Upcoming 5/26/2010

May 25, 2010

Before I get into this week’s ComicList, I wanted to do some linkblogging.

There are two pieces celebrating the CMX catalog. Over at Mania, a quartet of writers compiles a list of “20 Must Have CMX Manga.” The Good Comics for Kids crew focuses on tween- and teen-friendly titles in “The GC4K Guide to CMX Manga.” Pieces like this are important, as DC has already dismantled its CMX web site, and all links to title information now go to a listing for the second issue of the Brightest Day mini-series. That strikes me as both telling and tastelessly ironic.

Over at The Beat, Rich Johnson takes manga’s pulse in an interesting overview. Johnson was DC’s Vice President of Book Trade Sales Sales during the early days of CMX before helping launch Yen Press for Hachette. Over at Robot 6, Brigid (MangaBlog) Alverson examines some of Johnson’s points, finding cause for disagreement. I’m particularly smitten with this passage:

“The graphic novel market boom of the early 2000s was due in part to the fact that publishers started serving the other half of the population. For a long time there were no comics for girls; then suddenly, there were, and the girls bought them. Dismissing their tastes as Rich does (or by complaining about comics being too pink and sparkly) ignores the fact that their money is just as good as any Dark Horse fan’s. Certainly, the opening of the manga market to more literary titles is a welcome development, as is the fact that many indy publishers are now embracing manga. That’s the kind of book I like to read. But the comics market is much bigger than me and my tastes. Girls like to read about schoolgirls with superpowers. You can tell them that’s stupid, or you can publish comics they like (keeping in mind that even genre fans can distinguish between a good comic and a bad one). One of those is a winning business strategy, and one isn’t.”

In the comments, Melinda (Manga Bookshelf) Beasi helps demolish the initial argument about the declining demand for comics for girls and the underestimated relevance of piracy with some page-view figures from scan sites. Those two birds never stood a chance!

Want some manga for grown-ups? Viz provides with the eighth volume of Naoki Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, which is my favorite Urasawa title to be released in English so far. It feels like it should be able to save a category, you know?

In the mood for something in the classic vein? Vertical offers the 11th volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack.

Looking for a Japanese take on the comic strip? Tokyopop delivers the first volume of Kenji Sonishi’s Neko Ramen, about a cat who works in a noodle shop.

Wondering if Del Rey is still licensing manga? Well, there’s the debut of Fairy Navigator Runa, written by Miyoko Ikeda and illustrated by Michiyo Kikuta. It originally ran in Kodansha’s Nakayoshi shôjo magazine and is about one of those pesky magical girls.

I might not be finished with my Marvel spite purchases. After seeing some preview pages from the first issue of Secret Avengers, written by Ed Brubaker and illustrated by Mike Deodato, I have to say that the idea of the Black Widow and Valkyrie fighting side by side is very much to my theoretical taste, as I’ve always liked those two heroines a lot. I do think someone needs to get Deodato a subscription to Vogue as quickly as possible, as he’s been drawing the same “sexy evening dress” since before Heroes Reborn.

Oh, and speaking of Marvel purchases, non-spite category, I entirely agree with this review of the second issue of Girl Comics, particularly for the nice things said about the contributions by Faith Erin Hicks and Colleen Coover. On the whole, I found the second issue to be much stronger than the first. I do totally hate the fact that the Scarlet Witch is painted as the villainess on the cover, but I’m sure that’s an inadvertent jab at my deep, deep bitterness on the subject.


Upcoming 5/5/2010

May 4, 2010

It’s time for our weekly look at the ComicList.

Topping the list is the eighth volume of Hinako Ashihara’s Sand Chronicles (Viz). This installment marks the conclusion of the main story, which began with our heroine, Ann, as an 11-year-old moving to the countryside and ends with her as a 20-something working woman making tough life choices and evaluating the highs and lows of the years that have passed. That long-view approach to a character’s development would be reason enough to spark interest in Sand Chronicles, but it’s Ashihara’s sensitive approach to sometimes melodramatic material that really makes this series a treasure. I’m assuming that Viz will publish the ninth and tenth volumes, which apparently feature side stories about the supporting cast. I can’t wait to read them.

