Full Series Review: This may be the best comic book ever written, and certainly the best superhero comic (and yes, I'm including Watchmen -- WatchmenFull Series Review: This may be the best comic book ever written, and certainly the best superhero comic (and yes, I'm including Watchmen -- Watchmen is just cynical, whereas this deconstructs the genre and then puts it back together).
The story, to the extent it can be summarized in a couple sentences, is about a team of superheroes who must stop an evil wizard who's plotting to destroy the world. But unbeknownst to the heroes, their leader is herself a secret supervillain who only wants to stop the wizard because she wants to be the one who destroys the Earth. But that description is like reading the ingredient's list on a bag of honey mustard pretzels -- it tells you what's inside, but it doesn't convey just how awesome it tastes.
First, the story is just plain wacky, and not just in the normal Japanese way. I mean, take the title -- pretty damn weird by itself, but what the hell is a "biscuit hammer"? Well, besides a great song by the Pillows, it refers to the evil wizard's primary weapon, a giant mallet that can smash the Earth to pieces like a biscuit (the British kind, presumably, not the ones you eat with fried chicken). Yes, the wizard's plan is something out of a Loony Tunes cartoon. Then there's the fact that each hero has a kind of spirit animal that gives them powers -- not too different from your typical Magical Girl series, except in this case the animals include a giant preying mantis, a turtle and a swordfish in addition to the usual cute and cuddly things.
But as bizarre as elements of the story are, it never gets lost in opaque symbolism the way an Ikuhara series would. The focus here isn't on grand philosophical ideas (though a few creep in), nor on action (though there's plenty of that), or even wackiness for the sake of wackiness. No, at heart this is the story of characters, and every one of them is sympathetic and nuanced, even the villains. You aren't going to come away rooting for Samidare, the villain-protagonist, to destroy the world (again, this isn't a cynical series that tries to convince you that black and white are just shades of grey), but you'll understand what pushed her in that direction and you'll hope something will come along and save her. In fact, when the final battle comes, heroes against their former comrade, you'll find yourself crying in sympathy for her, even as she's getting ready to kill seven billion people....more
I like zombies. I like cute girls. Cute girls slaying zombies while protecting their friend who's suffering a psychotic break with reality that causesI like zombies. I like cute girls. Cute girls slaying zombies while protecting their friend who's suffering a psychotic break with reality that causes her to believe she's living in an idyllic world ... adorable!...more
The original SAO is such a frustrating series. The premise is golden: 10,000 people trapped inside a virtual reality MMORPG with no way out but to defThe original SAO is such a frustrating series. The premise is golden: 10,000 people trapped inside a virtual reality MMORPG with no way out but to defeat the game's final boss -- but if their character dies along the way, their brain gets fried in real life as well. The initial set of characters kick ass -- Klein the elite guildmaster who leads his men through countless battles without any casualties, Agil the trader who keeps the front lines supplied with the best weapons, and Asuna an amazing female warrior who inspires loyalty in all who follow her.
The first problem with the series was that none of those guys were the hero. Instead we were given Kirito, who, despite the author's attempts to make him a dark and brooding character with a troubled pass, was overpowered almost to the point of being a Mary Sue. Worse still, as the story wore on all the cool characters fell by the wayside. Klein pretty much disappeared after the first book, Agil after the fourth, and though Asuna stuck around she was depowered and turned into a damsel in distress (complete with threats of rape, both by a skeevy villain and a VR tentacle monster). In their place, Kirito was introduced to a series of other female characters (even when we're flat out told the game is like 90% dudes) all of whom fall in love with him, which, combined with his ever increasing skillset, pushed him over into the realm of pure Mary Sue.
But even that wasn't the worst part of the series. No, the worst part was that the series abandoned it's premise after the second book. The first volume was written for a literary contest which required the story to stand on it's own, so the author skipped straight from the set-up to the climax. He hinted at all sorts of cool adventures that took place in the intervening period, but they didn't appear in the first volume. The second book was a bunch of short stories that filled in some of the gaps (though not all -- we've still never had a proper account of the Laughing Coffin Crusade), but then the story moves on with Kirito entering other VR games. But with the threat of death removed, the story lost everything that made the first book interesting. The writer came up with new threats to make up for this, but none of them ever equaled the initial concept.
