RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Welcome to the RTO!!
by Carlo Santos,
Two Saturdays ago I took a stab at the 24 Hour Comic challenge, an exercise in sleep deprivation invented by comics scholar and hippie Scott McCloud. In producing 24 pages of comics within the space of 24 hours, I learned a few things:
- Forget professionalism and polish. Nobody is trying to win a contest or get in a book, so don't bother with rulers or screentones or multiple pens. Your only competition is your own drawing speed, so eliminate as many slowdown factors as possible.
- Start early in the day. They never tell you when to start, only to work for 24 hours straight. Starting around mid-morning or noon will give you more "normal" waking hours and by the time you hit that 3 a.m. crash you'll be over halfway done.
- Simple characters, simple setting, simple everything. This is not the time to be working on Final Fantasy-ish character designs or towering mechas in trans-galactic space. The difference in drawing the main character in 10 strokes versus 40 strokes really adds up over time.
- Cheat. If there's a good excuse for a full-page spread, do it. Draw characters from really close up or really far away. Use empty panels and floating text boxes for dramatic effect. This isn't going to be portfolio material anyway; it's just you against the clock ... and whoever finds the best way to beat the clock, wins.
BOOGIEPOP DUAL: LOSERS' CIRCUS
(by Kouhei Kadono and Masayuki Takano, Seven Seas, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Meet the all-new, all-different Boogiepop! When a female student is abducted and on the verge of being raped, Boogiepop rushes onto the scene just in time to save the day. But Boogiepop's new male alter-ego, Akizuki Takaya, finds himself in the middle of a crime wave with ties going back to the previous owner of the Boogiepop mantle."
The great thing about the Boogiepop concept is that the titular hero is nebulous and infinitely flexible, able to enter any scenario. That's why this story is easy to get into—there's no need to know the previous Boogiepop continuity, aside from the basic idea. Akizuki jumps into the action right away, taking on the supernatural crime-fighter's role in Chapter 1 and saving a fellow student in a slickly drawn action scene. But the best is yet to come: for his next trick, Akizuki/Boogiepop jumps out of a classroom window, grabs a falling classmate, and swoops back in a single motion. Could there be anything cooler? Action isn't the only thing on the menu, though: regular doses of drama and mystery maintain the balance between moods. Clean artwork and eye-catching layouts are the key to these effortless shifts in pacing, proving that the intrigue of Boogiepop can work just as well in manga as in the novels.
If you liked the mind-bending nonlinearity of the original Boogiepop story, prepare to be disappointed. This one reads as a much more straight-ahead action-thriller, complete with shock tactics to juice up the plot: attempted rape and suicide and self-mutilation, oh my! In an attempt to create an air of mystery, several scenes involve conversations spoken in very vague terms—which just ends up being confusing, rather than presenting an intricate story to be unwoven. Nondescript characters and abrupt scene changes also add to the confusion: is that the school nurse or the victimized schoolgirl just now? Is that Akazuki or Boogiepop speaking? Is that Boogiepop or the school nurse? Are we in flashback mode or the present day? Despite strong suspense and action, this one hasn't quite figured out the delicate line between crafty storytelling and just muddling things up.
RTO!! RATING: B-
CHUN RHANG YHUR JHUN
(by Sung-Woo Park, Infinity Studios, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"With a common enemy to defeat, O'Rhang Yhun, Ha-Rhang Whur, and Dahn-Ryoung head off to Nanjing Province to clash with the Chief of Chung-Sue-Moon. But before they can strike, one of Dahn-Ryoung's old acquaintances betrays the group and sets them up for a trap. Rejoin the world of Chun Rhang Yhur Jhun as O'Rhang fights his way out of battle to the next as he grows stronger, and falls more and more in love with the cold yet beautiful swordswoman, Lady Whur."
Sometimes you just want to see eye-popping, heart-stopping fights that stun you with their sheer fightness. Chun Rhang delivers magnificently, with an intense hand-to-hand brawl and a sword-versus-whip showdown being the highlights of this volume. These battles literally go on for pages, driven by the kind of fantasy physics where attack strength is based on the number of syllables in the technique's name. Vibrant artwork also adds to the energy, threatening to jump off the page and punch you IN THE FACE. Layout and staging are the keys to making these massive fight scenes work—panel-to-panel flow is natural and fast-paced, and the liberal use of space (if an attack is awesome enough to deserve a whole page, it gets a whole page) makes it easy to understand the action. No losing track of the combatants in this one.