Sensitivity is generally kept to a minimum in Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey), when it isn’t actually called out as a target for mockery. That’s part of the charm. And really, everything is a target for mockery in this rapid-fire satire of contemporary culture, now up to its sixth volume.

The eighth issue of Brandon Graham’s King City arrives courtesy of Image and Tokyopop. We’re into the previously unpublished material at this point, and it’s very enjoyable stuff. The twelfth issue will be the last, at least according to the solicitation in the new Previews.

I can’t say enough good things about the first volume of Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical), so I’ll point you to someone who says them better. That would be Kate (The Manga Critic) Dacey, who offers a lovely assessment of the volume here.

Back with Viz, we have the debut of Flower in a Storm, written and illustrated by Shigeyoshi Takaka. It’s about a super-rich guy who falls in love with a super-athletic girl and tries to hound her into falling in love with him. She can hold her own, and he’s lovable in a stupid sort of way (as opposed to a princely, know-it-all way), so the dynamic isn’t as gross as it could be (and has been). I read a review copy courtesy of Viz, and it’s not bad. I’ll probably read the second volume, but it doesn’t seem like the kind of title that will reside forever in my shôjo-geek heart. This is in spite of the fact that it was originally published in Hakusensha’s LaLa and LaLa DX, which almost always generate titles I love.

And it’s time for another tidal wave of One Piece (Viz), written and illustrated by Eiichiro Oda. We get volumes 44 through 48 and the omnibus collecting volumes 10 through 12. I plan on writing a full entry on the omnibus sometime in the next week, because I’m tragic that way, so I’ll just note that lots of important things happen in this omnibus. This being Oda, the milestones pass much more efficiently than they would in other shônen series so that he can fixate on what seems like a side story and turn it into an epic. I’ll also note about the series in general that it reminds me of a really good Avengers run. The cast is a great mix of heavy hitters and try hard-ers, each with their own moving, consequential back story, and they’re together because they want to be. Unlike even the best Avengers runs, the cast of One Piece actually helps people rather than just responding to attacks from people who hate them. (There’s plenty of that kind of material too.)


Previews review May 2010

May 2, 2010

There aren’t very many debuting titles in the May 2010 edition of the Previews catalog, but there are lots of new volumes of slow-to-arrive titles that are worth noting.

First up would have to be the omnibus collection of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey), offering volumes eight through ten. (It seems appropriate, since this is the title’s week in the Manga Moveable Feast spotlight.) These volumes were fairly meaty individually, and getting three in one for $24.99 seems like a really good value. (Page 292.) Edit: The tenth volume is the final one of the series, so this will conclude Mushishi in English.

Also on the “good manga for relatively cheap” front is the third volume of Kaoru Tada’s Itazura Na Kiss (Digital Manga). What mishaps will befall our dumb heroine Kotoko in pursuit of the smart boy of her dreams? (Page 295.)

I’m just going to come out and say that A Distant Neighborhood was my second favorite Jiro Taniguchi title of 2009. Topping that category was The Summit of the Gods, written by Yumemakura Baku. The second volume is due from Fanfare/Ponent Mon. (Page 304.)

A new volume of Adam Warren’s super-smart, addictive satire, Empowered (Dark Horse), is always good news. It seems like Warren gets around to dealing with the rather loose definition of mortality among the spandex set, and I’d much rather read his take than something like Blackest Night. (Page 35.)

Is it ungrateful of me to be really eager to see what Bryan Lee O’Malley does next? It’s not that I’m indifferent to the conclusion of the Scott Pilgrim saga (which arrives in the form of the sixth volume, Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour from Oni Press), which I’m sure I’ll love as much as the previous five. But O’Malley’s been working on Scott for a long time. (Page 233.)

Before we jump fully into the “all-new stuff” department, I’ll bypass quickly to Dark Horse’s release of an omnibus edition of CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth. You can get all three volumes of this magic-girl shôjo classic from the manga superstars. (Page 53.)

