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Tuesday, August 31, 2004

MORRISON'S NEW X-MEN

As I've said before, I have little interest in contemporary superhero comics either as art or entertainment, though I do take a certain interest in them as a cultural and economic phenomenon. Still, when I see people whose opinions I respect praising a superhero comic, I'm curious to see if there's anything to it. So when I saw the first of Marvel's hardcover collections of Morrison's New X-Men at my local library, I checked it out.

As it turned out, the comic per se didn't interest me at all. (Incidentally, while I was flipping through the volume just now, a page fell out: caveat emptor.) What did interest me was the "Morrison Manifesto" reprinted in the back of the book, a memo addressed to the editor setting out Morrison's proposed approach to the X-Men. In the Manifesto, Morrison emphasizes "mak[ing] the book COOL again": "We need to get X-MEN and Marvel Comics in the news again, in the cool magazines and on TV. We need to recapture the college and the hipster audience" (p. 1 of the Manifesto). Clearly this didn't happen. Morrison said "We have to stop talking to the shrinking fan audience," (1) but it was the fan audience which raved about the series, while the rest of the world couldn't have cared less. Undoubtedly, factors beyond Morrison's control had a good deal to do with this. No doubt Dirk Deppey will have something to say about this in the forthcoming second part of his TCJ essay on NuMarvel (which you can read the first part of here). But given that the trades of Morrison's New X-Men did much worse in bookstores than those of Mark Millar's Ultimate X-Men (not to mention manga) it's reasonable to suspect that Morrison's approach was somehow part of the reason for the failure (for sales figures, see the appendix below). What follows are my prejudiced, uninformed speculations on what may have gone wrong. Feel free to ignore them if you like: I freely admit that I have no special insight into what makes stuff popular or "cool" (though the fact that, like the audience Morrison was aiming for, I have only the most generalized knowledge of the X-Men may be an advantage here).

Morrison says in his Manifesto: "The X-MEN is not a story about superheroes but a story about the ongoing evolutionary struggle between good/new and bad/old. The X-MEN are every rebel teenager wanting to change the world and make it better. Humanity is every adult, clinging to the past, trying to destroy the future even as he places all his hopes there" (2), to which the editor, Mark Powers, appended the comment "exactly." And this indeed might have been a way to make the X-Men "relevant." But in fact, the X-Men in this volume come off as middle-aged: if not in physical appearance or "Marvel time," in the way they talk and in weight of the backstory they're dragging around; while the new young characters Morrison has created are uniformly unappealing. Not to mention the character whose name means "new" (though chronologically she's Xavier's age), who is a horrific genocidal monster who at the end of the volume gets a well-deserved lobotomy. Somehow, between conception and execution, Morrison's proposed celebration of teen rebellion turned into a justification of middle-aged discretion: not necessarily a bad thing, but not the sort of thing that usually gets acclaimed as "cool."

Speaking of unappealing new characters, there's Morrison's treatment of Xavier's school. If we take "mutants" to represent blacks, or gays, or just minorities in general, then the idea behind the school--that the solution to prejudice is to "educate" the minority so its behavior won't arouse fear in the majority--was already anachronistic in Claremont's time, and is now borderline offensive, as I'm sure others have pointed out before me. But if we take seriously the school's public designation as a school for gifted youngsters, then it makes more psychological (if not practical) sense. Every teenager who feels like a misfit thinks, or would like to think, that the reason they don't fit in is that they have special gifts. Xavier's school provides the fantasy of a place where these gifts will be recognized, and at the same time they'll learn to control their rage at being excluded.

And Morrison, whether consciously or unconsciously, throws this away. Who would fantasize about being Beak, or a girl whose "gift" is vomiting acid? For that matter, who would want to spend any time with either of them, if they could avoid it? And then there are the "U-Men," and the school shooter who aspires to be a U-Man. To any teen who still fantasizes about being a mutant, Morrison's portrayal of the U-Men sends the clear message (again, whether intended or not) "No, you really are just a geek, and you deserve to be ostracized." Perhaps I'm being unfair to Morrison, but the overall perspective in this volume seems to be that of a middle-aged man observing the young from outside, and reacting with fear and repulsion, or pity at best. (To be sure, the rest of his run, which I haven't read, might send a different message; but it's the early issues which would be crucial in attracting the general public.)

