Astro Boy 3 by Osamu Tezuka: A-

From the back cover:
A timeless comics and animation classic, Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy is still going strong half a century after its creation, winning over readers of all ages with its combination of action, wit, and humanity. In the novel-length “The Greatest Robot on Earth,” a wealthy sultan creates a giant robot to become the ruler of all other robots on Earth. But in order for that to happen, he must defeat the seven most powerful robots in the world, including Astro Boy, who must have his horsepower raised from 100,000 to 1,000,000 to face the challenge! And Astro’s sister, Uran, also flies in to lend a helping hand! Plus, in “Mad Machine,” a scientist invents a device that causes other machines to go berserk, and Astro Boy must save the day!

Well, I can certainly see why someone would want to create a series elaborating on “The Greatest Robot on Earth.” There’s a lot going on and some surprisingly sympathetic robots. In his introduction, Tezuka says that he created this story during a period (1964-1965) when he was really enjoying his work. I think it shows, since even though there are still robot battles and dastardly caped villains, the potential to say something about the plight of robots isn’t squandered as it has been in other stories.

Once upon a time, there was a sultan who was ousted from power and exiled from his land. Still ambitious, he hired a roboticist to create a robot, Pluto, that would defeat other powerful robots and declare itself king of the robots, allowing the sultan to get his vicarious power fix. Pluto polishes off his first opponent in short order, but by the time he’s met the second, his personality is starting to come through. “I have no hatred of you but my master has ordered me to destroy you and I must obey him,” he says, before engaging in one of the cooler robot battles in the series so far.

Pluto also encounters Astro’s sister Uran when she tries to trick him by impersonating Astro, and actually strikes up a friendship with her, inquiring about how she’s doing and even allowing her to plaster his chest with some of her favorite stickers (my very favorite panel in this volume). His opponents are pretty sympathetic, too. The one that sticks out in my mind is Epsilon, who worked with and was beloved by children. Even when he was defeated, there’s a neat panel of his hands still clutching a kid who’d wandered too near the duel.

Throughout the story, Doctor Ochanomizu keeps telling Astro that the truly great robot is not the one with the most horsepower but rather the one who helps people. Pluto’s attempts to achieve greatness through fighting will never succeed, but when Astro boy finally convinces him to help avert a volcanic explosion, at that point, Pluto really has achieved greatness. It’s kind of deep, actually. Pluto’s whole character arc is surpisingly touching.

To say that I’m really looking forward to seeing what Naoki Urasawa does with this concept would be a profound understatement.

Astro Boy 2 by Osamu Tezuka: B

Book description:
As Mickey Mouse is to American animation, so to anime and manga is Astro Boy, the quintessential creation of Osama Tezuka, one of the world’s revered giants of comics and animation. In this volume, Astro Boy comes to the aid of Gravia’s robot president to prevent his overthrow at the hands of a secret anti-robot society; a robot magician is cloned as a setup to start a movement against intelligent robots, and only Astro Boy can expose the conspiracy; and Astro Boy defends a powerful robot racecar from an evil gang in the globe-spanning Equator Race! Astro Boy is an all-ages delight, as fresh, exciting, and innovative today as when it was created forty years ago. Everything is Go, Astro Boy!

The three stories in this volume, “His Highness Deadcross,” “The Third Magician,” and “White Planet,” were originally published in 1960, 1961, and 1963. I should mention here that the stories in the 23-volume collection upon which Dark Horse modeled their release are not presented in chonological order. Rather, Tezuka and the Japanese publisher decided on the best order, and then Tezuka wrote little introductory bits to put each story in context. These sometimes also include digs at Americans and how they reacted adversely to violence in the Astro Boy cartoon but were totally fine with “going over to southeast Asia and killing people.”

The premise of “His Highness Deadcross” sounds good: a robot has been elected president, thanks to a large turnout from robot voters, and some humans aren’t too happy about this. In reality, though, it’s kind of boring. I like the ideas it raises, like robots with voting rights and the ability to create more robots without human assistance, but most of the focus is on the campy villain and his attempts to force the president to resign. Seriously, this guy wears a cape, a plumed helmet, and has dialogue like, “It’s curtains for you.”

