Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Arisa, vol. 1

Story and Art by Natsumi Ando
Published in the US by Del Rey Manga

Slugline:  A real psycho high school drama

Tsubasa has not seen her identical twin Arisa in years, and upon meeting her after all that time they decide that Tsubasa will replace Arisa for a day at school. She does so and finds that her sister’s life seems just as good as Arisa had said in her letters. When Tsubasa tells Arisa so, Arisa reveals her deep depression and tries to commit suicide. As her sister lies in a coma, Tsubasa decides to find what hidden secrets in the schoo are resposible for Arisa’s attempt. Tsubasa discovers out her fellow students send texts to someone named the King, and those texts come true.  With that power, the students’ cruelty has come out and Tsubasa needs to discover who the King is, even as she becomes a target.  She may have an ally, the standard bad boy of the class, but his real allegiances are more complicated.

At first this reads like the typical high school shoujo, with Tsubasa being the violent girl that has trouble controlling those tendencies while her identical twin having the perfect life that Tsubasa wishes she could have.  The fact that Tsubasa would be given the chance to live Arisa’s life in the manga was given, but the fact that she would get that chance by Arisa attempting suicide is not.  From there the story takes a darker turn than most shoujo as the class is revealed to have a dangerous secret, and the manga is less about Tsubasa trying out Arisa's perfect life but about uncovering secrets.  Rather than her violent self being a liability, it may be the only thing that lets her survive to find out what is going on.  While the story does not get as dark as others, it quickly moves into the shadows that most shoujo never venture towards even as its visual style remains unchanged.  This is a story that has more meaning than it first appears.

Arisa, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

Ghost in the Shell

By Shirow Masamune
Published in the US by Kodansha

Slugline: Philosophical violence or violent philosophy?

Motoko Kusanagi is a paramilitary police officer unit in near future Tokyo.  Cybernetic enhancements and computer use is near ubiquitous, allowing human brains to be hacked to alter memories or have a full body replacement.  Most of the stories in the volume are stand alone as Motoko and her squad rein in government excesses of the rest of the as rampant corruption and self-serving agendas are behind nearly every case they tackle.  In one Motoko encounters a ghost, a living program, and the experience leaves her shaken.  When it looks like that one of the politicians have finally succeeded in getting Motoko thrown under the bus to further his own schemes, Motoko turns the situation around with the help of the ghost.  This leads to her making an unusual decision though debating what is life and its meaning has a lot of resonance in the volume overall.

Ghost in the Shell is a classic manga in American because Shirow Masamune’s long relationship with Dark Horse Comics meant that his titles have been available in the US long before the rise of popularity and availability of other manga.  This story has been retold several times in anime, though this is a case were the retellings have allowed adaptors to boil the story into a coherent whole.  For instance, the Ghost in the Shell movie melded together a half dozen separate stories from this volume into a single narrative.  This makes the source material suffer in comparison to later versions, which is unusual. The art is much softer and fluid than you would expect in such a hard sci-fi setting.  So expecting to read this and find the great original material that all the adaptations have ruined is not realistic but it is still a good story though fond of its philosophical musings. 

Ghost in the Shell is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Friday, September 24, 2010

.hack//Legend of the Twilight, the Complete Collection

Art by Rei Idumi with Story by Tatsuya Hamazaki
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: A secret epilogue

Shugo and Rena have won the online avatars of the legendary dot hackers in the MMORPG The World and gather friends that are not just interested in their famous avatars but in sharing their adventures.  Shugo while dying in The World is gifted with an artifact which allows him to break the game’s rules. The appearance of their avatars and artifact has CC Corp, the owners of The World, in a frenzy to prevent what happened the last time they were around.  Shugo and Rena encounter the avatar of a child claiming that the entity that gave Shugo the artifact is her mother and believe returning the child is their quest.  With that goal they explore the seedy underbelly of The World and overcome resistance by CC Corp to return the daughter and tell her mother their stories.  Along the way, colleagues of the original owners of their avatars help them.

