Wednesday, December 30, 2009

G-Man: Learning to Fly

Chris Giarrusso made his name drawing the Mini Marvels cartoons that appeared in various Marvel Comics. His art is fun, energetic, and reminiscent of Bill Watterson's Calvin and Hobbes work. G-Man is his foray into creator-owned characters, ones loosely based on his own family experiences (I am guessing). Here is an interview with Giarrusso about the book where he talks a little about his influences.

G-Man is a young boy who gets superpowers from a magic cape. He gets his name from the fact that no one can pronounce his last name. His big brother is Great Man, and they have a pretty normal sibling relationship. That is, they get on each others' nerves a lot. Their relationship really gets fleshed out in the series of "Mean Brother" (drawn by G-Man) and "Idiot Brother" (drawn by Great Man) comics that appear throughout.

This book chronicles their misadventures and it is full of entertaining characters. These include a powerful wizard, superhero friends from school, and G-Man's parents and teachers. The stories are whimsical and enjoyable, such as the one where the wizard sends the boys on a quest to retrieve his magic chalice. This grand quest ends before it even begins because Sparky the Swift finds it in the kitchen sink. Apparently, the wizard is lax with his dish washing...

This volume, published by Image Comics, has been well received in general. This review from Snow Wildsmith points out the fun points about the book, even if some of them rely on mild potty humor. John Hogan states that this book would be enjoyable for both older and younger readers. It is full of in-jokes for superhero comics fans but also works well as an introduction to the genre.

Giarrusso's official website is chock full of surprises. It has a good collection of his artwork, story samples, sketches, and a few fun games to play. Fans of Asteroids and Breakout especially may be pleased.

An extended preview of this volume is available here.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow


This piece of historical fiction begins in 1929 when Emmet Wilson decides to leave his young family at 18 years of age to make money as a professional baseball player. His career choice takes him away from home for a long period of time but he makes a larger amount of money in the Negro Leagues than he would otherwise make working at his farm. In his first game as a pro, he faces Satchel Paige, one of the legendary pitchers of the league. And perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time. Emmet's debut is very memorable, but injury cuts his career short.

The rest of the story involves Emmet living a different life with his family in the fictional town Tuckwilla, Alabama over a period of years. He farms, picks cotton, and follows the exploits of Satchel Paige in news stories. Paige, while not allowed to play in the Major Leagues, makes a lot of money barnstorming. Finally, Emmet and his son attend a baseball game where Paige's All Star team faces off with the local ball club, which is all white. The Tuckwilla All Stars have some ex-baseball players on their team as well but most of them do not respect the African-American players as equals. The climax of the book involves Paige's unique manner of confronting this racial discrimination.

James Sturm and Rich Tommaso created this book, a publication of The Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. Sturm has created many works of historical fiction, mostly published through Drawn & Quarterly, and he is the founder and director of the Center. Tommaso is a prolific cartoonist in his own right, and he has a great variety of works available for preview at his official website.

This book was very well researched for historical accuracy. Although it is a fictionalized account, it draws upon many facts to create the story. These facts are highlighted at the end of the book, through a series of panel examinations. Additionally there are a few other sources listed, for those interested in further reading. The story, for all this research is simultaneously spare and affecting. Sturm and Tommaso get a lot of mileage from simple images and their pacing creates great drama during the game sequences. This would be a great resource for those interested in Jim Crow laws, civil rights in the US, the Negro Leagues, the Great Depression era, or just baseball in general.

Reviews of this book are pretty positive, such as this one from Alison Morris. Some, such as Elizabeth Bird, point out that this book should not replace a true biography of Satchel Paige. Andrew Wheeler also enjoyed the book, but worries it will be relegated to the oft-neglected biography shelf in school libraries. He would also like to have seen a true biography of Paige, a man who lived an extraordinary life.

The book's official webpage has a wealth of resources, including an interview with the authors, preview pages, teacher resources, and thumbnail sketches used to plan the book.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The Boys, Volume 1: The Name of the Game

First, let me get this out of the way: There is lots of lurid sex and gory violence in this volume, as well as a liberal dose of black humor, and it is definitely not for children.

Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons asked, "Who watches the Watchmen?" Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson answered, "The Boys." This volume collects the first 6 issues of a comic book series about a task force the CIA has commissioned to deal with rogue superheroes.

In this world, superheroes are pretty common. The top dogs are the Seven, an analogue to the Justice League of America. They are corporately sponsored and appear to hold the moral high ground. But behind the scenes they bicker over money and popularity, and they also have seedy habits. Most of the superheroes act like celebrities and party like rock stars, abusing drugs and having exotic kinds of sex. The US government fears what happens when these superbeings forget abut their humanity and begin to abuse their power. So they contract with The Boys to keep the supers in check.

The story revolves around the leader of the group, Butcher, gathering his old mates Mother's Milk, the Frenchman, the Female of the Species (yes, the lone woman) to rejoin his mission to make the worlds safe for humans. A large part of the story also involves him trying to recruit a new member, Wee Hughie, to round out the quintet. The Boys are a motley crew. Butcher is scheming and strategic but not very details oriented. Mother's Milk is the calm center. The Frenchman is alternately loving and volatile. The Female is mysterious, quiet, and perhaps the deadliest of all. Wee Hughie is a pretty average guy, and his look is based on actor Simon Pegg (before he got famous in Shaun of the Dead). All of them can handle themselves well in a fight.

Author Garth Ennis has written a great number of comics, including the Punisher and Preacher. He is not a great fan of superheroes and many of his tales are violent and irreverent toward them. Darick Robertson provides the art for the series. He is most famous as the co-creator of Transmetropolitan, a sci-fi series following the exploits of a futuristic gonzo reporter, but has drawn a great number of superhero comics. He provides a very realistic, detailed style.

