Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Blame!, v.1

by Tsutomu Nihei
Published in the U.S. by Tokyopop

Slugline: Aggresively cryptic, far-future science fiction action. Killy, who is appropriately named, is looking for genes in a dying world.

This is a more difficult title to review. If you consider the four building blocks of a story -- plot, characters, dialog and worldbuilding -- Blame! does not make for an easy read. There is not much dialog. There is even less characterization. And the writer feels no need at all to explain the plot or the world it happens in.

If you like to see things go boom (mostly heads and squishy things) then you might find a little entertainment here.

Killy is looking for genes. After a couple hundred pages, that and a small handful of tangentially related facts are all I have, as a reader. I also have about a million possible theories about the backdrop of all this killing and violence, but very little to hang them on.

There are branches of science fiction prose which operate in a similar way, they force the reader to supply the worldbuilding and put a great deal of thought into what sort of architecture can support the facade the writer presents. Done well, such stories can send you down unexpected paths of thought. (One title which does this well is Girls, by Joshua and Jonathan Luna. Slugline: A small American town is suddenly attacked by naked women who do not talk. And then it gets weirder, but what the reader knows is strictly limited to what the characters know. Which is just about nothing. Website link Amazon link)

Not done well, the reader's left with "WTF?"

Blame! is right on the edge of WTF, for me. The question is, would I want to spend money on another 200-plus pages that could give me the clues to make a pattern I can see, or could just be more WTF.

- Miranda

Monday, May 29, 2006

Samurai Champloo, v. 1 & 2

by Masaru Gotsubo, created by Manglobe
Published in the U.S. by Tokyopop

Slugline: Does trouble find them, or do they find trouble? Jin, Fuu and Mugen are (at least nominally) searching for the "sunflower samurai."

Comedy is harder than drama, and translating comedy into another language has got to be even tougher. There's slapstick to be had, and that's almost universal, but the translators here have succeeded in bringing the verbal comedy to English -- with a little help from margin notes. Samurai Champloo combines tight pacing, snarky dialog, a sketchy but succinct art style and a surprisingly large body count into a series of funny stories.

Mugen is the lazeabout, Jin is the calm-cool-and-collected type, and Fuu is the industrious, practical girl of the group. They're finding their way across a non-specific historical Japan supposedly in search of a sunflower-scented samurai but mostly getting in trouble and trying to find their next meal. Maybe in a few volumes the plot will kick in, but it'll be a fun ride in the meantime.

In volume 2, their journey continues and they find adventure and/or trouble and/or dinner by battling local bad guys, spoofing and riffing on manga and pop culture as they go.

These manga made me laugh, and anyone who knows me can tell you I'm a tough audience when it comes to comedy.

- Miranda

Friday, May 26, 2006

Basilisk, v.1

Manga by Masaki Segawa, based on Futaro Yamada's "The Kouga Ninja Scrolls"
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: A dueling-contest title featuring two enemy ninja clans enlisted by the Tokugawa shogun to proxy-fight a war to determine the succession between his son and... another son? A rival's son? Oh, who cares. Wall to wall combat is what we're here for.

They say there are no superheroes in manga. I disagree. Just swap "mutant powers" for "secret ninja techniques" and there you go. Just in the first volume, just of the clearly defined abilities, I see direct parallels to Clayface, Toad, Spiderman and two different applications of Plastic Man/Mr. Fantastic's powers. Two things set manga apart from superheroes, though, novelty and gore. Toad, for example, still has both arms and legs. And Spidey has never taken a scythe blade in the head (AFAIK -- I'm not a big Spidey fan.) You have to go hunting for small-press titles for that kind of thing... or pick up some manga like Basilisk.

The contents of v.1 are as described in the slugline, plus a romance subplot. Since Yamada is better known as the creator of Ninja Scrolls, things are sure to get worse before they get... really, really ugly. And since nobody lets little things like mortal wounds slow them down, there's plenty of potential for multiple, increasingly strange and gruesome duels!

