Friday, September 11, 2009

Review - Buddha

by Osamu Tezuka
2004, 2005 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Adaption of Foreign Material

Religious comics have a bad reputation that is well deserved. Their creators tend to be people with better intentions than ability. But when that creator is a man who effectively created the medium for an entire country the results are something that will far exceed the usual standards of the genre.

If every comic book artist in the United States wanted to be Will Eisner then every one of them in Japan wanted to be Osamu Tezuka. While Japanese comics existed before Tezuka came on the scene his work like Astro Boy defined the storytelling and stylistic conventions that would be used in the future. Not just the style for comics but animation as well. Tezuka branched off Japanese comics into their own distinctive form and for that reason he's known as "the god of manga" (Japanese comics). Tezuka died in 1989 but thanks to the emergence of the manga market in the US a little more than five years ago some of his greatest works have only recently become available in English.

Buddha is the story of Siddhartha, the founder of Buddhism. Born into royalty he witnesses the suffering that exists in the world and seeks to know why it exists. He seeks enlightenment first through self-flagellation as a monk and later through meditation. Eventually he finds it and founds a religious movement.

The thing about Buddha is that Siddhartha is the least interesting character in it. His story is known. He's not going to be killed by the marauding armies that march back and forth through the land. He's not going to succumb to temptation and walk away from his meditations. Once he achieves enlightment what little conflict there was in his character melts away. So it's a good thing that Tezuka divides his attention between Siddhartha and a cast of mostly apocryphal characters. In fact Siddhartha doesn't even get involved as a character until the second volume! The first book is the story of two young friends who belong to the lowest of castes and how that caste system consumes them.

It's that attention to other details that turns Buddha from being a simple religious screed to a comic worthy of attention. There are other life stories that run parallel with Siddhartha's and they find their paths crossing at different points in the eventual Buddha's spiritual journey. A thief seeking to use Siddhartha's royal family for revenge, a monk who believes that enlightenment can only be achieved through the greatest personal suffering, and a child doomed to know his own death in advance are a few of the stories that are used. They're the ones that the story turns on as they change with time and not always for the better.

A pleasant surprise is how little proselytizing there is in Buddha. I suspect this is because it is a comic written for people who would already be familiar with Buddhism so there isn't an attempt to use the story as anything beyond a retelling of the life of Siddhartha. His teachings are an unavoidable part of that and they are presented simply and directly as part of the narrative. If you don't subscribe to the Buddhist philosophy (and I don't) then it's easy to think about Buddha as just the story of a major historical figure.

Something that may take some getting used to with Tezuka is how he swings back and forth between comedy and drama. A character may be making a profound statement about the nature of the universe in one panel only to shift to cartoonish reaction in the next. I personally had no problem with it though some people will find it jarring.

Tezuka's artwork is consistently beautiful through all eight volumes of the story (only the first four won the Eisner). Tezuka blends incredibly detailed images of the Himalayan plateau with his extremely cartoonish figures. As you'd expect from a man who founded an animation studio (well, industry for that matter) his figures are simply drawn but lively. They're expressive in how simple they are.

I do need to add a mild warning here. There are a lot of topless women in these books. Tezuka adds a sexual dimension to a religious story in way that is rarely seen (even when it exists most modern religions prefer to politely cough and look away than address that aspect of their stories). Only the most prudish of reader would call it pornographic but I wouldn't want to recommend Buddha without that caveat since it may put off some.

Buddha is one of the high points in the career of a man who transformed the medium and consequently it is not to be missed. Tezuka has created an engrossing story out of a traditional narrative by adding to the events surrounding it. He turned what could have been an unpleasant chunk of preaching into a thoughtful biography.

Review - Fax From Sarajevo

Fax From Sarajevo
by Joe Kubert
1997 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album

Fair warning on this review: it's going to be gushing. I can sum it up right now as any comic fan needs to read Fax From Sarajevo and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone other than those completely prejudiced against the medium. It ranks among the best that I've ever read.

Joe Kubert cut his teeth on war comics. He is inarguably the master of that comic genre with most of war comics set in World War II. In the seventies he mostly retired from comic books to start a school for training comic artists. So when he emerged from his retirement with Fax From Sarajevo it was a big deal. It took his already impressive skills, applied them to a slightly different situation, and the result was the masterpiece of his sixty-five year long career.

It's the Bosnian War at heart of Fax From Sarajevo where a cartoonist who worked with Kubert finds himself and his family trapped in a suburb as the Bosnians siege the city. His only consistent lifeline for getting information out to his friends is a fax machine. As the siege continues for months his priorities shift from attempting to continue life as usual to survival to escape.

The book is populated with the faxes that provide the title. These faxes often provide a direct account of the events that Kubert just dramatized on the previous pages. Instead of being repetitive they bring home the fact that this is a true story and often bring a bit more context to events both in terms of emotion and plot.

The attack on Sarajevo in the Bosnian War wasn't an attempt to occupy a city, it was an attempt to exterminate its inhabitants. That means that one of the most effective things about this book is the way Kubert handles the violence. It's quickly made clear that gunmen, mortars, and bomb throwing soldiers are lurking everywhere. Calm scenes are punctuated with explosions and the tension never lets up. It just can't when things can always get worse.

