Tidbits: A Trio of Kodansha Shoujo

I’m catching up on three of Kodansha’s currently running shoujo series, so I thought I’d group them all together here for a Tidbits post! First up are volumes four and five of Natsumi Ando’s suspenseful Arisa, followed by the second and final volume of Naoko Takeuchi’s Codename: Sailor V, with the second volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon bringing up the rear. Tidbit power, make up!

Arisa, Vols. 4-5 by Natsume Ando
Tsubasa Uehara continues to attend school in the guise of her sister, Arisa, as she endeavors to find the identity of the King who is fulfilling wishes from chosen students in dangerous ways. Her spirits flag when it seems she’s been unsuccessful in protecting the latest target, but when it turns out her efforts actually prevented the girl from sustaining permanent injury, her spirits rise. Alas, a friend’s betrayal is followed by an explanation of divided loyalties and the introduction of a pivotal new character with kind feelings towards Tsubasa but a burning hatred for Arisa.

So, there are several characters at this point who could be the King, but the strongest possibility seems to be Kudo, a transfer student who I had forgotten about entirely after reading volume three, so that tells you how memorable of a guy he is. Manabe doesn’t seem like the culprit, and neither does Arisa’s boyfriend, Midori, but it’s not out of the question. Mostly we see the King as a shadowy figure, grinning in a dastardly fashion as he does things like arrange for Tsubasa to fall off a cliff. (Side note: any time the female lead of a shoujo manga goes out into the woods at night, she is going to fall off a cliff. It’s, like, the law.) New character Shizuka seems like a potential candidate, until it’s revealed that the King is manipulating her into making wishes that will harm Arisa/Tsubasa.

All of this makes for a fast-paced and suspenseful read, but it does cause me to wonder whether Ando’s just making up all of this as she goes along. Does she really have a plan for who the King is, or is she keeping readers suspicious of everyone until inspired to take the story in a specific direction? I’m not exactly complaining—because, again, it is a fun read—but the lack of any kind of permanent gain is a little bit frustrating. I just hope there’s a satisfying and dramatic payoff in the end!

Codename: Sailor V, Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
It’s rather hard to like Minako for the majority of this volume, as several of the stories play up her shallow side. First she gets fat by eating too much evil chocolate, then she must contend with a trio of animal-themed siblings who unleash energy-sucking cats, dogs, and mosquitoes upon the populace. Minako slacks off frequently and makes various unkind comments to her long-suffering feline companion, Artemis. She also meets the latest idol sensation, handsome and mysterious Phantom Ace, and becomes one of his biggest fans.

There’s not really a whole lot to recommend these chapters except more of Sailor V’s amusing speeches, like this one, which occurs as she’s foiling the enemy’s scheme to collect energy via blood donation:

You have used clever words to abscond with a precious tribute of blood from weakened hospital patients! That is your crime!

And to add to it, you have sullied a woman’s simple joy of collecting stamps!

Worse, you forgot to give me my reward for donating blood to the tune of 800cc! And that crime is grave!

Luckily, though the premise of the final two chapters is just as silly as what’s come before—Minako is ordered to win the part of Ace’s leading lady in his latest project, filming in China, so that she can observe his potentially evil production company—it doesn’t preclude genuine dramatic impact. Though Minako entertains fantasies of marrying Ace and retiring, when he professes his to love her, she realizes that it’s not what she wants. She loves being Sailor V and, furthermore, remembers making a promise to protect an important person. Eventually, her memories fully awaken and her Sailor V costume is replaced by one matching the design of the other senshi. It’s kind of goosebump-inducing.

Though I’ve read this series before (with translations), I had completely forgotten that Ace had any connection at all to Minako’s past life, so was pleasantly surprised by that revelation as well as by this awesomely grim quote:

Your love will never be granted, for all eternity… Your love or your duty… now you can live the rest of your life never having to worry about the tortures of deciding between them. Your fate is to battle on. Because your true battle starts now.

How could I have forgotten that?! Minako is a girl who is always falling (if superficially) in love, so she can’t welcome this news, but neither does she shirk from her destiny. Ever irrepressible, she ends the series on an upbeat note, poised to show (if I recall rightly) greater maturity and determination when she joins the others in the main series.

Ultimately, Codename: Sailor V is worthwhile despite its flaws. We never learn what the enemy was hoping to achieve, nor the identity of “Boss” (though the second volume of Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon provides some insight on the matter), but we do meet a special, spunky girl as she comes to accept her unique destiny, and that can never be a bad thing.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Vol. 2 by Naoko Takeuchi
A lot happens in this volume, which I shall attempt to quickly summarize. When facing off against Zoisite, the girls are rescued by the timely arrival of Sailor Venus. Minako is now in her second year of middle school and comes across as very mature, competent, and serious about her duty. She’s been monitoring Usagi through the Sailor V game and has also been researching the enemy. She provides all sorts of information about the Dark Kingdom and also claims (well, Artemis claims) that she is Princess Serenity. Her proximity triggers some past-life memories in the others, as well.

