Jen Contino has a nice little interview with me on The Pulse, mostly talking about the story Andrew and I wrote for the new Marvel Holiday Special.
Speaking of Andrew, The Chronicles of William Bazillion continues apace with a four-page update this week. Also, Andrew has just begun what will hopefully be a continuing series of LJ posts about his hometown newspaper, the Wellington Enterprise, and its frequently tenuous grasp on reality. This week's installment is about Halloween safety. You really have to see it.
Finally, it's time for the last Overlooked Manga Festival of 2006!
As previous installments of the Overlooked Manga Festival have taught us, there is nothing manga can't do. It can give us scatalogical surrealism for children and postapocalyptic sci-fi for teenage girls. It can teach us about the life of Warren Buffett and the history of panties. It can show us how to make delicious cakes and horrifying pies. It can even, occasionally, be good. But there's one thing manga doesn't always do as well as American comics. Some comics fans, when they try to get into manga, immediately ask, "Where's all the artcomix?"
Well, that's a tricky question. Because the mainstream American comics industry has, for many years, been fairly small and restricted to a handful of genres and styles, a lot of the interesting work is done on the fringe: in self-published comics, small-press comics, artsy graphic novels, and now webcomics. Japan, on the other hand, has a large, healthy, and diverse mainstream comics industry, which means that its fringe is much smaller. If you want to work in comics and you have a lot of talent and a story to tell, there are jobs available that actually make money. Much of the self-publishing arm of manga is devoted not to edgy work with high-art ambitions, but to fancomics where all the male characters from Death Note make out with each other (which, frankly, they're this far from doing in the official version anyway).
So does Japan have no alternative scene? No Dan Clowes, no Chris Ware, no cranky Japanese version of Gary Groth phoning Masashi Kishimoto and calling him a sellout? Well, yes and no. There are underground manga, there are indie manga, and there are mainstream manga that are less genre-oriented and more literary. But I think it's a fair assessment that the literary/artistic end of the industry is less well developed in Japan than it is here. Most manga artists do genre comics. And frankly, that's fine with me. Manga artists do the best genre comics on Earth, hands down.
But maybe you want a little glimpse of what the other stuff looks like.
Sexy Voice and Robo ran in Ikki magazine, which isn't a totally artsy/alternative publication, but does run more hip, mature manga than most of the stuff that gets translated into English. Although Sexy Voice has remained unfinished since creator Iou Kuroda suspended work on it in 2003, it's well-regarded in Japan, winning the grand prize at the 2002 Japan Media Arts Festival. I agree with every point of the jury's poorly-translated explanation for the win:
This author's "Nasu" series has been highly appraised, but the lively writing of the "SEXY VOICE AND ROBO" creates a whole new world. This work is set in the present Japanese city and is about the many people living in the unexpected setting and interacting with the main characters. The dynamic city fantasy story unfolds and develops as the young attractive fourteen-year old girl involves her male partner into her life. The descriptive style of the writing is very unique to the author, and the brushstrokes are excellent and we can thoroughly enjoy the work to the four corners of the screen.
Nasu, incidentally, was Kuroda's previous work, a collection of short stories connected only by the fact that they all involve eggplants. I want Viz to publish it so badly that I hurt all over.
Sexy Voice and Robo is a one-volume collection of stories following the heroine, fourteen-year-old Sexy Voice. Sexy Voice works for a phone-dating service, chatting with guys who think she's a hot babe over the age of consent. (It should probably be explained that these "phone clubs" are common in Japanese cities, and they are not about phone sex; guys pay just for the chance to talk non-pornographically to someone claiming to be an attractive single woman. Yes, it's kind of pathetic, and yes, a lot of them are outright scams in which callers are urged to keep spending money on the promise of a face-to-face date that never occurs.) She considers her phone work to be training for her future career: she's going to be a spy, or maybe a fortuneteller.
Robo, an adult nerd who collects robot toys, plays a distant second fiddle to Sexy Voice. He's one of her phone-club clients, although he doesn't know it, and spends most of his time in the comic getting roped into driving Sexy Voice around and providing a fairly pathetic excuse for muscle when necessary.
Why does Sexy Voice need muscle? Because, starting in the first story, she acquires an even shadier second career: doing special jobs for a powerful old man who seems to be part of the criminal underworld. He's on the sketchy side, anyway. Sexy Voice doesn't ask questions; she just gets the job done, whatever it may be. In one story, for example, she's dispatched to spy on an electronics genius who's about to either salvage or destroy a cell-phone company in which the old man holds stock.
In another, she babysits a hit man who happens to have a condition his employers find useful: a complete lack of long-term memory, like the dude in Memento.
The theme connecting the stories is, well, connection: the fragile threads of love, hate, memory, and chance that bind--or, just as often, fail to bind--people. Phone connections, so miraculously made and so easily broken, provide a running metaphor in many of the stories.
And there's the running message that, if just getting in touch with other people is hard, knowing who they really are is all but impossible.
Kuroda's thick-lined, sketchy art, looking especially blocky in the oversized Viz edition, has really grown on me. It's not polished in the way that manga is usually hyper-polished: he doesn't use a lot of subtle shading or screentone, and his figures are often stiff or out of proportion. But look how beautifully he expresses an afternoon haircut, something few cartoonists could do with such grace and sensory recall.
And I like the way he composes pages like this one, with its big, bold panels and fearless spot blacks.
Plus, I just love Sexy Voice, one of the best characters I've encountered in a manga. Much love, therefore, to Sexy Voice and Robo, a work I enjoy to the four corners of the screen.
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
Warren Buffett: An Illustrated Biography of the World's Most Successful Investor