The other two stories are pretty good, though. In “The Third Magician,” a famous robot magician is cloned and then the clone is used as an art thief. He makes a public announcement about how at such and such a time, he will arrive and steal his target. I’ve certainly seen that done in other series, so now I wonder if Tezuka is responsible for the phantom thief genre, too! In “White Planet,” a boy’s beloved robocar is saved by the electronic brain of the robot who he thought was his sister. The boy spends no time mourning her loss or freaking out that she was a robot, but then again, he evidently enjoyed smacking her around, so he’s kind of a git anyway.

Astro Boy continues to be a quick read, and I like it well enough that at the present moment I’m inclined to keep going with it past the point that’ll prepare me to understand Pluto.

Astro Boy 1 by Osamu Tezuka: B

From the back cover:
Created by the late Osamu Tezuka, Astro Boy was the first manga series to be adapted to animation and became a worldwide phenomenon, making Astro Boy the Mickey Mouse of anime—a jet-powered, super-strong, evil-robot-bashing, alien-invasion-smashing Mickey Mouse, that is! Exciting, whimsical, and touching, Astro Boy hearkens back to the classic era of comics and animation, featuring stories that readers young and old will enjoy.

I confess that I didn’t have a whole lot of interest in Astro Boy until Viz’s acquisition of Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto—based on a story in the third Astro Boy volume—was announced. In fact, I’m reading it now so I can fully appreciate Pluto, but I must say that it’s better than I’d expected.

There are three stories in this volume, two from 1961 and one (“The Birth of Astro Boy”) written in 1975 that explains Astro’s origins. This last, as well as some introductory bits to the other stories, features Tezuka talking about his stories and even admitting that there are some that he doesn’t care for much. It actually works pretty well.

The longer of the two stories from 1961, “The Hot Dog Corps,” is about a group of cyborg soldiers who used to be dogs. Their canine instincts keep returning, like the desire to chew on shoes or squirm around scratching their backs in doggy ectasy, and one cyborg in particular, who used to belong to Astro Boy’s teacher, feels the inexplicable urge to fly to Japan and see his former master. The concept is quite interesting, but I felt the story went on a bit too long. If it were shorter, it could’ve been more poignant. That said, I like how it ended.

The second story, “Plant People,” is far shorter and basically tells the tale of some robot invaders from a dying planet who were programmed to steal Earth’s water. There’s not much more to say about that one.

Astro Boy is a really quick read and generally enjoyable, though there are a few things that had me snerking. One is the villain who describes at length, while nobody is around, what throwing a certain switch will do. Giving one of the good guys time to come and foil his evil plans, of course. Another is Astro’s tendency to use the phrase “This must be _____.” Here’s a quiz:

Which of these sentences is not used in this volume?

This must be _________.
a. some sort of door.
b. the way it defends against intruders.
c. the power source for that giant robot we met earlier.
d. love.

Okay, perhaps that was too easy.

Also, Astro’s propensity for walking into unfamiliar situations and rapidly deducing all sorts of things reminds me of Conan from Case Closed. And, in fact, the kindly scientist who takes Conan in after he is forcibly de-aged looks a lot like the kindly scientist who takes Astro in after his creator kicks him out for failing to be his son. I can only assume this is intentional.

I’ll at least be reading through volume three, and will probably give it a chance beyond that to see if Astro Boy is something I really want to continue with.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 3 by Drew Goddard: C

From the back cover:
A team of Japanese vampires who can transform into wolves, panthers, and fog attack the Slayer compound in the highlands of Scotland, stealing Buffy’s mystical scythe—the weapon that transformed thousands of young women into Slayers. Unable to fight these mysterious new foes, Buffy sends Xander to see his old friend—the only vampire known to possess these incredible powers—Dracula.

