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Category: Comics

“They experience time and motion differently.”

There’s been plenty of good blog-writing on Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s We3: Ian Brill, Ian Brill again, Jog. Johnny Bacardi, Johanna Draper Carlson, Marc Singer. And most of you have probably already read it anyway, so I’ll skip the overview and get right into a close look at the book’s many visual pleasures. All of the images in this post are links to larger images.

We3 #3, p. 23

The image to the left (We3 #3, p. 23) is one of the best examples of the most common layout technique used in We3: a large image with small panels overlaying it. The technique is used in other comics, but Morrison and Quitely use it better than most, as the overlay panels don’t act as part of the story’s sequential-art narrative, but instead act as meaning-modifiers on the large image. In the large image, Bandit and Weapon 4 are angrily staring each other down, but the two eye closeups complicate their staredown in two ways: their positioning emphasizes Weapon 4’s physical and emotional dominance of Bandit, and Bandit’s eye reveals his terror. Marc Singer points out the panel of “a minuscule dog that seems to represent how 1 views himself after a whiff of 4’s combat pheromones” (I thought it was a rat until Marc mentioned it!) whose presence seems to imply that the overlay panels aren’t necessarily part of the diegesis, not only because there is obviously no diegetic tiny dog, but also because the way it blends in with the larger image suggests that there is, impossibly, a tiny dog standing directly in front of Bandit. The moment of cognitive dissonance between the impossibility that there is a tiny dog and the visual implication that there is a tiny dog confronts the reader with the diegetic ambiguity of the overlay panels. That ambiguity makes the set of eye closeups even more interesting, because there’s no telling whether Bandit’s expression of terror is diegetic or non-diegetic—there’s no telling whether Bandit looks terrified or only feels so. And, as desperate as Bandit must be to hide his terror, he must not be sure he’s really hiding it—and haven’t most of us found ourselves desperately hoping our true emotions are invisible at one time or another? I know I have.

We3 #2, pp. 6-7

Some overlay panels seem to represent snapshot glimpses of what the combatants see in the midst of battle—the image to the left (We3 #2, pp. 6-7) is one of the most spectacular uses of snapshot overlay panels. I’ve never been in a fight, let alone a military battle, but I always imagine that the experience would be sort of the real-perception equivalent of that image of Bandit leaping through a jeep: a flood of visual information that doesn’t quite add up to a big picture. When the soldiers in the jeep realize a cyborg dog is about to jump through the windshield and maul them, I imagine they get quite an adrenaline rush and sensory overload, but there’s not enough time to make sense of anything. The overlay panels represent visually how the soldiers experience Bandit’s attack. The large image, on the other hand, represents Bandit’s ability, with his cyborg-enhanced animal sense and deadly combat training, to grasp the big picture.

But there’s even more going on in that image: notice the different apparent rates of time in the overlay panels and the big image. The big image uses the standard comic-book technique of duplicate images of one character tracing a path of movement through one panel to create a speed-up effect. The overlay uses a large number of panels showing incremental stages of a single action to create a slow-motion effect—look at the top tier, in which a bullet takes eight panels to travel through a soldier’s head, and the lowest tier, in which a soldier’s foot takes three panels to lift off the gas pedal. These actions take a fraction of a second, but the multiplication of panels dilates the diegetic time. Other overlay panels don’t appear to fit together narratively at all, and the breakdown of narrative cohesion fragments the diegetic time. When I try to read the overlay panels and the big image at the same time—an activity the layout actively encourages—I get three different temporal representations of the same narrative sequence, and the way the conflict between them disjoints my reading only enhances the other perceptual representations I’ve mentioned.

Now, here are two more pages from We3 (We3 #2, pp. 12-13 and #3, p. 6):

We3 #2, pp. 12-13We3 #3, p. 6

The first is another instance of Morrison and Quitely using a standard comics technique—this time it’s a character breaking out of the panel borders, typically used to suggest strength or power—to remarkable effect. In Animal Man, Morrison went meta and allowed characters to see the panel borders and move outside them. In We3, Tinker can move in and out of panels because she moves too quickly for the soldiers to react, and the soldiers are trapped within the panels by their limited perceptual abilities. The panel border comes to represent the limits of perception.

