Fate to Black

by Carlo Santos,

My Fellow Readers (in America),

As many of you know, we are approaching a potentially historic election day in America. That's why I hope you will join me in voting for Bandit Keith for president of the United States in America. Throughout his many adventures in Yu-Gi-Oh: the Abridged Series, Keith has shown a cool head, sound judgement, and an unwavering commitment to his country in America. Under Bandit Keith's leadership, we can embark upon a new era of hope, change, and most importantly, hopeful change—which will mean a brighter future for all of us ... in America.

Vol. 2
(by Rei Hiroe, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Lock 'n' load with the baddest group of mercenaries ever to hit the high seas of Southeast Asia! Aboard their World War II torpedo boat, the Black Lagoon, Dutch the Boss, Benny the Mechanic, Revy Two Hand, and Rock, the salaryman from Japan, deliver anything, anywhere. In the dangerous underworld of the Russian Mafia, Chinese triads, Colombian drug cartels, crazed assassins, and ruthless mercenaries, it's hard to know who to trust. But if you've got a delivery to make, and you don't mind a little property damage along the way, you can count on the crew of the Black Lagoon!
As the newest crewmember of the Black Lagoon, Rock is learning that life as a pirate is a lot more than just fun in the sun. After a salvage job on a sunken German U-Boat turns into a full-auto blowout with a gang of neo-Nazis, the crew of the Black Lagoon realizes they have more than a few issues with Revy's hair-trigger temper. But when the arrival of a pair of psychotic assassins in Roanapur nearly starts an all-out gang war, Rock is going to need all the friends he can get!"

So, does anyone here follow Black Lagoon for the characters? Right, and guys read girlie mags for the articles. But amidst the requisite gunfights and explosions, the surprising thing about Volume 2 is how the character issues actually outshine the eye candy. The first hint of it comes when Revy and Rock get into a philosophical conflict during the U-Boat raid, which later escalates into a serious confrontation in the middle chapters—and the crazy thing is, this disagreement between them packs more heat and tension than most of the violence found in the book! But if it's violence you want, it's violence you'll still get, especially with the extremely creepy assassins in the final story arc of this set. At first they may seem like a typical played-out cliché, but once it gets to revealing their methods and back-story ... that's when things really get serious, and that's why the series stands above its peers the way it does. Factor in the intense, detailed art, plus a natural flair for visual bombast, and this is as solid as action-adventure gets.

When the character development is outshining the action in a series that's supposed to be all about action, then something is wrong. Fleshing out the story and working beyond the expectations of the genre are a good thing, but should not lead to compromises like monotonous shootouts and dull old "Revy shoots everyone and then they all die" techniques. The U-Boat neo-Nazi confrontation could have been all sorts of awesome—especially in close quarters—but it just becomes this big bloodbath that culminates in ... uh, running away and finishing the job elsewhere. Not impressive. And it really says something when the villains (namely, the assassins in the last story arc) are coming up with more creative kills than the main characters. Also, let's try to keep story arcs from losing momentum midway—the anticlimactic neo-Nazi gunfight is guilty of this, but also in the psychotic-assassin plotline where the scene leading up to the critical cliffhanger is ... a bunch of people talking to each other. In that annoying style of vague, tough-sounding dialogue that makes no sense to anyone.

Drops the ball a bit on the action, but still an improvement on the first one, especially with the confrontation between Rock and Revy! So a B grade it is.

Vol. 1
(by Type-Moon and Dat Nishiwaki, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"When he was little, high school student and amateur mechanic Shirou Emiya was adopted by a magus man. Now he wants nothing more than to follow in his stepfather's footsteps and become a hero of justice. Little does he know that a war is waging among some chosen magi, and that he is about to become its focal point..."

The good thing about Fate/Stay Night: it moves fast. Crazy fast. Shirou is not the kind of character to waste his time showing us boring things like school and home life; no, he's barely out of the first chapter before being thrown into an arcane battle of magical proportions. It's a pace that does not let up for the entire volume—sword-fighting action girl Saber is quick to show up and even quicker to dispense justice, and even the obligatory "can someone please explain what's going on" chapter makes sure to segue right into another confrontation. And all of this happens ... in one day. It's not even over yet by the time they get to the end of the volume! This goes well beyond action-packed—it's action-crammed, with constant tension and escalation at every page turn. Best of all, the action scenes are the kind you can actually read: the straightforward artwork brings out every dodge and every blow in full detail without getting lost in stylistic quirks. This is magic and combat without pretension, and that's what makes it fun.

