From the stack: Cross X Break 1 and 2

December 28, 2008

Is there a name for the manga category that can be described as shônen-y shôjo done by boys’-love creators who don’t entirely abandon their primary category? Because that’s a mouthful, and there seems to be more and more of it on the shelves. And that’s fine, because a lot of it is reasonably good fun.

Case in point is Duo Brand’s Cross X Break (Go! Comi), which juggles its various influences with a fair amount of skill and still delivers a pretty compelling story. It’s got a sturdy but not-too complicated set-up, largely complex characters, attractive art, and a sampler platter of hunky eye candy.

Young Akito is the studious son of the President of a futuristic version Japan. His louche, scantily-clad older brother, Shinkai, announces between beers that Akito is to study abroad, and the younger sibling finds himself transported to a hostile fantasy landscape. His dishrag friend Yaya is dragged along, and they must navigate a bizarre world with an unforgiving caste system and brutal Warlock enforcers.

In this world, everyone has a place they’re supposed to be and a function they’re supposed to fulfill. Deviate from that and the Warlocks will come down on you with lethal force. Your former caste won’t think very much of you either. Fortunately for Akito and Yaya, they meet a subterranean renegade named Neon who offers to serve as their guide and protector. Akito, demonstrating a high level of smarts for this kind of manga protagonist, is appropriately suspicious of Neon’s intentions and furious at his exile at the hands of his brother.

The two-person team of Duo Brand gives Akito multiple objectives. He’s got to figure out a way home, protect Yaya, decide who to trust, and help the people he meets as they suffer under the brutal control of the Warlocks. They juggle and blend Akito’s agendas well, and they don’t hold back on the nasty when it comes to outlining the social structures of Akito’s new world. There’s some shocking violence and even more shocking cruelty in this fantasy landscape, but it’s balanced nicely by their protagonist’s decency and intelligence, some nice bits of invention, and a lively pace for the story’s underlying mysteries.

The series is easy on the eye, too. Duo Brand has a good design sense that helps to make their fantasy world convincing. Character design is generally strong, and if their costuming choices run to what I’d call “alt-rock Renaissance-fair boutique,” at least they let their characters joke about it. (They do have a weird tendency to obscure character faces with shadows that make them look like they’re wearing giant eye patches, which isn’t entirely helpful.)

My only real quibble would be the lack of women characters of any substance or consequence. Yaya is blandly sweet and kind, but she spends an awful lot of time in victim mode to motivate Akito. It’s not her story, obviously, and she does get a couple of moments when she isn’t completely passive, but she still seemed more like luggage than a character on par with all of the guys.

(This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publishers.)