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Yesterday's review.

This is an originally-English-language Tokyopop-produced graphic novel, which means that the publisher thought of it as similar enough to manga or manwha to be sold to the same audiences. The interesting thing is that, unlike a lot of the OEL work Tokyopop did, this is aimed squarely at adults and is trying to hit a market which reads serious, thoughtful slice-of-life stories; it's more josei than shoujo. It also has a distinct air of indie American serious-thoughtful-slice-of-life comics, but I definitely see why Tokyopop thought it could be their type of thing.

Unfortunately, it's also not very good, which makes me sad, because there are a lot of things about it which could have been pretty awesome. A lot of the problem comes from being compressed into one volume, although not all of it.

Jackie, depressed after her ex-lover Noah's death, gets Noah's brother to bring her some of Noah's ashes and drinks them over the twelve days of Christmas. Her hope is to forget Noah by assimilating part of her lover into herself. Unsurprisingly, it doesn't work very well and makes her sick. Also, Noah's brother, who is of course also grief-stricken, keeps coming around to find out how this crazy project is going.

The story is told in elliptical side-shots, flashbacks, bits of Noah's family situation; Noah's lesbianism was never accepted by her family, and she left Jackie very abruptly to marry a man. The dialogue is occasionally snappy, and the art is cleanly drawn and interesting, with a style that merges realism and outline nicely.

The difficulty is that despite the obvious huge issues (life, death, sexual orientation, grief, the disposition of the bodies of the dead, secrets, lies) nothing much happens, and nothing much happens in a way where it's pretty clear that it wasn't the author's intent for nothing much to happen. This isn't a book about grief as an anticlimax, though it is somewhat one about the way it stops time. There's not room for anything to happen; we get told who these people are and what their situations are, but it doesn't build, or pointedly fail to build. It ends. It's very frustrating, because we do get to know these people, and know them pretty well, and become interested, and with another few hundred pages this could have been something moving and precise and extraordinary. It's not subject matter I often see in comics, the aftermath of an interracial lesbian romance where everyone is still picking up the shrapnel and the death is only an amplifier of the pattern of the way things were going already. I wanted more from this material and I wanted more of this material.

Ah well. At least it doesn't do the predictable things, the things one might expect of the story-pattern. I suppose I am happier with a story that goes nowhere with good materials than I would be with one that uses the same materials for cliches. It's just aggravating when something is so close to being interesting.
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Read today. I am caught up! I refuse to fall behind again!

This is a memoir of growing up in the late 1960s in Malaysia. Apparently it is a sequel to the author's Kampung Boy, which the library did not have, but it stands by itself. Lat draws in a very fluid, loose, expressive, intentionally 'cartoony' style, and this is sort of a cross between a comic and an illustrated novel in which there's an illustration for every paragraph.

There's not much in the way of plot, but there's a great deal of detail and atmosphere. Street scenes are popping with background market transactions, traffic, construction work; interiors are cluttered and homey and lived-in, changing over time but retaining an essential sameness that gives the feel of spaces evolving naturally during the eight or so years the comic covers.

Lat and his family move into town when he is ten. They live in the first low-cost housing project in Malaysia-- there is a panel of his recollection of his father accepting their new house keys from a Very Official Person, everyone grinning for the cameras, and then they all troop off to look for the house, not entirely certain where it is. Town, to Lat, means connection to the wider universe: Lawrence of Arabia in Arabic, Bill Haley and the Comets on the record-player his friend from school has in the little room over his family's Chinese tea room (and the pure, perfect joy evoked by thirteen-year-olds meeting rock and roll for the first time leaps off the page). It means learning to draw, becoming the guy who knows about drawing, magically managing to use that to snag a date with the girl he's been eying for years-- but not two dates. Town means excitement, and the excitement of it never fades.

This is an art style I can take or leave, and as I've said there's not really much plot, or much structure. It's a series of entertaining incidents lovingly described. It does well for that, though I don't think it would do much for me on reread. However, there is one thing I wish the publisher had done: notes. There are about six languages used in the text, and they are mostly not translated into English. This is fine, except that a) the protagonist understands them, and b) the author expects the audience to understand them. Leave things in the original language, yes, do, please, that's the best way to make sure your English readers know what language they're in; but could we have some notes, at the bottom of the page, or at the end of the book? I felt as though I was getting about half the text, and I don't think that's the experience that was actually artistically intended.
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Links to the reviews I posted during the recent LJ outage. I am not reposting, but anonymous and open ID commenting are open over there (though I would appreciate some kind of name signed to anonymous comments so as to be able to maintain continuity of conversation).

Day 325: Trilogy, H.D.. Poetry, unfairly overlooked lesbian author.

Day 326: Paying For It, Chester Brown. Graphic novel. Interesting but highly problematic memoir about prostitution from the perspective of a customer.

Day 327: Faerie Winter, Janni Lee Simner. Good YA fantasy by a friend of mine.

Day 328: The Invention of Morel, Adolfo Bioy Casares. Unfairly obscure Argentinian science fiction indirectly responsible for the movie Last Year at Marienbad.

Day 329: Earth X, Alex Ross and Jim Krueger. Graphic novel. Dark Marvel Comics AU with a very interesting take on Captain America.

Day 330: Dragonbreath: No Such Thing As Ghosts, Ursula Vernon. Fifth in Vernon's fun series of illustrated kids' books; not a strong entry.

And the two since made it through crossposting.
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Review of the book I read on Sunday, July 24th.

This is one of those alternate universes that Marvel Comics comes out with every so often, in which all of the characters from their various titles come together in things that totally did not happen in the main continuity. Despite the fact that Marvel now appears to do this every other Wednesday and uses it as an excuse to try to reboot their continuities in ways that are simply terrible ideas, the first couple of times they did this it was actually pretty brilliant. The Age of Apocalypse AU, for instance, a completely badass and frightening run of issues in which one of Marvel's nastiest villains takes over the world, turns it into something incredibly dystopian, and then causes his universe to eat the other ones in the multiverse, is twisted and beautiful and spectacular.

Twisted, beautiful, and spectacular is also how I would describe Earth X, which is if anything even darker. The premise is very simple: every single person on Earth has simultaneously developed superpowers which are just as impressive as those of superheroes. The result is the downfall of civilization and complete and utter chaos.

If you do not have a reasonable familiarity with Marvel personalities-- not necessarily the plots, but, you know, who the Fantastic Four are and what their powers are and who Captain America is and so on-- this is probably going to make no sense to you at all. If you have a passing familiarity with Marvel, the book does go out of the way to try to explain itself to you. I suspect that the more of a Marvel geek you are the more impressive it becomes. At any rate, this is a world in which Reed Richards is the new Doctor Doom, in which the Green Goblin is the President of the United States and nobody particularly cares, and in which Iron Man is a bitter recluse surrounded by infinite layers of quarantine machines designed to keep him safe from whatever has given everyone else their powers.

It is also the world with the best Captain America ever. He's old here, out of his time and knowing it, and torn apart by the essential contradiction that it is in some ways not possible for him to be a representative of the American dream, because that dream is on many levels about the triumph of the individual, but Captain America was designed, created, and upheld by the collective and not by his own efforts. This is the world in which the narrative points out that Captain America is the Aryan ideal, the blond, blue-eyed superpowered gentleman, whom the U.S. therefore sent to fight Hitler. There's a kid in this universe who has mind-control powers, who can simply take over anyone he sees, and he's a completely amoral, vicious, and stupid teenager. He takes the name the Crimson Skull because it sounds cool, unaware that that's the name of Captain America's Nazi nemesis, unaware even of who Hitler was. And he won't mind-control Captain America, because he finds it funnier not to.

