A Place of Hiding by Elizabeth George

From the back cover:
A shocking murder calls forensic scientist Simon St. James and his wife, Deborah, to an isolated island in the English Channel. An old friend of Deborah’s, China River, stands accused of killing the island’s wealthiest benefactor, Guy Brouard. There is little evidence pointing to China—and Deborah and Simon are certain that their friend didn’t murder the inveterate womanizer. But if China didn’t kill Brouard, who did?

As family and friends gather for the reading of the will, Deborah and Simon find that seemingly everyone on the history-haunted island has something to hide. And behind all the lies and alibis, a killer is lurking.

Review:
Every once in a while, a strange thing happens to me: I get an incredibly strong craving to read a mystery by Elizabeth George. This isn’t a bad thing, but I’ve only got five left now ’til I’m current, and I wonder what’ll happen then. Anyway, in the case of A Place of Hiding this craving was strong enough to trump the off-putting fact that this novel prominently features Deborah St. James, a character whom I dislike most intensely.

Before I get into the ways in which Deborah caused me to contemplate violence upon her fictional person, I should probably talk about the actual mystery, such as it is. Guy Brouard, wealthy war orphan and inveterate womanizer, has been killed on the island of Guernsey the morning following a party announcing his plans for a war museum. Among the attendees was China River, an American and old friend of Deborah’s, who has now been arrested for the crime. China’s brother, Cherokee, comes to London to enlist the aid of Deborah and her forensic scientist husband, Simon, in proving his sister’s innocence.

Simon’s credentials convince the local force to allow him to poke around, and he, as one might assume, soon discovers additional suspects with various motives. He also entrusts Deborah with an important piece of evidence, and when she fails to do with it what he requested, he gets chewed out about it by the local DCI, which obviously leaves him feeling rightfully irritated with her. Deborah fails to see how this is her fault, and indulges in repeated hissy fits about how Simon views his rational approach to the investigation (and life in general) as superior to her own “passionate, unpredictable” one.

This eventually culminates in Deborah idiotically interrupting a stakeout and, once again, making Simon look unprofessional in front of the local police. Elizabeth George tries so hard to make us sympathize with Deborah that she introduces characteristics in Simon that I had never before noticed, like a patronizing form of sexism. So now, not only do I hate Deborah, she’s making me start to dislike Simon, too! Great.

Some of the secondary characters are fairly odious, too, but honestly I am ready to put them (and this book) behind me. I will say, however, that this is the first Elizabeth George novel to ever make me cry happy tears (the last scene involving Paul Fielder), so it’s obviously not all bad.

Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

Book description:
When Ellie and her friends go camping, they have no idea they’re leaving their old lives behind forever. Despite a less-than-tragic food shortage and a secret crush or two, everything goes as planned. But a week later, they return home to find their houses empty and their pets starving. Something has gone wrong—horribly wrong. Before long, they realize the country has been invaded, and the entire town has been captured—including their families and all their friends.

Ellie and the other survivors face an impossible decision: they can flee for the mountains or surrender. Or they can fight.

Review:
It’s been several weeks now since I finished Tomorrow, When the War Began. Normally, I write a book’s review as soon as I finish reading it, but I feel like I’m still processing this one to some extent, trying to figure out exactly how I feel about it.

This is due in part to the fact that I have greatly enjoyed the other books by John Marsden that I have read, and so built this series up in my mind as something that was going to be jaw-droppingly amazing. And when it turned out not to be so, even though it’s still quite good in general and genuinely riveting in parts, I was a kind of disappointed.

This is the story of seven Australian teenagers (later eight) living in the rural town of Wirrawee who go camping while their parents and most of the people in town are attending a fair. The kids return to find that a mysterious military force has invaded Australia and has imprisoned most of the townspeople at the fairgrounds, including their families. They must decide what, if anything, they’re going to do to help. Ellie Linton has been tasked with chronicling their story.

Large portions of the tale are pretty fascinating. The teens are resourceful and rise to the occasion, especially Ellie’s clown/daredevil childhood friend, Homer, who emerges as the group’s leader, and Fiona, a ladylike rich girl who proves to have unexpected reserves of courage. While Homer is the tactician of the group, Ellie seems to find herself trusted with the most dangerous missions, which require some quick, inventive thinking on her part in difficult situations involving things like exploding lawn mowers, demolition derby bulldozers, and exploding gas tankers.

