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'Twas the Night After Christmas

by Carlo Santos,

Okay, mangaholics, fess up! What'd you get in your gift haul this year? In this season of clearing out wish lists, it's time to look back and see what proud additions you'll be making to your personal library. Did you get into a new series? Are you catching up on a long-running title? Or are you, like me, realizing that asking for new bookshelves is probably more important than asking for new books?

Whatever ends up in your manga pile, here's hoping that you might check out some of the RTO!! selections too.

Vol. 5
(by Hiroki Endo, Dark Horse, $12.95)

"Propater's military forces seek to possess our planet, and currently maintain possession of one body in suspended animation—an empty shell whose consciousness has been downloaded into Sophia's sophisticated cyborg system. Sophia cast her body aside years ago. Will she risk what's left of her brain and essential self for a chance to reunite a stranger's body with his mind? Hiroki Endo delivers another deep, poignant character study before sending readers into a brilliant, carnage-filled showdown between Propater forces, a crime cartel, Nomad mercenaries, and the local police! To make matters worse as these forces converge, desperate Elijah plans an ambush of his own.
Hiroki Endo's complex manga epic gets more intense with each volume, and Eden Volume 5 is a perfect testament to Endō.'s unique storytelling skills and undeniably gripping and violent action sequences!"

This volume opens with a literal look at the ghost inside Sophia's shell—another shattering tale of the future, an emotional portrait of wasted youth. This is what Eden does best: looking deep into the lives of its post-apocalyptic characters, whose paths have all been affected by the virus outbreak that forms the premise of the series. Shifting from flashback to reality to surreality, Sophia's story is one of intense violence and heart-wrenching tenderness, sometimes both at once. After that, it's a quick shift from introspection to pure action as just about every major faction in the series shows up at an airport to exchange gunfire and grab what they came for. Endō.'s obsession with detail comes out strongest here, with every speck of debris and every drop of blood rendered with stunning precision. But even such powerful visual shocks are nothing compared to the emotional one at the end.

Could it be that Eden is starting to crumble under the weight of the fictional world that it's built? Pull back from the action for a moment, think about the politics involved, and suddenly all these basic questions arise: Who's shooting whom? Which side are they on? What do they want? And who the heck is winning? It's very cool to look at, very graphic, but an epic shootout does not always make for a logical shootout. Throw in a number of side characters who were involved in previous events, but haven't shown up for a few volumes, and now it's also a game of Name That Face. It's good for a manga to be intellectually challenging, but personally trying to reconstruct the storyline shouldn't have to be one of those challenges. With four straight chapters of action and no stopping for breath, this arc could soon become an unwieldy ordeal.


Vol. 3
(by Fuyumi Soryo, Del Rey, $10.95)

"What does it mean to be human? Dr. Mine Kujyou thought she knew, but then she met Isaac and Shuro—genetically engineered superhumans who can read minds and control people with their thoughts. For support, Mine turns to her oldest friend, Kimiko, whom she trusts more than anyone in the world. Isaac and Shuro, the products of a cruel scientific experiment, are difficult to understand, but could her own best friend be just as mysterious? Though Mine is enjoying her quality time with Kimiko, tensions are brewing just beneath the surface—hidden jealousies and resentments that Mine is too innocent to notice. But Isaac can see them, and in Isaac's hands, nothing's more dangerous than a dark secret."

After the inappropriately comical police shootout that ended Volume 2, ES gets back to what it does best: psychological suspense with a sci-fi twist. Get Ready? for a chilling exploration of emotional instability, with Kimiko serving as the case study. Mine's greatest defense against the ES telepaths—her social ineptitude—turns out to be her downfall as she fails to notice her best friend's descent into madness. Confronted by tragedy (and Isaac's sneering, psychopathic face), Mine finally lets her emotions out; at last we see her character in full, a brilliant scientist plagued by deep psychological weaknesses. After questioning the very idea of friendships, feelings and morals, Mine emerges at the end of this volume as a transformed character—setting the stage perfectly for the next installment. Whether it's action or introspection, every scene is marked with haunting intensity, and the perfectly paced layouts and sharp-lined artwork make this a gripping read from start to finish.