The Manifesto talks about the need to make the book accessible to new readers, something virtually everybody recognizes by now. Here, too, I think Morrison failed, perhaps because he saw the problem only as making sure new readers could follow the story, not as giving them a reason to care about it. Take the backstory I mentioned: the aspect of the backstory that gets the most play is the troubled state of Scott and Jean's relationship, and Scott's attraction to Emma. But there's no reason for someone who's never read an X-Men book before to care about this at all; not unless Morrison gives them a reason to care. And he doesn't. Again, the Manifesto says that the Shi'ar Empire will be "re-introduced ... in such a way that it will seem as though we're seeing these concepts for the first time." (2) To someone who is familiar with how the Shi'ar Empire has been portrayed in the past (which I'm not), Morrison's portrayal of it here may well seem "as though we're seeing [it] for the first time." But for someone who really is seeing the Shi'ar Empire for the first time here, it seems like just a generic interstellar empire. (I admit I didn't read these parts of the book closely, but the fact that I didn't feel any urge to do so sort of supports my point.)

To sum up, the people whom this volume would be most likely to appeal to are middle-aged -- well, I won't use the f-word to avoid alienating people unnecessarily, so let's just say people who know intimately, and love, superhero comics. There's nothing wrong in itself with writing comics aimed at this audience; but it's not the audience Morrison targeted in his manifesto. And this audience can't help a superhero comic break out into the general public, or make it "cool."

Appendix:

These figures are Bookscan sales of adult graphic novels for the week ending Dec. 31, 2003. They cover bookstores only, and not all bookstores; but from what I gather, they do cover the chains pretty well, which are probably where Marvel has most of its bookstore sales. I've listed all the X-Men collections (Morrison's New X-Men are in italics), and a few other titles for purposes of comparison. The order of the figures in each entry is: rank in sales for the week ending Dec. 31 (an asterisk indicates the book was tied with another title), sales for the week, year-to-date sales, date of publication. Thanks to Brian Hibbs for posting these figures.

1. Blueprint for Disaster [Get Fuzzy], 10249, 68772, 10/3
11. .hack//Legend of the Twilight, v. 1, 2978, 35889, 9/03
53. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, v. 1, 1167, 38714, 10/02
109*. Watchmen, 743, 14336, 3/95
154*. Wolverine: Origin, 581, 25601, 12/02
191. Ultimate X-Men v. 6, 496, 7359, 8/03
199. American Splendor, 481, 9084, 7/03
262. Ultimate X-Men, v. 1, 372, 17026, 7/01
319*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 2, 290, 15024, 10/02
332. Ultimate X-Men (hardcover), v. 1, 275, 4353, 8/02
336. Manga X-Men Evolution, v. 1, 270, 557, 12/03
362*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 5, 255, 16708, 5/03
388*. Uncanny X-Men, v. 3, 233, 2292, 10/03
411*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 4, 218, 13882, 2/03
413. New X-Men, v. 5, 216, 1428, 12/03
425*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 3, 207, 13360, 11/02
470*. X-treme X-Men, v. 5, 181, 1221, 12/03
473*. Essential X-Men, 179, 6586, 96/11
480*. New X-Men, v. 1, 174, 6562, 11/01
506*. New X-Men, v. 3, 160, 6941, 12/02
519*. Uncanny X-Men, v. 1, 152, 7255, 1/03
545*. New X-Men, v. 2, 138, 6611, 6/02
553*. Essential X-Men, v. 2, 134, 4634, 10/98
561*. New X-Men, v. 4, 132, 4485, 7/03
564*. X-Men Evolution, v. 2, 131, 1278, 9/03
570*. Essential Uncanny X-Men, v. 1, 128, 4967, 9/02
574*. X-treme X-Men, v. 1, 124, 4974, 3/02
643*. X-treme X-Men, v. 2, 97, 5159, 2/03
672*. Ultimate X-Men, v. 2 (hardcover), 89, 2256, 5/03
680*. X-Men Legends, v. 1, 86, 2526, 4/02
691*. Uncanny X-Men, v. 2, 83, 3288, 7/03
702*. New X-Men (hardcover), 30, 3336, 11/02
722*. Essential X-Men, v. 3, 74, 3170, 7/98

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Monday, August 30, 2004

ADAM ROBERTS

A while ago, I reviewed on this blog The Soddit, a parody of The Hobbit by Adam Roberts (which I just reread, and still think is funny). The page opposite the title page listed several other books written by Roberts, but none of the libraries I had access to had any of them, and I was left in the dark as to what kind of writer Roberts was. It turns out that Roberts is a British science fiction writer and critic. He has a website (I should have googled), though oddly it never mentions The Soddit by name. There are excerpts of his other works posted, though; these are well-written, and make me want to read more. Swiftly, a short-story collection which will be his science fiction debut in the U.S., is forthcoming from Night Shade Books; and there is an unfavorable review of his most recent novel, The Snow, by Christopher Priest in the Guardian.

