The Princess Diaries

by Carlo Santos,

I'm in despair! The lack of an NBA season has left me in despair!

... At least there's Slam Dunk every couple of months to keep me happy.

Also, the NBA Jam video game, which is BOOM-SHAKA-LAKA! awesome.

Vol. 1
(by CLAMP, Dark Horse, $10.99)

"A brand-new manga series from CLAMP begins here! An innocent sightseeing trip to Kyoto opens up a magical realm to shy high schooler Chikahito Takamoto. Visiting a legendary shrine, Chikahito stumbles into the mystical world of Hana and her comrades—and his immunity to their powers leads them to believe that he's no ordinary awkward teenager! Protecting our world from violent supernatural creatures, Hana and her team welcome the confused Chikahito—who isn't quite sure tha the wants to be caught in the middle of their war!"

In its artistic conception, Gate 7 combines the best of both old-school and new-school CLAMP. When dressed in their magical battle gear, the characters evoke the fantastical settings of series like RG Veda and Magic Knight Rayearth, yet the sorcery itself is very much out of the high-octane, action-packed world of Tsubasa—all sweeping lines and dynamic curves. Even the character designs show a new level of sophistication, bearing the classic "CLAMP look" but with subtle shadows and highlights. The story, meanwhile, packs some clever surprises behind its innocuous "ordinary guy discovers secret world of magic" premise. The better you know feudal Japanese history, the more you'll enjoy this series, which invokes several famous names and ties them into the storyline in surprising ways. And for those who aren't familiar, well, here's a chance to learn that history, and see how it adds that extra layer of plot to the series. There's a lot of world-building to pick up on here, but the first few chapters present it like a gradually blossoming flower: each detail is revealed subtly, one after another, until you realize what a wondrous world of magic and mystery you've stepped into.

Well, it's all good and fine to get wrapped up in the mystical aura of Gate 7 ... except that after 175 pages, Chikahito still doesn't know what he's fighting for. In fact, the last chapter in this volume is the worst, with long-winded conversations about Japanese history and how the series' particular brand of sorcery works. If there's a surefire way to scare readers off forever, it's to deluge them with a flood of exposition—without even making use of flashbacks or battle action to make things interesting. The earlier chapters are more tolerable, but only because they use the tried-and-true "Monster of the Week" format to add some action to each chapter: while dallying with his newfound friends, Chikahito inevitably gets caught up in some battle where he has no idea what to do aside from watching everyone else unleash some really cool-looking magic. And that's pretty much all they do; aside from that, the relationships between characters feel arbitrary at best. ("Let's hang out because we all have special powers!") The art isn't immune to flaws either, with a lot of copy-and-paste backgrounds straight from photos that look like a lazy, beginner-level trick.

It's artistically outstanding, as most CLAMP works are, but the lack of real plot development (aside from clumsily told back-story) makes this one a C+.

Vol. 4
(by Yuuki Iinuma, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Utsuho's truthfulness as a child resulted in an enormous catastrophe, and he decided to lie from that day forward. Raised in a village of orphans by a monk, Utsuho is an unrepentant troublemaker. The monk eventually inspires him to help other people, but there's no way Utsuho's going to lead an honest life! Instead, he's going to use his talents for mischief and deception for good!
Utsuho and his friends encounter a sect whose leader claims to use the power of a god to perform miracles. Could his power possibly be real—or is he yet another charlatan?"

Utsuho's takedown of a money-grubbing religious cult is the best story arc to come out of Itsuwaribito so far—and all our hero needed, it turns out, was a worthy adversary. For once, Utsuho isn't battling a recreational liars' club, or bandits in the woods, or some weirdos living on an island, but a mind sharp enough to match his own. In fact, just figuring out who runs the cult is an intricate riddle in itself, and watching Utsuho untangle the deception is one of this volume's greatest thrills. If you prefer more conventional excitement, though, this one also has that area covered: fierce hand-to-hand combat and an escape from a burning building form the climax of Utsuho's showdown with the cult, all within the space of just over a hundred pages. The last couple of chapters aren't too bad either, with a murder-mystery brewing and a confrontation that ends things on a white-knuckled cliffhanger. Delicate lines give this series a more refined look than your average shônen adventure, while the historical setting lends itself to eye-catching period costumes and rustic backgrounds. Overall, the artwork is a slick production, much like Utusho's clever lies.

