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Sunday, October 31, 2004

THE LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF SHORT-TERM LOSSES

One argument you sometimes hear in favor of voting for a third party, or for Nader, is that we have to endure some short-term pain to further the long-term goal of building a progressive movement. Aside from the fact that the "we" who make this argument are rarely the ones who suffer most from right-wing policies, there are a couple of problems with this. One is that the link between voting for a third party or Nader now and building a progressive movement in the long term is little more than wishful thinking. But the other is that the political impact of a second Bush term would extend beyond 2008, just as the impact of the Reagan and Bush Sr. years can still be felt today.

Partly this is because the structure of the American political system makes it hard to do things, even when the executive and legislative branches are controlled by a single party. It takes a good deal of effort to push through any major initiative; and conversely, once an initiative has been pushed through, it takes a good deal of effort to reverse it. And there's only so much a President can do in four, or eight, years, even with a Congress of the same party. This is why when Democratic Presidents take office, they don't reverse everything their Republican predecessors did, and vice versa.

Another reason is that when conservatives are in office, they push the entire spectrum of mainstream political discourse to the right, and the effects of this continue after they leave office. The policies coming out of the Clinton administration would undoubtedly have been much more liberal had he not followed twelve years of right-wing administrations. The combination of these two factors means that a Kerry administration will find itself far behind where Gore would have been had he been allowed to win in 2000. Even if the Democrats were to somehow manage to win both the House and the Senate, Kerry would still be forced to spend most of his first term just undoing as much as possible the damage done by Bush Jr., in a more unfavorable political climate than that of 2000. And if Bush won a second term, a 2008 Democratic administration -- even a "progressive" one -- would be in an even more disadvantageous position.

(And I haven't even mentioned the Supreme Court, or the federal judiciary in general.)

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Saturday, October 30, 2004

TRANSLATED MANGA LINKS

I've added a couple of new links to my sidebar for the benefit of those interested in manga published in the U.S. Irresponsible Pictures is a blog that does a good job of linking to the latest news and reviews of translated manga. Anime on DVD Manga News & Views Forum is the best discussion board for manga I know of; you can also find news there on what's currently being published in Japan.

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Tuesday, October 26, 2004

THE TOP GRAPHIC NOVELS OF 2004 SO FAR

Kevin Melrose, on his blog Thought Balloons, has reproduced Publisher's Weekly's list of the top 25 graphic novels of 2004, "based on combined sales from bookstores, comics shops and online retailers." Here they are:

1. In the Shadow of No Towers by Art Spiegelman (Pantheon)
2. Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 1 by Nobohiro Watsuki (Viz)
3. Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 3 by Nobohiro Watsuki (Viz)
4. Persepolis 2 by Marjane Satrapi (Pantheon)
5. Fruits Basket Vol. 1 by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop)
6. Trigun Vol. 2 by Yasuhiro Nightow (Dark Horse)
7. Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 2 by Nobohiro Watsuki (Viz)
8. Hellboy: Seed of Destruction by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)
9. Fruits Basket Vol. 2 by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop)
10. Naruto Vol. 3 by Masashi Kishimoto (Viz)
11. Naruto Vol. 2 by Masashi Kishimoto (Viz)
12. Tsubasa Vol. 2 by Clamp (Del Rey)
13. The Book of Bunny Suicides by Andy Riley (Plume Books)
14. Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 5 by Nobohiro Watsuki (Viz)
15. Tsubasa Vol. 1 by Clamp (Del Rey)
16. .hack/Legend of the Twilight Vol. 2 by T. Hamazaki & R. Izumi (Tokyopop)
17. Fruits Basket Vol. 3 by Natsuki Takaya (Tokyopop)
18. Rurouni Kenshin Vol. 6 by Nobohiro Watsuki (Viz)
19. Hellboy: Wake the Devil by Mike Mignola (Dark Horse)
20. Naruto Vol. 1 by Masashi Kishimoto (Viz)
21. hack/Legend of the Twilight Vol. 1 by T. Hamazaki & R. Izumi (Tokyopop)
22. Trigun Vol. 1 by Yasuhiro Nightow (Dark Horse)
23. Inuyasha Vol. 1 by Rumiko Takahashi (Viz)
24. Yu-gi-oh Vol. 1 by Kazuki Takahashi (Viz)
25. 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove (Marvel)

