Friday, March 30, 2007

A death in the family

My father passed away today (not an unexpected event, his physical and mental health and been on a severe decline for some time now), so the blog will be closed down for a week or so while I attend funeral services.

Posting should resume on Thursday or thereabouts.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Graphic Lit: Buffy returns

Since the cult TV series “Buffy The Vampire Slayer” ended in 2003, fans have had few places to turn to satisfy their cravings.

They can relax now, as Ms. Summers has risen from the dead once more for a final eighth season. The catch, however, is that she isn’t showing up on your television, but at your local comic book shop.

“Buffy The Vampire Slayer” is a new, monthly comic from Dark Horse and written by series creator Joss Whedon, who’s impressed a number of comic book fans lately with his successful run on “The Astonishing X-Men.”

“I basically said, ‘We could do something and for once we could make it canon [make it part of the main story line]. We could make it officially what happened after the end of the show,’¤” Whedon said in an interview with TV Guide in December. “Let Buffy not only address certain themes that slipped between the cracks of the show, but also really be a comic book.”

The first issue, which was released in stores last week, has already proved to be a hit, as it sold out of its 100,000 first printing almost immediately. (A second printing should be in stores Wednesday).

Whedon will pen the first six issues of the series and then hand off the writing chores to acclaimed scribe Brian K. Vaughn (“Pride of Baghdad,” “Y: The Last Man”). Other writers will fill in as the series progresses. The comic is planned to run for about 25-30 issues.

The first issue picks up a year or so after the end of the seventh season, with Buffy fighting evil abroad and training new slayers. The U.S. military, meanwhile, seems quite worried about the army she’s amassed and aims to take her down. They might get help from one of the survivors of her decimated home town.

I’m about as familiar with the “Buffy” series as I am with NASCAR, which is to say not at all. As a result, I was a bit lost at times as to who certain characters were, what their relationship was to one another and how things ended up as they did. This is clearly a comic for “Buffy” fans first and foremost, with newcomers like myself coming in at a distant second.

That being the case, I turned to my fellow reporter and devout “Buffy” fan, Kira Schlechter, to get her impressions of the comic:

“It picks up where the last episode of the series let off, in a nutshell. And pretty nicely, although it doesn’t march in place — the plot gets cranking really fast, and a whole bunch of new questions arise.” That is what Joss does so well — no wasting time.

“I loved the dialogue. It’s pure Joss — witty and funny and smart-alecky,” Schlechter said. “I can’t make an educated comment about the art, but I do think they made Xander a bit too chiseled.

“All in all, a really good start — I’m dying to see what happens next.”

So there you have it, Buffy fans, a ringing endorsement. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to the video store to fill in the gaps in my vampire-slaying education.


Buffy isn’t the only monster hunter who’s shown up in comics lately. That original beast-buster, “Beowulf,” is back in a 128-page graphic novel by Gareth Hinds (Candlewick Press, $9.99.)

The book is a pretty faithful adaptation of the medieval poem about a brave Dane who goes up against the mother of all monsters, Grendel, and then fights his mother.

The only major change of note is that Hinds and his translators chose a colloquial translation of the poem instead of something more, say, eloquent.

It’s a shame actually, considering how literal Hinds’ adaptation is. He sees the work in purely action terms, and while the fight scenes are well-staged (and gory), I kept wishing he had chosen a less traditional path.

There are hints here and there of what Hinds might have done had he chosen to be less reverential to the original material, but what we’re left with is simply a more lavish version of those old “Classics Illustrated” comics they used to foist on kids back in bygone days. That’s not enough to warrant a recommendation.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Introduction to yaoi, part 2

Wow. That took a lot longer than anticipated. I blame yet another cold setting me back, though the truth is I'm just incomparably lazy. Anyway, here are two sidebars that were originally supposed to run in the paper with my yaoi article but, for reasons best left unexplained, got cut at the last minute. The first is a simple glossary of terms. The second is a slightly humorous round-up of some notable titles. I've hyped these things so much now that you'll probably be terribly underwhelmed by them. Oh well. I shall find some way to make it up to you, dear reader. Never fear.

Yaoi -- (pronounced yah-o-ee) An abbreviation of the Japanese phrase "yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi," which loosely translates as "no climax, no punch line, no meaning." In Japan the term tends to refer to the more explicit, and less professional material, while here in the U.S. it's a catch-all term for the entire genre.

Shounen-ai -- (pronounced show-nen aye) Translates as "boys love." It tends to refer to the nonsexual, more romantic comics. Boys Love -- In Japan, this has become the catch-all phrase for the genre. Often known as BL.

Otaku -- (pronounced o-tok-oo) A geek basically. You can be an otaku about anything, for example model trains. It usually refers to hardcore anime and manga fans, however.

Seme -- "Top." The more aggressive and masculine character in your average yaoi romance.

Uke -- "Bottom." The more passive, feminine character. He's usually drawn to look prettier or more androgynous than the other characters.

Doujinshi -- (pronounced dough-jin-she) Manga made by fans and sold at conventions. Doujinshi are not always yaoi, nor are they always sexually explicit, but many are.


So what does your average yaoi title read like? Here’s a quick run-through of some popular books:

“Only the Ring Finger Knows”
by Satoru Kannagi and Hotaru Odagiri (June)
Plot: High school student Wataru finds he has feelings for older classmate Kazuki. So why is Kazuki so hostile to him all the time?
Quote: “The Kazuki I love is standing right in front of me, but no amount of words can grant me Kazuki’s heart.”
Sexual content: Pretty light. Only a few kisses, hand-holding and goo-goo eyes.

by Makoto Tateno (June)
Plot: Two drug “snatchers” — one straight, one gay — are roommates. Can they deny their true feelings for each other while taking on dangerous assignments?
“No matter how deeply someone loves another, perhaps there’s a love that cannot be shared in bed.”
Sexual content: Lots of groping and barely glimpsed sex scenes. Nothing is left to the imagination, but there’s nothing overtly explicit either.

“Gerard & Jacques”
by Fumi Yoshinaga (Blu)
Plot: Set before the French Revolution, the wealthy Gerard saves the young Jacques from a brothel (after sleeping with him) and takes him on as a servant.
Quote: “Now I’m going to treat you in the manner befitting a whore who angers his client.”
Sexual content: Lots and lots. Keep it far away from the kids.

by Kosen (Yaoi Press)
Plot: A cowboy and a native American join forces to get revenge against a nasty gunslinger. Sexual hi-jinks ensue.
Quote: “If you want me to stop you’re going to have to make me.”
Sexual content: The book’s called “Stallion.” What do you think?

by Hinako Takanaga (Drama Queen)
Plot: Young businessman Kurokawa falls head over heels for college student Tatsumi. How can he make his affections known without scaring him off?
Quote: “I know we’re only landlord and tenant, but if we just had more time together, I could make him understand how I feel.”
Sexual content: Pretty benign. Some kissing and little else, the emphasis is on comedy here.

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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Introduction to yaoi, part 1

Here's part one of my big yaoi profile that ran in the Patriot-News a few weeks ago. Chances are you've seen the official version online. Sorry, I'm too tired and ill to post images, so you'll have no visual oasis when slogging through the grey text. Tomorrow, though, I shall post a few supplimentary sidebars that never made it to press. Lucky you!

