24 December 2009

ADD's Quick and Dirty Best of 2009

I started off apologizing for not writing a year-end best-of, then kinda-sorta did one anyway. Funny how that works!

Click here to read 2009: The Year without a Best-Of.

And happy holidays!

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22 December 2009

Alex Ness on Hatter M

I apologize for my absence. What the world pours stuff upon me that I cannot avoid I tend to shut down. My mother is in poor health, my friend died of lung and brain cancer, I learned that two projects that were promised by the publisher to come out in July were now not coming out at all. I have been sick with diverticulitis, and all my work has been creatively aimed as it is as least, a release of emotions.

People asked me, upon reading my latest works why I’ve begun to be or am negative or pessimistic about comic books. Here is a quick answer, one that deserves being explained but not beaten to death. I’ve been depressed. Over many things, but, amongst them, comics. I have tried to work in comics, and, what I write and am interested in, is not the same as the interests of publishers, and perhaps the readers of comics. I’ve had works get through some hoops, but, frankly, they aren’t like anything most publishers have seen or publish, and with the market being in such woes, they aren’t likely to be published. I am not bitter, mind you, I think being published would be nice but isn’t my end all goal in life, plus I’ve been published. So I am not trying to be negative but, I think I am trying to understand the market, and system and the readers, just for my own peace of mind.

I plan to cover a number of books in review, which won’t be as painfully wrought. Also there will be some interviews to focus on talents in the world of comics. Any publishers are welcome to send product for review, but I am trying to aim at first two volumes of a collected series. And perhaps, if after doing that there are more books in the series and a publisher sends them sure, I will consider them too.


REVIEWS

Hatter M: The Looking Glass Wars Volume 1
by Frank Beddor, Liz Cavalier, and Ben Templesmith

Hatter M: Mad With Wonder Volume 2
by Frank Beddor, Liz Cavalier, and Sami Makkonen

This series is part of a broader story told in Frank Beddor’s The Looking Glass Wars books. The world considered is on the surface the world of Alice in Wonderland, of Lewis Carroll, but Beddor has argued/discussed the fact that Lewis Carroll was mistaken, and told a story wrongly about a person, named Alice as a fantasy, and surreal even nonsensical place called Wonderland. Beddor suggests that Wonderland is real, that Alyss, spelled thusly escaped to this world, told her story, and Carroll tried to tell it, but presented it as fiction when in fact, it was an oral history. However that all plays out, Hatter M follows the story of Alyss, by extension but primarily through the eyes of her bodyguard. Following a coup d’etait Alyss, Queen of Wonderland is chased into exile with her bodyguard Hatter Madigan. He is equipped for battle, with a suit of weaponry, and expertise in combat. And the two become separated, while escaping from the evil new Queen’s rage.

In Volume One Hatter Madigan arrives on our historic Earth separated Alyss Heart, crown princess of Wonderland. Travels through the historic past lead him to France, as part of a 13 year exile and journey, Hatter Madigan tries desperately to find and protect Alyss. His hat takes a life of its own through out. The reader learns that the only hope we see, is the “white imagination” that powers Wonderland is a clue to how to help find Alyss, in the largely dark and violent world of the 19th century. Volume Two, takes Hatter M to the American Civil war, and the world in chaos from the conflict. Deeply tragic, and without ability to utilize his best warrior’s instinct, Hatter M is soon driven to madness, and his namesake, the mad hatter becomes reality.

Throughout the first book you marvel at the ability of Ben Templesmith, and you wonder how much of the wonder and beauty, however dark, is all the majesty of his artistic talent and genius. The story, however important as an ancillary work to the Looking Glass Wars, doesn’t take a lot of form until the near end of book one. With book two and artist Sami Makkonen you can see more of Beddor’s story, and the art, while different, is nonetheless still brilliant. And I have to say, as someone who has read the book series that this is a chapter of, the story is both important and well done.

As any creative work must succeed upon its own merits, do these two books entertain and offer a complete work to enjoy? That is, could a person unfamiliar with the book series enjoy these? Yes, but admittedly, I think less so. However, the books are really enjoyable, so go read them too.

LEARN MORE AT:

The Looking Glass Wars homepage, Another view of the Looking Glass world, Watch Frank Beddor discuss Alice/AlyssMy review of the books the series is drawn from

I do have a mailing address for the publishers interested in sending hard copy review products

Alex Ness
Box 142
Rockford MN
55373-0142

Alex Ness is a writer, a poet, and reader. You can find links to all his work: here

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05 November 2009

Alan Moore Month Update

Moore in the Galaxy Archives!

