RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
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by Carlo Santos, May 16th 2006

In the spirit of another highly esteemed column on this site, here's a picture of a kitten.



There's a cute girl in it too, but whatever.



BLACK CAT
Vol. 2
(by Kentaro Yabuki, Viz Media, $7.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Train Heartnet, also known as 'Black Cat,' was an infamous assassin for a secret organization called Chronos...until he abandoned that cold-blooded existence to live life on his own terms as an easygoing bounty hunter. But is Train's past as far behind him as he thinks?
Train's partner Sven is determined to rescue Eve, a girl-turned-bioweapon, from the dangerous arms dealers who are holding her captive. Sven and Train soon discover that the shadowy figure connected to this black market smuggling ring is none other than Train's mortal enemy, Creed. But why does Creed want to join forces with Train?!"

PROS:
Sven and Train continue to be effortlessly cool as they mop up the nanomachine story arc from Volume 1, and then they delve into Train's mysterious past. Character development finally gets somewhere as we learn about an old rival with a score to settle. Train's thirst for revenge drives practically the entire volume at its constantly fast pace, with twist after twist of fate, and the climactic showdown against former partner Creed Diskenth is beautifully arranged. A duel on the top floor of the tallest building in the city, against a starlit sky, versus an opponent wielding an invisible sword-this is what great action scenes are made of.

CONS:
Too bad a single great scene can't save a so-so story. Black Cat heads down a predictable path and rolls out the same old action clichés again, this time adding mysticism to the mix with Tao-users who control minds, heal limbs, and wield spiritual weapons. (Funny, I always thought the essence of Taoism was about not doing anything.) Plain artwork doesn't help either; this neo-suburban world is populated only by cool-looking guys and cute-looking girls, with little room for variety. An improvement on the first volume, but compared to other action series out there, it falls way too short.

RTO!! RATING: C+


MENKUI!
Vol. 1
(by Suzuki Tanaka, Blu, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

"High school is difficult enough, especially when you live in the shadow of your stunningly attractive older brother...
Kotori is often teased for being superficial, and with a gorgeous brother like Kujaku, you can't really blame him for thinking that looks are everything. However, once Akaiwa steps into the picture, Kotori's life is heading for a lesson in deep trust, self-confidence, and abiding love.
Suzuki Tanaka has created a funny, life-affirming story about complexities of young love on a long and winding road that leads to the heart."

PROS:
Sometimes, you just want to get to the good parts. In the first two chapters alone, our male lovers have their first kiss, their first fight, and they still have time to get back together. It's a sweet, simple romance, free of the angst that drips profusely from typical boy's love stories. (This one just sweats angst every once in a while.) That simplicity is also reflected in the visual style, with cute boy-next-door characters, clean linework, and sensible rectangular paneling. A few unrelated side stories at the end emphasize the lighthearted side of the genre, especially in "Life Above the Ceiling," where forbidden brotherly love takes a hilariously absurd turn.

CONS:
Early on, we learn that "Menkui!" means "shallow," and sadly, most of the volume is exactly that. With the story moving so fast, Kotori and Akaiwa have no chance to develop a true bond, and the main trait of their relationship is an irritating fickleness. Trite dialogue also adds to the problem; most of the characters' lines seem to be lifted straight from schmaltzy pop songs of years gone by. With the story coasting along in this fashion, the plot never really takes shape. It's one thing to explore a risky young romance, but pointless if that exploration goes nowhere.

RTO!! RATING: C


NARUTO
Vol. 10
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $7.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

"In the village of Konohagakure, ninja reign supreme, and school is literally a battlefield. Naruto, Sasuke and Sakura are teenage classmates and ninja-in-training working together (sort of) toward a common goal: to become the greatest ninja in the land!
With only a few matches left to be fought in the preliminaries to the third portion of the Journeyman Ninja Selection Exams, the highly anticipated bout between mysterious Sand ninja Gaara and intense, earnest Konoha ninja Rock Lee begins. Will Gaara's bloodlust and his strange powers of sand manipulation be too much for Lee to handle? Or could Lee prove that dedication and an amazing work ethic are enough to make him a splendid ninja?"

PROS:
Aspiring manga artists take note: Gaara and Rock Lee's battle is a textbook example of how to do a fight scene. Kishimoto's art, although not the most polished, explodes with energy as the two combatants lock into a war of escalation. Just when you think one guy's got the edge, the other pulls out an even more advanced technique...a typical pattern, sure, but with the kind of pacing that makes it addictive. Having a few spectators around to explain each technique helps, too. The real gem, however, is Rock Lee's back-story, told in gradual flashbacks as he puts everything he's ever worked for into one unforgettable fight. By the time it's over, well-who'd think an action series could be so beautifully heartbreaking?

CONS:
And then...the story just kind of trails off. Everything after the big fight feels like filler, even though there are key events that factor into the larger story. The best development happens in the main action scene, leaving the rest of the volume with snippets of plot that won't be resolved until later. There are more matches to be fought, but not right now; Orochimaru is still slinking around evilly, but he's busy preparing or whatever; and in the meantime, Naruto's going to go train a bit. What started out with such drive and emotional impact limps into a disappointing, anticlimactic ending. (Until Volume 11, anyway.)

