Saturday, February 17, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #48: Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, Vols. 4 & 5 by Satoko Kiyuduki

Reading a book at four-year intervals is probably not the best way to keep it in the front of one's mind. But I read the first two volumes of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro (one and two) back in 2010, and then the third in 2014, so, since it's 2018 now, I couldn't continue any earlier than now, can I?

(It would be nice to have a time machine, but, in real life, "today" is always the earliest anything can be done.)

So here I am in 2018, having just read Volumes Four and Five of Shoulder-A-Coffin Kuro, a comic I remember enjoying quite a bit back then. But, this time, I'm not as enthusiastic about Satoko Kiyuduki's world and storyline -- much of the dialogue feels like a lot of pseudo-philosophical windiness that doesn't actually say anything (that could be translation issues, though, or lack of cultural context on my part) and the vertical 4-koma format (except for some pages that read right-to-left like regular manga, to trip me up) forces every interaction and conversation into the same four-box structure with a punch-line-like zinger at the end.

Kuro is a young woman, but precisely how young is difficult to say. She's drawn to look pre-teen, but that could just be a style. She was cursed by a witch, for reasons and in a way that still isn't entirely clear at this point, and has to wander the world, lugging her coffin, until she either becomes a witch herself or dies. (As finally becomes semi-explicit in these volumes.) This is not nearly as dramatic as you're hoping it will be. Instead, she does a lot of vague talking about what it means to be a traveler, except when other characters are saying similar, and if possible even vaguer, things.

We also get an origin for that witch -- I think; it's someone's origin and it's not Kuro's -- somewhere in the middle here. It's sad but vaguely pointless, unless meant to underline that life is arbitrary and capricious and that everything kinda sucks. The witch is also traveling, though she doesn't have strong opinions on the subject the way other characters do. And they're traveling through vaguely fantasy-ish lands, nowhere in particular and far away from cities and large groups of people and anything particularly exciting.

Kuro does occasionally wander through pieces of other stories along her travels, but she's always at the center: everyone is happy to stop whatever they're doing to engage in long conversations with the little girl lugging her own coffin. Late in the second volume, someone actually tries to kill Kuro, which at least adds a bit of variety. It doesn't take, of course.

Kuro is not as mopey as she could be: she's more dogged, in that essential manga way, devoted to keeping on moving forward and being as positive as she can be until something new happens. That's encouraging, but I still wanted things to happen here, and not just have a moment of "oh, gosh, we all perceive this area differently! isn't that odd" before Kuro and her companions move on.

So: the 4-koma format is inherently episodic and distancing, and is tending to make Shoulder-a-Coffin Kuro spin its wheels through the same few philosophical thoughts at this point in its life. And sometimes mysteries are much more enticing than their solutions: I think this is a fine example of that effect. The fact that this book is published at really long intervals -- a sixth volume, I see, just came out last fall -- doesn't help much, either.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #47: Manga Sutra, Vol. 2 by Katsu Aki

I believe I've had this book on the shelf for ten years, which means it's one of the small number of things that survived my 2011 flood. (That destroyed my entire basement and somewhere around 4,000 books.) I'm not sure why or how this book survived, but I'm pretty sure I haven't managed to read it until now largely because Manga Sutra is unsuitable for reading on a public train, where I read most of my book-format comics.

In any case, I read Vol. 1 of this series for a "Manga Friday" post at ComicMix back in August of 2008, and finally got to Katsu Aki's Manga Sutra, Vol. 2 in February of 2018.At this rate, I could get through the remaining two US collections by the time I retire, which would leave me time to learn Japanese to read the seventy-two tankobon volumes (to date as of now; it's still running) in my copious spare time.

Or maybe not.

Manga Sutra, sometimes known as Step Up Love Story (the title of the anime adaptation) or Manga Love Story, is a combination romance story and sex manual. It's an odd romance, since it begins after the two main characters are already married and in love. But it's a more typical sex manual: those tend to be for people who don't know what they're doing, and these two very inexperienced young people have no idea what they're doing.

