Thursday, February 22, 2018

Reader's Diary #1741- Jeph Loeb (writer), Tim Sale (artist): Batman The Long Halloween

For a non-Batman fan, I sure do find myself reading a lot of Batman titles. The thing is, there are a LOT of Batman fans and so whenever you see a "Best of" comics list, inevitably there will be a Batman book on there, whether it's Dark Knight Returns, The Killing Joke, or The Long Halloween.

I'd already read the first two in that list and wasn't thrilled with either. Early into The Long Halloween, I thought I was finally being won over. The story was more straightforward and engaging and Jeff Loeb wasn't trying too hard to show how gritty he be. It's basically a murder mystery as Batman, commissioner Jim Gordon, and district attorney Harvey Dent try to stop the serial killer dubbed "Holiday" who has been targeting a mafia family whenever there's a, you guessed it, holiday.

Alas, my enjoyment started to wane about halfway through. Not only did each chapter bring a new holiday and murder, but also a visit from a different member of Batman's rogues gallery: the Joker, Cat Woman, Poison Ivy, Scarecrow, the Mad Hatter, and so on. It suddenly dawned on me how crappy of a superhero Batman really is. He's somehow a part of the Earth/Universe saving Justice League, yet he can't even keep Gotham City safe? Gotham is a crime infested hell hole.

With that gnawing at me for the remainder of the book, it didn't help that the resolution to the mystery turned out to be a convoluted mess.

Tim Sale's art work though is good; characters with an exaggerated appearance and thin, fluid lines that seemed to be influenced by the jazz age and fit the noir, gangster storyline.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Reader's Diary #1740- Matt Dembicki (editor): Trickster

If I could give any advice to potential readers of Trickster: Native American Tales A Graphic Collection, it would be to first skip to the message from the editor and author/illustrator bios all found at the back of the book. I have a few reasons why I'd suggest this approach. First off, in the editor's note Matt Dembicki talks about the process involved in the compilation. Of particular note, he talks about meeting and gaining trust from various indigenous communities. This is important as not all cultures have the same relationship to stories and it's too often been the case that settlers appropriate and exploit stories, stories that sometimes were not meant to be shared outside, taken out of context, and so on. He also refers to giving the storytellers final approval of storyboards, including any editing changes.

Second, the bios of the contributors eased my mind that the tellers actually had right to tell the stories, belonged to the tribes that the stories originated from. Of course, as Joseph Boyden and some others have shown us, this is unfortunately a real concern.

Finally, I felt it was important to keep the various cultures separate in a collection of tales that seeks to find a common element (i.e., a trickster character) and refers to a blanket "Native American" group. One big take away for me from the Indigenous Matters MOOC from the University of Alberta was to be specific whenever possible, recognize that sometimes it is more important to refer to say Dene or Inuit rather than lump them all together as indigenous (or aboriginal), acknowledging that they have different cultures and values, even if there may also be similarities.

With all that in mind, I felt more ready to read the stories and wound up enjoying them more as a result, learning lots in the process. Many seem to be morality tales, others seem to be origin stories, and all were entertaining (for some, perhaps, that was the only intent-- which would also be fine, of course). With any collection with various contributors, some of course seem better than others. Some, for instance, seemed to better match the tone of the art to the story, some had a more creative, unique style, and so on. A favourite of mine was Roy Boney Jr's computer aided artwork in "Horned Toad Lady and Coyote" by Eldrena Douma. It just stood apart as nothing else in the book and than I've seen before.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1739- Joey Comeau and Emily Horne: Anatomy of Melancholy

After reading a Gumby comic recently, I went off to explore the world of photocomics. I came across a list of such comics to start with, but I was put off somewhat by a couple of sentences in the intro to the article that seemed to suggest photocopies were easier, lazier, or required less talent:

A creative option for people who can't draw (or who just want to 'draw' with a camera?) the Photo Comic involves taking pictures of things — either posed inanimate objects, or actual people — and making a comic out of them. [...] Arguably, Photocomics can be done cheaper and with less time consumption

 To me, however, I don't think this needs to be the case and perhaps should only be said of lesser quality photocomics. Certainly there's room for careful, purposeful photography and accompanying text.

Which brings me to Joey Comeau and Emily Horne's Anatomy of Melancholy: The Best of A Softer World. Apparently A Softer World was an internet sensation a few years back, unbeknownst to me. Each strip consists of three photo images with text of typically wry or dark humour.

