I met the brilliant superstar French cartoonist Joann Sfar last night. He did a signing at Comic Relief in Berkeley, and then a bunch of us went out for dinner, mainly because Sfar wanted to meet Derek Kim (a.k.a. the poor man's Gene Yang, but Gene was out of town). Check out the amazing sketch he did in my copy of Vampire Loves:
I just read in Time that Sid Davis died last month. You may not know this, but I'm a big fan of educational and industrial filmstrips (yes really), and Sid Davis made some of the grimmest classroom social-guidance films of the 1950s, generally on such bleak subjects as drug abuse, gang violence, car accidents, and the dangers of trusting strangers. He might be most infamous for the frankly homophobic "Boys Beware" ("What Jimmy didn't realize was that Ralph was sick...a sickness of the mind. You see, Ralph was a homosexual"), but it's only one of countless Sid Davis films in which children suffer hideous fates for minor infractions or, often, just bad attitudes. I'm bummed by the news. I mean, he was no Herk Harvey, but he was a major social-guidance filmmaker in the heyday of the era.
What else? Oh, right. It's time for another installment of Overlooked Manga Festival!
I'm extremely hyped by Viz's decision to publish some of the recent manga of Naoki Urasawa. Urasawa is a major talent in Japan, having made his name in the '80s with popular dramas like Pineapple Army (about a self-defense instructor who keeps getting involved in his clients' lives) and Master Keaton (about the eventful life of the son of a British noblewoman and a Japanese zoologist). Much of his recent work has involved breathing new life into stale manga genres, like sports drama and postapocalyptic sci-fi, by making them all smart and mature. It may be the closest Japanese equivalent to revisionist superhero comics like The Dark Knight Returns or Watchmen. But unlike 99% of all "dark and gritty" superhero comics, Urasawa's comics don't suck. Instead, they are awesome.
Viz has committed to publishing Urasawa's manga in an order requested by the creator, starting with his biggest hit and moving on to the more recent Twentieth Century Boys. I really hope that Twentieth Century Boys will be followed by his current series, Pluto, an adult-oriented retelling of the most famous Astro Boy story. I know, it sounds like a colossally bad idea, like when DC tries to do a "dark" Captain Marvel or something, but it is excellent beyond belief. First, though, Viz is chugging through all 18 volumes of Urasawa's aforementioned biggest hit, his take on suspense thrillers. I give you...
The Viz covers for Monster are extremely close to the Japanese originals, except that they leave out the best part: the English-language plot synopses which, for some reason, traditionally grace the covers of Urasawa's manga. Here's the Japanese cover:
See, the Japanese publishers don't want readers to be misled. They don't want anyone to pick this up thinking they're getting a nice story, or a pleasant story, or even a neutral story.
They don't want any confusion here, is all.
And you know what? They're right: there's a lot of horror in this story. The premise is pure genius: Tenma, a gifted young Japanese surgeon working in Germany, sacrifices his career to save an orphan boy rather than a powerful politician. Only later does Tenma learn that the boy, Johan, is actually a cold-blooded murderer.
When Johan grows up to become a serial killer, and perhaps something worse, Tenma takes it upon himself to stop him. Oh, and he gets framed for Johan's crimes, which makes things a little tricky.
The story skips around, focusing sometimes on peripheral characters, sometimes on the half-dozen or so central characters involved in the hunt for Johan. In addition to Tenma (usually accompanied by a two-bit hood and a little boy named Dieter), the key players include Tenma's bitter and ruined ex-fiancee Eva, Johan's estranged twin sister Anna, and Inspector Lunge, a police detective convinced that Tenma is the killer and "Johan" is a split personality. Each of these people takes on the Johan mystery, which eventually involves eugenicists, neo-Nazis, crazy psychiatrists, serial killers, international banking, and worse, in his or her own way. Here's Anna:
And here's Inspector Lunge, on the clock:
There are a lot of reasons to like Urasawa's work. For one thing, he really is a master of suspense, just like the American cover says. The man knows how to pace a scene, and for Monster he comes up with a lot of tense sequences and creepy images. Like, say...
As you may have noticed, and as Dr. Narfelopigus III pointed out in a previous Overlooked Manga Festival, Urasawa is also outstanding at drawing faces. His character designs are detailed and realistic, yet with a slightly rubbery, cartoony quality that adds an extra level of expressiveness. He has an amazing gift for manipulating faces into a range of subtle expressions. Check out the difference in these same two faces with one set of expressions:
...and then with another:
So I'm enjoying the hell out of Monster. Even though it's Horrible Story. Actually, because it's Horrible Story.
Previous Overlooked Manga Festivities:
Please Save My Earth
From Eroica with Love
Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga
Your and My Secret
Knights of the Zodiac
The Drifting Classroom
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 1
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 2
OMF Special Event: Manga Editors Recommend Manga, Part 3
OMF Special Event: Great Moments in Manga Baking
Shout Out Loud