Deep discounts

Hey, Top Shelf is having its annual sale, offering some great books for $3.

My strongest recommendation in the $3 category would be Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny, a terrifically twisted allegory (which I reviewed here). While I didn’t enjoy Renée French’s Micrographica as much as I did The Ticking, $3 for a book by French? Please. You should be wearing a ski mask during that transaction. (And since you’re saving so much money, why not do yourself a favor and buy The Ticking as well?)

Bumper crop

Enough with the shadowy portents for a bit. Let’s see what lurks in the current Diamond Previews catalog, shall we?

Dark Horse offers the fourth volume of Adam Warren’s brilliant Empowered about the ups and downs of a good-hearted super-heroine with a singularly unreliable costume and a loyal band of friends. The third volume got a little dark for my tastes, but it was hardly enough to keep me from reading more. (Page 30 and 31.)

Do I owe it to myself to see if any of the plot points so irritatingly left dangling in The Plain Janes (Minx) are addressed in the sequel, Janes in Love? Cecil Castellucci and Jim Rugg revisit their group of art guerillas and promise that the teens “discover that in art and love, the normal rules don’t always apply.” I thought they already knew that. (Page 113.)

Someday I’ll get around to writing about Rutu Mordan’s Exit Wounds (Drawn & Quarterly), which I thought was very good. (I don’t know if I would have put it on my “Best of 2007” list, whatever that might have looked like, but I’d certainly recommend it.) D&Q is following up with a collection of Mordan’s short works, Jamilti and Other Stories, and I’m looking forward to it. I love short stories, and I’m eager to see what Mordan does with that kind of flexibility. (Page 288.)

Many people, myself included, have written nice things about Hideo Azuma’s Disappearance Diary, due from Fanfare. Anything from this publisher is worth a look, and this book offers an intriguing if slippery look at the low points in the life of the manga-ka. (Page 297.)

I’ve been having a hard time finding a copy of Jason Shiga’s widely acclaimed Bookhunter (Sparkplug Comic Books) in my retail wanderings, so I’m glad to see it being offered again. (Page 349.)

Weirdness alert: people are tracking the fates of Tokyopop’s various global titles, and here’s one more to add to the tally. The publisher is offering a prestige collection of one, Boys of Summer: The Complete Season. The solicitation of the Chuck Austen/Hiroki Otsuka baseball comic indicates that the unpublished third volume will appear for the first time here, along with the first two. I’m not recommending, because I’ve read too many comics by Austen as it is, but I thought it was interesting to note. (Page 353.)

I thought Top Shelf had already solicited Ulf K.’s Heironymus B, but maybe it got delayed. I’ve heard good things about it, so I’ll just gently remind the local shop owner that I’d like a copy. (Page 362.)

Takehiko Inoue’s much-loved basketball manga Slam Dunk gets another bite at the apple courtesy of Viz in its $7.99 Shonen Jump line. (Page 384.) The publisher is maximizing its Death Note profits with a new series of collector’s editions that offer “color art… premium packaging… new cover art on the dust jacket” and other bonuses. (Page 386.) I’m not quite certain about the plot of Ayumi Komura’s Mixed Vegetables, which seems to be about using marriage to further professional ambitions, but I can’t turn my back on shôjo cooking manga. (Page 387.)

I swear this had a cooler name when it was first announced, but the first issue of Yen’s anthology magazine, Yen Plus, arrives in August. It features a mix of original and licensed work, and if you ever wondered what hack thriller author James Patterson would do with sequential art, this is your moment. It’s also got Svetlana Chmakova’s follow-up to Dramacon (Tokyopop), Nightschool, so that’s certainly a point in its favor. (Page 390.)

From the stack: Tōnoharu

One of my favorite stories by David Sedaris describes an adolescent trip to a summer camp in Greece he took with his sister. There’s the hope that the journey will lead to reinvention and that the anxious, twisted geek he is will give way to someone sophisticated and comfortable in his skin. While his sister accomplishes this without apparent effort or consequence, Sedaris becomes more intensely himself. It’s a funny, poignant look at the tyranny of expectations.

