Sporadic Sequential
Tuesday, December 30, 2008
From The Personal Library Of...

Just a reminder that TFAW's 60% off sale for their nick-and-dent books ends tomorrow, so there's still a little time to get some great bargains. And I found two additional shipping coupons in addition to the other ones I listed before:
  • SNOW free domestic shipping on orders over $50
  • WINTER $10 off any shipping method on orders over $50
  • MISTLETOE free domestic shipping on orders over $35
  • BLIZZARD $10 off any shipping method on orders over $40
The cheap nick-and-dent books are a great way to try out comics that you might otherwise miss out on. And so far everything I've ordered from there has been in near-perfect condition. Although I did notice something unusual in my copy of Spirit of Wonder that I received...

Oh no, Dark Horse is in such bad financial shape that they've been forced to sell books from their own editorial department! NOOOO!!!!!

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Monday, December 29, 2008
Marvel: The House of Grisly Images

I knew Marvel Zombies wouldn't lead to anything good. Here are some gruesome sample pages from three recent Marvel comics. (WARNING: Enlarge images at your own risk.)

From WAR MACHINE #1, Rated "T+"

From WOLVERINE #70, Rated "Parental Advisory"

From ULTIMATUM #2, Rated "T+"
(caption/commentary courtesy of Dorian Wright)

For reference, here's Marvel's detailed explanation of their rating system. I suppose Marvel's "T+" rating is intended to align with the MPAA's PG-13 rating. And one could argue that the movies such as The Dark Knight and Quantum of Solace have scenes of intense violence in them and they still were rated PG-13, but in both films (1) the images are fleeting and (2) those scenes relied more on suggestion than explicit, lingering detail. (For example, we don't actually see the Joker carve up the other mobster's face but it's obvious that's what's happening.) With the comic images, the images are frozen and much more graphic.

(And, yes, I know that Wolverine is a guy with claws on the end of his fists, so what do you expect to happen when he gets in fights? But I don't remember him beheading quite so many bad guys back in the eighties, even when he was in the midst of one of his patented "berserker rages.")

Is this just a fluke, or are scenes like this becoming more common in "mainstream" superhero comics? Is this the latest trend in superhero decadence, hardcore torture porn? Is this what happens when older fans become immune to the usual titillation and old-school slugfests? Are creators having to up the shock value ante in order to provoke a reaction — any kind of reaction — from desensitized fans? Is Marvel just trying really hard to sweep the Fangoria awards this year?

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Sunday, December 28, 2008
Watching A Miyazaki Film With A Three Year Old

"Why is that woman angry?"
"Why is that man angry?"
"Why is that boy angry?"
"Why is that girl angry?"
"Why is that robot angry?"
"Why don't those pirates have a boat?"
"Why are those soldiers shooting everything?"
"Why is the robot shooting everything?"
"Why did he say 'Father'?"
"Why are they flying in the dark cloud?"
"Why is the squirrel playing with the robot?"
"Why did they break the castle?"
"Can we watch it again?"

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Tuesday, December 23, 2008
Happy Holiday Hiatus

Happy Holidays, everyone! Hopefully I'll be back blogging again sometime next week, but if not I'm probably still assembling the kids' toys!!

[Image by yanimator]

Here's hoping your holidays are even more fun than a Soul Society division-wide holiday party!

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Monday, December 22, 2008
Time To Start My Own Keitai Shosetsu Publishing Company

The latest issue of The New Yorker has an interesting article about the booming popularity of cell-phone novels in Japan. There's not a direct connection to comics (although the article does mention that several of the most popular cell-phone novels were adapted into manga, and there's a lovely accompanying illustration by Adrian Tomine), but the dismissive attitudes of detractors reminds me of the resistance comics have faced in becoming more accepted as a legitimate art form. Granted, the descriptions of cell-phone novels make them sound like something I'd absolutely despise — all the depth of a Harlequin novel with the added annoyance of texting shorthand and emoticons — but you can't deny that the format is something Japanese youth are really responding to.

I also found the article interesting because, given the lead time for the US's adoption of Japanese popular culture, I'm guessing there's a good chance that cell-phone novels will be one of interests my then tween daughter will adore that I'll dismiss as a dumb fad. Ah, I can't believe it's already my turn to assume the other side of the generation gap. How time flies!

