Right Turn of the Dead

by Carlo Santos,

Since the world failed to end last weekend, that means new volumes of manga are still coming out, and I still have to review them. Which is good! Since there are tons of series I'm in the middle of, and I'd hate to think I might miss the ending just because of the apocalypse.

Vol. 22
(by Hideaki Sorachi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"The samurai didn't stand a chance. First, the aliens invaded Japan. Next, they took all the jobs. And then they confiscated everyone's swords. So what does a hotheaded former samurai like Gintoki 'Gin' Sakata do to make ends meet? Take any old job that comes his way, even if it means losing his dignity.
Kondo's Guide to Excellent Leadership
1. Sometimes a stray dog is the most loyal dog.
2. Mind your manners when eating conveyor-belt sushi.
3. Always wash your hands after you do number one or number two.
4. Sometimes the biggest tool isn't the one in the box.
5. Don't lose track when counting sheep."

If there were a list of the five funniest manga-ka in existence, Hideaki Sorachi had better be on it. His unabashed weirdness reaches new heights in this volume's "Screwdriver Arc," where Sorachi not only pulls numerous gags from the warped recesses of his brain but manages to weave a compelling, unpredictable storyline out of them. In one wildly meandering adventure, this segment of Gin Tama manages to spoof MMO games, alien abduction conspiracies, Monster Hunter, fantasy fiction, and male private parts. Ah, that's right, the other surprise highlight of this volume is its bold repertoire of penis jokes (although when one of the chapters is about cleaning up the men's restroom, that's to be expected). Not that the series' humor is all gutter-level, mind you—there's also straight-up slapstick in the sushi restaurant chapter, genre parody in the first and last chapters, and disarmingly clever one-liners scattered throughout the book. Carefully detailed artwork is also instrumental in bringing sight gags to life, not to mention some of the gag characters (was that Cloud from Final Fantasy just now?). With this brand of comedy, you never know what's coming next.

Right. The penis jokes. Those bawdy gags might elicit bursts of laughter at first, but then comes the bitter aftertaste—the realization that it was a cheap, dirty laugh, and that it's a crutch the author has come to rely on. If Sorachi is so talented (as he frequently proves with his eclectic methods of humor), why fall back on crude gags like that? Other jokes in this volume are less morally questionable, but fall flat in their own way. For example, the fourth-wall breakage where the characters whine about how many chapters the Screwdriver Arc has been going on seems like less of a punchline and more of a lame, self-conscious comment from Sorachi himself. Genre parodies like the yakuza drama in the first two chapters and a brief high school weepie also make the mistake of playing it too straight, becoming more like poor imitations rather than witty spoofs. In the end, though, it's the art that often ends up being the biggest weakness—action scenes are too cluttered to be effective, or worse yet, the art is just completely overpowered by the text. So much for being a visual medium.

The offbeat, meandering style of humor is very much an acquired taste, and visually it's not the most attractive thing in the world. But for those who "get" what the series is about, this volume's a solid B.

Vol. 2
(by Daisuke Sato and Shouji Sato, Yen Press, $13.99)

"Separated from the rest of the survivors from their high school, Takashi and Rei make their way through town, taking in the full scope of the sudden outbreak that's turned most of the residents into undead terrors. Though the immediate threat of attack has subsided, their survival instinct is still on high alert. Among those untouched by the disease, anarchy is the only law, and when anything goes, Takashi and Rei may have to become monsters themselves if they want to stay alive."

Highschool of the Dead is best known for zombie-smashing violence and anatomically improbable fanservice, but every now and then a glimmer of thoughtfulness pokes through. When Takashi reflects on this worldwide crisis being "the end"—with powerful images of everyday life set against horrific carnage—he reaches a philosophical depth that most blood-and-guts stories don't even bother with. Doubly so when he teams up with his friends and mulls over the fact that, in less than a day, they've become looters and killers in their fight for survival. A subplot involving citizens and police turning on each other further explores this ethical issue. Imagine that—a splatterfest that tries to make its audience think! Which is not to say this volume lacks adrenaline, though—there are plenty more thrills in store when Takashi and company pick up some firearms, and the threats range from a single madman at a gas station to an entire horde invading a neighborhood. The intense, detail-rich artwork captures each moment in sharp relief, from daredevil moves on a motorcycle to the precise mechanical parts of a gun. But most important, of course, is that every disturbing death is presented with no holds barred.