However, Usagi starts having dreams that suggest that she was actually Serenity, and when Mamoru is injured protecting her from one of Kunzite’s attacks, one of her tears transforms into the Legendary Silver Crystal and her true identity is revealed. (The bit with Venus was evidently a ruse to direct enemy attacks onto a more experienced Guardian.) Mamoru is subsequently kidnapped by the Dark Kingdom and eventually used as Queen Beryl’s pawn, securing the crystal for her by volume’s end.

So, all of this is very dramatic and shoujo-tastic while it occurs and I honestly loved every minute of it. There are a couple of things that I found especially interesting, though. The first is how much information we get on the enemy compared to the dearth of intel provided in Codename: Sailor V. We see, for example, a flashback to the moment in which Beryl was “irresistibly drawn to” the North Pole, where she discovered the remains of the Dark Kingdom. This made me wonder… was Beryl reborn on Earth as a regular human, just like the Guardians? And did she waken to her past memories as the seal imprisoning Metalia faded?

We also learn a bit about the Four Kings of Heaven, who were generals to Endymion (Mamoru’s past identity) that were swayed into becoming Metalia’s devotees. I’m not exactly sure about this, but it seems as if their bodies had been converted into crystals and recently awakened into human form at Metalia’s whim, and that they can be revived as many times as necessary. Somehow this is sadder and more sympathetic than if they had just been some regular guys suddenly remembering their previous lives.

The second thing that struck me was how much certain elements of the story remind me of Please Save My Earth. Usagi and friends living on the moon in their past lives is the most obvious resemblance, but there’s also the fact that Usagi is troubled by questions of identity brought on by these recollections (“Am I becoming the princess? It’s like I’ve stopped being me…”) and that the residents of the Moon Kingdom were tasked with fondly watching over Earth and helping it to evolve in the best manner possible. They actually travel to the moon to listen to a computerized incarnation of Queen Serenity tell them about the tragic events of the past and how Metalia must be sealed away for good. (She was also responsible for waking Artemis and Luna from the stasis they entered after the destruction of the Moon Kingdom, which makes me suspect that she is “Boss.”)

I could probably go on for another five hundred words, which just goes to show how engaging this story is. It wouldn’t be a Kodansha review if I didn’t complain about the typos—seeing the word “it’s” used instead of “its” is even more painful when it’s part of genius Ami’s dialogue—but even their irksome presence does not detract from the enjoyment I derive from reading this series.

Durarara!!, Vol. 1

Story by Ryohgo Narita, Art by Akiyo Satorigi, Character Design by Suzuhito Yasuda | Published by Yen Press

Here is the sum total of my Durarara!! knowledge prior to reading volume one of the manga:

1. It is based on light novels.
2. There is an anime.
3. People were really excited about the license.

It turns out that those light novels are by the creator of Baccano!, another exclamatory property with an anime that I’ve never seen, but which has been praised by various reputable sources. So, even though I knew nothing about Durarara!! itself, I was definitely curious.

In the space of six pages, three concepts and one narrative conceit are efficiently introduced. Time for another list!

1. Inside a pharmaceutical laboratory, a speaker (presumably male) promises a girl in a tank that he will “get us out of here.”
2. A trio of anonymous hands chat about the Tokyo neighborhood of Ikebukuro and the twenty-year-old urban legend of the Black Rider.
3. Timid fifteen-year-old Mikado Ryuugamine moves to Ikebukuro to reconnect with a childhood friend and attend high school.

Each of these threads will be developed and expanded upon in the volume to come, with some slight overlap but so far not much. Because of that, I’ll address them separately.

1. We learn the least about this subplot in this volume, but it appears to have something to do with Seiji, a boy in Mikado’s class, who lives with his possibly evil sister. Seiji briefly has a stalker who sees something she shouldn’t, and I wonder if that doesn’t tie in with the next item on our list.

2. We see the anonymous chatters a few times throughout the volume and it soon becomes clear that Mikado is one of them and I’m pretty sure the Black Rider is another. Seriously, the Black Rider is the most awesome thing about the volume. A competent fighter with a body seemingly comprised of shadows, the Black Rider takes courier jobs around Ikebukuro, dispatches thugs efficently, and lives with a “shut-in doctor” who would not be averse to a romantic relationship even though the Black Rider has no head.

3. Mikado, alas, is not so interesting, though the fact that he came to town because he wanted something strange and exciting to happen to him is at least somewhat encouraging. He reconnects with his friend, Kida, meets some of Kida’s otaku friends, and is warned against associating with various unsavory people, including someone named Shizuo, who hasn’t really appeared yet but looks kind of awesome, and Izaya, an informant with bleak ideas about the afterlife who extorts money from those who intend to kill themselves.

There are some series that bombard one with so much information that one ends up frustrated. If I were more astute, I might be able to pinpoint how, exactly, the creators of Durarara!! manage to avoid this pitfall, but they do. Granted, there is a lot going on, but the exposition is sure-handed, leaving one with the expectation that all will eventually make sense. Perhaps it’s the light-novel foundation that inspires this confidence, though that is certainly no guarantee of quality.

“Weird but intriguing” is my ultimate verdict for this volume, and I look forward to the second volume very much. It’s a stylish title, one that’s more cool than profound at this stage, and I realize that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it pushed the right buttons for me so I’ll definitely be back for more.

