Tuesday, August 18, 2015

ALL STAR RECOMMENDS FOR AUGUST 18TH

    

Pop Quiz:

You’re at Savers. You have twelve dollars in hand and so can afford to choose exactly four from a selection of forty or so issues of Italian comic Diabolik published in the last decade that your friend Andrew told you about. You cannot read a word of said comics and they aren’t even the most attractive things ever – I mean they’re quite nice, like Vertigo mid-00s nice when Will Dennis started recruiting all those Euro guys, but it’s not like instant-buy Katsuya Terada art books or something. Still, your blindingly obsessive need to have some of said comics leads you to choose. How do you do it? If you’re anything like me, you would judge these fumetti (as in Italian comics not photo comics) by their covers. I hope you’ll agree I think I did okay.

Created in 1962 by the Giussani sisters – yes *sisters* -- Angela and Lucianaand continuing to this very day, Master thief Diabolik steals from criminals, drives a cool ‘60s Jaguar (“but the engines are terrible!” my car loving friends scream, “It is not a functional getaway car!” Shut up. It looks amazing) and wears a bunch of lifelike masks like a Scooby-Doo bad guy. He does not know his real name, was raised on an island by a criminal organisation and took the moniker “Diabolik” from a panther (thanks to Wikipedia for a bunch of that – I am no expert).

Probably best known to Western audiences from master giallo filmmaker Mario Bava’s 1968 film Danger: Diabolik (see this week’s video), I’ll go through these four digest-sized books over the coming week and report back with my impressions. Spoiler Alert: Le Tracce Del Lupo unfortunately does not feature an actual werewolf. 


COMIC OF THE WEEK : MASTER KEATON
By Naoki Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika &Takashi Nagasaki
Published By Viz Media

Because I am an old man with a sketchy, faltering memory, I have a tendency to binge read my manga. Sprawling, complex storylines filled with dozens and dozens of characters and their convoluted motivations does not make for the most seamless of reads, I find, particularly when published in installments several months apart. The immense body of work by legendary, multiple award-winning manga-ka Naoki Urasawa is no exception to this rule of mine. I had a dozen issues (half) of his epic 20th Century Boys before I dipped into that world, all eight volumes of Pluto (his reworking of the famous Astro Boy story) before I read it start to finish and with Monster being re-published in quarterly omnibus editions currently, it probably will be the end of the year before I start ploughing into that.

It was also supposed to be this way with Master Keaton, an earlier Urasawa work created with writers Katsushika and Nagasaki and originally published from 1998-1994. Curiosity got the better of me, however, and three volumes into the new English translations by Viz here we are, all of them ripped through. It’s a good thing I did too as broken into largely stand-alone adventures, Master Keaton could conceivably be picked up at any point, requiring little to no backstory or expository material to follow along.

Taichi Hiraga Keaton is half-Japanese and half-English. His Japanese father is a retired zoologist, his English mother a somewhat mysterious “noblewoman.” He himself is an archaeologist by passion, an insurance investigator by trade and an ex-SAS Sergeant by a fortune need for self-discipline. I’m aware of how ridiculous this sounds as Keaton could easily be the character of a series of terribly titled thriller novels and the first volume does spend much of its time finding both its feet and its balance between Keaton’s battles with assassins and drug-dealers, his love of pre-European history and his relationship with his father, Teihei, and his daughter, Yuriko.

Yet, for all its info-dumping tendencies and occasionally ludicrous suspense scenarios, once the balance between the personal and professional is found, Master Keaton’s immense popularity in Japan becomes not only understandable but totally shared, for it is at heart a character piece.

Completely unpredictable in setting, Keaton bounces around Europe and Japan from one tale to the next, diffusing IRA bombs with chocolate like some sort of MacGuyver gone academic, or chasing after ice cream trucks with reputedly incredible artisanal rum and raisin on bicycle and, in the process, realising that his divorce forced him to grow up even more than the army did. Possessed with a boyish joy for life but tempered with a melancholic streak underscored by his desire to give up his insurance work and do nothing but study ancient European civilisations, Keaton’s wonderfully rounded and surprisingly deep for a character that seems to have the solution to any and every problem on the tip of his tongue. He’s frequently faced with violence, yet always manages to find the least violent solution to the conflict and always finds time for a quick drink or a fine meal, making him the distinguished gentlemen of action-adventure. Honestly, Tintin kicks more ass than Keaton does but Keaton would easily drink him under the table. You pick your side.

