Monday, February 24, 2014

Friday, February 21, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

This was my second choice for Friday

From Stone, the community gives thanks for the bounty freshly ripped out of a monster penis-whale.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Presented in Mangascope

DigiKerot's review of Hells during my hiatus reminded me that I'd been meaning to post about Shinichi Hiromoto's Stone since forever, but now that I reread it, I'm finding myself short on things to say.  There's something here, in these two volumes, let's see if I can put my finger on what.

First off,  that's a hell of a thing to put in the front of a book.  Stone is certainly a fairly low-calorie piece of pop genre trash (and I mean that fairly lovingly), but having your own publisher flat-out call it derivative is just too harsh.  That's what reviewers are for!  To be honest, I feel kind of bad even grading Stone on its story because I get the feeling everything about it came about because it would be cool to draw.  If I can accept the weirdness of Jodorowsky and Brandon Graham comics as part of the spectacle, I feel like Hiromoto deserves the same courtesy.  There's definitely some work and love put into this book, but it's fair to say that most of of it went into the visuals.

Hiromoto doesn't have much work in English (just the two volumes of this, and an adaptation of Return of the Jedi), and I actually don't know much about him, but he's got an interestingly sketchy, expressionistic art style.  For some reason it makes me keep thinking of Tsutomu Nihei, but maybe that's just because this book is full of industrial ruins, cross-hatched monsters, and people in leather jumpsuits fighting them.  I also feel like you can visibly see him improve as an artist; he has a consistently interesting eye for composition, but his storytelling starts out a lot shakier, he straight up just does not know how to do panel transitions or show motion until about three quarters through the first book.

The parts where Stone leans into its post-apocalyptic setup are the most fun, I dig the scenes with pockets of humanity living on the top floors of skyscrapers and beached aircraft carriers jutting out of the sandsea.  It kind of peaks early though, Volume 2 is mostly funky-looking pirate ships shooting at each other across seas of nothingness. The occasional boring background aside, Hiromoto usually doesn't skimp on the detail, and while perky young tomboy Zizi is front and center, he can draw a pretty good craggy old bastard too.

As far as the actual story...  There's a lot of attempted profundity kind of groping along under the surface that never quite comes together, most notably a fertility/fecundity motif-- we have the world covered in sterile white sand and a skull-face on the moon, contrasted with super blatant phallic and yonic symbolism, psychic bat mitzvahs, taboos about killing pregnant monsters, weird womb communion, and the whole thing ends with the birth of a child ending a gory war. Frankly it feels like this got cancelled, it ends pretty abruptly without really concluding anything.

Considered as a kind of crazy daydream, Stone is fun.  It's not great fiction, but I enjoy it as the trifle it is, and I'm interested in checking out Hiromoto's other work-- I actually picked up those Star Wars books of his, and I'm looking forward to seeing that movie refracted through his prism.  Speaking of which, I'd really like to know just how accurate this line is...

Sunday, February 2, 2014

They deftly maneuver and muscle for rank/Fuel burning fast on an empty tank

Sorry this is late, but... I can't believe I ended up writing this much about Motorball.

Volumes 3 and 4 of Battle Angel Alita cover the Motorball chapters.  After last volume's heartbreak, Alita decides that caring hurts too much, and the series shifts gears again as she runs away from home to get involved in mechanized bloodsports, and ends up dueling the dying champion, Emperor Jashugan.  I recall this arc being a little divisive back in the the good old days before Last Order, when people complained about a mere two-volume-long fighting tournament...  Clearly we had no idea how good we had it. 

This arc is pretty much a sports manga, driven by the drama of testing yourself against worthy rivals, getting sponsorship, training under a hard-bitten, terminally ill coach, etc.  That said, since everyone competing in Motorball is a martial-arts cyborg on wheels, the rules are made up and the points don't matter, as it usually boils down to last mech standing wins, which means lots of lengthy fight scenes that don't advance the plot, which is why I'm covering both volumes in one post.  In hindsight, it's impossible not to read this as a dress rehearsal for Last Order's Zenith Of Things Tournament, what with the increasingly odd Motorball contestants calling out special moves and bragging about their martial styles.

