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A Certain Motorcycling Duelist

by Carlo Santos,

By the time you read this paragraph, Anime Expo 2011 will be over. For those that went, did you have fun? What was your favorite moment at the con? Or do you just want me to shut up and get to the point with some manga reviews? Yeah, that last one sounds like a good idea.

Vol. 1
(by Kazuma Kamachi and Motoi Fuyukawa, Seven Seas, $10.99)

"Welcome to a world where mysticism and science collide, and supernatural powers are derived from either science or religion. At the heart of this world is Academy City, an advanced metropolis whose population is comprised mostly of students. The majority of students are enrolled in the city's 'Power Curriculum Program,' where they must learn to master their latent psychic powers. Out of several million students, only seven are deemed powerful enough to have Level 5 status.
Meet Mikoto Misaka, the third most powerful Level 5 ESPer in Academy City. Together with her best friend Kuroko Shirai and the other members of Judgment, a student-run law enforcement agency, Mikoto delves deep into the dark heart of the scientific sprawl she calls home, and uncovers secrets she wishes she hadn't!"

In a world where everyone's got powers, what do you do to make the protagonist stand out? Give her better powers than everyone else. Then draw insane, effects-laden double-page spreads every time she uses them. But Misaka's lightning blasts aren't the only highlight in this series: all the action sequences, electrical or otherwise, are a delight for the eyes. With so many techniques in play, from teleportation to pyrokinetics to even power-canceling (hi, guy from Magical Index!), no two fight scenes are ever alike. Still, action is nothing without a story to drive it, and the serial bomber storyline in this volume provides a intriguing mystery that will keep readers hooked. Having that crime spree connect to the next storyline—a search for a rumored, illicit "Level Upper" device—also paves the way for even more world-building. Yet even as the plot expands, the core of school-aged characters (each with distinct, memorable looks) keeps the series down-to-earth, from Kuroko's cute yuri affections to the spirited rivalry between Misaka and "Level 0" Touma. After all, what good are superpowers without interesting personalities to wield them?

Apparently the first volume of Railgun is so fixated on establishing these "interesting personalities" that it forgets to get a story going until almost halfway. The early chapters are all about Misaka and friends goofing off and apprehending petty offenders, which is fine if you enjoy crime-fighting, skirt-flipping schoolgirl camaraderie, but lacks any real plot advancement. Then, even when the serial bomber case does come into play, it's less about purposeful mystery-solving and more about the students coveniently being in the right place at the right time. That's not a well-directed story; that's just assorted events strung together with a cool explosion at the end. It's not just the storyline that seems bland and directionless, either—much of the artwork outside of the big action scenes is a disappointment, with plain backgrounds and unimaginative layouts making Misaka's everyday life look like a complete bore. How many times are we going to have to witness the same old "strolling down the street with classmates" scene? Saving up the good art for just the fight scenes makes the overall results look half-hearted at best.

No complaint about the explosive, psychic-powered action here. But the story drifts off too much into generic school-life antics, resulting in C+ material.

Vol. 1
(by Yu Kinutani, concept by Shirow Masamune and Production I.G, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"When a high-ranking government official is kidnapped, the Prime Minister must call in his top crime fighting force known as Section 9. Led by the beautiful (and deadly) Major Kusanagi, the cybernetically enhanced squad must use all their skill to take down the kidnappers and rescue the hostages. But that's only half of the mission; can Kusanagi and the company find out who's behind the kidnapping, and more importantly, just what they're after?"

It's been a while since the original run of Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, but you never realize how much you miss it until discovering spinoffs like this one. Kinutani's adaptation is vintage GitS, an engrossing whodunit that can exist only in Shirow Masamune's futuristic universe. But even amidst this heady plot involving artificial brains, remote-hacking into robots, and digital espionage, there's still the visceral thrill that only the physical world can provide: car chases, gunplay, and those oh-so-cool optical camouflage suits. The pacing is particularly impressive through the first several chapters, going breathlessly from one set-piece to the next as the Major and friends try to stop an international hostage incident. But those who follow the series for its intellectual aspects will enjoy the second half the most, as the mind-bending details behind the case are unraveled and Togusa—the one non-cyborg in the group—makes a deduction that will make all fleshy, non-cybernetic humans proud. Faithful character designs, detailed lines, and plenty of shading give this world a realistic edge, while cleanly laid-out panels allow the eye to zip through the action. Just like it's meant to be.

