General

Au Revoir

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, Manga Widget has been fairly silent for the past year or so. There have been brief periods of activity, flurries of inspiration, but ultimately, I haven’t been updating the way I used to. 

The good news is that I still have a lot I want to write about – but I’m going to be doing it on a different platform. My new blog, Sequential State, is live, and I hope you’ll stop by. Expect more manga coverage, in addition to me talking about other comics stuff that I find interesting.

Thanks for making Manga Widget such a fun project for the past 5 years. I hope we’ll see each other again soon.

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Mini Review

Mini Review: Very Casual by Michael DeForge

Very CasualI’m trying to explore the world of indie comics a little more. To do so without reading the work of Michael DeForge would probably be a mistake.

Very Casual is a collection of short stories and illustrations by DeForge culled from minis and work he has been doing for a while. It is unmistakably weird and fascinating. Stories about a fake species of terrestrial slug that looks like a deer and about people that litter as a hobby are fun to read in their own right, but to my eyes, they appear to be thinly veiled allegory discussing the act of illustration and being a cartoonist. DeForge’s self-insertion is telling, but it’s something I like about the work. One of the shorter color pieces, the short story “Queen” takes a sidelong glance at the consequences of attempting to be beautiful. The art is lumpy, asymmetric, sometimes graphic; it draws you in when you don’t feel like you should be drawn.

None of this is truly transcendent, but it’s neat, and the illustration is top grade. One of the interesting things I see in Very Casual is humanity reflected back at the reader in a distorted mirror. We see the spongy, fleshy creations of DeForge. To some they are unsettling. To others they are beautiful. I think that resonates with the way we see other humans. We see the evil and the magnificent at the same time.We are repulsed and attracted.

You can find more of Michael DeForge’s work at his tumblr, King Trash. His first full length graphic novel, Ant Colony, will be published in hardcover by Drawn & Quarterly later this month. I’m looking forward to it.

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Review

Review: Sunny, Vol. 1

Sunny, Vol. 1Taiyo Matsumoto has a penchant for writing stories about children. Rough children, broken, eccentric children, but children all the same, with children’s hopes and dreams. And most importantly, children’s questions. This is the way Taiyo Matsumoto starts his latest comics work, Sunny, published under Viz’s Sig IKKI line. Not with panoramas, or images of the far-fetched, like his earlier works, Tekkonkinkreet and GoGo Monster, but with questions. The difference sets the tone for a series that looks at childhood from yet another perspective.

Sunny is about a group of kids living at the Star Children’s Home; in the way that each chapter asks a new question, each chapter is a different story, told from a different perspective, staring the same recurring cast of children. The connection is the home, a sort of foster agency/orphanage, and a prized vehicle on premise, an old, rusted out Datsun Sunny (Nissan Sentra) that the children nap, play, and dream in. For some, the Sunny is a place to escape, driving on the moon or playing outlaw like the brash, white-haired Harou. For others, it is a place to remember, driving back home to the family that abandoned you, like newcomer Sei.

sunny1Part of what makes Sunny so riveting is its true-to-life styling. Author Matsumoto is writing from experience as a child growing up in an orphanage. Perhaps partially a confessional, partially a re-imagining, or perhaps even a history, this book explores the real worries and the way children deal with those worries. The angers and quarrels of children living in close quarters are all there. Hogging toys and friends, worrying about relationships and four-leaf clovers, that is all out in the open, and so resonant. The underlying questions about why the children are at the home, where their parents are, why some children look forward to visitation days and others dread them, all dwell underneath the play and the boisterous energy. The combination creates a powerful melancholy that pervades the book.

Matsumoto’s sketchy, abstracted artwork is complemented by unique earth tones and the coloring work of his wife, Saho Tono. The mix of sketchiness and painterly aesthetic makes the whole book a joy to look at. The use of watercolor with Matsumoto’s usual art and powerful lines bring a depth to Sunny that shows how the artist has evolved since writing Number 5 and Tekkonkinkreet. The art conveys just the right amount of detail and energy, while still maintaining a reminiscent quality.

Slice of life has always been one of my favorite genres, but rarely does it get such a lovely treatment. Viz has taken cues from Yen Press and Vertical, and has published a deluxe hardcover for this series. The textured paper, the beautiful matte textured hardcover, make this book wonderful to both touch and read.

I can unreservedly recommend Sunny. This is Matsumoto writing from a place we haven’t seen before, despite using similar themes. Striking close to home with Sunny has led to some of his most expressive, most beautiful, most thought-provoking comics work yet. Sunny is a delight and worth the attention of any comics reader, regardless of  any previous experience with manga.

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Editorial

Lessons From the Crater Project

kansaiclubIn May of 2013, an indie publisher, Kansai Club Publishing, set in motion a Kickstarter project to fund the printing of a Tezuka classic, Crater. The critics community was pretty excited. We had seen the successful printing of Tezuka’s Barbara, so we knew it was possible. And Tezuka was the font from which a small, independent publisher could drink deeply. The publishing schedule was ambitious, and people were excited.

I was excited. And I, one of Kickstarter’s evangelists within the manga blogging community, was wrong.

Crater

The project hit a few “snags” and had a few revelations that pledgers weren’t expecting; and the initial budget request of $3500 was strange, if not comical.  At the time these things seemed quaint, a little odd, but not too concerning. In retrospect, these were serious issues that really needed to be addressed, but never were.