If this is your cup of tea, come and get it!

UPDATED!: Series Update for Basilisk here.

- Miranda

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

East Coast Rising, v.1

By Becky Cloonan
Released by TokyoPop

Slugline: In the near future, when the water level has risen, a motley crew of privateer merchants decides to go after the legendary lost horde of the last mayor of NYC.

Becky Cloonan is one of the success stories from American manga fandom, having made the transition from convention artist alleys to works such as AIT/Planetar’s Demo.

East Coast Rising is a pirate story, based in the flooded East Coast of the near future. Archer, a boy of questionable past, is rescued by the La Revancha -- the fastest ship on the Hudson River, captained by Cannonball Joe -- from pirates riding giant sea turtles.

What, didn’t you have nightmares as a kid that some snapping turtle was going to bite into your stomach while you were swimming in a lake?

Oh, just me then.

From there, Cannonball Joe and company sneak into Jersey to steal the required treasure map, leading to a confrontation with Jersey pirates and fending the Suffocating Death, a giant octopus that is a true monster of the deep, which happens to enjoy Jersey waters. The book leaves us with the Suffocating Death maimed, but now very determined to get teeth and tentacles on our soft munchy heroes.

Jersey pirates! What else do I need to tell you about the title? Okay, pirates, in an interesting near future with crazy critters. A fun, enjoyable read. The main weakness is that the characters are broadly sketched and are easily identifiable types, with no surprises or even twists in them so far. But considering that this is an adventure story, this isn’t yet a fatal flaw. Almost half of the book is merely the extended chase/battle sequence, first against the Jersey pirates, then with the Suffocating Death thrown in.

- Ferdinand

Monday, May 22, 2006

Eternal Sabbath, v.1

by Fuyumi Soryo
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: A mind-controlling man going by the name of Ryosuke Akiba meets Mine Kujyou, a woman scientist who he can't control.

Since I got serious about reviewing manga, there haven't been many titles that I'm genuinely looking forward to further volumes of -- Gunslinger Girl, and now Eternal Sabbath. (I've been reading Blade of the Immortal since Dark Horse began collecting the graphic novels.)

Volume 1 introduces us to "Ryosuke" and both his mind-altering abilities and his lack of self. Then we meet Mine, who is one of the most accurately portrayed female scientists that I've seen in manga. Then they meet each other, and I really enjoyed that a) she didn't fall for him b) she applies logic, reasoning and an open mind to figure him out, c) she's more curious than frightened, and d) doesn't launch a crusade against Ryosuke. Then, someone from his past arrives and supplies some background and a more direct plotline, namely that Ryosuke is one of two specimens created in a genetic engineering lab.

I judge manga by the same standards as any fiction -- its quality of plot, characterization, dialog, and worldbuilding. Soryo-san hits all the marks without invoking manga stereotypes, and no wonder: this is the author of Mars, one of the few romance series that I've actually finished. In this new series, the characters are clearly defined, the dialog is good, the background was filled in (but not overexplained) and there's the beginning of a plotline. So many manga need more than one volume to accomplish these things that it's practically normal... and what does it say about a writer that can't communicate such basic elements in the first hundred pages?

Eternal Sabbath sets a new quality benchmark for Prospero's Manga, I'm glad to say. I hope you readers give it a try.

- Miranda

Friday, May 19, 2006

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Angelic Days, v.1

By Fumino Hayashi
Published in the U.S. by ADV Manga

Slugline: A "happier" version of
Evangelion reframed in an ordinary school, since everybody knows there's a terrible lack of schoolroom relationship stories in manga these days. And we didn't make enough money off Evangelion the first time around.

The press releases for this title burble on about how fans have been waiting for this version of Evangelion, a re-imagining of the story to get away from the angst and drama of saving the world.

I'm sorry... but that's what I found
most interesting about the original.

