Author Archive


Q Hayashida’s Dorohedoro: violence comix

June 25th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

q hayashida - dorohedoro - chapter break

This chapter break from Q Hayashida’s Dorohedoro (print, digital, but buy it on iBooks or Android if you want it mobile) sums up a lot of what I like about her style. She works in this kinda gritty, grimy occult comics style, and while the surface-level stuff is great—the skulls, the snakes, the black smoke—what really makes it go is how grounded it is. It’s a comic about wizards and demons that wear street clothes, Nike Dunks, and custom masks.

Block out this guy’s arms and skulls; focus on his body and head. The stuff I’m noticing are the way the belt fits around his waist, the rumpled clothes, and his jacket flaring out. The hood over the eyes is a look I’ve chased several times over the course of my life. The HR Giger-esque rib-piece is pretty out there, but by and large, this guy is wearing clothes you’d see people rocking in the street. It’s a “cool” look. The snakes and skulls add to it, giving it that occult feeling.

q hayashida - dorohedoro - spread 01

Here’s a spread from Dorohedoro, volume 12. Hayashida’s great at making regular buildings look like they’re on the wrong side of the tracks in Hell. It’s very different from Mike Mignola’s more ornate and classic approach, where Hell is Movie Prague, full of long long hallways, classic buildings, and traditional environments. Hell-as-University. Hayashida’s Hell has food trucks and everything’s a slum covered in a thick coating of grime, like smog after it settles.

I like the implied menace in the bottom tier, too. The fisheye effect heightens the X vs Y aspect of things, but Hayashida’s style is great at maintaing a consistent level of background menace, too. It makes it look like the crew on the left got caught in the act by the crew on the right, which is literally true. But the hallway they’re in is great. There’s dust clouds, filthy walls, an alarm box or something on the far left, and you just know that if this were animated, the bare bulb on the right would flicker so that the hallway was more dim than lit. The smudges make me think of water damage, like the building is as run-down as it gets without being marked for destruction.

The fisheye effect makes me feel like this is a moment to breathe in just before the curtain comes down and the violence starts. Luckily, this comes a few pages later:

q hayashida - dorohedoro - ha ha ha ha

T-shirts, jeans, polos, and intense action. The violence is obvious and extreme, with the claw end of a hammer and pure brute force getting the job done. I like the storytelling when the swordsman gets grabbed a whole lot. It got me thinking about which panels we’re seeing are specific POV panels and which are meant to be our standard third-person view. The man with the sword gets grabbed, and the following panel is his view: we see a blurry, blacked-out vision of a face. Then, in the next panel, we’re tracking his reaction. His instinct is to draw his sword, but Noi, the masked arm-puller, is ahead of him. And the potential energy in that panel, when he realizes he’s stuck and you realize he’s stuck and what’s coming next is going to be bad—yes. This is Q Hayashida.

On the facing page, that laugh is everything. Dorohedoro is a great comic because Hayashida blends great jokes with explicit violence and grim mood-building. There are sentient gyoza creatures, rotted husks of men, and capricious demons in the same world. Some of the demons even like gyoza. Noi’s laugh manages to combine all of that. It’s dark humor, and the blood spray is extreme, but it’s also a perfect demonstration of how much and what kind of trouble these guys are in.

Covered in the blood of their friend, whose arm she just successfully yanked off, and taking time for a hearty, gleeful laugh: Noi gives pause.

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Ajin: Demi-Human: violence comix

June 20th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

I like fight comics, violence-as-genre comics. I like comics where one of the most significant thrills come from the fights. There’s something about a well-done fight scene that turns a solid book into a good one. My true love as far as comics action scenes go is largely choreography. Does A flow into B into C into something incredibly painful-looking but well-drawn? If you give me a fight scene where I can follow every block and punch and shot to its logical conclusion, I’m in heaven. It extends to non-fight scenes, too. Takehiko Inoue’s Slam Dunk is great at depicting basketball in such a way that it feels like real basketball. There’s an implication of motion in well-done action scenes that I really enjoy.

