Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove: B

From the front flap:
The year is 1602, and strange things are stirring in England. In the service of Queen Elizabeth, court magician Dr. Stephen Strange senses that the bizarre weather plaguing the skies above is not of natural origin. Her majesty’s premier spy, Sir Nicholas Fury, fends off an assassination attempt on the Queen by winged warriors rumored to be in service to a mad despot named Doom. News is spreading of “witchbreed” sightings—young men bearing fantastic superhuman powers and abilities. And in the center of the rising chaos is Virginia Dare, a young girl newly arrived from the New World, guarded by a towering Indian warrior. Can Fury and his allies find a connection to these unusual happenings before the whole world ends?

The basic premise of Marvel 1602 is an interesting one: characters from Marvel’s roster of heroes are born 400 years too early, and here we see them as they would appear in the final days of Queen Elizabeth’s reign. Nick Fury is Elizabeth’s intelligence chief, Dr. Strange is her physician, and various other familiar characters appear as either “witchbreed” (the X-Men), inquistors (Magneto), freelance agents of the crown (Daredevil), or antagonists (Doctor Doom).

This would seem like a recipe for much coolness, but unfortunately the plot is a rather convoluted. There are no less than four subplots going on at once, and though they do converge at the end, early chapters are rather disjointed and later ones feel rushed. Even though I was never really invested in the story, it’s still fairly decent overall, with some elements that are more appealing than others. One thing that I thought was kind of lame was having characters make prescient comments, like when Professor Xavier remarks, “Sometimes I dream of building a room in which danger would come from nowhere.” Okay, even I get that and know how cheesy it is.

Possibly I would’ve liked this more had I more readily recognized the characters that were being portrayed. Certain ones are easy—I can recognize most of the standard good guys in Marvel’s stable of stars, it seems—but I completely failed to grasp clues as to the Grand Inquisitor’s identity (two major ones being the identities of his two helpers) until his ability to manipulate metal made me go, “Ohhhh.” I’m sure that real Marvel fans had figured it out way before then. I’ve also never before encountered the character of Black Widow so I didn’t recognize her. Kudos to Gaiman for employing her in a role—a freelance agent helping Nick Fury and Daredevil—that seems to be perfectly in keeping with the character’s established history.

In the end, Marvel 1602 is a pretty fun read. It didn’t rock my world or anything, but it did familiarize me a little more with some elements of the Marvel universe, even while presenting them in an alternate time line. I can’t complain about that!

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.

X-Men: Misfits 1 by Raina Telgemeier, Dave Roman, and Anzu: C-

Having fortified myself with some small exposure to Marvel-style Kitty Pryde, I felt equipped to tackle the first volume of Del Rey’s X-Men: Misfits for Manga Recon. Whether you’re an X-Men fan or a shojo manga fan, you’re bound to be disappointed (if not dismayed) by this hybrid.

In this shojo-style X-Men “remix,” Kitty Pryde is a fifteen-year-old girl who is an outcast because of her mutant abilities. When Magneto invites her to attend Xavier’s Academy for Gifted Youngsters, she accepts. Apparently, she’s the first girl to qualify as a gifted youngster in quite some time, because when she gets there she finds herself surrounded by members of the opposite sex.

Kitty quickly falls in with the wrong crowd: a group of boys calling themselves “The Hellfire Club.” Fans of the comic series will recognize this name as belonging to a band of villains, but here it’s more like a host club of rowdy hotties with disdain for normal people. Kitty starts dating Pyro and ignores many signs that he’s a creep until he finally gets in an altercation with humans while on a school trip to New York City.

Some scant attention is paid to Kitty learning to control her powers and accept her mutant identity, but it’s all very shallow. Some important things happen without any insight at all into her feelings (her first kiss with Pyro, for example) and other moments are too on-the-nose to carry much weight (“But am I really ready to accept this part of myself?”). The best thing that happens is that she quietly befriends Nightcrawler and Gambit, both of whom treat her much better than her so-called boyfriend does.

