This Column Has Seven Days #046 // Marvel’s Not Ready For Prime-Time Players

This weekend I took advantage of a couple of the sales on ComiXology, including picking up about a half-dozen Marvel comics collections. I thought a few of those series were worth talking about, because while they aren’t perfect they are at least interesting examples of what comes from corporate comics that try to look like boutique books.

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Going Solo, or “What I Got At The Marvel Digital Sale”

When Marvel announced their “All-New Marvel Now” branding across a slew of titles in early 2014, it seemed to me like they were trying a little too hard. There were a few books I was interested in, but seeing the “All-New” descriptor tagged to the initiative made it smell of desperation and hucksterism. I tried out a few of the new series, including Moon Knight, Ms. Marvel, and Silver Surfer, and enjoyed each of them a great deal, but my choices were based far more on my interest in the creative teams than on the characters themselves. I took advantage of this weekend’s digital sale to pick up some other books, which promised some new takes on solo, “street level” characters: The Punisher, Black Widow, and Iron Fist: The Living Weapon.

The Punisher, Issue 5.

Let’s start with The Punisher. I have some very specific criteria when it comes to enjoying a Punisher comic book. Basically, if it’s written by Garth Ennis then I’m gonna like it; if it’s someone else, then it’s a crap shoot. In the first two volumes of the new Punisher series (Black and White and Border Crossing), writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mitch Gerads move Frank Castle from his home in New York City and send him to Los Angeles on the trail of the Dos Sols gang. This being a Punisher comic book, though, things get a little more complicated than that. The Punisher encounters the Dos Sols’ secret weapon, and is secretly hunted by the American military in the form of the black ops version of the Howling Commandos. In the second volume Frank finds himself in a South American prison, then later runs into Black Widow (more on her later) and ends up doing some dirty work for her in exchange for her not turning him in.

I enjoyed the team’s take on The Punisher as a tactician and soldier while still firmly entrenched in the Marvel Universe. Frank’s not going out guns a-blazing and heading at super-villains head on; he’s mindful of collateral damage and is actually taking steps to be brutally efficient without making a spectacle of himself. Moving him to Los Angeles also provides Edmondson and Gerads with some interesting story potential, as well as the ability to establish a few new supporting cast members. Gerads’ art is clean and uncluttered, and he gives a flow to fast-paced scenes so I was never confused about how the action in one panel led to another, an important thing in a Punisher book. However, there were times where I had to actively stop comparing certain stories or situations to the Garth Ennis run; it’s not fair to Edmondson and Gerads to compare their work to some of my favourite Marvel comics of all time. I definitely would have an easier time reviewing this series if I could have stopped negatively comparing it to Ennis’ run, but at times I just couldn’t help it. Despite my own personal attachment to and opinion of the character, overall this new series is a smart, violent, and engaging book, like The Punisher is supposed to be, even if I couldn’t get out of my own way and just accept it.

Black WidowThe next comic, also written by Edmondson, is Black Widow, with art by Phil Noto. Out of the three series, this is the closest spiritual cousin to the critically acclaimed Hawkeye; though it doesn’t quite hit the same artistic highs as that series, Black Widow is a look at what an Avenger gets up to when she’s off the clock. From the first issue, Edmondson lays out his take on Black Widow: a woman who’s not running from the mistakes of her past, but rather using it as motivation for her current actions. I think the first volume, The Finely Woven Thread, is a good introduction to the character (speaking as someone who has never felt a particularly strong attachment to her). It starts with a few self-contained chapters establishing Natasha Romanoff’s globe-trotting espionage adventures and then closes with a multi-part story that establishes a conspiracy inside the Marvel Universe’s greatest spy agency. The dialogue gets a little rough at times, and towards the end of the collection the plot feels as though it is being stretched a little thin. On the strength of the writing alone, Black Widow would simply be an acceptable book. However, Noto’s art turns it into a much more interesting read; surprisingly, given his thin lines, his action scenes have real energy and the way he lays out the talking heads scenes help the pacing and actually elevate the dialogue. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed Black Widow, and will definitely get the next volume to see how the seeds Edmondson and Noto plant in these early issues take root.

