Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Monthly* manga reviews

A Little Snow Fairy Sugar Vol. 1
ADV Manga

This is an aptly named series. The phrasing of the title is strange way past the point of being awkward, and it definitely clues you into how sweet the stories inside are; hell, they’re downright saccharine.

The credits are a little tough to decipher and, honestly, I’m not entirely sure who does what. Haruka Aoi is listed as “creator,” but Koge Donbo is listed under “original character design.” And someone/some group/some thing “BH SNOW + CLINIC” are listed as “illustrator.”

As for the story, it stars Saga Bergman, an orphaned little girl who lives with her grandma in an idyllic Germanic town of Guttenberg (note the cutesy architecture and the “Morgen!” greetings). She’s a bit of a control freak, and by “control freak” I mean anal retentive to the point of being possibly OCD. But her strictly scheduled life of hard work, punctuality and regimented fun gets turned upside down one day when she discovers a doll-like little fairy by the name of Sugar, a fairy that only Saga can see.

Sugar is an apprentice “season fairy,” an invisible being responsible for controlling some aspect of the weather (snow, wind, sunshine, etc). In an English pun, the season fairies are all named after seasonings, so that Sugar runs with fellow apprentices Salt and Pepper (not to be confused with the all-female rap group of the ‘90s with the same name), and we also meet full-fledged season fairies Ginger and Turmeric.

To achieve similar status, the apprentices must gather enough “twinkles,” but they have no idea what twinkles are, and so they rush off after everything that seems to fit the description (Basically, any source of light or shiny object). It takes Saga some time to make peace with having invisible mischievous fairies in her life, but as she and Sugar go through a cycle of fighting and making up, it appears that twinkle is actually some sort of act of kindness, friendship or love. After all, each time they make up or do one another a solid, the magic plant Sugar needs to feed twinkle to grows a bit more.

The designs and illustrations are all cute as the dickens, even if the characters are all a little stereotypical. The first volume contains four stories, yet by the second it establishes a predictable cycle that successive chapters adhere to. Sugar and Saga have an argument/misunderstanding, then they make up/come to an understanding, and their relationship grows a little more. I can see it getting very tedious very fast, but it was certainly fun enough for the first volume at least.

Beauty Pop Vols. 1 and 2

The three boys who call themselves “the Scissors Project” and give select girls makeovers are the kings of their school. There’s their alpha male Narumi, a cocky hairstylist; happy-go-lucky and always hungry Kei, who specializes in nail art; and Ochihai, who has a computer-like brain (which you can actually hear computing) and is the consultant in “overall beauty.”

Everyone may revere the Scissors Project, but new girl Kiri is not impressed. She is an incredibly talented stylist herself, but she has little interest in becoming a hair stylist like her parents, who own a beauty shop and, we later learn, require her to do strange stylist training after school.

In fact, Kiri seems to have little interest in anything at all.

Bored, blasé and seemingly always half asleep, Kiri’s not your average shojo heroine (just as creator Kiyoko Arai’s Beauty Pop is not your average manga). While Narumi gives makeovers to bring fame and glory to himself—a sort of egomania tinted with some daddy issues— Kiri does so only on the sly, occasionally being moved to work her magic on girls she feels sorry for, like a grade-schooler who’s teased for having helmet hair.

Naturally, the two philosophies lead to conflict (and, perhaps later, romance? At least there are some hints dropped). Narumi fumes when it seems someone of great skill is giving girls makeovers around school, and it all culminates in an epic stylist showdown at the end for the first volume. Arai makes the battle so dramatic that it’s practically impossible not to pick up the second once you’re committed; of course, she sort of cheats, as the first volume ends with audience members voting on the winner, and the announcement, “Okay, now…who will win?!”

Blank Vol. 1

American artist Pop Mhan has done plenty of comics work for hire in his distinctive, manga-influenced style, including a few favorites of mine, like his Dark Horse series with Peter David SpyBoy and the last good Batgirl stories for DC. But this original, digest-sized graphic novel marks his first attempt at not only writing and drawing his own story, but doing so in the form and format of the Japanese comics that so obviously inspired much of his past work.

