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Afterschool Bride

by Carlo Santos,

Ah, New York Comic-Con, a place for blockbuster announcements in case San Diego wasn't blockbuster-y enough! There's a lot to talk about—I'm very happy for what Yen Press is doing with all their new licenses and releases, and Viz's big move with Shonen Jump going digital is either the Great Leap Forward or the Great Leap Off A Cliff depending on your outlook on the industry. But amidst all the changes, I am just going to sit here patiently with my Android tablet and wait.

That's right, with my Android tablet. (Hint hint.)

Vol. 4
(by Kumiko Suekane, Viz Media, $12.99)

"The year is 2XXX, and at St. Kleio Academy, a school for the clones of famous historical figures, Shiro Kamiya is the only non-clone. While Marie Curie, Mozart, Joan of Arc and the other clones struggle to live their lives in the shadows of their originals, sometimes seeking solace in a little sheep totem called 'the Almighty Dolly,' Shiro grapples with how different he is from his classmates.
Meanwhile, the students prepare for an Academic Exposition in which visitors from the outside society will gather to witness the clones' achievements. But in the midst of Rasputin's presentation, a bomb goes off in the auditorium. Pandemonium ensues as the students scramble to escape, pursued by a group of terrorists made up of St. Kleio alumni! The attackers are also clones, and of the same historical figures!"

The only thing better than the violent cliffhanger at the end of Afterschool Charisma Volume 3 ... is seeing the consequences play out in Volume 4. It's not just the guns, explosions, and immolation that'll get your heart racing, but also the shocking plot points that are revealed. The single most powerful twist is discovering that "clone-less" Shiro is, in fact, a deeper part of the clone conspiracy than he could ever have imagined. Meanwhile, the terrorists reveal some nasty secrets about St. Kleio Academy—and ignite a firestorm of debate among the current students about destiny versus free will. Of course, the clone kids had already argued about it before, but when life and death are on the line, it makes it that much more exciting, doesn't it? Some key character developments also loom around the corner, with the likes of Mozart and Hitler altering their personal philosophy after the attack. But amidst all this chaos, Suekane's art remains slick and fast-paced, with sure-handed linework and neatly laid-out panels driving the action forward. The frequent character close-ups—often with troubled expressions on their faces—also remind us of the deeply human factor in this ideological thriller.

So, at what point does "lots of character close-ups to bring out emotion" cross the line into "too many talking heads"? Because even the most action-oriented scenes, like a confrontation at gunpoint or a burning at the stake, end up focusing on angry face-to-face conversations. It's almost as if Kimiko Suekane wants to avoid drawing action scenes at all costs (despite being pretty good at it) and would rather tout her lovingly designed cast of characters. And that's not the only artistic blind spot in this series: once again backgrounds are considered an optional element, as we are guided through the school director's sparsely decorated office, Napoleon's sparsely decorated hospital room, and Mozart's sparsely decorated piano studio, among other places. Philosophically-minded readers may also be disappointed to see the destiny-versus-free-will argument still going around in circles, despite the upgrade to life-or-death stakes. Somehow, every chapter boils down to someone wailing "I am resigned to the fate of my original!" versus a rebuttal of "No, I must live my own life!" ... which is all very thought-provoking, but isn't it time they started thinking of something else?

I'll accept a few artistic flaws in exchange for a thought-provoking concept that continues to improve. It's a decent B for these "clone wars."

Vol. 2
(by Kaoru Mori, Yen Press, $16.99)

"Acclaimed creator Kaoru Mori's tale of life on the ninteenth-century Silk Road continues as the young bride, Amir Halgal, struggles to remain with her new groom despite the wishes of her family, who would see her wed another. Will Amir be able to preserve the bonds she has cultivated in her new home?
Crafted in painstaking detail, Ms. Mori's pen breathes life into the scenery and architecture of the period in this heart-warming, slice-of-life tale that is at once both wholly exotic, yet familiar and accessible through the everyday lives of the characters she has created."

With Volume 2, A Bride's Story becomes truly worthy of its hype and hardcover binding. This installment has something for everyone: hot-blooded battle, historical drama and clan politics, a touch of romance, and even some documentary aspects. That's right—if you want a bit of art history and anthropology, just turn to the "Cloth Preparations" chapter and be blown away by the embroidered patterns carefully hand-drawn by Mori. These intricate stitches happen to represent a genuine family tradition, a fact that is spelled out through a charming stand-alone story. But let's say you prefer your manga to have action and purpose—then read the chapters where Amir's brothers show up to retrieve her, only to find furious townsfolk and a massacre on the streets awaiting them. If anyone thought Mori only knew how to draw Victorian maids and cultural artifacts ... surprise surprise, she can do medieval-style battle scenes with the best of them, complete with horseback acrobatics, deadly blades. and arrows flying through the air. And don't forget the poignant subplot surrounding the visiting Englishman Mr. Smith: even comic relief characters turn out to have a purpose in this well-rounded, perfectly crafted series.