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Sunday, December 21, 2008
How Manga Ruined Superhero Comics for Me

Reading the second hardcover collection of Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction's Immortal Iron Fist, I was distracted by two nagging thoughts:
  1. The tournament fights in Naruto were much more captivating.
  2. I liked the whole "perfect society is in reality rotten to the core" angle better in Bleach.
To be fair, I should really judge Iron Fist on its own merits, but I just can't help comparing it to other (and, in my opinion, superior) comics that have covered similar ground. But even if I try to push those other works out of my thoughts, I fear Iron Fist would still fail to entertain me in its own right. Part of the problem is the book's disjointed nature: We're promised a grand martial arts tournament featuring intriguingly named champions (Fat Cobra, Bride of Nine Spiders, Dog Brother #1) but the book is constantly cutting away to other concerns: societal unrest within the city of K'un-Lun; the machinations of someone named Xao and his Hydra henchmen; the exploits of the previous Iron Fist, Orson Randall; and, most perplexing, flashbacks detailing the conflict between Wendall Rand (father of the current Iron Fist, Danny Rand) and Davos, now known as the Steel Serpent/Phoenix. I could see how all the other elements come together to form a tense atmosphere that surrounds the tournament itself, but the flashback's to Danny's father don't really add anything to the present-day material. Every time the perspective shifted from the present to the past, the book would grind to a halt, and the flashbacks comprise a fair segment of the book, so it's not an inconsiderable drag on the book's momentum.

It doesn't help that the book also changes artists every time it jumps into the past. The credits page lists five artists that assisted main artist David Aja with issues 8-13, and they mostly handle the flashback segments. In theory, having separate artists handling separate story threads could work, but it doesn't help that there are multiple assistant artists working on the flashback sequences. The end effect is a loss of integration. It should also be noted that the final chapter in this epic tale is by yet another artist, Tonci Zonjic. Zonjic's style is close enough to Aja's that the change isn't too jarring, but it still underscores the piecemeal feel one often gets when reading corporate comics.

Another aspect of the book that doesn't work for me is Danny Rand's characterization. He comes across as a bit spacey and unsure of himself, something that seems at odds with the notion of a martial arts master. Perhaps I'm reacting based on a misremembering of Iron Fist's classic characterization, but I always pictured him as suave and self-confident, stoic to the point of perhaps coming across as a bit aloof, so his "shoot, aw shucks" depiction here seems off-key.

Iron Fist: The Seven Capital Cities of Heaven features stunning art by David Aja and hints at some great ideas by Brubaker and Fraction (e.g., the all-female revolutionary army of K'un-Lun; the various special fighting styles of the different immortal weapons (I want to see what such tantalizingly named moves as "Vaulting Mantis Spine-Snap" and "Mistress of All Agonies" actually look like in action rather than just being teased with a static image and a cool-sounding caption)), but the promise behind those ideas is never fully realized. Ultimately, the book never manages to come together into a satisfying whole. Which is disappointing, because it's interesting to see Marvel attempt to do a book that is almost completely divorced from its own usual superhero trappings.

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Sixty Percent Off and Free Shipping

While you're doing your holiday shopping online, why not treat yourself to some bargain graphic novels? Here are some great deals I noticed at two different stores today:

First, BookCloseouts.com has a huge selection of Tokyopop graphic novels on sale for 60% off, and if you order $35+ shipping is free. How huge is the selection of Tokyopop books? Searching by publisher = Tokyopop returns an astonishing 819 results! Combined with news of layoffs, this doesn't look good for Tokyopop. But it's good for you if you're looking for bargains! May I recommend something in space-faring amphibian conqueror comedy? BookCloseouts has eleven volumes of Sgt. Frog available for $4 each.

Getting the free shipping (US and Canada only) is a little tricky: It requires not only a coupon code but a coupon password as well. Enter the following info on the cart page and standard shipping should show up as $0.00 on the order page:
* Coupon Number: freeshipping
* Coupon Password: bookcloseouts.com
Next, TFAW has upped the discount on its nick and dent section to 60%, and there are currently 56 pages of great graphic novel bargains to choose from. That's a lot of material to browse through (1674 items!), mainly from Dark Horse and Marvel (so that's what's happening to all of those "Premiere Edition" hardcovers!), but remember that you can filter your selection by publisher to narrow things down. Here are some recommended books to get you started:
To get the free shipping, you once again have to spend at least $35 and enter coupon code MISTLETOE (expires 12/31/08). [The free shipping offer is only good for orders in the US, but coupon code BLIZZARD is good for $10 off all forms of shipping, including international.]