Iron Fist

My favourite of the three new-to-me series, however, was Iron Fist: The Living Weapon, with Kaare Andrews taking care of both writing and art duties. The first volume, Rage, takes everything that has previously been established about Danny Rand, the Iron Fist, and deconstructs it. I don’t want to get into plot details, as revealing anything about the events of the plot (aside from the whole “Things will never be the same again!” hook) would spoil the read. However, I have to single Andrews out for making a book that looks absolutely gorgeous. His varying colour palette establishes just the right tone for each of the different settings, his faux-distressed and faded art for the flashback scenes strikes a good balance against the present day’s crisper line, and his action scenes are vibrant with Iron Fist moving through panels like a torrent of boiling water. Furthermore, the way he lays out each page is creative and eye-catching; some pages have a number of smaller panels against a larger backdrop, geographical details in one scene become panel borders in another, and his splash pages give the reader a chance to breathe while expanding the scope of the issue. I have no idea where Iron Fist: The Living Weapon is going, and though I am not sure I will like the final result from a plot and character perspective, I will love watching it happen.

Each of these new series scratches a different genre itch — action, espionage, martial arts — while never abandoning their identity as corporate superhero comics. That’s both a blessing and a curse — the use of established characters helps give them an audience but it also means that any significant changes are unlikely to remain in continuity after the current team leaves or the series wraps up. Taken for what they are, warts and all, all three are worth a read if only as attempts to shake up and reintroduce old characters to new readers, and the art on all three makes them worthy of a second look.

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I wasn’t just a Marvel zombie this past week, though. I also managed to dig deep into the origins of one of television’s biggest creative juggernauts — for good or for ill — of the last 40 years.

The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.
The Not Ready For Prime-Time Players circa 1975.

Television: I didn’t watch the Saturday Night Live 40th Anniversary Special earlier this month, mostly because like a stereotypical goon I dislike most of what SNL produced after I turned 19. However, I thought that the 40th anniversary was as good a reason as any to take my Season One DVDs off the shelf and give them a watch for the first time. After watching the first nine episodes I am still floored at how different the show was in its early days. It makes sense that a late-night sketch variety show would have a few growing pains when starting out, but the first few episodes feel wildly different than the format that is so familiar to today’s viewer. The first episode has host George Carlin (who only does monologues and never interacts with the Not Ready For Prime-Time Players), comedian Valri Bromfield, musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian (each of who does two songs), Andy Kaufman doing his Mighty Mouse routine, some original work from Jim Henson’s Muppets (which were an absolutely terrible fit for the program, as much as it pains me to say), and a film by Albert Brooks. All that plus some truly weird and wonderful sketches. It’s a fascinating watch, even if some of Carlin’s bits are de-fanged due to the combination of nerves and television standards, but watching the show evolve over the next eight episodes is absolutely fascinating. The second episode, hosted by Paul Simon, is basically a musical show with a few sketches, including a bizarrely hilarious film where he plays one-on-one basketball against former Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins. Simon sings a few songs on his own, then gets Art Garfunkel to come back to sing a few of their classics (and also to verbally Garfunkel on television).

The show really starts coming into its own when Candice Bergen hosts the fourth episode. She’s the first host to participate in sketches with the cast, and the show even has her in unscripted conversation with Gilda Radner, which is wonderfully sweet and sad. It is easy to see that everyone involved in the evening is having fun; the cast seems grateful and happy to have someone who’s willing to play along with them, and Bergen is up for trying anything. It’s the first glimpse of what the show would eventually turn into, and as much as I like the Carlin episode with its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach, the Bergen episode is the first to border on legitimately great. Lily Tomlin’s and Richard Pryor’s episodes are even better, each tailored to best highlight their personas and skills. Even though the show can appear clumsy, sweaty, and dated at times, it’s also exciting and fresh and vibrant, and I can’t wait to get through even more episodes and then on to Season Two when things apparently get really interesting.

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That’s it for me this week. Until next time, try your luck at one of those Marvel series, or at least track down the Saturday Night Live “Racist Word Association” sketch with Pryor and Chevy Chase and marvel that it was on broadcast television in the ’70s. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #042 // Baby, I Hope You Like Funkin’ It Up

Happy Friday, everyone! I actually made a concerted effort to read a lot of comics this past week. So of course I’m going to spend the biggest chunk of my time talking about an album that came out last winter from one of my favourite bands of all time. Because I get to do what I want here, and I like that.

