by Carlo Santos,

I swear, if I see one more "______ of the Year" list or one more Gift Guide, I'll—

... oh, I dunno guys, what were YOUR favorite Things of the Year?

(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $26.95)

"The year is 1949. Crushed by the Allied Powers, occupied by General MacArthur's armies, Japan has been experiencing massive change. Agricultural reform is dissolving large estates and redistributing plots to tenant farmers—terrible news, if you're landowners like the archconservative Tenge family. For patriarch Sakuemon, the chagrin of one of his sons coming home alive from a P.O.W. Camp instead of having died for the Emperor is topped only by the revelation that another of his is consorting with 'the reds.' What solace does he have but his youngest Ayako, apple of his eye, at once daughter and granddaughter?"

The Year of Siscon culminates with the English-language release of Ayako, which not only smashes the incest barrier but also explores transgressions of rape, imprisonment, assault, extortion, murder, and any other wrongdoing you care to name. It is a portrait of humanity's Dark Side on par with Dante's Inferno, woven into a decades-spanning murder-mystery and a twisted timeline of the Japanese economic boom. While the titular character certainly has a harrowing, unforgettable story to tell—Ayako's two decades of confinement in a cellar just breaks your heart over and over—the characters around her have equally compelling narratives, endlessly seeking power, pleasure, riches, revolution, revenge, and all that corrupts the human soul. With so many interlocking storylines, all meticulously charted up to the final page, this drama plays out on a stage so grand that only Tezuka could have conceived it. Even the artwork reaches heights that are yet to be surpassed today, whether it be elaborate visual metaphors for intercourse, richly shaded countryside views, or simply the visceral punch-and-kick-and-shoot action that is the root of "manga style" today. It's a long, dark journey—but just like in Dante's tale, the path does eventually lead back up...

Tezuka is kind of scary when he's being depressing, and this story often teeters on (if not crosses right over) the edge of "torture porn," where the characters experience senseless, sadistic horrors at the whim of the creator. How else to explain why the men seem to go around beating women at will, or worse yet, being the agents of their deaths? (If it's Tezuka's way of critiquing a male-dominated society, though, he makes a very good point.) The third act also gets a bit too trigger-happy with killing off characters to cut off their storylines, resulting in the rather absurd finale where poetic justice comes in the form of a cop-out ending. The unhappy version of a reset, if you will. In fact the entire last third of the book is kind of a bust, getting too mired in shady underworld dealings and not focusing enough on the aftermath of Ayako's physical and emotional imprisonment. Perhaps Tezuka himself realized that his murder-mystery plot had gone adrift, and then got tangled up trying to write his way out of it. But why fault a guy for thinking big?

For pure story and visual impact, one of the best ever. I raise my eyebrows at the funky ending, but I'll give it an A-.

Vol. 2
(by Shunju Aono, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Throughout his heretofore unimpressive existence, Shizuo Oguro adopted several different—yet all equally mediocre—personas: phenomenally unintimidating street punk, materialistic yet talentless folk musician, nondescript office worker, and forty-something burger joint employee. Can Shizuo, a man with an unblemished track record for failure, eventually channel his life experiences into a publishable work that will shake the manga industry to its very core, or will he continue to feel the cruel sting of rejection time and time again?"

Call it a slice-of-life series if you must, but I'll Give It My All ... Tomorrow may actually be the greatest horror work of its time. For what could be more terrifying than the prospect of unemployment, and what monster is more bloodsucking than the drifter who mooches off friends and family? The sheer patheticness of Shizuo's life makes this whole volume a beautiful trainwreck, as we watch him quarrel with his dad, move in with a similarly unambitious friend, and continue to have delusions about getting it all together. There's even some cynical humor in the way he creeps on the attractive female editor at the manga publisher—a moment that is funny because it's so true to life, yet also horrifying because of the Desperate Old Man ick factor. And when Shizuo isn't busy evoking this mix of revulsion and pity, his twentysomething pal Ichinosawa offers an even more depressing perspective, as he lacks the misguided optimism of Shizuo and instead spends his days watching his dead-end job go by. With simple paneling and even simpler art, it's a bleak but powerful portrait of today's struggles.

