Speculative Friction:
a blog of comics and literary criticism written by Bill Baker


"clash of the titans"

Just before I left for last month's New York Comic-Con, I mentioned that I'd been doing some thinking about the how some European creators approach their characters and stories, and how that makes their work unique. I'm still mulling over some things, but found some recent comments by Kazuo Koike--the justly-famous creator or co-creator of at least 20 seminal manga epics, including Lone Wolf and Cub, Crying Freeman and Lady Snowblood--to be both more than a little helpful. Specifically, beyond his general rule that creating a good character or set of characters was the first step in creating a good manga, it's telling that Koike teaches "that the greatest character of all time is Jesus Christ, and the second is the Devil. The third? Buddha." [You'll find this and more at http://www.darkhorse.com/news/interviews.php?id=1261]

Which seems to handily sum up much of what I've been concluding, that most modern American creative efforts are spent on creating elaborate plots, glorious Rube Goldberg-ish devices into which a group of characters is placed and run through their paces. Therefore, much of the reader's interest and joy centers upon watching how the characters react to their environment and circumstances and events. This is really quite different from many European and most Asian creators' approaches to story construction, which, concentrates on characterization and so tends to center on how their actions impinge upon the world surrounding them, or how their will is opposed by external forces of culture, politics or arbitrary circumstances. It's analagous to the difference between concentrating on how a person is like a force of nature acting upon his world, rather than showing how the forces of nature and circumstance make a character behave.

[And, yes, I know I'm casting a wide net here with these generalizations, and that there are probably literally dozens of exceptions to this observation on both sides of this artificial divide, just please bear with me for a moment.]

Now, neither approach is inherently better than the other. Nor does this mean that the results are necessarily going to be better. They both achieve the desired result, that of entertaining the reader, just in different manners. But basing tales on well-constructed characters makes a great deal of sense. After all, the essential plots and tensions of Koike's 3 Greatest Characters are evident in their natures: Christ, the Spirit and Covenant made flesh, the gentle revolutionary preaching and teaching the Way to the New Jerusalem; Satan, the best and brightest of His Celestial Host, brought low by his pride and jealousy; and Buddha, who changed his world by challenging and then altering himself first of all, so that he could be free to serve--and save--everyone else. If you just consider them, their essential character traits and tendencies, you come to realize that their stories are literally part of them, woven into their DNA, if you will. All the creator has to do, after assembling a character of real weight and possessed of some power, is to discover their individual stories hidden within them.

Yes, it's difficult and takes some work, and even more training or, better still, direct experience before it becomes anything like easy. But it is possible, and the results tend to make it worthwhile. And if you don't believe me, just check out Lone Wolf and Cub, or any of Koike's other manga. Or maybe you should reacquaint yourself with the 3 Great Characters and their respective tales...you might be surprised how different they and their narratives look from this perspective.

Enough psychobabble. Here's...

What's Bill been reading this week?

3-8-06 to 3-14-06

DC Universe: The Stories of Alan Moore
In the space of two years, Alan Moore wrote some of single best superhero comics of the 80s while exploring the DCU. This collects all of them under a single cover and, despite there being a few flaws [an introductory text page for "Whatever Happened to The Man of Tomorrow", Moore's celebrated take on Superman, is missing, among other omissions or alterations from their original appearances], it's an excellent collection. If you've ever wondered what makes Alan Moore such a special writer, or were still unconvinced concerning his abilities, look no further for proof positive of his skill at reinventing not only long-running characters, but the medium of comics itself. Highest recommendations, and particularly important for those who love, hate or what to create comics featuring super heroes.
Trade collection of all of Alan Moore's comic stories featuring DC's superheroes

The Flying Friar
Rich Johnston scripts, Thomas Nachlik draws this OGN about a medieval man who apparently possesses superhuman powers. While there are super heroic overtones to this project, it essentially concerns itself with his life and travails as he tries to dedicate himself to Holy Orders despite his abilities. Interesting, thoughtful, and decidedly different from much of what's out there. A good thing, indeed.

One shot original graphic novella
Speakeasy Comics

100 Bullets # 69
This issue of Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso's very dark and Byzantine noir thriller, gives us a bare fisted brawl coupled with...well, coupling. As draining and satisfying for the reader as it seems to have been for the participants, this installment just ups the ante and increases the tension while letting off some steam. As always, amazing and accomplished storytelling which leaves you begging for more. Just the way the creators want it...