Wait ... where did all the dream sequences go? With Kimiko's story and the resulting aftermath taking center stage, Shuro and Isaac's memorable mind-hacks get pushed to the sidelines. A couple of dreamscapes still show up—mostly in the confines of Kimiko's mind—but not enough to satisfy fans of visual indulgence. It's a shame, because that was one of the seriously awesome things about ES. Meanwhile, amidst all the emotional collapse, has anyone noticed that Isaac is kind of a lame villain? He's got the whole "quiet, calculating psychopath" thing down, but it's a personality profile that's been used many times before. The heroes talk about all this moral ambiguity, how humans take lives to save lives, and yet their battle is childishly simple: noble-minded scientists against a near-omnipotent form of evil. See, I knew there was going to be trouble with godlike characters at some point.


OH MY GODDESS! (2nd edition)
Vol. 3
(by Kosuke Fujishima, Dark Horse, $10.95)

"No sooner has big sister Urd descended than she tries to alleviate her boredom by shoving Bell and Keiichi together, preferably by wicked spells gone horribly wrong. Of course, good-intentioned sorcery from Belldandy doesn't necessarily lead to better results, as she creates a dim-witted, cross-dressing clone of Keiichi to help him pass an exam! Then, a would-be romantic rival appears—and not from the usual pack of greasy anthropoids Keiichi hangs out with. This guy drives a Ferrari!"

Just in case the main character and his hobby didn't totally give it away: artist Kosuke Fujishima loves anything with an engine and wheels. His passion for the automotive arts shines brightest in the last two chapters of this volume, a slickly drawn motorsports challenge that plays out like a more technically correct version of Wacky Races. A couple of American rivals provide comedy with their stereotypical arrogance and language barrier, while Belldandy's feats of divine intervention guarantee the "wacky" elements of the race. In the end, though, it's Keiichi who takes the winner's spotlight with his street smarts, proving that our hapless hero is good for something after all. The previous chapters have their moments too, especially when focused on wealthy good-for-nothings Sayoko and Aoshima, whose attempts to separate Belldandy and Keiichi result in a lot of goddess-induced pratfalls. And really, what's not to like about a college that has its own S&M club?

Surely but slowly, it's getting better ... but backtracking through these chapters is a harsh reminder of just how long Fujishima took before unlocking the full potential of the Goddess world. This one is still stuck firmly in "lighthearted college hijinks" mode, and while the gags are entertaining, they're also highly predictable. Things you can count on in any given chapter: Urd tries to get the lead couple together, Keiichi makes a fool of himself, and Belldandy does something very sweet. It's the kind of stuff that has clearly been improved upon in plenty of other series within the past sixteen-odd years. The same could be said of the artwork, which is still in the stages of outgrowing the 80's comedy-manga style. Just look at the character designs—do you ever remember Belldandy being that short and stocky? This installment's got the pretty cars down pat, but as for the pretty girls, it's got ways to go.


Vol. 1
(by Sunao Yoshida and Kiyo Kyujo, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"In a dark and distant future, Armageddon has given rise to the fabled Second Moon—and a perpetual war between the vampires and the humans!
Esther is a nun in the city of Istavan. When she crosses paths with Abel Nightroad, a priest sent from the Vatican to combat the local order of vampires, the two form a holy alliance to battle the most evil of threats.
In this gorgeous, gothic-action series—part of the super-popular Trinity Blood franchise—the very survival of the human race is at stake!"

Not quite ready to dive into the full-length Trinity Blood novels? This adaptation offers a quick, action-packed alternative, and a different storyline to boot. One & Only need flip through the pages to see where it beats the prose version—moody, detailed visuals reveal Abel Nightroad's powers in a way that words cannot. His transformation, his killing methods, and even his massive scythe fill each page with fear-inducing grandeur. Brutal, eye-popping fights are clearly this series' bread and butter, but so are attractive character designs, with guys like Abel, Count Gyula and gunslinging android Tres fulfilling the bishounen quota. The story hits the ground at full speed and never lets up; Abel literally shows up at the church and starts protecting Esther right from scene one. Before this volume is over, there'll be death, betrayal, more death, and Abel's good old vampire-eating routine—and that's just the beginning of the adventure.

But does a rapid-fire story translate into a satisfying one? Not really. In its desire to bring out as much flashy eye-candy as possible, this manga misses the point of what makes the Trinity Blood franchise so appealing—a fully developed world brimming with elegance and intrigue. No reference is made to the post-apocalyptic time frame, nobody ever mentions the fascinating neo-retro geography going on in Europe, and if there's any political subplot going on here, it's so subtle as to be nonexistent. But those aren't the only sacrifices being made: clear storytelling goes out the window too, as layouts seem to just collide into each other with body parts and blood. Yes, there are some panels that are individually beautiful, but strung together, they make no sense. Even plot exposition basically consists of standing around and saying menacing things until the next fight comes along. Sure enough, it's Trinity Blood Lite—and because of that, not filling at all.


