Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Just before going to bed...

...I see this. Obviously I don't know who will be running the new Blog@Newsarama, but I have a hard time imagining that the new staff will provide the same breadth of coverage as I've come to expect from the departing Blogarama gang. It should be easy enough to replace some of the content there, particularly the fanboy- and Hollywood-oriented stuff*, but will the new Blog@Newsarama have the equivalent of a Chris Mautner? Hopefully yes, but I'm pretty skeptical. JK Parkin does promise some kind of Blogarama reunion early next year (Great Curve 2.0?), so at least we can look forward to that.

Anyway, in news related to this blog, work continues on my deliberations for the best comics of 2008. I've dug out all the books I could possibly consider among the best for this year, and I'll post a list of all the titles sometime in the next few days (possibly after Thanksgiving--another vegetarian starch-fest scheduled for this year!). I'm going to try to re-read as many of them as possible before making my list; I might blog my progress. Yeah, yeah, I know I'm spending about 200x the typical effort put into these things, but I find it a useful framework for making myself think harder about comics. Someone will probably read that last sentence and think, "isn't that antithetical to the whole comics-reading experience, these things are supposed to be fun, not deep, etc." But I say, have always said, and will always say: fuck those people.

*Not sure if it needs to be said, but I'm DEFINITELY NOT talking about Tom Bondurant here. I have to admit, though, that I've been skipping past his Trinity annotations because...uh, do I really have to finish that sentence? I'm sure they're good annotations and all but...Trinity, you know?

Monday, November 17, 2008

Short reviews

Gyo v. 1-2 (complete) by Junji Ito

I wanted to read this series when it was out of print, so I'm glad to see this new edition. The first volume is kind of funny, as I had heard would be the case. It's hard not to laugh at a shark scurrying through a house on little mechanical crab legs. But overall, it's a somewhat funny idea stretched to the point of tedium: there's only so many times you rely on an army of walking fish as sufficient spectacle to avoid having anything else happen. Especially since the protagonist's shrieky girlfriend was the only thing punctuating the monotonous fish-walking.

The second volume, however, is a lot more interesting, as the disease/parasite/evil spirit moves from fish to human, with absolutely disgusting results. The climax comes with a simultaneously ridiculous and horrifying circus performance. Shortly after this we get probably the most revolting image of the entire series, delivered in such an offhand way that it magnifies what would already be one of the most awful thing I've ever seen in a comic book. (And I mean "awful" in a non-pejorative way.)

There's some suggestion that unaffected humans are going to push back against the disease/whatever, and a few suggestions that there's a mystery afoot regarding immunity to the disease. But Ito chooses to end the story shortly after broaching these topics. It's an odd choice, but it's probably better to see him blow all his wild ideas in two volumes rather than try to stretch them out over 1000+ pages. It's kind of like a short Lovecraft story now, except that we're fortunate that Ito's art tells the story rather than Lovecraft's words. If Lovecraft had written Gyo, it would probably read something like this:

"The fish walked decayingly across the impractical and ugly bamboo floor. The human male Nipponese, being somewhat more sturdy of mind than his other mongolian cousins, found his mind a-disturbed by the loud spectacle. He put down his opium pipe and spake, 'Ah-so, meester fish. You-a want to wark in my hut? I put-a you in my berry! Wife number one? Bling me empty rice bag so I can catch this fish!' The piscene ambulator, unimpressed by this asiatic claptrap, matriculated along eldritchly."

Travel by Yuichi Yokoyama

I'll probably save my more detailed thoughts on this for my best of 2008 list (yes, work has commenced and Travel will be on it). For now, I'd like to point out how intimate this book is, at least when compared to last year's New Engineering. The latter was a surprisingly large book, its big pages filled with scenes of artificial landscape construction and battles between oddly dressed people, using things like books and the contents of a refrigerator as weapons. Travel is in a much smaller format, and its subject matter is totally relatable: a train trip. Jog's review suggests (somewhat facetiously?) that Yokoyama is a crypto-humanist. I actually found a surprising degree of humanity and hope in even New Engineering, and I see it even more clearly in Travel.

