Fairy Trails

by Carlo Santos,

As usual, my place of work will be holding some light Halloween festivities.
As usual, I will not be participating in them, mostly because of conversations that inevitably end up like this:

"So, what are you dressed up as?"
"Well, I'm this character from this thing that's based on this other thing that's ... "
"Uh huh."

The true meaning of Halloween, ultimately, is discounted candy at the supermarket the following week.

Vol. 5
(by Kozue Amano, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Spring has come again and Akari now welcomes the start of her second year on Aqua. In the spirit of new beginnings, Akari sees a mysterious woman with a spectacular voice while helping the company president run some errands. Who is this person and what does she have to do with Alice? A fateful encounter, perhaps?"

For experienced readers, the greatest asset of Aria's fifth volume should be instantly tangible: Tokyopop is using good paper again! Meanwhile, those who are more concerned with the actual content will be glad to know that the series continues to maintain its high standard for soothing, feel-good stories. Surprisingly, this can even mean injecting some tension into the proceedings: at one point, Akari and friends get lost when high tide catches them off guard, but the resulting exploration and discovery of a shortcut fills the rest of the chapter with a glowing sense of wonder. That joy of discovery also comes alive on the night of a meteor shower, or when Akari learns the history of San Marco Square, or when Alice realizes the importance of one's non-dominant hand. This pleasant atmosphere wouldn't be possible, however, without the stunning backgrounds that can be found around every corner of Neo-Venezia—there is at least one moment in every chapter where you just have to stop reading and enjoy the view for a second, or two, or ten. It seems that there is no shortage of "Wow" moments in the city of canals—and that's why we keep coming back for more.

At times, it can also feel like there is no shortage of "Wow, this is boring" moments in the city of canals. The first chapter of this volume is especially notable for its plotlessness: Akari gets invited to hang out with the mailman while he goes on his rounds, and ... that's it. Seriously, that sounds like something you do for Career Day at high school, not a mind-calming journey of discovery. Most other chapters, when reduced to their essential components, also turn out to be fairly shallow: "Akari meets a famous singing undine," "Akari has a training session and gets lost," "Akari chats with some guy at a coffee shop." This series may be all about extolling the virtues of sitting back and enjoying life at one's own pace, but that doesn't necessarily translate to an engaging storyline. Even the characters' all-around pleasantness becomes a stone around the series' neck: it's hard to have interesting interactions when no one is in conflict with anyone else. Yes, Aria is soothing like a warm glass of milk, and it'll put you to sleep like one too.

It'd be nice if these pleasant, visually charming stories had more meat to them. But the unique atmosphere is still good enough for a B.

Vol. 15
(by Norihiro Yagi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In a world where monsters called Yoma prey on humans and live among them in disguise, humanity's only hope is a new breed of warrior known as Claymores. Half human, half monster, these silver-eyed slayers possess supernatural strength but are condemned to fight their savage impulses—or lose their humanity completely.
Galatea's plans to eliminate the Awakened former number 2, 'Bloody' Agatha, have failed, but the arrival of Clare and her comrades turns the tide of battle. In the aftermath, Miria decides to finally share her shocking discoveries about the true nature of the Yoma, of the Organization and of the Claymores themselves."

With the heavy emphasis on badass swordswomen beating the daylights out of freakish mutant creatures, it can be easy to forget that Claymore also has a story to tell—a story that reaches a major turning point in this volume. Miria's revelation completely changes the landscape of the series, turning what was once a Monster-of-the-Month slugfest into a ... well, you'll have to read it to find out. But for those who are truly immersed in the story, an even greater revelation awaits—one that connects all the way back to Volume 1. The plot may have advanced by seven years since that time, but the revisiting of old names and places helps to keep this story familiar and well-grounded, even as it expands to a scope that totally breaks things open. Through it all, the artwork continues to remain top-notch: Clare and friends always have a dramatic pose in store, every Yoma and Awakened Being is a triumph of creature design, and the detailed shading techniques bring out the high fantasy atmosphere. Other titles are happy just to capture the feel of a role-playing game or a genre novel, but this one captures the feel of a whole other world.

