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Monday, May 31, 2004

HOUSEKEEPING

I've just finished a minor, but long-overdue, update to my blogroll, indicating three blogs that are temporarily or permanently (alas) inactive (note that the archives of Invisible Adjunct are scheduled to disappear June 9). I've also added two blogs. The Poor Man is a political blog, with some sharp commentary. FanboyRamp!!Blog is a comics blog that I should have added long ago. While it's primarily superhero-oriented, and hence a bit removed from my main interests, its author does such a good job of compiling the most interesting and most bizarre quotes from the comics blogosphere that I read it every couple of days.

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Sunday, May 30, 2004

BILLMON ON IRAQ

I'm currently working on a long comics-related post. In the meantime, here's a long, thoughtful post by Billmon, arguing that U.S. failure in Iraq is now inevitable. Billmon also links to a very disturbing interview in the Sacramento Bee with a former Marine who was in the Iraq War, who talks about having taken part in killing dozens of civilians.

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Thursday, May 27, 2004

KEN REID

I recently checked outThe Best of British Comic Art, by Alan Clark, from the library. Of the six artists profiled, five are uninteresting, judging by the strips reprinted (and the "humor" is for the most part dire), though the book does reveal the interesting fact that an imitation, in both subject matter and style, of "Hogan's Alley" (aka "The Yellow Kid"), entitled "Casey Court" ran in one of the weekly British comic magazines until 1953. But the sixth artist, Ken Reid, was some sort of deranged genius. Artistically, the closest analogy I can think of is Basil Wolverton, though one strip has a Dick Briefer-like "Frankie Stein"; but Reid is, if anything, wilder. Of the samples of Reid's work included in the book, the most bizarre is "The Nervs." The "nervs" are grotesque creatures living inside the body of a fat, ugly schoolboy, who operate his nervous system and control his actions. Though Reid apparently didn't originate this idea, he certainly ran with it. In the complete "Nervs" strip included here, the stomach nervs decide they want to see some fireworks, and command Fatty (as the schoolboy is called) to drink eighteen "sherbert fizzes," the carbonation of which they use, along with undigested macaroni, to make their own fireworks. When the fireworks display in his stomach gives Fatty indigestion, his mother doses him with castor oil, and the stomach nervs are drenched in it. One of them decides to avenge himself by taking a club to the inside of Fatty's skull, but on his way there he inadvertently hits the "hefty punch" button on the "hand control," which leads Fatty to involuntarily slug his mother (knocking her wig off), and Fatty ends up sitting in a jail cell. Reid's most famous work was apparently a children's fantasy strip called "The Adventures of Fudge the Elf." From the brief samples shown in the book it's not clear what the appeal was, though it's nicely drawn.

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Monday, May 24, 2004

READING MATTER

A number of people have been linking to this eloquent post by Jeanne d'Arc of Body and Soul on Abu Ghraib (via Crooked Timber). Read the comments, too.

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Sunday, May 23, 2004

THE "SECRET GOSPEL OF MARK"

Since reading Albert Schweitzer's The Quest for the Historical Jesus many years ago, I've been interested in, well, the quest for the historical Jesus. One of the most fascinating books I've read in pursuit of this interest is Morton Smith's The Secret Gospel. In this book, Smith--a highly distinguished New Testament scholar--announced his discovery, in a monastery in the West Bank in Palestine, of an eighteenth-century copy of a fragment of a letter by the third-century Church father Clement of Alexandria. According to this letter, the church at Alexandria used not one, but two, versions of the Gospel according to Mark: the version we have, and a second, "secret" version available only to the elite. Furthermore, there was a third version, which Clement regarded as spurious, held by a "heretical" sect called the Carpocratians. The letter contained two quotations from the secret Gospel. One is very short; but in the other, Jesus raises a man from the dead. A few nights later, the man comes to Jesus naked under his cloak, and Jesus spends the night with him "teaching him the mystery of the Kingdom of God." (If you're an alt comix fan, you may recall that Chester Brown's adaptation of the Gospel according to Mark, which ran in Yummy Fur, incorporated both passages from the secret Gospel.)

As one might expect, this story caused quite a stir. In fact, the existence of a secret Gospel of Mark had itself not been suspected beforehand. Smith drew conclusions from the letter which were controversial, to say the least, and have not been widely accepted. But most scholars accepted that the letter itself was a copy of a genuine letter by Clement. A definitive judgment couldn't be made, though, because while Smith had taken photographs of the letter, he was unable to display the letter itself, which remained in the monastery. (While a few other scholars have seen the letter, none of them were able to have chemical tests performed upon it, which could determine when the copy had actually been made; and currently it seems to be lost.)

I just finished reading Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew, written by Bart D. Ehrman, a respected New Testament scholar. In it, he makes several arguments that the letter is a forgery. Among them are:

1) No other ancient source mentions the letter.