Isolated instances of punches and kicks don’t really move the needle. It’s sort of the default mode of the comics I grew up on, where the action is generally secondary to the plot, so you can’t blow eighteen pages on a fight between two warriors. Loving action is probably part of why I’m drawn to manga. The storytelling standards are different, and if you want to do a six hundred page fight scene, you can. (Takehiko Inoue did in Vagabond.) But at the same time, a little spectacle goes a long way. If the isolated instances are striking or exciting in their own way, that’s about as good as the highly choreographed stuff. Mostly, I just want to be impressed.

I’ve been reading Tsuina Miura and Gamon Sakurai’s Ajin: Demi-Human as it comes out, a manga by currently being serialized on Crunchyroll and seeing print later this year from all-star manga publisher Vertical, Inc.

Here’s a summary of the series:

Seventeen years ago, an utterly immortal human was discovered on an African battlefield. Since then, more of these new and unknown life forms began to appear among mankind. These undying beings start to be known as “demi-humans.” One day, just before summer break, a Japanese boy leaving his high school is involved in a traffic accident that kills him on the spot. Then, he comes back to life. A huge bounty is placed on his capture. Now the boy’s attempt to evade all of mankind begins.

It’s just interesting enough to keep my attention, and sort of pleasingly grim, too. It’s like a turned down action comic, a little slow but plenty mean. Demi-humans can instantly come back fully healed from any wound if they die. This makes them great for human experimentation, but it also has led toward a pretty good “assault on base” scene. Here’s a couple pages from a recent chapter that really got me good:

sakurai - demi-human 01

sakurai - demi-human 02

The men are shooting tranquilizer dots at the man with the rifle in order to capture him. He’s a demi-human, which means he’s functionally immortal, and his gun has real bullets.

I like Sakurai’s style. It’s pleasingly realistic in terms of approach, and even the monsters (not pictured) have a nice weight to them. The characters aren’t very stylized, and there aren’t a lot of wild camera angles unless you count close-ups. It’s cool, it makes Demi-Human interesting to look at.

The little dodge in page one, panel three—that’s a cool thing to put into a comic book gun fight, and the casing being ejected right behind it is something that I really keyed on when I read this the first time. You know how something can seem significant? You notice it and it feels bigger than it seems? This felt like that, and I thought about it until I realized that he must have dodged so fast that he returned fire before the dart probably even got to him. You can almost see the motion, and I like how the panel leads your eye up (the whiffing dart), down (the gunfire), left (the casing), and right (the dodge) basically simultaneously.

Page two, panel 1: his nonchalant face, the detail on his gun and vest, the belt, the motion, and the act itself…what a great idea for a panel. I mean, it’s horrible or whatever, it’s nasty, but it’s something I haven’t seen before and surprising—not shocking—enough to raise an eyebrow and half a smile. The anonymous close-up after is great, like a visual gasp, and then panel three is another new thing. This is Hawkeye in Ultimates 2 cool, Frank Miller discovering ninjas cool. All those speedlines on just one side, too, weighing the panel down.

The next bit implies suicide, and in so doing ups the ante considerably:

sakurai - demi-human 03

sakurai - demi-human 04

Sakurai’s use of reaction shots are well-placed, I realizing. The timing on them in general is great. The way the “huh” comes after the shot but before we see the ooze is crucial for setting the pace for how quickly all this is happening. The man is launched into the air (somehow) and we see them noticing something we can’t see before the ooze reveal. We know something’s about to go down, just not what. Here’s what:

sakurai - demi-human 05

If I saw this in a movie, I would freak out on the spot.

It’s just two panels, but the sense of motion and implied movement are so good. He’s falling more down than back, so his legs kick up in panel two. The lines on the floor tell you how far backward he fell. I’d already been impressed enough to want to write about this before this page, but this was like manna from heaven.

I like watching martial arts-oriented action movies, especially non-American ones, more than just about anything else because the choreography really impresses me. I get to see people do incredibly difficult things at a high level and higher speeds, and watching them set up a punch for a kick for a toss through a window is totally my bag. Great choreo has kept me watching movies that you’d be better off fast-forwarding through, and great choreo combined with a great story is my bread and butter. It’s something I cannot do, but am consistently impressed by and jealous of. It’s not the violence so much as the configuration of the violence, the beauty of bodies in motion. A bunch of my favorite films are borderline bloodless, even.

