Planetes, Volume 01 (2003)

Planetes, Volume 1 cover

The first volume of Planetes has five different stories. They’re vignettes. I’ve read this volume before, I remembered the vignettes. Even if the first story doesn’t feel much like a vignette.

The story opens with a spaceship disaster. Actually it opens with a cute married couple and then the disaster, because it’s sad when disaster strikes. Except the husband—Yuri—survives and goes on to become a debris collector in the future. The future being the comic’s present tense.

Yuri’s not the only debris collector on his ship, there’s also serious Fee and joker Hachimaki. Because Yuri’s so quiet and Hachimaki’s so loud, Hachimaki quickly becomes the “lead” of the story. He’ll be the lead of subsequent stories in the volume, but in this one it really feels like he’s usurping the actual lead.

It’s an okay story; it doesn’t pass a reality sniff test but it’s okay. It certainly distinguishes creator Yukimura Makoto and Planetes as a little different. And very willing to tug on the heart strings.

The second story is about Hachimaki meeting a girl on the moon base. He has to go to the moon base because people weren’t meant to live in space and it screws up their bones. Except this girl turns out to have been born on the moon and so can’t go to Earth and there’s a gentle romance until it turns out she’s twelve, which is kind of creepy and Yukimura doesn’t ever deal with it. There’s also some more stuff with Fee in the story, but it’s not until the third one where she gets the focus.

The third story, and where Planetes distinguishes itself as something other than thoughtful, realistic space stuff, is about Fee craving a cigarette and being willing to take down interplanetary terrorists to get one. It’s pretty awesome. Yukimura’s not as good with the fast-paced action as the gradual stuff—Planetes is better when it feels like 2001 versus Star Wars—but the writing makes up for it. Lots of fun. And thoughtful too, with the terrorists.

The fourth story is about Hachimaki taking Yuri home to meet his family. There, Hachimaki contends with his annoying little brother and Yuri possibly flirting with his mom. There’s also some okay-ish character development for Yuri, though it feels like Yukimura is shoehorning it in, and a lot of humor involving the little brother.

The last story is about Hachimaki having space paranoia or something and how he works through it. It’s a fairly serious finally, without much action or payoff, making it a very uneven finish.

Overall, Planetes peaks a little too early. The last couple stories, ostensibly imperative for character development, just aren’t interesting. The one with Hachimaki’s family plays way too much to humor (at Hachimaki’s expense) and then the last story positions him as dangerously vain, with Yukimura again avoiding exploring it fully.

There’s a lot of cool stuff to Planetes, but it ought to be adding up to something by the end of the volume and it doesn’t. Yukimura’s capital A ambitions, at least with the characters, never work out. The little stuff, like Fee’s cigarette obsession or Hachimaki’s flirtation, works out a lot better. Yukimura just hasn’t got it with the character development… even though he focuses on it.

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PTSD (2019)

The best thing about PTSD is creator Guillaume Singlein’s action. He paces it beautifully. The book, when it doesn’t have dialogue but just people doing things… it looks its best. So it makes sense Singlein’s going to be good at the action too. Of course, whether or not PTSD should have action is a whole other thing.

The comic takes place in a post-racial Asian metropolis. There are Asian people, White people, Black people. No difference between them. It's almost post-gender too—the many women living on the street in the comic don’t seem to be under threat of rape, for instance—but when the protagonist flashbacks to her war days, her comrades definitely treat her as a little sister more than an equal.

Even though she’s the only one who can shoot.

Singelin’s male-gaze-free manga style also plays into the postish-genderness.

So the protagonist. She lost an eye in the war; the flashbacks lead up to that event, after focusing on when she learns certain things pertinent to the present action (her medic skills). In the present she’s a loner on the streets, addicted to painkillers (government provided to vets, which Singlein doesn’t explore and is, I suppose, one of the biggest logic holes in his ground situation), not above robbing the occasional fellow junkie or even inept drug dealer.

Her path to redemption comes in the form of a kindly old vet—the war has been going on forever (and is presumably still going on but that one’s not clear either)—who loans her a dog. The dog then gives our hero the will to live.

So she goings to war, Punisher-style, with the drug dealer gang.

