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Weekend’s End: Jeff Gabs About Manga and Movies.

Jeff Lester

Howdy. Here’s what I’ve been reading and watching lately. God help me, I’m still so trained to write reviews in old school SavCrit style, you get it all in one big glop. I’d like to do something similar about the comics I’ve been reading, but can’t quite tell yet if my week is going to open up enough to let me do so. Anyway, for now, here’s what’s what.

CEMETERY MAN: Cinematically, I’ve been in search of some satisfying lowbrow thrills and it really seemed like this cult favorite was gonna do the trick: after all, it’s an Italian horror comedy based on a graphic novel by the creator Dylan Dog about a morose gravedigger who must not only bury the dead but kill them when they inevitably return to life. After all, it’s got zombies. And boobies. And Rupert Everett at his deadpan best. And yet? Still not very good. It’s designed to be a horror film for the Smiths set, with Everett being a proto-emo moper trying to separate fear of death from fear of life, and confusing, as the youth do, love and death, and passion and pain. But not only is Everett about five to ten years too old for the role to make any sense, the filmmakers run out of script about two-thirds of the way through and begin throwing anything at the screen to see if it’ll stick, with Everett encountering different incarnations of the woman he loves and being led to greater and greater acts of violence and passion. And then they throw in an ambiguous ending to make the whole thing seem like a mysterious riddle, rather than a cobbled together waste of time. In some ways, it reminded me a lot of Donnie Darko, except I liked Donnie Darko and thought it accomplished a lot of what it wanted to, while this flick was sub-EH. But there are still people who act like this movie was a greater invention than ice cream, so what do I know?

COMIC FOUNDRY #1: There’s a lot to like in this first issue and a ton to nitpick, although I’m not sure it’d really be worth your time or mine to sort everything this issue has into those two piles. I think it’s highly OK, although the mag should seriously get a good ad rep so there are ads for somebody other than Previews and Rocketship in there (if nothing else, a higher page count would make that price tag sting a little less). And this is probably really dickish for me to do since I can just email the guy and tell him directly, but I thought Ian Brill’s fiction piece brilliantly parodied (although I think maybe inadvertently so) chick lit’s over-reliance on brand names (Think The Devil Wears Prada, but with comic nerds) and cannily used the protagonist’s superhero creation, The Reality Surfer, as a metaphor for youthful indecision. It wasn’t the most brilliant piece of short fiction I’d read in some time, but it was effective. More than any other piece in the magazine–and, like I said, there’s a lot of stuff to like in here–it makes the case that Tim Leong’s ballsiness might really bring something new to the comics magazine marketplace.

CONFESSIONS OF A POLICE CAPTAIN: Continuing in my search for cheap lowbrow thrills, I picked up the inexpensive Grindhouse Experience boxed set which has 20 films jammed onto five DVDs for a low price. Astoundingly, I found a good movie on my first try (although the transfer was, as you’d expect, terrible): Confessions of a Police Captain, an Italian cop procedural from ’74 with Martin Balsam and Franco Nero that plays like a variation on Touch of Evil. Balsam plays the jaded police captain who starts the movie off by setting a killer off on a bloodbath, and Nero plays the idealistic district attorney investigating Balsam to determine just how corrupt Balsam actually is. (The great thing about the movie is that it’s set in Italy, so corruption is never a question, it’s just the degree of corruption). Despite the occasional shootout or stabbing, it’s not really an exploitation flick, although it is the sort of film that sounds salacious enough to have played a grindhouse in the ’70s. It is, however, a chance to see Martin Balsam play the shit out of a leading role, and to watch a film with insight into the urban Italian mindset of the day. While not exactly a diamond in the rough, it’s a highly OK little flick and I’m glad I saw it.

