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20th Century Girl

by Carlo Santos,

Check it out!

Vol. 1
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Humanity, having faced extinction at the end of the 20th century, would not have entered the new millennium if it weren't for them. In 1969, during their youth, they created a symbol. In 1997, as the coming disaster slowly starts to unfold, that symbol returns. This is the story of a gang of boys who try to save the world.
Failed rock musician Kenji's memories of his past come rushing back when one of his childhood friends mysterious commits suicide. Could this new death be related to the rise of a bizarre new cult that's been implicated in several other murders and disappearances? Determined to dig deeper, Kenji reunites with some of his old buddies in the hope of learning the truth behind it all."

Focus too much on the drama, and you might just miss the real essence of 20th Century Boys. This first volume is not so much a heart-pounding thriller as Urasawa's personal reflection on growing up; do the math and you'll realize he would be about the same age as the principal characters. As such, it's the historical details that bring this story to life: old-school manga references, the birth of rock 'n' roll, the first moon landing, and the Japanese economic boom that transforms a childhood sandlot into a bowling alley and then an apartment complex. But even with such evocative world-building, it wouldn't be an Urasawa work without his trademark twists: the hints of mystery surrounding the all-powerful "Friend," an inexplicable suicide, and the digging up of childhood memories. Distinctive character designs, strong facial expressions and perfectly paced layouts also make this a fine artistic specimen. In the end, one character sums it all up: "Are we, today, the kind of adults we dreamed of becoming back then?" Perhaps another 20th-century icon has the answer: "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans."

So ... I'm guessing it gets better later on? The outset of this story demands a lot of goodwill from the reader: the assumption that you're a big Naoki Urasawa fan and will gladly sit around while he lays out the pieces for his next great epic. That's probably why this volume feels so ragged and disconnected, jumping back and forth between the cultish machinations of "Friend" and the coming-of-age vignettes and the thirtysomething guys hanging around reminiscing on old times. Because of this ambitious, decades-spanning setup, the various story threads never get a chance to fully develop, and the short chapters also contribute to that stunted growth. Then, of course, there's the classic symptom of overzealous storytelling: too many damn characters. It'd have been okay with just introducing Kenji and his inner circle, but then their families and acquaintances have to show up, and all the people connected to the guy who died, and all the people signing up with "Friend" (who, in stereotypical mysterious-villain fashion, never reveals his face). Quit mucking around, Urasawa. Just give us the breathless page-turner we all want.

Doesn't get off to the explosive start that Monster did, but a strong story foundation and a distinctive setting earn this one a B.

Vol. 3
(by Hiroya Oku, Dark Horse, $12.95)

"With Kurono and the others having returned to their own separate lives after barely surviving the fight to the death with the onion alien, Gantz starts collecting a new group of participants: gang members lured into a trap by a rival group, a grandmother and her grandson killed in an accident, and Hojo and Sadako, who were caught up in the same collision. Nishi has been spending his days and nights finding pleasure in the cruel slaughter of animals. Suddenly Nishi, Kurono, and the others find themselves unable to move and transported once again to the Gantz room with orders to catch the Tanaka alien!"

Oh look, Gantz might actually start getting good now! Maybe what was missing from the previous two volumes' sci-fi antics was a real-world frame of reference—and that is exactly what's provided in Volume 3, where we see what the main characters do in their daily lives. Kurono and Kato's interactions with various school bullies help us get a more concrete idea of their personalities—Kato the gentle giant, and Kurono more of a self-serving ordinary guy—and even the side characters who get pulled into the next alien-hunting game get some back-story material to explain their circumstances. But the one thing that makes Gantz so popular is still found in abundance, of course: brutal violence, whether it involves Kurono teaching some school thugs a lesson (thanks to a little high-tech souvenir he took home), or the far more disturbing act of Nishi blowing away a guy who gets on his nerves. Whether in the real world or somewhere more nebulous, the action always hits the mark, especially with Oku sparing none of the visual details in his precise, clinical art.

