GRAPHIC NOVEL and TRADE PAPERBACK (TPB) REVIEWS

by The Masked Bookwyrm

Miscellaneous (non-Superhero) - "B" Page 1


cover by Keiji NakazawaBarefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima 1987 (HC & SC TPB) 300 pages
a.k.a. Hadashi No Gen

Written and illustrated by Keiji Nakazawa.
Black & White.

Originally serialized in the Japanese comic magazine, Shukan Shonen Jampu (1972-1973)

Additional notes: published in a small format, almost digest-sized; various introductory commentaries

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Suggested mildly for mature readers

Published by New Society Publishers

Barefoot Gen tells the semi-autobiographical story of its author, growing up in Japan during World War II, in the doomed city of Hiroshima, in the months prior to that city being devastated by the dropping of the first atomic bomb. Young Gen is like any normal, rambunctious boy of any culture, and any time. Not a bad child...though not quite good, either, he gets in and out of trouble, both looking out for and looking down on his little brother. On one hand, it is a universal paean to childhood, on the other hand, it's a vivid recreation of wartime Japan in all its absurdity (old veterans teaching civil defence courses in how to use bamboo spears against the enemy on the cusp of the nuclear age) and its hardship (enduring air raids, hunger, and sinister secret police).

I'm not that familiar with Japanese comics -- manga -- a narrative medium that has been thriving in Japan for years, and which has started to take North American comicbook fans by storm in the last decade or so. So my review is as much filtered through my adjustment to the style as the substance.

In Japan (supposedly) comics are considered a legitimate art form, read by adults as readily as any normal book, and Japanese magna deal with adult themes and subject matter. And yet, there is also a curious cartooniness, a juvenileness to the presentation which is, at first, disconcerting, but becomes oddly effective as you get used to it. The figures are drawn in a cartoony way -- when angered, their teeth are gritted exaggeratedly, or sweat beads will literally fly off a character's forehead like something out of a Walt Disney Comic. When a character strikes another character...he'll fly across the room in a way reminiscent of any superpowered battle in mainstream American comics. But it's this very cartoony juvenileness that can make the work effective, as you find yourself lulled into its slightly safe world of caricature and exaggeration. The contrast with the reality of the story, the political themes, can serve to actually strengthen those themes, not weaken them, precisely because the style is so rudimentary, so pure. The heart of the scenes hit you immediately. And the pacing is likewise tight and focused.

With that being said, it can still be a bit distracting when contrasted with, often, more realistic American and European comics.

Gen's father is an opponent of the war, and this stance has led to him and his family suffering a degree of ostracism in their community -- the family having difficulty even getting enough to eat. Meanwhile, over the course of the story, Gen's older brother joins the air force. Through these characters, Nakazawa explores war time Japan, and shows its philosophical and cultural diversity -- a diversity, and complexity, absent from a lot of Hollywood war films.

And this is not the popularized Japan of Western media -- full of ninjas, and honour codes. The chharacters here act and talk, laugh and rage, very much like their counterparts would in any western country. Though Gen's good guy dad's "tough love" approach is more like child abuse -- though whether sending his sons flying across the room is intended as an accurate depiction of disciplinary measures, or is simply part of the cartoony exaggeration, is hard to say. Indeed, if the characters were Western, and done in a less cartoony manner, it is doubtful one could quite move past some of those scenes!

Interestingly, although there must definitely be an inferred anti-war subtext in a story in which we spend time with characters who, we know, will be devastated by the American bombing of Hiroshima -- a pain that the author must feel -- he doesn't pull any punches in his portrayal of Japan either. The very fact that Gen's father opposes the war emphasizes the inherent helplessness of the citizenry -- they can't be blamed for the war of their government, but neither could they necessarily put an end to it, either. "A handful of rich men started this war for their own profit, without even consulting us citizens! What do you mean 'for my country'?" the father rages at Gen's older brother after the lad vows to fight for "my country".

