Upcoming 1/27/2010

January 26, 2010

Beyond offering some enjoyable and promising material, this week’s ComicList gives me the opportunity to review a couple of likeable titles that I received from the publishers.

Remember how the producers of Saturday Night Live used to try and turn characters that worked in five-minute sketches into the stars of full-length movies and how rarely that worked? That could have been the fate of Afrodisiac (AdHouse Books), the powered-up pimp who guest-starred in Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca’s terrific Street Angel mini-series (SLG). Fortunately, Rugg and Maruca are smart enough to keep their creation in sketch contents, assembling an amusing “best of” volume of adventures that satirize both blaxploitation and, to a lesser extent, the ups and downs of a super-hero franchise. Afrodisiac pays homage to the marginally distasteful, fad-driven characters that publishers like Marvel created over the years, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, taking him just far enough beyond his predecessors to make the joke worth telling. The formula is basic – the unflappable, irresistible flesh peddler keeps his neighborhood and stable safe from the schemes of stupid, greedy white guys like Dracula and Richard Nixon. Those stories are fun, but I liked the random covers even better. They suggest a publisher trying to build a character franchise by any means available, wedging him into crossovers, true-romance comics, and even a Marvel Knights-style revamp. Afrodisiac isn’t ambitious in its satire, but it’s smartly presented and consistently amusing. It’s just right for its aims and given its raw materials.

Miku Sakamoto’s Stolen Hearts is another worthy entry in CMX’s roster of amiable, endearing shôjo manga, and it has three elements in particular that work in its favor. First, it’s about maintaining an established relationship, which I always like. Sunny, short Shinobu and scowling, tall Koguma get their romantic act together fairly quickly, allowing Sakamoto to spend the rest of the volume cementing their bond. They work together in Koguma’s grandmother’s kimono shop, which covers the other two aspects. I like the detail Sakamoto expends on kimono culture. I’m partial to books that focus on a specific activity or enterprise, as it adds an extra layer of interest to the proceedings. Last but not least is Grandma, who falls into that category of funny, formidable senior citizens that I enjoy so much. Grandma’s product maybe old-fashioned, but her business practices are aggressively modern. Her marketing schemes set the stage for profits and push the romance forward.

Now, on to the rest, though that hardly seems like a fitting phrase for the range and appeal of the items I haven’t yet read.

I’m not quite ready for the fifth volume of the breathtakingly beautiful, not-always-entirely-coherent Bride of the Water God (Dark Horse), written and illustrated by Mi-Kyung Yun, but I’ll certainly catch up at some point. This is one of those titles that’s best read in the bathtub with a glass of wine close to hand, possibly sparkling. I’m glad to see that Dark Horse is sticking with this series, as it gives me hope that the rumored solicitations for new volumes of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent will someday result in me being able to purchase new volumes of Kazuhiro Okamoto’s Translucent.

Last Gasp concludes its admirable effort to release Keiji Nakazawa’s deservedly legendary Barefoot Gen. The ninth and tenth volumes arrive Wednesday. What more do I need to say?

You’ll probably need to lighten the mood a bit after that, so how about a little super-dense comedy about a suicidal schoolteacher? Yes, it’s time for another volume of Koji Kumeta’s Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei (Del Rey). This installment promises a visit to a hot spring, and I can only imagine what bizarre tangents such an excursion will yield. I also really like the color palette for this cover. It suggests both delicate gentility and decay. This series was among my favorite debuts of 2009.

So was Karuho Shina’s Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (Viz), a delightfully off-kilter shôjo title. Thinking about the subject of yesterday’s Flipped column, it occurs to me that this book is a delightful subversion of the peasant-prince model. The heroine of this book is so socially disadvantaged that she doesn’t even realize that the boy of her dreams is probably already in love with her. But I’m confident that she’ll catch on in time, and then I will cry and giggle in equal measure.

And if you’re curious about this week’s debuts from Tokyopop, tangognat has you covered with reviews of Alice in the Country of Hearts and Portrait of M and N.