So seeing the same characters -- violent, egotistical Asuka, fan-service Rei and abuse-magnet Shinji -- tossed into an average shojo with mostly the same background people and mostly the same situations isn't doing much for me. Volume 1 sets up all of the obligatory relationships and jealousies and attempts to make NERV into a "mysterious" organization where "mysterious" projects are going on. It's been a while since the original, but I'm not
that forgetful.

Angelic Days
gets a bump up in score thanks to above average dialog and nice, clean art. Kudos to the translators for making everyone sound like they're familiar with American English. However, that's as high as it's going to go unless the writer can pull out some genuinely novel situations and/or relationships. Given that this title is being specifically aimed at fans of the original, maybe there are some surprises coming up to turn the Evangelion world on its ear. Maybe this very average v.1 is a literary feint. I'd like to see that, to tell the truth.

We'll find out soon enough, I'm sure.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Angelic Days, v.1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Miranda

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Full Metal Panic, vol. 2

Original Author: Shouji Gatou, Illustrator: Retsu Tateo
Published in the U.S. by ADV Manga

Slugline: A mecha adventure story disguised as a high school relationship drama.

We have also reviewed Full Metal Panic, vol. 1: Fighting Boy Meets Girl, the light novel that this manga based on.

Kaname Chidori has had a mad stalker guy following her around. He is heavily armed, but somehow or another she writes him off as a harmless eccentric who has decided, for some odd reason, to dedicate his life to 'protecting' her.

On the other hand, this weird high school drama transforms into a mecha action adventure in the second volume when Sosuke Sagara, a merely psychotic high schooler, is revealed to be a psychotic mecha pilot so that he can rescue Kaname and the rest of the high school. Their class trip to Okinawa has been plane-jacked to the ever-friendly North Korea. The hijackers are led by Gauron, a terrorist that Sosuke thought he had dealt with by putting a round into his head.

Throw in a stealth submarine that fires ballistic mecha, mecha who have psychic attacks and defenses, and the MacGuffin that Kaname apparently has some sort of secret knowledge buried in her mind that everyone wants, and was the real reason behind the hijacking, things get interesting.

In the simplest possible way...

Things go boom, prettily.

A good action/adventure bit, with mecha to maximize property damage. Always a plus!

Full Metal Panic!, vol. 2 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Monday, May 15, 2006

Blade of the Immortal, v.15: Trickster

by Hiroaki Samura
Published in the U.S. by Dark Horse Manga

For the last 14 books, we've followed Rin, more or less, on her quest for revenge on Anotsu. In v.14, she took a pass and let him go. For a Western-style storyteller, that would be the end. But on we go, now with no clear goal in sight.

So now what? We meet new people, new opponents whose psychoses are established, or whose motivations are suitably muddled, and we revisit the vague involvement of the government in the whole situation. Maybe things will become clearer in v.16... and maybe they won't. Lose half a star for misplacing the plotline and making me wait impatiently for the next volume.

As a consolation prize, Manji gets his ass kicked but wins anyway, and Magatsu has a cool fight with Giichi and is left for dead. Again. Magatsu never gets any respect, and he keeps crawling back for more.

And Manji makes fun of Rin for worrying about him. Maybe she should just kick him in the nuts instead. He might find that charming.

OK, so I'm grumpy about the story turning around and doing a few manga-standard character introductions... again. I expected better.

- Miranda

Friday, May 12, 2006

Fullmetal Alchemist, v.1

Story and Art by Hiromu Arakawa
Published in the U.S. by Viz

Slugline: Two brothers, marked by their experimentation into the darkest uses of alchemy, now work for the government and try to reverse their condition.

For people that watch anime, Fullmetal Alchemist it is one of those ready-born hits, taking the anime world by storm, mowing down its victims -- I mean gathering fans before it was even officially released. The gray market makes sure that people know when the good stuff is coming.

And the manga it is based on is good. Not great, but the magic system is explained briefly, and then never really mentioned again but its rules stay in effect. That sort of consistency shows care. The main characters, Edward and Alphonse, have easily recognizable but not shallow characterizations.

