Durarara!!, Vol. 1

Story by Ryohgo Narita, Art by Akiyo Satorigi, Character Design by Suzuhito Yasuda | Published by Yen Press

Here is the sum total of my Durarara!! knowledge prior to reading volume one of the manga:

1. It is based on light novels.
2. There is an anime.
3. People were really excited about the license.

It turns out that those light novels are by the creator of Baccano!, another exclamatory property with an anime that I’ve never seen, but which has been praised by various reputable sources. So, even though I knew nothing about Durarara!! itself, I was definitely curious.

In the space of six pages, three concepts and one narrative conceit are efficiently introduced. Time for another list!

1. Inside a pharmaceutical laboratory, a speaker (presumably male) promises a girl in a tank that he will “get us out of here.”
2. A trio of anonymous hands chat about the Tokyo neighborhood of Ikebukuro and the twenty-year-old urban legend of the Black Rider.
3. Timid fifteen-year-old Mikado Ryuugamine moves to Ikebukuro to reconnect with a childhood friend and attend high school.

Each of these threads will be developed and expanded upon in the volume to come, with some slight overlap but so far not much. Because of that, I’ll address them separately.

1. We learn the least about this subplot in this volume, but it appears to have something to do with Seiji, a boy in Mikado’s class, who lives with his possibly evil sister. Seiji briefly has a stalker who sees something she shouldn’t, and I wonder if that doesn’t tie in with the next item on our list.

2. We see the anonymous chatters a few times throughout the volume and it soon becomes clear that Mikado is one of them and I’m pretty sure the Black Rider is another. Seriously, the Black Rider is the most awesome thing about the volume. A competent fighter with a body seemingly comprised of shadows, the Black Rider takes courier jobs around Ikebukuro, dispatches thugs efficently, and lives with a “shut-in doctor” who would not be averse to a romantic relationship even though the Black Rider has no head.

3. Mikado, alas, is not so interesting, though the fact that he came to town because he wanted something strange and exciting to happen to him is at least somewhat encouraging. He reconnects with his friend, Kida, meets some of Kida’s otaku friends, and is warned against associating with various unsavory people, including someone named Shizuo, who hasn’t really appeared yet but looks kind of awesome, and Izaya, an informant with bleak ideas about the afterlife who extorts money from those who intend to kill themselves.

There are some series that bombard one with so much information that one ends up frustrated. If I were more astute, I might be able to pinpoint how, exactly, the creators of Durarara!! manage to avoid this pitfall, but they do. Granted, there is a lot going on, but the exposition is sure-handed, leaving one with the expectation that all will eventually make sense. Perhaps it’s the light-novel foundation that inspires this confidence, though that is certainly no guarantee of quality.

“Weird but intriguing” is my ultimate verdict for this volume, and I look forward to the second volume very much. It’s a stylish title, one that’s more cool than profound at this stage, and I realize that won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but it pushed the right buttons for me so I’ll definitely be back for more.

Durarara!! is published in English by Yen Press. The series is complete in Japan with four volumes.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek, Vols. 1-3

By Rize Shinba (manga) and Pentabu (story) | Published by Yen Press

The good news is that I liked My Girlfriend’s a Geek more than I expected to. The bad news is that I’m not sure if I should feel particularly good about that.

Taiga Mutou is a penniless college student in need of a part-time job. When he spots Yuiko Ameya—who fits his ideal of the “big sis-type”—in the office of one prospective employer, he devotes himself to getting hired and thereafter attempts to find opportunities to engage her in conversation. He’s largely unsuccessful until a bit of merchandise goes missing and she helps him look for it. They talk a bit more after that, but it’s not until she sees him in a pair of glasses that she really begins to take notice.

At first, Taiga is puzzled but pleased that certain things about him meet with Yuiko’s approval—in addition to the glasses she also appreciates his cowlick and has an unusual level of interest in his methods for marking important passages in his textbooks. When he finally asks her out and she confesses that she’s a fujoshi (“Is that okay with you?”) he’s so exuberant that he agrees without really understanding what that entails.

