Editorial, Not Manga

Thoughts on Paying For It, and Chester Brown’s Polemic

My comics reading this week was confined to a few select books, but the most interesting, and perhaps controversial of these books is Chester Brown’s Paying For It, an autobiographical comic dealing with his life as a john (person who hires prostitutes). Paying For It is both a work of art, and a polemic, arguing that romantic love is a flawed societal norm that results in pain and suffering and the “monogamous possession” in marriage and relationships is inherently evil while concurrently trumpeting the truth and beauty of paid-sex relationships. These arguments are political in nature; throughout the story, and also in a lengthy appendix, sets up straw man arguments in order to forcefully (and sometimes ineptly) knock them down.

The book is set up into two distinct parts; first, Brown’s cartooning work, and second, his appendices, where information regarding his opinions, arguments, and research can be found. While I find the former to be a fascinating look at a man turning 40, saddled with personal disappointment in relationships and his conversion into a john, I find the later part to be largely detrimental to the composite whole.

Brown’s initial argument that prostitution should be decriminalized and not regulated is founded in libertarian ideology, and is pragmatic, and fairly solid reasoning. His points regarding the evils of romantic love, as succinctly argues, are:

“more of a personal exorcism than a universal truth, but more specific arguments also grate against lived experience. Readers with any knowledge of substance abuse, for example, may find themselves mystified by Brown’s assertion that dependency boils down to rational choice and has no physical symptoms (appendix 17).”

Other arguments are just as mystifying:

Brown writes with authoritarian energy, making statements as matter-of-fact that can only possibly come from a very certain moral and political belief system. It is his excessive posturing and defiance that leads the author to further argue his points in such a way as to make the entire discourse less of an argument for legalized prostitution and more of a browbeating for any person or group that disagrees with his notions of self, property, sexual liberty, and paid sex. Brown’s insistence that humans are always capable of dispassionate choice is often ridiculous when discussing sexuality. Certainly money is not the key driver of human relationships, nor can it truly create or mend significant personal closeness. Brown’s arguments are played too roughly from his own personal experience, and his assertions regarding pimping, sex-slavery, and coercion are naive at best, and often self-serving beyond believable limits.

These things being said, Brown’s comic, as a separate entity from his appendix diatribe, is actually quite interesting. Brown has an eye for panel composition, and he has distilled his cartooning into the very basics, each character carved as if from stone. Noah Berlatsky of The Hooded Utilitarian has some interesting points on how the perspective and distancing of Brown’s illustrations undercut his point that sex is both spiritual and joyful. I thought that this was particularly interesting, and I resonate with most of Berlatsky’s stated opinions of the illustration, but I am unsure as to whether or not the distance in these panels is intended to distance the reader from the sexual act, show how the act of sex eliminates the ordinary and the mundane, or just make the reader into some sort of voyeur.  The comics themselves are much more open to argument than his writings – his friends and fellow cartoonists argue about the morality and legality of prostitution, and the sex-workers themselves also assault Chester’s worldview. This is welcome, since most of the appendix is Brown being insufferable.

Clearly Paying For It is a complex book; its discussion is relevant, and it stands as a memoir of a life of a middle-aged man trying to find his way both emotionally and sexually. It also acts as a grand humanizer, despite its illogical arguments, of those involved in sex work. The book lends itself to rereading and discussion, which is a great characteristic for any type of written work. I am not a staunch fan of Chester Brown, but I believe that Paying For It was an enlightening reading experience because of all the great analysis and discussion surrounding the volume.

Recommended Reading:

There is quite a bit of discussion around the comics blogging part of the web, and I’m sure I didn’t collect all of them, but here are the discussions that I found particularly interesting or thought provoking.

A Chester Brown Notebook – Jeet Heer

DWYCK: Sacred and Profane Love

Slowly Paying For It: God and the Machine – Noah Berlatsky at the Hooded Utilitarian

Untitled Chester Brown Article – Matt Seneca

The Comics Reporter Review – Tom Spurgeon

NY Times Review – Dwight Garner

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Editorial

The 2010 Manga Widget Gift Guide

Continuing in the tradition of holiday gift giving, especially since some folks have already started to share gifts with friends and family, I have another addition to the list of manga gift guides that have been published this holiday season. Much like last year, I’m keeping most of my categories and picking out some new books for manga fans to try out.
But first – I will not be doing a “Best of” list this season – that list is this gift guide. The books I liked the best are the ones I will encourage you to buy. If you aren’t prepared to gift them, buy yourself a present with the gift card Aunt Sue got you. A good book is better than a Christmas sweater.

