Jason Thompson's House of 1000 Manga: Monster Collectionby Jason Thompson,
Episode VII: Monster Collection
Manga based on RPGs have generally been a big disappointment to me. In the 1990s, when traditional Western-style RPG fantasies were big in Japan, everyone in my gaming group watched Record of Lodoss War and Slayers; but the manga based on those properties were as exciting as fighting your way through a 10x10 room filled with 1,000 orcs. It was cute when Dragon Quest, the McDonald's of Japanese console RPGs, used Akira Toriyama's character designs, but when you adapted those designs back into a manga, you just got a second-rate Toriyama imitation. (This is the point where all of the Dragon Quest fans post furious comments!) The Final Fantasy games were more interesting, with their steampunk tech and baroque artwork, but there never was a good Final Fantasy manga, perhaps because Square was too protective of the license. Culdcept, Suikoden…there are some above-average manga based on games, but in keeping with the eternal rule that "spin-offs of things are always inferior to original things," most of them are pretty bad. There's only so many times you can watch clean-cut, shiny young heroes defeat evil, or merrily blow things up with fireballs, or discover that OMG God is actually an ancient bioweapon and He is the final boss of the game. (Here's another question: considering how slavishly "Western" most JRPG fantasy worlds are in all other aspects, with pseudo-Christian churches, medieval villages and clothing, why does everyone drink sake, not mead?)
So it was a surprise to me when Monster Collection, a swords-and-sorcery manga based on a Japanese collectible card game (no relation to the old PlayStation game Monster Rancher), turned out to be a great manga. The six-volume manga was translated into English by CMX, a manga publisher (begin sarcasm) whose recent passing went almost unnoticed on the Internet, despite the massive amount of money bloggers had previously spent on CMX titles. (end sarcasm) I've never played Monster Collection, but it was released in 1997 by Group SNE, one of Japan's few, small companies that produce tabletop games, including Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying games. The card game was adapted into a kid-oriented anime series, Mon Colle Knights. At the time in the late '90s, Kadokawa Shoten had two magazines for fantasy and gaming fans, Comic Dragon and Dragon Jr. (Today they have been merged into a single magazine, Dragon Age, whose connection to dragons and fantasy has gotten pretty tenuous.) The Mon Colle Knights manga was published in Dragon Jr., alongside Slayers slapstick, while the Monster Collection manga was published in the more adult-oriented Comic Dragon. The mangaka of the series was Sei Itoh, an artist & illustrator whose work has appeared in just about every oldschool fantasy RPG published in Japan, including Ryo Mizuno's 1989 Sword World, the granddaddy of all Japanese tabletop RPGs, also published by Group SNE.
Monster Collection is the story of Kasche, a swashbuckling young wizard studying her craft at the magic academy in the city of Sazan. This was before Harry Potter, so instead of Kasche taking tests and eating at the cafeteria, she is promptly sent forth from the academy on a quest to retrieve a magic book, the Encyclopedia Verum, stolen by dark forces from a neighboring kingdom. As the title suggests, Kasche's skill is monster summoning. (Speaking of which, how about that subtitle? "The Girl Who Can Deal with Magic Monsters"? To quote a friend: "It's like, I don't like magic monsters, but I can deal with them. I can deal with them.") She has the power to call forth wolves, bats, griffons, animal-folk and various more scary monsters to do her bidding. The wolves growl at her at first, but with a haughty glare and a flex of willpower, Kasche commands their obedience. She can see through their eyes, she can command them to protect her, and she shares their pain.
I've always had mixed feelings about monster summoning. On the one hand, I love the image of mighty monsters and demons obeying the will of a tiny, nerdy spellcaster (brains over brawn, yeah!) and I've certainly played a ton of conjurers in Dungeons & Dragons (or DID before they nerfed conjuring magic in D&D 4th edition -- grumble grumble -- I mentioned I was a nerd, right?). The imagery of summoning spells in Final Fantasy was always awesome, although the way the monsters are actually used in the game is a little weak—it's really just like "Bahamut" is an attack, not a monster, it's a shame you can't summon Bahamut to make you a cup of coffee or fly you to the top of the tower and bypass the whole dungeon. But seen from another perspective, the whole idea of having henchmen do your bidding -- monsters or Pokémon or whatever you call them -- is pretty unheroic. No matter how much every shonen manga tries to convince us "You have to be FRIENDS with your flunkies!", it always comes off as a hypocritical, hierarchical power-fantasy at best, and a sleazy way to sell collectible cards at worst. (While I was at Viz, PETA briefly tried to partner with Viz for an anti-cruelty-to-animals campaign using Yu-Gi-Oh!, which I think would have been pretty clever, but it didn't work out.)
