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The Cipher 03/16/11: “Peace to the number 7. Everybody else get the 4 9 3 11.”

March 16th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

no question

created: I haven’t talked about digital comics in what, like six whole hours? So I talked about that some, I pushed some art, and talked that Milestone talk over the past week.
Digital comics: either they’re a threat or they aren’t. You can’t have it both ways.

Xombi 1 gets a preview. I’m writing this post late enough that I already read all my comics, and my predictions came true. John Rozum and Frazer Irving gave DC their best creative success since that issue of Batman & Robin where Damian hit Joker with a crowbar.

Me and David Uzumeri take on Grant Morrison and Sean Murphy’s Joe the Barbarian. tl;dr: I liked Sean Murphy’s half of the book.

Jonah Hex has had some ill artists.


ch-ch-blaow, end of session

consumed: This has been a week of weeks, man. Somebody needs to let me hold a number two pencil, ’cause they testing. I’m ready for the weekend, but I can’t sleep it away like I did last weekend.

-Ron Wimberly is doing Ninjaid for charity. In his own words:

On March 11th, 2011 a great earthquake struck 130 kilometers off the east coast of Oshiko Peninsula, Tohouku Japan. This earthquake caused great destruction to Japan.

My work, particularly GratNin, has benefited beyond measure from the culture of Japan.

Starting today, I will draw a GratNin (16×22.5 cm) every afternoon for the next 30 days and post it here. I will reward every donation of $35 or more made from this site, with the button above, with one of those original GratNin drawings posted or to be posted here.

The proceeds will go to Red Cross via Paypal.

thank you for your generosity.

Sincerely,
Ron

Good cause, ill art, win-win. The iFanboys have the lowdown on other relief efforts, and Deb Aoki at About.Manga has a few, too.

-I watched the tsunami footage live on Al Jazeera’s youtube page the night all that went on. One of the craziest things I’ve ever seen.

-I really appreciate Takehiko Inoue’s Smile series. It’s such a simple thing, just quick sketches of mostly children smiling, but it’s really nice. I dunno.

-My main homegirl, editor, and karaoke addict Laura Hudson is doing karaoke 7 days a week (actually 12) and blogging about it for the Portland Mercury. Here’s the category. She’s crazy, the posts are great, and I’d stage an intervention but this is awesome.

-I started watching Community. It’s pretty okay. It took a while to find its legs, but now it’s pretty good. I need to start season 2 pretty soon. It’s at its best when it’s doing straight comedy rather than romance antics, though. “Will they or won’t they?” who cares

-I know I keep just barely mentioning Killzone 3 on here, but it’s fascinating (and I play it a few nights a week so it’s always fresh on my mind). But here’s the thing. I had a game the other night where I was like 32-54, or 26-41, or something like that. I got chewed up by any reasonable standard. My kills/death ratio is like .49. But. I spent those matches having a gang of fun, coordinating with a friend to get things done, and generally taking part. I captured points, repaired ammo boxes, whatever whatever. When I’d play Call of Duty and get eaten up like that, I’d be getting mad. In Killzone, I just keep on pushing, taking L after L, but enjoying every minute of it. Even if you’re getting blasted, you can still support your team, capture game objectives, and generally help get things done. This is a good thing, a tremendously good thing, and more than welcome in this genre. You can find your strengths. My strengths are running into bullets, drawing fire, and getting in-game objectives done. Maybe yours are different.

-No, I haven’t gotten back to Persona 3 Portable yet. Tonight, I think. I keep starting novels, like real novels with no pictures or nothing, and read those before bed, which is my prime gaming time. Life is so hard you guys :(

-Pharoahe Monch’s WAR (We Are Renegades) leaked the other day. I listened to it five times a row that day. I guess what I’m saying is that it’s cop on sight, and I keep checking Amazon to see if the mp3 page is going live so I can buy it. I dunno if this will work or be annoying or whatever, but Monch’s PR dude sent me this streaming clip of “Assassins,” which features Royce da 5’9″ and Jean Grae. That’s three of my favorite emcees on one track.
Assassins” feat. Jean Grae & Royce Da 5’9 by duckdown

-Here’s why I listen to rap, courtesy of Nickel Nine: “You claiming that you flow like water, but y’all niggas Evian backwards.” Oh my.