The second panel from the second page above is an allusion to Tinker’s panel-jumping attack—but, on this page, the animals aren’t around. In fact, the sequence of panels—the first with a point of view directly behind the homeless man, the second with the point of view seemingly directly in front of the homeless man, and the third a return to the first panel’s point of view—suggests that the second panel and the smaller overlaid panels represent the homeless man’s point of view. This is the one place in We3 where the panel layout is used to represent a human’s perception. This scene isn’t quite as action-packed as the cat’s attack in issue #2, but the large crowd of police officers and soldiers, flashing squad-car lights and blinding flashlights, would probably disorient most people. The small panels mirroring the panels from issue #2, particularly the penultimate right one that shows a closeup of the hand that grasps the homeless man from behind in the third panel—a hand the man shouldn’t be able to see—indicates the homeless man has superhuman perceptual abilities similar to the animals’. (Jog has the same idea, but he doesn’t seem convinced of it.) I think this strengthens Rose’s theory that the homeless man is a veteran—maybe the military did something to him that made him like We3, something that obviously doesn’t happen to everybody in the military. His ready acceptance of talking animals and confident determination to remove their “coats” seems to suggest he’s mentally unbalanced (he says he needs liquor, and the building where he lives is full of broken bottles—is he an alcoholic?), but maybe he knows more than he lets on.

No wonder Morrison called his recent Vertigo work “supercompressed.” Where a “decompressed” comic book enforces extended examination of a limited set of information through slow pacing and repetitive panels depicting incrementally changing scenes, We3 has an almost overwhelming amount of information packed into it, with even the spatial relationships between panels on the page modifying and extending the meaning of the pictures. I could go on and on, but this is enough for now.

Now we are sick

This post has been stagnating for over a week now. Other posts that wait unfinished for so long I just kill because I can’t pick up my thoughts well enough to keep going, but I’m hoping I can weave this together topically. See, I haven’t written here because I’ve been sick and I don’t know why. I had a flu a week (two weeks?) ago and have just been exhausted ever since. No fever, though I have more nightmares than usual, but I spent this weekend taking 3-hour naps and then wanting another one a few hours later. I’m just miserable and completely drained, which I’m sure has been a lot of fun for all the people who have to spend time with me, too.

At any rate, I stayed up a week ago Sunday reading It’s a Bird…, Steven Seagle’s fictionalized account of his personal crisis when offered a job writing Superman. It’s a physically beautiful volume, a comfortable size with fascinating art, but it was the story I’d wanted to read for a long time. In the story at least, Seagle’s family has a history of Huntington’s disease, and so his first tie to Superman is an issue of the comic he and his brother share in a hospital waiting room while the adults confer about his grandmother’s condition. Huntington’s is a family secret he hasn’t discussed with anyone growing up, something he was aware of without understanding at all, and the Superman gig and the news that his father has disappeared bring it to the surface.

Apparently Seagle (again, at least in the story; from here on out I’ll just treat “Seagle” as the fictional character since we have a Steven on the site already, and I’ll deal with Seagle-the-author-guy as needed when he shows up) didn’t learn about Huntington’s when he took biology, which is strange because I know we covered it as early as 7th grade. I was 12 and I was obsessed, because it seemed like such perfect story material. While Seagle says it lacks a celebrity face, there’s Woody Guthrie, whose frailty in his son’s movie Alice’s Restaurant apparently made quite an impression on viewers at the time, if my mother is to be believed. I mention this also because the parent/child relationship is at the core of the tragedy of Huntington’s, so while Woody’s decline is in some ways that of his generation (and Arlo’s drifting and trying to avoid the war is supposed to be characteristic of his decadent, passionate generation) it is also part of a story about what it means to be watching your father die young and painfully while your classmates are doing the same thing half a world away. Huntington’s, as I recall from my long-ago studies, is a real O. Henry disease; by the time you realize you have it at age 40 or so, you’ve already passed it on to your children. It’s practically the only (certainly the only I know) major genetic disease that is dominant rather than recessive, which means that there are no carriers. Either you have it or you don’t. If one of your parents has it, there’s a 50 percent chance you will, too.

Seagle didn’t really play with that aspect of it, didn’t talk about the odds, which seemed, well, odd in a story in which he worries so much about his own chances. He doesn’t tell his girlfriend that there are genetic screenings available now (another messy, tough issue that would make good story fodder) perhaps because he doesn’t know, but also because this is the story of his myopically private anguish. And really that’s what made it interesting. The book is comprised of vignettes, glimpses of Seagle with his girlfriend or with his editor or looking for his father or writing about Superman or the comics versions of the Superman stories he was writing. Seagle’s initial argument in wanting to turn down the Superman gig is that he has nothing to say about this invincible man, but he realizes that Superman works best as a foil for our flaws, as a way to safely understand the limits of our doomed bodies. It’s a Bird…, in addressing this head-on, is probably a more successful Superman story than most I’ve read, which isn’t saying much. It creates a sort of universal appeal because we all (I hope) worry occasionally or often about the secrets our genes and our families hold and what will happen when they get out.