CMX publishes a lot of excellent shôjo from Hakusensha, but they branch out this month with Rika Suzuki’s Tableau Gate. It originally ran in Akita Shoten’s Princess Gold, and it’s about a guy who must help a girl capture some escaped tarot cards. I’m sort of a sucker for comics with tarot imagery, and I trust CMX’s taste in shôjo. (Page 129.)

I’m always game for a new graphic novel drawn by Faith Erin Hicks, and First Second is kind enough to provide one. It’s called Brain Camp, and it’s about oddballs dealing with mysterious forces, which is right in Hicks’s wheelhouse. The script is by Susan Kim and Laurence Klavan. (Page 305.)

It’s coming! It’s coming! Top Shelf’s 400-page collection of alternative manga, AX, finally hits the solicitation phase, and it should be very exciting to see. (Page 342.)

Vertical continues to branch out of classic manga mode with the English-language debut of Felibe Smith’s Peepo Choo. For those who’ve forgotten, Smith has been creating the series for Kodansha’s Morning Two magazine. It’s about a kid from Chicago who gets mixed up with a model from Tokyo and a lot of underworld mayhem. (Page 346.)

I don’t get a particularly good vibe off of Kaneyoshi Izumi’s Seiho Boys’ High School!, due out from Viz. It’s about the student body of an isolated, all-boys’ high school. Anyone who’s read more than one boys’-love title would know how these lads could deal with their isolation, but Izumi apparently decided to take a different approach. The series originally ran in Shogakukan’s Betsucomi.


If you like Mushishi…

April 29, 2010

I’m a big fan of Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey), and I’m a big fan of episodic manga in general. I particularly like Urushibara’s thoughtful, expansive take on her subject matter. For this installment of the Manga Moveable Feast, I thought I’d do something a little different and play a round of the “If you like…” game, finding titles that share qualities with Mushishi and that fans of the series might also enjoy.

If you like the meditative, gentle quality of Mushishi, then I strongly recommend you pick up a volume of Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz), written and illustrated by Yuki Midorikawa. This shôjo series has a number of qualities in common with Mushishi – an isolated but basically good-natured protagonist, a stand-alone approach to chapter storytelling, and a wide variety of supernatural forces on display. Like Urushibara, Midorikawa is concerned with the coexistence of the mortal and the mysterious, positioning her hero as a sort of diplomat between humans and yôkai, the often mischievous minor demons of Japanese folklore. I find Urushibara and Midorikawa’s visual styles to be similar as well, though whether that’s a selling point for you or not is a matter of taste.

If you just can’t get enough of an optically challenged guy in a trench coat, then Mail (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, might be the book for you. Like Mushishi’s Ginko, Mail’s Reiji is a man with a mission, though his approach is far less benevolent. He can see ghosts, and he can exorcise them with his trusty firearm. While Urushibara is focused on rural folklore, Yamazaki leads his hero through ghostly urban legends. As with Mushishi, there’s no real underlying narrative, though Reiji gets a nifty origin story, just as Ginko does. Yamazaki’s art is crisp and imaginative, and Mail is excellent companion reading for The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), also illustrated by Yamazaki and written by Eiji Otsuka.

If you want your well-informed protagonist to be a whole lot meaner, then look no further than Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack (Vertical). I’m not saying that Ginko is the nicest guy on the block, but he’s positively cuddly next to Tezuka’s mercenary, antisocial surgeon. Black Jack, you see, is so contrary that he won’t even bother to become a licensed physician, no matter how legendary his surgical skills are. Perhaps that’s because he puts “First, do no harm” after “Run a credit check” when it comes to patient care. Black Jack may not have a diploma hanging on his wall, but his nigh-supernatural abilities as a physician put him in tremendous demand with the desperately ill and their loved ones. He has no cuddly bedside manner to offer, but he will travel the world to cure you, if you can afford it. (Black Jack also has the creepiest sidekick imaginable, a sentient tumor named Pinoko trapped in a child’s artificial body, even though she’s been around for 18 years.)

