Sporadic Sequential
Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Judy Drood and the Case of the Ghastly Gallery Ghouls

Noticed this when shopping at a local Creative Kidstuff over the weekend: Richard Sala has done the illustrations for a children's book called Gallery Ghost, where children are encouraged to learn about famous artists and their paintings through an investigative game. (The ghosts of famous artists come out at night and paint details of their works into other artists' paintings; children can use an included magnifying glass to search for the incongruous elements.)

Things get a little weird toward the end when all the ghosts turn into
vampires and Judy has to burn down the museum to survive.

It looked like a fun book, but I passed on it because I thought our daughter might not be ready for it yet. (It's listed for ages 7+ and she's just turning three in a couple weeks.) However, since I'm unable to find the book for a discount anywhere online, I may have to go back and snatch it up as a future gift. (I'm also curious to page through it and see if Peculia turns up at all.)

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Yaoi Explained in Two Panels

Fumi Yoshinaga* explains the appeal of yaoi:

From her wonderful series, Flower of Life, where you can also learn about chicken sexing, recipes for various dishes and desserts, and how to put on a successful class play for your school cultural festival. (HINT: make sure your leads are attractive and talented.)

* Note: the character offering the explanation is generally unreliable in everything else he says or does, so take his theory with a couple grams of salt.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008
Today's Mangarama Exclusive: Junji Ito & Taiyo Matsumoto New Creative Team on 'Naruto'!

The manga Marvel tributes got me thinking about the differences between manga and Western corporate comics. Chatting with Deb Aoki via email, we were considering the possibility of a whole art book of Japanese artists presenting their takes on famous American superheroes and thought it could be a really fun project. But the idea of the reverse wasn't as appealing to either of us. I think part of is that, whereas a superhero series might change writers and artists every few months, manga series are strongly (pretty much exclusively) associated with their original creators. Perhaps an art book of American creators offering their interpretations of popular manga characters could work, but it's a harder thought experiment for me to wrap my head around.

Anyway, the whole thing led to some questions that I thought readers might be able to help me out with:

1. Has there ever been a manga series that changed creators, for whatever reason? Has a creator ever handed over the rights of his series to another creator? (I'm thinking of something like Miracleman where the rights were passed along as creators moved on.) Have assistants ever taken over when the original creator got bored of the series?

2. Has there ever been a corporate-owned manga that was continued after the original creator left the book? Have any creators ever sold the rights to their works for a lump sum? Have characters or series ever continued to have new volumes published even after the death or retirement of the original creator?

3. What is the longest-running manga series? Has it always had the same creator? (I found some answers relating to the longest-running continuously published serialized manga, but I'm more curious about the manga with the most volumes published.)

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Friday, April 25, 2008
Just Imagine Stan Lee Creating The Ultimo Universe

Deb Aoki confirmed that the special supplement in the latest issue of Jump SQ II (which features the debut of Stan Lee and Hiroyuki Takei's Ultimo (no, not that Ultimo)) does feature Japanese artists' interpretations of Lee's most famous co-creations, characters from the Marvel universe:
I got a hold of a copy of Jump SQ II, and it's a treat to see some of the Hiroyuki Takei's manga illustrations as well as several Shonen Jump manga artists drawing their take on Lee's creations, Spiderman, Iron Man and more.
(Actually, upon futher investigation, I see that Deb's 4/19 report on Viz's Ultimo press event had already mentioned this with even more details:)
there's a mini-color insert featuring an interview with Lee and Takei-sensei and some amazing color illustrations of Spiderman, Doctor Doom, Doc Octopus and Iron Man done by manga artists Tatsuya Endo (Tista), Yamato Yamamoto (Kure-nai), Yutaka Minowa (Ninja Scroll) Yusuke Murata (Eyeshield 21) and Masakazu Katsura (Zetman).
Since I couldn't think of any store in the Twin Cities area that would carry Japanese magazine imports, I turned to, uh, other means to satisfy my curiosity. So far I've only been able to find one illustration, Yusuke Murata's interpretation of Spider-Man, which looks more like a poster for the Spider-Man 2 movie than a tribute to the characters from the comic:

I was wondering if Marvel has promoted this at all on their end but couldn't find any mention of it anywhere on their site. (They do mention Stan Lee's receiving "the first-ever New York Comics Legend Award" at NYCC 2008, though.) Wouldn't this be something a lot of "crossover" fans (i.e., fans of both anime/manga and superheroes) might find interesting? Wouldn't Marvel be interested in trumpeting this as indicative of the universal appeal of their characters? It just strikes me as odd that Marvel didn't try to ride the buzz on this at all.

UPDATE: Deb Aoki was kind enough to provide this complete breakdown of what's in the Jump SQ II Stan Lee supplement:
  • Tatsuya Endo (Tista) – Spider-Man
  • Yamato Yamamoto (Kure-nai) – Spider-Man
  • Yutaka Minowa (Ninja Scroll) – Doctor Doom
  • Yusuke Murata (Eyeshield 21) – Spider-Man and Doctor Octopus
  • Makakazu Katsura (Zetman) – Iron Man
  • Plus a 2 page spread explaining who Lee is and his creations, and a 2 page spread with an interview and photos with both Lee and Takei.
Thanks, Deb!

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Thursday, April 24, 2008
Shonen Jump Special Feature: Spot The Subtext!

Here's another reason to look forward to Viz's upcoming release of Slam Dunk: It turns out I'd totally missed the gay subtext the first time around:
Their [Rukawa and Sakuragi's] domestic banter in every panel was so charming and amusing that girls used this as their base for their relationship. Rukawa played the Kichiku-seme in this scenario. He would generally appear cold and uncaring, but in the end he would do anything for Sakuragi. Sakuragi was the wild monkey he had to tame.

Hmm, hot, sweaty men running around, bumping into each other, patting each other's butts, showering together... Nope, I'm just not seeing where these female fans find any fuel for their forbidden fantasies.