2) None of Clement's other writings mention the letter, the secret Gospel, or the Carpocratian's falsification of it, even though he spends a good deal of time attacking the Carpocratians.

3) In Clement's other writings, he claims that the spiritual elite interpret Scripture differently than do ordinary believers, but not that they have different versions of the texts, as he does here.

4) In Clement's other writings, he states that one must not swear falsely. But in the letter, he says that when arguing with Carpocratians, you should deny the existence of the secret Gospel "on oath"--that is, swear falsely.

5) One of the grounds upon which Smith argued that the original letter had been written by Clement was that its vocabulary was typical of of Clement's known writings. But in fact, words which are particularly characteristic of Clement occur more frequently in the letter than they would be expected to, based on Clement's other writings. In effect, the letter is more "Clementesque" than Clement himself.

Ehrman doesn't say that the letter is definitely a forgery, nor does he accuse Smith outright of forging it. But from what he writes it seems clear that he thinks it's likely to be a forgery, and that Smith is the most likely suspect.

Obviously, I lack the qualifications to judge Ehrman's arguments. Ehrman himself says that the majority of scholars believe that the letter is genuine. But, for what it's worth, it doesn't seem to me that Ehrman would be predisposed a priori to reject the secret Gospel. He himself has written a book (The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture) on how orthodox scribes had altered the text of the New Testament to make it better reflect their own theological views.

If you want to explore further, in addition to the books I've mentioned, Wieland Willker's webpage has a lot of resources, including Smith's translation of the letter, the original Greek text, and articles arguing for and against the letter's authenticity.

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Saturday, May 22, 2004

"MILA MILIOI ITSASGALTZE MILA BIDER!"

I was browsing in the stacks of the university library today, looking at the section of the quarto shelves devoted to comics and cartoons. Among other interesting items, there were three Tintin albums in Basque, and three in Galician, a language very similar to Portuguese spoken in Spain (according to one book I consulted; another called it a dialect of Portuguese). The only other Tintin albums in that section were in French; why those particular languages were chosen I don't know. The title of this post is the Basque equivalent of "Billions of blue blistering barnacles!" (itself a translation, of course). Somehow the English version strikes me as more effective.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2004

THE MANGA CORNER: SEIICHI HAYASHI

Here, finally, is my report on the major creator I promised three weeks ago. (It's not as polished as I'd wanted it to be, but I figure it's time to let it go.) His name is Seiichi Hayashi, and the book of his that I own is a collection of works from the late sixties and early seventies, entitled Sekishoku erejii (Red Colored Elegy). The title piece, and the longest piece in the book, is a 230-page realistic graphic novel about a young man who wants to draw manga, but has to spend most of his time working on commercial anime to make a living, and his troubled relationship with his girlfriend. This piece has nothing in common with the formulas of commercial manga, nor is there anything adolescent about it: it's as fully a work for adults as is Chris Ware's work.

The storytelling is elliptical, with a great deal left unsaid. And although the work centers upon the characters' emotions, these are seldom put into words. The reader must infer the characters' emotions from the characters' body language, or from such things as one character spending two pages watching flies circling around a light fixture. The closest analogy in American comics to Hayashi's storytelling here that I know of is that of Jaime Hernandez, but Hayashi is much more oblique than Hernandez. And while Hernandez loves Maggie, Hopey and the rest, Hayashi views his characters with a colder eye. The main character here, in fact, comes off as rather unsympathetic.

To tell the truth, I'm unsure how to evaluate the story. Hayashi's obliqueness, combined with my imperfect knowledge of Japanese, left me unsure at times what was happening. (Though as far as the language itself is concerned, "Red Colored Elegy" is by far the easiest to read of all the manga I've attempted.) Nor does my lack of knowledge of Japanese society and culture in the sixties, when the story is set, help matters. What is clear is the power and mastery of Hayashi's art. While Hayashi's storytelling seems simple at first, it is actually quite complex, using a variety of techniques. At first his faces and bodies may appear stiff and awkward. But comparison with the other stories in the volume, which were mostly drawn earlier, makes it clear that this stiffness was a conscious stylistic choice for this story, not a matter of skill. Bodies contort to display emotion. (Here's an example, not the best, but the best I could find online.) Backgrounds are sometimes blank, and sometimes dark and ominous.

"Red Colored Elegy" appeared in 1970-71, contemporary with the height of American underground comix. But none of the underground artists were doing anything nearly as ambitious as this at the time. And virtually none of them had Hayashi's technical mastery of art and storytelling. I can't help speculating on what would have happened had this story been published in the U.S. in 1971: it might have provided underground artists of the time looking for literary models with an alternative to E.C. comics, which were probably the nearest approach American comic books had made up to that point to stories that could interest adults, but were limited in both ambition and execution.