Then there are the things that even slick action scenes can't save. Look forward to ridiculous expository dialogue where everyone describes how their attack works, who they learned it from, and how it makes them feel ... all while in the heat of battle. What was it the fitness folks say—if you can still talk while you're working out, you're not trying hard enough? There is also, somewhere around here, some kind of plot, in the same way that fighting video games might have a "plot." Feudal Korea makes for interesting historical background and fancy costumes, but it's all just an excuse for getting everyone to fight. New characters show up regularly, and nobody ever really dies, so the opponent pool could get unwieldy pretty quickly. It hasn't become ridiculous just yet, but the escalating battles could soon collapse under their own kitschy pompousness.
RTO!! RATING: C
(by Fuyumi Ono and Shiho Inada, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The students of Ryokuryou High School think they've been playing a fun new game called Orikiri. They have no idea that it's actually a wicked spell conjuring up evil spirits that intend to kill their sensei! More troubling is that with each passing minute, the strongest spirit eerily devours the other apparitions and grows ever more destructive. Since the spirit can't be stopped, there's only one way to save the sensei: Turn the curse around onto the students who initiated it! Mai and Naru clash mightily on this case, as Shibuya Psychic Research must choose between the sensei and the students. . . . And time's running out!"
With Fuyumi Ono (12 Kingdoms) doing the writing duties, solid storytelling is guaranteed, and Volume 5 of Ghost Hunt is no exception. An ancient curse turns out to be the cause of a high school Ouija craze gone wrong, setting the stage for supernatural suspense and a unique moral dilemma about killers and victims. Turns of plot are shocking but always logical, culminating in a finale that cleverly ties things up without giving away the ending. Clean, solid layouts make the story easy to follow, whether it's plain explanatory dialogue or unsettling shifts between psychic vision and reality. Horror imagery is used sparingly, but always with good reason—spooky lights and paranormal activity all serve as clues in the mystical crime-solving process. If you like your horror with a dash of intellect, here's a series that's as much about the hunt as it is about the ghosts.
Despite the smart plotting, the overall result is unspectacular. Some of the spiritual encounters are, well, "sort of scary," and Mai's feats of psychic lucidity are "sort of cool," but nothing really stands out. Ono provides excellent how-to examples of horror/mystery fiction but fails to break the mold. Even at its most shocking and suspenseful, the story holds back, settling for mildly creepy when it has the potential to be scary as hell. Dull characters are also a problem, both visually and emotionally. Everyone looks uniformly attractive, and there isn't much personality on display beyond Naru and Mai's personal disagreements. Seems that our psychic sleuths are defined more by their special powers than by who they are. It's a well-crafted story once you get into it, but all too easy to forget after it's over.
RTO!! RATING: B-
(by Toshihiko Kobayashi, Del Rey, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Mugi Tadano is the happiest high school kid in the world. Not only does he get to live with his super-cute classmate Yuu Tsukisaki, but his dad is rarely home. It almost seems too good to be true. Enter Kiku Murakami—the hottest, most popular girl in school. Kiku can have her pick of any guy, and she's chosen Mugi! The one thing that stands in her way is Yuu. Kiku's solution? Destroy the competition by any means necessary. When Kiku unleashes a series of hurtful rumors about Yuu, it's up to Mugi to clear Yuu's name and save her reputation. But can Mugi resist the charms of the sexiest girl in school?"
Always count on the evil hot girl to inject some tension into a school-age soap opera. The Kiku story arc in the second half is a whirlwind of plot advancement, with Mugi actually doing something decisive and Yuu finally showing the chinks in her armor as Kiku's schemes become ever more devious. But the earlier chapters have some substance too; the conclusion of Mugi's Tokyo visit gets him to rethink his situation with ex-girlfriend Hinako, and the stand-alone chapter about the stray cat is a sweet little slice-of-life gem. Small, mostly rectangular panels deliver the story in a straightforward way—sketches of regular life for a regular guy. It just happens to be a regular life with lots of cute girls in it, set against a gorgeous backdrop. (Always count on the town of Onomichi to make everything look prettier with its hill-shoreline-island environment.)
Every time Pastel tries to enter the realm of heartwarming, its own stupidity and banality drags the series back down. Even the adorable stray cat story gets interrupted by a pointless boob-grope, and Kiku's behavior as an antagonist is the "mean girl" archetype pushed to the limits of believability. In fact, pretty much everything in the series is based on overused character types, which is why it irritates as much as it entertains—you get pulled into these emotional dealings, but what's the point if you know how it's going to turn out? The contrite ex-girlfriend, the rowdy senpai, the mischievous little sister ... it's like Mugi is living in this prefabricated world of dimple-mouthed girls where everything could be solved if he knew anything about the tropes of young men's romantic manga. Unfortunately for him, he's an idiot.
