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by Carlo Santos,

I was at a Barnes & Noble bookstore a few days ago when my casual browsing was interrupted by "Hi, would you like a free sample?" A server from the in-store Starbucks was offering mini-cups of their latest special. "It's a gingerbread frappucino," he added. I couldn't get over the surrealism of the coffeehouse experience infringing on my bookstore experience. How would Starbucks customers like it if I started walking up to them and started offering stapled 8-page pamphlets? "Hi, would you like a free sample?" I'd say. "It's called a comic."

Like a shounen character that never really dies, RIGHT TURN ONLY!! is back!

Vol. 1
(By Minari Endo, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"A young girl named Rahzel is abruptly sent off to see the world by her father. She is alone on her travels—until she meets Alzeid, a mysterious loner on a mission of revenge. At first the two don't get along, but little by little, Alzeid opens his heart to Rahzel. It's a good thing, too—because with the dangerous (and at times romantic) road ahead, they will need to rely on each other to survive!"

At first glance, Dazzle seems like a wanderer lost between fantasy and contemporary settings, but that's just because it blends both. Old-fashioned towns and magical powers coexist happily with modern-day guns and stylish outfits straight out of a Tokyo style catalog. This carries over to the characters too, where typical archetypes get powered up with fresh quirks: Rahzel is a positive-thinking heroine with a mean streak, while Alzeid is the supercool mystery man, but with a playful sense of humor. "Just pretend I'm air," he says at one point to an alarmed businessman. How odd.

Unfortunately, these personality twists backfire throughout the story; everyone comes off as annoying rather than intriguing. Most of the volume involves selfish people doing stupid things to each other. The premise has no weight to it, either: Rahzel's father just sends her out straight from page one, with no prior developments, thus setting up a generic road-trip/buddy adventure. Factor in the unclear layouts, poorly framed panels, and cookie-cutter bishounen, and it's no surprise that Dazzle was the work of a first-time manga-ka.


Vol. 3
(By Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $7.99)

"Light Yagami is an ace student with great prospects—and he's bored out of his mind. But all that changes when he finds the Death Note, a notebook dropped by a rogue Shinigami death god. Any human whose name is written in the notebook dies, and now Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. But when criminals begin dropping dead, the authorities send the legendary detective L to track down the killer. With L hot on his heels, will Light lose sight of his noble goal... or his life?
Light is chafing under L's extreme surveillance, but even 64 microphones and cameras hidden in his room aren't enough to stop Light. He steps up the game, but before the battle of wits can really begin, a family emergency distracts him. But even though Light isn't using the Death Note right now, someone else is! Who's the new 'Kira' in town?"

It's hard to tear yourself away from this logic game once you get caught up in its complexities. Writer Tsugumi Ohba always sets up the next big plot twist at just the right moment, and artist Takeshi Obata complements the series' brainy attitude with a meticulous style. Despite all the dialogue and "talking head" scenes, it still flows visually like an action title, with carefully paced layouts reflecting the tension between Light and L. Obata even squeezes in some real action scenes like a blatantly metaphorical tennis match.

Although the dense, mind-bending dialogue is Death Note's trademark, it's also the series' weak point, bogging itself down in details. Nothing disrupts the story like having to parse three paragraphs of "Well, if he thinks I'm thinking what I think he thinks I'm thinking..." Don't they have mathematical notation for this? Meanwhile, another key aspect of the story—Light's twisted sense of morality—seems to have gone on hiatus. Ohba's attempt to re-introduce the morality issue into the plot after pages and pages of logical debate feels forced.


Vol. 1

(By Minetarō Mochizuki, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"The end of everyone was just the beginning.
Returning home by train after a class trip, Teru Aoki takes a most frightening ride inside a mountain tunnel. When the train derails, nearly everyone aboard is killed. Amidst the bloody carnage, Teru discovers two survivors—but salvation is far from their grasp. As they try to dig out from the wreck in order to come up with a plan to stay alive, the lack of light and food, combined with the stench of death and decay, will lead one member of the group down a dark and demented path. And with sudden, violent earthquakes shaking the tunnel, escaping to the outside world may lead them to an even greater danger..."