Kitty is rendered here about as vapidly as possible. She has a tendency to sprout cat ears and a tail when flustered or when she spots cute boys and is often depicted in the act of flailing her limbs around. She’s also extremely dumb where Pyro’s concerned—evading him for an afternoon after he breaks into her room then engaging in smoochy times with him at the next available opportunity. One wonders what Iceman, who leaves her a token of his affections in the final pages, could possibly see in her.

Anzu’s art has been described by Publisher’s Weekly as “shojo parody.” I wouldn’t have come to that conclusion myself, but I hope it’s true, because these pages are positively slathered in screen tone. Her artwork wouldn’t be bad if it were less cluttered; some of the guys genuinely look quite studly and even if Beast does bear more than a passing resemblance to Pokémon’s Snorlax, he is still kinda cute.

Coming on the heels of the incredibly kickass Kitty I just read about in Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, this incarnation is downright lame. Also lousy is the implication that this is what someone thinks shojo manga is all about. The preview for volume two promises a fashion show and a cooking showdown. Gee, I can hardly wait.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.

Astonishing X-Men 1: Gifted by Joss Whedon and John Cassaday: A

From the back cover:
Dream-team creators Joss Whedon and John Cassaday present the explosive, all-new flagship X-Men series—marking a return to classic greatness and the beginning of a brand-new era for the X-Men!

Cyclops and Emma Frost re-form the X-Men with the express purpose of “astonishing” the world. But when breaking news regarding the mutant gene unexpectedly hits the airwaves, will it derail their new plans before they even get started? As demand for the “mutant cure” reaches near-riot levels, the X-Men go head-to-head with the enigmatic Ord, with an unexpected ally—and some unexpected adversaries—tipping the scales!

While I’m by no means an X-Men aficionado, I can at least claim that I was familiar with the characters before the movies came along, courtesy of a high school boyfriend with a small comic collection. I remember reading some of his X-Men issues with genuine, though ultimately fleeting, interest. I’d never considered buying any for myself until Joss Whedon got involved. I cannot, therefore, attest to whether this volume achieves “a return to classic greatness,” but I can say that it’s excellent.

A small group of X-Men have reopened Xavier’s school and taken up positions as professors. This includes Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat), who is returning from a long absence to teach a computer course and serve as a student advisor. Also on staff are Scott Summers (Cyclops) and his girlfriend Emma Frost, which guarantees much inter-team conflict when Logan (Wolverine) is around, owing to their extensive personal history. Rounding out the quintet is Dr. Hank McCoy (Beast), who provides some conflict of his own when he expresses interest in the new mutant cure that has just been announced.

If the notion of a mutant cure sounds familiar to you, that’s probably because this arc was one of the inspirations for the 2006 film X-Men: The Last Stand. Besides the cure and the doctor responsible, however, very little remains the same. There’s no Phoenix or Magneto here. Instead, the story focuses on how and why the cure was created, what it represents to the mutant community, and how to keep it out of dangerous hands. There are some terrific scenes in which McCoy must weigh the potential to have an ordinary life with the message it would send if one of the X-Men should opt out of his powers. Too, there’s a lot of emotional goodness for Kitty as she struggles with her distrust of Emma (a former villain) and Scott’s seeming compliance with her suggestions.

That’s not to say that all is drama and tension. This is Joss Whedon, after all, who is adept at injecting humor into such moments. I giggled more than once and, even though I don’t know these characters near as well as the Buffy cast, I’d argue that this is better written than the Buffy comics.

Speaking of Buffy, a Twitter conversation about Kitty Pryde revealed that some feel her characterization here is too similar to the Slayer. I must admit that Kitty has several lines of dialogue that I could easily imagine coming out of Buffy’s mouth, and the way her grim sense of purpose gives way to raw emotion in a pivotal moment is also similar. The thing is, though, that I like Buffy (possibly more than many fans do) and I like Kitty, and if they both happen to be extremely strong, sad, and lonely young women, I think I’m okay with that.

