Saturday, March 31, 2018

Reader's Diary #1778- Gabrielle Bell: Everything is Flammable

I'm always a little torn about autobiographical comics. On the one hand, I think everyone's life could be a story. On the other, I often find such comics self-indulgent. It took me a while to decide how I felt about Gabrielle Bell's Everything is Flammable.

It began with small anecdotes about Gabrielle's life, most of which seem to have no real conflict or resolution, barely connected to the other quasi-anecdotes, and it felt somewhat dull and unnecessary. Like reading someone's doodle journal.

However, when the book became more about her mother who lives, I want to say on the outside-of-society, I felt the book had more of an anchor or at least a focus. I was then much more interested and found the writing at turns poignant, provocative, or funny. She especially had a knack for exploring complex human relationships.

The art is fine, a bit sketchy and therefore fitting for a book with a diary-type feel, and coloured in flat pastels like Tintin comics.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Reader's Diary #1777- Bev Sellars: They Called Me Number One

Bev Sellars' They Called Me Number One is one of a handful of residential school memoirs that I've read. Rather than getting any easier to handle however, it gets increasingly difficult. I admit that I have the luxury of pacing myself, of choosing lighter fare to read in between, and so on. While they may have an emotional impact on me, I recognize my privilege that these painful memories are not mine.

It gets increasingly difficult even when many details are disturbing similar. The nuns and priests who had no experience raising children of their own and were racists to boot; the litany of the abuses they inflicted; the devastating impacts that continue to be felt today in terms of anger, mistrust, mental health issues, alcoholism, and so on. Even the small moments of solace the children were resourceful and optimistic enough to find within these conditions; these are all commonalities I've come across in most if not all the residential school memoirs I've read.

And yet, as Bev Sellars points out in her introduction to They Called Me Number One, her story is uniquely hers and it is important to recognize such differences, not just in occasional details but also in her personal takeaways and the lessons she wishes to impart.

I think it was this that I appreciated most about Sellars' book; her adherence to education and life-long learning. It's inspiring that she was able to retain this despite the efforts of the so-called teachers at residential school to either suppress learning and/or define it in colonial terms.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Reader's Diary #1776- Mark Evanier (writer), Steve Uy (artist): Grumpy Cat / Garfield

I wasn't expecting an Earth-shattering Eisner winning comic with the Grumpy Cat / Garfield crossover. To be honest, I wasn't even sure it really fit the definition of crossover as until then I didn't even know there had been comics based on the internet-famous meme cat and I so I was thinking it was more of a cameo-type deal. It turns out there is a Grumpy Cat comic strip. It also turns out that it's not half bad. No, it won't win awards but for the younger folks, I'll bet they'll be entertained.

As for this older folk, I was interested in seeing how Mark Evanier would extend Jim Davis's creation, Garfield, into a full length story versus the usual three panel strips. I was also looking forward in seeing how he'd manipulate the plot to bring the two characters together in the first place. Finally, I wanted a chance to see how they'd interact, how their personalities would work together (or not).

Extending Garfield to a full length story didn't appear to be a huge challenge for Evanier. He had enough gags throughout to keep the punchlines more or less three panels apart while not losing sight of the larger arc involving an evil pet company who have kidnapped the titular cats. On that note, the meet-up assumes that Garfield and Grumpy Cat actually inhabit the same world. They've been selected as victims based upon their sour personalities as the company has a new device that they need to test on them. The device will hopefully transform them into being more loyal and lovable, more like dogs. The idea is that if it can work on these two it will work on any cat. So again, it's a pretty juvenile concept but to be honest, superhero crossovers always resort to multiple-universe collisions and at least this has a bit more originality. As for the personalities working together, that's probably the weakest part of the book. It seems like Evanier took more time to learn Garfield. He comes across very much as the cat from Jim Davis's strips and as such he's a bit more defined. Grumpy Cat on the other hand is just, well, grumpy. Not being as familiar with that character, I might suppose that he's just that great of a character. In any event, it's hard to generate much interest in the usual crossover constructs (1. they don't get along at first and 2. then they are forced to worked together and appreciate one another more) especially when a half of the equation is pretty flat.

The art is bright and not bad, though a bit inconsistent. Garfield and Grumpy Cat look different but as they're based upon their original comic characters that's fine. But the human characters have yet a third style, similar to manga characters, and I'm not sure it all blends that well.

Still, it's all a fun diversion if not perfect.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Reader's Diary #1775- Terry Fallis: One Brother Shy

Not having read anything by Terry Fallis before, I've certainly heard a lot of praise about his brand of humour and knack for political satire. I thought it was high time I give his writing a shot. I almost went with The Best Laid Plans as that seems to be his most popular title, but I've been terribly bad keeping up with new releases (not a great look on a librarian!) and so went with 2017's One Brother Shy instead.

If he's best known for political satire, I'd say this is isn't terribly representational of his work. However, it is amusing and there are definitely satirical elements, so perhaps some of his more avid readers would a make a better assessment.

One Brother Shy revolves around an awkward 20-something year old programmer named Alex MacAskill. Alex's life suddenly takes a left turn as his mother dies and posthumously reveals a family secret. There's also a mysterious subplot involving an incident known as "Gabriel" that has somehow damaged Alex terribly.

There are a lot of wild twists and turns that, along with the light humour, make for a very entertaining read. I've read some other reviews complain that there too many convenient coincidences and while I can see where they are coming from, I didn't think there was anything completely implausible.