While this series does have its thoughtful moments, they are too far and few between, and in the end Highschool of the Dead is really all about boobs and blood. A softcore girl-on-girl bath scene in the middle of the volume clearly has nothing to do with deep thoughts about losing one's humanity, and even less to do with basic plot elements like how the kids will defend themselves and get back to their families. How convenient, too, that the girls decide there's not enough clean laundry left in the house to wear proper clothing. So go ahead and enjoy the cheesecake illustrations in this book, but don't try to act like it has any artistic merit. This volume has other problem too, like the clumsy transitions between Takashi and Rei and the rest of their group when they get separated; in trying to keep up with both plotlines, the story always seems to switch in the most awkward places. Speaking of awkward, Takashi's rescue of an abandoned little girl doesn't quite gel with the rest of the series—it feels more like a misplaced attempt at tenderness in what should otherwise be a hot-blooded action thriller.

Another powerful shot of undead-slaying action, but just like the first volume, it seems more intent on shallow thrills than being truly serious about the end of the world. So a C+ it is.

Vol. 3
(by Milan Matra, Yen Press, $11.99)

"With Yuuto's slayer powers having temporarily awakened in an attempt to save Himari from herself in battle, the clumsy young warrior also regains memories from his past ... of when he first met Himari! However, those present at the scene of the battle aren't the only ones who are interested in Yuuto's awakening. While Yuto's current spirit acquaintances are just keen on giving him some special intensive 'training' to 'awaken' him further, not all the parties interested in Yuuto are prepared to place nice! When another demon slayer storms into Yuuto's life claiming she's his fiancée and that she, not Himari, is the girl in his regained memories, Yuuto and Himari are thrust into a whirlwind that threatens to tear the two of them apart forever!"

Could it be ... Omamori Himari is actually starting to get a plot? What sorcery is this? Volume 3 sees the series developing some fresh wrinkles, including an expanding back-story, troublesome new characters, and a couple of scandalous kiss scenes. There's even character development and emotional sincerity in store, with Yuuto suddenly developing a sense of purpose as he becomes aware of his powers, and Himari starting to warm up to Yuuto's good intentions. Meanwhile, the emergence of rival demon slayer Kuesu Jinguuji affects the story on multiple levels: world-building kicks into high gear as the history of the different demon-slaying clans is revealed, while character dynamics are changed forever as Jinguuji establishes herself a volatile corner of a newly-formed love triangle. Of course, some fans are simply here for the eye candy, and they'll get their fill with Kuesu's ornate gothic-lolita outfits, as well as the immaculate kimonos that make up Himari's seemingly infinite wardrobe. Or maybe you prefer your teenage heroines unclothed ...

Unclothed teenage heroines is exactly what is wrong with the series. At least this volume gives readers a chance to bail out early, with a very unsettling first chapter where resident twelve-year-old (if even that) Shizuku rubs herself all over Yuuto to "heal" him. It's as if to say, "If you have good taste, GET OUT NOW!!" Those foolish enough to stick around, meanwhile, will see more of these crass distractions: the training chapter somehow becomes an exercise in rubbing breasts against Yuuto's face, then Kuesu and Himari engage in shameless tactics to win him over, and in the final chapter the other girls fight over who gets to kiss Yuuto next. So, despite all this talk of a developing storyline, it really is nothing more than adolescent male wish fulfilment. The clumsy way in which the back-story is presented doesn't do the series any favors either, with big ugly blocks of narration used to explain the story of the demon-slayer clans. Then again, with the artwork looking so stiff—and used mainly to show off photo-referenced cleavage and panty shots—maybe everything should be in text anyway.

Well, it gets points for actually starting to have a story, but when the main focus is still classless, low-level fanservice, it's a clear D all the way.

Vol. 5
(by Hiroyuki Asada, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Amberground is locked in darkness. A man-made star casts only a dim light over the land. The pitch-black wilderness is infested with Gaichuu—colossal insects with metal exoskeletons. The Gaichuu make travel between the cities of Amberground extremely dangerous. But thankfully the Letter Bees, a brave corps of messengers, risk their lives in order to keep the hearts of Amberground connected.
In the town of Honey Waters, Lag seeks out 'the Man Who Could Not Become Spirit,' who might have information on the missing Gauche Suede. Lag's disappointed to find out that he's a charlatan. However, the heart of this strange man in this strange little town yields a surprising clue. Lag might be closer than he ever imagined."

