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Shirley You Jest

by Carlo Santos,

So I've been telling people at my day job that I'll be taking a couple of days off for San Diego Comic-Con this week, and what's super weird is that they all invariably end up making the same wisecrack:

"Are you going to dress up?"

Now, Comic-Con is a lot of things to a lot of people, but apparently the local media have distorted it to the point where anyone who's heard of it thinks it's some kind of geek costume party. Which in a way it is, but then again...

Maybe this will be better explained when I come back to work on Monday with swag.

Vol. 1
(by Hiroya Oku, Dark Horse, $12.95)

"The last thing Kei and Masaru remember was being struck dead by a subway train while saving the life of a drunken bum. What a waste! And yet somehow they're still ... alive? Or semi-alive? Maybe it's reanimated ... by some kind of alien orb with a nasty message ... 'Your lives are over. What you do with your new lives is up to me!' And what this orb called Gantz intends to do with their lives is make them play games of death, hunting all kinds of odd aliens, along with a bunch of other ordinary citizens who've recently met a tragic semi-end."

Do you like gore? Do you like violence? GOOD TIMES! Dismemberment, sliced-up bodies and exploding heads are just some of the visceral delights that await in Gantz. Oku spares no detail in illustrating the brutality of this strange world, and some of the double-page panels come off as elaborate studies in just how much you, the gentle reader, can stand. (Hint: it's only Volume 1. I bet it gets much worse.) But it's not all about visual titillation, as a heavy air of mystery and foreboding hangs over the proceedings: So are these people actually dead or undead or what? What does this mysterious alien orb want? What happens to participants who leave the "playing area"? And what of Kei's quiet misanthropy towards others, which will probably end up being a major factor down the road? The desperate mob behavior of the other players is sure to raise some questions as well, and ultimately this volume does what all good introductions should do: pique one's curiosity about what happens next.

So, what's the real reason your curiosity is piqued? Is it because of a deep story and compelling characters, or because of the endless hype about how disturbing Gantz supposedly is? Clearly, it must be the latter, because as far as depth goes, this volume does little more than throw a bunch of dystopian sci-fi tropes together and act as if it's serious business. A group deathmatch, a mysterious "game master," gratuitously bloody deaths ... move along, folks, nothing original to see here. The characters are also woefully underdeveloped, with little more than canned introductions to reveal their personalities. Even the token hot girl has about as much of a role in the story as a piece of plywood. If that's not discouraging enough, consider the lifeless artwork as well—the character designs in the early chapters and many of the key action scenes look horribly awkward. Then the back of the book explains that Oku's art is almost entirely computer-generated; clearly, some things are best left in the hands of humans.

Not nearly as great as everyone seems to think it is, at least in the early going. This futuristic tale of terror gets a C, although I fully look forward to it "getting better later on."

Vol. 1
(by Kio Shimoku and Koume Keito, Del Rey, $10.95)

"Chihiro has been cursed with bad luck all his life. But all that changes when he wins a mysterious lottery that earns him a spot at the prestigious Rikkyoin High School, a strange place where everything is decided by chance—even who gets appointed to the student council. Although Chihiro has drawn the winning ticket, this is no ordinary honor. Each day the student-council members must risk their lives to save the school from various forces of evil. Chihiro's luck is about to be put to the test Yet Again, and one wrong move could mean death!"

Somewhere along the line of pedigree of Gekiganger and Ultimate Mop Daisuke lies Kujibiki Unbalance, the series-within-a-series that the characters of Genshiken wouldn't shut up about. As a spoof-take on otaku culture, this one gets all the character types right: the hapless schoolboy, his energetic gal pal, the mad tsundere genius, the obligatory underaged elementary girl, the domineering in-charge-of-everything type—and perhaps the most remarkable thing is that these girls are not falling over themselves to make love to Chihiro or do his laundry or whatever. What happens instead is an entertaining collision of madcap moments and character vignettes, and for every broad comedic stroke like a killer robot rampage, there are tender moments like the remembrance of a childhood friendship. The squishy, supercute character designs also add a certain idiosyncratic appeal; Keito's style is just off-kilter enough to be distinctive from all the other cookie-cutter bishoujo out there.