Maybe I was just a receptive audience because I have to do a daily checkup on my mystery ailment to figure out whether things are getting worse (nope) or better (possibly today, I hope). Other people have to worry about cholesterol or tendencies toward cancers. And then there’s the history we know we hold, the times lately I’ve had to assess my ennui: is this normal stress and sadness or a return of the sort of depression from which there seems to be no escape? One part of what makes reading fun is that it’s a way to get out of my body a bit (when the books aren’t too heavy or my arms too tired) without pretending I don’t have one or that it has nothing to do with what’s going on in my head.

What was going on in my head as I read It’s a Bird… was initially disappointment that Seagle (author and character) didn’t seem to have more than superficial insights into Superman, that there were potentially some factual errors I don’t even remember anymore (I’m not sure about a connection between the Nazi-mandated Star of David and Superman’s outfit) but also hope that something more would come of this. It’s not as deep as what I would have wanted, but nothing much seems to be lately (and is this a symptom of laziness and overwork and intellectual stagnation on my part? I think so!) and I’m not the one who got to write it or even wanted to. It’s a beautiful book and a thoughtful one, a story about superheroes that strives for harmony, peace, a calmed self. For all that I enjoyed it and would have liked it even more if I’d waited until this week to buy it in paperback, but that’s not really an option. We do what we choose with the time that we’ve got, and if that means I occasionally buy a hardcover book at full price, so be it. And now I’ll wind some yarn and rest.

Today’s Recommended Reading (from/for me!)

This is a day that will live in whatever the good version of infamy is. After great suspense, The Secret Friend Society is live, featuring Hope Larson and Kean Soo and their respective webcomics Salamander Dreams and Jellaby. I’m a bit sad it wasn’t more sinister content, but not really surprised and I’m looking forward to reading the two stories. But the real reason I’m obsessed with Hope Larson’s work is that I’m hard at work in my head designing a ham hat even though everyone I’ve told about my plans thinks it’s a bad idea. (Oh, and for Steven: “Pah!”)

It’s also the publication date for The World according to Mimi Smartypants, a novel in the form of online diary entries from the Mimi Smartypants website. I’d beeen reading entries occasionally and then in December and January gave in to the allure and read the entire archive. It’s something that makes me laugh, which is rare in written pieces. I’m sure it helps that we have at least minor things in common — a past history with the violin, a desire to keep making Greek jokes after college, really maybe not much more than that because she’s basically cool — but something just clicks. I’m looking forward to eventually reading the book version even if it will be repetitive, because I’m interested in this phenomenon of turning blogs into books. It wouldn’t work here!

And I feel like I ought to follow the rule of threes, so I’ll just add that it’s a great day when it’s 7:00 am and I’m not at work already! Variable schedules have their downsides, but right now I’m not feeling it.

Oh, but more important is Seaguy, one of my favorite comics from last year, is available in an eminently affordable trade paperback today. I intend to buy a copy when I get off work (which will be late, of course, to compensate for late starts) and curl up and read gleefully. At one point Steven solicited comments on it from my 13-year-old brother to counter the arguments that it was too difficult to follow, but I don’t know what ever became of them. I just recall that he was curious about who held behind-the-scenes power, what Mickey Eye represented, and whether there was going to be more. Also, did we have any other comics he could read? I think the only way we got him to talk about this one was by telling him we wouldn’t lend him anything else until he did.



Excuse me, doesn’t Etrigan speak only in rhyming verse? Do these indie creators know nothing?

“The reader is left gasping.”

I got to read the article in The Eye that Bryan Lee O’Malley alluded to earlier when it went live today. I have a long-running skepticism toward interviews where illustrative quotes are pulled out of the ether, so I’m curious about where this mention of a movie really came from. Did Guy Leshinski say, “So, is this something you’d like to see play as a movie?” to get O’Malley to admit that “[t]he holy grail for cartoonists is the movie deal” or what?