The series is currently published by Dynamite Entertainment. It was nominated for an Eisner Award for best continuing series in 2008. Reviews of this volume are largely positive, ranging from calling it a "guilty pleasure" as in this one from Adam McGovern, to calling it a "must read" at the Weekly Crisis, to a more reserved response from Andy at Grovel.

If you are interested to know more about the series, here is an interview with Robertson about it. Also, preview pages are available here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Black Hole

Part 1950s horror movie, part cautionary tale about sexually transmitted disease, with a dash of Lord of the Flies is a good way to describe this book. These diverse influences come together to create a story that is one of the most acclaimed graphic works of the past decade.

The story follows 4 teenagers, Chris, Rob, Eliza, and Keith, and how the "teen plague" affects their lives. They live in a suburb in Washington state in the 1970s at a time that this plague is being spread by sexually active teenagers. This disease, also called "The Bug," causes horrific mutations in people who contract it. For some, their skin peels off. Others find themselves with extra mouths or orifices on their body. Some grow tails or antennae. Others get strange rashes or abrasions and look like they have extreme acne all over. The disease afflicts each person differently.

Originally published as a 12-issue limited series from 1995 to 2005, the point of Black Hole seems to be the creation of a mood of fear, paranoia, and alienation. It is an old-style horror story with more than a few modern strokes. Some of the youths who contract the disease can hide their symptoms. Those who cannot ostracize themselves from town and create a sort of colony in the woods. The teenagers out there vie for survival, acting in cut-throat manners. In general the theme of not knowing who to trust pervades the book. Also very present is a fear about growing up and a strong uneasiness with desire.

Charles Burns wrote and drew the story. He is a sought-after commercial artist and is known for his well-crafted art. Telling the story in dramatic, richly detailed black and white panels, Burns creates a powerful, affecting tale. He has won multiple Harvey, Eisner and Ignatz Awards for this work. Here is a selection of detailed reviews from Vanessa Raney, Andrew Arnold, Justin Howe, and Jonathan Lasser that discuss the book further.

Fantagraphics published most of the original Black Hole comic books. The collected book version was produced by Pantheon.

For a more in-depth look at Charles Burns and his work, check out this interview done at The Daily Cross Hatch (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).

Friday, December 11, 2009

Moose & Midge: "Breakup Blues"

The third volume in the Archie "New Look" series of stories, Breakup Blues shows what happens when Midge decides to go on a date with Reggie Mantle for a change of pace from her domineering boyfriend Moose. The result is a lot of teenage drama. Moose is jealous and angry, and so the couple goes "on a break." During this break, Midge has fun doing things she normally does not get a chance to do. But Moose makes her jealous when he starts dating a new girl, Judy Johnson.

The story is part of a continued effort to show Archie and the gang in more realistic situations. For example, when he and Betty try to bring the old couple back together, their scheme does not work and Midge and Moose get very angry at them. Their friendships get strained (at least for a little while). There is an attempt to break out of the sitcom feel of many Archie tales, but in the end (spoiler warning!) the status quo wins out and Midge and Moose reunite.

The tale is scripted by Melanie J. Morgan, who has worked on all the New Look stories. The story, as before, comes from a 1992 novel written by Michael Pellowski and John Goldwater. The art is by established comic veterans Tod Smith and Al Milgrom, both of whom have drawn a wide array of different comics over the past three decades.

For some preview pages from this volume, scroll down a little on this page.

The bottom of this page has preview pages from the end of the story. Check out the what looks like a theatrical hard rock band (!?!) pounding out the dance tunes at the big dance contest where the teens are dancing either disco or hip hop. It's difficult to tell which...

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lunch Lady, Volumes 1 & 2

Students may not be fascinated by what their teachers do outside of school, but some of us lead exciting lives. Maybe no one more so than Lunch Lady, the star of Jarrett Krosoczka's graphic novels for younger readers. This lunch lady has a lot of neat gadgets. She has a spatula that spins like a helicopter and lifts her in the air. She has a night vision taco. She has a secret hideout behind the refrigerator in her kitchen. And she keeps all of this secret except to her accomplice, fellow lunch lady Betty. That is, until a few nosy students notice that the Lunch Lady is doing interesting things, and they do get involved more than they should.

Hector, Dee, and Terrance are the students who get involved in Lunch Lady's adventures. They are likable characters who act like kids. They chat, hang out, bicker, and try to deal with Milmoe, the resident bully. However, in this normal school with normal students, some pretty interesting things occur.

In the first volume, the children's favorite teacher, Mr. O'Connell, is replaced by a substitute who overwhelms them with work and worksheets. The substitute acts strangely and also refuses to eat the yummy things Lunch Lady offers him. All of this turns out to be part of a plot by Mr. Edison, the science teacher, to finally win the school's Teacher of the Year award.

In the second volume, the Lunch Lady deals with the local librarians. They have hatched a scheme to achieve world domination, and the first step is destroying all video games. The librarians have turned a few books into special weapons, unleashing fantastic creatures from stories to attack people. Lunch Lady and the kids fight back with a variety of gizmos, including juice boxes that make sonic booms. In the end, Lunch Lady foils their nefarious plans and saves the school book fair.

Jarrett Krosoczka is a veteran children's book author. He brings a fun, cartoony style to the books. The pictures are mostly in black and white, although there is also yellow thrown in. That color really makes Lunch Lady's rubber gloves pop. The books have received pretty positive reviews so far, as shown here in three separate ones from Bookie Woogie, 100 Scope Notes, and Comics Worth Reading.