This leads to a bravura sequence in which the kid says to Captain America to stop fighting him, because he's God, and Captain America says, as a representative of the United States, "Then I'm Nietzsche." It was one of the most interestingly layered moments I've ever seen in a superhero comic.

The rest of the plot is somewhat more muddled and has a lot of unnecessarily complex layers, but if you like dystopian riffs on superhero stuff that is not critiqued this brutally very often, this is for you. I am told it has two sequels, but that they become even more insanely complex and not as good. This, stand-alone, is enough for me.
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Review of the book I read on Thursday, July 21st.

I've read quite a few memoirs by prostitutes over the years, because I am interested in memoir and I am interested in feminism and I am interested in economics. Also in sex. This leads to reading memoirs and essays by sex workers.

However, I had not previously read any memoirs by customers of prostitutes, because, well, they don't seem to turn up as often. Chester Brown's willingness to discuss his interactions with prostitutes is very unusual. His unemotional, flatly biographical, non-sensationalist but definitely ideological approach is even more peculiar. The style of his comic is very stripped-down: panels are all the same size, word balloons take up a lot of space, pictures of people walking along streets are pretty much the same picture repeated with different words. The lines are heavy blackwork and there isn't a lot in the way of facial expression. This means that when there is sex, and there is, it is extremely obvious that it is not intended as anything other than careful documentary.

After breaking up with his girlfriend, the actress and radio personality Sook-Yin Lee (who can be seen in the delightful film Shortbus), Brown decided that he was against romantic love as an institution, and began to see prostitutes regularly. It seems to have been a fairly amicable breakup, although his friends took the whole ideology shift as an expression of some kind of inner pain; I wasn't there, I don't know. Brown doesn't think so. He's a pretty libertarian type and believes that prostitution should be legal because people have the right to make whatever paying contracts they want with their own bodies. Eventually he comes down on the side that it's not necessarily love he's against, but possessive monogamy, with jealousy and everything that goes with that; he also admits flat-out that he is not up for the work of maintaining a relationship and is using money to take the place of putting in that work. At the end of the book he is engaged in a monogamous contract with a particular woman: neither of them sleep with anybody else, he loves her, and he always pays. He claims not to know of a word for this arrangement. (She is a kept woman, and in the French court would have been his maîtresse déclarée. It is not as though this is a new setup he has thought of.)

Unsurprisingly, this memoir is a fascinating mishmash of the interesting and the problematic. He (very politely) chooses not to give identifying details of the women he patronized, leaving out their working names, actual hair and skin colors, and anything any of them said that might be used to trace them. This is probably a good idea, given that some of them are engaged in variants of the work that I think are illegal in Canada (I can't remember whether it's illegal to have the prostitute come to one's home or to have them work out of a brothel, but one of the two is). However, it means that he can't depict them as people. He says he's had a lot of interesting conversations with them about their lives and the philosophy of the business and that he thinks they're mostly happy people who chose their jobs freely and like their work: well, okay, he can say that, but the burden of proof is on him, and he does not give enough detail for me to really believe him. In addition, the no-identifying-details thing has the effect of making the women feel interchangeable and adds to the aura that is traditionally associated with prostitution, that customers treat prostitutes as inhuman and interchangeable commodities. I think there must have been a line between giving information that could identify these women and paring down what they had to say quite this thoroughly.

Also, he gives some very good reasons for wanting prostitution to be both legal and unregulated (legal because then prostitutes will be able to get better health care and call law enforcement more easily; unregulated so that the kind of punitive licensing one gets in Nevada doesn't come into play and produce a black market). But he is operating from a position of privilege, serious privilege: he is the consumer, he is a white male with the money in this equation, and he simply does not seem to understand the kind of societal pressure that can drive women into prostitution when it is not the work they want to be doing. He does not understand the relentless pressure put on women by society to be beautiful and desirable; he does not understand the dynamics of the abusive relationship that can develop between a woman and her pimp (just because she may think of him as a boyfriend doesn't mean he can't be exploiting her; I get the impression that Brown is the sort of person who does not understand why people do not instantly leave any relationship that has become abusive, and the reasons why not of course begin with the physical problems of violence); he literally denies the existence of trafficking. Which just. I don't even. Trafficking? Is a major, serious issue, has been forever, isn't going away any time soon.

This is the most interesting mixture of the sex-positive and the wrongheaded. I mean he goes through and tries to analyze whether any of the women he slept with might have been trafficked: well and good, that's a reasonable thing to do, and he concludes that he doesn't think any of them were. Fair enough. He's buying fairly expensive prostitutes in Canada. The odds of them being were low. Cheaper, on the other hand, or in some other places-- What I am saying here is that the author has the flaw of generalizing from his personal experience to universals. He also does not, I think, understand quite how much these women have invested in keeping him happy and in saying what he wants to hear. (Their physical safety is riding on it, as is the economics of the current transaction and the chance of a repeat customer. One thing a lot of the memoirs I have read by prostitutes agree on is that you never tell a customer you don't like the life, because it never goes well, the very best thing that can happen is that they get rescue fantasies and the worst doesn't bear thinking about.)

As a result, I think this is actually a very good memoir, because it demonstrates the mindset-- the things that one needs to think about, the things that one needs to be in denial about-- of a person who is a regular john. And as I said that isn't a kind of book that crops up, much. It's very interesting to get a chance to look into the head of somebody who does this.

Just be aware, it's quite a dense set of things to wade through and consider; I want to yell at him about at least half of it and throw various other books at him. Which of course also makes it a successful book.
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Review of the book I read Monday, July 18th.

Yes, this is in fact a graphic novel adaptation of Le Petit Prince, in its entirety, with no changes, alterations, scenes removed or added, or sentences missing.

The question I had when I saw it on [personal profile] sovay's mother's coffee table was 'Why in God's name does this exist?' It is not, after all, as though Antoine de Saint-Exupéry could not draw, even if it is something of a plot point that what he is best at is boa constrictors swallowing elephants. So I read the thing to see whether it could justify its own existence.

If you have not read Le Petit Prince, you should of course read it first. It is one of the great books. But this... reluctant as I am to say it, Joann Sfar, principally known to U.S. readers as the author of The Rabbi's Cat, has done a graphic novel that I... rather liked.

Because the reason it has for existing is the only one that could actually have made it tolerable: Joann Sfar is such a good artist, is sufficiently good at communicating emotion through drawings, that he can actually show you exactly what images he gets when he thinks about the original. They are indisputably both Saint-Exupéry's images, and also not. What this is, and it amazes me, is the closest thing I have yet encountered to being able to look inside someone else's head while they read. All right. That is worthwhile.

Because when he sees beauty, it is not the same as the beauty I get from the original; and the strangenesses are not the same either; and he gets a quality from some of it that I can only describe as fear. There are portions of this where the sheer unearthliness of the prince is actively frightening. There are portions of this where the sheer alienness of the flower is frightening. It would never have occurred to me to look at it that way. His drawings of the narrator, of Saint-Exupéry himself, are carefully observed (they look like the man whose photographs you can find on the internet) and yet expressive, and it does change something to be able to see the narrator of a first-person novel. It is still first-person, but it is at a different remove. Maybe that is where the fear comes in: it is ours and not our narrator's.

