Saturday, January 30, 2016

"Nothing is better than even a hard life. I wanted to live."

"The old world is dying, but a new world is being born. It generates inspiration from the chaos that beats upon us all. The false grandeur and security, the unfulfilled promises and illusory power, the number of the dead and those about to die, will charge the forces of our courage and determination. The old world will die so that the new world [will have] less sacrifice and agony on the living."

Carlos Bulosan is a Filipino author who is considered both a socialist writer and a labor organizer. His writings have a lot of impact for many Asian immigrants who can relate to his chronicles of hardship, sickness and despair as he tried to make a living in America. This work of non-fiction is semi-autobiographical, depicting his early childhood steeped in poverty back in his hometown Pangasinan, which then carried on to discuss about his misadventures during his immigration to the United States (particularly in Seattle and California). Here in this places is where he encountered several instances and increasingly violent displays and sentiments of racism against Filipinos during the Great Depression. This was a very disconcerting read and something I was not prepared to experience at all as one of the only two books I scheduled to read for this month. 

But if I must pick between this harrowing tale of hopelessness and abuse, and the Victorian facebook-ing narrative that was ultimately Jane Austen's Emma in a nutshell, then there is no question in my mind that America is in the Heart is the more stimulating and emotionally stirring book.

Divided into three meaningful aspects of Bulosan's life, this book is a very satisfying slow burn that was painstakingly delivered with one of the most earnest literary voices I have read in a while. But, then again, being a Filipino I might only be showing certain biases, especially since I have made it to a point since I started reviewing novels to always have a Filipino story included in the schedule because although my taste and sensibilities as a reader have more or less been Westernized, there are tons of amazing works of fiction written by my own fellowmen that must be explored. Carlos Bulosan's autobiography is definitely one of those and I don't think I have any regrets. I say this because there are just so many passages in the later second and third parts of the book that are just so upsetting and depressing since they paint a cruel portrait of discrimination and loneliness as one is stuck in a foreign land that supposedly promises opportunities for equality and autonomy but to a barely educated immigrant like Bulosan, nothing could be farther from the truth.

What was singularly engaging about this book is its honesty in chronicling even the smallest moments of cruelty--and compassion. Bulosan would often express the paradox of the white men and women and their treatment of Filipinos. On one hand, they are violent and abusive; on the other they are sympathetic and willing to assist a broken stranger. It's worth noting that this book's setting is majorly in the Depression era so certain economic strains and struggles that American citizens have experienced then seem to only contribute to the way they blame the Asian immigrants for almost every ills the American public then perceives are their doing. But this cycle of racism and hate crime are not only committed against the Filipinos but also on the Chinese with their opium dens and gambling establishments. Still, Bulosan's story made a strong argument that perhaps Filipinos would frequently receive some of the worse maltreatment than other Asian immigrants during that time. 

For example: a few of the American police would either beat up, arrest or plain gun down innocent Filipinos who are just there at the wrong place during the wrong time, and they would either do these things for their sick enjoyment or misplaced rage. There was even a legal situation where they want to pass down a law that would prohibit Filipino men to marry Caucasian women by equating Filipinos to Mongolians which they consider a dirty race. When anthropologists stress that Filipinos belong to the Malayan race, they were quick to jump on that and use it to further exercise their ignorance and blatant racism. Racial slurs such as the use of the term 'brown monkeys' to describe Filipinos are also in Bulosan's passages. Filipinos cannot get any kind of stable livelihood considering it's the Depression, but some of them would stick to groups to make it through, until the next raid or hate crime occurs and Bulosan himself had to run away from a few in order to survive. Essentially, this book is not easy to swallow especially now that we belong to a time where racism and discrimination are being slowly abolished in our humane societies. Books like America is in the Heart remind each and one of us just how far we have come--and how far we still have to go.

"We in America understand the many imperfections of democracy and the malignant disease corroding its very heart. We must be united in the effort to make an America in which our people can find happiness. It is a great wrong that anyone in America, whether he be brown or white, should be illiterate or hungry or miserable."

The first part of this autobiography was bittersweet, describing the life of poverty that Bulosan experienced when he was just a boy named Allos, the youngest son of a farmer and his wife. He had three older brothers he looked up to; the eldest Luciano was a soldier stationed in America who came home and became a politician, the second eldest Julio has also migrated to the States whom he tragically met up again with later encountered as a reinforcer for pimps and gangsters, and the last one, Macario, is a teacher whom his parents have pinned all their hopes and dreams to, as well as all their savings just to give him a proper education. Even as a boy, Allos wanted to learn and he has a passion for books and eventually for writing. He was close to all his brothers particularly with Luciano who taught him how catch birds and get involved in native politics, and Macario who filled his head with stories and imagination. Equipped by his parents' tenacity and values of hard work and humility, as well as his older brothers' lessons for manhood, Allos ventured on at a tender age of fourteen to America and his multiple struggles and failures to cope and succeed have only made him miss home. But in the end, he never went back to the Philippines.

Instead, he strove to write all the injustices he and his fellow immigrants have experienced. Since realizing he can never be silenced anymore and he can now use words and the printed word as a weapon, Bulosan has became a part of a publication that targets the rampant racism in Seattle. He also joined trade unions to fight for the rights of workers and their wage. As a boy, Bulosan is more than acquainted with the unfair salary and treatment that hard workers like his father had faced--his father who plowed rice fields that never belonged to him but to the corrupt upper class of mestizo family clans in the Philippines, and had therefore died sick and penniless. Bulosan has a lot of fire and righteous rage to spare, and he poured all of these feelings to his writings and social activism.

