounded, mature presence in the joint. Unfortunately, the types get the most focus, which makes it hard to invest much feeling in the series.

Still, this series is a whole lot more than a cursory consideration would suggest. If anything, it’s too cerebral in its approach to allow a reader to really enter the world it’s trying to evoke. With a little more heart, it could be something quite special. Of course, we’re unlikely to ever find out if it achieves that, since Tokyopop only managed to release one volume before shuttering its manga publishing efforts. I wouldn’t say I’m devastated by that outcome, as I can’t see Maid Shokun becoming a cherished favorite, but this book has offered a lot of food for thought.


From the stack: Saturn Apartments vol. 3

Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments (Viz) is the only title that I’d read prior to its inclusion in the top ten list of the Young Adult Library Services Association’s 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens. I can’t help but compare this book to Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical), which earned a place on the main list. I like them both a lot, but I tend to think I’d have argued for Spica to take Saturn’s place in the top ten.

This is mostly because Spica has a stronger underlying narrative. It’s got a clearer arc and digs deeper into its cast of characters. That doesn’t suggest failure on the part of Saturn, as the first two volumes clearly indicate that it has different aims, favoring episodic world-building rather than sequential storytelling. It’s easy to enjoy Saturn chapter by chapter, but it’s easier to become involved in Spica, if that makes any sense.

In the third volume of Saturn Apartments, Iwaoka seems to undertake the construction of some substantial subplots. Stand-alone chapters give way to small story arcs, and threads start to recur throughout the volume. This is welcome in a way, because it shows an intention to give the series more weight, but it also seems like this kind of plotting may not be Iwaoka’s strongest skill.

After two volumes of beautifully drawn, gentle glimpses into Iwaoka’s orbital world, the subplots feel rather clumsily wedged into the narrative. They aren’t unpromising, but their emergence feels abrupt. It strikes me that none of the supporting characters were yet able to carry that much purpose at the time it was thrust upon them. The eventual (and logical) inclusion of Mitsu in that thread may change that, but the sequences are still hampered by an imbalanced quantity of expository dialogue that’s out of step with the rest of the script.

One thing that does constitute a welcome development here is a slight shift in tone. Iwaoki is also expressing more interest in the class disparities that characterize the culture she’s built. There was nothing wrong with her initial approach, affirming the value of unglamorous work in a society, but it’s nice to see her underline some of the unfairness that keeps her fictional society ticking.

Overall, the series is still one of my favorites. Iwaoki’s graceful illustrations and fragile character designs continue to hold the eye, and the underlying concept is as sturdy and productive as ever. I just wish the shift to a different, more complex kind of story felt less awkward.

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


From the stack: Kekkaishi 3-in-1 vol. 1

I’ve always heard great things about Yellow Tanabe’s Kekkaishi (Viz) from eminently reliable sources, but I’ve dawdled on taking a serious look at the series because I feel so late to the party. When a title hits its twenties and you haven’t really tried it, there’s a barrier to entry. Viz, in its ongoing efforts to get more of my money, has softened that barrier by offering a 3-in1 edition of Kekkaishi.

You know that I’m very pro-omnibus. I’m not a fiend about paper quality; if I can focus on the page I’m reading instead of what’s on the flip side, I’m perfectly content. For me, it’s a worthwhile trade-off if it results in more content for a lower price. And sometimes the larger span of content makes a more persuasive case for the series that a single volume could. The first third of this collection is likeable but not particularly gripping. It takes a while for Tanabe to get into her groove and for the series to really take off.

Kekkaishi tells the story of young exorcists who spend their nights protecting their school from demons that range from pesky to violently destructive. The school used to be the site of a clan led by a lord whose spiritual aura made him something of a demon magnet. This forced him to hire a powerful exorcist to protect his home and family. After the exorcist’s death, his disciples split into two factions, each thinking their efforts were superior.

