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New Moon Rising

by Carlo Santos,

It seems that the current wave of English-translated manga is leaning toward the past, with nostalgic big-name hits and hidden gems being discovered for the first time. But what about the wave of the future? Who is leading the way with currently-running series? Perhaps it's up to all you readers and fans, to point them out ... and, hint hint, maybe put down a few paragraphs for the Reader's Choice section?

(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $21.95)

"Begun in 1970 as baby boomers were graduating from college and entering the workforce in droves, The Book of Human Insects not only stands as one of comics master Osamu Tezuka's first satisfying thrillers for a post-teen audience but also as a prescient critique whose actuality only fully registers today.
Still in her early twenties, beautiful Toshiko Tomura (b. 1947) has won the Akutagawa Prize for her story 'the Book of Human Insects.' The great honor is not her first: she has previously won the New York Design Academy Award, before which she was the lead actress of an established theatrical troupe. Yet, while the media go abuzz, the woman in the limelight slips away from the metropolis; what the sole paparazzo who manages to trail her to an abandoned house in the country witnesses is an immobile figure of an old woman and the star herself, naked, in a reverie as bizarre as it is erotic..."

If the short-story doses of Black Jack have felt lacking lately, don't despair. Epic Tezuka is back! Or maybe you should despair, because Human Insects is easily as disturbing as last year's Ayako. Although shorter, the story is just as gripping—a tale of a predatory woman who fakes her way to success, then leads unsuspecting men to their deaths. Each chapter is a thrilling cat-and-mouse game: how will Toshiko get out of this one? How will she outsmart the men who think they have outsmarted her? As always, Tezuka builds long, winding plotlines and then brilliantly connects them to each other, creating a massive but memorable network of characters. This journey through the worlds of art, entertainment, crime, politics, and business also presents a deeper message about the dead ends and pitfalls of modern society. Tezuka's ambitions can also be seen in the art, where wild metaphors and images jump off the page. More realistic situations, like the bustle of the city, the grandeur of the countryside, are also drawn in rich, multi-layered detail. But action always comes first in the straightforward, flowing layouts, and the lack of comedic outtakes reveals the artist at his most serious.

Unfortunately, there are some things a seasoned artist just can't change, like Tezuka's very particular style of character design. Like all his serious works, Human Insects maintains a certain disconnect between the exaggerated characters and the realistic themes of the book. Toshiko's frequent nude scenes lose their sensuality due to the over-simplified lines, while the supporting male characters often look like they stepped out of a workplace-spoof gag strip (and a dated one, at that). But what the male characters do to the women may be the bigger problem; just like in Ayako, certain acts of violence and the male desire for domination over Toshiko may rub readers the wrong way. The overall story execution is has its faults as well: the third and longest chapter (out of four) is peppered with lots of business talk that can be a pain to sit through, despite it being central to the plot. There are also moments where the story drags aimlessly as Toshiko drifts in between major plot points, not having any particular goal.

It may not be as insanely long as some of the other "Dark Tezuka" masterpieces, but it is no less satisfying. This one packs enough twists—and twisted psychology—for a B+.

Vol. 37
(by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Wimpy Sena Kobayakawa has been running away from bullies all his life. But when the football gear comes on, things change—Sena's speed and uncanny ability to elude big bullies just might give him what it takes to become a great high school football hero!
In this action-packed final volume, Team USA and Team Japan face off in a bid of the title of best youth football team in the world. Rivalries within Team Japan are put aside as Hiruma and Agon execute a complicated formation. Can smart strategy overcome the sheer physical dominance of the American team? Seeing his teammates hurt, Sena bolts in and Team Japan seems set for victory. But in the final five minutes the game takes a surprising course as the earth-shattering rivalry between the two teams continues..."

With the visual pyrotechnics of the final Eyeshield 21, Yusuke Murata proves that he's still the king of character design. And sports action. And pacing. You name it, Murata does it: crafting distinct physical characteristics for almost two dozen players, drawing from angles that no real-life camera could achieve, and filling out the speedlines and dust clouds that make every play a highlight. Even more impressive is how Murata meets the standards of complexity set by Riichiro Inagaki—after all, Team Japan busts out all the trick plays for their final game, yet the artwork makes it perfectly clear what's going on, whether it's multiple quarterbacks, or a surprise interception, or a ridiculous defensive blitz. Just as thrilling as the game highlights are the individual stories and rivalries behind each player: even the star from a long-forgotten low-level team gets his chance to shine, and seeing past rivals bond together is pure sports storytelling at its finest. The fighting spirit of the American team also helps bring out the best in everyone, resulting in a high school matchup that—despite being somewhat unrealistic—evokes true feelings of joy in any fan's heart.

