Friday, June 28, 2013

The Failure of Fumetti: Force Field Fotocomix

Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01
Seth Kushner, 2013
Ages ago, or certainly what feels like it, Mark Millar was going around telling people that he was making a meta-superhero photo-comic for Marvel called 1985. Featuring massive sets, ground-breaking CGI, and an extensive live-action cast, the budget was to be in the millions of dollars. Unsurprisingly, this was Millar going off the hype-reservation a bit, something he has quite a habit of doing. Whether or not such a project was ever an editorial reality at Marvel is known only to a few who probably could care less at this point. (1985 would eventually come out with art by Tommy Lee Edwards, illustrated like any other comic.) But if it was a photocomic in the making, did Marvel balk at the ridiculous budget - which is unlikely to have been as much as Millar was saying but still likely higher than your average funnybook - or did whatever preliminary tests that were done simply look too awful to go forward?

Photocomics are better known as fumetti for whatever reasons; odd in part because fumetti is what Italians call their normal, non photo comics. The format largely started out in the late 1970s, not as original comic productions with photographic illustrations, but by chopping up the images from movies and television shows and arranging them into a comic adaptation. Most of these were pretty bad, and the fad was short lived though there are still occasionally such low-rent comics made usually targeted at younger audiences. But published comics featuring original photography in place of art are more infrequent. Ten years ago Vertigo released two graphic novels photographed by Stephen John Phillips to absolutely no acclaim or impact on the market. Since then, outside of the wild west of the internet, there has been almost no instances of original fumetti released to mass audiences in the United States.

The question arises, why the dearth of fumetti? Is it economic considerations in the cost of production? Comics, after all, can be both the realm of the singular auteur as seen in independent comics, or the work of many hands as often seen in mainstream work. But no matter which way you cut it, longer-form narrative photocomics almost always would require many individuals to pull off, an amount of people and subsequent cost putting the work outside the realm of the auteur and into the hands of those with the resources to execute it. At the very least you need a cast, and the visuals begin to fall under the constraints of film or photography and you may also need costumes, makeup, location rights, post-production and so-on. But major publishers aren't exactly known for their willingness to take chances, and producing an expensive work in a largely untested format is largely outside their established purview. Perhaps there are a lack of creators even wanting to make the things... it's not like there is a legacy of photocomics as a touchstone for a generation of creatives. The things are a bit odd, a novelty in the best of situations, and those who are most likely to make comics are most likely to be culturally or aesthetically influenced by other comics, which are done in hundreds of different styles, all drawn or painted or designed in some fashion rarely involving the direct use of photographs. 

Or maybe the medium of photographs in place of illustrations in comics just plain doesn't work.

From "Hall of Just Us"
Into the photocomic void steps Seth Kushner, with Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01. Collecting a couple of pieces published elsewhere as well as new material, Force Field Fotocomix was self-published this spring by Kushner and was produced with cartoonist and Act-I-Vate mastermind Dean Haspiel. Aiming to revitalize if not outright recreate the whole medium, it succeeds only at illustrating the aesthetic limitations of that medium, and possibly the storytelling limitations of the creator.

Seth Kushner is an accomplished photographer who's work has appeared all over the place in print for nearly twenty years, and he's really quite good. After releasing his amazing book of photographs of cartoonists, Leaping Tall Buildings, he began working on CulturePop Photocomix, a work that combined photos of his subjects with material from his interviews with them into a kind of series of semi-narrative photo-essays, work he contends is "wholly unique." Maybe I'm being reductive, but these projects really just seem like captioned photograph sets. In any event, Kushner wanted to expand beyond non-fiction studies into a "full fictionalized graphic novel told through a dramatized photocomic," the attempts at which can be found in Force Field Fotocomix.

And as a package, Force Field Fotocomix is a bit of a mess. After a two short fumetti stories, there is a lengthy photo-essay fumetti thing by Kushner about his career and thought process leading up to the volume, followed by two more short pieces. The first story, "Hall of Just Us" by Kushner and Haspiel features various costumed types at a tarot card reader, who argue over the affections of said reader only to be shown up by a shirtless luchador (played by Haspiel). It's not very funny, though I think it's supposed to be. The second story, "Spiders Everywhere!!" is a dialogue-free comedy-horror pastiche by Kushner and Chris Miskiewicz where a woman wakes up to, well, spiders everywhere, and everyone freaking out to spiders everywhere. Fake plastic spiders everywhere. Both stories just seem like unpolished short films made on VHS by friends goofing around at home, things that simply do not appeal beyond those personally familiar with the cast and crew. I'd say these were a waste of time but it only took a minute ("a" as in quantifiably "one") to read. 

The lack of professional polish or narrative quality in the two opening pieces is a turn-off, and doesn't even get into the weaknesses of fumetti, though those weaknesses are very much on display. The overacting of the subjects in "Hall of Just Us" and the cheapness of the props in "Spiders Everywhere" are immediately evident. Also noticeable, and I think this is one of fumetti's biggest problems, is the lettering. Lettering is an art all its own, and the lettering in "Hall of Just Us" is quite bad. Bad font first, but more importantly is the jarring way that the lettering and balloons interact with the visuals. There is simply no naturalistic way to get word balloons to mesh with photographs in the same way that it can with illustrations. The way lettering and balloons work are as illustrations of language, and the illustrations of the balloons never, in any instance I have ever seen anywhere, combine well with the reality of the photographs. 

One of the more illustrative pieces, from "The Perfect Woman"
The final story, "The Perfect Woman," largely avoids the lettering trap by using almost nothing but captions, and visually works better... until the last two pages which get jarred by the lettering and you again realize that the story wasn't all that good. Kushner is an accomplished photographer by any account, but his bona fides as a narrative storyteller are startlingly absent in all these stories. The third story - "The Complex" - is introduced by Kushner himself as "an allegorical drama about four lost souls orbiting each others lives and making a connection that matters before the end of the world." I frankly have no idea what the fuck he's talking about. I assume what we are presented here of "The Complex" is just a small part of a larger graphic novel because it abruptly ends and "The Perfect Woman" starts up. What we get is an obtuse science fiction story of some sort. Hell, maybe "The Perfect Woman" is part of "The Complex," it very well could be, it's frankly hard to tell. No matter what, though, Kushner's weakness as a storyteller is again evident.

One might see the weaknesses of the stories having a deleterious effect on my view of fumetti as a medium, but, honestly, fumetti is too weak on its own to work. There's something unnatural about the nature of photographs in a narrative medium. Perhaps fumetti represents a unique corollary to the Uncanny Valley. When you move farther away from representation into literalism, it takes you out of the work. Fumetti, to me, just looks like actors posing with or without photoshop effects and those damned jarring word balloons. 

