Friday, July 24, 2009

Review - Lone Wolf and Cub

Lone Wolf and Cub
Written by Kazuo Koike

Illustrated by Goseki Kojima

2001 Eisner Award Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

I've mentioned my appreciation for this series before so the fact that I enjoyed it in general isn't going to be a surprise. I originally encountered the stories when First Comics was publishing them in the 1980's. I read a few of them, liked them, but wasn't hooked enough to follow the stories. Then in 2000 Dark Horse began reprinting the series in a tiny paperback format and again I sampled a few volumes. This time I started picking up a few books here and there as I stumbled across them at a discount but it wasn't until last year where I filled in the gaps and read the whole story.

The series clocks in at around 7000 pages so it's safe to say that I'm not reviewing the whole thing. I'd have to do a blog just on Lone Wolf and Cub to give the series it's proper due. So instead I'm focusing on what was available when the Eisner award was handed out and that's first four volumes: The Assassin's Road, The Gateless Barrier, The Flute of the Fallen Tiger, and The Bell Warden.

Lone Wolf and Cub is the story of shogun's executioner Ogami Itto and his young son Daigoro in shogunate era Japan. When accused of a crime by his political rivals Itto chose to leave the capital rather than commit suicide. To support himself and his son on the road to revenge he sells his skills as an assassin. He becomes a terror throughout the country as a samurai who is willing to use bushido as a weapon against his foes.

These early volumes usually have simple stories: someone comes to Itto with a problem and a pile of gold, Itto comes up with a morally reprehensible plan like using his son as a distraction to kill the target, and then the wander off again to the next adventure. These are pretty good stories but they do start to become repetitive. The real gems in these books are the ones that hint at the deeper storyline that runs through the series.

The first volume ends with a story about Itto asking his eighteen month old son to choose between his own death and a life of killing. Besides the disturbing concept of asking an uncomprehending child about these things it also introduces the reader to meifumado, a path of vengeance that requires those who follow it to give up all worldly concerns except their revenge. It's a hint of the Buddhist themes that really come into focus in the second volume when Itto is hired to kill a buddha on the road and does so by mastering the suppression of the self. It's a strange story that comes across as another assassination story unless the reader recognizes that it's actually about zen philosophy. Finally there are hints that despite an arrangement to not attack each other Itto's political enemy is attempting to arrange his death before Itto can complete his own scheme for revenge.

Itto is a terrific character to read about because he is one of the great anti-heroes. There's no way to describe him as anything other than monstrous both by the standards of the day and modern viewpoints. At the same time his foes are even worse; he may be a monster but he chose to become one and will be the first to acknowledge it. Balancing him with his innocent son that he pushes through Japan in a wooden baby cart filled with weapons just blurs the morality even further. How is Daigoro being shaped by this upbringing is something that will haunt readers.

While I'm not an expert on the era (I've got just enough knowledge from some books to get by) I do get the impression that Lone Wolf and Cub is meticulously researched. Koike drops a lot of detail into his setting and the stories often rely on some bit of history or culture that is explained to the reader at the beginning of the chapter. If you're a history buff then you'll find a lot to like.

Kojima's art is an interesting thing. Lone Wolf and Cub was created in 1970 before a lot of the stylistic rules of manga became set and consequently it doesn't really look like most manga. His normal work has a heavily textured style that is very distinctive but occasionally he departs into charcoal and other softer techniques. In addition he is absolutely spectacular with silent storytelling and often conveys the story just through the expressions of the characters. There are several sections where it is just his artwork that carries the narrative and they become longer and more frequent later in the series.

Something that I cannot avoid talking about with Lone Wolf and Cub is the misogyny. They might be the most misogynistic books I've ever read. It goes beyond the sexual roles that would be common in the period or even the treatment of women in Japan during the 1970's. I am not exaggerating when I say there are exactly two roles for women in the series: rape victim and manipulative killer. Occasionally they'll overlap such as the woman who ends the fourth volume; she flashes her tattooed breasts at male swordsmen to distract them while fighting as part of a revenge scheme for a rape. Rapes are typically depicted on panel as well and while they're not so common that I'd called the series "rape porn" they do show up quite a bit. If a woman has a speaking part in this series then an ugly fate will follow shortly.