Bat-Manga by...uh, let's not get into that, actually

Finally got a chance to read this, and I have to say: I have no idea who's going to be buying this book for the non-manga stuff. I mean, I have a pretty good idea who Chip Kidd and Pantheon think will be buying this book: people whose domiciles are strewn with Batman: TAS maquettes, lithographs of Harley Quinn drawn by Alex Ross, the Absolute edition of Hush, etc. But here's the thing: obviously I haven't met everyone who fits this target demographic, but those who I do know have little interest in or patience for the 1960s TV Batman. And all the pictures of various Japanese Bat-toys all feature hilariously weird art based on Adam West's version of Batman.

Of course, there are undoubtedly completists who have sacrificed heroic portions of their lives and income collecting everything with a bat logo on it. Those people will love the pictures of amusing toy packaging. The problem here, however, is that those people (a) don't comprise a significant portion of the English-speaking populace, or even the potential audience for this book, and (b) probably would have preferred to have more of the toy stuff, possibly with an index/checklist. This is not to say they wouldn't enjoy the manga; it's more to say that they might have preferred two different books, one devoted to Japanese bat-ephemera, and another devoted to the manga by Jiro Kuwata.

If they're like me, they might also prefer better treatment for the Kuwata material. Here it's been presented as another type of ephemera, down to the high-resolution photographs of the pages which make the manga look like recently-exhumed papyrus scrolls. I usually like this approach, particularly as seen in the Chip Kidd-designed Jack Cole/Plastic Man book from a few years ago. Here, though, it's strangely fetishistic, as though the manga as an artifact of Japanese bat-mania is more important than the content of the work. But if that really were the case, why did Kidd include so much of it?

The obvious answer is that it's very good. It certainly beats the hell out of 99% of the Batman stories I've ever read, possibly because they don't read like typical American Batman stories. Instead, they almost bear a greater resemblance to EC comics, particularly those from the sci-fi and crime lines. Kuwata's Batman is infinitely less compelling than his villains; he mostly lends stability and a narrative framework to all these stories. I can't remember much about Batman from these comics, but Lord Death Man, a mutated governor, and a much creepier version of Clayface linger in my mind. It's an approach which reminds me a little of Fist of the North Star. Each episode of that series was ostensibly about Kenshiro's search for his fiancee or brothers or something, but the focus of any given episode was actually on the villain of the week, whose arms, legs, and/or head will inevitably explode in the big fight at the end of the episode. In between Kenshiro asking about his lost family members and the limb detonation sequence, we get to focus on each villain's baroque approach to evil--vampirism, military-themed torture, whatever. They were always more interesting than Kenshiro, and they all ended up dead or crippled by the end. In other words, they never came back.

That doesn't appear to be entirely the case here--Clayface makes two appearances--but, generally speaking, these seem to be one-off villains. It's such a fresh and interesting approach that it makes me wonder if superhero comics in North America would have benefited from a more diversely villain-centric approach. In any event, the manga sections of Bat-Manga are well worth your time, and maybe, hopefully, we'll see an actual archival reproduction of these comics one of these days.

Real v. 1 and Slam Dunk v. 1, both by Takehiko Inoue

Slam Dunk is kind of like the distillation of everything I loved about anime (didn't read manga at the time) when I was a teenager: angry-yet-romantic high school student struggles in an alien field to impress classmate. Hilarity ensues. This, of course, doesn't give Inoue nearly enough credit. Main character Hanamichi is the best possible shonen hero, a character whose monumental ambition is directly proportionate to his equally monumental delusion; whose interest in the BIG SELF IMPROVEMENT GOAL is predicated on entirely self-serving (and yet kind of mundane) desire; whose solution for every possible problem is violence. And best of all, you don't actually have to like basketball to enjoy Slam Dunk! It's not that I have anything against basketball per se; I'd much rather watch it than a lot of sports (soccer, hockey, and golf spring immediately to mind) or nerdy blogger favorites like Dr. Who or Battlestar Galactica or whatever. But I've never been as interested in basketball as (American) football, baseball, or combat sports. Or even tennis, actually.

