K-ON! 1 by Kakifly: C-

From the back cover:
When their high school’s pop-music club is about to be disbanded due to lack of interest, four girls step up to fill the membership quota. Unfortunately, lead guitarist Yui Hirasawa has never played an instrument in her life. Ever. And although she likes the idea of being in a band, standing in front of the mirror posing with her guitar is a lot easier than actually playing it. It’s gonna be a while before this motley crew is rocking out, but with their spunk and determination cranked to 11, anything is possible!

Review:
I tried. I really did. “Loads of people like K-ON!,” I told myself. “There has to be something worthwhile about it!” Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it much and can only conclude that I am not its target audience.

For example, I know this series ran in a magazine for men and, as such, some degree of fanservice is to be expected. Most of the essentials—a random trip to the beach, a hot springs scene during which someone impulsively stands up, and a panty shot—are accounted for. That’s not my thing, but that is fine. Occasionally, though, the poses are so awkward and so trying to pander to some specific vision of the feminine ideal that I just have to scratch my head. For example:

Is this pose sexy to someone? And if so, how come? Is it because she looks like she really needs to pee? I honestly do not understand.

Moving away from the art, the story is where K-ON! really has the most potential. Four girls—Yui, Ritsu, Mio, and Tsumugi—join the pop music club at their school and quickly choose what instruments they’re going to play. Aaaand then proceed to sit around a lot and eat a bunch of snacks. Because this is a four-panel manga, the focus is on getting to the punchline, but these are seldom amusing. Mostly they center on gags like Ritsu suddenly being motivated to play the drums after Mio suggests that she has gained some weight. High-larious.

There are a couple of interesting moments, though, like when the girls take Yui out guitar shopping or when they perform at the school festival. Unfortunately, Yui is so dumb that she first forgets that she needs to actually buy a guitar and then has to be reminded that she should be learning to play it rather than simply posing with it. Secondly, the entire “performance” consists of four panels of the girls starting their song. Turn the page and they’re thanking the audience. “That’s it?!” I boggled. Unfortunately, the rigid pacing required by the four-panel format really doesn’t allow for more, and without any reaction shots from the crowd it’s impossible to gauge how good they’re supposed to be.

In the end, I am disappointed. I’m willing to bet that the anime—free from the strictures of format and including at least one song performed by the voice actors—is much better, but I doubt I’ll be checking it out any time soon.

K-ON! is published in English by Yen Press. Volume one will be out later this month. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Two by Natsume Ono

For my latest column at Comics Should Be Good, I reviewed the debut volumes of two (relatively) new Natsume Ono series: House of Five Leaves and Gente: The People of Ristorante Paradiso. I really loved House of Five Leaves, with its story of a hapless samurai drawn into the schemes of a fascinating criminal. Gente is more a collection of low-key short stories than a single narrative, which means it’s slightly less awesome but still very entertaining.

You can find those reviews here.

Both House of Five Leaves and Gente are published in English by VIZ. The former is still ongoing in Japan, where it is up to eight volumes, but the latter (a “delightfully whimsical continuation” of Ristorante Paradiso) is complete with three volumes.

Review copy for Gente provided by the publisher.

Gyo 1-2 by Junji Ito: B+

Walking fish aren’t the usual sort of monsters one associates with Halloween, but their invasion makes for creepy reading nonetheless!

Tadashi and his high-maintenance girlfriend, Kaori, are vacationing in Okinawa when Kaori begins complaining of putrid smells. Soon after, a chase ensues between Tadashi and a barely glimpsed, fast-moving creature, culminating with the discovery that said critter is actually a fish with four spindly mechanical legs. This is just the tip of the fishberg, though, as Okinawa is soon overrun by walking fish, which quickly spread to mainland Japan and eventually the rest of the world.

Despite the attempts of the back cover to induce me to regard the series as “horrifying,” the primary adjective I’d use to describe it is “weird.” The scenes of walking fish—and sharks, squids, and whales—swarming down city streets are alarming but fun in a disaster movie kind of way. For most of the first volume, I actually smiled as I read. Things get more serious in the second volume, with revelations about what the creepy legs will do once they run out of fish bodies to use as fuel, but the weird only gets weirder—there’s a critter circus, for example—and the series never loses its page-turning momentum.

