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30 Seconds to Pluto

by Carlo Santos,

I'm going to be honest. The final game of the World Baseball Classic was completely superior to any of the games that were played in last year's World Series.

I suppose we can all go back to regular American baseball now. Opening Day is in about a week. But that memory of Ichiro whacking the game-winning single will not fade from my mind anytime soon.

Vol. 2
(by Mahiro Maeda and Yura Ariwara, Del Rey, $10.99)

"'I have forged my destiny through the power of my own will—the power to manipulate the lives of others, from my own safe shore.'
The Count of Monte Cristo, a fabulously wealthy aristocrat from the far reaches of the galaxy, has returned to Paris on a secret mission of revenge. His first target is Gerard de Villefort, the prosecutor who falsely sentenced him to life imprisonment twenty-five years ago. His pawns are Villefort's family—a dissatisfied young wife, a withdrawn daughter, and a pampered son. From a single drop of poison spreads a pool of lust and horror that none may escape."

The one definite plus about this version of Gankutsuou: it won't give you motion sickness the way the anime did. At the same time, though, it still packs plenty of stunning visual displays, from the details of the characters' ultra-fashionable couture to the grand architecture of future Paris to the abstract collages when people start going crazy. And yes, there's a lot of going-crazy to be found here: Volume 2 pretty much covers the downfall of Villefort family, starting with one unhappy wife who does one sneaky little thing, and ultimately snowballs into complete familial chaos. Yes, Alexandre Dumas probably deserves some credit for planning out how this all works in the first place, but only Maeda's expressive illustrations can really bring out the fear and jealousy in Gerard de Villefort's face, or the growing insanity of his wife, or the sneer of the Count, or even the frustration of the two poor Villefort children who have to live through this. Most of all, it's a shocking and brilliant reminder of how one seed of mistrust—in the right place and the right time—can bring out the very worst of human nature.

He's a famous director and artist, so why can't Mahiro Maeda afford more than one pen for inking? While the anime may be a motion sickness trigger, it still wins in terms of visual nuance and detail, mostly because the guy drawing the manga thinks he can do everything with a 0.3 mm nib or something. This becomes particularly problematic in scenes with lots of hatching and shading, as the sheer quantity of penstrokes just dulls everything out. Character designs are an issue as well, especially once the Marquise de Cremieux shows up and Villefort starts freaking out because she looks a lot like his wife, except it's hard to tell if she actually looks like his wife, because it's hard for us to remember what his wife looked like, and then when Villefort starts grooming his daughter to resemble his first wife it just gets ridiculous. But the real confusion, maybe, comes from when Maeda tries to rush certain story elements to keep the plot moving. Yes, the original novel is complicated, but trying to skimp on the tricky parts is not going to make it easier to understand.

There are times when the art looks great—yet still comes across as sketchy and sloppy. And there are times when the story is captivating—yet crumbles due to rushing and confusion. Due to this awkward state of affairs, this volume gets a C+.

Vol. 11
(by Aya Nakahara, Viz Media, $8.99)

"Risa Koizumi is the tallest girl in class, and the last thing she wants is the humiliation of standing next to Atsushi Ôtani, the shortest guy. Fate and the whole school have other ideas, and the two find themselves cast as the unwilling starts of a bizarre romantic comedy.
Risa's love life is finally on a roll, now that Ôtani has confessed his love to her. But can her happiness be complete if her best friend is miserable? Nobu's grandma is moving to Hokkaido for health reasons, and Nobu has decided to go to college nearby. Nakao wants to be a supportive boyfriend, but the thought of being far away from Nobu is driving him crazy. Will their relationship crack under the pressure?"

At last! After my constant complaining about the side characters getting shafted, Aya Nakahara finally puts together a substantial Nobu/Nakao storyline. Clearly, even the series' most reliable couple has issues with the possibility of a long-distance relationship, and the most entertaining part is watching Nakao literally lose his mind over it. Although it's exaggerated for comic effect—say hello to Nakao's unexpected harem of mistresses, which is easily the funniest moment in the book—the psychology behind his feelings does ring true: yes, quiet and agreeable guys go a little bit crazy when their life spins out of control. The best part, though, is seeing the absolutely charming way in which they make up—Nobu and Nakao always were the textbook lovey-dovey couple, and now they've proven it. As for those who are still cheering for the main duo, there's plenty of ongoing cuteness between Risa and Ôtani, from a New Year's episode that perfectly balances slapstick and sweetness, to the hilariously frantic rush before college entrance exams. And as always, wacky faces and sharp dialogue remind us that no matter how serious things get, humor and happiness always win out in the end.

