Out with the jive, in with the Love: Chris in the Paper.

prism-cover.jpgWHOOPS! Got a bit negative for a second there, didn’t I? I forgot my promise not to engage all of this. Sorry about that, didn’t mean to harsh your mellow. Out with the jive, in with the love.

I am in the newspaper. The GAY newspaper. The fine folks at XTRA magazine (publishing in Toronto, Ottawa, Vancouver, and even on the internet) comissioned me to write a little overview of what’s hot in gay graphic novels, and I turned it into a sort of fun, on-its-ear SUMMER READING LIST. It saw print on my birthday (yay!), and it went online earlier this week when I wasn’t looking:

Porky #1 & Pornomicon #1 by Logan. Published by Class Comics. 32 pages; $9.95 each.

In the past year Class Comics has begun publishing gay comics from around the world and these two comics from France’s Logan (so hot he only needs one name) are downright dirty, in all the right ways. Featuring worlds seemingly comprised entirely of hot’n’hairy muscle bears with impossible proportions, anyone searching for something a little more hirsute in their smutty summer reading will have it made in the shade. A word of warning: If guys with PIG tattooed on their tummies and sex with the Octopus-faced baddie from Pirates Of The Caribbean (and all that entails) make you squeamish, Logan’s work is definitely not for you.
– Review by Me.

It includes everything on the spectrum from the suggestive to the smutty, and all points in between. It was a lot of fun to write too, and even more interesting? I WAS EDITED! Usually I just rail on and on here at the blog, but I got to work with an editor who actually made the piece stronger and tighter overall! Suck on that, Internet!

For those of you that need a reason to click through the link, here’s what I reviewed: Stripped: The Illustrated Male, Porky #1, The Pornomicon #1, Fun Home SC, Aya HC, All-Star Superman, Casanova: Luxuria, PRISM: Your Guide to LGBT Comics, Shirtlifter #2, and Young Bottoms In Love. There really wasn’t much point in picking stuff just to rag on it, so I’ll spoil the surprise and say that I generally liked all of the books in the review.

They even let me plug The Toronto Comic Arts Festival, which was really rather nice of them. I’ve got another article for them almost completed which has a decidedly Eastern bent. I’m sure you can figure it out…

I hope my friend at Fab doesn’t get mad that I wrote an article for Xtra. DRAMA. 😀

– Christopher
Image from this year’s PRISM Guide, which you should all go buy to support a worthwhile organisation.


Some of the content WAS pretty questionable, actually…

(Warning: Rambly)


An Appreciation of Questionable Content

Do you know what I did Saturday? If you do, that’s actually a little creepy. But I’ll tell you anyway: I read all 900+ pages of the webcomic Questionable Content by Jeph Jacques, freely available online at http://questionablecontent.net/. It’s a four-panel “gag” comic with a heavy daily continuity, making the each strip essential for hardcore fans, but making the comic as a whole fairly accessible for folks just jumping in, espescially if they ‘get’ that days’ joke.

I’m bad at webcomics, only reading (with a few small exceptions) the strips that my friends do. Luckily, I’m friends with R. Stevens of Diesel Sweeties, Ryan North of Dinosaur Comics, and Ramon and Rob over at Butternut Squash, so I’ve got most of the best and most popular webcomics covered. But every once in a while, I’ll be introduced to like, Jeffrey Rowland (of WIGU and OVERCOMPENSATING), or Jonathan Rosenberg (of GOATS) or my dear sweet Dr. McNinja Chris hastings, and I’ll be all “Oh, you do a webcomic? Really? I’ve never heard of it…” and make a total asshole of myself.

So at the Paradise show a few weekends back when I picked up a bunch of the shirts from QC, I figured that maybe I could avoid making an ass of myself IN FUTURE by… you know… reading the comics. Plus I think Mal told me that I should at one point. Anyway, it’s all a very good idea, and a time-consuming one, but what better use for 7 hours could I possibly have had?

Right off the bat: If I didn’t have a vested interest in finishing this series, I would have given up in both anger and frustration about half way through. The sexual politics of the first few hundred strips are, to put it bluntly, completely fucked up, and so aggressively wrong-headed that I actually considered stopping at strip 400 to write this post with a WHAT DO PEOPLE SEE IN THIS? HOW IS EVERYONE NOT KILLING THEMSELVES? sort of a vibe going on, which probably wouldn’t have been the best or most productive review. Thankfully at strip 500 the author decides that enough is enough and that a beloved lead character really oughtta stop emotionally and physically abusing the rest of the cast, and does, and that character has been working to redeem themselves ever since. Since this thread of emotional and physical abuse is kind-of the emotional core of the entire comic and the springboard for much of the plot, that it is so completely fucked up will likely turn off… many? Most? of the people I would normally send over to read it, if I didn’t specifically qualify the early strips with: Don’t worry, it’ll turn out okay in the end. The horrible attitudes towards sex and intimacy disappear about half way through, and from then on the strip really blossoms into something excellent. So, yeah. Either start at strip #500, or just grit your teeth like I did.