I ask even though I have no right to ask, because it caused a crisis of conscience. I enjoyed Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life so much that I’m not even going to link to all the places where I talked about it because I know all my readers know this already. And because I talked about it so much, because I was an “early adopter,” Bryan Lee O’Malley contacted me and we ended up doing an interview in which I didn’t ask about movie options. That’s because I’m afraid I’m becoming some sort of hipster geek. My immediate response to the section of this profile asking about movie options was, “NO!!! Hollywood could never handle this right!!” That’s kind of goofy, since a Scott Pilgrim movie wouldn’t even have to be a Hollywood movie, but I’m just being honest here. While I think the book deserves success and a wider audience (and the money/security audience brings its creator) something makes me want to think that this book is pure, that it’s not just another attempt at a movie deal. And those aren’t mutually exclusive; it could be a perfectly good comic (and certainly is) and also make a fine movie, but I’m so taken by the way it works as sequential art that I wouldn’t want to read a Scott Pilgrim novel (and I’m lying a bit; I’d read it for sure) or hear what hot young actresses Wizard thinks would be even hotter as Kim or Ramona or Knives (and here I tell the truth). I want to just let things be themselves. But the flipside hipstery side of this is that I have to be sure I’m not saying this because I don’t want to be a person being neurotic that my favorite indie band is about to make it big and then I won’t be special anymore. I don’t think that’s what’s going on, but I just as strongly hope that there isn’t going to be a movie made and I can keep these comics comics. After all, I’m glad that there’s more publicity and the next volume in less than a month. I just want to spread the love, but seriously, there have to be lines!

And to prove I’m even more of a neurotic geek, although I don’t know how much hipsterism ties in here, I’m not asking for Mal to show up in the comments and set me straight about what happened, because I’m conflicted enough about knowing not all comics creators I write about live in a magical blog-free realm where nothing I say has any meaning. I just thought a good confession might make me feel better about this. And while I’m on this cleansing topic, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell doesn’t need a sequel. The end. (or is it?)

Feints and Resolutions

I just finished Jaime Hernandez’s collected Locas, which was Steven’s birthday gift from his parents. (I know this means I’m probably a lousy wife for reading a gift book before its recipient gets a chance, but at least Steven is reading too and it’s not as if I hid it from him so I could finish first.) It ends beautifully, in exactly the way I wanted it to finish because I’m a sap and I want closure but not restrictive closure, and this was a particularly satisfying open-ended ending. I don’t want to say more because, as I said, Steven hasn’t read the book, and while we don’t generally avoid spoilers, it seems a bit cruel to completely unwrap his present for him.

What I’ll say instead is that the whole last story, “Bob Richardson,” is about the spirals we weave around ourselves, the way the identities Maggie and Hopey have created for themselves through their wishes and deeds circle in tighter until real pain and deceptions have to crash in on themselves to contain a new reality. And I know I shouldn’t say stories are “about” things, know that they contain multitudes, but all I mean is that it’s useful for me at the moment to look at the tightening gyre rather than other aspects of the story, which I’m about to contradict by talking about one of them. Best friends Maggie and Hopey love each other and have sex with each other sometimes and have sex with others sometimes and occasionally those times even overlap. Part of the narrative movement, its sway, is Maggie’s understanding of her sexuality and her relationship with Hopey. Hopey seems happily bisexual, or at least consistently bisexual even when not happy, but Maggie considers her situation more complex. Is she really a straight girl who’s willing to make an exception for Hopey (and is it ever true when people say that? I’m too biased to know.) or bisexual or is she really straight and her friendly love for Hopey has just crossed over into the sexual realm? And can she love anyone else as much as she loves Hopey or more or differently? And what about loving herself?

I read Eve Tushnet this morning arguing that lovers’ genders matter in shaping a relationship, and while I wouldn’t use some of the terminology she does, some of what she’s talking about seems to play out in Locas. I think you have to take it even farther, though, and say that not only does your gender matter but your orientation and your relationship history and cultural background and the (gendered) expectations that puts on you, at which point I’ve gotten far away from what Eve was trying to say. Her point, I think, was that gendered behaviors work in such a way that the Venn diagrams don’t overlap much between how Maggie behaves and views herself in her relationships with Hopey vs. any of the men in her life. As far as Locas goes, that seems to be true, but there’s the deeper problem that Hopey and Maggie have idealized their relationship while still treating each other badly. I suppose the real arc of the last story is how they figure out how to be genuine in what they want and who they are, but that’s practically what I was saying before anyway.

