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Again and a Gen

by Carlo Santos,

Make no mistake: the stretch of freeway between southern Orange County and San Diego, California is one of the most picturesque drives you can ever take. But try to do it on the weekend that all the college students are moving out, and you are in for a world of pain. As I had to be reminded this year.

Vol. 4
(by Rei Toma, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Princess Nakaba of Senan and Prince Caesar of Belquat only married each other for the sake of peace between their two warring countries, so no one expected there to be love between the unlikely couple. But just as feelings start growing between them, Nakaba's power, the Arcana of Time, shows her a vision of a young woman's murder. Has the time come for Nakaba to harness her power to change fate?"

Dawn of the Arcana goes on a road trip in Volume 4—up north to a European-style mountain village, where the change of scenery allows Rei Toma to test her artistic talents. The results are undeniably picturesque: lavish villas, an ancient church, deep forests, and towering clifftops are some of the visual delights that await in this volume. The characters' out-and-about costumes aren't too bad, either. The shift in storyline is also a welcome change, going from intra-castle politics to a tense life-or-death adventure. For the first time, we get to see Nakaba using her Arcana powers for an immediate situation, rather than just having flashes of the past or a distant, unapproachable future. Tied into all of this is some intrigue and betrayal involving royal attendant Bellinus, just to make sure the story still taps into that political angle. (Don't forget the big revelation at the end of Volume 3...) After all the adventure and drama, however, is a sweet, heartwarming moment with Caesar and Nakaba in the final chapter—a reminder of the series' true purpose amidst the sorcery and swordsmanship.

Actually, if the series' true purpose is to constantly fall short of expectations, it's doing an incredible job! After the serious revelation last volume, this jaunt into the mountains is hardly relevant—rather than investigating the King's grand military plans, Nakaba spends an entire chapter on a shopping trip. Even the smaller-scale, episodic plot points are a mess: after Nakaba's doom-filled premonition, the subsequent chain of events has little to do with what she saw in her vision. (Of course, if it turns out that was just a red herring, I'd love to be proven wrong.) The character motives are also very elementary-level—follow the Prince's orders, or the King's? Come on, a grade-schooler could think up that kind of moral dilemma. The artwork is just as rudimentary, with Rei Toma putting in the bare minimum (and sometimes even less) to represent the characters, their environments, and various textures and effects. An action scene reveals that Toma can barely get anatomy right, and the ambitious attempts at mountain and woodland scenery are really just line-drawn copies of what must be some gorgeous reference photos. With lazy art and a lazy storyline, why even bother?

It seemed that things were on the way up—but the change of scenery here does nothing to actually improve the story. It's a disappointing C- for this volume.

Vol. 1
(by Kio Shimoku, Kodansha Comics, $19.99)

"It's spring of freshman year, and Kanji Sasahara has a difficult dilemma. Should he declare his love for manga and anime fandom by joining an otaku club, like he has always wanted to? Is he prepared to deal with the social stigma attached to being an otaku? Meanwhile, Saki Kasukabe has her own otaku conundrum. How can she turn her boyfriend, anime fanboy Makoto Kousaka, into a normal guy? Kanji follows his heart as does Saki. When both Kanji and Makoto join Genshiken: The Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture, Saki chases Makoto through the various activities of the club from cosplaying and comic conventions, to video gaming and anime model figures. Saki finds otaku to be more than she imagined, but not necessarily in a good way..."

True story: I actually disliked Genshiken when I originally read Volume 1—"Why would I want to read a manga about something I already do everyday?" But after several years, I now understand its charm: true-to-life observations that readers will identify with. (And for those who are new to the fandom, consider this your life manual for future situations.) Genshiken doesn't just throw random anime and game references out there; rather, it illuminates the human side of otaku culture, giving us characters with genuine up-and-down emotions. Behind the snarky witticisms ("It takes a highly evolved mind to appreciate 2-D beauty!" "Building plastic models is a reflection of your soul!") are grains of truth, and in the obsessive-compulsiveness of convention queues and midnight releases lies a spirit of dedication. The artwork also gets it right, spoofing the ultra-commercialized moe style with made-up franchises and ero-games, not to mention carefully detailed clubrooms and apartments brimming with books, DVDs, games, and posters. The characters' distinctive appearances and comical reaction faces also add variety: they're not just made-to-order stereotypes, but real geeks who each live the life in their own special way. And that's what it's all about.

