Flavor of Life

by Carlo Santos,

With the pleasantly surprising license announcements out of New York Comic-Con, I'm definitely feeling that convention season has officially begun. Sadly, I didn't get to make it to New York in person, but I suppose I'll be traipsing around Liberty City soon enough...

Vol. 2
(by Hiro Mashima, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Beautiful celestial wizard Lucy has teamed up with the crazy fire wizard Natsu and his bizarre flying cat, Happy. Their job: to steal a book from the notorous Duke Everlue. But the eccentric Everlue has killed wizards before, and Lucy's team is walking right into his death trap!"

Are you ready for some adventure? Good, because that's exactly what the next volume of Fairy Tail brings. In a fantasy world like this, even the act of stealing a book turns into something epic—where else are you going to see a fire-user battle against a guy with a giant frying pan, or 400-pound killer maids? It's like crazy ideas grow on trees around here, and the result is endless entertainment. The real payoff, however, comes after the book is retrieved: this mission comes with a poignant twist ending that is, quite literally, magical. Then suspense takes over in the second half of the book, with talk of Dark Guilds and death-obsessed megalomaniacs—just the kind of seriousness we need to take the plot to new levels. Through it all, Mashima's art shines: even minor villains and side characters are creatively designed, and I'm definitely not complaining about the fanservice (don't you just love how it's always tank top weather in Fairy Tail land?), and the backgrounds are once again a triumph of sharp perspective and architectural detail. Man, if only every artist could study under the guy who did One Piece.

Getting into any boys' adventure series is always a jolt of excitement when you first start out ... but I'm already starting to worry, because it looks like Lucy, Natsu and friends are going on missions just for the sake of going on missions. Don't get me wrong; the Duke Everlue arc was a hundred pages of awesome, but did it have a bearing on the overall series at large? Not really, and they're back at the Guild Hall one chapter later looking for another job. The next storyline does seem more promising, as it threatens the very structure of the Guild system—except that our heroes spend the next several chapters riding on public transportation to reach their confrontation point. Sorry guys, that's not how to build up excitement. Needs more magical battles! And speaking of magical battles, the shorter chapters in this volume (compared to the first one) mean less space, which means fewer magic-blasting eye-popping page spreads. Color me a little disappointed.

It was turning out so well until the last few chapters turned into "Let's ride the train and talk about Dark Guilds blah de blah." I'll let it walk away with a B- this time.

Vol. 8
(by Keiko Suenobu, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Still held captive, Ayumu and Miki get Ayumu's phone to work, but as they try to call Sonoda, they are discovered by Akira's goons! Did Sonoda get their desperate message, and will he get there in time to save them from a terrible fate?"

If we were talking about the greatest manga heroines of all time, would you include Miki Hatori on that list? If not, you probably just haven't gotten to this volume of Life, in which Hatori literally goes through fire and flames to save her friend Ayumu. It's one of the most intense moments in a series full of intense moments—the sheer panic of trying to escape a burning building, and that's after being attacked by a bunch of thugs. Who says high school drama is for pansies? Every single page comes charged with emotion, whether it's Ayumu's crippling fear, or Miki's unflagging determination to fight back, or the rush of adrenaline when Sonoda comes charging in for revenge. The last chapter is especially moving, as a sudden turn of events forces Ayumu to be the strong one. Artwork and layouts continue to impress; every nuance of emotion can be seen on the characters' faces, and the big panels allow plenty of room for dramatic displays of heroism. See, this is why the characters kept being thrown into horrible, depressing situations—so they could rise up and overcome the odds in the most spectacular way possible. (Oh, and you yuri fans are going to love the last panel.)

Thrills and action are nice, but when did this turn into a special-effects paradise? It begins with the world's most improbable cell phone call (how Ayumu did all that without looking, I have no idea), with more superhuman feats to follow: surviving a smoke-filled, superheated room for who knows how long, breaking apart a set of handcuffs with only worn-out industrial objects, and making an impossible grab while falling out of a window. For a bouncy fantasy adventure, these ridiculously lucky coincidences might be okay, but it should have stuck to the realism of high school drama rather than resorting to blockbuster theatrics. In fact, speaking of high school drama, the series was probably better when it relied more on psychological conflict—don't you miss those days when Manami and company would just gang up on Ayumu at school?

