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Wednesday, Nov 18, 2009
Where Kazuo Umezu is somewhat more traditional, Hideshi Hino strives to find beauty or at least to nuture a sort of awestruck fascination with horrific images and narrative elements.

Perpetually smiling and jokey, Kazuo Umezu seems to have cornered the market on “Where’s Waldo”-style red and white jerseys. He looks like a jovial dude, a little goofy, and more likely to tell a fart joke and giggle inapproprately than to plumb the macabre depths of emotions through haunting tales (unless fart jokes do that for you).


By contrast, Hideshi Hino looks like manga’s ichiban badass motherfucker.


Since the 1970s, these two mangaka have shaped the genre of horror in Japanese comics, and indirectly, Japanese and Western horror movies. Along with their love of terror, and degree of influence upon artists who followed them, Umezu and Hino also share a storytelling style that leans heavily on Japanese folklore, and an early grounding in comedic work.


With so much common ground between them, it’s their differences that make them compelling and fascinating subjects for comparison, even on a superficial level. For example, the two men could not appear more differently in public.


This Friday’s upcoming Iconographies feature will examine two seminal works by these artists, both of which were recently republished in the West: Umezu’s two-volume Cat-Eyed Boy, and Hino’s Lullabies From Hell.


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Thursday, Nov 12, 2009

The twin themes of identity and individuality have been persistent, domineering forces in storytelling, and, indeed, everyday life since the days of cave paintings in the cradle of civilization. For good or for ill, these twin aspects define humanity and don’t appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.


The slave trade? Segregation? What ended up happening to the persons involved was entirely dependent on their skin color.


The Crusades? The Inquisition?  One’s personal religion either vilified or redeemed them.


McCarthyism? Rigged elections? Dependent on one’s perceived political proclivities.


One needs to do no more than research the Indian caste system, South African apartheid, American marriage laws and health care concerns and the various attempted genocides in the Middle East and Africa to know that identity-based persecution isn’t going to go the way of the dinosaurs anytime soon.


Though it takes place in 1994 and is loosely based on H.G. Wells’s 1897 classic The Invisible Man, Jeff Lemire’s insightful and touching new graphic novel The Nobody is both timely and timeless, its artwork and narrative lending a haunting air to a world on a slightly different vibrational frequency from our own. In this version of the tale, ostensibly occurring pre-9/11 but obviously created many years after the attacks that changed the world forever, a small town’s concern over a man garbed head-to-toe in bandages is palpable, but only serves as a potent reminder of the secrets that every resident of every small town on this planet has. This version of the transparent strange, here called “John Griffen” as opposed to “Doctor Griffin” (no doubt as an homage to “Jack Griffin”, as in the 1933 James Whale film of The Invisible Man) is feared not necessarily because he could have a terrible communicable disease, an upsetting, scarred visage or even a record of dire criminal activities; he is feared because his very physical essence is a reminder of humanity’s own deep, dark hearts and minds, and the secrets carried beneath every individual’s “bandages”.


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Friday, Oct 30, 2009

In the 1998 hardback collection of Batman: The Long Halloween original series artwork is replaced by a spectacular two-page spread. This is the closing issue of the 13-part series, the second Halloween issue in the year-long mystery that consumed Batman in his early days. Readers are treated to a framing of Batman they have not seen for the entire run of the series. Here is a Batman that is standing tall, a Batman that dominates the page. A Batman that is completely in control. Yet, in keeping with the themes of The Long Halloween this is also a Batman that is dwarfed by the cityscape that stands as background. Here is a Batman that is both dominant, and daunted. The weight of an entire city seems to reach out and crush him in artist Tim Sale’s magnificent rendering.


Annotations to the 1998 hardback’s second appendix suggest that, given the prestige of the edition, editors Bob Kahan and Rick Taylor believed the story’s ending should refocus the roles the three lead characters (Bruce Wayne’s Batman, soon to be Police Commissioner Jim Gordon, and disgraced DA Harvey Dent). Writer Jeph Loeb’s original ending, wherein two monstrous serial killers (Holiday and the Calendar Man) have a battle of wills from inside glass cages at Arkham Asylum, was eventually redacted. It would be replaced with a concise retelling, in captions, of Batman’s origin story, supported by Sale’s spectacular urban vista.