Hence the awesome, albeit narratively questionable action. She’s especially dangerous with the dog, who goes along even on rooftops, and her lost eye doesn’t do anything to impair depth perception, which is good.

Besides the dog and the old man, the only people who like the hero are a single mom diner owner and her son. Only our hero doesn’t care about the single mom’s attempts at altruism—Singelin has a really, really hard time writing the dialogue for the single mom and why she’s all of a sudden caring about the starving people on the streets—but he does manage to queer code the hell out of the relationship.

And, spoiler, it’s all a red herring.

Because when our hero does find herself, it’s got nothing to do with the mom, the kid, the old man, or the dog. Singlein got to the end of the avenging vet angel arc and then realized it was actually classist, apparently, and so our hero has to move forward in a different way. Other than just having all the drugs.

The only thing unpredictable about the end is when Singlein does a pointless six month time jump forward.

Good movement, even if manga’s not your thing, but it gets real bumpy during the dialogue. Really, really, really bad dialogue. Not sure if it’s Singelin or the translator.

But the simplistic motivations and anorexic character depth suggests no translator was going to fix the existing problems.

I mean, hey, if you’ve got the shakes from PTSD… try doing charity work. Works better than highly addictive drugs.

Nice art can only compensate for so much.

Batman Versus Predator (1991)

Batman Versus Predator

Batman Versus Predator, in case the title doesn’t give it away, is bad. It’s real bad. It could be worse, sure, but it’s real bad.

It doesn’t open terribly—sure, the Kubert Brothers art is pretty bland from go, but the subject matter is at least sort of interesting (compared to where it goes later). And writer Dave Gibbons (who doesn’t just overwrite the comic, he badly overwrites it) has some style for the opening. He juxtaposes the Predator attacking some old guy and his dog with the Gotham City championship boxing match. The former isn't important (other than it's a little weird the Predator is attacking a junkyard watchman), but the latter turns out to be the whole comic. See, the Predator isn’t initially interested in hunting Batman or even (armed) criminals or (armed) cops. It’s out to take out the championship boxers.

Because they’re champions. Says so on the news. The Predator watches a lot of news in Batman Versus Predator and repeats sound bytes to make dialogue. Because Gibbons is incapable of writing an action sequence without a bunch of stupid recycled sound bytes the Predator has picked up somewhere. At one point, it seems like the comic would be at least somewhat better without their constant addition. But then, once the Kuberts never get any better—they can’t make the Predator versus the criminals interesting, they can’t even make Batman versus the Predator interesting, though it’d probably be hard to do given the big showdown is in the woods surrounding Wayne Manor. But there are times when it doesn’t seem like Batman Versus Predator isn’t going to be a complete waste of time.

Sadly, all of them are in the first issue (of three). And by the end of the first issue, it seems kind of unlikely the book is ever going to turn around.

Most of the comic, overall, is about the crooked businessmen and gangsters who run Gotham (and the boxers) getting wiped out by the Predator. It kills them because… it knows they’re swinging dick criminals and it came to town to hunt some white collar looking criminals. Then it takes on Batman and puts him down for the count—there’s this terribly ineffective device where Gibbons and the Kuberts have a single panel showing Batman getting home all cut up at the bottom of pages while above the main action with the cops or crooks or whatever plays out.

Because Jim Gordon’s got a big part. Not sure why he doesn’t try to take out the Predator himself as the Kuberts draw him just as buff as Batman, which is considerable because they’re Batman is super buff. So big and buff it’s like, obviously you need some meaty muscle guy like Ben Affleck for that part.

But you wouldn’t want to see Batman Versus Predator: The Movie with Batfleck or anyone else, because the only thing the comic succeeds at showing is how bad it would be. Even though it’s about two “characters”—Batman arguably has less personality than the sound byte spouting Predator here—who are known for their wonderful toys, there’s not much competition.

You’d think after fighting aliens since the fifties or whenever they first showed up in a Batman comic, Bats would have some better ideas than he comes up with here. Nope. There are a couple times in action scenes where it’s like… why did that work? The Predator is scared of cars?

The big action finale has Batman in special armor, which looks like the suit from the end of Batman Forever, though I don’t think the Kuberts got a thank you, and then he has a sword at some point. Because armor and swords and whatever.