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Saturday, August 28, 2004

MORE ON DEMOCRACY

I wrote some sour things on democracy the other day; and while I stand by them, I probably should clarify my position. I'm not saying that another form of government is superior to democracy. Democracy does provide more restraint upon governmental abuses of power than any other system: certainly the Bush administration, bad as it is, would be far worse if the Republicans didn't have to worry about elections. And other forms of government depend even more than democracy does upon the willingness of elites to act responsibly, a willingness with history shows can't be relied upon. The depressing conclusion seems to be that no form of government (except, perhaps, for direct democracy, which isn't workable for polities the size of modern states) can provide meaningful "self-rule," whatever that is; nor can any form of government be relied upon to choose the most capable leaders, or to act in the best interests of the governed. It's enough to make one a libertarian.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

COMAS AND DEMOCRACY

Chad Orzel recently said "oh, what I wouldn't give to be in a coma from now until just before the election..." (via Brad deLong). I feel the same way. If anything, Chad is too cheerful. As someone whose name slips my mind right now (sorry) has pointed out, even if Kerry wins we can expect a sustained campaign from the right to undermine his legitimacy from the start, which the media will of course parrot uncritically. And if the 2004 election should be another disputed election like the 2000 election ... well, that possibility is too horrific to contemplate.

If Bush--an incumbent all of whose "strengths" are built entirely of PR and lies, and whose policies are harmful to the vast majority of Americans--can be even in the running at this point, then it's hard not to come to the conclusion that democracy is a failure. That the masses really are too stupid, gullible, and/or rationally unwilling to make the investment required to inform themselves about public issues given the tiny chance that their individual votes will affect the outcome--take your pick--to choose intelligently among candidates; and that democracy only appears to work when there is a tacit agreement among political elites to act responsibly, an agreement that the current leadership of the Republican Party has jettisoned. I can't be the only liberal to feel this way, though it's obviously not a "politically correct" thing to say.

For another take on why Bush is still in the running, read this piece by Mark Ames (via Digby and Seeing the Forest).

Speaking of PR and lies, here's a post by Michael Berube (apologies for leaving out the accents over the e's in Berube), quoting in part a letter by Richard Yeselson, placing the Swift Boat smear campaign in a broader context. Well worth reading.

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Tuesday, August 24, 2004

SENSE AND SENSUALITY

When I started this blog, I'd intended to regularly report on strange books I either owned or found in the library. As with many of my other ambitions for the blog, so far this idea has fallen victim to lack of time and energy (mostly the latter, to be honest). At any rate, here's one.

Sense and Sensuality is a novel by Roger Bowdler. Originally published in England in 1971, my copy is a 1973 paperback from Dell, which tried its best to make it look like a dirty book (in fact, I found it in the "erotica" section of a used bookstore). It's not, though there are a couple of brief, unerotic sex scenes. What it is is a comic novel about a male transvestite who dreams of becoming a wealthy courtesan, and a heterosexual male writer and small-time pornographer who falls in love with him. It's well-written and funny, in a very dry, British way. Here's a sample:


"They sat there in silence for a moment and then Willoughby said, 'I have been feeling depressed lately. I get these black moods which come and go all through the day.'
"'How old are you now?'
"'Thirty.'
"'Ah, yes, that is a dangerous age. I used to be very depressed up to thirty two and then it stopped. I have been moderately happy since, except for my pains, which ravage my body daily, from my feet to my eyes. At the moment I have a stiff neck. It is some sort of neurasthenia. Funnily enough Queen Elizabeth I had the same sort of pains. But she had good reason for them, as her father executed her mother when she was a girl. But we mustn't talk about me.'" (147-48)


The book's last eighty pages, which aim at satire, are less good.

Though Bowdler has written several other novels in addition to this one, none of them are to be found in my university library--one of the largest in the U.S.--nor in any of the other 50-odd college and university libraries in Illinois whose catalogs can be electronically searched from here.

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Sunday, August 22, 2004

TWO LINKS OF INTEREST

Tim O'Neil, in his blog The Hurting (see sidebar), has an ongoing series of posts analyzing Chester Brown's graphic novel Louis Riel. In the latest installment (under Aug. 20), he makes a start at answering the question of what makes the book good. I didn't read Louis Riel when it came out as a series, partly because when I looked at it in the store it didn't appeal to me, and partly because I was still pissed off over having spent thirty bucks on ten issues of Underwater which will forever remain unfinished and mostly incomprehensible; but O'Neil's analysis, combined with the excerpt in McSweeney's #13, made me want to give it a try. (I'm still not ready to buy it in hardcover, though.)

