RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Livin' on the Edge
by Carlo Santos,
Sometimes, in my mind, I keep a running tally of whether the number of girls in the AKB48 system (including all its sister groups) has surpassed the number of Pokémon yet. With the announcement of the new Pokémon X & Y, it looks like the monster-collecting franchise will maintain its lead a little longer. But I have always believed, if the 48-empire ever expands into the West, you might want to keep a close eye on those numbers ...
21ST CENTURY BOYS
(by Naoki Urasawa, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"War is over. The Friend is dead. Mankind no longer faces the threat of extinction. Peace has finally come to Tokyo... Or has it? The mystery still remains. Nobody knows who the Friend was and where he came from. The only clue is hidden deep within the memories—the memories of the hero Kenji. It is time to open Pandora's Box to discover what is left at the bottom."
20th Century Boys made a name for itself as a plot-driven thriller, but in this "plus-one" continuation, we're reminded that the series' human side is just as important. The first few chapters are a poignant roundup of the survivors, reflecting on how much everyone has changed since childhood. But the story quickly gets back to doing what it does best—pulling readers from one cliffhanger to another as the hunt for the Friend's true identity continues. Naoki Urasawa even manages to throw in a new plot point, one that previous installments had hinted at: there's still one more guy, not accounted for among Kenji's peers, that ultimately took the role of the Friend. The urgent search for clues about him, both in the past and present, is what gets the conspiracy wheel rolling again. As expected, the artwork is as consistent as ever, and what's most impressive is Urasawa's mastery of character design. With so many people appearing in these pages—often in different time periods—it's amazing how Urasawa nails all those subtle features, like eyes and face shape, to make everyone instantly recognizable. Clear, well-organized panels also allow the story to progress as smoothly as possible.
It might say "21st Century" in the title now, but it still has the same bad habits as its predecessor. Naoki Urasawa just can't seem to resolve anything in this series without chaining it to yet another unsolved mystery, and this is even after reaching the supposed ending. Yes, they finally unmasked the Friend! ... But who was really behind the mask? At this point it's no longer intriguing—it's just exasperating. The exasperation carries right over into the exploration of Kenji's childhood: several clues suggest who the culprit might be, but the storyline refuses to specify who he is. It's as if everyone's just wandering around in the past, revisiting all the major (and minor) characters with no goal in mind. Actually, that's pretty much what happens during the early-chapter roundup—everyone reunites, and bittersweet feelings are shared, but there's no sense of purpose other than "Let's pat each other on the back for saving the world." Urasawa deserves a pat on the back for stringing fans along this far, but the more he avoids a conclusion, the more he tests everyone's patience.
Like always, it's got addictive pacing and a complex cast of characters leading the way. But with a plot that still refuses to resolve, this volume probably deserves a B- at best.
ALICE IN THE COUNTRY OF HEARTS: MY FANATIC RABBIT
(by QuinRose, Delico Psyche and Owl Shinotsuki, Yen Press, $11.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"One day, a mysterious rabbit-eared man named Peter suddenly appears in Alice's garden and kidnaps her, whisking her off to a dangerous world where every resident brandishes a weapon. Trapped in this land in the midst of a three-way power struggle, Alice accepts the offer to stay at the Hatter's mansion. At the mansion, Alice meets Hatter's right-hand man, Elliott March, who sports a pair of bunny ears! Alice cannot get over the fact that likeable, charming Elliott is actually a Mafia hitman willing to kill people without hesitation ... In this all-new Wonderland manga, the March Hare has finally arrived!!"
Yes, it's another Alice in the Country of Hearts spinoff—and this one does the smart thing by paring away unnecessary elements. This branch of the Alice franchise ponders what might happen if the March Hare became Alice's primary love interest, and so we end up with an exciting, tumultuous love triangle. Elliott's slight airheadedness, and his earnest desire to be friends with Alice, make him one of the more likable characters in the series—he has actual hopes, desires, and doubts, and isn't totally deranged like everyone else. The Alice/Elliott pairing is endearing enough that when Peter (the White Rabbit) emerges as a rival, it's easy to root for Elliott as he fights to protect Alice. The tension in the story also picks up in the later chapters, as the romantic rivalry builds up to a violent, volume-ending cliffhanger. The artwork brings out the fantasy elements well, with snappy Victorian-themed outfits and fancy backgrounds—especially once they get to the Queen of Hearts' palace. Well-defined character designs also show Wonderland's denizens in every mood from comical (Ace the Knight gets lost again?!) to dead serious (Elliott gunning down his targets).