Batman Versus Predator is pretty dumb, even for a comic called Batman Versus Predator. I’ll bet if you bought this comic back in 1990 thinking it would resemble Watchmen in some way because of Gibbons, you were pissed as all hell. Though, as someone who bought it back in the day—at age twelve—I recall being shameless about it.

I shouldn’t have been shameless. I should’ve acutely felt the shame.

Angola Janga

Ang2

Angola Janga is historical fiction. It falls victim to a few of the genre’s main pitfalls. Cartoonist Marcelo D'Salete has done his research, he knows all the facts. And he moves within them. With the single exception of flashing forward to modern-day, urban Brazil (which turns out to be a bad move), D’Salete does it all straight. He stays within those fact lines. And Janga suffers for it.

Also, it suffers from the translation’s subtle Kingdom of Runaway Slaves. The actual translation of the original subtitle would be something like A History of Palmares. Now, maybe Fantagraphics is thinking American audiences won’t know Palmares—it’s a quilombo or a settlement of escaped slaves in 17th century Brazil. Palmares lasted eighty-nine years before the Portuguese destroyed it.

D’Salete doesn’t do a great job, in the comic, of laying out Palmares or the kingdom. The supporting cast isn’t interchangeable because there’s not really a supporting cast. Not of the escaped slaves. There’s a bunch of Portuguese supporting players, but it’s a core group of African survivors.

The comic starts in 1673. Palmares started in 1605. So D'Salete is skipping a lot of the formative stuff, because it’s not about the formative stuff. It’s not really a “History” of Palmares. Not like you’d know anything more about the historical facts. D’Salete, as an artist, also isn’t big on aging his cast, so they never feel like living people. And D’Salete’s got a great essay about the history. Mixing text and comics might be the better way of conveying the story. Though Angola Janga’s story also falls victim to that other big historical fiction pitfall… the wrong protagonist. D’Salete picks the wrong guy to follow, even though the whole thing is structured to follow this guy. He lacks personality, even as D’Salete keeps throwing him curveballs, the protagonist never reacts in an interesting way. Meanwhile all the Portuguese get great characterizations—with a single exception, they’re all exceptionally bad people—D’Salete gives them a lot of personality. But the actual good guys, D’Salete tries to humanize them through their faults. It’s very weird.

Again, D’Salete’s sticking to the facts and his cast are historical figures but… he’s got no insight into them. Hence why a more mixed media approach might sit better. Especially given there are leaps ahead in time between every chapter and no time spent connecting to the previous one’s cliffhanger or finish.

Art-wise, D’Salete’s fine. He’s best, both in art and writing, when doing the battle sequences. They’re incredible and make you wish he just did a war comic out of it instead of the story of the settlement’s downfall. The history is full of doubt, cowardice, and betrayal. D’Salete never makes it feel melodramatic but he also never makes it compelling.

It ought to at least be compelling. The battle stuff is phenomenal; compelling. The rest is obviously interesting, but not interesting in its execution.

Punks Not Dead: London Calling

No spoilers, but Punks Not Dead: London Calling is obviously the last Punks Not Dead for a while. It’s the second Punks Not Dead series and it’s excellent, but it’s clearly finite when you’re reading the early issues. It’s a wrap-up series. It’s not growing. Writer David Barnett and artist Martin Simmonds are tying off threads versus stretching them out.

So when the series manages not to feel reductive, it’s a feat. The mystery of lead Fergie’s dad, which is pretty much the A plot throughout, works out. Sure, Fergie’s sidekick, Sid, gets reduced to a supporting player but so does everyone. So does Fergie. Instead of the characters driving the narrative, the narrative acts as a VW bus and drives the cast to their next scenes.

Insert super-film snobby reference to Other Side of the Wind here, which no one will get unless you did.

Barnett’s got some solid set pieces and some great observations–particularly how disappointing punk turned out to be in terms of social change–and nice characterizations. Culpepper’s still great and she’s still around, she’s just not a force of nature like before. Her sidekick, young agent Baig… well, even though he’s ostensibly got an important role to play in events… he really does feel shoehorned in as the gay Muslim dude.

