by Carlo Santos,

A few nights ago, I found myself overcome with emotion as I watched the Los Angeles Lakers win one of the hardest-fought championships in the team's history. For a few seconds, I thought to myself: Why? Why do I care so much about this team when all I did was watch? Why do I, and thousands of other people, get so worked up about a bunch of tall guys tossing a ball around when they don't even know I exist?

But I could ask the same of this hobby. Why do we care so much if a fictional teenage alchemist saves the world? What does it matter to us if a hyper-intelligent sociopath tries to kill bad people by writing their names in a cursed notebook? Why does a non-existent rock band of four High School Girls fill the spaces of our hearts and minds?

In pro sports, at least, they are real people, albeit people who exist in an entirely different sphere of life. Yet here we are, idolizing two-dimensional images, becoming absorbed in events that never actually happened. Is it so strange, then, to get worked up about a bunch of tall guys tossing a ball around? Perhaps these worlds, despite being so culturally and demographically different, are more alike than we think.

Vol. 3
(by Daisuke Igarashi, Viz Media, $14.99)

"Ruka is traumatized when Sora disappears into the night sea right in front of her. But although she refuses to speak of the incident, the meteorite Sora made her swallow is not so silent. It whispers to her from inside her body, and with its guidance she leads Umi and Anglade into the open ocean in search of answers.
Surrounded by the sea, Ruka starts to see glimpses of the past that help her understand how Umi, Sora, Jim and Anglade all came to be connected."

Conventional manga wisdom tells us that anything involving "kids with amazing supernatural powers" typically results in a deluge of mind-numbing clichés. But when Children of the Sea runs with that concept, it ends up with something unimaginably beautiful, going far beyond the realms of the imagination. The secret is in the way it effortlessly blends reality with fantasy: on one hand, we have aquatic curiosities straight from the annals of marine biological research (as Anglade explains in one of the middle chapters); on the other hand, we have children raised by dugongs, of all things. On one hand, we have anatomically accurate renderings of marine life; on the other hand, we have ethereal dream sequences where Ruka goes out-of-body several hundred feet below the surface. Carefully placed flashbacks add to the effect of this fantastical reality, where folktales from seagoing cultures intersect with personal anecdotes, and Jim's past with Sora and Umi turns out to be a gray area where fact and fiction meet. As always, Igarashi's art comes alive with free-flowing lines and evocative textures—showcasing the ocean's power one moment, and entering a haunting dreamworld the next. If only every tale of kids with supernatural powers were this creative.

Rambling. Lots and lots of rambling. That's what happens in the middle pages of this volume, when a flashback about Jim takes a sharp left turn and we suddenly get subjected to a full-on anthropological sermon. It's interesting stuff to think about, but it also freezes the story in its tracks—at the exact time when important developments are starting to take place. That's not the only place where it happens, either: Ruka's out-of-body experiences are often accompanied by rambling monologues that sound cool and mysterious, but explain absolutely nothing. The other problem with the series is the way in which it jumps from present-day to flashback to other snippets of story; Igarashi has a tendency to pick bad spots and leave various plotlines hanging while following another trail. Ruka's unusual swim in the second half of this volume, for example, gets interrupted by dozens of pages of flashback—and loses its impact in the process.

The story really starts to strengthen now that we're seeing exactly why Umi and Sora are the way they are. Along with the unforgettable, expressive visuals, that makes for A- material.

Vol. 16
(by Norihiro Yagi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In a world where monsters called Yōma 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.
After Miria's incredible revelations about the origins of the Yōma, the seven warriors split up to settle their affairs and say their goodbyes in preparation for the final battle against the Organization. Helen and Deneve fall in with a spirited young warrior of the current generation and soon find themselves confronting the Organization's latest, most terrible weapons."

Ever since Claymore broke everything wide open with a shocking, world-shattering revelation, any plot twist seems like fair game right now—which is exactly what's happening here. A former good guy, who turns out to have been allied with the bad guys, reveals that he's actually not playing for either side; the true purpose of the Battle of the North is explained; and even the greatest beasts in the land meet their match when a horrifying new foe makes its debut. In short, after delivering the biggest suprise of the entire series, the follow-up volume makes sure to keep on dishing out lots of other little surprises. Perhaps the best surprise comes in the closing chapter, where—against all odds—the death of a terrible enemy actually evokes a pang of sympathy. Yagi's detailed, awe-inspiring artwork is a major factor in making such scenes effective; the artist clearly knows no bounds when it comes to fearsome beasts and disturbing creatures. The fight scenes and fantasy backgrounds are a visual delight as always—but ultimately, it's the events of the story that grab the imagination.

