Trouble with Comics - Hello To All That

I wasn’t too worried about the new Dan Nadel/Tim Hodler revamp of, but it’s off to an even better start than expected. Now, I’m not offering anything close to a comprehensive review; one nice thing here is that there’s quite a bit to dig into and most of the articles, columns, interviews and reviews are relatively lengthy. Just a few thoughts on the ones I read first:

Tucker Stone on Johnny Red - Tucker’s a good reviewer, but it seems like he exposed a soft spot here. This sounds like a raft of formulaic, derivative old sub-Enemy Ace bollocks—why not let rip with some anti-aircraft fire? I realize he knows one of the other three people (Grant Goggans) in America who might be getting this book, but still. (Note: I just realized I wrote this after a loving review of a book of Adam Hughes’ T&A covers. My daughter was embarrassed by Power Girl’s cleavage.)

Sean T. Collins interviewing Blaise Larmee. Jaunty Sean T. is a thoughtful interviewer and Larmee is an exciting young talent. But while Larmee isn’t insulting, I wasn’t really into the games he was playing here. Which is fine. Maybe from now on I’ll just focus on his lovely comics. (Note: sometimes we shouldn’t interview artists we like. For me it was Kevin Huizenga, but it didn’t ruin my affection for his comics.)

R. Fiore’s Funnybook Roulette. Hey, Fiore’s one of my favorites and I’m glad he stayed on. The line about Toy Story 3's characters exchanging one god for another is brilliant. Still, call me a dick editor but if I was Nadler I'd want to launch this new webmagazine edition of “Funnybook Roulette” with something about actual funnybooks. Not cartoons. (Note: this kind of attitude may be why nobody lasted very long with me editing them at Comic Book Galaxy.)

Bob Levin on the Frank Frazetta stolen artwork case. This is the best piece I read yesterday, and it’s not even in my top 20 Levin pieces (never mind his full-length books). It was sad/funny to see commenters on the piece ripping him for a) not appreciating Frazetta’s artwork the way they do, and b) practicing an un-tabloid reporterlike restraint by not intruding further into the lives of the hurting, feuding Frazetta kids (Bob could get another good piece about how we consume Art while not really caring about the artists themselves and the pain that results in or from their art). There’s a kindness in his method, and in not pressing too hard on what seems pretty clearly an opinion that Frazetta’s work was simplistic, didn’t evolve, and even suffered some technical failings in the classic sense of believable light sources and the like. He also maybe thought Frazetta was kind of a loudmouth, if only judging by the TCJ Gary Groth interview years earlier. 

While the piece offered no new revelations in the story (and even missed one or two recent developments), I appreciated the psychological insight of it. If your world-famous Pops moved your family out to the boondocks, that might feel a little stifling, might cause some resentment. I liked Levin’s problem-solving here; lacking juicy quotes or an obvious hook for the story (he hitches a ride on the Art of the Steal/Van Barnes story, but it’s not enough of a parallel with Frazetta to get him very far), he turns inward, seeing in the aging lion Frazetta and the void his passing left for his survivors his own struggles and obligations with his elderly, stroke-surviving mother. That’s more of a fiction writer’s technique, feeding off one’s own life when inspiration ebbs. It works nicely here. (Note: I just really like Bob Levin’s writing).

Good luck, Glad to have you back.

—Christopher Allen

Guest Reviewer Month: Tucker Stone on Blue Spring

I’m late to the party, but I’ve really been enjoying the criticism of Tucker Stone this year. He’s usually funny, often scathingly insightful, and I always respect someone who will intentionally “throw” a review by writing about something not at all related to the work in question, just because it’s more fun to do a little short story, piece of dialect, or non-sequitur. He did eventually reveal himself as a pussy with his unabashed fondness for Power Girl, but I guess we all have our sentimental side. Speaking of which, Tucker gets serious again with this review of one of my favorite mangaka’s, Taiyo Matsumoto. He also sets a record here for use of hyphens. By the way, if you enjoy Taiyo Matsumoto’s work why don’t you visit so you can get a cash advance to purchase his collected works.

—Christopher Allen

Blue Spring is a collection of Taiyo Matsumoto’s short stories revolving around teenage boys. In the back of the book, he describes the real boys that inspired the stories with no small amount of awe, a fact that seems to have escaped some of the articles I’ve seen about the collection. (Many of the characters in the stories, and by extension, Matsumoto himself, have been criticized for its depiction of amoral, hedonistic behavior. It doesn’t read that way to me, partly because Matsumoto seems so obviously to be celebrating a fantastic version of the lives he depicts in hopes of capturing what he imagines a gravity of feeling he was observing from the outside.)

"They answered to reason with their fists and never questioned their excessive passions. Their frankness and their sense of being true to themselves won me over. They were my heroes." - from Matsomoto’s afterword

In Matsumoto’s description of the boys that inspired these stories, he refers to his position as one of photographer, an ad-hoc water boy who was instructed to take pictures of the boys at the height of their powers, prior to the years when their own children and adult responsibilities would consume all of their time. The afterword probably shouldn’t be taken as straight gospel for a future biography of Matsumoto, but for the purposes of this collection, there’s an obvious connection to be made when the author describes how he would warn the boys about the environmental conditions that could lead to a bad photograph. Blue Spring will be another document, one where he’s going to capture these heroes as accurately (and artistically) as his conditions will allow—but that means the end product is going to be his art, not necessarily the truths that they’re expecting.

