RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Fullmetal Exorcist

by Carlo Santos, Jun 7th 2011


Goodness, how did it get to be June already? And wouldn't you know it, many well-loved Del Rey titles are gradually returning to North American bookshelves re-branded as Kodansha Comics. But my heart continues mourn the lack of a Nodame Cantabile comeback. MUKYA!



AFTERSCHOOL CHARISMA
Vol. 3
(by Kumiko Suekane, Viz Media, $12.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"St. Kleio Academy is a very exclusive school. To enroll, a student must be the clone of a famous historical figure. Wolfgang Mozart, Queen Elizabeth, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Adolf Hitler—with such a combustible student body, it's only a matter of time before the campus explodes!
Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821)
Leader of France during the first French Empire. Became known as a hero for his victories as a general and went on to seize absolute control of the state in a coup d'etat. As emperor, Napoleon's rule spanned almost all of Europe, but opposition to his rule grew widespread after his army suffered a bitter defeat by the cruel Russian winter, leading to his eventual seizure and exile. Even then, Napoleon managed to return to power for a time, only to be exiled once again. He died on Saint Helena Island."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Once again, the three-volume rule of thumb prevails: in its third installment, Afterschool Charisma reveals the identity of the shadowy faction trying to kill all the clones at St. Kleio, and does so in explosive, action-packed fashion. If the kids being all weird and mysterious around each other was the appetizer, then the last few chapters are the main course, with the shocking events of the school expo providing the perfect payoff. Which is not to say that the earlier chapters are less entertaining—their role in setting up the big reveal is essential, with the characters' suspicious behavior creating a cloud of uncertainty right before the storm. Shiro continues to wonder about his status as a true human or a clone, the classroom cult surrounding Dolly the Sheep causes further controversy, and the debate surrounding cloning ethics rages on (with one particularly disturbing scene). It also doesn't hurt that the series is easy on the eyes, with attractive characters and an eye for design that keeps the visuals perfectly balanced between light and dark, simple and detailed. Smoothly executed artwork like that makes it all the easier to focus on the thrilling, ever-deepening mystery.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
There is such a thing as too smooth, and the polished imagery of Afterschool Charisma doesn't really have the grit that's needed for the dramatic finale of this volume. Instead, the most visually striking aspects of the series are the high population of pretty boys (a history-class version of Hetalia, maybe?) and the very static, very rectangular paneling—more committed to looking tidy than creating a sense of excitement. As a result, even major action scenes seem like little more than lively conversations where people happen to get hurt. The storyline leading up to the pivotal moment also stumbles in its execution, with various subplots left to hang loose: how was Joan of Arc's sacrifical ritual going to turn out? What about Marie Curie's duplicate? Is Shiro ever going to figure out if he's a clone or human, after the tragedy that befell the guy that looks just like him? Raising these questions and letting the element of mystery swirl about is fun, but if they all suddenly get ignored just because something more dramatic is happening, that's no good. And leaving the protagonist powerless to do anything about it is even worse.

FINAL VERDICT:
The plot is picking up, and the artwork's still pretty to look at, but a number of unresolved issues and the lackluster action scenes leave this one with an aftertaste of C+.


