Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, July 11, 2009
      ( 7/11/2009 07:30:00 AM ) Bill S.  

BONERS AND SURRIES: A prequel to their debut s-f graphic novel, The Surrogates, Robert Venditti and Brett Weldele's The Surrogates: Flesh and Bone (Top Shelf Publications) takes us back to July 29, 2039, as the robotic body shells known as surrogates are still being test marketed to consumers. Set in the southern city of Central Georgia Metropolis, the story opens on the murder of a black street person by a trio of young men in suits who call their battered victim a "boner." Though they appear to be adult men, the threesome turn out to be young punk rich kids who've ventured into the streets for some rough fun. "I know what he needs," one of the trio says, "a beating, you know, like the maid does with the rugs."

The killing, "racially charged, pitting rich against poor," winds up violently dividing the city. Patrolman Harvey Greer, who has just taken his detective exam, is pulled into the case by Detective Vince McEvoy and charged with tracking down an informant named Chattie who witnessed the attack. Once he becomes involved in the case, Greer is given a quick lesson in the difficulty investigating a murder case where suspects can commit a crime while joyriding in their parents' artificial bodies: one of the boys' fathers initially tries to take the blame for the act, claiming self-defense. When he arrives home that night from his first day in the "big leagues," he returns to see his wife has herself purchased a surrogate, a blond and shapely figure who keeps him up all night. Though still pricey ("Do I even want to know what the payments are?" Greer asks his wife), the artificial bodies are clearly becoming more a part of the mainstream culture.

If Flesh and Bone just focused on Greer's police investigation, it'd be entertaining enough, but Venditti is after a richer speculative fiction picture here, taking us into the boardroom of Virtual Self, the corporation responsible for surrogate; into the world of police and city politics; and into the Church of the Prophet, a street-level church run by an ex-con named Xavier. Each has their own stake in the outcome of the investigation, and Venditti has a keen ear for the kind of hard-edged dialog that goes with no-nonsense under-the-table deal making.

Venditti fleshes out this graphic novel with fake magazine articles, religious tracts, and market surveys. One of the issues that are brought out by the surrie-committed murder, for instance, is whether there needs to be an age-restriction on surrogate use. The three rich kids who went slumming in their dads' units, for instance, had zero sense of responsibility for what they were actually doing; they act, as Chattie notes, like kids playing a first person shooter videogame. Yet one of the book's supplements, a market survey aimed at parents of the potential youth consumer, makes it clear the corporation is looking toward tapping into the parental desire to protect their kids from harm. And as readers of the first GN know, surrogates will become ubiquitous in the further future.

To be sure, the use of surrogates can have its practical advantages. In the book's climax, our hero Greer himself connects to a surrogate body for the first time to protect himself when the city erupts in riots. The repoed unit he's been given turns out to be black, a pointed thematic touch in itself.

Artist Brett Weldele blends sketchy pen and ink lines with painterly washes and tones to good effect. It's a suitably noir-ish visual style that doesn't sacrifice visual clarity for moodiness, evoking the GN's urban milieu without overwhelming it. If his visual characterizations at times look a bit too beholden to modern teevee cop shows, it's not a serious flaw. Bet it helped when they sold the first Surrogates as a movie to Touchstone Films: I can see Bruce Willis as Greer, and so, I suspect, could Venditti and Weidele.


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Friday, July 10, 2009
      ( 7/10/2009 10:30:00 PM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Here's a shot of Ziggy Stardust, lying and looking all forlorn by an empty dog bowl on the kitchen floor. Six more hours 'til suppertime, Dusty!

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Thursday, July 09, 2009
      ( 7/09/2009 11:15:00 AM ) Bill S.  

SMART GIRLS AND THE DEMONS WHO PURSUE 'EM Misao Harada, the blond heroine of Kanoko Sakurakoji's shojo manga Black Bird (Viz Media), is suffering the pangs of teenhood in a unique way. Gifted with the ability to see invisible creatures blocked from the rest of us ("The world is full of bizarre things," she says early in the first volume of this fantasy romance, "but the average person can't see them."), Misao finds these invisible pests increasing as she approaches her sixteenth birthday. They harass and trip her as she attempts to walk down the halls at school, interfering with her personal life and giving her a reputation as a weirdo among her classmates.