The 69th issue of an ongoing monthly series
DC Comics/Vertigo

Todd and Craig's The Perhapanauts # 3
This issue continues the madness begun earlier in this miniseries Todd DeZago, Craig Rousseau and co., with some very satisfying results. Not only are we getting a better idea of who [and what] comprises this diverse and strange team, but what makes them and their world tick. And it's been an interesting ride all along the way. Hopefully, there will be more adventures after the next, miniseries-concluding issue.

Third of a four issue miniseries featuring the adventures of a group of supernaturally powered paranormal investigators
Dark Horse Entertainment

Swamp Thing # 24

Josh Dysart, Enrique Breccia and company finish their reconstruction of the Swamp Thing in grand, and touching, fashion. There's a sense of adventure, risk and--dare I note it?--humanity to this tale that has been too-long absent from this title. And for long time readers, the final page alone is probably worth the price of admission. "Happy Birthday, Abigail," indeed. This issue, in fact Dysart's whole run, is a rare and precious gift for both new and long-time Swampy fans, and something to savor.

The 24th installment of the latest title featuring DC's own muck monster, the Swamp Thing
DC Comics/Vertigo

Robotika # 2

Alex Sheikman's enigmatic, gorgeous and often brutally humorous dystopian vision continues to impress and overwhelm. Robotika mixes aspects of sci-fi, samurai and pulp sensibility with rock solid storytelling and an eye for stunning design. Decidedly different, often strange pushed to the brink of self-parody, this is one of the most unique visions I've encountered in comics one either side of the millennium. Recommended for those looking for something out of the ordinary, as well as the students of the medium. Sheikman is a creator to watch...and study.

The second issue of a four part miniseries
Archaia Studios Press

Mouse Guard: Belly of the Beast # 1
This inaugural issue featuring the lush drawing and rich coloring of creator David Petersen has already sold out of its first printing, and with good reason. Not only is this a visually stunning piece of work, it's also filled with subtle yet strong characterization and storytelling, and contains one moment of sheer bravura that I literally was cheering as I read it. The fact that the lead characters are all "cute" little mice, each possessed of more than a little personal charm and strength, only adds an inviting and agreeable sheen to what Petersen's accomplished herein. This is the debut of an artist-writer of real talent and promise, and comes with my highest recommendations for readers of any age.
The first part of a six issue miniseries
Archaia Studios Press

Green Arrow # 60
This is one of the first "One Year Later" books from DC that I've encountered, and provided a fair litmus test for the concept of restarting the majority of their books post-Infinite Crisis. So, how'd it fair. Well, fair to good is the honest answer. We're [re]introduced to a cast of characters which, while it's not necessary for first time readers to know to enjoy the proceedings, would provide some resonance and subtler undertones if the reader were familiar with them. Still, this really is an introductory chapter to a much longer [still ongoing] story...and it reads as such, whether you're just joining the series or have been following along from the start. Well constructed and executed, but a bit distancing despite Judd Winick, Scott McDaniel and the rest of the creative team's best efforts. Still, that's to be expected, I'd think.
The 60th issue of an ongoing title featuring DC's bowslinging superhero is the first post-Infinite Crisis installment
DC Comics

Birds of Prey # 92
Again, first issue of the series [which I've only had sporadic encounters with, previously], post-Infinite Crisis and taking place one year after the events of the previous installment. Again, well constructed and executed by Gail Simone, Paulo Siqueira and co. And, again, that feeling of joining a party or film late. Adding to the sense of alienation is what seems, to this reviewer, an even bleaker view of the world than pre-IC continuity had in general. Knowing what I know of Simone's work, I trust that this isn't just a gratuitous choice on her part, and that this darkness is for a purpose. Even so, the atmosphere seems to have only added to my sense of alienation or distancing from these characters, an effect that I'm not certain was intended. Not a deal breaker, but still...
The 92nd issue of an ongoing monthly title featuring most of the secondary female characters from the "Batman Family" of books
DC Comics

Superman # 650
And the final "One Year Later" DCU title under consideration this month, this one featuring the work of writers Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns as realized by Pete Woods, et al. And, for my part, this is probably the most successful of these titles I've read to date. And while this might easily be attributed to the skill of the creators, I also believe it has as much to do with their choice to reintroduce the Man of Steel via a retrospective/memorial of sorts of that worthy's career in Metropolis Park. This device allows the creators to firmly establish their vision of Superman and his environs, while they simultaneously make the new reader feel completely at home and part of the proceedings. A simple enough "trick", true enough, and one which leads to their using the "attending one's own funeral" bit with some real effect and humor...all of which sets up a last page revelation with some real impact. Again, well conceived and executed as the rest of these books this week, but with a twist that proves a wee bit more inviting to the reader.
The latest issue of the ongoing monthly book featuring the adventures of Superman, the Last Son of Krypton
DC Comics

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