Phoenix volumes 10 and 11
When you're dealing with a visionary like Osamu Tezuka or Charles Schulz or Jack Kirby or whoever, it's easy to get lost in the meta. The creator's impact on successive generations of cartoonists, the relationship of a particular work to the creator's larger oeuvre, the way the creator changed the industry he or she worked in, the impact on culture beyond comics--this is all fascinating, important stuff. I like to read articles and reviews that take that sort of approach. But sometimes, when a creator is so important to his or her field, I kind of forget about the quality of their actual work. And then, when you least expect it, you're casually flipping through a book or reading a blog or something, and WHAM! a reminder of how great the cartoonist is hits you right in the face.
Thankfully, we live in an opulent, reprint-intense age which affords ample opportunities to remind oneself of the quality of the medium's greatest creators. Sun, stretched across these two volumes, is as striking a reminder of Tezuka's brilliance as you'll ever find. Every page offers something to savor--beautiful linework, bold storytelling, peerless cartooning, clever character designs, compelling composition. I don't think there was anything more visually arresting published in 2007--and a lot of beautiful comics came out this year.
This is all in support of a story which puts many of Tezuka's pet themes and idiosyncrasies on display. The narrative goes back and forth between feudal Japan and a sci-fi future (which is our present, but it was Tezuka's future when he wrote this). Both story threads deal with conflicts emerging when the power of the state is enlisted in the aid of proselytizing a new religion. The feudal narrative shows various Japanese spirits (associated with what would eventually be called Shinto) in conflict with various incarnations of Buddha. And I mean that literally--they're actually fighting each other. Thrust into this battle is Korean refugee Harima, whose face has been replaced with that of a dog (I told you Tezuka's pet themes were prominent). Harima (or Inugami, as he's called later in the book) takes the side of the native spirits, putting him into conflict with the emperor, who's trying to force Buddhism on his subjects in order to consolidate power. Meanwhile, in the 21st century, war rages between "shadow people" and followers of the Church of Light. The latter have forced all nonbelievers literally underground, where the shadow people carry out acts of terrorism while plotting to return to the surface. The protagonist here is Suguru, a shadow agent tasked with stealing an artifact from the Church of Light.
Tezuka isn't exactly subtle about his message--at one point, a character explicitly says that the problem with religion is when it's paired with power. Which all sounds like a rather nuanced message; it's not that religion is bad per se, but it can be a dangerous when used by those who seek power. But Sun suggests a much more cynical understanding of religion beneath this sentiment. Every character who attains power seeks to use religion to his advantage, implying that religion and power are deeply intertwined. Furthermore, the ending of the book suggests a rejection of religion in favor of a more meaningful, personal spirituality that organized religion cannot provide. In fact, the protagonists achieve this state of spiritual harmony by escaping from the temporal world, where spirituality is tied to religion (and thus temporal power). It's not an entirely pessimistic message--Tezuka never argues that the struggle against oppression is meaningless--but it's certainly striking that liberators become oppressors in both threads of the narrative. Perhaps Tezuka is reminding us about the price of freedom is eternal vigilance or something like that.
This is a more traditional Tezuka story than the recent Vertical reprints, which means occasional talking animals who frequently break the fourth wall to comment on the narrative. I don't mind this so much, but others might find it distracting. There's also an element of cross-dressing in the story, but without all the weird sexual politics that marred MW. I did find the treatment of women in Sun to be a bit more positive than in other recent Tezuka reprints. Princess Tochi is pretty heroic, as is the otherwise nameless (yeah, I know) Old Woman. But, as in most of Tezuka's work, all the female characters are eventually sucked into the protagonists' charisma singularity. But that's true for most of the secondary male characters as well, though.
I'd highly recommend Sun to anyone interested in manga, Tezuka, or comics in general. Long after we're all dead, Tezuka will best be remembered for his tremendous influence on manga and anime. But his actual contributions as a writer and artist are just as formidable, and they're lying in wait to ambush you when you least suspect it. If you're unfamiliar with Tezuka, this is as good and accessible a starting point as any. And might I suggest you check out Jones' review of the volume of Phoenix immediately proceeding the ones reviewed here?