-Raekwon’s Shaolin Vs. Wu-Tang is… okay. It’s not as good as Only Built 4 Cuban Linx 2, which is I think my main problem with it. That said, it starts off real strong, as seen in the slightly NSFW below, wobbles in the middle, peters out, and then comes back strong for that joint with Black Thought. The Nas track didn’t impress me.

-You want to cop Frank Ocean’s nostalgia,ULTRA. Here’s a download link. Cover art below.


Ocean is nice, and this absurdly smooth R&B album from the Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All crew sort of puts a bullet into the meme of “Oh, all they talk about is rape and murder and gaybashing, but they’re so young and talented that I feel compelled to write a two thousand word piece on why it’s okay/not okay to listen to them.”

-“There Will Be Tears” is brutal, fair warning. It’ll kick your legs right out from under you.

-It’s like Andre 3000 said on “Aquemini.” “Now, question: is every nigga with dreads for the cause? Is every nigga with golds for the fall? Naw… So don’t get caught in appearance. It’s Outkast, Aquemini, another Black experience.”

-Something else Andre said on Aquemini:

Three in the morning, yawnin’, dancin’ under street lights/ We chillin’ like a villain and a nigga feelin’ right/ in the middle of the ghetto on the curb, but in spite/ all of the bullshit we on our back starin at the stars above/ (aww man) Talkin bout what we gonna be when we grow up/ I said what you wanna be, she said, “Alive” (hmm)/ It made me think for a minute, then looked in her eyes/ I coulda died, time went on, I got grown/ Rhyme got strong, mind got blown, I came back home/ to find lil Sasha was gone/ Her mama said she with a nigga who be treating her wrong.

-I’ve been playing nostalgia,ULTRA and Pac Div’s Mania on repeat, basically. I like Pac Div a lot, and Mania is on point. Grab the album here and the cover art rightchea:

The full-size art is like 1000px square. Dunno why–250×250 is fine, isn’t it? Smaller, too, which makes the mp3s smaller. Hi-def album art, I guess. Check out the back cover art on the official site.


blood shot in that direction, cipher

David: Hulk 30.1, Thunderbolts 155, Uncanny X-Force #5.1, Xombi 1
Esther: Knight and Squire 6
Tiny Titans 38 Mmmmmmaybe Power Girl 22
Gavin: Batman 708, Knight & Squire 6, Darkwing Duck 10, Avengers Academy 11, Deadpool MAX History Of Violence, Iron Man 2.0 2, Thunderbolts 155, Ultimate Comics Avengers vs New Ultimates 2, Uncanny X-Force 5.1

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Best of 2010: Two Surprises

January 5th, 2011 Posted by david brothers

Acme Novelty Library 20, Afrodisiac, American Vampire, It Was the War of the Trenches, King City, Parker: The Outfit, Pluto, Thunderbolts, Twin Spica, Vagabond 9


chris ware – acme novelty library #20

official page

I’ve never been able to get into Chris Ware. I’ve liked the odd bit of context-less art. I think there was a New Yorker cover that I liked and maybe some spot illustrations elsewhere. I could recognize the skill, it just never hooked me. I even bought Jimmy Corrigan at one point, and it’s sitting in my closet unfinished. I tried it, didn’t like it, dropped it.

Acme 20, though. I haven’t read any of the prior volumes, and to be honest, I barely even know what the series is about. I’d heard some advance buzz from some reliable friends, though, and that led to me throwing it on my Amazon list, which is where I put everything I’m thinking of getting. My good buddy Lauren Davis picked it up for my birthday as a surprise (she is the first person to a) reveal that she knows I have a wish list and b) actually buy something off it).

I read it on a long train ride and was blown away. I knew nothing about it going in, other than it was about a dude and each page was a single day in one year of his life. Acme 20 goes from pre-verbal to death for this guy Lint, and it’s just an amazing work of comics art.

Rather than doing the cheap thing and presenting a highlight reel of Lint’s life, where we see him win at hide and seek, be prom king, marry a hot model, or whatever, Ware instead focuses on a range of events and emotions. We see sadness, happiness, and later on, we find out that some things we’ve seen are far from the whole picture.

Ware uses the page-a-day to his benefit, hiding facts and truths between the pages and between the years. Reality slips and slides as time goes on, with jarring shifts in Lint’s status happening completely off-screen and sometimes never even being explained at all. You have to take things as they come, a lot like you do in real life.

