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The Manga Review Delivery Service

by Carlo Santos,

So last week I bought Cooking Mama for Nintendo DS, which is supposed to be this cute fun game where you play pretend-cooking. What they don't tell you is that Mama is a demanding martinet who gives you the evil eye if you so much as tap the touch screen the wrong way. And she never gives you enough time to finish anything! Frustration, thy name is Mama.


Vol. 2
(by Kazuo Umezu, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Out of nowhere, a Japanese elementary school is transported into a hostile world. Soon, the students and teachers must struggle to survive in impossible conditions, besieged by terrifying creatures and beset by madness. Part horror, part science fiction, The Drifting Classroom is a classic can't-put-down manga series from horror manga master Kazuo Umezu (Orochi: Blood, Baptism of Blood).
Madness takes hold as the teachers and students realize they are stranded in a lifeless world! Sekiya, the cafeteria worker, takes control of the school's food supplies, enforcing his authority with a gun. As the adults start to kill one another, sixth-grader Sho makes a startling discovery—the truth about where they are and what has happened to them. Soon, Sho and his classmate Nishi are forced to venture into the wasteland beyond the school gates...and choose between a slow death from hunger or a quick death at a killer's hands..."

Once again, it's not the external events of Drifting Classroom that are truly terrifying, but what goes on in everyone's heads. It's shocking enough that the cafeteria man has gone on a rampage—but the way he instills panic among the already-frightened students and teachers is scarier still. It's like a gripping game of death: who dies next? Who will kill next? Brisk, suspenseful pacing is what keeps us wanting to find out the answer, even though the results are increasingly horrific. There are also new answers about where the school is, what happened to the rest of the world, and what lies beyond the gates. But as this desolate world expands, it only opens up more uncertainty and more horror. Harsh black-on-white art and heavily inked details keep the grim atmosphere roiling; this is one nightmare vision that will seriously keep you up at night.

Umezu's storytelling may be effortless, but his sense of design is still somewhat stiff: more often than not, characters appear in "action poses" that look more like what happens to mannequins when they're left lying around. Umezu tries to compensate by using lots of motion lines, but this just makes the deficiency look even more obvious: hey, here's a kid in a running pose with a lot of whoosh effects behind him. And nowhere else will you see a bullet that leaves so much smoke in its wake when fired. Facial expressions are a continuing problem as well—everyone appears to be in a default state of shock, with few distinctions among the various characters' levels of fear.



Vol. 9
(by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In an alchemical ritual gone wrong, Edward Elric lost his arm and his leg, and his brother Alphonse became nothing but a soul in a suit of armor. Equipped with mechanical 'auto-mail' limbs, Edward becomes a state alchemist, seeking the one thing that can restore his and his brother's bodies...the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
Ed, Al and Winry return to Central Command, but only bad news greets the Fullmetal Alchemist and his friends. Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes has been murdered—and Second Lieutenant Maria Ross is the prime suspect! While Maria awaits an uncertain fate in jail, the living suit of armor bearing the soul of serial killer 'Barry the Chopper' breaks free of the military and goes on a rampage. Now, the mysterious Homunculi must come out of the shadows to deal with the mess before their monstrous conspiracy is exposed. But for Colonel Mustang, Maes Hughes's former best friend, it's not about the truth; it's about revenge..."

In this volume, Edward Elric does not perform a single feat of alchemy. He does not throw a single punch. But it is still as gripping and affecting as any other part of the series, revealing the dark and melancholy side of Fullmetal Alchemist. With the Hughes incident back in the spotlight and the Elrics back in Central, the stray plot threads from last volume are tightened up, and new twists emerge. Philosophical twists, in fact—the mangling of justice at the hands of the military, followed by Winry and the Elrics facing the truth about Hughes. There is nothing quite as heartbreaking as when Elicia Hughes answers the front door, hoping to see her father, and finds Winry standing there instead. With the story reaching such emotional depths, it's a miracle that Arakawa can still find room for humor; the antics of Barry the Chopper and beleaguered officer Falman add some necessary lightness to an increasingly grim plot. Troubling and depressing at times, but still impossible to put down.

