From now through the end of summer is going to be a busy time for Clan Isabella, the bookends being my son Eddie's graduation in June and his starting at The Ohio State University (in their honors engineering program) in the fall. This proud papa family stuff is the reason I'm not attending the 6th Annual East Coast Black Age of Comics Convention, Friday, May 18, and Saturday, May 19, on the Temple University campus. I was at last year's con and, of all the comics events I've attended, it was one of the most positive and uplifting experiences of them all.
This year's guests include Dwayne McDuffie, one of the finest writers in comics; the delightful Nell "Fat Momma" Wilson from the Sci-Fi Channel's Who Wants To Be a Superhero; the incredible Kyle Baker of Nat Turner and Plastic Man fame; writer and publisher Alex Simmons; renown comics historian William Foster; and many others. A highlight of the event will be the presentation of the 2006 Glyph Comics Awards, honoring the best in comic works by, about, and for people of color. If you're interested in these comics, and especially if you're involved in the creation of such works, you need to go to ECBACC. It's more than a convention; it's an inspiration. For more details, go to:
The tagline on the front - "from Japan's master of suspense" - isn't hyperbole. Nor is the implied comparison with Alfred Hitchcock. Monster, set in modern day Germany, is in the same league as the top rank of Hitchcock's work. From the first panel, author/artist Naoki Urasawa displays the uncanny skill and assurance of a master operating at the peak of his craft. That he has a firm grasp of the basics of great suspense is instantly apparent. He begins with two compelling lead characters, one Japanese and the other German. They are Dr. Kenzo Tenma, a gifted and compassionate healer and law student Nina Fortner, a bright, cheerful, overachiever. Both start out, as in the best of Hitchcock, leading fairly ordinary lives. Their feelings, thoughts, and aspirations are recognizably human and each comes across as a distinctive individual. Indeed, Urasawa, demonstrates a remarkable talent for characterization, investing even supporting characters appearing in only two or three panels with color and individuality. A rumpled newshound, a kindly gardener, and a traumatized little girl are only a few members of the memorable gallery he creates.
Underneath the apparent normality of the protagonists' lives is a dark secret that links the two with a coolly ruthless serial killer named Johan, the monster of the title. Urasawa reveals just how heartless and dangerous this person is through a slowly accelerating and wholly remorseless buildup of details and actions culminating in an horrific crime. Hints that Johan is a product of a still active dark conspiracy with connections in the government and police abound. Urasawa, to his credit, does not use this villain's acts as an excuse to splatter the pages with blood the way a slasher movie director would the motion picture screen. Instead, he conveys the horror of them by showing the emotional damage inflicted on the victim's loved ones and on decent people who witness the results. There is a fair amount of violence, but none of it is gratuitous. The older teens rating is about right.
Another area in which Urasawa excels is his use of the modern day German background which comes across as credible, especially in his consistent characterization of Germans as three dimensional human beings rather than as militarist stereotypes. His settings - Heidelberg University, a newspaper office, a private home - come across as convincing. This achievement comes in handy in volume 4 for placing the neo-Nazi supporting villains in the context of a wider German society of which they are not typical. In this installment, Urasawa demonstrates a Woolrichian talent for race against the clock suspense as Nina Fortner and Dr. Tenma desperately try to prevent a neo-Nazi attack on a Turkish immigrant neighborhood. In sum, Monster is a nearly seamless mesh of nail-biting plotting, convincing characterization, and vivid visual storytelling. To carry out the last of these elements, Urasawa employs a clean, clear, economical drawing style that keeps cartoonish-ness to a minimum in a manner reminiscent of Joe Staton's rougher but equally effective style in his brilliant run on The Huntress. My only reservation is that the minimal descriptions of plot and characters on the backs of the books may not be enough in succeeding volumes to cue readers in to what has gone before. This series is one that is best read from beginning to end rather than joined in medias res. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this superior manga to all mystery/suspense lovers and confidently predict that it will go down as a classic of the genre.
My thanks to my pal Billy Ash for his fine guest review. I'm going to be running more guest reviews - and commentaries - in the future, the better to keep new TOTs coming your way Monday through Friday. From time to time, I'll be offering free books and comics to potential contributors. These will be offered on a first come, first gets the swag basis with the announcements appearing only on my message board:
That's also the place to go for the most up-to-date "Isabella News" and some of the best fun and conversation on the internets. Feel free to visit anytime; it's always open.
COMICS IN THE COMICS
We're going way back in the files for today's "Comics in the Comics" goodies. From June 18 and June 30 of 2006, we have two of Dave Whamond's Reality Check panels. From June 25, we have a Sally Forth strip by Francesco Marciuliano. From June 27, Tom Wilson's Ziggy has a house guest who is not seen but is well known to afficionados of classic comic strips.
Watch for more "Comics in the Comics" in future TOTs.
That's all for now. If you haven't yet voted on last week's Tony Polls questions, they will remain active until sometime after midnight tonight. You can cast your ballots at:
ZERO: Burn your money before buying any comic receiving this rating. It doesn't *necessarily* mean there's absolutely nothing of value here - though it *could* - but whatever value it might possess shrinks into insignificance before its overall awfulness.
ONE: Buy something else. Maybe I found something which wasn't completely dreadful in the item, but not enough for me to recommend it when there are better comics available. I only want what's best for you, my children.
TWO: Basic judgment call. I found some value, but not enough to recommend it. My review should give you enough info to decide if you want to take a chance on it. Are you feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are you?
THREE: This denotes something I find perfectly respectable. There are better books out there, but I wouldn't regret buying this item. Based on my review, you should be able to determine if it's of interest to you. Let the Force guide you.
FOUR: I recommend anything earning this rating. Unless you don't like the genre, subject matter, or past work of the creators, I believe you'll enjoy this item. Isn't it uncanny how I can look right into your soul that way?
FIVE: Anything getting this rating is among the best comicdom has to offer. You should buy/read this, even if the genre/subject matter doesn't appeal to you. It's for your own good. Me, I live for comics and books this good...but not in a pathetic "Comic-Book Guy" sort of way.
Please send material you would like me to review to: