Monday, September 17, 2007

Manga - A New Genre for Me

Prior to my trip to Tokyo last April, I thought it might be educational to sample some Manga, which is a type of graphic novel, very popular in Japan. Ducking into Rocket!, one of the local comic/manga/graphic novel stores, I browsed the shelves for a while, and then asked the very helpful gal behind the counter for some recommendations. Telling her I wanted something on the "dark" side, she recommended Berserk by Kentaro Miura.

This series follows Guts, the protagonist, as he fights off demons and other evil. (And, yes, Guts is really the name of the character - when in Japan, I bought a Japanese version, and asked a Japanese friend of mine to translate his name. She said, "um...Guts" :) He's been cursed, so that he can't die, and so that evil is drawn to him, so he's always on the road, using his big (and I do mean BIG) sword to kill the bad guys.

It's an interesting story, and as I've read deeper in the series (I'm up to #4), the story is getting more complex. I'm definitely interested to see what develops. The artwork is imaginative and extremely detailed, though the writing is fairly amateurish - though that may be a result of the translation.

(It should be noted that Berserk contains graphic violence & explicit content, and has a 'Parental Advisory' sticker on it. Not a book for the kiddies, despite its juvenile story.)

Other manga I've since read:

Black Sun, Silver Moon by Tomo Maeda - The story of young Taki, forced to work for a priest to pay off his father's debt, and Shikimi the priest he works for. Turns out, Shikimi spends his nights killing the un-dead, and expects Taki to help. Drawn in very typical manga style (large eyes, pointed faces), the writing and story is fairly predictable. After reading the first one, I'm not sure I'll read more.

Star Trek: The Manga - Five stories by five authors and artists, done in manga style and set in the original Star Trek universe of the original TV series (with Kirk & Spock). Hey, it's Star Trek - I had to get it! :-) The stories were not bad - similar in tone to the Star Trek animated series. It was fun to see the different artists' approach to the artwork. A must for any Star Trek fan!

Lone Wolf and Cub - Vol. 1, The Assassin's Road - story by Kazuo Koike and artwork by Goseki Kojima - This is a "groundbreaking" series, set in the Edo period of Japan. It's groundbreaking both for its historical setting and its amazing, nearly cinematic artwork. The hero of the series is the Lone Wolf, an assassin for hire, who travels with his toddler son, the Cub. This first book in the series is a series of vignettes, as we follow the father and son through the countryside, as he is hired for various jobs. Of course, our hero has a conscience and a strict set of ethics, but most of the stories were pretty much the same. I may try another book in the series, if only for the draw of the period it's set in. However, I have to say that the smaller format, which results in teeny-tiny print, detracts from my enjoyment of the artwork.

Akira by Katsuhiro Otomo - A truly groundbreaking manga, first published in 1982. It is set in a futuristic Tokyo, and involves a teen gang of motorcycle riders which gets involved in a secret government weapons program, when one of their gang is taken in, and discovers he has immense mental powers. This story is as complex and well-developed as any textual science fiction novel. And the artwork is compelling. It helps that this series is published in over-size format, which helps in the enjoyment of the book. I will definitely read the entire series. (On a side note, I recently viewed the movie version of Akira, which was also compelling. Though, as is usual in the case of books being converted into movies, there is quite a loss in story depth. If you want to see a fine example of anime, I highly recommend this one.)

Ghost in the Shell by Shirow Masamune - Another of the 'greats' of manga, both for story and artwork. The story is set in the future, where humans are often computer-enhanced, and cyborgs are created for many uses. Again, this story holds up against any mainstream science fiction. Our heroine is Major Motoko Kusanagi, a cyborg, investigating a terrorist cybercriminal, who hacks people through their computer components and uses them for his purposes (the people are the 'shell' and he is the 'ghost' of the title).

