RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Mobile Suit and Tie
by Carlo Santos,
It's a day I never thought would come. I looked around my room and thought, "I don't have anymore wall space for posters." Now, technically, there is still wall space, if I wanted to be completely tacky and cover every square inch with pop-culture detritus. But I like my living spaces to at least have some semblance of being civilized, which means spacing out posters appropriately. But to think, I can't fit a new poster on my walls without moving things around, or having to take another one down? What has my world come to?
(by Ranmaru Kotone, concept by Production I.G/CLAMP, Dark Horse, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Saya Kisaragi is a kindhearted, clumsy student who trains by day to perform standard religious duties at her father's shrine—but she transforms into an unstoppable, monster-slaying swordswoman by night! The saga that began in Blood: The Last Vampire and the Blood+ anime and manga series continues here! The world of Blood-C was created by the powerhouse manga team CLAMP in collaboration with Production I.G, the legendary anime studio that produced the original Blood+ episodes and the new Blood-C animated series and feature-length movie!
Schoolyard foibles, weird creatures, and katana-swinging action abound in this new manga series by Ranmaru Kotone, based on the hit Blood-C anime and infused with CLAMP's original concepts and characters!"
Let's be thankful that the Blood-C manga doesn't start out as slowly as the ridiculous early episodes of the anime. This adaptation gets it right, introducing Saya's small-town life through a number of quick feel-good scenes: stopping for breakfast at a café, joking around with classmates at school, even encountering a cute, Kyubey-like dog along the street. However, the true story of Blood-C only starts taking shape when darker elements creep in, subtly at first, but with enough impact to leave readers wanting more. Fearsome creatures manifest themselves (but are quickly cut down by Saya's intense, exhilarating sword skills), town locals mysteriously disappear, and the words of an ancient prophecy start to ring in Saya's head. In short, it's the ideal setup for a horror story: an innocent, dreamy world about to be ripped apart by dark forces. The delicate, flowing art style, attractive character designs, and clean, sunlit scenery get the innocence and dreaminess right. Then come the heavy shadows, grotesque monsters, and sharply-angled fight scenes that prove Ranmaru Kotone's artistic versatility. Good and evil aren't just contrasting ideas—they can make for dramatically contrasting visuals too.
It's good that the Blood-C manga strives to differentiate itself from the anime, but some of the series' negative aspects still won't go away. At this early stage, the story still loses itself too much in school antics, with the students cracking lame jokes and Saya futilely trying to strike up conversation with the brooding hot guy. Also, if Saya's teacher could please stop flirting with her uncomfortably, that would really help. The fight scenes also end up being spaced out too widely—two swift battles over 170 pages feels unsatisfying, even if they are beautifully drawn. This is actually one of those times when a "monster of the week" structure might not be such a bad idea. The mysteries surrounding Saya and the monsters are also expressed too vaguely, which will frustrate those who want to know exactly why Saya must fight. During slice-of-life moments, the art comes off as too plain, with only the barest hints of backgrounds and classroom interiors being drawn in. The character designs, although pretty, show little creativity as they rely on typical school-aged stereotypes.
The subtle, creeping horror makes for a promising start, although the lack of action early on and too much school silliness averages this out to a B-.
CRIMSON EMPIRE: CIRCUMSTANCES TO SERVE A NOBLE
(by QuinRose and Hazuki Futaba, Seven Seas, $13.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"From the time she was sold into servitude as a young girl and told by a handsome demonic figure that she had a destiny to fulfill, Sheila's childhood was anything but easy. After joining an assassin's guild and undergoing rigorous training in the killing arts, Sheila is later taken in by the dashing Prince Edvard to serve as his housemaid and bodyguard.
As skillful as she is with a blade, Sheila hasn't a clue when it comes to courtly romance. While she uses her talents to help Edvard win the throne, can she stave off the male suitors who vie for her heart?"
Assassin's Creed for fujoshi? Not quite, but Crimson Empire sets an intriguing historical stage, as a romantic fantasy scenario (ordinary girl surrounded by gorgeous aristocratic men) crosses paths with an action-packed one (protect the prince from being assassinated). Although set in polite-and-proper medieval times, the series refuses to sugarcoat its violent nature: Sheila learns to kill in a harrowing first scene, and an attempt on Edvard's life in the later chapters leads to dramatic escapes and swordfights. The main assassination plot in this volume also comes loaded with twists—the villain's identity is a surprise, and so is the arrival of several other intruders. Meanwhile, the contentious relationship between Edvard and his scheming half-brother is just as entertaining as the action, with lots of biting dialogue and intense stares. And those two aren't the only pretty boys in the castle—this series features a ton of attractive characters, all dressed in dashing, meticulously designed attire. Crisp lines and a careful balance between light and dark also gives the artwork a clean, easily readable appearance.