Which is why it's sort of strange that I actually preferred Real, Inoue's grown-up (big boy format and everything!) series about wheelchair basketball. The protagonists of Real are obsessed with basketball, unwilling or unable to give it up despite their circumstances. This is a book about absolute passion; you have to buy into Nomiya Tomomi and Togawa Kiyoharu's absolute obsession with the sport to appreciate Real. There are other obsessions as well; for instance, Nomiya is plagued by guilt for his role in a traffic accident which left a young woman paralyzed. Nomiya is actually kind of like an inverted Hanamachi Sakuragi from Slam Dunk: while Hanamachi only plays basketball to attract the attention of Haruko, Nomiya's obsession with basketball turns off even his teammates. Even after being expelled from school (thus depriving him of the competition he craves), Nomiya is unable to let go of his passion for basketball. It's this passion that leads him to take an interest in Togawa Kiyohara, an outstanding wheelchair basketball player.

This could all be very schmaltzy in the wrong hands, but Inoue has taken several steps to avoid this sort of thing. First, Nomiya is in no position to be a mentor to Togawa; he's about the same age and is too impulsive (and in contrast to Hanamachi, Nomiya loses his fights). As for Togawa and his cohorts, they're not the Mighty Ducks in wheelchairs; if anything, they're mentally tougher than Nomiya. But this isn't a story of Nomiya's self-discovery by way of learning from the disabled, either. Togawa is no magical paraplegic; he has his own problems and negative traits as well. So that seems to be setting us up for some kind of parallel story of growth, each protagonist learning from the other. But at the end of the first volume, Inoue introduces a wild card in the form of Takahashi Hisanobu, a former teammate of Nomiya's who is hit by a truck, thus paralyzing him from the waist down.

I haven't read the second volume of Real yet, but it's pretty clear that Takahashi will be somehow involved in wheelchair basketball, either as a teammate of or a rival to Togawa. I'm not sure about Takahashi yet. His character was the most stock of all these--there wasn't much to him besides "asshole jock," making me worry that his journey towards acceptance of his condition/determination to transcend it would be similarly generic. But his final scene in the first volume adds a degree of vulnerability and sadness that strips away the sentimentalism one might normally associate with this sort of character arc. His presence might change the dynamic of the Nomiya-Togawa relationship, and that could be better for Real in the long run.

So for right now, I do think Slam Dunk is more entertaining, but Real has more potential. There are a number of scenes where Inoue really seems to be onto something in his mixture of personal tragedy and sports obsession. In particular, a sequence involving a dying teammate of Togawa's is particularly affecting. The young man expresses the comfort he gets by merely holding a basketball, feeling the pebbled texture on his fingers. He thinks to himself that even this pleasure will soon elude him, as he will lose the strength to hold the ball over his head. The scene ends with him regretting his delay in buying a basketball, but resolving to cherish the remaining time he has to feel it in his hands.

I found this particularly moving, and it's the sort of thing I hope to see more of in future volumes. Even those with no interest in basketball or sports in general should be able to appreciate the tension between fleeting moments of pleasure and the tragic lurch of the future.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Yes, I am planning a trip to Portland next week

-Does anyone know if Dark Horse's brick and mortar store (Things From Another World) offers discounts on their own material? I need to catch up on some Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service.

-On a similar note, any restaurants in Portland anyone would recommend? Like something near the big Powell's location? A good Indian restaurant would be especially nice.