The last few months before graduation are ticking away ... and now it seems that Nakahara is just playing for time until the characters get to the college arc or something. After all, Risa and Ôtani have pretty much reconciled and fought off all possible obstacles, leaving only stand-alone chapters about how much they love and support each other. Meanwhile, the other main storyline here—"Oh no, my sweetheart is moving away!"—is the kind of stuff usually best left for mediocre romances that can't come up with any other ideas. As a result, this volume lacks the emotional range of the series' earlier arcs, and there's not quite as much tension and drama as when other forces were threatening to tear the main couple apart. Even the comedy seems to have taken a back seat; it's true that Nakao's descent into madness is funny stuff, but other mainstays like Risa and Ôtani's bickering just don't have the bite that they used to. Could the of comforts of true love be leading to complacency?

Even if the comedy and romance don't reach previous levels of greatness, this series is still a standout in its genre—and deserves at least a B for being nice enough to feature the supporting cast for once.

Vol. 2
(by Ken Akamatsu and RAN, Del Rey, $14.99)

"Mao-chan is back, defending Japan from the most adorable aliens ever. The invaders are set on stealing Japan's most famous cultural artifacts and keeping them as souvenirs, but Mao-chan and her friends are determined not to let this happen—even when the aliens' leader appears for a final showdown."

For a series that's practically set up to fail—completely silly premise, completely silly characters, and completely silly adventures—Mao-chan still manages to be enjoyable, if only because it knows that it's a comedy and not trying in any way to be serious. In fact, the last several chapters can probably hold their own against any of the big-name sci-fi epics—and in some cases, would probably fare better, since this ending actually makes sense, ties up loose ends, and evokes a genuine feeling of triumph and satisfaction. The ending even makes use of some cleverly placed plot points from earlier in the series, including the hot springs chapter, because no one would ever expect a hot springs chapter to spark off the final save-the-world story arc. And yet it does, because Ken Akamatsu has the audacity to do stuff like that. He also has the audacity to work in a handful of Love Hina jokes plus a cheeky Evangelion reference, if only to keep us interested while setting up the grand finale. And once the story gets to the grand finale ... honestly, it's worth it.

Releasing the series as two double-sized volumes was probably for the best, because no one would willingly sit through four installments of this. After all, the first volume was complete fluff, and so is the first half of this one, getting so bad at one point that it does an entire chapter based on the premise of Love Hina. (And sorry, RAN, but your art style falls just a little short of Akamatsu's. Although that's not really saying much.) In fact, the art falls short in general, often cramping itself into small spaces to fit the page limit, or failing to guide the eye from one action sequence to the next. There are even parts where, if it weren't for the dialogue, one would have no clue what was going on in the pictures. That's probably a bad thing for a visual medium. And let's not overhype the final story arc: yes, it does the whole epic save-the-world thing, but all of the "dramatic revelations" are completely telegraphed, and there isn't even a proper victory. Mao-chan saved the world by making friends with everyone? Try again, please.

For a complete joke of a series, it actually ends way better than anyone would have expected it to. Unfortunately, the other chapters are still pretty awful and the art is nothing to get excited about, so it can only claim a C+ at best.

Vol. 1
(by Nanae Chrono, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Three months have passed since the Ikedaya Incident that crushed the anti-shogunate rebellion and propelled the Shinsengumi, Kyoto's now-official police, into history as Kyoto's premium peacekeeping force. But there is no rest for the peaceful. An unexpected threat to the Shinsengumi arises, and it's going to take more than mere swords to defeat this new terror on the horizon."

Fans who enjoyed the sword-swinging action (and comedy antics) of the original Peace Maker will be glad to know that the sequel does little to mess with that formula. Tetsu is still as hotheaded and rambunctious as ever—although some tweaks to his character design have aged just a bit—and the rest of the Shinsengumi are still getting into amusing scrapes as they try to deal with him. A couple of new characters also add some fresh wrinkles to the story: a crazy foreign guy (isn't there one in every historical series?) by the name of Ryouma, plus serious-faced swordsman Saitou Hajime. Meanwhile, a certain missing person makes his comeback in the final chapter, and does it so brutally that it quickly reminds us of what the series is really best at. With sharp blacks and whites and high-intensity action scenes, the visuals of Peace Maker Kurogane truly come alive when things get dark and serious.