I really disliked the “Wolves at the Gate” arc when it was coming out, but it works a little better when read all in one sitting, and with the stand-alone issue “A Beautiful Sunset” as an introduction. “A Beautiful Sunset” itself is quite good. In it, Buffy warns Satsu about the dangers of being in love with her, and has an encounter with the Big Bad, Twilight. I love that Twilight asks Buffy whether all of these additional Slayers have actually helped her in any way, and she can offer no response.

“Wolves at the Gate” spans issues twelve to fifteen, and it’s here where things start to get kind of annoying. How so? I’ll bust out the bullet points. Warning: full of spoilers.

* The Buffy/Satsu publicity buzz. Even though Joss insists that Buffy’s hook-up with a fellow Slayer was not a publicity stunt, you could’ve fooled me. There were reports of comic shops being told to stock up in advance on this one because it would be popular, and all kinds of interviews and stuff being given. I also don’t like that we never see how the two of them got to that point. Without that, I just can’t buy Buffy being attracted to a girl.

* Dracula. I am so tired of Season Eight bringing back random characters from the show. Please focus on the core group! Oh, and he supposedly lost his powers to this bunch of Japanese vampires by gambling.

* Andrew’s lecture on Dracula, during the course of which he says that Xander and Dracula have been letter-writing pals and that, after Anya died, Xander went to live with Dracula for a while. Um, what the hell?! This is stupid and retconny and entirely only there so that “Antique,” a short story Goddard contributed to the non-canon graphic novel Tales of the Vampires and which features Buffy coming to Dracula’s castle to retrieve Xander after this period of cohabitation, can become canon. I cry foul. (Note: Not that Andrew is at all a reliable source, but his comments are not contradicted.)

* Renee’s fate. Okay, yes, I never see these things coming, but jeez. Enough is enough. A happy ending for a couple would be more surprising these days.

* Mecha Dawn. Quite possibly the dumbest thing in this series yet. Why on earth would the Japanese vampires take the time to construct a Dawn mecha? What’s more, they have programmed it to say things like, “I cry a lot.” So they’ve, like, also taken the time to try to learn things about Dawn and her life? Probably this is supposed to be funny, but I think it’s incredibly stupid.

On the plus side, there is some good dialogue. When I first read these issues, I was peeved that Willow wasn’t mad at Buffy for taking advantage of Satsu’s feelings, but now their conversation on the subject works a bit better for me. There’s also lots of good Xander dialogue plus liberal use of the hand gestures Nicholas Brendon always employed. Too, I love Buffy’s reaction at the end of the fight upon hearing that the vampires are fleeing: “So chase them. No prisoners. Seal off the streets. Cut them down as they flee. Kill every single one of them.” Now that’s good continuity with Season Seven Buffy.

So, no, Wolves at the Gate is not a good arc. It has some good moments, but far too much of it is irksome. On its own, it earns a C-; the score for the volume is a bit higher because of “A Beautiful Sunset.”

Blade of the Immortal 1 by Hiroaki Samura: A

From the back cover:
Manji, a ronin warrior of feudal Japan, has been cursed with immortality. To rid himself of this curse and end his life of misery, he must slay one thousand evil men!

His quest begins when a young girl seeks his help in taking revenge on her parents’ killers.

His quest ends only after he has spilled the blood of a thousand!

Wow. I had no idea something could be beautiful and gross at the same time.

Blade of the Immortal is the story of Manji, a samurai who became a criminal when he killed the lord he’d been serving after learning of his corruption. As the story opens, he has been granted immortality (originally to keep him from running off and getting himself killed and abandoning his insane sister) and has struck a bargain with the nun responsible—he will make up for killing good people on the orders of the corrupt lord by killing one thousand bad ones. When he achieves that goal, the immortality will be lifted.

Into his life comes Rin, a teenager who witnessed the death of her father at the hands of a group of swordsmen who seek to abolish all other sword schools but theirs. She asks Manji to help her get her revenge and, after grumbling that it’s hard to rely on another’s definition of a “bad guy,” he agrees. This leads to a fascinating moonlit meeting with one of the men responsible for the murder. Atmospheric and engrossing, this segment features one of the strangest villains I’ve ever seen.

