by Carlo Santos,

You know how everyone was really excited when Volume 2 of Cross Game hit the shelves? Well, I have something even more exciting now. Real actual baseball is starting again! Spring Training! Ahh, my heart!

Vol. 13
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $16.95)

"In the thirteenth volume of Black Jack, we look into the minds and hearts of a myriad of characters. Whether diving into the dreams of a water-logged Pinoko or reconstructing the shattered career of an injured ball player, Black Jack's god-like abilities can make wishes, and nightmares, reality."

Once again, Osamu Tezuka turns in an intense, thought-provoking set of stories with the latest Black Jack. This time the focus (for at least a few chapters) is the danger of pride, where an athlete trying to play beyond his physical limits and an aging actress trying to recapture the fame of her youth provide sobering life lessons when they meet their unhappy endings. But perhaps the one that leaves the strongest impression is when Black Jack himself gets taken down a notch: just when he thinks he's figured out the solution to a mysterious condition named after his former professor, the tables are turned on him ... seemingly from beyond the grave. It's moments like that when we see into the true heart of the medical mastermind—as well as seeing into the genius of Tezuka's storytelling. But it's not like all the endings are harsh and depressing; sometimes these deft plot twists result in tales of redemption, like a troublemaking student discovering a new passion, or a suicidal patient having a change of heart, or even unexpected sparks of love. When it comes to humanity, who knows what to expect?

Those endings, those horrible inconclusive endings! The one area that is constantly Black Jack's greatest weakness has now become practically a running joke at the 13-volumes mark. Tezuka builds up such great plotlines and characters that he is often handcuffed by the short-story format of the series, forcing him to draw these cop-out endings where Black Jack stares contemplatively into space, or walks off into the background, or mutters darkly to himself—or some combination thereof. Even more frustrating is when it looks like the end of the chapter is about to develop into a more involved story arc, but no, the only thing that awaits after the page turn is something totally unrelated. Sometimes those 20-page bursts also end up being misses rather than hits, especially the Pinoko chapters—her grating baby talk and selfish attitude rarely add anything of value to the story, and the third-party characters that Black Jack meets are always more interesting anyway. The occasional lapses into the otherworldly—mummy's curses and alien visitors—also take away from the seriousness of the series and never feel like they're in the right place.

Tezuka is still one of the best in the game—even when he's off his game. Compelling ideas and characters overcome the usual flaws to score this volume a B-.

Vol. 3
(by Mohiro Kitoh, Viz Media, $12.99)

"The underage pilots of Zearth are starting to crack under the pressure. In the beginning all they wanted to do was play a fun game. Now they're fighting for their lives and the fate of the planet. Say goodbye to childhood. It's time to grow up and be a hero."

Let's just say this: Volume 3 of Bokurano would never get past Bill 156. Filled with sexual controversy and misanthropic behavior, this volume is designed to set off the flames of debate, while also questioning the limits of heroism and villainy. If previous installments were about instilling a fear of giant robot invaders, then this one instills a fear of the ones meant to defeat them—an exploration of twisted psyches and the rage that children are capable of. Isao, the central character in the first half, is notably the first unheroic pilot in the series: he wallows in insecurity, flies off the handle, and then meets a shocking yet appropriate ending. But that's nothing compared to the horrors this series has in store for Chizuru, whose back-story is one shocker after another—but perfectly prepares the moral battleground when she goes on a giant robot rampage. Is revenge ever worth it? How awful must a crime be for the ultimate punishment? Kitoh's bleak, slightly unhinged art (note the sketchy pencil lines at times) sets the ideal mood for this unsettling situation. You thought monsters were scary? Just watch what people can do.

At times, Mohiro Kitoh seems to be playing shock jock with this whole series—throwing in the ugliest tragedies and abuses possible just to upset audiences. Case in point: the Chizuru arc, which is supposed to provoke serious moral debate, but wades through some incredibly distasteful stuff in order to do it. First it's the illicit relationship, then the abuse, then ... well, not to give the plot away, but at a certain point it really crosses the line. (And the other issue is that we all have different "lines.") And because Kitoh is so busy showing off how dark and disturbing his characters can be, he seems content to let the plot become bloated with unnecessary material like the Japanese military stepping in and sequestering the kids. While this event does set the stage for a couple of boilerplate "military firepower does nothing" scenes, its overall effect on the plot is negligible—the actions and attitudes of the children have always been the driving force, after all. And even then, the emotional impact is lost as they continue to drift with expressionless faces through spare, untextured scenery. A little more shading and linework wouldn't hurt.