With her birthday, Misao's connection to the invisible world of sprites and demons becomes even more dangerous. Turns out she's a significant figure in the world of demons: "Once every hundred years, a human like you is born," she's told. If a demon drinks her blood, s/he is granted long life; if it eats her flesh, it's granted eternal youth; and, if the demon marries her, his clan will prosper. They "want to eat you or ravish you," her returning childhood friend Kyo tells her -- a definite dating dilemma.

Whether Misao can trust her onetime childhood companion is a whole other question. Though she has vaguely positive memories of her early years with Kyo, they may not be wholly innocent ones, since Kyo himself is a tengu, a bird demon capable of growing large black wings and flying. As children, Kyo promised our heroine that they would always be together, but was this promise made out of love or ambition? Misao can't be sure, though the tengu does prove a handy protector more than once now that other demons have started honing in on her.

Still, the fact remains that Kyo's demon nature is reflected more than once in the series' first volume. A bit of a bully, he enjoys making his boyish demon servant Taro cry and is not always the most chivalrous in his interactions with Misao. At one point, for instance, after he's reassured the girl that he doesn't intend to eat her, he grabs her breasts and adds, "But these are certainly ripe enough." Classy guy.

The maiden who's in love with a brute has been a romance fiction staple since before Catherine fell for her childhood pal Heathcliff, though after reading this and the first VizBig Edition of Hot Gimmick, I have to wonder about the prevalence of domineering men in shojo series like this. The relationship between Misao and Kyo -- at least in the first volume -- is decidedly unequal. When he comes back into her life after being away ten years, for instance, it's as a teacher in her school. Sakurakoji skirts around the question of his actual age, though when we see the two in flashback, they both appear about the same age. Perhaps demons age differently than humans?

Misao, to her credit, proves no girly doormat. Though "fated to suffer" and regularly bloodied by the increasing demon attacks, she refuses to immediately turn to Kyo for protection. She steadfastly continues to look toward her human classmates for a more normal kind of companionship, though she's regularly thwarted here since all the students who are attracted to her either turn out to be demons themselves or possessed by demons. As with the high school years of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, the manga series uses the supernatural world as a jumping off point for considering the trials of adolescent romance. While Sakurakoji shows a sense of humor about her storytelling in the side notes included within each chapter, she doesn't wink over much in her panels.

There's also an erotic underpinning to this "Older Teen" rated work that's rather surprising. Though Misao is regularly scratched, slashed and bitten in the book, her wounds can be healed by having a demon lick them. The manga lingers over these moments as the impossibly beautiful Kyo (first time she spies him as an adult, Misao thinks he's a girl) medicinally tongues her flesh. When our heroine is scratched on the thigh by an eyeless child demon, Kyo refuses to go down there. "I'm sorry," he says, "I don't have the confidence that I can restrain myself." Okay, so maybe he can occasionally be a classy guy.

While its storyline possesses a dark, almost sadistic undertone, Black Bird's art is light and airy in the familiar shojo style, filled with floral, feather and twinkling background motifs. "I apologize to those who bought this book expecting thrills and chills," the author of the Kabuki theatre set romance Backstage Prince notes, "(of course there probably aren't too many who did)." Those readers coming to the series for a lovingly rendered, lightly twisted older teen romance, however, most likely won't feel cheated.


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Wednesday, July 08, 2009
      ( 7/08/2009 07:20:00 AM ) Bill S.  

MID-WEEK MUSIC VID: Here's Kim Gordon and the rest of Sonic Youth meditating on what it's "like to be a girl in a band." (From the new SY album.)

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009
      ( 7/07/2009 08:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

KEEPIN' BUSY: Just posted a Blogcritics Newsflash pertaining to VIZ Media's just announced accelerated publication schedule for its One Piece series. Me, I have to wonder whether the company isn't pushing things with this five-books-a-month six-month binge, but, then, I currently don't have that level of disposable income, do I?
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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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aaronneathery.com News
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a dragon dancing with the Buddha
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A Brief Political Disclaimer:

If this blog does not discuss a specific political issue or event, it is not because this writer finds said event politically inconvenient to acknowledge - it's simply because he's scatterbrained and irresponsible.

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