Congratulations, and welcome to yet another reworking of Ordinary High School Boy Discovers Amazing Supernatural Powers! For all the fan worship that Type-Moon gets, it's amazing the kind of mediocrity they get away with as far as story ideas ago. Of course, having a similarly mediocre artist probably doesn't help—the off-proportion character designs, blocky layouts and screentone abuse ("Stuff is happening at night! So let's make it all gray!") make this about as visually appealing as watching paint dry. But with more weapons and magic. Speaking of the weapons and magic aspect—the whole thing sounds like a sorcerous version of Pokemon, what with "masters" and "servants" and a "war for the Holy Grail" and a Shonen-Jump-for-Dummies tournament scheme. Even Shirou fancies himself to be some kind of "hero of justice," which sounds cool when you're eight years old, but given the level of sophistication the Fate franchise is supposed to have ... no. Even the things that are meant to be a positive—the fight scenes—simply rely on the trick of throwing speedlines on everything and having everyone look really angry. This isn't action. This is dumb.

Blah. An uninspiring C- if there ever was one, given the cookie-cutter story and even worse art.

Vol. 1
(by Mamizu Arisawa and Mari Matsuzawa, Seven Seas, $9.99)

"Inukami: a mystical being with a doglike appearance that forges a contract with a powerful human tamer to eliminate monsters and demons that prey on the innocent.
Teenage slacker Keita Kawahira is the descendant of a long line of Inukami tamers, but he seems to lack the necessary ability and has been forsaken by his family. One day, he meets a cute Inukami named Yoko, who, at first glance, looks graceful, obedient, and beautiful ... but upon forging a contract with her, Keita discovers that Yoko is a wild and mischievous Inukami that no one has ever been able to control. Can Keita prove his worth and tame her, or will she prove too much for the frisky teen to handle?"

I'll let Mamizu Arisawa's afterword speak for itself: "From the action to the cute stuff, with a little gutter humor thrown in, there isn't a part that doesn't fit." Indeed, no matter which aspect of romantic comedy it leans toward—from pure slapstick (Yoko's teleportation hijinks), to supernatural escapades, to romantic rivalry (meet Nadeshiko, the girl who actually does things competently)—Inukami! is consistently lighthearted and appealing. Perhaps the best indicator of the series' careful balance is how it does ecchi humor: sure, Keita gets into various blush-inducing scrapes with Yoko, but never the kind that makes one feel perverted or stupid for reading it. Yoko's hot-tempered character definitely makes her entertaining—every time Keita starts getting up to his boyish antics, she's always ready with a blast of magic to put him in his place. Aren't feisty girls a lot more fun than the passive ones? The clean style and delicate lines of the artwork also work in this volume's favor, with each scene flowing effortlessly into the next like a cute little comedy should.

It's a cute and enjoyable diversion, but that's all it'll ever be—until someone figures out how to stop all the episodic formulaic ripoffs. I'll give the first chapter a free pass because there are only so many ways a boy can meet a girl under magical circumstances, but everything after that is utterly uninspired—from the "exorcise an evil spirit" adventure (at a hot springs, no less) to "let's go on a date" to "here's another girl competing for the main guy's affections." What could they be possibly coming up with next ... a school festival? A trip to the beach? A long lost little cousin? People are only going to enjoy lighthearted energy and artistic polish for so long before noticing that the stories here read exactly like everything else in the genre. Even the main characters and the interplay between them falls short; Yoko's attitude is easily overshadowed by plenty of other entertaining female leads, and Keita—even with his slightly sarcastic tongue—is just another in a long line of teenage boys who have no idea what to do when a hot girl falls into their laps.

It's nicely polished and never has a draggy moment, but the lack of originality knocks it to a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Ken Akamatsu and RAN, Del Rey, $14.95)

"Japan has been invaded by aliens—but this is no ordinary assault. These extra terrestrials are cute and extremely dangerous. Their mind-blowing powers are way too much for the military. Enter Mao-chan, the daughter of a great general, and her charming best friends—Japan's only hope against this massive attack of the adorables!"