Yoshimori and Tokine are the chosen heirs of those two families of exorcists, and even though the family they served is long gone, their land is still demon central. It’s also the place where the kids spend their day in class. Tokine is a couple of years older than Yoshimori. She’s diligent in her training, and she’s eager to accept the family mantle. Yoshimori is resentful over the fact that he’s been forced onto the family career track, but his attitude changes when Tokine is hurt because of his carelessness and lack of skill. He vows to become a better kekkaishi, not to fulfill the family legacy, but to make sure his friend Tokine isn’t hurt again. (The emotional arc of his origin story is a much less dour version of Peter Parker’s, basically.)

That’s a lot of explanation, but it’s necessary, and Tanabe presents it in a lively manner. It sets up the relationship between Yoshimori and Tokine, which is as central to the series as the demon battles. Of course, the demon battles aren’t to be sneezed at. The kekkaishi’s skill set is refreshingly straightforward: they trap the demons in cubic force fields, then banish them. Things get complicated depending on the strength and malice of the demon in question, and Tanabe draws these sequences with great skill and clarity. Designs for the demons are wonderfully varied.

In the first volume, it can seem like Tanabe is holding back, sticking to short but effective stories rather than really digging into her characters and situations. Maybe the feat of collecting a full volume of material gave her the confidence to go deeper, since the second volume opens with a very involving multi-story arc that examines Tokine’s past and introduces more detail about the larger supernatural culture of the kekkaishi and the mystical types around them. From there, Tanabe goes from strength to strength, alternating between exciting battles, arcs full of emotional undercurrents, and goofy one-off stories that bridge between larger tales.

Aside from general approval of the series overall, there are some elements that I really, really like. One of them is the fact that she can render Yoshimori’s training in ways that are interesting and entertaining, which is a rare feat for a shônen mangaka. The kekkaishi’s means of battle are so simple, but Tanabe has given a lot of thought to how they can be applied, and it’s fun to watch the characters figure out the variations.

Another highlight are the cranky old people. Yoshimori’s crotchety grandfather and Tokine’s sly, spry granny are constantly trying to get each other’s goat. It’s the kind of half-serious, half-reflexive squabbling that can really liven up the vibe. Best of all is that they both get moments that reveal them as formidable kekkaishi in their own right.

The third element that I particularly enjoy is Tokine. In her author notes, Tanabe explains the character’s conception. She didn’t want to create a victim for the hero to rescue over and over, and she wanted to give Tokine some advantages that made her Yoshimori’s equal. Tanabe succeeded admirably in that regard. Tokine isn’t as powerful as Yoshimori, but she’s more skilled and certainly more mature. She’s an almost serene, steely presence amidst the demon-fighting mayhem, though she has her own goofy foibles. You can see why Yoshimori has such a huge crush on her, even if she doesn’t acknowledge it.

I didn’t really need another long, ongoing series on my to-read list, but I’m glad to add Kekkaishi to it. It’s got all of the elements of a sturdy supernatural adventure with plenty of quirks to keep things from turning formulaic. While I doubt Viz will run through the series entire back catalog in the 3-in1 format, it’s not so oppressively long that it will cost a fortune to fill in the gaps. And the series is available on the publisher’s iPad app, making that process relatively simple. I hope this strategy gives Kekkaishi the commercial boost it deserves.


MMF: Likeability

Note: This is the first thing I wrote about Wild Adapter from way back when I was doing Flipped columns for Comic World News. Usually I look at these old things and am visited with an urge to rewrite them from top to bottom, but I stand by every word of this one.

When storytellers devote a lot of narrative space to supporting characters extolling the virtues of their protagonists, it’s reasonable to suspect there isn’t a lot there. That kind of cheerleading can come across an unconvincing hard sell by a creator who suspects on some level that they haven’t provided enough reasons for the audience to reach a favorable opinion on their own.

Most of the cast of Kazuya Minekura’s Wild Adapter pause to muse on the intriguing qualities of Makoto Kubota, the mahjong-loving weirdo at the story’s center. In this case, they have reason, because he’s fascinating. But, then, fictional sociopaths generally are.

Kubota isn’t an especially malevolent sociopath; he’s not a Hannibal Lecter. But he views humankind with blithe, self-serving curiosity rather than empathy. He seems susceptible to neither anger nor warmth, and his interactions are driven by either self-preservation or their potential for amusement. He neatly sums up his worldview in an early chapter after he’s won a leadership position with the yakuza equivalent of Junior Achievement: “It was him or me, and I always choose me.”