While tracing back a search which led somebody to this blog, I stumbled upon AniPages Daily, a weblog devoted to anime considered as an art rather than entertainment, by someone who really knows what he's talking about. The emphasis is on the animation itself: instead of, say, discussions of the themes in Miyazaki's work, you'll find filmographies of notable animators. Most of the works he discusses are unavailable in the U.S., and the names he talks about are likely to be unfamiliar here (where animators per se, as opposed to directors, tend to be ignored), but it's a very interesting and informative site, which looks at anime from a perspective that most people (including me) probably haven't encountered before.

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Friday, August 20, 2004

DEMO #9: "BREAKING UP"

I'm probably the last person in the comics blogosphere to have looked at this series. I'd seen issues of this in the local comics shop, and glanced through them, but my reaction had been that while the art was nice, there didn't seem to be enough story to be worth buying. (This may seem like a strange complaint from someone who keeps talking about manga; but a) a lot of manga isn't as "decompressed" as all that, and b) the economics are different when you're spending ten bucks for 180 pages of story from when you're spending three bucks for 26 pages of story.) But this issue looked intriguing enough for me to buy it. Now that I've read it, it bears out my first impression of the series: the art is good, but the story is just too lightweight.

The idea behind the series is that each issue is a stand-alone story involving different characters: one of the characters in each issue, though not a superhero, has a superpower, and we see the effect that power has had upon the character's life. In this issue, though, the superpower (a very minor one) is really irrelevant: you could say that it adds a bit of shading, but the story would be the same if the superpower were absent. What happens is that a girl breaks up with a guy, and the guy remembers incidents and moments from their past relationship. That's it. Certainly, such a story could be involving, but in this case it isn't. Brian Wood, the author, says in the afterword that everything in the story actually happened to him, and I'm sure that it's all meaningful to him; but he hasn't given the rest of us much reason to care about, or be interested in, this relationship.

Wood also says: "I fear this issue may have come off a little on the side of the man, of Gabe, and if so, it wasn't intentional." "A little" is an understatement: Angie, the woman, comes off as really unpleasant, and Gabe as put-upon and long-suffering. But this isn't the main problem with the characters. The main problem is that neither of them emerges as a character, as opposed to a generic type, at all.

Becky Cloonan's art is very good, though: primarily solid blacks and whites (no grays), with an expressiveness and fluidity missing from most contemporary American comics, both "mainstream" and independent. It may be just my imagination, but I got the sensation that she's been influenced by manga, without resembling manga on the surface at all. I'd like to see what she would do when provided with more solid characterizations than Wood has provided here. I probably won't be picking up any more issues of Demo, though.

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Tuesday, August 17, 2004

GERMAN DIALECT LITERATURE

I was browsing in the stacks of my university library today, looking at the foreign literature sections, and I discovered that following the German section, there was a small section of literature in German dialect, or Mundart as it's called in German. (When I say small, I'm speaking in relative terms; there are at least a couple hundred books.) Many, if not most, of these books had been published relatively recently: that is, since 1960 or thereabouts. Nor was all this literature folkloric or nostalgaic; there seem to be quite a few people devoted to preserving, or creating, an active "Mundart" literary tradition. ("Mundart" refers not to a single dialect, but to German nonstandard dialects in general, of which there are a number.)

At its extreme, Mundart may not look like German at all at first glance. Here's a poem from leidln, lesds eich zaum: Alte und neue Dialektgedichte (those are lower-case "L"s, not upper-case "i"s) by Hugo Schanovsky, published in 1978:

mea eafuachd


mea eafuachd
foam dod
sogn de filosofn

mea eafuachd
foam leem
sog i

Here's my conjectural translation:

i am reverent
before death
say the philosophers

i am reverent
before life
say i

I can't find an indication of which dialect this is, but the book is published in Linz, Austria, so I would presume it's an Austrian dialect. (The absence of capital letters seems to be an idiosyncracy of the author, not a characteristic of Mundart.)

Here's a less extreme example, this time in prose, from alli sy mer wi mer sy: Fabuloesi Gschichte zum Vorlaese u Verzelle by Johann Ramseier, in the dialect of Bern, Switzerland, published in 1982. This is the first paragraph of the first story in the book, "E Schoepfigsgschicht":

Wo synerzyt di erschte Moensche - Gschoepf vom Prometheus - di groeschti lyblechi Not hei hinder sech gha, sy si gly einisch uebersueuenig worde u dilaengersi schlaechter anschtatt dilaengersi besser, bis sech der Donnerer Zeus uf em Olymp obe het vorgno, die Suendemuergglen uf der Aerde mit Schtumpf u Schtil u mitsamt ihrnen arme Tier in ere Suendfluet z ertraenke. Di beide brevschte Moenschen aber - der Deukalion u d Pyrrha, sy Frou - sy vom Prometheus no zur raechte Zyt gwarnet worde; u wo du di grossi Ersueueffeten isch losggange, hei sech di zwoei oemel du imene Schiffli choennen i Sicherheit bringe.

