RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Eternal RTO!!
by Carlo Santos,
While the rest of the internet throws a fit over Tokyopop's new online distribution plan, another serious issue is at hand: Who is the one true NANA? Sure, it's jumping the gun to try to pass judgment before the second movie is out, but we already know that they're switching lead actresses, and it takes one glimpse to realize that it's more about the idea of Hachi than any sort of consistency. So who's the one that has the look: Aoi Miyazaki (left) or Yui Ichikawa (right)?
ES: ETERNAL SABBATH
(by Fuyumi Soryo , Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Mine Kujyou is a brilliant and beautiful scientist who has unlocked some of the darkest secrets of the human mind. But she's about to discover the hard way what the mind is really capable of. Mine joins forces with Sakaki to defeat Isaac, a genetically engineered superbeing with terrifying mental powers. Though Isaac is still a child, he is powerful and cruel enough to destroy anyone who gets in his way. For extra help, Mine turns to Shuro, who shares Isaac's strange powers but not his hatred for humanity. Yet Shuro is far from compassionate, and Mine can't fathom his indifference. She's never encountered a mind quite like Shuro's, but she'll have to learn to understand him fast. Isaac has killed again, and it won't be the last time."
Looking to kill some time in between volumes of Monster and Death Note? This psychological thriller is right up there with the best of them: a battle not just of wits, but also of chilling psychic powers. The entire volume moves with incredible urgency, ramping up the tension from chapter to chapter as scientists Kujyou and Sakaki use scattered clues to track down Isaac. Once he starts to make his move, the results are both horrific and magnificent—imagine a child so amoral that he will kill anyone, anywhere, and has the power to do it by filling your mind with nightmare visions. Even outside of surreal realms, though, this series is still breathtaking in its execution. Intriguing characters, carefully calculated turns of plot, and unforgettable scenes (the snake hallucination tops them all) will keep the pages turning—and heck, 224 of them still isn't enough. Visually stunning and emotionally intense, ES reaches new heights in this volume and promises even more in the next.
Soryo makes maybe one ... or two ... missteps in this story arc. The most glaring is supporting character Yuri, who falls too easily into the "innocent child" stereotype—a decidedly two-dimensional creation among a cast of much more complex characters. Some of the clues are also handed out too easily: the TV news just happens to be covering something relevant to the story (aren't all fictional televisions like that?); the aforementioned innocent child blabs everything so that Kujyou and Sakaki can move ahead in the case. Then there's the action sequence near the end, which somehow dissolves into policeman slapstick and disrupts the tone of the series. Come on, godlike beings with psychic powers are serious business. Fortunately they're treated that way the rest of the time.
RTO!! RATING: A-
(by Matsuri Akino, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A pair of young aspiring mystery writers tries to crack the most bizarre, baffling, and hilarious cases around them. But when clues lead to a dead end, fortunately for our duo, The Masked Detective always seems to show up in the nick of time to help!
In this light-hearted mystery from the creator of Pet Shop of Horrors, it's not always about solving the crimes—but you can be sure that the trail of evidence will lead to a hoot and a holler!"
Think of Kamen Tantei as a commentary on the mystery genre, and it becomes a pretty fun ride. Teen detectives Masato and Haruka get into investigations that are as much meta-capers as actual capers; they solve each case by explicitly referring to the rules of the genre they love so much. (The detective can't be the killer! No ghosts!) At one point they even have to solve a locked-room case at a mystery writers' convention, which is right up there on the same self-referential level as manga stories about wannabe manga artists. As a duo, Masato and Haruka are delightfully mismatched—Haruka's brash, no-nonsense attitude being the perfect foil to Masato's superstitious timidity. Even the Tuxedo Mask-like title character, some kind of flamboyant deus ex machina, is oddly entertaining. Florid art coupled with straightforward layouts make this a fun, visually appealing read.
Fun and visually appealing doesn't always equate to satisfying, though, and sophisticated mystery connoisseurs will quickly turn up their noses at this series. Lacking the clever detail of Case Closed or the dense intricacy of the Kindachi Case Files, Kamen Tantei feels like some kind of distant younger cousin that wants to be like those titles but doesn't have the talent or depth to pull it off. Cheeky references to the rules of classic mystery stories will never be as cool as, say, actual classic mysteries. The cases in this volume are too short to require any real brainwork, and the masked detective always shows up as a lame substitute for a proper logical solution. It really only works as a humorous commentary on the mystery genre, and our young novelists should probably just focus more on their writing and less on solving these trivial cases.
