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20th Century Light Club

by Carlo Santos,

Tokyopop is gone.

I suppose there isn't much left to say, since everyone's already said what needed to be said. Love it or hate it, the company had a great influence on the growth (and subsequent pullback) of the manga market in North America. The question now, perhaps, is where the next influential force will come from. With the collapse of Borders and now this, are English editions of Japanese comics doomed to retreat all the way back to mid-90's levels, where you're lucky to find even two shelves of them at a bookstore? Or can we find a happy medium where the right number of books will find their way to the right number of readers?

The answers don't lie in the hands of industry experts. They certainly don't lie with hot-air pundits like me. The answers lie with all of us who care about manga.

Vol. 14
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)

"As the entire planet grieves over the death of their beloved Friend, the remaining members of his inner circle continue to silence any and all dissenters. Dream Navigator Takasu believes that once they locate Kiriko—Kanna's mother and Kenji's older sister—Manjome Inshu will finally be in a position to control the entire world. However, Manjome hasn't been the same since their Friend's passing. Will he be able to set his doubts aside and continue with the Friend's grand scheme?
Meanwhile, Kanna and company take advantage of the lax security following the Friend's passing and break into Friend Land. Their objective: to reenter the Virtual World. Feeling that Kanna's too emotionally involved, though, Yoshitsune decides to enter the game with Koizumi Kyoko instead—a decision that doesn't sit too well with Koizumi. With Kanna prepared to terminate the game should things go bad, Yoshitsune and Koizumi journey back to the summer of 1971, but is it the real 1971 or just another one of the Friend's fabrications?"

For all the talk about Naoki Urasawa's insane twists and mastery of suspense, it's just as compelling to see him lock down into straight-ahead story mode. That's what happens throughout most of this volume, which flashes back to the "Real 1971" and fills in new details about the childhood of Kenji, the Friend, and their peers. Perhaps the most amazing thing is realizing there are still details to be filled in—reminding us just how complex the world is that Urasawa has created. Various plot points shine new light upon the mysterious character of Fukube/Friend, most notably in the chapter that reveals what Donkey saw in the science lab. But once again, it's the nostalgic details of late-60's/early-70's Japan that linger long afterward—fads that came and went (bowling alleys and pinball arcades); old-time music playing in the background; historic moments still fresh in the kids' minds. Yet the desire to uncover the truth and the looming threat of the Friend organization keeps the suspense bubbling—and that suspense is clear to see in the wide range of expressions crossing the characters' faces. Plus who can resist the addictive visual pace that shifts between speedy action scenes and heart-stopping full-page spreads every chapter?

Yes, Urasawa's work may be a joy to behold when he locks down into straight-ahead story mode ... but even then, he doesn't stay locked down for long. This arc still habitually drifts off into tangents, like a short-attention-span child prodigy who takes a break from a chess game to suddenly recite several dozen digits of pi. That's the weird sense of whiplash you're going to get when the 1971 flashback is interrupted by the machinations of the Friend organization in 2015, or by Aunt Yukiji and company doing some investigative work in Chinatown. And even if these plot details are important—as they surely are—it's odd to shoehorn them into a storyline that's already compelling enough in its own right. There's also the risk that readers might forget about these side plots because they were too busy focusing on the events of 1971. Which, by the way, feel somewhat contrived because of the way the flashback is presented—as part of the "virtual reality game" that goes on in Friend Land. In a series filled with realistic details about recent history, this far-fetched sci-fi conceit has always seemed a little out of place.

Despite the poor placement of tangential storylines, the main event is not to be missed. Strap yourselves in for a wild ride through 1971, because it's an A- experience.

