Friday, April 28, 2006

Pichi Pichi Pitch, v.1

by Pink Hanamori
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey

Dear author,

Maybe you aren't familiar with the "magical girl" genre in which you seem to be writing. Let me point out a few major elements.

1. Magical powers. The girl usually has them, and they usually have spectacular effects. You completely forgot to draw the spectacular effects.

2. Transformation sequences. Yes, you need to draw those too. No, the lame 1-panel body outlines are not going to cut it as transformation sequences.

3. Challenge your heroine. Make her actually go looking for the other princesses, instead of them conveniently transferring into her school.

4. Stop watching Disney and come up with some of your own ideas about mermaids. It's okay to use traditional Japanese mermaids -- they'd be something new and different to Western readers.

5. Your bad guy sends his flunkies to fail and fail again. Doesn't he know anything about being a bad guy? This approach didn't work even back in the days of Voltron.

6. The back cover says this is a very popular anime series. Maybe you should stick to animation, okay?

It's hard to see how this manga could have any relationship to a popular anime series (I've never heard of it, BTW) because it lacks most of the points associated with good magical girl stories: magic, transformations, action sequences, a challenge or two, some creative costumes, maybe, cute animal sidekicks, a source of humor... I think I can safely say there isn't a single original element in this manga.

- Miranda

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

FireFighter! Daigo of Fire Company M, v.1

Story and Art by Masahito Soda
Released in the US by Viz

Slugline: A rookie firefighter starts his career ready for action but still yet unready to work.

This is one of those titles that illustrates the wide range of genres in manga. Nothing like a firefighter comic is available through US publishers, except for a single short lived one that I recall in the wake of 9/11. Japan has been respectful to firefighters, seeing as how a common building material is paper.

Daigo is a new firefighter at Company M, a station with little action to his disappointment, though it is located in the neighborhood he grew up in. The young teacher that helped inspire him when he was still a troublemaking teenager is there, and since he was in her first class, she has a soft spot for him. Plus, it doesn't hurt that they are not too far apart in age.

Daigo was rescued by a firefighter when he was young, and starts to suspect that the Captain of his station is the one that rescued him. He soon discovers that the firefighters that he thought were lazy are instead very competent, so competent and relaxed that they felt no need to show it until they were needed. His first few outings are nearly catastrophic and he quickly decides to do better. But an old rivalry with a fellow firefighter trainee assigned to a neighboring fire district leads to the potential for disaster at the end of the first volume.

This is a fun, exciting book whose main flaw is the use of the same basic character types that seem to infect many manga. But the story outside of the main character's arc is fun and different.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Fruits Basket, v.13

By Natsuki Takaya
Published in the U.S. by Tokyopop

Slugline: Tohru Honda is taken in by the Sohmas, a family afflicted with the curse of the Chinese zodiac. When hugged by a member of the opposite sex, they turn into an animal for a short time. One's the dog, one's the horse, one's the tiger, etc.

If you haven't been reading the series, here's the short version. The first 11 volumes introduce eleven of the twelve animal-cursed family members (I believe we're missing the rooster) plus one, the cat. No, there isn't a cat in the Chinese zodiac, that's the point. We meet each person and their scars in some detail. Some are angry at the world for their affliction, some are suffering clinical depression. Tohru Honda is, apparently, the first person to ever be nice to them -- including each other.

In v.12, Tohru said that she wants to break the curse. Her initial questions did not generate any solid leads, though, and none come up in v.13... other than her slowly developing relationships with Yuki (the rat) and Kyo (the cat), of course.

I don't read shojo for the same reason I don't read Harlequin romances. They just aren't my cup of tea. So only unusual titles can hold my attention for a dozen volumes. What is it about Fruits Basket? There's no action to speak of. There's plenty of the over-self-analyzing that usually puts me off shojo. I think it's because it deals in something I know: rejection due to factors outside your control. And how something as simple as acceptance without judgement can change everything.