Durarara!! is published in English by Yen Press. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Yurara, Vols. 1-5

By Chika Shiomi | Published by VIZ Media

Yurara Tsukinowa can see spirits and sense their painful emotions, but she can’t actually do anything to help them. Or so she thinks. When a new school year finds her in the same class as Mei Tendo and Yako Hoshino, two hunky boys who use their spiritual powers to ward off vengeful spirits, she ends up helping them out, but not entirely alone. You see, Yurara has a guardian spirit—also named Yurara—and it’s this spirit who manifests when spiritual nasties are afoot, causing regular Yurara to adopt the spirit’s good looks and feisty personality until the threat is dealt with. “That was awesome!” Mei proclaims after spirit!Yurara’s first appearance. “She’s beautiful and strong!”

At first, the series is pretty episodic. Before Yurara came along it seems the boys simply drove off the spirits—Mei possesses offensive powers of fire while Yako’s water-based abilities lean toward the defensive end—but now that she’s around to actually communicate with the ghosts the encounters typically end with the spirit being able to pass on peacefully. The exception is the case of Mei’s mother, a ghost who claims to be hanging around so that her husband and sons can’t bring chicks over, but who is really worried about protecting her son from an evil spirit.

As time goes on, Yurara begins to learn more about the boys and is especially intrigued by cheerful, glompy Mei, whose skirt-chasing demeanor is really a way to hide his sorrow over the spirit-induced death of his first love. When Yako asks whether there’s someone Mei loves, Mei replies, “You should know. There is… but she’s not here.” I didn’t realize it at the time, but looking back on it now, the plight of loving someone who is gone and will never return actually comes full circle, alighting upon Yako by the end of the series. Because the more he’s around Yurara, the more Mei falls in love with her. She returns his feelings in her normal guise, but when under the influence of spirit!Yurara, she’s drawn to Yako instead. This makes for much confusion, as you might imagine.

The latter half of the series is primarily focused on this romantic triangle/square, and I ate up all of the attendant angst with a spoon. I sighed a bit when a contingent of mean girls harrasses Yurara for hogging the boys’ attention, but was pleased when she actually ended up befriending one of them. Really, this shoujotastic twist on a supernatural tale was exactly what I was craving when I began Yurara, and so I found it very satisfying. My one quibble is that early on, Yako seems to acknowledge the fact that he’s in love with “a phantom of a person no longer of this world,” but later seems surprised to realize that it’s the guardian spirit who loves him and not Yurara herself. Perhaps that’s not so much a flaw, though, as it is something to ponder over.

I shan’t spoil the ending except to say that I liked it and that it paves the way for Rasetsu (now released in its nine-volume entirety by VIZ), in which a slightly older Yako meets a girl who reminds him very much of spirit!Yurara.

Ultimately, Yurara is not a masterpiece, but it was exactly what I wanted it to be and I enjoyed it very much. Now on to Rasetsu!

Yurara was published in English by VIZ. All five volumes were released.

Haunted House

By Mitsukazu Mihara | Published by TOKYOPOP

I blame my “meh” reaction to Mitsukazu Miharu’s Haunted House—which I honestly wanted to like!—on the back cover, which promises that readers will be “kept guessing—and giggling” by the behavior of Sabato Obiga’s flamboyantly goth parents. I might’ve smiled a time or two, but that’s about it.

The basic premise here is simple and reiterated several times throughout the volume: Sabato would like a steady girlfriend, but they inevitably ask to see his house, which means they will have to meet his bizarre, “death-flavored” family and be scared off by their creepy antics. Sabato’s mother strongly resembles Morticia Addams, his father (despite being a banker) often sports a sort of Victorian dandy look, and his twin sisters have a gothic lolita vibe and spend their free time making voodoo dolls. The Obiga family also likes to decorate their home with skeletons and shrines and threatens to serve the family cat for dinner. Sabato always obtains their promise to behave before inviting a girl over, but this is invariably broken.

Haunted House is pretty repetitive, but I think I wouldn’t have been dissastified with it if the powers that be at TOKYOPOP hadn’t strongly hinted that Sabato’s family has some reason for treating him like they do. Okay, yes, they abruptly promise to support him when it seems that he, after fancying a long string of random ladies, seems to have fallen in love at last, but it’s not like they actually follow through with this in any meaningful way.

Looking kooky is one thing, but they’re frequently just down-right mean. At one point, Sabato is hospitalized with a broken leg and his family comes to visit. Most of what they do is innocuous—bringing him only hospital-themed horror novels to read, for example—but his mother actually feeds him dog food. I just don’t get it. Is that supposed to be funny? Is that supposed to be someone who is merely tormenting their kid, as the back cover implies, in an effort to encourage him to grow up, become an independent person, and stop pursuing meaningless relationships with random girls?

I don’t know, but I am certain that I am thinking too hard about this. And I partly blame the back cover that encouraged me to expect more from a story that is really just a diverting bit of goofiness.

Uzumaki, Vols. 1-3

By Junji Ito | Published by VIZ Media

As with Ito’s two-volume work, Gyo, the best word to describe Uzumaki—despite a back cover blurb promising “terror in the tradition of The Ring”—is “weird.”

