Friday, November 16, 2012

Animal Land vol. 6

After discovering 'Animal Land' and reading the first four volumes one after the other, it was a real test of my patience to wait for volume five and then again for volume 6. But that tough wait just shows me how much I love this series and how much I can't wait to see what happens next. Until volume seven comes out, at least volume 6 gave me a lot to think about.

In the previous volume of 'Animal Land', we ended things off with Taroza foiling Giller's plan to cause war between the hyenas and horses, and Ena the hyena has gained the ability to communicate with all animals just like Taroza. This development isn't really elaborated upon further, but I have a feeling it just means that Ena will become a great ally to Taroza in the future. Ena learning to communicate with other animal species and the conflict stopping because of that is certainly intriguing for the story, but I think it is also a good metaphor for the real world and why there is so much conflict. And not just because of language and cultural barriers, but humanities own stubbornness and refusal to listen. This is one of my favorite things about 'Animal Land'. There's something extra there if you want to see it.

When Taroza and his companions continue their journey to the sea, they find a massive, underground facility, seemingly built by humans long since gone. This is troubling and confusing to Taroza, but only serves to further intrigue him about the fate of his species, and they continue on to the sea. There they meet the great whale, Ector, who teaches Taroza of his former human friend, Quo, and tells Taroza of a food that both meat eaters and plant eaters can eat, called "eternal fruit". This is just what Taroza has been searching for his whole life, but Ector warns him that the "eternal fruit" didn't break down the food chain, and that carnivores still continued to eat meat despite being satisfied by the "eternal fruit". With the discovery of the underground facility and the conversation with Ector, we learn a whole lot about the world of 'Animal Land' and we can make some pretty heavy duty inferences with the information we gather here. Without spoiling things, I can only say that this manga continues to surprise me at the directions it takes and how it evolves.

Determined not to waver in his goal, Taroza climbs up to a secluded mountain valley that has fields upon fields of the "eternal fruit", but his way is blocked by a clan of gorillas. Told that outsiders aren't welcome and that he can't have any eternal fruit seeds, Taroza is beaten nearly to death when he refuses to retreat. Finally, a human girl named Riemu intervenes and cares for Taroza's wounds. Though kindly at first, Riemu seems to have not taken to the harsh world with the same strength as Taroza, and wants to lead a happy, yet sheltered life in the mountain valley, and she tries to force Taroza to stay with her. I think that through his talk with Arug, Taroza might have actually been considering it, but before he could think more on the subject, the evil Giller strikes once again. This time, he attacks with the help of some sort of alien looking creature with regeneration abilities. This part of the volume has to be my favorite. Riemu gets great characterization through a flashback and it is interesting to see the contrast between how she and Taroza developed. This part of the manga also brought some laughs. Mostly because the story took a sharp turn to the creepy and weird. Reimu's creepy faces are priceless. And I don't know what to make of those alien looking creatures, but I know it means the action is kicking up a few notches.

I really liked this volume and the series seems to be evolving to become more action oriented without losing it's thought provoking, philosophical side. Each volume has really upped the ante and this volume is no exception. My only complaint is that this volume felt too short. There were only three, main story chapters. There were two extra chapters(one Zatch Bell one shot and a Taroza side story), but the main plot is so compelling that it is kind of annoying to have like sixty pages left in the book, but they aren't what I want to see. And on top of that, volume seven doesn't come out until April 2013. This is going to be the longest and hardest wait yet....

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Valley of Horses

After absolutely loving 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', it was a given that I would move on to the next book in Jean M. Auel's Earth's Children series, 'The Valley of Horses'. With this book, my short break from manga continues to reward me with another great reading experience.

Having been given the death curse by new Clan leader, Broud, Ayla is exiled from her son, Durc, and the only family she has ever known. Determined to not let Broud win and go on living, Ayla sets out on her own in search of The Others. Other Cro-Magnon people like her, who her adoptive mother, Iza, urged Ayla to seek out. At the very same time, far away, two Cro-Magnon brothers set out on a journey of their own. A journey of adventure and discovery, following the path of the Great Mother River. As the two parties go on their separate journeys, they encounter a life time of grief, as well as happiness, completely unaware that their destinies are intertwined.

In my review of 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', I mentioned how much I loved the aspect of Ayla making new discoveries on her own. Well, the circumstances take that aspect that I enjoyed so much, and crank it up to 11. Ayla is cast out of her Clan and forced to live on her own. She can no longer depend on anyone but herself. Thankfully, she rises to the occasion, and no longer held back by the strict clan traditions, she experiences an explosion of creativity that is fascinating to watch unfold. From new hunting techniques, to better ways to make fire, it was such a joy seeing her figure out all these innovations on her own. Almost like a proud parent watching their child learn and grow. Auel described Ayla's thought process in great detail. So much so that as she pushed the limits of her mind to solve a new problem, I felt like I was right there with Ayla, and though she couldn't hear me, I was cheering her on. I can only hope that as I continue to read this series, that I will get to see Ayla impress me more with her great capacity to learn and grow.

We've got few new characters introduced in this book. Most noticeable is the young, handsome, Cro-Magnon ladies man, Jondalar. Jondalar, along with his brother Thonolan make a great addition to the series and bring a lot to the table. Their quality of dialogue was almost shocking in contrast to the interactions of the Clan in the previous book, who stifle emotions and don't talk about unnecessary things. Jondalar and Thonolan laugh and cry give us the whole range of human emotion and interaction that we can relate to. For that, they become very likeable and I found myself enjoying their journey as much as I enjoyed Ayla's. Not only that, but their part in the story brought a great sense of adventure that wasn't present in the previous book. The Clan did everything just to live with hardly any aspect of life you could call "fun". But Jondalar and Thonolan purposely set out with adventure in mind. And though their life was no less dangerous, we know it is their choice, so even in the ups in downs they face, there was a sense of entertainment for me as a reader.

Another new experience for this book was the strange relationship forged between Ayla and two animals she encountered in her isolation in the valley. One of which was with a wild horse that Ayla raised from an orphaned foal. Ayla's isolation was interesting to watch in itself, but the introduction of some unorthodox companions really kept things fresh and exciting. Obviously she couldn't talk to the animals, but she could communicate with them. And not in the same way she communicated with her clan, or The Others she had yet to meet. So it is a unique experience for the reader and their presence influenced and evolved Ayla as a character as much as any human character.

Speaking of relationships, this book brings us relationships of the romantic sort. It really read like a romance novel in places and felt so different from the almost unloving vibe of the first book. And that's not a bad thing. I'm a sucker for romance, and this book delivered in just the right dose. And we're not talking the tender, innocent, reserved, romance. We get full on, realistic, steamy romance, complete with extremely detailed and graphically described sex scenes. I can kind of see why this series made #20 on the ALA's Most Frequently Challenged Books list. But I don't think it is gratuitous smut. I think it's realistic, called for, and works within the context of these highly detailed books that describe even the most minor aspects of daily life. It's only natural that the sex scenes be covered in as much detail as the colorful landscapes Auel paints with her words. And as I said, it has the added benefit of being steamy and fun if you like that in your literature.

At first, the change in writing structure from the first book was jarring. Bouncing back from Jondalar's perspective to Ayla's. But as their travels brought them closer and closer together, and both yearned to find that special companionship, I realized the brilliance of the structure. When they finally met for the first time, I knew I loved this book. It was the perfect build up. I don't want to say that I liked this book less than the first. I find them hard to compare because this book isn't merely a continuation of the story. With this book, it evolved into something different. It offered a different reading experience that I can't really compare to the first. I'm glad for that change and I hope the next book can offer me another new experience. As things stand, there's no question that I want to continue following Ayla on her journey, and I will be reading the next book, 'The Mammoth Hunters'. And I'm happy to say that I recommend 'The Valley of Horses' just as strongly as I did 'The Clan of the Cave Bear'. Not that I have to. If you read and liked 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', you'd be quite the masochist to abstain from this great read.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Clan of the Cave Bear

If I had any dedicated readers, by now they have probably noticed that I haven't made a blog post in a month. To be honest, I just haven't felt like reading manga or writing reviews. I still don't feel like reading manga, but I did pick up a novel. At first, I had no intention of writing about my reading experience, but I'm finding that I do have some thoughts I'd like to share about it. Please bear with me as I attempt my first novel review of the first installment in Jean M. Auel's 'Earth's Children' series, 'The Clan of the Cave Bear'.

A young Cro-Magnon girl wakes up one morning to wander by the river. Out of nowhere, a terrible earthquake strikes, sending her camp along with her family to their death into a chasm. Alone, confused and frightened, the girl roams aimlessly until starvation and an encounter with a cave lion brings her near death. As luck would have it, a group on Neanderthal people come across her and take her in to their clan. Nursed back to health by her adoptive mother, Iza, the young Cro-Magnon girl, Ayla, finds love in her strange, new family, but suffers much in her struggle to conform to the foreign traditions of the Neanderthal Clan. 

