Confessions, a Japanese School Horror Novel

Confessions is a short horror novel translated from the Japanese. It’s got a middle school setting, so manga fans might find it of interest, particularly if they enjoy creepy, behavior-driven stories like Another or Nijigahara Holograph.

Each of the six chapters presents another viewpoint on the same set of events. We open with the teacher saying goodbye to her class on the last day of school — but instead of the usual good wishes, she announces her retirement. She’s leaving teaching, and she’s leaving the kids with a disturbing gift. She was a single mother until her only daughter died. While everyone thought the girl’s death was an accidental drowning, the teacher blames two of the boys in the class. As the chapter unfolds, she makes her case for what she’s pieced together happening and details her revenge.

The second chapter is written as a letter from the class president to their former teacher, describing how the replacement handles the class. One of the students named above is avoiding school; the other is bullied. The third chapter is by the sister of the shut-in child, who commits another crime, and reprints the diary of their over-indulgent, self-centered mother. We learn what two boys were thinking in chapters four and five. The sixth wraps things up in an even more disturbing manner.

The author, Kanae Minato, is a former teacher, and she clearly knows her setting. I sometimes found the book a bit wordy. Each chapter is effectively a monologue, and I wanted the character/author to get to the point a little faster. For instance, the teacher gives a history of her career and ruminates on the difference between treating students like buddies and treating them with respect before getting to the meat of her complaints. I suspect that’s a cultural difference, and those who enjoy translated works in part for their glimpses into other societies will appreciate the distinction.

As the book continues, Minato spins more twists, shedding new light on the characters. The questions of the nature of evil, justice, and revenge are universal. Even with my quibbles about how the story is told, the unwinding revelations, previously unexpected connections, and insight into the cruelty of human nature are captivating. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

You’ve likely already heard of The Secret History of Wonder Woman, since there was an impressive profile last month at The New Yorker that summarizes many of the key points. This book, though, goes into great depth with new discoveries about the life of William Moulton Marston, her creator.

Early on, Lepore lays out her premise clearly. She traces Superman’s roots to science fiction, Batman to the hard-boiled detective, and Wonder Woman to “the feminist utopia and to the struggle for women’s rights.” But this book isn’t about the superhero (although I learned bits about her I didn’t know, including the significance of the chain imagery, reflecting real-life suffragette demonstrations) as much as it is about the odd man who dreamed her up.

In The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore has written a very readable exploration of the life of Marston. She focuses on the feminist influences, from his equally well-educated wife (who may have done some of the work credited to him and kept money coming into the family) to the third party in their multi-person relationship, Olive Byrne. Olive was the daughter of a sister of Margaret Sanger. Olive’s mother nearly died after a hunger strike during her imprisonment for violating the law against telling people about methods of birth control. (A law that strikes the modern reader as particularly stupid.)

Now, I knew some of the “shocking” items being used to promote this book, such as Marston’s unique family setup and his invention of the lie detector, but even the elements I was familiar with, I learned a lot more details about. (Like Marston’s immense reported success rate with his early detector trials, until it failed miserably.) I had never thought about what it would have been like to have been one of the women in his life, and I’m embarrassed that that never occurred to me before. Understanding more about the women who inspired him makes Wonder Woman — and the many similarities — more interesting.

Marston’s own career was notably checkered, with one interesting chapter going into the legal cases that led to the lie detector being ruled inadmissible as evidence and the charges of fraud against Marston at the time, a situation that didn’t help his reputation. I hadn’t realized how badly his career went, or the variety of rumors that swirled around him, due in part to his theories about domination and submission. I didn’t know he made a stab at working in Hollywood, writing for the movies, or how much of a self-promoter he became when someone else patented a polygraph machine.

I’m also glad to see many photos of these people included. Too many books of this nature focus on text, but the images remind the reader of how long ago some of this took place (with Wonder Woman debuting in 1941). Lepore has apparently done a huge amount of research through Marston’s private papers. And she’s kept it all very entertaining. Although clocking in at over 400 pages, I dove into the book gladly and kept wanting more.