"Red Colored Elegy" occupies two-thirds of the book's pages; the remaining third is made up of six shorter stories in a diversity of styles and moods, all written in 1967 and 1968 except for one which was written in 1971. The most accessible of these is "Ware ga haha wa" ("I am your mother"), which tells the story of Japan's relationship with the U.S. between 1945 and 1968 in the form of the relationship between a frog (Japan) and the gorilla who adopts him (the U.S.). "Yamauba komori uta" ("Mountain witch lullaby") combines traditional Japanese folk tales and legends with a plot involving giant robots and icons of American popular culture serving as villains. "Hana chiru machi" ("Falling flower town") also subverts the themes of traditional children's stories and manga for its own purposes: what at first appear to be the comic adventures of a mischievous child, drawn Tezuka-style, becomes the lens through which a tragedy is viewed. "Akatonbo" ("Red dragonfly") and "Sakura-iro no kokoro" ("Pink heart") are both realistic stories, though quite different in subject matter and tone from "Red Colored Elegy." "Aguma to musuko to kuenai tamashii" ("Aguma and son and an inedible soul"), a brief story sending the gorilla from "Ware ga haha wa" to hell, completes the lineup. (There's also a brief essay by Morio Agata, who wrote, produced and directed the film "Boku wa tenshi ja nai yo," adapted from "Red Colored Elegy," placing "Red Colored Elegy" in historical context.) These stories appear to depend for their full meaning on aspects of Japanese society and culture which I'm unfamiliar with, so again I can't fully judge them. But, as with "Red Colored Elegy," Hayashi's mastery of art and storytelling is apparent.

Frankly, I'm shocked that I'd never heard of Hayashi: apart from two passing mentions in Dreamland Japan, I don't recall ever seeing him mentioned in English. Nor had what I'd read about the history of manga led me to think that there was someone this good working at a fully adult level in 1970. While the U.S. is becoming more acquainted with contemporary manga (though what's been translated is still only a small fraction), the history of manga remains virtually terra incognita. While Paul Gravett's forthcoming history of manga should do something to change this, a single book can only do so much. How many other artists of this quality are completely unknown to us?

The book is published by Shogakukan,: the ISBN is 4-09-192471-9, and the price is 629 yen. Here's Hayashi's website, which doesn't seem to have any samples of his manga aside from the one panel I linked to above, but has plenty of illustrations by him; there's also a page (in Japanese) where you can buy his books, including Red Colored Elegy.

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Sunday, May 16, 2004

SOME QUICK COMICS NOTES

About three weeks ago, I promised a piece on a major manga artist I'd found. I'm working on it, but for the time being, here are some notes on a few comics I've recently read.

ROBIN #? (Sorry, I don't remember the issue number, and I don't have the book on hand): A couple weeks ago I wrote that I'd purchased an issue of ROBIN written by Jon Lewis from the bargain box, and was intrigued enough to explore more. Last week I bought another issue, this time from the regular bin, though it only cost a dollar (which is why I picked it). The cover said it was part three of a five-part story, "World Without Robin." Okay, I can deal with that. When I brought it home and opened it, I discovered it was actually part of a multi-series crossover ("World Without Young Justice"), and that this issue's story was continued from SUPERBOY and was itself continued in IMPULSE. Bleah. And the parts that could be clearly attributed to Lewis--i.e. the dialogue--didn't interest me that much either. Unless I find more issues in bargain bins, or DC publishes a trade which I can examine in the store, I don't think I'll be exploring more of this. On the plus side, the art, by Rebecca Wood iirc, isn't bad.

DOGWITCH #8 by Daniel Schaffer. I was in my town's other comic book store: the one where I usually don't buy comics, because they have a monthly minimum order for subscriptions. I saw this book in the store's small independent section. It looked intriguing, and I felt a bit uncomfortable that I never bought anything here except from the quarter bins, so I bought it. And I enjoyed it. It could be considered a "bad girl" book, I guess: the heroine doesn't have freakishly large breasts, but does wear a leather-and-laceish costume that displays quite a bit of skin, and apparently makes sleazy videos when she's not doing supernatural stuff. But it's done with wit and style, and the art is good. I'm not sure why the comic is called "Dogwitch," though the heroine does have a dog (talking, clothes-wearing, and smoking) for a companion; her other companion looks like a midget wearing a Quaker costume, but with a nasty, disfiguring cut on her face. I'd be interested in seeing more of these, though I don't know if I'd be able to justify a taste for this.

TWO-STEP #2 by Warren Ellis, Amanda Conner, and Jimmy Palmiotti. This was in one of Quimby's grab-bags. I wouldn't have picked it up by itself, not being an Ellis fan: the bits of TRANSMETROPOLITAN I've read struck me as being neither as original or as clever as Ellis thought they were, and I hadn't cared for anything else I read by him. This is lighthearted action in a sci-fi setting, and was fairly amusing, though lightweight. In its tone and pacing it reminded me of a some of the manga I've read, though I don't know whether that was actually an influence. The trouble is that while this sort of "decompression" may be fine when you're paying ten bucks for 180 pages, paying three bucks for 22 pages is a different matter. And it wasn't all that interesting. I passed up #3 when I saw it on the shelf this week.