It’s different in comics, because motion is this whole other animal. It’s implied, because sequential art is composed of single images instead of twenty-four frames a second. I like being able to track action from panel to panel, the perfect moments in time chosen to heighten the impact. I don’t think Sakurai excels at that kind of thing, his approach to continuity isn’t that great, but I do think he has an amazing talent for drawing cool things well. And this scene was a very cool thing. This is the most inventive and immediately impressive by far, but bits like this are littered throughout Ajin: Demi-Human.

It’s a good action comic. The story’s taken some surprising turns after a pretty basic opener, and the action is getting better the more I read. It feels like Black Lagoon without the sleaze, but with a heavy faux-Tarantino accent and magical sci-fi elements. I like that even though it feels so familiar, I can still be surprised by what’s going to happen. It’s like a skillful rendition of an old standard in tone—not super impressive, but still enough to make you feel good. As long as they keep coming with the action, I’m hooked.

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Growing up with Metal Gear Solid

June 18th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

I remember being a kid and tripping over ads for the Ultra Games Metal Gear, the one with Snake’s whole inventory on a white background? I never played the game as a kid, not to my memory, but I saw that ad on dozens of comics, which means I saw it thousands of times as a kid. It caught my imagination. In Mario you had a fire flower, a tanooki suit, and a cape. But this guy had all types of weapons and gear, like a video game Rambo.

Nowadays, when I want to play a game, I just play it. I download it or trek to Best Buy or buy it on Amazon. It’s nearly instant gratification at this point, limited only by my bandwidth at home. But as a kid? I couldn’t talk my mom into buying anything, especially not if it was about something violent. Star Fox was one thing, but Mortal Kombat? Nah, son. Too realistic.

So I spent a lot of time thinking about video games. I pored over game magazines when I could get them. I still remember having an EGM with a big blow-out on a Samurai Shodown and some info on how to make Mai Shiranui’s boobs bounce in King of Fighters. I read it ’til it came apart, and then I kept reading it because it was the only way I’d experience KoF until years later when I got a Dreamcast.

Metal Gear came out a little early for me to be able to read about it, so the ad had to be enough. I don’t know what I thought the game was like. All I knew was that I wanted to play it because it sounded amazing.

I didn’t play a Metal Gear until Metal Gear Solid on PlayStation. I decimated my SNES collection to get a chance to buy a PlayStation for cheaper from Funcoland or Toys-r-Us or somewhere, and I survived on Madden, Suikoden II, whatever Working Designs put out, Colony Wars, a bunch of demo discs, and Final Fantasy VII for ages.

But MGS tho. I don’t remember what made me go for it, but I assume I saw news of it in the mags and then found a demo somewhere and then wheedled my way into the full disc.

It’s hard to under-sell how I felt experiencing the thing that begins to happen around 7:15 into this clip:

It looks like garbage now, all low-resolution textures and chunky polygons, but there’s a difference between watching it and playing it. In this moment, you were Snake, and that moment when your controller starts vibrating…it captured me. It got me. I loved FF7 but they didn’t ever talk and the game looked like a cartoon. MGS was next-level, ultra-realistic and grim but still incredibly fun and well-designed. Video games weren’t even really using force feedback yet, it was still new. But MGS gave me extensive, high-quality voice acting and scripted sequences, in addition to using the controller itself as a storytelling device, among other features. It was mind-blowing. MGS was the future. Static-y “Horryoukid” vocal clips were dead and gone. It raised the bar.

I’d experienced nothing like it at the time, and MGS is my favorite franchise to this day. I bought a PS3 of my own for MGS4, and beating that game gave me a feeling that hadn’t been beaten since the first time I beat Ninja Gaiden Black. It felt like an accomplishment, instead of something I did at 1 in the morning on a work night.

I can’t claim twenty-seven years of fandom. I was busy being a toddler in 1987. But MGS has been with me since 1998. I started playing it before I really knew what a pacifist or fascist really was, and as I’ve grown, I’ve found a wide variety of things to appreciate. Kojima has his hooks in me, and even though I’m mostly not into most games nowadays, I’m finding that I’m always up for Metal Gear. Nobody does it better.