Thankfully, there is nothing overtly bad about KujiUn's first volume—but because it's designed to poke fun at all the typical things in manga and anime, it comes out as, well, despairingly typical. Things like a beach chapter, a festival chapter, and a character's crisis of confidence are sure to leave readers bored out of their minds and wondering when the funny will start. And that's the other thing: even though it was constantly referenced by one of the greatest comedies of the past few years, Kujibiki Unbalance by itself is really not all that funny; without the fandom effect of various Genshiken characters gushing about how great it is, it's really nothing more than a thoroughly average series. That averageness carries over to the artwork as well, which generally comes out in shades of gray, with lazy backgrounds and a lack of contrast or texture. With weak humor, weak plotting, and weak visuals, is there any real reason to read it?

A remarkable study in mediocrity, and because it does the "generic cosplayable moe series" so well, it earns a rock-solid C.

Vol. 1
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $12.99)

"A motorcycle accident, bone cancer, a speeding truck crashing into a boy on a stolen bicycle—tragic life-changing events turn the worlds of three young men upside-down. These three very different personalities have only one thing in common—their passion for basketball."

The first volume of Real is all about shattering expectations. "There's no way to do a decent manga about something as uncool as wheelchair basketball," you would think—but the moves shown here are just as graceful and intense as anything a baller on two legs could do. And surely any story about getting severely injured and being sent to hospital would descend into a melodramatic weepfest—but Inoue dodges that bullet and gives us a clear and poignant account of life in the ICU. And you would think that an artist most famous for doing a shounen sports series and a samurai drama would never be able to pull off the subtlety of slice-of-life, but the characters of Real are indeed as real as they come—a school punk trying to find his way in life, an amputee consumed by desire to overcome the odds, a conceited team captain who is dramatically humbled when fate throws him a curve. Strong facial expressions bring out the emotion of every scene, and careful pacing on each page provides just the right dramatic weight. As it turns out, everything you thought wouldn't work in this story ... actually does.

Yes, that's nice, now if only there were an actual story to care about. For all the talk of emotions and characters and drama, there's not a whole lot of plot direction to be seen, and right now what we've got is a bunch of guys standing around waiting for a story to happen. Oh, sure, some of them do things occasionally, like playing pickup games for money—but these story fragments don't add up to anything coherent yet, and the interconnecting threads between each character are yet to be pulled together. At least Togawa (the amputee) finally decides on something in the last chapter—but by then it's too little too late. And because the different character storylines aren't completely pulled together yet, there are lots of awkward scene changes as the focus shifts from one person to the next, with no strong narrative connection. Let's hope that digging further into the next few volumes will iron out these bumpy transitions and drifting plot threads.

As a fan of basketball and sports fiction in general, I really want to like this, but the story is clearly still in its developmental stages, so it's a B for now.

(by Kaoru Mori, CMX, $9.99)

"From the acclaimed author of Emma, this collection of short stories presents a further exploration into the stratified world of English society, portrayed through the experiences of young maids. Miss Bennett lives alone and keeps busy running the pub she inherited. Needing some help, she posts a notice for a maid. Along comes Shirley Madison, a girl who can clean and cook as well as any maid—even if she's only 13 years old!"

Hooray for historically accurate maids! Once again, Kaoru Mori proves that she has an entire genre all to herself with her refined accounts of 19th-century England. The short story format allows readers to dip into an Emma-like world without having to track the Emma storyline; instead, we get a unique potpourri of characters and relationships that are just as charming as Mori's flagship series. Two-thirds of the book is devoted to Shirley, whose childlike innocence comes out in so many delightful ways—twirling her skirt the first time she puts on her uniform, or aspiring to be just as glamorous as her mistress—and the final chapter casts her in a conflict where she grows as a character. Two other side stories follow, and it's the second that truly shines, with a street-smart maid who has to deal with her prank-loving master. Who knew that Mori had a talent for comedy? The timing and panache of that last story will leave a smile on your face, as will the precise linework, the carefully detailed backgrounds and period dress, and the gentle, effortless layouts. A perfect example of how to say more by drawing less.

