RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Hungry Like the Wolfsmund
by Carlo Santos, Aug 13th 2013
Comiket? Otakon? I dunno guys, I'm not good with heat or humidity—and this is coming from someone who grew up in a tropical climate. Maybe some cons are best enjoyed by watching other people report on them online...
(by Gosho Aoyama, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"A simple search for a missing cell phone turns into a baffling murder case. Conan has the suspects narrowed down to three reclusive eccentrics, none of whom seem upset by the victim's brutal death—and all of whom have perfect alibis. Can he solve the case by finding the phone?
Meanwhile, Rachel is convinced that Jimmy and Conan are the same person—and with Conan's cell phone, she can prove it!"
This volume of Case Closed fits three mysteries in between its covers, and each one is a true brain-tickler. Whether it's trying to solve a murder where all the suspects were cooped up at home that night, or seeing through the illusions of a magician's mansion, the thrill of seeing Conan figure out "impossible" situations with logical rigor is what makes the series so addictive. For added variety, there are even times when Conan doesn't perform the final deduction: instead, his brash-talking buddy does it for him, or he guides a bumbling detective into finding the right solution. There's also another surprise lurking in this volume: the possibility that Conan's own secret might be found out, and for once he has to become the trickster trying to outwit a watchful observer. How's that for suspense? Wide-ranging character designs prove to be the series' greatest artistic strength, making it easy to keep track of the suspects in each case. Meanwhile, neat rectangular panels allow the story to move along at a smooth pace. Tightly executed action scenes also provide excitement amidst the more cerebral, problem-solving segments.
The scenarios may be different, but the way in which they're solved remains the same. It's always Conan who has it all figured it out, then he uses someone else as a proxy to explain it to the cops. Yes, that's "just how the series works," but after a while it gets maddening. The solutions themselves aren't perfect either—they're physically possible, yes, but probable? It would take some very fortunate circumstances, and very forgiving eyewitnesses, to make some of these murders and alibis work. Someone's always got to make excuses: "But how come nobody noticed X?" "Because it was disguised with Y..." What's also disappointing is the general lack of emotion shown by the culprits when they get found out—this series is so focused on being logically brilliant that it forgets the human side of each case. The sheer amount of explanatory dialogue also bogs down the pacing, and often forces the artwork into tiny spaces that make it hard to see what's going on or who's speaking. This is especially detrimental when having to look at a diagram that makes a particular situation clearer.
Each mystery is complex and compelling, but the strict formula and sometimes shaky physics means that this is just "average" Case Closed—which means a C.
CHILDREN OF THE SEA
(by Daisuke Igarashi, Viz Media, $14.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"After following Umi deep into the ocean, Ruka finds herself in an undersea cave where she hears a voice calling to her. She soon realizes it is the meteorite in her stomach, telling her the next step in her journey."
The first thing anyone will notice about the final volume of Children of the Sea is the middle 150 pages—a mystical, near-wordless undersea voyage designed to blow readers' minds. This visual essay, a marine version of Kubrick's 2001, has it all: dense, hand-drawn detail, scenes that sweep over entire pages, glowing lights and deep shadows, and beautifully drawn sea creatures. There's nowhere on earth you'll ever see that many species together, but isn't it great to dream—and to see such a talented artist bring those dreams to life? As the story draws to a close, one is left to contemplate the meaning of life based on Ruka and Umi's experiences, and see how it fits in with other seagoing legends mentioned in the series. Children of the Sea doesn't try to pile on fancy words and explanations for the sake of completing the puzzle: instead, it simply lays those images and events out there, letting them speak for themselves. The characters' lives go on without superficial complications or melodrama, and we're left in awe of how wondrous life on Earth is. Isn't that just the best feeling?
Children of the Sea may have avoided the pitfalls of trying to explain everything away with pseudoscience, but having no explanations at all is its own problem. For those who like a concrete, definitive story, where the characters accomplish things and unexplained events are resolved, this finale offers little satisfaction. In fact, Ruka and Umi's grand sea journey may be the worst part of the whole venture: there's hardly any dialogue to describe where they're going, what's happening to them, or what they're feeling. Following these sea creatures around and gazing at the immense depths eventually starts to feel monotonous—too much of a good thing, clearly. What's more, throwing all these pretty pictures out there and leaving the audience to figure it out isn't a very fair deal. Even a time-skip in the final chapter, plus a "Where are they now?" conversation, does little to explain what happened to everyone. Was this series ever truly deep, or was it just pretentiously vague?
