Monday, September 26, 2005


A few months ago, I discussed a Dickensian novel by "Orpheus C. Kerr," a 19th-century American political humorist, and concluded that it was pretty bad. As partial recompense, here's a piece of political satire that shows Kerr to better advantage. Before reading it, though, you should read Lincoln's Address on Colonization, of which Kerr's piece is a very close parody. "Colonization" in this context meant settling freed slaves outside the United States, either voluntarily or compulsorily. While most African-Americans rejected the idea, it was popular among white antebellum Americans who wanted to see slavery end, but in a conservative way. Lincoln himself supported voluntary colonization, and in the address linked to above he tried to convince a delegation of African-Americans of its virtues. Kerr's opinion was different, as his parody makes clear.

  (0) comments

A few days ago I finished reading Fruits Basket vol. 17 in Japanese, the most recent volume I own (though Fruits Basket vol. 18 came out in Japan a couple weeks ago, and enough episodes have been serialized since then to fill another volume). This is perhaps the most eventful volume since vol. 11. Even if one knows in advance, as I did, that [blank] is a [blank], there are some major revelations in this volume. And while [blank]'s being a [blank] does not, in itself, change things all that much, some of the other revelations do.

In the past few volumes, it's become clear that Fruits Basket is not a string of episodes which can be extended indefinitely, as are most American or European serials, but a single unified narrative in which every episode plays a definite role in the overall work. As far as I know, there's nothing equal to it in American comics. At over 3,000 pages, Fruits Basket is already over twice as long as Bone; it's shorter than Cerebus, but by most accounts Cerebus is structurally a mess. (I stopped reading it early in "Reads," before the infamous issue 186.) I don’t even know how common such long non-episodic series are in manga. I’ve read few series as long as Fruits Basket, so I don't know how many manga manage to sustain a non-episodic narrative for so long without repetitiveness or filler. Of the manga I've read, the closest to Fruits Basket is Kare Kano, but the side stories in Kare Kano are less closely tied to the main story than in Fruits Basket.

I'm aware of the dangers (scroll down to Sept. 12) of overselling a series, and I don’t want to do that with Fruits Basket. It's certainly not perfect. Thematically, it is somewhat repetitive. Tohru's unvarying niceness can be hard to take at times; and does everybody have to have an unhappy childhood, Sohma and non-Sohma alike? And in general, it's difficult for me to evaluate or fully appreciate the series' more subtle aspects, because I have to put so much mental effort into just reading it. This is one disadvantage of reading manga in the original, at least until my Japanese reading skills are a lot better.

  (0) comments

Thursday, September 15, 2005


When I read that Fantagraphics, as a followup to its Complete Peanuts series, would be releasing the Complete Dennis the Menace, I was skeptical (and I doubt I was the only one). I could readily believe that in Ketcham’s prime the strip had been superior to what currently appears in papers, but still I rarely if ever saw Ketcham’s name on lists of great cartoonists. Nor did the strip have any nostalgaic aura for me: if I’d been exposed to it as a child (and I’m pretty sure that whatever acquaintance with the characters I had derived from the comic book, not the strip), it had left only the vaguest residue in my adult mind. So when I picked up a copy of the first volume of Fantagraphics' series and flipped through it in a comics store, it was out of sheer idle curiosity.

But what I saw was a complete surprise. This Dennis was no lovable scamp, but a genuine menace, almost an anarchist. He took no guff from adults: in the May 16, 1951 cartoon, Dennis’s father is kneeling on the floor, wearing boxing gloves, and saying "Come on back, you little cry baby! You’ve got to learn to take it!" while Dennis is creeping up behind him with a baseball bat. The cartoon that decided me to buy the book was the June 7, 1951 one: Dennis is in the nursery school sandbox, explaining to another boy: "You fill your sock with sand, like this, see? And then -- WHAM!" And Ketcham’s art was sharp, too. So I decided to splurge a little, and bought the book.

Unfortunately, as I read more of the book, I began to suspect that in my surprise at the early strips' unexpected bite, I'd overestimated the book as much as I’d previously underestimated it. For one thing, in the later strips Dennis loses his maliciousness. And along with it, he loses much of his personality, becoming a generic mischief-maker. Even before this, he had been a limited character. Imagine Calvin without Hobbes, Spaceman Spliff, Calvinball, his inventions or his philosophical dicta, and you can see how such a character could become monotonous, as Dennis does. And Dennis's parents are even more generic.

In general, the humor in these strips relies not on the characters' distinctive personalities, but rather on readers recognizing their behavior as that of the "typical" suburban family. Most of the strips in the book would not suffer at all if they were redrawn to feature anonymous characters who appeared in only a single strip. This undoubtedly reflects Ketcham's background in magazine cartooning (described in the book's introduction), where every cartoon has to be self-sufficient.