'The Clan of the Cave Bear' has a great group of characters, both likeable and unlikeable. I think I had the most complex feelings about the Clan. Ayla, the main character, is pretty much a given to be likeable. But with the Neanderthals, my feelings for most of them were dynamic and situational, which makes things a lot more interesting. There were extremes, like Broud, future clan leader and main antagonist. He was a jerk through and through. And then you have Creb and Iza, Ayla's adoptive parents, who were for the most part easy to like. The rest of the cast shifted a bit more, with Clan leader, Brun, being the most interesting and dynamic for me. He was stuck between being stubborn and keeping with strict, clan traditions, and being surprisingly flexible and reasonable. He had to make some hard choices. Choices that made me as a reader resent him. But that just made the situations where he was able to accept change all the more grand. When we would get a glimpse of his inner thoughts and he had an epiphany, you almost feel proud of him. I found the Neanderthals quite fascinating to watch, and though their reluctance to change was frustrating, they had their moments that would shame some of the stubborn politicians of today. 

I can't talk about 'The Clan of the Cave Bear' without talking about Ayla. Everything centers around her and she was both the means of great progress and calamity for her adoptive clan. Compared to the conservative Neanderthals, Ayla was a rebel. And that's what's so interesting about her. Within the backdrop of strict traditions of the cave, her natural curiosity stood out greatly. Because of how strict Clan rules are, she often had to act on her own in secret to satiate her urge to learn, grow and change. That meant teaching herself and figuring things out in isolation. Adapting and inventing without outside influence. Creating new hunting techniques and applying a certain common sense approach to problems that the Neanderthals couldn't grasp. Her situation kind of reminded me of why I like the manga, 'Animal Land', where Taroza had to figure things out through trial and error, much in the same way Ayla did(Look! I made this novel review relevant to my manga blog!). Ayla is smart and strong and she really earns her stripes and the respect of the reader in this book. She goes through so much earned triumph, but even a greater amount of suffering, all before the age of 14. I really can't go into specifics at all, but the strength she shows through all these challenges she faces makes me feel like a coddled wimp, and her difficulties make my life problems seem like minor annoyances at best. I truly admire her as a character, a lot like I admire some of the inspirational determinators of the Shonen, fighting manga I often read(I did it again! Manga talk!).

My other favorite aspect to this book also has to do with the characters, but more specifically, the relationships between the characters. And even more specifically, the relationship between Ayla and her adoptive parents, Iza and Creb. Iza is the Clan's respected medicine woman and the one who saved Ayla's life. Creb is Iza's older brother and the Clan's Mog-ur or magic man. They both have undoubtedly the strongest relationship with Ayla and the most interaction. Iza's relationship is slightly typical of what you would think a mother and daughter relationship would be, but it is still interesting because of the constraints of the Neanderthals way of life. Iza knows Ayla best and knows she is different, but is still very torn when Ayla acts on her differences. Creb too, often overlooks Ayla's breaking of tradition(read "law" in the context of the book) because of his love for her. Their love for each other is what is so great about the family unit. Ayla has shown them love like they have never known before. I don't want to say the Neanderthals were unfeeling before Ayla showed up, but because of Ayla, they were able to begin to understand a new kind of happiness and love that they never experienced before. Especially Creb, who is deformed and feared as a magician. Ayla showed no fear of his deformities, and respected and loved him for who he is, and not because of his appearance or power. Creb never mated or had a child of his own and had learned to accept that he never would, so Ayla was a godsend(very literally to him) that drastically changed the way he went about life. The contrast between Ayla, Iza and Creb's relationship with the family life of the rest of the clan and what we the readers know as a family relationship only serve to make their relationship all the more interesting to follow and watch evolve from scratch.

I really haven't read a novel in a long time('A Feast for Crows' over a year ago). Manga is my first love, but recently I've been frustrated with the medium. Now that I've found 'The Clan of the Cave Bear', I'm actually glad that I decided to put manga aside for the moment. Jean M. Auel was able to paint an amazingly detailed picture of prehistoric, human life that I was able to get lost in like I haven't been lost in a story for a while now. It's a great feeling to be completely immersed in this world of our ancestors, and get to see how they may have lived and feel how they may have felt. I absolutely loved this book from cover to cover, and you can be sure that I will be reading the next in the series, 'The Valley of Horses'. I know this is suppose to be a manga blog, but I am going to have to change things up a little and highly recommend 'The Clan of the Cave Bear'.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Chi's Sweet Home vol. 1-8

I've been kind of cooling on manga lately. It seems like I haven't found a great, new title in a while. Well, it seems that my manga luck has changed with the discovery of 'Chi's Sweet Home', by Kanata Konami. What a great way to break my manga slump.

One day while out for a stroll with her mother and sibling, cute kitten Chi suddenly gets separated from her family. Lost, hungry, and a little scared, Chi collapses in defeat. Luckily, at the same time, a little boy named Yohei discovers the down and out Chi and together with his mother, they decide to bring Chi home with them. Too young to fully remember her original family, Chi settles in at her new home with her new family, the Yamadas. We follow Chi as she bonds with her new family, discovers new things, and meets other animals.

One of the most interesting things in this manga for me is Chi's interactions and relationships. Her main relationship is with her new family, the Yamadas. I particularly enjoy her interactions with the Yamadas' young son, Yohei. Their relationship is closer to that of brother and sister than pet and owner. Playing together, napping together. Yohei's parents even point out several times how much they seem like siblings. Another interesting relationship is with a big, black cat that Chi calls "Blackie". Chi encounters Blackie and strikes up a relationship that I wasn't expecting from this largely episodic story. Blackie starts to act as a mentor of sorts to Chi, teaching her how to be a cat and what not. And when Blackie gets kicked out of his apartment and has to leave Chi, it was genuinely sad. Chi was pretty devastated for a while, but when she came to the realization that "I can't see ya, but I know you're there"(referring to Blackie), it was a real heartwarming moment and clear character growth for Chi. Yet another budding and interesting relationship Chi has is with another kitten her age named Cocchi. Chi and Cocchi's relationship borders on a rivalry sometimes and at other times, they seem like partners. A couple even. But mostly, Cocchi is a great, same age playmate that fills a role that the older, less energetic Blackie can't. Chi and Cocchi truly have some fun times and I can't wait to see what antics they get into next.

Most of the manga I have read is in black and white, with an occasional color page if I'm lucky. 'Chi's Sweet Home' however, is in full color from cover to cover. I actually prefer black and white manga to colored western comics because I think the black and white is easier on the eyes and easier to take in. But the way 'Chi's Sweet Home' is colored is very soft and pleasant, like water colors or something. More than something nice to look at, I think the art is beneficial in another way. Being so easy on the eyes and looking so natural, I think it really contributes to how quick a read 'Chi's Sweet Home' can be. Now I'm not saying you should rush through this read. There is plenty to savor. But in my experience, partially because of the art(and partially because of the reasonable amount of dialogue), I was able to process the images very quickly. I didn't have to stare at the pages long to take it all in. Because of that, I was able to breeze right through when I wanted to, and I appreciated that.

Among all the comedy and cuteness, there is just the right amount of conflict and drama for me. A very, very tiny amount. The height of conflict in the story is that the Yamadas aren't allowed to have pets in their apartment building, and they are always worried that Chi will be found by the super. Many comical situations also involve Chi almost getting caught, but there was even one time when Chi and her black cat friend got chased by the super and I was genuinely worried that she would get caught this time. In a laid back, comical manga like this, that situation was actually kind of exciting and entertaining. Other forms of drama involve things like Chi getting sick or getting lost or trapped. But the great thing is, the drama never overpowers the cute and fun aspect of the manga. Actually, the most dramatic aspect for me is also the most overarching plot point. And that is when Chi starts to remember her real mother. Though subtle and infrequent, this always has me slightly worried. I'm scared that Chi will eventually go back with her original family. If not, why bring it up several times? I'm not saying this is a bad thing though. It's actually a good thing. It helps take the story to another level from just cute and funny episodic antics. And it shows how well written Chi is as a character and how well written the family dynamic with the Yamadas is. I both worry and anticipate the day Chi encounters her original family. 

Reading 'Chi's Sweet Home' this week has been such a wonderful experience. I haven't had this much fun reading manga in a while. The laughs and smiles were plentiful. But it's not just comedy. Sweet, cute and funny carry this manga a long way, but subtle story progression and genuine character development are what make Chi's Sweet Home a memorable series. And as a former cat owner, it invokes comedic nostalgia. I was able to recognize and relate to many of the situations Chi and the Yamadas got in to, and I now remember fondly those times I had with my cat. 'Chi's Sweet Home' isn't just a great manga, but a great comic in general. And since it is printed in the left to right reading format that westerners are used to, readers new to manga should have to trouble picking this series up. I really can't recommend this series enough. It is, without a doubt, one of my favorite manga series now. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Sand Chronicles vol. 1-4

Having only tried a total of three shojo manga(including this one), I am obviously still new to the demographic. This manga demographic has such a wide range of genres and sub-genres, there is so much to discover. So when the Shojo Beat Manga Moveable Feast was announced, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to make a new manga discovery. Going through my long library list, I had quite a few Shojo Beat series to choose from, but I eventually decided on 'Sand Chronicles', by Hinako Ashihara. Unfortunately, rather than finding a new and exciting series to add to my favorites list, I found a conventional and forgettable romance that didn't do much for me beyond providing a few laughs.

