I just read: Dissolving Classroom

I’m a big fan of two of the Junji Ito’s other two horror comics, Uzumaki and Gyo. So I was excited to try his latest manga.

Ito has a very distinctive style. His ideas feel like they were written by a demented 7th-grader, but that helps him maintain a sort of allegorical mood—and his stories always feel claustrophobic in their dream-time logic. His pen-work can be alternately beautifully dainty and creepily off-kilter, and that also fits the day-dream-to-fever-dream his tone.

Dissolving Classroom is a collection of stories that follow a strangely polite young man, Yuuma, and his gonzo little sister, Chizumi. Both are unique characters, and their both up to some sinister stuff. But I have to say that I found Yuuma much more interesting. He’s a sort of diabolical version of toxic friend. He’s very well-mannered—almost subservient at times—but beneath that bland exterior lurks an ardent devil-worshipper. Literally. Yuuma kills small animals to lure the devil to him. He keeps in constant mental contact with the devil, and those bad vibes he shares can rot away at his new friends, dissolving their brains and their bodies. He’s like a walking Fukushima, and he’s in a continuous state of demonic meltdown.

It’s not entirely clear whether or not Yuuma enjoys the effect that he has on people. He is constantly apologizing for the harm he has done—and will do—but it soon becomes clear that Yuuma’s apologies are his most common M.O. for melting people down. If Yuuma falls to his knees and starts repeating, “I’m sorry… I’m sooo sorry…” you need to run away from him immediately. Early on, it’s revealed that he’s not actually apologizing to the people around him, he’s apologizing to the devil. And those direct transmissions to Hell interact with the human body in the same way a microwave oven reacts with a popsicle.

The concept doesn’t 100% make sense to me. Why is Yuuma apologizing to the devil? Yuuma’s helping to sow death and destruction, and it becomes clear that the devil likes this. But as I mentioned, this is where dream-logic kicks in, and on some gut-level I really synced with this idea of there being something sinister about apologies.

I definitely fall in the camp of people who might say, “Don’t say you’re sorry, do something to prove it.” And of course, no one likes groveling. But Ito shows effusive apologizing to be a passive-aggressive act of self-gratification. Like I said, this idea really struck me as ‘true’ on a gut level. Maybe I needed a Japanese writer to help me grasp this idea—like how the German language helped us define a concept like Schadenfreude, which most Americans had never really thought about before, but innately realized was a real thing.

Anyhoo… The ‘Dissolving’ concept is definitely not a one-trick-pony. With each story, Ito finds new ways to draw out drama—and creeps—from stiff Yuuma and wild Chizumi. The final story is not as disturbing, but it wraps up the saga in a perfect way that left me feeling surprised but also thinking, ‘I should have seen that coming!’

If you’re a manga fan or a horror fan, I’d say check this out!

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Series Condition: The Spire

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.24 AMI’ve been trying more fantasy genre comics lately, including this 8 issue limited series, The Spire, and Monstress by Marjorie Liu, which I plan to review later. The two series have some similarities with topical parables to issues of today, including cultural melding and intolerance.

In ‘The Spire,’ the world is separated into two basic races, humans and the ‘sculpted’ (sometimes called ‘skewed’ or just ‘freaks’).  There are several types of sculpted, each mutated with extreme appearances and abilities. All of the sculpted are able to live in the outside world, which is a toxic desert wilderness. Because of the harsh environment, a good deal of the human population are squeezed in a towering city of stacked ghettos that gives new definition to the term ‘vertical growth.’

The Spire
Writer: Simon Spurrier
Artist: Jeff Stokely
Colorist: Andre May
Publisher: Boom!
2015-2016
8 issues (A completed limited series)

Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.44.43 AMIn this city, the titular Spire, humans and sculpted live almost literally on top of each other. The mix of weird ‘ethnicities’ will seem familiar to anyone who’s read  China Mieville’s New Crobuzon novels (and if you’re haven’t, you should check them out!), but Spurrier makes his world unique, with medieval/feudal politics and parables to today’s political climate–all knitted together in a nifty detective story.

