Forward March

by Carlo Santos,

Halloween is coming ... but in a fan culture where dressing up for fun happens year-round, is it really that big a deal anymore? With all the fandom lines blurring, even who you cosplay, and where, doesn't matter all that much: you can have your historical cosplay at Comic-con, Doctor Who at an anime con, Sonic the Hedgehog at a Harry Potter convention, Mitt Romney cosplay at the Democratic National Convention ...

Vol. 6
(by Rei Toma, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Princess Nakaba of Senan and Prince Caesar only married each other for the sake of peace between their two warring countries, yet the two find themselves drawn to each other even as political forces threaten to tear their world apart. Nakaba's secret ability to see the past and the future proves to be an asset—but things turn deadly when she chooses to use her power to help a friend! Will Caesar still stand by her amidst the ensuing bloodshed?"

The Prince Cain arc comes to a dramatic, bloody conclusion in Volume 6 of Dawn of the Arcana—and while the good-defeats-evil ending is simple enough, it reveals some deep, complex truths. As Nakaba learns, saving a life often means having to sacrifice another, and her choices ultimately lead to a whirlwind of emotion. Various flashbacks into Cain's youth, revealing him as a tortured figure who simply went astray, add another layer to the character—perhaps in another life, he may have done the right thing. Even Nakaba herself doesn't get instant glory as the heroine: she may have stood up for justice, but she also suffers from guilt and self-doubt from having seen her enemy's past. In the volume's second half, the storyline pushes into new realms of adventure and exploration, as Nakaba and company end up in a foreign land. From deep forests to massive castles to bustling border towns, the various backdrops remind us how distant and fantastical this world is. Elaborate character costumes also add to the otherworldly quality, while simple page layouts allow the story to move along at a steady clip.

How has Rei Toma managed to draw six volumes of this and still not gotten any better with the art? Once again, we get bargain-bin fantasy manga where the characters look vaguely medieval and traipse around a cookie-cutter countryside, with scarcely any richness or detail. That's a critical mistake, because all the great fantasy franchises are dripping in detail (visual or otherwise). Dialogue scenes are the worst, with either no backgrounds at all, or screentones shoved in there for convenience. Action fans may say that the swordfights are the most embarrassing part, though, with the stiff, weak-willed poses and no sense of motion. The story itself also fails to be convincing at times, often because Nakaba never faces true danger—every time it seems she's going to get badly hurt (even by the advances of a lecherous aristocrat), she always gets a convenient bailout. Whatever happened to fighting through one's personal struggles? Meanwhile, the romantic dialogue between Caesar and Nakaba is unconvincing in another way—all they do is spout greeting-card clichés back and forth while making googly eyes. I actually kind of miss when they hated each other.

There's enough drama and adventure to keep the story going (even if it coasts along sometimes), but the seriously mediocre artwork makes it a C.

(by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto, Vertical, $14.95)

"Zooming ahead to a story arc that presents New World wines for a New World audience, this special episode of the international best-seller features scenes set in Napa Valley and labels from outside the traditional European production centers. Delectable on its own too, the Apostle revealed is the lucky Seventh."

Purists may wince, but the sudden time-skip in the US publication of Drops of God—specifically requested by the author—makes it more accessible to American readers, mentioning wines that fans actually have a chance of buying. (No "two-buck Chuck" here, but some of those Napa brands really do go for $15-$30). Meanwhile, worldwide readers can all appreciate the story in this volume: another fierce showdown between Shizuku and Issei that takes them on a global tour of non-European wines. The diverse material goes through Australia, South Africa, Chile, and other unexpected winemaking countries, and the descriptions are as eloquent as any work of fine literature. Various subplots also add interest to the story: Shizuku's search for his father's past in Australia, and Issei getting roped into a wine-auction scam. The realistic art also makes Shizuku and Issei's adventures more convincing, with precise, detailed landscapes that really look like Northern California and the Australian countryside. But it's the wine-tasters' wild flights of the imagination, and their passionate expressions, that catch the eye above all else. Can a wine taste like a famous work of architecture? In a series like this, you bet it can.