(I don't know how to do umlauts in blogger. From the first book, I cleverly chose a poem which contained no umlauts. In this example, I've represented an umlaut by an "e" after the vowel; and, except for "Tier" and the second "ue" in "Suendfluet," all the vowel-e combinations in the paragraph above were originally umlauts.)

Following the Mundart section, there was a smaller section containing German literature written in America. Here the books were nearly all nineteenth-century, as far as I could tell from a brief inspection.

(I lied in the first paragraph of this post. I had actually discovered the Mundart section several weeks ago, and only got around to writing about it today. Yes, I suck.)

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Sunday, August 15, 2004

BUYING JAPANESE-LANGUAGE MANGA

Here, finally, is my long-promised about buying Japanese-language manga.

Best of all is if you live in, or can conveniently visit, a large metropolitan area with a Japanese bookstore. The two Japanese bookstore chains which have branches in the U.S. are Kinokuniya and Asahiya. Both will stock the popular manga series (at least, all the branches I've been to have). They may, or may not, stock "alternative manga": the Chicago area Asahiya, which is fairly small, doesn't, while the SF Kinokuniya had a pretty good selection. Unfortunately, the manga will all be shrink-wrapped (in the Chicago Asahiya, even the small stock of English-language manga published by Tokyopop et al. are shrink-wrapped), but there's an opening at the top, and you can sort of peek in and get a glimpse of the art.

In addition to the books they have in the store, they'll special order books for you; at least the Chicago Asahiya does, and I can't imagine that other stores wouldn't. The Chicago Asahiya will either hold the books at the store, or mail them to you (a convenience if you only visit the area occasionally). When you're ordering, it's very useful to have the ISBN number, especially if you can't speak Japanese. If you don't know it, you can use amazon.co.jp to find it out. (If you can't input Japanese into your computer, but you know the ISBN of one of the author's other titles, a useful trick is to type that ISBN into the search bar, and when that book comes up, click on the author's name.)

Also very valuable are Japanese used bookstores. The ones I know of are JBC in the Chicago area (there are two branches, but only the one that's not in Mitsuwa carries books) and Book Off in Manhattan, which is much larger. Obviously, with these stores you're limited to what they have in stock at the time. On the plus side, the manga aren't shrinkwrapped, so you can get a much better idea of whether a title looks good. And they're very cheap: JBC sells most manga for three bucks, while Book Off's prices ranged between one and five dollars when I was last there, and the one-dollar books weren't junk, either. I've bought quite a lot from JBC, and I'd buy even more from Book Off if I visited New York City regularly.

Suppose you don't have access to any of these stores? The Chicago Asahiya will let you place special orders by phone, and ship the books to you. I don't know if other Asahiyas or Kinokuniyas will, but they might. (Again, it's good to have the ISBN.) Apart from this, and from what Chris said about YesAsia, which I posted two days ago, I have little to say, since I've never actually bought any Japanese-language manga online. I know some people use the Massachusetts-based Sasuga Books; and if you can read Japanese you could try amazon.co.jp. AnimeonDVD's Retail Forum is a potential source of tips and advice, though it mainly deals with buying anime.

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Saturday, August 14, 2004

FEMALE PRISONER #701 SCORPION

I just finished watching Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion, the first film in the Scorpion series, which was recently released on DVD in the U.S. This is one case in which the sequel is far superior to the original: Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41, the second film in the series, is a classic, but the first film, though directed by the same person, is pretty much your standard women-behind-bars exploitation flick, complete with lots of gratuitous nudity. There's even a brief soft-core lesbian scene, though this is actually one of the better scenes in the film, thanks to Meiko Kaji's aggressive performance. Shunya Ito, the director, tosses in some "arty" lighting and camerawork; and there's a memorable, bizarre scene in which the female prisoners gleefully gang-rape the male guards they've taken hostage. But the main reason for watching the movie is Meiko Kaji's intensity as Scorpion. I would recommend watching Jailhouse 41 first (it doesn't depend on knowing what takes place in Prisoner #701 at all), and only then, if you feel like it, going back to Prisoner #701.

