Archive for the ‘Comics’ Category

Regrets: We Can Fix It! and Seconds

Thursday, July 17th, 2014

Is there such a thing as an early life crisis? The mid-life crisis, with its restless hookups and material status symbols, is well-trod territory, but it’s the effect of sitting stunned in the car wreckage of a life, wondering just what happened that led to this moment. Is there a point in life just before the crash, when you can see the oncoming car or mailbox, and it’s not yet too late to swerve out of the way–but it will be if you don’t take control right now?

Both Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Seconds and Jess Fink’s We Can Fix It! occupy themselves with that moment. Both were written in their respective author’s early thirties, and concern protagonists of roughly the same age. It’s the age (which I share, being 33 years old as I write this) where you no longer quite feel that anything is possible, but the remaining field of potential isn’t yet suffocating. A co-editor of mine, also about my age, quit recently, and I can understand why; seeing the oncoming car, he decided to make a hard swerve.

Both Seconds and We Can Fix It! employ fantastic devices in mostly mundane settings. Seconds has its magic mushrooms, and We Can Fix It! has its time machine, and both function to the same end: to facilitate the protagonist’s desire to alter the past and live their “mistakes” differently. Naturally, this gives rise to problems in both stories, though the different nature of the obstacles is worth examining.

Seconds is a work of fiction which involves Katie, its heroine, finding a cache of magic mushrooms and instructions on how to use them to undo mistakes. The instructions double as rules: the bearer is meant to get only one mulligan, and it has to be something that occurred on the premises where the do-over kit is found. Naturally, Katie ignores one rule first and then the other–and then a third, totally unwritten rule–leading to disaster. Given the chance to rewrite her life, as her ex/boyfriend/husband Max says, she “started trying to make things better, and now […] can’t stop until things are perfect.”

Katie runs into trouble not just because she breaks the rules, but because the perfection she reaches for using the mushrooms is unattainable. The more mistakes in her relationship with Max she undoes, the further away her goal of owning her own restaurant seems to slip; her two dreams are revealed to be rooted in mutually exclusive choices. Katie has the power, at least for a while, to change whatever she wants, but no retroactive change can truly grant her desire. It isn’t until all her meddling is itself undone that she’s able to move forward in the life she built and forge it into what she wants it to be from there.

Unlike Seconds, We Can Fix It! is a loose autobiography; the time machine angle is more of a framing devices for the vignettes Fink presents of her past. The major stumbling block for Fink isn’t that she changes too much, but that she’s frustrated by her inability to change anything at all. Every time she zaps back to the past, her younger selves are either too confused or too headstrong to listen to any of her supposedly sage advice.

Although what Fink learns is that she can’t change the past, rather than Katie’s lesson that she shouldn’t, they both arrive at roughly the same place: an appreciation of their personal history. After some commiseration with her future self on where her plans went wrong, the last third of Fink’s “time travel memoir” has her revisiting the good times in her early life to prove to herself it’s not all as bad as she remembered. And either way, she finishes the story by returning to her caring spouse and fulfilling career, proving that even a rocky start doesn’t necessarily lead to a tragic end.

Not that Fink’s story is over, or Katie’s either. The terrible fear as we start to feel ourselves settling into a role, seeing the rest of our lives yawning ahead, that it’s all about to go wrong makes us anxious to look to the past to see how it might have been avoided, or how it might still be. In the grip of that fear, we forget that the specter of the coming crisis might only be that and nothing more. If we can find the courage to pay it no heed and keep driving, there’s an even chance things will work themselves out on their own.

Next Town Over

Saturday, October 29th, 2011

I hope I’m not giving the wrong idea with the scattering of highfalutin’ comics I’ve covered so far and the artsy-fartsy mission statement in the About post that I only like comics that are inscrutible, political, or both. I also like a good genre comic, and Next Town Over is exemplary of the form. (Full disclosure: Next Town Over is written and drawn by Erin Mehlos, my partner for the only-on-hiatus-we-swear Dear Stabby. Also, this is a review of the first two print issues, rather than the webcomic.)