I even liked the parts of the story where the characters talk about what they’re going to do—are we going to hide out here in our camping spot, or are we going to try to engage the enemy somehow?—and the various supplies they’re going to need from town, whether to keep chickens, etc. Where the story really bogs down, however, is with the introduction of romance.

Ellie has never considered Homer in a romantic way before, but begins to see him in a new light given his metamorphosis. Meanwhile, she’s also intrigued by Lee, the inscrutable Asian musician, and Homer has fallen for Fiona. Ellie dwells a lot on her confusion before ultimately deciding upon Lee, and then telling readers about all the making out their doing and how she has learned the things that make him groan, etc. I kept thinking how embarrassing all of this will be for Lee whenever he/anyone reads this official chronicle!

Anyway, it’s not that I am anti-romance or anything, but it’s just that these scenes really slow down the pace of the story. And maybe that is the point. Even if something as dramatic as an invasion has occurred, there will still be a lot of downtime if you’re hiding out in the woods, and a lot of time for more mundane things to be going on.

I guess what it boils down to is that my perception of the book has been hampered by my expectations. I am certainly going to read the rest of the series, and hopefully I will like it better now that I’ve reconciled myself to what it actually is rather than what I thought it was.

Additional reviews of Tomorrow, When the War Began can be found at Triple Take.

Chatting About CLAMP

The following discussion contains spoilers.

MICHELLE: For this month’s CLAMP Manga Moveable Feast, special guest Karen Peck and I decided to weigh in on couple of the quartet’s shorter works, namely Suki (complete in three volumes) and Legal Drug (unfinished in three volumes, but newly relaunched in Japan under the name Drug & Drop). I’d heard these series were related in some way, too, though that turned out to be little more than a cameo.

Anyway, let’s start with Suki! Child-like Hinata Asahi is a first year in high school who is extremely book smart, but trusting to an excessive degree. She lives alone with two teddy bears, and when the guy who moves in next door turns out to be her substitute homeroom teacher, Hinata takes a liking to him. Shiro Asou is kind of prickly, but does a few things for Hinata that make her feel all warm and fuzzy, like patting her on the head and helping her sweep some leaves in her yard. Hinata’s obvious affection for Asou-sensei troubles her friend, Touko, and it’s Touko’s concern (coupled with hinting about Hinata’s past) that lends a welcome ominous vibe to the story.

KAREN: Ah, Suki! I read this when it first came out, and thought it was a nice little trifle—enjoyable but not especially notable. Hinata is one of those CLAMP heroines who is impossibly sweet and naïve, but it’s forgivable—because she should be a darker, sadder character, what with living alone in an empty house, her father only a distant figure, and having been through some intense events in her past. In Cardcaptor Sakura, you could see where all of [Sakura’s] abundant sweetness comes from—she comes from a world of love and security. That Hinata is still such an innocent, despite her situation, is very interesting.

It’s that ominous vibe you noted, Michelle, that does make this story a little more interesting—I think three volumes of Hinata and teddy bears would have been adorable, but pure fluff. Reading through the series, I also like the ambiguity of Asou-sensei—despite HInata’s affection for him, the story really feels like it’s building him to be another bad thing in Hinata’s life.

MICHELLE: HInata actually reminded me quite a lot of Sakuya from Natsuki Takaya’s Twinkle Stars, both in her demeanor and with the family secrets lurking in the background. (I think the similarity also sprung to mind because it was another case where I was used to reading a creator’s fantasy-infused manga but was now reading something taking place firmly in the real world.) But yes, one has to wonder how she was able to maintain her trusting spirit despite, we later learn, having been kidnapped nine times as a child.

I definitely enjoyed the build suggesting Asou-sensei was going to do something nefarious, and I admit to being disappointed that he merely turned out to be a bodyguard sent by Hinata’s father. The whole setup—lonely, selfless teen falls in love with enigmatic older guy—reminded me a little of Tokyo Babylon, but in the end CLAMP follows a more stereotypically shoujo storyline by offering redemption and a happy ending. It felt like all of the wonderful worrying Touko got up to just kind of petered out into very little payoff.

KAREN: Maybe Hinata maintains her child-like spirit by reading cute books about teddy bears? The book-within-the-book, another Suki, is precious.

I didn’t mind the payoff/ending. Terrible things happened to Hinata—and I’m sure that this kidnapping was a good deal more personal than past ones—but she remains unchanged. Hinata is still the same trusting person she always was, as was foreshadowed in a conversation with Asou-sensei—after he warned her that she would be sorry for living in her dream world, she replied, “No, I won’t. The people around me are all people I love. None of them are bad people. Not now, not ever.” And this plays out in the end—not only does she forgive her kidnappers, she convinces her father to help them. While a dark ending would have been more interesting, this story, for all the hints otherwise, was always going to be sweet. Like in CCS, a kind-hearted girl is tested but not broken, and continues on to share her loving nature with those around her.

MICHELLE: Yeah, you’re totally right. And I guess they can’t all be shocking endings, otherwise they would cease to be shocking!

I did like the book-within-a-book segments, something that we also see a little later in Chobits. If it didn’t involve a lot of physical labor to unearth my copies, I could check to see if the author of those picture books was the same Tomo! But I am lazy.

KAREN: I’ve not even read Chobits, so I’m no help whatsoever!

So my old assessment—that it’s a nice little story, prettily told—remains true for me after this re-reading. Not one of the great classics of CLAMP’s, but enjoyable all the same.

MICHELLE: I can agree with that!

Moving on to Legal Drug… as mentioned in Friday’s Let’s Get Visual post, this is a series that gets compared a lot to xxxHOLiC. Seventeen-year-old Kazahaya Kudo has run away from home and been rescued by Rikuo Himura. Both of the boys are live-in workers at Green Drugstore, managed by the enigmatic Kakei, and also take on the occasional odd job for their employer, which typically involve using Kazahaya’s ability to see visions when he touches people and objects to find various items.

Kazahaya and Rikuo aren’t friends, and fall into the spazzy/stoic dynamic characteristic of the early Watanuki/Doumeki relationship. There seems to be more overt romantic chemistry between them, however, which CLAMP plays up in the third volume, which finds them going undercover at an all-boys’ school.

KAREN: First, on a totally shallow level, I love Tokyopop’s presentation for Legal Drug. Vellum! Color pages! I’m totally a sucker for things like that.

I get the xxxHOLiC comparison; it’s one I’ve used before to describe it. However, Kakei isn’t quite Yuuko, luckily for Kazahaya and Rikuo!

My enjoyment of this series has always been tempered by its unfinished status—I really was wanting more details about the boys’ past which had been teased throughout the entire series. But what did you think of the stories—the “jobs,” Michelle? I think that they tended to be more personal than the stories in xxxHOLiC, which made them a little more central to the story.

MICHELLE: I think that if I had read this previously—before the resumption of the series in Japan—I would’ve been extremely frustrated by the lack of follow-through with the hints and glimpses we get of Kazahaya’s twin sister, Kei, and the mysterious woman in Rikuo’s past, Tsukiko. Now, I can feel more confident that CLAMP will address those story elements, even though there’s no guarantee we’ll ever see Drug & Drop in English.

As for the jobs, it’s been so long since I last read xxxHOLiC that I can’t really compare them, but I do agree about them seeming very central to the story. What first comes to mind is the cat that the boys rescue, who initially seems ordinary, then is revealed to be something supernatural, and then thanks its rescuers by showing them images of Kei and Tsukiko. That’s a perfect example of what you’re talking about, I think.

KAREN: Drug & Drop is now being published in a seinen magazine, so if we ever get to see it here, it will be interesting to see how it changed—will Kazahaya be in a dress as often?

Going back to our first title, there is a cameo by Hinata and Asou-sensei from Suki in volume two (chapter nine) which only shows that sometime after the events of that series, Hinata is still the same girl—who would think that there’s nothing odd about a strange boy asking for her school uniform, and who is able to draw others out. It’s a nice callback for a cameo.

Because the jobs tend to be about objects rather than people, the stories don’t have the larger emotional punch that some of the xxxHOLiC ones do, but that does allow Kazahaya and Rikuo to have more of the focus. I also liked how most of volume three was about one job—and that gave the story of the school and Nayuki room to breathe. It was a little dark at times, and maybe rambling, but it worked…

MICHELLE: I liked that about it, too, though I admit being a little annoyed at how much flailing about Kazahaya seemed to do during that story. It almost seems like the manga takes a sharp turn into generic BL, with the sudden schoolboy dynamic, Rikuo doing a little too well with his pushy seme impersonation, and the random school traditions of voting for a pretty boy to be a “bride” who wears the costume of his fans’ choice, but there were some nice ominous turns to keep it from worrying me too much. I am fairly certain the seinen Drug & Drop will definitely have less of that, though.

