THIS WEEK IN COMICS! (4/20/11 – Obvious Jokes Within)

What you're looking at here is the cover of the April 2011 issue of Afternoon, a monthly anthology that Big Three manga publisher Kodansha has been running since 1987. This particular issue is 1,062 pages long, mostly in b&w, with 854 pages allotted to its telephone book-sized main body, consisting of ongoing serials and gag strips, and 208 pages relegated to a pack-in digest book (i.e. the kind of bookshelf item associated with 'manga' in North America) dedicated as far as I can tell to self-contained stories. Its retail price is 680 yen, converting to approximately $8.25 USD, although if you're not buying it directly in Japan you'll see enough of a shipping/miscellaneous markup to put it around $12.00 or so. Note that despite its cover date the May 2011 issue is already out on stands, with the June 2011 issue due in probably a week or so.

I like flipping through magazines like this; it reminds me that popular manga remains in large part a matter of serialized first impressions, with matters of financial viability and reader popularity hashed out in direct competition with potentially dozens of other serials before the collected editions start to fly. In that the latter format is usually the only way English-reliant readers can experience the total work, comprehensible text and all, such magazines additionally serve as a reminder that Japanese artists continually plug away at projects, bit by bit, month by month, much like how some North American readers still experience work in comic book form.

What I'd like to do is isolate a few aspects from this very large issue as a means of peeking into a few NA-familiar artists' more present-tense efforts.

For example, here's cover artist Hiroaki Samura, of Blade of the Immortal, doing his best Hiroshi Hirata impersonation with that lovely hand-drawn exclamation. In manga like this the dialogue lettering is typically laid down in tidy digital fonts, so Samura is setting this particular howl apart as special, particularly in rendering it as a romanized statement rather than in the manner of a hand-drawn logographic sound effect, the strokes of which tend to blend into the artist's distinctively hazy figure work. It's a style that's served Samura well, a not-so-'manga' look that put him over in the '90s North American comic book scene in the same way the gekiga stylings of Goseki Kojima successfully set Lone Wolf and Cub apart in the '80s. In fact, Blade of the Immortal wound up being the last big manga series to depart from comic book format serialization in North America, when English-language publisher Dark Horse finally switched it over to bookshelf-format only in 2007. It ran for 131 issues over 11 years.

But publishing milestones are celebrated in Japan too, which is why Samura got the cover spot: the April '11 Afternoon boasted the 199th episode of Blade of the Immortal, which I think counting an initial prologue makes it essentially episode 200. There's a color fold-out up front detailing the history of the series, although I was pleased to notice that the chapter itself was pretty much another long Samura fight scene, reliant as ever on propulsive movement shifting from images of grace to half-discernible moments of impact (right-to-left, remember):

It took me longer than it should have to figure out that the perspective had shifted to behind the female character at the top of page 3, it's such an explosion of lines and cloth and skin. It was truly interesting to flip through Dark Horse's 2006 edition of Samura's Ohikkoshi, which transfers this visual style to a romantic comedy, substituting impact for delicacy by just keeping characters sitting around in sketchy lines.

Of course, there are even longer-lived (if maybe less versatile) things in play for both Afternoon and Dark Horse:

Witness episode 270 of Ah! My Goddess, aka Oh My Goddess!; the very fact that there's two names speaks to its venerable status in English-translated manga, as the former is the 'official' on-page English title while the latter is the one everybody kind of got used to. The product of one Kōsuke Fujishima, Oh My Goddess! is only one year younger than Afternoon itself, and marked something of a transforming moment for otaku culture, transmuting the 'magical girlfriend' tropes of, say, Rumiko Takahashi's Urusei Yatsura into the placid, virtually sexless, idealized bland boy/colorful woman-and-all-her-crazy-shit status quo of the 'harem' comedy. This was big stuff for anime in particular, and so (like many series of the day) Oh My Goddess! was preceded in manga publication by fondness surrounding its direct-to-video animated adaptations, begun in 1993, or even earlier anime influenced by Fujishima's manga refinements, like definition-of-mid-'90s-anime-fandom itself, Tenchi Muyo!