Sfar's work here is profoundly lovely, in a scratchy pen-and-ink style that incorporates the drawings from the source without either looking like them or making them seem incongruous. The colors are supersaturated, the sense of desert and sky bright and immediate. There are little touches I like: the smoke of the narrator's pipe turns into a snake engulfing his head (recalling the boa constrictor and the elephant), and is then revealed to be imaginary smoke (after all he ran out of cigarettes days ago).

I have some instinctive deep resistance to this work, because I am frightened of its images replacing mine. I do not want Sfar's rose to be my rose. That is a problem I so often have with movies. But his work is so individual, so very filtered through the raw stuff of himself, that I am nowhere near as worried about that as I am with, say, most movies of the books I like. Do not read this without knowing the original! Let it be a supplement, let it be an addendum as it is meant to be, and then it will show you the work in a new light, and be enjoyable. Sfar had a great deal of hubris to attempt this, but sometimes hubris wins out.
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Purchased originally due to Junko Mizuno front cover. It does, in fact, have a short Junko Mizuno excerpt, but it turns out to be from Pure Trance, which we already had. If you're not familiar with Junko Mizuno, she's an underground Japanese comics artist who originally became famous for the ongoing serials she drew in the CD booklets of a number of obscure indie bands. Her style is incredibly cute and super-deformed and gothy, and her work is a deliberate series of clashes between style and content. Pure Trance is absolutely the cutest most adorable dystopian matriarchal underground society controlled by thought-police beast-women dressed as nurses who pacify the population with designer drugs ever. In recent years Mizuno has traumatized me by drawing some things for the gone-but-not-forgotten American Shojo Beat, writing the most unnerving official version of Spider-Man ever created*, and designing a My Little Pony, which we own. Every time she does something vaguely family-friendly it becomes even more terrifying. Something of hers in a book called Best Erotic Comics 2009 had the chance of helping recalibrate the universe to more comprehensible proportions, so it was a disappointment when we took the book home, took off the shrinkwrap, and discovered we already had the thing. Therefore the book has sat around for a couple of years, and has now worked its way sufficiently up the backlog that I took a look at the bits of it that aren't Junko Mizuno.

And hey, this is not a terrible comics collection.

Well, with one caveat. It's trying very hard to be inclusive of all flavors of sexual orientation, degree of kink, and what have you, which means that some of the stuff in here is pretty cool and some of it makes me sit there facepalming and wondering why I ever, ever try to read professionally published porn that does not have the word FEMINIST in very large friendly letters somewhere on the dust jacket. (Oh wait. I usually don't.) Seriously there is and I am not making this up a comic in here that is trying to say that everything went to hell in the early 1970s because women started claiming sexual autonomy and so hippie types suddenly got laid less. Given the editorial discussion of which publication dates qualified material for inclusion, I... I think this must have come out in like 2007 at the earliest. GAH.

Fortunately, there are maybe two pieces in the book that give me this reaction, and their total page count compared to the rest of it is very low. But still. Skip the one with the guy who just wants to write summaries of the disgustingly shocking porn movies he watches for some reason-- not witty, not funny, will in fact mentally scar you.

The rest of it: there's some Alison Bechdel, which is excerpted from Dykes to Watch Out For, meaning I also owned it already. There's some adorable Erika Moen from her autobiographical webcomic, which is nice to have in print format, and a beautifully inked and conceptually odd lesbian piece from Colleen Coover (whose Banana Sunday is one of the standards for children's comics, making the revelation that she also draws porn pleasant but not expected). I would not precisely call the excerpt from Jim Goad and Jim Blanchard's Trucker Fags In Denial erotica, but I would call it hilarious. I mean, see title.

However, the best thing in the book is totally and unquestionably Toshio Saeki's incredible series of shunga prints, which I can best describe as what would happen if one of those seventeenth-century sex manuals collided head-on with a-- huh. Okay, for the first time in my life I don't know the English word for something which I can phrase perfectly well in a different language. One of that genre of ukiyo-e print which is a night procession of demons and goblin-types carrying lanterns, only the sort which is more whimsical than horrific, and which has multiple associated prints detailing the individual youkai and showing them doing characteristic things. I had not realized that this was a genre mashup that desperately needed to happen, but it was. I really hope he's done more that weren't in the book, because there wasn't a bake-neko or a kurakasa. Though there was a kappa. Well, several kappas. And the art style is perfect fake-Hokusai. The internet tells me he usually concentrates more on ero-guro, but the stuff here isn't that.

So, although this is even more of a mixed bag than many anthologies, it is as I said not terrible, and it's got a nice selection of comics artists from many different countries, racial groups, and ethnicities. It reads better as comics than as porn, but honestly I prefer that to the other way around. I wouldn't go out of your way to find this, necessarily, but I don't regret taking the time.

* When this image was first released to the public, along with the announcement that this comic was actually happening, Thrud stared at it, blinked, and said in tones of ultimate certainty 'Spider-Man should not eat the Jello'. This is such an inarguable statement that it has been used several times in our household to prevent people from doing extremely stupid things.
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Review from June 30th.

Unusually for Fumi Yoshinaga, this is a set of interlinked stories centered on women, with a contemporary setting, and little explicit sex. The principal character has grown up with a single mother, and they still live together as adults. When the mother comes down with and then recovers from cancer, she decides to change her life, and marries a man three years older than her daughter.

This is the core for a web of explorations of female identity and the ways women live, the ways in which women decide whom to marry and the ways that love does and doesn't work out and the ways that women relate to their mothers. The stories are mostly very good, unexpected and subtle: the problem the adult daughter has with her mother's husband is that he's a decent guy who loves her mother honestly and deeply. She'd love it if he were a golddigger, because that would make some kind of sense to her, but this blindsides her.

There is one story that bothers me, though, both because it feels very different from the rest of the book and because it seems to buy into assumptions about women that the rest of the book is bent on disproving. A friend of the young husband, a professor, is blackmailed into sex by one of his students, and the best way I can describe the way the story goes from there is that it is repeating that old canard that women really don't like nice guys and gravitate to people who will be nasty to them. This entire portion is disturbing on multiple levels.

Fortunately, it's only a single issue, and the rest of the book is really Yoshinaga at her best; I can't figure out why her judgment lapsed that way, especially since the rest of it comes together into a cohesive thematic whole into which that one simply doesn't fit. Skip that, and I recommend it highly, because it is moving and lovely and different. Yoshinaga's art, as always, is impressive, and it's nice to see her get to use a larger range of female character designs than she usually needs. I approve of the trend where more and more of her work is turning up in English translation.

(O powers that be: given all the recent Yoshinaga and the lovely recent editions of things like Saiunkoku Monogatari and A Bride's Story, perhaps we have all decided that josei is a viable commercial proposition now? In which case, can I have some Ebine Yamaji in English? Thanks.)
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Today's book is entirely [profile] thespooniest's fault. I would like to note for the record that I have already read Thomas Disch's 334, so this is unlikely to happen again.

So you know how a while ago there was a movie of 300, and it was full of guys wearing leather g-strings, extraordinarily racially loaded caricatures of Persians, anachronistic talk about freedom in confusing ways, a quantity of CGI that turned everything this odd sort of sepia-gray-glowy, and random Sparta Does Not Work Like That moments? So that Luminosity, bless her, made this extremely apropos video to Madonna's 'Vogue' from it? I wound up seeing the thing in theatres, both because I went quite early, before I heard, and because, well, they do not make movies about Sparta often. Not that this was one, but there was hope? Except that there wasn't.