Is it any surprise that Crimson Empire is based on an otome dating game? This manga carries all the worst traits of that genre, such as introducing every single male character within Volume 1 even if they have no role to play in the current storyline. The story is also peppered with annoyingly vague dialogue: characters often talk without saying anything meaningful, and the bubble placement often makes it unclear who's actually speaking. In fact, page layouts in general are pretty haphazard, with the visuals and dialogue sometimes headed in contradictory directions. Perhaps the script makes more sense in point-and-click format? Even worse is having to parse internal monologue where the characters ... are thinking to themselves ... like this. The story also focuses too much on Sheila's interactions with every major (and minor) character, resulting in pointless conversations that could have been cleared out to make room for more assassination action. Then again, looking at all the overused screentones and incomplete backgrounds, it's probably futile to wish for any real action artwork here.
Although it delivers some excitement due to Sheila's dangerous job, all these random, rambling conversations with pretty boys are a plotless waste of time, adding up to a D+.
A DEVIL AND HER LOVE SONG
(by Miyoshi Tomori, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Meet Maria Kawai—she's gorgeous and whip-smart, a girl who seems to have it all. But when she unleashes her sharp tongue, it's no wonder some consider her to be the devil! Maria's difficult ways even get her kicked out of an elite school, but this particular fall may actually turn out to be her saving grace...
The start of her second year in high school brings someone unexpected into Maria's life—Shintaro Kurosu, a brash first-year student who does as he pleases. He takes a strong liking to Maria and sticks to her, making Maria and her crush Shin Meguro extremely uncomfortable. Like it or not, Kurosu's presence is about to change Maria in a surprising way..."
A Devil and Her Love Song opens with closure in this volume—a graceful, bittersweet chapter that puts the final touches on a painful parting of ways. But before it can get too depressing, the series quickly returns to a more lively mood, one that's instigated almost entirely by newcomer Shintaro. Not only is he charismatic, but he's as blunt and strong-willed as Maria is—the perfect counterpart to the main character. More than just a loudmouthed jokester, Shintaro has a serious purpose in the story as well: his forthright, touchy-feely approach gets Maria to open up both emotionally and physically. And his impact on longtime leading man Shin is even greater, sending sparks of conflict flying as he calls out Shin for his possessive attitude towards Maria. In a world of steely, self-conscious main characters, this guy is the hammer who cracks them open. The attractive, stylish character designs help to differentiate what is essentially an all-high-school cast, and while the art relies on the school-romance staple of patterned backgrounds and borderless panels, the spacing and linework are clean enough to keep the visuals easily readable.
Okay, so the storyline changes directions after a gloomy first chapter—but now it just steers right into a dead end. Shintaro's arrival doesn't guide Maria's life toward hope or despair, but toward the worst option of all: pointless back-and-forth bickering about who likes who. People get enough romantic gossip in real life, and now we have to deal with it in fiction too? Some of the arguments (especially between Shin and Shintaro) are entertaining, but more often the love triangle is just a circular exercise where everyone criticizes everyone else. The only time the series breaks the routine is to roll out clichéd story moments like a trip to the beach (which of course means trying on swimsuits), or a fight breaking out on school grounds. If that's not dull enough, the art also suffers from bland scene selection: constant head-and-shoulders close-ups, dialogue on top of more dialogue, and most of it taking place in a nondescript school setting. If this were transferred into a prose novel, it would make no difference ... so why even present it in a visual medium?
A new character arrives and shakes things up, but he walks straight into a generic romantic-rivalry template. That, along with being artistically boring, earns this a C.
MOBILE SUIT GUNDAM: THE ORIGIN
(by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko, original story by Yoshiyuki Tomino & Hajime Yatate, Vertical, $29.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Here it began, and it stirs once more. The epoch-making initial season that set new standards of verisimilitude for televised sci-fi animation returns in comics form at the hand of one of the original creators. This definitive account, penned in our century, expands on the classic narrative with the same sense of purpose and verve that first lit up the screen more than three decades ago."
