Thursday, April 29, 2004


At the local comics store yesterday, I was browsing through the fifty-cent boxes and picked up four comics: a series I'd wanted to sample, but not at full price; a series I'd sampled before, but without getting hooked; an anthology with some big names; and a title and artist I'd never heard of. Here are some quick impressions.

ROBIN #115 by Jon Lewis, Pete Woods, and Andrew Pepoy (DC). The only reason I looked at this was the writer, Jon Lewis. When Lewis started out, a decade or so, he seemed poised to become one of the next big stars of alt comix, but his slow rate of work, and his failure to finish most of the projects he's begun, have meant that he's only had a fraction of the impact he might have had. ROBIN was, as far as I know, Lewis's first and only foray into mainstream comics. As it happens, the issue I picked up was part four of a four-part story. As storytelling, it's rather awkward: it opens in the middle of a fight against a monster, which takes up the first half of the issue and doesn't mean much without having seen the previous issues; and the issue's second half is mainly devoted to Robin explaining to the reader, and another character explaining to Robin, what's been going on in the entire series. However, Lewis's ideas here are pretty interesting: based on this issue, I'd consider picking up his other issues of ROBIN, or buying the trade if DC releases one. The art, like much mainstream art these days, neither adds anything to the story, nor (most of the time) detracts from it: it basically serves to fill up space. I'll have to devote some thought to the question of why the amorphous, multi-eyed, multi-mouthed monster, which is evidently intended to repulse readers, has no visual impact whatsoever.

FINDER #1 by Carla Speed McNeill (Lightspeed Press). I've picked up odd issues of FINDER now and again and been intrigued by the setting, but never enough to commit myself to the expense of reading the whole thing. This issue can be seen as an introduction to the setting (and to the book's protagonist), and it's interesting enough that if I'd started here, I probably would have kept buying it for a while at least.

DARK HORSE PRESENTS #100-4 by various (Dark Horse). To commemorate their anthology reaching its hundredth issue, Dark Horse made DHP #100 a five-part mini-series: hence the weird number. This issue contains a number of big (e.g. Frank Miller, Rick Geary, Harvey Pekar) and semi-big (Ellen Forney, Brian Sendelbach) names doing minor, undistinguished work. The best piece here is an eight-page story written and illustrated by Chris Warner, called "Black Cross." The art tries too hard to be cinematic and expressive, and ends up being full of grimaces and pointless, obtrusive close-ups. But the story, while no masterpiece, is solidly told.

EL MUERTO: THE AZTEC ZOMBIE #1 by Javier Hernandez (Los Comex). I had never heard of this book, this artist, or even the publisher before. The protagonist is not an Aztec, but a present-day Hispanic from Whittier, Ca.; however, he dies and is resurrected by the Aztec gods of death and destiny as a zombie, which I guess qualifies him as an "Aztec zombie." The story in this issue, which seems to deliberately aim for Silver Age Marvel-style cheesiness, doesn't leave me with any desire for El Muerto's further adventures, if any exist. But the art, which reminds me a bit of Mario Hernandez, is promising, though amateurish in spots.

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Brad DeLong quotes a pithy post from the Daily Howler about the rottenness of present-day American journalism. Our newspapers bear a huge share of the responsibility both for Bush having been "elected" and for his being able to get away with everything he has, and the next time I hear a journalist talking about how his/her "profession" is the "guardian of liberty" or "sentinel of democracy," I intend to laugh in his/her face.

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Monday, April 26, 2004


I named this blog "Completely Futile" because that was how I felt, at the time, about a number of things, but especially about politics. I feel that way again these days. Bush got almost-elected by posing as a "moderate," "compassionate conservative," but once in office, his actions showed this to have been a complete lie. He has consistently pursued domestic policies whose intended effects are completely different from the effects he publicly claims they would have, and which hurt most Americans. He has used terrorism as a pretext to eviscerate civil liberties, while doing nothing to make us safer. He got us into a war on fraudulent grounds (whether or not he sincerely believed that Iraq had WMDs, there is no doubt that he and his administration lied in claiming to have conclusive evidence of it). If someone like this can have a chance of re-election, let alone be leading Kerry (as the Apr. 20 Washington Post reports), how can anyone have faith in democracy? How can anyone believe that elections do anything more than demonstrate who can best con a gullible public and manipulate the media (that part of it which isn't already bought)? Don't get me wrong: I hope Kerry wins. But if he wins it won't be evidence of a civic revival; it'll just be because Bush and his administration are even more incompetent than evil. For awhile I thought that Bush had to be defeated because if he won it would demonstrate that a President can get away with doing whatever he wants and lying about it. But in fact Bush has already gotten away with it. If he does lose, it'll be because the economy takes another downturn, or because the situation in Iraq becomes too bad for even the media to paper over, not because of his lies.

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Grotesque Anatomy links to the online incarnation of Brian Hibbs' column Tilting at Windmills, which examines the comics industry from a retailers' standpoint. If you're interested in the business side of things, it's a must-read.

In his February column, Hibbs discusses, and links to a file he's posted of BookScan's top 750 "graphic novels" (an unsatisfactory term for "books of comics," but I don't know of an alternative) for the last week of 2003, along with those books' total sales for the year. (I know that I've seen links to this specific column, but don't remember where; my apologies to whoever you are.) This is a great service Hibbs has performed for industry-watchers. I played around with these numbers a little and came up with some stuff that may be of interest.

Note that, as Hibbs points out, these figures only include bookstore sales, not sales in comics shops, or by retailers like Wal-Mart and Target. Nor do they include all bookstores. They include a greater proportion of chain bookstores than they do of independent bookstores, so they probably understate the bookstore sales of independent comics by a greater proportion than they do those of Marvel and DC or manga. Moreover, I noticed a few anomalies: e.g., Yu Yu Hakusho vol. 2 is #40 on the chart, but vol. 1 isn't on it at all; similarly, Card Captor Sakura: Master of the Clow vol. 6 is #190, but no other CCS titles appear, even though almost everything else by CLAMP is on the chart (including both volumes of Man of Many Faces). This makes me suspect that some items were either not counted by BookScan for some reason, or were omitted from the chart, so we can't necessarily draw any firm conclusions from the absence of a specific title or volume.

