ODD IS ON OUR SIDE

ODD IS ON OUR SIDE
Written by Fred Van Lente and Dean Koontz and Drawn by Queenie Chan
Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Halloween is coming in Pico Mundo, and Odd Thomas is about to have a busy holiday. The young fry cook, with his ability to see the dead, gets a visit from a dead child still wearing her costume, giving him a pervading sense of dread about the upcoming town-wide trick-or-treat festival. Aided by his gun-toting girlfriend Stormy and the ghost of Elvis, the clock is ticking for Odd to save the day… and the lives of dozens of children.

This is the second graphic novel prequel based on Koontz’ ODD THOMAS series, and much like the first one, this one grabs you by the lapels and sucks you in quickly. It isn’t so much the plot that captivates, but the characters- in Odd Thomas, Koontz has his finest creation. The boy has a perfect blend of charm, naïveté, and pluck, and his chemistry with Stormy is so much fun that you wouldn’t mind spending the entire book watching them drive around in a car and yapping with one another. We also get a new supporting character this time in the person of novelist Ozzie Boone, and he’s a complete hoot as well. The people are just fun, and if you can get that across to the reader, 90% of the battle is done.

Of course, they wouldn’t be as much fun if they weren’t drawn spectacularly well, and Queenie Chan delivers the good stuff on the page. The first book looked good, but it wasn’t always sure of itself. That isn’t the case here. Every page looks confident, and the characters have life that you can feel emanating from Chan’s linework.

If there is one thing to complain about as pertains to this book, it is that it shows (as the first graphic novel did) that the first ODD THOMAS novel’s ending was one of the worst mistakes that the author has ever made on the page. There was so much more to mine, so much more that could have been discovered, without the plot twist in the final ten pages. It made me swear off reading any of the rest of the prose works; but I will happily read as many more of these prequel graphic novels as Del Rey chooses to make.


MANGA FOR THE BEGINNER SHOUJO

MANGA FOR THE BEGINNER: SHOUJO
Written and Drawn by Christopher Hart
Published by Watson-Guptill

Reviewed by Marc Mason

While the past couple of years have seen a decline in the overall sales of manga, interest in the form still runs high, particularly in the teen girl set. (Mine still loves it immensely and continues to work on drawing her own.) So I don’t have any trouble imagining that there’s a receptive market out there for books like this one.

I think it’s probably fair to say that Christopher Hart is the most prolific producer of hot-to books related to comics art, and I’ve had the opportunity to see a great many of them cross my desk. The quality has varied, as Hart’s own talents aren’t always well-suited to certain subject matters. However, SHOUJO seems to land right in Hart’s wheelhouse. This book offers up some very good advice and some effective ideas in how to create good characters.

The trick to a good manga, particularly a shoujo one, is in getting the characters’ ages and appearances right. For shoujo, the characters should be in the 13-17 range; developing as people, but not yet adults, thus not yet sexualized. The characters need to be attractive, but only in a cute way, and Hart does a good job here of emphasizing this. He also does provide examples of what the next age level up should look like, allowing the learner to see an example of what to avoid.

There is also some time spent on drawing characters performing basic activities, which is useful, but perhaps not as in-depth as it needs to be. Perhaps Hart is saving that material for a second edition meant for the intermediate manga-ka? Either way, for beginners, this serves as a reasonable and solid foundation.

AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER

THE LAST AIRBENDER
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Del Rey

Reviewed by Marc Mason

This weekend sees the release of the new live-action THE LAST AIRBENDER film based on AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER, one of the best animated series of the past decade. The folks at Del Rey have made sure that fans of the series and/or film have plenty to read.

First up is AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER Vol. 1 which adapts the first episode of the TV series to graphic novel. Originally published by another company in 2006, this slim volume takes a sort of animated fumetti approach to telling the first tale of Aang (the Avatar) and how he came to be found after a century-long sleep in an iceberg. This book is executed about as well as you could hope; the storytelling is clean, the characters are introduced in ways that help you gain an immediate understanding of who they are and why they act the way they do, there is a nice mix of humor and action… in short, it’s a pilot, and it does precisely what a pilot should do: make you want to watch (or read) what comes next. The overriding thing you take away from it is the enthusiasm the creators clearly have for their concept. They sell it and sell it hard, and they make you want to jump on board.

