Monday, October 31, 2016

"No one's love is truly unconditional"

I have been a fan of Eliza Victoria since coming across her novel Dwellers which is one of the most exciting psychological supernatural thrillers I have read, and it spanned only for less than two hundred pages! A year later I stumbled upon this, her latest book, and as fates would have it, I only carried enough money with me that also happens to be the exact amount that had enabled me to purchase this treasure. And it is one for the collection!

The reasons why I get excited about reading Eliza Victoria are (1) I don't usually connect with female fiction writers for some reason, save for Virginia Woolf and the CLAMP mangaka; (2) she is a Filipino author and a very talented one at that; and (3) the genre she writes in, which is urban fantasy, is something I believe she brings a lot of freshness of ideas into, particularly on the mythology of supernatural creatures and several folklores. 

Wounded Little Gods touches upon the polytheistic religion of Filipinos from the old times. Before we became a Catholic nation for the most part, Filipino ancestors pre-colonial times used to have many deities they worship and dedicate functions concerning nature such as weather and harvest, and this novel explores the idea that these deities still do live on, particularly in a remote fictional place called Heridos. But that was until a grave incident occurred which abruptly ended the communication and patronage between the gods and the people of Heridos.

Regina, this book's protagonist of sorts, comes home to Heridos after a co-worker of hers left her a piece of paper containing an enigmatic map and a few unfamiliar names before this co-worker disappeared. Rather curious about this baffling turn of events, Regina tracks down the names on the paper as well as other several clues which more or less feel like someone is purposely dropping these bread crumbs for her to find. The way the story unfolded both on Regina's end, and ultimately on the end of the unseen characters who will be later revealed as important players, has been executed fairly well. Victoria has built up the right amount of suspense to deliver a plot whose twists are subtle yet still memorable. 

I've noticed a common theme in her novels which are sibling relationships. Both in her previous works Dwellers as well as Project 17, a science fiction concerning memories and artificial intelligence, all have lead characters who are cousins or brothers. In Wounded Little Gods, the same theme occurs but this time between a brother and sister. I just think it's noteworthy to point out. I can't really say much about this book because it's rather short much like Dwellers, but the substance is worth the serving because Victoria's prose is a case of simplicity that denotes elegance. The way she weaves certain scenes and sentiments together makes her conflicts and the resolutions of them bittersweet and poignant, often relying on the impact of her characters' defeats and their small compensations at the end.

It might be easy to compare this to Neil Gaiman's American Gods because the concept of deities still living among humans while in disguise as one of them has been explored by Gaiman not just in said book but in his graphic novel series The Sandman too, but  that would be a tad unfair because Victoria's own version is unique in itself. Besides, it's also thrilling to see Filipino deities portrayed in fiction in a very compelling manner. Aside from the pagan religion and mythology aspects of this book, there is also a subplot concerning scientific research with questionable ethics that has been performed in Heridos and which ties with the more paranormal elements of the plot. I think they are inseparable more or less, and Victoria balanced them skilfully enough that the pay-off is something both satisfying and not.

Wounded Little Gods is essentially a story about what need and longing do to sentient beings who will never stop searching answers to their questions and gratification for their desires. It's a story about accepting that humanity always comes with its flaws and deceptions, but even divinity itself may not be as perfect as it may seem. The book also touches upon the value of not abusing knowledge and science, and to use one's enlightenment for the the benefit of others and not for their oppression. Written in brevity yet endurably engrossing down to the last page, Wounded Little Gods is yet another triumphant work for Eliza Victoria.


Saturday, October 29, 2016

X/1999 by CLAMP Volumes 1-9 review Part 1

If you have ever read a CLAMP manga, chances are you're a cynical romantic masochist. And yes, that's a thing and if you have ever fallen in love with any CLAMP work, you know deep inside that you fucking are a cynical romantic masochist. It'd be easier to just blow past it now and accept facts. This particular manga series known as X, and then changed to X/1999 because there was also a Western series with the same name, is the famed 'unfinished' work by CLAMP that is more or less a magnus opei. It went on a very, very long-term hiatus since 2003 and in doing so, left the story lacking any real conclusion TO THIS DAY. Concerns about its increasingly violent scenes have been the issue why the series has been discontinued by the magazine it was published in because they're a bunch of sissies. 

