Going Commando

by Carlo Santos,

Most pundits today agree that the craze for "manga-style art" has come and gone in the entertainment market, retracting back to a special-interest niche. But every now and then, you run into things like this, and you have to wonder.

Just think: someone had to draw that. Someone was told, "Draw a picture of a shirtless bishonen for a tanning lotion," and they did. Hey, a working artist always has to be on the lookout for opportunities ... no matter how unlikely.

Vol. 9
(by Yana Toboso, Yen Press, $11.99)

"Earl Ciel Phantomhive's quietude is interrupted as Queen Victoria's very own butlers commandeer Phantomhive Manor for a lavish banquet sanctioned by Her Majesty. Preparations for such an event are quick work in the hands of Sebastian, the house's most able butler, but corralling the eminent guests may prove to be rather more of a challenge. For this dinner party is anything but festive, and as a stormy night batters the outside of the grand residence, a far more violent storm begins to unfurl within. And no one is safe from the havoc it will wreak—not even one seemingly impervious manservant..."

Unpredictable as it may be, you've got to give Black Butler credit for always trying new things. This time it's a locked-room murder mystery—a well-visited formula, to be sure, but one that takes on special meaning when one of the key players just happens to be the author who created Sherlock Holmes. So, not only does the series dig into a brain-teasing whodunit, but it also pays a wink and nod to its roots. From the moment the first murder happens, the suspense keeps building up like an ever-tightening vise grip—all the way to the final cliffhanger page, where addicted readers will be screaming to know how soon the next volume comes out. At the same time, the series still dishes out its trademark humor, like Sebastian performing improbable acts of awesomeness (he grabs a wine bottle in midair and pours into a pyramid of glasses in one swoop), or Ciel's servants cutely quibbling with each other. There also remains, as always, the delicate linework and elegance of Victorian England on every page—as well as stylish and attractive characters gracing the scenery.

If murder mysteries are supposed to be intellectually engaging, why does this one feel so dull? Maybe it's because it takes so long to get started, filling the first two chapters with day-to-day drivel as the Phantomhive household prepares for the banquet and the guests mill about making small talk. Even when the game is afoot, the plot frequently stalls for time with apparent filler scenes like Sebastian giving instructions to the other servants "just in case." Meanwhile, the pace of the story—which ought to be getting faster as the case gets more serious—keeps being slowed down by long lines of formal (and usually unnecessary) dialogue. Meanwhile, the art is elegant as usual, but often lacks tone or texture—too many areas of white, which only make it harder to read. There are also fewer standout visual moments, as most of the action involves Ciel and company discussing how to solve the mystery. Maybe that's why there's a random sword fight in the first chapter: an illogical outburst shoved in there to take up space, like so much else in this story.

Murder-mystery is usually a fun, exciting genre, and this one starts off with the right elements ... but slow pacing and pointless scenes result in a dull effort that only deserves a C.

Vol. 1
(by Kotomi Tobashi and Kenkou Tabuchi, Udon, $19.99)

"In the year 2026, Metro City is at the mercy of a vicious gang of super-criminals, led by the villainous Lord Scumicide. Only one fighting force can prevent total catastrophe by standing up to these mutant maniacs... That force is the Commando Team!
Ginzu – the Ninja Commando!
Mack – the Mummy Commando!
Baby Head – the Baby Commando!
And of course, the man himself:
Captain Commando – the greatest hero of all time!"

It's easy to laugh at the cheesy names and cheesy powers of Captain Commando—but that's exactly what it wants you to do. This retro video game tie-in from 1994 isn't trying to be serious: it aims at nothing more than having as much superheroic fun as possible. In that respect, it succeeds, starting with an art museum caper and moving on to jewel heists, rooftop confrontations, ninja-versus-superhero battles, and one epic technologically-enhanced punch. This simple macho attitude is what gives the series its appeal—no gray moral hedging, just pure good versus evil, and whoever believes in themselves the most wins. The prominence of female characters is also a pleasant surprise: the early chapters focus on journalist Sarah Kisaragi's investigation of the Captain, and along the way she runs into worthy adversaries like a hard-nosed secretary and a pair of jewel-thieving sisters. Sharp, confident lines and detailed shading give the artwork a futuristic sheen that fits the series' setting, while heavy speedlines and dramatic poses make each battle come alive. (Yes, even the one where the journalist and secretary get into a slapfight.) Basically, Captain Commando charges ahead with full energy and never lets up.