The book is named for its amnesiac hero, a dimwitted, horny, teenaged martial arts master who escaped from a mental institution with only one memory, the name “Aki Clark.” He believes he’s a secret agent assigned to protect her, and follows her around in a variety of silly, transparent disguises (a mailbox, a school lunch lady, a wall).

In truth, she doesn’t need protection, as she’s just as good at martial artist as Blank is, and he may actually be a terrorist assigned to kidnap her. Her father is working on a satellite project for the government, one which he envisioned as a weapon for peace, but which can also be used in the manner of most other weapons. Holed up in his lab and hard at work, Aki is left to her own devices.

When she meets Blank, hilarity ensues—as does some rather bloody slapstick and the will they/won’t they romance of so much manga. There’s an awful lot of cartoony violence, which Mhan distinguishes from regular cartoon-style violence by adding gushing blood. Blank may lose a pint or two of it in every fight (or every time he tries peeking up Aki’s skirt), but it’s not to be taken too seriously—it’s simply an artistic flourish.

As a writer, Mhan seems to be quite proficient at what he’s doing, but it’s hardly the most original or ambitious story. The subject matter is mostly gag driven, and these mostly seem to be PG-13 sex gags. As a designer and draftsmen, however, Mhan’s in better form than ever, and any fan of his past work should find plenty in here to justify a purchase.

Kilala Princess Vol. 1

I realized that I was really, truly, unequivocally a grown man the day I purchased this Disney Princess manga. Sure, it was a weird trigger for an epiphany, but I knew I must really be an adult when I carried this slim, pink Princess manga out of the comic shop and didn’t feel a twinge of embarrassment, shame or self-consciousness. This may be the single girliest comic one could possibly purchase, and if anyone saw it tucked under my arm and thought it was cause to question my manhood, I didn’t.

A far cry from when I would by an issue of Superboy from the mall and hope no one saw me carrying it.

Anyway, this latest collaboration between Disney and Tokyopop, carried out by writer Rika Tanaka and artist Nao Kodaka, promised to further exploit the manga/movie mash-up of the Kingdom Hearts manga; books I read faithfully and enjoyed on an aesthetic level, even if I found the stories boringly simplistic (for which I blame myself; clearly, I wasn’t the target audience for those, any more than I am for this).

While Kingdom Hearts is the most obvious book to compare this girls adventure too, I found this to be a little more pure, since it could bypass the Final Fantasy video game middleman between Disney and manga, and a little more grown up, as the storytelling was slightly less redundant.

The story is of young Kilala, who lives in a maybe orphan who lives in a fictional country wishing her parents would return from their extended trip and being the otherwise perfect Disney consumer the Mickey Mouse corporation no doubt wishes all little girls were.

Now, I know from my littlest sisters and nieces just how popular the Disney princesses are, even if, as a grown man who’s experienced them each individually, I never really “got” the idea of all the Princesses hanging out together (Perhaps it’s my superhero background, but I always imagined each Disney movie being set in it’s own dimension, one which could never crossover with the others).

Still, junior high student Kilala seems a little old for this princess worship, and calling the Disney logo “cute” and decorating one’s school uniform with it seems a little unrealistic, even if I’m willing to accept the weird alien-looking pet Kilala keeps and the whole, you know, magical princess thing.

K. finds a prince charming type and awakens him with a kiss, but soon finds that her best friend has been whisked away through a magic door, and she and her boy friend follow, landing in the world of…Disney’s Snow White. Visits to the other Disney princesses will presumably follow. Now that the awkward set up and required marketing is done with, I suspect the following issues will be more fun than this one, though it’s certainly a meta-pop culture thrill to see a manga heroine interacting with Snow White and the seven dwarves, drawn in that old, classic Disney style. As with Kingdom Hearts, I imagine repeating that trill will be enough to keep me coming back for each successive volume, no matter what faults I find with it.

RE:play Vol. 1

The name “Christy Lijewski” doesn’t sound all that Japanese, and RE:play reads left to right, which makes me believe this is one of those mangas that’s not really manga, but an original graphic novel told in the manga style and published as a digest.

