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Rosario Phoenix, Ace Vampire

by Carlo Santos,

How bad is the U.S. economy right now? This weekend I passed a streetcorner where sign-spinners were cheerily advertising for "Your Ad Here." That's right, it's gotten so bad that there's not even enough business to put stuff on those obnoxious human-powered signs.

But hey, if you still have enough money to buy new manga, read on!

Vol. 1
(by Minoru Murao, original concept by Gonzo, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"Meg and Jo are the team from 'Jacks of All Trades,' two smoking-hot hired guns who will take on just about any dirty job if the price is right. Jo's the crack-shot, and Meg ... well, Meg has a talent for getting abducted. But when these sexy mercenaries are forced to hide out at bully-magnet Takeru's apartment, it's the beginning of an unlikely friendship amidst the flying bullets and foiled kidnappings! Based on the hit anime, this manga's got only one thing hotter than the action—and that's the girls pulling the triggers!"

Like most other girls-with-guns series, this one flies thick and fast with action—but there's something oddly soothing about the artwork Minoru Murao brings to Burst Angel. Maybe it's the efficiency of line, the soft gradient tones, the compactness of motion—if there's one coveted artistic skill out there, it's the ability to draw a convincing scene with just a few strokes. Instead of being bombastic, overpowered showoffs, these gunslingers are all about being slick, straightforward and getting the job done. Well, make that "gunslinger" in the singular—Jo is the one who does all the shooting, while Meg balances things out nicely with her bouncy, lighthearted demeanor. Even the secondary characters provide a nice yin and yang effect—for every sneering villain, there's a sympathetic client to be helped or rescued. Recurring character Takeru is a particularly interesting case: you'd think he would be the typical helpless schoolboy we love to hate, but no, he actually makes an effort and helps out the girls more than once. Good job, kid.

Like most other girls-with-guns series, this one has absolutely nothing interesting about it once you get past the thick-and-fast-flying action. Lacking the tortured personalities of Gunslinger Girl or the intricate world of Black Lagoon, it's about as middle-of-the-road as you can get for a sexed-up action-adventure. Actually, even the sexed-up part fails; the fanservice is so average that you'll just spend your time pondering the impracticalities of fighting crime in a bikini top. Everything just screams generic, from the setting (In a world ... where the gun is law), to the story pattern (bad guys attack, Meg and Jo fight them, Meg and Jo win), and even the exact details of how Jo wins each gunfight (this wouldn't be the first time someone has employed the "Actually, I haven't used all my bullets" trick). And while the visuals might seem compact and efficient at first glance, it really just comes down to pure laziness—backgrounds and textures and fully detailed hands are apparently not necessary when cashing in on someone else's franchise.

No surprises here! The start of A perfectly average and uninteresting action series nets itself a perfectly average and uninteresting C.

Vol. 1
(by Kazunari Kakei, Viz Media, $7.99)

"Nora, an unruly demon, has defied his superiors one too many times. For the sake of his 'education,' Nora is sent to live among mortals and enters a bond of servitude with cool-as-ice star student Kazuma Magari. Kazuma is about to learn the ways of the underworld ... and Nora will learn more from the 'real world' than he ever thought possible!
When the seal for Nora's form is released he becomes Cerberus, the vicious dog of disaster. But Nora can only use magic when Kazuma grants him permission ... and Kazuma doesn't grant permission easily. The Dark Liege wants the two to team up and crack down on renegade demon factions in the human world, but how can they do that if they can't even get along?"

With its tough-looking leading men and yet another exterminate-monsters-using-supernatural-powers storyline, the last thing you'd expect Nora to succeed at is comedy. Yet that's exactly where the series' first volume shines: Nora and Kazuma play off each other like a classic boke-tsukkomi pair, with Kazuma providing the scathing beatdown ("I forbid!") every time Nora gets a little too crazy with his powers. But it doesn't stop there—the fact that Nora is also Cerberus makes it a laugh riot with all the dog-and-owner jokes, and even the Dark Liege (i.e. Nora's boss) just happens to be, well, hilariously effeminate. But Kazunari Kakei pours plenty of energy into the fight scenes as well, and when the time comes for Nora to take on the demon world's most wanted, the monstrous creatures and magic spell effects are nothing less than eye-popping. Kakei's linework is bold and sure-handed, and with the 40+ page chapters, there's plenty of space for the action—which, of course, you don't want to miss.

