Butler Magica

by Carlo Santos,

After the recent California heatwave, I got to thinking that I would probably never survive Summer Comiket. See, I've been to enough American conventions that I can deal with crowds, I can deal with walking, I can even deal with the smell. But trying to deal with humidity? No thank you goodbye.

Vol. 3
(by Ryohgo Narita, Akiyo Satorigi, and Suzuhito Yasuda, Yen Press, $11.99)

"After twenty years of searching, Celty, the headless Black Rider, has at last found her missing head—bobbing through the streets of Ikebukuro on someone else's neck! Though Celty pursues, the girl escapes on the arm of Mikado Ryuugamine, taking refuge in his apartment. But with both the legendary rider and Yagiri Pharmaceuticals bearing down on Mikado in their pursuit of the scarred girl, how can he hope to save his own neck?!"

While the first two volumes of Durarara!! were about disparate storylines flying in all directions, this is the one that truly brings them together. Celty's search for her head, Seiji Yagiri's obsession with a pretty face, the pharmaceutical firm's shady experiments, and Izaya Orihara's machinations all converge upon on a single path—with Mikado at the center. No matter what the theme or genre, the series makes it interesting: action sequences come alive with sharply tilted panels and unusual viewing angles; tense negotiations like the scene at the end of this volume bristle with suspense; even moments like Celty and Shinra's profession of love reveal a gentler side of the story, slowing down the pace. There's even room for humor, like a brief artistic parody of Doraemon, and a wacky scene where Izaya drops in out of nowhere to save Mikado from a street thug. The simple but stylish art helps to keep everything moving at a quick, easily readable pace, adding to the excitement as the different subplots close in on each other. Yes, every twist is important, and every side character counts—which is what makes this story so satisfying and complete.

Even a series as clever and ambitious Durarara!! has its faults. In this volume, there are too many scenes where people sit around and talk, which is what happens when there are multiple storylines going on and everything hits the turning point at about the same time. Suddenly, it becomes time to explain each of the characters' motives, which means backing away from the action for a bit. Yet some of these conversations don't seem all that necessary, like the scene between Celty and Shinra, or Shizuo discussing life with Simon the sushi chef. Other story elements, meanwhile, could use a clearer explanation but never get one—like why Izaya is so interested in Mikado, or where the stitched-head girl ran off to after Mikado took her in. There's also a lack of detail in the artwork, where too many backgrounds are left just plain white, or a few simply sketched lines are supposed to represent an entire school hallway or the streets of Ikebukuro. It's one thing to reduce visual clutter, but stuff like that just looks lazy.

Even if the action isn't as intense as in past installments, and the art falls a little short sometimes, this is still a deep, suspenseful story worthy of a B+.

Vol. 20
(by Kenjiro Hata, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Since the tender age of 9, Hayate Ayasaki has busted his behind at various part-time jobs to support his degenerate gambler parents. And how do they repay their son's selfless generosity? By selling his organs to the yakuza to cover their debts! But fate throws Hayate a bone ... sort of. Now the butler of a wealthy young lady, Hayate can finally pay back his debts, and it'll only take him 40 years to do it.
Wataru and Saki have flown to Vegas on a Golden Week vacation that they can't afford, with the deeply questionable plan of winning the money for a ticket back home. Instead, Saki finds herself playing the Strip's most ruthless card shark—Wataru's reprobate mother—with Wataru as collateral. There's plenty of fear and loathing in Las Vegas tonight, but at least things are going better for Hayate and Nagi, sunning with their friends on the Greek isles. That is, until they stumble into an honest-to-goodness labyrinth..."

What other comedy manga would be audacious enough to actually pull out the "Reaction Guys" meme as a punchline? That's one thing you can count on in Hayate the Combat Butler—that it's always got something weird and unpredictable lined up. From an unlikely bet that saves Wataru and Saki from a casino catastrophe, to the blatantly labeled "Do Not Press" button that plunges Nagi into an underground labyrinth, this volume is full of goofy, creative surprises. That labyrinth, by the way, also proves that Kenjiro Hata's imagination extends beyond just making cheesy jokes. Hata's riff on the classic Greek myth is a survival adventure all its own, with the peril and suspense of the action genre but with twists of humor to lighten things up. And as always, the series also makes room for geek jokes, with a chapter that pokes fun at the otaku lifestyle. This volume even handles romantic overtones well—there's a beautiful simplicity to the artwork whenever Hayate and Nagi share special moments together, especially with the Greek coastline serving as a backdrop. And who'd have thought that a plot point from literally years ago would suddenly make sense now...?

