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Sebastian the Combat Butler

by Carlo Santos,

I'm thrilled to see the works of Takako Shimura (Aoi Hana, Wandering Son) finally getting the attention they deserve. Yet at the same time, I can't help but feel a bittersweet twinge of pain—the feeling that The Industry's Best Kept Secret is no longer much of a secret. Sharing your obscure underdog favorite with the rest of the world always demands a bit of letting go. Now I've got to go find myself another hidden gem...

Vol. 1
(by Yuu Watase, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In a world where humans and gods coexist, Arata is the unfortunate successor to the matriarchal Hime Clan—unfortunate because if he's not cross-dressing to hide his gender one minute, he's fleeing for his life the next! When Arata ends up in the modern world and switches places with a boy named Arata Hinohara, it's a wonder which Arata's actually better off...
Hinohara is the spitting image of Arata, so he suddenly finds himself fighting people after his life! As he navigates through this foreign world filled with power-hungry warriors, who will come to his aid? One thing's for sure—it's not easy being Arata!"

Wow, Yuu Watase is fantastic when she isn't killing people's brain cells with silly stories about robot boyfriends! Arata sees Watase back in epic fantasy mode, with a brand-new adventure set in a picturesque otherworld. Few other artists have the skill and imagination to build such a place from the ground up, with richly detailed landscapes and architecture, lavish costumes, and even a fully thought-out system of government and society. And if anyone remembers her "Drawing With Yuu" tutorials, this series brings all the essential principles of visual storytelling to life: how to create distinct and memorable characters, how to build tension from scene to scene, and how to string the panels together in a coherent, dynamic way. (None of that "slap everything on the page and shower it with screentones" garbage that passes for so much shoujo these days.) Every twist and turn of the saga comes at full force, and with a gloomy-minded hero in the lead role—Arata is more likely to be grousing about selfishness and betrayal than questing to be the strongest—you never quite know what to expect. And isn't that always what we hope for in a great adventure?

It's pretty clear which Arata is getting the better deal right now. Modern-day Arata is introduced through a gripping tale of school bullying, while ancient feudal Arata gets the generic fantasy origin story. Modern-day Arata gets to embark on a whirlwind quest, while feudal Arata embarks on a couple of doofy run-ins with the police. If that's the way it's going to be, Watase might as well have stuck to the stronger of the two story threads, which is about an everyday student being transported to a fantasy world ... and discovering amazing powers ... oh wait. Switch the genders and it begins to sound just a bit too familiar. The story may have its hooks, but it's not going to win any prizes for originality—not when it's built from worn-out plot devices like the traitorous high-ranking officer and the barely-alive princess that needs rescuing and the legendary magical sword that can only be wielded by the Chosen One. Who wants to bet that Arata will have to train with a wizened old master and make a heart-wrenching sacrifice before succeeding in his quest? This series practically gives away its own ending with its predictability.

One of the other lessons from "Drawing With Yuu," I believe, was that you don't have to do something completely original as long as you can do it well—and Yuu Watase certainly does it well. Well enough for a B.

Vol. 1
(by Yana Toboso, Yen Press, $10.99)

"Just a stone's throw from London lies the manor house of the illustrious Phantomhive earldom and its master, one Ciel Phantomhive. Earl Phantomhive is a giant in the world of commerce, Queen Victoria's faithful servant ... and a slip of a twelve-year-old boy. Fortunately, his loyal butler, Sebastian, is ever at his side, ready to carry out the young master's wishes. And whether Sebastian is called to save a dinner party gone awry or probe the dark secrets of London's underbelly, there apparently is nothing Sebastian cannot do. In fact, one might even say Sebastian is too good to be true ... or at least, too good to be human ... "

How cool of a guy is Sebastian? Let's put it this way: he arms himself with mere knives and forks, takes on a horde of 19th-century Italian mafia, and still manages to look utterly badass. Indeed, it seems that he just can't help being awesome. This awesomeness leads to quite a variety of stories in Black Butler's first volume: one moment he's averting household disaster when a guest comes to visit, the next he's teaching Ciel how to dance and how to keep his temper (with amusing results), and he even catches mice barehanded. But clearly, it's Sebastian and Ciel's run-in with the mafia that is the highlight of this volume—multiple chapters of suspense, danger, butt-kicking butler action, and maybe just a hint of the supernatural. It's that last part that makes Sebastian such an enigmatic, alluring character, not to mention his very special relationship with Ciel. And of course, this series wouldn't be half as convincing if our hero didn't look the part—the period costumes and aristocratic setting present many opportunities for classy and stylish art. Ah, so many pretty things to look at ... not least of which is the lead character himself.