The relentless action and peril is definitely illogical and over the top—but that doesn't make it any less thrilling as the characters fight against impossible odds. A worthy A-.

Vol. 3
(by Maki Minami, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Her whole life, Hikari Hanazono has been consumed with the desire to win against her school rival, Kei Takishima—at anything. He always comes out on top no matter what he does, and Hikari is determined to do whatever it takes to beat this guy ... somehow!
Yahiro, a childhood friend of Kei and Akira, tells Hikari that Kei is in love with her. Hikari would confront Kei to find out the truth ... if she weren't so busy avoiding him!"

Unlike a certain other series where an everyday girl hangs out with a bunch of aristocratic students, this one actually goes somewhere with the romantic implications. With Kei and Hikari, there's always just enough flirting and teasing to keep you coming back for more. Things get especially interesting when sly devil Yahiro tries to get the two of them closer together—he even "kidnaps" Hikari at one point, although the real entertainment comes when she tries to escape. But for those who are here for the ensemble comedy, don't worry—this volume's got that covered too, with a wacky footrace in the first chapter (Kei's handicap: a straitjacket?!) and some Hawaiian hijinks when the class goes on vacation (hilarity ensues when a bunch of local guys see Kei hanging out with the S.A. girls and get jealous). And lone wolf Tadashi's attempted date with Hikari in the last chapter is the best of both worlds—a shade of romance combined with lighthearted laughs at the end.

This comedy would probably be better enjoyed in script format—because the pictures and text often just end up getting in the way of each other. Despite the valiant attempts to deliver gags and punchlines, things usually just get way too crowded with multi-panel layouts and several characters talking and tons of tiny-font side comments. And when a scene does manage to deliver some comedy goodness, it usually loses the impact because it's crammed into such a small space. The only time the artwork gets any breathing room is during brief emotional interludes—or, in the last chapter, a pivotal flashback scene—and they're not used as much as they could be. But what really hurts the series is that "just enough flirting and teasing" often isn't enough—instead, it ends up feeling like a middle-of-the-road school story where the author is just coasting along, throwing mildly interesting characters into mildly interesting situations because she can get away with it. Really, a vacation? A competitive test? A date with a rival guy? If you're just going to rehash these overdone plotlines with your own set of characters, don't bother.

It has its moments of cuteness and sweetness, but the art and story lack ingenuity. To be honest, Special A is more like a special C.

Vol. 2
(by Mari Okazaki, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"The skies are always clearer after a storm—until the next one hits...
Minami shrugged off being dumped by her boyfriend of seven years by throwing herself into her advertising job and meeting new people. But now Minami's connection with her co-worker Ogiwara isn't blossoming into the whirlwind romance that she hoped for. When a woman from Ogiwara's past shows up, Minami must decide if Ogiwara is the man of her dreams, and if so, can she hang onto him?"

Remember when Suppli was a pretty big hit on the J-drama schedule a couple of years ago? With Vol. 2 of the manga, you really start to see why: because it freshens up the love triangle formula with sophistication and nuance. As a lead character, Minami is so wonderfully human—ambitious and driven, but still full of insecurities. Things really start to take off with the "rain scene," where a spontaneous outpouring of lust becomes a work of beauty thanks to Mari Okazaki's sinuous linework. I'm sure a lot of people stereotype josei comic art as "swirly chicken scratch with no backgrounds," but one look at Okazaki's detailed style will prove them wrong. Best of all, she knows the miracle technique of putting lots of dialogue and action onto one page and still making it easy to follow. This smooth, effortless storytelling makes the next few chapters even more enjoyable, as the "other woman" begins to play a bigger role and the battle for Ogiwara really starts to take shape. Truly, the ups and downs of love have never flowed quite as beautifully as they do in this series.

