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Kitchen Avenger

by Carlo Santos,

There once was a fellow named Light,
Who could kill with the words he would write.
But somebody named L
Wanted him sent to hell
For he felt that it just wasn't right.

Vol. 4
(by Katsura Hoshino, Viz Media, $7.99)

"Set in a fictional 19th century England, D.Gray-man is the story of Allen Walker, a 15-year-old boy who roams the earth in search of Innocence. Washed away to unknown parts of the world after The Great Flood, Innocence is the mysterious substance used to create weapons that obliterate demons known as akuma.
Allen starts to question the Black Ministry about the 'Clan of Noah' and the reason he became an Exorcist. With his left eye injured and incapable of detecting akuma, he has come to understand the constant fear of not knowing whether the person he is talking to is truly human! Despite his confusion, Allen is sent on a mission to seek out his master, Cross, one of the Marshals of the Black Ministry, and find out why the akuma have suddenly started targeting leaders of the Ministry."

The Gothic promise of D.Gray-man is fulfilled in this volume, which launches into a (surprise, surprise) vampire story arc. Although this latest mission does its fair share of borrowing from Bram Stoker, there are still some unique revelations that tie into Allen's ongoing quest for Innocence—and into his past. The earlier part of the volume also provides a gentle interlude between adventures, where Allen learns the perils of going without his akuma-seeing eye and the Black Ministry picks up some vital information about the Millennium Earl's movements—all crucial stuff for advancing the storyline. But the best part, of course, is Hoshino's sumptuous use of grotesquerie, whether it's Allen's transforming hand or the ministrations of the vampire (and his sultry "assistant"). People and monsters alike get chopped up with gleeful abandon around here, and while it's not the scariest, it certainly lends a dark edge to this action-adventure.

As with the power to entertain, so does this series also have the power to bore, especially if you're sick of vampire-hunting adventures with fancy occult attacks. (However, I will give them Lavi's hammer—that one's pretty cool.) Worse yet is that these attacks are often hard to read on the page; Hoshino's ability to convey action typically gets lost in all the smoke and rubble and ends up looking a mess. Scene transitions are similarly confusing, with viewpoints sometimes switching between characters without any warning. Ultimately, this story is one of many visually striking moments that fail to flow together. In fact, if there's anything holding it together, it's the generic plotline that requires Allen to go through the motions of seeking out the bad guy, challenging him, discovering a deep dark secret, and then challenging him again ... same stuff he does every volume. Try to save the world.


Vol. 9
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Viz Media, $7.99)

"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 Light has vowed to use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil. But will Light's noble goal succeed, or will the Death Note turn him into the very thing he fights against?
Light has always been confident in his ability to outthink everyone, but L's protégés are proving to be more of a challenge than he anticipated. The more Light mentally maneuvers, the tighter the net around him becomes. And now Near and Mello are working to break the taskforce apart and expose Kira from within! Light has always held up under pressure in the past, but will the stress of this new line of attack and the strain of maintaining three different personalities be the beginning of his end?"

Now this is the kind of Death Note I like to see! Action abounds in the first half of the volume as Light and company make another charge at Mello, and the current arc proves its own worth with a death almost as devastating as the one a couple of volumes back. That's not the only plot thread swirling in this maelstrom, through—Near continues to follow the activities of the Japanese taskforce, and watching him piece the puzzle together and tease out the answers is as gripping as anything Light or L have ever done. His little conversation with Light about some "theories" he has on the Death Note will hold readers transfixed, all the way to when he drops the bomb with a question Light can't bring himself to answer. The art is detailed and consistent throughout, but those dramatic turning points are the key, with striking angles and facial expressions that remind us: Death Note is always serious business.

After the major death, after Near's confrontation, after the government turnaround—what else is there? The last few chapters in this installment seem to be story threads in search of a climax, trying to build up the intensity but not sure about where they're headed. Near and Mello are trying to get Kira ... Near and Mello are trying to get Kira ... repeat as many times as necessary to generate a few more 20-page blocks. In the final chapter, things do get interesting again, but then it ends on a cliffhanger that isn't so much weak as just plain silly—a sensationalistic big event and one of the muddiest turns of logic yet. Speaking of turns of logic, yes, the dialogue is still a bear to sit through. Fortunately some of the action in this volume helps to offset that. But it still can't change the ensuing waffle that comes from blowing through all your good plot points too soon.


