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When Gulls Cry

by Carlo Santos,

Well, what do you know, it's December 2012 already. Is everyone prepared for the end of the world? Thankfully, my apocalyptic death probably won't come from being crushed under a stack of falling manga ... because I store most of it in piles on the floor.

Vol. 2
(by Kent Minami and Nozomu Tamaki, Seven Seas, $11.99)

"Hell's demons have attacked Mitsuru again and again—and now he wants to know why. His archangel protector Gabriel has answers for him, but a shocking revelation may shatter their bond of friendship forever.
Meanwhile, Gabriel's partner Azrael goes on a mission to assassinate the Alpha, the leader of the demon organization that hunts Mitsuru. When the mission goes awry, Azrael must escape a horde of angry demons ready to send her back to heaven in a body bag."

Volume 2 of Angel Para Bellum is just as good as the first in terms of butt-kicking action—and now it's developing a background story to go with all that. The first half is a crowd-pleaser all the way, leading off with an intense sniper mission, followed by a car chase so speedy that anyone with motion sickness issues may want to read it from a distance. Even a flashback chapter, which explains how the current characters got pulled into this supernatural turf war, can't help but tell its story with a storm of bullets and supernatural explosions. But this volume's most explosive moment comes when Mitsuru has an unexpected family reunion, and learns something that may well blow his naïve young mind. If anyone thought this was a straight-up good vs. evil war, well ... the end of Volume 2 has suddenly made it hard to pick sides. The story moves at a brisk pace thanks to sharp, high-contrast artwork that focuses on the characters' actions and puts aside unnecessary fluff. When Azrael fires her twin pistols and leaps across city streets, her presence stands out amongst everything else—just as it ought to.

Even with a plot that's starting to show some substance, Angel Para Bellum is still basically "girls with guns" and "angels versus demons" smashed together. The more Azrael tries to explain the origins of what she's fighting for, the more it sounds like someone just looked up a bunch of Biblical words, then decided to assign them arbitrarily to this series. Mitsuru's role as the "chosen one," and the family ties that are brought up in the last chapter, are just a couple more off-the-shelf plot devices that are thrown in to make the story sound important. The placement of the flashback chapter is also ill-advised—it's actually the original pilot that kicked off the whole series, but shoehorning it into this part of the series breaks up the flow of the main story. The artwork also disappoints just as often as it impresses, with flat background visuals that look like cardboard city dioramas instead of the real thing, and many areas of white and grey that lack any interesting details or textures. Oh, and the angels' impractical, revealing outfits are as ridiculous and hard to believe as they've always been.

It's a little better than Volume 1, with more back-story and character conflict, but the plot still rests on too many clichés, and the art is only good during gunfights. This one ranks a C.

Vol. 1
(by Misun Kim, Yen Press, $18.99)

"We are pirates...
Yup, we are totally pirates...
Whatever anyone may think, we are definitely pirates...
We have a captain, a crew (?), and even Robin, so we are absolutely pirates...
Captain Aron is a brainless idiot, and Robin only loves money, but we are still pirates...
Sailing in search of treasure (or not), we are unquestionably pirates...
So, in conclusion, we are pirates...!"

That's right, folks. No matter how many times the "Absurd Armada" may try to convince themselves, their incompetence makes them the last people anyone would expect to be pirates. That's what makes the series so funny: whatever these swashbucklers do, they're going to screw it up. Even funnier is how many variations there are on the "well-intentioned idiot" character type: there's the self-absorbed captain, his ridiculously photogenic first mate, a chef whose culinary skills are literally deadly, and a disturbingly skilled hairdresser (yes, they recruited a hairdresser aboard the ship). What's more, Aron's aristocratic family and the military forces that keep trying to capture him are dysfunctional in their own ways. The series also invents many wacky adventure scenarios, from sea monsters to desert islands to snowy mountain ranges and—in the brilliant final act of this volume—a madcap attempt at stealing the king's treasure, where all the characters show up at once. Full-color art and distinctive character designs make these four-panel strips stand out visually; there's definitely a lot more to the action than just people standing around and trading quips. Between the swordfights, chase scenes, fancy outfits, and incompetent pirates, what's not to like?