The strip is excellent though. Even through the occasionally torturous first half, there’s a humour, levity, and real heart to the series. Questionable Content is about a group of young adults in their early-to-mid 20s, working crappy jobs and hanging out and commenting on popular culture. Relationship-oriented drama and humour, through a Pitchfork Media sort of lense (but ironically). It’s a sitcomic… kind of like a gritty, lo-fi Friends with concessions to genuine whimsy and innovation vis-a-vis the occasional talking robot, magical creature, and wrong-headed superhero. Man, if ragging on the sexual politics didn’t piss people off, comparing this to Friends probably will… But seriously, millions of people watched Friends, what’s the big deal? It was a popular show that made you laugh once! Admit it!


(Look! They’ve even got a couch!)

Anyway… As I was mentioning I did really enjoy my experience, and have made visiting the site to see the newest strips part of my daily routine as of Monday morning. I guess what I really liked about it, especially reading it all at once, is seeing where the author’s eye tends to land, and seeing how the strip is shaped because of it. The afformentioned popular culture references usually take the form of band and music genre references, and it’s interesting to me because from 2003-2007, the time that the strip has been running, the authors musical interests have taken a similar path to my own musical interests and experiences. Music has a huge role in the strip, with characters being defined by the music they listen to, their romantic compatibility presaged by their musical compatibility. Sayeth the character Marten in regards to a potential relationship: “Man I hope that doesn’t become an issue with Dora. What if she can’t stand my musical taste? I mean, I know she likes the Flaming Lips, but we don’t really have a lot in common musically.” It’s just one of the many moments where music defines the various characters and situations, and it really works to give the strip a cohesion that a lot of comics lack.

But the real payoff is in seeing the characters that are introduced and ‘don’t make it’. What if everyone decided that they didn’t like Joey after the first season, and they made Mark and Carol permanent cast members instead? Wouldn’t that be weird? Heh. I love seeing the author’s process and development on the page (and just an aside here: the art undergoes a fairly substantial upgrade from start-to-finish as well, with the most recent strips looking fairly slick and cartoony, and the early strips… Well, there’s a charm to them for sure, but…) and seeing the realisation that the uptight coffee barista wasn’t going to work out, or that the first iteration of a character was a bit… shallow… and needed to be overhauled. It’s great. Author Jeph Jaques even manages to do that rare thing in almost any kind of long-form serialised comics: have the characters grow and change, and have it feel natural. The plot develops out of the characters’ attitudes and behaviour, it’s what good storytelling in this genre of comics is all about.

qc-2.jpgActually, one of the things I was going back and forth on with this series was the constant external thought process of all the characters. I can’t tell if I find it refreshing or annoying. No one seems to have an inner monologue, or a thought that doesn’t go unspoken. It might be why I found the early going so difficult as well, because the behaviour of some of the characters was really aggrivating, but hearing their constant justifications for that behaviour was just waaaay too much. It does work really well for the humour though, and even seeing characters fumble through social interaction and dating is fun when they can’t stop babbling to themselves. But if one more character utters “I have issues!” unselfconciously… I dunno. It will probably spark The Rapture or something. Not the band The Rapture either, but the Jimmy Swaggart Rapture. The Charleton Heston Rapture. (Both of those would be good band names).

Anyhow, if you’re looking for another enjoyable, subtantial comic strip to add to your webcomics browsing, I can definitely recommend Questionable Content. Even their shirts are very good. I mean, She Blinded Me With Library Science? That’s gold, Jerry, gold! Wait, that’s a Seinfeld reference, not a Friends reference. So much for my strong closing remark. Ah well.


– Christopher

Reviews: A brief insight.

The nice thing about being assigned books to review is that you get to experience titles you might normally have never picked up, or even actively avoided. The nicer thing about this is the feeling of confidence you get in your own taste and aesthetic, knowing that you avoided a title for looking like crap and then it turning out to be far worse than you imagined. It’s kind of amazing.

Meanwhile, in the ‘books I am sadly not being paid to review’ dept., King City is exactly as good as I was hoping it would be, and possibly moreso. It’s totally worth running out and picking up. I got asked 5 or 6 times if it was any good this week at work, and now that I’ve read it I can answer with an enthusiastic ‘Yes!’. Maybe if I finish the reviews I’m working on, I’ll do one of this too.

