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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

MANGA CORNER: CHIHIRO

It's been a while since I've done one of these, for various reasons. But the manga that I'm reviewing today, Chihiro by Hiroyuki Yasuda, is an excellent one, which may make up for my delinquency a bit.

Chihiro, the title and main character, is a prostitute working in a brothel, which is in the middle rank of Tokyo's commercial sex establishments. But the book isn't pornographic by any means, though there are many explicit depictions of sex in it. Chihiro enjoys her work, not because she's a happy hooker-type nymphomaniac--we never see her come while working, with one possible exception--but because she enjoys making her customers happy, and takes pride in giving good service to all her customers. This may sound like she's naive or unintelligent, but she's neither. Nor is she the cliched whore with a heart of gold: she's strong-willed, and far from self-abnegating.

The manga is a single, self-contained volume about 360 pages long, twice as long as the average tankoubon (volume of manga). The first half of the book is a series of short stories depicting various minor dramas that arise in the course of Chihiro's work. In the second half, an overall plot takes shape. It's not an eventful plot, though; it's simply that Chihiro becomes dissatisfied with her work and her life. She suddenly quits the brothel; when she finds she can't pick up the relationships she had before becoming a prostitute, she goes to work for another brothel, where working conditions are worse and the customers don't appreciate her dedication to service; she compares herself to fish in an aquarium swimming endlessly in a circle. The book ends on an ambiguous note.

Yasuda doesn't ignore the downsides of prostitution, both physical--Chihiro twice suffers violence from angry customers, though the second time she gives as good as she gets--and emotional. But basically he portrays prostitution as a job like any other, with rewards as well as disadvantages. This is a viewpoint one rarely sees in Western depictions of prostitution, either fictional or non-fictional. Chihiro herself is not a case study, but a strong, likable, and very individual character.

I was originally attracted to Yasuda, the creator of Chihiro, by his art. His style is quite distinctive: cartoony in a good sense, without resembling at all the big-eyed so-called "manga style." And his sense of design and composition is superb.

I own several other books by Yasuda. Konno-san to asoboh ("Let's play with Konno-san") is a collection of short stories about a young woman named Konno, which comes close to being pure cartooning; I hope to get around to reading it soon. Shomuni is a seven-volume series about a group of OLs (the colloquial Japanese designation for female office workers; short for "office ladies"). Tekkondoh! ("Iron spirit road") is also about a woman, though I'm not really sure what it's about aside from that; I own the second volume of the series.

Chihiro is published by Koudansha and its ISBN is 4-06-328771-8. It contains 360 pages of story (there's also an extra single-page throwaway strip), and costs 667 yen (about six dollars).

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Friday, July 23, 2004

FULL METAL YAKUZA, NOTHING SO STRANGE

For the past couple of days, I've been watching (the whole way through this time) two films on DVD. The first, Full Metal Yakuza (the Japanese title isFull Metal Gokudoh), is a 1997 direct-to-video film by the incredibly prolific Japanese director Takashi Miike. While the title suggests Full Metal Jacket, the film is more like "Robocop with yakuza." Hagane, the main character, is technically a Yakuza, but he's as hapless and put-upon as any salaryman. When he is sent to collect a debt, the debtor's wife chases him away with a kitchen knife, and his boss tells him to go back to cleaning toilets. Later, when he tells a group of young punks he encounters that he's a yakuza, they don't believe him and beat him up. When Tosa, a high-level yakuza whom Hagane admires, is the victim of a hit, Hagane happens to be there and is hit too.

That's not the end of Hagane's story, though. A scientist (whose colleagues call him "the Nutty Professor") who is trying to create a man-machine hybrid has bought Hagane's and Tosa's corpses, and produces a superstrong, bulletproof cyborg with Hagane's brain. Converted from wimp to super-yakuza, Hagane goes to get revenge from the ones who killed him and Tosa.