For a while in mainstream comics, it was in vogue to do superheroes mixed with some other genres in an attempt to freshen up the genre. Powers was a superhero story with a police procedural twist. Noble Causes superhero story with a daytime soap opera twist. So on and so forth. As a form of outreach to the mainstream, it was (to steal a line from Dirk Deppey) like the Monty Python sketch where the waiter tries to sell the man on a dish that’s “not got much spam in it.” A crime fiction or romance fiction fan picking up those books wouldn’t be especially well-served by them, because of all the superhero tropes getting in the way of the tropes they come to the genre for.

The challenge for any book like Next Town Over, which incorporates fantastical elements into its chosen genre, is to walk the fine line between “a western story with a superhuman twist” and “a superhero story with a western twist,” and I think Mehlos pulls it off. One possible way to dodge the trap would be to push the fantastical elements far into the background, but Mehlos doesn’t take that way out: the first issue pushes the outlaw John Henry Hunter’s control over fire, and the bounty hunter Vane Black’s seeming invulnerability, right into the center of the plot. This is unambiguously a story about superhuman characters at odds with each other.

So why doesn’t it come off as a superhero story, set in the Old West? For one thing, the behavior of the characters lines up with what’s expected of the genre. (So does the dialogue; Mehlos strikes just the right tone for a good Western.) Hunter isn’t just a guy with fire powers, he’s also a charmer and a snake. Black isn’t just an unkillable machinesmith, she’s also a tough-as-nails bounty hunter with less of an interest in the law than in seeing Hunter go down. A typical DC Elseworlds story would take its established heroes and plug them into new settings, but Mehlos gives us character types well known to Western fans first and adds the fantastical elements in on top. It’s the difference between giving Superman a sheriff’s badge and giving Rooster Cogburn superpowers, if that makes sense.

The other big strength is that as cool as the fireworks are whenever Hunter and Vane clash, the driving force of the story is still the mystery of why they’re clashing. There are flashes of history between the two shown here and there, with are enough curveballs in those panels to indicate the story isn’t going to fall into predictable genre ruts. For example, sure, Hunter clearly charmed his way into Vane’s life as easily as he did the present-day marks that we see, but then there’s that shot of Hunter onstage before a packed audience to show that these characters have more facets than the reader might have thought.

Mehlos’ art is every bit the equal of her writing. One of the most evocative things about the flashbacks is noting by the expressions how much Vane has changed, and how much Hunter hasn’t. She can do the action scenes that the genre requires, too. In the first two issues we get a shootout, a horse chase, and a bar fight, all of which are handled expertly.

One thing in particular that catches the eye are Mehlos’ panel borders, which are all more ornate and tactile than a simple bounding box. Here, the panels are all shown as individual portraits with their own frames and filigree that reinforce the story. Panels showing Hunter and Vane’s past are shown as sepia-toned photographed slowly burning away, action scenes involving Vane typically are typically ornamented with clockwork gears and cogs, and one bit of comment from Hunter regarding his horses has hearts and diamonds worked into the corners of the frame.

So kudos to Mehlos for making her larger-than-life elements work for her story and delivering a Western that’s fun and fresh. If this is what she turns out on her lonesome, it’s enough to make me wonder if I even want to shackle her to the next issue of Stabby…!

Spaceman: Unarmed And Ready To Launch

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

It’s easy to get swept up in the enthusiasm and passion on display at APE with small press creators eagerly hocking their own wares, and sometimes the plain sincerity of a sales pitch can override one’s better judgement and lead to some rather dubious purchases. That’s the only excuse I’ve got for picking up Spaceman: Unarmed and Ready to Launch by the Lavapunch collective. It’s an appealingly goofy concept (“The random adventures of a spaceman who’s got no arms!”) that, on even a moment’s reflection, is a pretty thin premise for any workable stories.

So if the reader, on hearing that these stories are not the best, raises an eyebrow and wonders what I was expecting, well, you’d have me there. The stories in this book do indeed have all the depth and wit you’d expect of an anthology focused on a spaceman who’s got no arms.

I’ll at least acknowledge the book’s successes: it starts on a high note with Monica Chen’s “Uma and Pip: A Love Story,” which uses the silliness of the concept for a few good artificial-arms gags, then gets to its sweet conclusion without overstaying its welcome. Chen’s somewhat Rumiko Takahashi-flavored art is also some of the strongest in the book: her panel-to-panel storytelling is clear and easy to follow, which is important in any comic but doubly so in an mostly silent strip like “Uma and Pip.”