From that point on, My Girlfriend’s a Geek is essentially a series of situations in which Yuiko’s fujoshi ways make Taiga uncomfortable, and here is where my conflicted feelings begin. On the one hand, it’s absolutely true that Yuiko did try to warn him and that she shouldn’t have to pretend to be someone she isn’t. On the other hand, she is so caught up in her BL fantasizing that she never considers Taiga’s feelings, and even ceases to refer to him by his actual name. Taiga is always the one doing the compromising, and when it seems like Yuiko might be on the verge of doing something nice for him, it usually turns out that she has some self-serving motive.

And what if Yuiko’s character was male? How would this read then? She frequently concocts scenarios in which Taiga is getting it on with his friend Kouji and expresses the desire to take pictures of them together. If she was a male character saying such things to his girlfriend this would be the epitome of skeavy behavior! I seriously wonder whether she likes Taiga for himself at all, but that’s not to say he’s blameless here, either, because it’s hard to see what he could like about her except that she fits the bill for the cute older woman he’s always wanted to date.

All that said, there is still quite a bit to like about this series. For one thing, it’s often quite amusing, especially Taiga’s reactions to Yuiko’s flights of fangirl and the fictional shounen sports manga (with shades of Hikaru no Go and The Prince of Tennis) that Yuiko is obsessed with. For another, it does occasionally touch on what it’s like to discover that someone you fancy has this bizarre secret that you’ve got to try to cope with if you want to stay together. Taiga occasionally laments how far apart they are emotionally, and though we’ve yet to really see inside Yuiko’s head, her attempts to sustain a real-life relationship remind me some of Majima in Flower of Life, another hard-core otaku with a moe fixation.

There’s only two more volumes of this series and I plan to keep reading, but I hope that these characters will manage to achieve more of an equal relationship. Even if Yuiko could just learn to see Taiga’s exasperation and take some genuine step to engage him on a serious personal level, then I’d be happy.

My Girlfriend’s a Geek is published in English by Yen Press. The fourth volume has just come out (to be featured in this week’s Off the Shelf!) and the fifth and final volume is due in December 2011. They have also released the two-volume novel series upon which the manga is based.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Kobato., Vols. 1-3

By CLAMP | Published by Yen Press

The plot of Kobato. sounds like a typical shoujo magical girl story. A dim-witted and clumsy heroine, who also happens to be guileless and compassionate, is tasked with filling a magic bottle with wounded hearts so that her dearest wish can be granted. But Kobato. isn’t shoujo.

If anything, it’s seinen, as it ran for seven chapters in Sunday GX before going on hiatus and reemerging in Newtype magazine. I’m guessing that the target audience, presumed to be young men with an appreciation for moe, is the reason why Kobato commences flailing, chibified panic mode on page two and falls down approximately fifteen times per chapter. (I may be exaggerating there, but honestly not by much.) The latter gag is run into the ground so relentlessly that I refuse to consider that anyone finds it funny, so CLAMP must be trying to inspire feelings of “Aww, she’s so cute and/or hopeless.”

The first volume of Kobato. is not very good. Kobato’s incompetency grates as does the constant browbeating she receives from Ioryogi, some sort of supernatural being currently dwelling in the form of a stuffed dog, who is testing her ability to “act according to the common-sense rules of this place.” If she passes, she earns the magic bottle. These tests—mainly centered around holidays—include taking out the trash, making nabe, and spending New Year’s day playing traditional games with an elderly woman.

Things improve somewhat in the second volume. Kobato’s got her bottle now and is ready to heal some wounded hearts. After moving into the same apartment building seen in Chobits, she starts work as a helper at Yomogi Kindergarten. The head of the school, Sayako-sensei, seems to have a heart in need of some healing, as does her hard-working part-time employee, Fujimoto. With Ioryogi’s assistance, Kobato tries to discover how best to help them, and gradually learns that Sayako is working to pay off a debt her father was tricked into incurring, that Sayako’s soon-to-be-ex husband is threatening harm to the school unless she pays up, and that Fujimoto is working himself to the point of exhaustion to earn money to contribute. They seem suspicious of Kobato at first, but her genuine sincerity eventually wins over even grumpy Fujimoto.