From A Softer World
There are some photocomics that work, but they don't use word balloons and are largely extra-narrative. The captioned parts of "The Perfect Woman" are one example, a better example is the elegiac, almost undefinable non-narrative photo-poem webcomic strips of A Softer World by Joey Comeau and Emily Horne. A Softer World continues to astonish me: it can be funny, sad, beautiful, poetic, often all of that and more. But A Softer World is as far from fumetti as you can get. It isn't a narrative photocomic, but a poem in words and pictures that transcends what even some traditional comics are capable of.

Art, L to R, by Hickman, Maleev, and Harris
It is very important to point out the obvious and important role photography as a reference tool is in  comic illustration. Many, many artists use photoreference in their work as jumping on points, to nail down the physiology of a movement or capture the visual of a setting. But in every case of photoreference, the finished product is still a representative illustration. Artists like Alex Maleev, Tony Harris, and Jonathan Hickman heavily rely on photoreference for the production of their visuals, which are photorealistic in many ways. Despite how much they rely on photos in their finished product, the end result is illustrative enough that the Fumetti Uncanny Valley simply vanishes, and often the settings and actions and framing breaks far, far away from what can be reasonably captured in photographs.

Kushner, by Kushner.
Kushner cannot be faulted for trying, of course, and I believe he and his co-contributors worked their asses off and were quite serious in their intention of reigniting the photocomic medium. Kushner himself notes that "Complex" is an ambitious idea and that "every other attempt to make projects like this felt like a failure" to him. But despite his obvious skill as a photographer and his love of the comics medium, the efforts presented in Force Field Fotocomix are a failure as well, a failure inherent in his chosen medium as much in the execution of the pieces on display.

Seth Kushner's Force Field Fotocomix Vol. 01 is in stores now

For more on A Softer World, check out my review here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Batgirl, Robin and Marcos Martin: Year One

Batgirl/Robin: Year One
By Beatty, Dixon, Martin and Pulido
DC Comics, 2001,2003, 2013
As I've noted elsewhere, I'm an avowed Marvel guy. Though I do read a few ongoing DC superhero books, and am certainly well-versed in the definitive works, there are very large gaps in my DC knowledge. For instance, I know precious little about Robin, the Batman sidekick. What I do know is that there has been a bunch of them, and that people have passionate opinions about each and every one. The first Robin, Dick Grayson, was introduced into the Batman comics of the 1940s largely to attract a younger audience, and to say that ploy was successful is a massive understatement. Grayson would be Robin for 40 years before becoming Nightwing, and nearly every adaptation of Batman produced since features Dick Grayson as the character. Subsequent Robins would each develop new identities, die, or both, but it is Dick Grayson that is arguably the best known of the characters to inhabit the role of Robin.

Another of Batman's many associates over the decades is the seemingly derivative Batgirl, another character with many different individuals under the cowl. While not the first woman to take on the Batgirl identity, the longest serving and best known is Barbara Gordon, daughter of Jim Gordon and ultimately one of superhero comics' most tragic figures. But long before her victimization at the hands of the Joker (and Alan Moore), Barbara Gordon for many was - and still is - the definitive Batgirl.

For years many publishers, but especially DC, have produced many "Year One" miniseries which retell the origin of a particular character. Most of these try to follow the mold set by Frank Miller and the incomparable David Mazzucchelli in their collaborative masterwork Batman: Year One. This week DC released a massive softcover collection combining two such outings, Batgirl/Robin: Year One, focusing on Gordon and Grayson. The incredible value presented - over 425 pages for less than twenty-five dollars - is worth checking the volume out. But the real reason to take this home comes down to the artists involved, Marcos Martin and Javier Pulido.

I've written about my love of both artists' works, especially Pulido's very recent star turn on Shade and Hawkeye and Martin's consistent mastery on Daredevil and Private Eye, so I came to the stories presented here with great interest in the visuals if less the actual characters. It certainly helps that the stories, companion pieces both written by the team of Scott Beatty & Chuck Dixon, do a very competent job of presenting the characters' individual early development and capturing the essence of who they are as people. Those already familiar with the characters are also likely already familiar with the stories presented in this collection, but for a novice like myself, I came to a better appreciation of the who and why of the people under the masks, despite my own misgivings about the larger questions of the morality involved.

Now the morality of which I speak is in my... objections, I guess you can call it, to Robin's presence in the Bat-mythos, whoever that Robin may be. I've long been bothered by the simple impropriety of the thing. There are many moral questions raised by the nature of masked vigilantism, certainly most existing in a murky grey area, but I've long believed that Bruce Wayne's allowance - if not outright exploitation - of children acting alongside him is unambiguously wrong. This isn't a type of irrational Werthamesque argument but an acknowledgement that the Robins are not much more than child soldiers, with all the moral disgust such a thought rightly evokes. The child sidekick, just one of many bizarre aspects of superhero comics - that bizarre and uniquely American genre - bothers me, and is one of many factors that make it hard for me to get into DC superhero comics.

To Robin: Year One's credit, I am not the only one bothered by Robin's presence alongside Batman. Rather than telling Dick Grayson's story entirely from his perspective, most of the series' narration comes from Alfred Pennyworth, butler-father to Bruce Wayne and aide-de-camp to Batman, who is deeply troubled by Grayson being Robin. To be certain, Alfred vacillates between indignation, uncertainty, and begrudging acceptance, and he is ultimately just as culpable as Bruce Wayne in the end. But his narration, sardonic yet heartfelt, and his constant role as Batman's moral center wonderfully grounds the book. The graphic novel is really four connected novellas, not specifically telling his well-known origin as much as establishing the full year of Robin's development as promised by the title. The villains in each story, players from Batman's rogues gallery like the Mad Hatter, Mr. Freeze, Two-Face and the like, aren't all that interesting (they rarely are). What is interesting is Dick Grayson as a character. You get the sense that Grayson is Robin no matter what Wayne and Pennyworth want. After being brutally beaten nearly to death, he is slowly nursed back into health and continues vigilantism over Batman's wishes. Batman objects to Robin's continued war on crime, but this was a war that Batman started, that Batman recruited Robin into. Despite Grayson's iron will to act despite what anyone thinks, despite their similarity in motivation (parents lost to crime), Bruce Wayne put him into that position. Towards the end, Grayson strikes out on his own to infiltrate a shady group of skilled criminals, foreshadowing his own development into Nightwing. And in the end Batman takes him back into the fold. "You really want me to be Robin again?" "I want you to be a good soldier." Alfred insists that he could walk away, spend his life in happier pursuits. Be a kid. Many times we are shown Grayson sacrificing the small pleasures of adolescence to partake in Bruce Wayne's quixotic crusade. And in the end, to Alfred's heartache, Grayson chooses Robin. Certainly Grayson wants to be Robin badly, and takes great joy from it. His reascension to Batman's side is seen as a victory for him. But is is also one of the small tragedies of his character, a childhood lost.