In the end, Ware didn’t make a story about lies or sadness or guilt or happiness or whatever. He just told the story of one guy’s life, for better or for worse. And it was fantastic.

kou yaginuma – twin spica

preview, official page

When I was a kid, I was really, really into certain things. I liked arachnids, especially scorpions (in theory). I liked turtles, and even had an ornery pet painted turtle. I liked drawing. I also really, really liked space. I never had a telescope, but I tore through library books about astronomy. Reading about stars, thinking about walking on the moon, and checking out comparison charts of planets… I ate all of that up. It was cool, and really hard to truly understand. It was so different, right? But you grow up and you grow out of things. I can’t remember the last time I sat down and drew something, you know? Things fade out.

I hadn’t thought about that in years, but Twin Spica brought it all back. I didn’t expect to like it. The art looked way too cute, the lead was this tiny little girl, and it didn’t look like the kind of book where people smoked cigarettes in dark bars and got shot in alleys. I’d seen it around, judged it by its cover, and was like, “Well, maybe if I get bored.”

I got bored one day and read it. Reaction: stunned surprise. Yaginuma made me remember a little bit of what it was a like to be a kid and be endlessly fascinated by the unknown. The endless memorization just because, the spacey daydreams, and just trying to wrap your too-small hands around as huge of an idea as “outer space” come across with a clarity I didn’t expect.

There’s a real love for the subject matter in Twin Spica, but rather than being cloying, overly subservient, and impenetrable, it’s delivered in a way that the love is transferred to the reader. You can tell exactly how much Asumi, the main character, enjoys space. It’s a little bittersweet, too, due to the presence of Mr. Lion. He’s the representation of the dangers of space travel and past tragedy, but even then, he’s there to support Asumi and nurture her interest in space. In the end, her sacrifices and setbacks stand right next to her triumphs and all of it just reinforces her resolve.

As far as showing you what it’s like to be a kid and just entranced with something, just positively drowning and not even caring because it’s endlessly fascinating and infinitely wonderful, Twin Spica nails it.

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Pretty Girls: Inio Asano

October 1st, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Inio Asano: wiki, Anime News Network
Books: solanin, What a Wonderful World!, Vol. 1, What a Wonderful World!, Vol. 2
Why? Asano’s stories are my thing because he pretty much nails mid-20s ennui, but he also draws really, really cute girls. Fashion-wise, they’re kind of hipster girl cute. They have that carefully crafted off-kilter thing going on, a lot of scarves and patterns, sometimes tops and skirts that look a little like grandma clothes, lots of layers, and hair that’s either short or worn so as to appear short. A little quirky, but calculatedly quirky, right? Asano’s girls feel very contemporary.

They have really cute faces, too. They’re kind of doughy. More like, their faces bend under the weight of their emotions. Smiles go from one ear to the other, eyes squeeze shut, certain girls have duck lips, and your commonly accepted proportions for faces don’t matter at all. Expressiveness is what counts, and his brand of particularly cartoony, exaggerated expressiveness is what makes Asano fresh.

The freckles across Meiko’s nose in solanin help a lot, too.




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Pretty Girls: Kenichi Sonoda

August 27th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Kenichi Sonoda: Wiki, imdb, a pretty good summary of his career, and an impossibly ancient shrine
Books: Gunsmith Cats, Gunsmith Cats: Burst
Why? The thing about cheesecake is that there’s exactly two types. There’s the trite, ugly, boring, unattractive, and lame stuff–your Ed Beneses, Zenescopers, and the like. They take a by the numbers approach to sexiness that actually saps any sexiness from the image. Two Boobs + Two Butt Cheeks+ Flimsy Thong Plus Arched Back = Any Given Issue of Birds of Prey. The other kind, the stuff that comes from your Frank Chos, Adam Hughes, Amanda Conners, and Adam Warrens, has a certain care and spontaneity that the other stuff doesn’t. The difference is that the latter group actually cares about what they’re doing. That care led to them really pushing and getting good at what they do.

I’d put Kenichi Sonoda in the latter group. He has his quirks/fetishes/interests (they are guns, cars, girls, and girls who wear pantyhose, in that order), he has his downsides (the occasional flagrant panty shot, prizing sexiness over sensibility, Minnie May), and he is absolutely technically proficient, but what raises him above artists like Benes is that he’s clearly put a tremendous amount of thought into what he’s doing. His style is probably exactly what you think of when someone says anime or manga (big eyes, small mouth, big boobs, small waists), but he’s not as generic as he might seem at first glance. He’s got a great grasp of body language (ks-sleepy.jpg, look at her slump!), he can actually work facial expressions (look at that saleslady in ks-asteal.jpg and tell me you can’t see the “cha-ching!” in her face), and the women wear actual, if occasional impractical, clothes (Rally in ks-copkilla.jpg, for example). He’s not just an artist drawing empty T&A. He’s making an effort to make his characters real. He’s drawing typical cute stuff, but with just a little more talent and care than you’d expect.

