Okay, show of hands - how many of you even *knew* Akira Toriyama not only released a totally new 217-page comic last year, but that it was published near-simultaneously in English? I ask because the Festival de la Bande Dessinée d'Angoulême is nearly upon us again, and last year's festivities were marked by hints of conflict in the Grand Prix voting, which purportedly resulted in popular candidate Toriyama receiving an ad hoc commendation for the occasion of the show's 40th anniversary while another cartoonist was selected for the top honor. Truthfully, this situation summarizes Toriyama's present status in North America as well - unavoidable in terms of legacy, but rarely all that immediately accessed.
Mind you, it didn't help that Jaco the Galactic Patrolman was only ever distributed to subscribers of Viz's digital anthology Weekly Shonen Jump; as far as I can tell there's no print edition planned, nor do I even think can you even download the comic separately. Indeed, I can't even find any evidence to the series existing in collected form in Japan, which is startling when you consider how quickly most manga serials are compiled into books, and how well Toriyama's books used to sell - Dragon Ball began a huge colorization effort last year, befitting what used to be the top serial in a magazine which enjoyed a circulation of nearly six million copies per week at its 1990s height.
But then, you can't say Toriyama wasn't prepared for a certain disinterest this time around. In his foreword to the first English chapter of Jaco, the artist laments that he just doesn't have the stamina to create manga on his own anymore, and thus elected to devote the project to doing exactly what he wanted. The would be little Dragon Ball-style action, he warned, and basically nothing in the way of a deep or dramatic plot. "Some parts might only make sense to Japanese people, and even they might not get some of the old jokes." It would be, in summary, a work of "nostalgia," a celebration of 45 years of Shonen Jump in Japan, hearkening back to a time American readers could never quite appreciate.
There's a hell of a lot of schtick in Jaco - proper situation comedy, much of it springing from its eponymous alien cop's inability to understand the planet on which he's become stranded, and the antagonistic/dependent relationship he develops with a aged, reclusive genius and (later) a peppy young girl with a talent for science. Toriyama's art, as you can see above, remains nimble and lively, but there's a rather defiant childishness to the work that joins it to both the artist's own name-making work on Dr. Slump -- or even its late '70s predecessor Wonder Island -- as well as the oldest and most unsophisticated iterations of tokusatsu television.
In other words, Toriyama's comic is unlike really anything else in the contemporary shonen scene, many examples of which remain extended fantasy combat serials in the tradition Dragon Ball personified for a while. Take the series Viz started running in Weekly Shonen Jump after Jaco ended: Seraph of the End, a monthly horror-action serial by Takaya Kagami, Daisuke Furuya and Yamato Yamamoto, its debut chapter punctuated by the graphic, on-panel murders of young children by vampires, and its action driven by a hot-blooded, revenge-crazed teen who can't wait to joint the post-cataclysm armed forces because he's jonesing to kill some motherfuckers that need putting down. It is brazenly, unashamedly sensational and militaristic, while also hewing to cozy, time-tested character-building formulae, with art that neither excels nor challenges, but also won't risk putting off potential customers in the manner of a seinen hit like Attack on Titan.
It is, of course, already up to its fourth collected volume in Japanese, though I'm perhaps drawing a false equivalency; Toriyama was never going to play that game again.
Some megastar artists, like Rumiko Takahashi and Takehiko Inoue, will probably continue cranking out hits until they slump over dead atop the drawing board. Others, like Sailor Moon creator Naoko Takeuchi, become disenchanted with the process of producing pop manga, and effectively retire from the scene. As such, it's not enough to observe that Toriyama hasn't created a work since Dragon Ball to match its popularity, but that he hasn't attempted anything of its back-breaking scope - since 1995, he's contented himself with works like Cowa! and Sand Land: weekly serials that only run for a short, concentrated period. And even then, the pressure is on: "I wasn't thinking about my age and was only getting two hours of sleep a night," the 58-year old author confides in a behind-the-scenes bonus segment, which basically tracks with the famously bleary-eyed schedule worked by Eiichirō Oda, creator of One Piece, the almighty Dragon Ball of today.
From this perspective, there is a poignancy (if not really a profundity) to some of the action in Jaco. Toriyama is not so reclusive as the elderly researcher whom Jaco comically 'befriends,' but he is a genius of sorts, and just as the old man in the comic secretly endeavors to build a time machine to warp himself back to happier days, so does Toriyama simulate a sprightlier past in the pages of his comic. In fact, if you've heard anything about Jaco, it's probably the fact that several prominent members of the Dragon Ball cast appear in the final chapter - the work, as it turns out, is a secret prelude, but what's striking to me is how Toriyama places both the plot action and the very tone of the work, so uncomplicated a children's comic, as specifically pre-Dragon Ball, as if to take himself back, for a little while, to the place he once occupied before the rigors of unprecedented fame, perhaps, evaporated his desire to keep making comics every damn week.
What I'd give for a nothing-held-back interview with Akira Toriyama, one long enough to allow the angst lurking around the edges of his promotional chats to run free! Popularity in manga is unlike popularity in any other comics tradition - maybe a lot of these exist in Japan, and there's just never been a call to translate them. That'd make for a commemorative prize for all of us.
PLEASE NOTE: What follows is not a series of capsule reviews but an annotated selection of items listed by Diamond Comic Distributors for release to comic book retailers in North America on the particular Wednesday identified in the column title above. Be aware that some of these comics may be published by Fantagraphics Books, the entity which also administers the posting of this column. Not every listed item will necessarily arrive at every comic book retailer, in that some items may be delayed and ordered quantities will vary. I have in all likelihood not read any of the comics listed below, in that they are not yet released as of the writing of this column, nor will I necessarily read or purchase every item identified; THIS WEEK IN COMICS! reflects only what I find to be potentially interesting.