It turns out-- and this surprises me, because I didn't think Hollywood could work this way-- that that was the single most faithful film adaptation I have ever seen in my life. PEOPLE. EVERY LINE FROM THE COMIC BOOK IS IN THE MOVIE. THE ENTIRE SCRIPT OF THE COMIC BOOK IS IN THE MOVIE. ALL THAT STUFF ABOUT FREEDOM? IT WAS ACTUALLY THERE IN THE SOURCE MATERIAL.

The stuff the movie added was everything back in Sparta with Leonidas' wife, you know, the parts that kind of vaguely were maybe considering the economics of it all and also had, although terrible, some lines for a female character.

I just... I want to sit down with Frank Miller, and be all, so, Frank, are you aware that YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT AN EPHOR IS? And that the oracle at Delphi told the Spartans to GO AHEAD AND FIGHT? Not to mention, the oracle is at Delphi, not... up a mountain somewhere... and I realize that you desperately wanted to draw a scantily clad woman at some point in this book or else you would be unable to sleep at night, but this was a confusing way to do it.

Also, you have the Spartans mocking the Athenians for being democrats (CORRECT! This is THE ONE ACCURATE THING in the ENTIRE GRAPHIC NOVEL except for, and this should just not be the most accurate thing about your book, THE SPARTANS' HAIR), but you also have the Spartans mocking the Athenians for being pederasts.

Oh, Frank, Frank, Frank. If I were in the room with you, this is where I would beat you severely about the head and shoulders with a copy of James Davidson's The Greeks and Greek Love, which is fairly thick but should hopefully leave you only slightly concussed. It is mildly stretching things to say that the Spartans had same-sex marriage. Mildly. You can actually argue for it based on evidence, though of course it was not monogamous same-sex marriage, because heterosexual marriage was an economic thing which applied to people regardless of inclination [here is where I snip a seventy-five page digression on Greek marriage customs and social constructions of sexuality, just go read the Davidson, you can pick it up from the floor where it bounced off Frank Miller's head]. ANYWAY. You know who had a reputation for this sort of thing? NOT JUST THE ATHENIANS. The Athenians were more disapproving, really; in Sparta it was a military institution.

Let's not even get into the whole thing where the ephors get bribed by the Persians with huge piles of gold. Spartan coinage, Frank, was made of iron. Possession of a lot of gold would be going Against Lykourgos, which Did Not Happen. Also, there is no way physically for the Persians to have sent a lot of gold to Sparta at that time.

And the freedom speeches. Look, the Spartans were the closest thing to pure Communists ever to happen in real life, okay?

*gets down off high horse for a moment* I kind of understand what Miller was trying to do here. He wanted to do a Hemingway-esque stripped-to-the-bare-bone version of this story, a gritty macho drama of life and death and heroic struggle. The art's not bad for that; more than passable. The inks are intricate but never over-refined, and the colorist, Lynn Varley, deserved entirely the Eisner she won for this, because this is quite frankly one of the best coloring jobs I have ever seen. It makes instant visual sense out of pages that could easily have been muddy and impossible to parse, it focuses the eye subtly on portions of the art that are of narrative interest-- in fact it is designed to lead your eyes through the whole-page and two-page spreads-- and it sets the desired mood and tone better than any other element of the book. I am genuinely impressed by Varley's work here, and although she also worked on the movie, it unquestionably works better on paper.

However, for what Miller wanted, he needed to throw out his entire fucking script and start over. He has missed the first rule of being Macho And Cool: you never talk about how Macho And Cool you are. These men need to be talking about supplies and levies and heat and dust and sandal straps and are we there yet, because when people who are going to do a very difficult thing move to do that difficult thing, they do not talk about honor and duty and freedom and glory all the time. There are times for that, yes. Maybe twice in the book it would have been appropriate; the start of the battle, and when Leonidas comes face-to-face with Xerxes. (Don't get me started on the Persian character designs. AAGH. Historically they wore trousers, Frank! That's scary/wrong enough to a Greek!) But the rest of the time, practical things, or not at all. These are the people for whom we coined the word laconic, who never used two words when none would do. This book should have been almost wordless. Get rid of the speeches and the pointless additions to the backstory to make Leonidas seem more badass (seriously, the real Spartans would have eaten these people for breakfast) and that way when someone has to talk about honor and death it means something. Visual art form, Frank! I know it's a short script, but it should have been shorter!

And backed by MORE, by which I mean ANY EVIDENCE OF, research. And Ephialtes didn't need to look like that, the man had enough issues.

Thrud has been to the mound of the three hundred. I've seen her photographs. It's a pile of rocks. It is an incredibly moving pile of rocks. It is a more moving pile of rocks in an amateur photograph taken on a cell phone than anything that appears in this entire book.

That about sums up the problem right there.
rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I really like this trend lately where people put out Very Nice editions of manga. PictureBox has done an amazing job on this; the full-color cover painting beneath the dust jacket is spectacular.

Garden-- huh. It's more of a conceptual art project than a narrative. Yokoyama is using narrative only as a device to teach you how to visually parse some of his more complex images, and I get the impression he is annoyed about needing it for that reason.

The images he would like you to decode are Surrealist (capital letter intentional) meditations on architecture. The book begins with a group of people who want to look at a garden being told that the garden is closed. Finding a break in the wall around it, they climb in anyway. The rest of the book is their walk through the garden. None of them look human-- they have scales, or odd coloration, or protruding cones instead of eyes, or are metallic, or made of umbrellas, in a very flat abstracted style that makes them appear friendly but depersonalized. There are probably several hundred in the group, but they have no difficulty hiding when garden staff are patrolling.

The garden is full of geographic features that start as relatively normal, physically possible things and become stranger and stranger. Nothing is what it initially looks like. The properties of the objects and landscape formations are described and probed by the group of people in mildly curious, emotionally flat language ('There are curtains of falling water.' 'They are thin curtains' is a typical dialogue exchange). Each section of the garden, for a while, seems to be a riff on a kind of object: here is a mountain made of glass, here is a two-tone mountain, here a three-tone, here one made of rubber, here one made of hair, one made of trees, one made of houses, one made of beach balls, this one is bolted down...

The types of object the garden contains refract endlessly. Just as we will have a mountain made of houses, so we will have a house made of mountains. Several portions of the garden seem to me to be possible nods to Borges; there is a segment that is an infinite library, where the books contain portraits of all the other things in the garden, including the people reading them, and also a segment where airplanes drop photographs which when pieced together would become a map of the garden the size of the garden itself (a sea of photographs, which become briefly the medium through which everyone walks, photos of mountains piled into mountains made of photos, pictures of one person's face plastered onto another person's face by the wind).