It's flawed because it's disturbing. But those disturbing qualities are also what make it fascinating. This one is best marked with a B- and a strong warning about variable mileage.

Vols. 1-3
(by Yu Aida, Seven Seas, $15.99)

"The Social Welfare Agency in Italy is not what it seems. Yes, it rescues young girls who have been brutalized—but brainwashes them and transforms them into ruthless killers for an elite and secret counter-terrorism unit for the Italian government.
Enter Henrietta, a young girl who witnessed the savage murder of her family and barely survived. The Agency takes her in and repairs her injuries using the latest in cybernetic technology, wiping her mind of all traces of her past and turning her into one of the Agency's most lethal assassins.
Yet despite her programming, Henrietta is troubled by fragmented memories. It is her handler's job, Jose, to keep her feelings in check and ensure that she stays on mission. This task is made all the more difficult because Henrietta bears an uncanny resemblance to Jose's younger sister who died in a car bombing years earlier."

Although billed as a typical "girls with guns" series, the psychologically wrenching twist at the heart of Gunslinger Girl—victimized children retooled as killing machines—is what differentiates it from the rest of the pack. There is a chilling despair, even discomfort, in the way Henrietta and her friends' stories are presented: the physical and emotional trauma of their earlier lives, followed by dehumanization and emptiness in their new forms. Yu Aida's calm, unadorned visuals make the drama doubly effective, with straight rectangular panels and scenes of day-to-day life highlighting the girls' raw struggle for humanity (or whatever is left of it). The flashbacks are the true tearjerker masterpieces here, especially the story surrounding Angelica—the "prototype" whose deteriorating memory has left her caretakers heartbroken. Yet Aida shows proficiency on the "guns" side of the girls-with-guns equation as well, with carefully timed action scenes that contrast against the quietness found elsewhere. It's a tricky balancing act that Aida pulls off well: tense conversation and planning, and then, out of nowhere, speedlines and gunshots and car chases and hand-to-hand combat. The action provides a necessary thrill, but it's the dark emotions that stick around long afterward.

If this is supposed to be a heart-wrenching portrayal of the unsavory side of special-ops counterterrorism, why does it rely so heavily on early 21st-century moe archetypes? Gunslinger Girl is, at worst, an emotionally manipulative hand-wringer where even the author seems to have been turned off by the initial premise. The unsettling early chapters that introduce the characters' back-stories seem to echo the same melodramatic cry: "Sad little girls are being treated inhumanely! Feel sorry for them!" And then to have them coddled by adult male special agents ... come on, this is just Girls With Guns For Creeps, isn't it? Even Aida seems to have abandoned this psychological exploration, as by Volume 3 the emotional side is lost and it becomes a standard terrorist-hunting action piece. It takes almost a hundred pages, for example, to get through the overly drawn-out "Pinocchio" mission (compare this to the shorter yet more effective "Florence" mission in Volume 2). Plus the artwork often looks stiff and cold, with thin lines that never vary and awkward character poses even during action shots. It's hard to portray the human tragedy of the girls' lives if one isn't very good at drawing humans.

The beauty and raw emotion is canceled out by the flaws and contrived storytelling, so the first three volumes of the series come in at a C+.

Vol. 3
(by Yoshihiro Natsume, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Mikito Sakurai is tired of being a punching bag for all the delinquents on campus. But what can he do? By nature he's a gentle and easygoing high school student. That all changes the night he swallows a mysterious orb and meets Zakuro, a strange kid who promises to grant his most heartfelt desire. 'When you wake up,' says the pint-sized apparition, 'you'll be stronger and better than a human.'
Mikito and Kugai encounter a powerful being called Suguri, who has been spreading ogre seeds and killing monsters wherever he goes. He wants to destroy Mikito, but he must battle Kugai and a special hunter named Gogyo first. Will Mikito unleash his awesome ogre powers?"

When it comes to action manga, Volume 3 is usually about the place where one's perceptions of the story world are blown wide open—and in that respect, Kurozakuro obliges gladly. If you were waiting for the part where fists go flying and blood starts spurting and amazing new powers get charged up, then dig in—this volume's got the big battle scene where everyone goes for broke. Even Yoshihiro Natsume himself seems to be pushing his abilities as an artist, thinking up creative new ways to inflict pain on heroes and villains alike (the "spider blade attack" already sounds painful; just wait and see how it looks on paper). Even basic displays of speed and strength seem to flow with an extra 120% vitality out of Natsume's art, like a truck crash that goes up in flames or a transformed Mikito throwing himself upon the enemy. But the true passion and bloodlust that drives this battle comes not from the characters' attacks alone, but the back stories that motivate them. All it takes is some behind-the-scenes action to fill us with excitement and dread over the true motivations of Suguri, Gogyo, and even creepy little Zakuro himself...