While I’d primarily classify Gyo as something fun that’s not too deep, it does offer some commentary on scientific ethics, particularly in the person of Tadashi’s uncle, who immediately begins trying to create a walking machine of his own. Some will be put off by the lack of a finite ending, but I find it interesting. If this were a disaster movie, we’d probably be given the opportunity to cheer on our battered heroes as they figure out the creatures’ vulnerability and blow them all to smithereens, but Gyo stops short of that point. Will mankind prevail? Will the world be overrun? We’ll never know.

Two short stories are included in volume two. “The Sad Tale of the Principal Post” is short and random, but I liked “The Enigma of Amigara Fault” a lot. In it, an earthquake has revealed a rock formation riddled with human-shaped holes that go farther back into the rock than researchers are able to measure. People have flocked to the site after seeing it on TV, somehow drawn to holes that seem to have been tailor-made for them. A young man named Owaki tries to keep his new female friend, Yoshida, from entering her hole, and suffers some vivid (and way more horrifying than the fish-monsters!) nightmares about what could happen to a person who enters. The final page suggests he was right.

In the end, I wouldn’t classify Gyo as amazing, but it—and “The Enigma of Amigara Fault”—are certainly entertaining and memorable. I may have to check out more from Junji Ito, like the spooky spiral menace of Uzumaki!

Gyo is published in English by VIZ and is complete in two volumes.

Chi’s Sweet Home 3 by Konami Kanata: A-

From the back cover:
Kitten-rearing is something, but raising a street-smart feline in a building with a strict no-pets policy is another story altogether. When mentoring a curious kitty, tactful tabbies must teach with patience and a firm paw. Remember, cats are a special breed. While we can survive well enough on instinct, those same feline responses can lead to unwanted attention. This long-whiskered one recommends spending lots of time with your little furballs, for they will intuitively look for mischief unless thoroughly entertained.

Review:
I think I’d be perfectly happy if Chi’s Sweet Home simply offered episodic tales of exceptional kitty cuteness without bothering with any kind of cohesive narrative. That’s not something I’d say about just any series, but the scenarios are so familiar to any cat owner—the difficulty of capturing a feline’s cuteness on film, the tendency of cats to snag a claw on something—that they really work for me. The fact that the series does begin to develop a kind of narrative is just icing on the cake, then.

Chi has become friends with “Blackie,” a huge black tom cat who’s been making a nuisance of himself around the pets-prohibited building where Chi lives with the Yamada family. He’s her mentor, of sorts, teaching her how to hunt, how to claim turf by spraying, and how not to look down before leaping but to “smile and look ahead.” Here’s the adorable result of Blackie’s advice:

Alas, hanging around with Blackie has gotten Chi noticed by the superintendent, leading the Yamadas to debate what they’re going to do. I must say, for people who are trying to keep their cat from being spotted, they’ve certainly got a very casual attitude about leaving their patio door open. You’d think they’d try a bit harder. Eventually, after Chi is nearly captured but manages to escape and return home, she’s confined inside, which leads to a pathetic scene I’ve recently witnessed in my own home:

Rather than give up their cat, Blackie’s owners decide to move, and Chi’s gradual realization that her friend has gone away is adorable and touching. Although it’s pretty clear the Yamadas are not going to give Chi away, this storyline does touch a little bit on the responsibilities of pet ownership, and how often people take pets into their homes and lives without being able to properly care for them in the long term.

I wish the Yamada parents took their role a bit more seriously—it’s a shame when Yohei is the one to tell a rambunctious visiting cousin not to scare Chi—but at least they listen to their son when he insists Chi is part of the family.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Planetes 1-3 by Makoto Yukimura: B+

Planetes is the story of Hachirota Hoshino, dubbed “Hachimaki” by his crewmates for his propensity to wear a headband (hachimaki), who dreams of earning enough fame and fortune to buy his own spaceship and achieve complete freedom. As the series begins, however, he’s part of a crew of “extraplanetary sanitation workers” who clean up space debris.

