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Devilish Days

by Carlo Santos,

It's been a very weird past few weeks. Tokyopop got lambasted for its online exclusives program and promptly backpeddled, putting certain titles back in the hands of retailers. Del Rey got caught for a sneaky dialogue edit in Air Gear and Dallas Middaugh promised to un-edit the text in all future printings. A cross was discovered to have been transmuted into a slab of rock in Fullmetal Alchemist, inciting a fandom flamefest that still rages to this day.

AND Takeshi Obata got arrested for having a knife in his car.

It's like, you think manga has some weird and crazy plots, and then real life happens.

(by Arashi Shindo, Broccoli, $9.99)

"So... you wake up one day after a two-year nap and discover that your father is dead. What do you do? Take over his kingdom and rule with an iron first, of course!
Laharl may be new to the whole Overlord scene, but with the help of the demon-girl Etna and the angel-ditz Flonne, he's going to be the best ruler the Netherworld's ever seen. All he has to do is get by the hordes of halfwit hellions determined to challenge him for the throne, foil an interdimensional plot and keep his own vassals from trying to kill him.
Sound rough? Hell yeah."

Suppose that Leslie Nielsen wanted to do a screwball comedy that spoofs the fantasy genre. It'd probably be a lot like Disgaea, which hacks, slashes, and pratfalls its way through a tale of demons and angels all rising to their level of incompetence. There's a wonderful interplay of personality defects among the cutely drawn characters—arrogant Laharl getting his comeuppance in many embarrassing and painful ways; vacuous Flonne always breaking the tension with her mindless innocence; and of course, the best comic-relief villain in a long time, preening bishounen-wannabe Dark Adonis Vyers (or rather, the "Mid-Boss"). Heck, they even have a groveling Demon King fanboy as a minor character. The story ends on a high note with a madcap Heaven vs. Hell arc that brings everyone together, but really, it's the little things that make this volume appealing. When everyone's beating each other up with slapstick swordplay, crashing into walls, and blowing up penguins, well, it makes fantasy fun again.

This style of comedy will be grating on those who can't stand long periods of hyperactivity; it's the kind where everyone is just really dumb and yells all the time and that's why silly things happen to them. And like all other slapstick spoofs, there's only a weak excuse for a story stringing all these gags and jokes together. The first couple of chapters make for slow going as it tries to balance the tomfoolery with the characters' motivations; it's not until Laharl starts challenging his would-be usurpers that it gets into any sort of groove. Even then, it putters along as a so-so fighting series until the final arc where the demons take on the angels. Some of the action shots and visual gags also get lost in the messy artwork, which captures the wild energy of the story but at the cost of clarity. Be prepared to decipher a lot of the smaller panels in these pages.


Vol. 5
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Johan is a cold and calculating killer with a mysterious past, and brilliant Dr. Kazuo Tenma is the only one who can stop him! Conspiracy and serial murder open the door to a compelling, intricately woven plot in this masterpiece manga thriller.
Suspecting that Johan suffers from a multiple-personality disorder, Dr. Tenma calls upon expert criminal psychologist Rudy Gillen to help him in his campaign to stop Johan. But will Dr. Gillen come to the same conclusion as the authorities—that Tenma is the killer with the split personality?"

Is there anything Naoki Urasawa can't draw? Old people, young people, landscapes, interiors, tranquility, fear—he shows off all his skills in an installment of Monster that traverses three distinct story arcs, presenting a variety of situations. Tenma's visit to Dr. Gillen is the first and best scenario here. The psychologist tries to get into the mind of a killer and uncovers something more horrific than any act of violence: a psychological manipulation that gives us the first tangible idea of what the "Monster" is capable of. While Tenma continues to follow Johan's trail, the middle chapters show us what Nina (Johan's twin sister) is up to, and while this part reads more like straight-up action, it still has its complexities, introducing characters who are connected to the main plot in surprising ways. Lastly, slimy Inspector Lunge makes his comeback with another intricate plan for catching Tenma. The old man's still as cunning as ever—and Monster is still as addictive, thrilling, and emotionally involving as ever. Don't miss this one.