America is in the Heart contains Bulosan's life and legacy and his contributions to the good fight for the immigrants in that era of American society. This is an important book and even though Bulosan has clearly lived a life of impoverished state and abuse, he had also learned to rise above that and become greater than his suffering. Through writing, he had utilized his pain and talents to capture a searing landscape of tolerance, justice and unwavering dreams.


Friday, January 29, 2016

The Man Without Fear Book 1 by Brian Michael Bendis

This may be my second Daredevil book of this month but it's exactly the tone of narrative and kinds of storyline that strongly appeal to me. Writer Brian Michael Bendis and I have an enjoyable relationship so far in comics. I often do get invested in his X-Men titles particularly the first twenty-nine issues of All-New X-Men and his entire The Uncanny X-Men run, as well as that groundbreaking piece House of M. I only read Frank Miller's work before this one so I don't have anything else to compare it to, but I can say that this first book of Bendis' run for Daredevil has astonishing potentials, rife with insightful characterization, believable dialogue and very atmospheric plots which are only enhanced by the four artists who gave life to each scene, all with their distinct visual styles.

Hailed to be "one of the greatest creative tenures in Marvel history" by IGN, Bendis' Daredevil: The Man Without Fear truly lived to that praise with its first volume comprised of issues #16-19 and #20-40. The first story arc was illustrated by David Mack whose artwork was really aesthetically elegant that I took a while looking through the pages as I read the narrative. It wasn't even a Daredevil story per se, but rather a Ben Urich-centric piece. As a dutiful and noble journalist, Urich begins to investigate a case which centers an abused and traumatized child whose father was a costumed crook known as Leap Frog. The exploration of Urich's psyche and heartfelt insights were highlighted by artist Mack's expressive illustrations which also depict the many layers of the grimy and tortured world of Hell's Kitchen and its maltreated youth through the ironic use of beautiful watercolors. 

This four-issued arc is exquisite in its stylish execution, and particularly stirring for its intimate portrayal of how crime and death affects an innocent soul. Thankfully, the boy in question, Timmy, wasn't corrupted even after that stunning revelation that unraveled the mystery of his father's death. Daredevil did appear right in the end to comfort the poor boy which was a great character moment for him, lending his vigilante persona the humanity it is often deprived of.

Here are the pages that really spoke to me. Look at how gorgeous they are!

The next story arc is a major one that happened to have a twofold development; one is a gritty crime drama concerning mobsters and the law while the other is the repercussions dealing with the exposure of Daredevil's real identity as the visually-impaired yet brilliant lawyer Matt Murdock. I expressed before in my previous Daredevil review that I was a fan of Netflix's characterization of Wilson Fisk, otherwise known as Kingpin, and although he made an appearance for this volume, he was sadly cast aside (murdered Caesar-style, even) by a gangster named Sammy Silke who fancied himself as Brutus or some ego-trip shit like that. Anyway, he's irrelevant as a character I can sympathize with, and aside from his role in Kingpin's demise, he also became privy with a secret concerning Daredevil's alter ego. When Fisk's widow Vanessa took it upon herself to avenge Kingpin, Silke got desperate enough to reach for the help of the FBI by offering them the information about Matt Murdock.

What follows is a torturous process that made Matt question his life as a superhero and his calling for social justice. He gets into an exhausting argument with his long-time partner and best friend Foggy Nelson who tries to convince him to retire from being the Daredevil and just commit to their work as lawyers, as well as surprise visits from his ex-girlfriends Natasha Romanov (Black Widow) and Elektra which didn't really help him and their appearances only served as a painful reminder of his past failures. Now as much as Foggy disapproves of Matt's other life, he remains steadfast and dedicate to him as a fellow lawyer, citing that Matt is already a hero in his daily life as a litigator and so there really is no need for him to be the Daredevil in order to make a difference. He makes accurate observations that most of the losses and suffering Matt had undergone are also connected to his secret life and if he truly wants to move forward and be happy, he needs to give up that part of him that keeps him tethered to darkness and death.
Now hounded by the media, Matt almost loses his shit over the scandal and lies that are beginning to pollute his personal life. Even though he has supporters from other costumed heroes and civilians (Ben Urich for one, and Peter Parker/Spider-man), Matt feels lost and misunderstood, especially with all his critics forming very harsh opinions about the cause he is fighting for and what he's supposed to represent for the city he lives, fights and would die for. One of the most memorable sequential art featured in this arc was that sequence drawn by artist Alex Maleev where Matt as Daredevil runs on top of the rooftops, angst-ing away, while key moments of conversations in his past pops up on the sides, serving as memory bubbles. One that struck me particularly was those that feature his late girlfriend Karen whose death he still blames himself for. Matt has clear unresolved issues and later on, he gets so upset that he almost exposes himself as Matt without his mask to a crowd of journalists. Luckily, Spider-man gets him out of there and snaps him out of his momentary lapse of stupidity. 

It was revealed eventually that a disgruntled employee of the FBI was the one who leaked the truth about Daredevil to several media outlet for some easy cash. I thought this was a great plot point because there was no grand conspiracy trying to bring Matt Murdock down from the shadows--rather, it was a desperate action committed by a man who opted to sell him out because of reasons of self-preservation as oppose to malice. Still, the damage is done and Matt had no choice but to put his reputation on the line by suing a media newsprint for libel. The lawsuit would have been quiet handled with an understanding between Matt and the head of the company but said head was so annoyed by how smug Matt was to think he is above the law, and for calling him and his newspaper liars. Basically, his journalistic integrity was wounded and he wanted to punish Matt for it. So the newspaper in question, The Daily Globe, maintains that what they reported was the truth, and Matt is just going to have to adjust to the reality that his private life has now been made public.

