Let’s Get Visual: Duds

MICHELLE: After a few months of this column, I feel like I’m better able to think critically about the artistic aspect of manga. I expected to be able to better appreciate good art when I see it, but hadn’t anticipated that I’d also more readily notice flaws. This month, MJ (of Manga Bookshelf) and I turn our attention to problematic pages or, as I like to call them, “duds.” (Click on images to enlarge.)

Fairy Tail, Volume 10, Page 84 (Del Rey)

MJ: Wow. I’m… a little bit stymied by that image.

MICHELLE: It is a doozy, isn’t it? Actually, that page was the inspiration for this whole column. There I was, innocently reading volume ten of Fairy Tail, then I turned the page and was brutally accosted by that monstrosity!

So, as is probably pretty obvious, the speaker is unhinged. Mangaka Hiro Mashima has opted to depict this by freezing the guy in the act of making a weird face and forcing readers to read two huge bubbles full of ranting speech before we can proceed to the final (and uninteresting) panel on the bottom of the page. Now, maybe this is a tactic to make us feel as trapped as the girl does, having to sit there and listen to this lunatic ramble on, but it doesn’t do a good job at conveying his insanity. The page feels flat and lifeless; a better choice would have been to inject more movement into the scene, break up the speech, and maybe allow the guy the opportunity to change expressions throughout his tirade.

MJ: I honestly feel accosted by the page. Its primary image is loud, but not particularly expressive in any other way than that, and the text feels overwhelming to the point where I can’t really even bring myself to try to read it all. Not only that, the page is so top-heavy, I find it difficult to even look at. That bottom image is completely wasted there, not that it’s much of a waste.

MICHELLE: Yeah, it’s weird how an amount of text that would be perfectly reasonable to read in a prose novel suddenly looks so daunting in a speech bubble, but it really does. And you’re absolutely right that it’s loud without being expressive. Everything about this page is just so glaringly bad that I knew we had to build a column around lousy art so that I’d have an excuse to talk about it with someone!

MJ: Well, feel free to talk as much as you like, because I’ve rarely seen something so pointlessly hideous. And though I hate to think that I’m reacting purely out of aesthetics, I can’t deny that it offends me greatly on that level.

MICHELLE: I think that’s pretty much the only basis on which you can be expected to react, since you haven’t read the manga in question. For me, it completely yanked me out of the story, which I find inexcusable.

And though I appreciate the offer to further vent my spleen, perhaps we should proceed on to your dud of choice.

Baseball Heaven, pages 133-134 (approx.) (BLU Manga)

MJ: Okay, then. My “dud” comes from Ellie Mamahara’s Baseball Heaven, a BL manga I expressed no great love for in our BL Bookrack column a couple of months ago. I assume I don’t need to describe what’s happening in the scene, and chances are I don’t need to tell anyone what’s wrong with it, either, but of course that’s why we’re here.

I look at this scene, and there’s simply no passion in it. None at all. Here we have a guy, supposedly in an altered state of mind, making the moves on his teammate who has rebuffed him in the past, and not only do we not get any real sense of how either of them are feeling (we wouldn’t even know the one was drunk if it wasn’t for indications in the word balloons and flushed cheeks), but there’s absolutely no sexual tension between them conveyed through the artwork. And while I can appreciate that perhaps we’re meant to believe that athletes might be stiff and awkward with each other, surely the drunk guy, at least, would have a little heat in his body language here.

The artist goes through the motions, placing them physically near each other and indicating that the one is, perhaps, touching the other’s behind, but there is just no real feeling between them at all. Even when their faces are so close together, Mamahara is unable to provide any magnetic reaction between them. I should feel that they *want* to touch each other. It should feel painful for them not to. Instead, it leaves me completely cold.

MICHELLE: I definitely see what you mean! Personally, I keep staring at that first panel on the second page. They look so stiff and awkward. It’s not that I expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of a scene, but when they’re as oddly placed as the blond guy’s are, it feels unnatural and, by extension, makes everything else going on in the scene feel the same way.