Random House is about to publish its third entry in the series, and Universal has picked up the books to become a film starring Amy Poehler.

Here is a trailer for the series posted on YouTube. The comics official site is here.

For more information about Krosoczka, please visit Studio JJK, his official website. Be sure to check out his Bios. They're pretty good!

Monday, November 30, 2009

T-Minus: The Race to the Moon

The race to put a man on the moon was one of the greatest competitions of the Cold War, and almost everyone is familiar with the end of contest and Neil Armstrong's famous speech from the lunar surface. What is not as well known is all of the hard work, calculations, and failures that preceded this great accomplishment. T-Minus captures many of the struggles that took place within both the US and the Soviet space programs beginning at T-minus 12 years before the first moon landing in 1969 (that would be 1957 for those of you who don't want to do the subtraction).

Movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13 show us the exploits of the astronauts, but they don't show as much about the engineers, technicians, and mathematicians who made space travel possible in the first place. Jim Ottaviani has almost cornered the market in terms of creating graphic novels about mathematics and scientists and here he shows just how much they contributed to the great success Armstrong eventually was celebrated for. However he does not give short shrift to the pilots and other space travelers. He paints a picture of them as people brave and capable enough to fly vehicles that were basically fancy projectiles.

This book contains a wealth of resources provided in an accessible manner. There is a time line of dates that runs parallel to the narrative, chronicling successful and failing launches. The important players in the story are identified clearly, credentials listed, and acronyms explained in footnotes. There is even a bibliography for further reading toward the end, neatly disguised as a newspaper page.

T-Minus would be a great resource for learning about Cold War positioning or aeronautic engineering. More information about the content of the book and Ottaviani's aims as an author can be found in this interview done by Tom Spurgeon. For all of the technical and historical information given, the narrative still flows well from moment to moment, capturing the wonder and spectacle of space travel as well as the tragic moments that often accompanied failure. Reviews online are frequently positive, noting the good blend between facts and drama, such as these by Ted Anderson and Jack Shafer.

The art is crisply presented in black and white. It was drawn by the Cannon brothers, Zander and Kevin, who are frequent Ottaviani collaborators. More about them can be seen at their blog Big Time Attic.

For more science-centered graphic novels, visit G.T. Labs, Ottaviani's official site.
On the T-Minus page, there are teacher resources, preview page links, and other links to space-related websites.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Eternal Smile

This is a collection of three stories by Gene Yang and Derek Kim, the authors of American Born Chinese and Same Difference and Other Stories respectively. Individually their works have won much praise: ABC won the 2007 Printz Award and was nominated for a National Book Award while Kim won the three major comics industry awards (the Eisner, the Ignatz, and the Harvey) for his work on SDaOS.

This collection brings together three separate stories that all focus on unstable relationships between fact and fantasy. Fiction especially acts as a great coping mechanism for hardships, trepidations, and ennui. It is quite redemptive, guiding uneasy or lost people to find hidden strengths and pleasures within themselves and their worlds. The three stories here are:

"Duncan's Kingdom"
This story was published originally by Image Comics in 1999. Duncan is a member of the Royal Guard who seeks vengeance for the murder of the king by diabolical frogmen. Also, he is motivated by the beautiful princess's hand in marriage in exchange for the frog king's head. Ostensibly set in a medieval setting, a few modern objects enter into the picture, and Duncan's sense of reality is seriously questioned.

"Gran'pa Greenbax and the Eternal Smile"
One part The Truman Show and two parts Uncle Scrooge comic, this story mostly follows the exploits of a Disneyesque character. An extremely wealthy frog plots and plans ways to build even more wealth so that he won't bump his head on the ground when he dives into his personal money pit. Events turn in strange directions after he decides to use religious beliefs and practices in a money-making scheme.

"Urgent Request"
Janet is an office worker who struggles to be noticed and rewarded for her efforts on the job. In response to feelings of uselessness, she participates in the classic Nigerian email scam, sending huge amounts of money to a prince who promises to repay her once his proper office and situation are restored.

Although these three tales are separate narratives, Yang and Kim tie them together visually and thematically. Objects, such as bottles of Snap Cola appear in each, as do images of frogs, and other features. Astute readers can catch these features, and they definitely add to a sense of cohesion in the book.

This book has received a range of reviews, characterized by a mixed review such as this one from Sandy at I Love Rob Liefeld, who likes the art and themes in the stories but is unsatisfied by the package as a whole. Brian Heater at The Daily Crosshatch was happier with the whole created from the three component stories, as was Greg McElhatton at Read About Comics who really enjoyed the blend of Kim's and Yang's work here. Jason Borelli enjoyed the stories just fine but also does not think that they live up to the standards created by the collaborators' earlier works.

Excerpts are available here from First Second. I would also like to thank them for providing me with a copy of this book.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Masterpiece Comics

R. (for Robert) Sikoryak has been creating comics and illustrations professionally for 2 decades, and his ability to assume a variety of styles has led him into a career illustrating high profile publications such as The New Yorker and Nickelodeon Magazine. His works in Masterpiece Comics take elements of popular culture combined in novel ways with classic works of literature. The blend of low and high brow elements bring a different sense of understanding and interest to the comics, as well as an element of humor.

Masterpiece Comics collects various works that have appeared in Drawn & Quarterly and Raw over the years. The unlikely combinations that appear in this volume include Dante's Inferno done in a series of 10 Bazooka Joe gum wrapper cartoons, Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment re-imagined in the style of the Bob Kane-era Batman comic, and Kafka's The Metamorphosis recast with the Peanuts gang (starring "Good ol' Gregor Brown").