Edward and Alphonse tried to bring their mother back to life and failed. Edward lost part of his leg, and Alphonse would have died bodiless if Edward hadn't sacrificed his arm to contain Alphonse's spirit in a suit of armor. Now, years later, Edward has been drafted into government service as an alchemist, but all he is really interested is finding a way to restore Alphonse's body.

As typical for fantasy manga, the country the story is set in is a mixture of Europe in the mid- to late-industrial age with alchemical magic thrown in. In addition, the country seems to be under a military dictatorship/a fascist state with rebellions and corruption festering on the body politic. Edward in particular is unconcerned about the world around him, but that sort of indifference never lasts. A pretty face will probably change that.

But isn't that always the how it goes, Miranda?

- Ferdinand

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Blade of the Immortal, v. 14: Last Blood

by Hiroaki Samura
Published in the U.S. by Dark Horse Manga

Slugline: Revenge is a dish best served cold. With lots of blood on top.

These volumes are collections of issues that Dark Horse has been publishing for several years now... thus, they aren't released often and thus, when I picked up volume 15, I couldn't remember what was going on. So I went back to refresh my memory.

Manga storylines have a reputation for running far longer than even the most ambitious Western comic books. It's practically a selling point. One effect of their length is manga's tendency to get side-tracked into character development stories which can lead to losing focus on the central plot. Another side effect is that all the usual signs of heading toward an ending does not mean that.

Volume 14 could have been the end of Blade: Manji and Rin finally cornered their villain, Anotsu, a few of the major supporting characters turned up, and there were plenty of extra guys with swords around to make for a couple hundred pages of Samura-sensei's exquisite action sequences.

Fans of manga are familiar with the stylistic habits of combat: there are flashy poses, gritted teeth, lots of speed lines, sometimes spectacular explosions or magic. Blade's combat sequences are more like still photos taken from a movie. And they aren't the still photos you'd expect from a hand-to-hand fight -- no flashy poses, no dramatically swirling capes. Just very gritty, very real, and very messy.

Seriously, Japanese men must not get enough calcium in their diets. It's like they don't have any bones at all.

In any case, volume 14 is not the end of the story. And while I highly recommend the entire series, a word of caution: it is intense and graphic. Not just fighting -- one volume was entirely devoted to one of the female characters being raped and tortured (and her gruesome revenge.) Although set in historical Japan, the author cops to not doing his homework and having fun rather than aiming for accuracy. Which is fine, because he has invented some genuinely strange weaponry to slice and dice with.

My only quibble with the story is that the main characters do not have much life outside their quest for revenge. Supporting characters get to have motivations, and their stories are more interesting asides than other manga's main stories.

Stay tuned for volume 15!

- Miranda

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Genshiken, v.5

by Kio Shimoku
Released in the U.S. by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: See otaku in their natural environment try to create and sell a doujinshi!

I honestly don't know how to feel about this title. Well, maybe not the title in general, but this issue in specific. The main story of this issue is about a club of otaku making a doujinshi and getting it to a convention to sell.

I've done something similar, with all (and more, since I was putting up my own money) the pain and delight that entails. Mostly pain. Which made it difficult for me to read at times, since I winced at some scenes as I mentally projected the features of the people who I had similar experiences with. Though there was one thing that happened to the Genshiken -- a sellout of their product -- which never happened to us.

I guess the discomfort is a sign that the story rings true. A couple times the layout bothered me, but the story certainly had the ring of truth, and does give one an idea of how the con scene in Japan works.
And for giggles, here is one of the 'zines I was involved with:

- Ferdinand

p.s. For the record, I would've given it three and a half stars. The situations rang true, yes, but I don't think it's on par with Gunslinger Girl.

- Miranda


Delay. New review will be up tonite. New review will be available tomorrow as we get back on the regular schedule.

- Ferdinand

Friday, May 05, 2006

Sokora Refugees, v.1

Story by Segamu, Art by Melissa DeJesus
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline: A female high schooler discovers the latest in breast augmentation: timesharing your body with an elf sorceress.