High school student Kirie Goshima lives in Kurôzu-Cho, a small coastal town nestled between the sea and a line of hills. She narrates each chapter in an effort to share the strange things that happened there. It all begins when, on the way to meet her boyfriend Shuichi Saito at the train station, she spots his father crouching in an alley, staring intently at a snail. Shuichi confirms that his dad has indeed been acting odd lately, and suggests that the entire town is “contaminated with spirals.”

Mr. Saito’s fixation with spirals grows to the point where he dies in an attempt to achieve a spiral shape, which drives his wife insane with spiral phobia. She too eventually passes away, leaving Shuichi alone to become a recluse who is able to resist the spiral menace while being more perceptive to it than most. Other episodic incidents fill out the first two volumes, including unfortunate events involving Kirie’s classmates (boys who turn into snails, a bizarre rivalry over spiralling hair, etc.), her father’s decision to use clay from the local pond in his ceramics, a mosquito epidemic that leads to icky goings-on at a hospital, and an abandoned lighthouse that suddenly begins producing a mesmerizing glow. Things come to a head in volume three when six successive hurricanes are drawn to Kurôzu-Cho, leaving it in ruins. Rescue workers and volunteers flock to the area, but find themselves unable to leave. Dun dun dun!

Creepy occurrences mandate creepy visuals, but I wouldn’t say that anything depicted herein is actually scary. Oh, there are loads of indelible images that made me go “ew” or “gross,” but was I frightened by them? No. The real horrors of Uzumaki are more subtle: the suggestions that there are ancient and mysterious forces against which humans are utterly powerless and that the spiral’s victims will live in eternal torment. Many tales of horror involve bloodthirsty monsters, but a menace that forces you to live and endure something horrific is much more capable of giving me the jibblies. It’s the ideas behind Uzumaki, therefore, and not the surfeit of disturbing images, that evoke dread.

Uzumaki has a much larger cast than Gyo, which prompted me to notice that Ito actually draws some really cute and realistic-looking female characters. Kirie is a prime example, but her classmates and TV reporter Chie Maruyama also fit the bill. I was pretty distracted by Ito’s rendering of a girl named Azami, though, because she reminded me so much of Madeline Kahn as Mrs. White in Clue. Observe:

Flames... FLAMES on the side of my face!

Uzumaki definitely delivers an unforgettable story with memorable art, but I would’ve liked to get to know the characters more. Kirie is a reasonably accessible lead and is smart, strong, and kind, but I felt at times that she was too strong. If anything gross is going on in town, Kirie is the one who’s going to discover it, and though she reacts in the moment, there wasn’t much emphasis on the cumulative effect of having witnessed all this madness. She keeps going and being shocked by things right until the very end, but a more normal person would’ve broken down long before. And why weren’t more people fleeing, I wonder? True, once the storms hit, nobody could leave, but for a while there plenty of crazy stuff is happening and folks are just sticking around.

I also would’ve liked to spend more time with Shuichi. He’s a pretty interesting guy, who wants to get out of town from the very start but remains because of Kirie. He seems to have inherited equal parts fascination with and fear of the spiral from his parents, which keeps him alive if not entirely sane, and is able to function at times when others are mesmerized, allowing him to come to Kirie’s aid on several occasions. Through these actions we see how much he cares for her, but I actually had no idea they were supposed to be a couple until he was specifically referred to as her boyfriend a couple of chapters in. Okay, yes, this isn’t a romance manga and I shouldn’t expect a lot of focus on their relationship, but even just a little bit of physical affection would’ve gone a long way.

Uzumaki is grim, gruesome, and a whole host of synonyms besides. This isn’t jump-out-of-your-skin horror, but a psychological tale with a decidedly grisly bent. I’m not sure I’d universally recommend it—I think I know several people who definitely shouldn’t read it, actually—but if it sounds intriguing to you, give it a whirl.

Uzumaki was published in English by VIZ Media. It is complete in three volumes.

For more entries in this month’s horror-themed MMF, check out the archive at Manga Xanadu.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking, Vols. 1-10

By Koji Kumeta | Volumes 1-8 published by Del Rey, Volumes 9-10 published by Kodansha Comics

When I first set out to read Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei, my goal was to finish the first eight volumes in time for Kodansha’s June 2011 release of volume nine.

You can see how well that worked out.

The problem was that this series simply doesn’t benefit from a marathon read. After four volumes, I burnt out and switched to reading it a chapter at a time as the mood struck me. Obviously, it took a lot longer this way, but turned out to be the ideal manga to read on breaks at work or while sitting around in the lobby of the doctor’s office. Interestingly, I found the most recent volumes to be so good that devouring them in their entirety was no problem at all!

There’s not a whole lot of plot to Zetsubou-sensei. Nozomu Itoshiki, the fourth son of a wealthy family, is a high school teacher with a penchant for nineteenth century garb. The title of the manga refers to the fact that when the characters of his name are written too closely together, they can be read as “zetsubou,” or “despair.” Which is convenient, since despairing over various things (and occasionally trying to kill himself) is Itoshiki’s specialty. His class is full of a variety of quirky students, whom we meet gradually, including a girl who sees everything positively, a methodical and precise (and possibly homicidal) girl, a girl who speaks only in text messages, a stalker, a fujoshi, an impoverished housewife, etc. We also meet a few members of his family, including his brother Mikoto, a doctor whose name can be read as “zetsumei,” or “certain death.”