I usually regard such books with suspicion, as they feel fundamentally dishonest to me—as if they’re tricks being played on the reader—but Lijewski dispelled my suspicions pretty quickly. In fact, by page 12, I was sold on this mysterious romance manga about a rock and roll band and their supernatural stalkers.

Lijewski is the creator of Slave Labor Graphics series Next Exit, which I read a few issues of based on the strength of the designs and art, but quickly lost interest in. But this is a big, fat 180-page story, making it quite easy to get quite wrapped up in rather quickly.

Our heroine is Cree, the 18-year-old lead singer of London rock band Faust. After her boyfriend/bassist bails on her, she finds the brilliant (and cute) homeless kid Iszak playing bass in the subway, and impulsively asks him to join the band and move in to her apartment as payment, neither of which sits well with her bandmate and brother-like friend Rail.

Rail doesn’t quite trust Iszak, and he has good reason not to. Izzy is severely amnesiac, sports some strange scars all over his back, and is being followed by two mysterious figures; one is a buxom black woman, the other is a creepy little white Goth kid who has some sort of weird shadow/claw powers like the succubus in the Darkstalkers videogame (which I wasted may a quarter on one summer).

Lijewski teases the mysteries out, and by the end of this volume it’s not clear exactly what’s up with Iszak and the villainous characters following him, only that something is up. Whatever it is, it causes a lot of problems for Cree, who rather quickly (yet convincingly) falls in love with Iszak.

There’s a level of artificiality to the world of RE: play, in the way that all of the characters have such strange stage names and costumes and in the behavior of the musicians, who scan more like a Josie and the Pussycats-style cartoon band than a real band, but when the artificiality is as stylized as it is here, and the emotions as genuine, that’s not exactly a bad thing.

Like Next Exit, Re:Play features wonderful designs (with the characters’ pop punk aesthetic giving Lijewski lots of latitude to design cool costumes and clothes to dress them in), this time in service of an intriguing story. I eagerly anticipate seeing where this is going.

Yakitate!! Japan Vol. 1 and 2

Teenage baker Kazuma Azuma has embarked on a seemingly impossible quest: To create a bread that the Japanese people will like more than they like rice, a bread so famous and distinctive that it will represent Japan to the world in the same way that French bread represents France.

He calls it “Ja-pan” (Pan being Japanese for bread), and he’s already on his fifty-fifth version of Ja-pan when we first meet him in Takashi Hashiguchi’s incredible new series.

Azuma is a sort of innocent, idiot savant, blessed with a good heart, the warm “Hands of the Sun” the greatest bakers possess and an intuitive baking genius, but he seems to have very little in the way of street smarts (He’s never heard of a “croissant,” for example, which leads to one of several silly sequences in which he panics over a misunderstanding).

He competes for a place on the staff of Pantasia, the greatest bakery in the country, and ends up at the company’s small branch location, working alongside a scheming rival (our entry point into the story), a cute young love interest who also happens to be the manager, an eccentric manager with a permed fro and a tendency for bad puns, and a personality-less background character who’s lack of defining traits are, is, in fact, his defining trait.

Comparisons to that other popular cooking manga, Iron Wok Jan, are probably inevitable, as Yakitate!! Japan (which translates into “Fresh-baked Japan”) similarly brings the tropes of action, fighting and comic manga and anime to the world of cooking, but Hashiguchi’s tale benefits from a tighter focus on bread-making and a more likable cast (If Jan is like the Vegeta of cooking, Kazuma is like a young, Dragon Ball-era Goku of baking).

The first volume introduces us to the main characters, and a few of Kazuma’s variations on Ja-pan, while the second volume introduces us to the Pantasia branch’s rival baker, and a mysterious masked baker who has a past with both the manager and the rival.

Infused with food science, baking trivia and even an occasional recipe, Yakitate!! Japan is an incredibly fun read, and I feel quite safe in declaring it by far the best bread-baking comic book you’ll read this year.

*I realize many of these have not, in fact, come out within the last month. They're all fairly recently released digests that I've read within the past two months, though some are even older than that. I was planning on posting this at the beginning of the month, but fell behind with all the various best-of lists that accompanied the changing of the years. In the future, I'll post new manga reviews once a month.