Actually, the last volume of Eyeshield 21 is more like sports schmaltz at its finest. A lot of familiar clichés show themselves here, like the star players who must challenge each other directly (Sena and Panther), the underdog who falls and gets up over and over again, and a final score that's all but a cop-out. So this is what the closing chapters consist of: a mishmash of subplots and predictable resolutions, with only the chronological progress of a football game tying everything together. Like who even needs a whole chapter of two strong guys grunting and pushing against each other? If that doesn't feel contrived enough, look at the game itself: it's already quite implausible that Japan should contend against America's best high school players, but with all the trick plays and near-magical turnabouts, this one reeeally pushes suspension of disbelief. The storyline also does a sloppy job of keeping track of the game—the score, time, and yardage seem to change at Inagaki's will, making it even less believable than it already is. (For sports manga with more realistic scorekeeping, try Cross Game or Slam Dunk.)

This one throws on plenty of fireworks and thrilling game moments, but the actual story feels rather canned. Still, it's strong enough to earn a B.

Vol. 26
(by Hiromu Arakawa, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In an alchemical ritual gone wrong, Edward Elric lost his arm and his leg, and his brother Alphonse became nothing but a soul in a suit of armor. Equipped with mechanical 'auto-mail' limbs, Edward becomes a state alchemist, seeking the one thing that can restore his and his brother's bodies ... the legendary Philosopher's Stone.
With all the pieces now in his possession, the homunculus 'father' executes his master plan as Edward and the others watch in horror. When the dust settles, the entire world has been reshaped. With the help of Hohenheim, the Elric brothers launch a desperate final attack, but is it all too late...?"

Volume 26 of Fullmetal Alchemist takes us to the very limits of Hiromu Arakawa's imagination: a world of shadowy limbs and creepy eyes, transmutation circles the size of an entire country, and hand-to-hand combat where the participants fight not just with their bodies but with their very souls. The artwork in this volume is so fantastical, so off-the-charts, that it's the kind of stuff you've never seen before—and will probably never see again. There's also the kind of art that is totally conventional, but executed at the highest level: Edward Elric dealing a finishing blow with his automail fist, or the bittersweet death of a once invincible rival. And behind all these visual fireworks, Arakawa still manages to pack an incredible wealth of story, from Hohenheim's carefully planned counterattack that he'd been working on for years, to explaining how the Eastern style of alchemy relates to the techniques more familiar to the main characters. Best of all, the messy plot threads from last volume have been cleaned up, making room for just this one climactic battle. Intensity is turned up to full blast, emotional highs and lows are achieved ... and there's still one volume left. Wow.

The trouble with tying up those loose plot threads and finishing up minor battles is that a lot of the series' addictive complexity is now lost. Sure, everyone loves a good alchemy throwdown, but fans also fell in love with the twists, the conspiracies, the secret motives ... and now they're all pretty much resolved. Hohenheim's counterattack is clever, but he pulls it out of his pocket like a cheap-and-easy fix, and Scar's role in explaining the secrets of the Purification Arts comes off as a dull science lecture. So the biggest plot revelations in this volume come clunking down awkwardly, leaving nothing but a big, long, noisy fight after all the mega-sized alchemy rituals have been attempted. Seriously, read through the second half and after a while the pages all start to look alike: combatants growling and throwing transmuted objects at each other, speedlines and electrical sparks flashing everywhere, and everyone yelling to summon up their power. Come on, the last thing I want to see in Fullmetal Alchemist's shining moment of glory is for it to turn into Dragon Ball Z.

This one leans a bit too much toward the bombastic action side, but can you really blame it when it's the final battle? Besides, Arakawa pulls it off so well that it's totally worth a B+.

Vol. 6
(by Kiiro Yumi, original concept by Hiro Arikawa , Viz Media, $9.99)

"In the near future, the federal government creates a committee to rid society of books it deems unsuitable. The libraries vow to protect their collections and, with the help of local governments, form a military group to defend themselves—the Library Forces!
It's Valentine's Day, and Iku's hopes are dashed when Dojo, the guy she's been crushing on—and who's her Library Force superior!—receives an elegant box of chocolates from another woman. Romantic intrigue strikes the whole team as Shibazaki meets a would-be suitor and confides in Iku about her tortured love life. And it seems that Hikaru is being followed by someone from his past..."

