TCAF Recap!

This past week has been an absolute whirlwind. Last Wednesday, I got on a plane to Toronto to start my volunteering adventure with the Toronto Comics Art Festival. I always love seeing the behind the scenes stuff at events, love learning how each team organizes their time and resources differently. And absolutely everyone on the TCAF team is absolutely lovely — so very kind and accepting and helpful.

I decided to volunteer for TCAF after leaving Comicopia, out of a desire to remain close to the comics community in a more tangible, physical way than just sitting at my desk at home and writing about manga. (I’ve also volunteered to help organize the Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo this year, for the same reason.) And for me, that’s really what comics is all about: a sense of community.

There were so many incredible events going on and comics work to see, but by and large the best thing about this show was the people I met and interacted with. Some of those were people I had met before and got to know better, and some of those were people whom I have been following and admiring for years and whom I was lucky to finally meet in person. And through it all, everyone was so kind and so supportive. I received so many words of encouragement and definitive, actionable advice from people with more experience and a better understanding of what the industry needs from an authoritative voice in manga.

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And honestly — I just had a lot of fun. I got to work all the Junji Ito events, which was a really exhausting experience in many ways because everyone was SO EAGER to meet and listen to him. But that also means that got to listen to him, even got to chat with him briefly. Hearing stories about his journey as an artist and what motivates and inspires him has rekindled an interest in writing about him — so look out for that soon, hopefully! He’s one of my absolute favorite mangaka of all time, and up until now I felt that he didn’t necessarily need my help getting any kind of recognition (whereas I strive to write about women a lot because I want to boost their readership). But sometimes…I just have to write things that are meaningful to me, and I would get a lot of satisfaction out of exploring the reasons I find his work so evocative and resonant in my life.

Because I was working events, I didn’t get a ton of time to peruse the show floor, but all the work I saw was truly incredible. Artists from all over were arranged on three full floors in the Toronto Reference Library selling their comics, bonding with readers, working on commissions. Attendance was enormous, and I heard from a lot of artists that they were amazed at how much they sold. This support for the arts, and for independent artists, is so admirable. It was so gratifying to be in such a positive, upbeat space. Even though I was working hard and not sleeping as much or as well as normal, the general good mood was palpable and infectious.

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I was relieved to come home to my own bed, but also very satisfied in my decision to go to TCAF for the first time as a volunteer. It was a truly remarkable experience, and I hope that I can go back again next year — as a volunteer or otherwise — and experience the jubilant atmosphere and incredible conversations once again. I know that I’ve started relationships this past week that will last for many, many years to come. I’ve come away from this festival feeling rejuvenated, motivated, inspired, and so very, very grateful.

April Favorites

Every month, I get the itch to write this segment about halfway through, thus defeating the point of having a monthly round-up! I get too excited to talk about what I’ve just read, and I read a lot of good stuff in April.

Actually, a lot of stuff in general happened in April. I turned 29 on the 4th, so here’s to the last year of my 20s! My husband and I are in the midst of apartment hunting, which is always chaotic, especially here in the Boston area. And Anime Boston was last weekend! Even though I don’t technically work at Comicopia anymore, I helped with the ordering and was there on the floor from set up on Thursday to break down on Sunday. It was a really great show, and I’m glad I was able to be a part of it. Selling at conventions is my favorite kind of retail, because everyone is just so excited to be there and see what you’ve got and talk to you about it. And all the con-goers are so creative — I saw so many excellent costumes! Oh, and my very first post for Anime Feminist went up this week, as well: a spotlight on amazing artist and mangaka Junko Mizuno.

As May approaches, I’m getting ready to head over to the Toronto Comic Arts Festival (TCAF) for the first time, and I’m super excited. Between that and moving, May is going to be intense — but we’re not there yet. For now, I want to reflect on all the good stuff I read in April! And it’s actually all relatively new stuff this month, a sure change for me.

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Maiden Railways, by Asumiko Nakamura — published by Denpa

This is the first of Denpa’s offerings that I’ve gotten a chance to read, and it’s the one I was most looking forward to. I love Asumiko Nakamura. Her art is so strange, both adorable and almost uncomfortable with all its sharp angles and long limbs. This volume is an anthology of railway-themed romances. It is simple and straightforward in many ways, but as with all of Nakamura’s work, it sets a very distinct tone, in this case of hope and longing and compassion. It’s a really lovely little collection with some lesbian themes neatly tucked into it with no fuss. Between this and Seven Seas’s upcoming print version of Classmates coming out soon, I am thrilled that more readers have access to Nakamura’s work.