Just a reminder, check back to the Pastel review from a few weeks ago to learn about fan service. I don't usually hold much against fan service, except for when it is being used as the only attraction of a book. I know I am radical, demanding a story or some other purpose to read a book than just stare are the scantily clad females, but that's me.

That being said, Sokora Refugees has the kernel of a good story in there, but it's buried in silly fan service and has a main character, Kana, that just whines and comments snarkily. And not very clever snarks, either. At the moment, the most interesting character is Tamara, one of the sidekicks who is more level-headed and aware of what is going on around her than anyone else. The sole downside is that is she is already endowed, so the comedic effect of giving her magical breast enhancements would be limited.

They use the alternate world concept interestingly, in that rather than being on the cusp of destruction, the other world seems pretty well destroyed already, full of empty villages and refugees. At the end of the first volume, the mechanism for traveling between worlds is destroyed, which is a shame. Usually in these sorts of the stories the main character is trapped in a different world and has to work her way back to her own world, for reasons that never seem quite clear because she is having a much better time there. I would have found it more interesting if the characters had to balance to the two worlds, which is the direction I thought they were going for.

To sample the book itself, check out the creator's webpages,

- Ferdinand

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Steady Beat, v.1

By rivkah
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline: Sibling rivalry turns into uncertainty when Leah discovers a love letter directed to her sister that was apparently written by another girl.

The creator of Steady Beat is a pretty well known internet presence on the various manga/creator boards, with a website ( that features an earlier version of the first chapter of this story, if you are interested in a sample. As for rivkah, her reputation is well-earned, though I may have bias from briefly meeting her at the New York ComicCon.

Steady Beat is the story of Leah, who discovers a love letter written to her sister, Sarai, and immediately freaks out. Uncertain whether to confront her sister and learn the truth, she agonizes over it instead, especially aware that her mother, a Texas state senator, would not take this revelation well. As she tries to figure out what to do, she receives a call to go to a mysterious meeting at the park. She fails to make it, instead getting into an accident and meeting Elijah, a young man who seems to have two dads (hmm, I wonder what that could mean). By the end of the volume she is not certain who made the phone call or to what purpose, but she has decided, in her own mind at least, that her sister is having a gay relationship.

Yes, women in a gay relationship. Sorry, no drawings of girls kissing, so if that is all you are looking for, look elsewhere.

I like the art here, nice and clean with lots of little side bits that show that rivkah has internalized all of the manga norms and styles, such as characters going chibi at the right moments and snarky little comments on the side in non-normal lettering. I would have given this story a 4, but the ending just seemed off. Almost as if it wasn?t the ending of the volume and was altered at the last minute to make it so. But other than that, very good.

- Ferdinand

Monday, May 01, 2006

Guru Guru Pon-chan, v.4

by Satomi Ikezawa
Published in the U.S. by Del Rey

Slugline: Ponta, a golden Lab, has the ability to turn into a girl. She and Mirai are "in love."

So what does it say about the motivations of a guy whose girlfriend is a) actually a dog -- and he knows it -- b) so naive that she can't even use a telephone, c) hasn't got the common sense to come in out of the rain and d) has been a human for four volumes now and has only just figured out that being a dog might be a better deal?

Yeah, I don't know either.

Thing is, the scenes when Ponta is a dog are actually rather cute. The writer knows a thing or two about dogs. And the story got a smile out of me when Mirai-kun dreams he's turned into an English sheepdog. But otherwise it's one of those stories where the girl's ignorance and helplessness is supposed to be cute or, maybe, to some control freaks, sexy.

The two opposing forces balance each other out, and this one lands right in the middle of the scale. In the standard progression of manga romances, this one is at the "Crisis of faith, so one of them runs away and gets in trouble" stage. I haven't read the first three volumes, so I don't know if we've gone through the "Someone's ex tries to break them up" phase and I assume we're well past the "Awkward admission of infatuation". Next volume will be, I would expect, "Rescue and massive guilt trips."

I invite the author to prove me wrong, though.

- Miranda