Monday, October 25, 2010

Manga Monday: Chasing justice and a cure around the world

There’s a horrible condition in a rural backwater of ‘Doggoddale’. Called monmow, it deforms the patient, making them look more like a dog than a man. There’s many different theories as to what might be causing it, but no cure. This is the world in which we land, in the Osamu Tezuka manga Ode to Kirihito.

A candidate for president of the Japanese Medical Association (JMA), Dr. Tatsugaura, has studied Monmow and is convinced that it is a virus native to Doggoddale. Feeling threatened by a young, well-liked intern named Kirihiro Osanai, he sends him to do some on-the-ground research. While he’s there, he does end up contracting monmow, but by force of will is able to keep from succumbing to most of the mental effects of the disorder. But he does turn into the half-dog, half-human spectre that is associated with the disease.

While he is there, he does discover that it is almost certainly not a virus that is infecting these people, but rather a contamination of the groundwater, but Dr. Tasugaura wants nothing of this. He’s built his career and his hopes of advancement on the idea that monmow is a virus, and goes so far as to delete Kirihito from the records at M University Hospital to stop word from coming out.

What ensues is a trek around the globe for Kirihito, seeing some of the best and some of the worst that humanity has to offer. Throughout, he battles both the disorder and society to keep his humanity intact, and people along the way both help and hurt this. We meet members of a demented circus and missionaries, as well as normal rural townsfolk. We also meet Kirihito’s fiancĂ©, who never gives up on him, even when the rest of the world seems to have.

There’s a lot of subtle imagery and depth to this story. The fact that the disease makes the sufferer look like a dog, instead of simply deforming him, for example, shows how their humanity is being stripped away. To become deformed, especially when it involves the face, affects one’s self-identity. Taking on the aspect of a dog, on top of changing that self-identity, makes the victim take on the aspect of a creature that is considered less than humans. It’s that stripping off of his humanity that causes so many of the emotional problems suffered by the victims, as well as perhaps some of the discrimination that the outside world has against them.

There are also a few pages in which Christianity is called into question. The victim Sister Helen is grieved that the church will excommunicate her. Kirihito tells her that he believes that Jesus especially would never turn his back on her. He points out that there are many passages in the Bible in which Jesus and his disciples accept, if not actively seek out, unfortunates and care for them. To some extent, it could be seen as a criticism of the church, as a separate entity from Christianity.

This is a magnum opus of a graphic novel. Along with helping to firm up manga as an art form, the complexity of the story helps cement manga’s place as a true form of literature as well. I can’t help but think that if American publishing companies would put out stories such as this, or the Black Jack stories, in weekly or monthly publications, perhaps print media wouldn’t be at death’s door.

Highs: Fantastic pacing, a compelling story, and lots of layers of social commentary

Lows: Some of the panels can be a little hard to follow, as the standard form of manga writing was still being developed

Verdict: A must-read for any manga lover who is beyond the shojo/shonen stage

Further Reading; Black Jack Volume 1, A Contract with God

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Who needs airplanes when the air force can ride dragons?

Alternate history stories can go one of two ways. In the first, the author is so concerned with the history that the story itself gets lost in the mix. In these, how history diverges and interplays with how history really took place is what the reader is looking for, and plotting and characterization oftentimes gets overlooked.

The other type of alternate history lets the history play as a backdrop to a character driven story. Unless the reader is an avid fan of the intricacies of history, generally this is the much more enjoyable of the two. In either type of story, the divergence point can be as small as a general taking sick, or as grand as an earthquake taking out an entire army.

Or the addition of dragons as an instrument of war.

Welcome to Naomi Novik's world of Temeraire, starting with His Majesty’s Dragon. Dragons exist, and as clever as humans. While there are still groups of wild dragons, especially in the Black Forest, many have been semi-domesticated, and are used by Europe as a sort of airborne cavalry. They’re large enough that they’re manned almost as an airship would, with a crew hanging off carabiners from the dragon’s harness.

When Captain Laurence of the British Navy captured a French ship, one of the prizes they took was a dragon egg bound for Napoleon himself. A dragonet generally becomes attached to the first person it sees after coming out of the shell, but this one passed up his intended handler and chose Laurence instead.

This rather disrupted his rather distinguished career as a Navy man, and immediately drafted him as an aviator. He gave up his ship; his future wife; and, after his father found out and disowned him, his family as well.

But with everything he’s lost, he’s gained an amazing friend. He named his dragon Temeraire, and a more loyal friend or family member he’ll never find. As Temeraire grows up, he becomesat least as intelligent as the rest of the characters in the book, and loves to be read to in both English and French, as dragons learn languages while in the shell.