It may be in full color, on outsize glossy pages, but it's still a gag strip—and that means lots of stop-and-go storytelling, as Aron's Absurd Armada tries to squeeze in a joke every four panels. Even in the midst of grand battles and world-spanning adventures, Aron and friends try to dish out punchlines of varying quality. When a character overreacts for no reason, or makes an off-color "gay" joke (juuust not a good idea), it's a clear sign that the series is trying to find humor where there isn't any. Every now and then, the format does switch into "standard" comic paneling—but even these moments run on the one-joke-at-a-time structure, instead of telling a continuous story. It's so disjointed that instead of feeling like a high-seas excursion, it's more like we're getting the awkwardly-captioned vacation photos. The artwork also ends up being limited by panel size, with only enough room for character illustrations and not much else. Backgrounds are often forgotten (unless it's something simple like a ship's deck or a castle corridor), and areas of blank space get cluttered up by needless lines of dialogue.

You know, I'm just glad it's a gag strip that doesn't involve high school girls hanging out. Although not terribly sophisticated, Aron's absurd humor still earns a B-.

Vol. 53
(by Tite Kubo, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Ichigo Kurosaki never asked for the ability to see spirits—he was born with the gift. When his family is attacked by a Hollow—a malevolent lost soul—Ichigo becomes a Soul Reaper, dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping the tortured spirits themselves find peace.
Ichigo is rescued from the pit of despair once again by Rukia. And she's not the only member of Soul Society who shows up to help out. Now having finally regained his true Soul Reaper powers, Ichigo faces off against Ginjo with no restraints."

If absence makes the heart grow fonder, you're going to fall in love with Volume 53 of Bleach, where several long-missed characters make their comeback. Sure, the Fullbringers and their special powers are nice, but nobody beats Soul Society's finest when it comes to pure swagger. With a single smirk, a slash of a sword, or a wisecracking line, each of the new arrivals in this volume commands attention—that's how charismatic they are, even after all this time. The stylish, dynamic artwork is also perfectly suited to showing off their combat moves: severe columns of ice, razor-sharp petals flying through the air, pure superhuman strength, and more. And if there's anything more exciting than seeing these familiar powers in action, it's seeing how they measure up against Ichigo's newfound enemies. From a visual perspective, Tite Kubo is also back to doing what he does best: extreme close-ups, surprising angles, incredible moves condensed to the most simple, striking lines, and panels that flow effortlessly from page to page. New characters and surprise twists may have caught the attention of fans in the recent volumes of Bleach—yet it's the return to familiar faces that makes this one shine.

Sounds like someone's a little too infatuated with the Soul Society faction in Bleach, simply because of their dramatic re-appearance. In truth, the only thing their comeback does is plunge the series right back into the dumb things it's always done: endless battle scenes, flip-flopping from one fight to another, and zero story or character development. Seriously, Bleach's idea of catching up with a longtime ally is having him say, "Oh, I was training for 17 months since the last story arc, so now I'm super-strong." What, do these people just hang out at the dojo and work out all day? The decision to split up Ichigo's buddies and have them fight against Ginjo's minions one-on-one is even more galling—this is exactly what happened during the previous arc, and shows no creative thinking at all. To make it even more contrived, they're partitioned off into "alternate dimension rooms," which conveniently absolves Kubo of needing to draw proper backgrounds. (He does have a little fun with Rukia's space, though.) Normally, the idea of alternate dimensions provides an opportunity for creative experimentation, but knowing this series, it's just an opportunity to get lazy again.

Sadly, all the great story twists and shocking developments were used up last volume. The battles here have enough entertainment value for a B-, but it's pretty hollow entertainment.

Vol. 1
(by Ema Toyama, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"Cell phone novelist Yukina Himuro has decided that, in order to satisfy her fans' demand for love stories, she must experience romance firsthand. But with her icy reputation, how can she find someone willing to play the part of boyfriend? By blackmailing the most popular boy in school, of course!"

Can a typical school romance about a mismatched boy and girl turn out to be insanely good? It can if it's Missions of Love. At first, the concept just sounds generically cute: Yukina orders school heartthrob Kitami to perform various "missions" to help her understand how love works. However, the real fun starts when the two of them lock horns in a series of devious mind games. Yukina, as one might have guessed, is anything but a typical romantic heroine: she's aloof, scheming, and quietly observes people so she can take advantage of them later. Kitami, meanwhile, acts all perfect on the outside, but has some dark motives of his own. That's the real dramatic angle here: the story of this couple is not "When will they fall in love?", but rather, "When will one outwit the other?" The artwork does its best to make these characters likable, even with their dysfunctional personalities—Yukina's piercing eyes and Kitami's textbook pretty-boy looks are an instant attention-grabber. This volume also proves that dialogue scenes can be visually engaging, with various screentones and textured backgrounds helping to fill out blank areas. In many ways, this series simply defies expectations.