– Christopher

Review: Casanova #3

Casanova 3 CoverCasanova #3
By Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba
$1.99, 16 pages, Two Colours
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Christopher Butcher

  Casanova Quinn—a bon vivant in two different timestreams—is kidnapped from his home in Timeline 909 and forcibly brought here, to Timeline 919, to serve at the behest of superterrorist Newman Xeno, leaders and CFO of gloom-and-doom corporation W.A.S.T.E., to betray his own father, Cornelius Quinn, the strongly-jawed and ruggedly-moustachioed leader of E.M.P.I.R.E., known to you and me as the good guys.
  Where Cass comes from, he’s the bad egg and his twin sister Zephyr was the apple of E.M.P.I.R.E.’s eye—but in the 919 she rolls suspiciously more sinister, usually draped on Xeno’s arm, and is just aching to put the screws to daddy. And wouldn’t you know it, here it’s Cass that’s the big hero, so in he slips to E.M.P.I.R.E. to act as his own evil twin. 
  Tasked by E.M.P.I.R.E. to infiltrate exotic Agua Pesada and retrieve a deep-cover agent named Winston Heath who had gone several degrees south of crazy, and counter-tasked by W.A.S.T.E. to kill Heath, Cass was trapped between a rock and a dead place. Killing Heath in self-defence and destroying his compound, Cass then shot his sister and left her bleeding on a rooftop while Agua Pesada went shithouse. 
  And as he made his great escape, Cass asked Zeph the one question she’s dreaded having to answer: 
  Where’s Mom?
     – Matt Fraction, Inside front cover of Casanova #3.

It’s been three issues and I haven’t actually talked about the covers to the series. I’ve been including them with the reviews (or as Gabriel Ba described them, analyses,) but the covers themselves are so completely different than the interiors and yet complimentary too. Not to mention ballsy as fuck starting next issue. But yeah, the sickly-green that tones the interior art is kept as far away as possible from the sixties acid-orange, lush grape, and black and white that stain the covers. The cover illustrations eschew black linework entirely, opting instead for bold graphic shapes and characters composed entirely of colour. It’s a gorgeous effect, the comics look like nothing else on the stands. Each of the first three covers also includes the tiniest little bits of red accent, which totally pop and provide a delicate counter-balance to big bold areas of colour. I’m curious how much of the covers are designed by series artist Gabriel Ba, and how much of the design comes from author Matt Fraction, an accomplished designer in his own right who has a few things to say about cover composition. Matt, if you ever feel like doing a whole bunch of unpaid work, I’d love to see some writing about comic cover design (and Casanova’s design in particular).

cass-3-int2.jpgMeanwhile, story structure happens! In this issue Fraction plays with threes; the story comprised of three inter-related 5 page vignettes with a one page epilogue. The three stories are Right Now, 7 Days Ago and 97 Days Ago, and each story arc/time period also corresponds to a different ‘side’ of Casanova in this new timeline: His Own, E.M.P.I.R.E.‘s, and W.A.S.T.E.‘s.. The story cycles through the three storylines, a page from each until the issue is over (plus the one-page epilogue). The stories are chronologically distinct, each following it’s own order of operation and taking place at a different part in the overall timeline. However, just for shits-and-giggles, I went back and re-read the story not as it’s presented, a page from each thread at a time, but the whole thread from start to finish. It helped open up my thinking on this issue. Anyone can tell three five-page stories and then just shuffle ’em up, but then it’s just crap. This issue works like a 15 scene short film, each page a whole that works within the larger whole of the issue (sort of like how each issue is distinct but works within the larger context of the 7-issue series). What’s really phenomenal is that each page/scene is cognizant not only of the scene that follows it from the other storyline, but of the next scene in the story arc as well! For example, Page 1 ends on special agents Kennedy and Johnson telling Cass it’s time to go and get the show on the road, a pretty effective way to jump-start the issue. The next sequential page has Casanova in front of E.M.P.I.R.E., seven days ago, being returned to active service, which fucks with your head a little by implying that K&J brought Cass to the E.M.P.I.R.E. tribunal, even with that big SEVEN DAYS AGO at the tip of the page. The next page in the story arc though, features Cass, Kennedy, and Johnson out on the road in their convertible the story flowing along marvellously and not suffering a whit for the two pages of different storylines between them. Good stuff.