The first volume introduces readers to the crew of The Toy Box. In addition to Hachimaki, there’s Yuri, a Russian of indeterminate age whose perpetual staring into space (literally!) is explained when the story of his wife’s demise in a space liner crash is revealed. Yuri achieves some closure in the first chapter, when he finally finds a compass that was precious to his wife, and becomes a livelier character (and occasional font of wisdom) from then on. Tomboyish pilot Fee is a Floridian with a family back home and an ardent passion for cigarettes, which prompts her to go after some environmental terrorists who’re going around bombing smoking lounges.

The environmental terrorists become a more important factor in volume two. Hachimaki, who has been somewhat of a slacker up until now, learns that a rich inventor is mounting an expedition to Jupiter. Hachimaki develops a single-minded determination to be on the Jupiter mission, which leads to him working out endlessly and being sort of an ass to Tanabe, the (female) newcomer to the crew set to be his replacement. The environmental group—the Space Defense League—attempts several times to sabotage the protect, since the purpose of the mission to Jupiter is not exploration but to mine its resources. Hachimaki isn’t particular about the reasons—he just wants to go—and when his former friend, Hakim is revealed to be the terrorist mastermind, Hachimaki nearly kills him, saved at the last minute by Tanabe.

Hachimaki makes the crew for the Jupiter mission and by volume three is participating in mission training simulations. He’s haggard, though, losing weight, having visions of some sort of mystical cat, and feeling disconnected from everything around him. His crewmate, Sally, attempts to get through to him, and eventually succeeds (via boob therapy). Hachimaki has spent a great deal of time pursuing solitude, but Sally makes him see that in the end that Tanabe was right all along—“space is too dangerous and wonderful a thing to face alone.” Like his father before him, Hachimaki marries before heading out into space in order to anchor himself with a home.

Planetes is definitely an interesting tale, offering a mixture of science fiction and philosophizing about what it means for humans to go into space. One might notice, though, that in each of the paragraphs above dedicated to a particular volume of the series, Hachimaki seems like a different person. And, indeed, an inability to identify with the lead is what prevented me from awarding these volumes an “A.”

These volumes take place between 2074 and 2077, and it makes sense that a person could change a great deal in that time, especially given what Hachimaki has experienced, but sometimes I couldn’t trace the path between one incarnation of Hachimaki and the next or fully buy into his feelings for Tanabe. Also, even though it would have been unfortunate if Hachimaki had remained on the debris-collecting crew forever, I really missed Yuri and Fee as the story moved away from them. The first volume may be the most episodic of the first three, but it’s also a little less heavy than the others.

Ultimately, I liked Planetes a lot, though it wasn’t a quick read for me. I’m looking forward to the fourth and final volume.

Planetes is published in English by TOKYOPOP. There are technically five books in this series, but the last two comprise volume four, which was split due to length.

Additional reviews of Planetes can be found at Triple Take.

Yotsuba&! 2-8 by Kiyohiko Azuma: A

The theme of this month’s Manga Moveable Feast is a Kids’ Table featuring discussion of Yotsuba&! and other kid-friendly manga. Here is my take on the former; be sure to check out this week’s Off the Shelf where Melinda and I will talk about the latter!

My opinions on these seven delightful volumes of Yotsuba&! can be summed up as: “Yep, still awesome!” I really don’t have much to add to what I said in my review of volume one. Yotsuba is still wide-eyed and exuberant, there are still many laugh-out-loud scenes and lines of dialogue, and I still teeter on the edge between wanting Yotsuba to stay as she is forever and wanting to see her grow up. Instead of a straightforward review, then, I thought I’d share my favorite moments in each of these volumes.

Volume two:
Yotsuba encounters frogs, pools, and cake in this volume, but my favorite chapter is entitled “Yotsuba & Vengeance.” Inspired by a movie her dad and Jumbo are watching, Yotsuba whips out a water gun and “kills” them both, then changes characters and swears to avenge them. She promptly goes next door and squirts her neighbor, Mrs. Ayase.

Mrs. Ayase: Aaaah, I’ve been murdered!
Yotsuba: Yep.
Yotsuba: Ah, where’s Ena?
Mrs. Ayase: Huh? Aren’t I supposed to be dead?
Yotsuba: …
Yotsuba: You’re half alive.

Hee! After providing the requested information, Mrs. Ayase is squirted again and told, “Now you’re full dead.”

