If you've been reading entertainment news for the last day or so, it's likely you've heard of a new smartphone app titled Pokémon GO. It is a Nintendo-licensed offshoot (developed in America by a former Google subsidiary, Niantic, in which Nintendo holds an undisclosed stake) of the famous video game monster battling/collection franchise, in which you take your phone out into the world and employ mapping data to 'find' hidden monsters in actual locations through the uncanny lens of your phone's screen, and then maybe pay real money to make the catches easier. Different types of monsters -- all of them of genuine branded denizens of the Pokémon universe -- show up in different types of places, at different times of the day. For much of last weekend, starting on Saturday night, I began spotting players stalking the streets of my none-too-large town: riding bikes at night with their phones out, or scouring the park by the river in afternoon teams of five or more... real teams, not virtual people, all of them out in the sun and laughing while chasing invisible critters from tree to tree.
I can't say I've ever seen so many people playing video games in public; in fact, I almost never encounter any evidence of talked-about video games in my everyday life, but the very first global blast of Pokémon, I remember, was one of the unavoidable fads of 1990s, and a fad it has again become if *I'm* witnessing evidence on the street. Of course, there is an unsavory side; probably, your data is being assiduously collected, as happens with many free download apps. Indeed, as gaming writer and designer Ian Bogost observed yesterday, Pokémon GO stands on the shoulders of numerous augmented reality projects of more than a decade's history, though it is the most dumbed-down and IP-cushioned of the lot - but then, none of its ancestors could function either without the encumbrance of media patronage. Games this size just aren't feasible unless they function, in significant part, as advertisements for something else.
Naturally, anybody familiar with the world of Japanese children's media is well aware of the massive chains of cross-platform engagement that keep things viable all around. I can't imagine the many other creature-collection franchises aren't piqued by the sight of Old Faithful again demonstrating its foreign visibility, albeit at some remove; the app has not yet released in Japan. What *is* coming out in Japan in less than a week, however, is Yo-Kai Watch 3, the newest handheld video game console release for what in recent years has come to be seen as the chief competitor to Pokémon in Japan. Yo-Kai Watch has also been trying to expand globally, to some success in North America: 50 more episodes of its anime show will air in English beginning next month, the second video game in the line will see translation in September, and many more toys, dolls and collectable blind bag doodads will soon be cluttering a set number of shelf inches at various retailers.
Still, it's not a fad, is it?
Some have speculated that Yo-Kai Watch is a little too Japanese to entirely click overseas. I think it may be a little too perversely personal. What games like Pokémon GO leave as amusing subtext -- that invisible beasties are lurking around wherever you go, probably watching you as you pee -- Yo-Kai Watch makes gleefully explicit. Not only are there invisible beings everywhere in Yo-Kai Watch, but the supernatural powers manifest from their distinct personalities have a direct effect on YOUR psychological state. There are yōkai that make you quarrelsome. There are yōkai that make you depressed. Or happy. Or prone to spending money on useless junk. The chosen few, however, can use the "Yo-Kai Watch" to make the invisible visible, and negotiate with these creatures - thereby perfecting the psychology of society at large. Basically, it is a fable of the regimented roles people are expected to play in Japanese society, which is why the protagonists are children: they can run and play and navigate the roles of society, not yet old enough to face the expectations of fitting in.
It is also about 90% a comedy -- rather than a tournament fighting martial thing or a monster-of-the-week showdown -- particularly in its anime iteration, which functions in large part like early episodes of The Simpsons, where lots of catchy kid-appeal antics commingle with broader hints of satire. There's several manga series too, the highest-profile of which is drawn by Noriyuki Konishi in a very loud, antic manner typical of Japanese comics aimed at young boys.
It's the manga I want to focus on today. VIZ has released five translated volumes so far; the series now appears to be on hiatus until December, probably to prevent it from using too many characters and concepts from later games/cartoons before those heads of the hydra have the opportunity to get in position... it's tough being a billion-yen endeavor!
Nonetheless, the fifth and most recent volume has a story unlike anything else we've quite gotten to see from the franchise. It begins with boy hero Nate and his faithful yōkai companion Whisper unconscious in the street. They pull themselves to their feet, only to discover that they are somehow different.
They are now... AMERICAN.