Makoto and Yura Onoda appear not to have had sex before getting married, with each other or with anyone else. They also seem not to have thought about sex, or possibly even known sex existed before that point, at least on Yura's part. (They both have families filled with horndogs, though -- his older brother and her younger sister most prominently -- implying their extreme inexperience is purely for ease of storytelling.) They're having a lot of sex now: this second volume takes place a few months into their marriage, when they've most mastered inserting Tab A into Slot B in ways that both of them generally find appealing, and they do it most nights.

There are problems, of course, or else what use would be the sex manual? Makoto has trouble getting and keeping an erection some of the time, which is largely solved in this volume by Yura learning that blowjobs are a thing and being taught how to do them by her kid sister, with the aid of the requisite banana. On the other side, Yura has not had an orgasm from sex, and probably hasn't had one at all, and that's not quite solved yet. (Makoto was performing oral sex on Yura earlier than she on him, so perhaps he just hasn't had as effective a teacher as Yura did. Or maybe one breakthrough per volume is the maximum allowable.) And both of them are hugely apprehensive, and Yura deeply embarrassed, about talking to each other about sex other than the most basic "tonight?"

Starting to write this review, I was surprised to learn that this series is still running, after twenty years. And I wondered: is it locked into time like Kinsey Milhone, so that Makoto and Yura are still newlyweds in the late '90s and not that good at sex? Or have they been leveling up consistently since then, and have sex powers over 9000? Either way could be fun.

Manga Sutra is a bit old-fashioned, so that it's not too far ahead of anyone who might come to it. It's also a bit old-fashioned because it's a bit old at this point -- twenty years is a whole generation. Old-fashioned generally means the sex is tasteful: penetration is only shown as cutaway graphics and genitalia are never clearly drawn. But old-fashioned also means those wacky families nudge-nudge wink-winking tediously, and a gaggle of office ladies trying to entice Makoto into an affair -- luckily, he's too in love with his wife (or too oblivious) to even notice.  In many ways, Manga Sutra is your father's sex-instruction comic. And, if you need or want that, four volumes like this are out there for you.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #46: Museum of Mistakes by Julia Wertz

We all regret our twenties. Some of us regret how quickly we settled down and got boring, and some of us regret that we didn't settle down and get boring, at all or quickly enough.

I'm one of the former; I think Julia Wertz is one of the latter. Museum of Mistakes is the big collection of the comics she made at the time, and somewhat afterward, about her not being boring.

(Well. not exactly: Wertz shows herself as a massive introvert and an alcoholic, who spent way too much time in a tiny apartment making comics and drinking. One might well think of that as being boring.)

These days, artistic development happens in public more often than not, and it was that way for Wertz: she started publishing comics about her early-twenties life in San Francisco as "The Fart Party" about a decade ago, turned some of those comics into self-published zines soon afterward, and then turned those into books. She had two collections of Fart Party -- I reviewed the first one, more or less, for Comic Mix in 2008 -- and then went to a bigger company for Drinking at the Movies, which was billed as a full-length memoir but was really another collection of somewhat linked stories, all about her life at the time. It could have been Fart Party 3, but it wasn't. (Big companies are not likely to start off a brand-new relationship with a #3.)

The big-company thing didn't entirely work out for Wertz: she was part of the land-rush for cartoonists (especially autobiographical, especially female) in the wake of Persepolis and some other big successes. And the thing about a publishing land-rush is that a lot of stuff -- good, not-as-good, half-baked -- is published by people who haven't figured out yet how to replicate success, and are hoping they can hit the target enough times to work out a coherent plan. Wertz's comics were real and raw and true, but they were pretty far from the things that were working really big in those days, so it's not surprising that Drinking didn't rocket her to fame and fortune.

(And, possibly as important, Wertz was really ambivalent about fame and fortune. Around the same time, there was nearly a TV show based on Fart Party, but, as she's told the story afterward in her comics, she sabotaged it, partly on purpose and partly unconsciously.)