Consider, for a moment, that Alice in the Country of Hearts is essentially fanfiction ... and now we're reading fanfiction of fanfiction? At that level of dilution, it's no wonder this manga is a paper-thin attempt at romance. It tries to force the Alice/Elliott pairing by placing them in the same household, then shuffling them from one mundane scenario (Let's hang out in the garden!) to another. Then it hinders the storyline even more by making Alice's other romantic options nonexistent or detestable: the Mad Hatter is there strictly as a "just friends" kind of guy, the Cheshire Cat doesn't even appear, and the prim-and-proper Peter White is twisted into a possessive control freak. In fact, when Peter insists that he's in love with Alice, it isn't believable for a minute—saying "I love her because I just do" doesn't cut it as story logic, even in this nonsense world. The artist working on this spinoff also lacks the confidence and creativity to really bring Wonderland to life: character poses and expressions look forced, while the chaotic mix of background screentones and haphazard panel arrangements show a poor eye for layout.
It's easy enough to follow the story, and the main coupling is pretty cute ... but overall, this is as generic as romantic fantasy comes, earning a C grade.
(by Tamon Ohta, concept by Stan Lee and BONES, Vertical, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Before he found Heroman, Joey Jones never thought he had what it takes to be a 'real' hero. Now with H.M., Joey is quickly developing into a hero that others can rely on ... at least on the inside. But after taking on a number of Skruggs in Center City the whole world is taken siege by a full on alien invasion! And it is going to take much more than just Heroman and some cheerleading training to save Earth!"
He may have the giant robot, but Joey isn't even the most interesting character in this volume of Heroman. Instead, it's the schoolmate who just can't stand him: football-playing knucklehead Will, who's learning to accept that even a weakling like Joey might be strong on the inside. The change in Will's attitude, and the ongoing question of what defines "strength" and "heroism," are areas where Heroman surpasses the average alien-battling action series. Even filler chapters have something meaningful to say—Joey and friends help out a wheelchair-bound boy who's given up on life, and Will's sister's cheerleading competition becomes a lesson in teamwork. But this is still a sci-fi adventure at heart, and readers can look forward to higher stakes and explosive battles in the war against the Skruggs. (The last chapter sets up a particularly dramatic plot point.) As expected, the artwork stands out most when Heroman battles his foes, especially with the villains' robot-meets-insect designs. Dynamic poses and numerous speedlines bring out the speed and power of these scenes; what's more, Heroman's bare-knuckled punches capture the impact of battle more than swords or lasers ever could.
With most action series, you can at least say that the art is impressive ... but Heroman doesn't even get that luxury. In addition to a predictable monster-of-the-week storyline, this series also suffers from a rudimentary, even ugly visuals. The bland character designs, lack of shading, and flat, artificial backgrounds look like the work of a kid who's just learned "how to draw manga style" and not a professional. Even the action scenes, which are supposed to be the highlights of a series like this, are often confusing rather than exciting—the linework doesn't differentiate clearly enough between the heroes and villains, or which way the attack is headed. The plot, meanwhile, alternates between terrible sci-fi writing ("We are evil insectoid beasts, we want to take over Earth, mwahaha") and terrible slice-of-life writing (nothing cries out "Feel sorry for me! Let your emotions be manipulated!" like a wheelchair-bound kid). Joey's desire to become stronger and protect others is a completely unoriginal concept, and Will's gradual change of heart—compelling as it is—comes as a predictable development. Can't this series do anything unique?
The series would be easier to praise if it didn't consist of so many action-series clichés, not to mention substandard art. As it is, Heroman is still in C territory.
(by Keitaro Takahashi, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When asked why she sold weapons, arms dealer Koko Hekmatyar once said, 'To promote world peace!' With arms dealers like Koko maintaining the flow of weapons that fuel countless conflicts around the world, peace seems like an impossible goal. Now Koko has a plan to actually make it happen—a plan called Jormungand. But what sacrifice will it take and who will pay the price to realize her dark dream?"
Jormungand has a knack for keeping readers guessing, testing one's notions of good and evil. Who'd have thought that the heroine would also be the maniac with a world domination plan? Koko's goals become much clearer in this volume as her "Jormungand" project (isn't it great when a title finally makes sense?) swings into action—no more side missions, no more flashbacks, just major plot advancements one after the other. The first few chapters feature plenty of suspense as Koko and her team make shady business and political deals around the world, plus there's a cat-and-mouse element with all the government agents trying to tail her. Then comes the thrill of gunfire and advanced military tech in the second half, where Koko's squad tests their skills against America's finest in a chaotic, urgently-paced operation. Detailed woodland backgrounds and heavy shadows capture the atmosphere of this "Black Ops" scenario, and widely spaced panels allow room for freeze-frame shots when the characters spring into action. Even basic plot-exposition scenes have a flair for the dramatic, most notably when Koko is proudly announces her plans.