Batgirl: Year One is a distinctly different work in tone and accomplishment. Barbara Gordon's development into Batgirl is not one of apprenticeship but of fierce independence. Unlike Grayson, she was an adult when she took up the cowl, partially inspired by the Batman. Barbara Gordon is the daughter of soon-to-be Gotham Police Chief Jim Gordon. She wants to be a cop like her dad, not just some computer whiz clerk at a library. But Jim Gordon doesn't want his little girl anywhere near a police uniform. Coupled with her father's objections and her own slight physical stature, she is repeatedly rejected in her attempts to enter law enforcement. But Barbara Gordon is a master of Jujitsu and an even more masterful hacker, and finds a way to break into Justice Society headquarters to get attention of at least some of the powers that be, to try to serve her city in any way she can. Rejected by the JSA, she strikes out on her own, copying the M.O. of so many of the so-called superheroes popping up in Batman's shadow. "Is this how they do it?" she asks as she creates her costume, her very identity. "Masked vigilantes... One stitch at a time, until the costume makes your future?" Batgirl: Year One provides a fascinating look at one woman's quest to become a vigilante at the dawn of the new wave of vigilantism. The slow and methodical development of her physical and technological skill set, and the fiery nature of her very being as realized by Marcos Martin is wonderful to behold. She eventually draws the attention of some z-list villain called the Killer Moth and his not-quite sane partner Firefly. She also draws the attention of Batman and Robin, wondering who this girl is and why she is doing what she's doing. Again the bits of plot about the villains aren't nearly as interesting as the parts focusing on Barbara Gordon herself. She is an inspiring and frankly wonderful character, and whatever her fate may hold, whatever hamfisted foreshadowing of fridge-stuffing by the writers, Year One is an entertaining read.

But back to my reason for reading these stories in the first place. While the characters at first didn't interest me (though did eventually win me over), I came into this for artists Javier Pulido and Marcos Martin. Both comics represent the earliest mainstream work from both artists; Robin came out in 2000 and 2001, Batgirl in 2003. Pulido and Martin have a very similar style, and they work in tandem on Robin: Year One. While their styles are distinct enough to the trained eye, the early nature of the work and Robert Campanella's unifying inks blend the two together seamlessly. While you get many hints of the distinction in style both artists would develop, as a finished piece it's not quite to the creative level both would later establish. Nevertheless, the art mercifully carries the story. But it's Martin's solo work on the Batgirl story that shows his true brilliance. Definitively, Marcos Martin on Batgirl: Year One announces his status as one of the best and most unique visual creative mainstream voices of the last decade.

In Batgirl: Year One, Martin shows a mastery of perspective and physicality that takes your breath away. Martin repeatedly breaks free from rote settings, staging scenes with an eye-popping clarity and energy. The physical presence of his characters on the page is a wonder to behold, as far as possible from the superhero 101 of bulging everything. And the pure physicality of the character's actions captures the brutal nature of the violent world of capes and thugs with a rarely felt immediacy. When a punch happens, it is with the force and sudden room-stopping violence of the real damn thing. Barbara Gordon may be too short to join the GCPD but she can improvisationally and acrobatically take down three gunmen in a tight setting with brutality and elegance. Every action panel is clear and effective, like the best directed action movie fight never made. And Martin's skill isn't limited to back alley fights and chases in the night, but oozes out of every page, from heated conversations to quiet scenes. His framing of every single panel is done with thoughtfulness and an inspiring joie de vivre. The way he frames a wry smile, or determined eyes, says volumes in a tiny space. The cartooniness of his figures and faces draw you in, and his ability to make the characters subtly emote connects you to them even further. Marcos Martin possesses and shows here a Frank Quitely ability to translate body language with modern-day David Aja slash J.H. Williams III flash and Darwynn Cooke accessibility, all greater than the sum of its parts, all completely, purely Marcos Martin. In Batgirl: Year One we get Marcos Martin: Year One, as he expertly hones the skills that would give us the Full Ditko of Dr. Strange and The Amazing Spider-Man and the superstylized senses-shock of Daredevil and The Private Eye. Alvaro Lopez on inks and Javier Rodriguez on colors help bring it all home. No offense to all the other creators involved here but this is about Marcos Martin and the foundation of a visual superstar in the making.

Whatever narrative weaknesses in both stories are more than made up for in the superb quality of the art. And despite whatever recent editorial clusterfuckery that negates the canonicity of the works, these are fun character stories about the place of vigilantism and the type of people who engage in it. Superheroes are a weird and wonderful thing, so much more wonderful in the capable hands of the likes of Pulido and Martin.

Buy Batgirl/Robin: Year One on Amazon here.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reviewing Cartoon College, the New Documentary about the Center For Cartoon Studies

Cartoon College by Josh Melrod & Tara Wray
FilmBuff, 2013
As a storytelling medium, comics have existed about as long as film, but acceptance of comics is still nascent. The past fifteen years or so has seen the medium grow leaps and bounds, and a big part of that has been the rise of educational institutions that have graphic art and storytelling as a focus - though there aren't that many. One of the premier institutions is James Sturm's Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, Vermont. Cartoon College is a new documentary feature by Josh Melrod and Tara Wray that follows some of the students of CCS as they hone their craft in the school's two year masters program.

Cartooning is a hard, lonely road. It requires a dedication to the medium that asks long hours with small output, and success is far from guaranteed. As Art Speigleman rightly points out in the film, cartooning is more a calling than a career, and watching the film certainly paints a picture of a community of creative individuals dedicated to a vibrant field that is still looked down upon by some of those outside it. Individuals who, like pretty much everyone at ever art or film school ever, overestimate both their own creative capabilities and their potential of future success.

The point of creative arts schools like CCS is to refine the skills of those who can cut it and cut out those who can't. Cartoon College follows a small handful of students as they wind their way through the program, getting an education from some of the best creators working in comics today along with the standard classmate criticism that comes with any good art program. The curriculum is centrally focused not just on theory but on producing a finished product; this isn't about making a student film that no-one outside the classroom will ever see, but about making comics that are ready for self-publishing primetime (if not necessarily crossover success).

The type of cartooning on display here focuses on mini-comics, that exploding sub-medium of comic storytelling in usually small and personal handcrafted comic creations. The best parts of the documentary show the students as they produce their pieces and ply them for trade and sale and street cred at the annual Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art Festival here in New York. This window into the cutting edge of the art form are far more interesting than the rather standard look at the motley group of folks at art school. While I like the students selected for the documentary, their story isn't quite as interesting as the look into the culture of mini-comics and graphic novels we see.