Single-panel cartooning, at least as practiced by Ketcham here, is a very limited form of cartooning. With only one line of dialogue per strip, there can be no conversations (except for a few awkward strips giving one side of a phone conversation), making characterization difficult. By the same token, it makes very rigorous demands on the cartoonist, especially on a daily basis. If (s)he can't come up with a fresh gag each day, (s)he has nothing to fall back on. It’s surely no coincidence that a large proportion of single-panel strips have not been tied to regular characters, thus enabling their creators to utilize any gag that comes to mind regardless of whether it fits a preexisting cast or setting. Ketcham, who was tied to regular characters, had enough clunkers to be distracting: the series of strips about barbers, especially, falls flat (with one exception). I sometimes wonder whether any daily cartoonist is really well-served by a "complete" collection, but I suspect this is particularly true of Ketcham.

As for the art, while I have to take the stronger claims for Ketcham's genius on faith, I can tell that he’s highly skilled. He’s especially good at depicting the shocked or angry expressions on the faces of Dennis's adult victims. But for some reason, I don't particularly enjoy looking at the art in this volume. I can't fully explain why. But part of it is that his compositions tend to be busy, with little use of negative (white) space or solid blacks, and little textural differentiation between foreground and background. For me this produces an impression of monotony, though others may disagree.

While I liked Complete Dennis the Menace 1951-1952 a lot more than Walt and Skeezix 1921-1922, in the end I decided to exchange it. Keeping it just didn't seem likely to be the best use of the twenty-five bucks I spent for it. But I will look for subsequent volumes when they appear.

  (0) comments

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Ever stumble by chance across something which is so great that you can't believe you'd never heard of it before? I just had that experience with a film I rented. What's even more inexplicable is that it aired as a made-for-TV movie on NBC in 1983. It won an Emmy, too. But I can't understand how a movie as powerful as this can have been virtually forgotten.

I was browsing in Odd Obsession Movies, which I've mentioned before, and I heard the proprietor and another guy talking about this great film called Special Bulletin. I continued to browse, and lo and behold, there on the shelves was Special Bulletin. As the description also looked intriguing, I decided to rent it. When I took it up to the counter, the proprietor told me that it was incredible. In the past, I've found such recommendations by store owners to be unreliable, but in this case he was right on the money.

Special Bulletin, as the title suggests, is made up of a series of fictional "special bulletins" from the newsroom of the fictional broadcast network RBS; the viewer sees no more than what an ordinary TV viewer would see if the events depicted were to actually happen. A group of five anti-nuclear terrorists on a boat in the harbor of Charleston, S. C., take two Coast Guardsmen and a reporter and cameraman from a local station hostage, and demand to be given a live feed on RBS. Once they get this, they claim that they have a homemade nuclear weapon on board, and unless the detonating modules on all the nuclear weapons in the Charleston area are removed and delivered to them by 4:30 the next day, so that they can destroy them, it will go off ninety minutes later. At first nobody takes this threat too seriously, including RBS's two news anchors; but it gradually becomes clear that the terrorists really do have an A-bomb.

This plays out as a combination of media satire and serious suspense, with the former predominating in the early scenes, and the latter as the deadline approaches and the terrorists' behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable. The way the "network" and its on-air personnel respond to the unfolding events is totally true-to-life. The two anchors in particular, played perfectly by Ed Flanders and Kathryn Walker, are completely believable. At first smug and supercilious, as the reality of the terrorists’ threat sinks in their self-assurance gradually evaporates. I don't want to spoil the ending, but I will say that I found the concluding scenes devastating, and leave you to interpret that as you will.

The director, Edward Zwick, and writer, Marshall Herskovitz, would later go on to create thirtysomething and My So-Called Life together. I've never seen more than a few minutes of either of these; but my preconceptions about these in no way prepared me for Special Bulletin. The VHS of Special Bulletin is out of print, and it apparently has never been released on DVD; the proprietor of Odd Obsession told me that his was the only place in Chicagoland you could rent it. But if you get a chance to watch it, by all means do so.

  (1) comments

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Among the more constructive of my activities during my recent blogging hiatus was pushing forwards with reading Fruits Basket in Japanese. Currently I’m over halfway through volume 16 (vol. 17 is the most recent volume in Japan). I’d been intending to write something about Fruits Basket, perhaps while discussing Bill Sherman’s review of the first five English-language volumes in TCJ #269; but David Welsh beat me to the punch, and did it so well that there isn’t much left for me to say. Welsh brings out well what would have been my main point: that the manga is darker, and more serious, than one would gather from either Sherman’s review or what I’ve written about it so far (or from the anime, for that matter). And Welsh is only up to volume 7: things become even darker in subsequent volumes, beginning with volume 9, though there’s still a leaven of comedy.

One aspect of Takaya’s writing is unmentioned by Welsh, because it first becomes apparent in later volumes than he covers: as we learn more about the characters’ backstories, things that seemed uncomplicated, or even mainly comedic, in the early volumes take on new meanings. I can’t go into details without spoilers, obviously, but this has already happened with several characters, including Kyou and Yuki. And I gather there are major revelations coming in vol. 17. I’d love to see an interview with Takaya discussing how much she had planned out in advance when she started.

  (0) comments

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?