If you just can’t get enough of pesky microbes that influence day-to-day human existence, there’s always Moyasimon (Del Rey), written and illustrated by Masayuki Ishikawa. Unlike the magical microbes in Mushishi, the bacterial supporting cast of Moyasimon can be found in any respectable taxonomy of the tiny. Sometimes they’re beneficial, sometimes they’re malignant, and sometimes they can be both. And where better to ponder their myriad qualities than in an agricultural college? And who better than a student who can actually see and speak to them? That’s what his nutty, fermentation-obsessed professor thinks, and if Tadayasu wanted a normal life, he shouldn’t have signed up for manga stardom. Only one volume is available so far, and the comedic results can be a little scattered, but the series shows a lot of promise.

If you like a little more wrathful judgment in your episodic manga, then unwrap a volume of Presents (CMX), written and illustrated by Kanako Inuki, to see terrible things happen to awful people. This is the title that inspired John Jakala to coin the immortal term “comeuppance theatre,” which has subsequently served countless manga bloggers, me included. In these three volumes, the selfish, greedy, stupid, and neglectful get what’s coming to them just as they grab for what they think they deserve, and Inuki stages these moments of karma with real glee. Mushishi is all about the balance of things, of sometimes opposing forces being restored to equanimity and learning to accept that neither acts with malice. There’s malice aplenty in Presents, which offers a refreshingly nasty change of pace as that malice boomerangs back onto the people who send it out into the karmic ecosystem.


The Manga Moveable Feast: Mushishi

April 26, 2010

Ed Sizemore is hosting the current installment of the Manga Moveable Feast over at Manga Worth Reading. This time around, the focus is Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi (Del Rey). Here’s a Flipped column on the series that I wrote for The Comics Reporter. I’ll be posting more Mushishi-related content later in the week.

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In a chapter of Yuki Urushibara’s elegant, episodic drama Mushishi (Del Rey), master of ceremonies Ginko informs a boy that mushi, the mystical bugs Ginko wrangles, “aren’t your friends. They’re just some strange neighbors of yours.” That’s as nice a tonal summary as anything I can concoct.

Mushi are an ancient part of the environment, and their influences can be extremely malignant to their human neighbors. Mushishi (or “mushi masters”) like Ginko help manage the interactions between humans and mushi, mitigating human suffering when possible. Sometimes no such mitigation is possible, and that’s one of the many intriguing aspects of the series.

Ginko isn’t an exterminator. He’s a scholar and a physician of sorts. He’s also a wanderer in the tradition of Kung Fu‘s Caine, traveling from village to village to learn about little-known mushi and aid and educate their human neighbors. Aiding and educating feel secondary to Ginko’s own quest for knowledge; he’s not precisely mercenary, but he isn’t sentimental or especially altruistic. He isn’t a particularly nice person, and I like that.

I also like that he isn’t entirely predictable. In many of these wanderers’ tales that are more about glimpsing the places and people they visit, the wanderer can be the least interesting element of the narrative, carrying the camera and reacting to what he finds. Ginko certainly fills those functions, but he’s also an agent of change, assessing the situations he finds, divining their sources, and determining appropriate action, if any is actually warranted. In addition to being kind of a grouch, Ginko is also a realist, and not every situation can be fixed in any meaningful way.

Ginko, with his trench coat and ever-dangling cigarette, isn’t on a quest. There’s no fixed end point to his work, as there will always be new things to learn about mushi and people who run afoul of them. It’s a job, and it’s one he’s particularly suited to doing, but he doesn’t demonstrate any pilgrim’s fervor or scholar’s mania. He’s got a matter-of-fact nature mixed with an arch inscrutability that spares him blandness. He also attracts mushi, which keeps him from lingering anywhere for too long.

Urushibara demonstrates great creativity and variety in the manifestations of the mushi. Some scenarios can be quite gruesome and perilous; others are benign and almost pastoral. Her approach is a patchwork of bits of folklore, spikes of horror, an appreciation for setting, an undeniable environmentalist bent, and a keen eye for human nature. Like bacteria, the mushi have no particular motive beyond survival, but their side effects can be terrifying.

