RIGHT TURN ONLY!! Happily Ever Afterschool
by Carlo Santos,
October is a strange time for sports fans in America. The baseball playoffs are on, football is in full swing, basketball is just starting up again, and here I am trying to figure out what I want to watch ...
Forget it, I'm going on Crunchyroll to see what anime shows I need to catch up on.
(by Kumiko Suekane, Viz Media, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"St. Kleio Academy is a very exclusive school. To enroll, a student must be the clone of a famous historical figure. Wolfgang Mozart, Queen Elizabeth, Sigmund Freud, Marie Curie, Adolf Hitler—with such a combustible student body, it's only a matter of time before the campus explodes!
Left behind at St. Kleio, Shiro is informed that he is a clone of the Academy's founder, and is taken away to the Da Vinci Foundation headquarters to serve in a leadership position. Meanwhile, Hitler begins publicly denouncing St. Kleio to the press, unleashing a wave of criticism toward the school. Shiro responds by opening up the academy to the media, in the hopes of saving its tarnished reputation, but during the press event a student is attacked..."
It seems counterintuitive, but some of Afterschool Charisma's most intense moments come when the characters are sitting calmly, talking about big ideas. That's because these big ideas are designed to twist your mind into uncomfortable positions: "Should historical clones live up to their originals?" wonders Clone Hitler. (A scary thought coming from him.) "Shouldn't we auction off clones in order to maximize their value to society?" says St. Kleio's heartless director. If that's not anxiety-inducing enough, the story also adds some real-world tension as Shiro revolts against the Academy and goes on the run. Some frantic chases here, some lies and misdirection there, and suddenly Shiro's a hero in his own suspense thriller. Yet after all that physical action, it's still the gears turning in Shiro's head that drive the story—an important realization in the last chapter becomes a key turning point. The series' uneasy mood is also captured by the nervous looks on the characters' faces, as they confront the eternal debate between free will and predestination. Widely-spaced panels lend themselves to a quick, page-turning pace, and distinctive character designs make it easy to keep track of the large cast.
Unfortunately, the size of the panels makes certain artistic flaws more obvious—like where are the backgrounds half the time? Often times the action takes place in blank space or in sparsely decorated rooms. When the series does try to bring in backgrounds (most notably for city scenes), they look half-hearted at best—generic buildings and sidewalks lined up like an art-school perspective exercise. The simple style also makes it easier to spot minor mistakes, like a character's eyes positioned off-center or a few penstrokes gone astray. Meanwhile, on the storytelling side, too many philosophical monologues slow down the plot—especially when people just keep bringing back the same points they've been tossing around since Volume 1. Yes, the clones keep questioning their own identities—so what else is new? There are also a couple of scenes that check up on what certain side characters are up to, but don't add much to the main storyline. Think how much more exciting it could be if Shiro, Hitler, and the Academy could all just confront each other already instead of sitting around and brooding.
Although it often gets lost in its own existential worries, there are definitely some deep thoughts and dramatic turns that earn this volume a B+.
(by Ayumi Kanou, Seven Seas, $13.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Otogi Grimm, a far-flung descendant of the renowned Grimm brothers, has always regarded the fairy tales of his ancestors as pure fiction. Now, the introverted half-Japanese teen is about to discover that the Grimm legacy is anything but pure.
Otogi finds a manuscript that reveals the dark truth about the Brothers Grimm and the secret deal they made with beings known as the Märchen Demons. With Cinderella as his guide, can Otogi Grimm unlock the power of the manuscript and save himself from a horde of living fairy tales gone wild?"
Perhaps you've heard that nugget of fan wisdom about white-haired anime boys being nothing but trouble. Well, here comes trouble—and his name is Cinderella. The flights of fancy don't stop there: Dictatorial Grimoire is all about re-casting classic fairy tale characters as alluring bishonen, and it succeeds fantastically on that front. Each of the new characters is a head-turning surprise—not just because of their good looks and flashy attire, but because of how they bring dramatic new twists to the plot. Apparently, the heroes and heroines of children's literature are more morally questionable than anyone may have imagined, and they've divided into warring factions. Seeing Otogi's reactions to these revelations is also part of the fun; he's a sarcastic protagonist whose snarky lines balance out the seriousness of the overall concept. A florid, action-packed art style also adds to the series' appeal, with Otogi and Cinderella fending off magical attacks and a full bestiary of deadly creatures. Different levels of black, white, and gray tones—plus various patterns—also give the artwork a lively appearance.
