RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Get Down With the Sickness
by Carlo Santos,
The hype for Halloween is building already. People are planning their costumes, and setting up haunted houses, but I know where my priorities lie: I'm just waiting for November 1st, when all the candy is half-price...
ARE YOU ALICE?
(by Ikumi Katagiri and Ai Ninomiya, Yen Press, $11.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The Duke—a warped mass that collects the scraps of Wonderland—goes berserk in the town square, not far from where Alice and Hatter have traveled on an errand. In his frenzied state, the Duke wants nothing more than to have Alice all to himself. But when an overconfident Alice decides to ignore Hatter's commands and give the Duke what he wants, little does Alice expect to wind up in the belly of the beast!"
"Why is Alice a good-looking young man?" is the least of the mysteries in this noir-thriller take on Wonderland. The other characters and their motives are just as cryptic, with answers that lead to further questions. Questions about the Hatter's obsessive desire to protect Alice, the Cheshire Cat's possibly duplicitous nature, and whether Alice will ever complete his mission to "kill the White Rabbit," will keep fans hooked and longing to find out more. While these questions hang in the balance, the series also drops in some chilling action sequences. Alice's confrontation with the monstrous Duke leads to a dream that may be the biggest revelation yet, while a character's shocking death adds dramatic gravitas to the whole story. However, artwork is the series' greatest strength, capturing the eerie atmosphere of this universe. Deep black-and-white contrasts establish the noir look, striking panel layouts and unlikely angles create an almost avant-garde edginess, and delicate lines add beauty to the grim setting. The character designs and backgrounds so stylish and detailed, but also seem restrained, as if they have something to hide...
Sadly, Are You Alice? is one of those series that doesn't respect the line between mysterious and incomprehensible. The characters often talk in vague terms, using incomplete sentence fragments or referring to people and things in a roundabout manner. No wonder it's so hard to figure out their motives—or even establish basic facts, like who's on Alice's side or not. When key events happen, it's hard to tell if they're taking place in the present timeframe, a few moments ago, or in an entirely different universe. (At least flashbacks are easy to pick out.) Actually, a solid explanation of why there's a "quest to be the best Alice," and why the White Rabbit is so concerned for Wonderland, would help too. Visually, the panel transitions from one scene to another also add to the confusion; sometimes a brand-new character will appear without any indication that we're now in a different time and place. The level of artistic abstraction, showing only a fragment of someone's body or no imagery at all, is another surefire way to leave people baffled.
It's visually striking and carries plenty of intrigue, but the way the story is told stops it from being totally enjoyable. The developments in this volume get a C+.
NEON GENESIS EVANGELION: THE SHINJI IKARI DETECTIVE DIARY
(by Takumi Yoshimura, created by GAINAX●khara, Dark Horse, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When even a tough dude like his school pal Toji is getting menaced by gangsters, a nice guy like Shinji Ikari feels obliged to seek out the local private eye, Ryoji Kaji, and his striking young assistant, Kaworu Nagisa. Somehow, thought, Shinji gets drafted to solving the case himself, with Kaworu's help—although Kaworu quickly proves to be a mystery of his own..."
Of all the Evangelion spinoffs and alternative universes, this one departs so far from the norm that you just have to wonder how it turns out. Most of the fun in The Shinji Ikari Detective Diary is in seeing how everyone's favorite characters are re-purposed: Shinji, Kaworu, and Kaji end up as cool-cat private investigators, Asuka and Rei have surprising new roles, and Shinji's dad—oh, just wait and see. Maybe the biggest surprise, though, is when the series reveals what an "Eva" is. Readers who enjoy Evangelion for, shall we say, romantic possibilities will also love what's going on here: Shinji and Kaworu get close in ways that would have been impossible in the original (like rooming together!), but leave just enough to the imagination. The crisp-lined artwork, which emphasizes making the boys as attractive as possible, is a style all its own—but the essence of the canonical character designs is still there. The panels are widely-spaced enough for clarity, and occasional outbursts of supernatural phenomena create visual interest when Shinji and Kaworu are out on assignment.