Man, these guys really love wandering around the countryside. A few chapters in the middle of this volume are a total waste of space, relying on stand-alone stories that cast Utsuho's sidekicks in a temporary lead role. It seems like a well-intentioned idea, but when the greatest accomplishment of traveling doctor Yakuma is to deal with some bandits in the woods, well ... isn't that regressing back to Volume 1 material? Even the good storylines show signs of weakness: Utsuho's logically rigorous explanations often become a drag, and when the religious cult looks to be on the verge of collapse, the leader makes a bunch of increasingly improbable escapes (his last flying leap really pushes the limits of credibility). Weaknesses are also evident in the artwork, with action scenes proving to be Yuuki Iinuma's stumbling block: the characters make dramatic poses, with speedlines shooting out behind them, but there's no feel of motion or strength, and the panel layouts during fights do little to differentiate themselves from regular dialogue scenes. An occasional lack of backgrounds also makes some scenes look incomplete.

Not absolutely perfect (those filler chapters need to go), but the suspense and action throughout the book is strong enough to earn it a B-.

Vol. 1
(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $13.95)

"Princess Knight is a fast-paced tale of a heroic princess who can best any man at fencing, yet is delicate and graceful enough to catch the eye of Prince Charming. Filled with narrow escapes, treacherous courtiers, dashing pirates, meddlesome witches, magical transformations and cinema-worthy displays of derring-do, you'll be swept right along as Sapphire tackles one challenge after another.
In this first of two volumes, a mischief-making angel's prank goes too far when the new-born princess of Silverland ends up with two hearts—one male and one female. Since the laws of Silverland only allow a male heir to ascend the throne, Princess Sapphire is raised as a prince. But will the avaricious Duke Duralumin discover Sapphire's true nature and snatch the crown for his own son?"

Move over, Game of Thrones, here's the real fantasy epic of the year. Princess Knight bears all the classic hallmarks of Tezuka's storytelling: the wide-ranging cast of characters, the conflicted (and double-crossing) relationships, the action-packed pacing as Sapphire dashes from one peril to another. Yes, you heard that right, this "classic shôjo masterpiece" features just as much thrilling adventure as anything aimed at the boys. And that's why this is a universal, modern-day fairytale for the ages—it doesn't pander to any specific audience, but loads up on complex ideas that will challenge kids and engage adults. Tezuka's fertile imagination also keeps the story from ever repeating itself: instead of a dry, formulaic narrative, every chapter is a new experience that builds upon what came before. These outbursts of imagination are also clear to see in the art, where fantastical landscapes spill out everywhere: gleaming castles and towers, unexplored forests, unscalable mountains, and deserted islands. Yet the sweeping, elegant lines keep everything stylistically unified, and Tezuka's flair for over-the-top action is evident in the many thrilling fights and chase scenes. Hang on to your seats—this is one epic fairytale ride.

Sometimes, bearing "all the hallmarks of Tezuka's storytelling" means that his annoying quirks also come sneaking in. Princess Knight allows itself a number of logical loopholes, like animals suddenly becoming sentient and coming to Sapphire's aid when necessary, or selective stupidity where characters fail to recognize Sapphire behind a simple disguise (a.k.a. Tuxedo Mask syndrome), and magical powers conveniently popping up whenever miraculous things need to happen. The one-dimensionality of certain characters is also grating: love interest Prince Franz is so driven by blind devotion that it's a wonder anyone could find him appealing, while angel sidekick Tink pops in and out so arbitrarily that he basically functions as a "help button" whenever Sapphire is in a pinch. The overall story structure also has its weaknesses, with long stretches of plot that send Sapphire on pointless detours—battling evil witches, or journeying to deserted islands, which are fine in themselves but only pad out the length of her quest. The artwork has its flaws as well, with rubberband anatomy and a simplified style that may not appeal to modern eyes.

The plot may not be as precisely executed as one would like it to be, but the sheer depth of imagination—as well as the wild, wonderful artistry—make it an easy A-.

Vol. 7
(by Rumiko Takahashi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"After a mysterious encounter in her childhood, Sakura Mamiya gained the power to see ghosts. Now a teenager, she just wishes the ghosts would leave her alone! Then one day she meets Rinne Rokudo, a boy who far more than what he seems.
When ghosts appear in Sakura's house she commissions Rinne to find out what's going on. Rinne's on cloud nine at the thought of going to Sakura's house, but when Jumonji and Ageha barge in on them, will the investigation grind to a halt? Ghostly cats, curses and haunted festivals ... With all this trouble, Rinne's definitely got his hands full!"