Nice artwork, and the edition I have (Dark Horse Manga) has several pages in full color, which adds to the enjoyments. My only complaint is the way the hero is drawn - as is typical, she is, shall we say, well-endowed. (I also thought the female-only sex scene was totally unnecessary). I guess this is to be expected, coming from male authors. (Hmm, are there any female manga authors? I'll have to find out!) This series was also made into a movie, which I saw before reading the book. I really enjoyed the movie, and will have to see the rest of the film series, and read the rest of the book series. (This book also has a parental advisory, which is well-deserved.)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Graphic Novels

This is another genre that I've recently become interested in (though I did buy and read a hardcover compilation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller back in the late 80's or early 90's, and I read 3 of the Sin City series, also by Frank Miller, a couple of years ago). Graphic novels are often thought of as just collections of comic books, filled with superheroes, which they can be, but they can also be books in their own right, books which use art to aid in telling the story.

A brief review of the graphic novels I've recently read:

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill (volumes I and II) - A fun series, which brings together several 'fictional' characters as a sort of 'A-Team' - set during the end of the 19th century. We have Allan Quartermain, Captain Nemo, Jekyll/Hyde and others. These are full-color, glossy productions, which really show off the artwork. The scenery is almost steam-punk in style. I definitely enjoy books that treat fictional characters as real (see my earlier post on Jasper Fforde and the Tuesday Next series), and this one is definitely fun. It may not be as erudite as Fforde's work, it is still an interesting premise, and the artwork makes it quite fun to read.

Fables by Bill Willingham, et al - Similar to Extraordinary Gentlemen, this series creates a world where storybook characters (Red Ridinghood, The Big Bad Wolf) etc., find themselves exiled from their world, and finding refuge in modern-day New York City. A fun premise and a fun read (I'm up to volume 5), and a bit more light-hearted than EG (though some bad things definitely do happen). These are full-color spreads, but not glossy - they definitely have that "comic book" look - though this is not necessarily bad. I have enjoyed this series - fun, light reading.

Violent Messiahs: Book of Job by Joshua Dysart, et al - A dark, nihilistic, sci-fi/horror story that bills itself as a "story about criminal politics, the nature of violence and man's search for individuality." I have to say that this was probably a bit too dark & violent for my liking. I wasn't surprised by this, after all, the title pretty much gives it away, but it was just too much for me. This volume is printed in full-color, glossy format, which is a plus, and enhances some of the really creative graphics. Not sure this is a series I'll continue, however.

Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, et al - What most people think of when they think of graphic novels: it's main characters are the DC superheroes (Superman, Batman, etc). However, the story is not your 'typical' comic book plot, with some bizarre bad guy or mad scientist threatening to blow up the world. This novel deals with the issues faced by the families of these superheroes: parents, wives, husbands. We see the superheroes interacting with their families, and trying to reassure them. This becomes more difficult when the wife of The Elongated Man is killed. Someone is targeting the families of these superheroes, in order to get at them. It's an interesting premise, and the story is definitely more mature than the usual comic book fodder. Full-color, glossy format - and a good story: a good read, despite men in tights. :-)

Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman - This is a beautiful book (hardcover, glossy, full color), and an intriguing premise: what if the X-Men were "born" in 1602, in Europe. There is the expected opposition to the "mutants", but combine that with the Spanish Inquisition, and fear of witchcraft/sorcery. The mutants are labeled "witchbreed" and hunted as spawn of the devil. The artwork is spectacular, and definitely cinematic. Really, really sophisticated. It was fun to see a new take on an old story - and I'm not surprised that Neil Gaiman is behind it. I've discovered that his books/movies are VERY original and creative. This book is a fine example of the best of the genre.

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore and David Lloyd - A 'groundbreaking' book. Originally published as a series of comic books in England in the 80's, they are collected here in one book. It is considered groundbreaking, because it was one of the first comic series to step outside of the superhero world, instead, bringing a story quite relevant for the current age. It has a bit of 1984, dealing with a controlling big brother-like government, and one man's attempt to wake up the populace. "People should not be afraid of the government; the government should be afraid of the people." This is a very intelligent, thought-provoking story, that just happens to be told with the help of graphics. A very good movie was made of the story, that came out a few years ago. I highly recommend the movie as well as the book!