Actually, the whole fujoshi (i.e., "rotten girl") phenomenon is interesting to me. If I understand it correctly, female fans became enough of a force that Shonen Jump started making subtle concessions to them in the magazine, playing up story elements that could be used to construe that various male characters had romantic feelings for each other. Which is pretty impressive if you think about it: Imagine DC Comics doing anything to encourage homoerotic readings of the bonds between any of their male characters. (Or did Devin Grayson already do this?) Also interesting: Khursten suggests that the more SJ indulged the fujoshis' tastes, the less appealing the series became to those very fans:
However, after some more fan service, and even a little more towards the recent years, the magazine became over-saturated with fujoshi overtones and it’s no longer fun. Well for me, it lost the fun. As I said earlier, what was left for the fujoshi to imagine? More so, the fujoshi moe and maybe even regular moe diluted the core of their stories. Perseverance. Victory. Friendship. Although a few titles still keep these values, most have been written simply to whet the fantasies of the readers. In the end, you find yourself wondering “Why did I even read this story to begin with?”
In other words, sometimes giving the fans what they say they want (or what publishers assume they want) will actually disappoint them in the long run because it won't be what they really want. Which makes sense: if everything's explicit, where's the joy of discovering some unrevealed (or completely imagined) facet of a story? Part of the fun in teasing out some ribald reading of an old comic is the excitement of uncovering something new that no one else noticed before. (There's also the subversive thrill of anachronistically altering an outdated story in a manner that will undoubtedly upset more conservative fans.) Doujinshi could then be seen as a natural extension of the creative impulse of "decoding" the officially published stories: Fans take the subtext they've noticed and they make it the text. But it's no fun if the publisher does the work for you, because then the doujinshi feel redundant. And it can be annoying if it feels like the publisher or creator is simply pandering in a clumsy effort to cash in on a trend by throwing in some surface elements without understanding the real reason the material appealed to fans in the first place .

(I first became aware of the fujoshi phenomenon when a commenter pointed out that Bleach was a favorite among the so-called rotten girls due to all the tortured, angsting prettyboys Tite Kubo populates the series with. I still haven't noticed any homoerotic subtext yet, but that's mainly because whenever I read a new volume of Bleach I get caught up in all the action. Perhaps I'll have to go back and re-read Bleach while making a conscious effort to spot the subtext.)

WARNING: Do not search Google Images for "Bleach yaoi" unless you are prepared to go down a path your brain will never return from.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008
An Unsurprising Announcement

Just a quick note to warn readers that with the arrival of honest-to-goodness springlike weather in Minneapolis, I'll likely be blogging even less frequently than usual for the foreseeable future. I know, I know, new content is already a rare thing here, but with the onset of temperatures above sixty degrees, I suddenly feel compelled to venture outdoors and commune with nature. With all the spring cleaning, yard work, and playing with the kids at the park that will be occupying my evenings, I'm not sure I'll have much time even to read comics much less blog about them.

That said, I always hate doing blogging-about-not-blogging posts like these, so here's a quick bit of comics content:

ITEM! I scanned the reports from NYCC and I honestly couldn't find anything in them that interested me. About the only thing that sounded mildly intriguing was news that the Stan Lee Ultimo manga "is appearing in a special edition of Jump SQ that also includes a pullout booklet of Japanese artists’ interpretations of Lee’s characters." If that means that Japanese manga-ka are going to be offering their takes on the classic Marvel Comics characters, (1) I'd really, really like to see that, so I hope when Ultimo is released here that's included as an extra; and (2) I totally claim credit for the whole idea. [OK, this wasn't new news, but "more Bleach, more Takehiko Inoue" still makes me happy, so I suppose there was something from NYCC that interested me.]

ITEM! Recent Reads That Rock: Nexus Archives 1, The Perry Fellowship Bible, Shortcomings. All great for their own reasons, but all great reminders of how diverse and vital the sequential art form can be. (Shortcomings alone is great for containing the highest ratio of cringe-inducing character moments ever put to panel.)

ITEM! So long, Dave, and thanks for all the laughs. (Can I claim the rights to "THE F*@% YEAH FILES"? I always thought that was a great feature.)

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Thursday, April 17, 2008
Before They Were Stars: Teru & Ako

Not many readers realize this (I didn't until a commenter pointed it out to me last week), but Dragon Head wasn't the first work for Teru Aoki and Ako Seto. The two previously worked together on another manga (currently only available via scanlation, and even then only incompletely), Zashiki Onna:

Obviously, they're a bit younger and not as accomplished, but it's still interesting to see the origins of a creative dynamic that would serve them well years later in their best-known pairing in Dragon Head:

Of course, after that breakout success, many claimed everything went downhill for the two. Evidently fame went to their heads and soon they were almost unrecognizable when they cashed in on a big-budget remake of Dragon Head helmed by Michael Bay:

After the film bombed at the box office, both actors' careers went into freefall. Even former fans turned on the two, dismissing them as "sellouts" or worse. After years out of the public eye, both Teru and Ako have recently attempted to jump-start comeback efforts with appearances on the Japanese version of "Dancing with the Stars."

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008
Heady Stuff

Dragon Head Volume 10 brings the suspenseful survivalist series to a strangely anticlimactic close. It's an ending both bleak and uplifting, with our heroes facing apparent imminent demise yet still managing to find comfort in the fact that they're facing it together. It's an ending both frustrating and fulfilling, as things suddenly come to an abrupt stop with long-lingering mysteries wrapped up too quickly and conveniently, yet in many ways it feels like the perfect ending for this series. This was never a series about endings or answers (although possible reasons for the disaster are clumsily provided through a clunky, too-long text piece, they're presented as speculative); rather, it was a series about the journey and the effect such exploration has on the explorer. A deranged character claims that "everything is created by the human mind, even this world itself" but this is exactly backwards: All the characters in the series act and evolve based on the way their external environments have shaped them. A thuggish character who had seemed at least somewhat redeemed returns to form at the end, threatening his former companions in order to get what he wants. Rebuffed and alone, he attempts to comfort himself with a stoic and solipsistic thought: "I've always been like this... This world can't change me... Nothing can..." But this ignores the evidence to the contrary: When things seemed more optimistic, he was capable of cooperative action. It was only when things looked hopeless that he panicked and acted selfishly. And even this response was conditioned by his past, as he unwittingly revealed a few moments earlier: "[Life] never gave me anything. Everything I ever had, I had to take." We are all products of our environments. (I find it telling that the only character who managed to transcend his external influences was the one who acknowledged the influence his environment had on his character. Only by recognizing the external forces acting on him could Teru hope to shape his actions and reactions consciously, and in turn hope to shape his surroundings (or at least his perception of it).)