How can this be allowed to exist? It's got such a weak storyline that even doujinshi artists who sell their work at convention tables could easily do better. The investigations are poorly scripted, consisting of a linear "Go here, find out what's wrong, then make it right" formula—and it's not like they get more complex with each succeeding chapter. No misdirection, no fragments of evidence to be pieced together, no wild twists that make the case more difficult than expected, no surprise characters waiting in the wings. Maybe having the word "Detective" in the title results in unreasonably high expectations. These guys aren't detectives; they just chase trouble wherever it goes. Most of the character development involves Shinji and Kaworu making mindless small talk, and Shinji's own internal monologue is a watered-down version of what he says in the real Evangelion. The supporting characters, who are superficially grafted onto their roles in this series, don't fare any better. The artwork also lacks substance, with bland, cookie-cutter backgrounds and not much shading or detail outside of the character designs. This alternate universe, it turns out, is more like a housebuilding project that never got finished.
Although Eva fans will get some amusement out of it, the story ideas are actually paper-thin, and there's nothing meaningful going on here—which is why this volume gets a D+.
SICKNESS UNTO DEATH
(by Hikaru Asada and Takahiro Seguchi, Vertical, $11.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When college freshman and future psychotherapist Kazuma Futaba responds to a curious call for a room to let, he ends up living in a mansion owned by Emiru, a frail beauty his own age. Although neighborhood kids call the place haunted, if anything the young mistress nurses a darker affliction in this half of a thoughtful diptych."
Is it possible to be sad to the point of physical illness? Most people would agree with that idea in some way. But what could make someone reach that point of despair? That's what Sickness Unto Death asks, turning a schmaltzy romantic premise (boy falls in love taking care of sick girl) into something with darker implications. Emiru may be a tragic character, she's not quite sympathetic—there's too much emotional distance for one to easily connect to her, and instead, the mystery of "How?" and "Why?" is what truly makes her compelling. The uncertainty over Kazuma's relationship with Emiru—is he going to save her, or is he walking a path to his own doom?—further adds to the tension. Hints of the supernatural cause further uncertainty as to what's really going on. The artwork plays a key role in the series' mood swings, shifting to dark gray shadows on a particularly gloomy night, and at other times bursting with warmth and brightness when personal infatuation takes over. Emiru's fine attire and luxurious home also create an aura of tragic beauty that guides this whole story.
Although the story is well-intentioned, Sickness Unto Death falls back on too many clichés of ill-fated romance. It starts right from Chapter 1, where the main characters meet by chance on a busy street before they get properly acquainted later—that odds of that are just absurd, and what was Emiru doing outside anyway? The stilted storytelling goes on and on, with Kazuma spouting internal monologues about how pitiful the situation is, Emiru sighing and pouting through every scene, and (something that seems more irresponsible than caring) Kazuma desperately trying to "diagnose" Emiru with only a first-year psychology education and pro tips from his professor. It's like an upside-down Nicholas Sparks novel—instead of a plastic romance drenched in vapid optimism, it's romance drenched in vapid despair. They're sad for the sake of being sad. The artificiality of the artwork doesn't help either: the linework looks too clinical and computer-assisted, the characters' expressions and gestures lack any life to them, and most of the backgrounds are flat and unconvincing. In a manga devoid of action, you've got to find other ways to catch the eye—and this one doesn't.
Like a kid whose tastes are informed by Hot Topic, this series wants to convey a meaningful message, but silly clichés and woe-is-me sentimentality make it a mediocre C.
TIGER & BUNNY THE MOVIE: THE BEGINNING
Side A & Side B
(by Tsutomu Oono, planning/story by Sunrise, Viz Media, $9.99 ea.)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"In the city of Stern Bild, superpowered heroes known as NEXT fight crime while promoting their corporate sponsors for the hit show HERO TV. Veteran hero Wild Tiger has years of experience fighting crime, but when his ratings slip he's forced to team up with Barnaby Brooks Jr., a rookie hero with an attitude. This two-volume manga adaptation of the Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning animated film introduces you to the exciting world and characters of Tiger & Bunny!"
Side B (Volume 2) of Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning is where it's at. That's where the manga (and the related movie) departs from the TV series, sending our heroes on a Hollywood-sized mission. Their quest to capture a near-unstoppable thief happens on such a big scale that even HERO TV's producers would be impressed: every major character gets involved, they traverse huge swaths of the city, and the final battle takes place in one of the most visible places in Stern Bild. The difficulty of the mission is impressive as well, with Barnaby and company having to outsmart their target instead of just overpowering him. Dazzling visuals in both volumes also help to make this a memorable adventure. Tsutomu Oono's art style has more heft to it than the TV-based Tiger & Bunny manga, with tough, square-jawed characters, carefully detailed props and buildings, and extra touches of shading. Practically every pose is a dynamic pose, and the larger-than-life stunts and explosions show how exciting this world is.
