The Book of Human Insects

While Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects (Vertical) focuses its bug metaphors primarily on notions of transformation and parasitism, I find myself irresistibly reminded of that old fable by Aesop, “The Ant and the Grasshopper.” You know the one, where the lazy grasshopper assumes that the hard-working ant will care for him when things get tough, and the ant shows its conservative credentials by just letting the grasshopper die, because the ant has his, and that’s what counts.

With customary perversity, Tezuka turns the old morality play on its head. The grasshopper does benefit from the ant’s labors, because the grasshopper steals the ant’s stash and, if she feels it necessary, kills the ant for good measure. Preach on that, Aesop.

Tezuka follows dazzling celebrity Toshiko Tomura, who’s achieved remarkable and varied success. Though only in her twenties, she’s an acclaimed actress, gifted designer, and award-winning novelist. That she’s achieved this by seducing and metaphorically leaching the life blood of her mentors is of no moral consequence to Toshiko who, not unlike Aesop’s ant, got hers, which is all that matters to her.

Like Yuki from Tezuka’s MW (also Vertical), Toshiko is a quick and creative thinker. She’s not the sadist Yuki is, and she doesn’t have a grand plan beyond staving off boredom and getting what she wants. She also has a self-destructive streak, at least to the extent that she gets a gleam in her eye whenever her plans hit a roadblock. Part of the fun for Toshiko is reacting on the fly to remove unexpected obstacles. She doesn’t have Yuki’s emotional gravitas or his unapologetic perversity, but she has the same Energizer Bunny quality that helped make him such a fascinating protagonist.

And, yes, Toshiko is a protagonist, in that it’s her story and that Tezuka demands that the reader be invested in the outcome of her schemes. You don’t necessarily need to root for her, though I found myself doing so more than made me entirely comfortable, but you do need to care about what she does next and how it works out for her. The fact that she’s a clever and powerful woman at the center of a Tezuka noir tale helps enormously. Works from this category tend to push women to the side in terms of agency; they’re either doormats or harpies. Toshiko may be amoral, but she owns her choices and doesn’t shrink from adversity.

This is right in my Tezuka center of gravity. It’s a compelling story with a moral, though satirical core, taking the flaws of a generation to almost ridiculous extremes and crafting a thriller from that starting point. It’s great looking, possessed of a sexy energy that Tezuka’s adult works don’t always achieve with this level of confidence. And it’s got an indelible central figure, surrounded by an interesting cadre of marks and foes.

And it’s got one of my favorite recurring visual motifs, Toshiko in repose. When her stunts pay off, she takes a moment to just breathe and smirk, looking like a grasshopper on a sunny rock. You can almost see the ant’s leg sticking out of the corner of her mouth.


Upcoming 9/28/2011

Before we delve into the current ComicList, I just have to reinforce my Midtown Comics Pick of the Week: Osamu Tezuka’s Book of Human Insects (Vertical) is amazingly good pulp. Of course, I’m rather fixated on two belated arrivals to comic shops.

When one uses a variety of retail streams to acquire their comics, one can lose all sense of the orderly progression of time. One can also feel like the very last person on earth to get his hands on fabulous, classic shôjo. This is my way of leading up to saying that I will finally, finally be able to purchase my pre-ordered copies of Naoko Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon and its prequel, Codename Sailor V, both from Kodansha. With these and Dark Horse’s re-release of CLAMP’s Cardcaptor Sakura, I feel like all of my magical-girl manga needs are being gloriously met. (Not punctually met, but gloriously.)

I still shouldn’t allow all of this delightful sparkle to distract myself from Viz’s contributions to the week’s bounty. There’s the 26th volume of Hiromu Arakawa’s Fullmetal Alchemist, possibly my favorite shônen fantasy-adventure ever, and the fourth volume of Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves, certainly among my very favorite character-driven seinen series.

What looks good to you?


Upcoming 9/14/2011

You already know what I’d pick if I lived within shopping distance of Midtown Comics, but what if I was entirely dependent on the kindness of Diamond for my weekly comic fix? (Which I am!) Let’s take a look at the ComicList.

Leave it to Vertical to fill the relative void, even if it only takes the form of one book. But that one book is the ninth volume of Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica, so it does a lot of void filling.

The eighth volume was customarily enjoyable. As Yaginuma follows his group of young, would-be astronauts, he’s starting to fold some romantic elements into the narrative. There’s something very heartening about seeing Asumi confronted with the notion that there are some potentially wonderful things on Earth in addition to the promised wonders of the stars. Things we learn about brash, bossy Kei go a long way to soften that character’s rather stereotypical edges, which is a welcome development. Overall, this volume creates some additional spokes to the core cast’s shared dream, and they give added depth to that core dream by making it more complex and conflicted.

An interesting side effect of this shift in the content is how it reframes the relative success of Yaginuma’s illustrations. I very much enjoy the vulnerability he gives to his character designs, but that very vulnerability plays against their increasing emotional maturity. It’s not exactly a troubling counterpoint, but it does trigger a weirdly parental response to the notion of Asumi in love: “She’s too young for romance! She’ll always be too young!” I’m not sure if the counterpoint is entirely intentional, and I’m not sure if it will ultimately but successful, but it’s definitely an interestingly discordant note in a generally coherent presentation.