This sort of thing had already been on my mind, though, because while we were in New Orleans I finally managed to find a used copy of Emma Donoghue’s first novel, Stir-Fry. I know I could have ordered it online, but somehow the thrill of the chase kept me going for about 10 years, which is a scary thought. I read it as a sophomore in high school and it was a turning point for me, my first favorite book. I managed to change favorite books once a year or so three more times before giving up on the idea of such a thing, but they were all more literary and well-known, and this one remained my sort of personal secret. To go back to Maggie and Hopey a bit, finding the novel was like coming across a lost love and wondering what would have changed in it and knowing how much had changed in me. Can the Obscure Object of Desire measure up as (the book equivalent of) flesh and blood?

In Stir-Fry, shy 17-year-old Maria leaves her little Irish town to go to university and ends up subletting a room in the apartment of two older students, Ruth and Jael, who quickly become the center of her social world. It’s some time before she realizes they’re a lesbian couple, something she’s never had to address before. There are all sorts of swirling emotions, the kind that appealed so much to 14-year-old me, as Maria suddenly worries that her lack of interest in guys her own age means she’s a lesbian, too, and just doesn’t realize it, or that spending all her time with lesbians is going to keep her from ever successfully finding a boyfriend. Meanwhile Ruth and Jael have problems and are both confiding in Maria and dealing with the way they hid their romance from her and still hide it from family members and everyone not in carefully segmented parts of their worlds. Maria halfheartedly pursues male friends as part of pursuit of a “normal” life, and finds it’s not what she wants. Motherly, political Ruth decides to out herself when she speaks at a public meeting. Brash, sulky Jael wants to flirt more and be less responsible. Maria is frightened and entranced by them both. And then before Christmas there’s a sudden break in domestic tranquility and all three women are left re-evaluating and misunderstanding the ties between them. The not-so-shocking resolution involves the understanding that sometimes you just don’t know what you want, and that’s fine. What’s more important is to be able to enunciate to yourself (and, if necessary, to others) that you don’t know and that you aren’t sure and that you’re considering possible outcomes. Clearly this isn’t a story that survives on the shocking new insight in brings or on narrative intricacies, but it’s very well-written and I found myself recognizing phrases I’d scrawled down on the notepad beside my bed a decade ago. It remains one of my favorite of Donoghue’s books because of nostalgia as much as for its own merits, but its merits include the nostalgia. If I’d had Love and Rockets handy when I was 14, I might have read that, but instead I was stuck searching the library for things I’d found in the New York Times book reviews section to puzzle out what it means to be a smart girl, a misfit trying to figure out her place in the world. I didn’t get the same satisfying ending Locas had, but it didn’t end until 1996 anyway. One book ends in a car and one with an opened door, but the message is the same: the future is out there and (even if you don’t understand how this relationship thing works) you’re not alone. And sure enough, whether I’m with characters or real people, I’m not.

The Cruelest Month

Steven and I were talking about how we should probably be laughed out of the comics blogosphere because we go to the comics store maybe every other week and would only buy a floppy or two except that I feel so guilty spending under $20 that I always toss in some trade paperback or other, never the ones I’ve been longing for since they’re just not stocked. But we also don’t comment on what’s going to be available for purchase in a few months, and now I’m ready to make an exception to that general rule. DC’s April Solicits are available, and I feel a need to complain, although the complaint closest to my heart will go last because no one else cares. True to form, I think we’ll only be buying the titles by Grant Morrison, but I guess we’ll find out for sure when the time comes. Anyway, jumping in the game, here’s what stuck out to me.

The Fountain HC

Written by Darren Aronofsky, adapted by Kent Williams, art and cover by Williams.

Darren Aronofsky proved himself a filmmaker to watch with his provocative debut, Pi. His follow-up, Requiem for a Dream, continued the accolades, receiving Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. His latest accomplishment, however, comes straight to comics in the form of The Fountain, a gorgeously painted, oversized original graphic novel about the timeless truths of life, love and death.

Working with acclaimed painter Kent Williams, The Fountain crisscrosses through three distinct time periods: in 1535, during an ancient Mayan war; the present day, following one doctor’s desperate search for the cure for cancer; and the far future, through the vast exotic reaches of space. Interweaving these three periods, The Fountain follows Tomas — warrior, doctor, explorer — as he feverishly tries to beat death and prolong the life of the woman he loves.

A story so grand, one medium couldn’t contain it, Aronofsky is also shooting a feature film version of the story for New Regency and Warner Bros. Pictures starring Tony award-winning actor Hugh Jackman and acclaimed actress Rachel Weisz. But before he did, the filmmaker wanted The Fountain to be realized in the unique storytelling power and artistic beauty of the graphic novel. Together, Aronofsky and Williams deliver what might be considered the ultimate director’s cut.

