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Paint It Black Jack

by Carlo Santos,

Amidst all the company shutdowns and economic hand-wringing, a surprising glimmer of hope appeared in the Year of Manga Upheaval. A new breed of publisher has emerged to further the cause of Japanese comics (IN AMERICA)—not the naïve, bandwagon-jumping, let's-license-every-yaoi-ever-made publishers of mid-decade, but well-established warhorses dipping their feet into trans-Pacific waters for the first time.

Who would have thought, five years ago, that covering North American manga publishing would mean checking in with Top Shelf, Fantagraphics, and Drawn & Quarterly? The best part is, they have unearthed a completely fresh market: old stuff. I mean, super duper old stuff. And with that, an audience of well-educated, well-moneyed, grown-up readers who are willing to pay for old stuff, because if you ever googled "Yoshihiro Tatsumi site:onemanga.com" you would get nothing. NOTHING! So yeah, go ahead and close down, you leeching leeches, because you never carried the kind of manga that mattered anyway.

We tried $10 unflipped digest paperbacks, and in less than a decade, half an industry lay in ruins. So now we try $30 premium hardbacks. It may just save the business.

Vol. 3
(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 battle against mind-bending evil. Prepare yourself for the ultimate trip—prepare yourself for the world of Biomega.
The Data Research Foundation's plan to transform humanity and the Earth itself accelerates as the DRF locates another executor of the apocalypse, General Narein. Toa Heavy Industry agents Zoichi Kanoe and Nishu Mizunoe haven't given up yet, and Zoichi continues his journey to Maximum Security Containment Facility 3 in search of Eon Green. To stop them, the DRF is bringing out its heaviest hitters ... The battle lines are drawn, and armageddon never looked so good!"

Of all the dreams and fantasies one can have in this world, few are as exhilarating as the thought of taking drawing lessons from Tsutomu Nihei. In fact, just watching him work would be geek paradise, because this guy makes his art tell the story in a way that no one else can. That's why he can get away with so little dialogue—because everything is said in the grim shadows and lonesome dust clouds, the war-torn expanses, the perspective-defying structures. And that's just the background art; Nihei's got a whole other set of tools and talents for rendering the freakish citizens of Biomega, whether they be masked cyborg soldiers or terrifying überhumans built from the remains of other humans. Then he goes and works them into action scenes, creating an entirely new layer of awesome: a single agent taking down a robotic invader, or a deadly liquid consuming an entire city and its people, or a bipedal bear making an unforgettable motorcycle jump. The depth and detail are so rich, one almost forgets there's an actual story going on—but there is, with a tension and urgency that will keep readers hooked one chapter after another.

In truth, the only real reason people keep reading one chapter after another in Biomega is because they're trying to find the part where it starts making sense. Unfortunately, these people are still looking. Volume 3 contains a lovely but incomprehensible duel that everyone's already forgotten from Volume 2, then jumps over to Nishu and bear-guy trying to find "the key to beating the DRF" (do they even know what they're looking for?), and finishes up the back half with lots of desperate human-people trying to fight off evil mechanical solider-people. (Hint for budding artists: you will irritate a lot of readers if the good guys and the bad guys and the morally ambiguous guys all look alike.) All in all, this is just another average day in the life of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series, where some stone-faced freedom fighter must fend off a deadly corporation hellbent on controlling everyone. Hey, don't they make big-budget Hollywood flops that sound exactly like that? Even as the story tries to become more focused and intense in the later chapters, it only gets more confusing with messy scenery and unidentifiable characters doing who-knows-what. It's a beautiful work, but it's also unintelligible.

One of these days Tsutomu Nihei will learn how to write a cohesive storyline. Today is not that day! Instead he gets a C+ for fantastic visuals but no real logic to them.

Vol. 12
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $16.95)

"Black Jack is called out to the jungles of Indonesia to help an old friend with some unique research. Renowned Paris based Professor Dr. Truffaut has stumbled upon a rare case of a modern day wolf-boy. Raised by a flat-headed cat, the child is extremely afraid of humans but is equally at risk of attack by the jungle's many predators. Black Jack and Truffaut work together using medicine and educational science to train and nurture the boy back into the world of humans. But you can't take the wild out of a wildcat, and Black Jack will learn just how powerful the big cats of Southeast Asia can be."

