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Tick Tick BTOOOM!

by Carlo Santos,

I'm not as much into video games as I used to be, but the new Persona announcements are definitely a Big Deal. A dancing game? Of all the things? This could either be totally brilliant or totally stupid ... and knowing Atlus, it's much more likely to be the former than the latter.

Vol. 4
(by Junya Inoue, Yen Press, $11.99)

"What happens when you cross the ultimate line?! Men and women, old and young, have been forced onto an island in the middle of nowhere and into a murderous game using small bombs called BIMs. Now accustomed to the gameplay of real-life BTOOOM!, expert player Ryouta Sakamoto coolly and calmly disposes of opponents and giant lizards alike as he protects his allies and their rations. But in the lawless microcosm of the island, is it really such a smart idea to play by the rules? When a mysterious player confronts Ryouta with not a handful of bombs but the cruel blade of a knife, will he be able to think outside the video game box long enough to find a way to survive?!!"

Volume 4 of BTOOOM! marks the end of the series' first arc, and comes with all the heart-pounding action fans have come to expect. Yet it's the up-and-down emotions that really give the series its adrenaline kick. First, there's the terror of facing a knife-wielding maniac (always a good choice for a villain), followed by the hopeless sinking feeling as Ryouta's allies all get injured or kidnapped. From absolute despair, though, comes improbable bursts of hope: Ryouta finds an unlikely motivation, turns the odds in his favor, and overcomes every single trap that should have killed him. Along the way, the storyline also gives us some subtler glimpses into Ryouta's personal life: dream sequences and flashbacks reveal a rocky transition from youth to adulthood, and show how online gaming shaped his character. In addition to the intense storyline, vivid artwork also bring the BTOOOM! universe to life: ruined buildings and thick jungles are drawn in precise detail, while the action poses are confident and full of energy. The ever-changing battle strategies—movement, stealth, and trickery, in addition to good old brute force—also keep each confrontation interesting.

Exciting as it is, BTOOOM! still has some obvious flaws in its storytelling. The forced romantic subplot is as hokey as they come—just look at all the wistful glances exchanged between Ryouta and the series' only major female character, complete with soft light as an added effect in certain scenes. If that's not cheesy enough, the story even tacks on the concept of the online gamer girlfriend. Meanwhile, in the heat of battle, the series also makes some classic mistakes: the characters spend an awful lot of time discussing strategy and explaining things to each other, and the villain goes through the usual "I'm so strong and you're not" monologue. The overarching storyline about the deadly goals of BTOOOM!'s game developer also lacks any major development. Visually, some of the action scenes in the book are held back by unimaginative panel layouts: mid-size rectangles don't do justice to the kicks and punches that ought to send someone flying right across the page. What's more, the simple character designs result in some rather bland facial expressions, robbing the story of emotion.

BTOOOM!'s cheese factor is forgivable because it's still one hell of an action series. Intense one-on-one combat, plus victory against all odds, equals a B for this volume.

Vol. 8
(by Shirow Miwa, Viz Media, $12.99)

"The attacks launched from the Below create unrest among the residents of the Underground. When Miss Liza learns the truth behind the kidnapping of the Lost Children, the mutual distrust and anger only grow, with potentially fatal results. But Heine's biggest problem by far lies in Naoto's hands: the black sword that was made to kill his kind. When figures from Heine's past confront him, will Naoto act as his ally ... or his enemy?"

"Are we humans or animals?" Someone finally says it in this volume of Dogs, summing up what makes the series so fascinating. It's one thing to enjoy all the swordfighting and gunplay—but knowing that the characters are genetic experiments, engineered to be agents of death, adds a moral and intellectual twist to the conflict. No scene expresses this idea better than Naoto and Heine's fight: it starts out as a physical confrontation, but ends up with the characters battling their own consciences. How's that for an epic struggle? More drama emerges after that showdown, as a normally placid character goes on a rampage, and certain allies turn out to be closer to the dark side than originally thought. The story also benefits from the four main characters coming together and setting new goals after a long period apart. Stylish artwork is the other great strength of this series: deep black-and-white shadows set the serious mood, while the clean linework makes it easy to appreciate the characters' dynamic poses. Creative angles and a less-is-more approach to layout also adds to the unique visual flair.