As thought-provoking as the ending was, though, what I'll remember most about this series is the journey. Creator Minetaro Mochizuki managed to out-Akira Akira with his lovingly detailed drawings of a devastated Japan. At times the incredible amount of detail proved distracting, making the story difficult to follow (Where is Teru in that collapsing building? What just happened in that panel transition? What is everyone staring at?), but that's perhaps appropriate in a story about being lost and confused in a familiar setting made unrecognizable by destruction. Now that Mochizuki's grand tour is complete, I find myself wanting to revisit the series again from the very beginning. Here are some of the stops that stood out as highlights for me the first time through:

The Abyss: Mochizuki's use of pure black spreads may be viewed by some as a cheat, but I found it remarkably effective. After page upon page of realistically rendered rubble, the sudden abscene of anything was stunningly shocking. The multiple double-page spreads of inky blackness really conveyed the enormity of the pit our cast descended into. It was reminiscent of a piece of abstract art striking and bold in its primacy. It also brought to mind the saying, "If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you."

The Tunnels: The sequence where Teru ventures deeper and deeper into the subway tunnels was one of the tensest and most claustrophobic things I can recall reading in a comic book. Mochizuki did a masterful job of staging the space so that you felt as though you were right there with Teru in the tunnels, struggling with the conflicting feelings of "I wonder what's up ahead?" versus "Omigod, I should just turn around and head back to the surface right now!" Gripping, suspenseful stuff.

The Ash: When Teru finally reaches Tokyo, there's a bittersweet feeling beautifully captured in the scenes of a city covered in layers of ash. Yes, you're back home again, but it's not really home anymore, is it? You can never truly go back home again. Having reached his destination, what will Teru do now that he's found what he was looking for? What will he do if what he was searching for no longer exists? And what will we readers do now that the story is over? The answer: Reminisce, reflect, but ultimately move on.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008
In Which I Spend Too Much Time Arguing About Numbers I Don't Even Have Access To

In his latest post at Newsarama, Paul Levitz addresses confusion over his contention that genre graphic novels "spread the readers around to the most titles" while manga is "dominated by a handful of properties":
A few people here and elsewhere seemed to take issue with my comment that manga was more “increasingly dominated by a handful of properties” than American graphic novels. I went back and checked a bit, and for the fourth quarter last year, something north of 20% of bookstore manga sales came from four properties, and over 40 of the top 50 titles were from those four. That seems pretty concentrated to me, and more so than our core business, so I’ll stand by the comment.
If that's what he meant, fine. While I might debate his phrasing, there's no denying that the four breakout manga properties he's referring to (Naruto, Fruits Basket, Death Note, Bleach) consistently owned the top of the sales charts in 2007. In fact, those who track manga sales often complain about how boring the charts look, going so far as to create "denarutofied" versions of the charts. Still, a couple comments in response to Levitz's clarification:
  1. I notice that now Levitz is claiming he was looking at the bookstore sales from fourth quarter 2007, whereas in his initial comments the impression he gave was that he was discussing Brian Hibbs' Bookscan numbers, which were for all of 2007, not just the last quarter. I haven't seen the numbers Levitz is looking at, so I have no idea how different they might be from the numbers Hibbs was referring to.
  2. Looking at the Bookscan numbers for all of 2007, DC only has one book in the top 50 (Watchmen) and only one more in the top 100 (Heroes). Within the top 100, thirteen different manga properties are represented (in addition to the top four already mentioned, they are: Absolute Boyfriend, Fullmetal Alchemist, Gentlemen's Alliance, Kingdom Hearts, Loveless, Millennium Snow, Negima, Pokemon, Warriors).
  3. Finding out that "something north of 20% of bookstore manga sales came from four properties" surprises me because I would have expected that to be much higher. After all, in Hibbs' analysis, he pointed out that Naruto accounted for "17% of the total manga sold in the Top 750."
  4. I still have to suppress a chuckle when someone from DC criticizes another segment of the comic industry for being dominated by a handful of properties since DC's backlist looks like Monty Python's "Spam" skit with the word "Batman" substituted instead.
  5. Hey, DC! You publish manga! And some of it is actually quite good, garnering lots of critical praise around the blogosphere. I'm sure it hurts that your efforts haven't met with the successes of Viz or Tokyopop. I'm hoping you have an honest-to-gosh manga hit someday (maybe Crayon Shinchan will benefit from the Cartoon Network effect?) just to see if it improves your attitude towards manga.
Finally, I'm still unclear how it is that genre graphic novels "spread the readers around to the most titles," which was my main question in my original post. Levitz can slice the numbers up any way he wants to show how limited manga is, but that still doesn't mean that American genre graphic novels are any more expansive. Again, looking at the Bookscan numbers, it's hard to see how American genre graphic novels could drive readers to more titles. If you cut the list off above 100, very little of DC's "core business" is represented; and if you expand the list further down the long tail, more and more manga series pop up, overwhelming any showing by American genre graphic novels. Just because a handful of manga series dominate the top 50 doesn't mean your company is doing anything more diverse within that same space.

