Thoughts and impressions on a selection of noteworthy comics I've recently read.

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2001 NIGHTS #1-10 (VIZ, 1990-91) - Yukinobu Hoshino, translated by Fred Burke & Rachel Thorn

(Note: I’ve never seen Kubrick’s 2001 in its entirety, nor read the novel. I did recognize some “HAL” references in these comics, but any other connections would’ve been lost on me.)

I just turned the last page of the tenth, final issue, which wraps up the handful of loose threads that run intermittently throughout the 20 or so very-loosely connected short stories that make up the series, but it took me so long to plod through it all that I could barely remember how any of the threads had begun… still, the last issue has some of the prettiest, most inventive artwork of the series, of which the artwork is the big draw (especially the quiet grandeur of the frequent spacecraft exterior shots). The stories themselves are mostly generic, Star-Trek-esque sci-fi with ironic twist endings, with a particular focus on the melancholy. Lots of sad backstories, star-crossed lovers, obsessives, and lots of tragic deaths.

I’d had these issues sitting around for years, and finally got around to reading them after my deep dive into Shirow Masamune. In the handful of Shirow interviews and commentaries I found, he almost never mentions any other comics or manga, but he singles Hoshino out twice. One of those mentions (maybe both, the first is in Appleseed Hypernotes but I can’t find the second one) is specific praise for the two-part story “Odyssey in Green”, which comes near the end of the 2001 series. (At least, I’m pretty sure that’s the story he’s praising. It’s translated as “Green Star Odyssey” in the Shirow commentary.)

A pretty representative story from issue #7 ends with the twisty revelation that the older male character and his young female friend-maybe-lover are actually mother and son, the reversal in their ages due to her having spent so much time traversing the stars in artificial hibernation while he was aging naturally. The story itself is a standard genre kind of thing, with space terrorists trying to hijack a load of hydrogen, and being repelled by the gutsy heroes. The meat of it felt a lot like one of the interchangeable action sequences from any old Star Trek episode, with characters solving problems via amorphous technological means (“point the interstellar beam radar at the docking bay! The bay’s interior should reflect the radiation–”) which the audience has to shruggingly accept as ingenuity, despite it mostly sounding like high-tech Calvinball… but then after all the schlocky action, we get a pretty genuinely touching ending with the age inversion twist.

The artwork throughout the series is very restrained and realistic, and heavily photo-referenced for the terrestrial backgrounds, but with some graceful cartooning in the faces. The acting can be pretty stiff though. The compositions often have the feeling of a movie screenshot: there’s a verisimilitude to it, the feeling that you’re peering into a world in progress, but with a bit of arbitrariness in the poses, and an occasional lack of clarity as to what’s happening, as though what’s depicted is just what the characters happened to be doing in that moment, rather than having been chosen by the author to communicate something specific. Maybe this is due to photo reference usage, but I can’t quite tell. It’s very prominent in the backgrounds, but I don’t see it in the faces, so who knows if Hoshino’s using it for the bodies? My gut says no.

The spaceships and construction vehicles look great throughout. They usually have a pleasant, naturalistic-feeling touch of mystery to their functions (if a vision of the future isn’t at least a little bit opaque and alien, if it’s just holo-newspapers and robo-dogs, I’m left unconvinced). The starfaring, planet-exploring action, though, is mostly pretty simplistic and sloppy. Teams of scientists travel for years to investigate potential new planets to colonize, only to say things like “don’t forget to look for metals” when they’re about to finally set foot on the new planet’s surface for the first time.

Hoshino's panel compositions are especially pretty and cinematic, in particular the dramatically lit starships floating in space, which have the same sort of movie-still feel as the character shots. And it’s not just cinematic compositions he’s emulating, it’s cuts and transitions too - but when reading them as sequential panels, the filmic techniques he’s going for don’t always register. You end up having to do a bit of mental translating to see what he’s got in mind, and then consciously play out the shots in your imagination, rather than just reading them off the page.

“Odyssey in Green” (issues #9-10), the one that I think Shirow liked so much, has a genuinely clever plot (which I won’t spoil, since it’s worth reading) and was by far my favorite story. It all just clicks: I didn’t quite see where the story was going, but it wraps up with such innate, clockwork elegance, that I SHOULD’VE seen where it was going, which is a great feeling to get from fiction. Just a really solid, smart sci-fi story, by the standards of any medium.