Side A (Volume 1) of Tiger & Bunny: The Beginning is where it's not at. The entire volume is a waste of money, retelling the story of how Wild Tiger got teamed up with Barnaby and what happened on their first mission. For fans who have already seen this in the TV series, the manga based on the TV series, and the movie adaptation, there is absolutely nothing of value here. In fact, the entire two-volume set is a ripoff: each one is just 160 pages, so they could easily fit into one omnibus, and one of those is rehashed content. Of course, the new content isn't exactly anything to cheer about either—it's just one big action sequence blown up in size, with no substance to the plot and certainly no character development. (Sometimes the heroes are even selectively stupid, letting the villain get away in order to prolong the story.) Barnaby occasionally thinks about his dead parents, and Tiger reflects upon his deceased wife, but those are just token gestures in a story that lacks the room for flashbacks and emotional buildup.
It's got quality art and more substance than the T&B tribute anthology, but the deceptive packaging (duplicating the start of the series + filler mission = 2 new volumes?!) makes it a D as far as value and content.
VOICE OVER! SEIYU ACADEMY
(by Maki Minami, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Hime Kino's dream is to one day do voice acting like her hero Sakura Aoyama from the Lovely♥Blazers anime, and getting accepted to prestigious Holly Academy's voice actor department is the first step in the right direction! But Hime's gruff voice has earned her the scorn of teachers and students alike. Hime will not let that stand unchallenged. She'll show everyone that she is too a voice acting princess, whether they like it or not!!
To make matters worse, Sakura's grouchy son, Senri, is in Hime's class, and he seems determined to stomp on her dreams. He even has the nerve to call Lovely♥Blazers stupid! But Hime won't be deterred by naysayers, her new nickname ('Gorilla Princess'), or even getting demoted to the Stragglers group in class. She's ready to shine, and nothing is going to stand in her way!"
Okay, who's the genius who combined a high school ensemble comedy with the foibles of the voice-acting industry? Maki Minami, that's who. Voice Over! Seiyu Academy excels in both aspects: at school, Hime and her fellow "Stragglers" keep getting into comical scrapes, while in the studio, Hime's struggles to improve and find a suitable role make her a lovable underdog. There's even a fun poke at celebrity/idol culture when Hime crosses paths with two already-famous male students ... and promptly earns the undying wrath of their fangirl army! So yes, Hime is clearly a fantastic main character. At the same time, though, her supporting cast—a girl with a really soft voice, a mixed-race kid with a weird accent, and a loudmouthed punk who can barely read a script—proves to be just as entertaining. The lively artwork keeps the energy at a constant high, with plenty of variation between close-ups, action shots and visual gags. Patterned backgrounds and special effects are also part of the equation, capturing the characters' wide-ranging (and often exaggerated) emotions. Even the fonts on the page are a key visual element, helping one to imagine how the different voices sound.
Is there such a thing as artwork being too lively? Some of the pages in Voice Over! Seiyu Academy feel that way: not enough spacing, multiple characters going off and doing different things, and important actions being obscured by other visual effects. The secondary character designs are also a problem: Hime and her closest friends are easy to tell apart, but then there are the lookalike older guys who appear to be cut from the same bishonen cloth. One of them, Senri, is also cursed with an absurd personality: he vacillates between being nice to Hime and being mean to her, sometimes within the same scene. If this is supposed to be the "love interest who's initially a jerk" ploy, it's a stupid trope in the first place, and using it so bluntly doesn't help matters. Some events in the series also rely too much on impossible strokes of luck, like Hime landing a role on a whim or borrowing a guy's school uniform simply by demanding it. For all the research on what real voice actors do, this story still ventures into the unrealistic sometimes.
Between the likable characters and amusing scenarios, there's enough entertainment value to overlook the faults. Score this volume a B.