I am more than okay with John Cassaday’s art, which is the most gorgeous comic book art I have ever seen. In addition to being markedly consistent, it’s also extremely expressive and he does marvelous things with perspective and shadow. What really blew me away, though, is his depiction of Emma Frost in her diamond state. I swear I marveled at one particular panel for a solid minute. Can this guy draw the Buffy comics, too, please?

I’ll definitely be reading more of this series, and it’s got me intrigued about the franchise as a whole. Could it be I’m becoming an X-Men fangirl? What else should I read?

The Middleman 1-3 by Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClaine: B

When the TV adaptation of The Middleman was airing on ABC Family in 2008, I watched a few episodes but eventually gave up because the campy plots exceeded my threshold for silliness. I have since wondered whether I ought to have given it another chance—after all, I liked the actors and a good deal of the dialogue—and when I noticed that my local library had in its collection the comics upon which the show was based, I decided to start by checking out the original source material.

The original run of The Middleman comprised eight comic issues (included in the first two collected volumes, which bear the respective subtitles The Trade Paperback Imperative and The Second Volume Inevitability) and the straight-to-graphic-novel release of The Third Volume Inescapability. A fourth book, The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse, was produced after the demise of the TV show and is essentially its unaired final episode. While written by series creator Javier Grillo-Marxuach, this work does not feature art by Les McClaine.

The origins of The Middleman, our clean-cut hero who “solves exotic problems,” are murky. His orders are filtered through Ida, a sophisticated robot trapped in the guise of a cranky schoolmarm, and neither of them knows from whom they originate. Just as he was recruited by the previous Middleman, when he encounters aspiring painter Wendy Watson slumming in a temp job and is impressed by her ability to keep cool and think quickly under pressure, he begins training her to be his eventual replacement. The unflappable Wendy is a very quick study and proves invaluable more than once while they’re on the job, though she can’t entirely abandon her artistic ambitions. In the first volume they contend with a super-intelligent ape obsessed with the mafia, in the second they defeat a gang of jewel-thieving Mexican wrestlers, and in the third (which is awesomely full of references to The Rutles) they foil the city-trampling, world-dominating plans of a madman in possession of alien technology.

While the plots are undeniably goofy and teeming with snerk-worthy dialogue, the tone does gradually shift into darker territory. In volume two, Wendy must leave behind her injured ex-boyfriend, witnesses a scene of mass carnage, and is later basically called a horrible person by said ex. (Alas, the promise of these developments is squandered immediately afterwards when she paints a ridiculous self-portrait with a tear rolling down its cheek that elicits more derision than sympathy.) In the third volume, we learn that the Middleman has withheld a crucial piece of information from Wendy: no Middleman has ever retired; instead, every one has been required to make “the ultimate sacrifice.” It’s rather like being the Slayer, actually. By the end of the series, Wendy must decide whether to fully embrace her new career, even if it means completely giving up all of her old dreams.

Unfortunately, because of its brevity, The Middleman reads more like an outline of a story arc than a fully realized and satisfying tale. I’m hopeful that the televised version will have more time to provide some of the fleshing out that the comic could’ve used. Too, now that I know the comic goes dark places, I’m quite eager to see whether the TV series does the same. Perhaps I’ve been inaccurately labelling it as fluff when it could turn out to be something much more interesting. Here’s hoping!

The Dead and the Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer: C+

deadandthegoneFrom the back cover:
When life as Alex Morales had known it changed forever, he was working behind the counter at Joey’s Pizza. He was worried about getting elected as senior class president and making the grades to land him in a good college. He never expected that an asteroid would hit the moon, knocking it closer in orbit to the earth and catastrophically altering the earth’s climate. He never expected to be fighting just to stay alive. And when Alex’s parents disappear in the aftermath of the tidal waves, he must care for his two younger sisters, even as Manhattan becomes a deadly wasteland.