What's the real difference between Weekly Shonen Jump and Monthly Shonen Jump? Instead of monster-of-the-week, you get monster-of-the-month—a formula that Nora settles into all too quickly. Is the series' snappy sense of humor and blistering action enough to carry it? You'd better hope so, because the actual storyline is nothing more than beating up demons over and over again (with various splashes of comedy). Sure, there are a couple of hints at something greater, like a behind-the-scenes bad guy in Chapter 3 and a villain who says he'll be back, but we're still a long way off from any actual developments. And while learning about the complexities of the demon world might be fun, this series has an annoying way of presenting it: by stopping the action cold in its tracks while someone narrates in front of a cutesy schematic drawing. Funny the first time, but it quickly gets gimmicky, as well as pointing out Kakei's occasional artistic laziness—oh look, chibi-style comedy means I don't have to draw backgrounds.

A bit dry in the story department, but if you want an action-comedy that actually gets the comedy part right, this is a passable B-.

Vol. 1: The Phoenix Wright Files
(by various, Del Rey, $14.95)

"Only one name strikes fear into the hearts of evildoers everywhere: Phoenix Wright, ace attorney. Join Phoenix Wright and his adorable assistant Maya—plus Miles Edgeworth, Detective Gumshoe, Franziska von Karma, and others—as they investigate twenty intriguing cases. And find out why Phoenix Wright has devoted his life to fighting injustice!"

With 300 collected pages of one-shots and spinoffs, this volume is essentially one big Phoenix Wright party by the fans and for the fans—and as such, it bubbles with the joy and humor of the games. Even though each artist gets just one chapter, that's all it takes to make rapid-fire gag humor succeed, whether it involves Phoenix's spiky hair or Maya's love of cats or the mysterious ways of visor-wearing, coffee-snarfing rival Godot. (Amazing, really, how the guy with the fewest lines ends up being the funniest character.) The other advantage of an omnibus like this, of course, is the sheer variety involved: you get classic whodunit material and slice-of-life character sketches and off-the-wall comedy and everything in between, in a range of visual styles from the cutesy gag-manga look to sharp-lined heroic action. Heck, this edition has even lovingly lettered "OBJECTION!" and "HOLD IT!" in the exact same font as the game. This volume proves that "videogame manga" need not have a negative connotation—delightful characters and a well-thought-out world can make it a whole lot of fun.

Wait ... people got all hyped for the Phoenix Wright manga and it turns out to be some kind of multi-artist short story compilation? A proper spinoff series might have been nice, or even a retelling of the games (which are good story material in their own right), but this ... this basically screams of "fan-made project," which brings its own set of negative connotations. Don't expect much quality control here; there's no telling whether you'll get a clever little gem or a nonsensical mess that stumbles from one plot point to the next. And for those who aren't familiar with the games—you're not even invited to this party, as it presumes a solid foundation of knowledge about who everyone is and how they relate. The complete lack of continuity between chapters also makes it hard to "get into" the reading experience; the constant jumping from story to story is obviously nothing like the experience of playing through the games. Boo.

The characters are funny and charming, I'll give it that. But for being a fan artists' compilation of varying quality, I'll give it a C+.

Vol. 3
(by Akihisa Ikeda, Viz Media, $7.99)

"All-around average teenager Tsukune can't get accepted to any high school save one ... but on his first day, he finds the rest of the student body doesn't appear average in the least. Best of all, the cutest girl on campus can't wait to fling her arms around his neck! Wait a sec—are those her teeth around his neck too...? Tsukune's going to have one heck of a hickey when he gets home from Monster High! But does he have a chance in H-E-double-hockey-sticks of raising his grades at a school where the turf war isn't between the jocks and the nerds but the vampires and the werewolves?
Lesson Three: Trolls
When fighting a troll who wants to be a big man on campus...
(a) hide under a bridge—that's the last place he'd look
(b) if you've recently received an unsolicited infusion of vampire blood, fight back—since you've probably been transformed into a powerful vampire for all eternity
(c) let the rude vampire girl who infused you with her vampire hemoglobin—without your permission—lend you a fang..."