In some ways this film is a precursor to Miike's later Ichi the Killer: both films feature a criminal "superhero" who wreaks bloody vengeance on other criminals (though the violence here is neither as excessive nor as inventive as in Ichi). But compared to Ichi, Full Metal Yakuza seems half-baked: the first half is funny, but once Hagane goes on his mission of vengeance, the film becomes a fairly conventional yakuza movie. The best joke is that Hagane's cyborg body incorporates various parts of Tosa's body, including his penis ("It's huge and circumcised!" exclaims Hagane upon discovering his new "equipment"), putting a unique twist upon the latently homosexual nature of Hagane's admiration for Tosa; but Miike doesn't really do anything with this (in both the literal and figurative senses). Still, if you like Miike, this film is worth renting, though it shouldn't be the first Miike film you watch, or the fifth. The disc contains a half-hour long interview with Miike, which winds up being less about the film specifically than about Miike's philosophy of filmmaking in general. It also has a commentary track by Tom Mes, author of a book on Miike; from the fifteen minutes of this I listened to, it didn't seem very interesting.

The other film I watched, Nothing So Strange, is a very unusual film. It's a "mockumentary," if you like, but unlike all the other mockumentaries I've watched or heard of, it's not a comedy. Its premise is that Bill Gates was assassinated in 1999 in Los Angeles by a lone gunman, who was supposedly killed by a policeman almost immediately afterward. A small group of people believe that the L. A. P. D. is covering up the truth, and form an organization called "Citizens for Truth" to demand an independent investigation. The first half of the film basically presents Citizens for Truth's case, while the second half chronicles their efforts to bring their case to a wider public. The film does a good job of exploring the issue of how we can know the truth about any event: while the "official story" has its implausible elements, Citizens for Truth's theory has its own weaknesses, though these aren't explicitly pointed out; and we never do find out the "truth." It's also a good portrayal of the dynamics of small-group political activism.

As I said, the film isn't a comedy. If you didn't know that Gates hasn't been assassinated, there would be nothing in it to indicate that it wasn't a real documentary (including the end credits). The actors never "wink" at the audience, and really do play their parts as if they're not actors playing roles, but real activists.

This film has a commentary track, too: in this case it's done by "Brian Flemming," the director of the fictional documentary, who shares the name of the film's real director, and by the two most important actors, all in character. The first fifteen minutes of this commentary, in which the director is soloing is the only place where the DVD falls into parody, as Flemming (as the fictional director) deliberately gives a bad commentary; I don't know why he chose to do this, and it strikes a wrong note. The rest of the commentary, when he's supposedly talking to the two major figures of Citizens for Truth three years after most of the film's events took place, is much more interesting, and virtually an extension of the film itself.

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Tuesday, July 20, 2004

HOT GIMMICK

The other day I saw vol. 5 of Hot Gimmick by Miki Aihara, a manga series that could be described as a twisted high school soap opera, in Borders. Since I owned the first four volumes, I was going to pick it up, but on second thought I decided to go back and reread the ones I owned, to see if they held up. (Manga is pretty cheap, but still ten bucks a volume adds up to a substantial sum of money over a long series.) So I did, and they did, and vol. 5, which I bought, was also good. Don't get me wrong: this isn't one of the manga which I've been saying is as good as the best Western alternative comics. It's not comparable to Ghost World or Locas. I probably wouldn't even put it in the first rank of translated manga. But it's fun for what it is, if you don't take it too seriously. If you do take it seriously, you might be offended at the relationship between the two main characters. (Though one could make the case that this relationship is psychologically realistic, whether you approve of it or not.)

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Saturday, July 17, 2004

GUN CRAZY

A couple of hours ago I finished watching the first forty-five minutes of Gun Crazy. You would think that a film with a title like "Gun Crazy," especially one acclaimed as an underground, B-movie classic, would be not boring. Apparently you'd be wrong.

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EIGHTBALL #23 (SPOILERS)

I've read Eightball #23 several times, and am still not sure what I think of it. This isn't a review, then; it's just some unpolished thoughts about it. If you're looking for a review, Christopher Butcher is keeping track of them, including an excellent one by Sean Collins.

What defines Andy's character isn't that he's evil (though he is) or sick: it's that he's empty inside. He feels no emotions except anger (he says he's in love with Dinah, but I don't see anything more than lust), and even his anger is shallow. He kills people not for sadism or sexual pleasure, or even out of a twisted sense of vengeance. He does so because he can, and because they've irritated him. If we can't empathize with him, it's not because he's a killer, but because there's nothing there to empathize with. The single exception to his lack of genuine emotion is his fear of the blankness in the nightmare he tells us about, and to ward it off, he clings to his few friends: first Craig Jones, then Louie, then the maudlin Sonny. But the blankness is inside him.