Susan Beth Pfeffer’s Life As We Knew It enthralled and devastated readers with its look at an apocalyptic event from a small-town perspective. Now this harrowing companion book examines the same events as they unfold in New York City, revealed through the eyes of a seventeen-year-old Puerto Rican New Yorker.

With haunting themes of family, faith, personal change, and courage, this powerful novel explores how a young man takes on unimaginable responsibilities.

Seeing as how The Dead and the Gone is a companion book to Life As We Knew It, I expected that they’d have fundamentally the same plot. Apparently, I should’ve anticipated they’d have the same pitfalls, as well.

The story this time focuses on ambitious teenager Alex Morales, whose dreams of a bright academic future are cut short when an asteroid knocks the moon much closer to Earth, sending everyone into panic and claiming the lives of both of Alex’s parents. Forced to care for his two sisters, he does some awful things in order to survive and tries to make the best decisions he can, though sometimes ends up making mistakes. Faith is important to the Morales family, especially to super-pious Briana, who believes that her parents aren’t really dead but just stricken with amnesia from which they will miraculously recover someday.

One of the most annoying things about Life As We Knew It was its whiny protagonist and how she’d seem to improve, only to backslide. The same thing happens in this book with Alex’s younger sister, Julie, though eventually I realized Alex himself is a large part of the problem there. I’ve read three of Pfeffer’s books by now and have noticed that she tends to repeat things. This book is no exception, since a large part of it is taken up by variations on the following scene, repeated at least five or six times:

Alex: *accuses Julie of something*
Julie: I hate you! *runs off, slams door*
Alex: *goes in to talk to Julie and apologize*

After a while, I ended up sympathizing with Julie because Alex kept blaming everything on her! I was also irritated by the open-ended conclusion, predicted something waaaaaay in advance about Briana, and literally laughed out loud at the ridiculous fever dream Alex has while he’s sick with the flu.

That said, I do tend to like these apocalyptic YA books, so at least I enjoyed the basic plot even if the Morales family got on my nerves. I think I’ve learned by now, though, that Pfeffer’s books just aren’t my thing.

Sand Land by Akira Toriyama: A-

sandlandFrom the back cover:
In the far future, war has destroyed the entire Earth, leaving only a barren wasteland where the supply of water is controlled by the greedy king. In search of a long-lost lake, sheriff Rao asked the king of the demons for help… and got the king’s son, Beelzebub, and his assistant, Thief. Together, the unlikely trio sets off across the desert, facing dragons, bandits, and the deadliest foe of all… the King’s Army itself! It’s travel adventure and tank action in this new story from Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dragon Ball Z!

After enjoying Toriyama’s COWA! so much last October, I decided to read more of his works. Sand Land, one of the first batch of titles to be serialized in the American Shonen Jump magazine, is another single-volume series about humans and demons working together on a quest, though this time it’s water they’re after and not medicine.

The follies of man and natural disasters have combined to reduce the habitable part of the world to one particular desert, with a further blow falling when the single river flowing through the land suddenly stopped. Some water is available—sold by the king for an exorbitant price—but many can’t afford it. One day, a war veteran named Sheriff Rao turns up at the village of the demons with a request. He has deduced, from the presence of a certain kind of bird, that there must be a lake to the south somewhere, but to cross the dangerous desert he’ll need demonic protection. The demon king (who appears for all of one page and is totally awesome) grants his assent and sends along his son, Beelzebub, who picks an older, knowledgable demon named Thief for the third member of their party.

The trio sets out in Rao’s car, but quickly encounters obstacles. When the car is rendered undrivable, Rao manages to steal a tank using nothing more than a can of hairspray, and they proceed on their way. The tank belongs to the king’s army and when they get wind of the theft, a chase ensues, during which Rao’s real identity is revealed, the chief general launches a smear campaign against him in the media, Rao retaliates with some unsavory secrets, and, ultimately, an extremely satisfying conclusion is reached.

