Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Female Thor?

I say bring it on! 

Thor comics have never been so much about the man as they're about Thor's hammer Mjolnir. Remember Beta Ray Bill? If not, Bill first appeared in Thor #337 and was a horse-faced alien created by long-time Thor scribe and artist Walt Simonson. Simonson's goal in making Bill 'ugly' was deliberate: he wanted the reader to first think of him as a villain. Then, after lifting Mjolnir, all physical superficiality would be cast aside and a true heroic spirit emerge. It worked and Beta Ray Bill remains a lasting character in Marvel's pantheon to this day.

Thor image taken from the Marvel website. This image is drawn by Esad Ribic.  
Anyone who is worthy of wielding Mjolnir should wield it, regardless if they're alien, human or god. So I think it's great that Marvel has decided to mix things up and with Jason Aaron and Russell Dauterman at the helm of this book, we should all be looking forward to it. 

Cover of Marvel's Thor #337 (November 1983) featuring Beta Ray Bill.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Exploring Japan Through Comics: WGTB Reviews 47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers & Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan

When you think of Japan, you might think of electronics, bullet trains and Mt. Fuji. Or perhaps it’s sushi and the plethora of talented baseball players we have seen in North America in recent decades. Whatever it is one thing is certain: Japan is a fascinating and complex place with remarkable people. I know this personally because in the early 2000s I was fortunate to live and work there for a year. It was truly a memorable experience and I've since always been on the lookout for material on Japan, especially when it relates to its amazing history.  

47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers, Mike Richardson & Stan Sakai, Dark Horse Books, 2014, pp. 152, US$19.99
Which is why when I noticed two graphic novels recently at the local bookstore, I just had to have (and review) them. They were 47 Ronin: The Tale of the Loyal Retainers by Mike Richardson and Stan Sakai and published by Dark Horse Comics and Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan by manga legend Shigeru Mizuki and published by Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly. Both books are enjoyable examinations of two key periods in Japanese history, the former being that of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868) and the latter of the early Showa period. "Shōwa" which translated means "enlightened peace" is the posthumous name given to the era of the reign of Emperor Hirohito which lasted from 1926 to 1989.  

Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan, Shigeru Mizuki, Drawn and Quarterly, 2013, pp. 560, C$24.95
It's a truism to say that Japan has a very long and complex history. Indeed, the Emperor (Japan remains the only state to have kept the title "Emperor" for its monarch) claims issue from a line that reaches back five thousand years. The reason for this is that unlike European monarchies which seem to attract dynastic rivalries and wars, revolutions or parliaments who simply select distant relatives over closer yet undesirable ones, (Here I speak of King George I who, upon ascending the British throne, overtook more than fifty other candidates because they were Roman Catholic), the Japanese emperor has always been sacrosanct with the actual power found in the office of "shōgun" (Japanese for "general") who even with dictatorial powers would never consider eliminating the sacred emperor.

Modern Japanese history can be said to begin in the seismic year of 1603, when the warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu was declared Shogun and started a dynasty that would rule Japan until power was taken back by the Emperor over 265 years later in the Meiji Restoration of 1868. In the two and a half centuries the Tokugawa shoguns ruled Japan the country found a measure of stability and order. The backbone of the the Tokugawa Shogunate were the samurai, a military nobility of warrior-retainers who maintained the feudal system of government and had as their ethos "Bushido", a chivalric concept that stressed loyalty, martial prowess, honour and if need be: death. Indeed, death was often occasioned by one’s own hand in a from of ritual suicide called suppuku. The Tokugawa Shogunate gradually built this system into law and along with the self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world led to a stable yet isolated society that remained largely unchanged until the US Navy arrived in Tokyo harbour in 1853, an event which spurred forth efforts that led to the Meiji Restoration and subsequent modernization.  

