7 Billion Needles vol. 4

April 30, 2011

And so, all good things must come to an end.  That’s the case with this concluding volume which wraps up its tale of alien entities, evolution and friendship in much the same way that “The Incredible Hercules” did with “Chaos War.”  That is to say that it raises the stakes while building on what has come before.  Though the series’ scale threatens to overwhelm it at times (well, that and its focus on battles against gooey biomatter overtaking the city), moments like the opening chapter’s flashback to Maki’s initially unsuccessful efforts to welcome Hikaru help to keep it grounded.  Yes, Hikaru’s plea to Chika in the climax almost comes off as predictably, irritatingly sentimental, but the struggles of everyone involved in order to get to this point ultimately make it feel earned.

As a bonus, this volume contains another short by mangaka Nobuaki Tadano titled “Hikiomori Headphone Girl.”  Though the main character serves as a prototype for Hikaru in the way she shuts herself off from society through her headphones, it’s not connected with the main story.  Now I did like the way that the male character tries to break down her barriers and the general back-and-forth the two establish; but, it also features some “magical realism” elements that just didn’t work for me and caused the resolution to come off as predictably, irritatingly sentimental.  Still, it’s an interesting look at Hikaru’s origins  and these four volumes represent a charmingly small-scale and intimate sci-fi story that’s recommended to fans of the genre and even those who wouldn’t normally give it a shot.

Pineapple Army

April 28, 2011

We’re going back to the old school for this one.  Now when I say “old school” I mean the old school of manga being released in America.  Back in the days when series were published one issue at a time.  Back when being an action manga set in America was considered a selling point.  Back to a time that makes me feel old just by talking about it!...  Anyway, “Pineapple Army” is a cheesy relic of a bygone day that tends to be entertaining for the wrong reasons.  Much in the way I loved “The A-Team” wholeheartedly as a kid, but find it to be absolutely hilarious now.  Why am I even talking about it?  That’s because the series features art by someone who has gone on to become one of the greatest talents in the medium today:  Naoki Urasawa.

In talking about the setup for the series, I’d normally begin with something like “Stop me if this sounds familiar.”  However, if you lived through the 80’s or have any familiarity with the TV series that were a part of its landscape, then its premise should sound instantly recognizeable.  Jed Goshi is a member of the Civilian Defense Force who spends his time training others in the art of warfare.  A seasoned veteran of Vietnam, he has been to many of the world’s hotspots in the intervening years and his skills serve him well in the urban jungle that is New York.  Though his gruff demeanor initially gives weight to his statements that he’s not going to fight his clients battles for them -- only train them to do so themselves -- he always winds up getting more involved than he initially plans.

These incidents that he gets entangled in -- helping some young sisters fight off the man who killed their dad, training a young Jamaican boy to survive on the streets, going to Central America to foil a kidnapping plot -- are pretty simplistic and predictable.  Though there’s usually some twist to them, but a discerning reader will figure it out well before the end of the story.  Then you have the tropes which the comics are rife with.  One such example involves a mercenary talks about the “three greatest combat professionals” in the world in the kidnapping story.  Coincidentially, one of them is the mastermind of the plot and another is some dude who wiped out an entire communist guerrilla company in El Salvador using a grenade launcher.  In case you didn’t guess that this professional was Jed, we get to see him use a grenade launcher -- one handed -- with uncanny precision before the end of the story.

It’s very cheesy, but if you look at it as a time capsule from another era it’s pretty amusing to see how Japan thought of us back in the mid-80’s.  There’s also an interesting text piece in one of the later issues by translator James D. Hudnall where he espouses the virtues of the series and praises Jed’s depth of character in comparison to your average superhero.  Objectivity notwithstanding, I can’t quite laugh his words off because they serve as a reminder of how superheroes had a virtual stranglehold on the market at the time.  I’m sure that if I had read something like this at the time it came out, I’d have had a more favorable view of it just based on the fact that comics like this were a rarity at the time.

