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50 (well, 52) Excellent Comics from 2007  •  Page 3

 

→ 30 ←

Tanpenshu Vols. 1-2
Hiroki Endo
Dark Horse Manga
224-232 pages, $12.95 each
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781593076375
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781593076450

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Two actors ponder how they got that way. Sequence from "For Those of Us Who Don't Believe in God" in Tanpenshu Vol. 1; ©1998, 2007 Hiroki Endo.

 

From the review I wrote back in June:

Gender roles are the not-so-secret faultline upon which Tanpenshu casts its fortunes. Virtually every story contains some element that questions what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, and probes the extent to which our own inability to answer these questions screws up our lives. In Volume Two's "Platform," our hero is the teenage son of a high-ranking Yakuza enforcer, who hates his family and everything for which it stands, and yet the studious distance the protagonist maintains between himself and his family becomes its own form of emasculation — in walking the tightrope between social norms and the criminal underworld, his unwillingness to choose a side becomes a form of stasis that interferes with his ability to act on his desires. This conundrum is brought to a head by his now-grown childhood playmate, the daughter of his father's mistress, who takes up the same role after her mother's death. Seeing this girl effectively become her parent causes something to snap within our protagonist, unleashing a chain of events that will damage many of the people around him. Flip the gender under analysis and you have Volume One's "Because You're Definitely a Cute Girl," in which a young girl's bewilderment over sex is overloaded by her widower father's decision to take a lover, driving her to a sudden swing from passive indifference to reactionary violence, her inability to connect with the world leading to an all-out attack upon it.

[...] Reduce these themes and tensions to absurdist shorthand and you have Volume Two's concluding vignette, "Boys Don't Cry," in which two high-school students — a frustrated lesbian and a young man spurned by the girl of his dreams — blow off steam and insult each other. It's short, bittersweet and does a wonderful job not only of summing up Hiroki Endo's principal insight into identity and relationships but in making a knowing joke of it: I don't understand you, you don't understand me, and it's driving both of us crazy... and yet, you seem like you'd be a nice enough person, if only you'd stop acting like such a jackass. These books won't answer those Big Questions, but at least they'll reassure you that you aren't the only one asking them.

 

→ 29 ←

Bookhunter
Jason Shiga
Sparkplug Comics
144 pages, $15
ISBN: 978097427156

 

Oh shit, it's the library police! Page from Bookhunter, ©2007 Jason Shiga.

 

From the review I wrote back in May:

Bookhunter is a hardboiled police procedural, starring an investigator from the California library police. Someone has stolen a rare 1838 English Bible from the Oakland Public Library despite meticulous security precautions, and Special Agent Bay must retrace the criminal's steps, solve the mystery and recover the book before it goes up for sale on the black market. What follows is a mixture of careful detective work and thrilling action sequences... starring, as I said, the library police.

As you've probably guessed from the last paragraph, Bookhunter entertains on two levels: On the one hand, it's a crime drama straight out of a 1970s cop show, and a damned good one at that. On the other hand, by transplanting the hard cops and clever criminals from shows like Mannix and Ironside to the world of studious bibiophiles, it also works as an absurdist parody of those very same cop shows. Shiga's tale never stops taking itself seriously, but every twenty pages or so it all but dares you to do so as well, with an aside or a sequence that might pass muster in the world of barrel-chested detectives and depraved criminals on shadowy city streets, but looks utterly ludicrous when the crime involves stolen library books.

It works because Jason Shiga is one of the best storytellers currently working in the comics medium. His bag of narrative tools is second to none, and he deploys his craft in comics the way Alfred Hitchcock made films, by carefully drafting his juxtapositional trickery in the service of adding flavor and weight to the story rather than wasting it in the panel-to-panel equivalent of showy guitar solos. Shiga's devotion to the tale being told thus allows him to sidestep the biggest failing of cartoon formalists as skilled as himself: the mistaking of means for ends. At no point does Bookhunter ever give you an opportunity to step outside the premise, despite its obvious wackiness. Instead, this book takes you for a ride as entertaining as it is engrossing, a trick that few cartoonists could pull off as well as Shiga.

 

→ 28 ←

Suppli Vol. 1
Mari Okazaki
Tokyopop
224 pages, $9.99
ISBN: 9781427803146

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Minami's day starts. Page from Suppli Vol. 1; ©2004 Mari Okazaki, English translation ©2007 Tokyopop Inc.

