Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The Strange Tale of Panorama Island

The Licensing of 'The Strange Tale of Panorama Island', by Suehiro Maruo, was announced all the way back in 2009. That's more than a year before I bought my first manga and caught the collecting bug. Nevertheless, word of this book and its long production reached my ears several times. "When will it finally be released?". "Will it ever be released?". I even had a pre-order in at one point before the listing got removed. I know I haven't been waiting as long as some fans, but even so, this book has been much anticipated by me, and it is finally here for me to enjoy.

Hitomi Hirosuke is a struggling writer with big dreams, but fears of being left behind by the new era. He writes about his very own, personal utopia straight from his own head. "What would I do with a limitless fortune?", he asks himself. But these stories are rejected by his editor in favor of something more grounded. One day, Hitomi's editor informs him of the death of his childhood friend Komoda, who he happened to be the spitting image of, and who happened to be very wealthy. Knowing that at the time, there had been several cases of people "dying" from asthma and mistakenly buried, Hitomi got the idea that he would fake his own suicide, impersonate Komoda and miraculously come back from the dead. With much preparation and not without his anxieties, he managed to pull it off, shocking everyone close to Komoda. Now fully ensconced within Komoda's life, he can now use his vast fortune to make his dream a reality. To build a lavish utopia called Panorama Island.

I'll admit, at first I found Hitomi's plan to be unbelievable. Even as it was unfolding, my suspension of disbelief was pretty much at its limit. Even if he looks just like him, how will he replicate his voice? How will he fool all these people close to Komoda? And these feelings lingered a little longer than I would have liked, but I was soon able to put those worries aside. A quick explanation of "near death trauma wiping out his memories of people", Hitomi's own fears of getting caught in his outlandish scheme, and Komoda's wife not fully being fooled made it all seem a little more believable that he managed to pull this off. Not to mention, I began to not care as much if his plan made sense because I wanted to see his dreams come to fruition.

The main character, Hitomi Hirosuke, is not introduced as a likable guy, even before he digs up his dead friend's corpse and impersonates him…But strangely, I began to want to see him succeed. Not because he became likable, but because I wanted to see his fantastic vision come to life. Hitomi is basically a lunatic, complete with maniacal super-villain laugh that he unleashes periodically. He's also a self-proclaimed layabout and I was unsympathetic towards his writing failures. Digging up his dead friends body so that he can impersonate him and spend his fortune just pushes him over the edge to become completely irredeemable. There should have been no possible way that I would be rooting for him, and yet I was. His vision of a grand and luxurious utopia is something I often dream about myself, so I wanted to see it happen. And despite him being a complete monster of a person, I don't regret rooting for him, because his vision was amazing.

The story was good for a one-shot. Nothing revolutionary, but it kept me engaged and Hitomi was a pretty interesting character. The real appeal for me was Hitomi's dream come to life and the amazing art that came with it. Maruo's style is pretty unique for me. It has a bit of a western feel to it and perhaps it is just the time period of the story showing through, but it also had a bit of a classic feel to it. That's just the character art though. What really caught my attention was the scenery. It was simply beautiful. Almost half the book is just showing off the stunning sites of Panorama Island. Statues, waterfalls, buildings, gardens and an awesome underwater tunnel. I really couldn't get enough of all the double page spreads of Maruo's great artwork. I actually wish the book was a little longer because of that. I'd say that this book is worth it for the artwork alone.

I can very easily see this book appealing to non-manga fans. It doesn't really have any of the modern, mainstream aspects of manga that may be off-putting to western comic fans. And it's all wrapped up in a lovely package. An over-sized hardcover with very colorful cover art and shiny gold lettering. Quite the nice one-shot. But it's not for everyone. Certainly not for children and not for adults who don't care for tons of nudity and even graphic sex. Though I'd love to see more Suehiro Maruo licensed so I hope lots of people go out and buy this.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin vol. 2

If begrudgingly I pried open my wallet for volume one, volume two of 'Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin' was pre-ordered with fervent anticipation. And with its arrival, I am now one step closer to no longer being a Gundam newbie. Adding some nice character development on top of the superb action, volume two impressed me just as much as the first.