Lars Martinson’s Tōnoharu (Pliant Press and Top Shelf) covers similar territory in graphic fashion. Daniel Wells has begun a year as a teaching assistant at a junior high school in rural Japan, and he has clear visions of what the outcomes will be… “Fluency in Japanese, adoring students and colleagues, a revolutionized curriculum…” It doesn’t work out that way, and no reasonable person could expect it would, but Daniel’s optimism is understandable. Who doesn’t harbor fantasies about the possibility of change in a new setting?

But even if Daniel was a different kind of person, more outgoing or visionary, the village of Tōnoharu isn’t fertile ground for adventure or transformation. It’s an average community, and its residents are courteous, but they have their own lives and needs. This leaves Daniel with the responsibility of adapting, and he’s not very good at that. Martinson is conscientious about keeping the onus on his protagonist; Daniel could embrace the experience and engage the people around him if he chose to do so.

At the same time, I like Daniel and can understand his perspective. He has just enough ambition to embark on this kind of adventure, but he doesn’t have to tools to take full advantage of it. Maybe I’m revealing too much about myself, but I never found his awkwardness that extreme; I found it funny, sure, but not out of scale.

Visually speaking, Martinson uses a fairly rigid grid pattern of panels that ends up looking like a well-organized photo album. It’s a good choice for this kind of material. He keeps his character designs loose and simple and their settings richly detailed and textured. I like that counterpoint a lot, and I always appreciate a strong sense of place in a comic.

One thing I did find odd about Tōnoharu was the overall packaging, which struck me as a little too handsome. The content here is the first part of a longer story. Engaging as it is page by page, it’s necessarily incomplete and doesn’t really take shape as an individual entertainment. The book’s hardcover treatment implies something complete to me; I might have chosen to release the individual chapters in a simpler format and saved the high-end production for an eventual collection. But really, excessive packaging is barely even a flaw, just a bit of contradicted expectations.

Martinson has delivered a fine first chapter to an engrossing, character-driven story. I’m looking forward to the next installment.

Upcoming 4/2/2008

I’m having a weird week, so today’s look at Wednesday’s arrivals is going to be a little perfunctory. Still, there were a few titles I wanted to mention.

First up is the tenth and final volume of Minetaro Mochizuki’s Dragon Head (Tokyopop). I have no idea how this series is going to end. Will the survivors finally be rewarded with safety and rescue, or will they succumb to the dangers around them? Will Mochizuki explain precisely what happened to Japan and place it in context of the rest of the world? I don’t know, and I’m enough of an admirer of Mochizuki’s work that I’m perfectly willing to trust in his execution of whatever conclusion he derives. This book has received critical acclaim but not much in the way of sales. Maybe now that the whole shebang is available, more readers will take an interest.

I’m very intrigued by the premise of Lars Martinson’s Tonoharu (Top Shelf), which focuses on an American teaching English in a rural Japanese village. Martinson won a Xeric Award for the work, which is generally a good sign, and I like the look of the preview pages.

Last, and least, is the first volume of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s Gun Blaze West (Viz). It’s a perfectly competent example of “young man with a dream” manga, but it never quite transcends its familiar formula. Its Old West setting just about provides sufficient novelty, but I’ve never been a fan of gunslinger stories, so I’m left to amuse myself with nitpicking about the period and setting. (Why doesn’t his sister wear petticoats? What kind of schoolmarm is she, anyways? How come I never knew that Illinois had mesas, and where did they go?) I also found myself feeling like a grandpa as I thought that nine-year-olds probably shouldn’t be given a gun, no matter what their destiny may be. I kind of get the feeling that I’m missing the bus on this one, and that Watsuki’s reputation for Rurouni Kenshin will carry the book to healthy commercial heights.

Upcoming 2/27/2008

Man, the storm is following the calm this week. Tons of stuff is arriving in comic shops this week (that’s probably already in bookstores) that’s worth a look.

(Dear Borders: Please open a concept store in my area. The area is virtually free of pesky zoning regulations, and big box chains are welcomed with unnerving fervor and gratitude that’s almost pathetic. Just look at the parking lot of the Olive Garden if you don’t believe me. Failing that, please offer a “buy blank for the price of blank minus one,” as I will be in the vicinity of one of your non-concept outlets later in the week and would appreciate a bargain.)

It almost never happens that I come to a manga via the anime, but I’ve seen some episodes of Crayon Shinchan on Cartoon Network and found them hilarious. CMX has picked up the manga, once published by ComicsOne, and will be releasing it in all of its vulgar, adorable glory.