The third section of the book (after one on Marston’s early life and one on his family) comes to Wonder Woman, how she was created and how successful she became. The bits people have sniggered about for years — the skimpy outfit, the frequent bondage — are clearly addressed, with details that will inform even the most knowledgeable fan or historian. There’s a bit of information on artist Harry G. Peter as well as Joye E. Hummel, an early ghostwriter on the character.

After Marston’s death, the character and the industry decline, particularly in the face of attacks by Dr. Wertham, who “found the feminism in Wonder Woman repulsive”. Lepore points out that he also had a professional rivalry with Dr. Lauretta Bender, a child psychiatrist who was one of the advisors on Wonder Woman and a supporter of comic books as good coping methods for children. An epilogue to the book covers the use of Wonder Woman on the cover of the first issue of Ms. magazine and gives a brief overview of what happened to both the character and feminism in the 1970s.

The book ends with an index of the comics that Wonder Woman appeared in while still under the control of her creator and some information on how to read them. I’ll definitely be diving into those shortly, with new insight into the best-known superhero woman. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

PR: What Not to Do: Forget to Tell Us What the Reprint Book Is About

I’m really glad we’re living in a golden age of comic reprints, with all kinds of terrific books and strips easily available. However, too many times, when announcing a new reprint project, publishers assume readers already know about the comic. I know those decision-makers are familiar with how great the project is, or presumably, they wouldn’t choose to republish it, but particularly when you’re reprinting something from more than five years ago, there’s a whole generation of potential customers that may have never heard of your comic.

Don’t forget to tell us what the comic is about, for those who might be interested but weren’t buying comics 5 or 10 or 20 or more years ago. I’ve selected an example from Dark Horse here, but I have seen this problem from several other publishers as well, so don’t think it’s just them. (This came out during the New York Comic Con, which may account for why the press release was abbreviated.) Here’s the PR:

DARK HORSE TO PUBLISH ‘THE COMPLETE PISTOLWHIP’!

From Matt Kindt (MIND MGMT, PastAways) and Jason Hall (Beware the Creeper) comes the complete collection of intricate mystery stories perfect for any fan of crime fiction.

Named one of Time magazine’s top ten comics of 2001, the breakout graphic novel series from Matt Kindt and Jason Hall returns with a deluxe edition collecting every Pistolwhip story, in color for the first time.

The edition includes the two Pistolwhip books for the first time in hardcover, along with the Mephisto and the Empty Box one-shot and a story from Dark Horse Maverick: Happy Endings. Thrill to the twisty, interconnected tales of Mitch Pistolwhip, Charlie Minks, Jack Peril, Captain January, the Human Pretzel, and a monkey!

The Complete Pistolwhip is in stores April 15, 2015, from Dark Horse Comics. Preorder your copy today!

From that I get that Pistolwhip is about crime and mystery stories, but what’s the premise? Who are the characters listed, and why do they matter? The two main volumes came out over 10 years ago, and all I remember is that Mephisto had a magician in it. It’s great that Time liked it — oh, wow, remember when Time.com had some terrific comic coverage? — but that’s not enough for me to know whether *I’d* like it.

I am hammering on this because I want books to be easy to find for new readers. Promoting reprints only to those who remember the original may be easier, but it’s a game with declining rewards. Be more expansive! Reach out wider! Tell us what your comic is about!

The Wicked + The Divine #5

The first storyline of The Wicked + The Divine concludes in this issue. And it’s terrific.

The Wicked + The Divine #5 cover

Midway through, I found myself a little lost, but everything clears up nicely here. The various characters have sorted themselves out for me, or maybe I found them clearer when seeing how each acts when events all comes to a head.

I don’t want to say too much about the plot, since this is the ending, except that the tone throughout is highly passionate, with desperate events taking place. It’s literally a matter of life and death, which is nothing new for comics, but it all seems more real and powerful and symbolic here. That’s in large part due to the presence of Laura, a fan given the chance to be much more, a desperate woman with half-green hair trying to save what she doesn’t understand. Her emotional involvement is palpable.