 

I picked up this josei office romance based on the author's previous translated book, a yuri-tinged collection of erotic short stories aptly named Sweat & Honey, and was pleasantly surprised to discover an engaging and adult workplace-romance series waiting for me. The first volume demonstrated that Mari Okazaki could capture the inchoate longing and desire that accompanies sexual attraction (a neat and difficult trick, especially considering how much easier it is to evoke sexual attraction by itself, without wasting time on the murkier emotional components). With Suppli, Okazaki proves herself capable of taking the nuances of everyday office life and make them just as interesting.

Despite the genre's seemingly overwhelming appeal to teenagers, there's still all too little good manga with an adult sensibility available in English-language print. Consequently, when good adult manga do somehow wind up on bookstore shelves, it's cause for celebration. It's too early to tell if Suppli is going to turn out to be a satisfactory story — given how much of this volume involves scene-setting, where the plot is headed is still anyone's guess — but so long as the results remain this engaging, I'll be more than happy to follow along.

Now, if some enterprising publisher could just bring Moyoco Anno's similarly themed Hataraki Man into print...

 

→ 27 ←

Nothing Better Vol. 1
Tyler Page
Dementian Comics
200 pages, $15
ISBN: 9780972080132

 

Jane and Katt try to see each other past wildly diverging worldviews. Page from Nothing Better Vol. 1, ©2007 Tyler Page.

 

Who would've guessed that one of the best comics soap operas of 2007 would've taken place in a small Lutheran college in the Midwest? Certainly not I; Nothing Better took my completely by surprise. Centering around two roommates — Jane, a churchgoing suburban girl trying to do what's right, and Katt, a budding artist whose taste for sex and alcohol brings her into constant conflict with her straightedge companion — Tyler Page's online comic turned softcover volume is a deceptively gentle, humorous look at the nature of faith, love and the aspirations of youth.

Page crafts these stories with a light touch that allows him to add depth and nuance to the proceedings, a skillful storytelling agility that's particularly noticeable in his handling of religious themes. Both the faithful Jane and the agnostic Katt are given equal opportunities to explore what they believe and how they came to said beliefs, with Page refraining from forcing the reader to take one side or the other. Likewise, our heroines' interactions with the story's diverse supporting cast offers many opportunities to touch upon the common trials and tribulations of young adulthood without ever devolving into lazy sermons or cautionary tales. Page's art, while by no means extraordinary, is more than sufficient to the task at hand, and his layouts are deft without being flashy. It's good, honest storytelling that draws you in and keeps you interested. Don't take my word for it; you can read it for yourself right here.

 

→ 26 ←

The Black Diamond Detective Agency
Eddie Campbell and C. Gaby Mitchell
First Second
144 pages, $16.95
ISBN: 1596431423

 

Even in a straightforward adventure story, Eddie Campbell's skill in framing and juxtaposition bring an innovative bag of tricks to bear on the narrative. Sequence from The Black Diamond Detective Agency, ©2007 Wonderland Films.

 

The basic plot from C. Gaby Mitchell's as-yet-unfilmed movie script, The Black Diamond Detective Agency, concerns a man mistakenly accused of bombing a train, and offers enough twists, turns and hidden motivations to make for a rollicking little graphic novel. That this is a rollicking graphic novel, however, is mainly due to the efforts of the man commissioned to adapt the work to the printed page, one Mr. Eddie Campbell.

Having completed two highly respected, self-produced novel series, as well as a variety of works in collaboration with the writer Alan Moore — including, of course, the novel From Hell — Campbell has honed his craft to a plateau of excellence that few other cartoonists will ever match, and it shows in this story. Campbell's painted artwork is perfectly suited to the story, with its brown and grey hues punctuated by flashes of primary color that give The Black Diamond Detective Agency a convincing 19th century backdrop against which to stage a historical action thriller. What really shines, however is the artist's astonishing grasp of pacing and narrative, occasionally peppered with graphic trickery without overwhelming the story with its overuse. It's not a major work, so far as Campbell's bibliography is concerned, but it's an entertaining and finely constructed diversion, and even a minor Eddie Campbell novel will outshine virtually everything else in the vicinity.

 

→ 25 ←

What a Wonderful World
Inio Asano
Unauthorized translation by Kotonoha

 

A downhill bicycle race leads to a terrifying moment for a young girl, in this double-page spread from the second chapter of What a Wonderful World, ©2007 Inio Asano.