Grabbing the imagination ... and then lulling it to sleep, maybe? That seems to be the intent of the first chapter-and-a-half, which ends up being mountains and mountains of dialogue. Look, we already got our big mind-blowing revelation, so when a guy takes thirty pages to say "Yes, I already knew everything that you just found out," that's a waste of space. Plus, filling the panels with various Claymores all wearing the exact same facial expression makes it an even bigger waste of space. When the action finally does kick in, it never seems to find its focus—why would anyone feel emotionally invested in watching a couple of second-string Claymores team up with a new girl, then fight a no-name beast that'll be dead in two chapters? Or a torture scene involving other members of the supporting cast that no one even remembers? Things only get good when the frightening new enemies show up, but that's not until the later chapters; everything else before that is crowded with expository dialogue and fight scenes of lesser importance. Here's a tip: coasting along with pages of filler is not a good way to follow up a brilliant plot revelation.

Man, when did Claymore get boring? Just more monsters and fight scenes, except with characters that don't really matter—which is why it pulls a C- this time.

Vol. 11
(by Hiro Mashima, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Erza's childhood friend Jellal has started to play an elaborate board game—with Natsu and his team as enemy pieces to be eliminated. Meanwhile, Siegrain is trying to get the Magic Council to fire a weapon that will wipe out Jellal's tower, killing everyone within it—including our heroes from Fairy Tail!"

So, with Jellal's evil plan fully sketched out, and Erza's troubled childhood revealed to everyone, what else remains for this story arc of Fairy Tail? Crazy awesome fight scenes, of course! With this volume, Hiro Mashima all but pushes his creative abilities to the limit: off-the-wall characters, jaw-dropping displays of power, and some of the cleverest, funniest trick moves to ever come out of a mage's hands. Where else are you going to hear Aquarius the Water-Bearer quip, "What next, are you going to summon me from toilet water?!" Or see the main hero fight an entire battle while wearing the headpiece from a full-body animal costume? Even the villains are a nonstop parade of genius and hilarity, like the heavy-metal rocker who fights with the power of his hair, or the owl-headed guy who keeps twisting his head just like the actual bird. The mere description of such scenarios is entertaining enough—so when Mashima brings them to life with daredevil linework, extreme view angles, and a barrage of speedlines and explosions, that's just icing on the cake. Add to that the heroes' incredible Fighting Spirit, and the result is a surefire formula for action and adventure.

By now, there is no doubt that the series' fight scenes are its biggest draw. However, it's the rest of the story that needs help. The introduction of a doomsday scenario—the Magic Council planning to blast the tower regardless of whose lives are lost—fails as a dramatic element, mainly because none of the main characters are even aware of it. Other expository scenes also turn into stumbling blocks: the roundabout dialogue in the early chapters ("The guy you trusted actually lied about who betrayed you so he was the liar behind your betrayal"), and then the contrived Erza flashbacks towards the end of the volume. Yes, we're supposed to care about her deep-seated childhood trauma, but such blatant pleas for sympathy are lacking in elegance. The biggest flaw in this story arc, though, is simply the curse of too many characters: new villains start popping out of the woodwork like a boilerplate shounen title, and suddenly we have to remember all these wacky names and even wackier faces ... who will probably be cannon fodder a few chapters later.

Definitely a winner in the action department, but continued hiccups in story development cause it to land at B-.

Vol. 1
(by Kenji Sonishi, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"Attention ramen aficionados, cat lovers and avid manga collectors: this book is for you.
'I've done way more ramen experiments than Taisho. My Thanksgiving turkey was made of ramen.' -Poor College Student
'Will Taisho sit on my lap and purr? I want to rub his belly.' -Cat Fancier
'That picture of Taisho on the spine would look AWESOME on my bookshelf!' -Manga Collector
The first course of a sweet and surly manga treat!"