DR. SLUMP, VOLS. 4 AND 5: Out of all of my guilty manga pleasures, this is probably the guiltiest since I miss being in the target group’s age range by about thirty years or so. And make no mistake, Dr. Slump revels in its childishness, with cheap jokes built around the size of Tarzan’s “dingy” or aliens trapped on Earth mistaking a toilet for a new spaceship, and stories sporting titles like “Yay Yay Wildland.” But not only is all this nonsense executed with an infectious sense of joy, but Akira Toryama’s cartooning chops are formidable–I’m shocked at how everything he draws is so appealing and visually consistent, be it robots, a parody of Golgo 13, the back of a TV set, or a valley at sunrise: it’s all clearly part of the same kooky universe. I’ve been meaning to donate these volumes to the library forever now, but I find myself picking them up and flipping through them whenever I come across them. They’re deeply goofy comics for little kids (and maybe not the sort of stuff you want to pass along unless you’re comfortable explaining why Dr. Slump wants to see Ms. Yamabuki’s panties so badly) but they’re really quite GOOD.

DRIFTING CLASSROOM, VOL. 7: Probably the first volume where things lag a little bit. Of course, in the world of Kazuo Umezu’s horror/disaster manga, a lag means only that after the flash flood is through ripping people to shreds, strange mushrooms begin to grow on all the food and tough decisions have to be made about whether or not the strange fungi should be eaten: it leads to a 30 page section where motivations get even thinner than usual and cruelty exists less for thematic purposes than to keep the chain of events clanking along. After that, however, we get deformed monster-children, a hasty religion devoted to the hero’s mother, the new opiate of the masses, and a one-eyed Lovecraftian menace that threatens to devour everyone and everything. Vol. 7 suffers by comparison to the other books in the series as the pace flags just enough to suspect that Umezu is either vamping or winging it entirely. Still, quite GOOD and apeshit enough to make for a fun read.


FLOWER & SNAKE ’74: Strange little impulse purchase, which I made in part because they mentioned Riichiro Manabe did the score, and his music for Godzilla Vs. The Smog Monster is probably my favorite Godzilla score ever, and in part because I have such fond memories of the ultra-insane Sex & Fury which this seemed to resemble. Turns out it’s not nearly as inspired (or inspiring) as the Lady Snowblood-styled Sex & Fury, and instead comes off a bit like Belle de jour if you stripped that film of all of Bunuel’s lovely surreal touches and put an obsession with enemas in its place. Flower & Snake ’74 is about Makoto, an kink-loving impotent clerk living with his pornography making mother, who is hired by his boss to break the boss’ wife. The 70+ minutes of bondage and enema inducing are made watchable (unless, you know, that’s your thing) by the novelistic approach to Makoto’s character (he’s been rendered impotent ever since childhood where he caught–and killed–a black G.I. making love to his mother) and, similarly, a cast that has the (very) slightest bit of depth to the personalities. (And it’s pretty easy to make the case for Makoto, traumatized by the conquering of his mother by an American, representing good ol’ fucked-up post-war Japan in the filmmaker’s eyes). There’s also a few shots– such as when the bloody spirit of the murdered G.I. appears against a blood-red sunset–that are technically impressive. But, generally, unless you’ve got an annual subscription to Comic A-G, it’s the kind of exploitation trash you’re not missing much by skipping. Highly EH.

GOLGO 13 VOL. 7: As is the way with these volumes, Takao Saito makes us pay for the awesome (Sweet Jesus! Golgo 13 snipes a nuclear power plant!) with pages of technical research and blathering secondary characters. In the second story, G-13 ends up in a compact piece of gangster noir set in a small Nevada town, with the tale’s highlight being a one-page knife-versus-gun fight that’s an engaging and spiffy bit of page design. Finally, Takao Saito is interviewed by the charmingly insane Kunio Suzuki who gets bonus points for writing craziness like “Golgo 13 was the textbook of my life.” If you’ve been digging Duke Togo ’til now, you’ll probably think it OK.