This is definitely an improvement over the first volume, but the kindergarten-in-peril storyline still seems to be occupying a great deal of space in what looks to be only a six-volume series. (Kobato. just recently came to an end.) There is a lot of room left in Kobato’s bottle, so I wonder how she will end up filling it after spending so much time working on these two hearts in particular.

Now that I’ve finished my litany of complaints, there are some intriguing questions about Kobato. that leave me inclined to stick with the series until the end. Where is Kobato from, exactly? What is her wish? How did she and Ioryogi meet? What is Ioryogi? (We’ve learned already that if he helps Kobato grant her wish, he may be able to get his original body back.) And, most peculiarly of all, why is it that Kobato is not allowed to take off her hat?

Kindergarten peril I can do without, but I really do want to know what’s up with the hat thing.

Review copies provided by the publisher.

Pandora Hearts 2-5 by Jun Mochizuki

Reading Pandora Hearts is like mentally treading water. There is so much going on that one is constantly churning the plot waters, trying to stay afloat. It’s not that I’m saying this is a bad thing or that I object to thinking—far from it!—but that I never appreciated episodic lulls so much as when they weren’t around to give me a chance to understand and process what just happened.

The first volume introduced readers to fifteen-year-old Oz Vessalius, who is banished to a mysterious dimension known as “the Abyss” during his coming-of-age ceremony. He escapes by entering into a contract with a “chain” (denizen of the Abyss) named Alice, who wants to search for her scattered memories in the real world. When they arrive, ten years have passed and they are welcomed by a strange trio, one of whom (Raven) bears a striking resemblance to Oz’s childhood friend, Gilbert.

The search for Alice’s memories begins in the second volume, with strong hints that the answer Oz seeks—what was the “sin” that led to his banishment?—lies within them. Oz and Alice have agreed to help an organization known as Pandora (which has several goals regarding investigating and gaining control over the Abyss) and have been assigned by one of its employees, the eccentric Xerxes Break, to take down an illegal contractor whose chain is devouring humans.

Now, at this point, I was thinking, “Okay, here’s our episodic gimmick. Oz and Alice deal with the dangerous contractors and collect memories and it’ll be a sort of basic shounen fantasy.” But that’s actually not how it turns out. Any time Xerxes arranges some sort of encounter with a contractor or chain, it always leads to major plot developments. Sometimes this involves answering some questions—the identity of the braided man we keep seeing in Alice’s memories, for example—but just as often generates several more. I considered keeping a scorecard of questions raised and questions answered so that I could keep track of what issues were still outstanding.

Mangaka Jun Mochizuki also skillfully employs flashbacks to flesh out our understanding of Oz, who is far more complex (and clever and resilient) than he initially appears. His affinity for and faith in Alice, for example, persists despite various people advising him not to trust her, and we gradually learn that this is because he sees a lot of himself in her. Both he and Alice have cause to question why they exist, and since he, as a child, was afraid to pursue the truth regarding his father’s animosity towards him, he admires that Alice is fearlessly pursuing the recovery of her memories. Too, Oz displays an almost alarming equanimity about his situation, which can again be traced back to his father’s coldness, when Oz learned to “accept everything as it is.”

The end result is a story that combines a non-stop spooling out of multi-layered plot threads with some genuinely affecting character work. I particularly appreciate that the female leads—Alice and Sharon, a Pandora employee—are not the character types they initially seem to be (tsundere and meek girl, respectively) and just about any scene wherein Alice feels left out at the signs of affection between Oz and others or just vulnerable in general is a big favorite of mine.