As Alan Moore Month rolls along here at TWC, I thought it might be fun to dig back into the Galaxy archives and see what Moore comics we've reviewed over the years. Here are the ones I could find:

* Top Ten: The Forty-Niners reviewed by ADD
* V for Vendetta reviewed by Johnny Bacardi
* Promethea #32 reviewed by Pat Markfort
* Voice of the Fire reviewed by Marshall O'Keeffe
* Across the Universe: The DC Universe Stories of Alan Moore reviewed by ADD
* League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century 1910 reviewed by ADD
* Lost Girls reviewed by ADD
* Promethea #20 reviewed by ADD
* Saga of the Swamp Thing HC Vol. 1 reviewed by ADD
* Swamp Thing: Earth to Earth reviewed by ADD
* Tom Strong #15 reviewed by ADD
* Tom Strong Vol. 1 reviewed by ADD

Alan Moore Month Status Report!

Here's a quick guide to all our Alan Moore Month posts so far:

* Christopher Allen on 20,000 Years of Erotic Freedom
* Marc Sobel on The Hasty Smear of My Smile
* Christopher Allen on Alan Moore's Complete Wildcats
* Mick Martin on V for Vendetta

...there's much more Moore to come, too, so check back frequently for Alan Moore Month updates here at Trouble with Comics!

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21 September 2009

Uninventing the Wheel

Empty spaces - what are we living for
Abandoned places - I guess we know the score
On and on, does anybody know what we are looking for...

1. On the Wild Ride

Death is an interesting thing.
From the moment that we are born, we begin dying. It's an inevitability of choosing incarnation on this planet, everyone dies. Some people take that with grace and dignity. Other people rage against the "darkness". All throughout, many make some sort of elaborate mythology regarding what happens after death. As such, we get interesting pipe dreams about an eternal reward, a black nothingness, conjunction with godhead, dissolution into the infinite...or zombies. I like zombies.

What comes after death? Annihilation or Reincarnation. That's the smartass answer. A more truthful answer would be, "I don't know".

Death doesn't last long in comics. Maybe a year or two. It's kind of like, if you die, you're eventually going to get better. It probably helps when Death herself is a perky goth chick, but well...if you don't get resurrected, you're at least going to come back as a zombie to drain the pocketbooks of other zombies. (Okay, maybe I don't like all zombies. You can't win all the time. Sometimes you get Shakespeare, sometimes you get a monkey wearing a Green Lantern ring) So, Bruce Wayne's dead or adrift in time, living horrible existences one after another, starting from the dawn of time. In other words, when DC finally dusts off the character in a year, we're going to get to read reams upon reams of snuff...but with Batman. Doesn't that make you feel better?

Anyway, Batman's dead. Long live the Bat! ...or something like that.

I actually haven't read most of what occurred between Batman: RIP and now Batman: Reborn. I took a couple looks at the stuff during that whole Battle for the Cowl thing a couple of days ago in the interest of more informing this column and thought it just looked like a big jumbled mess; so for sanity's sake, I'm ignoring it. Grant Morrison's Batman & Robin, though, thing of beauty.

Now, I know most people probably think "Grant Morrison = Weird and wacky, complex ideas." I think people overcomplicate things. They look in to something, like say Final Crisis, to find some sort of deeper meaning. They think that since Grant's written labyrinthine layers into things like The Invisibles that it must be present in everything that he writes. That's just silly. Even The Invisibles is fairly simple depending on how you look at it. You may not get every reference, but first and foremost, you have to look at any of these things as a story. An entertainment, a lark, a fable, whatever. Look at it that way first, and then derive any sort of existential meaning. Of course, everyone being a unique aggregate of ideas, thoughts and experiences, meanings found will differ.

So what's the story? Bruce Wayne is "dead", necessitating someone new to take his place, likewise resulting in a new Robin to stand beside him. As these two new people try to gain their footing in the roles, they stop a drug-smuggling ring by a group of strange circus performers, stumbling upon a madman trying to remake the world in his image, refashioning people as "dolls". As I say, it's pretty simple.