This volume does all the things we've come to expect, but nothing more. The Shizuku/Issei rivalry, wine scholarship, and wine-tasting metaphors are simply part of a formula now—and that's all there is. Even worse, the time-skipping gimmick destroys story continuity, and at the same time, it doesn't work as a stand-alone because readers have to know the basic premise first. As for the actual contents, this one has the same problems as all previous volumes: too much information, treated too shallowly, such that wine newbies will feel like they learned something, but will probably only remember the pretty pictures. The subplots, meanwhile, feel like pointless distractions—Issei's run-in with wine-auction scammers, for example, is so wildly melodramatic that it doesn't fit with the rest of the series' calm realism. At least Shizuku gets involved with something related to his dad, but even that veers off into a rambling flashback. The artwork tries to make these ups and downs in the story exciting, but the characters are most often seen in static poses, framed within strictly rectangular panels. New countries, new wines, same old Drops of God.

English-speaking readers are simply going to have to accept this odd jump in the series. The wine research is informative and entertaining as usual, but the now-predictable, often contrived storytelling ranks a C+.

Vol. 3
(by CLAMP, Dark Horse, $10.99)

"Trying to raise a small army to fight against a reincarnated military tyrant, Hana and the members of her strange Ura-shichiken squad come together to protect humanity in present-day Kyoto. Using their mystical dominion over the elements, the colorful crew faces a torrent of hostile invaders as they try to pinpoint their elusive enemy and entice more allies to their side. Chikahito, a seemingly ordinary teenager, has been accepted into Hana's group and thrust into the middle of this war—but it's possible that he has latent powers of his own!"

By its description, Gate 7 seems utterly conventional—a fantasy battle manga based on the Sengoku era—yet CLAMP's artistic vision takes it far beyond the ordinary. The battle that opens this volume is an assault on the eyes in the best way: magical whorls and swirls, otherworldly backgrounds, and bold linework that is at once savage yet beautiful. A sense of nonstop action flows relentlessly through every single fight scene, between the blasts of energy and bulldozer-sized swords and all the chaos that results. Amidst these displays of pure power, there's also creativity to spare, with Gothic Lolita enchantresses and giant praying mantises entering the fray. But there's also room for serious drama and humor to shine through: at one point, Chikahito summons his courage and stops a brutal killing, while just a few dozen pages earlier, he goofs around with various acquaintances as he starts a new school year. Yet some of the students and staff are also the same historical figures that Chika and his crew are fighting against—a reminder of the tension that lurks in this series even when it's not in battle mode.

The fight scenes are impressive, but after three volumes, the story continues to disappoint with its lack of progress. These showy confrontations are nothing more than big, space-filling precursors to a Really Important War yet to come. Take the first chapter, for example—it's actually just Yukimura Sanada "testing" the Ura-shichiken squad for their battle-readiness. The other big showdown, with the praying mantises and everything, is a spur-of-the-moment incident, rather than being a key step forward for the main characters. Speaking of main characters, Chikahito is relegated to spectator duty for all these battles, except when he purposely interrupts. Otherwise, the only time he gets to be the star of the series is for superficial plot points like hanging out with his new friends or attending school. Other time-wasting moments include a dream sequence that's too vague to mean anything, and a battle-planning discussion among members of the Tokugawa clan. The art also falls short in one aspect—chaotic energy is a good thing during the fights, but even the characters' daily lives are crammed with too much visual information, making it hard to differentiate between lively and calm moments.

Beautiful to look at, but still unsatisfying to read—either the content is too shallow or too confusing. CLAMP continues to fall short of their potential as this registers a C.

Vol. 4
(by Kim Hyung-Min and Yang Kyung-Il, Viz Media, $12.99)

"Among the quiet villages and towns of 18th-century Europe, demons known as the Ill hide within the most beautiful works of art, sparked to life by the torment of their creators. Attracted by their jewel-like allure, the unwary find themselves possessed by the Ill and driven to horrific acts of violence. Only the hunters of the Ciste Vihad can dispel the Ill.
The Ill prey upon human feelings, using them as both a lure and a weapon. March must conceal her feelings for Rodin lest the Ill that lies inside her should awaken and destroy her. When Rodin receives an invitation to a fancy dress ball, March surrepetitiously tags along. The gala has also attracted a devilish guest who thirsts for the blood of the young maidens in attendance. March faces her terrifying past once again, and this time all of her friends are in danger!"