New Zuda comics
I know the 8 page limit is a beast to work around, especially given the circumstances at work here (providing a sample of a larger work in a format that will encourage people to vote for it in a contest). But some of the stuff here is paced really, really strangely. Like, in a totally rhythmless way. The worst offender was Ponkibi Z, which consistently spread the dialogue across panels in a way that I found terribly distracting. I think I understand what creator Alberto Rios was going for (breathless, asthmatic narration), but it didn't work. The transition from page 2 to 3 was especially clunky. There were similar problems in the otherwise well-crafted The Crooked Man, especially in the last few panels on the final page.
Despite these pacing issues, the comics mentioned above were by no means the worst of the lot. My least favorites were Development Hell and Pray For Death. The former is a gag-oriented strip about website development. I hate nerd meta-humor, and this was no exception. Even still, these jokes felt especially flat. I'm not sure that I can even identify a joke on page three. Pray For Death is about serial killers or something. I honestly couldn't make heads or tails of it--it's easily the least professional strip of the current batch, and probably the entire Zuda experiment. The art was bad, but I think the script was worse. The computerized lettering didn't help either. In fact, the computerized lettering was a distraction in nearly every strip I read. Please, future Zuda creators--pay more attention to your lettering! Choose a style that fits the tone of your comic!
The best of the bunch was easily Adventures of Maxy J Millionaire, by Paul Maybury, artist on the forthcoming Aqua Leung. I'm assuming this work predates what I've seen of Aqua Leung, since the latter shows a great deal more confidence and sophistication. Still, Maybury's art is pretty charming, as is the dialogue of the title character. Some might be reminded of Archer Prewitt's Sof'Boy, but this seems a bit gentler in tone. And let's face it, Sof'Boy appearances are few and far between. I'd definitely read this if it won.
In the category of not bad are the aforementioned The Crooked Man and the manga-influenced Word of Power. The Crooked Man is a period police drama, taking place in San Francisco days before the 1906 earthquake. Sounds promising, and there's a greater degree of craft on display here than in anything else I've seen from Zuda. I'd read more. Word of Power is little more than a vignette about a subway musician as it stands. It appears to take place in a future world somewhat similar to that in Phoenix: Sun (surface people vs. subterranean dwellers), but that's kind of secondary. The art was nice, if a little inconsistent. I'd probably file this under "interesting artist to look out for in the future" rather than "story I'd like to continue reading." We'll see.
Nothing else really grabbed me--more twists on superheroes, something about Frankenstein, and a stick figure comic about pirates that seemed to be trying way to hard. Overall, I thought the quality was a bit higher than the first go-round, which featured absolutely nothing of interest to me. I might even sign up to vote for Adventures of Maxy J Millionaire.
(Oh, and Heidi MacDonald linked to this comic, which was rejected by Zuda. I thought it was significantly better than anything I've read at Zuda, with the possible exception of Maybury's strip. And people in the comments at The Beat seem to agree! Good for that dude.)
The Order #4
Matt Fraction, Barry Kitson, others
I'm still really enjoying this comic. It's my favorite of all Fraction's Marvel work (including Iron Fist) and it's pretty close to the best superhero book being published today. But it's not quite there yet. Almost every issue has been framed by a different team member's interview when applying for the program. The theme is pretty interesting--these are all people who were heroes before they got their superpower, but now that they have it they're using it largely as a form of wish fulfillment. And the whole thing has a distinctive Southern California feel, from the local politicians to the backgrounds of all the heroes. Pretty clever.
As far as the action goes, there's some secret organization named SHADOW that's being set up as the antagonist for the series. That's kind of interesting, but I'm curious as to how it's going to tie into the book's larger themes. If it does, then this will end up being one hell of a comic. As it is, it's very good and definitely worth your time and money. New issue is out tomorrow, BTW.