Since Andy is empty inside, it's not surprising that his words, including his speeches to the reader, are just empty verbiage. Here I'd disagree with Sean Collins when he says that Andy's perspective is dominant. Even before Andy commits his first murder, it's clear to the reader that Andy is an unreliable narrator. When he describes himself, after first trying out the death ray, as "a modest guy with common sense who knows the difference between right and wrong.... a straight-shooter and a stand-up guy," it's already evident that these are just cliches with no connection to who Andy is; just as when, on the next page, he proclaims "I hereby devote my life to the protection of the weak, the innocent, the unloved, and the friendless," his subsequent behavior does nothing to bear this out.

And the speeches of the adult Andy are equally empty. Sean Collins transcribes his speech beginning "It's a damn shame about people" on p. 40, and it's chilling; but when you read it in the comic, it's not chilling, because he doesn't mean it: it's just a pose, just as when, on the next page, he says "For you, Mr. and Mrs. decent citizen, I'll do anything," it's also just a pose. The same is true of the Ditko-esque morality he espouses from time to time: he kills people because they've gotten in his way. Clowes likes to write about protagonists who "try on" one identity after another: Louie is like this, as were Enid and Rebecca. But Andy doesn't even attempt to live his poses; they remain empty verbiage. It's Louie who pushes Andy to become a "superhero"; Andy just goes along with it.

What Andy really can't stand is any threat to his unjustified self-image. That's why he winds up (on p. 40) disposing of the litterer from the start of the story (thanks to Sean Collins for catching this): because his taunt on p. 39 (11th panel) reminds Andy of the hollowness of his claim to be "making the world a better place." It's also why the adult Andy's only friend is Sonny, whose chief virtue is that, unlike Louie, he will never criticize or question Andy's actions.

So what is it that keeps me from embracing the book wholeheartedly? I wish I knew. This is the most I've been able to figure out: there are book with depressing subjects or loathsome protagonists--even books with a thoroughly misanthropic view of humanity--where you can still sense the author's joy in creation. I don't get that sense in Eightball #23: there's a very high level of skill, but no sense that Clowes took pleasure in using it.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2004

INTELLECTUAL ENGAGEMENT

I recently finished reading The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History by Walter Benn Michaels. As I was reading it, I realized that this was the first piece of non-fiction I'd read in a long time that engaged me intellectually (as opposed to just saying to myself "that's interesting," or nodding my head in agreement). Why this is, I don't know; but it also made me realize that I waste a lot of time reading stuff I don't really enjoy, just because I started it and am too wishy-washy to decide it's not worth finishing, or because I feel I should "give it a chance."

I'll wait to comment on the book itself until I've reread it, as it's a complex and difficult argument, and one which a careless summary is likely to misrepresent.

DC SALES FIGURES

Via Fanboy Rampage, Marc-Oliver Frisch analyzes DC's monthly sales figures for the past twelve months. Only four titles broke the 50,000 mark for May (the most recent month), though two of them had two issues out. To be fair, though, three other titles were just below 50,000, and taking into account future reorders and the fact that ICv2's sales estimates are reputedly low, their true levels are probably over 50,000. Still jericho1368 in the subsequent thread gets it about right: "Sorry guys, these figures are absolutely embarrassing and disgusting."

To be sure, there has been an uptick in overall sales recently, for both Marvel and DC. But there's no indication that this is due to attracting any new fans to the direct market, something that Marvel has given up on from what I gather, and that DC's efforts to do have consistently failed. Rather, Marvel and DC seem to have returned to milking existing fans for maximum short-term profits, through such devices as shuffling a few hot creators from title to title, massively hyped "events," and variant covers. If the rise in sales is indeed due to Marvel and DC choosing to maximize short-term profits rather than grow their audience for the long term, then it's a bad sign, not a good one.

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Monday, July 12, 2004

DAREDEVIL #56 REVISITED, PART II

This is part II of my response to the objections that were raised around the blogosphere to my rant on the first half of Daredevil #56; part I is below, under July 6. This part discusses various objections to specific points of my argument.

Urich's interlocutor

The reason why I had speculated that Urich's interlocutor might be Matt Murdock is that I'd seen DD #59 (though not any of the intervening issues) in which Urich is talking to Matt; also, having it be Matt seemed to be the sort of surprise that someone who would write DD #56 might pull. In fact, I was wrong, but not by much: Robby Karol pointed out that it was Matt's girlfriend Milla. Marc Singer, further down in the thread, gives some reasons why having Urich's interlocutor be Milla is nearly as stupid as having it be Matt.

