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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Comic Art

Limpin’

“Your blog is dead, man”, a friend says to me this morning. I respond with an emoticon, the most antiseptic response I can venture at this observation. He’s right, and he’s wrong.

So what really has been going on this year?

It’s not like I don’t feel like writing about things in my life. But it’s so hard to start talking without, I dunno, a pivot. An Archimedean place to stand on when I move a world of words out from my head onto the page. When I switched from Live-journal to this blog, after a similar extended hiatus in 2007, I wrote down a hundred points about myself. That exercise in vanity got my brain – well, at least the part that refused to get away from the gluttonous lifestyle of single-minded consumption – out on the metaphorical blog treadmill. That post and the ones that followed in the first few weeks were it gasping but limping along bravely,  heedless of its lizard sibling’s screams of dismay. And after a while, obviously, it took on momentum, finding typing fodder in the most innocuous of life-events. It got to the point where I was on the brink of – gasp – actually writing something about my feelings and not just Things and Stuff and AwesomeCoolMindbendingActsOfMaterialism.

What usually happens then is that someone I know in real life makes a reference to my writing, interpreting the content in a way that tells me that they think they know more about me than I am letting on. Then I stop, because fuck you, you don’t know me just because I blogged about something. This perilous slip into self-consciousness affects the blatheriness of my blather, know what I mean? I think I like writing better when no one’s looking. I would keep a diary but, ugh, paper.

AND ALSO. This is what happens when I want to write – I find out it’s been done. For example: I bought an Alphonse Mucha print from a thrift shop in San Jose recently. (Isn’t it great that all my conversation-starters are about buying things? I mean, 12 years of this blog and my schtick hasn’t changed, though many other things about me have. I see those hundred things I wrote about and stifle a hollow laugh.) We had a great breakfast, two of my friends and I, after visiting a comic shop they knew about in the area. We decided to take a walk in Downtown San Jose, mostly to window-shop around the book and antique stores that I had noticed when parking the car. So I saw this gigantic framed Mucha print in the store window. It said “$100” next to it, and I was tempted. The frame itself was a work of art, and the piece in question – which I later found out was called ‘La Trappistine’ – had everything one might want in a Mucha print. A gorgeous woman, a great Q-design (I will get to that in a bit), wonderful iconography, curlicue lettering – the works.

Except the shop was closed.

I tend to look at the brighter side of things in situations like this. “Ha, I saved myself $100”, I said. My friends offered to come pick it up later, but I knew that I would start giving myself a lot of reasons not to spend money. So I passed by, walked them toward their place, and doubled back to my car. Longingly glanced at the Mucha again when I saw movement inside the store. Someone was inside! I waved, she waved back, and brought up a sign that she was writing on. It said “50% off all items”.

Long story short, 15 minutes later (because of the walk to an ATM nearby), I was hauling a rather heavy frame back to my car. I had no idea of when it was printed – pretty sure it was not an original late 19th century print, but it was just what I wanted.

And obviously it went up on the wall.

And obviously it went up on the wall.

So that got me to thinking about why I had stumbled onto Mucha’s art in the first place, and I realized that it was – obviously – comics. I believe I had read an interview by Adam Hughes about his art nouveau influences way back when, and got around to looking up the Czech artist’s work and realized that his influence on the comic-book/illustration world was formidable. Everyone from Terry Moore to Tony Harris, JH Williams to JM Linsner, Joe Quesada to Michael Kaluta have done their share of cover and interior designs inspired by Mucha’s distinctive flora-based border patterns and soft color palette.

(On an aside, check out this set of Wolverine Art Appreciation covers from 2009, where a bunch of covers featuring the Marvel character were all inspired by great paintings and painterly styles.)

So I thought of doing a post on Mucha’s influence on comics, talking about how his work is the right kind of eye-candy to be appropriated in comics. On how the commercial aspect of his work is echoed by the (somewhat) assembly-line driven work done in comics, where the intent of the cover is to grab the reader’s attention by pushing just the right aesthetic buttons.

But of course, I did some looking around, and found out that someone beat me to it. Link to a paper called Alphonse Marie Mucha: Posters, Panels … and Comic Books? by Brandon Bollom and Shawn McKinney of the University of Texas, which talks about all of the above and in much greater detail than I would have, obviously.

Mucha - Lefevre-Utile biscuits.

