Holmes Sweet Holmes

by Carlo Santos,

Ah, new anime season, here you are at last! How you rob me of my hours of sleep and infuriate me with shows I don't really like! At least I have a comforting stack of manga to retreat to ... although there might be some unpleasant surprises in there as well.

Vol. 3
(by Makoto Raiku, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"After seven years, Taroza is now a growing boy leading an entire village of animals, cultivating and harvesting all manner of fruits and vegetables. But this ragtag group of herbivores looks like easy pickings to an invading pride of lions! Can Taroza guide his friends to safety through careful planning? And ... is that a human girl leading those lions?"

It's never too early for a time-skip! If anything, the potential for adventure is much greater now that Animal Land's main character is older, doing the clever things that little boys do—like setting up traps to embarrass would-be predators, or gathering his animal friends together to take on big bad lions. Yes, the power of teamwork is one of the themes in this volume, and it's a thrill to see the underdogs (and cows, and deer) standing up to the carnivores. But the biggest turning point isn't really anything to do with animals—it's when Taroza finally encounters the little girl that grew up raised by lions. Her presence totally changes the character dynamics of the series, most hilariously when one animal tells her she's "in heat" and is biologically obligated to seduce Taroza. The loose simplicity of the artwork allows room for unusual, eye-catching animal designs: impossibly huge lions and wildcats, fur patterns never seen in nature, and claws, fangs and horns in places they're not supposed to be. (There's even a Nausicaä parody, weirdly enough.)

Even with an older protagonist and a potential rival, Animal Land still lacks any depth to its story. Taroza's battle against the lions is as generic as they come—just groups of animals throwing themselves at each other until one side prevails. His encounter with the little girl, Capri, also falls short of its potential: after failing to become friends on the first try, their relationship is reduced to a basic us-versus-them scenario with the animals in center stage. As human readers, aren't we more interested in what the two human characters are doing? There's a promising scene right after Taroza defeats Capri in battle ... but it's promptly cut off for a 40-page side story about wildcat Kuro. That's a bad move, because things were actually starting to get interesting in the main story. Meanwhile, the artwork shows sloppy execution in the battle scenes—we get a ton of animals and scenery drawn into every single panel, with little regard for how they flow on the page. The result is a very cluttered look, with little differentiation between foreground and background. More screentones in some areas, and better black-and-white contrasts, would surely help.

Even though it shows some promise, the story is too underdeveloped and the artwork too weak to merit anything higher than a D.

Vol. 2
(by Tohru Fujisawa, Vertical, $10.95)

"Eikichi Onizuka, the GTO, is back in his home town by the shores of Shonan on something as close to a sabbatical as he could possibly get, but any dreams of relaxing are quickly erased as he takes on a voluntary position at a local foster home. Things immediately turn for the worse when a troubled teen runs away and is then kidnapped. The GTO must then take to the streets, with his old biker friends in full support, to rescue a child who has given up on life."

Volume 2 of GTO: 14 Days in Shonan fixes practically all the things that was wrong with the first one. Instead of short, disconnected stories about kids at the foster home, we get a fully developed story arc, and the one character that seemed to be angry just for the sake of being angry (Miki) finally gets her back-story filled out. That flashback comes early on, setting up the troubled father-daughter relationship that is the center of this volume. By the midpoint, we get the classic moral lesson about career versus family—but just in case anyone thought this was going to turn into a weepy drama, that's when the real action kicks in. A biker chase in search of Miki and her kidnappers gets the adrenaline pumping all the way to the end, with Onizuka strutting his vigilante swagger when the police are too ineffective to help. Fujisawa's gritty artwork does the job once again with over-the-top fights, high-speed chases, and even the comical sight of Onizuka fighting in a horse mask. With the action taking place on Shonan's streets at night, it also opens up the story to new backdrops that capture the excitement of urban crime-fighting.

As thrilling as the action scenes may be, Fujisawa still has a habit of trying to draw (or to screentone) on every part of the page, leading to a crowded appearance. This happens even during idyllic scenes of everyday life, so while the story itself may be hitting a calm spot, the artwork is anything but. The attempts at balancing comedy with pure action also go awry at times, like in the first few chapters where Onizuka tries to fight off a gang and it turns into a slapstick Charlie Chaplin affair. It's hard to look like a butt-kicking street fighter when you're trying to mug for a laugh at the same time (though the horse mask is still a great idea). Fujisawa also shows a lack of subtlety in the way he tries to present the drama between Miki and her father; the characters' emotions and motivations are always exaggerated and stereotypical. Dad is a workaholic! Daughter acts out because she's neglected! That's the basic template for a troubled relationship, but there are still shades of gray that need to be filled in to make it truly human.

