Sunday, May 29, 2005


I have never been a fan of horror, either literary or cinematic: I don't find being frightened pleasurable at all. However, I do remember reading two very good short stories by the horror writer Ramsey Campbell; and when I saw a new novel by him, The Overnight, on a library shelf and discovered that it was about a sinister bookstore, the combination of the author and the concept persuaded me to pick it up.

The book turns out to be set in a chain bookstore in England, though the chain is American in origin. (It's inspired by Campbell's experiences working for a Borders, though I doubt Borders will be grateful for the publicity.) The manager is a gung-ho, insensitive American (the day after one employee dies, he suggests that the other employees "remember" her by taking over her shelving duties), and Campbell does a very good job of portraying employees' petty feuds, humiliations and embarrassments: I really don't recall reading a better fiction portrayal of "retail sales." This part of the book I found compelling. On the other hand, when the Nameless Things showed up and began picking off the employees, I just got bored.

I recently watched the Criterion Collection's new DVD of the acclaimed documentary Hoop Dreams, which follows two black inner-city basketball-playing teenagers with great potential, along with their families, through their four years of high school, and examines what happens to that potential. The DVD has two audio commentaries, one by the filmmakers and one by the two main characters themselves (now no longer teenagers), both of which add depth to an already rich film.

After watching the film again and listening to the commentaries, I was inspired to read the book Hoop Dreams by Ben Joravsky, which promised to go into further even depth on the teens and their families. I was severely disappointed, however. While the book does contain some information neither in the film nor the two commentary tracks, the writing was so formulaic that reading the book brought me neither pleasure or any feeling of insight. An example, from early in the book, when Arthur Agee, one of the two teenagers, shows his mother Sheila the business card given to him by a high-school scout: "It felt real, but surfaces were deceiving. She had known so many con men and had seen so many scams. Her life had been filled with so many disappointments, and she wondered whether anything good would ever happen to her again. Still, maybe this card and its owner, the big man who so excited her son, were signs of good things to come. She decided to have hope." (16) To me, this feels like Joravsky could have written it before he had even met Sheila, and just dropped it ready-made into the slot.

Reading the book did have one benefit: it gave me a greater appreciation of the film's accomplishment. In the film, the two families come across as complex human beings. In the book, they're cliches. The Agees in particular are reduced to a stereotypical inner-city family: the smooth-talking, criminal and wife-beating father, the abused and victimized mother, and the wisecracking, cynical teenage son.

One omission from the book is symptomatic. As far as I can tell (the last third of the book I merely skimmed through), nowhere in Joravsky's account of the families is there a mention that they're being filmed for a documentary. This isn't a minor omission. As the commentary tracks made clear, the filmmakers didn't try to make themselves invisible, even if they'd been able to. They became a part of the families' lives. And the two teens themselves knew that they were being filmed, and that that set them apart from everyone else in their schools and neighborhoods. (In fact, the filmmakers would make compilations of the dunks by the two teens that they'd filmed, and give them to the teens to show around.) Joravsky doesn't explain why he left out the filmmakers (not in the book, anyway), but I can guess: he wanted to present the families as representing black inner-city families in general, and to acknowledge that they were, atypically, being filmed would interfere with this.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005


A few days ago I was in Powell's Used Book Store in Chicago, and in the small graphic novel section I noticed a few manhwa (Korean comics) published by Infinity Studios which I'd never seen before in any bookstore or comic store. One of them, Witch Class vol. 1 by Lee Ru, looked intriguing enough for me to gamble the five bucks it was selling for.

Witch Class is a whatever-the-Korean-equivalent-of-shoujo-is comedy about a klutzy teenager named Dorothy who discovers she has latent magic powers, and is taken on as an apprentice by the beautiful but bad-tempered witch Lilly. The romantic interest is Lilly's handsome but rude nephew, whom Dorothy turns into a werewolf in a fit of pique. There isn't a trace of originality in the first volume, either in the writing or the art; but it's inoffensive and fairly amusing, and the art isn't bad. I wouldn't recommend paying full price for it, but if you can find it for half price like I did, you might want to take a chance on it. (You probably won't find it at Powell's, though, as mine was the only copy there.)

Among the other titles put out by Infinity Studios is something called Adrenalin by Lee Jung Hwa. It wasn't one of the ones at Powell's, but here's a description of the first volume, courtesy of Samuel Gonhue:

"Armed with only the notorious rumors he's heard of the big city, Heyong, a young man from the countryside, sets off to Seoul city to get a job. As if the fates are against him, the poor country boy loses all his money, and has nowhere to go, nothing to eat. That is, until he finds an ad offering free room and board to all healthy, red-blooded teenage boys. With nothing to lose, Heyong goes to the address and discovers that it is an elaborate mansion populated by actresses and supermodels! And the lady of the house offers him free rent in exchange for a twice monthly donation of his blood !?! Being somewhat naïve, Heyong misses all of the clues that definitely something "sucks" about this house and its occupants…especially the landlord who sleeps all day long and the girls call 'master'. Yes, the landlord is actually a vampire queen! And her tenants? All former teenaged boys like Heyong who were bitten by the master and suffered the side effects of her bite: they turned into beautiful women! What will become of poor Heyong, and what are the vampire queen's true motives?"

