2023 Media in Review

It’s been a hell of a year for me, mostly not in a good way. Still, any existence in which you can enjoy the things you love is a good existence, so allow me to introduce some select media this year that struck a chord — harmonious or not.

Books

Camp Spirit, by Axelle Lenoir (Top Shelf Productions, 2020). Reserved high school senior Elodie is sent to act as counselor at Camp Spirit, getting far more than she expected when she’s saddled with uncontrollable children, staff drama, and a mysterious blue light emanating from somewhere in the forest. What’s great about this book is that the characters and world are so believable that when the possibly-supernatural events turn up, they don’t feel too silly or out of place. Elodie’s growth throughout the book is similarly believable in that she largely retains the same character despite having a couple of life-changing events over the course of the summer. By the end of it I couldn’t find a single thing to complain about, so it’s a 10 in my eyes. (Bonus props to Lenoir adding visual nods to other comics and cartoon heroines. My favorites were a troop of six campers: Kate, Natasha, and Jennifer were named, though if you catch the reference you can ID the other three as Kitty, Carol, and Kamala.)

The Girl with the Sanpaku Eyes, vol. 5, by Shunsuke Sorato (Denpa, 2023). OK, this entry’s a little very self-serving because I’m actually the retoucher/letterer/production manager on this title, and I’m biased. That said, this is the final volume in the series about Amane Mizuno, a girl too self-conscious to talk to her crush. It’s an extremely simple premise, and it’s largely a sweet, dumb, and uncomplicated comic, but there’s a revelatory chapter in volume 5 that made me reconsider the lighthearted antics of the previous volumes. It’s not the kind of surprise that will convert any naysayers, but it ought to earn respect from those who’ve been enjoying the story as mindless fun.

Adora and the Distance, by Marc Bernardin, with Ariela Kristantina, Jessica Kholinne, and Bernardo Brice (Dazzling Urbanite, 2021). I’d heard of this book when it came out, and it mostly boiled down to “Glen, I can’t give away the ending, you really just have to read it.” Now that I’ve read it, I completely understand why. That’s why it hurts to be critical of this book — well, it always stings a little to write or read a review — because it’s so well-intentioned but also manages to leave a mixed reaction. The story and art aren’t bad, but are noticeably inconsistent over the course of the book. Nothing so terrible that you’ll just slam the book down and never pick it up again, just enough so that you begin to question how some story elements and illustrations can be so beautiful one moment and so imperfect the next. So much promise that goes unexplored, and a finale that makes you question whether those missteps were intentional. It’s like watching your favorite Olympian performing unexceptionally during the finals: you are glad to see them in action, but somehow you just expected more.

Go! Go! Loser Ranger!, vols. 1 and 2 by Negi Haruba (Kodansha, 2022). This is the first time in a while when I can clearly state something about an author: I’m losing interest in Negi Haruba. Not to say that he’s untalented; but with this series he’s clearly phoning it in. I picked up this title because I was looking forward to the twist in the Super Sentai formula. Here, the expected team of five Power Rangers-style superheroes have been protecting the Earth from an invading alien force for years. The truth, however, is that the Rangers have actually enslaved the aliens long ago and are exploiting their plight for their own fame and profit, which inspires a lowly alien foot soldier to take revenge. I was interested in the first half of Haruba’s previous series The Quintessential Quintuplets, but gave up on that story because the fake-outs and teases became too tiresome. Unfortunately, Go! Go! Loser Ranger! is similarly flawed. While Volume 1 ends on a subversive cliffhanger, Volume 2 stumbles hard. Page layouts are oddly underwhelming, the action is too frequently difficult to follow, there are way too many characters to keep track of, and the subversions are so commonplace they fail to surprise. Perhaps worst of all is the fact that Volume 2 ends on a cliffhanger just as neatly as the one in Volume 1, which leads me to believe that Haruba and his editors are not only planning the story beats for the weekly serialization, but for the compiled volumes as well. That’s formulaic on a production level, and I don’t think I care to follow Haruba down this road again.

Films & Television

Godzilla Minus One (2023), directed by Takashi Yamazaki. Over the years, Godzilla has had a number of turns been as nuclear allegory, hero, anti-hero, force of nature, legendary beast, demonic villain, and a biological menace across nearly 40 films and shows. My favorite is the “existential threat” Godzilla that we’ve previously only really seen in the original 1954 movie and in 2016’s Shin Godzilla. The same take on Godzilla features in Minus One, but what makes this film compelling is the fact that it focuses less on the apparent danger to life and much more on the reasons why life is important to begin with. Main character Shikishima is a failed kamikaze pilot who not only bears the shame of having fled his duty, but survivor’s guilt from a chance encounter with Godzilla. He manages to survive in what’s left of war-ravaged Tokyo, but Godzilla’s return forces him to consider ways to “atone” for the sin of his own survival. Oddly both nationalistic and anarchic, it’s the most interesting premise for a Godzilla film in years, and despite some incongruity between the human and SFX scenes, it’s a very strong film.

Monarch: Legacy of Monsters (2022). And at the other end of the daikaiju spectrum, we have… this. Monarch is an American TV production set in Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse, which is home to their version of Godzilla. While this show hasn’t finished its first season at the time of this writing, enough of it has been released for me to mathematically claim that this show is mostly bad. Like Minus One, this show focuses on humans affected by the attacks, only Monarch doesn’t have likeable characters. They’re either jerks trying to one-up each other in a pity party, or jerks because they’re Professionals™ who have “bigger things to deal with.” Characterization comes after the fact. It’s difficult enough to get an audience to warm up to a jerk, and Monarch has three of them as leads. It doesn’t help that the show’s plot is divided into two main time periods, each of which features flashbacks and jumps within each period. The creature effects are pretty great, but plot-wise, they have almost no bearing on the events. It’s a severe disappointment that one of the show’s creators is Matt Fraction, whose run on the Hawkeye comic in 2012 was one of my favorites in a long time. Still, I maintain that as bad as Monarch is, it’s not as offensively and disloyally bad as Obi-Wan Kenobi turned out to be.

Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse (2023), directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson. The sequel to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sees Miles Morales rejoin Gwen Stacy, fighting a new threat to the multiverse. Not as concise as the original, which is even more of a problem because the original took its time. It’s an absolute joy to look at, though; the worlds of the multiverse are rendered in unique styles, my favorites of which are Gwen Stacy’s Earth-65, awash in watercolors, and Spider-Punk, who manages to look like every bit of scribbled graffiti you’ve ever seen in a basement music hall. It also features my favorite, Spider-Man 2099 Miguel O’Hara, every bit of a jerk as he was in the original comics, so that’s a point in the film’s favor. Still, I couldn’t recommend it to anyone not interested in Spider-Man or pretty visuals.

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish (2022), directed by Joel Crawford. I wasn’t expecting to like this as much as I did, mostly for its frank take on death. Well, the premise is that our titular feline hero has already used up eight of his nine lives, so I suppose it would be weird if it didn’t come up. Anyway, the animation is good, and the moral of the story is refreshingly mature for a kids’ movie. Also, it’s somehow not the first kids’ movie to casually drop the phrase “Death comes for us all” as a serious line.

Well, there it is. See you in the new year!

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