RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Rivers of Babylon

by Carlo Santos, May 7th 2013


I'm kind of surprised, but really not-surprised, that the Nakayoshi "Manga Creator" kit is geting as popular as it is. I know that the whole "Buy THIS and you will instantly become a Great Manga Artist!" business will always be around, but I thought most folks had moved on to digital by now. Ask the Artist's Alley dwellers on the local convention circuit and many of them do their work with a drawing tablet or touchscreen. But I see there's always room for mastering manga the old-school way, which means buckling down with pens, paper, and actual physical screentones (!), before making the jump from the real to the digital world. Just like in any other pursuit, you've got to master the basics with $20 worth of equipment before hoping to succeed with thousand-dollar tech toys.



21ST CENTURY BOYS
Vol. 2
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The climax of our story is finally at hand! Mankind faces a crisis, and Kenji is hustling to save the world and the people he loves. But he also must solve the mystery of the Friend. Who is he and why did he become evil? The answer is tied to a memory Kenji has from when he was a twentieth century boy."

EVIDENCE FOR:
At last, here's the real ending to 20th Century Boys, wrapped up into a perfect package of action and suspense. A race to find the final doomsday device brings all the major plot threads together: Kenji and his allies working in concert, the last remnants of the Friend organization still resisting them, and distant memories of the 1970's proving to be the gamebreaker. Also rounding out the story is Kenji's one last shot at heroic justice—piloting a giant robot and breaking out a classic fighting move. But it doesn't quite end there: this volume also ties up loose emotional ends, revisiting the past one last time (if only in virtual reality) so that Kenji can "complete" his childhood and get some much-needed answers. As the moods change, so does the artwork, showing Urasawa's range at its finest: nostalgic scenes of the past, complete with true-to-life backgrounds, awe-inspiring views of the one last thing that might destroy the world, and simple, frozen-in-time moments where the characters' expressions say it all. Simple yet varied page layouts also make the story flow with natural ease. As a chronicle of the past and future, it's been one incredible trip.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
The finale to 20th/21st Century Boys is never quite as momentous as one might have hoped for—but then again, all the big plot twists and dramatic reveals have already been used up. In fact, when the masked kid is about to show his face in the opening chapter, it's just an exasperating joke by now: we all know the real answer won't come out until the very end. When it finally does, it's delivered with so little fanfare that you're not even sure if that was the plot point everyone had been waiting for. This volume also falls back on logic-defying gimmicks—namely, having Kanna use her psychic ability to telepathically communicate with Kenji and share necessary information. True, the whole series is built on mad science and improbable feats of social engineering, but pure supernatural powers? That's crossing the line. The idea of Kenji stepping into the Friend's virtual-reality memories, and essentially treating it as time-travel, also seems like a bit of "cheating" in order to tie up loose ends. Talented as Urasawa may be, even he had to patch over some gaps in this masterpiece.

FINAL VERDICT:
Sadly, it lacks any true jaw-dropping or mind-blowing moments—but solid storytelling, a moment of triumph, and tying up all those plot threads is still a feat worthy of a B.


DURARARA!! SAIKA ARC
Vol. 1
(by Ryohgo Narita, Suzuhito Yasuda and Akiyo Satorigi, Yen Press, $11.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Ikebukuro, Tokyo—a neighborhood where twisted love prowls!
A series of street slashings in Ikebukuro begins to connect total strangers: A teenage girl with no personality of her own; a beat writer for a third-rate tabloid; a teacher suspected of harrassment; an informant based in Shinjuku ... and a headless rider straddling a pitch-black motorcycle!! Meanwhile, the slasher continues to terrorize the night, all in search of ... 'him'!?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
The new arc of Durarara!! turns the spotlight on characters who didn't get enough attention the first time around. Anri Sonohara, perpetual "nice girl" and sidekick, turns out to have issues that might just be the seed of something worse. And the fan favorite who only appeared as a sideshow in the previous story arc, appliance-throwing strongman Shizuo, finally gets a central role—complete with a flashback to his childhood and the intriguing origins of his super strength. However, the true stars of this saga may well be inanimate objects: the slashings all connect to a mysterious historical sword named Saika, while a cryptic online chatroom proves to be the best source for clues. In this fast-paced world where technology and the supernatural collide, isn't that just perfect? A handful of slick action scenes give this volume the spark it needs: headless motorcyclist Celty moving with incredible speed and reflexes as she engages in vigilante justice, and later on, Shizuo putting on an earth-shattering display of power. But the series excels at the artistic basics as well, with a cast of stylishly attired characters and a clean-lined, easily readable style.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
The biggest problem with any well-plotted mystery is trying to keep the different subplots afloat—and Durarara!! Saika Arc seems to have goofed up already. Sonohara and her troubled school life take center stage for much of Chapter 1, but that storyline cuts off right after a dramatic incident and is never picked up again. Can something so with so much story left to tell leave things hanging all the way to Volume 2? The fact-finding aspect of the series, where various characters talk to others in an attempt to dig up more information, also ends up killing much of the momentum in the later stages. All those dialogue scenes (including online ones) begin to pile up, and eventually you just start wishing for some real action like a chase scene or a knife-wielding streetfight. The constant talk also leads to uninteresting visuals, where nonexistent scenery and characters standing around are all that's needed to carry the story—and when scenery does show up, it's usually flat, photo-traced lineart. Looks like we'll have to wait a little longer until the real eye-popping showdowns come into play.