Here’s what Metal Gear Solid looks like now:

La-li-lu-le-lo, forever and ever. Amen.

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Happy birthday, Tupac Shakur (1971-1996)

June 16th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

“June one-six seven-one, the day/mama pushed me out her womb, told me, ‘Nigga, get paid.'”

“Krazy” is track eight on Tupac’s The Don Killuminati: The 7 Day Theory. It’s a little over five minutes long, was produced by Darryl “Big D” Harper, and it’s a pretty good example of what Tupac was best at: being honest. I don’t mean honest in the strictest sense of the word. Tupac’s honesty was rarely “this actually happened to me.” But he excelled at “this actually happens” honesty, that kind of realism where he’s reflecting real life and using himself or a story he tells as the message. He excelled at telling his story, your story, and my story.

Tupac explains himself immediately: “Last year was a hard one, but life goes on.” And it’s true. No matter how bad things get, no matter how heavy that weight, life is going to go on whether you want it to or not. You can keep up or fall behind. “Krazy” is an admission of vulnerability, a song that says that Tupac doesn’t have it all together, but he’s doing better than he was, and he’s gonna do better than he did.

Coping is hard. Waking up, putting on a smile, and going to work when you’d rather sink into your bed and sleep another day away is hard. Working up the nerve to do stuff you know you enjoy doing is an absurd situation, but a real one.

For Pac, coping meant looking toward the future, toward better days to come, and making sure he recognizes the blessings of today. It meant smoking weed and hoping that it gets you high so you can escape from the stress. Even when it’s dark, make it a point to emphasize the light. For Bad Azz, who holds down the third verse, it’s chasing money so he can chase the things he wants, even though that comes with pleasure and pain. “Having money’s not everything, but not having it is,” right?

I’ve been listening to a lot of coping music lately. Pharoahe Monch’s PTSD tackles despair head-on and balances it with dreams, discussing what it’s like to adjust to your new status quo after experiencing something awful or draining, and the idea of suicide as a potential energy. Kid Cudi’s made a career out of openly discussing depression and finding your own way. I think my favorite example is on “Just What I Am,” when he says “I had to ball for therapy, my shrink don’t think that helps at all, whatever/This man ain’t wearing these leather pants.” I like Satellite Flight: The Journey to Mother Moon for similar reasons.

The Cudi and Monch albums are two of my favorite releases this year for the same reason I like Tupac’s “Krazy” so much. There’s something deeply attractive about breaking the facade of perfection and revealing the human being underneath. It’s still a performance, all of these men are playing a role, but they artfully manage to not just express fears, but express them in such a way that you can deeply relate to what they’re talking about. It feels real, and because of that real-ness, we can steal a bit of strength from it for ourselves. If he made it, we can, too.

Tupac would’ve been 43 today. Happy birthday, Pac. I’m glad you shared your life with us.

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Cord Jefferson on writing about being black while black

June 10th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

On Medium, Cord Jefferson said this:

Or maybe it wasn’t that I didn’t have anything to say. Maybe it was the realization that writing anything would be to listlessly participate in the carousel ride: an inciting incident, 1,000 angry thinkpieces, 1,000 tweeted links, and back to where we started, until next time. Perhaps it was a feeling that writing anything would finally be too redundant to bear, a pursuit of too many sad and obvious words to heap onto so many other nearly identical words written down before, by me, by thousands of others.

and this:

What new column shall the writer write when an unarmed black person is killed for doing nothing but frightening an armed white person? The same thing he wrote when Trayvon Martin was killed? And that’s to say nothing of when Oscar Grant was killed. Or when Ramarley Graham was killed. Or when Timothy Stansbury Jr. was killed. Or when Amadou Diallo was killed. Or when Jordan Davis was killed. Or when Ousmane Zongo was killed. Or when Jonathan Ferrell was killed. Or when Renisha McBride was killed.