Vol. 4
(by Haro Aso, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Shunpei Closer has low self-esteem and doesn't seem to be good at anything. His teddy bear, Hyde, was a gift from Shunpei's grandfather, Alsyd Closer, who was the King of Sorcerers. After a mysterious attack, Shunpei learns that as Alsyd's descendant he is the target of sorcerers all over the world. With Hyde as his main protector and teacher, Shunpei must learn how to gain confidence in himself and use the magic that he has inherited to battle the dark forces that now threaten him.
A reformed hoodlum is powerless to stop an unscrupulous sorcerer who can break his opponent's bones with a chance roll of a die. But should a guardian angel happen to appear with a chainsaw in hand, maybe luck will be on his side..."

With this volume, Hyde and Closer finally gets serious. And not just Shunpei-fights-his-toughest-enemy-yet serious (although there's that too), but here's-the-real-story-behind-the-story serious. In one fell swoop, Shunpei meets the "Watcher in the Window" who sent all those sorcerers after him, learns exactly how this bad guy plans to destroy the world, and finds out what his grandfather has been up to all these years. With so much information piling up, you really can't ask for a more dramatic turn of plot ... unless it also includes a shocking cliffhanger involving Hyde. Because of all these revelations, one almost misses the quality storytelling contained in the volume's first half—namely, the touching flashback where we learn how street-tough sorcerer Kazan went from common thug to defender of the needy. It's those kinds of stories that show Haro Aso's natural gift for story (not to mention the "ancient African legend" when Shunpei and the Watcher meet)—but his creativity shines even more when it comes to pure character design, with faces, hairstyles and outfits that are striking even by shonen standards. The only thing more creative? Their magical items and spells, which make every battle a must-see experience.

Creativity is a great thing to have, but it would be nice if there were some restraint to go with it. Too often the action scenes go haywire, with masses of speedlines and not enough detail to show who's making a move and who's winning. It's only the contrived, melodramatic poses—you know, that ones that take up double-page spreads—that really show the right balance of creative energy and careful planning. Everything else just looks like Aso's pen is spilling ink with wild abandon. What would be better is if some of that excess energy were re-routed into the plot, which typically resorts to old action-adventure clichés and tearjerker devices. Kazan's personality and back-story are major offenders in this regard; first he struts around spouting the usual "I'm so tough!" lines, then once his history is revealed he gets all weepy and declares the importance of protecting the people he loves. Yeah, you and everyone else, buddy. And shame on this volume for starting with a filler chapter starring Ana (Shunpei's foe-turned-friend from last volume) and then having her disappear for the next two story arcs. That's a waste of a character.

Despite still relying heavily on standard boy-fights-world tropes, the dramatic turn of events in this volume's second half make it a thrilling, heart-stopping B.

Vol. 3
(by Seimu Yoshizaki, Viz Media, $12.99)

"In this volume:
A manga collection featuring beautifully frightening horror stories piques the interest of a cowardly pick-up artist.
Reading about an attractive soldier battling evil inspires a young woman to upgrade her wardrobe.
A manga about the wandering travels of lone ninja and swordsmen raises the question, 'What is fate?'
A practical home-style cooking manga provides eating suggestions for a woman looking to expand her nightly menu.
A man sets out to find a specific globe-trotting adventure manga.
We have the manga you're looking for."

Although there's that glowing excitement whenever Kingyo Used Books features a manga you know and love—ohmigaaawd, there's a chapter on Sailor Moon in this one!—there's something even more powerful when it delves into stuff you haven't heard of. And maybe that's the best way to read this series: as a journey of discovery into legendary old-school manga, titles that set off nostalgia triggers among the Japanese but are yet to be explored by international fans. Even discussion of famous names like Kazuo Umezu can open up one's eyes, revealing entire bodies of work that still haven't been published in English. And it's not like this is presented as a dry, nonfiction reference book—every chapter is filled with great characters, like the scaredy-boy who pretends to like Umezu just so he can get close to a girl, or the intensely dedicated booklender in the double-length "Nekomata-do" storyline, and the grown-up women who enthusiastically share how much they were into Sailor Moon back in the day. But talk about manga is cheap, and it's the carefully laid out silences on certain pages—visual rest stops where the characters process their emotions—that really illustrate the wondrous power of Japanese comics.

