Books

The Kingdom of the Gods – In-wan You, Eun-hee Kim & Kyung-il Yang

It seems a bit, well, off, to be discussing a zombie apocalypse story amongst the current COVID-19 pandemic, where over a third of the worlds population (at the time of writing) are in some kind of lockdown. But hey, thats where we’re at. The Kingdom of the Gods is the Manwha (Korean Manga) that the Netflix show Kingdom is based up. For clarities sake, I’ve not yet watched Kingdom, though it is on my watchlist, so I’ve gone into this totally blind.

The blurb for The Kingdom of the Gods tells us that Joseon has been plunged into a war, a young prince, Yi Moon, see’s all of his bodyguards slaughtered and has to rely on a hired mountain mercenary, Jae-Ha, to help him return home to Jiyulheon. The period feels like a feudal Japan era, but the mention of Joseon places that in a period of time prior to the formation of Korea, somewhere between the 14th and 19th Centuries, though bits all still in a fantasy setting.

The tale does some interesting things within the zombie genre, now these have all probably done elsewhere before, but In-Wan youn, Eun-hee Kim and Kyung-Il Yang have realised them exceptionally and made the whole thing highly coherent but to lay everything down here would spoil both the Manwha and (possibly) the TV show, but if you’re a fan of the genre, certainly give one or the other a chance.

It’s the artwork that really gives the setting life and led me down the path of trying to track down the history of this book, which seems to have been wrapped up in a webcomic (that’s also vanished so I’m not sure if this is the webcomic printed in a book) before the writer of that went on to write the Netflix show, even so, the artist Kyung-Il Yang has done some phenominal work here. Jae-Ha in particular is a stunninly realised character that looks and feels dangerous in the coolest way possible. Action sequences play out over several pages at times and it mixes the horror with gore and the pacing of something like the fights in the anime adaptation of Bleach absolutely perfectly.

What is unfortunate, however, is that it feels unfinished. The four chapters collected here absolutely fly by, especially with all the multi-page action sequences, and I’m not entirely sure if the story was ever continued after these four chapters were concluded but its left me wanting more and definetly now itching to watch the Netflix show. If it was indeed abandoned in favour of that I do hope that Viz can tempt the trio to return to it. Especially as, in order to flesh the book out, Viz have included an additional, slightly shorter story at the back of the book thats also pretty entertaining, but the main feature is worth picking this up for in itself.

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Asterix in Britain – René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo

When Close Encounters posted on the Books With Pictures Facebook group page that we were going to be reading an Asterix book, I’m not going to lie, I had two thoughts, the first was “but isn’t that a kids book”, then it was “wow, I’ve not read one of those since Year 8” and it was at that point I became genuinely excited to read it. You see I loved Asterix as a kid. I was never big into comics back then, but on visits to the library I’d always check if any Asterix books had been added to their kids section, usually though it was the same three or four titles, but it was those plus comic adaptations of Gerry Anderson’s Thunderbirds and Stingray that were my introduction to comic books. Friends would by the Dandy and Beano and I’d had a read of those, I’d also flick through them whilst waiting for my Dad to make his picks on library visits, but they never really grabbed me.

Then in Year 7 and 8 my form tutor, who happened to look like a cross between Henry VIII and Obelix, was also my languages teacher and in order to help us learn sentence structure for French he’d often photocopy pages from his French language editions of Asterix comics and give us panels to translate (as best as we could for students in one of the worst schools in that area), funnily enough, during that time, French was one of my strongest subjects. However I changed schools (to a much better school) for year 9, found myself behind on everything and I struggled with my French teachers teaching methods from then on, plus hormones intervened and she happened to be a very attractive blonde woman who had a preference for fitted blouses (hell, on a fundraising day she wore a French Maid’s outfit). My marks should have gone up, in hindsight, but, well, I was 13…

As you can imagine, once I picked up my copy of Asterix in Britain, I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, all of the above came flooding back to me. If I’d actually read this volume before then it didn’t feel like it, but my immediate reaction was delight at just how colourful and detailed each and every panel was. When compared to something from the big American comic houses in the 60s and even its competitors in the form of the Beano and Dandy, every panel is lovingly created and doesn’t feel like Albert Uderzo has skimped at all.