I also appreciated some of the brushes against larger topics. Alex's shyness for instance, especially in certain circumstances made me consider the spectrum of assertiveness. Psych 101 classes often label us Type A or Type B, introverted or extroverted, but Fallis hints at a more realistic and fluid approach, one that considers other variables such as the situation, current moods, and so on.

As well, there are a lot of references to modern technology and I found myself wondering about the longevity of such novels. With the pace of technology going the way it is, will this book hold up in 10 years? In 20? In 100? Will readers get enough of the references? If they don't, will they understand the plot? And is this even a concern of Fallis? On the flip side, without such references, the world he's created wouldn't have rang nearly as true.

Finally, and while I said above that I didn't have issues with implausibility, I did note one plot hole that could have decreased my enjoyment more had it not been for the way Terry Fallis kindly responded to my question via Twitter. I won't get into too much as it would involve a spoiler, but if you're interested, you can read the Twitter thread here.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Reader's Diary #1774- Jay Disbrow: Monster Invasion

It's futile but nonetheless a fun exercise to wonder what the North American comics scene would look like had Frederic Wertham not published Seduction of the Innocent in 1954. His scathing and unfair attack on comics led to industry-wide censorship. Horror comics, which were enormously popular just prior, was one of the biggest victims. Superheroes remained, however, largely unscathed and today the most recognizable genre of the medium, at least in the western hemisphere. Were horror comics a passing craze or would they, had Wertham not intervened, be every bit as popular today? Would Jay Disbrow have been a household name like Stan Lee?

Monster Invasion is a collection of cult-legend Jay Disbrow horror and sci-fi comics from back in the day (late 40s, early 50s), lovingly compiled by Craig Yoe. Interestingly, they're pretty tame and according to Disbrow in an opening interview, not just by today's standards. (He states that he'd have refused to go as gross as Bill Gaines.)

I can see why Disbrow still enjoys a fan-following today. His writing, it should be acknowledged is ridiculously cheesy. You could do a drinking game and be quite pleasantly sloshed by doing shots every time a monster walks with "prodigious strides." But this inadvertently humorous quality is no doubt part of its charm for many.

The art, however, is quite great. Characters have the semi-realistic look of superheroes and they're expressive and full of movement. The monsters are the real delight though; complete with fur and fangs and slime.

Monday, March 26, 2018

Reader's Diary #1773- Manuel Gonzales: Blondie

When someone new moves into our cul-de-sac my wife likes to meet them and welcome them to the court. It's neighbourly and puts everyone off on a good foot, even if I couldn't make such an assertive move if my life depended on it.

Manuel Gonzales's "Blondie" opens with a couple delivering brownies to their new neighbours two houses down. I hope to god that's where the similarities between us and any character in this story end.

They've heard that the new neighbours are neo-Nazis. Still they're showing up with brownies.

Okay... so maybe they're hoping they're not actual neo-Nazis, maybe they've been given faulty intel. Give them the benefit of the doubt and all that. Alas, no, they seem to accept that they're neo-Nazis and go to meet them anyway. Not so they can give them a piece of their mind but because they somehow, in their warped just-as-bad-as-being-actual-neo-Nazis way, decide the new neighbours still can be decent folks. Yes, decent neo-Nazis, as if that could even be a thing!

Gonzales ups the discomfort by playing with this supposedly generic scene, planting horrific images that should be innocuous. A rope hanging from a tree is meant for a swing but...

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Reader's Diary #1772- Alootook Ipellie: Arctic Dreams and Nightmares

Not one to normally appreciate magical surrealism, I nonetheless quite enjoyed Alootook Ipellie's Arctic Dreams and Nightmares which is rife with it.

It's still difficult at times to see a larger picture, connections between stories, or even to fathom some of the supernatural elements. Granted, by Ipellie's own description it is meant to be a smorgasbord of ideas based upon his own dreams and nightmares, Inuit legends and myths, and more. Some of my confusion, I don't doubt, is due to my not being part of the Inuit culture.

Still, none of this bothers me or detracts from my enjoyment. Each story in the collection stems first from Ipellie's fantastic (both in the fantasy and the great sense) lined drawings. The cover, if you can see it, features a man with faces on each of his fingertips. This is one of the more tame drawings. On that note, the sheer creativity alone is entrancing. But it also helps that there's a sly sense of humour throughout, especially when Ipellie subverts typical European culture to blend in with the northern Inuit worldview. Christianity, the Russian ballet, Shakespeare, and Brigitte Bardot are but few of such topics that are blended in with hilarious and/or provocative results. But it is still, fortunately, the Inuit culture that is front and center, celebrated, challenged, and explored.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Reader's Diary #1771- Kanako Inuki: School Zone Vol. 1

Well, this was a disappointment.

Known as the Queen of Horror Manga, I thought for sure I'd enjoy Kanako Inuki's School Zone, Vol. 1. Unfortunately, this collection of stories set in a haunted school was not scary and poorly drawn.

See that wide-eyed, open-mouthed girl on the cover? She looks terrified. But when every character looks like that all the time it kind of takes the oomph out of it when something meant to be truly scary happens.

As for the stories themselves, the best I can say is that they got better as the volume progressed. The first ones are hard to follow and seem to be missing info. In fact, a couple of times I flipped back thinking I'd accidentally skipped a page or two that might have explained what had happened or why the character focus suddenly switched.

