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 We’re into the previously unpublished material at this point, and it’s very enjoyable stuff.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.)

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.

Second looks

April 19, 2010

I thought I’d kick the week off with quick looks at a couple of second volumes of series that made promising first impressions. One is a shôjo title that’s off the beaten track (a male protagonist, no romantic plot elements, and a supernatural, episodic vibe), and the other is a josei series that plays around with that old shôjo spirit.

The second volume Yuki Midorikawa’s Natsume’s Book of Friends (Viz) has all of the charms and strengths of the first. All of the four stories are solid, and the art is still lovely and delicate, but there’s one chapter that really resonated with me.

In it, protagonist Natsume has an entirely unexpected experience. He meets an adult who can do the same things he does, namely see and communicate with supernatural creatures known as yôkai. Natsume has been steadfast, even a little paranoid, about keeping his abilities a secret. Experience has taught him that he’ll be ostracized if he reveals them, so finding another person like him is jolting. Natsume moves through phases of suspicion, curiosity, hope, disillusionment, and eventually acceptance and relief.

As a gay kid entering college, I felt something very similar to Natsume’s sense of isolation and strangeness. Mercifully, even in a small-town college in the Midwest, I managed to meet gay grown-ups who were living the kind of productive, happy lives I had only cautiously imagined. They had good jobs, and some of them had partners, and the fact that they were gay wasn’t a hindrance to any of that. Even if I didn’t end up liking all of them or finding them entirely admirable, the examples they provided were a tremendous comfort to me. Midorikawa captures that process and those feelings with accuracy and sensitivity. I have no idea what her intent or inspiration for the story were, but the argument she makes for the power of an adult role model is persuasive and moving, so much so that I think I’ll nominate it for the Great Graphic Novels for Teens list.

Another nice element of this series is the added value of the creator’s notes. These sidebars often run to the drippy and chatty, but Midorikawa makes good use of them. She talks about her process, the challenges of trying to craft stand-alone stories with recurring themes, and the hooks that she finds for herself that help characters and stories fall into place. She also explains her resistance to larger panels, and while I get it and think her compositions are often lovely, it would be nice to see the occasional blown-up spread.

The second volume of Yuki Yoshihara’s Butterflies, Flowers (Viz) settles into a pattern of mildly smutty silliness that I very much enjoyed. In the first volume, we met former rich girl Choko Kuze, whose family’s financial decline led her to the life of an office worker. She quickly discovered that her borderline-insane boss, Masayuki Domoto, used to be one of her family’s servants, and that his boyhood devotion still lurks within her demonic supervisor.

With the set-up out of the way, Yoshihara can really dive into the R-rated shôjo goofiness. Buttterflies, Flowers runs in a josei magazine (Shogakukan’s Petit Comic), but it has all of the mechanics of a high-school romance. The antics just have a slightly more adult flavor. Instead of a school festival, Choko must participate in a company competition for office newbies. Instead of a Domoto fan club full of sempai, there are senior office ladies to seethe with jealousy. And the question of sex is addressed a lot more frankly, though not with anything resembling seriousness.

There are some great bits amidst the generally okay bits, and it’s undeniably good natured. It’s not josei in the way that books like Bunny Drop or Suppli are, but it’s fun and does its best to make sex silly. There’s nothing wrong with that.

In the near future

April 8, 2010

I’m never entirely sure what the right window is to review a book before it comes out. Write about it too far in advance, and people who might want to try the book could be frustrated by the fact that they can’t immediately act on that impulse. But I’ll run the risk with a couple of titles, as they’re both a little off the beaten track, both very good, and may well benefit from all the mentions they can get. Let me explain.

One of the first manga I ever read was Makoto Yukimura’s Planetes (Tokyopop). I was never a huge fan of science fiction, and I’m still not, but this one really had the right kind of narrative voice for me. It’s a character-driven story about orbital garbage haulers, the men and women that clear debris out of space to keep people from dying, basically. It’s very low-key and introspective, and it really struck a chord with me, even though I felt it had some imperfections.

