Steal Moon 1-2 by Makoto Tateno: C

stealmoon2As in the related series Blue Sheep Reverie, Makoto Tateno has gone beyond the call of BL duty to craft a science fiction plot of some complexity. One hundred years in the past, a computer on the moon called “Isis” was created to protect the president then in office. Now it’s rumored to be spying on the populace and seasoned street fighter Nozomi is recruited to help put it out of commission.

This all sounds fairly tame, but the way in which Nozomi gets involved is pretty bizarre. Boasting about his fighting skills after his latest victory, he declares that if anyone could beat him, he’d “willingly become his servant.” This is the cue for a mysterious guy called Coyote to show up, beat Nozomi, and promptly sell him to an internet peep room site. Because this is BL, Nozomi falls in love with Coyote, even though the latter says things like, “I wish I could’ve kept you imprisoned forever.” How romantic.

The peep show gig doesn’t last long, and Nozomi is eventually drafted into helping take down “Isis.” By the end of the second volume, he has learned more about Coyote so their relationship makes a bit more sense, at least, and some of the power dynamic issues are rectified. Nothing in the world can excuse the creepiness of the two twelve-year-olds in the peep show place with Nozomi, though. They’re fond of crawling all over him and striking sexy poses to drive up their hit counts, but the apex of ick occurs when one kid declares, “I’m gonna grow up real fast so I can service you!”

Um, ew?

Plotwise, Steal Moon is ambitious and occasionally even intriguing, but other elements of the story might incite a strong desire for brain bleach.

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

Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl: C

charlieelevatorFrom the back cover:
Now that he’s won the chocolate factory, what’s next for Charlie? Last seen flying through the sky in a giant elevator in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie Bucket’s back for another adventure. When the giant elevator picks up speed, Charlie, Willy Wonka, and the gang are sent hurtling through space and time. Visiting the world’s first space hotel, battling the dreaded Vermicious Knids, and saving the world are only a few stops along this remarkable, intergalactic joyride.

This reminds me a lot of what happened when I read The Neverending Story. Its film version (the original, thank you!) debuted around the same time I discovered Willy Wonka, actually, and I loved it just as much. I read the book about ten years ago, but the portion that was filmed ended about halfway through. The rest, as far as I remember, was a psychedelic story about a lion and wishes and multi-colored sand. It wasn’t bad, but neither was it the story I loved.

Similarly, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator continues where the first book left off and yet fails to achieve the magic of its predecessor. Mr. Wonka and Charlie’s family are taking the elevator back to the factory Charlie has just won, but Charlie’s three bedridden grandparents—who will fulfill the role of trouble-causing brats throughout the book—prevent Wonka from pressing a certain button at the right time and the elevator ends up entering orbit. So, essentially, you’ve got an eccentric guy in funny clothes piloting a box through space with some regular humans in tow for companionship. Sounds familiar…

Misadventures in space ensue, primarily caused by Wonka being somewhat of an ass and the grandparents being morons. I felt bad for Charlie on several occasions, because it seemed he wasn’t having very much fun. Eventually they get back to the factory, and the grandparents are at it again; the final quarter of the book is spent on de-aging them with the benefit of one pill and then re-aging them with a sort of magic oil. It’s pointless and not at all enjoyable. Add to this some potty humor and an unfunny incompetent president and you come up with a book that I will probably never read again.

If you love Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and want to preserve your warm and fuzzy memories of same, do yourself a favor and avoid the sequel.

Immortal Rain 1-2 by Kaori Ozaki: A-

immortalrain1Machika Balfaltin’s grandfather, Zol, was a renowned bounty hunter/assassin, but there was one man he could never catch: Methuselah, an immortal with a price on his head. Machika, like your typical fourteen-year-old, is convinced that she can do anything and is determined to settle her grandfather’s unfinished business. Her attempt to capture Methuselah goes wrong, however, when a rival group of bounty hunters swoops in to take the credit. Methuselah allows himself to be hauled off to jail, whereupon Machika breaks him out because he’s her prey. Of course, now there’s a price on her head, too, so she’s got to leave town. From there, Machika and Methuselah, who reveals that his name is actually Rain Jewlitt, get into a series of adventures usually involving people trying to nab Rain and figure out the secret of immortality, which is portrayed as much more of a curse than a blessing.