And now here's a series that literally involves battling the Monster of the Month. For those who were getting tired of Tsukune's repetitive school mishaps, this volume manages to make things interesting by exploiting a major plot point: Tsukune's human identity is in danger of being exposed by the disciplinary committee. The result is the most intense fight so far in the series, against the toughest opponent yet—we're not talking possessive girls or jealous guys here, but a monster who seriously wants Tsukune dead. Moka's blood-transfusion technique also adds a new twist to the fundamentals of the story formula: instead of having the hot vampire girl bail out Tsukune every time, now she also has the power to help him bail himself out. This is all new, exciting stuff, and Ikeda's action artwork is certainly up to the challenge, with perspective-bending moves and enough mass destruction to match any of the more serious action-fantasy titles. But if you were into it for Tsukune's harem, don't worry—Moka and the girls are also still as cute as ever.

The fight for Tsukune's life provides some exciting new material to build upon—which promptly gets ignored in favor of the same old, same old once this volume reaches the halfway point. Even if Tsukune does have the ability to temporarily power up now, he and Moka just end up re-enacting the same things that happen in all the previous volumes: fending off monsters that might ruin their happy-sappy relationship. And really, after everything that happens with the disciplinary committee, you can't expect to go back to the old ways. Didn't they already fight a meatheaded male rival a while back? As well as a dangerously seductive teacher? Meanwhile, Ikeda's art doesn't seem interested in going anywhere beyond "good enough"; sure he draws some pretty fight scenes, but there aren't enough backgrounds to give a good sense of atmosphere (apart from the occasional establishing shot), and the character designs, although well-polished, lack expression. There's just something creepy about all the girls having that exact same vapid face.

Heads turned when Rosario+Vampire showed up on the top U.S. graphic novels list a while back, but now it makes sense. People love anything with a combination of monsters, magic, fighting, and cute girls, even when it trudges through C territory.

Vol. 1
(by Yasutaka Tsutsui and Gaku Tsugano, CMX, $9.99)

"Alone one day after school, high school senior Kazuko discovers a broken beaker in the science lab. She smells something sweet in the air, passes out, and finds herself transported back to her own past! From that moment on, Kazuko realizes that she has the ability to teleport through time. Where did this special power come from and how will she use it? Naturally, Kazuko wants to help people in trouble. But no matter how small, a change in the past can alter the future forever. Even good intentions can sometimes have bad consequences!"

Although based on the same source material as the recent Girl Who Leapt Through Time anime, this version hews closer to the original book—keeping the same character names, at least, and capturing a bit more of that nostalgic feel of a classic youth novel. The premise may be a fanciful one, but our heroine is decidedly down-to-earth, especially in the way she decides to use powers: her first time trip is to go back and visit her dying grandmother, a wonderfully poignant episode that explores the emotional impact of time travel, not just its trippy sci-fi exterior. But the trippy sci-fi parts are handled expertly as well—like any good comic, it's the moments between the panels that make the story tick, and so it is with the clever placement of Kazuko's exact time-leaping moments. In fact, the artwork and layout is just well-paced in general (it's time travel, so of course the timing's the one thing you have to get right): carefully spaced panels capture the flow of dramatic moments, the slices of life, and everything in between.

After making it through essentially the halfway point of a two-volume series, this adaptation is feeling more like a watered-down summary than a fully developed story. There's just not enough time and space to let it become deep and involving, especially with the way the characters are handled—Kazuko's dealings with her friends don't go much beyond the typical high school formula of liking some guy, while some other guy likes her, etcetera. The same applies for the time travel aspect, which really just boils down to a series of episodic incidents where Kazuko learns like predictable lessons like Averting One Disaster Can Lead To a Greater Disaster, and Trying Not To Change Things Will Only Change Them More. The artistic style, too, falls somewhat on the dry and forgettable side—it's not bad per se, but this one pretty much pulls out every high-school character stereotype. It's a great story, but if only there were more of it...

A bit on the skimpy side, but still smoothly executed—and as a big fan of time-travel myself, I'll happily hand out a B for a sweet little story like this one.

(by various, original concept by DJ Milky and Courtney Love, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"The princess of all things rock and roll is mixing it up with all your favorite Tokyopop original characters. Be she rocking out all night long with Ein from A Midnight Opera, serenading the Rhysmyth prom crowd, or feeling the mystery beat at The Tarot Café, Ai is traveling the Tokyopop universe with the winds of rock beneath her wings!"