If the series is so good when it's dark and serious, why did this volume just waste 80% of its pages on pointless scenes of wacky Shinsengumi life? The whole thing could have easily been condensed to one chapter, pointing out that Tetsu meets a couple of new guys, is still getting into trouble, and now there's a new villain on the move. Everything else just gets in the way of actual story progress. Why did Ryouma suddenly meet a bunch of people in the woods? And who, exactly, was fighting against whom during that encounter? Does anyone really care how Saya feels about being a girl at a geisha house? Why is it so easy to confuse a lot of the secondary characters? And what, exactly, is the point of the catboys aside from catering to the fetishes of a small percentage of the readership? So many questions, and Nanae Chrono does almost nothing to answer them, mostly because the scenes in this book are presented with little logical—or even chronological—connection between them. If you can't tell the story straight in the first place, how is anyone going to care when it gets good?

If this was supposed to be the way to hook readers into the story, it backfired. Saving the good part for last means having to wade through a lot of horrid D+ material that doesn't even make sense.

Vol. 2
(by Naoki Urasawa and Osamu Tezuka, Viz Media, $12.99)

"An advocate for robot rights and a renowned European robot have been murdered. Gesicht, the detective assigned to the case, has deduced that the killer is targeting the great robots of the world—which means that he too is one of the targets. Gesicht takes it upon himself to warn the potential targets, and Atom, the famous boy robot from Japan, is next on his list. Elsewhere, the Turkish robot hero Brando sets out on his own to take on a mysterious challenger. As the robots traverse a labyrinthine path edging toward their own souls, the question remains: who is the killer and what is his motive?"

Let me tell you about robots. They are different from you and me—and they are what make Pluto so unique as a sci-fi piece. Between exchanging memory chips and communicating remotely and serving as weapons of war, the robots in this series address all the great questions about Artificial Intelligence, while avoiding the pretentiousness of Ghost in the Shell or the otaku-centrism of Chobits. Urasawa and Tezuka's futuristic world is at its most engaging during the Brando incident, where multiple forms of technology show how crime-solving is transformed when mechanical minds are working on it. And there are many other moments that are just as fascinating: Atom's uneasy conversation with the police in an early chapter, the flashbacks to the Central Asian war, and the gradually evolving mystery about Gesicht's hazy memories. Amidst all this comp-sci theorizing, however, there's still plenty of room for emotion—just look at the wide range of expressions on the characters' faces, or the way memories are visually depicted with such poignancy, or how the pacing slows down to capture a critical moment. It's not just a journey of the mind, but also of the heart.

With all this discussion about the world of robotics and how it affects society, one thing has gone noticeably missing: the bang-bang thrill-a-minute plotting that Urasawa is so famous for. Sure, this volume's got enough incidents to keep the momentum going, but "another world-famous robot bites it" is hardly the kind of dramatic development we've come to expect from a master storyteller. Heck, this time he doesn't even manage to come up with an emotional hit on a level with the North No. 2 storyline—these chapters just keep chugging along with Gesicht acting all puzzled as more and more crimes pile up. What's even worse is that, after two volumes, the clues still haven't started to connect: we're just seeing more mysterious images and incidents and being strung along for who knows how many chapters. At some point, the dots will have to start connecting and the storyline's going to become this multi-threaded, complex masterpiece. But it hasn't happened yet.

All right, so some of the initial thrill has worn off. But for those who simply enjoy the futuristic elan of a robot whodunit, this is still worth at least a B.

Vol. 1
(by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, Shueisha, ¥400)

"Moritaka Mashiro and Akito Takagi are pretty much foils of each other. Mashiro is an average 9th grade student but talented artist, and Takagi is an overall advanced 9th grader and aspiring writer. After great convincing, Takagi convinces Mashiro to join him in becoming the greatest mangaka Japan has ever seen. Takagi, with his gift of writing, hopes to become a successful mangaka, and Mashiro, with his gift of art, hopes to marry the girl of his dreams, Azuki Miho."

First off: to all the people who criticize Bakuman for not being Death Note, I don't know what your deal is. If you want Death Note, then read Death Note, for goodness sakes. For the rest of us who can appreciate a great manga regardless of theme or genre, the newest Ohba and Obata project is a daring change of pace—and it works. Moritaka and Takagi play off each other perfectly, setting the story in motion with their conflicting viewpoints, and then making keen observations about the manga business ("You have to either be a genius or a gambler") as well as life in general. And that's the surprising thing: that this is more than just some slobby "Hey kids! Make your own comics!" geekfest, but it also succeeds as a slice-of-life chronicle about the dreams of youth. Even obligatory plot points, like Moritaka's romantic promise to Azuki and the artistic duo's first submission to an editor, manage to lead the story in entertaining directions. Not surprisingly, the art is sharp and detailed throughout, and the dialogue shockingly reveals that Tsugumi Ohba can write in sentences of fewer than 7 words. Truly, this is a "How to Draw Manga" for the 21st century—and much more interesting than looking at diagrams of bodies and heads.