Throughout all of this, Rao realizes that the demons have been sorely underestimated by humans and, in fact, are far more innocent of wrongdoing than humans are, themselves. Even though the basic plot is fun and extremely well paced, it really is this fledgling trust between races that is the best part of the story. Although it moves briskly and there’s not a lot of time for character development, there’s still enough for the story to resonate emotionally when it should.

Toriyama’s skill in paneling is extremely impressive; I always love it when reading manga feels like watching a movie. I did notice one disappointing and odd thing, though: one panel depicting an evil general is very obviously reused in a later chapter. Maybe there’s a good reason for it—could it have been VIZ’s doing?—but Toriyama did gripe at the outside about how hard the series (and especially the tank, which looks great) was to draw, so it seems possible this could’ve been a very random shortcut.

In any case, I really liked Sand Land a lot. It shares a lot of common elements with COWA!, but since I liked those elements, I really can’t complain about an overabundance of similarity.

Sand Land was published in English by VIZ and is complete in one volume.

Deadman Wonderland 1 by Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou: B+

deadmanwonderland1From the back cover:
The Great Tokyo Earthquake. Ten years ago, it destroyed lives as it tore buildings asunder. Among those who lived through the disaster was Ganta Igarashi, now a middle school student finally getting a footing in his own life… that is, until the day the “Red Man” appears at his school and turns his world upside down again. Ganta’s entire class is brutally murdered, and although innocent of the crime, Ganta is sentenced to death and sent to the bizarre prison known as “Deadman Wonderland.” There, a brutal game of survival begins, where Ganta must discover the truth behind his classmates’ murder.

Can Ganta break out of Deadman Wonderland… or will it break him first?

The year is 2023. Ten years ago, the Great Tokyo Earthquake struck, leaving 70% of that city submerged by water. Ganta Igarashi used to live in Tokyo, but doesn’t remember anything prior to the evacuation. Now he attends middle school in Nagano, loves soccer, and has a couple good friends among his classmates. All of that changes on the day when “the red man”—a wonderfully creepy cyborg-looking fellow—arrives and murders all of Ganta’s classmates. In a rush to judgment, the authorities blame Ganta for the carnage and sentence him to death, at which point he’s shuffled off to Deadman Wonderland, the single privately owned prison in Japan, which doubles as a tourist attraction.

There, Ganta must learn to survive in the irrational environment or die. He’s fitted with a collar that is continually injecting him with poison—his death sentence—and the only way to delay it is to take a candy antidote every three days. To buy the candy, one must earn “cast points,” which are awarded for winning the various challenges put on for the benefit of the visiting public. When Ganta loses his first dose of the candy, he enters a deadly race with the hopes of using the prize money to procure another. Meanwhile, he meets a strange girl named Shiro who claims they knew each other before, gains some new super powers, and befriends his gentle-seeming cell mate who is hiding his true intentions.

There’s an awful lot going on in Deadman Wonderland, a fact made clear from the very start with a series of color pages depicting the moments right before the earthquake, but it all boils down to the fact that Ganta is likely not the normal kid he always thought he was. Sometimes I grow frustrated with stories that advance this many mysteries simultaneously, but it’s handled very well here, and the sense of a sure, guiding hand is palpable. I also really, really like “the red man,” who is not the only villain of the piece but merely the most visible. His character design is magnificent and menacing and you just know some crazy stuff is going to go down when he appears.

Ganta himself is also likable, as he rallies from his confusion and depression to fight for his life. I feel a little like one of the Deadman Wonderland patrons for enjoying watching him cope with some of the awful situations he faces, but he pulls through heroically enough that I can avoid feeling too bad.

This first volume of Deadman Wonderland does an excellent job introducing the reader to Ganta’s world and instilling a desire to read more about how he adjusts to his extreme circumstances. I also look forward to him learning more about some of the things at which the color pages hinted, like the truth of his early childhood and why, exactly, he’s been drawing a certain symbol on his possessions for years.