With so many great characters getting in on the action, one thing remains glaringly missing: Amir. The titular bride spends most of her time being a goody-goody Pollyanna (like in the insufferable first chapter), or being a bystander who lets more interesting characters steal the show. The best parts of this volume—the town battle and the embroidery story—basically shove Amir off to the side, and she does nothing to try to win the spotlight back. Even when she does get a key role, like in the chapter right after the battle, her behavior remains unforgivably dull. Amir's weak presence also means that, instead of there being a central character to tie everything together, the progression from chapter to chapter feels more like a drifting collection of vignettes. This may be okay for those who like their slices of life wrapped individually, but it does mean that Bride's Story doesn't have very much of a bride ... or a story.

That entire second paragraph just sounded like feeble excuses not to read it. So stop stalling and enjoy this A- masterpiece already!

Vol. 2
(by Kazuma Kamachi and Motoi Fuyukawa, Seven Seas, $11.99)

"Mikoto Misaka, the third most powerful Level 5 ESPer in Academy City, has stumbled upon a secret. Along with her best friend Shirai and other members of the student-run law enforcement agency known as Judgment, Misaka has discovered the existence of 'Level Upper'—a mysterious tool that grants or enhances psychic abilities. Now Misaki and her friends must figured out who's behind Level Upper and how to defuse it before it claims even more unsuspecting victims!"

Fans of coherent storytelling will be happy to hear that Railgun's second volume surpasses the first, taking the "Level Upper" storyline all the way from its developing stages to a stunning climax. The path to the big boss isn't just a straight line, either—there's a surprise twist as to who created the Level Upper, with some misdirection early on to throw readers off the trail. The other clever surprise is finding out just what the Level Upper actually does. In addition to these plot twists and problem-solving, there's also the action—psychic-powered battles that are almost like puzzles in themselves. If a teleporter, who can physically be in any location, meets an illusionist who can appear to be any location, who wins? Or how can a Level 5 ESPer beat someone who's cheated the laws of psychic powers—whoops, that'd be a spoiler! Sharp angles and speedlines bring these psychic battles to life on the page, and scenes of citywide collateral damage in the final chapter make it even more epic. But the linework is still simple enough in style to keep things moving at a brisk pace, and believe me, things are really speeding up.

The storytelling may be more coherent, but it certainly isn't any deeper as far as characters and emotional impact. Instead, this volume is all about the mechanics of ESP abilities, which might be fun for those who like the science and world-building side of the series, but ultimately it lacks heart. Any attempts at depicting friendships fall flat, either because the storyline keeps trying to force a minor character upon the readers (who is this girl again and why are we supposed to care about her?) or because the main characters are so busy fighting that they never get a chance to interact in a meaningful way. Basically, you get a high school ensemble action series ... without the high school ensemble part. In fact, the visuals don't even do that great a job of depicting high school or day-to-day life—the lazy backgrounds and hastily drawn props (check out the horrid police blockade in the final chapter) make the world of Academy City too flat and unconvincing. Maybe fans of the novels and anime are supposed to fill in the gaps—but then that just makes the manga a shallow, peripheral product.

It throws up some impressive action scenes and clever plot twist or two, but fundamental areas like characterization and background art are too weak to make this any better than a C.

Vol. 7
(by Yoshinori Natsume, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Mikito Sakurai is tired of being a punching bag for all the delinquents on campus, but what can he do? By nature he's a gentle and easygoing high school student. That all changes the night he swallows a mysterious orb and meets Zakuro, a strange kid who promises to grant his most heartfelt desire. 'When you wake up,' says the pint-sized apparition, 'you'll be stronger and better than a human.'
Those who would destroy mankind, and those who would protect it—Mikito and Zakuro's struggle approaches the final act, and the fate of the human race hangs in the balance! When the last of the seals is destroyed, which path will Zakuro choose? The saga of love, friendship and growth reaches its final chapter!"

