Bakuman。1 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: B+

Moritaka Mashiro is bored. For his fourteen years of life he’s merely gone along with the flow, a path which is destined to end with him becoming a normal white-collar worker. He doesn’t want this, but sees no alternative until Akito Takagi, the top student in class, notices Moritaka’s artistic skills and proposes that the two team up to create a manga. Moritaka is resistant at first—he’d much rather loaf around and play video games—but when the object of his affections (and aspiring voice actress), Miho Azuki, agrees to marry him when his manga becomes an anime, he is suddenly unstoppable.

Moritaka expects resistance from his family—after all, his uncle essentially killed himself by trying to become a successful manga artist—but they’re surprisingly supportive and it turns out that his uncle’s studio has been preserved, untouched, since his death. I absolutely adore the chapter where Moritaka and Akito rush to the studio for the first time—it is seriously a manga-lover’s dream. Not only are there plenty of artistic supplies, but there are shelves upon shelves of manga (“for reference”) as well as neatly organized boxes of storyboards and final drafts. All of the scenes with the boys working on their story—they decide to submit a final draft for consideration by the end of summer break—are absolutely fascinating and bring home just how grueling creating comics can be.

There are a couple of problematic things about Bakuman, however. Moritaka and Azuki’s pledge to get married when they achieve their dreams—without dating in the meantime—is pretty silly, but not out-of-character for a couple of fourteen-year-olds. The fact that they’ll be encouraging each other via e-mail, just like Moritaka’s uncle was encouraged by letters from his classmate, who just so happens to be Azuki’s mother, is a coincidence I could’ve done without. In general, this whole subplot failed to interest me; I was much more interested in the boys’ efforts to get their manga off the ground, but I suppose listless Moritaka needed to find motivation somewhere.

More significantly, many reviewers have taken issue with the displays of sexism in Bakuman. Having now read it for myself, I get the impression that certain characters are sexist but I’d stop short of applying that label to the series as a whole. This makes me wonder, though… why, when characters in Bakuman say things like “She knows by instinct that the best thing for a girl is to get married and become somebody’s wife” or “Men have dreams that women will never be able to understand” does it not piss me off as righteously as when characters make very similar comments in The Color Trilogy by Kim Dong Hwa?

I think it depends, for me, on who’s saying it. If, as in the case of The Color Trilogy, a male author puts such words into the mouths of female characters, I can’t seem to help getting peeved about it. In Bakuman, the speaker of the first line above is Akito—in other words, just an overconfident teen who thinks he knows everything. He goes on to say he doesn’t like a particular girl in class because she’s proud of how well she does in school, but when Azuki’s mother later tells him she doesn’t like smart guys, he flails about and says, “But that’s just your taste.” Perhaps what he earlier presented as deep insight about Azuki was really his own taste coming through. The second line above, about men’s dreams, though technically spoken by Moritaka’s mother, is actually a quote from his off-camera father and was easy for me to dismiss as, “Oh, he’s just an older man with outdated opinions.”

I’m not trying to argue that these characters aren’t sexist, but they don’t succeed in getting my dander up and certainly will not deter me from reading more of the series.

Bakuman is published in English by VIZ. One volume’s been released here so far, while the ninth volume of this still-running series came out in Japan last month.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

One Piece 25-27 by Eiichiro Oda: B

I’ve heard a lot about the Skypiea arc of One Piece, though I actually knew zero specifics about what Luffy and his crew would encounter once they reached the legendary island in the sky. More, I seemed to absorb the general idea that this arc is really awesome and everyone loves it. Alas, I don’t love it yet, but there are some things I do really like about how the story is shaping up.

Volume 25 begins with the Straw Hats meeting Mont Blanc Cricket, the descendant of a notorious liar named Mont Blanc Noland who swore ’til his death that he saw a city of gold on an island called Jaya. Noland’s so notiorious, in fact, that there’s a children’s book written about him, and Mont Blanc Cricket’s life was essentially ruined by being related to this fellow. He now spends his days diving into the seas around Jaya in search of the sunken city, aided by a couple of monkey pirates who believe that Noland was telling the truth.