While not precisely a sequel to previous .hack stories, Legend of the Twilight draws heavily on the consequences and characters of them.  Roughly the first half of the volume merely refers to them but in the remainder these previous stories become ever more important until it seems that Legend of the Twilight is just an epilogue not its own story.  As the story becomes more of an epilogue the action/adventure aspects become minimal until the whole point is to tell the story to others rather for it to have its own purpose.  While it manages to avoid most of the metaphysical diversions that other stories in the .hack series fall prey to, it still feels the need to ponder the nature of friends and comrades.  In a way, this being a complete collection means taking the less interesting parts at the end with the more entertaining ones.

.hack//Legend of the Twilight, the Complete Collection is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

World of Warcraft: Mage

Story by Richard A. Knaak with Art by Ryo Kawakami
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Treachery that can be seen from up high. 

Aodhan is a trainee mage in the flying city of Dalaran.  He became a trainee despite the opposition of his warrior family that did not see the usefulness of mage skills as compared to the family’s tradition so Aodhan instead follows his uncle Crevan’s example.  When Dalaran is attacked by blue dragons, Aodhan learns that Crevan’s example is perhaps not the best one to follow when he tricks Aodhan into releasing him from prison.  As the attack continues, Aodhan realizes that his uncle is not as virtuous as he had once thought and that the trainers who were so hard on him were so to make sure he did not make the same his mistakes as his uncle.  With that in mind, Aodhan manages to turn the tables on his uncle and help save Dalaran. 

This story would have been better served as a short story rather than filling an entire volume.  Mage is part of the classes line of Warcraft manga but what makes the class different and special wasn’t shown here.  This was a fairly typical ‘boy finds out his inspiration has feet of clay while people he not had much respect for have more wisdom that he thought’ story.  Variations of this story are fairly common but rather than trying to make interesting twists on it, pages are filled up with essentially meaningless fight and chase scenes that only make it clear that Aodhan's uncle is up to something while Aodhan stays clueless.  Meanwhile, some things are hand waved away rather spending pages to set things up for the story in order to make room for those fight and chase scenes.  There are a couple nice bits where items introduced earlier in the story are revealed to have more than one use but it that effort would have better spent working on making sure that the story held together better. 

World of Warcraft: Mage is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Friday, September 10, 2010

.hack//Cell, vol. 1

Art by Akira Mutsuki with Story by Ryo Suzukaze
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Is it surprising that virtual reality screws up your identity?

Midori is a high school girl who becomes ill and is confined to the hospital as she grows weaker.  There is another Midori who is a professional victim in The World, a massively muliplayer computer RPG.  As a victim she allows other Player Character to try to hit her earning money if they fail .  However being a victim can attract Player Killers (PKs) who hunt down and kill other players in the game.  Midori's latest session of being a victim spirals out of a control as a crowd of PKs surround her which attracts the attention of a PK Killer.  The PK Killer is so powerful that the PKs later kidnap Midori's sidekick Adamas who is killed and resurrected repeatedly to attract either Midori or the PK Killer's attention.  Adamas is toughened up by his experience so he asks to meet Midori in real life.  This forces Midori to confront her suppressed memories as the Midori in the hospital struggles to live.

It has been hard to review the .hack titles since they all seem to be too abstract for their own good.  Using computer games as a metaphor to explore reality and identity is all well and good, but .hack tries too hard with characters wondering if anything exists rather than starting smaller such as if they have done what they think they have.  When Midori's view of the world collapses and she is left with nothing, it is hard to care because everything so far in the story has seemed random and meaningless.  The volume also ends abruptly with no satisfying partial resolution or even interesting cliffhanger to draw readers back, just Midori getting more lost and apparently fading away.

.hack//Cell, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Children of the Sea, vol. 1

By Daisuke Igarashi
Published in the US by Viz’s Ikki Comics

Slugline:  Manatees make for good au pairs.

Ruka has been banned from handball on the first day of her summer break so she has to deal with her father, who works at an aquarium.  While there she meets Umi and Sora, two boys who were raised by sea manatees.  Umi and Sora feel a connection with Ruka and act on it by first making sure that she sees a falling star with Umi and later taking her with them when they 'borrow' a boat to swim near where the meteor splashed down.  There they see thousands of fish with phosphorescent spots, reminding Ruka of when as a child she saw a ghost disappear from an aquarium tank.  Umi and Sora seem to know more than what they are saying about what is going on, but Ruka is drawn ever closer to them even as she tries to recover from their dive.  As she practices snorkeling, Sora's weakness and the unusual situations in the surrounding ocean becomes more pronounced.