Battle and flashbacks. Battle and flashbacks. Is that all there is? Honestly, I liked Kurozakuro back when it was an exploration of a noble hero's dark side, and Mikito was still fighting to keep his humanity. But with this story arc, it slides right down that slippery slope into shonen mediocrity where guys are yelling as loud as possible and flinging their made-up powers at each other. Even the artist himself uses the bonus pages in the back to criticize the sudden lack of female characters and one-dimensionality of what he's working on. (Here's a hint, Natsume: DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.) Truly, the only thing more exasperating than seeing the villain suddenly reveal his "powered up" form is seeing the hero do it as well. Why yes, Mikito, you are quite awesome when you let your monstrous powers take over, but everyone saw that coming and was just waiting for it to happen. And because Natsume is so busy drawing the hell out of these confrontations and special attacks, he never devotes attention to what should matter in the story—like introducing and developing recently-arrived new characters. Sadly, the flames of battle have consumed this series and left nothing but ash.

How it could suddenly be going downhill so fast?! The showdown with Suguri may bring some excitement, but the overall story content just doesn't satisfy—so it's a disappointing C- at this point.

Vol. 2
(by Yuuki Fujimoto, Tokyopop, $10.99)

"The Stellar Six return in this volume filled with childhood memories and teenage adventures! Our heroes quickly discover that high school is jam-packed with awkward situations and opportunities to learn and grow. Mike ponders the notion of 'love,' plus those pesky club people just won't leave her and Kuro alone! Then, a new family comes to the market and their daughter receives the grand tour, hosted by the Stellar Six, of course. Also included is Fujimoto's debut one-shot manga, 'Stand By You.'"

Of all that words that could be used to describe The Stellar Six—sweet, heartwarming, honest—none sums it up quite as succinctly as "magical." Yes, there must be some hidden sorcery to this series, the way it takes such ordinary elements (childhood friends, goofy rivalries, frivolous adventures, and a tight-knit neighborhood) and conjures rich emotional experiences out of them. It's almost unbearably charming, for example, how Mike and Kuro are too shy or too unaware to admit their feelings for each other, yet allow their actions to speak louder than words ever could. And how can anyone not smile at the youthful energy of the six when they come to the aid of a stressed-out storeowner, taking on problems the way only kids can? The best part, though, is seeing that energy and warmth come out visually: the bright eyes and delicately-lined faces when the characters express their feelings, or the sudden bursts of speed and dynamism when they spring into action. Sometimes it even happens simultaneously, like in Kuro and Mike's relay race—a scene that works as both an action sequence and a display of emotion. See, now isn't that pure magic right there?

If there is to be truth in advertising, then this needs to be re-titled to The Stellar Two of Gingacho, since the series' main couple ends up stealing the limelight from their insignificant little friends. Oh, there's still some lip service about the power of teamwork—mostly through the first chapter's contrived "voice-over" narration—but after that, it's basically the Kuro and Mike show. This may have been awkwardly cute in the series' developing stages, but now it's holding the story back, and readers who wanted to learn more about the other characters are getting the worst part of the deal because have to put up with one pair over and over. Where the series also falls short is in the challenges that the six friends face: does it really take that much self-sacrifice and strength of character to help out a newcomer or run a relay race? Let's see some real drama already, something that'll seriously threaten their friendship. And while we're at it, let's see less visual clutter during the introductory scenes where the characters and the crowds seem to be hopelessly mashed together.

Even with the overemphasis on the two main characters, the series' message of friendship and its charming mood are not lost. So this slice-of-life endeavor earns a solid B.

Vol. 1.
(by Masayuki Ishikawa, Kodansha, ¥533)

"It is the time of the Hundred Years' War, the great medieval clash between England and France. Somewhere in the French woods lives a witch named Maria, who uses devious spells and seduction (courtesy of a succubus in her employ) to alter the tides of war. However, Maria is not the fearsome figure that some imagine her to be—she's a teenage girl who's still a virgin! Still, Catholic authorities on either side want Maria punished for heresy, although it's hard to capture someone who can summon beasts and use sorcery to get out of sticky situations. Maria may have finally met her match, however, when God's own archangel Michael descends from Heaven to put Maria in her place."