All Mont Blanc Cricket has to show for his ten years of effort is a small collection of gold artifacts, and when those are stolen by a gang of pirates, Luffy goes to get them back. I like how this local pirate, Bellamy, is given some attention beforehand, as if he’s someone to really be feared, but Luffy ends up taking him out with one punch. In gratitude, Mont Blanc Cricket and his monkey minions customize the Merry Go to survive the Knock-Up Stream, a vertical blast of water that’ll convey them to Skypiea and which is conveniently scheduled to go off the very next day.

Once on Skypiea, Luffy and Usopp proceed to act like greater idiots than usual and everyone is branded as trespassers because they enter without paying the required exorbitant fee. Duly, they’re hunted down, and the citizens of Skypiea are required to turn them in because their actions are monitored by a vengeful “kami” who rules the island. The Straw Hats are conveyed to a sacrificial altar to await Kami’s judgment or something, but can also save themselves by triumphing over various challenges set by his vassals.

Up to this point, the Skypiea arc is actually kind of boring. I think the main issue is that, though we’re learning about the somewhat crummy way of life on Skypiea, including a never-ending war between the kami and some Native American-esque people called the Shandians, Luffy and his crew are not involved. It sort of seems like it’s their job to go around, righting miserable conditions on the Grand Line, but actually, they really only get involved with civil strife when they’ve been asked to do so. Here, nobody’s asking, so the conflict goes on without them. This does make for some great moments, though, like when a Shandian attack distracts the kami’s vassals, allowing our heroes to have a leisurely journey through a dangerous jungle on a boat that goes “putt putt putt.”

I also really like seeing the Straw Hats actually acting like pirates and looking for gold. The end of volume 27 features the crew split into two teams and heading for the spot where they believe Mont Blanc Noland’s city has ended up after being struck by the Knock-Up Stream, and it seems poised to be pretty fun. I like what Nico Robin brings to the crew—she’s reserved and far more mature, but seems to be benevolently tolerant of their zany enthusiasm. I hope she sticks around.

Lastly, I enjoyed the glimpse of the wider world Oda reveals in this volume. For the first time, Luffy’s reputation has begun to precede him, and we see locals respecting him because of the high bounty that’s been placed on his head. We also glimpse the members of the world government and a few more of the warlords of the sea. It’ll probably be quite some time before we come back to these people, but I’ll always appreciate how Oda plants the seeds for future plotlines so seamlessly.

So, in the end, the Skypiea arc isn’t my favorite just yet, but this is still One Piece, so it’s not as if it’s in the least bit bad.

One Piece 22-24 by Eiichiro Oda: B+

In some ways, I don’t really need to write another review of One Piece. Its virtues remain the same—a likeable core cast of characters who show how far friends will go to help friends and Oda’s sure hand guiding what might otherwise devolve into scenes of chaos—as does its one chief flaw: a tendency for fights to go on and on. And yet, I enjoyed this trio of volumes so much that it seems wrong not to chronicle that in some way.

Volumes 22 and 23 see the end of the civil war plaguing Princess Vivi’s kingdom, Alabasta. This arc has been rather slow for me, and that still holds true here, with a very lengthy final showdown between Luffy and the evil Sir Crocodile. Too, Crocodile’s convenient tendency to gloat over his evildoings makes it easy for the rebel leader to see that he and his followers were manipulated into their conflict with the king; I wished for a little more ambiguity here, but I guess that doesn’t really fit the spirit of One Piece.

Still, the conclusion is satsifying, and there’s a lot of great follow-up. We get a full chapter on the Navy officers who not only let Luffy go, but also realized he had a better chance of saving Alabasta than they did. Captain Smoker and Sergeant Tashigi may be trying to capture our heroes, but they’re both honorable people fighting for what they believe in, and I like that we are allowed to like them. There are also scenes of the townspeople undertaking repairs, our heroes taking some time to recuperate, and Vivi having to ultimately decide whether she wants to rejoin the crew or remain at home, which results in some extremely touching final pages for volume 23.