Eventually the images of the people become part of the complexifying forms. There is an area where automated cameras take their pictures and project them onto nearby surfaces such as mountains and waterfalls. The water bubbles and shapes itself into different contortions, keeping the projections, distorting and changing them. There is an area where 3-D holographic projections of the entire rest of the garden can be summoned, projections which contain the area with the water bubbling under the projected faces, so that you get watching faces seen through projections of water-distorted projected faces--

this is about the point at which you realize that what you are looking at is functionally an abstract, that the only reason you can make anything representational out of these incredibly convoluted yet stark black-and-white lines is the careful and deliberate narrative buildup, and even then the pages flicker in and out of meaning in a way I cannot really describe, an optical illusion of meaning, now you see it and now you don't, but the whole thing has been an optical illusion of meaning from page one because these have always been black lines on white paper--

if you're looking for narrative, that is the story you are going to get. I think it's worth it. It ends when it cannot go one iota farther (well, it fractures, actually, and ends in several different nearly-impossible directions), and it never ceases to be beautiful.

It's also so far removed from anything else I have ever seen attempted in comics that I have to applaud it just for that. It's like comics as approached from an alternate universe. It is a peculiar combination of boring, breathlessly entertaining, exhausting, incomprehensible, and joyous. It feels like a place, as the title tells us, rather than like a book, and like a place made of the edges of human visual perception. It will make you ponder limits that you did not know you had. It is amazement.
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Ursula Vernon is an artist I am very fond of, for both her work with line and texture and her sense of humor. Her webcomic Digger, now finished and therefore available in its entirety, is one of my favorite comics; there was a period when it was one of I think three comics I was reading in English. If you haven't already, you should read Digger, which is hilarious, occasionally touching, and surprisingly pretty.

For a while she's also been doing these cute little kids' books about dragons. There are four out now (this is the fourth) and an unguessable number upcoming.

Honestly, I do not think the Dragonbreath series is Vernon's best work. They have an interesting format, kind of halfway between illustrated novel and comic book-- some pages slide in and out of being free-form panels-- but she's limited to black, white, and one color per book, and the art doesn't quite have the quirky glow she can get when she's really free to play. They are, however, enough fun that every so often I remember that there's probably a new one out and go look for it. I have read one, two, and four now, but not three, and this is not a series that suffers from not being perfectly sequential.

In this installment, Danny Dragonbreath (who is a gradeschool-age dragon) and his perpetually terrified friend Wendell (who is I think some kind of lizard) rescue an injured bat from a swimming pool intake, and naturally have to take it to Danny's cousin who works at the bat conservancy... hundreds of miles away in southern Mexico. That's not the problem. (Wendell to Danny's mother: "How are we taking the city bus to Mexico?" Danny's mother: "We have a very good bus system.")

The problem is, as one might expect, the giant bat monster/Mayan deity whose presence in the area could be a serious publicity coup for the conservancy, if only it weren't running off with Danny when the bat conservancy notices it. (Wendell to Danny's cousin: "We have to get him back! No one's going to sit with me in the cafeteria!" Danny's cousin, wearily: "Wendell, if we don't get him back, I will, personally, sit with you in the cafeteria.")

There are many good things about this book. It's cute, it has snappy dialogue, and of course Danny the dragon's cousin is, matter-of-factly (to the point where the book mentions but does not explain it) a genuine Feathered Serpent. However, it's-- okay, that? That is a giant hitting-you-over-the-head-with-an-ecological-message hammer that makes up most of this book, that is. BAT CONSERVANCY = GOOD, yes, we know that, I agree, now TELL A STORY. And the plotline isn't as, well, batshit as a couple of the previous installments-- I mean, the one with the ninja frogs, there was serious originality going on there, ninety percent of that book was unrelated to plot elements ever seen by mere mortals before. The plot here feels pretty thin, and there's only one thread, and there isn't much going on in the way of character development, not there is that much in these anyway, but.

I hope these eventually grow into being Vernon at her best, but this is not an improvement over the earlier two I've read. Still, if you like nifty brushwork pictures of bats, you will enjoy this. I will continue to read these occasionally when I remember they exist-- and to hope that she goes on and does something else as good as Digger at some point.
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This is a collection of three of Tan's previously published picture books: The Red Tree, The Lost Thing, and Rabbits (words by John Marsden).

I had already read The Red Tree* and it only gets better with time. It's the best visual evocation of the experience of clinical depression I have ever met, which oddly enough makes it an exhilarating work-- the girl in it wanders through terrifying and confusing spaces, never sure what to do with herself or what comes next or why to go on, and then there is the tree like fire, and you realize there have been leaves throughout carrying that same crimson lushness, only she didn't see them, and maybe she won't see them tomorrow, but--

My favorite bit is the part where she's on a stage trying to figure out what she's expected to do in the performance, and there are signs all over in Finnish and a devil creeping out of a trapdoor and a machine doing push-ups and some people are juggling and she's wearing a sock puppet designed to look like herself, and there is absolutely no way to tell what she ought to do about any of it and there never will be, and I swear this has happened to me on multiple occasions, down to the Finnish, it was so instantly familiar.

The other two are also very good, although The Lost Thing feels as though it is fumbling a little in trying to find itself, but maybe that's the point: the protagonist in this one finds in a quietly dystopian city a friendly lost thing, which has tentacles and gears and strategically placed bells and looks rather like a teapot, and he has to figure out where to go from there. It's got some lovely collage going, the images over real and fake newspaper clippings, but it didn't pull me in very firmly.

And Rabbits is about colonialism and Australia, where the colonizers are literally drawn as rabbits, which is one of the best visual metaphors I can think of for that, perfect, if you know the history. It is frightening and beautiful and frightening because it's beautiful, because the first spread is wild ocean with one golden ship far out like sunlight itself, lovely, if you don't know, but you know. No easy answers, either, of course there wouldn't be. Imported sheep cropping the soil to bone with human mouths, and even that image is gorgeous.

I could stare at any given page of Shaun Tan for hours, honestly. This is a very good collection.

* Okay so I cannot help the thing where Caitlin Kiernan has also written a book called The Red Tree and I am incapable of thinking of them separately and so on finishing the Tan some part of my head always smiles brightly and says to itself 'and then it ate her!' but I assure you this was not intentional on anyone's part and does not invalidate the point of either book in any way and maybe one of these years I will be able to stop doing it, but I certainly haven't yet, because come on. Ignore me. It is wrong of me.
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Lychee Light Club is a one-volume manga adaptation of a stage play the author was incredibly influenced by as a small child. In it, an incredibly screwed-up club of middle-school boys build an invincible robot powered by lychee fruit, as part of a two-part scheme of which the second half is 'rule the world', but their internal psychoses bring the whole thing crashing down long before it gets that far, despite the fact that the robot, you know, actually works.

I neither enjoyed Lychee Light Club (mostly) nor thought it was that good (mostly), but I am extremely glad that it has been translated and released in the U.S., I hope it enjoys commercial success, and I think it's important that English-speaking companies consider this a viable direction to go with things they license and put out. Despite the fact that I didn't like this. (Except that I kind of did.)

Let me unpack that a bit. The theatre who did the stage play that Usumaru Furuya adapted here were the Grand Guignol Theatre of Tokyo. The story is every bit as violent, sexually graphic, misogynistic, homophobic, needlessly cruel, and petty as you would expect from the words 'Grand Guignol'. That's the point. The reason I don't think it's very good is that it's also pretty derivative (except for the thing about the lychees)-- I could predict just about everything that happened as soon as I saw the setup, which I think may also have been part of the point, but seriously-- and the reason I didn't really enjoy it are that, well, the largest portion of the budget for the stage play must have been the fake blood. Also, piles of sexual violence.