UPDATE 4/16 [updated again to correct a misunderstanding]: In an effort to keep this from becoming an entirely imaginary argument, I emailed Paul Levitz directly with questions I had about his statements. Mr. Levitz graciously took the time to respond, confirming that his observations were based on the Q4 2007 Bookscan numbers for the overall top 50 graphic novels, not the full 2007 Bookscan numbers Brian Hibbs dissected. According to Levitz, American genre graphic novels had a larger number of distinct properties (e.g., Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, X-Men, 300) represented on the Q4 2007 top 50 graphic novels than manga did. While I haven't seen the Q4 2007 numbers, I can believe this, as ICv2 reported that non-manga graphic novels made an unusually strong showing on the charts for the week ending December 2nd with "seven non-manga graphic novels in the top 25" and eight spots out of the top 50.

explaining that his observations were based on a comparison between two different sources: Q4 2007 sales figures in both bookstores and the Direct Market for American GNs; and Q4 2007 Bookscan numbers alone for manga. Based on these sources, Levitz concluded that American genre graphic novels represent a broader range of distinct properties than manga does. (When I asked about the issue of comparing apples and oranges with the different markets, Levitz pointed out that "Bookscan is a fair model in miniature for total manga sales" so he felt it was fair to extrapolate based on these data alone.)

[An interesting aside: During our email correspondence, Levitz remarked, "I can't speak for other American publishers, but we're grateful for the retail doors manga helped push open, and the readers it has interested…in both ways a significant positive effect on the American comics market above and beyond the dollars generated." Which I thought was a pretty neat acknowledgment from an American comic book publisher regarding the impact manga has had on the overall market for comics.]

Again, my thanks to Mr. Levitz for taking the time to respond to my inquiries, and my apologies for any excessive snark in my earlier posts. (It's true what they say: Paul Levitz really is a mensch!)

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Monday, April 14, 2008
Let's Hope Vol. 11 Cranks The Insanity Up To 11

Over the weekend, I caught up on a couple manga series I was behind on. One of them was The Drifting Classroom, a series I recently fell in love with after initially being less than impressed. I blazed through books 4 through 9 (my library hasn't ordered the last two volumes yet) and was planning on rating the books on a proposed Kazuo Umezu "Insane-O-Meter" system Matthew J. Brady and I came up with. But I was tired and decided to read more comics rather than do any blogging last night. Which was a good thing, because it turns out Connie over at Slightly Biased Manga went on a similar reading binge, covering books 5 through 11 in a single day and cataloging many of the insane plot elements I was going to list as support for my rankings. (She also covered volumes 2 through 4 a couple days earlier. Was it The Drifting Classroom Marathon Weekend and nobody told me?) So head on over to her site and find out the many reasons why you should be reading this wonderfully demented series.

[And just because I'd already listed out some of my favorite bits from vol. 9, here's my rating for that book:]
  • Mutant starfish!
  • Schoolyard knife fight!!
  • Boys bashing young girls' brains in with primitive stone axes!!!
  • Students performing an emergency appendectomy with no surgical tools or anesthetic!!!!
For these totally insane events and many more, The Drifting Classroom Volume 9 scores a 9 out of 10 Shocked Shos on the Kazuo Umezu Insane-O-Meter!!!!

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008
A Manga You Probably Won't See Appearing In Shonen Jump Any Time Soon

I don't really read many scanlations (I have too many officially licensed manga sitting unread in my office, for one thing) but occasionally I stumble upon something that sucks me in. My current scanlation obsession [discovered on scans_daily] is Franken Fran. SnoopyCool.com, which hosts the scanlations, describes the series as follows:
Franken Fran is a manga that I'm not exactly expecting a lot of people to like as much as I do. This is basically a super dark, slighty gore-ish comedy about being careful what you with for. Fran can make anyone into anything, raise the dead, switch heads and bodies and give you those eyes that you've always wanted. But do you actually want them? Is it a good thing to raise the dead? Do the ends justify the means? And does Fran care?
I'd describe it as an amped up Tales From The Crypt for the new generation. (Imagine that there'd been no comic code to worry about so EC could have shown disembowelments and other gruesome fates in graphic detail.) Still, despite the gore, the series does have a heart... even if that heart is frequently ripped out and stepped on at the very end. My personal favorite so far is chapter two, which has my vote for the most disturbing ending you'll ever read. I'd reproduce the final page here, as it has a scene that still haunts me days after reading it, but I don't want to spoil the surprise for anyone. If you do read it, let me know if I'm sick for finding it darkly humorous and a clever twist on an old cliche as well as horrific and heartbreaking all at the same time.

A quiet moment after a hard day's mad scientisting.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008
Sporadic Superhero Samplings: What If We Had A Team-Up And Everyone Came?

Occasionally when I make my trips to the local library to pick up my manga reserves (latest catch-up obsessions: School Rumble and The Drifting Classroom), I browse the graphic novel sections (there are two: one in "young adult / teen" and one in "adult") and pick up some impulse reads. Even more occasionally, I end up grabbing some superhero comics. Here are some thoughts on two recent library reads.

Anyone who's read Alan Davis' Elseworlds tale JLA: The Nail will find his take on the "final" Fantastic Four story, Fantastic Four: The End, familiar. Both books feature Davis throwing in absolutely everything he loves about the respective comic book universes, even if they don't always really fit with the story being told (in fact, FF: The End could just as easily be titled Marvel Universe: The End since it features nearly every non-mutant Marvel character); both books are barely held together by the slimmest of plots; and both books work despite the jumbled mess of characters and slapdash story scaffolding, mainly because Davis succeeds in evoking the essential elements that captured our imaginations when we were younger, less cynical readers.

FF: The End starts out with the team long since disbanded over a terrible tragedy that took the lives of the Richards' children, Franklin and Valeria. Unable to cope with their grief, Reed and Sue go their separate ways, while Ben and Johnny engage in their own pursuits. Meanwhile, life on Earth has changed dramatically, with mutants eradicated and society a virtual utopia thanks to Reed Richards' scientific advancements. However, a series of shadowy galactic sabotage strikes threatens to disrupt the harmony of human existence.

