Thursday, March 31, 2011

Scalped #47

Written by Jason Aaron
Art by RM Guera

It's no secret that I love Scalped.  It never fails to disappoint, as Aaron continues to spin out his tale of the Prairie Rose Reservation.  Over the years that I've been reading this comic, I've come to like a great number of the characters, but my favourite has always been Dino Poor Bear, the teenage father and ex-drug dealer who had his eye plucked out a while back.

When we met Dino, he was simply trying to escape the Res, and was ambivalent about his role as a father.  As the series has progressed, Dino has embraced parenthood, and has grown to accept his place in the world, as he tries to walk a more narrow path.

This issue is focused on him, and the feelings he has developed for Carol, who has been living with his family since Granny Poor Bear rescued her from her addictions, and quite likely, suicide.  Dino and Carol have been spending a lot of time together, and he is still a boy, so it's natural that his heart has moved in the direction it has.  Some of the story beats in this issue - the expensive gift, the 'like a brother' speech - were completely predictable, but still work beautifully in Aaron's hands.

Artist RM Guera has always done a good job on this comic, but he kills it with this issue.  The last couple of pages, as Dino walks through the night (and crosses paths with Catcher) are incredible.  I'm not sure I could love this comic more than I do.

Butcher Baker, the Righteous Maker #1

Written by Joe Casey
Art by Mike Huddleston

You have to appreciate the role that Joe Casey plays in modern comics.  It's clear that he loves superhero comics, and in his work, he embraces them, with all their peculiarities and nonsense, with such a fervor that he creates stories that aren't so much satire as pure, unadulterated superheroics.  His new book, Butcher Baker, is to the gritty post-heroic 90s of the Watchmen, the Punisher, and Rick Veitch's Brat Pack what his Godland is to Jack Kirby.

Butcher Baker is a retired patriotic superhero (more Comedian than Captain America) who is brought out of retirement (by Dick Cheney and Jay Leno) to help clean up some loose ends.  He mostly spends his days having sex with multiple women, and drives a souped-up gigantic semi painted to look like the American flag.

Despite all appearances, it seems his life is kind of empty.  Or at least, that's what this issue hints at, but most of this comic is spent establishing his unique character.  It's a fun comic, and Huddleston does a great job of showing different eras in Baker's career.  I'm not sure if this is a mini-series or an on-going, but it seems interesting enough to get me to stick around for a while.

American Vampire #13

Written by Scott Snyder
Art by Rafael Albuquerque

The first thing I noticed when I picked up this new issue, which is the first part of the 'Ghost War' arc was that artist Rafael Albuquerque was back, which made me very happy.  He has done a phenomenal job on this title, and it's nice to see him return to these characters.

Since it began, American Vampire has been moving forward through the 20th century, and this new story jumps us up to the Second World War, and returns the book's focus to Pearl and her husband Henry.  They've been living in hiding since we last saw them, but with the war underway, they've felt the need to get involved in the world.  Pearl is working as a nurse, and Henry signed up, although he was considered too old to be sent to the war.

Now though, the Vassals of the Morning Star have a task for him to perform in Taipan, and he jumps at the chance to do his duty.  The fact that the Vassals are involved means that there are vampires in Taipan, which is shown in the framing sequence.  This looks to be a pretty interesting arc.

What makes this issue work though, is not the plotting, but the touching relationship between Henry and Pearl.  He is getting older, but she is not, and as that disparity grows, so does their love for each other.  Snyder is really proving himself these days (read this week's issue of Detective Comics!), and Albuquerque is at the top of his game.  This is a great comic.

Hellblazer: City of Demons #1-5

Written by Si Spencer
Art by Sean Murphy

While I always like a good John Constantine story, my interest in this mini-series was largely fueled by my regard for Sean Murphy's artwork on Joe the Barbarian.

This story is kind of strange.  In the first issue, Constantine gets hit by a car, and ends up in the hospital for a while.  While there, a pair of doctors extract some of his demon blood, and use it to experiment on just about any other surgery patient they can find.  This leads to a number of random acts of violence around London, which John has to investigate.