Many shojo titles stick to garden-variety misunderstandings and rejections, trot out the usual distant parents and schoolyard bullies and expect the reader to stick around. Under the teenage angst, Fruits Basket addresses much deeper sources of alienation and presents its development from the younger characters, experiencing the initial pain of rejection, to the teenagers, starting to build their walls, to the adults who have made themselves comfortable in their shells.

v.13? Oh, it's an aside, it's character fluff. I was a bit disappointed, in fact, after Tohru got "assertive" enough to say she wants to break the curse. Still, this and one other title are the only shojo that can hold me.

- Miranda

Friday, April 21, 2006

Planetes, v.1

By Makoto Yukimura
Published in the U.S. by TokyoPop

Slugline: In the future, space is home for exciting and mundane jobs, and sometimes they are both at the same time.

Do you remember space? I mean the excitement of space, what makes kids dream of being astronauts. NASA has tried hard to take away the mystique of space, making just a job, not an adventure, in order to convince everyone it is safe.

Planetes reminds us that while space can be like any other place where you work, it also isn't. The sense of wonder, of being part of something greater, is also part of the story.

The story is about a trio of characters who are in the most prosaic of occupations, trash collectors. Except the job is in orbit, where even the smallest piece of debris can destroy a station or a satellite, a place dangerous and beautiful.

The three main characters get equal time in this book, though I understand that the story becomes more about Hachi, the youngest and most ambitious member of the team in later volumes. In this volume Yuri, whose wife died in a debris-caused accident, and Fee, the female commander of their team, both have their own storylines. This volume is episodic, with stories focusing on different characters, or on their environment, such as the perils of growing up on the moon.

While it's science fiction, the time is near enough to our own that people remain the same, with motivations that transcend the setting. In other words, I really liked this and it made me wish that I had a couple million burning a hole in my pocket so I can take ride on SpaceShip One for a brief touch of Space.

- Ferdinand

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Serenity, v.3, Basket Case

Created by Buzz Dixon and Art by Min Kwon
Published in the U.S. by RealBuzz Studios

Slugline: Serenity has to face up to responsibilities under the influence of her Christian friends.

This manga is out of the ordinary because it is an inspirational Christian manga. I know that there is a whole Christian youth movement out there, but that was completely outside of my church's culture. That being said, there have been a few inspirational comic series that have had mainstream release -- most of them crashed and burned.

With manga now so popular, it was inevitable that someone would try it again. And surprise, it doesn't suck. I'm of the school that you prove your faith by living and showing it, rather than preaching it, and most previous comic series were too heavy on the preaching. People get enough of that already, thank you very much.

Serenity is the main character, a young girl whose school friends fit the Christian youth mold, while she does not. There are two storylines here, one involving a purity test making the rounds at the high school, and the responsibilities of finding an abandoned baby. I liked the first story a bit more, for a purity test embarrassment happens to everyone, but there was a little more obvious preaching on the part of the characters. The second story was less likely, but the character's reactions were better, showing their beliefs by their actions.

Art ranges from okay to pretty good. The artist does not seem to believe in the need for backgrounds, but the book's coloring makes up for it. The fact that it is inspirational may turn people on or off, but the book itself, aside from matters of faith, is a good read.

- Ferdinand

Monday, April 17, 2006

Warcraft: The Sunwell Trilogy, v.1, Dragon Hunt

Written by Richard A. Knaak and Illustrated by Jae-Hwan Kim
Published in the U.S. by TokyoPop

Slugline: A group of fantasy adventurers gather together to adventure in the world of Warcraft, in a by-the-checklist way.

Warcraft, as I am sure most readers here know, is a very popular computer game, with RPG and wargame versions. This is a manga adaptation of Warcraft, based on the world background of the game. According to reputable sources, this was one of, if not the best selling manga of last year.

I think that testifies to the strength of the world rather than any intrinsic worth of the manga itself. While the art is good, in a very detailed and toned manner, it's not that unique or special. The story felt very checklisted. I never really connected to any of the characters or situations in the story. Immediately distancing was a written prologue that told the history of Warcraft world, which turned out to be completely unnecessary to understand the manga, but felt so baroque that I almost didn't finish it as it threw out names and events that were then never referenced to again.