Next comes THE LAST AIRBENDER PREQUEL: ZUKO’S STORY, written by Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus and drawn by Nina Matsumoto. Set within the official continuity of the M. Night Shyamalan film, we meet the villain of the story as he is being set on that course. Rejected by his father and his tribe, and struggling to control the element of fire as is his birthright, Zuko sets off across the world on what most consider to be a fool’s errand: find the long-believed dead Avatar and bring him back to the Fire Nation. This book surprised me with how entertaining it is; Roman and Wilgus deliver a solid story and make Zuko a more rounded character, and the art by Matsumoto is really quite striking. Her line and her pages have a rougher look to them, setting the book’s look apart from the cartoon version and placing the reader in the film’s world. Projects of this nature (story prequels) can be an iffy proposition, but this one delivers.

On the flip side, though, THE LAST AIRBENDER, the official adaptation of the film, does not. Written and drawn by Roman and Wilgus with art by Joon Choi, the team takes the movie’s script and turns it into a graphic novel. Unfortunately, Roman and Wilgus don’t have much to work with here. The story has moments of wild incoherency, the characters lack the charm you see in the other two books, and the dialogue is flat. Halfway through, I found myself wishing that the creators had just done their own original story and called it an adaptation. If the reviews of the film are any indication, that would have been a wise course of action. I wasn’t wild about Choi’s art, either; in some of the action sequences, I had no idea what was happening.

In the end, I suppose two out of three ain’t bad.



PARADIGM SHIFT VOL 3

PARADIGM SHIFT VOL. 3: EMERGENCE
Written and Drawn by Dirk I. Tiede
Published by DynaManga

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Back when I was writing for Kevin Smith’s “Movie Poop Shoot”, I was privileged to discover the work of some amazing talent working off of the mainstream grid. One of my favorite books from that era was Dirk Tiede’s PARADIGM SHIFT, an excellent police thriller with hints of werewolves lurking beneath the surface. Tiede’s story and art were, to my eyes, ready for prime time, and I was thrilled by his work. A couple of years later, he hit with volume two of the series, and the material was stronger and more confident than what I saw in volume one. And now he has concluded that first storyline with volume three of the series, EMERGENCE.

It’s pretty much all I could have asked for.

When last we left Detective Kate McAllister, she was faced with another gruesome murder, and her nightmares were getting worse. She was beginning to suspect that something a bit more wrong than a headache was happening to her, but she still had a job to do. Now, in volume three, the feds have decided to butt into the murders, and Kate’s physical and mental state has started to go haywire at a rapid rate. The question is no longer whether or not she and her partner will stop these crimes; the question is slowly becoming: is Kate actually committing these crimes?

The hardest thing to do in any lengthy story is deliver a strong and satisfying ending, and after taking almost ten years to reach this point, the verdict for Tiede is a definite “yes”. We get answers, we get action, we get art and dialogue that are light years ahead of what we saw in volume one… In short, Tiede gives his readers their money’s worth. And that’s really all you can ask for once you reach this point.

In the back matter, he promises that the next story in PARADIGM SHIFT will get underway soon, and that pleases me greatly. Tiede is a creative talent worth keeping an eye on, and I’ll be curious to see where the next phase of this story goes.


MANGA FOR BEGINNERS: CHIBIS

MANGA FOR THE BEGINNERS: CHIBIS
Written and Drawn by Christopher Hart
Published by Watson-Guptill

Reviewed by Marc Mason

More than traditional American comics, manga relies on artistic effect for emotion and action. Superman may grimace as he punches Darkseid, or Captain Marvel may grin widely as he subdues Dr. Sivana, but their bodies remain standard in their proportions. But in a manga, that would likely be different. Their heads might grow, or fists might swell in outsized fashion. Bodily proportions might shift in a bizarre manner. This type of character in a manga is called a chibi- large heads, massively expressive eyes, highly stylized. They work to make a moment… well, cuter.

