Billy Bat - Naoki Urasawa & Takashi Nagasaki

I started out my storied career of loving graphic stories by reading American comics.

When I was a kid, my dad and brother and I would go to a comic shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan called Eye of Agamotto, and we would spend hours sifting through the comics books bins. The place, in my memory, was a geek's paradise, all full up of comics and image. It was up a flight of stairs and hidden away like in another world. I loved that I was just eye level with the glass cases, the way the wooden floors creaked and noted the shuffle of our shoes, the way it smelled on warm summer afternoons, like paper and books, something mysterious.

My brother and I were going through a GI Joe phase, which was just okay with my dad, a Vietnam Vet who could connect to us through war stories. I think the owner of the place was a vet, too. I wonder, now, if they talked about the war while we wandered through the place.

I was in third grade and my brother in fifth. My brother wanted to go every day because he coveted GI Joe #2, which had a small, shitty run after the first, much touted issue, pretty much flopped. The comic was super expensive and sealed in plastic, and my brother would just stand and stare at it, then whinge about it forever.

I wanted to read it, sure, but it was way out of our price range. So, while my brother oggled his dream comic, I searched the bins. I was, for some reason, really into Howard The Duck, an "existential comic" about a duck from outer space. These were cheap, and my dad bought them for me without much of a fuss. Maybe he was relieved, because I wasn't asking for a pony or dance lessons or GI Joe #2.

Yup, I cut my comic teeth on Howard the Duck. What of it? Thus began my lifelong fascination with comics, geeks, and things you can find in bins. For a long time, I read American comics. Then I switched over primarily to manga, which I've been reading almost exclusively for the last few years. Lately, I've been really in love with manga that feels reflective of my early love of comics, a bit dark, a bit super, a bit human, not all flash lines and giant hearts and eyes, but smart, literary, and fantastic.

Right now, I'm almost finished reading Naoki Urasawa's 20th Century Boys which has so blown me away, that I don't rightly know how to write about it. Last night, in an Urasawa mood,  I started reading scanlations of Billy Bat. I usually read licensed comics, but the art just drew me in with it's slightly American sensibility, and there I was thinking about the stories that started me on comics.

I particularly like the concept of this comic, the story of an American comic book artist, Kevin Yamagata, who is half-Japanese. His comic Billy Bat, the hard boiled story of an anthropomorphized  bat detective, is as popular as any other super hero comic out there. Kevin's success is colored, however, by the fact that he may have accidentally copied the Billy Bat character from another artist in Japan, and he must go to Japan to investigate and prove to himself that he has not stolen the story or character designs.

The story alternates between the Billy Bat story line and Kevin's life and involves mystery on all levels.

I've not yet seen any information about when this comic will be licensed in the United States, but I really hope it is because I'd like to read more.

Only Yesterday - Studio Ghibli

Only Yesterday
Hands down, one of the best things about living in a city is access to good films.

This week, California Theater in Berkeley played host to the full catalog of Studio Ghibli films. I skeeved off work early to go see my favorite, "Only Yesterday," which, next to "Rushmore,"(a Wes Anderson, not Studio Ghibli movie) is my second favorite film. Okay, maybe they both vie for first.

"Only Yesterday," is the story of salary woman Taeko, who, at the age of 27, works in an office in Tokyo and is not yet married. Although, "marriage" as it is, is not the end goal of this film. But, why do I like it. Hmmm, I'm a salary girl working my butwaing off and dreaming of a more pastoral and creative life. Easy. Taeko and I are kindred. She's a sweet, sensitive weirdo. So am I. Her ten-year-old self follows her around. My eight-year-old self follows me around. She's single. I'm single. She's bad at math. Holy Crucifixes! I AM SO BAD AT MATH, especially dividing fractions, which Taeko is really, really bad at.

People who can divide fractions, Taeko says, seem to end up normal. People who cannot, struggle.

YES! Girl, I feel you. What else? Taeko loves farming. She's had her share of city life. Me too. Taeko's family does not understand her. My family does not understand me! Little things affect her lastingly. Really, honestly, want to understand me? Study Taeko.

That aside, what a lovely film. It's done not in a typical "anime" style but more with an eye toward realism. Only in fantasy are the characters stylized. It's a masterpiece of animation and also the kind of narrative  I could imagine in live action.