The other strong bit about the issue brought about by the story structure? The one so obvious it’s right under your nose: Telling a successful story where each scene is exactly one page long. In his previous writing about comics writing, Fraction has talked about the rhythm of a story, of the page. Here the rhythm is very consistent and aided by the scene-per-page rule, resulting in a sort of a meditative lull inspired by the quiet, reflective nature of the Right Now and 7 Days Ago sections, and then gloriously interrupted by the sharp intense shocks of the 97 Days Ago pages (Revelations! Torture! Sex! Violence! More revelations!). Sort of a bum-bum-BAM-bum-bum-BAM sort of a thing. Neat stuff, and I’m kind of surprised that Fraction didn’t dig into that more in the back-matter, as I think this issue probably makes for the clearest and easiest-to-follow learning-aide for “story beats” of any comic I’ve come across.

So, yeah, on one level coming up with a structure and then trying to force a story into it is wankery; the exact opposite of art and entirely artifice. But on the other, sometimes it works too, and as long as the story manages to cover it’s ass and remain internally consistent (it does) and thematically consistent (it does) then why not, you know? The results are great; don’t listen to McKee because it turns out there’s more than one way to tell a successful story after all.

But… speaking of the back-matter, it lets loose a wonderful little secret that never was: this three-focussed issue was originally intended to have three unannounced variant endings! I love shit like that, it’s even better than having 13 variant covers on Gen 13 #1. Apparently printing variant interiors is more expensive than one might expect, and so (sadly) the idea was scrapped. The rest of the back-up material included this issue shows the reader how Matt Fraction turns a fun day in San Francisco into an issue of Casanova; a neat trick.

I want to state for the record that I do enjoy the storytelling, but I find that my mind craves order and I’m having a hard time intuiting why the creative team is making certain storytelling decisions. The big issue for me is that Casanova’s visual storytelling is based on a 4-tier page: 4 “rows” of panels each. To explain via famous example, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen is based on a 3-tiered page, and more specifically a 9-panel grid of 3 panels on each tier. Reading an issue of Casanova, it seems that the 4-tiered approach seemingly disappears at random, sometimes having 2 of the tiers compressed into one creating a differently balanced page, or sometimes featuring three equally weighted tiers. It took me three issues to really notice that the storytelling structure in that regard wasn’t consistent, so it’s probably not even a problem so much as a ‘quirk’, but part of my brain is craving a more consistent application of this structure so that when it is broken it’s really notable and affecting. I dunno. Maybe Ba’s style just resists a rigid grid (though he used it to amazing effect last issue in the fight-scene between Casanova and Winston Heath), maybe it’s just not what the series creators want. But it is noticeable…


As to where this issue fits on the whole? If issue one was puberty, the lead character being forced into a strange new status quo, and issue 2 was a young man testing his boundaries, then issue 3 is all about the punishment; reproach. But the punishment is all for his own good and no one goes home mad at the end of the day (heh). And pretty soon, our boy’s going to start being interested in girls…

– Christopher Butcher

Review: Casanova #2

casanova2-500.jpgCasanova #2
By Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba
$1.99, 16+ pages, Two Colours

Reviewed by Christopher Butcher

   We met Casanova Quinn in the act of stealing the Seychelle Ruby, which turned out to be Ruby Seychelle—a beautiful robot concubine to criminal data mogul Sabine Seychelle. From there, Cass’ night goes very badly.
   Something’s happened to E.M.P.I.R.E.’s star agent and Casanova’s twin sister Zephyr—namely, she died. Cass and his father fight at her funeral. Afterwards Cass has a cracked jaw and a mysterious doohickey in his pocket. The mysterious doohickey… OF DESTINY!
   We won’t blow it for you, but by the time the smoke cleared, Cass had been abducted into another timeline by Newman Xeno, his father’s arch-rival and the ruler of W.A.S.T.E., an ambiguously-named Pynchon reference that exists to make Cornelius Quinn’s life miserable. Here in Timeline 919, it was Casanova that was E.M.P.I.R.E.’s star agent, and Zephyr that was into all the sketchy shit—and nothing is sketchier or shittier than Newman Xeno, who is totally her boyfriend.
   And now, with both the Quinn kids in his pocket, Newman Xeno has sent Casanova to integrate himself back into the awaiting arms of E.M.P.I.R.E.… 
   From the inside front cover of Casanova #2, by Matt Fraction.

Casanova #2 is a second first-issue of sorts… With #2 the series adopts its standard format of 16 pages, its fully 5 pages of notes and back-up material, and introduces the character’s new status quo: totally fucked. That’s the problem with being a triple-agent, there are rarely easy assignments.