-I don't want to read too much into it, but since Marc-Oliver Frisch pointed it out, I did think it was kind of strange to see Dan DiDio mention his 2009 budget in this Newsarama interview. (Which is apparently a new biweekly feature at Newsarama? Amazing what you miss when you don't read the Newsarama main site unless somebody specifically links to one of their articles, as was the case in this instance.) DiDio's talking about cover prices here--sounds like $3.99 is bound to be the going rate by the middle of next year--but it's not the sort of language I'm used to seeing in these hype and gripe sessions. Granted, I haven't read one of these things in a while.

I'm not so sure I'd go as far as Marc-Oliver and link budgetary concerns to the frankly baffling decision to have Tony Daniel write what appears to be a pivotal Batman story arc. But there's definitely an unsettling mix of regret and shilling in this interview. And it doesn't do anything to dispel the notion that DC is totally reliant on Geoff Johns and Grant Morrison right now. I would still think that it's in DC's best interest to try to poach one of Marvel's top tier writers--Brubaker, Bendis (probably not very likely), Loeb, or Millar being the top bang-for-your-buck types. I guess Warren Ellis could make a big splash as well, but I'm under the impression that his willingness to write for Marvel's intellectual properties isn't a courtesy he'd extend to DC. Something about a personal fondness for Quesada, maybe? Anyway, of this group one would think Loeb or Millar would be the best bet, except (a) I don't know the status of their contracts, and (b) I'm not so sure Mark Millar's future is in work-for-hire. At one time I would have guessed he would put aside other interestes to write Superman, but I really do think that he thinks he has a shot at writing a Superman screenplay instead.

EDIT: Or Jesus, what about Straczynski? Marc-Oliver keeps pointing out how weird it is to assign freaking Brave and the Bold to your highest profile new freelancer in years. Maybe he's too busy to write anything else?

-Haven't done predictions for a UFC card in a while. Not so much out of indifference as forgetfulness. But I'm remembering right now, so let's give it a shot:

Randy Couture vs. Brock Lesnar
A good matchup from a variety of angles: youth vs. experience, athleticism vs. technique, past vs. future, etc. And by "past vs. future," I mostly mean that Couture helped put the "mixed" in "mixed martial arts" by purusing a strategy that blended his strengths into a coherent game plan: use greco-roman base to pin opponent against cage, then use dirty boxing to win on points.*

Couture has deviated from this plan when it made sense, most recently in his monumental upset of Tim Sylvia last year. In that fight, Couture used his superior ground skills to keep Sylvia on his back, grinding his way to a comfortable win on the judge's score cards. That's not going to work on Saturday, because there's no way that Couture can keep the much larger and stronger Lesnar on his back. In fact, it's going to be Lesnar who will seek to put the fight on the ground, where he can work his way to a decision or a stoppage via ground-and-pound. Couture surely has the better BJJ, but it's probably not enough to negate Lesnar's advantages on the ground.

So: if the fight is primarily contested on the ground, it's Lesnar's win. If they're mostly pushed up against the cage all night, that's probably Couture's win. BUT, what if the fight is mostly standing at a distance? What then? Lesnar surely has more firepower, but Couture surely has the better technique. I'm going to pick Lesnar because I think the weight/strength advantage is too great for Couture to overcome, but I would never bet money against Couture. Actually, I never bet money at all because I'm a chicken.

*BTW, I was thinking about this the other night: Lesnar went into professional wrestling out of college because there was no money in MMA at the time. One would be inclined to say he did himself a disservice, since he thus lost his prime years to botched shooting star presses and all the other wackiness that comes with the WWF/E. OTOH, if he had started in MMA in 2000, he surely would have relied on his excellent wrestling to the exclusion of improving his skills in BJJ, boxing, muay thai, etc. That would have worked for a couple of years, but he probably would have been exposed against a Fedor Emilianenko, Josh Barnett, or Antonio Nogueira (he still may yet be exposed against Nogueira!) in fairly short order. So maybe it's better that he got into MMA in 2006, when it was imperative that he train all the other crucial disciplines as well.