Poor Mitsugu Kurokawa. He's fallen in love with the young college student that rents out his extra room. Problem is, the student is a bit clueless. Then there's the overprotective brother who's mighty suspicious of Mitsugu's intentions. Of course, the fact that the student is male doesn't exactly help matters.

That's the basic plot of "Challengers," an example of yaoi, a popular subgenre of manga (or Japanese comics) that's garnered quite a foothold in the West.

Yaoi can be summed up as highly idealized, often quite sexually explicit, romance stories about impossibly beautiful men falling in love with each other.

So one would assume that these comics are made strictly for the enjoyment of gay men, but in fact the exact opposite is true. Yaoi is, for the most part, made by and for straight women.

"It's misinterpreted as gay literature, which it's not. Yaoi writers and artists are laughed at by the gay crowd, they say, 'Hey, c'mon, real men don't look like that,'" said a 40-year-old Harrisburg paralegal, artist and yaoi fan who goes by the online handle of Mr. Cat. "Our answer is we don't care. It's our artwork, it's our story, it's our thing."

"You can't say that it's gay fiction because these characters have emotional sensibilities of women," said Yamila Abraham of Yaoi Press, which publishes yaoi books by Western authors. "They're more emotional, they're romantic, they say what they feel. They're not traditional men in any sense."

That odd twist makes yaoi, also known as boys' love or BL, seem an unusual niche that only caters to a handful of folks, but the truth is yaoi is one of the most popular subgenres of manga, and it's only getting bigger.

"Yaoi has exploded in the past couple of years" said Rachel Livingston of Digital Manga Press, which publishes yaoi through their June line. "There's a lot of growth as young manga readers ... get older. Yaoi is something they can graduate into."

A number of established manga publishers in the United States have come out with their own yaoi imprints in the past few years, while other boutique publishers devoted exclusively to the genre have also popped up.

In fact, the retailer organization ICv2 recently predicted that yaoi releases will more than double in 2007. One BL title, "Loveless" was number seven on their list of top 10 manga properties.

Yaoi fans even have their own convention, Yaoi-Con, which meets in San Francisco. When it debuted in 2001 it had about 450 attendees according to spokesperson April Gutierrez. Last year they had approximately 1,500.

"It's huge, and it's only going to get bigger." Chris Butcher manager of The Beguiling in Toronto, one of the larger and more well-established comic book stores in North America that stocks yaoi. "There's this huge rabid populace of fans that want this material."


Yaoi got its start in Japan in the 1970s, when female manga creators like Takemiya Keiko and Hagio Moto began telling stories of idealized and largely platonic schoolboy romances in series like "Song of Wind and Trees" or "Heart of Thomas."

It wasn't until the '80s, however, that shounen-ai (as these tales were called at the time) really started to become a genre unto itself, with entire magazines devoted to the trend as the material started to become more and more racier.

That development also coincides with the female sci-fi fan base here in the United States, which would often write steamy love stories involving Kirk and Spock, for example.

Known as "slash," these stories really took off with the growth of the Internet. Fan fiction sites across the Web are filled with steamy tales about popular characters from Agent Mulder to Harry Potter indulging in same-sex romances.

The manga boom of the past few years, meanwhile, has allowed publishers to experiment with this sort of material. The success of yaoi series like "Fake" and "Gravitation" proved there was money to be made here. And as fans started sharing and translating books online, they started clamoring to see more of these kinds of stories in print.


While the plots and characters in most yaoi stories vary, wildly there are some set, familiar patterns to the genre.

The story, for instance, usually involves an older, more mature and experienced man falling for a younger, more feminine male.

Known as the Seme, or "top," the older male will tend to be portrayed as the more masculine and aggressive character. The Uke or "bottom" tends to be more sensitive and effeminate to the point of being almost girlish.

These parts aren't always so well defined, however, and many yaoi stories will have the characters switching their respective roles.

The plots are usually angst-filled, with characters overcoming some sort of trial, be it unrequited love, outside influences or just coming to terms with their own feelings.

The books tend to be plot- and character-heavy, and even the more X-rated titles tend to tease out the steamy stuff in order to focus on the characters' emotions.

The one important factor is that all the main figures have to be impossibly pretty to the point of androgyny, with the men rarely behaving in any traditional masculine ways.

The end result is something not completely unlike your average Harlequin romance novel, just without any women.


"The obvious answer is that its analogous to heterosexual men watching lesbian porn. Twice as pretty, twice the excitement," said Lillian Diaz- Przybyl, an editor for Tokyopop's yaoi line, Blu.

"On a more complicated level, it really lets you play with the sexual power dynamic in a very different way than mainstream romance does," she said. "There's a lot more freedom for sexual experimentation in a lot of ways but with this very safe distance."

In other words, yaoi offers women a way to explore their sexuality without being intimidated. There's a little distance there for readers to remove themselves.

"A lot of times with your stereotypical heterosexual relationship, the reader is forced to identify with the female character. But with yaoi since there is no female character, you can identify with either one of them." Livingston said.

That's especially significant considering in a good deal of girls' manga the female characters can act submissive or mousy to the point of cluelessness.


Most experts say you can't really pigeonhole the typical yaoi fan, but there are a few distinguishing characteristics.

The average fan tends to be somewhere between the ages of 19 and 40, though they can skew both older and younger. They're typically college-educated, Internet-friendly and knowledgeable about anime and manga.

"Our audience are mature women who are not ashamed of their sexuality," said Tran Nguyen, president of the boutique publisher Drama Queen. "They're mature woman who enjoy and embrace sexuality and explicitness of stories as well as sweetness and the romance."

"I have to say as a generation they seem happy and very healthy young teenagers," said Abraham of the younger yaoi fans. "They're not like the brooding heavy metal kids from my generation."


Of course, as with any material of this nature there is a concern among fans and publishers that it will catch the attention of concerned parents and other moral authorities, especially considering that some yaoi can be extremely explicit and even transgressive.

"That fear's always there with anything that's not mainstream. And when it involves alternative sexuality, even more so," said Gutierrez. "There's been no furor or uproar yet. But as more and more yaoi books are published, the worry's definitely there."

"It doesn't matter how many disclaimers they put into the book, something's going to come along that's going to tweak someone's nose or worse," Butcher said, adding that "Any controversy that comes up is only going to make it more popular."

Most publishers take concerted effort to make retailers and readers fully aware of what's on the pages, shrinkwrapping books and slapping various parental advisory stickers on the front and back covers.

"My take on things is this is for women who are 18 and older and they have the right to determine for themselves what turns them on and what is erotic for them," Tran said. "When it comes, we'll be ready to answer the critics."

There's also the fear that the big yaoi boom might be over or nearing the tipping point. With so many new publishers and books to choose from, will fans get more selective?

"I don't think it's going to explode. I don't think it's going to be even 50 percent of the market five years from now. I think it's going to continue to be a little corner of things," said Diaz- Przybyl.

Whether the genre continues to grow or not, whether it comes under fire from the mainstream or not, it will almost certainly retain a devoted following for those who choose to seek it out.

"Yaoi is my obsession," said Abraham. "It's my whole life."

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Graphic Lit: An interview with Aline Crumb

To a large part of the comics-reading public Aline Kominsky-Crumb is probably best known as the wife of Robert Crumb, famed underground cartoonist ("Zap Comix," "Fritz the Cat") and subject of the award-winning 1994 documentary.