Seimu Yoshizaki is a world-class manga enthusiast. That's clear to see from the passion she puts into researching and drawing each chapter of this series. But a world-class manga-ka? That distinction is much more questionable, as many basic elements of storytelling seem to lose their way here. The series' recurring characters—the folks who actually run the Kingyo store—are often just afterthoughts who make passing comments about how great manga is. (As if we don't already know.) And when they do get involved in a storyline, like the two used-book resellers do, it ends up being some hokey love story that would barely get past a editor. The fact that the one-shot characters are more interesting than the main cast says it all: Yoshizaki comes up with great creations at the start, but can't follow through with developing them. Or worse, she tries to run with an overly ambitious idea like the double-layered storyline in the Cooking Papa chapter, and it just gets confusing because of bad transitions. The shaky artwork, with inconsistent character designs and a poor understanding of action poses, just makes it worse—and the lack of excerpts from the actual manga being discussed is a major missed opportunity.

In sharing the joy of the hobby, it's great! But in the basic mechanics of story and art, it's much more iffy. Probably another C+ in overall entertainment value, but hardcore bookworms may see it a full letter grade higher.

(by Usamaru Furuya, Vertical, $16.95)

"For the sooty industrial town's lads there's only one point of light: the Light Club, a secret brotherhood they've organized in an abandoned factory. They're on the verge of booting up their crowning achievement, a 'thinking machine' fueled by lychee fruits. At the same time, the middle schoolers' cooties-fearing solidarity is devolving into a downright National Socialist muck of murderous paranoia, perverse aestheticism, and (not always) suppressed homosexuality. Cult favorite Usamaru Furuya's most flawlessly realized work to date, here is Lord of the Flies for our new century—a text, however, that will never be assigned in schools."

Let Viz publish Usamaru Furuya's polite, Jump-friendly Genkaku Picasso. Meanwhile, Vertical here gives us Furuya at his most deranged—a masterpiece of gore and debauchery that will have your brain screaming in horror even as you read on in rapture. The plotline is simple enough—the Light Club's descent into madness shows how absolute power corrupts absolutely—but the complex themes and details make it unforgettable. In a single 300-page volume, this story tackles society's obsession with youth and beauty, the puzzling divide between human and machine, and of course the desires and deviancy that cause us to turn against each other. That may sound like any provocative literary work, but just look at the imagery Furuya uses in this. The influence of ero-guro pioneer Suehiro Maruo is strong in this one, with buckets of blood, entrails pouring out, raw sexual displays, and other not-safe-for-work scenes that will stick in your head long after the ending. Deep shadows and skin-crawling textures also add to the strong visual impact. If the goal of this is to freak everyone out and remind us of the terrifying creatures that teenage boys can become, well ... it accomplishes the task spectactularly.

Seriously, sometimes these ero-guro artists try too hard. In his quest to cram every page of Lychee Light Club with shocking imagery, Furuya sometimes misses the boat on basic storytelling elements, like how the club came together and what compelled them to undertake this crazy robot project in the first place. Sure, there's a brief origin-story flashback in the middle, but even that seems like an arbitrary insertion that says "the boys created a club because they felt like creating a club." Furthermore, the early chapters feel rushed in their pacing, as if Furuya was desperately trying to get to the good part: first here's the boys engaging in acts of depravity, here they are finishing up their robot, here they are capturing some girls—all delivered at slapdash speed because things don't really pick up until the boys turn on each other. And as soon as that happens, well ... one realizes that the members of the club are drawn too much alike. It's not until about halfway that the artistic style sinks in well enough for the individual characters to be recognizable. Every deranged outpouring of self-expression has its flaws, I suppose.

Sure, it has its rough edges, but goodness gracious does this thing ever deserve an A-. It's shocking, disturbing, revolting—and an instant pick for one of the year's best.