Who says Ken Akamatsu can only come up with one story? In Mao-chan he cuts out the spineless male lead and gets straight to the point: seriously cute girls! (Never mind that they're, like, 8.) As a comedy-adventure series, this one is surprisingly readable, get all the mileage it can out of a simple formula. The best chapters are the ones with unexpected turnarounds, like when the girls have to fight giant alien versions of themselves, or a sudden media exposé casts them in a negative light, or when an alien attacks people through their subconscious. Heck, they even have time for a bittersweet two-parter at the end of this volume, and through it all the girls' doting (and overreacting) grandfathers provide guaranteed comic relief. The stories are quick, punchy, and—most importantly—easy to follow without needing to decipher layers upon layers of artistic idiosyncrasy. Instead, RAN's visual style is a straightforward one, always letting the action and humor come first, and damn if he doesn't draw the cutest animal mascots ever—even if they are supposed to be evil.

It may be fun, it may be cute ... but a kids' series is still a kids' series. And that means, after reading 360 pages of this, you may start to wonder if your time might have been better spent elsewhere. Every ending is a happy one, there's no such thing as a cliffhanger, and even those unexpected deviations from formula can be predicted from about 10 pages away. (Gosh, the girls are sneaking around after school! Maybe they're just doing a good deed that looks bad on the surface?) It's also hard to get attached to the one-note characters; when we're expected to find Mao-chan adorable just because she keeps falling over herself, that's really stretching it. Even the orneriness of the three military grandfathers gets old—don't these guys ever do anything besides hate each other? And sending in another artist to do the work doesn't change the fact that Akamatsu's character designs are BOOORING. Same with the layouts, which all kind of look the same no matter where you are in the book. Maybe that straightforwardness could use a little stylistic pep after all.

Sure it's just a lightweight (at 360 pages, ha ha) children's series, but surprisingly, it does not make me want to throw it against the wall! For that mild entertainment value, it earns a C.

Vol. 17
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Johan is a cold and calculating killer with a mysterious past, and brilliant Dr. Kenzo Tenma is the only one who can stop him! Conspiracy and serial murder open the door to a compelling, intricately woven plot in this masterpiece manga thriller.
In the little mountain of Ruhenheim, life is simple and peaceful. Neighbors greet each other on the street, and the biggest case the local authorities have to worry about is a lost dog. But this bucolic splendor is about to change. Will Tenma, Grimmer and Inspector Lunge be able to prevent the massacre Johan is planning for this sleepy village and its unknowing inhabitants? Or will the cobbled streets of Ruhenheim soon run red with innocent blood?"

With just this volume and one more to go, Monster finally starts doing what it should have started doing a while back—tightening up the story, cleaning up loose plot threads, cutting out those random bad guys whose faces you'll never remember, and no more introducing characters who disappear after 5 chapters. Well, okay, this one still introduces new characters, but it's all in service of the final showdown in Ruhenheim, with tension hanging in the air and the mood slowly turning darker and darker (truly, nothing says it like a dramatic rainstorm). Oh, and the mind-boggling Johan-Nina cliffhanger from last volume? Perfectly resolved here with one of the last few great twists the series has in store! There's also another twist down the road, concerning a certain author of creepy children's books ... And even with the stakes so tantalizingly high, Urasawa remains in perfect artistic control—each panel only revealing exactly what he wants to reveal, each scene played out with metronomic precision. All that remains is one town, one killer, and a bunch of desperate guys (plus his twin sister) hoping to stop the rampage at last.

Goodness gracious, when's Urasawa going to quit playing for time? This whole Dramatic Johan Showdown would have been over a lot sooner if he didn't keep trying to make up new characters and new storylines. Even confining the grand finale to a single location—Ruhenheim—can't avert the author's compulsion to generate about five different subplots to somehow illustrate how a perfectly peaceful town slowly starts going mad. And if it's all coming down to the ultimate battle of the minds, then how come the main characters have mysteriously gone missing? Johan is barely a factor aside from his "Mwahaha!" moment in the first chapter—although that can be blamed partially on his tendency to use other people. Tenma, on the other hand, has no excuse; he basically sits around helping Nina overcome her psychological shock while Lunge and Grimmer do all the legwork. Really, what's an action thriller without the hero getting into some action and thrills? Volume 18 is obviously going to be a masterpiece, but this one kind of drags as the calm before the storm.

Probably could have been more suspenseful and compact—but still a gripping work of entertainment worth a B.