Oh well.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Reader's Diary #1770- Abhishek Singh: Krishna A Journey Within

Abhishek Singh's Krishna: A Journey Within is another suggestion that came to me via Paul Gravett's Mangasia as an example of a religion/mythology based comic (which are popular across much of Asia) and as an example of Indian comics.

Krishna: A Journey Within is stunning to look at. While the characters are sometimes Disney-esque, the backdrops, the colours, the patterns, and inventive layouts are just gorgeous.

Story-wise, I wasn't always clear what was going on and the book seemed to fade in and out of straightforward narratives (of a battle, for instance) to poetic religious philosophy. I am sure more of it would have been clearer had I better understanding of Krishna or Hinduism, but I'm not sure that the book is meant to act as a primer on the subject anyway.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Reader's Diary #1769- Cecil Castellucci (writer), Marley Zarcone (art): Shade The Changing Girl Vol. 1 Earth Girl Made Easy

My favourite corner of DC Comics by far has been the weird Justice League Dark stories. It was here that I first encountered the Shade the Changing Man (Dac Shade). I don't recall much about him, but I did quite enjoy this passing of the torch, or jacket as it were, to Loma Shade. Like Dac, Loma Shade is an alien from the planet Meta, but Loma is an Avian (basically a humanoid bird). Loma is tired of her life and looking for a change, takes up residence in the comatose body of a teenage Earth girl named Megan.

She seems to be making the most of her time in this body, except that apparently Megan was a bully and Loma needs to navigate that and her new, complicated relationships with Earthlings. To further her difficulties, some of Megan's negative energy has residual effects on Loma's psyche, Megan's spirit is trying to reclaim her body, and the dimension-transporting jacket that Loma used in the first place tends to make its wearers go insane. Still with me?

Yes, it's bizarre. But it relishes in the bizarre, with fast pacing and psychedelic art and funky colours. Plus the "finding oneself" takes on more poignancy with the teenage angle as it's typically a time of self-discovery anyway. Strong, defined characters and complex friendships help ground the weirdness without diminishing the fun.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Reader's Diary #1768- Yusei Matsui: Assassination Classroom

The first volume of Yusei Matsui's Assassination Classroom is the most fun I've had with manga in quite some time.

This came as a pleasant surprise when I wasn't entirely sure of the premise. A story built around a class of kids trying to kill their teacher? In the wake of all of the school shootings in the U.S., it sounded distasteful to say the least. Fortunately, this isn't real world violence at all.

The teacher, it turns out, is some sort of ultra-powerful supernatural being who has already destroyed most of the moon and plans to do the same to the Earth by the end of the school year. However, first he (or she? or something else?) has decided to be the teacher for a low performing class of kids. He's given them the assignment to assassination him by the end of the year. The world's governments and military have thus far been powerless to stop him and thus they not only give into the bizarre demands to become a teacher but to also offer an additional reward: 100 Million to any student that can pull it off.

Its quirky, somewhat dark sense and occasionally self-aware humour, is prevalent throughout as students try and fail to take this teacher down. But more than just fun murder attempts, there is a surprising amount of character building in the book, not the least of which involves the enigmatic teacher who bizarrely seems to care for his students and their learning, despite his promise to destroy their entire planet. Who is he and what is his motivation?

I also quite enjoyed the art. You'd not know it from the teacher who is essentially a smiley face with tentacles, but the scenes are often finely detailed.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reader's Diary #1767- Li Kunwu and P. Otie: A Chinese Life

Another book brought to my attention courtesy of Paul Gravett's Mangasia book was A Chinese Life written and illustrated by Li Kunwu with assistance from P. Otie. Gravett had used it as an example of historical comics, a genre that enjoys popularity across a large swath of Asia.

It's interesting to note that A Chinese Life is also Kunwu's autobiography as I found myself questioning his role as history teacher. Documenting China from 1949 (creation of the People's Republic of China) to the present, it is through one individual's eyes; one who was a celebrated propaganda artist for the Republic and became a member of the Communist Party. P. Otie, who is French, states in his intro that he tried to balance patriotism against fact, propaganda against critique. And while I'd suggest that they succeed on that front, I wondered if one man out of a billion would be representative. I'd be okay if he wasn't (it's A Chinese Life after all, not Chinese Life), but when all was said and done, I do feel that I have a better sense of China as a whole, rather than just of Li Kunwu.

This period of history is fascinating and like nothing I can compare it to in Canada. The overt and sudden upheavals brought on with Mao, the adoption of Communism, the Cultural Revolution, felt almost shocking in its intensity. Children ratting out adults resulting in imprisonment, outright disdain for cultural history, modern technology coming almost shockingly late compared to most of the world, the hybrid of socialism and capitalism that they have currently adopted... it's all so very overwhelming.

Li Kunwu's art is perfect for this story. It actually (and this will probably seem like an odd comparison) reminded me of Jim Unger's Herman cartoons. This was in the inky, rough, caricatures. Clearly the roughness was intentional. Describing his time as a propaganda artist, Kunwu shows some of his Mao art and we can see that he is quite capable of refined line work. But there's something more truthful about the roughness. It also seems at times like Kunwu barely raises his pen, and it gives the history more of a connection, more of a natural fluidity.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Reader's Diary #1766- Molia Dumbleton: If She Were to Lay Down

Molia Dumbleton's "If She Were to Lay Down" is a quietly beautiful story of a woman working through her attraction toward a man who is asleep on her couch.