So why is he engrossing rather than loathsome? It’s partly due to his imperviousness to opinion, which comes across as genuine as opposed to a constructed posture to win approval. It’s indifference without malice or ulterior motive; he has his interests and his needs, and they really don’t involve other people.

He’s also funny. Even surrounded by a central-casting crowd of mobsters and whores, he doesn’t modulate his behavior in the slightest. He’s quirky, blunt and unpredictable. With the macho posturing and calculating seduction that are part and parcel of the yakuza milieu, it’s not surprising that Kubota makes an impression. He’s refreshing.

I know I’m going on and on about Kubota, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a creator pull off this kind of character as well as Minekura has here. I’ve seen plenty of storytellers try to invest an essentially unsympathetic character with charisma, and some even succeed, but Minekura absolutely nails it.

And liking Kubota, or at least being drawn to him, is absolutely central to liking Wild Adapter. As Minekura says in her closing notes, the first volume is essentially a prologue, allowing the reader to get to know Kubota and his world. There are hints of a plot (something involving a mysterious drug with the kind of side effects that don’t lend themselves to repeated use, so you know it isn’t a product of organized crime), but the volume’s primary function is introductory.

For me, it’s entirely successful. I’m sufficiently engrossed in Kubota to be fairly relaxed about where the plot might go. In a lot of manga I really like, I’ve noticed a high level of symbiosis between characters and the series they inhabit. Carefully crafting protagonists and taking pains to introduce them properly gives a narrative more weight than clever plot construction or instant momentum. (Look at Emma and Nana.) I get the sense that Wild Adapter is going to fit into that mold.

Attractive art never hurts, and Minekura provides. Unsurprisingly, I’m particularly taken with her character designs. There are strong shônen-ai elements to the story, but a cast of ridiculously beautiful boys isn’t one of them.

Minekura’s work is stylized, but her characters still look like people. Kubota’s coolness is more internal than aesthetic; he actually bears more than a passing resemblance to Madarame from Genshiken. Komiya, Kubota’s second-in-command, looks like a kid trying to appear tough, achieving an effect that’s an odd mixture of creepy and vulnerable. The supporting cast is delineated with similar care, even characters that are only around for a handful of pages.

Tokyopop seems to have spared less expense than usual with production. The book opens with some elegant plates with spot-color, and the paper quality is nice. Even better, the translation by Alexis Kirsch and adaptation by Christine Boylan make for very fluid reading. The attention to individual character voices is particularly welcome; it gives the world of the story extra layers.

I admit that when I first heard Wild Adapter described as a teen gangster drama with shônen-ai and science fiction overtones, I wasn’t particularly intrigued. Having read it repeatedly, with no diminishing returns in terms of enjoyment, I’m eager for more. Minekura has brought potentially outlandish story elements into service of a surprisingly nuanced, character-driven drama.


From the stack: A Certain Scientific Railgun vol. 1

The art is crisp and attractive, giving a reasonably clear rendering of events that range from stopping for a snack to frying a gang of thugs. Character designs are on the serviceable end of the spectrum, but they’re appealing enough.

Wait, I’m sorry. I started in the middle, and you don’t really have any idea what I’m talking about, do you? Isn’t that annoying? Let’s hit the reset button.

A Certain Scientific Railgun (Seven Seas), by Motoi Fuyukawa, is based on a side story from a very popular light-novel franchise, A Certain Magical Index, written by Kazuma Kamachi. There’s nothing in the way of publisher’s notes in Railgun to indicate that, but there are plenty of gaps in the story to suggest that you’re missing something. Characters and components of the fictional world have weight more by implication than by content which, let’s face it, is a lot less persuasive than it might be.

Railgun could be interesting on its own merits. It’s about a group of psychic schoolgirls who help keep the peace in their corner of a futuristic Tokyo. Some of them are on the law enforcement track, but the lead, Mikoto, is not, even though she’s one of the most powerful psychics in the city. This is never actually explained, and it never stops Mikoto from intervening, so the plot point hovers on the story’s fringes as a needless distraction. It’s hard not to like Mikoto for her toughness and independence, but it’s hard to care much about her adventures.