And they take more effort than you might think to draw.

MANGA FOR BEGINNERS: CHIBIS takes you inside the process of drawing perfect chibis, whether they’re people, animals, places or any other number of concepts that might be a part of your story. This book also includes instruction on how to perfect the “movement” of these characters in-panel.

I’ve read a few of Hart’s books at this point, and while this one is solidly put together, it is a bit workmanlike in comparison to much of his other work. While the material here could very much be helpful and useful to a beginner artist, what you don’t find here is much in the way of enthusiasm or excitement for the subject matter. I didn’t get the sense of interest in this book that I felt from Hart in some of the others. CHIBIS feels… perfunctory.

As I said, that doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful or helpful. But it definitely lacks some of the polish and energy of other books like this that I’ve reviewed, and that prevents me from being able to fully endorse it.

PARASYTE VOL 1

PARASYTE VOL.1
Written and Drawn by Hitoshi Iwaaki
Translated and Adapted by Andrew Cunningham
Published by Del Rey

REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0

For unknown reasons, perhaps as an antibody to the rapidly expanding human population, a large number of parasitic beings fall from the sky one night and change the course of human history. They burrow into peoples’ skulls and eat and replace their brains, becoming creatures with the capability of looking human but turning into something much more horrific. But the population at large is unaware of what has happened, only noticing the large number of terrifying murders the creatures are committing in their new bodies. However, one person is all too aware of what’s going on: Shinichi Izumi, a teenage boy whose parasite didn’t make it into his brain. Instead, it has replaced his right hand, and now the two must learn to co-exist and stay alive as others of his race detect their presence and strange nature… and target those he loves as well.

PARASYTE is a near-perfect piece of sci-fi horror in the tradition of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, but on an even more personal and intimate level. Originally published years ago in the U.S. by a different publisher using reversed pages, Del Rey has brought the series back to its proper right-to-left format, and it’s a beauty to behold. Izumi and his “partner” Migi are characters with more depth than you’d usually find in this type of story, which is what makes it sop engrossing, but even then, you never lose the sense that just about anything could happen.

However, what I think makes the book work is the sub-textual level that Iwaaki’s story explores: the horrors of teenage male sexuality. Most horror revolving around youth links the scary stuff to feminine sexuality, as most male writers have tried hard to put their adolescence away where it cannot be dredged up. Not so here. Migi is fascinated with Shinichi’s reproductive system, and makes demands such as “make your genitals erect for me” while he’s in the boys’ bathroom at school and then attempts to make it happen anyway when Shin refuses, grabbing and trying to furiously rub while other boys are nearby! Migi also shape-shifts the entire arm into a penis while Shinichi is talking to a girl in class, matching the latent feelings being radiated by his host. Any boy can tell you about the shame and despair of the “inopportune” arousal moment, and Shinichi’s situation amplifies it into genuinely scary and nasty stuff.

This volume is also larger than most mangas, offering 250+ pages of story and extra material, making it not only a smashing return for a classic series, but also a real bargain in the process. Jump onboard this one right now and get ready for an amazing ride. You’ll be glad you did.

Marc Mason

PRINCESS RESURRECTION VOL 1

PRINCESS RESURRECTION VOL.1
Written and Drawn by Yasunori Mitsunaga
Translated by Satsuki Yamashita and Adapted by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Published by Del Rey

REPRINTED FROM CWR 2.0

Thanks to a bit of careless driving, a young boy named Hiro is killed while walking to meet his sister. But that’s only the beginning of what’s about to be the strangest moment of his existence. When he wakes up in the morgue… that’s when it really gets tricky. Because while he was at rest, the owner of the van that hit him has paid him a visit… and used her special gifts to bring him back from the dead. Her name is Princess Hime, and her blood has the power to resurrect the dead. Now, tied to a need to drink her blood to keep his corpse moving, he serves her in her fight against evil beasts and the machinations of her own siblings. For Hiro, death is about to prove far more challenging than life ever did.