Anyway, Fujishima is still at it, as Dark Horse has been in a translating capacity since 1994. You'll notice that the page above -- and I think the image bleeding makes a fine statement about the paper quality in these magazines, don't you? -- is bordered by all kinds of text. That's common in anthologies like this, where the text to the left might fill you in on some quick background information so as to ease you into your monthly dose, while the exciting 22nd Anniversary header cheerily refers to a special dvd to be included in the 43rd collected volume of the series (which in this capacity is a bit like paying membership to a website so to avoid the ads). Elsewhere, there's a glossy fold-out advertisement for the dvd that came with vol. 42:

Hell yeah, these folks know their appeal, their fanbase - the dvds, from what I can gather, are anime versions of selected content from the collected manga volumes themselves, directed by Hiroaki Gōda, who's been in charge of the series' animations since the beginning. In this way, the new Oh My Goddess! discs perhaps function closer to the original fandom appeal of anime OVA in the '80s, where the content is less a self-sustained artistic work than a celebratory keepsake of favorite bits from a beloved property.

On the other hand, some artists favor change.

Afternoon runs a regular competition to award money and exposure to new manga artists: the Four Seasons Contest. Among the 1995 honorees was Tsutomu Nihei, with a story that later expanded into a serial for the magazine: Blame! The material was presented in English by Tokyopop, a publisher that recently ceased activities concerning manga in English. Yet Nihei continues on in the dual reality that is real life and the translated perception.

This is from Biomega, a later series Nihei completed for a different Japanese publisher. It is currently being released in English by Viz. The differences between it and Blame! (especially the early content) are pronounced, but clearly the work of the same hand.

And here is the artist's current Afternoon serial, Knights of Sidonia, seeing a considerably 'cuter,' more cartoon-stylized side of Nihei. Even his bio-mechanical creatures are poppier, a little more distinct:

But it was refreshing for me to see, particularly this week, where concerns of intellectual properties left in an uncertain state must take understandable precedence in the wake of Tokyopop's collapse. They didn't just work with Japanese artists, handling licenses to translate. Yet you see the life in the wreckage above, the continuing evolution of artists struggling into the future. It's not a frozen state, no matter how slowed it may seem from the distance of localization.


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, or, in the event of a holiday or occurrence necessitating the close of UPS in a manner that would impact deliveries, Thursday, identified in the column title above. 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.



The Girl and the Gorilla: As penance for spending half the column talking about easily recognizable names (and also the murders, which I have been talking about to myself on the advice of counsel), this week's picks are honed in on first books. Here it's a new release from UK publisher Blank Slate, a 100-page b&w project by Madéleine Flores, which "delves into how much our world would suffer through the lack of hope and creativity," as the solicitation goes. There is a girl and a gorilla, and a nice, airy-smooth style. Preview (click the cover); $10.99.

The Klondike: In contrast, Zach Worton emphasizes the three-dimensionality of his stylized human figures, which seem like iconic faces positioned atop line-wrinkled clothing and arms, set against tactile natural settings. Specifically, this 320-page release from Drawn & Quarterly purportedly focuses on Canadian settings, tracking the Yukon gold rush of the late 19th century - supplemental texts as to the history are promised. Preview; $24.95.



Mister Wonderful: Being an 80-page Pantheon expansion of artist Dan Clowes' 2008 serial from The New York Times Magazine, presented as a low, long 11.1" x 6.1" landscape-format hardcover. While not as determinedly left-to-right as, say, Eddie Campbell's & Daren White's The Playwright, the format -- combined with Clowes' decision to augment the proceedings with attention-focusing double-page splash images and his tendency to have his protagonist's running narration literally intrude upon aspects of the page as a visual unit -- encourages some increase in reading velocity, rushing you through a modestly eventful life in the night of an impoverished sad sack taking a final crack at dating while the somewhat similarly-themed/formatted Campbell/White book lingered above its sexually restless protagonist and interjected visions as if slides had been ripped from the sequential show of narrative reality. What I'm saying is, the key difference between Mister Wonderful as a serial and as a book is that the latter is more fittingly experiential, which makes for an interesting contrast with last year's distanced, multi-observational Wilson. Interview by Sean T. Collins at this site; $19.95.

