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College of Rock

by Carlo Santos,

Ever since I started watching Swimming Anime—I mean Free!—I've been thinking about taking up some basic swimming to stay in shape. I mean, who wants to do sweaty, uncomfortable land exercises in the summer heat? But as for the prospect of being as fit as those guys in the anime ... ha ha ha. I can dream on.

Vol. 5
(by Yuki Amemiya and Yukino Ichihara, Viz Media, $9.99)

"The paths of one evil god, two rival empires, three unlikely bishops and seven brave ghosts converge in the destiny of Teito Klein, a boy who vows to master a powerful artifact known as the Eye of Mikael in order to lay bare the secrets of the world's—and his own—murky past.
Having lost the Eye of Mikael to Ayanami's Imperial Army, Teito is now in the midst of the Bishop Examination, a test that if passed will grant him the travel privileges he needs to reclaim the Eye. But during the examination he must face ... Ayanami?"

Volume 5 of 07-Ghost opens with another inspiring, character-driven moment—the final stage of the Bishop Examination, where Teito proves once more that his sense of integrity outweighs his desire for revenge. After that, the story shifts into a dazzling cat-and-mouse game between the Church and the Imperial Army. Teito and his mentor get into a breathless chase as Imperial troops bear down on them, while elsewhere, the military overruns an entire nation in their ruthless quest for magical artifacts. And it isn't long before Teito begins a grand journey that promises to take him across the known world ... and beyond. This overlapping of different goals and quests—all of which are linked to the central struggle for power—gives the story a nonstop flow of excitement. It even manages to squeeze in some humor with a couple of wildly incompetent supporting characters. The stylish art adds to the series' vibrant mood, with sweeping lines and tight curves showing the speed and power at which the characters move. Displays of sorcery, supernatural visions, and even emotional turmoil also leave a strong visual impression.

Few things are as disappointing as seeing a great story being mangled by not-so-great storytellers. The multi-pronged plot has trouble transitioning between different scenarios—for example, the switch from Teito's chase to the Imperial Army's invasion is announced by an awkward "Let's go back in time a little..." line. Then there are irrelevant scenes, like the Imperial troops aruging over what to do with their new goofball recruit. It's funny seeing him mess around on the battlefield, but dragging out that joke into headquarters is pointless. And who cares what the bishops at Teito's home church are doing, when his own journey is far more interesting? Dialogue is another roadblock in understanding and enjoying the story: much of it is vague, fractured, and sometimes involves thinking and speaking two different sentences simultaneously. The art further adds to the chaos, with chases and fight scenes that are more about the impression of action rather than showing clearly what's happening. The choices of viewpoint, with numerous close-ups and unusual angles, also create confusion, as do that characters' similar uniforms and lookalike bishonen features.

An evolving, action-packed plot is let down by a lack of clarity—both visually and story-wise. Although the suspense is growing, it's still C material.

Vol. 10
(by Kazue Kato, Viz Media, $9.99)

"With the defeat of the Impure King, the Exwires have returned to their routine lives at True Cross Academy—but the routine doesn't last for long! Halfway around the world, a strange encounter in the desert is the harbinger of evil things to come. An upturn in supernatural incidents at the academy involves Rin and his friends, but their seemingly simple tasks are about to draw them into a far larger conspiracy. Powerful forces have begun to awaken and an old enemy prepares for a new conflict."

Blue Exorcist has always been good with its world-building, making everything feel big and epic—yet in Volume 10, it's a bunch of little things that expand the universe further. For the first time, a key supporting character and subplot emerge out of Rin's "normal" (non-Exorcist) classes at school. Rin's new friend, it turns out, is a harbinger of something more sinister happening around the world. So now we've got globe-trotting Exorcists exploring disturbances in Yemen and an abandoned particle accelerator in Russia, and school principal Mephisto Pheles has some serious matters to discuss with Rin. There's also action on the homefront with the students taking on True Cross Academy's "seven school mysteries"—a familiar old trope transformed into a crucial part of the plot, with friendship and trust being put to the test (along with one's spirit-fighting abilities). The artwork is as polished as ever, with elaborate character designs, intense special effects, a strong sense of motion, and incredible backgrounds. Widely spaced panels and crisp lines also make even the most chaotic fights easy to follow.

