Saga #19: In which Brian K. Vaughan makes us go “uurgh”!

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Chapter 19 of Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples sci-fi series gives us something never seen before; a close up view of a baby with a TV for a head being born.

And this is part of what makes this comic so endearing.

In turns Vaughan makes us ooh, ahh and go uurgh.

I won’t spoil the effect by posting that image here.

We jump forward slightly in time in this chapter.

Our star crossed lovers are still on the run, living in hiding on the planet Gardenia.

Times are tough for a couple in hiding.

Being the primary care-giver can be a thankless task.

And wearing a huge wig and acting in a really tacky soap opera also has its problems.

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At its heart this story has always been about the relationship dynamics of the main characters.

Writers who want a really loyal following ignore that at their peril.

Brian K. Vaughan nails it.

I really care about Marko and Alana.

Their squabbles, their sense of humour and their need for each other just rings true.

Despite the floating ghost babysitter and the spaceships.

All of which are cool.

But importantly they don’t detract from how believable  the story seems.

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After a three month hiatus this chapter feels like the beginning of a new story ark for Saga.

And I can’t wait to see where they take it.

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The Wake #7 Review: The Retro-Future Beautifully Realised

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We are just a few issues away from the final issue in this run of The Wake.

I say This Run.

Because I hope that Snyder and Murphy are going to continue.

There is just too much still to discover.

I’ve a feeling issue 10 is going to end an an almighty cliff-hanger.

But back to issue seven.

This issue opens with a flashback of Leeward’s childhood.

Reminding us that even the most bad ass characters once wore dolphin socks.

And got scared.

Interestingly, we also get a rather more subtle flashback to Governor Vivienne’s childhood.

Collecting the bodies of dead birds.

Sliding down the enormous piles of their bodies.

Angry at the stupidity of their blind hope that a beacon would save them.

Which makes me think that there might be a real solution to the Mer problem.

But the people in power are concealing it.

After all a terrorised populace are easier to control.

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And that’s the great thing about this series so far.

Subtle storytelling.

Coupled with fantastic action.

Sean Murphy’s art is so dynamic, exciting and intriguing.

From the retro-fitted cruise liners to the design of the Arm uniforms.

Every detail is superbly realised.

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It is also a great example of retro-future in sci-fi storytelling.

Last night I went to the National Museums of Scotland Museum Lates event.

The theme was retro-future.

Which got me thinking about about this whole concept of the past in the sci-fi genre.

It happens a lot.

We imagine what the future is going to be like we turn to the past for inspiration.

Just a few examples:

Firefly – cowboys in space.

Tron Legacy – the 1980s in the future.

Blade Runner – the 1950s in the future.

The trick is to create a retro-future that still feels original.

That has enough to distinguish it.

In Firefly Joss Wheedon added Mandarin Chinese to the dialogue.

Allowing nerds worldwide to swear with impunity.

“Ching-wah TSAO duh liou mahng!”

The Wake stands out from the crowd with the terrifying Mers.

And with some very interesting pirates who we’ll be meeting in issue 8!

 

Comic review: Wynter #1-2 by Guy Hasson & Aron Elekes

 

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The best sci-fi is a reflection of the world we live in.

Especially if the reflection is unsettling.

Or horrifying.

With Wynter Guy Hasson and Aron Elekes have created a world which mixes overpopulation, teenage angst and an internal Facebook-like A.I. with explosive effects.

Here’s the set up.

Liz Wynter is a disaffected 17 year old.

She wants to feel special, unique, like an individual.

But

Her DNA has been born into millions of people before and after her.

Everything she could think, say or do has been predicted and recorded.

And most annoyingly.

There’s an A.I. in her head also called Liz.

Spewing statistics like

‘I AM SPECIAL’ 200 BIL + HAD SAME THOUGHT IN LAST 30 SECONDS

WOULD YOU LIKE TO KNOW WHO THEY ARE

No wonder she’s ready to commit any petty infraction to feel unique.

But things soon escalate when Liz and her friend Shane get hold of an iSTEAL app.

Swiping apps from passersby they end up with something called ‘Subversive’.

That sparks a thought in Liz’s mind.

