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Shortcomings is neither fast-nor-slow-moving. Surprisingly for a graphic novel, it moves almost entirely in real time, or at least as close to that as sequential art can manage. It reminds me of those documentary-style comedy shows that seem to be popular right now, except the only genre it really fits into is general slice-of-life. This doesn’t make it in any way boring; part of the fun in reading Shortcomings is seeing how well it imitates everyday life. Even the characters are weirdly close to real life. Their petty sides are never glossed over, especially when it comes to Ben Tanaka, the protagonist. He’s not a completely awful person, but he does have many shortcomings, and he goes back and forth between submitting to them and trying to keep them under control, with little sign of change. He constantly gets into arguments with his girlfriend, and when she moves to New York he ends up acting on his attraction to other women. The other characters at least come across as a little better than him, but then again they aren’t the main focus, and it’s obvious that they have their own flaws, too.

Usually, you need to have at least one sympathetic character for a story to be readable, but the characters here were so realistic that it didn’t matter so much. (The short length also helped with this.) They’re not the most engaging characters in the world, but they’re still worth reading about. Unfortunately, a few of them were way too trendy for my taste. I’m not a fan of trendiness, because it takes beauty and turns it into something shallow. Stuff like the rebellious artist girl and the coffee shop scenes came across as a deliberate attempt to make the comic seem cool. This is a shame since, if you ignore the hollow, trendy moments, Shortcomings is genuinely pretty to look at. Adrian Tomine’s drawing style is clean and simple, with plenty of clear lines and white space. I love how there are no blurry shadows in Shortcomings; instead, they’re all made either with hatching or solid blocks of darkness. A world where everything is slim, elegant and simple appeals so much to my sense of aesthetics, to the point where I sometimes want to step into it for a little while. Tomine’s art is also effective from a storytelling point of view. The first page actually shows scenes from a (rather trite) film Ben is watching, which you don’t realise until the “camera” (or in other words, the panels) pan out to reveal this. It’s a clever trick, and shows what you can do with the medium, even in one that sticks as closely to the established comic strip format as this one. I also like how there aren’t any page breaks between scenes- it adds to the real time feel. 4/5.

 

Since short stories are generally rather short (because they are stories), it’s hard to write about them without acknowledging the ending. (Unless they don’t really have one.) So this post will contain spoilers.

After listening to the apocalypse-themed fifth episode of Adam Whybray’s radio show, I started thinking about the end of the world. It reminded me of a story I had to read for my Creative Writing course- The Nine Billion Names of God, by Arthur C. Clarke. Every week, our lecturer would give us one or two stories to read. This one was among my favourites, though I’m not sure if everybody else in the class liked it so much. Like with some of Philip K. Dick’s stories, it was mostly concerned with ideas, leaving its other aspects slightly neglected. The idea itself was brilliant, but there wasn’t much atmosphere to back that up, and it wasn’t that emotionally engaging. And yet, I did get a feeling of weariness from it. Both of the scientists wanted it all to be over, and it seems like their wish was granted, in the most literal of ways. Maybe it wasn’t just their job they were tired with, but everything.

The end of this story changes everything with one poignant, ambiguous image. Despite (or more likely, because of) the implied apocalypse, I found it rather comforting. All of the stars in the sky go out. It’s a pretty quiet way for the end of the world to begin. Our lecturer described it as kind of like somebody turning out all the lights. There’s something secure about that. It’s  similar to the sense of inexplicable cosiness you get from Eraserhead or Simon Hanselmann’s comics. If anything, you should be feeling discomfort, but you can’t help but want to live inside of that small universe. The Nine Billion Names of God isn’t as soothing as ray Bradbury’s wonderful The Last Night of the World, but it comes close. It’s a story that has mixed emotions to it, and relies on more than just an idea.

KatieJane Garside is the sort of person who often gets idealised. Like many other wonderful artists, her work is so beautiful that it can be painful to picture her as just another human. She’s never hidden her vulnerability, but the way she presents it is so inhuman. Her disheveled appearance combined with erratic behaviour that veers from chaotic to subdued is something that a lot of her fans can probably relate to. We can see a more romanticised version of ourselves in her, and so we don’t like to think of her possessing the same smaller, negative traits that most of us have. (I feel the same way about Richard Brautigan.) While it’s nice that she has so many devoted (and well-deserved) fans, idealising her like this is still unfair. Acknowledging that she probably has the same everyday failings as the rest of us doesn’t tarnish the beauty of her songs. It’s still possible for them to be as otherworldly as ever.

Today was KatieJane Garside’s birthday, and I would like to celebrate her as a human being who is capable of creating things that are strange and delicate, just like herself. In the past, she’s been a member of both the brilliantly-named Daisy Chainsaw and QueenAdreena, and currently makes up one half of the folk noir band Ruby Throat. She’s been compared to such wonderful people as Kate Bush, PJ Harvey and Lydia Lunch, but I think she manages to surpass them all. (Which is no mean feat.) Currently, she is sailing around in some nonspecific location on a boat with her husband, which my mother thinks is very romantic.