This is a series where the beginning scenes seem to tell a minor and unimportant story (a kid being kicked out of a school sport, visiting a friend in a hospital) but will lead to major events.  Exactly what those major events are remains uncertain, but you can feel the weight of them in the actions of the the characters as they also seem to be anticipating something.  When the first volume is broken down by scene even though it is longer than the traditional manga volume not that much happens in it.  But the tension and sense of rising action is managed so well that is easy to overlook it.  What also makes this an unusual manga is the art is very impressionistic rather than the heavily stylized like most manga. This is very effective in the underwater scenes, as it helps it give a sense of otherworldliness, that there is of the nearby world that is intimately tied to our own yet still is unfamiliar.

Children of the Sea, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Alice in the Country of Hearts, vols. 1-3

Art by Soumei Hoshino and Story by Quinrose
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Where being in love and wanting to kill the person makes perfect sense.

Alice is resting in her garden with her sister when she is taken by a man with rabbit ears to Wonderland.  She arrives at the clock tower which is at the center of Wonderland’s three feuding territories.  They are the Mad Hatter’s mafia based out of his mansion, the Queen’s castle surrounded a garden maze and the amusement park run by Mary Gowland.  The conflict seems to be mostly between the Queen and the Mad Hatter but none of them really like each other or the clock tower’s master who is traditionally neutral.  Alice is forced into this world, with her unique status of an outsider that making her interact with others to return home.  She learns that a difference between her and Wonderland’s is that she had a heart while everyone else has a clock.  This difference and what it means along with everyone loving her continually surprises Alice as she gradually forgets about escaping Wonderland.

In many manga it seems that every male character that sticks around for more than a couple of panels falls in love with the female lead character.  Here, they take that and make it a plot point!  Everyone in Wonderland is supposed to love Alice, it is part of being an outsider.  But because the Wonderland natives are already fighting this just gives them one more reason to it to continue and get even worse.  The characters reflect their roots from the source material which means they can be very odd making into them both charming and disturbing at turns.  Alice’s shuttling between factions can feel a bit repetitive but every time Alice visits someone the question is whether or not this will be the time the character will stop being charming and become deranged.

Alice in the Country of Hearts, vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3 are all available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Songs to Make You Smile

By Natsuki Takaya
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: When do shojo songs not make you smile? 

Songs to Make You Smile is an anthology volume by Natsuki Takaya, creator of Fruits Basket.  This collection is mostly of one-off stories of young love, though there is a Tsubasa: Those With Wings story included that uses its characters to tell a twisted Snow White tale.  The story that gives its name to the anthology is a high school romance between an unemotional singer whose emotional songs touch the heart of a girl whose own heart has been lost due to bullying.  Next, Chisato feels emotionally cut-off from her recently deceased father but through the actions of her new stepmother she reconnects with him.  Inagaki is a world class violinist who other students often deride for riding on his famous parents’ coattails, but a viola player can hear his true original music playing through.  Finally, a young man given to knitting and other less than manly arts is given the courage to declare his love through the actions of his grade school cousin.

One of the worst parts of any anthology is that often they hide one or more clunkers that just are not very good but rely on the rest of the anthology to get readers.  None of the stories here are that, surprising since it was originally published before Takaya's far better known Fruits Basket, meaning that they were made when she was still gaining experience.  There are several different artistic styles she in the book showing that growth, with the one with the Chisato character looking the oldest but none feeling dated.  There does seem to be reliance on standard storytelling elements but while none of the stories feel original neither do they feel particularly cliche-ridden.  The only story that particularly stands out is the Tsubasa: Those With Wings side story, mostly because it is such a cheerfully abusive tale that manages to avoid being cruel.

Songs to Make You Smile is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

World of Warcraft Shadow Wing, vol. 1 The Dragons of Outland

Story by Richard A. Knaak with Art by Jae-Hwan Kim
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline: Watch out for falling dragons!