At the very beginning there's a slight implication that she doesn't find him physically attractive, perhaps even finds him a bit on the simple side. But as the story progresses, we (and she) begin to understand just what she does like about this man.

It's thoughtful, full of purposeful imagery, and overall, quite lovely.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Reader's Diary #1765- Rob David and Larry Goldfine (writer), Freddie E. Williams II (artist): He-Man/ Thundercats

I was a huge He-Man fan back in the day, spending any chore money I had on the dolls, refusing to let go when all my friends had moved on to G.I. Joe. Somehow though I don't have any recollection of the Thundercats. Looking them up, I see that they first aired just a couple of years after He-Man, when I was still a Saturday morning cartoon junky, so I must have encountered them, but even this crossover comic between Thundercats and He-Man didn't jog any memories.

I did learn a little about a few Thundercat characters and the mythology through this book, enough to find it even stranger that I wasn't into them back in the 80s. My favourite He-Man characters were the animal based ones (Buzz-Off, Stinkor, Clawful) and Thundercats were all cat-based He-Man-looking heroes. Again, how did I miss these??? Was my childhood retconned?

Despite being impressed with the Thundercats though, the crossover comic by Rob David and Larry Goldfine didn't do a lot else for me. The story, which revolved around Skeletor and Mumm-Ra, the main villains of both franchises, teaming up to take over the world was pretty obvious for a crossover comic. That is to say, it was fine, but nothing terribly original. Likewise, all the typical crossover tropes were there. There's a contrived scene where the heroes turn on each other, that sort of deal. There wasn't much of the background characters either, which in old He-Man cartoons I always found more interesting than He-Man himself.

There were some small problems that perhaps would have been overlooked with a stronger story. For instance, there are attempts at narration, basically the heroes offering their philosophical interpretations, but it's completely unnecessary and distracting. Also distracting is the busy art. Normally I like watercolours, but combined with Freddie E. William's abundance of lines and panels, the pictures were a bit over-complicated.

There were a few fun moments here or there. In the final comic, for instance, they explore the multiverse. In one world and making the best of their home at DC Comics, we see Prince Adam/ He-Man as Clark Kent/ Superman. In another we see a world where the Thundercats and He-Man characters are all morphed into hybrids. I would have liked a visit to Etheria and a meet-up with She-Ra as well, but I guess I couldn't have it all.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Reader's Diary #1764- Inhae Lee: My Milk Toof

Finally, a photocomic more aligned with what I was imaging the form could be. Finally a writer that takes the time to create stories, takes the time to create photos that help tell the story.

My Milk Toof, which began life on a blog, tells of two baby teeth who move back in with the adult (unseen, except for a hand now and then) who'd lost them in her youth. This collection is subtitled, The Adventures of Ickle and Lardee, and based on these character names, you'd be correct to assume that the book can be on the cutesy side.

So, it's a little more saccharine than I'd normally choose, but it's occasionally funny. Plus, I appreciate the creativity and effort that went into it.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Reader's Diary #1763- Jordin Tootoo, with Stephen Brunt: All the Way

Two huge takeaways for me from Jordin Tootoo's autobiography All The Way: My Life on the Ice are Jordin's love for his brother Terrence, who committed suicide in 2002, and how much of an advocate for communication Jordin is.

I don't have a lot to add about Terrence's suicide except that I was living in Rankin Inlet when it happened at went to a very emotional service in the middle school. I was new to the town at the time and didn't really know the Tootoos, but the impact of Terrence's death on the town (everyone went to that service) was palpable and has stuck with me. Sadly, suicide, as I would soon learn was a very common tragedy in Rankin and the rest of Nunavut.

Perhaps related to that is the issue of communication. Jordin describes being a young boy when him and Terrence would escape the house to avoid his parents' alcoholism and abuse. They'd be playing outside at all hours with other young friends who, in hindsight, he figures were also avoiding trouble at home. Still, that fact he has to figure is underscored by the fact that they didn't talk about it. To be fair, they were kids looking to escape. Who'd want to talk about crap going on at home? That said, even as adults there was a lot being hush-hushed, too much being kept in secret, bottled up until it exploded. I wonder if this is yet another terrible side-effect of colonization of the north.

Jordin's book is almost immediately shocking from the very first chapter in his unflinching openness. Right away he gets into his troubled relationship with his parents, their drinking, their abuse. I've met both parents and didn't know this. I didn't hear it talked about. I've seen Jordin touring the town with his father and things looked great. I found myself wondering what the effect of this book was. How did they feel when they read it? I think a follow-up book is necessary. I would imagine that emotions were initially negative, some sadness, some anger, but I would also imagine that Jordin's dragging the past out into the light is an important first step toward healing.

I'm not much of a hockey follower, but I found All The Way to be a compelling human story with important messages.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Reader's Diary #1762- Michael Deforge: Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero

I was a few pages into Michael Deforge's comic Sticks Angelica, Folk Hero before I was confident that it was meant to be funny.

That might sound like an attack on his writing or comedy, but it's not meant as such. It is, however, meant to convey how wry and idiosyncratic it is. It's also sometimes witty, sometimes silly. There's a species of snake in the book called a Harmless Snake but they are deadly poisonous and have given themselves the name as a "form of camouflage". If you don't "get" the humour right away, if you're like me, it will quickly grow on you.