The family dynamic is especially good and we’ve yet to even meet Keaton’s mother. Keaton’s parents divorced when he was five, Keaton himself divorced when daughter Yuriko was five. Both he and his father (despite the old man’s womanising tendencies) still love their wives and think of them nearly constantly. The creative team early on realise that they have something here, that Teihei Hiraka, with his soft face, droopy moustache and collection of dogs (most notably Tasuke, a poor, battered mutt with the super sense of smell) deserves not only further exploration but his own adventures. An absolute highlight of the three volumes so far published is the story “Flowers for Everyone,” where Teihei and ugly-cute pooch Tasuke help a childhood friend of Keaton’s, now not so co-incidentally a beautiful woman, track down her missing dog and in the process re-unite long separated lovers. In an example typical of the series’ eclecticism, this story is immediately followed by “Black Forest,” where Keaton is hunted through Germany’s Black Forest by gun-wielding racists and must not only survive but disarm and disable his neo-Nazi foes. The reader literally has no idea what’s coming next even as the series constantly returns to themes of family and the new destroying the old and the greedy and capitalistic putting wealth before history and tradition.

The bottom line, I suppose, is that Master Keaton is the perfect demonstration of both manga’s flexibility and its sheer breadth of scope. This is a comic where what is ostensibly an action hero can disappear to a holiday home in the countryside with his father to ponder how they both can repair their broken marriages and yet end up obsessively recreating the their respective ex-spouses tastiest recipes for almost thirty sequential pages. And it’s pretty riveting in the process.

Ultimately, Master Keaton is a family drama masquerading as espionage-action. It’s also quite likely the first time I’ve ever been disappointed when the action ramps up in a comic and the intricacies of inter-generational relationships stops. This is not a knock on the bulk of the action-adventure stories, for many of them are taut and gripping and allow Urasawa to flex his chops at easily, beautifully drawing *everything* on the planet. Keaton’s stalked by an army trained dog, left to die in a desert, caught up in a tense hostage negotiation and all of these stories and more are highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable. It’s a testament to the strength of the core characters, however, that I find myself hoping for the unlikely scenario that Keaton retires in volume 4 and we get eight more volumes of him knocking back dangerous job offers from Lloyds of London and instead going for long walks with his daughter and father, shopping for the finest pastries he can find and having uneventful drinks with old colleagues he hasn’t seen in a decade.

  

WEBCOMIC OF THE WEEK : THE GROOM
By Emily Carroll

Yes, yes. More Emily Carroll. I realise you must drink now according to the rules of this column, sorry about that.

“The Groom” is Carroll’s latest short, another wonderful little slice of creepiness unfolding over seven scrolling pages. Two girls find an ornate diorama of a wedding scene, only the groom is missing. Making up intricate stories for the missing husband-to-be, they create a replacement out of pipe cleaners and insert him into the scene with quite chilling results. I’ve hurled enough superlatives at Emily Carroll over the course of this column, so suffice it to say she does not disappoint yet again even as she continues her preoccupations with dark family secrets and spectral visitations. Amazing to think I’ve yet to see her take a creative misstep with work of such calibre. Have you?




COUNTDOWN TO MOZ METAL: HEAVY METAL AUGUST 1977

Man, I love these HM editorials. The August ’77 issue, sporting a cover by Bernie Wrightson, opens with “…Thus…,” a brief little chat from editor to audience about mail received and why the magazine is titled what it is. It’s like a transmission from a comics-obsessed William Burroughs – forget the occasional charm of 2000 AD’s Tharg, the anonymous, seemingly doped-up beatnik from the future who wrote these pieces needs a firm pat on the back and a free top-up of Mowie Wowie for these efforts. He/she/it concludes, “…Heavy Metal is for those who grasp the gravity of the situation.”

Indeed.

For all the praise I’ve heaped on Philippe Druillet thus far in these ramblings, here is where I shall sadly cease – “The Black Queen” (this issue’s first narrative cab off the rank) is a hastily, roughly rendered story by this comics master, as if done solely out of obligation to its writer, Marcel Gorlib. Druillet also contributes “Hamilton Potemkine,” which I also find largely forgettable.