Vol. 1
(by Kia Asamiya, DrMaster, $9.95)

"Hiro is a high school student refusing to go to school after a traumatic run-in with the local bullies. But his feeble life is forever changed when, one day, he applies online for a new gadget called 'JUNK'. Once the mysterious package arrives, he activates the gadget and finds himself encased within a powered armor JUNK suit. Apparently the clothes DO indeed make the man as Hiro is granted abilities far beyond anything the muscle-bound jocks at his school could ever dream. Soon after, he embarks on nightly rampages getting back at the bullies and destroying property until he discovers... There is another person with a unit nearly identical to his own. The owner of the other JUNK suit is a woman who's not too keen on Hiro's abuse of his new super-powered threads, and smacks him around real good for it. To complicate matters even further, he accidentally destroys his home and kills his parents! (oops!) Now, a naïve boy must learn to fend for himself and choose to use his power for good or evil."

It seems like every other series these days is about some teenage kid discovering fantastic hidden powers. But how many of them also discover the consequences and moral dilemmas of such powers? Junk takes an all-too-familiar premise and inverts it into a dark, contemplative story, offering a new outlook for those who have grown tired of wild and wacky schoolboy fantasies. Fluid action scenes and an anti-heroic protagonist should keep readers hooked, but Asamiya's storytelling truly shines when he digs into the trials of day-to-day life. Hiro is effectively a hikikomori, and you couldn't ask for a more striking contrast than seeing him holed up in his room as an ordinary teenager and yet sneaking out at night as a powersuit-wearing vigilante. The scene where Hiro visits his burnt-down house is another heartstring-puller, and when he confronts his similarly powered rival, it's definitely time to ask those big questions about power and responsibility.

It's funny how some comic fans turn to manga to escape the world of American superheroes, and then here comes a manga that spits superhero business right back in everyone's face. There's a little too much Spider-man going on here, or any other number of dark tortured heroes that have come up in decades past, so if you're allergic to spandex, consider yourself warned. The action, although slick and well-laid out, also makes for confusing reading at times, mostly because of muddy details and lookalike character designs. Whose bright idea was it to have two near-identical JUNK suits? Now we can't even tell if it's Hiro or his rival dishing out the damage, unless they're battling each other. And the secondary characters are a complete loss—there's a detective, a counselor, some famous idol ... what? Let's hope that Volume 2 does a better job of explaining who everyone is.


Vol. 1
(by Miyuki Kobayashi and Natsumi Ando, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Najika is a great cook and likes to make meals for the people she loves. But something is missing from her life. When she was a child, she met a boy who touched her heart—and now Najika is determined to find him. The only clue she has is a silver spoon that leads her to the prestigious Seika Academy.
Attending Seika will be a challenge. Every kid at the school has a special talent, and the girls in Najika's class think she doesn't deserve to be there. But Sora and Daichi, two popular brothers who barely speak to each other, recognize Najika's cooking for what it is—magical. Is either boy Najika's mysterious prince?"

There's a reason this series won the Kodansha award in the children's category, and it's not just because cooking manga is inherently quirky and awesome. The story is fanciful, but grounded in believable characters and motivations; the message is positive, but with tinges of heartbreak to make you stop and think. Even the art, which relies on all the charming visual conventions of shoujo, sprawls in such a way that it's perfectly clear what's going on. Najika emerges as one of the more appealing heroines in recent memory—determined, kind-hearted, and not overly perky, whiny, or addled as many tend to be. It's like they gave her all the good qualities of a young female lead without any of the annoying parts. The two brothers aren't quite as well-rounded, but it's easy to imagine either of them falling for Najika, and that's what counts, right? Also, bonus points for recipes in the back.

Like any children's series, this one has its fair share of contrivances that will leave older readers' eyes rolling. It starts with that whole silver spoon business that has Najika searching for her supposed childhood prince—a cute idea, but one borne out of so much cliché that it seems like a joke to send her to cooking school just for that. Najika's rivals at the Academy are weak as well, cobbled from the generic traits of mean girls everywhere—just paste them into the scene and let them spout insults. In fact, that's pretty much what chief meanie Akane does, right down to a melodramatic "I never liked you!" scene. Character designs aren't the most creative, either; Najika is almost an echo of Mitsuki from Full Moon, and having a dark-haired and light-haired boy as romantic interests practically telegraphs the oncoming love triangle.