Volume three:
One thing you really begin to notice with volume three is continuity between chapters that renders them not entirely episodic. At the end of volume two, Yotsuba’s neighbor, Asagi Ayase, returns from her a trip to Okinawa with souvenirs for her family and some goodies to share with Yotsuba. This makes Yotsuba want to give Asagi a souvenir, too, but you have to go somewhere first to do that. So she goes to the park and looks around and finally finds a four-leaf clover, which she proudly presents to Asagi. When Asagi and her friend proceed to drive off, Yotsuba waits impatiently for their return, certain she will be brought another souvenir at that time. My favorite moment of this volume occurs when Asagi returns, seemingly empty-handed. It’s a really great example of nonverbal storytelling and I especially love what Yotsuba does with her hands.

Volume four:
For some reason, volume four feels especially slice-of-lifey to me. Yotsuba has a plethora of amusing reactions to the things she encounters, as per usual, but my favorite chapter involves a simple trip to the grocery store to buy ingredients to make a “regular delicious” meal. I love, too, how Yotsuba takes the lesson that the smaller cart is “for kids” and applies the same reasoning to things like quail eggs and (presumably) cherry tomatoes. Plus, that hamburg steak that they’re having for dinner sounds super tasty! (I’m much more dubious about the konnyaku.)

Volume five:
Although volume five is home to the classic chapter “Yotsuba & Danbo,” in which Yotsuba interacts with a cardboard robot without knowing her neighbor’s classmate is inside, my favorite chapter is actually “Yotsuba & Rain.” Maybe I’m just partial to episodes in which Yotsuba and her dad run errands together, but this has the two of them venturing out into the rain to return a DVD. After Yotsuba fails at the art of umbrella, assures the clerk that the dolphins jumping “like boing” were awesome, and sings a little song to the amusement of another patron (“We are all living! And living is pain!”), she wraps up her afternoon by accosting random strangers and asking if they’ve tried taiyaki. The whole chapter sums up her character, and her relationship with her father, very well. The one sour note in this volume is the introduction of Yanda, a coworker of Yotsuba’s father, who essentially gets his kicks out of antagonizing a five-year-old child.

Volume six:
The most significant thing to happen to Yotsuba in volume six is that she gets a bike. This leads to a variety of cute scenes, but the best chapter is “Yotsuba & Delivering,” in which Yotsuba attempts to catch up with a school-bound Fuuka on her bike—which she is not supposed to be riding without an adult present—in order to share some delicious milk with her. I love the duo of panels in which we see first a corner with simply the “gara gara” (rattle) sound effect of the bike, and then the same corner after Yotsuba has finally made it around. In general, Yotsuba seems a little more restive and mischievous in this volume, disrupting Ena when she’s doing homework, eating her father’s eclair when she knows she shouldn’t and then going next door in search of a replacement, et cetera. Azuma really captures kid behavior so well. Even a child as charming as Yotsuba has impulse control issues and then resorts to sneaky means to cover up afterwards!

Volume seven:
One of the things I enjoy most about Yotsuba&! is seeing how she thinks, especially when she’s trying to solve problems. In the chapter “Yotsuba & Errands,” rather than ask another customer at a convenience store to help her get down a Cup Noodle she can’t reach, she asks for something long. The customer finds a fluorescent bulb that suffices and watches, stunned, as Yotsuba uses it to bat the noodles down from the shelf. There’s also a lot of great nonverbal storytelling in this volume, particularly in a chapter in which Yotsuba, Fuuka, and Fuuka’s school friend attempt to make a cake, whimsically taking periodic breaks to express their cake-making feelings through interpretive dance.

Volume eight:
Although I adore Yotsuba’s reactions to the various things she encounters at the cultural festival being held at Fuuka’s school as well as her stint riding atop Jumbo’s shoulders, my favorite chapter is “Yotsuba & the Typhoon.” From its opening page, on which an awestruck Yotsuba is seen through a rain-splashed window, you know this one is something special. The goodness continues when Yotsuba insists on going next door and dashes out to frolic jubilantly in the downpour. Her father is aghast at first and then surrenders to the moment himself. I’m happy that he’s the one who tries to see things the way Yotsuba does, especially since the neighbors don’t want to join on the fun. The chapter is capped off by a perfect page of nonverbal storytelling as Yotsuba tests the hypothesis that if she were to go outside and open an umbrella, she’d fly away.