KAREN: There was a lot of flailing through the entire series, and I agree with you that it could be annoying. I get it, there’s tension/chemistry. But I like Kazahaya and Rikuo, and Rikuo is never creepy in his pushy seme moments, so I don’t mind it overall. But I don’t like being teased—I hope that running in a seinen mag, the new series can build their relationship with less blushing into something more concrete to where we see some solid character development.

Post-xxxHOLiC, I like Legal Drug less than I remember. Hopefully whatever CLAMP has in store with the characters in Drug & Drop will provide some satisfaction. As Kakei said in the last chapter of volume three, “We’ve been waiting a long time… for that boy and Rikuo to meet,” so hopefully we’ll see where this is all supposed to go.

MICHELLE: Well put! We share the same hopes for this series, it sounds like.

Thank you for joining me in this conversation today!

KAREN: And thank you for the opportunity!

Let’s Get Visual: A Tale of Two Series

MICHELLE: You didn’t think we were going to let a CLAMP MMF go by without devoting a special Let’s Get Visual column to it, did you? (Insert a Hokuto Sumeragi “ho ho ho” laugh here.) It’s an absolute must for a group like CLAMP, whose output is so diverse, not merely in the realms of story and demographic, but also artistically speaking. In fact, I had a pretty tough time choosing which images to talk about today. How about you, Melinda?

MELINDA: Yes, there’s so much to choose from! Though CLAMP is nearly always clearly distinguishable as CLAMP, they manage to do that while also significantly varying their style from series to series, especially when they’re writing for different demographics.

MICHELLE: I wish I had the artistic vocabulary to really thoroughly describe these subtle variations, but I’m afraid I don’t. Still, this diversity inspired Melinda and I to compare two CLAMP series with different art, but similar stories. Legal Drug has been described as a prototype for xxxHOLiC, as it features a hyper protagonist (Kazahaya) and his more stoic companion (Rikuo) who are asked to perform various odd, supernatural-related jobs by the precognitive manager of a store (Kakei). Kazahaya is quick to proclaim that they’re not friends, but is forced to begrudgingly thank Rikuo for several timely rescues. This is a setup very similar to the initial relationship between Watanuki and Doumeki in xxxHOLiC.

MELINDA: Personally, I think you could even make an argument for Kakei’s companion Saiga as a weird prototype for Mokona.

MICHELLE: Yeah, I guess he does spend the majority of his time either sleeping or pulling off surprising domestic tasks.

Anyway, how about you start us off with the pages you’ve chosen?

MELINDA: Sure! I’ve picked out a couple of different scenes from volume twelve, and the reason I chose that volume is that it’s really where Watanuki’s reality starts to fall apart. At first, he’s simply having a series of strange dreams, but by the end of the volume, dreams and reality are melding into each other, one after the other, to the point where it’s impossible for him to tell the difference between them.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

xxxHOLiC, Vol. 12, Pages 30-32 (Del Rey)

The first scene I’ve chosen comes in early in the volume, and it’s very obviously a dream world. The ever-present blossoms in the wind, Yuuko’s train of butterflies, the wind in the air, and even just the sense of space feels entirely like a dream–like something clearly outside our waking reality. It’s beautiful, but it’s expected, and even when there’s a sense of eeriness, it feels friendly and familiar.

xxxHOLiC, Vol. 12, Pages 138-141 (Del Rey)

The second scene, on the other hand, comes in much later, when Watanuki is being shuttled from dream to dream to dream, never knowing if he might finally be awake. The scene starts out simply with the kind of lunch picnic he might have with Himawari any day of the week. The backgrounds are sparse and the panels sort of matter-of-fact. The only hint at first that something might be off, is the hole Watanuki notices in the wall behind Himawari. And even though the scene becomes comedic, with the scaly hand popping out of the hole to steal Watanuki’s sherbet, it feels very sinister to me–not just because Himawari never notices what’s happening, but because it’s intruding on what feels to Watanuki like normal life, letting him know that he’s somehow *still* not awake. Unlike the earlier dream scene, which feels so perfectly dreamlike, this one reads as something more like madness, which is much scarier to me as a reader.