This is because Fuyukawa and Kamachi don’t seem to have much of an attention span for their actual story. Promising subplots and mysteries are put on hold for not-particularly-interesting slice-of-life sequences. I’m all in favor of manga where the heroines can both blow things up and take time to buy a new pair of pajamas, but these individual components actually seem to leech energy from one another rather than create an engaging or mutually supportive contrast. There’s an overall aimlessness that individual high points can’t overcome.

There are also bits of fan service that are both completely gratuitous and unimaginatively repetitive. The first time a classmate sneaks up on a scantily clad schoolgirl to feel her up, it’s jarring. The second time, the virtually identical staging makes me both irritated at the pandering and at the laziness. There isn’t a pervasive undercurrent of fan service, which makes these instances seem like somebody got a memo from the editor: “Our reader poll numbers are sagging. Throw in a girl-on-girl groping scene in the next chapter.”

Again, though, the real problem is that Railgun feels like a piece without a puzzle. If you squint (and search online), you can find the box with the picture, but that doesn’t improve the reading experience. I’d liken it to collecting one or two Marvel or DC comics that periodically get dragged into a major franchise event and have neither the time nor the inclination to fold that event into the narrative in an organic fashion. And that isn’t an experience I’m eager to repeat.

(Thanks to everyone who voted in the dubious manga poll that resulted in this review.)

Great performances

It’s not a spectacularly interesting week in local comic shops, so I’ve decided I’d rather talk about two extraordinary performances by actresses that I enjoyed over the weekend.

I saw Follies at the Kennedy Center on Friday. It’s a musical about a reunion of showgirls with a score by Stephen (Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, etc.) Sondheim and a book by William (The Lion in Winter) Goldman, and the original production was directed by Harold (Evita) Prince and choreographed by Michael (A Chorus Line) Bennett, and it could hardly have a more prestigious pedigree. I’d never actually seen a full production of it, though I watched and enjoyed a concert version that ran on PBS a couple of decades ago. Seeing it unfold from beginning to end forces me to conclude that it’s got some great songs, some very effective moments, and isn’t very good in terms of sustained storytelling.

The first act sketchily introduces the four leads – two former showgirls and their husbands, one pair being resolutely middle class, the other wealthy and elite – and gives a number of actresses of a certain age (in this case, Linda Lavin, Elaine Paige, Terri White, and others) the chance to bring down the house. The second act focuses more intently on the disintegration of the two marriages, and the piece ends on a spectacular note with a sequence, “Loveland,” where the protagonists each get a dazzling number that articulates their angst in song and dance.

Ostensibly, the biggest draw to the production should be Bernadette Peters, who plays middle-class Sally, the emotionally fragile ex-showgirl who has completely unrealistic hopes for the reunion, most of them centered on her unresolved feelings for rich, elite Ben (played by Ron Raines of Guiding Light fame). You would think the role would be right in her wheelhouse, but maybe she was cast too well. I rarely found myself thinking about the character (who isn’t particularly sympathetic to begin with) as much as the ways Peters’ own narrative intersects with the role.

For me, the knockout, starring performance came from Jan Maxwell as Phyllis, the chorine turned high-society matron who harbors deep (and justified) dissatisfactions under her pristine exterior. I vaguely remember liking Maxwell in some episodes of Law and Order, but I wouldn’t trade the experience of seeing her perform live for anything, even in a show as problematic as Follies. Fairness demands that I acknowledge that Phyllis is probably the best written character in the show, and she certainly gets to perform my favorite numbers (“Could I Leave You?” and “The Ballad of Lucy and Jessie”). All the same, she rips into the role with a seriousness of purpose and a focus that are marvelous to witness. While she’s hardly the best singer and dancer on the stage, her musical numbers are informed by her acting choices, particularly the sense that Phyllis is rediscovering the joy of performing and what it brings to her as an independent entity. Of the “Loveland Numbers,” hers was the one that brought down the house, even with Peters doing a creditable job with the lachrymose cabaret standard “Losing My Mind.”

