One Piece 32-45 by Eiichiro Oda: A

Tired of tackling the epic One Piece in three-volume chunks, I decided to do something new and review the entirety of the Water Seven arc—comprising volumes 32 through 45—at once. If you’ve never read the series, this isn’t the place to start, but man, is it ever worth waiting for!

Typically, the drama in One Piece comes from some sort of ongoing conflict the crew discovers whenever they land on a new island. The civil war on Alabasta and the tyrannical ruler on Skypiea are examples of this. The crew gets involved as a group, fighting together for the sake of strangers, and earns the gratitude of the islanders as a result. What immediately makes the Water Seven arc startlingly different is that this time, much of the drama is coming from within the crew.

After departing Skypiea, the Straw Hats decide to head to Water Seven, an island known for its shipbuilders, because the Merry Go needs repairs and Luffy would like to recruit a carpenter to join the crew. On their way, they run into Admiral Aokiji, who drops some ominous hints about Nico Robin, insinuating she will inevitably betray them. Luffy being Luffy, he refuses to doubt her, but the seed has been planted all the same. Also significant is that a demonstration of Aokiji’s power causes Usopp to express insecurity about his abilities. “Are guys as powerful as that gonna be coming after us from now on? All I did was run around a lot.”

Once they arrive at Water Seven, several important things happen. First, Robin is approached by a member of Cipher Pol No. 9, a group that tackles “shadowy jobs” for the World Government, then the Merry Go is declared unsalvageable, and the money received for the gold from Skypiea is promptly stolen by “The Franky Family.” Suddenly, there’s all this tension within the crew! Usopp feels that Luffy is being cold-hearted with his decision to ditch the Merry Go in favor of a new ship (and secretly frets that he’ll be the next one casually tossed aside) and actually quits! Robin participates in the attempted murder of Water Seven’s mayor, and the Straw Hats get the blame! The disintegration of the crew is awful, but it’s especially weird seeing Luffy so upset. At one point Zolo says, “Don’t doubt yourself. If you start becoming unsure, who can we have faith in?!”

I could go on and on describing the intricacies of the plot as it develops from here, but I’ll refrain. I’ll say instead that it is impressively multi-layered, involving blueprints for an ancient weapon and traumatic backstories for both Robin and Franky, who becomes very endearing very quickly. The scale of the story is truly epic and I admire how everything falls into place. The action on Water Seven culminates in the discovery that Robin has been helping the government in exchange for the Straw Hats being allowed to go free. The Straw Hats, upon learning of her sacrifice, respond in their typical way: “Now that we know she needs to be saved our strength will be infinite.” A chase by sea train ensues, followed by a huge battle on the island of Enies Lobby, from where Robin and Franky are scheduled to be conveyed to Impel Down, the notorious prison from which no one has ever returned.

Aside from simply being riveting, there are several things to commend about how Oda has constructed his story. Most importantly, even though the plot is complex it’s clear that it’s real purpose is to compel some genuinely poignant emotional high notes. Quite a few scenes made me cry, including a triumphant moment for Usopp in his guise as Sniper King, Robin’s tearful confession that she wants to live, and the real doozy—the noble rescue at the end of volume 44. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have goosebumps as I type this just thinking about that scene. It is too good for me to spoil. If you do not cry buckets at the end of volume 44, you may be made of cardboard.

I also admire how easily Oda integrates Franky into the story, turning him from a brash thief to a cyborg with a heart of gold (fueled by cola!) by showing how moved he is by the crew’s feelings for each other. He’s so touched by their bond that he’s willing to risk his own life on their behalf. After using the wood he bought with the stolen money to build the Straw Hats a new ship, it feels natural that he should join them as their new shipwright, though it takes a… special sort of incentive. I’m really looking forward to future adventures with him along. Robin, too, has finally found the place she belongs, where she need never fear that her comrades see her as a burden. Will the chance to finally relax change her? I’m eager to see.

Also, while endless fight scenes do tend to tire me out after a while, I must praise Oda’s sense of place. As mentioned previously—during the Alabasta arc, I believe—it’s always completely easy to tell where the crew is in relation to each other during moments when they are separated. Everyone gets a chance to contribute, as well, and show off some new abilities. Too, his battles seem to feature a lot of valiant animals, and he’s always careful to show you their fates. Even someone as small as the mayor’s pet mouse is never forgotten!