In Volume 4, March Story breaks away fully from the constraints of the "March kills evil things every chapter" formula. This story arc digs deep into on March's past, as well as the pasts of friends and foes, showing how their fates are interconnected. The secret that everyone (except the supporting cast) seems to know—March's true gender—finally comes into play, altering some very important relationships. Meanwhile, the action and horror side of the story treads fresh ground too: March gets into life-threatening situations where she doesn't beat the bad guy, while the Ill's powers reach new levels of gruesome. Granted, the series has always been graphic, but a blood-sucking demon who's specifically after the main character and her loved ones makes it that much more disturbing. The period setting also makes a strong visual impression, particularly in the first chapter, where the aristocrats' ball means fancy costumes and decorations. But the savage fight scenes are impressive in their own way, especially with magical effects that fill an entire page and human bodies coming apart like rag dolls. It's an enchanted Baroque world, and the artwork absolutely nails it.

Even though the story is already dramatic enough in itself, the characters still have a bad habit of overacting, treating every little plot point like it's the biggest deal in the world. Yes, it's a surprise when March's closest allies figure out her gender—but do they have to stop all the action for a full two-page spread? And while we're on that topic, there also seems to selective stupidity at work when Rodin (who's normally a pretty sharp guy) fails to realize who March is at the ball in the first chapter. This volume also make the common mistake of treating its villains as mindless cackling caricatures—maybe not the main boss, but definitely her underlings, who have no depth to them aside from bouncing around being evil. In fact, the whole villain setup is not terribly imaginative: the story arc revolves around a mystical circus full of evil clowns and one seriously wicked ringmaster, a fairly common pop culture invention. So March Story doesn't really create something new; rather, it just polishes up well-known tropes with an extra layer of fantasy and violence.

The series succeeds more by the virtue of its art rather than story (where the characters have to be "just dumb enough" for some plot points to work), but there's still enough serious drama to make it a B this time.

Vol. 7
(by Naoko Takeuchi, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Old friends and new enemies lurk in the mysteries surrounding Mugen Academy. The Death Busters crave the Hoste, the human energies, of Sailor Moon and her friends—and they'll prey on the girls' dreams and weaknesses to get it! Furthermore, prophetic dreams hint of 'talismans' that could awaken a 'Deity of Destruction.' Could these things be connected to the guardians' power? And are the Sailor Guardians capable of murdering the innocent to save the entire world?"

Angel wings, a Holy Grail, and human souls being harvested? The current arc in Sailor Moon has definitely taken a spiritual turn, adding another dimension to an adventure that's already cosmic in scope. Indeed, the most dramatic battles in this volume are the inward-looking, personal ones: Moon's pleas for help to the Outer Guardians, and Chibi-Usa's struggle to save a best friend's life. Even when dark magic and aliens are running wild, it's still love, friendship, and self-sacrifice that run this series. Fantastical twists and heart-tugging emotions go hand-in-hand here: disembodied voices cry out for help, a warped child recalls the father she once loved, and the lead heroine puts her trust in friendship no matter how impossible the odds. (That's also why she always wins.) But when the time finally comes for outward displays of grandeur, the series doesn't disappoint. The Guardians' transformations and powered-up weapons are always impressive, while the sparkles and magical effects still look unique two decades on. Aspiring artists ought to study the tones and backgrounds in this book, because Takeuchi knows how it's done. The curved, flowing lines also give the artwork a dynamic quality that few can match.

How can this series bring out ideas that span the entire universe, several millennia, and alternate dimensions ... but still rely on a totally linear battle formula? The villains in this volume's first half are practically a joke, showing up one at a time in order of increasing difficulty, until the path is cleared for the main boss. It's not like these minions even try very hard: Sailor Moon and company keep throwing out random attacks, and then a key ally appears, or a new power-up arrives, and boom! Bad guys keel over instantly. At higher levels, the villains demand slightly more effort, but their personalities and back-stories are laughably cardboard. It's always clichés like "Let's destroy the world" or "I'm a mad genius scientist" that motivates these weirdos. Of course, the heroines fight back with clichés of their own, going on about hope and friendship and Silver Crystals until the interior monologue becomes a mush of words. The action-packed artwork can also be a confusing mush, with lines and effects sometimes doing more to obscure a scene than add detail to it.

This mythic modern-day fantasy continues to succeed in almost every way (alas, if only the villains were more complex and believable). With the gorgeous, flowing artwork, it easily earns a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Akira Nagai and Taro Nogizaka, Shogakukan, ¥505)

"A genius surgeon, Asada Ryutaro, is seen as a renegade in the eyes of Japanese doctors due to his methods. The series follows the harsh workings of the hospital and it exposes the faults of the Japanese hospitals and how their system is not designed to actually care for patients."

