Thursday, February 11, 2010

Review - Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White

Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White
by Taiyo Matsumoto
2008 Eisner Winner for Best U.S. Edition of Foreign Material (Japan)

Tekkonkinkreet: Black and White made a bad first impression on me. It opens with a long and completely disjointed sequence that flickers back and forth between several scenes and times which never seem to connect properly. Thirty pages in and I wasn't sure I could make it through the rest. Then things changed: Matsumoto found a plot, his artistic style became anchored by it, and I could start developing an appreciation for the characters. By the time it reached it's strange conclusion I had thoroughly enjoyed the trip.

Black and White are a pair of orphan children who live in what I can only think of as the platonic ideal of the metropolis. The idealized city of Treasure Town is their playground but the city has been changing. Plans are in motion to transform the lively but grimy city into a gentrified but soulless place. Black and White themselves are tied to the city in a spiritual way and as it changes they change as well.

Adding another layer of complication Black and White aren't simply names; it is also their nature. They are polar opposites. White is innocent and good hearted while Black is on the verge of giving in completely to rage. Black lashes out at those he sees as threatening White and White is his own lost way tries to keep Black from going too far.

That's the tension that really drives Tekkonkinkreet and makes it worth reading. Black is a child who is on the verge of becoming a monster. He's already a violent thug but he's pushing the edge of being much worse. White a pure soul and also his anchor that keeps Black's motives pure. There are physical threats from the gangsters and other forces that come against them but the core of the story is a child about to lose his soul.

Superficially it's a gangster story with a bit of children's adventure. Black and White run around their city getting into scraps and helping their friends while mobsters do their dealings behind the scene. The spiritual themes grow more and more pronounced until they are out right stated at the climax. It's a bit blunt and it results in a trippy conclusion that manga has a bad reputation for but in this case since the themes were so strongly worked into the fabric of the story I think Matsumoto made it work.

The other big theme in the story is how the world changes and Matsumoto does this both in the changing landscape of the city and the shifting characters. Black and White are changing but so are the gangs who control much of the city and police who challenge them. No one is untouched by the shifts in the city and characters who were established as antagonists do not remain so (or at least not the same antagonists they were initially). The only ones whose character isn't fully explored are the agents of change themselves.

Do not expect a lot of explanation out of Tekkonkinkreet. The further in you get the stranger things become and none them are ever addressed. The strangeness of the characters and city are part of the theme; for the story the mysteries don't matter. If you need everything explained then you will be greatly disappointed at the end of the book.

His artwork is a bit of a shock to the system. Matsumoto isn't one for the usual manga conventions. His artwork is jagged instead of sleek and his use of perspective is almost cubist. His cityscapes have a style that is distinctive; they're not bleak but they are harsh. I wound up appreciating the art as part of the style of the book but it's not going to be for everyone.

So there are some rough edges to Tekkonkinkreet butI think those are rough edges worth dealing with. This is a story very much in the urban fantasy mold but its fantastic elements are so low key that when they do bubble to the surface it's a shock since we've nearly forgotten them. I wound up liking it a lot and I would have enjoyed a longer story exploring these characters and their city.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Review - The Books of Magic

The Books of Magic
Written by Neil Gaiman; Art by John Bolton, Scott Hampton, Charles Vess, and Paul Johnson
1992 Eisner Winner for Best Writer

Due to the way that the Eisners work every so often you get a real oddity in the list. There are several categories that are for a person instead of a specific work which means that while someone may win for their work on a particular project (like Sandman to use an arbitrary example) and other lesser things they did that year get to come along for the ride (such as The Books of Magic to use another completely arbitrary example). Despite some terrific painted art by four exceptional artists The Books of Magic is not Gaiman's best work. He's limited by his format and while flashes of his skill occasionally shine through it just isn't enough to justify it.

The nominal plot is that Harry Potter... er... Timothy Hunter is a boy with potential to be the greatest wizard in the world. In an attempt to channel his abilities for good four wizards confront him and lead Tim on a hero's journey of a guided tour of all magic. What that tour ammounts to, and what the vast majority of the book comes down to, are quick introductions to the supernatural characters and concepts in DC comics.

(The similarities between Tim Hunter and Harry Potter has caused some people to claim that J.K. Rowling "stole" the idea from Gaiman but I think it's clear to most people that they both were inspired by the similar things.)