Which brings us to Progressive, the author's attempt to reboot SAO and retell the story of the original death game from beginning to end. (Well, almost. He skips straight to the end of the first level, so if you want to understand the setup, you still need to read the first book. Or at least watch the first episode of the anime.)
Does he succeed?
In parts. The tension's definitely back. There are hints of things to come, including what looks like a hint about the origin of The Laughing Coffins, a secret society that murders other players later in the series. And instead of the frontline players being a unified front, there are fractious relations between various cliques which threaten to destabilize everything. (There are also a lot fewer frontliners since most players are still working to level-up to a point where they have a chance of surviving.)
But Kirito's over-poweredness is still present, and the author never acknowledges that some of the people who don't like him have good reason. His attitude, while it makes some sense in context, is pretty assholish. Klein is one of the players still leveling up, so he only gets a couple passing mentions, and Agil's presence is little more than a cameo, though he does demonstrate bits of awesomeness. We do get a few new characters who look like they're going to be long runners, and although Argo the Rat flirts with becoming a founding member of Kirito's harem, she manages to remain an independent female character.
And then there's Asuna. Because this is a reboot her character isn't yet a fantastic warrior queen. In fact, at the start of the story she's a newb who needs basic game concepts explained to her. She's not weak, though, and proves herself capable of fighting on the frontlines through her sheer willpower, and there are already hints of her eventual development. Frustratingly, though the author's turned her into a tsundere. Thankfully she's the kind who's mostly nice and only occasionally goes into tsun-tsun mode, but those occasions are still too many, especially when it's presented as, "Oh, she's mad at Kirito! Isn't that endearing?"
The translation of this volume is a big step up from the original SAO's first volume. I recently came across an interview with the translator where he says he started out in manga, which is of course 90% dialogue and internal monologue, so when he moved to prose fiction he faced a learning curve with descriptive passage. He's also the translator on Durarara!!, and the first volume of that also had a nice, smooth translation....more
The artist is way overplaying the silly aspects of the novel with chibi/super deformed scenes and characters acting far too antic, which makes it diffThe artist is way overplaying the silly aspects of the novel with chibi/super deformed scenes and characters acting far too antic, which makes it difficult to take the dramatic parts of the story seriously.
Another case in point, Junji Ito, one of Japan's greatest horror manga writers, did a comic about his fiancee bringing her two cats with her when she moved into his house. The guy who's drawn stories about killer chickens, geometric patterns that will drive you crazy, and flatulent fish robots, is completely helpless against the power of cats. The book is a chilling and all too accurate depiction of how felines gain control of human minds and turn us into mindless slaves. Not since H.P. Lovecraft wrote The Cats of Ulthar has any human captured the threat that cats represent....more
One of the most fascinating things about manga is that romance isn't a genre solely directed towards women. Oh, to be sure comics directed at girls arOne of the most fascinating things about manga is that romance isn't a genre solely directed towards women. Oh, to be sure comics directed at girls are more likely to be romantic than those directed at boys, but even a boys' magazine like Shonen Jump -- the home of Dragonball, One Piece and Naruto -- will run romances like Nisekoi and Kimagure Orange Road. Some are fanservicey harem comedies (Haganai, Love Hina), but plenty are serious soap operas (Good Ending, A Town Where You Live). What they all have in common, though, is a very male perspective on relationships, whether they're approaching in from a slapstick comedy angle, or melodramatic angst, or a wistful look back at youth.
Horimiya is different though. It runs in a magazine aimed at teenage boys, but in content it's not much different from girls' series like My Little Monster, Say I Love You or Blue Spring Ride -- well, there's not as much sparkling going on, but other than that. The story is even told primarily from the perspective of a girl.