The fact, however, is that she's a notable cartoonist in her own right. Crumb was one of the first artists to do confessional, autobiographical material in the '60s and '70s, delving into her angst-ridden childhood in a raw, no-holds-barred style. As a result, she has influenced a number of cartoonists who have come since, both directly and indirectly.

Not one to rest on her laurels, Crumb continues to draw, most notably on collaborative strips with her husband for "The New Yorker."

Now, she has a new book out, "Need More Love." Subtitled "A Graphic Memoir," Crumb combines comics, photos, paintings and text to tell her life story.

Crumb flew to the United States from her home in France to promote the book, and I talked with her from her hotel room in New York City:

Q: What was the impetus for doing this book?

A: Well, you know, I’m approaching 60 years old, and I’ve been in the comic-writing business since 1970 and I have a large body of work and it hasn’t really been seen by the public very much been hidden in the underground world, with an audience that wasn’t really the appropriate audience. I feel now that comics and graphic novels are really going mainstream and I felt I could reach more of the audience I was trying to talk to for the last 40 years.

So I thought it was a good time and also I have documented my life so heavily that the thought of doing this visual autobiography was really a very interesting idea to me.

And then I had a very encouraging publisher. That helped to. She really was behind me and she really wanted me to do exactly what I wanted to do and would not interfere with it at all. I ended up with a book only half as long as Bill Clinton’s, but nevertheless .... (laughs)

Q: I’m sure it’s more readable.

A: It has more pictures.

Q: More comics makes it attractive to me certainly. You said “audience.” Can you give me an idea what audience you’re shooting for?

A: I’m talking to people like myself. I think I’m talking to women, and men too, people who have had miserable lives, who are alienated, suffered. My work is expressionistic. It doesn’t really fit into any comic genre. It’s not superhero. It’s not manga. It’s not feminist. It’s not science-fiction. It doesn’t refer to any of the comics genres because I really come from a painting and literary background more. It’s just like my own storytelling is very angst-ridden. So I’m talking to the other angst-ridden fellow travelers out there. It’s work that I’m attracted to reading — Charles Bukowski, Gene Rees — writers like that. I know there are people out there that can relate to it, I just don’t think that I’ve ever reached that audience and now maybe I will.

Q: What do you think you’re work hasn’t reached that audience? Do you worry that your husband’s fame has eclipsed your own to an extent?

A: I’m sure that’s partially true, but I don’t think that even if I was not involved with him that my work would have had great financial or critical success in the comics world because as I said it doesn’t fit into any comics niche. I’ve always had a very small following. People look at this and go “What is this,” because I don’t have a comics background, and my works don’t look like other comics. My books were never distributed as books in regular bookstores. I was an ugly duckling and real outsider artist. I don’t think that being married to him has made that much difference although perhaps the public’s perception of me is affected by that. I have no idea. But it hasn’t affected my desire to work. I’ve been an artist since I was eight years old; I started painting. And he’s always encouraged my work, so it hasn’t really affected me as an artist, but I can’t judge those kind of things. I don’t know if the public perceives me as “the wife” and so they don’t look at my work seriously. I don’t really think so.

Q: You are one of the very first people to do autobiographical comics.

A: You are right.

Q: And now it’s become a genre unto itself. Do you ever pick up an issue of “Peepshow” or look at some similar comic and think “I started this?”

A: Absolutely, and I’m really happy because I love some of the stuff that’s out there now. There’s really a lot of good young artists. I feel like I’m the great-grandma because there’s several generations that have come after me and I’m really happy about that.

Doing this book now is partially because of that. Now there is a place in the book stores for this book. These artists have created a place in the book store where I can be now. It’s really wonderful. There’s great stuff out there now. I love Joe Matt and I love my daughter’s work and I love Adrian Tomine and I love Dan Clowes ... tons of stuff out there ... Joe Sacco, Phoebe Gloeckner who came in between, Rick Altergott, David Heatley, I could go on and on. That Iranian woman, Satrapi. My book can fit in a giant place in the bookstore that hopefully I helped create. That certainly makes me feel good.

Q: It’s funny because in certain comic circles there’s been almost a backlash against autobio comics. To an extent I think it’s people whining. There was one review of Mome, the Fantagraphics anthology, that singled out a few people’s work as being really mundane.

A: Well, too bad. When something’s really successful and flourishing, then some people have to make their achievement by being against it. That’s just a critic trying to make their name for themselves.

Q: Well my question to you is then, what is it about autobiography that appeals to you so strongly?

A: Well, I’m an artless person and I don’t know how to make anything up, so for me it’s not a choice. I’m still working out the issues of my childhood and I’ve worked them out through my artwork which I think most artists are doing in their artwork in different ways. I have evolved as a human being by telling stories about my childhood that were intolerable. That’s what autobiographical work is about for most people. It’s some kind of therapy.

Hopefully it’s entertaining and hopefully it’s so self -revealing that other people that read and identify with it and it makes them have some kind of knowledge about themselves as well and makes them feel less alienated. It serves a great purpose in the culture because people see themselves and they other people’s craziness, it makes them feel less crazy. I think it’s an important art form. It’s always existed in one form or another. I’m not saying there isn’t room for escapist entertainment as well, but it can all be out there.

Q: It does seem like something that works very well in comics.

A: And some people are better at it than others. It’s not all good. Obviously when there’s a lot of it coming out, some of it’s not as well-conceived.

Q: Are there any hazards to doing autobiography, both in terms of feedback or in terms of just ... putting out a good comic I guess?

A: Well, you can be too repetitive. You can get masterbatory. (laughs) I think you have to grow as an artist and you have to grow as a storyteller. You have to keep trying to push your limits and do better. I think you have to always try to be honest and not get into a rut. You have to be careful not to make yourself into a character too much. You have to keep the honesty and the rawness there so that it’s powerful. Because if you make yourself into a character it can become very cute and trite. You start playing to the audience. Then you’re Bart Simpson or something. You’re this cute, nasty character but it loses the power.

Whereas I think when you’re expressing raw emotion and pain, it’s always interesting even if it’s not pretty to look at or fun to look at. It still has a power and honesty. That’s what I like to look at myself. That’s what I like to read about. Some people don’t want to. I like to read Charles Bukowski.

Q: Is there particular stories that you find difficult to tell or cannot tell for whatever reason? Is there a line? I say this because you are very open and honest in your comics.

A: I’m sure there are things I don’t tell but I’m not really aware of where I draw the line. I have a certain self-protection obviously. I don’t think any artist tells stories until they’ve digested them themselves. I don’t think you talk about the pain you’re in today. You talk about the pain you were in yesterday. I think you digest it to where you’ve learned to live with it a little before you tell it. I think that’s more or less what it is. You digest it and regurgitate it in a way that’s tolerable for you to live with it. I think that’s a natural process of protection but I’m not real conscious of how I make the decision, “I’m not going to tell this.” What comes out is what I’m ready to reveal. I think that’s how most artists work.

Q: Getting back to the book, can you tell me how it came together? How did you decide upon the format?

A: The publisher approached me, and it was the publisher that had done Robert’s “Handbook.” The did a series of artists handbooks. They wanted to do a book like that with me where it was an autobiographical book with a lot of different visual elements. So I started thinking in those terms. And then of course since I can only write about myself I ended up writing an autobiography. And I ended up writing 100 pages of text, which surprised myself. There were a lot of things that I wanted to say and it just all came pouring out. And then I realized I had one of periods of my life really well document with comic stories, photos and paintings. So I kind of put it together as a montage almost, impressionistically where each period I found all of the images that went with that period. In some cases I blew up parts of comics that related to the text and colored them. So I used them in an illustrative way with the text. And I experimented with the autobiographical form in a way that to me was visually strong and easy to read and kind of hits you in a multi-faceted way. I think it turned out well. I liked the results. I called it a “graphic memoir” cause I can’t think of anything else to call it, but that’s basically what it is.