The documentary interviews many of the best cartoonists working in comics today, who, to a person note the difficulties of their profession - the solitude, the hard work, the lack of financial windfall no matter the crossover success they may achieve. We see James Sturm as he produces his elegiac and beautiful graphic novel Market Day, only to be reminded of the pratfalls of mid-level success. We see Lynda Barry, overflowing with love of the medium and those who dedicate their lives to it, talking about selling items on eBay just to stay afloat. And we see Chris Ware, one of this country's single greatest cartoonists, as he characteristically laments the solitary, almost downtrodden life of the cartoonist.

The film does its best to show the small world of cartooning these students and the working cartoonists profiled find themselves in. But the focus is a bit too narrow to sustain the doc's length, and it might be better served at 56 minutes instead of 76. To those who know this word well, it's a nice, light diversion, not terribly incisive, but still entertaining. For those who are completely unaware of the subject matter, Cartoon College is an effective primer on the world of mini-comics.

And for any audience it's especially exciting to see in-the-flesh interviews with the likes of Ware, Mouly, Feiffer, Sikoryak, Spiegelman, and many more, all hugely important figures who started out at the bottom, exactly where these students are now.

Cartoon College will be screening at the Society of Illustrators on 63rd Street in Manhattan Tuesday, July 23. It is currently available for download on iTunes and will be released on DVD next month. For more visit

Monday, June 17, 2013

I Read Spider-Man: The Manga #27 So You Don't Have To

The Spider-Man manga is a really odd beast. Serialized in Monthly Shonen Jump by Shueisha in Japan in 1970 and 1971, it tells a story more or less loosely based on the American comic being published at the time. It was also apparently really bloody weird, with graphic violence and sexual situations obviously not present in any form of Spider-Man published before or since. Beginning in 1997, Marvel began serializing the manga in North America, though largely expurgated and with a rather cruddy translation. Marvel skipped a bunch of stories and pretty much gave up mid-arc with issue 31 in 1999.

Spider-Man: The Manga 27, by Ryoichi Ikegami
1971 Shueisha / 1999 Marvel
Working at JHU I'd long since seen the Marvel issues floating around our epic mountain of Unsold Shit from the 1990s that we have since mercifully unloaded when we moved stores last month. There were a few stragglers that stayed behind, though, and among them was issue 27.

I picked up the issue with no knowledge of the potential contents or the history behind the original series. What drew me to it was the very Brendan McCarthy-esque cover, which, as you can see, is pretty weird. It's hard to glean anything from the cover aside from the nifty trade dress on the left, which is about the only thing the comic has going for it.

Largely by Ryoichi Ikegami, the series stars high school student Yu Komori, who like Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider and is raised by his Aunt Mei. He's got your standard Spidey Powers, wall crawling and Spider-Sense and the like. The issue opens with Komori crawling up a wall and then rather quickly falling into a really bizarre nightmare. After a striking double page spread where Komori looks at a mirror image of himself in full Ditko-classic Spider-Man regalia, over 6 pages or so Komori has an existential conversation with himself. "Ths Spider-Man in this mirror is me. To think that my shadow could disobey me... It's impossible!" Making monkey-like movements for his reflection to mimic, he continues, "My shadow imitates my every movement." (Yeah, dude, it's a mirror, it'll do that.) "It's supposed to obey me. My shadow would never defy me... but... why this fear?" Then out of nowhere a narrator breaks in telling Spidey the mirror he is looking into tells the future. Spidey starts freaking out, and then this happened:

... Whoah.

Out of nowhere Ryoichi sticks a stunningly illustrated horror comic into a Spider-Man tale, creepier than any Doc Oc possession. Komori freaks out, punches the mirror and wakes up in a cold sweat, a thunderstorm atmospherically happening outside. After a clunky transition (the segues here are amateurish at best), Komori (not as Spidey) saves the life of pretty Yukiko who was absentmindedly crossing the street without looking. So appaently Yukiko's brother Mitsuo is falling into a life of crime, as evidenced by his use of cigarettes and hanging around poorly drawn street thugs. Not only that, but he also seems to have Spider powers of his own.

I know it's probably unfair to judge the storyline and the series on one random issue, but the whole thing is pretty damn goofy. Between the stilted conversation with Yukiko (maybe a result of the translation) and Spidey resolving to face Mitsuo, there is a fairly ridiculous segment where inartfully produced newspaper headlines detail Mitsuo as "The Mystery Thief" as he scales large buildings stealing a couple of dollars at a time while leaving notes mocking the police and Spider-Man. "Miracle Methods!! Two hundred meters above ground!! For a haul of twenty dollars!!." (Actual punctuation.)

While the unusual nightmare segment and the cityscapes are amazingly rendered, the rest of it is pretty bad. Though the bits with Komori surrounded by floaty Spidey-heads are pretty awesome:

But my favorite part of the comic? The ad on the inside back cover, featuring a very earnest Mark McGwire at the height of his roided-up home run powers:

Every night, five to seven million kids around America wet the bed.

Remember parents, it's not their fault. It's Mark McGwire's.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Musings On Superman on the Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Superhero

I love superhero comics as much as I love comics as a glorious whole.

The dual demise of Wizard Magazine and The Comics Journal (as a regular print periodical) in 2010 was a symptom of the often ballyhooed "death of print" that continues to this very moment. While I don't completely buy the mass extinction of print, when it comes to comics news reporting, journalism and commentary, the vanguard had long since migrated to the internet and the death of Wizard and The Journal were inevitable. And while few seem to equate Wizard and The Journal as similar entities, I contend that their mutual folding was also a symptom of their mutual narrow world views: Wizard represented coverage of the lowest common denominator of comic entertainment, in their substandard and pop-focused coverage of the comic artform and their inveterate speculation and profiteering; The Comics Journal in their snobbishness, a lowest common denominator of a more insidious kind that excludes vast swaths of a medium for no other reason than lots of people like it, ignoring their own publisher's long history of inartful smut-peddling. Wizard and The Journal were two sides of the same coin, a coin that comics as a medium and a culture are mercifully better off without.

Of course The Comics Journal still exists as an occasional print publication and more frequent online one1, and its attitude towards the medium is unchanged. Interspersed with decent commentary on various independent and international works and in-depth interviews with a certain subset of creators is its ceaseless snobbery and willful ignorance of superhero comics. I like superhero comics. I also like art-house comics and strips and international material and mini-comics and monthlies and OGNs and webcomics. I like good comics in whatever form they take. Websites like The Hooded Utilitarian2 and The Comics Grid3 and The Comics Reporter4 are more reflective of my tastes and of, what I believe, is the reality of the average modern comic consumer, who are increasingly seeing the potential of comics as a storytelling medium beyond but inclusive of superheroes. Perhaps my viewpoint is skewed by my location and profession: I have for many years worked for one of the America's most progressive comic retailers - JHU Comic Books in New York City5 - an early and continuous pioneer and evangelist of the entire broad range of the comics language. My biggest personal influence as a comic consumer and thinker is JHU's co-owner Nick Purpura, one of the industry's most well-read and well-informed figures, and my experience working for JHU has repeatedly shown me that, at least in our customer base in Manhattan, that comic readers are adventurous and omnivorous.