ARISA
Vol. 2
(by Natsumi Ando, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Who is the mysterious 'King' controlling the class? Tsubasa pursues Akira Manabe, a troubled boy who might know the King's true identity. As Tsubasa closes in on Arisa's secret, the King makes another move!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Once again, Arisa proves to be gripping and complex in ways that belie its target demographic. The motivations of the characters are still shrouded in mystery, but Natsumi Ando has a way of revealing just enough information (and misinformation) to keep everyone on their toes, breathlessly anticipating the next scene, the next chapter, the next plot point. And those plot points go something like this: Tsubasa chases the guy she thinks is the King, only to find out that he knows the identity of "the real King" (and that one's a guaranteed shocker), but his knowledge has gaps in it as well! Fortunately, this volume drops a few ominous hints about the King to make things clear to the reader, smartly avoiding the usual "why doesn't the author just explain what's going on" syndrome. But even though we know something the characters don't know, it's still an absolute thrill witnessing the cat-and-mouse game evolve between Tsubasa and the King—especially when life-threatening accidents, creepy dolls, and a brief kidnapping are involved. In short, the cominbation of an unsettling whodunit story, troubled emotions, and school life gone horribly wrong just plain works.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
While the story is a thriller masterpiece worth gushing over, the artwork barely deserves comment, since it's as generic and mainstream as they come. Even Ando's brief attempts to concoct striking images come out flat or awkward, like a poorly drawn "evil silhouette" that's supposed to be doing the King's dirty work, or a sports accident that looks clumsy rather than dramatic, or a hospital bed bizarrely strewn with roses after its occupant is spirited away through the window. Yes, there are quite a few moments for which you'll have to suspend your disbelief a lot. On the more mundane level, even the basics sometimes escape Ando—sure, the style is polished, but the character designs are plain and forgettable, and seemingly every other scene consists of facial close-ups where everyone looks at each other in shock. The story has a few loose threads to it as well, with some near-useless side characters: Arisa's boyfriend Midori says nothing of interest, and Tsubasa's best friend Takeru seems to have stopped being involved in the investigation. Is there any point to these guys anymore?

FINAL VERDICT:
With the bland visuals, it's one of those series where the storyline really has to carry it—but the thrills, the twists, and the creepy atmosphere are strong enough to earn a B+.


BLUE EXORCIST
Vol. 2
(by Kazue Kato, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Shocked by the death of his foster father and the revelation that his real father is the demon lord Satan, Rin Okumura enters the True Cross Academy to learn to be an exorcist. But every great exorcist has to start somewhere, and for the students of the academy the first step is the Esquire examination. To prepare for the exam, the new pages in Yukio's class must undergo intensive training. Rin and his classmates have their hands full when a demon appears, but is this a test or something more sinister?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Blue Exorcist's second volume wastes no time in continuing to build the action-fantasy world that was created at the start of the series. While not as morally weighty as Volume 1, the chapters contained here are no less entertaining: we get to meet Rin's classmates, esentially forming the core of a demon-hunting team, and some new threats emerge as way for the school administration to test Rin's skills ... or maybe some other, more sinister motive. The introduction of exorcists-in-training like hot-headed Suguro and insecure Kamiki is just good, solid character exposition, with both their personalities and fighting abilities put in the spotlight. A variety of character designs and strong facial expressions also help them to stand out visually. Meanwhile, there's a layer of intrigue to be found in the ominous subplot involving school director Mephisto Pheles, various schoolteachers, and the folks who actually run Hell. Is Rin really training to be an exorcist ... or just a pawn in someone's game? Whatever the answer, there's plenty of power on display during battle scenes, full of dramatic punch-in-the-face close-ups and intense linework crackling with energy (sacred, demonic, or otherwise).

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Sure, Kazue Kato's art is full of intensity ... when he feels like it. Outside of fantastical fights and grand landscape shots, the backgrounds can be painfully dry: sometimes a room is sketched out with only the bare minumum of lines, or worse yet, blank white space for the characters to stand in. Speaking of characters, Rin's supporting cast may be varied in looks and skills, but their personalities lack the spark needed to make them worth caring about. Suguro, as a hothead who also wants to defeat Satan, is too much like Rin (a fact that is even pointed out by other characters). Why would you need a guy who's a near-duplicate of the protagonist? The other major supporting character introduced in this volume, Kamiki, is plagued by insecurities on the inside and a prickly attitude on the outside; it's hard to root for her when she's built mostly from flaws and has hardly any redeeming features. These chapters also suffer from lots of unnecessary school antics, with noisy classroom bickering that might make for good filler but do nothing to advance the story.