Tezuka's take on the classic "child raised by wolves" trope is just one among the wide range of stories in this Black Jack volume, at turns poignant, humorous, shocking, thoughtful, and sometimes even surreal. Some of Black Jack's most interesting assignments are the ones that extend beyond the realms of medical science—like when he goes head-to-head against a psychic healer and teaches him a valuable lesson about life and death, or when he performs an operation on a restive spirit and learns that supernatural forces can deliver payback better than any human could. Those interested in the darker side of the doctor will find what they're looking for in the two stories that flash back to his formative years, showcasing the childhood tragedies that have shaped his personality. The last chapter in the book, "Prone to Laughter," is particularly effective, with its heartbreaking tale of one of Black Jack's only friends from high school. Tezuka's variety of character designs and detailed surgical illustrations add visual interest to each story, and the clearly laid-out paneling makes them a breeze to follow. The best thing is, you never know what the doctor will be doing next...

Every twenty to thirty pages, you will be reminded that Black Jack was originally serialized in a weekly magazine. Why? Because Tezuka could not write short-story endings to save his life. The narrative will start to build up steam, conflicts arise and Black Jack takes action, and then—BAM, the page count runs out so the story stops well short of a genuine resolution. It's always something like sudden patient death, or Black Jack walking off into the distance, or one of the characters making a cryptic statement that's supposed to have a ring of finality (but it never does). Some of the weaker stories also falter simply by being too frivolous or having no real goal—"Invader," about a hospital patient who thinks he's been abducted by aliens, plays with the idea but never quite goes anywhere with it; "The Bear" has almost nothing to do with medicine and everything to do with an obsessed huntsman trying to kill a bear. For twenty pages. Plus, with Tezuka's visual style being as simple as it is, some of the more involved action scenes just look goofy, not intense or exciting like they're meant to be.

True, these stories would feel more satisfying if Tezuka had gotten 45 pages per chapter or something. But with the diverse subject matter and emotional range, this volume is still worth a B.

Vol. 1
(by Akimine Kamijyo, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Rei seems like an affable transfer student to everyone around him, but quirky high school beauty Sakura see his true face as a terrifying vigilante—a 'non-existent' C0de:Breaker who cannot be touched by the law. And since Sakura has just witnessed the effects of his deadly blue flame, she's slated to be the next to burn!"

Interestingly, the real battle in C0de:Breaker (the orthography of the title, by the way, is ridiculous) is not the one going on in the city streets, but the one going on in the characters' heads. While Rei believes in taking a life for a life, Sakura opposes any form of killing, creating an moral tension that runs far deeper than any mere "I'm your opponent, therefore I must fight you!" kind of conflict. What makes our vigilante anti-hero even more intriguing is the way he so freely switches personalities—committing unspeakable acts of cruelty one moment, then being a perfect gentleman the next. It is this unsettling behavior, coupled with his radical worldview, that place him a step beyond the average high school kid with supernatural powers. The way these powers come to life artistically also adds to the effectiveness of the story—Kamijyo draws up a storm with dense linework and meticulous detail in the action sequences, along with ominous light-and-shadow effects whenever there's a close-up on Rei's face. With hatred and death so powerful in this series, it's definitely a harrowing experience ... in a good way.

Yes, the philosophical battle being fought here is an interesting one. Too bad the setting that it's placed in is utterly banal and forgettable. Sakura is, quite unsurprisingly, the most desirable girl in school. Rei is, quite unsurprisingly, a mysterious transfer student. Their adventures take place, quite unsurprisingly, in the streets and suburbs of Tokyo, while trying to keep Rei's terrible supernatural secret hidden from the rest of the world. Quite honestly, if it were not for all the back-and-forth ethical debate, this would be just another villain-of-the-month snorefest (with the added annoyance of Sakura's classmates all gossiping about her sudden interest in the new boy). Oh yes, let's not forget the infuriating school-life scenes, which add very little to the central plot of the story and often regurgitate the same lines repeatedly. "Gosh Sakura, you're so pretty!" "Gosh Sakura, why have you latched on to the new guy?!" The dull character designs and sometimes awkward facial expressions also guarantee that the visuals will be easily forgotten once another psychic-power-kid series comes along. It may look pretty now, but you'll think nothing of it later.

A valiant effort at injecting some moral debate into a familiar premise, but the completely predictable characters and plot are keeping it from earning anything higher than a C.

Vol. 1
(by Kenetsu Sato and Hiroyuki Yoshino, Tokyopop, $12.99)

"After the disappearance of her uncle, Mafuyu Oribe has sworn to protect her cousin Tomo, whether it's from the school bullies or the threatening, sinister villains that have been appearing all over the city. Her ambitions are challenged when the beautiful but destructive Russian boy Sasha appears on the scene, causing St. Mihailov Academy to turn into a battleground over an ancient relic!"

