Comics you should read: Ranma 1/2, Saga, and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Ranma 1/2, Saga, and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

I’ve read a boatload of comic books recently — all excellent — including one manga. Ready for some bite-sized reviews?

ranma_vol_1

Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

I found this series after watching an episode of Geek & Sundry’s web series “Talkin’ Comics,” and I think it may be my favorite manga ever. Seriously, it’s that good.

My experience with manga is limited (I’m more of an American comics kind of girl), but over the years, I’ve added collections like Fruits Basket and Cardcaptor Sakura to my library. Ranma 1/2 reminds me a bit of the former (both feature humans shape-shifting into animals and are overall endearing), but it stands out for a few noteworthy reasons:

This is an unusually progressive manga. Chinese martial arts wonder Ranma is a boy who becomes cursed so that whenever he touches cold water, he turns into a girl. Vice versa with hot water. His father is similarly afflicted, only he turns into a giant panda. (Aww.) So the romance that ensues between the betrothed Ranma and a dojo owner’s third daughter Akane is interesting because it addresses issues of sexual and gender identity in a very insightful way.

I’m only two volumes in (there are 38 total), but I admire how deep and intelligent the commentary here is even though Ranma 1/2 is also one of the genuinely funniest comics I’ve read. Though Ranma experiences life as both genders, he identifies more with being a boy. Akane is a tomboy herself, so while she’s endlessly pursued by the boys at her school, she’s often the object of criticisms like, “Aren’t you supposed to have more grace?” — often from the brash Ranma, who has no room to talk. The societal rules of the sexes are rigidly upheld by these gender-bending characters just as they’re called into conflict.

Akane and Ranma struggle against the feelings of affection they feel for each other. Some situations are made awkward and strained by the gender Ranma is at the time, but in scenarios where their gender is the same, they feel more comfortable with the events that occur (like seeing each other naked). But both characters understood the worlds of male and female, and that’s what makes their relationship special despite their difficulties relating to each other.

To me, all of us have a little of the opposite gender inside us, and though we might clash with the opposite sex, it’s when we’re able to find a common ground between us on a mental and emotional level that we can communicate and get along.

VIZ Media just started releasing the 2-in-1 Editions (that’s two volumes in one book) of Ranma 1/2 in March, and there are three volumes out now, with a fourth arriving in early September (so each a couple months apart). Although the series itself ended in 1996, I’m excited to follow along with it as each 2-in-1 Edition is released.

saga_vol_1

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (author) and Fiona Staples (illustrator) 

Saga is one of those rare comics that comes along and blows your mind.

I’m three volumes into this series now, and I’m not sure that there’s a more creatively illustrated or tenderly told sci-fi comic out there than this. Husband and wife Marko and Alana are traveling the stars as fugitives — both have abandoned their posts in the war, and both have come together to conceive a child despite the fact that their planets are engaged in a war that seems destined never to end. Now they’re running with an infant in tow, and the “freelancers” paid to kill them are relentless in their hunt.

Saga has suffered censorship for its sometimes pornographic content (there’s a whole planet named Sextillion and a robot prince whose television head sometimes displays genitalia), but at its core, this is a comic about protecting your family and finding peace amidst bloodshed and violence. Not a page is wasted. Every volume has gripped me, and volume three brought me to tears with a touching moment in its opening pages.

Like Ranma, Saga isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues of sex (including homosexuality and the sexual enslavement of children) head-on — and its female characters are just as capable as its male ones. It’s funny, gross, tactful, and shocking all in one swoop.

superior_foes_vol1

The Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer (author) and Steve Lieber (illustrator) 

I fell in love with Superior Spider-Man when I read a hilarious comic where Doc Ock’s mind ended up in Peter Parker’s body to prove he could be the better superhero. My boyfriend gave me The Superior Foes of Spider-Man Vol. 1 as a birthday gift this month, and while it’s more about the “Superior” Spider-Man’s enemies than Spidey himself, it’s just as enjoyable.

This is a villain’s comic. They’re not bad guys who look good from their side of the story. They’re bad guys who do bad things to their fellow crew members and aren’t ashamed about it. You won’t be rooting for them, but you will find getting inside their heads an exotic invitation that’s hard to resist.

A villain’s life isn’t glamorous. The five members of the new Sinister Six (yep, their name is a point of contention) spend more time debating whether to have separate or unisex bathrooms at their hideout than successfully executing criminal heists. And intercrew betrayal is only a group vote away.

The leader of the Sinister Six is Boomerang, a guy who’s had it rough because, well, he goes around wearing a boomerang on his head, fearing the wrath of merciless antiheroes like the Punisher, and meeting the bare minimum requirements of his parole. While Superior Foes is a comedic book — the Sinister Six attempt to steal the rumored living, talking head of a gangster named Silvio Silvermane for most of the first volume — it has its grave moments. Just about every time you think Boomerang has it in him to do a good deed, you’re let down big time.