MICHELLE: My first reaction when I saw the scaly hand stealing the sherbet was to deem it “cute” but that’s because it’s been so long since I read xxxHOLiC that I had utterly forgotten the context of this scene. Now that you’ve informed me, I read it as sinister. It’s definitely something that could look like “Watanuki’s everyday life” to the casual reader as much as to Watanuki himself, at first.

MELINDA: I probably am letting the context influence me, which maybe makes this not the greatest example for a Let’s Get Visual column! But I do think it’s interesting how differently CLAMP treats these two scenes, when they’re both representations of Watanuki’s dream world.

MICHELLE: Oh, I think they’re fine examples! What you’re basically showing here is that in xxxHOLiC, or at least in these scenes, CLAMP draws the supernatural in a way that blends in with the everyday world. It’s a very simple approach, free of some of the bells and whistles that my images from Legal Drug possess.

MELINDA: Well, let’s take a look at those, then!

Legal Drug, Vol. 2, Pages 40-43 (TOKYOPOP)

MICHELLE: These pages are from a scene in the second volume of Legal Drug. Kazahaya and Rikuo have just rescued a magical kitty, and in gratitude, the kitty has led them to the park where its powers are strongest and transformed into the images of the person each boy wants to see most.

What struck me strongly here is the way the kitty begins to unravel. Seriously, the fact that it’s just one little toe of his little paw really gets to me somehow. Somewhat like xxxHOLiC, there’s that feeling of “You thought things were normal, but really they are not.” As the transformation is underway, we get several reaction shots from the boys (with a bevy of speedlines), resulting in a page layout far busier than xxxHOLiC. The two-page spread is quintessential CLAMP: two slim and lovely ladies with long flowy hair speckled with white ink. The tight panels of the boys’ eyes include more speedlines to help convey their shock.

Honestly, besides the slightly more ornate style here, it’s the speedlines that really convey the biggest tonal difference between these series to me. It’s presumptuous to declare that CLAMP “matured” between the two series, but it really does feel as though they realized they no longer needed to rely on such tricks to convey the protagonist’s feelings. Less is more!

MELINDA: Well, I think it’s probably worth bringing up the fact that Legal Drug ran in a shoujo magazine, where those kinds of flourishes might have been expected, unlike xxxHolic, which had to fit in to the style of a seinen magazine. I mean, CLAMP is always CLAMP, but there’s always a clear sense of what demographic they’re drawing for–even in two series as similar as these.

MICHELLE: That’s a good point. I certainly don’t mean to disparage the style of Legal Drug or insinuate that it’s inferior, but in terms of personal preference, I simply like the cleaner, restrained style of xxxHOLiC more. I mean, just check out how the panel shapes themselves are different. It’s really neat to compare them!

MELINDA: Oh, I completely agree! And though I also have a preference for the artwork in xxxHolic, I do appreciate the shoujo flourishes for their classic flair. More and more, I find the differences fascinating, and I was really surprised, actually, at how easy it was to tell which demographic CLAMP was writing for simply by looking at the artwork of their series in preparation for this Feast. I don’t think I expected it to be so obvious.

MICHELLE: I wouldn’t have, either. But going forward I’ll be making a special point to notice how they adapt their style to the magazine!

Pretty Little Secrets by Sara Shepard

From the back cover:
Rewind to junior year in Rosewood, Pennsylvania, to a winter break no one has ever heard about.

Fat snowflakes fall onto manicured lawns, quilted stockings hang over marble fireplaces, and everyone is at peace, especially Hanna, Emily, Aria, and Spencer. Now that Alison’s murderer is in jail and A is dead, they can finally relax. Little do they know there’s a new A in town…

What happens on holiday break stays on holiday break—right? But guess what. I saw. And now I’m telling.

-A

Review:
This will probably be the last full-length review I write of a Pretty Little Liars novel. Mostly that’s because I’ve run out of ways to say “it isn’t very good, but I still enjoy it,” but also… egads, this one was pretty bad.

Although published earlier this year, Pretty Little Secrets is actually set between books four and five of the series, so I opted to go ahead and read it now. The premise is that this is the winter break between those books and the new A in town is observing the four girls before beginning to seriously harass them. It feels a lot like a media tie-in novel, to be honest, shoehorned in between more pivotal events with decidedly lame plots that are designed not to contradict anything that comes afterwards. (Although, I’ve actually heard that are some discrepancies.)