Satisfying high-stakes battles. Character growth. Sorrow and joy, triumph and redemption. It’s a rare manga that combines all of these things so seamlessly. One Piece isn’t just a great shounen manga, it’s a classic of the entire medium.

Tidbits: Sports Manga for the Win!

Welcome to another installment of Tidbits! This time I turn my attention to sports manga, a genre for which I nurture an inexplicable adoration. First up is Crimson Hero, a shoujo tale that attempts to balance volleyball and romance, followed by six early volumes of Eyeshield 21 and four later ones from The Prince of Tennis, in which the Seishun Academy tennis team finally makes it to the semifinals of Nationals.

Crimson Hero 14 by Mitsuba Takanashi: B
I’m not entirely sure it’s accurate to classify Crimson Hero as sports manga. Ostensibly, it’s about Nobara Sumiyoshi and the rest of the girls on the volleyball team at Crimson High as they pursue their goal of winning the Spring Tournament. In reality, there are only a dozen pages of volleyball in this volume, and only half of those feature the girls.

When last we left off, Haibuki, one of the aces on the guys’ team, had run off because he learned that Nobara was secretly going out with his teammate, Yushin. Also, some other guy named Kaz was spreading rumors about Nobara that caused her to break up with Yushin. It was really a mess, which I ranted about in more detail here.

Thankfully, Takanashi almost immediately addresses all of the things I found so annoying! Kaz abruptly apologizes and disappears. It was totally random, but whatever; I’m glad he’s gone. Yushin and Nobara discover where Haibuki is and both implore him to return. When Yushin goes to great lengths to win Haibuki back from another school that’s been attempting to recruit him, Haibuki realizes that Yushin kept his relationship with Nobara a secret only because he thought it would be best for the team and finally stops being a petulant brat. Hooray!

Though I mock some of the emotional moments in this volume, the truth is that when done well, it’s honestly very entertaining. It’s not the most original story in the world—earnest but academically challenged girl is sought after by two boys with contrasting personalities—but I like it. I still wish they would just play some volleyball already, though.

Eyeshield 21 4-9 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata: B
In addition to his fearsome talent for gathering information and blackmailing others to get his way, Hiruma, the demonic captain of the Deimon Devil Bats football team, also excels at motivation and promotion. It’s through his efforts that a crowd of Deimon students turns out to watch the Devil Bats defeat the Zokugaku Chameleons, which in turn leads to a record turnout at the next recruitment meeting.

A handful of new players joins the team, including the absolutely adorable Komusubi, who looks like a muppet and idolizes Kurita, and the Devil Bats proceed to a tie game against their next opponent, which earns them a spot in a televised face-off against a visiting American team. A summer training trip to America soon follows, with the all-important fall tournament season only a few weeks away.

At this point, Eyeshield 21 is following the sports manga formula pretty closely: the team gets better, important positions are filled, and everyone tries hard to get stronger as they face increasingly more formidable opponents. Just because it’s formulaic, though, doesn’t make it any less good. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction to be derived from watching someone earnestly work hard to achieve their goals, and even if much of what happens in this series is completely over-the-top, it’s still a fun read.

My favorite aspect of the story, though, is how those with less inate talent are not forgotten. This is best exemplified by what’s going on with “The Hah?! Brothers.” These three thugs were originally blackmailed into playing by Hiruma, but have gradually become genuinely invested in the team’s goals. Jumonji, their leader, was particularly upset to see his friends’ contributions belittled in an article, and works hard to help them improve themselves. I’m not sure why, but I find the idea of a former delinquent finally finding something to care about and strive for really moving. A scene in which the crowd cheers them for the first time actually made me teary-eyed!

Now if only there were fewer poop jokes…

The Prince of Tennis 36-39 by Takeshi Konomi: C+
When one is a long-time fan of The Prince of Tennis, as I am, one becomes accustomed to and can forgive a lot of the ridiculousness that goes on in the series. For example, it’s a given now that characters will be introduced who are supposed to be in junior high, even though they look thirty, and who have at their disposal an arsenal of highly improbable shots with silly names like “Super Ultra Delicious Swinging Mountain Storm.” Sets will also almost always end at 7-6, after a grueling tie-break, and characters frequently are one point away from defeat when they suddenly “evolve” and rally valiantly. It’s repetitive, but hey, how much variation can one really expect?