An aside: Gunsmith Cats is really, really good stuff, but Minnie May, and what she represents, makes me real uncomfortable. Without her, it’s a rocking manga about girls, guns, and fast cards. With her, well… you’re gonna get some funny looks if you read this funnybook in public. (no pedo)



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The Cipher 08/11/10

August 11th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

-Hey, I wrote some stuff. Maybe you missed it. I reviewed the Scott Pilgrim game, heaped some pro-black/pro-fessional praise on Marc Bernardin, Adam Freeman, and Afua Richardson’s Genius, and wrote a surprisingly well-received piece on manga piracy.

-I didn’t do it, but this comic about a bee by Raina Telgemeier is fantastic.

-I’m still reading Shade (I’m up to volume 3, which I’m starting this weekend), but I also picked up Chi’s Sweet Home and Peepo Choo from Vertical, Inc. Jormungand 4 gets in today, I think, and it’ll probably remain my favorite funny action comic book about child soldiers.

Unforgiven on Blu-ray for eight bucks? That was Purchase On Sight. Wow.

-The countdown isn’t over. There’s one left. 1 Reader, maybe, or 1 Love.

Oh, what, comics come out today? Okay I guess we can talk about that.


David Easterman: Who cares about comical books? (but if that Green Lantern book Gav is buying is The Shield in Space, I might have to start picking that up).
Esther Cobblepot: Definitely: Batgirl 13 Maybe: Birds of Prey 4, Zatanna 4, Doc Savage 5
Jacob Gavin, Jr.: Buzzard 3, Booster Gold 35, Green Lantern Emerald Warriors 1, Justice League Generation Lost 7, Welcome To Tranquility One Foot In The Grave 2, Dark Wolverine 89, Invincible Iron Man 29, Steve Rogers Super-Soldier 2, Ultimate Comics Avengers 3 1

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3 Formative Works: Akira

August 7th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I don’t know if I could separate the film and comic versions of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira in my head if I tried. They’re both vastly important, but for different (and sometimes complementary) reasons. Akira was one of the first anime flicks I ever watched, and it made an indelible impression on me. I still have never seen Blade Runner, but I probably feel about Akira like other people do about Blade Runner. I had a tape I dubbed from the video store, the official cassette, the special edition DVD (with the tin), and now I own the Blu-ray, except the dub is different, so I went ahead and bootlegged a 1080p video file with the old school dub, too. I like this movie, man.

I came to the comic later, and like everything I read back then, I read it in fits and spurts. I read maybe four whole issues when I was a kid, all of them set before the big disaster struck Tokyo. They’re long gone now, but they were pretty stunning. They definitely stood alongside Sin City as being comics that were vastly better than the other comics I owned, even if I was too young to articulate why. It was a little more grown-up, a little more edgy, and Steve Oliff’s colors were amazing. I don’t think I even really knew what manga was at this point–I’d heard about Japanese comics, and my comics-reading uncle had lived in Japan so I was up on some stuff, but I didn’t really know about manga as something different from regular comics. I just knew that Akira was something special, different from the movie and possibly better.

In the late ’90s, I picked up two of the hardcovers that Graphitti Designs put out. The covers are almost identical to the Dark Horse versions. The local comic shop guy was your typical comic shop douchebag, unkempt and rude, and he let the two HCs, which were limited editions and behind the glass, go for fifteen each. Today, they’re worth ten times that. I ended up with books 2 and 4, set before and after everything goes wrong. They did little to show me exactly what the series was about, because I had two sets of 400 non-consecutive pages out of a series that ran over 2000 pages, but it did just increase my fascination with the series as a whole.

Everything was interesting. The draftsmanship, the way Tetsuo swallowed pills, the insane sex scene, the flashbacks, the ruined city… it really hit me in a way most sci-fi doesn’t. I’ve only ever had two holy grails in comics, books that I absolutely had to have at any (reasonable) price. Flex Mentallo was one, but I didn’t know that existed until what, 2005? When I got grown and could afford to buy whatever comics I wanted, Akira was the first and most important holy grail there was.

