Saturday, 31 July 2010

Slices of Japanese horror

I enjoy horror genre in comics and movies, even when I am not that easily scared of them. Still, I do like building of the ambience and interesting visual styles many of the better ones go for, and in any case I do have a soft spot for lurid melodramas.
Making sense or being believable is optional and more often than not can work against the story.
After reading some Junji Ito (Uzumaki and Tomie stories, which I might discuss some later time) and coming across some other comments I did get more curious about Japanese horror manga, and after looking what more knowing people mentioned and what was available in the local store, I tried out first books of two titles.
Of course with horror relying on other people's criticism and recommendations is even more tricky than with other genres, since that ambience thing is very personal and what suits one is likely to bore another...

Reiko the Zombie Shop by Rei Mikamoto seems to me one of those "perfect first page" books, the concept graps attention but the actual book...ehh...Reiko is a schoolgirl necromancer-for-hire who by chanting some magic words can raise the dead. Lots of graphic violence ensues.
This first book is a bunch of short stories, though there's also a longer story about a schoolgirl serial killer who kills little children. In most of the stories I pretty much figured out after first couple of pages how it would play out though there were couple of surprise twists in the end, the main focus is gore (injury-in-the-eye seems particularly popular). There is very little information given about the characters for me to care about them, and the art doesn't appeal to me either, so even without the horror thrills there isn't much to read here.
Had I thought this through beforehand I might have guessed anyway that this is not a book for me, I tend to prefer my horror more creepy and eerie than straightforward gore or monster books. The serial killer girl might have had some potential in different hands, but here she was nothing special.
Oh well, there is probably market for this kind of thing (apparently not that big though, of 11 volumes Dark Horse published only six before dropping the series) but this is not for me.
The creepies bit came in the end of the book, in the fan art section, where I noticed couple of 14-15-year olds but also a 8-year old artist. I'm sorry, there's an 8-year old who is familiar enough with this series to do fan art about it? WTF?

That creepy and eerie type of horror I said I liked? School Zone by Kanako Inuki got it. There's a school which might or might not be haunted by 13 ghost stories, it is sometimes hard to tell which parts are real and which are just bunch of people driving themselves into mass hysteria and the whole thing runs on dream or children's logic.
I was especially fond of of the way it does get the feel of children's folklore and oral tradition, this book is about ghost stories after all, and how on one hand some of the stories border on ridiculous and on the other kids can take things very calmly (there's a story of one girl who started to see ghosts in school, and "because of that no one wanted to be her friend anymore", other possible consequences were not mentioned).
I also liked the fact that adults play only a small role in the book, school zone is literally a world of its own. There are teachers and some parents, but they stay for the most part off-panel or panel shows only their hands or feet or have their faces obscured. Reminds me a bit of Peanuts (the "This Shit Is Weird, Charlie Brown" episode), or the more suspenseful moments of Harry Potter.

I enjoyed this a lot but no doubt anyone who wants a sensible plot in their stories will be sorely disappointed...

Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Brave and the Bold Showcase vol 3

As far as superheroes go, I have been mostly on the Marvel side. As a kid I started from Spidey and Hulk and moved on to Fantastic Four, X-Men and Daredevil, and to this day those are my primary idea what superhero comics are like (Supergoof and Phantom Duck are of course there too, but that's another thing).

I did read some Superman comics, because my local library had them, and they were sort of entertaining but not particularly gripping, and I do have a vague recollection of going through some Batman comics and finding them boring and smudgy.

In time I started to get less enthustiatic about Marvel and notice that DC was putting out some interesting books, things like Watchmen and books which would in time become Vertigo. And for several years now of the big two it is them I have paid more attention to, but my knowledge of actual DCU has been very limited, drawn mostly from those early Vertigo books, occasional Batman standalone miniseries and some of the more marginal series like Chase, Young Heroes in Love and Manhunter (yes, me getting interested in a superhero comic more often than not equals cancellation), or second-hand information received from DC enthusiasts like good folks of GLA.

So why does a DC neophyte like me read a showcase of Batman team-up stories from 70s? It was in the local library. Is it good? Ehh, not really if you are not in the target group.
I do think Batman is an interesting superhero, as a character, the type of the stories he is involved with and what kind of visual style often goes with his stories. Of course there's plenty of crap he has starred in but as an idea he is pretty much my favorite of DC big ones.
Unfortunately here the stories are pretty sraightforward, Batman meets another superhero and together they deal with whatever problem has been thrown their way. Slightly more intricate than having two people hit each other for twenty pages but only slightly.
In individual doses this might be sort of entertaining, or if I had some background I could care about these teamup partners and get geekgasms of Batman and Sgt Rock being in the same story.
But as it is, going through this book is a bit of a chore, the highlights being marveling at some of the more outre teamup partners (that postapocalyptic Planet-of-the-Apes-ripoff seemed pretty interesting) and looking at the art by Jim Aparo. Pretty.