I’ve written about being harassed and abused, fearing for the lives of my cousins, lamenting the options of people in my immediate circle, eulogies for men I’ve never met, and my own fear and frustration with being black in America. I did it through the lens of comics for a while, before eventually gaining the confidence to do it without a pop culture connection.

I did it because I loved it, I did it because I felt led to, I did it because I ended up with a voice people paid attention to and not doing it would’ve felt irresponsible. I did it because I believed it helped. I’ve backed off in a major way over the past year or so, trying to listen instead of talking about everything that crosses my desk, but I still do the thinking and conversating that leads to thinkpieces. It’s still on my mind, I’m still processing the data. I just don’t share it.

Jefferson’s point about finding something new to write when another brown face is killed is a critical hit. Past a certain point, it feels like justifying your existence, like making your case for being treated like an actual human being by others. It feels like explaining blue to a dog. The dog has other things to worry about and you’re going to just feel ugly afterward.

I can’t not pay attention to race and culture. In a very real sense, it’s self-defense, or a way to process the weight that settles on my shoulders over the course of my daily life. But it’s also draining. It’s been one hundred and fifty years since “Ain’t I A Woman?” and we’re still trying to prove our humanity through words. Something ain’t working.

Jefferson’s piece is well worth reading.

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Tumblr Mailbag: Quitting the Big Two

June 5th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

Someone on tumblr asked me what it was like to quit reading Marvel and DC. I’d been trying to type about it for a while, but something about the phrasing let me hit on an approach I felt was worthwhile, instead of pointless. It felt strong enough to turn into a real piece, and here we are. The answer is that quitting Marvel and DC comics managed to be simultaneously easy and difficult. Nowadays, it’s astronomically easier to abstain than it is difficult.

It wasn’t a difficult decision to make because I knew I could find something to replace the hole leaving those comics behind would leave. I was at a point where I was more interested in seeking out creator-owned works from creators than their new cape projects already, so I was halfway there. I didn’t/couldn’t do a 1:1 replacement, in part because that’s a silly idea, but I knew I could get things from people I liked elsewhere, and I hoped the others would branch out to non-cape stuff, too. (Zeb Wells and Marjorie Liu are—shhh, lean in real quick, streets is talking—two of the best writers to grace a Marvel comic. No fooling. Get familiar!)

When I quit, I didn’t make a plan or even think about it beyond “I should do thi—WHOOPS did it.” I still don’t know if Vertigo “counts” as DC for instance, or Icon for Marvel, since they’re both more-or-less creator-owned imprints. I didn’t even bother figuring out where comp copies (as a journalist) or freebies (as a guy who is blessed to have friends) factored in to the embargo. I eventually just decided that nobody has to follow my dumb personal rules, so if somebody gives or lends me something, I’d take it instead of throwing it back in their face with a lecture like a stereotype of a Berkeley progressive. “Why be a jerk?” was my motto, I guess. Better that than “Have you even HEARD of that time Stan Lee attempted to collude with DC Comics to keep rates for artists low?!”

At the same time, it was difficult because I’ve read and enjoyed Marvels, and to a much lesser extent DCs, since around the time I learned how to read. I was twenty-eight when I consciously decided to quit. That’s about twenny three years of inertia, interest, and love to overcome. I didn’t magically stop liking their comics or the characters or the creators (I’ve probably written more about Jim Lee-era X-Men post-quitting than anybody who’s still reading cape comics) and my curiosity is on par with my guilty conscience in terms of having a continually debilitating effect on my life.

For example: I don’t eat pork. I quit swine in ‘99. I could tear up some porkchops and bacon as a kid, but it wasn’t a struggle to quit pork. I didn’t waffle over it. I just did it, and that was a wrap. I don’t look back on porkchops fondly or reminisce about those days. “Mannnn, remember how good that porkchop was back in ‘97, second week a May? Hooo whee!” That’s absurd.

But with comics, it’s different. I do that with Spider-Man constantly and in great detail—Return of the Goblin, his first meeting with Luke Cage, that time Betty Brant said something nice about him and he was like “Dang, I never noticed her before, but she’s cute AND she’s on my side” like a doggone teenaged idiot, Mary Jane going Sibyl to get a soap opera job and dodging stalkers…I can recite it chapter and verse. It’s a part of me.

