RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
A Matter of Light and Death
by Carlo Santos,
Is it just me or is Borders turning from a bookstore into a multimedia store? I still go in there thinking "books," but now it's like CDs, DVDs and even video games are getting just as much floor space. Not to mention the gift stationery, periodicals, and other paper items that aren't technically books. I suppose they'd only need to start selling kitchenware and auto parts, and the cycle would be complete...
AFTER SCHOOL NIGHTMARE
(by Setona Mizushiro, Go! Comi, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"You have just awakened to find your darkest secret revealed to a group of people who would do anything to destroy you: your classmates!
That's what happens to Ichijo Mashiro, whose elite school education turns into the most horrifying experience of his life when he's enlisted to participate in an after-hours class. The only way for Mashiro to graduate is to enter into a nightmare world where his body and soul will be at the mercy of his worst enemies. Can Mashiro keep the life-long secret that he is not truly a 'he' nor entirely a 'she'—or will he finally be 'outted' in the most humiliating way possible?"
This compelling first volume takes familiar story ideas—school life, gender identity, and the world of dreams—and spins them into a strange, unfamiliar environment. If "facing one's worst fears while asleep" could qualify as an extra-curricular activity, Mashiro would look pretty interesting on his college application (emotional trauma notwithstanding). The fellow students he meets in his dreams have dark histories as well, and seeing their background stories unfold is just as fascinating as the actual nightmares. More than just a high school horror story, this is an examination of issues that young people face: the soul-sucking overachiever mentality; the indelible scars of parental abuse; the strain of coming to terms with one's sexuality—orientation, physiology, or otherwise. What's a confused boy-girl to do? With confident, sharp-lined artwork and striking imagery from scene to scene, this is the kind of dream that you won't forget after waking up.
Despite the focus on school life, the actual school environment is surprisingly bland—dull hallways and stairways, nondescript classrooms; in fact the only interesting part is the clock tower façade that's used as an establishing shot. More detailed background work would really help to thicken the atmosphere. And for all of Mizushiro's efforts in creating an unfamiliar world, some of the nightmare characters are little more than recycled horror ideas: the girl without a face, the mysterious creeping hand, the child who plays with a doll. You know, there's a difference between twisting well-known ideas and just copying them straight in. Also, expect a few loopholes and unanswered questions: Why do they have these nightmare sessions right after school? Why not at home when they're normally asleep? Where did the mysterious "school nurse" come from? Whatever the answers, this story still makes for interesting reading.
RTO!! RATING: B
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $7.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"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—now working as Kira, the newest member of the NPA intelligence bureau, and L—has nearly succeeded in creating his ideal world. But the years of uncontested victory have made him complacent, and he is unprepared for a new attack close to home. With his younger sister Sayu kidnapped and the NPA's Death Note demanded as ransom, Light must travel across the world and confront two new adversaries, each with a very different agenda. Will Light's quick wits be a match for this new challenge, or will he be forced to choose between Kira's ambitions and his own family's lives?"
There's no way Death Note could ever top the tumultuous events of Volume 7, so think of this as Death Note II: a new timeframe, a new world, and new challenges. If there's one thing that stays consistent throughout the series, though, it's the harrowing tension and cat-and-mouse mind games between Light and the rest of the world. His new adversaries prove to be just as intriguing as the original L: say hello to Near, whose playful mannerisms make him the rightful heir to the wild-haired detective, and Mello, a Machiavellian genius who uses the Mob to his advantage. But the best new twist could be the arrival of a Shinigami who wants his notebook back. Looks like our earthbound characters have some explaining to do... As usual, Obata's detailed art suits any situation in the story, whether as mundane as Mr. Yagami coming home or as outlandish as the Shinigami world. Get ready for a whole new Death Note.
So, Light's spent the last four years molding the world in his own image, and now we see him... trying to rescue his little sister? That's not exactly a step up the career ladder for someone who's already manipulated an actual death god. Sure, it's necessary to get new plot threads moving, but why do it with such a run-of-the-mill story arc? If anything, the typically dense dialogue and guessing games make this segment way more convoluted than it needs to be. When the story turns towards the search for Mello, the stakes come back up to about the right level, but the dialogue problems remain. There are some great action sequences towards the end, but to get to them you have to wade through paragraphs of Light, Near and Mello all talking and thinking between themselves. Some readers will find this brilliant—but those who prefer clarity will find it infuriating.
