Book review: The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home by Konami Kanata a.k.a. Kanata Konami

(Added September 2016)

Because sometimes you’ve just got to read a kitten manga.

Chi’s Sweet Home is the endearing tale of a lost kitten who finds a home. How long is this one’s list of recommendations? They just keep coming: Anime Diet, Bookworm’s Corner, Comics Reporter, Comics Worth Reading, iFanboy.com, Manga Critic, Manga Curmudgeon, Manga Xanadu, Mania.com, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal, and at least ten more.

The manga opens with a tiny gray-and-white tabby wandering away from Mama-cat and falling into the path of Yohei, a human toddler about the same mental age. The Yamada family take her home with them. Chi (so called because she used to wee around the house) and Yohei learn toilet training together, as well as how to eat, sleep, play, and share. Yohei’s parents try to find the kitten a home and are saddened by the long list of pleas from strangers who also are trying to give away cats. Chi is so little that she cannot eat solid food and has no chance of surviving on her own. The humans soon realize that this squeaking pile of fluff is here to stay. (They don’t put up that much of a fight.)

Much of the collection is simply vignettes of life: baby’s first bath, baby’s first kibble, first time she can jump so-high, and first encounter with bouncy-balls. Only six characters appear in the first book: the four Yamadas (Daddy, Mommy, Yohei, and Chi), the landlady, and a sleek and handsome bobtail nicknamed “the bearcat” for its sheer confidence and size. The simply told tale shows Chi’s excitement, wonder, and puzzlement at the complexities of her world. Mommy scolds her for destroying houseplants, but it’s fine to chew on grass outside? Daddy stays home from work sick one day but doesn’t play with her? And is the Bearcat a foe or a friend? Through Chi’s eyes we see all things afresh, as if for the first time.

Light sketch pencils and subtle watercolors render the panels luminous and airy. Yes, this manga is in color (rather rare for the genre). So effectively does the art communicate a kitten’s point of view that the reader has no idea how compact the Yamadas’ home really is. Only after Part 1 (478 pages) do we learn that the humans’ 4-room apartment is only 670 square feet.

For the Yamadas, a loving family and kind, characterization is gentle and leisurely. Mommy is a stay-at-home mother who takes care of Yohei and his kitty-sister. Daddy warms to the kitty quickly—the title was serialized in a men’s weekly magazine, after all—and cannot resist buying her toys and treats. They even dream about her. Chi’s relationships with them get tested now and then as they do things for her good that make her angry, such as trimming her claws or taking her to the vet. But overall, Chi and the Yamadas make each other very happy, and not coincidentally the hordes of voracious readers.

It would seem incredible that any but an inveterate cat-hater would criticize a kitten manga, but complaints do exist. These fall into two categories: dialogue and a lack of unifying plot. (Personally your host was more distracted by the “smile of fear” and “smile of sadness,” both of which are staple illustrations in manga but are less commonplace in Western art.)

Nevertheless, hypercritical reader, meet nitpicking reviewer. Your host diligently counted every word of Chi’s dialogue for the first 100 pages (“Homemades 1-12”). We did not penalize artificial contractions like “ain’t, gonna, wanna, lemme, or gimme” on the grounds that, while not Oxford grammar, they are all pronounced correctly. Chi “speaks” 476 words and lisps 59 of them. This is a ratio of about 12.4 percent. Chi is a baby. Babies use baby talk. The only person in Chi’s life who can understand her anyway is the Bearcat, and he is a mighty hunter, not a speech therapist. If the Gentle Curmudgeon truly finds this percentage of twee too insurmountable, one can always pretend it is a wordless book. The art certainly is expressive enough for it. Alternately, may we suggest the related manga FukuFuku, about an adult grumpy cat. Otherwise, Chi’s efforts are quite respectable when compared to a species that cannot correctly pronounce Arya, nuclear, or February.

As for the other objection, that the series has no plot, what of it? Babies do not have a plot. Babies have lives. Consider the TV program Seinfeld, “the show about nothing.” Your host found the series unappealing and its popularity inexplicable. Clearly many earthlings disagreed. Then of course there is the great Bambi. Bambi has no plot. Bambi needs no plot. Sometimes there is no accounting for taste. Therefore, if any should disparage Emergency Kitten for lacking a plot, your host is of the opinion that plot is not your real problem.