The last arc for this volume was a pretty disheartening one, actually. It had something to do with the costumed hero White Tiger being put into trial for murder and theft because of a misunderstanding, a situation which was all kinds of stupid and leaning on the side of racial profiling, mind you. I was angered by how the story was resolved too, not because it was terribly written, oh no, but because of the powerful message it settled for. Bendis decided to give us an ending that provoked some righteous indignation from the readers because what happened to White Tiger was depressing and unfair and even Matt himself was powerless to stop it. Some good did come out of the dreary circumstances because the real culprit did step forward in the end, though, so that's enough consolation, I guess. 

In any case, this volume just made me so excited for the next installment! A rather brilliant, gritty and exciting exploration of the politics and repercussions of a life dedicated to crime and justice, Brian Michael Bendis' Daredevil: The Man Without Fear has proven itself to be an already a refreshing take on Matt Murdock as its titular figure with this tantalizing freshman volume. 


Monday, January 18, 2016

" E M M A " by Jane Austen

A conversation about Jane Austen between myself and a second party would usually go like this:
Second party: Have you read any Jane Austen books?  
Me: I read Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility way back. 
Second party: Aren't they awesome? Which P&P movie did you like? 
Me: The one with Keira Knightley. I like her and the actor who played Mr. Darcy. 
Second party: I agree! So what other Austen novels do you plan on reading? 
Me: None, really. I, uh, don't really like her books. 
Second party: Why not? 
Me: *shrugs shoulders* Just not my cup of tea, I guess.

I would like to disclose in this review once and for all that I could never consider myself a Jane Austen fan. I know that she's an amazing, influential classical female writer whose works have been adapted on screen and translated worldwide. I also always nod in amicable agreement whenever someone mentions her as their favorite author because I can acknowledge her contributions to literature as well as respect the fact that you enjoy her works. That being said, Austen is simply not the kind of writer whom I can connect with. I tried finding a semblance of kinship in her works several times in the past with Pride and Sense, two novels which I hadn't finished for the first two times I read them, but I only did so by the third and fourth time respectively. 

Simply put, I don't like Jane Austen's books even if she is an immensely celebrated writer. I find her prose often tedious even if she can compose passages with wit and humor. I think her characters are intolerable and the only redeeming quality I admire about her characterizations is that she obviously isn't afraid to make her protagonists unlikable and absurd which is where the source of her rich social comedy of manners sprout from. For the longest time I told myself I will never read another Austen novel again but because I was so irrevocably smitten with the Pemberly Digital webseries Emma Approved which is the modernized adaptation of this novel, I decided to venture on, reassuring myself that perhaps third's time the charm. In a few inspired ways, it was.

But in many other instances that's almost painful, it wasn't.

EMMA is supposed to be a story about 'youthful hubris and misconstrued romance' and with Austen's signature dry humor and amusing observations and parody regarding the exhausting social graces during the era she is writing in, Emma more than fulfills that promising premise. The titular heroine Emma Woodhouse is beautiful, clever and rich but she's also conceited and proud; often overestimating her so-called "matchmaking" skills. She's only twenty-one and a privileged one at that who has a very high opinion of herself and how others should view her. In spite of these flaws, Emma can be impressive particularly because of her streak of independence and ideas about a woman's agency which were considered queer and upsetting during her time. Because she has no financial hardships unlike other Austen heroines, Emma does not feel obligated to get married. 

In fact, as an heiress, she would rather just live by herself in her estate and possibly throw cool parties and hang out with other legible ladies whom she can charm and bewitch. One of them who has fallen prey to Emma's irresistible companionship is the modest Harriet Smith who eagerly tries to please Emma by following every single advice the other woman gives even if ultimately it proves to be to her detriment. Their friendship is not exactly of equals which make their interactions quite infectiously funny and warm at times. I have no doubt Emma adores Harriet but she tends to confuse that with her incessant need to control Harriet's choices for her which had proved to be bothersome. Emma's heart is in the right place but she's also far too headstrong to realize that her actions often cause harm or misunderstanding to the people around her. But Austen has written the approach to this relationship as a little bit of a comedy so at least that breaks the tension a bit.

The main conflict that happened in the first volume (this novel is divided into four, or whatever, I'm too lazy to check the book again) is Emma's adamant belief that a certain Mr. Elton fancies her friend Harriet. Emma was so convinced that she is doing something remarkable and worthwhile by matchmaking these two that she was totally blind-sighted by the fact that Mr. Elton actually wants Emma and not Harriet. It was only when Mr. Elton himself confessed that Emma realized that she was wrong to make assumptions from evidence that she willfully and purposefully interpreted for her own convenience and in support of her own twisted logic. Not only did she embarrass and humiliate Harriet and Mr. Elton by placing them in a very awkward position concerning misread signals and feelings, she has also deliberately cast aside Harriet's suitor Robert who seemed to like Harriet enough and sincerely wanted to be a good husband to her, if she will have him. To Emma, however, Harriet should aspire for more. Not a bad sentiment; in fact it's the kind of liberal thinking ahead of her time--but it's not something accepted by society back then so poor Harriet will only suffer humiliation to her character, all because Emma wants to put her in equal footing as herself which is ridiculous! Harriet is nice and sweet but she can't have the same set of choices and freedom as Emma because Emma has the privilege to be fickle, vain and independent--Harriet simply does not. Emma's ignorance over such an obvious difference between their social standing is irritating--yet also very endearing.