The art is amazing, alternating between traditionally inked panels and ones that I believe are done in pencil. The inked panels occasionally remind me of the art in Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, at least in terms of how shadow is achieved with cross-hatching rather than screentone. The pencil illustrations are especially good, which is disconcerting when what you’re looking at is a guy getting his head sliced into quarters (a recurring theme in these opening chapters). My only complaint is that, because of the way the panels were flipped for publication, Manji’s missing eye kept switching sides, but that’s hardly Samura’s fault.

The story is riveting enough that the gore didn’t really bother me much. I like the characters, too, and find Manji to be especially charismatic. An interview with Samura was included in which he described his hero, and I’m just gonna use his words here.

On the character side, in the protagonist Manji I’ve drawn a totally straight, unvarnished version of my own ideal hero—a person who never reveals his or her own weaknesses to others but who, at the same time, is not as unassailably powerful as he or she may seem.

He does things like kill a bunch of guys and then walk back into town carrying his own leg. If that’s not badass, then I don’t know what is.

Despite my protestations about not liking icky things, I can’t deny that these bloodthirsty seinen epics have a real appeal. I’m definitely going to be reading more Blade of the Immortal.

Akira 3 by Katsuhiro Otomo: A+

From the back cover:
In the 21st century, the glittering Neo-Tokyo has risen from the rubble of a Tokyo destroyed by an apocalyptic telekinetic blast from a young boy called Akira—a subject of a covert government experiment gone wrong now imprisoned for three decades in frozen stasis.

But Tetsuo, an unstable youth with immense paranormal abilities of his own, has done the unthinkable: he has released Akira and set into motion a chain of events that could once again destroy the city and drag the world to the brink of Armageddon. Resistance agents and an armada of government forces race against the clock to find the child with godlike powers before his unstoppable destructive abilities are unleashed!

Holy crap! Where do you go after a finale like that?!

Each volume of this series seems to have a central location of sorts. Last time, it was the military facilities, while this time it’s the streets of Neo-Tokyo. The whole plot can be summed up as: a lot of people want Akira, and different folks manage to nab him at different times. There are four or five sides in the conflict, and possession of Akira shifts back and forth between them all multiple times. There’s shooting in the steets, tanks rumbling through malls, kids flying around, and spectacular yacht crashes into bridges.

Otomo’s art continues to be amazing, with nice big panels (aided by nice big pages) to keep the pace feeling brisk. At the end, there are fifteen dialogue-free pages depicting the effect of a cataclysmic event, which enforce a kind of silent solemnity to mark the immensity of what has just happened. I also love that one of the resistance fighters, the extremely badass Chiyoko, is depicted as overweight. She also has dialogue like:

Kei or Kaneda (can’t tell): Chiyoko, can you drive a tank?!
Chiyoko: Yup.

The best thing about this ending is that I really do worry about the fate of some of the lead characters. In most series, I’d know that they’d come out of it okay, but with Akira I’m not sure, and it’s awesome.

Akira 2 by Katsuhiro Otomo: A

From the back cover:
Neo-Tokyo has risen from the ashes of a Tokyo obliterated by a monstrous psychokinetic power known only as Akira, a being who yet lives, secretly imprisoned in frozen stasis. Those who stand guard know that Akira’s awakening is a terrifying inevitability. Tetsuo, an angry young man with immense—and rapidly growing—psychic abilities, may be their only hope to control Akira when he wakes. But Tetsuo is becoming increasingly unstable and harbors a growing obsession to confront Akira face-to-face. A clandestine group including his former best friend sets out to destroy Tetsuo before he can release Akira—or before Tetsuo himself becomes so powerful that no force on Earth can stop him!

Elsewhere on the back cover, it says that Akira is required reading for any enthusiast of science fiction, manga, and the graphic novel. I tend to agree.