I’ve already gone on about the fifth volume of Kitchen Princess (Del Rey). It shows up in comic shops Wednesday.

Aside from the cheerful bad taste of the acronym you can form from part of its title, I’ve actually heard good things about Kei Azumaya’s All Nippon Airline: Paradise 3000 Feet (Juné).

The tenor has obviously been different, but I’ve also heard really good things about Ulf K.’s Hieronymus B. (Top Shelf). It looks like it should make for a nice change of pace.

And Viz has decided against pacing themselves this week, churning out manga I really like in a great flood. The situation is so serious that I have to resort to the bulleted list.

  • Beauty Pop vol. 6, by Kiyoko Arai: ACK! Get that horrible child off of the cover!
  • Gin Tama vol. 5, by Hiroaki Sorachi: Really, really smart comedy about really, really dumb characters. Many try to pull this kind of thing off, but few succeed.
  • High School Debut vol. 2, by Kazune Kawahara: I thought the first volume had tons of potential, and I’m assured that Kawahara realizes that potential in really interesting ways.
  • Honey and Clover vol. 1, by Chica Umino: Sweet and hilarious stuff about a group of art students.
  • Nana vol. 9, by Ai Yazawa: I’m a selfish ass, so I’m just glad that this book is coming out more often. It looks as though things get even more uncomfortable in this volume, which is just as it should be in soap opera.
  • Naruto vol. 28, by Masashi Kishimoto: I’m pretty much a Naruto newbie, so when Viz sent this volume my way, I was curious to see how it functioned as a starting point for someone who was basically ignorant of everything that went before. It works well, and it’s a very entertaining comic in its own right. Also, Sakura splits the earth open with her fist and does a variety of other impressive things, and I am instantly smitten.
  • But seriously, was that level of quantity and quality strictly necessary?

    Previews review Feb. 2008

    There’s plenty of intriguing stuff in the February 2008 Previews catalog. Let’s get to it, shall we?

    I’ve seen lots of excitement about Hiroya Oku’s Gantz (Dark Horse, page 34), and the solicitation does make it sound intriguing. It promises recently deceased average folks put through their paces by a bossy, alien orb. I’m not usually drawn to crazy violent manga, but there’s something about Dark Horse’s taste in those kinds of books that works for me. Usually.

    On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, but also from Dark Horse (page 57), is Simone Lia’s Fluffy, which is about a preschool-aged rabbit and his human father. If the premise makes you want to check your glucose levels, the absolutely charming preview pages feature Fluffy’s teacher sneaking out of dad’s bedroom. Father and son also go to Sicily. I’m there.

    In other comics travel news, Del Rey launches Yuko Osada’s Toto! The Wonderful Adventure (page 270). Wanderlust drives young Kakashi to stow away on a zeppelin filled with crooks.

    I’m a huge fan of Takako Shigematsu’s Tenshi Ja Nai!!, so I’m glad to see that Go! Comi has picked up another of her titles, Ultimate Venus (page 303). Honestly, I wasn’t crazy about Shigematsu’s King of the Lamp, but it was hardly bad enough to put a dent in the positive impression left by Tenshi.

    The premise of Lars Martinson’s Xeric Award-winning Tōnoharu (Top Shelf, page 356) sounds great. It’s the semi-autobiographical tale of an American teaching English in rural Japan. Martinson has a blog about the book and the experiences that inspired it.

    There’s always justifiable excitement when Vertical announces that they’re releasing another beautifully produced translation of Osamu Tezuka’s work. This month, it’s Dororo (page 362). There doesn’t seem to be any room in it for cross-dressing sociopaths, but I’m sure it will offer its own unique charms.

    Previews review – Jan. 2009

    It’s Diamond Previews time again. Let’s dispense with the formalities and get right to it.

    There’s a clear and present Pick of the Month (that I probably won’t pick up at the comic shop because it will be widely available at a better price elsewhere). Pantheon is releasing the second volume of Joann Sfar’s The Rabbi’s Cat, which is certainly cause for raucous celebration, at least in my house. The debut volume was my first exposure to Sfar’s work, and I’ve been watching like a hawk for more of this intriguing story. (Page 327.)

