Comikaze Spotlight: Kel McDonald and Jose Pimienta’s From Scratch

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On the far edge of the exhibition booths with towers of toys, old and new comics, and any other merchandise tied to pop culture of the past and present you could imagine, Stan Lee’s Comikaze’s Artist Alley stood in modest rows. As per our usual approach to any comic con, we first focused our attention on this section looking for independent work and new experiments in the comicbook form (based on Stan Lee’s introduction to the extended weekend celebration of comics and pop culture, he insisted that “comic books” should be “comicbooks,” and in honor of that, I’ll stick to the nomenclature he prefers). After winding through the tables and passing by plenty of illustrators who were selling prints, we stopped at Jose Pimienta’s table, lured in by copies of The Leg, which he illustrated (and I reviewed in the past), sitting at the edge of the table.

As fans of the illustration style in The Leg, we decided to pick up From Scratch, illustrated by Pimienta and written by Kel McDonald. Independently published by McDonald, From Scratch contains plenty of familiar creatures of the supernatural that we’ve come to know, but rather than showcasing the powers we have seen them utilize for decades, these beings exhibit their more human components and foibles. Set in the 1920s, From Scratch has a hint of a film noir look to it, but it is far looser in its storytelling and visual style than most noir comics out there.

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Noir Pulp-esque Cover for From Scratch

From Scratch opens with Aaron and Seth arguing in a dark speakeasy. Aaron has agreed to join Seth and his group on a job to eliminate a Mr. Zamboni and his group of mobsters, but not without some doubt about where this first foray into paid killing will take him in the future.

When the two meet the rest of the team, we begin to realize that the crew is not composed of your average hit men. Aaron and Seth are vampires as well as Loki, who also possesses specific sorcery power in addition to his ones as an undead creature of the night. Beyond the vampires, we also have Sasha the werewolf and Lady Kimaya the ice demon, and all of these folks take their instructions for the job from a demon with a sinister grin and face paint to match named Darkfire or, in more human terms, Mr. Tamura.

After the introduction to the cast, the plot focuses on one specific job for the group as their more human characteristics such as common sense lead them into blunders and an overall messy and too overt execution of their task. In the course of running through the halls of a stately art deco hotel looking for their target, Mr. Zamboni, the members of the team attempt to handle the order as humans, causing struggle that leads to them resorting to using their supernatural powers. Despite your natural assumption that these characters have a far greater advantage in accomplishing their deed because of the fact that they are not human, their powers cause more inconvenience than efficiency; the superpowers cause more destruction to the building and make far more noise, making the demon assassins less anonymous and quiet in their attempt to clear out everyone guarding Zamboni.

From Scratch sets its sights on placing familiar supernatural characters in circumstances and settings that deviate from their archetypal courses and succeeds. In addition to McDonald’s fun and distinctive script, Pimienta’s work here shines, with each page containing a unique visual element, ranging from varying lettering to abstract forms created from the bloodshed of the crew’s deed. While the book is comprehensive and complete, it leaves some fascinating remaining questions open, perfect for a second volume and even more. Unfortunately, only one book for the From Scratch crew and scenario exists, which is the real shame because it generates an imaginative and absurdist world with strong characters that I would love to learn more about.

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Example of Mixed Art and Lettering Style

Regardless of my disappointment that more of From Scratch does not exist, it stands as an excellent example of the type of gems buried in the crowded aisles of the Artist Alley of any comic convention. Next time you’re at a con, take some time away from the walls of mesmerizing Funko toys to talk to creators at their tables in Artist Alley. You’ll most likely discover a work that tests your expectations for comicbooks, and that’s always a treat well worth the time and effort.

From Scratch is written by Kel McDonald and illustrated by Jose Pimienta and is available in print and electronic forms here

Also, keep an eye out soon for our wrap up on Comikaze, which will be posted on Forces of Geek soon!

Lily Takes on Pasta! Nui Xao Bo

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Nui Xao Bo may be the first and only dish I present that intersects with Generoso’s Italian cooking!