Perhaps I could do something unique, life-changing and explosive after all?

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The first issue of this digital comic is available from New worlds Comics and issue two will be released on May 06 2014.

Art work you can grab hold of

I love comics that take as much care over the art as the writing.

After all this is a visual medium.

This story is perfectly illustrated by Aron Elekes tactile, lush artwork.

All the way through we get the kind of graphic art you normally only see on the chapter pages in most comics.

It’s realistic without taking away from the dark otherness of a dystopian future world.

Flesh seems real, pain is a visceral expression on characters’ faces.

Deep shadows are full of foreboding.

If you love comics as much for the art as the words you’ll love this.

Easter-Egg

Another great thing about this comic is that it passes the Bechdel test.

A standard invented for films to see if they have a gender bias.

The test is amazingly simple.

Are there two women who have a conversation together about anything other than a man?

Amazingly high numbers of films, TV Shows and comics fail this test.

I love that Wynter bucks this trend.

And does so in a natural, unforced way.

Although in their Manfesto New Worlds Comics state:

“Women are heroes. In New World Comics, most (not all) of our titles will have women as the protagonists. If you think women can’t be heroes (super- or otherwise), look out the window. Female secondary characters, even in titles that have men as protagonists, will also be real women.”

It is in no way at the expense of good storytelling.

Which after all is what the very best comics are about.

ARIA Vol 1 by Kozue Amano: Gently meandering through the canals of Mars

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Blade Comics

This is probably the most relaxing manga ever written.

Meet Akari Mizunashi.

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Blade Comics

 

She’s what the Japanese call ‘genki’.

And this is her story.

It seems that in terra-forming Mars humans flooded the planet.

Now it is known as Aqua

Technology is 100 years behind Earth.

Now called Manhome.

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Blade Comics

But back to Akari.

She left Earth with a dream.

To become a fully qualified Undine (Gondolier) on the canals of Neo Venicia.

She is serving her apprenticeship with the ARIA company.

And that is basically what this manga is about.

Nothing life threatening happens.

Don’t read this expecting Dragon Ball Z type battles.

It is written in the style of letters home.

Everyday stories of a young girl gaining confidence and finding her place.

This manga showcases a couple of aspects of Japanese society that I think you’ll find interesting.

Group effort

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Blade Comics

I first read this manga back in 2002 when I lived in Japan.

Back then I taught English in a high school in Kawaguchi.

The whole ethos of the Japanese education system was work hard as a team and be cheerful while you do it.

It’s not a bad ethos.

Reading about Akari I was reminded of many of my students who embodied those principles of working hard and striving for self improvement.

Japanese Europhiles 

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Blade Comics

 

Many Japanese people absolutely love the ancient capitals of Europe.

They have an idea of what these places are like that equates to a fairytale land.

A lot of Ghibili anime are also influenced by this aesthetic for example Kiki’s Delivery Service.

In fact, there is actually a condition called Paris Syndrome which Japanese tourists are particularly susceptible to.

When the reality of the city is so misaligned with the idealized image it literally makes them crazy.

So you can see why creating a fictional Venice with all its ancient beauty intact and a layer of Japanese culture on top would be so appealing for Japanese readers.

O Kami-sama

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Blade Comics

The last reason I love this edition so much is the chapter called ‘Otenki Ame’ or ‘Rain of the Gods’.

When I lived in Japan I was fascinated by the many Shinto shrines large and small on street corners.

Close to my house was a small fox shrine.

I would always glance over at it as I cycled past.

Sure that the fox statue was watching me with his dark eyes of stone.

It wasn’t creepy.

It was an incredibly special place.

The atmosphere seemed to hang heavy around that little shrine.

So when I read ‘Otenki Ame’ it really made me smile.

Japan is a real dichotomy between ancient and modern.

Sometimes the ancient can seem rigid and frustrating.

But sometimes it can seem worth a thousand times more that all the throwaway culture we consume every day.

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Blade Comics

Maybe if you’ve visited or lived in Japan you’ll read this comic and also feel that wonderful sense of nastukashii.