What makes this series strange is the way in which Spencer takes a lot of space to develop a number of characters who are then quickly killed off or otherwise dispatched.  While I liked these little character studies, I found that it disrupted the flow of the narrative each time.

But, since I bought these comics for Murphy's artwork, I was still quite happy with the whole thing.  His work is not as inventive as it was on Joe, but it's still very good.  I found it a little reminiscent of Shade-era Chris Bachalo (mostly because of the lines on peoples' noses), which is always a good thing.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Grunts: War Stories

Written by a bunch of people
Art by Matt Jacobs

Well, this was a mistake.  Looking at the cover, one could reasonably assume that this comic is written by Keith Giffen and Shannon Eric Denton.  Their names are in a prominent place on the front, and the back proclaims "Battlefield Action from...." before listing them.  But, as it turns out, they didn't write this book, they simply 'created' it.

Which might still be a symbol of quality, except that these are simply short stories, written by a variety of writers, featuring a group of soldiers fighting in the Second World War.  The only thing that separates this from a Khanigher/Kubert era DC war comic, or from something written by Garth Ennis, is that it's not very good.  So what exactly did Giffen (who I admire a great amount) and Denton create?  The fact that one of the soldiers (the fat one) is named Fatty?  Time for an Eisner....

So yah, avoid this.  The stories are okay taken individually (if they were a back-up in a war anthology, I wouldn't mind one, or even two of them), but taken as a whole, their similarity (despite ten different writers) is mind-numbing.  For some reason, almost every story has a soldier either writing a letter (sometimes in the middle of some action) or talking about the letters they've written.  And having something to do with a letter in this book is like wearing a red shirt in Star Trek.  They always die.

I get it that there is a market for war comics, but I think after reading so many by Ennis, that market is kind of particular.  You can't just shovel any old thing at them.  At least, you can't shovel it at me...

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Amazing Screw-On Head and Other Curious Objects

by Mike Mignola (with Katie Mignola)

In the last two years, I've gone from being someone who was generally skeptical of Mike Mignola's stories (I always liked his art) to a die-hard fan, and this collection of shorter pieces satisfies a craving for some of Mignola's more odd-ball sensibilities.

The main story, which is a regular comic's length, features a robotic head who fights magical threats in Victorian America (if such a thing really existed).  We have Abraham Lincoln on a view screen, servants like Mister Groin, and evil figures like Emperor Zombie.  The plot is much like a Hellboy short, but everything feels new and strange in this tale.

The rest of the book is made up of shorter pieces, including one, 'The Snake and the Magician' that Mignola wrote with the assistance of his seven-year old daughter.  It's a cute tale of magic and inter-species affection.  The other tales include a re-drawn 'Abut Gung and the Beanstalk', and the fantastic 'The Prisoner of Mars'.

This book would be the perfect way to introduce a new reader to Mignola's comics, before turning them on to Hellboy and BPRD.

The Mission #2

Written by John Hoeber and Erich Hoeber
Art by Werther Dell'Edera

I'd picked up the first issue of The Mission on spec, based on the strength of Dell'Edera's art.  It was interesting enough that I thought I'd give the second issue a shot, and I find that I'm enjoying it.

I was surprised to see that this issue wrapped up the main story from the first issue; I've been trained to think in six-issue arc, and so this was a nice surprise.

The main character is an everyday guy named Paul, who was contacted mysteriously by someone named Gabriel and told to kill a man he'd never met.  He waffled, and the man ended up pulling a gun out during his divorce trial, killing a few people, and kidnapping his daughter.  Paul feels responsible, and is now being told that it is his responsibility to track down the man and rescue the girl.

There are massive Biblical overtones in all of this, and in the intimation that there are two opposing forces fighting a proxy war which has them recruiting random people like Paul.  I'm not sure if future issues of this book will feature other main characters, or if we are going to follow Paul throughout this whole story.  Even though this issue provides a lot of closure, I'm still interested enough to pick up the next one.