As an educator, I see a lot of connections that could be made between the adaptations here and discussions of the literature included. There is great potential in speaking about the choices Sikoryak made in choosing the genres and comics he did for these adaptations as well as how well the tenor of the original work fits into this different context. And if nothing else, these adapted versions can get some reluctant readers to be at least familiar with the classic stories they portray.

These comics do not parody the original works of literature so much as they do the cartoon sources drawn upon, as pointed out in this thoughtful review by Douglas Wolk. Sikoryak's ability to tell long narratives in very shorthand ways and communicate these tales to broader audiences is praised in these reviews by Tim Gebhart and Martin Levin. There is a range of reviews of this book also available at Goodreads.

For those seeking more of his work or further adaptations he has created, R. Sikoryak's official homepage is here. Some preview pages of Masterpiece Comics are also available there.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Matchmakers

Adapted from It's First Love, Jughead Jones, a YA novel written by Michael Pellowski and John Goldwater and published in 1991, The Matchmakers is the second entry in Archie Comics' New Look Series. These books update the perennially teenage characters for today. The plot of the story involves a scheme to pair Jughead (the "fifth wheel") with Sandy Sanchez, a smart, athletic, and goal-oriented classmate. Betty and Veronica do this by getting them to compete as partners in a coed school competition. Hi-jinks ensue as the whole gang is engaged in the games and the coupling they set up seems to have worked too well.

Melanie J. Morgan provided the script for this volume, and she has scripted all of the New Look books thus far. Joe Staton and Al Milgrom provided the art. They are both comic book artists who have been in the industry for decades. Staton is probably best known for drawing superhero comics like Green Lantern and his creation E-Man as well as his current work on Scooby-Doo comic books. Milgrom is best known for his work on Firestorm, Peter Parker: The Spectacular Spider-man, and West Coast Avengers. Their artwork portrays a more realistic version of the characters instead of the classic cartoon version originated by Bob Montana and Dan DeCarlo.

The Archie New Look books have grabbed a fair share of news attention for the make-overs of classic characters, but the reviews on the books themselves are mixed. Some are positive, such as this one by Penny Kenny. Others comment on the cluelessness of the story-telling especially in regards to the unrealistic portrayals of teenagers' actions, as described here by Johanna Draper Carlson, and on the dramatic character changes and clunky plot, as described by Brian Cronin. The news coverage or new art style may have given a boost to sales though, as more New Look stories continue to appear.

Archie Comics has multiple previews of the story here (scroll down to see them).

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Astro Boy, Volume 3

Osamu Tezuka is considered the "god of manga" who created hundreds of volumes of comics in all types of genres while also being one of the driving forces behind the anime (Japanese cartoons) industry as well. A figure analogous to Walt Disney, his legacy lies in the countless stories and memorable characters he created, and without a doubt Astro Boy (originally called The Mighty Atom) is his most famous creation. This volume is part of Dark Horse Comics' ongoing efforts to publish the complete series in English, and it contains two stories, "The Greatest Robot in the World" and "Mad Machine."

"The Greatest Robot in the World" makes up the majority of the volume. It was originally serialized in 1964-1965 and is considered by many Tezuka's best work with the character. The plot of the story revolves around a former sultan who has built a powerful robot named Pluto. The sultan wishes to prove that Pluto is the most powerful by having him battle and destroy the 7 most advanced robots in the world. This mission gets delayed when Astro Boy refuses to duel Pluto, and so Pluto kidnaps Uran, Astro's little sister, to lure him into battle. Instead of merely being threatening, Pluto befriends Uran and begins to question his destructive mission.

"Mad Machine" is a shorter tale of a blackmail plot originally published in 1958. Dr. Foola is a greedy genius who has invented a machine that makes other machines go crazy. He demands billions of dollars in ransom in return for not bringing entire cities to a screeching halt. Dr. Tenma reconfigues Astro so that he can contend with this evil doctor and shut down the diabolical machine.

Even though Tezuka's work in this volume was done long ago, it still holds up well. The art is energetic, detailed, and very expressive. And as detailed in this review from Deb Aoki, the story is very forward thinking for a comic made more than 4 decades ago, even with some cultural insensitivity in the depictions of Arab characters.

"The Greatest Robot in the World" first appeared in manga form but has been adapted to other media. A version of the story from the 1980 Astro Boy cartoon is available here on YouTube.
Additionally, Astro Boy will be introduced to a new generation of viewers in an anticipated theatrical release in 2009.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Metamorphosis

Graphic novel adaptations have tended to be the province of Classics Illustrated, but a growing trend has seen notable artists translate some of their favorite works into another medium. This adaptation of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis is very faithful to the original novella (first published in 1915) about a traveling salesman who wakes up one morning and finds himself transformed into a giant insect. Protagonist Gregor Samsa's plight is traditionally seen as commentary on the modern condition of life. Trapped in a situation over which he has no control, he is forced into strained relations with his job, his family, and the narrowing world he lives in.

Peter Kuper, the artist who has adapted this work has long had an interest in political causes and drawing socially charged cartoons. He co-founded the political comix magazine World War 3 Illustrated in 1980 and has also adapted the muckraking classic The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. A successful commercial artist, Kuper also has published work in Time and Newsweek magazines and currently draws the Spy Vs. Spy feature in Mad Magazine.

The dark, blockish illustrations in The Metamorphosis reflect the bleak subject matter, and Kuper embellishes the actions and emotions in an extremely expressive manner. The black on each page dominates the small glimpses of white, and the whole book is composed of scratchboard images. Another feature that adds to the atmosphere of futility is that Kuper decided to portray Samsa as a roach, an image that is disputed by a number of translators.