These four books are a nice collection of samurai action stories that hint at a larger story to come and they are very effective. Those hints are enough that I would recommend it to anyone looking for a rich historical drama. Lone Wolf and Cub could have been just an ultraviolent adventure story but Koike and Kojima find something deeper to say with it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Review - Star Wars

Star Wars: A New Hope
From a script by George Lucas
Illustrated by Hisao Tamaki
1999 Eisner Award Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material

I'm going to start with my conclusion. The only person I could see enjoying this is the obsessive Star Wars fan who wants the same material he already knows forward and backward in a different format. Tamaki brings little original or interesting to the table with this adaptation and his storytelling ability is weak. This is something that can be safely skipped.

The story is about two peasants who are returning to their village after being on the losing side of a battle and stumble across some gold. It belongs to a general and princess who are trying to transport it back across hostile territory so that they can rebuild...

Sorry, that's Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress.

So there's an Empire and people rebelling and a space station with a tiny hole in it that lets someone blow it up. And there's a peasant kid who's actually a hidden prince who must learn to use his powers to save the good-hearted people of the universe from an asthma inflicted bad guy. It's Star Wars; if you're on the Internet you're legally required to have seen it.

Actually "It's Star Wars" is an understatement in this case. The dialog is the movie script complete with a few scenes that weren't in the original release. So it is paced and structured exactly like the movie. As far as I can tell they don't even skip over any dialog; the word balloons might as well be the movie script. On top of that Tamaki often photoreferences stills from the movie (or if you want to be less generous, he traces) which makes some panels look identical to the film.

How you respond to that is going to depend a lot on what you think an adaptation should be. If you think an adaptation should be a carbon copy of the original then this isn't going to matter to you. On the other hand if you think an adaptation should take from the source material and adjust to what works in the new medium (as I do) then this manga adaptation is a complete failure. The words are the same and many of the panels might as well be stills from the movie. By mimicking the films so precisely Tamaki has created a work that is redundant.

There are two key areas where Tamaki put his own mark on Star Wars. Where he was effective was the light sabre duel between Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader. Rather than the stiff poses and choreography from the film Tamaki presents it as a samurai duel and it is a very effective sequence as a result. If he had done this well in depicting action throughout the manga then he might have cut my complaints short.

The other place where Tamaki has added something is in his depiction of character interaction and there he is less effective. Characters break into the cartoony over exaggerated emotional outbursts that are common to manga. Those images are attached to the original text of the film script and as a result there's often a disconnect between the text and the reaction. It's often a mood breaker. If Tamaki had been more liberal with the script and storytelling then this stylistic choice might have been integrated better.

Another real problem with Tamaki's art is that other than the light sabre duel he is particularly bad at illustrating action. The climactic battle is a mess of speed lines that blur into photoreferenced images of the fighters. It's like the stereotype of what bad manga looks like. The action is impossible to follow and panels rarely flow together smoothly. Imagine trying to capture the feeling of that final space battle with a handful of randomly selected frames from the movie; that's what the action comes across as.

So obviously I didn't like it. I was predisposed to not like it to begin with since I'm not fond of Star Wars but even outside of that context this is a weak manga. The only reason for it to exist is to suck a few more dollars out of the pockets of Star Wars fans and you're not missing out on anything by ignoring it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Review - Usagi Yojimbo: Daisho and Grasscutter

Usagi Yojimbo: Daisho and Grasscutter
by Stan Sakai
1996 Eisner Award Winner for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition
1996 Eisner Award Winner for Best Lettering
1999 Eisner Award Winner for Best Serialized Story: "Grasscutter"

I used to find Usagi Yojimbo intimidating. Stan Sakai started writing about the rabbit samurai in 1984. Twenty-five years of history is impressive for any comic but it's nearly unprecedented for an independent book. Initially the trade paperbacks were not numbered and they never mentioned what issues were in them. That left me with a problem. I had heard that Usagi Yojimbo was great but where was the starting point and which ones should I read? Things have changed somewhat since that point about ten years ago; it's easy to find the reading order now even though some of the books still carry no sign to the reading order. Last year I took the plunge and worked my way through the series and it was worth it; Sakai is a great story teller and has built a wonderful samurai epic that's still slowly unfolding.