In other shopping choices, Viz offers the 58th volume of Eiichiro Oda’s Once Piece, which I covered in this week’s Bookshelf Briefs, along with the fourth volume of Kaori Yuki’s Grand Guignol Orchestra (also Viz) and the 13th volume of Hiroki Endo’s Eden: It’s an Endless World! (Dark Horse).


Upcoming 9/7/2011

As the Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week can testify, Viz is publishing enough manga this week to choke a horse. It’s even more crowded over at the ComicList than it is at Midtown Comics.

This gives me the opportunity to save another highlight for my own blog: the third three-volume omnibus of Yellow Tanabe’s Kekkaishi (Viz). I’ve been enjoying the heck out of this tale of young exorcists finding their places in the family business, and I fully expect to keep enjoying it, especially since it’s so inexpensive, relatively speaking.

On the shôjo front, there’s the 10th volume of Karuho Shiina’s funky, sweet Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (also Viz). Spooky-looking but sparkling-on-the-inside heroine Sawako decides to really express her feelings to down-to-earth dreamboat Kazehaya, which could turn out… any number of ways, to be honest.

Ah, but the ComicList offers a seinen option as well! Vertical releases the one-volume Velveteen & Mandala by Jiro Matsumoto. It’s about schoolgirls who cut class to battle zombies in a satirically dystopian future. As I noted in a recent Bookshelf Brief, this didn’t really work for me, but I think that the comic itself isn’t exactly in my taste spectrum. Fans of this kind of thing, and I know you are numerous, should be perfectly content. It originally ran in Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F, which has given me plenty of manga to enjoy, so I can hardly complain that this fifth-genre magazine doesn’t succeed for me every time.

Speaking of Bookshelf Briefs, this week’s column includes a brief look at a boys’-love title that I read thanks to your crowd-sourced feedback, Puku Okuyama’s Warning! Whispers of Love (DMP).

Elsewhere on the Manga Bookshelf mother ship, where all of our robot limbs wait gleaming in hangars between battles, I contribute a review to the inaugural Going Digital column. A reasonable price and the lack of a physical copy to clutter my shelves entices me to try the first volume of the classic Lone Wolf and Cub (Dark Horse) by Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima.


Upcoming 8/10/2011

I have no idea who sells this wonderfully horrifying thing, but they are doing the work of the angels. Kate Dacey very kindly tweeted this in my direction with her customary perfect timing, as my ComicList pick of the week — the 15th volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack from Vertical — relies heavily on the participation of creepy little Pinoko for some of its spectacular highs. I discussed some of those heights in this week’s Bookshelf Briefs.

And that’s really the best that Diamond has to offer this week, so why not take a look at what some people think is the best the whole comics medium has to offer? The Hooded Utilitarian continues to populate its International Best Comics Poll index, and there’s a delightful piece by Shaenon Garrity on what she deems “The HU Lady List.” Over at the Manga Bookshelf, Melinda Beasi ponders the process and discusses her choices.


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.


Previews review July 2011

I know it’s probably inappropriate to rob you of your right to vote during the week if Independence Day, but there just isn’t enough new material to run either dubious manga or BL polls. There are a couple of new titles that look perfectly awful, but I can’t bring myself to run the risk of ever having to read either of them. And there’s only one new BL title due. As if to compensate for this, Previews is packed with tempting debuts and new volumes of beloved series.

The madness begins with Kodansha Comics providing all of the Sailor Scouts you can handle. There’s the first volume of Koji Kumeta Naoko Takeuchi’s Codename: Sailor V (order number JUL11 1144, $10.99), the prequel to Sailor Moon that has never been published in English, and there’s the first volume of Kumeta Takeuchi’s Sailor Moon itself (order number JUL11 1150, $10.99). Kodansha rather cheekily describes this as “the biggest manga launch of 2011 from any publisher.” I can’t really argue with the truth of that. Of course, if it’s so big, you might get the details on your web site.

I’ve never heard of this book, but I trust NBM, so I’m on board for Takashi Murakami’s Stargazing Dog (order number JUL11 1174, $11.99). This two-volume series originally ran in Futubasha’s Manga Action. It’s about a depressed loner whose life is vastly improved by the adoption of a dog.

Not content with one amazing debut, Vertical doubles up, first with Uumaru Furuya’ No Longer Human, an adaptation of the acclaimed novel by Osamu Dazai (order number JUL11 1258, $10.95). Furuya updated Dazai’s tale of an emotionally troubled man for his three-volume adaptation, which ran in Shinchosha’s Comic Bunch. Side note: Dazai’s novel played a key role in Mizuki Nomura’s excellent light novel, Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime (Yen Press).

If there’s been a manga series that received more attention from mainstream media than Tadashi Agi’s The Drop of God (order number JUL11 1259, $14.95), I can’t think of it. This wine-soaked seinen title follows the rivalry between a wine critic and his brother as they compete for the right to inherit the contents of their father’s legendary cellar.