A few thoughts:

1) Even when comics shops are included, superheroes are getting killed. There's only one superhero title on the list, at the very bottom, and even that doesn't use Marvel's regular superheroes, but is more of a "high concept" project like League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

2) Personally, I wasn't crazy about either In the Shadow of No Towers or Persepolis 2 (particularly the former), but their success bodes well for the increasing acceptance of the graphic novel as a literary form. Especially Persepolis 2: unlike Shadow or Maus, or the first Persepolis to some extent, it doesn't have a "hook" to catch media attention; it's a memoir, plain and simple.

3) Obviously, the much-feared manga contraction hasn't happened yet. In terms of the specific manga titles, there are no big surprises, although I am surprised that Hellsing isn't up there. (For that matter, what happened to Rurouni Kenshin vol. 4?) Of the titles that are on the list, all but two (Fruits Basket and Tsubasa) began in 2003. For that matter, some of the actual volumes on the list were published in 2003. One could see this as demonstrating that manga series have "legs"; or, less positively, as a lack of new series which have captured the market. On the other hand, Chobits, various volumes of which accounted for six of the top manga in 2003 on BookScan, is off the list for 2004. More generally, all the manga on the list are from series that are currently ongoing (in the U.S., at least).

4) Another discrepancy between this list and the BookScan list: Yu-Gi-Oh, whose first volume was the top-selling manga in 2003, only makes one appearance on this list, near the bottom. Inuyasha was number five in 2003, and again near the bottom here. I don't know whether this represents a genuine loss of interest in these series, or whether it's the result of the adding in comic shops and online retailers, who presumably sell to an older audience than the chains.

(Slightly edited to fix a bit of careless cut-and-pasting.)

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REREADING GRAVITY'S RAINBOW, I

I'm in the middle of rereading Gravity's Rainbow for what must be the third or fourth time. At the moment I've just reached the end of the Advent set-piece, on p. 159 of the Bantam edition. (It's been slow going, because I try to only read it when my mind is emotionally and intellectually capable of fully responding to the book; otherwise, what's the point?) I want to record my reactions to the book here, as my reading progresses. These won't be anything like finished essays or works of criticism, just thoughts noted down on the fly. If you haven't read the book, they probably won't mean much to you.

First, some notes I made before I hit the first Katje-Blicero-Gottfried section, beginning on p. 109 (all page numbers will refer to the Bantam edition):

Despite Pynchon's reputation as an anti-realistic writer, the book has a firm grounding in material reality. It's full of descriptions which put most "realistic" writers to shame in their specificity and grasp of material reality.

Setting aside the set-pieces, Pynchon's prose craftsmanship is amazing. It seems like there's almost never a wrong word.

One could consider the book's structure "musical," in its use of recurring motifs.

I know this book well, probably as well as I know any book; I almost feel like without trying, I've memorized whole passages. But this familiarity means that the marshalling of surprise and shock which is an important part of Pynchon's technique loses its impact. It's like watching a Monty Python episode for the fifth time.

One thing which is much more obvious to me on this reading than on previous ones is how pervasive the fear of death is, which leads to the fear of randomness, and the need to escape randomness by finding connections in everything (the famous "paranoia").