The main characters' personalities may defy the norm, but ... isn't that basically the norm these days? Yukina is practically a checklist of all the "negative" traits one expects from the anti-sugary-sweet protagonist: she has no friends, always looks angry, and conveniently has a secret side gig (Teenage cell phone novelist is just another way of saying teenage manga-ka, isn't it?) And then, of course, she focuses on the hottest guy in school—who has a scarily overprotective fan club. Come on, if this series were truly overthrowing genre tropes, it should have at least thrown out the one about going after Mr. Perfect. Then comes the most predictable trope of all: the one where Yukina's pretend-boyfriend scheme may be leading to hints of actual love. Definitely saw that one coming from before Page 1. Even the artwork is subject to the conventions of the genre—the series takes place at school, so expect the usual desks, classrooms, and corridors everywhere. In addition, the childlike character designs will disappoint those who wanted the visuals to at least be as sophisticated as the mind-game-playing storyline.

Okay, so it's still a standard boy-meets-girl romance at heart—but the battle of wills between the two main characters is so addictive that it's totally worth a B+.

Vol. 1: Legend of the Golden Witch
(by Ryukishi07 and Kei Natsumi, Yen Press, $18.99)

"Each year, the Ushiromiya family gathers at the secluded mansion of its patriarch, the elderly Kinzo. It has been six years since Battler joined his cousins at the annual event, but their happy reunion is overshadowed by worsening weather and an eerie premonition from his youngest cousin—not to mention their parents' feud over the inheritance. Battler doesn't hold much stock in dark omens, nor does he believe the tales of the witch rumored to have given his grandfather a fortune in gold ... and who walks the halls of the mansion to this day... But when the eighteen family members and servant are trapped on the island by the raging typhoon, the grisly events that follow leave Battler shaken to his core. Is one of his relatives desperate enough to kill for the family fortune? Or is this the work of the Golden Witch?"

Umineko isn't the first locked-room mystery or occult thriller, but it takes these genres to unprecedented heights. This ambitious work includes eighteen key characters, ten very specific prophecies, and jams it all into a manga that spans 500 pages in the first act alone. It sounds daunting at first, yet the story makes itself remarkably accessible. Starting from just Battler's point of view, it then branches out to the cousins, the parents, and the servants, until each member of the Ushiromiya family is introduced in detail—and suddenly, recognizing every single one of them isn't that hard. Then come the ominous pronouncements, a horrific murder (easily ranking among the five goriest things you'll ever see in manga), and emotional breakdowns that hit even harder than the crime itself. The well-dressed, distinctively drawn characters help make this complex story easy to follow, as do the panel layouts with well-spaced images and text. The artwork also has a natural flair for the dramatic, with characters who truly act out their feelings, and lots of creepy, ethereal visions when the series visits its occult side. Once you've been pulled into this world and its severe logic, there's no getting out.

For readers who enjoy innovation and unpredictability, the formal structure of Umineko may be exactly what they don't want. This story basically makes up a bunch of picky rules and conditions so that nobody can question any possible plot holes: here's an exact list of victims and suspects, here's a setting where none of them can leave, and here's a disturbing poem that predicts everything that will happen. Wow, could they possibly pile up any more clichés from the world of mysteries and thrillers? Oh, right, they also included the adorable little kid that suddenly starts acting really creepy. Even one of the story's unique creations—its huge cast of characters—can be a weakness, like in the early stages when they try to introduce all the parents at once. The series' overall balance is good, but some individual scenes just cram too many people into one place. Lots of screaming and overacting may also put off those who dislike extreme melodrama. The artwork has hit-or-miss moments as well, with interior mansion shots that look flat and boring, and conversation scenes that devolve into the much-dreaded "talking head" sequences.

Despite the precise "rules and conditions," this mystery brings out an incredible amount of suspense and horror—enough to earn a B+.

Vol. 2
(by Gail Carriger and Rem, Yen Press, $12.99)

"Settling into her new life as the Lady Woolsey, Alexia finds her days quite challenging whether it is a regiment of supernatural soldiers camped out on her front lawn or the demands of being the Queen's 'muhjah.' There never seems to be a want of new hurdles to overcome. But when stories of supernaturals rendered normal by some unknown force begin cropping up, Alexia has a rather serious mystery on her hands. Can she root out the cause of this phenomenon, which smacks of some larger plot at work?"