Who better to work on a Gundam adaptation than its original animation director? Although this manga came out in the 00's, Yoshikazu Yasuhiko's dewy-eyed characters and soft linework are all straight-up 70's, and the result is both retro and refreshing. No computer-assisted fakery, no gimmicky special powers, no cheesecake distractions, just a boy piloting a giant robot to protect his people. Simple, classic, eternal. From that simple notion, numerous variations emerge: protagonist Amuro Ray fights the Zeon aggressors on land, then in space, and in one thrilling nod to real-world physics, he fends off an enemy surge while surviving re-entry into Earth's atmosphere. As an animator, Yasuhiko understands how storyboards translate to manga: every panel has a purpose, capturing each split-second of the action and often telling the story without the need for words. The brawny, hand-to-hand combat between robots is also a welcome dose of physicality in a genre where lasers and missiles are often the easy way out. Most other Gundam manga is just a cash-in on the latest spinoff. This one has a legitimate story to tell.
You know how all the spinoff cash-in versions of Gundam have the problem of throwing newbie readers into a complex, jargon-laden world? This one has that problem too, although on a smaller scale. Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin tries to take baby steps—here's the enemy, here's the robot, here's the boy hero—but inevitably the narrative goes overboard, tossing in made-up scientific terms, laborious military protocols, and side characters who are just there to push buttons and fire the guns. Actually, it has trouble with characters in general, with the only well-developed personality being Amuro himself. Infamous villain Char acts like a scheming bastard just for the sake of being a scheming bastard, while Amuro's allies don't show a true spark of friendship—they simply support him because he's the hero. The loose, hand-drawn art style also has its deficiencies, like in transitional scenes where backgrounds are ignored, or panels where a lack of shading and detail make them look half-drawn. Some moments in battle also get buried under an excess of explosions and debris.
Let's face it, the science fiction genre allowed some pretty cheesy storytelling in the old days. Still, the world-building and action—coupled with old-school cool—are solid enough to earn a B.
TIGER & BUNNY
(by Mizuki Sakakibara, original concept by Sunrise, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Superpowered humans known as NEXT appeared in the world 45 years ago. Some of them fight crime in the city of Stern Bild while promoting their corporate sponsors on the hit show HERO TV. The people love their superheroes, even if they don't completely understand them, and not all of the NEXT use their powers for good.
Veteran hero Wild Tiger has years of experience fighting crime, but his ratings have been slipping. Under orders from his new employer, Wild Tiger finds himself forced to team up with Barnaby Brooks Jr., a rookie with an attitude. Overcoming their differences will be at least as difficult for this mismatched duo as taking down superpowered bad guys!"
Tiger & Bunny exists in a shiny, futuristic world that's fully conceived from top to bottom. Do you need any other reason to fall in love with it? Okay, how about this: it combines all the gloss of utopian science fiction—mutant abilities, powersuits, monorails—with a sly satire of contemporary society, where corporate sponsorship and 24/7 reality programming rule above all else. Volume 1 launches into the excitement quickly, with all the heroes getting a brief introduction during the first chapter's free-for-all mission. The outlandish character designs are instantly memorable, and the flow of the action shifts effortlessly from one hero to the next as everyone contributes with their powers to save the day. Backgrounds are also just as detailed as the flashy superhero suits, with towering, high-tech structures that give Stern Bild its unique look. But don't get too dazzled by outward appearances: the interplay between Kotetsu "Wild Tiger" Kaburagi and Barnaby Brooks Jr. as they get to know each other is also part of the series' appeal. The contrast between their personalities—an old-school do-gooder and a charismatic young upstart—sets off the beginning of a very promising partnership.
The Tiger & Bunny manga is illustrated by one of the TV show's key animators, which explains why the character designs and linework look so polished—but also explains why some of the manga-specific aspects end up a disappointment. Light and dark balance is a constant problem, and many pages turn into a jumble of gray because screentones are being used to fill up any area of color. The artwork also doesn't do enough to differentiate between foreground and background details, which hurts the most during busy action scenes. What's more, the fight scenes have that familiar problem where individual attack moves look good, but going from one panel to the next confuses the eye. On the story side, Kotetsu and Barnaby's first mission together goes too much by the book—one action-packed set piece after another, averting disasters and chasing down the villain, and then a sappy reconciliation at the end. Adapting the anime that faithfully just makes it come out mechanical, and for a series that sparkles with so much imagination, it can probably do better.