In 'Sand Chronicles', we follow the life of a young girl named Ann Uekusa who is uprooted from her life in Tokyo when her parents get a divorce. After moving to the countryside town of Shimane with her mother, Ann is at first very put off at how different life is in the country compared to the big city of Tokyo. Then one day when her mother becomes too exhausted to work, Ann herself decides to get a job to pull her weight. In this new job working at a distinguished family's mansion, Ann makes friends with local boy, Daigo, and the the children that live in the mansion, Fuji and Shika. But just when things were starting to work out, Ann experiences a great tragedy that tests who she is as a person, and also shows her how important her new group of friends is and will be. 'Sand Chronicles' is a look into the seasons of Ann and her friends' youth, their romantic trials, and the everyday troubles and triumphs of teenage life.

As I said, the story to 'Sand Chronicles' is pretty conventional, but a story doesn't need to be revolutionary for the manga to be good. A good cast of characters can carry a manga a long way. But even in that category, 'Sand Chronicles' kind of fell flat. The most interesting of the four, main characters are the siblings, Shika and Fuji Tsukishima. And what's interesting about them has more to do with their soap opera-esque family life than their actual personalities and actions. Though I guess I did feel mildly sympathetic toward Fuji and I at least prefer him to Daigo, who is a pretty boring, everyman type character. If I met these characters in real life, Daigo would be the most likeable because he is the most normal, drama-free of the group. As a character in a manga that I want to entertain me though, he doesn't bring much to the table, aside from maybe a drama diffuser for Ann(which at the point I left off in the story, he was failing at). Ann herself has the most focus being the primary main character. I do admire her strength for overcoming a great, personal loss, but after that, she hasn't really done anything to distinguish herself as the heroine of this story.  Not only do none of the characters stand out, but their interactions are also sub-par. Even with a cast of cardboard cutouts, I still could have been kept interested if they at least talked about some compelling things. I guess I just can't relate to teens and their petty, romantic problems. At the beginning of volume 5, Daigo was talking about his problems with Ann, and I had to keep reading the same page several times because the info was just not sticking. His dialogue in my brain just kept registering as "blah, blah, blah, generic teen drama, blah, blah, blah". It's at that point that I just quit reading.

This review was supposed to be for volumes 1 through 10. The complete series. But to be perfectly honest, I couldn't even get through twenty pages of volume 5. It just wasn't clicking with me, so rather than force it, I decided to put it down. Though I've only read a few shojo manga, this story felt so conventional and familiar. The story really wouldn't be out of place among the many rom-com/dramedy movies I have seen. Yeah, there is still six volumes worth of content that I didn't read that could prove me wrong, but what I read wasn't compelling enough to urge me on. I can kind of guess how the rest of the series plays out anyway. Maybe it will go something like this: Daigo and Ann eventually break up. Ann and Fuji become a couple and Daigo and Shika become a couple. They each get a few volumes to show their romantic ups and downs, and then at the end, they will decide if they will stay together or if Ann and Daigo will get back together. Even if that is not the case, it is not who is coupled together that would make me interested. It is what happens in between that would make me interested, and in this case, was not interesting. 

My mediocre experience with this series also has me wondering if I can even provide a fair review. As I understand things, the shojo manga demographic is targeted at teenage girls. That's not to say others can't enjoy shojo series, but as a man in my mid twenties, I am pretty far from the intended audience, and I have to wonder if my opinion even matters. For what it's worth(or not worth), I don't recommend 'Sand Chronicles'. I don't think you will find anything in the story that you haven't seen many times before in any, generic rom-com/dramedy film, and nearly halfway through the series, the characters weren't unique or likeable enough to make me care what happens to them or keep me engaged.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Faith Erin Hicks-athon: Friends With Boys, Zombies Calling, & The War at Ellsmere

I know this blog is supposed to focus on manga, but lately I've been suffering from a bit of manga fatigue. A lot of the manga series that I gravitate to tend to cover very similar themes and in turn, provide a very similar reading experience. I suppose I could rectify this by just branching out into a wider variety of manga, but instead, I think I'll branch out into western comics. I've dabbled a little bit in superhero comics, but this time around I will be taking a look at Canadian web comic artist, Faith Erin Hicks' works.

 'Friends With Boys' is about a girl named Maggie who has been home schooled her whole life, but starting with ninth grade, she will be attending regular school. Needless to say, she is more than a little nervous. It's a difficult change in Maggie's life and it doesn't help that her mother left the family and she blames herself. Not to mention she is being stalked by a ghost....Follow Maggie as she tries to adjust to high school, makes new friends and deals with her haunting issue.

I was very pleasantly surprised by this book. It's not that I didn't think I would like it, I just didn't think I would like it this much. First off, the art is pretty amazing. The style is very unique(at least from what I have seen) and it is so detailed. The pages and panels are completely filled up with detailed artwork. I really love that. Packed pages. So much in the manga I read, the art is often too minimalistic, especially when it comes to backgrounds. I love a loaded page that you really have to give it a good look to take it all in. 'Friends With Boys' definitely fits that bill. I also really loved the characters and there interactions. Both Maggie and Lucy were extremely likable, and their school life experiences felt very authentic. At first I thought that the supernatural element would bother me, but it ended up being fine. I don't want to say it was unnecessary, but it definitely wasn't the main appeal for me. I'd much rather have more normal, character interactions in that plot line's place. I guess that's just the slice-of-life manga fan in me talking though. In the end, I'm very pleased with my first Faith Erin Hicks book and I would love if there was a continuation of this story.

The next Faith Erin Hicks book I took a look at was 'Zombies Calling', which is not at all about zombies....Okay, yes it is, but it is a little different than your usual, horror zombie flick. 'Zombies' calling is the story of a college student named Joss. Joss is a Canadian girl that loves British culture, is plagued by student loan debt, and is obsessed with zombie movies. That latter is something that will save her life. You see, Joss is so familiar with zombie movies that she know the "rules" by heart. These "rules" are the unifying themes featured in all zombie movies and they help her keep one step ahead of the undead menace. Little did Joss know, that she would actually be able to put these rules into practice one day when a zombie epidemic broke out on her college campus. Together with her friends Robyn and Sonnet, Joss will do her best to apply these rules and survive a zombie apocalypse.

I wouldn't say I am much of a zombie fiction fan. I guess I kind of liked a few of the "Living Dead" series when I was a kid, but now I think they are kind of silly. And 'Zombies Calling' kind of takes a poke at that silliness with a more humorous take on the genre. At the same time though, the story was quite suspenseful. There were times when I was a little worried for the characters. This book features an art style similar to 'Friends With Boys', if not a little less refined. That and the art work is just as detailed, if not more so on some pages. So needless to say, I liked it. I didn't connect as much with the characters in this book as I did with 'Friends With Boys'. Maybe that's because I didn't have the time. It was about half as long after all. Even so, the character interactions were top notch. Again, this normal, everyday dialogue between characters really appeals to the slice-of-life manga fan in me, and I feel like this is a real strength of Faith Erin Hicks' writing. I found this book to be a really quick read, which is definitely a positive thing. A lot of the manga I read have story arcs that are often long and sometimes tedious to get through. It's nice to read a story that you can finish in one sitting. I can't say I enjoyed this quite as much as 'Friends With Boys', but it was still fun and worth the time I put into it.

The final Faith Erin Hicks book that I took a look at was 'The War at Ellsmere'. Juniper is a girl from a not so well-to-do family that has received a scholarship to attend the full of well-to-do Ellsmere Academy. Inspired by her father's death due to illness, Jun is determined to become a doctor, and to do so, she feels she must attend a prestigious school in order to fast track her success. The problem is, she doesn't quite fit in at this new school. With only one friend in the quirky Cassie, Jun must keep up with her demanding studies, as well as fend off the "mean girls" of her new school, who don't want her around.

The whole time reading this story, I was a little uncomfortable with the bullying plot line. I really have a weak stomach for that kind of drama. Fortunately for me, the book is relatively short, so my heart didn't have to suffer that tension for too long. And Juniper's wonderful character made it all bearable. I think out of the three main characters from the Faith Erin Hicks books I've read for this blog post, you get to know Juniper the most. At least that's how it felt for me. I became an immediate fan of hers when she stood up to her bullies 19 pages in. The other highlight of this story that stood out for me was Juniper's friendship with Cassie. After reading three of Faith Erin Hicks' books, I'm seeing that it is pretty common to have great dialogue and dynamic between characters, and the great, school-life conversations between Jun and Cassie were really enjoyable for me. More than anything, I think this story was about Jun and Cassie becoming friends and then strengthening their bond. After 'Friends With Boys', 'The War at Ellsmere' is probably my next favorite of the three Faith Erin Hicks books I've read. Like I said, I'm not exactly a fan of bullying drama(the bullying drama in 'Friends With Boys' felt more realistic and authentic, so I didn't mind it as much as Emily's "evil mastermind" ways), but the cool characters were more than enough to enjoy this read.

