RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
That Old Black Magica

by Carlo Santos, Jul 2nd 2013


A crippling heatwave spreads across the land. At the same time, convention season has entered full swing. Impractically clothed characters take to the streets, hoping to make it to the convention center before stifling heat gets the best of them. Will they survive the ordeal ... or will the cruel forces of nature vanquish humankind?!



PUELLA MAGI KAZUMI MAGICA
Vol. 1
(by Magica Quartet, Masaki Hiramatsu and Takashi Tensugi, Yen Press, $11.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Kidnapped and stuffed into the trunk of an unknown assailant, teenager Kazumi bursts forth from the confines of the case to discover that she has been stripped not only of her clothes, but also of the memories of her life before the kidnapping. When she is recovered by a pair of schoolgirls, she doesn't recognize them as her best friends and roommates, Umika and Kaoru. As Kazumi tries to settle back into her normal life, she quickly realizes that her former 'normal' was anything but!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Obviously, Kazumi Magica can never hope to be the existential masterpiece that Madoka Magica was—but it brings its own share of twists and turns to that universe. The first chapter is mindbending enough on its own, using amnesia to tell a story that has to be figured out backward. Even after Kazumi recalls her magical abilities and defeats the villain, more mysteries linger: What was the wish made in her contract? Who really stuffed her in that trunk, and why? When is Kyubey coming? At the same time, magical girls still have witches to fight, and so we get more clues waiting to be solved, brand-new characters, and fresh magical powers that help to fill out this world. New characters and new powers also mean plenty of new visual designs—the costumes are fanciful, almost avant-garde at times, while the weaponry comes with cute touches that reflect each user's personality. As expected, the battle scenes come alive with the sheer variety of attacks and combinations in which they're used. The art style relies on sharp corners and tight curves to create a dynamic, stylish look, showing how magical girls fight with finesse.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Kazumi Magica uses a neat trick for its first-chapter exposition—but then it reverts right back to generic witch-of-the-week mode by Chapter 2. That's where the story goes through the boilerplate "Here's where magical girls come from" speech, because an amnesia-riddled Kazumi has to relearn it all. Worse yet, Kazumi and friends have to get re-acquainted with each other, so we get all this plotless fluff where they eat together and go out shopping before the next witch strikes. After that, the girls continue going through the motions, following clues and wielding various attacks until the beast is slain. New magical girls in the final third of this volume are a welcome addition, but there's not enough room to learn who they are in detail, and the story once again reduces to a typical Kazumi-saves-the-day formula. The art, meanwhile, suffers from being too simple and too complex: the backgrounds are lacking, with not enough to detail to give a clear picture of Kazumi's living space and hometown, while the complexity of the witch battles and overcrowded panels create something of a visual mess.

FINAL VERDICT:
Sometimes, falling into formula isn't all bad: Kazumi Magica's wide variety of magical combat, and intriguing mysteries within each chapter, offer enough entertainment for a B+.


SANKAREA
Vol. 1
(by Mitsuru Hattori, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Since he was little, Chihiro Furuya has felt an unusual emotional connection to zombie movies. It's not that he feels bad for the survivors—instead he fantasizes about comforting the poor undead girls they slaughter! When his beloved pet passes away, he decides to brew up a resurrection potion in secret. But he's discovered by popular girl and local heiress Sanka Rea, whose life isn't as perfect as it seems ... and Furuya suggests that she could serve as a test subject!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
The brilliance of Sankarea is that it's about zombies, but isn't really in the zombie genre. There's no running away from undead stalkers or worrying about infection; instead, it does the opposite and tries to show appreciation for these creatures. Similarly, the characters defy expectations in unusual ways: Chihiro may be an ordinary student on the outside, but what kind of student wants to re-animate his cat and have a zombie girlfriend? Meanwhile Rea, the sheltered heiress with a rebellious streak, shatters any illusions of being Little Miss Perfect once she falls in with Chihiro's morbid plans. And so emerges the major force driving the story forward: two kids struggling between what society expects of them (particularly Rea's dad) and what their warped personalities truly desire. Indeed, those warped moments are where the artwork stands out, with deep shadows and grotesque imagery when Chihiro runs his nighttime experiments. Even creepier, though, is how cute and normal Rea can look while this is happening. Outbursts of gag-style artwork are another sign of the series' unusual aesthetic, often coming at the most unlikely moments.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Sankarea has some shocking things to say, but the storytelling often falters in getting the point across. The idea of Chihiro trying to raise his dead cat is intriguing, but almost half this volume is wasted on him running unsuccessful trials that go nowhere. Similarly, the idea of Rea offering herself as a test subject is morbidly fascinating—but there are no results until practically the last chapter. And why introduce Chihiro's school buddies in the first few pages if they become near-irrelevant in the next hundred or so? The series also stumbles in trying to bring different genres together: it handles the zombie-themed horror well, but then tries to play up the Chihiro/Rea partnership as a romantic comedy, which makes for some disorienting mood swings. The visuals can be just as sloppy as the all-over-the-place narrative, with rapid changes of viewpoint, forced character closeups one after another, and no room to pause and observe the backgrounds for a moment. The art style also lapses into comedic "chibi" mode so often that it almost negates the series' creepy side.