Finding more of the old Graphitti HCs proved to be almost impossible. Websites that listed them didn’t respond to emails, eBay was a joke, and you’d think that these books never existed. In 2004, Barnes & Noble issued a hardcover version of the Dark Horse volume 1, and I picked that up. It sucked that it was in black & white, but hey: 1) hardcover and 2) I had to have it. I held out hope that I would find the Graphitti versions for the rest, but eventually gave up and started buying the Dark Horse editions… right after they went mostly out of print. That’s no big deal now that Kodansha is rereleasing the series, but a few years ago, it was massively frustrating.

Finding and reading Akira in its entirety has been a quest some fifteen years in the making. I only picked up the sixth and final volume in early ’08, and that was after some serious searching. I can’t think of another series I’ve pursued off and on for that long. Scooping up the complete Sin City was easy, except for finding a copy of the old school Family Values printing. Flex Mentallo took a few eBay auctions. Akira took effort, for one reason or another.

It was worth the effort, though. Akira is one of my top three favorite books, and a pitch perfect example of how to do a sprawling, huge story without screwing it all up in the end. The art is off the charts, with consistently great layouts and inventive storytelling. It’s probably akin to Cerebus, except if Cerebus was great from the beginning and if Dave Sim didn’t go insane around the middle. It works, and at some 2000 pages, it really shouldn’t work. It should be bloated and ugly and drag, but it doesn’t.

What’s interesting about the English adaptation of Akira is that it goes against conventional manga translating wisdom in a few ways. It’s both flipped and in color, already a tremendous departure from the original work. Jo Duffy’s translation was meant to be appealing to American audiences first, which allowed her a certain degree of freedom in playing with the dialogue. All of this was done with the permission and approval of Otomo and Kodansha, of course, but if you had to make a list of changes to books that manga fans don’t like, it’d probably go 1) flipped, 2) color, and 3) localization. Not to mention its trim size (or more accurately, trim sizes across the various formats) and the fact that it was a computer-colored, story-driven manga released in the early ’90s, when garishly colored, art-driven superhero comics ruled the roost. Akira, in America, shouldn’t be what it is, and yet… here we are.

(An aside: I was at New People in Japantown when I saw a familiar logo on an unfamiliar spine. It turns out that Kodansha took Marvel/Epic’s Akira volumes, reflopped them, relettered them in Japanese, and re-released them in Japan in some very nice slipcased volumes. Every time I go in that building I am tempted to buy them. They have three or four, I think. I’m far from an expert in Japanese editions, but I’ve never heard of companies doing that before. You can see the covers here, along with some incorrect data [it’s definitely the Epic colorization]. Covers are ill, though, right? Someone talk me out of buying them.)

I haven’t talked at all about what Akira is about, have I? It doesn’t really matter. I could do that at any time, about any scene. The images in this post are from issue fourteen of the Epic run, one of the ones I distinctly remember poring over as a kid. The only thing the pages I’ve excerpted are missing is the crazy ill way Otomo would draw moving headlights, something that made it into the film and imprinted onto my mind as something awesome as a young age. (It only happens twice in this chapter, on Nezu’s front and rear lights.) But look at that atrium on akira-01.jpg, the body language on akira-02.jpg, the comedy on akira-03.jpg, the car on akira-05.jpg, the ridiculous camera shifts in akira-08.jpg (panels 7-9 make me swoon), Kay’s pose in panel three in akira-09.jpg, or the way Otomo keeps showing the windup and the effect, but not the impact, or–

pause

Akira is a triumph, one of those comics I try to reread at least once a year and fall in love with a little more each time. It’s over twenty years old, and while it has definitely aged some, it still beats the pants off a lot of things we consider quality nowadays.

And it has the best last page in comics, hands down.

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Tokyo Tribes: From Shaolin to Tokyo

August 7th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

Well, here’s something I never knew about.

Santa Inoue’s Tokyo Tribes is in the same kind of lane as Samurai Champloo, though it’s a rap and Japanese culture mash-up that takes place in the modern day, rather than a hazy past. I picked up the first volume years ago and liked it well enough, but didn’t pick up the rest, for some reason. Lots of references to Anthony Hamilton in that book, too, which I dug. Inoue’s not hopping on a cheap bandwagon.