“Escape Velocity,” the story by Jillian Ogle and Evon Freeman that closes out the book, also has a nice moment that draws on the kaleidoscopic nature of an anthology for a big heroic finish. The actual plot of the strip is cliched, but at least it’s knowingly so–at one point, Captain Spaceman finds a map of the villain’s ship helpfully labeled “Enemies,” “Girl,” and “You Are Here.”

Finally, Alex Ahad’s gag strip “Unarmed and Dangerous” hits the right tone for the material he’s working with, though being chopped up into four-page segments sprinkled throughout the book doesn’t help the pacing. It would have worked better if the groan-worthy jokes about an inexplicably villainous version of Captain Spaceman being “caught red-handed” by the “long arm of the law” were allowed to accumulate, but it works well enough even as is.

The rest of the book is, bluntly, a mess. It’s clear that Lavapunch is primarily an artist’s collective by the way nearly every story falls into one of two pitfalls: it has lovely but unreadable art that fails to convey the ambitious ideas the creator was aiming for (Alpha Gamboa’s “Untitled” and Konstantin Pogorelov’s “The Path of Moderate Resistance”) or it hits the other extreme of a collection of deliberately crudely-drawn puerile jokes (Robert Iza’s “The Ballad of Captain Spaceman” and Teerawat Palanitisena’s “Captain Spaceman and the Temple of Shrooms,” which was so witless I actually fell asleep reading it).

Chalk at least some of it up to the perennial problem of anthologies feeling like a collection of B-sides; I doubt many of the creators were putting forth their best effort for a bunch of strips with such a lame shared premise, and I can’t really fault them for it. That said, if an anthology is meant to be a collective’s calling card, it does behoove its members to try a little harder than this–I can’t say I’m eager to look further into the work of any of the individual creators based on their representation in Spaceman. There are several other anthologies lurking somewhere in The Stack, so fingers crossed they do a better job at putting over their members as talents worth following.


Minicomics: Susie Cagle

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Hello. It’s been nearly a year since I last blogged here; another APE has come and gone, and The Stack is now even bigger. So I’m going to revisit the concept and try to stick with it this time. Starting with a pair of minis by “reportage cartoonist” Susie Cagle, This Is What Concerns Me and I’m Here From The Government.

This Is What Concerns Me is a short sampling of one-page strips that I gather are compiled from her eponymous website. How you react to her taken-from-life vignettes will probably depend a lot on how much time you’ve spent in San Francisco, where Cagle lives and works. Subjects like hippie stench, vegan shopping, and random crazies on the street are probably more interesting if they’re new to you and not everyday facts of life.

Cagle’s actual storytelling is more interesting than her choice of stories to tell here. The one- and two-page material at the front of the book is all right, but she’s at her best when she gives herself space to let a story breathe. The two-and-a-half “Security” strips in the 13-page book showcase her skill for evocative recreations of San Francisco’s distinct environs, all sloped sidewalks, tall brick buildings, and unassuming walk-by shops. She uses a much looser style in these strips than in I’m Here From the Government, but it’s still effective at capturing her own unease and irritation, as well as the creepiness of the characters she encounters.

If you only read one of the two, however, I’m Here From The Government is the one to go for. This is the one where Cagle lives up to her title and provides some intriguing cartoon reportage on what it’s like to be a census taker. (Or Enumerator, to use the official term. See, it’s educational!)

Pretty much the only thing I knew about enumerators prior to reading this was hearing stories of paranoid fringe lunatics attacking them during the 2010 census, wholly convinced that they were agents of the New World Order keeping tabs on them for some future mass roundup into indoctrination camps. Cagle worked in the rather more liberal San Francisco, so if you’re hoping for tense tales of confrontations with belligerent responders, you won’t find them here. (Though there are hints of danger evident in the safety training seminar the enumerators receive, with advice such as “Wear comfortable walking shoes. These may come in handy should there be a need to run.”)

These stories are more procedural; half the book is devoted to the training sessions before Cagle takes a step onto the streets to poll people. What’s most impressive about these sections is how much went into the preparation before Cagle drew a single line. It’s clear from the specific details given at every step, from reproductions of the actual test questions Cagle answered to get the job to a dizzying array of jargon and acronyms peppering the dialogue, that Cagle took thorough notes during the process for later use. (One of the chapters is even titled “Verbatim.”)