The book has been generally well reviewed, as seen in this example from Lenora Todaro from The Village Voice. There are also a range of reviews available at Goodreads. More about Kuper's views and work can be seen in this interview with Erik Farseth.

Finally, an animated preview of the book is available online from Random House.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Annotated Northwest Passage, Volume 1

Nominated for an Eisner Award for Best Publication for Teens in 2008, The Annotated Northwest Passage is a piece of historical fiction set in the Canadian frontier in 1755. The story revolves around Charles Lord, a British explorer, governor, and company man, and his conflict with the ruthless Guerin Montglave. Montglave is a French privateer who will stop at nothing to take control of the territory and trade Lord has established. The two men have a long history of cut-throat competition which is rekindled in a siege of Fort Newcastle, which has been left vulnerable by Lord's retirement and planned return to England. Montglave is clearly the villain in this struggle, as he stops at nothing to keep control of his men, including murder and manipulating Simon, Charles's half Native American son, against his father.

Northwest Passage has a large cast of characters, and a tremendous amount of backstory is woven throughout the narrative. This information is further bolstered by copious annotations which provide insight into Chantler's layouts, artistic choices, and historical research. The annotations also provide some historical contexts for the story. But for all this research, the narrative has emotional punch and a great sense of pulp drama.

The creator of Northwest Passage is Scott Chantler, an acclaimed graphic novelist and popular commercial illustrator who has been for three Shuster Awards, three Harvey Awards, a Doug Wright Award, a Russ Manning Award, and an Eisner Award, but, as he likes to joke on his blog, "has somehow managed to avoid actually winning any of them."

Northwest Passage was originally published as three separate issues by Oni Press. A well celebrated book, Northwest Passage has received glowing reviews such as this one from Johanna Draper Carlson at Comics Worth Reading, this one from Don MacPherson at Eye on Comics, and this one from Warren Peace.

Although it is considered an all ages book, The Annotated Northwest Passage has lots to offer older and younger readers alike.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Pluto: Urasawa X Tezuka, Volume 1

Osamu Tezuka is considered the Walt Disney of Japanese animation and comics, responsible for a number of beloved characters, chief among them Astro Boy. So recasting one of the most beloved of Astro Boy's stories, "The Greatest Robot on Earth" is a tall order, much as it would be to redo a classic such as Bambi or Snow White. In this case, Urasawa plays to his strengths, recasting the story into a murder mystery. A mysterious figure is destroying the most powerful robots in the world, and one detective is on the case. That detective is Gesicht, who is himself a highly advanced, powerful robot.

As the series goes on, it redresses some of the more anachronistic parts of Tezuka's tale, with a more realistic and less stereotypical portrayal of Middle Eastern people and conflicts. The ability of Urasawa to marry ideas from Tezuka's original story with popular culture and historical references from more recent times is one of the great strengths here. The story is not a direct update but also draws on a great many pop culture works like Isaac Asimov's I, Robot and Star Trek: The Next Generation as pointed out in this substantive review by Ed Sizemore. It is this eye to include disparate elements that lends greater intrigue and depth to the story.

Naoki Urasawa
is one of the most acclaimed purveyors of manga in recent times. His work on series such as Monster and 20th Century Boys has led to financial and critical success. He has won the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award three times, the Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize twice, and the Kodansha Manga Award once. Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz even called him "a national treasure in Japan."

Updating a classic for a modern audience is no easy task, but according to many reviewers, including Charles Tan, Urasawa's effort here is very successful. The strong characterizations in the story led Greg McElhatton to call it a "must read." One other review from Deb Aoki compares the updated Urasawa version to the original Osamu story.

For people interested in more discussion on this volume there is a substantial essay on the series on the Tezuka in English website.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Notes for a War Story


Originally published in Italian, Notes for a War Story won the 2005 Goscinny Prize for Best Script and was the Best Book of the Year for 2006 at Angoulême, Europe's largest comics festival. Notes follows the exploit of three friends in a war-torn country and their efforts to stay alive. The three boys in the story band together, bicker, and form a pseudo-family when it seems that their families and town have been lost to them forever. Scraping together food and finding shelter become their major concerns as well as contending with desperate, violent people who are also trying to stay alive. Their lives take a turn when they meet up with Felix, a charismatic thug who sends them on missions. In return for doing his dirty work, they receive money, food, and weapons.

Throughout the story, the morality of war is constantly questioned. Causes and honor seem to fall by the wayside in the interests of survival and displaying strength. Gipi (whose actual name is Gianni Alfonso Pacinotti) wrote and drew Notes with his native Italy in mind, but he did not name any place in the story. He intentionally left the country unnamed in the hopes that readers would imagine the war happening close to home. The publisher of the book in the US, First Second, states on the book flap that it is meant to be set in a Balkan country. Wherever the story is set, the events portrayed are very realistic and moving.

Although very well received in Europe, Notes has not made as big a splash in the US, perhaps because the conflict is foreign to Americans. Taken as a survival story and an exploration of friendship in the face of adversity, I think that the book is very compelling and affecting. The book has received a range of reviews, from positive ones that point out the poignancy and emotional impact of the plot, such as this one by Brian Heater, and ones that comment on the strong characterization like this one by Jog, to lukewarm ones, such as this one by Andrew Wheeler who was underwhelmed by the book. In each, the reviewers also remark on connections to Garage Band, the first Gipi work published in English and the growth he seems to be displaying as an artist.

First Second provides a lengthy preview of the book here.

My thanks to Gina Gagliano at First Second who gave me a review copy at the 2009 Graphica in Education Conference at Fordham University.