In any case, X/1999 definitely deserved better because it was simply brilliant with layers that would make this possible for several readings. Also, this has to be the most confounding, sophisticated and emotionally stressful series CLAMP had ever produced, and they have a long line of other emotionally stressful stories after this because they are dicks--and I say that with loving affection as a fan. Due to time constrictions, I was only able to finish the nine volumes collected. Now, I would have pushed through it and found a way to binge everything in one sitting, but that is not an advisable route when it comes to any CLAMP series. 

I repeat: DO NOT BINGE A CLAMP SERIES because reading any CLAMP work in one sitting is not good for your mental and emotional health especially with this one. I'll try to give you a semi-spoiler-ish look at why you might want to read this--and why you must brace yourselves.

Essentially my reaction as I progressed through each volume is WHAT---WHY---WHAT THE FUCK?

Essentially me since volume 4


Genre-wise, X/1999 is an apocalyptic fiction combining several elements of the story's own mythology with that of other secular elements, particularly Christian themes. At the heart of its plot is an ontological argument regarding Fate vs. Free Will. The very tagline of this series testifies to it, and serves as the main conflict for the protagonist Kamui who must choose between two fates; one that leads him to a path of goodness and redemption--and the other towards destruction and mayhem. The choice should be simple enough, of course, but X/1999 certainly draws it out to stress the weight and importance of making such a choice because it's not only a matter of doing the right thing but also coming to terms of one's capacity for both good and evil, depending on which part you nurture. 

Kamui, this story's protagonist, is a surly teenage boy supposedly destined to either be the world's salvation or damnation when Armageddon hits in the year 1999. He is brash, immensely powerful and haunted; having witnessed the very detailed and brutal murder of someone at a young age. He has two childhood friends whom he considers the ones he loves the most, but had to cut off ties with them because he doesn't want them to get involved in the supernatural drama that is a prophecy about his life as the chosen 'Kamui'.

The conflict sounds predictable and comparable to other works focusing on the power of choice, and the possibility of how the end of the world hangs in a balance with said choice. There would be nothing particularly special about X/1999 in this regard, except that CLAMP also created an interesting mythos to make its own version of an apocalypse that not only concerns the utter devastation of the world as we know it, but also an intimate portrait of how the burden of making choices can truly be a matter of life and death. Kamui is not the only one who has to decide; the ensemble of intriguing characters that would also play vital roles in the 1999 End of the World. These are the collective seven seals and seven minions who more or less brought up to what their destines would be like once Kamui decides his fate, and theirs for that matter. They all have their own personal motives, tragic backstories and wish fulfillments that certainly allows readers to feel that this isn't just a one-man Kamui show but one that touches upon other players' own choices that could influence a smaller narrative against the backdrop of a much bigger and overwhelming one. 

To see their lives unfold and unravel alongside Kamui's is where the emotional chord is being wrapped around the readers' hearts. The way these fourteen characters would act whether through their own accord or for some higher, preordained plan is a compelling and gratingly frustrating thing to read about because it would definitely make readers question about how much of their life they do control, or if they were ever in control about it in the first place. I would not be spoiling and discussing these characters individually because no introduction about them here would suffice, and discovering who they are for yourselves would be a more satisfying experience because one of CLAMP's strengths is creating memorable characters with nuanced personal histories and conflicts that move you to root for them no matter how hopeless the situations they find themselves in.

You think loving characters in Game of Thrones only to watch them fail and die is painful? Well, CLAMP characters will make you experience a different kind of pain that could be called 'cruel' if it wasn't also persistently bittersweet and ultimately an inevitable end.