Of course I also see many cases of folks unfamiliar with the comics medium who only know of comics as superhero fare, and just as many who are into comics and stick to just superhero material. I always strive to direct people to good comics regardless of the genre, but I completely understand those who stick to superheroes (the Wizard crowd) and those that avoid it (the Journal crowd). Both limit themselves, of course, and most, I believe, can and do embrace the entire spectrum of comics. So what of superhero comics? Superheroes, that uniquely American and uniquely odd genre of storytelling, are 75 years old this year. The comic book as a mode of storytelling delivery is just a few years older. (It is a natural assumption for many to assume that superhero comics are comics, but of course that is not the case.) Superheroes and the comic book would go on to influence the comic medium and eventually all of pop culture to an astonishing degree over the next seven-plus decades.

Though they were not my gateway drug into comics (that would be Tintin), I have always enjoyed superhero comics. Superhero comics as a genre are terribly flawed, there are veins of sexism and stupidity and bad art. Certainly Sturgeon's Law6 applies to superhero comics (and it applies just as equally to non-superhero fare despite what publishers like Fantagraphics or D&Q would like you to believe): most of what is out there is complete crap; the goal, the thrill of the hunt is in finding and celebrating that which is not crap, that which is better than what can be and what is elsewhere. And I love the damn things, the good but not the bad or the ugly. And superhero comics all started with one character, one idea, one ideal: Superman. But I have never really liked Superman.

I love superhero comics. I don't like Superman.

(Perfunctory Action shot.)
I've always been a Marvel guy; that is, when it comes to superhero comics I prefer those published by Marvel comics. It's not that I don't read DC superhero books, I do, but there is something about Marvel that has always appealed to me over DC. I know many people who like both equally or one over the other (or neither, preferring independent or strictly no longer extant superheroes). Now, I don't discount my preference of Marvel over DC could be the result of simple branding. But after my first exposure to superheroes at a young age I very quickly gravitated towards Marvel. There are decided differences of style between the two companies: Marvel, especially with the foundation of the Marvel Age of comics in the early 1960s, has tended to feature flawed, grounded heroes approached with suspicion by those not similarly powered, where DC's heroes tended to be more straight-laced and beloved. But after the widespread darkening of mainstream superhero fiction following the mid-1980s, one could argue that there is little difference in the books put out by both companies. I disagree, of course. Maybe this is some sort of misplaced brand loyalty, but Marvel Comics just feel different, as patently ridiculous as this may seem, more realistic in the sense that the events we see take place in a world more recognizably like our own, just a science fiction infused superhero mirror of it, whereas DC tends towards more unrealistic idealism. Marvel - as a fictional universal entity and as a company - is certainly flawed, and is not immune to producing shitty comics or treating its creative talent with contempt. But its creative output just tends to be better than DC, more interesting and engaging with more relatable characters. But perhaps the biggest difference is the persistent existence of the nearly all-powerful, largely bland and disinteresting Superman.

In June, 1938, Action Comics 1 from the company that would become DC Entertainment saw the debut of a new type of character - the costumed superpowered crimefighter - in Superman. Created by Cleveland high-schoolers Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster five years prior with the intent of comic strip syndication, they eventually sold the comic to DC. The newly exploded market would produce thousands of variants on the idea, and the sudden proliferation of superhero comics would prop up an industry which included funny animal comics, pulp heroes, adaptations, war comics, sci-fi, and strip reprints - but predominantly superhero material (which remains true to this day). The superhero was revolutionary, but much like Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, it wasn't created from a vacuum and owes its creation to a variety of preexisting ideas while elegantly distilling those concepts into a fairly original concept of its own. Superman and the superhero and pulp-hero comics that followed in its wake would eventually forge a new American mythology and create a multi-billion dollar industry. And the creation of Superman would also start the precedent of criminally underpaying the creators of these fictional heroes, Comics' Original Sin.

Superman, the fictional character, is extremely powerful. He can do pretty much anything - indeed his powers are nearly godlike, with very little he cannot do. His personality is also very dull. Is it wrong to equate his straightforward midwestern American decency with dullness? Maybe - but there are many characters in superhero fiction who are decent and always strive to do the right thing but have the same human flaws that we all have, doubts and mistakes made, flaws Superman often lacks. (And Superman is inhuman, not just in his alien nature, but in that where the best heroes are humans who wear a colorful mask, Superman's mask is Clark Kent. The fiction he weaves is that of a human, and there's a certain dishonesty more insidious than the dishonesty of putting on a mask.) Now Superman has not always been so perfect - his initial appearances by Seigel and Shuster feature a much less powerful, more personally gruff man of the people. But thanks to various economic pressures from licensors, he quickly morphed into the godlike being we know him as today. This all-powerful nature is what sells Superman to many, and what is a turn-off to some, like myself.

Many would argue that Superman's powerset, his status as the ur-hero, is what makes him special. Many would point out that the proliferation of the Superman "S" exemplifies the inspiration the character gives to millions (though maybe that proliferation really just exemplifies the cultural penetration of a valuable trademark). No, I shouldn't be so cynical... Superman is a powerful trademark, but he is also a powerful and ubiquitous inspiration for many.

But on the eve of the release of release of Man of Steel - just seven years after the last attempt at a Superman movie - we are reminded of the difficulties of translating the character to a different medium. (As I write this, I have not seen the film though I intend to.) But I see this as a failure at the root of who and what the character is, a failure reflected in the vast majority of the comics he appears in. I can't claim to be well-read where it comes to Superman by any measure, but I have read many key works and am familiar enough with many others to be consistently and thoroughly unimpressed. Perhaps I have preconceived opinions of the character that interferes with my potential enjoyment of the works, but I don't think that's the case. Many Superman comics are mediocre to awful, with few rising above the fray. Just look at this week's new Superman Unchained 1, a much heralded new release from two of DC's top-flight creators - Scott Snyder and Jim Lee - set to capitalize on the release of the new film. It is a silly story that creates an action set-piece to capitalize on the artist's talents that comes off as a ridiculous gimmick. What nonsense.