What would it take to make you read something as bizarre as Junketsu no Maria? How about being told that it's by the creator of Moyasimon? And contains the same kind of zany characters as his other work? And that it manages to blend historical fantasy, religious debate, and dragons into a single plotline? Yes, this is clearly Ishikawa's imagination on overdrive, and it is both terrifying and wondrous to see what he thinks of next. Sometimes it's a sex comedy (Maria's never seen a man's privates, so she can't conjure an incubus to seduce the boy-loving clergy!), sometimes it's pure sword-and-sorcery action, and sometimes it's a forum on Why Does God Let Bad Things Happen To Good People—as seen in the late-volume argument between Maria and Michael. Even more surprising is how refined Ishikawa's artistic style has become—his battle scenes are packed with enough intense detail to rival Vinland Saga, and he obviously is having a ball illustrating the mythical beasts that Maria occasionally calls out. At the same time, the straightforward paneling and simple character designs keep the plainspoken humor that reminds us this is all just a wild, wacky fictional ride.

While some will delight in the pseudo-historical maelstrom Ishikawa has created, others may just be standing there wondering, "What?" In its quest to span every possible idea, Junketsu no Maria emerges as something of a high-concept crazy quilt—an R&D lab for manga innovation rather than a properly finished product. Chapter transitions are messy, with cliffhanger endings that segue to unrelated material in the next segment (although this improves later on). The borders between fact and fantasy are never clearly defined, resulting in disorientation when mythical beasts drop in on a historically accurate medieval battle. And just how powerful is Maria anyway? In Chapter 1 she's handing out herbal remedies, and then in later scenes she can apparently command demons and other vile creatures. In fact, Maria's role in general is the subject of much confusion—is she supposed to be a mischievous sorceress living in the woods, or a lightning rod for religious conflict between the Catholic Church and everyone else, or even a humanist rebel fighting a divine war against St. Michael? Confusion also happens on the surface level with all the characters' faces looking the same. My head, it spins.

Although the series is still mired in the messy process of figuring out what it's all about, the nonstop ideas, confident artistry and offbeat humor suggest that this is a promising series to keep an eye on.

Want to know the secret of getting into Reader's Choice? You actually have to send in reviews. Remember to check out the instructions below and see how your passion (or hatred) for a particular manga can make it into this section!

One of our most loyal readers, Eric P., is bringing back the 90's with his review of a classic harem series. Do you have a favorite 90's title you want to see featured here? You know what to do.

Vols. 1-12
Vols. 1-10
(by Hitoshi Okuda, Viz Media, $8.95-$9.99 ea.)

Tenchi Muyo, the classic harem series about a boy named Tenchi tied with destiny as a universal warrior. When not going on adventures, he shares his house with a cast of humanoid alien girls—space pirate Ryoko, Jurai princess Ayeka, her younger sister Sasami, mad scientist Washu, and their cabbit/spaceship Ryo-ohki, an adorable animal mascot that remains unrivaled even today.

While incorporating elements from the first two seasons of the OVA that inspired it, both No Need for Tenchi and its sequel series, The All-New Tenchi Muyo are otherwise non-canon and standalone. Making up 22 volumes total, the several long-running and single-chapter stories are your entertaining blend of comedy, adventure, action, with their fair share of both heartbreaking and heartwarming moments, shedding light and expanding on the characters while staying true to them. Stories include Ryoko losing her powers and being humbled by it, Sasami befriending and inspiring a wheelchair-bound girl author, Ryo-Ohki trying to learn to walk in her humanoid adult form so she could go on a date with Tenchi, Ayeka adopting a pet dragon-like mitsu creature that is actually a destroyer of Jurai trees, Washu having created a dark version of herself to attack her and help her better protect herself—and of course, the obligatory baseball chapter. It features manga-original characters, such as Minagi, an image-copy sister of sorts to Ryoko, and it all caps off with the final story of an evil clone of Tenchi's mother. For those that have seen the 3rd OVA, it is most obvious by this point the manga was written beforehand.

Compared to the OVA, where the characters more or less just stay in the same house together, in the manga you have a greater sense of family and caring between them all. Even Ryoko sometimes betrays her sentimental side, albeit while fighting to maintain her bad-girl image. In addition, the girls shine so much more in the manga that Tenchi being more in the backseat is a constant running gag. "No need for him," right?

Tenchi is one of those series that was so hugely popular back when it came out, and yet there have been a wave of harem series since then that nowadays Tenchi may not be considered as remarkable anymore, or maybe even memorable. But I believe this series is still something special, since it represents a time when the harem genre was fresh and new, before it even became a genre, and the girls had more personality and character to them unlike most of today's similar series. Besides that, it just works as an imaginative albeit often nonsensical sci-fi comedy/action series, and while the manga is likely out of print this is a worthy companion to the anime.

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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