What the collection does have is choices. Chi and the Bearcat are living in an apartment complex that prohibits pets. One might question why their owners allow them to roam outside where the cats would be seen, but the author attempts to show the escape-artist inclinations of such smart kitties. Bearcat ultimately is caught because he cannot resist his mad desire to hunt (steal) just one more meal: defrosting salmon, bucket of chicken, and Chi’s own plate. Chi’s owners watch in distress and awe as the Bearcat’s owners are evicted. “They chose their cat over their home.” The Yamadas are left to wonder, what will they do about Chi? And where did Chi come from? She was too little to be separated from her mother. Did Chi once have a home? Does someone miss her there? But these are long-term questions and do not hover sword-of-Damocles style over day-to-day living.

[SPOILER]: Chi and the Yamadas return in the brand new manga series, Chi’s Sweet News, set in Paris, in fall of 2016. [/end SPOILER]

The comic, originally serialized in the seinen (Japanese men’s magazine) Weekly Morning (2004-2015) is available both as a traditional manga (right-to-left) and in the reviewed omnibus edition (3 volumes in one “part”/book and published Western-style i.e. left-to-right). The title’s popularity has grown exponentially: as an anime (animated presentation) available on DVD and by streaming Crunchyroll; plus calendars, posters, and official websites of Chi’s plushies photobombing their way around the globe. A new anime adaptation in 3D-CG is scheduled to air on October 2, 2016.

Summary: instant classic. Read this.

The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 1 by Konami Kanata (Kanata Konami). 478 pages.

Originally published in Japanese as Chiizu Suiito Houmu 1-3. First published Tokyo, Japan: Kodanasha, Ltd., c2004-2006. First serialized in Morning, Kodansha, Ltd., 2004-2015.

English language version: Omnibus edition. Printed Western-style (left-to-right). Contains 3 volumes per part: “Homemade 1-56” vignettes plus 3 bonus vignettes: “A cat meets FukuFuku,” “Kitten FukuFuku,” and “Kitten FukuFuku: You Called?” Imprint New York: Vertical Comics/Vertical, Inc. (www.vertical-comics.com). Translation copyright 2010, 2015 by Vertical, Inc. Manufactured in Canada.

Omnibus edition ordering information:

The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 1. (Volumes 1-3.) 478 pp. ISBN 9781942993162
The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 2. (Volumes 4-6.) 464 pp. ISBN 9781942993179
The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 3. (Volume 7-9.) 480 pp. ISBN 9781942993483
The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home, Part 4. (Volumes 10-12.) Publication date December 2016. (est. 480 pp.) ISBN 9781942993575

See also:

http://www.chisweethome.net
http://morningmanga.com/chisweetravel
http://www.crunchyroll.com (streaming website for the anime)
http://www.discotekmedia.com (another streaming website for the anime)
http://www.chi-sweethome.tumblr.com (Chi calendar and posters)

Winner (multi-year awards): Manga.Ask.Com, Best Children’s Manga.
Nominee: 2010 Cybils Awards.
Nominee: 2016 Dwayne McDuffie Awards. (Results to be announced in February 2017).

Book review: Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies

(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=35 )

This article was originally published on the Toon Zone News & Reviews page, 2008

 

Mom’s Cancer is the account of one woman’s battle with Stage IV lung cancer, as witnessed by her adult children. Often called one of the best graphic novels you’ve never heard of, Mom’s Cancer has won numerous awards for its blend of universal experience and personal trial.

The narrative opens with Mom experiencing a TIA (transient ischemic attack) that is traced to a brain tumor. Believe it or not, that’s the good news. The brain tumor has even odds of being curable. Unfortunately Mom has cancer in so many corners that the doctor can biopsy a surface bump, “tapping” Mom like a maple tree in sugar season. “How bad are things,” the Narrator begins, “when a tumor in your brain is the least of your worries?”

Mom’s children—The Narrator (a writer in his forties), Nurse Sis (in her thirties), and Kid Sis (about twenty-five)—question doctors, shuttle Mom to her treatments, watch her hair fall out, and help her assemble the ubiquitous jigsaw puzzle in the waiting room. The narrative does not shy away from negative emotions and difficult situations, starting with, who should be told? Specifically, should they tell Divorced Dad, who left to Find Himself and now lives several states away? The Narrator decides that Dad needs to know, though one could argue that it is The Narrator (who really needs a parent right now) who needs to tell him.

Next come guilt and blame. Mom is told in uncompromising terms that her cancer came from her smoking. Unable to direct his rage against his suffering mother, The Narrator rails against every other smoker: “They deserve what they get. All of them.” It’s hard to admit that such feelings do influence a family’s attitudes toward its sick. Still, as Fies illustrates, actually being right in an “I told you so” argument is a lousy victory.