The series’ protagonist is a sculpted woman named Sha who is the city’s chief of police. Sha is trying to stop a masked killer. Of course, the killer’s victims are far from random, and Sha eventually realizes that the killings are connected somehow to incident that befell the Queen-mother thirty years ago, while she was pregnant. Coincidentally, (or is it?!) Sha has a gap in her memory that has erased everything in her memory that is older than thirty years. Also, (coincidentally?!) Sha is in a clandestine relationship with one of the Queen-mother’s daughters.

IScreen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.39.57 AMt’s a compelling and intricate mystery. I was able to figure out some parts, and I was pleasantly surprised by others.

The other distinctive aspect of this series is the art. The art here is very cartoony in places, it reminds me of loose, doodle style you might see in a comic strip in a local alternative newspaper. The art adds some levity to the story, here and there, and it is definitely not a conventional match for a fantasy series. But it might not be everyone’s cup of tea.

The coloring is undeniably beautiful, though. Andre May uses a palette from the back row of the crayon box. Ultramarine, salmon, orchid, turquoise, pea green, and ‘off key’ pastels that add an otherworldly feel.

As I said, it you like comics and Mieville novels–or the Gentlemen Bastards books–then I think this series could be worth a try.Screen Shot 2016-07-24 at 11.40.49 AM

Series Condition: Y: the Last Man

I have a confession to make… I’m a pretty lame comics fan. I’ve never read any of the classics of the 90s or early 2000s. I know nothing about Sandman or Starman. I’ve never read Preacher, Powers, or Planetary. I don’t know the difference between Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis.

But I’m hoping to bone up on comics knowledge by reading some of the modern classics over the next few years. The first series I tackled was ‘Y: the Last Man.’ Here are the basics:

Y the Last Man Issue 1Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artist: Pia Guerra (primarily)
60 issues
Years: 2002 – 2008

Of all the comics on my bucket list, YTLM has the catchiest premise. A mysterious calamity sweeps across the globe and kills every male of every species—except for one young man named Yorick Brown and his pet monkey.

Before I started reading, it was hard to predict what the tone of the series would be. Given the premise, I might have expected some gratuitous male-fantasy wish-fulfillment, something like ‘I Am Legend’ re-imagined by the people who brought us ‘Van Wilder.’ Or, given Vertigo’s reputation for heady, ‘alternative’ titles, I might have expected a 60-issue allegory about misogyny, or ‘man’s inhumanity to man.’ The series is actually like something written by Joss Whedon, Brian Michael Bendis, or Lev Grossman. Very character-driven. Lots of charming dialog, occasionally punctuated by action scenes. Overall, YTLM is a prolonged road trip, with Vaughan speculating on how a sudden a lack of men would affect different cultures around the world. He presents some pretty interesting ideas.

The titular mister is an aspiring escape artist… He’s training a helper monkey… His mother is a U.S. senator… His girlfriend is on a walkabout in Australia… He’s named after a Shakespearean character who’s famous for being dead…  Mmmkay. Despite this weird confluence of uniquenesses, Yorick is, at his core, an everyman (an onlyman?). Unless he discussing random trivia about world history or etymology, Yorick is not particularly bright (other characters point this out continuously). He’s pretty weak. He’s pretty slow. He’s annoyingly sanctimonious, if the plot calls for it. He’s kind of a goober, not at all smooth with the ladies, and constantly pining for his unreachable girlfriend, while wandering through a world of 3 billion eligible bachelorettes.

Actually, Yorick can’t be blamed for his lack of assertiveness. In the wake of the gender-cide, a cult of misandrists (the opposite of misogynists… look it up!) are gathering in the cities. And foreign agents are hunting him because they view the last living source of y-chromosomes as an asset that’s worth killing for. In general, the post-plague world is not a very safe place to be. Infrastructures are failing, crime is rising.

