Monday, June 02, 2008

Monthly manga reviews

Apollo's Song

Here's another 500-plus-page brick of Osamu Tezuka comics from Vertical, who have previously published the rather similarly formatted Ode To Kirihito and MW. It's one of Tezuka's lesser works, if one can put the words "Tezuka" and "lesser works" in the same sentence, given his lesser is greater than so many others' greatest.

The scope and scale of this story, like so many of Tezuka's, is so sweeping it seems as if literally anything can happen when you turn the pages. It begins with the act of human conception, with the sperm represented as millions of identical men in a frantic marathon to reach the single woman at the end, and then ends with a goddess (or perhaps the protagonist's mind's projection of a goddess) speaking to him of eternity, the repetition of a cycle we've seen several hundred pages of.

That protagonist is Shogo, a young man who was born to a whore, mistreated by her, and suffering from a deeply ingrained hatred of love; whenever he sees animals loving one another, he's overcome by an urge to destroy them, an urge he often gives in to. As a punishment, a goddess appears to him and tells him he is doomed to fall in love over and over again, and just when that love blossoms, the woman will be taken from him violently.

Although maybe he's not really seeing a real goddess, maybe that's all the manipulation of a doctor treating him, trying to cure him of his violent hatred of love before he's too far gone. Whichever is the case, we see Shogo's tale unfold in the real world, with several diversions into more standalone tragic love stories, which may only be occurring in his head. In one, he's a Nazi soldier guarding a train full of Jewish people on their way to the camps; one of whom he falls in love with. In another, he's a pilot for a female photographer, and they find themselves marooned on an island populated by wild animals that behave quite strangely. In another, he's a human terrorist in a future world where synthetic humans rule. In the real world, meanwhile, he escapes from his asylum and then starts training to be a marathon runner under the tutelage of a kind, beautiful woman.

Each of the other lives works as a pretty powerful story all on their own, although in most cases they are so over-the-top as to be cartoony. Of course, considering how cartoony Tezuka's art is, and his Disney-influenced aesthetic, that isn't really to be unexpected. The futurescape in which Shogo must teach the synthetic woman to love has a lot of the goofiness of the futures seen in Astro Boy or Phoenix, but the emotions are real and raw.

Perhaps ironically, the most unrealistic passage is the one that is supposed to be the most real; it's likely a product of Tezuka's culture at the time more than anything else, but the depiction of mental health problems and their treatments ring false, surprisingly so given Tezuka's skill at writing medical thrillers (Japan isn't as open and accepting of mental health issues as American culture is today; I imagine things were even worse on that front back in the day).

It's still essential reading, however, and Vertical and created another nicely designed package that is an appealing art object in and of itself. I'd recommend reading outside on a sunny day where birds are signing, as the subject matter makes it quite a downer.

There's a ten-page preview featuring the futuristic section here.

Gun Blaze West Vol. 1

Rurouni Kenshin creator Nobuhiro Watsuki follows his popular samurai epic with another period piece, this one set on our own continent, during the late 19th century. It's always interesting to see European and (especially) Asian takes on the western genre, since its such a thoroughly American genre that watching others interpret our own national creation myths is often just as compelling and informative as watching our own modern deconstructions of it.

And for some reason the phrase "cowboy manga" just makes me smile.

Set in 1875 in Winston Town, Illinois, Gun Blaze West Vol. 1 introduces us to precocious little gunslinger wannabe Viu Bannes (a good, strong, American name, Viu Bannes). Viu's only nine-years-old and lives alone with his school marm sis Cissy, after their sheriff parents were killed. He's a pretty standard boy's manga hero—more heart than head, huge appetite, etc.—and gets his first real taste of his fantasy life when he meets Marcus the Underdog, a lazy-eyed Wild West washout Viu apprehends.

The pair become fast friends, and begin training together to reach the mythic land of Gun Blaze West, a place that's west of the west, where only the greatest gunslingers can go. Before they get there, they'll need to survive an attack on their town by the vicious Kenbrown Gang.

The story is so much fun that I was quite disappointed when it flashed forward five years, when the now young man Viu sets out to find Gun Blaze West, guided only by a mysterious map. He gets as far as St. Louis in this issue. What he finds there is pretty cool, including a hotheaded, gunfighter with the ridiculous name of "Target: Kevin" and a steely, stoic lariat master, but as cool as the action is, I preferred Viu's earlier iteration as Goku-as-Huck-Finn than the more familiar young-man-on-a-quest angle, which it will presumably remain in future volumes.

Little Viu is totally hardcore. There's one scene where he flying kicks a guy and catches a charging horse's hoof to the dome, and doesn't even lose consciousness, and there's a great two-page training montage showing Marcus and Viu’s long-distance running training, which includes running on their hands, eating doughnuts and coffee while running (and then throwing them up) and not stopping for anything—not even to pee or poop (shown in silhouette, thankfully).

For a more thorough review, I’d highly recommend Matt Brady, which includes a scan of that awesome hoof-to-face scene.