The demons that attacked Azeroth have been defeated and pursued back to their homeworld through a mystical gate.  Among the armies that followed them back to Outland are Tyri and Jorad, who have been seen before in the Warcraft titles.  Jorad is still desperate to prove himself as a paladin of the Light so he takes on an important mission to coordinate friendly forces but he is waylaid and rescued by Tyri.  Tyri, who is a blue dragon that can transform into an elf, has felt herself drawn to Outland by her magic.  Together they convince some of Outland’s inhabitants to help them solve the mystery of the strange Nether Dragons and what their connection to other dragons be.  Meanwhile, a Death Knght has learned how to seize control the Nether Dragons and is planning on using them to rule Outland.

The World of Warcraft manga have been reviewed previously (see links), some of which have been by the same same creative team but they earn their new low rating for the new reasons here.  This is because of how the story is told rather than the content or the style of the story.  Richard Knaak is better known as a novelist and it seems that most of the problems come from using a novel’s pacing in a manga.  Five or ten pages of text reads a lot slower than the same number of pages in a manga.  A character that changes their mind over five pages of text seems more natural, like they had a chance to cool off and think, while doing so in the same number of pages in a manga pages seems like a waste to have the first scene at all.  Once again, it seems that this title would appeal just to fans of World of Warcraft rather than a wider fantasy audience.

World of Warcraft Shadow Wing, vol. 1 The Dragons of Outland is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Friday, August 20, 2010

Portrait of M & N, vols. 1 and 2

By Tachibana Higuchi
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: Why does love have to hurt?

Mitsuru and Natsuhiko have both started in a new high school and have attracted attention because of their appearance and aloof demeanors.  But they both have secrets that drove them from their old schools and inaccurate rumors about those secrets have followed them and begin to make their lives more difficult.  Fortunately no one has learned that the secrets are that Mitsuru is a masochist while Natsuhiko is a narcissist.  While both have triggering events that cause their behaviors to flare out of their control, they manage to keep them a secret despite the other students’ curiosity.  Their shared secrets tie them closer together even though their respective obsessions put up obstacles to being emotionally honest with each other.  The mental confusion and uncertainty that they both face comes across each day as they try to keep their secrets and rein in their behaviors.

While aspects of Mitsuru and Natsuhiko’s relationship feel true, especially their uncertain feelings, the portrayals of their masochist and narcissist tendencies are not, especially with the idea of having such blatant triggering events.  Those are not intended to show the difficulty with living with such tendencies as a teen, but instead to set up comedic situations.  That uses up a lot of the respect the manga had earned, because it turns what could have been serious high school drama into something that uneasily straddles the divide between drama and farce.  The title would have been much better served if the humor had came from the story or if there were characters there for comedic relief.  There are several characters that could have taken that role, but they were not central enough to the story to take up that burden.  Still, a good story that is undercut by a cheap device to inject comedy.

Portrait of M & N, vol. 1 and vol. 2 are both available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Nightschool, vols. 1-3

By Svetlana Chmakova
Published by Yen Press

Slugline: A other kind of Plot? What Plot? story.

Sarah is the new Night Keeper of the Night School, a school for supernatural children including Weirns (witches), vampires, mermaids and many others.  Being held in a public school after the human children have left shows how close the two worlds are, especially since there are Hunters who make sure that the night creatures do not push at their boundaries.  But Sarah’s disappearance, not only physically but from people’s memories begins a series of events that may bring a dangerous prophecy to pass.  Sarah’s sister Alex already has a curse upon her, but to find the sister that no one remembers she enrolls in the Night School while a group of trainee Hunters and their Seer try to find who stole time from some of them.  There is seven prophecy children and though they are not known even to themselves, the consequences of their meeting will be terrible.

The characters are done well, at turns scary as they show off their more dangerous aspects while at other times they are cute and childish such as when they act like the teens they are.  The big problem is that while there is a strong overall plot, with the prophecy and the seven children waiting meet again, the actual plot in each chapter moves slowly.  Part of it may be a function of having to follow multiple characters who may (or may not) be the prophecy children but the end result is that Sarah’s story comes across as the main story but not as the most important one considering the number of scenes she isn’t even tangentially involved in.  The other potential prophecy children get less time than she does but get equally complicated plots so it feels that their stories are moving at a snail’s pace.  It didn’t feel so bad in the first volume, but by the end of the third the feeling becomes oppressing and the question is when are things going to happen?