When I was a kid and teenager, I loved Nui Xao Bo, a Vietnamese interpretation of pasta. Generally made with tomato paste, I wanted to make a version that was similar to the version I had as a child but without the acidity and harshness of tomato paste. Consequently, I opted to make a tomato sauce inspired by Generoso’s techniques as the primary sauce for the pasta. In addition, I used Italian pasta instead of Vietnamese pasta, which is a personal preference. The outcome is a rich and delicious meal that I lighten with a bed of lettuce and fresh cilantro and scallions.

This is a pretty quick dish that can be prepared the night before and assembled right before eating! It’s also quite good cold as a pasta salad!

Enjoy!

Music via César Franck Piano Concerto from 1878

The Failed Graphic Novel Extension of Olivier Morel’s Film On the Bridge – Walking Wounded

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There’s no doubt that Olivier Morel and Maël’s Walking Wounded addresses a serious topic.

The Iraq War (and the overall War on Terrorism) most certainly stands as this generation’s Vietnam War. The war itself has some highly questionable motivations and practices (which I will omit to discuss at length here because I, by no means, am an expert, but for further context, I will direct you to this). And, like the veterans of the Vietnam War, the veterans of the Iraq War have returned home to a similar indifference and lack of support. To make matters worse, the veterans of this war all decidedly enlisted to protect our country; a mandatory draft did not exist at the time of the war, adding a further layer of complexity to veterans’ experiences upon returning because the decision to join the battle was even more of a conscious one even if the battles they were placed in were completely unexpected, potentially making these soldiers feel even more guilty about the horrors they experienced and implicitly making the public even more passive about the welfare of these troops with a, “you should have known what you were getting yourself into” sentiment.  

Before we proceed, let me establish that this review in no way will address my own opinions of the Iraq War or American foreign policy over the past two decades. In addition, before I go on to explain the flaws of the Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories From Iraq, let me also say that I have always and will always support American veterans; my family has multiple veterans, and I have multiple friends who are currently in the military or have returned from service, so my criticism of the Morel graphic novel does not come from any political leanings or judgement on American soldiers; it comes from the novel’s  failure to execute a coherent story and failure to evoke empathy in addition to pathos and sympathy.

Now, onto the analysis and review…

We as a general public should demand more sophisticated and nuanced discussions of war and its psychological impact on our soldiers. During and after the Vietnam War, we saw a wealth of films that allowed those of us at home (and those of us who were not born at the time such as myself) to understand what our soldiers experienced and how they felt. Ranging from Walter Hill’s Southern Comfort to Bob Clark’s Deathdream, viewers, even now, could begin to understand the absurdity our soldiers faced and, in turn, the great difficulty they would endure upon returning home and attempting to re-integrate into civilian society. On the non-fiction side of film, war documentaries such as Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds dropped you right into soldiers’ daily lives in war, thus showing us how and why Vietnam veterans would face immense hardship when they returned home. With these Vietnam War films, you do not sit through conjecture or hear any platitudes about the brutality of war; you walk side by side with the people in front of you, seeing what they see, making you feel completely consumed by their worlds. Sure, there’s a message lying in all of these works (some that you could even describe as propaganda), and the plot, the characters, and the editing exist to convey this message, but you do not spend 90 minutes sitting with people who repeat the director’s intended message to you over and over.

In today’s documentaries about any serious topic (war, environmental damage, health care accessibility, hunger, and really any topic that addresses the suffering of living things), more often than not, you get spoon fed the message of the director with talking head interviews with various people who essentially say the same thing. Again, to repeat, these topics are important, but the recent trend in the documentary form with its perspective-less interviews frequently fails to produce any deeper empathy than that of a public service announcement. And even worse than the cold, distanced, content-less interviews are the moments of “artistic expression” meant to convey the message in some abstract way. These moments frequently do even more damage to the communication of the theme of the work, breaking up the tone of the interviewees with these abstractions that at best evoke some short sense of pathos and some pat on the back for pretentious creativity that is difficult to critique in public without some dissent.

Now, what happens when one of these serious modern documentaries filled with heart-wrenching interviews and artistic interludes gets extended into graphic novel form?

