Dragon Ballin'

by Carlo Santos,

Looks like I'm going to have to ask again nicely.

Dear RTO fans,
Would you pretty please like to submit more reviews to the Reader's Choice section?
My inbox has gotten so lonely that all it got the last two weeks was a single piece of misguided spam-mail.
And if the Vampire Knight Defense Force can show up to defend against one little parenthetical comment I made, surely it's worth 400 words of your personal effort to tell me why Vampire Knight is good, so that I will stop making fun of it in the future?
Just a suggestion.


P.S. Reader-submitted yaoi/BL reviews would really help too, because there are, like, ten bajillion imprints and small-press distributors in that field, and I never know what to read.

Vol. 1
(by Nozomu Tamaki, Seven Seas, $9.99)

"After millennia in hiding, Mina Tepes, the Princess of the ancient covenant and ruler of all vampires, wants change. Using the vast wealth of the Tepes line, she has paid off the entire gross national debt of Japan and in so doing, gained the authority to create a 'special district' off the coast of Japan that is to become the future haven to vampires the world over! Now, on the eve of the landmark press conference announcing the existence of vampires to the world, terrorists and rival factions plot to assassinate Mina before she has a chance to make her world-changing announcement!"

Is Karin the Chibi Vampire just not doing it for you? Well, here's another way to get your "loli vampire" fix, this time with a darker edge. Vampire Bund takes the point of view of Akira, a young man sworn to protect the childlike vampire princess—because it turns out that various forces are out to get her. As a modern-day bodyguard, many of Akira's missions take on a military-themed, counter-terrorist slant: fending off armed soldiers, sniffing out C4, getting rid of a planted bomb. Add in the unusual politics of a Special Administrative Region for vampires (the so-called "Bund") and a worldwide press conference, and it's clear that this story takes its contemporary setting seriously. The later chapters bring in a touch of character development as well, as Akira ponders the vampires' immortal way of life and his relationship with the princess. With clean, angular lines, the visual style promises straight-up badass action all the way through.

I suppose I would be taking this series more seriously ... if it didn't take itself so seriously. Some of the developments in the story are downright comical, yet it tries to pass them off as legitimate—seriously, you pay off Japan's national debt and suddenly get to create a magical Vampire Island? That's the kind of wacky Mickey-Mouse geopolitics one would expect out of Code Geass. But even if you can buy into these fantasy elements, the story so far basically consists of Akira running around blowing stuff up (or trying to not blow stuff up) in order to protect the Princess. Some behind-the-scenes treachery is hinted at, but looking at the overall picture, this first volume clearly has no interest in presenting a deep or engaging plot. It also has no interest in presenting readable artwork, as shown by the overuse of gray tones to turn every scene into a monochrome blur. Oh, and why does Mina run around topless for the entire first two chapters? Looks like we just found the real reason guys want to read this.

An interesting blend of vampire themes and military action, but unless the story picks up and the artwork stops being so gray all the time, this remains stuck at C.

DRAGON BALL Z (VizBig Edition)
Vol. 1
(by Akira Toriyama, Viz Media, $17.99)

"Five years have passed since the Tenka'ichi Budokai (Strongest Under the Heavens) fighting tournament, where Son Goku as Earth's ultimate champion. Goku has since settled down with a wife and even has a son, Son Gohan. All seems peaceful, until one day when a mysterious visitor appears and reveals that Goku is actually an alien!
The visitor, Raditz, claims that Goku is a Saiyan Warrior, a member of the most powerful race in the universe. When the ruthless Raditz threatens to destroy Goku's family and the entire human race, Goku races to stop him and finds an unlikely ally in Piccolo, his old archenemy..."

All right, internet nerds, let's get it out of the way: this omnibus edition of Dragon Ball Z contains THAT scene, you know, the one where Vegeta crushes his scouter and declares the power level to be over a certain number. That alone makes it must-read material. For the less geeky among us, though, there's still plenty to be enjoyed in this beat-'em-up saga. To understand the grandness of Toriyama's vision, consider that the hero of the series actually dies and goes to train in Hell. That is some epic stuff, people. Goku's earthbound friends experience their own brand of unflinching brutality, too: people die left and right in the battle against the Saiyans, making the kind of heroic sacrifices that are usually saved only for the end of a story arc. The moral turnabout of former villain Piccolo—who even goes so far as to train Goku's son!—also proves that the story is more complex than just guys making angry faces and grunting at each other. Get ready to feast your eyes on the earth-shattering blows, the massive explosions, and the musclebound warriors that make up one of the all-time classics.