Emma does not care that people in her social circle would see Harriet as beneath them; she adores Harriet nevertheless because she finds her interesting and special and whether or not she realizes it can be a tad condescending is unimportant because Emma only has good intentions even if those intentions get her into troubles of her own silly making. I think Emma is very well-written, filled with enough flaws and entitlement that give her much depth as the protagonist. Another aspect of her character that I had fun exploring was when it comes to her opinions and insights regarding the lovely Jane Fairfax. Emma is insecure around Jane, mostly because Jane is reserved and hard to engage in small talk, as well as the very definition of an accomplished woman that Emma aspires to be. While Emma is merely content indulging on her whims for so-called self-improvement and autonomy outside marriage, Jane Fairfax dedicates herself to fulfilling work outside the confines of her social class which makes her more learned, resourceful and educated about the world. The only thing that Emma comforts herself with when it comes to Jane Fairfax is that Jane is actually pretty dull in personality, often the subject of light mockery between Emma and the slightly douche-y Frank Churchill. In one conversation, they talk about how boring Jane is and that people like Emma and Frank are not to blame if they can't find the energy or time to try and coax Jane out of her shell. Both so arrogant, self-assured and individualistic, Emma and Frank for me are the perfect match.

However, Emma has claimed since the beginning of this book that she has never fallen in love and could never be capable of it hence her aversion towards marriage. I could easily surmise that she could have been an asexual which would be okay but I don't think Austen ever intended her to be that which would have been more of a rewarding character twist, to be honest. It's worth nothing that even though Emma does not want to involve herself in personal romantic entanglements, she is more than happy to insert herself in other people's love lives. Austen plays this absurd character flaw of hers to a tee and I can admit that they are the instances in this novel that I find very enjoyable to peruse. It's the source of this book's conflicts. That being said, almost a good sixty percent of this four-hundred-seventy-seven-paged book is SO FUCKING SLOW AND REPETITIVE. I even said during one of my status updates for my reading progress that the social interactions among characters that populate this book are the Victorian-equivalent of Facebook-ing. The content of these scenes and dialogue does not at all justify the length and I hated every goddamn minute I have to read through all the non-events that happened by the 180-paged mark. Nothing monumental truly transpires after the amusing Mr. Elton-Harriet-Emma drama save for the scarce intriguing narrations concerning Jane Fairfax being a bore to Emma (and Emma feeling guilty about feeling that way), and Emma's contemplation about her real feelings for Frank; and whether or not she's attracted to him or not.

Emma does not end up with Frank Churchill, though. She ends up with Mr. Knightly, an old family friend who is ten or twelve years her senior. And it only took for Harriet to realize that she might fancy Mr. Knightly for herself just so Emma can realize too that she had always loved Mr. Knightly after all. WOW. Who knew that's all it takes? It would have been awesome if we cut out the tons of bullshit parties/get-togethers/whatever where random characters would gossip or charm each other so we could have arrived to this stellar revelation earlier but hey, Austen felt like the other stupid parts of this book that I hated were important so--who I am to argue with a classical writer? I just never remember being this annoyed about minutiae descriptions of ordinary events in classical works unlike when I read an Austen book. Dickens, Hugo, Dumas, and Doyle all have moments where they dwell on piles of descriptive narrative pertaining to scenes that are often not as relevant as others, but at least they kept it down to a minimum and go back to the purpose of their plot in the first place. With Austen's Emma, it was an indulgent feat that littered a great number of chapters for the second and third volume. By the three hundredth or so page, I almost did not want to finish.

But I made a promise to myself that I will push through a Jane Austen novel this time. If I was ever going to do it, I want it to be for Emma because I do find the main character so engaging and relatable, and I care about what happens to her a lot. It's really the other inconsequential interactions among other characters that I would rather without which negatively affected by overall enjoyment and appreciation of this novel once I finished. If only this book was at least two volumes shorter, it would have gotten another full star in its rating instead of three and a half.


Monday, January 11, 2016

DAREDEVIL: The Man Without Fear by Frank Miller

My only connection to the Marvelverse comics for the longest time was with their X-Men. It was only recently--thanks to the movies--that I began to enjoy what other Marvel heroes could offer I go insane for Captain America LIKE YOU WOULDN'T BELIEVE. Now, like most people in the early 2000's, I barely remember the film adaptation of Daredevil starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Gardner but everyone agrees it sucked major balls. All I can remember is that I did like its soundtrack sung by The Calling--and that was it. Years later, I binge-watched the Netflix adaptation for three days every morning before I went to work--and I was absolutely enthralled! 

I knew I had to experience Daredevil in his original medium so I ventured on to look for the most recommended comic books from his line-up. I came across three that I will be reading for this year and I start with a Frank Miller work for January because this was was a collaboration between writer Frank Miller and artist John Romita Jr. I knew Miller from his work for The Dark Knight Returns, and I have fond memories of that particular Batman work. In line with that, my first impressions of the tonality and storyline of The Man Without Fear is that I think the fact that it was Miller who wrote this that it was unavoidable for me to make a little Batman connection. Though, admittedly, it probably only clicked for me like that by the last two issues. But then again, every brooding vigilante who is too committed to his ideals that he has no social life whatsover is immediately drawn parallels with to Batman (the CW's Oliver Queen is essentially very Batman-esque, and I ate it up to the point I no longer felt guilty demanding more servings of it). But Matt Murdock to me stood out on his own while reading this, mostly because I thought Charlie Cox was so amazing in the role and I already like him enough there so he was the one I'm imagining while reading Miller's version.

