RIGHT TURN ONLY!! A Case of the Mondays
by Carlo Santos, Jan 3rd 2012
20TH CENTURY BOYS
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Far, far from Tokyo, a man approaches the checkpoint at the Northern Border ... Everyone north of the gate is dead, but here he comes on a motorbike with a guitar strapped to his back. Who is this man who calls himself Yabuki Joe, and why does he break out in song? Is he Messiah here to save the people, or is he just a deluded nut?"
In today's political climate, 20th Century Boys's message of standing up to an authoritarian government rings truer than ever. But even if we lived in peaceful times, this part of the story would still be absolutely gripping. Volume 18 is a rollercoaster of emotions—the swagger of the wandering guitarist, an unexpected, exhilarating prisoner revolt, Kanna's inner conflict as a freedom fighter, and even a surprising jolt of honesty as the insidious, mysterious Manjome bares his soul. Along with that emotion comes the calculated logic of each plot point: even now, there are gaps to be filled in about how the Friend came to power, and just as important are the flashbacks about how Kanna, Otcho, and others have survived this far. Each scene is timed perfectly, so that the big picture remains clear even as minor details are explored. Urasawa's cinematic visual style is crucial in conveying these ups and downs—a sequence of silent, slow-motion panels setting up a dramatic finishing pose, or a full-page close-up on a character's face revealing their emotional state in one shot. As always, the sure-handed linework and wide-ranging cast make every page a pleasure to zip through.
Old habits die hard, and in Urasawa's case, his penchant for creating multiple storylines and then abandoning them on a whim remains infuriating. The young brother and sister that were introduced at the start of the Friendship Era arc, for example, are basically told to run off and take care of themselves, thus letting their plotline fade into irrelevance. Even a fascinating, promising new character like the radio DJ who broadcasts Kenji's music gets a one-chapter cameo before being shoved aside. Speaking of Kenji, can we just get to the point about who the guitarist is? This storyline could be even more exciting and action-packed if not for all the beating around the bush about a totally obvious plot point. Instead, the pacing keeps getting stalled by scene changes and flashbacks, many of which are so haphazard that they never get a chance to fully develop. And what of the strange, visually captivating neo-retro-Tokyo that Urasawa dreamed up two volumes ago? This time around, most of the settings are cubby-holes, sewer pipes and prison camps, which make for an artistically uninteresting vision of the future.
It'd be nice if Urasawa could keep tabs on every subplot he's got running, but simply having a well-crafted dose of thrills, suspense, and drama is still worth a B.
(by Ryou Ryumon and Kouji Megumi, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"As Fujimaru dives deeper into investigating the enigmatic 'Bloody Monday' data, the stakes are raised when his sister is abducted. The terrorists demand Falcon complete a hacking job for them in exchange for his sister. Time is short as his sister is in urgent need of dialysis. Can Fujimaru break free of the terrorists' insidious manipulation and find a way to save his sister without helping the terrorists further their agenda?"
The excitement doesn't stop in Bloody Monday's second volume, where multiple kidnappings and murders raise the stakes considerably from mere computer-hacking jobs to life-threatening situations. But even with all the bloodshed and physical danger, the series' most compelling aspect is the mental cat-and-mouse game being played between Fujimaru and the opposition. For every clever move he makes, it seems that the bad guys have a countermove planned—and the ingenuity of each tactic is enough to elicit wide-eyed admiration. What also makes the story so thrilling is that all this puzzle-solving happens on a deadline: Fujimaru literally has to think on his feet (or in a car, or at a cargo dock) in order to plan his next step before the enemy gets ahead of him. And some of the best twists so far come right when it seems everything's fine and everybody's safe. As the story gets more intense, some impressive action scenes find their way into this volume—a surprisingly clever use of archery and some fancy sharpshooting from a moving car, among others. Stylized backgrounds and dramatic gestures also add excitement to Fujimaru's hacking jobs, proving that manga can make anything visually thrilling.
At what point do you say that an action thriller has gone off the rails, obsessing more about delivering the next big shocker instead of telling a coherent story? As Haruka's kidnapping takes center stage, the big picture is often lost as Fujimaru and friends are too busy digging into little details to save her. The threat of the "Bloody Monday" virus is discussed maybe three times this entire volume, with very little progress on understanding what it is or what anyone plans to do with it. The fate of Fujimaru's dad (he was accused of murder, remember?) is treated even more offhandedly; he makes a couple of intense phone calls while on the run, but is otherwise invisible to the plot. What's left, then, is everybody scrambling to save Haruka while meeting the demands of the terrorists—and even then, the rapid-fire pacing often trips over itself whenever someone has to stop and discuss the situation. The artwork adds to the mess in its own way, with stiff-looking character poses and layouts that jump wildly from scene to scene. There's just never a smooth visual flow when disparate events all happen on the page at once.