Clearly an improvement on the first volume, with plenty of action scenes to showcase the things Onizuka does best. This one is worthy of a solid B.

Vol. 8
(by Akihisa Ikeda, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Average human teenage boy Tsukune accidentally enrolls at a boarding school for monsters—no, not jocks and popular kids, but bona fide werewolves, witches, and unnameables out of his wildest nightmares! And now he's a sophomore!
Now Tsukune and his friends are starting to think about their futures, while at the same time battling a mysterious organization called Fairy Tale. They've learned that Moka's Rosario seal is beginning to weaken and have gone to Hong Kong to get it fixed ... but when the great sorcerer Tohofuhai touches the Rosario to repair it, a bizarre force drags Tsukune, Mizore and Tohofuhai right into Moka's mind and a dream world of memories...!"

Rosario+Vampire: Season II has touched upon a mother's love for her child before (see Vol. 5), but this is the first time it directly affects the main characters—and it may just be the best thing the series has ever done. The volume-long flashback into Moka's childhood and how her mother died is epic stuff, full of revelations and heartbreak and all the things no one would expect from a monster-of-the-week fanservice comedy. But the drama is just one part of it—the flashback also explains how Moka's transformative powers were sealed into the Rosario in the first place, and where vampire powers come from in this universe. Ikeda brings it all to life with rich fantasy artwork, terrifying in its depiction of a dungeon-lurking monster, yet beautiful in showing the castle grounds where Moka and her family once lived. The climactic action scenes, where Moka's mother fights to protect her, are as thrilling as they come—sorcery and blood and all the eye candy one could ask for in the genre. Meanwhile, the goings-on in the real world are just as action-packed, with Chinese mages and monsters battling it out. All of a sudden, this series has gotten good.

While the Moka flashback is a powerful emotional rollercoaster, the same can't be said for what's going on in the "real world"—there's plenty of action, but one feels less invested in it. The rival families haven't been explained in enough detail, making it hard to get a feel for who's who, and bad guys' motive for trying to capture Moka is the usual generic "we want to become more powerful" excuse. Even when the main villain makes her grand entrance, it lacks the impact of anything that happened in the flashback—she's just there because she wants to fight, so can we get to the big fight already? Akihisa Ikeda's artistic limitations also continue to be a problem: he still can't inject emotion into the characters' faces, so even during the most world-shattering moment, Tsukune might just be standing there with a blank stare. (Sometimes the characters have tearful eyes to go with their blank stares to show how sad they are.) Stiff poses are another drawback of this art style—the battle poses might look striking, but there's no life or movement to them.

Sometimes it's worth plodding through a mediocre series just for grand moments like this one. Major plot revelations and stunning fight scenes earn this volume a B+.

Vol. 6
(by Oh!great, Viz Media, $17.99)

"A supernatural smackdown shakes the holy ground of the Enmi, and Soichiro is led further down the path to the awakening of his demonic powers. Maya heads for Kyushu while the members of the Juken Club assemble to try and save Soichiro from himself. Surrounded by the members of 'F,' Bob and Masataka will have to give it everything they've got to survive! Masataka's true power is put to the test—with his friends in need of help and a host of enemies in need of a proper thrashing, can his fists do away with this new danger?"

As the stakes of battle in Tenjo Tenge grow ever higher, Oh!great continues to draw things you've never seen before and will never see again. Where else can someone's arm suddenly morph into a writhing, twisting mass of energy, or an entire neighborhood's worth of electricity be charged into a single attack? It's not just the obsessively detailed art and dramatic paneling that makes these moves stand out, though—it's also the fact that someone could even imagine such logic-defying ideas in the first place. To keep things interesting, Oh!great also spreads the love between the series' many supporting characters, with various styles thrust into the spotlight. Bob's dancing technique, Masataka's command of bare-handed martial arts, and the swordsmanship of newly-arrived villain Madoka all showcase different approaches to battle. Let's not forget Soichiro, either, whose soul teeters on the edge of self-destruction—equal parts impressive and frightening. In short, this volume ends up being a glorious gallery of fight scenes, helping to push the underlying conflict forward. Eventually, the Juken Club and Executive Council will collide ... but seeing all the intermediate steps with other fighting factions is just as amazing.

