Sporadic Sequential
Tuesday, February 20, 2007
The Universal Appeal of Alienation and Humiliation

Abandon the Old in Tokyo
By: Yoshihiro Tatsumi
Length: 224 pages
Price: $19.95
Publisher: Drawn & Quarterly

The Bottom Line: If you're looking for the antithesis of the stereotypical cheery, upbeat shonen manga, this is the book for you.

The Details: Seriously, this book — the second in a three-volume series collecting Yoshihiro Tatsumi's underground manga short stories — is one of the most downbeat and depressing things I can remember reading. I'd read Tatsumi's previous work in The Push Man and Other Stories, so I was familiar with his focus on the alienating effects of modern society, but this volume comes across as even bleaker than the first. (After reading the book my first associative thought was of The Onion's frequent reliance on the idea of life as meaningless and soul-crushing for a punchline.)

There are no happy endings in the eight stories collected here. Most stories involve humiliation, mutilation, or death to varying degrees. Still, the works are definitely worth reading for the level of craft involved. Tatsumi does a great job of quickly drawing the reader in and creating sympathy for otherwise unsympathetic protagonists. Tatsumi has been referred to as "the grandfather of Japanese alternative comics," which brought to mind the common (if perhaps overly broad) criticism of American alternative comics as featuring whiny, self-indulgent characters. Although the characters in Tatsumi's stories are often pathetic, they're not annoyingly self-pitying. Partly this is because Tatsumi's characters are too silent and stoic to speak at all, much less waste breath on complaining. But another reason is because Tatsumi is so successful in portraying the oppressive conditions that drive his characters to the depths of their desperation. Each story reads like a case study in how loneliness and alienation can work to erode an individual's self-confidence and self-worth.

In the introduction, author Koji Suzuki (of The Ring fame) expresses surprise that Tatsumi's stories — which he sees as so tied to a specific period in Japan's development — are finding audiences in other, modern cultures, but it's really not so surprising. Tatsumi's tales are universal in their examination of the various ways in which the unhappiness and misfortune of the human condition can manifest itself.

Plus, where else can you see a washed-up Lassie performing oral sex on a decrepit Japanese businessman?

(The scene goes on like this for another page, but if you want to see the rest of it you'll have to read the book yourself, you pervert!)
Monday, February 19, 2007
Methodology Musings

There's a lot to digest in Brian Hibbs' look at BookScan's year-end chart of 2006's best-selling books in the "adult fiction | overall | graphic novels" category, but there was one particular tidbit I wanted to focus on. After reaching the bottom of the list (where the lowest-selling title shows 4,784 copies sold in 2006), Hibbs remarks:
That’s it for “art comics” – there’s no D&Q, there’s no FirstSecond (on that one I checked with a source, yup they’re all below the 4784 line; nope, not even American Born Chinese)
Say what?!? Nothing from First Second managed to place on BookScan's list of best-selling graphic novels for 2006?????

Even after my initial shock wore off, this fact still continued to nag at me. After a while, I finally realized why: According to ICv2 interviews with First Second's editorial director Mark Siegel, at least two books from First Second each had print runs over 20,000 copies. American Born Chinese, for example, had a combined print run over 25,000. As Siegel noted, the first printing was 16,000, which was before the book was nominated for a National Book Award. The second printing was for around 10,000 copies, and there was a planned (as of Dec. 4, 2006) third printing of unspecified size. This also doesn't count copies of the more upscale, more expensive Collector's Edition, which Siegel says is "usually a print run of about 2,000 for the diehards." So even before a third printing, close to 30,000 copies of American Born Chinese were in print.

Other bestsellers for First Second included Sardine in Outer Space (three printings for a total near 25,000) and Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda (two printings for a total near 20,000).

So where are all those books going? First, a couple assumptions/qualifications:
  1. I have no idea how closely print runs line up with actual sales. I'm sure it's not one-for-one, but I'm also assuming sales have to be fairly strong for a publisher to go back to print multiple times.

  2. I'm assuming the Direct Market was not the primary market for these books. Although I'm sure many of the finer comic shops did a good job selling these books, Diamond's graphic novel charts fail to list American Born Chinese any of the months after its September 2006 release, or on its year-end list, either. (One thing that could skew this assumption is if First Second is another one of those publishers where retailers get a better deal ordering from distributors other than Diamond, in which case of course First Second's books aren't going to show up on Diamond's lists.)
Based on this, I'm guessing that what's happening is that at least some of First Second's books are getting classified in a category other than "adult fiction | overall | graphic novels." According to the BookScan website:
Nielsen BookScan categorizes first under the headings: Adult fiction, Adult non-fiction, Children and Other. Within these categories subjects or genres are broken out further in order to reflect common subject groups such as mystery, romance, art, cooking, study aids, toddler and young adult, etc.. Nielsen BookScan uses BISAC codes, a system of over 4,000 tags devised by the Book Industry Study Group used to determine where a title falls in the subject groupings.
So BookScan starts with four high-level groupings — Adult fiction, Adult non-fiction, Children and Other — and then narrows it down from there. And the list Hibbs is looking at is only covering graphic novels from the adult fiction quadrant. And, back to ICv2's interview with Mark Siegel, it sounds like some of their books may be categorized under the "Children" heading:
In chains, is that series going into the children's department?
Sardines [sic] is, and from our second list, sometimes Kampung Boy has been going into children's. Even Journey into Mohawk Country, which is our first real non-fiction entry, is sometimes shelved in the children's section. Mostly the rest of our list gets shelved with graphic novels.