Mind, the fights are beautiful; Kishiro's art was good from the start, but this is where the series starts looking exactly the way I remember, riots of motion blur and excessive levels of clean-lined detail on lovingly rendered cyberchassis.  The wordless eight-page-sequence in the final chapter with Jashugan just going to town on everyone is fantastic. I would hazard a guess that this is around when he started drawing digitally. 

We do get some important character development between fights, though... at this stage in Alita's emotional development, she's basically a young adult leaving the nest.  Leaving to find yourself is more literal than usual in a story about an amnesiac (while she does know that she practices a martial art from Mars, and recovers memories of training on a big red mountain, she does not put two and two together yet), and it's interesting that while she cut ties to the point of not telling anyone where she was going, and was apparently even willing to throw away her gender by taking a non-feminine body (which reflects interestingly on Sechs in Last Order), she does keep the name Ido gave her (even after recalling her original one; I didn't remember that happening this early).  Her relationship with Ido also evolves significantly; he acknowledges himself as her father and feels tremendously abandoned at first, but after some amusing pettiness from both of them he finally recognizes her as an adult and peer.

(also, without his hat it is incredibly obvious Ido is straight-up cosplaying as Rick Deckard, hilarious)

This arc also returns to the personally-affirming nature of violence (or at least, dedication to the martial arts, but this is a battle manga, nobody's going to learn kung fu without using it on someone), which is kind of odd, since last volume was fairly consistent about depicting violence as just a symptom of the Scrapyard's dysfunction, and in these ones Kishiro makes a point of showing Motorball as an unhealthy bread-and-circus spectacle.  Our introduction to the "sport" paints it as bringing a mediated catharsis to the masses (manifested literally, as virtual-reality connections to the fighters; Kishiro comes back to this in the Ashen Victor side-story, which I'll get to at some point), and just in case you missed it, at the end Ido explicitly says Tiphares bankrolls the whole thing to let the citizens blow off steam.  Which I'm not sure it's doing that great a job of, since violence breaks out in the stands more than once, and even Ido is moved to crack people upside the head just for being insulting.  Ido is actually striking me as a surprising hypocrite during this reread, but I don't think I can seriously talk about that until certain events much later on...

Anyway, even if Motorball is a corrosive force on the spectators, Kishiro seems to respect its effect on the racers (possibly symbolized by Alita quitting the sport, but keeping the Damascus blade her coach gives her as her signature weapon from here on).  This is also where the series starts to get spiritual, in its curiously materialist-existential way; on the one hand, Jashugan, his martial arts master, and apparently Alita's forgotten master are striving toward a sort of alchemical reification of the self, believing that spiritually, a metal body is just as worthy a container and conduit to the cosmic All as natural flesh (and Jashugan apparently attains this, right at the end), but in contrast to this notion of a purely spiritual awakening, the concept of chi has been analyzed and defined as a measurable and physical phenomenon. (also, compare this sudden holism with detachable-headed Makaku's personality being affected by the bodies he wore back in volume 1).  This kind of applied metaphysics becomes a hallmark of the series in later volumes, largely thanks to the still-mysterious Desty Nova, who finally makes a second appearance halfway through volume 4, once again in a shadowy flashback.  It's hard to believe he's basically not in half the series, considering what a scene-stealer he is. 