Calling the basic plot of FF: The End weak almost feels too generous: it really does seem like Davis just strung together some random ideas in an effort to connect all the elements he wanted to include in this story. Why the alien races are so intent on messing with Earth is never really clear, and that entire plotline is resolved in the most dubious of dues ex machina developments by actors other than our core four (although at least the resolution does have a tie to FF lore). Still, it's doubtful that anyone seeking out this book is looking for the tightest of plotting; the draw here is seeing Alan Davis play with the toys of the Marvel Universe. And in this book, Davis manages to cram in nearly every single character from Lee and Kirby's landmark run on Fantastic Four. (When Davis even manages to sneak in the Infant Terrible's race, you know he's been thorough in checking off every concept from his Kirby checklist.)

So, overall I really enjoyed reading this comic, but enjoyment was one fueled almost entirely by comic geek nostalgia. I can't imagine this book being as much fun for someone unfamiliar with the Lee/Kirby collaboration. That said, for fans of the "classic" FF, this is a definite recommendation. There are some really nice character moments that will resonate with long-time FF fans, such as Ben Grimm finally finding happiness with a (biological) family of his own; Sue proving herself the most capable member of the team, even when no one else believes in her; Johnny maturing somewhat (at least until he regresses back to girl-chasing teenager mode again in the presence of Crystal; and Reed simply being Reed (aloof, absent-minded, arrogant, and detached).

Plus, there's the stunning Alan Davis artwork. Did I mention how much fun it is seeing Alan Davis cut loose on all these characters like this?

In contrast, The Brave and The Bold Volume 1: The Lords of Luck by Mark Waid and George Perez left me feeling grumpy. Part of it was due to high expectations: I still follow a number of superhero-focused blogs, and everyone and their mother seemed to be raving about this series, saying it was a return to more light-hearted and "fun" comics. I'm not the biggest fan of either Waid or Perez, but I used to love all those old superhero team-up series, including the original B&B, so I was intrigued enough to check this out. So when I read the book and didn't care for it, all those reviews came back to mind and I felt like a grouch for not liking it. Still, I thought it might be worthwhile to point out my reasons for disliking the book (even if doing so reveals me as a definite grumbly, grumpy grouch), so here goes. [Editor's note: This all seemed a lot more original when I started writing this review last week before it was revealed that comic book bloggers may be the only ones reading and enjoying this series.]

When you're reading a Mark Waid comic, you're fully aware that you're reading a Mark Waid comic. I'm trying to remember if I've ever actually enjoyed something by Mark Waid but I'm coming up blank. The closest I can come is his 9-cent debut issue of FF (which showed a promising premise that was quickly squandered) and some of his work at CrossGen (I remember particularly enjoying Negation, but according to Wikipedia he only co-wrote that series, only only for three issues). I know Waid certainly has his fans, but his work has never really clicked for me, and I've never really been able to pinpoint why. With BB: LL, I think it finally dawned on me: In Waid's comics, everything and everyone comes across as so damned smug. For me, this attitude is best encapsulated by the appearance at the end of the Challengers of the Unknown as the monkey wrench gumming up the carefully crafted plans of the all-knowing bad guys: Not only do the Challs carry themselves with an offputting air of smugness (I don't think even Spider-Man quips so flippantly and frenetically in the face of overwhelming odds), but the very act of having it be the original Silver Age Challengers who save the day conveys a certain sense of smugness ("Whaddya mean the kids today don't think the Challs are cool? Alright, alright, let's see... I know! We'll make it so that in the end the Challs are the only ones who can save the big heroesnot to mention the entire universe! That'll show those young whippersnappers that the Challs are still 'cool'!!"). The end effect is that, rather than cheering when the heroes overcome insurmountable odds, I'm left thinking, "Geez, those characters are kind of arrogant dicks. They could have been more gracious winners, couldn't they? After all, they are supposed to be the good guys."

George Perez's art is cluttered and claustrophobic. I think I first noticed this problem with Perez's art in my review of Avengers/JLA #4: In trying to cram so much detail into every single panel, Perez hobbles the overall flow of the works he's illustrating. Since then, I think I've only become more disillusioned with his "pack it all in" style of art, thanks largely to my ever-increasing consumption of manga. In manga, artists know when to turn off the backgrounds so that the reader focuses on the foreground characters; how to vary line weight so that different elements appear to exist in different layers; and how to use stylistic devices to convey motion, force, emotion, and humor. With Perez (and most Western superhero artists) everything lies flat on the same plane so that nothing pops out.

In his EW review, Douglas Wolk described Perez's art as "fluid [and] hyperdense," which made me scratch my head: How can hyperdense art be fluid? I can understand how hyperdense art could have its own aesthetic appeal (the joy of finding hidden details in the art; the satisfaction of feeling like you've gotten a lot of bang for your buck, art-wise), but I'm at a loss to understand how it would be viewed as fluid. Am I just being (hyper)dense? Does anyone else get what Wolk is saying? (The closest example of something being both "fluid [and] hyperdense" that I could come up with was Katsuhiro Otomo's art in Akira, but even that didn't seem to fit exactly. Otomo's artwork is certainly highly detailed and realistic, but it's not hyperdense the way that Perez's is. Yes, Otomo creates insanely detailed urban landscapes, but he also knows how to "turn off" the detail when the story demands it, every now and then even going so far as to leave white space on the page (!). Perez, on the other hand, seems compelled to fill in every last detail of every single panel, no matter how tiny.)

Hey, how come the backgrounds disappear whenever things get intense?