However. Furuya is an underground artist, who got his start in the legendary magazine Garo, and whose work is only now starting to be translated. I am not sure whether he is actually definable as an ero-guro artist*, but he uses an art style here very similar to that and a similar visual vocabulary. When Lychee Light Club arrived in the mail Thrud and I looked at each other and said 'it's one of those, you know, what's that genre again, where it's not ero-guro because the content isn't extreme enough but it is in every other way, we used to know a word for this sort of thing...' and as far as I know it's the only one of those in English. And if you study manga, this is useful. For one thing, you can get some ero-guro in English, somebody has actually translated some of Suehiro Maruo DO NOT IMAGE SEARCH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD**, but why do this to yourself? I am willing to spend a lot more time studying the art and craft of Lychee Light Club to see what is going on in it than I am in looking at the harder stuff.

And there is art and craft here, and it's important to me to know what's going on in it. In a sheerly technical sense this is some of the best art I have seen in a manga. It is incredibly expressive, very well laid out, beautiful in all the wrong ways, very distinctive, and manages by virtue of drawing skill alone to force some emotional resonance and actual disturbingness into a story that I found, as I said, predictable to the point of boring.

Also, having read this makes reading the other series in English by Usumaru Furuya incredibly hilarious. You see, for a brief span of time recently Furuya did a series for Shonen SG, one of the Shonen Jump family of magazines, called Genkaku Picasso, and two volumes of that are out now. Genkaku Picasso is pretty damn terrible, unless you are in on the central joke, which is that the protagonist (including his art style) is directly out of an ero-guro. Everything else about the series, including what the protagonist is allowed to do, is drawn and written in extremely broad Shonen Jump house style, which involves speeches about friendship, everyone getting along after friendly rivalry, and everything working out for the best. Upon reading Genkaku Picasso I initially thought that it felt as though the artist was being forcibly restrained by his venue and it was a really stupid shonen series, but I now think that the point is that if you are a kid you read it as a stupid shonen and if you are an adult you expect it to devolve into terrifyingly degenerate pornography any second now and it keeps finding new implausible ways not to. Which, all right, I actually find pretty funny.

And if people are running jokes like that in a mainstream magazine? ... yeah, that's something in manga I want to keep up with, that's an actual thing. So props to Vertical for putting out Lychee Light Club, and I hope they keep on in this vein, because I appreciate it as an academic if not as a reading experience. (And hell, I may have been in the wrong mood. I usually have a pretty high violence threshold. Probably too much rape in it for me to ever actually like, though.)***

* Erotic grotesque (ero-guro): a genre of pornography generally expressed in manga by attempts to draw beautiful things as disgustingly as possible and vice versa, combining sexual content with the outré, surreal, gory, violent, and ridiculous.

** So much I mean this, you cannot even imagine. There is supposedly something coming out later this year by Maruo which is not porn, and which should therefore be amazing because the man is one of the finest technical painters I have ever encountered. I will let you all know when that happens, after I make Thrud read the thing first because I have a policy of not even touching the Maruo we currently have IT MIGHT STAY IN MY HEAD.

*** Serious props to the U.S. manga-and-anime mag Otaku USA for managing to find ten consecutive worksafe pages of Lychee Light Club to use as a preview. I do not know how they did it because if I hadn't seen that preview excerpt and compared it against the volume I would have sworn there were not ten consecutive worksafe pages in there. Now that is an impressive editor somewhere-- either at Vertical, sending the preview, or at the magazine itself.
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MW is seventies Tezuka, the God of Manga in his darkest period, the time when he was observing and partially creating the men's-magazine style of manga with its James Bondish action and adventure and nudity, but also exploiting the content allowed him by that style to produce absolutely lacerating commentary on human cruelty and darkness. Which is to say, this is the darkest of noir, saved from total nihilism only by tiny and astonishing moments of a rare and vanishing kindness. It's hard to read, which is why I've been putting it off for a few years, but it's also absolutely brilliant. It's basically Tezuka doing gekiga, and it's one of his natural genres.

The manga centers around an unlikely couple: the up-and-coming young bank executive Yuki, notable in his office for his good looks and his celebrity Kabuki actor brother, and the Roman Catholic priest Garai. They're bound by shared secrets on all sides: their affair, of course, which Garai is desperately metaphysically tormented over, but also the fact that Garai is half-intentionally using the seal of the confessional to shield Yuki from the police. Yuki is a brilliant sociopath, who kills and robs with an amazing indifferent cruelty, and Garai is his only real emotional connection. Garai believes with all his heart in the sanctity of the confessional, and is genuinely trying to save Yuki's soul, but they are inextricably entwined not only sexually but because of a horrific chemical weapons accident fifteen years previously. Yuki and Garai are the only survivors of eight hundred and fifty people in the area, as well as the only witnesses missed by a massive government coverup, and brain damage brought on by chemical exposure is part of what destroyed Yuki's conscience. So Garai is willing to work for a shared revenge-- but is that actually what Yuki wants? How much of what Yuki is is what he has been made, and what things really made him? Where should the responsibility for crime be placed, and whose crimes, in this world full of them, are worst?

Believe me, I'm not telling you too much of the plot. There's a lot of plot here to go around. The book's main weakness, in fact, is the sheer amount of plot; there is so much going on here that portions of it don't quite hang together, and areas where the action makes more sense thematically than in a rational way, or where character motivations turn on a dime with no explanation, or where the logistics of what is going on are too complex for even Tezuka's spectacular panel layouts to adequately get things across. But it all makes emotional sense, always, and there are indications that some of the incoherency is intentional expressionism, the gripping confused urgency of nightmare. I admire a sequence in which a perfectly ordinary conversation between Yuki and Garai has its visuals morph into seamless pastiche of Aubrey Beardsley, so that when Garai admits his utter helplessness against his lover he is drawn as the head of John the Baptist, and Yuki in a precise and grotesque fusion of his own face and the original is a coldly chilling Salome.

This makes me want to have read Yukio Mishima, because I suspect it of being a homage and riff on that writer's politics and life. I think Yuki was named after Mishima, whose suicide was six years old when the manga ran; there is a sequence in which Yuki toys with and uses a writer who runs a political/terrorist student group similar to Mishima's cult of personality. In the end Yuki drops the writer: for not going far enough. And the central questions around Yuki's identity, the way he takes on the roles and personalities and appearances of the people he betrays and kills, the way he is all things to all people, also remind me of things I've heard about Mishima's ruminations on identity and appearance, and a part of Garai's backstory reminds me very much of something I've seen mentioned as a major plot point in The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea. But this is all speculative, because I haven't read any Mishima, so I could be totally wrong. (I should read some Mishima and see.)

Not an easy book. It's extremely violent, physically and emotionally, and it has sexual violence in a direction so appalling it had not crossed my mind as possible, and the most charismatic and interesting character is, intentionally, Yuki, who is also vilely, disgustingly, but sadly not unbelievably evil. It has no answers to the questions it raises about responsibility and justice, religion and mercy, crime and existence, and it means to have no answers, to sear into you that there may not be any. But it's one of those works of art that is so incredibly well conceived and executed that I cannot find it depressing, so beautifully done that its very existence belies its own negationism: it is too good to mean nothing. If you can cope with it, I recommend it.
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A one-volume piece by Fumi Yoshinaga, also author of Ōoku, Antique Bakery, Flower of Life, and many other extremely good manga of which I am very fond. Honestly Yoshinaga is probably my favorite mangaka. She references eighteenth-century philosophy in her gay romances and is doing a gender-switched version of the history of the Tokugawa shogunate, what's not to like?