The strips really challenge the definition of a comic. I've referred to Scott McCloud's definition of a comic many times on this blog ("juxtaposed pictorial and other images in a deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer") and while the definition has its share of critics, it nonetheless provides a good conversation starter. 

At first glance, Emily Horne's A Softer World photos seem to fit the definition. Upon reflection though, I'm not entirely sure that they do. Where they run into trouble is the "deliberate sequence" rule. In most cases here it's like she simply took a single photo and cut it into thirds. Is that a sequence? In other cases, a photo is zoomed in slightly. Again, is this really sequential? In Understanding Comics, McCloud also gets into great discussion about the importance of gutters. The space between panels usually has huge implications: how much time has passed, what happened in the unseen time, and so on. The gutters in A Softer World are fake. There is no time passing whatsoever. Perhaps these thoughts led me to also not appreciating the photography itself. Maybe at the time they first appeared they appeared novel and artistic. From a 2018 perspective they look like run-of-the mill Instagram photos.

Then there's the text by Joey Comeau. It's never meant to be dialogue but merely a caption to the image. On rare occasions it's funny or insightful, but most often it's just mildly amusing thoughts. Again, A Softer World had a huge following so clearly my lack of enthusiasm is a personal and minority opinion. Unfortunately I felt it confirmed the critique of photocomics I shared at the beginning of the post.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1738- Philip K. Dick: The Gun

I'll be honest, I went looking for a short story with "gun" in the title due to the tragedy in Florida last week. I came upon Philip K. Dick's "The Gun" and it wound up, for me at least, bearing more relevance to Colten Boushie's murder, another gun tragedy that hits a lot closer to home.

The plot of "The Gun," in a nutshell, is that a group of space travelers are shot down on a planet that they believed to be dead. It turns out that the "gun" was set up to guard a treasure even if/when their people had all been eliminated.

"Don't you see? This was the only way they knew, building a gun and setting it up to shoot anything that came along. They were so certain that everything was hostile, the enemy, coming to take their possessions away from them. Well, they can keep them."

At this point, I found myself thinking of Gerald Stanley. It would seem then that Philip K. Dick would, like the majority of us, weigh in against Stanley and his obvious prejudice and mistrust.

However, the treasure turned out to be cultural artifacts. The space travelers are easily able to dismantle the gun and access said treasures.

"[...]their possessions, their music, books, their pictures, all of that will survive. We'll take them home and study them, and they'll change us. We won't be the same afterwards. Their sculpturing, especially. Did you see the one of the great winged creature, without a head or arms? Broken off, I suppose. But those wings— It looked very old. It will change us a great deal."

But now I'm seeing another side of things and considering cultural appropriation of indigenous peoples. Sure in this story the gun was wrong, but as we've seen with cultural appropriation, clearly the previous society on that planet were in their right to want to protect their ideas and collected knowledge. Dick, however, seems to suggest that such protection would be wrong and that they should eagerly want to give up their treasures to outsiders. But we're not talking farm equipment, we're talking a people's very identity!

In the end then I found the piece very provocative.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1737- Paul Gravett: Mangasia

I've been into comics for some years now but I still consider myself a student. One area I still don't feel particularly knowledgeable about is manga, even less so with other Asian comics. Outside of Japan comics, I've read exactly one manhwa (Korean comic) and a handful of middle Eastern comics. I'd hoped that Paul Gravett's Mangasia: The Definitive Guide to Asian Comics would lay a solid foundation.

While Gravett didn't touch upon Russian comics or anything west of Pakistan, it was nonetheless very enlightening. While I'd come to easily recognize the typical style of Japanese manga, for instance, seeing styles from across Asia was interesting. Just as Japanese manga has had a huge influence in North America, however, it's also had a profound impact across Asia and their style has largely been adopted. I also found it fascinating to compare to North America in terms of themes; in Asia there seems to be more examples of historical themes, overt propaganda, folk stories and religion. While we certainly have examples of those in North America (I've found, for instance, that North American indigenous comics tend to have more folklore and historical themes), there is more of an emphasis in our part of the world on superhero stories and for older readers, travelogues and memoirs. Again, you'll find superheroes, travelogues and other memoirs in manga as well, but the balance is different.