RTO!! RATING: C
A KISS FOR MY PRINCE
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Everyone always says to set high goals for oneself. Sei-Ann, an orphaned young lady who was raised in the care of a noblewoman, does just that when she decides she'll become the prince's bride. With above average looks and ambitions that would rival that of a king, Sei-Ann is determined to leave her social status behind and become the wife of the next Crown Prince. One day, she gets her chance when the prince visits her guardian's residence, and before she knows it, she's invited to work at the Royal Palace as a maid. What's more, one of the Crown Prince's brothers falls in love with her. But suddenly, just as everything seemed like it was going so perfectly, Sei-Ann learns that she may be the last surviving heir to a family which was closely tied to the Royal family but later branded as traitors!"
Fantasy doesn't get much more cosmopolitan than this: a cast with Korean-Germanic names acting out a hybrid Cinderella-Anastasia fairy tale. Various cultures and time periods meld to create a world that is both familiar and unique. Even fandom fetishes meet in this alternate-history nexus: you want maids? They've got maids, in detailed period dress. You want royally outfitted pretty boys? They've got that too—three, in fact. Rich backgrounds, floral motifs and architectural details also abound in this feast of visual pageantry. Maybe the only thing missing is magic and mecha, and there's no time to worry about that once you get caught up in Sei-Ann's struggle to make it up the social ladder. As a heroine, she's got the right balance of underdog status (not too pathetic) and bold-faced attitude (not too brash). This isn't just about winning a prince's heart—it's about beating the entire class system.
Sei-Ann's path to royalty would be more compelling if it weren't so well-worn. Somehow, it's okay when this series borrows different historical details, because it works them into a unique fantasy world, but when it starts cribbing entire plot devices, the results are less than impressive. Why read an epic tale when each new twist is telegraphed twenty pages in advance? Traditional folk and fairy tales can almost get away with it, but this one is trying too hard to pass itself off as a fresh story while stealing too much old material. The first volume is practically a checklist of age-old genre tricks: the mysterious item of jewelery, the distant childhood memory, and obviously, the common girl who's secretly an heir to royalty. Despite a beautifully crafted setting, the actual events taking place are just too predictable.
RTO!! RATING: C+
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Junior high student Tsuna is a failure at school, sports, and social life. He needs a Mafia hit man tutor like he needs a hole in the head...and he's about to get both!
When Reborn!, a fedora-wearing, gun-toting toddler, arrives and says he's come to groom Tsuna for his future as a boss of an Italian organized crime family, Tsuna is more than a little skeptical. But Reborn! may have the 'magic bullet' necessary to turn Tsuna's life around!"
Reborn! reads like a twelve-year-old boy's ideas splattered all over the page—and that's not necessarily a bad thing. After all, twelve-year-old boys run on an endless supply of energy, and this volume does the same, racing from chapter to chapter as Tsuna repeatedly goes into hyper mode to fix his sorry life (a power granted by Reborn!'s bullets). It's like taking Black Cat and sharpening all the good ideas it had: why have just gunmen and bounty hunters when you can have actual Mafiosi and crime families? Why have just high-powered explosives when you can have a bullet that cheats the laws of life and death? But the most enjoyable element is actually the volatile chemistry between Tsuna and Reborn!, who are at odds more often than not and yet grudgingly accept each other. As far as buddy comedies go, this is one pair that works.
Like the ideas of most twelve-year-old boys, the Awesomely Cool Special Powers in Reborn! fail to go beyond their surface appeal. Tsuna's wild adventures as a mob-boss-in-training are exactly that; just wild adventures designed to entertain but not really satisfy. By the time this volume hits the last couple of chapters—one where Tsuna's crush gets hit by Reborn!'s bullet and another where Reborn!'s rival shows up—it's already starting to get old. Will Tsuna ever reach his Mafia aspirations, or is he doomed to episodic tomfoolery forever? That's a question for Volume 2 to work out. The artwork also faces a similar problem: energetic and fun, but lacking in depth and craftsmanship. With explosions and slapstick strewn across almost every page, the end result is downright messy and crowded. The character designs aren't exactly memorable, either. (Except for Reborn!. He's one cute kid.)