The problem with having a wishy-washy, directionless protagonist is that his mindset eventually infects the entire plot, leading to a very wishy-washy, directionless story. Shizuo's saga may indeed capture the greatest fears of modern society, but it also lacks the driving force that makes people want to read the next chapter. After all, he's just going to spend another 20 pages accomplishing nothing, right? Factor in Shizuo's extremely unlikable personality—gets into immature fights with his family, makes hypocritical proclamations about how to live one's life, and basically thinks he's going to become a great manga-ka by bumming around all day—and it's a wonder anyone would want to keep following this series. And if it's not the story content, the painfully ugly art should scare everyone else off, with the misshapen, stone-faced characters and chicken-scratch linework making it hard to get an emotional handle on any of the scenes. Even tearjerker moments, like the flashback to Shizuo's mother's death, fail to evoke any real sympathy because the crude visuals distance the reader too much. No backgrounds, no shading, and no nuance? No interest, then.

While it clearly holds appeal for the artsy-fartsy slacker crowd—and also has it darkly funny moments—the unappealing main character and his unappealing exploits knock this one down to a C.

Vol. 1
(by kakifly, Yen Press, $10.99)

"When their high school's pop-music club is about to be disbanded due to lack of interest, four girls step up to fill the membership void. Unfortunately, lead guitarist Yui Hirasawa has never played an instrument in her life. Ever. And although she likes the idea of being in a band, standing in front of the mirror posing with her guitar is a lot easier than actually playing it. It's gonna be a while before this motley crew is rocking out, but with their spunk and determination cranked to 11, anything is possible!"

The music is not the message, folks. Where K-ON! really excels, more than being a "How To Start Your Own Band" manual, is in expressing the joy of making friends and forming a school club from the ground up. Of course, some of the guitar-geek humor is best appreciated by those with a bit of playing experience—punchlines about calluses, bent notes, and the technical points of shredding—but there are also plenty of character gags that all audiences can appreciate, like level-headed Mio squirming at the mere mention of blood, or sweet, polite Mugi secretly thinking naughty yuri thoughts. Also fascinating to observe is how the jokes get sharper and better-timed as the volume progresses—clearly the sign of a creator becoming more comfortable with the cast and figuring out how to get the most comedic potential out of them. The simple but distinctive character designs make the artwork instantly appealing, and Yen Press gets extra bonus points for color-page reproductions, extensive translation notes and a beginner's music theory guide (to think that Nodame/BECK/DMC never did that!). More than just the joy of music, it's really about the joy—and embarrassments, and triumphs, and silliness—of youth.

Y'know, for a four-panel gag strip, I don't remember cracking a single laugh throughout this entire volume. And that says all that needs to be said about the true humor level of K-ON!, which keeps missing chances to deliver a decent punchline or build upon a mildly amusing situation. True, the comic timing improves in the later chapters—but it is downright painful early on, with characters trying to force witticisms as if they had just realized that this is Panel 4 and they'd better say something funny. The story segments also fail to develop organically, instead rushing from plot point to plot point like a musician playing way ahead of the beat. One day Yui is struggling to learn guitar and then in the next arc she's reasonably proficient (that stuff does not just magically happen overnight); the school festival performance that should have been the highlight of the volume somehow gets a cursory two-to-three-page treatment (with the infamous Mio panty incident just being tossed out there without any real buildup or timing). The small panel sizes also lead to the usual plague of talking heads and skimpy backgrounds that all gag strips suffer from.

Story-wise and humor-wise, it hits a number of discordant notes along the way—but the characters are still charming enough, and the subject matter still engaging enough, to earn a B-.

Vol. 3
(by Kiiro Yumi, original concept by Hiro Arikawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections, and with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves—the Library Forces!
Iku is witness to a disturbance during a Board of Education speech on protecting children from the danger of books. The perpetrators are two young boys protesting the banning of their favorite books. But while Iku wants to reach out to the next generation of book lovers, Dojo insists that they can't play favorites. Will Dojo's prickly insistence on sticking to the rules ruin their budding friendship?"

The latest incident in Library Wars is sure to hit home for a lot of manga hobbyists, as it visits the well-tread battleground of youth and children's books and just how much control there should be over age-appropriate content. All the classic arguments are expressed eloquently, and of course fans will appreciate that the series takes the anti-censorship side. Intensifying the ideological conflict is the question of vigilantism vs. protocol, with Iku taking the side of the ragtag protesters and getting into a tiff with Instructor Dojo about why she's here to fight in the first place. In this way, abstract political concepts are made real—even personal—as the passions of various characters collide. The other big event in this volume is decidedly more fictional (a museum shuts down and the Library Forces are tasked with protecting its contents from the feds), but it has its moments too: blistering urban-warfare action scenes, Dojo's noble but inexplicable ways of protecting Iku, and a book-ending cliffhanger to rival the best action-thriller blockbusters. And the bonus shorts starring Iku and Dojo? Those are just cute as hell.