Q: Were there any records you wanted to set straight or rumors you wanted to quash? Did you have any agenda?

A: I didn’t have any agenda, but I did talk a lot about the early feminist movement of women cartoonists in San Francisco cause that was a really particularly bitchy group of women. And Diane Noomin and I broke off from it and started “Twisted Sisters.” She was there last night and she was really happy. She wrote something in the book too because those women were really awful to us because when we became involved with male cartoonists who they still considered the ultimate male chauvinist pig which is really ridiculous cause the men cartoonists were actually really encouraging to us. They were really backbiting and nasty.

I gave my version of a story which has never been said before. And it’s not a pretty story. (laughs).

Q: There was a story on some pop culture magazine on the Web which really railed ...

A: I read it. About Robert?

Q: I was shocked that you were not mentioned once.

A: That’s what they’ve done to me for the last four years, Diane Noomin and I did not exist. Cause we went with men and that meant that we were sell-outs. It’s so stupid and simplistic. The other thing is that those women, like Trina Robbins — I might as well say names — their work wasn’t very interesting. I actually think she’s an interesting historian and has written about the history of women’s comics in a good way, but her work itself was really dumb. It’s silly girls in adventure costumes. It was the dumbest thing I ever saw in my life. Her advice to me in comics was completely lame. I said to her, “But I like men, and I want to be sexy, and I want to be in control. I think that’s all possible. I’m not that angry. I’m tough. If someone tries to mess with me I’m going to punch them out.” I’m a bad girl. I want to be bad, dress bad-ass and do whatever the hell I want. Diane and I were early punks in a way. We couldn’t abide by that politically correct thing, hating men. It was so dumb. I think I told my side of the story in that book, but it wasn’t my main motivation for writing that book. But yes, I got it out of my system.

Q: The other thing that struck me so wrong about that article was there’s such a line between people like you and Robert Crumb’s work to the female cartoonists working today.

A: The thing that I think is wonderful today is you don’t say “male and female cartoonists.” There’s no distinction. Obviously everything has evolved where we want it to evolve because all the work is good. In the early 70s, the work of the women cartoonists was very, very unevolved. It was not professional level. It would not even have been published if it hadn’t been that particular time. What we’re really talking about is that women have evolved to be really equal in the genre and there is no distinction whatsoever. So what’s there to talk about?

Q: It’s funny, cause last year in the comics industry, on all the blogs and stuff gender was such a big issue, and all the books that were coming out that I absolutely adored were by these really established female cartoonists. Books like “Fun Home” and so on.

A: Yeah, exactly. Alison Bechdel, Lauren Weinstein, Roz Chast, there’s me, Phoebe Gloeckner, Carol Tyler, Gabrielle Bell, Sophie Crumb, on and on and on. I’m just happy that my daughter is not dealing with anything like that whatsoever. She has to kick herself in the butt and do the work and that’s it.

Q: Talking about that, your daughter has become a cartoonist, and is following in yours and Robert’s footsteps. Was there a point where you were worried for her or concerned about her career choice? I know around here a lot of people at the newspaper always joke “Oh, my kid can do anything they want as long as they don’t become a journalist.”

A: Well, I don’t know. We gave Sophie an education in The Three Stooges and Little Rascals and Marx Brothers and old Fleisher cartoons and old music and she just grew up in Crumbland and I don’t know. It took with her. She is such a talented and natural artist. She started drawing comics when she was a little kid. I don’t know if she ever thought of doing much else. She’s also a great musician. She didn’t go to a university. She was not at all interested in an academic education. We give her a warped point of view and poor kid, she’s got to live with that. What can I say? I can’t make a judgment about it. I’m not surprised. She’s rebelled against us in other ways. I’m not unhappy about it because she’s talented and I hope she keeps working and finding her voice more and more. She likes doing that work too. It could be worse, she’s living in France. She’s got fast Internet in her little village. She’s doing illustrations for Jane and Vice also.

Q: Like I said, the reason I ask is I know people who say “My kid can do whatever they like but I hope they don’t follow in my footsteps.”

A: Well, Robert and I have had a pretty interesting life. I think she’s seen the way we live as being good. Cause we’ve been able to live where we want and travel. We have a lot of personal freedom. I think that it’s appealing to her. I think it’s a very interesting art form so I really don’t feel that way at all.

She also is a tattoo artist. And she did a two-year apprenticeship with a tattoo studio in New York. So she also tattoos for money too, which is something that is sort of scary to me. She did tattoo me. I have a tattoo by her. She’s really good but I don’t see how she can do that, that’s scary. So that’s kind of going against us.

She’s real edgy. She lived in a squat in New York. She hasn’t been an easy kid to raise. She’s her own kid totally. She always has been since she came out. The culture that she was raised with in our house appealed to her. She agrees with me and Robert and it is weird because I’ve rebelled so much against my family values totally. And she and I agree in taste in a lot of ways. We fight about a lot of other things but we have a lot of similar tastes in terms of what writers we like, we exchange books. We always know what the other one is going to like. We have that kind of mental rapport really strongly. It is interesting. It’s kind of unique. I don’t know if it’s good or bad to be her sometimes. Critics are really hard on her . They judge her on much harsher standards than they do other artists her own age.

Q: Right, because of the two of you.

A: Yeah. I think she’s really good. She’s only 25. Her work is much better than either of our work at that age. And yet people come down on her really harshly. She’s supposed to be way beyond anybody else.

Q: I guess it’s a double-edged sword. If you like it, it’s “oh you just like it because it’s Sophie Crumb.” If you hate it, you’re being way too harsh.

A: Exactly. And that’s what she has to deal with more than anything else. But she’s in every issue of Mome and she’s getting more work because she’s good. I said to her, she was complaining, certain people will give you a chance because of your name, but if you’re not good it will end quickly. In the end, it’s going to matter if you’re work is good or not.

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about how you developed your art style? Because it’s so unique.

A: I have no style. I’m artless. What style? I don’t have a style. It’s not deliberate. I’m an outsider artist, like art brut. Especially in drawing. My painting is a little more sophisticated and more controlled and planned and I actually try to paint in a certain style. But my comics and narrative is so painful to me, it just drags this painful scratching from my heart and gut. Very, very unfiltered. I don’t know if people realize that, but it’s like German expressionist art in its most extreme form. I haven’t consciously developed a style. I don’t have that much control over it. I’m not kidding. (laughs)

Q: I’m very curious as to how you and Robert do these collaborative strips. Can you give me an idea of how that process breaks down?

A: Let’s say we have a germ of an idea, something we want to tell. One of us will start penciling on a page and put in some dialogue. Then the other one will respond. We’ll get all the dialogue on one page and then we’ll go to the next page, continue with the dialogue. So we’ll have two pages of dialogue. And then we’ll go in and he’ll start drawing himself and then I’ll put myself in, and we’ll do it until we get two pages penciled. And then we each ink one page and then we exchange them. And we talk about story before in a general idea of where we’re going, but we don’t plan out the whole thing. We kind of let it go back and forth in a kind of improvisation. A little bit like standup comedy. Like a standup comedy team. And if we have to cover an event for the New Yorker then we think about something we want to say. We go to the event, look at all the stuff and take notes, look at it all and figure out something. We try to be a little more organized about it. Basically that’s how we work.