(by Svetlana Chmakova, Tokyopop, $19.99)

"Christie is an amateur writer who shows up at her first anime convention with her artist boyfriend, ready to promote the manga they created together. But when she unexpectedly falls for a mysterious cosplayer, things get a little ... well ... complicated. What do you do when the person you're falling in love with is going to be miles away in just a matter of days?"

If Japanese Prime Minister and professed fanboy Taro Aso wants a case study on what makes manga truly international, he need go no further than this book: a Russian-born Canadian artist riffing on why Americans love Japanese things. But more than just a celebration of geek culture, Dramacon is—like the highly lauded Genshiken—a warm portrayal of youthful exuberance, of the friendships we make, the decisions that change our lives, and of course, the rocky road to falling in love. As a 3-in-1 bundle, the story flows more smoothly, the character arcs are clearer, and you don't have to rack your brain trying to remember the plot points from all the previous ones. The first volume is still the sweetest, but the second and third open up the world with more complex characters and relationships, building up to a delightful melange that's not just romance and comedy, but also deep personal drama and a pinpoint-accurate slice of otaku life. But genre doesn't matter when it's really the mechanics that makes it so good: artwork that perfectly conveys everything from screwball comedy to outright heartbreak, a rapid-fire sense of humor, and razor-sharp dialogue that's pretty much better than anything translated from Japanese (and most stuff written in English, too). Even fans who already have the original 3 volumes can't miss this one ... not with the all-new bonus one-shot in the back!

I'm sure Mr. Aso would enjoy this work immensely, but at the same time, it reveals all the flaws—the growing pains of an artist still mastering her craft. Every stage of the story has its missteps: the all-too-convenient twists and coincidences, the occasional self-insertion author gags (not funny when Tezuka did it, and if God can't pull it off, how can anyone else), the overuse of chibi style, the hysterically violent climax in Volume 1, the ill-advised "not real manga" argument in Volume 2, the deus ex machina involving Bethany's mom in Volume 3. Looking back, it's Volume 2 that holds the whole series back, not knowing where to go with the Matt/Christie/Emily triangle (Emily always seemed to exist just for the sake of being "the other girl"), and basically leaving things in a mess for Volume 3 to pick up. And about that bonus comic that mentions Matt lacking character depth ... it's sadly too true, as he basically swishes around as a mysterious but handsome male tsundere for 550 pages. Ah, so it's girl-next-door wish fulfilment after all.

It's not perfect—then again, what is?—but is still one of those works that transcends its genre. Grab a copy and find out what makes Dramacon a fan favorite, or if I'm preaching to the choir here, fall in love with the story all over again.

Between the overblown epicness of Tsubasa and the brooding mysteriousness of xxxHOLiC, it's easy to forget that CLAMP used to do cute little short series as well! Here's Tina P. with a review of an old-school delight:

(by CLAMP, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

CLAMP School Detectives is a relatively more obscure CLAMP title that centres around three sickeningly cute (and rich!) elementary school students. Imonoyama Nokoru, Takamura Suou, and Ijuin Akira combine forces to solve various mysteries from their base at CLAMP School (ignoring their duties as the student council heads of the elementary school division) for the sake of helping women everywhere! Yes, it's almost ridiculous sounding, but the story delivers with much comedic effect, and one soon forgets the strange premise and just enjoys. The art is impeccable, as expected from CLAMP, and follows the more trademark style of their earlier work. These characters are also featured in the crossover stories CLAMP School Defenders: Duklyon and Man of Many Faces. The side story of Akira as the thief 20 Faces is explained somewhat in CLAMP School Detectives, but is better understood after reading Man of Many Faces.

Nokoru, Akira, and Suou are certainly charming characters, yet the main drawback is the sheer fictitiousness of their maturity. It is hard to believe that children of their age would be able to speak so eloquently about love, or be as gifted intellectually or in the culinary arts as these three, but that is just part of the fantasy that is CLAMP School. The main premise of these stories is some good old fashioned fun, and they certainly deliver in that respect. If you are looking for something with a bit more depth, you might want to read some other CLAMP titles, such as RG Veda or X/1999. CLAMP School Detectives as a whole is entertaining, but it requires a certain suspension of disbelief, and a desire for feel good stories that aren't worth much more than their face value. Fans of CLAMP, or even fans who enjoy a little mystery with a pinch of humour would undoubtedly find this series amusing and enjoyable.

One last thing to mention about this 3 volume series is that the English version published by Tokyopop is no longer in print. It is, however, fairly easily accessible to buy nearly new through various online sites.

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
- 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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