Detroit Metal Alchemist

by Carlo Santos,

New York! What a place. The only other time I've been there was when the World Trade Center was still standing and Bill Clinton was president.

At least Grand Theft Auto 4 gave me an idea of what to expect ... sort of.

Vol. 2
(by Moyamu Fujino, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"The fun never stops at Morimori High School! Fune and her friends are settling in to their classes and dorm life, but there are plenty of surprises in store as Fune learns more about the strange school rules, as well as some of its more mysterious students. And when it comes time to pick extra-curriculars, what will Fune do?!"

By all estimations, Animal Academy ought to be an irritating, hyperactive shoujo school series. Yet oftentimes, it's not, relying more on a quiet air of mystery and a laid-back attitude to tell the story. Where are the screaming klutzy slapstick moments? Where is Fune's breathless, all-consuming crush on the hottest guy in school? It's not there, and that's what makes it so interesting. The focus is more on the strange disconnect between the animal and human world, like crossing through the mysterious portal that leads off school grounds, and the discovery of a handbook that seems to know everything about the students even before they do. Even something ordinary like signing up for a school club results in the unexpected (ninjas?!), and Fune's one moment of contact with the outside world—a phone call with her family—ends up more wistful than cheerful. But perhaps the most surprising departure from the norm is the straightforward artistic style: not too many sparkles, not too many screentones, just telling the story the way it needs to be told.

Unfortunately, telling the story in this manner can also lead to underwhelming results—there's a fine line between a quiet, laid-back mood and simply being put to sleep. The first problem is that there still isn't a strong overall plot, so we get meandering chapters where, for example, the raccoon girl loses an item and they spend 20 pages looking for it. The simple artwork compounds this by not providing anything of visual interest: backgrounds are often done on the cheap, and the series' original source of appeal—cute schoolkids transforming into cuter animals—is often pushed aside in favor of various "friendship-building" moments. Even the little mysteries that are exposed every now and then seem to be there just for the sake of being there, failing to galvanize the plot in any way. And what happened to Fune's quest of trying to avoid being detected as a human? It seems that, in the effort to devise a school series with a twist, the twist has been forgotten and the focus is turning toward regular school life. Which would make this exactly like all the other titles it's not supposed to be like.

Again, this series comes up with a couple of interesting things and continues in an atypical manner, but the lack of momentum keeps it stuck at C.

Vol. 2
(by Kiminori Wakasugi, Viz Media, $12.99)

"By all appearances, Soichi Negishi is a sweet, well-mannered boy who loves Swedish pop music, trendy boutiques, and all things fashionable. But at the same time he's also Krauser II, front man for Detroit Metal City, an indie death metal band whose popularity increases by the day. Once the DMC makeup goes on and Soichi takes the stage, his natural talents as a death metal god can't help but flourish. Is this the band he's truly destined to be in?"

Just when you thought Detroit Metal City couldn't get any loonier ... it does. This over-the-top parody outdoes itself in Volume 2, lampooning not just the world of death metal but also punk bands, hip-hop, and even underground arthouse films. But for all its pop-cultural awareness, the series is at its best when it veers off into sheer absurdity, like when Krauser rapes Tokyo Tower, or when he inadvertently crashes a sentai hero stage show at an amusement park, or when a dark-skinned foreigner shows up as a hilariously bad substitute version of Krauser. Yes, Wakasugi plays the race card, and he plays it well. Even better are the new characters in this volume, showcasing all the wacky cultural extremes that plague our society today: Feminazi punk rockers, a pretentious movie director, the convenience store clerk who just happens to play the "capitalist pig" in DMC's shows, a hip-hop star from Negishi's hometown who keeps pretending he's from New York ... the only thing more fun than meeting all these weirdos is trying to guess what will happen in Volume 3. My prediction: it'll be rude, sick, depraved, and hilarious.