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First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate: An Excess of Excess

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I’ve been taking a few weeks to really listen to and digest First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, the first Funkadelic album of all-new material in over 33 years. I absolutely adore George Clinton, though my interests lie primarily in the 1970s P-Funk era. His wide-ranging musical tastes include doo-wop, rock and roll, soul, and R&B, and he’s influenced so many musical acts over the past 30 years that even if one has never listened to Funkadelic or Parliament, their music still sounds instantly familiar. The man is a huge inspiration and full of excess both musically and in real life, so I was both excited and hesitant to see what he could do on a triple album with all the production effects that have been developed since the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, at over 200 minutes of music, it’s a bit of a mixed bag, but gloriously so. It’s very hip-hop and R&B-inspired, far different than the rock sounds of prime 1970s Funkadelic that I’m a fan of, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And yes, some of the album’s 33 tracks seem a little self-indulgent, but this is George Clinton, damn it, and if the man wants to be self-indulgent then I say let him, he’s earned it. There’s also a lot of auto-tune on the album, which I think Clinton overuses, but it’s a fairly new toy so I can see why he would be excited to play with it even though it really overwhelms some of the songs.

I’ve been taking a few listens through each of the discs before I make any judgements on the songs, as there are so many different sounds and genres that it can take me a little while to get acclimatized to them. The first disc is full of highs and lows, so I’m going to focus on the highs. I really enjoy the smooth “Ain’t That Funkin’ Kinda Hard on You?” and the G-funk groove of “Radio Friendly,” which is a little cognitively dissonant — Clinton homaging a genre that is itself an homage to Clinton — but it works. “Mathematics of Love” is a long track with some nice soul touches, and “Creases” has a rap by Del the Funky Homosapien that references He-Man villains like Man-E-Faces and Trap Jaw, so I’m all in on that one.

The second disc is probably the most solid of the whole album, with a lot of tracks that make me want to shake it all over the place. “Jolene” has a great hard guitar riff as a backbone, a sound that reminds me of the old 1970s Funkadelic in the best way. “Dirty Queen” is a rap-metal song which makes me strangely happy, while “You Can’t Unring The Bell” is a hip-hop/funk number with a solid groove and some killer drum and horn samples. “Pole Power” is a stripped-down funky number with a sexy groove and killer hook, and “As In” is a cover of a Bootsy Collins song I’ve admittedly never heard, but it is sung soulfully and wonderfully by the late Jessica Cleaves. This disc also features the most unexpected track on the album: a cover of The Four Tops’ “Bernadette” that at first rubbed me entirely the wrong way but ultimately I found to be one of the album’s most re-listenable songs.

I’m just now starting to delve into the third disc of the collection but there are definitely some great tracks already. “The Naz” features a really cool little groove that never fails to get my tailbone a-shaking, but really, the majority of the song is just special guest Sly Stone rambling all over the place. Plus, just the idea of a Funkadelic track with Sly Stone on it makes me happy beyond explanation. Some of the guitar work and vocal additions remind me of Frank Zappa and The Mothers, which is definitely not a bad thing. And the next three songs in a row — “Talking To The Wall,” ”Where Would I Go?” and “Yesterdejavu” — sound just like they could have appeared on a ’70s P-Funk album, if one could strip away a few of the modern production touches.

I’m aware that I took four paragraphs on a comics website to talk about a funk album that probably appeals to nobody but me. And that’s why I’m so glad Brandon and James give me this opportunity. Because if literally one other person checks out even one track from this album, then it will all have been worth it. First Ya Gotta Shake the Gate, and then you gotta go back to listen to Maggot Brain and Standing On the Verge of Getting it On and Let’s Take It To The Stage. At least, that’s what I’d recommend.