In the end, I had a really good break from manga. I found three hits in a row, and a new comic creator to be a fan of. If any of these comics sound interesting to you, head on over to Faith Erin Hicks' web site where you can sample her illustrations, find links to purchase her published books, and even read some of her web comics for free.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

One Piece Arc Review: Captain Morgan Arc, Buggy The Clown Arc & Captain Kuro Arc

Last month, after reading volume 63 of Eiichiro Oda's epic pirate manga 'One Piece', I sat down to review it for this blog. But as I was sitting there, thinking about things to write, I realized that I did not want to review it. And it's not because I didn't like the volume or 'One Piece' in general. 'One Piece' is actually one of my all time favorite mangas. It just didn't feel right. For one thing, my blog is new and I've only reviewed one volume of 'One Piece' so far. If I had been reviewing this long series from the beginning, I probably wouldn't feel the way I do now. Jumping in to the review game in the middle of a series is kind of difficult for me as a poor writer and new blogger. It's difficult for me to explain the context of this single volume in the middle of a massive story. A single volume of 'One Piece' is a small piece of a very large puzzle, and to make things easier on myself and to do 'One Piece' the justice it deserves, I think I ought to put some of those puzzle pieces together. So I've decided that I am going to not only review 'One Piece' by story arcs, but I am also going to start from the very beginning. So without further ado, in this first installment of my "One Piece Arc Review", I'll be taking a look at the Captain Morgan Arc, the Buggy the Clown Arc, and the Captain Kuro arc.

We begin our epic journey with a young boy named Monkey D. Luffy. Luffy's dream is to become a great pirate just like Captain "Red-Haired" Shanks, who has set up base in Luffy's home town along with his pirate crew. One eventful day, Shanks is accosted by mountain bandits, only to act a pacifist and not retaliate at all. Luffy, who looks up to Shanks, is supremely disappointed by this, believing that a man should have fought back to save his pride, while Shanks believes in avoiding unnecessary violence. This lesson is lost on Luffy, and in the commotion, he accidentally eats the Gum Gum Fruit, which gives him the power of a rubber body at the cost of never being able to swim again! Later, after hearing the mountain bandits talking bad about Shanks, Luffy stands up for him and is kidnapped. Just before Luffy is killed off, Shanks and crew show up to save the day. Proclaiming that you can do anything you want to him, but nobody hurts a friend of his. The Red-Haired Pirates proceed to dispatch the mountain bandits handily, but not before their leader, Higuma, makes off with Luffy using a smoke bomb, and takes him out to sea. Thinking he is now in the clear, Higuma follows through with his revenge on Luffy by throwing him overboard, but meets his untimely death by being swallowed whole by the resident sea monster, "The Lord of the Coast". The helpless Luffy is about to be eaten as well, but the heroic Shanks swoops in just in time to save him, and scares of the beast with just an intense stare, and the words "Get out of here!". Though Shanks saved Luffy in time, it was at the price of his left arm, and a tearful Luffy is consoled by Shanks, who states that it was a small price to pay for Luffy's safety. Inspired even more by Shanks' great character, Luffy vows to surpass Shanks and become the King of Pirates. Impressed and reminded of himself at that age, Shanks leaves him his treasured straw hat and makes him promise to give it back some day when Luffy is a great pirate. And so, ten years later, "Straw Hat" Luffy sets out on a great voyage in an attempt to become The King of Pirates.

On the first stop of Luffy's quest, he meets up with a weak and cowardly cabin boy named Koby. Koby, who is skilled in navigation, is forced to work under the tyrannical "Iron Mace" Alvida. Koby secretly wants to be a naval officer, but is too scared to escape from Alvida's clutches. But after meeting Luffy and seeing his guts, a fire was lit underneath him. On top of that, Luffy even beat up Alvida, impressed that Koby stood up to her while knowing he stood no chance against her. Having heard of a great pirate hunter named Zolo that Luffy was intrigued by, Koby and Luffy set off to find him and see if he was right for Luffy's crew. What they found was this great pirate hunter, tied up and starving, taking punishment for hurting the vicious dog of a spoiled navy captain's son, while protecting a little girl from it. After learning that Zolo is a good guy and that the navy plans on executing him, despite making a deal with him, Luffy decided to free Zolo and make him his first crew member. But the evil and power hungry Captain "Axe Hand" Morgan won't let Luffy and Zolo go without a fight. Luffy is no slouch though and neither is Zolo now that he has his three swords back and can perform his signature, Santoryu style swordsmanship. Together, they take care of Captain Morgan without much problem, and free the island from his oppressive reign. Since Captain Morgan was hated by his naval underlings and the townsfolk alike, Luffy and Zolo became the heroes of the island and were sent off with a salute from the grateful navy.

This seven chapter story arc is a far cry from the epic, fifty chapter story arcs that occur later on. It's both odd and interesting to go back and revisit it and see how different the story structure was in the beginning. I suppose, being a new series in danger of cancellation, there was no way to start off with epics right off the bat. And while this arc isn't as substantial as later ones, it did it's job of introducing Luffy's main goal, his first crew member, and laying the ground work for later plot lines. For me, the highlight of these chapters was meeting Zolo, who dreams of becoming the world's greatest swordsman so that his name will become so famous that even his dead childhood friend and rival can here it in heaven. Zolo was all kinds of cool with his three sword style and I love his ambition. I liked him right away and can't wait to see him work towards his goal.

After finding his first crew member in Zolo, Luffy sets out to sea yet again, but Luffy and Zolo soon find themselves in trouble. Lost out on the open ocean with no food, they come to the realization that they are in desperate need of a navigator. After a set of odd circumstances bring them back to land, Luffy encounters a mischievous young woman named Nami, who just so happens to be an expert navigator. Of course Luffy immediately invites her to join his crew, but she refuses adamantly when she finds out he is a pirate. But realizing she can take advantage of the situation in order to get a hold of a hoard of treasure and a map of the Grand Line, Nami tricks Luffy and turns him in to the resident pirate captain, Buggy the Clown, who has been terrorizing the island. Luffy narrowly escapes from Buggy's clutches and learns of the affect Buggy's crimes have had on the island from it's mayor, Boodle. Sympathizing with Boodle's plight, Luffy and Zoro decide to help by fighting off Buggy and his crew. The fight is on and Luffy comes out the victor, exiling Buggy courtesy of a Gum Gum Bazooka. After seeing Luffy's exploits, Nami decides that he might not be such a bad guy after all, and with a map of the infamous Grand Line in hand, she reluctantly agrees to be his navigator, and they set off, liberators of yet another island.

Another short story arc that, in terms of scope, pales in comparison to later arcs. Still, we seem to be following a trend here. A second crew member has joined up with the very important task of navigating. Disregarding what I know now, I would say Nami doesn't come across as very likeable in her introduction to the story. I mean, she was very quick to betray our loveable main character, Luffy. You can see through her actions and reactions to true evil that she is not a bad person at heart though, and it is hinted that she has her reasons for doing what she does. I won't get to that until the next installment of my arc reviews when I take a look at the Arlong Arc, but I really can't wait because that is one of my favorite arcs in all of 'One Piece'. We also have Buggy the Clown, who is the second character introduced that has the power of a devil fruit like Luffy. I like Buggy's powers. They were quite useful against a sword user like Zoro, but Luffy pretty much made quick work of him. I can't say the fights have been impressive so far. Our hero hasn't been given much trouble. But things are building up and with another devil fruit user with more to come, we have the ground work for what can be a very imaginative combat system.

Sailing the open seas isn't easy. Especially for guys as unprepared as Zolo and Luffy. They are in desperate need of supplies and a more worthy ship if they are going to make it on the Grand Line. Their search for a new ship takes them to an island where they meet a young man named Usopp. Usopp is the village liar. The "boy who cried pirate", if you will. Every day, without fail, he runs through the village screaming of invading pirates. This is just a lie of course and all the villagers are used to his antics by now, if not a little annoyed by them. Usopp suggests Luffy and crew ask the villages sickly, young mistress Kaya, who is quite wealthy, to fund a new pirate ship. Meanwhile, Usopp goes to Kaya's mansion to tell her some tall tales to cheer her up, but the mansions strict butler, Klahadore won't have Usopp's bad influence rubbing off on Kaya, who he is sworn to protect. In a heated exchange, a rift is caused between Kaya and Usopp and he vows to never come back again. Later, while talking with Luffy, Usopp overhears Klahadore and a strange pirate plotting to kill Kaya and steal her fortune. Usopp attempts to warn everyone of Klahadore's evil plan, but with his reputation, nobody believes him. Not even Kaya. With no other choice, Usopp goes to hold off the pirate attack himself. Luckily for him, his display of courage inspired Luffy, Zolo and Nami to give him a hand. At the same time, Kaya finally learns the truth about Klahadore, and decides to confront him herself. While Luffy, Nami, Usopp and Zolo are fighting a tough battle against the Black Cat Pirates, we learn that Klahadore is really the former Captain Kuro, who faked his own death to escape the pursuit of the navy. After a bloody fight, Captain Kuro and his crew are defeated by Luffy and his friends and Usopp and Kaya's village is safe. Usopp could have become the hero of the village, but he swore everyone to secrecy, as to not disturb the villager's peace of mind, and he vowed to go out to sea and become a real "brave warrior of the sea", bringing his tall tales he told Kaya to life. Mistress Kaya, so grateful for their help, is not without a parting gift for Luffy and his crew. A brand new ship, called The Merry-Go is theirs for the taking, and Luffy invites Usopp to be the newest member of the crew. And so, with a new ship and new friends, they set sail towards more adventures that await them.