Or if you’ve always wanted to visit then read this comic and get a sense of the essential Japanese character from a really sweet, feel-good story.

Also as a side note, Kozue Amano draws cats in a very odd way. The ‘President’ of the ARIA company the Shachou is a chubby white cat.

The cat is actually based on the artists own feline and I think it adds a unique look to the manga which is otherwise pretty standard in it’s aesthetic.

What do you think of ARIA Shachou?

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Blade Comics

 

 

You can buy Aria published in English by ADV Manga online and on Amazon.com.

 

 

 

East of West issue by issue summary #01-11

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We are now at issue #11 of Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta’s fantastic futuristic dystopian western series East of West.

But with so much going on in each issue it’s easy to forget who’s who, and why the heck there is a snake coming out of that guy’s head.

So to help us all enjoy issue #11 even more I thought I’d try to summarise what’s happened so far in three sentences per issue.Caveat: they are allowed to be long sentences!

This is only done for fun and as a memory aide so please be gentle if I get anything wrong. In fact if you are able to clarify anything please let me know in the comments!

Phew, it’s a big task but here goes.

***SPOILERS***

Issue 1

Three creepy children come up out of the earth and decide to kill Death and then destroy the world. We learn the world deviated from the present as we know it during the Civil War, seven nations were born and The Message reveals the story of the world’s end. Death goes to The Union with two of the Endless Nation (Crow and Wolf) and kills the President in the White Tower.

Issue 2

The three kids (who are War, Conquest and Famine) make Antonia LeVay President (there might be some killing involved) before sending her off to Armistice to meet with the other Chosen. Andrew Archibald Chamberlain, Chief of Staff at The Black Towers returns home to find Death with his feet up on his desk.  We learn that The Chosen helped the other three horsemen to find death 10 years ago and kill his wife – only she’s not dead!

Issue 3

In New Shanghai we meet Xiaolian, Death’s wife, held prisoner by her envious sister Hu and dictator father Mao. Three horsemen walk into a bar…and talk with an oracle’s eyeball. Death arrives at the walls of New Shanghai and tells Mao to prepare for his judgement.

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Issue 4

A battle begins; the House of Mao: Dragons and Widow-makers against Death on his amazing weaponised horse and two magical side-kicks. Xiaolian dispatches her sister and her father taking her place at the head of the House of Mao. The three horsemen warn Chamberlain that The Chosen had better toe the line and play their part as The Message dictates.

Issue 5

We get the backstory of Death and Xiaolian’s falling in love and OMG they had a son! Xiaolin thought he was killed by her attackers after death was called away – but The Chosen think he is The Beast of the Apocalypse and are holding him captive as part of an organic mega-computer. Bel Solomon asks Chamberlain to help stop The Chosen but he just laughs and says ‘nuh uh’.

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Issue 6

Meanwhile over at Armistice the Keeper of the Message brings forth a beast from the horsemen to flush out a traitor revealed by The Message. Chamberlain betrays Bel and Cheveyo gives chase in the form of a Sarlacc-type demon, Bel makes it to his ship but with a shot-off tentacle round his neck. Bel asks The Ranger to kill The Chosen.

Issue 7

The Keeper is now merged with the grotesque beast (blerg) and it seems they are bound till the end of days. Death and his companions take a winding staircase under a lake. We flashback to when pilgrims visited Armistice, the Four would show up and slaughter them, but one baby was saved by Conquest and reared on blood and The Message. He was Ezra Orion, now the Beast/Keeper of the Message.

Issue 8

Back at the White Tower Antonia LeVay is watching her city burn as people protest against political and economic unrest. Death visits the Oracle in the under-the-lake prison to ask where his son is – and he’s willing to trade for the information. Antonia LeVay shows just how evil she is and starts to quell the rebellion in her city not with hope but bullets.

Issue 9

The Oracle takes one of Death’s eyeballs in payment for information on where his son is. In The Kingdom Crown Prince John Freeman puts his brother in his place (shoots half his leg off) and visits his father, The King of the oil-rich  nation. They discuss the inevitability of war and Xiaolin’s part in calling in debts that have caused LeVay now to beg them for financial assistance.