The old complaint about Tenjo Tenge used to be that it was a whole lot of fighting with no real plot. At this point, there is a plot, except it's so poorly explained and that no one knows what it is. The evil machinations of the "F" organization are clearly important, since they keep sending their goons to fight the main characters in predictable one-on-one fashion, but how it plays into the whole Takayanagi/Natsume conflict is something only discussed in vague terms. In fact, a lot of key plot points—like the importance of a computer chip that keeps getting batted around, or the intentions of that creepy spiky-haired guy who shows up at Soichiro's hospital—are left vague, as if trying to clear up the story might possibly distract from the battles. The only time the characters discuss things clearly is when they're spouting pseudo-philosophy about what it means to fight—sure, the words sound eloquent, but there's no substance to them. Even more inexplicable than any of this, however, is how Soichiro, a main character, gets "kidnapped" and disappears indefinitely. This may be the most contrived way possible of shuttling someone off to the sidelines.

Every time I get amped up about how awesome the fights are, I run into yet another plot point that makes little to no sense, and the excitement goes away. That frustrating inconsistency means this only gets a C.

Vols. 1-2 (Omnibus)
(by Kaoru Shintani, Seven Seas, $16.99)

"Christie Hope is a prodigy. At ten years old, she's as familiar with the sciences and classics as any older student at Cambridge or Oxford. And her facility with logic is reminiscent of her uncle, the eminent Sherlock Holmes himself. So, what's a brilliant young girl to do when her parents are away in India, leaving her behind in the care of maids and servants? Why, solve mysteries, of course.
Along with her giant hound Nelson, Christie's implacable curiosity leads her from one dangerous adventure to another, often joining forces with Uncle Sherlock and Doctor Watson on their famed investigations. Christie may look pint-sized, but her clever mind is never to be underestimated!"

First off, let's breathe a sigh of relief that this isn't just "loli-fied Sherlock Holmes" where she runs around acting cute. Young Miss Holmes shows more respect than that—it keeps the real Holmes and Watson in the picture, and spins out cases complex enough to keep grown-up minds occupied. As expected, this volume's gems are the stories that occupy the most chapters: an intricate, multi-step bank robbery that has to be pieced together from near-random information, and a "vampire" case where Christie and Sherlock have to figure out a rational solution for a seemingly supernatural phenomenon. (A cameo by Dance in the Vampire Bund's Mina Tepes also proves to be a key in solving that case.) These mysteries are intellectually stimulating in different ways: physics, code-breaking, and jewel economics are just some of the subjects that Christie breezes through as she assists her uncle. Backgrounds and interiors are the artwork's greatest strength, with simple but precise lines that capture the beauty of Victorian architecture and the charms of the English countryside. A handful of action scenes to close out the big cases also adds some visual flair to each story.

This may be great fun for readers who like working through whodunits, but anyone expecting Christie to be an interesting character will be sorely disappointed. The young genius never goes through any personal struggles of her own—she's just there to spout out explanations, fill in the gaps that Sherlock missed, and impress all the adults in the room. In short, she's a self-insertion cipher for kids who want to feel smart because they're "solving mysteries with Sherlock Holmes." But at least Christie's doe-eyed precociousness has its charm; the leading men are far less interesting when they're at work. Holmes and Watson are just there to gather data, process it, and then explain things to the police at the end. Heck, even Christie's maids get to have more fun. The complexity of the cases also means having to wade through walls of text on almost every page, as the characters are not only explaining everything, but they're doing it in formal English. The overly simplified character designs and right-handed lean of their faces may put some readers off the artwork—Shintani works most naturally in a cute, cartoony style that isn't really the right fit for Victorian England.

The cases are challenging, but it takes more than that to impress. The dry characters, mechanical storytelling, and juvenile-looking art average this out to a C-.

Vol. 1
(by Takao Saito, Leed Publishing, ¥900)

"In Kitakaruizawa, a human larger-than-life springs forth from the Kobayakawa Research Center in the middle of the night. That same human, in an instant of pain and agony, turns to dust and is swept away by a forceful gale across the landscape, a tremendous sight witnessed only by clan of truck drivers rushing down the late-night highway. The experiment of Doctor Kobayakawa ends in a disappointing failure, yet the elder brother of a young Akio makes the acquaintance of the Doctor, unmistakably a trap, one bearing the danger of a new experiment..."