RTO!! RATING: C
WELCOME TO THE NHK!
(by Tatsuhiko Takimoto and Kendi Ozawa, Tokyopop, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Twenty-something-year-old Satou, a college dropout and aficionado of anime porn, knows a little secret—or at least he thinks he does! Believe it or not, he has stumbled upon an incredible conspiracy created by the Japanese Broadcasting Company NHK. But despite fighting the good fight, Satou has become an unemployed Hikikomori—a shut-in who has withdrawn from the world...
One day, he meets Misaki, a mysterious young girl who invites him to join her special 'project.' Slowly Satou comes out of his reclusive shell, and his hilarious journey begins, filled with mistaken identity, panty shots, Lolita complexes—and an ultimate quest to create the greatest hentai game ever!"
Some manga series like to poke fun at otaku culture. And then there's NHK, which basically stabs it in the face. The dark side of the fandom is satirized mercilessly as Satou stumbles upon fetish after fetish, descending into madness and becoming hyper-aware of his shameful lifestyle. If you've ever felt unusually attracted to Japan's 2-D entertainment—or been repulsed by the very idea—then prepare to laugh, gasp and shake your head at Satou's obsessive antics. It's not all just comedy, though: beyond that lies a penetrating character study showing how the pressures of modern society can drive one into mental collapse. This collapse is visualized wonderfully in Satou's wild facial expressions, along with detailed backgrounds that add to the atmosphere of pop-culture-induced insanity: a garbage-filled apartment, piles of moe and hentai goodies, and a trip to Akihabara replete with sensory overload. Is this the true meaning of the "manga lifestyle"?
Just like Satou's thought processes, the plot has a tendency to ramble in various directions without getting to the point. There's Misaki and her Hikikomori rehabilitation project, the ero-game development with next-door neighbor Yamazaki, and an emerging subplot involving Satou's former high-school senpai ... but whenever the story starts to run with one thread, it seems to lose track of everything else. Black humor is nice and all, but even in the throes of parody, it's still important to keep the story together. Also, be aware that this is definitely not a "beginner" manga; it's best enjoyed by seasoned fans with a working knowledge of the subculture. With all the societal taboos being explored, it's important to realize that this is being done for shock-humor value, so don't go around handing this volume to laypersons of upstanding moral fabric (unless you purposely want to corrupt them).
RTO!! RATING: A-
(by Tong Ai, Tong Li Publishing, NT$80)
"Shautieh Ley is the worst kind of teenage boy—rude, lazy, and perverted. He's goofing off at the video game arcade one day when he sees the girl of his dreams, but naturally he makes a bad first impression. When he finds out that she's the daughter of the manager at a local bowling alley, he heads over there—and walks right into a confrontation between a gang and the bowling alley manager! To protect the girl he loves, Shautieh recklessly challenges the gang to a fight, but they have a better idea: a one-on-one bowling match to settle matters. Just one problem ... Shautieh's never bowled before. He may be blessed with an super-strong left arm, but will that be enough to help him win the game?"
With Taiwanese comics starting to trickle onto North American bookshelves, the breakthrough work could be one that has all the elements of the biggest manga hits. An irreverent young hero with an unlikely gift? Check. A seemingly unattainable quest? Check. An outlandish concept and wild humor? Let's just say that bowling ranks right up there with Go, American football and bread, and the Tourette-like bursts of parody make Naruto look positively demure by comparison. When Shautieh gets pumped up, he doesn't just start emanating speedlines—he literally turns into an Eva, or Kenshin, or Batman, for crying out loud! Visual gags like that are part of the series' comedic lifeblood, along with acerbic put-downs and madcap facial expressions. If anyone could harness the energy of Bowling King, we'd have renewable power for the next several centuries. With the first major arc just underway by the end of the volume, most readers will be clamoring for the next one right away.
One must apply the usual caveats when getting into any shounen action series. The art is rough and cartoony at best, and the challenge-friendship-victory formula is followed with slavish rigor throughout the first volume. It's almost too easy to get turned off by the first few chapters—the humor doesn't really kick in until well into the bowling match. Plot holes and gaps of logic abound, so be prepared to suspend your disbelief even more than usual; fortunate coincidences and strokes of luck are handed out like cereal box giveaways. Even Shautieh himself is a bit of a stretch for a lead hero—his attitude is so brash that he can be downright dislikable, and the ability-to-effort ratio isn't quite balanced. Still, if you can get past those fundamental flaws and look to the humor, there's some great entertainment in store.
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