Q: Do you ever worry about running out of material?

A: Never. I’m still writing about my childhood. Every day I see new stories. My problem is I could never draw all the stories I have. Never in this lifetime.

That’s another reason why I decided to write text in my book, just to get it out there. Comics are slow. And I’ll never get all my stories done before I die. I’m getting old.

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Monday, March 19, 2007

Graphic Lit: A pair of nerd manga

In Japan, the word for nerd is “otaku.”

Technically it refers to someone obsessed with a hobby, be it comics, video games or model trains. But in general terms, it refers to the social substrata of hard-core, antisocial manga and anime fans.

As in the U.S., nerd culture has been on the upswing lately over there, due mainly to the success of the “Train Man” saga, which chronicled the romance between a hopeless otaku and a beautiful young woman.

Recently two manga titles devoted to otaku culture have made their way to our shores. What’s interesting about them is the different way they skewer the lifestyle. One, “Genshiken,” is relatively benign. The other, “Welcome to the N.H.K.,” is ... decidedly less so.

“Genshiken” by Kio Shimoku is an amusing, ultimately heartwarming look at a handful of college students who belong to the extracurricular club known as “The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture.”

That’s a fancy title, but the group is basically an excuse/escape for its members to watch anime, play video games and leaf through comic book porn.

Most of the early volumes are seen through the eyes of two characters: Kanji, an underclassman who’s eager to be with his own nerdy kind, and Saki, a “normal” young woman who can’t believe the guy she loves would rather watch cartoons than make out with her.

Despite the characters’ various quirks and perversions — one of the girl members is a huge yaoi (male gay porn) freak — they’re all ultimately redeemable and likable characters. The humor is never forced nor plot-driven, but grows out of the individual characters’ personalities.

Eventually the members are able to shake off their lethargy and combine their talents to create and sell their own fanzine comic (an X-rated one, natch). Kanji learns to embrace his true inner nerd, and Saki discovers the geeks her boyfriend hangs out with aren’t so bad after all.

If there’s a theme to “Genshiken,” it’s that while our hobbies and obsessions might mark us initially as different or socially backward, deep down we’re fully capable of becoming mature, productive members of society.

If “Genshiken” is a benevolent reflection of how most geeks would like to view themselves, “Welcome to the N.H.K.” is what they fear the truth to be. It’s a gleefully nasty critique of the otaku culture.

The plot centers on twentysomething Satou, an unemployed “hikikomori” or shut-in who rarely leaves his apartment. (Ten years ago you’d have called him a slacker).

A wee bit unhinged and utterly pathetic, Satou is convinced the N.H.K (Japan’s version of PBS) is responsible for making him a recluse, hence the series’ title.

That’s until he meets a mysterious girl who claims she can cure him of his fanboy ways. Satou, of course, doesn’t know how to react to her, his knowledge of women pathetically limited to the kind found in most video games and anime. It doesn’t help matters that his next-door neighbor has roped him into working on “the ultimate pornographic computer game.”

When not portraying its cast in the worst light possible, “Welcome to the N.H.K.” take great joy in disparaging certain otaku conventions such as “moe,” the disturbing tendency to portray young women as weak, naive creatures in desperate need of male protection.

Takimoto and Oiwa rightly see through the inherent sexism in such trends and play it up to its most absurd, insulting end. Whether or not Satou is ultimately able to drag himself out of the depths of despair is clearly not as important to the authors as the opportunity to make fun of otaku.

Despite the endless Japanese references, both books bear enough resemblance to certain Western types to make American-born geeks more than a little uncomfortable.

Of the two books, I like “Genshiken” a little more. It’s a little slicker, and it’s characters are a little deeper, more three-dimensional. With “N.H.K.,” the endless slapstick can be a grating at times, though it’s hard not to enjoy the joyful savaging on display.

“Genshiken” is a human comedy of errors. Despite the social awkwardness of its cast, the manga’s general message is a positive one: “It’s OK. You’re just like everyone else.”

“N.H.K.’s” message is bit more cynical: “Dream on buddy. You’re nothing but a pathetic loser.”

“And kind of creepy too.”

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Thursday, March 15, 2007

VG review: Chulip

Natsume, for PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (crude humor, sugges­tive themes, use of alcohol, use of tobacco), $29.99.

So many video games these days involve stabbing, shooting or blowing things up, so it’s refreshing to see a game that focuses on kissing instead of killing people.

Assuming, of course, you don’t consider kissing giant spiders, clams, voodoo dolls and other odd creatures more disturbing than “Doom III.”

The game in question is “Chulip,” a bizarre Japanese game that values smooching above smacking. Here you play a poor young lad, newly moved to “Long Life Town.” Having met the girl of your dreams, you must find a way to win her over.

How do you do that? By kissing everyone and everything in your hometown and surrounding areas. Apparently doing so strengthens your heart and improves your reputation (usually it works the other way around). You’ll also have to track down fancy stationary to write a love letter, but that’s secondary to the kissing.

Of course, folks won’t pucker up just because you ask nicely. You have to meet certain objectives to get them to lock lips with you.

For instance, the monk will kiss you only after you’ve found his wooden gong. “Mr. Music Box” will do it once he’s finished playing his song. Then there’s the turtle who has a thing for nudity.

The game follows a clock of sorts, and various creatures and people will only come out at certain times of the day or night, which means you’ll be doing a lot of standing around and waiting for someone to poke their head out of the dirt (apparently folks in the town live below ground).

For all its talk of romance, “Chulip” is a very disturbing game. There’s the town doctor, for example, who by night runs around with a giant hypodermic. If he catches you, he will use the hypodermic to suck your blood and drink it. If the cop catches you out at night with his headlight eyes, he’ll shoot you down, no questions asked. It gets weirder from there.

Unfortunately, “Chulip” is not a good game. The objectives aren’t well laid out, there are far too few save points and the deaths come fast and cheap. Thankfully, Natsume saw it fit to include a walk-through of sorts with the game.

But the waiting around is probably the title’s biggest problem. At one point I put the controller down for 20 minutes or so, as I sat and waited for a factory to open.

And yet .... and yet I find myself recommending “Chulip” if for no other reason than it’s so unlike anything else I’ve played before.

Playing it can be a frustrating experience, but it does come with some rewards. If nothing else, you’ll have something to talk about with your friends the next day.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Graphic Lit: Stephen King's 'Dark Tower'

How far behind am I on posting here? This article originally ran in The Patriot-News back on Feb. 16. That's how far behind I am. Catching up though.

So there I was, hanging out in my local comic book store, five minutes after midnight, on one of the coldest nights of the year, waiting in line to purchase the latest Marvel comic. And on a Wednesday evening no less. What in God's name was I thinking?

Well, I was probably thinking what the 25-30 other people in line were thinking. Namely, how good (or awful) was the new Stephen King comic going to be?

The release of "The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger Born" -- a spin-off of King's popular "Dark Tower" book series -- had been big news ever since it was announced last year.

Marvel had pulled out all the public relations stops with this one, offering special midnight release parties at select shops across the country, hence my waiting in line when by all rights I should have been in bed.

