LET'S START WITH SOMETHING STRANGE
PUBO began as a mini-comic about a man trying to convince a fish to jump out of the water so he could eat him. The man was far too nice to spear the fish and feel it flopping around. This, he thought, was fair. The fish, on the other hand, was a little reluctant. Sounds like something out of the HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY or THE FAR SIDE, doesn't it? It hooked me.
Dark Horse's PUBO trade paperback collects both that original mini-comic, as well as last year's three issue mini-series, all by cartoonist Leland Purvis. The series expands on the character. We learn that he's a victim of some strange scientific experiment, which distorts his body so that the more nerves there are, the larger the body part becomes. This leads to swollen extremities, lips, and a giant head. He's a funny looking creature with a shocking mane of hair. (Purvis admits to being inspired by troll dolls in his sketchbook.) Oddly enough, those sensitive limbs never play a factor in the story. This is a story, instead, about his attempt to be free, as he escapes from his captors into the Pacific Northwest's forests. There, he makes an enemy of a bear and a shaman, while the local animals place bets on his survival odds.
It's a surreal story with a quirky sense of humor, sympathetic protagonist, and a surprisingly strong sense of drama. In the end, though, it's a bit of a mixed bag for me.
Parts of it work really well. I like the animals' interaction with Pubo. They all speak to him, leading to some funny banter. The bear, though moot, leads to the great action and suspense scenes in the comics. The shaman character falters a tad, and the humans sent into the woods to capture Pubo back wind up more as sorry cannon fodder than a real threat. It all does come together in the end, for which Purvis deserves much credit.
Purvis' art is filled with thick black brush strokes. He keeps the animals and humans looking natural, without resorting to fully anthropomorphizing them. There's a lot of action in this book, as Pubo is chased all around, but there are a few stumbling blocks in the sequential storytelling. When Pubo eats the bear's honey, for example, we're not sure of it until it's explained ten pages later. Until then, you're left wondering if he dropped the honey, ate the honey, or had it swept away from him by the bear or some third party. There's a crucial panel missing. It reminds me of the way some of the Looney Tunes animated shorts were edited to remove gunshots. You'd see the before and after, but not the middle. Sometimes, the panels are far too close-up to allow the reader to be sure he knows what happened.
This is definitely a book with a lot of charm. The art style is a matter of personal preference, so I'd suggest giving the book the old flip test before buying it. The story is quaint and, as Scott Morse's introduction suggests, belies some deeper thematic elements. It's up to you if you want to bother looking that deeply into what is essentially a book about an odd human in the world of animals running for his life.
The thin black and white paperback (in smaller format, a la USAGI YOJIMBO) runs $9.95, and includes some sketchbook material in the back. The smaller reprint size doesn't affect the art, at all. It reads easily, and the art doesn't lack for detail of brush line.
Dark Horse was also kind enough to pass along a couple of black and white previews for their upcoming books. I just looked up and noticed one of them is already on store shelves, however. That's DEAD MEMORY, a translation of a French graphic novel in the oversized hardcover format. According to the solicitation copy that came with the preview, it shipped two weeks ago. The story looks to be along the lines of those other European graphic novels you see from Humanoids and others these days, using the larger page size to give us lush art that shows more depth and scope than 90% of American comics do. The story is another high concept of urban growth, which isn't an uncommon theme in European comics. Look at the works of Francois Schuiten and Benoit Peters, for starters. (Seriously, do. CITIES OF THE FANTASTIC are some of the most fascinating comics I've ever read. There's nothing like them being made in America today.) The art in this book is a bit more cartoony than that, though. It reminds me a bit of ASTRO BOY'S Osamu Tezuka. I only have about a dozen pages to sample from here, but I'm sold. At $14.95, the black and white 64-page book might seem a bit pricey, so be sure to flip through this one first.
Tangent: Isn't it odd that two of the biggest format splashes in comics of the past five years are the smaller manga size trade paperbacks (think TokyoPop) and the larger oversized hardcovers (think Humanoids)?
The other preview I have on hand here is of December's TALE OF THE VAMPIRES #1. This is the new anthology series based on BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER. The short story (six pages) I have here is written by Joss Whedon and drawn by Cameron Stewart. If the rest of the series is as good as this story, it's something everyone should add to their pull list now. Whedon handles the lost female teenager experience beautifully in a short span of pages. Yes, it's all done in heavy narrative text, but the themes of the story are nearly universal, show great geek cred, and link into the Buffyverse only so far as vampires being extant. It's powerful. The first 32 page full color issue is due out on December 10.
