Monday, December 26, 2011

Scott Pilgrim series Discussion Questions

Scott Pilgrim is a graphic novel series that was recommended to me by a fellow friend. At first I was creeped out by the similarities between my life and his (bass player, video game nerd, same age!?!?!) but then quickly realized along with a few million others just how charming the series is. Each of the six volumes of Scott Pilgrim are peppered with clever music and video game references and surprisingly deep characterization. Here are some not-very-spoilery questions for the series.

1. Do you think the Scott Pilgrim series has crossover appeal between manga fans and graphic novel fans?

Most definitely. It is practically a gateway into the manga form. It is easy to pick up, Americanized, and short.

2. For those who have seen Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (the film), compare the relationship between Scott and Ramona in the film versus the graphic novel.

My criticism with the film was that the romance between Scott and Ramona felt sudden and forced. The graphic novels allow more time and space to develop that relationship.

3. Books and graphic novel series' such as Ernest Cline's Ready Player One and Scott Pilgrim have constructed simple stories around a bevy of pop culture references with great success. Are they simply catering to nerds for profit or do these references add depth?

I loved Ready Player One even as a guy who is only nominally familiar with half of the pop culture references made. I think Scott Pilgrim is universally enjoyable and if you get the references that's just icing on the cake. I don't think the references are overbearing or catering too much to nerds, I think it is just a symptom of nerdy thirty something authors.

4. How does Scott's demeanor change throughout the series? What did he learn?

Scott's character is clueless in all senses of the word. He is self-centered and seems unaware that he has hurt Kim and later, Knives. Throughout the series, he must be selfless and help Ramona with her problems to save the world and ultimately get the girl. These events help Scott focus on something other than himself and learn that other people matter. Hence his desire to go through the door with Ramona at the end of the series and tackle whatever lies ahead with her.

5. What is the appeal of Ramona Flowers? Is she just a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? (MPDG defined: "that bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures." Example: Natalie Portman in Garden State, Zooey Deschanel in nearly everything, Ramona Flowers?)

I'm not sure what Ramona's appeal is. She seems distant and unpleasant. I guess she is kind of hot. Ramona is most definitely the Manic Pixie Dream Girl archetype, but O'Malley allows her character to grow a bit. I can see why there were Team Kim vs. Team Ramona campaigners while the books were being released, though.

6. What does Kim Pine's role become in the series? What does she do for Scott?

Kim Pine is the catalyst to Scott's character development. She is the one who was hurt by him in the past and when Scott goes to save/visit her, that serves as the push his character needed to break away from his self-centeredness.

7. Brian Lee O'Malley includes a playlist of music that inspired him for each volume. Does knowing the author's inspiration add any personal feeling or depth to the series?

I think knowing O'Malley's muses helps the series along most definitely, especially since music plays an important role in the story. Similar to the previous question about pop culture references, this music knowledge gives the reader a deeper understanding of the author's influences.

8. Subspace goes largely unexplained through the series. Did you simply accept what it did or did this bother you? Why can Ramona access these doors?

I've been reading a lot of books lately that eschew explanations of supernatural occurrences. In this case as well, I don't think a science fiction-y explanation of subspace would have done anything for the story. Scott Pilgrim is above all else, a story focused on characters. The ambiguity in Ramona's origins and powers serves as the most intriguing unsolved mystery of the series (adding to the what happens after the end mystery)

9. What was the driving narrative force of the series? What kept you reading?

Characters, Scott's character arc most definitely. Surprisingly, the fights simply drove the story along but weren't the most compelling part.

10. What is the importance (or non-importance) of changing hairstyles?

It shows the superficiality of Scott's previous girlfriend Natalie/Envy. If she cares that much about Scott's hairstyle, she's probably not a good person to be with. Not sure on Ramona's changing hairstyles, perhaps that she's never solidified in once place and that she isn't happy with being nailed down to one style/thing.

11. How did the Scott Pilgrim film adaptation differ from other comic to film adaptations?

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World felt more like a nod to the graphic novel series rather than a panel by panel adaptation a la Sin City. The humor and feel of the graphic novels were captured quite well.

12. Do you think Scott and Ramona were meant to be together? Did they stay together?

My book club simply replied, "It doesn't matter," which bugged me. I don't think Scott and Ramona's relationship would last much past the end of the book, but the important lesson is that they both learned to make another person in their lives the center if only for a bit.

