Comics you should read: Ranma 1/2, Saga, and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

Ranma 1/2, Saga, and The Superior Foes of Spider-Man

I’ve read a boatload of comic books recently — all excellent — including one manga. Ready for some bite-sized reviews?

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Ranma 1/2 by Rumiko Takahashi

I found this series after watching an episode of Geek & Sundry’s web series “Talkin’ Comics,” and I think it may be my favorite manga ever. Seriously, it’s that good.

My experience with manga is limited (I’m more of an American comics kind of girl), but over the years, I’ve added collections like Fruits Basket and Cardcaptor Sakura to my library. Ranma 1/2 reminds me a bit of the former (both feature humans shape-shifting into animals and are overall endearing), but it stands out for a few noteworthy reasons:

This is an unusually progressive manga. Chinese martial arts wonder Ranma is a boy who becomes cursed so that whenever he touches cold water, he turns into a girl. Vice versa with hot water. His father is similarly afflicted, only he turns into a giant panda. (Aww.) So the romance that ensues between the betrothed Ranma and a dojo owner’s third daughter Akane is interesting because it addresses issues of sexual and gender identity in a very insightful way.

I’m only two volumes in (there are 38 total), but I admire how deep and intelligent the commentary here is even though Ranma 1/2 is also one of the genuinely funniest comics I’ve read. Though Ranma experiences life as both genders, he identifies more with being a boy. Akane is a tomboy herself, so while she’s endlessly pursued by the boys at her school, she’s often the object of criticisms like, “Aren’t you supposed to have more grace?” — often from the brash Ranma, who has no room to talk. The societal rules of the sexes are rigidly upheld by these gender-bending characters just as they’re called into conflict.

Akane and Ranma struggle against the feelings of affection they feel for each other. Some situations are made awkward and strained by the gender Ranma is at the time, but in scenarios where their gender is the same, they feel more comfortable with the events that occur (like seeing each other naked). But both characters understood the worlds of male and female, and that’s what makes their relationship special despite their difficulties relating to each other.

To me, all of us have a little of the opposite gender inside us, and though we might clash with the opposite sex, it’s when we’re able to find a common ground between us on a mental and emotional level that we can communicate and get along.

VIZ Media just started releasing the 2-in-1 Editions (that’s two volumes in one book) of Ranma 1/2 in March, and there are three volumes out now, with a fourth arriving in early September (so each a couple months apart). Although the series itself ended in 1996, I’m excited to follow along with it as each 2-in-1 Edition is released.

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Saga by Brian K. Vaughan (author) and Fiona Staples (illustrator) 

Saga is one of those rare comics that comes along and blows your mind.

I’m three volumes into this series now, and I’m not sure that there’s a more creatively illustrated or tenderly told sci-fi comic out there than this. Husband and wife Marko and Alana are traveling the stars as fugitives — both have abandoned their posts in the war, and both have come together to conceive a child despite the fact that their planets are engaged in a war that seems destined never to end. Now they’re running with an infant in tow, and the “freelancers” paid to kill them are relentless in their hunt.

Saga has suffered censorship for its sometimes pornographic content (there’s a whole planet named Sextillion and a robot prince whose television head sometimes displays genitalia), but at its core, this is a comic about protecting your family and finding peace amidst bloodshed and violence. Not a page is wasted. Every volume has gripped me, and volume three brought me to tears with a touching moment in its opening pages.

Like Ranma, Saga isn’t afraid to tackle controversial issues of sex (including homosexuality and the sexual enslavement of children) head-on — and its female characters are just as capable as its male ones. It’s funny, gross, tactful, and shocking all in one swoop.

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The Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer (author) and Steve Lieber (illustrator) 

I fell in love with Superior Spider-Man when I read a hilarious comic where Doc Ock’s mind ended up in Peter Parker’s body to prove he could be the better superhero. My boyfriend gave me The Superior Foes of Spider-Man Vol. 1 as a birthday gift this month, and while it’s more about the “Superior” Spider-Man’s enemies than Spidey himself, it’s just as enjoyable.