FINAL VERDICT:
The unique concept is a plus, but a poorly planned storyline and uneven artwork result in a C+.


TEGAMI BACHI: LETTER BEE
Vol. 13
(by Hiroyuki Asada, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Amberground is locked in darkness. A man-made star casts only a dim light over the land. The pitch-black wilderness is infested with Gaichuu—colossal insects with metal exoskeletons. The Gaichuu make travel between the cities of Amberground extremely dangerous. But thankfully the Letter Bees, a brave corps of messengers, risk their lives in order to keep the hearts of Amberground connected.
While Lag and his fellow Bees fight a desperate battle against the Gaichuu Cabernet, the dark secrets of Amberground come to light. What unspeakable things did Garrard, director of the Beehive, see in Amberground's capital? And why has former director Largo Lloyd joined the rebel organization of Reverse? The answers lie in the top-secret district called Kagerou..."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Charged-up action and a meaningful storyline woven into the same volume? Tegami Bachi proves that it can be done, and you don't have to sacrifice one to accomplish the other. Hearing about Largo Lloyd's shady background is intriguing enough in itself, but then comes Inspector Garrard—another prototypical "old guy with a dark history," whose memories prove to be some of the most important revelations in the series so far. And if dusting off Amberground's dirty secrets isn't enough, Garrard heads out on a classic last-blaze-of-glory mission where a grizzled veteran makes peace with his past. So despite being a side character who's way past the average protagonist's age, Garrard gives us an arc that's thrilling and emotionally satisfying all at once. His flashbacks also lead to some beautifully illustrated views of the hidden district, proving that Hiroyuki Asada has plenty of world-building ideas in store. Still, the real visual showstoppers come in the battle with Cabernet, where sparkles of energy and larger-than-life feats—such as busting open an entire city wall—add some explosiveness to this dreamy, fairytale-like world.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
This volume includes both personal drama and butt-kicking action, but what does it leave out? The main characters, that's what. Lag Seeing and his generation of Letter Bees are practically spectators in these chapters, reduced to chasing after Cabernet and watching the giant beast wreak havoc while Garrard and others have fun. By the time the youngsters show up to provide assistance (in this case, stud motorcyclist Jiggy Pepper and passenger Zazie), one has to wonder, where have these guys been the last 200 pages? The storyline also gets so caught up in unveiling secrets that the big picture—the ongoing tension between Amberground's government and the Reverse faction—is kind of lost. The artwork, which has become even fancier than usual, also runs the risk of becoming too confusing to follow. Which end of Cabernet is the head and which end is the tail? How does Garrard get from one point to another when he's not striking dashing poses? Even the proliferation of minor characters becomes a challenge of figuring out who's who.

FINAL VERDICT:
It may a disappointment for fans of Lag and his gang, but the crucial story revelations and excellent action scenes are still worthy of a B.