Some of the similarities are also compelling. Both regions, for example, have dealt with censorship and with misconceptions about comics being just for kids.

A more subtle discovery for me was the independence of their comics scene. A lot of what I've read prior has suggested, or outright declared, that manga was highly influenced by American comics. Gravett doesn't for one second pretend that American comics didn't have on impact on manga, indeed giving some illustrative examples, but I began to better understand that Asia has fostered its own manga art-forms, dependent more on local histories, cultures, and relationships with Asian neighbours than on America.

Finally, for my student role, I found the book incredibly helpful. First off, I felt much better about the amount of manga that I've read so far, finding many more titles that I recognized than I'd expected. Secondly, the list of influential titles that I didn't recognize has led to an expanded tbr list, which is never a bad thing! A solid foundation, for sure.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1736- Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes: The Case of the Missing Men

I'm a sucker for Canadian comics, for parodies, and for artwork with hatching/cross-hatching. With Kris Bertin and Alexander Forbes' first "Hobtown Mystery" set in Nova Scotia, a cover clearly parodying old Nancy Drew books, and pages with scratchy shading that looks like it took forever, I thought The Case of the Missing Men would have won me over much more successfully than it did.

The Canadian setting is fine, I suppose, though it doesn't feel quite real. And, as I'm from the East Coast myself, I expected to recognize it at least a little. But that "not quite real" feeling was pervasive and problematic throughout the entire book. The synopsis on the back of the book refers to the story as "Nancy Drew meets David Lynch." I'm embarrassed to say that I've not actually seen any David Lynch films. I do know that he has a reputation for being weird, and based on that, I'd say the comparison seems apt. Also based on that, I'm guessing I'd not be a fan. It felt more to me like a dark version of Wes Anderson and I've always felt that Wes Anderson must not have had a normal conversation ever in his life. Some quirky characters and shenanigans fine, but nothing about this felt plausible. No one reacted believably. The whole thing was odd. It certainly didn't help that the plot was a convoluted mess that never really got resolved.

This was even felt in the art. Again, I don't want to be too critical as it looks like it took a long time, but expressions and especially movement looked stiff and strange. Joints bent too much or not enough, eyes not focused properly, and so on.

Perhaps it did work as a parody. On this front I cannot weigh in too heavily as it's been years since I've read Nancy Drew (or Hardy Boys or Bobbsey Twins). I doubt, however, that they were ever this weird-but-not-in-a-good-way.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1735- Brian Jones (writer), Brent Anderson (artist): Ka-zar Savage Dawn

I'd say that Ka-Zar was Marvel's answer to Tarzan and Conan the Barbarian, but I'm not sure they needed an answer, having owned both of those properties at some point (Conan again as of recently), and I don't guess the world was clamouring for yet another loin-clothed, muscled-bound white male hero, but nonetheless I'm a student of Marvel and so, I had to finally get my hands on a collection. This one is from the early 80s written by Brian Jones and Brent Anderson.

A few positive observations if one was to compare to Tarzan and Conan, downplayed is the racism and hyper-violence of those other characters. (Downplayed, not entirely void.) While he makes a lot of meat-head wisecracks, Ka-Zar is, at the very least, a romantic. That said, the romance isn't exactly handled greatly either. He falls in love seemingly at the drop of a hat. Worse, he falls for two women who seem content to let him choose (a la Betty and Veronica). On that note, one of his main interests is Shanna, who, despite her scantily clad presentation, is shown at first with a bit more individuality, self-respect, and strength than I was expecting of Marvel from that time. Alas, that didn't last and before long she was reduced to a lovestruck damsel in distress persona.

A final thought/question regards the fictional Savage Land in which this story is set. There's little indication in this volume of when and where it is, though there are references to tall New York buildings, so it's clearly meant to be modern times and on Earth. A Google search reveals that Savage Land is supposed to be underneath Antarctica (complete with tropical vegetation, breathable air, fictional creatures and dinosaurs, and even a sky). I'd say I don't know how well this would hold up to modern readers, but hey, most are willing to accept Wakanda and even Themyscira, so I guess some people can suspend their beliefs. Personally, I'd like a bit more "acceptable" explanation in this time of smart phones, satellites, etc. Maybe there's a portal underneath Antarctica that transports visitors to an Earth-like planet or alternate universe? Yeah, let's go with that.