You like drama? Boy, does this volume of Tegami Bachi have drama. And not schmaltzy letter-delivering drama, but a truly serious turn of events—the part where Lag meets Gauche Suede after years apart. It's not easy to write a scene that carries the weight of the entire series with it, but Hiroyuki Asada pulls it off: the roiling emotions, Gauche's coldness in contrast to Lag's desperation, and the emptiness after realizing that time has changed them too much. And since the turning point of Lag's quest comes this early, it keeps the story from getting too stagnant, instead opening up the path to new plot twists. Lest things get too serious, however, the other highlight of this volume is more comedic and acrobatic: Lag's traveling companion Niche runs away in frustration, but fate leads them into a high-flying escapade where action, wit and warmth restore the bonds of friendship that hold them together. Asada's fantastical art also holds things together in its own way, with starry backgrounds, rugged townscapes, and retro-stylish characters. Throw on a sprinkling of magic and intense battle scenes, and this one will satisfy both your eyes, your mind, and your heart.

It's hard to imagine a manga where the fight scenes are the least effective part, but somehow, Tegami Bachi does it. The bloated Gaichuu battle that opens this volume—already a carryover from the previous installment—sprawls over two chapters because of all the flashbacks whenever Lag fires his magical gun that opens up people's memories. Yes, those memories are indeed important to the plot, like the inside scoop on "the Man Who Could Not Become Spirit" and the rebel organization known as Reverse, but when plot points emerge in the middle of an action scene, it just kills the pacing. Then again, maybe Lag and company's battle falls apart simply because there's too much going on and Asada's art style isn't precise enough to make things clear. Instead it's a mess of stars and speedlines that'll leave readers wondering whether our heroes hit their right target. Meanwhile, the final chapter where Lag reconciles with Niche is an ill-timed change of mood, trying too hard with comedy elements (that stupid underpants gag again) when the overall story is headed in a more serious direction.

It's not always perfectly executed, but the storyline continues to be intriguing, and the imaginative artwork adds enough flourish to earn a B.

Vol. 7
(by Kou Yaginuma, Vertical, $10.95)

"Asumi and her friends have been granted some well-deserved time off. As the gang begins to realize how close they have become over the past year, they decide together to head off to the home of two prime members of this now tight star-gazing circle: Yuigahama. Back in the home town of Asumi and Fuchuuya, the gang slowly gets to learn more about the Lion Disaster and the sad tale of the Kamokawas."

A double-size volume for the price of one? That's got to be the highlight of the latest Twin Spica for cost-conscious fans. And for those who prize quality over quantity, this one packs two major story elements that will grab your heart just as the rest of the series does. The first half of the book lays Marika's issues out in the open (just in case anyone missed the massive hints in previous volumes), with a depth and sensitivity that all but cements her as the most fascinating character in the story. Observant readers will also notice the parallels between earlier flashbacks and Marika's wanderings—a symbol of things coming full circle. The second half is more adventure-oriented, with its "jailbreak" training exercise for the young space cadets, but watching the kids' ingenuity in action and pulling off their own Shawshank Redemption is a moment not to be missed. (Don't miss the touching coda with Asumi in the last chapter, either.) The art is simple but effective, with eye-catching scenery that evokes the smells and sounds of the countryside, while during more abstract moments, the careful staging and black-and-white contrasts add to the sense of drama.

While the art of Twin Spica does have its moments, it also remains the biggest roadblock in helping the story reach its maximum potential. It's hard to read expressions in the characters' squishy faces and dot-button eyes, and the simplified anatomy puts limits on how well they can gesture. (It's hard enough trying to draw everyone in a full-out running pose, apparently.) Kou Yaginuma has also fallen too much in love with using double-page spreads for impact; while some of the plot points are indeed worthy of a dramatic visual pause, there are a few too many moments of "Marika staring off into the distance" that are just there to eat up space. The story itself also has some stumbling points, with subplots that are touched upon but fail to develop further—the meeting between Asumi's dad and a former colleague, for example, brings up an interesting flashback about their space-program days but doesn't have much value beyond ruminating on the past. Meanwhile, the occasional scenes with Asumi and her would-be-could-be boyfriend are cute, but such light romantic forays lack the depth of the rest of the series.

With a double dose of slice-of-sci-fi warmth and some moving displays of character, this part of Twin Spica gets a well-deserved A-.