While the adventures are interesting enough, it’s the bond between the two characters that’s really the most fascinating aspect of Immortal Rain. Machika still maintains that she’s going to kill Rain one day, but quickly grows frustrated with his passivity regarding his fate and soon nurtures a desire to help him, including finding a way to make him human again. Initially, Rain attempts to keep his distance. He likes people but, as he puts it, “eventually everyone must leave this earth at a speed I can’t keep up with.” When he tries to refuse Machika’s help, it hurts her, but he’s reluctant to keep her with him because her life is so vulnerable. “So… would you hold me like I’m glass? I won’t break,” she replies. It’s clear that he’s unaccustomed to someone showing such fierce concern for his present rather than the promise of an unlimited future that he represents, and by the end of volume two he seems to have finally accepted her as a companion.

immortalrain2In addition to creating this pair of likable characters, Ozaki also parcels out bits of Rain’s backstory with a sure hand. Obscure hints and scraps of information offered in volume one are already taking shape into something that makes more sense by volume two, suggesting that answers will continue to be furnished at a satisfying rate. It would seem that he was somehow involved in some scientific experiments 600 years ago—the remnants of which are being excavated by a company that employs Sharem, an intriguing villainess who is initially introduced as a high-kicking ice queen but is gradually revealed to have inner pain of her own—and is destined to meet someone from that time who’s on the verge of being reincarnated. Too, he was once in love with a dark-haired woman whose violin is his most treasured possession.

Missteps are few, but there are a couple of bothersome things in these first two volumes. First, while a lot of the humor is genuinely amusing (I especially adore anything having to do with Machika’s pet, Kiki), some of it falls flat, especially the inept Evans siblings who attempt to capture Rain with a thoroughly ill-conceived plan involving a train, a bridge, and a 12-year-old girl piloting a mecha. Also, while less of a problem in volume two, volume one contains some passages of narration that don’t make much sense. Here’s an example:

Look. Even if you open your ears you can’t hear… the sound of the heart… if only just once.

That sounds like the kind of poorly translated English you’d find on a t-shirt in Shinjuku!

Another great point in Immortal Rain’s favor is Ozaki’s incredibly appealing art. Although the series runs in the shoujo magazine Wings and Rain technically qualifies as a bishounen, the art fosters more of a shounen adventure feeling, creating an almost palpable sense of the wide world around the central characters. The nonverbal storytelling is also great, especially in Rain’s expressive reactions to some of the things Machika says and does. Somehow, his eyes manage to convey fondness, loneliness, regret, and puzzlement simultaneously; the effect is quite lovely.

I look forward to seeing how the story develops in subsequent volumes, although I do wonder whether TOKYOPOP intends to continue releasing the series. They’ve released eight volumes in English so far, and while new volumes in Japan appear at a rate of one per year there are still ten of them out now with no US solicitation of volume nine on the horizon. It may not be time to fret quite yet, but there’s definitely reason for concern.

Blue Sheep Reverie 1-2 by Makoto Tateno: B-

bluesheep2When Kai’s lover, Maria, is murdered, he sets out to find her killer. His one clue is that the ring Maria always wore—a man-made blue jewel resembling the eye of a sheep—is missing, and he thinks he’s found it on the hand of Lahti Bara, a bigwig in Sarte, one of the gangs ruling the gritty city of Akatsuki. To get close to Lahti and check out his ring, Kai makes a bid to be his bodyguard and later consents to be his lover. It turns out that Lahti isn’t Maria’s murderer, but Kai has already grown fascinated by the powerful and enigmatic leader and gets embroiled in a bunch of gang politics involving a rival gang, an elite group within Sarte called the Four Kings, a renegade Sarte member attempting to bring them down, and a power struggle over gang leadership.