1) The big story of 2003, of course, was manga's conquest of the GN sections of bookstores, and this chart certainly reflects this. Here, one has to read Hibbs's column with care. He sees these figures as indicating a need for caution on the part of retailers in the direct market, and he's undoubtedly right. But for manga itself, it's very good news. Yes, many titles didn't sell well. But this is normal, or should be. Most new products are unsuccessful in any industry, including entertainment industries. For the entertainment industry in particular, companies need to keep taking risks to remain vital in the long term. Marvel and DC stopped taking risks twenty-some years ago, and have been steadily shrinking ever since. Certainly, this poses difficulties for the DM retailer, faced with the prospect of laying down five dollars or more a copy for the first volume of an unknown series, which (s)he may not be able to sell and can't return. But this shows that the DM's current set-up is ill-suited to manga (and, I would argue, is dysfunctional in general, but that's another story), not that manga itself is in trouble.

Hibbs suggests, based on anecdotal evidence, that popular manga titles such as Chobits and Love Hina are likely to stop selling once the series has been completed, rather than being perennial "backlist" titles, though he admits he can't point to anything in BookScan's figures to support this. Of course, it's too early to say how sales of particular series will hold up in the long term; but the BookScan figures argue against Hibbs's view. Chobits vol. 1, for example, which was first published in April 2002, sold 1476 copies in the last week of 2003 (nearly double the sales of Watchmen, Hibbs's primary example of a perennial), placing it #34 in sales for that week; and Love Hina vol. 1, which first appeared in May 2002, sold 1234 copies, placing it #47 for the week. I don't know any reason why these books would sell so strongly over a year after they would published, only to immediately stop selling once the overall series had been completed. In fact, Chobits finished in Oct. 2003. Hibbs says he hasn't sold more than a couple of copies of Chobits or Love Hina since those series were completed, and I don't doubt him; but judging by these figures, that's not true for the bookstore market as a whole.

There are a couple of other, indirect, pieces of evidence against Hibbs's thesis in these figures. If Hibbs were right, then you'd expect to see the volumes of a series appear on the weekly chart in the reverse order they were published: i.e., the most recent volume would have sold the most for the week, then the second most, then the third most, with the first volume selling the least. There is a tendency for the most recent volume to have the highest weekly sales if it's come out recently (i.e. in Nov. 2003 or later). But otherwise, we more frequently see the reverse of this, with the older volumes selling more for the week than the newer volumes, and the first volume selling the most. Also, if Hibbs were right, then we'd expect to see some titles with very high yearly sales but very low sales for the week, but we don't. No manga volume with sales for the year of 30,000 or higher sold fewer than 758 copies for the week; no volume with yearly sales of 20,000 or higher sold fewer than 417 copies for the week; no manga with sales of 10,000 or higher sold fewer than 184 copies for the week. Finally, I have my own little piece of anecdotal evidence suggesting that these titles are still selling now. The national chains aren't known for keeping titles which aren't selling in stock. My local Barnes and Nobles has every volume of Chobits but vol. 8 on the shelves or in a standup display, for a total of twelve copies, and ten of the fourteen volumes of Love Hina on the shelves or on display, for a total of fourteen copies; while my Borders has every volume of Chobits and all but one volume of Love Hina on the shelves, for a total of nineteen copies of each.

What we really need, and what we don't have (afaik), is someone to comment on these figures who is knowledgeable about the book industry, because that's the arena in which Tokyopop, Viz, etc. are competing. How do the figures for manga stack up against the average trade paperback? How does Tokyopop's ratio of hits to misses compare to other publishers? If we knew these things, we could make a lot more sense of these figures than we can now. For that matter, if we knew these things we could make a lot more sense of the numbers for superheroes in this chart. Superheroes are getting slaughtered compared to manga in bookstores; we know that, and this chart confirms it. But the competition really isn't "superheroes vs. manga," though that's how the blogosphere tends to frame it; it's superheroes vs. everything else in the store. And by that yardstick, it might be that superheroes are doing really well; I just don't know.

Turning from the performance of manga as a whole to particular titles, I compiled a few "top ten" lists. Here are the top ten volumes of manga in terms of sales for the whole of 2003 (the number in parenthesis indicates that volume's rank in weekly sales for the week ending Dec. 31, 2003):

1 (25). Yu Gi Oh v. 1 48,308
2 (34). *Chobits v.1 38,951
3 (93). Chobits v. 4 36,910
4 (11). .Hack v.1 35,889
5 (24). Inu Yasha v. 1 2nd ed. 34,777
6 (105). Chobits v. 5 32,603
7 (46). *Chobits v. 2 32,093
8 (47). *Love Hina v. 1 31,290
9 (9). Rurouni Kenshin v. 1 30,627
10 (102). Chobits v. 6 29,854

The asterisk means that the volume was published in 2002 (which explains the odd pattern of sales figures for Chobits).

To determine the most popular series, I could have added up the total yearly sales of all the volumes. But I didn't because a) that would be biased in favor of series with many volumes out, and b) I was too lazy. Instead I compiled two different lists. The first one lists series in the order of highest weekly sales of the volume of the series that sold the best in the last week of 2003 (the number in parenthesis following the title is the number of the volume in question):

1 (2). Rurouni Kenshin (2) 4837
2 (5). .Hack (2) 3915
3 (6). Naruto (2) 3661
4 (7). Yu Gi Oh (3) 3516
5 (10). Trigun (1) 3118
6 (12). Hellsing (1) 2489
7 (17). FLCL (1) 2141
8 (24). Inu Yasha (1 2nd ed) 1975
9 (32). Alice 19th (1) 1542
10 (34). Chobits (1) 1476

The other list lists series in order of the yearly sales of the volume which sold best in all of 2003:

1 (25). Yu Gi Oh (1) 48,308
2 (34). *Chobits (1) 38,951
3 (11). .Hack (1) 35,889
4 (24). Inu Yasha (1 2nd ed.) 34,777
5 (47). *Love Hina (1) 31,290
6 (9). Rurouni Kenshin (1) 30,627
7 (16). Naruto (1) 29,805
8 (17). FLCL (1) 27,177
9 (10). Trigun (1) 26,972
10 (87). Demon Diary (1) 23,277
11 (82). *Ragnarok (1) 22,207
12 (161). *Kare Kano (1) 20,136

(This list has twelve entries because I felt like it, and because I found #s 11 and 12 of interest. Note that Demon Diary and Ragnarok are actually manhwa (Korean comics); however, neither Tokyopop nor bookstores make a distinction between manga and manhwa, and I would have included manhwa on the other two lists if any titles had qualified.)