Yes, it's true that the series succeeds at being fun—but just barely. In truth, the formula starts getting old by about Chapter 2: some terrible crime is being committed, and you wait to see when Captain Commando makes his dramatic entrance. Adding to the monotony is that his fighting style never changes, being mostly an array of kicks and punches (usually more cluttered than necessary due to all the special effects drawn into the scene). So yes, if the sheer spectacle of superheroes and villains clobbering each other sounds like fun, Captain Commando qualifies ... but don't expect the actual story to be particularly engaging. Everything is just a predictable trudge from one fight to the next, and the theme of the story isn't even consistent—one moment it's futuristic urban battle, then suddenly we're looking at ninjas duking it out. And even then, these battles don't achieve their maximum potential, as the strict rectangular panels prevent some scenes from making a full impact. Anyone with an aversion to fashion styles of about 20-30 years ago may also want to shield their eyes whenever cheaply made superhero outfits or embarrassing hairstyles show up.

In the end, it's "just okay," the way plotless special-effects movies from Hollywood are just okay. That's about C+ territory around here.

Vol. 1
(by Shuzo Oshimi, Vertical, $10.95)

"Nowhere to go. Nothing to do. The routine of class and endless stupidity in a provincial town is taking a toll on middle schooler Takao Kasuga. Though he gets along well with his peers, they'll never begin to dig any of that reading business that's his only true escape. What can he expect when he's in love with foreign stuff like the poems of Charles Baudelaire?
Yet, his life threatens to take a turn for the worse when he finds and takes home, in a moment of weakness, the gym clothes of pretty, sweet, and smart Nanako Saeki on whom he has a major crush. Witness to the theft is the oddest girl in class, who seems to consider the whole world a pile of excrement and happens to nurse a terribly sadistic streak..."

Count on Vertical to publish something like this: the story of an innocent teenage crush that spirals into twisted thoughts and deviant behavior. At first, Kasuga's bizarre theft seems like one of those dumb adolescent impulses that leads to raunchy jokes and fanservice ... but instead, Shuzo Oshimi turns it into a piercing exploration of the young adolescent mind. The fear of disapproval, the need to express one's individuality, the illogical thought patterns of first love—it's an accurate portrayal of the 12-to-15 age range if there ever was one. That goes double for anyone who's ever thought they were soooo much smarter than the rest of society ... just like Kasuga. What really gets the story going, though, is the presence of resident weirdo Nakamura, whose wicked scheme to "make a contract" with Kasuga will definitely put readers on high alert. The slightly dead-eyed expressions of the characters also help to convey the strange, uneasy feeling that comes from this twisted portrait of youth. Oshimi also shows a natural ease with layouts, spacing out the panels as if it were a breezy, lighthearted school comedy—even though it's anything but.

It's hard to sympathize with the darker side of adolescence when the main characters are so difficult to like. Kasuga's misguided, juvenile behavior is so extreme that readers may find themselves wanting to throw things at him instead of laughing along with his foibles. Even worse is Nakamura, whose negative attitude is so one-dimensional that she has no redeeming traits that would qualify her for the "villain you love to hate" category. And Saeki, the girl of Kasuga's dreams, is just another one of those unattainable pretty faces that appear in male-targeted romances when the author needs to create an object of desire—but doesn't want to bother with a personality. (Hi there, Bakuman!) Perhaps Shuzo Oshimi shouldn't have leaned so heavily on the semi-autobiographical angle, as he often mentions in between chapters. The result is a story that may be relevant to him personally, but comes across as lacking in humanity. The artwork lacks that human touch as well, with lots of stiff character poses, blank backgruonds, and awkward attempts at perspective. It may look clean and glossy on the surface, but the fundamentals need work.

It's a bit rough around the edges, but the general idea of teenage awkwardness rings true. As it is, this twisted tale of love earns a B- so far.

Vol. 9
(by Keitaro Takahashi, $12.99, Viz Media)

"Koko's team of professionals come from many different backgrounds, but each member has been handpicked for their own particular skill set. Unfortunately, while traveling through Iraq on a convoy protected by a British PMC, Koko and her squad must deal with a decidedly less than professional security force and the dangers of the road at the same time. Then Koko and Dr. Minami meet to discuss a fateful scheme, while elsewhere Koko's brother Kasper launches a new enterprise. Like the coils of a serpent, arms dealers encircle the world with their poisonous plans."