Intriguing as the effects can be, Urushibara doesn’t settle for a blend of fantasy and horror; she seems much more interested in viewing the mushi and their effects through the prism of human relationships and society.

In one particularly gruesome story, a strain of mushi devours and impersonates human children, and a mother cares for them with the same fervor she would lavish on her own children. In a gentler but still disturbing outing, a girl is granted the gift of sight by a mushi that lives in her eyes, but things progress to the point that she can never stop seeing, and the gift becomes exhausting. Some mushi have an ironic knack for uniting lovers at an awkward or untenable price. But only some of the tales traffic in monkey’s paw irony; Urushibara is just as taken with quaint, unsettling oddities as she is with life-and-death drama.

Urushibara is not quite the artist she is a writer, but her writing is so deft and subtle that saying she’s not as good at drawing is almost a compliment. The strongest visual elements of Mushishi involve its varied settings. Ginko travels through snow-covered mountains, misty valleys, craggy seashores, swamps, and serene farms, offering a rural visual feast. Her renderings aren’t strictly realistic; Urushibara isn’t composing picture postcards. But the settings are unerringly evocative. They have moods all their own.

There isn’t as much variety in her character design. The people who populate her stories generally look average, even a little fragile in the context of the rural vistas they inhabit. But they are average people living generally simple lives, so the choice is appropriate if not especially eye-catching. And Urushibara does grant them a full palette of expression and emotion.

That isn’t to say that she isn’t capable of some breathtaking flourishes. My favorite comes in the second volume, when Ginko visits the mushishi library. Its frail, fetching copyist is infested with mushi that enable her to do her work. When Ginko’s stimulating presence leads the mushi to act up, the results are stunning. Words fly through the air and leap across the walls. Since the sequence is grounded so well in the copyist’s sad history and her ambivalence, the effect is even stronger.

With intelligent writing and often lovely art, Mushishi is an excellent episodic series. Aside from occasional glimpses of Ginko’s past, there’s little in the way of subplot or undercurrent. The drama is contained in the individual chapters rather than in wondering what happens next or how it will all end. That makes Mushishi a vivid and satisfying read, and also a relatively undemanding one. You can pick up a volume at random and not worry about being lost. So many multi-volume series feel like they demand a level of commitment and investment, but Mushishi lends itself to casual reading. That said, I can’t imagine picking up one volume and not wanting to read the others, at least at one’s leisure.

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Derivations on a theme

March 4, 2010

Mayu Fujikata’s My Darling! Miss Bancho (CMX) immediately reminds me of other funny, well-done comics about a girl thrust into an all-boy milieu, titles like Ai Morinaga’s My Heavenly Hockey Club (Del Rey) and Bisco Hatori’s Ouran High School Host Club (Viz). When her parents get divorced, Souka transfers to a technical school so she can start working as soon as possible and help support her mother. The school is such a strife-ridden place that all of the other girls have transferred out, leaving Souka swimming alone in a sea of testosterone and goofy gang violence. Just as she starts adapting, circumstances push her into the role of the school’s bancho, leader of all of its warring forces.

Goofy as this sounds, Fujikata plays fair with the details of the plot. Souka isn’t aggressive, but she’ll stand up for herself and her friends, so her ascent in the school’s power structure is silly but not implausible. It doesn’t stretch suspension of belief to the breaking point any more than the general premise itself does. The characters are generally charming, from sweetly feisty Souka to her love interest, the formidable, strangely maternal Yuuji Katou. Fujikata gives her characters the right kind of quirks that allow them to interact in fresh, funny ways, and she comes up with sturdy, comedic scenarios to showcase them, just as Morinaga and Hatori do in their titles.

It’s a likeable, well-executed variation on a very common theme, and its clear-headed freshness keeps it from seeming derivative to the point of superfluous. Fujikata also gives good author’s notes in which she expresses pixilated amusement that her editor keeps letting her get away with this stuff.