The checklist feeling came from how the party got together, one of each character race, a spread of character classes, along with the requisite mysterious character of uncertain past that is definitely going to have something to do with the story arc. The story itself is a run-of-the-mill quest for a mystical device of great power. I understand that the creators needed to introduce certain story elements to fulfill the expectations of Warcraft fans, but for everyone else it seems redundant and uninspiring.

That being said, the title may be worth a higher rating if you are already a fan of Warcraft, but this title will not make you a fan if you are not already, which is why I give it a two. It isn't bad, but has nothing really to recommend it either.

- Ferdinand

Friday, April 14, 2006

Embracing Love, v.3

by Youka Nitta
Published in the U.S. by Be Beautiful Manga

Slugline: Two hot actors settle into a homosexual relationship. Caution: contains explicit gay porn.

So why is it that the most realistic relationship I've seen in manga in quite a while turns up in hardcore yaoi? These two guys talk -- and argue -- about their misunderstandings and their fears, rather than going through the over-wrought melodramas littering the shojo field. Kyosuke and Yoji have been together for a while, but in the third volume they begin to admit to themselves that they're going to be an item for a long time. Kyosuke also must go home to visit his family -- who are not happy with what he's become -- and Yoji follows to support him in the face of their disapproval.

The art is good, though everyone has a jawline you could break rocks on. The porn aspects are well handled and involve realistic emotions. There's some anxious sex and some happy sex and some blowing-off-steam sex, and it's great to see such a range of emotions. I've read hetero porn manga and gotten, quite frankly, bored and disgusted with the constant themes of rape, humiliation and control. If publishers can find any hetero manga that's as well written as Embracing Love, I'd be glad to read it.

- Miranda

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Wallflower, v.7

by Tomoko Hayakawa
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: Four guys attempt to suppress the individuality of a girl. At the request of her aunt, apparently.

Let's dissect a bit of the teaser on the back cover, shall we?

"Four of Japan's hottest guys..." I'll have to take their word on this. They spend most of their time in chibi form.

"...are doing the best they can..." Not in this volume, they weren't.

" their mission to turn dark, macabre Sunako into a dainty young woman" And why the heck does she need to be a dainty young woman? Not every girl dreams of being a bubble-headed housewife, you know. But no, these four guys are out to "convince" her it's the thing to be -- without the least bit of evidence or persuasion.

I suppose her resistance is supposed to be amusing, except that it isn't. Given that she's a horror film fan, I'm hoping she goes Freddie Kreuger on their asses.

I haven't read the previous six volumes. I'm rather insulted they exist, but I should give them the benefit of a doubt. Maybe they're funny. Maybe Sunako has some zingers up her sleeve.

But given the tepid art and writing in v.7, I doubt it.

- Miranda

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Ghost Hunt, v.3

Manga by Shiho Inada, Story by Fuyumi Ono
Published in the US by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: A team of investigators into psychic phenomenon, led by two high schoolers, investigate a series of weird happenings at a high school (not their own.)

The volume is a single of case of the SPR, a psychic research organization that is run by a 17-year-old named Kazuya. Yes, suck it up and get past the silliness of that. His part time assistant is a 16-year-old named Mai, and she may, yeah right, be in infatuation with him, even though she has tagged him as a narcissist. And there is a normal assortment of various assistants and hangers-on, representing different psychic and mystical traditions.

What is more interesting is the case they are involved in: the mass haunting of a school, with random accidents, a psychic student, a supportive biology teacher and malevolent spirits. The actual case was more interesting than the manga's relationship subplot, but I was always much more of a fan of old-school X-Files anyways. While this could be seen as a horror title, it is a very mild one, with the mystery being more of the story. Ghost Hunt draws out some aspects of eastern mystical tradition, which is welcome change of pace from the standard Western ghost story, but the standard ur-myths that you can recognize in all cultures are still apparent.