Another aspect of Pandora Hearts that I must commend is the artwork, which, as MJ amply illustrated in a Fanservice Friday post on Manga Bookshelf, is definitely fujoshi-friendly. Consider the evidence:

Shallow confession: although I really like Raven for himself, I admit that I also enjoy just looking at him. It’s not all pretty fellows, though, as Mochizuki’s renderings of the Abyss are creepy and imaginative, and the inhabitants even more so. There are a few references to Alice in Wonderland scattered throughout, too, but it’s nothing that even comes close to dominating the story or its landscape.

As of the fifth volume, Pandora officials have vowed to protect Oz, who is destined to play a major role in their conflict with the Baskervilles, remnants of a clan that battled the four great families (who eventually formed Pandora) 100 years ago and sacrificed the capital city as an offering to the entity in control of the Abyss (not to mention being responsible for sending Oz there in the first place). Plus, Sharon has been abducted and someone just may be in league with the enemy. Many other questions—about both past and future—abound, which ensure that I will keep reading (and hoping everything is ultimately resolved) to the very end.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that Pandora Hearts is a slog, because it truly isn’t. It’s engaging, intriguing, and sometimes even funny. What it never is is tranquil or relaxing, so be sure to save it for a time when your brain needs a little exercise.

Review copies for volumes three through five provided by the publisher.

Time and Again 6 by JiUn Yun

From the back cover:
As war rips through the Tang Dynasty, leaving chaos and destruction in its wake, Baek-On and Ho-Yeon continue to eke out a living as traveling exorcists. While confronting vengeful grudges and putting to rest the lingering spirits of those long dead, Baek-On reflects on the tragic curse that led him to turn his back on the company of the living and follow in his father’s footsteps. While the world seems to crumble around him, Baek-On strives to keep moving forward, even if he must do so alone.

Follow Ho-Yeon and Baek-On as they journey on in the final volume of Time and Again.

I’m always a little wary of the final volume of a series I have really enjoyed. Will it disappoint? Or will it be exactly what I had hoped? Happily, volume six of Time and Again caps the series in a perfect way, which is to say “in a way that is simultaneously melancholy and hopeful.”

Baek-On has yet to recover from his crisis of self-doubt in the previous volume, in which his decision to force a man to see the truth about his inhuman wife had tragic consequences. He’s been holed up in his mother’s house for months, refusing all customers, but when a young woman arrives with a case that seems both simple and desperate, Ho-Yeon ushers her into Baek-On’s presence. Baek-On is rude at first, and it takes a threat of eviction before he actually begins to listen attentively to the girl, but he eventually goes to her home and deals compassionately with the ghost of a jilted girl who has been appearing there.

It’s clear that the words he uses when appeasing the spirit are what he would say himself to the girl in his own past—“I didn’t leave you. I’ve never left you.”—which leads to a gloriously long chapter that reveals the whole story of what happened with the girl (Wan) and why, and how it led to Baek-On being the person he is today. JiUn Yun handles this in a lovely way, because she doesn’t dwell on the pain of it all. Oh, it’s exceedingly painful for Baek-On, and awful and sad and all of those things that make for a great backstory, but it isn’t milked for melodrama. I shan’t spoil the details, but it’s this experience that motivates Baek-On to become an exorcist and to live and die alone.

The final chapter takes place after further time has elapsed. Baek-On and Ho-Yeon continue to travel together after a war has ravaged the country. Big things have happened, and yet they must continue on as usual, driving evil spirits out of children and chickens (really) and confronting the truth that animal spirits don’t seem to be all that innocent of the ways of humans. Baek-On realizes that his famous father was likely as uncertain as he is, which brings some peace, though he still intends to live his life alone and leave no descendants upon whom a spirit might inflict a grude. Ho-Yeon is also alone, having lost the last person he loved to the war, and the series ends with them pledging to carry on as they have been. Alone. And together.