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Bloom, by Kevin Panetta and Savanna Ganucheau — published by FirstSecond

I had to wait for this book from the library for months, and I absolutely understand why — it’s absurdly charming. Ari’s dream is to move to the city with his band, but he can’t seem to escape his responsibilities at his family’s bakery. Hector, a culinary school student, has come to town to pack up his deceased grandmother’s home. Ari hires Hector to help in the bakery, in the hopes that by replacing himself, he will leave his parents no room to argue about his leaving home. But over the course of the summer, Ari and Hector grow close, and they have to make some big decisions about where their lives are headed, and whether those lives include each other. This book was so unbearably sweet, and so beautifully illustrated. Savanna Ganucheau does an excellent job of showing everyday examples of sexiness — nothing exploitative, but the little kinds of things that a person appreciates in their partner, like how they look when they’re focused, or how they move when they’re excited. With a cast diverse in both ethnic background and body type, and a strong, happy queer narrative, this is an incredibly delightful read for teens and up.

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Smashed, by Junji Ito — published by VIZ Media

It’s no secret that I’m a HUGE Junji Ito fan. (That’s part of the reason I’m so excited about TCAF!) I never know what to expect with each new anthology: Will I be scared? Will I laugh? Will I feel like I just watched a particularly poignant episode of The Twilight Zone? For me, this collection had a lot of humor in it, and that is perhaps one of my favorite things about Ito’s work. There is a very fine line between comedy and horror, and no one loves to hop back and forth across that line as much as Ito. I think my favorites in this collection were “Bloodsucking Darkness” (because I love bats), “Soichi’s Beloved Pet” (because I love cats), and “Library Vision” (because I love books). The linked Soichi stories never fail to be silly fun, and as usual Ito’s artwork throughout the whole anthology is gorgeous and detailed. Truly, he is a master of horror, and all other kinds of base human emotions.

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Kitaro’s Yokai Battles, by Shigeru Mizuki — published by Drawn & Quarterly

It’s been so long since there was another installment of Kitaro, and I was thrilled when I was alerted to this making its way into my pull at Comicopia. Who on this earth doesn’t love adorable, weird, childish monsters with potty humor? Only boring people, that’s who! In this collection, I was particularly fond of the “Oboro Guruma” chapter, in which Shigeru Mizuki has inserted himself as a major character, plagued by yokai who are taking over his home as their base of operations. As usual, Mizuki’s cartoony characters sit atop his lush and gorgeous backgrounds seamlessly, and the oft-times odd solutions to yokai-related problems harken back to simpler times and simpler story-telling mechanics. With each volume comes another installment of translator Zack Davisson’s “History of Kitaro,” which really appeals to my interest in both general world history and manga history specifically. A fun read suitable for just about anyone who appreciates a little dark whimsy in their life.

That’s going to do it for this month! I made the conscious decision not to include the sixth volume of Tokyo Tarareba Girls this time around, even though it’s one of my absolute favorite series, because I’ve already written about it in the past, and I anticipate I will talk at great length about it in many forms in the future. I thought I’d spare you all, haha.

I already have a huge pile of comics waiting to be read (don’t I always?), so hopefully I’ll have a nice round-up for May, as well. Happy reading!

The Beautiful & the Damned; Where Violence Meets Aesthetics in Pet Shop of Horrors

Among the extensive list of things I shamelessly love are: the occult detective genre, beautiful men, the monster-of-the-week format, and morality plays. Matsuri Akino’s Pet Shop of Horrors very neatly contains all of these things, and indeed might be the reason I’m so fond of some of them.

For those unfamiliar with this late-90s shojo series, the premise is that in LA’s Chinatown there is a mysterious pet shop whose proprietor, Count D, sells exotic “animals” to anyone who can pay the price. Each animal comes with a specific set of rules, and when those rules aren’t followed to the letter, tragedy inevitably occurs. LAPD officer Leon Orcot is assigned to investigate D and the weird phenomena linked to his shop, but in the process he is drawn into a series of Twilight Zone-esque situations that he cannot explain, let alone report to his superiors.

Right now, I can look at this premise and think to myself, “Yep, this is totally my kind of bullshit.” But when I first picked it up as a young teen, it was because I was drawn to its beautiful cover, where the androgynous D is holding a mermaid, whose back is turned to the viewer. D’s eyes are piercing and almost sad, his fingers long and delicate. I was in love with this man who moved in multiple worlds: the masculine and the feminine, reality and fantasy, beauty and horror.