Curiosity, as well as the need to find a subject for this week's column, led me to the store that evening. This sort of cross-pollination between well-established prose author and big-name comics company is always met with high hopes but rarely translates into many new readers, at least from my perspective. Would this time prove different?

Surprisingly enough (or, if you're cynical, unsurprisingly), King doesn't actually write this series (the comic credits him as "creative and executive director"). That task goes to established comic scribe Peter David, with King's assistant Robin Furth providing "plotting and consultation."

A blend of Western and fantasy tropes, "The Dark Tower" books tell the story of Roland Deschain, a gunslinger on a quest to locate a forbidding tower in a magical and dangerous land.

"Gunslinger Born," which will run for seven issues, provides Deschain's back story. The first issue finds the young Roland training to be a warrior.

Plots abound, mostly involving a nefarious wizard/court adviser who seems to have shacked up with Deschain's mom.

Having never read any Stephen King book, let alone "The Dark Tower" series, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the comic.

The book isn't forbidding to newcomers, but I suspect the better-versed you are in King's mythology, the more enjoyable this comic will be.

Certainly the production values are top-notch. Even the ads seem to reflect a more thoughtful and sophisticated demeanor. There's even a section in the back detailing the geography of this fantasy world to aid clueless folks like me.

Jae Lee and Richard Isanove's art is the best thing about the book though. Lush, dark and moody (Lee seems to have a thing for portraying characters in shadow), it does a fine job of centering you in Roland's world, although it's perhaps too slick at times.

Certain pages seem more like pinup pages than an attempt to tell a narrative. Other sequences, such as a fight between Roland and his teacher, however, are spot-on.

Time will determine just how successful this spin-off is (future "Dark Tower" mini series are in the works, each one focusing on a different character).

Certainly Marvel has gone to admirable lengths to entice King fans into venturing inside their local comic book store.

Whether they come back the second time around is the big question.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Graphic Lit: New "Love & Rockets" Collections

Twenty-five years ago (or thereabouts), two brothers, both aspiring cartoonists living in Oxnard, Calif., decided to forgo the usual Marvel and DC route and self-publish their comics.

Titled “Love and Rockets,” their book was a weird, heady mash-up of superheroes, underground comix, rock ’n’ roll and Archie. Slightly trippy, with strong literary aspirations, it read like nothing else.

They sent their first issue to Gary Groth, then editor of The Comics Journal magazine, for him to review. Groth liked the book so much he asked the brothers if they’d be willing to let him publish it.

The rest is history, as “Love and Rockets” quickly became the flagship title for Groth’s new publishing company Fantagraphics, and the standard bearer for what became known in the 1980s and ’90s as the “alternative comics” movement.

Jamie (pronounced “Hi-may”) and Gilbert Hernandez have been regularly publishing the adventures of their extensive cast of characters for decades, both in “Love and Rockets” and in separate series, occasionally joined by their older brother, Mario.

Now, their seminal stories are being reprinted in handsome softcover volumes, the first of which — “Maggie the Mechanic” and “Heartbreak Soup” — are in stores now.

The books are a follow-up of sorts to the immense, hardcover coffee-table volumes — “Locas” and “Palomar” — that Fantagraphics put out a few years ago.

It’s an attempt to put the brothers’ work in a more reader-friendly chronological format, according to Fantagraphics co-publisher Kim Thompson.

“The first Love and Rockets collections originally reflected the work as it was coming out,” he said. “We wanted to go back and take the individual series and put them in chronological order. We did it with big collected editions but wanted a low-end entry point.”

The books are smaller but handsome, and much thicker than previous collections. And while some may quibble over the size, there’s no question that $15 is a bargain for the amount of story you get.

“Heartbreak Soup” kicks off the beginning of Gilbert’s “Palomar” tales, the fictional sleepy village along the Mexican coast. Its denizens include the saucy, slug-selling Tonantzin, the idealistic accordion teacher Heraclio and the hammer-wielding Luba and her large brood of children.

Combining magical realism with vibrant characters and almost mind-bending jump cuts between panels, “Soup” quickly established Gilbert as one of the best cartoonists of his generation.

Jamie’s “Maggie the Mechanic,” meanwhile, focuses on the adventures of surly young punk rockers (and possibly lovers) Maggie and Hopey and their extended cadre of friends.

These early stories incorporate a good deal of science-fiction, with dinosaurs, superheroes and Latin American politics frequently intruding on the plot.

Jamie would later abandon all that in favor of a greater and more thoughtful realism, but these
early stories hold up surprisingly well. And Jamie’s art is, as always, nothing short of exquisite.

If for whatever reason you’ve avoided “Los Bros Hernadez’s” work up till now, you no longer have any excuse. It’s a great time to get acquainted with some of the best comics ever made.

The Ignatz line

The new “Love and Rockets” books underscore the movement away from pamphlet-sized material to more lengthy graphic novels.

For those who hate to see the format abandoned, there’s Fantagraphics ongoing Ignatz series.

The line, conceived by Italian cartoonist Igort through his Coconino Press, is an attempt to offer European and American cartoonists the chance to serialize their work and thus subsidize their efforts.

“Cartoonists can’t afford to spend three to four years doing graphic novels,” Thompson said.

The books are handsome affairs, with the kind of stellar production values Fantagraphics is known for. Each title is 32 pages, measures 8½x11” and costs $7.95.

Ongoing “Ignatz” titles include:

“Ganges” by Kevin Huizenga. Huizenga’s everyman listens to the Beatles, wanders through his neighborhood and worries about death.

“New Tales of Old Palomar” by Gilbert Hernandez. Gilbert returns to Palomar to revisit some of his most beloved characters.

“Delphine” by Richard Sala.
A gothic horror take on the classic “Snow White” fable.

“They Found the Car” by Gipi.
A man gets a phone call in the middle of the night telling him ... well, you know.

“Babel” by David B.
The author of “Epileptic” revisits his relationship with his ill brother.

For more information about the Ignatz line, go here.

Monday, March 12, 2007

So yeah, I covered the Captain America death too

Yup, I got roped into the whole mass media onslaught that was Captain America #25 last week. Actually, it ended up being kind of fun, as I got to go to the comic store early in the morning, and got to talk to folks like Tom Spurgeon, which is always nice. My thanks to Tom, Joe Quesada, and my local comic book shops for taking time out to chat with me. It's always appreciated.

So long, Steve Rogers, we hardly knew ye.

Steve Rogers, of course, is the civilian identity of Captain America, the flag-wearing, shield-throwing superhero who, in the latest issue of his monthly comic, was seemingly killed by a sniper’s bullet.

Captain America first appeared in comic books in 1941 when then-scrawny Rogers was injected with the “super-soldier serum” to help fight the Nazis. Stan Lee brought him back in the 1960s, explaining his longevity by saying he had been cryogenically frozen in ice. The Captain has been a mainstay of the Marvel Comics universe since he thawed.

The current issue is a continuation of the recent “Civil War” mega-event, where the Cap led a resistance movement against the Superhero Registration Act, a law that required heroes to become federal employees.

The final issue of that series saw Rogers turning himself in, devastated at the destruction the two opposing groups had wrought to New York City. In the new comic, he’s assassinated while heading to his arraignment.

The news of the Captain’s death caused a media frenzy last week, with many drawing allusions to the current political atmosphere.

“Making a political comment that blunt caught everyone’s attention,” said Tom Spurgeon of

Marvel was, in fact, taken a little bit aback by the coverage.