On a lighter topic, since this is CLAMP, some unintended/ambiguous scenes of boy-love are ever present. This is mostly prominently featured in the relationship between Kamui and his childhood friend Fuuma who has a sister named Kotori whom Kamui also loves. It's probably the most painful relationship rendered on paper which may only be rivaled by other CLAMP pairings like Sakura and Syaoran of Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle and motherfucking Subaru and Seishirou from Tokyo Babylon WHO ALSO MAKE AN APPEARANCE IN THIS SERIES AS THE ULTIMATE QUEER VERSIONS OF ROMEO AND JULIET, ONLY MUCH MORE TRAGIC! Anyway, here's some ambiguously gay moments:

Amidst the vividly drawn dream sequences, perplexing symbolism weaved into these sequences, and the brutal depictions of killings that would definitely jump out the page, there are also separate chapters focusing on a particular character's story at the end of each volume. The most enjoyable aspect of this series are definitely the gorgeous illustrations of even the most mundane scenes. Aside from Tsubasa, X/1999 has to have the most detailed visual work and exceptionally so, considering the bulk of the plot alone and how two or three volumes usually delved on many pages of dream sequence and symbolism that would make readers head spin as they try to interpret them. I would show them here but that would be spoiling a lot of important elements in the prophecy itself so I won't. Instead, let me just show a touching spread when Kamui decides to save the world so he can preserve the home of his childhood friends/sweethearts Fuuma and Kotori, and the love these three have for one another WILL TOTALLY NOT BECOME A WASTELAND OF ANGST LATER ON. Nope. Not at all.

It's only been nine volumes so I can't have that much strong opinion about Kamui as a lead protagonist of this story. He started out rather unrelatable and even annoying, being quite stubborn and hotheaded, but as readers follow him in his quest for self-knowledge, it becomes pretty difficult to keep thinking he's just some whiny teenager, given the extent of his trauma and his losses along the way that just kept getting worse and worse. His arc in this story as the main one to follow can be very depressing and hopeless, but I would like to see how he fares once his character development progresses along. He's in a very vulnerable place where pain and despair mostly define it. However, the ninth volume changes that with his interaction with one Subaru Sumeragi, the protagonist for Tokyo Babylon which I reviewed earlier this year and subsequently unraveled from. READ THE UNRAVELING HERE.

There are so many things I want to reveal in this review to get you to read it, but I will abstain because it would just spoil too much of what CLAMP has accomplished in this series, as far as I've read in the volumes I got to finish. So, I will just leave you guys with Sumeragi rehashing the painful experiences he had from Tokyo Babylon to give Kamui some context and perspective that there might be a way to survive the worst of heartbreaks no matter how impossible it may seem. And it's not like they have a choice--they're in a CLAMP story!

Once I finish all the required readings for this year, I'm going to read more of X/1999 again. I'll be taking it slow though, considering there is no resolution of this series and I don't want to rush to its non-ending just yet, being discontinued and all, but from what I have seen so far, I really do believe it's worth the trouble. 


Tuesday, October 25, 2016

LOW by Rick Remender and Greg Tocchini

The last Rick Remender graphic novel I read had been actually scheduled as the last X-Men series I read earlier this year for my X-Men comics diet. Suffice to say, I wasn't charmed by it so I only got to finish the first volume because I lost interest easily in the way the story was told. It just didn't click for me, is all.  

Now that was back in April or so, and now here I am just a few months later reading another work of his. As soon as I finished this, I have to say that this is comparably an improvement from Uncanny Avengers. That comparison would be unfair though, since they are of different genres, and I could tell (given the Afterword for every issue of this series) that Remender is quite passionate and proud about this work. I do think he should be.

LOW is a sci-fi comic book story set in an underwater world. It's also billions of years into the future, where our sun in the solar system has expanded to a toxic level of radiation, so it is more or less about to wipe out the world. The human race and other creatures migrated to the deep levels of the ocean and have made their homes there. One such place is Salus, and this is where the protagonist family of the story lives. Low is more or less about the mother Stel and her unabashedly stubborn positive way of thinking no matter the dreariness of her circumstances. Bundled into six issues, the series' first volume The Delirium of Hope is a thematic examination of what it's like to be an optimist in an often nightmarish landscape filled with despair. Over the course of said issues, Stel lost her husband, had her two daughters abducted, and her only son estranged to her because he resents her for being so inconceivably 'hopeful'. The conflict is more or less about Stel overcoming difficulties with the power of positive thinking. In a sense, I have to admire the tenacity of her self-belief.