While I very heartily applaud any BL series for having as much plot as this one does, I must regretfully admit that I found most of the gang-related action dull and repetitive. Nearly every time something bad happens, the aforementioned renegade is the culprit but never seems to get caught. Kai isn’t a very strong character, either, but I do think his relationship with Lahti is an interesting one. It definitely isn’t love, as Lahti occasionally keeps Kai on door guard duty while he’s bedding other men, but Kai realizes that it’s not love and kindness he craves, but rather the strength to be worthy to stand at Lahti’s side, to be necessary to him.

So, is this good? Well, almost. It’s one of those cases where I like it despite its faults. I actually struggled a lot with whether to give it a B, since Tateno-sensei bothered to create such an intricate plot, but I just couldn’t do it.

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

Love Hurts: Aishiatteru Futari by Suzuki Tanaka: A-

lovehurtsFrom the creator of Menkui! comes this collection of intriguing (and chaste!) boys’ love stories.

“The Fate of a Crime Fighter’s Love” features childhood friends Seigo and Touma, who hail from a village where everyone has super powers. Some seek to do evil with their abilities, while others work to stop them. This story has a fairly comedic tone, but the characters are likeable and their relationship evolves into love pretty organically. “Kanako’s Story” is actually not BL at all, but fits in with the others because it’s all about a boy’s feelings of love for his “stupid and weird… but cute” childhood friend and classmate, Kana. She’s been telling him her whole life that she converses with an alien, but he’d only nodded politely until it turns out that it was all true.

While the sci-fi tales are both enjoyable, the real standouts are the first two stories, “Unforgivable” and “Two in Love.” In the former, Koji has just discovered the corpse of his lover. While he’s still in shock, a guy named Kohaku arrives and, after talking to him and a mysterious stranger, Koji ends up declaring that he’s the killer. In “Two in Love,” we follow Kohaku and his lover, Kimihara, who share a violent relationship. On top of this, Kimihara is pestered by a psychotic student where he teaches who likes to confess her misdeeds to him. This time, she admits to killing a person. The link between these two stories is very interesting and my one real complaint about Love Hurts is that there’s no follow-through here.

All in all, I was very pleasantly surprised by how good and unique these stories are. Definitely recommended.

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

Serenity 2: Better Days by Whedon, Matthews, and Conrad: B

serenity2From the back cover:
When the Serenity crew uncovers a heaping pile of cash—marking their first successful heist—they divulge their most outlandish fantasies, and look forward to a little R&R in a tropical paradise. Unfortunately for these space cowboys, someone is hot on their heels in search of a prize more precious than money.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, joins Brett Matthews and Will Conrad—the team that brought you the smash hit Serenity: Those Left Behind—with a new chapter in the lives of Malcolm Reynolds and his roving band of space brigands in Better Days.

While Serenity: Better Days is the second comic miniseries based on the TV show Firefly to be released, I am not sure whether its events take place chronologically after the end of the show or not. The one thing that would help establish its place in the timeline—Inara’s decision to depart the ship—is not mentioned at all, nor is any reference made to Shepherd Book’s wish to leave (first stated by him in Serenity: Those Left Behind). While the story works just fine without knowing when it happens, this still bugs me a little bit.

The plot of Better Days is extremely simple. For once, things go well and the crew of Serenity is suddenly rich. Several members share the way they plan to spend their money in scenes that nicely capture the warm, family-like times the crew occasionally shares. Meanwhile, the Alliance is looking for Mal (when are they not?), though this guy is special in that he’s one of Inara’s clients, and a builder whose drone Mal stole is out for revenge. I must admit that this peril did not interest me very much, though I’m used to looking past occasionally lame plots in Whedon shows in favor of character interaction. The best character goodness happens here between Inara and Mal, especially in their final scene together, though there’s also some nice continuity between Wash and Zoe as well as an intriguing tidbit regarding Inara and Simon.