This premise is bizarre enough that I'm almost tempted to order it. Almost.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005


As I sit here playing with my computer, it's very likely that somebody is being tortured by someone whom my taxes are helping to pay.

I've gained a good deal of sympathy for the extreme radicals of the 60s in these past months. They said and did a lot of stupid, and occasionally evil, things; but they did so because they found the situation they were in morally unendurable. When I think about it, my situation is morally unendurable; but I know of nothing I can do that's likely to change anything, so I rarely think about it.

If you want to make yourself uncomfortable, Jeanne d'Arc and Jim Henley, whom I've added to my blogroll, are doing excellent jobs of covering this topic.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005


I was browsing the web yesterday and by chance came across two items which, though on ostensibly unrelated topics, fit together perfectly. The first is this excerpt from a post by Jim Henley (who I'm definitely going to add to my blogroll one of these days) on the TV show 24 (which I have not watched, incidentally):

"the script lets ... Jack Bauer off way too easy too. Oh, he suffers. He suffers the exquisite agony of being in every instance right to hurt other people. Jesus wept, yes, but not for nailing Pilate to the Cross. It's a very new, American kind of martyrdom 24 chronicles."

The second is an essay by John Kessel: "Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender's Game, Intention, and Morality" (via The Mumpsimus).

I'll leave it to you to relate these two items to America's current self-image, especially vis-a-vis our victims in Guantanamo and Iraq.

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Saturday, May 14, 2005


I read Viz's release of vol. 1 of the Dr. Slump manga last night, and I think I know why this manga, which is very popular in Japan and which Frederick Schodt memorably lauded in Manga! Manga!, has taken so long to come to the U.S. There's no natural audience for it here, not because the humor is "too Japanese," but because of different societal attitudes as to what is appropriate for children to read. The humor is aimed squarely at eight to ten-year-old children. But though Viz has "modified" the book's sexual humor (along with references to underage smoking and drinking), there's still enough sexual humor -- of the sort that eight to ten-year-old boys are likely to find uproarious -- that American parents are unlikely to want children of those ages reading it. Hence Viz has slapped a "Teen" label on it; but most teens are likely to reject it as too childish. Which is a shame, as it really is pretty funny. Viz might as well have left the manga unaltered: that way they'd at least have pleased the otakus, who I suspect will wind up being the main readership of the title.

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Saturday, May 07, 2005


Once again, it's been too long since I've done one of these, for various reasons (including trying to at least keep up with the English-language release of Fruits Basket in my reading of the Japanese volumes). Anyway, today's manga is Azuma Hideo Douwashuu [Hideo Azuma Fairy Tale Collection] by Hideo Azuma. This is a collection of unrelated short stories, most only a few pages long: the first such collection that I've reviewed here, iirc. (The stories in Usamaru Furuya's Garden were longer.)

As well as being the title of the book as a whole, "Hideo Azuma Fairy Tale Collection" is also the title of a set of thirteen fairy-tale parodies, which takes up the first seventy pages. These stories are somewhat like "Fractured Fairy Tales," but with a good deal more sex and violence. The most striking among them is "Rapunzel" ("Rapuntseru"), which is also the story that lured me to buy the book when I was browsing in Book-Off (a second-hand bookstore, so the manga aren't shrink-wrapped). In Azuma's version, after Rapunzel's hair is cut off, she discovers that she can extend her leg from the tower to the ground; and when the witch cuts this off (bloodlessly) too, she extends other parts of her body, all of which are in turn lopped off, until by the end of the story she's been reduced to a featureless torso. In Azuma's disturbing version of "Sleeping Beauty" ("Nemureru bijo"), the prince is a lecher, and the sleeping princess's unconscious body is being prostituted by (presumably) the evil fairy. The prince takes the fairy up on this offer, but discovers, in a genuinely repellent scene, that both the princess and her room are filthy. Horrified, he cleans up the princess and her room instead of having sex with her, and devotes the rest of his life to keeping her clean.

After these thirteen stories come several humorous fairy-tale-like stories in the same vein. Then comes a series of surrealistic stories, primarily not humorous. The best of these is perhaps "Namako." Namako is in school when bizarre spore-like creatures burst out from her teacher's orifices, and the same fate rapidly affects all her classmates. On the story's final page, we are told that the next day her teacher and classmates were back to normal, "but from inside my body something wanted to leap out, and I was desperately holding it back." (Apologies for the clumsy translation.) The final two stories are the longest in the book, twenty-four pages each, and combine autobiography and surrealism, with bizarre events going on all around a phlegmatic Azuma, whose friends are drawn as anteaters and other animals. I have to admit I don't really know what to make of these two stories.

Azuma has clearly made use of Tezuka's artistic style, though not his cinematic storytelling. In fact, a number of Azuma's figures look like they have stepped straight out of a Tezuka comic. But Azuma puts this style to un-Tezuka-like uses. Not that Tezuka couldn't be weird himself at times; but Tezuka's works always retain a humanism that is absent from these stories.

Frankly, I don't feel I understand the work in this collection well enough to give a recommendation one way or the other. But at any rate, it's another example of manga that pursues unique artistic expression.

The book is 240 pages and its retail price is 640 yen. It was published by Chikuma Shobou (whom I'd never heard of before), and its ISBN is 4-480-03210-X. At the end, there's a seven-page "commentary" by Tori Miki, an anthology of whose wordless gag strips was recently published here by Fantagraphics.

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