RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
by Carlo Santos,
Amidst the short-lived panic over the "New Zodiac" was a pocket of unrest concerning the constellation Ophiuchus. Apparently some people didn't want Ophiuchus to be a star sign. But why wouldn't you? I mean, Ophiuchus is totally badass, considering that he's the guy choking a serpent with his bare hands. The only way you could beat that is if they had a constellation named after Chuck Norris or something. Now that would be a worthy New Zodiac sign.
(by Tsutomu Nihei, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Seeking to remake the world, Niarudi—the matriarch of the DRF and the mastermind behind the N5SV drone epidemic—has unleashed the Reverse Morphic Polymer. But unplanned contact during the transformation reduces the planet to ruin. In its place a giant cordlike world appears, complete with its own population and ecosystem. Enveloped by the change, Zoichi, Nishu and the others set out into this bizarre new world to thwart Niarudi's plans. The strange inhabitants of the 'Cord' bring stranger revelations still, and the struggled to control the future of humanity turns toward its final conflict!"
Tsutomu Nihei's sci-fi mindtrip just keeps getting stranger, and who would want it any other way? Now that Zoichi has explored part of "The Cord" and met up with its inhabitants, this volume brings in the stuff that makes all adventures truly gripping: conflict, in the form of Niarudi and the DRF's goons, who are still trying to control the world with their destructive ways. It's Nihei's grim, unmistakable art that makes the experience memorable, with bizarre planetscapes, monstrous creatures, and white-knuckle action sequences (is it just me or is Zoichi constantly on the run from something?) to captivate the eye. Yet there is also a touch of humor in the story, as evidenced by the Sanrio-like features of Funipero—a little girl whose role as the "child of the recreator" means that she could be the key to renewing the world. The introduction of another character, the sword-and-shield-wielding Tanno, also adds new wrinkles to the story and promises that beating the bad guys will not be as simple as simply strolling into DRF HQ and shooting everyone. There's an entire political-industrial complex to be overthrown—and Nihei just loves making the quest as twisted and unpredictable as possible.
Twisted and unpredictable are just code words for "nonsense," which is what this series has been all along—and now continues to be despite an attempted reset by blowing up the planet Earth. Simply put, Nihei has some great ideas, but no skill in bringing those ideas together. Scene transitions and chapter divisions occur haphazardly throughout this volume, with thrilling action scenes being cut off poorly, and new characters popping in and out without warning. (Hi Tanno, you seem like a cool guy, OH WAIT why did we suddenly jump back to the middle of a Zoichi chase sequence?) Inexplicable jargon words also continue to seep into the dialogue, and while it's not nearly as bad as at the start of the series, there's still enough inscrutable tech talk to make the plot details incomprehensible to anyone who isn't the original creator. And for all of Nihei's artistic talent, sometimes his visual language comes out garbled as well: as the action sequences get more elaborate (especially towards the middle and end), the question is not "Will Zoichi make it out alive?" but "Who's fighting against who?" ... which is a question one should never have to ask.
After getting this far in, one might as well keep reading, but the series' lack of clarity means that it still won't get anything higher than a B- around here.
(by Q Hayashida, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"While En seeks out a new partner with unique magic powers, his crew has a run-in with an underground organization that controls the distribution of 'black powder,' a magic-enhancing drug used by weaker Sorcerers. Meanwhile, Caiman and Nikaido spend New Year's in the haunted mansion of a mysterious doctor who specializes in the anatomy of Sorcerers. The doctor reveals to them the only known portal to the Sorcerers' dimension..."
In its third volume, Dorohedoro reaches the phase where the central mystery (who turned Caiman into a lizardman?) is still open-ended, but now comes with enough information to point in a specific direction. And that direction would be ... the Sorcerers' world, which is where things get really fun. The change of scenery allows Caiman and Nikaido to confront their adversaries right on their home turf, with all the busting of heads and spraying of blood that this entails. Meanwhile, En and his Sorcerers advance the plot in their own way by using their clone of Caiman's head to seek out the organization he came from (with more white-knuckled violence and blood, of course), thus helping to unfog the mystery from their end. Hayashida balances these different subplots well, guiding each story thread down a twisting, ever-surprising line. Outbursts of dark magic and combat add to the visual excitement, but it's the richly drawn post-apocalyptic scenery and the fanciful, grotesque characters that are the real draw here. Between the reanimated corpses and disembodied heads and freaky masks and people sprouting mushrooms from their bodies, this bizarre otherworld is one that truly captures the imagination.