If you mean ups and downs of love with no key plot points to anchor the series together, then yes. There are really only two major events in this volume: the rain scene, and then the shocker on the last page, with everything else in between just fluff between Minami and Ogiwara. Are they dating? ... Aren't they dating? ... It's as bad as tabloid gossip. And the first two chapters don't even accomplish that much—they're about Minami's career struggles, which aren't nearly as interesting as her romantic problems. Also somewhat annoying, but on a smaller level, is how Minami constantly narrates everything to herself: how she's feeling, her plans for the evening, the current weather conditions ... goodness sakes, just stop monologuing for once and let the story tell the story. We'll catch up to your train of thought eventually.

True, the story could use more impactful events instead of just waffling about with the main characters' love problems. Still, the urban sophistication and complex emotions earn it a B+.

Vol. 11
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Kimihiro Watanuki has been saved from death by the sacrifice of his friends, but his recovery time is cut short. His special connection with the spirit world is needed to investigate a terrifying haunted house, placate annoyed Warashi spirits, and face the growing threat of a shadowy figure called Fei-Wang Reed."

Even after 11 volumes, I still get blown away by the sheer level of artistry in this series—the sweeping curves and elegant lines, the impeccable sense of layout and design (Yûko on page 71? Brilliant), and how shading and contrast are achieved without using a single screentone. The pure black-and-white look of xxxHOLiC is like nothing else in all of manga, and that's what makes it must-read material. The characters, too, are entertaining as always: Watanuki's feuds with Dômeki never get old, and neither does the allure of Yûko's mysterious (and hedonistic) ways. A number of old favorites show up as well, including the pipe-fox spirit, the oden foxes, the Warashi girls, Kohane the TV psychic, and if those names don't sound familiar, it's time to jump on the bandwagon and start reading from Volume 1. This volume's central story—about a girl who wants to rid her fear of the house she lives in—is a return to the series' classic short-story horror mode, with a twist ending worthy of some chills. But an even greater mystery awaits: just what is going on over in the Tsubasa world?

Too much filler! Too much foreshadowing! That's all that can be said about the xxxHoLiC/Tsubasa crossover situation right now, and it's really hurting the narrative arc in this volume. Of course, the Himawari arc in Vol. 10 is a tough act to follow, but now we've got Yûko gliding around, playing with magic eggs and muttering things about "the final moment." What on earth? Even casual Tsubasa followers (such as myself) might have a hard time making sense of it, and for those who don't follow Sakura and Syaoran's adventures at all, good luck and have fun feeling hopelessly lost. The other weakness in this volume is the abuse of filler chapters, where Side Character X shows up just for fun and wastes 20 pages hanging out with Watanuki and the gang. Yes, it's a nice way to keep the series connected to previous events, but with some Serious Business right around the corner, isn't it more important to get the storyline moving?

Not quite as well-plotted as previous volumes, but still good fun and always an artistic wonder. A grade of B would suit it well.

Vol. 1
(by Kotaro Mori, concept by Gainax, Media Works, ¥680)

"In their closed-off underground village, Kamina and Simon chafe at the limits imposed by the village elder. Yet all this will change, when Simon stumbles across a fantastic device—just as the village's peace is broken by a violent intrusion."

Few can ever forget the manly burning passion of the Gurren Lagann anime, and now you can relive it through the manga! Especially since it follows the original version so closely (albeit with some minor plot tweaks). Volume 1 comes alive with crazy characters, crazier robots, impossible feats of courage, and most importantly, a burning spirit of adventure. Sure, it starts out like any series where a boy (Simon) discovers that he can pilot a robot (Lagann) with amazing powers—but as soon as Simon and big-brother figure Kamina break through to the surface above their village, their world really starts expanding. With Kamina leading the way, the whole series comes alive with boundless energy: every battle is prefaced with a stirring catchphrase, every attack comes with a fancy multisyllabic name, and every awe-inspiring robot pose takes at least a full page. A wide range of character designs and highly detailed action scenes also add energy to the artwork, so whether you're here to read the story or just look at the pretty pictures, this manga definitely comes packed with manly burning passion.