While knowing the true identity of the bad guy in the Captain Kuro arc lessens the impact quite a bit, Kuro is so far the most menacing villain introduced, and the fights are starting to get more satisfying. Luffy wasn't quite pushed to his limits, but he did have a hard enough time that things were sufficiently entertaining. A more threatening villain combined with the stakes being higher made for a more exciting arc than the previous two. Not only that, but we got to meet our third crew member, Usopp, who has a connection to Luffy's idol, Red-Haired Shanks, through his father, Yasopp. Usopp is easily the best thing to come out of this arc. He is weak and acts cowardly, but when the going gets tough and his friends are in trouble, he faces his fears like a real "brave warrior of the sea". His determination in the face of certain defeat is very admirable, and it is because of characters like this that I read shonen manga.

Before I started to reread, I thought that I might find the storytelling and art dated and inferior to the later parts of the story. It is true that the scope of the story was much smaller back then and the art was much less refined, but I enjoyed rereading these arcs immensely nonetheless. Early 'One Piece' was a different 'One Piece' than it is today, but it was not a bad One Piece by any means. While One Piece never loses it's sense of "fun", it does get quite a bit more serious later on, and while revisiting this early part of the story, I was really able to appreciate it's more whimsical nature. I think that I am appreciating the story more with this read through than when I first read it. I'm noticing things that I didn't notice before, and though knowing future events can kill the tension, it also helps me realize the great evolution that the story and characters go through. All that being said, these first few arcs are my least favorite in the series. Like I said, it's not that the story is bad. It's quite good actually. But it's not at a level of greatness just yet. For me, it reaches that level of greatness, without a doubt, during the Arlong Arc, which I plan on covering in my next "One Piece Arc Review". This rereading experience has been much greater than I anticipated, and now I look forward to taking a look at all my favorite arcs. If everything goes as planned, my "One Piece Arc Review" will become a regular thing. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Star Protector Dog vol. 1 & 2

Last year, I read a series of manga reviews lauding Takashi Murakami's 'Stargazing Dog', published in English by NBM Publishing. I put it on my "to buy list", but for whatever reason, it never took top priority in my budget over all the other ongoing series I was following, and I eventually forgot about it. That is until I came across it on the JManga digital manga platform, published as 'Star Protector Dog', and decided to give a look at their free preview. All of that acclaim from critics that I read about came rushing back into my head and though I'm not much for digital reading, the fact that it was half the price of print and that JManga had the second volume that NBM seemingly did not release, was too much incentive for me to not go ahead and buy it. And I'm so glad I did, because 'Star Protector Dog' is one of the best manga that I have ever read.

'Star Protector Dog' starts out kind of macabre with police finding the body of a man that died one and half years ago and a dog at his feet that died just three months ago. But this isn't a story of how they died, but how this man and his dog met and how they lived. Found as a puppy in a box by "Dad"'s daughter, Miku, "Happy" came home to live with Dad and his family, living a seemingly normal and enjoyable life for a few years. Happy would play with Miku, get fed by Mom, and go for walk's with Dad. After a few years, it seemed that Dad was the only one doing the playing, feeding and walking and soon Miku and Mom had left Happy and Dad alone. Together, Happy and Dad decide to go south to the place of Dad's birth and along their journey, they make the best of the time they have left together.

The first volume is kind of bittersweet. Maybe a little more bitter than sweet, but it's not all sadness. Happy and "Dad" got the short end of the stick in life, but they did enjoy each other's company and love. Maybe that doesn't seem like enough, but I think Happy and "Dad"'s needs were simple and if they were to ever ask for me in the end, it would just be more time with each other. The second volume plays out like a pair of short stories, each with a small connection to the main story of the first volume. These shorts also feature characters fallen on hard times, but generally have a more hopeful and uplifting tone, and I appreciated that emotional pick-me-up after the melancholy first volume.

I just love stories that can get an emotional reaction out of me. Even ones that make me sad. Maybe especially ones that make me sad. I'm not sure why though. Maybe it makes me feel alive or something. Whatever the reason, if a manga can make me tear up, it gains major points in my book. This manga pushed me to the brink of tears. I only held them back so that my vision wouldn't be blurred and I could keep on reading. But rather than a story that takes advantage of humanity's soft spot for dogs by plucking at our heartstrings with melodramatic tales of dying puppies, I think this manga was more about the dogs' human owners and just how much a dog can change your life. I went in thinking the opposite. That all my thoughts and sympathy would be for the dog characters, but I ended up feeling a greater connection with the human characters. I think that's why this story is so good. It does a good job at illustrating the loyalty and unconditional love that dogs provide, but that is nothing new in fiction, and if it was just that without the human side of things, the story would be kind of shallow. It would be just a cheap, emotional grab that wouldn't leave a lasting impression. Thankfully, 'Star Protector Dog' features understated human characters that are written in a thoughtful way that doesn't steal the show from the dogs, but compliments them.

I don't really have much to say about the art. It's not anything remarkable, but it fits the story perfectly and the dogs are drawn cute. Here's a preview from JManga so that you can sample the art and story for yourself.

It's been a while since I was confident enough to say a manga is a "must read" for all. Whether you are a dog lover or not. An adult or a child. A Japanese manga fan or a western comics fan. I highly recommend 'Star Protector Dog' to everyone and have no qualms about saying that it is for sure a "must read".

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Paradise Kiss

Here I am again, with shelves saturated with shonen and seinen titles, reaching into mostly undiscovered territory for me. Yes, I'm trying out more "girl's manga". This time around, I'm taking a look at 'Paradise Kiss', written and illustrated by Ai Yazawa of 'Nana' fame. This series was originally published in English by the now defunct Tokyopop, and though out of print, I got my hands on it courtesy of my local library.

Yukari is a girl who is desperately tired of studying and trying to be something she is not. Her whole life, she has been overextending herself in order to please her demanding mother. Fatigued by an endless barrage of cram school and exams, Yukari yearns for something more in her life, until one day, she runs into a very strange group of people. These strange people are the workers of budding clothing line, Paradise Kiss, and they want to make stressed out bookworm Yukari into their personal fashion model. Yukari is at first very hesitant to change her studious ways, but eventually agrees and is opened up to a whole new, liberating world of fashion. For the naive, young Yukari, life as a model is a crash course in growing up. Fun and friendship are balanced by romantic woes and living on her own, becoming a model turns out to be the biggest, life changing decision she has ever made. Will this turn out to be a decision that she regrets?

The best part about this manga for me was the characters. Yukari and the workers of Paradise Kiss had really great chemistry and interactions. I think the most interesting thing about this group of characters was that they each had their flaws and it never seemed like the author was trying to get you to like them just because they are the main characters. You do like them(at least I do), but you take the bad with the good. Most notably flawed are Yukari and George, who end up getting the most focus. Yukari can be(for the lack of a better word) a real bitch. Understandably so though for how her mother treated her and raised her. She's also terribly insecure and clingy. The great thing about her though is that she catches herself acting these ways and tries to change. Sometimes she is just trying to change to please George, but a lot of the time, she is trying to be a better person for herself. That's why I like her. George is no better with his flaws. He's more than a bit of a manipulator, though this too is sort of the fault of bad parenting. He strings Yukari along and their entire relationship is a psychological war in a way, and he is the source. Alternating between overly blunt and overly secluded, Yukari spends most of their relationship trying to figure this guy out. Sometimes it seems like he tries to confuse her on purpose to be mean and have fun, but then sometimes he seems like he is trying to guide her and teach her. You see? Not only did Yukari have a hard time figuring him out, but so did I! Ultimately, I ended up liking George too. Maybe not as a person, but as a character. He is the self-proclaimed hero of the manga, but I almost think he acted more as the villain.

I'm now completely used to the art styles employed by josei/shojo manga, and I have to say, the art in 'Paradise Kiss' is probably the best I've seen so far. It's highly detailed, especially the clothing, which makes sense with it being about fashion and being serialized in a fashion magazine, Zipper. I'm a sweat pants and t-shirts kind of guy, but even I was able to appreciate the intricately designed outfits featured in this series. Another aspect of the art that I appreciated was the expressiveness of the characters and their faces. Yukari is an especially expressive character. Her mind is always racing with thoughts, and we get to see them all through thought bubbles. Not only that, but she is incredibly animated. She subconsciously acts out her thoughts with her body language, much to the amusement of other characters. And she has a very dynamic face. Always showing a range of emotions through her many facial expressions. And I think this may be something that is easily overlooked by readers, but it's not just the extreme expressions, like anger, sadness and happiness that are drawn well, but the "in between" expressions too. It's hard to notice when you are caught up in the story, but I fee like the artist took great care to show all those "in between" facial expressions.