What's with the 40 pages of filler in the back? Yes, getting to Volume 10 is a pretty big deal, but this volume seems more devoted to showing off congratulatory one-shots and spoofs from other artists than presenting the main story. Even the side-story chapter penned by Kazue Kato herself is fairly inconsequential, intended more as a joke than filling in any meaningful details about the characters or plot. Speaking of jokes, the humor in the main chapters falls flat this time around—either the comic timing is off, or the characters are blurting out punchlines that don't really sound like punchlines. What's more, trying to play off the first school ghost as a (potentially offensive) joke does the series no favors—this is supposed to be where Rin and his friends' missions get more serious, and instead their next adversary is a gag character. Meanwhile, the global-crisis subplot seems to be off in its own little world, disconnected from Rin's side of the story. These spiritual disturbances are intriguing enough on their own, but at some point they need to be better integrated into the main adventure.

A promising start to a new arc, with excellent world-building and artwork as usual—but too much filler in the back and disconnected story elements make this a C+.

(by kakifly, Yen Press, $11.99)

"Yui, Mio, Ritsu, and Tsumugi embark on their college adventures! It will take some time for the girls to get used to life away from their families and adjust to the pace of college life, but there's one aspect of their new situation that there's no uncertainty about—joining the pop music club! But they aren't the only high school band making their debut on the college scene. Is Afterschool Tea Time ready to perform alongside the hard-rocking rhythms of Only Girlz?!"

Funny how a change of scenery can give "cute girls doing cute things" a distinctly different flavor. K-ON! College gladly tosses aside high school clichés, and instead, pokes fun at the foibles of college life. This spinoff is at its best when revealing the universal truths of higher education: the struggle to get up in the mornings (let your dormmates help), the unexpected weight gain (it's okay Mio, it happens to everyone), and the shock of discovering your re-purposed bedroom upon coming home to visit. New characters and friendships also offer a refreshing change from the familiar old quartet. The best newcomer is Akira, a punkish, sharp-tongued girl who unexpectedly becomes scatterbrain Yui's closest companion. In fact, this volume's slim storyline makes Akira the focus, telling a poignant tale of how a disappointment in her high school years led to her aspirations as a rocker. The color pages that kick off each chapter are the artistic high points, with illustrations that are both humorous and charming. At the same time, polished character designs, lively expressions, and clean linework help to get the most out of the four-panel segments.

Although the setting is new, K-ON! College's sense of humor remains as static and predictable as ever. Over and over, the strips repeat the same old boke-tsukkomi routine, where one of the goofball characters (usually Yui or Ritsu) says something dumb and one of their friends has to talk sense into them. Even worse are the non-joke jokes where someone makes a casual observation, and another character's overreaction is supposed to be the punchline. It's as if they're not even trying—often, the girls just hang out and pass the time, not engaging in any amusing discussions or activities. And if the series does come up with decent comedy material, it usually milks the idea long past the threshold of funny, trying to tell the same joke in a different way. (Tsumugi, enough with the convenience-store snacks already.) With this kind of recycled approach, it's no surprise that the art is similarly lazy in most spots. When it comes to backgrounds, shading, and stylistic flourishes, the compressed spacing of four-panel manga is where good art goes to die.

No one's going to call this a masterpiece, but new characters help to freshen up a familiar franchise and the art is more polished than other genre rivals, so it's still enjoyable enough for a B.

NO. 6
Vol. 1
(by Atsuko Asano and Hinoki Kino, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)

"For Shion, an elite student in the technologically sophisticated city No. 6, life is carefully choreographed: school, study, and the occasional visit with his friend and classmate Safu. One fateful day, however, he takes a misstep, sheltering an injured boy his age from a typhoon. Known only as Rat, this boy is a VC—a fugitive living outside the computerized tapestry of city control—and helping him will throw Shion's life into chaos and start him down a path to discovering the appalling secrets behind the superficial perfection of No. 6."