AMAZING FACT: DJ "Stu Levy" Milky's adolescent showbiz fantasies are almost tolerable when authored by someone other than DJ Milky. Upon careful reading, it seems that most of the artists who signed up for this project did so with a knowing nod and wink—nothing can possibly be as embarrassing as the Princess Ai franchise, so let's go to town on it while we have the chance! The obvious winner here is the Divalicious crossover; as a series designed to skewer celebrity culture in general, it's the perfect candidate to deliver a beatdown to Courtney Love's comic-book Mary Sue. (Actual satirical Harajuku Girl dialogue: "I wish I was as cool as her pretending to be me!") Meanwhile, Battle of the Bands targets a secondary charater by embarrassing the pants off of Kurt Kent, and Re:Play takes on the deadly epidemic of garage-rocker fanboyism. Even some of the more earnest entries do decently: A Midnight Opera brings in some virtuosic fantasy art, and the My Cat Loki crossover is simply an adorable little slice of New England life. You know, letting other people write his drivel might be the smartest move Milky has ever made.

The very fact that this book exists should be evidence enough against it. Seriously, Tokyopop staff are getting laid off left and right and struggling artists aren't ever going to get to finish their stories and yet some guy keeps getting the wherewithal to finance his pet project? Such corporate shenanigans. The real embarrassment, though, is the fraction of artists who took this assignment seriously: the intro chapter and the Tarot Café piece only serve to perpetuate the series' disturbing fictional-hero-worship, and dear person who draws for Rhysmyth, you cannot do basic character design to save your life. Even more frightening is the chapter preview of yet another Ai spinoff drawn by Misaho Kujiradou; apparently English-speaking artists aren't the only ones getting screwed by their contracts. You know what would have been a lot cooler than making people draw fancomics for Stu? Letting them contribute to an original short story compilation. Now there's a concept.

I'd read it for stuff like the Divalicious story and a couple of others, but after that, it should probably be put to a better use ... like recycling.

Carlyn Pocalyko, have you considered a career in bashing lousy manga? This stuff is hilarious! (It also reminds me, we need more reader reviews of CLAMP's works around here ... hint hint.)

Vols. 1-5
(by Sakurako Gokurakuin, Broccoli Books, $9.99 ea.)

Okay, to be perfectly honest, I really don't know the whole enchilada of this franchise (I didn't exactly grow up in Akihabara), but I do know one thing for sure: if a manga is based on a popular trading card game, it's time to be a little wary.

Anyway, let's just go through this summary of Aquarian Age: Juvenile Orion and stop me if you've heard all of this before: After being gone for several years due to a horrible incident, normal 16-year-old girl Mana returns to her hometown to not only live with her aunt, but also to reunite with her childhood friend, Kaname. However, Kaname has changed from the cheerful boy Mana used to remember; he even tells her that things are different from several years ago and to not get close to him. However, Mana's arrival sets the wheels of fate in motion, drawing in three other boys and a teacher from the high school she attends (as well as Kaname) who soon realize that...

...I just have to stop here, because you and I probably know the rest of the plot. Why is that? Well, maybe because there's another little manga out there called X/1999 that was created over 10 years ago and has a plot eerily similar to this! Not only is the plot a condensed rehash of a far superior manga, but since this series is only 5 volumes long, everything's so rushed. Why are the bad guys (dressed of course in trademark Villain Gothic Clothing) evil? What's their motive? Do they even have names? If they did, it completely passed me by. Not like the main characters have any more development; Mana is one big Mary Sue, Kaname is just a knockoff of Kamui from X (minus the personality development), the two other boys have little to no screen-time at all, and the third boy has a ... relationship with the teacher, which I personally think was created to make Yaoi Fangirls 'SQUEE!!! ^.^' Art-wise ... it's just typical bishonen art, which gets confusing, since everyone's a bishonen (and when they're all gathered in a single page ... oh boy ...)!

Really, I like shojo manga as much as the next girl, but if you want a manga with an End of the World story with plenty of bishonen, more gothic/religious art you can shake a stick at, but with characters who have great, developed personalities and motivations, please buy X/1999 and just let this one pass.

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 if you happen to know it, retail 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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