And it really feels like there’s at least a missing issue about the bonding between Fergie’s mom, Julie, and his crush, Natalie. Barnett’s in a hurry, after all; he’s got to resolve the cliffhanger stuff from the previous series while introducing and working to a series conclusion in this series. It’s a lot.

The sequel series to close-off the first series is an indie comic publication trope at this point (though it didn’t really happen at old school Vertigo, which is about the closest comparison to what Black Crown Press has managed to do–make an imprint of comics worth reading at least once; major props to Shelly Bond). Barnett and Simmonds do well enough in their wheelhouse; Simmonds does a lot of double-page spreads in the middle of the series and a lot less towards the end. He could’ve used some at the end, to the point I thought I was missing a page. Or two or three.

Maybe I was missing those pages… it would explain a lot, but I don’t think so. I think they were just rushed and had to wrap it up, which is a shame; Punks Not Dead introduced a fantastic cast and was primed for far more than just one sequel series.

Hopefully the band will get back together someday.

Tamaki and Valero-O’Connell’s Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me

Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up With Me is another of these YA graphic novels without any chapters or natural narrative breaks. The first time I came across one, I realized it was going to be a trend and yep, it’s a trend. The difference is last time it didn’t work, this time it works out perfectly. Writer Mariko Tamaki and artist Rosemary Valero-O’Connell’s plotting works for a single sitting read. Tamaki has these narrative frames—the protagonist writing emails to an advice columnist—which provide a nice backdrop and structure. The protagonist not being particularly reliable also helps.

Not reliable like she might be dishonestly reporting to the advice columnist (and thereby the reader) but she’s not reliable. She messes up, just enough to stay actively hopeful she won’t mess something else up. Because at some point it just becomes her predicted behavior.

The protagonist, Freddy (short for Frederica), is dating the titular Laura Dean, a popular girl. Freddy’s got her core group of gay friends, while Laura Dean seems to be popular with everyone. It’s never explained why Laura Dean is popular—other than her mom frequently being out of town and there being booze and beds—but it’s also never explained exactly what Freddy sees in her. Presumably it’s some unquantifiable attraction thing but… Tamaki doesn’t give it enough attention. And Valero-O’Connell’s art doesn’t do implying of that nature. It implies other things; it has to imply a lot of other things, actually, because Freddy is frequently turned away from the panel or somehow obscured. We don’t get to see her reaction shots to how things play out around her.

There’s something non-committal about the book too—it’s aimed at a YA audience and there’s a certain age appropriateness. Or not being willing to not be age appropriate, which is fine but is definitely going to limit some potential.

It’s a solid read. Valero-O’Connell puts a lot into the panel layouts and compositions and it works.

I’m not a hundred percent on the coloring. At least every page something is pink. It’s a drab pink, kind of a mopey one. Or maybe the story’s just sad a lot. But it doesn’t add anything to the work.

Last thing—Tamaki has these talking stuffed animals, which is awesome, and not in it anywhere near enough.

Blast From The Past: American Flagg #1

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Recently I spread the word on Howard Chaykin’s recent series on the history of comics from the inside, Hey Kids! Comics!, being a success for the seasoned comics creator. Within that review, I mentioned his earlier effort, American Flagg, which I believe to be his most successful creation. So lo and behold, here I am at one of the local comics shows, and what leaps into my hand but a copy of AF #1. Didn’t look like it had been read, was in a clean bag and a board, and was for sale for the bargain price of one dollar. Obviously an omen, I had to relive this older favorite of mine.

Chaykin, who’s made his rep depicting high adventure, lusty, cynical, violent hero types, perhaps like many creators, uses his leads as a portrayal of themselves as center actors, living through their characters. Howie is certainly guilty of this, but while his leading males are certainly bigger than life, they are also infused with an everyman sense of how outrageous their situations are, and a sense of indignation for being put there. Rueben Flagg, our protagonist, is an out of work soap opera actor replaced by a holographic projection, and finds himself working a crap job as a law enforcement officer at the local Plexmall, a microcosm of what future society holds for us, excesses and all. It’s midwest based, with the Plexmall inspired by suburban Chicago malls, with numerous local inflections sprinkled along the way.