I’m sure being the person who has to write the solicitation text is no fun at all, and the over-the-top hype here is pretty much standard. However, this is about a guy who’s living in 1535, the present and the “far future” and yet working “feverishly” to beat death? Admittedly maybe it’s about time travel or something, but it seems to me that he’s had his 1000th birthday or something and should probably just stop being so piggy about living. And if “the woman he loves” has made it through all that time with him, maybe her life has been prolonged enough already. Plus, blah, curing cancer to save the life of the woman he loves, awwwww. We’ve never heard anything like that before. And how can it be about “the timeless truths of life, love and death” if it’s all about beating death (and time)? Steven thinks this is a bad explanation for what might be a good movie, but I’m afraid the problems may lie deeper, although this certainly seems like bafflingly bad advertising.

And then there’s Ex Machina, where New York’s mayor faces off against “the supernatural horror that’s been terrorizing the subways.” Was I confused when I thought this book was supposed to focus on government and about what it would be like to have a superhero in a world where super stuff doesn’t otherwise happen? But oops, apparently someone forgot to mention the Lovecraft Express. I’m glad we stopped reading this when the first (goofy and unsatisfying) storyarc ended.

I do like the solicit text for Wild Girl:

Did Rosa survive her encounter with the Crocodile? And if so, will she have enough energy left to face the Dog Man and save her family? Every question is answered in the stunning conclusion of this mini-series.

For one thing, if the answer to the first question is No, then every question asked is already answered, stunning conclusion or no. I guess that means it’s a pretty safe bet that this isn’t the answer, but I’d be very happy if it were.

And saving the best for last, Mnemovore! Crazy comics publishers, why must you torment me so? It’s so easy to make a bad name for a comic, but why didn’t anyone realize this was one? I hate hate hate hate hate so much when Greek and Latin are mixed in neologisms. It drives me nuts. (Can you tell?) I understand that we’re dealing with a memory-eater, but “mnemonic” is derived from Greek and “voracious” comes from Latin, as any schoolchild could tell DC. If this were a comic about a mnemophage I would probably buy it because of the cool name, but since it’s polluted with Latin I’ll pass it by (unless it turns out to be much, much better than it looks now). And if the book doesn’t take off, you’ll know why; it’s the miasma that comes from deliberately (and foolishly) mixing etymologies and incurring my wrath.

Grotesque Anatomy?

I am having a sick day today and while I’m tempted to use that as an out if I later need to claim I was not in my right mind when writing this, it’s something I’ve been thinking about all weekend. The title of the post is my way of apologizing to John Jakala for mentioning the problem with Bombaby he brought to my attention without actually seeking out the link (here I do plead sick), and also because “grotesque anatomy” is an awfully good title he’s not using anymore.

While it wasn’t my inspiration here, we saw The Aviator Friday night and basically enjoyed it (though I thought the ending especially was needlessly heavy-handed) and also bought the first volume of Sgt. Frog. One thing leads to another, and I found myself buying and devouring volumes 2 and 3 before the weekend was over. It’s a book practically everyone had recommended and I found myself just as charmed as many other bloggers have already been, but on returning home with the first book I saw that Lyle had qualms about the portrayal of sexualized women. This made me curious since plenty of posts on this blog have been me complaining about just such things, and so I am surprised to say I’m not going to do so here. Sure, there are a lot of panty shots (what’s up with Natsumi’s basketball uniform?) and weird breast things going on in Sgt. Frog and they just didn’t bother me. I’m not sure I can explain why this is and it’s all going to be very idiosyncratic and probably won’t translate well to your experience, which is fine with me. That’s as far as I’m going to go with a disclaimer, but it seemed worth noting that I’m not trying to recreate the scene from The Aviator where the poor professor has to measure various “mammaries” to convince a skeptical ratings board of the acceptability of their prominence in The Outlaw.

Instead what we’ve got in Sgt. Frog is the Hinata family, where 14-year-old Natsumi and her slightly younger brother, Fuyuki, reveal and capture Keroro, a charming little megalomaniac from the planet Keron’s expeditionary invasion force. The head of the Hinata family is Aki, the manga editor mother often absent for weeks at a time, who cements Keroro’s place in the household.