For those keeping count at home Daisho is the ninth Usagi Yojimbo book and Grasscutter is the twelth. Both of them manage to stand fairly well on their own and they both gained the attention of the Eisner selection committee. They also represent the two major themes in Usagi Yojimbo: bushido and folklore. If you've never read the series you could start with either of these books and get a good taste of what it's all about.

The series is about the journeys of Usagi, a masterless samurai in that vague shogunate period that samurai dramas are typically set in (it's like the "medieval" setting for Japan). As he walks across the country he encounters creatures from Japanese folklore, becomes entangled in the plots of local Lords, and generally has adventures.

In Daisho the ronin Usagi stumbles onto a slaver operation run by a renegade general. Despite rescuing the slaves Usagi's swords are stolen. Since a samurai's swords are his soul the rabbit samurai sets out on a quest to hunt down the general and that brings him into conflict with bounty hunters also seeking the general's head.

Grasscutter opens with the creation myth, proceeds to Orochi and Susano-o, and then goes into the loss of one of the three great imperial treasures of Japan. That lost treasure is a sword which sank to the bottom of a bay during a great battle. A conspiracy has a scheme to recover the sword and shift power from the Shogun to their own puppet Emperor. Their plan goes awry when the legendary sword of the gods falls into Usagi's hands. Complicating things further there is another supernatural power that seeks to claim the weapon for itself.

Usagi is cut from the standard heroic mold and consequently he's often a bit dull to read about. A situation presents itself and Usagi does the right thing typically by cutting his way through the dozen thugs who get in his way. If he is ever troubled about a decision then it's because it's the “right” thing to be troubled by it and and then he takes the moral high ground. As a character he moves on heroic autopilot. In fact that Usagi is your standard hero is something that Sakai uses in Daisho to demonstrate how broken he is by the loss of his swords. Naturally it's a momentary lapse since Usagi Yojimbo is a heroic fantasy but Sakai is aware of the restrictions inherent to his main character.

That would be why Sakai surrounds Usagi with a terrific cast that play off him. The antagonists tend to be more interesting since they're allowed to be conflicted and choose the practical above the heroic. It's rare that Usagi goes more than an issue or two without encountering one of the reoccurring characters that complicate his life and that cast is on display in these two books.

Sakai's story telling skills have grown considerably since he started writing Usagi Yojimbo. By the time he reached Daisho the stories have gone from dropping Usagi into a standard samurai movie plot to providing a more complex story. Grasscutter in particular ties up plot threads that had been building for years in a method that feels completely natural and is accessible to someone sampling the volume. My simplified description above skips the multiple interwoven threads of the story where several of them never do intersect despite playing off each other.

One interesting facet of the stories in Usagi Yojimbo is how smoothly Sakai works folklore and history into the stories. This is most obvious in Grasscutter where the entire story is focused on a legend about an actual twelfth century battle. Daisho has its share, however, such as a sequence on the forging of Usagi's swords. It gives the stories an extra layer that I appreciated.

Before I actually read Usagi Yojimbo I had already drawn conclusions about its art style. A black and white samurai story by a Japanese creator (albeit one who left Japan at a young age)? Surely it would be manga-esque. Sakai's style does not share any major aspects with any manga creator that I'm aware of. His story telling choices are firmly planted in US-style comics in terms of pacing and formatting; he does not indulge in the mood setting shot or the character establishing image that change the pacing in standard manga-style storytelling. Also his character art has more in common with Walt Kelly than Osamu Tezuka. There is are two key places where the Japanese influence shines through.

The first, and to me most interesting, is how he composes crowd scenes. Sakai uses a style that is reminiscent to me of old Japanese prints. Large battles are often depicted from an elevated perspective with each figure in the group being distantly separated from the others. It makes the groups look thinned out but at the same time Sakai illustrates each person in that crowd to be distinct from every other one. It's a technique I've never seen any other comic creator use and because it is so distinctly his it gives the large battles a unique feel.

The other thing is the treatment of personal combat which tends to be more like manga than western fight scenes. Duels usually end with one pass of the sword. Large melees may take a page of quick action cut across only a few panels. It's rare for Sakai to provide an extended brawl as he focuses on what is occurring around the fighting.