Anyway, DJ Muro produced the entirely too expensive import soundtrack CD, and this song here, which I’ve had on a Ghostface Killah compilation for a couple years but never listened to, is on that soundtrack. It was weird to hear Ghostface shouting out “Musashi no kuni” and Trife talking about Tokyo Tribes. But, you know, hip-hop is worldwide.

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5 Series: Children of the Sea

July 23rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I talked about the story and relationships of Daisuke Igarashi’s Children of the Sea on Comics Alliance a few weeks back, and I don’t want to go over that again. But, let me tell you what I really like about Children of the Sea, above and beyond the glacial pacing and intricate web of relationships.

I really like the way Igarashi draws fish.

It sounds stupid, but really, you have to take pleasure where you can find it. Everyone in comics has a specialty. Jim Lee has the classic superhero locked down. Eduardo Risso draws beautiful girls. Mike Mignola does creepy better than most. Marcos Martin has ill layouts. Every artist you like probably does at least one thing very well. Igarashi draws oceanlife.

Part of building a believable world is actually creating a believable world. You build comic books from the ground up. If you’re doing the comic book version of Fievel Goes West, you better be able to draw mice. Animal Farm? Learn how to draw pigs. Once you get that down, you can go in and add flourish, whether it’s fantastic background work or high fashion. The focus of your work has to be solid to begin with, or else your work won’t be believable.

Creating a setting you can believe in requires putting in work and getting the basics right. Igarashi is telling a story about the evolution, or destruction, of the ocean. A large portion of it takes place underwater, so if he’s drawing fish that look like a third grader did them in the middle of a sneeze… you’re not going to buy the story. So, by rendering the fish with an appropriate level of detail, you make it easier for someone to get into the story.

This isn’t particularly deep or a revelation at all, is it? It is something that I never really realized until I really put some thought into why I was such a fan of Children of the Sea. It’s not deep or particularly twisty in story. You don’t need a flowchart to figure out what’s going on. It’s not even the kind of action-packed raw violence I like these days. But the craft on display, the way that Igarashi’s attention to detail and clear love of his subject, is what keeps me in.

I’m not saying I don’t like the story. Not even close, honestly. It’s actually a pretty good read and does a fine job of keeping me interested on its own. But the fact that the art is killer does a fantastic job of drawing me into the work. Igarashi has the basics down pat, and it’s obvious. His people aren’t as detailed as the fish, and they generally appear a little more wispy and ethereal than is the norm.

I’m away from my scanner and on my netbook, so I can’t flood this post with images like I wanted to. The official SIGIKKI site has plenty of samples, so click through, or just trust me.

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Jormungand 3: “To promote world peace.”

June 25th, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I’m going to be completely honest for a minute here. My favorite genre isn’t crime. It’s “violence.” I like my violence stylish and casual. You can’t work that hard at it, unless you’re John McClane, and even he makes it look effortless. I’m talking about single bullet in the head, hard jerk, splash of blood on the sunglasses violence. We gotta kill every rat-bastard one of them violence. No-look pass violence, where the hand that holds the knife moves so quickly and smoothly it’s almost independent of the body. Fade to black, the tip of a cigarette goes bright orange, one gunshot, and that’s all she wrote violence. I’m talking about the fact that bullets cost about twenty cents a piece, so your life is much, much cheaper than you think it is.

My most recent fix for that is Keitaro Takahashi’s Jormungand. I’ve written about it before, but I think I spent a lot of time introducing it, rather than actually talking about it. Its premise is fairly simple, which is the weird part about the lengthy introduction I wrote. A child soldier who hates weapons joins an arms dealer and people die. That’s it. There’s subplots involving vain crushes and revenge and all, but that’s flavor.

The second volume ended with Jonah, the child soldier and theoretical focus of the series, going into a suicidal rage and attacking a man named Kasper, brother of his boss, Koko Hekmatyar. The first chapter of Jormungand volume 3 reveals why he hates him. Three months ago, in an unnamed country in West Asia, most likely Afghanistan, Jonah was sent to support a military unit. Present in the camp are a group of local orphans. Jonah befriends them and protects them. Halfway through that first chapter, a vile arms dealer takes two of the orphans and goes out looking for the US military ordnance that he was planning to turn into profit. When he accidentally triggers a landmine, he uses the body of Malka, a young girl, to shield himself. She dies. He doesn’t. Jonah has a very reasonable reaction.

“I can’t accept that Malka died and not that bastard. I’ll personally send him to hell.”