Well, to its credit, I don't think I've ever run into a series that drew from the Russian Orthodox Church for its mythos. In that respect, Qwaser of Stigmata is a groundbreaker, bringing forth a whole new library of religious imagery and jargon to give the series its unique vibe. Also unique to the series is its restrictive form of alchemy—a power-wielding "Qwaser" only has the capability to manipulate one element, like iron (a reliable all-rounder) or magnesium (great for explosions!). Pity the poor fool who gets stuck with Ununoctium, though. But an unusual religious background and carefully thought-out supernatural powers are nothing without good execution, and that's where the elaborate artwork comes in. Dramatic angles and dynamic lines are all part of Qwaser's action scenes, which are especially impressive when Sasha whips out his weapon and starts cutting up the landscape. A number of shocking twists in the later chapters should also keep readers on their toes—these characters are not who you think they are, and chances are there'll be even more surprises to come.

What they don't mention, of course, is that in addition to employing Russian Orthodox mysticism, the characters of Qwaser of Stigmata also replenish their power by sucking on breast milk. Now I'm no religious expert but it's hard to imagine any branch of Christianity, much less any belief system on the planet, actually having that legitimately in their dogma somewhere. Unless it was the Church of Loony Erotic Kinks Designed To Maximize Fanservice Potential. Yes, not only is this volume rife with breast-sucking, but there's also girls fighting in their underwear, bathing and undressing scenes, and highly impractical S&M outfits. In other words, just your average mature-rated manga with absolutely no elegance or taste. Even worse is that the story is similarly devoid of craftsmanship, with the early chapters apparently having been written Mad Libs style—everyone just fights like crazy and stares angrily at each other and you can fill in whatever you like in the dialogue bubbles. Even as the plot moves forward and things start to make sense, the words and explanations coming out of people's mouths still sound completely made up (including the parts in Russian). Breast fetishism is bad enough. Nonsense storytelling is worse.

Breaking new barriers in tastelessness! Promising ideas are overshadowed by utterly horrible fanservice and a patchwork storyline as this title pulls a D-.

Vol. 2
(by Akihisa Ikeda, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Average human teenage boy Tsukune accidentally enrolls at a boarding school for monsters—no, not jocks and popular kids, but bona fide werewolves, witches, and unnameables out of his wildest nightmares! And now he's a sophomore!
On the plus side, all the girls have a monster crush on him. On the negative side, all the boys are so jealous they want to kill him! And so do the girls he spurns, because he only has eyes for one of them—the far-from-average vampire Moka.
On the plus side, Moka only has glowing red eyes for Tsukune. On the O-negative side, she also has a burning, unquenchable thirst for his blood...
When consuming magical candy that makes you instantly grow older, beware of:
a. emotional maturity
b. instantly growing younger
c. your rheumatism acting up"

Although the second school year of Rosario+Vampire started out slow, Volume 2 shows the series finding its groove once again, with in-your-face fistfights, highly explosive sorcery, and (of course) proud, unabashed fanservice. The first half, which details Tsukune's battle against a gang of phantom thieves, may be one of Ikeda's most cleverly orchestrated fight scenes yet—the villain's special power involves cloning others, and so our heroes have to fight themselves, resulting in a lot of creative problem-solving and well-crafted maneuvers. The other storyline in this volume doesn't pack as much action—Moka's little sister Koko is sick of being treated like a kid and just wants to grow up already—but in doing so, it proves that there's some character development to go with the usual slate of supernatural combat, light comedy, and cheesecake bishoujo artwork. Oh yes, Ikeda definitely delivers on that last one: the lovely ladies of Yokai Academy appear in all manner of flattering outfits and dynamic battle poses, with plenty of room in each panel showing off the eye candy. Not to mention that the variations on "adult form" and "child form" character designs in the last chapter is just a lot of fun.

There is still something seriously missing in the new Rosario+Vampire series. Can anyone guess what it is? That's right, monsters—the very reason that some people got into this series in the first place. Although the idea of a doppelganger is great in concept, there's nothing visually impressive about fighting slightly modified, cloned versions of your friends. Where are the massive 20-foot-tall beasts, the frightening forms of animal and plant life, the wicked multi-limbed creatures that can shoot lightning out of their horns? Those were always the things Ikeda drew best, and when they're nowhere to be found, well ... it just feels artistically lazy. The second half of the volume is even worse in this regard, as it doesn't even bother to throw in a real villain or monster this time; instead it's just the oft-repeated comedy gimmick of "Hey I have a magic potion that will turn you older so why don't you try it and let shenanigans ensue." Well, shenanigans do ensue, but watching Koko whine about her age and stature is a far less enjoyable experience than Moka delivering the smackdown on some unsuspecting beast.

Not as soporific as Volume 1, and delivers some cool fight scenes in the middle, but still needs more serious monsters (and plot development). This one's a B- for now.