Sale’s artwork elegantly summarizes the themes of The Long Halloween in a compact visual statement. This book plumbs the same depths as Frank Miller’s definitive classic Batman: Year One. More than telling the origin of Batman, the Loeb/Sale work fleshes out the reason Gotham needed a Batman. Batman was a response to pandemic gangsterism and rampant civil corruption. Ironically, these social ills were quickly quelled by the presence of the Batman. But in attempting to defeat the Batman, the Falcone crime family hired and gave free reign to the super-criminals that would eventually come to be Batman’s Rogues’ Gallery. This second scourge would be one that not even Batman could quell. Their ghosts would haunt his beloved Gotham still. In a twisted sense, the Long Halloween, the era that birthed the super-criminals, would never end.


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Sunday, Oct 11, 2009

Merriam-Webster defines the word “planetary” as “of, relating to, or belonging to the earth” or “having or consisting of an epicyclic train of gear wheels”.


Warren Ellis and John Cassaday’s recently-concluded epic series, Planetary, is a cultural hodgepodge, the mythology of the last 150 years of adventure stories shoved into a distinctly Ellis-owned blender, building to an emotional catharsis that can, in fact, only be described as epicyclic.


It was stated recently that, when it comes to his views on humanity and respect for the rest of the species, Warren Ellis is a lot like a perpetually hung-over Joss Whedon. It would probably be more accurate to call him the UK’s Kurt Vonnegut; here is a man whose work always finds a way to betray or subvert the angry, bile-filled venom inherent in his characters by the end of a given tale. While it’s clear that Ellis, like Vonnegut did, has a cynical view of the group “humanity” as a whole, he is always open to, and actually encourages, being surprised by the individual. Is that, after all, not the purpose of Spider Jerusalem, Miranda Zero, Doktor Sleepless and, indeed,  Planetary’s own Elijah Snow?


Ellis has always portrayed Elijah Snow as a man with a very simple, very human mission, perfectly replicating the human condition by depicting that mission’s constant evolution and taking it to its only logical closure point. One realizes, upon finishing their first read of the series, that Elijah Snow doesn’t just want to keep the world safe and strange—he wants to save the life of the Individual, here typified by the missing Ambrose Chase.


Because Elijah Snow, despite his frosty behavior towards some and the cold shoulder he gives to others, is just like the rest of us; beneath his white suit and pale skin is a warm, beating heart.


While cloaked as a cultural history of the last 150 or so years, Planetary is really the Joseph Campbell-inspired tale of a hero’s second chance at life and attempt at the hero’s journey and, indeed, how one man can make the world a better place, no matter how strange it really is—even if it means keeping it that way.


This coming week, The Iconographies explores both the series as a whole and the years-in-the-making final issue of Planetary.


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Monday, Aug 31, 2009
What does Disney's Acquisition of Marvel Comics Mean For True Believers Everywhere?

What does Disney’s acquisition of Marvel Comics mean for the storied superhero publishing house?


Something, certainly, but it’s hard to say what at this point. The fanboy screeds showing up this morning warning of a world in which Donald Duck battles evil alongside Captain America are ill considered and baseless, as fanboy screeds of course tend to be. The people who run Disney aren’t stupid, and there’s no reason to think they’ll muck around with something that’s been working as well as Marvel has over the last few years as fat checks have continued to roll in courtesy of blockbuster movies.


And since Marvels deals for those movies—like Spider-Man, which will stay at Sony, and Iron Man, which Paramount holds onto for the foreseeable future—remain intact, essentially putting Disney in business with it’s own competitors for the coming years, it’s a fair bet that Disney is in this deal for the long haul. And for anyone worried about their favorite spandex clad titans being Disney-fied by the merger, that’s a good sign that Disney understands what it’s bought and isn’t eager to jump in ad start gumming up the works.


And as for the argument that Marvel will ‘pull a Vertigo’ and start publishing edgy, grown up books that can garner critical acclaim without raking in huge sales figures… we’ll see. Marvel has always been pretty much a superhero imprint, and even it’s more adult themed lines—like Marvel Knights and MAX—have been home to what amounts to superhero books that amp up the blood and swearing.


The only real surprise here - that Marvel, a company that seemed to many to be on it’s way to becoming a media giant in it’s own right, would let itself be bought out. Also kind of surprising? The price of the acquisition. Considering that the acquisition apparently gives Disney the licensing rights for properties like Spiderman and Wolverine, $4 billion seems like kind of a low price tag. The House of Mouse will make $4 billion back in a couple of years from paper plates and birthday party hats alone, so why did Marvel, which seemed like it was a company with nowhere to go but up, sell itself so seemingly short?


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