Jason checks out Hideki Ohwada's politically-charged mahjong manga, The Legend of Koizumi.
Reviewby Bamboo Dong, Jan 1st 2006
Omario is an aspiring comic book artist whose biggest dream is to achieve fame and fortune through his artwork. For now, he just needs something to pay the bills… something like flipping burgers at the local MBQ. While he's busy scrambling to meet deadlines and oversleeping, there's other characters whose lives he's destined to cross with, like the lanky O'Malley, an officer whose tortured childhood makes him even tougher than the scariest hoodlums. Then there's his roommate Jeff, a giant of a man who provides a semblance of order in his life, and at MBQ. Can Omario make it big as a comic superstar, or will the forces of LA beat him first?
A big burly black guy flipping you off isn't usually the first thing you see when you open up a comic book. Especially if it's an OEL manga, which over the years has gained a reputation of being cheap manga knock-offs and cliche-ridden crap traps about vampires
and magical girls. But, even though MBQ has its own setbacks, you certainly can't fault it for any of the above. Unlike so many of the other titles in Tokyopop's OEL lineup, MBQ strikes out on its own, forges its own path, and flips the entire industry the finger, one burly black guy at a time.
Perhaps the biggest draw about the first volume is that it doesn't make any pretenses about being a typical manga. It doesn't try too hard to emulate the art style or make any effort to be as presumptuous or angsty as some young adults are wont to do. Instead, it just tells an autobiographical sketch of a young man named Omario whose only desire in life is to become a comic book artist, and flips burgers in the meantime to help stave off starvation. What makes it particularly appealing is just how autobiographical it really is. Anyone who has ever been within earshot of Felipe Smith has heard him chattering away about his life, about the people around him who have been transformed into characters in the book, and about how the events in his life that have gotten repeated in his books. From his experiences at the In & Out where he worked, to the customers he encountered at the karaoke bar he looked over, much of the book is inspired by real-life events.
Maybe that's what makes the book easier to swallow than some story about magical rodents. Sure, things are a little exaggerated at times, but it's always within the realm of possibility and that's what lets the book get away with certain things like porn scenes—a videotape being watched by convenience store clerks. It helps that the artwork is so dead on. Californians have often commented on the accuracy of the drawings; the karaoke bar looks exactly like the one it's based off of, the apartments around it are almost like carbon copies of the real thing—heck, someone could take the book to the streets of LA and point out every street corner that Smith used for inspiration.
The characters are just as wonderfully captivating. From Jeff, the gargantuan roommate, to the gay guy at MBQ, everyone has their own distinct personality, and refreshingly, they stay consistent throughout the panels. They're cartoony-looking, but then again, Smith never pretended that they weren't. They embody the traits that they have and even if you took out all the dialogue, you would probably still have a good idea of who they were and how they acted.
As refreshing and fun as MBQ is though (the fat woman demanding a burger sans everything but the meat because she's on a diet? Classic.), it's not without problems. At times, it's almost too lively. It's so dead-set on being In Your Face and edgy that it sometimes it just pulls out the ghetto and slaps you with it. Having a multi-page chase scene is fine. That's awesome. But having every other character uttering lines like, “Whut the fuck, I'm gunna gat yer faggity ass,” and waving guns in each other's faces is a little too... Boston Public, in that every episode is one unbelievably extreme news headliner after another. In the case of something like MBQ, it just pulls out extreme characters and extreme situations one after the other and never lets readers catch their breath. I admit to having never lived in a bad neighborhood, but I suspect that not everyone's speech needs a translator to decode.
It's characters like those that make Omario so different by contrast. He's just a kid who wants to draw comics for a living, much like Smith. One should hope though, that his creator isn't as egotistic as he is. At the end of the book, Omario spins off into a commentary about the kinds of comics that he draws. He says that he bases his stories off his life and the people around him, that because he writes scenarios about himself, that he's unlike everyone else out there. He claims that his narratives hit closer to home than some beefy superhero comic, that he's different and groundbreaking because he talks about the things that he has experience in. While that may be what he's going for, and while it may be true, the fact that he makes a big deal out of it smacks of ego. Ragging on comic book artists, ragging on the different comic genres… ragging on the people who buy and read comic books? As talented as Smith is, he could do with a dose of humility.
It's disappointing that after such a good, exciting tale, the experience is soured by a few pages of ego-stroking and claims of why he's so much better than the other comic book artists out there. Just like a good joke, the meaning of it shouldn't have to be explained; in the case of a comic book, if it's truly good, it should speak for itself. And now he's taken a step in the wrong direction.
Still, MBQ is one of the best OEL titles out there, and merits reading. Even though it's painfully self-aware of its good attributes, it doesn't erase their existence. The characters are colorful, the situations are edgy and dramatic, and in a market full of stale copycats and glimmering girls with big eyes, MBQ stands sturdily on its own. From the chapter breaks to the chase scenes, the comic is the product of a man who just loves to draw, and can't help himself.
I saw Filipe Smith at a convention once, getting ready to watch the masquerade. Suddenly, he bolted from his chair and ran out the door, returning a few minutes later with a sheaf of hotel paper and a Sharpie. He started scribbling furiously and exclaimed, “I just had to draw! I was watching this show, and man! I couldn't help myself! I was just... just dying! I needed to put this shit on paper, man, because I just… ungh!! I gotta draw this!”
Maybe that's what OEL needs: less people who are trying to create the next best thing, and more people who just can't stop drawing.
Story : B-
Art : A
+ Fun, coloful, and totally different from the stuff out in today's manga market
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