Manga Widget Notice: Please note that my list is inclusive of all series, books, and other media currently in and out of print – I did not want to limit myself to this year’s releases. Also know that this list represents my opinion, and not the golden guide to purchasing this season.

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Mainstream Comics fan

You’ve got someone on your list who loves The Fantastic Four or Watchmen, but hasn’t gotten into manga yet. Help them figure out what the manga craze is all about with a few of these seinen comics.

#1) Biomega, Vol. 1; Viz Media Sig IKKI: MSRP $12.99 – From the writer of the acclaimed action-thriller BLAME! comes Biomega, a series featuring a deadly virus that threatens to consume humanity, badass motorcycle stunts, a talking sniper bear, and some pretty spectacular graphics. Part of Viz Media’s Sig IKKI line, this book has an oversized format that is more akin to a normal comic book page size.

#2) DEMO; Vertigo Comics: MSRP $19.99 – Technically not manga, DEMO is what I like to give people before giving them a volume of manga. DEMO is a beautiful collection of short stories written by Brian Wood and illustrated by the extremely talented Becky Cloonan. One of the highlights to this series, besides the fact that it is awesome, is that it comes in black and white. Some comics readers need a transition, and DEMO can be an excellent one. Plus, it’s just good comics.

#3) Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service; Dark Horse Comics: MSRP $10.95 - Sometimes the dead need help to move on to the afterlife, and that’s the job of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service. Part Sooby Doo, part gristle, part Buddhist comedy, this is a series that defies traditional explanation and is a great book for those who like their humor a little dark.

#4) Gantz, Vol. 1; Dark Horse Comics: MSRP $10.95 – This made my list last year, and for good reason. This dark thriller combines super-human strength, erotic visuals, and some pretty fucked up imagery into an entertaining comics smash-fest. If Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service is the filet of manga, Gantz is certainly the junk food. Not for little kids, but if you’re buying for a 18+ friend, this is worth a shot.

One-Shot/Comix

While plenty of indie manga is published in Japan each year, not much of it makes it across the Pacific to be translated and published in the USA. The stuff that does eventually make it is a bit of a grab-bag, but there’s a lot out there to love.

#1) AX, Vol. 1, A Collection of Alternative Manga; Top Shelf MSRP $29.95 – From the obscure to the obscene, AX defies all conventions. As a collection, it has both the sublime and the bizarre contained between its covers, sometimes in the same stories. As a collection, it is almost 400 pages of indie manga, and it’s a pretty quick read.

#2) A Drifting Life; Drawn & Quarterly: MSRP $29.95 -The manga-style autobiography of one of the most influential manga writers, Yoshihiro Tatsumi. The man revolutionized manga in the 1950s by developing the gekiga style of manga – blunt, sometimes traumatic slice-of-life stories that explored the real lives of Japanese citizens after WWII, and the dark underbelly of the booming industrial power that it would become. A repeat from last year, but still a powerful book that deserves to be on every comics lover’s shelf.

#3) The Quest for the Missing Girl; Fanfare/Ponent Mon: MSRP $25.00 – Jiro Taniguchi is one of Japan’s best writers, known for his powerful stories and well-developed characters. Recent releases include A Distant Neighborhood, which has been released in two volumes. The Quest For The Missing Girl is a powerful, 300+ page one-shot that examines the power of guilt and pride on a backdrop of mountain climbing, and it’s perfect for anyone who likes a gripping suspense story.

Classics

These could be powerful manga from years past, or new work breaking out of the comics scene in Japan; either way, these comics are breathtaking and a must read for any manga fan.

