Saturday, March 12, 2016

Love in the Time of Machines

I like big boots and I cannot lie
Ghost in the Shell 2: Man-Machine Interface (1991-2003/ Collected 2005): written and illustrated by Shirow Masamune; translated by Frederik Schodt and Toren Smith: Well, it's interesting, the sequel to manga-become-anime hit Ghost in the Shell. The seemingly endless, technobabble-heavy monologues, dialogues, conversations, and footnotes about philosophy and technology slow everything to a crawl in between the action set-pieces, which are themselves well-rendered and staged. 

The Major from the first Ghost in the Shell now works for a massive multinational. Or is it the Major? The cybernetic police officer for Section 9 has a slightly different name and look. But as she's pretty much entirely an AI inhabiting cyberspace and a host of different robotic bodies, her identity isn't necessarily clear. And Shirow Masamune ultimately puts a cyberspace spin on a Borgesian short story, making questions of identity both paramount and oddly moot.

The technobabble and philosophy are something of a slog after awhile -- one wishes for an editor to give some shape and clarity to it all. Instead, the big unwieldy philosophy pill is sweetened by a seemingly endless series of drawings of naked women with those creepy little-girl manga heads. But they're not really naked because in the real world, when they're naked, they're artificial bodies that lack nipples and genitalia. Ditto the cyberspace world, with one important exception late in the narrative.

It's as if we confront again and again some NuRuskin aesthetic, a world where the female body lacks body hair, nipples, and genitalia. And as the cyberspace renderings of such represent how the various characters 'see' themselves, this is a choice, conscious or sub-conscious, of the minds inhabiting those hairless bodies unblemished by messy body hair or genitalia. Make of that what you will. That those gobs and gobs and gobs of techno-philosophy are delivered by those mechanized bodies is part of the point. Maybe the whole point. 

It's not all that enjoyable a narrative (when it bothers being a narrative), with its action moments existing almost independently from the babble. In a way, it anticipates the problems of the second and third Matrix movies, only on a somewhat more thoughtful level. Moments of tee-hee levity make everything even more problematic, as if the 12-year-old boy inside Shirow Masamune were periodically erupting into the text to ogle the nude/non-nude girlies who occasionally flirt like teen-age stereotypes. Lightly recommended.

Young Romance: The Best of Simon and Kirby's Romance Comics (1947-57/ Collected 2012): written and illustrated by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; restored and edited by Michel Gagne: That time in the late 1940's and early 1950's when Joe Simon and Jack Kirby invented the Romance comic book for an under-served audience of teen-aged girls? Remember that? No? Well, it happened.

And those comics were immensely popular. But then the Great Disaster of American comic books, the Comics Code Authority, came to pass. America's rapidly evolving species of comic books for teens and adults were neutered, rendered into stories primarily of interest only to children.

But during that brief flourishing, Romance comics were huge. And Simon and Kirby demonstrate in these pages, lovingly restored by Canada's own Michel Gagne, that they were masters of something other than superhero comics. 

The dozen or so pre-Code stories collected here are a lot of fun -- pulpy, full of emotion, and often dealing with quite adult characters and situations. One can see why they were so popular. They're models of narrative economy. But they also hew quite close to realism in Simon and Kirby's art, with carefully modulated bursts of melodrama and bombast. As with a lot of other pre-Code comics, these suggest an American comic-book industry and readership unencumbered by the ball-and-chain of the superhero. It's like catching glimpses of a lost, better world. Highly recommended.

Trillium: written and illustrated by Jeff Lemire (2013): Enjoyable, time-twisting science-fiction story from the increasingly prolific Ontario, Canada writer-cartoonist Jeff Lemire. Humanity faces extinction at the 'hands' of a sentient virus in the future. A species of Trillium (yes, the provincial flower of Ontario) may hold the key to humanity's survival. The problem is getting to it inside an alien city. But that city is more than it seems -- it links past and future, and can perhaps rewrite reality. 

Lemire keeps things moving briskly while also playing with lay-out and comic-book story-telling conventions. It's by no means a great work -- and feels padded by at least 25%, to be honest -- but it's certainly worth a read. And Lemire's scratchy, often grotesque art-style makes for an interesting take on what are mostly Old-School, Golden-Age science-fiction conventions. Recommended.

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