Nightschool, vol. 1, vol. 2 and vol. 3 are all available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand 

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Fairy Navigator Runa, vol. 1

Story by Miyoko Ikeda with Illustrations by Michiyo Kikuta
Published in the US by Del Rey Manga

Slugline: In the original legends, fairies were anything but nice.

Runa was left at an orphanage as a baby, never knowing her parents but told by a teacher that Runa's kindness was her strength and that she needed to be careful or the weight of it would crush her. Runa never really understood what her teacher meant until two strangers that could transform into animals approached Runa and told her that she was the fairy princess. Her parents gave her up to protect her but now there was an open portal to the fairy realms so other fairies will come since Runa is the only one who could freely travel between the worlds. However, for Runa to use her powers makes her cold and distant, so she needs all of her friends from the orphanage and the fairy realms in order to keep her on an even keel and remind her that kindness is what makes her powerful, not fairy powers.

Runa comes across as another sweet and gentle story intended for younger readers, but then towards the end shows a bit of bite. When Runa loses her cool and wants to harm another fairy (for admittedly perfectly valid reasons) her dark side emerges that is genuinely disturbing in contrast to her earlier behavior. While she quickly gets herself back into under control, the fact that her dark side is so clear cut brings extra meaning to the story. The fear that she could lose control of herself is meaningful, rather than her just being a light and fluffy character that says she has to be good, or else. The supporting characters don't seem to know who they are, with their decisions furthering the story but not making much character sense. Still, for a children story it seems to be more willing to show the consequences and costs of power than most.

Fairy Navigator Runa, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Neko Ramen, vol. 1 Hey! Order Up!

By Kenji Sonishi
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: Not realistic in that no cat work around that much water.

While on his lunch break Tanaka decides to try out a new ramen shop and discovers it has the strangest chef he has ever heard of.  It is not that the ramen chef Taisho is particularly skilled (in fact, he does not seem to be very good) but instead that he's a cat.  Taisho ran away from home, determined to not be like his cat model father who specialized in being too cute for words.  After his dream of being a sushi chef fell through (he snacked on the fish) he turned to ramen noodles. Taisho swears that he plans to become a famous ramen chef, but his ramen never really improves and he seems to be more interested in fame than anything else. Strangely he ignores his quickest route to fame for while Taisho knows that he is a cat, he refuses to act like one and ignores that others refuse to do the same.  You can find most of the humor of the series coming from either Taisho's ineptitude or the face he is a cat in a chef's world as Tanaka tries to be the voice of reason.

Neko Ramen is another 4-koma but like many other 4-koma collections, there are several short stories in the volume that are not. Unlike many other 4-koma collections, the shorts work very well and continue story threads that were begun in the 4-koma. A lot of the humor derives from jokes about ramen noodles, so on occasion there are gags that lack punch because they rely on knowing more about ramen noodles than one would normally know outside of Japan. That being said, most of the jokes come across without any difficulty because they rely on standard comedic situations such character obliviousness. The strongest source of humor comes from Taisho's inability to accept that a talking cat could be unusual, and while it could have gotten monotonous, those gags are broken up with enough other kinds of humor that it never does.

Neko Ramen, vol. 1 Hey! Order Up! is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Friday, May 28, 2010

Starcraft: Ghost Academy vol. 1

Written by Keith R. A. Decandido with Art by Fernardo Heinz Furukawa
Published by TokyoPop

Slugline: Brain panning is not an "This your brains on drugs" reference.

This manga fills in a missing gap in the Starcraft: Nova novel when Nova goes to the Ghost Academy.  In Starcraft, Ghosts are psionically powerful humans that are drafted to help keep the Dominion secure.  Nova is training to be one after suffering the the standard traumatizing childhood awakening of her psionic powers that both drives and isolates her.  But she is not allowed to be too isolated because the Ghost Academy trains in teams, and because of her isolated nature the others in her team suffer in their grading.  Things come to head when one of her teammates, a son of powerful political leader, helps create a situation in which another teammate who is a drug addict goes off the rails.  Though Nova helps her teammate and graduates to the next stage of her training, she has her memories erased of the incident and gains a new foe she does not even remember.