JOJO’S BIZARRE ADVENTURE VOLS. 1-3: The Overlooked Manga Festival at Shaenon K. Garrity’s Livejournal has become an invaluable resource for me, and as soon as I read her overview of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, I knew I had to get my hands on it. The pleasing mix of epic scope (several generations of family and friends travel the world to fight a vampire who’s taken possession of the patriarch’s body and his superpowers; everyone has a psychic power based on a motif from the major arcana of the Tarot deck), astounding dopiness (many characters have names that are lame puns on ’70s and ’80s rock and pop performers; the art looks like the project was originally intended to be Street Fighter II slash fanfic) and over-the-top gorey horror tropes (how else to describe the fight scene that’s largely a man being cut apart by a straight-razor wielding voodoo doll?) make it an entertaining, deeply dopey read. JoJo’s Bizarre Adventures isn’t without its significant weaknesses–at three volumes in, the story is deeply formulaic (like levels in a fighting game) and there are times when the author, Hirohiko Araki, gets bored or runs out of ideas and whisks his characters off to the next location and the next enemy–but it also takes frequent turns into the inspired, such as the section where the heroes have to fight a porn-reading orangutan on an abandoned oil freighter. So far, the book reminds me of what the early days of Image Comics were supposed to be: product so juvenile and energetic it’s irresistible (as opposed to what the early days of Image Comics actually were, which was product so undisciplined and yet fiscally calculated it was simultaneously annoying and dull). I should really call this stuff highly OK, but considering how eagerly I gobbled down the first three volumes (and how much I’m looking forward to the next three) I guess I’ll reservedly call it GOOD. It won’t appeal to everyone, certainly.

LUCKY V2. #1: I loved how this issue uses the autobio up front to heighten the punch of the extended dream narrative in the back. It’s not done in the way that you might think with recurring visual motifs or what-have-you, but through some brilliant tricks of pacing. By breaking the autobio stories into brief one or two page segments, and by continually excerpting her performance of the dream story in the back in a hyper-compacted fashion, the dream story, My Affliction, feels much, much longer and recreates the feeling of being trapped in an seemingly endless dream. It’s really fucking brilliant, and makes the issue well worth the $3.95 cover tag. A VERY GOOD issue, and one that moved me from being a casual fan of Bell’s work to avidly interested in what she’ll do next. (By the way, is it wrong that Gabrielle Bell’s style reminds me of J. Backderf’s? I feel like I should be seeing more of a David B. influence, but that cover and the use of blacks really makes me think of Derf. Not that it’s a bad thing, but I can’t think of a tone more opposed to Bell’s than Derf’s.)


MONSTER VOL. 10: The most satisfying of this week’s Viz Signature releases, and not just because it’s about 30 pages longer than Golgo 13 and a dozen pages longer than Drifting Classroom. Although you’d think Naoki Urasawa’s introduction of yet another kindly drifter (Grimmer, a former spy turned freelance journalist) would undercut the story’s narrative tension, Monster succeeds by setting up any number of potential victims to be preyed upon by Johan’s evil scheme, the mystery of Kinderheim 511, and all those crooked cops and violent gangsters lurking around every turn. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for long narratives jammed with characters and odd details (the strangely understated and creepy street sign for the Three Frogs Bar in Prague made the whole volume for me)–I thought it was a VERY GOOD chapter, in any event.

MY DEAD GIRLFRIEND VOL. 1: Eric Wight’s first book from Tokyopop made me curse the heavens, not just because I’d spent money on the thing, but because the book could’ve been so much better if Tokyopop had treated the material as more than a simple IP grab: Graeme in his review gripes about the pacing of this book and what he suspected was an imposed three act structure on the story. And certainly, there’s some really awful pacing choices in this book that seem designed to drag the story out for another two volumes. But even more frustrating than that are choices that suggest Wight really didn’t consider his structure too much in the first place. In the opening few pages for example, the protagonist recounts the family curse that results in all of his ancestors dying a highly absurd death. As the hero finishes up, we see that he’s been delivering a school report… and that all his classmates are monsters. It’s not done in a way that maximizes the reveal, by the way: it’s just done as a standard transition by someone telling a story without much thought for the best way to get the maximum impact from it. Similarly, once the supernatural setting is fleshed out, you can’t figure out why the protagonist is so upset about the idea of dying, or even dying absurdly: all of his ancestors, including his ghostly parents, are still around, playing cards and telling stories. In this Addams Family lite setting, death is only one more moment on an unending continuum, making the protagonist’s anxiety about it come across as deeply prissy.

