Monday, October 08, 2012

Four short-ish reviews of four books I haven't much to say about:

The Flowers of Evil Vol. 2 (Vertical; 2012) The first volume of Shuzo Oshimi's intense high-school humiliation psycho dramedy ended with a pretty potent cliffhanger—Nakamura blackmails Kausga into wearing Saeki's stolen gym clothes underneath his own clothes while on a date with Saeki—so I was pretty excited to see where it went next. And I wasn't disappointed, although I was more than a little surprised to see that Oshimi was able to to continually amp up the level of anxiety and wring more and more suspense out of this truly bizarre triangle of characters—often in very unexpected ways (I laughed aloud when I saw how Nakamura handled Kasuga confessing his feelings for Saeki at the end of their date).

The solution to Kausga's problems seems fairly simple to me—forget your dream girl and go for the crazy, perverted girl who is obviously obsessed with you—but then, the characters in manga never seem to pursue the most simple solutions that seem so obvious to us readers. Particularly where love and romance are concerned (And, of course, Nakamura does seem crazy in a scary, sometimes emotionally sadistic way).

One of the many things Oshimi does extremely well in these comics is capture and convey the operatic intensity that accompanies hormone-fueled experience of any kind with the opposite sex.

Take, for example, this scene where Kasuga notices he can see the tiniest corner of Saeki's bra, and reacts by...totally freaking the fuck out.
This volume actually has a cliffhanger the equal of that at the conclusion of the first volume, climaxing in a beautifully-drawn, epic act of vandalism that leaves two of the characters panting and spent. What's the morning after that going to be like? I can't wait to find out.

Also! More talk of shitbugs!
I kind of love when Nakamura yells at Kasuga, in large part because of how weird the things she shouts at him sound, perhaps because of their translation from Japanese to English, and perhaps simply because she's a teenager and teenagers say dumb shit sometimes, or perhaps just because Oshimi is awesome, and writes awesomely weird insults.
(Note: Though they may look it, those two panels above aren't consecutive ones; they're just the two panels in the whole book where Nakamura insults Kasuga in the funniest ways)

Foiled (First Second; 2010) If I've counted correctly, I believe Jane Yolen has written somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion prose fiction books, so I suppose it was only a matter of time before she wrote a graphic novel. This is the graphic novel she wrote, which is drawn by the extremely talented Mike Cavallaro.

It's about a slightly alienated and normally angsty teenage girl highly devoted to the sport of fencing and to playing role-playing games with her cousin, a teenage girl whose life gets a little more dramatic and then a lot more dramatic when two new things enter her life: A new practice foil with a fake-looking gem-stone at the bottom of the hilt, and a very handsome but slightly off new boy at her school.

Yolen's story and characters are very YA, and the set-up and pay-off fairly obvious, but the structure is unique and fairly clever (each chapter reflects a part of a fencing match), and while she hammers various fencing-to-life metaphors, the blows all land.

Cavallaro gets an "illustrated by" credit instead of...something else, so it's difficult to tell just how much he did when it came to putting the book together, but I suspect an awful lot: This doesn't read like an experienced prose writer toying with a comics-format, it just reads like a very professional graphic novel put together by people who know exactly what they're doing (Of course, First Second isn't exactly known for poor comics or anything).

While our heroine narrates, there are several passages that are extremely effective comics-only ones (that is, one doesn't need the narrator around to walk us through what's going on—and Yolen and Cavallaro do a pretty swell job of making this story into one that would only work in comics, the mark of any really excellent comic book.

Wizard of Oz-like, the "real" world is black-and-white (the protagonist is colorblind), but the visitors from another plane to our world, fantasy creatures of the sorts that populate the RPGs played in the comic, are in brilliant primary colors.

The book ends rather—I'd even say very, maybe even extremely—abruptly, but that's likely because it's meant to continue into future volumes. And, a quick peek at Amazon reveals Curses! Foiled Again was released in January. I oughta look for that. You oughta look for this, if you haven't already.

Our Valued Customers: Conversations from the Comic Book Store (Perigree Trade; 2012) Rather than listening to me try to explain it over the course of the next paragraph, you could always click to cartoonist Tim Chamberlin's and simply take a look at his work for yourself. If you're reluctant to go all that way out of your way and, like, push a button, I'll give it a shot.

Our Valued Customers is basically just an overheard in the comics shop feature, with Chamberlin finding a funny quote someone said, sticking it in a dialogue bubble, drawing that bubble over a caricature and sticking that caricature in a panel, with a short, punchy narration box setting up the gag.