You get the Walking Wounded: Uncut Stories From Iraq, a clumsy, awkward novel that fails to provide further dimensionality and richness to Morel’s documentary film On the Bridge (which in itself haphazardly handles the stories of the veterans it includes) and feels more like an attempt to capitalize on a “hot” media form without ever studying how to create a story in the comic form that everybody is ranting and raving about.

Cover for Walking Wounded

The Walking Wounded includes the stories of the veterans included in On the Bridge with a tiny bit of Morel’s perspective as he made the film. In the novel, Morel does address the moral line between storytelling and exploitation that all documentarians face, but given the sparseness of these moments of reflection in the novel, his own perspective on the making of the film only feels like a digression away from the stories of the veterans. So, if the novel does not expand on Morel, then shouldn’t he use the graphic novel to expand on the stories of the veterans?

Well, he does include some moments of how the interviews with our veterans, Wendy, Vince, Ryan, Jason, Kevin, and Lisa and parents of veteran Jeff Lucey came to happen, but with his attempt at non-linear storytelling to portray each veteran’s role in the film paired with their experience in and out of war, Morel butchers the stories and throws them incongruously together, making it difficult to get to know each veteran beyond the panels where they discuss how they felt deceived by our politicians and how the terrors of war make it difficult to experience regular life. We get no time to live with our veterans and have them naturally recount their experiences in war and in civilian life; we only get their answers to Morel’s pointed questions. Consequently, given all of the veteran stories included in the 122 pages of the Walking Wounded, the novel is a modge-podge collage of understanding post-traumatic stress syndrome rather than an insightful, pensive work which explores and attempts to comprehensively understand how PTSD manifests and affects our veterans.

Thus, what makes the Walking Wounded an infuriating read is its absolute failure to extend the stories of the veterans featured in On the Bridge; in fact, he chops them shorter in the novel and interrupts them with making of the film moments, failing to build greater perspective and empathy, which, in total, fails the veterans included in the novel and the cause-at-large to provoke change in our society’s approach to veteran care and support in reintegration into civilian life. The Walking Wounded provides no more depth or information than a news item, and with its attempt to include so many stories into a small book, it feels like a human interest piece about veterans that you would see produced for CNN or PBS. Morel would have seen far more success if he focused on one specific veteran, but instead, he includes only didactic moments from each veteran’s story, making the whole book as thought-provoking as a pamphlet on veterans’ PTSD in a psychologist’s office; and, to further this info pamphlet vibe, Morel even includes a patronizing Notes section which includes elementary definitions for a range of items such as The Subprime Crisis and Crash of 2008 and Abu Ghraib, all of which need far more discussion and analysis than what he provides (did he not think his readers were capable of looking up information about the topics he described?).  

All of my anger at Morel’s incompetence can be summed up in one moment…When Morel meets Ryan Endicott, a young marine who is sitting alone at a Christmas party, and strikes up a conversation with him, Ryan discusses how he hates everything, especially Santa. To hammer home Ryan’s struggle with the trivialness of everyday civilian life compared to his experiences in war, Morel and Maël include an image of Morel and Ryan speaking on a bench dwarfed by a sepia image of a giant Santa carrying a bag of weapons. If that one scene alone does not convey the utterly poor and grossly heavy handed execution of the Walking Wounded, then I pray for the future of documentaries and nonfiction graphic novels, for we have regressed in our expectations of how to present, digest, and comprehend controversial and difficult topics, thus doing no justice to the stories of the people ultimately affected.

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Walking Wounded by Olivier Morel and Maël is available via NBM. 

Staying Right At the Middle: Gene Luen Yang’s Level Up

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In recent memory, Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was the last time I heard about the Asian-American experience in popular news. I’ll skip over my thoughts on the work because that demands an extended conversation for a different time and avenue, but with the high publicity of Chua’s work, Asian-Americans have an opportunity to begin to describe their experiences living within two somewhat contradictory cultures, and most importantly, to emerge as distinct voices (ideally, from my perspective, against the Amy Chua practices for breeding replicant, financially successful but soul and imagination empty Asian-Americans).