Once the enumerators are out in the field, the tone bounces around between comedic (the enumerators joking around about “Census Regionals”), informative (did you know government writing utensils are made by Skilcraft, a manufacturer created to employ blind workers? I didn’t!), and uncomfortable (“Operation TNSOL,” a night spent cataloguing the homeless in park spaces, makes effective use of garbled dialogue balloons to convey Cagle’s fear and shame).

The line in these stories is thicker and more solid than the scratchiness of This Is What Concerns Me, which goes a long way toward improving its readability. Cagle’s gift for faces and expressions is put to even better use here with the expanded cast–the enormous mouth and huge-pupiled stare on Cagle’s CL makes her even more memorable as a character, especially in contrast with her thin-lipped, perpetually-silent assistant.

IF SUSIE CAGLE EXHIBITS AT NEXT YEAR’S APE I WILL: Pick up more of her long-form/reportage comics and skip the collections of one-offs.

Rica ‘tte Kanji!?

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s a little something in honor of National Coming Out Day: Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, an autobiographical comic about the unique challenges of coming out as a lesbian in Japan.

As Rica Takashima, the book’s artist, says right at the start, “I grew up out in the country. So, I’ve never met an actual lesbian.” Or at least, not that she was aware of. It’s a truism that since about 10% of the population is gay, most people have more LGBT friends than they realize. But whereas the U.S. at least has something like National Coming Out Day, the Japanese maxim “the nail that sticks up gets pounded down” reigns supreme, and Japan’s gay population in non-metropolitan areas remains invisible. One gets the sense that if Rica hadn’t moved to Tokyo to enter junior college, thereby gaining access to the GLBT-centric Nichoume district of Shinjuku, she might have gone her whole life without meeting another actual lesbian: “It’s the same for everyone in the beginning,” confirms Miho upon hearing the above line.

That general sense of desperation amongst the Tokyo lesbian community informs a lot of the book’s events. After making a quiet debut at one of the Nichoume clubs, Rica is taken to a women-only event at a larger club; there, as is standard for girls new to the scene, she gets an avalanche of passes by girls who don’t often see new faces in the crowd. Miho, one of the first girls Rica meets and the one who becomes her girlfriend over the course of the book, laments early on that she hasn’t found a girlfriend in the six months she’s been in the Nichoume scene, with the implied reason that the pickings are that slim. The only real challenge to their love comes when Rica briefly develops a crush on Kaoru, who turns out not to be a lesbian at all but a preoperative transsexual also active in Nichoume. (“You didn’t realize?” asks Kaoru to a bewildered Rica when the secret is revealed. “I thought you were just a fag hag.”)

Given that Rica ‘tte Kanji!? offers a rare perspective into a little-represented corner of Japanese society, it’s a bit frustrating that Takashima doesn’t expand her scope beyond her tentative romance with Miho. For instance, her area of study at the junior college is early childhood education, but although she gets a job at a foster nursery toward the end of the book, we’re never told whether her employers know or care about her relationship.

This may be a byproduct of Takahashi’s explanation in an afterword that “Ten years ago there were very few manga with lesbian stories. Only depressing stories, about ‘forbidden love’ with a break-up in the end. […] I wanted to read a HAPPY story.” (This was in 2003, and it’s been nearly ten years since then without a lot having changed in the manga world, as far as I can tell.) In this light, it makes sense that providing information about the gay Japanese lifestyle is outside the scope of Rica ‘tte Kanji!?, which serves instead as a sort of proto-It Gets Better for young Japanese lesbians. (Then again, there’s a distinct possibility that some of these issues do come up in the frustratingly large amount of untranslated text pieces inexplicably included in the English adaptation.)

Even apart from the window into Rica’s particular subculture, it’s a cute book that tells a sweet story with breezily naive cartooning perfectly suited to its subject matter. It may not provide all the answers one might hope from someone with Rica’s perspective, but what she does reveal, both about herself and about her newfound social circles, is worth the read.

Alternative Press Expo 2010

Thursday, October 21st, 2010

And so The Stack grows.

For the fifth or sixth year now, I went to the Alternative Press Expo at the Concourse in San Francisco. This year, it was a little special because it fell on my 30th birthday, and I have to say: any kind of life where I can spend my 30th birthday at a comics convention is a pretty good one in my book.