FINAL VERDICT:
It sets a number of suspenseful storylines in motion, but the real excitement is clearly further down the road. This volume earns a B- for now.


ITSUWARIBITO
Vol. 8
(by Yuuki Iinuma, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Utsuho's truthfulness as a child resulted in an enormous catastrophe, and he decided to lie from that day forward. Raised in a village of orphans by a monk, Utsuho is an unrepentant troublemaker. The monk eventually inspires him to help people, but there's no way Utsuho's going to lead an honest life! Instead, he's going to use his talents for mischief and deception for good!
Utsuho and his friends come across an isolated island in their ongoing quest for the Kokonotsu treasures. A man named Kuroha and his gang rule the place, and they're after the treasures too. Who will ultimately succeed? Utsuho? Kuroha? Or...?"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Volume 8 of Itsuwaribito is an endlessly entertaining grab bag—pick any chapter, and something exciting is bound to happen. First off, there's the double-deception and twists upon twists as Utsuho untangles Kuroha's manipulative scheme. Then comes a pleasantly surprising interlude where Kuroha's goons, Choza and Uzume, go off on a comical adventure where they bungle their way through battles and make ridiculous puns the whole time. If that's not enough amusement, then check the last three chapters, which go into full-on Indiana Jones mode with trapped rooms and intricate mechanical perils—all of which leads to an unlikely team-up between Utsuho and his enemy! There's even time for a little personal reflection at the end, proving that the series' supporting characters aren't just warm bodies taking up space, but real people with real problems too. Action scenes benefit from sharp, closely-packed speedlines and dynamic poses, all of which add to the fast-paced feel that the series is aiming for. Whether it's Utsuho launching a grenade or dodging a deadly trap, every moment becomes a split-second thrill.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Story-wise, Itsuwaribito fares poorly in the opening chapters, trying to tie up the mysterious island saga but tripping over its own plot threads. A sudden intrusion at the story arc's climactic moment is a bad idea—we've been waiting for Utsuho and Kuroha to face off this whole time, and now some shadow-lurking creep jumps in and sends things in an entirely different direction? Not fair. Then comes the big reveal about what's really been happening on the island, and the story momentum dies as everyone has to stand around and listen to a wordy explanation. In fact, standing around is about the worst thing that can happen in this series, because it also highlights how lazy the art is: plain white backgrounds are a common feature, and the character designs are based on a standard template of angular facial features and medium build. The later chapters also suffer from a lack of imagination, as the treasure route ends up being a linear sequence of hazards and enemies lurking in a large, mysterious building.

FINAL VERDICT:
The storytelling can be inconsistent, and the art sometimes bland, but it's hard to deny the fun factor as the heroes face a variety of perils—varied enough to earn a B- in this case.


KNIGHTS OF SIDONIA
Vol. 2
(by Tsutomu Nihei, Vertical, $12.95)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The emerging master whose internationally lauded works include a contribution to The Halo Graphic Novel delivers a Higgs boson of a find in this new sci-fi series, still ongoing in Japan. In volume two, pilot Tanikaze feels the stirrings of a bond that is precarious at best given that humanity itself may be facing an extinction event."