Most of the book is told in page length strips but nonetheless, characters become well-defined. They're flawed characters but I came to appreciate them.

The art matches the style in quirk and is coloured in black, white, and pink.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Reader's Diary #1761- Kentaro Miura: Berserk Vol. 1

I became aware of Kentaro Miura's Berserk manga series thanks to the 11th Annual Graphic Novel and Manga Challenge where another participant has been enthusiastically reviewing the series.

I wish I could share the enthusiasm, but I suppose I can help balance it out with a dissenting voice?

While I'm terrible at finishing any manga series, even if I wasn't I don't think I'd be continuing with this one. I found it hyper-masculine and gratuitously violent and while I thought I could appreciate the humour of how over-the-top it all was (the main character's name is Guts and his sword is ludicrously big), the novelty of that wore off very quickly. It then seemed like cheap shock tactics.

I also didn't really like the art which reminded me somewhat of Hajime Isayama's work in Attack on Titan. In both I found the body proportions to be often slightly amateur-looking and off, a head sometimes too small, fingers occasionally too short, people bending stiffly, that sort of thing.

If I was to name one positive feature, I did enjoy the horror. It's largely a fantasy based tale but touches of the grotesque added a more interesting element. Plus, if it's a monster, it's hard to argue that the proportions are wrong.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Reader's Diary #1760- Jesse Jacobs: Crawl Space

Jesse Jacob's Crawl Space is unlike anything I've ever seen or read before. Even if I didn't wind up enjoying the book, I'd have to give credit for originality.

The graphic novel begins with what appears to be a bunch of random colourful squiggles and circles falling into place to form a (still abstract) picture. I was nervous after the very first page that I was not going to get this.

Soon, some of the shapes form into a couple of humanoid figures. There were still psychedelic backgrounds but the vague, now talking figures, was enough to land some comprehension. Later, the colours and shapes fade in and out of this bizarre world with a more traditional cartoon world.

There's a surface story about a character introducing another to a new found world and experience, eventually sharing it with a slightly larger group of their peers. There may be a metaphor about drugs, religion, or just general open-mindedness or it might just be meant to be a weird little story.

It's certainly eye-catching and engaging and awesome.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reader's Diary #1759- Doretta Lau: Best Practices for Time Travel

It's kind of fascinating to me that Doretta Lau's short story "Best Practices for Time Travel" opens with a quote from Louis C.K. I cannot find a year on the story, but I believe it was written in 2016. It was only last year that the revelations about Louis C.K.'s repulsive behaviour hit mainstream media, though many remarked at the time that it hadn't exactly been a close guarded secret. Whether Lau had heard of it when she wrote the story or not, it makes for an even more powerful statement in 2018 to open with one of his quotes. It certainly accentuates the theme of the story.

For those expecting a sci-fi story, as I was, you may be disappointed that it doesn't quite deliver on that front, but you might also be pleasantly surprised, as I was, in the idea behind the story: would a woman or minority even want to time travel? Things aren't exactly great for them in the present, would the past be even worse?

The story serves as an important reminder of things (pressures, prejudices, etc) that others (such as white males like me) often take for granted. Even among minority groups that may relate on many things (in the story they all advise against reading the comments), each person is still an individual with unique questions and struggles.

I also enjoyed the story as a chance to "eavesdrop" on a discussion I'd normally not be a part of. Though, I also like the point in the story when the narrator talks about fetishism of other cultures.

It's a very thought provoking piece.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Reader's Diary #1758- Tony Isabella (writer), Trevor Von Eeden (artist): Black Lightning 1

Less familiar with DC Comics' superheroes, it wasn't until this year's TV adaptation of Black Lightning that I became aware of the character though he's been around since the 70s.

This is a collection of these early days and as such should also be prefaced with a few disclaimers. Created by Tony Isabella, who's not black, Black Lightning is nonetheless a black character. In the introduction to the collection, Isabella recalls his motivation in the first place. Specifically, he noted the few black superheroes, fewer still at DC than at Marvel, and sought to remedy that. So, I suppose, the intentions were fine. That said, if DC really wanted to support the idea, it would have probably been a safer bet to go with an actual black writer.

Much has been said about a much more offensive character named Black Bomber who DC had been eyeing as a headliner before settling on Black Lightning. To be sure, that character was much, much worse (he was a white racist who turned black when stressed). But, Isabella's stereotyping doesn't get him off the hook completely. Black Lightning was a schoolteacher by day, Afro-wig wearing, jive-talking superhero by night. And while I'm certainly no expert on 70s slang, especially urban black slang, I think some of Black Lightning's "authentic" dialogue was dubious at best.

Another, but less important issue considering how often the two companies did it to one another, is the ripping off of Marvel. While there's not a perfect carbon copy of Black Lightning at Marvel, other ideas and characters in Black Lightning's world seem lifted from there. First off, Black Lightning is presented as a street level alternative to the world-saving exploits of Superman, set in the Suicide Slum quarter of Metropolis. Clearly this a take on Marvel's heroes of Hell's Kitchen. Speaking of which, one of Hell's Kitchen's most notorious baddies, Kingpin, is clearly the inspiration behind Black Lightning's nemesis Tobias Whale. One difference between these two villains, and an unfortunate aspect they kept for the TV show, is Whale's albinism. Why are so many albinos presented in the media as villains? Oh wait! I forgot. Different = evil.