Whether one finds the story satisfying or not, there's no denying the incredible artwork and the ambition of the world Daisuke Igarashi created. The powerful imagery and grand ideas deserve an A-.
IS THIS A ZOMBIE?
(by Shinichi Kimura, Sacchi, and Kobuichi•Muririn, Yen Press, $11.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Secretly jumping for joy in his undeadest of hearts when Eu writes him a note that says, 'I want you to hold me tight' (Disgusting), Ayumu will have to give it his best (Vile!!) if he wants to get a word or move in edgewise (Sick.) under Sera's ever-vigilant eye! But now that the danger from the King of Night has passed, maybe the time is ripe for Ayumu and his lady friends to get into a little youthful mischief at the school festival?! But what happens when Haruna and Eu switch places?!"
In Is This a Zombie?, there's always one thing you can count on: self-referential genre spoofs. A rumored school ghost turns out to be nothing more than a supernatural freeloader. Haruna's announcement of her "final form" is followed by Ayumu's retort about a dark twist waiting to happen. And when a mysterious character shows up with an important item, he makes a sly comment about not giving away spoilers. Jokes aside, the storyline still weaves in plenty of serious moments, like Ayumu trying to comprehend the dangers of Haruna's magical power surge, and a last-minute cliffhanger that no one will see coming. This volume also includes some heartfelt moments between Ayumu and Eu, proving that the necromancer has a kind heart lurking beneath her silent, armored exterior. Some subtle changes in the artwork bring the best out of these displays of emotion—no humorous asides, no pointless clutter, just neatly laid-out scenes featuring the main couple. The visuals return to their usual style the rest of the time, though, with lively bursts of action and some fun costume changes (don't miss out on yet another classic cross-dressing escapade).
After some story arcs involving serious life-or-death adventure, this one is a letdown, focusing more on the school festival rather than new threats lurking in the background. Not that there's anything wrong with taking a break and having fun—but after seeing yet another chest-size gag, and characters bemoaning how perverted Ayumu and his male buddies are, the lowbrow humor really does get tiresome. It's even worse when minor supporting characters (basically, any non-magical classmates) get more face time than they deserve. The various scenarios that Ayumu and friends get into also lack cohesion: one moment he's caught up in the vampire ninja clan rivalry, another time he's fighting to restrain a volatile magical weapon, and then Haruna and Eu are vying for his attention. Ah, whatever happened to the days of having one villain and one quest and that would be the end of it? The artwork also continues to disappoint, often shifting into chibi mode in a desperate attempt to be funny, egregiously violating the rules of anatomy to make the girls look sexier, or just throwing visual gags all over the place with no regard for layout.
The scattershot storyline, which emphasizes silliness over drama, is definitely a step back. Too many dumb gags and not enough quality moments spell a C- this time around.
THE SACRED BLACKSMITH
(by Isao Miura and Kōtarō Yamada, Seven Seas, $13.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The Market Festival has come to the city of Housman, where a fabulous blade known as the 'Demon Sword' is put up for auction. Recently knighted Cecily Campbell's newest mission is to guard the sword at all costs. There's just one problem: the sword has the mysterious ability to transform into a beautiful woman known as Aria.
Still, it's all fun and games at the festival, and Cecily and Aria become fast friends—until a huge demon fire appears! The demon will stop at nothing to steal Aria, even if it means reducing the entire city to ashes. Can Cecily and her companion Luke—The Sacred Blacksmith—save the citizens of Housman from a rampaging demon and its sinister plans?"