Mär Vol. 1

The morning after reading the first volume of Mär, I came to a realization: It seems to me that I find a lot more manga series that are pretty decent (as opposed to mediocre or just plain awfu) than Western comics. It’s not that I’ve never read a bad manga; there are certain series I’ve tried the first volume of and found them to be pretty bad comics (as opposed to ones that just aren’t for me because I’m not, say, and eight-year-old or whatever), but the overwhelming majority of the manga I try tends to be extremely decent. Like, maybe it’s not a great comic, maybe it’s not something I’d buy every new volume of as it comes out, but certainly I would be able to continue reading it indefinitely and find myself perfectly entertained.

I’m not sure why this is. I don’t know if that, in general, the manga studio system tends to produce better art and clearly storytelling than a lot of American comics (and I don’t mean the best American comics vs. manga in general; I mean mediocre American comics vs. mediocre manga, or awful American comics vs. the worst manga). (And I should probably point out that by “manga” here I mean comics produced in Japan and republished here; not OEL “manga,” because the more-of-this-stuff-seems-to-be-decent-than-I’d-expect-from-Western-comics phenomenon doesn’t carry through to a lot of that stuff).

Or is it that it is produced for a bigger mass audience than a lot of American comics, and is thus more likely to appeal to me, because it was designed to appeal to as many people as possible?

Or is simply a byproduct of the vetting process that naturally occurs when publishers like Viz import series previously published and popular in Japan? Because one has to assume they’re picking up only the most popular and successful properties to try selling to U.S. customers; in a sense, most of the manga we’re seeing in the U.S. today has already been as thoroughly focus-grouped as possible.

This is a long (probably too long), roundabout way of saying that I enjoyed the first volume of Mär, despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing special about it, in terms of characters, character designs, conceit or execution. It’s just a run-of-the-mill manga series that is a lot of fun and I wouldn’t mind reading future volumes of one bit, though it’s not the sort of series I’d buy the newest installment of on a Wednesday at the shop or try pushing on other readers.

I honestly have no idea what the title means, or if that’s even the title; Viz’ website sometimes refers to it as MAR and I’ve seen it spelled M.A.R. elsewhere. It apparently stands for “Märchen Awakens Romance,” with “märchen” being German for “fairy tale.” However, there are these magical weapon things referred to as ärms that figure rather prominently in the story, so I wonder if this all makes more sense in Japanese…?

Our protagonist is Ginta Toramizu, a weak little 14-year-old with terrible eyesight, no athletic ability and the bad habit of falling asleep in class, only to act out and/or announce his dreams, all of which revolve around the same fantasy world.

Only his super-cute friend Koyuki seems at all interested in Ginta and his dreams, and she defends him from bullies, although these bullies all seem more like they’re just kidding around at Ginta’s expense than being terribly mean-spirited.

When Ginta finally gets sucked into the world he was dreaming of, he finds he suddenly has great strength, endurance and eyesight, and he’s so excited to be there that he’s like a kid in a candy store, rushing around screaming about how cool everything is.

In this world, there are these little magic rings and objects called ärms that can transform into either monsters which do battle for their owners or weapons of some kind.

A cute witch named Dorothy enlists the now super-strong Ginta to help her find a very rare ärm named “Babbo” that is a living arm, the weighted ball on the end of a chain connected to a warhammer. Only Ginta’s strong enough to use it, so she lets him keep it. Also, the weapon’s kind of annoying, as it has a very strong personality.

I really liked the design of Babbo, who has a long nose and expressive thick black metal facial hair surrounding big eyes and a long thin nose. Babbo prides himself on being a heroic gentleman, and looks and acts something like a foolish Three Musketeers parody. Only he’s a metal ball chained to a magic hammer.

Babbo and Ginta kind of quest aimlessly throughout this first volume, with their first major conflict involving saving a vegetable patch from a pair of vegetarian werewolves. (There’s a great line where one of them says, “Guess there’s nothing we can do except…settle it werewolf-style!!” I would assume everything werewolves do is done werewolf-style).

By volume’s end, they pick up a traveling companion, and a magician by the name of Peta (who works with vegetarian werewolves; is that a coincidence?) rallies bandits from all over to hunt down our heroes.

I’m coming to this series very, very, very late, as this volume was published in 2005, and from what I can tell, it ended last year with the fifteenth volume. Based on this first volume, I’m definitely interested in reading the second, even if it’s not on the top half of my to-read list.

Speed Racer: Mach Go Go Go Vol. 1
Digital Manga Publishing

I was honestly shocked with how much I enjoyed this, the first half of DMP’s beautifully designed and packaged reprinting of Speed creator Tatsuo Yoshida’s original manga.

I enjoyed the original cartoons when they were showing them on late night MTV in the ‘90s, and I enjoyed the summer live action movie about 1000% more than most other film critics, but my relationship with the franchise has been more or less arms-length. I couldn’t possibly defend that original Speed Racer cartoon as being any good at all, and there’s not much to the characters to recommend them as unique or inspired either; it was just like playing with toy cars as a little kid, only instead of making up the voices of the drivers in your own little kid-head, stiff, fast-talking voice over actors handled that. And occasionally a child with a piercing voice and a chimpanzee that I thought might have just been that kid’s hallucination would be involved. Hallucinatory chimpanzees dressed like toddlers was never a part of my childhood car-playing-with.