Vol. 6
(by Yuhki Kamatani, Yen Press, $11.99)

"Having made the decision to secretly join Iga's Grey Wolves, Miharu begins life as a member of the enemy ranks! Under the pretext of accepting an invitation from the long-hidden Kouga village to participate in an intellectual exchange among residents of the Nabari world, the apathetic vessel of the Shinra Banshou sets out with his new allies to steal Kouga's forbidden art scroll. But Iga is not the only shinobi village to whom the clever Kouga have opened their doors! Banten and Fuuma have also sent shinobi to the conference, and all those present—especially the Kouga—have their own interests to serve!"

In a world where "ninja" is often associated with superheroic powers and insane weapons skills, it's refreshing to see a series like Nabari no Ou highlight a commonly overlooked ninja art: espionage. Many of the scenes in this volume have a hidden layer of cerebral warfare going on—a battle to outguess the other guy, to move one way while faking in the other direction. And when you've got your mind running at full speed trying to track the motives and feints of each character, who needs to worry about combat? Yet there's just enough action to satisfy in the final chapter, where all the political maneuvering between ninja clans comes to a head and the Kouga shinobi conference takes a violent turn. The thrilling pace of those last several scenes, with multiple characters running down hallways, wielding their skills, and confronting each other, is well worth the tension and mind games of the previous chapters. This sort of introverted ninja warfare—four parts planning to one part action—fits well with the delicate artwork, where stylish character poses and flowing lines create visual interest. And when the hero switches sides, how can you not be interested?

So the hero switches sides, and the first thing he does is ... mutter on and on about his conflicted conscience? Come on, Miharu, go and DO something. And don't even think of chatting with Yoite, because as soon as those two end up in the same room it turns into this Endless Emo Festival—Yoite seems to think that boring everyone to death with his depressing monologues makes for great drama. Honestly, trying to connect with these characters emotionally is like trying to connect with a brick wall. Getting into the story can also be hard with all the constant switching between different factions: just when it's gotten into the rhythm of what the Grey Wolves are doing, it jumps to the Banten's day-to-day activities, or how things are going down in Kouga. The all-shinobi conference partially solves that problem by bringing everyone together, but then comes the maddening action sequence at the end, which flips frantically between so many characters and so many fights that the excitement devolves into confusion. Besides, the light-toned art with hardly any contrast or shading makes every moment look the same—so how are you supposed to know when the scene changes?

Despite some strong points, much of the execution in this volume stumbles along the way. Confusing fights, pointlessly melodramatic conversations, and storylines that lack real pull—it's what C grades are made of.

Vol. 1
(by Karino Takatsu, Square-Enix, ¥476)

"Set in a family restaurant in Hokkaido, the northern prefecture of Japan, 16 year old high school student Takanashi Souta works part-time along with his strange co-workers: Taneshima Popura, a high school girl who's a year older than Souta but easily mistaken for a elementary/middle schooler, and Shirafuji Kyoko, the 28-year old store manager who doesn't bother to do any work at all."

"Show, don't tell," is an adage often repeated about fiction writing—but the principle works just as well in gag humor, as proven by the first volume of Working!!. The punchlines in this series are at their best when they come across both visually and verbally—or sometimes just visually, like when someone pops up from behind in one of those "speak of the devil" moments, or when Mahiru delivers her trademark punch to some guy's face ... due to her inexplicable phobia of the opposite sex. Yes, those are the kind of over-the-top quirks that set this series apart from the glut of "everyone is a ditzy high school girl" four-panel atrocities; Working!!'s cast spans multiple demographics from high school student to thirtysomething professional and their personality types definitely do not all fall under "ditzy." Even Takanashi, the fanboy wish-fulfillment protagonist, doesn't get to be the center of his own personal harem; instead he's picked on for liking cute things and is the victim of more physical gags than everyone else combined. Simple and distinctive character designs also make the cast easy to pick out and fun to follow as they get into their working-world scrapes.