While I can and did change my habits, the problem was changing my thinking, the stuff I was taking in outside of the comics, too. I had to ask what was up with this, that, and the third much, much less. I had to stop reading essays, interviews, and promo for things I had no interest in experiencing. It was silly. “I don’t care about this so much!!!”

Changing those habits takes effort, which leads me directly to why it isn’t difficult to stay away from the Big Two these days: I succeeded at changing my thinking. Wednesdays aren’t new comics days any more. I don’t read comics news sites when I can help it. I discover new comics via word of mouth or Tumblr. I unplugged in a way that let me maintain my decision instead of waffling and crumbling.

I read other comics now, and the further I get from the Big Two, the easier it is to stay away. The less I indulge, the less I want it. The guilt and frustration that led to me giving up have given way to something akin to apathy (and occasionally disappointment). I hear summaries of recent events in comics I once loved and it’s like I woke up in Ancient Sumeria for all the sense it makes to me.

But that’s okay, because I don’t care. I don’t mean that in the dismissive sense, a “who cares?” type of way. I mean it very literally: I’m no longer invested in what happens to Spider-Man. I’m still curious about a few things (the black characters, pretty much, and I like when the creators I enjoy get a cool-sounding project), but in terms of keeping up, keeping track, paying attention, entertaining the idea of going back, checking out what I’ve missed: nah, son, I’m good. I grew past it and it’s not for me any more. It’s for somebody else. And that’s cool. Win/win.

I feel good about my decision. But I started buying vinyl and various types of bottled root beers and sodas in the interim, so I couldn’t afford to go back if I wanted to.

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Mitsuhisa Kuji’s Wolfsmund: death

May 21st, 2014 Posted by david brothers

Wolfsmund is created by Mitsuhisa Kuji, translated by Ko Ransom, and published by Vertical. I’m talking about volume 3, but you should start with the first volume, assuming your stomach and soul can handle it. I waffle and wobble a bit, personally.

I’m not too squeamish when it comes to entertainment, but it’s really down to presentation. Flash beheadings, brutal beatings, none of that really moves the needle in terms of actual existential terror. It’s when things get too specific and personal that I start checking out. Eyeball trauma gets me good, even in garbage movies like 28 Weeks Later. Hannibal was gross from jump, but it didn’t gross me out until season two showed someone tearing themselves free from a sculpture they’d been stitched into.

Mitsuhisa Kuji’s Wolfsmund excels at the specific and personal, and I’m torn between being into it and hitting the emergency eject button. It’s set in the past, at a gateway between two lands governed by a man who specializes in educational cruelty. It is grim and difficult to read. I’m three volumes in and there’s no real hope in sight. Compelling characters are put to the sword or worse on a regular basis. The first volume lays out what to expect: there are people who die, there are people who escape, and there is the man who sits in judgment of all of them and doesn’t let anyone pass without taking skin off their back.

Volume two was exceedingly cruel, cruel enough to where I put the series to the side for a few months. Volume three, purchased on a whim relatively recently, still made me cringe. In movies, if someone’s getting their eyes stabbed out, I can look away. In comics, you gotta look before you turn the page. You have to register what you’re seeing before you realize it’s horrible.

I tried to read the torture scene in volume three a couple times, not willing to admit defeat, before I eventually just bit down and flipped past it. Kuji got me. She got me good. The fingernails, or the imaginings that come along with reading a scene of fingernail torture, put me down for the count and I lost a few panels. She followed it with a scene where a man offers a mother and son a chance. He will spare one of them. Whoever the sword points to when it falls will die. The sword is placed point-down, tips, falls, and:

Mitsuhisa Kuji - wolfsmund - 01

Mitsuhisa Kuji - wolfsmund - 02

A sword is for stabbing, you see. It’s cruel poetry. The pommel doesn’t matter. Starving dogs are set on the son. The mother rushes to his rescue. She fails.