Really, Miria? That was it? Your dramatic revelation turned out to be a gimmick that's already been pulled in tons of other sci-fi and fantasy works? Well, it does help to clear up some plot oddities (oh yeah, how come no one's ever seen a Claymore blade break?), but it still feels like something Norihiro Yagi pulled out of his butt after having seen it somewhere else. Even worse is when Miria gets an entire two-page spread to herself when she delivers the final line of her monologue, and then every single warrior looks at her in shock—the whole thing comes off as a terribly contrived pseudo-theatrical production. Then there are the usual complaints: too many characters who all look alike, too much standing around and talking (it took 15 volumes to get to the major plot twist and Yagi still hasn't figured out how to make expository dialogue interesting), and various side plots that distract from the main characters. Ultimately, Miria's big surprise was designed to keep the series from succumbing to endless swordfight syndrome—but it's a really clunky, obvious way of doing it.

Oh well, there have been worse things—like drag-out fantasy titles that never develop a plot at all—and since this one still has the stunning art, I'll give it a B-.

Vol. 8
(by Hiro Mashima, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Gajeel is a dragon slayer who can shoot huge iron pillars from his body with crushing precision, while dragon slayer Natsu fights with devastating flame attacks. Their fierce battle began when Gajeel's wizard guild, Phantom Lord, assaulted rival guild Fairy Tail—but can either headquarters withstand two such destructive forces?"

To anyone who says that the shounen genre has gotten soft over the years, read this volume and try saying that again. This is searing, hot-blooded combat at its best, with Natsu finally going toe-to-toe with a magical equal. Yes, a lot of that means yelling and charging up and invoking new powers that didn't exist five pages ago, but the passion of the fight is so intense that you'll be scrunching up your face and yelling right along with it. And while Natsu vs. Gajeel may be the centerpiece of the Fairy Tail-Phantom Lord conflict, the other fights are just as entertaining: Gray's strangely comical battle of ice against rain, Erza's jaw-dropping weapons technique, and—at the end of this volume—guild master Makarov himself showing up and demonstrating what real high-level magic looks like. As usual, Mashima's artistic virtuosity is off the charts: he fills out every background thoroughly, picks terrific angles and layouts from which to show off each character's attacks, and even has the time for spots of humor like Lucy's "Sagittarius" summon. Suffice to say, these fight scenes have a better sense of motion than the Fairy Tail anime ever will.

Hey, Natsu, what does the scouter say about Gajeel's power level? No, seriously, this guy looks exactly like a Dragon Ball villain, and when an artist's influences start showing themselves like that, the copycat detection alarm starts going off everywhere. Taking on four "really powerful" villains before facing the "most powerful" villain? Yeah, it's been done. Main hero appears just in the nick of time to save the main girl who's been kidnapped? We've seen that one before. Wise old man from the hero side shows up to take on the evil old man from the villain side? Seriously, Mashima, if you're going to rip off every fantasy/action/tournament thing ever, at least try to mix things up. This one even comes with the obligatory platitudes about the bonds of friendship and fighting to protect others. Oh, and of course the hero is able to get up after being beaten to within an inch of his life. Is there any cliché that hasn't been explored in this volume? It may be full of intense fighting action, but that intensity is all running on formula.

There may not be a shred of originality in this, but there is no shame in taking something that's already been done and doing it well. And this volume does well enough for a B.

Vol. 6
(by Takehiko Inoue, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Takahashi has an awkward reunion with his father, who has been absent from his life for the past eight years. As father and son struggle with the difficulties of Takahashi's adjustment to life in a wheelchair, they must also come face to face with how much damage was done to Takahashi as a young boy facing the reality of growing up in a broken home."

After a few volumes of melodramatic noodling, it looks like Real is finally pulling itself together. The story of Takahashi's difficult relationship with his father is a heart-wrenching, powerful arc that spans all of Volume 6 and show what Takehiko Inoue is capable of when he's focused. Up until now, Takahashi had been this brash, difficult, unlikable character who seemed hellbent on sabotaging his own life after being injured. But after seeing what he went through as a boy, how his father left him at a pivotal time in his youth, and how he gave his life to basketball in some crazy hope that it might bring his father back—well, it takes serious storytelling skills to turn the least likable of the three protagonists into a deeply sympathetic character. The artwork plays into this as well, with complex facial expressions and deliberate gestures that can only be mastered after studying real figure drawing and not "how to draw manga style." In addition, the careful layouts and pacing—along with well-timed flashbacks—allow every scene to flow naturally, pulling the reader along with the emotional ups and downs of the story. Like I said: serious skills.

