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Breakdowns – Toothsome

Not a whole lot to say before the reviews, mainly because I’ve been so busy. I thought I had finished an essay for an upcoming pop culture book, but they came back with suggestions for revisions. Good ideas, too; it just changed the focus of the idea they’d originally approved. But I think it will be better, and hey, that’s real publishing for ya, I suppose.

Around these parts, I’m Managing Editor of the site, which mainly means Chris Hunter, ADD and I work more smoothly on everything and have time to actually read it, and thankfully, make changes very rarely. If you have suggestions of things you’d like to see, or things we should change, feel free to let any of the three of us know, though of course there are only so many hours in a day. Our call for new reviewers is bearing fruit, with the addition of the excellent Derik A Badman and maybe another one or two writers very soon.

And please note that the Strangehaven Contest is nearly over. If you still want to get in on the random drawing for tons of shwag, email me before this Monday, as I will be announcing the winner early next week on the home page, and in next week’s column.

Now, onto a wide range of reviews. No real plan behind two vampire-related books; I’m sure they came out in time for Halloween, so it just worked out that I was actually on the ball enough to review them quickly. But I’m more excited to tell you about some of the other books reviewed here, like…

The Push Man by Yoshihiro Tatsumi is the first official English language collection of the cartoonist who came to be known as the “Grandfather of Japanese alternative comics,” otherwise known as gekiga. One of the brighter lights of North American alternative comics, Adrian Tomine, discovered Tatsumi’s work in a collection he later learned was produced without the permission or compensation of Tatsumi, and eventually, a fortuitous meeting with the man led to this book collecting stories only from 1969, with other volumes to follow.

In the interview conducted by Tomine, Tatsumi insists that these stories represented a painful, lonely period in his life, but that he is quite normal, and looks forward to the readers discovering the other facets of his work. Whether he is or was “normal” is not relevant, but certainly the stories in this book represent a consistent, hopeless and dark view of Japanese urban society in the late 60s, and of women in particular.

The title story is actually slightly out of place, in that a man whose job (self-appointed?) it is to push travelers onto their train before the doors close finds himself pushed and hemmed in by women. All the lead characters in these stories are male, clean-cut, and of flat nose, blank expression and few words, but no others find themselves so wanted by women. The only connection here is the fear of them.

A more typical story is the opener, “Piranha,” a highlight of the collection and one of the bleaker comics stories you will find. A punch press operator comes home night after night to a mate who belittles and hectors him about his low-paying job, and how she would like to open her own geisha parlor (if that’s the correct term) if she had one million yen. The man gets her the money…as an insurance settlement when he willingly destroys his arm with the punch press. The woman is so appreciative she gives him one night of lovemaking, and then loses interest again, spending much of her time as the madame to her new geisha parlor. He gets his revenge in a novel way, which is where the title of the story comes in.

Tatsumi’s stories, often inspired by newspaper articles of the “true crime” variety, are not so much about hating women as they are about feeling isolated in the big city, conditioned to stay even as the indignities pile up and create a psychotic reaction. Occasionally, these men seek escape, but something usually happens to prevent it or make it bittersweet at best. The one who treats you badly will stay until a better game comes along, but the one who promises to take care of you is just offering a shinier cage. Tatsumi uses realistic backgrounds that evoke the harshness of these character’s lives, while the characters’ faces are more cartoony, giving the men not only an Everyman quality but something of a childlike quality, too. He seems to be suggesting that this city is too hard for faces so bland and soft, that these people belong in another world entirely. I had been hearing about this book since early this year, and it really does not disappoint. Tatsumi is a master; an excellent cartoonist with a point-of-view absolutely compelling in its desolation. Drawn & Quarterly. $19.95

The Curse of Dracula by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan collects the 1998 three issue miniseries that reunited the creative team of the acclaimed Marvel Comics series Tomb of Dracula. The reason for this finally being collected probably has to do with the popularity of other vampire books from other publishers, but TOD was the best work either Wolfman or Colan did, so I decided to give it a try.

In his Introduction, Wolfman claims that this was a new take on Dracula, unlike the previous series and much more realistic, to reflect the darker times in which we (were) living in 1998. After so many years molding his version of Dracula, it would be quite a challenge to come at the character from another direction, and Wolfman really doesn’t do much different.

