Comics, Manga, Today I Learned

The Gaiman Awards

Today I learned that there is an award for comics called the Gaiman award. And contrary to what one might expect, it is not related to our favorite Wordsmith in Black.

The word ‘Gaiman’ here is an abbreviation of “Gaikoku no manga’, literally, ‘foreign comics’. This refers to comics translated from foreign work and published in Japan. For those of you who fret over what is comics and what is manga and bug-eyed-styles and all that, here you go: ‘Civil War’ translated into Japanese and published in Japan becomes manga, and can even get nominated for a manga award. You can keep your Western biases to yourself, thank you.

The list of comics nominated since the award was instituted in 2011 shows a curious mash-up of titles, including the aforementioned Marvel title; Superman: Red Son rubs shoulders with the likes of Nicholas de Crecy’s Celestial Bibendum (French), Schuiten and Peeters’ Les Cités Obscures (Belgium), Lat’s Town Boy and Kampung Boy (Malaysia), Joe Kelly and Ken Niimura’s I Kill Giants. All of which make for great, solid reading — though the jury’s still out on The New 52: Shazam, which managed to make an appearance on the 2015 nomination list. (The previous sentence is vague hyperbole, the prize went to Sweden’s Sayonara September, by Åsa Ekström)

One thing to note: the titles nominated are based on translation date, and not on publication date. This causes similar confusion as the ‘Best US Edition of International Material (Asia)’ Eisner award, where classic material ends up being nominated alongside newer ones, just because they were translated the last year. In 2016, a work by Shigeru Mizuki from the 80s (Showa: A History of Japan) beat the contemporary Master Keaton and Assassination Classroom in the Eisners.Doesn’t that make it overly confusing to judge something that is fresh along with another that has been coated with the patina of time and generational acceptance?

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Books, Manga

Impulse Buy of the Day

I don’t do this often, but when a book comes highly recommended by the Sage of Northampton, bears a foreword written by him, and is signed by both the author and the Foreword Writer, I do not argue with Fate. Bought immediately, and paid for international shipping too. The reviews on Amazon are glorious, and reminds me of pre-Jonathan Strange/Mr Norrell buzz for Susanna Clarke. (And that reminds me that I should probably reread that book too).

From the foreword:

A genre that has been reduced by lazy stylisation to a narrow lexicon of signifiers … wizards, warriors, dwarves and dragons … is a genre with no room for Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, arguably the earliest picaresque questing fantasy; for David Lindsay’s Voyage to Arcturus with its constantly morphing vistas and transmogrifying characters; for Mervyn Peake’s extraordinary Gormenghast books or for Michael Moorcock’s cut-silk Gloriana. It is certainly a genre insufficient to contain the vegetable eternities of Catling’s Vorrh.

Here’s where you can buy a signed copy. (No guarantees though, as the small print says.) Apparently all of the signed copies are sold out, and I got one. The confirmation email came in today morning.

Other than that, I have been rereading some old manga favorites. Among them is Crying Freeman. I bought the complete Dark Horse set a while ago at the low low price of $1 per volume – I have the Viz comics and you will agree that reading them pamphlets gets a little annoying, even though some of the coloring adds to the eightiesness of the series. It’s over-the-top seinen action, with lots of photo-referenced art by Ryoichi Ikegami, and it is just as I remembered it – brimming with the kind of content that sets librarians and conscientious parents aflutter, the kind of salacious visuals that attracts giggling clusters of school-kids in Landmark, where the books stay misfiled in the children’s section. Crying Freeman is the kind of thing Dr. Fredric Wertham warned the world about, people. Do not file it in the children’s section, not unless you want kids to wonder why women have white areas in their groin, whether Chinese assassins really strip to their underwear before jumping up on Russian wrestlers’ shoulders, and if it is possible for a man to cover himself in cement and not burn to a crisp when attacked by a janitor with a flame-thrower. And how a Japanese man can be a master artist, a master assassin, and the Greatest Lover Ever. This book is testament to the fact that manga writer Kazuo Koike is what Stan Lee would be without the Comics Code Authority to keep him in check. And Crying Freeman is what an Amitabh Bachchan character would really be in the 70s, without the castration anxiety of the Indian Censor Board. Mull about the ocean of possibilities for a while.

 

This reminds me that the high-point of Comicon this year was getting to meet Koike in the flesh. I queued to meet him three times, just because there was a 2-item cap on signatures; I probably would have gone a few more times had there not been other events to attend. Kazuo Koike, man. Never thought I would get to thank him in person. Insert a twenty-one gun salute moment for Dark Horse Comics here.