Eventually the story builds, inevitably, to that fateful day in August, when the bomb fell. You can find yourself hoping Nakazawa will cop out a little, offering a sanitized, happy ending. But he doesn't. The ending is particularly powerful -- although the author doesn't dwell too much on the physical horror, the "gross out" factor that no doubt would be a part of the real destruction. There is some of that, but it is diluted somewhat by the cartoony style. As such, the emotional horror and tragedy is more forceful precisely because we can't hide behind a visceral revulsion. Gen survives -- in fact, the character is followed in subsequent stories -- but not all the characters do. It's an uuncompromising ending that, maybe, doesn't offer any easy solutions to war -- Nakazawa stops short of condemning the American attack, or even nuclear weapons. But it forces the reader to not be so cavalier when contemplating such trite, casual terms as "collateral damage". A "collateral" death is still a death. And for a Western audience -- though the story was originally publisheed in Japan -- it provides a very human face, a very familiar, very comprehensible face, for the "enemy".

The "enemy", as portrayed by Gen and his family, truly is us.

Original soft cover price: $__ CDN./ $10.95 USA.


Walt Simonson Bat Lash: Guns and Roses 2008 (SC TPB) 132 pages

Written by Peter Brandvold and Sergio Aragones. Illustrated by John Severin, with Javi Pina & Steve Leiber.
Colours: Steve Buccellato. Letters: Pat Brosseau. Editor: Rachel Gluckstern.

Reprinting: the six issue mini-series (2007-2008)

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Published by DC Comics

Bat Lash was a short lived 1960s western comic from DC Comics, created by Sergio Aragones (creator of Groo the Wanderer) and co-written with Denny O'Neil. A light-hearted (with a serious edge) series about a lovable rogue who wandered the Old West, it owed more to TV series like Maverick than, say, the up-right heroes of Gunsmoke. But though short lived, it was critically well regarded, and Bat Lash cropped up occasionally in other western comics from time to time.

This 2008 mini-series, dubbed "Guns and Roses" inside, follows the current trend in comics of remaking older tales, in that this isn't a "new" adventure of Bat Lash, but a retelling of his origin story (which had previously been told in the 6th issue of his 1960s series). But though I don't think this is meant to be a radical reinterpretation of the story, it is, one assumes, greatly expanded (going from one issue to six!) and with more modern grittiness (profanity like "bastard" and an attempted rape scene -- but only attempted). Aragones returns to the property, this time teamed with co-writer Peter Brandvold and artist John Severin.

And the result is a strange beast. Because in many respects it comes across as pretty trite, telling its Romeo & Juliet type tale of young, clean cut Bat Lash being in love with the daughter of a greedy land baron -- who has eyes for the Lash family farm and with a corrupt sheriff in his pay. It's pretty straight forward and doesn't really warrant six issues.

Yet, it's quite enjoyable.

Maybe it's because the very triteness of it all means it is kind of appealingly evocative, seeming like -- well, like a good ol' western, which can be fun even if, like me, you aren't really a hardcore western fan, per se. But it remains just fresh enough that it doesn't seem tired or uninspired, the way some recent western movies have seemed so desperate to evoke their milieu they end up a collection of cut and paste cliches.

You're interested to see where it's going...even if you don't really expect it to go anywhere too surprising. Nonetheless there are a few curve balls thrown at you here and there, particularly in the dynamics of the villains, as the land baron finds his crooked sheriff is not as easy to control as he'd like.

As mentioned, it really didn't warrant six issues (heck, when there are no less than two scenes of Bat Lash being strung up by a noose, only to be rescued at the last minute -- and by the same character, no less! -- you know there could've been some trimming). At the same time, unlike my criticism of some modern comics with their "decompression" of scenes, it doesn't really feel like the creators are padding out pages with a lot of pointless panels and the like. The pacing might be a bit relaxed, but not slow.

Of course, a large appeal of the series can be laid at the feet of artist John Severin, one of those guys who can probably enjoy the title of "Old Master". There's an understated elegance to his work that suits this rustic tale of men -- as opposed to super-men -- and their horses. And though the story is, primarily, serious, there is a thread of humour through it in spots which Severin, deftly mixing realism with a hint of caricature, serves well.

Towards the climax, artists Javi Pina & Steve Lieber pinch hit about 5 pages. They're a solid enough pairing that it doesn't hurt the story -- it's mainly an action sequence, which they handle well. It's more in the close ups of the faces that it becomes more obvious that it isn't Severin. (Funnily enough, their style is a bit evocative of Walt Simonson -- who contributed the covers for the series). Severin is back for the epilogue and you wonder, did he just fall behind the "dreaded deadline doom" (as comics used to call it), or was the original climax maybe scrapped and reworked at the last minute, but by then Severin had other commitments. Who knows?