EVIDENCE FOR:
There are heroic, mecha-piloting space adventures, and then there is Knights of Sidonia, which turns that trope on its head by emphasizing how terrifying and hostile outer space can really be. Where else can the protagonist score a triumphant victory—and then have to spend the next two weeks living off his own urine while waiting for rescue? The sheer strength of the enemy is another part of this series' shock and awe factor: the Sidonia's crew may have far-future robotics and laser-beam weaponry, yet they still live in constant fear of being wiped out by indescribable alien forces. What's more, another plot development suggests that there's betrayal in the ranks. Even basic human interactions are laced with drama and doubt, as Tanikaze tries to cope with his peers' high expectations. Heavy black-and-white contrasts and sparse linework add to the series' stark mood, where space travel is portrayed as a grim, humbling experience rather than grand adventure. The scale and detail on the alien beasts is impressive, and each chapter features a sweeping vista or two, but the art shines most when expressing itself through simplicity.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
After some fantastic world-building in Volume 1, Knights of Sidonia has to prove that it has enough ideas to keep going ... but fails to come up with those ideas in Volume 2. Most of the story here boils down to "young robot pilots fight bloodthirsty space monsters"—which could easily describe any mediocre sci-fi romp by a far less acclaimed artist. And at least with those mass-market series, the characters are usually appealing in some way; in Sidonia everyone is far too businesslike and emotionally detached. Just look at that one scene where Tanikaze goes to hang out with some friends, and an attempt at romantic comedy turns into this awkward mess where we learn that Tsutomu Nihei can't draw action scenes involving multiple characters. (A single human versus inhuman threats, it seems, is more his speed.) The bland character designs also drag the series down, as it can be hard to remember between scenes who's who and how they relate to the protagonist. As a result, the series' human element is dampened, and gut-punch emotional scenes lack impact. It's a beautifully conceived world, but is there anything going on in it...?

FINAL VERDICT:
Here's the trouble with Nihei's stuff: it all seems really cool at first glance, but the bland characters and monotone storytelling soon make it C material ... unless fresh twists can turn it around.


TOKYO BABYLON (Omnibus Edition)
Vol. 1
(by CLAMP, Dark Horse, $19.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Glamour has two meanings: the modern one of style, and the ancient one of sorcery. Tokyo Babylon is the realm of both! It's 1991, the last days of Japan's bubble economy, and money and elegance run through the streets like rivers of neon. So do the currents of darkness beneath them—obsession, greed, and exploitation, nourishing evil spirits that only the arts of the onmyoji—Japan's legendary occultists—can combat. The two most powerful remaining onmyoji are in the unlikely guises of a handsome young veterinarian, Seishiro, and the teenage heir to the ancient Sumeragi clan, Subaru—just a couple of guys whom Subaru's sister Hokuto has decided are destined to be ... a couple!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Tokyo Babylon may qualify as old-school, but its choice of subject matter is timeless—the eternal battle between good and evil spirits. Not content to just trot out well-worn genre ideas, though, this series digs into the human reasons why such spirits manifest themselves: dreamers who have lost all hope, victims of horrific crimes, teenagers lashing out at society, and other unhappy situations. But there are also lighter moments amidst all this emotional weight: the interplay between Subaru and Seishiro, with Hokuto often chiming in, adds a dash of humor (and some saucy BL hints). The occasional glimpses into Subaru's childhood are also plenty intriguing. Elaborate, life-threatening exorcism rituals are another source of excitement, especially when Seishiro steps in with his special powers. As an early CLAMP series, the art and layouts are simple enough for new readers to follow, yet sweeping lines and elegant curves are already part of their style—especially when Subaru lets fly with wind, fire, and other forms of spiritual energy. Even more eye-catching, if only for the sheer curiosity value, are the modish early-90's fashions worn by the characters.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
It has the makings of something epic, and yet Tokyo Babylon feels like it stops short of reaching its true potential. There are hints of a deeper background plot, yet these chapters are mostly episodic tales, content to have Subaru solve supernatural problems one at a time and immediately forget about his client once he's moved on. The story, at this stage, also fails to take the Subaru/Seishiro relationship seriously enough—sure, there's one super-important chapter about how they first met, but aside from that it's mostly frivolous teases ("D'you think I'm sexy?") or sassy gestures intended to fire up the overactive imaginations of fans. And what is Hokuto even doing—is she in this story just to wear ridiculous cosplay outfits and make snarky comments? Perhaps it's only appropriate, then, that the not-quite-great story is also accompanied by not-quite-great artwork, where backgrounds are often filled with monotonous gradient tones and a lack of texturing makes many scenes look flat and dull. Even Subaru's exuberant sorcery seems oversimplified. Yes, it's easy enough for newcomers to read ... but a few ornamental details wouldn't hurt.

