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.