Okay, yes, I totally spoiled that part, but it’s so absolutely perfect a conclusion for the series that I just had to wax rhapsodic about it. Time and Again has become one of my favorite manhwa series and, now that I know for what Baek-On has been seeking atonement all this time, I look forward to rereading it someday with the benefit of new insight.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

13th Boy 3-6 by SangEun Lee

After I read the first two volumes of SangEun Lee’s 13th Boy, in which a pertinacious girl named Hee-So Eun does everything in her power to win the love of the handsome Won-Jun Kang, I had high hopes for the quirky series but apparently not high enough because, starting with volume three, the story veers into unexpectedly (and awesomely) dark territory. That’s not to say that the sense of whimsy—best represented by Beatrice, a talking cactus—has disappeared. Indeed, volume six has several silly moments. But both the reader and Hee-So discover that things are more serious than expected, with the result being that she reveals some admirable qualities that she had not previously displayed.

The bulk of the drama revolves around three childhood friends: Won-Jun, Whie-Young, and Sae-Bom. The three of them have been stuck in a love triangle for years, with Won-Jun pining away for Sae-Bom, and Sae-Bom pining for Whie-Young. But so much time has passed, they begin to question what it is they actually feel for each other. Won-Jun, for example, is staying near Sae-Bom partly out of guilt born of an awful secret that in turn led to a serious accident. Sae-Bom is stunted because of these incidents, behaving like her seven-year-old self (though she is now fifteen) in an attempt to return things to how they used to be. And Whie-Young doesn’t want much to do with either of them.

Into their group comes Hee-So, and though she first appears obnoxious (I didn’t like her much in the first two volumes) her bright outlook and unfiltered expression of what she’s feeling make a big difference in their lives. At first, she merely turns the triangle into a square, with Whie-Young drawn to her while she chases after Won-Jun, but soon begins to make an impact on the others as well. Although Hee-So initially befriends Sae-Bom because it hurts to see Won-Jun caring for his damaged friend so solicitously and she figures he’ll have to do less of that if she helps out, she throws herself into the friendship with true commitment and eventually helps Sae-Bom relinquish her tight hold (literal and mental) on Toe-Toe, a stuffed rabbit who at one point had been given life by Whie-Young, who has magical powers.

You might not think that convincing a teenage girl to give up her stuffed animal would be riveting drama, but it really is. There’s a lot of emotional baggage concerning Toe-Toe, like who was responsible for his death and what that has subsequently meant for Sae-Bom’s emotional state. Simultaneously, Hee-So’s ability to rebound after being snubbed by Won-Jun makes him relax, because even if he should hurt her accidentally, it doesn’t affect how she feels about him. In time, he grows to feel a profound peace in her company and once Sae-Bom actually starts to look at him instead of Whie-Young, it may already be too late for her, because Hee-So has gotten her wish at last.

Starting in volume three, each volume is full of major progress in the story, to the point where I began to think “And there are twelve volumes of this series?! We’re not supposed to find this stuff out until the very end!” But SangEun Lee continues to come up with unforeseen avenues for the story to travel, with the most recent development being that Beatrice, the talking cactus, has realized that he is in love with Hee-So. Although this results in some amusingly absurd dialogue, like “Please don’t say that. It’s an unworthy thought. I am a cactus. I don’t have the right to love her…” it’s still treated fairly seriously, and Beatrice’s wish to become human (something he already manages each month on the full moon) has the potential to complicate the story still further.

And yet, while the romantic feelings of each character are definitely important and inform their motivations, this is not a story that can simply be settled by Hee-So and Won-Jun getting together and living happily ever after. There are too many secrets and too many deep bonds for matters to wrap up so neatly. Will Sae-Bom succeed in redirecting Won-Jun’s attention onto herself? Will Won-Jun, now that he has conquered the symbolic hurdle of “crossing the bridge” into Hee-So’s neighborhood, regress back into childhood obligations or continue on his own path, which ultimately might not include Hee-So? Will Whie-Young, who purports to be tough but yet frequently grants magical favors at the cost of his own health, really fail to live to the age of twenty? In many series, I would doubt that the death of a major character would be allowed to occur, but not 13th Boy.