This just in: Kiminori Wakasugi still can't draw. Art is the one thing that continues to hold DMC back, with all the characters suffering from various forms of Dead Eyes syndrome, misproportioned bodies, and awkward gesturing. Just imagine how much funnier this series would be if Krauser's acts of rape were actually convincing, or if he had more than one facial expression, or if the characters could bring out their personalities in the way they move, rather than just superficial outfits and speech mannerisms. And as each chapter gets ever more ridiculous, one of the founding principles of the series seems to have gotten lost—Negishi's love of sissy-boy indie pop, which is still referenced occasionally but is otherwise ignored. Maybe it's happening for a good reason, though: every time Negishi tries to get "back to his roots," he becomes boring, like when he tries to take Aikawa out on a date. Maybe he should just stick to being Krauser all the time.

Once again, it's funny enough to overcome its flaws, and this consistently brilliant comedy wins itself another A-.

Vol. 20
(by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In an alchemical ritual gone wrong, Edward Elric lost his arm and his leg, and his brother Alphonse became nothing but a soul in a suit of armor. Equipped with mechanical 'auto-mail' limbs, Edward becomes a state alchemist, seeking the one thing that can restore his and his brother's bodies ... the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
Betrayal and double-crossing are the order of the day. Greed, Pride and Envy prove to be formidable enemes, but one homunculus seems to be having pangs of—could it be?—conscience. Ominous news spreads quickly about a mysterious portal. Will this gateway help the Elric brothers regain their natural bodies? And will the gigantic underground transmutation circle be completed, leading to a major regime change? Plus, a moving reunion between Al and someone from his past!"

After the earth-shattering "declaration of war" in Volume 19, it would seem impossible for the next Fullmetal Alchemist to come up with something equally big and momentous. So instead, this volume does a lot of little momentous things: moments of cleverness and timely plotting that bring various loose ends closer together. Find out how to defeat a homunculus with land-mine alchemy, and how to defeat another homunculus from the inner reaches of your soul, and how to escape a bunch of military goons in the frozen North, and how to relay a message to your secret buddies when everyone is watching you. Yes, not only do the characters always stay one step ahead of the opposition, but even Hiromu Arakawa seems to be one step ahead of the reader—which is why each revelation is so exciting and surprising. With so much going on, Arakawa's artistic versatility gets a chance to reach for the limits as well: fantastical creatures, intense alchemical combat, and the realms of the human (or homunculus?) mind. Just imagine how awesome it's going to be when "The Promised Day" finally gets here.

Well, give this one credit for trying to tie all the disparate plotlines together—it covers at least some of the major ones, like getting Al and Winry to a safe place, and finding out what Ed is up to, and showing just how cool Hawkeye and Mustang are. But a lot of secondary characters are still getting shafted, sometimes showing up for just a few pages before getting shoved out of the way because, hey, we've got a story to tell. What's the deal with the Armstrong siblings? Was that supposed to be Dr. Marcoh's crowning moment? And what does Izumi Curtis think she's doing? The answers to such questions are not to be found in here, because each of those story threads gets a mere surface treatment before being shelved away. Even the dramatic emotional moments, which are normally FMA's strong point, fail to deliver the usual impact: Al's "moving reunion" seems to be just a placeholder so he can find out some important information, and Greed's mental breakdown jumps too quickly into battle mode. Whatever happened to this series' heart and soul?

Not as thrilling as last time, and still flawed in some ways, but sheer cleverness and pacing still get this one a B-.

Vol. 3
(by Ken Akamatsu and Takuya Fujima, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Negi Springfield is a ten-year-old boy wizard with big dreams: he hopes to become a great wizard like his father, the legendary Thousand Master. But to do so, Negi must take a huge risk. He must study under the mysterious Evangeline, a dark mage as powerful as she is delightfully wicked!"

There is at least one area in which Negima!? neo completely outclasses the original, and that's readability. Let us all thank Takuya Fujima for prying the series away from Ken Akamatsu's obsessive-compulsive 10,000-images-and-words-per-page style and making it more like a normal manga, where action scenes are drawn big, and conversations don't congeal into giant blocks of prose, and fanservice illustrations are ample enough for the discerning reader to enjoy. Ah, yes, the girls: that's the other thing this spinoff does well, nailing Akamatsu's character designs dead-on and then taking enough time to put the supporting cast in the spotlight too (this volume sees fun times involving class president Ayaka and "net idol" Chisame). Then, when the time finally comes to deliver hard-hitting action scenes—whether it's Negi training with Evangeline or a dramatic showdown with a deadly golem—the pacing and visual intensity pick up dramatically. Negi's spell combos are always a thrill, along with the emotional uplift of winning the fight.