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Issue 10

At the Oracle’s instruction Death heads for Heetse’isi’  where Cheveyo (Wolf’s father) can be found and asked about the boy’s location. At The Beast’s Lair we discover that the three horsemen aren’t so sure Death’s son is The Great Beast and that kid knows when he’s being watched and is planning an escape. Meanwhile Cheveyo refuses to tell Death where the boy is and morphs into Nihnootheiht, just as he’s telling Death where the Lair is he’s blasted by The Ranger.

Issue 11

In New Shanghai Xiaolian prepares her people for war and goes to confront the Chosen. We learn Archibald Chamberlain has the Oracle’s other eye and that he is about to attend a meeting of the nations. And who should finally show up but the Endless Nation, the most powerful Nation of all.

endless nation

There is a lot of world building in this comic and reading each issue as it comes out can leave you a little lost. I think this is one that you can read over and over to appreciate some of the story arcs that have so far only been hinted at.

I can’t wait to find out why the Endless Nation are the most powerful, how Death’s son will escape The Lair, if indeed he is the Great Beast at all and if he isn’t then who is and which of The Chosen The Ranger will take out next…

Revival Comic Review: Vol. 1 – You’re Among Friends

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I love comics that refuse to be categorised.

What is this comic,

Horror?

Zombie?

Crime?

Revival vol. 1 – ‘You’re among friends’ seems to have a little bit of all these and is all the better for defying categorisation.

Creators Tim Seeley and Mike Norton call it a ‘rural noir’.

Which sums it up nicely.

In a small town in Wisconsin the dead have risen.

Not as decaying, brain-hungry monsters.

But very much as they were when you last saw them.

Which makes for some awkward moments.

Not least when the media show up.

The town gets put under government quarantine.

Religious zealots start talking about ‘rapture’.

And the ‘revivers’ start acting out of character.

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We are led in to the story by Dana Cypress.

She’s got a kid.

She was still a teen when she got pregnant.

Her dad never forgave her.

Now she’s Officer Cypress.

Oh, and her dad is the Sherriff.

She also takes her younger sister (Martha or ‘Em’) out on a call-out with unfortunate results.

That’s the great thing about this comic so far. It centres on family relationships and what happens to them when the stress levels go up to 11.

Everybody has secrets, untold stories and as readers we get the sense that no one is getting out of this untouched by personal tragedy.

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The artwork in this comic is traditional and keeps the story nicely grounded in reality – making the paranormal and gruesome scenes all the more spine-tingling. People look real, some are in better shape than others and there’s a realistic diversity in the town that works well.

But the thing I loved most about this comic is the very fact that the people coming back from the dead aren’t your traditional mumbling, diseased corpses out for your braaaains but seemingly unchanged loved-ones who just walk right back into their jobs and places in the family home. If the idea of that doesn’t freak you right out I’m not sure what would.

There’s also the matter of the thing in the woods…

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Which reminds me of that old Neil Hannan song, “she said, there’s something in the wood shed…”

There’s  a lot going on in this first volume and if you take a break before going on to the second volume then a re-read of this will probably be needed to get back up to speed. As it is I think I’ll read it over again just to savour some of the creepiest moments like Em’s growing attachment to the scythe…

Revival is an Image Comics publication and is available to buy on Amazon, Comixology etc. in individual editions or three collected volumes.

Chew – Revival Crossover

It was also announced in February that there would be a crossover with John Layman’s Chew. Tim Seeley said, “Chew showed us all that there was a place for quality off-kilter series, and we’re excited to have the cast of our ‘rural noir’ meet up with America’s favourite cibopath. I think we’ve figured out a great way to take advantage of the ‘WHAT THE HELL’ factor of crossing over two very different worlds that’ll make for a great read.”

And Rob Guillory Chew’s artist added, “Honestly, even I was shocked how well the two titles gelled together. It’s a really, really fun experiment that will surprise fans of both books, I think.”

There are a lot of differences in vibe, artwork and story content between the two titles but there’s lots of scope to have fun with this crossover idea. And it’s one experiment I can’t wait to read and review.

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Getting sentimental with Nana by Ai Yazawa

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One thing I hadn’t counted on when I started this blog was how nostalgic re-reading some comics would be.