The DCU is incomprehensible. Look, I'm not claiming to be an expert on all matters of DC arcana, but I have read a fair number of DC comics during my lifetime. But reading BB: LL felt like doing homework when I'd failed to study all the preparatory material. In the endnotes to the hardcover collection, Waid walks readers through who each character is, even the ones that just appear in a throwaway panel, and where they first appeared, which I guess is a nice touch in terms of providing readers with historical background, but it also makes the comic feel like an assignment for history class. I don't care that you and George Perez had a blast fitting in even more obscure sci-fi superheroes than you had originally planned; I just care if the story itself is fun to read, and when it gets bogged down in this level of trivial minutiae, it's not. (Of course, as is always the case with projects like these, YMMV. Just as I had a blast spotting all the nods to the Lee/Kirby era of Fantastic Four in FF: The End, if you grew up with all of the stories and characters Waid and Perez are referencing, you'll probably view this book as a celebration of DC's rich history rather than a maddeningly self-indulgent hodgepodge of the creators' favorite childhood memories.)

Actually, even worse than not recognizing who the heck certain characters are is recognizing the characters but then wondering why they're portrayed that way instead of the way you remember them. Which version of the Legion is this? Why do the Thanagarians look like that? Ah crap, not the purple-jumpsuited version of the Challengers again. I guess that means these guys vanished into limbo Hypertime.

The plot is stupid. And not the good kind of stupid, either. I know, I know, it's trying to go for that gonzo Silver Age vibe, but it just doesn't work, especially when the whole thing is stretched out over six issues. (Maybe you could get away with covering up some of the story's problems if everything had been crammed into a single issue, but by letting the story "breathe" you also allow more time to think about how things don't really add up.) Some specific complaints:
  • Destiny thought the best way to deal with the anomalies in his Book that could be catastrophically dangerous in the wrong hands was just to toss it aside and hope for the best?
  • The Luck Lords have all this power to manipulate time and space and this was the best plan they could come up with?
  • The Challengers are so special because no one could possibly walk away from a fatal plane crash?
All that said, though, I still enjoyed seeing Batman wipe the floor with the Legion of Super-Heroes. What can I say? There are certain things that no fanboy (even a former one, in my case) ever overcomes, and for me a good demonstration of the "Batman always wins" maxim always hits the right nostalgia pleasure centers. (Going even deeper into shameful fanboy territory, the scene brought to mind the moment in Secret Wars when Spider-Man handily defeated the whole X-Men crew.)

Anyway, there are plenty of people who did enjoy this book, so here are two reviews that are much more positive. OK, because I'm mean, here's one more quote from someone on The V snarking on this series:
Brave and the Bold is probably only for people who go "Holy shit! That's Viking Commando and Space Cabbie!" though.

Also for people who go "George Perez, I LOVE YOU!"

Forgot about that one. Although it's probably because the story's so weak.

"You must collect these wanky artifacts in order to stop the evilest thing in the world!! How many artifacts? One an issue, please."
See, The V had the whole problem with B&B pegged days before everyone else started wondering about it.

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Monday, April 07, 2008
Unexpected Bargains: The Joy of Online Shopping

While searching for something other than comics (OK, the recent DVD release of 101 Dalmatians for our ever-expanding collection of kid-friendly films), I recently rediscovered the online retailer Tower.com. I'd ordered from them once before (wow, checking my email archives, it turns out it was a little over two years ago) but I never think of them as an option when placing my semi-regular bulk manga orders. But since they had the best price I could find on the DVD, I thought I'd try adding a couple comics to hit the free shipping on orders $25 and over. To my surprise, they had some great deals on a couple books I wanted that were either just released or about to come out:
  • Dragon Head 10 - $6.21 (38% off)
  • Presents 3 - $9.99 (23% off)
Searching through the site for other upcoming titles I was interested in, I noticed a pattern: It looks like the discounts on Tower.com decrease the longer the books have been out: The best discounts are on pre-orders, at around 30-40% off; next best is for recent releases where the discounts are between 20-30%; and finally for books that have been out for awhile, most of them were only 10% off. However, books that are too far out on the horizon have no discount at all and in fact aren't even available for purchase. Still, within this small window of "just released" to "one to two months out" Tower.com seems to offer some of the best discounts on manga that I've found. Plus, they don't seem to hold items hostage: the 101 Dalmatians DVD shipped today even though the other items in the order are still being processed.

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Sunday, April 06, 2008
Retraction Reviews: The Drifting Classroom

OK, perhaps I was a bit hasty. Once the setup is out of the way, The Drifting Classroom is TOTALLY AWESOME.

(In my defense, I still think the first volume would have been improved if all the screaming had been saved until after the school was mysteriously transported into the far future and everything seriously started going to hell rather than wasted on mundane matters like Mom throwing out your favorite marbles. Once you're trapped in a barren wasteland with no communication with civilization and all the grown-ups start trying to kill you, screaming about everything suddenly becomes TOTALLY APPROPRIATE.)

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Friday, April 04, 2008
Married White Male Seeks Mature Japanese Comic

The theme of the week seems to be: I like comics, but how come I can never find what I want? Examining matters further, this general lament seems to come in three distinct flavors:

1. I like comics, but there aren't enough books that appeal to my specific tastes. This is one that every comic fan has probably felt at some point, that existential angst that comes from feeling alone in the universe with your esoteric taste in sequential art. Among older manga fans, the concern is often framed as a worry that their favorite form of entertainment may be forever stuck in the same arrested stage of development while they move on to more mature matters, a fear that after all the Shonen Jump series lose their appeal the manga market will have nothing more challenging to offer them. (For superhero fans, the reverse generally seems to be more of a worry, that series are aging along with their fanbase and there's little left for a younger audience to enjoy.) Most recently this concern was expressed by Rivkah, who laments the fact that there's "very little published outside the realms of shoujo, shonen, cleavage, and spandex" and promises "I for one would sing the praises of any publisher who can start taking a serious look at more well-written josei titles (non-anthology) and seinen titles that aren't in the realm of the fantastic"; but regular participants in the manga blogosphere will recall that this has been a perrenial topic of discussion.