I won't list everything I bought from the two stores, but I will mention that I did pick up a certain infamous Harvey-nominated manga collection for only eight bucks. (Looks like it's since sold out. Just goes to show that quality books like that will sell like hotcakes if the price is right!) Actually, a lot of the stuff I ordered earlier today has since sold out. But a new item has appeared on the list that will probably appeal to lots of comics readers: The Absolute Sandman HC Vol. 1 for only $40!

Happy bargain hunting!

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Saturday, December 13, 2008
Avengers Detached

Lately I've been on a superhero reading streak. Every time I go to the local library, there's a new Marvel or DC hardcover staring out at me and I'm helpless to resist taking it home with me. It's like being twelve years old again and walking into a comic specialty shop with an unlimited allowance. At some point I'm sure the novelty will wear off and I'll cease to be seduced by the slick production values of these hardback collections, but for now I'm enjoying (in a total junk food way) binging on superhero comics after not reading them much over the past few years.

My latest "I know this isn't going to work out well" superhero dalliance was Marvel's oversized New Avengers Volume 2 collection. I didn't expect to like this, as I never enjoyed the few superhero comics by Brian Michael Bendis I tried back when he first started writing at Marvel. Also, my recollection of the issues collected in this book (New Avengers 11-20 and Annual 1) is that they weren't very well received back when they originally came out. Nevertheless, I thought I'd give the book a try. After all, the book has consistently been one of Marvel's top sellers since it launched, and it features many of Marvel's most popular characters in one book, so I was curious to see how this effort to perform a "JLA" makeover on the Avengers turned out.

Amazingly, it was even worse than I imagined. And not just in an "omigod I can't believe they did that to my favorite character" fanboy-outrage kind of way (although there was plenty of that as well) but on a level of basic craft. Here are a couple of the worst parts from the book.

I had just started reading the book when this panel confronted me on the fourth page:

I made it about halfway down the panel (right around "Can't do that.") when I wondered, "Where the heck are these word balloons coming from?" I continued on and grimaced at the lame attempt at banter ("You think this double 'D' on my chest stands for French colloquialisms?") Finally I made my way to the bottom of the panel and found the two speakers buried beneath the stack of word balloons.

Having made my way through that panel, I moved on to the next one, only to find a different problem:

Now we're much too close to one of the speakers (AHHHH! EXTREME CLOSE-UP!!!), treated to a lovely shot of...the back of Daredevil's cheek? And once again, the entire panel is being overwhelmed by speech balloons.

Here's what the whole page looks like:

I really don't get the composition of that page. Is there anything that guides the reader's eye from panel to panel? It looks like reader is just left to assume that he should read down, then go all the way back up to the top of the next panel, down, back up to the top of the next panel, and so on, until all the text has been consumed. I don't see anything in the artwork itself that assists the reader in following the flow of events. So really, the figures and background are incidental; the backgrounds could be completely blank and the page would have much the same impact. And even if there was no visually dynamic way to construct this conversation, I would think at the very least that arranging the panels horizontally rather than vertically would have been more effective. That way the eye could take in both the characters and the dialogue simultaneously without having the characters so poorly cropped by an ill-chosen layout.

I suppose one could argue that at least Bendis is trying something different — shooting his scenes in "NarrowScope" when everyone else is going for widescreen — but I'd argue that effectiveness must always trump experimentation. Otherwise they're just empty attempts at standing out.