47 Ronin is a story that epitomises the samurai ethos of medieval Japan. It tells the story of Lord Asano, a daimyo lord who is called to Edo (Tokyo) in 1701. During this period the law required lords to attend the capital for a period so the Shogun could maintain control over them. While in Edo, Lord Asano does not play the courtier’s game and when he refuses to pay a corrupt official he subsequently becomes the target of provocation and insult until he draws his sword in the Shogun's palace, a crime that comes with the punishment of death. After Asano is forced to commit seppuku, 47 of his loyal retainers, now themselves ronin or masterless samurai plot posthumous revenge and eventually take action. 

A splash from Dark Horse's 47 Ronin

The art is great at conveying feudal Japan without...
The book is an enjoyable book and worthy investigation into Japanese history and samurai culture. Richardson's writing presents an old story in a accessible and amusing way and while I was often told in Japan that it is a country of nuance, this isn't so much the case and anyone interested in Japanese culture can pick it up and enjoy it. Much same can be said for Stan Sakai's art, which, while saying it has a juvenile quality to it would be unfair, it is never-the-less powerful and refined in a uncomplicated way. All of this brings about a collection of artwork that is not over-the-top or silly but a worthy interpretation of a great story. 4/5 STARS 

...the romanticizing that is often found in Western depictions of the samurai culture.

The 47 Ronin is a old and complex tale. "To know this story is to know Japan" reads back cover of the Dark Horse edition. I'm not sure if this is true, but it is a national legend and 47 Ronin is a worthy retelling of it.  
Our second book takes us well past the Meiji Restoration and into the early portion of the reign of Hirohito. By the end of First World War, Japan was starting to flex its geopolitical muscle. A surprise victor in the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and entering on the side of the eventual winners of the First World War, Japan was spurred forth by these successes in the early 1900s and this had lasting ramifications. In Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan Shigeru Mizuki examines much of the Japanese aggression of the early 20th century through the eyes of his own childhood. Born in 1922 in a town on the southern edge of the largest island of Honshu, Mizuki's work is both a history of the early Showa era and an autobiography of his early life and the struggles he experienced in a country that was both a expanding and militarizing. It tells a story of not just family and school struggles but also the Japanese response to the Great Kanto Earthquake (1923), the Great Depression, the Washington Naval Treaty, military expansion into Korea and China and ultimately joining the Axis powers in the lead up to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The personal and historical are intertwined in Showa 1926-1939: A History of Japan by manga legend Shigeru Mizuke. Here he draws his first day of school.

The historical aspects of the story are made with a non-manga clarity. Here Showa discusses the Great Depression.
I've not enjoyed comic book history like this in a long, long while. Showa is not only a great book, but also a great way to learn about Japan. In an interesting and excellently chosen feature, the funny and more personally inspired vignettes are more cartoonish, whereas more photo-realistic images are chosen for historical events. This all lends itself to textual and pictorial gravitas where it's needed and a sense of humour and valuable comedic insights when they're needed too. Living in a tumultuous and changing economic and political climate is never easy but this book makes fine work of that while at the same time not leaving the reader in a depressed state. All of this leads to a fine work of graphic storytelling that is an amazing combination of politics and personality in the early Showa era.* 4.5/5 STARS

The Washington Naval Treaty, which limited Japanese naval expansion yet was still signed by that country, was denounced and terminated by the government in 1934.  

Like the above image, Showa uses a more photo-realistic vantage to express important events. Here is a depiction of the Japanese invasion of China.
In one of my classes years ago, an especially vocal student told me that I would never be able to truly understand Japan because I was not Japanese. While I suspect this was a true statement, I have never let it stop me from learning about this country. If you're like-minded or simply enjoy good graphic storytelling, then consider picking up either 47 Ronin or Showa. Both are excellent introductions into their respective periods of history for either the casual and serious student of Japan and well worth the read. Thanks again for stopping by WGTB and I hope you're having a great summer.

*In May 2014 a sequel to Showa 1926-1939 called Showa 1939-1944: A History of Japan was released by Drawn and Quarterly. It has not yet been read by the reviewer.   

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Happy Canada Day 2014!

Happy Canada Day to each and every reader of WGTB! Wherever you are -- even if you're not Canadian -- have a great day and, as always, thanks for stopping by.   