Instead of trying to be totally original, No. 6 cleverly remixes familiar ideas and creates a story all its own. Take a less-than-perfect utopia, throw in an individual struggling against society, and it's the perfect recipe for sci-fi intrigue. But it's not just abstract concepts that make this series tick: the real sparks start to fly when Shion encounters Rat, who plants the first seeds of dissent. The chemistry between the two—sometimes bickering, sometimes saving each other's lives—might be even more fascinating than the question of whether Shion can triumph against oppression. And amidst all that, there's also plenty of action: an elaborate chase and escape from the city is this volume's centerpiece, and Shion fighting for his life near the end also gets the blood pumping. The clean-lined artwork, free of any unneeded clutter, gets the point of the story across easily. Yet the visuals also make good use of chaotic patterns, speedlines, and blurring to convey the turmoil going on in Shion's head. What's more, few can forget the striking contrast between No. 6's sterile design and the true grime of the outside world.

As this volume proves, there is such a thing as artwork being too uncluttered. Most of these opening chapters are set in the city of No. 6 itself, meaning that the visuals go for the scrubbed-clean look—but this also robs them of any realism. The lack of shadows and textures makes it look like the characters inhabit a flat, virtual world, and the screentone technique is of the very basic "fill selected areas with gray" variety. It gets even worse when the characters are conversing with each other, as the artwork defaults to blank backgrounds and predictable camera angles. The story itself also struggles to hold the reader's interest in the early scenes, with Shion and his classmates talking about banal academic affairs. (In the future, human society won't just be severely regulated, it'll also be really boring!) The sudden spark of chemistry between Shion and Rat during their first encounter may also strike some as an arbitrary, out-of-nowhere move designed to bring the two main characters together. Sometimes you just have to accept serendipity for what it is...

It could do with some artistic improvements, but otherwise the intriguing storyline (and well-paired lead characters) make this a B.

(by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, $13.95)

"Once known as a skilled fencer who had masqueraded as a prince in order to succeed her late father, Sapphire is now happily married to her love Franz and queen of their combined realm. After she gives birth to twins, a boy and a girl who are now equal in the royal line of succession, however, a dispute arises among the courtiers and populace over which child is the true heir. When a whimsical cherub with a familiar face is unwisely summoned to settle the matter, he allows sheer luck to rule in favor of the boy.
Yet once Prince Daisy is whisked away by a cabal opposed to his ascension, the remaining Princess Violetta must embark on the same path her mother once tread to safeguard her family's claim to the throne. Cross-dressing is hardly the end of it as she undertakes breathless adventures with a gypsy lass she meets—Emerald!"

It has never been so easy to say "If you like X, you'll love Y"—this time with Princess Knight and Twin Knights being the two variables. Osamu Tezuka brings back all the rapid plot twists, hidden motives, secret identities, and magical feats of the original. Most of all, though, he brings back the emotional ups and downs: the pain of separation, the despair upon hearing that a loved one is dead, and the sense of triumph when something goes right. Rather than a "fallen heir trying to retake the throne" story, it's really a "long-lost siblings struggling to reunite" story, giving it an extra dimension of bittersweetness. This sequel also recaptures that epic sense of adventure, as Violetta and Daisy traverse forests, caves, mountains, and (most treacherous of all) the halls of their home castle in search of each other. The artwork is endlessly creative, with a wilderness full of miracles and perils, impossibly huge castles, and a uniquely designed cast of characters. People squash and stretch their way through every fight and chase scene, filling each page with a vibrancy that lasts all the way to the end.

Unfortunately, the same problems that plagued Princess Knight also return in Twin Knights. First there's the rushed pacing, where the characters make snap decisions, act on those decisions, face the consequences a week later, and travel 50 miles all within the space of three pages. (To be fair, this is more a fault of the serialization where Tezuka needed to stuff the story into compact chapters.) Random Disney-esque animals also stretch the limits of believability—how is it that sentient geese, mice, and other hyperintelligent fauna are forever rescuing the good guys? Other, more conventional forms of luck also violate the laws of probability, like key characters crossing paths at just the right time, or villains doing phenomenally stupid things to get themselves killed. In fact, the villains are stupid in general, lacking any complexity other than being just plain mean. The outdated art style is another drawback, with lots of corny gag-comic effects, a lack of subtle linework, and strict rectangular paneling reminding us just how fake and fictional the story is.

The thrill of adventure and complex plotting are all there, while the negative aspects come from being a "product of its time." This one's still worthy of a B+.