There's a really good reason to read Dragon Ball Z in omnibus form: because all the complaints about the fights dragging on forever are true. It takes the entire first volume to defeat one guy, another volume-and-a-half for the next opponent, and yes, most of it does involve dudes making angry faces and grunting at each other. In between there's also some training, which involves a lot of timeskips and montages, and if that's not bad enough, this 500-page chore even manages to end on a poorly timed, mid-action cliffhanger. And then there is the love-it-or-hate-it art of Akira Toriyama: it's hard to take Nappa seriously as a powerful villain when he looks like a steroid-addled gym rat, and the battleground of choice—a rocky landscape with zero distinguishing features—is about as boring as you can get. Even the fighting styles are visually uncreative: you have guys flying, punching, kicking, shooting energy beams at each other, with little cleverness or finesse involved. DBZ may have paved the way for its successors, but it's been improved upon many times since.

There's definitely some grand adventure and nostalgia to be had here, but its technical flaws like endless fight scenes and simplistic art mark it down to a C.

Vol. 1
(by Koge-Donbo, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Karin is your lovable girl-next-door type—if the girl next door also happens to be a goddess! Karin has a magic ring that gives her the power to do anything she'd like. What she'd like most, though, is to live happily ever after with Kazune, the boy of her dreams. Magic brought Kazune to her, but it also has a way of complicating things. It's not easy to be a goddess and a girl in love!"

If the cuteness doesn't kill you ... then you'll probably survive long enough to understand why Koge-Donbo's sense of character design is so loved. The gigantic puddle-eyes and baby faces are distinctive and appealing on their own, but it's not until the characters start doing "God Transformations" and costume changes that the artistry really comes out. Who can resist the swishy coolness of Kazune's hat and cape? And prepare to melt when Karin wanders into a magazine photoshoot and puts on The Cutest Dress Ever Made. Fairytale flourishes aren't just limited to the artwork, though—the storyline is as whimsical as it gets, with prophetic dreams and magic rings and a clock charm that can turn back time. That's right, the new Kamichama Karin has time-travel as a key element, and while there haven't been any paradoxes just yet, you can bet there'll be some crazy twists in store.

This would be a lot more enjoyable if it were (1) readable, and (2) not a complete rip of every magical-girl series you can think of. I mean, as soon as Kazune and Karin's "child from the future" shows up, you might as well wait for a call from Sailor Moon asking for her plot device back. This first volume also offers no signs of originality; Karin's assigned goal is to use the magic rings to collect a harem of special-powered guys and defeat the forces of evil. Yawn. Even worse is that the entire last chapter (out of 4) is a time-wasting, filler-ish "mid-quel" between the original Kamichama Karin and this series. What really kills KKC, though, is the ridiculous visual clutter on every page. Apparently, cramming every single panel together and littering them with screentones and hearts and stars is a reasonable excuse for never using backgrounds or white space. See, Moyoco Anno gets away with stuff like that because her style is unique. This just looks like someone shoujo-vomited on the page.

Come back when the story is actually interesting and not a complete strain on the eyes. This poorly-executed cuteness overload gets a D+.

Vol. 17
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.95)

"In mere minutes, Fai will be dead, and Kurogane's only hope to save him is to make a deal with Yûko the witch, a woman he has never trusted. The deal sends Kurogane—alone—into the worst danger he has ever faced."

News flash: Princess Sakura actually does something for once! Yes, our damsel in distress finally wakes up from her magic-induced coma and promptly sets off on one of the most stirring adventure sequences in the entire series. Sakura's solo quest is a thing of beauty, as she traverses apocalyptic landscapes, fends off monsters in a heart-pounding gunfight, and does it all while barely saying a word. The artwork says all that needs to be said, with impressionistic lines, striking angles, and epic imagery. (Like when Sakura finds the road back from the mountains...) But that's not the only dramatic moment in this volume; Kurogane's deal with Yûko to save Fai is perhaps the ultimate expression of the friendship that has grown between the two. The concept of self-sacrifice is revisited multiple times throughout these chapters: how much would you give to save your friend? And would your friend want you to put yourself in such danger? It's moral dilemmas like these that give the series more depth than one might have imagined at the start. Oh, and on a side nite, the nod to xxxHOLiC with the water jars was awesome.