Since the world loves irony, her book after the big-company book was stronger and more of a clear step forward in telling longer, more unified stories -- that was The Infinite Wait, which brings us up to as close to now as Wertz got in her career. She hasn't published much in the past half-decade or so; she got into "urban exploration" and maybe just living her life for a while instead of turning it into comics immediately.)

So this book, from 2014, is still (I think) her most recent. It collects all of The Fart Party and The Fart Party 2, plus another book's worth of other strips: a section of stuff that wasn't Fart Party 3 because she did Drinking instead, some pre-Fart Party work, sketches, zine work, and other things.

This is the definitive early Wertz: the snotty slacker who had a series of lousy food-service jobs, had her boyfriend move cross-country and then break up with her, and who herself moved from San Francisco to Brooklyn. She loved cheese and wine, she took as little shit as she possibly could, she swore a lot, and she had a weird childhood.

She's probably still some of those things, or is the person formed by being those things in her twenties. Any book, especially a memoir, is a snapshot of who that person was at the time, and Wertz was very good at snapshots, with her deliberately crude art and sarcastic dialogue. No one wants the burden of being the voice of a generation, but Wertz did speak for a lot of millennials in the late Bush II years-- grumpy, disgruntled, stuck in a crapsack world built by other people, looking for their own moments of happiness and fulfillment. She was good at it by not trying to do anything like that: she just told stories of her own life, which was close enough to a million other lives to catch fire. It was a Fart Party, and we won't see it's like again.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #45: Jack Staff Vol. 1 by Paul Grist

This book has more panels introducing its characters than any comic I've ever seen in my life. I know it was originally published as twelve individual issues of the Jack Staff comic, but it's much more common than that -- so often that I started to think this had been serialized somewhere, no more than five pages at a time, for an audience with short-term memory loss.

It's clearly on purpose, even if I'm not sure why creator Paul Grist is doing it. Is it some meta-commentary on superhero comics? A sly jab at the big comics universe-building instinct, so that every important character gets a hook and a logo, ready to spin off into his own book at the drop of a hat?

In any case, that's how Jack Staff, Vol. 1: Everything Used to Be Black and White goes -- every time the plot shifts to Jack, or to Becky Burdock, {Spoiler} Reporter, or to Tom Tom the Robot Man, or to The Spider, or to Bramble & Sons, Vampire Hunters, or to Detective Inspector Maveryk, old-fashioned copper, there's a logo-like treatment of their names splashed on the page, and usually some purple prose that almost but not quite tells the true believers to face front.

I suspect that Grist does not take his superhero comics entirely seriously, but that's fine: I haven't been able to do that for at least two decades now myself. And Jack Staff comes across as a book in which the creator is having an immense amount of fun, and is choosing the plot elements that make him cackle in delight as he draws them. That may make for a certain amount of whiplash, as he jumps from plot thread to plot thread every couple of pages, but it's all clear, and the reader certainly has no trouble remembering who any of the characters are.

In any case: this is a British superhero comic, so it's required by law to be somewhat self-effacing and to subvert expectations of the genre at least once per twenty-four pages. Grist is entirely happy to do that, but his subversion is of an older school than Moore or Morrison: he's someone who seems to doubt, down deep, that dressing up in silly costumes and punching people is really a good solution to serious problems. That is entirely true, but it can be a fatal attitude for superhero comics unless it's coupled with a light touch.

Grist does also have a light touch, so we're good there.

Jack himself is a mildly brick-like superguy, dressed in his nation's flag and first encountered during WW II doing his bit to defend democracy and battle the evil Hun. He's clearly tough to some level, but he can't fly or do any of that obvious super-stuff, and he needs a big stick to hit people adequately. On the other hand, he does seem to be much, much older than he has any right to be, and still looking mid-thirties in these stories from the late '90s. There are more serious supernatural elements -- I mentioned vampire hunters above, and they do have vampires to hunt -- and one villain we see has definite weather-control powers. So this is a real superhero universe, even if we're just seeing a quirky British corner of it.