No one's ever going to be a better Black Jack than Black Jack, but Asada, the strong-willed lead of Team Medical Dragon, sure comes close. It's easy to fall for the charisma of this supremely confident, ridiculously talented surgeon, and his dramatic way of imparting life lessons. More than that, however, this manga goes beyond its predecessors by actively seeking to expose the corruption and bureaucracy in modern Japanese medicine. The series doesn't just preach, however; it also comes with plenty of entertainment value. Right away, Asada throws himself into life-or-death operating room situations, and right away he challenges the big bad bosses who run the establishment. Writer Akira Nagai was a doctor himself, and his depth of knowledge is clear to see in the detailed procedures and amusing factoids (learn how to stitch a head wound without surgical thread!) that pepper each chapter. And because the writer knows what he's doing, that keeps the artwork honest as well, with precisely drawn internal anatomy and occasional diagrams. At the same time, the distinctive characters, intense facial expressions, and action-adventure speedlines add plenty of energy to go with the more staid medical topics.

The trouble with writers producing an insider exposé is that they get too caught up with the non-fiction aspects, and fail to think about how the story flows overall. In the early chapters, Team Medical Dragon plays out more like a collection of anecdotes—"They care more about following procedures than saving lives!" "They just let patients die!"—and it's not until later that we really start to see character relationships developing. In fact, even the original premise of an assistant doctor trying to assemble a team of surgeons for her thesis already seems pushed to the sidelines; Asada is just so dynamic a character that he overpowers any storyline as soon as he shows up. This also means that supporting members of the cast, like the naïve intern and Asada's lover/nurse, don't get the attention they need to grow into well-rounded characters. The sensationalist storytelling can also be off-putting at times—it seems like Asada comes barging into every room, behaving in a way that would normally get him kicked out of a hospital. An art style that treats everything like a shonen fight scene adds to this aggressive, over-the-top attitude.

It tries a little too hard sometimes, but otherwise, the effort leads to positive results, with careful research and strong characters resulting in a top-notch medical drama.

Sometimes, a manga-ka will get their hit series licensed, but the rest of their oeuvre gets left behind. Then it's up to dedicated fans to make that library complete! Please welcome back a past contributor, black mokona, who introduces us to an early work by an artist many readers may already know.

If you've got a favorite manga-ka whose "minor works" deserve more attention, then this is the place to do it—keep sending in your reviews to Reader's Choice!

(by Julietta Suzuki, Hakusensha, ¥420 ea.)

In Akuma to Dolce, high-school girl Ogura Mayuri meets high-level demon Beaut when she accidentally summons him instead of the little demons that she usually has help her baking sweets. Beaut is naturally enraged by her simple requests, but Mayuri keeps him by her side (and keeps her life!) by his severe sweet tooth.

Only romance drives this manga, so okay, we may not watch the heroine grow into a woman like in Suzuki's English license Kamisama Kiss, but we watch Mayuri and Beaut grow into each other. Loners both, especially Mayuri, they slowly branch out into other relationships. But side characters mostly serve only as foils and I rather prefer the claustrophobic atmosphere because Suzuki is at her most effective in a two-person dynamic. Beaut is a frustrating, childish tyrant whom Mayuri never properly fears, occasionally has wrapped around her finger, and slowly reforms. It gives room for misunderstandings, pining and humor to abound as they learn to make concessions together, braving the missteps of a relationship. "You're scary," Beaut says, "I was really scared you were going to die just like that." "It can't be helped," Mayuri thinks, "to be cowardly when it comes to love."

Between balancing the sweet and the bitter, breathless pacing, and the simple but effective artwork—the complaint most likely to be leveled, it is traditional boy meets girl effortlessly and powerfully executed. The chapters are episodic, but emotionally complex—I couldn't believe how many different elements came together at the end of one chapter. And breaks aren't the back button that haunts will-they-or-won't-they because the leads change perceptibly. That chapter has Beaut contracting selective amnesia and forgetting all about Mayuri, but the space she has carved out in his life remains. He keeps waiting for her even if he doesn't know it's her, and manages a look both detached and miserable, as though missing something.

Since Suzuki put the series on hiatus it has stood at three volumes long, only more than two-thirds of which is scanlated. At this point the analogy sets itself up: this manga is an indulgent little treat, but if you happen to want more, she has been known to go back and forth between her works enough to give some hope to those who haven't been ruined forever by CLAMP.

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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