The list by weekly sales is biased towards series with a volume just out, while the list by yearly sales is biased towards series that have been out for a while; hopefully looking at the two together will produce a more rounded picture.

I don't have much to say about these lists, but I do have a few comments. First, despite all the (deserved) attention paid to girls buying manga, these lists are heavily dominated by shounen (boys') titles, though that may be partly due to what's appeared on TV. The only shoujo (girls') titles here are Alice 19th, Kare Kano, and possibly Demon Diary (which strictly speaking wouldn't be "shoujo" in any case, since it's Korean). Of course, some of the shounen titles undoubtedly have substantial female readerships. And since these figures were compiled, Fruits Basket has become a big hit, the first shoujo title to do so, afaik.

Looking at individual titles, I'm surprised to see FLCL doing so well, despite the anime being on TV: I would have thought the manga would be just too far out. I'm also surprised to see Demon Diary and Ragnarok do so well, since I almost never see them talked about. And I'm gratified to see that Kare Kano did well, though I wish it did better. I've complained about the quality of the reproduction in the English-language volumes I own; but in terms of writing this is probably the best series on any of the above lists, and one of the best series currently available in the U.S. (I say this having read the Japanese through vol. 16.)

Turning our attention back to the entire file, there are some series that haven't done as well as I'd have expected them too, given the amount of publicity or other "buzz" they've received. Among these are GTO, Initial D, or Boys over Flowers: none of these managed to crack the top 150 for the week (including all GNs now, not just manga) or sell 10,000 copies of any single volume in 2003. Paradise Kiss is another title that does substantially worse than I would have expected: the top-selling volume, #1, was only #439 for the week, with 199 copies sold, and sold only 7977 copies in all of 2003 (it came out in 2002). This is a shame: ParaKiss is well-written, and has a distinctive visual style. It deserves to do much better.

2) Superheroes. As I said above, superheroes do a lot worse than manga in bookstores. League of Extraordinary Gentlemen does well, and so does Sandman: Endless Nights, if you count that as a superhero title, which I don't (the collections of the regular comic don't do as well). But apart from these, all the superhero books in the top weekly 100 are not comics at all, but illustrated coffee-table "reference works." With these excluded, the top GN or comic collection involving Marvel or DC's core characters is JLA: Liberty and Justice, with 724 copies sold for the week, placing it at #112. In terms of yearly sales, once again excluding the books mentioned above, the only superhero book to have sold more than 20,000 copies in 2003 was Wolverine: Origin, with 25,601 sold.

3) I had no idea that "Get Fuzzy" was so popular. Blueprint for Disaster, a Get Fuzzy collection, was the top seller for the week, with double the sales of the #2 title; it was also the #2 title for the year. And The Get Fuzzy Experience was the #1 title for the year, and #4 for the week.

4) I have to admit that alternative comics did even worse in bookstores than superheroes did. Random House's American Splendor did well, selling 9,084 copies; and Ghost World, which came out in 2001, still sells fairly well, with 5,899 copies sold in 2003. But neither Blankets nor the Jimmy Corrigan trade paperback managed to sell 5,000 copies, despite all the mainstream attention and good reviews they received. Other alternative titles did even worse. As I said above, probably the proportion of bookstore sales not captured by BookScan is greater for alternative titles than for manga or superhero titles; but it seems unlikely that the discrepancy would be great enough to put alternatives on a level with superheroes.

5) I'm a bit worried about Fantagraphics' Complete Peanuts project. There are five Peanuts titles on the list, but none of them sold 10,000 copies in 2003. The one which sold the most, It's Back to School, Charlie Brown, sold 9209 copies, which is certainly a respectable total, but hardly a license to print money. I hope that Groth and Thompson aren't betting the company on this.

UPDATE: It appears that my worries in the preceding paragraph were misplaced.

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Friday, April 23, 2004


If you read every issue of every superhero comic DC has ever published, you'll be able to appreciate the issue of Animal Man where he meets Beppo the Super-Monkey.

(With apologies to Busy, Busy, Busy.)

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Thursday, April 22, 2004


I'll confess that since I first wrote about Initial D, I've become slightly addicted, checking out several volumes from the library and even buying volume eleven (though that was partly to support the the creator and the independent bookstore where I saw it). The overall story still doesn't particularly interest me: a bunch of amateur mountain road racing teams compete to be known as the top team in the prefecture, with no evident motive for us to care which team "wins." But the races themselves, which can stretch for over one hundred pages, are compelling, even though I have no interest
in auto racing per se, on mountain roads or elsewhere.

The races follow the familiar shounen manga pattern, with the underdog (by virtue of his less powerful car) coming from behind to win. But because Shigeno is dealing with racing ordinary (if souped-up) cars, which his audience would be familiar with, rather than physical prowess or supernatural powers, he can't explain his heroes' victories by superior "heart" or vaguely-explained secret techniques: he has to make them at least seem to be the result of techniques which someone could actually use. In fact, following each race in the volumes I've read, there's a coda in which somebody explains just what the winning driver did, or the losing driver failed to do, that accounted for the victory.

But what's really compelling about the races is the art. Creating a convincing impression of speed in comics is difficult, for obvious reasons. Rather than rely on speed lines, Shigeno draws the entire panel as if it were being viewed by someone driving very fast, in an almost Impressionist manner. I can't explain it too well, but it looks really good.

At the same time I bought Initial D, vol. 11, I also bought The Red Snake by Hideshi Hino, published by DH Publishing, a small publisher that has recently begun publishing Hino's horror manga. I won't even try to describe The Red Snake: it is utterly bizarre, almost psychotic, and even the lame ending doesn't detract from its effect. Unlike other horror manga artists who have been published here (Junji Ito, Kazuo Umezu), Hino has a simple, cartoony style (see here for samples), which fits well with the way the book's events seem to have bubbled up unfiltered from Hino's unconscious.

