Saturday, September 26, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2013: Stargazing Dog

Stargazing Dog 
Written and illustrated by Takashi Murakami.
Published by NBM (2011).

Have you heard of Into the Wild? It's about a true story about a guy who wandered off into the Alaskan wilderness and died of starvation. Some people probably think it's romantic. Stargazing Dog is a somewhat similar story, except told from the point of view of a dog.

To put all of my biases up front, I don't really like dogs, and this comic kind of provides examples of why. Specifically, their personalities and apparently unending loyalty are not things I view as positives (though I am aware that many other people do). So a comic told from the point of view of a dog (and not an incredibly intelligent one) that seems to in part about how great that loyalty is has an uphill battle with me.

A girl finds a puppy, and convinces her parents to adopt it. Like most children, she soon pays little attention to the animal and her parents end up taking care of it. The human father, referred to as "Daddy" by the dog, seems to spend more time hanging out with, and talking to, the dog than he does to his wife and child. Eventually, he loses his job, loses his family, and goes off on a doomed road trip where more bad things happen to him and he dies (not really a spoiler, since it's revealed on the first page).

What really pissed me off was the afterward, where Murakami stated that his reason for creating this comic was because:
"In the past, he ["Daddy"] would have been an ordinary, good father.
However, in today's environment, it's adept or die. And that's not right. I really feel fed up with this hideous situation."
And really? Fuck that. He may have been an "ordinary" father, but in no way was he a good one. He paid no attention to his wife or child in any way, and was so uninterested in their lives and feelings, that he is shocked when his wife wants a divorce. That's hardly a "good" father in my eyes (though maybe it says something about Japanese society and familial expectations).

The back cover says that this is an "inspiring" story, but I'm not sure how I'm supposed to be inspired. A guy doesn't get his own way, so starves to death in the middle of nowhere while condemning an animal to the same fate? The message seems to be that if things aren't going your way you should leave everything behind, never ask anyone for help, and die because you're incredibly stubborn. This is even pointed out in a later part of the story where a character says "If he had gone to see you for some advice, Mr. Okutsu. He wouldn't have been dead now." 

Kind of weirdly, this manga was actually flipped so that it reads left-to-right like western books. You can definitely notice it as there are some signs in the pages where signs are backwards (and so are all of the Japanese sound effects), and there are references to right and left that don't always match up with the art. It's kind of strange to see a book published in this format so recently, as it seems the vast majority of manga is now published in right-to-left format. One of the complaints of flipping manga is that it brings out flaws in the artwork, and the awkwardness of some of the panels here seems to indicate some truth to that. Apart from that the artwork is well done. The dogs are drawn well, and the rest of the story telling is pretty clear (though there are some problems with scale).

But really, if you want to read a comic about a homeless person in Japan, read Disappearance Diary by Hideo Azuma. It's way more interesting, in part because it's an autobiography. Reading that review kind of reveals a lot more about the societal pressures that exist in Japan than this comic does. But because Stargazing Dog was created for a Japanese audience, all of that knowledge can just be assumed by the author as already known, and none of it has to be said on the page. If this comic actually explained some of the pressures of Japanese life it might have made "Daddy" a more sympathetic character. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

YALSA top ten GNs 2015: Bad Machinery vol. 3: The Case of the Simple Soul

Bad Machinery Vol. 3: The Case of the Simple Soul
Written and illustrated by John Allison.
Published by Oni Press (2014)

Bad Machinery is, as the subtitle may hint at, a sort of mystery comic featuring children in the fictional English town of Tackleford. The kids who primarily feature are two groups of three: one made up of girls, and one made up of boys. They're all around 11 or 12 (I think) so there's a fair amount of fighting/arguing/will you be my boy/girlfriending going on as well as whatever's going on in the background (which, in this case, is a series of fires and a weird troll thing that lives under a bridge).

And that "weird troll thing" is the kind of thing that makes Allison's comics great (though not in this particular instance*). This is not your average small English town. There is a robot who goes to the school, there are magic spells and curses at the soccer/football pitch, weird goblin creatures in the woods, a time hole in a school cupboard, and lots more weird and wonderful stuff happening in Tackleford all the time (kind of as though it were a nicer version of Sunnydale).

The human characters themselves are more normal, but that doesn't mean they act (or, as this review mentions, speak) naturally. But that's generally part of the charm. Another large part of the appeal for me is Allison's art, which I really love. Characters have distinctive styles and fashions (with individual items of clothing changing), his expressions and body language are great, the story flows (which is impressive considering this was original published one page a day), and the flat colouring works remarkably well with the cartoonish art style.

Allison has been making webcomics since the late 1990s (e.g. forever in internet terms), and while he's had several titles, they're all interconnected and characters from one may show up in another. I started reading his stuff in the early 2000s when he was working on his second title, Scary-Go-Round. I liked it enough to read all of the archives and buy several books from him.

However, at some point after Bad Machinery started I apparently stopped reading. This seems kind of strange, as I'm still excited by him as a creator. I've read all three volumes of the Bad Machinery collected editions (admittedly mostly from the library), and I was buying his print Scary Go Round spin-off series Giant Days until it got extended to 12 issues and I couldn't find issue 4 (I still intend to get the collections), but I stopped reading his free comic on the internet.

So what turned me off a comic by a creator I still at least think I like? Well, part of it is possibly the format of the collection. Its size (more than 30 cm/12 inches wide) shows off the artwork in a lovely fashion, but is kind of too big to fit on my shelf and is even somewhat unwieldy to read. But that doesn't say why I stopped reading the webcomic, and I think the reason behind that is that I found the children that this story focused on considerably less interesting than the adults in the other comics. If the recent Giant Days series had been about these (children) characters I probably wouldn't have been interested, but since it was about the characters in university I was. I would say that I'm not that interested in stories about children, but while that may be true in a broad sense I'm still happy to read certain ones I consider good (Yotsuba&!). I guess I'm just not that interested in reading stories about these children. Though looking through the artwork in this volume again, I'm kind of tempted to catchup on the webcomic, so maybe that will change.

Since this was a webcomic you can read it all online for free. Here's where The Case of the Simple Soul begins.

* Allison frequently includes completely fictional creatures (such as Desmond Fishman) in his comics. However the "troll" in this one kind of bothered me. His appearance seems far too much like a human, and combined with the way he speaks and acts I think it could be taken as making fun of people with developmental disabilities. I don't think this was Allison's intention, and I hope I'm the only person that even considered this, but the problem could have been avoided by making the troll red or something.