Takao Saito of Golgo 13 fame goes into pulp sci-fi mode with Devil King, preying on our fears of technology gone mad and nature being twisted beyond recognition. The premise is simple enough—mad scientist Kobayakawa has figured out how to turn humans into 20-foot tall monsters—but the story makes its strongest impact by showing Kobayakawa's cruel methods in detail, as well as the scarring psychological effects on the victim. It would be one thing if this series was simply about a super-sized man terrorizing the countryside, but the real horror is in how Masao, the test subject, is tricked into abandoning his school-aged brother Akio—and how Akio meets an even more disturbing fate afterwards. The characters also take time to debate loudly about the conflict between humankind and nature, creating an unlikely blend of action and philosophy in one series. Saito's old-school gekiga art is perfect for capturing the dark undertones of the story, with intense shadows, heavy lines, and stone-faced characters who seem to carry the world's troubles with them. But the difference of scale between the giant man and his creators is where the visuals are most striking.

Everything about Devil King smacks of mid-20th century genre fiction, which happens to have as many pitfalls as it does pinnacles. The dramatic speeches about the dangers of human progress are the most contrived part of the storyline, as if Saito himself suddenly possessed the main characters and just had to share his personal views. Is this a philosophical debate, or a soapbox in comic-book form? The random twists that send Akio far, far away from his big brother also feel forced: the ever-predictable fall off a cliff, being picked up along the side of the road, and then (conveniently enough!) getting a case of amnesia. Yet for all the suffering Akio goes through, his importance seems to diminish throughout the story—he's introduced as a sympathetic protagonist at first, but is basically just some guy we're keeping track of by the end of Volume 1. The artwork is also as inconsistent as the storytelling at times: the philosophical discussion scenes lose their excitement as the characters are reduced to talking heads, and photo-referenced backgrounds don't even make an effort to blend in with the other pages.

A dramatic, ambitious sci-fi parable that just happens to showcase the best (and the worst) aspects of the genre. If you enjoy musing on the fate of the universe and don't mind a few clichés, this is worth a look.

Hey, remember when Broccoli was still around? This guy does! Please welcome back Jean-Karlo and his opinion on a video-game-to-manga adaptation that is ... probably best enjoyed as a video game.

Have you contributed to Reader's Choice in the past? Or would you like to give it a try for the first time? Either way, send in a review—this column welcomes fans no matter how long they've been around!

(by Arashi Shindo, Broccoli [out of print], $9.99)

The Disgaea series is very much a cult-hit: either you've got the qualities needed to put up with it, or you don't. The Disgaea manga (written and drawn by Arashi Shindo and published by Broccoli Books) is different: nothing in the world could make it a passable read.

It begins with Laharl, Prince of Thhe Netherworld [sic] and spoiled brat extraordinaire, waking up from a two-year nap. It turns out his father, the annoying King Krichevskoy, died some time ago from Dead Parent Syndrome and now Laharl has to fight off hoardes of oportunistic demons and an angelic assassination attempt to preserve his—that is, Laharl's—place on the throne. Hilarity ensues...

...Or, at least, it would, if the story had any decent writing to begin with. In being adapted to a manga, almost all of the sharp-tongued wit and black humor from Disgaea: Hour of Darkness was seemingly left on the cutting-room floor, leaving a lot of weak wild-takes and sight-gags in its place. The crown of poor humor goes to an inexplicable series of allegations of pedophilia ("Don't knock it until you try it!"). There are occasional moments of seriousness, but they never feel very sincere or natural. As for its sporadic attempts at action, thank goodness they're short: the Disgaea manga's fight scenes have all of the impact of a speeding cotton ball.

The artwork is another serious mark against Disgaea. Takehito Harada, the character designer for the Disgaea series and its many spin-offs, was gracious enough to design the cover. The newcomer Arashi Shindo drew everything else, however, and his inexperience shows badly: characters are chunky-looking, and suffer from stretched-looking faces or blushing cheeks that look more like bad rashes. Many panels feature these ugly characters standing in empty space or within crowded speed-lines. The occasional glimpses at Netherworld or Celestian architecture is nothing to write home about, either.

Occasional bouts of spelling errors aside (note that the story occasionally takes place in "Thhe Netherworld", for one), the Disgaea manga at least boasts a very tight binding and stiff, durable pages. Sadly, all this means is that it makes for a better doorstop than it does as a book. The Disgaea manga is not worth the trouble of tracking down, unless you're a die-hard fan of defunct publisher Broccoli Books. You're better off tracking down one of the many ports of the Disgaea games instead.

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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