And that is where some disparities lie. If you're like me and you watched the Netflix series first, and then you picked this up, you will notice that there are some liberties that the series creator and staff took to, I suppose, 'soften up' their version in the show. Matt Murdock in Miller's story is far more brutal and often impulsive and reckless. In the show, his Catholic upbringing was more emphasized which for me was what made him so relatable and human because we get to see him in copious amounts of time talking to a priest or to that nurse as he feels guilty for his transgressions such as violence and killing, no matter how self-righteous they might be. He is apologetic but still pretty adamant that he must kill or punish criminals, and that is what makes his characterization so complex because inherently he knows he is losing a part of his soul that has a relationship to his God. But he feels it is a necessary loss--yet it still terrifies him so he goes to confessionals and tries to find a middle ground. I'm an agnostic who used to be a very devout Catholic myself so the show's characterization of Matt in that aspect really translates to me because it's intriguing to see him struggle with the religious upbringing still ingrained in him, while finding a cathartic release in hunting down and beating up thugs and truly abhorrent evildoers.

Meanwhile, in Miller's work--he's kind of a dick and this was only emphasized in his relationships with his supposed-to-be significant others. I can't say I didn't like him but I was perturbed by how callous he can come off most of the time. He was damn angry and even the death of his father didn't feel personal and sad; but more of only something to further drive him into taking up vigilantism to work out his severe rage issues. His relationship with his mentor Stick is also very impersonal so their falling-out wasn't so interesting because I was hardly invested in it as a relationship that shaped Matt into more than just being some fighter. His best friend, college roommate and fellow lawyer, Foggy, is present here but unlike in the show where their friendship and disagreements are integral to Matt's conflict and eventual development, Foggy here feels like he was only shoehorned in. His only memorable and intimate relationship is with the crazy Elektra who is just as messed up as he is so it's not a mystery they collided and eventually repelled. I found their violent courtship tango very amusing and sexy to watch unfold, but it was hollow and contributed nothing to Matt's growth except have him experience passion and heartbreak for the first time.

Before I discuss some other pertinent concerns I have about Miller's story, I just want to show you one of the panels in the last issue where we finally get to see Matt attacking one of the illegal child slavery operations of Kingpin, and his costuming here (as well as the action sequences) was the one we see adapted in the pilot of the series so it was a thrill for me to see this:

It's funny to be raising these concerns now because back while I was reading the five issues, and even after a few hours when I finished the entire story--I was very much into everything. But after letting some days pass before writing this official review, I realized that I much prefer what I watched in Netflix. It's weird for me to admit that because I do have some purist streak in me when it comes to comic book adaptations but I think this only goes to show that as much as Miller had all these great concepts which the show creators have borrowed from (I think The Man Without Fear is what the Netflix show is one of the major stories it was loosely based from ), these same concepts were improved upon in the other medium where the viewing audience I believe had a better experience with Matt Murdock than readers of this comic book. I think another point of concern for me was Miller's characterization of Wilson Fisk, the villain known as Kingpin, who is hands-down a favorite of mine in the show because his backstory and character-centric episode Shadows in the Glass have moved me deeply. In The Man Without Fear, however, the Kingpin serves no purpose but to play the bad guy who has no other dimension beyond than that, and who only appeared by the time the story wrapped up.

I think I can recommend Frank Miller's The Man Without Fear for someone who can't use the Netflix show as a comparison because I will say here that it was a more superior story than what I read here. It just was. Matt Murdock in Miller's story is so damn disagreeable and so consumed by his ego and anger management issues that I can't really sympathize for him because ultimately I wasn't able to get to know him beyond the premise of a chemically-blinded child whose boxer of a father was murdered by criminals, and then he was trained by another visually-impaired martial arts expert who seemed to be preparing him for some shady showdown in the future. Miller's prose is delicate and expressive in a lot of areas particularly when exploring Matt's psyche but as much as the language and style hooked me in, I was dissatisfied by how he characterized Matt Murdock who is really insensitive and excessively violent and cold sometimes. His relationships are not even secondary--they're kind of non-existent. The only deep connection he made was with a woman who was too unstable and fickle to even stick around until the end of the story itself. Anyway, here is how this comic book ended:


Sunday, January 10, 2016

B L U E by Kiriko Nananan

As enjoyable and exciting as I find shounen ai/yaoi no matter how ridiculous the lack of real character development or plot are just to make way of what I deem 'sexy times' between pretty boys, my views are a lot more critical when it comes to its counterpart, shoujo ai/yuri. I think it stems from the fact that I have been in relationships with women, both romantic and sexual. In fact, it was only two years ago that I came out as bisexual (and it's been grueling to even admit it). For the longest time, I've identified as a lesbian but my sexual preference for partners is not something I consider as a social or political statement. I'm also not easily offended.

That being said, I'm slightly uncomfortable with how pop culture in shows (and porn, but then again, it is porn) tend to 'fetishize' sexual/romantic relationships between women, mostly when it's geared towards the male gaze. Shoujo ai/yuri's readership and demographic are mostly men too, as much as the demographic for yaoi is female. That is why I avoided reading yuri for some time because I feel that it provides either a somewhat idealized  or false concept and depiction of lesbian relationships. 