As for Urasawa’s art, it’s not bad.  You can see that he knows how to lay out the panels on a page and has a good grasp of storytelling even at this early stage in his career.  The look of the series is, naturally, very 80’s with its manly men and girly girls.  You can see how the man’s style evolved into its current form from the work on display here, though he seems to be quite influenced by Katsuhiro Otomo at this stage of his career.  To be honest, I’m not sure if I’d have given this series a shot if his name hadn’t been attached to it.  As it is, “Pineapple Army” is a work that, for better and worse, really captures the spirit of the time it was published in.  The nostalgia is fun, but we’ve come a long way up since the day this was considered state-of-the-art.

Bakuman vol. 4

April 27, 2011

Fortunately for its reading audience, the “breakup” between artist Moritaka and writer Akito only lasts a couple chapters before they reunite to continue their plan to take the manga world by storm. There’s really nothing else to add as, after that speed bump, the series maintains its usual level of quality with this volume. Though the main plot development here revolves around the duo’s competition against other talented newcomers to get a series in Shonen Jump, the most striking addition to this volume was its first female creator, Ko Aoki, and her icy disposition towards the rest of the cast.

She’s very particular about her tastes and not hesitant at all in letting Moritaka and Akito know that she didn’t like their debut work at all. While the addition of someone who thinks that they’re better than everyone else, only to wind up becoming a comrade of the protagonist(s) after witnessing their talent/skill/strength is a shonen manga trope (see Ishida from “Bleach” for a good example), that’s not the reason I’m interested in her. Halfway through the book, when all of the aspiring manga creators gather at Eiji’s place to meet and compare their work, there’s a scene where Ko’s eyes meet Akito’s over a series of panels. It’s a brief, wordless exchange that slips between the walls of screaming text that suggests there might be something more between these two characters.

That’s the most memorable part of this volume for me because of the potential DRAMA that it alludes to. Akito has been (somewhat forcibly) joined at the hip to Kaya since vol. 2 and while their relationship is more energetic than Akito and Miho’s, it’s still very predictable and annoying. If creators Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata are hinting at a potential relationship between Ko and Akito, then I welcome it. Yes, I may be a horrible person for wishing such a thing on whatever Akito and Kaya have together. However, what they have is so dull that I’m welcoming any change to spice things up.

Ultimate Comics Avengers vol. 2

April 25, 2011

The first volume of this seriess  represented a return to form of sorts for writer Mark Millar, in my opinion.  While it wasn’t quite as good as his work on “The Ultimates,” it was still miles better than anything else I had read from him last year.  This volume, however, doesn’t sustain that trend.  Though the introduction of Ghost Rider to the Ultimate Universe certainly had potential, what’s here is not enough to fill six issues.  Sure, there’s some entertainment to be gleaned from seeing Johnny Blaze kill his way to Vice President Blackthorne and the Avengers attempts to stop him, but it never reaches the epic heights of Millar’s previous work on the series.

Unfortunately the real problem with there not being enough story here in these six issues is that it leaves plenty of room for Millar to pad things out with his feeble attempts at characterization and attitude-laden dialogue.  If there was going to be any hope of this being a satisfying volume, then someone with Warren Ellis’ wit would be needed to make the character moments worthwhile.  Reading the dialogue here just makes me appreciate how much Ellis brings to  his projects -- even when he’s just phoning it in.

Lenil Yu illustrates this volume and while it looks good, it’s not up to the standards of his best work.  The man does a great take on Ghost Rider, but you can tell he was pressed by deadlines towards the end of the project as the lack of backgrounds in several scenes becomes more and more apparent.  So in terms of story and art, this series probably should’ve been about half as long.  It’s not enough to make me stop reading this, though my expectations have been lowered for volume three.