Will Conrad is back as the artist for this miniseries, and seems to have a little better feel for the characters now. The likenesses are more consistent and Inara is vastly improved, finally meriting some impressively realistic close-ups of her own. Although a new cover was created for this trade paperback, the original covers of the three comic issues—forming a triptych that depicts the crew lounging atop sacks of money—are reproduced within.

I have now read all of the Firefly-inspired comics currently in existence and enjoyed them a good bit. Any time Dark Horse would like to make more, I’ll be happy to give them my money.

Serenity 1: Those Left Behind by Whedon, Matthews, and Conrad: B+

serenity1From the back cover:
Here’s how it is—in a universe filled with hearts and minds as cold and dark as the reaches of space, one small Firefly-class starship named Serenity takes its ragtag crew of mercenaries, outlaws, and fugitives in search of a job, any job, that’ll earn them enough cash to afford that most elusive commodity—peace.

Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, unveils a previously unknown chapter in the lives of his favorite band of space brigands in this prequel to the Serenity feature film—the blockbuster follow-up to Whedon’s cult-hit TV show, Firefly.

Serenity: Those Left Behind takes place shortly after the final episode of Firefly, “Objects in Space.” Inara has not left yet; while the ship is en route to her destination, they’re taking jobs along the way and though Mal proclaims this is necessary it’s Wash, who’s well acquainted with doing stupid things (like working a dangerous job when he could make a cushy living) to remain near the woman he loves, who realizes that he’s just trying to keep her around a while longer.

After one such job, a bank heist, goes poorly, the crew is offered another job by Badger: to retrieve a stash of cash left at the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the war. Meanwhile, Dobson (the federal agent who appeared in the first episode of the series) is teaming up with the hands-of-blue fellows to track them down. It’s unclear whether Badger is in on this or not, but it all boils down to an ambush in a field of spaceship debris, no payoff, and Dobson’s death. Too, in the final page, we seem to be witnessing the moment that the Operative (from the feature film) receives the assignment to bring in River. Another important thing that happens here is that Book decides he needs to leave the ship. He’s an active participant in helping the crew escape at one point and later hits Mal, something that the Captain is ready to forgive but which Book is not.

For the most part, Will Conrad’s art is decent. In some panels, the characters don’t look much like the actors who played them—Simon and Inara fare pretty poorly in this respect—but Conrad is an absolute ace at close-ups. There’ll be a page, for example, with a vaguely Kaylee-looking person in a few panels and then, once you zoom into her face, it’s “Oh, now she looks like Jewel Staite!” This happens with Mal a few times, too, and there are also a few outstanding close-ups of River. Different artists have also contributed some color portraits of members of the crew. Again, Simon and Inara get the short end of the stick—are their actors just too pretty to be drawn easily or well?—while Book (drawn by Tim Bradstreet), Jayne (Brian Hitch), and Wash (Sean Phillips) look fabulous! Honorable mention goes to Jo Chen’s Kaylee who, while she doesn’t really look like Jewel Staite, is positively adorable.

All in all, while this isn’t as good or as fulfilling as an episode of the show, it’s really great to see all of these characters again and fill in a little background for where we see them in the movie. Now on to the second comic miniseries, Better Days!

Wāqwāq 2 by Ryu Fujisaki: C+

waqwaq2On the upside, the plot of Waqwaq receives some much-needed clarification in this volume. Unfortunately, it’s still pretty convoluted.

Two thousand years in the past, three magi created a race of machines and a race of black-blooded humans and set them in conflict. They also created machines known as gojin-zou, which, when bonded with a human, become a Guardian. When machines threaten humans, Guardians engage them in battle, culiminating in the gojin-zou devouring the machine’s heart and absorbing its wish. In volume one, one of the magi summons the Kami, a red-blooded human of legend, and nudges the Guardians into competition for the right to have her grant a single wish. So basically, the gojin-zou collect wishes from the humans that wield them and the machines (including the other Guardians’ gojin-zou) they defeat. The last Guardian standing will have access to everyone’s wishes when he uses an ancient machine called Spider’s Thread to have his wish granted. What’s sorely lacking in that explanation is why the magi would hatch such a time-consuming and complicated scheme.