MJ: I think I’d go so far as to say that in a scene like *this* one, I kind of *do* expect the position of a character’s legs to help drive the emotional content of the scene. It’s just as I was saying before, there should be a sense that the characters want desperately to touch each other (this includes legs) even if they might be scared to do so. I should see that in the legs and every other part of the body, at least in the drunk guy who is initiating the contact in the first place. It’s a seduction scene with no actual seduction going on.

Also, I feel like the panels are getting in the way of us viewing the scene, which is a weird and uncomfortable feeling. And unlike in last month’s selection where this was done to elicit response from the reader, here it just feels like clumsiness on the part of the artist. She provides these little glimpses of their faces and legs in the smaller panels, but since there is no tension in those panels, they don’t add anything to the scene. They just steal space from the main action, such as it is.

Wow, I’m really ranting now, aren’t I? Please stop me.

MICHELLE: You’re quite right, but I shall stop you as requested by introducing my second dud!

Moon Boy, Volume 9, Page 3 (Yen Press)

MICHELLE: Initially, it was the affronted rooster in the lower left that caught my eye and made me pause to really take in the complete and utter randomness of this page.

You’ve got a young person of indeterminate gender, swaddled in coat and boots, flushed and exhaling a gust of wintry air, possibly due to the exertion of just having decapitated a nearby snowman. This person is surrounded by such seasonal items as a piece of pie, a cookie, a beehive (with fake bees), an inverted dog bowl, and a pair of barnyard pals.

This was enough to have me snickering, but closer inspection reveals several problems in proportion and perspective. For one, take a look at that snowman’s nose. I’m pretty sure that is supposed to be the traditional carrot, but the artist was unable to draw it from a head-on perspective so instead it looks like a giant almond. Secondly, check out the boots. The right foot is clearly much larger than the left, and I don’t think it’s just an issue of angle—the detail on the top of each foot is different! Finally, actually wearing the mitten dangling by the person’s right hand on said hand would cause the heart pattern to appear on the palm side rather the back of the hand, where such designs typically go.

This is just sloppy and, above all, weird. What do these items have to do with each other? I also found it odd that one of the designs in the border is actually a musical symbol called a mordent. The mordent belongs to a class of musical embellishments called “ornaments,” which could carry a Christmassy connotation, except that I don’t credit this artist with that much cleverness.

MJ: I’ll admit I’m not too picky about things like perspective and such, but I am somehow disturbed by the way his fingers are digging into the poor snowman’s head. What did that poor (decapitated) snowman ever do to anyone? It’s as though he’s digging right into its scalp. Which looks oddly fleshy. And now I’m feeling shuddery.

MICHELLE: I don’t think I would have noticed the perspective problems if not for the chicken, to be honest, but spotting it here did spur me to notice other problems in the rest of the volume, notably a few deformed thumbs and some confusing action scenes that I wrote about in my review of the volume. I wasn’t sure what to make of the hands, honestly. If it’s that cold, why aren’t you wearing your mittens, kid?

MJ: If he put on his mittens, he wouldn’t be able to grab that piece of pie when it comes down. 😉

MICHELLE: Well, pie is important…

And that’s it for us this month. Do you have some duds of your own you’d like to share? We’d love to hear about them!

Fairy Tail 8-9 by Hiro Mashima: B

fairytail8The battle between Fairy Tail and rival guild Phantom Lord rages on. Two of Phantom Lord’s elite group, Element 4, have been defeated, but Gray must finish off his opponent (Juvia, a lovelorn lady possessed of rain magic) while a wounded Erza summons the strength to achieve a victory of her own. Though they’ve foiled part of Phantom Lord’s plans, however, Lucy still ends up getting kidnapped by Gajeel, the Dragon Slayer of Phantom Lord.

After some encouragement from Erza, Natsu heads to Lucy’s rescue and several chapters of fighting between he and Gajeel ensue. Unfortunately, I didn’t find these very fun to read, since there seemed to be more speedlines than usual and sometimes the action was confusing. Also, there was an unnecessary pervy spectator who kept commenting on Lucy’s undies whenever the latest explosion of battle happened to toss her about.