FINAL VERDICT:
It's still a solid action series with a well-developed world, but some downsides like schoolroom bickering and lazy backgrounds land it at a B-.


A BRIDE'S STORY
Vol. 1
(by Kaoru Mori, Yen Press, $16.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Acclaimed creator Kaoru Mori (Emma, Shirley) brings the nineteenth-century Silk Road to lavish life, chronicling the story of Amir Halgal, a young woman from a nomadic tribe betrothed to a twelve-year-old boy eight years her junior. Coping with cultural differences, blossoming feelings for her new husband, and expectations from both her adoptive and birth families, Amir strives to find her role as she settles into a new life and a new home in a society quick to define that role for her.
Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori's pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heartwarming slice-of-life tale that is at once both wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the rich characters she has created."

EVIDENCE FOR:
The deepest love in A Bride's Story is not the bond between Amir and her groom Karluk, but Kaoru Mori's obsession with Central Asia and its indigenous cultures. It's a love that manifests itself in the series' stunning art, from glorious views of the steppe to elaborate woodcarvings to the textile patterns that are a part of everyone's clothing. Mori's talent goes beyond mere inanimate objects, though: she also drafts some impressive hunting sequences where Amir captures fast-moving animals ... with a bow and arrow ... on horseback. Yet in other places, the panels slow down enough to capture the rhythms of daily life, showing the villagers going about their work. From a story perspective, the details of this culture are just as fascinating, with quietly humorous scenes where Amir discovers the unique customs of her new clan—which of course are even more alien to us (to say nothing of the comic-relief European researcher living with them). This volume's highlight, though, is definitely the culture clash when Amir's older brother shows up and demands the unthinkable. It's a fascinating look into distant tribal politics and customs, while reminding us how some family squabbles transcend people, place, and time.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Hey look, it's Twilight without vampires! Here's an amazing couple and their amazing relationship where nothing interesting actually happens. Okay, maybe that was exaggeration for comic effect—but there's certainly a grain of truth to the idea that this tale leans too much toward the domestic and not enough toward the dramatic. Just look at that one contentious chapter where Amir's brothers show up: it's the most intense conflict in the story so far, and she's not even there to witness it ... because she's visiting with an uncle, herding sheep and transporting some goods. It's understandable that Mori is in love with the subject matter and wants to take her time introducing the world and its people, but at a certain point you just have to ask when the actual storyline is going to show up. There's only so much excitement to be had from looking at woodcarving porn, adventures in child-reaing, and Amir overreacting to Karluk being sick. Sometimes the characters are even upstaged by their own clothes, with fancy headgear and distracting outfits making it hard to identify people early on.

FINAL VERDICT:
Despite some blandness to the story, the world-building and the artistic details are so strong that it still pulls a B+.


FULLMETAL ALCHEMIST
Vol. 25
(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 and his brother's bodies ... the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
As Greed and King Bradley continue their battle, the mysterious homunculus 'father' makes his move under Central City. In order to achieve his objectives, he will need to force Mustang to make an unthinkable choice. Meanwhile, Alphonse has the chance to regain his own body, but the sacrifice to do so may be too much."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Even as Fullmetal Alchemist powers through its chaotic final battle, this volume is full of poetic moments that seem almost too beautiful to be allowed in an action series. A key supporting character goes out with a heroic smile on his face, combatants spout out eloquent musings about life and death and justice, a hated villain takes a dramatic dive, and stalwart Roy Mustang meets a terrifying, unimaginable fate. But aside from its unusual capacity for beauty, the series also still has the capacity to shock; all it takes is another fierce twist of Arakawa's imagination. Even scenes that last a brief moment, like Alphonse meeting his human form at "the Gate," linger in one's mind—that's what a combination of stirring words, fantastical imagery, and a critical plot point will do. But just as eye-catching as forays into the Other Side are the brute-force battles, full of energy but rendered efficiently. No matter the situation, Arakawa can somehow draw everything, without making a mess of it. Which is all the more important, since everything is happening in this series right now.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Perhaps what we should be saying is, Why does everything have to be happening right now? Fullmetal Alchemist's insistence on building up the epic battle to end all epic battles has resulted in this unsightly dogpile where every single storyline in the series has collapsed on top of one other. Somehow, it's even worse than when all the storylines were running concurrently and switching back and forth—now they've all arrived at the same spot, like commuters trying to pack a crowded train at rush hour. And look at all the cop-out plot twists: characters appearing out of nowhere, or just happening to be in the right place at the right time, or developing important special powers at just the right moment. Even those presumed dead have an annoying habit of making dramatic comebacks. What can be even more frustrating, though, is that plot developments are quickly glossed over; instead, more pages are dedicated to fight scenes and other physical struggles, meaning that any deeper explanations will have to wait until next time. Not that there's much of a "next time" left.