Every time I read yaoi, I already have a good amount of suspension of belief because know I'm only indulging in some fantasy scenario, and some circumstances in yaoi are not necessarily something I would expect in how gay relationships with men really work. Shounen ai, on the other hand, at least shows believable development and characterization in the context of romance. The same thing goes for shoujo ai. So I want to balance my BL reads with GL so I ventured on and researched the most popular yuri as well as the most recent, preferably with ones that portray lesbian relationships in a positive light, if not always accurately. I found at least ten or so, and the first one I chose is a Kiriko Nananan piece. From the looks of the reviews of her works, her shoujo ai seemed well-written so I was interested and after finishing BLUE, I wasn't disappointed. This is an impressive work but not without its flaws.

BLUE is a story about two high school girls and their friendship. This friendship is at times natural and at times uneasy, punctuated by unspoken words and meaningful gestures. Kayako Kirishima is inexplicably drawn to the confident and outgoing Masako Endo and this magnetic attraction is borne out of romantic interest as well. She was self-aware about it which in turn made her guilty enough to attempt having casual sex with a boy from another school. To Kirishima, losing her virginity was also a way to feel intrinsically closer to Endo. The latter was kicked out of her previous school for having an abortion. Kirishima's desire to be intimate with Endo is so confusing especially when she has no emotional maturity to help her understand it fully so she makes rash decisions all in hopes to earn Endo's attention and affection. And Endo gave her all these things plenty but she was also always unobtainable to Kirishima. Blue has a leisurely pace as writer Nananan unfolds this aching story about the consequences and unknowable truths about young love, regardless if it's queer and probably more so that it's queer at the same time. Kirishima wants Endo and punishes herself for wanting someone of her own sex while Endo is more or less heterosexual but allows a more than platonic closeness with Kirishima because she doesn't have the strength or foresight to break the other girl's heart.

Ultimately, Endo breaks Kirishima's heart but not because she has directly rejected a real committed relationship with her. In fact, Endo is more than okay encouraging Kirishima's girlish fantasies of moving in together in Tokyo after graduation. It's not like that. Endo breaks Kirishima's heart by denying her friendship which was what I think these two girls struggled to maintain with each other. Kirishima wants to be understood and accepted and Endo provides that easily because of her giving, sweet-tempered nature, but she's also closed off when it came to private matters, most especially about her ex-boyfriend who impregnated her. Kirishima had to find out about it through another classmate and this was a betrayal to her because she wanted Endo to be straightforward with her, to tell her all her secrets as much as return her desires. Blue is riveting this way. Its meaninglessness about character motivations and actions are so attuned with what happens in real-life scenarios and the people that perpetuate them that I can't help but contemplate about my own experiences in high school about a girl I had such an intense feeling of anguish and desire for.

When I read and finished Blue within two hours last week, I sat down in front of my laptop and began typing the first part of this review then I put it off for a couple of days. I just came back from a reunion with high school friends last night where the girl I spoke of was also there, and I was able to clear up any lingering misunderstandings between us from years ago. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about Kirishima and Endo, and all the emotions they never got to properly say and those that never really needed words to begin with. Blue has made me realize strong emotions often need to be felt more than spoken aloud and it's a great testament to her skill as a writer of immense depth and experience that Nananan was able to capture this within such a simple, minimalistic yet agonizingly accurate story about teenage girls and their struggles with identity and sexual attraction; shame and jealousy; and growing up too soon and having to deal with that as it comes.

In the end, it occurred to Endo and Kirishima that they're both at fault for a idealizing whatever connection they have for one another, and this was  why Kirishima's resentment over Endo's reticence, and Endo's lackadaisical neglect of Kirishima's attachment to her almost threatened to end their friendship for good. What I like about Nananan's writing in exploring such a delicate story and the portrayal of these characters are the ambiguous moments. There is no definitive way of describing or labeling Endo's feelings for Kirishima. We know she's heterosexual because she was devastatingly in love with a man who only wounded her in a way she was almost unable to recover, but she may be bisexual too because she didn't mind being affectionate with Kirishima and passionately kissing her. We know Kirishima might possibly be coming to terms of her homosexuality and is terrified, so she is projecting all her self-hate and dreams on Endo because she was the only person who knew of her inner conflict and never judged her for it. But as for the nature of their relationship in a romantic context, it's not something absolute. Maybe they really were in love or maybe they weren't. Maybe Endo was flattered and liked Kirishima enough and was afraid that rejecting her advances would cause her to abandon her. And maybe Kirishima was just looking for a true friend as oppose to a lover as she undergoes the painful transition of coming out of the closet.

Maybe we're not supposed to know completely because in real life, a lot of people in our lives do remain hidden from us, putting on masks and costumes and we do encourage this masquerade because it feels safe. It makes us feel connected. We expose ourselves more by hiding in plain sight and Blue captures that poignancy and that need to be concealed until we are ready to make ourselves known to the rest of the world; to create homes out of people we feel such a kinship for even with the dangerous risk of co-dependence and a refusal to grow up and learn. For Kirishima, it's not easy to love someone whom she feels society will reject her for, most likely starting with her family and friends. For Endo, it's all to easy to allow people in her life to expect things from her, and blame only herself when she feels she has failed to meet them all.

In any case, Nananan does these girls a justice in her writing for Blue. Her insights regarding these two girls are so honest in a very searing, unforgettable way that often it's not something one can enjoy for casual reading. I wanted to give this an 8 out of 10 rating but settled for a 7, objectively speaking. I related so powerfully to the story and the situations of the girls since I have something in my high school years I can contextualized it with. But, at the same time, I think this story is not something anyone can read and find beautiful and moving. Its ambiguity and lack of a complete resolution at the last chapter may prove disappointing to most readers. It's also such a slow burn of a narrative where character interactions are limited and often open to interpretation. 