While this is going on, the headquarters of both Fairy Tail and Phantom Lord are destroyed, at which point the Fairy Tail guildmaster, Makarov, recovers his powers and proceeds to be a great badass. A subsequent investigation by the Magic Council finds Fairy Tail innocent in the affair, but Lucy feels responsible (it was, after all, her wealthy father who hired Phantom Lord to retrieve her in the first place), so she heads home. I really like how this chapter plays out; I was all set for a tiresome and angsty, “Oh no, it’s my fault. You’ll all be better off without me” story where her friends have to show up and convince her that she’s worthy. Instead, Lucy goes home simply to tell her dad that if he pulls anything like that again, he’ll have made an enemy of her and Fairy Tail, which is like her second family and, so far, much better than her first one.

fairytail9Upon her return, Lucy, Natsu, Gray, and Erza officially become a team and handle a couple of episodic missions without straying too far from home. I really like that most of the focus these two volumes has been on Fairy Tail itself, which has presented many opportunities to introduce or flesh out other members of the guild. The latest character to merit that treatment is ladies’ man Loke, who has a rather surprising backstory and needs Lucy’s help in order to continue to survive. Help that she, I might add, very competently provides (although it is managed a little too easily, I thought). Even though Mashima continues to use Lucy’s appearance for fanservice, he is, at least, allowing her to grow in confidence and general usefulness as the story progresses. At first, it was inconceivable that she could be an equal member of a team with powerhouses like Natsu, Gray, and Erza, but now it doesn’t seem so unlikely at all.

Although it has its ups and downs, Fairy Tail continues to offer a fun escapist story that works on a few levels; if you aren’t thrilled by the requisite shounen battles, then perhaps Lucy’s impassioned speech about finally finding acceptance will be more your cup of tea. Or maybe it’ll be the giant cow-man. Who knows?

Review copy for volume nine provided by the publisher.

Fairy Tail 7 by Hiro Mashima: B+

From the back cover:
Fairy Tail’s rival guild, Phantom Lord, has taken the competition to dangerous levels by smashing the Fairy Tail building and nearly killing three wizards. What is Fairy Tail’s response? A full-frontal assault on Phantom Lord! But this clash is all part of the Phantom Lord’s evil plot to capture a coveted prize.

Volume seven of Fairy Tail is a lot of fun. The battle between Fairy Tail and Phantom Lord continues on, and not only are some nifty villains introduced on the Phantom Lord side, we also learn more about some members of Fairy Tail who’ve remained in the background thus far. True, a couple of the chapters could be summarized as “Mirajane and Elfman have angst,” but it’s about time some of these folks got some attention.

Showcasing the new faces on both sides means Mashima gets to show off his talent for devising interesting new magical abilities. The most devastating new power to be introduced in this volume is called “drain,” wielded by a wind magic user, which essentially blows a person’s powers right out of them. Elfman turns out to have a pretty cool ability too, and now that he’s overcome his angst enough to use it, I wonder whether he’ll figure more prominently in the story from now on.

Lastly, I must commend Mashima for not taking this in the exact direction I was expecting. I was dreading another entry into the “our heroine is kidnapped by the enemy and our heroes bravely battle to retrieve her” school of shounen plotting, but Lucy surprised me by escaping her confinement pretty quickly. Everyone does still battle because they refuse to hand her over, but at least she wasn’t wholly passive about it.

Fairy Tail 6 by Hiro Mashima: B

From the back cover:
Hotshot Natsu and his cool rival Gray are fighting to stop a calamity demon from being revived by Gray’s fellow disciple Lyon and Zalty, a master of lost magic. But while they try to defeat the bad guys, the magical ice binding the demon keeps melting. Then a grudge between Fairy Tail and a rival guild turns to all-out war!

In the Author’s Note at the end of the volume, Mashima says that he doesn’t do much planning ahead with his story. I think that shows with the way the Deliora arc plays out. There are a couple of switcheroos that, while they very well may have been intended from the beginning, make me suspect a last-minute easy out. Also, Lucy’s sudden escalation in importance at the end of the volume comes out of nowhere.

That’s not to say the result isn’t entertaining, though. The battles between Gray and Natsu and their opponents are pretty fun, with some new ice techniques from Gray and a new kind of magic—the ability to control time as it relates to objects—for Natsu’s opponent. Shounen staples like having faith in one’s companions, preventing one’s rival/ally from completing a noble self-sacrifice, forgiving the enemies’ sins due to mitigating angst, and delayed-reaction spurting wounds abound.