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Friday, August 13, 2004

ORDERING JAPANESE-LANGUAGE MANGA ONLINE

When I first began writing about Japanese-language manga in this blog, I said I planned to provide some info on buying these books. I've been very remiss in not doing so, but I do plan to put up a post on the topic in the next couple of days (knock wood). To start with, here's some info Chris Vaillancourt sent me (I've edited a bit): "You asked how/where I buy manga. Recently I've been using YesAsia. While I'd used it in the past for DVDs and such, the Japanese manga section is relatively new I believe, probably no earlier than May. Here's the ZZZlink:

http://us.yesasia.com/en/Japanese/Comics.aspx

"Basically, YesAsia has most of the in-print books from all the interesting alternative publishers: Seirin Kogeisha, Ohta Shuppan, Seirindo, East Press/Cue Comics, as well as several of the tiny boutique labels. Prices are reasonable (a 952 yen manga is $12.12). The only catch is that, unless you switch to Japanese encoding and plug in the title of a manga, you may not find what you're looking for. Searching by author (in English or Japanese) usually leads to an author's page that is blank (unless the author's name is in the title), and the romanji used on the site is usually different from the standard.
"Most of the interesting books are in the "Middle School/High School" (it was weird to see Maruo's books in this area), "Teens" and "Mania" sections. Search tips for some manga that might interest you: "efu" brings up back issues of "Erotics F" and the FX Comics/Ohta books; "Ohta" brings up the other books published by Ohta Shuppan; "atsukusu" brings up issues of "Ax".
"I've used the site for my last several orders and recommend it. I've found a lot of titles that in the past would have taken months to arrive or involved paying higher prices and shipping costs. The only flaw I can think of is that the '7-14 days' and '21 days' listed as shipping times are often vice versa."

MORE ON KOTOBUKI SHIRIAGARI

Chris also provides some info on two manga by Kotobuki Shiriagari which I haven't seen, but which sound interesting:

"Finally, I forget to write about the Kotobuki serial in Ax. The title slips my mind at the monent (I actually don't remember being able to figure out what it meant), and I can honestly say I have no idea what is going on. Trains crashing, cities burning, citizens fleeing in terror: all this destuction seems to have something to do with a giant tree that's shooting up through the city, and by the end of the last chapter I looked at the tree is towering over the entire enflamed cityscape.  I'm missing several chapters (including the first) and there's no synopsis in front of the chapters. The characters are drawn in the usual scratchy, nervous Kotobuki manner, but the scenes of destruction tend toward the photo-realistic. I'm assuming the story will make sense when it's collected; either that or Kotobuki is trying for some formalist experiment. Incidentally, there's another Kotobuki manga about the end of the world, "Hakobune". Appropriately, it's about the end of the world by rain/flooding. It ran in "Quick Japan". I haven't read it but it received nothing but raves online. It's also at YesAsia."

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Sunday, August 08, 2004

MANGA CORNER: strawberry shortcakes

Today's manga is strawberry shortcakes (though it's in Japanese, the title is in English, and all small letters like that), a 300-plus page josei (young women's) manga by Kiriko Nananan. It has nothing to do with strawberry shortcakes; instead it's a drama about the love lives of four women in their twenties. There's a manga artist and occasional bulimic who's recently been dumped; the woman who shares her apartment, who just acquired a boyfriend; a call girl obsessed with a man; and a fourth woman who apparently only works part-time, who is still waiting to fall in love. Presumably their stories will all intertwine by the end of the book, but up to page 120, which is as far as I've read, except for the two apartmentmates the four protagonists are all strangers to each other.

To be honest, while the writing is lifelike enough, I didn't find the characters or their stories compelling enough to make me want to continue reading, though if it were in English, or if I could read Japanese as easily as English, I would probably finish it. As I said, I stopped reading at page 120, by which point little had happened, aside from setting up the characters' basic situations as described in the preceding paragraph.

I originally bought this because of Nananan's distinctive artistic style. It's at once realistic, with nothing of the typical shoujo style about it, and simplified, with figures and objects usually shown only as outlines. You can see sample pages by her (not from this book) here, here, here, and here, though these pages are more stripped-down and less cluttered than the art in strawberry shortcakes. While not groundbreaking, Nananan's art is the best thing about strawberry shortcakes.

Ponent Mon, a small publisher specializing in "alternative" manga, announces a book by Nananan, Blue, in this month's Previews (listed under "Fanfare/Ponent Mon," iirc), and has Tanpenshu, a collection of short stories by her, in preparation. The reaction of some of you, upon hearing this, may be "Argh! You're always writing about these wonderful manga which we'll never see, and when you finally do write about a manga by someone who's going to be translated, you say it's not very good!" Sometimes I ask myself if I'm unconsciously biased towards titles or artists inaccessible to non-Japanese readers, and my being underwhelmed by strawberry shortcakes gave me more cause to worry. All I can say in my defense is that this was my honest reaction. And of course, the books by Nananan that Ponent Mon is publishing may be better than this one.