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Wednesday, April 21, 2004


By an odd coincidence, shortly after posting the comments on the History of the Clone Saga in the entry underneath, I learned (via Fanboy Rampage!) that Tim O'Neil had just put up a post on the 1980s DC crossover "event" Millenium (under Apr. 20, if permalinks don't work). It's nowhere near as long as his epic dissection of Secret Wars II, but still funny. He leaves out the kicker, though (maybe he hadn't finished reading the series): when the "next stage in human evolution" was finally revealed at the end of the Millenium mini-series, it turned out to be...wait for it ... super-heroes! Pretty dopey super-heroes, too, iirc. They actually gave these pathetic heroes their own regular series, which ran for about a dozen issues, I think. His discussion of Millenium develops into a rant on superhero comics and the current state of the comic book market in general; as I've said before, he knows a lot more about contemporary mainstream comics than I do.

Reading Tim's piece got me thinking a bit more about continuity, which I'd spoken slightingly of in my post on the Clone Saga. In theory, continuity is a great idea; it can give characters far greater depth than a single issue or stand-alone graphic novel can. In practice, continuity at Marvel or DC doesn't do this. It can't, when characters regularly undergo cataclysmic events and six months later seem completely unaffected by them; and, conversely, when their personalities can change radically, not following any inner logic, but because of a change in writers, or editorial dictate.

Instead, continuity is used as an in-joke; taken to an extreme, this leads to stories cluttered with unnecessary characters and subplots which are only there to allude to comics published years ago. Or it's used for shock value: making revelations which are on their face totally inconsistent with established continuity, and then providing far-fetched explanations for them. When done once or twice, this can be fun. But when you've been doing it regularly for twenty or more years, as DC and Marvel have, the result is that the characters' "biographies" collapse under the weight of the accumulated absurdities. Marvel and DC's continuities only "work," to the extent that they do, because writers and readers tacitly agree to forget ninety percent of what's theoretically contained in them.

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To those, if any, who are still coming here for coverage of Japanese-language manga, I have to apologize yet again. In partial extenuation, and to whet your appetite, I'll say that I'm in the midst of reading a collection by a creator who has never been translated into English (afaik), but who is easily a match for the best American alternative or underground cartoonists of any period. The collection's highlight so far is a 230-page realistic graphic novel, first published in 1970-71. I want to do this one right.

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Tuesday, April 20, 2004


Via The Hurting, and Anton Hernandez on the TCJ Message Board, a 35(!)-part history of Marvel's "Spider-Man Clone Saga" by Andrew Goletz and Glenn Greenberg. This was a lengthy storyline from the mid-90s in which it was revealed that a clone of Peter Parker, who had been introduced and seemingly killed off in a Spider-Man story twenty years previously (five years in the Marvel Universe's timeline) was not only still alive, but was actually the character who'd been walking around as Peter Parker and Spider-Man in the past twenty years of Spider-Man comics. Of course, nothing in those comics had even hinted at this. Marvel originally intended to stick to this revelation--the guy who'd been Peter Parker for the past twenty years would fade out, and the "real" Peter Parker would take his place as Spider-Man and in the comics--but changed its mind partway through, with the result that the second half of the Clone Saga was devoted to reversing the effects of the first half. In an extraordinary labor of love, Goletz, a fan of the Clone Saga, provides detailed plot summaries of what must be over a hundred individual issues. Greenberg, who was working on the Spider-Man books during much of the Saga, provides a running look at what was going on behind the scenes at Marvel, and at the convoluted process by which the Saga came to take the shape it did.

Greenberg's commentary, in particular, is a fascinating look at how the largest American comics company operated in the '90s, and is essential reading for anyone interested in mainstream comics either as an art form or as an industry. Mainstream superhero comics are sometimes derided as comics written by committee. But going by Greenberg's portrayal, they're more like comics written by a series of committees, each intent upon undoing the work of its predecessors, while being pressed hard by the "business" side of the company, which is solely interested in milking the last possible buck out of the company's fans. The "Clone Saga" may be a particularly egregious example of these pathologies, but given the internal politics of corporations in general, I doubt it's an isolated case. I won't say it's impossible to produce great works of literature under these conditions, but clearly the odds are against it.

And the summary of the "Clone Saga" itself? Taken as a whole, and with apologies to Goletz and Greenberg, it's about the most idiotic thing I've ever read. Some of the stupidity is probably due to plain old bad writing, and much of it is the result of the pressures from the business side mentioned above. But much of it is the result of the contortions necessary to make "Peter Parker" being a clone consistent with Spider-Man's continuity, and then the further contortions necessary to make Peter Parker's not being a clone consistent with the contortions they'd just gone through. David Fiore loves to wax eloquent on the joys of Marvel and DC's endlessly ramifying continuities. As far as I'm concerned, he can keep 'em.

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Sunday, April 18, 2004


A few days ago I wrote how these days I make it a point to buy something whenever I'm in a store that I'd hate to see close. One of the items I bought recently pursuant to this policy was Chunklet #18. Normally, I wouldn't have bought this; and after reading it I'd have to say that for me it wasn't worth the seven bucks it cost (I might feel differently if I had any acquaintance with the contemporary rock scene it satirizes). But still there was some amusing stuff in it.

In the issue there's a poll (presumably conducted online, though no information is given), of the most overrated pre-1991 records. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band is number one by a large margin, which isn't too surprising; number four is Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, which does surprise me. Number ten is Kiss's Destroyer, which surprises me because I hadn't realized it was "rated": I was around when Kiss was big, and critics then unanimously regarded them as a joke.Who's Next, which I had called overrated here a while ago, is on the list, but only at twenty-four, with an insignificant number of votes compared to the top five. Accompanying the poll results, there are twelve pages of comments, presumably from voters in the poll, which are fun reading and contain some zingers, even if you don't agree with them (which I emphatically don't about Never Mind the Bollocks). (As I was typing this, it occurred to me that maybe the people at Chunklet simply made up the "poll results" and wrote the comments themselves. If so, they got me.)