It may go down in history as Negima!? Remastered, but improving the readibility doesn't count for much if almost every other aspect of the story has been made worse. Just consider the whole mechanism behind the current story arc: it's basically a "collect them all" scenario, where Negi and friends have to capture the "Sprite Shards/Crystal Stars" which sound only marginally more interesting than some ridiculous Kingdom Hearts side quest. Speaking of which, goofy video game logic is written everywhere into this story, with Negi basically fending off bosses at regular intervals, then taking on the megaboss with a hidden final transformation, and finally striking its weak point for massive damage. Oh, and he does some leveling up with Evangeline because he "wants to get stronger." Clearly, creating a manga based on an anime based on a manga makes everything watered down and stupid. The worst offenders of all, however, may be the Ayaka and Chisame chapters, which take extremely worn-out story concepts ("Oh no! We were electromagically transported into the internet!") and spit them out as if they were exciting, original ideas. Except they're not.

I'll admit, the first few story arcs in the original Negima! weren't that great either. But this is even more non-great. It's so non-great that it gets a D+.

Vol. 1
(by Hosana Tanaka, Del Rey, $10.99)

"The horn growing from Raizô's forehead is proof that he's the lost illegitimate son of the once-mighty Katana family. Now a band of loyal and lovely female ninjas devises a scheme to elevate their newfound master to greatness. But does this shy outcast have what it takes to rule the kingdom and deal with a bevy of beautiful ninja girls?"

A harem is a harem, but a harem involving superhuman ninja powers? And one of them is a cross-dressing man? Now we're talking about something interesting. Although the focus of Ninja Girls is ostensibly about lovely kunoichi fighting to defend their master, it's much more fun when they're fighting amongst themselves, leading to uproarious scenarios such as: "Your master is sick, how will you care for him?" "I'm going to hunt for some meat! So I can feed him!" And coping with feelings of inadequacy by standing under a waterful chanting Buddhist sutras? How very appropriate. There's just something delightful about the incongruity of seeing highly trained elite warriors using their most advanced combat techniques ... to impress a guy. The highlight so far, however, is clearly Raizô's deceased mother, who exists as an inanimate memorial stone—except that she is more animated than any stone ought to be. Best character in the series, right there.

You would think this is a fun series to read. Interesting premise, wacky characters, and appealing artwork—but no, all of those elements just get churned into a directionless stew of boredom. The formula gets very repetitive very quickly, with Randomly Selected Ninja Girl trying to win Raizô's heart by getting involved in some combat scenario or whatever. If they could come up with a major enemy who was trying to hunt them down, that would at least guarantee that the story was going somewhere. And when the girls do fight amongst each other, it's not nearly as entertaining as one would expect it to be, playing out more like a generic everyday harem. Meanwhile, the art looks like it should at least count for something positive—historical scenery, fancy fight scenes—but often fails to deliver on crucial action moments due to a lack of stylishness. There's just no visual impact here; it's all random kicks and punches and special effects and if anyone were to ask you "So what does this series Ninja Girls look like?" you would have no clue. Because it looks like everything else, only less interesting.

A somewhat promising idea ends up being less than the sum of its parts due to poor execution and a lack of story direction. That's what we call a D.

Vol. 1
(by Thomas R. Hart and Elmer Damaso, Seven Seas, $10.99)

"His name is Bernard Black, also known as the Black Rose, and he's one of the best cat burglars in the world. His one weakness? Women. Bernie may be the best there is at what he does, but he's also a virgin, and whenever he gets near a beautiful woman he turns into a bumbling fool.
Bernie has stolen a priceless necklace from billionaire John Maiden, who employs the services of an elite agency of assassins known as M.A.D.A.M. Their mission: to retrieve the necklace at all costs and to bring back Bernie's head on a silver platter.
If things go his way, Bernie might just get lucky ... unless somebody kills him first."