We get to explore the world through the eyes of Lawrence, and are told about customs and such as he tells Temeraire. Dragons and their aviators are generally trained in Ireland, and we get to see the many ways that captains treat their dragons there, as well as later in battle.

The book feels much shorter than it actually is, because it’s such a fast, adventure story. Even when the story is being moved along mainly by dialog rather than action, I never felt the urge to flip pages until the fighting started again. It’s a great action book with little thought needed, and sometimes all a person wants is a little bit of dragon escapism.

Highs: Quick paced, great personalities among the dragons

Lows: If you want high literature, you’ll be sadly disappointed

Verdict: Great fun, and a fast read

Further Reading: Throne of Jade, Stardust

Monday, October 18, 2010

Manga Monday: If Dr. House didn't even bother with the medical license

Osamu Tezuka is known as the Grandfather of Manga.  His involvement in the genre even predates the word manga.  Though the only work of his that’s widely known in the US is Astro Boy, one of his most beloved series has now come to American shores.  The publisher Vertical has been bringing out several of the classics of the formative years of manga, and one of these is Tezuka’s Black Jack series, and it all starts in Black Jack Volume 1.

Black Jack is an anomaly of the medical community.  He refuses to get a medical license, and is not affiliated with any hospital.  He has an almost magical talent in the operating room, but no one can make him practice on a patient that he doesn’t want to work on.  

On top of that, he only practices on people who are willing to give whatever they have to be cured.  When he’s working with millionaires, he’ll charge them exorbitant fees for his services.  When he’s working on normal people, however, he only charges what they can give.  In one story, a barkeep needed help, and all he asked for was a month of free drinks.  He’s not exactly cold-hearted, he just wants people to value his work, and to really be willing to give something that is of worth for his talent.

Each chapter is a self-contained story, with only a little bit of a continuing plot or characters.  Pretty much only he and his assistant Pinoko are seen more than once.  It fits his personality, though, since he does seemingly have a problem connecting with people.  As the stories go on, we get to learn a little bit about his backstory and how he became the person he is, but he always remains a bit mysterious.

Originally published in a men’s magazine in the 1970s, some of the art reflects on the prejudices and mindset of Japan at the time.  Americans aren’t always seen in the best light, and people of African descent are drawn in a much more cartoonish manner.  There doesn’t seem to be any real malice intended, it’s simply a product of the environment in which it was created. Also, one story involving a woman who has a hysterectomy shows very old-fashioned ideas of gender and gender identity.  Occasionally the medical stories brush the border to horror, but there’s nothing to keep one up at night.

The entire Black Jack series, along with most of the rest of Tezuka’s work, is very special in that they show the evolution of comics from the newspaper strip to continuing stories that was pioneered in those days.  One can see the innovation with frame layout, and the more mature and intricate storylines that became popular at the time.  What happened then still continues to shape manga to this day, as well as comics around the world.

Highs:  Great stories in speculative fiction genre

Lows:  Relatively simple and old-fashioned art, though very well executed

Verdict:  A must-read for any fan of comics

Further Reading:  Ode to Kirihito, Amazonia

Thursday, October 14, 2010

If magic breaks, what happens to its users?

What happens when the city of the gods becomes the city of fallen gods?  Are the people that the gods bless now cursed?  What happens to the city itself?  How about the kingdom that surrounds it?  That’s the premise of Brandon Sanderson’s debut novel Elantris.

In the world of Elantris, people were randomly chosen to join the city of Elantris, and given the powers of the gods.  They shine with an inner light, are able to draw power from drawing sigils, and are known throughout the world as a peaceful city full of healing and beauty.

One day, everything changes.  The sigils don’t work, and the Elantrians become sick.  Their white, glowing skin becomes dark and mottled, as if from a flesh-eating disease.  The shining buildings accumulate a black sludge that seems to seem from the stone itself.  The worst part, though, is that any injury, no matter how small, that an Elantrian receives never heals, and never stops hurting.  That doesn’t sound like much, but every scrape, every burn, every stubbed toe aches like the second that it happens, forever.  And the Elantrians never die, either.  So no matter how damaged a person gets, they’re doomed to suffer, for an eternity, it seems.

Out of fear, Arelon closes the gates to Elantris, and posts guards along the top of the wall, to keep the Elantrians in.  If someone shows the sign of becoming an Elantrian, they are dressed in funeral garb, given a token offering of grain, and shoved through the gates.  From then on, their families simply see them as dead.

We explore this world through the eyes of Raoden and Sarene.  Raoden is the heir apparent to the realm that surrounds Elantris.  Mere days before his wedding to Sarene, he wakes up one morning with all the signs of being an Elantrian.  Being a prince doesn’t excuse you from exile, so he’s sent into Elantris and considered dead.