Kuji played assistant for Kentaro Miura, creator of hyper-violent medieval tale Berserk, and Kaoru Mori, creator of the maid soap opera Emma. Wolfsmund doesn’t feel like a marriage of those influences, but you can feel both influences creeping into the work. The art in Wolfsmund is very well-rendered and detailed. I can’t speak to its period-appropriateness, but the costumes feel real. They’re full of details and accoutrements that feel like they make sense.

Wolfsmund is an easy book to fall into, to believe in, and that makes the trauma all the worse. It’s a creeping, personal kind of cruelty. The characters in the book and Kuji herself dedicate scads of time to showing us someone else’s pain in excruciating detail. It’s not like Gantz, which could never figure out if it wanted to terrify or titillate. It’s un-erotic in the extreme, so uncomfortable and dark that you wince at the art. (The actual instances of sex and nudity in Wolfsmund are often difficult. There’s no guarantee that either party will survive the scene, much less the book, and they’re often book-ended with skin-crawling horrors.)

Wolfsmund is feel-bad comics, the sort of book you read and swear off and come back to again after a few months have passed. It’s full of non-stop cruelty and horrors, definitely beyond what I personally prefer. But there’s something about it and the feelings it inspires that is compelling, too. It’s a difficult kind of pleasure, and probably not even pleasure at all.

I read the second volume of Tsutomu Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia and the third volume of Wolfsmund back-to-back one night, well after the sun went down. The treatment of death in both books captured my imagination. Where Knights of Sidonia had an incredible depiction of impersonal cruelty, Kuji indulges in indulgent and beautiful cruelty in almost every chapter. You either get the knife or the glint of it. It’s mean and it’s ugly, heartbreakingly ugly at times, but I keep coming back to it.

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Tsutomu Nihei’s Knights of Sidonia: death

May 20th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

Knights of Sidonia, created by Tsutomu Nihei, translated by Kumar Sivasubramanian, published by Vertical. This is volume 2, there are several others, including ebooks on your preferred digital platform.

Set in a far-flung future after the destruction of Earth, Knights of Sidonia takes place in and around a spacecraft that contains the entirety—maybe so, maybe no—of humanity. They’re being hunted by powerful and utterly alien beings. One day, things go wrong and the ship must change course. Imagine being in a car taking a turn at 60mph. Now multiply it by several thousand orders of magnitude.

This happens:

Knights of Sidonia - death - 01

None of these people are named. They aren’t characters, just bodies that transition from human to smears. They’re indicators of scale and trauma instead of people. Imagine you, your best friend, and your circle. Now imagine what happens when they hit God’s windshield at eighty thousand miles an hour.

This follows:

Knights of Sidonia - death - 02

Nihei’s got a killer sense of scale and perspective. It made Blame! claustrophobic despite being full of open spaces and it made Biomega creepier than sin. Here, he goes from a long-distance shot to a close-up one, adding the remnants of human remains to the smears.

I keyed on the couple the first time I read this. They might not even be a couple—they might be two people caught by surprise in the moment. But under Nihei’s pen, they’re here and then they’re gone and that is the entirety of their existence.

The impersonal nature of these deaths, and this scene as a whole, struck me. These deaths happen because someone makes a decision to save the many at the expense of the…well, not few, as you can see. At the expense of those unfortunate enough to be away from safe areas at that specific moment in time.

Despite these deaths being utterly impersonal, they’re far from bloodless. Something about the way Nihei draws the splatters, the choice of sound effect, and the sheer number of them make the scene feel like one final upset and insult before the victims are sent on their way. It feels like a chill, an Act of God.

There was a person here. There’s not now.

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Happy birthday, Malcolm X.

May 19th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

I keep a copy of Malcolm X’s “The Ballot or the Bullet” on my phone.

It’s something I got out of growing up in the church. When you’re going through it, seek out things that comfort you. When you have idle time, remind yourself of why life is good. It’s a reminder, a reinforcement, a gift to yourself.

The Autobiography is a little too long for a quick hit. The various collections of quotes online are too stripped of context to be true reminders. But “The Ballot or the Bullet” is the perfect sampler. I can dip in, get something out of it, and dip back out and be on my way before I get to where I’m going.

