RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Marshmallow Fields

by Carlo Santos, Jul 25th 2006

I am spectacularly bad at winning raffles at conventions. In my occasional stint as a staffer, I have never won the staff drawing for guest autographs. Furthermore, I am the proud non-owner of CLAMP's autograph, and Yoshitaka Amano's, and I have never won anything from a panel even when they have about 20 volumes of manga to give away.

If "not winning things" were a special power, I'd be a hero.


AIR GEAR
Vol. 1

(by Oh! great, Del Rey, $10.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Itsuki Minami needs no introduction—everybody's heard of the 'Babyface' of the Eastside. He's the toughest kid at Higashi Junior High School, easy on the eyes but dangerously tough when he needs to be. Plus, Itsuki lives with the mysterious and sexy Noyamano sisters. Life is never dull, but it becomes dangerous when Itsuki leads his school to victory over some vindictive Westside punks with gangster connections. Now he stands to lose his school, his friends, and everything he cares about. But in his darkest hour, the Noyamano girls come to Itsuki's aid. They can teach him a powerful skill that will save their school from the gangsters' siege—and introduce Itsuki to a thrilling and terrifying new world."

PROS:
No matter what you think of Oh! great's storytelling or his choice of subject matter, one thing is clear: he can draw. The fellow might be too much in love with double-page spreads, but he uses them so well—from split-second action to stunning cityscapes. Throw in a contemporary sense of design (the sisters' supremely hip outfits; the "Air Treck" flying skates based on famous sneakers; the fancy gang emblems) and the result is a series that oozes modernity. The main characters are appealing in unexpected ways: Itsuki comes off as a jerk at first, but his humiliation and subsequent desire for revenge turn him into a classic hero, and the four sisters—ages 10 to 22—present a variety of personalities. High-flying energy and unabashed extreme-sports immersion turn this volume into pure action.

CONS:
The more logically minded among us will look at the premise and find it, well, incredibly silly. Airborne rollerblading? What is this, the after-school club for kids who couldn't get into Eureka Seven? Beneath it all is an opening storyline that reads like so many other storylines: cocky young lad discovers a competitive activity, decides that he wants to master it, and thus opens up a new direction in his life. The difference is that this one makes a ridiculously big deal out of gang rivalries rather than staged tournaments. But no matter how the conflict is planned, the world of Air Gear is simply lacking in depth and common sense. Those skate tricks look great on the page, but you'll have to turn off your brain to enjoy it.

RTO!! RATING: B-


BOOGIEPOP DOESN'T LAUGH
Vol. 2
(by Kouhei Kadono and Kouji Ogata, Seven Seas, $10.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In the blink of an eye, a young girl's precious life is snuffed out and the deadly Manticore's well-laid plans for world domination get shot to hell. With time running out, can Nagi Kirima and the mysterious 'Angel of Death' known as Boogiepop put an end to the murderous Manticore's reign of terror before even more innocent lives are lost...?"

PROS:
It's hard to get a Boogiepop adaptation wrong as long as you just follow the original storyline—which is exactly what the manga does. Volume 2 closes out the events of the first novel in fine visual form, and does especially well in capturing the urgency of the final action scene (which was always kind of unwieldy in prose format). Points of view and timelines continue to shift, and the title character barely shows up, but everything makes sense in the end. Clean character designs and layouts, along with straightforward dialogue, help to convey the tricky plot in an understandable way. Soft pencil-lined art and watercolor tones also add a level of subtlety to this mind-bending mystery. Even as the fate of humanity hangs in the balance, no one goes into panic mode: the art resolves everything in a way that looks effortlessly cool.

CONS:
Although it tries to present everything clearly, a story with this level of complexity still runs into moments of confusion. The character designs are the biggest culprit—although appealing to the eye, they can be lookalike and nondescript at times, and the lack of strong personalities also makes it hard to tell who's who. Then there are some chapters that just translate awkwardly from prose into comics, like the time-shifting flash-forward from Akio's point of view. You'll have to pay really close attention to the panels to keep track of "two years in the future" and "present day." The artwork has other shortcomings too; the gray watercolor toning dominates so much that some scenes look washed out and dull.
                            