I looked at Inuyasha a couple of weeks ago then while wandering through Forbidden Planet on Sunday my eye fell on an English translation of Nana by Ai Yazawa.

Now this manga is pretty old, I know because it came out in 2000 the year before I moved to Japan and it was just getting going then as a classic manga serial.

Nana – a cult manga in the making

The series was first published by in Japan by Cookie and ran for 22 volumes. It spawned an anime and two live action films, a PS2 and Nintendo DS game and a whole host of tribute albums and songs. It also won a raft of industry awards.

It first came out in English translation by Viz Media in 2007, which just shows you how long it can take for even the most popular Japanese manga to reach English speakers.

I have to be honest my Japanese was never really good enough  to understand every nuance of this story so although I enjoyed it at the time I was curious to pick up an English copy and re-visit it.

Turns out it was pretty much as I remembered it but now it is surrounded by a rosy glow of nostalgia, not just for those crazy, frustrating, amazing years in Japan but for my 20s in general.

A Story of two girls

Nana-Walking

The story follows two girls with the same first name: Nana Komatsu and Nana Osaki.

Nana Osaki

nana O cool singer

Nana Osaki is a punk singer with a tragic past, brought up by her mean grandmother and left to fend for herself from age 16, she finds her calling in being lead singer for a local band BLAST.

She falls in love with the guitarist, Ren, who despite his own tragic past, brags about being an abandoned baby and boasts about having been in the news since birth.

Ren and Nana O live together in the warehouse district where he was found as a baby. He is her family, until that is he gets the chance to join a just signed band in Tokyo. Nana O decides not to follow him wanting to push her own career first. But two years later she sets out for Tokyo looking to hit the big time. That’s when she meets…

Nana Komatsu

nana K relationships

Now Nana Komatsu is initially the weaker character. She falls in love at the drop of a hat, follows her friends’ ambitions rather than her own and is generally a bit of a mooch. But if you’ve probably known someone who was a bit like this, or if you are honest you were a bit like this when you were 20 at times.

After failing to get into university or a community art college in Tokyo she works a job in a video shop in her home town until she’s saved enough money to follow her friends. Then she meets her namesake and of course gets a total girl crush on Nana O.

The beauty of these two characters is that they are a little like John Lennon and Paul McCartney – you are either going to be drawn towards the nice one or the rebel but in reality there are aspects of both in everybody.

What else can reading Nana offer?

I would say though that Nana also provides some nice insights into Japanese life and how essentially young Japanese people are on an inexorable trajectory towards becoming their parents.

For example

The teenage punk bank BLAST has just come off stage – adrenaline pumping from their gig.

What do they do?

Get drunk or high and blow off steam by being anti-social and flipping off society?

No way, they politely go to an Izakaya for dinner, carefully observing Japanese custom by removing their heavy duty punk boots and lining them up before sitting at floor level tables on tatami mats.

Not very punk behaviour from a western point of view

nana O izakaya

But it is realistic

Young people in Japan in general just don’t do anarchy. Having spent two years teaching 14 to 16 year olds in a Japanese High School I can tell you they are the least obviously hormonal, rebellious or obnoxious kids you can imagine.

Of course though there are rough schools and kids that get into motorbike gangs.

It’s not Disneyland

Japan suffers its fair share of social problems that affect young people and lead them to try to find belonging and a sense of identity apart from the mainstream.

But for the most part making other people feel uncomfortable through your behaviour is just ingrained in their DNA as being completely unacceptable.

So who should try reading Nana?

This is a great manga for anyone interested in what life is like for young people in Japan (in the context of a fictionalised storyline of course but it is very much grounded in reality).

Or if you are in your 20s and you’re still struggling with finding yourself and your soul mate and you want a comic that reflects those issues.

Or if you’re in your teens and you want to see what’s waiting for you 😉

Or if those days are past – it’s still fun to look back

I enjoyed finding unlikely parallels between a Japanese 20 year old trying to make her way in Tokyo as a punk band singer and a Scottish girl once in her 20s trying to teach English in Japan and wondering where that road would lead.