Stel is a mother who never loses hope which in a hopeless world should be a commendable thing. Or is it? I think that's the challenge being presented for Low's narrative. Should a person always choose to believe in the adage that one is responsible for his or her own attitude when it comes to dealing with the universe, and that attitude will certainly shape the course of their destiny? Or is the universe truly a place without order and more leaning towards chaos, so however the person feels he or she has any control over how they would react, the universe finds a way to take them by surprise or overwhelm them anyway?

Based from this volume so far, the universe is not only winning, but s also being a dick about it. Although Stel has faith that her endeavors to rescue her daughter would not be for naught, and that her efforts will not be wasted so long as she keeps up her positive attitude, certain situations tend to disprove it otherwise. I actually do like this kind of story Remender has weaved because it feels very personal and heartfelt in a lot of ways. I enjoyed this for what it is in spite of not sharing the writer or his lead character's way of living their lives. I'm more of a pragmatist myself, right in that sweet spot between optimism and pessimism. There are advantages to forcefully clinging onto positivity because hope does spring eternal, but being too fixed about this perspective is just as damaging as being nihilistic and negative. Too much of anything is always a bad thing after all.

In addition, Stel reminds me a lot of Catelyn Stark from the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire series. Much like Catelyn, Stel is a mother struggling to unite her family, only to find that her will and efforts are constantly tested. I suppose I would read the next volume after this just to see how Remender handles the next arc of the series because once again another blockage is impeding Stel's way and I know there are possibly more to come, and I want to see how she would move past them with her power of positive thinking which Remender apparently is determined to campaign and drive home to the readers. I don't find it annoying because touchy-feely things okay for me since they have little impact on my own perspective anyway as a pragmatic. Besides there are quotable moments I did agree with. Like this: 

I think Greg Tocchini is worth crediting alongside Remender (if not more so) because as the artist of this series, he has made the reading experience an exceedingly amazing one because of his lush sceneries of the aquatic disquiet present in the panels and specific scenes. I truly loved looking at the breadth of his illustrations and I believe that if another artist had drawn for Low, it would have changed the way I looked at this series altogether, and I may not be more forgiving of its story's flaws and its writer's ultimate bias about his heroine's personality and personal beliefs. His art style is just gorgeous:

In a nutshell, Rick Remender's Low is a commendable work I wouldn't mind speaking good things about, but Greg Tocchini visual contribution is the one thing I would probably give more praise. Whatever opinions I may have that contrast Stel's, I still think she was a character I can find myself caring about, and I'm interested to see how well she would fare, or how much she might change as the story progresses. I'll pick this series again soon enough.


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Flex Mentallo by Grant Morrison

I don't know how to begin reviewing this graphic novel mostly because there is too much context that one needs to know if they ever decide to read this blindly, which I did, and it affected how I enjoyed the story a lot. The point is I could not recommend this to someone who is just getting into comics, because this is essentially a compilation inspired from another comics line which was Doom Patrol and which Grant Morrison himself has written for.

From what I can discern when I researched this story, Flex Mentallo as a character came from that series, created by Morrison himself in an issue, and who was then expanded as more than just a side character he originally appeared to be as. Now two years ago I had the distinct pleasure of reading through Morrison's semi-autobiographical book called Supergods, tracing the superhero myth and contextualizing it with his own experiences as a professional writer in the industry. I mentioned this book since it is critical in further explaining the roots for Mentallo. 

You see, he is just a part of an long string of 'fictional character who came to life' that Morrison has been doing for the past two decades or so, and also ties in with his other works like The Invisibles which I intend to read soon enough. Mentallo is a part of a roster of other characters written and drawn by a psychic child. According to the wiki, "The characters created in this child's youthful scrawlings, titled "My Greenest Adventure", apparently came to life. Amongst Flex's "Greenest Adventure" siblings were the villainous Waxworker and the heroic Fact.

What you need to know in summary is that Flex Mentallo is also called the 'Man of Muscle Mystery' and he has the ability to affect reality by flexing his muscles. It sounds absurd, but purposefully so. He even has what is called a 'hero halo' above his head when he uses his powers, and it says "Hero of the Beach" which had something to do with his origin story about a swimsuit competition. It was never explained in this graphic novel, and I literally had to read his fictional biography online to understand this. So now that I have established that this GN is not newbie-friendly, let's talk about the content.