As I said, these were my reactions to the book before we meet Katje, Blicero and Gottfried. The Katje-Blicero-Gottfried section struck me as a major turn in the book. It's the first real move away from the world of allied intelligence in London, with Blicero the first character not part of this world whose mind we get an extended look at. It contains the first explicitly pornographic and sadomasochistic passages, although there've been intimations of this earlier. Up until now, the book has been basically a realistic novel with interludes of fantasy. But the description of Gottfried's abuse is outside the conventions of the realistic novel, but it's not fantasy either. There's a change in the language, too: the basis in material reality I referred too earlier is less in evidence, and the syntax even seems to become disordered. And Pynchon's conspiratorial interpretation of history makes its first appearance here, if I'm not mistaken, in the passage which contains the quote "The real business of the War is buying and selling." (122) To be honest, this is where the book first took flight for me on this reading. As I said, Pychon does a superb job of depicting the material reality of wartime London; but it's a bleak and drab reality, and up to this point the flights of fancy have been too infrequent to provide much relief.

After this, two brilliant set-pieces, Frans Van der Groov's dodo hunt and the Disgusting English Candy Drill. Then comes a fairly long Roger-Jessica passage (140-147). Here I wrote that I don't think the Roger-Jessica sections really work. To make them work, more than brilliant prose is needed. Pynchon needed to make Roger and Jessica psychologically convincing characters. And they aren't: particularly Jessica, who comes across in passages like this as more of a wish-fulfillment fantasy (her transformation into a bitch by the end of the book is equally unconvincing). Perhaps as a result, for the first time Pynchon's prose appears to be trying too hard.

After this comes the Advent set-piece. On previous readings this had been one of the book's highlights, but this time it was a disappointment. It's aiming at a sort of panoramic view of wartime England, but this doesn't quite come off. The rhetoric struck me as overblown; especially the stuff about "the War" with a capital W, which forces me to recognize that Pynchon's conspiratorial interpretation of history, which I referred to above, is not very coherent.

More later, hopefully.

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Monday, October 25, 2004

KILL BILL VOL. 1

The other day I watched this for about a half-hour, up through the "anime" section. Tarantino undoubtedly had tons of fun writing it; and if I'd had half as much fun watching it, I would have watched to the end. But as it was, I felt that he spent so much time loading the film with tributes to his favorite movies that it never got off the ground.

The film also lacked conviction. A film of this type needs to believe in the rightness of its protagonist's mission (as with the Scorpion films), or at least persuade us that it believes in it. For Tarantino, Uma's quest for revenge is clearly a device for stringing together a bunch of cool scenes. When conviction is lacking, we start asking questions like "Wouldn't it be easier for Uma to just buy a gun and shoot 'Copperhead' when she answers the door?" and "Isn't it ridiculous to have a 'top assassin' carrying out assignments in the open wearing a red vinyl jumpsuit?"

If I remember correctly, Vol. 2 is supposed to be the more "serious" half of the film. Since I wasn't impressed by Tarantino's treatment of "serious" themes in Pulp Fiction, I think I'll pass.

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Sunday, October 24, 2004

WRITING REVIEWS

I just sent off the last of several comic reviews I'd promised magazine editors I'd do. I don't think I'm cut out to be a reviewer: the amount of time and energy I spend agonizing over an "official" review, even a very brief one, is way out of proportion to the value of the end result. And writing reviews doesn't seem to be useful to me as practice for writing in general, as I'd hoped it would be; nor does it help me clarify my ideas about aesthetics. Of course, to have my writing validated by a real live editor is gratifying (as is the money, when I'm writing for a magazine that pays), but these alone aren't sufficient compensation for the enormous drain on my energy.

In any case, with those reviews out of the way, I may be writing here more frequently, though I'm not making any promises.

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Friday, October 22, 2004

GHOST IN THE SHELL 2: INNOCENCE

Yesterday I saw Mamoru Oshii's new animated film Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence for the second time. This film is worth watching on the big screen (it would lose at least half its impact on a small TV screen) just for the hyperrealistic CG "sets" and backgrounds, which are virtually as detailed as live-action backgrounds would be, yet brighter and sharper. More than any other movie I've ever seen, Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence gives the impression of being made of light, especially once the action arrives at "Locus Solus" (which, after watching the film, I'm convinced must be an allusion to Raymond Roussel's novel of the same name, improbable as that sounds).