Hayashida may finally be guiding the story in a compelling direction, but the path it takes is one that often feels improvised—and not in a good way. Well-organized storytelling is clearly a lost cause when we get roundabout escapades like the first chapter, where En's goons attend a necromantic party and try to capture a certain powerful Sorcerer. It stands on its own quite nicely, but has only a slim connection to the main storyline. Similarly, the chain of logic that drives Caiman and Nikaido's current venture has something to do with them chasing some guys, who are also chasing some other guys, because they know something that everyone else wants to know, but then they got killed and ... AUGH! It's like a video game where you have to do fifteen chores before they tell you the next step in your quest. There's also confusion of the artistic sort with dynamic action poses that look good by themselves, but don't flow well from one panel to the next. Look, any illustrator can do post-apocalyptic backgrounds and weird characters. But a true manga artist must make those illustrations move—and this one does not.
It gets points for continuing to build the story and having plenty of dark sci-fi eye candy, but the roundabout storytelling and sometimes clumsy fight scenes level it out to a C.
GA: GEIJUTSUKA ART DESIGN CLASS
(by Satoko Kiyuduki, Yen Press, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It's time for fun and fonts with Kisaragi and the rest of the memorable GA cast as they dive into the world of commercial design! But in a whirlwind of typography, photography, pictograms, and illustration (among other things), will the girls ever get any of their work done?! And with the Art Club and their ... erm, unique projects running wild, leaving hijinks in their wake and distracting the GA girls, will a secret revelation about Tomokane completely blindside the group?!"
Anyone can do a 4-panel gag series about kids goofing off in school ... but it takes a more carefully attuned mind to riff on the subject matter that's actually being taught. The third volume of GA shows that the spectrum of "art" extends beyond just drawing or painting—and pulls off some pretty clever gags in each of the diverse fields it covers. The section on typography, for example, pokes fun at Japanese kanji and even breaks the fourth wall a little when the girls become aware of the sound effects around them. When the students take on photography, readers will end up learning a bit of the basics themselves—and then chuckle as the kids violate those principles in their own idiosyncratic way. But if you want a real laugh riot, the pages on pictograms, symbols and signs are where it's at, with visual gags on familiar public-service signs like "No touching" or "Warning: landslides." Now that's the kind of humor that transcends language and culture. The overall detail in the series' artwork is also impressive considering the tight gag-strip format: character expressions, gestures, and even shifts in style are clear to see in these small but highly entertaining panels.
Even though Satoko Kiyuduki shows a higher level of technical skill than the average 4-panel artist, a lot of that skill is wasted on ... you guessed it ... kids goofing off in school. The truth is, the art-geek jokes only account for a small percentage of this volume's content, and the rest of it is just woeful attempts at "humor" that would fit right in with other unfunny 4-panel snoozefests like Sunshine Sketch and Lucky Star. We're talking about pointless waffling like, say, the Art Club kids building a horror diorama in their clubroom and the other students now having to traverse it to get an easel. This is not nearly as funny as it sounds when it is turned into a multi-page ordeal. Or how about some of the other potentially interesting topics, like origami, being run into the ground because there are no jokes left but the story arc just keeps on going? Finally, the character designs—despite being varied enough to tell apart—are still built upon broad, predictable stereotypes like the energetic one, the quiet one, the fashionable one, and so on. With a poorly built base like that, no wonder the rest of it falters.
It could have been great—or even good—with the quality of Kiyuduki's artistic knowledge and sense of humor. But most of the time it falls below that potential and lands at a C-.
(by Julietta Suzuki, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Nanami Momozono is alone and homeless after her dad skips town to evade his gambling debts and the debt collectors kick her out of her apartment. So when a man she's just saved from a dog offers her his home, she jumps at the opportunity. But it turns out that his place is a shrine, and Nanami has unwittingly taken over his job as a local deity!
Nanami has all kinds of new responsibilites she doesn't understand, dangers she's unaware of, and a cranky ex-familiar who's ... actually pretty hot. What's a new-fledged godling to do?"
Although the linework might be considered simple, Julietta Suzuki's art is remarkably versatile in its modes of expression: in the span of a few pages it can go from unbridled comedy to thoughtful drama to fantasy-tinged action, all of which add up to the charms of Kamisama Kiss. The generous spacing and avoidance of visual clutter also make it eminently readable: a smooth ride that flows effortlessly from scene to scene. And while the series' themes should ring familiar to many—yokai, spirits, shrines, goddesses—the story itself is angled just a little differently from all other imitators, much like how Suzuki crafted her own unique android-girl-in-high-school tale with Karakuri Odette. The tug-of-war relationship between Nanami and Tomoe—the spirit tasked with assisting her—provides much of the spark in the plot, and Suzuki mercifully avoids the popular pitfall of beating readers over the head with romantic subtext. The other characters in the series are equally entertaining, especially in the latter half of this volume where a catfish goddess shows up and turns out to be something of a lovesick head case. With amusing flourishes like that, even the age-old tale of a human taking up supernatural duties becomes fresh once more.