The thing that impresses me most, every time I go, is how many people got out there, made some comics, and are there at APE letting their work speak for them. Even the hackiest, most cheaply photocopied minis took effort and courage to get down on paper and on the show floor. I’ve made tentative steps, once, toward producing my own comic, but going to APE always gets me motivated to give it another stab. (No pun intended.) Will I have something to show by APE 2011, or will I be there solely in a consumer capacity once again? We’ll see.

Not that going there just to buy stuff is a bad time. I buy comics at APE the way some people buy hurricane supplies–gotta stock up, because it could be a long time before you have another opportunity. The full list of my haul, as well as photos of the books and some snapshots of the con itself, are after the jump.


The Stack: Why Did I Put This Town On My Face?

Friday, September 17th, 2010

I’ve been to the Alternative Press Expo every year since I first moved to San Francisco in 2004; even now that I live in Orange County, I still make an annual trip back up to the Bay to attend. I love small press stuff and minicomics and always spend much too much sampling things at random; if there’s an booth that looks interesting, I’ll always try to get at least one of their wares to take home with me.

But I haven’t been so good, necessarily, at actually reading those comics once I get them. They tend to be filed away somewhere on a shelf–or worse, on a permanent stack on the floor near a bookshelf somewhere. One of my goals in starting up a comics blog was to motivate myself to unearth those stacks, discover what’s in them, and write about it. And I’ll start with Why Did I Put This Town On My Face? by Matt Wiegle, which I seem to have picked up at last year’s show.

It’s a short minicomic of 32 pages, and maybe I should explain what a minicomic is for those of you not into the indie-comics scene. These are photocopied, hand-stapled creations produced in limited print runs by amateur artists. More than anything else this blog will cover, minicomics are literally comics for comics’ sake: they’re created out of a pure impulse of expression divorced from any attempt at making money. And as such, they can get pretty damned weird.

Wiegle’s minicomic, a collection of pieces that had appeared in other anthologies, is a good example of what I’m talking about. “Good” in both senses of the word: it typifies the genre and it’s also well-executed, which is hardly a given when you’re talking about random minicomics purchased at APE. A lot of them can be pretty awful, in fact, and out of respect for their creators’ courage in putting their work out there for public consumption I probably won’t be touching on those should I find one in The Stack.

The stories in WDIPTTOMF are short and whimsical. Most of them are surreal one-gag affairs, like the story about a man buried up to his jaw, and the humor is derived more from the strangeness of the stories more than a punchline. There’s not much plot to speak of–these vignettes barely qualify as one-acters– and the stories stand or fall mainly on Wiegle’s wavy, thin-lined art style.

Wiegle’s other strength is his ability to keep the ideas coming. The best piece in the book, the title of which is irreproducible since it’s just a picture of an anchor, is about a tattooed man invading an art gallery showing with the intention of using his power to bring art to life in order to make some ill-defined point. It’s only five pages long, but Wiegle puts a lot in there: a pair of freeloading students only interested in crashing the snack table, a lovelorn art critic, and the tattooed man himself, who’s worked out a system of using his tattoos to support himself in everyday life. Also, David Bowie with his legs chopped off.

In the end, there isn’t much to say about minis like this without just summarizing the already-thin pieces, so posts in The Stack series will probably end up being more review-y than other writeups, using the following as a form of final judgement:

IF MATT WIEGLE EXHIBITS AT THIS YEAR’S APE I WILL: Probably buy another of his minis if I happen across his booth.

Pyongyang: A Journey In North Korea

Thursday, September 16th, 2010

North Korea didn’t get its reputation as the bogeyman of international policy just because it’s a militarized nation with institutionalized anti-West ideologies led by a half-crazed dictator. It did so by being all of those things and keeping itself almost completely unknowable. With the citizenry prevented from having any contact with the outside world and the few foreigners allowed within its borders from having any contact with the citizenry, North Korea’s reclusiveness just added to the fear.

Which is why books like Guy Delisle’s Pyongyang are so important. There have been glimpses into North Korea before, such as the Vice Guide to North Korea, but they tend to try a bit too hard to be scandalous exposes rather than simple inquiries into what life in the country is like.