The Sixth Gun #10

Written by Cullen Bunn
Art by Brian Hurtt

Well, I guess Drake didn't do as good a job of hiding the guns as he thought he did, as they change hands a couple of times in this issue.  Kirby Hale, the gunslinger and new beau for Becky has been revealed as someone who can't be trusted, and Woodmael, the servant to Henri Fournier gets taken over by a Loa.

In other words, things aren't looking too good for Drake and his friends, as this arc kicks into high gear.  The Sixth Gun is a very cool series, with an ever-growing cast.  I like how Bunn is slowly explaining the role of the supernatural in his world, and how each new issue introduces a new story element.

Hurtt's art in this series is terrific.  It's worth checking this book out if you aren't already reading it.

The New York Five #3

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Ryan Kelly

Even if I didn't care about the story or characters in this comic, I would buy it for the full page panels of New York that Ryan Kelly is drawing.  This issue opens with a splash page of one of the girls (not sure if it's Riley or Ren) skateboarding up a street, and then moves on to large images of the tenement the girls live in, the interior of the Strand, a coffee shop, Washington Square, St. Mark's Place, Veselka, the entrance to the subway, and numerous large character shots.  While they make the comic a quick read, they are amazing pieces of art, demonstrating Kelly's mastery of both people and architecture.

The story still feels a little choppy in places, but I've become so fond of most of these characters that it doesn't bother me in the slightest.  The girls seem to be drifting apart, as Ren makes a big announcement, and Merissa heads off to handle her family responsibilities.  Riley starts talking to her sister again, and Lona's boyfriend puts her straight about her creepy stalker behaviour.  We start to get to know Olive, the homeless girl, a little better too.

I'm not sure what to expect from the last issue of this series next month, but if it's nothing but Ryan Kelly New York scenes, with Brian Wood inserting his thoughts about the places, then I'll be perfectly happy with it.

Echoes #4

Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Rahsan Ekedal

I'm finding Echoes to be a very tightly plotted thriller, and each issue seems to be better than the one before it.  The plot of this series is that Brian, a schizophrenic, learns from his father on his deathbed that he had murdered a large number of young girls, and had made effigies of them out of their skin.  Upon learning this, Brian investigates some and discovers the box full of dolls, and promptly starts to crack up.  Soon enough, he's beginning to wonder if he is doing the same thing, especially once a young girl goes missing, and a new effigy shows up on his doorstep.  The problem is, he has no memory of this happening.

What makes this book so interesting is the way in which the reader has to question each of Brian's perceptions, since we don't always know if he is seeing something real.  With this penultimate issue, the police start actively looking for him, showing up at his house with a search warrant while he is out, and Brian finally starts to piece together what is going on.  The issue ends with a pretty big revelation that helps confirm some of the suspicions I had (I don't want to spoil anything), but with a few twists that I didn't see coming.

I really like the way Fialkov is writing this series, keeping Brian and his questionable understanding of his environment in such a tight focus.  Ekedal's art works very well here, and I am very much looking forward to the end of this series.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Fables #103

Written by Bill Willingham
Art by Mark Buckingham and Steve Leialoha

I often see complaints that Willingham writes this comic more with the trades in mind than the structure of a monthly series, and usually it doesn't bother me, but this month, it did.

I think the reason for that is because this issue is one of those ones that often come along in the middle of an arc, where plots are advanced, but none of the big story moments happen.  We see Ozma and Pinocchio continue to build their team (including a few scenes that are reminiscent of some of the best Legion try-outs), Bigby and Snow get reacquainted (okay, we don't actually see that, but what happens after), Beast loses his powers, Fly and Wayland make some armor, Nurse Spratt loses some weight, and the North Wind makes a tough decision.

In terms of individual scenes, this comic is as good as always; it just seems to lack a definite ending.  It's all good though, as I'm finding this current arc to be both pretty interesting and a lot of fun.