By the end of the chapter, every soldier in the base is dead and the the arms dealer has four new holes in his face.

Jormungand is primarily an action manga. Its primary focus is strictly on entertainment. Bullets are expended by the dozen, each member of the cast has their specialty (sniping, tech, knife fighting, alertness, a willingness to murder), there’s a hopeless romance, fanservice, goofy comedy, and a quirky/wacky character. With that said, it isn’t completely empty of meaningful content. Jormungand is about violence. It’s about the application of violence, its beauty, its ugliness, the way it twists and distorts people with its pressure. It’s about the necessity of violence.

After his… temper tantrum, Jonah becomes a bodyguard for Koko. He hates weapons, and the people who make and use them, due to the fact that his family was killed as a direct result of arms dealers prizing profit over basic human decency. Due to his situation, and his history, Jonah is sullen and withdrawn, and not at all eager to open up and soften his facade. Which, of course, means that people are eager to talk to him and they talk at him. The cast discusses weapons and violence with him a couple times in each volume. In volume two, Koko discusses the UN’s Millenium Development Goals with Jonah. She tells him that nearly two hundred countries pledged to raise twenty-two billion dollars to genuinely improve the world. She says, “But that figure was recently surpassed by the average annual amount of money spent on weapons in regional conflicts across the globe. Can you believe that? Clearly the world likes war a lot more than it likes little kids!”

She goes on to ask him who owns most of the guns in the world. Military? Police? Private militias? Terrorists? No. Civilians own sixty percent of all the guns in the world. Less than one percent are owned by radical militias. This PDF link to “Transition to Peace: Guns in Civilian Hands” suggests that her figures are accurate. Finally, Koko says, “It’s a world where it’s easier to find a gun… than to find kindness for a stranger.”

You know what I like in my action comics? Actual facts that are more depressing than anything in the world.

Violence and weapons, they’re like a genie that’s come out of its bottle. They are not going to go away. The best you can hope for is to minimize the damage. One thing that comes up again and again in Jormungand is what it takes to defend something. Koko is of the opinion that the guns, in and of themselves, hold no values. What matters is why you use them and what you believe in. Jonah is disgusted by weapons, period. They exist only to hurt and to kill. They took his family from him.

At the same time, the necessity of them drives a lot of his actions. He is in danger simply by existing, and especially due to who he associates with. He’s a bodyguard, and you can’t defend someone with pacifism. For Jonah, weapons are a necessary evil. He can’t escape them. He knows that he needs weapons to get the job done. Early in the first volume, Jonah and Koko have a one-sided conversation about killing arms dealers. “Can you really give up the gun?” Koko asks him. She answers for him, saying, “No, you can’t. You’ll never be able to walk away from weapons. You may hate them more than anyone… but you know better than most how powerful you are with a weapon in your hand.” Simply put: you can’t bring a knife to a gun fight, and every fight is a gun fight.

Lehm, the old thrill-seeking mercenary of the group, emphasizes the importance of a cool head. He tells Jonah that the violence they engage in is just business and that they do not get into feuds. Control is what separates the men from the boys. One kind of violence destroys both sides. With control, only one side goes down. When another man describes a gunfight as “symphony,” Lehm tells him that he’s wrong. A gunfight is “a farting contest. Something awful, ugly, messy, and most of all, shameful!” Lehm thinks that a gunfight should make you apologize, and, after killing a young woman, he does exactly that to a teammate. It was necessary to kill her to protect someone’s life, but Lehm regrets it regardless.

Valmet, the eyepatch-wearing knife-wielder, prizes efficiency and emotion over all else. She believes in doing just enough, and doing it for a good reason. She has a cartoonish crush on Koko, the kind that’s obvious to everyone but Koko, but it also means that she’s fiercely loyal. While she has a certain amount of flair, since this is an action comic after all, she’s very straightforward. No flourish, no tricks, just doing what needs to be done.

Mildo, a member of a rival group, considers Valmet the big man on campus and wants to make her rep by beating her. She provides a nice contrast to Valmet. She fights because, after a while, all of the violence and death makes you empty on the inside. You take up a gun to protect your family or fight for your country, but after a while, all of that just becomes a rationalization. Mildo does it because she wants to be the best.

I find Jormungand so interesting because there are all of these questions and motivations swirling around. Every character, including Jonah, acknowledges the fact that, at a certain point, violence is a necessary evil. Jonah knows that he can’t get justice without weapons. Koko has used her position as an arms dealer to gain a greater appreciation of the way the world works. Lehm is a mercenary because it’s exciting, but he knows how to control the more unpleasant aspects of it.