Released in the same year as Battle Hymn, Gene Luen Yang’s  Level Up, tackled the Asian-American experience from the child’s rather than the parent’s perspective and aimed its message at children and young adults.

Before this review continues, I will make a specific distinction in describing the experiences of Yang’s and Chua’s work. In general Western media, they identify as works that discuss the Asian-American experience. However, as an Asian-American myself (who is culturally Vietnamese though genetically half-Chinese), I will say that the “Asian-American experience” is a far too broad of a term because the acculturation process in America greatly differs from culture to culture and nation to nation of origin. Consequently, I will take a stance and say that Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Level Up are specifically works that address the Chinese-American experience. With that moment of semantics over, let’s continue…

Cover for Level Up

In Level Up, Dennis Ouyang loves video games, but his destiny forbids him from pursuing his video game passion and gifts. Since early childhood, Dennis has received constant reminders that he must study and become a medical doctor, specifically a gastroenterologist, from his strict Chinese parents. Under the restrictions of his parents and their constant reminder that life is pain and full of sacrifices, Dennis succeeds in high school and stays on the course defined for him, but life changes when he encounters death for the first time; Dennis’s father dies of liver cancer right before he begins college.

To express his grief, Dennis devours video games, and in turn, shifts his priorities from academic success to beating video games, thus committing hours and hours to moving pixels rather than organic chemistry. As his destiny of medical school seems farther and farther away, a group of tiny angels appear in Dennis’s life, reminding him that he must become a doctor. With their constant urging and support on household tasks and studying, the little angels get Dennis back on track toward the day of his Hippocratic oath, and Dennis manages to go to medical school. Despite his academic success, Dennis has yet to answer the essential question: “What is my purpose in life?”

Thus, to no surprise, Dennis has a mental breakdown in his first year of medical school, realizing his decision to pursue a career as a gastroenterologist has no foundations in his own desires, only those of his parents. With this awakening, Dennis begins to introspectively question his motivations and slowly unravels his parents’ definition of his destiny to begin the journey of defining his own.

While I appreciated Yang’s ability to capture the guilt and the pressure to succeed in Chinese-American households and his own encouragement to young people to ask why one decides to pursue a career, I was greatly disappointed by the end of Level Up: Dennis, despite a brief hiatus from the doctor life as a competitive video gamer, returns to medical school, with the only new perspective to his career being that he will consider other medical specialties. After his brief introspection and his final understanding that this course to become a doctor existed because his father had failed to become one, Dennis does not really forge his own path; he defaults to the path he has always been told to follow, or, even worse, his father’s guilt in his own failure has become Dennis’s motivation to succeed as a doctor himself. Regardless of which reason is the one, neither sets Dennis up for a satisfied career as a doctor. 

With Level Up, Yang had the great opportunity (and somewhat responsibility) to explore what success and ultimately happiness and confidence look like outside of Chinese-American standard expectations, but like Dennis the character, he chooses a safer route that does not completely rock the boat. Level Up could have been a work that encouraged young Chinese-Americans to explore their own interests and passions, but instead, it latently tells them that parent-defined expectations are the ultimate route we follow. Yang himself took his own life and career in a direction far from the Chinese preferred ones as a doctor, professor, or lawyer, and that thought process for his own life should have influenced the arc of Dennis Ouyang and made Level Up a far richer and far more revolutionary novel. But, alas, Dennis decides on becoming a doctor and even has some of his gaming interest filled with the game-like controller used in a Lower GI (oh, how, cute!).

To arrive at this happy doctor ending, Dennis does not ask himself if the medical material fundamentally interests him. He does not ask himself if the life of a doctor is what he really wants. He does not ask himself what other options exist to help people, which is the reason why he decides to return to medical school. He just decides that the gaming world is too trivial for him, and he selects the only other course he has ever known, preparing him for another crisis not too far down the road.

Level Up could have been a youth-oriented counterpoint to Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, but, sadly, it is somewhat of a complementary piece. I’ll have to keep waiting and hoping for that book from the Asian-American community that finally stands up and says no more to the Chinese-American standards of success. I just hope that it arrives before the onset of my own mid-life crisis.