Dictatorial Grimoire is often too lively from a visual perspective, with action poses, special effects, and fancy backgrounds all crashing into each other. It's not that the art is necessarily confusing—the panels are actually big enough to follow—but there's always something going on, and this busy style eventually stresses out the eyes after a while. The story, too, could benefit from a little more clarity. It just keeps charging ahead, constantly revealing new things: Here's Otogi and his school pals! Here's Otogi learning about Märchen Demons and meeting Cinderella! Here's his first battle against a Demon! Yes, discovering a fantasy world can be fun, but at some point you've got to start tying things together. That seems to start happening in the last few scenes of this volume, as Otogi deals with the aftermath of a particularly taxing battle ... but eventually the plot just gets absurd, piling on one twist after another and leaving Otogi in a nail-biting cliffhanger situation. This had better not turn into a series where they trot out unanswered questions and never bother to resolve them.
It's an imaginative concept, but with the poorly organized story threads and overly busy art, it's holding at a C+ right now.
GENSHIKEN: SECOND SEASON
(by Shimoku Kio, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The cross-dressing Hato has captured the hearts of everyone in the Genshiken, but the sudden appearance of a beautiful 'girl' in the otaku club raises suspicions among the student council members. A knight in shining armor steps in to save Hato ... Yoshitake's big brother! But he has secrets of his own..."
Genshiken: Second Season can only make pop-culture references and fandom observations for so long. Eventually, the time comes to build up the characters and their relationships ... and this volume pulls it off. A heart-to-heart between Hato and Madarame offers another thoughtful look at gender identity (without preaching or ranting); even the textbook "straight otaku guy" Madarame has to consider his personal preferences. And when club president Ogiue asks the other members to open up about past romantic experiences—ostensibly for manga research—it doubles as a way to get some back-story on the newbies. Yajima's flashback is particularly illuminating, explaining her defensive, self-deprecating attitude. Yet the series is still comedy central: Yoshitake and company engage in slapstick antics as they try to check out Hato's "parts," and Kuchiki's social inappropriateness is forever hilarious. The precise, true-to-life artwork also continues to shine, whether it's backgrounds that capture the clutter of an anime club room, or the dead-accurate cosplay outfits. The memorable character designs and their vibrant expressions also add to the series' mood, and neatly arranged panels make the action easily understandable.
After all these years, dialogue is still Genshiken's biggest weakness. Amidst the personal outpourings and witty observations are a lot of wasted lines—small talk that serves only to get in the way of the visuals. Worse yet, it slows down the story pacing because readers have to wade through so much text. Some of the scenarios in this volume also lack the ebullience of previous outings; it's hard to get much fun out of situations where not-fully-geeky characters (like Yoshitake's brother or the club oversight committee) show up. All these people do is confuse the club members and reduce the amount of goofball behavior coming from the main cast. The story's overemphasis on Hato is another problem area—a single joke about Hato's mysteriously-shifting art style is extended into an entire chapter, for example, while the other first-year members keep getting cheated out of a legitimate storyline. One of these days, we'll get more than just "Yoshitake is obsessed with history" and "Yajima doesn't draw well" ... hopefully.
It's not perfect—too much dialogue and too much focus on one character are an issue—but the skilled artwork and accurate portrayal of fandom still deserves an A-.
(by Shinobu Ohtaka, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Aladdin and Alibaba have entered the Dungeon of Qishan hoping to find hidden treasure—but danger's found them! A horde of slimes closes in on them, while Lord Jamil and his slaves head into the dungeon looking to intercept Aladdin and grab any riches he may have found! But these rivals have more to worry about than each other, and new friends, new enemies and amazing riches are yet to be discovered!"
