All posts by Anna

Anna is a part-time librarian and mother of twin toddlers. Her husband is a librarian too, and as a result her house has a frightening number of books. Anna blogs at TangognaT: http://tangognat.com and runs Manga Views: http://mangaviews.com

Doctor K’s Cult Classics: The Swinger

Before Easy Rider changed the way Hollywood looked at 1960s youth culture, filmmakers–most of whom were senior citizens at the time–created bizarre works that tried to capture what kids were into. Enter The Swinger (1966), starring Ann-Margret and Tony (“The Finder of Lost Loves”) Franciosa and directed by George Sidney, who was responsible for some of the great musicals of the ’50s and ’60s, including Viva Las Vegas. This movie tries so hard to be subversive and risque, yet, like most such movies of the period, its message is ultimately conservative and chaste.

After a fantastic opening credit sequence with triple-threat Ann-Margret singing and dancing to the theme song, the film establishes its edginess with an opening montage of seedy L.A. culture (porn theaters, strip clubs, etc.), narrated by the lecherous Sir Hubert Charles, owner and publisher of the men’s magazine Girl Lure. Sir Hubert’s office is the reason why sexual harassment became illegal, and the place makes Sterling Cooper look like, I don’t know, a monastery? Little House on the Prairie? A purity ring ceremony? Something like that. The office is equipped with a siren to let people know when he’s “busy,” a completely automated wet bar, remote controls for the stereo and fireplace, and a bed that pops out of the wall.

Ann-Margret is Kelly Olsson, a young writer from St. Paul (shorthand for “Virgin Town”) who wants to break out by writing short stories for Girl Lure. Her stories, however, are rejected because they’re too chaste. But before she’s rejected, she gets offered a nude modeling gig by editor Ric Colby (Tony Franciosa). “I’m not a nudie,” Kelly responds, “I’m a writer.” Obviously, she’s not aware she could be both, like the great Edith Wharton.

Kelly returns to the crazy hopping commune where she lives with hippies making generic protest signs in case something to protest comes up and a middle-aged vice cop who likes to paint. Kelly decides that if she’s going to get published in this sleazy men’s magazine, she will have to stop writing her Ladies’ Home Journal stories. Why she’s not trying to get published in Ladies’ Home Journal instead, we never find out. She does some research in “lurid paperbacks” with names like Rape Girl Rape and Sex-Girl. She also manages to dance while she reads, which is pretty amazing.

During this research, Sidney gives us a great photo-montage where Kelly imagines herself as a character on a pulp novel cover. The movie uses this technique a couple of more times, but never quite to this effect. She then begins her writing, amalgamating all the trashy fiction she just read. She composes the novel Kerouac-style–on a long scroll in a single, feverish fit of composition.

Kelly submits her novel to Girl Lure by confronting Ric in the magazine’s men’s room, which includes a sauna and steam bath (interestingly, this is also how Edith Wharton got Ethan Frome published). Ric, however, rejects the novel less on its content and more on his own prejudice against youth culture. He also claims that the novel lacks verisimilitude, which leads Kelly to claim that her “Swinger” character is based on her own experiences!

In order to prove that she is as wild as her fictional self, Kelly stages a bacchanal for Sir Hubert and Ric, where her commune buddies use her as a paintbrush for their giant abstract painting. This scene can best be described as “gooey.” They also stage a vice raid with the help of their cop roommate, since the L.A. vice squad really has nothing better to do.

From here on, Ric believes that Kelly really is the swinger, so he decides to straighten her out, Pygmalion-style. Much to the chagrin of his fiancee (and Sir Hubert’s daughter), Ric lets Kelly crash at his bachelor pad. From there, hijinks ensue as Kelly tries to sabotage Ric’s relationship. Some of her seduction techniques include luring Ric into the shower fully clothed (good idea!) and feigning alcohol detox (not so good!).

Kelly also has to fend off the advances of Sir Hubert in his office/sex dungeon. He chases her around the office, just like he does with his own secretary, until he collapses from exhaustion. In this scene, the movie proves that attempted rape can be hilarious when shown at comically high speed. This technique also works for the pinball machine scene in The Accused.

Ric eventually figures out that Kelly is a fake, and in order to expose her, he puts her through a photo-shoot meant to recreate some of “The Swinger’s” exploits: dealer in an illegal gambling den, street walker, stripper, etc. She proves that she’s not very good at any of these jobs. He then takes her to a sleazy motel and chases her around the room, Sir Hubert-style. This scene is even shot with a hand-held camera to give it an extra-uncomfortable sense of creepy realism.

Things get really crazy from here, and the plot defies easy summary. The movie, in fact, goes completely off the rails in a final chase scene, where Kelly on a motorcycle and Ric in stolen police car crash head on and apparently die. I am not kidding about that. Then, in what might be some kind of nod to the magical realist works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez (but probably not), Sir Hubert in voiceover states that this is a terrible ending, and the film rewinds so that the crash never occurs. Instead, Ric and Kelly rush into each other’s arms.

Ann-Margret’s sexy performance carries things here, and the filmmakers were smart enough to let her sing a couple of times. Also, she completely outshines Franciosa, who was always a subpar Burt Lancaster impersonator. This movie was released mere months before Easy Rider changed the way youth movies were made, but it’s a fascinating artifact of a time when Hollywood was trying desperately to grasp what kids wanted. The film is quaint in its weak attempts at subversiveness, and George Sidney even takes stabs at some unconventional filmmaking techniques. But it’s also a movie that feels like it was dated the moment it hit the streets.