In trying to straddle the genres of modern-day shoot-'em-up and military workplace romance, Library Wars ends up being not particularly good at either. This volume just doesn't deliver in the action scenes, which are too short to develop a good pace and sense of scale, and then when it tries to develop character relationships, it suffers from too many talking heads and crammed panels. This isn't helped by the debate in the first half, which—despite the engaging subject matter and flaring tempers—is about as visually exciting as watching C-Span. Come on, I could watch people arguing about censorship and children's books on the internet! The artwork also falls short on a more fundamental level, with the male character designs continuing to be a source of confusion: if it weren't for slightly different hairstyles and heights, Dojo and Tezuka would practically be the same guy. Even the appeal of the lead couple is questionable, as Dojo's cranky behavior and Iku's klutzy antics make them less than likable. Despite the story's attempts to spark some chemistry between them, this is one relationship that should just remain professional.

There's meaty debate in the volume's first half and strong plot advancement in the second, but the poorly developed characters and mediocre artistry level it out to a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Hiroshi Kubota, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"In the world of the Exorcist Underground, the fourth grader Hibiki summons Shikigami to fight for the safety of mankind.
Along with being a normal schoolgirl and battling dangerous spirits called Ayakashi, Hibiki has also been tasked with finding six magical jewels that will make her the next leader of the Exorcists! But with fumbling friends, giant evil spiders, and fanatical rivals, it looks like her quest will be less than easy..."

Summoner Girl's Hibiki may be yet another entry in a long line of school-age spirit hunters, but her style of magic is a surprising mix, combining Chinese five-element theory with the Four Gods mythos (Fushigi Yuugi fans, you know what I'm talking about). As a result, Hibiki fights with this action-packed sorcery where the spectacle of summoning legendary gods meets the Pokémon-like complexity of elemental combat (fire beats metal, metal beats wood, wood beats earth, and so on). Hiroshi Kubota's detailed artistry is also a key in bringing the action to life, with massive creatures and page-spanning magical blasts that vary with each new elemental combination. The supporting cast also adds liveliness and humor to each adventure, with egotistical sidekick Kenta being that charming mix of useful yet infuriating. The real show-stealer, though, is self-proclaimed rival Asuka, who runs around challenging Hibiki at everything and chewing the scenery like a master showboater. Battling evil Ayakashi is pretty fun to watch, but battling evil Ayakashi with biting commentary from a secondary character? Endless amusement.

Honestly, slapping one mythology on top of another isn't going to make a supernatural adventure series any more intersting if the story and characters are the same old junk copied from everywhere else. Hibiki's quest to "find all the jewels and win" is so shallow, and so peripheral to her elemental battles, that it seems like one of those story elements where the manga-ka shoved it in because everyone else was doing it. Formulaic storytelling is also at work in the way Hibiki triumphs over each monster: rather than defeating them outright, she discovers the creature's "inner sadness" and negotiates her way to victory, which is far less thrilling than all that magical energy-blasting might suggest. Plus with predictable, generically drawn character types like the sweet-faced heroine, the bumbling sidekick and the puffed-up rival, it's hard to find anything distinctive about the personalities in this story. Even the artwork—the one area that shows true talent—often suffers from being too cluttered with special effects and movement, resulting in action scenes that are hard to read and end up slowing down the pace instead.

For Eastern mythology buffs and lovers of supernatural action, it might be worth a look, but otherwise the paper-thin story concept only earns a C-.

(by Osamu Tezuka, Kodansha, ¥591)

"The handiwork of some space aliens causes a tomcat to be born with the 7 superpowers of Tetsuwan Atom (Astro Boy). With the help of his wimpy owner Tsugio, 'Atom Cat' now has the power to do great deeds at will! Created by Osamu Tezuka as a 'remake challenge,' this work overflows with imagination."

Some self-proclaimed experts would have you believe that Osamu Tezuka produced only DEEP, SERIOUS manga that require a Humanities Ph.D. and an arm brace to read. But Atom Cat reveals the master's lighter side, gleefully parodying his own work in a mid-80's spoof that reads like Astro Boy Meets Chi's Sweet Home. Tezuka's wit manifests itself in many ways, whether through topical humor—the aliens are named Charles and Diana; a school bully is named Qaddafi—or broad slapstick such as Atom punching out an entire flock of crows in an aerial dogfight. But even in this single-volume diversion, Tezuka touches on the big ideas that made his original work a cultural touchstone: Atom falls in love and longs for his parents as he strives to be more human—er, catlike, while Tsugio and his father marvel at technological advances in robotics since Astro Boy's heyday. Of course, there's also plenty to please fans with more down-to-earth tastes, as this humble housecat engages in dynamic fight scenes and rescue sequences packed with speedlines, explosions and sweeping layouts. Tezuka spent a lifetime making us believe in the tenacity of the human spirit—and now you'll believe in the feline spirit, too.