Infodumps

Karol also defends Urich's infodump as psychologically realistic: "Urich sounds uncomfortable because he is uncomfortable. It might not revealed until the end of the issue, but the subject he is speaking to, Milla, is someone he barely knows. After all, Urich has been pushed out of Matt's life for the last year, as he later remarks. Milla's not an interview subject but a total stranger who contacted him for an unknown reason. This issue is an info-dump, but Urich doing the info-dump to avoid having to deal with this stranger who knows more about Matt(as it turns out) than he has for the last year." I don't buy this explanation, though, as it makes Urich out to be either incredibly socially inept or incredibly boorish: Milla asks to see him, presumably concerning Murdock, and instead of even asking her what she wants, he bores her ear off lecturing her about things she already knows. And while it's understandable that Urich would be uncomfortable around the woman who's displaced him in Matt's life, it's not clear why he would be so upset as to be reduced to a babbling idiot. For that matter, why does Milla, who (as it turns out) needs something important from him, let him drone on and on? Surely she could come up with a tactful way of cutting him off.

Speaking of infodumps, in one comment, Kevin Maroney wrote (taking issue with a line in my original rant): "infodumps are not a hallmark of bad writing. Bad infodumps are a hallmark of bad writing. It is completely possible to write a good infodump; the key is to make the infodump something that reads interestingly in its own right.... The failure of Urich's lecture is not primarily that it is a lecture, but that it is a bad one."

In fact, I now think Maroney is right. What convinced me of this was rereading the chapter "A Rag, a Bone, a Hank of Hair" in Alan Moore's Captain Britain run (which I hope to post on someday, if I ever get around to it). This chapter is, like the first half of DD #56, not just an infodump but an infodump in which one person tells another person at great length something his listener mostly knows already. And yet Moore made a good comic out of it.

Hell's Kitchen

A couple of people thought I was unfair to complain that Bendis's portayal of Hell's Kitchen was unrealistic. Abhay said my complaint was "Dead, dead wrong. Bendis INHERITED the marvel universe Hell's Kitchen which you and this Adam are complaining about. The unrealistic crime Hell's Kitchen is the one in every daredevil comic before Bendis got ahold of it."

I realized that this was probably true, and that's why I didn't complain about Bendis presenting Hell's Kitchen as the epicenter of the present-day New York underworld. I also would have understood it if Hell's Kitchen had been portrayed as somewhat more dangerous than it really is. Still, Bendis could have taken the established Marvel portrait of Hell's Kitchen and given it a more realistic slant, but he didn't. According to Marc Singer (the June 11 comment), in fact, he went in the opposite direction.

Bruce Baugh wrote: "I grew up in southern California, so I'm used to seeing places I know passing themselves off as other places, and conversely seeing my own turf rendered in highly unrealistic ways. And it's all cool - it's about the iconic identification and a suitable backdrop for the action. New York is like that for me, and I suspect for most readers, with Hell's Kitchen being a label, some establishing shots, and a bit of dialogue now and again. It doesn't need to be anything more, and might well not benefit from being anything more."

The trouble is that Hell's Kitchen in DD #56 is something more. It's a neighborhood full of boarded-up businesses, where people gather around fires lit in trash cans; a neighborhood without a library; a neighborhood where people are afraid to walk down the street or look each other in the eye. It's not merely "iconic identification and a suitable backdrop for the action": it's a sociological portrait, albeit a rudimentary one. An unwary reader would have no reason not to believe that this is the real Hell's Kitchen. And when Bendis asserts that Hell's Kitchen can be saved by kicking out the criminals and then spending hundreds of millions of dollars on urban renewal, that too is more than iconic identification.

Realism vs. Magneto

On a related subject, a couple of people complained that, in Jose Mochove's words, "Criticizing the book for its faux realism and then turning around and complaining that the city's destruction at the hands of Magneto isn't mentioned is just dumb." But the only reason I mentioned Magneto was to point out that, as Marc Singer says, "a superhero taking over a neighborhood is not 'as big a story as this city will ever see' in either the real New York (9/11) or the Marvel one (take your pick)." I wasn't arguing that the story's failure to mention Magneto, or the other "cosmic" events which have taken place in the Marvel Universe's New York City, was an intrinsic defect.