Weekend reading, viewing

December 14, 2009

A quick overview of some of the entertainment consumed over the weekend:

The Graveyard Book, written by Neil Gaiman with illustrations by Dave McKean, HarperCollins: I don’t know why I tend to forget that Gaiman is a very successful prose author in addition to a lionized comics creator. I’ve read some of his novels and liked them very much. Maybe I just have a fixed impression of him as a comics creator, or maybe I just don’t read that much prose fantasy. The Graveyard Book is about a human boy whose family is murdered and who’s subsequently raised by the denizens of a rustic local resting place. Nobody Owens, as his ghostly guardians name him, has a childhood populated with vampires, werewolves, ghouls, witches and malevolent human forces, though it feels perfectly normal to him. That’s the key to the book’s appeal for me; “Bod” doesn’t know how weird his life is, so he tends not to overreact. The plot feels casual, almost lazy, which fits right in with the novel’s undemanding charm. It’s a great choice for a rainy afternoon.

Julie and Julia, directed by Nora Ephron, based on a book by Julie Powell, Sony Pictures: I have an abiding fondness for Julia Child. As a result, I have an abiding dislike of much of what passes for food television these days. So any opportunity to celebrate this culinary icon is welcome, even if Meryl Streep’s performance seems more like an impersonation than the creation of a character. It’s a good impersonation, capturing Child’s fluty charm and imposing sturdiness. As I suspected, I could have been perfectly happy skipping over the parts of Julie Powell, who kept a blog about her attempts to cook every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Powell’s blog turned into a book, which turned into this movie, though not without a great deal of mewling self-pity, apparently. I couldn’t make it through more than a third of Powell’s book, and I strongly suspect Ephron and company didn’t care for it much more than I did. Amy Adams, who is a fine and versatile actress, has been criticized for not holding up her end of the film, and that strikes me as unfair. She’s playing Powell as a selfish, immature opportunist, which can’t be accidental, and she’s doing it well. How entertaining could such accuracy possibly be?

Only One Wish, written and illustrated by Mia Ikumi, Del Rey: If you’re absolutely manic about episodic comics that suggest you be careful what you wish for, then perhaps completism will demand that you give this bland outing a whirl. Completism has its costs, though, and subjecting yourself to dull manga may be one of them. Anyway, there’s this complicated urban legend about text-messaging and getting your wish, and teen-agers here do a number of predictable things with their good fortune. Absolutely nothing unexpected happens, though Ikumi seems convinced that her twists and turns will startle. Maybe I’ve read too much manga of this kind and my startle threshold is higher. I must give thumbs up to the great design on the wish-granting witch, though. (Review based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.)


Weekend reading

December 7, 2009

It was a busy weekend, but I did manage to make some headway in the to-read pile.

Eden: It’s an Endless World! Volume 12, written and illustrated by Hiroki Endo (Dark Horse): Someone recently made the argument on Twitter that, for a manga series to be any good, you have to be able to pick up any given volume and understand what’s going on. I think accessibility is an admirable quality, but to say that it’s an essential virtue is to say that books like Eden aren’t any good, and I simply can’t agree with that. Given the length of time between new volumes, I can’t even always remember everything that’s happened from one installment to the next. Since I love the series, it gives me an excuse to check back with previous volumes before reading the new one, and that’s hardly a bad thing. And since it’s a densely written science fiction with complex geopolitical undertones, it would be gruesomely dull if Endo had to resort to exposition instead of trusting the intelligence of his audience to remember the really important stuff. I would never recommend that anyone start the series with the 12th volume, but I would certainly suggest that they pick up the first to see what they think and decide if they’d like to stick with it. I will note that the 12th volume is more lighthearted than average and features equal opportunity fan-service. There’s still a daunting body count, but there’s also some actual whimsy.

Emma Volume 10, written and illustrated by Kaoru Mori (CMX): It’s the final volume of this beautiful series about the class-crossed romance between a young maid and a wealthy young man. As always, period details and emotional nuances are observed with minute precision, and the overall effect is manga bliss. I’m going to miss the Emma-verse terribly, particularly hunky, ridiculous Hakim. And I’m not ashamed to admit that the Kelly Stowner shout-outs made me all misty-eyed. Will someone please license Otoyomegatari so I can keep getting my Mori fix?

Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit Volume 3, written and illustrated by Motoro Mase (Viz): I enjoy this series about an insidious government program designed to teach citizens the value of life by randomly killing a handful of them, but I have to confess to some confusion about what pushes it over into the lofty realm of the sélection officielle. It’s really good, episodic genre entertainment, but that doesn’t necessarily track with my perceptions of what Angouême tries to recognize. (I confess I could be misguided in my perceptions.) That said, this volume features my favorite segment so far. It features an ambitious politician and her neglected son, and it achieves levels of cynicism I would have found implausible had I not witnessed the ascendance of Sarah Palin. I’m still hoping that a subplot emerges about the blanket immorality of the program that drives the plot, but Mase is a solid, sometimes inspired storyteller overall. It’s the manga equivalent of a consistently entertaining hour-long cable drama.


Compare and contrast

December 2, 2009

Did you like Fuyumi Soryo’s ES: Eternal Sabbath (Del Rey)? I sure did. I was drawn in by its guarded, complex characters, philosophical digressions, astute science fiction, and Soryo’s attractive, versatile work as an illustrator.

If you liked it, and if you’re game for a somewhat dumber version with hotter guys, may I recommend Night Head Genesis (Del Rey)? It’s based on a story by George Iida that has apparently seen a lot of adaptations and has been translated into a comic by the prolific You Higuri. Here’s the breakdown:

In ES, a pair of powerful clones is created in a secret facility to explore human psychic potential. They escape via horrific violence. In Night Head Genesis (which I’ll call NHG from this point forward), a pair of powerfully psychic brothers have been locked away to keep them from inadvertently hurting the people around them. When they reach maximum early-adult hotness, they escape from captivity and try and blend into the crowd.

In ES, the clones have a tense, pseudo-brother/rival relationship. In NHG, the hot brothers are suspiciously close in that way that siblings or male best friends in Higuri manga often are.

In ES, the clones cross paths with a brilliant researcher with some emotional issues that she buries under professional detachment. In NHG, the clones run across a brilliant researcher who is not inclined to bury her emotional issues even a little.

The ES scientist is the heroine of the piece and adapts well to mysterious circumstances or is at least inclined to examine them carefully. The NHG scientist is just kind of a supporting cougar who, extensive scientific training aside, kind of freaks out a lot.

In ES, the clones are tracked by one of the few people to survive their escape who suspects they’ll cause some big disaster. In NHG, the brothers are dogged by a shifty psychic who has a vision that they’ll be either directly or indirectly responsible for some big disaster.

In ES, one of the clones makes average people do awful things and the other is willing to use his abilities in self-serving though not malicious ways. In NHG, the shifty psychic manipulates and provokes, and the brothers are entirely benign unless the older one loses his temper.

ES was serialized in Kodansha’s Weekly Morning, which publishes a wide variety of great stories in different styles. NHG was published in Kodansha’s defunct Magazine Z, which was apparently very otaku-friendly and trafficked in popular franchises like, one presumes, NHG.

Both ES and NHG are seinen titles done by creators probably better known for their shôjo work. That sort of category crossover is always worth a look. Both creators have done series about the Borgia family. Higuri’s, Cantarella, is ongoing in Akita Shoten’s Princess Gold and being published in English by Go! Comi. Soryo’s, Cesare, is ongoing in Morning and has yet to be licensed. (Someone should rectify that.)

Now, if you asked me which one you should read, I would heartily favor ES, because it’s just plain better on almost every level save for eye candy. But if there’s room in your life for two series like this, and if you have a fondness for Higuri’s brand of sleek shamelessness, then you could do worse than to give NHG a look. I’ve read at least a bit of everything of Higuri’s that has been published in English, and she always adds at least some value to the experience. I can’t say I’m particularly fond of her full-on shônen-ai and yaoi, but when those elements are peripheral, even a tease, they usually make me smile.

