Thursday, October 29, 2009

Journey Into Mohawk Country

Much of the fun in George O’Connor’s Journey Into Mohawk Country occurs off to the side, away from the main action. A Dutch explorer teases a pair overly eager dogs by pretending to toss a bone for them to fetch … only to be caught by the dogs’ annoyed Mohawk owner. Two other explorers squabble like children while crossing a stream, with both ending up wet and cold.

This incidental tomfoolery is primarily because Journey Into Mohawk Country is O’Connor’s treatment of the real-life journal of Harmen Meyndertsz van den Bogaert, who in December 1634 headed off 100 miles into what we know today as Manhattan, to settle a trade agreement for beaver pelts with the Iroquois. O’Connor contends he altered none of van den Bogaert’s entries.

O’Connor’s accompanying illustrations are delightful and often playful — no mean feat given the dangers van den Bogaert and his companions faced. Frigid temperatures, potentially hostile native Americans, wild animals and becoming tragically lost were constant threats.

But as O’Connor notes in his introduction, van den Bogaert’s “words provide a glimpse into a much different time and place, and above all into his state mind.”

It’s is a very interesting journey.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Battle Angel Alita Last Order 12 — The Story

On one level, the ongoing story for Battle Angel Alita: Last Order is pretty simple: Alita and her team are fighting their way up the table to win the Zenith of Things Tournament. The grand prize has changed a few times over the course of this long tale, but in volume 12, released in America two weeks ago, it became sovereignty over heavenly Tiphares and the slums of the Scrapyard below for the winners.

But this years-long Gunnm tale has seen countless twists —enemies became allies, allies were torn asunder, huge battles were mounted, individuals fought for honor — with backstories and unexpected side trips all over the place. The adventures have been powerful, thrilling, tragic and sometimes even pretty funny.

And there’s a lot of talk, much of it about free will and destiny (and sometimes about flan). By volume 12, Alita has grown to womanhood (with, for some reason yet to be explained, a tail), but there’s a jarring recent development — cyborg Alita has discovered that, somewhere along the way, her brain was replaced with a bio-chip. So her soul-shredding question: Is she still truly human?

Alita is fighting to win the ZOTT and free Tiphares and the Scrapyard. But she also is struggling to understand her own destiny. In the final panels, as Alita appears to be calmly floating in a graceful cartwheel, she wonders: “I feel as if I’m falling from a great height … in a curious state of suspension and deep loneliness …. If I’m moving faster, accelerating in this descent … what awaits me at the end?”

I posted a preview story on this book’s release, with background on the character and story, in August.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order — The Art

If I have one complaint about the excellent Battle Angel Alita: Last Order series, it’s the size: Viz Media publishes the books in tiny paperback proportion that does a disservice to Yukito Kishiro’s marvelous art. (See my earlier post, “Alita Returns in October.”)

In France, the earlier books in his Gunnm series were printed bande dessinĂ©e style, in a 10-by-seven-inch format. Those giant pages gave space to Kishiro’s magnificently detailed drawings. (The one image that immediately comes to mind is that of the tiny heroine, Alita — or Gally, as she’s called in the Japanese and French versions — standing high above the city atop a Space Needle-like structure … an image James Cameron “borrowed” for his Dark Angel TV series, before he announced his intention to make a Battle Angel Alita movie.)

The Viz versions sometimes require the reader to look and look again to take in everything that’s going on in the panels, some only one and a half by two inches big. That’s especially the case in volume 12, just released last week in America, which features a battle royale among hundreds of would-be karate competitors in a giant sports event, ZOTT, the Zenith of Things Tournament.

Think how breathtaking the artist’s drawing of the repair work being done to the outer space ZOTT arena would look, or his rendering of Toji’s vision of Planet Karate, if given more room in this edition.

Kirshiro’s drawings are often complicated, but so, too, are the Gunnm stories. More in the next post ….

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Why We Love Maggie and Hopey

When Jaime Hernandez started out with Love & Rockets, with his brothers Gilbert and Mario in 1982, his drawing was very detailed and the stories fantastical. “Mechanics,” his first installment, featured riot-torn villages, giant sea creatures (“Wow!” says one character. “That’s the stuff comics are made of!”), and a quest to repair a top-secret rocketship that’s crashed in the jungle. The book was titled Love & Rockets, after all.

But over time, Hernandez’s illustration became less detailed, focusing only the more important elements, using deep blacks and lots of white space. And the stories, as we can see in the giant collection Locas: The Maggie and Hopey Stories (from L&R issues 1982 through 1988), while still occasionally dallying with would-be super heroes and fading female pro wrestlers, evolved into tales of gang wars, broken hearts and desperation. Mexican-American Maggie Chascarrillo and Hopey Glass get on with their lives, together and separately, in southern California. More love, less rockets.

By the time we get to “Vida Loca: The Death of Speedy Ortiz,” about three-quarters into this book, life for our protagonists is not as much a fun-filled adventure as they are painted with real-life sadness and tragedy.

Ne’er-do-well Speedy, on whom Maggie has a longtime crush, desperately tries to talk to her about how things have gone terribly wrong for him:

“I’ve just about ****** over everybody that ever meant anything to me, you’re all I’ve got left …. And if I ever lost you, I don’t know what I’d do. I need you, Maggie, I need you bad. I never really wanted Esther or Blanca or …. You’re the one I’ve want for a long ol’ time. You knew that. You did. Please, Maggie, keep me going. Only you can do it for me. I love you.”

Whereupon long-suffering Maggie justifiably loses her temper. “Don’t you dare put this on me!” she shouts. “… I can’t do it any more. It hurts too much.”

What follows is still, for me, the most touching sequence of final panels in graphic novels. You really need to read it.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese, Part 2

It’s been argued that as Hugo Pratt became famous, his drawing became lazy. Just look at the marvelous detail in his early work, such as The Ballad of the Salt Sea (featuring Corto Maltese’s first appearance, in 1967) and Banana Conga and the other African and Latin American stories, some critics have said. Then compare those to the loose, broad strokes of the cartoonist’s later stories, and particularly of his final books, such as Les Helvetiques and Mu: The Lost City (from 1987 and 1988 respectively).

But I think they’re wrong. While it may be true some of Pratt’s work might appear a bit hurried, his detractors overlook the mystical, surreal influence that took a stronger hold as the stories of his protagonist’s life evolved.

By the wonderful Golden Mansion of Samarkand (1980), for example, the characters do appear slightly more cartoony — and less rigid. But look at the detail in the landscape, in the ornamental paintings on the buildings. And in Tango, while Corto and Butch Cassidy might be drawn with deceptively quick strokes, see how specific everything else is rendered. Gosh, you can pick out the rivets on the street cars.

Reality is still hard-edged; the people are merely passing through. (What better way to depict characters who believe Buenos Aires is so romantic it has two moons.)

So by the time we get to the melancholic tales of Les Helvetiques — most of that Swiss adventure is a dream, after all — and Mu — the search for a mythical lost land, where practically every character except Corto dies or vanishes by the end — we and Pratt’s characters are truly disconnected from real life.

I don’t believe Pratt was taking the easy way out. Instead, he was being very, very clever.

My earlier post on Hugo Pratt and Corto Maltese can be found here.

More on Pratt, Corto, their separate adventures and Pratt’s art in future posts. And, yes, used, English-language versions of most of these books can be found (though I’m not so sure about
Les Helvetiques and Mu).