Here's another device that not only falls flat but also detracts from the main scene. In issue #15, Bendis has Ms. Marvel narrate events via her blog entries. It's a cute idea that seems smart (this way we'll be able to get inside Ms. Marvel's head to hear what she's thinking without having to resort to out-of-fashion thought balloons) but it falls apart once you think about it. The biggest problem is that since these are blog posts, they'd all have to be written after the events we're witnessing, so it removes us from the immediacy of the action. We're no longer watching a superhero fight a supervillain as it happens; now we're reviewing the postgame reel with commentary from the winning team. Secondly, the blog text can get so wordy that it slows down the action, transforming what should be a tense situation into a tedious recap:

Compare the blog device with more traditional expository dialogue in superhero comics. As clunky as it could get, at least spoken exposition allowed for the illusion that the words were being uttered while the action took place. Often the dialogue didn't work if you took the time to say it out loud (would anyone really have time to deliver the speeches and soliloquies that superheroes spouted in between punches?) but it was still a better option than yanking the reader out of the present with after-the-fact analysis.

Again, the blog idea has potential, but I think it would work better as an extra. Why not write it up as a full-fledged blog post for Marvel's website, or append it to the back of the book like the text pieces in Watchmen? Wedging the blog commentary into the superhero action only succeeds in watering down both components.

The problem of pulling readers out of the action is a frequent flaw in the book's first half. In addition to the sequences already shown, there's a fight in the first arc between the Avengers and a bunch of ninjas but the action is cut short when Luke Cage falls off the top penthouse suite they're in. Rather than follow the fight that's still raging, we track Cage as he slowly takes the elevator back up to the top of the skyscraper. It's a funny bit, but again, it pulls us out of the action. (Perhaps it's not much of a loss since the fight scene was indecipherable anyway thanks to David Finch's confused staging of the action. In fact, Finch's staging is so cluttered that characters in the book have to turn and draw your attention to the fact that Cage is about to topple over the balcony's ledge, because otherwise it's not clear what's going on.) And in a later arc illustrated by Frank Cho, we're treated to an issue-long conversation between Captain America and Spider-Woman where they recap her dealings as a double agent. Again, there's lots of mulling over events that happened in the past, with much of the information presented via nothing more than two talking heads. Exciting! It's like Bendis thought a narrated summary of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' excellent Sleeper series (but with Jessica Drew substituted in for Holden Carver) would make for an entertaining read.

The closest Bendis comes to telling a straight-ahead superhero action story without the various levels of removal is in the "Collective" arc where the Avengers face off against a mysterious threat whose power levels they can barely even comprehend. But even this arc gets off to a slow start, with the entire first chapter devoted to the perspective of SHIELD agents observing all of the action. Once the Avengers are called in (and the art duties shift from Steve McNiven to Mike Deodato) the pace picks up considerably (at least after the unintentionally hilarious scene of the Avengers standing around on a street corner in a rough neighborhood performing "imapct policing" has passed) and we actually see superheroes using their superpowers in the present without ruminating on their actions or blogging about events that transpired in the past.

The "Collective" story arc ultimately fails to be satisfying, though, mainly because it can't simply be content with just telling an adventure in its own right. The story also has to serve as a follow-up to one of Marvel's previous mega-events, House of M. Apparently when the Scarlet Witch wished away (almost) all mutants, the banished mutant powers were all just floating around in space until a random guy in Alaska with the latent mutant power of plot device activation energy absorption unwittingly sucked them all in. Then the random guy (now referred to as The Collective, but not The Collective Man, because that would be too awesome) wandered around destroying things (and Canadian superteams) until he remembered that the real point of his creation was to give Magneto his powers back right before Magneto tragically died in a helicopter explosion, at least until Final Crisis #6 comes out and ties up all the loose ends. Also, Xorn.

If you can ignore all the House of M housekeeping, though, it's not a bad superhero arc: The Avengers are outclassed; Iron Man seems to be making progress talking to their unknown adversary until Ms. Marvel butts in; Spider-Man is held captive by SHIELD; and the Avengers go up against rotting zombie mutants. The art by Deodato is a little sketchy and unfinished, but it has some nice moments, such as the previously mentioned zombie scene, which is positively Wrightsonian.

One thing that surprised me reading this is that Bendis' trademarked dialogue tics didn't annoy me as much as they had in the past. Perhaps that's because he's finally learned how to use contractions, something his earlier works seemed strangely averse to. There's still a penchant for coming up with "clever" dialogue that sounds out of place, though, especially when it comes out of the mouth of certain characters. For example, is there anyone who imagines that Viper would ever speak like this?