300 by Frank Miller and Lynn Varley - Another 'grown-up" graphic novel - not based on comic book characters, but a real-life incident in ancient Greece: the battle of Thermopylae, where 300 Spartans held off the army of Persia. Another beautiful hardcover, with lush, painterly graphics. If you've seen the movie (which I actually liked, and which prompted me to get the book), you've seen the book. Many frames of the book are reproduced exactly in the movie. The movie fleshes out some of the characters, that the book does not. But the book is another "must have" for anyone's graphic novel collection, and a "must read" for anyone interested in the genre (and not interested in superheroes)

The Dark River - John Twelve Hawks

This sequel to The Traveller (2005), picks up right where the first book left off. Travelers are people who can leave this universe (though their bodies stay here), and tend to be spiritual and cultural leaders and revolutionaries. Throughout history, the Harlequins have been tasked with protecting Travelers, by whatever means necessary - though swords are the preferred weapon. And the Travelers have many enemies, mostly the established governments and organizations, led in secret by the Tabula (think Illuminati).

Set in today's world, these books follow Maya, a young, and reluctant, Harlequin, (yet another 'tough' heroine - are you seeing a pattern in my reading?) who is trying to protect the last two (known) Travelers. The Tablua rely on the current computer networks to track people, so Harlequins "live off the grid" to avoid detection, and rely on the anti-establishment subculture to aid them. Both books are fast-moving and suspenseful, but I thought The Dark River wasn't quite as "tight". Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading about Maya's struggles with her destiny and her struggles against the Tabula. Definitely fun, fast-paced reading, overall.

These books are pretty much a crusade against Big Brother tracking us through our everyday lives, and thereby controlling us. (The author, who is using a pseudonym, is said to "live off the grid" himself.) They don't really break new ground in the "secret conspiracy" genre, but the idea of the Harlequins & Travelers is somewhat unique.

What I Read on My Summer Vacation

OK, so this is a little late - in fact, a lot late. What can I say - I've been busy reading!

So, my summer vacation (in cabin with no electricity) reading list:
1. Tomb of the Golden Bird by Elizabeth Peters - the nth in the Amelia Peabody mystery series. Amelia is an Egyptologist from England, and these books cover her escapades (and her family's) in Egypt in the early part of the 20th century. I enjoy them for her wry humor, and watching Amelia, a liberated woman, struggle to be treated as an equal. As an added bonus, I pick up a smattering of history and archeology while I read. These books are just plain fun, and great to take on a vacation.
2. Twelve Sharp by Janet Evanovich - Another mystery series with a female protagonist. These, however, are not exactly educational - unless you want to learn about the culture in New Jersey. Stephanie Plum is the (rather inept) bounty hunter in this series, which is chock full of very memorable characters. This series is definitely "junk food" reading, and just like food, it's fun to let go and indulge every now and then!
3. The Bug by Ellen Ullman - This is sort of a mystery, and also an exploration of life in the software industry and an interesting character study. The titular 'bug' is randomly popping up in a soon-to-be-released software application. It is set in the 80's, at the beginning of the PC revolution and the birth of Windows. This book does a wonderful job of showing what life is like for a programmer, without succumbing to intimidating jargon or code. I thought the en was a little thin, but otherwise I enjoyed it.
4. A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge -These two books are just about the best treatment of alien cultures that I've encountered, in a lifetime of reading science fiction. Absolutely believable and definitely alien. Vinge's imagination of alien life and societies is absolutely brilliant. The human characters are not the only focus - the alien characters are fully developed, and I found myself relating to them, despite their incredible alienness. Absolutely BRILLIANT. (Thanks, Dave R. for the recommendation!)
5. Apropos of Nothing by Peter David - A satirical fantasy (though light on the "fantasy", which is good for me, not being much of a fantasy fan) that was impossible for me to put down. Very, very funny! I am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Woad to Ruin.

I think I read one other book during vacation, but since that was in July, I don't remember! :-)