Each is pretty similar. The box will read something like "Regarding a Thor Poster..." or "To His Mom..." or "Before Paying For a Spider-Man Comic..." The characters Chamberlin draws are all big-headed, pointy-fingered and rarely appealing. They generally have overbites, big, wide mouths—presumably because that's where they breathe out of—and flecks of spittle. Certain signifiers regarding age and style will be drawn around them. None of them look like poster men, women or children advertising the attractiveness of people who read comic books.

What's interesting about the comics, to me anyway, is how beautifully they stand alone, and the wide variety of points-of-view. Sometimes they say something really stupid, yes; often times about comics or some related form of nerd pop culture, other times something stupid that has nothing to do with comics or the comics shop (although the fact that they are comics-readers saying it in a comics shop does reflect back on the medium, industry, market and its participants in some ways, even if only faintly). And sometimes they say things that are genuinely clever and funny.

Like the above, maybe my favorite of the half-dozen or so strips in this book collection that I really liked. That one stuck with me, and whenever I think about it, I start to giggle a little, imagining teenage Bruce Wayne inventing this elaborate cover story and that becoming so committed to his lie that he finds himself backed into a corner and he basically has to become Batman. And...well, never mind all that.

Tone is hard to read into some of these, particularly the funnier ones. That is, it' shard to tell if the person was joking when they said something or if they were serious, as Chamberlin's artwork generally makes the speakers look like the sort of folks that couldn't be ironic or sarcastic when saying some of the dumb things they say. Not that it ultimately matters, of course.

Regardless of how you might feel about the presentation, the artwork or the cumulative effect, if you've spent any amount of time in a comics shop, you will enjoy some of Chamberlin's comics. You'll laugh, as many are amusing in the "it's funny because it's true" kind of way. And hell, maybe you'll then weep, as many are depressing in the "it's sad because it's true" kind of way, too.

Spider-Man: Spider Island (Marvel; 2012) When Marvel first started soliciting this Amazing Spider-Man story arc, I was intrigued by the simple but clever premise (everyone in New York gets Spider-Man's powers) and the timely delivery mechanism for those powers (bed-bugs). I was confident in the skills of the creative team of writer Dan Slott and artist Humberto Ramos, two creators whose particular talents are ideally suited to Marvel's wise-cracking adventure hero.

But I was also intimidated by the indeterminate size and scope of the storyline, and pretty alienated by the "One More Day" Spider-Man continuity reboot that shook up everything I thought I knew about Spider-Man and made it different, just because.

Well, it turns out I pre-judged it pretty well.

The storyline is gargantuan, being collected into two 400-ish page hardcovers (the above-mentioned one, featuring material from the Slott/Ramos/Other Artists issues of ASM and tie-in issues of Venom and some ASM-branded tie-in material, and Spider-Man: Spider-Island Companion, containing all of the tie-in material from miniseries, one-shots and other monthlies). It's a very thorough collection, but the reading experience involved a lot of stopping and starting (the book begins with short, several-page prequel stories that apparently ran in the back of previous issues of ASM...?) and, particularly when the Rick Remender/Tom Fowler Venom issues appeared, ground would be retreated over and re-covered, as the different creative teams would tackle major plot points from different perspectives. The inclusion of the specials also meant narrative hallways, dead-ends and cul de sacs were carved out.

It was a weird reading experience, but not necessarily a bad one. The plot is just the one I described above, with a major Spider-Man villain from the past originally cast as the bad guy, before it's revealed he's actually a sub-ordinate to another villain (whom I had never heard of). Their plan is to turn everyone in New York City into giant spider-monsters they can control, and our hero has to try to stop them with the help of Marvel's other heroes (and, behind the scenes, the new Flash Thompson-possessed, gun-toting, black-ops version of Venom) while dealing with all the chaos that naturally ensues when everyone in Manhattan gets spider-powers.

It was pretty surprisingly laden with continuity (the reboot from a few years back didn't clear the cobwebs off of Spidey's 50-year-long story, just reorganized random elements), with heroes and villains and supporting characters appearing from old, relatively minor stories of ancient Spider-Man past, the much-maligned "Clone Saga" storyline and, of course, the then-current ASM status quo.

I like looking at Ramos drawings of stuff, and there's a lot of stuff for him to draw in here. I was lost on a lot of plot-points that seemed like they would have been bigger deals if I had read all the same comics that Dan Slott had read, but, at the same time, it was kind of fun experiencing reveals as random occurrences. It was a very old-school comics-reading feeling, like buying a continuity-heavy "universe" superhero comic off a drug store rack and joining a story in-progress. Remember that? Not having any idea what the hell was going on, exactly, but still kind of digging it?

I think Marvel sacrificed coherency and aesthetic unity for completion with this particular packaging job. In short, none of the artists draw much of anything like one another; Ramos draws most of the important parts, but Stefano Caselli comes in for much of the climax, and the Venom pieces and many of the digressive stories are all by different artists.

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