FINAL VERDICT:
As someone who really likes Fullmetal Alchemist, it's painful having to witness this breakdown. While the action and visuals are still well-executed, the increasingly messy plot makes this lucky to score a C.




KING OF RPGS
Vol. 2
(by Jason Thompson and Victor Hao, Del Rey, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"After an intense World of Warfare (WOW) bender, college kid and hardcore gamer Shesh Maccabee finds himself completely consumed by his dark character, slayer extraordinaire Moggrathka. To avoid a repeat incident—and the potentially fatal consequences of getting whacked online—Shesh enmeshes himself in the real world with the help of a part-time job, focusing on paying tuition instead of slaying orcs. Meanwhile his archenemy, student cop Rona, is never far behind, watching and waiting for Shesh to lapse back into character and go on a rampage.
Before you know it, he does just that, wreaking havoc across the WOW servers ... and across campus. With Shesh's RPG-enabling gammaster friend Theo feeding the fires of madness, WOW execs devise a plan to extinguish Moggrathka's virtual flame once and for all. The final showdown explodes at the world's biggest WOW convention, where top gamers gather to fight for supremacy. It's the ultimate battle between good, evil, and chaotic evil with the (virtual) lives of millions at stake!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
The first and most striking thing that readers will notice about the new King of RPGs is how much Victor Hao's art has (pardon the pun) leveled up. Not only does the comedic energy of the characters bounce off the page—the wacky faces, the impassioned dice-throwing, the mad mouse-clicking—but the alternate fantasy world they live in shines as well. The visual grandeur in last half of this volume is especially effective, being an all-out battle involving ancient cities, wrathful lizardmen, and magical warriors. Still, it's the tales of the young gamers playing those warriors that really fill this series out: the madcap quest to get Shesh's mind back, the Chinese gold farmer's dilemma between his sleazy money-making and the true spirit of role-playing, and a wacky convention story to trump all other convention stories. It's a wholesale celebration of geek culture, with plenty of visual gags, in-jokes, and side storylines that will amuse those in the know. Comedy aside, though, it also manages to pop off a dramatic hundred-page sword-and-sorcery showdown at the end, making it feel like two stories for the price of one. And what could be better value than that?

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Make no mistake, the second King of RPGs is an incredibly satisfying read—but it's also too busy for its own good, trying to fold so many layers of action-adventure and cultural commentary atop each other that it starts to creak under the weight. The biggest problem is the wordy dialogue, especially in early scenes that emphasize real life over sword-swinging adventures. The characters all talk too much—perhaps a symptom of Jason Thompson knowing how clever he is and having to get every joke and pun he can into the script. Funnily enough, this clutter is reflected in the artwork as well, with fights so crammed with combatants and weaponry that even the most action-obsessed reader will have to pause just to recap exactly who attacked whom. This is further compounded by bizarre turnabouts (especially in the final scene) that are simply confusing. Story imbalance is also an issue, with the finale so immersed in role-playing madness that we almost forget the series' original aesthetic of college geeks goofing around. Maybe things will calm down in Volume 3 (...or not).