SABRINA THE TEENAGE WITCH: THE MAGIC WITHIN
(by Tania Del Rio, Archie Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Sabrina Spellman has a choice to make—and it's the biggest of her young life! Will the teenage witch choose the cute wizard Shinji and the Magic Realm, or her childhood sweetheart Harvey and the Mortal Realm? Her choice will change the course of her life, and the lives of countless others!
Sabrina's magical powers are growing, drawing unwelcome attention from the Queen and her Magic Council. Sabrina has uncovered the Magic Council''s dark secret, putting her life and the lives of everyone she loves at risk! The fate of the Magic Realm may lie in Sabrina's hands—can one heroic teenage witch handle this kind of responsibility?"
I never thought I'd get so charged up with excitement for each new volume of the Sabrina the Teenage Witch manga, but here we are. The series keeps on finding new ways to build upon itself, especially now that the Four Blades storyline—Sabrina and company's ongoing quest to overthrow a corrupt magical government—is in full swing. The NSA-like behavior of the Magic Council brings suspense to this volume, as do Sabrina's eye-opening discoveries about the darker elements of the Magic Realm. But for real drama, just wait and see what happens between Sabrina and Harvey and prepare to have your heart ripped out. Amidst all this, however, the comedy angle is still there—it's one sight gag after another when housecat Salem tries his hand at human life, and Sabrina's eccentric magic tutor is a constant source of oddball humor. The artwork is well-suited to these jolly moments, with appealing character designs for the teenage cast and plenty of shifts to ultra-cute chibi form. However, Tania Del Rio's illustrations of magical effects and alternate dimensions are eye-catching in their own right, making Sabrina's magical escapades just as convincing as the comedy and high-school side.
The series was supposed to get more intense now that magical rebellion is in the air, but it keeps reverting back to side stories and juvenile drama that distract from the good stuff. A throwaway Halloween chapter, Sabrina's brief attempt at quitting magic cold turkey, and a visit with Harvey's relatives are just some of the detours taken in this volume. How about evolving into an epic fantasy saga so that we can finally see a much-anticipated battle with the Magic Council? But no, it's got to be about training one's magic skills by climbing up a cliff or something. Sabrina's on-again, off-again drama with her boyfriends is another overused angle. Granted, some of it is essential to the plot (her alignment with Shinji or Harvey will affect her opinion of magical society), but we get too many cheeseball melodrama scenes out of it. The artwork also falls short in certain ways, like panels being constantly crammed together and excessive gray tones making a mess out of every page. (That's what you get for publishing a color comic in black-and-white...) Big blocks of dialogue also weigh down the pacing.
Okay, it isn't reaching an epic showdown as fast as I'd hoped, but the well-developed story and surprising twists are more than worth it—and surely Volume 4 gets even better.
TALES OF THE ABYSS: ASCH THE BLOODY
(by Rin Nijyo and Hana Saitō, Bandai)
It may have only come out a few years ago, but that feels like forever in Internet time. Shortly before Bandai Entertainment's closure as a distributor of anime and manga in the U.S., they squeezed a couple more manga volumes out the door, including this adaptation of the Tales of the Abyss video game. Of course, when we say "adaptation of a video game," this usually means "Cliffs Notes hack job"—which is not to say that Asch the Bloody was that bad, but it wasn't all that great either. This manga tries to be interesting by taking the villain's viewpoint: basically, Asch the Bloody is the redheaded warlord who wants nothing but to rain destruction on would-be hero Luke Fon Fabre and his band of adventurers. As they say, if you want more details, play the game or watch the anime.
Unfortunately, Asch the Bloody tries to fit so much plot into a couple of volumes that it never really gets a chance to tell a proper story. Instead, it dashes from one set-piece battle to the next, occasionally throwing in bits of drama where we see how Asch's suffering made him the villain that he is. Furthermore, the manga is so desperate to re-enact exact scenes from the game (except from Asch's point of view, of course) that any hope of exploring new storylines, or expanding Asch's character further, is a lost cause.
The art, at least, is a good match for what the manga concentrates on—action. The linework is bold and dynamic (if a tad sloppy), showing off the chaos that comes when medieval armies and forces of magic meet on the battlefield. Oh, and sometimes they're simply rushing through tunnels to save their lives. It's a valiant effort at presenting a multimedia franchise from a different angle—but again, as they say, you might as well just play the game.
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