Oh Hayate, poor Hayate. The beleaguered butler continues to have multiple girls chasing him, and it's those middle chapters—where characters like Hinagiku, Ayumu, and others gossip about Hayate—that drag the series out unnecessarily. The comedy works best when going on flights of fancy or dishing out pop-culture punchlines, so this long-winded romantic chatter is the weak link in the story. But even in areas where the series does well, its standards sometimes slip: certain jokes have become canned, repetitive affairs, like when kimono-clad Isumi gets hopelessly lost and pops up in random places. It's also pretty lazy to have a character mention something anime-related, and then assume it's supposed to be funny just because it's geeky. Sorry, no, you still have to come up with an actual joke. But the greatest weakness by far remains the artwork, especially when Hata's imagination outpaces his ability: the labyrinth incident could have been so much cooler if he (and his assistants) could draw something other than generic corridors and smooth walls. Even the outdoor views of Greece look rather plain, and as usual the secondary characters are visually forgettable.

Kind of a mixed bag as far as quality, but the labyrinth adventure and general change of scenery adds something new to the usual goofball humor. Score this one a B-.

Vol. 1-2 Omnibus
(by Kouichi Kusano, Seven Seas, $16.99)

"High school sophomore Takanashi Nao has a problem: she has a crush on her dreamy (if slightly pervy) older brother, Shuusuke. Fortunately, when Nao discovers that she was adopted as a child and they're not related by blood, it seems like the coast is clear—but Shuusuke just doesn't see it that way.
To make matters worse, Nao soon finds herself in direct competition with Shuusuke's hot childhood friend, Iroha. As the two girls vie for Shuusuke's attention, Nao soon learns that all is fair in love and war!"

There's something refreshing about the way Big Brother tackles the carnal side of adolescence—it recognizes that sexuality isn't something to be ashamed of, but is a natural part of growing up. For example, Shuusuke's porn-viewing and self-pleasuring routine isn't treated as an offhanded joke, but actually ties into the overall storyline concerning his romantic interests. When Iroha re-enters Shuusuke's life, he suddenly just stops and tries to ditch his dirty habits—perhaps the ultimate challenge for a teenage boy. And the battle becomes even more interesting when Nao tries everything to re-condition him back into being his old self! As this clearly shows, the scandalous brother-sister element may be the initial draw, but the evolving triangle between Nao, Iroha, and Shuusuke is what gives the story momentum later on—not to mention a young man's struggle to understand his body and his personal desires. Every now and then, there are moments of sweetness as well (like on Shuusuke and Iroha's date), proving there's a soft side to balance out all the raunchy antics.

Okay, let's be real. The very first scene involves Nao sneaking into Shuusuke's bed, and somehow we're supposed to wait for sweet moments and legitimate story developments after that trash? This is just one tasteless joke after another, and when it runs out of incestuous squick gags, it moves on to a new girl who keeps trying to expose her privates to the unwitting protagonist. Not that he's even that interesting of a character: aside from Shuusuke's anti-porn struggle in the middle chapters, he's basically just a male block of wood who sits around waiting for inexplicably horny girls to do things to him. Meanwhile, the one legitimately interesting plot point—about the Takanashi family's history and Nao being adopted—relies on a stupid amnesia gimmick and is quickly pushed aside after it's resolved. But as worthless as the story is, the art is even worse, with lots of messy panel layouts and barely adequate anatomy (apparently "big yaoi hand syndrome" has also infected this genre) cluttering each page. Even the fanservice is poor: there's nothing creative about the timing or angles of the panty shots, and the character designs lack enough realism to be sexy.

Although it tries to cultivate a legitimate love triangle, the story is clearly built around dumb, off-color jokes more than anything, and the fairly ugly art averages it out to a D.

Vol. 1
(by Kenji Kuroda and Kazuo Maekawa, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Stop the performance—murder is afoot! It will take all of genius prosecutor Miles Edgeworth's cunning powers of deduction to uncover the truth behind a murder at a masquerade and a rocker's riotous on-stage demise in this volume of original stories based on the hit Capcom video game!"

Here's some good news for fans of the Phoenix Wright manga. Miles Edgeworth: Ace Attorney Investigations brings back the same writer and artist, promising more whodunits worthy of a mystery novel. The first case proves that even a quick, single-chapter story can be complex enough to keep readers engaged; not only does Edgeworth piece together unlikely clues to form a clever conclusion, but does it with the added difficulty factor of never actually looking at the crime scene. Now that's just cool. The second case, with its colorful rock star characters and familiar sidekick Detective Gumshoe going full-on fanboy over them, also brings some humor to the proceedings—while still providing enough brain-tickling challenges with its seemingly "impossible" crime. As with all well-plotted mysteries, all the clues are right there ... but it's the precise, logical brilliance of Edgeworth's solutions that make each one so fascinating. And unlike the early Phoenix Wright volumes, this one balances out the dialogue and art more evenly, so that the story flows naturally and doesn't get drowned in text.