PRINCESS RESURRECTION is a nifty piece of work, startlingly violent, very intense, and surprisingly low on fanservice moments. Instead, Mitsunaga chooses to serve the story and action first, and that’s a very intelligent decision. Hime is a mysterious character, and you’re never quite sure if she really cares even the slightest about Hiro or her android servant Flandre. What you are sure about is that she is driven, and that she will stop at nothing to win a battle or to outwit a foe.

Mitsunaga is adept at kinetic action sequences as well as moments of classic horror. In an earlier story, a series of piano wires causes Hiro to be sliced into varied pieces, and the way it’s drawn is just nasty, making it effective even in the face of his potential re-resurrection. There’s only the barest bit of Hime’s backstory against her siblings in this volume, but what’s here certainly whets the appetite for more. This is one to jump onboard for.

Marc Mason

SHOUJO ART STUDIO

SHOUJO ART STUDIO
Written by Yishan Li
Published by Watson-Guptill

Anyone looking objectively at the explosion in popularity of manga will come to the conclusion that it happened not because of young male readers, but instead because of young girl readers. Those young women found a type of manga called “shoujo” to their liking, and sales exploded. When this happened, something else exploded as well: an interest by those young girls in creating their own comics. Now, with a book like SHOUJO ART STUDIO, the capability to do so is grater than ever.

What makes this book a step above other manga how-to efforts is in its design. First, it focuses upon creating the art in strictly digital fashion. And going a step further than other books on digital art, it offers up a disc full of page templates, character templates, backgrounds, special effects, all in .PSD format. That allows the reader to open up these files on their own computer and immediately begin layering pages full of characters, word balloons, you name it. By encouraging experimentation, the book and CD supplement each other perfectly, effectively helping the next generation get a jump on their graphic novel dreams.

The text is kept clean and simple, easy to read for both beginners and for advanced users. Instructions are laid out in a way that makes them easy to follow, and the CD works perfectly for either Windows or Mac. In short, if you’re someone who has been looking for a way to begin creating your own comics, this book is really an excellent place to start. Recommended.

Marc Mason

DEL REY DUO

2 FROM DEL REY
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Del Rey Books and Del Rey Manga

Two new books from the folks at Del Rey/Ballantine. Let’s take a look, shall we?

GOATS: INFINITE TYPEWRITERS is the first volume collecting Jonathan Rosenberg’s hilariously strange webcomic, and if you’re wondering just how strange… In the first storyline, professional barflies/morons Jon and Philip get into an argument about religion and decide that they can only settle it by stealing a spaceship and crossing the universe to meet God himself. Whereupon they convince the almighty to demonstrate his power by turning into a pork chop… that they promptly eat. Throw in a homicidal chicken, gay aliens, a fish that’s madly in love with Reese Witherspoon, Space Hitler, and a host of political and cultural figures, and you barely scratch the surface of the madness-infected mind of Rosenberg. I really dug GOATS, but even I had to set it down occasionally and decompress from the absolutely bizarre journey it was taking me on as a reader. Clearly the work of a talent in his imaginative prime, but it won’t be for everybody. Keep it out of the hands of the literal minded.

Volume 2 of FAUST, however, it a bit more of a straight read, but no less of a quality experience. This anthology brings together tremendous Japanese talents in both the manga field and in prose writing, making this somewhat unique. The writer Warren Ellis has spoken of comics being a piece of culture that you can pick up easily; what FAUST is… it’s an extension of that. North America is very fortunate to get the chance to see hundreds of translated mangas and animes, but we don’t have nearly as many opportunities to read the work of Japanese essayists and novelists. The manga presented here is beautiful; various styles are on display in the stories, as well as different genres. There’s also a sketchbook section featuring work by the great Otomo which is just about enough reason to buy this book on its own. The prose work is a bit more varied in its quality, but none of it felt like a waste of time. I felt very open to the experience of reading it. I’d recommend this in particular to those who perhaps have yet to truly get onboard the manga train- it’s a great way to get started and to absorb some wonderful popular culture from across the world.

Marc Mason