The Comic Book Club: The Eisner Nominees We Missed

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DOUGLAS: I didn’t really get a chance to write about Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako when it came out last year. Originally serialized in 1972 and 1973–and published in English for the first time, in a single, hulking, 700-page volume–it’s supposedly one of the manga master’s career peaks. (There’s a ton of Tezuka out there in Japanese, and only bits and pieces have come through in English so far, most recently via Vertical’s editions of this, MW, Apollo’s Song, Ode to Kirihito, Buddha and Black Jack.) I was very pleased to see it on the Eisners nominee list, even though I feel pretty conflicted about it. The short version is that it’s both one of the best and one of the worst comics I’ve read in a long time.

The “worst” part first: the English translation of Ayako is mostly at the lower end of the decent-to-excruciating range. A lot of the major characters are supposed to be country bumpkins or simpleminded or children, and their dialogue hits that point with a giant jackhammer. I just opened the book to a page at random, and saw “Ya know, when Jiro big bro went on th’ lam ‘cuz of that incident, I went t’ th’ police.” Another page: “Why didn’t ya say so sooner, ma! Wit’ it, we can avoid all sorts o’ knotty problems, now.” Another one: “Lookee, lookee! One fly on toppee anutha, like giddy-up!” And so on. It’s tin-eared, it’s embarrassing, and it keeps bumping me right out of the story.

Which is a pity, because this is a phenomenal piece of work: smart, sharp to the point of cruelty, tightly focused but epic in the scope of its implications. I don’t want to give away too much about it, but it’s about the way the corruption of a family–which Tezuka suggests is connected to the social and political state of postwar Japan–manifests itself as poisonous sexuality, a disaster that wrecks everything around it. Frictionless storytelling? Instantly indelible character designs? A simple but incredibly evocative sense of place? Heartstopping set-pieces? It’s Tezuka: of course he can do all that. A lot of the Tezuka books that I’ve read have a very wide sentimental streak; he could really pour on the syrup and glitter. This one doesn’t escape that altogether, but it’s incredibly unsparing–especially the way its big-eyed, slender, adorable title character becomes a commentary on “cute manga girls” and indicts the way their audience is accustomed to reacting to them.

GRAEME: Your mention of Tezuka made me think of Naoki Urasawa, and his multiply-nominated 20th Century Boys series, probably because Urasawa reworked Tezuka’s Astro Boy for the absolutely wonderful Pluto. And, as much as I enjoy 20th Century Boys, I find myself wishing that there was more Tezuka to it, if that makes sense, because while Pluto was almost perfectly paced and plotted, there’s something about the most recent volumes of 20th Century Boys that are just… meandering, for want of a better word. It lacks the tension and focus of Pluto, instead opting for a plot that substitutes shock and surprise for logic more than once (the serialized nature of the original strips is very obvious from some of the chapter breaks in the US collections, and makes for choppy reading with “It can’t be! Not– YOU!” endings and letdown continuations every few pages), and, surreally considering the title, a time-jump midway through the series that takes the story outside of the 20th century altogether. I don’t know if any of you have read Death Note, but the feeling of “This story should have ended a while back, and while the twists and turns are fun, they’re also pointless” from that series is very, very present in the writing of this one.

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DOUGLAS: Oh, see, I’m going to argue with you on that one: I loved Death Note, and while I can see where it might easily have ended midway through its run (and plays rope-a-dope for a couple of volumes after the big twist), I thought the actual final couple of volumes were fantastic and really dramatically satisfying. But anyway…

GRAEME: 20th Century Boys‘ dialogue, as with your Tezuka book, Douglas, feels like it’s gone through an awkward translation more than a few times. I can never tell if it’s that jokes have been translated without much thought to whether the humor comes with it, or whether I’m missing out on some cultural staple or two, but almost every attempt at any genre other than melodrama feels horribly awkward.

But all of that said, I still enjoy the series for some reason. Maybe it’s because the twists and turns are fun, and that there’s something about the… inventiveness, perhaps, or more likely, the increasing ridiculousness and WTFness of the choices taken to keep the stories from reaching their conclusion that is weirdly compelling. It doesn’t hurt that the art is continually just stunning, with surprising Jack Davis influences to accompany the “traditional” manga stylings that you might expect from this kind of series.

EVAN: We’ve talked about Nick Spencer’s work before, but it’s all been superhero stuff. He actually made his name off of his independent work, so it’s fitting that it’s his creator-owned work that’s received the Eisner nominations.

I never read any of Spencer’s creator-owned stuff before, so I was eager to see how Morning Glories compared. What I’ve loved about Spencer’s superhero scripts is the ability to find new angles in fictional universes stuffed to the gills with fractured continuity and age-old characters. But he doesn’t have any of that to lean on in Morning Glories, and it turns out that he doesn’t need it.

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You don’t get a whole lot of forward plot movement in the first trade of Morning Glories. Readers get the basic cast introductions and enough information that gears are turning in this world. Other than that, it’s one long tease, and if it weren’t so damn fun, no one in their right mind would hang on to wait these plot threads. The key to hooking the readers, though, is by giving them characters so pleasurable that you want to see where they wind up. The other part of what makes Morning Glories work for me is that it’s so clearly a riff on a certain kind of genre, that kind of high-school skullduggery most recently popularized in the Gossip Girl books and TV show. It’s also a weird inverted mash-up of the X-Men “gifted children” premise with prison break and heist elements.

Speaking of genre ingredients, even someone like me who didn’t watch the show can see MG is a post-Lost book, and Spencer plays into that, to the point of referencing it in the dialogue. There are unexplained fantastical elements, unexplained time-shifting, unexplained mystery characters and unexplained relationships. Still, you’re given enough breadcrumbs to think that there is an underlying logic to it all. All you have to do is hang on, like those poor kids in Morning Glory Academy.

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