Superman: The Black Ring

April 22, 2011

Now this is odd.  Here we have a collection of comics that I think I might have actually enjoyed more if I had read them in single issue form.  That’s because while these six issues have an overriding plot, it’s very much a “hunt the MacGuffin” endeavor whose only purpose is to provide a context for the stories themselves.  In the wake of “Blackest Night” Lex Luthor is trying to figure out what happened to the power source behind the black rings.  Having experienced the power of the orange light of avarice, he feels that securing this power for his own ends will finally allow him to triumph over that nasty alien Superman.  He’s not alone in this endeavor, as he has his staff and trusty android Lois Lane on hand to keep him on his toes.

Writer Paul Cornell shows himself to be a natural at getting inside Luthor’s head and making his egocentric ambition not only amusing, but just a tiny bit relatable as well.  The real fun comes from the situations and encounters Cornell sets up for the man as we get to see him facing off against Gorilla Grodd in the jungle, tangling with Deathstroke in the arctic, stealing fire from the superhero gods as a caveman, and discussing life, the universe, and everything with Death.  Yes, the same Death from Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman.”  Even if it doesn’t contribute much to the overall plot, it’s still very entertaining to see Luthor try to match wits and outsmart the one being who really does have all the answers.

However, that issue is a perfect example of the strengths and flaws of this collection.  While the issue itself was a fun, fairly self-contained tale, it doesn’t really move the actual story forward.  The same can be said for the rest of the issues here as “The Black Ring” feels less about Luthor’s quest for absolute power, than to give Cornell free reign to do what he wants with one of the DC Universe’s most iconic villains.  Personally, I’m all for that, and it looks great too thanks to Pete Woods and the other contributing artists.  Still, because the story meant to tie these issues together is so inconsequential, it detracts from the overall experience.  It feels like these issues were meant to be read with a 30-day gap between them so that their details could be savored.  This is still a worthy collection, but it’s also a good argument for the merits of serialization.

Comic Picks #79: “Fables vol. 15: Rose Red”

April 20, 2011

Bill Willingham's long-running series reaches a major milestone, and shows that it still has lots of gas in the tank.

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Chaos War (or, vol. 8 of “The Incredible Hercules”)

April 19, 2011

All good things must come to an end, or -- in the case of most Marvel comics these days -- pause for a month or two before being re-launched with a new title and direction.  Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente’s “Incredible Hercules” saga reaches its conclusion in this volume, and it’s a worthy end.  With the Chaos King and his pantheon of defeated gods on the march, reality itself doesn’t stand much of a chance.  Fortunately Hercules has been reborn as the Skyfather (all the power of his dad Zeus and then some), has his buddy Amadeus Cho and nearly all of the “godly” Marvel heroes to back him up.  Will they triumph in the face of overwhelming evil and save the billions of inhabitants of the Marvel Universe?

Non-spoiler warning:  they do.  Fortunately for all of the predictable inevitability of this story’s destination, the writers do a good job of making the journey pretty entertaining.  Aside from the series’ trademark sense of humor (see:  pretty much anything that comes out of Amadeus’ mouth), this volume does everything a good final arc should.  The stakes are raised, the drama is heightened, surprising but well-planned revelations are made, and the heroes triumph in a clever manner that builds upon what has come before.  Really, this last volume does such a great job of bringing things from all of the previous arcs together that I’d be surprised to find out if anyone who has been reading from the beginning was disappointed by what’s on show here.

Khoi Pham even comes back to illustrate this arc after his initial “Against the World” run on this title and the man has come a long way since those days.  While his work there had real energy to it, the look of those issues was pretty bland, and not very distinct compared to other books at the time.  That’s not the case anymore.  The difference is obvious from the very first page where he gives us a much looser, sketchier style that (combined with Sunny Gho’s colors) gives the book the distinct, epic feel that it deserves.

If I have any reservations, it’s how we’re getting another Hercules series, “Herc” from Pak and Van Lente, right after this one.  After such a successful run, I’m kind of curious as to why they’d want to dive back into another ongoing series with the character.  What more could they have to say about him that they didn’t here?  But this is just me speculating on another book that has just come out.  This one, and the series it’s a part of, is great and definitely worth your time and money.