It's a point that has been made in this column before, but deserves to be repeated: manga doesn't have to be needlessly complex. Just have one great idea and execute it to the best of your ability. In this case, that one great idea is the feline proprietor of a ramen stand—and the offbeat hilarity that results from this situation. As a lead character, Taisho is sketched out with just a few simple personality traits, but what magnetic traits they are: firstly, his bald-faced bravado as a ramen chef, despite his creations ranging from tolerable to horrifying, and secondly, his willful ignorance of the fact that he's a cat. It's the addition of other characters and back-story, however, that really starts to raise the humor beyond simple one-and-done punchlines: flaky employees (like the hobo who keeps stealing from the cash register), comical customers (seriously, who knew that unperceptive doofs like Mariko could actually exist?), and longer chapters that explain Taisho's background with lots of spot-on humor. Manga-ka Sonishi claims Dilbert as a personal favorite, and it shows: this guy knows precisely how to use a gag strip to extract the hilarious out of the mundane.

Live by the four-panel, die by the four-panel. For all its comedic touches, Neko Ramen is still beholden to its restrictive format—which means having to go for quick, shallow punchlines instead of really getting the maximum mileage out of a joke. In fact, that's why the full-length chapters end up stealing the show—because they show the true capability of Sonishi's talent if he weren't held back by four squares in a downward line. Consider, for example, the comical escalation of the competing "cute animal ramen" stands, or the story about Taisho's girlfriend—they work because they're allowed to go on for longer. By comparison, the regular strips are hit-or-miss in their execution, and the same few punchlines keep resurfacing: really terrible recipe ideas, Taisho being full of himself, Taisho being rude, and random weirdos who show up at the ramen stand. Don't expect anything amazing out of the art, either, which is barely above the level of newspaper scribbles—it may be cute and distinctive, but this is clearly the style of someone who's never had to take real drawing lessons. Sometimes it's even hard to identify a bowl of ramen in the picture, which clearly derails some of the punchlines.

Could it be, a four-panel manga I actually like? Miracle of miracles! Although just as shallow as any of its counterparts, Neko Ramen's sense of humor is decent enough to pull a B-.

Vol. 2
(by Tachibana Higuchi, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"It's hard to keep a secret from the world, but Mitsuru and Natsuhiko must never reveal their true selves to their classmates. Luckily for the lonely pair, they get closer when Natsuhiko is asked by his parents to bring a girl home. Will Hijiri discover Natsuhiko's secret when he tags along? And what will Natsuhiko find when he saves Mitsuru from embarrassment on a class trip?"

Once again, Tachibana Higuchi's dark, offbeat sense of humor is what carries Portrait of M & N—not to mention the one-shot in the back, which takes a supernatural cliché and gives it a creative shot in the arm. (The ghost-under-a-cherry-tree thing is way overdone, says Higuchi's editor, so what does she do? Create an entire circle of friends who are all ghosts beneath the same tree! Genius.) The main story, meanwhile, continues to thrive on the lead couple's bizarre personality defects. After a while, one even starts to look forward to those moments when narcissist Natsuhiko catches himself in the mirror, or when masochist Mitsuru accidentally hurts herself, just for the sheer entertainment factor of watching them go off the rails. But these gags by themselves, amusing as they are, still need a structure to hold them up—and that's where the storyline comes in, bringing Mitsuru and Natsuhiko together in surprisingly endearing ways. Although this series digs into the darkest reaches of the human psyche, it also reaches great heights when true love becomes the focus.

What supporters of M & N may not want to admit is that, after the initial surprise factor of the main characters' personalities, the series experiences a severe drop-off. By Volume 2, we've already descended right into high school romance mode, with utterly banal plot ideas (Meet the Parents, Test of Courage, and Sporting Events) that only serve as backdrops to repeat the same old jokes about Mitsuru and Natsuhiko's neuroses. In addition, the guy with the phobia of dogs can go find some other manga series to be in, because the use of his character as a third wheel to incite jealousy just complicates the story needlessly. The biggest weakness of the series, though, is still the poorly executed art—the character designs are barely tolerable, and it looks like Higuchi can only handle about two face types (girls ... and boys). Plus, she can't draw anyone over the age of 25. Backgrounds are a mess too, with chaotic paneling and text placement that are sure to give anyone eyestrain. This is a title filled with so much potential, but so little technique.

Maybe it should have stayed at one volume. This follow-up issue falls flat, with a bland sense of humor that only gets a C.

Vol. 1
(by Chica Umino, Hakusensha, ¥467)

Living in downtown Tokyo is 17-year-old professional shogi prodigy, Rei Kiriyama. However, due to losing his family when he was very young, a deep loneliness has enveloped him. When three sisters—Akira, Hinata and Momo—appear before him, his life is changed... This is the redemptive, heartwarming tale of these people.