Here's a little classic Captain Canuck from comic's late Bronze Age (late 70s/early 80s) to mark the occasion. In my mind there's few things more Canadian than a superhero riding a horse into action or busting up an evil robot with an axe. Cheers!  

Image from Comely Comix Captain Canuck #5 (August/September 1979)

Image from Comely Comix Captain Canuck #11 (September/October 1980)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

WGTB Reviews Philip Slayton's Bay Street: A Novel

Having just finished the exams one needs to pass to become a lawyer in Ontario, I recently went looking for legal fiction to relax with and let the summer finally begin. But unlike most times when I'd typically reach for a John Grisham novel, on this occasion I went with the spirit of my jurisdiction and picked up Bay Street: A Novel, the debut fictional work of Canadian lawyer Philip Slayton. I first encountered Slayton’s writing when I reviewed Mighty Judgment, an accessible introduction to Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms. Mighty was an enjoyable read and great primer for anyone looking to start learning about Canadian constitutional law. But novels are very different from non-fiction and picking up Bay Street was also due to a curiosity about whether Slayton could make the transition.

Bay Street: A Novel, Philip Slayton, Oblonsky Editions, 2014, pp. 264, $15.99
Bay Street: A Novel tells the story of Piper Fantouche, the daughter of Latvian-Canadian immigrants who is now a lawyer at the prestigious Bay Street firm Dibbet & Dibbet LLP, a fictionalized member of Canada's leading and most prestigious law firms, all of which are based in and around Bay Street in downtown Toronto. Piper could be any one of those women I see at my regular spin classes: smart, ambitious and beautiful. She works in her firm's corporate group with its sleazeball Managing Partner, Jim Watt, and the story begins with Watt inviting Piper to join him and others to do the legal work for a hostile take-over of Liberty Insurance by one of the firm's largest clients, Canadian Unity Bank. Watt knows Piper is both a capable member of the team, but also has ulterior motives, as is repeatedly shown when he "invites" her out for Martini lunches. Of course, being ambitious and knowing billable hours are what it takes to make partner, Piper joins the team and gets ready to work. Soon afterwards Watt is found dead and Piper's world is thrown into disarray. With this, she engages a prominent criminal defence lawyer she encounters at a law school reunion and two Toronto detectives are called in to investigate the crime -- all while Bay Street catches wind of the merger the whole ordeal threatens not only Canadian Unity Bank but Dibbits as well.      

Admittedly, I'm not a big consumer of legal fiction, and when I am, the diet consists mostly of American author John Grisham. So inevitably as I read Bay Street I compared it to that seasoned master, and because of this, I can say that while Slayton has some work to do, Bay Street is never-the-less a comparable work and a fun and enjoyable novel. Piper is a very likable protagonist and a laudable change from the usual male lead that one would find in Grisham's work. As a future lawyer, I also identified with her and while I'll probably never have to deal with managing partners grabbing my knee, I can never-the-less empathize with the pressures she faces to both perform and advance in a competitive and cut-throat environment. Having been a lawyer on Bay Street for many years, Slayton clearly has the pulse of legal Toronto and taps into this for much of the book. Toronto itself is also a key character in the work, (much like the American south in Grisham’s books) and seeing my city utilized to this end was very enjoyable. Indeed, High Park Gardens, Liberty Village and College Street are all parts of Toronto that were featured and places I frequent quite regularly. That said, if you're from Manitoba or Nova Scotia, or even Scotland or New South Wales, the themes of this story are a common thread of the business and legal world, and the fact that it's Canadian shouldn't stop you from reading it. 

My biggest criticism with the book is that the plot of the villain isn't very good. Now I know "It was him!" twists are very hard to write and even John Grisham novels can be hit and miss in this respect. So I won't harp on this point, except to say that in any future work, Slayton needs to practice this aspect of storytelling and tighten up the points that build to a story's climax. And I sincerely hope he does because the lead up to these moments was very rewarding and he's built quite an interesting world populated by great characters.  