Originally posted on Papier Haché:

Being transgender, is, in pretty basic terms, a never-ending quest to assert and affirm the right to define oneself on one’s own terms in a world very intent on preventing one from doing so.  It’s an emphatic denial of the identities thrust upon us by a society that defines us by our adherence to socially prescribed norms.  For people who dare to defy these norms and refuse to be defined by an oppressive society, the punishment is , in turn, that same society attempting to define you by your deviance.  As you can imagine, this is both exhausting and dehumanizing, and our society doesn’t take very kindly to defiance.

Last night I was thinking about some of these things after a search of the word “transgender” on twitter.  I made note of the fact that the word transgender is used as a noun with a depressingly high rate of frequency…

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Drink Me

After falling down the rabbit-hole, Alice finds herself in a strange hallway. It’s one of my favourite scenes from the book. The atmosphere is perfectly dreamlike. We don’t know who made the hall or who it belongs to. It isn’t ever revealed where this hallway is located, either. All we know is that it’s somewhere underground. Alice never leaves the building. In all the logic of a dream, she grows, shrinks, finds herself submerged in a pool of tears (which happens to be her own invention) and then swims around a bit until she reaches the shore. Thinking about it too much can be disorientating. Despite (or maybe because of) the book’s episodic structure, Wonderland is a fairly complex place.

The reason Alice wants to shrink  is to get into the garden, the door to which is too small for her to go through. (The door itself is hidden behind a curtain- which provides us with one of my favourite illustrations from the book.) It’s particularly frustrating because she does have the key to the garden- she just doesn’t have the means of shutting herself up like a telescope. However, upon returning to the glass table where she found the key, Alice discovers a tiny bottle with a label around its neck that reads “DRINK ME“. After checking to see that it isn’t poison (which, according to The Annotated Alice, is Carroll poking fun at the rather grim moral tales that children of the time often had to make do with), Alice does as the label suggests, and discovers that it has “a sort of mixed flavour of cherry tart, custard, pine-apple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot-buttered toast.” I’ve always wanted to try this drink. The mixture is a curious one, but it sounds like it could actually work. I think that the drink’s taste would actually be quite a subtle one. Rather than tasting all of the flavours at once, you’d be able to taste elements of them in it, or maybe it all depends on which part of your tongue it touches.

 

The drink causes her to shrink. Unfortunately for Alice, she has left the key on the table, which is impossible to climb. With the help of a cake, she grows again…but this time, she grows too large. (Carroll is adept at capturing the frustrating mood of those dreams where you desperately need to do something, but find a million obstacles in your way.) It’s only by the eighth chapter that Alice finally gets to enter the garden. It makes a lot of sense that all of Jan Svankmajer’s adaptation is set inside of a house, because Wonderland appears to be totally indoors. I love how the constant shifting in sizes and perspective mixes everything up, just so we can take this for granted, and I love the idea of a garden being hidden inside of a building. I’m not sure how much of this is intentional, but it works well.

I’m usually not a big fan of, um…bedroom scenes. Even otherwise expert writers are inept at them. It’s like they suddenly lose all of their self-restraint, and for a chapter or two allow themselves to be as sleazy, explicit and exploitative as they want. I don’t like how a beautiful story can end up turning into an adolescent daydream. It’s not that I don’t ever read about…the sort of thing that goes on in bedrooms, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’d much rather read about love. One of my favourite books, Vurt, has a scene where two characters sleep together. They don’t get up to any funny business; they just sleep together. It’s true that, in the context of the book, it was mostly platonic, but that’s the sort of thing I want to read about couples doing together. (And when you have to write about the other thing, subtle hints work much better than saying it outright.) So, it’s rare that I can genuinely enjoy a book/comic/film that contains explicit material. Itoshi No Kana is one of those exceptions.

http://www.tcct.zaq.ne.jp/yutakatanaka/kana/kana1cover.jpg

Stories about falling in love with a ghost are nothing new, but Itoshi No Kana is good enough for that not to matter. (I’m going to refer to it by its Japanese title, because the English one makes me think of Father Ted.) And, unlike most ghostly romances, there’s nothing morbid about it, focusing more on Kana’s everyday (after)life in the present, rather than on her death and the past. Slice of Life and Fantasy is one of my favourite genre combinations, and this is one of the best of them. There is a large amount of wish-fulfillment to the manga, but not escapism. (At least not escapism of the dangerous kind.) It’s sweet and light, and while there are a few saccharine moments, the manga mostly keeps things understated. It’s the sort of story I want to live inside. Kana and Daikichi live together in an otherwise empty apartment building next to a cherry blossom tree. Both of them have had unhappy pasts, but they’re still content, taking pleasure in ordinary things like watching TV, wandering about the city, drinking beer and making love. The atmosphere is similar to that of a Haruki Murakami novel, and at times the artwork reminds me of Bill Watterson’s.