As to what the movie is supposed to mean, I haven't the faintest idea.

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Tuesday, October 19, 2004

NEW X-MEN UPDATE

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on Grant Morrison's New X-Men in which I argued that Morrison had failed in his goal of attracting general readers, using BookScan figures as evidence. In the interests of fairness, I feel obliged to report that when I go to my local public library, the handcover and paperback collections of Morrison's New X-Men are usually mostly checked out.

(The library has a scattering of other superhero collections, but otherwise their GN collection consists largely of manga, most of which is also usually checked out, though there are exceptions: e.g. the run of Initial D has been sitting there for a couple of weeks now.)

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Monday, October 18, 2004

THE READING EXPERIENCE

I've added the "literary literary weblog" The Reading Experience to my sidebar.

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Friday, October 15, 2004

Yet again, I have to apologize for the lack of updates. As before, the culprits are lack of time and energy; and, to be honest, a lack of motivation as well. Hopefully I'll get back in the groove soon, but I don't feel I can make any promises.

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

MORRISON REVISITED

Dave Fiore wants to know why I consider Grant Morrison a misanthrope, referring to this post of mine, in which I said that Morrison "really does seem to hold humanity in contempt" (Sep. 22, if permalinks don't work).

First of all, as I said at the time, this was just my reaction to a superficial reading of the first few chapters of The Filth, not a judgement of Morrison as a whole. What triggered this reaction, I think, was basically two things. The first was the repulsion to human bodies I thought these chapters reflected. The impression I got was that Morrison was in fact portraying humans as bags of filth, meat puppets to be smashed for one's amusement. It may well be that Morrison was merely ostensibly adopting this position in order to discredit it by the end of the book; I wouldn't know. The second was the absence of any trace of human decency, aside from the old man at the start (who is just an artificial persona, as I understand it). Again, this may very well not continue throughout the book.

I have just one thing to say on the question of misanthropy in Morrison's work in general. In those parts of New X-Men and The Invisibles that I read, Morrison seemed to divide humanity into the "cool" and the "uncool." And while this isn't misanthropic per se, it does come dangerously close in my opinion to holding the uncool in contempt. This may be just a side effect of Morrison's own frantic efforts to be cool, though. And again, I didn't finish either New X-Men or The Invisibles, so I may be completely wrong about them both. As I say, I'm just trying to explain why I reacted the way I did, not to claim that my reaction was justified.

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Sunday, October 10, 2004

WHAT'S THE MATTER WITH KANSAS?

Thomas Frank's What's the Matter with Kansas? is a book I'd been looking forward to reading for quite a while. Its topic, proclaimed in its subtitle--How Conservatives Won the Heart of America--is a crucial one, and the excerpt I read in Harper's looked good. In fact, I was so eager to read it that I wound up paying a dollar to rent the library's rental copy. Upon reading it, though, I was quite disappointed. There is undoubtedly some truth to Frank's thesis, but his presentation of it is both overdrawn and unsupported by evidence.

Briefly, Frank's argument is that what turned the working class conservative is what he calls the "backlash," by which he means not a racial backlash but a cultural backlash. This backlash asserts that the media, universities, and courts are controlled by a liberal elite which sneers at average Americans while claiming that it knows what's best for them better than they do, but which actually works assiduously to undermine and corrupt the heartland, Christian values held by real Americans, thus leading to social chaos. By repeating this claim endlessly, conservatives have successfully diverted the working class's anger at its growing immiseration from its proper target, corporate capitalism, to the supposed liberal elite. But the conservatives succeeded only because of two factors. First, mass culture really is unspeakably vulgar and really does sneer at the working class, though the responsibility for this lies not with any "liberal elite" but with the media's corporate owners. Second, Clinton and the "New Democrats" abandoned the Democratic Party's traditional role of defending the working class's economic interests, thus taking economic issues off the political agenda and leaving the working class with only the cultural realm as an outlet for its justified anger.