While Masamune's original Ghost in the Shell is bogged down by deep, rambling technobabble, this version swings too far in the other direction, reducing the series to a sci-fi shooter with super gadgets. Consider the entire first half of this volume—it might as well be part of any typical special-agent task force adventure, where the characters go around running and driving and shooting and infiltrating things. Where's the cerebral element, the part of the series that makes us think about where modern technology is headed? Yes, it does show up eventually with all that fancy cyberbrain business, but in the end it's just a plot device that solves the mystery rather than a genuine piece of philosophy. The characters are also treated in a shallow manner, with Kusanagi as a gun-toting, butt-kicking action girl and the rest of Section 9 as her sidekicks. Even Togusa gets barely two pages to mull over his humanity before running off and solving crimes. The artwork can also feel superficial at times—the characters look right, and everything's really polished, yet there's no real sense of energy and motion underneath.

Even if it is just a shallow interpretation of the original, the overall result is still a satisfying read. It's a B grade for this action series that makes you think.

Vol. 3
(by Kaori Yuki, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Lucille loves heading up the traveling Grand Orchestra, roving from town to town entertaining the masses and making money. But now the musicians have met their toughest audience: people infected with the Guignol virus, turning them into zombie dolls intent on killing all humans!
Lucille and company visit the residence of Duke Rhodonite—a member of the opposition to the queen—in search of information about the new type of Guignols they discovered at the Vienne Abbey. When the Duke holds a party to announce his betrothal, Lucille is captured through a nefarious plot!"

No one loves laying on nasty surprises quite like Kaori Yuki. Even though this volume only picks up the closing moments of the Vienne Abbey arc, that chapter alone dishes out a number of revelations that alter the whole direction of the series. (Perhaps from now on we'll all be more careful about orders of monastic nuns who get involved in zombie conspiracies.) Meanwhile, the Duke Rhodonite storyline that encompasses the remaining hundred-plus pages is a great exercise in how to employ wicked plot twists. It starts with a surprise character emerging from Lucille's past, then goes on to disturbing cult rituals, a dramatic betrayal, character back-stories too gruesome to describe ... and then one more turnabout that will leave just about everyone's head spinning as to where the characters' allegiances lie. Keep 'em guessing, that's the secret! Yuki also weaves some also intense action scenes into this one, proving that Gothic period pieces (ah, such incredible costumes and architecture, all shaded and toned to perfection) can be capable of enough excitement to suit modern sensibilities. In addition, there's always enough spacing in and around the panels to keep the visuals clear.

All these nasty surprises must have addled Kaori Yuki's brain, because if there's one lasting impression of Grand Guignol Orchestra, it's how the storyline in this volume jolts about in the most confusing way possible. Sometimes it's big, obvious problems, like popping in and out of flashbacks without clear indication, or a scenario that moves from one room to another but all the backgrounds still look the same. Sometimes it's logical loopholes, like in the latter stages of the Duke Rhodonite escapade, where characters who went off in one direction suddenly re-emerge in a new scene and you have no idea how they got there. It's as if Kaori Yuki is just churning out a gallery of pretty pictures, with none of them actually showing what's going on. Often times the dialogue also gets aboard the Poor Storytelling bandwagon, with the characters uttering lines to each other that may be vague references to what's going on at that moment ... or something they just discovered ... or something that happened a month ago. Who knows?! Heck, the entire abbey finale looks like people dramatically yelling at each other. Shouldn't a story, at some point, make sense?

Well, the Grand Nonsense Orchestra may be full of pretty people and dramatic revelations, but with such confounding storytelling, it's a C- mess.

Vol. 5
(by Akihisa Ikeda, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Average human teenage boy Tsukune accidentally enrolls at a boarding school for monsters—no, not jocks and popular kids, but bona fide werewolves, witches, and unnameables out of his wildest nightmares! And now he's a sophomore!
On the plus side, all the girls have a monster crush on him. On the negative side, all the boys are so jealous they want to kill him! And so do the girls he spurns because he only has eyes for one of them—the far-from-average vampire Moka.
Siren Song
When your ears are assaulted by the song of a siren...
a. Press shuffle
b. Tie yourself to a mast
c. Have a sing-off"

What's with Rosario+Vampire coming up with storylines that are way better than they deserve to be? Volume 5 puts aside the fanservice for a few chapters (barring a brief, eye-pleasing swimsuit interlude) and turns out one of the more memorable arcs in the series. Sure, everyone knows that the central monster is a siren, but the story leads up to it subtly, with hints like a girl who refuses to speak and a villain with a deadly MP3—certainly a craftier approach than just shoving the monster of the week out there. The story-behind-the-story is also what makes this one so touching, with an adoptive mother-daughter relationship being the tearjerker element that gives Tsukune and company a genuine reason to fight (rather than just "beat the bad guy"). Of course, the battle itself is an impressive one, with intricately drawn monsters and special effects; it's never easy conveying the power of sound and song in a visual medium, but the elegant poses and dramatic staging do the job nicely. On top of it all, Ikeda even ties in the subplot about the organization that's out to get Tsukune's friends. This storyline does it all, and does it well.