Each chapter follows more or less the same pattern: the first couple of pages establish where the characters are, then something sets Itoshiki off on a rant. (For example, a hinamatsuri display inspires a diatribe about heirarchical societies.) Eventually he spews out a list of items that correspond to the topic of the day. Then the positive girl (Kafuka) will put forth a different opinion and, a couple of pages later, the chapter ends. As I’ve described it, this sounds tedious, but it’s often quite clever and absurd.

Some chapters are more Japanese-centric than others, with copious references to entertainers and public figures or topics specific to Japan, like tanabata or fukubukuro. These can be somewhat less fun to read, especially in earlier volumes when the (admittedly thorough) end notes provide so much information that one ends up reading the book with a finger permanently lodged in the back to reference the explanation as needed. With a change in translator for volume five, most of these notes disappeared.

At first, I was bothered by knowing there were all sorts of references I was missing, but in the end I think I prefer to just cope with ignorance; it helps that more recent volumes have dealt with some universal topics like dream endings, assumptions, jokes you’ve heard a million times, how we perceive the passage of time, modern conveniences leading to inconvenience (“Thanks to Amazon,com, we’ve got piles of books that we haven’t had time to read”), skewed priorities, gifts you feel obliged to accept, and getting sucked into other people’s drama. Somewhat to my surprise, it feels like we’re beginning to learn a little bit more about the characters, as well.

In addition to following the established formula in terms of chapter progression, there are also several recurring gags in Zetusbou-sensei. I’m not very fond of the poor dog with a stick in its butt who appears on occasion, but the creative ways Kumeta finds to insert a panty shot from a particular character are kind of fun, and I’m quite fond of Itoshiki’s stalker, Matoi, who suddenly pops up in the middle of scenes, surprising the characters. “You were here?” And the way in which the characters continue to fail eleventh grade and must repeat it pokes fun at those series—Ouran High School Host Club is the most notorious example to come to mind—where seasons pass but the characters inexplicably fail to graduate.

Artistically, Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei has a very unique look. Kumeta uses very little screen tone, and all of his characters (except one) have pitch-black hair and eyes. There are many girls in the cast, but they all have distinctive hairstyles. Even if I can’t remember someone’s name, her hairstyle will clue me in. “Oh, that’s the delusional self-blaming girl!” Kumeta’s got a recurring trick for page layout too: frequently, a character will be drawn full-length to one side of the page and depicted with extremely skinny ankles and extremely large feet. In more recent volumes it seems that facial closeups are happening more often, or that characters are being viewed from some new angles, which is a welcome development.

On the whole, I enjoyed Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei a great deal. I felt that it improved as it went along, and I look forward to remaining current with the series henceforth. It may not have made me laugh aloud continuously, but it was always amusing enough to make me smile, and it’s to its credit that it was still capable of making me giggle in its 100th chapter.

Sayonara, Zetsubou-sensei: The Power of Negative Thinking was originally published in English by Del Rey, who put out the first eight volumes, but is now being published by Kodansha Comics. The series is ongoing in Japan; volume 27 came out there earlier this week.

Review copies for volumes five, seven, eight, and ten provided by the publisher.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek, Vols. 1-3

By Rize Shinba (manga) and Pentabu (story) | Published by Yen Press

The good news is that I liked My Girlfriend’s a Geek more than I expected to. The bad news is that I’m not sure if I should feel particularly good about that.

Taiga Mutou is a penniless college student in need of a part-time job. When he spots Yuiko Ameya—who fits his ideal of the “big sis-type”—in the office of one prospective employer, he devotes himself to getting hired and thereafter attempts to find opportunities to engage her in conversation. He’s largely unsuccessful until a bit of merchandise goes missing and she helps him look for it. They talk a bit more after that, but it’s not until she sees him in a pair of glasses that she really begins to take notice.

At first, Taiga is puzzled but pleased that certain things about him meet with Yuiko’s approval—in addition to the glasses she also appreciates his cowlick and has an unusual level of interest in his methods for marking important passages in his textbooks. When he finally asks her out and she confesses that she’s a fujoshi (“Is that okay with you?”) he’s so exuberant that he agrees without really understanding what that entails.

From that point on, My Girlfriend’s a Geek is essentially a series of situations in which Yuiko’s fujoshi ways make Taiga uncomfortable, and here is where my conflicted feelings begin. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that Yuiko did try to warn him and that she shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone she isn’t. On the other hand, she is so caught up in her BL fantasizing that she never considers Taiga’s feelings, and even ceases to refer to him by his actual name. Taiga is always the one doing the compromising, and when it seems like Yuiko might be on the verge of doing something nice for him, it usually turns out that she has some self-serving motive.

And what if Yuiko’s character was male? How would this read then? She frequently concocts scenarios in which Taiga is getting it on with his friend Kouji and expresses the desire to take pictures of them together. If she was a male character saying such things to his girlfriend this would be the epitome of skeavy behavior! I seriously wonder whether she likes Taiga for himself at all, but that’s not to say he’s blameless here, either, because it’s hard to see what he could like about her except that she fits the bill for the cute older woman he’s always wanted to date.

