A Bride’s Story… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest Stripp’d column. This month, I return to anime in order to look at Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story.

The manga is published in hardback by Yen Press and is very much in the style and tradition of such prestige titles as Fumi Yoshinaga’s unrelentingly splendid Ooku: The Inner Chamber. Somewhat less focused and much less high-concept than Yoshinaga’s look at a alternate edo-period Japan, A Bride’s Story is made up of a series of stories drawn from the early married life of a young woman living on the steppes of central Asia in the early part of the 20th Century. However, while the characterisation is frequently intriguing and the central love story between the bride and her (much) younger husband is undeniably affecting, it is clear that both the story and the characters are little more than vehicles for Mori’s exploration of her understanding of that particular culture. Indeed, I conclude my piece by likening A Bride’s Story to a piece of literary travel writing such as that of Geoff Dyer, Paul Theroux or Pico Iyer:

Like any piece of literature written about one culture by a member of a different culture, there are questions of morality and appropriation that need to be asked. Mori mostly answers these questions by celebrating life on the steppes while acknowledging quite how shockingly alien and unfair that life could be. While a lot is made of the ethics of depicting alien cultures, my feeling is that travel writing, like all forms of writing is always produced from a particular perspective. Objective truth is the sole preserve of the hard sciences. As such, we should look upon A Bride’s Story as an impression of a particular culture filtered both through the eyes of a Japanese women and through the demands of the Japanese comics scene. Would real Mongolians enjoy gently burgeoning and chaste love stories? Would real brides be so impossibly lovely and accomplished that their clan would not hesitate for a second before fighting to the death in order to defend them? Possibly not but Mori’s stories are beautifully told and sensitively embedded in a culture that she clearly both loves and respects. At the end of the day, if you want the truth about the Asian steppe, go and visit it yourselves… just don’t expect to encounter any gorgeous 20 year-olds with devoted 12 year-old husbands.

Boasting some of the most jaw-droppingly intricate and beautifully composed artwork I have ever encountered. A Bride’s Story is a wonderful example of what manga can achieve when it moves beyond the straightjackets of the populist and the fannish.

DC: The New Frontier… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest comics column on Darwyn Cooke’s DC: The New Frontier.

New Frontier is an ‘elseworld’ that takes the superheroes of the DC Comics Universe and transposes them into the late 1940s in much the same way as Neil Gaiman transposed the Marvel Universe into Elizabethan England in 1602 (2003). However, while 1602 is really nothing more than an extended exercise in fan service that wanders around Elizabethan London going “Oooh… I wonder what Daredevil would look like if he was an Irish bard!”, DC: The New Frontier is an attempt to liberate mainstream superhero comics from the cynicism of the post-Watchmen era by finding a way of reconciling psychological depth with the values of old-fashioned Gold and Silver Age heroism. While I do not think that Cooke is ultimately successful in his endeavour, I do think that the result is one of the most fascination mainstream superhero comics ever produced.  It is fascinating because it is a comic that clearly realises the challenge that faces large generation-spanning mythological systems.  As I pointed out in my review of Dick Maas’ horror film Saint (2010), myths must reinvent themselves in order to stay alive and DC: The New Frontier is clearly designed as a mutation that might help superhero comics adapt to the culture of today:

The last thirty years has seen a drive to re-invent traditional heroes as darker and more realistic figures. Moore’s reinvention of the superhero as a vigilante mired in psychological trauma and political compromise is no different to the re-invention of King Arthur as a Roman Centurion or an Iron-age Chieftain. The world has changed and though we can no longer believe in a campy middle-aged Batman, we can believe in a tortured psychopath who acts upon his own flawed sense of justice. Humans have always and will always yearn for escape from the prison of their lives but the vehicle they choose for that escape is determined by the nature of the lives they are escaping. Because of this, stories must be retold and heroes must be reborn. Even modern day myths are subject to these evolutionary pressures, in order to survive stories must change to suit the demands of their audience.

Despite its failures, DC: The New Frontier is still a fascinating read and a great place to start if you are looking to get a handle on the tendency of superhero comics to keep re-launching and re-inventing themselves.

Ludwig II… Stripp’d

Boomtron have my latest column on You Higuri’s manga series about the life of Ludwig II of Bavaria.

Despite having a real fondness for GLBT film, manga and the occasional GLBT-infused anime series, Ludwig II was my first serious encounter with the genre known as Yaoi. Written mostly by women for other women, the yaoi genre tells melodramatic love stories involving ‘beautiful boys’, by which I mean young men with feminine physical characteristics. Ludwig II tells the story of the so-called ‘Mad King’ of Bavaria and his complex relationships with both an aide and reality as a whole. While Ludwig II is very much a melodramatic love-story in the romantic tradition, Higuri juxtaposes the demands of the yaoi genre with the demands placed on the historical Ludwig II as a means of exploring the concept of escapism. Indeed, Higuri presents Ludwig’s madness as an increasingly self-destructive desire to escape from reality into a world of imagination and beauty:

By highlighting both the heroic nature of a refusal to completely submit to the mundane and the devastating consequences of shifting one’s intellectual focus away from the problems of real life, Higuri speaks to our responsibilities as citizens of the world. Clearly, Ludwig was an intelligent and gifted enough politician that he could have done more to protect his subjects from the harshness of that world.  In one particularly heavy-handed moment, Higuri points out that Ludwig’s failure to defend Bavarian independence helped propel the German people along a path leading to the Death Camps.  Had Ludwig done more to check Prussian ambition then perhaps Germany might never have united and had Germany never united, then Hitler might never have gained a powerbase sufficiently strong to begin the Second World War.

Having recently worked my way through the six translated volumes of Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers, I was delighted to discover in Ludwig II a similarly complex and compelling interweaving of traditional genre with historical fiction and romance. Ludwig II is one of the best things I have read this year, it cuts to the bone of why it is that we find ourselves attracted to escapist media.