Kubert may be accustomed to drawing GI's in trenches but the same visual techniques make Fax From Sarajevo terrific. The grim faced characters pushing on through a hail of bullets gets a whole new dimension when it's a family instead of soldiers. Kubert also paces his story visually so that there will be many moments where you will flip a page and recoil in shock.

The worst thing I can say about Fax From Sarajevo is that some of Kubert's dialog is rough. And it's not even rough enough that I can call it a bad thing; it's just that some of it tends to be a bit exposition heavy.

So Fax From Sarajevo is a book that I cannot recommend highly enough. Kubert channeled his personal attachment to the material into a spectacular work. It sheds light onto a conflict that is often overlooked by those not directly involved and does so in a way that will take your breath away and leave your fingernails chewed to nubs.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Review - The Name of the Game

The Name of the Game
by Will Eisner
2002 Eisner Award Winner for Best Graphic Album

Hey, they guy who wrote and drew this book has the same name as the award! Isn't that a crazy coincidence?

Will Eisner has won the award that holds his name several times for his work from the forties, his modern graphic novels, and once for a book on the nature of comics. The fact that the award is named for him says something about his influence in the field. When it comes to Eisner's work the typical question is if it's brilliant, excellent, or just extremely good. With The Name of the Game I have to go with "excellent".

While in the broadest sense The Name of the Game is a generational story of a family I think it's tight focus on one particular man really makes it the story of a life and how various marriages affect him. There is no other word to describe this man than "cad"; he's an unscrupulous womanizer who uses every person he meets. He's born into a New York society family in the late nineteenth century and over the next sixty years destroys lives.

But enough about the plot; it's pure melodrama and it's not the point of The Name of the Game. Eisner uses the high society family troubles as a stage for other points. The family at the heart of the story is the top of Jewish society and while they may be the cream there they cannot break through to the larger New York group. And at the same time that they are the victim of discrimination they find comfort in looking down on Jews from other national backgrounds.

Then there's the class struggles that drive so much here. The book opens with a coda that bettering ones social standing depends on making the correct marriage. I think it's obvious say that this leads to a lot of unhappy marriages that cruelly self-destruct.

Entire books have been written about what a spectacular artist Will Eisner is so I feel it's a bit redundant for me to rave over him. The expressions and body language for the characters in The Name of the Game could nearly tell this story on their own. On top of that the story spans a a full lifetime and a little bit more so every character has to grow and age as it progresses. And if that wasn't enough this is a story about people keeping up appearances and the nature of that changes rapidly; keeping tract of the styles alone must have been a phenomenally difficult task.

If that wasn't enough Eisner's skill at creating fantastic page layouts is put to terrific but subtle use. Panels blend together and borders come and go as needed. Eisner doesn't do a lot of flashy things with the pages but I'm inclined to think that's to help bring the focus in on his cast of broken characters.

The Name of the Game is a terrific piece of work by a creator who is arguably the most influential comic book artist ever (there's one person I'd argue is on the same level for defining the art form but I'll get to him later this week). It showcases some wonderful storytelling in the art by Eisner that is only brought down slightly by the weaknesses in the actual story. And those weaknesses are negligiable given that the focus of the book is elsewhere.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Review - Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded

Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded: A Decade of Whatever 1998 - 2008
by John Scalzi
2009 Hugo Winner for Best Related Non-Fiction

In a sign of how much things have changed three of this year's Hugo winners were published on the web for free before being packaged up in a more permanent format. If we look into the nominees that didn't win you'll find new media lurking. Between the webcomic and the viral video phenomenon there is Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, a collection of entries from John Scalzi's blog Whatever.

I don't like being the greenhouse owner chucking rocks even if my greenhouse is an nearly microscopic hobbyist set up growing two or three orchids and the rocks are getting chucked at the giant agricultural conglomerate farm growing a dozen cash crops. Blogs are just too personal; it feels like I'm judging Scalzi rather than the book itself. I'm going to be even briefer than usual as a result. Unless you're a big fan of John Scalzi and his blog then you shouldn't bother with this book. And even if you are a fan it's going to be a tough sell.

The fundamental problem with Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded is inherent to its nature: it's a collection of blog entries. It is a set of short essays, hastily written, with no oversight beyond popping out whatever is on the author's mind. Some of them are witty, some of them are interesting, but on the whole they're nothing special and bundling them together in one large volume just highlights the problem.

For every interesting essay like "Being Poor" where Scalzi places the realities of American poverty down in simple facts there's three where he takes lazy swings and the low hanging fruit of people he objects to. Yes, creationists fail at basic reasoning skills but you can't swing a dead cat on the Internet without finding that. And for ever clever bit of political writing like a list of why you wouldn't want Ayn Rand as your mother there's a pile of demagoguery that's tiring to read.

It doesn't help that most of these essays aren't well written. For the most part they're off the top of the head fluff. On a blog that's less of a concern; as an online journal the quality of the writing takes a back seat to the day to day connection the readers get. Placing them all down on paper as essays on the other hand removes that context.

I don't dislike John Scalzi or his writing. I don't read his blog because I'm just not that interested in it; the few blogs I read are more focused and I don't read any author's blogs. Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded has not changed my mind about reading his blog though that's because I know that any time Scalzi writes a great essay I'll be able to follow the links back to it. The book has made me firmly believe that blog entries are not worth collecting unless there are major revisions.