“We’re not surprised that we got coverage. We are surprised by the magnitude of the coverage,” said Joe Quesada, editor-in-chief of Marvel Comics.

Local comic book stores, meanwhile, were flooded with phone calls and customers.

Bill Wahl, co-owner of the Comix Connection stores in York and Mechanicsburg, said hundreds of people had stopped by his York store on Wednesday to pick up a copy.

Ralph Watts of Comics and Paperbacks Plus in Palmyra said he sold out of his copies early on Wednesday. And Bob Newbury of Cosmic Comics in Harrisburg reported he’d sold out in two hours.

“As a retailer, I love it,” Watts said. “As long as my regular customers are covered, everything else is a plus.”

Leaving aside the political metaphors for now (does the Red Skull represent al-Qaida?), the big question is whether he’s really dead and, if so, when will he come back to life? Superheroes, after all, are killed and revived with alarming regularity. Superman, Supergirl, even Captain America’s long lost partner Bucky have all journeyed back from the great beyond.

“[Death] needs to be a consequence or [fans are] not satisfied with the level of violence or realism involved,” Spurgeon said. “And yet you have to have a way out of that because killing characters weakens the portfolio.”

Of course, the death and resurrection of a character is not something that’s unique to comic books. Soap-opera characters die and come back all the time. Buffy the Vampire Slayer popped out of her grave. Even Sherlock Holmes fell off the Reichenbach Falls only to return when Victorian fans demanded it.

But in this age of mega-hyped, “everything changes” crossovers like “Infinite Crisis” and “Civil War,” it’s easy to see Cap’s death as a PR stunt; a cynical attempt to drive up sales.

“If we really wanted to make this a publicity stunt we would have leaked this to the media about a month ago,” Quesada said. “We wanted to do something where we surprised fans. We didn’t come into this saying ... ‘let’s kill somebody.’ ”

Spurgeon agreed that Cap’s death appears to have arisen organically out of the current storyline, which may make all the difference.

“It’s nice when a comic revolves around a plot point from a writer rather than a bunch of editors sitting in a room deciding how to pump the market for some cash,” he said.

Whether you really believe Cap is dead, it’s hard not to be impressed with Marvel’s stealth tactics. Prior to the comic’s release, many in the comic world were anticipating last Friday’s arrival of “300,” the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s graphic novel. No one’s talking about that movie now.

So R.I.P., Steve Rogers, at least until they decide to resurrect you a year or so from now. Or when they announce the inevitable Captain America movie. Whichever comes first.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

VG REVIEW: Rogue Galaxy

Sony, for PlayStation 2
rated T for Teen (blood, crude humor, mild language, mild suggestive themes, use of alcohol and tobacco, violence), $39.99.

Just about every aspect of "Rogue Galaxy" screams "old-school role-playing game," from the random battles in dank dungeons to the 40-plus hour epic storyline with its cardboard heroic characters.

It's old-school in a good way, though, because "Rogue Galaxy" offers enough diversity and fun to keep the proceedings from becoming overly familiar and dull.

The game is the brainchild of the folks at Level 5, a developer known for its rpgs (their last big project was the critically acclaimed "Dragon Quest VIII").

The plot involves a brash young lad with the unfortunate name of Jaster Rogue. Eager to explore the galaxy, he pretends to be a renowned bounty hunter in order to join up with a gang of space pirates. Adventure quickly ensues.

Anyone who's played a Japanese rpg will be on familiar ground here. Thankfully, the battles aren't turn-based, but happen in real time, and you can switch between characters or weapons on the fly, a welcome change.

The big draw is the items that the various monsters and other creatures drop upon being defeated. These odd objects can be used to upgrade your skills, or be fused with other parts to make cool new weapons. Mixing and matching things to see what you come up with is a large part of the fun.

There also are plenty of side quests and minigames, including one that has you collecting bugs that then face off against one another in a pint-sized arena.

On the downside, some of the tried and true rpg conventions burden the game. Save areas are sparse. The story and characters feel more than a bit rote. Even worse, you can't heal your characters via magic, so you end up spending a lot of your cash on healing potions -- money that could be spent on better upgrades.

Problems aside, "Rogue Galaxy" has enough craftsmanship to smooth out any rough patches and offers a fresh coat of paint on an aging jalopy.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

VG REVIEW: Hotel Dusk and Diddy Kong Racing DS

Nintendo's ever-popular handheld console, the DS, has found favor with grownups and kids alike.

Adults enjoy the sleek design and puzzle games such as "Brain Age," while kids enjoy romping through colorful worlds such as those in "New Super Mario Bros."

Two recent titles underscore Nintendo's attempts to cater to both audiences: "Hotel Dusk: Room 215" and "Diddy Kong Racing DS." Unfortunately, neither manages to be as successful as the previously mentioned games are.

"Hotel Dusk" is a mystery adventure title in the vein of classic games such as "Myst," "The Last Express" and "Starship Titanic." As with those games, the emphasis is on exploring and solving puzzles.

In "Dusk" you play a down-on-his-luck ex-cop who checks into the seedy Hotel Dusk one night.

You're ostensibly trying to locate your former partner who betrayed you, and guess what! It turns out he might have stayed at that very hotel earlier. Not only that, but just about every guest in the hotel that night seems to have some sort of connection to him. What are the odds?

You play the game by wandering through the hotel, examining objects and interviewing hotel patrons and employees. That's about it, and it can get quite dull to walk up and down the same hall again and again. The puzzles are far too easy and lack any challenge to engage players for long periods.

"Dusk" bills itself as noir, but it's about as noir as your average episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond." It boasts an appealing art style (think of A-ha's "Take on Me" video), and the story plods along well enough, but I kept thinking so much more could have been done. Imagine a mystery in which your method of investigation determines who committed the crime and you'll see what I'm getting at.

"Diddy Kong Racing," on the other hand, aims to be nothing more than a cute little go-kart racer for the wee ones.

The game is a port of the 1997 Nintendo 64 title. The bad news is, except for some nice multiplayer content, there's little here worth a trip back to the well.

The biggest problem with the title is the interface, which, rather than offering a simple menu has you zooming around a landscape trying to figure out where to go for your next race.

There are other problems. Some add-ons, such as one that forces you to pop balloons, are more annoying than charming. The races themselves seem to vary wildly in difficulty, from mind-numbingly easy to way too difficult. And the controls handle awkwardly as well.

Given that the excellent "Mario Kart DS" is still out, there's little reason to pick "Diddy Kong" up.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Kids Love Comics Day Photo Diary

As promised, here's some pics I took of last Saturday's event at the Whitaker Center in Harrisburg. Below is the entrace to the second floor gallery, where most of the events were held. They had lots of tables with free comics splayed out:

This is the sales table, where you could buy books by the various cartoonists:

Here we see Jane Fisher-Smith, writer of "WJHC," talk about turning personal experiences into comics:

Todd Webb was on hand, doing caricatures of people in crayon. Here he is doing one of my daughter:

And the finished product:

They had original art on display in the hall:

Organizer of the event and Amelia Rules cartoonist Jimmy Gownley:

Of course, for my kids, comics couldn't compete with the science museum next door. Not when it has hand-operated dinosaur machines!