There are four chapters to The Books of Magic each featuring a different facet of magic: it's history, the current practitioners, the supernatural realms, and it's future. Each chapter is painted by a different artist which is a striking visual effect. Unfortunately these explorations are comprised of one or two page executive summaries of the concept. Here's a page on Egyptian magic. There's a page about the Dreaming. Or a quick flash of 64th century techno-magic. It's glimpses of bigger concepts and Gaiman doesn't do justice to any of them by flickering past them.

When The Books of Magic follows the story of people trying to take advantage of Tim then it is a decent read. It's still a bit simplistic since Gaiman is firmly attached to the traditional hero's journey arc and he doesn't apply it with a lot of style. But Tim is a likable enough character who keeps a lighter tone going in the more serious moments. That makes the dryer parts of the book much more bearable.

The most coherent portions of the plot are the middle. The second chapter is built around a chase as some wizards seek to kill Tim before he can make a difference and they seek sanctuary. It is also the only chapter where the introductions to the concept fit into a narrative framework.

The artists really add a lot to the book. Each of them render beautiful magical landscapes. In particular Charles Vess and Paul Johnson do some exceptional work. Vess is given the task of illustrating the fairy realms which is something that he's well suited to. Johnson's illustrations are a chaotic jumble that dramatically depicts the entropy at the end of time. None of the art is less than terrific though.

The Books of Magic is a vacation slide show of one comic book company's view of magic. And much like a vacation slide show actually going on the adventures you see would be a lot more fun than seeing the snap shots afterward. I'd still say it's worth checking out for the artwork since Gaiman's story isn't actually bad, just don't expect the same quality of storytelling that Gaiman was doing elsewhere at this same time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Review - Safe Area Gorazde

Safe Area Gorazde
by Joe Sacco
2001 Eisner Winner for Best New Graphic Album

When I was reading Fax From Sarajevo I couldn't think of another comic that dealt with the Bosnian war. Somehow I had overlooked Safe Area Gorazde that dealt with a lesser known aspect of the war. At the height of the conflict there were three large enclaves of Bosnians were completely cut off in Serbian territory. The largest of these was Gorazde and while the other two eventually fell Gorazde remained a besieged outpost for the entire length of the conflict.

So what I anticipated going into Safe Area Gorazde were the human stories of a trapped people. And I got that. Eventually and in tiny doses. What Safe Area Gorazde is actually about is Joe Sacco himself and that left a bad taste in my mouth. Sacco spends about the same amount of time in the book on himself and his experiences in Gorazde as he does on everyone else there put together. The early parts of the book are especially heavy in this and even when it gets to a few pages detailing the harshness of a supply run or the harrowing escape from one of the other collapsing enclaves it's a few pages of that and then back to how the story affected Sacco.

I understand that Sacco it attempting to work himself in as the view point character; as the guy outsiders are supposed to identify and view the story through. This is completely unnecessary though. There is a saying that the reporter should not be the story and that is what Sacco has done in Safe Area Gorazde. He's the center of attention instead of the people who the story should be about.

In addition Sacco is not a compelling storyteller. He has a tendency to throw out these dry blocks of text. Most of these are put in quotes which makes me suspect that they're translated from the original stories and if that's the case then the translator is a poor one. (There's no credit or thanks given to them and given the story context I am assuming it's Sacco himself.) The character's voices are all the same and do not change as the characters do. It makes defending their homes against former neighbors who have turned against them as interesting as a walk to the store for a loaf of bread.

In addition the narrative is the book is badly fragmented. If you don't like what's happening in those two pages give it another page since it will jump topics by then. Sacco can't keep focus on anything for more than a few pages at a time and I got whiplash from the way topics would suddenly swerve.

There was one aspect to the art that I found disturbing. Sacco portrays all of the Bosnians with cat like slit pupils. Since a major aspect of the war was the attempted genocide the decision to portray the victims of that campaign with inhuman features is a bad idea. In complete fairness he seems to do this to everyone but there's very few characters in the book other than Bosnians and himself (and he is always drawn with featureless glasses covering his eyes). It rubbed me the wrong way to have people whose murders were justified through dehumanization being dehumanized.

For all the faults in Safe Area Gorazde there is one thing it does: it gives the story of a little known aspect of a war that was forgotten by most of the world almost as soon as it was over. Just having a unique subject is not enough to make me recommend it. This was not a compelling way of telling the stories.