Takahashi's story may be another triumph of visual narrative, but the weaknesses of Real become clear when one considers what wasn't drawn in this volume. Once again, the other protagonists get pushed to the sidelines, and aside from the occasional update scene ("Togawa's aiming for the championship!" "Nomiya's getting his life together!") there's not a whole lot of development going on for these guys. This isn't as bad as when the series was in "Here's three different stories about three different guys" mode—at least Togawa and Nomiya are actually friends now—but the balance still isn't optimal, and the plot still needs more tightening up. Meanwhile, some may find all the angst between Takahashi and his dad a bit much, especially in the climactic last chapter where Takahashi breaks down in tears and spouts a bunch of lines that wouldn't be out of place in one of those family-themed cable TV melodramas. Then again, the series is basically a soap opera for men, and you can't avoid the soap opera part.

Truth be told, the over-the-top melodrama is what defines Real—it's a story where even tough-guy basketball players break down in tears. That kind of emotional hit deserves a good A-.

Vol. 14
(by CLAMP, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Kimihiro Watanuki is a mystery even to himself. He has no memory of his past, or even of his beloved parents' names. Neither does he have any idea of why he is being followed by malicious spirits. But his boss, the witch Yûko Ichihara, knows, and in this volume many of Kimihiro's secrets are finally revealed!"

To get the most out of the recent volumes of xxxHOLiC, it definitely helps to be following Tsubasa—because the better you know both series, the more mind-blowing each plot twist becomes. What was once a gimmick has now evolved into a central part of the story structure, culminating in one utterly epic chapter where Yûko explains the details of Watanuki's existence. Even secondary characters and subplots are being pulled into an ever-deepening mystery—Dômeki is clearly up to something, Kohane and the fortune-teller appear to be cogs in Yûko's fantastic supernaturalistic machine, and the latest client at the shop has some really weird reason for wanting cooking lessons. And this is the really mind-bending part: every random little thing that's happened in the series, happened for a reason. Ultimately, the greatest act "hitsuzen" is not a single chapter, not a single story arc ... but the entire series itself. This sense of revelation and wonder comes alive in the art as well, which is as beautiful and haunting as ever—stark blacks and whites, traditionalist design elements, and layouts where even blocky rectangular panels move with an elegant flow. Truly, no mystery series pulls in the reader quite like this one.

After the incredible emotional ride and stunning conclusion of the Kohane arc in Volume 13, there was the dreaded feeling that xxxHOLiC would have to take a gamble on an even more stunning twist in Volume 14. Well, you got your twist all right—but by having to pay the price of a ridiculous infodump (that's the "utterly epic chapter") and getting all tangled up with the plot of the crossover series. Yes, it's true that the xxxHOLiC/Tsubasa connection has finally reached full bloom, but shouldn't a great story still be able to stand on its own? That's where Kohane's story in Volume 13 succeeds—and where Volume 14 (and, come to think of it, Volume 12) disappoints. The worst part is having to sit through all the vague, hand-waving dialogue where Yûko is explaining something, but still can't give it all away. It also results in many, many boring chapters where Watanuki and friends are "just hanging out" because it's too early to jump into action. Yes, it's nice to see him being friendly with Kohane, or giving cooking lessons, or mouthing off at Dômeki, but for goodness sakes, get on with the story.

I understand that this volume was full of REALLY IMPORTANT STUFF, but I just wasn't feeling it. Too many time-stalling chapters and a painfully convoluted plot twist spells C+ for this one.

(by Sekou Hamilton and Steven Cummings, Tokyopop, $12.99)

"A dream internship turns into tragic nightmare when five bright, aspiring investigators are handed their first case—the gruesome murder of a peer.
When 15-year-old Kiyomi Hudson signs up for an internship with the Las Vegas Crime Lab, she knows what she's getting into, but she never imagines how deep it will go. She and four fellow interns are allowed to observe the investigation into the murder of Gretchen Yates, but as they start their own research into the events leading to Gretchen's untimely demise, they discover the truth behind an unthinkable crime!"