Volume 2 of The Sacred Blacksmith is that rarest of rarities: a light-novel adaptation that's good enough to stand on its own as a quality work. It tells an inspiring tale of good triumphing over evil, fits in enough action scenes and tearjerker moments to be meaningful, and avoids unnecessary complications from outside the plot. In other words, it's fantasy done right. The story behind Cecily and Aria's friendship—especially once Cecily learns what Aria really is—proves that far-fetched accounts of demons, swords , and magic can still tap into basic human emotions. Even the rampaging demon itself has a bittersweet back-story. However, action scenes are still the tentpoles that hold up this series, from Aria's transformation to Luke's enchanted smithing to Cecily's combination of gymnastics and swordplay. The artwork, full of heroic gestures and showstopping special effects, makes each of these moments as epic as possible (and it makes the larger print size worth paying for). Even basic things like magical flames feel more "alive" because of the rich visual style—while at the same time, subtler details like town backgrounds and dialogue sequences are also drawn with care.
The main story may be "fantasy done right," but there are still parts of The Sacred Blacksmith that end up going wrong. The first chapter overloads on mindless day-to-day antics and shameless acts of fanservice, most notably when Cecily and the girls go into town and pick out some ... interesting clothing ensembles. Come on, this is a good enough story that it shouldn't have to resort to lewd remarks about Cecily's chest for humor. The flashback about Cecily and Aria's friendship is another segment that could have been done better—at some points it goes past being sweet and heartfelt, and becomes this sentimental pile of goo where the girls just gaze longingly at each other and spout lovesick phrases. The artwork commits occasional crimes of excess as well: there are certain panels that anchor each scene, full of awe and grandeur ... but don't flow well with the moments right before or right after. Some artists can produce great individual illustrations, but they don't always fit into the overall visual scheme.
Despite its imperfections, this volume as a whole is incredibly satisfying, and those who enjoy a strong dose of magic and adventure will find it worthy of an A-.
(by Mitsuhisa Kuji, Vertical, $12.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In early modern Europe, the cantons that will one day comprise Switzerland are suffering brutal oppression under Habsburg Austria. Once a source of trade wealth for the people of the Alps, Sankt Gotthard Pass now hems them in, straddled by a barrier station overseen by a heartless bailiff and feared as the Wolf's Maw. Even as a legendary hero takes up the cause of freedom, hope comes too dear. Clenched teeth, meet cruel smile."
Of all the topics for a medieval-themed manga, who would have picked a Swiss border patrol station? Wolfsmund takes this unlikely idea and makes it something noteworthy, with tales of rebel underdogs risking their lives against an imperialist regime. The violent, fast-paced fights and breathless chase scenes make a strong impression early on, but what's even more striking is the heart-wrenching outcome of each chapter. Rather than the rebels scoring predictable victories and building up their position, it's the bad guys who usually win, accompanied by plenty of carnage. However, the arrival of a famous Swiss historical figure is what really energizes this story. His heroic feats—mountaineering, marksmanship, and taking on impossible odds—are the apex of this volume, a nonstop flow of action that can only be described as stunning. The crisp artwork, similar to traditional woodcuts, also adds to the excitement. It's easy to get caught up in the dynamic battle poses, intense speedlines, and attention to historical detail (when people get hurt, it's because of serious bladed weapons, not made-up magical powers). Well-researched costumes and convincing backgrounds also add to the element of realism.
Wolfsmund aims for a certain level of historical accuracy, but the artwork doesn't always meet those goals. Early on, the visuals look too stiff, relying mostly on straight lines and simplified designs. What's more, some of the younger characters possess sparkly "anime eyes" that contradict the gritty, semi-realistic world they live in. It's also in the early chapters that the storyline is still unsure what to make of itself—major characters are introduced, only to be disposed of, and the plot skirts around the political situation without really diving into it. We know that the main antagonist is Wolfram, an enforcer of the Austrian Empire, but who exactly are the faces of the rebel faction? Or will they just keep sending up random characters until someone gets past the gates? The last third of this book tries to settle that uncertainty by establishing a major hero, but when he's busy braving the Alps and fighting off soldiers, there's little time to actually develop the character on a deeper level. Might as well just get people hooked on the action first.
The story isn't fully formed yet, and the art goes through some early jitters, but the overall concept is solid enough to earn a B.
SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH: THE MAGIC WITHIN
(by Tania del Rio, Archie Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Sabrina Spellman's life is intense. On top of the usual stresses of being a teenager, she's a witch! And that means two schools and twice the work, from her Mortal Realm high school and the Magic Realm's Charm School.
It should be simpler. But in addition to a regular spelling bee, she has to study for a magical spell-ing bee. She's finally dating her childhood sweetheart—but he doesn't know she's a witch! She also has a crush on a cute young wizard—but he's dating her best friend! On top of the drama, Sabrina keeps being dragged into the middle of strange and dangerous events in the Magic Realm."
The first volume of Sabrina the Teenage Witch manga may have been a typical "high school and magic" romp, but this one blows away all previous expectations. Sabrina gets pulled deep into the politics of the magical world, with dramatic back-stories, government cover-ups, and whispers of rebellion all coming into play. Love interest Shinji also turns out to be far more than just a cute guy with a Japanese name, and subtle revelations about Sabrina's magical abilities suggest a more serious quest in her future. The characters' ever-shifting relationships are another compelling source of drama, and not just in the ordinary sense of who's going out with who. The bonds formed between Sabrina and Shinji, along with other break-ups and make-ups, eventually lead to alliances that could shape the Magic Realm's future. The increased fantasy element also means more exciting artwork: fearsome monsters, fancifully dressed witches, and whole new realms (an airborne island and an undersea city) are all seen in this volume. On the human side, the character designs continue to be cute, comical, and stylish—but Sabrina's world definitely just got a whole lot darker.
It's impossible to escape the fact that these are originally color comics reprinted in grayscale. Rather than screentone patterns and crisp black-and-white contrasts, every page is filled with solid grays and gradients, which wear out the eyes. It also doesn't help that the panels are so tightly crammed together, with no gutters to space them out. The dense dialogue, a product of "American-style" comic pacing, also bogs down each chapter. Most of that chatter could be cut out anyway: Sabrina and friends spend too much time arguing and angsting over romantic relationships, to the point where the magical-political storyline lies forgotten for multiple chapters in a row. Then again, some plot points are so obvious that letting them sit around unrevealed is no big deal—everyone can see them coming anyway. The series also makes a mistake of "narrating" some of the most crucial flashbacks, with panels that are more like accompanying illustrations than actual storytelling. There's also a basic lack of attention to detail, with sloppily drawn background characters and a sudden lettering change in the later chapters.
If there were any doubts about revamping a familiar American franchise, Volume 2 casts those doubts aside. Sabrina has entered full-on adventure mode and it can only get better from here.
GALAXY ANGEL / GALAXY ANGEL BETA / GALAXY ANGEL II
(by Kanan, Broccoli)
After unearthing so many hidden treasures in the out-of-print/license-lapsed category, it's only right that I bring up certain things that deserve to stay out of print. Optimistic minds might say that Galaxy Angel was an attempt at a fun, lighthearted space opera; I'm pretty sure the Galaxy Angel manga was basically an attempt to sell more Galaxy Angel products. The heroine of the story is Milfeuille Sakuraba, a bubbly girl-next-door type who just happens to be a skilled interstellar pilot as well. Several other girls with similarly sweet names make up the rest of the Angel Troupe, whose job is to pilot "Emblem Frames" (got to have a fancy name for everything, right?) and protect the universe from evil forces. But in charge of the Angel Troupe is the series' lone male protagonist, Takuto Meyers, who entertains all sorts of harem possibilities as he interacts with the Angel Troupe members.
In an effort to please fans with a little a bit of everything—action, sci-fi, comedy, romance—Galaxy Angel and its sequel series end up being average or worse in all these areas. If the girls aren't battling for justice in a predictable go-here-fight-these-guys structure, then they're acting out typical screwball scenarios like going to a "hot springs planet" or vying with each other to impress their beloved commander. The messy, stiff-looking artwork shows more effort in trying to make the characters cute than actually telling a decent story. There are many ways to go on an intrepid space adventure, but having to stop every several pages for fanservice is one of the more painful routes.
With so many Galaxy Angel products out there, surely there should have been something that clicked with me. But no, this manga—despite my best attempts to find something redeeming about it—is probably best left alone as a product of its time.
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