(This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher. And okay, it isn’t even so much a review as a compare-and-contrast of the ways that a very similar story can be repurposed for different demographics. And I might just be writing it to remind you that ES is pretty great. Sue me.)


Upcoming 11/25/2009

November 24, 2009

Time for a look at this week’s ComicList:

CMX expands its line of endearing shôjo with the debut of Asuka Izumi’s The Lizard Prince. It’s about the complications that arise when a princess falls in love with a prince who occasionally turns into a lizard, and I really enjoyed the review copy that CMX sent. It’s one of those romantic series that’s more about sustaining a relationship in the face of obstacles than the advent of a romance. Strong-willed Princess Canary and softie Prince Sienna know they love each other; it’s just petty details like her reptile-averse mother, his mysterious background, and his not-entirely-controllable transformations that keep their happiness from being absolute. Part of the charm of the series is that Canary and Sienna really seem to enjoy tackling problems and working through them. Izumi’s art is very attractive, and she’s got a cheerful sense of humor that makes the stories breeze by.

This one’s been in bookstores for over a month, but if you confine your graphic novel purchases to specialty shops, this is the week you can pick up Masayuki Ishikawa’s Moyasimon (Del Rey). Country boys Tadayasu and Kei enroll in agricultural college in the big city, where weirdness awaits. Tadayasu can see and speak to bacteria (or at least hear their chirpy prattle), making him an object of particular interest to the professor and handful of fellow students who know of his ability. Hard science and low comedy combine as Tadayasu and Kei learn about the power of bacteria and their sometimes disastrous impact on the digestive system. The series gets off to a solid if not riotous start, and I’ll certainly stick around to see how it develops. [Update: Johanna Draper Carlson has a theory on why it took so long for this book to reach shelves, along with a review.]

Fanfare/Ponent Mon delivers two titles this week. There’s the second and final volume of Jiro Taniguchi’s A Distant Neighborhood, which I reviewed here. It’s very likable stuff, beautifully drawn by Taniguchi.

There’s also the English-language debut of Willy Linhout’s Years of the Elephant. It’s about the aftermath of a young man’s suicide and the devastating impact on his family. According to the publisher, “The book was initially intended as self therapy to help Linthout deal with the loss of his son however, the originally modest project unleashed a flood of reactions and therapists now use the book as a recognised aid for coping with grief.” I picked it up at SPX, and I will duly move it to the top of the pile of things to read.

Tokyopop makes me really happy by continuing its slow-but-appreciated roll-out of new volumes of Ai Morinaga’s Your and My Secret, in this case the fifth, a license originally held by ADV then left to limbo. It’s more mistaken-identity comedy about a horrible girl and a meek boy who switch bodies and alternately recoil at or revel in the consequences. For bonus points, this volume features a school trip to Hokkaido, one of my very favorite settings for manga and a place I hope to visit someday.

I’m intrigued by This Ugly Yet Beautiful World just based on its title. It’s a manga adaptation by Ashita Morimi of an apparently popular anime by Gainax/Konomini Project. It sounds like your standard “dweebs meet amnesiac space princess” fare, but it’s got a great title. (Seriously, does Japan have an agency that deals with amnesiac space princesses? They could use one.)


Quick comic comments

November 23, 2009

I had a fruitful trip to the bookstore the other day, so I thought I’d celebrate by cranking out a couple of quick reviews:

Cat Paradise volume 2, written and illustrated by Yuji Iwahara, Yen Press: After a fairly straightforward introductory volume, I was a bit surprised at how meta things got this time around. As the student council and their loyal cats continue to protect the world from demonic forces, Iwahara focuses on council member Tsukasa, who is a creepy little dork. He likes girls a lot, but he likes them in a patronizing way. This allows that thing where a creator can sort of mock a character that leers and condescends and teases while still featuring the leering and condescension and teasing. The criticism of the character, if that’s actually the intent instead of just giving part of the demographic a gateway character, is pretty thickly veiled. So the fan service is at a higher level than it was the first time around, and there’s also an increase in what might be called irrevocable violence. (Soft-hearted cat lovers beware.) I’m also of two minds on heroine Yumi. On one hand, it’s believable that she’s not a warrior by inclination and that she’d find these dangerous situations terrifying. (And I like that her milder nature leads her to question the council’s decisions and methodology.) On the other, she has a tendency to simper that can be a little grating. Still, there’s a lot to like in the series, particularly Iwahara’s concept of napping as a super-power.