All of these issues aside, it's a fun introduction to the character even if, I'm told, much of his origins and superpowers have since been retconned. It's a 70s superhero comic so the stories are exactly profound, but they are entertaining. Also like other 70s DC and Marvel outputs, there's too much talking, the colours are garish and flat (the shading is all done with line work), but from a 2018 perspective this level of cheese is fun in itself.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Reader's Diary #1757- Keiji Nakazawa: Barefoot Gen

Reading Paul Gravett's Mangasia recently, Keiji Nakazawa's Barefoot Gen came up as a particularly notable example and trendsetter of political and historical Asian comics. It tells of Nakazawa's experiences pre, during, and post the bombing of Hiroshima. This first volume that I read is predominately pre-bomb but it is dropped before the book ends.

Much controversy of Barefoot Gen seemed to be around the harsh critique Nakazawa makes on Japan at the time. Largely, to be fair, it is demonstrated not by Nakazawa who was only a child at the time but by his father who was particularly against Japan's propaganda and war-mongering. I suppose some readers felt this was not the time or place to criticize Japan. Clearly the bomb dropped by the US was horrendous and nothing could justify it. Perhaps Nakazawa's critics felt he was making a "both sides" argument similar to Trump's recent remarks regarding white supremacists in Charlottesville?

I'm not sure. In any case, I found the portrayal of WWII era Japan fascinating and certainly important. I've been to Japan, and a brief visit would lead one to believe it to be one of the most peace-loving countries on Earth. Perhaps they are. If so, they certainly weren't always that way (generally, speaking) and there's a hopeful message here that even the most militant of peoples can change. Hopefully, of course, it doesn't take an atomic bomb to learn such a valuable lesson and I suppose if one must have something positive to come from the tragedy that was Hiroshima, that would be it. It also doesn't, by any means, absolve the U.S..

At first Nakazawa's account seems uneven. While his father is being critical of Japan's jingoism, such political messages as these are pushed somewhat to the background and belied by the over-the-top emotions and physicality of Nakazawa and his younger brother. These kids reminded me a little of old Astro Boy cartoons. I couldn't often tell if it was meant as comic relief, perhaps a cultural difference I didn't understand, or an outdated style but there seemed to a lot of leaping into the air, a lot of big, unrealistic reactions to small things.

Then the bomb hits and it all makes sense. These scenes are horrific.

The earlier silliness is suddenly more understandable in retrospect. Yes, leading up to the bomb was a very serious time, but Nakazawa was still a child and much was shown through his eyes. He didn't always appreciate the magnitude of what was happening. What seemed important to him prior to the bomb was not necessarily of true importance. Nakazawa's own hindsight would come with and after the bomb.

Barefoot Gen, like my visit to Hiroshima, will stick with me for a very long time.

Friday, March 09, 2018

Reader's Diary #1756- Saladin Ahmed (writer), Christian Ward (artist): Black Bolt Hard Time Vol. 1

The hype for Saladin Ahmed's Black Bolt: Hard Time run was well deserved.

Black Bolt is not an easy character to write and, as the recent tv Inhumans show proved, when he's adapted poorly he comes across as a dud, though he's supposed to be one of Marvel's most powerful superheroes. The challenge comes with his main power, a voice that can flatten buildings with as much as a whisper. He cannot, however, control when his voice has force and it always does. This means that the character cannot talk most of the time and in TV or comics, where dialogue is typically relied upon heavily to tell a story and to give insight into a character, options are limited. (In the TV show the actor raised an eyebrow now and then which... didn't cut it. Like at all.)

In the first chapter of Hard Time, Ahmed uses skilled narration to do the work.

Black Bolt wakes in filth. He does not know where he is. He does not know how he got here. He only knows... that he is leaving.

Written narration isn't new to comics of course, but I find it less common now than it was in the 70s and earlier and when you read some of those older comics, it makes them seem dated. It also makes it feel like the writers didn't trust the artists to get their points across and the results were often redundant. Ahmed's narration, however, works with the art. He pulls back when the art pushes the story forward and steps in when it does not.

In later chapters, Ahmed "cheats" a little by having Black Bolt and his fellow prisoners (the overarching story is essentially a prison break-out) discover that their powers have been stripped away leaving Black Bolt free to talk without hurting anyone.

Likewise the art by Christian Ward is most fascinating in the first chapter, full of futuristic, pyschedelic shapes, angles, and colours. In later chapters this is all toned down a little.

But while I may feel the first chapter was the strongest, it's not like the collection ever goes off the rails. It remains an engrossing, exciting story with wonderful character building. The friendship that forms between Black Bolt and Absorbing Man is a beautiful thing. 

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Reader's Diary #1755- Michael Avon Oeming (writer), Mel Rubi (artist): Spider-Man/ Red Sonja

Webcomics, photocomics, old-timey comics, lesser-known-superhero comics, non-Japanese manga... I'm starting to have a lot of comic obsessions. My latest is crossover comics, particularly crossovers between publishing companies, so expect a lot of those in upcoming months.

Bringing me to Spider-Man/ Red Sonja, a crossover between Marvel and Dynamite back in 2007, with the trade collection in 2008. This is not the first time these two characters have met and fortunately, this trade also includes that first encounter from 1979. I don't really consider that a crossover, however, as at the time Red Sonja was a Marvel property.