Moving on.

Richard Corben goes all-action in this issue’s chapter of “Den” with our hero’s beloved Kath kidnapped by stunningly drawn “insect warriors” soaring into a stunningly drawn sky that resembles something like a beautiful oil slick. Remarkable stuff. But not as remarkable as this:

“Heavy Metal is fantastic! It’s better than being stoned. Almost,” says -- no joke – a reader’s quote that tops a subscription information page. Amazing. This is an outfit that clearly knew how to appeal to its readership.

“Roger” by Loquet and Souchu, last seen in May’s issue, returns to sadly conclude its fumetti (as in photo comics not Italian comics) action figure existentialism in full sparkler-lit force (no seriously, sparklers are used to simulate the effects of teleportation). In order to escape Roger’s rule, action figure Jim must find Zoe (Barbie to his Ken, if you will) and construct their own reality. “Guided by a visceral necessity to rediscover his real universe, he decided to sink more profoundly into his own fantasies,” reads a particular caption, right before Jim emerges from Zoe’s head into this new reality – a desert for him to presumably populate with ideas and creations as he sees fit.

It’s amazing.

Also tucked away in this issue is “Package For You Missus Jones,” a short by Alesc about a woman sent a package of horny ectoplasmic goop, and the opening chapter of “Polonius” by Jacques Tardi and Picaret, the tale of an escaped slave who seeks to “scour the corruption” from a city. It’s a near fantasy take on ancient Rome and showcases yet another side to the versatile Tardi. Also here worth mentioning is “The Green Hand” by Zha and artist Nicole Claveloux is a striking short in a popping rainbow palette that revolves around the bizarre three way relationship between a woman and the jealousy her giant flightless bird feels for her new sentient plant. I’ve skipped over 1996 by Chantal Montellier constantly, for space issues rather than quality, but this issue’s one-pager featuring a pack of monosyllabic flak-jacketed hunters shooting woman in the streets whilst screaming things like “Hey! Idza FEMALE!” seems like it was a comment made by a current webcomics creator plunging particularly sharp and bent satirical acupuncture needles into the year 2015. Both weird and sad that it still stings with relevance.

But don’t switch off yet! The main event is here! Part Two of Moebius and Dan O’Bannon’s “The Long Tomorrow!” Featuring at least two virtually breathtaking pages by Moebius, “The Long Tomorrow” wraps up playfully, mocking noir tropes in such a successful way I’m struggling to recall why Part One left me a little cold from a story-perspective (I believe it felt to wacky for merely the sake of it). Dangling plot threads be damned! I’m all turned around on this one.

Ending with a Pioneer receiver ad that literally brags that it’s *heavier* than its competition, August 1977 proved to be another amazing month for Americanised Euro-comix.


COMICS VIDEO OF THE WEEK : DANGER: DIABOLIK!

Do you love ‘60s TV Batman? Then steel yourself for some next level stuff. Imagine the world of Batman ’66 where there is no Batman and Frank Gorshin is dashing, handsome, toned, sexually active and just flat out robbed folks without the riddles and you’ve scratched the surface of this nutty piece of cinema.

Armed with a swinging soundtrack by the ubiquitous Lalo Schifrin, this 1968 feature film adapted from the digest-sized fumetti, directed by Mario Bava (Bay of Blood, Black Sunday) and starring John Phillips Law as Diabolik and Marisa Mell as Eva Kant, this film rightfully stands as a cult classic from a time when everyone sexy was all hair and eyes and everything else was all curves, steel and glass. Come for the cars, the heists, the songs, the babes, the ridiculously crazy sets and the police incompetency and stay for how utterly terrifying Law looks as Diabolik in real life. Sumptuous, lush and oh so camp, with any luck you’ll have Diabolik-dreams, where everything is crystalline and sexy and life is but a romp on a ridiculous bed covered in millions of dollars you’ve successfully heisted.

Sigh.


See you next week. Love your comics.


Cameron Ashley spends a lot of time writing comics and other things you’ll likely never read. He’s the chief editor and co-publisher of Crime Factory (www.thecrimefactory.com). You can reach him @cjamesashley on Twitter.

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