The seat of power of Canada's legal and financial world is Bay Street. Here is the view from outside the Law Society of Upper Canada.
That issue aside, Bay Street: A Novel is an enjoyable, fast-paced and fun summer read and very commendable first novel by Philip Slayton. So if you're looking for an enjoyable yarn these coming months for the cottage, beach or airport, and want something different from the usual American legal fare that one finds in Canadian bookstores or online, then I highly recommend you give Bay Street: A Novel a try. Piper Fantouche is a great character and while the story left with strong hints that there might be another novel about her forthcoming, I hope this is the case because there's a lot more than can be done with her. 4/5 STARS  

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Slacker's Option: An Old Comic Book Cover

Dear Readers,

Our sincere apologies for not writing this past month: your humble blogger has been busy with a major life event this June. But things should be back to relative normality within a few weeks and once this happens, WGTB should be back at the pace of one or two postings per week about comics, books and the occasional film. First up will be a review of the new legal thriller Bay Street by Canadian author Philip Slayton.  

In the meanwhile, please enjoy this cover of Pep Comics #1 featuring "The Shield". Pep is the predecessor of Archie Comics.

Pep Comics #1 (Jan 1940) Reprinted in Supermen: The First Wave of Comic Book Heroes 1936-1941, Edited by Greg Sadowski (Seattle: Fantagraphics Books, 2009)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Blogging the Nebulas Runners-Up Edition: A Song of Ice and Fire

Always a bridesmaid never a bride: that seems to be the story of A Song of Ice and Fire, the epic High Fantasy series by American author George R.R. Martin. With five books available and two more expected after 2015, Martin has two more shots at winning a Nebula Award for Best Novel. But as of now, Martin has yet to take it and this blog entry will discuss the first three novels of the saga: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1999), and A Storm of Swords (2001) all of which were short-listed for the Nebula Award for Best Novel in the year of their publication but did not win. Welcome to the first ever "Blogging the Nebulas: Runners-up Edition"!  

A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin, (Bantam Spectra, 1996). This book lost the Nebula Award for Best Novel to The Slow River by Nicola Griffith.

A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra, 1999). This book lost the Nebula Award for Best Novel to Parable of the Talents by Octavia E. Butler.

A Storm of Swards by George R.R. Martin (Bantam Spectra, 2000) This book lost the Nebula Award for Best Novel to The Quantum Rose by Catherine Asaro. The fourth and fifth book of the series, A Feast for Crows and A Dance With Dragons, were both nominated for the Hugo Awards but not the Nebula Awards and are not discussed in this blog entry. 
To call A Song of Fire and Ice epic is an understatement. With A Game of Thrones clocking in at over 800 pages, A Clash Of Kings at 1000, and A Storm of Swords at 1100, these books are not for the faint of heart or attention-span deficient. The series tells the story of the familial relations and geopolitics of the Seven Kingdoms, a large imperial body located on the fictional continent of Westeros, and the drive of its major houses to rule from its "Iron Throne." The principal protagonists are members of House Stark, the house paramount of the largest kingdom-province named simply and appropriately, the North. The head of House Stark at the beginning of the story is Ned Stark, the dutiful, stoic and honest "warden" of his sparse yet peaceful province. Among the Starks key rivals is the wealthy House Lannister, led by the ruthless and diabolical Tywin Lannister. Tywin is Warden of the West and rules the Westerlands, an area of the Seven Kingdoms that is rich with gold and mineral deposits. House Lannister also features the dwarf, Tyrion Lannister, who at first engenders ambivalence but soon becomes an important and entertaining protagonist in his own right. Other important houses of Westeros include the Tullys who govern the Riverlands, the Tyrells who govern the Reach, the Baratheons who govern the Stormlands (and amongst whom includes the King of the Seven Kingdoms himself), and the Martells who rule the largely independent and separate region of Dorne. The northern marches of the Seven Kingdoms is bordered by a massive 700 foot high ice wall which is manned by a quasi-monastic order called the "Night’s Watch." These brothers serve the important role of keeping the "wildlings" and others who live north of the Wall from invading the Seven Kingdoms. 