Adding Insult to Injury

April 17, 2011

What I failed to mention in my last post was that I had already ordered vol. 10 of "Future Diary" from Amazon.  It arrived yesterday with an unwelcome surprise:  the glue binding the pages together had rotted out.  So now I'm in the process of shipping it back for a replacement.

I'd like to think that there's no connection between this and Tokyopop's recent announcement regarding the ceasing of North American print operations in May.  Still... this is something that has only happened to me.  Right?

Tokyopop R.I.P.

April 16, 2011

Tokyopop announced yesterday that their print operations in North America would be shutting down on May 31.   The writing has been on the wall for a while, but I still didn’t think that it would come to this.  After all, this was the company that started the manga revolution and brought affordable, unflipped manga to the masses, securing a place in bookstores and upstaging American comic book publishers.  The last several years haven’t been good for them as they lost the licenses to previously successful titles and failed to secure enough new hits to remain profitable.  You all know from my podcast that I recently started reading two of their titles, “Future Diary” and “Hetalia,” and while the latter will ship it last volume next month, the former still has one volume left to go.  Normally I’d be in full “bitter fanboy” mode at this news, but when you consider how I found out about it in the first place... expect to hear me talk about this more on a future podcast.

That being said, while Tokyopop got the ball rolling, there’s no debate that they were subsequently beaten at their own game in just about every way possible by Viz.  Not only did they possess the “licenses to print money” that is their stable of Shonen Jump titles, but they also used that wealth to support numerous other quality titles that might not have sold enough to sustain themselves.  Tokyopop founder Stu Levy has announced that he’ll be moving to Japan to work on a documentary about the recent quake, and I certainly hope he succeeds in creating a work worthy of its survivors.  Still, after all the failed initiatives that characterized his last few years as CEO I don’t think the manga or publishing world is losing anything -- especially after he tweeted about how “backwards” the publishing industry was at the GDC earlier this year.  Ultimately, his and his company’s legacy will be that they got their foot in the door and kept it open long enough to let the people who knew what they were doing and had the enduring passion through.  For that, I’m grateful.

The Boys vol. 8: Highland Laddie

April 14, 2011

After the trauma of finding out that his girlfriend was a superhero, the awful thing she had to do to join The Seven, and their subsequent breakup, Hughie decides that it’s time to head back home to Auchterladle, Scotland to get away from it all. However, he finds out in short order that not only A) you can’t go home again, but B) you can’t really get away from it all, and C) especially when it comes looking for you. So while Hughie would’ve liked to have spent the time re-bonding with his old, smelly, and newly transvestite friends, he winds up embroiled in a plot to unload drugs spiked with Compound-V, the superhero catalyst, in his hometown and having a fresh trauma re-visited at the same time.

On the surface, this volume is strewn with the kind of eccentric characters and bathroom humor that characterizes so much of writer Garth Ennis’ work. I’ll admit that some of this stuff was pretty funny, such as Hughie’s childhood trauma in an airplane cockpit, but if you’ve grown tired of this schtick then what’s here won’t change your mind. Fortunately, the strong character work that was the best part of the previous volume is continued here as this volume does give us a better understanding of the least confrontational and violent member of The Boys. The scenes where his relationship issues are worked out are a particular highlight and you come away from this volume thinking that it’s not necessarily such a bad thing that he’s not as bloodthirsty or demented as his teammates.

Even though this was originally presented as a mini-series, it still feels like a continuation of the main story. That’s due in part to the flashbacks with Butcher and Mother’s Milk, but mainly due to the surprise that’s dropped in the last few pages of this collection. Not only does it cast a new light on certain parts of this volume, but it also indicates that we’ll be hearing from the “missing” member of the team very soon. After what has come before, I’m very much looking forward to seeing where that’s going to take us.