With volume 24, the Skypiea arc begins, but not before a stowaway—archaeologist Nico Robin, former second-in-command of Sir Crocodile’s criminal organization—is discovered and allowed to join the crew. After a 200-year-old ship falls from the sky and promptly sinks, Luffy, Zolo, and Sanji are sent down to look for clues as to how it seemingly came from the sky, the direction to which Nami’s log pose—the instrument that guides them from island to island along the Grand Line—is currently pointing.

Robin directs them to a pirate island called Jaya, where they make inquiries about Skypiea and are ridiculed for continuing to believe in superstitions and dreams. It’s all pretty fun—I especially loved the near-wordless scenes of the guys exploring the shipwreck, where they find a mysterious feather that I’m sure will be important later—but definitely still in its expository stages.

A few other random observations:
* You know a series is good when you finish a volume and think, “Yay! I still have thirty more to go!”

* Oda often impresses me by the little things. I love, for example, the recurring character of the camel and its sole line of dialogue, “Grmpf!” I also love that Oda has not forgotten Chopper’s inability to effectively hide; it comes up several times during these volumes but nobody comments on it.

* This being One Piece, I predict Nico Robin has a tragic backstory.

Black Cat 15-17 by Kentaro Yabuki: B

The last time I reviewed Black Cat, I said, “There are six volumes left of this series, and if they’re comprised of a huge epic battle between the sweepers and Creed and his goons, I think I could be quite happy indeed.” Well, I was wrong. Oh, my prediction as to the contents of these volumes was correct, but I wouldn’t describe myself as “quite happy” with the results. Not outright displeased or anything, but perhaps a little weary after a few volumes of it.

When we left off, the members of the Sweepers Alliance had converged upon Creed’s island fortress. Train, Eve, and Sven are all separated from one another and each wind up temporarily partnered with a new character. These three volumes are chiefly combined of fights between our heroes and members of Creed’s group/movement, The Apostles of the Stars, that generally last three chapters or so and frequently end with the victorious good guy convincing the defeated bad guy that it’s possible to change their ways and embark upon a new life.

And that wouldn’t be bad—in fact, when Eve takes her turn giving the speech, it has special resonance because of her personal evolution from living weapon to protector of the innocent—but it just happens over and over and over. Also, some of the supposedly awesome new skills the fighters come up with, like River’s Sonic Fist and Train’s Black Claw, just look really lame.

The high point of these volumes is the demonstration of how much Eve has grown. She is far more confident as a fighter, for one thing, having been motivated to practice her skills because of Train’s example, and is impressively badass in her fight against The Apostles’ Leon. More than that, though, it’s as if she has begun to truly understand what being a sweeper and putting one’s life on the line for others really means. I love that her maturation is considered an important enough part of the story that Yabuki finds time to focus on it a bit even in the midst of chaos.

When I first sat down to read these few volumes, I thought, “Oh, I have the final three volumes of the series out from the library, too. Maybe I can just devour all six at once!” After finishing this group, though, I definitely needed a break. I hope the finale can change things up enough to be truly satisfying.

Black Cat 12-14 by Kentaro Yabuki: B+

Black Cat may not have the most innovative or sophisticated plot ever conceived—our hero and his friends face off against a mentally unbalanced bad guy and his lackeys—but it’s executed so well and the characters are so likable that I can’t help but be thoroughly entertained each time I consume another chunk of the story.

In volume twelve, Train and friends meet with Dr. Tearju, a nanotech expert who might be able to help Train (now in the body of a child) return to normal. Tearju’s advice enables Train to overpower the nanomachines causing his condition and use them to develop a new power—immediately dubbed the “rail gun”—which essentially allows him to electrify his bullets. Creed’s forces attempt to draft Tearju, and when that fails, they use a monkey with clone powers (I am not making this up) to steal both her appearance and her knowledge. All of this makes Eve decide that the time has come to go after Creed, as he’s much too dangerous to remain free.

Train agrees, and after revealing the story of his past and deciding that he wants to administer justice as a sweeper rather than pursue vengeance as the Black Cat, he sets about acquiring intel on Creed’s whereabouts. While Sven goes off to train his “vision eye,” which allows him to see a few seconds into the future, Train and Eve enter into an alliance with some other sweepers. This is quite a fun twist on things, and the fourteenth volume ends with a (literal) boatload of sweepers making their way to Creed’s island hideout.