What makes Delisle’s account different is that he wasn’t there to observe horror stories and report them back to an audience eager to hear tales of oppression and paranoia. He was there to do his job, which happened to take him to the North Korean animation studio SEK just as it had previously taken him to studios in China and Vietnam. He was there for two months, giving him plenty of time to settle in and have a good look around the place. Or as good a look as any foreigner is allowed to have around Pyongyang, at any rate.

But the particulars of the two-stop subway, the empty highways, and the omnipresent guides can be found in nearly any account of the city. Pyongyang shines in its recurring characters, the party officials and fellow expatriates and how they reveal themselves over the course of Delisle’s stay.

On the DPRK side, there’s Comrade Sin (sometimes mockingly called Captain Sin), Delisle’s chaperone around the city, and an unnamed translator who later replaces him. Sin is for the most part implacable and unnerving; he’s got a military background and insists that everyone Delisle sees doing manual labor is “volunteering.” In one of the book’s creepiest exchanges, he calmly explains that a former star animator in the studio isn’t on any of the current production teams, didn’t transfer studios, or go abroad, but remains silent on Delisle’s obvious follow-up question: “He didn’t just disappear, did he?”

Delisle wonders of Comrade Sin the same thing most people who learn the basic facts about life in North Korea do: “Do they really believe the bullshit that’s being forced down their throats?” As he points out–more often in narration than dialogue, since to casually discuss the truth with his guides could be a very bad idea–North Korea has serious problems and its neighbors, if and when things come crashing down, are not going to be sanguine about supporting a bunch of brainwashed, jobless refugees. Is there hope for these people?

Probably so. You can see it in the cracks and between the lines of Delisle’s story. The officials who let down their guards on the one outdoor afternoon they spend following a trip to the surreal Friendship Museum. The pure joy on Comrade Sin’s face as he receives a gift of Hennessy cognac. Even the fear, in places, is revealing. When Delisle lets a translator borrow a copy of 1984 he brought with him and later asks what he thought, the translator starts trembling and stammers that he doesn’t like science fiction. The slip in the carefully maintained doublethink shows that the translator, like everyone else, knows the score. Someday he may even be able to say so.

After all, as Delisle shows, the facade can’t last forever. Even during his two-month stay, there’s a revolving door cast of expatriates in the form of fellow animation vets, fashion designers, tech experts, and NGO workers coming to and from the country all the time, an inevitable factor in the country’s economy since it requires so much foreign aid and foreign investment to stay afloat. All that imported help comes at the price of further exposure to ordinary Western people, in stark contrast to the Museum of Imperialist Occupation or the propaganda films that comprise the sole programming in the country’s movie theaters.

The cracks are there, and they’ll widen, and it’s books like this that will drive the wedge. The propaganda films isn’t as scary as long as you know there’s one guy there willing to say he thinks they’re boring. The guides’ authority isn’t as absolute after they’ve laughed their heads off at a subversive joke you made. The country isn’t as alien once you know they’re waiting for the same thing we are.

The Left Bank Gang

Wednesday, September 15th, 2010

The hardest part when talking about Jason is knowing where to start. He’s prolific, and his books are all great, so when I recommend him to someone and they ask what to read first, it’s tempting to say “All of them. Read them all first.” But in lieu of the temporally impossible, you might as well start with The Left Bank Gang.

The premise of the book is so high-concept and ludicrous that it sounds like a shaggy dog story. What if all those famous novelists of the Jazz Age lived in close proximity on the Parisian Left Bank, except they were all animals, and they were cartoonists instead of writers, and they fell on hard times and tried to pull off a bank heist?

It’s as dryly nonsensical as it sounds, but it works because of Jason’s art style. His depiction of the story could hardly be called realistic; the best word to describe it might be “fair.” Not fair as in a qualitative judgement of his skill on a scale from “excellent” to “poor,” but “fair” as in a style that makes no qualitative judgements. His hard-luck cartoonists don’t make grand or exaggerated movements, they just do what they do, never betraying any artist’s knowledge that they’re in a story.

The page composition complements this style well. I had initially thought that one of the reasons Jason’s style worked was because he didn’t vary his camera distance or placement much from panel to panel, and on most pages that’s true. But there are plenty of pages where it isn’t, enough so that you can’t discount his range as a cartoonist. What is true is that he rarely deviates from the simple-to-understand nine-panel grid.