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Friday, May 14, 2004

MORE DESCRIPTIONS OF JAPANESE MANGA ANTHOLOGIES

This thread on AnimeonDVD's manga forum has some story-by-story descriptions of various Japanese manga anthologies by people who have actually read them, including one of Shounen Jump by Andrew Cunningham. (Via Shawn Fumo, who also started the thread.)

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Monday, May 10, 2004

THE MANGA CORNER: WEEKLY SHOUNEN JUMP

For a while, I'd been thinking of posting a story-by-story description of one of the manga "phonebook" anthologies I own, but never got around to it. But a few days ago Shane Bailey posted such a description, and in the comments I more or less said I'd do one too. So, here is Weekly Shounen Jump, the most popular such anthology: issue No. 40 of 2003, dated Sept. 15. This is going to be a quick and dirty job (well, not that quick, actually): I haven't read any of these stories.

First, an overall view. The magazine has 456 pages, and the cover price is 220 yen, which at the current exchange rate is about $2.20, I believe. The covers are in full color, as are fifteen of the interior pages (eleven of these are ads). The remaining pages are printed in black-and-white. They aren't actually white, though: the paper is tinted. There's a block of light green pages, then a block of pink, then another block of green, then a block of off-white, and finally another block of pink. The paper used for the "black and white" pages is low quality, but not as bad as you might imagine from the price. It's better than the paper in newspapers, for instance, and thicker than that in genuine phone books.

There are a lot of house ads, which I won't describe individually. They're either for other publications by the publisher, Shueisha, or for merchandise based on characters in the magazine (videos, games, CDs, etc.) But one ad of particular importance displays a set of prizes which are distributed by lottery (I'm guessing) to readers who send in a postcard (bound in the magazine) listing their three favorite series from this issue. From what I gather (see Frederik L. Schodt's book Dreamland Japan) the publisher takes this feedback very seriously, and stories which don't do well in this poll are soon ended.

The cover depicts the head of the main character of "Prince of Tennis," one of the popular series. Around the edges are small pictures of the main characters from three other series. The inside front cover has an ad for a line of vans from Toyota. Not toy vans, but real vans, costing over $10,000. Since the magazine is intended for children ("shounen" means "boy"), this is odd; presumably these ads are aimed at men who read it as a child, and continue to read it out of nostalgia, otaku-ness, or whatever.

Next comes a full-color story page, for a series called "Aishiirudo 21" ("Eyeshield 21"). Following this is a two-page color spread showing the main characters from the series, along with what are presumably the results of a poll on who are the favorite characters. Next comes another color story page, then three color ads: one for a Dell computer costing approximately $2500, one for a line of athletic equipment, and one for a computer game. Next is a full-color page with the house ad displaying prizes I referred to above. Then we get seventeen black-and-white pages completing this week's installment of "Aishiirudo 21." This is a series about a team of Japanese boys playing football, or "amefuto" as it's called here. It appears to mix serious and comedic elements; it's not too clear to me what's going on, but at one point the players, on the football field, have a bazooka fired at them (by their trainer?). The art is in a "cartoony realism" mode.

Next comes five black-and-white pages of house ads. (From now on, pages will be black-and-white unless I specifically say they're full color.) After this comes twenty-one pages of "One Piece." This is episode number 289, which, if the length of this episode is any indication, puts the total length of the series so far in the range of "Cerebus." (In comparison, "Aishiirudo 21" was at episode 54.) The art in this installment is a good deal more detailed than in the installments which have appeared in the U.S. so far.

Following "One Piece" comes another house ad, then twenty pages of "Naruto." This is up to episode 183, but the art style here doesn't seem to have changed much. Next follow fifteen pages of house ads, and one more page with an ad for an electric razor. Then comes the full-color title page for "Tenisu no Oojisama" ("Prince of Tennis"), followed by three full-color pages of ads for various types of "Prince of Tennis" merchandise, and nineteen pages of "Prince of Tennis" itself. This is another sports series, but this one seems to be deadly serious, with art that's uncluttered but more realistic than "Eyeshield 21." "Prince of Tennis" has been going on for a long time too: this is episode 191.