2. I know there are books out there I'd like to try, but I can't actually find them anywhere. This is a common complaint leveled at books that seem to have distribution problems for whatever reason. The best example recently would be the discussion around Dark Horse's underperforming manga titles. In response to the news, a number of people commented that they'd like to try the books but are unable to find them in their local stores. Jennifer de Guzman also touched on this problem when she unsuccessfully tried to track down the same books at three different sources: a comic shop, a bookstore, and a library. If people can't find what they're looking for, obviously they can't read it.

3. The books are supposed to be there, but it's too hard to find them. I suppose this one is a subset of #2, but I thought it was worth listing on its own because it touches on a slightly different problem than inventory: organization of said stock. The material might actually be there on the shelvessomewherebut if it's a chore to find, customers might give up in frustration and walk away empty-handed. Rivkah discusses the issue of organization at length in her LJ entry, wondering why she has to "browse through close to 5,000 volumes of manga every time I go to the comic book store just to find something I like." Rivkah mainly addresses the classification of manga (for example, why can't she search for "political manga" on Amazon and find what she's looking for), but others have tackled additional aspects of this problem, such as the chaotic mess the non-manga portion of the graphic novel section becomes due to the varying sizes and trade dresses for diverse books from different publishers, or even the question of why manga is shelved by title rather than author.

The first complaint is probably the most serious of the three: if readers feel that there is nothing in all of comics (or their preferred subset) that speaks to them, they will likely abandon the medium out of frustration. It can be argued that this is what happened to a lot of female readers before manga came along. My younger sister used to read comics as much as I did, but when she grew out of material aimed at younger readers (e.g., Archie, Richie Rich), she had no interest in superheroes, so she simply stopped reading comics altogether. (I often wonder if manga had been around back in the 80s if she would have continued reading comics.) The other two issues are largely structural and, as someone who primarily shops online, I don't really have a lot to say about them. (Although it would be nice if online retailers would expand the subcategories for manga. Barnes & Noble does a much better job of this than Amazon, with 18 subcategories versus 7. [I'm not counting "superheroes," which seems to turn up mostly books from Marvel and DC.] B&N's keyword search also appears slightly smarter, returning Eagle and First President of Japan on the second page of results for "political manga.")

I don't claim to have answers to any of these problems (especially not at the publishing or distribution level), but here are some tips that have helped me out in the past as a reader when I've felt I can't find what I want.

1. Read outside your comfort zone. It's easy to fall into familiar habits of only reading one type of comic, whether it be superheroes or manga or whatever. I mostly read manga, but I also check out Western comics from time-to-time, both literary and lowbrow. Who knows? You might just find what you were looking for somewhere else. (When I read Rivkah's request for more political and/or slice-of-life manga, my first two thoughts were Persepolis and Aya, but then I stopped myself from suggesting them because they weren't manga.)

2. Use the library. I'm probably spoiled by having an excellent public library system, but it could be worth your time looking into what resources your local community has. My library has everything online, so searching for a comic I'm curious about but not quite ready to commit to financially is as easy as firing up a browser. (They even have a Google widget so I can search from my start page!) Plus, many libraries participate in interlibrary loan programs, so the pool of available graphic novels may be even larger than you think.

3. Google! A no-brainer perhaps, but I've found Google very useful for researching and tracking down books that sound interesting. For example, a search on "political manga" returns a CBR article on Eagle as the sixth result, and from there it's a quick step to find the book via Froogle Google Products.

So what am I missing? What steps do you take when you can't find the types of comics you want to read?

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Thursday, April 03, 2008
The Positive Side of Illegal Fansubs

Further proof of the awesomeness of Sgt. Frog: the fansubbed Keroro Gunso anime teaches children to read!

Meanwhile, still no news on when (if?) ADV will release the US version of the series.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008
This Corpse Isn't Dead Yet

Following up on Monday's post bemoaning the low sales for Dark Horse's Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, here are some interesting points that came up as the discussion continued elsewhere.

Point #1: Over at Simon Jones' NSFW blog, he reminded me that Dark Horse has had a number of notable hits in the bookstore market: Hellboy, Sin City, and, most recently, 300. Notice a pattern? They're all series that were buoyed by successful live action films. So given the news on the product page for Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Volume 6,
A U.S. live-action film based on The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is now in development.
perhaps there's nothing to worry about after all. Just wait for the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service live-action film to come out and not only will the manga be selling like crazy, instead we'll all be complaining that we can't find it in bookstores because Dark Horse didn't publish large enough print runs to meet demand! On the other hand, One Missed Call was made into a live-action film and that probably didn't do much to boost the original manga's profile. Plus, I can't find any info for a Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service film on IMDB or anywhere else. If the film were already in development, wouldn't there be some mention of it online? Also, product pages for earlier volumes claimed "A U.S. live-action film based on The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is tentatively scheduled for U.S. release in 2007" so this could be something that's best not to count on until it actually materializes.

Point #2: In the comments thread over at Blog@Newsarama, Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson himself shows up to address some concerns others were raising, especially the gripe that Dark Horse manga are too expensive compared to manga from other companies:
Many of the titles mentioned as being priced too high are, indeed, several dollars higher than the competition. Much of that has to do with paper, design time and sales projections, but we are aware of the problem and are constantly looking at our pricing. I would mentioned though that we also have a number of books priced very competitively. Koike’s samurai books, for instance, offer around 350 pages for $10. Not a bad deal.
He also points out that a number of Dark Horse manga do sell quite well (a fact born out by the Bookscan charts):
First, most of Dark Horse manga sells extremely well. While it is true that the horror line did not sell as well as expected, and that quality titles such as Eden and MPD Psycho are below expectations, most of our titles do quite nicely. Berserk. Ghost In the Shell, Blade of the Immortal, Trigun, Hellsing and others have all been big sellers and all of our manga continues to sell on backlist. The Lone Wolf & Cub series, by the way, has sold over 1 million copies to date.
More at the link, including why Dark Horse prints some manga in a teeny-tiny format; who Dark Horse aims its manga at; and what Dark Horse's overall philosophy for publishing manga is.