That’s what makes the series so morbidly fascinating: The Sinister Six are on rails to a train wreck, and it’s hard to look away from the destruction that they cause and the beatings and humiliations that they take. Because maybe — just maybe — they can turn their lives around.

Either that, or finally score that big, devastating win on the side of evil.

What comics or manga are you reading these days? I always need recommendations!

 

A crush gone deadly: a review of The Cuckoo’s Calling

The dead girl had had her glimpse of earthly paradise: littered with designer goods, and celebrities to sneer at, and handsome drivers to joke with, and the yearning for it had brought her to this: seven mourners, and a minister who did not know her name.

The Cuckoo's CallingScrew Harry Potter. I believe that J.K. Rowling — or Robert Galbraith, as she’s calling herself these days — can write whatever the hell she wants. Saucy suburbia. Murder mystery. You name it.

Let her explore. Making mistakes is part of the process.

That’s why I’m OK with The Cuckoo’s Calling even though it isn’t her best work. Actually, it’s probably my least favorite. Rowling’s latest novel, which is due for a sequel called The Silkworm next month, is about a beautiful celebrity named Lula Landy who drops to her death out of her apartment window. Everyone says it’s suicide — the girl was spoiled and crazy — except her grief-stricken brother. The only one desperate and willing enough to indulge his delusion is an old family friend and private dick who’s down on his luck, dumped and near-penniless: Cormoran Strike.

Part of the drama involves his unfolding relationship with his assistant, Robin Ellacott, who’s too good for what he can afford but is secretly a nut for Sherlock Holmes-like detective thrills. That keeps her sticking around even though her boyfriend adamantly disapproves of her new, albeit temporary, choice of employment. Strike, moping and living out of his office, is a clever grump who lost his leg in Afghanistan. Robin is a trendy, enthusiastic independent whose emotional swings alternately cause tension and relief between she and Cormoran during almost every minute of interaction (or non-interaction). Comedically, they’re an interesting pair.

But my investment in the actual mystery wasn’t nearly as strong. Instead of it pulling and tugging me in a dozen directions, giving me the pleasure of finding confidence in what surely was the answer and then causing me to doubt myself and blame a different suspect entirely (repeat process), the investigation felt like nothing more than a series of routine interviews with little consequence. I get it. No one really liked Lula. She was shallow and capricious, but few people were good to her, either. Celebrities are very complicated people and yet not at all as deep as we imagine them to be in the afterglow of our daydream fantasies. By extension, we ourselves can come so close to fame only to touch it and then fall back to the regularity of our ordinary, dull lives.

The Cuckoo’s Calling both points out these societal fascinations and flaws and is victim to them: Lula, by the end, almost becomes this martyr figure — and yet nothing in the story convinces me that she really was all that genuine as the characters liked to think she might have been, secretly, behind the flashes of paparazzi and impulsive shopping trips and long-running family spats. She really was selfish. Tragedy just made her look kinder.

Personally, I got over the fascination with idolizing celebrities years ago, and maybe that makes the novel a little more transparent for me. Because Lula was just as genuine as her drug-abusing boyfriend was — really, underneath, “he has a good heart,” his friends said, as he acted rude and obnoxious to everyone around him.

Maybe that’s the point. We never really know these people, and does it matter? To the public eye, they’re composites of news stories, gossip, and scandalous photos. We’re all moving pieces in a drama — the same misfortunes can befall us all, despite our differing fortunes.

I only wish the story compelled me more — laid out the puzzle in plain view so I could see it come together. Instead, the pieces were snapped together in secret by invisible hands. About 70 percent of the way through is when Cormoran finally hints that the investigation is at last adding up to … something. The next 20 percent, he knows the murderer and is collecting the final, incriminating proof. The last 10 percent is the confrontation and resolution. That’s not much of a thriller.

And the murderer? Well, there was only really one logical suspect all along, wasn’t there? No one else had proper motive. Call me disappointed.

A part of me is curious to learn what happens to Cormoran and Robin, these two characters so unlikely to remain together. That’s one mystery that I’d like to see unravel — if only Rowling could give the reader a bigger part.

Grade: C

The monsters inside us: a review of The Isle of Blood

“You may think I’m stupid, you may call me a madman and a fool, but at least I stand upright in a fallen world. At least I have yet, like you, to fall off the edge into the abyss.”

The Isle of BloodRick Yancey’s third Monstrumologist book, The Isle of Blood, is my favorite in the series so far. I expected ghastly creatures, vile dissections, and the sick thoughts of morbid men — as usual — but I wasn’t prepared for the frightening transformation of a small boy.

