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Yotsuba and Britannians

by Carlo Santos,

Wait, the FBI got involved in a comics-related crime bust and it didn't involve skeevy drawings of underage girls?

Logic ... it has failed me.

Vol. 2
(by Tsutomu Nihei, Viz Media, $12.99)

"In Tsutomu Nihei's nightmare vision of the future, the N5S virus has swept across the earth, turning most of the population into zombie-like drones. Zoichi Kanoe, an agent of Toa Heavy Industry, is humanity's last hope, and he's not even human! With the help of Fuyu, a digitized intelligence built into the computer system of his heavy dual coil motorcycle, Zoichi's search for the key to salvation will take him on a journey across surreal landscapes and hurl him into a battle against mind-bending evil. Prepare yourself for the ultimate trip—prepare yourself for the world of Biomega.
After capturing Eon Green, DRF forces are amassing around Toa Heavy Industry headquarters and have taken Dr. Kurokawa and his daughter into custody. Zoichi must attempt a rescue—Dr. Kurokawa's laboratory may yield critical information on Eon Green. Elsewhere, Toa Heavy Industry agent Nishu Mizunoe searches for Kozlov Grebnev and the secrets he knows about the DRF's research, origins and their apocalyptic plan for the entire human race!"

As the stakes ramp up in the second volume of Biomega, so does the artistic virtuosity: the villains get scarier, the fights get more brutal, and the backgrounds reach whole new levels of post-apocalyptic. Or maybe that should be just plain apocalyptic, considering the huge explosion that will shock readers into paying attention in the second chapter. With world domination now within the DRF's grasp, and Kanoe desperately trying anything to disrupt the evil organization, the dramatic intensity goes well beyond the quiet foreboding that shaded the first volume. We're talking about a string of chapters that includes the following feats of ass-kickery: commandeering a fighter jet while on a motorbike, fighting a bunch of goons on a train while riding said motorbike (beat that, Nathan Drake!), and helping a bear-man in a trenchcoat escape the clutches of these goons. Naturally, Tsutomu Nihei renders every heart-stopping moment in his trademark dystopian style: lots of dark, evocative shading, dizzying angles that give a unique sense of motion, and scenery that seems to come from another world. True, it's a scary and dangerous place—but also beautiful in the way it's presented.

Here are some basic manga facts: First, Tsutomu Nihei will always be praised for his post-apocalyptic vision, dark sci-fi imagery, or whatever other buzzwords you like. Second, he always gets a free pass on story, even though his futuristic ramblings barely make any sense. Just look at the number of jargon words and acronyms that have to be explained in this one, usually by means of little footnotes squeezed in between the panels. Yet the actual plot is painfully simple, with a sinister organization trying to control all of humanity while some guy on a bike dares to rebel against them. Actually, that's two guys on bikes (Kanoe and Mizunoe), in two entirely different scenarios—not that anyone would notice, since the characters are drawn almost exactly alike and the scene transitions do nothing to point out that the action is occurring in different places (which also look exactly alike). Nihei may have a strong, distinctive style, but whether that style is actually conducive to good storytelling remains to be seen. The drama and action may have reached a new level, but it's still the same old rage-against-the-machine gobbledygook that comes up in EVERY dark sci-fi story.

A fine coat of artistic polish can't hide the fact that, between the explosions and the viruses and the zombies and the guys on bikes, this is a bog-standard C-grade adventure.

Vol. 1
(by various, Bandai, $10.99)

"The Knight anthology series focuses on the male characters of Code Geass and presents side stories by an eclectic group of manga artists."

At last, a countermeasure against all those fans who take Code Geass way too seriously! Whereas the original was a nonstop barrage of melodrama that bordered on the ridiculous, this collection of shorts is intentionally funny, making light of the characters' many neuroses. Lelouch's warped ego and double identity is the easiest target, of course; a couple of of the best stories focus on the wacky disconnect between Lelouch the common schoolboy and Zero the legendary rebel leader. Speaking of schoolboys, classroom antics are also high up on the list of this anthology's comedic priorities: Lelouch, Suzaku and Rivalz abandon their usual action-adventure roles and morph into a trio of goofy but likable buddies, forever getting themselves into trouble. And who can resist those occasional hints of Lelouch and Suzaku's unusually close relationship? There's even one bittersweet chapter that earnestly examines the softer side of Lelouch's heart. If the original Code Geass was built upon a pedestal of towering self-importance, tackling heady issues of culture and politics and identity, then this is the spinoff that gleefully knocks all of that down.