Even by short story standards, these chapters are short—to the point where some of them end up in disappointment more than delight. Some of the early stories about Shirley are little more than fragments, with hardly even a trace of direction, and it can be frustrating to have the storyline cut off right when you were getting interested in learning more about her. (Mori even openly admits in the author's notes that she was "just kind of messing around" with some of those chapters.) And then there are some episodes that just don't click in terms of character and setting: the tale of Nellie, who has to take care of a 5-year-old boy, tries to go in multiple directions with something about absentee parents and early child development and collecting animals as pets and eventually ends up not really going anywhere. After these diversions, maybe it's worth going back to the continuity of Emma after all.

Not every story in this collection is perfect, but the mood and the style are so spot-on that it deserves at least a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Nanae Chrono, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Charley, a cyborg vampire who does the Vatican's dirty work, is the thrall of the local vampire playboy Johnny Rayflo. As the two fight crime—and each other—hilarity, violence and sacrilege ensue! But can Charley resist his own desperate cravings for blood? Find out as the devilish duo go up against a childlike vampire princess, a mysterious branch of the Unitarian Church ... and each other."

Contrary to popular belief, Tokyopop apparently still has enough resources to put out new stuff! Vassalord follows in the dark and brooding footsteps of Trinity Blood, offering that fan-favorite combo of vampires, crime investigation, and religious surface-dressing. As an added bonus for the fangirls, this series throws on a healthy dose of saucy man-on-man bloodsucking action. The middle story in this volume is the highlight, a 100-page thriller that goes through elaborate schemes and multiple twists as characters turn out to be not quite what they seem. But for all the crossed allegiances and betrayals between the church, the law, and the vampire race, the real driving force in Vassalord is the master-and-subordinate tension between Rayflo and Charley. To say that there's some homoerotic subtext between them ... is putting it lightly. It's not outright BL, but this kind of teasing can be even more sensual. The fact that they happen to be two very well-drawn bishounen doesn't hurt, either.

Perhaps we should be thankful that Vassalord doesn't take itself entirely seriously, because if it did, it'd be headed straight into the hole of pure failure (i.e. an F grade) where other overly serious vampire stories go to die. Instead, this one simply trots out some humdrum, convoluted plot ideas and then tries to laugh it off by having the main characters take comedic jabs at each other. As you can imagine, neither approach works particularly well; readers will be too confused by the different battling factions to remember to laugh at Charley and Rayflo's quarrels. (The first story is particularly mind-boggling—anyone care explain to me what that vampire princess wanted?) Also, Chrono makes the paradoxical mistake of drawing well without actually drawing well—the action scenes look intense, the characters are attractive, but damn if anyone can figure out what was going on in half those battle scenes. The fact that there's a clone/lookalike somewhere down the line only makes it worse. Are we supposed to care about the story, or just get completely lost in it?

Somewhere, someone really likes badass bishounen vampires battling evil and making eyes at each other, but there's just not enough clarity or a decent enough storyline to make it any more than a C-.

Vol. 2
(by Takashi Shiina, Shogakukan, ¥390)

"In a world where ESP is common, only three people have them at the highest possible level—Level 7. Those three are the special ESP team, The Children. The Children work for BABEL, a special ESPer organization committed to stopping crimes before they happen. Kouichi Minamoto is assigned to watch over them, and he'll need to, because three superpowered ten year olds are a problem on their own."

I think I like Zettai Karen Children more than most people. And the reason is this: because it lovingly skewers the way-overdone, way-too-serious psychic-superpowers genre (doesn't Del Rey publish like 5 of them a month?) while at the same time injecting it with gleeful energy. And as to why Volume 2 is being reviewed here: the early chapters aren't entirely consistent, so it's not until this point that the series finds its groove and outdoes a lot of its serious-minded peers. The sense of humor is quite unlike anything else—where else are you going to find a lead girl with a pervy dirty-old-man attitude?—and the action is surprisingly vibrant, with page-filling telekinetic explosions and the world's most intense game of dodgeball. The real clincher, though, is that the characters are actually worth caring about: the girls that comprise "The Children" each get a specific character-focused chapter in this volume, offering individual insights on the great responsibility that comes with their great power. At ten years old, these kids are already wiser and more interesting than all the chi-blasting psychic teens that litter the genre. (Oh, and if you needed three other reasons to check out the series...)