first appearance of Aki Hinata

This is Aki’s first appearance, but is characteristic of her depiction as an editor throughout the first three volumes. While this is clearly part of the exploitative representation Lyle and others talked about, it struck me as less objectionable than, say, the scene in Mean Girls where Tina Fey accidentally removed her shirt in front of her students and a coworker. Here, Aki is even dressed in what seems like a work-appropriate outfit and her fervor for manga manifests itself in sexual double entendres, which is a consistent pattern. Because they find this a turn-on, her male subordinates become obsessed with pleasing her, since her professional praise is invariably sexualized. I have to admit, my first thought was that this is a pretty effective system for her, since she gets the results she wants and isn’t necessarily aware she’s a sexual object (and there’s no real textual evidence, since there are no adult romantic roles, that she’s a sexual subject in any meaningful way). The setup reminded me more of something like Groucho Marx’s verbal/sexual jabs, although generally less witty and more obvious. Because this is a light-hearted PG-level comedy, I’m not expecting any sort of examination of the effects female sexuality has on straight male geeks, although it’s something I think about and watch online, even if I don’t often talk about it here. At some level, though, Sgt. Frog is raising those questions, although in a superficial way, and I appreciate that enough that it doesn’t seem ridiculously exploitative to me.

But to be honest, I think a big part of it has to do with the fact that while Aki Hinata has the largest breasts in the book, they’d look positively tiny if she showed up in a standard superhero book from Marvel or DC. Her breasts are large for her slim frame, but not extremely or unrealistically so. And that ties into the reason I’m not disturbed by the focus on shots of young teen Natsumi in her bra:

Natsumi laments her increasing bust size

Natsumi is at an age where her body is changing and, like many girls, she sees this as a betrayal of sorts. In the last panel (reading right-to-left for manga) she says, “I just hope I don’t turn into a mutant like Mom!” While being spied on by a froglike alien isn’t a normal experience, I think discomfort with becoming physically/sexually mature is, and it was refreshing to see it. While Natsumi is often seen as a sexualized creature, whether caught in the panels changing her shirt or in the several instances her underwear makes an appearance, she has no interest in this role. When she has to “age” into an adult body in a later volume, rather than flaunting her physical assets she has to be brainwashed to agree to enter a bikini contest. Though she may look almost physically mature while she manages to capably run the household in her mother’s absence, she clearly still thinks of herself as the sort of person who would prefer to be playing basketball with her school friends. I don’t know how well Sgt. Frog sells with people who aren’t comics bloggers, specifically with the young teen girls who do read lots of manga, I would think that despite the cheesecake aspects of her presentation (and perhaps because of it) Natsumi would be a good object for identification. With fashion standards being what they are now, a lot of girls and young women have to balance the trend to look sexualized or provocative with their own actual sexual interests or lack thereof and the ways they want to present themselves. I know when I was younger I dealt with this basically through denial, cropping off all my hair and wearing huge clothes that cloaked the parts of my body I found awkward, among other less healthy means. I imagine it’s more normal to do what Natsumi does, look a bit sexy or at least be aware they’re being viewed sexually while trying to subvert this through the strength of pure personality.

Would it be better to keep all of this breast-anxiety off-screen? I don’t know. It’s there in Judy Blume books and I assume most young teens see the kinds of bodies on display on MTV or the magazines targeted to them. It’s not a new insight to notice that men’s lifestyle magazines typically have “hot” women on the cover, and that the same is true for women’s magazines. I think that’s something akin to what’s going on here, that Natsumi is definitely being portrayed for the audience that finds a view of a B-cup bra exhilarating while also passing on the more subversive message her own ambivalence toward her body portrays (which I don’t think you’d find as easily in either Maxim or Cosmo Girl). And again, I’m going back to breast size a bit, but since the proportions aren’t so insane, this is not as disturbing to me as finding out that real people find J. Michael Turner characters attractive, even if the character in question is a mere year or two older than Natsumi. It’s also sort of hard for me to believe that these shots of covered, proportional breasts are really so titillating (and I really couldn’t come up with a better word; sorry) in the world in which we live and read.

However, it’s easy to build bad breasts, and that was much of my reaction to Bombaby. I’d considered not buying it because it collects the first three released issues of the series along with the fourth issue, which wasn’t released separately, but I had been planning to buy the book in TPB anyway and figured that the publisher (Amaze Ink, though I’d somehow thought until I looked that it had been Slave Labor) could use the reminder that people will buy collected versions of books, so it’s worth treating both groups fairly. While the covers had been lovely and tempting, I didn’t especially enjoy the interior art and the story was weak, especially in its concluding chapter. I’m sort of sad that there weren’t any endnotes or explanations of what the creator was trying to do with the story, because I really couldn’t tell from the story. Also, isn’t the tutelary deity of Mumbai Mumbadevi, not “the Mumbai devi?” I’m sure they mean the same thing, but it bothered me. Actually a lot of things bothered me, but since it’s that kind of post we’ll focus on the art and the bodies.