Dark Horse Presents #1: In which Dark Horse unveils the third edition of its house anthology (est. 1986), following an online edition that terminated last July following 36 issues. Now it's an 80-page bimonthly perfect-bound color affair, with a first issue perhaps subconsciously swinging a 'history of Dark Horse' theme, with a new Concrete story by Paul Chadwick, a prose offering from Harlan Ellison, a Star Wars short, plus contributions by Richard Corben, Howard Chaykin, Carla Speed McNeil, an appearance by Michael T. Gilbert's Mr. Monster and something involving the always-welcome David Chelsea. Plus: new work by Frank Miller (previewing his upcoming 300 offshoot Xerxes) and Neal Adams, so admirers of eccentric contemporary works by generation-defining genre comics artists of a quarter century or more ago might want to line up Tuesday night. Preview; $7.99.

pood #3: Also in anthologies -- here of the color newspaper broadsheet type -- is the latest edition of Big If Comics' 16-page mix, edited by Geoff Grogan, Kevin Mutch and Alex Rader. Contributions by Jim Rugg & Brian Maruca, Tobias Tak, Hans Rickheit and others. Official site; $4.50.

Akira Vol. 6 (of 6): In which the gradually ramping-up North American wing of the aforementioned Kodansha polishes off this re-presentation of Dark Horse's old English edition of the seminal Katsuhiro Otomo action manga. Next up on the fandom landmarks list is Sailor Moon; $29.99.

20th Century Boys Vol. 14 (of 24): I think a lot of people are hoping Kodansha also slips in Billy Bat, the newest and apparently wildest project by suspense specialist Naoki Urasawa, currently running in Morning, a weekly sibling publication to Afternoon. This signified a break in Urasawa's longstanding relationship with fellow Big Three manga publisher Shogakukan, one of the owning entities behind Viz, which (understandably) has facilitated all Urasawa releases in English as of now. It's no different here, as the sprawling mass of conspiracy and danger seeps further away from my ability to ever fucking catch up; $12.99.

Marijuanaman: Yes, new comics day falls on 4/20, and yes, Image is indeed releasing a Marijuanaman comic book -- actually a deluxe, oversized European album-type 48-page color hardcover, it seems! -- conceived by Batman creator Ziggy Marley. Be aware that the art is by Jim Mahfood (who may benefit nicely from the project's physical dimensions) with writing by Joe Casey of Gødland - apparently the Marijuanaman plot is also of revelatory funnybook cosmic stock. My local megaplex theater is playing The Grateful Dead Movie too; $24.99.

'68 #1 (of 4): This is also a case of perfect timing, in that Easter's coming up this weekend and I can't imagine a better moment for an Image comic about soldiers rising from the dead to terrorize the battlefields of Vietnam. Also, the Catechism of the Catholic Church mandates that I duly record any comic book appearance by Faust artist Tim Vigil, so be on notice of a backup story by him. Primary contributions by Mark Kidwell, Nat Jones and Jay Fotos, all of whom (and Vigil too) have done work on the assorted Frank Frazetta tie-in comics Image has been releasing for years now. Preview; $3.99.

Vampirella Archives Vol. 3: The latest in Dynamite's line of applicable Warren reprints, covering issues #15-21, which pushes the action just a bit into the first Bill DuBay tenure as editor and Steve Englehart's brief run as writer on the title character's feature. Stories by DuBay, Englehart, Archie Goodwin, T. Casey Brennan, Don McGregor, Doug Moench, Jan Strnad and others, with art by José Gonzalez, Esteban Maroto, Pat Boyette, Richard Corben, Rafael Auraleón, Jose Bea, Felix Mas and others. Samples; $49.99.

Little Lulu's Pal Tubby Vol. 3: The Frog Boy and Other Stories: The latest in Dark Horse's line of John Stanley-related reprints, specifically covering Marge's Tubby issues #13-18 in color. Preview; $15.99.

Archie: Seven Decades of America's Favorite Teenagers... and Beyond!: Finally, your book-on-comics for the week seems to be of the broad overview coffee table sort, with Craig Yoe and publisher IDW surveying the franchise landscape over 224 pages; $49.99.