Batman & Robin, like its conceptual predecessor All Star Superman, is fairly straight forward. Being set in modern continuity, it doesn't have the opportunity to play fast and loose with the structure of universe, however being basically the adventures of a "new" Batman & Robin, it does get to tread slightly different terrain. Despite being set in a world of darkness -- filled with loss, despair and sickness --, it has a surprisingly light-hearted, ephemeral undercurrent. It's strange exactly how that works. It's not the gallows humour that you see in a black comedy, but something that's part irony, part absurdity, and part innocence. "Crime is doomed." or "...so we're agreed. It's Robin and Batman from now on."

To a certain extent, it somewhat feels informed by Morrison's run on Doom Patrol. The core cast of characters -- Dick, Damian, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon -- are played straight, but around them is the insanity of the Circus of Strange and Professor Pyg. Cross reference that to the Brotherhood of Dada circling about an axis of Cliff Steele. Also, while Batman: RIP put the reader in a position of where we were never quite sure where we stand, partially because if we take a peek inside Bruce Wayne's head we're liable to see fractals and talking gummy bears, however, with Dick behind the cowl, there's a humanization that occurs. A grounding that allows for a sense of orientation to take place.

Another hero, another mindless crime
Behind the curtain, in the pantomime
Hold the line, does anybody want to take it anymore

2. On Everything and Nothing

There's a line in Trent Reznor's Wish that goes something like, "Put my faith in god and my trust in you, now there's nothing more fucked up I can do." Then there's a Prince lyric, "Trust...who do ya?" How can you trust a ten-year old boy raised by a cadre of assassins who has an insane, immortal misanthrope for a grandfather?

The answer is: perfectly.

You can trust him perfectly to act irrationally. You can trust him perfectly to go off half-cocked at any instance. You can trust him perfectly to knee-jerk against your authority. That's currently the quandary that we have in this new Batman and Robin. On the surface level, roles have been reversed. Batman is now the more light-hearted individual with Dick Grayson behind the cowl; he's a more rounded character, always seeing light in the darkness. Robin, however, a character traditionally designed to add a bit of levity and colour to the darkness of the world of Batman, is now that same ten-year old boy mentioned above; Damian Wayne.

Even though there's a degree of extreme seriousness to Damian, it doesn't make him any less reckless, and because of it, makes him all the more dangerous. Batman still has to deal with a Robin who is young, inexperienced, and liable to do anything that serves what he thinks is the right course of action regardless of warning or reprimand. This is illustrated by the level of incredulity that Damian has for Dick, as well as how Damian deals with the criminal element. He's shown going off on his own against Pyg when he doesn't like what Dick has to say, as well as beating criminals insensate.

Now, I haven't said anything up until this point about the artwork in the first three issues of Batman & Robin, largely because I'm a writer and I find it much easier to talk about the written word. Part of it, though, is that Frank Quitely's choices of imagery, pacing, and blocking are so perfect that they diffuse immediate across the consciousness.

Take a look at this image on the right, the opening page to Batman & Robin #2. Scarcity of background detail notwithstanding -- that's also partially the point leading the focus to the two characters and the stairs -- this is an amazing image. Concern on the face of Alfred. Sorrow, possibly defeat, on the face of Dick. A Robin emblem lying torn on the floor. The draping of the cape to suggest tears. ...and a descent, Alfred coming down the stairs to reach Dick. Simple, yet loaded with content. This is true of pretty much every page of the first three issues of the series.

It also enables the humanization of Batman. Under the cowl, Dick Grayson is a wirier figure that Bruce Wayne, and Quitely takes a more realistic style when it comes to depicting the main characters. His more outlandish designs are reserved for the villains of the piece. It complements the story being told perfectly.

Also, in the second issue, we get a shift in narrative structure. Although in collected form we'll be able to go back and re-evaluate how the storytelling works, the first issue is told seemingly in the present. The second issue, even though it eventually continues on from where the first issue broke, is told back to us through Dick Grayson telling us what happened after the conclusion of the first issue. The third issue then goes forward again. There's a pattern and a tell in that structure.

"...there was a girl... Did -- Did you just save my life?"

The show must go on,
The show must go on
Inside my heart is breaking
My make-up may be flaking
But my smile still stays on.

3. On the Sickness

I like putting tonic water in my Pepsi or Coke.