FINAL VERDICT:
This volume packs some emotionally powerful stories and evocative visuals, but its episodic nature and frequent moments of artistic laziness add up to a C+ grade.




YESTERDAY WO UTATTE (SING "YESTERDAY" FOR ME)
Vol. 1
(by Kei Toume, Shueisha, ¥530)


FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"Rikuo has graduated from college, but has zero ambition or direction and works in a convenience store. A strange high-school dropout, Haru, keeps coming around with her pet crow. Rikuo still has a crush on his senior Shinako, who is beginning a teaching career, and who shows up in the store one day. Rikuo's relationships with the girls, and his feelings about his life, keep changing as the story evolves, bringing in other important characters—Rikuo's co-worker, the coworker's sister, and a childhood friend of Shinako's."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Sing "Yesterday" for Me matters because it's a manga for the rest of us—the ones who never got into any big-time clubs or sports, but simply graduated one day and tried to figure out what to do next. Rikuo's aimless feelings in the first half of Volume 1 aren't just the musings of a slacker, but could easily reflect an entire generation. Meanwhile, Haru's bubbly presence is the spark that gets the story moving, a much-needed counterpoint to Rikuo's glumness. When Rikuo tries to reconnect with Shinako later on, the series takes aim at another true-to-life topic: it addresses the issue of the "friendzone," not mocking or dismissing the concept, but maturely looking at how a guy and a girl can get along despite unrequited feelings. This raw, heartfelt portrayal is complemented by Kei Toume's art, where scratchy lines and a few crooked turns give the feeling of it being a personal, artistic work instead of just a glossy corporate property. The simple character designs are capable of a full range of emotion, and understated town backgrounds capture the passing seasons as Rikuo and friends muddle through life.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Some slice-of-life series are instantly brilliant, and then there are ones like these, which waste the first hundred pages trying to figure out what it's actually about. Rikuo doesn't dive into too many monologues, but he keeps belaboring the same old complaint about having no goals in life. Who would want to read a story about such a depressing guy? His counterpart, Haru, isn't the most developed character either—she's basically a shallow variation on the "quirky girl" stereotype, flitting about doing whatever she likes and keeping an eccentric pet. The dialogue also starts to suffer when the story enters love triangle territory—the discussion turns super-abstract, with lines that sound like "My feelings don't match your feelings but it's okay to feel that way." It's easy enough to understand what it means, but that doesn't necessarly make it meaningful. The artwork also has a number of weak spots—mainly the backgrounds that disappear for long stretches during dialogue scenes, and character illustrations where the linework could use some tightening-up. It's okay to look raw, but there's a fine line between that and just plain sloppy.

FINAL VERDICT:
Some may find this slice-of-life series too mundane and downcast, but the characters' personal struggles hit close to home and the distinctive art adds to the ambience.




YOKI KOTO KIKU
(by Koge-Donbo, Broccoli)


When we talk about the Great Shutdown Era of North American manga publishing, it's usually only the "big names" that are brought up—so it takes a pretty seasoned fan to remember that Broccoli was once also part of the industry. And it takes an even more well-seasoned fan to remember when they came out with Yoki Koto Kiku. This one-volume effort by Koge-Donbo—better known for Di Gi Charat, Kamichama Karin, and Pita-Ten—sees the artist moving away from her natural super-cute style and into the realm of dark comedy ... with mixed results.

While the characters are still doe-eyed and chibi, and the artwork brims with bubbly flourishes and pratfalls, the subject matter is as grim as can be: it's about three siblings fighting over a family inheritance and willing to resort to murder to get what they want. Of course, their weapons of choice fit their names perfectly: eldest sister Yokiko wields an axe ("yoki"), middle child Kotosuke uses the strings of the koto, and the youngest, Kikuno, has her flower-arrangement needles ("kiku" meaning "chrysanthemum"). The wordplay and wacky murder plots account for most of the humor, and as long as you can deal with everyone acting as ridiculous as possible, then this trio of characters proves to be somewhat entertaining.

Unfortunately, there's not much more substance than that—after all, the whole thing is designed as a parody of the classic Japanese mystery The Inugami Clan, and like many slapdash parodies, it falls apart unless one has intimate knowledge of the original. There's some fun to be had with the idea of adorable kids mercilessly trying (and failing) to kill each other, but this turns out to be mostly just a concept with no real story to tell. But hey, points for trying—at least Koge-Donbo proved to the world that there's a sharp set of claws lurking beneath the fluffy, sweet exterior of her art.

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