Image from George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel, Volume I. Adopted by Daniel Abraham with art by Tommy Patterson (Bantam Books, 2012)
Heading a large family of six children (which includes one bastard son who becomes an important character to the story), Ned and his noble wife Catelyn (née Tully) deal with the same issues that most parents do and their lives are otherwise peaceful. This all changes however when it's announced at the beginning of A Game of Thrones that Ned’s old friend and ally King Robert Baratheon, plans to visit Winterfell, the Stark's seat of power. Robert is married to Cersei, daughter of Tywin Lannister, so a visit from the king is not entirely a welcome thing for the Starks. And this proves to be exactly the case, when the Stark's second son Bran mysteriously falls and severely injures himself and the king further asks Ned to move to the capital city and serve as the "King’s Hand" a role analogous to prime minister. Robert won the throne decades earlier from the exiled House Targaryen, who themselves conquered and united the Seven Kingdoms three hundred years before after invading Westeros from the ancient (and now ruined) city of Valyria, off the larger continent of Essos. The final exiled issue of the last Targaryen king is a young woman named Daenerys and she eventually becomes a key character of the saga as she travels throughout Essos in search of an army and allies as she prepares to mount her claim for the Iron Throne. Daenerys biggest weapon is the same that were brought by her ancestor centuries earlier and a long-time key to House Targaryen's power – Dragons! 

Image from George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones: The Graphic Novel, Volume I. Adopted by Daniel Abraham with art by Tommy Patterson (Bantam Books, 2012)
Naturally, this review has only covers a fraction of A Song of Ice and Fire but I hope it gives you a sense of the massive scope of these books. And they’re very good books too. Being a long-time fantasy reader, I really enjoyed them because they speak to me as both a lover of the fantastical, but also someone who loves fictional history too. Indeed, the quasi-medieval politics is so carefully constructed and impressively coherent that at times it often seems like real history. And I think this is what makes them so popular and accessible for mainstream readers who may be interested in modern or historical fiction too. Indeed, indelible marks of medieval France and England and Renaissance Italy are all over these tomes and despite their being dragons and other fantasy themed beasts, A Song of Ice and Fire remarkably straddles genres and cannot be boxed into a corner. I know this isn’t at all scientific, but I’d offer up as two example of readers who don't enjoy fantasy but loves these books as my -- father and sister. Both have read portions of the larger saga but are not at all interested in overtly fantasy titles like The Lord of the Rings no matter how much I tell him they should be. Each chapter is divided not by numbers but by the principal character which it discusses which also makes the book more manageable. Of course, because there is so much "history" to the book, and I do recommend having a tablet computer or map close to get a better sense of what is going on. George R.R. Martin is a remarkable world-builder and sometimes this is the most daunting part of the books!    

Image of the Iron Throne from the hit HBO program Game of Thrones. Image from HBO's website.
In recent years A Song of Ice and Fire has exploded onto other mediums, most notably the highly popular HBO television program Game of Thrones. This show which recently entered its fourth season in April 2014 has exposed the source material to legions of fans who might otherwise may have missed it in the late 90s. Evidence of this is the fact that A Game of Thrones made it onto the New York Bestseller list in 2011 – 15 years after its original publication. Game of Thrones has proven popular across a number of key demographics and has increased viewership for its premier episode each year going forward, with women also making up a significant portion of its audience.  Less scientifically, it has also been the source of a number of Twitter trends and been cause of a number of pop-culture, perhaps most significantly the (in)famous "Red Wedding" which occurred in the penultimate episode of the third season in 2013. A Song of Ice and Fire has also spawned comic books, video games and a number of time wasting online activities, my favourite being linked here.

On the whole A Song of Ice and Fire is a very good read. They’re long books and take time for average-speed readers like you humble blogger. But they’re worth it and watching the characters and geopolitics unfold is a truely enjoyable experience. So if you've seen the HBO show but have yet to read the source material, I highly recommend you give these books a shot. They may be Nebula runners-ups, but they're all fantastically good books regardless!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

WGTB Reviews Morrissey's Biography

Morrissey has long been one of the most polarizing figures in alternative/indie music: at least that's the sentiment I've encountered over the years of being a fan of both him and the Smiths. I remember one day decades ago, humming "Everyday is like Sunday" in my elementary school classroom when the most popular girl in school walked by and snarkily remarked: "You like Morrissey? He's terrible." I was mortified: this type of thing could have really limit my social standing! It didn't, of course, but it would only dawn on me years later that if <name> could recognize my inaudible humming she must have been a fan herself! A year later when I arrived at high school it was like a falsetto breath of fresh air. Away from my hick town were legions of Smiths fans -- and after this almost everyday I could be seen sporting a Morrissey or Smiths t-shirt under my school uniform. Being a fan of Moz became a 24/7 thing!