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And when I bought and read this first volume, I was shocked. It wasn’t outright scary, necessarily, but it certainly was gory. In the first chapter already was there a horrific scene of evisceration, in and amongst all the trappings of a classic 90s shojo style, preoccupied with luxury and beauty. It was jarring, and it was effective. I discovered then that I didn’t dislike horror like I had previously thought, I just wanted it to be beautiful.

To this day, I find myself critical of scary or violent media that doesn’t also have a keen sense of aesthetics. I don’t necessarily enjoy being frightened; I am a naturally anxious person with vivid and violent dreams who does not react well to heightened suspense in media. I do like dark themes, though, and in recent years I have made it a point to expose myself to films especially that I know I would like if I could just get over my own hang-ups. And by being discerning, I’ve been rewarded with some of the most gorgeous horror and gore I’ve ever seen.

I think beauty and romance are natural companions to horror. All these themes pivot on an axis of drama, of amplified emotions. They all invoke visceral reactions, not logical ones. All my life I’ve surrounded myself with artwork depicting scenes and themes of witchcraft, hauntings, murders, martyrs, and mortality. It seems natural to me that scary things can pull at the same emotions I feel when I recognize something as beautiful.

And all this because way back in 2003, Tokyopop decided to take a chance on something that wasn’t very common in the comics world at the time: horror for girls. There’s plenty of it to be found in the manga world, and now there is more acknowledgement of girls and women reading outside of the romance genre. But it was new for me then, and even now Pet Shop of Horrors remains one of my favorite series, because it presented to me something I hadn’t known I was seeking out. It understood my tastes uniquely; it was able to marry my desire with my rage and prove them to be not disparate but intertwined and equally valid.

In truth, it is a somewhat silly series. It is certainly more fun than profound, but that in and of itself is not a criticism. It is pure, indulgent entertainment, and for me it is certainly laced with a nostalgic love that I will never be able to shake. How many times have I reread and referenced that first volume, gazing awestruck at the lovingly rendered intestines spilling out of a beautiful man’s body? How many times have I giggled at the flirtatious relationship between D and Orcot? How many times have I wished that modern depictions of mermaids were even half as scary as the one Akino has created?

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The series is unfortunately long out of print, and later volumes are hard to find. I imagine that it wasn’t a huge seller for Tokyopop, though I am forever grateful that they took a chance on it to begin with. The anime is available to stream on HiDive, brief as it is, if you’d like to get a glimpse into Count D’s enigmatic Chinatown pet shop.

February Favorites

Time for something new! I’m going to start trying to round up some of my favorite comic reads at the end of each month. These won’t necessarily be things that came out the month in question (though I do try to keep up when I can), but anything I’ve managed to get my hands on that I feel is worth a mention. I read a lot, so I’m going to have to figure out how to limit my choices, but hopefully with time will come clarity!

I will say, first off, that this has been an…interesting month. I still feel so new to the freelance writing world, but I do think that things are coming together nicely, and I’m getting to a point where I can start challenging myself with how much work I take on. I also lost my cat, Mia, on February 12th. She was quite old, and her decline was very rapid. While she was sick, I spent a good deal of my time attending to her; after her death, there was a lot of time where I was just too miserable to feel like I wanted to do much of anything, let alone read. Still, a visit to Comicopia did help lift my spirits considerably, and while I have to be a little bit more judicious in my purchases right now, I was able to bring home some good new material.

I am also about to spend five days with my family while James is away on business, which is why I’m getting this out before the true end of the month. I suspect I will be too busy doing things with my mom and trying to keep up with my writing work to read too many more comics. But I wanted to give this segment a try, anyway, so I’ve decided to work with what I’ve got.

So without further ado, my picks for the month!

NotAnotherMagicalGirl
Magical Beatdown
, Volume 1, by Jenn Woodall — published by Silver Sprocket

This slim little issue does one of my favorite things: It combines a love of the ultra-femme concept of the magical girl and mixes it generously with a hyper-violence that is both gross and cathartic at the same time. I think there’s a lot to be said about women enjoying and creating violent content, and some day I hope to talk about it more in-depth. But for now, I want to recommend the excellent pastel gore-fest revenge fantasy that is Magical Beatdown, because sometimes you just wanna go to the arcade without having to deal with losers! I’m looking forward to getting my hands on the second installment.