Kieron Gillen’s afterword comes full circle, in that it was originally intended to be an introduction but he thought it too bleak. It lays out the theme, of how we deal with death, clearly and beautifully. What better thought for a book about the modern gods? Very impressive (and it also explains Young Avengers). I admire Gillen’s self-awareness, and this piece puts the whole thing into new perspective for me.

You can read the whole storyline in the first series collection, The Faust Act, due out next month at the bargain price of $9.99.

Resident Alien Returns With Sam Hain Mystery

I’ve been enjoying the Resident Alien series written by Peter Hogan and drawn by Steve Parkhouse. It’s published by Dark Horse, and it’s the story of an alien trapped on Earth. He takes the form of a crotchety old retired doctor, Dr. Harry Vanderspeigle, in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, but he finds himself drawn into solving a murder mystery in the first volume, Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth!

Resident Alien promo art

The story continues in the second volume, The Suicide Blonde, where we get to know more about the doctor’s assistant, the Native American Asta. The two investigate a student’s death in Seattle in this one. I like the series because it features two Brits’ idea of an American small town and focuses on characterization. Plus, while thrillers are common in comics, mysteries that aren’t dripping with violence are much rarer, and I prefer that type.

Dark Horse has announced a third volume, The Sam Hain Mystery. In it, “Harry tackles another [mystery] after the contents of an old briefcase hint that a murderer could be hiding in town in plain sight—using an alias.” This interview with Hogan has more detail.

Like the others, it will be published in four parts, issues 0 through 3, with issue #0 available April 29, 2015. I’m guessing the zero issue will contain reprints of the stories currently running in Dark Horse Presents (issues #1-3 of the current series) in which the doctor moves into a new home while the feds tracking him get a new lead on finding him. Resident Alien — it’s good stuff.

Critical Hit #1-2

New publisher Black Mask Studios is gradually building its slate of titles. Some of the ones I’ve seen so far have been horror, so not my thing, but I was intrigued by Critical Hit. Although it’s apparently a sequel to a series I’ve never seen called Liberator, I didn’t feel left out.

[Note: I've since been informed that Black Mask is doing a lot more than horror -- it was just my bad luck on the couple that I sampled.]

Critical Hit #1 cover

Sarah and Jeannette are animal activists, and as issue #1 opens, they’re busy destroying a hunting camp. Narration about how Jeannette grew up with a drunk father plays over top of the images, while Sarah previously got out of an abusive relationship. The narration at times veers close to pretension, providing an artistic overlay to the earthy spectacle, giving the reader an excuse for wallowing in destruction because there’s a more meaningful theme running in parallel.

Critical Hit #2 cover

Making the women terrorists for good is an interesting approach, a modern take on the classic vigilante. The laws don’t help them find justice, so they take matters into their own hands, operating outside the established system. It’s certainly more interesting than yet another superhero comic, particularly since I’m not sure I agree with them. Their cause is valid, but their methods are questionable. And it makes their danger even more potent, as there doesn’t seem to be anyone to help them.

Unfortunately, the two get captured by the hunters, and issue #2 shows how bad things can get for them. That’s the problem with taking on people brought together by their love of guns and killing — they’re willing to be violent. The hunters aren’t the kinds of hobbyists I know around here, but exaggerated backwoods stereotypes. Just to make it clear that they’re the bad guys, they’re also racist and sexist sadists.

There’s a fine line between putting our heroes in danger so we can get emotionally involved in their (presumably) eventual release, and creating an entire issue of beating up and torturing women. Thankfully, there’s a flashback to an earlier mission that went much better to lighten the tone and provide some balance.

I’m presuming that this is a four-issue storyline, so I hope the next issue provides more glimmers of hope, because I’d hate to lose these young women when I’ve just met them. (The publisher provided digital review copies.)