Miracleman #1: ALAN MOOOOOORE!! Fists were thrown in the air last week as one of this year's still-viable Grand Prix de la ville d'Angoulême candidates released his newest and spiciest dispatch from old Northampton, but while reactions have landed all over the map -- and I'm afraid I totally agree with this damning analysis of Moore's answers to critics of his usage of the Golliwogg character in various League of Extraordinary Gentlemen comics -- there's no denying that the man's influence over the superhero genre remains strong; just last week DC's Detective Comics #27 saw Batman warped into a sinister 'ideal' fantasy that smacked mightily of "For the Man Who Has Everything." Marvel, meanwhile, has cut out the middlemen altogether and legally acquired this long-suppressed (and Moore-disowned) exercise in genre interrogation from the pages of Warrior and ye olde Eclipse Comics, drawn in these early pages by Garry Leach. Expect new lettering and updated Steve Oliff colors (extensively defended here), and a whole lot of supplementary texts/Mick Anglo reprints to bulk the package up to 64 pages. Preview; $5.99.
Excel Saga Vol. 27 (of 27): And speaking of long-awaited events - it's maybe difficult to ascertain right now if you weren't there at the time, but about a dozen or so years ago, Excel Saga was a semi-big deal to Japanese animation enthusiasts, gleefully deviating from its manga source material to parody anime devices in the scattershot manner of MAD and its progeny. Its popularity was such that Viz elected to publish artist Rikdō Kōshi's droller original in English, starting in 2003, and it soon became inevitable that the localizations caught up to the series' monthly serialization in Japan. Well, that run is over now, and thus comes the same publisher's very last compilation, just in time to enjoy a new iteration of Kōshi's modest celebrity: he's the artist on Koukaku no Pandora - Ghost Urn, Masamune Shirow's first longform comics serial since Ghost in the Shell closed shop in '97. Looks smutty - hope to see it soon; $9.99.
♥♥♥ Hearts: Being a new Toon Books release from Brazilian-UK artist Thereza Rowe, presenting what looks to be a lot of searing color compositions and paper-cut-out-type images in detailing a fox's quest for her lost heart. It's 9" x 6", 32 pages, probably quite handsome. Samples; $12.95.
Monsters! and Other Stories: Gustavo Duarte is another Brazilian artist, working with a lot of smooth, curvy lines. His book too is playful, depicting creatures on the rampage across 152 wordless pages, though this time the publisher is Dark Horse. A two-color 7" x 10" softcover. Preview; $12.99.
Henry & Glenn Forever & Ever #3 (of 4): The latest-to-comic-book-stores of these Tom Neely-fronted music personality parody books -- I believe the series is already complete in the wider world -- this time featuring contributions by MariNaomi, Justin Hall, variant cover artist Shaky Kane and others; $5.00.
Black Dynamite #1 (of 4): This is an IDW miniseries based on the 2009 blaxploitation parody film, which I frequently heard mentioned in comparison with Jim Rugg's & Brian Maruca's Afrodisiac from around the same time. The official comic is notable for the presence of penciller Ron Wimberly, who picked up a great deal of appreciation for his 2012 Vertigo graphic novel The Prince of Cats; here he's inked by Marvel veteran Sal Buscema, presumably on hand to add authentic '70s comic book flavor. The writer is Brian Ash, who's provided scripts for animated cartoon versions of The Boondocks and, indeed, Black Dynamite. Preview; $3.99.
Carbon Grey Vol. 3 #2 (of 2): We're often talking about the newest debuts over at Image, but sometimes series end as well, like this dense, painterly political intrigue/fantasy-SF action comic from Hoang Nguyen, Khari Evans, Paul Gardner & Kinsun Loh - a large group of creators who funded more than half the overall project though multiple Kickstarter campaigns, which is one of the options you might elect when producing creator-owned serials with no cash upfront. I believe this one is double-sized; $4.99.
B.P.R.D. Hell on Earth #115: Yet some series remain perpetually in the midst of things! Lapsed or inattentive fans, though, will want to know that this issue of the Mike Mignola/John Arcudi megaseries welcomes back the prodigiously talented James Harren for a five-issue run. While you're at it, Craig Fischer has some commentary on the series' use of female characters here; I definitely cosign his appreciation of Kate Corrigan (and "The Universal Machine" totally is the best-ever B.P.R.D. story, though I'd caution it only *really* works if you've read two dozen or so immediately preceding issues), but for me there was also something subtly terrific about how Guy Davis would always draw mega-deadly-cute-girl archetype Liz Sherman as unkempt and sorta greasy, like she didn't have time to bathe very much - who the hell would? Preview; $3.50.
Annoying Orange Vol. 4: Tales from the Crisper: And finally, since I quite enjoyed Bob Levin's examination of post-underground comic book endeavors yesterday, I'll draw attention to this continuing NBM/PaperCutz series by Dope Comix veteran Mike Kazaleh, who did some funny animal work for Fantagraphics before embarking on an extensive career in kids' franchise comics. I presume that's the type of thing we're in for here with this comic-based-on-a-web-video-series, made in collaboration with Scott Shaw!, although the cover suggests this is also going to be an EC parody, and nothing's got more kinship with the old underground that that; $7.99 ($11.99 in hardcover).