Normally, a "clinical" art style might be considered a mark of skill, but in the case of Hiroya Oku—who uses a lot of computer modeling to generate his work—it just gives everything a cold, unlikable look. And this is what is holding back Gantz from being a truly convincing action title: when all the characters are holding such stiff poses and mild expressions, it's hard to believe that there's any real action going on. Even the "special effects" are little more than elementary CGI tricks: the gradient-shaded black sphere, or the cut-away effect when people are summoned to Gantz's apartment. Ugly art, however, is nothing compared to the real forehead-slapper in this volume: the adolescent male fantasy bit where the Hot Girl Who Didn't Do Anything from the previous volumes shows up at Kurono's place, asks him to take her in, and does all sorts of fanservicey things. Now, is there really any point to that in terms of the story, or is it just there because that's what sells? (Hint, guys: just google for Nonami Takizawa and enjoy the pictures. It's $12.95 cheaper than this manga!)

Finally starting to show some promise, but some of the story aspects are still pathetically immature. But it gets a B- for at least developing some of the characters.

Vol. 5
(by Miyuki Eto, original concept by Jigoku Shōjo Project, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Whether you wish to protect yourself, your newborn, an unrequited love, or a sick sibling, the Hell Girl can help destroy anyone who threatens you. If you're holding a grudge, Ai Enma offers a unique—and deadly—bargain. But the price is clear: both the grudge-holders and those they curse are eternally damned."

Ask me what my favorite episode of the Hell Girl anime is, and I'll say it's the "Purgatory Girl" episode, with its ties to the past and how it extends the mythos of the series. So imagine my pleasant surprise in finding that this volume of the manga has a "Purgatory Girl" chapter in it ... and being even more surprised when it has nothing to do with the original story, but still succeeds in its own way. Rather than the psychological complexity and foreboding of the original, this version is a poignant tale of familial love, full of regret and redemption. The other chapters also continue to put new spins on the traditional revenge formula: there are actually two stories where both protagonist and antagonist strike a deal with Hell Correspondence, and only through suspenseful strokes of fate can one of them prevail, while the last story shows what happens when an impulsive burst of anger leads to cursing the wrong person. And of course, this series' brand of elegant horror wouldn't be possible without artistic flourishes like Ai Enma's floral patterned outfits and the deceptive beauty of hone-Onna. Gorgeous—and yet terrifying.

Sometimes I fantasize about a world where the Hell Girl manga was serialized in a more serious-minded magazine like, say, Afternoon. Not freakin' Nakayoshi, where the protagonist of every story is a middle-school girl doing middle-school girly things, which apparently are so grave that they have to call up the Internet and ask Hell Girl for help because they're too weak to slap some sense into their stalker boyfriends or whoever. Yes, these are the kind of airheaded plotlines that make their way into this manga—either that, or childhood fantasies like being a teen celebrity, or cheesy family tales like bonding with your grandma or little brother. Even though they still follow the Hell Girl formula, the relative shallowness and shortness of each story (the entire volume clocks in at less than 170 pages) makes them little more than horror-lite. Of course, the artwork is to blame as well—bulbous eyes and Super Shoujo Sparkle effects make it impossible to take any of this seriously. Gorgeous but terrifying? Well, sure; any artist who needs to use that much screentone is terrifying.

Manages to pull some heartstrings, but the lightweight stories fail to evoke the supernatural dread that the series is supposed to be about. A withering C- for this one.

Vol. 1
(by Izumi Tsubaki, Viz Media, $8.99)

"The star of her high school's Massage Research Society club, Chiaki Togu is otherwise a normal, quiet girl until she falls in love at first sight with a gorgeous back—a back that happens to belong to Yosuke, the hottest guy at her school! Unfortunately, Chiaki's attraction to Yosuke is thwarted by her own insecurity and the scheming of other girls—especially her twin sister Sayaka!
Although Yosuke seems out of Chiaki's league, she would do anything to give him a massage. The two eventually strike up a deal in which she will be allowed to touch his back ... if she can make him fall in love with her!"