President/Publisher Andrew Nevo threw a few curve balls at us. By miscalculating the cost of shipping to non-US purchasers, by changing the size and quality of the books, and by adding “free” t-shirts to each order, he generated for himself numerous headaches. Kickstarter has always been about creating something, and Kickstarters that succeed have plans for 1) what is going to be offered, 2) how to make the thing, 3) how to ship that thing. By going off script, by winging it with updated bookbinding which increased the weight of the book and prevented the use of previously budgeted shipping, the project almost crashed and burned.

July 5th, 2013. The expected release date for Crater in the USA, at Florida Supercon. August 2013, the expected ship date for books. January 16th, 2014. Today’s date. Still no book. Part of creating a successful Kickstarter is building delays and setbacks into your production schedule. August, a mere two months after completion of the campaign, is certainly not enough time to get a book’s translation approved, to get it print, to get proofs, to approve proofs, to finalize print runs, to print books, to ship books to a warehouse, and to ship books to backers. It just wasn’t enough time, it never was enough time. I think many of us understood that, but I have a feeling that some folks were very disappointed when they didn’t get Tezuka manga in the mail in 2013.

I’ve been a backer for projects that have been delayed. I backed Ryan Andrews’ Nothing Is Forgotten, which was almost a year behind schedule. But Ryan was really cool about updating his backers with information about the cause of delays. Printer issues abounded. He went through multiple companies to get the right quality of book. He had to work with companies in Japan as a foreigner, which may have added to his difficulties. But every time he ran into an issue, he sent out an update.  I received 25 updates, and he was always available to talk on Twitter if you had questions.

Kansai, on the other hand, fell into radio silence in October 2013 and JUST updated backers in January 2014. Three months of no communication. The Facebook page and Twitter account which were extremely active during the course of the  campaign were abandoned shortly after completion of the project.

Part of what makes Kickstarter work is the connection between creator and backer. If those lines of communication go down, the backer feels isolated. They may gather other backers and start complaining. They might even report a project to Kickstarter. All of this happened with Crater.

What does this mean for future manga publishing projects on Kickstarter? While I know I’m going to be more wary of projects in the future, I think the biggest concern is how Tezuka Pro and other publishing companies will understand the issues associated with this campaign. Fumbles like this will make it substantially more difficult for publishers to bring other books to Kickstarter.

Backers need to be more wary of the people they entrust with their money. Known quantities have published books successfully, such as DMP. But as of now, the new guy should be scrutinized carefully.

The project needs to be outlined, budgeted, and any stretch goals need to be preplanned. Don’t play the game without knowing the rules.

The creator needs to communicate regularly.

And we, as backers, need to understand that Kickstarter isn’t a preorder system. You should only be using money to back projects that you can afford to lose. Projects can fail, even with best intentions. We still haven’t gotten Crater. We still might not.

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Review

Review: 7 Billion Needles, Vols. 1-4

7 Billion Needles, Vol. 4Manga routinely goes out of print, especially if the series didn’t do well financially, or if it comes from a small publisher. Such is the case with Nobuaki Tadano’s 7 Billion Needles, published by Vertical Inc. in 2010. The era was a languid one in manga publishing. Borders was on the edge of financial collapse due to its mishandling of digital infrastructure among other reasons. We were in the heart of the Great Recession. It wasn’t an easy time to be a book publisher, and it wasn’t a time where a lot of extra disposable income was readily available. It was a series that I enjoyed the first volume of, and then forgot about.

Luckily, Vertical has been making its back catalog available for purchase in Amazon’s Kindle ebook store. This is a great opportunity for those of us who missed the books the first time around, because purchasing a complete set could cost you as much as $70-80 used. That’s double retail. The problem is volumes 3 and 4, which had very short print runs. Thankfully, digital has no such problem. Edit: Ed Chavez at Vertical Inc. has informed me that all volumes of this series had at least two print runs. This means the price of those last two volumes is driven mostly by consumer demand and book availability to secondary booksellers. Thanks to Ed for pointing this info out.

7 Billion Needles, Vol 37 Billion Needles is the story of Hikaru Takabe, the “new girl” living with her aunt and uncle after the untimely death of her father. She’s wrapped up in the grieving process and has withdrawn into herself, pushing away family and classmates alike. When an intergalactic life form melds with her in order to stop an evil that has destroyed countless planets, she must confront her fears and fight for the survival of the life of her entire planet.

Clearly 7 Billion Needles takes a line out of Hal Clement’s sci-fi classic Needle, but while there are some similarities, Tadano melds the tropes of Needle with the body horror of Katsuhiro Otomo’s Akira and with classic teenage drama. The result is a heroine that wants reconciliation with her family and to make new friends, all the while battling for the survival of the planet in a world of grotesquerie.

Body horror is a key aspect of 7 Billion Needles.

Body horror is a key aspect of 7 Billion Needles.

The strengths of 7 Billion Needles lie in the illustrations of mutating and writhing flesh, but also in its sci-fi leanings. Early in the story, 7 Billion Needles questions the actual causes of evolution, and pushes you to think about how foreign sentient life forms would view our biologic diversity on Earth. The writing is smart, but doesn’t get too preachy, letting you take in the scenery as Hikaru tries to make the best decisions and protect the people she cares about. Furthermore, her struggles as a withdrawn person dealing with the death of her father and the loss and confusion of moving to a new home are very genuine.

I was really impressed with this comic. If you are a paper devotee, expect to spend plenty of cash on these four volumes. Digital copies are the complete opposite – the Kindle versions are quite affordable.

Sometimes, you miss out on a good thing the first time around. 7 Billion Needles is a reminder to take advantage of second chances.

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