Our main character is Hori, a popular girl at school who turns into a completely homebody in her off-time, taking care of her little brother and handling all the housework while her parents are both busy with work. She has a classmate named Miyamura who looks and acts like a reclusive geek in class, but is secretly tatted-up and pierced all over (a big no-no in Japanese schools). When they discover each other's secret side, they begin hanging out together, even though they have to keep the reason secret from their classmates.
While female-oriented romance (both in Japan and the US) can often have problematic content, and the male-oriented stuff in Japan is often objectifying, Horimiya is just straight-up fun, similar to My Love Story but with a stronger plot, with all the characters being fun people who treat each other with respect....more
A plague of ennui engulfs the world, causing everyone over the age of eighteen to commit suicide in a fit of existential despair! The survivors form iA plague of ennui engulfs the world, causing everyone over the age of eighteen to commit suicide in a fit of existential despair! The survivors form into gangs that fight each other for control of territory and the steadily dwindling supplies of canned food. (Also they have lots of orgies.) It's like someone took "Baba O'Riley" and "London Calling" and smashed them together to make fishcakes.
Except this is years before either of those songs. The book came out at the height of the Mods vs Rockers era, and while it feels as punk as all hell, the images that come to mind while reading it are from mid-'60s British cinema and television -- this would've been perfect for Lindsay Anderson between This Sporting Life and if.... Get Malcolm McDowell as Ernie, Dudley Moore for Robert and Britt Ekland as Kathy, it'd be perfect....more
When I read Blackcoat Press's edition of Feval's Knightshade, I was severely disappointed that the contents of the story couldn't match the surreal crWhen I read Blackcoat Press's edition of Feval's Knightshade, I was severely disappointed that the contents of the story couldn't match the surreal creepiness of the cover, but part of me doubted that any 19th Century author could come up with something that weird. Even Maupassant at his most insane didn't come up with imagery that could match that. But lo, Vampire City, which sports equally bizarre cover art, actually manages to deliver.
The story by itself is weird, featuring Gothic horror novelist Ann Radcliffe and her trusty manservant Grey Jack pursuing an evil vampire across half of Europe. But this isn't a vampire like anything we'd recognize. Written a quarter century before Dracula, Feval's conception of vamps goes in radically different directions. Their victims don't simply turn into new vampires but rather become puppets that the main vampire can control. Vampires can also spawn doppelgangers, both of themselves and their puppets, and turn into spiders, and they glow in the dark.
And they have their own city hidden way where the Balkan and Italian peninsulas come together, full of architecture that's straight out of Lovecraft. The imagery associated with vampires in the book is bizarre in the extreme. My favorite bit is when Radcliffe and Grey Jack stumble into an inn that's been taken over by the vampires. In the common room they see a tableau that includes a faceless woman and a dog with human faces, all completely still until the turn of the hour, at which point they get up and move around like figures in some great cuckoo clock.
This is without a doubt the most original vampire novel to come out since Polidori invented the genre, and it's worth reading to remind us of how stilted and hackneyed modern authors have made the concept....more
McWhorter sets out to debunk popular misconceptions about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. At first he does so by showing what modern science says about itMcWhorter sets out to debunk popular misconceptions about the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. At first he does so by showing what modern science says about it -- namely that it's only true to such a trivial extent that it could never have an impact on how societies develop. Great. End of book.
Except he keeps going. He trots out a bunch of thought experiments to support his arguments, but these are always things he's made up and have no empirical backing beyond that they feel right -- and in many cases they feel right because the alternative would undermine certain assumptions that are the basis for modern liberal societies. For instance, Chinese is less grammatically complex than many other languages, therefore the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis would indicate that their cultural world-view is also less complex. Well that's a great argument for why we should hope the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is false, but it's not an argument for it actually being false. To determine that requires experimentation, and McWhorter doesn't offer any.
I went into the book expecting a straight up overview of what the current state of science is on Sapir-Whorf and how it disproves the popular mythology that surrounds it, but McWhorter does not deliver....more