The theme for this issue? Loosely “fathers and sons,” but more accurately “creators and creations.” Speaking of the wall of sound technique that author Matt Fraction described last issue, this issue positively resonates with the familial interactions, layered on top of and often bumping into one another. E.M.P.I.R.E. (which is a pain in the ass to type, by the way) inserted double-agent Winston Heath into a hot zone, created a whole new personality and life for him. E.M.P.I.R.E.’s director is sending his son in to retrieve the agent. The bad guys want him killed. And the double agent? Why, he’s been writing a comic book version of his life and just wrote his own death scene at the hands of… well, you can figure it out. This issue really digs into its themes by setting Cass as a sort of ultimate teenager; rebellious, horny, buzzing with energy and testing his boundaries. Casanova either attempts or succeeds to rebel against literally every father/creator-figure in this book, this issue, to various (and shocking!) effects. The end of the issue features three great “Fuck you, Dad!” moments that really hammer the point home. He better watch out or he’s gonna get grounded…

Cassanova Doesn't Like Comic BooksSpeaking of hot zones, the area is very hot indeed; the setting for the issue is a tropical city that’s powered by massive amounts of sex energy flowing through the air. A non-stop orgy fueled by Mother Earth’s own orgone, and facilitated by an army of buxom sex robots. Sex in comics is always… interesting. If it’s fun and enjoyable sex, it’s labeled porn. If it’s dirty, ugly, awkward sex, then it’s probably a Dan Clowes comic (no offence to Mr. Clowes of course; his sweaty, uncomfortable sex scenes are always wonderful to read). There’s very little sexy middle ground in comics, characters polarized firmly to virgin or whore. I can appreciate the way that superhero writers like Gail Simone get behind and defend the characters they write as sexy without being… well, slutty I guess, but when the dude actually drawing your book is simultaneously showing your character’s tits AND ass, that kind of flies right out the window. And Lost Girls by Moore and Gebbie as a work exists to celebrate sexual diversity, but it all feels strangely clinical and un-scintillating to me. Luckily, Matt Fraction addresses that issue head on. Sure, all of the female characters in the first two issues have been either sex objects (sometimes literally, as in the case of the many sex robots…), or his creepy sister, but this issue? Two naked dudes fight for four pages while the sex robots are liberated and rebel against their depraved master! Hott! Seriously, cocks-a-flappin’, muscles tensed, men flying through the air all the while debating the central theme of the issue—creator versus creation—and the whole thing ends in a great big violent metaphorical cum-shot! It’s a first in my comics reading.

Gabriel Ba is ideally suited to this book, by the way. His work has a sort of organic angularity that lets characters go from fashion-illustration lovely to comically (or terrifyingly) grotesque in a panel’s time, and still look consistent and “on model” throughout. He knows when to use shadows, when to reduce or add detail, and how to design pretty-much anything, apparently. It’s kind of amazing, actually, how thoroughly realised the world of Casanova is (and he does it all on a book that averages 7 panels a page!). I bring this up because in the back-matter of this issue, we see little snippets, panels and illustrations, from the comic that double-agent Heath had been creating. After 16 pages of Ba’s carefully chosen lines and details, the feathery pencil realism of the super-spy-comic-within-a-super-spy-comic is jarring as hell. It’s a bit like Phil Jimenez taking over for Mike Mignola half way through an issue of Hellboy. While the other art isn’t “bad” and might even be more palettable to a wider spectrum of the comic book buying audience (“superhero fans”), instead we get a style that gives the book a unique visual description, a look unlike anything on the stands. While I may reference author Matt Fraction more frequently in these reviews, I want to state for the record that Ba’s art is absolutely essential to the success of this book, and I can’t actually think of another artist who could tackle this.

Speaking of the back-matter of the book; this issue sees Matt Fraction provide five full pages of notes and background on the issue. Part of the appeal of the format, part of it’s manifesto if you will, is to create a solid read. Something that feels like it was a good chunk of story with a beginning, middle, and end, and worth much more than the $2 you paid for it. It’s a bit like, say, an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. One of the good ones from the middle there. It’s only 40 minutes long, yeah, but instead of the 20 minutes of commercials you’re normally stuck with, at the end Joss Whedon comes on screen and talks to you about the episode and, you know, how things are going. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?

This issue’s back-matter also seriously digs into the process of writing a comic book, specifically Fraction’s and specifically this issue. Honestly, if you’re an aspiring comics creator you’ll probably get more out of this than looking at someone’s scripts or reading a hundred Newsarama interviews. THIS ISSUE: FRACTION ACTUALLY TELLS YOU WHERE HE GETS HIS IDEAS FROM. The unanswerable question answered in 5 pages. It’s kind of shocking.