Characters are full of life, colour and detail, and I’m not just talking the key cast here, but side characters too are given plenty of attention. Of course these being caricatures there are things that tie them all together, every Englishman here has an extravagant moustache and prominent nose, but these make the artwork endearing more than anything else.

The story is full of amusing moments, culminating in a rather violent game of Rugby, though my favourite moment takes part towards the end of the book when the potion Asterix and Obelix had supposed to have provided for the British to help them fight off the Roman’s, actually ends up in a river, an unsuspecting angler thinks he’s caught a big fish, only for it to pull him off the banks of the river due to the added strength it has received from the Gaul’s special potion.

 

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

We3 – Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely

This month’s Books WITH Pictures pick was We3 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely through Vertigo. It’s a book I’ll honestly admit I’ve never even heard of so my expectations going in were all over the place, especially as I flicked through it on the bus home before I sat down to read through it properly.

First off, its not a very long book and there’s not a lot of text to absorb, instead Morrison provides the script to allow Quitely’s art to tell the story. A picture tells a thousand words and all that. That tale is one of three animals, a dog, a cat and a rabbit, that have been given cybernetic suits of armour that turn them into military weapons. After a senator visits the research facility that holds them and reveals to the staff there that the future for creatures is to have them decommissioned, one of the scientists (who happens to have closer bonds to animals than she does humans) engineers their escape and what follows is an ultra-violent version of Homeward Bound.

I mean there is dialogue, the humans obviously talk and the three animals have some very basic speech thanks to implants (the dog, referred to as 1, uses behaviour based commands that you and I would use to interact with him if he were our pet, so he responds to things like “good dog” and “home”), and its this sparse use of dialogue that really drives home the emotional aspect of the book, especially when 2 (the cat) asks “?HOME IS?” and 1 responds “HOME? IS RUN NO MORE”. This is driven home by the use of the original 3 issue run using Lost Pet posters as each of the three covers, all of which are replicated at the proper interval here, giving the 3 companions they’re true names whilst giving weight to the senators command that future projects will need to use animals specially bred for such purpose, so not only is “Bandit” (1, the dog) looking for a home, he already had one, as did  “Tinker” (2, the cat) and “Pirate” (3, the rabbit).

It’s not just the art itself that tells the story, throughout they use panels intelligently, this is most notable, in my opinion, in two particular sequences. The first is a 4 page series of panels where, rather than use the standard 9-panel format, the duo cram 12 panels onto each page, showing a variety of CCTV images that reveal the means of “Weapon 3″‘s escape. In another moment Tinker is on the offensive (and when that cat begins an attack there’s definitely only ever going to be one outcome, it’s one bad kitty) and the panels skew and contort giving the impression of a flicker book. There are other moments throughout that really play with the medium in this way and gives the action the kinetic energy that I’ve not often seen in western comics but certainly know from Manga (especially Shonen Manga). This point also applies to the level of gore on show, which at times reaches similar levels to that of Akira.

We3, as a whole, is something I’ve had to really think on, I’ve actually now read it twice and will probably read it again as I think the work that Quitely has put into the action element of the book is more likely to stand out as I return to it again and again and it’s for that reason I think I’d say I enjoyed it. The story itself is, I think, fairly easy to get to grips with and as I’ve mentioned, its hardly dialogue-heavy, but its definitely worth a go.

 

Books, Close Encounters Book Club

Akira Volume 1 – Katsuhiro Otomo

Way back in July I wrote about the reasons I was glad that the Hollywood movie of Akira had been put on hold (though it’s still in the works), this time out I’m taking a direct look at volume 1 of Katsuhiro Otomo’s manga as its the book we’ve discussed in “Books with Pictures” this month.

Despite Akira being one of my favourite stories, both from the collection of manga’s and the movie, I’m going to try and remain unbiased, it’ll be tough, but let’s see how it goes.