    I’m not familiar with the work of Ulf K., but Top Shelf’s solicitation for the Hieronymus B. graphic novel is intriguing. The book is being simultaneously released by five international publishers, and the preview pages at the publisher’s site are appealing. (Page 354.)

    I was thinking yesterday that people using “with Oscar-winner so-and-so” to entice viewers to watch a given movie should only be able to use the phrase when the cited individual actually won and Oscar for the movie in question. I’m thinking along the same lines when I see a publisher say a book is like Scott Pilgrim, even when the book is being released by the publisher of Scott Pilgrim. Maybe they could give Bryan Lee O’Malley some kind of signet ring, and he could grant approval for use of the comparison, but he’s probably too self-effacing to go along with something like that.

    Anyway, Oni is pitching Lars Brown’s North World to fans of not only Scott Pilgrim, but Gross Point Blank, Lord of the Rings, and Buffy, which is some kind of ultimate ven diagram of geekery. There’s no information up on Oni’s site yet, but you can check out the webcomic here. It looks like fun in a game-logic sort of way, with Brown blending role-playing game elements with comedic slacker angst. So… yeah… like Scott Pilgrim. (Page 326.)

    If Tom Spurgeon’s holiday interview with Simon Gane made you want to read something Gane has drawn, you really couldn’t do better than Paris, written by Andi Watson. It’s a gorgeous, romantic mini-series that seemed to have been conceived with the sole purpose of letting Gane draw the hell out of it, which is all the purpose it really needs. SLG offers the collected version again in case you missed it. (Page 213.)

    DC releases a full-color omnibus collection of the first sixteen issues of one of the best super-hero comics of the last fifteen years, James Robinson’s Starman. It’s got gorgeous Tony Harris art, a terrific cast, and a really nice generational-hero set-up without ever seeming like an airless exercise in continuity flogging. It’s kind of pricey at $49.99, so I would probably be inclined to wait for a paperback version if I didn’t already own the collected issues in one form or another. (Page 92.)

    And last but not least, one of my favorite manga series comes to an end. Tokyopop releases the final volume of Minetaro Mochizuki’s Dragon Head. Mochizuki has served up some incredible thrills and chills in ten volumes of character-driven survival drama. I still can’t understand why this series wasn’t a big hit. (Page 351.)

    Upcoming 12/5/2007

    I hear that in some cultures, people actually drive more cautiously in inclement weather conditions. Has anyone actually seen this behavior manifest itself? Because it’s apparently only folk legend in these parts. Anyway, if I live until then, here’s what caught my eye on the ComicList for Wednesday.

    I’m a little confused. The list says that the fourth volume of Andy Runton’s charming Owly series is due out, calling it Don’t Be Afraid. Top Shelf calls it A Time to Be Brave and says it doesn’t come out until January. Amazon agrees with ComicList on the shipping date and Top Shelf on the title. Eh… it’ll show when it shows, and I’ll be happy.

    Oni sent me a preview copy of James Stokoe’s Wonton Soup, and it’s interesting. There’s some serious mash-up going on… bits of Iron Wok Jan! and Men At Work and ninja-pirates in space, though no zombies that I can recall. It’s not bad, but I’m not quite sure it combines its ingredients to become its own thing. Stokoe certainly seems talented, though.

    Tokyopop and Viz make up for essentially abdicating last week, pumping out about 40 volumes between them. I’ve been meaning to catch up with Welcome to the NHK once Genshiken finished (as it seemed ill-advised to cross the beams between those two), though I’m not quite ready for tomorrow’s fifth volume. And I seem to recall that Nosatsu Junkie got a really good review in Manga: The Complete Guide, so I’ll have to put that on the catch-up list as well. I’ll only be four behind on that one.

    From the stack: Fox Bunny Funny

    “You looking for an answer or an argument?”

    — Birdie Coonan, All About Eve

    With its adorable animals and wordless storytelling, Andy Hartzell’s Fox Bunny Funny (Top Shelf) could be mistaken for a simple allegory about being true to yourself. It’s a lot creepier and more complex than that, with none of the certainty allegory usually offers.

    It’s about a fox who, against all societal norms, yearns to embrace his inner bunny. His family is aghast, and truth be told, so is the fox. Received knowledge tells him he’s a freak, and the conflict between his deepest feelings and the prevailing culture can be agonizing. Hartzell certainly doesn’t flinch away from illustrating the manifestations of that conflict, and the consequences of the fox choosing to pass for “normal” are gruesome in ways that take full advantage of the Wild Kingdom dynamic.

