Sunday, December 16, 2007

A Trip to Tokyo in The Latest Issue!

I remember when I first saw Japanese comic books, or Manga, produced in the U.S. for American readers. They showed up at my store, five titles, to take up residence in our graphic novels department. They were Chobits, by manga collaborators CLAMP, about a romance between a human and a human-like AI; Great Teacher Onizuka, by Tohru Fujisawa, about a delinquent who becomes a beloved high school teacher; Initial D, by Shuichi Shigeno, about a young man becoming the greatest street racer; Love Hina, by Ken Akamatsu, a comedic tale of a young ronin finding himself caretaker of a girls dormitory; and Samurai Girl: Realbout High School by Reiji Saiga and Sora Inoue, about a school where fights aren't broken up, they're graded. These five titles were definitely chosen for their diversity, an attempt to catch a weak graphic novel economy unawares, and to try to introduce something relatively new and unique (Pokemon, probably the penultimate example of a successful anime series, had been on TV for about three years).

Five years and thousands of releases later, it's fair to say Tokyopop exceeded expectations in a big way. The manga section of your local bookstore is probably three times the size of the rest of the graphic novel department combined. There are hundreds of different series' to choose from, ranging in quality from very good to very, very bad, but the variety to choose from is almost an adventure in itself: Action, drama, comedy, romance, emo, mystery, sci-fi, sports, fantasy, historical, or any variation on those themes can be found in any random title you pull off the shelf. Manga has even been adapted by many American artists in an attempt to attract an established audience in a world where most independent comics will never see mainstream success. There are so many manga titles put out, in fact, that a truly standout title can often be missed in the pool outside of Naruto, Fruits Basket, and Sgt. Frog.

Which brings us to our review this week, The Kindaichi Case Files: The Magical Express by writer Yozaburo Kanari and artist Fumiya Sato. The Kindaichi series focuses on second year high school student (think junior year) Hajime Kindaichi, a clumsy, lazy, awkward, and socially benign young man who has few friends and little inclination to become more popular. However, many times has he found himself involved in murder mysteries where he used cunning and logic to solve puzzles others would have found impossible to decipher. It turns out he actually is the grandson of famous Japanese detective Kousuke Kindaichi, and that natural instinct, combined with a 180 IQ, has constantly surprised his peers, who expected him to be not much more than a footnote in the story. Several times has he been involved in stories where the impossible has come to pass, only for him to eventually explain how each sinister crime was committed and capture those responsible.

The Magical Express begins with a package delivered to Tokyo's Metropolitan Police Department. It's a trick box, the kind that can only be opened by following a strict set of instructions. Captain Isamu Kenmochi and the TMPD had inspected the box and thus far had been unable to open it, so Kenmochi turned to Hajime, since Kenmochi has known the young detective since his first case. Naturally, Hajime opens the box in a matter of seconds. Inside is a wooden marionette, with it's limbs twisted in a disturbing manner. Besides the marionette was a note:

"This coming April 28'th
I have cast a magic spell on the
train passing through Shikotsu-
Ga-Hara marshlands in Hokkaido.

Enjoy the magic of death and fear

-The Puppetmaster.

This leads Hajime, Kenmochi, Miyuke Nanase (Hajime's childhood friend who always tags along on his cases), and Ryugi Saki (a Hajime fan boy and assistant who videotapes everything) to board the train in question, where a famous magic troupe entertains the passengers on the train's passage to the station hotel at the end of the line. There, the Magic and Illusion Troupe (pretty unimaginative name) will perform at that hotel's theater. The magic group is a very famous one, renowned for their impossible magic tricks such as the "Living Marionette." Well wouldn't you know it, the first day on the train, the "Puppetmaster" slips a miniature bomb on onto the train (in a rose salad, no less), claims there's another bomb on the train, demanding the evacuation at the next station, and then somehow (and without ever being seen, mind you) murders the leader of the Magic and Illusion Troupe, Gentle Yamagami. And then, just as amazingly, the body disappears without a trace. And then reappears at the hotel, twisted in the same position the marionette delivered to the police had been.