This is another title where the lack of knowledge about Starcraft handicaps the reader since it seems to expect that you already know background. This is made worse because Nova has already starred in a novel with the manga taking place in a gap in the novel.  As an example, some of the characters seem extraneous but if the reader knew the larger story their presence may make sense. The main character Nova is in a journey to be more connected to her fellow soldiers, but there is a moment of that journey that is missing. In the manga she realizes her behavior is harmful, and there are moments where she connects with the rest of her team, but there the moment in between when she makes the decision to change which is missing. While these are problems, they are not terrible ones since one of the purposes of the manga is to fill out the Starcraft backstory, so as long as it does that the manga has some worth.

Starcraft: Ghost Academy vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Happy Cafe, vols. 1 + 2

By Kou Matsuzuki
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Don't people need to search for happiness somewhere other than small shops?

Uru decides to live on her own so not to get in the way of her mom's happiness with her new husband, so despite still being in high school she has gotten her own place and her own job.  Her job as a waitress at a cafe brings her into contact with odd people, the strangest being the cafe's chef Shindo who is a strange mixture of caring and impassiveness.  The three workers of the cafe help each other and their patrons out, though mostly Uru needs their attention.  Uru, after she learns she didn't have to leave the house, needs the help to balance her own growth and independence to her mother and stepfather's protective impulses.  Otherwise their major challenge is when a competing cafe issues a challenge to them but despite Uru's foolhardy acceptance of it, everything turns out well though the competing cafe workers settle into a resigned tolerance of Uru and her cafe. 

This is another entry in 'happiness can only be found in a small shop' genre of manga.  This reminds me a lot of Haru Hana, which was reviewed in March, not in the characters but in the situations that they find themselves in.  In both an late teen, early twenties woman enters the shop, whom the female protagonist first looks at in suspicion but whom later becomes friends of the shop's workers because of the way they help her.  She becomes a supporting character that continues to show up and in both titles the character is introduced at the end of the first volume.  But while this a faithful entry into a well-established sub-genre, it still is a solid one.  Other than one or two extreme character traits (which in comparison to other manga are not that extreme) it remains well-grounded.  The story and characters deliver a satisfying but not particularly memorable manga.

Happy Cafe, vol. 1 and vol. 2 are both available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.


Friday, May 07, 2010

King of RPGs, vol. 1

Written by Jason Thompson with Art by Victor Hao
Published by Del Rey Manga

Slugline:  We will deny any similarities between the reviewer and the manga's characters

Shesh had a problem with computer RPGs, but after the therapy, shock treatment and lifetime wireless ban he goes to college and can act somewhat normal.  There are temptations at college but when Shesh goes to a RPG club he discovers they have pen and paper RPGs rather than the computer games he once abused.  As he considered leaving he is challenged by the gamemaster Theodore and after his friends ask him to, he decides to play just one game.  What he doesn't know is Theodore is his match in obsessiveness but to pen and paper RPGs.  Theodore discovers a talent to provoke Shesh into unleashing his frenzied player persona that therapy had supposedly tamed.  After dealing with the repercussions of his first gaming session, Shesh's attempt to find a gamemaster to safely game with brings him into conflict with a gamer that takes advantage of the collectible games and a student officer who is convinced of the evil of playing games.

This manga hits in the middle of my two loves (well, the ones that are not real people at least) manga/comics and tabletop roleplaying games.  I may not have been as obsessive and as Theodore, but my college room (my house now) was filled with just as many game rulebooks as it was graphic novels and manga.  While my time in college predates World of Warcraft and other MMORPGs that broke Shesh, other computer games were just as effective on people I knew, in fact I knew people similar to all the characters.  So all of the characters ring true, but are overlaid with a shonen filter.  This includes that no one is really bad, they are misunderstood or victims of circumstance and everything devolves into a personal challenge.  Still, it has enough gaming in-jokes to satisfy the gaming crowd (such as the culmination of the final story arc of the volume harking backing to a gaming urban legend) but does not need in-depth gaming knowledge to get the humor and the story, which was the problem with the review earlier this week of .hack//4koma.