It has its moments, but with so much focus on being as dramatic as possible (at the expense of everything else), this is just a C at best.
(by Gosho Aoyama, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When ace high school detective Jimmy Kudo is fed a mysterious substance by a pair of nefarious men in black—poof! He is physically transformed into a first grader. Until Jimmy can find a cure for his miniature malady, he takes on the pseudonym Conan Edogawa and continues to solve all the cases that come his way.
When Richard Moore flubs a ten-million-yen case, two women step in to save the day: Eva Kaden, crack attorney and Richard's ex-wife, and Vivian Kudo, brilliant actress and Jimmy Kudo's mom! But the brainy blond duo is up against a killer who can go anywhere without being seen!
Meanwhile, shadowy figures are trailing Anita and Conan, and ditzy American teacher Miss Jodie seems to know far more than she pretends. Have the Men in Black finally caught up to the shrunken sleuth?"
At this point, the greatest mystery of Case Closed may be: How does Gosho Aoyama keep coming up with so many ideas? The most fascinating part of each case is the mechanics involved: this volume teaches how to commit a murder in total darkness, and how to strangle someone without lifting a muscle, among other things. Just as fascinating is seeing Conan reveal the solution, picking up on clues under everyone's noses and piecing them together in his own brilliant way. Sometimes these incidents even hint at deeper plot points, things that link all the way back to the series' original premise. Meanwhile, the urgent pacing of each mystery keeps the storyline from getting bogged down in investigative details—there's always an action-packed rush at some point, whether it's Rachel breaking down a door to reach the crime scene or an ominous lurker tailing our heroes. The sharp-lined artwork also conveys that air of urgency, especially in the angular layouts that give action scenes an instant sense of motion. The sheer variety of character designs proves to be another artistic strong point—each lineup of suspects looks distinctly different, giving every mystery a brand new flavor.
It's one thing to come up with fresh-faced characters; it's another to use them properly. When the first case in this volume hands over investigative duties to the ladies, it seems like a neat idea—let Conan take a break for once—but they just end up getting in each other's way. Why have two sleuths doing the job when either one is plenty capable? And why have them look so much alike, to the point where it's hard to remember who's speaking? The last mystery in the book also suffers from character surplus: as usual, a murder happens and suspects are introduced, but what really matters is another subplot concerning Jimmy, Anita, and the Men in Black. Why not focus on that? Meanwhile, the perpetrators' motives for their crimes are embarrassingly weak, most of them being variations on "the victim did something to make me unhappy." Thus, the murders are brilliantly executed, but the character back-stories are not. These complex cases also demand a lot of dialogue, so much so that the text often crowds out the artwork. Even when it doesn't, the scenery is usually dull or cluttered to look at.
Although some stretches of story are clumsy in their execution, each case is deep enough—and exciting enough—to earn this volume a B-.
(by Masashi Kishimoto, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Naruto is a young shinobi with an incorrigible knack for mischief. He's got a wild sense of humor, but Naruto is completely serious about his mission to be the world's greatest ninja!
Naruto faces his inner demons at the Waterfall of Truth! Can he tame the darkness inside himself while still retaining his biju's power? An important figure from his past shows up during the struggle to relate the history of his family and village, revealing astonishing new information about Naruto and Nine Tails!"
Volume 53 of Naruto crosses the 500-chapter mark, and celebrates that monumental number with an appropriately monumental topic: the birth of Naruto. This flashback fills in all the gaps we've wondered about since the beginning, and does it on an epic scale. It's got action (the fight to control the nine-tailed beast), mystery (the schemes of Madara Uchiha), and of course, tear-jerking drama (the sacrifice of Naruto's parents) coming together in an unforgettable scenario. Even the prelude to the flashback operates on a grand scale: before meeting his parents in spirit, Naruto must first look at his own past and overcome his dark self, and then battle the nine-tailed beast in the deepest, most mystical recesses of his mind. Such powerful ideas also call for powerful visuals: giant creatures being summoned, swirls of chakra energy flying everywhere, and an earth-shattering fight between Madara and Naruto's dad. The linework is dense and detailed, but also precise; even massive backgrounds are drawn carefully right down to the littlest rock. And while the dramatic ninja poses and jutsu maneuvers are indeed impressive, it's the hearts inside these characters that make it a truly great story arc.