So it was gratifying, among many small pleasures in Monster Collection, to find out that Sei Itoh was apparently just as skeptical about the idea as I was. In his author's notes, he explains that he was asked to draw a Monster Collection manga, but wasn't sure how to do a story about a summoner who makes other creatures fight for her. "What's the main character supposed to do when the summoned creature is fighting? Cheer it on? Do a play-by-play of the fight? Strike some weird poses?" Later in the series, another character says "I guess I do feel sorry for the poor monsters, uprooted from their homes against their will and forced to risk their lives fighting for the whim of control-freak summoners who can't take care of their own dirty work." (Kasche: "Can it, smart-ass!") "Can you only make others get their hands dirty? Can you only make others sacrifice?" a villain sneers at her. Another monster actually tells her "A master and slave are not equal. You are naive to think of us as friends." But although such things fill our heroine with doubt, Kasche does make sacrifices alongside her creatures; she feels their agonies as they are injured and die, since they're flesh-and-blood creatures pulled from another dimension, not just ectoplasmic emanations or magical holograms. In the end, she's the hero, of course, and the monsters aren't asking for higher wages, but Itoh treats the subject matter about as deeply as possible in a collectible card game manga. "On one level, she's just a girl who loves animals," Itoh muses. In another place he suggests that maybe her maternal instinct is responsible for her unusually deep connection to the monsters. But although Kasche is a sex object, and although she pees her pants in one scene ("One in four women have bladder problems!"), she really is tough, not a just-wants-to-be-protected-on-the-inside tsundere like, say, the heroine of Shakugan no Shana. (Plus, she doesn't look like she's 8 years old!) In the grand list of female heroines created by male mangaka, I'd rate her fairly high, considering that even if one or two guys stumble and end up with their face in her crotch, no one ever, ever, ever comments on her breast size. (Take that, Slayers!) The heroine of Monster Collection is an acrobatic, sword-swinging, prudish-guy-teasing, yet believable and sympathetic monster summoner.
But she's not the only character, of course. In her pursuit of the magic book, she quickly meets, fights and befriends Cuervo, a good-looking Vujyad (basically Middle Eastern) dervish, who wears a black headdress, daggers and a glass eye. He's a shy boy underneath it all ("I-I'm a moralist!" Cuervo protests when he sees Kasche naked), but at other times he's refreshingly blunt and cynical, deflating the fantasy clichés and getting some of the funniest moments in the book. (When they're being attacked in the crypt of an old church, and Kasche is freaking out, the camera cuts to him sitting on a heap of corpses and coffins, casually smoking a joint.) The second adventurer is Nastasha the lamia, a snake-woman shapeshifter. Initially encountered as a monster in thrall to an evil summoner, Nastasha is released from bondage and joins the heroes on their quest, but for food she must drink Cuervo's blood, leaving him protesting helplessly as she covers him with bite-shaped hickies and Kasche watches, amused. (Just how "amused" is a question for the dojinshi.) So for awhile the characters consist of two sexy women and one easily embarrassed guy -- it's manga gold! And then, it becomes manga PLATINUM as the heroes are joined by their fourth party member -- Shin, the "lizard king," a reptilian warrior from the kingdom of the Green Scale Lizardfolk. Initially introduced kicking back in the obligatory hot springs scene (in which Sei Itoh reminds us that male lizards have bifurcated genitals), Shin is the "dirty old martial arts master" archetype with scales and a tail. He surfs. He acts crass and crude. He catches flies out of the air with chopsticks…and eats them. I love lizard and reptile monsters -- I put a lot of them in King of RPGs Volume 2 -- and I was thrilled to see that the adventuring party in Monster Collection is no less than 3/8th reptilian, counting Nastasha as a half reptile. As if that weren't enough, in volume 5 Shin summons his allies the "Seven Fighting Demons," no less than SEVEN lizardmen and lizardwomen, all of them totally distinct and awesome-looking. (Another note to the designers of the "Dragonborn" in Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition: lizardwomen don't need breasts to look sexy. Yes, I said it.) This ultimate team's enemies are Lord Duran, a revenge-driven villain in search of an ancient high-tech weapon (see? It really is like a JRPG!), and Eclipse, a summoner gone bad, who spends most of the manga with his face concealed beneath a disturbing mask.
And of course monsters, monsters, monsters. Sei Itoh can draw monsters. There are dragons, griffons, curse elementals and gill-men. There are giant ants, gargoyles, demons and angels. Itoh is a great artist, capable of drawing anything in his chosen fantasy world, which (in the relatively few scenes which take place in "civilization" and not in faraway, monster-infested islands) is ornamented with vaguely Renaissance statues and bric-a-brac. His slightly oldschool art swings between low comedy and high fantasy, occasionally resembling the detailed drawings of Akihiro Yamada (Record of Lodoss War: The Lady of Pharis), although Itoh's style is much more fluid. (He still has the occasional problem of heavily Western-influenced mangaka/illustrators, in that at certain camera angles, his characters abruptly stop looking "manga-like" and start looking like "realistic" Western art with bold cheekbones and long noses. Unless you're using ray-traced polygons, it's hard to be equally cartoony in all 360 degrees.)
Monster Collection is a fun, well-drawn series, and best of all, you get the sense that the artist is enjoying himself. Just as Itoh criticizes the whole "monster summoner" genre, he pokes fun at some of the other conventions of shonen manga as well. As crusty old Shin shouts in a dramatic scene: "All that 'I can do it if I just believe in myself' crap is hogwash! If that was all it took to succeed, life would be easy! A fight is about knowing your strengths!" At another moment, when one of the characters insists on pushing himself when he's injured, another one says "Not taking care of yourself is the easy way to live. Those who can't take care of themselves, can't take care of others." Simple homilies, maybe, but way more clever than you'll find in most action-adventure manga. The fight scenes are also great, always giving a sense of real physical motion and exertion and danger, never turning into incomprehensible messes or "suddenly there is a big explosion and it's all over" cop-outs. With good art and a strong plot, it's a manga that any fantasy lover (or lizard lover) will love, and the CMX edition is well worth buying. It left me wanting more from Sei Itoh. And as for everyone else who draws manga based on card games or video games, it delivers a message: just because your manga exists to sell collectible cards, you got no excuse to suck.
Jason Thompson is the author of Manga: The Complete Guide and King of RPGs, as well as manga editor for Otaku USA magazine.
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