And so the chase is on! Who is the "Puppetmaster"? How did he pull off the disappearing corpse trick? What does this have to do with the death of famous magician Reiko Chikamiya five years ago? And will Hajime Kindaichi survive a killer's wrath to solve the case?

The books of the Kindaichi Case Files series play out with much the same setup: Murder one is committed, Kindaichi's on the case; there's never a shortage of suspects, usually there are a minimum of eight suspects who have varying relations to the victim; many times there is an obstacle preventing the heroes and suspects from leaving the site of the murders, whether a storm or lack of transportation, effectively trapping them with the killer in their midst; there is never just one murder, usually three or four of the supposed suspects become victims themselves while the investigation is ongoing; there is never one clue leading to the apprehension of the murderer, it's a trail of smaller clues that tell the story (usually of revenge) of the killers origin and eventually his identity; usually someone close to Hajime such as Miyuke (or even Hajime!) may find themselves in peril due to Hajime being too close to solving the case and the killer wanting him out of the way; finally, Hajime lives up to the legend of his grandfather and solves the seemingly unsolvable case.

Despite the seeming sameness of the series, I love reading what probably amounts to Sherlock Holmes for a younger generation. It's a lot of fun following along as this young prodigy calmly moves from scene to scene, probing each corner, searching for the tiniest clues, and tearing apart a suspect's alibi when he finally announces who the murderer is. This is in large part to the effective writing styles of Yozaburo Kanari, who's strength is weaving all the clues together so that they're in plain sight, right where you'll likely miss them. He also excels in character creation, making innocent (at least of murder) parties seem like the guilty suspect, and making the murderer a sympathetic character himself (or herself). Rarely is there a character in the Kindaichi Case Files you don't feel something about, good or bad. That said, there are weaknesses in the writing style. When Hajime isn't "on," he's a lot like other young Japanese anime males in that he doesn't know a lick about girls. His interactions with friend Miyuki are almost infantile (they have crushes on one another but don't know the other feels the same) to the point of perversion, and he always goes gaga over pretty girls or women. It's really the only true weakness of the series, but not completely out of character. It's just hard to take him seriously as a detective sometimes when he's stammering out words when introduced to a woman. Also, I'm not happy with the way Detective Kenmochi is portrayed in this book. Usually, he's a competent cop who, while not brilliant, has a keen mind. Not so here, where he's almost a mental defect, the obviousness of the plot holes he tries to explain away.

The artwork is pretty good. Fumiya Sato is a typical manga artist, good enough to properly capture the elements that Kanari puts into play. Her character designs are solid to the point where you will rarely if ever confuse the identity of two separate characters. In the scenes where the story is told from the murderer's point of view, her outline is always that of a shapeless asexual shadow, never dropping any clues as to who this character might be. Character expressions and set details are done very well, and the depictions of death are almost twistedly beautiful in a way that perfectly captures the horror of the moment. This is actually one of the better drawn volumes in the series, a sign that Sato has no intention of slowing down her involvement.

The whole thing leads to a completely satisfying conclusion, as each clue is brought to light and nudging the reader to go back to that particular chapter and see for themselves the clues they missed. Additionally, it's worth rereading the book to see it from a knowing point of view. I absolutely love The Magical Express, and would ask that even if you don't like manga, or if you're apprehensive about a medium that's essentially aimed at teenage Asian boys (understandable) that you should pick up this book (or if you're new, get the first book in the series, The Opera House Murders) and give it a shot. You might be pleasantly surprised.