King of RPGs, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Tuesday, May 04, 2010


By Koichi Sumimaru
Published in the US by Tokyopop

Slugline: hack is just a very bad cough

.hack is one of those series that appears to be very popular despite all of my attempts to understand it.  Considering that there is little attraction for me towards a humorous take on it.  It seems that most of the volume requires previous knowledge of the .hack characters and story in order to get the jokes, though I suspect even if I did understand more of the references I would not find them very funny since the their setups are not very interesting.  The volume is actually a compilation of four different creators take on .hack, though Koichi Sumimaru is responsible for most of the material.  This is unfortunate, since that material is the least funny in the volume despite giving the title it's name.  The 4koma, or four panel gag strips, starts the volume, making it a hard slog to wade through it and reach the other creators contributions.  Most of the other creators' material can be understood on its own, without being already immersed in the .hack universe, but by the time you reach it any enjoyment that could be had has been leached away.  Unless you are a hard-core .hack fan, especially of The World and The World R:2, there is nothing here worth your time.

.hack//4koma is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga.

- Ferdinand

Sunday, May 02, 2010

Ratman, vol. 1

Story and Art by Inui Sekihiko
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline: Rats are not exactly good models for heroes or villains.

Shuto wants to be a hero, which is more possible than the typical childish fantasy because he lives in a world where super heroes are common. Even though he is short for his age and so few people take him seriously, he continues to espouse the notions of justice that he believes are the bedrock of heroes. Only two people seem to take his desire seriously, a slightly odd student at his school named Mizushima and Rio, the daughter of the head of the Hero Association. Shuto finally gets his chance to be a hero by rescuing Mizushima but discovers that it was to trick him to undergo an experiment and be forced to become a villain by Mizushima's sister. Shuto's first mission as a villain brings him into conflict with the Hero Association, leading to Rio vowing to hunt him down personally along with the Hero Association as a whole.  Shuto is torn between his heroic desires and the messed up reality that he finds himself forced into.

Shuto has the sort of personality that is so earnest in wanting to be a hero that he would normally annoy anyone. So when the trap is sprung and he is forced to become a villain instead, Shuto's stunned response makes the story. Sure, that particular twist can be seen coming a mile away, but since it is a twist that the character would never expect because of his nature, the readers can allow themselves to enjoy it. Sadly, for the moment the female characters are just foils for Shuto to react against rather than having their own personality.  While parts of the manga descends into parody the fact that Shuto is taking the heroic ideals so seriously suggest that will have a more mature examination of them, though the rest of the story may be less so. It is the interplay between the two that will keep things interesting.

Ratman, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Thursday, April 15, 2010

The World I Create

By Ayami Kazama
Published in the US by CMX Manga

Slugline: Believing is Seeing

This manga is about people that have the ability through magic lanterns to create illusionary environments that can encompass all of the senses.  These 'projectionists' share their school grounds with a more traditional high school so that they share many of the same problems of typical students except that their conflicts are not just over grades but over their special abilities.  A couple of students that have had trouble advancing  in their training end up creating worlds not for their teachers but for each other.  A student that is losing her projectionist ability has to decide what her last illusion will be and how she will keep her projectionist friends despite moving back to the ordinary school.  Two students first aggravate each other then help each other reach ever greater heights in their abilities.  A student is worried that he will lose his girlfriend if she pursues her projectionist abilities.  In all of these different stories characters from the others visit but the problem of each story remains their own to resolve.

This is an all ages title, and the conflicts in each story reflect that rating in that none of them are intense though they can be bittersweet and their relationships while having the beginnings of romance for the most part are innocent and sweet rather than hot and heavy. It is not much of a surprise to find out that at the heart of each story is the revelation, the showing of a truth. That ties in with the characters' projectionist abilities, because in most cases that truth can only be shown through those abilities. But this is one of those times were the all ages ratings holds back the title, because the stories could be so much more bold than they end up being. A less restrictive rating could have allowed higher and more varied stakes rather than leaving the reader with a sense of repetition and a mild disappointment that the manga was not more.

The World I Create is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Red Hot Chili Samurai, vol. 1

Created by Yoshitsugu Katagiri
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Just as spinach gives you strength chilis make you a swordsman.

Kokaku is the son of the Han's (or province) leader.  The province is small and poor so Kokaku has to help in keeping the peace, which he is glad to do because it allows him to kick butt on a regular basis.  Unlike many other samurai Kokaku does not feel the need to use his sword to kill, having been taught while he was young and impressionable that the sword was to protect people.  Kokaku has some friends who help out in upholding justice and other cool sounding catchphrases like that.  These are the studious and serious guy, the competitive girl and the silent ninja, all of whom do not really need names since they are their appearances.  Despite his need to make sure that the people are protected and justice is served, Kokaku still has more than a healthy ego, often revealing his family tattoo of a black crane when knocking out his opponents so that they know who beat them.

