RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Full Frontal Alchemy

by Carlo Santos, Apr 18th 2006

So I heard that some famous group of manga-ka is coming to Anime Expo. In the words of the Nakanomori Band, I say ... "whatever." I mean, San Diego Comic-Con is getting Yoshihiro Tatsumi, and he practically invented angsty manga. Hell, without him, we'd be living in some crazy Osamu Tezuka kum-ba-yah land where animals talk to people and the Disney style is a natural part of religious iconography. So, pay homage to other celebrity idols if you must, but never forget your roots.


+ANIMA
Vol. 1

(by Natsumi Mukai, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The +Anima are beings who possess animal-like powers. In this alternate universe, they walk among us—shunned by society—as they search for others who have similar traits.
Cooro is a crow-like boy who is on a quest to find other +Anima. When he meets Husky, a disrespectful boy with a past shrouded in mystery, he finds a kindred spirit who also possesses animal-like powers. Together, they try to gain acceptance in a world cruel to anyone or anything that is different..."

PROS:
Like a zoologist's version of X-Men, the young adventurers of +Anima try to understand their powers (crow, fish, bear, bat) while dodging would-be persecutors. It's a fun, uptempo romp as they travel from town to town, using their own skills and smarts to fend off villains. No one launches into bombastic sword attacks or spells, overwrought drama is kept to a minimum, and there's no need to learn complex subplots and histories. All in all, it's a fantasy adventure you can jump right into and enjoy, buoyed by imaginative, sharp-lined artwork and an overwhelming enthusiasm for the sheer coolness of animal powers.

CONS:
First off, just as a matter of taste, what's with the superfluous plus sign? Is it Plus-Anima? Positive-Anima? How about naming the special animal race something we can actually pronounce? On a more serious note, the adventures in this volume—exuberant as they are—lack any real depth. Saving the Village From Bad Guys is fantasy fare at its most conventional, and +Anima does nothing to extend beyond that formula. Shallow characters don't help much; Cooro and the gang are more recognizable by their animal parts than actual personalities. Sure, it's fun, but hardly fulfilling.

RTO!! RATING: C+


D.GRAY-MAN
Vol. 1
(by Katsura Hoshino, Viz Media, $7.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Set in a fictional 19th century England, D.Gray-man is the story of Allen Walker, a 15-year-old boy who roams the Earth in search of Innocence. Washed away to unknown parts of the world after the Great Flood, Innocence is the mysterious substance used to create weapons that obliterate demons known as akuma.
A born exorcist, Walker's primary anti-akuma weapon is the cross that's embossed on his red and disfigured left hand, which contains Innocence. But not only does Walker destroy akuma, he sees the akuma hiding inside a person's soul! Together with his fellow exorcists fighting under the command of the Black Order, Walker leads the battle against the Millennium Earl, the evil being out to destroy mankind."

PROS:
With elements of Victorian fantasy, gothic horror, and just a hint of technology (rollerblades?), the world of D.Gray-man is an ideal setting for demon-hunting. By the time Allen shows up for the Black Order, he's already explained his personal history, defeated several akuma, and encountered their leader the Millennium Earl. How's that for story development? Action fans will get their fill of battles, but there's also plenty of exposition and back-story—Hoshino has developed an entire system of metaphysics and mysticism, and doesn't hesitate to explain it. Seeing the akuma in action, in all their grand monstrousness, reinforces that otherworldly feeling.

CONS:
Strip away the intricate world-building, however, and it's just like all the other demon-hunting manga out there. (I'm sure Vampire Hunter D would have a few things to say about that cursed hand.) Allen doesn't even use any particular amount of cleverness to defeat the akuma; he just unleashes his built-in weapon and lets it overpower the enemy. Then there are the plot points that seem to come out of nowhere, like the tragic "accident" in the first chapter, and Allen's master suddenly getting violent. Generic character designs and sparse backgrounds also hold back the story from becoming an immersive, fully developed world.

RTO!! RATING: B-


FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST

Vol. 7
(by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In an alchemical ritual gone wrong, Edward Elric lost his arm and his leg, and his brother Alphonse became nothing but a soul in a suit of armor. Equipped with mechanical 'auto-mail' limbs, Edward becomes a state alchemist, seeking the one thing that can restore his brother and himself...the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
Where did Alphonse Elric go during the few short minutes he was wiped from existence, body and soul? From a secret lair in the city of Dublith, a group of outcasts kidnaps Alphonse to find the alchemical secrets of his creation! It's up to Ed (and a certain housewife) to go into the Devil's Nest and rescue his brother. But the criminals of the Devil's Nest aren't exactly human either. Now, Al must fight a homunculus—an artificial human being—and the streets of Dublith will run red with blood..."

PROS:
Tension ramps up ever higher in the Elric brothers' adventure, with this volume featuring the epic battle with homunculus Greed. Many of the series' most well-loved characters jump into the fray—no-nonsense teacher Izumi, musclebound narcissist Armstrong, and ruthless commander King Bradley. The big highlight, though, is Edward taking on Greed one-on-one; the fight practically explodes off the page with slickly drawn poses, masses of speedlines, and Ed's alchemical creativity. The top-notch action is matched only by top-notch comedy—Izumi ranting at the boys, a hilarious muscleman pose-off, and a cute lieutenant-meets-girl side story.