Anna Reads Manga: The Works of Fumi Yoshinaga

Fumi Yoshinaga is probably the most critically acclaimed female manga artist among the pool of creators that have had their works translated in the US. She’s won many awards in Japan for her work and has been nominated for Eisner Awards. Her series frequently end up on YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens lists. She got her start in shonen ai and yaoi manga, but her best works transcend the limitations and storytelling conventions usually found in these genres.

Today we’ll take a look at her most accessible work. There’s something in her work for almost everyone, if you are the type of person who enjoys insightful portrayals of family relationships, intricately detailed alternative history, yummy cake, or touching slice of life high school stories.

As a bonus, I’m also going to giving away a copy of Yoshinaga’s All My Darling Daughters. Just leave a comment at the end of this post and I’ll select a random winner next week.

All My Darling Daughters

This single volume would be a great first pick for anyone interested in sampling Fumi Yoshinaga’s work. Some manga anthology collections are just collections of back-up stories that are only loosely linked thematically, but this manga is extremely cohesive. All My Darling Daughters focuses on the lives of women at varying stages of their lives, and it is one of those works that I can see myself rereading for years to come.

The first story introduces Yukiko, a career woman who still lives with her mother. Yukiko’s life takes a dramatic turn when her mother Mari decides that she’s going to live her life the way she wants to after recovering from cancer. Mari marries an actor three years younger than her daughter and brings him home. Yukiko views her new “dad” with an incredible amount of suspicion, and the situation increases the tension between Yukiko and Mari. Yukiko ends up moving out to live with her boyfriend and starts a new chapter in her own life. The relationship between Yukiko and Mari is sometimes sarcastic and acerbic but there is obviously a lot of caring between them.

The middle story in the collection is about Sayako, a woman who takes her grandfather’s advice “not to discriminate among people” to an extreme. Sayako is unselfish to a degree that might not be normal. She decides to go on arranged marriage meetings in order to find a husband, and the person who might be perfect for her is totally unexpected. Yukiko is a framing device for an additional story as she thinks about some of her old friends from school and their agreement to go to work in order to advance the cause of women’s rights. Some of their lives didn’t turn out the way they predicted in high school. The final story in the collection returns to Yukiko and Mari, as Yukiko learns some of the ways her grandmother influenced her mother.

I enjoyed the ways Yoshinaga portrayed her characters’ lives. While there is humor present, her women firmly live in the real world. Endings aren’t always happy and there is sometimes a sense of loss that lingers even when to all outward appearances everything looks fine. I always like Yoshinaga’s art because she has a such a distinct style. She uses a thin line in her drawings that is deceptively loose, giving some of her illustrations the immediacy of a sketchbook.

Ooku: The Inner Chambers

Ooku takes place in an alternate universe during the Edo period, where a mysterious disease has wiped out most of the male population. Gender roles have reversed with women taking on men’s work, while the remaining men are protected, pampered, and cosseted due to their increasingly rare and important sperm. A new shogun takes over and a young man enters service in her harem, aka The Inner Chambers.

Yunoshin is from an impoverished samurai family, and he’s been educated in the art of fencing. He announces his intention to enter the Ooku, saying that he’ll send his allowance home so his sister can use the money to find a husband. Yunoshin gives up on his love for his childhood friend and enters the small world of the Inner Chambers, a society comprised of men devoted to decadence and an elaborate social hierarchy that proves to be complex for a newcomer to navigate.

When the new shogun takes command the pampered men of the inner chamber are shocked by her radically different ideas. Yoshimune is the third child of a noble family that lived in a far province. She regards the Ooku as an irresponsible drain on the country’s treasury. When a lady-in-waiting dresses her in an elaborate gown Yoshimune fires her, saying “At a time when the shogunate’s coffers are near empty, it strikes me as sheer folly for one who is charged with ruling the nation and rebuilding its finances to pad around dressed in such opulence. ‘Tis something only a lunatic would do.”

Some of the nicest moments in Ooku occur when Yoshimune and her right hand woman Kano meet to talk about strategy and share some laughter in the gilded palace. Yoshimune has the self awareness and curiosity to regard some of the customs of the shogun’s office with suspicion. Why must she meet foreign visitors by wearing male clothing and sitting behind a screen? While the plot of Ooku might seem to be inching forward at a leisurely pace, Yoshinaga’s fascinating alternate world and facility with character development ensures that the series is entertaining while it explores Japan and gender roles.

Antique Bakery

Antique Bakery is a little shop run by the resolutely heterosexual Tachibana, the “fatally charming” gay pastry chef Ono, and a retired boxer turned apprentice baker named Eiji. Tachibana is aided by his clumsy sidekick Chikage. The four men each have their own reasons for taking refuge in a world filled with pastries and antique china teacups. The scruffy Tachibana has an encyclopedic knowledge of the cakes he serves and a repressed childhood tragedy in his past. When Ono and Tachibana were in high school together, Ono confessed his love for Tachibana and was promptly rejected. Years later they work together.