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Comics: I have read a lot of comic books in the past week, but most of them have fallen around the “acceptable” range, give or take a few points, which makes it hard for me to wholeheartedly recommend them to anyone. (The really good ones were sadly recorded for an upcoming Scotch & Comics episode, which is actually happening, no joke, but I don’t want to pre-review them here.) One chunk of comics that I can nearly wholeheartedly recommend are the first three volumes of Ultimate Fantastic Four. The story collected in the first volume, “Fantastic,” written by Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar with pencils by Adam Kubert and inks by Danny Miki and John Dell, is extremely skim (or skip) worthy. It sets up the Ultimate origin of the FF and their first encounter with the Mole Man, a story that takes six issues to do when it could probably been much more exciting to read over three. The art is okay, with a few really interesting passages, but otherwise I feel the real meat of these issues is in the “Doom” storyline, in volume two. This is the jewel of the series, written by Warren Ellis and art by Stuart Immonen and Wade von Grawbadger. This team really gets a handle on this younger and more vibrant take on the Fantastic Four: all the characters talk in more or less Ellis-toned dialogue, but it works for these young brash people, especially Ben Grimm. Honestly, Ellis’ take on The Thing is so fantastic it makes me wish he could write another FF story with the non-Ultimate versions of the characters. “N-Zone,” the story in the third volume, is once again illustrated by Kubert and a host of inkers, and while I don’t think his art is nearly as good a fit for Ellis’ story, it’s got a fantastic Ben Grimm, so I’m willing to overlook it. Maybe it’s just because I have an Ellis soft spot, but the second and third volume of Ultimate Fantastic Four feel youthful and vibrant even though they were first published over 10 years ago.

Books: Sometimes a book ends up being both more and less than I think it’s going to be. Giving Up the Ghost: A Story About Friendship, 80s Rock, a Lost Scrap of Paper, and What It Means to Be Haunted was initially billed as combination memoir and travelogue, as author Eric Nuzum examines his youth, where he believed he was haunted by a ghost and started mentally falling apart, by exploring the ghost subcultures of modern America. It’s a little less complicated than that, actually. Nuzum does technically explore both of those ideas, but they’re not terribly well integrated. His accounts of his visits — to a highway that’s the centre of dozens of ghost stories, meetings with spiritualists, and a ghost tour through a haunted prison — are faintly interesting but don’t really lend much colour or depth to the exploration of his past. About three-fifths of the way through the book he drops those adventures entirely, and when he does the book becomes a far more gripping beast. His past is the much more interesting story, and the reason to read the book. Nuzum did not have an easy youth, whether it was being haunted by repeated dreams of a dead girl whose ghost lived in his spare room, or his tragic relationship with a young friend, or his substance abuse problems and subsequent mental breakdown. That’s the story that I appreciated the most, a man opening up and being raw and honest (as honest as he could be) about the horrors he’s lived through and how long he’s been haunted by that past. It gets extremely bleak and melodramatic, but that’s what being an adolescent was like for Nuzum (and many others), and when he finally gets to his lowest point I realized that his bleak and melodramatic tone may have been under-selling it. That’s when the book became more than I expected — the depth of emotion and exploration Nuzum dedicates to this horrible time in his life made that story so much more compelling than I had imagined it would be. Giving Up The Ghost would have been a much shorter book if he had done away with the framing device and it was just a memoir, but I’m sure that would have been a much harder book to get published, so I appreciate that I got to read the story at all.

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That’s all for me this week. Until next time, try to get a little funk on you. It’s a good look, I promise. I’ll see you in seven days.

This Column Has Seven Days #041 // Boys in Sicktime Want to Write

What a day it has been, what a rare mood I’m in; why it’s almost like I have been recovering from a chest cold. That’s right, earlier in the week I had some kind of weird chest thing which made me hack and cough so much that one of my co-workers told me my voice sounded “sexy like Vin Diesel.” I of course ruined that by immediately saying “I am Groot,” which none of my other co-workers understood, but at least I was pleased by it. Here’s what else I was pleased by this week.

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This Column Has Seven Days #040 // Get Low

This past week has been one of the busiest I’ve had in a long time. It’s all good things, I assure you, and I’m thoroughly enjoying myself, but it has wreaked havoc on my ability to sit still and dive deep into my to-read or to-watch lists. Still, I did manage to find a few hours to read and digest things, and it was time well spent because not only did I manage to check a few things off those lists, but one comic book in particular made me sit up — literally, while I was lounging on the couch — and take notice.