There are plenty of reasons why Jormungand rocks: the well-timed bursts of action, the dark glamour of the international arms trade, and the political mind games being played by all sides. But in Volume 9, it's the characters themselves who steal the show, with intriguing back-stories and personalities that go beyond the usual "gun-toting badass" stereotype. The first half shines a spotlight on explosives expert Wiley, showing how he met his comrades in the first Gulf War and how his architecture degree unexpectedly made him the perfect guy for blowing stuff up. (If you know how it's built, then taking it down...) Indeed, seeing Wiley outwit a bunch of trigger-happy mercenaries is supremely satisfying—not just because of flashy visuals and dramatic explosions, but because of how his past experiences pay off in the present day. Then comes a much-anticipated exploration of Koko's own past, with some tantalizing hints about a "plan" she made years ago with a longtime friend—and how pieces of that plan are starting to fall into place. Clean, widely-spaced panels make the art easy to follow, allowing the story to move at a quick, suspenseful pace even as it becomes more complicated.

If these folks are such world-renowned arms dealers, why do we see so little of them actually dealing with arms? Aside from a quick car chase, and Wiley's brilliant bit of bomb trickery, this volume misses a lot of opportunities for gunfights and action scenes. Not that pure action is necessarily a good thing (see the Toriko review below), but it's also possible to swing too far the other way, getting fixated on character flashbacks and dialogue. Koko's segment is particularly guilty of this: lots of drifting chatter with old friend Minami, some dinner conversation with a jaded old dealer, a brief moment with little orphan Jonah ... it's a no-risk, no-reward plotline that blandly moves forward. And just as the story fails to live up to its potential, so does the art, leaving out a lot of background details—it fails to capture the harshness of the Iraqi desert, or the aura of other exotic locales where Koko and company conduct business. Worse yet, the visual style leaves some action scenes too vague, jumping from one moment to the next without explaining how they got there.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for good character writing, especially in a genre that so often lacks it. The personal histories surrounding Koko and Wiley in this volume are strong enough to overcome other flaws and earn a B.

Vol. 10
(by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Viz Media, $9.99)

"In a savage world ruled by the pursuit of the most delicious foods, it's either eat or be eaten! While searching for the tastiest foods imaginable, Gourment Hunter Toriko travels the world with his bottomless stomach, facing every beast in his way.
The battle for the Century Soup continues as Toriko and friends face powerful members of Gourment Corp.! Toriko will have to overcome the toughest foe of his life in Tommyrod, a diabolical freak who controls powerful insects."

Usually, Toriko is all about exaggerating food and wildlife to mind-boggling levels—but this volume proves that it can apply those same concept to pure physical battle. Whether it's a guy with four thousand bones twisting like a mutant freak, a sword-wielding gangster channeling his rage into a single outburst, or even Toriko pushing his own body's limits, these over-the-top fight scenes are exactly what make the series so memorable. It's not just the ideas that are extreme, either: the artwork matches this intensity with wild facial contortions, incredible displays of muscle, and speedlines galore with each attack. Because everything operates on a larger-than-life scale, it's only right that the art should fill up every panel, sometimes even spilling across double pages. That's how you convey the immense strength of these fighters. But there's a subtler side to the storyline too, as Toriko's meek sidekick Komatsu makes a shocking discovery about the Century Soup everyone's been questing for. It seems there's a third party in this epic gourmet war, whose presence could make for a very intriguing Volume 11...

Okay, this is getting as bad as the all-fighting, no-story sections of Bleach—and at least Bleach has the benefit of cool, stylish art. Toriko, on the other hand, has descended into a monotonous mess where every stage of battle involves some guy screaming and concentrating his powers, then trying to punch his opponent harder than last time. Say what you want about it being impressive and exaggerated for effect—it's still just mindless repetition of the worst kind. The bloated, self-indulgent artwork only makes it worse: it's true that speedlines add to the intensity, but when they occupy every single panel, for several pages in a row, it just becomes a big, messy blur. In fact, it's a problem Toriko has had since the beginning: if everything is turned up to eleven, then how does anyone know when something is truly "loud" and amazing? These excessive battle moves also overshadow the actual characters, as if earth-shattering kicks and punches are more important than the people delivering them. Indeed, why should anyone care about Toriko and his foes' reasons to acquire the Century Soup? Clearly, this storyline doesn't.

I love a no-holds-barred battle as much as anyone, but for it to be the sole focus of an entire manga volume is too much. Unless Toriko re-balances itself, this series has sunk down to a D.

(by Landry Q. Walker and Queenie Chan, original concept by Dean Koontz, Del Rey, $10.99)

"Transforming a ramshackle mansion into a dream house has become a nightmare for onetime Hollywood producer Nedra Nolan, whose newly purchased fixer-upper in Pico Mundo has sent a string of spooked contractors scurrying off the job, claiming the place is haunted. Who's she gonna call? Her friend recommends Odd Thomas, the mild-mannered young man with a gift for communing with ghosts who won't rest in peace. With his soul mate and sidekick, Stormy Llewellyn, in tow, Odd agrees to investigate the eerie incidents. But his spirit-seeking style is cramed by the obnoxious TV ghost hunters Nedra hires to flush out the troublesome phantoms with elaborate gadgets.
As night falls and a raging storm traps them all in the mazelike home, Odd tries in vain to scare up some lost souls. But instead, something more terrifying than any apparition—something with flesh, blood, and teeth—makes its sinister presence known. And with nowhere to hide, Odd and his fellow hunters suddenly become the prey."

