Thursday, August 27, 2009


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.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Cromartie High School, Volume 1

Cromartie High School is full of interesting students: one looks like Freddie Mercury and walks around silent and shirtless, one is a robot (although no one ever seems to notice), while another, perhaps the smartest of the bunch, is a gorilla. Takashi Kamiyama, an honors student who ends up in this lowest-of-the-low high school, stands out because he is just an ordinary teen, and much of this early volume of the manga series deals with him trying to make sense out of the nonsense around him.

This manga is a parody of the Japanese "yankii" (juvenile delinquent) comics that were popular in the 1970s and 1980s. It is written and drawn by Eiji Nonaka, which is not his real name but an alias. The author is purportedly a gag writer who does frequent fill-in stories, but that is merely speculation. Whoever he may be, he draws in the style of Ryoichi Ikegami, a legendary artist who worked on such seminal works as Crying Freeman and Mai the Psychic Girl. This satirical spin on the genre has garnered much positive attention and Cromartie High School won the 2002 Kodansha Manga Award for Shōnen.

There are a great number of popular culture references in the series, from the names of the local high schools (they are all last names of non-Japanese professional baseball players, such as Warren Cromartie and Orestes Destrade), to rock music, and professional wrestling. Much of the self-conscious humor comes from verbal riffs, situational comedy, and a meta-awareness of the manga itself (for example, the author fully admits that Mechazawa is just there as a cheap ploy to skew younger and get more boy readers who are into robots).

Aside from the 17 volumes of the manga (13 of which are available in English, from the publisher ADV Manga), Cromartie High School has also branched out into other media, including an anime series as well as a live-action movie (a review of the movie version can be found here).

While some restructuring issues at ADV have plagued the release dates of the manga, many fans can still enjoy clips from the television show on YouTube. Here are a sampling of what's out there: the catchy opening theme, Episode one, which includes much of what is portrayed in volume 1 of the manga, and a scene with Mechazawa Beta, Mechazawa's "little brother."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Che: a graphic biography

Seen as a martyr by some, a butcher by others, Ernest "Che" Guevara (1928-1967) has been a controversial world figure for the better part of 5 decades. Whether considered a freedom fighter or a Communist thug, Che's life has captured the popular imagination. This fascination began with his popular book The Motorcycle Diaries, a story of a transformative journey across the various social classes and conditions of South and Central America, which awakened his social consciousness and which was made into a film in 2004. He was voted one of Time Magazine's Most Important People of the 20th Century, and has remained a Central and South American icon to this day.

Manuel "Spain" Rodriguez, the author of this graphic novel biography, is a comics artist who published one of the first underground comics, Zodiac Mindwarp, and is probably most famous for his creations Trashman and Big Bitch. His social views show through in his many counter-culture works, a list of which can be found here but are also well expressed in this interview about his Trashman series. Spain's artistic chops have become well-honed from decades of drawing and creating his own works, some of which can be seen on his official website (note: NSFW). His liberal politics come through in Che as he paints the picture of a revolutionary clashing against colonialism for the good of the common people.

Reviews of Che are as varied as people's opinion of the actual man. They range from the gushingly positive, such as this one from Ron Jacobs, to more accusatory ones that indicate a glossing over historical information that would besmirch Che's image, such as this one from Mike Baron, while others that point out some production issues as well as perhaps an overly didactic tone, such as this one from Mike Gold.

There is a great supply of materials about Che's life on the internet, including an interview with Alberto Granado, Che's companion during his South American motorcycle journey, a documentary titled The True Story of Che Guevara produced by the History Channel, declassified papers from the US National Security Archive, a large internet archive of his writings and speeches, and three different photo sets from the BBC. Some very critical sites about Che can be found in the Examiner piece by Jay Ambrose, the work of author Humberto Fontova, and this column by The National Review's Jay Nordlinger.

Buddha, Volume 1: Kapilavastu

Osamu Tezuka (1928-1989) accomplished much in his lifetime. He was trained as a medical doctor but his love for drawing manga led him in a different direction. Nicknamed the "Father of Anime" and also the "God of Manga," Tezuka is often considered the Japanese version of Walt Disney. He is credited with the creation of the "large eyes" style of Japanese animation and also created over 700 manga in his lifetime. In the US, his most famous creation is probably Astro Boy, originally called The Mighty Atom, a character who appeared in cartoon series in the 1960s, 1980s, and 2000s as well as an upcoming movie.

Kapilavastu, named for the birthplace of Buddha, is the first of 8 volumes published by Vertical in which Tezuka presents a chronicle of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha along with some fictional elements and characters meant to provide drama, add comic relief, and move the story along. Originally, this narrative ran serially in Kibou no Tomo magazine from 1972 to 1983 and was Tezuka's last great epic work. Although he was more of a humanist than anything else, Tezuka admired and respected Buddha and felt that his story was inspirational and important to be told. The official website of the book has character and plot descriptions for each of the 8 volumes.

Critics have commented on how readable the book is but also how modern slang and behaviors might detract from the overall narrative, how light the story is in regards to its subject matter, how Tezuka straddles the line between writing for adults and children, and how multiple sensibilities come to play in this work.

Tezuka's official website is here and contains links to the publishers who put out his works, but there is also an encyclopedic fan website called Tezuka in English.

For more information on Buddha, there are websites that sketch his life via written works and poetry, detail his teachings, and
place both into religious context.

American Born Chinese

Gene Yang's coming-of-age story about a Chinese-American boy in the US has the distinction of being the first graphic novel awarded the Michael L. Printz Award for Young-Adult Literature and was also nominated for the National Book Award.

American Born Chinese
(ABC) weaves together three narratives in surprising, evocative, and fantastical manner. It includes elements of the Monkey King legend, some partly autobiographical anecdotes, and a fictional, racist sitcom. ABC has generally been well reviewed as can be seen in this list compilation from the book's publisher, First Second.

Yang is a currently a computer science teacher at Bishop O'Dowd High School in California, and some of his earliest work was creating visual teaching aids for his math students.

Yang's official website is here, and here is a recent interview with him about his upcoming projects.


This blog is a response to Tom Spurgeon's The Comics Reporter blog and a link he posted to this site that includes a number of links to materials pertaining to the graphic novel Aya.
I make similar groups of links for graphic novels that I teach in my Freshmen seminars at the University of Tennessee, and I thought I could start publishing these links here as a resource for myself, my students, and anyone else interested in reading these graphic novels. I plan on updating this site at least once a week, maybe more at first.
I hope that you find this site informative, useful, or at least entertaining.
Thanks for stopping by!