This volume consists almost entirely of people escaping from or sneaking into military installations and it was freakin’ awesome. I love Otomo’s detailed art—from city skylines to the underground warrens of secret military bases, there are amazing images in abundance. I’m a geek for buildings, so seeing the characters dash through a cavernous room of generators, for example, is the sort of thing I adore.

The story moves along as well, though not quite as much happens this time, since the focus is more on the action. Well, I say that, but perhaps the biggest thing happens at the end, which kind of surprised me, since I thought they’d leave that for volume six. I think my favorite part is when Kei (from the resistance group), who along with Kaneda was captured after the big biker gang battle from the previous volume, suddenly seems to develop psychic powers and attacks Tetsuo.

There’s more humor in this volume, though sometimes it feels out of place, like when Kei accuses Kaneda of trying to cop a feel when they’re in the middle of running for their lives. Other bits do amuse, though, like this exchange between some workmen discussing the food they’ve been given for lunch:

Workman #1: What’s with this crap?
Workman #2: Well, what do you expect for free?
Workman #1: Better crap.

Lastly, I must give kudos to Dark Horse for their extremely thorough ‘Story So Far’ page. Because I’m reading these from the library, I don’t have my own copies to refer to, so it was very helpful. Happily, I’ve already secured a copy of volume 3, so I’ll be able to plow on ahead without delay this time.

Akira 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo: A-

From the back cover:
Welcome to Neo-Tokyo, built on the ashes of a Tokyo annihilated by a blast of unknown origin that triggered World War III. The lives of two streetwise teenage friends, Tetsuo and Kaneda, change forever when paranormal abilities begin to waken in Tetsuo, making him a target for a shadowy agency who will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like that which leveled Tokyo. At the core of their motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear of an unthinkable, monstrous power known only as… Akira.

I’d heard of the animated film Akira back in high school, long before I learned manga even existed. Now that my interest in seinen science fiction has grown, I decided to check it out.

In a word, Akira is cool. The plot is fairly complicated and rather difficult to describe. The military appears to be collecting kids with latent psychic abilities. The procedure to awaken their powers leaves them with chronic pain, so they end up addicted to a very high-potency drug. There’s a resistance group who’s trying to thwart the military’s plans and a thuggish motorcycle gang (led by Kaneda) gets mixed up in things as well. It’s to Otomo’s credit that all the crazy, intense action that plays out in the story still manages to make perfect narrative sense.

There’s a great deal of violence, much of it psychically perpetrated, with lots of explosions and head trauma. I didn’t find anything too graphically portrayed, but it bugged me when innocent bystanders were probably hurt by the actions of the central characters. In fact, no character is particularly likable. I guess I don’t mind Kei and Ryu of the resistance group too much, but Kaneda (the actual protagonist) has no redeeming qualities that I can see.

I really like Otomo’s art, especially the backgrounds in the urban scenes and the science lab where the military conducts its experiments. Facially, the characters have that ’80s manga look, but I like that style. I do have to say, though, that the expanse of Tetsuo’s forehead is truly a formidable one.

Akira is an exciting read, and I plowed through this volume pretty quickly. I’ve already put in my interlibrary loan request for volume 2, and am looking forward to its arrival.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service 1 by Eiji Otsuka and Housui Yamazaki: B+

From the back cover:
Five young students at a Buddhist university find that there’s little call for their job skills in today’s Tokyo… among the living, that is! But their studies give them a direct line to the dead—the dead who are still trapped in their corpses, and can’t move on to their next reincarnation! Whether you died from suicide, murder, sickness, or madness, they’ll carry your body anywhere it needs to go to free your soul!

I really wasn’t sure whether I’d like this series or not. I’d heard it was funny in a macabre kind of way, but worried about excessive levels of gore. Though there was one page that was truly gross, there were fewer disturbing images and more amusing snippets of dialogue than I’d been expecting and I ended up enjoying it quite a lot.