The book is 334 pages long and published by Shodensha. It costs 1300 yen, and its ISBN is 4-396-76292-5.

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Saturday, August 07, 2004

MILLENIUM MAMBO

Two days ago I finished watching Millenium Mambo, the 2001 film by the Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao-hsien, on DVD (I'd watched it once before in the theater a year or two ago). I've seen Hou referred to in several places as one of the greatest living directors, but the reviews I saw of Millenium Mambo generally saw it as minor compared to his other films. But I enjoyed it more than any of Hou's other films I've seen, except for Flowers of Shanghai and The Puppetmaster.

Unlike most of Hou's films, Millenium Mambo is set in the present, and it revolves around a young Taiwanese woman named Vicky. There's no real plot, just a series of scenes from Vicky's aimless life: she lives (for most of the film) with her unemployed boyfriend Hao-hao, with whom she has a stormy, on-and-off relationship; she goes to dance clubs; she hangs out with a gangster named Jack, who looks out for her. In a sense, the film is as much "about" Hou's deployment of color (most, if not all, scenes have a dominant color), light, and music (it's saturated with what I'm guessing is techno, though I don't really know) as it is about anything else. In one sequence that particularly struck me for some reason, Vicky playfully pushes a friend's face into the snow, and after he gets up, the camera lingers for a few seconds on the hollow left in the snow, where the imprint of his features is barely visible.

What really holds the film together, though, is Shu Qi's performance as Vicky. Most films are about romantics: people who follow their longings and desires, whatever they are, whole-heartedly. (It makes for better stories.) But Hou's characters tend to be pragmatists: the protagonist of The Puppetmaster and the courtesans in Flowers of Shanghai are examples. Vicky is a pragmatist too. She comes from a more middle-class background than Hao-hao, who tells her that they belong to two different worlds; and though Vicky gets angry at Hao-hao when he says this, and the narration says that Vicky always returns to Hao-hao as if hypnotized, from Shu Qi's performance one gets the sense that Vicky has deliberately chosen to temporarily visit Hao-hao's world (the narration also tells us that Vicky intends to leave Hao-hao permanently when her bank account is exhausted) and even that to a certain extent she's enjoying "slumming." In any case, Shu Qi makes Vicky a complex, vital character.

If you haven't seen any of Hou's films, this probably isn't the best place to start: Flowers of Shanghai, which has more of a story, would be better. But if you've seen and enjoyed, or been intrigued by, any of Hou's films, I strongly recommend this.

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Thursday, August 05, 2004

THE GEORGIA NICOLSON BOOKS

While up in Chicago last week, I whiled away odd moments by rereading the series of Georgia Nicolson books by Louise Rennison: Angus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging; On the Bright Side, I'm Now the Girlfriend of a Sex God (known in the U.K. as It's OK, I'm Wearing Really Big Knickers!); Knocked Out by My Nunga-Nungas and Dancing in My Nuddy-Pants (there's a new one out, Away Laughing on a Fast Camel (And That's When It Fell Off in My Hand in the U.K.), but I haven't read it yet). They really are funny (Angus less so than the others); though written for "teenagers," they're funnier than just about any "comic novel" for adults published in the past few years that I've read. What makes them special is not so much the events in them, though those are amusing enough. It's primarily Georgia's (the protagonist and narrator) complete and oblivious self-centeredness on the one hand, and her narrative voice on the other. In Kristin Thompson's book on P. G. Wodehouse, Wooster Proposes, Jeeves Disposes she discusses how Bertie Wooster's narration reflects his ill-informed fascination with language, and the same is true of Georgia's narration. A sample, from the "glossary" in the U.S. edition of On the Bright Side...:

"billio - From the Australian outback. A billycan was something Aborigines boiled their goodies up in, or whatever it is they eat. Anyway, billio means boiling things up. Therefore, 'my cheeks ached like billio' means--er--very achy. I don't know why we say it. It's a mystery, like many things. But that's the beauty of life."

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Tuesday, August 03, 2004

THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE

(WARNING: this review of the remake contains a major spoiler, even if you've seen the original.)

Lured by the generally good reviews, I recently saw the remake of The Manchurian Candidate. I often disagree with Jonathan Rosenbaum, but in this case he's right on the money: "I don't get it. As Dave Kehr has noted, the 1962 original was an audacious cocktail of cold war paranoia and mordant cabaret humor. Any remake that scuttles both had better have something to substitute; instead, this is just a vague retread of anticorporate thrillers from the 70s. The story's been ... gutted of its shocks (... formal inventiveness, over-the-top dialogue). ... there's no mythic or comic payoff."