Dear Hollywood, you will never make this movie as awesomely as the anime, but something in me dares you to try.

It's the kind of movie that would easily translate into a popular plot, rom/dram or com/dram: sweet, smart, single career woman going nowhere but straight to the middle, and not particularly interested in clawing her way to the top, spends a couple of weeks straightening out her city brain on an organic farm. She works through her past while falling in love with an earnest and enthusiastic farmer who only recently left the city to grow organic rice and fruit. The small community falls in love with her, too. Antics/dramas ensue.

Today someone told me that the reason it was not licensed here in the US is because it mentioned menstruation. Yup. Girls get periods, and since this is a coming of age film about a girl, that takes up a large portion of the film, and you know what: it's great. Also: Girls Get Periods!!!! Okay, cool. Now that's out there, see this film. SEE IT. SEE IT. SEE IT.

Highschool of the Dead (Anime): First Impressions

Highschool of the Dead (Yes, one word...I know, I know.)
Writer: Daisuke Soto
Illustrator: Shonji Sato
Sentai Filmworks, 2011.

I love a zombie apocalypse. No really. I love a zombie apocalypse. So much so that if you knew a little bit more about me you'd know that I've been paid to do a lecture on zombie apocalypses and its effects on social order.

Yes, I am a

Here's two reasons the zombie apocalypse is a great idea:

1. It makes everything simple. For example, who cares if your bills are past due? People are dying, man. And Oh, you're having a bad hair day? I'm having a zombie-ate-my-family day. Perspective is a good thing, and the ZA will provide some much needed perspective. Say goodbye to your First-World-Problems, and hello to survival mode.

2. In simplifying the world, including our relationships to one another, the arbitrary social conventions that create friction between groups based on race, culture, gender, etc. fall away...there is no more backwards, binary us v. us confusion! There is only Living and Undead. In establishing a common enemy we more easily recognize our HUMANITY...theoretically. (People are still bad sometimes, and they still cling to the old social orders when it benefits them.)

The effects of the ZA above are clearly illustrated in the animated series Highschool of the Dead, based on the manga series of the same name by Daisuke Soto and Shonji Sato. The setting of a highschool, a place rife with cliques and social stratum, only further emphasizes the message. As with all the best ZA situations, we as viewers are introduced to a group of dissimilar survivors who are thrust together by circumstance: geek and jock, egg-headed perfectionist and clueless bimbo, bad-girl kendo club captain and ridiculously busty assistant librarian, creepy totalitarian teacher and (obligatory) red-shirt-esque zombie fodder. They have to band together to survive...maybe? I'm still early in and that creepy totalitarian teacher, is really, really creepy.

Creepier than zombie hordes!
I have a feeling he will be the antagonist, and a villainous antagonist at that!

Dr. Shido's character seems power-hungry and opportunistic already. I expect his character may very well be representative of the worst humanity has to offer in a ZA situation. There's clear set up for him as adversary and complicating factor in later episodes.

Creepiness aside, this anime is surprisingly beautiful...there's a powerful juxtaposition between the beautiful and bloodthirsty: gorgeous skies and scenery is the backdrop to unflinching depictions of death. The fight scenes are brutal. This is one violent anime. But, it is also deeply emotional in a way that makes more than a few of the characters multi-dimensional from the start. The emotional angst of a few of the characters, and the genuine feel of their reactions was surprising.

I have only one complaint about the series so far: the random upskirt shots and excessive amounts of bouncing breasts are gratuitous, numerous and annoying to no end. Show me the fight scene; I don't care about wobbling fun-bags.

HOTD Trailer 
(Note the sheer amount of panties and breast shots.)

All in all, I think I might keep with this anime, despite my irritation at the T&A (it doesn't make everything better).  The second season of Highschool of the Dead was announced in April 2012, and although rumors were that the announcement was an April Fool's Day joke, there has been information out that one is in the works with no release date confirmed yet.

Random Bonus Factoid:
While looking at the closing credits for HOTD for the Japanese cast and crew, I noticed that there was a position listed as "Art and Literature Support." What is that? And why don't American production companies have such a position? And if they do, why can't I find a job doing that? Because I would be really, really good at it (if I knew what it was).