Though it’s disappointing that our heroes face virtually no punishment whatsoever (aside from some very creepy spanking the Master administers to Lucy) for undertaking an S-class quest (played up as an offense worthy of expulsion), the story picks up a bit once they return home to find that Fairy Tail headquarters has been virtually destroyed by a rival guild called Phantom Lord. Throughout the volume, less prominent members of Fairy Tail had been introduced on the chapter splash pages, and just as I’d been thinking I’d like to see some of these folks get to do something cool they’re given an opportunity to do so in a rather awesome brawl when Fairy Tail pays the rival guild a retaliatory visit.

Even though Lucy’s capture at the end of the volume is not the most original shounen plot device, some of the Phantom Lord opponents look interesting, so I’m looking forward to what’s to come.

Fairy Tail 5 by Hiro Mashima: B

From the back cover:
Gray’s old training companion Reitei Lyon is trying to revive a calamity demon, but doing so will make their former master’s sacrifice meaningless! What’s the secret of Gray’s past, and why does he keep taking off his clothing? Gray is revealed (metaphorically speaking) in this pivotal volume!

You know, there are things one sees in Fairy Tail that one is simply not going to see in any other manga. I’m talking about stuff like a gigantic flying rat carrying a bucket of poisonous jelly and a cow-man squaring off against a malicious tree. Sometimes, things are so cracktastic that one just has to admire them.

I actually liked this volume more than the last one, perhaps because I’ve moved past the foolishness of their embarking upon a quest that could get them expelled from the guild and become invested instead in their successful completion of the task at hand. The variety of magical abilities continues to be one of the most enjoyable parts for me, and I’m particularly glad to see Lucy’s skills increase in this volume. She’s by no means a match for Natsu or Gray magically, but both of them would have their butts handed to them by Erza, so there isn’t any annoying gender inequality going on.

Well, not in the realm of combat, anyway. There’s certainly a lot of fanservice in this volume, mostly on the chapter splash pages. In one of them, Lucy is wearing a sleeveless t-shirt that is held up by ginormous boobs and a prayer. The most egregious example, however, is an image of Erza wielding a sword while dressed in a négligée. Lucy’s garb is at least in character. Erza’s definitely is not.

We also learn more about Gray’s backstory, and I’m impressed with how deftly the flashbacks are woven in with the fighting in the present moment. It manages to be seamless but yet not confusing. I think partly this was achieved through pacing, as a little bit of information would be revealed at a time and when it seemed like the right time to switch back to the present, it would. The backstory itself isn’t much to get excited over, but the mechanics of it are really well done.

Fairy Tail 4 by Hiro Mashima: C+

From the back cover:
S-Class quests are so dangerous that one false move means certain death! Now loose cannon Natsu, rookie Lucy, and nearly powerless Happy have embarked on a stolen S-Class quest, setting out for the Demon Island. Can anyone stop them before they get themselves killed?

Sigh. Well, the resolution to the cliffhanger of Erza’s arrest was completely lame, as was the conclusion of her duel with Natsu. It felt like the mangaka suddenly lost interest in that plot line.

The S-Class quest wasn’t all that much better. I’m definitely not the ideal shounen audience, since I tend to get very annoyed with characters who do things they’re not supposed to and then get into perilous situations as a result. The lack of foresight also bothered me. It was bad enough Natsu hatched this hare-brained scheme, but Lucy continued to go along with it even after learning it would likely result in her expulsion from the guild she had been so desperate to join back in volume one. And evidently felt hardly a qualm about doing so!

Ultimately, their quest lead to various angsty revelations about Gray’s past which Mashima admitted including in an attempt to lure more female readers. About the only good thing in this volume was the introduction of a cool new guild member, Mystogan, whose power is to put everyone to sleep. Ironically, that was the one bit that didn’t have me yawning.

Fairy Tail 3 by Hiro Mashima: B

From the back cover:
The evil members of the Dark Guild Eisenwald have found a cursed flute that can murder anyone who hears its music—and now they’ve taken over a midtown train station with a very loud public address system. Only Natsu and his crazy friends (including a flying cat) can stop them!