Third time's a charm for the Koontz/Chan team and their manga-styled Odd Thomas mysteries: this one easily surpasses the first two, delivering scares and suspense that will give readers legitimate chills. Rather than the small-town whodunits of previous volumes, House of Odd ventures into pure supernatural horror, which plays straight into Queenie Chan's artistic strengths. Remember when she freaked everyone out with The Dreaming during her Tokyopop years? Well, imagine that condensed into a single book, and bolstered by an improved command of anatomy, visual pacing, and horror imagery. It's no wonder this stands out among the many haunted-house stories out there. Creepy characters, well-timed page turns, and subtle background details all provide ideal examples of a horror comic done right. And like all good stories, there are other dimensions to this than simply being scary: the early chapters take satirical pot shots at Hollywood, sneering at the madness of celebrity culture and the strange niche of occult reality shows. A chilling flashback into Odd's childhood also adds depth to the main character, proving that there is more to him than just seeing spirits and solving mysteries.

That brief glimpse into Odd's childhood is certainly intriguing—which is why it's so disappointing when the story fails to build on it any further. We see a trauma that he faced in the past, but ... what then? How was he able to move past that? Other loose ends include the origins of the haunted house itself: the villain eventually attacks, and Odd and Stormy fight it off, but there's no attempt to reveal exactly how it came to be in the first place. Even the way he stops the haunting seems contrived, kind of like "play this unrelated mini-game and now you've beaten the final boss." The heavy amount of narration also suggests that writer and artist weren't always in sync, jamming pictures and text together on the page instead of producing a truly visual story. The artwork, meanwhile, falls short of greatness too: Chan is still in the habit of dousing everything in black and gray to make it gloomier, and the backgrounds look a bit stiff with conspicuous, ruler-straight lines and flat surfaces.

Odd Thomas fans will eat it up for sure, and if you aren't already one ... well, you might just be after discovering this suspenseful, slickly-executed mystery.

As we like to say around here, there's no manga quite like a manga about making manga. So here's one example, reviewed by first-time contributor Justin Stroman. Check out his other reviews at Organization ASG—and to everyone else, whether you're a seasoned reader and reviewer or just trying this out for the first time, feel free to submit to RTO Reader's Choice!

Vols. 1-4
(by Hiroyuki, Media Blasters, $11.99 ea.)

Hiroyuki's Dojin Work is a title that I ended up discovering in the MangaNEXT library some years ago. It was one of the better decisions I made since I ended up buying the rest of the series (available by Media Blasters)!

Dojin Work is a story about Najimi Osana, who is convinced that she can make tons of money making doujinshi after hearing from her friend Tsuyuri the amount of money artists can make at Comiket. The problem is Najimi can't draw, and she is hardly willing to draw any 18+ stuff, which is what sells. Along the way, she meets up with other fellow doujin artists in Justice (who really doesn't have another name apparently) and Sora, a conflicted stalker in Junichirou, and other characters appear here and there all to cause one thing: complete madness. And it's exactly why I like it.

True, the general spirit of the 4koma is trying to see if Najimi can actually succeed in making fan comics, but the real spirit is to see her fail, see all of the mistakes she makes, all of the devious games Tsuyuri plays on the main cast, and all the other wacky stories the characters end up going through. I don't know how Hiroyuki did it (though it's probably because he's also been in doujin world), but he made sure there will always be great laughs with each volume, and if you're interested in seeing a bit of the informal side of the doujinshi process, this is definitely a start.

There are a few problems with the series though. It's a 4koma, so there will be times where a joke, especially when it makes some sort of sexual reference, may not fall through, so this manga is not exactly for everyone. Hiroyuki's art is decent enough, but nothing special. The biggest problem however is that there's only four volumes in the U.S.—Media Blasters must have been contracted to license 4 volumes of a 6 volume series. This is a problem since I can't pick up more of Dojin Work (unless of course I buy it in Japanese). It would be great if a publisher could finish the series, but it's been some time since Vol 4 came out, so it looks more and more unlikely. However, my suggestion is simple: if you're at a con, go pick it up, especially if it's cheap. This I find is a pretty good comedy.

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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