For the National Tournament, mangaka Takeshi Konomi kicks things up a notch with the introduction of a technique so eyeroll-inducing that even I can’t refrain from snerking. It’s called “the selfless state,” and manifests as a glowing aura that spectactors can detect instantly. “There it is!!” cries the peanut gallery, “The selfess state!!” It enables the player to instinctively recreate any opponent’s move that he’s ever seen, which results in even more shouting from the sidelines as familiar shots are recognized by the crowd. Our hero Ryoma Echizen can do it, naturally, but he’s been doing so for ten volumes or so now so it’s time to tweak it still further.

Volumes 36 through 39 of the series focus on Seishun’s semifinal match-up against a school from Osaka called Shitenhoji. After Fuji loses the first singles match, Seishun retaliates with a doubles victory followed by a singles win via forfeit. If they win the next doubles match, they’re going to the finals. Enter Seishun’s captain, Kunimitsu Tezuka, who not only can achieve the selfless state, but a special variation thereof called “the pinnacle of mastery.” Not to be outdone, Shitenhoji puts up Senri Chitose, whose ability to access “the pinnacle of brilliance” makes him go all sparkly.

Stoic Tezuka is my favorite character, so I don’t begrudge him the opportunity to be a badass, particularly since he missed most of the Kanto Tournament due to injury, but there’s only so much ridiculousness I can take. I mean, there’s one two-page spread where these guys just stand there and glow at one another! Tezuka ultimately wins, of course. After a brief interlude provided by a yakiniku eating contest, the finals begin, but Ryoma is nowhere to be found and Tezuka seems poised to reinjure himself in pursuit of victory.

These volumes make me sigh heavily. And yet… for all my complaining, I will eagerly buy the last three volumes of the series and be bummed out if the sequel isn’t licensed soon.

Review copy for volume 39 of The Prince of Tennis provided by the publisher.

Genkaku Picasso 1 by Usamaru Furuya: B-

From the back cover:
Having cheated death, Hikari Hamura must save himself by using his artistic abilities to help others.

Hikari Hamura, nicknamed Picasso because of his natural artistic abilities, survived a horrible accident, but his friend Chiaki wasn’t so lucky. Suddenly, Chiaki appears in front of him and tells him in order to keep living he must help the people around him. Can Hikari save people with his sketchbook and a 2B pencil?

Moody and misanthropic Hikari Hamura doesn’t want to have anything to do with his classmates. He’d much rather practice drawing in the style of his favorite artist, Da Vinci, and dream of becoming an important artistic figure. His only friend is a girl named Chiaki, but one day, while she’s reading nearby as he’s sketching a river, they are both killed in a freak helicopter crash.

Chiaki is the only one who stays dead, however. At the moment of her death, she prayed that someone would intercede and save Hikari’s life. Her request was granted, on the condition that Hikari use his artistic skills to help people. This she explains to him when he pulls her miniature winged form out of his front pocket and starts freaking out in the middle of class.

Hikari isn’t interested in this arrangement until she points out that he’s going to start rotting away unless he complies. Over the course of the volume, Chiaki and an increasingly less reluctant Hikari help out four fellow students. Somehow, Hikari is able to see the state of their “heart” and draw a symbolism-heavy picture, which he and Chiaki can then enter and attempt to decipher what’s going on. There are aspects of this premise that I like a lot. For example, why does Chiaki suggest Hikari attempt to draw her heart before the helicopter crash? What was it that she slipped into his pocket? Is she really there at all? Is Hikari just crazy?

Frankly, I hope that’s the case, because most of these scenarios are pretty simplistic and silly (not to mention repetitive). The worst is probably the case of Akane, a classmate who is perpetually weak because of a vegetable allergy. By drawing her heart, Hikari realizes she has a childhood trauma stemming from the death of a pet rabbit and, while inside the drawing, gives Akane’s baby self a big hug while reassuring her that “vegetables aren’t scary.”

Furuya’s art is definitely one of the more impressive aspects of the manga, as he completely switches his style when drawing as Hikari and maintains that style when the characters are sucked into Hikari’s drawings. Even though the heart drawings are full of fairly ridiculous symbolism they’re quite detailed and obviously took some time to create.

In the end, Genkaku Picasso is not quite as good as I thought it would be. Still, it’s only three volumes long and I’m curious enough to see it through to the end. I hope that what I’m reading as hints about Chiaki really are meant to be so, which might mean more interesting material lies ahead.