As a final note, The Latest Issue will be taking this weekend off as I visit family for the holidays, but we'll be back next week with a new review at some point. Happy holidays!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Prince and Picoult: Wonder Women

Recently I was dining with my good friend and confidante Kirima, a member of an Eskimo tribe who migrated from Alaska long ago. We've shared a copacetic relationship; I buy her dinners, and she helps me with the opposite sex (I am a comic book reviewer, go figure). Upon the slightest mention of The Latest Issue Kirima immediately pointed her fork (along with a helping of tofu salad with basil and cashews) at me and declared: "Dammit, you still haven't reviewed any Wonder Woman on your page!"

Naturally, I reminded her that I spoke of Wonder Woman in my review of The Brave and the Bold 5 in the beginning of November, but she quickly shouted (so that all the patrons of the restaurant were peering over their teacups at us) "Not that guest-star crap, you need to review the actual Wonder Woman comic! That Jodi Picoult run just went trade, you should review that, you sexist prick!"

And so I did. Never mind the fact that this advice came from someone who actually owns Wonder Woman pajamas, I did need to review a DC title (lest the hordes that are my ally Steve breathe ever so much more down my neck) and I had to admit that the Jodi Picoult run on Wonder Woman had initially caught my attention, if only for the fact that it was a mainstream author who was coming in and writing one of the most prolific characters in comics. It's something that still doesn't happen often, for good reason or not; Many authors of Picoult's (My Sister's Keeper, Nineteen Minutes) stature don't often sully themselves by "stooping" to write comic books. In Picoult's own words, though, she thought it was "far too cool an opportunity to pass up", citing Brad Meltzer (Identity Crisis, an upcoming arc of Buffy the Vampire Slayer) as someone she admired who often crossed the barrier from author to comic writer. She is also a self-proclaimed Wonder Woman fan, and seems to have a pretty good grasp on the character. But the nagging voice at the back of my mind as I'm picking up this title is screaming: "It's going to suck!! Did Jonathan Lethem teach you nothing??"

Wonder Woman: Love and Murder opens with a black-suit wearing Diana Prince (WW's secret identity) staring at herself in a lavatory mirror, attempting to distinguish between what makes her Wonder Woman and how to blend in with the human population she had been sent to protect. Upon exiting the restroom, we're introduced to Nemesis (Tom Tresser), a c-rate vigilante-turned-superhero shape-shifter and Diana's partner at the Department of Metahuman Affairs. The two have been assigned to work security at a superhero-themed fun park, protecting a reality-show winner who won the chance to be the new Maxi-Man. While working the tables, a roller coaster suddenly falls apart, chaos ensues, and Diana pulls a Clark Kent move and Wonder Woman arrives on the scene to save the day. Wanted fugitive Wonder Woman.

The two realize this when they get back to HQ (Nemesis doesn't know DP is WW) and are told by their commander, Sarge Steel, that the US government wants to question Wonder Woman for the circumstances surrounding her murdering Maxwell Lord one year ago. Fans will remember Wonder Woman murdered Lord because it was the only way to stop the psychic control he used on Superman to make him attack other heroes. The World Court had apparently dropped all charges, but leave it to the US government to take things into their own hands. Wonder Woman can't help but feel that things aren't what they seem, and it eventually leads up to the return of not one but two powerful villains, cloak and dagger plotting, and the eventual lead-in to the DC Amazons Attack storyline.

I actually liked Love and Murder. While it wasn't the greatest story I've ever read, I liked the idea Picoult ran with, conflicting Wonder Woman with the public hero she is and is confidant being, and the human side of her, underdeveloped, as much different from Clark Kent's human side as can be. It goes a little far at times (as Diana Prince, WW doesn't know how much gas costs at the pump... or how sed gas pump works) and turns silly, it's a good idea and is played well for the most part. Less impressive is the scene where Wonder Woman has surrendered herself to the government and is locked in what is deemed an "impervious" cell, I could accept the fact that she turned herself over willingly to avoid an international incident. But when the agent proceeds to apply electrical shocks because WW is unwilling to exchange Amazon technology for her freedom, she has superman-level strength and should have been able to escape any prison in which she was being wrongfully held.