I'm still new to the shojo/josei manga world and the romance manga world. My only other experience with a manga that is heavy on romance is 'Kimi ni Todoke', and while I really liked that innocent brand of romance, the more realistic and adult romance of 'Paradise Kiss' was a little more up my alley. In 'Kimi ni Todoke', the romance focused on the ups and downs of a budding relationship between two inexperienced and shy teens, but in 'Paradise Kiss', the romance gets into full swing quickly and we get to see the trials and tribulations of an already in progress relationship. Both types have their place, but I think I prefer the level of romance in 'Paradise Kiss'. And while I prefer the more mature version of romance offered in 'Paradise Kiss', sometimes the relationship woes seemed just as annoying and immature as the "oh, just kiss already" problems of 'Kimi ni Todoke'. I guess that the problem is less about these manga and more about me being out of their target demographics, me being a guy and all. Not that men can't enjoy romance stories. I enjoy them quite a bit. It's just really hard to find the right type and balance of romance that suits me.

This series started to run it's course after volume 4 in my opinion. It tried to shoehorn in closure for the supporting cast and make them more than just supporting cast when they were perfect just as they were. They didn't even need conflicts to wrap up, but we got them anyway... Their problems just added unwanted melodrama for me. An especially unwanted, melodramatic bit was the love triangle between Arashi, Miwako and Hiro. Not only did it push me past my drama limit into soap opera territory, but when that plot line was being wrapped up toward the end, it took a turn for the disturbing. I won't spoil things, but even with the main focus of the story being on a semi-volatile relationship, this revelation didn't fit and broke the vibe of the manga for me. Despite a few minor issues I had with the story, I found 'Paradise Kiss' thoroughly enjoyable, and at just five, short volumes, it would probably make a perfect introduction to josei manga. What's that you say? How can I recommend a manga that's out of print? No worries folks. Vertical, Inc. has rescued the license and will be reprinting this series in three, omnibus volumes starting this September.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Library Wars: Love & War vol. 1-5

One day while watching 'Imagine-Nation' on NHK World, I took notice of the movie they were talking about. That movie was 'Library War: The Wings of Revolution' and it is an adaptation of Hiro Arikawa's novel series. The premise sounded really interesting to me, so I decided to look into it further and I come to find that the only part of the franchise that is licensed in English is the manga adaptation by Kiiro Yumi. Well, it just so happens that manga is my favorite medium, so here I am, taking a look at 'Library Wars: Love & War'.

When Iku Kasahara was still in high school, the bookstore she was in was raided by the Media Betterment Committee, a government group with the mission of "protecting" society by censoring materials that they deemed "harmful" to the public. Though frightened by the MBC's strong-arming ways, Iku guarded her book passionately and was finally saved by her "Prince". This prince was none other than a member of the Library Task Force. A group put together by libraries and local governments, determined to protect books of all kinds by any means necessary. Moved by this mysterious prince that came to her aid, six years later, Iku herself has joined up with the Library Task force, putting her passion for books to good use and hoping to catch sight of the prince from her past.

I'm on the fence about Iku Kasahara as a main character. On one hand, she has a lot in common with some of the shonen main characters that I like. She's determined, ambitious, and a little dumb, but more realistic than those shonen heroes and not without her insecurities. But oddly enough, even with a mix of cool, shonen hero traits and realism, she doesn't do much for me as a lead character, and I can't quite place it. I can even relate to her passion for books and anti-censorship. That's a cause I could get behind in real life. I love books(especially manga), my library and I would never want anyone telling me what I can or cannot read. But despite sharing her viewpoints, thinking she has done some cool things like protecting books with her life, and generally finding her likeable, she just doesn't pull her weight as a lead character for me. I think that may have more to do with how she is used as a character than the character herself. In the five volumes I have read, the story has mostly been a series of dramatic situations with some comedy downtime in between, rather than a smooth, linear story. I just haven't been able to get immersed in the story, and in turn, I haven't been able to care about the characters much, no matter how likeable they are.

For a shojo manga, the art is surprisingly accessible and universal. With this art, it may not even be out of place in a shonen magazine. Characters, especially men, aren't abnormally tall and skinny and the closest typical shojo trait would be the slightly big eyes on the women. Though the character art style doesn't fully resemble the typical, full blown shojo style, the art structure gives it away. Paneling layout and effects used are common of popular, modern shojo manga. I quite like it and wouldn't mind seeing more manga with shojo writing sensibilities, but with a more accessible art style like this one. You can see the art for yourself in this free preview of chapter one on Viz Manga.

This manga tries to balance comedy, action and romance. Usually I like a story that juggles multiple aspects, but in this case, the story just feels unfocused, and without a focus, it doesn't get very far in five volumes as far as plot is concerned. The antagonist group is still a "faceless", generic government group and they hardly even feel threatening yet. There have only been two "major" situations with the antagonist Media Betterment Committee, and they were defused pretty quickly with no one important getting hurt. The action was welcome, but it was short lived and sub par. The romance plot line is basically stagnant. All we have gotten in that area so far is five volumes of boring and cliche romantic tension between Dojo and Kasahara. Actually, the most romantic development came from side character Sergeant Komaki and his childhood friend, Marie. But rather than be an important part of the main plot like Dojo and Kasahara's romance is suppose to be, Komaki's three chapter focus was more for his characterization, previously being just a walking, "friendly and fair guy" archetype. All we are really left with is some slap stick comedy that mostly involves Dojo yelling at Kasahara, which isn't enough to carry this series. So far it's been more of a sitcom than a compelling drama about the fight against censorship.

I really love the concept of libraries arming themselves to fight against censorship, but in five volumes, this series never really lived up to it's ambitious premise. As things stand, I doubt I'll check out future volumes of this manga, though it did leave me interested enough to want to check out the original novels, the anime or the movie(none of which seem to be licensed in English...). In my opinion, 'Library Wars: Love & War' has a very strong concept, but suffers from a less than stellar execution.

Monday, July 30, 2012


When Vertical, Inc. first announced that they would print Moyoco Anno's 'Sakuran' in English, I didn't think anything of it. I had skimmed her other series, 'Sugar Sugar Rune', at the library, and it didn't seem like my thing and the premise of 'Sakuran' didn't grab my attention either. It wasn't until I saw an extended preview of 'Sakuran' that I was immediately sold on the art alone. Now, after reading and getting the whole picture, I can't say I've exactly become a die hard fan of Moyoco Anno or 'Sakuran'.

Kiyoha is a a young woman working in the pleasure quarters in 1800's Japan, but she wasn't always one of the top courtesans like she is now. Parents drowned in a river and sold into a brothel, stubborn and feisty Kiyoha made the transformation from maid in training Tomeki, to courtesans apprentice O-Rin, and all the way up to Oiren Kiyoha. This unlikely and unwanted success didn't come easy. Beatings, dead friends, and lost lovers stained her path through life that she was given no choice in taking. 'Sakuran' explores that sad life of courtesans that is stealthily hidden from the clientele behind fancy makeup, luxurious kimonos, and fake smiles.

This manga kind of reads like a lesson in how the Japanese courtesan world works, and at the same time, acts as a coming of age story for Tomeki/O-Rin/Kiyoha. It's interesting that the women get a new name for each stage of their life at the brothel. From maid to apprentice to courtesan. Getting a new name really fits with their way of life, seeing as how different each stage is. They almost get a new identity. Though Kiyoha never lost her unique and independent personality. For that, I am glad, because it is that personality that was the main appeal of this manga for me. Growing up in a time period and profession that favors obedient and submissive women, Kiyoha more than goes against the grain in regard to what is expected of her. She's loud, rude, ill-tempered, ill-mannered and causes a bit of trouble wherever she goes. Seeing how she applies her rebel attitude to various situations to get through this sad, unwanted life was my sole source of entertainment while reading this book. And her very dynamic reactions and facial expressions communicate just as much information as the dialogue and partially make up for how boring that dialogue could be.

I liked Kiyoha as a character, but there were two times when I thought this character could have been better utilized. One was when all of a sudden, after a seemingly short time-skip, she is friends with a fellow apprentice courtesan. We hardly get any interaction between the two, the friend dies, and I have no time to care. This is a missed opportunity in my opinion. I would have liked to see that friendship develop, but all we get is another harsh lesson in the life of a Japanese whore. Another instance that I thought was a missed opportunity was when Kiyoha is suddenly in love with a man who she only met twice. The first time she served him sake and brushed his hand with hers. The second time, he told her his name and bit her nipple. True love I tell you! Anyway, jokes aside, I would have liked to see this and other relationships develop more. Everyone in this manga is kind of cold and living in a harsh reality. No one really being friends with each other. I think that's why I found the dialogue so drab.