Kenny Florian vs. Joe Stevenson
The only other fight of note on the card. I don't think Florian's fought a mauler like Stevenson since he took on Sean Sherk a few years ago. Florian lost that fight, but he's really improved his game since then. I think Stevenson is an excellent fighter, but he's not as good as Sherk. I like Florian here. Should be a good fight.

Amir Sadollah vs. Nick Catone
CANCELED! So it's going to be a while longer before we get to see the TUF 8 champion (and surely one of the few dudes from that show you'd want to spend more than 30 seconds talking to) for a while.

Gabriel Gonzaga vs. Josh Hendricks
Don't know much about Hendricks (except that he's not Johny Hendricks, a much more interesting 170 lb. prospect with impeccable wrestling credentials). But it's hard to pick a guy who's lost to Travis Wiuff AND Sam Hoger, even if those fights were several years ago. Gotta go with Gonzaga, but it would be nice to find out that Hendricks has massively improved in recent years and is actually a legit HW contender.

Nate Quarry vs. Demian Maia
I guess I spoke too soon--I'm sort of interested in this fight. Not a big Quarry fan--he seems like a good guy, but I think the ceiling of his potential is Ultimate Fight Night-level gatekeeper. But since everyone in the crowd has also decided he's a good guy, we still see him on PPVs. I don't see how he beats Maia, unless his takedown defense is better than I imagined. Maia hasn't shown much standing, so Quarry could (and should) beat him there. But I'm assuming Maia can manage to get this to the ground. If not, he's not the potential MW contender UFC is dying for.

Dustin Hazelett vs. Tamdan McCrory
Oh wait, this is a pretty good fight too. And it's going to be on TV, since the Sadollah fight was canceled. Thanks, Amir! Hazelett is one of the fastest-rising talents in the welterweight division, and a personal favorite. McCrory is a good prospect, but probably not ready to beat the BJJ wiz Hazelett yet.

Jorge Gurgel vs. Aaron Riley
Aaron Riley still fights? Jose Gurgel still fights? Guys, this isn't an Ohio show--why is Gurgel on here? Don't care, no pick.

Jeremy Stephens vs. Rafael dos Anjos
Dos Anjos is on a nice win streak. Stephens is a guy who can beat someone like Cole Miller, but can't beat someone like Spencer Fisher. In these cases I try to make an optimistic pick, going for the fighter with the biggest upside. I think that's dos Anjos in this case.

Alvin Robinson vs. Mark Bocek
I like Alvin Robinson, and Bocek still hasn't done much in UFC.

Matt Brown vs. Ryan Thomas
Don't care, no pick

Friday, November 7, 2008

I guess it's not too early if you've got connections

So as I'm going back through the stuff I've missed in the last couple of weeks, I see that Amazon and Publishers Weekly have both published their best-of lists for 2008. Lots of stuff on both lists I haven't read yet, but on first glance the PW list looks more attuned to my tastes. I'm now thinking the best perk about writing for a respected publication/website is the opportunity to read things like KE7 before unconnected people like me. Or did it show up at APE? Haven't worked my way through to the APE reports yet. (And yeah, I broke my plans to attend. Sorry, but you know how things are right now.)

Anyway, let me remind everyone once again to send me links to your best of 2008 list(s) so I can start adding and calculating the 2008 meta list. Umbrella Academy is #1 right now, I guess--if this is not to your liking, then make sure to make a list!