The first Mucha I owned is this image on tin, from a flea market in Amsterdam. It now hangs in a friend’s living room.

 

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Comics, Manga, Reviews

Great Teacher Onizuka: A Review

This was originally published in Rolling Stone India, November 2009. Dusted and put up here because I plan to do a mega-reread of the series in the next few days.

Writer/Artist: Tohru Fujisawa
Publisher: Tokyopop
Rating: Four and a half stars

Meet Eikichi Onizuka, a bottom-rung university graduate (barely), whose primary interests are peering up girls’ skirts at local malls and getting into trouble – not mutually exclusive activities, those two. But fate has different plans in store for virginity-challenged young Eikichi – circumstance makes him leave his delinquence behind him and opt for a new career, that of an educator. Eikichi Onizuka, 22 years old, sets out to become Great Teacher Onizuka, the greatest sensei in Japan. His mission: to make school fun again. His secondary mission – getting to fourth base with someone. Anyone.

That is the premise behind this beloved shonen manga series, that traces Onizuka’s explosive – and often ludicrous – adventures in teaching. At first glance, it seems humanly impossible for a man of his calibre to really do much with his career choice. He cheated his way through his own academic career, seemingly has an IQ of 50, and the only legitimate qualification on his misspelled resume is that he has secured a second dan black belt in karate. He is perverted, being more than a little obsessed with young girls and their underwear. And he lets his fists do the talking most of the time. The first arc of the series establishes how Onizuka, beating all these odds, manages to get through a teacher training course at a public school and becomes a temporary teacher in the Holy Forest Academy, a prestigious private institute. He is put in charge of Class 3-4, whose students have terrorized the previous three home-room teachers into ending their careers – one committed suicide, another developed an eating disorder. It would take a very foolhardy, or a very determined educator to take up the responsibility of cleaning the school’s Augean stables.

But determination is what Onizuka has in spades. “You are a cockroach”, one of his students shrieks at him with disgust, right after the would-be teacher pops up where he wasn’t really supposed to. This analogy echoes throughout the series. Like a cockroach, Onizuka wiggles himself into his students’ lives even as they hurl expletives at him and threaten (and often perpetrate) violence against his self. Just as a cockroach skitters away from all attempts to stomp it out, our hero manages to best all the traps his devilish students cook up – from publishing morphed porno pictures of Onizuka to having him framed for embezzling money from student funds. And slowly, one by one, our hero wins them over using a combination of his perversely inappropriate world-view and his incredible physical prowess.

All long-running series by single creators run into similar teething issues – an initial rush of heady ideas that slowly slides into a predictable graph of highs and lows, where the creator struggles not only to find the voice, but to etch out a character’s life-story in a way that builds on its premise, instead of stagnating into repetitive cliche. Maintaining the momentum of a series, without over-stretching a story-line is a tough call. It would have been very easy for writer/artist Tohru Fujisawa to stumble. The second arc, that of the students being set straight by the teacher, resolutely avoids falling into the trap. Sure, it is long, but there are two aspects in which Fujisawa scores top of the manga-ka class (if you will pardon the school-based metaphor) – the delineation of the individual characters that make up the Onizukaverse. Every student in the class has a unique personality, a standalone voice which makes the reader identify with them. Partly because they are there in every classroom in any school in the world – the quiet, shy video-game-playing geek who is bullied at every turn; the computer whiz who knows more than he lets on; the headstrong yet confused loud-mouth who takes offence at minor quips; a girl whose parents are influential bureaucrats, a fact that she uses to her advantage; another with a dark secret involving a previous teacher. Sure, they are all genre archetypes, but it is Fujisawa’s genius that breathes new, fresh life into them.

The second thing that elevates the series to greatness is the sheer unpredictability of the central character. Eikichi Onizuka is a man of hidden surprises, whose heart of gold is matched only by his complete irreverence and lack of respect for authority. Early on in his career, Onizuka figures out that he really loves teaching, and he takes it on himself to be the kind of teacher that his generation did not have. At the crux of every decision Onizuka makes, however frivolous and played-for-laughs it seems to be, there is an important life-lesson that he imparts to his students. But Onizuka being the way he is, any attempt to take him seriously usually backfires, with hilarious results.