Next we have three pages of ads for "Prince of Tennis" stuff, a page of what seems to be tips on the "Yu-Gi-Oh" card game, and three pages of ads for the computer game based upon the next story (or upon which the next story is based). This story is "Boboboubo Boubobo," and it's the damnedest thing I've ever seen. (Remember that "ou" in transcribed Japanese stands for a long "oh" sound.) The main character, who presumably is Boboboubo Boubobo, is a musclebound guy with a huge afro. According to descriptions I've read of the anime (yes, there's an anime), he and his companions fight a group of villains who want to make everyone bald, though you can't tell it from this installment of the manga. One of his companions looks like one of those suns you see in old maps, with a face and symmetrical points, with stick arms and legs attached. Another looks like Gumby (the rubber one, not the Monty Python one); later there's a panel showing a picture of what seems to be the Last Supper, but with all the figures Gumby-shaped. Then there's a normal girl, whose main role seems to be to look on in horror at the bizarre things that happen. There's a lot of strange action in this installment, but I have no idea how one thing relates to the next. Amazingly, this series has gotten up to episode 123.

Next comes a house ad, followed by twenty-one pages of the 149th episode of "Black Cat" (the title is in English). The main character, who presumably is the "black cat," is a gunman, who in this episode fights a mystical swordsman, and seemingly wins. This appears to be a straightforward combat series, except that the main character wears a collar around his neck with a little bell attached to it, like a cat.

Next is another house ad, followed by twenty-three pages of "Chou-benri mashiin Spin-chan" ("Super-handy machine Spin-chan"). This is a comedy about a robot that looks like a young girl, whose inventor, an elderly male scientist, rents her out to raise money to build a sex robot: not quite the sort of thing you'd expect, given the contents of the magazine up to now. (No episode number that I could see.) Next come five house ads, followed by four full-color foldout pages of ads for computer games. These are followed by forty-nine pages of "Ekizochika" ("Exotica," I would assume), a straightforward racing manga with cartoony art. (Again, no episode number.)

Next are three more pages of house ads, then nineteen pages of "Busou Renkin," which as far as I can figure out means something like "armed alchemy." This is about a boy and a girl, apparently in present-day Japan, with the power of "busou renkin," which enables them to conjure up weapons out of thin air: a useful power, since they apparently keep getting attacked by weird machines. This is only the tenth episode, so it's a new series. After three more pages of house ads, we get nineteen pages of the hundredth episode of "Bleach," which has just begun to run in the American Shonen Jump, then five more pages of house ads.

Next is thirteen pages of episode 193 of "Hunter X Hunter." It's not clear to me from this installment what the series as a whole is about, but this installment features two boys battling two human/insectoids. (I can't tell whether they're actually human-insect hybrids or robots.) One looks like a busty, tiny-waisted woman with insectile limbs, who shoots stingers from her mouth and crotch. The art is distinctive, though I don't much care for it: it's much sketchier than the art of the other series.

After another house ad comes nineteen pages of episode 106 of "Mr. Fullswing." This is a baseball manga, which seems to be a mixture of comedy and serious sports manga. The comedy looks rather strange; one of the characters is a man wearing a women's apron and nothing else. But the baseball itself seems to be played straight, even though the batter, who is evidently the enemy, is for some reason wearing combat fatigues with an ammo belt. The pitches with which he is struck out are portrayed using the standard baseball-manga convention of flattening the ball to indicate speed.

Next comes another house ad, then nineteen pages of episode nine of "Kanagawa Isonan Fuutengumi," which seems to mean something like "Kanagawa Isonan wind and sky group." As far as I can tell from the art, this is a straightforward comedy set in a junior high or high school, with no special gimmick. After another house ad comes nineteen pages of "Kochira Katsushika-ku Kameari Koenmae Hashutsujo" ("This is the Police Station in Front of Kameari Park in Katsushika Ward"). There's no episode number given, but if there were it would be over a thousand. There are well over a hundred collected volumes of the series, more than for any other manga, each with approximately 180 pages or more of story. If they really are all done by the same artist credited with all the books (and his assistants, presumably) -- as they very well may be, since the series only began in 1976 (keep in mind that Shounen Jump is a weekly, so four new episodes appear each month) -- then this may be the largest body of work by a single creator on a single comic series anywhere. The Anime Encyclopedia describes the anime based on the manga as "the gently humorous antics of a group of police officers responsible for a sleepy area near a large park," and presumably this would also apply to the manga. The protagonist of the manga is notable for his short stature and thick, semi-circular eyebrows, but in this episode, he takes a secondary role. The episode is devoted to the misadventures of another man going camping with his family.

Following another house ad are nineteen pages of episode eleven of "Gotchan desu!!" ("It's Gotchan") a comedy manga about a diminuitive sumo wrestler whose face bears a marked resemblance to that of a pig, done in a very cartoony style. After yet another house ad, we get twenty-one pages of episode seventy-five of "Ichigo 100%" ("Strawberry 100%"), which seems to be a romantic comedy set in (junior) high school; again, not the kind of thing I'd have expected to see, given the rest of the magazine's contents. After another house ads we have nineteen pages of the twelfth episode of "Kikkusu Megamikkusu" ("Kicks Megamix"), a straightforward taekwondo manga. This episode is basically a match between two fighters, with lots of blurred outlines to indicate rapid movement.