Deadman Wonderland is published in English by TOKYOPOP. The series is ongoing in Japan; seven collected volumes are currently available there.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tegami Bachi: Letter Bee 2 by Hiroyuki Asada: C

tegamibachi2From the back cover:
Amberground is locked in darkness. A man-made star casts only a dim light over the land. The pitch-blade wilderness is infested with Gaichuu—colossal insects with metal exoskeletons. The Gaichuu make travel between the cities of Amberground extremely dangerous. But thankfully the Letter Bees, a brave corps of messengers, risk their lives in order to keep the hearts of Amberground connected.

Lag is close to becoming a Letter Bee! On the way to his final interview at the National Postal Service, he found a dingo: Niche, a feral young girl with shocking strength and hair made of golden swords. Now, as they approach the bridge to the middle-class district, they stop to rest in Kyrie, a desperado town. They meet Nelli, a friendly young man who shows them to an inn. Nelli’s so helpful that they never notice him steal Lag’s crossing pass!

Volume two of Tegami Bachi demonstrates what happens when a flawed but intriguing series picks the less interesting of the two characters introduced in its first chapter for a protagonist. Without Gauche Suede, the experienced letter carrier who inspired Lag Seeing to want to follow in his footsteps, the volume flounders for the first half as Lag and his “dingo,” Niche, make their way to his Letter Bee interview in Yuusari, a nicer part of Amberground than the area in which Lag grew up.

A lot of the problem here is Niche, an acutely uncivilized girl with hair that can turn into swords, and her antics. She apparently views her pledge to wear underwear as a symbol of her contract with Lag, so when he suggests she might be safer staying with his aunt than being his dingo, she ditches her bloomers and then nags him for dozens of pages to accept her as his dingo again. This is incredibly annoying. Also, she seems to have acquired a pet/emergency food source (think Menchi in Excel Saga) called Steak, who is a source for some regrettable pee and fart gags.

Once Lag makes it to his interview, though, things start looking up. The European-inspired architecture in Yuusari makes for some lovely backgrounds, and the other/older Letter Bees are pretty cool. Lag also does extremely well on his letter-delivery test, almost as well as Gauche, about whom he learns some surprising information.

Some of these merits are also flaws, however, since practically everything is more interesting than Lag and Niche, and looks better, too. I’d much rather read a story starring Largo Lloyd, the director of “The Beehive,” for example, and the only thing that inclines me to read the third volume is that we might learn more about Gauche. About the main duo I care practically nothing. It’s almost as if Asada wants to make his story more sophisticated, but is shackled by some Shonen Jump mandate concerning adolescent humor. Whatever the case, I’m going to give this series one more chance to win me over, but I’m not feeling too optimistic.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Karakuri Odette 2 by Julietta Suzuki: B+

karakuriodette2In this gentle and episodic comedy, teenage android Odette has just entered her second year of high school and is joined by fellow android Chris, a former attack bot now reprogrammed by Odette’s creator, Hiroaki. Although Odette has learned much from being among humans, some concepts still elude her, like why a girl’s heart would beat faster near a particular boy or why some combinations of food taste better than others. Chris also receives some development, as he’s forced to consider personal preferences for the first time.

While each individual chapter is amusing, the real charm of Karakuri Odette is Odette’s continuing quest to understand humanity and her calm sorrow when she fails to do so. When she emulates something she saw on TV by putting an egg on Hiroaki’s ramen, for example, she experiences happiness that something she made pleased him. Further culinary experiments don’t fare so well, though, leaving Odette unable to recapture that feeling until she seeks out special tutelage from a friend. The concept of romantic love is also baffling, causing Odette to feel left out when so many of her friends have someone they like.

I continue to appreciate the approach this series takes with its subject matter; it’s definitely funny, but not in a frenzied way, and is frequently touching.

Review copy provided by the publisher. Review originally published at Manga Recon.