Despite the well-crafted story, this volume still suffers from Rosario+Vampire's usual weaknesses. Most noticeable are the stiff, dead-eyed character designs, where photo-referenced gestures serve as a substitute for a true sense of motion. This is why the fight scenes, impressive as they may be, always look more like statically posed dioramas than a genuine slice of cinematic action. At the same time, the most profitable aspect of the series—drawings of hot girls—causes the storyline to sag in the middle, with Tsukune's lady friends getting caught up in a bit of seaside frolic that distracts from the darker (and, let's face it, more compelling) aspects of the plot. That's not the only thing that distracts from the plot, though: the presence of side character Gin and his beef with the sinister "Fairy Tale" organization ends up feeling like an unrelated sideshow, even though Fairy Tale is a key player in setting the story in motion. See, Gin's final fight with the organization takes place miles away from the main characters—a completely detached experience that fails to connect to the big finale.

Sure, Ikeda could stand to add more life to his art and not worry so much about getting the fanservice in. But the story he comes up with this time around really does touch the heart, earning this volume a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Masahiro Hikokubo and Masashi Sato, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In New Domino City, the hottest game in town is the Turbo Duel, fought from blazingly fast motorcycles called Duel Runners. On the outskirts of New Domino City, in a district known as Satellite, a new Turbo Duel hero emerges—Yusei Fudo! On his custom-built Duel Runner, Yusei takes on all challengers, fighting for his friends and the future of Satellite!
A high-speed Turbo Duel through the streets of Satellite brings Yusei Fudo and his friend Sect face-to-face with an urban legend incarnate! Will Yusei lose Sect to the Skeleton Knight? And what sinister plans does Jack Atlas, master of New Domino City, have in store for Yusei?"

The trouble with illustrating collectible card games on the manga page has always been that the guys are just standing there, yelling card names at each other. 5D's fixes that in one brilliant stroke by adding the element of speed. Even those whose eyes glaze over at the mention of attack numbers and power levels will feel the adrenaline rush of motorcycles speeding toward victory. But as with all Yu-Gi-Oh! titles, readers who appreciate the element of card-dueling strategy will get the most out of this. Surprise comebacks, high-damage attacks, and monsters summoning on top of other monsters make every battle a complex affair—and this is still just the first volume. Yusei's opponents also stand out from one another with their specially themed decks, with insects, flowers, and even the undead giving each duelist a unique personality. This creative outpouring also spills into the artwork, where impressively drawn creatures take center stage, while intense speedlines fill every background with the thrill of battle.

So. The infamous "card games on motorbikes" version of Yu-Gi-Oh! now has a manga as well. It's hard to think of anything more nonsensical than this—but even if you can wrap your head around the ridiculousness of summoning magical card-beasts while riding a very fast, very dangerous vehicle, the story execution in 5D's is still well below par. It jumps right into the action without telling us why the card-dueling game has also evolved into a road race. Yusei is introduced with no back-story at all to fill out his character, while the other characters are even more poorly developed: it's always "I'm the sidekick!" or "I'm the villain!" or "I'm the token girl!" and then they jump right into duel mode. The duels, of course, make for terrible storytelling, with number-crunching and detailed card descriptions bogging down the action. And sticking speedlines behind everyone just because they're riding motorbikes only makes the art look messy and monotonous, as if Masashi Sato only knew how to use one kind of special effect. Ultimately, the illusion of speed is exactly that—just an illusion, while all the card-game mumbo-jumbo makes this series slow and stupid.

This inexplicable spinoff is exactly as bad as one might imagine it to be. The only entertainment value to be had is from the strategic elements of the card game, while everything else nets a D-.

Vol. 1: Will Supervillains Be On the Final?
(by Naomi Novik and Yishan Li, Del Rey, $10.99)

"As universities go, Liberty Vocational is the private college of choice for budding superheroes learning to master their extraordinary powers for the good of human kind. But for sixteen-year-old Leah Taymore, just making her way through classes without incident is shaping up to be a superhuman task. Starstruck by legendary ex-hero turned student advisor, Calvin Washington, petrified by ultrastrict dean Dr. Santos, and tongue-tied over her supercool (and handsome) classmate Paul Lyman, timid Leah fears that even her ability to manipulate atoms won't be enough to survive the rigors of L.V.—and become a full-fledged defender of all that is right. But the real test of her mettle is yet to come, in the form of infamous supervillain Bane, who has infiltrated Liberty with a sinister plan to bring down the best and brightest heroes of tomorrow before they even take flight."