Okay, CLAMP, I get it. You're good. You can draw! That doesn't mean having to burn my eyes out with the AMAZING on every single page—at least, that's how it seems with the Sakura fetch-quest. The artwork can be too much of a good thing at times, with all the hatching and speedlines taking over the page and turning into a complete blur. There are even panels that consist of nothing but random lines, making it impossible to tell what's being shown. But that's not the only source of confusion: many of the side characters don't ring a bell. I used to think I had at least a passing knowledge of the world of X, but no. Even the ones that are more familiar—like Kamui and Subaru—look too much alike. Oh wait, that's because they're "twins." Seriously, it was bad enough with clones running around, and now we gotta have twins in the story? Maybe the Fai and company are right—it's time to leave this world and move on ... to one with better character designs.

The art is so flashy and distinctive that it sometimes becomes its own worst enemy. But the story is as dramatic as they come, especially with Sakura taking center stage, so this one gets a B.

Vol. 5
(by Chika Shiomi, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Yurara Tsukinowa is a quiet girl who can see spirits and sense their emotions. Not wanting to seem abnormal, she hides her secret until she meets Mei Tendo and Yako Hoshino, two guys who use their spiritual powers to ward off vengeful spirits. The dormant guardian spirits in Yurara arises and a strong-willed beauty with the power to release souls emerges!
When Mei and Yako realize their rivalry is tearing Yurara apart, Mei makes a fateful decision. But is his choice really the right one? Soon Yurara will have to trust her own strength when evil spirits threaten those she loves. Don't miss the exciting conclusion of Yurara!"

I didn't think it could be done, but here it is—a supernatural manga that manages to do something other than the investigate-and-exorcise formula. Moreover, it also succeeds as a romance manga that uses occult elements without getting hokey—none of this "I WILL SHOOT MY ENERGY BEAMS AT YOU TO WIN" nonsense. No, dear readers, the finale of Yurara is all about the compelling power of love: how love can make us do things that are incredibly stupid (Mei) and things that are incredibly brave (Yurara, who finally finds her inner strength). It's a sweet, heartwarming ending, and not without its fair share of drama: the tug-of-war between Mei, Yako and Yurara is pushed to its limit, painful decisions are made, and everyone must overcome the demons and spirits inside them (literally). Clean artwork and a good sense of spacing also help—the most dramatic scenes span a full page or two, silent panels effectively slow time down, and the subtle tones and effects remind us that the world of ghosts can, indeed, be a beautiful thing.

This ended exactly how one would expect it to end. Girl meets boys, boys fall in love with girl (or her guardian spirit), girl chooses boy, everyone goes home happy. Perhaps we should be thankful that it only lasted five volumes, because anything much longer would have been a waste of time. And for all its hype as a supernatural romantic drama, the final "rescue scene" isn't even all that dramatic—it's over in a matter of moments, not nearly as thrilling as the buildup of the previous chapter might have suggested. Coupled with that is Yurara's sudden stroke of "Oh, I finally found my willpower after five volumes," which comes in as just a little too convenient, a deus ex machina designed to fit in with the ending. Even the tying up of loose ends fizzles out, as various characters are rearranged into arbitrarily happy relationships, as if they were afraid of bittersweet endings or unresolved drama. Perhaps this ghostly love story could have done with a little more darkness after all.

A satisfying, sweeping ending for all the true romantics out there—but it could have been done better, so it floats off with a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Daisuke Igarashi, Shogakukan, ¥714)

"'They were raised by dugongs.'
One summer vacation, Ruka meets two boys, 'Umi' and 'Sora,' whose upbringing contains strange and wonderful secrets. Drawn to their beautiful swimming, almost more like flying, Ruka and the adults who know them are intertwined in a complex mesh...
Meanwhile, an unexplained anomaly is occurring all over the world: fish are disappearing. Thus begins a marine adventure of boys and girls to captivate all the senses!"