This manga has one feature that will really get it's hooks in you, and that's the art. Specifically, the colored art interspersed throughout the book. The color pages are stunning. The last manga color pages that I can remember staring at for this long was probably Vagabond, which probably has my favorite art in manga, so this is about the highest compliment I can give to Moyoco Anno's art. Though while the regular, black and white art is more than satisfactory, it is unremarkable compared to the color pages. The style is the same, but it isn't as flawlessly neat or detailed as the color work, which is fine. Like I said, it is more than satisfactory. I just couldn't help but to notice the difference in quality. Also, there were a few times when I got characters mixed up because some of the girls look too much a like. With all the courtesans having practically the same hair style, and very similar eyes and lips, their differently designed kimonos are their most distinguishing feature. I was only momentarily confused just a few times, but even so, this is one of my biggest peeves of manga art. I recommend heading over to Comics Alliance where they share a 15 page, exclusive preview of 'Sakuran', so that you can sample the art for yourself.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. I heard nothing but good things about it prior to reading it myself, and I was sold on the art alone. It didn't quite live up to my expectations though. I enjoyed the great art and the interesting main character, but this story was bogged down by mostly boring dialogue. While I definitely don't think my reading this book was a complete waste, to be perfectly honest, it's just not good enough for me recommend you spend $17 for a single volume story. Instead, take that $17 and go get a volume of 'Ooku:The Inner Chambers' or 'Vagabond' if you are looking for some Japanese historical manga.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Zatch Bell! vol. 1-25

I heard of Makoto Raiku after discovering his newest series, 'Animal Land', which is one of my new favorites. Needless to say, I wanted to check out his past series, 'Zatch Bell!'. I saw some of the 'Zatch Bell!' anime years ago on tv, and kind of dismissed it. After reading the manga, I admit, I underestimated this series a bit, but I still have some problems with it.

Kiyo Takamine is a not so ordinary boy, alienated by his genius with no friends to speak of. One day out of the blue, a wild looking, blonde haired little boy crashed through his window with a magical, red book in tow and changed Kiyo's life forever. Sent to Kiyo by his father, the blonde-haired little boy named Zatch Bell has promised to do everything in his power to help Kiyo make some friends and put him back on the right path in life. Little did Kiyo know, that Zatch would drag him into a grueling tournament that happens every one thousand years amongst the mamado in order to crown the next Mamodo King. Together, Zatch and Kiyo encounter friend and foe alike on their path to make Zatch a "kind king".

This series felt pretty generic to me until around volume 10. The first 9 volumes had their moments, but before volume 10, it felt like a glorified Pokemon. The only thing that kept it above the level of Pokemon was that most of the mamodo could talk and had personalities. Then the personalities of a select few started to get fleshed out, and I started to enjoy things more. On top of that, around volume 11, hints were being dropped that the situation was more than just some tournament to be Mamodo King. Around volume 12, the first, focused story arc started to take place. Before that, it was kind of just random battles and comedic chapters. Even though a traditional manga arc was what I was waiting for, this didn't really add a whole lot to my enjoyment. It was kind of just the same thing, except a sub tournament. A distraction from the main Mamodo King battle. Then around volume 20, the story started to come into it's own, but by that time, I was suffering from "fight fatigue". There was just too much repetitive fighting. Thankfully, Zatch and Kiyo teaming up with their group of friends to take down bad guys kind of made me forget about the tired concept of the Mamodo King tournament that had been prevalent for most of the series. Unfortunately, the later volumes were quite serious in tone, so that great comedy that I loved so much didn't show it's face as often. So the series kind of traded in it's comedy for a more compelling story, and because of that, my enjoyment largely stayed the same throughout.

I feel like there are a lot of moments that are supposed to be emotional, that just didn't have that kind of impact on me. This is hugely annoying for me, because emotional impact is at the very top of my criteria for good manga. Getting an emotional reaction out of me is a sure way to make it on to my favorite manga list. 'Zatch Bell!' didn't do a lot for me in that category though. And it's a shame because there were so many scenes that I could tell were suppose to be emotional, but just didn't hit their mark. Tears run like rivers in this manga. And I thought that maybe that was the problem. Over use of crying and what not may have desensitized me. But then I remembered that there were attempted emotional scenes right from the very beginning. There was one moment that got a slight twinge of an emotional reaction from me. A certain mamodo got his book burned protecting his human partner and got sent back to the mamodo world. That scene was pretty well done. And another time when a certain book owner seemingly died, but this moment was kind of ruined because it was so short lived and featured the only instance of ill-timed humor. But with all the crying and friendship speeches in this manga, I would expect to be moved a whole lot more, and I just wasn't.

For me, this series' greatest strength was it's comedy and fantastic comedic timing. Even in a seemingly serious situation, a well placed face fault can lighten things up without breaking the tension. It feels weird saying this is one of the funniest mangas that I have ever read, because comedy is hardly the main focus compared to the action, but it really had me laughing a lot. The thing is, most of the comedy is just juvenile slap-stick and funny faces. It's extremely effective though, and to be honest, I don't remember the last manga that made me literally laugh out loud as much as 'Zatch Bell!' did. The comedy was probably this manga's saving grace for me.

As I mentioned before, at times the fights felt like glorified Pokemon battles, and at others, they were surprisingly creative and strategic. Though for a manga with tons of fights, very few of them stood out as epic clashes. The fighting, while being this story's main aspect, was oddly enough not my favorite part of the series. And maybe that's why it wasn't my favorite part. It was saturated with fights, putting quantity over quality. Sometimes the fights were kind of tedious to read through, and I just wanted to get back to the strong, comedic side of the story. The outcome of fights are determined by spirit and determination just as often as they are by strategy. Which is fine. I'm used to that in shonen fighting manga. But with the mamodo's powers limited only by the author's imagination, there was wasted potential. Some of the mamodo abilities are fun and unique, but what we end up seeing most often is a shield spell, an upgraded shield spell, a projectile and an upgraded projectile. The main character duo pretty much always uses a combination of these, along with some occasional strategy. It kind of gets monotonous after a while. I'd have to say my favorite fights are when there are team battles. That added variable almost always increases the use of creative strategy, which is fun to watch, even if the abilities are the generic shield and projectile spells. The only other time the fights were especially exciting was when a mamodo learned a new spell, and even then, it was more because learning a new spell goes hand in hand with character growth, rather than the spell looking cool.

It's interesting when Kiyo and Zatch run into a new mamodo and book owner. You never know if they are going to be good guys or bad guys, and even when they are good guys, that doesn't mean there won't be a fight. I think one of my favorite aspects of this series is how Kiyo and Zatch make new friends and allies. Though I think that is partly because whenever they meet a new mamodo, I sigh at the prospect of yet another fight, and when they end up being friendly, I am relieved. But I am also a sucker for the strong friendship themes in shonen manga. That theme present sets of a chain reaction of loyalty and determination. I never get tired of that stuff and I think that is why I still read manga meant for kids when I am in my mid 20's.

Something I found particularly interesting about this series was the dynamic relationships between the mamodos and their book owners. The relationships between book owner and mamodo are diverse and complex. Some human book owners only use and take advantage of their mamodo for the sake of power, and some mamodo even take advantage of their human partner. But on the other side of things, some of the pairs have great relationships. Most of them are just friends(which is saying something within the context of the story, mamodo not regarded as people and all), treating each other as equals, but one pair had a father/son relationship and another pair even had a romantic relationship.

I'm still not sure how I feel about Kiyo as a character. He's not a bad character, but as a main character, he's not that great either. At first, he is kind of a jerk who is secluded because of his genius. After meeting Zatch, who helps him gain friends, Kiyo changes drastically into a more typical, friendly, shonen main character. This Kiyo is likeable, but I think it would have been better writing to have him change gradually and more naturally throughout the course of the series. The nice thing about this story is that Zatch and Kiyo are so joined at the hip, it's almost like they are one character. Without Zatch, Kiyo is unremarkable, but together, they are fun and interesting to watch and follow. The same thing goes for most of the other human/mamodo partnerships, and part of me thinks this was done on purpose.

I told myself after my last review when I failed to properly describe the art that I would just stop trying to do so altogether, but it'd be a shame for me to not at least mention all the wonderful character designs in this manga. The humans don't so much fit the bill aside from the select few, but the mamodo designs are incredibly imaginative for the most part. And there are so, so many of them. On top of that, they are as diverse as they are many. They range from gargantuan dragon-esque creatures to cute, little monkey-rabbits. Some look like normal children with funny outfits, and then others resemble miniature, fighting robots. I believe I've mentioned in past reviews that I am a sucker for kooky character designs, and 'Zatch Bell!' didn't fail to satisfy that need in me. 