Non-cohesive thoughts:

-You know what was cool? The actual hours and names of various locations. Also, that awesome Shepherd's Pie recipe.

-Brian O'Malley's significant other is Hope Larson, author of the graphic novel Mercury

-Edgar Wright, the director of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World also directed with Shaun of the Dead and Spaced.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Graphic Novel Selections May through August 2012

Hey all, it's that time again to read up and vote upon future selections for the book club. Here are some that came up on various best of lists and some personal favorites:

Habibi by Craig Thompson

Craig Thompson, the author of Blankets, released this 600+ page epic that chronicles a relationship between two unlikely individuals against a backdrop of a cruel and oppressive society. As always, Thompson manages to tell a vastly personal story while drawing similarities to religious subtexts from the Qur'an and the Bible.

Any Empire by Nate Powell

"Nate Powell's follow-up to the Eisner award-winning Swallow Me Whole examines war and violence, and their trickle-down effects on middle America. As a gang of small-town kids find themselves reunited in adulthood, their dark histories collide in a struggle for the future. Any Empire follows three kids in a Southern town as a rash of mysterious turtle mutilations forces each to confront their relationship to their privileged suburban fantasies of violence. Then, after years apart, the three are thrown together again as adults, amid questions of choice and force, belonging and betrayal."

Essex County by Jeff Lemire

"Where does a young boy turn when his whole world suddenly disappears? What turns two brothers from an unstoppable team into a pair of bitterly estranged loners? How does the simple-hearted care of one middle-aged nurse reveal the scars of an entire community, and can anything heal the wounds caused by a century of deception? In Essex County, Lemire crafts an intimate study of one community through the years, and a tender meditation on family, memory, grief, secrets, and reconciliation. With the lush, expressive inking of a young artist at the height of his powers, Lemire draws us in and sets us free."

The Complete Concrete by Paul Chadwick

"Part man, part...rock? Over seven feet tall and weighing over a thousand pounds, he is known as Concrete but is in reality the mind of one Ronald Lithgow, trapped inside a shell of stone, a body that allows him to walk unaided on the ocean's floor or survive the crush of a thousand tons of rubble in a collapsed mineshaft...but prevents him from feeling the touch of a human hand. These stories of Concrete are as rich and satisfying as any in comics: funny, heartbreaking, and singularly human."

Akira series by Katsuhiro Otomo

KANAEEEDAAAAAA! TETSUOOOOOOO! Find out why these characters are always yelling each others names! Japan's most epic and famous manga follows two motorcycling teenagers and their journey to uncover a plot involving nuclear weapons and psychic children/adults. Best known for its vastly confusing anime film that tried to condense 3000 pages of manga into a two hour film. Read the series and ignore the film.

Gotham Central series by Ed Brubaker

Ever wonder what the Gotham Police are up to? Solving crimes, that's what! Batman may be the world's greatest detective, but that doesn't mean the Gotham City Police don't have their hands full with villains like Mr. Freeze and Penguin. This unique series adds an unseen layer of depth to Batman's world.

DMZ series by Brian Wood

"In the near future, America's worst nightmare has come true. With military adventurism overseas bogging down the Army and National Guard, the U.S. government mistakenly neglects the very real threat of anti-establishment militias scattered across the 50 states. Like a sleeping giant, Middle America rises up and violently pushes its way to the shining seas, coming to a standstill at the line in the sand – Manhattan. Or as the world now knows it, the DMZ."

Revolver by Matt Kindt

Revolver deals with duality that comes off as a little bit Seven and a little bit Memento. Unique art and color scheme play into the themes and cerebral plot.

Swamp Thing series by Alan Moore

Alan Moore's famous 1980s run on Swamp Thing turned the series into a creepy and psychological story rather than a plant going around moping or killing other non-plants. Everything from romance to his origins are covered in Moore's newly collected Swamp Thing trades.

Love and Rockets vol. 1 by Los Bros Hernandez

[Love and Rockets vol. 1 is] "the first of three volumes collecting the adventures of the spunky Maggie, her annoying best friend and sometime lover Hopey, and their circle of friends, including their bombshell friend Penny Century, Maggie's weirdo mentor Izzyas well as the wrestler Rena Titanon and Maggie's handsome love interest, Rand Race. Maggie the Mechanic collects the earliest, punkiest, most heavily sci-fi stories of Maggie and her circle of friends, and you can see the artist (who drew like an angel from the very first panel) refine his approach: Despite these strong shifts in tone, the stunning art and razor sharp characterizations keep this collection consistent, and enthralling throughout."