But then there's All-Star Superman, frankly one of the finest comics ever created. All-Star's incontrovertible status as a masterpiece only seems to highlight the lack of similarly achieved quality from prior and subsequent Superman stories. But then maybe it's unfair to compare All-Star Superman, a transcendent work with few peers, to anything else which can't possibly measure up. Written by Grant Morrison and illustrated by Frank Quitely & Jamie Grant, All-Star Superman was published in 12 parts between 2005 and 2008. Not taking place in the shared DC Universe (which helps), All-Star chronicled Superman's final days. The elements that make All-Star work, the specific embracing of the inspired silliness of prior Superman stories and the unapologetic utilization and expansion of his godlike abilities, things that would turn me off in any other context, were executed to such perfection by Morrison and Quitely that I found myself embracing those selfsame elements. Grant Morrison is someone who is a true believer in the inspirational, aspirational potential of the superhero genre and Superman in particular, and he crafted a tale that not only celebrates but exemplifies everything that is possible in superhero comics. Superman for so many people is a shining example of the possible, of the heroic and the good, and for the first time with All-Star I felt it. It is one thing to know that people think a certain thing, it's another to completely grokk it yourself, and like a religious awakening All-Star did that for me. All-Star Superman 10 is the perfect superhero comic which accomplishes volumes in a short 22 page space: Superman is dying, dead really, and he rushes to save the day, again and again, no matter the sacrifice; he cures the sick, gives hope to the lost, gives purpose to those affected by his greatest failure, accepts defeat to his greatest foe, confronts his mortality, decodes his DNA, and creates the universe that created him. Like many Morrison comics it is a classic and layered meta-work of science fiction, but it is also a powerful, moving, transcendent achievement in not just the superhero genre but in the comics medium.

But that so few creators could achieve what Morrison and Quitely do is more a credit to Morrison and Quitely than a credit to Superman. My rapturous feelings to All-Star Superman do not translate to Superman, but to superhero comics as a genre and comics as a medium. This is a work that takes my breath away, not because of the character, but because of the creators.

Superman just still doesn't work for me. A character who can do anything within a shared fictional universe lessens that universe. That All-Star succeeds is because it is not in that shared universe, but in a self-contained bubble. Otherwise, that superiority diminishes everything else. I look at the other great superhero stories of the last thirty years, and can only imagine that the presence of a character like Superman would ruin it. The stakes are lowered and the structure of the conflicts fall apart when a character who can do anything is introduced. Many of these best superhero comics of the last three decades are not actually Marvel comics, but I still enjoy the shared setting of the Marvel Universe over that of any other shared universes. (Again, preference and general joy of experience plays a big role.) And it is a joy that would be diminished by Superman's presence.

Superman is in my DNA, and I reject him nonetheless.

Superman is the archetype, the first, and many (though clearly not I) would argue the best. He's certainly the most well-known, beloved and influential character of his type ever created. He inspires millions, his existence fuels a multi-billion dollar multimedia empire. Humanity had never seen anything like Superman because there had never been anything like Superman. Without Superman, comics as we know them simply would not exist. There would be no recognizable mass comic industry, the vibrant and extraordinary culture that exists around superhero comics simply wouldn't be. Whether or not the alt-comics of today would exist, from the Hernandezes and Wares of the comics world, is simply unknowable. The strip format would certainly still exist largely unchanged (i.e. a pale shade of its former glories with the cutting edge of creativity largely on the internet), and the rise of comics in Japan and Europe are largely unconnected to American superhero comics, though they certainly penetrated those cultures.

I love comics as a medium and language, I love the stuff covered by the Wizards and Journals of old, I love superhero comics, the stories and the format and the genre and the culture. Comics are my life. Comics are my bread and butter, they are what inspire me, they entertain me and sustain me. I spend my days thinking about comics and talking about comics and evangelizing comics and selling comics for a living and writing about comics as a passion. And I have to owe it all to Superman, at least for being the seed that bears the fruit of my passions. I just don't love Superman. I can't, I never will. I recognize and reject Superman in the same thought, like a man recognizes and rejects the religion of his forebears.

Long live Superman. To hell with Superman.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The How and Why of The Bomb: Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm

Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm
Hill and Wang, 2012
In the early 1940s, The Manhattan Project was a perfect storm of a multitude of varied scientific genius, government will, funding and secrecy. The goal was to utilize the cutting edge of theoretical physics being developed around the world to develop a nuclear bomb for the United States before Germany and the Axis Powers came up with it. While there was no real threat that Germany could come up with an atomic bomb, the fear of that happening was enough to set into motion on of the largest and most complex scientific and military endeavors achieved by the human species. The final product was ultimately used to bring Japan to its knees and bring one of history's most brutal conflicts to a fiery close.

Trinity by Jonathan Fetter-Vorm, a historical graphic novel now in softcover, is a straightforward, competently produced, fairly comprehensive (if brief) history of the science and the events that lead up to (and follow) the development of the U.S. nuclear weapon program at the height of the Second World War. There have been hundreds of volumes of material published about the Manhattan Projects, both on on the individual minds that developed the bomb and on the complex history of the project itself. Trinity does not get bogged down in detail - biographic or sociopolitical - and breezes through the scientific developments that lead up to the creation and aftermath of The Bomb.

Preaching about the pandora's box of nuclear weapons or moralizing about The Bomb's effects is an easy trap to fall into, one that Fetter-Vorm avoids. The horrors of The Bomb are undeniable, and Fetter-Vorm does not shy away from depicting them, but this is not the book's focus. He makes clear that the United States had limited options regarding Japan - if they didn't do something drastic then the War would have dragged on for years more as Japan was completely intractable. They didn't blink as the United States repeatedly firebombed their cities (which Trinity dutifully notes) killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. The Bomb happened, and Fetter-Vorm clearly explains how and why in a very short space.

The volume's brevity is not a weakness but a strength. Fetter-Vorm eschews over-focusing on the mercurial personalities of those involved, allowing him to be broadly comprehensive about the whole subject. Using his clear black-and-white illustrations he very cogently details how the nuclear science works and the innovations that lead up to the field's utilization and weaponizing. There is a refreshing clarity to Fetter-Vorm's explanations of the complicated science behind the bombs.

By no means is it a definitive treatise on the subject(s), but is most definitely engaging, fascinating and a very well-made look. There probably isn't a better starting point for learning about the Manhattan Project (and, like the biography Feynman - also new in softcover in the past month - presents an interesting counterpoint to Jonathan Hickman's popular mad-scientist alternate history sci-fi Image series The Manhattan Projects). There is almost a documentary quality to Trinity in its clarity, comprehensiveness and lack of fictionalization or preachification that should give it a space in every library or science teacher's desk, and may ultimately be the perfect tool to start learning about the complex history and science of the nuclear bomb and everything it entails.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Grief, Up Close: Anders Nilsen's The End

The End by Anders Nilsen
Fantagraphics, 2013
Neil Gaiman's Sandman Endless Nights is a bit of a mess. I only bring this up for the 15 Portraits of Despair sequence realized by Barron Storey (with Dave McKean). Storey's despair is noise and violence and repulsiveness, part a reflection of the immortal wave-function god-thing Despair previously established in Sandman proper, part a reflection of the reality of despair the emotion - it's ugly and hard to get through, it overwhelms. Sometimes despair is like static that takes over your life, like in 15 Portraits... and sometimes it is a spotlight, a laser that hyperfocuses your new reality isolating you in the bright light of ceaseless sadness, like in Anders Nilsen's The End.