This is probably my favorite series by Yoshinaga as it was the first work of hers that I read. The four volumes meander a bit, alternating between portraying the lives of the people that work at Antique Bakery and the customers, but the power of dessert draws the lives of different people together, ranging from joyful episodes to the tragic. Yoshinaga plays with genre conventions in the stories she tells. Sometimes childhood friends will reconnect over a slice of cake, but these simple stories are contrasted with the darker episodes that flash back to Tachibana’s past. It is very difficult to read this manga without feeling hungry, because Yoshinaga lovingly illustrates each variety of cake the bakery serves. Sometimes I felt there was a story hidden in a single panel showing customers of the shop, just because of the way Yoshinaga captures a moment as an elderly couple orders cream puffs, or a man orders cake with a girl standing silently in the background. And as a bonus some of the earlier editions of the manga feature scratch-n-sniff covers!

Flower of Life

Flower of Life uses a series of vignettes to showcase different aspects of friendship in high school. Hanazono is enrolling in school a month late, and he’s a year older than his new classmates. He spent the past year recovering from leukemia. Hanazono quickly makes friends with the roly-poly Mikuni but he’s annoyed by Mikuni’s other friend, an otaku named Majima who delights in lecturing people about his favorite anime and manga characters.

Yoshinaga is great at portraying the little details that define character. Mikuni notices Majima slamming manga down at his desk, Hanazono’s lunches evolve as his sister tries to fix him just the right meal, and his observation of an exchange between teachers leads to the revelation that they are having an affair. Hanazono’s boisterous outspoken personality meshes well with Mikuni’s more retiring nature, and it is nice to see their friendship develop as they bond over the idea of creating their own manga. Hanazono’s family life is entertaining, as his sister reminds him that she’s his savior for giving him her bone marrow and he calls her an old hag when she’s trying to coerce him into running errands for her. So many manga series set in high school end up incorporating story lines where there’s bullying taking place or a sub group of students is really mean. It is refreshing to read a manga set in high school where everyone is generally nice, working through the typical misunderstandings of teenagers while being supportive of each other.

Many of the students are in a manga club, so Flower of Life sometimes takes a detour into the metatextual, where the characters comment about manga conventions and some of the stereotypical storylines found in different types of manga. Yoshinaga’s art will sometimes parody these genres, slipping into an overdone shoujo or shonen style as her characters imagine their own stories. These detours usually feel like fun in-jokes due to Yoshinaga’s sense of humor and the way she portrays Majima’s rants, but this aspect of the series isn’t as accessible to a new reader of manga. While most of the series is light and happy, there’s a shift in tone in the fourth volume as the characters approach the end of their school year. Overall, Flower of Life is Yoshinaga’s most cheerful and whimsical series, and will be fun to read for anyone who can catch its references.

On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand: March 24th 2010

After a long day at work, the Bureau Chiefs like to relax in bed with books and comic books. Since there are 16 of us, our bed is 64 feet wide and our nightstand is the size of a small elephant. Here’s what is stacked up next to it.

Dorian

It’s been a light week for me. I picked up the latest volume of Yukiya Sakuragi’s Inubaka, a manga series about a cute girl who moves to Tokyo to work in a pet store. It’s just shy of being an out and out fan service series, but I read it mostly for the cute doggie illustrations and fish-out-of-water workplace comedy routines. I also picked up the latest issue of Fortean Times, which has a cover story about Robin Hood and a possible connection between the myth and the Templars. I’m a soft touch for Robin Hood stuff.

It’s been a slow week for books, though. All I’ve managed to do is get through Feet of Clay, the next book in the “Guards” series by Terry Pratchett. I’ve just not had time for any reading other than right before bed lately, and I still haven’t felt like starting anything other than light comedy.

Mike

You may remember from last week that I was complaining about the fact that I had more books than I knew what to do with. Well, I know what I have to do with them, I have to read them, but between my many writing assignments and my interpretive dance classes, I just never seem to find the time. However, a recent birthday found me with a bookstore gift card and, well, I just can’t say no to a deal, baby, and I picked myself up a copy of MAD’s Greatest Artists: The Completely MAD Don Martin. It’s a massive two-volume slipcased set containing every bit of cartooning Mr. Martin contributed to Mad over his 32-year run with the magazine, and it’s a beautiful thing. Sadly, as you’ll see at that there Amazon link (and elsewhere) it’s being massively discounted, and you can easily find this set, originally priced at $150, for well under $30. Well, okay, it’s good for me in that I can get some swell books for dirt cheap, but in the long run the near-immediate close-out of this set certainly doesn’t seem like it would encourage a Complete Sergio Aragones or a Complete Al Jaffee, would it? At least, not in this format.

Brave and the Bold #32J. Michael Straczynski’s run on DC Comics’ team-up book The Brave and The Bold (accompanied by artist Jesus Saiz) has been mostly dopey so far, with interesting pairings but hilarious heavy-handed moralizing and spectacularly out-of-character portrayals of some of DC’s big guns. But over the last couple of issues, things have improved…an Atom/Joker team-up last issue was effectively creepy and unsettling (and, for continuity nerds, provides a possible “out” for the Atom’s behavior in the recent Cry for Justice mini-series), and the new issue, #32, featuring Aquaman and the Demon versus Lovecraftian critters, was surprisingly…well, I hate to use the word “creepy” again, but there you go. And “creepy” as in “monster/ghost/haunted house” creepy, not the usual superhero comic “hypersexualized women” and “guys in tights punching each other” creepy. Plus, it was nice to see Aquaman treated with a little awe and respect for once, considering the bad rap he usually gets.