I mentioned earlier that this is a strange beast. Part of that is because it is a big, six part mini-series -- re-presenting a property that, though critically well regarded, is, nonetheless, pretty obscure. In the wake of DC's successful revival of cowboy Jonah Hex, it stands to reason they might be looking to dust off other western characters, but still... But more, what makes it strange is that, in essence, this isn't really about the Bat Lash that was known -- the likeably amoral gambler and ladies man. This is about him as a younger, more up right character. And this is, primarily, serious, whereas the original series was humorous. In other words, if they were hoping to interest new readers in the character...why start with a six issue story which isn't really representative of the character or the tone?

As well, knowing the man he is to become, one can suspect the story won't end happily for him and his true love -- though it doesn't necessarily end the way you might expect.

But that becomes another issue, as it's basically a self-contained story, with no guarantee of any sequels...yet ends in a vaguely open way that might leave readers scratching their heads if they weren't aware this was essentially a prequel to a pre-existing character who has many adventures ahead of him. In fact, it's curious that even as comics companies seem to more and more shamelessly cannibalize their own catalogue of stories, they don't necessarily make that clear to the reader. Nowhere in the original mini-series issues is there any editorial mentioning that Bat Lash is an established character dating back decades.

But the bottom line is, the series works more than it doesn't, as an agreeable, old fashioned western drama/adventure.

This is a review of the story as it was serialized in the mini-series.

Cover price: ___


Babylon 5: The Price of Peace
see review in the Media Tie-In section


The Bear Stories 2008 (SC GN) 52 pages

coverWritten, illustrated and coloured by George Todorovski & Chris Haztopoulos.
Letters: Rene Vriends, Chris Haztopoulos. Editor: Peter Kostka.

Rating: * * (out of 5)

Number of readings: 1

Recommended for Mature Readers

Published by DMF Comics

The Bear Stories is about a cute, cartoon bear on the streets of the "real" world...who is foul mouthed and bad tempered, talking in a never ending stream of profanity, and is obsessed with sex and porn (even the title of his volume can't be printed on the outside cover). And in the late 1960s, when underground comix were burgeoning, it might've achieved a minor cult status.

Unfortunately, this is 2009. And you can find yourself going...so? Is that all you've got? The idea of taking traditional, family friendly cartoon-like characters and then "shocking" us with their vulgar antics is hardly new (Fritz the Cat was doing it in the 1960s), the idea of an anti-hero protagonist who is defined by his churlish belligerence is kind of stock for independent/underground comix (Reid Fleming, as just one f'rinstance), and setting the character against a plotless milieu of kitchen sink mundaneness is, again, pretty much de rigueur.

Still, the fact that all this stuff is pretty traditional maybe means the creators at least think they know their market!

But despite a back cover blurb proclaiming it "mirrors the naked truth of this era", it doesn't really rise to the level of social or political satire.

The opening short, which is presumably an example of the character's earliest appearance (an accompanying editorial indicates the creators had first been developing the character in 2000) is entirely missable, being a pointless vignette of the character just going around cursing at people on the streets (who curse back at him).

The main body of the book shows some, modest, improvement. The art is a little more effective, showing more skill and style (though the decision to always draw Bear with the same expression kind of robs some of the potential for humour), the lettering has definitely improved. The mundane conversations between characters ring a little more true. It still, though, doesn't have much of a plot, as it's just a string of episodes connected by Bear's search for sex and/or porn, though with the cute gag that Bear is guilelessly convinced that his $14.23 can buy him anything. The longest sequence, with Bear at a video porn shop borders on being amusing, with Bear convinced there's the "special stuff" in the backroom, and the bemused clerk unable to convince him otherwise. But it still only borders on being amusing. And in true slice-of-life way, it's ultimately a shaggy dog story that never really goes anywhere.

Look, there's doubtless an audience for this: some 14 year old kids looking for something to make them feel grown up, on one hand, and aging hippies who will find it reminds them of the comix they read forty years ago, on the other -- both with a healthy helping of marijuana on hand to accentuate the jokes. But part of the appeal of the underground comix was the raw, underdog feel. Whether a glossy, full colour book with a $9.99 (US) price tag, and material that barely rises to the level of a vignette, will find an eager, paying audience is the question.

Cover price: $__ CDN./$9.99 USA


 

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