Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, August 07, 2010
      ( 8/07/2010 10:27:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“THERE ARE OTHER MORE NORMAL FISH IN THE SEA.” A hefty (360 pages) mega-popular shojo romance Kaoru Tada’s Itazura Na Kiss (DMP) is another of those series recounting the comic trials of a ditsy girl attracted to an impossibly talented boy. The series opens as our heroine, sweet-faced Kotoko, gathers up the courage to pass a note to the boy she’s been secretly pining after for two years. Said object of her attraction, Naoki Irie, is a beautiful genius effortlessly good at everything he tries -- top of his class with a rumoured I.Q. of 180 -- while our girl struggles to hold her own in the school’s “very bottom class.” In front of everyone, Naoki refuses to even look at the note, a public humiliation that we know will linger through the rest of Kotoka’s high school years.

But, then, comic contrivance in the form of a small-scale earthquake intervenes. Kotoka’s new home, built with “cheaped out” wood, is leveled, forcing father and daughter to move in with an old school chum. This auld acquaintance proves to be the father of the arrogant Naoki, so our twosome soon find themselves living under the same roof. Romantic tension and sit-complications ensure, especially when the two try to keep their respective classmates (including a GTO-styled boy named Kin-Chan with a major crush on Kotoko) unaware of their new living situation. Meanwhile, the duo’s parents -- convinced the girl and boy make a perfect couple -- start scheming to push ‘em together.

Tada takes this simple set-up and pushes it for crisply comic effect. (She's especially strong at inking energetic overreactions.) Naoki may be a dreamy looking know-it-all, but his people skills are zip and he’s about as mature as his spud-ly hero-worshipping little brother Irie Jr. Kotoko may be a space case, but she tries hard. Can she help it that she does things like hand a baton to the wrong person in a between classes relay race? If the two are apart in terms of smarts and abilities, we know they’re meant to be a couple: though she vows more than once in the first volume to have nothing to do with Naoki, she’s always drawn back to him. And though he may try to act like she’s not even in the room, Naoki ultimately can’t ignore her. The two are doomed to be together.

Which doesn’t mean it won’t take a good many comic complications for that to actually happen. Originally debuting in 1991, the series continued until Kaoru Tada’s unexpected death in 1999. DMP’s publication of the series will comprise 12 volumes, and though the teen-rated series never reached a full finish, I don’t think that most readers of this series will mind. After all, Archie Andrews has gone for decades without definitively choosing ‘tween Betty or Veronica. Some sitcoms work just as well, after all, when we’re allowed to imagine our own conclusions.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Tuesday, August 03, 2010
      ( 8/03/2010 09:38:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“PRETTY GOOD FOR A GIRL.” Published in 2007 under the Hard Case Crime line, Max Allan Collins’ Deadly Beloved is hyped as the “First Ever Ms. Tree Novel.” For those readers familiar with the hard-boiled femme detective from her early eighties appearances as a comic book series character done by Collins in collaboration with artist Terry Beatty the results are decidedly mixed as Beloved proves to be less an original story and more a reworking of the first two black-and-white graphic novels.

Best to think of the book as a pulp variation on the current Hollywoodizations of superhero comics, perhaps: given the opportunity to retell his heroine’s origin story, Collins tweaks the details, fiddling with the timeline and pulling in characters who didn’t appear until later in the series, changing some plot elements. The original “Ms. Tree” stories appeared in serialized form and, in retrospect, read that way. Collins’ prose version attempts to solidify his story by telling the bulk of it in a psychiatrist’s office. The approach doesn’t fully work in large part because we know very quickly that there’s something odd about the shrink’s willingness to let our heroine natter on past the allotted one-hour appointment.

For those unfamiliar with the character Ms. Michael Tree is an ex-cop turned Windy City p.i. whose detective husband, also named Mike (in an obvious tribute to Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer), was murdered the night of their wedding. Set “a year or so” after his death, Beloved sets Michael on a case that’ll lead to the Event Planner responsible for male Michael Tree’s assassination. Ms. Tree’s case ostensibly concerns a schizophrenic woman who’s been manipulated into murdering her financier husband, but as she delves deeper into it, the detective learns that many of her late husband’s acquaintances and former partners have their own secrets. One revelation from the graphic novels that Collins eliminates, however: that Mr. Tree had a first wife and son -- not a bad omission since its inclusion would’ve muddied up the storyline.