Suzuki may be able to craft a story that's fun and likable, but in many ways it's still far from perfect. The lack of background art is the first thing many readers will notice—along with the overuse of screentones to cover up for that. What it means, ultimately, is a lot of Nanami and Tomoe chatting with each other in blank spaces as if they were just floating through the ether. Then there's the issue of Tomoe's bad behavior, most notably in the first half—admittedly, the guy was stuck in the shrine for 20 years without a master, but his rudeness toward Nanami still seems excessive, like he's being a jerk just for the sake of being a jerk. Careful students of Japanese folklore may also take issue with the domain of Nanami's godly powers, which seem to vary depending on what the plot requires of her. Basically, there are no rigorously defined rules for this supernatural world; it's all about Nanami being "just powerful enough" to survive and Tomoe picking up the slack. That kind of hand-waving may end up being trouble in future chapters ...
To be honest, it's hard to find anything seriously bad about this story. Although not dramatically innovative, it's still entertaining and well-executed enough to earn a B
THE SECRET NOTES OF LADY KANOKO
(by Ririko Tsujita, Tokyopop, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It's high school meets nature documentary in this new shojo comedy! Kanoko Naedoko, a third-year student in junior high, doesn't make friends and keeps to herself. Which is fine by her because then she can be the ideal 'objective observer.' Steamy love triangles, school gossip and courtyard politics only mean more data for Lady Kanoko! But when she befriends some of her classmates, what will happen to Kanoko? Will she become more than just an observer?"
Man, that Kanoko sure has an attitude problem. And that's exactly what makes this series so great: our heroine spews sarcasm like a broken toilet, looks down on her peers with contempt, and basically steps all over the idea of what a shōjo protagonist ought to be. Even feisty types like Misaki from Maid Sama! might cower in fear upon seeing Kanoko's smarmy, know-it-all smile—a smile that is just one of the many amusing, over-the-top expressions worn by the characters in this book. And what a cast of characters it is: by using a wipe-the-slate-clean plot device (Kanoko is constantly transferring schools), each chapter stands alone and features different students acting out various classroom melodramas. Each story is packed with twists and mind games, where deception and coercion are standard tactics for rocky teacher-student relationships and insidious love triangles. The character designs are also just as varied as Ririko Tsujita's story concepts, with a bespectacled ugly duckling and a pigtailed narcissist and a sporty tomboy among the many distinctive types. And of course, despite Kanoko's claim as an independent observer, it's her inadvertent meddling that always brings out the best in this whirlwind of comedy and drama.
Ririko Tsujita may have too many ideas for her own good. While each chapter of Lady Kanoko crackles with energy and Machiavellian wit, the series often suffers from trying to pack too much story in at once, resulting in very crowded pages where text, action, and character close-ups are all competing for space. Mind games are fun when they're a part of romance and rivalry, but one should never have to play brainteasers just to figure out which panel to read next or how to make sense of all the dialogue, narration and inner monologue going on in each scene. Even Tsujita's basic skills as an artist are questionable, with some of the character illustrations looking inconsistent and sloppy in the early chapters (dark-haired pretty boy Tsubaki seems to go through about five different face shapes and hairstyles). With the visuals this messy, one barely has time to register a complaint about the contrived nature of Kanoko's existence, where she inexplicably transfers to a different school every month—it's funny in a surreal way, sure, but is the one "glitch" that makes an otherwise entertaining series difficult to take seriously.
Despite the iffy artwork and poor page layouts, the storytelling still offers enough humor and complexity to earn a B—especially with a character like that in the lead role.
ODD IS ON OUR SIDE
(story by Dean Koontz and Fred Van Lente, art by Queenie Chan, Del Rey, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"It's Halloween in Pico Mundo, California, and there's a whiff of something wicked in the autumn air. While the town prepares for its annual festivities, young fry cook Odd Thomas can't shake the feeling that make-believe goblins and ghouls aren't the only things on the prowl. He should know, since he can see what others cannot: the spirits of the restless dead. But even his frequent visitor, the specter of Elvis Presley, can't seem to point Odd in the right direction.
With the help of his gun-toting girlfriend Stormy, Odd is out to uncover the terrible truth. Is something sinister afoot in the remote barn guarded by devilish masked men? Has All Hallows' Eve mischief taken a malevolent turn? Or is the pleading ghost of a trick-or-treater a frightening omen of doom?"