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Tuesday, April 01, 2008
An Important Message From The Publisher

I've been working behind the scenes on some changes that I think will make this blog even more popular and exciting, and I'm finally ready to announce them. Here's what you can expect at this site in the coming months:

Renewed Superhero-Centric Focus. First and foremost, as can be gleaned from the site's new name, this blog will now predominantly focus on superhero comics. Given my frequent criticisms of superhero comics, this might seem strange, but allow me to explain my reasoning. I'll be honest: the biggest reason is traffic. Although manga dominates bookstore sales, superheroes still dominate the online discussion throughout the larger comics blogosphere. Sites that have superheroes as their sole or main focus have hits and subscribers that I can only dream of. In fact, my old blog, Grotesque Anatomy, still gets more traffic than this one, and it gets more comments as well, with impassioned fanboys still showing up in years-old threads to defend the merits of a superhero saga I ignorantly dismissed. Clearly, there's still a big audience out there that wants to discuss superheroes, and I want a piece of that action.

It's not just about traffic, however. Recent commentary from industry experts has convinced me that manga has reached both a creative and a sales dead-end and will soon see an implosion. Superhero comics, however, only seem poised for incredible growth, so I plan to get in at the ground floor. Plus, I personally find the increased sexism in manga troubling, so it'll be a relief to focus on a segment of the industry known for putting out work spotlighting strong women.

Finally, what's that old adage? Write what you know? Even though I still enjoy several manga series, I just don't have the energy or expertise to compete with those fans truly devoted to manga. But I was born and bred on superheroes. It's in my blood. And that's why I'll always have a soft spot for those characters clad in gaudily-colored tights.

So: expect much, much more superhero coverage in the near future. We're working on putting together a team that can bring you the finest daily (yes, daily) coverage of superhero comics around. (I had hoped to have the new URL and template ready by now but there's still some work to be done. One sticking point is that my staff and consultants are all recommending that I drop the "Sequential" from the blog's title as they argue it's just too likely that people will misspell it when they try to find the site, but I'd like to maintain some sort of continuity with the old blog, so I'm resisting their advice. Hopefully everything will be nailed down soon! Stay tuned!!)

A Slew of Satellite Sister Sites. But Superhero Sequential is only the start. Once that's comfortably up and running, we'll be launching new "sister" sites to focus on other specific segments of comicdom. Here are some of the planned sites:
  • Shonen Sequential - Even though the manga crash is coming, we'll still track this segment of manga actively, mainly in hopes of converting shonen fans to the true heroes of the comic page. (Naruto can't hold a candle to Spider-Man or Daredevil, which we'll prove over the course of a special 37-part "East vs. West" examination!!)
  • Shojo Sequential - Likewise, all those female readers will need something to fill the void left by the demise of their girly shojo series, so we'll try to steer them towards comparable Western works, like Archie and Casper.
  • Sexy Sequential - Porn manga will probably be the only segment to survive the coming purge, so we'll be there to cover it. Plus, Simon Jones needs more people to review his comixxx. We'll also cover everything else from the adult section of Previews in a mature, tasteful fashion, with lots and lots of pictures.
  • Serious Sequential - Dedicated to covering those serious literary comics that get all the write-ups and awards from highfalutin sources like Time and The New York Times.
  • Silly Sequential - Covering humor collections and comic strips. In a few years, we should be bigger than The Comics Curmudgeon.
  • Sfar Sequential - Admittedly this will be a bit of a niche site, but I'm excited to champion Sfar's work and push for more of it to be released in English. Since I don't know any French, I'll largely be linking to whatever updates Sfar posts on his blog and reacting based on Google's translations.
Advertising. For years I operated under the assumption that a clean, minimalist design would be most appealing to users. However, while many users will tell you that's what they want, studies have shown that, counter-intuitively, they put more trust in sites that feature prominent advertising. Researchers theorize that this is because users subconsciously make the connection that "more ads" = "more money" = "more respectability." So we'll begin running ads on all of the Sequential family of sites. Of course, we would prefer that the ads be comic-related, like the ones that appear on Tom's site, but we'll also run ads for low-flow toilets and online universities like other major comic sites.

Widgets. Along with the ads, the site will also feature more gadgets on the sidebar. I've always found these kinds of things distracting, but apparently the younger crowd loves 'em, as they give users a peek inside the blog author's psyche to see what makes him/her tick. So look forward to exciting polls, random charts, and instantaneously updated mini-feeds about whatever food / music / prescriptions I happen to be enjoying at the moment.

Moderated Comments. I debated this one for a long time, but in the end it kept coming back to the question of appropriate content. Yes, I'm extremely curious to hear what my readers have to say, but there's always the worry that some moron will hijack a comment thread and scare away all the intelligent commentary. Still, I was reluctant to add any kind of delay to comments appearing on a thread, as it's well known that instant gratification is the key to the success of any online endeavor. Luckily, we were able to develop a new piece of code that enhances submitted comments by analyzing them and inserting thoughtful qualifiers or hypothetical counterexamples so that all comments appear more moderate. For example, if someone were to write "GEOFF JOHNS IS TEH SUXXORS!!1!" that comment would be flagged by the moderation software and a softening statement would be appended so it instead read "GEOFF JOHNS IS TEH SUXXORS!!1! but I do have to give him credit for being able to revive interest in GREEN LANTERN and produce such a large body of work on a regular schedule." This way excitable fans are still able to assert their asinine opinions while the flow of intelligent debate isn't impeded for everyone else. [We're really excited about this new bit of technology and think it will prove useful on other types of sites known for having contentious exchanges, such as political blogs, religious websites, and Star Wars fansites.]

So there you have it! Let me know what you think in the comments! (Comment moderation is currently enabled, so your comments will automatically be adjusted to be either more positive or negative.) And look for these and other exciting enhancements to hit the site sometime between now and the next Armed Forces Day!!

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