Next comes a page announcing what seems to be a contest, with the prizes being chances to be an "assistant" to one of the magazine's artists. Presumably they're not really offering positions as full-time assistants, but what actually is on offer I don't know. After this comes seven pages of fan art. Oddly, it's all for a baseball manga called "Animaruzu" ("Animals") which doesn't appear in this issue. Whether it's a manga that's finished, or is on hiatus, or whether there is no actual manga, I don't know. Next is a page listing the winners of the prizes offered in an earlier issue.

After this comes the final story, "Pyuu-to fuku! Jagaa." (I'm unable to translate this. I suspect "pyuu-to fuku" is an idiom of some sort; literally it would seem to mean something like "it blows with a whizzing sound." "Jagaa" is probably a proper name.) This is a comedy series about ... well, I can't really tell. One of the main characters is a fat guy wearing glasses who looks to be in his twenties, who actually looks a lot like a stereotype of an American comics "fanboy." In this episode, he and the other main character, a normal boy, are waiting in line for a lottery to get a chance to meet "Jack" and "Norris," whoever they are. This is only nine pages long, but it's the 126th episode. Next come four pages previewing the next issue of Shounen Jump, and finally, as the last page of the magazine, the table of contents for this issue.

The inside back cover is an advertisement offering an assortment of goods by phone or email order, similar to the mail-order ads that used to appear in American comics. But the goods here are substantially more expensive than were the goods in those ads. The cheapest is a gold-plated sculpture of a turd, which sells for 2,250 yen; the most expensive is a jacket at 16,800 yen. Also offered are a watch, an inflatable sofa-bed, and sets of Dragonball Z and One Piece merchandise. The back cover is an ad for a computer game.

Compared to the other anthologies I own, this one is exceptional in a couple of respects. For one thing, none of the others I own have ads for cars and computers, though Morning, which James Moar describes here, does have such ads. For another, none of the others I own which give the episode numbers has as many series that have been running as long as does Shounen Jump. Because I've bought most of my anthologies on sale, though, I suspect that most of them are second-tier titles, which may make Shounen Jump seem more distinctive than it is.

The stories in Shounen Jump aren't my cup of tea. I don't read the American version, and I don't have the urge to read any of the stories here. But I can see why it's the leading manga anthology. I can't judge the stories, but much of the art has a freshness and dynamism which is lacking in most of the anthologies I own (but keep in mind the disclaimer at the end of the preceding paragraph).

There's a bit more information about Shounen Jump in Frederik L. Schodt's book Dreamland Japan, pp. 87-91 (Schodt gives the title in translation, as Boys' Jump). Shounen Jump's web page is here.

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Sunday, May 09, 2004

THE VELVET UNDERGROUND BOOTLEG SERIES VOLUME 1: THE QUINE TAPES

When this 3-CD set (which is not a bootleg, despite its title, but a legitimate release of previously unknown live recordings) came out three years ago, it got rather lukewarm reviews, if I remember correctly. At the time I was peeved at this, since the Velvets did some amazing stuff live, which the official live releases that had preceded this set didn't reflect at all, except for a couple of tracks on the box set. But having just re-listened to the whole thing, I have to say that the reviews were probably right. (To let you know where I'm coming from, my ranking of the original four albums is WLWH, and Nico, the third album, and Loaded, in descending order.) There are a couple of cuts which show what the Velvets were capable of live: "I Can't Stand It" on disc one and "White Light/White Heat" on disc two. But overall the set is a disappointment. None of the three versions of "Sister Ray" is top-notch, though the one on disc three is probably the best. The "Waiting for the Man" on disc three has some nice bluesy guitar, but at eleven minutes goes on too long. The previously unreleased song, "Follow the Leader," is less interesting and goes on even longer. And do we really need another live version of "New Age," or an eleven-minute "Ride into the Sun"? As it stands, the best live Velvets material is still only available on bootleg. And apparently it's going to stay that way for the foreseeable future, since the last I heard future volumes of the "Bootleg Series" had been put on hold indefinitely. (But that was more than a year ago, so it's possible there've been some developments I don't know about.)

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Saturday, May 08, 2004

STATE OF THE UNION

Ogged of Unfogged writes: "Do you really think it's alarmist to point out that Americans can be put away indefinitely on nothing more than one man's whim; that we have a collection of legal black holes: at Guantanamo, on ships around the world, in Iraq; that our soldiers blithely torture detainees; and that fully half the country still thinks the President is doing a good job? Do you wonder how totalitarian regimes come about? This is how: with the consent of the governed." (via Brad DeLong)


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Friday, May 07, 2004

COMPLETE PEANUTS SELLING OUT

Christopher Butcher reports that the first printing of The Complete Peanuts vol. 1 is nearly sold out (via FanboyRamp!!Blog). Apparently the worries I had expressed as to the project's commercial prospects were wrong. This is one case in which I'm happy to be wrong.