RTO!! RATING: B


NODAME CANTABILE
Vol. 5
(by Tomoko Ninomiya, Del Rey, $10.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

"Chiaki is beyond ecstatic. Maestro Stresemann has decided to conduct the A orchestra and has asked Chiaki to join. But who will lead the S orchestra? Drastic measures may mean a hilarious concert, and a festival to remember. From the student body to the faculty, the whole school is abuzz with anticipation. Nodame is playing a piano concerto, Chiaki, too, is tickling the ivories (and honored to be led by the Great Master), and the S orchestra is just thrilled to be part of the program. Of course, the real excitement begins the night before the musical event...
Plus, there's a special story about Chiaki's first meeting with Sebastiano Viera. You won't want to miss it!"

PROS:
There is a panel in this volume, on page 82, where Shinichi Chiaki is completely absorbed in Rachmaninoff's 2nd Piano Concerto-his face steely with concentration, his fingers caught in mid-stroke-and that's when it hits. In a single drawing, Tomoko Ninomiya has captured the full emotional range of music, the joys and the sorrows and the hard work and the ineffable feeling that music can bring. In short, a picture is worth a thousand notes. The same might be said for the rest of the volume as it effortlessly reaches comedic highs (the underdog S orchestra performing in costume) and dramatic depths (Nodame and Chiaki in a breathtaking piano duet that makes the whole school stop and listen). Even the side story about Chiaki's childhood pulls the heartstrings just right. This is, without a doubt, Nodame Cantabile at its best yet.

CONS:
Would it be too much to ask Del Rey to start releasing special editions that come with free mini-CDs? Ninomiya's art may be unmatched at bringing the beauty of music to a silent medium, but still-knowing how the actual piece sounds sure helps in appreciating the story. Meanwhile, the characters are entering that dangerous stage of repeating themselves: Chiaki's tortured-genius routine is starting to get old, as is Masumi's overblown flamboyance. Meanwhile, other enjoyable personalities like rock violinist Mine and undersized bassist Sakura are pushed aside. Where's the love for string players?

RTO!! RATING: A


OURAN HIGH SCHOOL HOST CLUB
Vol. 6
(by Bisco Hatori, Viz Media, $8.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

"In this screwball romantic comedy, Haruhi, a poor girl at a rich kids' school, is forced to repay an $80,000 debt by working for the school's swankiest, all-male club-as a boy! There she discovers just how wealthy the six members are and how different the rich are from everybody else...
The school festival opens at Ouran, and the Host Club members are busy entertaining the visiting parents. Teasing his son is a favorite pastime of Tamaki's doting father, the school chairman, but Tamaki's grandmother is cut from a very different cloth. She despises and shuns Tamaki, banning him from the main Suoh Manshion. It's now time for Kyoya to take action with the Host Club to help their favored leader out."

PROS:
This "Meet the Parents" edition of Ouran High School Host Club brings new characters to the world of the rich and bishounen. Enter Tamaki's capricious father (now we see where he gets it from), brainiac Kyoya's demanding folks, and even the twins' fashion-conscious mother. Of course, the students can still sustain the comedy on their own-a race for school festival privileges, combined with a whodunit, shows the school's absurdity at its best. The same might be said of the Host Club trying to figure out the perfect soup. As always, there are plenty of pretty boys to look at, but the background art is the real visual highlight with its sparkles, frills and curlicues.

CONS:
Crowded paneling and dense dialogue make this a more difficult read than it ought to be. Granted, most of that dialogue is essential (and usually funny), but it hinders the flow of what should be a fast-moving comedy. Lookalike character designs also cause confusion, especially with minor characters like the football club, and it's not always clear who's talking. The story itself isn't too great, either: the cultural festival, after all, is one of those routine "things to do" on the checklist of all school-based manga. Individual scenes and episodes come out funny, but there isn't much of a bigger picture. Guess that's why it's called "situational comedy."

RTO!! RATING: B-





BOYS OF SUMMER
Vol. 1
(by Chuck Austen and Hiroki Otsuka, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:

"Meet Bud Waterston, a decent-looking guy who happens to be in full hormonal bloom. He's also on his way to college, and drools over the sexual liberation he will no doubt face living in a coed dormitory full of hot babes. Unfortunately for Bud, things don't go exactly as planned-he meets the girl of his dreams, who won't give him the time of day. But just because he strikes out on his first attempt doesn't mean he won't keep trying to hit a home run...as long as doesn't drop the ball!"

PROS:
Contrary to what the cover suggests, Boys of Summer is pretty light on fanservice-oh, you do get a few well-drawn half-naked girls, sure-but most of Volume 1 focuses on Bud moving into college. Madness and mishaps abound, and anyone who's done the dormitory shuffle will nod knowingly. A colorful cast of characters inhabits this portrait of everyday America: Manny, a whiny mama's boy and Bud's best friend, a bastard jock who picks on Bud just because, a stern but well-meaning baseball coach, and of course, The Girl, Chrissie. Otsuka's art is just a little uneven, but it works in his favor, making the varied characters and suburban scenery look alive.

CONS:
Although enjoyable as a teen slice-of-life comedy, it doesn't go much beyond that formula. Bud and Chrissie keep running into each other in predictable ways, and their snappy back-and-forth arguments are the stuff that blatant romantic foreshadowing is made of. Also, for a series that promises baseball, there isn't a whole lot; Bud shows his skills in one particularly impressive scene, but there's no game action to be found. Oh, and those slutty girls trotting around the dorms in their bikinis? Not believable at all. (Unless it's a party school. Maybe.)

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