Obviously, this isn't the first time the "school of superheroes" concept has been done. But what Liberty Vocational's first volume gets right is the human element, focusing on character relationships rather than bang-bang power battles. Seeing Leah completely bungle her first day of school with slapstick disasters, while desperately trying to make friends, makes her more relatable than if she were some anonymous everygirl who suddenly had world-saving powers handed to her on Day 1. (Which, of course, is the plot of every other psychic/super/magic-themed series.) Even when Leah does begin her superpower training, that's just a side attraction to the series' real focus—building self-confidence, strengthening the bonds of friendship, and yes, crushing on that one cute guy. Adding to the story's accessibility are the attractive character designs, drawn in Yishan Li's precise, consistent style. That artistic precision also helps in keeping the panels clean and easy to follow, which becomes important when some serious save-the-day action crops up in the last several pages. Even when our heroine has to go all superhuman on us, though, it's those regular-human feelings that make this story connect.

Remember when Del Rey tried the "school of superheroes" thing with X-Men crossovers, then canceled everything after one volume? So yes, forgive me if I'm a little wary. Novik and Li's effort is admirable but too much by the book, right down to irritating sprinklings of youth slang. (Okay, you know how to use the phrase "Epic Fail," now STOP.) But linguistic quirks are nothing compared to the story's big whopping genre clichés: the cool mysterious hot guy, the friend who's secretly in on a villainous plot, the teacher who's kind of attractive for an older guy, the retired hero with a troubled past ... the list goes on. Even Leah, likable as she is, starts to wear on a bit with the self-effacing "oh why am I such a typical teenager" stuff. Honestly, Svetlana Chmakova did this better and funnier with her heroine in Dramacon. Li's art is also too cookie-cutter, with stiff poses, plain-looking backgrounds, and action scenes that they fail to convey any sense of action. Instead it's just copy-and-paste manga-style art—which is what the subgenre has been trying to get away from for so many years now.

For those who like a superhero story with heart, it's enjoyable enough, although borrows a bit too much from other school-themed series. But if the sales tank on this one, will there ever be a Volume 2...?

In real life, American football is currently bogged down by labor issues. But in manga, American football can be enjoyed any time of the year! This week Cindi Khieu reviews a series that is among one of the best in the sports genre.

(by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata, Viz Media, $7.99-$9.99 ea.)

Sena Kobayakawa has spent his entire life both literally and figuratively dodging confrontation. Unfortunately, this talent has only served to make him the ideal target for bullies, who use him as their errand boy. However, when the scariest of all bullies, Hiruma, notices his unusual run, it's discovered that his dashing abilities have an even better use: in American Football. So with some rather forceful persuasion from Hiruma, Sena becomes the running back of the Deimon Devilbats, Eyeshield 21!

When reading the description for Eyeshield 21 it'd be easy to assume it's your typical sports story; heck, with a few name changes it could sound like the synopsis for the next Hollywood summer hit. Premise-wise, this is fairly true. However, a far more telling description of the series would be "It's to sports manga what Gurren Lagann is to mecha." In other words, it's over-the-top and proud of it.

From the character designs, to the settings, to the confrontations, the series never quite takes itself seriously and is far more entertaining for doing so. Take for example, one of their greatest antagonists, Agon. Meant to embody every bad stereotype about jocks, his actions are terrible and yet it's really hard to take him seriously when he spouts lines like "What are you? A bunch of homos with a fat guy fetish?" That's not even mentioning his teammate Ikkyu, a shoutout to Vegeta, if Vegeta were an awkward, girl-crazy teenager with a giant mole.

However, just because the series is unabashedly goofy doesn't mean it isn't action-packed. On the contrary, no matter how goofy the characters may be, it's hard not to get excited when a character succeeds or empathize when someone fails. Much of this can be credited to Yusuke Murata, whose art alone makes the series worth checking out. The character designs are cartoony but distinctive, each character having a distinctive body type and face, a must when most of them spend the 75% of the story wearing uniforms and helmets. In fact, the equipment is probably the most well-drawn part of the story, with every stitch on a glove, lace on a football, or even spike on a cleat drawn with loving detail. On top of that, Murata's flair for dynamic action scenes never ceases to impress me.

However, while the characters are fun and the art is some of the best you'll ever see in a sports manga, the series is still not without its faults. The characters aren't especially deep, even by Shonen Jump standards, and no amount of self-aware humor changes the fact that the series is still quite formulaic. The ending for the series was also quite rushed, you get the feeling that Inagaki was forced to cut out a lot of potentially interesting games and characters as the manga's popularity waned. Nonetheless, if you're looking for a manga with pure entertainment value, Eyeshield 21 is a great choice.

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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