Of all the things to be based on the Code Geass universe, this has got to be one of the trashiest cash-in attempts—and the fact that it's just the first volume is even more frightening. Even before the book is two-thirds finished, we're already starting to see certain jokes repeat themselves: Lelouch's love of sewing, his world-domination/inferiority complex as Zero, the pitiable beta-maleness of Rivalz, and of course, pizza. Always the pizza. Funny how a multi-artist collaboration ends up being so lacking in variety. The same problem applies in the visuals: everyone is so afraid of breaking the character design rules that the spindly, curvy pretty-boy look oozes its way into everything. Clearly, this isn't so much a unique artistic interpretation as it is a wild doujinshi party, and when that's happening, any hope of quality control goes out the window. Some stories are decent enough with a punchline or two; others are 5-page vignettes that go nowhere; still others are 4-panel strips that pretty much lost any chance of being funny as soon as the artist started drawing it. One would need Lelouch's Geass powers to convince anyone to buy this product.

You know what's super scary? There's also a companion anthology that focuses on the female characters of Code Geass. Too scattershot to contain any real substance, this anthology volume earns a D+.

Vol. 1
(by Seimu Yoshizaki, Viz Media, $12.99)

"In this volume:
A manga series based on the life of Katsushika Hokusai sparks an art student's inspiration.
The playful antics of a gag manga help an archer revive his focus.
An old detective manga series from the fifties changes the life of a young man from America.
A Western series from France proves that good comics can be found all over the world.
A shôjo manga featuring a dreamy male protagonist leads a busy housewife to rediscover the passion in her life.
We have the manga you're looking for."

Nothing says "by geeks for geeks" like a manga about a manga store that references actual manga titles—but that is exactly why Kingyo Used Books succeeds, every page radiating with a passion for the art of "irresponsible pictures." Not content to simply showcase the romanticized ideal of working at a bookstore, this series also name-drops various titles like crazy, providing an enlightening history lesson in the process. For those who think the history of manga extends in a straight line from Tezuka through Dragon Ball to Naruto and One Piece, this is an absolute eye-opener, showing the sheer variety of works—familiar and obscure, modern and classic—that comprise the world of Japanese comics. The series is at its best when it shows how manga connects us to the spirit of youth and pure emotion, like when a class reunion becomes a reminiscence on personal favorites, or when a housewife rediscovers her first crush. The naturalistic art style, with its eye-pleasing character designs and clean-lined panels, is a perfect fit for the series—the kind of art that sinks into the background so that we can focus on what really stands out: the joy of reading, discovering and experiencing manga.

Ironically, if you wanted to get non-fans interested in manga, this is probably NOT the series to give them. Kingyo is, if anything, too fixated on giving history lessons, trying to drown the reader in footnotes and details rather than letting the series speak for itself. In fact, it's very telling that only two of the seven chapters use actual art excerpts in the story; the other chapters somehow expect us to know about the manga being discussed just from the title, the description, and (maybe) a cover image. It's as dumb as Nodame Cantabile name-dropping all those famous pieces of classical music, except that this time the series doesn't have the excuse of being in the wrong medium (visual vs. aural). And because the story is so busy getting lost in the details, it never really gets a chance to focus on the main characters and show the evolving dynamics between them: oh, sometimes a chapter will cover something like the strained relationship between father and daughter and suitor, but otherwise it's the books that are the stars of this series—much to the detriment of the human characters.

There are moments when it gets too technical, and the story's not as deep as it could be, but a series filled with such glowing passion and educational value deserves at least a B.

Vol. 1
(by Sekihiko Inui, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Shuto Katsuragi is a superhero otaku. Only problem is, he's too short and always getting teased for his height ... especially when he tries to emulate his favorite superhero! To make matters worse, Shuto suddenly gets abducted and tricked into participating in some rather sketchy and super-villainous experiments! What's a shrimp to do when his dreams come true in ways he never expected?"