In “Hanna’s Little Secret,” Hanna is despondent when her boyfriend, Lucas, goes on vacation with a hot chick, so she binge eats a while, then joins a fitness boot camp, where she competes with another girl to win the affections of their instructor. In “Emily’s Little Secret,” Mrs. Fields is upset over the theft of her precious ceramic baby Jesus (yes, really) from a church nativity scene, and enlists Emily to infiltrate the clique of girls presumed to be responsible. In “Aria’s Little Secret,” Aria’s old Icelandic flame shows up randomly and they decide to get married (yes, really). And in “Spencer’s Little Secret,” Spencer and her sister compete for the affections of a tennis player while their parents are having some angst related to the DiLaurentis family. There are small things connecting the stories, mainly the references to a vile-tasting vitamin water called AminoSpa.

I thought the Hanna and Spencer stories were structurally pretty similar, as both involved bitchy sisters/step-sisters as well as the protagonist getting duped by another girl who was actually after the same guy who turned out to be a player who used the same lines on them both. Though it’s really just as dumb as the others, the Emily story is probably the best because it contains a few snickerworthy lines.

All in all, please feel free to skip this collection. You’re not missing much of anything.

Takehiko Inoue MMF Roundaup: Part Four

It’s the fourth quarter, and your co-hosts have banded together to take you through the final stretch!

Anna joins me for a special Let’s Get Visual column dedicated to Inoue’s artwork, where we discuss pages from Real and Vagabond.

And speaking of Vagabond, we both weigh in on the series, with Anna tackling the two most recent VIZBIG editions to be released (nine and ten) and me checking out the first one. Ultimately, it looks like neither of us has found a new favorite over the course of the MMF, but we still both enjoyed branching out!

A big thank you once again to everyone who contributed and left comments. Melinda Beasi of Manga Bookshelf will be hosting the next MMF, which will focus on works by CLAMP.

Vagabond, Vols. 1-3

By Takehiko Inoue | Published by VIZ Media (first VIZBIG edition)

One of my goals for this Manga Moveable Feast was to finally read some of Vagabond. I’ve been collecting the VIZBIG editions since they started coming out, which means there were ten of these on my shelf (with their spines forming a group portrait) unread. Now that I finally have read some of Vagabond, I’ve found it so different from the Inoue I’m familiar with—and yet containing some of the same themes—that I’m rather at a loss for words.

Shinmen Takezo is the son of a legendary swordsman, though we don’t really find that out until volume three. Since the age of thirteen, when he killed a man who came to Miyamoto village looking to challenge its strongest occupant, he’s been ostracized by all save a couple of childhood friends and he’s recently been off to battle with one of them, Hon’iden Matahachi. They both survive a bloody battle, but Matahachi takes up with a thieving widow, leaving Takezo to return to Miyamoto with tidings of Matahachi’s survival.

To make a long story very short: Takezo meets with an unfriendly welcome and is manipulated by a clever monk named Takuan into reevaluating his life. Four years later, now going by the name Miyamoto Musashi, he shows up in Kyoto looking to challenge the head of the Yoshioka sword school, and though he defeats many of their members, he learns there are still those stronger than him. A drunken Matahachi accidentally sets the blaze that allows Musashi to escape, and the VIZBIG ends with him realizing that the old friend he left for dead might actually have survived.

Even though I knew this was about swordsmen, I somehow didn’t expect it to be as gory as it is. There are a lot of death blows being dealt here, as Musashi is obsessed with measuring/proving his strength against others and willing to sacrifice his life to this aim. That said, at times the art is absolutely gorgeous, and there are a few color pages that look like bona fide paintings. The scope, layout, and pacing of the story all lend it a cinematic feel that is genuinely impressive. There’s one scene early on, when Musashi turns around to face the one opponent left standing and it’s genuinely terrifying.

But yet, I mostly found it unaffecting. I expect there will be more insight into the main character as time progresses, but for now he’s so closed off, so proud of his strength and being hailed a demon that I can’t grow fond of him or endorse his goals. I have a feeling I’m not supposed to. I did identify with Matahachi a lot, though, especially his inferiority complex in regards to his friend and his inability to follow through with the heroic deeds he imagines himself performing. I like Otsu, the fiancée Matahachi left behind, and I’m intrigued by Takuan, the monk. I’ll keep reading for them, if nothing else.