After barely escaping Char at the end of volume one, Amuro Ray and the crew of White Base set out for Jaburo across hostile Zeon territory. No sooner do they enter Earth's atmosphere, do they encounter a brand new enemy, Colonel Garma Zabi, commander of Zeon's North American forces. A young, headstrong man with something to prove, he's determined to take out White Base and the dangerous prototype mobile suit on board. Everyone bands together to bolster their defenses and fight off the new threat...That is, everyone but Amuro.

Now, with not much time for character development last volume, I neither actively liked or disliked Amuro. But with the very first chapter of this volume, he took a big step in the wrong direction if I was to like him. Or so I thought. He was acting like a first class brat. Truly annoying. Refusing to fight and acting like a child. That's when I remembered, he is a child. And he just got thrust into an epic space war, killed several men, and barely survived to tell the tale. He's scared and doesn't want to kill again or be killed himself. He had every right to break down like that, and as a reader, I can't hold that against him. And wouldn't you know it, with some encouragement from Fraw Bow, he resolved himself, and though he didn't want to, he stepped up to pilot the Gundam once again and protected the White Base. So while the boy was most certainly an annoying brat no matter how justified, he turned that around pretty quickly and earned some points in my book.

Out of danger for the moment, Amuro Ray and the other crew members of White Base were given some much needed rest and relaxation. While some decided to soak up the Sun by the beach, which they hadn't experienced in ages(if ever, some being born in space), Amuro decided to go find his childhood home to see his mother. Discovering his house trashed by partying Federation soldiers with his mother nowhere to be seen, an old toy brings back memories of when he first set out for space with his father. And with just a one page flashback, we get a nice bit of characterization for Amuro. We find out that though Amuro and his father are the one to leave her for space, she effectively is the one that abandoned him. She had no real good reason for not going with them other than that she didn't wan to live in space. Their interactions when they do finally meet up only further makes me suspicious of her. You can see that she obviously has some connection to him since he is her son, but there is this detachment. Perhaps it is just because they have been apart for so long, but I think there may be more to it. He asks, "Don't you love me at all.", and of course she says she does, but he doesn't believe her and I don't quite either. So at age fifteen, father dead, he leaves his mother behind again, this time for war.

On the topic of war; This time it felt very real. No longer did we have these fantastical battles in outer space. We have both literally and figuratively been brought down to Earth. This applies to war in the visual sense. Sunny, clear, familiar skies replace the dark, foreign setting of space. Making for a whole new action dynamic, adding gravity and terrain to the mix. But what really hit me while reading was how war was less romanticized in this volume. And you can really see this with Amuro's focus. Especially when he is forced to defend himself against a Zeon soldier. This time, without the protection of the Gundam armor. Not only was the Gundam protecting his flesh body, but the enemy Zaku's were hiding the faces of the men he had to kill. And now, face to face with an enemy soldier, he had to protect himself or be killed. "We are at war now.", he says when his mother questions how he became such a scary kid. It kind of felt like I came to that realization at the same time that he did.

Though I'm sure you know this, I can't really talk about this release without at least mentioning the production quality. Vertical really is going all out for this series. Of course you know that it's a well made hardcover, but what really got my attention was the quantity of color pages. So I went through and counted and there is a whopping sixty-eight color pages, including an illustration gallery in the back! This prompted me to go back and check how many color pages volume one had and I counted fifty-six. These two books have by far the most color pages of any manga I own, omnibus or otherwise. And this is rounded off with a round-table discussion and a nice double page color spread by CLAMP. I'll be on the lookout to see if volume three can top this volume's deluxe features. Sixty-eight is the number to beat!