Monday, October 5, 2009

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch

The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch is typical of Neil Gaiman's work in the manner that fantasy and reality mingle. This magically realistic story originally appeared as a prose story in Gaiman's collection, Fragile Things. Lushly painted by frequent collaborator Michael Zulli, the story follows a character seemingly based on Gaiman and some of his friends, including the eponymous Miss Finch, who is depicted as an up-tight biogeologist. This band of friends go out for dinner one evening and also to a strange circus operating in a London building. The ringmaster of the circus looks like Alice Cooper, and the circus itself is a mix of Cirque du Soleil and Carnival. Typical of Gaiman's work, things are not quite what they seem and a few strange twists in the evening's entertainment leave the characters unsure of quite what has happened.

Gaiman is best known as the best-selling author of novels such as American Gods, Anansi Boys, and The Graveyard Book. He has also written a number of books that aimed at younger readers such as The Wolves in the Walls or, more famously, Coraline, which was recently adapted into a feature film. To comics fans, he is most famous for his Sandman series published by Vertigo.

Published by Dark Horse Books, Miss Finch is a short book and a quick read. It is nicely packaged but not very substantial and has appealed to completists who are fans of Gaiman's work. This has been reflected in a number of the reviews found online, including these from Andrew Wheeler and April Gutierrez. A slightly wider range of reviews can be found here on Goodreads.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Coward: Criminal, Volume 1

Most comic books published in the United States have followed the exploits of superheroes, so Criminal definitely sticks out in a crowd. This series follows in the tradition of two by-gone guilty pleasures, pulp detective stories and the crime comics of the 1940s and 1950s. It revolves around the machinations of criminals and crooked cops who pull a job on an armored car full of valuable evidence. The protagonist of the story is Leo Patterson, the coward who gives the title to this collection. He is a master thief, raised to be one from boyhood, and also a master of self-preservation. He does not go into a job without careful planning, nor with a gun, and he always knows his escape routes. Needless to say, the job brings complications, and the plot follows the twists, turns, and doublecrosses that come in the aftermath.

Criminal won the 2007 Eisner Award for Best New Series, and the series writer, Ed Brubaker, is a multiple Eisner Award winner for his pulp-inspired tales. He is renowned for reviving noir in superhero comics, especially the most recent version of Catwoman and Gotham Central at DC Comics. A sought after, hot talent, Brubaker has spent the last few years working exclusively for Marvel Comics where he has written Daredevil, Captain America, Iron Fist, and the X-Men. Sean Phillips is himself a hit artist who is probably most famous for his work on Marvel Zombies, a gruesome mirror of the Marvel Universe where zombie versions of superheroes rule the world. Brubaker and Phillips have a history of collaboration, having also produced the critically acclaimed Sleeper series, as well as another noirish comic, Incognito.

Coward has received a great number of positive reviews online. Here are a few from various sources, including one from Alasdair Stuart, one from Christopher Mills, one from Leroy Doureseaux, and a final one from the Literary Feline, Wendy R.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Identity Crisis

Originally a 7-issue limited series published in 2004, Identity Crisis was simultaneously "wildly popular and reviled," as described by Publishers Weekly. In this series, DC Comics placed some of their marquee superheroes from the Justice League in the hands of best-selling suspense/mystery author Brad Meltzer. The purpose was to update their characters and bring them into a more post-9/11 sensibility. In the course of doing that, Meltzer focused more on the interpersonal relationship of the heroes, their friendships, their marriages, and their families. Batman and Superman refered to each other as Bruce and Clark. Superheroes acted more like policemen. And the villains decided to hit the heroes where they hurt, at home.

The plot follows from a murder plot against the heroes' families, and no one is safe, not even Superman's wife, Lois Lane. Someone knows everyone's secret identities and is using that knowledge to perpetrate evil. After a horrific initial death, the heroes hit the streets hard to uncover the mystery threat, but their efforts hit a huge snag. The supervillains, it turns out, after years of being thoroughly romped by their do-gooder counterparts, have organized and are approaching their crimes and attacks in more strategic ways. One of the most controversial parts of the story lies in the heroes' different reactions to these events, and how much they go across their own moral lines in seeking justice. In many ways, their own heroic missions become extremely compromised.

Aside from the treatment of superheroes as morally ambiguous characters, many fans took offense at what they saw as rampant mischaracterizations and plot holes. Additionally, other critics, such as Johanna Draper Carlson and Valerie D'Orazio (who was working at DC at the time the series came out), have commented on the perpetuation of violence against women in this series (and superhero comics in general). They characterize such violent actions as vehicles to elicit reactions and some sense of nuance in male characters, in a phenomenon that has been called the "Women in Refrigerators Syndrome."

The creative team on this story, along with Meltzer, included Rags Morales and Michael Bair, two artists who frequently work collaboratively. Their depictions of the characters are noted for their humanity and emotional expressiveness. They are credited very much in conveying the image of superheroes as regular human beings in extraordinary circumstances. The covers for the series were drawn by fan favorite artist Michael Turner.

Identity Crisis created quite a stir when it was released, and there are a multitude of reviews available online. I include a few here that I think characterize the general discussion: one from Tom Bondurant, one from Collected Editions, and one from Jeff Lester. The story draws very much from earlier stories and DC Comics continuity, and for those interested, here are two links to possible source material, as well as a page of annotations explaining a great number of the characters and situations in chapter 1.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Captain America: The Truth

Marvel Comics has prided itself for injecting a sense of realism into their superhero stories since the introduction of the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. The Truth is an instance of injecting some history into their mythos. Originally published as a 7-issue mini-series in 2002-2003, it reimagines the origin of Captain America crossed with the real-life events of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Instead of Steve Rogers being the sole recipient of the super-soldier serum, we learn that the US government secretly experimented earlier with African-American soldiers. What is more, this series is not an imaginary story or a "what if?" scenario. It counts as an official part of continuity.