"Oh blah," you say. "Another adventure story where some kid miraculously discovers amazing powers and goes on a quest to protect the ones he loves." And that's where you would be wrong: sure, Ratman uses elements of the standard hero's quest, but it subverts them to create a story where good and evil aren't as clear as one might think. In fact, the central plot point itself—Shuto's transformation into a caped crusader—employs a dark twist that alters the entire foundation of the series, guaranteeing that our hero won't be simply running around fighting evil like the other 203,748 shounen protagonists out there. Even the setting of the series offers some wry social commentary, giving us a world where heroes are so common that they've become unionized and turned into corporate mascots. So expect a dose of humor in this story as well—not just in the morally ambiguous situations, but also in the over-the-top costume designs (part Marvel/DC, part Power Rangers) and the semi-slapstick action scenes where punching out the other guy is often the last thing on Shuto's mind. Stan Lee would surely approve.

For all its clever little tweaks on the superhero formula, Ratman still clings too closely to tradition—and in some cases falls right into the trap of predictability by using some overly familiar plot devices. This first volume, for example, introduces a couple of very pretty girls who happen to be Shuto's classmates at school, which makes it easy to guess that each one is either (1) secretly with the good guys, or (2) secretly with the bad guys. Some of the other plot tricks are not quite as obvious, but irritating nonetheless, like Shuto being "guided" through the discovery of his powers and his first mission. Even the series' musings on good and evil are things that the genre figured out about half a century ago, so it's not like anything new is being accomplished by sitting around asking what the definition of a hero is. On the visual side, there are some fundamental failings in the art as well, like the character designs (typical big-eyed teen protagonists) and linework (too much computer-assisted polish and touch-up). Clearly, this heroic saga has ways to go.

As a first volume, it brings in some promising ideas and is more entertaining than it probably has a right to be. But a number of faults, plus a been-there-done-that premise, land it at a C+.

Vol. 8
(by Kiyohiko Azuma, Yen Press, $10.99)

"The ranch wasn't fun, huh? But maybe festivals will be less funner?! (Yotsuba's playing opposites, ha-ha!) Yotsuba got invited to Fuuka's school for a culr ... a clart ... a cultural festival! And she didn't promise Yotsuba there wouldn't be CAKE! Yotsuba doesn't want a cake as biiiiiig as Jumbo, nope!! You wouldn't either, now would you?!"

It would be excessive to say that Kiyohiko Azuma is the greatest artist of his generation—but he is, to say the least, a once-in-a-generation artist. No other manga-ka sees so effortlessly into the mind of a child, bringing out the simple pleasures of life in each of Yotsuba's whimsical capers. Sometimes it can be something as simple as saying the opposite of what she means (and who doesn't remember playing that game as a kid?), or it can be a 60-page masterpiece where Yotsuba takes in all the sights and sounds of her first matsuri. But it's not like the title character has a monopoly on the joy and laughter of Yotsuba&!—many of the series' finest moments come during her interactions with grown-ups, especially when perpetual prankster Jumbo is involved. (Notice the chapter where Yotsuba hitches a ride on Jumbo's shoulders and the panels suddenly switch to a high-angle view—it's clever little details like that where Azuma's talent really shines.) Nonetheless, Azuma nails the big details too, with artistic showpieces like the richly drawn festival props and idyllic neighborhood scenes. As a self-help manual on appreciating the joys of life, there is no better value for money than Yotsuba&!.

Then again, if there were a manual on how to be an annoying brat to your parents, this would also be an ideal pick—and indeed, some of Yotsuba's antics add nothing to the series. The chapter about having cake at the school festival, for example, ends on an irritating note as our heroine displays the worst tendencies of the self-centered six-year-old brain. And some chapters, like the opener where Yotsuba demands a glass of milk, and the one where she goes out in the rain, don't really go anywhere with their concept. (At least the rainstorm chapter ends on a brilliantly humorous note.) At its worst, the series might be accused of recycling the same joke in different ways: Yotsuba doesn't understand the conventions of polite society, so she goes and does something inappropriate, and then we all laugh because she misunderstood the situation. Repeat as many times as needed. How long are we going to let Azuma get away with this?

Frankly, Azuma can keep getting away with this as long as he likes, because he has filled yet another volume with more smiles and laughter than most other manga combined. Another A- entry in the series.

Vol. 3
(by Svetlana Chmakova, Yen Press, $12.99)

"Betrayed by one of their own, the Hunters have become the hunted as their hideaway is invaded by a pack of ravenous werewolves! But it'll take more than a few mongrels to get the better of these kids. Meanwhile, Alex begins advanced training with Mr. Roi. Will he be able to help her find a clue to her sister's disappearance? Or is the homeschooled Alex in way over her head?"