Nilesen's last completed work is the truly monumental Big Questions, his decade in the making masterpiece of mythology and people and birds and snakes and things, falling from the sky. The End (in stores today), in comparison, is very slight. It is a brief read, less a graphic novel than a hodgepodge of odds and ends, short stories and snippets of sketchbooks from a year in the life of the author. But the specifics of the why of that year and the why of the work itself are important - it chronicles, in words and images, the author's attempts at processing the slow and painful death of his fiancee. This isn't a non-fictional description of grief written after the fact, this is grief, unfiltered and complete.

There are stretches of material where Nilsen talks to the ghost of the deceased, or at least some mirror of his lost love locked in his own psyche ("I don't know, I'm dead, I'm just saying what you're thinking" 'She' says). There are stark almost gag-illustrations of the author struggling to get through the mundanities of life only to repeatedly break down. There are airy explorations of life beyond grief bounded by unflinching textual portrayals of a human life ending, withering away in a mess of tubes and disease and torment. Nilsen presents it all in his distinct, minimalist style, with almost no use of visual literalism, instead almost entirely relying on empty, indistinct humanoid figures interacting in spare, empty environments.

But despite the artifice of the artistry, the grief and pain and despair on display is simply too real. Such undiluted human emotion is difficult to process; reading The End is like seeing someone wail in grief. Whether you like it or not you are being confronted by an intractable pain you cannot hope to assuage. It's almost uncomfortable. The End is remarkable in the way the emotions are so fiercely on display that Nilsen's completely nonliteral cartooning may as well be photographs of the deceased on her death bed. It succeeds so wildly in translating the all-encompassing pain of grief, in a way that audiovisual documentary or prose memoir cannot. But there is decided discomfort in reading the comics, discomfort compounded by the fact that it is about a very, very real person.

Talking to the memory-fragment of his love, Nilsen asks "Do you wish I would stop doing all this work about you dying?" 'She' answers, "It's not about me dying. It's about you." Which is of course completely razor-sharp accurate. Funerals are for the living, not the dead, and The End is Nilsen using his art and the language of comics to come to terms with his grief. And we are exploring his open wound with him.

The acuteness of the despair make the more artistic, more interpretable sections stand out, and maybe I would have preferred more of them. The best sequences are where Nilsen breaks away from the heartbreaking emotional literalism and opens out into almost abstract expressions of the nature of grief. Here we see the human figure devolved by their grief and broken math, splitting out into fractals of loss that form into unsolvable mazes. The abstract imagery allows the reader to think about and mull and contemplate loss itself. But when presented with the specificity of Nilsen's loss, it takes you out of the work, from the realm of intellectual participant to uncomfortable observer.

But my views and yours really don't matter. The End is a vehicle for Nilsen to come to terms with his grief, and in that it succeeds (we just get to watch - I still don't know if that's a good thing or not). Grief and despair never really goes away, you just get to a point where it doesn't take over your life any more. And by the end of The End that happens, the abstract image of the lost disappearing along with the navel-gazing image of the author. The End ends and you are happy, because Nilsen doesn't have to go through this anymore, and thankfully neither do you.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Six Perfect Panels, One Perfect Comic

Last summer we at JHU Comic Books had a special Kids Comics Day. We gave away free comics, had games and activities, food, the works. It was a big success, and I personally always love when kids are in the store. Sometimes, as The King foretold, comics can break your heart, but seeing all the kids in the store then (and every time) just makes you feel good about comics... it can mend that inevitable break (until the next time, anyway).

As part of the festivities we had coloring pages for kids and adults to illustrate at their heart's content, as well as blank panel pages for kids to create short little six-panel strips. There were many comics and illustrations created that day, many wonderful expressions of creativity not bound by known color schemes or desire for conformity or even logic. But there was one stand-out six-panel comic, one creation that on reflection is nothing less than a perfect comic.
This is the comic, by a ten-ish year-old fellow named Nate (I don't know his last name, I only have this scan of the piece and the memory of its discovery). The first thing that jumps out is the beautiful simplicity of the piece. A (presumably) human figure, simply yet extremely effectively drawn in basic crayon, jumps into a toxic vat of some sort. But what is, at first blush a humorous trifle, a brief little illustration dashed off by a child on a lazy Saturday at the comic shop, is in actuality nothing short of a transcendent piece of interpretive graphic narrative that elegantly, simply and powerfully tells a number of stories while being a stunning example of the very mechanics at the heart of the language of comics.

If you sense hyperbole, be assured I am quite serious. Now, to be certain, Nate likely had no intention other than to tell a brief, funny story about someone falling into a toxic pit. But in doing so he reveals a deep, almost inherent understanding of how comics work as a visual storytelling medium - a telling example of the universality and accessibility of the language of comics. And even if it wasn't the artist's intent, the finished piece evokes multiple interpretations, something that can only be achieved by the graphic narrative.

The first and easiest interpretation is the figure - I'll call him The Blue Man - jumps in to the toxic vat on the final panel. But there is something immediately striking about how the author chose to tell this story. The tale - "The Blue Man jumps into the toxic vat" is something that can be done in two panels sequentially, or even in just a one panel gag-illustration. But the author chooses to stretch the events out across six panels. The effect is profound: assuming we are watching a single event, putting it across multiple panels stretches out the action, like a tragedy happening in slow motion. The author instinctively recognizes that the panel gutter can represent any time period, be it centuries or seconds, and he breaks down the action of a few seconds across many panels. If the intent is humor, the effect creates - upon multiple rereadings and replayings of the comic in the mind - a funny sequence easily replayed and broken down and replayed again. If the intent is tragedy, the prolonging of The Blue Man's ultimate fate into a slow-motion drama heightens the calamity, each panel another blow to The Blue Man, each panel a tease of redemption, each panel an illustration of Schrodinger's Cat in its box, only for the box to open in panel six with all quantum possibilities coalescing into one final end for The Blue Man.