Biography, Morrissey, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013, pp. 459, US$30.00 C$34.95
So when Morrissey finally published a biography, I knew it was something that needed to be read. The book arrived here in North America a few months after its release in the UK, which is the reason for this relatively late review. The writing straddles between prose and poetry and reading Biography is in many ways like reading one long Morrissey song. (The text is even punctuated by an intermittent smattering of his remarkable and memorable lyrics.) Reading a 400 page song does take some time getting used to, but once one gets the hang of it, the book picks up and is easy to get through. An oddity that also takes some getting used to is that the book is devoid of chapters to assist the reader through the process. But like the tone, once the first 50 or so pages are read, it becomes somewhat normal.

But the book is so much more than its stylistic presentation and it's fascinating to see the world through the eyes of Morrissey. Biography starts with Morrissey's familial history: from his Irish roots to what can only be described as an upbringing in a very bleak mid 20th century Manchester.  From here it's onward to the certain hell that was his schooling experience and then his early career as a music fan. Along the way we learn interesting and mind-bending facts such as him being interviewed for a job in Denver, Colorado during a long-term visit (Imagine Morrissey as an American!) We also learn of his well known affection for the New York Dolls and his first hand experience with the Mancunian and early UK punk rock scene. All of these experiences clarify and explain lyrics like the Smiths' "Headmaster Ritual" or "Paint a Vulgar Picture" and later solo tracks like "Bengali in Platforms". If Morrissey experienced an injustice or oddity in his early years, he wrote about it during his peak and this has made for some of music's most remarkable lyrics.  

As someone who is legally inclined, the most interesting aspect of Biography was Morrissey's handling of the trial Royce v Morrissey & Others which was heard in the late 1990s. Here Morrissey saves serious scorn for the English legal system in general and Deputy Judge Weeks Q.C. and the Smiths drummer Mike Joyce in particular. In this legal case Joyce sought more than his originally allotted percentage of recording royalties and in Morrissey's opinion presented himself as a hapless and uninformed victim to win his case. This portion is obviously written from the perspective of someone who lost a significant amount of money as a result, but Morrissey's insights into England's justice system is very astute and not to be missed.  

Your humble reviewer with the ubiquitous Morrissey t-shirt on under his school uniform. This was uploaded from Facebook so the photographer is unknown.  
Biography is a good book. At times it drags and much of the latter portion is spent discussing Morrissey’s late 2000’s tours to a degree that is unnecessary. But that aside, the book contains the essence of who Morrissey is and although I've never conversed with him myself, this is how I would imagine him speaking. He is candid about the politics that has often found its way into his songs, his detestation of the monarchy and, naturally, the strident veganism of which he has long been a proponent. His personal relationships are also discussed, but very much in the not in the over-the-top way that so many have speculated about over the years and that was fine with this writer. I’ve never felt Morrissey's personal life was much of my business anyway.

And along the way we learn some very cool things. For example, did you know Moz was offered a cameo on Friends? He was to play Phoebe's weird boyfriend. Or that he was nearly kidnapped while being driven home after a gig in Mexico? These are only small aspects of the fascinating life of Steven Patrick Morrissey as he tells it in his own words. Of course, fans of our protagonist may approach this book hoping for an answer to the longstanding question: will the Smiths ever get back together? Well, Biography gives you the unfortunate truth that the damage done in that London courtroom is almost certainly irreparable. But this disheartening news aside, it's an enjoyable book and will be enjoyed by both fans indie rock, Moz and popular culture alike. 4/5 STARS