Even though it looks like any other "ordinary schoolgirl hooks up with hot guy" story, the very idea of throwing massage into the mix makes all the difference—along with Izumi Tsubaki's goofy sense of humor. The characters of The Magic Touch are not the type to take themselves too seriously, and a steady stream of puns, non sequiturs and sight gags keep the energy flowing as the series goes through the usual romantic motions. Even better is when the humor relates to massage therapy—witness Chiaki geeking out over chiropractic pressure points, or showing how to take down a gang of bullies by knowing where all the body's weak spots are. The real star of the series, though, may be Chiaki's dorky older brother, whose handsome visage is hilariously offset by his poor social skills (his story was actually the original one-shot that inspired this series). If you thought it was funny seeing Chiaki try to pick up Yosuke, just watch her brother trying to pick up anything female. Simple, uncluttered art and layouts also make this a fun, light read.

You might learn a thing or two about acupressure techniques here, as well as get a few laughs out of the main characters' antics, but it doesn't change the fact that the story is as dull and predictable as they come. Of course Yosuke is the hottest guy in school, and of course he's going to fall for Chiaki eventually, and of course there are going to be all sorts of dumb clichés standing in their way. (Seen in this volume: Chiaki's evil twin sister, the Yosuke fangirl army, and—just like in every other relationship manga—Chiaki's own insecurities when she overhears something out of context.) And somehow, even with such obvious plot elements, the story still manages to bungle the formula and come up with poorly paced scenes that transition in confusing ways. Even the jokes, which might have been this series' saving grace, end up falling short because they often have to be explained, thus negating the humor. It's not much fun looking at the character designs either, where Yosuke resembles every other pretty boy to grace a manga page, and everyone else's looks are instantly forgettable.

You know, a "massage manga" would be a pretty cool idea ... if it weren't so busy being a "generic shoujo romance manga" instead. This one gets a C.

Vol. 20
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.99)

"The princess has been betrayed and her body sent to Fai's frozen home world of Seresu. In order to follow Sakura, the wrecked remains of the band of travelers must pay their price to the witch. And once they arrive, Fai will have to confront the one he's been fleeing—and the horrific truth of his past!"

Over the past several volumes, this story has gotten way better than anyone may have ever expected. But the real treat of Vol. 20 is the story-within-the-story: a stunning flashback that reveals just where Fai came from and what he is doomed to become. Told over multiple chapters, Fai's back-story has a mythic fairytale quality to it, as well as an emotional pull that has rarely been matched throughout this series. There's just something about the sight of a great tower, a massive pit, whirling snows, and hopelessly imprisoned children that make this world feel so much grander than the average adventure-fantasy. Of course, much of that has to do with the intense virtuosity of CLAMP's art, which conveys every situation from horror and suffering to high-level sorcery (and even a touch of humor) with bold, impressionist lines. The Fai flashback is perhaps their greatest artistic challenge so far, and one that is met spectacularly: everything you need to know about layout, shading, toning, backgrounds, and simply how to impress the hell out of people can be found right here. So read and be amazed.

Over the past several volumes, this story has gotten way more complicated than anyone may have ever expected. The first few chapters of this volume are a complete work of drudgery, an infodump that desperately tries to clarify the circumstances of why Fai Did Something Awful To Sakura. This all culminates in the three chess-game bishounen saying something totally cryptic about how they lied in order to get the adventurers to do what they did; frankly, this whole mess would be easier explained if L were around right now. It also doesn't help that the highly stylized character designs are a pain to tell apart if it's not one of the main cast members. In fact, stylization is also what makes some of the spellcasting segments difficult to figure out—swirls of wind and other displays of artistic virtuosity don't mean a thing if no one else can understand what's actually going on. Only in the Fai flashback does the storyline finally realize the advantage of "showing" rather than "telling," but by then it may be too late to redeem a horrifically convoluted first half.

So much exciting drama from the previous volume, only to be ruined by people standing around explaining things! Oh well, the flashback's nice, but it's still just a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Didier Crisse and Nicolas Keramidas, Tokyopop, $12.99)

"On the night of her coming of age ritual, Luuna, a young girl from the mystic Paumanok tribe, enters the sacred wood.
There she will face Hohopah, the Heart of the Forest, and be assigned her totem, the animal incarnation of her inner-self. But unbeknownst to Luuna, this night belongs to Unkui, the Evil One, who demands that her soul be shared!
Now Luuna is cursed with not one, but two totems: One white—the reflection of all that is good in her; the other, black—representing the darkness that resides in us all, and capable of terrible destruction.
Unable to return to her tribe, Luuna embarks on a quest to seek out the wise spirits of the earth and with their help, rid herself of the cursed totem. But little does she know that Unkui is not finished with her yet, and has set his fiendish minions on her trail..."