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Saturday, April 17, 2004


I don't know why so little of Vladimir Sorokin's work is available in English. His postmodern fiction is critically successful, though controversially so, yet accessible, with generous helpings of bizarrerie and grotesque sex and violence. As such, it would seem a natural for translation. Yet as far as I know only one of his novels, The Queue has been translated into English, and this, though ingenious, is a minor work and quite uncharacteristic of the rest of his work that I've seen. Apart from this, there are only a handful of stories in anthologies and journals. If you can read French or German, you're in better shape, as at least some of his major novels have been translated into those languages (iirc).

While preparing to write this post, I discovered that one of his short stories, "Hiroshima", is available online from Grand Street magazine. The best example of Sorokin currently available in English is an excerpt from his novel "Four Stout Hearts" which appeared in the second issue of Glas, but it's all worth searching out (except for The Queue).

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Friday, April 16, 2004


Via artbomb, an interesting if superficial story from the BBC about how Harlequin is successfully publishing manga adaptations of its romance novels in Japan, to reach younger readers who don't like to read novels. (The story refers to Harlequin as Mills and Boon, the name it goes by in Britain.) While I've never seen an actual Harlequin manga, the store where I buy my used manga has a large selection of single-volume manga that are the equivalent of romance novels. I actually own one of these (I got it for free), and someday I hope to review it.

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Thursday, April 15, 2004


If you're curious about Korean comics, or manhwa, apart from the few that Tokyopop have translated, and you live in (or plan to visit) the Chicago area, you're in luck. At 4336 1/2 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago, there's a store called Korean Books (that's the name given in the yellow pages, though the sign says "Korean Book.Comics"). It's a small shop, but it's loaded with paperback collections of Korean-language comics, both manhwa and translated manga. Unfortunately, most of the volumes can't be bought individually, but only as part of a complete series. And since the average series seems to have ten or more volumes, this discourages exploration. Also, the books don't have written prices: you bring what you want to the man at the counter, and he tells you what it costs. (The two books I brought up were nine and ten dollars respectively, though I have no idea whether those prices are typical.) On the plus side, the books aren't shrink-wrapped, so you can browse, even in the complete series. There's also a "Korean Books" at 5773 N. Lincoln, but I don't know whether this is a branch of the same store, or whether it carries comics.

To be honest, I didn't see anything in my browsing that would impel me to learn Korean. I did buy one volume of comics, Ero p'ok'osu (there should be diacritical marks over the last two vowels) by I Ro-ma (I hope that's the correct way to transcribe it). It's a collection of humorous short pieces, mainly revolving around sex. The style of cartooning reminds me a bit of Viz magazine (the British humor magazine, not to be confused with the manga publisher), and it looks like it might be pretty funny if I could read it.

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Wednesday, April 14, 2004


Though Miles Davis's electric period lasted only a few years, quite a lot of music from that period has been released, when you add together studio releases, live recordings, and now the "Complete X Sessions" sets which have begun to come out (so far they've appeared for Bitches Brew and Jack Johnson). If you throw in the vast number of bootlegs which have appeared, the amount of music is truly enormous, and intimidating for someone trying to get a handle on it. Since Davis really didn't play songs per se at this point, it's easy for the various albums to blur together in the listener's recollection.

All this is a preface to saying that I recently listened to the bootleg Live at on the Corner (from the Quaker Jazz Festival in Philadelphia, Sept. 24, 1972; there seems to be a concert from a different date circulating under the same title, so be alert) twice in a row, and it's great stuff, with "Rated X" in particular getting into some real "Sister Ray"-ish noise.

(I wrote about electric Miles, specifically The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions, here; if permalinks still don't work, scroll down to Jan. 26.)

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Tuesday, April 13, 2004


This comment by Timothy Burke, on Chun the Unavoidable's blog, brilliantly skewers those who proclaim their support for Nader in the upcoming election (fortunately there aren't many of them, but they make up a noisy presence on liberal and left blogs). The responses from Nader supporters merely support Burke's point: none of them deal with his arguments at all, let alone refute them, or give any rationale for voting for Nader other than pure spite.

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My father has lived in Chicago's near north suburbs since I was two, first in Evanston and then in Wilmette, which is just to the north. Since I live only a few hours' drive away, I visit him pretty frequently. In Evanston, near Northwestern University, there used to be an academic bookstore called Great Expectations. Its specialty was philosophy, in which it had an international reputation, but it had a very good selection in other fields as well. I enjoyed browsing there, and did so whenever I was in town, particularly since it was the only really good new bookstore within easy driving distance of my father's place(s). However, I never bought anything, except for the books they had on sale in the back for a few dollars. I live near a great university library that provides me with all the scholarly books I need, and I rarely come across an a scholarly book so compelling that I feel I have to actually own it, particularly since scholarly books tend to be expensive.

A year or two ago, I was in town again and stopped by Great Expectations, and it was gone: nothing there but a sign on the door saying we're closed, thanks for your patronage. I asked the proprietor of a nearby used bookstore whether they had moved. They hadn't: they'd gone out of business. They'd been hurt by the chains, and especially by the Internet, since they'd done a large mail-order business. I was shocked, though perhaps I shouldn't have been. I knew, of course, that a lot of independent bookstores had been unable to take the chains' competition; but I'd thought that a specialized bookstore like Great Expectations wouldn't have much trouble. (The Internet as a competitor never occurred to me.)

Since then, whenever I visit a store I really wouldn't want to see disappear, I make it a point to buy something, even if it's something I wouldn't otherwise buy. Realistically I know that what I buy at one store won't be enough to tip the balance, but it makes me feel better.

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Monday, April 12, 2004


1) Writing about the Initial D manga a while ago, I passed along a report I'd heard, or thought I remembered hearing, that Tokyopop had altered the manga's plot in its translation. Apparently I was mistaken: according to this thread, as far as I can gather, Tokyopop did not alter the plot of the manga, though they did cover up a female character's breasts in a couple of panels (which I'd still prefer they not do, but I don't mind nearly as much). So I owe Tokyopop an apology, which I'm happy to provide.