Of course, being shelved in a section isn't the same as BookScan tagging it that way for tracking, but I'm guessing Sardine is actually classified as a children's book given the target audience. (I don't have my copy with me; otherwise I'd check the classification on the back cover myself.) I have no idea if this could account for American Born Chinese's mysterious absence from the BookScan list, but it was nominated for an award in the Youth Literature category, so it's possible.

Another possibility, of course, is that First Second's books are selling in venues that aren't tracked by BookScan. Given BookScan's apparent penetration into the bookstore market, however, this seems lees likely. (Although perhaps not as unlikely as it might first seem. The example of the gap between Fun Home's sales and the sales measured through BookScan is another case of wondering where those sales are coming from. (Oops — upon further googling, it looks like the 55K figure is for books in print, not actual sales, so perhaps the sales gap isn't quite as pronounced.))

In closing, this is just my long, rambly way of saying: Yeah, these kinds of sales lists are always interesting, but they should always be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of First Second, the disconnect between print run figures from the publisher and sales figures from BookScan is large enough to make me question the overall usefulness of BookScan's data. It may be helpful for tracking larger overall trends (manga continues to dominate the sales charts but DC is doing better and better in the bookstore market) but when you start to drill down and look at specific examples, everything begins to grow murky. Or, as Hibbs said more succinctly in his intro, "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics."
Monday, February 12, 2007
Marvel Knights Poetry Corner

Courtesy of Graeme McMillan and the comic blogosphere's poet laureate Ed Cunard comes this touching poem about love and mortality in the Marvel Universe:

Parker Dreams

Oh God, I'm
sorry! The doctors
didn't understand how
happened! How you
had been poisoned
by radioactivity!
How your body
became riddled
with cancer!

I did.
I was...
I am
filled with
radioactive blood.
And not just blood.
Every fluid.
Touching me...
loving me ...
Loving me killed you!

Like a spider, crawling up
inside your body
and laying
a thousand eggs
of cancer...

I killed you.

[Original text by Kaare Andrews]

As Anton Chekhov once noted, ""If you're going to show a penis in book one, it'd better go off by book three."
Sunday, February 04, 2007
Silver Age Manga

From CLAMP's ground-breaking series about superheroes and their sexual proclivities, Green Lantern: Chobits:

After making love to Tin, ace pilot and notorious robo-lothario Hal Jordan works his way through the rest of the Metal Men before finally finding true love with his ideal mate.
Friday, February 02, 2007
Manga Miscellany

It looks like Oh My Goddess! Colors has been cancelled by Dark Horse (which explains why the title went missing from the series page). Expect Dark Horse to announce this officially... never.

There's a Bleach movie??? Why wasn't I informed?

Dave Carter managed to score a copy of the manga everyone's been waiting for, Yotsuba&! Volume 4. Not only that, but he got copies of Volumes 5 and 6 as well! Of course, the books are all in Japanese, but still. Lucky bastard.

Shaenon Garrity shares samples from Kekkaishi, winner of a Shogakukan Manga Award in the shonen category. When I first read Shaenon's post, I assumed the images were from scanlations, but it turns out Kekkaishi has been published in English by Viz since 2005 and is already up to volume 7, which just goes to show how behind on manga I am. The benefit of being so behind, though, is that the whole series is available at my local library, so I can sample the series before I buy it. (And it turns out Shaenon has posted pages from Kekkaishi before, as well.) [Via David Welsh]
Thursday, February 01, 2007
Bleach Babbling

I love Bleach. For my money, it's one of the most addictive, action-packed, adrenaline-pumping series out there. Once again, the latest volume is a series of lengthy battles between opponents other than our main character (who actually only appears in a brief flashback scene the entire book), but I still managed to get completely caught up in the action once I cracked open the cover.

And then there are the quiet moments during the epic battles, which somehow manage to be even more unnerving than the actual fighting thanks to creator Tite Kubo's excellent pacing and composition. Just look at the page below:

Doesn't that just scream, "Uh oh -- bad things are going to happen"? (I don't know; maybe it only works in context of the surrounding story. But since I know what's going on in that scene, I get shivers just looking at it again.)

The only problem with Bleach is it's probably not very accessible to newcomers. At this point the series is on book seventeen and the same storyline has been going on for over ten volumes already. And the cast of characters has grown so large I can't even keep them all straight anymore. (Thankfully, Viz provides a helpful "story so far" recap at the beginning of each volume, including short bios for each of the main characters featured in the current volume, which helps jog my failing memory every two-to-three months.) Yes, the series is self-contained, so if you do want to read it, all you need to do is start with the first volume, but I imagine it's a little intimidating to jump into a series that's already over three thousand pages in.

So has anyone tried jumping into Bleach mid-epic storyline? If so, was it completely unintelligible? Or has anyone started the series recently (perhaps after watching the anime on Cartoon Network)? What did you think? Do you plan to continue with the manga even though there are a lot of back books to catch up on? Let me know in the comments!
What's Japanese For 'Congratulations!'?

Well, this is a development I honestly didn't see coming in Love Roma:

There's no additional info about the upcoming (February 27th, according to Amazon) volume 5 on Del Ray's site, so who knows if the cover image actually reflects the book's contents in any way. (Maybe it's a look into Hoshino and Negishi's possible future, à la so many Marvel and DC comics? Will this special "marriage issue" boost sales the way it would for a superhero comic?) Still, it's a cute image for an utterly charming series.