In that way, Blue is not a crowd pleaser which is the enchantment of it. And I liked it a lot. It made me nostalgic. It made me hurt. I'm going to read more of Kiriko Nananan's works after this one. So far, her depiction of romantic/sexual relationships between girls intrigue me. Suddenly, I didn't feel so alone anymore about my own inadequate expression of feelings from long ago with a girl I should have been better friends with especially when I knew deep in my soul that I used to be in love with her, and perhaps for the wrong reasons all this time.


Tuesday, January 5, 2016

A Blessing On Your House by Kotetsuko Yamamoto

Listen: two men going at it is HOT, okay? It sizzles. It pops. It makes me salivate and get a lady boner. DEAL. WITH. IT. Now I've only been a 'fujoshi' for a short while (since 2014, if you can believe it), and my sudden emotional investment on queer relationships or slash pairings in fandoms (anime, manga or otherwise) is all thanks to Charles and Erik of X-Men: First Class. Since I started rabidly shipping those gorgeous idiots both in film and in real life as the actors themselves, I also did a critical examination of other male friendships that I admired in the past in fiction and a few of them did stand out as ship-worthy. I'm not going to tell you specifically which are these but rest assured that I have been more or less converted to the fujoshi lifestyle. I'm not exactly ashamed of it but I won't advertise it in public during a random conversation with a new acquaintance. OR MAYBE I WILL. Actually, I ALREADY DID. I was hanging out with some guys from an indie band and we got to talking about superheroes, particularly Marvel. So the Avengers. And then the X-Men. And, naturally, Professor X and Magneto. And, yes, because it came or organically NOT I essentially proclaimed "Guys, I totes ship Cherik and want to see them be lovey-dovey and fuck!" which is me just volunteering that preference without asking, much to the abject horror and amusement of the other parties.

I got a kick out of proudly embracing that I just get so goddamn wet for two guys doing it that I decided hey, why should I be selfish and keep this all to myself like a weird person with a guilty fetish? Only serial killers would do that and in spite of any online tests that categorize me as a sociopath, I'm pretty normal and nothing is more normal than posting my thoughts about sexy stuff concerning pretty boys in the cyberspace. I had a lot of great boy-love and girl-love mangas down the pipeline to read and review this year and December 2016 (please note your calendars) is when I plan to bombard everyone with Bl/GL reads and reviews. For now, I have the next two months to read four BL/GL stories and I start with Omairi desu yo (A Blessing on the House).

For the sake of jargon formality, let me define terms:

SHOUNEN AI or "boy-love" features stories about boys in tame and fluffy romantic situations that may or may not get increasingly erotic as chapters progress. Most BL are mild and generally consist of character-centered school-romance or plot-centered ones that have two male characters bonding in a non-platonic manner whilst subjected to the genre the plot is written in (say, fantasy or action-adventure). You may have to squint hard to really see the gay. Often, it even slaps you in the face because it's that obviously gay. Nevertheless, a lot of shounen ai don't necessarily have to depict the gay couple doing raunchy things. They can be cheesy all throughout as they hold hands, kiss and proclaim unending confessions of love and devotion. You know, like any teen-rated het out there. 

YAOI is the more explicit one. Mostly oneshot stories without any overreaching arc--OR A PLOT AT ALL--yaoi stories always play on coupling archetypes (bad boy + nerd; dom (seme) + sub (uke); boy-next-door + clumsy guy; macho guy + pretty boy, etc.) and the progression (which is often convoluted or rushed) always leads to the endgame of sexy anal times. Most real-life gay sex between men don't always involve anal sex but somehow for yaoi, if the male characters simply frot or blow each other, it's not considered as 'going all the way'. Penile penetration is necessary so if that's your deal (as it is mine) then yaoi will deliver. Oh, it delivers--sometimes to an uncomfortable and hilarious degree. Anal sex is a process but most yaoi stories seem to have these lead men (90% of whom had never had that type of sex before, maybe half of that percentage even identify as straight before having same-sex dalliance) easily handle getting into it. That's not realistic but YOU'RE A DIPSHIT IF YOU TRY TO APPLY REALISM IN FICTION SEXY-TIMES. Just enjoy the sexy times, grandma and grandpa!

Shoujo Ai (girl-love) is the lesbian/sapphic counterpart for the mild stuff and YURI is the counterpart for the explicit one. If yaoi has penetrative sex, yuri's signature I guess has plenty of weird 'scissoring' sex act. It's basically distressing me. There are a handful of accurately portrayed lesbian sex in yuri manga, sure (uh, maybe?) but the ones that really turn me off are the ones with 'scissoring'. I have--I had sex with women on a fairly regular basis way, waaaay back and I have never scissored the fuck out of another female. But who knows, maybe I have been sexing up other women wrong all this time. Oh my god, how can I live with that kind of grief now?!

Anyway, enough of this introduction. Let's talk about Omairi desu yo.


A Blessing on Your House has the distinction of rendering its readers with a bad case of getting sensory overload with the adorbs. Written and illustrated by Kotetsuko Yamamoto whose visual art is very much eye-candy, this manga is the brilliant cross between the mild and the wild stuff. It stars a twenty-two-year-old Buddhist monk named Yuuji who is admired by all because of his kind demeanor and beautiful features. He swore celibacy and a life of religious devotion (at freaking 22) but harbors an intense crush on a childhood friend, Saburou, since their middle school days. The first chapter doesn't agonize over this and immediately has our sensitive young monk drunk on his ass and has to be carried by said love interest back to his place. 