Readers' responses

Marc Singer (the June 13th comment) disagreed (though he later took it back) with my assertion that

"'Readers who buy Bendis's 'realism' can believe that they've been tough-mindedly grappling with real-world issues of crime and ethics...'

"I'm not sure this is the case. The most I might venture is that they'd say Bendis has been tough-mindedly grappling with real-world issues of crime and ethics, as a means of exalting the comic ("See, it's about Issues!") but even that may be too much to speculate. Perhaps they just believe Bendis has been writing a good crime drama in the vein of The Sopranos or GoodFellas; I disagree, but that's another isssue. While I might attribute an unsavory political message to the text, extending it imaginatively to the readers is unsupportable."

Well, perhaps I was rhetorically overreaching. In my defense, I didn't mean to imply that all readers responded that way (I did use the word "can"). I meant that Bendis invited his readers to respond that way, and it would be surprising if none of them took him up on his invitation. Perhaps Singer saw it as insulting to Bendis's readers to say that they would think that they'd been "grappling with real-world issues" when they'd merely been reading a comic. I didn't mean it that way: I myself have been guilty at times of congratulating that I've been thinking seriously about something when all I've done is to read something and nod along with it.

(And to be fair to Bendis, while the first half of DD #56 does exaggerate the effectiveness and understate the costs of a tough-on-crime approach, what I remember of the second half of the issue, and even more what I've heard about the rest of the arc, suggests that he didn't set out to propagandize: he intended to present a genuine ethical dilemma. It's too bad that he did such a poor job of presenting both sides, as I argued in my first post.)

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Saturday, July 10, 2004

LOVE & POP MUSIC VIDEO

I just finished watching Love & Pop, the live-action film directed by Hideaki Anno (Evangelion, His and Her Circumstances). The film itself is a strange one; I'd have to watch it again to talk meaningfully about it. But the disc also includes a "music video" which functions almost as a sequel to the film, based on a 1960s Japanese pop song, "That Marvelous Love Again," which plays over the movie's ending credits. Because the song was catchy, I watched the music video twice, and the second time, for some reason, tears almost came to my eyes.

That's all for now, sorry.

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Friday, July 09, 2004

MAKING THINGS HISTORY

In an effort to understand how I came to be living in a country that can imprison and abuse children without anybody seemingly caring that much, I've been reading Late Thoughts on an Old War: The Legacy of Vietnam by Philip D. Beidler (not that I'm claiming that Iraq is another Vietnam--except, perhaps, in the arrogance with which we went into it). I found this quote particularly insightful:

"as our most recent exercise in 'democracy-building' in Iraq has shown, we have ... become the most adept nation in the history of the globe at making things history. As in, oh yes, but that's history. This kind of millennial doublethink ... has been the basis of a cultural arrogance perhaps characteristically Western but exacerbated by a capacity for self-delusion uniquely American. It fosters the very habits of mind that made us delusional in the first place and that have consistently let us walk away without much further reflection. Redeemer nation ... reinvents itself over and over as amnesiac nation."

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Wednesday, July 07, 2004

NOW WE'RE IMPRISONING AND ABUSING CHILDREN, TOO

Apparently there's no bottom to the moral sewer we Americans are currently living in (via Through the Looking Glass). Make no mistake, this will stain us for generations.

Also read Mark Danner's article "The Logic of Torture," in the June 24 New York Review of Books, which makes a convincing case that what happened in Abu Ghraib was not "a few bad apples," but deliberate policy sanctioned at high levels.

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Tuesday, July 06, 2004

DAREDEVIL #56 REVISITED, PART I

A month ago I posted a long rant on the first half of Daredevil #56 (scroll down to June 7 if permalinks don't work), and promised to "try to reply to all intelligent comments." The piece garnered a far greater response than I had anticipated (scroll up to June 17 for a survey of reactions), and I started on the promised reply; but another writing project intervened, and only in the past week have I been able to get back to my reply. This is unfortunate, not just because everyone has probably lost interest, but because I myself don't care that much anymore. Oh, I still think DD #56 is a bad comic; but I'm just not as worked up about it. I certainly wouldn't write seven single-spaced pages on it if I had to do it now. I just have a hard time maintaining that level of indignation about a single thing for long.