A few thoughts

1. If Final Crisis #4 were a Pretty Things song, it would be "What's the Use." Finally got to read it tonight (DCBS shipment arrived Election Day), and I really kind of struggled just to get through it. Read like a run of the mill crossover, with just enough gratuitous cameos by b- and c-list characters to wear down my enthusiasm to where it's mostly hypothetical now. I should like this comic; I liked the first three issues, I like Grant Morrison, and I generally like JG Jones. But Jones and Morrison both seem kind of uninspired here. Especially Jones, who (dead giant dalmatian scene aside) seemed like just another artist this issue. And there was at least one confusing sequence which reminded me of the debate over Morrison's storytelling deficiencies from earlier this year. The Turpin-into-Darkseid stuff was good, but that's about all there is for non-Flash fetishists. I could understand the comic veering into train wreck territory, but it's hard to forgive it for becoming a typical bullshit event book. Since I've already paid for the next couple of issues, I have good reason to hope that this is just a plate setting issue and not Civil War-style entropy.

2. I guess it's possible that Final Crisis just seems shoddy compared to the other stuff I've been reading in the last couple of days: Popeye, Black Jack, Or Else #5. Not a fair comparison, to be sure. Segar and Tezuka aren't merely all-time greats; they're the sorts of cartoonists who make other all-time greats look weak by comparison. And Huizenga, while certainly not as accomplished as Segar or Tezuka, is probably one of the five best cartoonists active today. So no, not a fair comparison. But I've got so much unread stuff of comparable quality laying around that it's hard to make myself read the last couple of issues of Uncanny X-Men.* Don't know if this means that I'm ready to abandon superhero comics or what. But when you've got new stuff by Yuichi Yokoyama and Lewis Trondheim in the to-read stack, it's a little hard to muster up enthusiasm for the latest issue of Captain America.

*Needless to say, Greg Land's art doesn't much help.

3. I also passed on watching an episode of Justice League Unlimited I'd never seen before the other day. I liked that series even back when I wasn't reading comics a few years ago. Maybe I really do need a vacation from the cape and tights stuff. It's not like I expect Captain America to measure up to Trondheim, but I'm not even enjoying superhero comics on their own terms like I used to.

(FWIW, I think I ended up watching one of those ultra-meta NFL films things, like where Steve Sabol waxes nostalgic about the follies compilations of yore and makes fun of the sweaters he wore in the 80s. Can't get enough of the meta!)

4. I mostly played Saints Row 2 with music saved to our XBox 360 hard drive (see here for partial playlist), so I only rarely heard the music from the radio stations. But when I did.... I occasionally feel guilty for not keeping up with contemporary music, and I realize that it's no more fair to judge it by listening to middle-of-the-road emo than it would be to judge early 90s indie rock by listening to something like Collective Soul or Candlebox. But holy shit, is there ever some terrible music in that game. I don't know that I was ever going to read The Umbrella Academy, but I don't know if I could ever bring myself to do so after hearing "Teenagers."

5. On a more positive note (sort of), I can't get over how much I like the music from Life on Mars. There's a little too much Simon and Garfunkel for my taste, but I can't deny the pleasure of hearing tracks from Muswell Hillbillies on a network show. I'm not convinced that Life on Mars isn't a waste of my time yet--it mostly still seems like a dumb cop show at heart. And the bit with Jim Croce last week was Quantum Leap-grade idiocy. So yeah, I guess the soundtrack has successfully pandered to me, cause I'm not so sure why else I'm watching. Here's hoping we hear some Pink Fairies before the show gets canceled or I lose interest.

6. The internet is right about the awesomeness of Takehiko Inoue. More on this later.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

I promise start posting again now that I'm not devoting every spare minute to following the election. Glad there was a payoff for all that obsessive checking of,, etc.

Actually, I also have been devoting a lot of spare minutes, and will continue to devote a lot of spare minutes, to playing Fallout 3, which really kind of gets at a lot of the things I wrote about in the last post. More on that eventually, maybe, but I just wanted to note how much I'm loving it since Chris Mautner would probably ask in the comments. So I guess I'll turn the tables--how are you liking it, Chris? (Apologies if you've reviewed it on your blog already--haven't checked Google Reader in a looong time.)