There are six volumes left of this series, and if they’re comprised of a huge epic battle between the sweepers and Creed and his goons, I think I could be quite happy indeed. As I said, this isn’t the deepest series ever, but it’s genuinely enjoyable to read and whenever I finish the volumes I’ve got on hand, I always wish I had more. I like that the characters seem to genuinely like each other, too; some of the best moments are things like child-sized Train and Eve going to see a movie called “A Dad and His Dog” together.

Lastly, I rejoice that I have finally gotten an answer about those weird things on Train’s jacket! Tucked away in a character popularity poll was the information I’d been seeking. Yabuki writes that the “donut-shaped accessories on Train’s chest are made of wood with a metal interior. They serve as a sort of shield.” Not that we ever see them function in that capacity, but at least we need wonder no more!

Bleach 30 by Tite Kubo: C+

From the back cover:
Ichigo and his friends are moving ever closer to the center of Hueco Mundo and rescuing Orihime. But their battles against the Arrancars are testing them in ways they never thought possible. Can they keep their honor in a world where it doesn’t exist, or will Hueco Mundo leave an indelible mark on their souls?!

Ichigo (who actually appears very, very little in this volume) and friends are still fighting their way toward rescuing Orihime. Chad and his nifty new arm are able to vanquish one foe, but not before another arrives who dispatches him in short order; Rukia encounters an Arrancar who looks exactly like Kaien, her former Assistant Captain, and must figure out what his true motives and origins are; and Renji faces off against a science-inclined Arrancar in a spot where his ability to use his bankai is blocked.

Reading this volume, featuring a gang that has split up and is currently engaged in one-on-one fighting, on the heels of a very similar setup in One Piece invites comparison, and it is not one that Bleach emerges from with the advantage. In One Piece, a sense of place and how the characters’ actions will help achieve the ultimate goal are abundantly clear. In Bleach, partly because we’re in a nebulous realm like Hueco Mundo, there’s really no clear idea of where anybody is, who they’re fighting at this moment, or how any of this is actually getting them closer to Orihime.

Kubo attempts to liven things up by having us believe that a couple of our heroes have died, but I honestly didn’t find any of this compelling in the least. A skewering in One Piece shocked me; a skewering in Bleach makes me go “ho-hum.” Really, the most interesting aspect of this arc continues to be Orihime’s relationship with Ulquiorra, an Arrancar who seems curious about her and humanity in general. I wish more time were devoted to that pairing.

In the end, this installment is somewhat of a disappointment. I wonder if I wouldn’t be better off hoarding Bleach and reading it in chunks rather than a volume at a time; perhaps then I’d be able to get swept up in the momentum and actually care about what’s happening to the characters I’ve followed for 30 volumes now.

One Piece 19-21 by Eiichiro Oda: B+

I had originally checked out about a dozen volumes of One Piece from my local library with high hopes of reading them all in the allotted time, but life intervened and I sadly ended up turning most of them back in. I did, however, manage to read these three volumes, in which the Straw Hats attempt to prevent civil war from erupting in Princess Vivi’s kingdom (Alabasta) due to the devious meddlings of the head of the Baroque Works criminal organization, Sir Crocodile.

In volume nineteen, Luffy and the gang arrive in the town where Crocodile, thought to be a good guy by the townspeople, is living, and some of them are very promptly captured. We learn more about the rebels in Alabasta—and how all they’ve really wanted is for the king to prove that he hasn’t done the dastardly thing Crocodile has pinned on him—and this volume succeeds in making the country’s troubles much more compelling than I found them to be in the previous batch of volumes I read.

As the rebellion heats up, Crocodile gives Vivi the choice of rescuing her friends or attempting to save her country. Sanji arrives at a timely moment and proceeds to be a fabulous badass for about a panel, before eagerly asking Nami, “Do you love me now?” After rescuing the navy captain who’d attempted to capture them, the group heads for the palace in Alubarna, where the rebels and royal forces are set to converge within hours. Luffy is recaptured by Crocodile, but insists that Vivi and the others carry on without him. Vivi’s reaction to Luffy’s devotion to her cause is quite touching, and is another example of a member of the group learning to trust the others and let themselves be helped.