Sangeeta wears an unflattering minidress

Here is protagonist Sangeeta, and while writer/artist Anthony Mazzotta clearly wanted to show her as curvaceous (to suggest something about Indian beauty standards? Again, notes might help) she just looks like she’s pregnant and weirdly shaped on top of that. She has no waist and her torso is frighteningly small. Her clothes look painful and odd. Who wears a microminiskirt with a turtleneck? And she seems awfully happy and calm for someone who avoided being attacked by a gang of thugs only moments before.

Sangeeta dances

And the above shows what happens to Sangeeta when she dances. Apparently her breasts are just two compartments of some sort of bag filled with liquid, since bulk seems to be able to move from one breast to the other when she moves. She still seems unnaturally happy, but I realize it’s a comic convention to avoid reference to the sort of pain swinging breasts of the size many female characters display would cause. Still, this seems pretty extreme to go unnoticed.

Sangeeta wears a t-shirt in bed

This is my last example, but it shows how after changing out of her miniskirt outfit into a t-shirt that is basically the same color (another bad art choice, in my opinion) Sangeeta’s breasts seem to have changed shape yet again, hanging down like separate bags barely attached to her body. Perhapps if I’d been more interested in the story I wouldn’t have spent so much time thinking about how odd and uncomfortable her breasts looked to me, but it’s also possible that’s part of a chicken-and-egg thing. What I’m getting at is that I was willing to give Sgt. Frog some extra slack because it did show off its characters’ breasts (a lot) but did so with breasts that were consistently sized and not unrealistic. Bombaby, while not using Sangeeta’s breasts as explicitly sexual objects, was more objectionable to me because the breasts made no sense in a story that made no sense.

And on that note, I’m going to go to bed so I can get up in the morning and go to work like a healthy(-ish) person and then probably not talk about breasts in this much depth for a very, very long time.

Superheroes, Romantic Comedies, and Identity

Here’s something I just thought of. I don’t know, it might be crazy talk, but I’ll tell you about it and you can tell me what you think.

When I lamented the action movie’s triumph over the romantic comedy in Spider-Man 2, I meant it. Spider-Man 2’s pairing of romantic comedy and superheroism is no mere accident of narrative—the romantic comedy and the superhero story have a crucial intersection, which is the recurring conceit of the duplicitous hero whose dual identity first covers and eventually discovers (to use an archaic sense of the word) a seriously fractured and incomplete identity. In superhero stories, this is manifested in the opposed secret and superheroic identities, the thesis and antithesis that never synthesize. Superman’s possession of two identities (or three, if Smallville Clark is different from Metropolis Clark) highlights his lack of a natural, coherent identity. He is a Kryptonian, an Earthling, and an American, but he’s also none of them. They are masks he can wear and remove at will, not his face. Same with Batman, although The Dark Knight Returns is perhaps an attempt to synthesize Batman and Bruce Wayne. Romantic comedies often present similar, usually less heroic, dual-identity protagonists—the most relevant standard for what I’m thinking about now is the story of a man trying to make it with two girlfriends at once, a story that inevitably climaxes with a scene where the poor bastard tries to take both women on date to the same restaurant at the same time.

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life replays the classic same-restaurant-same-time scene, except that Scott is too inept to realize that it might cause problems to invite both Knives and Ramona to his concert, let alone that he should do anything about it. That scene is also the one in which it turns out Scott was only half-joking (if that!) about being a graduate of Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Scott really is thinks of himself as a superhero, if a highly unusual one. It can’t be coincidental that the book’s sidelong riffing on romantic comedy comes to a head in the same scene as the sidelong riffing on superheroes comes to a head. The climactic scene where the pop-culture fantasy (it’s all allusions to Star Trek technology, video games and musicals) that creeps through the book jumps up and really rocks out.

Judging by the previews (1, 2), the second Scott Pilgrim volume, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, is going to throw awkward-adolescent maturation stories into the mix—not surprising, since that’s another kind of story founded on identity formation and identity crises, as well as a common component of romantic comedies and superhero stories.

So what? I’m not sure, what do you think?

Edit: Changed “Scott really is a superhero” to “Scott really thinks of himself as a superhero”

Thought of the day

David Mack’s problem with poetry is, he keeps writing these frightening sing-songy nursery rhymes. Alan Moore’s problem is that he writes show tunes.

Neither of them should ever write poetry, but they do anyway!