Unfortunately, being a manga, it will probably never get the recognition it deserves. Because it contains some pretty adult content, I’m sure that many would dismiss it as yet another fanservice-heavy piece of smut. People like that couldn’t be more wrong, though. Just because smutty manga exists doesn’t mean that manga can’t focus on…that sort of thing in a less creepy way. Imagine how ridiculous it would be to make the same assumptions about other mediums, like film or literature. In fact, Itoshi No Kana deals with it in a much better way than some more respectable works of art. Consider Betty Blue or A Sentimental Novel. Both have their merits, but I can’t help but cringe at how sex is portrayed in them. (A Sentimental Novel is particularly disappointing, as Alain Robbe-Grillet is otherwise one of my favourite authors.) Itoshi No Kana can get explicit, but not exploitative. Kana is objectified, unfortunately, which is a pretty big flaw, but at least not to the extent of many other female characters. Tanaka Yutaka enough time to actually telling a good story and developing his characters, making Kana’s relationship with Daikichi a healthy one. There’s nothing excessive or violent about it. Neither of them hurt each other or force each other into anything. When they do engage in you-know-what, it’s depicted as a simple pleasure that both enjoy, like eating an ice-cream cone. I still would have preferred it without those bits, but I guess if that sort of thing has to exist, people should follow by Yutaka’s example.

 Itoshi No Kana is a gentle depiction of urban beauty, without a trace of nastiness. I would have preferred if Kana herself had been less idealised (so far I’ve never come across a totally average romance with a totally average girl), but it’s still refreshingly good. The story shows signs of weakness in volume three with the introduction of a new, unnecessary character (a single volume would have stood perfectly well on its own), but even that is a joy to read. It’s soft and quiet, and really, really nice. 4/5.

 

Review: Hot Head

In order for me to really enjoy a book, it needs to have a good cover. If an otherwise good novel has an ugly cover, it puts everything askew. Hot Head has some of the best cover art I’ve ever seen, with a prose style that matches it well. When I noticed it in the shop, I had to take a look at it, and luckily it seemed promising. My first impression was that it seemed to be marketed as a cross between William Gibson and China Mieville. That assumption turned out to be not too far off. Simon Ings isn’t yet as polished a writer as either of them, but he does combine the stylised, intelligent cyberpunk of the former with the visual hyperbole and New Weirdness of the latter.

The first few chapters aren’t that interesting, and don’t serve for much except establishing the setting. It’s in these that another similarity with China Mieville can be seen, though it’s one that I don’t care for. Ings is a socially conscious writer, and this part of the novel focuses mostly on politics, the environment and so on. I don’t feel that this kind of thing has much of a place in art, or at least it shouldn’t be the main focus. The writing ends up becoming much too functional for me when that happens, though thankfully Ings never tries to make a statement about anything, instead just acknowledging that all of this stuff exists in order to craft a plausible future in which the story can take place. While it is heavy-handed, what he writes here is all believable, and a combination of speculation and believability is a large part of what Science Fiction is all about. It also creates an interesting effect when we do get on to the main plot; while the introductory chapters dealt with Malise, the protagonist’s, childhood in a realistic future society, the rest of the book plunges us into far stranger world she inhabits as an adult.

The remainder of this book is well-written, but dense with information. I’m bad at both following and writing plots, so for most of the final third I found myself completely lost. Maybe this won’t be as much of a problem for most people, but I’ll definitely benefit from re-reading it sometime in the future. Hot Head is packed with ideas, but so many that your brain could end up feeling overloaded. Ings jumps from plot to plot so often that it can become disorientating. Like Mieville, he seems to enjoy handling as many as he can simultaneously, culminating in a glorious but confusing Gainax ending. Hot Head is saturated with ideas, but doesn’t have the space to devote enough time to all of them. (Then again, most people are a lot smarter than me, and know a lot more about technology, so maybe I’m the only one who couldn’t follow it.)

 

When reading, I focus more on prose and atmosphere than plots, and in these two areas it certainly excelled. It brings together the coldness of both computers and space, and when it comes to the latter Ings’ writing becomes delirious and overwhelming. Any confusion is welcomed when it comes to Jupiter, or the Moonwolf, where it’s probably best to just surrender to the weirdness. The virtual world created by Foley in which Malise spends a good portion of time is also well-written, though on a more human scale, and being modeled on the past it allows for a break from a world that seems warped by development. Malise’s relationships with characters, such as the photophobic Snow and her early lover Seval, are intriguing though unfortunately not explored far enough to be truly engaging. (Everything happens quite fast in Malise’s world.)

Hot Head may have confused me, but I still loved it. I got the feeling that something important was being said, even if I couldn’t figure out what (yet). Ings goes as far as he can with his ideas, and doesn’t rely too much on the conventions of the genre. While what he attempts with this book don’t always succeed in some ways, they do in others. There’s even a little bit of meta-fiction near the end that works out quite nicely. It needed a lot more editing, but Ings’ writing shows a lot of potential.

 

 

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