- Ferdinand

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Love as a Foreign Language, v. 3

Written by J. Torres and Illustrated by Eric Kim
Published by Oni Press

Slugline: Joel, an American teaching English in Korea, is flabbergasted and unsure how to act when invited to a welcome dinner for the attractive new secretary, Hana.

While not strictly a manga or manwha, I think this title comes close to being an OEL and it's far enough outside the world of manga readers that they need this pointed out to them.

Joel is an American living in Korea, teaching English in a school. He has had a horrible time adjusting and is in the process of wrapping up his contract when the school hires a new secretary, Hana. He is attracted to her, and even better, he sees her in a manwha-bang, a shop that rents out manwha, which means she likes comics!

Heck, I want to make the moves on her! That is, if Miranda hadn't also shared my love of the graphic storytelling form...

(So Miranda, no need to sic Ariel on me!)

The volume covers Joel's realizing that there is going to be a welcoming dinner for Hana, his various worries about the Korean rules for meals, and the teasing that his colleagues, both English and Korean natives, dish out on him. The volume captures this by leaving the Korean dialogue translated only in the endnotes, so that we share Joel's confusion as we read the book and try to determine what is being said, like him, by inference. Plus, there is a startling revelation about Hana at the end of the volume.

While the volume is a little thin and reads quickly compared to most manga collections, the price is lower to compensate. While I have seen romance stories like this before, this one is very much set in Korea and communicates the sense of place very strongly. This sense of dislocation and exploration, along with a decently told story that utilizes this unfamiliar terrain, makes Love as a Foreign Language worth checking out.

- Ferdinand

Pastel, v.2

By Toshihiko Kobayashi
Published in the US by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: Mugi's relationship problems with Yuu, the cute girl living in his house, are only compounded when an old friend, Manami, reenters the picture.

Fan service. Let's talk about that up front. Fan service is the occasional panty shot, wet t-shirt, etc., of female characters, presumably in order to keep the attention of the hormonal male. Most anime and manga have some, at which point I usually just nod and continue.

Not Pastel. The book is filled with fan service. Mugi is continually teased and unnerved and left in a permanent state of frustration by the female form. Which is, to a certain extent, how I remember the teenage years being.

I have yet to read the first volume, but this volume introduces Manami, who teases him over having Yuu living in house, along with her little sister, due to a promise by his father to their now-dead father. However, he agrees to help out Mugi and Yuu smooth things out with friends and neighbors. Manami is introduced as an old friend that was interested in Mugi but didn't approach him because of his former relationship with her best friend. Yuu realizes Manami's interest and tries to keep out of the way, and by the end of the volume Manami has Mugi cornered and has let him know that Yuu is interested. I think. Guys in these kinds of series can be denser than depleted uranium.

Still, despite the constant fan service, I like how things are progressing. Now if this series devolves into a harem-like title, where Mugi is surrounded by a half dozen women that all like him and he them but still doesn't resolve anything or even make any progress, the rating for the series will drop. But for the moment, it is a somewhat reasonable and interesting love triangle.

As long as Mugi doesn't chicken out. And there was a scene in this volume with him relating to Yuu's sister, Tsukasa, that gives me hope he won't.

- Ferdinand

Gunslinger Girl, v.3

by Yu Aida
Published in the U.S. by ADV Manga

Image hosting by Photobucket

Slugline: Government agency rebuilds damaged girls into killing machines and assigns each a handler. The girls shoot bad guys, protect good guys, and try to deal with their remaining shreds of normalcy.

Our major opponent makes his appearance: Pinocchio, a young man of exceptional skill in the violent arts. Most of the volume is devoted to the terrorists', and Pinocchio's, side of the story and the gunslinger girls' mission to thwart their bombing plan.

The series continues to earn its four stars by throwing complications into the story like a hostage crisis and infiltration by enemy agents, and at the same time maintaining character development through personal problems and relationships. We're introduced to another gunslinger girl, Angelica, whose abilities are uncertain after an extended leave from duty. Maybe there's a problem with her conditioning. Maybe it's the medications they keep the girls on. Maybe it's a sign of things to come.