It didn’t sell very well, which rankled me. (It’s always rankled me when books I really like don’t sell very well.) Planetes was among the licenses that Kodansha reclaimed from Tokyopop, so it’s effectively out of print. That’s very unfortunate. With two other low-key, character driven space dramas in the pipeline, I feel a possibly unwarranted, pre-emptive protective urge.

The first volume of Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical) comes out May 4, 2010. It’s about a 14-year-old girl who dreams of becoming an astronaut, of coming closer to the stars she’s always loved. Asumi must overcome her father’s resistance, a rigorous entrance exam, and personal tragedies to enter a training academy.

Yaginuma renders all of Asumi’s difficulties with admirably straightforward delicacy and attention to detail. There’s plausibility to the process Asumi pursues and the examination system itself. There’s also a wonderful earnestness to Asumi’s dreams and her desire to reach out to the people who share them. Factor in the aching sadness that provides underpinnings for Asumi’s quest and you have a moving, unusual finished product.

The illustrations have just the right fragility for the material. They have a simple, sketchy charm that helps you focus on the characters. There’s a similar quality to the look of the second book on my mind, Hisae Iwaoka’s Saturn Apartments (Viz), which ships on May 18, 2010. (It’s one of the titles in rotation on Viz’s SigIKKI site.)

Iwaoka’s work has the same tenderness towards her characters, but she lavishes more detail on their environments. This is all to the good, because that environment is fascinating. The titular apartments are floating in orbit above a largely uninhabitable Earth. The story’s protagonists are window washers for those apartments, which is as perilous as you might suspect. As is too often the case, the danger and drudgery of their work doesn’t come with an appropriately high salary. They live on the grungy levels, even as they clean the windows of the elite.

Young Mitsu has just taken up the work of a window washer, following in the footsteps of his dead father. We watch his evolution as a worker, and we also see the lives of his co-workers and clients. Iwaoka does a lovely job finding the possibilities in her scenario as she inches forward with Mitsu’s growth as a person.

Both of these titles succeed in finding the specific human drama in space opera. They’re graceful, wistful, and gently funny at the right moments. They don’t have the raucous bombast that can often make a book a best-seller, but they’re well worth your attention if you like interesting, sympathetic characters in fascinating situations.

(The review of Twin Spica is based on a preview copy provided by the publisher. You can read Saturn Apartments online at the SigIKKI link above.)

Say it with comics

March 10, 2010

So you’re among the legion of people who are grateful to Fantagraphics for their recently announced manga initiative, to be curated by Matt Thorn. Who isn’t? I know I am. And you may want to express that gratitude by buying something that Fantagraphics has published. If your comics interests rest primarily in titles from Japan, you may not have sampled other works published by Fantagraphics, so here are some books for your consideration:

La Perdida, written and illustrated by Jessica Abel: This series got a really attractive hardcover collection from another publisher, but the five individual issues are handsome objects in their own right. It’s a great story about a young woman who moves to Mexico and finds her romanticized notion of the country very much at odds with the corner of its reality that she inhabits. (My review.)

Escape from “Special”, written and illustrated by Miss Lasko-Gross: This is a frank coming-of-age story about a girl who’s making the adjustment from an experimental private school to the more perilous, less forgiving world of public school. It’s like really bleak shôjo without any bishies, and I liked it quite a bit. (My review.)

Castle Waiting, written and illustrated by Linda Medley: You’ve read this book, haven’t you? If not, good grief, what are you waiting for? It’s absolutely gorgeous and utterly delightful. It takes place in a castle that “becomes a refuge for misfits, outcasts, and others seeking sanctuary.” I think we’re just about due for another collection, so now would be a good time to introduce yourself to Medley’s first collection of Castle Waiting. Of course, it isn’t as though there’s ever a bad time. (My review.)

The Squirrel Mother Stories, written and illustrated by Megan Kelso: Do I need to make any other argument for this book beyond the fact that it has what amounts to Alexander Hamilton slash fiction in it? (My review.)

I did a “Birthday Book” entry on Gilbert Hernandez’s Palomar stories from Love and Rockets, so I’ll be lazy and point you at that instead of cobbling together a new paragraph.

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?