The Truth mostly focuses on three people: Isaiah Bradley, a young soldier who has just left his wife and unborn child to go into the service, Maurice Canfield, a son of a wealthy industrialist, and Luke Evans, a career soldier who fought and was disfigured in World War I. A large part of this series involves the moral implications of these experiments, with a special focus on a shameful racist past and cover-up. In the course of the story, these experiments are also juxtaposed with the Nazi Dr. Menegele's experiments with Jewish prisoners during World War II.

The combination of racial considerations, US history, and superhero comics is celebrated by some critics, represented here by this review from Brent Staples. Other reviews, such as this one by Brian Cronin, point to how this may be a great concept for a story but how the story may be lacking in execution. In particular, the first 5 issues are a series of intertwined narratives which build to a dramatic point that gets diffused as the last 2 issues are full of long stretches of expository dialogue. Other criticisms have been made about the cartoonish style of the art as perhaps being inappropriate for such serious subject matter.

The Truth was written by Robert Morales, a writer and editor who worked for Vibe magazine and has limited comics work. Kyle Baker, who describes himself with tongue-in-cheek as the "Greatest Cartoonist of All Time," provided the art. He has been drawing comics for more than 20 years, having begun his career as a high school intern at Marvel. Baker is a respected comic artist, cartoonist, and animator who has won 8 Eisner Awards over his career.

For a more detailed summary of The Truth, including more about its impact on Marvel Comics continuity, see this page at Everything2.com. For a detailed account of Captain America and his career, see his official page at Marvel Comics. For more information and links about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, check out this NPR feature.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monster, Volume 1


Set in Düsseldorf, West Germany in 1986, Monster recounts the story of the brilliant Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese surgeon. Tenma has a potentially great live ahead of him, blessed with great medical skill, a successful career, and an engagement to the beautiful daughter of the hospital director. But when he goes against his superiors' orders, his life is radically changed. What began as a seeming good deed instead unleashes an evil onto the world. These events also allow Urasawa to begin a huge series of twists that keep drawing readers in for more.

Dubbed "Japan's Master of Suspense" by VIZ Media, Naoki Urasawa weaves a compelling tale that incorporates complex characters, social issues, Cold War politics, as well as contemplations about how evil and justice operate. Urasawa has won numerous awards over his 20 year career. He has won the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award thrice, the Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize twice, and the Kodansha Manga Award once. Meanwhile in the US, Monster has been nominated twice for the Eisner Award. Urasawa has also entered the world of academia, in 2008 accepting a guest teaching post at Nagoya Zokei University, where he teaches courses in (what else?) manga.

Monster has received generally positive reviews. Here is one from Johanna Carlson Draper, one from Leroy Douresseaux, and one more from Robin Brenner. Originally, the series ran in Big Comic Original magazine from 1994 until 2001. It has been collected in English as an 18 volume series. The story has also been adapted into an anime, which will begin airing soon in the US on SyFy.

The official website, a hub for all these media versions, can be found here.

This was the very first manga series I read, on the recommendation from the good folks at Comicopia in Boston who told me that this was "a manga for people that don't like manga." I'm really glad I listened to Matt...

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Deathnote, Volume 1

One of the most popular manga series in the US, Deathnote is the tale of what happens when a bored shinigami (a version of a Grim Reaper) drops two notebooks onto earth just to see what happens. The first rule about these notebooks is that whoever's name is written in them will die, and the first book of the series follows Light Yagami, an honors students who happens to find one of the notebooks. Light decides that he is going to use the notebook as an instrument of good and remake society by killing all of the criminals and unsavory elements who ruin things for innocent, hard-working people. A rash of unexplained deaths of convicted criminals alerts the authorities that there must be some unknown person or force behind these events, so they turn to a mysterious, unseen, crime-solving genius known only as L for help. And thus begins a game of intrigue as each of these two adversaries maneuver to expose the other.

The story was written by Tsugumi Ohba, which is a pen name. The author's actual name and gender are not definitively known, but some fans believe that Ohba is a pen name for Hiroshi Gamo, a writer of gag series for Weekly Shonen Jump magazine. The artist is Takeshi Obata, who won the Shogakukan Manga Award in 2000 and the 2003 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Prize for his series Hikaru no Go.


First serialized in 108 chapters from December, 2003 to May, 2006 in Shonen Jump, Deathnote is published in English by VIZ Media as a 12 volume series. There is a 13th volume, titled How to Read Deathnote which contains more detailed character information, interviews with the creators, a trading card, and a short follow-up story. There are many rules that go along with the notebooks, and they are included in the volumes as interstitial pieces. Among the rules: the deathnote's owner must know the person's name and also what they look like. Also, he/she can write the cause of death as well.

Deathnote has been very well reviewed in general, as seen in reviews from the Anime News Network and IGN. The manga's popularity has spawned different media versions, including an anime series, video games, and thus far, three movies. The first two films detail the events of the manga series, while the third is a prequel about L and his early career. An English language film version is also currently being optioned in Hollywood. Along with its popularity, Deathnote has also spawned controversy, ranging from teenagers creating deathnotes about classmates (examples here and here) to at least one copy-cat murder. The book is currently banned in China to protect young readers' "physical and mental health."

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Watchmen

Watchmen is the creation of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, two creators who came to work on American comics during the "British Invasion" of the 1980s. The series came about as a reworking of a storyline pitch Moore made about the Red Circle superheroes but was eventually put to use with the recently acquired Charlton superheroes, including Captain Atom, the Blue Beetle, and the Question. Rather than permanently alter how DC Comics might use these characters, rough analogs were created, and Watchmen was set in a universe outside of DC continuity. More about the Charlton-DC connection can be found in this Toonopedia entry.