Nate has become a Cowboy. Not a very realistic sample - more of a living stereotype of foreign-derived masculine glamor and virility, for in addition to the hat and badge and chaps, he now sports six-pack abs, copious chest hair (despite being elementary school-age), and, most subtly, fair hair.
Whisper has become a Rapper. He has a cap, a bandanna, a basketball jersey and a big gold chain. To anyone cognizant of the history of racial caricature in American cartooning, attention is immediately drawn to Whisper's very pronounced lips; this is part of his normal character design, and innocuous in that context, but one does wonder how the decision was made to attribute media characteristics typically associated with black Americans to this character, if not from some awareness of the devices used as mocking shorthand (or unexamined reliance on mocking shorthand for basic depiction). I doubt Konishi means to be hurtful, but I think the parody he means to build is very broad, and apt to disregard the cultural nuances of the devices he evokes.
This is the yōkai responsible for the situation. His name is Apelican... at least in the English translation. His Japanese name, アペリカン, translates to "Aperican" (remember, no 'L' in Japanese), which is a play on アメリカン: "American". This joke makes absolutely no sense in translation, but that is why A Pe[l]ican is dressed like Uncle Sam and John Wayne and Elvis - 'American,' as used here, refers specifically to the United States. And that is the yōkai power of Apelican: everybody in his path becomes extraordinarily, farcically American, in a way not unlike Admiral Perry opening Japan to the west at cannon-point.
What he does, is pull out a gun and shoot people until they are American.
Oh my gosh, that's right - events occurred this past week that didn't involve Pikachu! There were a number of gun killings, which I admit is not a very specific description for a given week in the United States; Konishi, thus, utilizes 'guns' as additional shorthand for 'Americans,' confident that his primary audience of young boys will either immediately make the connection, or -- reading the iconography in tandem with the stars 'n stripes et al. -- will learn the connection.
Still, the comic does not press this line of critique; as a monster collection franchise, Yo-Kai Watch has a fraught relationship with violence, holding itself out as essentially pacifistic but leaning on combat when necessary for variation (in the video games) and as a simple engine of slapstick (particularly in this manga). So, from his library of yōkai buddies, Nate pulls out both a skilled fighter, but also someone he assumes an American will really like:
FUCK YEAH, there is probably nothing Japan has ever produced that Americans have liked more than ninja. Incidentally, you might be wondering why young "Nate" -- who makes his home, moreover, in the town of "Springdale" -- is so familiar with Japanese culture. As part of its global expansion plan, the decision was made to localize much of the specifically-named Japanese content in Yo-Kai Watch to western equivalents. This, however, causes a lot of trouble when an entire story hinges on the culture clash of Japanese and Americans; English adapter Aubrey Sitterson (working from a translation by Tetsuichiro Miyaki) basically elects to remain silent on the topic, leading to the assumption that Apelican is unusually patriotic among his fellow Americans, and that Nate is somehow guessing that a really, really American person would enjoy really, really Japanese things, basically by dint of the for-some-reason-suspiciously-Japanese-seeming character of his yōkai acquaintances.
Or, alternatively, the English Yo-Kai Watch manga now takes place in a version of Japan where everyone and everything has a western-sounding name. Maybe it was a fad.
Anyway, the ninja gets shot and turns into a Disco Man.
Yeah, that's an Afro. It's a look that's served as comedy novelty, straight-on exotica and outré style in Japan, though I again wonder if the decision to impart this particular character with this particular attribute relates to his black face. I will add that what I've seen of the upcoming Yo-Kai Watch 3, a game partially set in the U.S., quite adroitly avoids implicating any racial characteristics, save for the rather witty palette swapping of the franchise's red cat mascot character Jibanyan for a blonde-coated and blue-eyed American equivalent. It could be the manga sees less reason to be careful, in that it is only one official comic of several, and aimed at a pretty specific demographic. Tricks of business and fate have led it here first, though.
The story continues in this vein for a while, with Nate then summoning Shoganyan, a samurai variant of the aforementioned cat mascot; if a ninja won't work, a samurai will do, though he too gets shot and transforms into Santa Claus. "Santa Claus isn't even from America!" Nate protests, without time for anyone to elaborate upon the subtle travels of cultural iconography. The battle is growing fierce. No nation will remain unbloodied today.
