Sunday, May 27, 2007

Make Mine Mumbai!

Some time ago, I mentioned that I had been graced by a colleague with some Indian comic books and promised a follow-up post. This, then, is that post, since I finally got around to looking at them at length.

These book are published by India Book House under the Amar Chitra Katha imprint, which is dedicated to depicting "the glorious heritage of India." From what I can gather from the books themselves and the company's website, they are the Indian equivalent of Classics Illustrated - and I don't mean that in a very good way.

The books tell stories from Indian legends, mythology, religion, and folklore. Genesha is the origin story of the elephant-headed god (quite literally, "who he is and how he came to be!"); Draupadi tells the complicated tale of a magical girl with five husbands who gets drawn into internecine rivalry/warfare between cousins; Prithviraj Chauhan is the martial tale of a legendary king and warrior (kind of Arthurian, but not really); and Raman of Tenali is a trickster figure from folk-lore who is based on a historical figure, a court jester.

Unfortunately, even given this exciting source material, the comics are pretty flat from both artistic and narrative perspectives.

One thing that was surprising about the art is that I could not discern a dominant house style: two of the books seem to be influenced by Hal Foster via Curt Swan, the Prithviraj tale is done in a very dark, sketchy style, and the Raman story is very cartoony and reminds me of European humor strips. Regardless of the style, none of the artwork is terribly dynamic.

It's not just the draftsmanship that is the issue: the storytelling is stilted and slow. Most of the panels are what Scott McCloud would call duo-specific; that is, the words and pictures send roughly the same message. One of the primary effects of this particular relationship between words and pictures in a comic is to add a sense of the old-fashioned to the storytelling, and that might have been the intent in these books; however, when over- or badly-used, it can lead to plain redundancy, and that seems to be more the case here.

This page from the Prithviraj story is a prime example of this. Instead of the captions and pictures working together to build a complete narrative and move it forward, there's a lot of repetition. Even this action sequence from Ganesha suffers from the same drawback:

Unfortunately, the strong instructional motivation of the books seems to overshadow the storytelling itself; it may be a case of the overwhelming respect for the material getting in the way of the narrative. Or, it may be that the the production system employed by ACK is just a little bit too constricting, as this panel from a behind-the-scenes feature on their website indicates:

(Click through for the full feature)

Or it may simply be that anything that's supposed to be good for us is never any fun, and these books are certainly supposed to be good for us, as this inside-back-cover ad tells us:

Still and all, I have to applaud the motivation behind the series; maintaining a cultural heritage and trying to make it accessible to new generations can only be considered a good thing. There were some nice moments in each of the books, and actually the Raman tale is pretty funny in parts. And while the books are very chaste (just like Bollywood movies), there are some scenes that would fit right in with the current level of violence in the spandex set:

Rolling Head of the Son of Parvarti, anyone? (with apologies to Scipio)

Friday, May 25, 2007

Friday night fights

To further honor Bully and his animal theme for this week's fights, here is the Phantom putting the hurt on some sharks - in Russian!

Late ta da posse

Congtraulations on your bi(son)ennial celebration!

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Saying "Nice doggie" until you can find a rock...

A dip into the Last Shortbox this week for a look at an unusual hero, Retief of the CDT:

Keith Laumer's Retief, #1 - 3: Mad Dog Graphics,
April 1987 - August 1987
Adapted by Dennis Fujitake and Jan Strnad

When I was young, I devoured the Retief books and stories by Keith Laumer. For those not familiar with this source material, they chronicle the escapades of minor foreign officer in the futuristic Corps Diplomatique Terrestrienne as he attempts to keep the peace despite the best efforts of his hidebound and petty fellow diplomats. Thoroughly suffused with early-sixties impatience with with The Organization, and informed by Laumer's own diplomatic experience, the stories showed how one man in a gray flannel spacesuit has to use his own initiative and bend - heck, break - the regulations to achieve his objectives.

I ate it up.

Don't get me wrong: the stories don't have any kind of counter-culture vibe to them; Retief is a loyal career diplomat. He just doesn't have any patience with form over substance or rules before results.

The comic books capture this sensibility just perfectly. Retief struggles not merely against the usually boneheaded, often selfish, and sometimes evil machinations of the various parties with whom he interacts, but also with his CDT superiors, whose by-the-book plans are at best useless and and worst counter-productive. In order to save lives, prevent war, and maintain peaceful interspecies relations, Retief must use wit, guile, and cunning, all of which he has in abundance.

Which is not to say that Retief isn't above the shrewd application of a little personal violence from time to time. Whether it be in ritual combat

or more in action hero style,

Retief can handle himself pretty well, thank you. But more often than not, he spends his time snooping around and asking questions,

figuring stuff out, outsmarting his opponents, and hoisting them by their own petards.

And in the end, Retief wins not just by beating someone up or stopping a plot, but by actually doing what foreign officers are supposed to do:

Each of the three issues I have is a done-in-one, but there's enough plot, action, and dialogue in thirty-one pages for them to be called graphic novels (well, at least novellas). This books are just dandy, every bit as good in their way as the original paperbacks I read, with the added benefit of Fujitake's exquisite linework. His draftsmanship is magnificent, and his retro-tomorrowland art design for the series is perfect.

If you ever have a chance to pick any of these up, do so.


According to the GCD, there were a total of six issues of the title put out by Mad Dog, plus another one-off called 'Retief of the CDT.' Amazon lists a 1990 paperback, but I haven't found exactly what is collected in it.

Doesn't that recording device Retief has up there look just like an iPod Nano?

And I so want a jacket like the one he's wearing in the two-panel clip.