Still, I'll keep my promise. I'm going to do this in two parts (or possibly more), for the sake both of readability and of putting something up without further delay.

To my surprise, the aspect of my critique that was most frequently objected to was my assertion that DD #56 presented itself as realistic. Because this had seemed obvious to me, I hadn't said much to justify it, so I'll try to do so now. Of course, no superhero comic is entirely realistic; but this doesn't mean that all superhero comics are completely unrealistic. The O'Neil/Adams Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, and the "Speedy the junkie" story, to give just two examples, clearly sought to say something about the real world; and it's perfectly legitimate to judge them, in part, upon how accurately they portrayed the real-world issues they dealt with.

Taking a more theoretical approach, Dave Fiore argued that "superhero comics are the heirs to the Romance tradition (a dense form of storytelling which seeks to envelop the reader in its own narrative strategies, which survived into the twentieth century in uncharacteristically metaphysical pulp like Hammet [sic], Chandler, and Hemingway's 'romances-in-naturalistic clothing')"; that "Whatever Bendis thinks he's doing--he's clearly working in a tradition that is the furthest thing from mimetic"; and hence "applying naturalistic standards in a critique of his work just doesn't make any sense!" Though cast in more sophisticated terms, Fiore's argument relies upon the same all-or-nothing fallacy as the preceding argument: either a work is realistic through-and-through, or it has no connection to the real world at all. In actuality, though, Hammett, Chandler, Hemingway and Bendis all combine stylized and "romance" aspects with mimetic aspects. If Fiore wants to ignore these latter aspects, that's his right; but that doesn't mean they don't exist.

To be sure, this merely shows that DD #56 might be trying to say something about the real world, not that it actually is. But when Bendis has Urich deliver a disquisition of how Prohibition created large-scale organized crime which is based upon real history, he's implicitly claiming that his story is connected to the real world, and has something to say about it. Ditto when he has Murdock "save" Hell's Kitchen through realistic means (i. e. urban renewal).

While agreeing with me on the whole, Marc Singer objected to one specific aspect of my realism argument, taking aim at the following quote:

"The fundamental dishonesty is that the story presents itself as gritty and realistic, and yet supposes that a single man using only his fists could eliminate crime from a crime-ridden urban neighborhood in which most of the criminals have guns. This might get by in an early sixties Batman comic, where criminals who captured Batman always placed him in elaborate deathtraps from which he could escape, and when readers asked why nobody ever just shot Batman, the editors replied that it was because criminals were all insane. But in a comic that claims to be saying something about the real world, it's ridiculous."

Singer's response is: "Daredevil is, for all its trappings, still a superhero comic, and this is the fundamental suspension of disbelief required of every superhero comic. Even a realistic superhero story is still going to buy into certain basic premises, one of them being that the guys in costumes don't get randomly gunned down because they're just better than their enemies. Even Watchmen follows this convention with all but a few minor characters. Nor is following a genre convention and asking for suspension of disbelief necessarily mutually exclusive with delivering commentary about the real world, as Watchmen again demonstrates. "Realism" doesn't demand a harsh documentary fidelity to the real, simply a different set of stylistic conventions."

While calling it "the fundamental dishonesty" may have gone a little too far, I still think my criticism on this point was justified. Yes, it requires a suspension of disbelief that Batman or Daredevil, without invulnerability or any superhuman offensive powers, could fight crime for as long as they have without being killed or put permanently out of commission. But this suspension of disbelief is only necessary when considering their careers as a whole: in any single adventure, it can be made plausible that Batman or Daredevil could defeat a criminal with a gun (which is not to say it always is made plausible). But in Daredevil #56, we have a career's worth of implausibility compressed into a single story, so to speak.

In any case, my main point was not that Daredevil would have been killed, but that given his powers, he could not have done what Bendis has him doing. (My reference to people with guns, and to 60s Batman stories, may have muddied the waters.) As "Bill" put it: "this guy has certain superpowers, but basically he solves things by punching people out. Can he drive all crime out of an area with a one-two punch? No. No he cannot."