Magi really starts to find its groove in Volume 2, as Aladdin and Alibaba conquer their first dungeon. The story shows no shortage of ideas as our heroes tackle different challenges: deadly creatures, devious traps, and of course, the ruthless aristocrat Jamil right at the end. He's greedy, misanthropic, and unrepentant—which makes it all the more satisfying when his plans fail. Just as satisfying, though, are dramatic displays of heroism: namely, Jamil's slaves turning against him and standing up for their ideals. It reinforces the classic message of good triumphing against all odds, while also giving the supporting cast a turn in the spotlight. The main characters get plenty of action too, with a flashback explaining Alibaba's unusual background, and Aladdin stealing the show with his magic. Indeed, attention-grabbing visuals are a big part of the series—not just magical flashing lights and special effects, but also superhuman displays of strength and speed, monsters and djinns rising out of the chaos, and fantastical, perspective-bending scenery. The level of artistic detail brings out the unique Middle Eastern setting, particularly in the big, full-page panels.
Aladdin may be a key figure in this story, yet he still isn't developing as a character. Just like in Volume 1, he cryptically talks about his origins but never reveals much of anything; it makes Aladdin seem more like a mystical savior who conveniently turns up out of nowhere rather than a real person. In fact, this whole arc has a problem with people turning up out of nowhere—like when Alibaba disappears down a deadly route but miraculously survives and reunites with his allies, or when Jamil gets sidetracked but somehow makes it to the final showdown. It's hard enough meeting up with friends in real life, and yet these people manage to keep finding each other in a giant, labyrinthine dungeon? The series also defies logic when it comes to fight scenes: as the action moves from one panel to the next, a character in one position might suddenly shift fifteen feet away to another corner of the room. (And they'll be in a different pose, too.) As expected, fancy visuals take precedence over making sense.
Action, adventure, and a hint of mystery all come together in an enjoyable package—and while some aspects of the story could be better, it's still worth a B.
(by Yuma Ando and Yuki Sato, Kodansha Comics, $10.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"When Takeru adopts his new pet, he's in for a surprise—the dog is none other than the reincarnation of Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective. What's more, this 'Sherdog' has decided that Takeru is the reincarnation of his long-time assistant, Dr. Watson. Takeru may think Sherdog (or himself) is crazy, but with no one else able to communicate with Holmes, he's roped into becoming the canine's assistant all the same. Using his exceptional sleuthing skills, Holmes uncovers clues to solve the trickiest crimes."
Think pint-sized Conan Edogawa (Case Closed) has trouble being taken seriously? Try being a dog. That's the concept behind Sherlock Bones, which works surprisingly well—Sherlock is animal enough to do cute little doggy things, but sentient enough to solve crimes and talk to his owner without looking like a Hanna-Barbera wannabe. Most importantly, the whodunit in this volume is smart, suspenseful, and full of surprises—just when it seems everything's been figured out, there comes another twist that must be solved! This manga also pays homage to its namesake by using classic Holmesian deduction: make careful observations, apply logical reasoning, and (with a bit of imaginative thinking) find the answer. This approach could have resulted in tons of thick dialogue, but thankfully, the series uses visual language as much as possible. Important ideas are communicated through images and flashbacks, the characters' expressions help establish the mood, and dramatic lighting and shadows call attention to critical moments. There's also enough physical action (mostly on Sherlock's part) to keep this volume from turning into a sit-and-chat mystery.
Sherlock Bones is pretty good at avoiding excessive dialogue ... but it's not perfect, and there are still some scenes where text bubbles intrude on the artwork too much. Bland character designs are another visual weakness; aside from the button-cute Sherlock, the human cast is basically a lineup of stereotypical schoolkids plus one teacher. Meanwhile, the story itself runs into the usual murder-mystery pitfalls. The final solution ends up being just barely plausible—a murder method so elaborate that anyone trying to pull it off in real life would probably run into half a dozen snags. But hey, whatever makes the crime-solving more fun, right? The plot also seems pretty contrived every time Sherlock drops a hint and Takeru figures it out just in time. Finally, there's a tacked-on coda where the culprit, having been caught, suddenly explains the circumstances behind the crime in a desperate grab for sympathy. Better to just let the villain go out as a villain, rather than trying to emotionally manipulate readers like that at the last moment.
