A Month of Wednesdays | Bigfoot, Nightwing, Tomine and manga

Every month there are hundreds of new comics and graphic novels released, and dozens if not scores of them are noteworthy for one reason or another. Sadly, no matter how much time one spends reading comics, there are only so many hours in a day, and blog posts in a month. Here then are shorter reviews of every new graphic novel or somehow interesting or important new comic I read in July that I didn't get a chance to cover.

Flowers of Evil, Vol. 6 (Vertical): Each successive volume of Shuzo Oshimi's increasingly psycho psychodrama has upped the ante considerably, ending with a cliffhanger that positions our protagonist Takao on the precipice of some new, life-altering, no-turning-back-now crisis. This one's no different, but now that the series in its sixth volume, the stakes don't seem like they can get any higher.

Takao and the two young women in his life — troubled troublemaker Nakamura and his one-time crush and former model student Saeki — are all growing more and more psychologically unbalanced. Saeki seems to grow even more fixated on Takao the more he spurns her and becomes more fixated on Nakamura, ultimately even showing one of the "Something's maybe not quite right with this lady" signs from Single White Female.

This volume opens with a police investigation of the events of the last volume, continues with Takao and Saeki both going a little nuts as they suffer withdrawal from the people they're respectively obsessed with, features Takao's parents trying to take a hard line and get him back under control, has Nakamura committing, threatening and asking for violence done with a baseball bat and climaxes with Takao and Nakamura about to engage in a violent public act that, if not actually terrorism, has gotta be getting pretty close to it.

At this point, it's kind of hard to believe this all started as  a story about the weird girl in school blackmailing a basically good kid who, in a moment of weirdness or weakness, stole the dirty gym clothes of the girl he liked.  I wouldn't think the story could get much weirder, or the characters act out in more unhealthy or violent ways than they already have, but then, I've thought that for about five volumes now, and Oshimi continues to surprise.

Last of the Mohicans (PictureBox): James Fenimore Cooper's 19th-century novel has long been taught in schools and has been the subject of a good half-dozen American film adaptations, with the 1992 version starring Daniel Day-Lewis probably the best known. Despite all that, it's safe to say you've never seen Last of the Mohicans quite like this.

This handsome, album-sized hardcover is the first volume of PictureBox's upcoming Ten Cent Manga series, which will highlight mass-produced genre comics from postwar Japan. Manga-ka Shigeru Sugiura originally adapted Mohicans in 1953, and it was apparently a monster hit, selling more than 70,000 copies. By the late 1960s, editor and translator Ryan Holmberg writes in his introduction, Sugiura had developed a new style of "surrealist, collage-like" comics that "engaged with contemporary Pop Art and psychedelia, as well as Japan's modern history of cultural appropriation."

In the early 1970s, the artist reworked his classic manga adaptation of that American classic novel into his new style, and this is the result. It's a faithful retelling of the Cooper's original plot, complete with the same cast of characters, but told in a unique, amorphous style that pulses like a living thing, changing with each breath or heartbeat, sometimes in the same panel.

The young heroes, Hawkeye and Uncas, are drawn more or less like your average, modern shonen heroes, with the stereotypical big eyes and smooth, child-like features. The other characters, like the British and Uncas' father Chingachgook, are drawn more-or-less straight, as they might appear in a serious, illustrated version of the novel. The landscape, the settings, the props, the costumes and the animals are similarly realistic in their depiction. But the villain, the native foot soldiers and quite often the French are drawn as silly cartoon characters. And the degree of realism vs. cartooniness is fluid for all of the characters throughout the book. While some characters are almost always serious and some are almost always cartoony, they are drawn sillier when they act silly, so the context of each page and panel determines the depiction.

For example, sometimes Hawkeye's horse is beautifully drawn in a realistic, illustrative style; other times, as when he talks to a bear or the reader or gestures with his hoof, he looks like a fugitive from a newspaper comic strip.

It's a difficult work to describe accurately. Think of that Day-Lewis version of Last of the Mohicans, only played as a self-aware comedy while simultaneously being a faithful, dramatic adaptation. And with the live-action filmmaking sometimes disappearing in favor of scenes of a Disney animated feature. And that occasionally giving way to an old-school Looney Tunes parody, with the the characters from all three approaches sometimes sharing screen-time.