Poking fun at psychic series by churning out a slightly sillier, more energetic psychic series? Well, that just seems like an exercise in redundancy. For all its delights and amusements, ZKC is still shackled by the constraints of its genre, which means various episodic exploits where our heroines have to fend off some Evil Bad Guy or avert a Horrific Tragedy. Not to mention that the series' attempts to tackle the moral and social issues surrounding ESPers usually end up being shallow acts of lip service: Minamoto will chime in with something like "Maybe the girls aren't ready to take on these challenges," and then it jumps right back into mindless action and throwaway gags. So mindless, in fact, that one of the anti-ESPer enemy factions is called the "Normal People", which is right up there with "We couldn't think of a clever name." Enjoy it for the action and light humor, but don't expect this to be a transformative experience.

For all its weaknesses and genre elements, it's still more fun than it probably deserves to be, thanks to an entertaining cast and the bold, action-packed art.

Just a reminder, dear readers: you are ALWAYS welcome to submit to Reader's Choice, I mean even if you're reading Anime News Nina! at 2 in the morning and suddenly decide you want to explain in 400-ish words why Robin's "anime-style" comic is so terrific ... go for it! Don't hold yourself back just because I haven't asked for submissions lately, or because you've already submitted once, or because you've already been featured in the column. Remember, the more you write, the better you get, and the better you get, the more chance you have of having your review featured.

With that said, we're taking another dip in the yuri pool this week with Katherine Hanson's review of Strawberry Shake Sweet. Mmm, tasty!

(by Shizuru Hayashiya, Ichijinsha, ¥900)

Strawberry Shake Sweet is a sweet breath of fresh air in the world of yuri, and manga in general. This is one of a small but growing number of yuri titles written by a female mangaka for a primarily female audience; no fanservice (in fact, Strawberry Shake subtly pokes fun at it), no exploitation a la Kannazuki no Miko, and no moe.

Strawberry Shake Sweet begins with a 16 year-old pop idol, Julia Tachibana, being asked by her agent to act as a senpai to a new, upcoming talent, Ran Asakawa. Julia refuses flat out, because she knows this new kid will be her future rival. On her way out of the office, however, she runs into Ran, falls in love at first sight, and suddenly demands to be Ran's mentor. She doesn't realize that the manic feeling driving her to be closer to Ran is love, until her manager Saeki points it out, which Saeki regrets upon realizing it. Energized by finally understanding what she's been feeling, Julia continues mentoring Ran while simultaneously courting her, and Ran, rather oblivious to the true nature of Julia's hilarious (and sometimes sweet) behavior, gradually (at a far more subtle pace) begins to fall for Julia also.

Shizuru Hayashiya employs a clean, pleasing but not cluttered shoujo art style, with a knack for smoothly flowing layouts (with the exception of several pages in the early chapters done in 4-koma style, like Azumanga Daioh) and snappy comic timing. Whether it's Julia's slapstick reactions to Ran, Saeki's deadpan sarcasm, or a more subdued, emotional moment, Hayashiya's facial expressions capture the mood of every panel. Not one character is a cardboard cutout, from the leading characters Ran and Julia, to the frazzled yet sensible Saeki (who is a lesbian magnet, despite being straight), and the eccentric all-lesbian visual kei group Zlay (a parody of Glay).

For any manga reader who wants to read an emotionally satisfying romantic comedy that doesn't feel manipulative, or yuri that isn't derivative or fan-pandering at all (I'm looking at you, Strawberry Panic!), Strawberry Shake Sweet receives my five star recommendation. Let's hope that it gets licensed in the U.S. soon.

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 about 300-400 words (a little more or less is fine) and include:

- your name.
- Title of manga (and volume no., if applicable)
- Author/Artist
- Publisher and price
- 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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