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wolfsmund vol. 1

I knew almost nothing about Mitsuhisa Kuji's, 'Wolfsmund', before I bought it, other than that I had heard that it was a realistic and brutal retelling of the "William Tell" legend, and that it was being published in English by Vertical Inc. Plus, there was a cool looking knight on the cover, so I decided to take a chance on it. Turns out, the first volume was pretty awesome. Lately it feels like putting my money on Vertical Inc, is less of "taking a chance" and more of an investment in entertainment.

Deep in the Alps during the late middle ages lies the Sankt Gotthard Pass, and it was the shortest path between Germany and Italy. For many years, the people of the Alps controlled the pass, gathering considerable wealth from trade going through. The cantons of Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden forged an alliance in order to protect their interest in the pass, but they could not match the might of the House of Habsburg of Austria. With the cantons occupied and the pass taken, the citizens were prisoners within their own land. The pass, being the only way into the Italian states, was the only way for rebels to escape isolation and build an army. But the pass featured a barrier station, fiercely guarded by a ruthless bailiff, named "Wolfram", and his barrier station became known by the oppressed citizens as "Wolfsmund", the mouth of the wolf...

I was just telling someone how I don't gravitate toward gloomy stories, and here I am, enjoying this book about oppressed rebels getting their hopes dashed by a smirking tyrant. Several things save 'Wolfsmund' from being a depressing gloomfest, and number one on that list is "suspense". You have this impenetrable checkpoint that everyone wants to get through, but it is guarded by this "eyes always shut", constant giant grin having Wolfram, who loves his job too much. And he always knows when someone is trying to cheat him, but somehow you are still on the edge of your seat, waiting, hoping to see these characters get past unscathed. It comes across as a kind of life or death game(and very much possibly is for Wolfram) where the rebels take every precaution they can and put on their best show in order to fool Wolfram, and Wolfram tries to test and trick them into failure. Even though I kind of knew that Wolfram would come out on top, the suspense was still real and I felt it.

Another aspect that I enjoyed about 'Wolfsmund' was the action. Despite there being a battling knight on the cover, I was not expecting this level of action and the well done choreography. There were several good fight scenes that included two knights dueling with long-swords , and a fierce female warrior, trying to assassinate her way through the checkpoint. But the best part came in the final chapter of the volume when Wilhelm Tell and his son Walter were introduced. As you can probably guess, these are the two featured in the legend of a man forced to shoot an apple off of his son's head with a crossbow. And Wilhelm is shown to be quite the marksman in 'Wolfsmund', but what really got my attention was his mountain climbing scenes, which I considered just as impressive action as the fighting scenes. Doubly so when they were fighting while mountain climbing.

If you are looking for a character to latch onto, you might have to pick the villain, because...let's just say you shouldn't get attached to anyone...The most recurring character in volume one was the bailiff of Wolfsmund, Wolfram, and this guy is one bad dude. Always smiling. Always with his eyes closed. He is the kind of character that I love to hate. And that's just based on his appearance and attitude. Him having everyone killed without touching a sword himself doesn't hurt either. He's also kind of intriguing though. He seems to take his job as bailiff very seriously. Almost as if he feels he is king and the barrier station his country to rule. I think it is pretty clear that he will be one of the main antagonists throughout this story, and I'm looking forward to seeing him fleshed out more and seeing how he evolves. Other characters I'm interested in include an unnamed woman who runs an inn close to the barrier station, and Wilhelm Tell's son, Walter Tell. The unnamed woman is the next most recurring character and seems to be part of the rebellion, but little else is known about her as of yet. I'm pretty sure she will be important though. And though Walter Tell only shows up in the final chapter of volume one, I think he has the makings for the main character of this series. He's a badass, mountain-climbing crossbowman like his dad, so I'm sure he will also be interesting to follow.

'Wolfsmund' started out with a pretty strong first volume. The structure felt a little unorthodox, establishing the antagonist and the setting more so than a sure protagonist, and I kind of liked that. All you people out there impatiently waiting to get some historical manga action out of 'Vinland Saga' this Fall might just find what you are looking for right now from 'Wolfsmund'.