Jormungand does a fine job capturing the spirit of geopolitical intrigue—but unfortunately, it captures all the boring parts too. The first half of this volume, with all its tabletop negotiating, is especially guilty: it's all talk and no action as Koko tries to manipulate the minds of those in power. Some may find this dialogue suspenseful, but when are they actually going to go and do stuff? Making it worse is the vagueness of these conversations: it's hard to be interested in a particular person or item when no one wants to spell out the details. And when they do, it comes as a clumsy infodump, like when the dossier on a political activist is spilled out in three paragraphs. Unambitious artwork adds to the boredom: there's nothing exciting about repeated headshots and dialogue bubbles, set against the backdrop of a sterile office or even a fast-food restaurant. Conversely, the action scenes later on are obscured by too much ambition—excessive shadows or hard-to-follow angles. Stiff anatomy and monotonous expressions also cause the characters to look artificial.
It gets off to a slow, poorly paced start, but the action in the second half and major revelations about the overall plot make it good enough for a B.
(by Io Sakisaka, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"What is love, anyway? Ninako Kinoshita's friends tell her it's one thing, but Ninako wonders what this mysterious feeling really is. When she meets Ren Ichinose, the handsome, enigmatic guy that all the girls worship, her life takes on an unexpected turn. With just a few words and a smile, he changes her world...
Once Ninako realizes that she's fallen for Ren, she confesses her feelings to him even though she knows he has a girlfriend! Meanwhile, a new semester brings an outgoing guy called Ando into Ninako's life—is Ando just an outrageous flirt or will he turn out to be Ninako's savior?"
Volume 1 of Strobe Edge brought us the magic of falling in love, but Volume 2 features something more emotionally complex: the pain of rejection and everything that comes afterward. The story is masterful in capturing how it feels in real life—the self-doubting interior monologue, the awkward interactions between Ninako and Ren, even the gimmicky schemes and pretzel logic that Ninako puts herself through in trying to stay friends with him. Then there are third parties who add their own drama: the girls in the sour-grapes "Rejected Alliance" who have decided Ren must be some kind of jerk, and the presence of Ando as a possible new interest. An encounter with Ren's current girlfriend, Mayuka, also helps make her more of a flesh-and-blood character and not just a faceless rival. (It's hard to hate someone who's so damn nice!...) In addition, a side story about how Ren met Mayuka brings back some of that falling-in-love magic. Attractive character designs, plus well-spaced panels that flow naturally across the page, make this easy on the eyes. The varied use of screentones also creates visual interest when there isn't much action going on.
Now that she's been rejected, Ninako spends practically all of this volume just trying to cope—which is far less interesting than when she was working her way toward a goal. Every scene follows the same routine: Ninako is engaged in a daily activity, Ren gets involved, and she has to talk/think herself through the situation without becoming an emotional wreck. Through it all, Ren remains static as a character—he just doesn't like Ninako that way, period—so the story is essentially stuck in the mud. Ando's emergence shows little promise, because he's one of those playboy stereotypes who can't be taken seriously. Maybe that's why we get the big side-story that takes up one-quarter of this volume: there's no momentum to guide the main series in a particular direction, and the new character hasn't had much effect. Even the artwork is growing stale, as everything occurs in a school environment—it's either classrooms and hallways or no background art at all, and the screentone patterns are just a crutch for having nothing interesting to draw. But what can you expect when it's one talking-head scene after another?
Honestly, the side story saves this from being totally stuck in the post-rejection doldrums. It's not as good as Volume 1, but the emotional realism still earns it a B-.
CRIME AND PUNISHMENT: A FALSIFIED ROMANCE
(by Naoyuki Ochiai, Futabasha, ¥630/$4.99 online)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Inspired by the Russian classic Crime and Punishment, retold through the eyes of a struggling Japanese writer, Ochiai Naoyuki's adaptation of Dostoevsky's drama focuses on the issues of identity and the duality of life in a modern megapolis. The protagonist, a poor, moody student named Tachi Miroku, was recently recognized as the Best New Writer in a major literary competition, but the stress of living up to his family's goals of him becoming a powerful man has broken him on the cusp of greatness. Despite his tremendous potential, success does not come easy. Alone and without direction, every day is a vicious battle with his past and his moral fiber. He hasn't been to work in four months and his dreams are a total mess filled with abuse, taunting, and the strong smell of blood. And that is just the tip of the iceberg..."