I thoroughly enjoyed my Yotsuba&! binge. What’s more, this series has tremendous reread potential—more, perhaps, than any other series I can think of—so I’m sure I’ll enjoy returning to it in future.

What are some of your favorite Yotsuba&! moments?

Review copies for volumes 2-6 provided by the publisher.

For more of the Kids’ Table MMF, check out the archive at Good Comics for Kids.

Black Lagoon 1-3 by Rei Hiroe: A-

If asked for a one-word description of Rei Hiroe’s seinen action series, Black Lagoon, my response would be “kick-ass.” I’d quickly follow that up, however, with “and a lot more intelligent than one might assume.”

Black Lagoon is the story of the Lagoon Traders, a group of seafaring couriers based out of the fictional city of Roanapur, Thailand. African-American Dutch, an ex-military man who keeps cool in any situation, is their leader and, as the series begins, his crew consists of a trigger-happy Chinese-American girl named Revy and a Jewish Floridian on the run from the FBI named Benny. (Benny is totally the Wash.) The Lagoon Traders acquire a fourth member, Japanese salaryman Okajima Rokuro (immediately dubbed “Rock” by Dutch) after a job during which they’ve taken him hostage to use as leverage with his employer. When the latter opts to leave him to die, Rock decides to forsake his old life and joins up with his captors.

From there, the crew takes on a variety of jobs. Sometimes they’re the “good guys”—as in volume three, when they’re helping bring documents detailing Hezbollah plans into the hands of the CIA—and sometimes they’re the “bad guys,” like when they’re hired to arrange a getaway for a murderous child assassin. They don’t trouble themselves with value judgments like that, though; to them, business is business. Dutch will take a job if it pays well, even if it puts him into conflict with the powerful Balalaika, leader of a Russian gang known as Hotel Moscow, with whom he has worked closely in the past. “We both have jobs we gotta do. That’s all there is to it,” he tells her at one point. (Yes, “her.” There are tons of badass women in Black Lagoon.)

Aside from the (very violent, very riveting) action spawned by these dangerous jobs—including many gunfights, explosions, and high-speed chases—the story also focuses on Rock’s integration into this seedy world. His origins may be more ordinary than his crewmates’, but he has a backbone and proves useful on a number of occasions. His main source of conflict early on is with the dynamically damaged Revy, and the two have some fascinating conversations. Her early life was extremely bleak (“I stole. I killed. I did all sorts of vile crap. My story ain’t worth shit.”) and she seems to feel that Rock, with his more idealistic outlook on things, is passing judgment on her. He isn’t, at least not in the way she thinks, and when he is able to explain his perspective on things (and is probably the first person in her life to believe in her ability to be a better person) she becomes more accepting of his presence.

There’s something about the label “action” that makes me worry that the art is going to feature incomprehensible panels full of speedlines, so I was happy to discover that Hiroe’s art is actually much cleaner than I’d anticipated. He seems to have a fondness for cross-page panels, which is kind of neat, and varies up scenes of dialogue so that they’re more than just talking heads. Vessels and guns are all extremely detailed, and if Revy does have a predilection for extraordinarily skimpy clothing, she’s so strong and interesting a character that this comes across as entirely her personal choice and not merely an attempt to provide some fanservice.

The very best thing about Black Lagoon, though, is that it really is a mature manga. Many manga receive the “mature” rating because of boobs and violence, but really, maturity is not required to understand and enjoy those things. To fully understand this series, one needs a basic knowledge of geography—the Southeast Asia setting is wonderfully unique—as well as history and current events. There’s an international cast of organized criminals, as well as terrorists and other groups, and having some idea of their ideologies beforehand is essential. I think the story is supposed to be set in the mid-’90s, but was written after 9/11, so when a member of Hezbollah speaks of planned attacks against New York City, it’s pretty chilling.

I’m excited to continue with this series. It’s not for the faint of heart, and sometimes the violence does get a little much for me, but it’s so damned good that I just have to see what happens next.

Black Lagoon is published in English by VIZ. The ninth volume has just been released, which is also the most recent volume available in Japan, where the series is ongoing.