In addition to changing the way his students feel towards school, Onizuka also takes on the strict authoritarians that make up the faculty of Holy Forest Academy. His primary whipping-dog being the perennially grumpy Vice-Principal Uchiyamada – a running gag involves the Vice-Principal’s Toyota Cresta. The third arc of the series, in particular, involves a final stand against a new Principal who ousts the support of Chairman Sakurai, whose tacit approval had made a large part of Onizuka’s brushes with authority seem minor in the past.

Great Teacher Onizuka made me laugh, it had me gasping with incredulity, it made me come up with excuses to avoid work just so I could tear through the twenty-five volumes as soon as I could. It is not without its faults – a great deal of fan-service persists throughout the story, and let’s face it – if you have seen To Sir With Love and Munnabhai MBBS, you realize that the premise of GTO is hardly original. But even with all its over-the-top antics, it’s not just a fine comedy series, but also a drama that’s an indictment of the pettiness that afflicts today’s education system. It’s a scathing denouncement of self-serving, vainglorious modern-day teachers for whom teaching is nothing more than a way to make money, rather than the life-altering position it is meant to be. Hey, it made me want to go back to school, and that’s quite something!

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Comics, Reviews

Pop Culture Update: Locke and Key

One of the genuinely distressing news of 2011 was the failure of the pilot episode of Locke and Key to be picked up for regular programming. This is bad for three reasons – because Locke and Key is one of the finest comic-books being published right now, and the success of the TV show would have no doubt brought in more readers to the series (consider how many people have read Game of Thrones this year, to get an idea of what I mean). Because from what I gather off internet reviews, the pilot episode is really well-made, with superb casting and a great script. But most of all, it sucks because a lot of shitty TV series got green-lighted at the cost of this. Seriously, makes no sense.

But still, the comic stands on its own. It is written by Joe Hill,  a man who, under normal circumstances, be known as Stephen King’s son; but right now, he’s known as the guy behind ground-breaking  genre novels such as Horns and Heart-Shaped Box. It is drawn by Chilean artist Gabriel Rodriguez. Together, the two are magical. This book happens to be one of the most perfect collaborations I’ve seen, where the art enhances the story and vice versa.

Among the things that I love about Locke and Key is that it’s among the most structured comics I’ve read. Not a wasted, throw-away chapter, page or panel on this one. It helps that the story was already planned out into three acts, each act made up of 2 miniseries. This ensures that Hill knows exactly how his story is being framed, giving us just the right amount of information, teasing us with flashbacks and tertiary characters that flicker into the overall plot at the right time. Currently, we are on miniseries #5, entitled Clockworks, where the mythology of the world is being explained by a series of flashbacks. Which brings me to –

The fact that Locke and Key is one of those rare horror comics that gets horror. Which is not surprising, considering Hill’s literary antecedents. But really, do you have any idea how hard it is to do horror in comics without falling back into icky-gore-territory or ho-hum-shock-ending cliches? This book manages to creep into your head in strange ways – through childhood fears, unexpected plot twists, and by a genuinely frightening Big Bad Villain, one that manages to stay one step ahead of the protagonists at nearly every turn.

The first miniseries, Welcome to Lovecraft, introduces us to the principal cast of characters, the Locke family and the three siblings – eldest brother brother Ty, the sister Kinsey and the youngest, six-year old Bode. The death of their father brings them and their mother to their ancestral family home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, where strange things begin to happen. Bode, for example, finds a strange lady calling for his help from beneath a well. This is also where we start understanding that the tragedy that has befallen the family is not a random incident, but is connected to keys. Keys that do stuff, like turning Bode into a ghost. Or letting people go anywhere they want, or doing distressing things to their psyches.

Finally, Locke and Key is one smart comic that brings unexpected things to the fore on repeated reads. Small example: the second volume is entitled Head Games, and all the covers have a common theme.

In case the image on the right looks a little familiar, here’s why – it’s a riff on an iconic cover from the 1950s that was used by the US Senate to ban horror and crime comics. This particular cover was printed by EC Comics, run by publisher William Gaines, who founded Mad magazine later on. There is this legendary story of Gaines trying to defend this cover as tasteful in court. He did not do a good job of it – in his defense, he was completely doped up on cough medicine when invited to testify.

Oh, and the college the Locke kids go to in San Francisco, before they move to Lovecraft? William Gaines Academy. Ha!