The short stories in Rin-ne's seventh volume consciously avoid any long, drag-out plot threads or series-changing revelations—and while that may sound like a receipe for shallowness, it actually plays right into what Rumiko Takahashi is best at. With no big storyline commitments, Takahashi is free to spin out new ideas, play with them for a while, and then move on. A rapid-fire sense of humor keeps the bubbly energy going, not just in the feisty interactions between Rinne, Sakura and company, but also in the amusing logistics of the spirit world. Half the time, Rinne is solving problems with prankish gadgets rather than weapons, and the other half the time, his epic plans get derailed by deadpan punchlines. (Always get your scythe fully repaired!...) Between those constant surprises, and the inventiveness of each chapter, it's impossible not to be entertained. The artwork also remains as breezy and fun as ever; even notorious monsters like the ever-popular bakeneko (cat spirit) have a cuddly side to them in Takahashi's imagination, and fight scenes move as gracefully as the wind. Style-wise, the delicate, sinuous lines also make every panel a pleasure to look at.

Ghost stories for the attention-deficient—that's how they ought to market this. The short chapters may play to Takahashi's strengths, but they also reveal obvious weaknesses, most notably in the static cast of characters. How many times have we seen Sakura and Rinne expressing quasi-romantic sentiments but never admitting to it, or resident pain-in-the-butt Tsubasa trying to win Sakura's affections? By coming up with noisy dilemmas in every chapter, Takahashi is able to mask the fact that all the main character relationships are quickly headed nowhere. (How do you think she kept Ranma 1/2 going for so long?) Even then, the stories don't always burst open as creative masterpieces—sometimes they fall back on cheap clichés, like an obligatory beach episode (premise: get rid of ghosts, while wearing swimwear!), or a telegraphed ending involving a typo of someone's name. Takahashi's character designs are also looking rather mass-produced: every client that Rinne meets has the same wide-cheeked face and innocent eyes, along with a high probability of being a school student. Maybe it is time to send Rinne and company on a longer, more unpredictable adventure.

Well, if you want a grand, mind-boggling epic, it won't be found here. But those who like supernatural adventures with a sense of humor, in bite-size form, will get a B's worth of entertainment.

TOKYO MEW MEW (Omnibus Edition)
Vol. 1
(by Mia Ikumi, Kodansha Comics, $14.99)

"On her first date with the cutest boy in school, Ichigo is exposed to a mysterious ray that meshes her DNA with that of the endangered Iriomote wildcat. She soon discovers that she has developed superhuman abilities and enhanced agility. Her new powers are put to the test when she leads a team with four other girls, each endowed with special abilities of their own. Together, they must now protect the Earth from an alien menace known as Deep Blue."

All aboard the nostalgia train, it's time for ... not Sailor Moon! Tokyo Mew Mew isn't quite as revered and ancient, but it certainly made its own mark on the magical girl genre—the concept of crossing the girls' abilities with endangered species remains unique to this day, and the subtext about protecting the environment teaches a useful lesson without being preachy. But the series' greatest strength in the early chapters lies in the way it establishes the characters: it puts an unexpected spin on the superhero-team formula by having the girls not be instantly best friends right away. Ichigo's teammates are at turns snobbish, insecure, flighty, even downright unfriendly—and it is only through the gauntlet of fighting evil and joining a common cause that they truly bond together. It's also not just the characters' personalities that vary, but their looks as well: once the whole Mew Mew team is gathered, it's clear to see that a lot of thought went into giving everyone a distinct appearance. The frilly, flashy costumes also add to the visual appeal, as do the spectacular magical attacks. Like any true magical girl series, this one sparkles all over.

Everything about Tokyo Mew Mew follows the magical-girl formula perfectly—and that's exactly why it's not very interesting. The first omnibus volume takes us all the way through the completion of the five-member team in the most predictable way possible: Ichigo gains powers, battles monsters, meets new friends, battles more monsters, and repeats as needed. It doesn't help that all the men in Ichigo's life are boring shôjo manga stereotypes: the well-meaning but clueless boyfriend, the mentors who know how this battling-evil stuff works and basically spout out information, and later on, the alluring bad boy who tries to kiss Ichigo but also wants to unleash alien monsters upon the public. (Good luck trying to win her over with that shtick.) So between the repetitive plot and underdeveloped suppporting characters, this series only offers superficial enjoyment, never daring to take the genre in new directions. The art is similarly shallow: it offers cute characters to look at, but buries them in messy layouts and a tacky sense of design that confuses "energetic" with "draw absolutely everything and splatter it in screentones." Clearly, some nostalgia trips are best not taken.

Even making allowances for the quirks of the genre, Tokyo Mew Mew simply doesn't stand out—the story and art are all perfectly average, or what we call a C.

Vol. 2
(by Stephenie Meyer and Young Kim, Yen Press, $19.99)

"Having discovered the dark secret of her enigmatic classmate, Edward Cullen, Bella Swan embraces her feelings for him, trusting Edward to keep her safe despite the risks. When a rival clan of vampires makes its way into Forks, though, the danger to Bella has never been more real. Will she make the ultimate sacrifice to protect the people closest to her?"