Drunk-on-his-ass Yuuji in slur speech confesses his feelings to Saburou whilst on piggyback. The next chapter immediately has Saburou confront Yuuji about that confession and, because he is such a swell fellow, was not only NOT disgusted that his childhood friend came on to him but he was also VERY OPEN to the idea of them getting it on. He kisses him without preamble and Yuuji gets all his theoretical fragile man-tubes on a twist. It got awkward on the next few days with Sabu seemingly avoiding him WHEN HE INITIATED THE KISS IN THE FIRST PLACE. Brokenhearted and puffy-eyed, Yuuji decided he should give up on Sabu but then Sabu practically drags him to a corner and admit that right after their first kiss, he jerked off to the thought of being with Yuuji WHICH IS AWESOME, OF COURSE. For a guy who has never been with another guy and who doesn't seem like he ever wanted to be until his friend expressed interest, Sabu is...AGGRESSIVE. The next few chapters display his abrasive and straightforward attitude and pursuit to screw the living lights out of Yuuji, much to the latter's demure and embarrassed delight. The almost-sex scenes themselves (a.k.a uninterrupted foreplays, a.k.a un-happy endings, a.k.a Sabu's-mother-is-a-vicious-cockblocker) are intense. I mean, INTENSSSSSSSSe with an elongated emphasis on the 'S' like the sound of a sizzling butter on the pan. 

Their sexual chemistry is this level of disturbing cuteness.

With the promise of sex between Yuuji and Saburou being dangled repeatedly in the chapters, readers will never be able to keep themselves from growling in frustration when the two never get to consummate their love through a much-awaited fuck session. BUT THE BABIES DO TRY and it's almost sad. And sweet and fluffy and oh-so unintelligibly cutesy. And then sad again because both do eventually admit that they are so fixed on the physicality of their relationship that they never actually go on real dates. Their first real date was pretty dorky because Yuuji insisted on visiting some shrine or some shit, and then he fell into a pond because he's a klutz but hey, they actually rented a room in a hotel AND ALMOST SEXY-TIMES IT UP but then Yuuji couldn't adjust to the penetration so they had to try again next time, preferably with Sabu's mom preoccupied in watching her soaps or some shit so she'd stop cock-blocking the kids all the time. Jesus, woman, just let them fuck! It's almost cosmically unfair that the farthest they have ever gone is some Oxford-style van sex in the middle of the night in some abandoned street somewhere. I'm a romantic so I want a proper mattress with fluffy pillows and some mood music in the background and some classy champagne as rose petals are strewn across the blankets. It's both extremes for me, yo. Either something traditionally sweet like that scenario I just vividly painted for you--or some back-alley doggy-style quickie under a full moon. Either way, the nation has spoken: Yuuji and Sabu just need to get their freak on.

It's all I ever wanted for Christmas, mommy! GIVE IT!

But this wouldn't be a great rom-com raunchy fest without the beta couple stealing the spotlight every now and then. Yuuji has an older, more experienced tsundere of a brother who is also a monk named Kenji. The guy has a temper and whose emotions are pretty much haywire and hard to read. He's also an irrresitible bishounen with a spiciness to him so only admirers of the creepiest kind are drawn to him, much to his anger and exasperation. Good thing he knows self-defense because oh boy, he's gonna need it. Much to his justified chagrin, he's being linked with the guy who does their family's laundry named Yochan whom he vehemently (and fondly) calls Mr. Clean.

Love-sick creepster Yochan doesn't even bother with false pretenses. He is in love and hot for Kenji and it's a sadomasochistic dance of will between the two. Ultimately, tsundere-Kenji gives in anyway and makes out with Yochan whenever the mood suits him, much to his own personal contempt. He can't understand why he's letting someone he adamantly despises service him with sexual favors. It's a rather unhealthy combination but Kenji and Yochan are HOT together so shut up. While Yuuji and Sabu worry about getting it on (REALLY JUST GO GET IT ON DAMN YOU), Kenji and Yochan would probably go farther than they ever would have in the next chapter. If stupid assholes like Christian Grey and Ana are allowed to have poorly written sex scenes then hot bishie men like Yuuji, Sabu, Kenji and Yochan should have fun too. What kind of world do we live in if we deprive them that?

Yuuji, especially, is such a doll. Poor dude would get a cardiovascular heart arrest every time he's getting sexy with Sabu. What appeases him is by chanting his prayers after which is really funny. A high point for me in the manga was him shouting "I WANNA PUT YOU IN MY MOUTH" while they are naked in the hot springs. And when he did put Sabu in his mouth, he used teeth so Sabu had to put a stop to it. HE USED TEETH DURING ORAL SEX, GUYS. Gosh, what a noob! In any case, he is as cute as a bunny and he deserves to get some with Sabu! I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH---

DID I FAIL TO MENTION THIS IS AN ONGOING SERIES? Oh yes, it is. So what are you waiting for? You know you want to search this title online and read it by yourself in the most secret place of your house like the closeted-fujoshi bitch that you are. If you're going to waste your time, blow your load all over this manga because it's a guaranteed high. Keep your cigarettes or chewing gums (or whatever afterglow ritual you may have) close to your person because you're gonna need some when you're done. Never get cerebral or critical about yaoi because we're all here for the fluff and sex and you're a dipshit if you deny it otherwise or kill everyone's buzz with whatever gripe you may have about manga dudes fucking. Srsly, what is wrong with you? Get off this bandwagon if you're not going to swoon with us! That being said, this is a fairly tame manga compared to the more engrossing and often distressing ones I would be reviewing by December. Up next in my reads is some sentimental girl-on-girl action.

Just a couple of blue balls who should stop posing for pictures and instead get it on!