Vol. 1
(by Takeshi Maekawa, Kodansha, ¥683)

"High-schooler Shinsuke Oda is the lone member of his school billiards club. When student council president Asako Hayakawa does a review of all the sports clubs, she decides that the billiards club no longer needs funding due to lack of activity. In a effort to save the club and its reputation (and maybe impress Asako), Shinsuke decides to enter a national billiards tournament—but the skills of his opponents are unlike anything else he's ever faced before."

This week in the field of "yeah, there's seriously a manga about everything": BILLIARDS. The first volume of Break Shot captures everything that makes sports manga great—and does it despite being about an indoor game that's about as strenuous as doing the dishes. All the visual conventions of the action genre come into play, with dense speedlines, exaggerated angles, and glowing "power-up" backgrounds that make the players seem almost superhuman. Once you see the shots they take, maybe you will believe they're superhuman—Shinsuke and his opponents' moves push the very limits of ball physics, with ricochets, spins, and airborne jump shots that are just as jaw-dropping as a Super Saiyan transformation or a fully-formed rasengan. Every chapter contains at least one shot that's just too incredible to believe ... and yet, that's what makes the series so much fun. The tension and release of seeing each player attempt the impossible—and then actually pull it off—sets off an incredible rush of adrenaline every time, proving that even a polite, sedentary game can be an action-packed experience (as long as someone's got ridiculous trick moves in store).

What makes a good sports manga doesn't always make a good manga overall, and Break Shot's dedication to the excitement of the game leaves a number of gaping holes elsewhere. Shinsuke's school life goes out the window after Chapter 1, as he enters the tournament so soon that there's no time to develop other aspects of his character like who his friends are or how well he does in class. Meanwhile, the small supporting cast that Shinsuke does have, like Asako and a few other schoolmates, are reduced to cheerleaders as he charges through the competition on a solo rampage. The series also leans too much toward the technical side—not that the explanations are difficult or anything, but the story gets so caught up in the mechanics of spinning balls and off-the-wall tricks that inanimate objects seem more important than the characters. That lack of humanity is also clear in the art, which is dominated by lifeless billiard-table diagrams and unimaginative character designs like Big Tough Guy and Skinny Kid With Glasses.

While there's plenty of excitement (and trick shots) on the surface, the lack of true storytelling substance causes this to fall well short of the great sports masterpieces.

The stroll down Tokyopop memory lane continues! Here's everyone's favorite guy, Eric P., discussing an action series that is better known for its companion anime, but stands perfectly well on its own as a manga.

Anyone else got a girls-with-guns series they like (or hate)? Send in your reviews and make your opinions heard!

Vols. 1-3
(by Minoru Murao, story concept by Gonzo, Tokyopop, $9.99 ea.)

The action-driven Burst Angel anime was a sci-fi styled spaghetti western set in near-future Tokyo, centered around a group of female bounty hunters. There is Jo, the human-weapon heroine, Meg, the constant damsel in distress, Amy, the loli computer wiz, Sei, the big sister leader, and also token-boy Kyo, the group's chief who only has a fraction of the girls' courage. The stories were often random and nonsensical, meant to be mindless albeit entertaining fun, while still surprisingly character-focused. This prequel manga documents the life of Jo and Meg from before they were recruited by Sei. It was a time when they had only each other's company as they lived on the wrong side of the law, traveling about and doing odd jobs while helping others along the way.

Just like the anime, in the manga we get to watch Jo's kickass gun action and the usual zombie/robot creatures that rise to threaten the heroines, but there are also its unique differences. The manga has its own token-boy, Takeru, an average bullied student who is like Kyo's alternative, showing what Kyo would have been like if the writers could only have made him grow stronger and braver at least by a smidge.

And then there is Jo and Meg's relationship. A deeper bond would have seemed implied between them in the anime at least in subtext, yet it came across as more of a light service where nothing came of it. But there is no denying their romantic feelings in the manga, especially with Meg's occasional intimate fantasies of her dream life with Jo. The yuri also adds more passionate depth to their partnership. When an evil corporation hunts down Jo for her superhuman powers with their evil warriors and armies, the manga's main driving plot, it is Meg who stands by Jo's side as her precious anchor, defining Jo as not a bioengineered monster but as a human with human feelings. Meg even proves a more useful partner in the manga as she and Jo fight together through the climactic battles.

For those that enjoyed the anime, there is nothing to not enjoy about this companion manga. It has its action, its funny moments, its surprisingly sweet moments, with really nice artwork from the manga-ka of Knights, and it all wraps up in its own conclusion that is arguably more satisfying than 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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