Ken

I’ve finished The Road (short version: affecting but not very) and have switched over to non-fiction. Being a Texan and a liberal, I figured it was about time I (finally) dig into Molly Ivins, so I picked up Who Let the Dogs In: Political Animals I Have Known. This is basically a collection of some of her best work, so yes, it’s a Greatest Hits compilation, which is something I tend not to believe in. (Great songs are made that way by their context, and anyway the work that strikes closest to home tends to be off the beaten path.) But hey, it’s what the bookstore had in stock when the urge struck me.

I’m still just a few chapters in, but already I’m just sore as hell that Ivins isn’t around to see this whole tea-bagger thing. I knew I was in good hands when, in the introduction, Ivins hopes there’s a special circle in Hell for people who distort and corrupt the English language for political gain. That’s my top pet peeve of the past 15 years–that so many words have been so loaded with poison that they are now completely unusable. I also value her belief that we must never stop laughing. What better defense mechanism against horror and absurdity is there?

Her aw-shucks style would be bothersome were she not so sharp and so funny, and I predict I’ll eat through this book pretty swiftly.

Anna

I started reading the first couple volumes of Koji Kumeta’s black comedy Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking. I remember when this series was announced some people were commenting that it was going to be almost impossible to translate because it contained so many cultural references even a Japanese person may not be able to catch them all. While more knowledge of Japanese culture might help when reading the book there are still plenty of funny situations that don’t require cultural footnotes. The reader is introduced to Nozomu Itoshiki as he attempts to hang himself from a cherry tree. The Most Optimistic Girl in the world prevents his suicide attempt, and later shows up again in the class he teaches at an unconventional high school. Itoshiki isn’t very good at committing suicide and the innocuous errands of a teacher’s life will inspire him to indulge in soliloquies that express his crushing despair. His students include a stalker girl, a shut-in, and a suspected victim of domestic violence. Kumeta has a simple and elegant art style that contrasts with the truly bizarre situations the suicidal teacher and his band of misfit students find themselves in.

I’m starting to read Megan Whalen Turner’s The King of Attolia. With the fourth book in the Queen’s Thief series just published, I need to finish the third to get all caught up. Turner has created an evocative world that resembles the ancient Mediterranean, but her focus on the geopolitics and relationships between the characters that rule her city-states sets this series apart from the typical YA fantasy series. It has the feeling of great historical fiction even though the setting is imaginary.

Get Yer YA Out: Heist Society

I read young adult books for a number of reasons. The best YA books match adult books in quality of writing and engaging stories. I’m very busy, and most of the time I’m trying to read a book while doing a ton of other stuff. YA books are often a little bit shorter and easier to read, so I can have a satisfying reading experience without investing a ton of time in a book. With the insane popularity of Harry Potter and Twilight it isn’t unusual for adults to read YA books anymore. In Get Yer YA Out I’ll explore young adult books with adult appeal.

Heist Society by Ally Carter

What if the gang from Ocean’s Eleven was all grown up and had children of their own? And what if their teenage kids grew up being trained since childhood with all the skills they needed to pick pockets, run a con, and steal priceless art?

Kat has decided to try being a normal kid for a change. She’s left a life of jet-setting thievery behind and taken refuge in the stuffy Colgan boarding school. The novel opens with Kat facing disciplinary action for the MIT-like prank of placing the headmaster’s car on top of the school’s fountain. There’s only one problem – Kat didn’t do it. Faced with overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Kat is kicked out of school. As she heads out of the school gates a limo pulls up beside her. She climbs in and greets her not-boyfriend W.W. Hale the Fifth.

Hale reveals that he got Kat kicked out of school because her father is suspected of stealing priceless paintings from an Italian mobster. Despite the fact that her father has an alibi of sorts (he was stealing something else in Paris at the time), Arturo Taccone tells Kat that if she doesn’t get his paintings back her friends and family will suffer. Kat decides she will steal the paintings to save her dad even if she doesn’t know who the real thief is. What follows is a globe-trotting adventure as Kat puts together a teenage crew that includes Hale, her sexually overdeveloped bitchy cousin Gabrielle, the tag-team Bagshaw brothers, and technical whiz Simon.

Even though plenty of stories about international art heists have been written before, Carter makes hers charming by winking at her predecessors. Kat doesn’t know Hale’s first name and is constantly trying to figure it out. Kat attempts to tail her father in Paris, and he ends up using her to create a diversion for the Interpol agents who are also following him. Kat’s gang has a shared past which is referred to with the type of shorthand that people develop after telling their stories to each other over and over again. Statements like “I thought the monkey was well-trained” and “We didn’t know she was a nun” evoked past adventures that inspire curiosity in the reader.

Kat is a clever and resourceful heroine, with enough teenage insecurity to inspire sympathy. While she takes the leadership role in performing the heist of a lifetime, she’s still trying to figure out how she feels about being pulled back into her family of thieves and needs to sort out her feelings for Hale.

Carter hints at a larger back story for the characters. What really happened to Kat’s missing mother? How did Hale decide to join Kat? Why does the legendary master thief Uncle Eddie hate Kat’s father so much?

Having all these unexplored plot points makes me look forward to a sequel. Heist Society is just fun to read even if it isn’t particularly deep. I wasn’t surprised to discover that Heist Society has been optioned as a movie. Shauna Cross, who wrote Whip It, is adapting the book. In some ways the book does resemble a proto-screenplay, with plenty of action and humor that I hope will translate well to the movie screen. It makes me wish that a world existed where teenagers with multiple passports really could invade a museum after traveling from New York to Vegas to Paris to Vienna to London in the space of a week.