Level Up, available by First Second, is written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Thien Pham.

An Update to Com Tam: Lily’s Thit Suon Nuong

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With the Los Angeles perpetual summer continuing its rampage, I have been running out of non-soup based recipes to show you. After some discussion and a recent purchase of four pounds of beautifully trimmed pork shoulder, Generoso, upon seeing pictures, asked if I could make the pork chops served with Com Tam.

Com Tam is a blanket term for rich dishes served with crushed jasmine rice and a small bowl of nuoc mam to pour over all of the treats on the plate. There are many variations on Com Tam, which contain different types of meats and preparations, but my favorite has always been the version with Suon Nuong, and that is what I decided to modify.

First, in my version, I use molasses as my source of color and caramelization to the meat. You can certainly use brown sugar if you would like! I also use pork without the bone; again, this is a preference. I also serve the pork with brown rice, which is a bit healthier, and this dish needs all of the help it can get when it comes to health. In addition, I serve my Com Tam without nuoc mam (the signature lime and fish sauce based dipping sauce); I let the pork marinade shine on its own but balance the richness of the dish with pickled carrots. Lastly, I pan fry my pork, whereas most preparations call for grilling or broiling. I like the texture of the pan fry myself, but you are welcome to broil or grill the Suon Nuong!

Please note: In the opening ingredient introduction, I forgot to mention fish sauce. There’s almost no savory Vietnamese recipe that does not have fish sauce! Make sure that you always have it on hand when you’re making Vietnamese food! 🙂

Enjoy! Please do share your results and variations of Suon Nuong!

A Lightning Bolt of Fun: Michael Brennan’s Electric Girl

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While I regularly fail to maintain a well-balanced food diet, I try my best to stick to a well-balanced media consumption regimen. For some reason, of late, I’ve been directed in my comic book reading toward lighter works than my taste generally prefers. While the short-term break from my preferred dour and serious comics fare has been refreshing, it has also been somewhat enlightening in understanding my own perceptions when simultaneously digesting works of different media forms, styles, genres, or moods.

On a recent early morning trip out to Marina del Rey, we immediately turned around our car after we saw the electric blue walls of Dreamworld Comics. Perhaps it was my early morning craving for something to start off the day in a bright way, or perhaps it was the enormous open windows and bright sun filling the room and making me feel far more joyful than I would ever be at nine in the morning, but the turquoise spine and the premise of Michael Brennan’s Electric Girl caught my eye, and I left the shop with it (along with some neon green Hot Wheels for dearest Generoso).

Cover For Volume One

Mischief follows Virginia, the protagonist of Electric Girl; Oogleeoog, a goblin of menace, has had his grips on her from the day she was born. As part of his long term plan of interference, Oogleeoog gave Virginia the ability to produce electricity from her own body, and he also graced her with his eternal presence. As a result, Virginia not only manages to shock people and ruin electronics on humid days but also carries trouble for anyone around her when Oogleeoog must execute his goblin duties to make each daily task that much harder, whether that is making a phone call, sleeping, or watching a baseball game.

While this premise lured me in and kept me entertained throughout the first volume of the series, when the time arrived to tackle this review, I found little I could say about it, so I began to go through my mental checklist of dissecting my own reaction.

Did it evoke a positive or negative type of entertainment? Certainly positive.

Did I like the characters? Yes.

Did I like the dialog? Yes.

Did I like the artwork? Yes.

What adjectives would I use to describe this work? Silly, fun….

And at that point in the list, I realized why I had little else to say about Electric Girl. Brennan does not focus the series on some grandiose message about existence and responsibility of a super power; he just wants to make Electric Girl a simple, funny read. As a result, at least in the first volume, Virginia never uses her power as anything more than a convenience, and the ability to conduct electricity does not become more than an annoyance for Virginia, making the entire series feel a little Bewitched or I Dream of Jeannie of the 1960s, entertaining and enjoyable but definitely a bit thin on philosophical and intellectual dimensions because we do not get to see her experience any major struggle or triumph from possessing this quality.

