In our latest review article: Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang’s Paper Girls, Vol. 1 (Image Comics) and Kentaro Miura’s Giganto Maxia (Dark Horse Manga). PLUS: capsule reviews of Melissa Mendes’ Lou, Anna Ehrlemark’s Winners, and Sebela and Moustafa’s High Crimes.
Set in 1988 and featuring references to everything from the Challenger explosion, the Iran–Iraq War, the video game Arkanoid, and films like Nightmare on Elm Street and Monster Squad, Paper Girls, Vol. 1 (Image Comics) by writer Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y: The Last Man) and artist Cliff Chiang (Wonder Woman, Detective Comics) definitely has a clear reader demographic in mind.
The ongoing science-fiction comic trades in more than reader nostalgia (real or imagined), however. The story, about a group of small town newspaper delivery girls who stumble upon what initially appears to be an alien invasion, features narrative ideas and character concepts that are universal across generations. Responsible and even-keeled 12-year-old Erin has bizarre nightmares reflecting her growing anxiety for both herself and her younger sister (but which may also be messages from another world). Newfound delivery route-mate Mac’s tough girl persona belies a tumultuous family situation, fellow paper girl KJ is keen to downplay her upper-crust background in order to fit in, while Tiffany’s fixation on video games and electronics might be holding her back from forming stronger bonds with her adoptive family.
The four-member cast of contrasting personalities is a fixture of 1980s pop culture, of course (think Rob Reiner’s Stand by Me, or even Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) but it serves as more than just another nod to the decade here. The characters play off each other well and Vaughan does an excellent job with the dialogue—the characters come off as smart and perceptive but avoid the trap of sounding like annoying, overly-precocious, aren’t-I-clever sitcom teens.
The book’s five chapters are largely devoted to laying down the groundwork for the series’ science-fiction conceit—the creative team has a lot of fun with it, with pterosaur-riding invaders and a time-travel conspiracy plot twist that wouldn’t be out of place in an episode of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories—but there is also what seems to be an overarching theme about growing up and realizing that adults don’t have all the answers, and that they can be as clueless and as afraid as their children when it comes to facing life’s existential challenges. The book ends on a major cliffhanger, but the series is already scheduled to resume in June 2016.
Excellent, excellent stuff.
Giganto Maxia (Dark Horse Manga) is the latest English-language edition work from Japanese artist and writer Kentaro Miura, who is best known in North America and Europe as the creator of the long-running (and still ongoing) horror-fantasy manga Berserk (also published in English by Dark Horse).
Long-time Miura fans expecting Giganto Maxia to feature the same brutal medieval violence and grim philosophizing of Berserk will be in for a surprise, as the standalone graphic novel, about an ex-gladiator and his gynoid partner wandering the desert wastelands of Earth in the distant future, features a distinctly humorous tone. Miura imbues the protagonist duo of Delos and Prome with a lot of comedic chemistry, the back-and-forth exchanges between the excitable human warrior and the unfeeling robot having the easy rhythm of a practiced manzai act (translator Matthew Johnson deserves a lot of credit for this, too, of course).
Delos and Prome eventually stumble upon a village of beetle-like mutant outcasts, a refugee colony in hiding from an oppressive human empire, and it is in their interactions with the village that their ultimate mission is eventually revealed. Without spoiling the plot, the best way I can describe Giganto Maxia‘s primary narrative is that it is somewhat like the 1980s manga/anime classic Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, if Hayao Miyazaki had a predeliction for over-the-top pro wrestling-style finishing moves and running gags about bodily excretions.
At its core, the graphic novel deals with themes common to the works of mangaka who grew up grappling with the cultural and identity crises of post-WWII Japan: It’s broadly about the human toll of war, the twin threats of imperialism and xenophobia, learning to forgive and let go of generational conflict, and the importance of biodiversity and protecting the environment. It’s all filtered through Miura’s decidedly off-color sense of humor, though, and I imagine that a reader’s tolerance for pee jokes will play a role in how much enjoyment they will ultimately derive from the work.
Note: preview gallery is intended to be read from right to left
The art, though, is unequivocally brilliant. Miura’s beautifully detailed linework leaps off the pages. The fight scenes, which take inspiration from both amateur wrestling and more outlandish pro wrestling, are full of depth and dynamism but are still remarkably clear and scan easily. There’s a six-page sequence where Delos, locked in arena combat against one of the mutants, transitions from defending himself from his attacker’s fistic assault to going for a defensive clinch before launching into a risky German suplex move, all portrayed through Miura’s roving “camera.” There’s a genuine choreography and a clear sense of location and narrative to the book’s extended and stylized fights—they’re not just a haphazard collection of panels filled with punches and kicks meant to fill in the space between the exposition. Students of storyboarding and comics art will definitely find the volume quite instructive with regards to fight scene design.
One-time Xeric Grant recipient Melissa Mendes combines the charm and accessibility of a children’s story book with the drama of a crime comic in Lou, her second published book and her first full-length original graphic novel with the Cupertino, California-based Alternative Comics. The narrative centers around the eponymous middle child of a small suburban family who has to deal with a pushy would-be boyfriend, the responsibilities of caring for a new dog, her fraying relationship with her mother, and eventually, the abduction of a family member. Mendes’ depictions of the nuclear family dynamic come off as earnest in both the dialogue and the expressive, stylized figure work. The turn from a casually-paced slice-of-life comic to a crime comic comes as somewhat abrupt, but the internal story logic does not suffer for it, and the stakes, despite generating a genuine sense of dread, are relatively low enough that the book should still be appropriate reading for the younger set.
Winners (Floating World Comics) collects twelve black & white strips by Anna Ehrlemark, a Sweden-based artist and linguist and one of the key figures behind Serbia’s Novo Dobo Non-Aligned Comics Festival. Standout entries in the collection include the lead story “My Sister,” a haunting, Poe-esque rumination on identity and sibling rivalry, the thematically-related “Prologue,” the lavishly-illustrated “Pioneer,” and the sardonic “Happy Ending.” Ehrlemark’s surrealistic approach in the material presented in this volume can be interpreted as either a graphic choice or an attempt to co-opt the avant-garde as a tool for feminist discourse, but it is that same surrealist quality that also insulates the work from easy, deconstructionist reading. Worth seeking out for those interested in exploring the European DIY/independent comics scene.
Writer Christopher Sebela (Dead Letters, Escape from New York) and artist Ibrahim Moustafa (The Pound: Ghouls’ Night Out) have a winning, Hollywood-ready, high concept in High Crimes (Dark Horse Books), a graphic novel about a disgraced Olympian working in the shady business of recovering bodies of fallen tourist mountaineers in the Himalayas who gets caught up in a deadly conspiracy run by a corrupt, covert arm of the American government. Fast-paced, action-packed, and ultimately entertaining stuff that at some points will remind readers of Greg Rucka and Steve Lieber’s breakout graphic novel Whiteout, although I think the creative team could have perhaps done a bit more to address the political, social, and environmental issues surrounding the modern tourism industry in Nepal.