The futuristic premise and dizzying action scenes are an all-out thrill, but some artistic glitches and by-the-book storytelling result in a B-.
SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH: THE MAGIC WITHIN
(by Tania del Rio, Archie Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Sabrina Spellman is your average teenager by day, attending Greendale High where her major crush, Harvey, plays for the school basketball team. But by night, Sabrina enters the Magical Realm, where she hones her witchcraft and attends Charm School with the handsome and mysterious Shinji.
Start from the very beginning as Sabrina deals with her two eccentric aunts and her conflicting lives in the Mortal and Magical Realms ... and stumbles into the beginnings of a plot that will reshape the magical world at its foundation!"
In the current climate of Western manga adaptations, I'm just relieved this isn't "James Patterson's Sabrina the Teenage Witch" or something. In fact, it's something far more lighthearted and enjoyable: a magic-meets-high-school romp that nails the balance between teen romance and playful fantasy. Half the time, Sabrina engages in grand adventures like capturing evil sorceresses or hunting down magical-animal poachers ... and the other half of the time, she's dealing with familiar adolescent problems like trying to win Harvey's affection or coping with feelings of entitlement and jealousy. The real magic, though, comes when the disparate genres meet—like when one of Sabrina's normal-school peers shows an interest in magic and becomes a secret ally of the Magical Realm, or when her pet cat Salem accidentally becomes a Hello Kitty-esque marketing phenomenon (a touch of satire that's as smart as it is silly). Lively, humorous artwork also makes the series easy to enjoy, with bold-lined character designs, ever-changing panel layouts, and background patterns and effects that capture the ineffable sense of "manga style." Del Rio pulls off magical-fantasy artwork just as easily as school-life situations, and makes all of it fun.
This run of Sabrina began during the mid-00's "manga boom," and unfortunately, includes some of the more regrettable aspects of the era. There's the token Japanese character, Shinji—although thankfully he develops into a key player instead of just being some Cool Asian Guy—and all the spell incantations are in Japanese, as if that somehow represents a magical foreign language. (Let's be honest, when you first get into the hobby, it probably seemed that way...) The original serialization was also published as full-color floppy comics, and grayscaling them into this 250-page volume definitely has a negative effect. Many pages look like an indecipherable mass of gray, and because the panels are drawn without any white-space gutters, it may be hard to tell where one scene ends and another begins. The stories also force themselves into stand-alone format, leading to rushed chapter endings. Characters in conflict suddenly decide everything's okay and make up, or a magical gimmick solves an otherwise difficult problem. If there's a greater storyline being built up here, the hints and plot points (including one on the last page) are still too subtle to mean anything.
It may seem immature and not quite polished, but the appealing characters and variety of storylines still make this high school comedy-fantasy easy to like.
SECRET COMICS JAPAN
(edited by Chikao Shiratori, Viz Communications)
How out of print is Secret Comics Japan? So out of print that a used copy on Amazon.com goes for almost $40. And so old that Viz Media wasn't even Viz Media yet. This anthology brings together some of the most renowned names in edgy, alternative manga: ero-kawaii mastermind Junko Mizuno, josei icon Kiriko Nananan, and that god among men, Usamaru Furuya, among others. And the stories, ah, the stories—they run the range from grotesque fantasies that test the boundaries of taste, to aching slice-of-life snippets, to the dark, mind-bending humor of Furuya's "Palepoli" shorts. In short, it's all the stuff that you would never find from browsing the standardized, arranged-by-title, $10-$13 volumes at the big-box bookstores. In English or Japanese.
I already reviewed this a few years ago, and other critics have brought it up too, so why mention it now? Maybe because I fear that people will forget it ever existed, and this Secret must be shared with the world before all the remaining copies are lost to the back rooms of bookstores or personal collections. Everything about Secret Comics Japan is brilliantly weird, or self-expressive, or looks at genre conventions in unconventional fashion—and that's great in a field where publishers will often only look to big sellers and brand names. Would today's Viz ever dare to reprint this collection? Nah, they're too busy omnibus-ing everything that has ever been popular (plus getting the okay from each artist and their respective editors/publishers would be a pain). But for everyone who has ever complained that all manga has become the same, and they just recycle the same stupid ideas over and over, that's why Secret Comics Japan exists. It's a necessary slap in the face to the mainstream ... although it'd be nice if that slap didn't cost $40.
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