One thing about Musashi reminds me a lot of Hisanobu Takahashi in Real. As a child, Hisanobu was attempting to master a particular basketball move that his father showed him. He worked very hard on it, but was never able to show his father because the latter abandoned the family. Musashi has also been abandoned by his mother and shunned by his father, and part of his drive to test himself seems due to the desire to show them his strength, show them that he doesn’t need to depend on anyone else. Musashi is a real historical figure, not a character Inoue created, but it seems like he’s drawn to these confident yet wounded types.

Ultimately, I can see why Vagabond is hailed as a masterpiece, and I will certainly keep reading it, but my heart will always belong to Inoue’s sports manga, Slam Dunk in particular. The heart wants what the heart wants!

Vagabond is published in English by VIZ Media. Single volumes up through 33 have been published, as well as ten “VIZBIG” editions comprised of three volumes each. An eleventh VIZBIG edition is scheduled to be released in December. Inoue has recently resumed the series in Japan, so the upcoming release of volume 34 (October) will be the first new Vagabond released in English in two years.

Let’s Get Visual: Takehiko Inoue

MICHELLE: It’s been a while, but Let’s Get Visual has awoken from its hibernation in time to celebrate the Takehiko Inoue Manga Moveable Feast. Joining me for this occasion is special guest host Anna Neatrour, who is also co-hosting the MMF with me! Welcome, Anna!

ANNA: Thank you! I am excited to join in on a Let’s Get Visual post for Takehiko Inoue, because I think he is one of the top contemporary manga artists. He has an incredibly detailed and realistic style that really sets his manga apart from other series.

MICHELLE: I just started reading Vagabond the other day, and there was one close-up picture of Takezo drawn with extreme care and obvious skill, and I thought, “Y’know, this should be the image that all manga fans carry around to immediately dispel the misconceived notion that all manga looks alike and/or involves big, sparkly eyes.”

ANNA: I think that Inoue’s style (particularly in Real and Vagabond) is probably more reader-friendly to Western comics fans who haven’t read much manga before.

MICHELLE: Yeah, probably so. I’ve often thought that Western comic fans would probably like a bunch of seinen manga if they’d give it a chance.

Anyways, I suppose we should proceed to get visual! The images I’ve chosen are the very first pages in the very first volume of Real.

Real, Vol. 1 (VIZ Media)

I chose these images because they demonstrate how well Inoue is able to communicate Togawa’s character here without needing any words at all. Okay, sure, this guy is in a wheelchair, but he’s clearly driven. He’s pushing himself, possibly to the point of pain (if that’s what that one black panel represents). He has bulging muscles, so he’s clearly been at this a while. He’s moving fast. He may have a disability, but it doesn’t mean that he can’t take being an athlete seriously.

And then you turn the page and see that he is all alone. Inoue pulls back to show the entirety of the gym to emphasize Togawa’s solitude, and if that wasn’t enough, we get a glimpse of the empty school campus, as well. This sets the stage for what we later learn (which you mention in your review)—that Togawa’s attitude toward his wheelchair basketball team does not mesh well with his hobbyist teammates. Here’s a guy who is giving it his all, and he is the only one.

There’s just so much we can tell from this elegant introduction that it kind of blows me away.

ANNA: I agree that one of the things I like best about Inoue’s art is how much the images are able to contribute to the storytelling of his manga without overtly telling the audience anything. The themes touched on in the images you showed are addressed again later in the manga. Togawa’s ego and isolation contribute to his central struggle in the manga, and at the same time his willingness to practice all by himself shows just how dedicated he is to his sport.

MICHELLE: I will always, always be a big fan of nonverbal storytelling, so Inoue really wins my heart here by going above and beyond impressive art.

Want to tell us about the images you picked?

ANNA: The panels I chose were from Volume 26 of Vagabond, collected in the ninth VIZBIG edition of the series.

Vagabond, Vol. 26 (VIZ Media)

One of the reasons why I love Vagabond so much is that the fight scenes are never merely about two people fighting. There’s always a psychological or philosophical element involved. We see Miyamoto Musashi in a midst of battle against 70 members of the Yoshioka sword school, an ambush he willingly walked into. As he battles, he’s focused on centering himself and living in the moment. The close-up panels of his face show the process of self-reflection even as he is mowing down his opponents.