The reason all this bugs me so deeply is that if there’s one section of the American comics marketplace that should understand the importance of an editor helping a creator shape the material and maximize its impact, it would be one of the top three North American manga companies. I mean, Wight’s panel to panel storytelling is good, his character design is appealing, and his art has a Bruce Timm-ish quality to it I really like–it wouldn’t take much for someone read the material he has, criticize it constructively, and help him find the best way to present the material, and I get the impression that most manga companies in Japan wouldn’t let it get out the door without that. But Tokyopop, like most of the other big comic companies here in the U.S., is more than willing to keep the overhead low, push the material into the marketplace, and reap the dividends, should there be any.

On the other hand, what do I know? Graeme gave it a Very Good, and the book’s front, back and inside covers are practically leprous with blurbs from industry professionals praising the book. So maybe I’m wrong and I read this book on the wrong day or something. But it must’ve been a worse day than I realized, because I thought this was a frustratingly EH piece of work.

SAMURAI COMMANDO VOL. 1: You ever see that Sonny Chiba movie G.I. Samurai (also known in some places as Time Slip)? I stumbled across it on video a few years ago, and it’s one of my favorite b-movies for both the elegance of its plot hook and its execution: a troop of Japanese Self-Defense Force soldiers on maneuvers end up back in feudal Japan and decide, basically, to conquer the country. Despite being armed with firearms, a tank, a helicopter and other modern weaponry, the soldiers aren’t prepared for the combination of their own internecine conflicts and the power of their enemies. As I said, it’s one of my favorite action flicks, so I got pretty hopped up to come across this manga by Harutoshi Rukui and art group Ark Performance reprinted by CMX: it’s essentially the same premise, except that the Colonel of the Forces instead makes allies with the warlords of the past and together they declare war on the present. (Both the movie and the manga work from the same material, the novel, Sengoku Jieitai by Ryo Hanmura.)

However, while the Chiba movie balanced out the blabbity-blab with ninjas attacking helicopters, Samurai Commando (which appears to be only two volumes long) spends so much time setting up the premise, introducing the characters, and hinting at their backstories, and so by the time you’ve got gunfire and decapitations by samurai swords, it’s too little, too late. It’s a shame too, because the art by Ark Performance is dynamic and strangely airless in a way that I think fans of Jim Lee would like: this could have been, like Death Note, a nice little transitional manga for comics readers of the Big Two looking to branch out a bit. But instead, it’s a very EH little manga, and given the choice between recommending it and suggesting you visit Amazon and pick up an out-of-print copy of G.I. Samurai for less than five bucks, I have but little choice but to exhort you to do the latter. Pity.

TRAIN_MAN VOL. 1: It’s easy to see why this tale of a reclusive Internet introvert struggling to find romance with the help of his online community is wildly popular: it’s nearly impossible to read this and not have your heart strings plucked, to the point where I found myself a little resentful of the brazen emotional manipulation. Each chapter gives the Train_Man a minor challenge that seems insurmountable to his sheepish soul, and each chapter shows him succeeding, with page after page of laudatory exclamations from members of his online community. And yet, to bitch about the first volume of Viz Media’s Train_Man being sweet to the point of near implausibility is like chastising a teddy bear for being cuddly: that’s what it’s supposed to do, it’s clearly marketed as such, and it’s very effective at what it does (I’d be lying if I told you I *didn’t* read the volume all in one breathless sitting). It’s Good material, provided you’ve got a weakness for the cutesy, but I can’t guarantee you won’t hate yourself just a little for enjoying it.

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