Genkaku Picasso is published in English by VIZ. Volume one is available now and volume two is scheduled for a February 2011 release. The series is complete in three volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Four from Yen Press

It’s time again for Tidbits, and the focus this time is on some recent and/or upcoming releases from Yen Press! First up is the second volume of Higurashi When They Cry: Beyond Midnight Arc, followed by the ninth and final volume of Moon Boy, the fourth installment of Time and Again, and the ninth volume of Yotsuba&!. Enjoy!

Higurashi When They Cry: Beyond Midnight Arc 2 by Ryukishi07 and Mimori: B-
I was so impressed by the spooky atmosphere in the first volume of the Beyond Midnight Arc that I went back and purchased the first two volumes of the Higurashi series, thinking that perhaps I had initially judged it unfairly. Unfortunately, while the second and concluding volume of the arc (volume ten in series numbering) doesn’t leave me questioning that decision, it is still not as good as the first.

The premise is that a group of five people has gathered in a “ghost village” called Hinamizawa. At the end of the first volume, someone’s cell phone mysteriously ends up broken, one of the five is found dead, and the name of another appears on a list of victims of the disaster that left Hinamizawa deserted in the first place. The first two mysteries are solved very early in the second volume, which seems rather abrupt, and then a bunch of yakuza arrive and completely derail the story for several chapters.

There’s also much unburdening of secrets, and character backstories full of debt, dissipation, and domestic violence monopolize a lot of pages. Perhaps I’m hard-hearted, but I found these tales—and the subsequent decisions to live life to the fullest and always try one’s hardest—pretty far from compelling. I’m here for the creepy, not the weepy!

In the end, the final mystery is resolved in a fairly satisfying manner and the survivors note that the pelting rain has finally ceased. While I nitpick the structure of this second volume, on the whole I did enjoy the arc—especially how the revelations sent me back to reread portions of the first volume in a new light—and still plan to go back to the beginning one of these days.

Moon Boy 9 by Lee YoungYou: C
It’s over!

As with all volumes of Moon Boy prior to this final one, it’s practically impossible to describe exactly what happens. Various people are after Yu-Da, the “Black Rabbit,” whose liver has the powers to free the fox queen, Hang-Ah, from thousands of years of torment. Various other people are determined not to let Yu-Da be sacrificed, and many battles ensue.

It had never really occurred to me before how much of the confusion I experience when reading this series is due to the art. LeeYoungYou’s work is fine for facial closeups, and many such panels—particularly when characters are emotionally distraught—are worthy of praise. Action scenes, though, prove an insurmountable challenge. At one point we get a two-page spread of a bunch of characters standing around when suddenly something goes “Kapow!” What was it? I have absolutely no idea. Then a fight breaks out, accompanied by innumerable speed lines and still more sound effects, but for the life of me I could not tell you what weapon (if any) anybody is wielding.

There are some good emotional moments sprinkled throughout. I am especially fond of an encounter between Jin-Soo, one of the foxes formerly assigned to guard Yu-Da, and the villain who now inhabits the body of the boy she loves. When told that said boy’s soul is long gone, she replies, “Then I will take back his body if his body is all I can have.” It’s too bad none of these characters was really developed over the course of the series, but it’s still a cool scene anyway.

It’s moments like those that kept me reading Moon Boy, despite its many problems, and while I am honestly relieved that it’s over I still think there’s a good story in there somewhere.

Time and Again 4 by JiUn Yun: A
The most compelling aspect of Time and Again is the bond between its main characters. Part of what connects Baek-On and Ho-Yeon—an exorcist and his bodyguard, respectively—is that each is attempting to atone for something in his past. After several volumes of hints, volume four is almost wholly devoted to revealing the tragic details of Ho-Yeon’s background. Rather than present the story in a linear fashion, however, manhwa-ga JiUn Yun introduces a client, a reputedly kind and honest man who is nonetheless capable of being motivated by greed, and uses his case to segue into Ho-Yeon’s flashback.

Before his execution for false charges, Ho-Yeon’s father tasked him with looking out for his mother and sister. Because of his father’s disgrace, however, Ho-Yeon is unable to get a government post and can only bring in a meager living through transcription work. Eventually, he rides out with a military unit, discovers a “cruel talent” for killing, and is offered a promotion. “I am not doing this because I want to make a fortune and have authority over other people,” he thinks. “I just want enough money to provide for my mother and little sister. Who could ever say that’s too much to ask?”

Alas, while his return home is delayed, his mother and sister are killed and Ho-Yeon feels that he, through his greed, was responsible. It’s a classic case of our tortured hero being too hard on himself—he had to find a way to support them somehow, but he knew it was wrong to use his ability to kill as a means to obtain wealth, and did it anyway. While he’s at his lowest point, he meets Baek-On, and so we finally see exactly how they meet.