Good days exist but often conditionally. The Narrator grumbles about his sisters giving Mom a puppy (“I’m not taking it!”), and Nurse Sis and Kid Sis soon show the strain of doing the bulk of the caregiving. Character portrayals can be less than flattering, and the author admits that other people recall some events differently than he does. “Everyone is doing everything they can. But some of it conflicts, and none of it is enough.”

Doctors come in for their share of scrutiny. Mom’s family doctor never ordered a chest X-ray for a smoker who always coughed, but Mom’s dream team of specialists make her feel stupid. “Call if you notice anything unusual,” they say—but when Mom calls, they dismiss her symptoms as, “You have lung cancer; what did you expect?” Also, the doctors don’t do much to help Mom through depression. Their supervision and the flurry of activity ceases when the brain tumor has been treated, leaving Mom alone for long, silent days without distractions, watching the poisons drip into her veins.

The comic, originally published semi-anonymously on the web, was sold to print to give it permanence and a wider audience, and is a good title to introduce a non-GN reader to the graphic novel format. Panels are drawn in spare but eloquent black-and-white. Color is reserved for an occasional Dorothy-in-Oz fantasy (Mom as the “Operation” game; her children as superheroes), or for the few perfect days that felt unreal (Mom as the only figure in color at what might be her last birthday party). A flashback in sepia connects the peaceful death of Mom’s beloved grandfather to Mom’s present struggle.

Fies has cited Ollie Johnson, Bill Watterson, and Gus Arriola as inspirations, and their influence is evident in Fies’ strong line, shading, and effective use of negative space. Perspective amplifies Mom’s highs and lows. Mom’s relentlessly cheerful oncologist unnerves The Narrator from low-angle camera, her Suze Orman-like smile expanding in successive panels like an iceberg bearing down on a dinghy. Mom’s worst days are illustrated in high-angle as befits the days she feels herself sinking. Having come to expect high-angle on bad days, we, like Mom, are unprepared for her most fragile hour, when Mom breaks down in neutral view, looking the disease and the audience in the face at last.

While the book is more intended to be a how-it-happened than a how-to guide, two topics are missing. One, money is not a factor. In later correspondence between Fies and his fans, the author reveals that his mother had good insurance and some funds put away. Fies acknowledges that many cancer patients get only the care they can afford, and that Mom was fortunate to be spared that added misery.

Two, there is no mention of belief. Traditionally in times of crisis people turn to their faith traditions, question their faith traditions, or acquire faith traditions if they’re in a bargaining period and think it might help. Only the parents have any metaphysical musings, such as they are. Dad dares voice the opinion that Mom is not doing “a good job” of dying. Probably Mom would be eligible for hospice, but the Narrator hints that’s not what Dad meant. Mom is no Harrison Ford creation, defiantly crying, “Never tell me the odds,” but Mom trusts fate more than odds. This old-school medicine (patients don’t ask and doctors don’t tell) annoys her ex-husband and her son, but it’s her decision and it works for her. One of the hardest moments for The Narrator is to admit that Mom’s initial instincts were correct, that a patient’s “cancer team” needs to be on the same page, and Dad needs to be removed from that team.

“Tests and treatments vary; the emotional and practical impacts of a serious illness are nearly universal.” Fies expresses gratitude that some universities now use the book to help medical students understand a patient’s point of view. The narration includes the universal milestones but avoids the “the cancer in room 14” medical labels by remembering to make Mom “our” mom first. Mom is a young model, an experiment in a mad scientist’s lair, an aspiring actress, a tightrope walker, a dog lover, an aging-before-our-eyes grandmother, and a small, beloved granddaughter. Fies and his mother reiterate the simple truth: “Although I distrust stories with a lesson, here is one: No one will care more about your life than you do, and no one is better qualified to chart its course than you are. You are the expert.”

Against incredible odds, “Mom” survived cancer. She died two years later of complications caused by the drugs that cured her. She was sixty-six years old. Her name was Barbara.

Mom’s blog, her take on life after cancer, is now inactive but has been advertized by her family and remains on the net for the indefinite future. Brian Fies continues to maintain the central reference site and his current blog, as does Kid Sis at kidsisinhollywood.blogspot.com.

(TOM’s note: The author, Brian Fies, is “available to answer questions about my book(s), including this one.)