I wouldn't advise any students writing a report on the novel to read this comics adaptation instead, but I would advise any and all comics connoisseurs to keep their eyes peeled for this. I'm hard-pressed to think of a better example of a comic that explores the full-range of the medium's various modes as boldly, fearlessly and frequently as Sugiura's Last of the Mohicans.

Nightwing,Vol. 2: Night of the Owls (DC Comics): The title of this trade paperback collection comes from the first of the three stories included — and, incidentally, the most popular. As with the other "Night of the Owls" tie-ins in books outside of Batman, where the Scott Snyder-generated storyline began and ran while the lower-tier Bat-books fed off of it, this one amounts to little more than one of the Court of Owls' undead assassins attempting to kill a prominent Gothamite, and an "ally of the Bat" stopping them.

The Nightwing tie-in is a bit more relevant than some of the others, though, as Snyder included Dick Grayson and his family in the main story; one of the first assassins Batman encounters is Dick's great-grandfather.

Two issues of that out of the way, writer Kyle Higgins returns to the story it interrupted, in which Nightwing tries to stop a paramilitary cult while seemingly being framed and hounded from within the Gotham City Policy Department. It's hard to tell exactly who drew what; Eddy Barrows is credited under artists with the biggest byline, and his style is the most easily identifiable, but there are six other names credited under "artists," with no distinction for penciller or inker (Regardless of what one thinks of the style of any of the particular artists involved, the book looks like 120 pages drawn by seven different people on a time crunch).

New 52 or not, it's basically standard Nightwing — like a slightly watered-down Batman comic, albeit with a chattier and more upbeat protagonist.

The most noteworthy issue included is probably the zero issue, which closes out the collection. Co-written by Tom DeFalco, with Eber Ferreira inking Barrows' pencils, this is a re-telling of Dick Grayson's origin story as Robin, one that differs pretty dramatically from those previously seen in "Batman: Year Three" or the recently collected Robin: Year One or Dark Victory (Robin's debut in that remains my favorite thing Jeph Loeb ever wrote), but manages to keep the spirit of those stories while changing details. (Here, Higgins and DeFalco bring Dick's circus background to the foreground as not only the reason he could physically be Robin, but the origin of the detective-like skills he would need to keep up with Batman mentally.)

I feel like a whole essay could be written about the costume change in that story, though. In the New 52, no Robin ever wore green shorts and little green booties; rather, even Dick came on the scene in long pants, a black cape and body armor, essentially wearing a more movie-ready version of Tim Drake's costume.

 That's a pretty good example of the apparent embarrassment of DC comics that seems to be driving the majority of the major changes made in the DC's line during the revamp.

Robin I comes out of the redesign looking a lot better than poor Lady Shiva, though, who now looks like this:

Yeesh. Please note that her braid ends in a hatchet-sized blade that you cant' see in that panel.

Optic Nerve #13 (Drawn & Quarterly): Adrian Tomine returns with another issue of his one-man anthology comic, the sort of beautifully produced and beautifully drawn, serially published, single-issue comic book that probably only makes economic sense in the 21st century for artists who have reached Tomine's level of success and renown, but which are a pleasure to read nonetheless.

This issue contains two stories; three, if you count the one on the cover, a 20-panel, black-and-white autobio comic exploring old man Tomine's dissatisfaction with the modern world's move toward an Internet-dominated society. Let's count this one, as it's probably the funniest part of the book or, at least, it's the one that made me laugh out loud.

It's followed by a "Go Owls," a 24-page, black-and-white story about a young, down-on-her-luck woman who is kinda sorta saved and kinda sorta cursed by stumbling into a relationship with a pretentious middle-aged drug dealer named Barry.

Barry seems to have a heart of gold and a brain of some other form of metal, but there are a few scenes that hint of something quite ugly deep within Barry, something that bubbles up here and there to make the reader feel sort of uncomfortable liking the big, dumb goof as much as one might. The ambiguous ending seems more like a stopping point than a conclusion, but as a character study, it's a pretty killer one.

The back of the book belongs to a story that is either called "Translated, from the Japanese," or is actually translated from a Japanese story (the voice does sound like translated Japanese, either way).  It's an eight-page, full-color story told in narration from a mother addressing her daughter, telling her about their trip back from Japan to California to visit and perhaps reunite with the little girl's father.

The words do all of the telling and the pictures avoid saying anything ... which, actually, is a kind of storytelling technique as well; here, the art tells by not telling.