I don’t know if this is making any sense. I have this theory that the stuff people describe as mindless entertainment, or popcorn movies, or whatever–none of that is worthwhile. It’s the entertainment equivalent of treading water or ten cent ramen noodles. It’ll kill some time, and you won’t come out of it angry or anything, but it won’t make an impression, either. The stuff that people remember and talk about and genuinely enjoy tends to have something beyond lasers and cool fights. It’s got to have something for you to latch on to. Jormungand is an action comic with something to say. There’s a lot of action and several exciting gun battles, but between all of that are the conversations and arguments that give context to all of the violence. It’s kind of like having your cake and eating it, too.

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Akira: The Future is Neo-Tokyo

June 3rd, 2010 Posted by david brothers

I was sitting here thinking about what I wanted to go up on the site today and drawing a blank. I have several posts in progress, but none I really felt like finishing tonight. A couple need more research, another would require some scanning, and I’ve had a long day. I threw on the Akira blu-ray I picked up the other week and had been putting off watching.

I think it’s safe to say that Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira was the first anime I ever watched, barring translated stuff like Puss-n-Boots and a few other fairy tales. It had to have been ’90, or ’91. I know I was living at my grandparents’ house at the time, and my uncle picked it up from the local video store. It was Akira and Fist of the North Star, and then Ninja Scroll a few years later, that ran my anime world. (FotNS was important to a much lesser extent than the others–my grandmother walked in on a headbusting segment and I didn’t see the end of that movie for a couple years. By the time I got back to it, I’d discovered Ranma and probably Tenchi Muyo. The animation looked stupid by then.)

The opening sequence of Akira got me thinking. Frank Miller’s Sin City burned a love of crime stories into my brain. I think that Akira, a movie I definitely saw before I turned ten, ruined me for science fiction.

I’ve briefly mentioned my problems with a lot of sci-fi stories on here before. I’ve never been into the super sleek Star Trek stuff. It’s too clean, too boring. Star Wars came a little closer, but still tended toward the shiny. Too much sci-fi indulges in utopianism, or at least some kind of frontierism, and I think that’s where the break happens. I’m not enough of an optimist to believe in anything utopian, I guess. It all rings false. The future isn’t going to be shiny.

No, the future is Neo-Tokyo.

The city design in Akira, movie or manga, is fascinating. There are pipes that spiderweb around the city. Dirty alleys lurk around the corner. Glitzy neon signs litter slums. The city is confused, with a ton of brick and stonework next to jury-rigged pipes and metal. It hints at rapid, unchecked expansion. Otomo’s incredibly detailed artwork makes the buildings look real, or at least real enough. There is depth and weight to them, and when they begin falling, it’s like the end of the world. After the rise of the Great Tokyo Empire, you can look and see how the ruins came from a real city. The city makes sense, which is something that is vital in establishing a setting or mood.

The thing about Otomo’s future is that it isn’t the far-flung future. There is technology beyond our capabilities, and it is clearly not the present day. It’s tomorrow. And the thing about tomorrow is that it looks a lot like today. Today? It looks a lot like yesterday. We wear our clothes a little different, we talk a little funnier, but society doesn’t change that much. The visions of the future from the World’s Fair or science-fiction didn’t come true. Our cities don’t walk on wheels, our cars don’t fly, and we don’t eat pills for breakfast. Well, most of us don’t. Our buildings are taller. Our roads are the same. There’s just a different layer of dirt on everything.

That’s Akira. Neo-Tokyo isn’t ugly. It looks normal, but just a little different. There’s a certain beauty in its crowded, cluttered landscapes. There’s something to it that reminds me of Moebius’s work on Silver Surfer: Parable or Geof Darrow’s Hard Boiled. They all show history through a weathered building or clusters of trash in the street.

What I like about it is that there’s been a clear progression from now to then. It looks like what the future might actually look like one day. It looks like Tomorrow Plus. A little dirty, a little dingy, but clearly the future. No utopia, no grand sense of exploration, and no sleek, sex toy-esque cars. The lasers are bulky and unwieldy. The backgrounds are dirty and old.

I think I like the future, but only when it looks like an older version of tomorrow. Akira works for me. Star Trek doesn’t. Maybe that’s Otomo’s fault.

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