On a related note, there are actually a couple panels in here of cultists praying to Tiphares swaying overhead, which I did not remember and is really interesting given how very few characters in the series actually mention a specific belief in any god.  And I suppose at this point it's worth mentioning that the English title Battle Angel is more specifically religious than the original Japanese Gunnm (Gun Dream).  Under whichever name, the series gets increasingly spiritual pretty much as soon as next volume, but again, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

Let's talk a little about race instead.  The Scrapyard seems to be a melting pot depository of everyone who wasn't cool enough to go live in space; at this point in the story we don't even have any confirmation that there IS anyone alive outside the Scrapyard or Tiphares.  I don't think we ever get a real answer on where the place even is; there's a bar named Kansas, but that doesn't mean anything, and interestingly, there's Korean text on one Motorball arena, and Arabic on another!  Nobody in the Scrapyard seems to have a clear ethnicity, either; going by names doesn't help much (especially since Viz changed a few), since a couple people have unmistakably ethnic Japanese names, but most go by unrecognizable fake future handles.  The Motorball arc is full of characters boasting about knowing specific ethnic fighting styles, but pretty much everyone is drawn with the usual manga lack of obvious racial markers (Ido and Zapan's prominent noses might be a specific indication of Caucasianness, but Ido's first name is Daisuke, so whatever)... and I really shouldn't let it pass without comment that the first notably dark-skinned characters in this series were a kingpin and his assistant, and the next three are a pair of professional athletes and one's little sister (also, I totally remembered coach Ed's weird character design as being way more Mr. Popo than it actually is).  I'm not going to say Vector and Jashugan are bad characters, but I can't really un-see this either.

Jashugan's sister Shumira, on the other hand, is a very bad character, embarrassingly so since she's only the second woman to appear in more than one chapter (Alita herself being number one).  She's pretty much just a teddy bear wearing short-shorts... and I really shouldn't leave it at that, since this series is actually nutty enough for that to be a character's literal physical description (once again, I am specifically thinking of something from Last Order). Shumira is sort of ahead of her time, tragically; she's a big-eyed little sister who can only speak in the third person, dresses revealingly, lives to cheer up her big brother (until he meets Alita, she is literally the only thing keeping him alive) and is either fixated on or manhandled by pretty much every man she meets.  It's actually to Ido and/or Kishiro's credit that Ido does not take Jashugan up on his offer to marry her, given his Henry Higgins tendencies.  Still, at least she gets a speaking part; Takie is barely a character at all, since she's pretty much just Grace Jones as Robocop.  For all the bagging I do on Last Order, I will say that it does end up with many more important women and/or brown people in it than the original series.

I also want to mention Jashugan's stereotypical American-comics-style promo poster.  Kishiro is one of the relatively few manga artists I know of with an evident interest in American comics; it's more prominent in Ashen Victor, which borrows visuals from Sin City and Sandman (and there's an even more, ahem, direct Frank Miller tribute near the very end of BAA proper), but the specific use of US superhero artstyle for propaganda purposes comes up again early in Last Order.

Moving to another recurring theme, in this arc Kishiro begins to stretch himself as an artist and lovingly depict certain brains from multiple angles, as opposed to his previous habit of devoting one panel to each specific brain as a sort of memento mori before it got smashed or the scene changed. 

Under this new regime, volume 3 contains 4 exposed brains, and volume 4 has 6 (one almost totally ruined).  This is after disqualifying any brain so totally liquified that no characteristic brain lumpiness is discernible; we're just counting nice clear gyri and sulci here.  As befits the king of Motorball, 40% of the brains depicted in these two volumes belong to Emperor Jashugan.  Uh... I actually can't recall if we've seen Alita's brain yet!

The flipped and unflipped printings' chapter counts finally synch up at the end of volume 3.  Hurray!  V3's unflipped extras are two pages on the rules and regulations of Motorball (which are totally irrelevant), but V4 sports a few gag strips, including one about Alita's cyberbody still needing to poo.  Essential content, surely.

So overall, Motorball actually isn't that bad!  Part of that was because reading two volumes back to back wasn't enough to outstay its welcome.  Will ZOTT treat me so kindly on the reread?  Tune in and find out, in, um, a couple months, at this rate.