On the Bureau Chiefs’ Nightstand

After a long day at work, the Bureau Chiefs like to relax in bed with books and comic books. Since there are 16 of us, our bed is 64 feet wide and our nightstand is the size of a small elephant. Here’s what is stacked up next to it.

Anna

I’m not ashamed to admit that I took advantage of the crazy Amazon graphic novel sale. Out of my initial order, I wound up with New X-Men 1 and 2. It was a treat to revisit Grant Morrison’s X-Men. I collected the original series when it came out, but it has been years since I’ve been able to sit down and read the whole thing. I’ve been slacking off on following Morrison’s recent work for DC, and now I’m determined to check out his take on Batman.

On the manga front, I said goodbye to one of the most engaging and memorable couples in high school romance manga, Haruna and Yoh in High School Debut Volume 13. Haruna’s enthusiasm and goofy physicality matched up with the laconic Yoh to create a romance that I couldn’t help rooting for. The final volume follows the couple as Yoh prepares to go away to college, and I found myself grinning as I put the volume down. I read Happy Cafe Volume 2, which has a predictable plot about a girl and two guys running a pastry shop. I also read Venus in Love Volume 8, which is one of my favorite romance series when I’m looking for something light to read because it is refreshingly angst-free.

On the prose front, I just started the fantasy novel the The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, which is set in a world that strongly resembles eighteenth century England. The Austen/fantasy pastiche was amusing for the first third of the book, but the second third grew so overly referential I thought if I were to flip open a copy of Jane Eyre or Turn of the Screw at random I’d easily be able to identify a scene Beckett used for inspiration. This is a shame, because there are elements of world building in the book that I found very entertaining, like the way the characters have to constantly adjust to days with varied amounts of sunlight and darkness. This book still might be a good pick for anyone who enjoys romance novels and fantasy and doesn’t mind reading 100+ pages of a reconfigured Jane Eyre interlude.

Dave L.

I tried to take advantage of the Amazon “sale” with the Weird Science archives vol 2 and 3, but my order got canceled. This week I’ve been rearranging my comic shelves and therefore discovering things I own but don’t remember reading. I went through Dan Clowes’ “20th Century Eightball” with no recollection of any of it. I also found “Love and Rockets: New Stories” vol 2, and recalled that I never read it because I didn’t finish volume one, so I read both of those. And finally, after reading through and really enjoying all the BPRD trades, I decided to go through Hellboy again. I re-read “Seed of Destruction” and “Wake the Devil” and found the latter interesting because it made very little sense to me in the past, but has since then been linked to a bunch of other stories, filling in some gaps. It’s a great world Mignola (and Arcudi) created there.

Ken

JLA/Hitman #1I’ve been sorting through my long boxes, trying to find something of value to hawk on eBay–no luck there, but you could have predicted that–and it’s given me occasion to revisit some comics I forgot I owned. Specifically I re-read the JLA/Hitman two-part miniseries by Garth Ennis and John McCrea, the dudes who created the Hitman character. Anyone who’s ever encountered Ennis’s work knows he does not care for most superheroes, which is why this work is so surprising; the Hitman character, Tommy Monaghan, is indeed a paid assassin with a conscience who happens to be a big fan of Superman, and it seems like Ennis is too. (See also: Hitman #34, which this mini is directly tied to.) Kyle Rayner Green Lantern and, to a degree, Wonder Woman come off as sympathetic. (No such luck for Batman or the Flash, who are both depicted as raging pricks.) It’s Superman’s “there’s always a way” mentality–perhaps his defining characteristic–that takes center stage here, and it’s neat to see Ennis contrast Superman’s idea of what that means with Monaghan’s. (“There’s always a way” means one thing to an invulnerable super strong guy who can fly, and quite another to a regular Joe who can shoot pretty good.) It’s a surprisingly effective work.

On the prose side, I’ve just started Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. I have to confess I’m having a bit of an issue with the prose styling; this is my first McCarthy book, and I just don’t know anyone who thinks or talks in these kinds of clipped sentences. I’m intrigued so far, but as a guy who spent a full six months having his imagination eaten by Fallout 3, McCarthy’s going to have to do an awful lot to give me a taste of something new.

Josh

I read four volumes of DC Comics’s 2003 OUTSIDERS relaunch. Some, including my fellow Bureau Chiefs, may ask why. Well, I’ve always had a soft spot for third- (and fourth-, and tenth-)rank superheroes. I like Batman as much as the next guy (well, maybe not this guy), but there’s only so much you can do with him before you have to reset the status quo. With Z-listers, you can tell stories with consequences. And for awhile, these Outsiders stories seem to be doing that very thing–one major character gets shot, for example, and several issues deal with the repercussions in occasionally interesting ways. These aren’t Great Art by any means, and the whole enterprise starts to rattle apart around the middle of volume three, but the first 12 or so issues constitute some fun, baseline superhero comics.