If this is supposed to be a classy period piece, with ominous underpinnings about Sebastian's dark past, it doesn't seem to be doing a very good job of pointing that out. Too many times Black Butler veers off into comedy mode, which may indeed be the artist's intent, but usually just ends up ruining the mood of the story. For example, a supporting character like sickly-sweet cutie pie Elizabeth might be a laugh riot in any other series, but here she just seems like an out-of-place throwaway character designed to annoy the rest of the cast. But at least she goes away, which can't be said for the three other servants who work under Sebastian and seem intent on wasting page space with their pointless slapstick antics. No, we don't care about whether you planned on eating that freshly baked pie, now get back to the mafia beatdown! Plus, with the artwork shifting styles to fit those outbursts of humor, it suddenly turns into this lightweight, chibi-figure gag manga that completely breaks the 19th-century illusion. Kind of like Emma meets Shin-chan or something ... which is exactly as awkward as it sounds.

I have absolutely no problem with Sebastian's courageous and manly exploits. However, it's all the "goofing around in the Phantomhive household" stuff that weakens the series' first volume, getting it off to a C+ start.

Vol. 14
(by Kenjiro Hata, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Since the tender age of nine, Hayate Ayasaki has busted his behind at various part-time jobs to support his degenerate gambler parents. And how do they repay their son's selfless generosity? By selling his organs to the yakuza to cover their debts! But fate throws Hayate a bone ... sort of.
Nagi has done the one thing no one ever expected from the pampered heiress: gotten a job! But her first-ever day of work leaves her too exhausted to enjoy Sakuya's birthday party, an Osaka-style comedy spectacular where the birthday girl's friends are forced to perform before a massive audience. After a comedy buildup spanning several chapters and this cover blurb, can Hayate make 'em laugh?"

Who says a comedy series can't be serious? It may just be a supporting character's birthday, but Hayate spins it into something truly heartfelt, with overlapping storylines and revelations that many thought would never come. For all her sharp-tongued bluster, it is Nagi's moment of tenderness that will win over readers' hearts in this volume, not to mention Hayate's knack for being in the right place at the right time when she needs him. Yet it is one of the other subplots—underdog Ayumu having a heart-to-heart with fan-favorite Hinagiku—that really steals the show. Not only is it a game-changer for the entire series, but the picturesque nighttime setting makes it that much more memorable. But just in case things get too schmaltzy, there's always one of those trademark goofball punchlines waiting just around the corner—a reminder that, even with all these tangled relationships and dramatic confessions, it's still about combat butlers. The comedy dial is cranked up even further in the second half, with a parody-packed start to the school year, plus a class excursion that somehow involves bears. In the woods. And Hayate fighting said bears. Who says a high school drama can't be comedic?

This is exactly the kind of mess that manga artists get themselves into when they dare to step too far outside their comfort zone. Sakuya's birthday is an ambitious event, with rapid-fire scene changes and crisscrossing plotlines and deep outpourings of emotion, and ... well, it's confusing. There's never a chance to get "into the moment" because the moment keeps changing. It certainly doesn't help that the character designs are incredibly bland, near-impossible to tell apart, and there are way too many of them. It's bad enough keeping up with Hayate, Nagi and a few of their friends, and now you want to throw in nearly every major cast member in the series? Ridiculous. But the biggest knock against Hayate, of course, is that the thing it's supposed to be best at is the thing it's not very good at. Most of the comedy moments involve delivering lame punchlines so badly that, in theory, they should come out the other end as funny. (They never do.) Not to mention the poorly-executed slapstick that falls flat because of the sloppy art style trying to cram too much action into too little space. It even sucks the fun out of fighting bears.

It does some cool things with the Sakura birthday arc, but apart from that it's just more of the same: hit-or-miss screwball comedy at a C+ level.

Vol. 1
(by Sakae Esuno, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"We've all heard urban legends—stories that we tell one another late at night, just to make us cringe and freak ourselves out. We dismiss these stories as just plain old creepy. But what happens when they become real...?
Enter detective Aso Daisuke. When he isn't dealing with cheating spouses, con artists, or his ero-manga collection, he dives deep into the intense fear of these horrors. With his first case—the Man Under the Bed—can he stop a disturbed killer with a bloody axe?
From Sakae Esuno, creator of Future Diary, comes a look into Japanese horror that takes readers on a journey into the terror that lurks inside us all."