As a four-panel strip, it's probably unfair to hold Working!! to the requirement of having an actual plot—but gag series that progress forward in time, like Hidamari Sketch and Neko Ramen, prove that it can be done. For Working!! to not do it seems like a missed opportunity. It doesn't take long for the first volume to start repeating certain jokes, rather than taking the chance to build upon them and twist them in new, funnier directions. For example, we keep having to revisit Kyoko's sensitiveness about her age, or how executive manager Otoh-san is as "inconsequential as air." Returning to a particular joke after it's had its run just looks like you're out of ideas. Even the best running gag in the series—Mahiru's man-hating fist of fury—gets run into the ground because she never comes up with any new gimmicks to add to it. (And that's despite a couple of story arcs that show her trying to overcome her problem.) Also disappointing is how the simple art style causes some visual gags to fall flat—sure, the characters are easy to pick out, but the lack of detail also makes it hard to understand what they're doing.

It has many of the usual flaws one would expect from a four-panel series, but the variety of characters and the workplace setting make it a refreshing alternative to all the school-based drivel going around.

A new challenger appears! Yes, this week we welcome Greg Steffensen to the ranks of Reader's Choice reviewers as he reminds us of yet another reason why Tokyopop's catalog will be sorely missed.

Speaking of which, is there a Tokyopop series that you sorely miss? In light of recent events, maybe it's time to send in a review and keep those memories alive.

(by Tsutomu Nihei, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea. - currently out of print)

BLAME! is the first major work of manga artist Tsutomu Nihei, and it is quite the feat of science fiction. A sprawling 10 volume cyberhorror affair, BLAME! stands as Nihei's longest and most successful original work (he has also done work with Halo and Wolverine).

The story of BLAME! is Nihei's most ultimately straightforward (by Nihei's standards; it's still mindboggling at points), while still managing to be original and thought-provoking. The underlying plot of the manga centers around the journey of Killy, an immortal man searching for the last traces of the gene that acted as the key to the Netsphere, an ancient cyberspace devised by the last civilizations. It is widely implied that BLAME!'s setting, the City, has consumed all non-stellar matter within the orbit of Jupiter in order to achieve its programmed expansion, so Killy's mission is to end this cycle. The City has become a massive and hollow landscape, filled with decayed signs of civilization. Humans survive on a tribal level, fighting against Silicon Life using weapons capable of leveling buildings. The Silicon Life, rendered with Nihei's masterful and horrific design, range from builder drones—whose sole duty is to expand the city—to the various scheming factions of androids set upon utilizing the infinite space of the Netsphere as a new home. The City also has an immune system, the Safeguard, whose sole duty is to protect the Netsphere. However, as no one has legitimate access to the Netsphere, all life forms—silicon and carbon alike—are subject to its harshness once identified.

Few of Nihei's works since have managed BLAME!'s most important feature: a sense of pacing to preserve both the atmosphere and the reader's sanity. The story could have easily been told in fewer volumes, but it would have been at the cost of the art. Nihei renders every environment in the manga with an almost obsessive attention to detail. His understanding of architecture lends the City's massive halls an incredible atmosphere. Killy wanders on his endless journey—he goes generally on foot, and it is implied the manga takes place over dozens of years as he travels across the city—often alone. Many of Killy's stories are told using the philosophy that actions speak louder than words, and a few chapters are entirely devoid of dialogue, favoring pure art as the narrator. His few contacts are often hostile, but his few travelling partners are surprisingly fleshed out. The few fights that do occur are tense, with every action being rendered in detail. Weapons are destructive, and every shot fired feels like it leaves an impact on something. Unlike Biomega, where events are cool to watch but incredibly confusing, BLAME! maintains a generally composed atmosphere at all but one major point: the entire final volume is mind-blowing in more ways than one.

BLAME! is a rare manga, but if you can get your hands on it, it is worth a read for any fan of cyberpunk, mecha, or gothic science fiction.

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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