Er, I guess we’re at the end now. I enjoyed this issue quite a bit, but then I’ve enjoyed them all so as a series of “reviews” this probably doesn’t work at all, actually. I’ve just given it away: It’s all good, go buy it! Sorry. Still, 4.5 Days of Casanova continues soon.

– Christopher

4.5 Days of Casanova – An Aside

Cassanova Doesn't Like Comic BooksIf you don’t want the issues spoiled for you, you probably shouldn’t read the bolded parts at the beginning of the reviews. You’re safe on the first one, but… yeah. I had kept the reviews more-or-less spoiler free but I forgot that I was including the recap bits as a reminder/stylistic device. And I just realised that ‘recaps’ are spoilers for the previous issue. Whoops! I’ll try and mention it in each review also.

On that note, second review in a little while.

– Chris

Review: Casanova #1

cass01.jpgCASANOVA #1
By Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba
$1.99, 28 pages, Two-Colours

Reviewed by Christopher Butcher

His father Cornelius is the Director Supreme of E.M.P.I.R.E., an international task-force established in the name of maintaining peace, law, and order across the face of the Earth. His twin sister Zephyr is E.M.P.I.R.E.’s star agent, currently tasked to investigate a disturbance in the very fabric of the space-time continuum. The entire planet is under the Quinn family’s jurisdiction. So what does Casanova Quinn choose to do for a living? Read on…

So begins Casanova #1, and not in the text of the piece, but in a small bit of preamble tucked into the credits page on the inside front cover; your first clue that the material that surrounds the story will end up being just as important as the story itself.

Casanova #1 is an object, an objet d’art if you will. It’s growing increasingly rare that the monthly comic pamphlet is meant to be read or purchased for any other reason than fanboy necessity: the need to know what happens to your beloved character next. That raises the question of why a non-superhero-oriented title, hell, a non-Marvel or DC title would bother being launched on a monthly basis at all? To side-step that issue entirely, I’ll say that when the book’s objectness, its ‘single-issueness’ is as considered and successful as this the “whys” are less important. In an industry where the importance of the non-superhero pamphlet had to be forcefully, aggressively reclaimed by oversized, dust-jacketed, thick-papered waves of comics (see: Ignatz), the idea of launching a new ongoing series of pamphlets needs an ideology: a manifesto. Casanova as a series is designed to be read an issue at a time, enjoyed an issue at a time, and then perhaps considered as a whole after the fact. Comprised of 16 pages of story with a limited colour palette (one sickly shade of green and black and white), 5 pages of back-up material, and some lovely art and a straight-ahead story recap, the format itself is modeled after the perfect pop single: Short, sharp, and impossible to get out of your head. The success and authorial intent of the format of this book are why this is a review of the first issue rather than the first trade paperback; the format works. On his message board author Matt Fraction stated that “…any of the single issues of CASANOVA so far could theoretically function as whole-arc endeavors scattered across three, four, five, six 22-page chapters (at least that *I’d* read, which really is the only barometer I have). And I’d be okay doing that, were that the format we were in.” But it isn’t, and isn’t that a nice change of pace?

(As an aside, between the “Fell format” that Ellis & Templesmith’s Fell and Fraction and Ba’s Casanova publish in, the Ignatz books, Grant Morrison’s fantastic and flawed Seven Soldiers ‘modular storytelling’, and even DC’s 52, 2006 was a very good year for the reinvention of the floppy comic.)

In my reading of the series it’s the format—the presentation of the material—that defined it. While the first issue side-steps the 16-page imposition with a 28 page introductory story, the ideology remains intact: a great story, done-in-one, that gives you a helluva lotta bang for your buck. The first issue is the exact opposite of “all set-up,” the de-facto description of pretty much any new series launch. It also eschews the stylized in-media-res that substitutes for innovation in… pretty much any other new series launch (aside: I guess it’s technically in-media-res, but really it just feels like it begins at the beginning…). Instead? The comic treats you like you’re a grown-up. Admittedly, it treats you like the kind of grown-up who grew up on all the things that author Matt Fraction likes (super-spies, comic books, pop music, middle-brow sci-fi) but still, it’s refreshing for a comic to assume that when an obvious spy character is on a mission and things are going wrong that we don’t need detailed captions explaining the whys and wherefores. It asks the reader to have a little faith that everything will be explained in time, and by the end of the first issue it is: bravo. In fact, Fraction and artist Gabriel Ba go so far as to undertake a meta-narrative manoeuver on page two, having the characters pulled outside of the narrative to directly address the reader with information that is both inessential and colourful. It’s exactly the kind of information that might normally be clumsily inserted to dialogue or captions, that adds to the mood and tone of the piece. The meta-narrative effect is successful precisely because the book deals with things like parallel dimensions and alternate-earth versions of characters and events; Fraction is clearly banging the crap out of reader expectations on a giant anvil, and it’s disorienting as hell for both the characters and the reader, but it (again) assumes you’ll read all the way to the end of the book before making up your mind. A rare feat. Today I read an issue of Ultimate Spider-Man that was so unconfident in its emotional climax that it spelled it out on the cover, just in case you missed it.