Fairy Tail has finally won me over. I think it was the fact that several guild members went on a mission together that did it, since I enjoyed seeing their various powers on display. Natsu also got to partake in a couple of nifty battles with nice choreography.

One thing I like about the combat in this series is that people have more than one trick. They don’t have to keep doing a “Wind scar” or “Amekakeryu no Hirameki” over and over again, but have many different aspects of their magical specialties that they can employ. I especially like Erza’s ability to don armor to suit her opponent; it has the added benefit of being very prettily drawn, as well.

At the end of the story, Erza gets arrested by the body that governs those with her special abilities. Oh noes! I predict the spiky-haired hero and friends will attempt a daring rescue, that Happy will turn out to be a sexay layday, and that Erza’s heretofore unseen angsty brother, Pyakuya, will make an appearance.

Fairy Tail 2 by Hiro Mashima: B

From the back cover:
Beautiful celestial wizard Lucy has teamed up with the crazy fire wizard Natsu and his bizarre flying cat, Happy. Their job: to steal a book from the notorious Duke Everlue. But the eccentric Everlue has killed wizards before, and Lucy’s team is walking right into his death trap!

I was getting serious GetBackers vibes from the first mission in this volume. Natsu, Lucy, and Happy are hired by a client who will pay them two million “jewels” to retrieve a book from the library of some crazy, lecherous old guy. They fight some bodyguards with specialized combat abilities, and Lucy goes around in skimpy outfits, though not quite as skimpy as the stuff Hevn wears. (Side note: I haven’t read any GetBackers for two whole years now. Must remedy. It’s not the best thing ever, but I would still like to finish it.)

A new powerful female character is introduced in the second mission and I thought I’d like her, since she seemed keen to instill some discipline in her fellow wizards, but she turned out to be as illogical as the rest in her own way. The second story also introduces the threat of dark guilds, those who’ve broken rules (such as accepting assassination requests) and have been ousted from the league of official wizard guilds, which is pretty nifty. Some of these villains have some neat magic abilities, too; I particularly like the guy who manipulates shadows.

The art continues to be great. Not only does Mashima excel at depicting cities, but there’s never any question of where a scene is occurring, and sometimes you even know what room is next door, what’s down the street, etc. Some maps are helpfully provided, as well.

I liked this volume a little more than the first one, but I’m still not entirely sold on following it long term. Mashima employs gag humor that I don’t really care for (someone turning up naked for one panel just so someone else can joke about it), but at the same time there are amusing bits that I like, such as when Happy (the cat) picks up a skull in a storage room and randomly wears it as a helmet for a few pages. The magic system, not only the abilities but the organization, is also original and interesting. If only the characters weren’t so irksome!

Fairy Tail 1 by Hiro Mashima: B-

From the back cover:
Cute girl wizard Lucy wants to join the Fairy Tail, a club for the most powerful wizards. But instead, her ambitions land her in the clutches of a gang of unsavory pirates led by a devious magician. Her only hope is Natsu, a strange boy she happens to meet on her travels. Natsu’s not your typical hero-he gets motion sickness, eats like a pig, and his best friend is a talking cat. With friends like this, is Lucy better off with her enemies?

This series was praised on a couple of review sites I read, but I have to say I’m kind of underwhelmed so far. I think my main problem with it so far stems from the characters, who are fairly annoying and reckless. The wizard guild members pride themselves on thumbing their noses at authority, and one has to wonder how they keep getting jobs when they’re famous for destroying public and private property.

There’s definitely potential, though, and later chapters that began to explain Lucy’s magic were more to my liking. I’m quite impressed by the art, as well. I adore any panel that depicts a city, because Mashima does them particularly well, and though we’ve got the stereotypical spiky-haired hero and buxom girl for the leads, some of the other character designs are very original. Like the Taurus spirit Lucy conjures who looks like a man-cow in superhero briefs. With six nipples. His appearance led to the one line that I actually did giggle at, when he saved them from a dangerous situation and Natsu gratefully cried, “Cow!!”

So yeah, I didn’t like this as much as I thought I would, but I’m willing to give it a couple more volumes to catch my interest.