Praise is usually heaped on authors who create wild, fantastical stories, but in the horror genre, nothing chills the blood quite like tales that hew dangerously close to reality. Hanako's basis in folktale and urban legend provides a strong foundation for some great creep-out moments, and for non-Japanese readers there's also the added bonus of learning what these folktales are about in the first place. The deadpan, Twilight Zone-esque introductions to each chapter set the perfect tone, and the tension builds up at just the right pace—you know when those shocking moments are going to hit, but it doesn't make them any less terrifying when they happen. Of course, Sakae Esuno's gift for outlandish imagery also helps in that regard: classic creatures like the slit-faced woman and the humanoid fish (readers of Gyo will know that one all too well) take on new levels of terrifying in this series, no matter how familiar they may be. And when the horror blends into action, the story doesn't skip a beat—detective Aso's acts of gunfighting and exorcism are just as heart-pounding, followed of course by the cathartic sigh of relief when it's all over. (OR IS IT...?)

This horror series would probably be a lot more horrifying if it weren't so frequently sloppy in its execution—and if it didn't keep trying to be cute and funny with the characters. For those who were wondering about the title, yes, the infamous "Toilet Hanako" actually plays the detective's sidekick, and it seems that half her reason for being here is to make annoying quips that derail the creepy mood of the series. It also doesn't help that Aso, like plenty of other leading male characters, is a porn-collecting pervert. Authors and creators really need to stop doing that; it is neither funny nor unique. As for the stories themselves, their imperfections often ruin the chilling effect—the tale of the Man Under the Bed rushes its ending, while the Human-Fish saga errs in the opposite direction with a convoluted, unrequited-love ending that takes too long. And it's not just the storytelling that's sloppy—some of the character designs look like the work of a rookie who just bought their first Draw Your Own Manga guidebook. That's also scary ... but in a different way.

Not always as frightening as it could be, but it definitely hits a lot of the right notes—enough to score a B-.

Vol. 4
(by Kagami Yoshimizu, Bandai, $10.99)

"Effects of Lucky Star 4:
Can unfocused stories bring you a little healing?
This book can bring a gentle wind to the heart of those who feel so tired recently.
This is especially recommended when you really want a happy, contented feeling.
Especially recommended for:
People who want to be a little more laid-back
People who feel like relaxing
People who want a bit more fun in their lives."

It takes true talent to make something out of nothing—and in that respect, few people are as talented as Kagami Yoshimizu, who continues to poke fun at the foibles of human nature in this volume of Lucky Star. To be more exact, though, it's the foibles of otaku nature that really bring out the best in the series: Konata's bizarre buying habits just for the sake of promotions and special rewards, her deep attachment to her PC and late-night anime, even the way she pokes fun at her skeevy lolicon father. And it's not like she's the only source of comedy around here—there's plenty of amusement to be had from Konata's classmates, whether it's Kagami shooting off sarcastic one-liners (after 4 volumes, she still hasn't run out?!) or exploring the artist's side of otakudom with resident manga-ka Hiyori. Another sign of talent is getting through the winter months while carefully dodging the cliché-fests of Christmas and Winter Comiket; clearly the humor takes precedence over the days of the year. Plus, a moe-moe all-girl series where one can actually tell the characters apart? It's a miracle!

It's hard to imagine anyone buying the Lucky Star manga except for the sake of it being Lucky Star. Most of the jokes found here are bog-standard 4-panel humor, often made worse by Kagami trying to cut in with the last word (and not sounding funny at all). Most of the observations on Konata's geek lifestyle are exactly that—observations—and lack the turnaround or punchline that would make it an actual gag. And when it comes to making jokes about school life, or the characters' deficiencies, it's even less engaging; the only way anyone would find it funny is if you like to stand around pointing and laughing at people doing everyday things. Because that's exactly what's going on here. The drifting plotlessness doesn't help either—there's no recurring joke or ongoing storyline that might make someone actually want to turn to the next page. Instead, turning to the next page only reveals the same thing that was on the previous page: four-panel strips of crudely drawn, poorly paced "humor" that is dependent entirely on whether one finds scatterbrained high school girls amusing. (Hint: they're not.)

One of the truest examples of "the anime did it better." Even I, as a defender of Lucky Star, have to admit that this is C- material right here.

(by Dan Jolley and Rocio Zucchi, Tokyopop, $9.99)

"In World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King, Thassarian is a renegade death knight, one of the few of his kind to be free of the Lich King's control. Although Thassarian has turned his incredible powers against his former master, he remains feared and despised by most of his Alliance allies. Countless players have aided Thassarian in the game as he battles against the Lich King's agents in Northrend, but few fans know the details of his former life. Death Knight is Thassarian's story, a tale that reveals the origins, motivations, and darkest secrets of Warcraft's newest incarnation of death knights."