The trouble with Dogs is that it has too much going on—and does too little to explain any of it. Everyone in this series talks in sentence fragments, or worse yet, they just stare off silently into the distance. Is it any wonder that readers might have a difficult time understanding why everyone wants to kill each other? Abrupt scene transitions also make the plot hard to follow—it gets especially ridiculous in the first chapter, where three different conversations are going on at the same time, and the storyline keeps flip-flopping between them. Stick to one situation and finish it out, and maybe things would make sense, instead of turning into this crazy-quilt mess. Fortunately, the middle and later chapters are more focused, but every now and then they drift off into short scenes involving barely recognizable side characters. With all the lookalike sneering faces and tailored suits, how is anyone supposed to keep track of these rival actors and their motives? Sparsely sketched backgrounds are another source of confusion, making it unclear as to where certain scenes are taking place.

Intriguing characters and conflicts are a plus, but style over substance and the mangled storytelling are a letdown. It's another typical C+ for this volume.

Vol. 18
(by Hiroshi Shiibashi, Viz Media, $9.99)

"Harken back with us to the Golden Age of Edo, when Rikuo's father Rihan first takes control of the Nura clan. Gain new perspectives on Rikuo's family history, as well as the backstory on some of your favorite devilish yokai (including that pesky Demon Lord Gorozaemon Sanmoto). Follow Rihan's second heir adventures as he learns the hard way that controlling, commanding and battling yokai is not to be taken lightly, lest you be the one who's taken."

Who's ready for some history lessons? Volume 18 of Nura masterfully blends two genres—supernatural adventure and period piece—as Rikuo's dad takes center stage. Part of the fun is trying to spot parallels between the main cast and folks from the past: Rikuo's allies and their ancestors have been around for centuries, and even his goofy classmates have analogues in the feudal age. After this bit of fun, however, the series returns to its true strengths: pulse-pounding, sword-slashing, yokai-versus-yokai action. A chapter-long fight between Rihan and archrival (later turned ally) Kurotabo is a beautifully scripted set piece, as much ballet as it is battle. And for those who prefer outright carnage over beauty, the last few chapters—where Gorozaemon goes berserk—is every bit as horrifying as anything else imagined in the series. Bold, detailed art is the key to Nura's supernatural success: mutate some creatures or exaggerate some body parts, and boom! You've just designed another yokai. The fighting moves of Rihan and his squad are equally striking, with thick brushstrokes and flashy effects everywhere. The atmosphere of old Edo, expressed through period costumes and architecture, also adds a unique flavor.

Once again, overcrowded artwork is the undoing of Nura: there's just not enough space to contain all the action. Only the Rihan/Kurotabo battle is well laid-out; the other pages in this volume are a mishmash of plotlines, characters, and even genres (comedic one-liners right next to dramatic battle poses!) crammed together. Even when the visuals are focused on one thing—like a clash between yokai factions—all the little details make it hard to follow. The story, meanwhile, takes too long to build up: the first few chapters are content to sit back and bask in the Edo atmosphere, without explaining what Rihan's conflicts and goals are. By the time he does face a major conflict, this volume's already halfway done. The storyline also moves in highly predictable ways, with Rihan facing a "mid-boss" first, then uncovering the evil conspiracy, and finally charging forward to face the main villain later on. It's the exact same thing Nura has done in previous story arcs, except with a fresh coat of historical paint. Whether it involves present-day characters or an earlier generation, repetition is still repetition.

A predictable plot structure and chaotic visuals keep this volume from achieving greatness. The battles and historical setting are fun, but overall it scores a C+.

Vol. 1
(by Amami Takatsume and Kenichiro Takagi, Seven Seas, $12.99)

"Hanzo Academy: a secret high school established by the Japanese government to educate the newest generation of ninja girls. The spunky second year student, Asuka, along with her friends, the perverted Katsuragi, the childish Hibari, the mature Ikaruga and the deadly Yagyu, must each undergo rigorous training in their daily school life. But do they have what it takes to become full-fledged ninja? Only their bodacious skills and prodigious talents can keep them alive while they struggle against ninja rivals who seek to destroy them at every turn."