Dorian

I’ve finished up the third volume of The Indiana Jones Omnibus: The Further Adventures, mostly out of sheer fanboyism, because boy howdy there’s some pretty dire stuff in there, including some Ditko art that justifies his reclusive nature. By the time you get to the stories where Indy is basically fighting a Dr. Strange cosplayer, it’s obvious just how little Marvel cared about the license. I also read High Soft Lisp, the collection of Fritz stories by Gilbert Hernandez from the second volume of Love and Rockets and Luba’s Comics. It’s good, but not very satisfying. Possibly because Fritz isn’t a character I find particularly compelling, but also because the Palomar characters have such complicated back-stories at this point that unless you’ve devoted a good chunk of time to keeping it all fresh in your mind, it’s easy to become lost.

I also picked up the sixth volume of “In Their Own Words,” the Doctor Who Magazine sub-series that takes quotes from interviews that have appeared in the magazine and fashions them into a chronological history of the show. This volume covers 1997 to 2009 and it’s good as a “greatest hits” collection of quotes from the people involved in the show, but of limited appeal to anyone but nerds. “Book”-book wise, I read the N.J. Dawood translation of The Voyages of Sindbad, a 100 page micro-book that Penguin put out several years back that I hadn’t gotten around to previously. It’s written in that dry, academic style you too often find in translations of folk and fairy tales, but the central message, that Sindbad is spoiled rich boy who acts like a dick and gets rewarded for it, comes through clearly. I also started another rereading of Terry Pratchett’s Men At Arms, as I’m a habitual bed-reader and didn’t feel like starting anything new just now.

Benjamin

Purely on the strength of its heavily Comicraft Font subsidized Mass Market Paperback cover, I picked up A. Lee Martinez’ Monster as a blind buy, and I’m quite glad I did.  As a fan and occasional purveyor of fiction that ends up being classified as something vague like “Urban Fantasy” but really is just a collection of any cool thing or character or circumstance that may have popped into the author’s head, I’m finding the book to be quite entertaining in the opening chapters.  Martinez has the kind of crazy ideas I love to read and has no interest in holding them back for the sake of any kind of boring consistency or attempt to cohere to any kind of “realism”.  Luckily, it all fits together quite well, and still actually retains a strong sense of believability.

Comics-wise, it’s probably bad that nothing really jumps out at me.  PunisherMax (seriously, change that title) was typically great, as was Batman & Robin, but nothing really caved my head in.

Mike

I’m so terribly behind on all my reading. Mostly I’ve been reading stuff I’ve been writing for various projects, and the occasional blog post by some of my online buddies. I used to read a lot more when I didn’t have internet access.

BOOKS: Stephen King’s Under the Dome stays in the Gentleman’s Lounge, where I get through a few pages per sitting. …I said “sitting,” you dirty birds. And a recent reorganization of the Unread Pile of Terror revealed that I have several books awaiting my perusal, including the third Wild Cards book Suicide Kings (edited by George R.R. Martin) and the latest Star Wars hardcover by Aaron Allston, Fate of the Jedi: Backlash, for which I can offer no excuse. I also turned up Hitler: A Biography by Ian Kershaw, a titanic tome I was annexing a chapter at a time until I began a second front in my attack on my reading pile. …What?

FUNNYBOOKS: Finally started on Volume 22 of Dark Horse Comics’ ongoing Little Lulu reprint volumes (featuring classic work by John Stanley and Irving Tripp). Wonderful and unaffected by the decades that have passed since the stories’ original publication. And like my pal Dorian elsewhere in this article, I started on High Soft Lisp, collecting together several of Gilbert Hernandez’s comics. I’d read these all in their original form, but it’s nice having these stories under one cover. As far as regular ol’ staplebound comics go, Marvel’s Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers Unleashed #1 is bit of a hidden gem, starring the pets of Marvel superheroes. Yeah, I know how it sounds, but it’s not afraid to be funny and silly and manages to be so without also being cloying.

Manga for Your Quarter-Life Crisis

It is easy to find plenty of manga about intrepid boy ninjas or vampire boarding schools on the crowded shelves of your chain bookstore, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish manga titles aimed at adults.  This column will provide an overview of the best manga out there featuring characters in their twenties.

Ohikkoshi by Hiroaki Samura (amazon)

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This is a single volume of short stories by the creator of the sprawling samurai saga Blade of the Immortal. Samura uses the short story form to indulge in writing humor and as a result the episodes included in this book have a slightly manic edge.

Sachi is the hapless protagonist. He and his friends hang out at horrible battle of the bands shows and skip their college classes whenever possible. He’s hopelessly in love with Akagi, a woman whose boyfriend has just left to work overseas. Now is his big chance to ask her out, which he does in such an oblique stammering way it is easy to feel sorry for him. Sachi’s friends conclude “Our pale-faced friend is drunk with the turmoils of youth!”

Other stories in the collection include an epic tale of manga artist tribulation as a woman takes her editor’s advice, loses her comics gig, works in a coffee shop, becomes a kept woman, manages to attain mastery at the game of mah-jong, and ends up apprenticed to a mafia boss in a few short years only to finally become a manga master. A half-Italian half-Japanese teacher decides take revenge on Japan by sleeping with the country’s women until he meets two girls who are immune to his charms. Some of the elements in Ohikkoshi will appeal to fans of Brian Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series. Characters break the fourth wall and comment directly at the reader. When Akagi and Sachi go on a horrific zoo date, information about the animals is listed in game stat format. Samura will often shift into alternate art styles for a panel or two. Ohikkoshi has a bit of a rough and frenetic feel, but it is hard not to be captivated by Samura’s sense of humor.