Similarities to Yellow Tanabe’s splendid Kekkaishi (Viz) abound in Mika Kawamura’s Panic x Panic (Del Rey). Both follow the adventures of squabbling neighbor kids who also happen to be able to exorcise demons. One is reluctant and relies on intuition, and the other is more diligent and by-the-book. There’s a long-standing rivalry between their families, though you suspect they kind of like each other underneath the sniping. The key difference between the two books is that Tanabe’s Kekkaishi is really good and feels fresh, and Kawamura’s Panic x Panic isn’t and doesn’t.

I think it’s the relentless overlay of cuteness that Kawamura slathers on her pages. I’ve got no problem with cute in general, but there’s a certain kind of sugary adorability that I find completely resistible. Kawamura erects her very familiar framework with a style that’s (for me) too reminiscent of some of the work of Arina Tanemura – tons of bouncy hair, sheets of screen tone, hug-me-now character designs, and enough hair ribbon to fashion a sturdy noose. There’s never quite enough that’s interesting or specific to Panic x Panic to distract me from thoughts of other, better versions of the same story.

(These reviews are based on complimentary copies provided by the publisher.)


Weekend reading: Ikigami, Sayonara, Kurosagi

March 1, 2010

The fourth volume of Motoro Mase’s Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit (Viz) nicely displays Mase’s strengths and weaknesses as a storyteller. Each volume contains two arcs, and the paired tales here include one mawkish affair and one smart outing. “The Last Lesson” displays what happens when Mase neglects his underlying premise – a pernicious government program that randomly kills young people to teach society the value of life – in favor of examining some other social ill. In this case, it’s all about horrible kids, willfully ignorant parents, and overwhelmed teachers, leading one character to wonder “What kind of evil has taken over our schools these days?” That bit of dialogue is in great big type in case you missed the fact that it’s the moral. “A Place of Peace” shows Mase at his sharpest, telling a character-driven story within his larger context. A young mother gets her death notice and must decide what to do with her child in the face of her husband’s complete aversion to responsibility. The human drama plays out with some nice twists and turns and some chilling overall implications. In spite of its inconsistencies, Ikigami is always a very readable series, even when Mase ramps up the melodrama. As always, the bleak little moments of death-dealing bureaucracy provide unsettlingly funny framing. I really wish Mase did four-koma salaryman strips about the death notice office.

I was a little worried when I heard that Joyce Aurino wouldn’t be translating and adapting the fifth volume of Koji Kumeta’s densely satirical Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). I can understand it, because four volumes of copious end notes and incredibly fiddly references must be enough to send anyone off to a healing retreat on an island in a lake in the Alps that can only be reached by rowboat. (I have no idea if Aurino chose that recuperative strategy. I just like to picture the nuns greeting her with a warm bowl of broth and a hand-woven blanket while reassuring her that “Your work is done for now.”) In all seriousness, Aurino did a remarkable job delivering a funny, frisky script and a veritable encyclopedia of annotations to round out the reading experience. David Ury’s translation and adaptation don’t seem quite as… well… flawless as Aurino’s, but they’re still very, very good, and this tale of a suicidal teacher and his diversely horrible students maintains its grim, biting charm. Highlights of the fifth volume include a new student, “mean-looking girl” Mayo Mitima, and the ongoing descent of “methodical and precise girl” Chiri Kitsu, and Kumeta’s twisted dissection of human foibles never really falters.

There’s nothing game-changing in the 10th volume of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Dark Horse), written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, but it does show the creators in top form. It occurred to me that Kurosagi’s intentions are the same as Ikigami’s – how people deal with death, and how they address their unfinished business. In spite of the fact that Kurosagi is a comedy, I think it has smarter and more interesting things to say on the subject. I also really enjoy the way that Otsuka and Yamazaki frame their mini-mysteries, both criminal and emotional. Their satirical edge is in evidence as well, tweaking everything from community health initiatives to moronic reality shows. There’s nothing quite as pleasurable as watching creators establish an intriguing, flexible premise and a quirky, engaging cast and apply them to a wide variety of stories that are still thematically linked. It does make the series hard to review volume to volume, because how many ways can you say it’s still really good?