Virginia, like Samantha and Jeannie of the aforementioned TV shows is charming and adorable. She similarly gets into quirky situations that always have a layer of cuteness to them in their emergence and solutions, especially when her adorable dog Blammo enters the plot. Virginia’s powers are more of a small eccentricity that lead to party tricks and little giggles than a complex part of her identity.

And the same goes for Oogleoog. He is less of a foreboding character and more of a wacky sidekick. His tricks on others cause far less nuisance than one would expect from a goblin, and with every trick he throws in, you almost want to say, “Aw, that darn silly Oogleoog. What did he do this time?” while in your best 1950s housewife pose with hands on your hips and a smirk in knowing that someone has stolen socks off of the clothing line or a cookie from the cookie jar.

Despite my own teasing of the basic concepts of Electric Girl, times do exist when you want more simplistic plots and characters, and if you like to keep your comic book consumption as broad as possible, Electric Girl will fit in at a specific time, place, and mood. As long as you take the series at its face value and do not expect to find some profound observation of humanity in it, you’ll have fun reading Electric Girl, exactly like the fun you have watching Bewitched, I Love Lucy, or I Dream of Jeannie. None of these works are life changing, but you come to appreciate them when you have a lot on your mind, when you’re having a bad day, when you’re getting ready for the day, or when you just want something basic in your own complicated reality. These works don’t demand much from you: just some attention and some laughs. They are perfect palette cleansers in between heavy works; they deliver the same uncomplicated joy of a chocolate chip cookie.

But, as said before, for a balanced diet, you need more than just the cookie, and for me, reading Electric Girl reminded me that while any piece of media or art has its own inherent value, it also develops separate layers of value based on your own mental state and in comparison to the contributions of other works you enjoy. Consequently, while the simplicity of Electric Girl may feel overly saccharine and juvenile to some, it allowed me to step out of my own ruminating thoughts of existence based on my current piecemeal reading and digestion of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and other general life circumstances, and there is value in that ability to deliver a quick shot of untaxing amusement, even if it does not answer your own questions about the meaning of life.

Electric Girl by Michael Brennan is available via AiT/Planetlar.

Larb and Goi Unite in Lily’s Goi Ga

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As a kid, I never really liked goi ga, a fresh Vietnamese salad often containing cabbage, carrots, cilantro, shredded chicken, and roasted peanuts, all topped with fish sauce.

However, as I got older, I began to really appreciate the simplicity of the dish, especially when you’re constantly eating heavier, starch based foods (which my appetite tends to lead me toward). Recently, I’ve really come to love the Thai Larb, which is a meat salad with more lime flavor than the Vietnamese goi ga and with more mint.

Consequently, in this week’s recipe, I made my version of goi ga with larb influences. It’s a light dish that is surprisingly filling because of all of the fresh veggies. Perfect for a picnic, my version of goi ga is bright, colorful, and filled with plenty of different, yet complementing flavors.

Enjoy!

Satellite Sam Volume Three: Adios New York! Hello Los Angeles!

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From the start, Matt Fraction and Howard Chaykin’s Satellite Sam set out to be more than just a standard noir. Certainly more on the tawdry side, emphasized by Chaykin’s illustrations, Satellite Sam contains a dirtier, uglier, and far more sinister America than we’ve seen historically in the noir genre, so much so that I feel a little scummy every time I read it (and even ickier when I admit to how much I really enjoy this series).

Volume Three, Satellite Sam and the Limestone Caves of Fire, marks the closing of the first major arc of the series. While the first volume sets the foundation for the series and puts the mystery of Carlyle White’s death into motion, the second and third volume move further away from the whodunnit component of the first and instead, focus more on the individual characters and their own focused minor arcs. In fact, by the middle of the second volume, you pretty much know the identity of the murderer; you stick along for the ride to see how the different people involved react and the peripheral plots develop.

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The Always Suggestive Cover of Satellite Sam

Now, with the murder mystery interest cast to the side, Satellite Sam emerges primarily as a work of pure mood creation, with its characters and storylines built to convey the underbelly of post World War II America and the bleakness, desperation, and abandonment of normalcy of not only those who fought in war but those who survived. This is the lurid America of The Naked City rather than that of Don’t Knock the Rock.