Office Ladies Need Love Too

Josei (manga aimed at adult women) is probably the scarcest manga genre translated in English, which is why I cherish any title that portrays the life of a post-college woman instead of a starry-eyed high school girl.

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Suppli by Mari Okazaki (amazon)

Minami is 27 years old. Her relationship with her boyfriend is going nowhere. Every morning she gets dressed for work feeling as if she’s putting on battle armor. She heads into the office on a Sunday only to find all of her co-workers already there. Minimai is paralyzed by the thought of ending up like her boss – a single woman in her 40s. When her boyfriend dumps her, she throws herself into work, trying to prepare new presentations and socializing with her co-workers. She tries to avoid being alone in her trashed apartment, but she lives so much in her own head that she doesn’t pick up on the crush one of her co-workers has on her. Okazaki frequently interposes nature symbolism like water, fish, or grass with Minami’s urban office environment. Suppli has a melancholy feel that reflects the anxieties of its main character. Sometimes Minami’s only connection with another person is sitting with a co-worker in a break room at the office, watching the sun rise.


Tramps Like Us by Yayoi Ogawa

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This fourteen volume series is sadly out of print but it is well worth tracking down. Sumire maintains an intimidating presence at her workplace. She reacts coolly when her boyfriend breaks up with her and her co-workers are afraid to comment to her about it due to her bitchy reputation. As she returns to her apartment after a long day of work she finds an injured boy sleeping in a cardboard box. Sumire takes him into her house and feeds him. She jokingly offers him a place to stay if he’ll be her pet, which means following all her orders. He accepts. She names the boy “Momo” after her childhood dog. Having somebody else to care for eases Sumire’s tension from work.
Momo is just as ambitious as Sumire, except he’s pursuing his studies as a modern dancer. Sumire and Momo enjoy domestic life together but things may change when Sumire gets a new boyfriend who miraculously fulfills her requirements for height, salary, and education. She seesaws back and forth between portraying her idea of the perfect career woman and indulging in wrestling TV shows when she’s at home with Momo. Tramps Like Us balances a light and fluffy chicklit quality with a sensitive portrayal of an unconventional but evolving relationship.

Inio Asano

Asano comes by his emphasis on aimless twentysomething characters honestly; he was in his early 20s when he started publishing his stories.

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What a Wonderful World by Inio Asano (amazon)

Toga has always been “the reliable one” among her group of friends, but she drops out of school and struggles with the idea of reactivating her musical ambitions. A schoolgirl engages in a dangerous contest to win social capital. A man briefly visits his daughter and ex-wife in a park. Aimless ronin studying for their college entrance exams have a memorable encounter with a basket case they meet in the street. Some of the characters are seen again briefly in other stories, making the lives of the different people in What a Wonderful World seem interconnected.

While reading about the lives of people who haven’t figured out what they want to might seem like an invitation to wallow in ennui, this manga lives up to its title. Asano captures the small moments that people use to define themselves. A change in hairstyle, the realization that the reliability of a relationship can be a comfort, and the loss of an apartment each contribute to a moment of reflection that lets someone move on with their life. As I was reading the manga and enjoying the combination of the prosaic and surreal in Asano’s art I realized that I was especially struck by the pacing and paneling. There was frequently a small jolt or surprise right before I’d turn the page to read the conclusion of a story, and this lent a dynamic feel to the manga even when some of the stories were just short sketches.

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Solanin by Inio Asano (amazon)

A later work than What a Wonderful World, Solanin shows what Asano can achieve with more maturity. Meiko works at a job she hates. She’s crushed in the subway on her way to work, and has difficulty listening when her boss yells at her because she’s distracted by his hideous nose hairs. When she goes home, she’s greeted by her boyfriend Taneda. He works part-time and aimlessly pursues his dream of music. Meiko’s horrible job pays well, and she’s saved up some money. One day she abruptly decides to quit.

She lazes around and tries being domestic, but quickly realizes that too much free time can be boring. Taneda can’t deal with the idea of being the breadwinner, and their relationship begins to suffer from the strain. Meiko encourages Taneda to pursue his dream of making music. Although Meiko is the unifying character, Solanin frequently makes narrative detours that show readers the inner worlds of other members of Taneda’s college band. The shifting point of view is a literary device that I enjoy in novels, and it definitely contributed to the depth of character development in this manga.

Small details in the way the characters’ interacted with their environment made their world seem surreal. Bunnies with Xs for faces appear on key chains and Taneda’s CD. Meiko watches a bizarre bear attack training news story on TV. Taneda has a “me summit” where all the aspects of his personality wear a different slogan on their t-shirts to comment on his life. Towards the end of Solanin Meiko begins to come into her own in an unexpected fashion. She’s still supported by her group of friends, but the conclusion is bittersweet. Solanin captures the restless feelings many people have as they move into adulthood.


Portions of this column appeared in slightly different form on TangognaT.

He Said/She Said: The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream

By Eugene and Anna

The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing the Dream is the Cutting Edge franchise’s attempt to duplicate the success of the Bring it On movies by adding mild racial tension to a figure skating pair that swaps the genders in the figure skater/hockey player formula of the first (classic!) Cutting Edge movie. Zack is a poor little rich boy figure skater with a dangerous reputation. When he causes his skating partner and ex-girlfriend to break her ankle in an ill-timed lift, he’s left without a partner before nationals! What can he do?! After challenging a team of Mexican hockey players at his grandfather’s ice rink, Zack meets Alex, aka Alejandra.