Although this volume reaches some great emotional depths midway through, the first and last chapters aren't quite as effective. The opener suffers from the same catch-up syndrome that the previous volume had, jumping haphazardly from scene to scene as it tries to address every single plotline: the Elrics' journey back to Central, Roy Mustang's ongoing investigation, Barry the Chopper's situation, the Homunculi's sinister plan ... Yes, this is a series with a lot going on, but trying to cover everything in one go just makes it messy. The final chapter brings a much-needed return to action, but leaves off in mid-battle at a point that doesn't feel as climactic as it should be. Also, some spelling consistency in the translation would be nice: is it Lin or Ling? Resembool or Resemboul? Somebody get these folks an FMA style guide.



Vol. 1
(by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki, Dark Horse, $10.95)

"Five young students at a Buddhist university find there's little call for their job skills in today's Tokyo ... among the living, that is! But their studies give them a direct line to the dead—the dead who are still trapped in their corpses, and can't move on to their next reincarnation! Whether you died from suicide, murder, sickness, or madness, they'll carry your body anywhere it needs to go to free your soul!"

Among the two spiritual-communication titles profiled this week, this one has the edge. The delivery service is an unlikely gathering of diverse characters—almost a Power Rangers of the Dead—that combines for odd adventures as well as comedic banter. Each story has its own strange twist, whether it be two lovers torn by circumstance and united in death, an old woman trying to find her final rest, or a patchwork corpse of multiple body parts. The final tale is more of a whodunit cat-and-mouse game, but even that's fascinating in its own way, and who knew that insurance agents could be so devious? The clean, matter-of-fact artwork may seem contradictory to the macabre subject matter, but it reflects the tone and humor of the series: an amusingly cynical (and clinical) look at a job that's not nearly as glamorous as all those Shonen Jump series would have you believe.

That dry, cynical tone might be too dry for some, and there's certainly a feeling at times that these college kids are just "going around and doing stuff." The stories, although fascinating, tend to meander too long in the middle—probably an effect of the 40+ page count for each. The characters aren't the most well-developed, either, relying on visual shorthand and personality stereotypes to give them purpose. The bald guy with a bit of an attitude, the dark-haired girl with sharp business sense, the carefree dude with sunglasses and facial hair—see, told you it was like Power Rangers of the Dead, right down to the evenly distributed spiritual abilities. The smart, creative storytelling is the one thing that keeps it from falling into cookie-cutter territory.



Vol. 1
(by Meca Tanaka, CMX, $9.99)

"What if you could see dead people and a guy in a giant bunny suit trying to get them to the other side?
Madoka is a high school student who is recruited by Nabeshima (the guy in the bunny suit) to work for a transportation service that takes wandering souls to heaven by motorcycle. But even if Madoka agrees to help, he may not play by the rules and there could be trouble in the afterlife!"

Naturally, anything involving a guy in a bunny suit looks pretty promising. In the increasingly-crowded field of spirit world liaisons, this one is decidedly offbeat, with conventional roles being taken by unconventional characters. Madoka is rather antiheroic in his stubbornness, although it's hard to blame him after Nabeshima's salesmanlike prodding and oddball commentary. The best part of the volume, however, comes in the second half with two unrelated side stories. "The Law of Change" is a heartwarming tale of a girl who loses weight and finds her self-esteem, while "Tokiwa Nihonmatsu" explores the tough decisions that students make as they go from high school to college (or elsewhere). These stories are made all the more touching with sweet, carefully laid-out art; in fact, the serious moments of the main series also shine best when these visual strengths come into play.

Perhaps we should just forget about the soul-retrieval concept entirely: the actual act of dealing with the dead is the weakest link in a series that basically does decent sketch comedy and thoughtful, poignant endings. Madoka's part-time gig seems like a mere crutch for propping up more effective ideas: the comedic banter with Nabeshima, the animal suits, the moments of self-realization where an unsatisfied soul finally gathers the willpower to cross over. Surely these ideas could work just fine without depending on a formula that comes out rather dry in execution. The artwork, although lively, looks messy and poorly planned at times—if the spirit-communication parts are boring, it's probably because the layouts are hard to follow, and only come together well when it comes to delivering emotional impact (as mentioned above).