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House of Penance
, by Peter J. Tomasi, Ian Bertram, and Dave Stewart — published by Dark Horse Comics

Speaking of gore-fests, this standalone graphic novel is not for the faint of heart or stomach. The Winchester mansion in San Jose, California, is famous for it’s staircases that lead to nowhere, its doors that open onto nothing but air, and the nagging suspicion that it is not entirely empty. House of Penance is an exploration of Sarah Winchester’s mental state as she commissions the building of this strange domicile while grappling with the grief of losing her daughter and her husband, and the guilt of inheriting the wealth from a company whose business is murder. I’m always down for a strong anti-gun message, personally, and there is no holding back here as Sarah is confronted relentlessly by the victims of her in-laws’ firearm empire. Ian Bertram’s art is eerie and textured, Sarah especially portrayed with bug-like eyes that can see more than the men working around her. Dave Stewart’s incredible colors compliment Bertram’s lines beautifully, and his use of bright, vibrant blood red is very effective.

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Shion: Blade of the
 Minstrel, by Yu Kinutani — published by VIZ Media (out of print)

I came upon this volume completely by accident, while I was still working at Comicopia. It was hidden away in storage, in a long box full of old single issue comics, many of which were single issue manga, from way back when everything was flipped and companies tried selling manga like Western single-issue comics. I was drawn to its striking cover and detailed artwork, so I brought it home. That had to have been nearly two years ago, as I had put it into a comic box and promptly forgotten it. I dug it out recently while I was doing some organizing, and I resolved to finally read it.

And honestly, I was stunned. This little volume is so extraordinarily different from any manga that is being licensed and published today. It wouldn’t be seen as marketable, probably, but I’m so glad that VIZ took a chance on it back in 1991, because it was a pleasure to read. The book is split into two stories that follow a mysterious minstrel who must first take his revenge on a monster who wronged him and his family, and then must take up a legendary sword to fulfill his destiny. That one sentence seems like straightforward fantasy, and in many ways that’s what Shion is; as an essay at the back of the volume explains, it is a classic hero arc seen in many fairy tales and epics. But it’s so gorgeously textured in its artwork, and for me it invoked the same feelings as Vampire Hunter D and classic Jim Henson works, especially The Dark Crystal. It’s creative and beautiful, and I’d love to see what Kinutani did after this work. Worth hunting down if you are able!

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My Solo Exchange Diary
, Volume 2, by Nagata Kabi — published by Seven Seas Entertainment

In many ways, there’s not much I can say that I haven’t said before, in various spaces, about Nagata Kabi’s autobiographical work. Of the three volumes she has out from Seven Seas right now, I think this one was my favorite, even though much of it was spent talking about her time in the hospital. I appreciate, more than ever, her honesty, especially as she realizes how her mental state had prevented her from understanding how much her family actually loves her and wants what’s best for her. She continues to struggle throughout the volume, but it is evident that she’s repairing her relationships and learning, slowly, how to better communicate her pain so that she’s not suffering alone. I know that many people have been critical of her constant self-destruction, but to that end I just have to say…it is evident those people have never struggled with serious mental illness, or really known anyone who has. What Kabi is going through is not logical, it is not easily navigated, and her honesty and willingness to expose herself like she this has surely had a positive effect on others who have felt similarly isolated, self-destructive, and hurt. I continue to send her only the kindest, gentlest, most positive thoughts as she works on overcoming her pain. It’s a hard road, and she’s been working at it for a long, long time. I hope she’s able to find some peace soon.

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All My Darling Daughters
, by Fumi Yoshinaga — published by VIZ Media

Fumi Yoshinaga is one of those creators whose work I always know I’ll enjoy, but who also manages to completely exceed my expectations every single time. So was the case with All My Darling Daughters, a standalone volume that explores various relationships between people in a friend group, with special emphasis on the one between Yukiko and her mother, Mari, who has married a much younger man. Yoshinaga has such a sensitive touch with her characters that I find myself sympathizing even with those who in a different author’s hands, I would absolutely hate. It is an incredible skill to express the nuances of humanity, and Yoshinaga is extraordinarily good at it. I felt especially drawn to the last story in the collection, which dives into Mari’s antagonistic relationship with her own mother (Yukiko’s grandmother). Mari hates her mother for having been unnecessarily cruel about her appearance while she was growing up, not realizing that her mother was trying, in her own imperfect way, to protect her daughter from becoming reliant on her good looks. I was so strongly reminded of the dynamics between the women in my own family, the dynamics between my mother and my grandmother, and the increased awareness I have lately of how heavy motherhood can be. “A mother is an imperfect woman,” Yukiko realizes, and it is a perfect underscore to a book full of imperfect people who are just trying to do the right thing.

Looking back, it seems I’ve read a lot of very different books this month, but there are certain themes that run throughout. A lot of introspection, explorations of mental health (both real and fictional), and a little bit of violence and some adventure to balance things out. I like the micro-review format because I can fit several recommendations into a post at once, and I am not liable to give too much away. I hope this proves useful, and I look forward to following up again next month with some more excellent reads!