If you read only the beginning of the series and dismissed it as a romantic comedy, I urge you to reconsider, because 13th Boy is surprising, complex, and well worth reading.

Review copies for volumes three, five, and six provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Funny Pages

MICHELLE: The wait is over.. a new Let’s Get Visual is here! We examined intensely emotional moments in our last column, so this time we’re going in the opposite direction by highlighting pages that make us laugh.

I’ve got to say, finding a couple of pages that genuinely made me giggle was much harder than finding ones that made me sniffle. Did you have a similar experience?

MJ: Actually, no, I giggle pretty easily and at a wide variety of things. My real challenge was picking just one scene!

MICHELLE: I certainly smile at amusing things, but I guess my threshold for outright laughter is pretty high. I’d be a good contestant on Make Me Laugh!

Still, I was able to find a pair of pages that had just the right combination of silly, cute, and absurd to appeal to me. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Silver Diamond, Volume 1, Pages 106 and 110 (TOKYOPOP)

As the artist (Shiho Sugiura) herself points out, what we have here is essentially a cliché. The character from another world or another time comes to the present day and freaks out over things like television and cars. What makes this scene so great to me is the fact that the character doing the freaking out is Koh, an excitable talking snake (who, incidentally, is highly venomous).

Something about a slanty-eyed, fanged critter going, “Whoa, what’s that guy?!” makes me crack up every time. He thinks everything is a creature, including the stove, whom he unwisely challenges to a fight. In the second example, he’s about to attack the clock when he’s stopped by Chigusa, a human transplant from the other world, who is able to show wisdom only because he himself previously made the same mistakes.

It’s simple, to be sure, but it’s just so durn cute! When I first read it, it made me love and sympathize with Koh instantly.

MJ: I’m a fan of this series as well, and Koh is my favorite character, so I can definitely relate to your fondness for him here. I think part of what makes him work so well, is that Sugiura doesn’t try to give him human features (other than speech), so not only is it funny to see a snake making all these comments, it’s a little bit poignant too, the way Sugiura draws him, which makes the humor hit just that much harder. Super-cute animal designs are all well and good, but a more realistic character can be much more touching, just for being more real. And something you care about is a lot funnier than something you don’t, at least in my experience.

As I type this out, I realize that the humor I enjoy most always contains a bit of poignance as well. Is it just me?

MICHELLE: Oh, that’s a really good point! Perhaps it’s simultaneously funny and endearing because he continues to look like a snake throughout, and hasn’t been given any over-exaggerated, human-like expressions to convey his surprise. It makes it seem more like we really are seeing how a snake would genuinely try to process these things.

And no, it is certainly not just you. Plus, if you consider a person’s character when writing humor, that just gives you a whole other layer to play with. Some things are funny because of who said them, after all, and not merely what was said.

MJ: I think there’s really very little in our lives that we process with only one emotion, and humor and affection work really well together. Koh’s appearance as a regular snake helps make him look vulnerable simply by virtue of his size, despite the fact that he’s pretty fierce, which makes him even more endearing.

Sugiura also does a great job of creating a sort of whirlwind tour of the wondrous Earth “creatures” with a lot of slanted, non-standard panels, cramped pretty close together, which makes the whole thing read funnier.

MICHELLE: Indeed, I was remembering that How to Draw Shojo Manga advocated using diagonal panels to show that a character is off-balance in a particular situation, so it makes sense Sugiura would use them to convey the dizzying onslaught poor Koh is experiencing.

Shall we move on to your selection? It looks pretty poignant, too!

Yotsuba&!, Volume 6, Pages 78-79 (Yen Press)

MJ: It certainly is! So, I went very simple with this for a couple of reasons. First of all, the humor is entirely visual. In fact, it wouldn’t need to be in English for us to get the humor completely. I’d submit, too, that much of the humor, especially on the second page, relies on the story being displayed for us one panel at a time, so it could only exist in comics. The humor is in the still shots, snapped one-by-one, which slow the action to a crawl, without the tonal messiness of slow-motion.This effect can’t be achieved with the same kind of clarity in animation or live action.