Genshiken's charm comes from its observational humor—but that's also what kills it in the story department. This 3-in-1 volume, which covers about a year and a half of college, wanders about with no specific sense of direction. There's no quest to be the biggest fanboy, or collect the most merchandise, or win over a new fan—instead it's a disjointed assortment of over-your-head discussions, college-club politics, and arguments about the "normal" versus "otaku" lifestyle. Even worse is when it ventures into repetition: the club attends the Comiket (sorry, Comic-Fest) convention every volume or so, and the only variation is who gets into a comical scrape each time. The constant harping of Kasukabe also turns her into a gimmicky one-note character ("Eww, smelly otaku!") who dominates too much of the storyline—as the one person with an opposing viewpoint, she has to carry the oversized load of being the antagonist. The series also falls into a common visual trap, where talking heads dominate every panel and not even great expressions can overcome the sameness of each scene. Now I'm remembering why I disliked it in the first place...

Fortunately, the series' wit and artistic detail is enough to overcome a sometimes wandering, repetitive storyline. Score this one a B.

(by Shigeru Mizuki, Drawn and Quarterly, $26.95)

"The definitive work by acclaimed gekiga-ka Shigeru Mizuki, NonNonBa is a poetic memoir detailing his interest in yokai (spirit monsters). Mizuki's childhood experiences with yokai influenced the course of his life and oeuvre; he is now known as the forefather of yokai manga.
Within the pages of NonNonBa, Mizuki explores the legacy left to him by his childhood explorations of the spirit world, explorations encouraged by his grandmother, an endearing old woman named NonNonBa. NonNonBa is a touching work about childhood and growing up, as well as a fascinating portrayal of Japan in a moment of transition."

It may be autobiographical, but there's nothing egotistical or self-indulgent about Nonnonba. If anything, the book is downright charming and relatable, with the exploits of young "Gege" being exactly what every boy has lived through. Mizuki tells warm, folksy tales about mischief and adventure, the fickle politics of friendship, and even the stirrings of first love. And on the rare occasions when the artist does reveal his genius, he doesn't get all technical and try to explain How To Draw Yokai Manga—instead he leads by example, with fantastical yokai illustrations and stories that shift effortlessly (and sometimes deceptively) between illusion and reality. Yet the human factor is also strong in these stories: Gege's strict mother, his flighty father, and various siblings and neighbors all have personal dramas to deal with, each woven into the main story. The simple, gag-cartoonish art lends itself to many lively expressions, and Mizuki also gets lots of unique character designs out of it. The detailed backgrounds also add to the atmosphere, creating a portrait of small-town, pre-war Japan rarely seen even in old-school manga. So it's not just an entertaining account of a legendary artist's childhood, but a historically interesting one too.

Like many autobiographies, Nonnonba could probably have used some more editing to help connect the story elements together. Instead, every chapter of Mizuki's childhood is given just as much prominence as the others: instead of a clear arc we get more of a random up-and-down line. The first half of the volume, where Gege spends most of his time absorbing folk knowledge from Nonnonba and getting into trouble, is the main problem area in that regard. It's not until new characters show up, and problems mount among friends and family, that a truly compelling story emerges—and that takes a couple of hundred pages to happen. The frequent dialogue, and heavy emphasis on slice-of-life drama, may also disappoint those who were expecting something more fantastical. Mizuki's biggest artistic weakness also becomes clear when one starts to notice the same type of panel showing up all the time: a landscape-oriented rectangle, dialogue balloons in the upper right and left corners, and characters A and B talking to each other. With a repetitive pattern like that, no wonder he has to come up with eye-catching character designs just to keep people interested...

Not quite the greatest masterpiece or feat of the imagination, but it's still full of charming childhood tales and wondrously inventive monsters, which is good enough for a B.

Vol. 9
(by Hiroshi Shiibashi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"The yokai Hagoromo-Gitsune continues her attack to break the eight seals of Hidemoto. If she succeeds, the entire city of Kyoto will be under her full control. To save the city, Rikuo and his newfound allies, other trainee yokai that he's met in the city of Tono, will have to harness all the power they've acquired and travel from the safety of Tono toward the ensuing fray in Kyoto!"

Don't be lulled into thinking that Rikuo's stay in Tono is "just another training arc." His preparation for the big fight against Hagoromo-Gitsune is rewarding enough in itself: Rikuo figures out his powers on his own, then puts them to the test when actual enemies show up. The world of Nura itself is also explained in fuller detail: we learn that "fear" is not just a feeling, but an actual power that yokai can wield and counter in battle. See? A lot more interesting than simply standing under waterfalls or meditating. But the real best part is saved for the last couple of chapters, when Rikuo comes home with his newfound abilities and the rest of the clan see how much he's grown—especially his grandfather, the original Nurarihyon. As always, Hiroshi Shiibashi's artwork makes a masterpiece out of every other page, where bold brushstrokes and historically-influenced designs give the series an air of visual authenticity. These yokai may look as if they just popped out of a traditional painting, yet they're as vibrant and battle-ready as any action-manga protagonist. And just imagine how spectacular the fights are going to look when the real powerful villains show up...