 

Snapshots of life in Tokyo, with the reverie of everyday life interrupted by bursts of magic realism: A college dropout searches for the willpower to get on with her life; a young schoolgirl argues with the crow who keeps telling her to kill herself; a salaryman watches as the punk-rock band that he abandoned climbs up the sales charts without him; a schoolyard bully struggles to understand why his victim won't fight back; a poor cartoonist tries to come to terms with his ex-wife; young lovers fight the temptation to abandon their dreams and become their parents. Wonderful world, eh?

Well, it can be, but only when we look past our immediate concerns and reach for something bigger, or when we abandon those concerns altogether and learn to live with what we have. Inio Asano's two-volume collection of short stories offers small moments from the lives of Tokyo's grand parade of people, a parade that could be taking place anywhere a parade of people wondering why they are where they are, and wondering where else they should be if not there. It's a minor but potent example of the sort of comics that get produced in Japan but somehow never wind up in English-language print, since they won't sell in Naruto-like quantities to teenagers. It was my first introduction to Inio Asano, whom we'll be seeing again a little further into this list. It's why I'm grateful to the folks at Kotonoha for exposing me to manga that I'd otherwise never get to read. Wonderful? You could call it that, yeah...

 

→ 24 ←

Town Boy
Lat
First Second
192 pages, $16.95
ISBN: 9781596433311

 

You're young, it's a clear day, and you lay back in the grass while talking with a good friend. You are King of all the Earth. Panel from Town Boy, ©1980 Lat.

 

Town Boy is the sequel to Lat's world-renowned memoir Kampung Boy, and like that first volume, it doesn't so much tell you a story as give you a snapshot of a certain place, a certain time, a certain age in life. Lat's a teenager now; he's left his little village to attend school in town, and is learning both the heady freedom that adolescence brings and the complexity of being almost grown up but not quite. It's a collection of extended moments that linger in the memories you hold of crossing the bridge between childhood and adulthood.

It's an exquisite book. Lat's pacing is leisurely and assured, allowing events to take up as much room as they need on the page without appreciatively slowing down the narrative. His art is cartoony and expressive without ever sacrificing believability or verisimilitude. This is a story that virtually anyone could pick up and enjoy. I can't believe it's taken over a quarter of a century for this wonderful little book to reach English-language print.

 

→ 23 ←

Emma Vols. 3-6
Kaoru Mori
CMX/DC Comics
192 pages, $9.99 each
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781401211349
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781401211356
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781401211363
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781401211370

 

Read excerpt from right to left. William and Emma succumb to the moment in this pivotal scene from Emma Vol. 4, ©2004 Kaoru Mori.

 

Emma is the tale of a poor maid in the late 1800s, her love affair with an upper-class gentlemen, and the cultural forces that threaten to tear them apart. It's a manga like few other comics that have yet been brought to North American shores from Japan. It's a mannered drama of awkward moments and longing glances, and from these moments creator Kaoru Mori builds a quiet romance masterpiece.

Mori has clearly done her homework. Emma feels authentic because she understands that the pomp and circumstance of class structure is best depicted in little touches; the way one serves a cup of tea to a guest with the handle turned towards him, for example, or the way visitors are encouraged to send letters announcing their intention to drop by for a visit. Social station and its immutability fairly permeates the series' pages. The story carefully rations out its thrilling moments, letting the mannered reserve of the Victorian-era gentry lull the reader into complacency until incidents of action and intrigue crank up the drama without necessarily increasing the volume (so to speak). The artwork completes the illusion: Mori's skill at recreating 19th-century London and the surrounding English coutryside out of lush tones and penwork is nothing short of amazing — there are any number of moments in this series that look almost as though they were drawn by Dave Sim and Gerhard at the peak of their abilities.

As we move into the concluding arc of the story, the stakes are raised, melodrama creeps into the plot, carefully cultivated masks begin to slip, and emotion begins to overtake the artifice. One expects to see such a superbly crafted, intricately designed work from a seasoned veteran of the artform; that this is Kaoru Mori's debut work is simply amazing.

(Parts of the above were cribbed from my earlier review of the first volume in the series.)