Give Senran Kagura credit for one thing: it doesn't constantly try to shove fanservice into the reader's face. Instead, the series concentrates on telling legitimate action-adventure stories, while the fanservice is just there—a part of the character designs, and an embellishment to the story rather than a focal point or distraction. The storyline, it turns out, has more substance to it than just "ninja babes doing ninja things." The odd-couple friendship between Yagyu and Hibari is surprisingly sweet, while a background story about Ikaruga's family lends depth to her character. Most importantly, the actions of the evil-minded Hebijo school provide fodder for a rivalry that could go on indefinitely. Humor also helps to grease the wheels of this series, with some of the "battles" involving pranks and slapstick more than anything else. The character designs are instantly appealing (obviously), with varied looks and costumes that make it easy to tell the girls apart. The lively facial expressions, especially among the villains, and cleanly drawn action poses are also a plus for a series that's all about light, breezy fun.

Yes, Senran Kagura has some legitimate story elements ... but not any actual story that stretches over multiple chapters. Instead, we get various characters and situations thrown together to see what happens. How starved for ideas do you have to be to invoke the obligatory "beach episode" before getting out of the first volume? Even a cliffhanger in the last chapter is probably just a connector from one stand-alone story to another stand-alone. The series can't seem to decide who the main character is, either—Asuka plays protagonist for a while, but practically vanishes in other chapters. The relationships between different characters are also poorly explained: the Yagyu/Hibari pairing, for example, seems to exist just because someone wanted to toss a yuri couple into this series. The art is just as empty as the storyline, with only minimal backgrounds drawn into each scene, and the characters coming off as cookie-cutter bishoujo types. Sure, they might look different on a superficial level, but the girls all have about the same build, the same fighting moves ... and the same cup size. Let's face it, nobody is really reading this for ninja adventures anyway.

A threadbare story and artwork that exists only as a fleeting pleasure: this, sad to say, is what a D+ looks like.

Vol. 2
(by Mitsuhisa Kuji, Vertical, $12.95)

"By no means the exclusive province of oppressors, base callousness also inspires some rebels, while those who don't care for political struggles are no more saintly in this installment of the searing feudal saga."

This volume of Wolfsmund takes the standards set in Volume 1 and raises the bar: more sex, more violence, and more tales of human struggle. The setting is surprisingly fresh—there's plenty of medieval-themed manga, but how many are about the Swiss rebellion against the Austrian Empire?—and the characters' stories are fully developed, making it all the more shocking when they meet their untimely deaths. What also makes the stories interesting is that they don't fall into the typical good-versus-evil worldview; instead, morality exists on a sliding scale. Wouldn't you pick money over integrity if you were struggling to get by? And what's more important: caring for one's family or standing up for a political cause? Questions like these push the characters into many difficult situations. These aren't just abstract debate questions, either: the crisply-shaded artwork shows exactly what happens when people's desires and ideals come into conflict. Scenes involving nudity, torture, and murder are rendered in cold, hard lines. Yet there are moments of beauty too, with stark mountain landscapes and rustic villages capturing the feel of medieval Europe.

In its attempt to be über-dark, Wolfsmund often crosses the line into crude shock tactics. Just look at what happens most of the female characters: half the time they're taking a stand for themselves, and the other half the time they're being abused, violated, and used as pawns in a cruel game of How Awful Can People Be In The Medieval Period. It's unsettling, and some may even find it unreadable. And it's not just the story content—the graphic and gratuitous visuals also push the series into the realm of poor taste. Meanwhile, the storyline occasionally commits the crime of being boring—like when first chapter starts out by charting the life of a sad-sack husband and his demanding wife. It's unlikely that anyone is here to read about domestic squabbles; those pages would be better spent on political intrigue and suspenseful plotting. The visuals can also be underwhelming at times: the stiff character designs look more like they came out of technical school rather than art school, and the panel layouts stick to safe, rectangular patterns.

The content can be off-putting with so much violence for violence's sake, but the distinctive artwork and powerful, character-driven stories still earn a B.