While volume nineteen features a lot of good character moments, volumes 20 and 21 are chiefly devoted to fighting, as the Straw Hats split up to draw away the Baroque Works agents and give Vivi a chance to make it to the front. First, Luffy faces off against Sir Crocodile, culminating in an awesomely shocking skewering; Usopp and Chopper (whose delight in being of use is extremely sweet) take on the slow-witted Mr. 4 and his partner, Miss Merry Christmas; Sanji engages in a particularly memorable encounter with Mr. 2 Bon Clay; Zolo faces off against Mr. 1, whose body is made of steel; and Nami tries out a new weapon in her fight against Miss Doublefinger. It’s particularly nice to see Nami obtain some combat prowess at last, and it feels like forever since we’ve seen Zolo in action, too.

Although I don’t generally like the battles as much as the rest of One Piece, Oda handles them so skilfully I can’t help but be impressed. There are multiple events going on here in multiple places, but one is never confused for the slightest moment. Everything is paced well, the reader knows where everyone is at any given moment, thanks to some handy maps, and we’re reminded of what’s going on in other places just frequently enough to reinforce the epic scale of what’s going on. Lines like “Their hopes are about to collide at Alubarna” elevate the skirmishes beyond mere displays of Devil Fruit powers and again exemplify why this series is a shining example of shounen manga.

Although the civil war situation is not resolved by the end of volume 21, matters are definitely coming to a head, though it might still be a couple of volumes before this arc concludes. The temptation to check out another huge chunk of this series is strong, and it’s possible I won’t be able to resist it, but I shall at least attempt to get to the next few volumes in a timely manner this time!

Black Cat 9-11 by Kentaro Yabuki: B+

I’m at somewhat of a loss to explain how Black Cat manages to be so incredibly appealing, but these three volumes were a real pleasure to read and left me wanting to devour more of the series as soon as possible.

Volume nine begins in the middle of a confrontation between Cerberus, a trio of elite members of the Chronos Numbers, and Creed, the villain of the piece who is looking markedly glam this arc. (Seriously, here’s some evidence.) First, they must fend off a nanotech werewolf while Creed laughs his head off on the sidelines like any self-respecting villain must.

When this story started, the members of Chronos were the bad guys, but we’re obviously supposed to root for them here, and the fight is actually extremely cool. The fallout’s nice, too, with Creed freaking out that Train refused to fight him (preferring simply to rescue one of his friends) and a couple of his minions deserting him after it becomes clear that his true goal is not really what he represented it to be.

Volume ten begins with the fates of Creed and the members of Cerberus in question, though they are pretty quickly revealed. Creed decides that the reason Train will not fight and/or join him has to do with his ties to Sven, and so he kidnaps said fellow and is about to turn him into a nanotech monster when Train intervenes and ends up shot with the tech instead. This results in him turning into a little kid, and while that would be stupid in any other series, it actually kind of works here. Train’s laid-back personality compels him to enjoy the change, but when it begins to affect his shooting ability (and hampers his efforts to protect a defector from Creed’s ranks against some unscrupulous Chronos fellows), it’s time to consult the foremost nanotech expert, who happens to be Eve’s creator.

I could probably go on describing the plot for paragraphs on end, but suffice it to say that this series is a great deal of fun. I like the characters a lot, and all of their conflicts with the bad guys are satisfying in that way only shounen manga can be. Sure, what’s going on is sometimes kind of silly, and the overarching plot with Creed and Chronos is kind of half-formed, but that’s okay. One shouldn’t read Black Cat because one wants to think deeply about world-dominating criminal organizations and those who seek to thwart them. One reads it for the fast-paced action and a compelling narrative that makes it a real page-turner.

Dr. Slump 1 by Akira Toriyama: C+

From the back cover:
When goofy inventor Senbei Norimaki creates a precocious robot named Arale, his masterpiece turns out to be more than he bargained for!