All that said, there is still quite a bit to like about this series. For one thing, it’s often quite amusing, especially Taiga’s reactions to Yuiko’s flights of fangirl and the fictional shounen sports manga (with shades of Hikaru no Go and The Prince of Tennis) that Yuiko is obsessed with. For another, it does occasionally touch on what it’s like to discover that someone you fancy has this bizarre secret that you’ve got to try to cope with if you want to stay together. Taiga occasionally laments how far apart they are emotionally, and though we’ve yet to really see inside Yuiko’s head, her attempts to sustain a real-life relationship remind me some of Majima in Flower of Life, another hard-core otaku with a moe fixation.

There’s only two more volumes of this series and I plan to keep reading, but I hope that these characters will manage to achieve more of an equal relationship. Even if Yuiko could just learn to see Taiga’s exasperation and take some genuine step to engage him on a serious personal level, then I’d be happy.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek is published in English by Yen Press. The fourth volume has just come out (to be featured in this week’s Off the Shelf!) and the fifth and final volume is due in December 2011. They have also released the two-volume novel series upon which the manga is based.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Nancy Drew: The New Case Files, Vols. 1-2

By Stefan Petrucha, Sarah Kinney, and Sho Murase | Published by Papercutz

You might wonder why I read a couple of Nancy Drew graphic novels, but when I tell you that these volumes comprise parts one and two of an arc called “Vampire Slayer,” perhaps you will understand. It was the unlikely union of Nancy Drew and Buffy—and yes, said show is specifically referenced in the endnotes—that compelled me and my compatriots at Triple Take to make this our pick for this month. I admit I didn’t expect to like this very much, but the story turned out to be even more blah than I was anticipating.

Here’s the premise: Nancy and friends Bess and George are on their way to see the hot new movie, Dielight. If they arrive in costume, they get a discount, so when they are chased by a pointy-toothed guy in the cemetery (is it supposed to be a fun twist when it’s revealed that he’s actually running from Nancy’s dog?) they assume he’s headed there, as well. He doesn’t show up for the film, but Nancy spots a mysterious-looking cloaked figure lurking alone in the back of the theatre.

Afterwards, tooth dude pops up again and introduces himself as Gregor Coffson. He is super intrigued by the fact that Nancy is a detective and asks her out, prompting this oh-so-hilarious exchange:

Nancy: Thanks… I’m flattered, but I already have a Ned… I mean… boyfriend.

Gregor: So?

Ned: Hi. I’m boyfriend. I mean Ned.

Gregor: Oh.

Oh boy am I ever rolling on the floor now. *eyeroll*

Anyway, things don’t improve very much from here. Gregor indicates that he has a secret, but he won’t divulge it until he is sure that he can trust Nancy. And because Nancy is a big nosypants, she ends up hanging out with him all the time, oblivious to Ned’s growing jealousy. At first I was pleased that Ned was confident that Nancy would not cheat on him, but that doesn’t last long and he soon begins throwing jealous hissy fits. Gregor’s secret turns out to be totally lame—someone’s stalking him because they think he’s a vampire—and so does the resolution of the story.

Ultimately, the adjective that most comes to mind when describing this story is “lazy.” In addition to the fact that Gregor’s secret is a letdown and Ned’s reaction predictable, there are other signs of shoddy craftsmanship. Gregor claims not to have a cell phone, but then how is he receiving threatening text messages from his stalker? The big reveal (spoilers, if you care) that the stalker is actually Gregor’s long-lost sister Garina is torpedoed when Nancy refers to the girl as Garina several pages before the existence of Gregor’s twin even comes up. And I’d swear that one scene of Gregor and Nancy sitting at a table was simply copied and pasted from one place to another, with only a slight adjustment of Gregor’s arm and the application of some green tint to Nancy’s shirt to differentiate them.

Probably they thought that only kids would read this and no one would notice, but kids deserve effort and originality, too. About the best thing I can say about this is that Nancy’s friend, George, is appealingly androgynous. She should get her own series.

Additional reviews can be found at Triple Take.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight, Vol. 8

By Joss Whedon, et al. | Published by Dark Horse

Because I’ve spent so much time and energy in the attempt to quantify why and how Season Eight lost me, I find myself sorely tempted to dismiss this final volume with a simple “meh,” but I suppose I can summon one more burst of effort.

This volume comprises the last five issues of Season Eight (#36-40) and also includes a fun Riley one-shot by Jane Espenson called “Commitment through Distance, Virtue through Sin.” When last we left off, Buffy had turned down sex-spawned paradise to return to this dimension and help her friends fend off the demons that poured in once her mystical boinkage with Angel created a new universe. Then Spike showed up.

As usual, the arc actually starts off pretty well. We see how Angel was convinced (by a talking dog who gets some great lines of Whedon dialogue) to take up the Twilight cause, and some of how Spike became involved. (Please note at this point that Spike has just apparently read Buffy’s name in the newspaper, where she is labeled a terrorist. This will be relevant in a moment.) Now with Buffy and the others, Spike says that “the seed of wonder,” the source of all magic in the world, can stop all of this. And it just so happens to be in the Sunnydale Hellmouth, guarded by the revived Master.