Don't be fooled by the plot summary—this breathless crime caper is a lot more complex than it lets on, with overlapping layers of plot that far exceed the standard "phantom thief" formula. First, you take your instantly charismatic main character—part Lupin, part Bond, part Bourne—then throw a massive wrench into his plans, something involving duplicate necklaces, a rival thief, a millionaire's daughter, and the aforementioned assassins, who come armed with knives and guns and rocket launchers. All that's left to do after that is sit back and enjoy one of the greatest extended chase scenes ever committed to paper, a chase scene where at one point Bernie drives an F1 race car under a semi truck. And later he has a swordfight with a French maid on a maglev train. How awesome is this?! Even better is that Elmer Damaso has the artistic chops to keep up with the incredible ideas spewing out of Thomas Hart's head; every single action sequence is rendered with such intensity that the glue is probably the only thing keeping those pages from flying out of the book. If the ultimate goal of manga is to be cinematic, then this is 3-D IMAX cinematic manga. Seriously.

Like so many other titles, overambitiousness turns out to be this series' undoing. Things start getting hairy right around Chapter 3, where Hart and Damaso try this overwrought narrative device where the scene flip-flops between different locales every couple of pages or so—which only makes it harder on both the authors and the readers. If that's supposed to evoke a feeling of immediacy, well, the only thing it's evoking right now is a feeling of confusion. Even worse is when flashback scenes get in on the act; it's interesting to learn about Bernie's childhood and his daddy issues, but getting it in tiny one-page morsels is hardly conducive to good storytelling. Then comes the introduction of all the assassins, which happens in spurts over the last half of the book, and seems to be there just so it can be said that all ten assassins were introduced by the end of Volume 1. It's good to have a rich, multi-layered story—but not so good when you try too hard to spill it out all at once.

For all its flaws, anything with this level of energy and complexity deserves a look—and who knows, they'll probably clean up the storytelling a bit in the next volume.

Emma has already been reviewed here in the past as one of the best romance series ever. But did you know it's also highly educational? Aila explains why in the review below!

Meanwhile, for the next couple of weeks, you can think about sending in reviews for the Best Horror/Gothic/Supernatural Series ... because Halloween is just a month away. I know there's plenty to choose from ...

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

Maids. Some people love them for bizarre, perverted (or innocent) reasons, and some go running away from them with screams of “Degrading!” when spotted in manga or anime (I do this).

Kaoru Mori changed that for me with her classy tale of Emma, the story of a maid whose loves spans the social classes of Victorian England. Emma is Mori's excuse to go expose obsession with all things English. Glancing through the pages the first thing that may pop up at you is the amount of detail Mori puts into her cross-hatched backgrounds. London markets, the wallpaper of a Victorian house, evening gowns, cobblestone streets; there's so much to take in that shows Mori's absolute love for the era and the research she put into creating Emma's world.

Now I'm not saying everything in Emma is historically accurate but if you're willing to give or take a few things here or there (Elephants…) you'd probably be surprised to note that Mori at one point during the creation of the manga actually hired a historical consultant to help her keep things as accurate as possible. That means you can rest assured that you're at least consuming a good interpretation as to how things used to be, or at the very least picking up random facts that may or may not ever appear on the day's Final Jeopardy. For instance, did you know that the Crystal Palace, which opened in London in 1851 was the very first World's Fair? Or that Henrick's Aerial Steam Carriage was an early design for an airplane, but it never really flew more than a few feet? Or even that people used to iron out their newspapers before reading? You can learn all these random facts and more in Emma's everyday life during Victorian England!

But all the random facts and details are mainly just for setting. The main appeal, of course, is the love story of Emma that crosses strict social classes and the view of everyday life for the various people around her, be it a Viscount or a Governess, maid or flower girl. It's a fun way to go about learning of a bygone era. Some might even say it's better than a BBC Period Drama, but I'm happy enough to veg on the couch for the day with my DVDs of Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice.

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 (plain text format preferred). 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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