On similar grounds, objections were raised to my complaint that Bendis's dialogue did not sound like real speech. (Here there seems to have been a bit of confusion. Some people have apparently thought I was criticizing the snappy, Mamet-like dialogue which is said to be Bendis's trademark. Whatever is true of his other works, there is nothing the least bit snappy or Mamet-like about the first half of DD #56.) Marc Singer and Dave Intermittent argued that no dialogue is completely naturalistic, in the sense of transcribing everything said in speech, including all the uhs and ahs. But again, this sets up a false all-or-nothing dichotomy. One needn't insist that comic-book dialogue must be an exact transcription of real-life conversation to argue that it should have some connection to how people actually talk: it's one thing to leave out the uhs and ahs, and another to represent people as saying in conversation sentences like "Six straight weeks of terror and violence against the underworld that the city has never seen before or since." (And my objection is not that this isn't a grammatical sentence.)

Dave Fiore made the more sweeping claim that comic-book dialogue need have no relationship to real-life speech at all, supporting his position by asserting that "no one talks in poetic circularities the way [Hammett's, Chandler's, and Hemingway's] characters do!" But these authors used stylized dialogue to get at aspects of real speech which the fiction of the time ignored. The lack of realism of Bendis's dialogue in DD #56 has no such rationale. To be sure, there is also dialogue which is stylized for purely aesthetic purposes, as Marc Singer also points out; but Bendis's dialogue in DD #56 has no aesthetic value either.

In part II I'll discuss the objections to more specific points I made.

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Monday, July 05, 2004

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY, PART II

Alternative Comics: I got around to reading the Bertozzi and Orff pieces. The Bertozzi story did nothing for me, and I downright disliked the art, which substituted grimaces for expressiveness. (And in the second panel on p. 3, the perspective makes Picasso's visitor look just like Jay Leno, which is unfortunate.) The Orff story is an uninteresting slice of life, with uninteresting art.

Image Comics Summer Special: I picked this up solely because of the "Invincible" story, that series being highly acclaimed in the blogosphere and elsewhere. In addition to reading this story, I've looked at the first TP in the bookstore, and a few of the later issues on the shelves (including the big plot twist) and I have to say that I just don't get it. The idea apparently is that he's a superhero, and at the same time is leading a normal high school life. All well and good; but I don't find either of the superheroing or the normal life particularly interesting. And weren't Lee and Ditko doing more or less the same thing in Spider-man forty years ago? I can see how this might seem fresh and new to someone used to the sludge that is "mainstream" superheroes today; but for someone with no emotional attachment to superheroes, I doubt it would have much of an appeal. (I feel about the same way about the art: it looks fresh compared to the other stories in the Special; but taken on its own it's mediocre.)

Amelia Rules!: There are a lot of quotes on the back cover about how wonderful this series is. And Gownley, the creator, has made a great effort to produce a charming book (as opposed to a book that screams "I'm charming! Love me!" like Kochalka's stuff). But I wasn't charmed. Perhaps my problem is that the great comics about children are all very personal, expressing their creators' own viewpoint on what it's like to be a child (Little Lulu is possibly an exception). For all I know, Amelia is personal too, but it doesn't read like it has a point of view; it seems to have stemmed from Gownley's determination to produce a kid-friendly comic book, rather than any need of his to express himself. On the last page, Amelia, who narrates, says "See the thing that people don't tell you, is that sometimes being a kid just isn't suitable for children. But it's okay as long as you have someone looking out for you." Aside from the fact that this is hardly news these days, the stories in this issue really don't have any connection with it. The art, too, while not bad, is characterless. Steve Conley contributes a wordless eight-pager, about which I have nothing to say.

This wasn't all I got, but I think I'll stop now; otherwise it'd be too depressing. At that, it's better than last year, when there were only a couple of short stories that I enjoyed. You know, I frequently see people say dismissively that most manga is mediocre. And it's true: most manga published here is mediocre, and as far as I can gather, the same is true for manga published in Japan. But what makes these people think that American comics are any better? Most critically acclaimed American comics are mediocre, too; and that goes for alternative and independent books as well as superhero books.

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Sunday, July 04, 2004

READING MATTER

Here's a powerful passage I found in a column by Brian Brett on the website Dooney's Cafe. It was written in the expectation that the Conservatives would win last week's Canadian election, which they didn't, but his broader point still holds true.

"We are greedy creatures. Do we care about good government, or do we vote for lower taxes, more SUVs, and trips to Hawaii, and damn the consequences? The one with the most toys wins. We are witnessing the triumph of the ‘I’ over the ‘we.’ And we’re about to embark on a short-sighted celebration of our unseemly wealth at the expense of the planet’s future.