Compared to the original, the remake feels ponderous and bloated, though maybe that's just the current Hollywood style (I don't watch enough "mainstream" movies to be able to say). The early scenes, in particular, drag interminably: the movie feels a lot longer than its actual 135-minute length.

Afterwards, I watched Frankenheimer's original again, and I realized that it derives much of its power from the fact that in its own way it's sincere. Its patriotic rhetoric isn't just for show: it genuinely believes that freedom is worth dying for. And the images of Lincoln which are constantly looking down upon the McCarthy figure aren't just there for irony, but as a reproach. In the remake, "freedom" and "democracy" are merely MacGuffins. When the plot to subvert them is foiled, it's no more meaningful than James Bond's latest exploit. While the remake's attitude may be more philosophically acceptable these days, the original's makes for a much better movie.

(Spoiler warning on.) The big twist of the remake -- that Shaw willingly goes along with Manchurian's plan, even after he learns he's being controlled -- is a cheat. We've seen several scenes in which Shaw is alone with his mother, and there's nothing in them, either at the time or in retrospect, to indicate that Shaw would react in that way. And if Shaw were really so ambitious that he would accept being brainwashed and turned into a robot in order to become President, he would never say in Senator Jordan's presence that he'd been having the same dreams as Marco. (Spoiler warning off.)

Two smaller points: only in Streep's dreams is her performance comparable to Lansbury's in the original. And the new version of "Fortunate Son," which they liked so much that they played it over both the opening and ending credits, sucks.

SEIICHI HAYASHI AND OTHERS

Back in May, I reviewed Seiichi Hayashi's Red Colored Elegy, which collects some of his manga from the late 60s and early 70s. Chris Vaillancourt emailed me a very informative reply. Chris clearly knows much more about manga than me, and with his permission I'm reproducing parts of it. (Actually, he replied two months ago, but I only got the idea of reproducing it here a few days ago.)

         "There's one other Hayashi manga [aside from Red Colored Elegy] in print, "ph 4.5" or something to that effect: the actual title is longer. It ran from 87-91, first in "Comic Baku" (same magazine as Tsuge's "Muno no Hito"), then Garo. I've never tried to get it since it costs 2000 yen,  since its an oversized book. The samples I saw in an old Garo were intriguing though: each page is a grid consisting of eight panels, with what looks like a monologue running throughout. The art appeared more realistic in terms of character design than "Red Colored Elegy" but more pared down as a whole. Unfortunately, Hayashi's other manga appears to be out of print. There were a lot of other stories he did for Garo in the 60s and 70s.
          "You're right about the gap in knowledge when it comes to 60s-70s manga, especially the underground type. There are plenty of artists who were hugely influential and sometimes popular in that time who receive little attention outside Japan: Oji Suzuki, whose "Motorcycle Girl" was also made into a film by Morio Agata; Shinji Nagashima, a "Peanuts"-inspired cartoonist whose autobiographical hippie tale "Futen" was a major hit, and who also worked in Tezuka's animation company; Fumiko Okada, a teenage schoolgirl who was one of the most acclaimed contributors to Tezuka's COM and a big influence on Moto Hagio; Kazuhiko Miyaya, who I've seen referred to as a predecessor to Otomo in terms of using Western pop culture and gritty, realistic art, and so on. Of course, the sad part is that many of these artists are also somewhat forgotten in Japan: often talked about, but with their books out of print. "Futen", despite being considered one of the key works of the 60s, is only available via paid online downloads, most of Miyaya's important stories were never even collected in the first place. And these are the well-known cartoonists...
"Kotobuki [Shiriagari] has a weird apocalyptic serial running in "AX" right now.
   "And here's a link I posted on the TCJ Board to some art by Hayashi, Tsuge and others. I think a couple of the Hayashi pieces are drawn from his run of covers for Garo in 1971:
http://www.comicbox.co.jp/gallery/yagyo/index.shtml"

Also on the subject of Seiichi Hayashi, if you (and your computer) can read Japanese, there's a Seiichi Hayashi BBS to which Hayashi himself frequently contributes. I learned of this when Hayashi mentioned my review of him (favorably, as far as I can tell, which pleased me not a little). I'd like to write Hayashi and thank him; but even if my Japanese was good enough, I don't know how to enter Japanese into my computer. Maybe some reader who does know Japanese will be kind enough to point this entry out to Hayashi.

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