Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, December 26, 2009
      ( 12/26/2009 10:53:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“I’M A SHINIGAMI . . .SORT OF.” A lighthearted “older teen” manga series about ghosts and lost souls, Rumiko Takahashi’s Rin-Ne (Viz Media) centers on Sakura Mamiya, a pig-tailed schoolgirl gifted with the ability to see ghosts, and Rinne Rudoko, a snappish half-human/half-shinigami who helps earth-bound spirits pass onto their next life. As played by manga big-name Takahashi (best known in the U.S. as the creator of the popular manga and anime spin-off Inuyasha), the duo’s adventures provoke chuckles more than frights or Bleach-styled action, though the first volume is not without its monstrous creatures or the occasional panels with our “sort of shinigami” facing off against these massive monsters. Still, the primary focus is on deliberately paced character interaction between the schoolgirl and haori-wearing free-lance soul saver.

Though the spirits Sakura sees as initially presented more as a nuisance than a menace -- a bespectacled lovesick schoolboy who keeps popping up in front of the girl just because she once innocently noticed him, for instance -- we’re told by Rinne that if an earth-bound spirit doesn’t eventually come to terms with the regrets holding them to this plane, they become evil spirits. In the case of the geeky boy ghost, for instance, the lonely stalker spirit merges with the ghost of one of those “nervous dogs with the bulging eyes” to threaten both Sakura and Rinne. The resultant chihuahua/human hybrid looks cute until it realizes that Sakura doesn’t want to have anything to do with him, then it grows all huge and fangy.

Rinne, who has come to earth to help his full shinigami grandmother fulfill her quota of reconciled souls, lives by himself in poverty and is forced to scrounge for food and money. A student in Sakura’s class, he invents a new school legend, utilizing an abandoned school grounds weather hutch, to encourage ghost-afflicted classmates into leaving money and food as offerings. Fortunately, there are spooks-a-plenty for our hero to prod into their next incarnation: first offering he receives is left by a schoolgirl being harassed by a ghostly voice on her cell phone.

Because Sakura can see Rinne when he is cloaked from the rest of the living world, she quickly becomes a part of his adventures. Turns out the girl’s second sight is connected to Rinne’s grandmother and a visit to the Wheel of Reincarnation that Sakura took when she was little. Though Rinne is initially resistant to her tagging along, we know that the duo is destined to become a team -- if only because the schoolgirl has some ready money on hand. Connecting to the nether world takes some serious coinage, we learn; just the act of connecting to the ghostly cell phone caller with a tin can phone costs ten yen, for instance. When our heroine first sees the reincarnation wheel, she thinks it looks like a “ferris wheel.” Dealing with the afterlife proves just as hard on the purse as a day at the amusement park.

Takahashi presents these shenanigans with the right blend of silliness and straightforward graphic storytelling. In lesser hands, for instance, the nerdy stalker ghost might been rendered an unsympathetic caricature, but the manga artist affords him his own measure of dignity. She even able to present a ghost with a flower pot on his head without making him look like a cartoonish figure out of the waiting room scenes in Beetlejuice. When she introduces Rokumon, a Bakenko (“ghost cat”) sent by Rinne’s grandmother to help him the comedy grows a little broader but not at the expense of the ghosts. “Death can be a laughing matter!” the text on the back of volume one tells us. But it’s also, you know, still death.


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Friday, December 25, 2009
      ( 12/25/2009 10:05:00 PM ) Bill S.  

HOLIDAY PET PIC: Here's Kyan Pup, no doubt wondering when we'll be pulling out the rawhide chews from his "Dogs Love Christmas, Too" stocking.

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Wednesday, December 23, 2009
      ( 12/23/2009 05:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HOLIDAY VIDEO: It's Robyn Hitchcock & Hannah Bird's "The Day before Boxing Day":

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Sunday, December 20, 2009
      ( 12/20/2009 09:12:00 PM ) Bill S.  

”THERE IS TRUTH IN IT, JO; THAT’S THE SECRET!” That editor Tom Pomplun’s latest Graphics Classics collection, Louisa May Alcott (Eureka Productions), should come out in time for Christmas is smart scheduling. Alcott’s most beloved work, Little Women, memorably opens up on the holiday, as the four March sisters and their mother strive to celebrate the season while their father is away at war, and this latest volume in Pomplun’s series of graphic adaptations of classic lit likewise opens with the same scene.

Women, which is featured in a 48-page adaptation, is none too surprisingly given cover placement on this collection, and Anne Timmons’ image of thoughtful would-be writer Jo March working on her latest manuscript could also stand in as an image of Alcott herself. (Little Women famously contains a lot of autobiographical elements.) Scripter Trina Robbins and Timmons’ color comics version of this much-adapted novel is a smart retelling, tamping down the original work’s more openly didactic moments in favor letting the March girls’ stories speak for themselves. The approach presents Alcott’s work in a good light. The only off note is the comic German dialect given to Jo’s eventual suitor Professor Bhaer. While its use in the adaptation is faithful to the author, I’ve always thought it a detriment to this courtly character.

Despite this glitch, Robbins and Timmons prove the ideal duo for a sensitive adaptation of the book. Together, they share a sensitivity that suits Alcott’s blend of the feminine and feminist: the moment where Jo bursts into tears after selling her hair to raise money for her war-wounded father, for instance, is deftly and sweetly handled. If the comics version focuses on Jo more at the expense of the other little women, that’s not unusual for these adaptations: she’s always been the most dynamic character in these books, anyway.

Women spurred three sequels, but that wasn’t the full extent of Alcott’s writings. Many of her youthful works, frequently written under the pen name of “A.M. Barnard,” are blood-and-thunder gothics of the type Jo herself would’ve written. The Graphic Classics set happily includes two of these lesser-known dark tales. The first, Alex Burrows and Pedro Lopez’s adaptation of the short “Lost in A Pyramid,” is a short and effective story of a mummy’s curse, while the 42-page A Whisper in the Dark proves an enjoyable damsel-in-distress tale featuring a wicked uncle, an inheritance scheme and a heroine who is drugged and driven mad by her tormentors. Though Antonella Caputo and Arnold Arre’s version takes a few too many pages for the dire deeds to commence, once they do, the results prove moodily suspenseful, with Arre skillfully charting the heroine’s descent into despair and madness. As a writer of “disreputable” genre fiction, Alcott was much more rousing than she was crafting her more domesticated March books. It’s great to see this lesser known Alcott storytelling being highlighted here.

The remaining shorter pieces further display her range as a writer. Rod Lott and Molly Crabapple’s “The Rival Prima Donnas” treats this tale of a deadly romantic rivalry with a trace of a wink that almost undermines its grim ending; editor Pomplun and Mary Fleenor’s “Buzz” utilizes the artist’s stylized edgy renderings to convincingly evoke one woman’s solitude in the big city; while Pomplun and Shary Flenniken’s “The Piggy Girl” wittily makes good use of the cartoonist’s skillful evocations of kidhood. The only arguable lull comes with Lisa K. Weber’s illos for the poem “Lay of the Golden Goose.” Weber’s illustrations, placed alongside Alcott’s poetry are suitably storybooky, but the poem itself is much too slight.

The eighteenth volume in editor Pomplun’s Graphic Classics series, Louisa May Alcott is one of the strongest entries yet. Not only does it contain a solid selection of modern comic art, it provides an eye-opening overview of an author most readers only know as the creator of the ultra-girly Women. Reading the opening chapter to the March saga, with its comic depiction of a disastrously performed Christmas play, I couldn't help thinking that our gal Jo'd be delighted to see one of her Christmas melodramas recreated in an anthology like this.


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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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