Mom’s Cancer by Brian Fies, 115 pages, Image (an imprint of Harry N. Abrams, Inc.), c2006. Originally published 2004 as a net comic. Winner, Eisner Award, Best Digital Comic, 2005. Winner, Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis, Sachbuch (German Youth Literature Prize, Nonfiction), 2007. Winner, Harvey Awards, Best New Talent, 2007. Winner, Lulu Blooker Prize, 2007. Artwork on museum rotation: Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, New York, as of April 2008. Scheduled to be exhibited at the Norman Rockwell Museum, Stockbridge, Mass., as of November 2008.

Book review: Soon I will be invincible! by Austin Grossman

(The post formerly known as http://oldmaid.jallman.net/entry.php?id=34 )

(Article was originally published on Toon Zone News, 2007.)

This affectionate deconstruction of comic books is narrated by supervillain Doctor Impossible (“smartest man alive, fourth most infamous”) and a rookie cyber-femme named Fatale (“I should’ve gone with Cybergirl, but I was on a lot of painkillers at the time”). Bring some popcorn and join Impossible’s Pinky and the Brain-styled quest to Try to Take Over the World, as Fatale and her super-friends solemnly try to stop him.

Impossible steals the show, naturally. As the doctor languishes in a prison he nicknames “Gilligan’s Island”—the guards won’t let him have dishes, a bed, or paper and pencil “lest I turn a coconut into a radio”—the smartest man in the world wonders whether he has done the smartest thing he could have done with his life. Clearly, Impossible needs to brush up on the list of Top 100 Things To Do If You’re an Evil Overlord, but on the whole, he’s survived. He has combat training courtesy of years in Metabrawl. He has bullet-proof skin. He has an island fortress. Now, the scourge of the Golden Age and supreme villain of the Silver Age must placate his Ben Stein-like therapist “Steve” and “shuffle in line with men who tried to pass bad checks.” It’s all too much for an Evil Genius—excuse me, a sufferer of “Malign Hypercognition Disorder”—and Impossible breaks free. In this he’s inadvertently aided by a Wolverine wannabe so inept it’s a pleasure to watch Impossible take him to school.

Part of what makes Doctor Impossible fun to watch is that he confides in us the things we always wanted to know. Why don’t supervillains have secret identities? “That’s a hero thing. Shows a lack of commitment. It wouldn’t mean as much if you could simply walk away.” What do supervillains think of superheroes? A bunch of Biff Tannens in leotards. Occasionally you meet one who can read or something, but you can’t plan your daily schemes around it. Why do so many super-geniuses become supervillains? Who the heck knows?

The other part of his charm is that Impossible’s schemes are half reasonably sound and half Wile E. Coyote loony. (How can you not love a villain with a Battle Blimp?) Why did he impersonate the pope, take over Chemical Bank, and hold the moon hostage? No law against it at the time, he protests. Those charges are totally grandfathered in! Seriously, house-to-house pacification is just too much work. Taking over the whole world is safer and easier. (Don’t bother with mind control, he adds. Making billions of people brush their teeth and get to work on time is such a headache.) Ask him what in the world would he do with the world if he finally got it? Answer: “I’d name some cities after me—Manhattan shall be The Impossible City—and a few for my mentors and friends. You’ll all choose fealty or death and hold a parade on my birthday. I might bring back the mammoths. Otherwise life will be much the same as before. It’s not like I’m going to be a jerk about it.” There’s just one problem: people don’t want to live beneath the red leather boot of a supervillain. It’s hero time, and it’s time to meet the heroes who would stop him.

The other narrator is Fatale, a female Victor “Cyborg” Stone who listens to police scanners and chases reward money to pay her bills. The “Iron Age” orphan gets recruited by a tarnished Silver Age” team called The Champions, and most of the deconstruction takes place through her eyes. (Fatale believes in only four ages: Golden, Silver, Iron, and Rust.)

Fatale is reasonably insightful and usually competent. She recorded all of Bruce Lee’s movies to have cool moves. (This surprises her enemies, who expect a 450-pound cyborg to move more like The Thing.) Otherwise, the character is refreshingly free of Mary Sue Self-Insert Disorder: she’s not pretty, funny, sexy, or popular. Her foes call her Tin Man. Other teammates see her as arrogant, and nobody falls in love with her. (Even the Champions’ lady-killer shuts her down, though he does cop a feel first.) Standing between the two worlds is Lily, a Mirage character trying to adjust to life as a good guy. She is a transparent woman, a time-traveler orphaned out of continuity, a former city-wrecker, the closest thing Fatale has to a friend—and she’s Impossible’s ex-girlfriend.