RTO!! RATING: A-


STRAWBERRY MARSHMALLOW

Vol. 1
(by Barasui, Tokyopop, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
" Follow the lives of Nobue Ito, her younger sister Chika, and her friends Miu and Matsuri—these cute girls try to solve problems and help each other out in the most adorable ways! Whether it's helping someone to quit smoking or organizing a sleepover at a friend's house, these girls always remain a joyful treat in this slice-of-life delight!"

PROS:
Barasui's tales of mischievous young girls should amuse readers who like things cute but not too hyper. The slice-of-life mood leads to moments of subdued but wry humor—perhaps the most outlandish thing that happens is Chika getting shoved in a wastebasket, and even that is conceivable within the laws of physics. Other moments of gentle comedy include trying to stay up all night, Nobue's valiant effort to quit smoking, and Miu's voyeuristic "observations" of her friends for a school project. (Needless to say, following someone into a bathroom is probably not the best idea.) Some chapters seem to end abruptly, but this is part of the series' charm, casually walking in and out of various scenes. Unfussy art and layouts maintain the low-key mood; the round-headed, wide-eyed characters exist happily within a rectangular set of frames and present their lives in a straightforward (yet quirky) way.

CONS:
Barasui mentions in his author's note that it was two years between the first chapter and the rest of the volume ... and it shows. The early character designs look very little like the girls that they would eventually become, and the storytelling is dull at best. For every little moment of cleverness, there are long stretches of straight-out boredom; the lilting comedic beat of the series doesn't really kick in until halfway through. Even then, Barasui is stumbling around, trying to find that beat: the timing just isn't there yet on signature punchlines like Miu being knocked to the ground or Nobue preying on her little sister. In the end, this volume reads like a practice run for something that will eventually be funny, but needs more time to improve. (On a production note, what's with the wonky dialogue font? I'd rather the text be readable instead of cutesy, thanks.)

RTO!! RATING: C


TSUBASA RESERVOIR CHRONICLE
Vol. 10

(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.95)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The godlike being Ashura-ô has killed the equally skilled and mighty rival, Yasha-ô. But now Ashura-ô seems depressed. What this means to the country of Shura, none can tell . . . especially the five friends on a desperate journey through dimensions to find the memories of Princess Sakura—memories in the form of immensely powerful feathers. They've been racing from world to world, separated only to be united as enemies. Now young Syaoran is at the center of the maelstrom—and only wits, luck, and some help from his friends will save the tiny band from destruction."

PROS:
Volume 10 of CLAMP's Big Fancy Crossover Adventure shows the versatility of Tsubasa's multiple dimensions, closing out a story in one world and opening with a very different tone in the next. The first half is a devastating finale to the Shura arc, ending in grand fantasy tradition with heartbreak, redemption, and a little bit of temporal sleight of hand. And if that's not exciting enough, Syaoran and the gang's jaunt into Piffle World—a whimsical riff on Angelic Layer's high-tech utopia—is sure to quicken the pulse with a stylish sky race. These divergent moods create an oddly pleasing balance: right after apocalyptic drama comes a fresh scenario that's literally lighter than air. In both worlds, the highly stylized artwork feels right at home; the curlicues of high fantasy in Shura become swishes of speed in Piffle World. Sakura's acrobatic barrel roll in the race is especially vivid, capturing the joy of flight in a single eye-popping image.

CONS:
Despite all its depth and drama, the conclusion to the Shura arc relies on a plot device that's worn itself out in genre fiction. Without giving away spoilers, let's just say that it'll elicit reactions of "Wow! So that's what was going on!" followed immediately by "Wait, this seems awfully familar..." Also awfully familiar are the brief scenes where scheming, sneering Fei-Wang Reed cackles to himself and makes vague allusions to his master plan. For a villain, this is incredibly lame and Saturday-morning-cartoonish. Meanwhile, the sketchy, dynamic art might not suit everyone; the level of stylization and abstraction makes some of the most crucial scenes hard to follow. Although CLAMP excels at capturing the feeling of a scene, they're not always clear about the actual events taking place.