RTO!! RATING: C+
(by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata, Viz Media, $7.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Wimpy Sena Kobayakawa has been running away from bullies all his life. But when the football gear comes on, things change—Sena's speed and uncanny ability to elude big bullies just might give him what it takes to become a great high school football hero! Enjoy all the bone-crushing action and slapstick comedy that this heartwarming coming-of-age story has to offer.
The Devil Bats are training harder than ever as they endure a grueling 'death march' from Houston to Las Vegas! A biker gang whisks Sena off on a wild detour to San Antonio, where he tries to recruit a promising tight end prospect. And if the team survives the trek through the desert, what kind of havoc will they wreak in Sin City?!"
American football: the Beautiful Game? Read enough of Eyeshield 21 and you'll believe it, with dynamic, detailed art showing true athletic grace. The death march storyline reaches its climax as Sena tests his skills in a pro tryout—and unleashes a running move that brings the series' explosive action to a new level. Also reaching new levels of skill: the offensive linemen, pushing a truck in an admirable display of effort, and rival player Shin, whose training regime on Mt. Fuji is awe-inspiring yet quietly amusing. With a healthy variety of teams, players and plotlines, there's no shortage of sports heroism in this volume. The addition of narcissist Taki to the cast (and his long-suffering sister) also helps to bring in some comedic balance; it'd be nice to think that he'll be a good player someday, but for now we're content to see him doing gymnastic Y-balances and making a fool of himself. A ha ha!
On the Eyeshield 21 roster, this volume is strictly second-string: gets the job done, but nothing spectacular. You get the feeling that the San Antonio detour was there just to remind us that this is still about American football, and not a bunch of guys training on a road trip. Even Hiruma's devilish humor is conspicuous in its absence—it's like everything that was awesome about the series was dropped in favor of an extended training arc and subplot maintenance. When the team finally gets to Vegas, the characters all take a big cleansing sigh of relief, and so will readers, knowing that football is once again around the corner. But wait! What's this? A highly unrealistic epilogue where high school kids run around a casino trying to win enough money for air fare and a debt repayment? I'll suspend disbelief for superhuman athletic ability, but this is enough. Let's get back to football.
RTO!! RATING: B-
(by Mikiyo Tsuda, Digital Manga Publishing, $12.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Why has Kouno received such an overly warm welcome at his new all boys school?!? Sure he's pretty handsome for his age, but such responses are usually reserved for cute girls. Little does Kouno know about the secret Hime (Princess) system in effect at the school. At events boys are chosen to dress up as girls to provide a touch of femininity in the sea of testosterone. By the time Kouno finally catches on, he discovers he's been chosen as the newest cross-dressing candidate! Lured by the 'benefits' of being a princess, Kouno takes on the job with two other recruits, Mikoto and Shihoudani—and the chaos begins!
From the author of The Day of Revolution comes a hyperactive high school romp. What kind of madness will our three princesses face when they're forced to don Gothic Lolita-styled outfits and cheer for clubs everyday? The wild, loud and hilarious kind... that's what!"
The very idea of Princess Princess is enough to earn laughs—and throughout this volume you can expect quite a few more. Mikoto handles most of the comedy duty here, with his constant petulance and unwillingness to cross-dress. As Kouno and Shihoudani try desperately to rehabilitate him, he even goes so far as to ask, tongue-in-cheek, who the real main character is. (Correct answer: all of them!) Sprightly back-and-forth dialogue keeps the humor sharp—for example, Kouno and Shihoudani's argument about manly names is a glorious verbal slapfight that can only end in the best way possible: yelling. Side characters add more flavors to the schoolyard silliness: it's hard to resist the mysterious influences of Sakamoto-sama and student body president Arisada, or the exuberant babblings of school fashionista Natashou. With pretty boys of every style and stereotype on display, who could ask for more? (Actually ... well, that's doujinshi material.)
Come to think of it, those pretty boys could be prettier. The character designs don't push much beyond the mainline for attractiveness; it's more like the generic bishounen face with various hairstyles glued on. The Gothic Lolita dresses help to add an air of stylishness and beauty—except that they're not worn often enough. What's the point of a cross-dressing comedy if they hardly even show any cross-dressing? It takes half the volume before the boys are even fitted for their dresses and appear as Princesses. Come on, guys, I can't survive on your sparkling smiles and waves alone. In fact, instead of dressing up as girls and feeling slightly awkward, they spend most of the time just talking about dressing up and feeling awkward. Explaining the Princess system to Kouno the first time is one thing, but support-group banter about the system (coupled with obligatory Mikoto wrath) is just wasting time.