FINAL VERDICT:
Although it's a bit bloated around the edges, this book is a dramatic improvement on Volume 1, packing both geeky humor and fist-pumping excitement. Who could ask for more?




Arina Tanemura's work may be an instant delight to many shojo manga fans, but does it always pass critical muster? Guest reviewer Zoya Chadha has some mixed feelings about this series that came out not too long ago.

(Speaking of which, I'd love to get more shojo reviews from RTO readers! Or even BL! Don't let all the action-adventure guy stuff scare you off.)

THE GENTLEMEN'S ALLIANCE CROSS
Vol. 1
(by Arina Tanemura, Viz Media, $8.99)


SUMMARY

When Haine was just a little girl, the daughter of the rich Kamiya Family, her father gifted her a picture book. She was infatuated with it, and read it many times, over and over again. When she met the author—a boy her own age—at a party, she was already in love with him.

Some time later, the Kamiya family's fortune dwindled, and her father sold her off to the head of the Otomiya family, who was in need of an heir, for 50 million yen.

However, a few years later, Haine's adoptive father got married—to a widow with a son! Hurt and disoriented at no longer being needed, Haine snuck out at night, and trod on the path of a juvenile delinquent. Coming to her rescue on a dark winter night was none other than her beloved Shizumasa, the author of her favorite picture book, who gave her courage to start anew.

Now a high-schooler, Haine joins the Elite Imperial Academy to chase after Shizumasa, who is the Student Council President, the highest position held by a student in the Academy. But things don't go as planned—Haine barely gets to see Shizumasa—and he likes guys?!

REVIEW

No matter how you look at it, the first volume of The Gentlemen's Alliance Cross is a big, fluffy, sparkly vat of indulgence with just a splash of character development at the end, which promises a slightly less one-sided relationship between the two main characters in subsequent volumes.

Most pages burst forth with all things which come to mind when you think of shojo manga—ribbons, sparkling eyes, impeccable hair, attractive boys, cute girls, and shojo maniacs will have a field day trying to decipher who's who in this attractive love comedy.

The main character, Haine, while being in a complicated family situation, an ex-juvenile delinquent, and irrevocably in love with Shizumasa, has a lot going on. She isn't shallow, but her characteristics are crowded. However, her emotional scars are fabulously portrayed, and the feeling of being unwanted is dealt with quite well.

Arina Tanemura has already proven her ability at providing excellent artwork in her previous works, and The Gentlemen's Alliance Cross is no exception; the characters are particularly lovable, with individualistic traits and stories, there is always a reason for them acting the way they do.

It is truly a pity how the mangaka tried to cram as many characters and relationshps into the first volume to make the setting clear, and it results in the plot sticking out at odd angles, and quite a few volumes later will these lines be set straight.

While the first volume of this charming series looks to provide the slightly unusual setting, it is only later in the series do the characters' true agendas come to light, resulting in unimaginable problems for Haine as the female lead. The story picks up an incredible pace in later volumes, and the first volume, while a little excessive in content, is merely a bump in the beginning of the road for Arina Tanemura's highly enjoyable series.



Is there a hidden gem of manga you'd like to reveal to the world? Is there a piece of garbage that deserves to be bashed in public? Or is there a title that didn't get a fair grade here, and you want to set the record straight?

Now's YOUR chance to be the reviewer! Write a review of about 300-400 words (a little more or less is fine) and include:

- Your name
- Title of manga (and volume no., if applicable)
- Author/Artist
- Publisher
- Briefly describe the story, then explain why this manga is great, terrible, or in between. Be objective, but also be entertaining.


Then send it in to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com (plain text format preferred). One review will be selected out of all the submissions and will be published in the next column. All types of manga and manga-inspired comickry are accepted, from past and present, from Japan and beyond—what matters is that it's the Reader's Choice! NOTE: Submissions may be edited for formatting and grammar.

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