Viz has a ton of new volume of great series, but the only noteworthy debut is a 3-in-1 release of X by CLAMP (order number JUL2011 1279, $19.99). I can’t find a link for it anywhere, but Viz promises a deluxe collector’s edition restored to its original orientation. As for the story itself, the end of the world is near, and super-powered people are taking sides in Tokyo. The series ran for 18 volumes in Kadokawa Shoten’s Monthly Asuka.

New volumes of ongoing series:

  • xxxHOLic vol. 17, by CLAMP, Del Rey, order number: JUL11 0986, $10.99
  • The Summit of the Gods vol. 3, by Yumemakura Baku and Jiro Taniguchi, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, order number JUL11 1106, $25.00
  • Black Metal vol. 2, by Rick Spears and Chuck BB, Oni Press, order number JUL11 1195, $11.99
  • Twin Spica vol. 9, by Kou Yaginuma, Vertical, Inc., order number JUL11 1260, $10.95
  • One Piece vol. 58, by Eiichiro Oda, Viz Media, order number JUL11 1271, $9.99
  • Cross Game vol. 5, by Mitsuru Adachi, Viz Media, order number JUL11 1286, $14.99
  • Kamisama Kiss vol. 5, by Julietta Suzuki, order number JUL11 1261, $9.99
  • Bunny Drop vol. 4, by Yumi Unita, order number JUL11 1300, $12.99

That’s kind of hefty! Start filling your change jars now!


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?


Random weekend question: independents day

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

Here are three that come to my mind:

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

What are your picks?

Previews review June 2011

All right, now that the polling is underway, let’s take a look at the sure bets in the current edition of Diamond’s Previews catalog. Will start with the exciting and/or noteworthy debuts:

Velveteen & Mandala, written and illustrated by Jiro (Freesia) Matsumoto, Vertical, item code JUN11 1294: A Vertical debut is always worth noting, and this one looks intriguingly odd. It portrays a pair of teen-age girls struggling against the zombie apocalypse when they aren’t fending off the totally worse thread of boredom. The single-volume series originally ran in Ohta Shuppan’s Manga Erotics F, an unpredictable but always promising source. I believe this is Matsumoto’s English-language debut.

Habibi, written and illustrated by Craig Thompson, Pantheon, item code JUN11 1212: Have I mentioned lately that I’ve never mustered the energy to finish Thompson’s Blankets? I found what I’ve read of it to be hopelessly mopey and overwritten, though undeniably easy on the eyes. But it’s always worth noting when Thompson releases a new brick, because it happens so rarely. This time, he “explores and celebrates the beauty and cruelty, the complexity and depths of the Islamic world.” Set your phasers on “Gush.”

Animal Land vol. 1, written and illustrated by Makoto (Zatch Bell) Raiku, Kodansha Comics, item code JUN11 1169: I’m succumbing to the adorability of the cover and the premise. An orphaned raccoon dog finds an abandoned human child and decides to raise it in a world occupied only by animals. Zatch Bell had some deeply hideous and unsettling character designs and a cripplingly annoying anime adaptation, so those are points of concern, but I’m game for a volume or two. The series originally ran in Kodansha’s Bessatsu Shônen.

Moving on to the “offered again” category:

  • Korea as Viewed by 17 Creators, by various, Fanfare/Ponent Mon, item code JUN11 1123: Curious about this Eisner-nominated anthology? This is probably one of your better shots at scoring a copy.
  • Gon vol. 1, written and illustrated by Masashi Tanaka, Kodansha Comics, item code JUN11 1172: In case you missed these insanely kinetic, wordless comics about a baby dinosaur the first couple of times they were released.
  • Carnet de Voyage, written and illustrated by Craig Thompson, Top Shelf, item code JUN11 1246: This collection of travel stories is the Thompson comic I’d enthusiastically recommend.

And, lastly, new volumes of ongoing series that particularly catch my eye:

  • Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei vol. 10, written and illustrated by Koji Kumeta, Kodansha Comics, item code JUN11 1176: So glad Kodansha is picking up this hilarious, unsparing satire.
  • Amelia Rules! Vol. 7, The Meaning of Life… and Other Stuff, written and illustrated by Jimmy Gownley, Simon & Schuster, item code JUN11 1239: Wonderfully observant comics about a spunky, imaginative middle-schooler and her friends.
  • Butterflies, Flowers vol. 8, written and illustrated by Yuki Yoshihara, Viz Media, item code JUN11 1275: Probably a guilty pleasure, and one I’m a bit behind on, but I always get some quality cringing chuckles out of this series.
  • Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You vol. 10, written and illustrated by Karuho Shiina, Viz Media, item code JUN11 1278: A joyous deconstruction, subversion and celebration of shôjo tropes.
  • House of Five Leaves vol. 4, written and illustrated by Natsue Ono, Viz Media, item code JUN11 1291: The best of Ono’s works to be published in English so far, which is saying something.

What’s on your wish list?