When it comes to video game spinoffs, conventional wisdom tells us that only those who have played the game are going to understand any part of what's going on. But not so with Death Knight, which stands on its own as a World of Warcraft side story; if anything, it goes well beyond a mere side story. The ups and downs of Thassarian's tragic life are enough to fill a full-length fantasy novel, yet it somehow squeezes into a single graphic novel volume—and still feels satisfying at its conclusion (while remaining open enough to connect to the rest of the franchise). This is a tale that covers the full spectrum: from courage and daring, to downfall and betrayal, to regret, despair, redemption, rage, vengeance, and all the experiences in between. And you thought this was just about burly dudes and monsters swinging swords at each other? Hell, the way Thassarian's life is going, one can only hope that they have therapists in the Warcraft universe. The secret of storytelling success, it seems, is to follow the fortunes of a single character through life, death, and a very strange sort of rebirth. Now that's an adventure.

Yes, this would have made a pretty cool fantasy novel. And that's what it should have been ... considering that the artwork is what totally kills the story. Not that it's as amateurish as some of Tokyopop's other original publications—the lineart is rich and detailed enough to pull off a reasonable fantasy world—but whoever worked on the toning needs to be kept far, far away from any graphics software. Forever. Practically every page is a mess of grays and gradients, looking like it was originally worked out in a beautiful 32 million colors and then mercilessly condensed into grayscale. As a result, we get battle scenes that are near-unreadable (especially when the enemies get fiercer and more monstrous), landscapes that are devoid of any depth or grandeur, and characters that—despite their distinctive designs—disappear hopelessly into the overwrought backgrounds. All because some people can't lay off the "Fill" button. The storyline is not without its flaws, either: many transitions and timeskips happen too quickly, as if entire sections of Thassarian's life were being abridged for convenience. Other plot threads, meanwhile, are left unresolved or skimmed over. It seems the urge to become a full fantasy novel still lurks within this book.

As a middle-of-the-road swords-and-sorcery adventure, it certainly holds its own, and even non-Warcraft devotees will get something out of it. But goodness gracious, shield your eyes!

Don't forget, Reader's Choice is also a place where you can send in NEGATIVE reviews! Is there a series that deserves a nice, healthy bashing? Let us know, because I sure as hell don't want to waste ten bucks on something I'm not going to like.

Now, here's Cristiano Montanari with a review of a series that doesn't hit American shores until September of this year ... but good things, as they say, are worth waiting for.

(by Ryuuji Gotsubo, Yen Press, $10.99 ea.)

While the intermingling of different genres in manga has become, by now, nearly a marketing cliché, very few series manage to actually pull off the deed and provide a refreshing, yet truly entertaining alternative experience. Almost nine years ago Ryuuji Gotsubo concluded Sasameke, a drama/comedy/school romance/sport/action/mystery series that will keep the reader entertained as much as it will keep him/her wondering.

Rakuichi, a budding soccer star, has just been unceremoniously shipped back to Japan after a short stint in Italy, where he managed to alienate a whole pro team (and, it seems, a few shady characters) thanks to his unrestrained arrogance. Back home he is put under the care of scheming oddball school teacher Biwako, and is soon caught into her latest half baked ploy: getting the local neck-of-the-woods high school soccer team to win Japan's junior Nationals.

Rakuichi gets a chance to interact with one of the wildest casts ever committed to a manga page, including but not limited to cute stalker Inao, "violently" beautiful Maiko, a clashing duo of school principals and an assortment of mobsters, soccer players and soccer playing mobsters. As he leads the school team onward to (maybe) victory, Rakuichi and his comrades will find themselves involved in an ever growing tangle of absurd plots, silly revenges and titanic clashes all the way up to the coveted nationals, where a cruelly entertaining twist ending will be waiting for them.

Sasameke shows to its full effect what can be achieved by injecting the most over-used plots and characters with just the right amount of weirdness. Child gangsters and superhuman sportsmen are nothing new in the manga world, but Gotsubo's sheer inventiveness and ability in shuffling already seen cards gives the series a shiny lustre that makes the series as a whole refreshingly new: action packed absurdist comedy is the author's weapon of choice, and he clearly excels at what he does.

From a visual standpoint, Sasameke will be something of an acquired taste. Gotsubo's lines are often sketchy and all over the place, character designs are utterly inconsistent and the focus is firmly on action and movement, rather than detail. Panels are also pretty much absent, and the author revels in letting every single scene blend, crash and clash with every other, peppering every corner—no matter how tiny—with little jokes, side scenes and silly comments in a decidedly Zetsubou-esque fashion (ante litteram, as Gotsubo's series predates Kumeta's by a few years).

Sasameke (and its two sequels, Sasameki and Sasanaki) are a refreshingly odd read, guaranteed to satisfy those who, looking for a break from their favourite comedy, romance, action or sports manga, are curious to find out what those would taste like if cooked together in the same cauldron.

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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