Can't really explain it, but I like the taste. Somehow it's different from just adding lemon or lime; there's the tart taste of the quinine mixed with the sweetness of the cola that appeals to me. Maybe I'm just strange. I also can't hit the high notes in the Queen songs any more [Just for notation's sake, the interstitial quotes are from Queen's "The Show Must Go On" in case anyone didn't already know that]. Freddie Mercury was unnaturally gifted in terms of his ability to sing such a range without having to utilise a falsetto, but once upon a time, I could easily shift between my natural range and falsetto and ape the notes. I can't do it easily any more. Times change, vocal chords loosen, all that. Things lost.

You could say that it's a winding down, a general shift toward entropy. This is true of just about anything. The key is not to become stagnant. Not to latch on to what came before, hold on to dear life, and try to squeeze every single inch out of it. Take what is old, what is past and done, put it in its place, and move on. Respect it, sure. Learn from it, definitely. But don't worship it. Just because it's the past doesn't mean it's better, it just means that it's past. Change or die.

The problem, however, comes in the idea of "...into what?" It's a process. A journey. Lust for result will almost always result in failure. The perversion that comes from Professor Pyg's manifestations. If you search for anything long enough, you're going to find it. There is, however, the caveat in that what you find might not be exactly what you wanted.

...and so we're left with a pig-faced man; a man masked in "ugliness", couched in ideas brought forth from an Orwellian nightmare, trying to remake the world in his image. It may seem like the incoherent ramblings of a madman, but it's interesting what Pyg is going on about when he's got Robin held captive. First, there's a mention of the despair pit experimentations, then a litany of manifestations of "mommies made of nails": Mormo - a Greek manifestation that cuckolded bad children, Tiamat - a Babylonian goddess that represented that "formless void" mentioned in the Mormo line (also a really good gothic metal band), and finally the "Gorgon Queen" or Medusa - I don't think I need to qualify that one. There's also the line that followed Bereshith ("In the Beginning...") in the Hebrew bible, transliterated as "Tohu va Bohu" and translated as "formless and empty". About a topsy-turvy world I could write reams. ...and the Flashdance sequence is absolutely hilarious. I've missed this Grant Morrison and I'm happy to see him rear his little piggy head. This is like candy to me.

Of course, although ultimately it is fairly simple referencing, to some it takes them out of the straight forward action of a Batman comic. It's a couple drops of tonic water into the sweetness of the cola.

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10 Thoughts About Disappearance Diary

Disappearance Diary
Original Title: Shissou Nikki (Japanese)
by Hideo Azuma
200 pages, black and white with color cover
Publishers: Fanfare/Ponent Mon (US/UK), EastPress (Japan)
ISBN: 978-84-96427-42-6
$22.99 US / £ 11.99 UK


1. I recently checked this book out from the Queens Library on a whim. It’s a manga book from 2005, published in English in October 2008 by Fanfare/Ponent Mon, who is, in my mind, the Japanese equivalent of Fantagraphics, a publisher whose aesthetic mission seems to be to bring the highest quality Japanese literary comics to an American audience. The book is both written and illustrated by Hideo Azuma, a well-known and widely-acclaimed Japanese cartoonist. Disappearance Diary is his first and only work available in English. It won several major awards when it was released, including the Grand Prize at the 2005 Japanese Media Arts Awards and the 2006 Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize. It was also honored as an official selection at the 2008 Angoulême International Comics Festival.

2. At the highest level, the book is a “somewhat fictionalized” memoir about Azuma’s battles with mental illness, alcoholism, depression and the rigors of the comics profession. The book is divided into three sections, each with 4-6 page chapters which feel like they were originally serialized. The first section, “Walking at Night,” opens with a botched suicide attempt, before quickly re-focusing on Azuma’s first “disappearance,” in which he becomes homeless, sleeps in the woods, scrounges for food in the garbage bins behind restaurants, and generally spends his days sleeping, drinking and wandering the city. The subject matter is bleak, but Azuma uses a brightly dispassionate narrator voice, relying on self-deprecating humor to lighten the mood, blunting for both himself and the reader some of the more painful details from this obviously difficult period in his life. Azuma’s intention to keep from delving into the depths of his despair is made clear on the book’s opening page when the artist declares that “This manga has a positive outlook on life, and so it has been made with as much realism removed as possible” (this quote is also extracted and highlighted on the back cover). And like Chris Ware’s work, Azuma’s sparse, beautiful linework is at odds tonally with its subject matter, creating a strange emotional dissonance that is at first jarring, but quickly becomes comfortable and soothing as we disappear into the dark caverns of Azuma’s troubled memories.