Even the all-time greats have their off-days, and it's clear after about three chapters that this brilliant spoof just doesn't have the legs to keep going. Even the creator seems to have realized it, as he mails in a couple of generic action-adventure scenarios—deserted mystery island! Egyptian mummies come to life!—before ending the series with a non-ending. Some may try to excuse him by saying, "It's just a spoof, he wasn't trying to make it good," but that's no reason why the Michael Jordan of manga should have to resort to cheesy stock villains (Mephisto the Evil Spirit Cat sounds like something that went out of style decades ago) or gimmicks and gadgets that even elementary-school readers would find improbable. (Atom having superpowers granted to him by aliens, I can live with. Tsugio's dad inventing a security device that guards valuables by exploding on contact ... that's just dumb.) Tezuka even crams this volume with filler by reproducing certain scenes from Astro Boy—a cute little bit of meta-humor that leads into the main story, but also a space waster for an already plot-deprived series.

Obviously just a wacky Tezuka novelty, this one-shot is worth the goofy laughs but doesn't have much shelf life after that.

With so much industry upheaval in the past year, let us not forget the many manga publishers that have dropped by the wayside—and the licenses they took with them! This week, Ben Jonas reminds us of a vampire series that became a hit years before the current vampire wave.

Vols. 1-6
(by Sasakishonen, original concept by Type-Moon, DR Master [out of print], $9.95 ea.)

Shiki Tohno is far from your average high school student. Eight years ago, he was recovering from a car accident when he began to see lines everywhere. Upon discovering he can destroy any object (and kill anyone) by severing said lines, he freaks out. Fast-forward to the present, where Shiki is set to return to the Tohno family mansion after living with his aunt and uncle for the past few years. One day, while returning from school, he encounters a mysterious woman with blond hair. Upon seeing her, he is overcome with an uncontrollable murderous rage and proceeds to slice her to pieces using his knife; he faints shortly after returning to normal and realizing what he'd done. A short time later, he re-encounters the same blond woman who Shiki thought he had murdered. She cheerfully greets him and reminds him that she was indeed chopped into pieces by him. Instead of wanting revenge, however, she wants Shiki's help in taking down a rival vampire. Shortly after being attacked by a demon, the woman introduces herself as Arcueid. Backed into a corner and stuck with no choice but to help the already-weakened Arcueid, Shiki reluctantly agrees to assist her.

Thus begins the saga of Lunar Legend Tsukihime. Based on the visual novel of the same name, the story mostly follows Arcueid's path, with a few twists thrown in for good measure. Despite the fact that the introductory chapters sound convoluted, they flow far better than the description above. Even though the manga version debuted roughly around the same time as the anime adaptation, it goes one step further by giving many of the main characters better characterization development and more detailed back stories. Sasakishonen's artwork is a major part of what makes the manga version stand out; his ability to rapidly change Arcuied's expressions from frustration to joy to disappointment in Volume 3 is one outstanding example. Ciel also gets a fair amount of attention; in the fourth volume, she describes how she's able to lead a double-life as a student and a vampire hunter, and later in that same volume, she explains to Shiki why she wears a nun-like outfit, throwing in a memorable one-liner ("This is my armor for fighting against vampires. It's like a uniform. It's NOT cosplay, okay?").

DR Master published six volumes of the series in English (with the sixth volume printed in limited quantities in March 2009, shortly after they quit publishing manga, and six months before publishing their last book before disappearing without a trace). While DR Master's translation of the series is littered with the occasional typo or six, it's still better than many of their earlier series (and still miles better than any of Bandai Entertaiment's awkwardly-translated manga). Tsukihime published its ninth and final volume in Japan in September of this year. With the series having finally reached completion, here's hoping that Yen Press can pick up where things left off (especially after the major cliffhanger near the end of volume six), and why shouldn't they? It's got vampires, cute girls, violence, action, supernatural backstories, a little bit of fan service, a pinch of humor, and Sasakishonen's rock-solid artwork to tie in all together—what's not to like?

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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