I originally read Grist's crime comic Kane in the '90s -- it looks like I kept up with it almost to the end, missing the last collection -- and bought this 2004 collection about four years ago with a thought of maybe getting into his other big self-published series. There are three more Jack Staff collections, I see, though this series also seems to be definitively over. I might keep going, if I can find the books: this are fun adventure comics that don't take themselves too seriously, and Grist's inky art and smash-cut plotting make his pages lively and zippy.

If you, too, are willing to accept that superheroes are inherently goofy, you'll probably enjoy it as well.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #44: King City by Brandon Graham

For those of you scoring at home, this is the major Brandon Graham comic that does not include a random hardcore sex scene thrown into the middle (The one that does is Multiple Warheads. Graham toiled in the sex-comics vineyards for several years, and one sex-comic idea blossomed or transformed into an idea that could be a comic about other things than sex.)

This is the major Brandon Graham comic that features a cat with drug-induced superpowers, though. So if that's the one you wanted: here you go.

(There's also Prophet, but I think he just wrote that and doesn't own it, either. I'm enough of a purist to have a preference for the comics that someone owns and does all the work on.)

As I understand it, King City is a slightly earlier work than Multiple Warheads, though I think the publication history of both stories is a bit mixed and mingled. (And Prophet is later than both of them. Maybe still going on now, for all I know!) In any case, it was eventually twelve issues of comics, in two big clumps, from first Tokyopop and then Image. This big collection of the whole shebang came out in 2012 and says it was co-published by the two companies. (My guess is that Image did all of the work and just cut Tokyopop a check based on whatever they owned/controlled, but I am a noted cynic.)

King City is a young man's comic, about a young man: Joe, the Cat Master who would have been the title character if Tokyopop hadn't balked at Cat Master for a title. He's back in King City after a few years away, learning the secrets of Cat Mastery somewhere in California and getting his weapon/partner Earthling along the way. In case you're wondering, the cat doesn't talk, or do anything particularly un-catlike except when Joe injects him with a syringe to unlock weird powers. Earthling is pretty much here to be Joe's random superpower, and to give Graham an excuse to draw a bucket full of cat regularly.

Joe meets back up with his old friend Pete, who doesn't have any particular super-stuff, but does strange odd jobs for one of the local gangs. King City is deeply weird, in a manga-meets-indy-comics way, so the gangs are inscrutable and hermetic and don't seem to spend any time doing anything we'd normally think of as criminal activity -- but they are dangerous, and have their own weird powers and abilities. There's also Joe's old girlfriend Anna, who he's still pining for, but she's now with Max, a shell-shocked survivor of the zombie war in Korea who is now addicted to the drug chalk (which turns its users, eventually, into chalk).

Those are the characters, more or less. There's also Beebay, the mysterious woman who hires Joe for her gang, Pete's nasty employers and the water-breathing nameless alien girl they hire him to transport (until he falls for her and pulls a double-cross), a few other cat masters who show up for the big showdown, and a gigantic Lovecraftian-cum-Akira-ball-of-flesh that must be stopped in the finale.

Well, stopped by someone. Not necessarily our heroes. It's not that kind of story.

Graham bounces from just-slightly-satirical spy-craft to kitchen-sink drama to goofball pun-based comedy, often the the course of a single panel. What ties it all together is this overstuffed neo-future city, where everything is unreal enough for anything to be possible. It's not a heavily plotted comic -- things happen, and they happen in a logical sequence, but it doesn't build up to anything, and Graham wants to subvert expectations rather than encourage them. His art is similar bouncy: here a little manga-inspired, especially in the buildings, here a little indy-goofball, here recovering sex-comics artist.