THE TIP OF THE MANGA ICEBERG
I've spent a lot of time lately with these glorious hand-sized black and white reprint volumes. It's easy to see how they addict today's children so easily. Put aside the merits of the content for a moment, and see how easy these things are to read. They're done in bite-sized chunks for today's short attention spans. Each book is a series of short stories -- often as little as 17 pages -- that adds up to something greater. Once you start reading, you can't put it down. You're not trapped by a story that carries on for far too long. You're sucked into a world that you don't want to leave. If you're the kind of person who can't spare more than ten minutes at a time to read a comic, you can get a full story in ten minutes here and have plenty material left for later.
LUPIN III is a book about a thief who has off-the-wall adventures, steals items both large and small, evades his arch nemesis policemen Zenigata, and has a way with the ladies. The stories are drawn mostly for humor, including multiple breaks of the fourth wall and occasional moments of pure cartoon violence. The stories are short and sweet, change locations and situations often, and draw the reader in with witty banter and a sly charm.
It is also, however, a book that I think I want to like more than I actually do. There are two problems with it. The first is that the lead character is a scoundrel and a cad. He reminds me a bit of the lead character in CITY HUNTER over at RAIJIN COMICS. He's a filthy womanizer that doesn't seem to be too in-step with today's world. I can see this series working in the late 1960s, but part of it seems antiquated today. I could probably deal with that better, excepting the story at the end of volume two that shows Lupin blatantly ignoring a woman getting raped. Granted, he sets his agents forth to capture the rapist at the end of the story, but it still leaves a bitter taste that he tried nothing to prevent it or stop it when he could. Makes it hard to find the character palatable at that point, you know? You can be self-centered, arrogant, and confident at the same time and still be interesting. Lupin just crosses the line into male chauvinism once or twice too often. He does reap his just rewards from this behavior quite often, though. It's not completely one-sided..
The second problem is one of storytelling. Monkey Punch -- that is the creator's chosen name -- takes lots of risks in storytelling for this series. Many of the stories are off the wall, giving no storytelling pattern a chance to be established. But some of the early story telling in the series lost me, particularly when so many of the characters look alike. The book relies on the exposition to clarify things that should be blatantly seen in the book, itself. This is a problem that begins to work itself out as you read through the volumes, but one which never goes away. I can't tell if it's because I've grown used to the style of comic storytelling that's inherently foreign to me, or if Monkey Punch just misses certain connecting panels that he should keep in. Perhaps it's the fault of modern comics being so decompressed that the reader grows used to everything being handed to him on a silver platter?
By the time you get to the sixth or seventh volume, Monkey Punch isn't trying to cram so much into so little space. Panels grow in a more natural direction, following a smoother grid pattern. There are less of them per page, and the art is easier to read, seemingly less detailed in spots. When you're reading a book in this reduced page size, keeping the pages simplified is a real bonus. A nine-panel grid isn't necessarily the way to go in this case. Even LONE WOLF AND CUB limited the number of panels it had per page. That helped with the storytelling, as decompressed as it often was.
The art is very animated. The characters are drawn in a very simplified realistic style. You don't get big eyes or chibis in this book. You do get expressive characters that work hard to maintain their style. The stories these books reprinted were originally published as early as 1967, so some of the fashions need to be taken into account. Monkey Punch's style reminds me a lot of something I imagine I might have seen in MAD Magazine at the time.
If I were to recommend this series to you, I'd say that you'd be better off starting with the fourth volume, if not later. The stories are self-contained and no real continuity is ever established. Lupin travels, meets new people, and runs from the long arm of Zenigata's law. By skipping over the first few volumes, I think you'll find the stories easier to process. If you like the series after that, then go back to the beginning and see how it grew.
TokyoPop has published nine volumes of LUPIN III so far. Each book is about 200 black and white pages for $10.
My personal comics find of the year, however, is IRON WOK JAN!, available through ComicsOne. I picked up the first five volumes of the series at San Diego, while the sixth volume is due out any day now. I'm not sure I can do any justice to this magnificent manga with my words, but I'll sure give it a shot.
IWJ follows the story of a pair of young Japanese chefs specializing in Chinese food who work in the same restaurant. Their rivalry explodes across the first five volumes, leading to a deafening crescendo in a cook-off competition that takes place over the course of the last three and a half volumes. The situation, the competition, and the lengths to which the characters will go all intensify as the story carries along. That kind of rising action can be tough to sustain, but IWJ does it for five volumes. The fifth volume, I should note in particular, may not be for the weak of stomach. In preparing food, sometimes it is necessary to kill an animal. You've been warned.