To Chaykin’s luck and First publisher Rick Obdiah’s credit, Chaykin gets LOTS of leeway on mature content for a comic I could of sworn was on the newsstands. Flagg jumps right into the action, the basic plot and numerous characters introduced at breakneck speed to keep action in the forefront. While they may display a stereotypical slant to them, Chaykin’s self sense of interest leaves a fresh, spicy imprint on all, giving his actors a personal distinctiveness rare among comics, especially right off the bat here. The boundaries of good taste are also pushed a bit, with suggested sex, drugs, and continuous gang violence just the beginning of this ride.

While Chaykin is always on the forefront of narrative graphic panel composition, American Flagg displays an assurance of talent, a mature mastery of eye movement, composition, and the full integration of literal word messaging within the panels contents. Rare indeed are the experimental approach and the common sense of storytelling disciplines working in perfect tandem as they do here.

Yet another strength in Chaykin’s bag of tricks is is an ability to constantly invent costumes and clothing. The thought and detail here should be a visual lesson to any creator of what it takes to produce a multi layered, textural reading environment. This makes the comic repeatedly accessible, each new read revealing previously missed visual cues. I really didn’t notice the “ben day dot” effect till my second read, that gives the figures another easy to achieve level of depth, allowing Chaykin to focus elsewhere within the panel on other inventions.

Big kudos to “new” letterer Ken Bruzenak here, who’s skill at typography and design take Chaykin’s birthings to a new level. There are literally dozens of fonts on display here, encyclopedic in their numbers, yet fully clear with their intent and narrative focus. Flagg incorporates figure drawing, graphic design, and typography to a high level here, and it works just fine. Lynn Varley’s limited palette with its 64 standard printing colors is also a demonstration of what pros can do with skill and limited means. What both accomplish here without computers certainly paves the the way for later practitioners.

While one can quibble with Chaykins manish approach and overtly sexy derring do, it’s obviously what inspires him to do comics at this level in the first place. What he does with 28 pages here is a visual testimony of his skills, and a “restrained” approach for a wider audience. All of the actors here are likable, stylish, and leave a great impression with the reader, despite their role in the drama.

Like the fine arts, comics sometimes are so far ahead of their time, their true value not recognized until much later. This books mainstream accessibility along with its continuous sophisticated display of invention, form a perfect balance of commerce and creativity, easily placing it into my pantheon of favorite comic books.

American Flagg, now over 35 years old, still remains as fresh and different as the day it was published, a superior effort from one of comics modern masters. Quite the bargain at a buck, which was also its original cover price, by the way.

Nowak’s Girl Town

Girl Town is haunted. Far more than it is haunting. Creator Carolyn Nowak often cuts right before it gets haunting, instead its cast is haunted. Town collects five different stories. At least two of them deal with heartache. Two of them deal with nonspecific ache. One of them is potential literature but in the modern podcast, fandom era.

Nowak has some similar themes and visuals. She’s got this “roofs off” shot she does into houses. Sometimes it’s for establishing shots, sometimes it’s for scene. Usually it’s establishing shots. Theme-wise, things are often in a near future of some sort. The first story has space being colonized and attractive women left behind on Earth instead of getting to go into space. The third story—by far the longest one (sort of the “feature”)—is about a woman getting a sex robot who proves, just like the T-800, to be the only one who measures up (no, not that way). Those two stories, the futuristic realism ones, are the two heartache stories. The first one—the first story in the collection—ends with this really awesome, really weird move from Nowak where she changes things up at the last minute, staying truer to the character than reader expectation.

It helps set the tone for the rest of the book. Like the second story, which has an unexpected finish as well. It’s a little bit more magical realism than futuristic; there are some mundane fantastics in it, but no specific sci-fi tech. The second story is really good too. Town just keeps getting better until the sex robot feature; after it, the intensity of the read changes. The fourth story is that aforementioned potential literature one. It’s all about these two podcasters who get their hands on a copy of a rare vampire TV movie from the early nineties. It’s got a cult following, even though no one has seen it since it first aired. It works out to be a really nice, really assured story. Different from everything else, but a nice show of range.

Then the finale is an encore of the quiet devastation Nowak does earlier. The last story has no futurism, no magic. It’s just about sadness and memory. The characters are so layered—Nowak’s got these aching leads opposite powerful, confident love interests and friends—and the finish to the story just makes the whole book ache. Just like the first story’s ending reverberates through the rest of the read, the last reveal shoots it back to the front. Girl Town is a literal mood.