The Isle of Blood is, from start to finish, one of Yancey’s best. I found the previous book, The Curse of the Wendigo, a little slower paced as it focused more on character than action. This novel maintains the quality of Yancey’s signature descriptions, so gruesome and rich in detail, but also seamlessly combines internal character developments with nonstop, heart-pounding events.

I was a little disoriented because The Isle of Blood doesn’t begin where I thought it would, given the previous novel’s cliffhanger. But I quickly traded confusion for fascination as a mysterious “nest” of human flesh and matter arrived on Dr. Pellinore Warthrop’s doorstep, along with the desperate man delivering it. This nidus, as it’s called, curses all who so much as touch it or someone afflicted by it. It blinds them, turns their flesh to rot, and carves their souls hollow. They become hungry creatures, servants of a foul master.

Will Henry, the doctor’s young assistant, almost becomes one.

Warthrop himself is absent for a portion of the book. He trots off in search of the source of the nidus, the magnificum, the Faceless One, with an eager colleague who seems to know much more about the doctor and his secrets than he should. But The Isle of Blood is Will Henry’s tale — a look at what envy and loneliness can do to a boy so consumed by the obsessions of a man who is the closest thing to a father he’ll ever know, only the role of parent and child are reversed: Will Henry too often the parent, Warthrop the child. They’ve become so tied to each other that even a taste of a normal life cannot free Will Henry or save him from his descent into darkness, where he chases after Warthrop and becomes lost himself.

Once again, Yancey continues to deepen the strange and pained relationship between Warthrop and Will Henry — their obligations and responsibilities toward one another, and their guilt. Warthrop, so cold and unlikeable, becomes a warmer and more human character in this book while Will Henry, only a boy, finds monsters in himself that never existed there before. Yancey doesn’t shy away from them; sadly, neither does Will Henry, who, having never enjoyed such freedom, embraces their sinister power.

Yancey’s real accomplishment of story here is the way he dissects the truth and meaning of monsters: Are the ones we hunt in the world, the creatures that go bump in the night, more horrible than what man himself is capable of? What does that dark compulsion to find them, that life-long pursuit of them, do to the mind — to the fertile imagination and fragile psyche of a young boy? What monsters do we create in the search for monsters? When do the footsteps we follow become our own?

Grade: A

Why J.K. Rowling’s adult, totally not for children books are OK by me

Rowling

Jo has come a long way from the days of Harry Potter. It’s weird to think that one of the biggest children’s writers of our time is now catering to adults, but it’s happening, and it’s probably not going to stop.

When I read 2013’s suburbia novel The Casual Vacancy, which J.K. Rowling wrote several years after children’s book The Tales of Beedle the Bard (a spin-off from the Potter line), I was surprised at how literally the author seemed to construe the term “adult readership.” The book is good, and it mellows out a bit, but I felt like Rowling was trying to cram as much mature content into the opening as she possibly could. Name a dirty topic, and she was making it a character trait.

Now I’m in the middle of reading A Cuckoo’s Calling* (which, hey, is getting a sequel in June), a crime-detective mystery that she published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. After how much flack she got for the rather brash Casual Vacancy, it makes sense that the poor woman would choose to bury the Rowling name with the Harry Potter series and start anew.

Last year in July, Rowling went on record saying, “I had hoped to keep this secret a little longer because being Robert Galbraith has been such a liberating experience. It has been wonderful to publish without hype or expectation and pure pleasure to get feedback under a different name.”

Can you blame her? Maybe it’s because of critics’ quotes like this one from Bloomberg: “Imagine Harry Potter with nothing but Muggles — mean, graceless people without a trace of magic. It would be a dull book indeed.”

The Casual Vacancy is not a perfect book. I think it’s terribly flawed in the beginning, like Rowling was trying too hard to leave Harry behind and rewrite everyone’s notion of her as this charming British lady who writes about wizards and magic and young adulthood. Remember, this is the same woman who killed off — OK wait, spoiler alert from 2007 — Hedwig for no reason other than to teach children that our friends die (seriously, read the quote at the front of the book). I thought the rest of Casual Vacancy was quite wonderful. It’s just not something you’d read to your kids.

It’s wrong of us to expect Rowling to keep writing children’s fiction just because of her earlier success. If she needs to ditch her name and adopt a pseudonym to get us to drop the incessant comparisons to Harry Potter and why The Casual Vacancy and A Cuckoo’s Calling aren’t Harry Potter, then more power to her.

She’s a writer. Let her write. If you don’t like it, go reread Sorcerer’s Stone — and shush.

*More on Cuckoo’s Calling from me soon.