#1) Pluto Vol. 1; Viz Media Sig IKKI: MSRP $12.99 – A repeat from last year’s gift guide, the last volume of Pluto, volume 8, was published at the beginning of 2010. Last year I said that Pluto was the series of 2009. Pluto, throughout its run, delivered a powerful and consistent message filled with excellent characterization and suspense, and may well be one of the best series published in 2010. The series is a true wonder, and a great gift for anyone who appreciates Astro Boy, or for anyone who likes a good

#2) Chobits Omnibus, Vol. 1; Dark Horse Comics: MSRP $24.95 – CLAMP is the one supergroup that has had its manga published by almost every publisher in the USA, but its recent releases have tended to be from Dark Horse. A reprint of the series that made its first Enlgish debut in 2002, this omnibus is a great chance to introduce fans of xxxHolic and Tsubasa to an older CLAMP title.

#3) Ayako; Vertical Publishing: MSRP $26.95 – Tezuka, the God of Manga, does it again with this creepy, realistic portrait of post-war Japan and the perversion of the Japanese family and its values. A beautiful book, and one of my favorite manga of 2010, Vertical has printed another of Tezuka’s powerful symbolic manga in a format that is both beautiful on the shelf, and while reading.

Foodie Manga

Everyone loves food, and mangaka love to write about it. Check out these picks for fun food-based manga.

#1) Not Love But Delicious Foods; Yen Press: MSRP $10.99 – Fumi Yoshinaga’s love letter to the Tokyo food scene, this manga gives readers a glimpse into the various places to eat around Tokyo. An excellent gift for someone looking to do a little overseas travelling this season, but also just a good read.

#2) Toriko; Viz Media: MSRP $9.99 – Viz loves to print its food manga, and this book is no exception. Toriko, unlike other food manga, is not just about the meals, but rather, what it takes to get the ingredients to make masterful cuisine. Zany with just the right amount of Pokemon-like “gotta catch ‘em all” to keep you entertained, this is the shonen food comic of the season.

#3) The Antique Bakery, Vol. 1; Digital Manga Publishing: MSRP $12.95 – A repeat from last year, Antique Bakery is a fun comic with a lot of spirit from the great Fumi Yoshinaga. Yoshinaga-sensei loves food, and this, along with  Featuring some of the best looking sweets ever illustrated, Fumi Yoshinaga’s Antique Bakery is part (gay) love triangle, part baking manga.

All Other Manga

Whether you’re into ninjas, love triangles, magic swords, or space travel, these manga are sure to please. I’ve picked a wide variety of books this year, so try something new this Christmas!

#1) Bunny Drop; Yen Press: MSRP $12.99 – Other reviewers have called this the humor-less Yotsuba&!, but it actually is a cute, realistic drama that watches a new adoptive father take over the care of his grandfather’s illegitimate daughter. Unlike Yotsuba&!, also published by Yen Press, this series is more suited to the serious reader, but its charm will win over even those just looking for a laugh.

#2) Arata The Legend; Viz Media Shonen Sunday: MSRP $9.99 – There are plenty of good shonen titles available for purchase this holiday season, but the best new shonen series in my opinion is from the famed Yuu Watase. It follows two different boys named Arata from different dimensions who have been transported in space and time, and now must face the problems the other had in their own dimension. A great fantasy series with a hint of The Labyrinth.

#3) Itazura na Kiss, Vol. 1; Digital Manga Publishing: MSRP $16.95 Itazura na Kiss is probably one of my favorite series in print right now, for multiple reasons. Seen as a sort of genesis for some of the shojo tropes that we’ve become accustomed to here in the US, Itazura na Kiss finally has made it to Western shores in an omnibus format, which is competitively priced and great reading.

#4) Twin Spica, Vol. 1; Vertical Inc: MSRP $10.95 – Of all the titles any manga fan should read this year, Twin Spica should be the one. It is both poignant and fun, and it manages to be heartfelt and interesting at the same time. Bonus points for being about space travel. Vertical has done a great job with the translation and the books look great.

#5) Cross Game, Vol. 1; Viz Media Shonen Sunday: MSRP $19.99 – While normally I’m not a huge fan of sports manga, Cross Game really won my heart this year with its slice of life storytelling and excellent character development.  A story about high-school baseball, Cross Game also examines the lives of a few young students as they grow and mature. Written by Mitsuru Adachi, one of the masters of manga, this 3-volume omnibus is both a good deal and a good read.

Well, that’s it for this year. Hope you find your friends (or yourself) some new manga this holiday season. Happy hunting!

 

EDIT: Apparently some of the links were not going to the right books. This has (hopefully) been fixed.

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