It’s a sad, affecting tale and one that offers a lot of insight as to why Ho-Yeon is willing to fight to protect Baek-On, who has saved him in more ways than one. I must admit, though, that I’m even more interested in Baek-On’s backstory, and hope for evidence that Ho-Yeon has saved him, too.

Yotsuba&! 9 by Kiyohiko Azuma: A
A new volume of Yotsuba&! can always be counted on to provide a smile, and the ninth installment offers plenty as Yotsuba gets her first teddy bear, proves unable to successfully carry a cup of coffee next door, enjoys some yakiniku, and joins in on a group trip to see some hot air balloons. As usual, Yotsuba greets everything with enthusiasm and even weathers tumbles with a laugh.

One of the things I enjoy most about this series is catching a glimpse of the unique and creative way Yotsuba thinks. Here, she cleverly invents jobs for a bunch of scattered acorns and evaluates teddy bears for their “ease of hugging.” At the same time, Azuma is careful not to idealize her too much. She can be selfish, like any child her age, and has to be reminded to say “thank you” when given a gift as well as scolded for fibbing to her dad. She hasn’t yet realized that the world doesn’t revolve around her, as demonstrated by a particularly awesome moment during the trip to see the hot air balloons. A section of the field is roped off with “keep out” tape and Yotsuba, fully prepared to go right on in, is stunned to learn, “Even I can’t go in there?”

I also continue to absolutely, positively love Azuma’s skill in nonverbal storytelling. There are many panels in which Yotsuba’s thoughts or state of mind is completely clear from just the art. Additionally, backgrounds are wonderfully detailed and I especially liked the beautiful depiction of the expanding vista as the balloon in which Yotsuba and her companions are riding gradually ascends above the field.

In both craft and subject matter, Yotsuba&! simply excels.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Cross Game 1 by Mitsuru Adachi: A-

When the first volume of Cross Game arrived at my house, I’m pretty sure my exact words were, “Eee!” Happily, I liked it every bit as I thought I would.

The back cover really says it best: “Cross Game is a moving drama that is heartfelt and true, yet in the brilliant hands of manga artist Mitsuru Adachi, delightfully flows with a light and amusing touch. The series centers around a boy named Ko, the family of four sisters who live down the street and the game of baseball. This poignant coming-of-age story will change your perception of what shonen manga can be.”

Warning: it’s impossible to discuss one of the nicest aspects of this series without revealing a major spoiler. Proceed at your own risk.

The first of the three volumes of Cross Game that VIZ has bundled together in an attractive omnibus serves as a prologue, of sorts. We meet protagonist Ko Kitamura when he’s in fifth grade, a mischievous and lazy kid whose parents run a sporting goods shop. Nearby, Mr. Tsukishima runs a batting center and his four daughters are a part of Ko’s life, though none more so than sunny Wakaba, who was born the same day as Ko and who alone has the power to motivate him. She’s a very special girl, with a knack for befriending other kids despite their appearance or reputation; the influence her acceptance has on her classmate Akaishi, commonly regarded as somewhat of a hoodlum, is destined to be lifelong.

Tragedy strikes at swimming camp when Wakaba attempts to save someone else and ends up drowning herself. Despite her physical absence from the story after this point, Wakaba’s presence remains a palpable one. As the story jumps ahead four years, we find Ko still continuing to perform the daily workout he promised her he would do as a means of improving his baseball skills and Akaishi leading the junior high baseball team (and staying out of trouble). Ko hasn’t joined the team because of some jerks that were on it when he was a first year, but once Akaishi tells him that on the last morning of her life, Wakaba passed by his parents’ store and mentioned that she’d dreamed about Akaishi and Ko going to Koshien together, he begins training without another word necessary. Ko may be a slacker if left to his own devices, but if it’s something Wakaba wanted, he is going to make sure it becomes reality, no matter what. It’s clear Akaishi feels the same.

The boys move into high school, where the interim principal has hired an unprincipled baseball coach with a good record at Koshien. Ko, Akaishi, and their friend Nakanishi don’t want to play for such a fellow and opt to remain on the junior varsity team; as the volume ends they’re preparing to show up the varsity team in an upcoming scrimmage game. Tying in with this is the sad story of Aoba, Wakaba’s younger sister. Aoba is passionate about baseball and is even the captain of the junior high team. Unfortunately, because she’s a girl she can only ever pitch in practice games and can never be deemed more than a devoted fan. Aoba and Ko clash personally, as well, as she still resents him for the closeness he shared with Wakaba, though it’s clear they’re destined to end up together.