"Thirty-two years ago, when I was even dumber than I am now, I went on a hiking trip to Long Beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island. We camped under a cliff on a beach. It was a beautiful spot, but dangerous. Wary that the incoming tide might cause trouble in the middle of the night we built huge bonfires in a line way out onto the beach, thinking that if they were doused by the tide, we would know how dangerous this world was becoming.

"Then we started drinking. As the fires went out, one by one, we became so intoxicated we started cheering, celebrating the extinguishing of each fire with another drink. Later, I woke up in my tent, half drunk and half hung-over, my feet wet and an egg and a loaf of bread floating past my head. We were in the middle of a west coast hurricane, the tide raging, our gear ruined. We struggled up the wind-blasted muddy cliff in the night, clinging to branches, fearing for our lives, cursing our idiocy.

"North American politics are not about hope for a better future anymore. They’re about ignoring consequences. And it’s becoming more and more evident that we are all sitting drunk on the last beach of a dying planet, cheering as the fires go out."

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Saturday, July 03, 2004

FREE COMIC BOOK DAY, PART 1

In an effort to be more spontaneous in my blogging, here are some quick first reactions to the FCBD stuff I picked up.

Reggie-12: Wow, a Brian Ralph book that is actually funny, and that I like. It has words! It has more than two panels per page! Ralph devotees will probably complain that it's not "pure" comics like Cave-In.

Top Shelf Tales: Jeffrey Brown contributes three strips that don't have anything to do with relationships. I liked the first, a superhero parody (I know, I know--but it's funny). The two autobiographical one-pagers didn't really do anything for me.

James Kochalka has three strips in this, and two in Alternative Tales, which I guess makes him the winner. Looking at his work objectively, I can see that there's something to his art, though it's not as remarkable as his admirers seem to think. But his writing--gaah. I hate this kind of forced whimsy. The people who love it probably also like Jonathan Richman's solo stuff.

Scott Morse's contribution is basically a waste of eight pages, and I don't feel like reading Aaron Reiner's piece.

Alternative Comics: The Sam Henderson page is funny. The book's first story, by (I think) Josh Neufeld and Sara Varon, is an uninteresting account of Josh's grandmother, with uninteresting art. Dean Haspiel is a bad artist anyway, but he's particularly unsuited for illustrating Pekar. The rest of the stuff I either haven't read (the Bertozzi and Orff pieces) or don't have anything to say about.

This wasn't all I picked up, but right now I don't feel like writing any more. Maybe I'll finish up tomorrow.

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Friday, July 02, 2004

KINO'S JOURNEY, EP. 13

Long time no see. Yesterday I finished the article I'd been trying to write for the past couple of weeks. I'll try to finish the follow-up to my Daredevil rant within the next few days, but at the moment I'm too busy enjoying my newly-regained freedom. For the time being, I'll recommend an anime, or rather a specific anime episode.

Kino's Journey is a thirteen-episode series about a traveler on an Earth-like planet, who goes from one "country" to another, never staying more than three days in one place. The episodes, which (except for one two-parter) are independent of each other, are less about Kino's personal story than about the peculiarities of the countries visited; it's a bit like a cross between Invisible Cities and Twilight Zone. (The director, Ryutaro Nakamura, also directed Serial Experiments Lain; but there's very little resemblance between the two series.)

The writing is uneven, and the animation is nothing special (though the animation of the main character in ep. 13 is very good). But the final episode, which is by far the best, is so good that I'd recommend watching it even if you have no intention of watching the rest of the series, or started watching the series and gave up on it. It doesn't depend on any of the earlier episodes to be understood; nor will it spoil anything in any earlier episodes (though the other episodes on disc four will). It's unusual in that you really have to watch it twice to appreciate it: not because it's incomprehensible on a first viewing, but because only on a second viewing do you get the full emotional impact. In fact, the first time I watched it, my reaction was that it was pretty good but nothing unusual. It was only upon watching it a second time that I was blown away. Unfortunately, I can't be more specific without spoiling it.

There are times when I don't fully trust my own response to a work of art, and this is one of them. It's possible that I've gone overboard in my enthusiasm: I'm not claiming that it's Tokyo Story. But I really did find it very moving.

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