While the rest of the team is quick to accuse Lily of being Impossible’s eyes and ears, Fatale wonders if there is a different double agent in their team. The alleged product of some super-secret Super Soldier program, Fatale doesn’t actually know who built her or what she was meant to do. (“To tell the truth, it left me feeling rejected.”) When she finds a piece of technology in Impossible’s motel room that resembles her own implants, she flies into a giddy fantasy about whether she, The Next Generation of Warfare, was built by the Smartest Man Alive to be a spy or a bomb—or, horror of horrors, maybe he built her and threw her away as not measuring up to his high standards. It’s worse than being built by the lowest bidder! Of all the loose ends, this may be the most interesting, but the suggestion never really goes anywhere.

The novel’s B-plot traces Fatale’s attempts to help the team find a missing hero named CoreFire. Naturally, Impossible is blamed, what with them being arch-nemeses and all. But Fatale, the only Champion who never met CoreFire, wonders if she’s being given the run-around. Apparently Damsel and Blackwolf’s marriage got a little crowded after CoreFire’s reporter-girlfriend faded from the scene.

Characters of various types are well represented. Impossible goes for a Moriarty look. There’s an allusion to a famous Brothers Grimm character when a villain offers to let a hero out of a death trap if the hero can guess Impossible’s name. Fans of C. S. Lewis should watch for a chain-smoking Susan Pevensie as Damsel’s retired step-mother.

Marvel characters are modestly well represented here. Sue Storm’s powers are divided between two people; Human Torch is a petty thief; and Sabretooth is a hero. The DC-verse contributes most of the cameos. (Watch for the ditzy Captain Marvel villain who just can’t get anyone to take him seriously.) The Big Three—Damsel, the leader; Blackwolf, her ex-husband; and CoreFire, the (gasp) blonde—are plainly Wonder Woman, Batman, and Superman with tweaked origins. The author is clearly a Batman fan (richest, fastest, sexiest, the only hero of whom Impossible is genuinely scared, etc.), but as sometimes happens in Batman stories, the Superman character suffers by comparison.

(Which brings up an editorial point: Damsel’s reference to Corefire as “an [f-word excised from this review] racist” is one of several questionable word choices which should prompt parents who would read aloud to read a few sentences ahead first. The novel also makes oblique reference to how the Golden Age was not golden for everyone. One half expects Steve the Therapist to inquire why Damsel slept with a boy like her dear old dad.)

If you’ve noticed by now that there’s a lot of trivia and not a lot of story, you’re right. The cameo-spotting should keep alumni of Comic Con University busy for days, but new readers will be wondering when we’ll see the fireworks. Almost all the whammo-blammo is told from Impossible’s point of view, leaving Fatale to do pre-game scouting reports or post-game analysis. Also, as a newbie, Fatale has to attend Superheroes 101 class, which means we have to attend too. (Lily earns some sympathy—not necessarily the kind the author intended—when she keeps interrupting the Exposition Expedition to ask, Are we there yet?) Finally, while Doctor Impossible wonders whether his life could have turned out differently, we rarely hear similar insights from the heroes. It’s the downside of borrowing from Waid/Ross’s Kingdom Come. Both stories are lush with cameos, and they’re deeply dedicated to conscience and duty, but the heroes are too intense to exhibit either wonder or joy.

This is the author’s first novel, and while it leaves room for a sequel, this episode could use a few red pencils. Descriptions can be repetitive, and many characters are developed who don’t actually contribute to the current story. A nice touch is that chapter titles are all stock hero/villain phrases (like “Those meddling kids!”) but do not always clearly mark a shift in narration. Get the audiobook if you can. Boehmer chews the scenery with enthusiasm—the narrator is a Star Trek: Voyager alumnus—nicely capturing the doctor’s hubris, ennui, geek passions, jealousy, and a hidden loneliness. Marlo, though a more experienced audiobook narrator, shoulders a disadvantage in that her character has a naturally more flattened affect; plus, she narrates the bulk of the murder-mystery (which turns out to be about looking for the wrong person). Marlo scores some points back by also voicing Lily, giving the character a languid, jaded air of someone who has burned too many bridges and knows it.

While Soon I Will Be Invincible has its flaws, it’s still a pleasant diversion and a charming visit to Cape-and-Cowl Land.

Soon I Will Be Invincible: a Novel by Austin Grossman, 288 pages, Pantheon Publishing, c2007. Audiobook narrators, J. Paul Boehmer and Coleen Marlo, ca. 10 hours. HighBridge Audio by arrangement with Pantheon/Random House, c2007.