Series recaps are a difficult thing to do. Nonetheless, Urasawa tries to pull one off in Chapter 5, where a conversation with a detective turns into a convenient summary of everything that's happened so far. Although useful as a refresher, it also stops the story dead in its tracks for several pages, as well as being a pretty boring way of recapping the story (flashbacks would have been more visually engaging, at the very least). Also, the end of the volume fails to deliver a good, conclusive punch, ending instead on a cliffhanger borne from a crucial encounter. While it's a good idea to keep folks hooked for the next volume, cutting off in the middle of a story arc isn't the most satisfying way to do it.



Vol. 2
(by Fumino Hayashi, original story by Gainax, ADV Manga, $9.99)

"An impromptu outing causes the students of Class 2-A to learn the truth-that they're being groomed as pilots of enormous artificial beings called Evangelion. Before the day is through, two of these students will have to don their plugsuits and use the Evangelion in the first of many battles to come. But that's nothing compared to the angst that's in the air as Asuka and Rei grapple with their feelings for Shinji. Can these hormone-addled teens put aside the affairs of their heart long enough to save their city?"

The high school love-comedy version of Evangelion finally gets into some action, with an explosive Angel attack turning out to be the best chapter in this volume. Giant robots are piloted, massive guns are fired, and tensions run high as the students face their first real challenge. Also in this volume: the main characters reveal new layers of personality as petulant Asuka turns out to have a soft, indecisive side and timid Shinji takes charge when lives are on the line. The original series may have taken their personalities to the extreme, but this one is actually adding different dimensions. Relationships also take a new turn as Hikari confesses her feelings to Toji, and Kaworu reinforces his friendship with Shinji by spending some quality time with him in the music room. Moments like these are touching, but also a bit mysterious—just enough to keep the plot rolling.

Who knew that artists could actually get worse the more they draw? Shinji looks like about five different people depending on which angle you look at him, and the only reason anyone is recognizable at all is because Yoshiyuki Sadamoto—the original character designer—did such a good job differentiating them. The battle scenes are a little better, but still not as dramatic as they could have been; even the killing blow turns out to be anticlimactic since most of it is buried in the crack between a two-page spread. Meanwhile, the school life scenes are painfully dry, and this volume spends too much of its first half on circular dialogue about people liking people who like other people and might not like you back ... seriously, if this weren't based on the most influential anime of our time, its shoddy execution would leave most folks completely uninterested.


Vol. 1

(by Hidenori Hara, Viz Media, $9.99)

"A hopeless geek, a beautiful woman, and a fast connection—could the Internet be his ticket onto the express train to romance?
A real-life thread on an Internet forum sparks a nationwide phenomenon! A nerdy otaku meets a girl on a train and posts an urgent query on the Web—How the heck do you talk to girls? What should he wear on their date? Where should they go? The forum's response was overwhelming, and the thread continued to grow along with their relationship.
Eventually published in book form to become a best-seller, the thread spawned a blockbuster movie and hit TV series, as well as this heartwarming manga adaptation of an entire Internet community rooting for love and romance."

The "older shounen" version of Japan's most popular urban legend is retro and modern all at once, going to the manga aesthetics of several years back to tell a love story for the digital age. It's a style merge that works, since the mood of the story is all about sweet young romance, a world away from the harem-induced ridiculousness of today's romantic comedies. So it's only natural that our characters look like they stepped right out of a classic 80's or 90's manga, when men and women were real people, not vehicles of fetishization. Clean and dynamic page layouts make this an easy, enjoyable reading experience, with clever paneling that even captures the ebb and flow of online conversation. Thankfully, the ever-tricky world of netspeak has been adapted by a translator that understands it—the lines of forum text look like things that people would actually type, right down to typos and abbreviations, and the Japanese emoticons are left intact for that unique 2ch cultural flavor.

What is with the huge foreheads on everyone? Okay, so Hidenori Hara is a veteran manga-ka with a knack for heartwarming romances—but still, I'm calling him out on his odd sense of character design. Manga fans who prefer a slicker, more modern style will probably find this series incompatible with their visual tastes (but that's okay, since there are two other versions coming out anyway). The story itself also relies on a certain level of triteness, those old-time ideals of boy meeting girl and just naturally falling in love with each other. It can be hard to get hooked on a romance where the only conflict facing them is the protagonist's own social awkwardness. But criticizing a love story derived from the collective consciousness of several million Internet users seems pretty silly, no?