She also refers to the Silver Samurai (full name Kenuichio Harada) as "Ken" and "Kenny," which just sounds oddly out of character. Has Viper ever been shown being that familiar or flirtatious with the Silver Samurai before?

There's also this panel that amused me greatly, where Tony Stark is unable to come up with the antonym of "liability":

Ha ha ha! Tony Stark is an idiot who can't think of the word "asset"!

It should be obvious that I didn't think New Avengers was very good, but I'm still glad that I took the time to read it. I'm always curious about books like this that dominate the sales charts but don't do well in terms of critical reception. (I'm going to assume that the explanation for this book's sales dominance has something to do with its featuring fan-favorite characters such as Spider-Man and Wolverine, as well as its ongoing central "importance" in terms of the overall framework of the Marvel universe.) And even though I didn't like the book, I still derived a secondary sort of enjoyment from the unintentional humor provided by its spectacular badness. It's kind of like how an awful movie could be transformed into something fun by the cast and commentary of Mystery Science Theater 3000. In fact, I couldn't help but wonder what Joel or Mike and the 'bots would have done with the astonishingly bad acting in scenes like this one:

Man, that double-spread scene cracks me up every time I see it. Such dramatic close-ups! Such bad facial expressions! Such cheap reliance on reusing the same image over and over again! (And for someone who suposedly has so much experience being a secret agent on both sides of the law, Spider-Woman really doesn't know how to act nonchalant. It's like she went to the Joey Tribbiani school of spying: "When you find yourself in a tight spot, make sure to open your mouth wide and look completely stunned. It'll distract people from whatever it is you don't want them to notice.") And I think that image of the Viper glaring at Spider-Woman will haunt me for weeks to come:


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Monday, December 01, 2008
The Spy Who Had A Cameo Appearance In His Own Series

Today's read: Golgo 13 Volume 05: Wiseguy.

I haven't had a chance to see the new James Bond movie yet, so this library pick was supposed to satisfy my craving for super-secret spy shenanigans.

Does it deliver? Partially. The book is split into two stories. In the first, Golgo 13 barely appears, only showing up at the very end to accept a contract on a crooked politician. The rest of the story is devoted to power struggles within various factions of the mob. (The whole thing reads like creator Takao Saito just finished watching the Godfather and wanted to write a story about the mafia, sticking Togo in at the last minute so it could be published as part of the Golgo 13 series.) I'm not a big fan of mob stories and the glamorization of the mafia, so I was already inclined not to like this. But the lack of spy intrigue and the ludicrous belt buckle weapon at the end really sealed the deal.

The second story, set in Europe around the time of the fall of Berlin Wall, was a more satisfying spy story, as it involved political scheming, betrayal, and revenge. Plus, who doesn't love seeing political leaders playing feverish war games on the high seas?

Other comments: The art took some getting used to, as it's a little light and cartoony for a serious spy series. In fact the art reminds me of something that would have appeared in Mad or Cracked magazine. Is there an artist from one of those magazines who had a style similar to this?

It was a bit strange coming into this series at the fifth volume, but it sounds like I wouldn't gain much background by starting from volume one. According to Wikipedia, Golgo 13 is such a long-running series (148 volumes and counting in Japan) that Viz decided to publish a thirteen-volume selection of his "greatest hits" rather than try to publish the full series in chronological order. I suppose if all the stories are just one-off assignments like this it doesn't matter much what order they're read in, but the feature at the end detailing Golgo's most memorable tortures does make the point that an incremental appreciation can be gained by reading Golgo's exploits in sequence.

Speaking of the bonuses at the back of the book, they're probably the best part of the whole volume. In addition to the catalogue of times Golgo was tortured, there's also a short essay by martial artist Horibe Masashi recommending a future interrogation method that he's confident would break Golgo: bash him in the balls. Seriously! There's an entire page that goes into great detail why Golgo's opponents should go to work on his testicles. Best line:
I personally would like to see a scene where Golgo 13 gets attacked in the testicles, and squirms in anguish, or is attacked but is shown to have some sort of protection against it, allowing him to get through the biggest pinch of his life.
Best fan letter ever! (I wonder if the editors of Batman have ever gotten a letter like this. Has Batman ever been tortured by getting kicked in the nuts repeatedly?)

Besides, if Bond can put up with it, I'm betting Golgo could shake off some nutcracking.

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