Monster Volume 1

by Naoki Urasawa

As reluctant as I am to enter into the world of manga (this series is 18 volumes long!), give me a free book at a Boxing Day sale from a creator I've heard nothing but good things about, and I'll give it a try.

The first volume of Monster is mostly about set up, as Urasawa introduces the character of Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a Japanese doctor working in West Germany in 1986.  He's made a name for himself at his hospital by being a top-notch surgeon, and is engaged to the Director's daughter.  Things are looking very bright for this up-and-comer, but he starts to find himself at odds with the research and important patients first policies and expectations.

When a young boy with a bullet in his head is brought in to the hospital shortly before the mayor, Dr.. Tenma decides to continue working on the child, despite orders from administration to the contrary.  While the boy survives, Dr. Tenma's upward trajectory does not, and things start to look bad for the young doctor.  Later, when the three people most in his way turn up dead, suspicions are cast, and Dr. Tenma receives a promotion.

At this point, the story jumps forward by nine years, as a string of bizarre murders captivate the attention of the police, and Dr. Tenma finds himself caring for one of their few leads.  Urasawa takes his time organizing all of this, and I found that I was really getting swept up in the discussions of hospital politics and the difficult relationship between Tenma and his fiancee.

The characterizations in this book are much stronger than I'm used to finding in manga, and the story more or less remains plausible and gripping.  I like Urasawa's art, and will definitely be looking for more entries in this series.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Meta 4 #5

by Ted McKeever

As much as I love Ted McKeever's work (Metropol has long been a favourite comic of mine), I often don't understand it.  In fact, he's better than Grant Morrison at making me feel stupid or like I've missed the point, yet I always go back to his work for more.

Meta 4 is a perfect example of a Ted McKeever comic that is either too subtle for me to fully grasp, or is simply a pretentious piece of fluff that I can't recognize as such.  I'm pretty sure it's the former though, and not the later, as McKeever's built a good body of work that falls into that category.

What I do know is that even when I don't fully grasp it, his work is visually stunning and always interesting.  This issue has our unnamed astronaut recover his memory in ways that he at least understands (while exposing the entire moon landing program as a hoax), and more or less resolves the police story we've been eavesdropping on through bullets that have been transmitting radio signals.

The best part of this book is the art, and once again, McKeever doesn't disappoint with some tripped out, interesting images.  McKeever is a completely unique individual in the comics world, and it's nice to see him work on something that is so non-commercial and challenging.  I think I need to read this again in a single sitting to grasp it better.  I'm sure it will work better in trade format than as a mini-series plagued with delays.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

The Beats: A Graphic History

Written by Harvey Pekar, Paul Buhle, and others
Art by Ed Piskor and others

Like a lot of people, I went through a pretty heavy Beat phase in my last couple of years of high school, which carried over into university.  I loved Kerouac's free-flowing and frequently annoying prose, and tried my best to get into Burroughs, although that was often pretty difficult.  I read some of the poetry, and developed a long-lasting love of Lawrence Ferlinghetti's work.  I did, however, outgrow them, and have only occasionally strayed into their territory since I turned 22.

This 'graphic history' was a nice reintroduction to some old friends.  The book mostly consists of graphic biographies of the Beats, although the further one gets into the book, the more free-flowing the comic strips are.  The first one hundred twenty pages or so are made up of biographies written by Harvey Pekar and drawn by Ed Piskor that focus on the central figures of the movement.  Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsburg, and William S. Burroughs get lengthy entries, as befits their status as the holy trinity of beat-ness.  These parts are great, and while they didn't tell me much that I didn't already know, I appreciate the conciseness and economy of their tales.

After that, Pekar and Piskor focus on the minor beats, giving a few pages each to people like Philip Whelan, Ferlinghetti, and LeRoy Jones (Amiri Baraka).  At this point, the book is given over to a number of independent cartoonists, and becomes much more erratic in its quality.  That said, some of the best parts of this book are included at the end.