Nemesis is borderline useless. He's got a major crush on Wonder Woman, not realizing that his partner is WW incognito. He berates Diana constantly for her lack of basic human instincts, while lusting not-so-secretly after her superhero persona. He's also a wisecracker. He's a white, shape-shifting Chris Tucker, and it's only in the series' fourth issue that he comes into his own as a useful character, and it's done nicely, too. Also a wisecracker? Don't laugh, but some of the best lines are spoken by Batman during the fourth issue as well, and that is all wrong for that character. He speaks lines you expect from Guy Gardner, not Bruce Wayne. My final writing complaint comes with the way this book ends, as Wonder Woman is locked in mortal combat and Picoult drops a major cliffhanger at the very end... and then turns the reigns of Wonder Woman over to the next writer. I'd have loved to see what Picoult could have done with two more issues, and it seems like she just didn't have the time to help finish what could have been a better series.

The artwork surprisingly jumped around a lot between these five issues. The first two were drawn by Drew Johnson (Supergirl, 52) and Rodney Ramos (Countdown to Final Crisis) with some conflicting styles. Johnson's work is pretty good, the character art looks great, and the frustration that appears on Diana's face whenever she faces something she doesn't understand looks perfect. Ramos' art isn't bad, but it definitely pales compared to Johnson's. Issues 3 and 4 were drawn by Terry Dodson (Marvel Knights: Spider-Man), and are not really much of a step up from Johnson and Ramos. It's obvious Dodson doesn't love drawing backgrounds, as he gives as many panels as he can get away with no backgrounds, characters performing against a blank slate. Some people defend this style, but it's not one I agree with unless used well, and Dodson doesn't carry it well enough. Finally, Paco Diaz (Teen Titans, X-Men: Emperor Vulcan) rounds of the artist merry-go-round with what probably amounts to my favorite work in this book. The fight scenes are incredibly captured, and the character work is the best of all the issues. It helps Picoult end the title in style, even if the writing and dialogue were less than they could have been.

Obviously, Jodi Picoult's run on Wonder Woman has it's flaws. The suboptimal writing and dialogue, the artwork carousel, and Nemesis' sidekick status detract from what could have been a much better take of a high-profile relaunch like WW. Also, there are no special features in this trade, like limited covers or any special interviews (except for an introduction written by the author). Still, despite the cracks in the facade, I liked this title enough to recommend it to Wonder Woman fans or those who might harbor interest in the most powerful female character ever in comics. I think Kirima would approve.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Ultimate Disappointment

It really shouldn't be like this... but it is.

With the regular monthly success of the Ultimate universe for Marvel, it's easy to forget that only three regularly-running series set in the Ultimate Universe: Ultimate Spiderman, Ultimate X-Men, and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Despite strong sales, Marvel doesn't seem too interested in investing in any more regular series, but writer Mark Miller and artist Bryan Hitch have come close to creating a fourth with their two miniseries of The Ultimates, the Ultimate version of the long-standing Avengers team.

Yes, I know this is the second Avengers review in a row. I realize that. I also realize I haven't reviewed a DC title in a month, and when I meet a DC comic I can review, I'll do it. But you can't ignore The Ultimates, Ever. The first series gorgeously introduced us to the new team, brilliantly re-orchestrated the origin of Captain America, and creating something darker and more serious than Marvel had ever undertaken before. After it's blazing success, Ultimates 2 raised the bar farther, questioning respects to faith and what the US Government might do with a billion-dollar superhero team. Through all this, the perfect writing of Mark Miller (Ultimate X-Men, Authority) and the spectacular artwork by Bryan Hitch (Sensational She-Hulk, Authority) perfectly blended the two series and did such a fantastic job that a third series was simply unavoidable. Conversely was the idea of bringing back Miller and Hitch, who were replaced by writer Jeph Loeb (Fallen Son: The Death of Captain America, Superman/Batman) and artist Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men, Battle Chasers). Ultimates 3 is actually Madureira's return to the comics industry after working concept design for video games, and many comic fans will be getting their first-ever look at this new artist.