This is a villain’s comic. They’re not bad guys who look good from their side of the story. They’re bad guys who do bad things to their fellow crew members and aren’t ashamed about it. You won’t be rooting for them, but you will find getting inside their heads an exotic invitation that’s hard to resist.

A villain’s life isn’t glamorous. The five members of the new Sinister Six (yep, their name is a point of contention) spend more time debating whether to have separate or unisex bathrooms at their hideout than successfully executing criminal heists. And intercrew betrayal is only a group vote away.

The leader of the Sinister Six is Boomerang, a guy who’s had it rough because, well, he goes around wearing a boomerang on his head, fearing the wrath of merciless antiheroes like the Punisher, and meeting the bare minimum requirements of his parole. While Superior Foes is a comedic book — the Sinister Six attempt to steal the rumored living, talking head of a gangster named Silvio Silvermane for most of the first volume — it has its grave moments. Just about every time you think Boomerang has it in him to do a good deed, you’re let down big time.

That’s what makes the series so morbidly fascinating: The Sinister Six are on rails to a train wreck, and it’s hard to look away from the destruction that they cause and the beatings and humiliations that they take. Because maybe — just maybe — they can turn their lives around.

Either that, or finally score that big, devastating win on the side of evil.

What comics or manga are you reading these days? I always need recommendations!

 

A real super-heroine: a review of The She-Hulk Diaries

The She-Hulk DiariesEarlier this year, I expressed skepticism toward The She-Hulk Diaries and Rogue Touch — specifically, about authors scribbling down superhero adventures without the pretty pictures to match and, more importantly, with what seemed like a “romantic” spin (that turned out to be false).

I love comics, and removing their visual element would be like neutering them. The physical prowess of female superheroes, especially, is what grabs your attention; it’s the artist’s job to convey that. Then the writer steps in and uses that moment to communicate their emotional and mental strength as well. These three traits complement one another. I wondered if a novel could properly re-create that power. Since so much of a superhero’s identity is rooted in action and visuals — perhaps even more than words — would these characters even translate well into novel protagonists? Or would She-Hulk and Rogue become shallow versions of themselves?

The answer is different than what I expected — at least in She-Hulk’s case (I have yet to get around to Rogue). After reading Marta Acosta’s fun and very juicy The She-Hulk Diaries (out today), I decided that a) yes, superheroes have enough thoughts buzzing around in their heads to fill a novel but b) the whole superhero action thing is what comes across poorly.

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Guest blog: Marta Acosta on the close calls of writing

Editor’s Note: Please welcome Marta Acosta, the author of the upcoming book The She-Hulk Diaries, releasing in June. We recently talked about the big misunderstanding and public relations nightmare that erupted in response to her book and another, Rogue Touch, in Marvel’s new line of superheroine fiction, falsely dubbed “romance novels.” Here’s what she had to say about writing and her career — in a sassy satirical piece. Take it away, Marta!

Marta AcostaLike most people, I love being labeled because it saves me the time and trouble of defining myself and explaining really boorrring stuff like, oh, that my name isn’t Maria and that I’m not really exotic since I’m from Oakland, or that I don’t write magical realism or romance. Basically, I don’t like to do anything that requires actual effort, thus the writing career. Which is not to say that I don’t make terrible missteps. For example, my first book, Happy Hour at Casa Dracula, was written as a spoof of genre conventions with vampires as a metaphor for being “other” in society. I know — what was I thinking? So when people introduce me with something helpful like, “Our exotic friend Maria writes magical realism slash vampire romance with a hot tamale heroine!” I just smile with relief and say, “¡Si!”