Afterschool Charisma 1 by Kumiko Suekane: B-

I reviewed volume one of Afterschool Charisma for Comics Should Be Good. It’s about an elite academy whose students are clones of famous historical figures. The concept is an intriguing one, but the tone is erratic, juxtaposing ominous speculation with abrupt fanservice. I hope the series finds its footing in the next volume.

You can find that review here.

Afterschool Charisma is published in English by VIZ and serialized on their SigIKKI website. One volume’s available in print so far while in Japan the fourth volume has just been released.

Saturn Apartments 1 by Hisae Iwaoka: B+

I reviewed the first volume of Saturn Apartments for Comics Should Be Good, where I describe it as “low-key, dystopic sci-fi.” I think that description really works because, though a large part of the population lives in darkness without much hope of future prospects, they don’t really seem to be too miserable about it.

You can find that review here.

Saturn Apartments is published in English by VIZ. One volume has been released so far, though two chapters of volume two are available on the SigIKKI website. The series is still ongoing in Japan; five volumes are currently available there.

Chi’s Sweet Home 1 by Konami Kanata: A-

From the back cover:
TAKE THIS KITTY HOME

Chi is a mischievous newborn American shorthair who, while on a leisurely stroll with her family, found herself lost. When we found Chi it was clear to us she was completely distraught as she longed for the warmth and protection of her mother. Feeling sympathy for the little furball, we quietly whisked her away, inviting her into our small apartment home… where pets are strictly not permitted. While we dread parting with her, there is no way she can stay.

Little Chi is a happy and healthy litter-box trained kitten. And while she can be a little bit of a handful, she has been a great source of joy in our lives and a wonderful companion to our young son. Living with Chi has completely changed our lives, and we are sure she will have the same impact with whomever gives her a good home.

Review:
One day, a small tabby kitten is enjoying a stroll with her mother and siblings when she’s distracted by a fascinating bird and ends up getting separated from her family. She’s found by a small boy named Yohei, and his parents end up taking care of her in their no-pets-allowed apartment while they try to find someone willing to take her. Eventually, of course, they wind up falling in love with the adorable kitten and decide to keep her.

At first, Chi is determined to get home, but pesky distractions like bowls of milk and tantalizingly drippy faucets keep delaying her departure. In time, memories of her feline mother fade and she begins to look on her human caretakers as her new family, even though they subject her to horrors like baths and trips to the vet. Chi’s kitty behavior is not idealized—a few chapters deal with her struggle to find an acceptable place to “wee,” for example—but is sympathetic because a) she’s incredibly cute and b) readers have insight to her thoughts, be they earnestly confused (see above re: wee) or simply exuberant (her delight in the discovery that Daddy’s jeans are the ideal surface for sharpening one’s claws).

I had fully expected to find Chi adorable—it took only eight panels for me to say “Aww!”—but hadn’t considered that Yohei would be just as cute. I’m not sure how old he is—not quite old enough to be perfectly potty trained himself—but he’s a clever little boy, and it’s he who ends up giving Chi the clue she needs to figure out that the box in the bathroom with all the lumpy stuff in it is sadly not a playpen but her new toilet. (As a side note, I had always figured that Chi’s name was related to chiisai, the Japanese word for small, but it actually relates to pee. Poor kitty!)

Although unusual for manga, the full-color artwork in Chi’s Sweet Home is absolutely gorgeous. It’s vibrant without being garish, and is such an integral part of the story that I find it impossible to imagine how this series must look when it runs in Morning, at which point in time the art is still black-and-white. I don’t think I even want to know! The warm colors, small trim size, and left-to-right orientation (a smart marketing decision on Vertical’s part) all contribute to a book that looks and feels like something kids would be drawn to. I’m going to test this theory by loaning it to my coworker’s daughter.

On a final note, Chi has at her disposal a vast array of facial expressions. As I read, a thought kept niggling at me: “This reminds me of something. What is it?!” After much pondering, I realized that some of the faces Chi makes remind me of Kimi ni Todoke’s Sawako in super-deformed moments. Presented for your consideration:

Chi’s Sweet Home is published in English by Vertical, Inc. Volume one will be released on June 29, 2010. The series is ongoing in Japan, where volume seven came out two months ago.

Review copy provided by the publisher.