Being set in a fictionalized, medieval time, with no superpowers beyond being a skilled fighter, Spider-Man doesn't seem like an obvious choice for a Red Sonja crossover. She's more akin to Conan the Barbarian (who she's already crossed over with). From Marvel's roster, I'd think Ka-Zar or Shanna the She-Devil would be better fits. Then, those are hardly household names and I suppose the Spider-Man pairing was a better financial bet. Besides, as a fan of musical mashups (and essentially crossovers are mashups), it's sometimes the less obvious mixes that are the most interesting.

In Spider-Man/ Red Sonja, Michael Avon Oeming uses a slight resemblance between Spider-Man's girlfriend and Red Sonja to work the story (they both have red hair). Red Sonja's nemesis Kulan Gath recalls his previous attempt to take over modern day New York and how it was thwarted by Red Sonja and Spider-Man. This time he's planned a rematch but schemes to pit his two adversaries against one another as a distraction. To do so, he transposes a medieval version of New York over the modern one, affecting almost everyone inside with the inexplicable exception of Spider-Man. This is when Mary Jane becomes Red Sonja, or becomes trapped inside of her...

Okay, so it's not high art, not the most literary comic I've ever read, but it was fun and as such does what a good crossover should.

The art is decent, though as I've complained before, I'm never wild about the sexist way Red Sonja is typically portrayed.

Wednesday, March 07, 2018

Reader's Diary #1754- Antony Johnston (writer), Sam Hart (artist): Atomic Blonde

I was excited to see a spy book with a female lead though in hindsight, I've never been a huge fan of the genre and so I'm not entirely sure why I thought having a female protagonist would change that.

My biggest issue has never been the sex of the spy but that I tend to find espionage plots confusing. This was the case with Atomic Blonde as well. I started off okay; the initial plot involves an MI6 officer named Lorraine Broughton (who isn't blonde by the way, the title was changed from its original The Coldest City to capitalize on the recent film adaptation starring Charlize Theron) heading off to East Germany in 1989 to get back a list that threatens to blow the covers of all the good spies. Then it turns out there was no list and a couple of double crosses and questionable motives later and I was thoroughly lost.

So, after I was done and still scratching my head, I decided to see if someone else online could explain it to me. It turned out it wasn't just me and my usual trouble with spy books, but plenty of others were left bewildered by just what the heck happened in the second half of the book.

I did diverge somewhat from other reviewers though as it seems plenty of others also didn't enjoy the art. I actually did. It's heavily inked in black and white but still without a lot of detail. It looked at times like wood prints. The cold effect created by such a stylistic choice fit the setting, fit the plot heavy (vs character driven) story, and any more detail would have been too distracting for what was already a difficult to follow tale.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Reader's Diary #1753- Eric Grissom (writer), William Perkins (artist): Gregory Suicide

In a lot of ways, Eric Grissom and William Perkins' Gregory Suicide felt like a Black Mirror episode. Dealing with artificial intelligence, the sci-fi aspect was definitely there. But it also has the mystery element; where the plot is a bit confusing at first but then the pieces start to fall into place (and new mysteries begin to pop up).

The titular Gregory in this story is the early version of an AI program. This was in earlier, friendlier times. Now the new AI robots and the humans are hellbent on wiping one another out and Gregory is caught in the middle.

It's stark in a near apocalyptic sort of way both in themes and art. Perkins work is reminiscent of Jeff Lemire's with just the slightest bit more refinement, fitting of a dystopic, futuristic tale. The colours, too, which are mostly monochromatic, fit well.

It's instantly engaging and provocative throughout, complete with interesting, well-defined characters.

Monday, March 05, 2018

Reader's Diary #1752- Charlotte Ashley: Sigrid Under the Mountain

I don't read a lot of fantasy, but Charlotte Ashley's "Sigrid Under the Mountain" has convinced me that I should read more.

Like good sci-fi, good fantasy came make a reader reflect upon the current world while offering an entrancing alternative reality. That's exactly what "Sigrid Under the Mountain" did for me. I was completely invested in this rich world and its mythical creatures, the cultures, the geography. Remarkable that it could be so richly developed in the space of a short story.

And then the strong themes of feminism and prejudices? I think fantasy is often written off as mere entertainment. While "Sigrid Under the Mountain" is certainly entertaining, it was also thoughtful, provocative.

The titular Sigrid is a strong character who is frustrated by her husband, by the mysterious kobolds, by an oncoming war. She takes matters into her own hands...

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Reader's Diary #1751- Spike Steffenhagen (writer), Joe Paradise and Larry Nadolsky (artists): Joan Jett and the Runaways

A fan of the Runaways, Joan Jett, Lita Ford and rock biographies, I had much higher hopes for this book than I was ultimately delivered.

First, it's quite short. There are three stories in here, the first about the Runaways, then Joan Jett and Lita Ford's solo careers respectively and the whole thing is just 30 pages long. If you've seen the Runaways movie a few years back, you won't likely learn anything and beyond an interesting factoid or two and not a whole lot more about the two successful solo breakouts.