She’s a fiery Latina who gave up her dreams of figure skating but still manages to display some smooth moves when beating Zack at hockey. Zack asks her to try out to be his partner. The movie’s forgettable subplot centers around Zack’s former partner Celeste and her ill-fated romance with her coach. Of course, the best possible coach for turning a hockey player into a figure skater is Jackie Dorsey, the daughter of the couple in The Cutting Edge. Will Zack and Alejandra find love and figure-skating success? With a movie as predictable as this one, do you even need to wonder?

She Said: She Said

I have a fairly high tolerance for stilted acting and wooden dialogue, but the first few scenes of this movie made me wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Zack wakes up after a night of debauchery and spends his time eating Cheerios while shirtless and replaying videotapes of his most recent second-place performance. The opening displays a profound lack of chemistry between Zack and Celeste, although I enjoyed seeing the fan in the background who stalks Zack as he watches his partner being loaded into a ambulance. There’s a little bit of humor as Zack tries to beat a hockey team using figure skating spins and jumps, and the introduction of Alejandra was so cliched I found myself amused by the slow motion hair toss as she took off her helmet and revealed herself as a woman before punching Zack in the face. The moment this movie won me over was the introduction of Jackie Dorsey as the new coach. Of course she’s the only one who can coach a figure skater/hockey player team! And when she slapped down the yellowing sheets of paper detailing the deadly Pamchenko move I decided to just give in to the cheesiness of it all, despite the fact that the movie is incredibly bad. I enjoyed the way the rival skaters signaled their evilness by dressing in progressively shinier costumes and the use of fog machines and back lighting to disguise the stunt skaters for each routine.

It is too bad that there’s so little character development, with the filmmakers just content to vaguely evoke rom-com story lines without following them up. Zack has a strained relationship with his distant and wealthy grandfather. Alex keeps making vague comments about Zack’s lack of masculinity. Because the actors never react with any amount of depth to the dialog it is hard to feel much for the movie other than amused recognition of elements from The Cutting Edge. I have to admit that this movie did inspire me to seek out the trailer for The Cutting Edge 2: Going for the Gold and I am afraid I may have to watch Jackie Dorsey’s adventures with an extreme sports rollerblader. Likewise, I may find myself in front of the TV in a couple weeks watching The Cutting Edge 4: Fire and Ice. I can’t help it.  I may have an addiction to bad ice skating movies.

He Said:

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Anna acts like eating Cheerios shirtless is such a bad thing. I would like to say for the record, had the roles been reversed and Alejandra was introduced with a scene of her shirtless eating Cap’n Crunch, that I may very well have declared this to be the greatest movie ever made. Also, she clearly forgets the infamous Fog Machine Death March in Albertville 1988, where 300 figure skaters died. Never forget.



He Said
He Said:

The Cutting Edge succeeded because it gave us (i.e. men) the opportunity to shamelessly enjoy figure skating, while also feeding into our masculinity issues by presenting us with Doug Dorsey, tough-guy hockey player and all around dude’s dude, to relate to. The key to getting guys on board with the movie was giving us a guy we would like, then showing his struggles for greatness in both his personal and professional arenas.  By the end of the movie, you couldn’t care less if Doug was trying to win gold in shuffleboard, you wanted him to succeed, and you wanted them to fall in love. You were invested.

It’s no surprise that the straight-to-TV The Cutting Edge 3: Chasing The Dream is severely lacking in that very important aspect, instead presenting us with Zack Conroy, the handsome, rich and talented figure skater with a killer self-destructive streak.  To compensate for the fact that he is not only extremely unlikable, but also competes in an extremely emasculating sport, they have turned the male protagonist into a Lothario, a millionaire playboy that might as well have a flashing sign above him at all times saying “THIS IS HOW DUDES ARE!” On the other side, the female lead is Alejandra Delgado, a woman hockey player (sorta) who has always had a dream of being a great figure skater!

Furthering the whole movie’s construct of gender swapped roles, she is emotionally closed up, goes by a guy’s name (“Alex”), and is ethnic and urban in the sense that being ethnic and urban makes you automatically “tougher” and perhaps less “feminine.” The movie is a disaster of gender and race stereotypes (they regularly eat tacos in this movie), to the point where you wonder if the whole movie was based on the single sentence synopsis, “What if SHE was the hockey player,” and a roomful of a writers lazily filled in the rest of the details without any consideration for nuance.

The only times the movie works is when it invokes the spirit of the original movie. Yes, they do the Pamchenko. Of course their coach is the daughter of the couple from the first movie. Obviously, they make a toepick joke. And as unintentionally offensive as it may be, I won’t deny the fact that echoes of The Cutting Edge and the structure of an underdog story were enough to elicit some form of emotional reaction when you finally hear Alex’s answer to Zack’s original question, “Will you skate with me?” It wasn’t much of a reaction, but it was enough to make someone out there think that the The Cutting Edge 4 is a good idea (release date: March 14, 2010).

She Said
She Said:

It must be so tough, Eugene. Here you have this tremendous man-crush on D.B. Sweeney who “feeds into your masculinity issues,” yet it nurtures your affection for him because The Cutting Edge was one of the high points of his career. He’s mainly starred in forgettable TV shows like Harsh Realm, Jericho, and Life as We Knew It. We can only hope that one day he will strap on his (metaphorical) skates again to provide a relatable everyman focus to yet another romantic comedy.