Clearing up the point of the story is the primary focus of this volume, but it does offer some fun shonen adventure when Shio, the hero, must face off against two other Guardians as he strives to reach the Kami, who’s been whisked off to Spider’s Thread. Clichés like the idiotic-but-spirited protagonist and his former rival turned ally abound, and the attempts at comedy fall flat, but Waqwaq still succeeds in being a fairly intriguing read. It’s a short series, too, so reading two more volumes to see how it all ends doesn’t seem like a daunting prospect.

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

Silent Möbius: Complete Edition 1 by Kia Asamiya: B

silentmobius1With an all-new translation, new scans of the original artwork, and extras like color image galleries and interviews, UDON Entertainment’s really going all out with their reissue of this shounen manga classic. I reviewed the first volume for Comics Should Be Good.

You can find that review here.

Silent Möbius is complete in twelve volumes, but UDON has only released the first volume so far. They also have plans to release a one-volume prequel and a two-volume set of short stories.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Karakuri Odette 1 by Julietta Suzuki: B+

karakuriodette1“What is the difference between me and humans?” asks Odette, android creation of Professor Yoshizawa, two weeks into her existence. It’s a question that continues to puzzle her and one day, after seeing some schoolgirls on TV, she stuns the professor by telling him she wants to go to high school. The principal takes some convincing, and Odette’s required to keep her true nature a secret from the other students, but her request is eventually granted. Karakuri Odette is a slice-of-life story about Odette’s experiences in school as she makes friends, attempts to be more like a human, and comes to develop an understanding of human feelings and attachments.

It’s not difficult to imagine a story like this taking the route of a madcap comedy, but in Julietta Suzuki’s hands, the result is positively charming. Odette’s curious about her surroundings, and is content to be more of an observer while she works to understand the significance and nuances of things going on around her. There’s definitely humor, but it’s more likely to be something brief like the professor’s reaction to Odette’s mosquito-extermination methods than any kind of prolonged zaniness brought on by her ignorance of human behavior.

Indeed, Odette’s ignorance makes for some poignant moments, particularly in the first chapter. On her first day at school, the other girls notice that she isn’t eating and tell her that she’s missing out on enjoying tasty food. When she comes home, she tells the professor that she wants to be able to eat, and when the reconfiguration’s complete, thinks, “Now I’m just like them.” The next day, however, the gym teacher won’t let Odette participate in a volleyball game, spurring Odette to request that her strength be downgraded to that of a normal human’s. “Now I’m the same as everyone else,” she thinks afterwards.

Eventually, though, Odette gives up on trying to physically be like a human, but surprisingly succeeds in feeling like one when she cries genuine tears of frustration that her reduced strength leaves her unable to help a friend in a medical emergency. As Odette’s comprehension grows, she begins to become sensitive to things that even other humans miss out on, like the feelings of a classmate who’s been dismissed as a thug, as well as how important the opinion of someone you care about can be. One gets the sense she’s transcending her original programming, particularly when another robot, Asia, arrives for a brief visit. Asia seems to develop a quicker rapport with the humans around her, making Odette feel insecure, but it soon becomes clear that she has no real feelings at all.

The art is a little bit on the plain side, with a professor that looks like a teen and bodies that are sometimes awkwardly posed. The paneling itself is good, though, and I really appreciate how facial expressions are used as punchlines of comedic moments. Also, Odette’s all-encompassing curiosity is evident throughout, even when she’s silent.

Considering that Karakuri Odette is Suzuki-sensei’s debut series, the end product is very impressive indeed. I’ll eagerly be awaiting the next installment!

Karakuri Odette is published in English by TOKYOPOP. Only one of a total of six volumes has been released so far.

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