In the pursuit of truth, our heroine comes up against the requisite gangsters, thugs and hired killers. In one of the more memorable moments from the book (resurrected and reworked from the original graphic novel), Ms. Tree chases down a hypodermic wielding hitwoman and winds up plunges the needle into her leg, threatening to use it to subdue her. A suitably tough moment for our hard-bitten protagonist.

That said, Collins’ pulp debut for his groundbreaking comic book detective doesn’t prove to be as Hard Case edgy as many of the better entries in this paperback line. You keep waiting for Collins to get meaner in the manner of his idol Spillane, but it never happens. Some of the sequences just sit there -- like a confrontation between Ms. Tree and the daughter of a Chi-Town mobster -- without leading to an ultimate pay-off. Perhaps Collins was saving it for a second book, but to the best of my knowledge, no follow-up to Deadly Beloved has been written.

Though the writer discusses repackaging the original comics from where the character originally sprung, at this writing the only collections of the graphic novel sources for Deadly Beloved remain out of print. That’s too bad: though the original early tales have their clunky moments -- the work of two Midwestern mystery fanboys still finding their way in the comic book format -- they hold up as precursors to contemporary noir crime comics. Certainly better than this retelling, which efficiently reconstructs the action but never fully recreates its heroine’s pissed-off voice.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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Sunday, August 01, 2010
      ( 8/01/2010 02:26:00 PM ) Bill S.  

“REALITY AND ALLEGORY . . .HE STANDS AT THE DIVIDE OF THE TWO.” The supernatural investigations continue in the second volume of Saka Esuno’s sprightly older teen manga Hanako and the Terror of Allegory (Tokyopop). As in the first book, detective Aso Daisuke takes on cases involved suspected allegories -- urban legends made manifest by their victims’ belief in them -- aided by his own living allegory and a susceptible assistant named Kanae.

Though most of the cases in this series fall under the horror action category, the second book’s opener proves more self-consciously comic. In it, spunky Kanae, our newcomer to the world of allegory, drunkenly calls up a demon in a mirror. Said allegory has the power to grant our girl her heart’s desire, so Kanae asks to be made a mega pop star. Once she sobers up and realizes she’s put her soul in jeopardy, she’s forced to keep elaborating on her wish, making more elaborate demands to buy time until Aso can rescue her. This provides Esuno the opportunity to mildly satirize the trappings of modern disposable pop-dom, with Kanae singing a personal anthem that simultaneously declares in neo-feminist style “I’m not powerless,” while simultaneously inviting listeners to look at her rack. You can practically imagine Camille Paglia hyping our grrl as the Voice of New Empowered Womanhood

More serious -- and generally more successful -- are the next two pieces, which work off suitably disturbing word-of-mouth tales. The first, “Teke Teke,” is about a living torso that reportedly rose after a young girl was cut in half by a moving train; the second concerns another young girl who was made blind when an ear piercing went horribly wrong. First of these is the purest horror yarn in the book, as it centers on a group of middle schoolgirls getting thrown in front of commuter trains. The second is a more character-driven haunting -- with its victim being driven to acting out the urban legend by a stressful family life. Though it broaches sentimentality in its conclusion, the latter tale has its moments: most notably when its young girl becomes the eyeless personification of her horrors.

Fourth and final entry focuses on our detective hero himself, as Aso is attacked by a fox-faced allegory out to push him into “allegorification.” In it, we learn that the detective’s continued exposure to allegories (manifested in repeated hiccups whenever he gets close to one) will ultimately result in his own transformation -- into what, we’re not sure, but since the book ends on a cliffhanger, we’ll hopefully find our in volume three.

Volume two works as an entry to the series characters and world: you can pick it up without having read the first entry and not feel the least bit lost. The featured urban legends featured remain fun, though as with the first book we’re still not provided an explanation of the allegory behind title character Hanako, the little girl computer genius who aids Aso and who can travel from bathroom to bathroom. From what I can garner off the ‘net, the urban legend Hanako is sort of a Moaning Myrtle figure, a young ghost haunting a school girls’ restroom, though how this version gets to be a computer whiz is yet to be explained. Perhaps she spent time in a .hack toilet?

As horror manga go, Hanako and the Terror of Allegory proves about as unsettling as an episode of Supernatural, though its core trio -- porn addicted Aso, impulsive Kanae, and wise-beyond-her-seeming-years Hanako -- remain appealing enough characters to get most readers wanting to find out what happens in the next book. Think of it more as a dark fantastic hero comic (at one point Hanako even refers to Aso’s love of pornographic comics as his “kryptonite”) built on stories that kids have been repeating for generations to freak each other out.

(First published on Blogcritics.)


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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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