Artist Frank Quitely's style has been a personal favorite since Batman and Robin and Batman Incorporated, titles which he also collaborated with Grant Morrison. Visually speaking, Flex Mentallo is gorgeous. The illustrations are well-defined and rendered with great detail. The art is also as eccentric as the narrative, matching its absurdity and rather surreal scope. There is really no way for me to explain sufficiently what this GN is unless you are already familiar with the mythos about Doom Patrol, and Morrison comics in general. I'm going to try my best to comment on the content, however, because it had been an interesting read, albeit also a baffling one. My review isn't going to be helpful to a Morrison fan, I'm afraid, who may be reading this to compare notes with my personal opinion. But I sure want this review to prepare first-time readers who may be inclined to pick this up one day.

Flex Mentallo goes to investigate the whereabouts of his other friends, fictional characters who also came to life and are lost somehow. There's a whodunit element and some comedic action in between, spliced with genuine moments of suspense that lend its story enough levity. What is confusing are the scenes featuring the psychic child who created Mentallo and co. who apparently has become a mentally unstable junkie and a former rock star musician. His sense of self and his telepathic imagination are slowly unraveling as the pages continue, and his part of the narrative is important but also alienating for someone like me who isn't as acquainted with Morrison outside of his Batman works. That being said, the transitions do make sense and are often seamless enough to get the message across that this is a rather psychedelic meta experience that comments on the genre conventions of superhero storytelling. It would take readers like me a while to realize this until halfway through the climactic scenes, but the message becomes clear and substantial enough once finished. Unfortunately, it's also rather jumbled up, filled with references and allegories I am not familiar with.

In a nutshell, Flex Mentallo: Man of Muscle Mystery is something you read as a true-blue comics aficionado who also knows a lot about Morrison's universe and body of work to fully appreciate what it offers and satirizes. For a new reader with specific taste in comics or only goes for one or two genres, this may not be the comic book you are looking for, at least at this point in time. I might re-read this again too once I'm more acquainted with a few more of Grant Morrison's works. Still, I could tell this a momentous celebration about superheroes. I can't really spoil the ending because it is the message of this story to begin with, but I will say that it has something to do with Morrison's thesis in Supergods.


Friday, October 7, 2016

OCTOBER List of Readables

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

This is honestly a very daunting novel to review, more so to finish reading in the first place, and not just because of its 600+ pages but the quality of its prose which is painstakingly detailed in ways that are often not necessary at all. I can only think of two reasons why I could recommend reading this, and even then I could only recommend it to a specific type of people, and not to your average casual reader. Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a 2000 book that is in many ways a historical fiction about the Golden and Silver Age of American comic books. This subject matter is what got me so interested in it when a good friend of mine recommended it (and purchased me a copy as a Christmas gift last year).


The paperback is actually close to seven hundred pages and is divided into six parts which chronicled the lives and struggles of cousins Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay, the titular heroes of this novel. They are aspiring comic book writers and artists with a Jewish heritage, living in an era when fascism is thriving and victimizing Europe. With this promising premise filled with daring possibilities for character exposition with lots of historical allusion, Chabon takes readers into a very vivid and verbose journey about the intricacies that surrounded these cousins and their choices. From making it big in the comic book industry and facing certain issues in the business, to the important discoveries they have made within their personal, private lives that also influenced and changed them either for better or worse.

"Comic books thrived to articulate a purpose for itself in the marketplace of ten-cent dreams, to express the lust for power and the gaudy taste of a race of powerless people with no leave to dress themselves. They were pure and true, and they arrived at precisely the moment when the kids of America began, after ten years of terrible hardship, to find their pockets burdened with the occasional superfluous dime."