Really, Tokyopop? Well, far be it from me to criticize—after all, Japan has done its fair share of turning trashy TV dramas into trashier comic adaptations—and besides, this one does a solid job of emulating a real CSI episode. The cramming and rushing usually associated with single-volume efforts is nowhere to be found here; instead, the story plays out at a natural pace with enough twists and turns to feel satisfying. In addition, those who tune in to crime shows for science geekery will also get what they're looking for, with branches of pathology, chemistry, computer science, and a little handy-dandy physics each getting their turn. The younger, no-name cast of characters also adds some freshness to the franchise, especially after years and years of seeing serious grown-ups making serious faces at each other while standing over grisly crime scenes. All in all, it's a well-rounded whodunit with the requisite allotment of seedy suspects, methodical problem-solving, "Aha!" moments, and enough action and tension to keep things moving. Just like the one on TV, right?

Really, Tokyopop. While this one-volume spinoff executes the murder-mystery formula with remarkable poise, it still falls well short of standard-setters like Detective Conan, relying on only the most basic of crime story elements. The guy who is most obviously the killer isn't the actual killer! The suspect left just enough clues that the good guys were able to figure it out! And of course, it was an "inside job" ... like all predictable mystery shockers. Worse yet, all the Bad Science clichés of the real CSI find their way here, including the ever-exapserating "impossible JPEG enhancement" technique. There is no way you can zoom in and get that kind of resolution. Ever. Then again, blurry resolution might be an improvement, as the stiff, cold artwork is the real crime being committed in this book. From the dead-eyed, unattractive secondary characters, to the sparsely sketched backgrounds, to the awkward action sequences, this is a complete travesty to anyone with an eye for decent visual storytelling. It looks like the work of someone trained in American comics trying desperately to do "manga style"—oh wait, that's because it is.

Well, the story is decent enough to capture one's interest, even with all the dumb crime-show clichés. It's just a shame that one actually has to look at the drawings, which end up ruining everything.

Well, nobody chimed in with a horror or supernatural pick for this week. Which perhaps is to be expected when there are so many titles, you could probably pick one off the shelf blindfolded! So here's another point of discussion: Which manga would you recommend to win over someone who isn't a fan? 300-400 words, tell us why you picked that series, and you'll be Internet famous!

Meanwhile, here's another pick from the archives, with Alexis's review of a very tongue-in-cheek harem comedy.

(by Tamiki Wakaki, Shogakukan, ¥420 ea.)

I'm young enough to utilize manga scan websites, but guilty enough to only read titles not released in English, which is what led me to The World God Only Knows.

The World God Only Knows follows the story of Katsuragi Keima, the introverted high schooler with no friends and an addiction to dating sims. At school, he is known as Otamegane (Otaku-megane), and spends class winning girls' hearts on his handheld PFP. But online, he is known as the Capturing God, and he runs a website that shows the way to beat any dating sim imaginable.

One day he receives and e-mail asking for some help capturing the hearts of some girls. The minute he accepts, he is put into a lethally binding contract with the demon Elsee, who was sent from Hell to recapture escaped spirits that lodged themselves into the hearts of human girls with the help of a human partner. The way to expel them is to fill the holes in their hearts with love. Though Keima explains to her that he only interacts with girls in games, the contract had already been made, and the antisocial Keima and bumbling Elsee are paired together to win over the real-life girls at Keima's school.

If not taken lightly, the series can be a little offensive to women, because time after time, Keima manages to win over every girl he has to without much trouble at all. His game plans are all based on the games he's played, and they always work on the real girls, which was a little bit insulting, but silly enough that I didn't mind.

But the series really delivers, just in the smaller details. For instance, whenever a demon has to stay with Keima, they explain their presence to his mother by saying that he is their long-lost older half-brother, which means his mother spends half of her appearances threatening to leave her husband. Also, the characterization is better than in most manga, Elsee's in particular. She looks up to her older sister, has friends, likes to clean, and develops a passion for fire trucks.

Of course, it's Keima himself who really makes the manga worthwhile. He's extremely smart, but insolent enough to maintain an amusing level of antagonism between himself and his teachers. His personality is nerdy, unapproachable, and precise to fit in on shows like The Big Bang Theory, and when he goes into "God-mode" to beat several games at once, it's sure to make you laugh.

So if you like light romantic comedies, and don't mind when there's more comedy than romance, The World God Only Knows is a good read (if it's ever published in English).

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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