Cross Game is a pretty low-key story that’s part slice-of-life and part sports manga. Typically, the protagonists in the latter don’t have such a touching reason for wanting to excel at their sport, and neither do they feature two guys nurturing a bittersweet memory of the same beloved girl in their hearts. The characters really grow on you—Ko seems a little bratty at first, but shows time and again that he’s a good person, particularly in how he treats Momiji, Wakaba and Aoba’s little sister—and I love that Ko’s two best friends are kind of burly and unattractive. You don’t see that a lot in manga.

I have two minor complaints, but I’ve been given to understand that they’re both common attributes of Mitsuru Adachi’s manga. The first is that some of the character designs—particularly of children—are positively dumpy. Too, a lot of the recurring characters have faces that are difficult to remember, though this is not the case at all for the primary players. Secondly, the fourth wall gets broken all the time. Adachi himself appears and the characters are often shown reading his manga. The story doesn’t take itself too seriously, so this is not as glaring as similar moments in NANA, for example, but I found it kind of irksome all the same.

The second omnibus of Cross Game, this time containing volumes four and five of the original Japanese releases, is due in January. I am looking forward to that scrimmage game—and Ko finally getting to show off his amazing baseball abilities—so much that it isn’t even funny.

Cross Game is published in English by VIZ, who is bundling the seventeen-volume series into eight chunky tomes. This one is comprised of the first three volumes and the others will contain two each.

This review was originally published at Comics Should Be Good.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tidbits: Shonen Jumping for Joy

Welcome back to Tidbits, a new feature for shorter reviews! This time I take a look at three continuing series from VIZ’s Shonen Jump imprint. First up, it’s volumes 28-31 of One Piece, followed by volumes 9-12 of Slam Dunk and a single volume (the third) of the aesthetically pleasing Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee.

One Piece 28-31 by Eiichiro Oda: B+
Volumes 28-30 consist almost entirely of fighting, as the forces of the all-powerful “Kami” of Skypiea, Eneru, clash with the Shandians (fighting to regain their lost city), while the Straw Hat pirates (just lookin’ for some gold) are caught in the middle. Eneru, as it turns out, has staged the whole thing as a survival game, and figures that after three hours, only five of the original 81 combatants will survive. After this, we get periodic updates as to how many remain, a device I found strangely satisfying.

Although some of the battles are between characters we’ve never seen before, those encounters are usually brief. While Luffy spends the entirety of volume 29 stuck inside a giant serpent, many of the other Straw Hats get a chance to shine, especially Chopper and Robin, whose battles with Eneru’s minions show off the versatility of their respective powers. Nami, too, gets more experience using her new weapons and Conis, a resident of Skypiea, marshals her courage to defy the Kami and warn the people of his plans to destroy the island. There’s been some discussion lately about manga that passes the Bechdel Test, and these volumes exemplify why One Piece does so with flying colors.

Speaking of Robin, I am liking her more and more. This is the first time we’ve really seen her on her own and though it’s always been evident how intelligent and competent she is, it’s nice to see she’s also trustworthy and kind of a badass. She’s generally reserved but is passionate about archaeology, and through her we begin to get hints about a 100-year gap in the history of the world, something that could turn out to be huge. At one point she references “the unspoken history that the land below has ceased to talk about,” and later discovers that Shandora “fought against the enemy.” Thirty volumes in and we’re just starting something so big and potentially awesome? Oda, I think I love you.

After Eneru puts in motion his plan to destroy Skypiea, a mass exodus of its residents ensues. Volume 31 departs from the present panic to flesh out the history of the island and how it ties in with Mont Blanc Noland. This is actually the best part of the Skypiea arc so far and explains quite a few things while being a durn good story in and of itself. The arc doesn’t quite wrap up here, but now that I fully understand the significance of the golden bell in the city of Shandora, I care a lot more about the outcome than I have done in recent volumes!

Slam Dunk 9-12 by Takehiko Inoue: B+
It takes some willpower not to devour each new release of Slam Dunk, but it’s so immensely satisfying to read multiple volumes back-to-back that the wait is worth it!