Vol. 8
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kimihiro Watanuki's after-school job working for the mysterious witch Yûko Ichihara has taken a dangerous turn. A recent assignment cost Kimihiro his right eye to a spider with a grudge. Now the missing eye has become the latest must-have item in the spirit world. Even the Zashiki-Warashi, the pretty spirit who has a crush on Kimihiro, has become entangled in the mess . . . and she's being held captive by an unknown evil! Can Kimihiro save both the girl and his eye—without getting himself killed by beings more powerful than he can imagine?"

The spiritual worlds of manga are wide and varied, but with this volume, it's safe to say that xxxHOLiC tops them all. It opens with just another day at Yûko's house, but quickly unfolds into a glorious, magnificently drawn saga where Watanuki—showing more guts and heroism than anywhere else in the series—challenges a malicious spirit on her own turf. Unmistakable characters, swirling gusts of wind, roaring columns of fire, and one boy against the spirit world—words can't begin to describe the incredible sense of adventure (and incredible sense of design) that permeates this story arc. And that's just half the book. Watanuki's later encounter with a lightning spirit is more down-to-earth, but no less captivating; CLAMP's masterful abstraction and rich artistic influences push this series miles ahead of similarly-themed works. Even a monkey can draw supernatural manga, but to challenge the very idea of what supernaturalism looks like—from playful spirits to mighty elements to the depths of the mind—takes some truly otherworldly talent.

Despite all its achievements in style, some folks are still going to get on xxxHOLiC's case for its unremarkable substance. The stories foster an occult atmosphere but fail to deliver any interesting twists, and the emotional range isn't all that great: Watanuki gets antsy over spirits, rages at Dômeki, and fawns over his crush Himawari, all while Yûko spouts her quirky nuggets of philosophy. In other words, the same things that happen every volume. If Watanuki is growing so much as a person, why aren't his interpersonal relationships (aside from the one with Dômeki) going anywhere? Looks like CLAMP is willing to maintain the status quo for their characters as long as they can go crazy with the visuals. So take this for what it is: yet another tale of a young man discovering his special powers and his place in the (spirit) world. Except, y'know, brilliantly drawn.


(edited by Ilya, Constable & Robinson, £9.99)

"The essential collection for every manga fan, The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga contains over 25 all-new manga stories, in every genre you can think of—and quite a few more besides.
True-to-life drama, sci-fi parable, medieval fantasy, updated Chinese myth, historical, romance, time-travel, comedy, horror, funny animal and, off, sometimes all of it happening at once! An international cast of contributors includes Andi Watson, Michiru Morikawa, Selina Dean, Min 'Keiiii' Kwon, Joanna Zhou, Neill Cameron, Asia Alfasi, Craig Conlan, Cosmo White, plus a host of other bright young talents."

Don't expect much "Ameri-" in this "manga." The Mammoth Book turns its focus mainly towards UK artists, and their variety of ethnic backgrounds is surpassed only by the variety of stories and styles. The big highlight happens about midway through—"Bulldog: Empire," a soaring action epic that takes on British history, politics, and literature and miraculously pulls it off. But there are great successes on the small scale, too: Joanna Zhou's one-page shorts capture the lighthearted gag format perfectly, while various stories of everyday life often trigger the deepest reactions. (Read Selina Dean's surreal "Snails Don't Have Friends" and Get Ready? to be blown away by the sheer Junko Mizuno-ness of it all.) Then there are the ones that simply explode with imagination, like the screwball insanity of "Fat Panda," and mad webcomic genius Daniel Merlin Goodbrey doing ... whatever it is that he does. With over 500 pages of material, this collection surely has enough to suit any taste, and serves as an essential introduction to the global scene outside the Cult of Tokyopop.

When does manga stop being manga? (Purists, don't even answer that.) Some of the stories here have only the lightest shades of Japanese influence, if any. Of course, the whole point is to break down national and ethnic preconceptions about comic art, but there's got to be a better qualification for getting into a book of "Best New Manga" than just "I like Ghibli movies." Meanwhile, some artists fall back on the irritating gimmick of providing an excerpt or introduction from the big fancy 20-volume epic they're working on, especially in the fantasy-themed works. A long foreword bordering on a rant also detracts from the volume; it seems that editor Ilya feels compelled get on the defensive as to whether international artists are allowed to make "manga" or not. Please, don't bother rehashing the words of an angry nerd battle—the stories in this anthology already speak for themselves.

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