CONS:
Like Greed's regenerating armor, it's hard to find a weak link anywhere in the series, but this volume has a few. Page upon page of fighting action pushes character development to the side, and other subplots get shafted entirely—Scar appears for about one scene, and fan favorite Roy Mustang is nowhere to be found except in the side story. Even if the boys really have found a lead towards restoring their bodies, this volume doesn't bring them any closer to finishing their quest.

RTO!! RATING: A-


ROZEN MAIDEN

Vol. 1

(by Peach-Pit, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Jun Sakurada has withdrawn from the outside world—friends, school, even his older sister, who loves him dearly and cares for him in their parents' absence. To cope with the severity of his personal exile, Jun has taken to ordering products online and then returning them just before the grace period ends. But when a website instructs him to place an order for a beautifully rendered doll in his desk drawer, what arrives in the morning can't be returned."

PROS:
Who would have thought that hikikomori (acute social withdrawal) and "living dolls," with all their negative connotations, could be played for comedy instead of pity? Romance clichés get turned upside down when Jun unlocks the cynical doll Shinku and finds that he has to serve her. Deadpan humor sets the tone, with silly little touches like Shinku being unable to reach door handles and Jun's sister eavesdropping on them and thinking he's lost his mind. Panels read smoothly from one to the next, and when things get serious, the visuals shift into an elaborate style, with nuanced shading and Gothic Lolita couture.

CONS:
Beyond the clever premise, however, lies the tiresome repetition of certain jokes. Yes, it's funny to see Shinku abusing Jun, but not after... say... the eighth time. And admittedly, this kind of light comedy isn't going to suit everyone. Meanwhile, the darker plot involving Shinku and her rival lacks the ingenuity of the comedy scenes; most times it just looks like two impeccably dressed sorceresses hurling magic at each other. Where are the clever, unexpected attacks? Where are the acerbic wisecracks? A trip through Jun's imagination in the last chapter shows promise, but Rozen Maiden has yet to prove itself as a mystical adventure.

RTO!! RATING: B


SHRINE OF THE MORNING MIST
Vol. 1
(by Hiroki Ugawa, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Sisters Kurako, Yuzu and Tama are Miko priestesses, entrusted with keeping an eye on the often volatile spirit world. But when you're a teenager like Yuzu, you want nothing more than to lead a normal life and deal with growing up and falling in love. Enter Tadahiro, the sisters' cousin, who has a mysterious connection to Yuzu's past—and a strained relationship with his other relatives. Alas, family drama may have to wait! The spirit world suddenly shifts out of balance, unleashing demons into our world who have set their sights on Tadahiro..."

PROS:
Start a series about miko and you can practically guarantee that it'll involve incantations and spirit battles. But low-key family life and a dash of sharp humor? That's where Shrine of the Morning Mist breaks new ground, revealing the day-to-day aspect of running a temple. Dinnertime conversations are peppered with smart dialogue, and the tension between Tada and the sisters thankfully stays out of harem territory. But dark spirits still lurk about, and the savage brushwork during the monster attack shows a true artist's touch. Delicately hatched landscapes add to the pastoral feel of the shrine's mountain location.

CONS:
Outside of action and countryside scenes, the artwork is awfully plain; it takes a couple of chapters to recognize each sister because of their identical black hair and youthful faces. The story also makes the mistake of throwing in ominous scenes where unknown characters talk about some great supernatural war. Mystery for the sake of being mysterious never works; it just looks confusing and disrupts the real story. Once Tadahiro "awakens his hidden powers" (an unfortunate cliché), then we'll be ready to hear about that spirit war.

RTO!! RATING: B


EAST COAST RISING
Vol. 1

(by Becky Cloonan, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When his ship is attacked by pirates, Archer is left floating adrift in a violent sea. But the young urchin is nothing if not resilient. He soon finds himself sailing with the infamous Cannonball Joe aboard La Revancha, the fastest ship on the East Coast, in search of a legendary hidden treasure. Their dangerous quest will lead directly to a showdown with the Hoboken, one of the most feared pirate vessels ever to sail the Jersey shores, and its reckless captain, Lee. But there are far worse things than pirates that call these waters home..."

PROS:
Move over, One Piece. Cloonan's new series is a pirate adventure with the volume turned up to 11, a furious mash-up of nautical swagger and punk-rock attitude. Bold inking and double-page spreads bring the tumultuous ocean to life, and intensely detailed sea monsters add to the grandiosity. A rousing battle between rival crews should satisfy most action fans, and just to make sure, Cloonan goes even further with a giant squid attack. With a unique, post-apocalyptic Atlantic setting, instantly cool characters, and a dash of humor (even in the future, New Jersey still smells), this is one voyage worth embarking on.

CONS:
Sometimes, artists get so caught up in their drawing that they forget when to stop—a bold art style like this one would benefit from more white space (and save a few eyes that way). More time spent on characters and back-story would help too; although young hero Archer quickly develops relationships with La Revancha's crew, his story goes little beyond that. In fact, with over the last third of the book being one big fight scene, it feels like the plot has barely advanced. The foundations of a great adventure have been set—now let's see if there's substance to go with it.

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