TORIKO
Vol. 16
(by Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro, Viz Media, $9.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In a savage world ruled by the pursuit of the most delicious foods, it's either eat or be eaten! While searching for the tastiest foods imaginable, Gourmet Hunter Toriko travels the world with his bottomless stomach, facing every beast in his way.
While Toriko and Zebra eat their way through Gourmet Pyramid's monsters to reach Komatsu, the chef discovers an ancient cookbook that reveals where to find and how to prepare Mellow Cola. But even if the three can wring the delicious beverage out of the terrifying Salamander Sphinx, a familiar and more sinister creature lurks in the shadows, waiting to steal their fizzy spoils."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Toriko and Zebra's face-off against the Salamander Sphinx in this volume is every bit as thrilling as it's hyped up to be. Right away, the carefully angled artwork shows off how big the creature is. Then come the ridiculous superpowers: where else can someone scream a "sound missile" into existence, or punch something 17 times in a row in quick succession? Yet the battle is about more than just brute force. A clever visual metaphor shows Komatsu "preparing" the Salamander by co-ordinating Toriko and Zebra's attacks, and then, when another mysterious beast challenges them, a tactical combo move helps turn the tide. A lavish description of the Mellow Cola also proves that food ideas in this series are in no danger of running out. Visually, dense speedlines and bold penstrokes make every moment radiate with energy, and that even goes for non-combat scenes, like Toriko digging into a post-victory meal. Yet for fans who follow story seriously, the biggest eye-opening moment isn't the fight itself, but the last couple of chapters—where critical information about the quest for the "God Ingredient" is revealed.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Toriko stays firmly in "safe mode" this time around, with a bombastic fight that's a lot like all other bombastic fights in the series. Combination moves and timing each other's attacks are nothing new for the genre, and the arrival of a surprise challenger adds little to the story except prolonging the battle scene even more. The ongoing subplot about Toriko and Zebra competing for Komatsu's services is another unnecessary distraction, always branching off into these tangential flashbacks about Zebra and Komatsu. Aside from all the fighting, the only other substance in this volume is the lineup of exaggerated food descriptions, plus some plot machinations near the end—and the characters don't even act on the new information right away. Basically, it's as predictable as Toriko gets, with food, fighting, and casual hints of story. The artwork, meanwhile, suffers from trying to do too much with those big-time fight scenes—clouds of dust and falling rocks often obscure the action rather than add to the atmosphere, and the walled confines of an ancient pyramid lead to mostly bland backgrounds.

FINAL VERDICT:
Despite an intense fight and some surprising revelations near the end, the predictable story progression means a C+ for this volume.


TRIAGE X
Vol. 3
(by Shouji Sato, Yen Press, $13.99)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When Arashi and Mikoto take down the leaders of a major drug-smuggling operation poised to introduce a dangerous new drug to Tobioka, their cleanup is interrupted by the pyromaniac they met on their last mission! The girl doesn't intend to start any trouble this time, but when Mikoto realizes the mystery girl's true identity, will the truce hold for long?!"

EVIDENCE FOR:
Volume 3 of Triage X sees the series extending its longest and most ambitious arc yet, with Mikoto's drama-filled back-story tying into the past of principal villain Oomichi. The way in which Mikoto tells it creates intrigue: she reveals the basics to one character, but saves the cold, hard truth for a closer confidante—thus drawing the subtle lines between ally, acquaintance, and adversary. At the same time, other subplots keep the present-day storyline abuzz: the Kabuto gang pulls more victims into their drug-dealing web, while the good guys struggle to keep up; the identity of the vengeful pyromaniac remains a mystery (although some folks are hot on the trail); even the comic-relief cops provide entertainment as they remain forever one step behind. The opening and closing chapters also offer eye candy galore, with action scenes that include acrobatic gunplay, brutal hand-to-hand combat, and exaggerated feats that defy not only the laws of perspective but also basic physics. (Can someone really throw a crossbow bolt that hard? Sure, why not!) Widely-spaced panels and dramatic staging of these scenes also leave a strong visual impression.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
It's nice to see Triage X trying to work in some serious storytelling amidst all the loud, mindless action—but this time the problem is that the character-development break takes too long. By having Mikoto explain her past to two different people, and splitting it into separate chapters, the series weakens a lot of the momentum that had been building up. What's more, there's a span of several pages where the characters are just goofing around at school—a waste of space that contributes nothing to the action or drama. By the time the story kicks back into high gear, the plot seems hopelessly confused: there's the ongoing investigation of the Kabuto gang, but the firestarter mystery is also still unresolved, and a couple of students are in need of immediate resuce. These events all tie in together, but the story doesn't know which angle to focus on. Meanwhile, the art continues to suffer from ridiculous anatomy (nothing against fanservice, but at least try to draw the ladies in believable poses?), and the simple approach to screentoning leads to a flat, artificial look to many of the scenes.