In the way YTLM portrays a crippled-but-not-devastated society, it reminds me of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. Instead of post-apocalyptic, YTLM is semi-apocalyptic. And Vaughan brings up some good points. What would happen to the world if half the population dropped dead? What do you do with all the bodies? And since soldiers, airline pilots, mechanics, sailors, and construction workers tend (or, in this case, tended) to be men, what happens to those pillars of our society? In some ways, I think Vaughan is too pessimistic. For instance, in one of the first few issues, Yorick is nearly crushed by an improvised sanitation worker, because she can’t figure out how to work the brakes on a garbage truck. Then the woman gets out of the car wearing a ridiculous skimpy outfit for her job, which is gathering half-decayed corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

Hmm. Not the most practical outfit for harvesting corpses.

I have to say that the first issues of YTLM were the hardest to get through. They’re full of kinda dumb and unrealistic scenes like the one above. Yorick makes his way across the semi-apocalyptic landscape to his mother, who is now one of the highest ranking officials in the U.S. government. Within pages of being reunited with her son—who has miraculously survived a Biblical plague, who may be the one chance the human race has of continuing the species—Mrs. Brown agrees to let him journey across the continent with a single bodyguard. On foot. It makes no sense at all. If this series was at all realistic, Yorick should have spent the next 60 issues locked in a bomb shelter impregnating Olympians and valedictorians. But no, instead he stumbles across the country, continuously falling into trouble that is often highly avoidable.

But Yorick picks up some interesting friends, and I stuck with the series, mainly based on its sterling reputation. Then we get to issue 19. And that’s when the series truly kicks into gear. There is probably a term for the type of character that is introduced here. She is a mouth-piece for the readers, and basically she tells Yorick what the readers probably want to tell him: “Stop being such a douche!” It’s a similar sort of role that Spike played on ‘Buffy the Vampire’ and ‘Angel,’ with the way he would ground the protagonists with a snarky remark when they started to get too mopey or irrational. After issue 19, Yorick stops being so mopey and irrational, and the story is a blast from then till the end. At the same time, Pia Guerra’s penciling gets better and better. She starts off excellent at convey emotion through facial features, but her figures are her compositions seem a bit stiff. By the end, her stuff is cinematic. Perfect. The coloring also gets better, I can’t think of another example of coloring so adeptly conveying mood and setting.

YTM_02_ab

An example of early YTLM artwork, and artwork from later in the series.

It’s interesting to think of how Vaughan might have changed direction as the plot progressed over six years. It felt to me like he had a loose outline of where he wanted to go. The first few issues establish several possible causes for the plague (some mystical, some biological, some quasi-scientific), and I wonder if some of these red herrings were also possible alternative that he wanted to keep in his back pocket if he had decided to take the story in a different direction. It’s also interesting to see new characters pop up and old characters fade to the background, as if Vaughan realized that they had become obsolete. In that way, I guess writing a comic series can be like being a show-runner on a 12-episodes-a-season TV show. I don’t think there’s any question that Vaughan makes some fine choices for his primary characters, that he adapts nicely, and that he most definitely sticks the landing at the end. And I have a feeling that the story of Yorick and his friends will stick with me for a while.

Series Condition: The Royals, Masters of War

I think most writers would kill to come up with a idea as awesome as Rob Williams’ premise for ‘The Royals: Masters of War.’ Here it is: Royal blood is truly divine, and every king, prince, princess, duke and emperor across the planet has been granted superhuman powers by birthright. Now throw those super-powered nobles into the catastrophic turmoil of WWII and let’s see what happens!

royals_mastersofwarWriter: Rob Williams
Artists: Simon Coleby, Gary Erskine
Total Issues: 6
Published: 2014
Publisher: Vertigo (DC)

Royals is a mini-series, written with a sort of ‘just-the-hits’ mentality. It has a very clean, driving narrative which makes it a fun, easy read. It’s like a summer blockbuster, if summer blockbusters had subplots involving euthanasia, genocide, and incest.