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THE TWO FACES OF TOMORROW #1-13 (Dark Horse, 1997-98) - Yukinobu Hoshino adapting James P. Hogan, translated by Frederik L. Schodt & Toren Smith

In stark contrast to 2001 Nights, with its generic EC-style twist endings, this one has a very, very polished plot (not surprisingly, since it’s an adaptation of a novel). It’s packed with setups, payoffs and foreshadowing, and everything wraps up nice and neat for everyone. It’s not all that original, but it’s much more expert at pushing the reader’s “conventional satisfaction” buttons, so it’s a lot more entertaining, at least for the first third or so. The artwork is also a lot more confident and graceful. If you were making an argument in favor of division of labor in comics, this could be exhibit B (exhibit A is Corben’s and Strnad’s Ragemoor.)

The story is about a group of scientists trying to see what would happen if they upgraded the AI system that assists Earth’s government. They run their experiment on a mostly empty space colony, rather than on Earth, in case anything goes wrong. It’s like Jurassic Park (a nearly perfect movie), but without any precocious kids saving the day with their hacker skills (the flawed stitch in JP’s Persian rug). Two Faces’ problem is that the antagonists, rather than charismatic dinosaurs (or gremlins or zombies or androids or whatever), are faceless, mass-produced drone robots and a faceless, mute AI. A big chunk of the story is soldiers fighting ever-evolving models of drones, which was about as interesting as them fighting a brick wall, despite being surprisingly gruesome once the drones equip themselves with flamethrowers. Actually, the extreme body count (in the thousands) is probably the least “Hollywood blockbuster screenplay” thing about the story.

Despite the novel being written in 1979, the science feels pretty rigorous and satisfying; complicated enough to seem real, but elegant enough to make intuitive sense. Our collective relationship to the large-scale possibilities of Artificial Intelligence doesn’t seem to have changed much in the past 40 years.

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COLONIA #1 (Colonia Press, 1998) - Jeff Nicholson

I LOVE Nicholson’s Through the Habitrails. There’s nothing else like it. Right from page one he’s got all these inscrutable motifs and symbols locked in–that hunched pose that keeps recurring, the spigots and jars–it’s all so uncanny it feels like the kind of thing he’d have stumbled onto gradually, by accident, but it’s all there from the get go. Which I think means it’s coming from somewhere really deep and honest and vulnerable; despite, I suspect (as noted below), the book being intended for commercial success. This is the most exciting sort of artwork - where the creator seems to be kind of conspicuously un-self-aware (there’s scenes of banal, believable cruelty in the story that most people would’ve self-censored (and which Nicholson did remove from the collected version, though you can still find them in the Taboo anthology, where Through the Habitrails was first serialized)), but is also such a careful, studied craftsman that, conversely, they seem to be unusually serious and mindful… I love that feeling - of not knowing how something could have even come to be. It’s magical.

From reading interviews with Nicholson, I know he was striving to make a sustainable career out of cartooning, so I’ve always wondered if Habitrails might’ve been inspired by Clowes’ extremely successful Eightball (Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, in particular). If that sort of slick, dark surrealism was what he was going for, he way overshot it and ended up with something far stranger. And far too genuinely dark and personal to have much mass appeal.

This one, Colonia, also seems to be aiming for some kind of commercial success. It’s a YA adventure with pirates and magical creatures, but it’s also got several pages of reference material in the back, which seemed at first like it wouldn’t be of interest to anyone, especially kids. But as I projected myself back in my imagination, I decided childhood is probably the time I’d have been most likely to read all that backmatter (I didn’t read it this time.) When I was 16 or so, I worked at a public library, and would pick up all sorts of books that I can’t imagine reading now. I read Alec Baldwin’s nonfiction book about child custody battles, Caitlin Flanagan’s memoir about hiring a nanny... I can’t remember what I was getting out of these things, as not just a 16-year old, but an especially dumb, cloistered 16-year old. I think maybe I was so dumb and cloistered that almost any book about adult life, even these mundane sorts of things, was a kind of fantasy novel, about weird alien worlds and mythical conflicts.

Anyway, I enjoyed this issue, though it suffers from a bit of “kids’ media” logic, where crazy things happen, the characters say “wow, this is crazy,” but they don’t actually act like it’s crazy. It’s one step up from not acknowledging the craziness at all, but still has a numbing effect.

So, despite not feeling like quite the right audience, I might pick up a few more of these. There’s a lot of interesting ideas and generous attention to detail… basically, Nicholson’s an unusually earnest, smart, hardworking cartoonist, and I’m curious to see where he’s going with this.