And she is also something of a foodie.

This particular work is semi-autobiographical, in that way one sometimes gets with Japanese pseudonyms where the character is called F-mi Y-naga and everyone else is also called their names with parts blanked out. The principal effect of this is that one knows perfectly well that it is autobiographical... ish, because it is, in fact, a pseudonym; it gives her plausible deniability. Probably best to read this as fiction, though she assures us on the title page that all the restaurants are real, and gives their addresses, phone numbers, days open and nearest train stations.

At any rate, F-mi Y-naga, who is a manga artist, gets hired to do manga recommendations of good restaurants in Tokyo, and the manga is about how she does that. Along for the ride are her assistant/roommate/absolutely not boyfriend S-hara and their various friends, blind dates, colleagues and other people who can be taken out to dinner. The personal relationships are fun and interesting and do not follow the usual cliches-- when I say that S-hara is absolutely not her boyfriend, I mean that these are two people who would rather crawl over broken glass than date each other, but who are starting to worry that the expectations of their families and society in general combined with the oddly scheduled life of a manga studio may leave them no alternatives. Their friendship is bitchy, hilarious, and weirdly touching, and they are quite right that they shouldn't be dating.

But the main point is the food porn. Which is really impressive. I am glad that a) these are all real restaurants and b) she gives their addresses, because even though restaurants shift over time I will be hitting any one of these that is still there if I get to Japan in the next decade. She draws food quite appetizingly (there's a great repeating gag about how she keeps meaning to take reference photos when her meal arrives and then forgets until after she's eaten it), but as anyone who's read her Antique Bakery will remember, what she's really good at is how people talk about food. Everyone in this manga can talk about food in a knowledgeable, descriptive, non-pretentious, mouthwatering way that I wish I could do myself. Food is serious business to Y-naga, who at one point breaks up with a guy for not liking a restaurant she suggested, and her joy in cooking well, taking people to good restaurants, feeding people good food and watching them revel in it shines through continuously. (When someone asks her how it is she knows so many good restaurants, the reply is "There are maybe between four and six hours in a day when I am not either working or sleeping. During all of that time, I think about food. Or, better to say, depending on the work I might be spending my working hours thinking about food too. Since I've given that much of my life to food, don't you think food owes me a little bit of payback for it?")

Seriously, the only way this could be better is if there were recipes.
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This is one of the manga that Viz put out back in the day, where by back in the day I mean the late nineties, which in manga fandom times is not quite the Jurassic but is certainly somewhere around the Cretaceous. When everyone still flipped manga to read left to right and not only the word shoujo but the concept of comics by and for women had to be spelled out repeatedly on the covers of the books-- that era. Viz was doing sterling and unappreciated work in those years putting out Moto Hagio and the contents of Pulp magazine, and Matt Thorn, who was doing a lot of things for Viz, must desperately love Keiko Nishi. He put two of her short works in Four Shoujo Stories, the seminal and now-impossible-to-find anthology which has become the Really Famous Viz Rarity. And he had four more of hers released as Love Song.

I was skeptical going into this, because the two Nishi stories are... decidedly not my favorite things about Four Shoujo Stories. In point of fact I have never reread them, whereas I go back to the other half of the book about once a year. But I'm cowriting a book on shoujo manga and this is one of the first volumes of shoujo in English, which earns it some importance. Therefore.

Unfortunately, most of what I got from this is that Matt Thorn and I do not have similar tastes. I mildly enjoyed two of the four stories. 'Jewels of the Seaside' is a perfectly respectable black comedy about three sisters consumed by rivalry for the same man; Nishi's elegantly restrained artwork keeps it from tipping over into a one-note Gothic joke, although everything about it is predictable from very early on. And the title story, while it lacks even a pretense of plot, is not terrible. Its portrait of a young woman who becomes abusive towards her boyfriend because of past trauma is compelling although shapeless.

However, 'The Skin of Her Heart' is an attempt at an SF story which falls miserably flat because it does not manage to include enough worldbuilding to make sense. It's trying to be SF about working-class people, a small story about the way that aspirations don't change in a futuristic environment, with Earth as a pipe dream for its heroine to yearn after; but it doesn't have enough of its environment showing to lend it the necessary touch of strangeness. It comes off as a standard portrayal of poverty and anomie. I think the problem here is mostly visual, that Nishi didn't find the correct mixture of the familiar and the confusing. This script could, possibly, have worked, but here it doesn't.

And the longest story in the book, the two-part 'The Signal Goes Blink, Blink' is a terribly cliched story about a bullied adolescent boy who manifests superpowers, evidently to help him like himself better, or something. The amount I was unable to bring myself to care was staggering.

These are not stories American comics were telling at the time, it's true, and the fact of their existence in English is interesting, that this is what Thorn thought there was an audience for and worked very hard to bring to the public, these particular things out of the whole giant selection of things that could have been chosen. But there is so much better shoujo available nowadays that unless you, like me, are curious about the history of manga in America or are trying to read everything Viz put out before the year 2000 (I have faith I will manage this eventually), it's eminently skippable.
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I know William Weaver primarily for his translations from the Italian; he's done both Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino. Thrud had a fellowship for some time at the Villa I Tatti, and it turns out that Weaver wrote a history of the house, so I read it mostly out of curiosity about where Thrud had been living. A Legacy of Excellence: The Story of Villa I Tatti is I think a vanity project, honestly; it's a factual account of the house, its various refurbishings and renovations and contents, but it does not make an argument as to why the house is so important except that Bernard Berenson bought it, Edith Wharton stayed there a lot, and Harvard owns it now. There are a great many photos, and honestly that is what was important to me, but I cannot recommend this to anyone who is neither passionately interested in the architecture of Italian villas nor doing research on one of the relevant historical figures, especially as the last chunk of the book essentially reads as one long apologia for Harvard's tenancy and a lot of assurances that they are Maintaining The Place's Historical Value, which, I mean, it's Harvard, I was not going to assume that they aren't. Personal interest barely got me through this, though Weaver's prose is perfectly competent. I wonder why he wrote the thing?

And then the next night I read Paul Kozelka's The Theatre Student: Directing, because I have never been in a play and have always been curious about the directing process-- there is a lot of mystique surrounding it. Unfortunately, while vaguely informative, the Kozelka was also fairly dire. It seemed to be aimed at persons wishing to direct community theatre for an audience of children and operates on the assumption that such persons are by definition more cultured than the people around them and must bring this culture to the unenlightened masses; it also worships Stanislavsky, which does not seem entirely compatible with the previous. And the included play may be by Betty Smith, but I am sorry, a novelist does not always a playwright make. I learned some details about ways directors could organize their lives into a notebook and that is really all the help this gave me. Can anyone recommend anything better on the philosophy and technique of stage directing and acting? There must be more than this.

Fortunately after that I came to Osamu Tezuka's Swallowing the Earth.

I have an odd relationship with the God of Manga. Honestly, I don't enjoy Tezuka ninety percent of the time. I find Phoenix too unbearably depressing to be manageable, I tend to summarize Princess Knight to people as 'a comedy where all the wrong people die', and I find Urasawa's Pluto far more readable than the chunk of Astro Boy from which it is adapted. However, I keep reading and watching Tezuka, because every so often something happens like his nineteen-fifties theatrical version of Saiyuki (the English dub stars Frankie Avalon, I will never get over this), or the first ten pages of Apollo no Uta, or the Tezuka studio's gorgeously weird Kanashimi no Belladonna, one of the strangest films ever made (it's a film based on the 1860s book about witchcraft La Sorcière, and almost all of the animation consists of still pans over paintings-- I love this movie, but I totally understand why it was an utter commercial failure).