What I can say foremost is that The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a damn mighty fine novel comparable in length and breadth to perhaps something like War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy but the comparison, of course, ends there. I just want to give everyone proper context on how completely immersed, absorbing and detailed this novel was to read and enjoy, and how much it spans from one decade/era to the next since it does follow Joe and Sam from their early twenties to middle age and so on. Since it's also a historical fiction, many chapters are dedicated to lavishing the readers with expositions regarding the comic book characters created by Joe and Sam, and how they serve as allegories for the themes Chabon tackled profusely and passionately for. There is clearly a great amount of research and planning done to infuse together what is based from factual accounts with that of the fictionalized moments in Chabon's narrative he wrote in, but ultimately the result was a seamless and compelling semi-biographical examination and commentary at why Americans created and celebrated superheroes in those times. Chabon's grasp of his subject matter is impressive; he doesn't shy away from dedicated chapters to completely build a world that resembles the one we can recognize about the Golden Age of comics, while also maintaining layers of fictional liberties in doing so.

Of course, this rigorous storytelling style will not appeal to everyone's taste and sensibilities, and that is why I can't recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay with the casual reader. One should at least have an enthusiasm or passion in comic books in general which I have copious amounts of. If not, then a great bulk of this novel will be alienating and baffling for you. However, if you do have an open mind and do want to explore the mythos and the kind of creative industry which comics books operate on, then The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay could be a worthwhile endeavor. The selling point of the story for me is the way Chabon got me invested and involved in Joe and Sam as characters and respective representations of a Jewish boy who immigrated to the States and wanted to help his kin escape from the Nazis in whatever way he can, and a closeted gay man who is coming to terms with his sexuality. The moments devoted to their respective character arcs are my favorite.

"He wanted them to understand the importance of the fight, to succumb to the propaganda that he and Sammy were unabashedly churning out. If they could not move Americans to anger against Hitler, then Joe's existence, the mysterious freedom that had been granted to him and denied to so many others, had no meaning." 

Joe Kavalier's character arc in the beginning focuses on his superhero myth-making as an artist with a character named The Escapist, his creation with Sam. Though Sam is the one who is more of the writer of their duo, Kavalier is the one whose attachment with the Escapist runs deep since it stems from a place of both hope and despair. Successfully immigrating to the States before Nazis took over his land, Joe feels obligated to do something to make Americans and everyone else see the evils of Hitler's regime, and this translates in the stories and illustrations he collaborates with Sam who is open to it because he is very supportive of his cousin's plight. Joe wants to showcase that the Escapist is a superhero who can free himself from any bondage and hence also do the same for others. The origin story for the Escapist is nuanced, and the more Joe devotes all his creativity and efforts in turning him into a symbol akin that to a freedom fighter, the more he also gets depressed over the fact that he's living a pretty good life, earning sustainable income for his comics while his family is out there dealing with the Nazis daily. This survivor's guilt drives Joe's character throughout the novel, making him do really noble and admirable acts but reckless and temperamental things as well. Joe is a well-rounded character whose personal demons are fascinating to read about.

Meanwhile, Sam Clay struggling with his sexuality and abandonment issues offered readers a bittersweet taste of wide-eyed innocence and idealism. Sam has admired men his entire life, and it was only through meeting an actor named Tracy Bacon, who plays the Escapist for a radio show based on their comics, did Sam came to understand that he falls for men romantically. But the era in which he lives in is very homophobic and prejudiced, and Sam has to retreat emotionally from what he wants and the man he loves because to be a gay man then means opening yourself up to being terrorized, policed and even raped. The later parts of the novel reach a frightening climax when Sam was abused by a couple of FBI agents just because he was gay, and Joe finding out that his younger brother whom he was attempting to spirit away from a Nazi-populated region had perished on a ship ride to America among with other Jewish children. It got very harrowing that I was shocked about it because the tone of the novel becomes more intimate in a gruesome and disheartening way. Nevertheless, I was already devoted to these boys so I finished anyway.

"The magician seemed to promise that something torn to bits might be mended without a seam; a scattered handful of doves or dust might be reunited by a word, a paper consumed by fire can bloom from a pile of ash. But it's all an illusion. The true magic of this broken world, however lay in the ability of the things it contained to vanish, to become thoroughly lost that they might never have existed in the first place."

At the last hundred pages or so of the book, Chabon included production notes that expand on the world he created for Kavalier and Clay. I have yet to read them all but from what I can garner so far, they are able to offer more insights on his narrative and choices of plot directions. In a nutshell, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is a work of fuction I could only recommend to a chosen few, but those people are guaranteed to enjoy it nevertheless!