2) I wrote that I owned two CDs by Philip Gayle. I was going through my CD collection, and it turns out that I own three. (Actually I had a vague recollection of having bought three, but wasn't sure.) The third, Keguribap, is quite similar to pnbna, with Gayle simultaneously playing two or more insturments, usually guitars.

3) A bit more on the anime Abenobashi Magical Shopping District. In this series, the protagonists are thrust into a different "parallel world" each episode, each of which parodies an anime, game, or movie genre, and each of which contains an analogue of the titular shopping district, where the protagonists live in reality. Episode 11 is a parody of war movies, and the "shopping district" is nothing but bombed-out rubble. The first time I saw this, I didn't think anything of it. This time, though, it occurred to me that to show one's neighborhood as a bombed-out ruin, even in a "parallel world" and as a parody, must have an entirely different resonance in Japan, where most of the cities were indeed reduced to rubble during World War II, than it would in an American show.

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If you're following this site through the Comic Weblog Updates page, please note that it doesn't always register my updates. I've followed the link given on the page, but I confess that I still don't understand what I'm supposed to do to have "pings" sent automatically (and I suspect that the instructions only apply to people who do their own hosting).

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Speaking of not updating very often, I owe my regular readers (and I'm pretty sure I have at least a few) a big apology for the infrequency and lack of content in my updates. In part it's due to a general lack of energy, which deters me both from writing and from doing things (like reading Japanese, or reading in general) which lead to writing. In regard to reviews/descriptions of Japanese-language manga in particular, which some of you may come here for, the current state of my Japanese-reading ability falls between two stools: I can read well enough so that I can look at a Japanese-language manga and envision having read it, so that doing a description without having read it seems inadequate (does that make any sense?), but it still takes me a long time to actually read anything. In any case, I'll try to do better.

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I've added Timothy Burke's Easily Distracted to my blogroll. Burke doesn't update that often, but there's a lot of intelligent writing there. Three recent posts are particularly noteworthy. This is an analysis of why nineteenth-century Britain's success at controlling its empire is probably not something the U.S. will be able to duplicate in Iraq. This is the best piece inspired by the Rigoberta Menchu affair I've read. And this post imagines what Lord of the Rings (the book) would have been like if it had been based on a massively multi-player online game. Even though I have no experience with MMOGs, I still thought it was very funny.

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Sunday, April 11, 2004


Brad deLong, in his Semi-Daily Journal, reprints two excellent posts by "ginmar," an American soldier in Iraq who was recently under siege for twenty-one hours.


A while ago I severely criticized the quality of the reproduced artwork in the first volume of Tokyopop's edition of Fruits Basket. The other day I had a look at their second volume. While I haven't compared it side-to-side with the Japanese edition, it's a vast improvement over Tokyopop's first volume. It also contains a glossary of the sound effects, a first for Tokyopop, though Viz has done it before. (Unfortunately, all the page numbers in the glossary are off by two.)

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Friday, April 09, 2004


Today I finished watching ADV's release of Abenobashi Magical Shopping District; I'd seen the series in fansub form at my local anime club, but this was my first viewing of the official release. I liked the series the first time I saw it, but this time I liked it better: episodes which hadn't seemed particularly funny the first time around now were funny. I think the secret is that the protagonists, Sasshi and Arumi, are real people, not just vehicles for jokes, as in many anime comedies. And I don't mean that a couple of tearjerking scenes were thrown in to "humanize" them: they're human throughout.

I watched the series with the "vid-notes" on. While they're not as plentiful as in Excel Saga (where I sometimes found myself having to pause the picture to read all the notes), they're very handy. I especially appreciated being informed when the characters, especially Sasshi, switched from the Osaka dialect they normally used to standard Japanese.

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Thursday, April 08, 2004


I recently read this book (translated by Marguerite Waldman), which I found in the Italian literature section of my university library. Originally published in 1961, it's a novel about, and narrated by, a young girl in Fascist Italy during World War II. Unlike the previous work of Italian fiction I wrote about (if permalinks still aren't working, scroll down to Feb. 12), this isn't experimental in any way, but it does a very good job of depicting a child's voice. It's apparently out of print (Amazon only lists a German translation, which is out of stock), but worth looking for in your library or in used bookstores.

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Wednesday, April 07, 2004


Philip Gayle is an acoustic guitar player and free improviser who lives in Houston. The closest musical analogue I can think of is Derek Bailey, though they aren't really that similar stylistically. A couple of years ago, I was in Austin, TX, and bought a couple of his CDs, though I'd never heard of him, something I do occasionally, especially when I'm travelling. When I got home, I played them once each, put them aside, and forgot about them. (I do that a lot.) A few days ago I chanced across them again and gave them another shot. This time, for some reason, they grabbed me. One of the CDs is called solo live '98. The other is called pnbna: it's also solo, but on each of the tracks Gayle plays two or more instruments simultaneously. I like the first CD better, but they're both good. On Gayle's website, you can order these CDs as well as others by him.

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Monday, April 05, 2004


Here's a quotation which it would be a good idea to bear in mind when you read something on a subject you're unfamiliar with (including my post from Friday on the history of the direct sales market):

"at a conference exploring the relationship between women's lives and goddess traditions[,] Scholars considering the ancient Mediterranean world painstakingly gathered shreds and fragments, and from them had to tell a story. Scholars working with living cultures, such as that of contemporary India, by contrast, were overwhelmed with the sheer volume and complexity of the available data. Yet scholars with less evidence were less hesitant to draw conclusions and produce comprehensive narrative frameworks. It seems that silence offers an enticingly uncontested space in which to pour the imagination, while cacophony leads to quieter but perhaps more insightful reflection. Or perhaps it is that the invisibility of social complexity makes general theorizing appear more plausible since one is less often contradicted by the facts." (Karen L. King, What Is Gnosticism? p. 315, n. 4)

A possibility King doesn't mention here is that a writer faced with an "excess" of facts may simply ignore those facts which contradict the simple, dramatic story (s)he wishes to tell. This happens much too often, in scholarly as well as popular works. Of course, it's almost always impossible to include every relevant fact: the reader is forced to trust that the writer hasn't omitted something (s)he shouldn't have. Unfortunately, too often this trust is abused. And bear in mind also that it's possible to construct an argument in favor of virtually any position which will sound convincing to someone with no knowledge of the topic.