For those who have never read the manga nor watched the movie, the basic plot is as follows. Tetsuo Shima is a teenage boy, part of a biker gang in a post World War III Japan in the city of Neo-Tokyo. After being involved in an accident, Tetsuo develops psychokinetic powers and is then thrown into the centre of a political and military based human experiment. The leader of the gang Tetsuo belongs to, Kaneda, gets pulled into a political resistance group as he tries to find answers regarding what has happened to his friend.

Flicking from page to page, looking at each and every panel, its astounding the level of detail that Otomo has put into each and every image, take the second bike sequence for example. Every action in every panel is clear and concise, the energy flows through the page and you really get a sense of the chaos of the running battle between Kaneda’s gang and their opponents the Clowns. In this volume there’s not a huge amount of dialogue, at times it often feels like Otomo is story-boarding for a movie (though the movie wouldn’t be released for another six years after the first chapter of the manga was released)

I’ve read through all six volumes many times, though it’s been a few years since I returned to them. So the one thing that surprises me is just how little of the story volume 1 actually covers. Within this book we are introduced to a few members of Kaneda’s gang (Kaneda, Tetsuo and Yamagata), Tetsuo has his accident and begins to develop powers that he struggles to control, we get more time with the Clowns than we people coming from the movie will have expected, Kaneda spends some time with the resistance group though Ryu is quite distant and Kei is reluctant to be around him and lastly we have moments with Colonel Shikishima, Doctor Onishi, Takashi (#26), Masaru (#27) and Kiyoko (#25). Other characters appear but aren’t named at this point in the tale (the key ones being gang member Kaisuke and the member of parliament Nezu).

So Volume 1 is a combination of world-building, setting up the factions that will feature in coming volumes and the beginnings of Tetsuo’s story. We see that Kaneda is the leader of a biker gang, though based upon his behaviour its unclear how he has gotten to that position, and my only conclusion is the sheer amount of self-confidence he has earns him the respect of the others. Tetsuo is only a minor member of the gang, and really looks up to Kaneda, but once his powers are unlocked he begins to challenge this position and we begin to see a different side of the boy, namely his incredibly short temper which are exacerbated by the side effects that his powers bring upon him if he’s not medicated properly, he later tries to control this using a cocktail of drugs that the Clown gang get for him with the manga closing after Colonel Shikishima offers him the help to unlock his potential and keep the negative effects his powers have on his body in check.

What volume 1 does offer us though is some interesting insights. For me, this particular volume is Otomo’s response to post-war Japan that he grew up in. Due to the treaties that were signed after the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima (which are kind of referenced by the image of an atomic like explosion that started World War III in this world), the US-occupied Japan throughout the years from 1945 to 1952 (and referred to as Operation Blacklist), despite Otomo not being born until 1953 the American occupation (the only time in Japans history that it had been occupied by foreign powers) had some major impacts on Japanese culture. The youth of the country began looking to Western media and behaviours, this saw the rise of the Bosozoku movement, teenagers began purchasing motorcycles and gathering in gangs, wearing colours and patches to state which gangs they belonged to. It comes as no surprise that these gangs reached their heights around the time that Otomo began writing Akira.

There’s also elements of the human experimentation programs from around the second World War and into the sixties with Japans Unit 731 and the US’ MK Ultra programs feeling like they could have been key influences on Otomo’s writing.

Going back to Kaneda for a moment, there is one worrying aspect to his character whilst reading this in 2019 and that’s his attitude towards women. Early on it’s established, he has had a sexual relationship with the girl who works in his schools’ infirmary, she tells him she thinks she might be pregnant with her basically telling him that the baby would be his. He couldn’t be more disinterested if he tried, his only interest is in her getting his gang their next batch of drugs for him (and testing the drug he snatched after the gang’s first altercation with Colonel Shikishima). Later on, he’s constantly trying to get it on with Kei, though she brushes him off at every turn. Now, this is admittedly typical teenage boy behaviour, and in fairness, he is something like 15 or 16 in the book, but it’s still a little disconcerting seeing the lengths he’ll go to to try and get what he wants from Kei.