The Intermittent

Why Are You Still Here?

Monday, January 31, 2005

MY MANGA MALADY

I don't read much manga; this comes as no surprise, likely. I used to; I read many of the titles that, I think, Eclipse put out in the late Eighties. Appleseed, Black Magic. Akira, through Epic. A friend got heavily into anime/manga at around the same time, so I got to skim even more stuff; Ranma 1/2, stuff like that. Grey. Then I went to college and my friend was lost to Madison, and I basically stopped reading manga.

I've since dabbled sometimes. I read some Sanctuary, picked up both No. 5 and Black and White. Domu. But by and large the wave has passed me by, to my half-hearted consternation.

I fully believe that there is lots of good manga out there; I'm not some sort of xenophobe, though neither am I the kind of Japanophile that seems to be driving the movement. So why don't I read more manga? Because, paradoxically, the fact that so many manga books are published at once increases the raw number of quality books out there and also makes it far, far too hard for me to determine which books those are. The oppurtunity cost of figuring out what's the good stuff is frankly not worth it.

I can see some of the folks in the peanut gallery sniggering, Statler and Waldorf style, at this explanation. Let me try and make it more concrete. I'm looking at the new Previews for books coming out in April. DC has four titles coming out. CPM Manga solicts five titles. Del Ray has three. Dr. Master lists four. Tokyopop has a whopping twenty five, running the gamut from new releases to stories eight volumes in. Not to be outdone, Viz lists forty one.

That's eighty two titles.

Okay, so what? After all, there are probably a couple hundred English language comics listed in that same previews, and I can make an informed decision on all those. What's so hard about manga? Well, the cues that I use to winnow the bulk of Previews into my monthly order are largely absent for manga. I include or exclude American books based on creator; Morrison is an automatic pull, for example. Can't do this for manga. Outside of a couple of folks--like Matsumoto--I'm not familiar enough with the bulk of manga creators to be able to make informed judgments simply on the basis of creator. Sure, over time, that facility would come; but that takes time, and involves lots of missteps along the way. I read a lot of crap American comics before I figured out who to trust.

So I can't useful analyze the offered titles by creator. The solicit copy is not much help either; like all copy, the copy used by most titles is junk. Good! Evil! Romance! Cliche after cliche after cliche. Solict copy gives me nothing. Tokyopop is the brave pseudo exception to this; their new solicit style at least tries to give me points of comparison to it's books via the "should appeal to fans of Ghost in the Shell and Little House on the Prairie!" lines it now includes. Sometimes this works; I picked up Tokyo Tribes based on the solicit (with a little online nudging) and loved it. Sometimes it doesn't, as witnessed by my copy of @Large.

I give some American comics a look based simply on publisher rep; a D&Q book gets a pretty good once over, even those I eventually choose not to order. The manga publishers, though, seem to publish, typically, the gamut of books; there is no "prestige" manga publisher that I can tell, with the possible exception of Ponent Mon, and I was so irked at Yukiko's Spinach that I frankly don't trust them. Which may be my loss, I suppose.

I could go online and look at previews. Tokyopop has scans of lots of titles up, maybe all of them. But this takes time, and this is really the crux of the matter. I've only got so much time once I account for work and sleep and cooking and other obligations. I've got lots of ways to spend my free time. I've got a stack of honest-to-god books to read that's three feet tall, and only a slighly smaller stack of graphic novels; I'm not wanting for things to read. I've got three video games in various states of completion. I've got basketball to play. Friends to talk to. A dog to train. Blogging to think about doing, if not actual blogging. It's hard for me to short one of these to try and get up to speed on manga. Every minute I spend trying to figure out if Random Manga Title No. 1 is for me is a minute I don't spend doing something else; and because of lots of other very satisfying things to do, I do those instead of the rather more tedious work of separating the manga wheat from the chaff. I don't have the time to spend lost in translation. And while I could given time learn to sort manga the same way I sort American comics, this is no help; the key to the last sentence is "given time" and time is precisely what I don't have. Time is the problem.

The other answer would be, I suppose, that I'm not terribly quick on the uptake. Maybe other people pick this stuff up much faster than myself. Very possible. I can only speak for myself.

What I have found helpful are the more informed blogospheric manga reviews; I've sought out Junji Ito's books based on the general blogosphere consensus, I've got Planates in my pile some where. I'm ordering 20th Century Boys based solely on blog cross talk, so if I'm steered wrong I'm gunning for you, Internet. John Jakala and Rose have nearly convinced me that I should read Sgt. Frog, of all things. Nearly. I have enough faith in some of these folks to take their advice and run with it; others, unfortunatley, much less so. Some are perhaps too familiar with manga; reviews that talk about genre conventions don't much help those, like myself, unfamiliar with said conventions. I'm slow; I need more hand-holding, at least until I get my critical legs under me. Which could, admittedly, take a while.

And in the meantime, I'll keep ordering mostly American titles and feeling vaguely guilty about it.
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OLD ENOUGH NOT TO EXPECT ANY BETTER

Yesterday was my birthday (it's not enough that half the comics blogosphere is named Dave; half of us also seem to have birthdays closely clumped together. There is a paper here, somewhere). How did I spend my birthday? Taking the dog, who is bound and determined to chew the fur off her legs, to the vet. Replacing some rotted out sections of deck; I meant to do this last weekend, but had to put in additional time at the office. Made lemongrass chicken wings. Read. Went to sleep.