Sarene shows up a little bit ahead of the wedding, to get to know her future husband.  When she gets to Arelon, however, she’s told that Raoden died, and had already been buried.  Due to a clause in the wedding contract, once she became engaged to Raoden, she is unable to marry anyone else, but because she never married, she can’t inherit the kingdom.

To say very much more would be to start revealing some of the twists and turns of this artfully plotted novel.  Sanderson really understands how people think, and how hard it is to lead a group of people.  Especially as a first novel, it’s an impressive story, and I look forward to what comes next from him.

Highs:  Characterization, plotting

Lows:  Occasionally the pacing is off, and there are a few points that drag

Verdict:  A masterful debut that makes me hopeful for his next books

Further Reading:  Mistborn, The Wheel of Time

Monday, October 11, 2010

Manga Monday: Of course a cat can't be a sushi chef, his hands would be too warm

Neko Ramen is a great example of the success of an online comic strip.  Started in 2006, it’s now been turned into a web video series, as well as the manga published by Tokyopop.  It’s certainly the dream of every team of author and artist on the web to gain so much acclaim as to be picked up by one of the big publishers, and Neko Ramen Volume 1: Hey!  Order Up! shows why they’ve been noticed.

The star of the show, of course, is Taisho.  The son of a cat model, Taisho rebelled against his family’s expectations and left the house to make a name for himself.  He drifted from job to job, and eventually became a ramen chef.  Unfortunately, being a cat, he doesn’t seem to quite understand what humans want in a good bowl of ramen.  Or that it’s special to have a cat making ramen.

Of course, hijinks ensue.

Every good funnyman needs an even better straight man.  Enter poor Koichi Tanaka.  He stopped in the first day that Neko Ramen was open, and now he goes there out of a sense of obligation.  He’s never really gotten a good meal there, but at least he always has a story when he leaves.

Because Neko Ramen started as an online comic, if you’ve followed it since the beginning, you’ve seen the majority of these strips before.  There are, however, a few long-form comic stories, filling in some of Taisho’s back story.  Personally, I also like to have comics in paper form, rather than as an ebook or on a website.

This is the kind of comic that would probably get me to read newspapers more.  Perhaps the papers might want to target a younger audience, with a younger sense of humor, to get them in the newspaper habit.

Highs:  Cute storyline with an absurd sense of humor

Lows:  A little skimpy on the new material

Verdict:  Check out first, but if you like it, go for it

Further Reading:  
Chi’s Sweet Home Vol. 1, Shin Chan Vol. 1

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A British fantasy novel so good the Japanese made a movie of it

It’s hard to be the firstborn child. Everyone expects you to be more mature. The younger siblings want to tag along with you everywhere. And you’re usually expected to take over whatever family business or trade there might be. Such is the destiny of poor Sophie Hatter in Diana Wynne Jones’ book Howl’s Moving Castle.

She’s a fairly smart girl. She’s read enough stories to know that her sisters have a much more interesting destiny than she does. But there’s no point fighting against fate, and she’s fairly well happy working in her mother’s hat shop. She’s pretty good at it, too. She chats with the hats as she makes them, telling them all about the kind of person that might buy them.

Destiny has other plans for her, though. The Witch of the Waste has heard about the Hatter sisters, and there’s a rumor that the Wizard Howl might have his eye set on one of them. This doesn’t set well at all with her, and she decides to make sure that doesn’t happen. Because of a case of mistaken identity, however, The Witch of the Waste targets Sophie instead, turning her into a crone. In addition, she’s not able to tell anyone

Ever the good daughter, she doesn’t want to worry her family. She heads to Howl’s Moving Castle, to speak to the wizard, and see if she could get turned back.

Along the way, we meet characters such as Howl’s fire demon Calcifer and his apprentice Michael, find out why Howl has such a bad reputation, and even see the start of a romance. It’s a great adventure that targets the bookish, responsible girls in the family. This is, of course, just the type who seeks out British children’s fantasy novels in the first place.

Diana Wynne Jones is known as a master of her field. Even with the prevalence of great fantasy stories to tell in Japan, Miyazaki has adapted two of Jones’ books into movies. So go check out Howl’s Moving Castle, but make sure to pick up another of her books, because once you put down the first, you’ll want to start in on the next.

Highs: Great magical fantasy story, with interesting characters

Lows: Just a little short, and it wraps up VERY quickly, though it’s still satisfying

Verdict: A great starter fantasy book for younger kids

Further Reading: Castle in the Sky, Little (Grrl) Lost