Frank is good at mocking this backlash; but he presents no evidence that it is this backlash which caused working-class conservatism, or even that the backlash has affected the working class at all. This lack of evidence is not surprising, as we never see Frank talking to ordinary voters. As far as I can tell from the book, all his interviews are with activists and career politicians. Nor does he have survey data to compensate for this lacuna.

In fact, to the extent that the evidence he collects bears on his thesis, it undermines it rather than supports it. His sole "test case," which makes up the bulk of the book, is the takeover of the Kansas Republican Party by extreme conservatives in the 1990s, and the ensuing civil war within the party between conservatives and moderates. But his account itself makes clear that the force driving Kansas conservatism--or at least its leaders and activists--is fundamentalist Christianity. Frank himself places the origin of the rise of extreme conservatism in Kansas to the campaign of anti-abortion protests in Wichita in the summer of 1991. And again and again in his account, the issues that excite Kansas conservatives--abortion, evolution, school prayer--are those which excite the religious right. In contrast, Frank provides little evidence that Kansas conservatives are particularly worked up about mass culture, except when it supposedly attacks religion or evangelical Christians. Frank doesn't deny the role of religion, but he implicitly, and occasionally explicitly, tries to subsume it within the "backlash." This maneuver is unconvincing, though: while fundamentalism may sometimes speak the language of the backlash, holy righteousness is quite different from wounded working-class pride.

Frank's methodology is questionable as well. Much of his effort is devoted to showing that the conservative faction of the Kansas Republicans is in general less affluent than the moderate faction. But even if this is the case, it doesn't follow that those working-class voters who have switched from Democratic to Republican predominantly identify with the conservative faction. Both the conservative and moderate factions may, and very likely do, consist mainly of people who have always been Republicans.

Frank's principal (and virtually only) foray into quantification illustrates this problem. He picks out several electoral wards in Johnson County which "in comparison to the surrounding county, had relatively low housing values and/or per capita income," and several with "relatively high housing values and/or per capita incomes," and examines the results in these wards of three Republican primaries pitting a moderate and conservative, finding that "the lower-income wards ... generally chose the more conservative Republican candidate, whereas the higher-income wards almost always chose the more moderate candidate" (p. 275, n. 22).

There are a couple of problems with this, aside from Frank's drawing broad conclusions from a single county. In the first place, he doesn't provide any income or housing value statistics for any of these wards, so we don't know if they're working class or not; he admits himself that Johnson County is "considerably wealthier than the rest of Kansas," so the fact that some wards have a lower income relative to the rest of the county means little in itself. More fundamentally, all his test elections are Republican primaries. Those with lower incomes are less likely to vote in primaries; one would expect this effect to be stronger in Republican primaries. And those who have recently switched parties would presumably be even less likely to vote in primaries. So from these electoral results, we can't conclude anything about the conservative faction's working-class support.

Frank's failure, despite his claim, to establish "how conservatives won the heart of America" is the book's main, and crippling flaw. But there are a couple of secondary flaws. Here is Frank's description of mass culture:

"Ordinary working-class people are right to hate the culture we live in. They are right ot feel that they have no power over it, and to notice that it makes them feel inadequate and stupid. The 'Middle Americans,' after all, are the people the ads and the sitcoms and the movies warn us against. The are the prudish preacher who forbids dancing, the dullard husband who foolishly consumes Brand X, the racist dad who beats his kids, the square cowboy who is gunned down by the alternative cowboy, the stifling family life we are supposed to want to escape, the hardhat who just doesn't get it." (133-134)

I am admittedly not up on contemporary mass culture. But, while Frank's description undoubtedly has elements of truth, I suspect that it's overdrawn and one-sided. Is mass culture really so relentlessly anti-"Middle America" as Frank makes out? It seems hard to believe, if only because commercially it would make little sense to write off a large part of one's market. And the implied picture of "ordinary working-class people" here also seems skewed: might not some of these ordinary working-class people actually identify with the kids who just want to rock and roll, rather than the fuddy-duddy parents? There's a distinct resemblance between Frank's picture of humorless, square, upright "ordinary working-class people" and the "two Americas" discourse that Frank rightfully mocks.

