Lyn Jensen's Blog: Manga, Music, and Politics

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Location: Anaheim, California, United States

Regular contributor ("Carson City Limits" and other content) for Random Lengths (circulation 56,000) in San Pedro, CA, 2001-present. Manga reviewer: LA Alternative (circulation 150,000), 2005-2006. Some manga reviews also ran in NY Press around this time. Entertainment reporting: Music Connection (circulation 75,000), 1983-1906. Travel writing: Oakland Tribune (1998) and Life After 50 (2006). Other bylines: Goldmine, Star Hits, Los Angeles Reader, Los Angeles Times, Long Beach Press Telegram, Blade, BAM, Daily Breeze, LA Weekly. Specializations include community news reporting, writing reviews (book, theater, concert, film, music), copywriting, resumes, editing, travel writing, publicity, screenwriting, lecturing, and content development. Education: B. A. Theater Arts, UCLA. Post-grad work, Education, Chapman University.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Manga Reviews: "Off Beat" and "Steady Beat"

This review is updated and revised from one originally published in LA Alternative, Dec. 30, 2005.

Working in the manga style allows American artists a wider range of subject matter than traditional comics. Gay-themed plot lines, for example, are still rare in the US. Doonesbury occasionally broaches the subject--but that's Doonesbury. There are comics by and for the American GLBT community--but those are for a specific community. Marvel and DC Comics have brought forth a few GLBT characters in superhero comics--but those are superhero comics.

TokyoPop jumped to the forefront of the American manga trend with two fairly realistic stories of everyday teens encountering turbulent same-sex relationships and other mysteries in Off-Beat by Jen Lee Quick and Steady Beat by Rivkah. Both series met sad fates, as they were planned as three-volume stories and TokyoPop allowed both to lapse after two volumes. There has been talk of both series continuing as Web-only comics, but the creators have yet to see such talk become action.

In Quick's Off-Beat, schoolboy genius Tory Blake is obsessed with a new boy in his New York neighborhood for reasons he can't explain. Convinced that some deep mystery that only he can unravel is afoot, Tory becomes an Internet-surfing detective in sneakers. He even persuades his mother to enroll him in the new kid's elite school--purely for the superior academic opportunity, of course.

Finally he wrangles an assignment to tutor the other boy, and even invites him home. Now he's got a chance--but what exactly is that chance he so wants? What's even more fustrating about seeing this manga lost in a publishing limbo is how vol. 2 ended on a cliffhanger, a newfound friendship perhaps destroyed by something inexplainable.

Steady Beat concerns Leah, the teenage daughter of a conservative Texas politician, who finds a romantic-sounding letter written to her older sister and signed, "Jessica." Attempting to unravel the mystery behind the letter, she encounters a teenage boy being raised by his gay father. Vol. 2 burned down a few closet doors and found Leah struggling to accept people soley for the quality of their character. Vol. 3 was met to be told from the older sister's point of view.

The series' artists took different paths to developing their subjects. Quick found some inspiration in Sanami Matoh's Fake, but wanted to tell a more realistic and authentic New York story, while at the same time making a departure from her usual fantasy creations. TokyoPop described the result as "not your average boy-meets-boy story." Rivkah won another publisher's "Create Your Own Manga" contest, catching the attention of TokyoPop. She has expressed a preference for working in girls' comics.

A source inside the manga industry tells me TokyoPop has yet to release the licenses they hold so other publishers may pick up on former TokyoPop titles. Why isn't clear, unless the company plans to revive its publishing venture some day, some way. Whether Off-Beat and Steady Beat are included in this stew of languishing properties is unclear. If no comics publisher wants them, perhaps a GLBT publisher will be kind enough to express interest in finishing Tory's and Leah's stories.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Review of Felipe Smith's MBQ

This review is revised and updated from one that originally appeared in LA Alternative, Dec. 16-22, 2005.

Felipe Smith leads a wave of artists who are incorporating elements of American, European, and Japanese comics into a still-evolving style often called "American" or "global" manga. Smith's big break came when he was chosen for Los Angeles publisher TokyoPop's Rising Stars of Manga 3. His darkly humorous winning entry, "Manga," was inspired by a job he wasn't paid for. That led to a contract with TokyoPop to do the three-volume MBQ, one of the few original English-language manga series that TokyoPop stayed with until its conclusion.

MBQ focused on Los Angeles' South Bay region, and was inspired by real people and actual locations. It follows six major characters through a night and day of life and death. Smith says the dreadlocked artist, Omario, is autobiographical. Being character-driven, the plot is episodic, akin to a Robert Altman film or Bertolt Brecht play.

"Most stories, and manga, have one linear character. I have six," Smith explains. "They don't know each other at times, and they're from different parts of town. I need to cover all their stories at the same time because as the story progresses, their paths start to merge."