The bio of Kenneth Patchen (by Pekar and Nick Thorkelson) does a great job of infusing the text with Patchen's own poetry.  It was at this point in reading that I realised how little room was being given over in this book to examine or sample the Beats' actual writing.  This was a refreshing change.

Perhaps the best segment in this whole book though, is Joyce Brabner and Summer McClinton's 'Beatnik Chicks', an exploration of the women who were on the periphery of, yet central to, the Beat Movement.

In all, I appreciated this well-researched and well-produced book.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Madlib Medicine Show No. 11 - Low Budget High Fi Music

by Madlib

So much of the Madlib Medicine Show took Madlib away from his hip-hop roots, and while I would never complain about an artist branching out, it's nice to see him return to form with this dirty hip-hop mix featuring all new compositions that he produced.

This disc has twenty-eight tracks, and features a vast array of the usual artists Madlib works with, including Oh No (together they are The Professionals), Roc C, Guilty Simpson, AG, Frank Nitt, Strong Arm Steady, Karriem Riggins (together they are Supreme Team), MED, and J Dilla (who produced what has to be the last Jaylib track).

The vocal tracks are interspersed between some nice 'Loop Digga' instrumental tracks, and we have the usual array of sampled conversations and comedy snippets, including a much too long piece featuring Soul Bra and Doctor Dick'em, which isn't all that funny the first time it's heard, and becomes progressively more irritating on each subsequent listen.

In all though, this is a very good mix of music, as Madlib once again makes some boring MCs (Guilty, MED, Roc C) sound great, and helps some terrific artists (Riggins, Oh No) become even better.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Total Sell Out

by Brian Michael Bendis

I like Bendis's work.  It's funny how saying that can seem controversial.  The man is pretty much the best selling comics writer working today, and so therefore, is open season for all kinds of internet hate and bad mouthing.  The truth is, he sells a lot for a reason.  Lately, I've found his stuff for Marvel to be a little lacking - it feels like he got his long Marvel U story through Siege, and ran out of ideas, but still had two Avengers books to write every month (I've never read Ultimate Spider-Man).  His Scarlet has been good, if a little bit off somehow, and since Powers has become almost an annual series, it's not worth talking about.

But I still like Bendis's work on the whole.  Reading Total Sell Out reminds me why.  This book compiles a ton of short pieces Bendis did over a long stretch of time, and for a variety of reasons.  We get a number of newspaper strips (but this must have been an independent paper, like Jim Mahfood's Phoenix Edition of his Stupid Comics), some short stories written by other writers (Warren Ellis, James D. Hudnall, and Mark Ricketts), a bunch of stories he did on his own, and some other odds and ends.

The pieces here, especially the collection of stories Bendis was told by other people, remind us just how good he is at dialogue, and at picking meaning out of random events (such as the story with the comedian who wants to quit because of an interview with John Cleese she saw on TV).  There are a number of times where this book made me laugh, which is always nice.

Now, Bendis's art is an acquired taste.  It's heavily photo-referenced and stiff, but I do like the consistency of his comics style (he experiments a lot more when he cartoons).  In all, this is a pretty good collection.  To be honest, I would be very happy to see Bendis try more material like this in the future, although I know it would never sell as well as the Avengers, and so is not likely to happen.

Dark Sunrise

by Rikki Ililonga and Musi-O- Tunya

I have been giving this incredible double-disc set a lot of play since December, but just realised that I never wrote about it here.

On Dark Sunrise, Egon (the man behind Now-Again Records) has worked his usual magic, pulling together some thirty-one cuts representing the early history of Zam-rock, or rock music from Zambia.  The set focuses on Rikki Ililonga, who is seen as the father of this musical movement.  The first disc holds thirteen tracks by Ililonga's band, Musi-O-Tunya, recorded between 1973 and 1975, when Ililonga left the group.  The second disc has Ililonga on his own, and encompasses his first two solo albums from 1975 and 1976.