When used like this, page after page, nine-panel grid does two things. It sets up a steady rhythm for the reader so that even when things start to go seriously awry in the story, it feels as natural and everyday within the grid as that casual dinner conversation ten pages back.

More than that, though, it prevents any panel from ever growing too big to let a character breathe. This is mostly a story about people feeling trapped, whether it’s in a country, a career, a marriage, or a life, and the tight space of every panel gets that feeling across well. Big, open vistas of breathtaking scenery are pulled out when an artist wants to impress the reader, but Jason’s restraint and insistence on the nine-panel grid goes all the further toward emphasizing the smallness of these people and their concerns.

Even if “these people” do happen to be the most celebrated writers of the early 20th century.

Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President

Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

In the Presidential election of 2008, I was largely in sync in Barack Obama’s policies and platforms. (No Catholic can ever be completely so, of course.) I liked what he said about war, race, education, science and technology, international relations, terror and torture, and civil rights. But even in spite of that, when I cast my ballot on that November 4th, some part of me wasn’t voting for Obama. It was voting for Kenneth Yamaoka.

Yamaoka is, not the star exactly, but certainly the central figure and enigma about whom Eagle: The Making of an Asian-American President, by Kaiji Kawaguchi, revolves. The star of the book, if you must know, is Takashi Jo, cub reporter for the Daily Maicho Shinbun in Japan. Takashi, it’s revealed early on, is also Yamaoka’s son, born of an intense relationship the candidate had on an Okinawa airbase en route to Vietnam. The family drama surrounding Takashi and Yamaoka’s family is pure potboiler material, meant to hook in Japanese readers who couldn’t care less about labor disputes or racial tension.

But the real meat of the book is the political machine. Yamaoka doesn’t even become the official Democratic candidate until the fourth of the five thick books. (Average page length: 473 pages.) The majority of Yamaoka’s struggle is–and stop me if you’ve heard this one before–vying in the primaries with the beneficiary of the Clinton legacy, though since Eagle dates back to 1997, that comes in the form of an Al Gore manque rather than a Hilary isotope.

As Yamaoka wends his way through debates, press conferences, and backroom deals, the ideology and argument on display is simplified and idealized, to be sure. Just as Riichiro Inagaki slowly and painstakingly lays out every rule and exception of American football for Eyeshield 21 readers coming to the sport for the first time, Kawaguchi couches political points in Eagle heavily in metaphors. There’s Yamaoka conning Al Noah into playing chess as the two of them trade sound bites about the intertwining issues of education and immigration policy. There’s George Tuck (Kawaguchi’s Dick Tuck stand-in) screening a campaign ad showing an inner-city kid being left behind on the side of a road by a station water, sports car, and space shuttle until Yamaoka pulls up driving a bus to ferry him “to the 21st century.” There’s Yamaoka speaking privately to Takashi amidst a backdrop of scenes frim his Vietnam tour, claiming that he’s “still in the jungle” when it comes to the bare-knuckled world of politics.

But for all their simplicity and digestibility, these are still recognizably American touchstones and issues. Kawaguchi didn’t phone this one in: according to a short interview in the back of volume 2, he engrossed himself in American political literature, leaned heavily on Japanese experts in the field at top newspaeprs, and spent months touring the country for himself and taking “what eventually amounted to 50 photo albums’ worth of pictures” for reference. All that work, translated by equally fervent research junkie Carl Horn, paid off.

So when the story goes to New York, where Yamaoka began his political career, and deals with a local politician who seems to have no political agenda beyond peddling influence and keeping himself reelected, it feels real. When Yamaoka struggles to keep the support of the military while not compromising on his hardline antiwar stance, it feels real. When the campaign heats up after the Democratic National Convention and Yamaoka is shadowed by fringe kooks leaving threatening messages and worse, it feels real.

And most importantly for those of us who voted for Obama two years ago, when Yamaoka lets the reader down, when he tosses aside a principle or two if it helps him jockey for position, when he’s shown to be only a man after all, that feels real too. When you start to notice that Yamaoka’s victory is built as much as anything on savvy media manipulation, demographic jockeying, and one grim-jawed get-out-the-vote organization, it rings unfortunately true.

But if you knew back in 2002 that this is who Yamaoka was, it took some of the sting out of it when you helped elect him six years later.

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