It's taken over a year, but finally I can gaze at gorgeous Korean-boyband-style vampires again! And this time he's brought family! In all seriousness, though, character illustration continues to be a strong point in Twilight's graphic novel adaptation: the pure, perfectly-proportioned faces of Edward and Bella—as well as the other Cullens—are beautiful in a way that human actors could never be. The richness of Young Kim's illustration style also extends beyond mere character design; the gloomy beauty of the Pacific Northwest is captured with subtle shades of gray, and splashes of color during key moments heighten an already surreal experience. The introduction of Edward's family early on, plus an extensive flashback on how he and the Cullens came to be, results in more plot and action than the entire first volume. Then, when hungry vampire outsiders show up at about the halfway mark, the book finally delivers true excitement, with a cross-country chase and rescue mission that puts Bella's life (and her love) in genuine peril. Of course, you can guess how it ends, but the final scene with Edward and Bella still makes for a comforting portrait of love triumphing against impossible odds.

Ironically, the thing that's supposed to make Twilight such a big hit—the conflicted romance between a mortal human and immortal vampire—is the thing it's worst at. Most of Edward and Bella's expressions of love involve making googly eyes at each other, putting on awkward displays of affection ("Let's throw ourselves on the couch!"), and spouting embarrassing teenage-angst lines. If this is what it's like to fall in love with a supernatural being, then consider me a staunch supporter of traditional marriage between a human and another human. The book's attempts at conflict also continue to fall flat: while the final act does involve Bella's life being in serious danger, it's the result of a messy escape plot designed to be as roundabout as possible, rather than any well-planned storytelling. Meanwhile, other characters like resident werewolf Jacob inexplicably disappear for most of this book, making you wonder why they were introduced at all. Visually, too many tones and gradients make the action difficult to follow, while excessive narration and poor font selection cause the text elements to be overpowering. Is this supposed to be a proper comic, or a novel with pretty pictures?

Well, for anyone who bothered to read the first one, I suppose you owe it to yourself to finish it. This one does feature more action and back-story than the first; just close your eyes during the mushy parts.

Well, we had a bit of manhwa crossover going on back there with Twilight, so let's go all the way and put something Korean in the spotlight with the Reader's Choice! Susan Bermudez looks at a title that may have escaped the notice of those who only follow the manga mainstream.

As a reminder, Korean comics (and other international "manga-style" works) are always fair game for Reader's Choice, so feel free to write in about your own personal picks!

(by Kim Dong Hwa, First Second, $16.95)

Boy coming-of-age stories are a dime a dozen. Half the shonen series out there are about 8-14 year old boys striking out on their own and finding their way, often with a pet dog (or dragon, or Pikachu) as their companion. Girl coming-of-age stories, however, are a little harder to find. This is especially true in the manga world. They're usually less action-packed than the boys', and more slow-paced and reflective. When one does come out, however, it's a treat to read, and that's what is found in The Color of Earth by Kim Dong Hwa.

The setting is rural Korea, but the era is a little harder to pin down. A steam engine train is seen near the end of the story, and it isn't seen as a novel technology. There doesn't seem to be electricity or running water, but I'm not sure when that level of infrastructure reached all areas of Korea.

We meet Ehwa at 7 years old. She lives with her mother, a widow who runs a tavern near a small town. Life is hard for a single woman trying to raise a girl, but she is proud of taking care of things by herself. We never really learn much about Ehwa's father, but we assume he died when Ehwa was very young.

Though Ehwa often stays close to her mother during the say, she also does go off either by herself or with other girls from town. It seems like the town kids aren't raised quite as well as Ehwa though, and she gets into a bit of mischief above her age with them. It also might be because she's an only child, but she is a lot more innocent than the other children we meet. As she grows up, of course, she starts to notice boys, though in a fairly age-appropriate way.

Mirroring this blossoming of Ehwa, a traveling salesman stops by the tavern and seeks a place to stay for the night. As the years pass, the salesman and artist comes by on his travels, and he and Ehwa's mother become closer.

This first book of The Story of Life on the Golden Fields trilogy spans several years, from the time Ehwa is a young girl, to when she is becoming a young woman. Girls in more rural settings do tend to seek out marriage earlier, but of course she is still very close to her mother and is in no rush to leave her.

This book is certainly a slow, contemplative journey. Ehwa grows up, goes through the awkward first interactions with boys, and learns that it's hard to control who you love. It's nice to see growing up handled in such an honest way, and it would do girls everywhere a service if there were more authors like Kim Dong Hwa writing today.

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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