The big panels — some a full-page in size, none smaller than one-fourth of a page — don't show the narrator or the daughter, nor any of the characters mentioned. The only people visible are seen either from afar, or from behind; they are members of crowds milling around an airport or the backs of heads of passengers. Rather, there's a medium long shot image of a a Japanese train in the snow; a close-up of a stuffed animal; a jet plane flying above a cloud bank; a location shot of a Denny's.

It's all well drawn and the comic itself is well-composed; it is perhaps interesting how it defies expectations, and is a decent enough short story-as-comic. But it's also rather bloodless, and seems particularly so when juxtaposed with "Go Owls."

The Outliers #1 (Panelvision Productions): Writer/artist Erik T. Johnson's comic is itself something of an outlier. It's self-published, but with production values that elevate it beyond what one normally thinks of as a self-made, one-man minicomic (it even has a handsome dust jacket, around an even more handsome silver-on-black cover detailing an imaginary menagerie of monsters).  It's also a pretty straightforward genre comic of exceptional quality, rather than the autobio or gag stuff one might normally associate with minicomics.

The 27-page story, "A Boy Named Tsu," introduces us to that boy, a latch-key junior high kid who apparently can't talk ... or, to be more precise, can't talk English to humans. He does seem to be able to communicate in a strange, screamy-language with a big, hairy humanoid monster that lives in the woods near his house, a monster I'd normally call a Bigfoot, were it not for its  gigantic size.

The creature is big enough to peer into a second-story window, and to lift a school bus in its arms the way you or I might lift a crate. So maybe it's more of a Giganticfoot than a Bigfoot.

This ability is of great interest to a pair of mysterious beings who witness Tsu calling the creature for help, and then confront him at his house; one looks a bit like an old chimpanzee in a trench coat, hat and dark glasses, the other a far more bizarre and scary monster, similarly disguised.

Johnson draws cool monsters, as the cover and the contents both demonstrate, but he draws everything else cool too. His is a world built of thick, gritty, inky blacks on white, with a slightly sickly shade of green between the two extremes (the first half, set during an afternoon rainstorm, is very dark green, while it lightens considerably in the second half, set at night). Highly detailed, from individually-drawn background trees or foreground rain drops, the panels and pages are comfortably crowded with content.

To order a copy to check out for yourself, and/or to simply see how good at drawing stuff Johnson is, you can check out his site here.

Wolfsmund Vol. 1 (Vertical): This somewhat-brutal action drama is set in medieval Europe; specifically, on the Saint Gotthard Pass in the Alps, the only way through the mountains. There the oppressive regime in Habsburg Austria has set up an impassable fortress, choking commerce, travel and any and all means for rebellion. Anyone who wants to get through the mountains has to go through the pass, and must therefore fight or sneak there way through the fortress, which is overseen by the mysterious sharp-eyed bailiff called "The Wolf's Maw," who is seemingly always one step ahead of his foes.

This new-to-the-U.S. manga series by Mitsuhisa Kuji might seem a little unusual in its focus, as the character in the villainous role, the bailiff, seems to repeatedly win, outmaneuvering the protagonists of a trio of short stories that all try to make it past him, one of whom is a rather legendary hero.

There's a loyal knight who tries to disguise the princess he serves as his own page in an attempt to sneak through, and attempt that includes a pretty savage battle with one of the fortress' champions. There's a sort of medieval super-spy type who infiltrates the fortress and tries to escape to the other side via a combination of disguise, guile, gymnastics and marital arts. And then William Tell and his son try to mountain-climb above and around the fortress, with the help of powerful crossbows.

All fail, and do so rather finally, generally being hung or having their heads chopped off, although the Tell family fall to their deaths, so perhaps at least one of them will return.

I've repeatedly heard the series mentioned in the same breath as Game of Thrones — by the publisher itself in the book description and by The Comics Journal's Joe McCulloch in his column — but I'm afraid I can neither agree nor disagree, as I've never seen Game of Thrones (I know, I know, I'm sorry; I'm a bad geek on the Internet). There are swords, castles and female nudity in it, which is about all I know about Game of Thrones; I think we'll have to await a verdict from comics critic and Thrones expert Sean T. Collins on that score.

Kuji's beautiful black-and-white art, with her delicate linework and attention to historical detail, as well as the unusual subject matter and the narrative's inversion of expectations make it a book worth checking out, even for those who might normally eschew manga.

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