…I don’t need to slam other comics to praise this one, but like I said this series has a strong “manifesto” vibe to it and I tend to fall in for those hook, line, and sinker. This is a dense comic book, the ideas flying fast and furious and even seemingly discarded. I commented recently that it took me three attempts to really feel like I “got” the first issue of this book because I didn’t commit enough of my attention to reading it. A lot of that is because there are just so many ideas being communicated to the reader. Offhand comments like “…designed by X.S.M.” or “the legendary Fakebook of the cosmos!” are tossed out at a rapid pace, with nary an appearance again in the issue. As I’ve said though, it does pay off down the line. We will find out who X.S.M. is in an issue or two, and that discovery and the story that accompanies it add layers of depth and understanding to the events of this first issue. It’s… rewarding.

Gabriel Ba’s visuals afford the same ingenuity: flying motorcycles, bug-shaped psyches, even the pattern on the bedsheets are all visual signifiers of a deeper and more considered world than usual. Ba brings a level of visual sophistication, class, and detail to the series that demands you pay attention to every carefully chosen little object or fashion tic. The reduced colour-palette and noir stylings of the art just seem to draw a deeper focus than the wash of most computer-coloured mainstream books… ah, but there I go making those nasty comparisons again. Suffice it to say, Ba’s work echoes Eduardo Risso and Mike Mignola in a loose and cartoony way that fans of either artist will appreciate, and that serves the story beautifully.

I’d be lying if I said that at the end of the first issue I wasn’t still a bit confused or unsure of where the series was going. It’s a bit like the first time you try sushi: your mouth likes it but your stomach needs a little while to make up its mind. I enjoyed great big parts of the series (if for nothing else on the first read, then for it’s audacity) but on later reads, particularly when the series is read on the whole, a larger picture is unveiled. A meta-plot for your meta-narrative. The seemingly slapdash nature of the concepts and throw-away lines in this issue are anything but; it’s all in there for a reason—even the stuff that doesn’t make sense and the stuff that contradicts the other stuff. Apparently you just can’t fuck with the space-time continuum and expect everything to come up roses, and this issue is akin to a snowball set rolling down a very large hill—it’s picking up new stuff all the way down, but the structure is still solidly constructed from everything that’s come before.

For those of you without the benefit of $13.93 to buy the whole series, those who might only be able to afford a risky single-issue purchase and are now concerned about the integrity of this single-issue, fear not: there’s an afterword! It deals mainly with the idea behind the series, about the format and the germs of ideas in Phil Spector singles and “Danger: Diabolik” and whatnot, but reading the afterword (or ‘backmatter’ as the ‘Fell Format’ creator Warren Ellis describes it), one gets the sense that this is not simply shit being thrown against the wall to see what sticks; there’s a plan and there’s six more issues coming and we hope you had a good time but tune in next month so I can blow your socks off again. The backmatter rounds out the offering, makes it a whole.

I have no doubt in my mind that this is all just too much for some people, but believe you me I was well and truly pacified when I closed Casanova #1. I was thoroughly on board, and if having a blog and valuing my opinion highly has taught me anything, it’s that you’ll be on board too.

– Christopher Butcher

The Best French Manga Not In English

Called out by Bart Beaty

In his newest Conversational Euro-Comics column at Comics Reporter, Bart Beaty provides an overview of the forthcoming “Angouleme Essential Awards”, to be handed out at Festival International de la Bande Dessinee. It’s a great article and totally essential reading, so hurry up and go read it. He also name-checks me in the article, when talking about the manga entries on the 50-volume list of books elligible for the top prize:
“Manga is also well-represented by Avant la prison (Kazuichi Hanawa), Gyo (Junji Ito), In the Clothes Named Fat (Moyoco Anno), Jacaranda (Kotobuki Shiriagari), Ki-Itchi (Hideki Arai), Non Non Ba (Shigeru Mizuki), Sorcieres (Daisuke Igarashi), and Zipang (Kaiji Kawaguchi). I’m not sure which of these seven series is available in English (I’m sure Chris Butcher or Dirk Deppey can help us there).” – Bart Beaty, Comics Reporter.
So I figured, why not? Let’s talk about which manga are or are not available in English.