(The title of this post is Will Rogers's definition of diplomacy.)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Belgian treat

No, it's neither chocolate nor beer. A buddy of mine went over to Brussels for a week with his sweetie, and brought something back for me that I had never seen before:

Luhca Libre #1, Les Humanoides Associes SAS

Lucha Libre is a French-language comic set in East L.A. It stars (or at least this premiere issued starred) The Luchadores Five: El Gladiator (a self-proclaimed reincarnation of an Aztec mummy) Dr. Pantera (the short, fat one), Diablo Loco (a big, cigar-chomping guy), Red Demon (who wears a suit and chain-smokes cigarettes), and King Karateca (who appears to be a martial-arts type dude). For those not dialed in to the genre, lucha libre is Mexican freestyle wrestling, and luchadores are masked wrestlers whose personae in real life traditionally blur the lines between athletes, celebrities, actors, and superheroes. This quintet doesn't seem to command as much respect as El Santo or Mil Mascaras, however; they hang out in run-down apartments, drive beater cars, and seemed to be mocked by a lot of the background characters, such as winos. There adventures seem every bit as wacky, though.

It was hard for me to follow the details of the story, since I have little French, but the group appears to be on some trivial mission involving Dr. Pantera's car when they cross paths with a gang of motorcycle-riding werewolves. Negotiations break down and El Gladiator, who seems to be the leader, throws down with the lycanthropes:

Although the boys seem to be winning, the fight is cut off before a conclusive finish by a shotgun-wielding local in a John Deere cap, who essentially tells everyone to get off his lawn, and the combatants retire from the field of battle.

As the luchadores regroup, we join up with two aliens who are stuck in traffic on the I-5 at the Pasadena Freeway; they either release or merely observe - I couldn't tell for sure - a dinosaur, which we see walking in traffic.

The luchadores meet up with and - I think - join forces with Les Formidables, a group of French ninjas, on a mission related to the aliens, but not after the obligatory fight scene:

Meanwhile, the aliens have been abducted by tiki-warriors,

and the dinosaur is getting the worst of an encounter with some street kids:

The story seems to be continued; it ends with the reveal that the leader of the tiki-warriors is an Elvis impersonator.

Y'know, I said I had little French, but I'm not so sure how much sense this would all make if I was Charles De-fracking-Gaulle. It doesn't matter, though; the pictures are cool, the action is sweet, and there's a frenetic energy to the whole thing that is infectious and appealing.

The book rounds out with some text pieces (heh, big help) and a few shorts, including a couple with Profesor Furia (another, humorous (?) luchadore) and some meet-the-characters bits (El Gladiator and I are the same height: 1 m 68 et demi), as well as a tease for the next issues, promising Tequila, a hulking luchadore with a horned mask, and El Panda, who appears to be a Chinese Communist luchadore.

I had a devil of a time tracking down any English-language info about this series on the internets. Here's the page from the publishers site in French; and these guys apparently make figurines of the characters (in English).

My buddy's sweetie is still in Brussels for a while; maybe I can get her to bring back the next issues.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Trade winds

So, I was in the LCS a few days ago (not on Free Comic Book Day, darn it - I had commitments for all of Saturday!) and I picked up a couple of trade paperbacks. Overall, I wound up pleased; here's a response to just one of my purchases.

Shadowpact: The Pentacle Plot

Pal Bully would say "This comic is fun!" I had originally picked up Shadowpact #1 as a floppy; I thought it was okay, but didn't think I wanted to buy it every month. I happened to lay eyes on this trade; it was only fifteen bucks for seven issues collected (why is #4 missing?) with a cover gallery and no ads, so I took a flyer on it. And it was worth it.

S:TPP is no graphic novel. The narrative arc doesn't have the cohesion for this to be considered more than a collection of related stories; the last episode in particular strays far from the unifying theme and there is a teaser at the end of the penultimate chapter that never gets its proper reveal. These quibbles aside, there's some rollicking good adventure in here: Bill Willingham can put a story together competently, that's for sure. There's a lot of humor, and the gore-quotient was well within my range. Even though I don't know much about the current incarnations of these characters, I felt I had a good sense of their personalities, and the team feeling certainly came across well.

The art was a bit uneven; the art team did not repeat once across the seven stories. Luckily, most of the styles were pretty complementary, so as pencillers and inkers changed, the transitions weren't too jarring. The only exception was Tom Derenick, whose pencils were too super-heroey, bordering on Liefieldish, for my tastes. (In every other issue, Jim Rook looks like a regular guy; in Derenick's, he was all buff matinée idol.)

So, if nothing else, my "wait-for-the-trade" policy was affirmed: the TPB felt substantial, and the price/enjoyment ratio was dead on.


Well, I did fall of the wagon and get a floppy: 52 # 52. I had been reading about the return of the multiverse on the blogs, and I wanted to see it for myself. So, what did I see? A big ol' mutated Mr. Mind slurps up reality, creating parallel worlds. Hokay, whatever.

Earth-17: Atomic Knights, yay! Giant dalmatians replaced by big spotted scary pointy beasts, boo!

Earth-3: Gets a Martian Manhunter! And the fast guy gets a belly-shirt! Um, yeah.

Earth-10: Old school Freedom Fighters! And Phantom Girl's breasts look human!

Earth-50: Is this Wildstorm or something?

Earth-5: Cheese! (Big and red!)

Earth-22: Ooh, grim.

Earth-2: That doesn't look like the JSA I know. Am I missing something important, or is this going to be an alternate JSA, and the JSAers are going to stay in the "main" universe as well? (And is that an alternate-reality spelling of "innocence" or does the Gotham Gazette not have proofreaders?)

Earth-4: Old school Charlton! Cool!

So, maybe there's room for some fun in there. But I'll still be waiting for the trades, I think.

PS: I did think the scene with Ted Kord was pretty touching, and deftly handled.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Friday Night Fights

It's all this guy's fault.