Archive for October, 2011

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…!

Please stand by

Thursday, October 20th, 2011

Technical difficulties (involving my scanner crapping out) have put a damper on updates here, but I should have a replacement fairly soon. In the meantime, enjoy some pretty pictures.

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.

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