Vol. 2
(by Ueda Hajime, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kirio Muji has been adopted by an adorable robot named Q-ko-chan and is taking part in a battle against octopus-like creatures, mind-controlled aliens, and his own government. But now a whole hoard of robots like Q-ko-chan has shown up—and when Kirio's hated sister Furiko is adopted by the most powerful robot, the battle reaches a shattering climax.
With a mix of thrilling adventure and ultra-cute robots, Q-ko-chan is a manga event not to be missed!"

Well, the nice thing about the finale of Q-ko-chan is that everything almost makes sense now. Almost. The origins of Q-ko-chan and the other cute-girl robots are explained, the motivations of the bad guys come clearer, and the sibling rivalry between Kirio and Furiko drives the final, climactic battle with all the robots out there. And what a battle it is: the artwork, sparse and experimental but highly dynamic, gets better and better each chapter until culminating in a montage of sketchy Superflat majesty. In other words—it just looks awesome. At times Ueda seems to be inventing new artistic techniques on the spot, manipulating pen and ink to create familiar images in unfamiliar ways. If you wanted to understand the essence of doing cute and cool and action all at once, this would be it.

Leaving logical conclusions as an exercise to the reader is something best done in college textbooks—NOT sci-fi manga. There are actually some promising threads of plot winding through this story, but they're presented so vaguely that it's anyone's guess as to what actually happens. The artwork's sacrifice of clarity for the sake of style makes it even more difficult to follow. Disjointed scenes will start up at random, unfamiliar characters start talking about things that barely relate to anything else, and sometimes the battles simply dissolve into energetic masses of scribble. If you take time to think about the major points, Q-ko-chan turns out to be a pretty straightforward story, so there must be a certain kind of insanity out there that makes something so simple so hard to understand. Come for the art, but don't stick around trying to figure out the plot.



(edited by Luis Reyes, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Japanese-style sequential art combines with the most renowned science fiction franchise ever created to capture the spirit of the original series in a completely new way. Ten artists and writers deliver tales of triumph aboard the original NCC-1701. Like the original TV series, these new journeys venture into the terrain of social politics, personal reflection...and bare-knuckled brawls between the dashing Captain Kirk and various indigenous beasts. Spock's unflappable logic, Bones' flare for drama, Scotty's perpetual struggle to keep the lights on...all come at you in a fresh, new style..."

Perhaps the nicest thing that can be said about these stories is that they read very much like actual Star Trek episodes. If you enjoy the formula of exploring strange new worlds, seeking out new life and new civilizations, and then beating the crap out of them when they turn out to be hostile, then this should be instantly familiar—sci-fi comfort food. Get ready for some slick action scenes; the creature battle in "Oban" is as gripping as they come, and the finale of "'Til Death" is a dizzying physical and emotional blow. However, it's only the poignant "Anything But Alone" that feels complete as a story, fully exploring the dimensions of its haunting premise.

Everything else just reads like wide-eyed, first-timer fanfiction. This is the kind of stuff you might expect from a schoolkid who's just discovered Star Trek and thinks aliens and starships and transporters are really cool—not from writers and artists being professionally published. Reliance on technological gimmickry predominates: space-time wormhole tricks, instant-resurrection coffins, metamorphosing space creatures, and everyone's favorite, nanomachines. It's like this gaggle of writers just sat down and thought of some spiffy science fiction ideas, then didn't bother following through. Kirk and crew exist mostly as catchphrase-spewing ciphers whose job is to putter around with these science fiction ideas until violence ensues and they learn the moral of the day. And that's to say nothing of the wildly uneven art from story to story ... come on, is it too much to check a photo of William Shatner before putting that pen on paper? They even have a Japanese artist on the team, and when he's turning out amateurish work, you know you're in for an eye-clawing experience through and through.

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