Vol. 1
(by Mitsurou Kubo, Kodansha, ¥590)

"Kinichirou Imamura has wasted the last three years of high school with no friends, no activities, and no prospects for the future. But on his graduation day, a bizarre accident causes him to time-travel back to his very first day! That's when he recalls the only thing that ever caught his interest at school—a spirited performance by the female captain and sole member of the ouendan, or Cheer Squad. The squad captain tries to recruit Kinichirou into the club, but he has trouble dealing with her brash attitude. At the same time, the more modern pom-poms-and-short-skirts Cheerleading Club threatens to overshadow the Cheer Squad completely. Kinichirou learns of an underhanded plot to wipe out the Cheer Squad—but what can he do when their only member is too headstrong to listen to him?!"

Again!! is one of those madly brilliant stories where no plot summary could fully do it justice. At first, there's the attention-grabbing sci-fi twist: what if you could relive your school years? This is accompanied by a splash of comedy, as Kinichirou realizes he can reenact every social interaction he's ever had and not scare people off this time. (Even funnier is when another time-traveler—a social butterfly—thinks she can jump right into her old friendships, and instead sabotages them.) There's also some deep introspection as Kinichirou thinks about how to accomplish something meaningful this time. However, the story really hits its stride when the two cheering clubs come into conflict. It's a clandestine war between treachery and justice, with hidden agendas and psychological manipulation coming into play. Kinichirou even digs into the Cheer Squad's troubled past—and it's still only Volume 1. The art can be intensely dynamic, as seen in the cheering scenes and occasional of bursts of action, yet there's also an elegance in the linework, proven by the character designs and some of Kinichirou's reflective pauses. Even the background details, and the way the panels are staged, show a skilled eye for visual composition.

The problem with Again!! is that it takes multiple premises and tries to run with every single one. Wouldn't it have been enough to just have the school-club rivalry, with its social gamesmanship and the underdogs fighting for survival? Or what about just the time-travel segment, with Kinichirou trying to make friends he never had (and maybe getting into some comical, paradoxical scrapes along the way)? Instead, this first volume tries to do all of those together, the result being that it feels unfocused. There are even entire characters who fall victim to this lack of focus: social butterfly Fujieda, for example, seems like a key figure at first because she triggers Kinichirou's time-slip, but gradually fades away in importance until she's barely hanging on as a sidekick. Meanwhile, the harsh personality of the Cheer Squad captain makes it hard to root for her as a major character—how can one of the "good guys" be so brash, especially toward the protagonist? Some panel-to-panel transitions also get confusing as the story tries to juggle different scenarios.

Its only real fault is trying to do too much at once. The sheer depth of the story, with suspense and interpersonal drama, make this a highly enjoyable read.

(by Ken Saito, CMX)

Some people would have us believe that the only thing CMX ever did as a publisher was to make mincemeat of Tenjo Tenge. But their true contribution to manga during the boom times was to dig up a number of low-profile but high-quality titles, revealing to fans a world that didn't involve blockbuster franchises or trend-driven gimmicks.

The Name of the Flower is one of those little gems, a bittersweet story of two people who struggle against their personal demons. Chouko is a high-schooler who's just lost her parents in an accident, and her distant relative, a novelist named Kei, takes her in. However, overcoming depression won't be easy for Chouko when Kei has emotional issues of his own—he just doesn't know how to reach out to this troubled girl, especially when he sees her as somewhat attractive.

As part of the healing process, Chouko tends to Kei's garden and learns what all the flowers are called (hence the title of the series), while Kei works on his novel and gets used to having her around. Eventually, time passes and they go through various ups and downs—but the story never results to melodrama to get the point across. Instead, it's understated, letting the characters' personal problems speak for themselves. Watching the Chouko and Kei grow stronger, all in their own time and not because of any miracles or plot twists, is part of the series' appeal.

The delicate art is perfectly suited to the story as well, with fine lines and a relaxed visual pace that lets each moment sink in. Even though the protagonists are just living together in a typical house, there are enough details and artistic flourishes (most notably the garden) to make this a delight for both the eyes and mind. It may have snuck under a lot of people's radars—but don't miss out on it now while the used copies are still cheap.

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