As for the rest of the cast, their relative success depends on how invested they are in playing a role rather than performing a number. The audience loved Lavin’s “Broadway Baby,” but it seemed to me more of a lively night-club number than an organic part of Follies. Paige’s take on “I’m Still Here” seemed to demonstrate a mighty (and unsuccessful) struggle to make an iconic number personal. White’s “Who’s that Woman?” deservedly stopped the show, partly for the force of her performance and because it’s one of the rare moments when the show’s core concept actually coheres perfectly. White and the other showgirls perform an old favorite as ghosts of their former selves perform with varying degrees of synchronicity, at times displaying the indignities of age. (And, great as White is, the number gave Maxwell the first opportunity to show Phyllis rediscovering herself through performance.)

Raines sings wonderfully well, but his performance isn’t sufficiently complex to make selfish bastard Ben particularly involving. Danny Burstein is close to great as Sally’s long-suffering husband, Buddy. I was delighted to see the actors playing younger versions of the central quartet rewarded for their hard work in thankless roles with spot-on performances terrific songs in the “Loveland” sequence, the wittily written “You’re Gonna Love Tomorrow” and “Love Will See Us Through.” (In truth, I think Lora Lee Gayer gave a better performance as Sally than Peters did, and she gave a pretty good performance as Peters at the same time.)

Because it was devastatingly hot in our nation’s capital, we spent part of the next day in the cool comfort of a movie theatre watching Super 8. Let me tell you, there are a number of worse ways you could spend a hot afternoon. The overall narrative doesn’t offer any surprises, but the execution is packed with craft and grace notes. Sure, it’s basically J.J. Abrams writing and directing a mash note to the films of Stephen Spielberg, but Abrams avoids the worst of his inspiration and executive producer’s tendency towards cheap sentiment while crafting what’s ultimately a really entertaining, nicely paced movie. (I’ve whined before about filmmakers’ tendencies to pad out the final act of a film with totally needless hullaballoo, but there’s none of that here.)

The whole cast is strong, but I was mesmerized by Elle Fanning as I was several summers ago by her older sister, Dakota, in director Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. (Of course, Dakota Fanning was the only thing worth watching in that movie, which made the performance that much more magical.) In Super 8, Elle Fanning plays the generally thankless role of the only girl in a group of boys. I’m not quite sure if it’s because of her performance or due to Abrams’ design, but “the girl” in this case actually has agency and doesn’t just end up being a catalyst for the boys’ reactions. There’s some of that, and the boys are all good at playing their respective archetypes, but Elle Fanning is endlessly watchable and sympathetic. Honestly, I’d like to see her nominated for an Academy Award. She’s just that good.

From the stack: Ten Questions for the Maidman

I think Adam Warren has done tremendous work turning Empowered into something much greater than the sum of its parts. This trend continues with the second series special, Ten Questions for the Maidman. I’m always impressed with the ways that Warren can stretch a single, seemingly unpromising joke several times farther than what would be the snapping point for lesser writers.

Adam Warren is joined on artistic duties by Emily Warren, who provides painted pages for the titular interview that are sprinkled throughout the comic. They’re attractive, but they reinforce for me how essential Adam Warren’s creative control is to the property. One of the reasons Maidman is a great joke is the character’s routinely masculine body language. He’s just a guy who happens to fight crime in a frilly maid’s costume, as stolid and solid as your average caped vigilante.

In the interview pages, Emily Warren overlays Maidman’s body language with a certain coyness that, to my way of thinking, undermines the deadpan genius of the character, which is articulated in Maidman’s responses to the fatuous interviewer for a super-hero version of Inside Edition or Entertainment Tonight. The amusing cognitive dissonance is lost when Maidman is actually behaving in ways that are consistent with his appearance. It’s just not as funny, and it almost seems to contradict what the character is saying in his feature sequences. His shtick seems more about playing on the perceptions opponents impose on him, not about actively triggering those perceptions. It’s funnier when it’s the villain’s gay-panic paranoia at work rather than being a response to Maidman’s active provocation.

Still, this is an entirely welcome expansion on the Empowered universe, focusing on one of the funnier and more subversive supporting characters while still giving the title character some moments to shine. I hope Adam Warren keeps this specials coming, as they help to pass the time between new volumes of the main series by being perfectly entertaining in their own right.