 

The other series I read – after a gap of nearly seven years – was Planetes by Makoto Yukimura. Long out of print, I picked up the series on a whim from a collector whose bookshelves I emptied back when I was an established Emptier of Bookshelves, a veritable patron saint of Liquidators. (Ironically, swathes of my floppy comics are now making their way to different parts of the world, as I succumb to Omnibus upgrades). Coming back to Planetes, this is the sort of manga that serves as a gateway to anyone not used to the medium. It’s a series of interconnected glimpses into the lives of a motley crew on board an orbiting garbage disposal unit, set in the year 2070 or thereabouts, when mankind has made a little more progress in space travel. Over the course of 5 volumes, we see how the passage of time affects the daily lives of the astronauts, how their lives and those of the ones they love have intertwined, and the effect that a planned Jupiter Exploration has on them. It is the kind of manga that floats around in your brain after you have finished reading it, with a bewildering attention to detail and a penchant for capturing the exact texture of a moment in time. If you have read Ba/Moon’s Daytripper or Thompson’s Blankets, you know what I mean. It’s a shame it’s not available on the market at the moment, I wish someone like Vertical would bring it back in an Omnibus (they totally can, it’s Kodansha). I would probably buy it for everyone I know.

There is an anime based on the series. I know it’s good, from all the buzz I have heard about it, but I have to finish it some time. I stopped at 2 episodes the last time I started. Or you can read the manga online, for free.

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Manga

A few revelations about the Manga business

The other comics event this July was the Los Angeles Anime Expo, where I spent a glorious few days talking manga with knowledgeable, enthusiastic people, gaping at toys and action figures, and filling in holes in my collection with $1 manga blow-outs. The panels at the Expo were very accessible – no SDCC-level long lines or waiting times. I had the opportunity to talk a bit with Carl Horn, the editor of Dark Horse manga, and with Ed Chavez, publisher, Vertical, both being companies that rock my world with their fantastic titles. When chatting with them, I found out certain things that make me look at the whole business in a different way altogether.

  1. When I asked them the number of copies they should sell in order to be profitable, for a single volume, the number Carl gave me was 2500, and Ed said 3000. This is a stunningly low number in my opinion, to think that these great stories do not sell that many copies around the world. Yes, both companies have their superstar titles – Vertical had Tezuka’s Buddha and Kirihito; Gundam: The Origin and Chi’s Sweet Home, while DHM has Berserk, Gantz and Blade of the Immortal, among others. But the number of buyers for out-of-the-ordinary titles like Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service or Twin Spica or Hiroshi Endo’s Eden is painfully low.
  2. Long-running series are hit the worst, as the number of readers slowly degrade over time and the number of volumes. Dark Horse deals with this by limiting the number of releases of slow-selling titles to one per year, while Vertical refuses to handle long-running series (any series that is beyond 4 or 5 volumes). One exception so far for Vertical is the Gundam: Origin series, which have been pre-order hits. But that is to be explained away by the fact that the Gundam franchise is a juggernaut.
  3. Picking a new series to license involves a complicated algorithm. Vertical has working relationships with certain Japanese companies such as Tezuka Productions and Kodansha. The latter has its own US publishing arm, after having licensed some of its heavy-hitters to other US companies in the past – Akira to Epic and Dark Horse for example.  Vertical’s relationship with others companies like Akita Shoten, Shogakukan and Shueisha is non-existent.
  4. Kodansha nowadays publishes its popular titles (Attack on TitanAkira) themselves, and license titles like Drops of God to Vertical.
  5. Vertical lost money on GTO: The Early Years (or Shonan Junai Gumi) which was the prequel to the best-selling GTO manga published by Tokyopop. The latter went out of business a few years ago, leaving a bunch of licenses high and dry, a great number of titles out-of-print. Vertical picked up GTO Early Years from volume 10 onwards, where Tokyopop had left them unfinished. Sales were dismal, despite a good price-point and titles being released in two-volume omnibuses.
  6. Most of the Tezuka titles that Vertical has licensed will not be reprinted. This is because of an initiative by the Tezuka estate and the company Digital Manga Publishing, by which DMP owns rights to print all of Tezuka’s oeuvre in English digitally. Titles such as Black Jack and Princess Knight are already going out of print.
  7.  Vertical has tri-annual reader polls on what titles they should license from Japan. They have some conditions about which books they cannot publish – anything before 2000, no long series, no Go Nagai books, and no novels, because they have a long list of novels already. (They published Takeshi Kitano’s A Guru is Born, and Koji Suzuki’s Edge, which won the Shirley Jackson award this year)
  8. Dark Horse seems more focused on franchises that worked out well already, and creators associated with those franchises. They are about to publish Shin Kozure Okami, the sequel to Lone Wolf and Cub, along with more books by Clamp, Yashuhiro Nightow and Yoshitaka Amano. Titles such as Lone Wolf and Trigun are being rereleased in omnibus format.
  9. Long running DHP titles such as Blade of the Immortal and Gantz end soon, and it will be interesting to see what takes their place.
  10. Both Carl and Ed are very disappointed with the titles that did not work out. Twin Spica was licensed because it was a huge success in Japan, but fared much worse than Seven Billion Needles. The wine-themed Drops of God is a bestseller in France and Japan, but lost a lot of readers by volume 4, making it unfeasible to publish (it is up to 25+ volumes in France). Dark Horse could not complete the five-volume Satsuma Gishiden by Hiroshi Hirata, and Eden has been on hiatus for a long time (after 13 volumes published out of 18) despite getting rave reviews initially. Blood Blockade Battlefront, by Trigun creator Yashuhiro Nightow isn’t selling as expected either.
  11. Despite all this, there is a manga resurgence of sorts. More and more people are reading manga, and Josei titles like Utsubora and Moyoco Anno’s Sakuran are making their way to fans and readers.