So King City feels a lot like another slacker comic: the characters aren't exactly slackers themselves, but it has that laid-back vibe, as if nothing can get too bad, as long as you've got your cat with you. And that's all right, man.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #43: Roughneck by Jeff Lemire

There are at least two Jeff Lemires. One is the writer of big superhero adventures -- I hear good things about him, from people who actually enjoy big superhero adventures, but I don't expect to ever meet him. Another one writes and draws comics about damaged people in Canada (Essex County, The Underwater Welder, The Nobody), and that's the Lemire I know pretty well. You could say, I guess, that there's a third Lemire, who tells stories of other kinds, somewhere in the middle -- the Lemire of Trillium and Sweet Tooth and Descender and Plutona -- and that one combines the strengths of the two extremes of Lemire. You could say that.

But what I have here is a book by the pure second Lemire, a book deeply Canadian, set in a small town way out in the cold and the emptiness, about a big palooka who used to play hockey and his kid sister who used to not be a junkie. Roughneck is a book about a lot of "used to be"s.

Derek Oulette is from a little town "up north" called Pimitamon -- "The Pit" to locals. To the north of it somewhere is a First Nations reservation where Derek's mother came from, a ways to the south is Timmins, which isn't much bigger than The Pit. All around is snow and pine trees and wildlife and snowmobile trails, and not much else. Derek got out of there young, away from an abusive father, to play hockey for the Rangers for a few years -- but, even there, he was "never really a hockey player...I was just a thug."

As Roughneck begins, he's back in The Pit, slinging eggs in the local greasy spoon and spending his evenings trying to drink quietly in the one bar in town. But there's always some yahoo who wants to get a rise out of the ex-pro, and it's really easy to get a rise out of Derek. The only reason Derek isn't in jail is because he lives in a small town where everyone knows everyone, including the cops.

And then one day Beth comes back -- Derek's younger sister, fleeing an abusive relationship of her own. They haven't seen each other for more than a decade: Beth ran off to Toronto not long after Derek went into pro hockey, both of them somewhere in their teens. And they're both pretty damaged, by their horrible father and what happened to them after they got away from him.

But Roughneck is the story of how they get beyond that. Derek does not have to be a roughneck. Beth does not have to be a junkie. Their horrible father does not have to define them.

Lemire tells this story mostly in muted blue-green tones, as chilly as the world he's drawing. Memories and flashbacks bring more color, to set them apart. The people all have Lemire faces: beaten down (or up) by life, lined and seamed, usually gigantic noses. This is a rough world he's writing and drawing about. But the message of Roughneck is that you don't need to be rough yourself to get through a rough world -- and that's a good message to hear.

Reviewing the Mail: Week of 2/10/18

This week I have books in two categories to mention to you, which means the less mentally agile of you might get confused. (And that I'm turning to insulting my audience in this thirteenth year of my blog -- hey, it's something to do.)

First up is an epic fantasy novel that came from the publisher, and which is brand-spanking new. Then I'll get into some recent graphic novels that I got from my local library to feed the Book-A-Day maw.

So: direct from the fine folks at Pyr is Jon Sprunk's Blade and Bone, the third book in his series "The Book of the Black Earth." (Raising once again that old epic-fantasy question: how can a series be "The Book" when it takes three or four or twelve books to get through it?) It hits stores on February 27th, and does not promise to be the last in the series. This time out, our hero Horace -- Horace? that's an interesting name for a hero in a book at least somewhat inspired by ancient Egypt -- is still in charge of the slave rebellion and leveling up as a magician, but there's now also "an unstoppable army of undead creatures under the control of a mysterious sorcerer," so his dance card is getting pretty full.

Everything else is from the library -- I think these are all 2017 books, since I'm plundering some "best of the year" lists, but no promises.

Everything is Flammable by Gabrielle Bell -- If I haven't lost track of things (which is a big "if"), this was Bell's first big comics collection since 2012's The Voyeurs. If I did lose track of things, then I have no idea.