Finally, there is Frank's denunciation of the Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council for abandoning economic liberalism, thereby leaving the working class adrift without a party to represent its interests and allowing conservatives to appeal to it on cultural grounds. Frank isn't as simple-minded about this as some leftists, who assert that economic populism is a sure-fire recipe for electoral success which the Democratic Party has inexplicably turned its back on. But his attacks on the DLC still fail to grapple with the inconvenient fact that the only Democrats to have won a Presidential election since 1964 have been in the DLC mold. (And I don't say this out of sympathy with the DLC's positions; I consider myself an economic liberal.) Frank also fails to acknowledge that part of the reason for conservatism's success has been its ability to persuade ordinary Americans--including a substantial portion of the working class--that it would in fact benefit them economically: his index contains no entries for "inflation," "taxes," or "welfare," none of which could be left out from a full account of "how conservatives won the heart of America." (There is an entry for "income tax," which lists four references; but none of these references suggest that working-class people might conceivably dislike paying taxes, just as rich people do.)

In short, What's the Matter with Kansas? is an entertaining book, and one that makes some good points in passing. But it's not the book it claims to be, and it's not the book we need.

Michael Berube (there should be accents over both e's in Berube, but I don't know how to do them) has a series of posts on the book here, here, here, and here, focusing on Frank's stance towards popular culture, which Berube is critical of, though he likes the book as a whole more than I did.

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DEMONLOVER (SPOILERS)

I've promised twice to post on Olivier Assayas's Demonlover, which I recently watched twice on DVD. The problem is that I don't really have a coherent response to it, just some scattered thoughts. But here they are, for whatever they're worth:

1) For the first hour or so, the film appears to be a postmodern corporate thriller, all reflections, computer screens, neon, and smoothly gliding surfaces. This aspect, while skillfully shot by Assayas, I didn't find particularly compelling. But the film's real story is something quite different.

2) This real story is one that's a commonplace of sadomasochistic pornography: a powerful but unsympathetic woman forcibly transformed into a sex slave. (Not that the film is itself pornographic, though we do see a few shots of Diane, the protagonist, in traditional bondage costumes and positions.) The true function of the thriller aspects, which taken on their own don't add up to anything, is to establish that everyone around Diane is plotting her downfall.

3) For me, what makes the film work, to the extent that it does, is Connie Nielsen's complex performance as Diane. The ambiguity Nielsen gives Diane, suggesting without ever making it explicit that she is attracted to her own destruction, makes her character the most interesting thing in the film. As for the rest of it, I don't believe that the film says anything about international capitalism or "new media" that hasn't been said better before.

(I saw the one-disc edition of the DVD, which has interviews with Assayas and the leading actors. There's also a two-disc edition which has bonus footage of the Hellfire Club that was cut from film, as well as a making-of featurette and a Q & A with Assayas, but my regular video place apparently doesn't have it.)

There's a lot of stuff online about the film, which you can find by searching on "Assayas" and "Demonlover." Most of this is either negative or extravagantly positive; a good example of the latter is this interview and symposium from Reverse Shot magazine, as well as a later essay from that magazine lauding Demonlover as one of ten best films of 2003.