    In other words, Hartzell is blending human concerns without fully anthropomorphizing his cast of critters. It’s tricky storytelling, though its cleverness and visual appeal don’t diminish or trivialize the subject matter. Anyone who’s read a fair amount of the work of Osamu Tezuka will recognize the juxtaposition of familiar, even friendly cartooning tools with deeper, darker issues.

    And Hartzell steadfastly refuses to fall back on moral clarity. If the fox’s attempts at passing tear him apart, his path to transformation is also challenging and frightening. Polarity and anxiety aren’t only found in the rigid constructs of fox versus bunny; the gray area, the place where creatures are freer to express and explore, has its own difficulties and sometimes contradictory rules.

    It’s a challenging piece, one that Hartzell has executed with emotional frankness and a wonderfully fluid design sense. He seems to want an argument, and he sets the stage for a rewarding and complicated one.

    Upcoming 10/10

    Just because Jason Thompson’s Manga: The Complete Guide (Del Rey) is clearly the must-buy item on this week’s ComicList doesn’t mean it’s the only item worth mentioning.

    If it weren’t for the Guide, the pick of the week might be the fifth volume of Kiyohiko Azuma’s absolutely delightful Yotsuba&! (ADV). Cardboard robot battles! A trip to the beach! Grapes! What more do you need?

    Yes, they hunger for brains, but how do zombies really feel? Someone must have already asked this, but nothing comes to mind. This archly emo look at undead eaters of human flesh comes in the form of J. Marc Schmidt’s Eating Steve from Slave Labor Graphics. I’ve heard good things about Schmidt’s Egg Story, and the Eating Steve preview has some nice bits in it.)

    I’m curious about CMX’s new wave of titles aimed at mature readers, particularly Kanako Inuki’s Presents. The excerpt that ran in a CMX sampler over the summer wasn’t too inspiring, but John Jakala’s review convinces me that it’s definitely worth a look. (But I really love “comeuppance theater.” “Tonight on ‘When Bad Things Happen to People Who Totally Deserve Them…”)

    Adrian Tomine’s Shortcomings (Drawn & Quarterly) has gotten great reviews all over the place, so I’m sure I’ll take a look at it at some point. I’m guessing it will be all over chain bookstores, and the right convergence of opportunity and discount will arise somewhere down the line.

    How have I managed to go this long without reading Lat’s Kampung Boy (First Second), even in the face of universal critical acclaim? And now the follow-up, Town Boy, is due. Must… catch… up! (Not with the help of Amazon, though. They have one of those “buy both” offers that actually allows you to pay about 75 cents more for the two titles than you would if you just added them to your cart individually, which leads me to believe that the buy-two pricing hasn’t caught up with the individual costs.)

    Beyond lots of Fruits Basket product (which I hasten to note that I heartily endorse, because the series is very moving and surprising), Tokyopop offers two books that I’m eagerly anticipating. The first is the debut volume of Kozue Amano’s Aqua, which sounds lovely. There’s also the second volume of Yuji Iwahara’s King of Thorn. The first installment didn’t quite reach the heights of Iwahara’s Chikyu Misaki (CMX), but it was very solid, and it’s Iwahara, so I’ll happily stick around on the assumption that it will reach those heights eventually.

    The excerpt from Yearbook Stories: 1976-78 that ran in Top Shelf’s Seasonal Sampler was extremely likable, so I’ll definitely look for it the next time I’m in a big city with a comic shop with a wide selection. It’s written by Top Shelf honcho Chris Staros and illustrated by Bo Hampton and Rich Tommaso.

    Even factoring out the extra volumes of Naruto, Viz sure has a heck of a lot of product moving this week. Some of it, like Strawberry 100%, is resolutely awful, in my opinion. Some offerings, like new volumes of Bleach and Nana, are as welcome as sweater weather.

    Yen Press rolls out three licensed titles, all of which sound like fairly standard bookstore fare, and none of which quite grab my attention the way With the Light did. I do like teen detective stories, so I’ll probably give Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning a look. Or maybe not, after reading Katherine Dacey-Tsuei’s take on the book. It’s not like I don’t have plenty of other options.