RTO!! RATING: C+
(by Takashi Hashiguchi, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"England. France. Germany. What common thread binds these three nations together? Answer: each is famous for producing unique, distinctive, delicious bread. But what of the island nation of Japan, home to rice and delicacies of the sea? Is there not a doughy, gastronomic delight they can claim as their own? The answer is no...until now! Kazuma Azuma, a 16-year-old boy blessed with otherworldly baking powers, has taken it upon himself to create Ja-pan, the national bread of the land of the rising sun!
Budding bakers Kazuma and Kawachi prepare for their first assignment at Pantasia's South Tokyo Branch, but their afro-sporting manager's initial challenge is anything but a piece of cake—they must create French bread that not only tastes good to humans, but to horses as well. Kazuma is used to baking unusual bread for tough customers, but how on earth is he going to come up with some equine edibles that transcend the boundaries of taste and species?!"
Everything that was great about the first installment of Yakitate!! Japan continues to be fantastic in this volume. Kazuma's solutions to his culinary challenges are endlessly inventive, whether it's coming up with bread for the milk-allergic, or finding uses for stale leftovers from the previous day's baking. Hashiguchi's sense of humor is also endlessly inventive, especially when it comes to the reactions of bread tasters—only in these pages will you find a French revolution, a Kabuki play, or the stamping of horses as valid responses to great bread. But the comedy doesn't stop there. Zany character designs bring out the flair of a French-styled baker and a Gundamesque store owner; dorky puns flow effortlessly out of the characters' mouths; and familiar devices like speedlines and flashbacks show up in striking ways. In its attempts to parody the tournament format, the series miraculously outdoes the entire genre itself. (And what's not to like about a manga that comes with a recipe in the back?)
The mare-velous bread storyline: awesome. The battle against St. Pierre's bakery: awesome. The introduction to the Pantasia Rookie Tournament: not so much. This volume is pretty much firing on all cylinders until the last couple of chapters, where the manager spends several pages explaining the conditions of the tournament, and then Kawachi goes off to train, while Tsukino and the manager discuss his training. What, no actual baking action? A cliffhanger involving Kazuma is good enough to carry some energy into Volume 3, but the excitement built up by the earlier chapters is all but gone by then. Oh well, that's a side effect of serialization. Readers may also find some characters' over-the-top attitudes to be grating—Kawachi's bratty competitiveness and the arrogance of St. Pierre's manager come to mind.
RTO!! RATING: A-
(by Adam Arnold and Shiei, Seven Seas, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The dream of being surrounded by a harem full of beautiful ladies might seem like heaven for some, but for Alex, Sandy, and their panty-loving pet hamster Echiboo, living under the same roof with five yaoi-crazed fangirls is anything but!
In the wake of last volume's DDR showdown for control of Aoi House, Alex finds himself in over his head as he's forced to endure an extremely awkward date of miniature golf with club founder and resident transvestite Carlo...and if things weren't crazy enough, the rest of the club is tasked by the mysterious 'Oniisan' to spy on the strange proceedings!
Should the boys somehow manage to survive these latest ordeals with their dignity intact, they just might see to it that the girls finally get their comeuppance...or not?"
Welcome to college life, geek style. Somewhere between the cheery fan-friendliness of Dramacon and the insular obsession-compulsion of Genshiken lies this, a raunchy take on otaku comedy that really starts to find its feet in Volume 2. With the main cast now in place, the rest is just keeping the energy high and the hijinks amusing as our heroes cope with fanboy (and fangirl) life. Most times it works: Alex's unfortunate date is a hilarious tour de force of sexual insecurity, ending with a kiss you'd never expect. And imagine the insanity when the boys discover the secrets of long flowing bishounen hair—let's just say it results in enough fanservice to please both genders. There's even time to build a romantic subplot, so expect plenty of tension going into the next installment. Clean artwork and fluid layouts make this fun, fast reading, much like the comedies it borrows from.
Why do I share a name with the transvestite character? I don't understand. Personal concerns aside, however, this volume also stumbles in its search for parody, with the biggest offender being the unwieldy "Fruitcake Fantasy" chapter. What starts out as a promising RPG send-up becomes a jumble of memes from Final Fantasies IV through X, while still missing a chance to make fun of easy targets like the Advent Children movie. Meanwhile, other comedy potshots like the Utena re-enactment make even less sense than the original. What this adds up to is fandom humor that still has holes in it. Yes, it's cute to slip Rocky Horror Picture Show, Azumanga Daioh and Voltron all into the same book, but when you get to the level of forcing the in-jokes and references, it stops being funny. There's already a great source of comedy that doesn't rely on other people's work—it's called the characters.
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