Our heroes (and anti-heroes) are the British royal family. Sorry, these are all characters from an alternate history. So you don’t get to see a teenage Queen Elizabeth kicking Nazi booty. But we do see other historical figures: Churchill, FDR, and Eisenhower, to name a few that I noticed. And a lot of the big WWII milestones are there. As I mentioned, the book has a ‘just-the-hits’ mentality, so we see our nobles fighting at Midway, Stalingrad, and Normandy. It’s kind of like a video-game in that the characters seem narratively obligated to battle in a snow level, a water level, an urban landscape, etc.

The Immortal Emperor!!

But the story does have some nuance as well. The series plays nicely with our basic understanding of 20th century history. It turns out that after this timeline’s French and Russian revolutions (which were just as lethal for super-powered royals as they were for ours), the other monarchies decide to downplay their powers, and to not use them to interfere in the affairs of commoners. But England’s Prince Henry sees the atrocities of the blitz and decides that he can’t stand idly by. So we’re treated to the gratifying scene of a ’superman’ decimating Nazi planes and troops. (Side note: Thank you Authority and Invincible for setting the trope of superhumans punching through the skulls or torsos of mere mortals. It’s pretty gnarly.) Of course, that one moment of patriotic gratification has unpredicted consequences, as monarchs and emperors on the Axis side begin to wade into battle. Things escalate quickly, and you shouldn’t expect Henry’s war to end like WWII ended for us.

Our hero, flying through Nazis

The first issue starts with a ‘flash-forward’ in which we see Henry battling a shadowy Nazi super-soldier. Henry mentions regret for drawing first blood, anger at a mysterious betrayal, and a thirst to avenge his beloved sister. Obviously we’ve seen this flash-forward technique before (I remember American Hustle used it. Breaking Bad used it a few times. Goodfellas and Fight Club as well?). I researched and found out the dramatic term is ‘in medias res.’ So that’s good to know. This scene effectively sets up the mysteries that will run throughout this short series. Who is this German badass? How can Prince Henry beat him? What happened to his sister, and who betrayed them? Williams’ plot plays out all of these mysteries quite nicely.

Related link: Series Condition: Invincible, or that other great long-running series written by Robert Kirkman.

Origin

Let’s make this ‘tabula’ a little less ‘rasa.’

I hope you will bear with me, o non-existent reader, as I chug my way through this first blog post. It’s a bit daunting to stare at a blank webpage and consider clicking ‘publish’ on this sucker, even if the chances of anyone reading this are nil, especially since it is my FIRST post. I’m considering this just another piece of rebar buried in the cement that will anchor my eventual ‘Media Platform.’

Why do I write? Because coming up with a story from scratch, and having it enter someone else’s head and stick with them—if just for a little while—seems pretty cool. I don’t really expect to ever earn a living writing. I’d call this whole thing a hobby, except that makes it sound more trivial than it feels to me.

I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer; I wanted to be a comic book penciller. I created characters like Manticore (copyright 1985) and Flora and Fauna (copyright 1986), drew one picture of them, and then spent the rest of my time daydreaming their adventures. Over time, as I matured (yes, I’m using that term sarcastically) I realized I was spending more time imagining spin-off series and 12-part crossover mega-events than actually drawing my characters in said mega-events. (Side note: I was a big fan of the Uncanny X-Men in the 80s, so it was only natural that my make-believe comics empire would involve spin-offs and crossovers.)

Eventually, real life crept in, and I abandoned the pipe dreams of writing and illustrating. Here and there I flirted with the unattainable. I submitted pencil samples to Marvel and DC Comics. I took one intensely frustrating crack at a first novel. But for the most part I stuck to my career as a graphic designer, and I was happy. Then I started dating a girl who had written a 500-page fantasy manuscript.

Hot.

That girl became my wife and my inspiration for attempting another novel. I’ve been writing in my free time ever since. We have two kids, and free time is exceedingly rare. But lately it seems like I’ve been writing more and more. There’s many exciting things happening in the industry, and I guess you can say that has me excited.

Here’s hoping I can get a few readers excited as well.