"I basically want to have an overall sense of what's going on in LA at any time," he adds. "So the reader comes away picking up on certain coincidences," hence the reason why the plotting appears so disconnected in the first volume. It's worth bearing with the developments in subsequent volumes, however.

Smith came to Los Angeles to work as an animator after attending art school in Chicago. "After a while I realized that was not what I wanted to do," he says. "I wanted to be able to do different kinds of drawings, for adults."

He counts the realistic manga Tokyo Tribes as an influence. In his efforts to bring a similar style to the screen, he found "a lot of studios told me that animation is very limited, style-wise. What I was doing was too complicated," so he moved sideways into manga.

As to why he works in manga instead of a more traditional type of comics, he explains, "I think it's the storytelling. Manga--obviously--being about 200 pages, has more time to tell the story. I have a chase scene [in MBQ, vol. 1] that's about 30 pages. [A traditional American-style comic book] comes out once a month and it's 22 pages. My chase scene is a whole story."

Smith has now found a new home in the Japanese comic scene. His follow-up to MBQ is Peepo Choo, an entirely new story about a gathering of anime fans, which was originally published in Japan. Vertical is publishing an English-language version that currently runs three volumes.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Rock Manga

This review is updated and revised from reviews that originally appeared in LA Alternative, Feb. 17-23 and March 3-9, 2006.

Rock and manga create a mash-up completely different from rock and traditional comics. Japanese manga-ka (comic artists) are freely inspired by both scenes, and they have given us works as diverse as Nana, Beck, and Gravitation. During TokyoPop's existence, the company made the phenomenon a truly global one by publishing such works as Road Song (an American manga), Yonen Buzz (a German one) and Princess Ai (a true international manga collaboration).

Unlike some rock star projects, readers didn't need to be a Courtney Love fan to enjoy Princess Ai. The original three-volume series was credited to four collaborators:

Misaho Kujiradou drew the manga, working from Ai Yazawa's character designs. DJ Milky wrote the goth-rock songs that brought an extra dimension to the action. Love, the controversial (on so many, many levels) rock singer, and a longtime manga fan who once lived in Japan, was credited with the concept and writing. However, she "had nothing to do with the manga or any of the ancilliary projects. Her choice," said a TokyoPop spokesperson in 2006.

"Ai" is "love" in Japanese and just like love, Princess Ai conquered all in the epic story of a fallen angel from another planet (shades of Yun Kouga's Earthian) who became a rock star in two worlds. All the characters showed multiple dimensons, including Ai herself, whose transition from lost soul to "the second revolution" was spellbinding. The freer she got, the bigger her angel wings got, and that brought her into conflict with big bad music-biz gangsters who thought the only good rock star was a dead one.

TokyoPop originally envisioned a marketing plan that involved a film, novels, toys, downloads, and clothing. That would have put this female-driven manga on the same commercial footing as the most popular shonen manga. However, the franchise never gained the commercial momentum needed for such far-reaching ventures. It tapered out with a spin-off comic strip Princess Ai of Ai Land targeted to young teen girls, a coloring book, a few dolls, art/fan books and digital versions, and a manga sequel Prism of the Midnight Dawn that died when TokyoPop did.

While Ai was targeted to a shojo audience, Road Song was marketed more to a traditional comic audience, and was originally presented as a poignant comedy-drama about a band that really was on the run. The creator, Allan Gross, said of his lead characters, "Monty is probably how I see myself, and Simon is probably more like I really am!" Joanna Estep did the art. It was one of the few OEL (original English language) manga series that TokyoPop actually stayed with until its conclusion, at three volumes.

In the first volume, two troubled teenage boys fled to Cleveland after their families were destroyed by a Japanese gangster who was feuding with one boy's father. Simon, the punky kid from the wrong side of town was the classical violinist, while his brother-in-law Monty was the egotistical rich kid into Elvis, guitars, girls, and baseball. Unfortunately the story deteriorated over the next couple of volumes. The second volume, set in Tennessee, had absolutely nothing in common with that state's music scene. The final volume was set in San Francisco but was nothing like that city either--not its streets, music, baseball, or even hippie culture. The crime sub-plot strained credibility, even by manga standards. Even the songs (penned by Gross) were a distraction, entirely the opposite effect from the fine work Milky did that enhanced Ai.

Christina Plaka's Yonen Buzz was like Ai in that it was an international creative effort. TokyoPop offered an English translation of a German manga about a Japanese rock band. Plaka attempted to bring the energy of a grunge band to the printed page. The story and characters wound through familiar territory: the band member who can't make rehearsal, the romance that becomes a distraction, the art-versus-commerce dilemna. TokyoPop stayed with the series for three volumes but the fourth and final one was never published in English.