This week, I ruminate on Democracy in Comics, Osamu Tezuka, and Meth-head Batman.
Part One: You can do it!
One thing that I love about comics is the fact that anyone can do it. Anyone can sit down with a blank sheet of paper, a fresh window on their computer, a stack of magazine clippings, etc, and create a series of sequential images that tell a story. Not everyone wants to, and not everyone will be good at it, but anyone could. This democracy in the comics art form makes me really happy; it feels like the tape-trading world of high school punk bands (oh shit- did I just totally date myself?), where a guitar, three chords, some drums, and an urge to write lyrics was really all you needed. Everything else was just garnish.
In comics, most everything is garnish. All you really need is a pencil, an afternoon to draw, and the wherewithal to follow through. There's something to be said for a storytelling art form that is simultaneously incredibly complex, yet also wide open to anyone who wants to give it a whirl. I draw comics when I'm bored. I show them to my friends, and drawing them keeps me mentally stimulated throughout the day. It's a brain exercise that is far more satisfying to me than Sudoku or a a Rubik's cube. My girlfriend made a mini-comic last summer to trade at MoCCA. Anyone can do it.
I've reached a point in my life (birthday next week, depression to follow) where I am far more excited by a hand-stitched, home-made comic made by someone who has never read WATCHMEN, than I am by yet another by-the-books, middle-selling, professionally crafted comic by people who have spent their whole lives reading NEW WARRIORS. This is not a jab at superhero comics, which I love. Just a general malaise with the Sameness of it all. If someone who spends their days teaching pottery to kids, and has only ever painted in oils, decides to make a comic, that is something I'm interested in. That comic will have a angle and a point of view that is new to me. I find the approaches and craft decisions made by these folks to be entirely fascinating, and fresh, and energizing. This is as opposed to a book that is perfectly well made, but every line and word balloon placement speaks to hours spent devouring the works of John Byrne or Jim Shooter. I also spent those same hours, devouring those same comics, and now I want to see something drawn by someone who only ever read ANNE OF GREEN GABLES. Or maybe a medical doctor who was totally influenced by the early works of Walt Disney. Which brings us to...
Part Two: Nobody is Born Whole
The great Osamu Tezuka is enjoying a resurgence here in the US, thanks to Dark Horse, Viz, and also Vertical Inc., an independent publishing house that has spent the past several years translating and packaging an awful lot of amazing Japanese literature. Beginning with BUDDHA, they have been working hard on the front lines creating a Tezuka Library, publishing much of his later, more mature works (ODE TO KIRIHITO, MW), and most recently DORORO, which is easily one of my current favorite comics.
DORORO is a classic samurai quest story, featuring a lone swordsman traveling the back roads of Old Japan, with only his weapons, his wits, and a young thief as his companions. The twist here is that the samurai is essentially an empty husk; a prosthetic man whose body was sold bit by bit to demons before he was born, by a power hungry father. His quest is to find these demons, and fight them for the pieces of his body, so he can eventually make himself whole again. If that premise alone isn't enough to get your heart pumping, it's possible you have no soul.
Yet the premise, as awesome as it it, isn't the charm of DORORO. The characters are completely lovable, made entirely real in just a few subtle lines. The design of the demons is fantastic, and a reminder that when he wanted to, Tezuka could out-design anyone on the planet. The fight scenes are amazingly tense and exciting, and the pacing is pitch perfect; despite the episodic nature of the plot (fight demon, fight demon, fight another demon) the overall narrative flows perfectly, and the book has yet to get repetitive (only two volumes are out so far). I've loved everything I've ever read from Tezuka, but DORORO has reminded me once again why he's known as the "God of Manga". It's like opening a treasure chest filled with ancient pirate doubloons, only instead of gold, they're made of incredible sound effects and perfectly flowing panels.
Also, in case you're still not interested, the main character, Hyakkimaru, has SWORDS FOR ARMS.
That is the kind of delicious concept that I might expect from Grant Morrison. Speaking of...
Part Three: I'm Sorry, I Just Can't Deal With Bat-Mite Right Now
Without reading it regularly, as far as I can decipher, BATMAN R.I.P. involves Bruce Wayne wandering the streets as a drug addict, criminals united under the Black Glove, more twisted variations on Batman, and Bat-Mite is somehow involved. I like what I just described, but for whatever reason, I'm not jumping out of my chair to go fill in the blanks.
Morrison's BATMAN run has been a mixed bag for me, like a Halloween haul filled bite-size Snickers, but also those tiny toothpaste tubes. The highs have been absolutely euphoric, and as good as any Batman stories out there. The lows have been, strange, muddy, and kind of bland. My suspicion, based on What Has Come Before with regards to Morrison, is that all of it will weave together into some sort of lovely tapestry wherein even the lame bits have a greater meaning. He has done this before (See THE INVISIBLES, SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY, ANIMAL MAN), so I trust that he knows where he's going. Until then, I just kind of wince whenever Bat-Mite pops up. (I love that fat little bastard, but he doesn't quite work when drawn in a third-generation IMAGE style.)
I'm holding out hope that it goes somewhere worthwhile, and I suddenly leap out of my chair intent on filling in all the gaps that I missed, and I have a profound insight into Batman at the end of it all, leading to a full night's sleep filled with meaningful dreams, and a bright new morning the next day where everything seems just a little better. Is that so much to ask?