18 October 2013

Some Thoughts About Good Manga 9

Time for another Some Thoughts post. I recently had the chance to read two works by the French comic artist Bastien Vivès, and I feel like commenting on them while they're still fresh in my mind.
First one up is A Taste of Chrorine (Le Goût du chlore). This is one incredibly chill book that won the best new artist award in the Angoulême International Bande Desinée Festival. By chill, I mean it captures the ambience of a swimming pool perfectly. The showers before the pool, getting water in your eyes, the feeling of breathlessness as you struggle to reach the other side of the lane, and even the unpleasant sights of people you rather hadn’t seen in their swimsuits… Yup. It’s all here. But what really allows the smell of chlorine to come out from the pages are the perspectives. 
click to enlarge
The pictures above are some panels which I particularly liked for their use of perspective. Usually, the view is kept low just above the water-level to make you feel as if you’re there in the pool, right beside the protagonist. Others are from a first-person view, like in the very middle picture above, where the protagonist practising his backstrokes are simply shown by an overhead arm and a roof. All in all, there’s a very good mix of shots from first and third person, from above, below, and at the water-level to immerse the readers figuratively in the pool.
west vs east
One thing about the art that immediately sticks out to me as a person who usually reads manga is the depiction of motion. Manga tend to heavily use speed lines, after-images, motion-waves, impact/shock bubbles, and extreme perspective to make you feel like you’re moving along with the characters to convey a real sense of kinetic energy. Western comics traditionally tend not to rely on such techniques, preferring to show motion from the sidelines. Although A Taste of Chlorine doesn't really need to show motion all that well since it relies more on the ambience to pull in its readers, I have to admit the rather static art did take me out a little bit. Even so, there are some bits where I thought it was done reasonably well without resorting to generic speed lines. For instance, in the pic below, a simple warping of the background gives the illusion that the character is lunging backwards to spring into a backstroke. Or at least, it does to my eyes.
As for the plot [minor spoilers ahead], it’s a minimalistic tale about a boy swimming to ease his back problems, who becomes more interested in swimming as he develops interest in a girl who frequents the same pool. I actually came in expecting a romance story and was pleasantly surprised to find out that wasn't the case. While there definitely is an element of romance, it’s really only there to add to the mood and serve as a vehicle to move the story along. The real “story” is a coming-of-age tale about a weak-willed boy getting his first taste of desire, ambition, a real sense of drive to accomplish something, whatever it is. It’s done in a very clever and subtle way in which the theme is only vaguely hinted once around the middle of the story, which the author then tries to make the reader temporarily forget through the romance sub-plot, all in order to surprise you just as much as the protagonist in the epiphany that occurs in the memorable final panel. If you read through the story too fast, you’ll likely miss it, making you go “Huh? That’s it?” So slow down and pace yourself while reading this. All in all, a good comic. It even made me want to go swimming (actual swimming, not just riding water slides), which is quite the feat since I hate/suck at swimming. I think even an 8 year-old can out-swim me. 
The only real complaint I have is that you have to shell out $15~20 for what's basically a short oneshot. I don't like to comment on pricing since that's got nothing to do with a work’s quality, but you have to admit that it can still affect your final opinion (video game reviewers, please take note). The book itself is about 130 pages but most are dialogue-less atmosphere pages and I'm certain a skilled mangaka could have easily achieved just as much in half the length if he had to work under a more constrained page limit. Of course, the main reason why the book costs this much isn't due to the page length but because of the cost of printing in colour. Thank god the manga industry publishes almost always in B&W, which allows good lengthy stories at a much cheaper price. Admittedly, a black and white version of A Taste of Chlorine would certainly lesson the great ambience afforded by turquoise and blue shades, but… I don’t know, I think it’d still be fine. I mean, look at Urushibara’s art in Waters.
The next Vivès work, Polina, is in black & white and substantially longer. Well… Technically, it’s only about 70 pages longer but there’s a lot more dialogue so it feels a lot longer. In any case, the story is about Polina's life from childhood to adulthood, and her difficulties in becoming a professional dancer. Speaking more generally, however, the story is essentially about what it takes to become a successful artist. For this, Vivès paints a very ascetic portrayal, in which "satisfaction" is a non-existent concept to the artist. He must constantly strive for greater heights and complacency in either his skill or position is to signify his downfall. Love seems to be an unnecessary distraction, if not almost detrimental to this end, since an artist must never rely too much on others and should learn to stand on his own. This is reinforced by the role of Polina's teachers who prove the old adage that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. In the first three-quarters of the story, Polina is still too young, too inexperienced to understand the advice given by her elders and would rather dismiss it as incomprehensible. But as her outlook in life matures, the truth behind these once-nonsensical maxims are revealed and she finally understands why an artist practices his craft. Bojinski, Polina's influential teacher (the man in the cover pic above), is given a fair amount of screen-time but I don't think it's too appropriate to liken this comic to a mentor-student story like The Karate Kid, which heavily emphasizes the bond between the master and the student. Polina's narrative is one-sidedly focused on the student and the relationship is too subdued and solemn for a comparison like that to work. Instead, Bojinski's memorable scenes at the beginning and the end serves to provide a light framework in which you can evaluate Polina's journey as an artist.
As for the art, it's done in quick impressionist-style sketches and it works quite well for the most part. I particularly liked the character design for Bojinski, whose eyes and mouth are hidden by his glasses and beard to effectively hide his facial expressions, transforming him into an enigmatic and intimidating authority-figure. Kind of an Ikari Gendou, if you will. The best part about his design is at the story's end, where these obscured features are illuminated for the first time, breaking the illusion of an aloof teacher that Polina had formed in her mind since her childhood. My only gripe with the art is Polina's nose. I don't know why but Vivès decided to give only Polina a thick black shade on her nasal bridge, which annoyed me because it kept reminding me of the infamous "tumblr nose," if you know what I'm referring to. It's not as if Polina's nose is uniquely hooked upwards or anything. The side profile shots of her gives a very average outline for a nose. So why the shade? To distinguish her from the rest? She already stands out well enough though. I don't know, it's... a mystery.

In any case, both stories are solid and I wholly recommend them. Although A Taste of Chlorine is the only one that's available in English at the moment, Polina too will be translated by next year so keep it in mind if you're looking for something interesting to read.

17 October 2013

Tomorrow's Joe v13 (last updated Dec. 3)

Finally, a return to Joe!
Alright, we got our editor back!

Tomorrow's Joe v13-1:   Sendspace
Tomorrow's Joe v13-2:   Sendspace
Tomorrow's Joe v13-3:   Sendspace

14 October 2013

Gyanki-Hen Complete

And part 2 of Gambling Emperor Zero is finally complete at 10 volumes. I know this part was rather lacking in the crazy life-or-death gambles that we were so fond of back in part 1, but I hope you found it entertaining nontheless. Here's hoping that part 3, whenever it comes, will be more full of insane, over-the-top action.

Gyanki-Hen c87-88:   Sendspace
Gyanki-Hen v10:   Sendspace