Vol. 3
(by Gail Carriger and Rem, Yen Press, $13.99)

"Condemned by society and her werewolf husband due to a pregnancy she cannot explain, Alexia Maccon—preternatural, tea aficionado—seeks an explanation for this 'infant inconvenience' so as to cleanse her sullied reputation and prove her fool of a husband wrong. Preternaturals are a rare breed and the only history of their kind lies in Italy with the Templars, a group that once partnered with preternaturals to hunt down werewolves and vampires. Will Alexia find an explanation for her impossible offspring? Or do the Templars have other plans for the curious 'Soulless One?'"

Volume 3 of Soulless is brilliantly unconventional—no cackling villain at the end, no mind-bending twist, just pure, road-tripping fun. With that in mind, the story jumps right into the action: Chapter 1 begins with Lady Maccon escaping a swarm of mechanical killer bugs (gotta love that steampunk touch), and it only gets better from there. Alexia's itinerary includes an airborne chase across the Alps, an action-packed romp through Florence, and hand-to-hand combat with Templars and vampires. She even learns the pseudoscience behind her soul-absorbing powers! Meanwhile, Lord Maccon gets plenty of action too—he discovers a dark plot within London supernatural society, and gets into various werewolf scrapes as he tries to set things right with his wife. A wry sense of humor, provided by a lively cast of sidekicks, also lifts the mood. The art is at its most striking when showing off the sights of Europe: London by night, a Parisian street cafe, and picturesque views of Italy. The characters also come alive visually—one moment they're kicking supernatural butt, the next they're making funny faces. Crisp details and confident lines make it easy to fall in love with this art style.

Amidst all this derring-do is a very glaring concern: What the heck is going on? The events in this book seem to be a random collection of scenes strung together just for kicks. For example, there's a werewolf duel early on—for what reason? Are those characters even relevant? Or when Lord Maccon and his cronies rescue a vampire minion trapped underwater ... what was the motivation behind that again? If individual scenes aren't confusing enough, the transitions between them are even worse. The storyline has a nasty habit of cutting back and forth between Lord and Lady Maccon's adventures at illogical times, leaving unresolved plot points all over the place—and by the time they do get resolved, everyone's forgotten about them. And then, when the story does try to make logical sense, it can only do so by means of long, wordy conversation scenes. At times like that, the only thing duller than the dialogue is the visuals. All these flaws are the result of trying to adapt the novel scene by scene—a valiant attempt that leads to fantastic individual moments, but poor cohesiveness overall.

This is simultaneously the most enjoyable and most frustrating volume of the Soulless manga so far. It's worth reading for great action scenes, but plot details apparently got left behind in the prose novel.

(by Fumi Yoshinaga, BLU)

Tokyopop's exit from the publishing industry caused collateral damage in other areas—like the shutdown of their BL/yaoi imprint, BLU. Most of BLU's offerings consisted of formulaic, middle-of-the-road material (Guy A likes Guy B! But their love is forbidden! Alas~), but every now and then there'd be flashes of brilliance like Gerard & Jacques. The fact that it's a Fumi Yoshinaga title pretty much sells it—Yoshinaga's sparse but elegant linework, along with the emotional nuance of her storytelling, has won acclaim from BL fans and general audiences alike.

In addition to that aura of Yoshinaga quality, Gerard & Jacques also wins over readers with its attractive historical setting. The story takes place around the time of the French Revolution, which means lots of classy period costumes and beautifully decorated interiors. The titular Jacques is a young man sold into a brothel, where he catches the eye of an older aristocrat named Gerard. Luckily for Jacques, Gerard decides to buy his freedom, and an unlikely friendship forms between the two. Eventually, Jacques works his way up the society ladder to become a personal assistant at Gerard's home, but the question of whether their relationship is strictly professional—or perhaps a bit more personal—continues to hang in the balance.

The story succeeds because it doesn't take a predictable BL path, but instead, plays on the shifting feelings between two people who are "more than friends but not quite lovers." Things don't always go right for Gerard and Jacques, yet they still experience enough of life's pleasures that the balance between light and dark makes the series enjoyable. Sure, the idea of a rich older man doting on someone below him in both age and social status is a bit preposterous, but it's not like people read this genre for believability, right? The simple, uncluttered page layouts also allow the story and visuals to speak for themselves—and what they say is that, even in times of turmoil and societal upheaval, love has a way of sprouting up unexpectedly.

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