Set in the 1980s, Watchmen is set in an alternate, dystopian society where Richard Nixon is still president, the United States won the Vietnam War, vigilante superheroes have been outlawed, the Cold War still rages, and the US controls the balance of power via the services of Dr. Manhattan, a seemingly indestructible and omnipotent superbeing who can alter objects at the atomic level. The plot progresses as an investigation of the death of the Comedian, a former superhero who turned to working for the US government as an operative in international hotspots. The brutality and ease with which he was dispatched leads Rorschach, a rogue costumed detective, on the trail of a "mask killer" who is targeting former superheroes.

Watchmen was originally published as a 12-issue limited series beginning in September, 1986. Along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, which was published almost simultaneously, it is credited (or blamed, depending on who you ask) for launching a different way of telling superhero stories with a more realistic, grittier sensibility. Some, such as blogger Curt Purcell, have pointed out how this change was already underway by the time of those two limited series but that their popularity and acclaim have lead to their being considered torchbearers. Regardless, Watchmen has received a great amount of praise, even from outside the comic book community. It is the only graphic novel to win the prestigious Hugo Award for Science Fiction work in Other Forms (in 1988) and is also the sole graphic novel on Time Magazine's "All Time 100 Novels."

There is a preponderance of information about Watchmen online. The Watchmen Wiki has a huge amount of information about the plot, characters, and world of the series, role playing game, as well as the film version. There is an Annotated Watchmen website chronicling many of the intertextual and historical references throughout the book. Here is a Slate article by Douglas Wolk about the book's and Alan Moore's impact on comics. Also, here is a clip of Alan Moore himself talking about Watchmen specifically. Dave Gibbons expresses his viewpoints about the series in this Publishers Weekly interview.

In 2009, a movie version of the graphic novel was released. It was directed by Zack Snyder, and as with many of his other works, Moore did not allow his name to be among the credits nor did he receive any royalties. In this interview with Wired Magazine, he expresses his views about how the story being suited ideally and solely to the comic book format led him to ignore all attempts at adaptation, even in the form of motion comics. Gibbons has no such reservations, as seen in this interview about his role in the movie's creation.

Moore was able to poke some fun at the potential commercialism that would accompany a Watchmen adaptation in a cameo appearance on The Simpsons, as seen in the still from the episode below:

Perhaps his concerns were slightly justified by solicitations for products related to the movie including Nite Owl coffee and electric blue Dr. Manhattan condoms that came in packages emblazoned "We're society's only protection."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns


1986 was a big year for comic books and graphic novels, with the publication of Art Spiegelman's first volume of Maus, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen, and Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, three works that have gathered much critical acclaim and commercial success. Each has also had a profound influence on a great number of sequential art works since. A 4-issue limited series, DKR was part of Dick Giordano's plan to put DC Comics at the top of the comics world by hiring the best talents to produce the best works. DKR's status was conveyed by its Prestige format, with thicker, glossier pages and thicker binding. Also, each of the four books cost $2.95, quite a mark-up from the typical 65 cent comics found on newsstands at the time.

DKR takes up a typical trope of DC Comics stories, the glimpse-into-the-future story, except in a much grimmer manner. When this story begins, Bruce Wayne has long given up his mantle as Batman, because of the death of Robin, and lives his life as a drunken, reckless playboy. Gotham City has sunk into a cesspool of crime, chiefly because of a gang called the Mutants, and it is only through a random series of events, which include his enemy Two Face being rehabilitated and released from Arkham Asylum, that he resumes his role as a dark avenger of the night.

In many ways, the story is a response to Ronald Reagan style Republicanism, and it contains a number of references to 1980s popular culture, including Dr. Ruth and David Letterman (when he was still on NBC). As part of the narrative, we see what has happened to a number of other characters, including Superman, the Joker, Catwoman, and Green Arrow, and are introduced to Carrie Kelly, who takes up the role of Robin. DKR was eventually followed by a sequel, 2001's The Dark Knight Strikes Again.

At the time of DKR's publication, Frank Miller was one of the hottest artists working in comics, just having come off popular, landmark, definitive work on Marvel Comics' Daredevil and Wolverine. DKR continued his streak of hits, which he extended soon afterward with his Batman: Year One story illustrated by David Mazzucchelli.

Feeling the lure of Hollywood after comic book success, Miller went on to work on the two Robocop sequels, ventures met with less than success, before returning to comics to create the series Martha Washington, Sin City, and 300. He returned to Hollywood after a few years, working in conjunction with Robert Rodriguez to direct Sin City. Today, Miller is perhaps best known for his successes in converting that series as well as 300 into films. Not everything about his recent film career has been peaches and cream, however, as he was also responsible for the movie version of Will Eisner's The Spirit, a critically panned box office failure.

Miller continues to create comics with artist Jim Lee as they collaborate on the sporadically published All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder. Batman is a character with a long history and different iterations over the decades. For interested readers, here are a wiki archive chronicling a great amount of that history as well as a fansite for different media versions and upcoming news. For more information about Frank Miller, you can visit his Lambiek artist's profile or this unofficial website that archives much, if not all, of his work.

Almost every review I could locate about DKR was positive, as represented by these three, one from Bill Ramey, one by Dave Wallace, and one by Tom Knapp. One contrary opinion I could find was expressed by Mordecai Richler who wrote a review for the New York Times in 1987 that takes issue with Miller's work, citing a lack of imagination and poo-pooing comic books in general.