Perhaps the bigger reason why I chose this, however, is that it relies on slapstick humor, which usually doesn’t work for me at all. I almost never laugh at scenes where the humor is based on someone slipping on a banana peel or a thousand other types of stumbles, pratfalls, and rake handles to the face that are essential to the genre. It leaves me completely cold. Yet here, as Yotsuba’s inattention to where she’s going sends her tumbling over a hill, I can’t help but laugh, both at her fall and at the older girls’ stunned reaction as they watch it happen. Somehow, that’s hilarious. And, just as with your selection, it’s hilarious because we care, or perhaps more to the point, the author cares. He loves Yotsuba as much as we do, so we’re all reacting together, unable to keep ourselves from laughing, but without any kind of cruel glee being taken in Yotsuba’s misfortune. It’s a subtle thing, but it’s significant.

MICHELLE: I react to slapstick the same way you do, but that tumble is so amusing, too, because Yotsuba was trying so hard. She really, really wanted the picture of her on the bike to be awesome, but because she was thinking more about that than actually riding, this happens.

It’s humor that relies entirely on human nature. The part the makes me laugh most is her wide-eyed, extreme close-up eagerness on that first page, because who hasn’t known a kid who was totally excited to not only be photographed but to show off a new skill?

In fact, the more times I read this over, the more I giggle at it. That’s really unusual!

MJ: You know, I think in some ways, the simpler the humor, the more durable it is. The less we have to think about it for it to be funny, the more it’s likely to trigger the reaction again on repeated viewings. Kiyohiko Azuma draws this kind of humor brilliantly, and by keeping the storytelling nearly as simple as Yotsuba’s own thought processes, he ensures its enduring success.

MICHELLE: I think you’re right about the correlation of simplicity and durability. After all, isn’t that also the general rule with fashion? Some classics just don’t go out of style! I’d actually call Azuma a master at this type of storytelling; it’s impressive how he is always able to make Yotsuba’s thought processes abundantly clear, without need of explanatory dialogue or narration.

Here’s another good example, this one from volume three. It’s not as giggle-inducing, but we can still tell that Yotsuba is shyly expecting something and is crestfallen when she doesn’t receive it. We don’t even need to know that she’s hoping for a souvenir.

MJ: Oh, that’s a great example! You’ve got me wanting to reread the series again now, just so I can experience all these fantastic moments all over again!

MICHELLE: Me too! It strikes me that another series I thought about sampling for this column, Neko Ramen (TOKYOPOP), also draws on simplicity and a sort of universal understanding of behavior (albeit feline) for its humor. There are a lot of panels that make me giggle just because they’re so absurd yet true, like one in which a cat is considered for the job of cashier until it reveals that it only wants to roll around on the register.

MJ: Adding that layer of absurdity is usually what makes humor work the best for me, actually, which is why it’s surprising just how deftly Azuma manages to hook me every time!

MICHELLE: Same here!

You know, I feel like we have come back around to the same conclusion we sort of reach every time: manga is awesome!

MJ: That it is. 🙂

One Thousand and One Nights at The Hooded Utilitarian

When Noah Berlatsky of The Hooded Utilitarian invited MJ and me to contribute one of our conversation-style posts to his site, I knew immediately which series we should talk about. “One Thousand and One Nights!” I cried. It’s one of MJ’s favorites, for one thing, and something I’d been meaning to read for ages, for another. Additionally, I thought it might be nice to focus on manhwa instead of manga, since it’s rather unsung and all that.

You can find the resulting post here. Thanks again to Noah for the opportunity!

Review copies for volumes eight, ten, and eleven provided by the publisher.

Let’s Get Visual: Duds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MICHELLE: Well, pie is important…

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

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.