Maybe I'm just a little too old for what is almost purely a fighting manga. I personally think Makoto Raiku's latest work, 'Animal Land', is a large step above 'Zatch Bell!'. That's not to say I didn't enjoy reading it. There were ample laughs, imaginative character designs, and all the shonen, feel-good tropes my heart could desire. I just grew weary of the non-stop, repetitive battles. Since Viz only printed up to volume 25 for whatever reason, there is eight more volumes of story left, and to be honest, I'm not too broken up about not being able to finish. I can kind of guess how things are going to play out anyway, and I doubt anything groundbreaking will occur in the last 8 volumes if it didn't in the first 25. But, you know what? I'm glad I read this manga if only for how funny it was. Sure, it has lots of faults, but there was a lot of entertainment to be had.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Superhero Invasion part II: 52

Continuing my journey as a newbie trying to get into the world of superhero comics, I take a look at the DC Comics limited series '52'. A direct follow up to 'Infinite Crisis', '52' is made of of 52 issues, published weekly for one year. After the cataclysmic events of 'Infinite Crisis', the "Big 3" of superheros, Batman, Wonderwoman, and Superman, go missing. In the absence of these most prolific superhero leaders, it is up to some lesser known heroes to fill their void and keep the peace.

The structure of this series is easy to understand, and a far cry from the chaotic and confusing Infinite Crisis. Instead of a bungled mess of P.O.V.'s that jump all over the place, each issue or "week" has much more focus and a clear point of view. It's interesting that DC deviated from the usual, monthly serialization for this year long weekly serialization. Chapters are labeled as "weeks" and though it is lost on new readers, the initial serialization played out in real time. While not necessary, knowledge of the events in Infinite Crisis may help to understand some things going on. Fortunately, Infinite Crisis is well summarized at the beginning of the series.

This series features and is told from the point of view of some lesser known characters. I wouldn't say it did a great job at introducing these characters to new readers though. But as you follow their stories, you do get to know them more and more. Batman, Superman, and Wonderwoman are missing, and this is a good thing in my opinion. Even as a new comic book reader, I think these characters are played out(maybe not so much Wonderwoman). Batman and Superman are both iconic enough to have reached the mainstream. Even non-comicbook readers know of them. It also doesn't help that Superman is kind of overpowered. With them gone, this leaves a lot of room for lesser known characters to shine, and they really did in this book.

The characters were this series strong point in my opinion. One of my favorite characters was Booster Gold. Being from the 25th century, it's no surprise that his plot line is heavy with time travel, and I'm kind of a sucker for time travel stories, though not many of them are good in my opinion. They can get really messy and confusing fast. Paradoxes and what not. Though this is one of the better ones I have come across and it launched Booster Gold to the top of my favorite characters list. It really had some good twists that I wasn't expecting. 

Another main character that I really liked was Renee Montoya. She probably the most human and relatable character and her developing relationship with Charles Victor Ssasz was a highlight of the series.

While not my favorite characters because their story line felt detached from the rest. I really liked the group dynamic of Starfire, Animal Man, and Adam Strange. They didn't always get along, but through thick and thin, they fought their way through space trying to get back home. It also didn't hurt that they teamed up with Lobo, a crazy, space bounty hunter turned archbishop of the Three Fish God, who has a pet space dolphin. He added a good amount of unpredictable fun to the mix.

One of the most prominent and dynamic characters featured is Black Adam. As I understand it, Black Adam used to be a recurring, super villain antagonist to the Marvel Family, but in this incarnation of the character, he is depicted as a man on the path of redemption. After falling in love with Isis, she has a great influence on him and he starts to change for the better. He probably has the most profound and obvious character development in this series. And though he has changed a lot, he is no goody-two-shoes. He's a pretty brutal guy. The opposite of the sometimes corny Captain Marvel, even when he is trying to do good. For that reason, I kind of took a liking to him.

Probably the one character that I didn't care too much for was John Henry Irons AKA "Steel". The whole time I just couldn't help but think of the bad Shaquille O'Neil movie based on the character. Really though, it's mostly because I wasn't very interested in his plot line. The main part of his story is kind of cliche and is bogged down by his annoying niece, but despite that, Steel does turn out to be kind of badass. 

Like I said in my first Superhero Invasion post, the generic comic book art is starting to wear on me. The colors dull details and it lacks emotion. When certain characters died, I didn't feel anything for them, and I think the art is to blame, because I actually liked those characters, but the art didn't convey the emotion of those scenes well at all. The art is never stunning and it doesn't contribute to the appeal. It's just there, and it works to tell the story, but it leaves me wanting more. The special features of the collected editions include the original pencil drawn and inked pages. While I understand that the single toned inked pages would be hard on the eyes to tell what is going on, these pages illustrate just how much detail coloring takes away. No offense to the colorists, but I kind of feel like they ruin the art. Also, several different artists work together to complete this comic. That includes several different pencilers, inkers, and colorists all taking turns doing the same characters. Most of the time, the difference in the art is barely distinguishable and not a bother, but sometimes, the same characters are drawn so different than they were earlier in the comic, that it takes a second to even realize who they are. It's kind of annoying. Quality and style inconsistency is something that I am not getting used to.

As I mentioned, after each weekly issue, there is an extra feature section with concept art and creator commentary. I especially appreciated the creator commentary. Sometimes it really helps to understand a work when the writer straight up explains them to you. This helped quell a lot of the confusion I had as a new reader. The commentary also gives insight into the industry and comic making process. We learn interesting stuff like last minute editorial changes and easter eggs are pointed out. For me, these extra features really increased my enjoyment of this comic.

The story started to get a little crazy toward the end. From my few experiences with these DC crossover events, the writers seem to let their imagination get away from them. Fortunately, they kept things pretty reigned in for the most part. '52' was a whole lot of fun for me to read. Where 'Final Crisis' kind of pushed me away from superhero comics, '52' pulled me right back in.  As far as superhero comics go, this is the best I've read so far, and I highly recommend it to new and old comic readers alike.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Attack on Titan vol. 1

Like many, I first heard of 'Attack on Titan' by Hajime Isayama, well before it got licensed in English by Kodansha USA. Noticing it's impressive sales on the Japanese comic rankings and a Manga Taisho Award nomination, it was impossible for me as a manga fan to not be at least a little curious. So I went out and picked myself up a copy. I can't yet tell if this is going to be as big a hit in America as it is in Japan, but I know after reading volume one, I want to see where this new series is going.

The entire human race has lived in peace for a hundred years, hiding behind a series of towering walls. These walls serve to keep the enemy at bay. The enemy being a never ending swarm of titans, hell bent on devouring all of humanity. Then, out of the blue, a colossal titan appeared, smashing a hole in the wall for the lesser titans to get through before mysteriously vanishing. It was this fateful day that spurred Eren Yeager to become an elite, titan killing soldier to take back human territory and accomplish his dreams of a life beyond the wall.

The first thing I noticed about this book was the art. It emits a dark mood that quite fits with the story. Characters' faces display very appropriate fear well. Though it does seem like it needs a little refining. Human character designs don't particularly stand out, which isn't great for remembering who is who. On the other hand, the titan character designs are pretty cool and very scary looking. When they are devouring humans, they remind me of a medieval painting symbolizing gluttony or something like that. The colossal titan looks especially menacing. He looks like a giant, skinless Bigfoot with too many undersized teeth that bellows a cloud of dark smoke. It's quite the sight and because of these well done designs, the terror the characters show is believable and justified.

Aside from the two mains, Eren and Mikasa, the characters aren't particularly memorable. And even they haven't reached the level of "likeable" for me yet, which is a must have for me. I mean, Mikasa is kind of cool and bad-ass, but she is very cold and stoic. Eren kind of feels like the author wasn't quite sure if he wanted to make him a typical, shonen hero or not. He has determination and dreams of going outside the wall and is a little hot-headed, but his personality still came across as kind of plain and he didn't make an impact in that regard. I need to care about the characters I will be following throughout a story. Usually that gets taken care of within the first volume for me, not so with 'Attack on Titan'. I'm willing to give it a few volume though.

If the characters didn't come on strong, the story build up did. I'd call this a strong set-up volume that gave good detail into how this society works and what's going on. Since this story seemingly takes place in a brand new, fictional world not based in our reality, I'd say there was pretty good world building for one volume's worth of content. Also, a cool and unique combat system called "Three Dimensional Maneuvers" is detailed. Humans wear these harnesses and fly around with grappling hooks trying to take slices out of titans with these swords that resemble giant razorblades. There is also a slight sense of mystery that definitely got it's hooks in me. What is the origin of the titans, I wonder? And a brief flash back into Eren's past puts great suspicion on his missing father. Not to mention, we have only got a taste of what life is like inside the wall. There's a whole world out there to see. I'll be looking forward to more of these aspects in future volumes.

I have one, tiny gripe about the production quality. I am almost obsessively careful about not bending the spines of my manga books, but even with how careful I am, the spine bent very easily. I didn't even open the book all the way. It's like the cover is too thin and they didn't use enough glue in the binding. It doesn't help that there is no margin where nothing is printed. To see the art in it's entirety, you almost have to bend the spine, and I'd imagine most people aren't like me, and will do so. Needless to say, I'm going to be very careful with my copy as to not have it fall apart on me. However, it is reassuring that my 'Animal Land' books, which are also printed by Kodansha USA, do not have this durability problem. So hopefully this was just a bad batch and future volumes will be better.

I'm convinced to keep following this dark, new shonen and pick up volume two when it comes out. Are you? Not even decided on volume one yet? Well then, maybe this exclusive preview over at MTV Geek will help you out.