Hmm, what's missing here ... motion? Color? Or maybe just a spark of creativity that allows the dead-tree version of the story to stand on its own? In trying to faithfully recreate the essence of the anime, this adaptation falls into a familiar trap: going through a checklist of events without really understanding the motivation behind them. When Kamina makes his grand speeches about leaving the underground and reaching the surface, for example, it feels like he's just doing it for the sake of making grand speeches, rather than because he truly wants to break free. And when he and Simon start exploring the overworld, they seem to be picking fights with the bad guys just for the heck of it. (All right, so the anime was like that at the start as well, but still...) The action scenes also get cluttered at times, with so much detail and debris falling on top of each other that it becomes a visual exercise trying to figure out what's going on. Yes, it's all about blazing energy and soul, but don't forget that the main point is to tell the story.

It's a rousing, energetic first volume that generally stays true to the anime—but that may also be its downfall, as it ends up feeling shallow and mechanical at times.

Yen Press just announced the license! People won't shut up about the anime! But there's a very good reason why our next Reader's Choice is hitching a ride on the hype train. Tajou Henran would like to tell the world why Soul Eater rocks, so read on:

Vols. 2-3
(by Atsushi Okubo, Square-Enix, ¥410 ea.)

Shinigami (death gods) are now commonplace in manga with the hit titles Death Note and Bleach, but after reading Soul Eater, I'll never look at them the same again. The story follows three different death scythe technicians, who are students at the Shibusen Technical School for Demon-Weapon Technicians, and their weapons (who are in form of human-like students as well), as they engage in bizarre adventures as they try to reach their ultimate goal: hunt and exterminate 99 wicked souls and the soul of a witch, and feed them to their weapon in order to create a Death Scythe, the ultimate weapon. Volume 1 did quick work to introduce the main pairs, Maka and Soul, Death the Kidd and the Thompson Sisters, and Black Star and Tsubasa, and, in the fastest pace in all the manga I've ever read, shows them all fall flat on their face, being forced to recollect all their souls.

Although the concept sounded bland at first, and the aspect of a high-school-esque tale involving shinigami felt unoriginal, I was proven wrong by the unique storytelling, brilliant characters and the genre juggling quickly changed my mind, with these two volumes truly hooking me onto this series. My biggest surprise is how closely it resembles Fullmetal Alchemist, since the beginning tends to introduce everyone and their backgrounds, focusing on developing them, and as the manga goes on, it sneaks subtle plot twists and at one point, shifts dramatically into a deep storyline.

These two volumes are mainly building the background for things to come, such as the dramatic (and hilarious) introduction of Sid and Dr. Stein, the shocking impact of the Ragnarok and Chrono characters, the surprisingly deep and thoughtful background development chapter for two of the main characters, Black Star and Tsubasa, and a chapter where Black Star and Death the Kidd hunt for Excalibur, which is pure comedic gold.

Although volume 1 didn't necessarily "blow me away" (perhaps the emphasis on ecchi, but the unique and fun characters had me keep on reading), these volumes certainly proved the incredible potential this series was gifted with, and made quite the impact. The belly-laughs and extraordinary fight scenes will hook any fan of supernatural shounens, like D. Gray-Man and Fullmetal, and just enough of everything else to entertain most others.

Is there a hidden gem of manga you'd like to reveal to the world? Is there a piece of garbage that deserves to be bashed in public? Or is there a title that didn't get a fair grade here, and you want to set the record straight?

Now's YOUR chance to be the reviewer! Write a review of 400 words and include:

- Your name
- Title of manga (and volume no., if applicable)
- Author/Artist
- Publisher
- Briefly describe the story, then explain why this manga is great, terrible, or in between. Be objective, but also be entertaining.

Then send it in to rtoreaders (at) gmail (dot) com. One review will be selected out of all the submissions and will be published in the next column. All types of manga and manga-inspired comickry are accepted, from past and present, from Japan and beyond—what matters is that it's the Reader's Choice! (Note: entries may be edited for formatting and grammar.)

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