Waking up early to drive from Seattle to Portland made us here at Successless drowsy and a bit irritable. Rolling into town around 10:30 am, we hustled to the Lloyd Center Doubletree just in time to see one of our favorite artists. Nicholas Gurewitch, creator of Perry Bible Fellowship, seemed as low energy as we were. His thoughtful, drowsy way of fielding questions from the crowd (including Scott McCloud) while noshing on a bagel made me happy that we were easing into the festival spirit with the low energy panel. That is, until he dropped some nuggets of genius onto the unsuspecting cloud.
Did you know that the secret to Gurewitch’s success is a robot manufactured with the help of an engineer? This robot does all the hard work - coming up with the art style of the strip, the biting humor, and the beautiful lettering? Yeah, neither did I.
The dial below the slot is key to balancing the distinctive comedy/tragedy tone to his comics. The phone is what he picks up to relay three key ideas he wants in his comic (like pigs, chicken, sex). To illustrate the danger in mis-calibrating this balance, he set the tragedy dial to high and out popped Watchmen.
And finally, one last piece of advice from a brilliant cartoonist:
There you have it ladies and gentlemen - the tale of worldwide success, of how to become syndicated print darling, and how to piss off Hasbro (who sent a cease and desist letter because of the likeness of the cover to Candyland) .
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A recent livejournal post by Bryan Lee O’Malley led me to check out the manga series Gantz, by Oku Hiroya, recently. Dark Horse is set to start publishing the series this summer, but the 250+ chapters that have appeared so far in Japan are available as scanlations for the impatient. O’Malley’s description reminded me a little bit of Battle Royale, and it sounded like it was worth checking out.
I spent the next several nights reading multiple chapters per night, intrigued, impressed, horrified, and disappointed at times.
The concept of the series is this: an assortment of people who have just died, suddenly find themselves alive again, sitting in an unfurnished apartment overlooking Tokyo. The only other thing in the room is a mysterious black ball, Gantz, which soon starts issuing forth orders. Their mission? To use weapons and combat suits (provided by the ball) to engage in a hunt for aliens in the city. If they survive, they can return to their lives…until the ball decides to bring them back to do it all over again.
The natural first reaction is confusion and disbelief, but the unwilling participants soon find that this game is deadly serious.
Like Battle Royale, Gantz uses the hyper-violent and fantastic narrative framework as a way to explore the moral and ethical choices of the characters. Do you let the other players in the game die to further your own survival? Do you put your life on the line to ensure the survival of others? Do you act out of altruism, self-interest, sadism, or fear? The hunts also come to represent exaggerated versions of the struggles in the “normal” lives of the protagonists. The central character, Kei Kurono, comes to anticipate the hunts as a way to feel a sense of self-worth, recognition, and accomplishment, in contrast to his undistinguished life as a middle school underacheiver. Masaru Kato, Kei’s former schoolmate, fights to protect those around him, the same way he fights to be a guardian for his younger brother.
Apart from the long, nuanced character arcs and copious gory action, there’s a sense of mystery to Gantz that keeps you hooked, at least for a while. Circumstances arise and the characters are forced to accept them and fight before they can try to rationalize or understand their situation. There are questions right from the start. What is Gantz? Why and how does it gather these people, and why and how does it transport them around Tokyo at it’s whim? Are these aliens real, and do they deserve to be killed? Why are the hunters and aliens invisible to the world at large during the hunt? Is there an end to this sadistic game? Answers come slowly, and each one only leads to more questions.
Despite the interesting subtext, Gantz is seinen manga at it’s heart, characterized by flashy battles, gallons of blood, and gratuitous nudity to appeal to its teenage male audience. The stakes of the game keep climbing, and the body count follows suit, as each chapter tries to top the last for outrageous violence. This is Gantz’s downfall, in my opinion. The central mystery takes a backseat, and becomes simply an excuse for increasingly sociopathic outbursts by the nominal protagonists, outbursts that spill over into the “real” Tokyo between hunts, at one point including a cold-blooded massacre of innocent civilians.
At some point, there’s a sense that Hiroya has stretched himself too thin. New elements are introduced to the story seemingly out of nowhere, and only serve to detract from the human focus of the first few story arcs. Psychic powers and vampires show up with no warning, reducing the contrast between the day to day reality and the supernatural scenes. Every chapter tries harder to push the envelope of violence and depravity. What started out as a way of exploring the human conscience becomes a series of brutal bloodlettings.
There could be something interesting to say about the resignation and acceptance of these circumstances by the characters. Gantz could work as a metaphor for war, for the increasing callousness of modern society, for the inundation of ultraviolent media, but in its race to keep the readers adrenaline levels pushed to the limit, it loses the provocative subtext. The latest chapters are adolescent power fantasy (which has been an element all along), with only lip service paid to the idea of right and responsibility.
It’s worth reading, if you’re the type of reader who can stomach over-the-top gory violence, but it’s also worth stopping at some point. Sadly, it looks like some of the most interesting ideas the series originally explored have fallen by the wayside.
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