But the smartness lies not just in homages or sly winks at the audience – the smartness lies in the way Hill seems to know exactly when to let certain characters take center-stage, or to subvert a known trope at just the right time, or to let a throwaway part of the scenery become a crucial cog in the battle between good and bad. The two, writer and artist, seem to have fun when telling their story, and that fun is infectious! One of my favorite single issues deals with epic battles and mundane day-to-day affairs, and there are those single-panel settings that hide worlds and untold stories in them, the kind that would make lesser writers milk them through crossovers and back-stories. Hill and Rodriguez do it in single wordless panels, the magnificent bastards!

All said and done, what is the series all about? It helps that every chapter starts with a one-page cheat-sheet, that tells you the bare bones of what’s going on and where we stand.

Locke and Key, ladies and gentlemen. The best fucking comic being published right now, BAR NONE. It helps if you get all the chapters and read them at one go, because every miniseries ends with cliff-hangers. And these are not your everyday, how-do-they-get-out-of-this-level cliffhangers, these are the holy-shit-this-did-not-just-fucking-happen kinds, the ones that make you grab for the next book in the series at 4 AM in the morning, even though your eyes are puffy and you’ve got to be at work at 9.

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Comics

Comics you should not read: Shadowland.

Once every 6 months, I get that urge again. The need to sit my ass down with a pile of the latest in buzzword comics that I keep hearing about.

Buzzword comics, you ask?

Blackest Night. Shadowland. Siege. Dark insert-Marvel-title-here. Flashpoint. Final Crisis.

You know, the kind of stuff mainstream comics still keeps putting out, probably hoping that their latest offering will cause hordes of unbelievingly masses – the kind of sinners that do not read comics at all, or worse, read those fancy graphic novelly titles, or horror of horrors – manga – will suddenly discover a copy of Dark Avengers (not to be confused with Dark New Avengers, or Dark Mighty Avengers) in the spinner rack of their local bookstore. And then their eyes will pop and their hearts would beat faster, when they realize what they have been missing all along, at which point they burn their copies of Strangers in Paradise and Azumanga Daioh, and spend the rest of their lives finding out every single issue where the Avengers have appeared in, just so  they can understand Dark Avengers completely.

Yes, I probably went overboard with the sarcasm. But seriously?

Fuck. This. Shit.

My latest incursion into this buzzword comics mess was something called Shadowland. All I knew about it was that it deals with Daredevil being more and more miserable, which has kind of been the theme of every Daredevil comic since 1979 (incidentally, I was born that year. That does not relate to anything I am saying right now, but just thought I would put it out there.) Apparenly this is what happened – Daredevil suddenly figures out that he owns The Hand. Which sounds vaguely dirty, but what we’re referring to here is a medieval group of ninjas that’s been a thorn in Murdock’s path ever since Franky Miller did things his way, mashing up Hell’s Kitchen with repeated readings of Lone Wolf and Cub. Ninjas in the Marvel universe, just so you know, refer to human-looking characters that jump off rooftops and then die. They are also known for talking in genre-speak – the way someone from India thinks  a waitress’s speech patterns by watching True Blood, or an writer from the USA thinks a Ninja would sound like. Or, to put it more simply, Ashok Banker’s writing. Kind of like this.

 

Something as badly-written as Shadowland does not even require the kind of effort I am putting into explaining it, but let me see if I can break it down easily.

Everybody thinks there is a problem.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes, there is a problem. P.S The costume is now black.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Stop! Hammer-time! (Nothing like a fight sequence for plot development)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It's not his fault. He's just possessed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Japanese Hangover Part 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh yeah, and somewhere in the story, just to show how dark and edgy Daredevil has become, this happens.

Bazinga!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yes. Nothing that says ‘serious comics’ like a big fat kill.

There’re a bunch of tie-in books too, like every self-respecting crossover title should have. Needless to say, they add nothing to the story except for some more convoluted posturing of various characters who nobody would give a shit about. Moon Knight? Power Man?

I hate to think that there are people paying for this crap, or that there will be actual paper wasted to reprint these books as hardcovers and then trade paperbacks. That a bunch of ‘creative’ people still get together to come up with storylines like this, and there are editors who allow dialog and plot twists like this to tell a story, in this Age of Postmodern Irony, shows a lack of storytelling sense 101. Rating: 4 stars, out of a possible 4000.

 

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