Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, January 23, 2010
      ( 1/23/2010 10:10:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Just a simple head shot of Kyan Pup:

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Thursday, January 21, 2010
      ( 1/21/2010 06:46:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“IS THAT DARK-HAIRED CRANK YOUR CRUSH OR SOMETHING?” As frothy as its title suggests, Kou Matsuzuki’s shojo manga series Happy Café (Tokyopop) tells the story of a trio of attractive teens who work at Café Bonheur, a small city eatery best known for its appealing pastries. Our intro to this tasty setting is through 16-year-old Uru, a petite (five foot) girl with “superstrength” who gets a job waitressing at the café after setting off on her own in the big city. Her diminutive stature has everyone around thinking that she’s much younger, but our spunky, if klutzy, heroine is clearly capable of taking care of herself. Happening upon a model-thin damsel harassed by two urban louts, for instance, she wields a mean bag of groceries in the girl's defense.

The two somewhat older, dreamy boys running the café (Bonheur’s manager remains offstage throughout the first volume) are fairly familiar shojo types: “dark-haired crank” Shindo is snappish with a wounded childhood history, while light-haired Ichiro is the more lighthearted half of the duo. The latter’s most distinguishing characteristic is a tendency to inconveniently fall asleep when he’s hungry, a mild running gag that Matzsuki milks for all it’s worth. Ichiro proves just as capable of picking on Uru, though, who notes that whenever either boy is nice, “it’s always out of left field. It’s like . . . stealth sweetness.”

Isn’t a whole lot that happens in Café’s first volume -- the biggest conflict rests in whether Uru’s mother and new stepfather will force her to abandon her big city bid for independence, and we know that won’t happen because the series would be over if it did. Instead, we get tiny bits of character comedy, like a sequence where Uru attempts to uncover a reluctant Shindo’s first name, and slapstick revolving around our gal’s strength and clumsiness, plus Ichíro’s tendency for falling asleep on the job. Matsuzuki’s art is light and simple -- if a bit over reliant on detail free round-headed cartoons -- and her panels showing Uru beaming out at the reader or the half-smile Shindo gets when he’s actually doing his baker thing have an unforced cuteness. Happy Café may be about as weighty as its pint-sized heroine, but it has a likability to it that should snag a decent ‘tweengirl readership: not-so-stealthy sweetness, in other words.


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Sunday, January 17, 2010
      ( 1/17/2010 02:49:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“THERE’S A KID LIKE THAT IN EVERY CLASS, RIGHT?” With its handsomely mounted hardback cover and slipcase, Taiyo Matsumoto’s GoGo Monster (Viz Media) is clearly being marketed as a prestige package. And it deserves to be: the 460-page manga is a moody and mysterious look at childhood and its subsequent terrors, made all the more engrossing by rarely straying from its child’s eye view of the world. Though its title sounds like something that’d be affixed to a poorly dubbed Japanese kiddie monster flick (starring Godzilla and Godzookie, perhaps), in actuality GoGo Monster is an artful and enjoyably challenging read, one of the best American manga releases of the last year.

The story follows through five seasons, centering on two third grade students in Asahi Elementary School. Ruddy-cheeked newcomer Makoto Suzuki has just transferred from another elementary school (where it’s rumored the principal hung himself), where he is quickly attracted to the class oddball, “Weirdo” Yuki Tachibana, who he first sees drawing monsters on his desk. Largely shunned by his fellow students, Yuki claims to be in touch with creatures on the other side of reality, including their leader named Super Star. As he grows older, however, his contacts with Super Star grow less frequent. “When people turn into grownups,” he explains, “their insides melt into a mushy glop and their brains turn hard and stiff.”

Throughout the book, though, Yuki gets periodic visions which he interprets as messages from the other side: a stray dog beseeches him to climb to the school’s unused fourth floor; his teacher’s head briefly turns upside down on her body; a message stating that “SUPER STAR Hates YUKI. He’s NEVER coMIng back.” appears on the classroom blackboard. That last prompts Yuki into angrily rising in class ande yelling at the blackboard -- which, of course, further cements his reputation as a weirdo.

Though the cover and slipcase to GoGo Monster show a horde of childlike monsters seemingly trailing after Yuki and Makoto, in the book we’re only offered half-seen shots of these mischievous, possibly imaginary, beings. At one point, Yuki shows a drawing of Super Star to his new friend, adding “They don’t have physical bodies . . . This is just a conceptual sketch.” To school groundskeeper Ganz, Super Star is just the most recent name assigned to the Boss of the Other Side. Other kids, he tells Makoto, “with a talent for seeing things the rest of us can’t see” have given it other names: “Sasquatch or Giant. Every child calls him by the most powerful name they know.”

Whether Yuki’s Other Side exists or not, it’s clear that Asahi Elementary is experiencing a difficult year: acts of vandalism have increased, while the school’s upper class of fifth graders has grown increasingly non-compliant. Too, IQ, the quasi-autistic fifth grader who goes through school with a cardboard box covering his head, grows distressed when his favorite rabbit goes missing. Whether this disarray is a mirror of battles occurring on the Other Side or just a reflection of 21st century anomie is a conclusion left up to the reader. Though Asahi is presented as its own tight-knit microcosm, we’re constantly reminded of the presence of the outside modern world through the sounds and shadows of planes from a nearby airport flying overhead. More than once, Yuki tells his friend that he wishes he could leave and stay on the Other Side, and artist Matsumoto makes us see his point.

Matsumoto's renderings, which run the gamut from realistic to punkishly cartoonish -- sometimes within the same panel -- suit the story’s child’s eye view. His use of cross-hatching is particularly striking, most notably in a sgrafito styled trip between the two worlds. The artist’s storytelling style is subtle, and his detailed look at childhood is both realistic and enigmatic. At times, I was reminded of the specificity in Gilbert Hernandez’ Palomar kids: good company to keep. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that one of those little rascals hadn’t seen a glimpse of Super Star in the shadowy corners of their own little village . . .


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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).

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