Something about the name Red Hot Chili Samurai led to the impression of the title being more energetic and interesting than the resulting rather standard adventure story with samurai trappings.  The samurai aspect does not seem to be that important since anachronisms are introduced on the flimsiest of reasons.  The use of the chilis, rather than being symbolic of characters or having some subtle meaning becomes just another gag.  The supporting characters are straight out of central casting with only the smallest of flourishes to make them unique.  While there is an attempt to show Kokaku's motivation, by the time it is introduced there is already ample evidence that shows instead his desire to be the center or attention and put his opponents in their place.  That way, Kokaku gets to be arrogant in an acceptable way.  None of the characters are mean, but neither are they as heroic as they think they are.

Red Hot Chili Samurai, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Rampage, vol 1

By Yunosuke Yoshinaga
Published in the US by CMX Manga

Slugline:  Who knew the skull could be sliced through like butter?

Zhang Fei is a wanderer in ancient China during a period when the bureaucratic eunuchs corruption has lead to civil unrest.  Which basically describes all of China's history, but in this instance the forces hoping to bring change are called the Yellow Turbans. In their fervor to bring change they commit as many crimes as their opposition, so Zhang Fei agrees to join a volunteer force against them lead by Liu Bei. He sacrifices his life to save a little girl but instead of dying he wakes with a cursed spear after a near-death dream experience. When in fear for his life the spear takes control and is relentless in destroying the enemy but is reluctant to return control over his body. Liu Bei is revealed to be secretly a woman and has experience with the power that has Zhang Fei in its grip, so he joins her and her army despite being told of the risks of the cursed spear, hoping that they can help each other with his power and the Yellow Turbans.

One of the annoying things that I find with historical Chinese tales is that I can never keep all of the names straight so that the frustration of working out character references by their context may be spoiling my review. That may partially explain why it seems that the characters' rationales and why they react in the ways they do always seems to be off in the title, appearing to be more the creation of convenience and plot rather than motivation. But since the whole point of these characters is for gratuitous violence and nudity, accomplishing that seems to be more important than the journey there. This is not a deep story, at least not yet, so looking for anything more than battle scenes and having a chance to ogle some non-sexual nudity is probably asking for too much. The violence is done in loving details while the nudity is not, with them not being tied together so the story so far has not been disturbing, but it is just an excuse for violence. Fortunately, it well orchestrated violence.

Rampage, vol 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga


Monday, March 22, 2010

Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1

By Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou
Published in the US by TokyoPop

Slugline:  Prisons and amusement parks are not a good combination

In the near future Ganta is among the few survivors of the Great Tokyo Earthquake but by the time he is a teenager he barely remembers it and has adapted to high school life.  The mysterious Red Man then kills everyone else in his class and Ganta is convicted of the crime and is quickly sent to Deadman Wonderland, a combination private prison and amusement park built on Tokyo's ruins.  Private prisons are never nice places in fiction and Deadman Wonderland is no exception with prisoners pitted against each other to entertain visitors and earn privileges.  In the case of death row prisoners like Ganta, the privileges include living for another three days.  To help him survive long enough to prove his innocence a childhood friend from pre-earthquake Tokyo is helping him while Ganta also learns to master the powers that the Red Man left in him while killing his classmates.

While there are some similarities to such titles as Battle Royale and Death Note (here are our reviews for Death Note 1-6 and 7-10), here the main tension seems to be from Ganta coming to grips to the mysteries that surround him.  The Red Man is central to these mysteries and at this stage in the series he is like a storm that comes in and upsets the natural order of Ganta's life. Shiro, Ganta's childhood friend, helps lighten the title though still leaving the danger in it intact. That way the story is not too dark though how maniac Shiro is will have to be managed so it doesn't become silly and descend into parody, admittedly not terrible danger. This is a good start to a potentially complex emotionally charged thriller, but it is still only a good beginning not proof of a successful continuing title.

Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1 is also available from Right Stuf, Intl., an online retailer specializing in anime and manga