Just in case anyone doubted Svetlana Chmakova's ability to do dark fantasy—if anyone still thought her entire oeuvre began and ended with Dramacon—the opening chapters of this volume will blow those doubts away. This is the kind of blowing away that involves magical explosions, enchanted wards, ingenious illusions, and all sorts of visual fireworks that would make even the best Japanese manga-ka jealous. And that's even before Nightschool gets to the middle chapters of this volume, which involves an arcane ritual so lushly rendered that the only way to make it more eye-popping would be with 3-D glasses. It's clear that the series is now entering into some serious high-level magic, and is only getting better as a result. Readers will also be glad to know that the ominous vision from the start of the series is (partially) explained at last, giving the plot a much stronger sense of direction and coherency. That newfound direction adds to the suspense in the closing chapters, where we find that Alex's quest (which also picks up thanks to some new clues about her sister) and the Hunters' quest may be about to collide at last. And what a collision it will be.

All right, Nightschool, you've officially entered the realm of What The Hell Is Going On. Or at least that's how it seems in the first few chapters—a spectacular dark-fantasy fight sequence as described above, but also with a whole lot of barely-recognizable characters grimacing at each other and muttering ambiguous-sounding lines. Perhaps this is one of those things that works better in serialization, where one can remember the storyline from month to month? At the very least, a plot summary at the start of each volume would be nice for us laggards who don't follow the Yen+ magazine. And because there are so many of these characters that one can barely recall, the Hunters' side of the story still feels distant, as if it they were some fancy distraction from Alex's search for her sister. Even worse is that, with all the explanations and dramatic hand-wringing going on, much of Chmakova's trademark humor is nowhere to be found—truly a crushing disappointment, since her sense of humor is arguably her strongest weapon. In its quest to be as epic as possible, has this series sacrificed its soul?

The sacrifice of a few goofy comedy moments is worth it, considering just how spectacular the spellcasting and battle sequences are in this volume. Still, the story needs to tighten up and explain what's going on and where it's headed.

You know what we don't see enough of around here? Manhwa reviews. Anyone got a good Korean comic to recommend? Let us know in 300-400 words! (Please ... no one's sent in anything for a month now.)

Meanwhile, this week's guest review comes courtesy of Anthony Moores, whose manga of choice reminds us of the simple joys of shooting things. And killing people.

Vols. 1-2
(by Rei Hiroe, Viz Media, $12.99 ea.)

Rokuro Okajima has the misfortune of being on a boat targeted by the mercenaries of the Lagoon Company, and his normal life as a Japanese salary-man gets turned upside down. The gun crazy Revy wants to hold him for ransom, only to find out that his employers have decided they don't need him back. Having been abandoned by his employers and left for dead he has no choice to but to stay with the Lagoon Company and try to stay alive, taking on the name Rock.

Right off the bat I might as well mention that this isn't exactly a plot heavy series, especially in volume one. But that isn't always a bad thing. It's still an entertaining series, so long as you find copious amounts of gun fights and psychotic people entertaining. The entire plot revolves around various dealings of the underworld; smuggling, kidnapping, and the like. It's as good as you would expect from a series about mercenaries. The real draw to the series would most certainly be the character Revy, a short tempered, gun crazy, violent, doesn't take crap from anyone kind of woman. In the first chapter alone she single headedly takes out a bar full of mercenaries, all the while with a big smile plastered across her face. In the next chapter she proceeds to take out several boat riding enemies while listening to a White Zombie song. Suffice to say, as shallow a character as she seems to be, she's still immensely entertaining to watch.

Fortunately by the second volume Revy's character is developed a bit more. She acts the way she does because of how she grew up, and this drastically altered her views on the world. There's also a short plotline regarding how her view of the world clashes with Rock's views. It was an interesting development, even if it only spanned a few chapters, and it showed that there's more to these characters than just the crazy, over the top traits that they exhibit. It leaves me optimistic that there will be more interesting character development along the line, which is a nice addition along with all the action the series presents. I should also mention that the writing is peppered with swear words, and the occasional racial slur. Depending on your views on that sort of thing this either makes this manga the greatest series ever or offensive garbage.

Black Lagoon starts out seeming as nothing more than an over the top action series, but certainly becomes more than that once you get further into it. It will obviously appeal to fans of action series, but its interesting and well designed characters present something enjoyable for people who prefer that sort of thing.

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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