For a series about the dark side of humanity (and darker forces conspiring to destroy us), Kurozakuro can be surprisingly uplifting as well—and it is that uplift that ends the series on a triumphant, satisfying note. This is not just a finale about defeating evil, but about believing in humanity's good side and fighting for loved ones—all the classic concepts of heroism, as demonstrated by Mikito's actions. If anyone was worried that the series had too many loose plot points lying about, this ending wraps them up neatly: it connects all the way back to the original premise ("Fill up this tree with flowers!", said Zakuro), and resolves other conflicts involving Ogres, Hunters, and Higher Beings along the way. Yoshinori Natsume also saves some of his most dramatic artwork for the finale, including Zakuro revealing his true form and Mikito declaring his ultimate wish. The fight scenes leading up to the climax also come alive with energy: dozens of lines slash across the page, and massive weapons collide with fearsome beasts. Yet after all this frightening and surreal imagery, the series' final message remains a joyful, positive outlook for the future.

Sometimes you can just tell when a manga editor might have called and said it was time to wrap things up. Kurozakuro finishes neatly, but a little too abruptly. After all that wandering in the woods, suddenly Mikito and Zakuro have all the tools needed to complete their final quest? And a super-sword that can finish off Higher Beings conveniently falls into the Hunters' hands? And now the Higher Beings decide it's time to deliver the final verdict on humanity? This isn't quite Deus Ex Machina, but it's like being given separate components to build a miraculous god-out-of-a-machine. And because things end this way, the big fight in the first half of the volume feels like a pointless, churning waste of space—people just throwing things at each other until the main combatants show up. That might also explains why the visuals lack variety: sure the linework is impressive and power-packed, but it's just scene after scene of people charging at each other with speedlines in the background. The end of the journey may be satisfying, but some of those last few steps in getting there aren't much fun.

Even with a bit of miraculous hand-waving in the plot, this ending still feels logical and complete enough to pick up a B-.

Vol. 7
(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 thankfull the Letter Bees, a brave corps of messengers, risk their lives in order to keep the hearts of Amberground connected.
Lag has discovered that his long-lost hero Gauche Suede lost all of his heart, became tangled up in an anti-government organization called 'Reverse,' and is now known as 'Marauder Noir.' Noir's trail leads Lag and Niche to the icy northern town Blue Notes Blues. It just so happens Niche was born here. Lag and Niche uncover her mysterious origins: a sacred underground lake ... where her brethren still dwell."

If this is Hiroyuki Asada's way of showing off how good he is with a pen, it's working. Lag's stopover in the frozen north is the artistic pinnacle of Tegami Bachi so far—breathtaking unexplored realms, fight scenes that push the limits of imagination, and style-shifting flashbacks. And it all starts with one pivotal story development: Lag and Niche encounter another Maka, the mythical creature that Niche (and her amazing shape-shifting hair) is descended from. If you thought Letter Bees fighting Gaichuu in the wilderness was intense, this goes well beyond that: Niche and her adversary improvise elaborate weapons on the spot, perform death-defying acrobatics, and evoke supernatural powers that are equal parts sparkle and kaboom. Asada's art is truly a style unto itself, with sharp angles, bold lines, and strong black-and-white contrasts that really come out in each fight. Yet the depth of the story shines as well: the history of the town, Niche's mysterious origins, and her relationship with Lag all connect to each other to tell a satisfying tale. At last, the comical yet powerful sidekick has a new dimension that makes her feel more human ... even if she isn't really one.

Learning more about a key character isn't a bad thing. What is bad, however, is when it interferes with the development of the main story. The part where Lag and friends are trying to figure out Gauche Suede's motives is limited to about 2 pages in the front and 20 in the back, and the results are so disjointed that they don't help to advance the story at all. This volume basically states that Letter Bee mail theft is becoming a serious problem ... which is exactly what we knew one volume ago. Maybe the super Maka showdown could've been a little less epic, to make room for things that would affect the main plotline. In addition, that whole multi-chapter fight—impressive as it is—brings out the most self-indulgent aspects of Asada's art. An avoidance of screentones leads to scenes that are almost all white save for some inky scratches, or linework so busy that it's hard to tell where one attack stops and another one starts. Some of the full-page spreads are also excessive, perhaps trying to take up space for lack of a story to tell.

Sometimes a major discovery and a big, whopping fight scene can be so impressive that you don't care how much or how little it added to the story. You just sit there and give it a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Orson Scott Card, Emily Janice Card and Honoel A. Ibardolaza, Seven Seas, $10.99)

"Twenty-five years ago, the alien Givers came to Earth. They gave the human race the greatest technology ever seen—four giant towers, known as Ladders, that rise 36,000 miles into space and culminate in space stations that power the entire Earth. Then, for reasons unknown, the Givers disappeared. Because of the unique alien construction of the Laddertop stations, highly skilled children must perform the maintenance necessary to keep the power flowing.
On Earth, competition is fierce to enter Laddertop Academy—an honor few will achieve. Robbi and Azure, two eleven-year-old girls who are best friends, are promising candidates. They become entangled in a dangerous mystery that may solve the riddle of the Givers ... if it doesn't destroy the Earth first!"