As mentioned in my discussion of the first volume, unlike the traditional noir, Satellite Sam reveals all of the debauchery that consumes people and discusses the social issues of the era with a freedom unaccepted in the 1940s and 1950s. From the dialog referencing the abundance of Antisemitism in the television world to the strained race relations seen through the tormenting of Eugene Ford, the first black man (though originally represented as white to audiences) to be on television, Satellite Sam captures the overall turmoil and tension of the era that we’ve looked back on with images of jukeboxes, poodle skirts, and Elvis Presley’s singing and dancing. Most significantly, the series concentrates on the deviant sexuality of the era we often recall as the age of the cheerful teenager. Running with America’s fascination with Bettie Page’s bondage images, Fraction and Chaykin use sexual perversity as their primary tool to explore a rotting America where sex is used as a weapon of power and domination. As a result, the sex never gets too sensationalistic; it is a symptom of a diseased state of being evinced by Michael White’s descent (and eventual sobering) as well as Carlyle White’s fall along with Reb Karnes’s and Madeline Ginsberg’s.

With this focus on the overall mood of the era, the third volume of Satellite Sam feels a bit anticlimactic, since the atmosphere and characters keep more interest than the sequence of actions as Michael White closes in on his father’s murderer and the conspiracy boiling up behind the scenes of the LeMONDE network. Consequently, this greater focus on telling stories about a time and place rather than just setting a story somewhere at sometime prepares the series for its extension. With volume three, Fraction and Chaykin have completed their portrayal of New York City in the golden television age, exposing the underside of what lies right under the cold, the dirt, and the garbage of the city. Now, it is time to begin a new tale about a new place…Los Angeles.

As a modern day recent transplant from the east coast to the west coast myself, I look forward to seeing how the cast of Satellite Sam will adapt and how perhaps they participate in the rise of what we know as television today. Unlike New York, which we see drawn in a dour black and white for nearly the entire city, Los Angeles is represented in color in a few of the closing pages of the volume. New York’s disease lived under and was the byproduct of the starkness and severity of the city. We’ll see where the depravity lies in Los Angeles for Michael White, Libby Meyers, Eve Nichol, and Eugene Ford. I’m guessing it will not be far from the spotlights, red carpets, well tanned skin, and sunglasses.

And most of all, I look forward to the new illustrations and short descriptions of the characters at the end of each issue, since after all, I myself enjoy a good bit of slick art and bylines filled with wit and a touch of sleaze.  

The Texas Western for All Ages: Yehudi Mercado’s Pantalones, TX

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Westerns have a certain timelessness to them that will always attract me to the genre. We’ve certainly seen revisionist Westerns and modern adaptations, but there is this vacuum that Westerns create to place their stories and characters in a distant time and place without ever really becoming a period piece, which pulls me closer to works in the style. Oddly, I related to the Western films even though the only connection I had to them was the fact that I grew up in Texas, but even the Texas I knew was so far removed from that of Duel in the Sun and For A Few Dollars More that I had no reason at all to connect with the genre, yet, I felt this extraordinary bond with it, despite the fact that I am a Vietnamese-American female. After much contemplation, I realized that the gun play did not tie me to Westerns–their code of ethics did. Western rules for morality, though today often scorned as barbaric, felt more reasonable to me than those of modern times, and the Western sense of honor especially resonated with my Vietnamese-Buddhist upbringing.

Given my own fascination (and borderline obsession) with the moral undercurrents of the genre, I always wondered how I would interpret Westerns to children, especially since I myself did not begin to devour the films until I was a teenager. How do you adapt the archetypal bounty hunter into an occupation that is less egregious to explain? How do you convey governmental corruption? How do you represent differences between different regions of the United States without being overly simplistic and patronizing? And most importantly, how do you convey the Western essence of adventure, defiance, and triumph without using violence (since I’m certain that most parents will not want to explain the technicalities of a duel to a child right before bedtime; I know mine left that discussion to my American history teachers when they explained the Burr-Hamilton duel and how a cornerstone of American government died in such an ordeal)?