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Shortcomings is a black and white graphic novel that follows the ever-frustrating Ben Tanaka and his dealings with race identity and relationships. Through the lens of a brittle and crumbling relationship with his girlfriend Miko and a literally crumbling movie theater, Tomine attempts to explore these themes in a succinct and creative manner.

1. Tomine's work and other "hip comics" such as the work of Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes focus on what could be considered "first world problems," or conflicts that only effect privileged individuals. What are your thoughts on this statement?

Indie comics most definitely seem to follow young privileged folks with much worse problems to worry about. Is this meant to be satirical? Are authors of these stories similar people? I'd imagine this might be the aspect that turns people away from such a subgenre.

2. How does Tomine construct likeable and unlikable characters? Is anyone likeable?

Ben Tanaka is in my opinion a well-constructed jerk. The reader has to cringe at some of his cruel and unnecessary retorts that have just the slightest bit of truth to them. I liked Alice but I believe that was her purpose, to be the likeable foil.

3. What is the significance of the flowers/stars on the cover?

The same symbols were in the background of the picture of Miko that Ben discovered. I'm having a tough time symbolizing them without digging too deep, perhaps they represent a pattern that Ben and Miko have fallen into and have become unhappy with.

4. The self-centered cinephile, the level-headed gay friend, the aloof Asian girlfriend. Some criticize Tomine for utilizing stereotypical characters and character arcs. What do you think?

I would say that these are likely tropes of the indie comic genre, but I haven't read enough of them to identify or grow tired of them. I thought they were well-constructed relatively believable characters.

5. What does Ben's Asian heritage mean to him? How does this affect his everyday actions? Same question for Miko.

Ben criticizes the Asian stereotypes and ignores his heritage. This is evident in his comment to Miko's lover and the arguments that stem from his pornography preferences.

6. What commentary is Tomine offering on Ben's sexual preferences and the idealized (white, blonde) woman?

As mentioned above, this provides commentary on Ben's relationship with his heritage and also gives the reader insight to the relationship problems he and Miko are having.

7. What did you think about the quality of the dialogue?

Tomine is often praised for his realistic dialogue in graphic novels, I would agree that the dialogue in Shortcomings flows well and believable. The only suspension of belief might be asking yourself if this many twenty somethings are so cynical and quick with witty retorts.

8. Why did Autumn refuse Ben's advances?

It was becoming evident that Ben was not over his relationship with Miko despite her distance and that he had less than commendable reasons for being interested in her.

9. Why does Ben carry himself in such an antagonistic manner? What are the snide comments and chilly exterior hiding?

The snide comments are hiding an insecure thirty year old with a go-nowhere job. Ben is perhaps bitter because his life has plateaued, he seems to need new motivation and new goals.

10. Alice is Ben's only friend. Why does she tolerate him? What do they have in common?

I'm not sure why Alice tolerates Ben, I asked myself this throughout the entire book. They seem to have fun having relatively misogynistic conversations about relationships.

11. What about Tomine's sparse art style lends itself to discussion on race relations?

It is sometimes difficult to ascertain the race of characters in Tomine's art, perhaps by design. I wasn't sure of Miko's lover's race, I'm still not completely sure. Tomine could be saying that the world is becoming a homogenized place or we could be reading into the art too far.

12. What is the significance of the first page and it being a scene from a film?

The first page portrays a cheesy film full of Asian stereotypes. Miko is emotionally moved by it while Ben criticizes it. This easily gives the reader an idea of each character's view on their racial identity.

13. Tomine, like his character Ben Tanaka, is more or less "pessimistic about the possibility of escaping the limitations of socially inscribed identities." Your thoughts?

I think this is universal across many second or third generation Americans with mixed ethnic identities. Despite being a multiracial individual, these folks are still seen as exclusively black, white, Asian, whatever. Tomine likely wrote Shortcomings as a commentary on this societal tendency.

14. Shortcomings ends ambiguously. What have we learned? What will Ben Tanaka do? What should he do?

We have seen the evidence, now it is our part to decide where Ben Tanaka goes next. The hope is that he has seen his own flaws through his relationships and trip out to see Miko, but his character is indeed stubborn.