MICHELLE: That’s a really striking sequence. I like how he seems to be looking off into the horizon as he tells himself to have no aspirations for the future, as if to acknowledge the existence of other paths that he’s not allowing himself to take. Granted, I’ve not read the series that far—I’m barely on volume two—but it almost seems to me like he could walk away from this fight if he wanted to, but he’s not letting himself do it. Is that anywhere near the case?

ANNA: I don’t think Musashi is capable mentally of walking away from a fight like this. There are a lot of things that lead up to this sequence of many chapters where Musashi takes on the entire sword school, but one thing that struck me about the battle as a whole is that while you see Musashi getting beaten down and injured, towards the end Inoue almost has the reader concluding that it was really unfair to the 70 men who were planning on ambushing and attacking Musashi from behind that they had to go up against this one particular single opponent. Vagabond’s
fight scenes are always interesting, even when they stretch on for hundreds of pages, simply because the exquisitely rendered battles are contrasted with the internal struggles of the people who are fighting. Battle is as much of a mental exercise as it is a physical one.

MICHELLE: That’s an interesting point! So far I’ve only seen a few fights, and there hasn’t been much on Takezo’s (as Musashi is known at that point in the story) mental state yet. But I definitely admired the pacing and structure of Inoue’s artistic approach to battle—even watching Takezo just turn around and notice one opponent still standing becomes something frankly terrifying.

ANNA: One the things I enjoy about Vagabond is seeing the way Musashi changes over time. The man fighting the sword school in these panels has a measured sense of self and an inner stillness as he fights opponent after opponent. This is totally different from the way Takezo is portrayed in the earlier volumes, where he is more arrogant and animalistic.

MICHELLE: I definitely look forward to seeing how he gets from point A to point B. I admit, I still prefer Inoue’s sports-related series, but there’s just no denying that Vagabond is a masterpiece.

Thanks to everyone for reading, and we hope we’ve inspired you to check out some Inoue!

Takehiko Inoue MMF Roundup: Part Three

What started as a trickle has become a steady stream as the Takehiko Inoue MMF begins drawing to a close!

At Experiments in Manga, Ash brown checks out the second Vagabond VIZBIG omnibus, particularly praising the way battles in the series have lasting repercussions for the characters.

At Manga Report, Anna digs into the past for highlights from the Inoue archive page.

Animemiz posts about Inoue’s artwork at the New York City Kinokuniya location.

At Manga Village, the gang collects a bunch of quotes in praise of Inoue’s Slam Dunk and Lori Henderson gives Vagabond a try but ultimately concludes it’s just not her thing.

Lastly, be sure to check out this really interesting article at Manga Therapy that ponders the notion of strength, as depicted in Vagabond.

My thanks to all the contributors!

Takehiko Inoue MMF Roundup: Part Two

I’ve got a few more Inoue-riffic links to share with you today!

First up, Lori Henderson at Manga Village looks at volume 22 of Slam Dunk, the most recent volume to become available in English, and points out that this is one sports manga where the sport itself is perhaps more important than the typical shounen theme of striving for improvement.

Next, Melinda and I devoted last night’s Off the Shelf column to a discussion of Inoue’s seinen wheelchair basketball series, Real, which we pretty much rave about unreservedly.

Lastly, my lovely cohost Anna contributes another review (love the Peter Sellers reference in the title!), wherein she shares her thoughts on the first six volumes of Slam Dunk. You might recall from our introductory post that she had yet to try the series, but I am happy to report that she likes it! She also writes really good concluding paragraphs, like this one:

One of the reasons why I liked it so much is that there’s a general feeling of warmth that you get when reading this manga. Sakuragi is often made fun of, but he’s portrayed with affection. He even inspires a bit of grudging respect from his teammates as his basketball skills keep getting better. As a bonus, the reader also gets treated to a variety of ’90s fashions and hairstyles. Inoue’s enthusiasm and love for the game informs the manga, making it seem more personal and interesting than a shonen manga that is developed by committee with the aid of magazine polls. After reading Slam Dunk, I can understand why it was one of the top-selling manga in Japan. If you haven’t tried reading Slam Dunk yet, don’t be an idiot like me and wait for several years—just pick up a few volumes as soon as possible.

What she said!