Among all the Victorian fiction franchises with sassy female leads, there's one thing that sets Soulless apart: the confident, witty dialogue. Volume 2 of the manga adaptation continues that proud tradition with lots of sarcastic 19th-century comebacks—but the story is just as engaging as the humor, if not more so. Carriger makes the most out of the genre, weaving familiar ideas into a unique adventure: a supernatural mystery with dangerous implications, werewolf family politics, stylish steampunk gadgets, and of course, a few physical altercations. The book is structured as a standard whodunit, but formula aside, readers will be too busy enjoying the comical banter, ever-shifting romantic polygons, an exhilarating airship ride, and some shocking lycanthropic action right at the end. Let's also not forget how well Rem pulls off the look of the series, with wonderfully detailed costumes, lavish backgrounds, and even minor expressions and gestures that give each character the spark of life. Whether it's a formal social function at a London club, or a fight for one's life in a Scottish castle (wow, this story really does go through every possible scenario), each scene is rendered with great artistic polish.

Although it's now a graphic novel, Soulless still gets held back by the conventions of regular prose novels—like taking way too long to become interesting. The main mystery is revealed early on, but all the dramatic revelations and blockbuster action scenes are saved for the last two chapters. That means there's about two hundred pages of formal Victorian dialogue and exceedingly British behavior to wade through. Are you interested in lovers quibbling with each other, or ancient family feuds? Congratulations, that's what you'll have to sit through before they even start figuring out where the supernatural de-powering came from. Compare this to standard seralized manga—where something has to happen every chapter—and the first two-thirds of this book feel painfully slow. It also gives away some of the plot points too easily, as the old "Gun in Act 1 must be fired in Act 3" principle is applied with the clumsiness of an amateur creative-writing exercise. The dialogue can also be overkill at times, despite being so well-written—it's just that nobody uses that many fancy words in real life, no matter how educated and high-society they are.

Probably the best of all the manga-styled Victorian adventures out there, Japanese, international, or otherwise. It's got great art, smart dialogue, and a story that entertains in every possible way (even if it takes a while to build up).

If there's one thing you can count on in Reader's Choice, it's that our very own iron man Eric P. always has something to say! And this time it's words of warning ...

Is there a manga that's rubbed you the wrong way? Or perhaps you have a more positive recommendation? All opinions are welcome at RTO, so feel free to send your reviews in at any time!

Vols. 1-3 Omnibus
(by Yu Aida, Seven Seas, $15.99-16.99)

The secretive Social Welfare Agency takes young girls from the verge of death and gives them a second chance at life—by modifying them into super-strong cyborg assassins. And that's really all there is to what Gunslinger Girl is about. We follow the lives of these cyborg girls and their grown male handlers, with no real linear storyline except for some reoccurring characters.

When I first saw the Gunslinger Girl anime series, like a lot of people I was intrigued by it. It was sad and cruel in a morally questionable way. Does saving these girls' lives justify making them into efficient killing machines that obey orders without question? Jose, one of the handlers, struggles with this issue, while raising his girl, Henrietta, like she was his own daughter/little sister. There was never any clear-cut answer, leaving the series in that moral gray area. There was also one particular controversy with the series, namely the lolicon aspect. Some even flat-out believe this is a fantasy series for pedophiles. I honestly never thought of that watching the anime. Sure the girls are affectionate of their handlers, but it partly has to do with their conditioning as much as a typical little girl's crush.

When I decided to read the manga, however—I unfortunately got that other sense. From where the Il Teatrino anime's story left off, we get a new girl added to the cast, Petrushka, an older one but still aged 16. Her handler has her literally reshaped into the kind of girl he wants to work with and look at. He has her made into a taller, more adult size, he dresses her up in the kind of outfit where she displays her navel, and last but not least he gets her into the habit of smoking. Beforehand, he even "joked" about giving her a belly ring, but even by then, I was finally starting to feel unsettled. If he had said "make her boobs bigger," I would've genuinely been upset. Unlike the anime, I was recognizing this manga as a series about full grown men having full control over underage girls, fashioning them to their personal ideals. Then later we have Triela go undercover as an adult-sized agent—augmented somehow, because she's a cyborg? Either way, despite her true age, her handler takes one look at her adult body, and one cannot help but get the sense of his being taken by her beauty and wondering possible what-ifs.

It was all the last straw and I was officially disturbed. Once the sense of just what audience this manga was made for was finally hitting home, I was unable to shake it since, nor could I continue reading. If you're someone who's better capable of turning a blind eye to these certain aspects, this manga does continue where the anime left off with more missions and adventures for the characters. Yet for all of Gunslinger Girl's popularity, if you find these elements just as bothersome as I do, you're really better off being satisfied with just the anime.

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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