Yehudi Mercado’s Pantalones, TX answers these questions with the adventures of kid daredevil and wild child Chico Bustamente as he attempts to become a legend in Texas history. Chico, as the bold and flashy folk hero of the town of Pantalones, TX, channels the fiercely independent and outspoken persona of the bounty hunters of Westerns but in a bit of a more modern time and with more societal accepted intentions. Rather than chasing a band of criminals or seeking revenge, Chico aims to have his own page in Texas history, but to do that, he must do something that tests the limits of humans. 

To make his mark, Chico attempts to wrestle clouds, windsurf over thorny patches, and form a record large cannonball splash, but these stunts fail, since they exist to only accomplish a record, not really to change the face of history. Consequently, in order to get into the record books, Chico must accomplish something far bigger and far more impacting, even if he does not know it.

The Bright, Spirited Cover for Pantalones, TX

Thus, when Sheriff Cornwallis presents his prized giant chicken, his edge to defeat the rival Gengo County in the culinary contest of best poultry, Chico sees an opportunity to make his record; he bets he will ride the giant chicken for nine seconds. Chico and Pig Boy prepare for this day as Bucky, a vegetarian, does too, trying to scheme up a plan to convince Chico not to eat the chicken if he successfully wins the bet. Chico succeeds as the rider, but his adventure in the history of Pantalones is far from over after the ride. Post victory, Bucky convinces Chico to free the giant chicken, and rather than basking in freedom, the chicken, named Tony in order to give him somewhat of a persona, goes rogue and pulls a Godzilla on the town. With Tony tearing apart homes and businesses, Pantalones, more than ever needs a hero, and Chico rises to the occasion, eventually learning that his love for his hometown triumphs over his desire for fame.

Illustrated with vibrant colors and an overall vivacious joy, Pantalones, TX captures the attention and imagination of all readers. Like the narrative, the visual style melds traditional Western themes and styles with contemporary cartoon sensibilities, creating an overall playful take on the Western. Altogether, the action involved with all of Chico’s stunts and challenges keeps young ones entertained, and the sly jokes about Texas history balanced against a general appreciation for Texas as an odd melting pot of old and new cultures and beliefs adds a layer of complexity to satisfy adults. Pantalones, TX updates and transforms Western motifs for modern day audiences of multiple ages, making it a strong stepping stone into Westerns for young readers and watchers or anyone interested in seeing a lighter side to the genre.   

Beyond my enjoyment of the tales (and name) of Chico Bustamente, I love the Texan spirit of Pantalones, TX. As a fellow transplanted Houstonian, Yehudi Mercado manages to capture the peculiar relationship modern day Texans have with our home state. Along with Chico, we also understand that our hometown is by no means a perfect place (so much so that we no longer live there), but something about it has formed a part of our identity and, as a result, always remains in our hearts (and stomachs) to lure our souls and minds back, even if we never set foot in the state again.

Pantalones, TX by Yehudi Mercado is available via Archaia Entertainment.

Great Balls of Sesame! Lily’s Bacon Banh Cam

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For anyone who has had Banh Cam (or Banh Ran if your family is from northern Vietnam), you know that it can have different fillings depending on the bakery you purchase it from. If you buy Banh Cam in a Chinese bakery, it is filled with red bean paste. If you buy it in a Vietnamese bakery, it can be filled with a sweet mung bean paste. Occasionally, you’ll even see it with a coconut mung bean mix inside.

I always felt that the sweetness of banh cam was too overwhelming, and consequently, when I decided to make Banh Cam in the Fierro house, I wanted to add a savory element to the mung bean filling I remembered eating as a kid. After a bit of thinking, I decided on one of my favorite pork products for flavor, bacon.

For my version of Banh Cam, I use a modified Banh It filling. The outcome is a crispy, chewy, sweet yet slightly salty, and creamy bite. Banh Cam requires a bit of patience and love when it comes to preparing the batches, but I promise you’ll enjoy the final treat. This recipe makes at least 10 Banh Cam, so be prepared to share them because they are quite rich! Enjoy!

Music: Claude Debussy: Chansons de Bilitis.