The five members of the Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service each had a different specialty they brought to the table, and their personalities meshed well. At times, I felt like I was watching a genre TV show—one of those with dashes of morbid humor—which is a compliment. My favorite character so far is probably Numata. His special talent is dowsing for corpses and though he looks all tough, he proved a couple of times to be a great big softie.

In the first chapter, the KCDS was formed (thanks to a winning lottery ticket that a grateful corpse gave them), and the three subsequent chapters dealt with different “cases” they came upon. Though each case was interesting, the recurring mystery of the spirit who hangs around one of the team and aids and protects him was what intrigued me the most. It was more genuinely creepy than anything else in the volume.

Lastly, Dark Horse provided extremely thorough notes at the back of the book, including a sound effects glossary and explanations of cultural references. This was good for a couple of giggles, too, and I’m sure the editor had fun describing sounds like “an organ hitting floor” or “foot bumping severed head” when he could’ve just written “thud” or “bump.”

I’m looking forward to continuing with this series; Dark Horse publishes a couple of other things by Otsuka and Yamazaki, too, which I might also check out eventually.

ETA: I’d originally classified this as shounen, because it was serialized some in Shonen Ace. However, it’s currently serialized in Comic Charge, which is definitely seinen. And it simply feels more seinen, so… there’s my rationale for switching it.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season Eight 2 by Brian K. Vaughan: A

From the back cover:
While Buffy is busy trying to uncover the mysterious new Big Bad known only as “Twilight,” Giles takes on a mission of his own that will require a Slayer who can handle a little dirty work. He recruits the notoriously rebellious Faith for an undercover job that demands her well-known penchant for violence. She must infiltrate the estate of a rogue Slayer and put a stop to this girl’s evil deeds no matter the cost.

This collection includes issues 6-10 of the series. The first four comprise Vaughan’s Faith arc that lends its name to this volume as subtitle—”No Future For You.” The last issue is a stand-alone written by Joss himself.

I’m current with the monthly issues of this series (up to 14 now), and I have to say that “No Future For You” is definitely my favorite arc thus far, which is a little weird since Vaughan was never a writer for the show. He really nails Faith, though, and all of her dialogue and inner thoughts ring true. I especially like her perspective on the conflicts she’s had with Buffy and her relationship with Mayor Wilkins. Here’s an excerpt:

Evil scumbag. That’s what most people think of the last guy who put me in a dress. But I don’t know. Dude may have been a bit of a snake… but he wasn’t a dog. Everybody thinks he was, like, exploiting me or whatever, but that’s not how it felt. So I totally get how chicks can get mixed up in the wrong crap. Even today, it’s still hard to look back at my time with that guy…and feel anything but loved.

Pretty awesome stuff. Vaughan also does well with the other characters, who both speak and act perfectly in character. I’m fascinated by the dynamic between Faith and Giles, especially in the scene where he mentions his own youthful rebellion and how they’re not so unalike, but the best is probably Buffy jumping to the absolute worst conclusion about Faith’s involvement with the rogue Slayer. It’s not only a very Buffy thing to do, but it also cuts Faith deeply to see that she will probably never really be trusted by Buffy, despite her various attempts at redemption.

Not so awesome, alas, is Georges Jeanty’s art. I’m not so miffed about it as this guy, but Faith really does look pretty awful in some panels. I realize that spot-on likenesses are not necessarily the artist’s goal, but she often looks like several different people per page, and each only marginally reminiscent of Eliza Dushku. I will, however, say that in more recent issues, Jeanty has drawn some truly exceptional panels of Willow.

Issue 10, “Anywhere But Here,” is important in its own right, featuring Buffy and Willow on a mission together and providing many answers, including where the funding for the Slayers came from and the current state of Willow’s relationship with Kennedy. Back at home, Dawn also finally discloses (to Xander) how she ended up gigantified. This is the kind of significant personal interaction I was missing in the first Buffy-centric arc, so I’m very pleased to get such a nice chunk of it here.

I really hope Vaughan writes an arc again soon or, even better, starts up a spin-off starring Faith and Giles. Sad to say, I would actually prefer that to the current arc that’s underway at present.