In this story, Dracula doesn’t hunt on his own; rather, his mindless vampire acolytes collect his blood for him, with one memorable example being several missing college students hung up naked, kept alive to supply blood in IVs the vampires bring back to Dracula. It sacrifices the Gothic romance of Dracula for something more logical but also a bit more shocking. Likewise, Dracula isn’t content to lay in his crypt or hang out in his castle—he craves power, and to this end, he supports a weak-willed senator in his presidential campaign, even as he seduces the man’s wife.

Just as with TOD, Wolfman assembles a team of committed men and women out to destroy vampires, and again, they are led by a descendant of Jonathan Van Helsing, and we even have a Seward here, too, as well as the sexy half-vampire/half-human Blade type, in this case a blind Japanese woman named Hiroshima. They’ve got their cool weapons—this series was the connective tissue between the old series and the film series, stylistically.

Gene Colan’s pencil work remains moodier than almost anyone able to add depth and darkness with ink, and he comes up with some clever layouts. And Wolfman’s story is entertaining. But it’s not new. Old fans will enjoy this, but it rankles a bit that after a lengthy Introduction in which Wolfman not only makes false claims for how new and realistic this story is, he carries on about how horror stories aren’t formulaic like superhero or mystery stories because they have to speak to the reader’s fears, yet there’s nothing scary going on here. The story peters out without resolution, an obvious plea to pick up the reins again, which wasn’t answered in 1998. It doesn’t even make sense—what does Dracula care about the presidency, and how can he now back the senator’s wife for the job, when she’s now a vampire and can’t be seen during the day? It’s probably best this one is left as is, as a diverting vampire story with undiminished Colan art. Dark Horse Comics. $9.95

Diary of a Mosquito Abatement Man and King-Cat #62-64 by John Porcellino. I’d read some of Porcellino’s stories here and there in anthologies, and liked them, but out of pure laziness and never seeing the comics in a shop, I never bought any. I see now that I have really been missing out.

Porcellino is a gentle, nature-loving soul who has grown up within and without his comics, emotionally and creatively. Diary collects all the strips he did prior to, and within, King-Cat, as well as over thirty pages of new material, that relate to his former occupation as someone hired by counties to spray insecticide to control the mosquito population. In the beginning, the rough, careless quality of the artwork reflects his callow mind. He has no compunction about what he’s doing (and truth to tell, many of us still wouldn’t). But the solitary, methodical work outdoors has the beneficial effect of getting Porcellino to think about life and to appreciate all the nature around him. Then, he gets sick, caused by a sensitivity to noise, he finds out later, and this gives him even more time to think and to educate himself on various subjects, including Buddhism. He takes to it readily and soon comes to the realization that his job is not “right livelihood,” and so he quits and doesn’t look back. The final tale, “The Owl,” about a late night experience where Porcellino was driving his truck slowly, fogging an area, and an owl kept flying just ahead of the truck. At the time, it was an eerie but beautiful omen. But by the time Porcellino recounts the story, he realizes he was just poisoning the bird, and he’s filled with regret.

Much has been said about Porcellino’s deceptively simple cartooning, but the proof of its effectiveness is in the sense of place he evokes in his spare lines. Nature illustration doesn’t have to be realistic to work, and indeed, it would seem almost impossible to read this book and not come away feeling a little more generous in spirit, a little more appreciative of the world around us and the mysteries of life.

It’s in these recent issues of King-Cat Comics and Stories that one sees the continued growth in Porcellino’s work. It’s not as readily apparent in the artwork, which hasn’t changed much in style, but a closer look reveals more affecting layouts, more emotional weight in the stillness of a country road, a man walking alone in the cold, a dog watching and thinking inscrutable dog thoughts. The contents of these issues are more confident as well, or at least more open. He’ll write and draw an autobiographical story, follow it with a vignette of some people, animals or flora he noticed, and leave it open for interpretation, and he’s about the only cartoonist working who can put a list of favorite things in his book and it doesn’t feel like filler. It’s just another extension of him. I am especially interested in Porcellino’s spiritual journey and how he has incorporated Buddhism into his life along with Sinatra, comics, country music and everything else.

King-Cat #64 is a highlight, though I would recommend buying a few issues before that, and Diary, to get to know him better before sharing in his pain. You see, most of the material in this issue deals with Porcellino losing his father suddenly. It’s filled with appreciations and loving anecdotes and pain that one hopes was cathartic. I’ve long believed that nearly all fiction written by men has at its core a quest to connect with one’s father, or a frustration at not being able to connect. Porcellino’s work here gives hope that it’s possible, and not too late. Diary published by La Mano, $12. King-Cat is self-published, $2.00-3.00.