This week, in Totally Misleading Book Covers: "Superhero children in space!" No, my friends, Laddertop is more forward-thinking than that: it's a trippy sci-fi saga that showcases the breadth of Orson Scott Card's imagination, while still having a likable, down-to-earth cast of characters. The premise is familiar enough—ordinary kids striving to succeed in a technologically advanced world—but old clichés like piloting giant robots or fighting against authoritarian warmongers are nowhere to be found. Instead, this basic idea blossoms into a world of wonder and mystery: arcane standardized tests, mind-boggling alien gadgets, and unsettling messages from who-knows-where. And from these events come the real questions that drive the story: Why do we have this incredible technology that no one knows the inner workings of? Why can only kids operate the Laddertop system? And what is going on in Robbi's head? Meanwhile, artist Ibardolaza steps up to every challenge posed by this surreal world: massive structures, strange geometric curves, and other visual flourishes to show just how different this future Earth is. Yet the character designs remain cute and easily identifiable—a contrast of human familiarity against a decidedly alien world.

Gee, another variation on the "schoolkids discover amazing secret powers" concept? And the lead character is anointed The Chosen One by mysterious alien forces? Pardon me if I don't immediately jump up and cheer the originality of Laddertop ... when all it's really doing is dressing up an overdone premise in weird, high-concept gimmicks. The lead characters are little more than weekday cartoon stereotypes—the cautious goody-goody, the wacky troublemaker, the walking encyclopedia, the token boy who makes lewd comments ... and there isn't much else to their personalities beneath the surface. Then, on the actual surface, the character designs suffer from minor inconsistencies: in this simple style, even the slightest off-proportion line becomes a glaringly obvious mistake. Consistency issues are an even bigger problem for the adult characters, who appear less often and therefore give the artist fewer opportunities to practice. A lack of detail in the backgrounds also means that various alien creations fail to reach their true potential—with a little more screentone and shading, the technology of Laddertop could be even more strange and awe-inspiring than it already is.

The basic idea isn't amazingly new or anything, but those who enjoy science fiction with an air of mystery may find themselves drawn into this series.

Come on, fellow readers! You can't let just one guy run the show! (Then again, he's doing such a great job ... ) Our old friend Eric P. drops in with a look at the surprising and tragic conclusion of a very good, very poignant series.

Remember, anyone can be a part of this column and share their opinions on the latest and greatest (or not-so-greatest) manga—just check out the instructions below and send in a review like this one.

Vol. 8
(by Keiko Tobe, Yen Press, $11.99)

Here we have what has become the final volume of With the Light. Sachiko and her family have moved in with her husband's mother, entering a new chapter in their lives where they continue to adjust to their surroundings while trying to maintain a workably happy life for both their autistic son, Hikaru, and their non-autistic daughter, Kanon. It felt like it could have kept on going, where we get to see more of Hikaru's life beyond his junior high years, which is what Keiko Tobe had initially planned. But as we all know, it was sadly not meant to be.

The very first sign that hits home of Tobe-san's death is the size of the final volume itself—it's only half the length of the prior thick volumes. Another painful reminder is that half of the rest of Sachiko and Hikaru's story is printed unfinished, where all the pages have been done on a rush job with bare sketches or none at all, instead made up of dialogue balloons.

As Tobe-san's illness worsened, there must have been a part of her that realized the possibility of her not pulling through. Rather than leave the story itself completely up in the air, she fought with all her remaining energy to do what pages she could and give it a reasonably satisfying finish. It's still not so much an ending as it is an open-ended stopping point. But it's a stopping point where Sachiko reminds us via concluding monologue that she will not stop fighting to ensure a happy life and world for her family, whatever the future may ultimately hold for them.

As a bonus we then get to read two short stories that Tobe-san wrote before she started With The Light, which are as interesting as they are heartwarming on their own. We see the faces of Sachiko and Hikaru and other familiar characters, and are taken aback from the get-go at what different people they are before we even learn what their different names are (for instance, Hikaru a.k.a. Kazuki is not autistic and talks normally).

The initial news of Keiko Tobe's death hit me hard in the heart. She truly created and left behind an unparalleled legacy. You could feel her devotion as you read through the incomplete pages, which are like ghostly vestiges of her very spirit. Even with just the dialogue balloons, the unseen characters still feel just as alive, enough so you can see them in your mind's eye. That just goes to show the beauty of her writing in the first place. We will never get to find out the future of Hikaru or his family, but readers that personally relate to the subject matter in at least some small way may feel they know the answer themselves, or maybe even use this as inspiration to find a favorable answer. Keiko Tobe will be and is already missed.

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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