RTO!! RATING: B+


YOKI KOTO KIKU

(by Koge-Donbo, Broccoli, $9.99)

FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In the ancient House of Nekogami, sibling rivalry is a game of life and death.
The patriarch of the Nekogami family is dead, and his grandson Sukekiyo is the rightful heir. There is just one problem—Sukekiyo is away at war, whereabouts unknown. Only one person can get the goods, and the triplets Yoki, Koto and Kiku aren't going to let Sukekiyo's fiancée, Tamayo, walk off with the prize.
With a fortune at stake, it's kill or be killed as the Nekogami family goes up against demons, thieves and each other to protect the family and the cash!"

PROS:
Pure sugar (and Snow Fairy Sugar) may run through Koge-Donbo's creative veins, but Yoki Koto Kiku reveals her vicious side too. Gleeful cuteness and gleeful malice work hand in hand to give us axe murders, poisoned tea, and anything else the triplets can think of to stop each other. The middle chapters are the highlight of the book with their wild send-ups of popular Japanese stories—school rivalries, ghost tales, crime-solving mysteries; there's even a Gundam reference thrown in. And after that, it gets even better when all the parody characters appear in a single satirical mash-up. The artwork is something of a departure from Koge-Donbo's usual style, with rectangular paneling and heavy blacks making it look positively austere—and much more readable than her lighter works. Familiar visual traits still work their way in, though, such as appealing doe-eyed characters and lapses into super-deformed style, only this time with a sharpened, bloodthirsty edge.

CONS:
Ultimately, this one-volume manga is a one-joke story: the triplets are trying to kill each other over the inheritance, and ... that's about it. A richer story never develops—in fact, even the opening premise seems more convoluted than it needs to be—and the ending is inconclusive, if not pointless. The riffs on Japanese pop culture are great, but there's no solid foundation for them to rest on. The story's reliance on cultural literacy is itself a hindrance; some readers may see only the murderous kids and not understand the next level of humor (even though the translation guide in the back does its best to explain things). The art has its downside too—some comedy sequences and crowd scenes look sloppy and over-simplified, especially with secondary characters, which are clearly not within Koge-Donbo's repertoire of cute.

RTO!! RATING: B-



THE MELANCHOLY OF HARUHI SUZUMIYA (NOVEL)

Vol. 1
(by Nagaru Tanigawa, Kadokawa, ¥540)

FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"On the first day of high school a beautiful girl named Haruhi Suzumiya introduces herself as having 'no interest in ordinary humans.' She asks for any aliens, time travelers, sliders or ESPers to join her. Watching her weird behaviour is Kyon, a boy who sits in front of Haruhi and is the only person who talks to her. Commenting on Haruhi's joining every club in school and then quitting, Kyon unwittingly gives Haruhi an idea to start her own after school club. Thereafter Kyon and several others find themselves literally dragged into the Save our world by Overloading it with fun Suzumiya Haruhi's Brigade (the S.O.S. Brigade for short)."

PROS:
Can a casual high school conversation lead to the near-destruction of reality? Haruhi Suzumiya takes on some Grand Ideas within a modest high school setting, resulting in an oblique yet fascinating rumination on the nature of existence. But if that all sounds too high-concept for you, don't worry: Tanigawa's succinct prose and amusing characters make it easy to get into the Suzumiya universe. (Getting out is a different matter entirely.) First-person narrator Kyon lends a sarcastic and self-aware edge to the story; he gently mocks the contrivances of science fiction while at the same time reveling in them when they actually happen. The supporting cast plays up those genre conventions as well, but the dynamic mix of personalities leads to decidedly unconventional results. Anchoring it all together is the instantly charismatic Haruhi, who holds the unique distinction of being the only character who's totally unaware of the key plot point. Metaphysics has never been this much fun.

CONS:
While Tanigawa has great fun playing with the ideas of space, time and reality, he has ways to go as a storyteller: many of the key scenes are just clumped together, lacking a connective flow from one point to the next. Sometimes it looks like the only reason things happen is because Kyon keeps showing up for school; a truly compelling plot needs to be better driven than that. Also, most of the main concepts are revealed through expository dialogue, and there's just way too much telling and not enough showing going on here. If the novel could be faulted for anything, it's that it's more of an aspiring nerd's philosophy manual disguised as a school story, rather than a genuine story in itself.


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