Reviewby Carlo Santos, Mar 26th 2010
Alice in the Country of Hearts
Alice's life has been a mess ever since she got kidnapped by a young man with rabbit ears and taken to the strange realm of Wonderland. It's a world where territorial factions are at war, where people pull guns on each other at a moment's notice, and where all the guys are madly in love with Alice. Or maybe just mad. However, after a midnight tea-party with some of Wonderland's inhabitants, Alice starts to think that they're not so bad after all. Even Ace, a soldier for the scheming Queen of Hearts, is willing to defend Alice against the White Rabbit's inappropriate advances. But nothing can protect Alice from the shocking secret she is about to discover—a secret that has everything to do with life and death in Wonderland.
It's impossible to beat Lewis Carroll at his own game.
After all, Alice in Wonderland (or more correctly, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) is not simply the quintessential children's book. It's also a spoof-take on contemporary Victorian culture, a deft exploration of mathematics and logic, and a towering feat of wordplay. Most people who try to put their own spin on Alice have enough trouble just nailing down the story part—and even that, Carroll already perfected. Anyone who dares to play with the Mad Hatter and the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts is only going to end up with hollow replicas of the originals.
That's why, in Alice in the Country of Hearts, it's the non-canonical material that is the most interesting.
In the first volume of the series, for example, Alice learned that the lovesick denizens of Wonderland were a result of her subconscious desires (an explanation that obviously works best with a manga-fied teenage Alice, not a seven-and-a-half-year-old child). This time, it's the bizarre cycle of life and death in Wonderland that adds a new wrinkle to the story—a cycle involving spectral beings, timepieces left behind by those beings, and the clockmaker that Alice is staying with. It also explains why everyone is so gun-happy in this strange world: after all, why worry about the value of human life when there's always a way to get it back? Philosophical explorations such as these, and the strange behaviors that they lead to, help to give the series new points of interest that go beyond Carroll's original creation.
In the true spirit of "nonsense" literature, however, the story keeps wandering off in new directions—and thus fails to follow up on many of the earlier plot points. Remember how Alice was supposed to get home? By collecting a bottle of liquid symbolizing her interactions with Wonderland's inhabitants? That happened in the series' first chapter, and hasn't been mentioned since. We haven't heard from the mysterious pretty boy in her dreams, either (another original creation that seemed so promising). Instead, this volume is content to pass Alice on from one bishounen to the next, and that's why the story, despite its wild flights of fancy, lacks a true sense of drama. Instead we're supposed to be content with disjointed scenarios like a re-creation of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party, or the White Rabbit's ever more threatening (yet comical) advances toward Alice, and maybe some hints that the characters are more sinister than they seem. But when is the series going to pull it all together?
Then again, these deficiencies in story are easily overlooked when one is being distracted by a healthy dose of eye candy. There's no shortage of attractive characters here, although the male-to-female ratio is clearly a bit skewed. The specific roles of each Wonderland character also result in distinctive costuming, from cat and rabbit ears to more conventional modes of 19th-century dress. The sharp linework and visual clarity also help to keep the story understandable—when people talk to each other, they actually talk to each other, rather than disappear in a shower of tones and special effects. The panel layouts, too, maintain a strict rectangular form that's more pleasing to the eye than an overload of decorative clutter. The only situation where this restrained style might be a drawback is in the backgrounds, which are perhaps too sparse to put the "wonder" in Wonderland.
Wordplay is pretty much a lost cause in foreign interpretations of Alice in Wonderland, but this English translation of a Japanese work at least tries to spice up the text. It's most noticeable in the White Rabbit's dialogue, as he occasionally lapses into poetic rhyme. By some kind of linguistic miracle, though, it hardly ever sounds forced; in fact, many of the rhymes find a clever way to fit themselves into the script. The other characters aren't quite as ornate with their words—it's mostly standard conversational English—but it still leans more towards formal speech patterns that would have made sense in Victorian times, rather than loose sentence fragments or slang. Sound effects, on the other hand, are handled with less care: if it's a big noise or something essential to the plot, the translation is there, but a lot of times the minor sounds are simply left untranslated (not that they have much impact on the story anyway).
It may be impossible to beat Lewis Carroll at his own game, but as Alice in the Country of Hearts shows, there are still ways to succeed ... simply by adding new rules to the game. The non-canonical elements of this series add fresh quirks to the realm of Wonderland, raising questions that other authors and readers may not have thought of. How does life and death work in Wonderland? (And as an aside to that, how come no one has ever seen an actual beheading carried out by the Queen of Hearts?) And who's really pulling the strings in a world where the monarchy is just one political player among many others? Unfortunately, the story is often too skittish to tackle these intriguing questions; instead, this volume is quite happy to let Alice ramble about and continue meeting the pretty boys of Wonderland. As far as Alice spinoffs go, this surely has potential, but much of it remains unfulfilled.
Overall : C+
Story : C
Art : B
+ Shows creativity and promise with plot points and characters that weren't in the original Alice, as well as eye-pleasing artwork.
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