The middle chapters fill in an important plot point—Hagoromo-Gitsune taking over Kyoto, one temple at a time—yet it's so predictable that it's easily the most boring part of the book. Of course she's going to take over Kyoto; how else would there be a story? Making it even less interesting is that Rikuo and friends barely play a role in that segment, instead leaving the good-guy role to minor members of the Keikain clan. It's hard to feel invested in characters that are only going to appear as no-name cannon fodder, waiting to be steamrolled by the chief villain. Meanwhile, Rikuo's training arc tries to be interesting in its own right, but his adversaries are clearly designed to be as disposable as possible, and he's got so many allies that there's never a sense of danger. Yes, you get to learn how yokai "fear" works and see Rikuo develop his talents, but he won't truly be using them until that far-off Hagoromo-Gitsune fight. And while the story doesn't do enough dramatic things, the artwork does too much, with cluttered lines and busy textures making a mess out of what should have been clean, powerful action scenes.

Knowing what the story is capable of, all this preparation for the big showdown just barely treads water—it's an average, almost filler-like effort that earns a C+.

Vol. 1-2 Omnibus
(by Jung-Man Cho, Seven Seas, $16.99)

"In a world where witches have declared war against humankind, an agency of professionals is formed to hunt down witches.
Tasha Godspell, also known as the 'Magic Marksman,' is one of the best Witch Hunters there is. Along with his sword-wielding Jack-o'-Lantern partner known as Halloween, Tasha puts his magical training and special weaponry to good use as he tracks down his prey. And yet, he cannot bring himself to fully hate the very witches he is tasked to destroy..."

It sounds like a familiar fantasy concept, but Witch Hunter doesn't just limit itself to swords and sorcery. Tasha's gunslinging skills and devil-may-care attitude add a Wild West flavor, while the characters' dapper outfits and some of the magical "technology" hew closer to the worlds of steampunk and sci-fi. On the opposite end of the scale are the witches themselves, whose character designs take their influence from fairy tales and magical girl adventures. So don't ever say Witch Hunter constrains itself to a single genre, when it brings together so many at once. The story itself also pulls out one surprise after another, from the truth about Tasha's little sister, to the motives of the villains working behind the scenes, to the sheer extent of Tasha's own powers. With twists like that, there's no simple "power up and beat the bad guys" formula—instead, expect a lot of page-turning thrills. What's more, the bold angles and explosive displays of sorcery are a sight to behold—Tasha and his foes' spells aren't just powerful; they look impressive too.

It's all surface detail and no real story for Witch Hunter, which tries to divert readers from its shallowness by being as wild and unpredictable as possible. In the first half, Tasha's suddenly gets a new opponent for no other reason than "the first witch ran off and will fight him seriously later," which is a terrible reason. Part of that plan, it seems, involves a governing organization of witches who have something vague and ominous in store. This smacks of poor, disorganized fantasy writing—establishing the fact that the villains exist, then having no clue how they're actually going to try taking over the world. Tasha's adventure in the second half of the omnibus shows no improvement: he just goes through the motions against a new set of witches, adding nothing new to the storyline that was laid out previously. (And his little sister? Oh, let's just forget her for a whole story arc.) Meanwhile, the characters themselves have personalities and back-stories that add up to nothing—everyone just wants to be "the coolest guy" (or the deadliest witch) because that's what's expected. Flashy adventures are fun, but being bored and confused isn't worth it.

Despite slick action scenes and an effort to be as exciting as possible, the poorly planned story (if there even is one) leaves this at a D.

Vol. 3
(by James Patterson and SeungHui Kye, Yen Press, $12.99)

"Using his incredible abilities, Daniel X continues to track down intergalactic criminals bringing their alien brand of evil to Earth! The next target on the List is Phosphorius Beta, an explosive demon of fire with a legion of flame-weaving henchmen. Even though his own powers have grown since taking down Number 5, the only chance Daniel has of beating this ancient demon is to go back in time to the Dark Ages and destroy Beta before his blistering reign has a chance to even begin. But can Daniel X take the heat? Or will the alien hunter finally get burned?"