Another handy slapstick device is the usage of violent images without any accordant consequences. Jidaigeki blood spray aside, Shoganyan only strikes Apelican with the blunt edge of his sword, then gets him swooning with a semi-nationalistic speech about how samurai don't take lives unnecessarily and condemn crime without condemning criminals and offer the hand of opportunity through kindness, which sort of makes me think Shoganyan ought to read up on his Sanpei Shirato or something, although honestly I have no idea how serious the comic is trying to be, playing its comedy/sincerity cards close to the vest by having Apelican become so thrilled by this rousing oration that he vows to diligently study Japanese culture from that day forward. Everyone happily agrees that learning about other cultures makes people better, which is a pretty useful motto to have when doing big international business - an aspirational ending all in all, especially for the marketing department.
Fittingly, the heroes then realize that Jibanyan, the series mascot, has also been shot. He has become a Hollywood Star.
Is this supposed to be anyone? Or is it just a burlesque on American celebrity signifiers? You'll have to try harder than that to make it around here, lil' kitty. I recommend microtransactions.
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, and that I also run a podcast with an employee of Nobrow Press. 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. You could always just buy nothing.
The Osamu Tezuka Story: A Life in Anime and Manga: The appeal here is very simple - it's a 928-page cradle-to-grave manga biography of the world comics titan, originally published in Japanese in the 1990s. There will likely be much temptation to compare this with Yoshihiro Tatsumi's similarly enormous A Drifting Life, for lack of anything more readily available, but know that the art here is fronted by a longtime Tezuka assistant, Toshio Ban, working with Tezuka Productions itself; I will expect something of an 'authorized' life story, although such a thing can be quite valuable on its own. Translation by another Tezuka associate, the great early manga-in-English proponent Frederik L. Schodt. Stone Bridge Press publishes; $29.95.
Notes Vol. 1: Born to Be a Larvae: Speaking of life stories, here is UK publisher Soaring Penguin Press with the first in Gilles "Boulet" Roussel's series of print compilations for his hugely-admired webcomics, which take on any form or topic that strikes his agile fancy. At 5 3/4" x 8 1/4", it looks to be roughly the same dimensions as the French edition, which was followed by nine additional volumes, so expect plenty more if interest warrants; $28.99.
The Adventures of Dieter Lumpen: More Euro[c]omics here, this time from the eponymous IDW line of vintage releases. Dieter Lumpen, which ran for roughly a decade, middle-to-middle in the '80s and '90s, is one of those classy globetrotting adventure series that set the mainstream of BD for adult readers apart. The creators are Argentine writer Jorge Zentner and Spanish artist Rubén Pellejero, the latter of whom was eventually recruited to continue Hugo Pratt's Corto Maltese series... earlier volumes of which are also available in English from the same publisher. This 264-page, 8.4" x 10.9" omnibus collects the entire series, so no need to mark your calendar; $49.99.
Eye of the Majestic Creature Vol. 3: Time Clock (&) Hip Hop Family Tree Vol. 4: 1984-1985: Two continuing series from Fantagraphics, albeit with differing focuses. Eye of the Majestic Creature is a storytelling forum for Leslie Stein, here I think accommodating a single 100-page b&w story of balancing art-making with wage-earning, processed through numerous fantasy devices. Hip Hop Family Tree is a chronological account of occurrences by Ed Piskor, adopting the devices of period commercial comics to communicate its information. The new one is 112 pages in color at 9" x 13"; $19.99 (Eye), $27.99 (Hip Hop).
Magic Whistle 3.2 (&) Terra Flats #1 (&) Vile #1 (&) Titan #3: Whole lot of stuff coming out under the banner of Alternative Comics. Magic Whistle is the long-running humor series by Sam Henderson, its 48 pages augmented with guest turns by the likes of Amy Lockhart and Tom Van Deusen, under a cover by Danny Hellman. Terra Flats is the start of a new full-color series from Jason Fischer, finding fantasy/horror creatures in everyday urban situations. Vile is a Study Group presentation (OH NO, THEY'RE GOING TO PUBLISH ME IN THEIR MAGAZINE SOON, WARNING!), the 48-page start of a one-artist anthology by Tyler Landry. And Titan continues the outer-space series by François Vigneault, taken from a Study Group webcomic; $5.99 (Whistle), $4.99 (Terra), $7.95 (Vile), $4.95 (Titan).