X-Men: Bizarre Love Triangle by Peter Milligan, Salvador Larroca and Danny Miki is the second collection of their run on this series. I’m glad Milligan has steady work for a while, but I really hoped more of his wit had made it into the finished product. I didn’t finish the first story arc, “Golgotha,” but it seems these two stories are somewhat similar in that Milligan comes up with just enough of an “A” plot to keep the romantic soap operatics churning between Rogue and Gambit, and Havok, Polaris and Iceman. It’s not his fault that Rogue has been the only character to be at least intermittently interesting throughout her career, but it’s his fault they’re all still pretty dull, and fairly interchangeable. The plot here is that a sexy new student, Foxx, immediately makes a play for her teacher, Gambit, who is naturally frustrated at not having sex with girlfriend Rogue for, what? Fifteen years or so? Sacre Blue Boules! There’s a decent surprise involved here, but frankly, it’s undermined greatly by the haste and sloppiness with which Milligan creates the romantic tension, and Larroca’s slick, bland competence. Sometimes it’s not even competent, as the new girl, Foxx, looks wretched half the time, not to mention how uncomfortably X-Men from other teams, like Cyclops and Wolverine, are wedged in for some face time. Marvel Comics. $9.99

Sea of Red: No Grave But the Sea by Rick Remender, Kieron Dwyer and Salgood Sam is a strong counterargument to a rant I made in a previous column that comics creators should be attempting more than just the melding of two genres. This one starts with a bold, well-drawn blend of pirate and vampire tale in the first chapter—a Spaniard infected by vampire pirates and then buried at sea as they head towards his home and family--then attempts to bring the story into the present day, with disastrous results. Make no mistake, if this was bad from the start, it wouldn’t be worth mentioning or reviewing, but the first chapter suggested this was a strong new series, and it’s particularly grating that Remender and Dwyer would throw away the mood they created for an awkward turn to an over-the-top parody of an arrogant Hollywood director and one unconvincing plot turn after another. Plus, while it’s understandable that the creators want to get some mileage out of this series before the inevitable revenge against the pirates, they fail to resolve anything in the four issues collected here. The pirates may or may not have been found; the “good” vampires haven’t found the director, nor have they defeated the creatures from the black lagoon (don’t ask). These are talented creators all, and they’ve got lots of ideas and enthusiasm, and that’s great. But unfortunately, the result is an unfocused mess. Image Comics. $8.95

Baobab #1 by Igort is a startling, sprawling first installment of a planned graphic novel, as well as being the first of Fantagraphics’ new Ignatz imprint books, not coincidentally edited and coordinated by Igort as well. He establishes his settings and characters here carefully, with a young boy in 1910 Japan, a South American cartoonist in that same year embarking on his most challenging work, and a flashback set in mid-1800s Africa that will no doubt guide the entire story, as it concerns an ancient, giant tree containing a mythical monkey god, the tree providing the name for this book.

Hiroshi, the boy, is apparently the only child in Chiba Prefecture, and while Madame Yamaguchi’s tales of her childhood travels are wonderful, there’s nothing of the future in them. With the rigid architecture, rigid manners, and even rigid page compositions Igort uses, it’s clear the boy is in need of something to come along to set his imagination free. Throughout the pages set in Japan, Igort uses a gray-blue wash, emphasizing the chill and gloom Hiroshi must escape, and that escape is suggested in the rare full or large-paneled pages, which are always external shots. He has another very nice effect in using a thin, slithering tail for Madame Yamaguchi’s word balloons, the tail not floating in air as usual but emerging from her throat like a waning, vital essence.

How Hiroshi’s story connects to the cartoonist, Celestino, who spends much of his time in dreams and reverie, is unclear as yet, but Igort suggests in his dreams of big-hatted old men and impossibly large sea creatures something of Winsor McCay’s elegant whimsy married to the simpler but still imaginative style of Herge. Perhaps Celestino’s cartoons of fantasy and adventure will somehow reach Hiroshi and change his life. I’m really looking forward to seeing this one develop. Fantagraphics Books. $7.95

-- Christopher Allen

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Christopher Allen
Comic Book Galaxy Reviews
3361 Calle Cancuna
Carlsbad, CA 92009

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