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Thursday, October 07, 2004

VIDEODROME AGAIN

Well, I finished watching Videodrome, and I can't say that watching the whole thing improved my opinion of it much. (See the preceding post for my reaction to the first half.) I guess my main problem is the whole idea of the "new flesh," which is at the film's heart: this might or might not make an interesting metaphor, though Cronenberg does little to make it interesting, but Cronenberg's attempts to realize it literally are just ludicrous. I'm not as wild about Demonlover (which I still intend to post on) as are some of the reviews I read online, but one big advantage it has over Videodrome is that Assayas doesn't spell everything out in big capital letters as does Cronenberg. Then there's the whole issue of "Videodrome" itself, and the reason the film gives for its existence: this comes from the 70s school of paranoid anti-corporate political thrillers, but the actual motive is implausible even on its own terms. Perhaps I shouldn't come down too hard on this aspect, though, since it comes across not much more than an afterthought: Cronenberg's real interest is clearly elsewhere. On the other hand, the vagina-in-the-stomach effect was pretty creepy, at least the first time; though when he began pulling guns out of his stomach it became silly.

I watched about fifteen minutes of the director's and cinematographer's commentary, but decided it wasn't likely to be interesting. I'm coming to the conclusion that interesting commentaries, whether done by the director or by a film scholar, are in the minority (but that's a topic for another post).

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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

VIDEODROME

I've been watching James Cronenberg's Videodrome on DVD (because I recently saw Olivier Assayas's Demonlover on DVD (which I also plan to post something on) and looked up some of the reviews, and several said that it was merely a less successful version of the former film). I'm about forty minutes into it so far, and I'm having a hard time getting past the indifferent-to-bad acting and the clanking dialogue. Maybe Cronenberg filmed it like this deliberately, either as a tribute to "classic" horror films or as Verfremdungseffekt (which I don't believe works, by the way). If so, it doesn't work for me. And the first "special effect," with Debbie Harry's lips bulging out of the TV screen and the protagonist whatsizname's head plunging into it, struck me as silly rather than disturbing. I suppose I'll watch some more, though, since it's rented until Saturday. Incidentally, so far this film and Demonlover seem to me to have very little in common, apart from the one obvious and superficial element.

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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

SOME MANGA I BOUGHT RECENTLY

Here's something I started writing a couple months ago, and never finished. I'd intended to describe all the Japanese-language manga I'd bought on what was then my most recent trip up to Chicago (I've made two since then), but I ran out of steam midway through. It occurred to me that I might as well post what I wrote, since by now I've forgotten what the other books I bought on that trip were. I haven't read any of these yet.

I bought two manga by Shungicu Uchida. The first, Watashitachi wa hanshoku shite iru: reddo ("We are reproducing now: red") is the fourth in a series based upon Uchida's own experiences as a mother. (The first three volumes are "yellow," "pink," and "blue.") This volume depicts the birth and infancy of Uchida's third child, and how she copes with both the baby and her two other small children. Its format is primarily a series of four-panel strips. The second Uchida I bought, Kare no bataanaifu ("His butter-knife"), also consists mainly of four-color strips, this time about sex, of which the protagonist has quite a lot. The back-cover copy (probably not written by Uchida) has the protagonist proclaim that she is "a nasty girl who only thinks about sex," and concludes that the comic will "heat up your butter and your [male] lover's butter knife!" I found both of these in the literature section of the bookstore, not the manga section (as is the case with all of Uchida's works carried by that store).

Also in the literature section was Tenohira douwa ("Palm-of-the-hand nursery tales") by Yuuko Ohnari. This is a collection of short two-color stories, mostly about children, and apparently of a fantastic or whimsical nature. The art, which resembles Debbie Drescher's or Megan Kelso's a bit, is very nice. Ohnari has a website here.

Kinecomica by Tori-Miki is also a collection of short two-color stories, in this case take-offs on famous movies, both American and Japanese. As far as I can tell, they're not so much Mad-magazine style parodies, as skits which use the movies as take-off points for goofy, sometimes absurdist humor: for instance, the Seven Samurai meet Snow White, while Excalibur becomes a quest to remove a Q-tip embedded in a woman's nose.