As the first couple of chapters remind us, fellow ninja Killer Bee's goofy hip-hop patter is the most annoying thing and should be banned forever. (Thankfully, the flashback takes him out of the picture, but goodness, those rhymes.) On a more serious note, this pivotal moment in the Naruto saga feels oddly predictable and staged. When our hero figures out how to defeat his dark self, for example, the solution is easily guessable from any adventure-fantasy about fighting one's inner demons. And when the spirit of Naruto's mother comes out to lend him a helping hand, it's a lot like ... the time his dad came out to lend a helping hand. The battle for baby Naruto shows more originality, but is also flawed: there's a brief look at the Uchiha clan, and while that's interesting in itself, it doesn't add much to the main plotline about Naruto's birth. The political dealings among village elders also confuse the story, as do some of the fight scenes involving lesser-known characters. (Who are they again, and why are they here?) An epic storyline shouldn't need such distractions.
This one aims for top-level greatness, but certain predictable elements end up being less than great. Still, the emotional weight of it all earns a strong B+.
NO LONGER HUMAN
(by Usamaru Furuya, based on the novel by Osamu Dazai, Vertical, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Published not longer after the nation's defeat in World War II, the searing novel by Osamu Dazai, Japan's Dostoevsky, shows no sign of losing hold of new audiences. In this comics adaptation by the enfant terrible of manga, the prewar setting of the semi-autobiographical work is traded for the brave new world of the aught years. Find out how self-described clown Yozo Oba awakens to his dark genius in the series' middle installment."
In a surprising turn of events, No Longer Human's second volume is almost uplifting in nature, showing how Oba gets his life in order. (Then again, with a suicide attempt being the end of Volume 1, there's nowhere else to go but up.) Each of Oba's little victories in this volume—finding a place to stay, getting a paying job, possibly finding true love—is a heart-swelling boost of hope, a sign that we should keep reading because he might just get it together. But just as compelling is how Oba battles his inner demons every step of the way: his alcoholism, his wastefulness, his use of women for financial gain. The constant conflict between self-improvement and self-destruction is what drives this story forward, making it more than just a shoegazing pity party—and the biggest surprise may be the one that awaits in the last chapter. The wild, surreal art once again brings Oba's internal battles to life, with dreamlike images that reflect his dark nature far more vividly than words alone. Furuya also shows his artistic versatility with detailed scenes of everyday life, plus a childish manga-within-a-manga that is practically the opposite of this story.
While the upward arc is a welcome change of tone, there are still many quirks in this story that make it too ridiculous to be believable. Somehow, each plot advancement is the result of Oba charming a woman and mooching off of her; while this might realistically happen once or twice, seeing it come up all the time turns the storyline into a farce. Even harder to believe is the bombshell that Oba drops in the last chapter—it seems like a sudden throwaway gag from a harem comedy, not something that should come up in a drama about life's harsh realities. Also, the overall presentation of Oba as a character is what makes him hard to relate to: his dark feelings are so intense, and his actions so misguided, that he seems more like a symbol than an actual person. The artwork also has a habit of being stiff and distant: between the boring apartment interiors and frequent face-to-face conversations, there's not enough room for Furuya to artistically break out. Oh, he does it a few times, but more often than not he just goes through the motions as an artist.
A glimmer of hope results in something more enjoyable than last time—enough for a B—but some plot points and visuals still feel weak.
(by Nunzio DeFilippis, Christina Weir and Rhea Silvan, Seven Seas, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Nicholas Harker is an average teen who has just lost his parents in a tragic accident. But when he learns he is the sole heir to a vast estate from a mysterious ancestor he never knew he had, his lfie will never be average again. Together with his new friend, Jill Hawthorne, who has relocated from London, Nicholas discovers that he is a direct descendant of Lord Dracula, and what's worse, Dracula's spirit is beginning to exert control over him.
Under the spell of Dracula, Nicholas' first order of business is to rebuild Castle Dracula stone by stone in the outskirts of Boston. There are those from Dracula's past who will stop at nothing to destroy Nicholas, and those who come to his aid and urge him to embrace his destiny. Only one loves him, the rest want to use him—in a dark war where Nicholas' very soul is the battleground."