It's amazing what gems you find once you put aside the assumption that the only good comics are the ones printed at 5.5" x 8.5" in black and white. Luuna is one of those gems, a full-color masterpiece that blends the stylization of manga, the narrative drive of bande-desinée, and the liveliness of traditional animation into pure adventure. There's not a single shaky line to be found in this breathtaking depiction of pre-colonial America, where lush forests, bitter snowscapes and the changing seasons play just as much of a role as the characters themselves. And it's not just the background art that's beautifully in tune with nature: the talking animal characters and other spiritual aspects give this story a distinctive folk-tale feel, as if it were carved right out of the bedrock of Native American mythology and not invented by some 21st-century comickers an ocean away. As for the lead heroine herself, well, she's the highlight of almost every scene, whether trekking determinedly through the woods or kicking ass and taking names as evil Luuna. The sheer urgency of her quest never lets up, and that's why Volume 2 can't come soon enough.

Just as there are stylistic touches and idiosyncrasies that scare normal people away from manga, so it goes with the distinctive character of French comics. Like, why is it so important to have three comedy-relief mascots following Luuna around and making goofy asides? Come on, just write these guys out of the story so that it can feel more like a serious fantasy epic and less like a Saturday morning cartoon. When it does try to live up to that epic scope, things just get confusing—mostly because of poorly explained magical situations. In its effort to maintain a quick pace, this story forgets the importance of stopping occasionally to let things sink in. The result is a lot of plot points getting fudged—an inexplicable animal transformation, or Luuna's unannounced shifts into berserker mode, or even just the basic understanding of which animals are real and which ones are spirits. Then again, some of that confusion is also due to artwork that's trying so hard to be dynamic that important revelations (like, say, a once-missing character appearing in the background) get lost in the fray.

The mechanics of story sometimes get a little out of sync, but the stuff that really makes a great fantasy tale memorable—like a convincing world and larger-than-life characters—are absolutely spot-on.

Ask various fans what they consider to be the Best Romance Series Ever and you'll probably have to run for cover from the ensuing debate. But it's hard to disagree with Crystal's elegant and refined choice—and if anyone should have a differing opinion, well, feel free to send in your own review of another great romance title!

(by Kaoru Mori, CMX, $9.99 ea.)

Whenever I hear the words 'romance' and 'maids' when describing a manga, the first thing I think of is some harem stunt to dress ridiculously hot girls in ridiculously revealing maid clothing (He is my Master, anyone?). Luckily, Victorian Romance Emma is about as opposite of that as you can get.

For one thing, Kaoru Mori actually sets her story in Victorian England, and her titular character, Emma, is a maid who actually works for her living. When William, a member of the gentry, falls in love with her, things don't fall together leaving them with their happily ever after (at least not at first). They have to struggle to even stay in contact, let alone be together, and everything is overshadowed by William's responsibility to his family and working on upward social mobility. I also love all of the characters in Emma; I can't think of a single one I don't like, let alone hate. The other girl vying for William's affections is all too easy to sympathize with, and everyone has a reason for their actions, leaving no two-dimensional villains.

Another aspect of Emma's appeal is Kaoru Mori's beautiful artwork and careful pacing. Mori draws each character distinctly and never skimps on the details that add to its historical accuracy, such as sweeping the carpet with tea leaves. Rather than overwhelming the reader with screentones like popular shoujo manga commonly do, Mori uses crosshatching, giving her manga the feel of drawings from the Victorian period rather than modern-day manga. Everything is perfectly paced, and scenes like the reunion in volume five ache with the emotion expressed by the buildup to a magnificent two-page spread. An entire chapter can go by without words, but the feeling of loneliness felt by the characters comes across clearly owing to the expressive art.

My only complaint might be one that one of my friends commonly says: "When's Emma going to get a personality?" Emma is easily the manga's weakest character, as Mori creates her to be the perfect demure woman, leaving her with little real personality. She does what everyone asks of her and rarely speaks up for herself. But then she does something that she wants, and I can't help but love her and want her happy ending. Fortunately, she gets it, as do I.

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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