So what did Matsumoto want to see? Men—young, fraught with as much confusion as the age enforces, still attempting to define what sort of rules they want to play by, and starting to grasp how absent those rules are when others don’t share them. “This Is Bad,” the final story—which is, without a doubt, a personal favorite—reads like an absent-minded fantasy of annihilation, abandoning completely the previous stories back-and-forth dalliances with reality.

In that one, a young man accidentally engenders the wrath of a psychopathic punk, who then chases the boy all the way across the city, surviving a horrific car wreck and running fast enough to keep up with a Japanese subway, only to finally catch and (we assume) shoot the boy in the face. Interspersed throughout are passages depicting what’s going on with the young man’s current crush, a pretty little girl who succumbs to the charms of a nearby sleazeball while waiting for the boy to arrive, which, of course, he never will. Because he’s dead, and he died thinking of her, and at that exact moment, she’s riding away with the sleazeball. Tough shit, the story says.

None of the other stories approach the over-the-topness of that one, but they’re all as pointed, even when the small pages explode into double digit panels of interlocked triangles that spiral around the page, as they do in “The Family Restaurant Is Our Paradise!” In that story—possibly the most difficult one to parse, as it’s tied up in a chaotic mix of separate conversations and imagination, with multiple characters collapsing into each other while Matsumoto packs graffiti into the corners of every one of his multiple panels—Matsumoto seems to be trying to deliver the sort of moment when just-woke-up, still-sorta-drunk makes the mistake of going somewhere that’s noisily going about the business of life. A little girl walks around calling people “doo doo” while fights break out amongst the staff, somebody tries to tell a story about Michael Jackson, a topless woman stares at the reader and delivers a double-meaning “So hot,” and nearly everybody ends up resting their exhausted heads on their hands, elbows splayed. Nobody gives up, though. That’s the gag, actually—as in most of the stories, the kids are on their way to a young adulthood, and their determination is 15 kinds of extreme. The problem is that this determination has no direction in which to focus on — everybody wants to be taken seriously, but they don’t have anything they’re serious about (And thank god for that, because youthful purpose is the single greatest murderer of youthful pleasure that I can think of.).

Matsumoto’s writing is a tough thing to analyze in great detail, even tougher when you’re a dabbler in manga. Writers with a more comprehensive knowledge of Japanese comics are, unsurprisingly, a better source to determine the breadth of what Matsumoto is doing here, and writers who can read Japanese would undoubtedly experience these stories in a purer way. (More than half of the pages of Blue Spring include a translation of the graffiti and sound effects that occur throughout the book, and while “getting used to right-to-left” isn’t anywhere near as difficult as some comics readers like to claim, getting used to the delayed reading of that bottom-page-translation is. In something like Blue Spring—where the angular panels and fluid, rapid-fire dialog try to enforce a read-this-quickly tempo — having to stop and connect the graffiti to its location becomes such a nuisance that I eventually gave up doing so.) Still, the general thrust of the collection seems clear enough—Matsumoto is trying to capture the same sort of youthful emotion depicted in Black and White (or Tekkon Kinkreet) and Go-Go Monster. In Blue Spring, he’s just skewed the age bracket higher, opening the door for harder violence and wetter sex.

His art, of course, should have no introduction. Although Go-Go Monster and Black and White go further into rougher lines and much starker chiaroscuro, Blue Spring's characters share the same clean-lined buckets of teeth, they have the same bendy limbs fighting for expression against their floating clothes, and their emotionally expressive faces always stand out against their surroundings. But in Blue Spring, things seem to be turned up even more. A man’s explosive vomit splatters in a torrential mountain in front of him, like some kind of hideous sculpture. Censor boxes hide the wall-eyes of a bored gang as they take turns kneeing some kid in the balls. A shadowy outline falls to a splattered death, clapping the whole way. A Michael Bay car crash depicts the driver’s head squirting through the windshield, so he can kiss a telephone pole at the same second his engine does. All of it, depicted with the same extremely contoured lines that a Pilot V5 might produce. (The occasional grays that appear are the only aspect of Blue Spring that I could honestly say I dislike. Compared to the obsessive dots and lines that Matsumoto uses for texture and shadow, the grays that show up are such an unwelcome change that I wish there was some evidence that they were put in against his will.) Again, the Japanese novice problem prevents me from speaking to how singular Matsumoto’s style may be, all I can say with accuracy is that what he’s doing seems incredibly unique—and if that’s totally incorrect, all the better. Being wrong about that just means that my list of unknown talents can get longer, and I’ve got no complaint about that.

In the cult of comics blogging, I’m as guilty as many, with a long list of regretful moments of generous praise that strikes me now as being overly kind. I don’t think I’ll regret saying that this is the kind of comic that I would love to see more of, no matter who produces it. It’s eclectic and demanding, hysterically immature at times, and yet, from beginning to end, its viscerally entertaining, visually fascinating, and extremely unique.

I liked it a whole lot. 

Tucker Stone runs The Factual Opinion, writes a column for Comixology, and also creates the Advanced Common Sense series of video comics reviews.