So Yoshida’s original comics? Great stuff. Many of the plots were ones I was familiar with from the cartoons (I guess even back in the 1960s anime adaptations of manga tended to follow them pretty exactly?), but the pacing of the manga was infinitely more engaging than that of the anime (something not necessarily unique to this property of course; those interminable episodes of Dragon Ball Z that seem to be 80% powering up and reacting to others powering up, for example, are actually really fun to read in comics form).

The art is somewhat scratchy and more roughly delineated and, for lack of a better word, more primitive than most of manga you see on the shelves these days. The visual language and shortcuts and cues that are secondhand in modern manga are largely absent here, making this read a bit more like a Western comic than, say, one of Tezuka’s works. There are also a lot more panels per page, which likely contributes to the more Western aesthetic.

Another surprise, however, was how similar this feels to a lot of today’s competition manga. Whether its fighting, card game-playing, magic, cooking, hair-styling, or bread-baking, the character types and story structures are often the same, and this definitely seems to be in that ball park.

There are four stories in this volume, adding up to almost 300 pages of racecar driving and fistfights. There’s the story of Pops’ secret engine design and some evil businessmen’s attempts to steal them, using bikers; there’s the story of the Alpine Race in which Speed teams up with Racer X and we meet The Car Acrobatic Team (I love that phrase) and their mad, cape-wearing, speech-making evil leader; there’s a story involving a killer remote control car; and then there’s the most insane story of the volume, which involves a race through the base of a volcano, a demonic hero racer that protects a lost civilization from exploitation, and some kind of giant prehistoric walrus monster.

Although I borrowed this from the library, it’s a book that’s so well designed I’d kinda like to get one for my bookshelf at some point; it just an all-around great looking package. It’s about nine inches-by-six inches, and about two-inches thick, making for a big, fat square. The spine and covers are all bright primary colors, with a black and white close-up of an anxious looking Speed running off the cover, and red-and-yellow racing checkers on the flaps.

After watching the new film, I found myself wanting to experience more Speed Racer and, naturally, turned to the comics. The first series I tried was frankly awful bordering on incompetent (Speed Racer: Chronicles of The Racer), but this sure hit the spot. I’ve still got the second volume, and the Speed Racer and Racer X: The Origins trade by Tommy Yune and Jo Chen to get to.


Hdefined said...

I liked Apollo's Song a lot more than MW. I was a bit cold on it throughout, wondering when the point was going to present itself . . . and then it hit like a bullet to the head in the final few pages, and I fell in love with it.

"It seems to me that I find a lot more manga series that are pretty decent (as opposed to mediocre or just plain awfu) than Western comics."

I totally agree with this.

Anonymous said...

Marchen is the name of the world, I believe. It also ended two years ago, since the ad blurb in the first issue of Mixim-12 is "Two years after MAR ended, Blahblahblah's New Series!"

Fair warning, it turns into a fairly typical tournament manga later on, although a bit less idealistic than say, Naruto, and the writer is actually capable of writing a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Also, there's a villain henchman later on with flashbacks that are utterly confusing until you realize he's a guy that "died" by getting sucked into a magical black hole in Flame of Recca.

The DBZ thing is mostly because a manga artist will draw a few panels of reaction shots that you skim in about two seconds, but the animators feel compelled to animate as a full scene.

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed Apollo's Song. Not as incredible as Ode to Kirihito, but it's good. I haven't read MW yet.

Wildstorm published a book of original Speed Racer manga a few years ago, and I hated it. Can't recall why, but I've no interest in revisiting it.

malpractice said...

Suprised to see the hate for Chronicles Of The Racer. The writer Arie Kaplan was on CGS and Indie Spinner Rack a few months back talking about it and it sounded very intresting. What was so bad about it ? I am just curious because up until this point, i was really intrested in reading it.

Caleb said...

Suprised to see the hate for Chronicles Of The Racer. The writer Arie Kaplan was on CGS and Indie Spinner Rack a few months back talking about it and it sounded very intresting. What was so bad about it ? I am just curious because up until this point, i was really intrested in reading it.

I was going to give it a formal review--I was thinking of reviewing all the Speed Racer comics I could get my hands on--but decided against it because I didn't want to bash a little book like that.

Which I guess I did anyway in the manga review, only in a more off-handed way without justifying what I said.

So here goes...

It does sound good in synopsis--or at least like crazy fun--and I did enjoy bits and pieces of it. In various time periods, there are versions of the Speed characters, appropriate to that time period. In each one the Spritle character has an animal friend, for example, and some of these analogues are pretty funny.

They don't work perfectly though, and the characterization on Speed and Racer X in the present seemed off. Which I realize is weird to say given that they don't really have characters usually; they're personality-free. But the writer tried to give them personalities, and I don't think it worked well.

The main problem was the art, though. The covers are okay, but the interior art just isn't very good at all. The designs, the story-telling, the rendering, none of it struck me as of a level of quality I'd want to spend the length of a graphic novel with.

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