Vol. 1
(by Oh Se-Kwon, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Once there was a legendary kingdom called Yuldo, an ideal country in which peace and prosperity flourished for years. The heroic warrior Hong Gil-Dong created this Utopian land—and then suddenly disappeared without a trace. But time passed, and a band of ruthless warriors invaded the kingdom, leaving it in utter ruins...
Now, Hong Gil-Dong has returned, determined to raise his village from the ashes. But evil forces lurk in the shadows, observing our hero's every move—waiting for the opportunity to strike down Utopia's avenger...
The nonstop martial arts action begins right here!"

If you're going to do one thing, do it right: Utopia's Avenger is action all the way, and it doesn't disappoint. Opening with a brutal roadside encounter between bandits and bounty hunters, the series gets off to a blistering start and never lets up. Even when Gil-Dong's party stops in the woods for a break, the calm is an uneasy one as they end up going on the prowl for monsters. Sparse dialogue and smooth layouts keep things moving at a rapid pace, and even multi-page fight scenes seem to happen in a flash. And sometimes, it actually is a flash—there's no shortage of outlandish attacks and effects here, whether it's blowing away an opponent with chi or running a sword through him. Intensely detailed art adds an extra level of depth and realism to a decidedly unreal world, from the fantasy landscapes to the multi-layered outfits.

Once you're done being dazzled by the action and the high-fantasy art, well, there's not much else. It's probably a bad sign when the back-cover synopsis explains the background story better than the book itself. The fall of Yuldo is covered in a sparse, confusing flashback that doubles as a dream sequence, and if you want to know what Gil-Dong was doing between then and now, don't even ask, because that's glossed over with a simple "Oh, he was out training." Characters are handled poorly at every level—the lead hero and his wisecracking sidekick are exactly that, a hero and a sidekick, with little else to flesh out their personalities (better profiles have been written at tabletop D&D sessions); meanwhile, the villains and monsters that they meet are basically walking targets. Understand that this is all about manly-man fighting action, and don't get your hopes up for anything else.


Vol. 1
(by Mitsuru Adachi, Shogakukan, ¥360)

"A guy who doesn't know the meaning of hard work: Tatsuya. A guy who's all about hard work: Kazuya. However, the two of them are twin brothers, so it's hard to tell which is which. Then there's next-door neighbor Minami, a cute girl and their childhood friend. Together, these three are inseparable!"

Touch is as cool and comforting as the other side of the pillow, a laid-back school-age story that moves to the rhythms of everyday life. Mitsuru Adachi's mastery of layout is almost hypnotic—it's easy to jump into a chapter, start gliding along with the seamless paneling, and then look up and realize you've just blown through another twenty pages. Likeable characters help a lot too; their personalities may be simply defined, but the potential for complexity is great. Just look at Tatsuya, who starts out as the "weak" underdog to his hardworking brother, but quickly emerges as a favorite because of his scrappy determination to be loved (by a beautiful older woman) and respected (by everyone else). Meanwhile, Minami strikes the ideal balance as a charming but strong-willed female lead, and the soft-toned artwork puts a gentle sheen on this tale of love, baseball and growing up. Life doesn't get much slicier than this.

For today's modern manga reader, raised on wild bursts of action and sweeping melodramatics, the subtlety of Touch is probably too subtle—and thus dismissed as boring. It's a fair criticism, seeing as the key events in the opening volume are really non-events: Kazuya goes to practice a lot, Tatsuya gets mistaken for his brother a lot, and Minami is always at their side, ready to encourage or chide as necessary. Things only start to pick up when Tatsuya decides that he wants to live up to his brother's skills, but that's not until the second half, and even then it continues in that casual, uneventful style. C'mon buddy, you've got hopes for the high school baseball team and a hot new girl in your life—at least try to look excited? Also, the grayscale tones don't reproduce too well, so the art looks a little washed out. Ah, the classics.

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