So everyone goes there or maybe they were there already. I have honestly lost track. Anyway, Twilight is very displeased that its parents have abandoned it, and while Buffy and friends are ostensibly protecting the Seed, Twilight possesses Angel and makes him attack Buffy. Long story short: Giles attempts to kill Angel with the scythe, but it’s absolutely hopeless and Angel breaks his neck (just like Jenny Calendar). Buffy, mad with grief, has just had enough and she breaks the seed, severing the connection between this world and magic. Willow, who had possibly been making some headway against the attackers, is promptly stripped of her powers. Though I often criticize Georges Jeanty’s art, Willow’s expression at this moment is some of his best work.

Issue #40 picks up four months later and largely serves to set up Season Nine. Buffy is crashing on the couch at Dawn and Xander’s San Francisco apartment, working in a coffee shop and routinely dealing with confrontations with Slayers and Wiccans who feel that she betrayed them. Dawn has gone back to school and Xander has once again found gainful employment in construction. Giles left everything to Faith in his will (ouch!), including a London flat. She is also apparently the only one willing to care for a catatonic Angel, which I think is pretty awesome. Given their affinity, it makes perfect sense that she’s the one willing to forgive him when no one else can so much as even look at him.

So. Here are the things I disliked about all of this:

1. I swear sometimes that Whedon is actively trying to get me to hate Buffy. In issue #31, she confesses her love for Xander. In issue #34, she boffs Angel. In issue #36, she is still glowy about that, despite the havoc that ensued. “You gave me perfection and you gave it up. That’s not just the love of my life. That’s the guy I would live it with.” Um, did you forget the 206 girls he killed to get to that point? I can buy Faith’s actions so much more easily than Buffy’s because though she forgives him, it’s not like she’s forgotten all that he’s done.

As if this weren’t bad enough, in issue #37 Buffy is talking with Spike and begins daydreaming about making out with him. A throwaway comment suggests that perhaps this is a remnant of Twilight mind control, and I hope that’s true. I’m not suggesting that Buffy is usually virtuous or that she doesn’t make some impulsive choices when lonely, but holy crap. What a horndog!

2. Remember that newspaper that mentioned “terrorist Buffy Summers”? Well, how is Buffy able to resume life in San Francisco under her own name? In a recent Q&A, Scott Allie says “Buffy didn’t become a household name,” but issue #36 sure seems to indicate otherwise.

3. So far, I feel nothing about Giles’ death. It just doesn’t feel real. There wasn’t enough impact or something. Hearing his will helped it sink in more (and he gets a middle name: Edmund), but, odd as it sounds, I want to be sobbing over this, and I am not.

Now, that’s not to say that there aren’t good things in this volume. Looks like there’s 3 of those, too.

1. There are some great scenes between pairs of characters. Giles and Buffy have a nice scene and Giles and Xander do, as well. Probably my favorite scenes involve Spike and Buffy, though, because he is pretty frank concerning how disgusting he finds everything.

Spike: Under all that demon viscera, you still reek of him, and that’s not a treat for me—but it can’t be Buffy if she doesn’t bonk the bad guy, right?

Buffy: Snark!

Spike: Comes with the sizable package.

As mentioned, Willow’s grief is pretty amazing, and Kennedy haters will rejoice to learn that Willow soon breaks up with her. Less awesome is the throwaway reveal that Willow possibly loved her sexy snaky mentor, whom she will now never see again thanks to Buffy.

2. The fulfillment of the “betrayal” issue. Back in issue #10, Buffy and Willow went to visit a… seer or something, who shows Buffy a glimpse of herself (a pose that is finally realized in issue #39 after the seed has been destroyed) and says that it’s due to “Betrayal. The closest, the most unexpected.”

At first, I was kind of annoyed that the traitor was not conclusively identified, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is quintessential Whedon. Buffy betrayed everyone by boinking the enemy, bringing down demon hordes, and then ridding the world of magic. Buffy and Angel betrayed the new universe they created. Angel betrayed Buffy by killing Giles… Ultimately, I think the prophecy refers to Buffy herself, but it’s kind of neat that it can be interpreted in several different ways.

3. One might not expect a one-shot prequel starring Riley and his wife Sam to be kind of awesome, but this one is. It’s full of great dialogue (and when I mentioned my favorite line to Jane Espenson on Twitter she actually replied!) and reminds us once again why Sam is so fantastic. I think I now want a mini-series focusing on these two as they are occasionally summoned away from bucolic corn-growing bliss to save the world.

So now the big question is… will I read Season Nine?

While there were some things I disliked about earlier arcs in Season Eight, Brad Meltzer’s penultimate “Twilight” arc was the proverbial straw that broke the fangirl’s back, and I resolved to stay away from further Buffy comics once this particular season had wrapped up. Advance press for Season Nine, however, has made me change my mind.

Season Nine just sounds so much more like something I’d want to read (and will be co-written by Andrew Chambliss, who penned my favorite Dollhouse episode, “A Spy in the House of Love”). For example, the synopsis for the second issue begins “Buffy continues her nightly patrols while trying to cobble together a sensible life…” That sounds great to me! Much better than all this big-budget sprawl. And the Angel and Faith companion series sounds like it could be even better!

I may end up disappointed, but I just don’t think I’ll be able to resist.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon, Vol. 1

By Naoko Takeuchi | Published by Kodansha Comics | Did I Mention Squee?