Does it seem so strange that the latest Library Wars is all about love? The series has always had workplace romance as a key element, but Volume 6 really goes in-depth with the characters's personal lives and their relationships. In particular, Iku's roommate Shibazaki finally enters the spotlight, being elevated to a character with real substance instead of just being, well, "Iku's roommate." Her troubled back-story and inner motivation are a surprising counterpoint to the slick image she projects on the surface—and that contrast leads to a fascinating tug-of-war when a totally honest, up-front guy tries to win her affections. Of course, leave it to another totally honest person—everyone's favorite heroine, Iku—to resolve the issue, teaching us once again the value of being true to yourself. This volume also gets in the usual quota of adorable Iku/Dojo moments, with attractive character designs and soft-toned backgrounds adding to the visual appeal of each heartwarming moment. A bit of child-rescuing, crime-fighting action in the later chapters also adds some energy to the story, keeping the pace from getting too languid.

All the stuff that's good about Library Wars ... does not happen in this volume. The usual debate about free speech is limited to just a handful of pages, in a messy publishing-industry subplot that never gets a decent resolution. And the supposed "action scenes" that add pep to this volume? They're nothing compared to the kidnapping that happened previously, or any of the Library-versus-MBC gunfights from back in the day—basically, any fight for freedom is fought around a boardroom table this time. Meanwhile, the romantic shenanigans going on are just pointless, gossipy drivel: Who wants to date Shibazaki? Who wants to date Officer Dojo? Isn't everyone an adult in the military who should be past this high school claptrap? Of course, the warning signs came right away with the painfully clichéd Valentine's Day chapter (Chocolate-giving woes! Misunderstood intentions!) and the following chapters only add to the silliness. Poorly executed layouts also make this a struggle to read: the panels may be big, but they lack any white space or margins to balance out the clutter, and the dialogue placement makes it hard to tell who's talking. Not that they were saying anything important anyway.

One of the most disappointing volumes yet. It places far too much weight on a single supporting character and her romantic ups and downs, resulting in a D overall.

Vol. 1
(by Naoko Takeuchi, Kodansha Comics, $11.99)

"Usagi Tsukino is a normal girl—until she meets up with Luna, a talking cat, who tells her that she is really Sailor Moon! As Sailor Moon, Usagi must fight evil and enforce justice in the name of the moon and the mysterious Moon Princess."

The One That Started It All may not be as stylish or clever as its descendants, but Naoko Takeuchi sure knew a thing or two about crafting a balanced story that would appeal to everyone. Even in Volume 1, Sailor Moon packs plenty of action: the titular heroine slices up villains, gets pulled into alternate dimensions, and protects international diplomacy, all before she even finishes assembling her team of guardians. Then there's that second layer of mystery—all this talk about a Moon Princess and a legendary crystal—that provides a deeper impetus for the story to move forward, instead of just the basic monster-of-the-week excuse. And of course, who can forget the characters? This volume introduces Moon, Mercury, Mars, and Jupiter, who each have distinct skills and appearances that complement each other; it's that interplay of personalities that surpasses the old solo-heroine formula. The artwork also has its charm, with rich, sparkling patterns in the background; however, Takeuchi also knows how to turn up the shadows and create some menacing effects when a villain lurks near. The constant activity on each page provides plenty of incentive to keep reading and see where this adventure is headed.

Sailor Moon gets off to a solid start, but is it really so amazing that it merits bookstore release parties all across America? Volume 1 is filled with logical gaps that younger readers must have been willing to overlook: the girls always get to the scene of the crime just in time, Tuxedo Mask always shows up wherever he needs to be, and (get ready to roll your eyes) transformation wands keep falling out of arcade game machines. You can wave your hands and say "Luna the magical cat did it!"—but that's just passing on responsibility to another nonsensical entity. The villains are equally campy, the way they keep attacking the good guys without thinking their plans through—if they're that wilfully stupid, then it's not that much of a challenge, is it? Even the way the back-story is set up feels like an empty façade: if everyone repeats the words "Legendary Silver Crystal" enough times, it'll suddenly become deep and meaningful! Add to that the insanely crowded page layouts and sometimes off-proportion faces, and this Sailor is clearly a bit lost at sea.

While building a superhero team and kicking some evil butt is exciting, it's also campy and illogical in ways that make it a B-.