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Thursday, May 06, 2004

WHAT IS THE VALUE OF LITERATURE?

What makes literature valuable? What does it do for us, or to us? One view is that it transforms us by showing us new ways to perceive the world and ourselves. In Kafka's famous phrase, it should be "an axe to break up the frozen sea within us" (quoting from memory).

I find this view attractive. If we want to make a case for literature's importance, to argue that good literature is something everyone ought to experience, then something like this seems the best bet. The trouble is that I've never been transformed in this way by a work of literature, or at least never that I can remember. (And I have read many of the "great books.")

What does happen to me sometimes is that a work of literature expands my notion of what can be done with language. But it's a lot harder to make the argument that that is an experience which everyone should have.

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Wednesday, May 05, 2004

"I MAY NOT KNOW MUCH ABOUT ART, BUT I KNOW WHAT I LIKE"

You may be familiar with the above phrase, not as something people actually say, but as an utterance of bourgeois philistinism which supposedly encapsulates everything that's wrong with it. There's a grain of truth in it: some art does require knowledge of its art-historical context to be understood, particularly art of the twentieth century. And philistinism is indeed something that artists, and those who want to see good art succeed, have to contend with, though it probably holds a good deal less sway over Western culture than it did in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But it's that phrase itself, and its function as an implicit put-down, that may be more pernicious in the long run. It implies that until you know "enough" about art -- and how do you know when you've reached this point? -- you have no right to form your own opinions. But it's virtually impossible to experience a work of art (I'll use the term to cover all the arts) without asking yourself whether or not you like it. So the neophyte, anxious to avoid being a philistine, forms his opinions based not upon his own response to the work, but on having been told whether or not it's good, or on whether it reminds him of something he "knows" is good. And, having concluded that he ought to like a certain work, he tries to convince himself he really does like it. As he becomes more knowledgeable about art, he uses this knowledge not to enhance his personal response, but to expand his database of what one should and shouldn't like. Eventually, he can no longer distinguish the responses he actually has from those he's supposed to have. (This whole process is further exacerbated by the frequent practice in critical discourse of lambasting those who like or dislike the "wrong" things as subhuman morons.)

I'm speaking from personal experience; when I say "he" I mean "me." Many times I've called something good, and convinced myself that I liked it, when in reality what I meant was that I wanted to like it and hoped that someday I would like it. Undoubtedly I still do this sometimes, without being fully aware of it.

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Monday, May 03, 2004

TOP 25 MANGA/MANHWA FOR Q1 2004

Following up a bit on my earlier post on the top graphic novels of 2003 as reported by BookScan (if permalinks don't work, scroll down to April 26), here's ICv2's list of the top 25 manga (and manhwa) series for the first quarter of 2004 (via artbomb). As it was prepared as a guide for retailers, this list only contains series which have, or had, releases scheduled in the second quarter of 2004 (so no Chobits or Love Hina), and it's "based on sales reports for both the bookstore and comic store channels, as well as interviews with retailers, publishers, and distributors."

Mostly, the list is what you'd expect, but a few things surprised me. Demon Diary, at #6, does even better than it did on the BookScan charts, where I was surprised at how well it did. Fake, at #11, and Gravitation, at #14, really surprised me, because these are both shounen-ai series: stories about a romantic relationship between two males, aimed at a readership of heterosexual girls. (Don't confuse this with shounen manga, which are manga aimed at boys, as in Shonen Jump. Shounen means "boy"; ai means "love.") When I've seen shounen-ai talked about in Western discussions of manga, it's always been explicitly or implicitly presented as a peculiarly Japanese phenomenon, despite the similarity with slash fanfiction. These series both looked a good deal less explicit than the doujinshi I reviewed in my last post--I haven't read either of them, but when I briefly dipped into them I saw nothing that went beyond a kiss--but that's by no means true of all Japanese shounen-ai series. Maybe the success of these titles will lead some publisher to bring over the harder stuff. Looking through the BookScan chart again, I do notice that both these series did do well in bookstores, though not well enough to crack any of the top-10 lists I compiled.

I'm also surprised at Azumanga Daioh coming in at #19, not because it doesn't deserve it--it's definitely one of the best series out there--but because it didn't do all that well on the BookScan chart. It didn't do terribly, but its most recent volume was only #103 in sales for the week the chart was compiled, even though it had appeared very recently, which would be expected to translate into a high ranking. Glancing at Newtype USA (which is wholly uncritical, but is a good source of news if you can find a copy with the shrinkwrap off), I noticed that AD was Diamond's seventh-ranked manga for Feb. 2004. This would seem to be a case where the direct market has better taste than the bookstore market.