Poppies of Iraq by Brigette Fidakly and Lewis Trondheim -- As I remember it, Findakly is Trondheim's wife, and this is her memoir of growing up in Iraq, which he drew. (Looking at the book itself, that's all true, but Trondheim is also credited as co-writer, possibly because he has more experience putting things into comics form.)

Lucky Penny by Ananth Hirsh and Yuko Ota -- This is some manner of contemporary comedic romance fiction, and I have no idea how I heard of it. Somebody recommended it, I guess, and now I'll read it.

And last is Tillie Walden's Spinning, a memoir of figure skating and coming out and the other things that happen along the way. I've never read any of Walden's work -- I think this is her first big book, but I could be wrong -- and this has gotten a lot of praise.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #42: Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!

Sometimes, with comics, we forget the value of density. Particularly these days, when the needle has swung far in the direction of deconstruction and the popular models are from manga, with endless pages of the wind blowing evocatively over some landscape or other, we forget the power of a page full of things happening and messages assaulting our eyeballs.

Well, we live in a world like that now, so maybe we don't want it in our comics all that often. But there are comics that told us this world was coming, that said that random ethnic violence and lowest-common-denominator reality TV would numb our viewing eyes, that media barons would take over politics and make a profit off of it, that we can and will be seduced by bread and circuses.

They also said we'd get to Mars by then, but that's the besetting sin of SF, isn't it? Assuming that some big impressive things will happen to offset or backdrop the day-to-day shittiness. The real future is always more banal than the SF version, with all of the kipple and none of the electric sheep.

One of the densest, and most horribly prescient, SF comics of all time is Howard Chaykin's American Flagg! It wasn't all consistent -- in those days, comics came out regularly, so when Chaykin needed a rest, other people sharecropped his fields to much less effect, including a shockingly horrible Alan Moore story about sex cops -- but the best of it, meaning the all-Chaykin storylines, was electric and real in a way little in the comics was when it came out and still shockingly powerful today.

The first three storylines (each three jam-packed issues long) of Chaykin's masterwork were collected in the 2008 hardcover Howard Chaykin's American Flagg!, Vol. 1, along with the next two semi-fill-in issues -- done-in-one stories with other artists -- and an all-Chaykin short story that I think originally appeared in an earlier collection of the first story, Hard Times. This isn't the whole of the pure Chaykin product -- as I recall, all of his multi-part stories from the original 1983 run were strong, and the rest of those would fill up another book about this size.

That book doesn't exist: the 2008 reprinting project got as far as two paperbacks, each with one half of this hardcover, and this book itself, and then petered out. That's unfortunate: American Flagg! does have dated elements (the clothes, the hair, the timeline), but Chaykin was never better than in this series. There's a hair-on-fire energy on every page, a damn-the-torpedoes headlong power to his plotting, and his art was super-detailed in a way then entirely futuristic and now still pretty damn impressive.

This book, though, is out there, if you can find it. It's set in 2031, in a US that collapsed in the mid-90s and has never come back. But the big corporations and rich folks got off-planet to the Moon and then Mars -- this is the most SFnal and unrealistic piece of the set-up, and not really necessary -- and a police-force-cum-broadcaster, the Plex, runs what's left of North America. What's left of the bourgeoisie live in giant "malls" near the old cities, and the rest of the country is a rabble of ethnic gangs, whose economic activity, as far as we see it, is entirely of the illegal kind. Thrown into this corrupt and profoundly cynical snakepit is Reuben Flagg, who recently was the lead actor in a Plex-promoting soft-core-porn TV show until technology advanced enough to eliminate actors entirely. (And, to be honest, as far as we can tell, all entertainment is at least soft-core porn in this future -- it's bread and circuses all the way down.)

Flagg is honest, as such things go. And, even more, he's got a great survival instinct and a desire to fix whatever is in front of him and broken. This world has a lot that's broken, so Flagg has his work cut out for him. It's still a thrill to experience this world along with him, to see one of the two great comics dystopias of the '80s (along with Tim Truman's Scout) again, and to wish there was more of it, or a decent collection or what else is already out there.