This volume takes the typical murder-mystery route, with all the pluses and minuses that come with it. Fortunately, the likeable main character and brain-teasing plot earn it a B.
OYASUMI PUNPUN (Goodnight Punpun)
(by Inio Asano, Shogakukan, ¥530)
FROM THE ENCYCLOPEDIA:
"Punpun is an ordinary young boy growing up in Japan whose age of innocence has reached its end after his father is arrested for spousal abuse and putting his mother in hospital. With his uncle looking after him Punpun grows into adulthood facing a series of events which change him, for better or worse, forcing him to contemplate just what it means to be an adult."
It's Flowers of Evil minus the evil! Yes, Oyasumi Punpun is yet another self-conscious coming-of-age tale—but utterly unique, thanks to the bold creative decisions of artist Inio Asano. First of all, the main character is drawn as a crude cartoon bird, cleverly sidestepping the problem of most manga being populated by plain-faced, short-haired male protagonists. And while Punpun goes through the standard routine of falling in love with a girl, the fanciful visuals make it a memorable journey—psychedelic visions go off in his brain when he first hears words of love, and even a carnal rite of passage is portrayed as surreal. However, Asano's art is also just at adept at capturing reality, as proven by near-photographic townscapes, and a supporting cast whose detailed character designs are all but unforgettable. The story's wide emotional range is another strong point; in Volume 1 alone we go from falling in love to family strife to goofing off with friends to uncovering disturbing secrets. The characters' personalities can be anywhere from comical to terrifying, and learning about them—and their stories—is what makes this series great.
The trouble with Volume 1 is that it brings in several characters and subplots but doesn't always give them room to develop. The one storyline that really works so far is Punpun's growing affection for classmate Aiko; everything else in his life is just a blip on the radar. His parents, for example, are going through major issues but barely get a mention in the latter half of the book. The story also comments on how society affects the individual—whether it's people subscribing to a twisted concept of "God" or boys peer-pressuring other boys—but these come off as opinionated tangents, only lightly connected to the main plot. The fact that Punpun never talks is another sticking point; the early chapters end up using bland, omnipotent-voice narration to explain Punpun's situation because he can't speak for himself. The incredible artwork can also be its own worst enemy sometimes: extreme facial close-ups and broad landscapes are so striking that they stop the story in its tracks, rather than flowing from one scene to the next.
This volume can be haphazard at times, but the combination of creative visuals and heartfelt storytelling spell another surefire hit for Asano.
(by Jun Maeda and Rei Izumi, Tokyopop)
Perhaps you've heard of Jun Maeda. Perhaps you've heard of the visual novels and anime series he's penned, like Kanon, Clannad, and Angel Beats!. But did you know he also wrote a short-lived manga series that came out in the mid-00's? Hibiki's Magic is that series, a two-volume work about a girl named Hibiki who works as an apprentice to a powerful wizard. This fantasy setting is really just a vehicle for Maeda's mode of storytelling, where melodrama runs high and everyone expresses their emotions openly. Despite her poor magic skills, Hibiki is the kind of girl who tries her best at everything, which generally leads to a positive outcome. Even if she falls short of her mentor's expectations, or meets a guy who mistrusts the magical arts because of his unhappy past, things turn out okay because Hibiki's a good person who also trusts in the inherent goodness of others.
Hibiki's Magic is not some ambitious save-the-world magical quest, nor is it a dark examination of the human psyche; it simply tries to communicate an uplifting message while showing off some cute art along the way. The character designs are on point, and the fairytale atmosphere is there, but the messy panel-to-panel action reveals the shortcomings of an inexperienced artist. Some might accuse Hibiki's Magic of being emotionally manipulative and lacking in story substance, but at least it's made with good intentions.
An interesting footnote: the series never technically ended in Japan, and instead went on a years-long hiatus (presumably because Maeda had tons of other big-time commitments). After a handful of occasional one-shot chapters, Hibiki's Magic finally resumed full serialization this year, and—surprise, surprise!—Volume 3 is due out in Japan in November 2013. However, chances of a license rescue seem frighteningly slim at this point.
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