The art is also a mixed bag. The Runaways story is drawn by Joe Paradise and while technically better than Larry Nadolsky's work on the follow-up stories, it's also wildly offensive. The women are consistently objectified (which renders the criticisms over their then manager Kim Fowley's sexism as hypocritical) and in one scene set in Japan a fan is drawn with exaggerated buck teeth, bald head, slanted eyes, and big ears a la WWII anti-Japanese propaganda. Larry Nadolsky's work on the other hand looked far more amateur. It was, however, less offensive and I kind of felt that it looked like fan art which suited the book anyway.

An additional troublesome feature were the occasional condescending and disrespectful "edits" by Jay Allen Sanford. In the worst of these he feels the need to jump in regarding Runaways lead singer Cherie Curie stating that her only talent is being photogenic. How rude.

Saturday, March 03, 2018

Reader's Diary #1750- Warren Ellis (writer), Gerardo Zaffino and Roland Boschi (artist): Karnak The Flaw in All Things

Last year Marvel Comics seemed to be pushing a few more Inhuman titles. Notable the Karnak: The Flaw in All Things and the Black Bolt: Hard Time runs had some critical acclaim. Perhaps they were trying to capitalize on the new tv show. Pity then it was so god-awful. And that's coming from a hard core Marvel fan who even enjoyed the much maligned Iron Fist show on Netflix.

My knowledge of Karnak was largely based, unfortunately, on the TV show. (I read a Inhumans trade a while back, but I've largely forgotten it.) There are very few similarities between Karnak of this comic and the one played by Ken Leung on television except that both are unlikable. The biggest difference is that Karnak on TV had superpowers while the one in the comic doesn't (on tv it's Maximus who is powerless, though in the comics he has super intelligence).

As for him being unlikable in his own solo series comic, that's fine, I suppose, though I did at times find the comic trying a bit too hard to be gritty (a la Alan Moore or Frank Miller). Still, when we finally see an ounce of doubt or humility, really any human emotion besides smug detached superiority, the payoff is bigger.

The story involves Karnak being asked by SHIELD to help track down a new inhuman who has been abducted by a cult. This inhuman is either powerless or one of the most powerful they have ever encountered.

It's not a bad series overall. Again, I didn't necessarily like Karnak but he's an interesting sort of character and decently developed. He's a bit of a rational philosopher. The story was compelling and the art by Zaffino or Boschi is suitably gritty. I liked the occasional use of ben day dots, looking like it was coloured on newsprint and had just leaked through-- a nice nod to the "flaw in all things" theme.

Friday, March 02, 2018

Reader's Diary #1749- Pab Sungenis: I Can Has Empire?

Moving along in my exploration of photocomics, I'm also able to overlap with my study of webcomics thanks to Pab Sungenis and I Can Has Empire? the 2nd printed collection of his The New Adventures of Queen Victoria series which first appeared online.

Getting a bit of the negative out of the way first, this publication by Lulu is of very poor quality. The images and font are too small and often blurry which is frustratingly distracting.

That said, I did enjoy Pab Sungenis's work more than my more recent look at Joey Comeau and Emily Horne's Anatomy of Melancholy. Besides being just funnier, it felt more like an actual comic (versus captioned pictures). Also, the gutters of Sungenis' strip were real and had the usual comic implications.

The New Adventures of Queen Victoria still doesn't, unfortunately, much lift the reputation of photocomics as being a bit lazier, less work than drawn comics. To be fair, Pab Sungenis does put some work in. He writes the speech balloons and chooses old stock images of Queen Victoria and other historical figures to pose. Sometimes he even draws on expressions. Still, it's a far cry away from my idea to have people pose, carefully choose settings, select appropriate lighting, etc.I think a good photocomic can be just as much work if not more than a drawn one.

As a side note, I once again found myself thinking of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics. He does a chapter on the somewhat counter-intuitive role of simple cartooning. I believe his theory goes that we're often more able to relate to, see ourselves in, simpler cartoon faces than more realistically drawn ones, the ones we tend to see as others, as characters. It will be interesting to reflect upon this as I read more photocomics. It doesn't get much more realistic looking than a photo! This would also suggest that photocomics would work better from some stories than others.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

Reader's Diary #1748- Sina Grace (writer), Alessandro Vitti (artist): Iceman Thawing Out Vol. 1

Iceman, until recently, hasn't been the most respected X-Men character, but last year he was making headlines and starred in a critically acclaimed series that even drew attention from outside typical comic circles. Largely this was because the series dealt with the character finally coming out.

Iceman is not the first gay superhero, not even for Marvel (Canada's own Northstar got married to another man all the way back in 2012), but he is one of the better known characters. Plus, while it's nice to have comics where being gay is just another character fact, coming-out stories are still important.

Interesting about the X-Men is that their story about being accepted/ not accepted for who they are has often been used as a parable for the LGBTQ community. In this series, Iceman has to deal with both prejudices. He now needs to come out to parents who already don't accept him for being mutant.

Not having lived such an experience, I can't say that the story would read as sensitive or authentic to someone who has, as an adult, come out to his parents. (I have since read though that Grace himself is gay, so I am thankful that Marvel chose a writer that would at least have a clue as to what he's talking about.) It felt real in any case. Well, the non-superhero parts anyway. Not that the superhero parts weren't welcomed; they provided a good reminder that everyone has value and worth regardless and not necessarily related to their sexual or gender identity, and they provided some more fun elements for what could have been too heavy of a story.

That all said, I really did not like the art. Specifically, the colouring looked like the original artwork was heavily spray painted over with a software program and the line work was re-added very poorly.