Vol. 1
(by Dall-Young Lim and Soo-Hyon Lee, Infinity Studios, $9.95)

"Jin-Ho isn't your average high school student. He has a notoriously stubborn sense of right and wrong, and no interest whatsoever in any of the girls at his school. Enter Ms. Hae-Young Na, Jin-Ho's new homeroom teacher. Armed to the teeth with her own stubborn sense of justice, she's determined to set Jin-Ho straight and turn him into a model student. But of course, things aren't so easy when people think your should be a model rather that a teacher. You're emotionally and mentally stressed due to a runaway father, and the person you're trying to help wants to clash with you every step of the way! Enter the world of Unbalance Unbalance and see how two hard-headed, yet delicate people start a relationship that may either explode or fit just right!"

A battle of wills doesn't have to be fought in fantasy worlds or crime-ridden streets—sometimes it can happen right within the walls of high school. Putting two very similar personalities in lead roles usually leads to bad character chemistry, but in the special case of Jin-Ho and Ms. Na, it makes for very entertaining fireworks. Zesty back-and-forth arguments are the highlight of this first volume, whether a quibble over a lost wallet or debating a student's rights. Throw in a couple of introspective character-building scenes, and this sprightly school tale turns out to have quite a few layers of complexity. Ms. Na even resorts to violence at one point (cultural pundits will have a field day with that—Korean vs. Western schooling, discuss!), paving the way for more serious matters. Featuring slick artwork and straightforward layouts, this is a light, low-maintenance read but with surprisingly deep characters.

Some of those characters turn out to be well-developed in more than one way, however ... yeah, just take a look at the cover and guess. Big-breasted fanservice is an unfortunate side effect of the series' slant toward male readers, from Jin-Ho's bathroom-peeping incident in the first chapter to a particularly gratuitous sequence in a public bathhouse. Some will find it offensive, others merely pointless—here's a potentially captivating story about clashing personalities, and instead they're wasting pages on borderline porn? Well, they've got to get the readers hooked on the early chapters somehow. The storytelling also feels choppy and contrived at times: scene transitions happen too abruptly, some snippets of dialogue can be downright confusing, and the whole attempt at student-teacher romantic tension still feels forced and awkward at this stage.



Vol. 1
(by Nobuyuki Fukumoto and Kaiji Kawaguchi, Kodansha, ¥505)

"Takeda is diagnosed with cancer and feels that he has nothing to live for. Hopeless, he decides to end his life. But when he is about to hang himself, the phone rings: the police have just found the corpse of his daughter, Sawako, who disappeared more than 14 years ago.
Under Japanese law, the statute of limitations for murder only lasts 15 years. Takeda has only six months left: six months to live, six months to find his daughter's killer and deliver him to the authorities.
After 14 years of silence and obscurity, the family ties are reborn..."

Thank goodness! Kaiji Kawaguchi finally lays off politics and history for once—even though it takes a collaboration with another writer to do it. Two heads prove to be better than one as Seizon-LifE succeeds in both directions that it takes: family drama and detective thriller. Driven by the regret of losing his daughter, Takeda's motivation for solving the case is as deep and emotional as they come. The actual act of solving is equally absorbing, with clues strung together by a tight thread of plot twists and revelations. Whether reflecting on family life or racing against time, the urgent pace of the story never lets up, and the cliffhanger at the last chapter closes out the volume splendidly. Kawaguchi's attention to detail and confident character designs create an absorbing visual experience, from bustling city streets to stunning landscapes (the middle chapters would make a great travel brochure for Nagano prefecture). Even outside of his usual genre, this artist's got skills to spare.

Too often the story crosses the line from family drama into melodrama. Sure, Takeda's upset and all, but the guy needs to quit crying over his daughter every twenty pages. He spends several chapters like this, so imagine the relief once he stops wallowing in regret and starts tracking down clues. But those clues are a bit too conveniently placed, so much so that even a police officer warns him about easy connect-the-dots sleuthing: "As soon as you stumble on a single coincidence...that's enough to convince yourself that you've found something." At least he's trying to keep the plot honest. Meanwhile, Kawaguchi gets a little too caught up in the melodrama as well, relying on blocky paneling and stilted poses for pivotal scenes—there's even a classic "ghostly head in the sky" shot for maximum cheese. There's a great story being told here, but the way that it's told might not click with everyone.

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