New Super-Man #1: Being the latest comics project from Gene Luen Yang, who wrapped up a run as writer on DC's Superman this past March. He's still at DC, but now with a Chinese superhero concept developed from an idea by co-publisher Jim Lee. The art is by Viktor Bogdanovic & Richard Friend. I quite enjoyed this mini-essay on the troublesome process of simply coming up with a credible name for the lead character, given the position of everybody involved as cultural outsiders. Preview; $2.99.
Love Addict: Confessions of a Serial Dater: You know the publicity is on point when Peter Kuper declares a book "a romp back to the great confessional comics of the 1990's," immediately followed by a pull quote from Joe Matt. What we're looking at is a 232-page color book from Israeli-born artist Koren Shadmi, concerning an animator whose experience with a Tinder-like dating app inspires "a relentless craving for novelty and sexual conquest." A Top Shelf release; $24.99.
Wandering Island: Our non-biographical manga pick of the week can only be this belated return to English-language publishing for Kenji Tsuruta, whose Spirit of Wonder series inspired a great deal of interest when released by Dark Horse in 1996, partially because it had already been made into an anime video, but also due to Tsuruta's rich and laborious art, matching supple cartoon figures (and a let's-say-special emphasis on the female form) with backgrounds often seeming imported from some animated feature film on a topic of early 20th century whimsical science fantasy. Twenty years later and Dark Horse is still around for a 2011 collection of adventuresome work, 200 pages of a young aviatrix scouring the seas for a mysterious destination; what I've seen of it in Japanese is very goddamned pretty. I believe there was supposed to be more at some point, but Tsuruta is not enormously speedy with longer works (the one-volume Spirit of Wonder took nine years to finish), so don't hold your breath. Preview; $14.99.
Milo Manara's Gullivera: The segue writes itself here, so I will refrain from elaborating upon the female form, etc. TRIVIA: Milo Manara was the first artist ever packaged by the North American Humanoids Publishing, way back in 1999 - it was an English edition of Pierre Louÿs' Aphrodite, for which Manara provided illustrations. Les Humanoïdes in France first published this Swiftian exercise in '96, so it's not unexpected for Humanoids in '16 to serve up a new English edition, following various releases by Heavy Metal, NBM and Dark Horse - Gulliver's Travels with a sexy lady is just a very salable idea. A 9.4" x 12.6" hardcover album in full cover. (Note that the publisher also has a new edition of the John Cassaday-drawn supernatural WWII series I Am Legion this week.) Samples; $24.95.
Judge Dredd: The Cursed Earth Uncensored: At last, we get to see Judge Dredd fully nude! I think I'm looking at the right tab. It's either nonstop full frontal nudity or a version of the 1978 episodic road trip storyline which does not omit certain parodic images of foodstuff mascots that inspired legal maneuvering at the time of serialization. Flip a coin. While they're at it, Rebellion will also reinstate various full-color spreads and utilize pages of the original art for improved reproduction quality. A 208-page hardcover written by John Wagner, Pat Mills & Chris Lowder, with art by Mike McMahon & Brian Bolland; $35.00.
Al Williamson's Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back - Artist's Edition: Gonna be pretty hard to miss the heart of a certain type of comics reader with this one, a 15" x 22" IDW presentation of the 1980-81 Marvel Star Wars series adaptation of the Irvin Kershner film, pencilled by Williamson from Archie Goodwin's scripts, with inks by Carlos Garzon and much lettering (with some uncredited additional pencils) via a young Rick Veitch. A later Goodwin/Williamson issue will also be included among these 160 pages, along with pinups and other things; $125.00.
Art and Beauty Magazine: Drawings by R. Crumb Numbers 1, 2 & 3: Finally, David Zwirner Books offers the most tony compendium of the comic shop week with a 132-page, 7" x 10" hardcover pairing the two original installments (1996, Kitchen Sink; 2003, Fantagraphics) of Robert Crumb's illustration, quotation and explication series with a new third issue's worth of material, all of it related to a Zwirner gallery exhibition recently closed in London. Very intensive work in here, often drawn from photographs, both original and found. Introduction by prominent art world personage Paul Morris. Samples; $35.00.