I should look at some other Showcases though, I enjoy the format (as well as Essentials of Marvel) but they have been concentrating mostly on Silver Age and what I have seen of Silver Age DC has not impressed me. Well, I did enjoy House of Mystery and Batgirl Showcases, Superman one I tried took forever to read due to almost every story making my brain hurt and stuff like Green Lantern or LSH I haven't even dared to touch.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Iznogoud the Grand Vizier

Iznogoud is one of the second-string francophone comics, not quite as popular or famous as Asterix or Tintin but one which still has been published for decades, translated to several languages, got an animation series and even gave a catchphrase to the common language ("become caliph in caliph's place" is in use to describe strong ambitions to replace higher-ups, usually with backstabbing or other questionable methods and usually failing spectacularly).

The setting is high-fantasy Baghdad of 1001 Nights fame, where the titular Grand Vizier Iznogoud pursues to become Caliph as soon as he can get rid of the current one, Haroun El Poussah. The first years, when the comic was written by René Goscinny of Asterix fame, the stories were about 10-20 pages long but after his death when the artist Jean Tabary started also to write the comic there has been also album-long stories.
The comic sticks to status quo: no matter what happened in the last one, the situation is restored in the beginning of the next one. Caliph Haroun remains completely unaware of the evil machination of his Grand Vizier, and Iznogoud is always there, plotting, even if in the end of the last story he was disintegrated, or frozen, or turned into a worm, or ended up on the other side of the world or outer space...though I have heard Tabary has actually made an album showing how Iznogoud has recovered from all these conditions, unfortunately I have not read that one though.

Iznogoud is definitely one of the most evil and ruthless protagonists in comicdom, one who is not even an anti-hero. He is a pure cartoon villain with no redeeming qualities (unless one considers ineptness to be one). Meanwhile Caliph Haroun El Poussah is commonly considered to be a good ruler, mainly because he does so little of it, preferring sleeping a lot and other simple pleasures of life. As far as antagonists go, he is lazy, slow and passive one and it is typically Iznogoud himself who is his own worst enemy.
The voice of reason in the series is the loyal henchman of Iznogoud, Dilat Larath (Iznogoud does not return the loyalty). He has something of a Sancho Panza role in the stories, as well as the one who either ends up being a test subject for whatever dangerous magic Iznogoud has found or the one who is left picking the pieces in the end.

While some of the stories use pretty regular elements commonly acceptable in 1001 Nights milieu, there are quite a lot of openly anachronistic elements too, though of course wearing "it's magic" tag. There's a magical wall calendar from which you rip pages off and can glue them back on, there's a mail order catalog from which you can order any three things from future (Iznogoud jumps over assault rifles and hand grenades and orders stuff like exercise bicycles and Camembert cheese...) and so forth.
The comics also don't shy away from metacomic elements, and beside occasional cameo roles Tabary has also been an active participant in the story more than once (it works both ways though, couple of stories end up in whatever dangerous magic has been the subject of the story hitting Tabary as he is drawing the last page...). And since many of the more regular stories end in disasters due to ridiculously improbable events, it is good and proper that the writers every now and then show up and remind the reader that writing a status quo comedy is all about cheating.
But even when it comes to regular stories, it is a pleasure to see magic which feels like magic. After several years of playing RPGs and reading run-of-the-mill fantasy books I have become somewhat desentisized to magic items, all those magic swords and rings of protection+1, so jigsaw puzzle which disintegrates whoever you are thinking of when you complete it and things like that are a bit of fresh air (and yes, I have swiped an element or two into my RPGs).

As far as age groups go, Iznogoud is a bit of a puzzler. It is a comedy series wit cartoonish four-color art, and for the most part steers away from overt sex and violence (some later albums written by Tabary have started to throw in some a bit more questionable on-panel material), but there is that whole concept of highly evil protagonist, and generic threat of violence in the could argue that it is a series children would enjoy but their parents might have problems with (and as is common with francophone comics, part of comedy is derived from stereotyping which many Americans tend to find offensive...)

Makes one wonder though if there are other comics having a villain of this purity as a main character (I know likes of Joker and Beagle Boys have starred in their own comics but as protagonists their villainity is always downplayed). Or why 1001 Nights is dragging so much behind, say, pseudomedieval Europe when it comes to sources for fantasy writers to stripmine.

Monday, 26 July 2010

So what this is about?

This is about me commenting comics I have been reading.

There is a fair amount of blogs and other sites out there doing this already, but I noticed that except for couple of sites they concentrated on whatever came out this week. Which is all fine and proper, but betrays an attitude I do not fully share.
I see comics as an art form. Not just in a highbrow way like Finnegan's Wake or L'Année dernière à Marienbad are art (though those too have their place) but also like Pride and Prejudice or Terminator 2 are art. And one of the characteristics of art is that it is not bound to specific week or month until it is replaced by next week's offerings, the work exists in itself.
Actually I am quite poor at picking up comics (or books or music or movies) right after they come out, I usually let time to do a bit of separation for me and come looking after a year or two. If the work cannot be found anymore after this probation period it couldn't have been that good anyway.

I should mention that I do have quite broad taste in what I like, so in future pieces I will be picking American, European and Japanese (and other too, should I come across any) comics of various styles. Some of them might be out of print (but there's no reason why they should be) and some of them might not be available in all the languages of the world, English included (but there's no reason why they shouldn't be, unless otherwise mentioned).
My comments will be mostly on positive side, I do read good comics after all.

More metacomments posted when necessary.

First post

Yes, exactly what the world needs, another blog.