Vol. 1
(by James Patterson, Gabrielle Charbonnet and Svetlana Chmakova, Yen Press, $12.99)

"Imagine waking up to find that the world around you—life as you know it—has changed in an instant. That's what happens to Whit Allgood and his sister, Wisty. They thought that they were just a couple of normal teenagers, until their rude awakening at the hands of a dozen armed police! Charged with being a wizard and a witch, accused of having incredible powers they never dreamed possible, the siblings find themselves the targets of an upstart political regime, the New Order, which has swept the country and vowed to wipe 'their kind' from existence. Now Whit and Wisty must fight for both their freedom and their lives as they unlock the powers burning inside of them!"

What was once a YA novel with very mixed reviews has become, in the hands of Svetlana Chmakova, an epic page-turner. As an artist, she transforms Patterson's wild ideas and furious pacing into a slick, tightly plotted thrill ride: chases, confrontations, narrow escapes, and all the magical pyrotechnics she learned to draw while working on Nightschool. If supernatural bursts of fire and smoky parallel dimensions are your thing, then this series is the place to be—every chapter reveals imaginative new twists, like an ever-expanding universe. However, this outpouring of enchanted eye candy would be meaningless without a plot to guide the characters, and that's where Patterson's concept comes in: the combination of a totalitarian takeover, a race to find one's parents, and a band of persecuted kids on the run provides the perfect recipe for nonstop suspense. Simply put, there are no boring scenes in Witch and Wizard, because every moment is packed with the anticipation of "What will happen to Whit and Wisty next?" Just step into that shocking first chapter and brace yourself for the irresistible momentum that follows.

While the nonstop excitement is certainly a good thing, Witch and Wizard also bears all the classic flaws of an "airport novel," moving along so quickly that it never takes time to develop the world of the series. Yes, it's cool that Whit and Wisty have magical powers that they inherited from their parents, but there's hardly any background on how they were raised. And it's riveting to see the rise of the New Order as they chase after the protagonists, but an explanation that basically says "the new government just took over one day" is pathetically shallow. Not surprisingly, any attempt at character development also comes off as weak and contrived. It's as if they just tossed all these fantasy-thriller elements together, and to hell with structure. The story even panders to its target audience with awful, preachy lines about how children are special snowflakes while adults are dumb and evil. The book has its artistic shortcomings as well, with too many screentones in a similar shade of gray, resulting in a look that can be monotonous at times.

It's not the most solid thing when it comes to story, but the exciting pace and Chmakova's smooth, action-packed artwork should make it plenty enjoyable nonetheless.

Publishers are all jumping on the omnibus bandwagon these days! But are they really doing their best to collect the titles that matter to fans? The ever-reliable Eric P. reviews a classic comedy series, and wonders if it should be immortalized in bumper-sized volumes before the old editions are lost to history forever.

(by Kosuke Fujishima, Dark Horse, $10.95-$12.95 ea.)

From Kosuke Fujishima, the creator of Oh My Goddess, You're Under Arrest is a series about the lives of policewomen partners, friends and roommates Miyuki and Natsumi and the people around them at the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Mostly about nothing, it is a very character-driven and -focused title where we follow their day-to-day personal lives both inside and outside of police work. In between the slice-of-life stories that lace the series, relaxing peace does not last for long before our heroines are called into action, including one story about saving the streets from being terrorized by an unmarked patrol car. So while the stories are often random, they are nevertheless entertaining.

Of course, newbies would not get quite as much that impression if the American-released manga was the first thing of You're Under Arrest one sampled. It is just a two-volume collection of selected stories from the last two volumes of the overall series, giving us something rather fragmented. The only major stories compiled by the couple volumes we have are those revolving around Nakajima (Miyuki's potential albeit shy love interest) and his father and step-mother, and Natsumi's battle against a crazy baseball-styled vigilante 'superhero' named Strike-Man.

We do not get an introduction chapter of how Miyuki and Natsumi meet, thus their characters/personalities are not established so much, and we are not given the time to connect with and care about them. None of the characters and their relationships with each other receive much establishment. The only way I'm able to paint a fuller picture than what is given is because I had watched the first (and wonderfully classic) anime series released by Animeigo. So anyone who jumps right into the manga without any prior knowledge may not be able to fully appreciate it, as well as be quick to pick up that police'woman' Futaba is a dude.

So the next best thing Dark Horse could do is release the manga series in full at some point in the future. While an otherwise different series, the artwork, characters and writing are just as distinctly charming as Oh My Goddess, so I don't see much real reason why Dark Horse should not try getting around to printing this also-classic manga in its mere 7-volume entirety, even if omnibuses is what it takes.

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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