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THE INTERVIEW (Fantagraphics, 2017) - Manuele Fior, translated by Jamie Richards

I liked the story fine–it’s smart and sophisticated–but the telling of it is thrilling. Gorgeous, gorgeous drawings. Fior's technique is (appears?) simple and unassuming, mostly just an ink line and charcoal smudges; the elegance of it makes it look easy. By comparison, looking at the work of Blutch or Christophe Blain, similarly talented draftsmen working in a similar “cartoony realism” mode, I get more of a feeling of labor and perfectionism.

Relatedly, perhaps, I tore through this book very quickly, wanting to see the next impressive thing more than I wanted to linger on any individual impressive thing. The afterimage of the faces and gestures is strong in my mind, but the plot is already fading. Apologies for the reductive term, but it had a familiar “manic pixie dream girl” sort of shape. Middle-aged man in trouble meets free-spirited young woman, pulls himself together. It’s not BAD, it’s just sort of passé, I guess. Distracting.

It’s set in the near future, and there’s a time jump to a further near-future, and there’s extraterrestrial stuff and telepathy stuff. Maybe I read it too fast, was too excited by the drawings, but the sci-fi elements didn’t really shine much light on the characters’ situations, though it was all really tastefully done.

But the drawing, wow, pure pleasure. Every panel feels just right. Dense but airy, spontaneous yet considered. Like one haiku after another. The only thing that snagged was the erotic reminiscence of Dora (the young woman). The drawings of bodies become sculpted and subtle, but the heads stay in their exaggerated, George Grosz sorta mode. Maybe it’s on purpose? I don’t know - I found it jarring. I made the exact same complaint in my Shirow essay, about his lovingly rendered female bodies clashing with their conventionally cartoony faces. It’s an epidemic!

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ARTISTIC LICENTIOUSNESS #1-3 (Starhead Comix & Comix Bitch, 1991-97) - Roberta Gregory

I remember being aware of Naughty Bits (Gregory’s claim-to-fame series) when I was first getting into comics, but, for whatever reason, I intuitively decided it wasn’t for me and never investigated further. Maybe it was the loose, scratchy spontaneity of the art? Her style is way at odds with the kind of tight, labored drawing I was into back then: Woodring, Columbia, Cooper, Clowes, Bagge (all published by Fantagraphics alongside Naughty Bits, the stylistic black sheep of the company). Since then I’ve read two issues of Naughty Bits, one of which (a reminiscence of elementary school) I thought was really good. Very evocative and authentic. The other was, I believe, a reminiscence about college, and I thought it was pretty facile and blah.

This miniseries, Artistic Licentiousness, is somewhere between the authenticity of that one Naughty Bits issue and the superficiality of the other, but better than both. The story is soap opera-ish, but in a good way: when I got to the last page I wanted to know what happened next, and what happened after that, etc. etc. It’s about a mostly-gay woman, Denise, and the mostly-straight man, Kevin, who lives in the apartment below hers. She’s more experienced and jaded, and he’s virginal and naïve and a little bitter, and we follow their various interactions, rejections and reconciliations over the course of a dramatic few weeks. It’s kind of like Melrose Place or some such, but with a lot more earnest, confused introspection about sexual orientation. That, plus the main characters are both schlubby and uncool. Denise is a struggling semi-pro science fiction author and Kevin is a struggling, semi-pro comics artist. They’re both poor, but, refreshingly, neither is bohemian nor hip, they’re just… extremely normal. Schlubby and uncool, but hardworking; lonely but not self-pitying. Now that I think about it, probably a big part of what’s refreshing about these characters is that they’ve never even heard of social media… Anyway, as is probably apparent, their stories are overtly symmetrical, in that every major situation that one of the two leads encounters is mirrored by some kind of analogous situation for the other: Kevin accidentally includes a page of erotic drawings in a sheaf of comics pages he lends to Denise, and, simultaneously, she accidentally includes a page of her erotic writing with a short story she lets him read. Denise has a sexual encounter outside of her usual orientation, causing her confusion and consternation, and so does Kevin. It doesn’t feel at all naturalistic, and yet it doesn’t feel like cutesy rom-com material either, but it also doesn’t feel clever or postmodern - it feels earnest, transparent. The care that went into the artifice reveals more about the author than the archetypal characters and familiar situations. Though what it reveals I don’t think I could really put into words.

Lastly, as usual with this kind of thing, the story-within-a-story depictions of Denise’s fantasy world were my favorite parts of the whole series. Though if they took up the whole book it would be too much.