With the same writer and artist teaming up again, it also means that Miles Edgeworth has the same major weakness as before: stiff, flat-looking artwork that barely scratches by. The main characters match the original designs, but the stock facial expressions and poses rob them of their vitality—it's like looking at Miles Edgeworth as seen on the video game box, rather than Edgeworth himself. The secondary characters, meanwhile, are drawn with even less confidence: apparently the only effort required is to slap some visual clichés together, and try to cover up the lack of consistency. However, there's no covering up the plain, fake-looking backgrounds or the anatomical awkwardness that plague each scene. This spinoff series is also hindered by the fact that Edgeworth doesn't have the charisma of Phoenix Wright—nor does he have the cute sidekicks. So enjoying the series relies a lot more on how engaging the mystery itself is, because the main character doesn't have that instant likability. Plus with everything running on logic rather than hunches and psychic twists, the stories can seem rather dry.

Although these mysteries are of the same level as the Phoenix Wright manga, the more straitlaced main character takes away some of the spark. Coupled with the mediocre art, that adds up to a C.

Vol. 2
(by Magica Quartet and Hanokage, Yen Press, $11.99)

"While Madoka continues to deliberate over the decision to join Homura Akemi as a magical, her best friend, Sayaka, seizes the chance to wish for the recovery of the boy she loves. But when Sayaka is caught in a territory dispute with a more experienced (and more deadly) magical girl named Kyouko, Madoka is reminded that being a magical girl is more than a matter of donning a frilly costume and fighting evil ... it is also a matter of life and death!"

Volume 1 of Madoka Magica was plenty ominous, but didn't offer much drama aside from the Mami incident. This volume, on the other hand, is a nonstop jaw-dropper. Instead of a single scene being the pivot point, the entire story arc is what matters—Sayaka's journey from hopeful heroine to victim of her own idealism. Every chapter offers a shocking new revelation about how the magical girl system works, while the characters' soul-searching discussions—about the true worth of human lives, the futility of self-sacrifice, and the purpose of living—provide plenty of bitter food for thought. Plus it's not just Sayaka's story that triggers this outpouring of drama: Kyouko's harsh attitude, Homura's mysterious actions, and Kyubey's ominous speeches all add up to an increasingly disturbing situation that Madoka can only watch unfold. Perhaps the real drama is seeing whether she can bear all that pain. A simple, economical art style allows the story to move quickly, especially in the blood-soaked action scenes, which often express Sayaka's mood more vividly than Sayaka's own words do. Equally dramatic are the many faces of Kyubey—sometimes playful, sometimes evil—adding a new dimension to the character as opposed to the expressionless anime version.

It's good, but it isn't perfect yet. Madoka herself continues to sit on the sidelines as the story develops, and it's a bit frustrating to see the title character play sidekick or observer to most of what's going on. Worse yet, there's obviously a good reason why Homura keeps jumping in to keep Madoka from turning into a magical girl, but she insists on being vague and ominous about it. (Yes, I know it's all going to be explained later, but as of right now Homura's role seems pretty shallow.) Also in the category of Unexplained Plot Points, we've got the whole "Madoka could be the most powerful magical girl of all time" thing, which is right up there with every shonen battle protagonist arbitrarily being "the destined person" or whatever. Meanwhile, background art is another area that could use some help; a lot of real-world scenes take place in sparsely sketched locales, where sometimes even the ground or walls don't exist. The simplified style also means that characters are sometimes hard to identify from a distance—without color, some of the girls look an awful lot alike.

Dramatic revelations abound as the story enters its middle stages. With some intense character developments and fast-paced visuals, this one gets a B.

Vol. 1
(by Momoshiro and Yuna Anisaki, Futabasha, ¥410/$4.99 online)

"After tons of hard work, ordinary girl Chiaki has finally gotten accepted to her dream school, Otomegawa High! Even better, on her first day there, she's told that she's won a special lottery and gets to be roommates with Katsuho, grandson of the principal and 'prince' of the school, a handsome gentleman who many girls pine for. But as she soon learns, that kindness is only a facade. In private, Katsuho is a sadist—and he wishes to seal the lips of the only one who knows his secret—with his own! Bewildered yet strangely excited by his unwanted attentions, Chiaki is a defensless lamb who has caught the eye of a wild wolf. What will be her fate?!"