It's a shame there isn't better material here. The comic hasn't gone two pages before a very angry Venom appears and knocks Thor through a wall and an all-new Ultimates team takes on this rampaging beast, who keeps asking "Where is she??" over and over, single-mindedly searching for some woman who doesn't appear to be a member of this new team.

And it is a new team! Several members return to this group; Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Hank Pym, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Wasp and Hawkeye return, but almost none of them are the same as in the previous series. Add brand-new members Black Panther and Valkyrie (yes, this is the same Valkyrie who was just another non-powered member of the disastrous Ultimate Defenders group, she's back and apparently has a flying horse and some unexplained powers) and you've got a whole lot of insane reformatting of the series.

Hawkeye's changes are probably greater than everybody else's, the death of his family in Ultimates 2 seems to have created a man who's unafraid of death and seems to relish the sweet embrace. Even more disturbing, his new costume looks less like Hawkeye (he's even dropped the bow and arrow in lieu of double pistols and a mini-crossbow) and more like Daredevil villain Bullseye, complete with the proper forehead adornment.

Captain America isn't even here for this opening sequence, as he's for some reason (read: no particular reason) decided he needs to find himself. So now he's never around. Oh, and Tony Stark has a sex tape with former Ultimate, full-time corpse Black Widow that's patrolling the internet. Do you feel tension yet??

The action is frentic, but it takes too much of the issue. The big battle between the Ultimates and Venom goes for 12 pages, and that's more than half the book. The rest of the book are quick little story-fillers, written solely because someone told Loeb the entire book couldn't be one battle. The story feels too rushed, and maybe this is because Ultimates 3 will only be a 5-issue series, as opposed to the 12 and 13-issue series' the first two were. That really shouldn't be an excuse, though, as Loeb should have enough experience to work around that. Besides that, though, the book reads as "dumb." Huge panels are full of action, while in several instances characters rely on one-word statements intended to be indicative of the current situation.

The art, meanwhile is fantastic. I hope this isn't a series that's going to exist purely for it's artwork, but if it is, you could certainly do worse. I do have issues with it, but I can certainly see why Wizard magazine once dubbed Madureira one of the most influential comic artists of all time; That doesn't mean they weren't wrong, but he is damn good, and it's a shame he doesn't get more to work with. Frankly, though, it seems like they got Madureira to put on the best damn T&A show in comics, as skimpy costumes dominate the story. Wasp's new costume reveals a ton of skin (and ironically, for the first time, a mask), Scarlet Witch is wearing even less than usual, and as you can see from this image of Valkyrie below, the two-page shot never looked so good. Hell, we're even shown the Tony Stark-Natasha Romanov sex tape on the first fracking page of the book, so loose morals could possibly be one of the prevalent topics for the next four issues.

Even the guys get into this act; Black Panther looks one part WWE, one part WWF (and never utters a word) and even drunk Tony Stark has all his pectorals in order. And the ironic thing? This story takes place in Winter. You'd think the women would at least have winter uniforms or something. Not that I mind at all looking at the pages, you realize; It just seems a little much.

This is not the Ultimates. Miller and Hitch, that's what the Ultimates are. And to think, this is going to go on for five issues (Although with Madureira known as an unusually slow artist - even for the comics industry - that could last over a year). Five issues of this crap?? I don't think so. I can only thank the Son of Odin that I didn't buy this issue: That can only fall on the shoulders of fellow scribe Elmo, who can be forgiven for purchasing this title through the sheer fact that it says Ultimates on the cover. But these are no Ultimates. It's kind of like the pretty waitress/actress/models you see around Hollywood or New York City. Fun to look at (over and over), but once you get close and personal, you realize there's just not much there.

On a side note, sorry for taking so long between posts. Some boxes are harder to put down than others, and I'll be back to at least a weekly schedule from now on, Latest Issue Guarantee.