But the character's fall may not be a fall at all. The comic's uniquely interpretive nature may represent a slow-motion drama of The Blue Man being flung into the toxic abyss. The overall structure of the piece makes it very clear that The Blue Man is on a platform (or maybe plank?) of some sort above the toxic vat, as revealed by the vat's sudden appearance in panel six. (Any number of things could have been happening to The Blue Man until the vat's appearance, an appearance which enhances both the tragedy and humor of the piece.) But The Blue Man's descent is rigid. Do the first three panels represent the character's deliberate, stiff fall over the edge, only to be hastened by his jumping in panel four? Or do the motion lines in panel four represent the character being flung from the platform by some unknown force down into his fate? No matter the interpretation of the first four panels, panel five is brilliantly framed: how best to minimalistically represent the character's fall then to have him hang, half out of frame, from the top of the panel, in obvious downward motion as evidenced by the speed lines flanking his figure. The empty space in the panel created by the framing brilliantly creates a sense of the unknown - the emptiness a representation of what could be. There is space between The Blue Man and his fate, a fate that could be anything, and ultimately is his doom as illustrated one panel later.

But is the toxic vat The Blue Man's doom? Or is it the end of the beginning of The Blue Man's story? Through any modern window, falling into a toxic vat is hardly a beneficial activity. But what about through the frame of reference of superhero comics' Silver Age? With Marvel Comics specifically, beyond the artistic and narrative innovations initiated by the House That Jack Built in the 1960s, there was Stan Lee's old stand-by origin of nuclear rays or toxic waste or some similar mechanism endowing some unassuming individual with fantastic powers. The Fantastic Four were created by Cosmic Rays beyond the shielding of the Earth's magnetosphere, The Hulk transformed from Bruce Banner after being exposed to a Gamma-Ray burst, Matt Murdock being given the extraordinary senses of Daredevil after being doused with toxic waste. That these things didn't kill all of them, as would actually happen, is part of superhero comics' gloriously ridiculous fantasy. Hardly an obscure element of a peculiar genre, these origin stories are, thanks to movies and television and products and the proliferation of the comics themselves, an ingrained part of American popular culture. The foundation of many aspects of the new American myth-space is in toxic accidents. The Blue Man's descent, be it intentional, accidental, or as a victim, is not an ending, but an origin in the modern-neoclassical sense. In six panels, Nate gives us a representation not just of this character's origin, but the origin of hundreds of the gods and monsters that populate so much of the contemporary popular American fictional sub-conscious.

And my final interpretation, just as possible though likely far outside the artist's intent - each panel is not representative of one figure falling through time. Indeed, each panel is a singular illustration of different characters in their commonly shared fall into apotheosis, the panel gutters not just the space between moments in time of a sequential event but moments in time separated by years or decades or entire universes. This isn't a single illustrative example of one commonly shared origin but an illustration of every origin of that type ever told. It is the Red Hood and it is Daredevil and it is The Blue Man, all separate, all at-once.

No matter the interpretation or whatever over-analysis I bring to the work, in the end it is a perfect illustration of the language of comics. Story through sequential art, distilled into six simple panels. Comics are intuitive and powerful as a force for telling a story. The human brain is hardwired to understand language, and comics are a unique pictorial language all their own. This piece illustrates the universality of the comics language.
But more than any of that, it is a brief little cartoon, dashed off by a child on a lazy Saturday at the comic shop. And that is pretty awesome.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Index: The Comic Pusher Review of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

The Run: Naoki Urasawa's Pluto

In The Run I review an entire run of a particular series. Pluto, published in 8 volumes in the United States by Viz, is Naoki Urasawa's masterful adaptation and expansion of Osamu Tezuka's Astro Boy.   An astonishing original work in its own right, Pluto is a masterpiece and one of the finest comics ever produced. Below are links to my reviews of the individual volumes in the series, as well as my concluding analyses and essays on the work as a whole.
  • Pluto Volume 1: "Urasawa expands on Osamu Tezuka's original creations and crafts an original and mature story of startling power. Pluto is a riveting mystery of murder, horror and war, an exploration of love, loss, and life, and a visionary work of science fiction that utilizes futuristic set-pieces to movingly examine the very root of the human condition... frankly one of the finest comics of the 21st century"
  • Pluto Volume 2: "Again we see the world coming to terms with the the developing intelligence around them and what that means for Robots and Humans. And it is in Volume 2 that we begin to see the larger geopolitical picture at play and the forces manipulating things from a distance."
  • Pluto Volume 3: "The mysteries weaving throughout the series come into unexpected sharp focus... The series' multiple identity as not just a mystery and international thriller, but surprisingly scary work of horror also come to the fore. There is plenty to fear, from the creepy abilities of one subtly monstrous robot at the beck and call of a mysterious foe, to grand shifting horrors beyond human and even robot understanding... Things are coming into focus at the same time the lines blur even more, the lines between guilt and innocence, beauty and horror, war and peace.  And we are given moments of beauty wrapped in pain, and startling revelations that ask more questions than they answer."
  • Pluto Volume 4: "The scenes that follow are pure moments of riveting suspense that drive the story forward into amazing, nonstop action-packed set pieces. Naoki Urasawa and Takashi Nagasaki's scripting and Urasawa's art evoke an astonishing economy of storytelling, propelling the plot forward with an emotion and tension that are rarely seen in comics of any stripe."
  • Pluto Volume 5: "The scripting continues to leave you breathless, as does the astonishing art. From a robot compulsively washing its hands, unable to clean the metaphorical blood on them, to a quiet dinner packed with subtext, the quiet moments of pain and loss and grief which fill the book are seismic. And amongst all the pain and sadness there is hope, bleeding in around the edges. But things are darkest before the dawn and under gathering storm clouds, we are still far from sunlight."
  • Pluto Volume 6: "A tightly plotted thriller with equal parts explosive action and riveting suspense-filled conversations. Urasawa continues to pull out a virtuoso performance of comic storytelling. Extraordinarily powerful and moving, this is a work of art that says volumes about the human condition, one of the finest accomplishments of the medium."
  • Pluto Volume 7: "This is the weakest volume in the series, but even a weak turnout from Urasawa is stronger than most comics. His and Nagasaki's writing is just as sharp, his art no less emotive and powerful."
  • Pluto Volume 8: "In the end, the final battle becomes about overcoming nature, be it the darkness that exists in all of us or the programming and orders given to a tortured soul. Urasawa's art throughout this last volume is frankly astonishing. His depictions of human emotion and suspenseful character drama are matched by his world-shattering battle sequences, quiet moments of pain and loss and explosive action. This is a story about the transformative power of loss. It is about the darkest aspects of our nature that makes us human. It is about the evils of war and the scars of war that echo down through the years. It is about the subjective reality of memory. It is a story of evolution and change and becoming human through trial and pain. And it is about the power of love to break the cycle of hate, the beauty within to overcome the darkness."
  • And finally, my analysis and exploration of Pluto (split into three parts). In the first part of my treatise, I examined The Role of Hatred, Redemption, and Evolution in Pluto. In the second part I looked at Humanity and the Role of Memory in Subjective Reality in Pluto and I also examined the Effects of War and Urasawa's commentary on the Iraq War and American Imperialism. And here in the third and final part, I examine Urasawa's craft and Pluto's role as a fiercely original work.