Robot Chicken DC Comics Special 2: Villains in Paradise

Robot Chicken DC Comics Special 2: Villains in Paradise is now available on DVD. The special only runs 22 minutes, but there are tons of extras.

Like the previous Robot Chicken DC Comics Special, the show is a string of random gags executed using Mego-style superhero dolls.

The jokes range from annoyances of daily life (sequences in a coffee shop) to bizarre postulations (such as Lex’s “Sexx Luthor” high school band). As I’d expect for the Adult Swim audience, there’s a reliance on gags about body parts and extreme language.

The show was clearly created by someone who really knows their DC universe, since all kinds of characters show up, including Dr. Fate and Chemo. Oddly surprising but my favorite were the musical numbers, particularly the Superboy/Lena Luthor beach duet, voiced by Zac Efron and Sarah Hyland. Those are only a few of the surprisingly well-known voices that participate. Others are Alfred Molina (Lex Luthor), Nathan Fillion (Green Lantern), Breckin Meyer (Superman), Alex Borstein (Wonder Woman), Clancy Brown (Gorilla Grodd), and Giovanni Ribisi (the Joker). Most other voices are done by the writers.

The many extras include:

  • A ten-minute making-of lists some of the voice actors and shows the details behind the Swamp Thing cameo scene.
  • “Bad Hair, Musical Numbers & Sequels” (9 minutes) discusses making a second installment and how the songs came to be.
  • “The Ones That Got Away” (7 minutes) covers the sketches that were cut and the writers talking about how bad it feels to have a rejected idea.
  • “20 Questions” (13 minutes) asks the writers and producers questions about the DCU to demonstrate how much they know (or don’t). Sadly, I knew 18 of the answers, which was more than most of them. But it’s not about the knowledge, especially with Geoff Johns backstopping them — it’s about being able to write humor.
  • There are six Cut Animatics (5 minutes), showing ideas that made it to storyboard form, and two Cut Sketches (2 minutes), all introduced by writers.

The “Chicken Nuggets” function runs the special with video commentary inserts by Seth Green, Geoff Johns, and Matthew Senreich that you access by pressing an on-screen icon. There are so many of these interrupts, although the content can be light, that I wish you could choose to play it all the way through without constantly mashing OK. The overall feeling is like watching with your buddies.

The two commentaries are divided between actors (Seth Green, Matthew Senreich, Nathan Fillion, Breckin Meyer, and Zeb Wells) and writers (Hugh Davidson, Mike Fasolo, Tom Root, Kevin Shinick, and Zeb Wells). Watching this thing four times was beyond me, so I didn’t check them all out in full, but if you like the special, this goes in-depth in multiple ways.

The previous installment was available on Blu-ray, but this version only comes on DVD, which has dismayed some fans but didn’t seem a significant problem to me. A cheaper price is a good thing for a silly diversion like this. (The studio provided a review copy.)

Diamond Drops Preview Catalog Price Next Year

Previews November 2014

The current Previews catalog

As of January 2015 — the system works two months ahead, so that’s the earliest they can change — the Previews monthly comic store ordering catalog will be $3.99 a copy instead of the current $4.50. Diamond is promoting this reduction as making the price the same as “the cost of a comic book.” I think that says more about rising comic prices than Diamond decreases, but then, I have long-standing qualms about being asked to pay money to buy a catalog to spend more money in pre-orders.

Particularly these days, when it’s easier to pre-order through an online store (since those orders tend to be able to be cancelled if I change my mind and possibly cheaper) than a comic shop, unless you’re reading the traditional monthly issues, I would think Diamond would want to make things easier for customers, not throw more barriers in their way.

Still, a 500+ page monthly publication costs money to print and ship. Maybe it’s time for Previews to provide a free online version, as I’ve been asking for for years. (They would previously sell you one for $3.99, but that was through Diamond Digital, and with that program ending, I’m not sure if that version is still available.)

The bigger problem is customers and retailers using the same ordering information, but I don’t see how to solve that easily or quickly. The barriers between those categories are so porous that you can’t prevent the information from passing between them.




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