FINAL VERDICT:
The story starts to look more promising, but mediocre art and a poor balance between pure action and character drama spells a C- for this volume.




TASOGARE OTOME x AMNESIA (Dusk maiden of Amnesia)
Vol. 1
(by Maybe, Square Enix, ¥590)


FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Just as described in school ghost stories, a ghost named Yuuko appears before student Teiichi. It seems she died a mysterious death at this school years ago. To seek out the truth, Yuuko and Teiichi start up an occult research club..."

EVIDENCE FOR:
Dusk maiden of Amnesia does everything a good horror/supernatural series should—it borrows from the best of the genre, while throwing in touches of originality too. Familiar urban legends make their way into this story (including the creepy "hide-and-seek with a cursed doll" game), but it also subverts the standard ghost-hunting formula. Rather than exorcising evil spirits, Yuuko and friends suggest that hauntings are often the result of psychology, as people bring their own fears to life—an idea that leads to some cleverly deceptive plot twists. A sense of humor also keeps this series from getting too bogged down in its own philosophy; Teiichi and Yuuko's banter are as entertaining as any classic mismatched couple out there. There's even some slapstick mischief in the works as Yuuko takes advantage of her invisibility to others. The artwork is lively and just a bit rough around the edges, which works well in action scenes where supernatural phenomena are treated as bold, physical events instead of just wishy-washy waves of energy. Certain locations on the school grounds also possess an eerie visual beauty, thanks to strong black-and-white contrasts and dramatic establishing shots.

EVIDENCE AGAINST:
Although it approaches the genre in a unique way, Dusk maiden of Amnesia still commits some errors of repetition. In two different stories, the same kind of solution is used to solve a dilemma: Yuuko basically fools people into getting over their fears. Instead of using the same plot structure twice, how about digging into Yuuko's past, which was the main premise in the first place? At least the series tries to stir things up by quickly adding a third member to the occult club, but she ends up being near-useless in the following chapters (although that should hopefully change as the series progresses). Other than that, it's mostly the Yuuko and Teiichi show. Their interactions in the first couple of chapters fall into the trap of excessive fanservice (a typical tactic to hook new readers), with Teiichi "accidentally" grabbing Yuuko's chest in a very contrived, highly unlikely manner. The story fares better once they focus on solving supernatural mysteries, but even then, the limits of a standard school environment make for predictable backgrounds and too many conversation scenes.

FINAL VERDICT:
Although the subject matter is familiar, the series throws in enough unique ideas of its own—as well as some light humor—to make it a supernatural romp where the good outweighs the bad.




CROMARTIE HIGH SCHOOL
(by Eiji Nonaka, ADV Manga)


Remember when ADV Films (who themselves are a relic of the past) hopped onto the bubble and decided to publish a few manga titles of their own? Cromartie High School is one of the greatest remnants of that era, a work that almost stands in a genre of its own. The series straddles the "delinquent school punk" and "absurdist comedy" categories, but exists at the extreme fringes of both. After all, no other delinquent manga has Freddie Mercury (of classic rock band Queen), a gorilla, and a tin-can-shaped robot as characters. And no other comedy manga is so deadpan that, no matter how bizarre the situation, everyone carries on as if this is perfectly acceptable.

Standing at the center of this storm is Kamiyama, the only "normal" student in a school full of ne'er-do-wells. His logical reactions to highly illogical things is the main source of humor, and at its best, the series gets on a roll where one guy's dumb idea snowballs into more and more goofy situations, and every time Kamiyama tries to set things right, he just gets pulled further into the madness. This can also be a drawback, though, as sometimes a joke will wear on long after it stopped being funny. What's more, the series' unusual sense of humor means that a lot of the punchlines (which, sometimes, don't even seem like punchlines) and cultural references go over regular folks' heads.

Despite its hit-or-miss nature, Cromartie still earns plenty of laughs, with its gritty, dead-serious art style providing another amusing contrast against the actual content. The characters, too, are easy to tell apart simply because of how unique they are. It may not be the most visually stunning or creative, but one thing's for sure, its humor is one of a kind.

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