RTO!! RATING: C+
(by Jin Kobayashi, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Love (in the form of Tsukamoto Tenma) betrayed Harima Kenji, but he has moved on in an effort to find himself. He's become a fortune-teller who can communicate with animals. Some even mistake him for a helpful deity who watches over a local shrine. What happens to a young man who gets lost in his journey of self-discovery?
Meanwhile, Tenma and her friends embark on a trip of their own. They go to the beach for sun, sand, and surf—and meet four guys with less-than-noble intentions.
Plus, School Rumble fans can look forward to a brand-new character!"
Perverts rejoice! Volume 3 of School Rumble features some much-anticipated fanservice, but still with a strong focus on comedy. The girls show up in swimsuits, but it's Harima who earns the laughs with his varying levels of nudity, while Tenma tries her hand at swimming—or is it sinking? Even away from the water, the series still packs plenty of gags: animal-loving Harima making like St. Francis of Assisi, Tenma doing a dead-on impression of Harima (right down to the shades and mustache), and a moment of pure cuteness involving Tenma in kappa raingear. The real treat is in the bonus chapters, though, where Tenma's sister Yakumo gets into situations both touching and absurd. One moment there's a wacky Tea Ceremony taste test; the next there's a vignette of a hot summer day. These moods come together best in the closer, which goes from sweet childhood flashback to a comical present-day punchline.
Although this volume features plenty of oddball jokes, getting to them can be a real trudge. Sometimes an entire eight-page chapter serves as setup for a single gag, and it's just not worth it to sit through dry classroom dialogue or crossed-wire relationship talk. (So, Harima got angry because Tenma talked with the guy who was with Mikoto but Tenma thought Harima liked Mikoto... yawn.) Then there are the jokes that just fall flat—weirdness for the sake of weirdness, which never works quite as well as sharp situational humor. At this stage in the series it's not enough for characters to just be crazy: they need to be crazy with a purpose. Also, the artwork seems to have lost its sense of fearlessness, settling for a generically-styled supporting cast and a whole lot of typical "Japanese school life" scenes. Maybe Harima should get back into drawing manga again; his work was always good for a laugh.
RTO!! RATING: B-
RETURN TO LABYRINTH
(by Jake Forbes and Chris Lie, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The Goblin King has kept a watchful eye on Toby: His minions secretly guiding and protecting the child... Legions of goblins work behind the scenes to ensure that Toby has whatever his heart desires... Preparing him for the day when he will return to the Labyrinth and take his rightful place beside Jareth as the heir to the Goblin Kingdom...
That day has come...
...but no one has told Toby."
Although billed as a continuation of Jim Henson's classic fantasy movie, this volume presents a story that stands well on its own. Fans of the original will enjoy the faithfulness to the world of Labyrinth—familiar characters and places all make a comeback—while newcomers can look forward to a richly detailed universe filled with peculiar creatures. New characters are not just introduced, but developed through scenes and side stories so that we get to know them as the plot starts to kick in. There's also a dash of humor to keep it on the fun side of fantasy, from the pun-laden absurdity of Toby's trial in goblin court (perhaps a nod to the Alice in Wonderland judicial system?) to the quirks of his real-world existence (a certain computer game called "Kingdom of Goblins" looks awfully familiar). And hey—it's Labyrinth minus the cheesy 80's synth-pop! Now that's an improvement.
Although the art captures the detail and texture of Henson's universe, there are still some rough spots, like stiff character poses and an over-reliance on screentones. Surely this fantasy world would look even more lush and appealing if it weren't so... grayed out. The side stories occasionally go too far on their tangents, stalling the main plot to the point where, by the final chapter, Toby has only just begun to realize what's going on. Now that the story's set up and the characters are in place, how do they all relate to each other? Toby is clearly at conflict with his situation, but there's no sense of urgency to get out of it, no quest that's been assigned to him. Maybe what this Labyrinth needs is a sense of direction—there's a difference between just being in a world and having an actual goal in it.
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