Basking in the glow of his scientific achievement, Senbei scrambles to get Arale in working order so the rest of Penguin Village won’t have reason to suspect she’s not really a girl. But first Senbei needs to find her a pair of glasses and some clothes…

This series was recommended to me after I enjoyed Toriyama’s COWA! so much. Unfortunately, this one’s not really my cup of tea. I had originally borrowed the first three volumes from the library, but struggled to make it through just one. To be fair, its advocate was completely forthcoming about the “cracktastic humor.” It just didn’t turn out to be the kind that works for me.

This is the story of a socially inept inventor named Senbei Norimaki and the girl-shaped robot he creates. It begins promisingly enough, with a fun sequence detailing Arale’s creation, but quickly derails into zany, juvenile humor as Senbei ventures into a department store to buy undies for his creation. Some chapters are kind of fun—like when super-strong Arale is hounded by every sports club at school or when she finds a camera Dr. Norimaki invented that takes photos of the future—but many feature boogers, butts, and boobies.

I’m sure this would delight the young male audience for which it was intended, and it’s not as if COWA! was completely devoid of this kind of humor itself. The thing is—COWA! had real heart. I think I’ll always fondly remember the scenes of the monster kids and their wonderment as they took in the human world, but there are no similar moments in Dr. Slump, at least so far. That said, some of the gadgets are intriguing enough—like the camera—that I might give it another chance at some point. I do think, though, that it’s going to be one of those series that’s best in small doses.

One Piece 16-18 by Eiichiro Oda: B+

If there remains anyone who doubts that One Piece is something special in the world of shounen manga, they need only read these three volumes to be convinced.

Volume sixteen begins with Luffy and Sanji on their way up a treacherous, snowy mountain to deliver a feverish Nami to the only doctor (Kureha) left on Drum Island. They’re waylaid by some giant killer bunnies, but an avalanche puts a stop to their conflict. I have never loved One Piece so well as in the first two chapters here, in which Luffy demonstrates his lack of antagonism towards those who’ve done him no real wrong by helping free a trapped bunny. This act earns him the respect of the pack, who then come to his aid as the evil former monarch of Drum Island attacks. Yes, I know this is probably the single most sappy moment in the history of this series, but that doesn’t change the fact that Oda executes it really, really well and that I loved it to pieces.

The whole Drum Island arc is excellent, really. We meet Chopper, a blue-nosed reindeer who ate the human-human fruit and can now perform a variety of human/reindeer transformations. He’s studying medicine under Kureha and entranced with the idea of pirates, but weighed down by a lifetime of being shunned for his oddness. His backstory is sad, as they usually are in this series, but Luffy’s unbridled acceptance (and demonstration of his own bizarre abilities) finally convinces Chopper that he has finally found the place he belongs. A good bit of fighting is involved, too, but these warm and affecting character moments are really the highlight of the series for me.

After a touching resolution, the gang is ready to set sail for Alabasta, Princess Vivi’s homeland, which is in the midst of rebellion. Awesomely, quite a few others are converging on that destination as well, and volumes seventeen and eighteen focus on introducing more of the elite agents of Baroque Works as well as explaining the organization’s hierarchy. Baroque Works is shaping up to be a wonderful enemy, with quirky characters (like Mr. 2 Bon Clay, who likes nothing so well as a good pirouette), cool resources (like transport turtles), and internal rivalries. I’m much more interested in them than the plight of Vivi’s people, actually, though I did enjoy learning more about her past.

Unfortunately, Alabasta’s desert climate brings out some of the worst in Luffy, who, despite valiantly helping some villagers and taking up Vivi’s cause as his own, is nonetheless extremely stupid when it comes to keeping a low profile or rationing supplies. Yes, I know, I should simply believe that everything will work out fine for his crew, because it always does, but I can’t help being frustrated by his occasional idiocy.

While I’ve truly enjoyed One Piece, these volumes got me excited for what’s to come in a way that’s new. In fact, I couldn’t help splurging at the library the other day and came home with a veritable armload of volumes. It really is that good. If you’re looking for a shounen series with heart, look no further.