Everyone's familiar with the "bad boy" romantic lead these days—but no one pulls it off with quite as much intensity as Katsuho of My Sadistic Boyfriend. He steals kisses from Chiaki almost every other scene, plays mind games about whether he actually likes her or just likes messing with her, and basically serves as the perfect example of the guy you love to hate. Yet every time it seems he's worn out his welcome, Katsuho also shows signs of tenderness—even weakness—that make you wonder. It's hard not to get caught up in such an enigmatic character. At the same time, Chiaki fights back with enough fervor that the lead couple is evenly matched; it's a spirited tug-of-war to see whether she'll give in to Katsuho's charms or push him aside for one more day. Of course, one close-up look at Katsuho's smoldering, perfectly-proportioned face and it's easy to see why one might fall for a sadist. Artist Yuna Anisaki saves her finest work for the one-on-one scenes between Chiaki and Katsuho, bringing out sensuality and unease in equal doses, while comedic reaction faces and sudden shifts of style also reveal a playful streak.

Well, that was thoroughly disturbing. While some might see this as an amusing game of love and hate, Katsuho's habit of forcing himself on Chiaki definitely pushes the boundaries of comfort. To make matters worse, Chiaki makes rationalizations to herself like "I'm not sure if I want it, but maybe I do"—a dangerous line of thinking that's sure to invite moral outrage. Social concerns aside, however, the other big problem is that the story runs almost entirely on Chiaki's internal monologue. Does she seriously have to narrate and analyze every situation in her mind? The way new characters pop up and then fade away shortly afterward is also disappointing—at first it seems there's going to be a second guy to make it a love triangle, and maybe even a third, plus a female romantic rival, but by the last chapter of Volume 1 it's still stuck on the Chiaki-and-Katsuho show. The art also shows obvious signs of weakness in anything that doesn't involve character illustration: the fancy upper-class school is cobbled together from generic luxury-design elements, while various screentone patterns are just there to cover up areas of white.

The love-hate dynamic between the main couple is definitely as addictive as they come, but consider yourself warned about some questionable plot elements and artistic limitations.

Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when Del Rey Manga re-materialized as Kodansha Comics, but what about all the old titles that got stuck in Del Rey limbo? Some stores still have them lying around, but stock is running low! Here's a review from JBRupert about one series that might be worth your while.

As always, any opinions you have about manga past and present are welcome, so feel free to send in your reviews according to the guidelines below!

Vols. 1-5
(by Suzuhito Yasuda, Del Rey, $10.95 ea.)

Ever heard of too much character development? If not, here's a nice example.

Yozakura Quartet (rolls right off the tongue, right?) is about a quartet of teenagers (for those who don't know what quartet means, it's another word for four, but truthfully the group is actually six or seven teenagers, but that doesn't matter) consisting of three unique demon girls, Hime Yarizakura the town major, Ao Nanami who has cat ears and can read minds, Kotoha Isone who can summon things when she emphasizes words, and one human boy, Akina Hiizumi the human boy... STOP!

Now I know what you're probably thinking, that it already sounds like the unoriginal basic set up of any typical harem story, but Yozakura amazingly dodges that bullet and is really about the daily lives of the characters, filled with action, comedy, drama, and supernatural elements that uniquely mixes a little bit of shonen and mostly slice of life elements into a slightly different style of storytelling.

The characters themselves are very likable and are ripe with personality and humorous quirks, with solid character build up that occurs in very chapter. And with a very fast paced and to the point first chapter, it makes it a very promising series to get into.

Truthfully, there's actually quite a lot of character development, and it spends most of its time doing so ... That's not a bad thing per se, and it shouldn't be considered one, but it gets to the point where you'd think the manga artist may have forgot about including a plot (although it is very apparent that there is one, it's just very easy to completely overlook such a paper thin plot), but there is one, you just have to dig into it to actually discover one (the first story arc that makes progress in the story, I mean).

This, unfortunately, robs Yozakura of a decent paced story; it doesn't explain a lot of story essential elements that occur early on and doesn't bother to get around to do it at any appropriate moment, keeping curious readers in the dark. Basically, a character might know something important, but doesn't care to even think about it, and instead occasionally hints about it.

And really, the majority of the character development is watching the character ponder around for several chapters, literally looking at them live their daily lives. You'll even feel like you're eavesdropping on the characters rather than reading an actual story. (I mean really, one chapter is focused on one character's entire daily routine, from getting up out of bed in the morning to watching them go back to sleep.) The result ends up making said early events not make any sense, as the story continues on at a snail's pace as the characters go about their daily routines.

Complementing the characters' personalities are well thought out and stylish character designs (as a bonus to anyone who is into Durarara!!, this manga is created by the same artist who made Durarara!!'s character designs), and overall very detailed and clean artwork. The only glaring flaws are easily mistakable assumptions that can make some think the characters are typical archetypes (like tsundere or moe), and some of the laziest monster designs that you'll ever see and laugh at.

Yozakura Quartet gives you plenty of reasons to be interested in the characters, but unfortunately it does seem to forget that a good paced story is required to help keep one's interest. However, to me it is charming enough to keep me very interested, and I would recommend sticking around for at least ten chapters as it slowly starts to develop an actual ongoing story and for you to decide if you become interested in it like I have.

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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