The music is very nice.  It's an African-influenced rock music, and many of the lyrics (at least in the songs sung in English - I have no dead what's going on in the others) deal with the political and socioeconomic realities that Ililonga lived in.  "In the township / where I live / there is so much / pain and misery," starts 'The Nature of Man', my favourite song in the collection.  Others are 'One Reply', with its hopeful horns, 'Walk and Fight', 'Stop Dreaming Mr. D', 'The Queen Blues', and 'Love is the Way'.

This is a very impressive collection of music, and as always, Egon and the people at Now-Again have outdone themselves on the detailed liner notes and lovely hardcover book style packaging.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Nigeria Special:

Modern Highlife, Afro-Sounds & Nigerian Blues, 1970-6

By now, we know the drill with these double-disc compilations that come from record labels like Soundway - they're excellent on every level, from the curating and track selection, through the remastering and sound quality, into the packaging and highly detailed booklet.  The people at this label really know their craft.

This package contains twenty-six songs spread across two discs that capture the spirit of change in Nigerian music in the early to mid-70s.  There are straightforward highlife tracks, and some afro-funk, but there are also plenty of examples of artists who were experimenting somewhere between the two genres, borrowing from each.

The songs here are sung in the multitude of Nigeria's languages, and the liner notes attempt to contextualize this music within the social and political atmospheres of the country following the Biafran War.  It's an excellent collection, and a good place to start if you are interested in learning more than you'll ever need to know about Nigerian music.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Unwritten #23

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Paul Gross and Vince Locke

As the five-part 'Leviathan' arc ends, Tom has a much better handle on things, even if I, as a reader, am a little confused.  Riffing off the whole whale thing, Tom starts to think of Hobbes's Leviathan, a book he's never read before, but we learn in a flashback, has had recited to him while floating in a sensory deprivation tank.

This arc was originally about Tom hunting for the source of all stories, which his father had demarcated with a picture of a whale on his map, and that's more or less where Tom ends up - the source of things.  I should really read that scene over again, as I think some of the nuances slipped past me, as I started wondering whether or not Tom was speaking directly to the reader, or to Mike Carey (I started expecting a Grant Morrison/Animal Man thing).

This issue doesn't check in with any of the supporting cast of this book, allowing the focus to stay squarely on the group in the whale (an amusing bunch).  I wonder if the subplots became the victim of losing two story pages each month...

Morning Glories #8

Written by Nick Spencer
Art by Joe Eisma

I've mentioned before that this series reminds me of Lost more than anything else, but before the last two issues, I was at a loss to explain exactly what it was that triggered that association.  As of last issue though, Spencer decided to borrow some narrative devices and some themes from Lost.

Both of the last two issues have opened with some 'Jacob' figure visiting one of the main characters when they were children.  From there, both issues have focused on one particular character, and the issue is split between current plotlines and flashbacks showing that character's childhood.  It's very Lostian.  Now, I don't have a problem with this - Lost was my favourite show until somewhere into the third season, and part of why I thought it was good had to do with its episodic structure.  I also think there's a huge caveat in this comparison as well; like with Lost, Spencer has thrown out a vast array of weirdness in these first half-dozen issues of this series, and as it is the longest run he's written, he has not proven that he knows how to tie it all together in the end (hopefully more masterly than the makers of Lost did).

This issue works really well, as we explore the character of Hunter and his bizarre handicap when it comes to reading the time.  This has caused him to lose out on a number of jobs (apparently he worked for Hurley at the Clucking Chicken- another Lost connection), and on other gigantic life events.  It's a strange one.  Also, Hunter gets up the nerve to ask the blond (her name's not in the book) on a date, and then goes careening down the halls singing in a scene that belongs more in a John Hughes movie than in a comic like this (unless the school really isn't a torture prison).  That goofy scene marred an otherwise very tight comic.

I like that Eisma's art is getting better, although I would prefer to see more detail in the backgrounds.  I'm enjoying this title a fair amount, and am very intrigued by the next issue, considering the last page of this one.