Avant la Prison, by Kazuichi Hanawa. Hanawa’s Doing Time is published in English by Fanfare Ponent-Mon, and it’s a monotonous, unflinching portrayal of life in a Japanese prison. While it’s considered a fairly difficult read, I can definitely recommend it as a unique and engrossing manga. This volume acts as something of a prequel to Doing Time, and we all hope to see it follow Doing Time to the shelves… Eh, Stephen?

Gyo, by Junji Ito. As readers of this blog are aware, Junji Ito’s Gyo is published in English by Viz LLC, and books 1 & 2 were released in the 6×9 format in 2003 and 2004. Generally considered inferior to his Uzumaki series, Gyo has an aborted finish, but does deliver some truly terrifying visuals and moments (Sharks… WITH LEGS!). Also available from Junji Ito are Museum Of Terror Volumes 1-3 published by Dark Horse.

In the Clothes Named Fat, by Moyoco Anno. Despite an English title, this single-volume manga by Moyoco Anno is not available in English. It seems like a book worth translating though, as it deals with a woman who tries to lose weight to interest a man, and the body-image-related downward spiral she enters. Luckily for you reader, Moyoco Anno has been published in English before. A lot, actually: Happy Mania from Tokyopop features a desperate 20-something woman looking to settle down and find the right man, but Mr. Right-now will do; Flowers & Bees from Viz actually deals with body-image issues amongst men in a humourous way; Sugar Sugar Rune from Del Rey Publishing is an all-ages affair that has young witches breaking boys’ hearts for power; Anno even has a cute short-story in Japan: As Viewed By 17 Creators published by Fanfare Ponent-Mon.

Jacaranda, by Kotobuki Shiriagari. Totally and completely unavailable in English, and probably pretty unlikely to become so. This single volume appears to be a meditation on the human condition as viewed through the lense of the apocalypse–a giant plant grows up in Tokyo overnight oblitterating the city–but actually might just be a comedy, pages and pages of death and destruction included. I hope we order a copy of this into my store to look at, hint hint.

Ki-Itchi, Hideki Arai. Man, this is so unlikely to come out in English. Evar. Volume 1 is about a hyper-violent three year old boy who doesn’t show any emotions and is constantly lashing out at the world. It’s sort of a more-realisitically drawn Dark Crayon Shin-chan you know? Then, at the beginning of the second volume his parents are killed by a mugger and he’s left with no family and no understanding of what happened. Fierce socio-political commentary. I would totally, totally buy this if it were in English.

Non Non Ba, by Shigeru Mizuki. Oh wow. So I didn’t recognize the name, but following a viewing of the Takeshi Miike movie “The Great Yokai War” I did a little bit of digging on “yokai”, the various Japanese forest spirits and demons that make up Japanese mythology. It turns out that Shigeru Mizuki is probably the best-known manga-ka of yokai stories, and his ‘Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro’ is considered a shonen horror classic. NonNonbâ appears to be Mizuki’s newest manga, another yokai tale about a boy who befriends a yokai and the problems it causes to his day-to-day life. Sounds really neat, actually, and seeing as we got some of Kazuo Umezu’s excellent classic horror manga this year with Drifting Classroom from Viz, I think some Mizuki would go down nicely…!

Sorcieres, by Daisuke Igarashi. This would be known as “Witch” in English (making it, what, property #4 with that title?), but isn’t currently known as anything because it ain’t in English. We just got a copy of this book in this week at The Beguiling, because it was actually recommended by Black & White creator Taiyo Matsumoto in the back of the sixth French edition of his No. 5 series. Confluence! The plot seems a bit… magical such and such quest for grown-ups, but the art is lovely. It’s like a sketchy euro-Otomo, where every drawing looks absolutely effortless and dashed-off, until you realise that a) they’re beautiful, and b) he is not drawing easy-to-draw things. Absolutely beautiful, and I could totally see Dark Horse picking this up and fitting it seemlessly into their current slate of releases. YOU HEAR ME, CARL? 🙂

Zipang, by Kaiji Kawaguchi. You’re totally unlikely to see this this in English, as Kawaguchi’s previous English-language manga, the excellent socio-political drama Eagle from Viz, did not do well. This series, about a navy battleship from the Japanese Self-Defence Forces transported back to WWII, sounds like a gripping, mature story of tough choices and tougher consquences. So, TS, buy more Naruto.

There you go Bart, et al. I hope you enjoy this little run down of great manga that I cannot read as much as I enjoyed researching it all, only to find out after-the-fact that there’s an English-language description of most of these books in a Festival Program (right click save as) and that David Welsh covered some of this in his column 4 weeks ago. Le Sigh.

– Christopher