So, you thought Daniel going to outer space in Volume 1 was epic? How about some trans-millennial time travel? The breadth of James Patterson's imagination shows itself once again in this latest Daniel X. It isn't just that he comes up with gripping, mind-blowing ideas—an alien made entirely of fire, a time-trip to medieval England, and an interesting use for a famous world landmark—but then he ties them all together into a twisting, always-surprising adventure. Daniel's alien battles are anything but predictable: every time it looks like it might be "the final showdown," another wild-card factor ends up changing everything. The slower-paced first half also works surprisingly well, allowing readers to ease their way into the story and understand Daniel's powers instead of trying to jump into two hundred straight pages of action. But when that action finally comes, boy, does it ever: elaborate monsters, stunning special effects, and acrobatic moves are all part of this series' visual language. Eyes will pop for the Daniel Vs. Beta finale, but the real show-stealer may be Daniel's dream sequence early on—a surreal canvas of alien imagery and superhuman feats that's truly "only possible in comics."

It's one thing to have a broad imagination, but does James Patterson ever stop himself and think if something actually makes sense? The time travel is pretty nifty to start out, but once the story sends Daniel several centuries back, it just gets more and more outrageous. Eventually, anyone with a decent education in science, history, or literature is just going to throw up their hands in exasperation. The compulsive desire to top one idea with an even wilder, crazier idea also makes for an unbalanced ending, where you just wish it would be over instead of having to witness yet another explosion. With all this high-concept gimmickry, the story eventually loses its human touch: the bond between Daniel and his friends is never convincing, and the more he has to mutter to himself "I really care about protecting everyone," the more fake it seems. And the worst gimmick of all is when his friends are conveniently saved by a plot hole cover-up near the end. The artwork can also seem fake at times, most noticeably in backgrounds that are either cheaply photo-referenced or just plain dull. The somewhat stiff character designs don't help either.

The alien-powered battles and time-tripping madness are a lot of fun, but if you prefer things that make sense and don't rely entirely on blockbuster sci-fi imagery, be wary of this one.

Traversing the dimensions and ending up back on Reader's Choice, black mokona comes to us with yet another review! This time it's a big-name manhwa that gets the critical eye—and here's the verdict.

(by Park SoHee, Yen Press, $10.99 ea.)

What if Korea had continued monarchism? What if Korean royalty attracted the kind of attention the press reserved for the Europeans? In other words, what if a Korean girl's prince charming has the face of K-pop idols instead of blond hair and blue eyes? High-school girl Che-Kyung is forced to marry the jerk-ass crown prince because of her grandfather's old promise to the late king, even though she had just witnessed his proposal to Ms.Queenbee!

Goong is the super popular manhwa adapted into the super popular K-drama, so of course nobody knows about it in North America. Still, it's safe to say we've seen this before. Enter the plain, klutzy, but strong-willed and innocent stand-in and the insensitive eye-candy, who's just really insecure and kind deep down. Enter the best-friend-love-interest who never really had a chance and the new-old flame who resorts to extreme methods for attention. Here they are trying to share a bed while feigning indifference, soldiering through misunderstandings and interference from every corner of the palace, but only after dutifully enacting domestic abuse. Plot wise, dynamic wise, Goong doesn't even attempt to be original, but does aspire to milk the premise for everything it's worth. Even artistic merits are conventional: both traditional and modern (actually fashionable) clothing are consistently excruciatingly detailed; the same cannot be said for anatomy and expressions.

Except, unlike most of its brethren, Goong has won the heart of so many readers. This is a premise done right, a premise done justice, a premise that works because of not only the skillfully building drama, the utter sincerity with which it's treated, but also the above-par characterization. And when this happens it doesn't feel so contrived anymore.

Of course it was a lazy idea, a cheap one, even. Let's have period cosplay and the Cinderella dream, as well as the ensuing political drama without actually having to research about feudal Korea. Yet, I believe the hook. Goong owes part of its success to the carefully unfolding world. Royals are celebrities who cannot afford scandals; Korea is a progressive country until doors are closed; and we see them through the lenses of the normal citizens before getting an insider's perspective. Park So-hee doesn't skip any step.

Which sets the stage for all the clichés in the book. And for merely going through all the motions it's supposed to, Goong manages to induce the corresponding emotional upheavals. Consummations are earned, tragedies strike very (un)timely, and politics play in the background. (Hello, death of family member and horrible car accident!) Why, even humor is well placed: it takes quite a few stabs at yaoi subtext.

Characters work as who they are, which means they don't have to be really likeable, but so dysfunctional they can love each other. By way of the bishounen's typical hot and cold routines, he leads Che-Kyung into her new life, and as he falls for her he starts wonder if she should leave the palace for her own sake. I don't necessarily want to live that kind of complicated relationship, or to have happen to me the sweeping off one's feet, and I know just how offensive it is for us to have writers presume a target audience and try to give us what they thought were our deepest darkest desires. But I'm kind of immune to it by now, and I was happy for Che-Kyung and her prince, found it so sweet and romantic that they should have each other. Here lies Goong's greatest conundrum: it's so easy to love and just as easy to dismiss.

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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