Vol. 1
(by Felipe Smith, Vertical, $12.95)

"Is there a bigger wet dream for an American manga connoisseur than getting your own work published over there? Felipe Smith accomplished just that with his inimitable Peepo Choo, originally serialized in a comics monthly issued by Japan's premier publisher. Translated by the artist himself, this English edition is a victory parade for us all.
In this first of three volumes meet Chicago youth Milton, who frequents his local comics shop to watch the latest episodes of Peepo Choo, an anime that's as wildly popular as it is bizarre. Milton would like nothing more than to escape his dreary neighborhood and travel to Tokyo, where he'd wear his cosplay outfit until it totally fell apart.
Perhaps he will get to do dust that.
Smart, sexy, and cruel, Smith's Peepo Choo shoves a gleaming knife into a trans-Pacific romance and vandalizes the tired walls of manga."

You cannot stop Felipe Smith ... you can only hope to contain him. Peepo Choo's first volume is one such form of containment, a 200-page screed on pop culture that is at once savage and hilarious. Smith wastes no time in making a mockery of the Americans, the Japanese, Americans who loooove Japan, Japanese who loooove America, and every shade of cultural exchange in between. He will tell you that your comics are stupid, your cartoons are stupid, your TV shows are stupid, and you will not be able to stop laughing the whole time because he is just that good. About the only thing he's missing is an opinion on the scanlation debate, and that's because he's too busy waxing lyrical about magazines with photoshoots of bikini-clad schoolgirls. Smith's insane sense of humor shines through in every way, whether it be the over-the-top characters, the gleeful skewering of familiar plot devices, the audacious (and often parodical) artwork spilling off the pages, even the brilliantly mangled Engrish that passes for anime dialogue. Is this the greatest attempt at manga yet by a non-Japanese artist? Whether it is or not, it'll surely stick in your head.

Hey, remember when Felipe Smith did MBQ for Tokyopop? Yeah, because this is pretty much the same ... only different. While Smith's force of personality may be enough to charm the pants off of willing readers, those with a more critical eye will quickly see the gaps in his poorly-structured rant. There's some storyline about a big beefy mafia guy, and and a sneering, dour-faced yakuza guy, and nothing really makes sense until the last few pages, not to mention the random Tokyo schoolgirl plot that has nothing to do with anything. And yet Smith gets a free pass because he's busy being a loud, entertaining societal critic! (Again.) Even the main plotline about Milton is kind of a mess, bouncing between imagination, reality and flashbacks to the point of disorientation. Maybe this is the way the artist's mind works—but to the reader, it's a difficult chain of logic to follow. Even the opinion pieces are totally arbitrary—like why do we need to hear the superheroes vs. manga debate again? That's so 2005. Write some new stuff already.

Not the most elegant and well-organized thing in the world, but boy is it entertaining. And that entertainment factor is what makes it a winner.

All this talk of the industry falling apart has gotten me nostalgic. Like when you could buy unflipped Tokyopop manga at a price point that actually WAS $10, not secretly price-hiked when no one was looking. Ingrid B recalls one of the highlights from that era—and perhaps after reading this review, you'll feel some nostalgia too.

Vols. 1-7
(by Yuri Narushima, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

The Japanese folktale The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter or Kaguya-Hime has been incorporated into everything from anime to video games, but possibly the most original take on it is the science-fiction, fantasy manga Planet Ladder by Yuri Narushima. It focuses on an ordinary, timid teenager who finds herself kidnapped one night and taken to a parallel world where she is destined to choose which one of the nine parallel worlds (including her home world, present-day Earth) will survive the upcoming interplanetary collision. Aided by a silent robotic doll modeled after her deceased brother, Kaguya travels the worlds in search of a solution to the current and upcoming bloodshed, and discovers the truth about the past she cannot remember.

One of the first Tokyopop-licensed manga released in its original right-to-left format, Planet Ladder features enjoyable artwork and entertaining fantasy worlds with the occasionally odd touch—a giant robotic rooster with the mind of a Tokyo University student, or a castle courtyard filled with bodies, for example. Cast into the unwanted role of savior of a few and indirect murderer of the rest, Kaguya is a likable and more importantly, believable protagonist. She wins over the other characters (and the reader) with her kind nature and vulnerability, much like Fruits Basket's Tohru Honda. That being said, she is a very passive character, which may bother readers looking for a spunky female protagonist who takes charge of her destiny. Additionally, the confusing beginning of the series, the heart-breaking, non-graphic death of a stray cat, and the sudden plot twist near the end may put off a few readers.

Having been out-of-print since 2007, Planet Ladder may be difficult to find, though checking a library is highly recommended since many libraries now carry manga, especially out-of-print titles. Touching on several themes such as fate vs. free-will and the fragile nature of memories and human beings, Planet Ladder is definitely worth the search.

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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