Remember how Death Note took off right away as a suspenseful thriller with all sorts of wicked twists? That's probably the one thing Bakuman could learn from its predecessor, as Ohba and Obata seem to be taking their sweet time figuring out where this is going. Well, okay, it's obviously going in the direction of learning how to create manga, but that's not exactly the most gripping experience—and the attempted twists at the end of each chapter are pretty weak. Worse yet, some of the turns of plot seem like petty contrivances: Moritaka having his late uncle's manga studio passed down to him, learning the connection between his crush and his uncle's one-time love, even the way Azuki agrees to all his crazy ideas. Come on, don't make up stuff just because it conveniently makes the story fit together (hmm, wasn't there another series that did this all the time?). Plus, with the everyday school-life theme, there isn't much room for artistic grandeur—just a lot of dull talking head scenes. Obata draws those talking heads very well, but ... yeah, if you were looking for a visual showcase, try RalΩGrad instead.

Wait a minute ... Brilliant but psychologically off-balance characters? A crazy premise that somehow manages to work? Homoerotic overtones? Hey, this is exactly like Death Note! But in all seriousness, it looks like Ohba and Obata are on their way to another hit.

Aww, no one wanted to talk about a comedy series that just doesn't do it for them! But that's okay, because there are plenty of other great reviews in the pipeline. This week: Tom Heymann wants the world to know about the quiet genius of Mohiro Kitoh! (And frankly, so do I.)

As for all you other aspiring reviewers out there, the next target topic is simple: Your Guilty Pleasure! Come on, admit it! (I won't make too much fun of you, honest.)

(by Mohiro Kitoh, Dark Horse, $13.95-$15.95 ea.)

If Evangelion is a whiny child that demands attention to itself with excess and earnest shrieking at a painful world, then I would consider Shadow Star to be that story's elder brother, who quietly glares at you in judgment and shows you, with a simple, quiet look, just how tragic the world is.

The story begins with an action packed prologue, a sequence that gives us a taste of the grand design we are beginning to enter. We are propelled from the action to a quieter, happier scene, where we are introduced to the main character, Shiina Tamai, a bright, friendly and energetic young girl who is visiting her grandparents' seaside home for summer break. One day, while swimming with her many friends, she ventures out too far into rough waters and begins to drown. Before she blacks out, she catches a glimpse of a strange, starfish like creature. When she wakes, she is back on land, somehow alive. We find that it was the star creature, a Shadow Dragon with wondrous powers, who saved her. Shiina, ever the friendly girl, approaches the creature and bonds with it. She gives it the name Hoshimaru, and brings the creature back home with her.

This beginning may seem tame and harmless, but be warned, fair reader, that this series is merely playing with your expectations. We soon learn that Shiina is not the only one with one of these creatures as a pet, and that these other kids are not so friendly. Shiina crosses paths with a host of characters, each with their own goals and histories driving them. There is Akira Sakura, a shy and terrified girl whose friendship with Shiina is her only escape from the bullying and abuse she experiences at home and school. There is poor Hiroko, another friend of Shiina's who is bullied into a corner with bloody consequences. There is Naozumi Sudo, a calculating villain who puts the cackling and juvenile trickery of Light Yagami to shame. With his group of tacticians and their Shadow Dragons, they seek not to destroy our world, but to tweak it in just the right way so that it destroys itself.

Mohiro Kitoh ties all of these complex characters together into a world spanning, crisscrossing plot with novelistic brilliance. Where most manga is episodic, with clear resting points between plot stretches, Shadow Star Narutaru is a tour de force of manga storytelling that doesn't let up for a moment. That boldness extends to the art, which serves the story perfectly. Kitoh is a master of drawing machinery, from fighter jets and tanks to everyday cars and bikes, but it is his character designs which truly shine. Some people find the designs gangly, but I think it's very appropriate for the pubescent age a lot of these characters are at (More realistic than a 16 year old girl with G-cup breasts, I'd say.) The expressional range is fine tuned to even the tiniest change in emotion, from small, nervous habits up to the most wide eyed of speechless terror. It is a stunning attention to detail.

There simply aren't enough good things I can say about this manga. I always go back to Shadow Star, every now and then, and it is still one of the best manga I have ever read.

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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