These are depressing considerations for someone like me who wants to "keep up with" many fields of interest, rather than a single narrow specialty. There really is no royal road, not only to geometry, but to being well-informed about anything.

Incidentally, the book I quoted from above is probably something you should read if you're interested in "Gnosticism." (I put the term in quotes for reasons contained in the book.) It's heavy going in places, and contains more information about 19th and early 20th-century scholars of religion than most people probably want to know; but it makes a strong case (though I'm not a specialist; I have a little knowledge about the topic, but keep in mind the caveat above!) that much of what you think you know about "Gnosticism" may not be true. Another book making a similar point which is probably more accessible is Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category by Michael A. Williams.

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Sunday, April 04, 2004


A couple of days ago I watched (on DVD) a 1923 silent film adaptation of Oscar Wilde's Salome (there should be an accent over the e, but I'm not going to go look up how to do accents in html), directed by Charles Bryant and starring Alla Nazimova in the title role. Someday I may do a detailed description of this film. For now, though, I'll simply say that if you consider yourself a connoisseur of camp, or just of bad movies in general, you need to watch this film.

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Saturday, April 03, 2004


That Bloomberg.com column I linked to yesterday, about the manga about currency trading, contains another bit of info which is actually of greater importance. The Bank of Japan, which really has been selling yen and buying dollars, has been doing less of it in recent weeks, and as a result the value of the yen has been going up relative to that of the dollar. This is bad news for those of us who read manga in Japanese, as it makes imports from Japan more expensive, including manga. It's also potentially bad news for the U.S. as a whole, since right now it's the willingness of foreign governments to buy dollars that enables us to run the staggering deficits we're running without rampaging inflation. If China stops buying dollars, we're really screwed.


Glancing over the review of the I'm Gonna Be an Angel! manga I posted a few days ago, I realized that I had tossed in a reference to the manga consisting of "only two tanks" without explanation, undoubtedly mystifying a few readers. "Tank" is an abbreviation some English-speaking manga fans use for "tankoubon," a Japanese word meaning simply a single book or volume (but English-speaking fans use it to refer specifically to volumes of the Japanese editions). So all I meant was that the manga is only two volumes long. In any case, I'm about to go fix the original post.

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Friday, April 02, 2004


As threatened two days ago, I'm going to try to defend my assertion that what those who buy superhero comics in the direct sales market are really looking for is "elaborate multi-hero universes, endless soap-operatic plots, and continuity stretching back decades," rather than simply superheroes per se. To do so, though, I'll have to step back a bit and ask why it is that superheroes dominate the direct sales market.

It's certainly not because "superheroes are what comics do best," as some people claim: this fails to explain why comics are much more popular in Europe and Japan, where superheroes are rare, than in the U.S. Nor is it that only superheroes are capable of inspiring in their fans the level of devotion which impels them to hunt for their favored comics in specialty stores: there are many examples of other types of popular culture inspiring equal or greater devotion, such as Star Trek. Rather, I believe that the answer lies in the history of the direct sales market. (Disclaimer: I haven't done any research on any of this. Nor was I present in the early days of the direct sales market: I was alive, but I wasn't interested in comics then. What follows is based upon what I've picked up from reading The Comics Journal and other fan publications, and should be taken just as a hypothesis.)

The direct sales market did not spring up from nowhere, but grew out of a pre-existing network of shops that sold back issues of comics. At this time, comics were primarily sold on newsstands; but the system of newsstand distribution had become so erratic that you couldn't count on finding the latest issue of your favorite comic on a newsstand anywhere in your area. So as a service to their customers, back-issue dealers arranged with publishers to offer current comics as well as back issues. Initially, therefore, the comics that did the best in the fledgling direct sales market would not necessarily be the ones most popular with the general public, but the ones most popular among the back-issue dealers' existing customers.

Who were these customers? While I don't have any direct evidence, it seems to me that there are good reasons to think that these customers would have been disproportionately superhero fans. First of all, superhero fans--or rather, fans of some superhero comics--needed back issue stores, in ways that fans of other comics didn't. If you were an Archie fan, and you hadn't been able to get hold of ARCHIE #174 (I just pulled that number out of a hat, so don't write me to complain that it actually came out in 1956, or something), you'd feel sorry, but it wouldn't affect your enjoyment of #s 173 or 175. This was true of nearly all non-superhero comics, and at one point had been true of superhero comics as well. But by the time the direct sales market arose, some superhero comics had begun to feature plot lines that carried over from issue to issue. If you were a fan of one of these comics, and you were missing some issues, you'd be missing part of the story even for the issues you did own. So fans of these comics had an incentive to complete their runs which non-superhero fans didn't have. Of course, this also gave fans of these comics an incentive to buy their new issues in the direct sales market, which could guarantee a reliable supply.

But in addition to this "negative" incentive for superhero fans to buy back issues, there was a positive incentive as well, which also didn't apply to non-superhero comics. In nearly all non-superhero comics, the characters basically had no histories. They never referred to events that had happened in past issues, let alone changed as a result of their experiences. Reading back issues, therefore, wouldn't add any more "depth" to the characters or the stories; it would just give you more of the same thing you were getting in current issues. But thanks to Stan Lee, characters in some superhero comics did change and grow, or at least gave the illusion of doing so. They had histories which helped explain what they were today. These histories were alluded to in current issues, and could be read by buying back issues. Moreover, the histories of different heroes in different comics intersected with each other to form an overall "universe" which readers could imagine as a single, complex, coherent construct. Again, they could "deepen" their knowledge of this universe by buying back issues.

Note that none of these features were intrinsic to superheroes per se. As manga shows, there's no reason why non-superhero stories can't have continuing plot lines and characters who have histories and who change. It just was the case that, at the time the direct market took shape, American non-superhero comics by and large didn't. (Had the romance comics of those days been lengthy, soap-operatic melodramas like the manga Peach Girl, rather than reprints of eight-page stories, the history of U.S. comics over the past three decades would be considerably different.) Conversely, it could have been the case that all superhero comics were like Weisinger-era Superman, with static characters in self-contained stories reshuffling the same situations over and over. In which case, I suspect, there would be no direct market today, or a very tiny one, and the biggest--perhaps only--comics publisher today would be Archie.