Overall, the event seemed to go well, at least for the little bit I was there. Gownley certainly seemed pleased with the turnout. My one gripe about the show was that there really wasn't enough for younger kids to do. I understand the event was geared towards older children, but still, they could have had more interactive features. Set up a table with some crayons and paper. Have half-done strips laying around and ask the kids to finish them, then post the results on the wall. Have a felt board up with maybe some characters from Amelia or Buzzboy and have the kids make up stories using them. There needed to be more hands-on, crafty stuff going on. After all, while the older kids might not mind the absence, many of them have younger brothers and sisters who get bored real fast.

Still, it's the first time they've tried something like this and it's hard not to view it as a success, all things considered. Here's hoping it comes around again next year.

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Graphic Lit: Kids Love Comics Day

Blogger's note: I was heavily debating posting last Friday's Graphic Lit column since it deals with an event that's now over and done with. But ... well ... I do have some reviews at the end. Plus there's my enormous ego to think of.

Anyway, mea culpa. As penance I'll post pictures from the event tonight. It seemed to go rather well. You can read the official Patriot-News take on the event right here.

If you have a budding artist in your family, you might want to check out downtown Harrisburg tomorrow.

That’s when the Whitaker Center will host Kids Love Comics Day. From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., a group of professional cartoonists will be on hand to offer interactive workshops, sign books and give tips to grade-schoolers on how to make your own comics.

The event is the brainchild of Jimmy Gownley (creator of the ongoing kids’ series “Amelia Rules!”), who co-founded the 25-member advocacy organization Kids Love Comics in 2004 in an attempt to bring more attention to age-appropriate comics for children.

“I saw a lot of great kids’ comics that weren’t getting attention. ... So much of good comics material of the last 10 to 15 years has come out of small press. I wanted to make sure those titles didn’t get lost in the shuffle,” he said.

“We wanted to do community outreach, including moving things away from just comic book conventions,” Gownley said about tomorrow’s event. “This is the final fruition of that.”

The presentation schedule for the day is as follows:

10-11 a.m. and 1-2 p.m. — Jane Fisher-Smith, writer for the comic “WJHC,” will show how to translate real-life, personal experiences into comics. Selected submissions will be posted on the Kids Love Comics Web site. Ages 6 and up.
11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2-3 p.m. — “Buzzboy” cartoonist John Gallagher will show visitors how to create their own superhero, from thinking up an original idea to writing, drawing and coloring their adventures. Ages 8 and up.
10-11 a.m. and 1-2 p.m. — Making a comic is only the first step to becoming a professional cartoonist, and Gownley will discuss how to get your work published. Topics include copyright issues and careers in cartooning. Ages 12 and up.
11:30 a.m.-12:30 p.m. and 2-3 p.m. — “Apathy Kat” creator Harold Buchholz will demonstrate “how to create lovable, fun characters with wide appeal.” Ages 8 and up.
12:30-1 p.m. — Where do you get your ideas from? Gownley will talk about where and how to get ideas and then turn them into comics. Ages 8-12.

In addition, Todd Webb, who does the Webcomic “toddbot,” will be doing caricatures throughout the day. Original art also will be on display and books and other merchandise will be available for purchase and signing.

If all that isn’t enough, the group also is sponsoring a contest. Participants should submit a one-page sample consisting of four or more panels of a story idea, along with a one-paragraph description of the rest of the tale, on the day of the event.

Two winners will be chosen, one for ages 12 and under and another for ages 13 and up. Only original material will be accepted and the story cannot exceed eight pages.

Winners will have 100 copies of their comic printed and the opportunity to sell them at the Baltimore Comic-Con in September. They’ll also have the chance to appear in the upcoming cartoonist documentary “Pure Imagination.”

If the day goes well, Gownley hopes to have more Kids Love Comics events in cities like Chicago and Phoenix. Not to mention bringing it back to Harrisburg again next year.

“When you do these things and you see the response from kids, it’s so gratifying. It’s definitely worth doing,” he said.

Speaking of kids comics ...

... the book publisher Scholastic has been jumping into the genre recently with their Graphix imprint. The best-known title in their lineup is Jeff Smith’s “Bone,” which they’ve been reprinting in handsome full-color volumes.

They’ve been publishing other titles as well. Two recent books are “The Baby-Sitters Club: The Truth About Stacey” by Ann M. Martin and Raina Telgemeier, and “Breaking Up” by Aimee Friedman and Christine Norrie.

“Stacey,” as you might have guessed, translates the popular series of books into comics form. The latest title focuses on the diabetic Stacey and her struggles to wiggle out from the thumb of her overprotective parents. Meanwhile, a rival baby-sitting group threatens the club’s future.

Telgemeier has a loose, friendly style that keeps the story flowing at a brisk pace. A number of the supporting characters tend to fade into the background, and I’d like to see her attempt to do more with her backgrounds (houses seem particularly empty). But overall, this is a fun book that young fans of the series will enjoy.

“Breaking Up,” which follows the ups and downs of four friends during a turbulent high school year, is less successful. Norrie’s art is polished, but the kids seem like such two-dimensional archetypes that it’s hard to see what any of them have in common with the other. You’re not exactly rooting for the group to stay friends by the end.

Copyright The Patriot-News, 2007


Thursday, March 01, 2007

So I went to that Alison Bechdel lecture

You know, the one that was at Franklin and Marshall College last evening. It turns out Bechdel's father was an F&M alumnus, as am I (woo hoo, class of 93!).

Anyway, the lecture hall was reasonably packed. Not sold out mind you, but there were lots of folks there. I was probably the only comics nerd in the whole crowd, which says something about a) Bechdel's audience and b) the mainstream penetration graphic novels like "Fun Home" have garnered. Of course, those two burly students in the back looked a bit out of place, so perhaps they were comic geeks too.

Bechdel began the lecture/slideshow with a discussion of her strip, "Dykes to Watch Out For." She talked about the characters that make up the strip and discussed how the focus of the strip has changed in the past 20+ years. There was a lot of frequent and knowing laughter from a lot of the folks in the audience.

Bechdel then read the first chapter of "Fun Home" aloud while the individual panels scrolled by on the projection screen. After that she broke down how she created the book. For me, this was the most fascinating and best part of the evening. Apparently she began by typing the words in panels using Adobe Illustrator (or some similar program). She had a special font made of her handwriting. Then she prints out the panels and draws directly on them. She then traces over that drawing, inks the final sketch and then scans it back into the computer, adding blacks (like a night sky or silhouette) in PhotoShop.

To achieve the watercolor look for "Fun Home," she did the washes on a separate piece of paper, scanned that in and added it onto the intial drawing as a PhotoShop layer. The green color was something the publisher, Houghton Mifflin, added after Bechdel turned in the book, and she commented that she didn't get to see the finished product until she got a copy of the printed book.

Considering the number of panels and pages in "Fun Home" this seems like a very intensive job. It's no wonder the book took her seven years to complete.

Anyway, after that Bechdel read another chapter from the book, took some questions, and then it was time for autographs. Most people lined up to buy a copy first, but since I already had mine, I sneaked ahead to the front of the autograph line.

Bechdel remembered me from NYCC, where I had initially introduced myself to her. We chatted very briefly about the con and she signed my book. I could have bent her ear back for awhile, but the line behind me was long and it was getting late, so I left, though not without getting a promise for an interview when her next book comes out.

All in all, it was a fun event and it's nice to see someone like Bechdel draw a crowd that isn't made up of .... well, folks like me. I hope other colleges in the area host similar comics-related events in the near future.

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