I got into Malcolm X’s work as a kid, and his words have been a source of strength ever since. He taught me that rights can not be given. No one can grant you the right to do anything. It is yours by natural law, and the only thing they can do is illegally deprive you of your rights. You can’t ask for freedom. It’s yours already. Don’t let people congratulate themselves for giving you a leg up when what they really did is stop holding you back. Be grateful for advances, but don’t confuse or tolerate half-measures and limp efforts masquerading as progress. Your family deserves and requires your protection. Self-defense by any means. Be honest and be direct. Have patience and integrity. But when push comes to shove, if somebody puts his hands on you, put him in the cemetery.

Know that you are invaluable.

You are bigger than whatever box it is they have chosen to put you in. The world will remind you of how bad and ugly and worthless you are, so that’s hard to remember sometimes. Sometimes you need a second to think. Sometimes you need to flip through something familiar to remind you.

Today is the birthday of Malcolm Little, later Malcolm X and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz. He was thirty-nine when he died, but he’d be eighty-nine today. “Rest In Power” makes me uncomfortable, like the struggle is infinite and there’s no rest for us. “Rest In Peace” is too small, too generic. So: thank you for reminding me of what I can be.

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if you want me, you should find me [Pill x Suzanne Vega]

May 13th, 2014 Posted by david brothers

I was in a bike shop with a friend when something familiar came over the PA system: “If you want me, you can find me left of center off of the strip.” I knew the lyrics, but I was surprised to hear them as part of an unfamiliar song. I knew it from another song, Pill’s “On Da Korner,” produced by Needlz, from his 1140: The Overdose mixtape. I asked the clerk, and she said it was called something like “Left of the Center,” but she couldn’t remember who sang it.

It’s a good sample in a solid song off a solid mixtape that just recently re-entered the rotation. Pill was always a good complement to Freddie Gibbs. Where Gibbs had that grown-man nihilist perspective, Pill came with sheer unrepentant swagger. He’s gonna do what he’s gonna do, and that’s just how life is. Pill’s a dude other dudes tend to talk about in terms of realness, which is why you can see everything from wads of money to cooking crack to smoking in his videos. (Pill had the trap goin’ ham way before Kanye and Jay, too.)

I like the way the sample sits on the song. The subdued, almost melancholy vocals pair well with the driving beat and Pill’s verses. It’s an airy vocal sample sitting on top of a pounding song, the kind of combo that tends to lodge itself in my head. It’s a similar vibe to Vado’s “Badman” and “Off Hiatus,” both of which sample a couple of Lana Del Rey songs to give some flavor to crime raps.

The original song sampled in “On Da Korner” is Suzanne Vega’s “Left of Center,” a song from ’86 and part of the Pretty In Pink soundtrack. It’s a love song about being on the outskirts. It’s about being a little weird, but knowing that the person you like is a little weird, too. I’ve been spinning it since last night, and I like it. I like how Vega sings it, and I like what it’s about, too.

What I like the most, though, is understanding the difference between how Vega used her lyrics and the way Pill and Needlz did. “Left of Center” is obviously its own thing, and it’s successful at what it does. To make “On Da Korner” work, though, Needlz needed to find a sample that was not just exciting, but fit Pill’s milieu. On top of that, Pill needed to create a song that made the sample make sense.

Both songs use the same vocals, but have fairly different moods. “Left of Center” is full of longing and more than a little hope. “On Da Korner” uses Vega’s words as a statement of intent, and sounds more than a little prideful. Both songs are fundamentally the same—”If you want me, you can find me off the strip”—but Vega’s figurative usage contrasts with Pill’s literal usage.

As a kid, I found new music mostly by way of the radio and liner notes. Liner notes would point me toward artists that the original artist either dug, was partners with, or was influenced by. It let me spiderweb my way out into good music, and those habits carry on now.

I pretty much only get liner notes when I buy vinyl these days, but samples have quickly filled that gap for me. It’s like an impromptu history lesson, if I can source the sample and find the album. It goes both ways, too. Sometimes I’ll grab an old album or someone will recommend me something, and I’ll hear a line that makes everything snap into place and deepens my enjoyment. It’s like following breadcrumbs.

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