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This Column Has Seven Days #039 // Post-Break Wrap-Up

Hello and welcome back to the column! My vacation was quite the amazing experience, I have to admit, with an especially invigorating ski vacation and spending a lot of time with some of my favourite people. And I even managed to squeeze in a few choice pop culture morsels in the bargain. Here’s what I thought was particularly noteworthy since the last column.

This Column Has Seven Days #038 // Three Hundred Words of Raw Power

The past seven days have been just full in my area of the world: some pretty dingy lows and some incredible highs. My brain is so ready for my upcoming two-week holiday I spent two hours napping instead of doing anything actually productive, like, say, writing a column. Never one to completely shirk responsibility, I have put together 100-word summaries of three of my favourite pop culture offerings from the past week.

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250px-Seaguy_coverComics: When Grant Morrison & Cameron Stewart’s Seaguy came out, my first impression was that it was incomprehensible but beautiful. It still looks fantastic; Stewart’s art is action-packed and gorgeously illustrated, with panels that feel like subtle homages to artists like Darick Robertson and Dave Stevens. As I’ve gained a little more perspective, though, the story has become clearer, and I was surprised how much sense it made underneath the Morrison “wackiness,” especially in issue two. The book knocked me to my knees on a second read, and I now have a greater appreciation for Seaguy’s inevitable struggle. A must-read book.

Comics: Another comic that is even better with a little distance is Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran’s Orbiter, a love letter to space exploration. In a dystopian future where no one goes to space anymore, a lost space shuttle returns to earth after 10 years, covered in what looks like skin and with only one crew member on board. Yeah, it’s Warren Ellis all right, but there’s a desperate love and yearning here that makes it more than just a “cool experiment.” Doran’s amazing touch with facial expressions give the characters depth and gravity, and Dave Stewart’s colours add a huge punch.

81en7XG7BDL._SL1425_Music: Neko Case’s The Worse Things Get, The Harder I Fight, The Harder I Fight, The More I Love You, which is 19 words right there, is a complete powerhouse of an album. The first track “Wild Creatures,” an echoing rocker with lyrics that cut me to the quick, sets up the listener for a deep and soulful listening experience. “Nearly Midnight, Honolulu” is another standout; an a cappella track that captures both crushing defeat and powerful affirmation of life. It’s bombastic and brutal, an embarrassment of riches, and eminently re-listenable. In my eyes it’s the highlight of Case’s amazing catalogue.

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I honestly think it was harder to limit myself to exactly 100 words than to have no limits, but that was a fun exercise in brevity (for a change). I’m taking the next two weeks off for Christmas and a skiing trip so until next time, have a freaking blast, everyone. I’ll see you in 21 days.

This Column Has Seven Days #037 // A Piece of Cake

Earlier this week, my a cappella group did our Christmas show and raised money for the Canadian Mental Health Association. It was pretty fun, and pretty disorganized, which probably describes this column fairly well too. At least the disorganized part. I was also on this week’s episode of Doctor Whooch, which was a blast (thanks Danica and Brandon!). It’s been a busy seven days, that’s for sure. Despite a whirlwind week of getting things whipped into shape, I managed a few fun things in my downtime, including re-reading a favourite children’s book with old, jaded eyes.

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The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More

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If my memory serves me — and it probably doesn’t, as I have an absolutely atrocious memory — I probably read Roald Dahl’s The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More at least three times before the age of 10. It was one of my favourite Roald Dahl books — one of my favourite books period, as a matter of fact. It’s seven short stories that vary in length and topic, and I would always read it from cover to cover in a single day, instead of letting each story sit on its own. I hadn’t read it in over 20 years until this past weekend, but there was something that was calling me to it last week. (Maybe it had a little something to do with the fact that I set myself a challenge of reading 225 books in 2014 and I’m currently at 160.)