To an extent, Crime and Punishment follows the premise of the original ... but when the protagonist is a lazy self-loathing NEET, and the crime he's trying to "punish" is a high school prostitution ring, it's clear that the manga is carving out its own path. Volume 1 wastes no time in highlighting the big issues of Japanese society: a youth demographic that can't (and doesn't want to) find work, a don't-stir-up-trouble mentality that allows injustice to be perpetuated, and a teenage underworld that adults turn a blind eye to. However, the biggest issue in the story is one that's universal to all cultures: is it right to commit an act of evil in order to fight another evil? The more Miroku ponders this dilemma, the more intense the story gets, especially as he observes the world around him and comments on the sad state society has gotten itself into. Sometimes he doesn't even need to comment—wordless panels and bleak, to-the-point artwork says all that needs to be said about the story's pessimistic worldview. Detailed street scenes and buildings also bring out the gritty reality of modern-day Japan, reminding us that—despite this being fiction—many elements are based on harsh truth.
Is this another one of those self-induglent, woe-is-me, No Longer Human-type sob stories? Miroku's traits in the opening chapters—college-age male, no prospects in life, no motivation to do anything about it—make him a difficult protagonist for readers to click with. And if having an unlikable lead character isn't bad enough, there's also the issue of an unrealistic antagonist: the girl that Miroku is trying to punish is so one-dimensionally evil that she seems more like a fantasy baddie than a criminal in modern-day Japan. She's a cackling maniac who claims "I love making people suffer," when actually, a villain who believes they're doing something good for society would be a better fit for the series' moral grayness. The storytelling also starts to get sloppy in the later chapters—it overloads on dialogue, letting Miroku and his foil indulge in too many philosophical speeches, and then it fixates on the "evilness" of the compensated-dating business rather than the downward spiral of Miroku's psyche. Meanwhile, stiff facial expressions and plain character designs limit the visual capabilities of the story—it just looks boring, even though we know the story isn't.
There are times when it goes overboard with all the negativity, but the moral dilemma of this story—and the main character's progress into a world of darkness—form the backbone of a promising drama.
Sometimes, there are manga titles that have already come out and been recommended here, but they're just so capital-I Important that they deserve to be mentioned again. Please welcome this week's contributor Julia W, who takes a look at a touching story that no one should miss.
Is there a manga that's important to you? Something that touches your soul? Then it deserves to be in Reader's Choice, so everyone knows about it! Submit your reviews according to the guidelines below, and who knows, it could appear in the very next column.
WITH THE LIGHT: RAISING AN AUTISTIC CHILD
(by Keiko Tobe, Yen Press, $14.99 ea.)
Having a child can be a wonderful thing, and being a mother can be the best job in the world. But what happens when your child doesn't interact with you, make eye contact with you, displays weird behaviors, and hasn't reached his or her milestones yet? Sachiko Azuma's firstborn son, Hikaru, displays all of these characteristics and becomes concerned when a pediatrician tells her that he can't hear. It isn't until later that Hikaru is officially diagnosed with Autism, a neurological disorder that affects communication and social interaction. At first, both Sachiko, her family, and friends don't take the news too well, and for a while, Sachiko's marriage almost falls apart. But with the support of many kind people, Sachiko and her husband finally accept Hikaru's disability and strive to both connect with their son and give him the services he needs.
Seriously, this is my number one favorite manga of all time, as I identify with it on a VERY personal level. This is such a great manga, yet hardly anyone I know knows about it! The art is simply wonderful, albeit a little 80's/90's shoujo-esque (the manga was first published in 1999 after all, from what I hear), the lines are clean, the translation by Yen Press is top notch, with some small errors here and there but nothing too jarring, the author clearly did her research on the subject her manga is based on, and the characters, both major and minor, are so well-rounded and unstereotyped, a manga like this is such a rarity these days! For some strange reason, Yen Press crammed two volumes of this manga into one volume, like an Omnibus (though it isn't classified as such), so there are eight volumes out as of now (and I happily own all of them!). Sadly, the story isn't complete, as Tobe died in January of 2010 of an unspecified illness (I cried so hard at this I woke my parents up at six in the morning!), and we'll never see Hikaru grow into a cheerful, working adult. But that doesn't mean I won't continue loving this manga, and I hope you can give it the attention it oh so wonderfully deserves. This is truly a golden rarity in the manga industry, and I think more people, both manga otakus and parents who have a child with autism or anyone else, should know about it.
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)
- 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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