The high-point of AX was getting to meet director Makoto Shinkai, director of Five Centimeters Per Second and The Garden of Words. Shinkai-san is much younger than I thought, and the line for his signing went around four corners of the gigantic lounge. A lesser person would have capped the line when he saw the crowd and that there were 20 minutes remaining, but Shinkai-san blazed through the line, saying “we can do it!”. I got my copy of the Five Centimeters manga signed. It was published by Vertical, but you knew that already, didn’t you?

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Conventions, Manga

San Diego post #1

(first in a series of posts about the SDCC experience this year, with random digressions)

Did not attend too many panels at San Diego this year, except for two back to back on Saturday evening. One with Jeff Smith and Terry Moore talking about comics and the indie scene in the 90s. It started slow, when both creators made jokes about not really understanding the point of the panel, but once it got going, there were great anecdotes about jumping into the comics business, how the comics market changed over the last few decades, and great memories of previous conventions.

And this is when my camera died.

And this is when my camera batterydied.

The second panel I attended was a Best of/Worst of Manga 2013, where some of my favorite manga correspondents talked about series they liked and disliked. (It was great to be able to put faces to familiar names, like Shaennon Gaerrity, David Brothers, Brigid Alverson and Chris Butcher, and saying hello to Deb Aoki) Knew (and cheered) most of the series mentioned, and made note of the ones I did not. Funny moments included Attack on Titan and Heart of Thomas appearing in both “Best of” and “Worst of” sections. Deb made a compelling case for why Attack works and does not. Brigid was unafraid to knock on Moto Hagio a bit, even as Shannon vehemently disagreed. Much fun. You can read details here.

When the panel ended, I asked some of the panelists a question that had been bothering me the last day. Aditya Gadre had asked me on Twitter about what  title he should start reading if he wants to get into manga. My standard response to that is to figure out what kind of books and movies the person likes, instead of thrusting whatever is the core “best-of” list. He said he was a Neil Gaiman/Alan Moore fan, which got me really worked up about suggestions. And since San Diego was on, why not go to the Recommendation Mothership?

Chris took about 5 seconds to recommend Pluto, which I had thought about but dismissed because I felt it was kind of like giving Watchmen to someone who has not read superheroes. A lot of the charm of Watchmen comes from recognizing how Moore subverts familiar superhero tropes, and similarly, you enjoy the beats in Pluto much more if you have a working knowledge of the original Astro Boy stories on which it was based, and a decent knowledge of the characters in that universe. I stopped reading Pluto myself around volume 2, made sure I reread ‘The Greatest Robot on Earth’, and enjoyed the story much much more. But Naoki Urasawa is a fantastic writer/artist, and Pluto is really one of those series that is a perfect combination of art and story, without any of the manga tropes that pisses off non-manga readers.

Pluto

It’s more fun when you know who the kid is

Deb took some time to come up with two choices – Black Lagoon, which I agreed with but was a little skeptical about the bad-girl violence, and Dorohedoro, which I heartily agreed with. Black Lagoon is about a band of mercenaries called the Lagoon company, operating somewhere in South-East Asia. The story begins with them kidnapping a young Japanese salaryman who ends up joining them, and the series is an excellent mixture of no-holds-barred, stylish action mixed with moments of quiet contemplation about the nature of crime, killing and existence. Dorohedoro is a series I read a few months ago, about a man with a reptile head who fights wizards from another dimension, and this has to be the most underwhelming explanation of one of the most fascinating manga I have read in recent times. It has laugh-out-loud humor and strange secrets-behind-secrets, even as Q Hayashida, the lady who writes and draws this series, slowly draws back the curtains on both the wizard and human worlds. It is also a series where you would be hard-pressed to take sides.

