Book Review: Lee and Cho’s Phantom

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By Luke Forney

Comics in the United States have enjoyed a long history, and the genre seems to be in the middle of its largest grasp on popularity yet. Thus it was inevitable that comics from outside the United States would start to hit stateside shores. First came the British, especially with 2000 A.D., and the authors who grew out of that tradition, including Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Mark Millar, and all of the other members of comics’ British Invasion. Much more recently, the popularity of manga, Japanese comics, has seen a huge upswing, from Osamu Tezuka (Astro Boy, Black Jack, MW) to Kentaro Miura’s ultraviolent fantasy, Berserk. It was only a matter of time that comics from another country became popular. It appears as though the next country’s comics to achieve mass popularity in America might be South Korea.

South Korean comics, called manhwa, are slowly starting to make a mark in the United States, with the most evident example being Priest, written and drawn by Min-Woo Hyung, which was recently made into the movie of the same name starring Paul Bettany. However, there is far more out there, with a vast variety of subjects, including Hyung-Tae Kim’s OXIDE, the manhwa adaption of the videogame ArchLord by Jin-Hwan Park, the gender-bending Devil’s Bride by Se-Young Kim, and the incredibly popular Pink Lady, Yeon Woo’s internet manhwa romance about two childhood friends that reconnect at art school.

Another manhwa out there, applicable to science fiction fans, is Phantom. Written by Ki-Hoon Lee, with art by Seung-Yup Cho, Phantom is the story of a cop named K in a future Seoul, where crime runs rampant on the outskirts of the city, and the interior of Seoul is run by large corporations with their hands in all the right government pockets. K lives his life without questioning the system, working as a pilot in a gigantic humanoid machine stopping crime. However, after one of the terrorists attacking the corporations continues to evade him, his frustration leads to cracks in his unquestioning faith in the system. When he sees this same terrorists, who (of course) turns out to be a beautiful woman, about to be murdered by corporation agents, K leaves his role as cop and finds himself trapped between a organization he has been told his whole life is a hot bed of terrorism, and a government that doesn’t waqnt him to return to his normal life.

The focus on the large machines is one that masy only appeal to a certain crowd of people (those who enjoyed Robotech, Gundam, etc.), but it mixes lots of action with a decent plot, and is a ton of fun to read.Fans of near future science fiction, anti-establishment fiction, and lots of explosions will find much to enjoy here.

Phantom doesn’t try for deep musings on the abuse of power in government, or the true meaning of “terrorist.” It simply focuses on big machines beating each other to pieces, and the relationship trauma K goes through as everything he cares about is taken from him. Phantom isn’t necessarily “great” comics work, but it isn’t trying to be, and it doesn’t need to be. It wants to be fast-paced, action-packed, and fun, and it achieves all of this is spades.

The English translation was being published by TokyoPop, which recently shut down. This means that for a very limited time, these volumes are dirt cheap on Amazon, so don’t wait to check out this series.

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Zot! and the Cozy Science Fiction Future

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By Luke Forney

What with the recent focus at Digital Science Fiction on far-future science fiction, and the cutting edge of science, it seemed time for a return to some of science fiction’s less “technical” roots. At least for this writer, science fiction meant space ships, jet packs, and flying cars when I was a kid a just getting into the genre. The key image was the futuristic city, again with flying cars, but also with towering buildings, sharp spires shooting out of sight, long clean, gently curing lines and curves creating a serene image of futuristic pacificity.

Welcome to Zot!

Scott McCloud (famous for his trio of books on the literary theory of comics: Understanding Comics, Reinventing Comics, and Making Comics) began his career as a writer of graphic fiction, rather than graphic non-fiction. The biggest chunk of his fiction work fell into his series Zot! The stories in Zot! follow the super hero teenager Zot as he saves the day in his far flung future, where every day is some time in 1965. However, Zot’s scientist genius Uncle Max creates a portal between universe, and Zot is thrust directly into our universe, full of crime, pollution, unhappiness, and a distinct lack of futurity.

McCloud uses a large swath of this series to explore the differences between the future we imagined one hundred years ago, and the future we wound up with. Zot interacts with our world, from his girlfriend Jenny (who Zot can’t believe grew up in a world she didn’t even like) to what being a super hero in the real world would actually be like. Stories of evil robots who can take over your minds, assassins who travel by electricity, “de-evolutionaries,” steampunk-infused evil contraption builders, and psycopaths who see the world as through the eyes of art deco speak to the bizarre, innocent imaginings of the beginnings of a genre, as well as the first entries of burgeoning fans into the world of science fiction. However, this is all juxtaposed with less “fantastic” villainy, such as bullying, prejudice, and unrequited love.

Not that the entire series is somber and serious. Tales of people turning into monkeys, and parties with the set intention of someone getting a pie to the face are also standard fare for Zot! McCloud brilliantly balances out the stories to keep it all in check, and to remind the reader of another key tenant of this style of science fiction: eternal optimism.

Zot! was originally published 36 issue comic series from Eclipse Comics. The first ten issues were full color extravaganzas that McCloud has referred to as his “trial period” for Zot! Starting with issue eleven, Zot! became a black and white series. Issue eleven was also a sort of new start for the series, allowing new readers to jump on, and old readers to shed some of the early missteps McCloud felt were apparent in the original run. While certain characters and references do carry over from the color run to the black and white one, the later black and white series does stand on its own.

In 2008, after the publication of Making Comics, HarperCollins put out the brick-sized tome Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection. As the subtitle states, the book collects Zot! from 1987 to 1991, from the beginning of the black and white run all the way to the series conclusion. Clocking in at nearly 600 pages, this is a lot of content, and the price is very reasonable.

While many seems to denigrate Zot! as McCloud’s early, non-serious, non-literary work, that misses the entire point of the series. It is embracing the fun side of old-school futuristic stylings, while telling complex stories about ourselves in the process. And if that’s not great science fiction, I don’t know what is.

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