Now there's a clever marketing tactic: make the cover look like a cheeseball vampire romance, then reveal the contents to be a chilling murder-mystery where fiction and reality blur. More than just a name-dropping gimmick, Dracula Everlasting takes its historical inspiration seriously. The people and situations map to key parts of Stoker's novel, and as the modern-day characters find themselves connected to a work of (alleged) fiction, the mystery and unease starts to set in. But the creepy aura doesn't stop there: at its very center is Nicholas himself, tormented by the strange vampiric possession inside of him. The bizarre mood swings, the unpredictable behavior, and supernatural crimes of passion result in a fascinating and disturbing portrayal. The characters around him also add to the mystery: Are they trying to help him? To use him? Or will they fall victim to Dracula's whims first? The visuals, so clean and precise, also create a chilling sensation in the characters' intense stares and restrained body language. Even at its most violent, the art remains carefully measured—Dracula's awful deeds are conveyed through tight, fragmented panels, and it is the implied violence behind them that really freaks everyone out.
Okay, fine, give this one points for not being a cheeseball vampire romance. But it still finds other ways to be cheesy, most notably in the contrived high school scenes where Nicholas tries to assert his place in the social order. Surely there are other depictions of teenage life besides this Disney Channel tripe, where trying to date attractive classmates and being perceived as "cool" is all that matters? It also doesn't help that the supporting cast is loaded with stereotypes, from the cute girl-next-door who tries to help Nicholas to the rival glamour girl and her jock boyfriend. But if the kids are fake, the adults are even worse: they only seem to appear when some kind of exposition is necessary, and they always do it at the most awkward moments—wouldn't you be weirded out if some rich old guy suddenly came up to you on the way to school to discuss business opportunities? The artwork also falls a few penstrokes short of being great horror material: too many of the backgrounds are plain white and lacking in texture, and the characters lack other emotions besides looking serious all the time.
Even with the contrived high school scenarios and stiff art, there's a solid story behind this—one that's backed up by classic literature—and enough supernatural chills to be promising.
You know what would be an awesome thing to do over winter break? Read the manga you received as presents ... and then review them for Reader's Choice! Just imagine your words making it into this column—all you have to is express your opinion.
As this week's Reader's Choice shows, not every opinion has to be positive ... just ask frequent contributor Eric P., who has a particularly memorable review this time:
NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: THE SHINJI IKARI RAISING PROJECT
(by Osamu Takahashi, original concept by GAINAX/khara, Dark Horse, $9.95/$9.99 ea.)
Too many times have Shinji and Asuka/Rei fallen atop each other, sharing an intimate face-to-face awkward moment. Too many times have Shinji or some guy, usually his father, fallen and grabbed onto a girl's breasts or slipped her skirt down revealing her panties. Too many times have there been similar incidents ending with Shinji shoved against the girls' private parts in improbable ways. Too many times have there been convenient and inappropriate shots with the girls' protruding breasts sticking right into full view on-panel. And too many times have there been blatant and equally inappropriate shots of the girls' crotch areas, right from underneath.
Hard to believe, but it's taken me nine whole volumes before I officially got sick and tired of this series. In retrospect, I really should've stopped when they had the baseball chapter at the beginning of volume 8. I know they're usually obligatory in most manga, but this contrived chapter within its context was really dumbness overload.
I guess I kept going as long as I did because a part of me kept thinking that a genuine plot was going to finally develop. But what advancing story there is is few and far between. Everything I listed in the first paragraph, all of that is what this manga is really about, taking up the majority and length of each volume. After all this time, it's still gone nowhere and it keeps getting dumber. Afterwards, I went onto RightStuf.com and looked up the blurb for the upcoming 10th volume—the "story" for that one involves (I kid you not) Asuka and Rei forming an all-girl school band, and since Shinji's a member but not a girl they have him cross-dress for it. I threw my hands up and said, "It's official, that's it, I'm done."
It's a shame. There were fun elements here and there (meeting Asuka's mom and seeing Gendo as a dopey dad), but that only did so much. My favorite part of this manga release was really Misato's Fan Service Center, but even that has stopped saving it for me. Sure, the artwork remains consistently excellent, but beneath the beautiful exterior there is no substance, no depth, no soul, no life, to really anything. It is so mindless and tedious, that this manga is insulting to both its characters and its readers.
You want to read a good alternative-world spin-off of Evangelion that actually respects and does the original justice? Check out Campus Apocalypse. But if you're still intrigued to read a story that takes place within the alternative-world sequence of the anime's final episode, two words—Angelic Days. This version may have been criticized for its rough artwork, but it more than made up for it with its story. It's out of print, but if one can find all six volumes somewhere, it's worth owning. Better yet, if someone could license-rescue this title, hopefully by then fans will find out that the initial hate was totally undeserved, especially after The Shinji Ikari Raising Project.
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)
- 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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