3. The second section. “Walking Around Town,” focuses on another of Azuma’s disappearances. This time, however, Azuma abruptly leaves his family and 20+ year career as a manga cartoonist and, after a brief period on the streets again, winds up working for the Japanese gas company mounting pipe fittings. It’s interesting to read Azuma’s sometimes bewildering descriptions of the various oddballs and con-men he encounters on the job, and heartbreaking to know that while all of this is going on, his family is searching desperately for him.


4. In fact, Azuma’s family barely features into this narrative. Whether the cartoonist left them out to spare them the trauma of reliving their torment, was simply unable to identify with the pain and fear they must have endured, or simply didn’t feel their emotional responses to his disappearances were interesting enough to warrant inclusion, their absence is nonetheless conspicuous. In the few brief appearances his wife makes in the book, one cannot help but wonder why she did not leave him after so many horrible incidents, nor how she managed to live with her frustration while continuing to support someone who was both mentally ill and severely alcoholic. Aside from the obvious curiosity, Azuma’s family’s perspective also might have been useful because it would enable the average reader with little or no experience with alcoholism and mental illness a way into the story.

5. The latter half of the second section sees Azuma briefly return to drawing manga, and in this period, he takes on an inordinate amount of work. His effort during this period is manic in terms of page output, while the quality is not surprisingly diminished. Unfortunately, American readers will likely find this section difficult to navigate because none of the works that Azuma discusses are available in English. After attempting to wade through this section, I ended up skimming ahead.

6. The final section, “Alcoholic Ward,” is the most fascinating of the three by far. In it, Azuma takes yet another fall and this time turns into a serious alcoholic, and once again ends up sleeping on the streets and scrounging for money to buy sake. In the end, his wife drops him off at a hospital and the final half of this section is comprised of Azuma’s recollections of the various characters he met while rehabilitating. What makes this section stand out is the way Azuma brings his fellow patients to life with just a few panels.

7. The book ends with a brief discussion between Azuma and Japanese cartoonist Miki Tori. It’s an uplifting ending for the simple fact that Azuma is able to soberly reflect on those dark times in his life, and seems to have achieved some peace and clarity from telling his story. There is another short interview hidden under the inside back cover flap which seems more mocking in tone, but is worth a quick read. The interviewer, Kiuchi Maya, asks questions like “What were you like, Mr. Azuma?” and “What’s your ideal life like?” but Azuma, consistent with his narrator voice, answers honestly, but with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

8. Azuma's artwork throughout is astoundingly rich in detail, begging readers to linger just a few extra seconds in each panel, without over-dramatizing or cluttering the story. It’s clear Azuma is a natural at manga figure drawing (he is beloved in Japan for his depictions of sexy girls in uniforms), and his artwork tends toward the more simplified, Peanuts end of the scale. Still, one cannot help but gaze at panel after panel of meticulously drawn images and feel a little sorry that a) the cartoonist has been so afflicted that his output and artwork have suffered, and b) that more of his stories are not available in English.

9. At the end of the book, Azuma alludes to the fact that this is only part of the story of his struggle, and that at some point, he may return to finish recounting his journey. That would be welcome. Part of the difficulty I had with this book is that it feels incomplete. We never really learn how Azuma managed to get his life back in order, nor what he feels about those dark days now that he is older and apparently stable. Has he learned anything from his ordeal (he claims in the final interview he no longer drinks)? What about his family life? Does he have any regrets? All of these questions beg to be answered. UPDATE: I have seen a few sporadic rumors online of a second volume, titled Depression Diary, but I can’t find any information regarding plans to publish this book in English.

10. I don’t tend to read a lot of manga, mostly because there is so much other good stuff to read and I’ve always felt a little bewildered by the sprawling narratives and put off by the fetishized, big-eyed artwork. But this book is a great example of why keeping an open mind is always critical. Disappearance Diary is a superb book, not perfect, but one that lingers long after its final page, and to dismiss it just because it’s manga would be a real shame. This book is far more than just an autobiography, it’s a personal triumph of the human soul, an inspiring work that takes emotionally devastating events and transforms them into beautiful little cartoons, which is no easy feat, but what’s even more impressive is that the book remains grounded despite its weighty and depressing subject matter.

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