Hey Kids! Comics! – Howie Chaykin’s History of Comics

Heykids

Howie Chaykin, a writer/artist who’s been on the comic scene since the early seventies, has always been a bit of an outsider. While he’s done his share of the standard and not so standard mainstream hero fare, has generally exemplified his best work among the “anti mainstream” tendencies. After all, a guy’s gotta work, right? But it’s within those oddball, fantasy concepts he reveres and excels in.

Early on at DC, working on the Burrough’s revival Weird World series, the wonderful Sword of Sorcery adaptions from Fritz Lieber; the related creator owned Cody Starbuck from Gary Frederich’s Star Reach label; culminating here on his most successful creation (in my own humble opinion), American Flagg for First comics. About this time he matured, decided to push the envelope on “acceptable” comics, and went off on a series of outlaw concepts for the mature readers Vertigo line, did the nasty x rated Black Kiss series at Vortex, and stayed away from the big two, only dipping his feet in the water for the steady paying work. During a recent reentry into semi mainstream, he collaborated with writer Matt Fraction on the wonderful (but also not fer kids) Satellite Sam series at Image.

While all this time having both steady income and critical praise, he still kept that outsider, trend bucking cynic that picked scabs frequently off those with gentler tastes. Whether brought on by personal experiences or sympathetic attitudes towards his fellow creators, this history in comics has brought him to create Hey Kids! Comics!, a five issue history of comic books and the creators that brought them to life and suffered greatly for the experience.

Chronically depicting the lives of three comic books creators that spent their lives working within our favorite hobby, he covers lots of ground by splitting chapters by decades, showing the aging and growth of our protagonists and the world they inhabit, warts and all. It’s a good way to keep all the misery from overcoming us, done in several page chapters, each issue repeating the format while continuing the main story, as well as some of the more scandalous and heartbreaking tales from its history.

Chaykin spares no expense here in the lives of these creators, as they struggle to continue to earn a living, meanwhile watching the business grow and evolve around them, swallowing decency and mutual friends along the way. The comics business is shown by its soft underbelly, the stuff you didn’t want to know, but knew it existed. The many lives destroyed in its endless conquest for fame and the almighty dollar.

While a decent understanding of comics actual history will provide dividends to those who study such things, the synonyms of those depicted will entertain and horrify any reader. The industry whose products we loved for a lifetime had their origins in stories not far removed from EC horror comics of the fifties. Both sides of the coin are represented and contrasted, the wealthy publishers, the insane editors, and the mercilessly taken advantage of creators, adding up as entertainment for mainstream comic readers that probably didn’t even know they existed for the most part.

Chaykin is in his element here, ceaselessly parading it all for us, never withholding the sordid truths, the monetization of sex, the racism and ever present class warfare, all adding to our precious comic memories, unshielding our eyes from it’s mean and devastating truths.

Aesthetically, one can say Chaykin here has some of his ticks that some readers may find off putting; his slight visual repetitions from one character to another and an expanding list of characters can make you work a bit to keep it all straight. I read each issue a couple of times, then blew through all five for a much more coherent and continuous read. The sheer cynicism on display here could turn off some readers, but its the subject matter here thats off putting, Chaykin’s talents only serve too well the stuff he’s depicting. For me, these ticks can be forgiven. After all, Howie is in his seventies, and he’s producing here an incredible tale- a sympathetic story thats incredibly sad mostly because it is real and the casualties are those we grew to love and admire in our desire for four colored fairy tales.

Chaykin only works with A-list talent, so kudos also to Wil Quintana’s rich, lively colors, and the never ending varieties of Ken Bruzenak’s lettering. Also assisting in his line up are several guest stars, helping him create the detailing that helps give the book life and it’s authentic touch, as well as back matter thats essential.

Despite whether you can stomach the details and the story, the utter lack of ethics or morals portrayed by those in charge that benefitted the most from them, there can be no doubt that (paraphrasing from the book) comic books are truly the ATMs of the media development industry these days.

Howie, you’re a tough read. But somebody’s got to do it, and while I’m sorry its you, you are the best fitted for it. Thank you.

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