I think it’s probably impossible for me to be impartial about Sailor Moon. I just love it so much. The third season of the anime comprised one of my first exposures to shoujo anime, and even though I’m cognizant of its shortcomings, I can’t look back upon it and feel anything other than nostalgic adoration.

I’ve read the manga before. I was warned early on that the TOKYOPOP versions changed some characters’ names and relationships, so I never bothered trying to acquire them. Instead, I remember checking the website for Boston’s Sasuga Books (sadly no longer with us) regularly to see whether the latest volume of the gorgeous tenth anniversary edition was available for order. Reading each volume was a fairly painstaking process of matching a text-only translation to the images in the physical book. But one makes do.

Still, as with Codename: Sailor V, I feel like I got much more out of the experience this time when reading a professionally prepared English translation. It felt more immediate to me. Alas, though I would love to be able to report that Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is free from the text errors that plagued Sailor V, I can’t. I only spotted four problems, though: two cases of misplaced sound effects (one only noticeable if you read kana) and two where the word “who’s” is used instead of “whose.” Pretty minor, yes, but still disappointing. I can’t be alone in wishing for a flawless edition.

Moving on!

Because Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon came about due to the earlier success of Codename: Sailor V, there are some obvious similarities in their lead characters. Like Minako Aino, fourteen-year-old Usagi Tsuniko is a below-average and perpetually tardy middle-school student with a fondness for video games. Where Minako craves the spotlight and is somewhat more bold, however, Usagi is a crybaby who’s inclined to take the easy way out. Both are informed of their special destiny by a talking cat—white (male) Artemis for Minako (Sailor Venus) and black (female) Luna for Usagi (Sailor Moon)—and both soon find themselves squaring off against “the enemy” whose plans invariably involve sucking energy out of the populace.

From the start, Usagi handles her duties differently than Minako. She’s more empathetic, but has a tendency to feel overwhelmed and require encouragement. (These are still, of course, early days.) She’s bolstered by her fellow guardians, however, and quickly accumulates three allies: the brilliant Ami Mizuno, guardian of water and wisdom (Sailor Mercury); classy and clairvoyant Rei Hino, guardian of fire and passion (Sailor Mars); and tomboyish yet girlish Makoto Kino, guardian of thunder and courage (Sailor Jupiter). Luna provides them all with information—I enjoy any scene that depicts the kitty in research mode—and handy gizmos that allow them to communicate and transform.

Together they face off against Queen Beryl and her Four Kings of Heaven, who are busily concocting schemes to collect energy to revive their “great ruler” while simultaneously searching for the “legendary silver crystal.” (We learn more about the enemies here than in Sailor V, incidentally, which makes them much more interesting. It’s still slightly disconcerting to see how quickly some of them are defeated, though, considering how long they stick around in the anime. Nephrite, for example, is vanquished after just one chapter!) The Guardians want to find the all-powerful crystal too, and are also searching for “the princess,” whom they are duty-bound to protect.

Also searching for the “legendary silver crystal” is a handsome fellow called Tuxedo Mask, two words that efficiently describe his costume. He has dreams wherein a faceless woman begs him to find the crystal, and so he tries to comply. Usually his efforts consist of lurking around when Sailor Moon is busy confronting the enemy, so as to be ready to bolster her confidence. Meanwhile, in his civilian guise of high school student Mamoru Chiba, he and Usagi keep running into each other and exchanging insults. I never much cared about their relationship in the anime, but it actually kind of works for me here. Maybe manga!Mamoru is appreciably more dreamy than his anime counterpart, because I can at least see why Usagi finds him so appealing. In this volume, there’s also some question as to whether he’s friend or foe, which gives Usagi something to worry about. (In general, while I don’t mind hyper Usagi, I like her much more when she’s being serious.)

I would probably still like Sailor Moon if it were merely the story of a band of cute girls in colorful outfits who defeat the enemy with various nifty/goofy attacks like “moon tiara boomerang” and “flower hurricane,” but its feminist message definitely elevates it in my esteem. While Usagi may be drawn to Mamoru and while Makoto may yet pine for the sempai who rejected her, these girls are fully cognizant that they’ve got a mission that’s more important than romance. Consider this exchange in which Makoto is explaining her reason for transferring schools:

Makoto: It seemed there was something far more important… even more important than falling in love… that was waiting for me here.

Rei: You’re right! We don’t have the luxury of the time it takes to cry over a man.

Though normal teens until just recently, these girls are quickly coming to grips with their destiny and the enormous importance of preventing the crystal from falling into the wrong hands. One gets the sense that this experience, though dangerous, is going to be critical in forming who they become as people, especially lazy Usagi, who is now thrust into a leadership role. And even though Mamoru does help her on occasion, it never comes off as condescending, but more like he’s reminding her of the strength that she already possesses. He, after all, has no powers of his own so it’s up to her to save the day.

Thank you, Kodansha Comics, for licensing this series and giving us a proper translation at last. I’m happy for myself and other existing fans, but I also can’t wait to see what Sailor Moon newbies make of the story.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon is published in English by Kodansha Comics. They’ve licensed the tenth anniversary edition, which condensed the eighteen-volume series into twelve volumes of the main narrative plus two volumes of short stories. It also has pretty new covers and some retouched art.

Review copy provided by the publisher.