How do you follow up a masterpiece like Honey and Clover? Just do what you did last time, of course ... only different. Umino's newest series may be a complete departure from H&C—it's about shogi and runs in the same magazine that hosts Detroit Metal City—but qualities such as memorable characters, gently paced storytelling, and a deep emotional core are universal. Just look at the first chapter, which begins with several pages of wordless action, yet brings Rei to life more than narration or dialogue ever could. Then, when words do start to appear on the page, they're selected with the utmost care: Rei's interior monologues are right up there with some of the finest prose literature, infused with remarkable poignancy and longing. Which isn't to say that this is all about serious introspection—the episodes involving the three sisters provide the perfect counterpoint, full of joy and warmth and home cooking. And don't forget the gorgeous, distinctive artwork, which has tightened up since the H&C days but is still full of expressiveness and subtlety of line. More than just a shogi manga, or a men's manga, this is a manga that reflects on the very meaning of life.

Like Umino's previous work, March comes in more like a wandering lion than a proud, purposeful beast. The storyline drifts aimlessly from chapter to chapter, sometimes hitting with incredible, heart-wrenching precision (Chapter 10, for example), and sometimes missing with pointless banter about what Rei and the girls are going to have for dinner. Speaking of the girls, their involvement in the series seems only peripheral so far; they may provide mild comic relief and help Rei out with his day-to-day life, but as far as meaningful personal interactions, there aren't any. And heaven help those who come to this series looking for clean, efficient visuals—instead they'll find pages crawling with pointless gags, conversational asides, and all sorts of other clutter that get in the way of the real story. Is this really what passes for entertainment, or is it just desperation to fill every white space? Oh, and Rei could stand to tone down the woe-is-me act as well ... lest he drown in a pool of his own sadness.

Imagine Honey and Clover, but about something completely different, and honed to a beautiful, heart-wrenching perfection. If you like the idea of that, you'll definitely love this.

Fanservice, fanservice, who's a fan of fanservice? One of our star reviewers, R. Silverman, answered the call with interesting pick! Check it out below, and don't forget to send in YOUR recommendations for summer reading. After all, convention season is starting to heat up, so it's time to hunt down those dealer discounts...

Vols. 1-2
(by Yuki Yoshihara, Viz Media, $9.99)

Fan service isn't just for boys and yaoi fangirls. So where's a non-yaoi girl to go for some that doesn't involve guys making out or teenage boys getting a dose of face-boob? Happily Viz provided an answer when they began publishing Yuki Yoshihara's Butterflies, Flowers somewhat incongruously under their Shojo Beat imprint. I phrase it that way because Yoshihara's story is from the pages of Petit, a magazine for college-age women, and Butterflies, Flowers is much more mature than most other SB titles.

The story deals with Chouko Kuze, the daughter of a formerly wealthy family fallen on hard times. A recent college graduate, she opts to become an office lady rather than working at the (atrocious) family soba shop. Her boss at the office turns out to be Masayuki "Cha-chan" Domoto, previously a family servant with whom she was close. Predictably, romance ensues. Less predictably, Masayuki has a bi-polar attitude towards Chouko, being torn between romancing her, tormenting her at work, and treating her gently ("like Butterflies, Flowers," hence the title).

What's wonderful about Yoshiara's story is not the plot itself but the execution of it. Her pen is like a vacuum, sucking the romance out of a situation and leaving you with hilarious reality. A tender kiss is interrupted by Masayuki's clinical tongue instructions, Chouko runs screaming at the sight of his erection, and inappropriate chibis abound. Even more humor is provided by Chouko's brother Mikihiko, who talks like he escaped from a period drama, and Masayuki's best friend (for reasons I will not spoil here). But the story isn't all comedy - the relationship between the protagonists is sweet and their love for each other clear. Their past explains their present with relative believability and sex scenes feel like a natural progression of their love rather than total fan service.

That isn't to say that they aren't, though. Yoshihara's characters are attractive and cleanly drawn, so they're pleasant to look at on their own. In a fan service situation she is explicit without overstating, achieving something slightly less overt than a mainstream romance novel. One of the highlights of her art, however, is her chibis. They look like hog-nosed cupids, often showing up where they have no right to be and throwing visual lunacy into a fraught scene.

Butterflies, Flowers isn't for the kiddies. It's raunchy, goofy, and charming all at once, a bi-monthly $10 of happiness, and it's not much more embarrassing to take to the beach than Elizabeth Hoyt's To Beguile a Beast. Give it a read this summer and show Viz that we want more fan service for the big girls.

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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