Then I bought the first two volumes of Jimihen by Tatsuya Nakazaki. These seem to be collections of an ongoing humor strip, each installment of which is exactly fifteen panels long. The humor (assuming that's what it is) appears to be realistic, rather than absurd, as with most of the other humor manga I own. Actually I'm not sure now why I bought both volumes that were in stock, but it was cheap.

I bought Yunbo-kun vol. 3 by Rieko Saibara. I reviewed Saibara's Chikuro Kindergarten a while back, comparing it to Bushmiller's Nancy. Yunbo-kun also has a somewhat Bushmilleresque style, with a protagonist who resembles Sluggo, but this book appears to take a much gentler approach. At times Saibara's brushwork is reminiscent of traditional Japanese art.

Finally for now, I bought the first volume of "Comic Coji-coji" by Momoko Sakura, whose Chibi Maruko-chan I reviewed a while back. Unlike Chibi Maruko-chan, Comic Coji-coji is a whimsical fantasy set in the land of Marchen [i. e. fairy tales; there should be an umlaut over the a]. Coji-coji him/herself is a "mysterious creature" of indeterminate sex: as Sakura explains (in English), "Yesterday, I asked COJI COJI 'Are you a boy or a girl?' Then COJI COJI answered with a smile, 'I don't know, but I don't care. Because I'm my self.'"

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Sunday, October 03, 2004

TEN FAVORITE COMICS

Two days ago I filled out an online survey about comics, as part of which I was asked to provide a list of up to ten favorite comics. What follows is that list, for those who are curious, or would like a little better handle on my tastes. It's in no particular order, except the order in which the comics occurred to me. I spent no more than five minutes, if that, thinking about it, and I can't guarantee that further contemplation wouldn't lead to some changes. Still, looking over it again, there's nothing omitted that obviously needs to be on the list, nor is there anything on it that obviously doesn't deserve to be there. And it reflects the types of comics I read pretty accurately.

The one area that isn't represented here, that ideally should be, is European comics; and just now I considered replacing Jim with a European album, either Le Chemin aux oiseaux by Nadine Brun-Cosme and Baudoin or one of the Jean Corentin Acquefacques books by Marc-Antoine Mathieu. But I can't decide whether I'd really rank these books above Jim; so I guess I'll just stick with my original list, which has the virtue of spontaneity.

(Now that I think of it, there should be something by Robert Crumb on the list. I actually wanted to include something by Crumb when I was drawing up the list, but I didn't feel I could consider his entire output as a single "comic," and I couldn't think of a specific comic by him that stood out sufficiently. Oh, well.)

Ghost World, by Daniel Clowes
Acme Novelty Library, by Chris Ware
A*su, by Kotobuki Shiriagari
Hinshi no Esseisuto (Dying Essayist), by Kotobuki Shiriagari
Tsuki no Fumi (Moon Letter), by Usumaru Furuya
Krazy Kat, by George Herriman
Pogo, by Walt Kelly
Palomar, by Gilbert Hernandez
Locas, by Jaime Hernandez
Jim, by Jim Woodring

As you can see, except for the three manga, my list is drawn from the basic TCJ canon; and I firmly believe that if the manga I listed were known in the U.S., they'd be in the TCJ canon too. Aside from the manga, probably my biggest deviation from conventional wisdom is ranking Jim above Frank in Jim Woodring's work. There are no superheroes, not even Alan Moore, and that's deliberate: I like Moore's pre-Image work a lot, but I don't think it, or any other superhero comic, ranks with the work on my list. The omission of "Peanuts" was also deliberate: I do think it's a great strip, and if the call had been for twenty rather than ten comics it would definitely have been on there, but I just don't love it as much as I do the works on my list. Actually, on second thought, I probably should replace Jim with "Peanuts," but I think I'll just let it go.

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