Thus the initial customers of the direct sales market were primed to prefer, not just superhero comics, but superhero comics with a set of very distinctive features. And as the newsstand distribution system collapsed further while the direct market expanded, Marvel and DC naturally focused their energies on putting out comics the direct market would buy. Gradually, titles that lacked these features, whether superhero or not, were discontinued or remolded to satisfy the direct market's demands. This drove away readers who weren't attracted by these features, which included most casual readers, leading to a vicious cycle: the greater the percentage of comics' total readership that consisted of the direct market's hardcore fans, the more that comics were designed to appeal only to these hardcore fans, and vice versa. The end result is the current "mainstream" comics scene, in which virtually all titles have the characteristics I've described in exaggerated form. Whereas at one time a story extending over two or three issues was a special event , now six- to twelve-issue stories are the norm; whereas originally references to "continuity" had been a bonus for knowledgeable fans, today's superhero comics make no sense without a detailed knowledge of continuity.

It's easy, in hindsight, to say that Marvel and DC were rushing up a blind alley. But there were a couple of factors which obscured this at the time. For one thing, the newsstand distribution system was collapsing even faster than the Marvel and DC were alienating their casual readers. So while Marvel and DC saw their readerships shrink, all other comic publishers simply disappeared (except Archie, whose "ownership" of slots on the racks of publications in front of supermarket cash registers enabled it to ride out the storm, or so I gather). For another thing, the remaining fans were fewer in number, but they were dedicated, and willing to buy a lot more comics per month than publishers had been putting out; so by doubling or tripling their output, Marvel and DC were able to cushion the impact of their declining customer base. And the various speculator booms, which encouraged people to buy dozens of copies they would never read as "investments," further muddied the waters.

But with the collapse of the most recent speculator boom, the chickens came home to roost. The direct market is no longer growing; rather, it's shrinking as its readers age and aren't replaced with new ones. The remaining customers are already buying as many comics per month as they're willing or able to, so that line of expansion is out. The characteristics that the direct market demands of its comics are precisely those calculated to repel new readers. And when Marvel or DC do try to produce superhero comics for the "general reader," they are rejected by the direct market and ignored by the general reader, who no longer reads comic books except as an occasional novelty, and never sets foot in a comics shop -- or, if (s)he does wander into one, has little chance of finding those few titles meant to appeal to him/her among the mass of titles aimed at hardcore fans.

However, the spectacular rise of manga in the past two years has shown that the declining direct market isn't the only game in town. Apparently it is possible to get the general reader--even of the female gender--to buy comics. So far, nobody knows how to duplicate manga's success with locally-produced material, but several publishers have been experimenting, including DC (with its Death: The High Cost of Living and Elfquest GNs in "manga" format). Will anyone succeed? And if so, will superhero comics have a place in the new order of things? If I knew things like that, I'd be rich. And if anyone else in comics new things like that, the industry wouldn't be in the predicament it's in now. (I was planning to write a ringing conclusion here, but all my attempts came out too strident. And it's late, I'm tired, and I want to get this out tonight. Maybe I'll think of something tomorrow.)

Well, there it is. Naturally, I'd love to hear what people think.

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I've plugged Tim O'Neil's blog The Hurting before, but these past two days there were two particularly good pieces. First of all, from yesterday, a lengthy and hilarious dissection of Secret Wars II, the notorious Marvel crossover "event" of the 1980s, and its many crossovers. For those too young to remember, let me assure you: even though this post appeared on April 1st, Secret Wars II really existed, hard as that may be to believe.

Then today, Tim has more, typically pithy, words on the superhero genre (near the bottom of today's postings). He has much more experience with superhero comics than I do, and is a lot harsher on the genre than I was in my post yesterday.

(I had intended to plug these two posts before I saw the nice things Tim said about me today, I swear!)


Also via The Hurting, a column on Bloomberg.com, a financial website, describing how the most recent storyline in Golgo 13, the popular and long-running manga about a professional assassin, deals with the Bank of Japan selling yen and buying dollars. Remember this the next time someone wonders whether manga in Japan are really as diverse as they're reputed to be.

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Thursday, April 01, 2004


Since I've started to pontificate about superheroes, I suppose I ought to declare my views on them more fully than I have so far. So here goes, briefly:

I don't hate superheroes. I don't think they're necessarily fascist. I think that many of Alan Moore's pre-Image superhero stories were very good stories. And I don't think that getting rid of superheroes would cure what's wrong with today's comics scene. If there were no superheroes, the people who are now writing lousy superhero comics would be writing lousy non-superhero comics, and the people who are now reading lousy superhero comics would be reading lousy non-superhero comics, if they were reading comics at all. Without superheroes, Marvel and DC would no doubt try harder to produce comics that would appeal to the general public, but there's no guarantee they would succeed.

On the other hand, I don't buy most of the supposed advantages of superheroes that their defenders have put forward. Superheroes aren't mythic archetypes. Nor are they particularly well suited to be "metaphors" for anything. And, contra Jim Henley, they have no advantages over other forms of literature in dealing with ethical questions. Since I'm just setting forth my position, I'm not going to defend any of these assertions right now, although I could (at least the last one).

None of the contemporary superhero comics I've looked at seem particularly well-written, and that includes the ones that are supposed to be well-written. When I read bits of one of the "good" ones, I'm very rarely enticed to read the whole thing; and when I do read the whole thing, I wind up disappointed. At most, there are a few clever ideas and snatches of dialogue in an otherwise mediocre work. And that includes what I've read of Moore's ABC line. (To be fair, I find the same to be true of most non-superhero comics I read these days, too.)

One other thing: I find the art in most contemporary superhero books to be a real turn-off. Especially since I've become used to the art in manga, the art in most superhero comics looks ugly, cluttered, and inexpressive. I'll pick up a GN off the shelf and, before even reading any of the words, I'll think "Do I want to look at a hundred pages of this?"

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