Volume nine marks the start of the Kanagawa Prefectural Tournament, in which the Shohoku team is able to take part thanks to Hanamichi’s friends taking responsibility for the on-court brawl that occurred in the previous volume. Shohoku is underestimated at first, but the return of Miyagi and Mitsui to the team—both of whom are greeted with somewhat awed recognition from the crowd—makes them a force to be reckoned with. They progress steadily through the tournament, eventually ending up in the final four against Kainan, a school that has made it to Nationals sixteen years in a row.

Hanamichi is his usual annoying self to begin with, demanding that the ball be passed to him and proclaiming himself a genius at every opportunity. After fouling out in each of the first four games, and after recognizing the skills and strengths of his teammates, he finally realizes that he’s not such hot stuff after all. Despite occasional relapses, this marks a real turning point for Hanamichi, as he is able to accept tutelage more readily and function better as a part of the team. For example, though he originally harbored dreams of outscoring Rukawa, once he makes snagging rebounds his focus instead, he’s able to contribute a great deal to Shohoku’s success. His progress and maturation combined with a slightly more humble attitude go a long way toward making him more likable, and it’s quite touching when he gets his first rousing cheer from the crowd.

Structurally, Slam Dunk is very similar to The Prince of Tennis. Though I love the latter a lot, Slam Dunk is the more exciting read, a fact I’d chalk up to the nature of the sport. In tennis, our lead characters battle either singly or in pairs against their foes, while the rest are relegated to commentary until it’s their turn. Here, all the principle characters are on the court at the same time, which gives more immediacy to the way they’re able to motivate each other. True, the characters in Eyeshield 21 all play simultaneously, too, but because basketball moves at a faster pace than football, the effect here is exhilarating, bordering on addictive.

Unfortunately, there’s no more Slam Dunk due until December! Perhaps I’ll investigate whether Inoue’s more dramatic basketball manga, REAL, can help stave off the cravings.

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee 3 by Hiroyuki Asada: C+
Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee is the story of Lag Seeing, a twelve-year-old boy who has just become a Letter Bee (government mail carrier) in the perpetually dark country of Amberground, inspired by Gauche Suede, a Letter Bee he met five years ago. Lag had hoped to reunite with Gauche, but after learning that his hero disappeared six months after he last saw him, he meets with Gauche’s sister, Sylvette, and promises to find out what happened to her brother.

Gauche was by far the more interesting of the two characters featured in volume one, so it’s nice to get a few glimpses of him here. These tibits—and the bonus story about reuniting an aging dingo (animal companion) with the Letter Bee he faithfully served—are the best things about the volume. Lag is still not a very interesting protagonist and I’ve grown to pretty much hate his dingo, Niche. I’m sure she’s intended to be comic relief, but the story would be better served by cutting her unfunny antics and devoting that page space to clarifying the narrative, which is still going on and on about the importance of “heart.”

Back in January when I reviewed volume two, I said I’d give Tegami Bachi one more chance to win me over. As problematic as the series continues to be, after what we learn about Gauche’s disappearance and mysterious memory loss in this volume, I can’t imagine myself stopping without learning what happened to him. I don’t think this counts as “won over” so much as “minimally intrigued,” but either way, I’ll probably keep reading.

Review copies for volumes nine, eleven, and twelve of Slam Dunk provided by the publisher.

Bakuman。 2 by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: B+

From the back cover:
Average student Moritaka Mashiro enjoys drawing for fun. When his classmate and aspiring writer Akito Takagi discovers his talent, he begs Moritaka to team up with him as a manga-creating duo. But what exactly does it take to make it in the manga-publishing world?

After Moritaka and Akito collaborate on a manga together, they venture to publishing house Shueisha in hopes of capturing an editor’s interest. As much potential as these two rookies have, will their story impress the pros and actually get printed?

The second volume of Bakuman。 picks up where the first left off, with artist Moritaka Mashiro and writer Akito Takagi taking the final draft of their one-shot manga to Jump headquarters for consideration. This kicks off a series of fascinating meetings (spanning from summer vacation to the start of the next school year the following spring) in which the boys receive feedback from their editor, Hattori, and try to create a story that will be popular enough to merit serialization.

I loved all the meetings with Hattori, especially how specific he was about story and art requirements for Jump and how, as the boys improved, he went over their storyboards panel-by-panel with useful suggestions. As befits shounen protagonists, Mashiro and Akito are both very talented, but they’re not instantly the best around and go through many ideas and an immense amount of work before they’re able to craft something that is worth publishing.