V.B. Rose volume 4, written and illustrated by Banri Hidaka, Tokyopop: After three volumes told largely from heroine Ageha’s perspective, it’s nice to spend one getting the point of view of her love interest, wunderkind gown designer Yukari. In a lot of romantic fiction, you only get the protagonist’s point of view, and the feelings of the object of that character’s desire are left opaque. That’s a perfectly fair approach, as it allows the creator to increase reader identification with the protagonist. After all, that’s how we all approach romantic entanglements, wondering if our feelings are reciprocated until the moment when we find out for good or ill. While Ageha, with her exuberance and excitability, is more than character enough to carry the romantic tension, it’s nice to see Hidaka reveal that Yukari is almost as complicated and not just a love object. (I say “almost” because Ageha has enjoyed three volumes of focus, and it’s unfair to expect Yukari to catch up so quickly.) For bonus points, Hidaka gives us more scenes with Ageha’s frighteningly poised friend Mamoru and her deceptively adorable brother. This sibling dynamic isn’t anything new, but I always enjoy it. And nice as it is to have a well-developed central couple, it’s even better to have them in the middle of an engaging crowd of friends and family.


Seconds

October 29, 2009

I thought I’d take a quick look at second volumes whose first installments I basically praised to the skies. Let’s see how they hold up, shall we?

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kiminitodoke2The second volume of Karuho Shiina’s Kimi ni Todoke: From Me to You (Viz) is as good as the first but in a somewhat different way. I could have been perfectly happy to read several volumes that were nothing but Shiina’s sly comedy of overturned expectations, watching spooky sweetheart Sawako try and win friends and influence people. That undercurrent remains, but Shiina focuses mainly on two of Sawako’s early converts. Rumors are circulating that Yano is a tramp and Yoshida’s a juvenile delinquent, and fingers are pointed to Sawako as the source. Yano and Yoshida rightly spot the absurdity in the notion of Sawako as a malicious gossip, but questions arise all the same. And they’re interesting questions about the nature of the girls’ friendship, if friendship indeed it is.

I can’t lie. The volume basically consists of the reader waiting for goodness to triumph and our heroines to recognize the truth of what’s in their hearts, but it’s a good kind of waiting. It’s anticipation rather than impatience, and the payoff is lovely, endearing and funny. Kimi ni Todoke is a quirky comedy, certainly, but it’s got heart. This is one of the most enjoyable new shôjo titles of the year.

detroitmetalcity2The second volume of Kiminori Wakasugi’s Detroit Metal City (also Viz) is slightly more problematic, only because I had to factor out the revelatory experience of reading the first. Beyond being shockingly profane and subversively hilarious, there was the shock that someone actually licensed this thing. Add to that the shock that Viz – Viz! – licensed this wildly vulgar manga and translated it with apparent faithfulness, and that ups the ante even more. So a certain amount of letdown between the first and second installments seems inevitable.

But after factoring that out, and even though I missed the “I can’t believe I just read that” shocks from the first time around, it’s still very, very funny stuff. It’s still cruelly amusing to watch sweet, chic Soichi Negishi fail in all the things that actually matter to him and thrive in ways he finds repulsive. It’s like if Clark Kent hated Superman. Negishi’s death-metal alter ego Lord Krauser continues his ascent (descent?) into shock-rock stardom as Negishi’s dreams of Swedish pop stardom recede further and further. Add take-downs of rap, punk, and magical-realist independent film, and I’m a very happy reader. Nothing will ever match the first time, but that’s no reason to stop.

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