Two of the bad-ass ladies of Black Lagoon

Two of the bad-ass ladies of Black Lagoon

dorohedoro

The zany cast of Dorohedoro

 

Brigid suggested Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (to which Deb and I both agreed). It’s about a bunch of graduates who start their business – of talking to the recently-dead and carrying out their last wishes. Each of them has a special power, like talking to the dead, or embalming, or mad computer skills. Which sounds kind of cliche, I know, but it is very very entertaining and also really creepy at times.

The_Kurosagi_Corpse_Delivery_Service

I love the cover design for the series.

The only problem with all these titles mentioned above (except Pluto) is that they are all ongoing series. Lagoon has been on hiatus for sometime, Dorohedoro is seeing steady publication, while Kurosagi is published once a year.

Other books that I thought of, which are a little more stand-alone:

Domu by Katsuhiro Otomo. Best-known for the phenomenal Akira, this was the horror-fantasy title that got Otomo noticed. A creepy story about a telekinetic showdown between an old man and a young girl in an apartment complex.

Death Note. 11 volumes. One of the most well-known manga out there, and is delightfully over-the-top sometimes and yet so compelling.

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Manga, TV Shows

Watching: Attack on Titan

Shingeki no Kyoujin

Sometimes, buzz just gets to you. I heard about Attack on Titan from at least 5 different sources over the last month. About how people were watching a dozen episodes in one sitting, how the manga is the next big shonen blockbuster and how it pushes boundaries in terms of graphic content (the Eating-humans-alive-and-spraying-blood-everywhere kind, not the Will Eisner kind), for a title aimed at teenagers. Then I went to Anime Expo and found out that there were AoT cosplayers galore. I sat next to one at a panel I was attending, and while making conversation, asked him if the series is really getting better as it progresses. “It’s good enough”, he said.

This could only mean one thing – anime marathon. One lazy Sunday later, my thoughts about the series:

  1. 13 episodes are out, with 11 remaining from the season. I cannot wait! And I am giving myself reasons to not start the manga, because I am sure it will spoil the anime for me. But it’s haaaaaard.
  2. Giants are the new zombies! I am stretching things a bit too much here, but with Jack and Pacific Rim, and now this (it’s going to be a live-action film soon), I get the feeling that pop culture winds blow in that direction, now that we are done bleeding the shuffling dead and the bloodsuckers. Giants have always been played (at least in recent times) as bumbling behemoths that can be incapacitated by resilient humans, but using them as cause for mankind’s extinction is a concept that is only beginning to be explored.
  3. The characters are a little too high-strung for my taste, especially the lead Eren Jaeger. When Eren is not yelling at the top of his voice at every single situation, he’s busy being intense and angsty about life.  Maybe it says something about my expectations from a shonen series, that I expect moments of lightness to bookmark the intense scenes. But the arc until episode 13 (The Battle of Trost) just builds up the tension steadily. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but I feel somewhat lost minus minimal ecchi or slapstick. It’s me, I know. (Oh well, you could argue that Sasha Braus provides the comedy, but come on, it’s not what I meant, you know it!)
  4. Story-wise, the series does live up to the hype. At this point, it is hard to pin down the themes of the manga. Lots of intriguing “hints” are dropped about the world at large. We have not seen society within Wall Sina. Levy, from the Recon Corps is a bad-ass whose story arc looks like it will be very important going ahead. Unexplained events – Eren’s father’s involvement, Eren’s own past, the mysterious disappearance of the Armored Titan on Wall Rose, the origins of the kyoujin. Is it political drama? Is it a military sagaOr It could be played as just dystopian horror. The body-count is staggering in the first 13 episodes, and I have no doubt it gets worse.
  5. What I do not like was the fact that the shonen hero template of Eren follows Full Metal Alchemist a bit too much. Teenagers caught up in wars, and Eren becoming important not because he is an everyman but because he’s his father’s son. What I do like is the combination of the core trio – Eren, Mikasa and Armin, and how they seem to complement each other’s skills. For this is truly the hallmark of a good shonen series – characters that evolve and learn from each other, and from circumstances around them. And I love the 3D-Maneuver Gear. It’s a bitch to cosplay with them, but the visual concept is brilliant and very Spider-man-esque.
  6. Aditya on Twitter asked me what I thought about the fact that the giant-killing machines in Pacific Rim are called ‘Jaegers’. Del Toro is co-writer of the screenplay. Del Toro is also the man who is optioning the manga Monster as an HBO series, which supports the assumption that the man knows his Japanese comics. Hell, the whole kaiju concept comes from Japanese movies. HOWEVER, the idea for PR (according to the Wiki entry) came about in 2007, AoT started in 2009. I am going with coincidence, or maybe a sly reference at the script-rewrite stage.

All in all can’t wait to see more of this series.

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