When I was only 10 pages in, I thought to myself, “Good lord, I read these stories way too young.” Dahl’s not Kafka, but I feel the best of his stories are the ones that are tinged with his trademark bittersweet despair, and there are definitely layers to these stories that I missed on those first few readthroughs as a kid. These stories would still be fantastic for a 14-year-old, as many of them draw from those senses of not really belonging anywhere or discovering something new inside of yourself that’s terrifying in its power; two things that were defining characteristics of my own adolescence. Reading the stories as an adult, though, they still ring true, even if some of the writing is a little less complicated than the ideas the writer is trying to express.

“The Boy Who Loved Animals” and “The Swan” are two of the most heartbreaking stories in the collection, and the ones that are probably the most loved by the people who love them and despised by everyone else. These are really bleak stories of young boys who are tortured by the actions of people around them, intentionally or not. “The Swan” in particular is a story that is absolutely horrifying: a young boy is bullied beyond belief by two older, bigger boys, and it ends ambiguously enough that present-day Devin felt a chill in his gut. Add that to “A Piece of Cake,” a purportedly true story of Dahl’s time as an airman in World War II that is full of violence, pain, and morphine dreams, and the casual reader could be forgiven for assuming that Dahl’s work on Henry Sugar is basically Hubert Selby, Jr. with training wheels.

There are moments of pure brilliant light, though. “The Hitchhiker” doesn’t really go anywhere but is well-told and a nice light breather in the collection, about a man who picks up a hitchhiker with a very particular skill, who also manages to explain the secret of life (or one of them, anyhow). And of course there is “The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar,” the crowning jewel of the book; a story about a selfish aristocrat who accidentally discovers another one of those secrets of life. I have held on to that story in my heart and soul for years, and I was absolutely delighted to find that not only does it hold up, it’s better as an adult.

I know there are people who only know Roald Dahl through that awful adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or the one that Tim Burton did later, which was also awful but not as awful. Dahl’s catalogue is vast and varied, though, and even though it’s technically a children’s book, The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More is a great sampling of the man’s talent.

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I managed to do more than simply revisit a bleakly beautiful childhood classic this week, though. Here are a couple other things that grabbed my attention.

Television: I thought that after their third season, AMC’s Western series Hell on Wheels had completely lost its way. That season felt like it was just a long, slow setup getting rid of plots and characters from the second season that didn’t work, and I had lost nearly all the affection and goodwill that I’d had for the series. I finished up the fourth season this weekend and all that place-setting paid off in spades — the show was exciting, with real urgency to the stories and challenging a status quo that was becoming a little stale. New characters were introduced to shake up old dynamics that were getting a little tired, while established characters were put through their paces, transformed, and in some cases, dispatched as the story demanded it. There were times where the dialogue got a little creaky but even with some rough scripts, all the actors put in some of the best work of the series. It’s not a season that one could just jump into and hit the ground running, but for a viewer who had been wondering whether or not the series would ever live up to the potential of the first season, it was a real punch to the gut. In a good way.

Comics: This past week I finished 20th Century Boys Vols. 8 and 9, and even after a long-ish self-imposed break after the seventh issue, the story continues to excite. 20th Century Boys is a manga series that starts off by telling the story of a group of Japanese boys in 1969, hanging out in their secret base, reading comics and stolen porno magazines and listening to rock and roll. They come up with a symbol to represent their group, as well as a fantastical story set in the year 2000 where the boys have to stop a coming global superpocalypse. Then, in the late 1990s, a group calling themselves The Friends appears, using the symbol that the boys created in 1969, plus certain things from their made-up story start happening in real life. That may seem like I just spoiled a great deal of the plot, but that’s actually just the tip of the iceberg. The story expands outwards as it folds in on itself; events that happen in the “future” are immediately juxtaposed with flashbacks to the “past” and each enlightens the other. The art is fantastic, and creator Naoki Urasawa is a master of the almost-reveal, where the reader thinks they are about to get a crucial piece of information but then quickly that reveal is interrupted or shelved, and the story moves on down a different alleyway. I can count the number of manga series I unabashedly love on one hand, and this is one of them. Every time I think it hits a new high, it manages to outdo itself. It’s rock and roll and dystopia and mystery and friendship and that’s quite enough to keep me satisfied.

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And that’ll do it for me this week. Until next time, do whatever you want to do. I’m not your boss. See you in seven days.