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THE MANGA CORNER: DOUJINSHI

The major artist I promised a while ago is coming, but it's taking me longer than I'd expected. In the meantime, here's a brief look at doujinshi. Those of you who have done a little reading on the Japanese manga scene may be familiar with the phenomenon of doujinshi, but probably few of you have ever actually seen one. My local anime club had a fundraising auction yesterday, and among the items being sold were some Rurouni Kenshin doujinshi. Out of curiosity I bought a couple, and here are my first impressions.

Doujinshi are manga created and self-published by fans, usually (but not always) using copyrighted characters from popular manga, a la "fan fiction." Like fan fiction, but unlike self-published comics here, most of the creators are women. And, again like fan fiction, a popular genre of doujinshi takes a pair of male characters from a popular manga series and depicts them as in love with each other. In the U.S., such doujinshi are usually called yaoi, though the Japanese use of this term may be slightly different (going by Schodt in Dreamland Japan). (American creators of so-called "Ameri-manga" sometimes refer to their work as doujinshi too, but here I'll be discussing only to Japanese works.)

Schodt translates doujinshi as "fanzine"; but the connotations of amateurishness this word implies are quite misleading, at least for the two doujinshi I bought. The first is called Himawari Kenshin (Sunflower Kenshin) by a creator with the pseudonym "Chaicrodapon." It's thirty pages long, and similar in appearance to an American comic book (though slightly larger), except it's bound with glue instead of staples, and the cover is of heavy stock. The interior paper, too, is better than that in most American comics. The cover is in color, but the interior is black-and-white. The other doujinshi I bought, Ken kyaku kurabu ichi (meaning something like "Ken party club one" or "Ken guest club one"), an anthology, is a more elaborate production. Physically it's indistinguishable from an "official" tankoubon (paperback collection): it even has an ISBN (4-931396-01-1). And, unlike Himawari Kenshin, the word balloons and captions are typeset (as "official" Japanese manga usually are).

Artistically, there is nothing amateurish about either of these. All the contributions are easily at a professional level. In fact, the average level of the pieces in Ken kyaku kurabu ichi is superior to that of many of the Japanese "phone book" manga I own. And the best artists there, Midori Katsui and Nanao Nakazawa (the names are written mainly in kanji, with no furigana, so I can't be sure how these names are read; these are my best guesses) are superior by any standards. It's tempting to make invidious comparisons with the average American self-published comic, but it would be unfair. For one thing, some of the artists might actually be established professionals working under pseudonyms, from what I gather. For another, I have no idea how typical of doujinshi these two books are.

I can't say much about the writing, since I haven't read any of the stories. I can say that many, though not all, of the stories do posit a homosexual relationship between Kenshin and Sanosuke, including the two I referred to above; and yes, there are sex scenes, though the "naughty bits" are never shown, even masked or mosaiced. Many of the stories are only a page or two long, though the longest is forty pages (the one by Katsui I mentioned), and there's another that's thirty pages long. As far as I can tell, they're mostly serious, rather than comedic. But there is one two-page story in which Kenshin dresses as Sailor Uranus, for some reason; and another very peculiar one in which the dumplings he is eating are suddenly transformed in his imagination into his dojo companions.

I should point out that these are not "underground" or clandestine comics. They are sold openly at conventions, even the ones that violate copyright, though the toleration of the copyright holders is conditional upon the print runs being limited. Nor do they correspond to American alternative comix (at least the doujinshi I've seen). It might be considered "subversive" to present established manga characters in a homosexual relationship, though male homosexuality in itself is accepted in mainstream manga. But the art, far from breaking free from, or trying to overthrow, the conventions of mainstream manga, aims to follow them as much as possible. These aren't rebels: whether they're aspiring (or actual) professionals, or simply practicing "the sincerest form of flattery," they're thoroughly imbued with the values of the establishment. At least that's my impression, for what it's worth (which probably isn't very much).

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Saturday, May 01, 2004

ART IN ALTERNATIVE COMICS

For a while, I've felt that many alternative comics, while they have good art, have weak stories, and that only in rare cases can good art redeem a weak story. It just occurred to me, though, that I may have been looking at things wrong. It may be that the problem with these comics isn't that their art is good but not good enough; it's that their art is simply not good. It looks good superficially; that is, it imitates the surface appearance of genuinely good art. But this appearance is a hollow facade, with no ideas behind it: it neither has aesthetic value of its own, nor adds anything to the story. (For examples of what I'm talking about, see most of the stories in Top Shelf: Asks the Big Questions.)

To be honest, this conclusion came to me while contemplating manga, and the fact that there were some manga I enjoyed though the stories were lightweight (CLAMP) or obscure to me (some of the Japanese-language manga I've been reading). So does this mean that I think CLAMP are better artists than most (American) alternative comics artists? I guess so.

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