Magical fantasy worlds and mythical creatures? Who needs those when you can draw landscapes and wildlife the way Daisuke Igarashi does? More than just a "marine adventure," this is a love letter to the oceanic lifestyle, with idyllic seaside towns, sweeping expanses of ocean, and myriad species of sea creatures. This is what happens when you go past manga-ka and become a true artist, understanding detail, shading, and style in such a way that flora and fauna come alive on paper. And once you're done being dazzled by the art, the story works its magic as well: the anecdotes about Umi and Sora have a haunting fairytale quality to them, and Ruka's encounters with the boys carry that air of mystery that leaves you wanting to find out more. Yes, there is definitely something strange and supernatural going on here—how else to explain two boys who literally grew up underwater?—yet the story proceeds at a subtle slice-of-life pace, as if this were just another story about a high school girl's summer break. But with its unique setting and curious characters, it's definitely far more.

Sometimes, an artist's greatest talent can also bring him down—and that happens a couple of times here as sweeping oceanscapes become lazy masses of gray screentone and as much hatching as possible. Setting the mood is one thing, but there's also the dangerous temptation of taking the easy way out with a full two-page spread. In fact, the story itself might be too much in love with setting the mood; this volume spans a full 300 pages before it even starts getting into the dramatics. Everything before that is a collection of sleepy episodes, consisting of anecdotes about the boys, Ruka hanging out with the boys, Ruka hanging out in general, or fish behaving in abnormal ways. Even a slice-of-life is supposed to go somewhere eventually, right? Igarashi has laid down some fascinating points to this story, but it might take a while to connect all the dots.

No real reason to complain here—this is a fresh, fascinating story that is guaranteed to pull you in with its gorgeous artwork and sense of wonder.

Ever find yourself getting interested in a series after its first volume, but you get so busy with other manga that you forget to keep reading? That's me and King of Thorn. Luckily, Grant Goodman has been keeping up, and his review shows why maybe it's time I caught up with the rest of the series (assuming this one hasn't also been sent to licensing limbo...)

(by Yuji Iwahara, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

The science-fiction genre (like any other genre) has seen its share of endlessly recycled and rehashed plots over the past decade. Every so often, however, an author can take familiar elements and thread them together to create a story that is refreshing and captivating. Yuji Iwahara's King of Thorn takes the tired idea of a human-race-threatening pandemic, the ever-out-of-reach concept of cryogenic freezing, and a pinch of Jurassic Park and spins a story that is both heart-wrenching and terrifying.
KoT opens with an image of a teenage girl named Kasumi realizing that she will have to be separated from her twin sister. In the wake of an incurable disease called "medusa" (it causes a hardening of the cells, organs, and skin), Kasumi is chosen as one of 160 infected humans to be cryogenically frozen until a cure is found. The separation of her from her twin is a cruel emotional twist: Kasumi continually asks herself why she was chosen to live, but her sister was not.
Upon awakening, Kasumi finds that thick growths of thorny vines have covered the inside of the lab and no one seems to be able to find who deactivated the cryogenic system. Without warning, a swarm of beasts that resemble mutated dinosaurs tear apart most of the humans who left their capsules.
Kasumi finds herself as part of a group of seven survivors determined to escape with their lives and figure out why no one is left in the lab to explain anything. All of them are condemned to die if they don't act quickly: those who aren't devoured also have the medusa disease slowly killing them from the inside.
King of Thorn packs in some incredibly tense escape scenes, as the nightmare creatures pop up time and again to hunt the survivors. The artwork is clean and consistent: characters are easy to distinguish from one another and the action sequences—while manic—never get to the point where they are impossible to follow.
The first volume contains a stunning series of illustrations when one of the characters suffers an emotional breakdown after stumbling upon an abandoned power station filled with human bodies. There are no speech bubbles for two full pages—Iwahara conveys all reactions through his masterful illustrations of eyes and facial expressions.
KoT's break-neck pacing and constant sense of being hunted will leave you feeling just as breathelss and confused as the cast of characters. The series is a scant 6 volumes, which means that answers come quickly in the following books. A number of twists complicate the relationships between all of the characters, but the biggest mystery is still the question of exactly how much time has passed between the deep freeze and the awakening.

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: Submissions may be edited for formatting and grammar.

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