Man, getting old sucks. No balloons, no party.

Though on the upshot, I got to spend another day with my wife. And my family, from three separate time zones, all remembered to give me call. I've got a big stack of new books to read, and I can still hit the occasional jump hook. Plus I'm still young enough to wear curmedeon-hood poorly. So no more complaining from me.
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Wednesday, January 26, 2005

I......LIVE!

The above should be read in the voice of Mushu the Dragon, if for no other reason than it makes my wife laugh. And we need the laughs here at Casa de la Intermittent; 2005 is to date a much less enjoyable year than 2004. In any event, I take solace in the fact that I have numerous brothers in slack these days. Bob would be proud.

Anyway. It's almost February, which means it's well past time for my list of 2004's best books, and a list is, as every high school student knows, a great way to take up space; plus a nice way to stretch the ol' blogging muscles out. Enough justification. On with the show. I'm going to keep this to a top five list, with a wild-card entry that, while published a while ago, I happened to read this year. So, a top six list, then:

6. Tony Millionaires Uncle Gabby
5. We3
4. Lovecraft (which I review in this post)
3. Clumsy (the wildcard entry, for those playing along at home)
2. You Can't Get There From Here (which I wrote about here)
1. Tiempos Finales (which I really don't need to say anything about given this).

No manga on my list (my manga paralysis is the subject of an upcoming post). No superhero titles, indicative of a general suckiness in the titles this year moreso than any allegiance to the concept of "comix." No Seaguy, which was to me the comics version of a Yes album, no Scott Pilgrim, which I simply haven't read yet because I am lazy. Opportunities to keep the hunters of bias in the thickets for days.

Whew. All that typing leaves me winded, out of shape as I am. More later, perhaps, after I get done watching the Duke/Maryland game; perhaps, even, basketballogging, if we dare to live the dream.
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Sunday, January 02, 2005

LATEBALL

So. Finally (finally) got around to reading Eightball #23, the now infamous "Death Ray" issue. Is it the Greatest Story Ever Told, as some of the contemporaneous reviews would have you believe? No. No, it's not. It is interesting though, which sounds like faint praise but is really not; it's interesting in that it forces you to really look at it trying to discern the shapes at the edge of your vision. Clowes runs a masterful peepshow, keeping the reader constantly guessing at the significance of color schemes and panel placement, structural building blocks typically ignored in the medium.

The book has been ably summarized elsewhere; one of the advantages of being the last mover is that I can simply refer to you the work of others rather than having to do it myself. Of course, sloth has its downsides as well, in this case, the chance that Clowes will come by and spill the beans on what it all means. Which he in fact did; The Death Ray is, in fact, a critique of superhero books.

Cue the weary sigh.

I would have, prior to reading Clowes' comments, argued that Death Ray was in fact only tangentially related to superheros (and I realize that this I pretty big claim to make about a book which features a dude in costume on the cover and is billed as "The Death Ray!"). As a critique of superhero books, it is underwhelming. Yes, Andy does not hew to conventional comic book morality. Yes, Andy is a jerk and, later, a murderer. He has trouble finding crime to fight. He is not Peter Parker. Does this shake the very foundations of superhero comics?

No. No it does not.

Andy is the result of a rigged game. Over the course of the story he evolves from apathy to homicide; he is at no point in the story what one would consider well adjusted. And so it is no surprise from a narrative standpoint that his actions are what they are. It says little, or rather, little that is useful, about superhero comics writ large; it would be akin to drawing a critique of marriage from Liza Minelli’s life. Of course its a disaster; it was set up, designed such that disaster was the only option. In the end, it proves nothing. Had it allowed for a moment, the possibility of redemption, it would have been a stronger work (the scene with the baseball team comes close, but even here, there Andy gives up on semi-normal human interaction with nothing more than a comment from Louie). I'm a firm believer that the best art contains multitudes, that it pushes against itself; The Death Ray doen't, and suffers from it.

An even less charitable reading would note that what Clowes has given us is nothing more than the origin story of any number of Silver Age villains: the isolated guy, mad at the world that won't acknowledge his genius (though this more describes Andy's dad than Andy), using his powers to get back at all the little people. You could draw a fairly straight line between, say, Plant-Man and Andy. If all Clowes has done is dress up a Gardner Fox bad guy in alt-comix clothes, I’m not certain anyone should be very impressed.

But of course, that isn't all Clowes did. The Death Ray isn't merely a half-baked critique of superhero conventions; he also gave us an acutely observed, claustrophically-illustrated narrative of an individual radically disassociated from society. This narrative is both disturbing and powerful; it is an object lesson in the perils of emotional isolation. Chris Allen correctly finds in The Death Ray the limits of Clowes’ disdain for the mass of humanity: the limits of the wish that everyone would just go away. Of course, given that the mass of humanity doesn't have Clowes design skills, some disdain may be inevitable. The Death Ray is a primer on the use of space and panel composition; note in particular the way Clowes obscures people, and sometimes words, in his panels. The effect is at once to draw the reader into the story, attempting to discern the missing information, and at the same time to convey how incomplete Andy is in relation to the world. Andy is so disconnected from people that he can’t see them as whole individuals; that the art is able to convey this sickness is testament to Clowes' skills.

Given the strength in the work, I suggest that Clowes' stated goals for the work be ignored while reading it. This is a great narrative but a lousy polemic on superheroes. Why let an author sabotage his work? The work speaks well enough for itself.
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