I was pretty pleased to have this routine down pat when I made another terrible misstep. I wrote a modern gothic, Dark Companion, as an homage to Jane Eyre with a theme of social disparities and exploitation. The book’s tone is set by Paulette Jiles’s classic feminist “Paper Matches” as the epigraph. It almost makes me question the wisdom of starting each day with a dozen Sudafed and a tumbler of Tanqueray because my appalling pretentiousness is in direct inverse relation to my, uhm, cheerfulness. Luckily, readers quickly assumed that I’d merely written a really bad teen romance. Whew, that was a close call!

The She-Hulk DiariesLike most messy thinkers … er, I mean writers, I was looking for another way to keep from getting a real job … I mean, another fantastic writing project. When I got the She-Hulk gig, I did that whole failing-to-learn-from-history thing and wrote a lively comedy about Jennifer Walters, an accomplished attorney, who gets a new job at a powerful law firm while trying to have time for friends and activities and also handling her She-Hulk responsibilities. She’d like to have a healthy relationship with a considerate man and a professional wardrobe that isn’t destroyed every time she hulks out.

I felt pretty comfortable writing this story since I’ve been a lifelong fan of speculative stories. Was I a geek in high school? I think it’s like the ’60s: if you remember them, you weren’t there. I.e., as a teenager, I didn’t think there was anything wrong with spending all my free time with my best friend reading science fiction novels and discussing the possibility of alien life, interplanetary travel, and Asimov’s laws of robotics. We went to science fiction conventions and were the only girls there. We thought physics class was fun.

And I wore glasses. The realization that I’d actually written a funny geeky novel struck me too damn late, and I was in a desperate state, upping my Sudafed/gin intake and despairing about my days of hanging out at home … I mean, my writing career. I was rescued by headlines like the Hollywood Reporter’s “Marvel Comics Goes ‘Fifty Shades’ With New Line of Romance Novels.” I wanted to send the journalist a gift of those delicious brandy chocolates, but I was terrified he’d ask questions I couldn’t answer with a simple and enthusiastic “¡Si!”

My fretting was unnecessary, however, because no one bothered to find out that I’ve written tedious diatribes about gender, race/ethnicity, and class throughout my career. I think I’m safe, so long as actual romance writers and fans don’t explain that most romance readers and writers are fierce feminists.

I’m already working on my next book, which is inspired by the “diaries” part of my title. It’s a tribute to “Diary of a Mad Housewife” with robots and machinery as a metaphor for the rote and inhumane effect of sexism on society. I’m sure that Diary of a Mad Fembot will cement my place in the robot/diary fiction canon, which is all I’ve ever really wanted.

Click here to read my interview with Marta.

Starting fresh by destroying New York City

I’m sort of relaunching my comic book reviews over at Impulse Creations with a new look and focus. I’ll be delivering content throughout the week and writing single-issue reviews rather than grouped or publisher-specific coverage.

Let me know what you think by reading about AGE OF ULTRON #1 from Marvel Comics. Yeah … Ultron is back, that crazy guy, and he’s taken over New York City.

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Call for questions: Ask the author of the Marvel book She-Hulk

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Update at 12:03 p.m. EST: Out of fairness, I’ve removed the word “romance” from the headline. What happened is this: Marvel/Hyperion didn’t explicitly state that these were romance novels — but most websites did. That created some confusion and, probably, much of the backlash.

Genre confusion is something Marta and I will be discussing in our interview, but I wasn’t aware of the incorrect labeling at the time of this post. That kind of got muddled, and I haven’t seen these websites issue corrections.

So, remember when I wrote about Marvel and Hyperion’s new line of novels that is starting with Rogue Touch and The She-Hulk Diaries? I took issue with the marketing message and expressed concern that the publishers were dropping these female superheroes into what they called “traditional women’s novels.”

Well, I’ve actually been talking to the She-Hulk author, Marta Acosta. We’re working on getting her a guest slot here on the blog, but I’ll also be asking her some questions. And I want to hear yours!

Worried about her approach to the character? Confused about what makes “good” romance/chick-lit/women’s fiction? Or maybe you just want to know more about the author. Whatever you’re wondering about, post your questions below, and I’ll be sure to get them to her.