Don't let the bland, fantasy-sounding title fool you: this disaster thriller is surprisingly intense. Working within the constraints of a very small space and a limited cast, Mochizuki Minetaro creates a gripping tale that oozes fear and claustrophobia. The plot, so simple yet so engaging, rides on one powerful idea: will Teru ever get out of the tunnel alive? This study in survival is made even more visceral by Minetaro's gritty, dark-hued art, where every rock, crack, and shard of glass is made visible. You may never want to ride an underground train again.

Any story with a tightly confined structure—like three kids in an underground railway accident—runs the danger of becoming repetitive. Psychotic classmate Nobuo is probably the worst offender; his "I see ghosts! We're going to die!" routine quickly gets irritating (as if he weren't a dislikable character already). Even Teru runs out of options and seems to spend the latter part of the volume wandering around the train. Meanwhile, Tokyopop's policy of not translating sound effects blanks out a crucial part of the series' atmosphere: the unearthly sounds of the underground.


Vol. 4
(By Wataru Yoshizumi, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Nina Sakura isn't exactly your typical teenage girl. She's actually a transfer student from a witch school in another dimension! Now living in Japan, Nina is hoping to improve her GPA, make some friends and spin a few love spells for her unsuspecting new classmates.
Unfortunately, Nina is finding out that going to school on Earth is a lot more complicated than she first thought. Not everybody is glad to have a spunky (and cute) witch flitting about campus. A girl named Sayaka, for example, has recently become obsessed with Nina. A half-witch herself, Sayaka is jealous that her new classmate is stealing all the attention away from her. Like they say in the Magic Kingdom, "There's no fury like that of a teenage witch ignored!"

Few things capture the essence of shoujo like a love polygon, and few things pull it off as deftly as Ultra Maniac. The compelling up-and-down relationships among the central cast reveal Wataru Yoshizumi's gift for creating well-scripted characters and situations. Ayu likes Tetsushi, but so does Sayaka. Meanwhile, Yuta likes Sayaka, but still has feelings for Nina. And so it goes on... In any other manga, this would turn into a confusing muck, but Yoshizumi's clear-cut characterization—along with equally clear-cut art—makes it a fun, addictive read.

Sadly, Yoshizumi cannot draw action scenes to save her life. This volume turns inexplicably shounen midway through, as Sayaka's hatred for Nina culminates in the world's most unrealistic magic duel. Their confrontation even comes with the obligatory "Before I attack you, I must explain my entire scheme and motivation" speech, flashbacks included. It's a glaring, awkward hiccup in a storyline that is otherwise all about the trials of young teenage love—which is what Yoshizumi does best, and what she ought to stick to.


Editor's Note: "World Manga of the Month" is a monthly feature here in RIGHT TURN ONLY!!, where Carlo will spotlight a new World Manga title of his choice, in order to present to you a broader view of what's on the manga shelves. We've chosen not to include a standard rating in this segment, instead simply presenting the title. Enjoy!

Vol. 1
(By Queenie-Chan, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"When twin sisters Amber and Jeanie are accepted into an exclusive Australian boarding school, their future looks bright. But the school's halls harbor a terrible secret: students have been known to wander into the surrounding bushlands and vanish... without a trace! No one knows where they went—or why. But as Amber and Jeanie are about to learn, the key to the school's dark past may lie in the world of their dreams..." 

For many, Australia is a place even more foreign than Japan, and the "Gothic outback" setting of The Dreaming is certainly something new. Traditional horror elements like school superstitions combine with regional flourishes like eucalyptus forests to form a story that's otherworldly in more ways than one. The eerie atmosphere builds up throughout the book, ending with a chilling revelation that elegantly ties up several plot threads. Chan's effective use of solid black, along with consistently polished artwork, puts this several notches above last summer's ham-fisted horror title Bizenghast

But is the artwork too polished? Although the character designs and backgrounds are strong enough to deflect any accusations of hackwork, they also lack the uneasy energy of the best horror comics. A few crooked lines here and there would do wonders for ramping up the creep factor. Veterans of the genre will also see right through the story's various contrivances: menacing old teachers, predictive dreams, and oddly familiar paintings and dresses. In a genre where it pays to be shocking and dangerous, the story's playing it a little too safe.

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