This review may be a few months late, but paranormal mysteries are always in season—especially when they're crafted with a touch of humor and whimsy like this one. The Halloween theme melds perfectly with Odd Thomas's skill set, creating some intriguing situations where the presence of costumed revelers messes with his ability to sense occult phenomena. In fact, Koontz and Van Lente are almost like stage magicians in the way they manipulate the storyline, creating distractions and false leads to fool the audience while the real "magic" goes on behind the scenes and emerges as a series of plot twists. Chan's art also meets the task of having the real world and the spirit world collide—the imagery is almost slice-of-life in the opening scenes, with idyllic suburbia and common American folk setting the stage, but quickly becomes surreal with mischief-makers and shadowy spirits lurking about, and then turns to action-packed thriller when the real threat is revealed in the final act. Best of all, the art shows much better confidence and consistency than the horrific rush job that was In Odd We Trust. It's a story that takes many sharp turns—so be ready for it.
The artwork may be an improvement over the previous volume of Odd Thomas manga—but that just means going from painful to mediocre. Once again the pages are plagued by a lack of backgrounds, destroying any sense of atmosphere that the story might have had. It's weird, because Chan showed obvious talent at visual world-building in her own horror-mystery series The Dreaming, but apparently isn't inspired enough to do the same for Koontz's small-town setting. The action scenes are also a source of constant disappointment, with stiff poses and a complete lack of flow from one moment to the next. (Just wait for the part where Odd fires a gunshot so unrealistic that he would have done a better job pointing a finger and saying "bang.") The story itself also feels contrived and lacking in depth—what did you expect from cramming a full whodunit in a single manga volume?—with an ending that feels more like unintentional comedy than thriller. Juvenile pumpkin traditions, a Halloween-themed piñata, and an literary agent saving the day? That's not suspenseful, that's just weird. The moral of the story is this: holiday-themed episodes rarely work out well on TV, so don't do them in comics either.
While fans of the Odd Thomas franchise may enjoy seeing their hero in action, those with higher expectations for a twisting, winding mystery might best wait for something truly satisfying. Like something by Naoki Urasawa.
Ah, January! A time when one's mind turns to What the heck, why do the supermarkets already have their Valentine's decorations out? Yes, it's time once again for that yearly guilt-trip about finding true love. In that vein, here's one of our star contributors, R. Silverman, with a review of a rather unconventional romance. And if you have a romance title you'd like to suggest, make sure to send in your reviews too!
(by Maki Enjoji, Shogakukan/Kaze (France and Canada), ¥420/CAN$11.95)
Here's a news flash: Not all women have whatever figure is currently considered "hot." Most of us aren't blond, at least half don't have long, lustrous curly hair, and some of us like our glasses. A lot of us prefer to dress comfortably and some of us prefer to think about things that aren't romance-based. And guess what? Not all of us are at the same time spunky, sensitive, sentimental, and entertainingly sexually naive. If you've ever read a romance, manga, novel, or otherwise, chances are you know that most of those descriptors fit the typical genre heroine. But don't you ever get sick of it? That's where Maki Enjoji's josei romance Private Prince comes in.
Miyako, the heroine of Enjoji's five volume work, is a graduate student. She's a little bit dumpy, likes to wear baggy sweaters and long full skirts, and she's more interested in completing her MA in History than finding Mr. Right. Fortunately for the plot, Miyako is studying totally-not-England Estolia, a European country where a prince once married an ordinary Japanese woman. When Wildfred, the second prince of Estolia, decides to get in touch with his Japanese ancestry and enrolls in Miyako's university, she sees it as the world's most perfect research opportunity. While the rest of the female student body tries to get his body, Miyako sneaks into a formal affair to get information about his great-grandmother. Of course Will is intrigued, and he sets a condition: once Miyako falls in love with him, he'll give her the family papers. Of course some romance conventions ensue, but sometimes with just enough of a twist to make it worthwhile—Miyako and Will end up living together, (but only because she has to move back to her family's ryokan due to media attention), he's got obnoxious royal relatives and a stoic manservant, and the obligatory boob jokes are made. But Enjoji's light touch and clean art let you forget that you've read a bit of this before.
Maki Enjoji as an author is a bit like a more tasteful Yuki Yoshihara. (Both women publish in the same magazine, Shogakukan's Petit.) She has a real sense of humor to her work and an acknowledgment of the absurd that makes her work just a little tongue-in-cheek, as well as some genuinely romantic moments. I hope that Viz's release of Yoshihara's Butterflies, Flowers means that they will consider publishing Private Prince or one of Enjoji's other works in English, but if you can read French or Japanese and are looking for a change of pace in your slightly-smutty romance, give this series a try. It's short, sweet, and lets you know that it's all right for Cinderella to think for herself and doesn't always have to be the Disney Princess.
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)
- 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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