Northlanders #38

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Simon Gane

With two comics out this week written by Brian Wood, it's natural to look for parallels between them.  Both DMZ and this arc of Northlanders are about a city cut off from the rest of the world by an opposing army.  Whereas DMZ has always been interested in presenting the experiences and opinions of the people trapped within New York, 'The Siege of Paris' is more interested in the group of Northmen who are laying siege, especially the man Mads, whose ambitions and lack of patience drive him to try things that are ill-advised.

Last issue, he actually wandered into Paris itself (we have no idea how he got back out), and in this issue, he goes fishing in the Seine, and has a chat with the Bishop of Paris.  He also decides to take the siege into his own hands, employing the aid of three boats and a ton of fire.  It looks, from the last page, that this didn't work as well for him as one might have hoped, and I'm curious to see what the effects of his actions will be.

I love the amount of research that Wood puts into this comic; each page carries a sense of authenticity.  I'm also very impressed with the art of Simon Gane - I want to see more from him.

DMZ #63

Written by Brian Wood
Art by Riccardo Burchielli

It's become hard to read this book without always being aware of the fact that the title is nearing the end of its run, and that soon enough, the final fate of Manhattan will be decided.

This current arc, 'Free States Rising', gives Matty total autonomy in terms of his obligations to the American army and Liberty News, but it also has him facing many of his demons.  This issue opens with him having a secretive conversation with the FSA commander we've seen many times throughout the history of this series.  He tells Matty where Parco Delgado, the former leader of the Delgado Nation, is hiding, and Matty heads off to see him.

Both of these men, Parco and the Commander, have had a huge influence on Matty and his time in the DMZ.  Now, it almost feels like Matty is seeking some closure with each of them, and is doing his best to no longer allow anyone to manipulate him, although having read his conversation with Parco, I'm not sure that he's too successful at that.

I'm expecting big things from the last year of this comic.

A Drifting Life

by Yoshihiro Tatsumi

I'd wanted to read this for a while now, and was even more interested in checking it out after I read The Push Man a little while ago.  As this is such a huge book (834 pages), it's taken me a while to read it, and it has only been since I started it that the Japanese earthquake, with all its attendant destruction and threat of nuclear catastrophe, took place.

I'm sure that this coloured my reading of this book quite a bit.  Tatsumi crafted A Drifting Life to be basically a memoir of his early life, outlining how he broke in to manga, his relationships with publishers and other artists, and how he grew frustrated with the constraints of the art form, and created his own 'gekiga' movement.  Tatsumi also uses the book to show us how Japan recovered from the war, and chronicles the various cultural influences, from American and French films to Japanese pop artists that affected his mindstate and work.

This massive book is incredible, even if for long stretches of time it seems that we are reading the same conversations over and over again, as Hiroshi Katsumi (Tatsumi's alter ego) is subtly manipulated by his publishers, or argues with his brother.  The brother, Okimasa, is an interesting character.  When Hiroshi is younger, Okimasa is frequently ill and a tyrant.  As his health improves, and he enters the manga world as well, he seems to vacillate between being a supportive friend and Hiroshi's harshest critic.

Having not read much manga, I found the perspective that this book takes, demonstrating both the business aspect and the the desire among some artists to have it viewed as an art form, to be fascinating.  I feel like I learned a lot reading this book, but I also really enjoyed watching Hiroshi grow from a boy submitting four-panel strips on postcards to his favourite magazines, to basically creating a new genre of manga.  I am definitely interested in reading more of Tatsumi's work.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Of Gods and Men

directed by Xavier Beauvois

I went in to this film with few expectations, other than that it would probably be very slow moving, and while I was right there, I was still hugely impressed with both the craft and content of this movie.

Of Gods and Men focuses on a small group of French monks who live in a monastery in a small village in Algeria in the 1990s.  Their neighbours are Muslim, yet they share a symbiotic relationship with the Brothers, who provide health care in return for being welcomed into the community.  They do not preach or attempt to convert the locals, they simply live their simple lives as examples and exemplars of their faith.