So far, Gunslinger Girl has been an anthology of short stories. The appearance of Pinocchio may signal the start of a longer story arc -- it'll be interesting to see.

Gunslinger Girls, v.3 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Miranda

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

KageTora, v. 1

By Akira Segami
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: A dangerous ninja is given the assignment of being the instructor to the head of the martial art dynasty’s cute but klutzy daughter.

KageTora introduces Kagetora, a modern ninja that has been given the prestigious assignment to assist the Toudou dynasty of martial arts masters. Normally this means being their bodyguard, but after rescuing a klutzy girl on the way, he arrives to the Toudou dojo to discover that he is instead train Yuki, the teenage daughter of the current head of the dojo. She has tried everything else to awaken her daughter’s natural talents but has failed.

So who is the daughter? Could it be the cute and klutzy girl from the beginning of the story? Of course. Will Kagetora fall in love with her? Is there any question? Will he go to school with her and cause all sorts of wacky romantic misunderstandings? Why is there even a question mark after the last sentence? Will Kagetora feel unable to express his feeling towards Yuki for transparently meaningless reasons and will there be a female friend that distrusts Kagetora and a fixation on Yuki? Please let it stop now.

You see, I’ve seen all of these elements before. It is standard story, well executed, but still quite predictable and I can sense the checklist the creator is following. Maybe the series will improve, but in the first volume I see nothing to recommend the title unless the reader has never read or is fond of school romance titles, or enjoys martial arts stories.

- Ferdinand

Monday, April 03, 2006

Gunslinger Girl, v.2

by Yu Aida
Published in the U.S. by ADV Manga

Slugline: Government agency rebuilds damaged girls into killing machines and assigns each a handler. The girls shoot bad guys, protect good guys, and try to deal with their remaining shreds of normalcy.

In this volume, we meet less-than-perfect girls and less-than-perfect "brothers" -- an uncomfortable but good dose of reality. We also meet some competent enemy agents, who we're bound to see more of in the future.

Between assignments to protect informants and thwart bombing plots, we learn a bit of history of the project and meet more cyborg girls and their handlers. The reconditioning process and repairs have an amnesiac effect on the girls, and this affects both their worldview and their relationship with their "brothers." Maybe they don't remember that girls don't usually carry automatic weapons. Their handlers do, though, and have to square that reality with their more normal inclination to treat the girls like little sisters. Some go in the opposite direction and treat their cyborgs like machines. Some buy them presents.

The action continues to excel in v.2. However, I must complain a bit about the reference to Beethoven's 5th symphony when I'm fairly sure they meant the Ode to Joy. I'm a nitpicker, you see.

Gunslinger Girls, v.2 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Miranda

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Gunslinger Girl, v.1

by Yu Aida
Published in the U.S. by ADV Manga

Image hosting by Photobucket

Slugline: Government agency rebuilds damaged girls into killing machines and assigns each a handler. The girls shoot bad guys, protect good guys, and try to deal with their remaining shreds of normalcy.

Volume 1 introduces us to the team of gunslinger girls, cyborg assassins for the Italian government. Each is a sick or injured girl rebuilt and reprogrammed to handle weapons and hand-to-hand combat with ease. Each also has a "brother" who serves as an interface between the needs of the government and the needs of highly trained tweener girls.

It's a story that could very easily veer into melodrama and sentiment, but it doesn't. It's an action title. The girls are there to carry big guns and shoot when their handlers say so. But what lifts this story above mere violence are the touches of reality showing through. These girls have real - in that each is different and not all are happy or healthy - relationships with their "brothers," everyone's aware of the sins they're committing, and there is only uncertainty about the long term results of turning girls into cyborgs.

The volumes also contain translator's notes, which I'm always in favor of.

Volume 1 contains several missions with various girls, interspersed with group scenes for character-building and filling in the background. The art is clean and straightforward and the action isn't so cluttered with speed lines and sound effects as to drown out the characters. As a long-time reader of manga, I'm giving this title a big thumbs-up.

Gunslinger Girls, v.1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Miranda