There's one more special thing about Stan Sakai that needs to be mentioned now. Since the Eisner awards began only two people have won for best lettering. Sakai only managed to win once but just being able to do that in an award that has only gone to one other person is an amazing feat. Sakai's regular lettering appears fairly normal as far as comic books go. He builds on that with characters that have the appearance of brushwork (I suspect they are but I'm not certain if he uses this technique) and other distinctive type styles for unatural elements. Especially notable is his regular symbol for someone's death cry which is something that occurs often in a book about samurais. He's integrated both style and iconography smoothly into his lettering.

The worst thing I can say about Usagi Yojimbo is that it is a well told heroic adventure. It isn't deep but I don't think Sakai is trying to be. Sakai has recognized his niche with his comic and does it extremely well. If you suspect that you might like a samurai adventure story then you should definitely try Daisho and Grasscutter but if you're looking for something deeper then you'll probably leave Usagi Yojimbo feeling unsatisfied.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Review - "The Empire of Ice Cream" and "What I Didn't See"

"The Empire of Ice Cream"
by Jeffrey Ford
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Novelette

"The Empire of Ice Cream" reminded me a lot of Ford's World Fantasy Award winner The Physiognomy. That wasn't because it used the same setting or even that it occupied the same themes. It reminds me of his book because he built a dazzling mosaic of words that left me bewildered but with a general sense at the end that it was pretty good.

Part of that has to with how the main character in "The Empire of Ice Cream" is a synesthetic, a person who interprets information from one sense as something from another. A common form is to associate colors with sound and this character uses that sense to compose music as though creating a painting. Of all the experiences he has the most complex one is that the taste of coffee ice cream gives him a detailed vision of a girl his age. He falls in love with this vision and savors each chance he gets to enjoy coffee ice cream for it.

In an odd way Ford seems to dodge using descriptions over the course of the story. The few that there are tend to be sterile. Everyone once and a while he dips into the synesthetic viewpoint but he seems to save those for more poetic uses. Avoiding dependence on the gimmick of a distorted viewpoint seems to help as it brings the descriptions of auditory paintings and visions into focus.

I found that I didn't care about the main character. As the story progresses he's essentially Gifted But Troubled Young Man Longing For an Impossible Girl #508. The plot for the most part runs an obvious course and if you've seen this once before (and you probably have) then it will feel very familiar.

And yet somehow Ford pulls me in. I didn't care about how the plot was unfolding or if young love would be found and I still enjoyed the ride. There's something to how he assembles his stories that make them come across as very different than what they suggest at first brush. I'd recommend "The Empire of Ice Cream" just for that; it's a well told story that just happens to be an old one.

"What I Didn't See"
by Karen Joy Fowler
2003 Nebula Winner for Best Short Story

This is the first Nebula winner that doesn't even have the pretense of being fantasy or science fiction. There's not a single fantastic element in it. Not even a hint of strange happenings. There have been stories before where there isn't really anything SF in them but the author hints at it; that's not the case here. So even though "What I Didn't See" was an extremely good story it still seems peculiar that it won the Nebula.

In the 1920's a university expedition heads to the heart of Africa with a stated purpose of specimen collection. The actual purpose is only known to the organizer and is revealed once the group is on site. The organizer believes that gorillas are gentle animals and not the rampaging beasts they are portrayed as. He plans to put a stop to the practice of hunting them for sport by removing the glamor from it. And to do that he wants the two women on the expedition to kill gorillas.

That's the plot but the real story is in the break down in the expedition which is exasperated by torrid affairs and the anger regarding the hidden purpose. The main character is one of the women who does not appreciate being used and it, with other factors, strains her otherwise happy marriage.

Fowler does a great job in portraying her characters as conflicted, lost people. This story is in the same mold as Hemmingway and Conrad and yet Fowler finds a way to make it feel distinctive. Part of that is her choice of viewpoint, a woman who is sympathetic and yet just as lost in the ugly social mores of the time as everyone else. The story rarely went where I thought it would and each spin made the whole scenario more terrible.

"What I Didn't See" was a gripping story and so I definitely recommend it. The fact that it's an odd selection for the Nebula doesn't lessen its impact.