When they finally do manage to get a story published, it takes third place in the popularity poll for that issue. The winner is Eiji Nizuma, a fifteen-year-old mangaphile who has been drawing since the age of six and practically does nothing else. He’s an exceedingly weird kid, but he fulfills the Akira Toya role here of “genius rival of comparable age.” He’s the first obstacle our leads will have to overcome, and I think it’s pretty fun how this is shaping up to be a sort of tournament manga.

Unfortunately, I’m still bored and fairly annoyed by Mashiro’s relationship with classmate Miho Azuki. They’ve pledged to marry once their dreams come true, but in the meantime aren’t even going to date. To some extent I understand—it’s suggested that Miho’s in favor of this because she wants to be able to focus on her dream without being distracted by Mashiro—but they still hardly know each other. Thankfully, Miho’s friend, Miyoshi, finds this just as bizarre. Also, while the overt, spoken sexism is absent from this volume it’s not exactly absent from the characters’ behavior. At one point Mashiro informs Miho that they’re going to be together when he becomes a manga artist, whether she’s realized her dream (to be a voice actress) or not. Nice, kid.

Though Bakuman。 has some flaws, it’s still an utterly captivating look at the manga-creating experience. I can overlook a banal relationship plotline if it means getting a glimpse inside the editorial process at Jump!

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Eyeshield 21 1-3 by Riichiro Inagaki and Yusuke Murata: B

Though I’ve long professed an ardent love for sports manga, I did secretly wonder if my enthusiasm would wane when the featured sport is one in which I have zero interest, like, say, football. Would the inherent charms of sports manga be able to compensate for my real-world disinterest? Eyeshield 21 has proven to me that the answer to this question is “yes.”

Sena Kobayakawa has justed started his first year at Deimon High School, where he’s looking forward to reinventing himself after years of serving as gopher for bullies (when not fleeing from them). Picked as an easy recruitment target by the demonic Himura, captain of football team, Sena finds himself volunteering to be the team’s manager. Once Himura witnesses Sena’s speed and natural running back moves, though, he is suited up and disguised (so that other teams won’t try to steal him) and given the moniker Eyeshield 21.

Although he’s initially not too thrilled about this, the passion and skill of Himura and the completely adorable (and completely enormous) lineman, Kurita, kindles his interest in the game. His running abilities lead the Deimon Devil Bats to their first victory ever. Their next opponents, the Ojo White Knights, prove much tougher, and it’s then Sena meets his rival—Shin, a player who’s nearly as fast as he is, but much, much stronger. Although there’s really no chance for the Devil Bats to prevail, they still manage to score two touchdowns against the superior team and Sena achieves a sense of personal victory when he’s finally able to evade one of Shin’s tackles.

As volume three comes to a close, the Devil Bats have been eliminated from the spring tournament but have turned their eyes and hopes towards fall, with the eventual goal of playing in the Christmas Bowl. Things are looking up a little—they’ve finally found their fourth member, a monkey-like boy named Raimon with some mad catching skills and the presence of Sena’s childhood friend, Mamori, as team manager seems destined to attract even more recruits. Aside from Himura and Kurita, no one knows that Sena is Eyeshield 21 (since his green eyeshield is magically sufficient to obscure his identity), and he can only watch in some consternation as the mysterious player’s legend begins to grow. When he happens to encounter Shin on the street, he realizes he can admit his real identity to him, but there’s no time to bond because the two of them have to unite to take down some thieves on a motorcycle. It’s actually kind of awesome.

So yes, Eyeshield 21 manages to entertain me even though it’s about football, a sport I find excruciatingly dull. There are loads of visual aids to help explain the game, the tone is optimistic and silly, and the characters are all memorable, too. Himura’s brand of crazy is responsible for most of the gags in the series: he looks like a demon, seems to have sufficient dirt to blackmail everyone into doing his bidding, keeps a ferocious dog chained up at school, and casually totes around all manner of weaponry. There’s a lot of attention devoted to Haruto, a teen idol whose fans persist in calling him the ace of the White Knights, even though he knows he isn’t. Shin’s a cool character, and Sena is okay, too, but really, my heart belongs to Ryokan Kurita.

Kurita is very big and round, very strong, very sweet, and prone to get weepy when he’s emotional. I think a visual aid is necessary here to truly convey his cuteness.


Ultimately, Eyeshield 21 is lots of fun. I’m chuffed my library has recently acquired the full run of the series; expect to see more here in months to come!

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.