Grotesque Anatomy
Monday, August 09, 2004
  Extremely Tardy Reviews: 18 Revolutions
18 RevolutionsOne of the more interesting side effects of manga's ever-increasing popularity has been the rise in home-grown manga.  One of the better-known examples of this has been Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga contest, where American manga fans compete to have their manga-influenced comics published in Tokyopop's Rising Stars of Manga anthology book.  Winners of that contest have even gone on to be offered book deals by Tokyopop.  But not everyone waits for an established publisher to select her work from multiple contestants.  Some decide to bypass that route and self-publish instead.

One such creator is Rachel Nabors, who has released her collection of manga-style comic shorts, 18 Revolutions (80 B&W Pages • $7 + $3 shipping), under her imprint Manga Punk.  Most of the strips center around Rachel the Great, presumably a not-too-far-removed stand-in for Nabors herself.  How much of the book is straight autobiography is unclear, but Nabors definitely seems to be drawing inspiration from her own life, and the strips take on a welcome authenticity because of it.  For example, early on we are told that Tuna, Rachel the Great's feline companion throughout the book, is based on Nabors' own pet cat, also named Tuna, who died when Nabors was sixteen:


Anyone who's lost a beloved pet can empathize with the emotions expressed on this page, and the emotional honesty expressed imbues later gags (such as a throwaway reference to Tuna as "The Incredible Living Dead Cat") with an unexpected poignancy.  Even the commonplace device of a talking pet takes on added significance, as those who have been close to animals can identify with the notion of attributing thoughts and personality to a pet.

Similarly rooted in reality, the final story "Vive la Revolution!" (by far my favorite) details Rachel's decision to create and publish her own comics.  It's almost an adaptation of The Pulse's interview with Nabors in comic book form, only with even more charm and humor.  Perhaps it's because I'm already one of the Manga Converted, but I found Nabors' story of how shoujo manga inspired her to create comics for girls in the North American market to be a real testament to the powerful diversity provided by manga.  And as a manga reader, I found Nabors' goal of becoming "one of the greatest publishers of girls' comics that the world has ever seen!" suitably shonen in scope.

Between these bookending bits is a range of other stories, most humorous, some maudlin and morose.  My preference was for the lighter stories, where I think Nabors' talent truly shines, but I'll admit I'm probably not the intended audience for the more angst-ridden tales.  In a note preceding one such melodramatic piece, Nabors notes that when the two-pager "Fifteen Revolutions" ran on, she received many emails from girls going through similar experiences.  Still, the commonality of an experience doesn't guarantee that it's handled well when it's transformed into art, and the piece came across as a trite example of bad teen poetry for me.  That said, a later exploration of isolation and alienation ("Atrophy") is much stronger, and any embarrassing moments are undercut by the self-deprecating ending.

The weakest part of the book is the art, which is often rough and inconsistent.  Much of the inconsistency can be explained by the fact that Nabors drew these strips over a four-year period between the ages of fifteen and eighteen, so Nabors obviously has plenty of time to improve her craft.  However, when one reads 18 Revolutions as a finished, published work competing for one's comic book dollar, it's hard not to be critical of the work as it appears on the page.  One especially distracting problem is the lack of anatomical understanding underlying the figures.  I know Nabors' style is more expressive and cartoony, but a simple technique can't be used to cover up deficiencies in one's art.  (If anything, such a stripped-down style makes any weaknesses that much more pronounced.)  Even allowing for the manga convention of superdeformed (SD) characters, Nabors' figures often appear twisted and misproportioned, with necks that don't quite fit and arms that appear to bend in any direction.

Criticism about the art aside, 18 Revolutions is an engaging initial effort from a young creator.  Although some technical aspects of her work could use more polish, Nabors' storytelling instincts are impressively mature.  Her sense of humor and playfulness (both very important in manga) are well-developed and on full display here.  Frankly, I'd be more concerned if these "intangibles" didn't work, but they do.  Anatomy can be learned, but a unique voice can't.  Based on this debut work, I'm optimistic that Nabors' future work will deliver on the promise contained in these pages.
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