This film is set during a time of trouble in the region, as Islamists have started a conflict with the government, and are roaming the countryside, terrorizing locals and executing foreigners.  This, obviously, makes the monks nervous, and they hold many lengthy discussions about what they should do.  When a group of men arrive one evening to take medical supplies, Brother Christian, the leader of the Brothers, firmly resists them and earns their respect.  The message is clear though, that the men (the youngest looks to be in his late thirties or early forties) are in a very precarious position.

What makes this film work so well is the quiet dignity of the actors who play the different monks (there are nine in total, but for most of the movie, there are only eight).  These are some very old men, and they convey much through their declining physicality.  It becomes easy to love these men, with their quiet resistance to both rebels and government alike, and their devotion to both their god and their neighbours, who have always lived in the shadow of the monastery.  Perhaps the most moving scene, for me, was when a couple of the Brothers were explaining to some of the locals that they are like birds, who never know when they will leave a branch, and a woman responded that they were wrong; that the monks are the branch which provides a firm footing for the villagers.

Exit Through The Gift Shop

Directed by Banksy

There has been a lot of controversy over just how authentic this documentary is, but questioning its verisimilitude takes nothing away from enjoying this frequently funny and deeply bizarre film.

This project started out, apparently, as a documentary about street art and street artists, that was to be filmed by Thierry Guetta, a French ex-pat who obsessively filmed everything that happened to him and around him.  At some point, Theirry started filming his cousin, Space Invader, an early European street artist who glued up small mosaics showing Space Invaders, Q-Bert, and other 80s video game iconic images around cities.  Thierry started going out at night, filming his work, and this led him into the circle of other street artists, such as Shepard Fairey.

Thierry had wanted to meet the ultimate street artist, Banksy, and finally got his chance, being given unprecedented access to the ultra-secretive and notorious artist.  The idea was that Thierry was shooting all this footage for a documentary, but he did not have the first clue how to go about doing it.  When he finally put together a 90-minute rough cut, it was unwatchable.  Somehow, through a conversation with Banksy, Thierry got it into his head to become a street artist himself, named Mister Brainwash, who then mortgaged his home and business to construct one of the largest art shows ever.

According to the film, the show was a huge success, despite the fact that Thierry's 'art', which was almost entirely produced by assistants, is totally derivative and not terribly interesting.  And this is where we start to wonder how much of this is just a big Banksy-style put-on. The early scenes, with Thierry filming over a number of years, can not be faked (both Thierry and Shepard Fairey get visibly older), but I feel like somewhere along the way, the scheme to create this film as a big hoax was born.  Thierry has nothing to say in or about his art, yet there are thousands of people lining up to see his show.  I feel like the comment is being made that street art's moment ended the minute Banksy and others brought it into a gallery.

Regardless, this movie is a lot of fun to watch.  Thierry, if he is acting, is a gifted actor.  If he's not, then he's a mad genius.  I loved watching him stumble over descriptions of the bigger events in his life, and his clownish demeanor, with his giant sideburns and slightly goofy hats, make him an endearing figure.  This is well worth watching.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Next Stop... Soweto Vol. 2

Soultown, R&B, Funk & Psych Sounds from the Townships 1969-1976

Before listening to this fantastic compilation, my entire knowledge of the music of South Africa was limited to that god-awful gumboot dancing music that was responsible, in a round-about way, for such monstrosities as the Step Up movies, and of course the incomparable Tumi and the Volume

Anyway - this is an amazing collection of a wide variety of styles and genres of music that were produced in difficult conditions in the townships of apartheid-era South Africa.  There is a nice mix as we range over these 22 tracks.

Favourites include The Grasshoppers' 'I Am There' with its driving piano, The Mgababa Queens' 'Akulalwa Soweto', and The Klooks' 'Nkuli's Shuffle'.  I don't have the first or third volumes in the series, and that is something I feel I'm going to have to rectify quickly.