Monday, March 01, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 26 (3/1) -- Remember by Benjamin

I started this round of Book-A-Day with an ulterior motive: I wanted to clear out the clotted artery of my already-read stack, to get myself to write quickly and succinctly about books soon after I read them, instead of letting them simmer to do them "right"...and then, often, forgetting what I wanted to say and just tossing out something anyway.

But, as it's gone on for the past three weeks, I'm writing longer and longer (not necessarily a bad thing), and still leaving certain books -- newer comics, SFF novels -- aside to spend "more time" thinking about them. To be blunt, I'm not actually doing what I wanted to do.

(Sometimes this blog seems like just a long annotated list of my failed plans; that I think so may be an indication of my usual outlook on life.)

Tokyopop has a newish line of graphic novels in full-color; it started about a year ago and features work from creators from all over the world -- though all with something of a manga influence to them, since that's Tokyopop's world. Remember was the new book in that line for February, written and drawn by the single-named Chinese manhua creator Benjamin, though it seems to have been originally published in Korea back in 2004 (that's the date on the short foreword by Ma Rong Cheng).

Remember has two stories, the first much longer than the second, and a preview of Benjamin's full-length graphic novel Orange (which I believe Tokyopop published in 2009). The titles and packaging -- each story has both a "password" on its title page and a single-page afterword by Benjamin about its creation -- give a vague air of pretension to the enterprise, as if it were trying very hard to assert how important it is.

Both stories are at least mildly autobiographical: "No One Can Fly. No One Can Remember." being the story of a stormy, mostly one-sided love affair between a young male semi-established comics creator and an even younger, aspiring manhua creator young woman with dreams of breaking the rules; and "That Year, That Summer" taking place at an art college, where the narrator's one roommate has no social skills or ability to cope with the tough life of the big city. Along the way, Benjamin claims a lot for his art -- and these stories don't entirely support that ambition and claim, though his painting definitely does. (I will admit that it's difficult to accurately determine how strong Benjamin's dialogue and narration is through the lens of translation; it's possible his translator here, Edward Gauvin, has notably strengthened or weakened his work.)

Benjamin's art appears to be fully painted much of the time; some pages show underlying ink lines, but others don't. "No One Can Fly" has a cool palette of blues and greens, most of the time, while "That Year" is more monochromatic, with only occasional punches of bright color after the first few pages. "No One Can Fly" has a stunning energy and intensity, with most figures rendered near-photographically (though the characters' features are subtly less Chinese and ethnically specific, a little closer to the land of idealized comics people, in that way that often confuses Western readers of Eastern comics), but "That Year" has a darker, murkier, almost expressionist style.

Both of these stories are engrossing, though there's definitely an element of special pleading here: Benjamin is saying implicitly that good comics can be (or maybe should be) about the lives and feelings of their creators -- though, from the evidence here, those lives and feelings are very standard young-bohemian, and don't give much depth or newness to the stories.

Still, Benjamin is an amazing artist, with gorgeously designed pages and an admirable mastery of gesture; he has the physical language of comics down cold, and can illuminate his character's internal lives as well as anyone. I hope that he moves on to write stories that aren't just retreads of his life -- or, since these stories are six or seven years old, I hope that he's already done that, and that I can see even better, more mature work from Benjamin without delay.

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Okkervil River - Another Radio Song
via FoxyTunes

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