Jan is the newcomer, highly skilled and high on himself. He has the competitive attitude to match his prowess with a wok and a blade. Kiriko is the granddaughter of the restaurant's owner, a gifted young chef who believes that the best food comes from a chef's love of her job and ingredients. As you can imagine, two opposing personalities like that are bound to explode when pushed together. Thankfully, this isn't MOONLIGHTING. This isn't romantic tension. They sidestep that thorny and clichéd issue all together in this book. Jan and Kiriko are heated rivals, and that's the end of it. There are some stories that present one or the other finding new things to respect in their opposite number, but there is no sense that a romance is a fait accompli.
IWJ is just another example of the fact that Japanese comics creators can make comics about anything. You're probably familiar with giant robots and monsters, thieves and samurai, young lovers and detectives. IRON WOK JAN! is an attempt to bring the energy and excitement of IRON CHEF into comics. I bet you never thought of using speedlines to draw a chef cutting up vegetables or making a proper bowl of rice. Supervisor Keiko Oyama and artist Shinji Saijyo impart an otherworldly energy upon the art of cooking throughout the book. It's like the chefs are gifted superhumans, able to do the most basic kitchen moves with the utmost skill and showmanship. It is addicting fun to watch unfold before your eyes.
Along the way, there's an interesting introduction to Chinese cooking. It's not just a matter of whipping up insane dishes, but also in explaining where they come from and why they're used. This manga does a terrific job in explaining all of that in the heat of the action. There are reasons why some areas use rice instead of noodles, for example. Foods that may seem obscene to us are common staples in another country's diet due to the availability. (Or, as my father so delicately puts it, "Those people eat some &^%*." Usually, that comes in response to a SURVIVOR episode, but the same applies here.) IRON WOK JAN! isn't exactly a textbook, but you'll learn some neat things despite yourself. Pity the poor artists who have to do photorealistic drawings of obscure fruits, fish, and grains.
The art is what attracted me to the book in the first place. It's a nice mix of big eyed manga and realistic art. Backgrounds and buildings are as realistically portrayed here as they are in SANCTUARY or any of the other serious crime or politically themed manga. But the characters are ultra-expressive, thanks to the big eyes and mouths. Grey tones and patterns are used for both added dimension and a little extra page weight. The characters are broad in their emotions, and act a bit hammy and melodramatically at times. It's all part of the quirkiness of one of the most fun manga I've ever read.
The women have a tendency to have enormous balloons strapped to their chests, mind you, but it's a stylistic choice you learn to overlook after the first couple appearances. I hope. (Hey, didn't I already do my "sensitive male" bit in my complaints on LUPIN III this week? Let me have this one.)
The biggest fault I can find with the book so far is the use of the capital "I" in the middle of words inside the word balloons. It's comics lettering 101: You only use the uppercase "I" (the one with the crossbars) if it's the first letter of a sentence or the personal pronoun. Not so here. ComicsOne makes no effort to change to the capital "I" without the crossbars, like most other Western comics do. But that's about it. My only substantive complaint is that it doesn't come out more often. I need my next fix, now!
IRON WOK JAN! is one of the most addicting and enjoyable comics I've ever read. Every page is soaked with a boundless energy and an over-the-top sense of humor that is infectious. If there's one manga I would enthusiastically recommend to anyone, it's IRON WOK JAN!. Start with the first volume. Each is priced at $10.
FREAKISH E-MAIL OF THE WEEK
I wasn't going to run this e-mail because I hate adding to the preconceptions of comics fanboys. Yes, they exist, but they're not the majority some people think they are. There are black sheep in every family, after all. The people in costume at conventions aren't in the majority, but you wouldn't know that from looking at any web site's con coverage, CBR's included.
But this e-mail just cracked me up. I had to share. It's in response to my criticisms of NYX #1's art being far too panty-centered.
Just to let you know, some of us like sensual artwork in comics. For me, the panty shot, toilet stall scene, and rave scene in NYX #1 were the highlights. When I see comics without any sensuality, I typically don't buy them.
I loved NYX #1 - panty shots and all. If you're a guy and you're not gay, why wouldn't you?
Do I really need to comment on this one?
Normally, PIPELINE PREVIEWS would appear in this space on Friday. However, I'm not going to have time to run that down this week. Instead, I'll fold the PREVIEWS coverage into next Tuesday's column, November 11th.
Various and Sundry has been updated all week with new movie trailers, the start of NaNoWriMo #5, sad news on the Nigerian Spam Scam, Direct-To-DVD TV series, Windows Longhorn, the new Friday Link Round-Up, and more.
Nearly 500 columns are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically. The first 100 columns or so are still available at the Original Pipeline page.