 

→ 22 ←

Chance in Hell
Gilbert Hernandez
Fantagraphics Books
132 pages, $16.95
ISBN: 9781560977698

 

A brief moment from the life of a woman doomed to the worst. Sequence from Chance in Hell, ©2007 Gilbert Hernandez.

 

Ignore the description of the book on the inside cover flap — there's not a trace of magic realism in this book's pages, and its contents are only "overtly political" if you consider pure and undiluted nihilism to be a political stance. Rather, Chance in Hell is a slow descent into hopelessness and despair that's as fascinating as it is horrific. It's the story of Empress, a little girl from the — I almost wrote "the slums" there, but she lives in a garbage dump; a slum would be a step up — who somehow manages to escape grinding poverty only to find herself unable to function among the middle classes. No matter how far she climbs, she never has anywhere to go but down.

Having finally wrapped up his epic Palomar/Luba story cycle, Gilbert Hernandez has embarked upon a series of standalone hardcovers which mimic the themes and obsessions of lurid B-movies, and Chance in Hell kicks things off in emotionally brutal fashion. In many ways, Chance in Hell reminded me of nothing so much as a Takashi Miike film, not so much for its violence but for the way its misbegotten characters are dragged through a bleak and senseless series of episodes designed to rub one's face in the utterly uncaring, meaningless nature of life. Think Blues Harp or Miike's Black Society trilogy and you won't be that far off. It isn't the first time that Hernandez has navigated this terrain — both Grip and Poison River wallowed in much the same post-noir darkness — but this may be the most compact, concentrated slice of emotional and physical brutality that Hernandez has ever fashioned. Abandon all hope, ye who enter here...

 

→ 21 ←

Honey and Clover
Chica Umino
Viz Media
(serialized in Shojo Beat Magazine, Sept. 2007-January 2008 editions)

 

Read excerpt from right to left. Yuta Takemoto returns home from school to visit his recuperating mother. Sequence from the tenth chapter of Honey and Clover, ©2000 Chica Umino/Shueisha, Inc.

 

Nominally starring a young and uncertain art student named Takemoto, who shares a worn-down rooming house with fellow students Morita and Mayama, Honey and Clover starts out as a series of collegiate gags but quickly and smoothly expands to encompass a well-rounded and nuanced cast of characters in a story that's one part poor-student comedy, one part character study and one part bittersweet romance.

From the outset, creator Chica Umino clearly knows how to play her readers like a fine violin, shifting effortlessly from humor to confusion to heartbreak and back again without ever missing a beat. She first paints her dramatis personae in broad strokes, giving the reader an immediate sense of their basic natures, then fills in details on the fly as the story ambles forward at a casual pace. Umino largely forsakes big, gripping melodrama in favor of isolated incidents that slowly build up in meaning and sophistication as they accumulate. She's also not afraid to make certain characters partly unlikeable and complex people. Morita is the series' don't-give-a-fuck Slim Shady, a self-centered young man who never ceases allowing his id full control long enough to take a second look at how his exploits affect the people around him. Despite all this, he occasionally gives off just the slightest glimmer of concern for his friends, holding out the possibility that he might one day become, if not a fully rounded human being, then perhaps at least somewhat less of a dick. Also, his antics are hilarious, which forgives a lot in stories such as this one. Mayama, by contrast, is a nice enough guy, but totally unable to reciprocate the love of fellow student Yamada, the strong-yet-vulnerable pottery savant whose obsession for him thoroughly frustrates many of the other guys at school, who'd love a shot at her if only she'd drop her unworkable infatuation. His inability to return her affections seems callous at first glance, but a closer look reveals he's trying to be as considerate towards her as possible while still being honest, a balancing act that he never quite pulls off. And don't even get me started on moe-magnet Hagu; if I have to describe what seems to make her tick, we'll be here all day.

One thing that impresses me is the way the layout and drawing style changes, often radically so, depending upon the mood that Umino wishes to convey. It's not exactly an unknown phenomenon in manga, of course, but the effortlessness with which Honey and Clover jumps back and forth from rubbery, Peter Bagge-like comedy to serious-as-cancer drama and back again, often in the space of a page or two, is worth noting. It takes a deft hand at pacing and characterization to get away with this sort of thing, and at just twelve chapters into the series, it's clear that Chica Umino has pacing and characterization to spare. Having first discover this series through scanlations, I've been waiting for over a year for this series to finally reach print, and I'm awfully glad to see it here at last.

 

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