So I tend to go into Tezuka with a certain hesitancy. I refuse to become attached to his characters, and honestly I am usually waiting with trepidation for the book to do something I hate.

Swallowing the Earth I do not hate. )
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Penguin, of all people, have started putting out manga. Specifically, they've started putting out socially-relevant-to-leftists manga biographies. They've got one of Che Guevara and one of the Dalai Lama. Our household obtained the one about the Dalai Lama, called, straightforwardly enough, The 14th Dalai Lama: A Manga Biography, by Tetsu Saiwai. Saiwai apparently specializes in educational and environmental manga. His art is clean, if generic in a fairly obviously Tezuka-influenced sort of way, and his people are recognizable as themselves internally but might not be able to be matched to their photos. The book begins at the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, covers the search for the new lama, his upbringing, the political unrest in his adolescence, and the Chinese invasion and subjugation of Tibet which led to the Dalai Lama's fifty-year-and-ongoing exile. It's an authorized biography and behaves like one: solid on names and dates and facts and politics and things people said in public record, but if you want to get a sense of the person and not the religious leader this is not your book. It also skips oh about forty years of his later life in the interests of time. So I would call this a useful elementary text, in an entertaining format, the sort of thing I would in fact cheerfully assign to sixth-graders for a history unit, but, you know, it does not exceed my expectations in any particular direction and I will look elsewhere for my deep analyses.

There also turned up in our house recently a book on how to take a Japanese bath, called, straightforwardly enough, How to Take a Japanese Bath. I am not entirely sure why it turned up-- I certainly had nothing to do with it-- but there is this thing where Thrud buys things that seem relevant to her, even if they do not seem relevant to anyone else, so I am going to assume it had something to do with that. At any rate, I mostly wanted to compare it to my experience, as I have in fact been to an onsen more than once. It turned out to be mostly about bathing in private houses, which I did find interesting as I have never done that, and the etiquette of leaving the water hot for other people and so on. And it does cover onsen and public baths thoroughly. If you need bathing etiquette, and if you are going to Japan you do, this is a handy little book which matched what I saw done. It did not answer my personal Japanese-bath-etiquette question, which is whether I now have a sufficient number of tattoos to be asked to leave a respectable bathing establishment or whether the We Expect Nothing Of Gaijin card covers that, but, you know, that's very specific. (I only had one tattoo when I went to Japan, and nobody batted an eye.) Man, I wish we had onsen in this country, though if you live in Boston/Cambridge/Somerville you have Inman Oasis which is pretty much the same thing and I envy your continued geographic proximity. Sigh. There totally are not public baths in Texas. At least, not our part of it. We have some similar equipment in our house now, but it isn't the same.
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From the author of Akira.

Thrud bought this recently because it came recommended to her as good horror manga, but I'd call it science fiction, and indeed it won the Japan Science Fiction Grand Prix. It's familiar subject material-- a densely crowded urban housing complex becomes a battleground between two psychics, one a deeply senile old man who has regressed to mental childhood and kills randomly, and the other an eight-year-old girl who's trying to stop him-- but it's so well done, and uses so few of the tropes of psychic-battle manga or this plot in general, that it feels, and is, completely original. There are cops, looking in the wrong direction or in the right direction but at the wrong time; there are the people who live in the complex, whose weaknesses are grist for the combat and whose ordinary lives go on around it; there is the endless sense of how little privacy there is in this kind of public housing, where one of the things the police find most inexplicable is the ability of various people to move for more than a hundred feet without there being a witness. (Literally. They express confusion and fear at the thought that someone could climb a flight of stairs in this building without it being seen, and they're right.)

Honestly, in tone this reminds me profoundly of J.G. Ballard. It's in the sort of urban landscape he made his own, and it shares his pragmatic and cynical coldness. The questions the manga is pondering are those of moral responsibility: the old man is out of his mind when he does horrible things, and the child who does horrible things to stop him is a child and cannot be expected to understand the consequences, but can be expected to remember, later, what she did and can do. I don't think I've ever seen a manga wondering before whether growing up can or should absolve a person of the crimes of childhood-- I mean where childhood is seen as a state in which, through ignorance, any child can and probably will do things an adult would consider terrible. Usually people think of childhood pretty much the other way around, but honestly one of the major moral differences between the psychics in this book is that she can grow up, and he cannot.

An odd, taut, carefully brutal little masterpiece.
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A rarity in English: a collection of business and salaryman manga. Or, well, excerpts from business and salaryman manga.

Business manga is one of the genres of manga for which there is no American comics equivalent, except maybe Dilbert, though comedy isn't business manga's only forte. It doesn't get translated much because the art is not usually pretty, the subject matter is quotidian, and the cultural references are very specific. Honestly, that's one reason I find it interesting. It's usually very interesting to see what people don't translate because they don't think it would travel.

Bringing Home the Sushi is, I think, a collection intended for American businessmen. It's meant to throw some light on Japanese business culture and practices. It came out in 1995, so I'm sure a lot has changed. The nine pieces here are excerpted from famous and long-running work, mostly; Tsuri-Baka Nisshi (Diary of a Fishing Freak), for example, has been serialized continuously since 1979 and has been made into twenty-two live-action movies. It's one of the two manga in here I'd heard of; it focuses on a man who is a total loser at his office, except that his obsession with fishing means a) that he doesn't care and b) that his company can use him to mollify clients who also fish. It's kind of a triumphalist ode to hobbyism, and I think is both escapist fantasy and expression of a real belief that there has to be something important in a person's life. The art fascinates me because it is as caricatured and anatomically squished as American newspaper comics, which is not an art style one sees much in translated manga.

The other work I'd heard of is OL Shinkaron (Evolution of the Office Lady), which is a four-panel gag manga about the lifestyle of the office lady, who is generally a young woman working until she gets married and whose job is to make tea and be secretarial. As an artifact of the eighties and nineties and the way women thought of themselves and work in Japan at that time this is priceless. We own a volume of it in a Kodansha bilingual edition, which I recommend to people who can find it (good luck). It exists here, anyway, and it miiiiiight be very slightly easier to find this book than the Kodansha. Maybe.

And the other highlight is Torishimariyaku Hira Namijirou (Director Hira Namijirou), in which a middle-level functionary at a Japanese auto company is paid a visit by the very thinly disguised head of Chrysler, who proceeds to behave exactly like every conceivable Japanese stereotype about Americans except that I don't think he actually fires any guns at anything. The art and writing are wildly surrealistic-- it's exactly like an action manga, people keep throwing furniture and crashing through walls; but there are special touches such as the American wearing a flag as a suit jacket-- but they are all talking very earnestly and sincerely and passionately about the trade deficit. Comics just don't do this sort of thing much and it is kind of profoundly entertaining.

Oh yeah and there are also some essays in English by various experts about various aspects of Japanese business culture, most of which focus on 'you know that thing that happened in panel x of this manga? here is the explanation'.

Anyway. I think this book is totally awesome, but I have spent the last six months plotting to obtain the manga biography of the inventor of cup ramen. (Which has a real English translation and everything!) So your mileage may, as they say, vary.


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