Thursday, August 07, 2008

Monthly(-ish) Manga Reviews

Bird Kiss Vols. 1-6

I’m probably much too old to get too wrapped up in the goings-on of this fairy tale-inspired manhwa rom-com and relate to the personal dilemmas of the teenaged characters, all of whom are still on the level of “like” rather than “love” or “lust” when it comes to describing romantic emotions. But I'm not too old to appreciate the sharp characters and their highly tangled web of relationships.

The fairy tale in question is apparently the frog prince, what with the repulsive but helpful frog who is wronged by the beautiful but mean princess, but ultimately hooks up with her when she discovers he's really a handsome prince. Not sure why this isn't called Frog Kiss then, but maybe that's explained in future volumes.

Eun Ah Park illustrates an abbreviated version of the frog prince story, and then jumps to the action at K-through-college school called Nachsung Academy.

There we meet junior high student Miyoul, a violent (and powerful) tomboy whose girliest feature is her crush on Guelin, the pride of their school and the president of The Slipper Club, a mysterious group to which only the tallest, handsomest boys seem to belong (And Park’s design makes everyone look really tall and elongated). Though Miyoul is in a sense our heroine, or at least the character we spend the most time with, she can be a real jerk and buffoon. She’s known as “The Devil Woman of Nachsung,” but dreams of ruling it maniacally as “The First Lady of Nachsung.”

Just as hard as Miyoul crushes on Guelin, short, bespectacled, bowl cut-encumbered Heerack crushes on her. As her life-long neighbor, Miyoul regards him as something between a brother and a slave, viciously mistreating him and taking advantage of his obvious—to everyone but her—affection for him.

Meanwhile, the most beautiful and popular girl in class, the Veronica-like queen bee mean girl Che Rosa, falls for Heerack when she discovers his glasses hide beautiful eyes (He gets a makeover and growth spurt at the end of volume one, and suddenly everyone wants Heerack, even Guelin; with the exception of Miyoul, who’s slow to realize he’s become a prince).

And then there's also a mysterious, intense boy who always seems to be asleep, who stares intently at Rosa and awakens conflicting feeling with her.

So basically, there's a handful of characters, all of whom have unrequited feelings for other characters, but none of them quite matching up correctly, giving park plenty of material to keep this love triangle…er, penta--…well, let’s just go with love polygon going for six volumes.

Things seem rather hastily resolved in the last volume, but Park leaves no loose ends, and provides character arcs for each and everyone of the characters. Each of them grows to be different, better people throughout the story.

Cat-Eyed Boy Vol. 2

This is the second and concluding volume of the Kazuo Umezu series about a demon who's just human-looking enough to be shunned by his fellow monsters, and just monstrous looking enough to be shunned by normal humans. As I mentioned in my review of the first volume at the top of last month, these are very finely designed and packaged bricks of manga that look great just sitting there on the end table or side by side on the bookshelf.

When we left our half-horror host, half-protagonist character, he was halfway through a pitched battle against the Band of 100 Monsters, a group of crazy-looking creatures whose diminutive, three-eyed leader Kodomo claims are all humans that are so deformed they seem to be monsters, but aren’t really (Which is a rather odd claim, given that many of them seem to have supernatural powers to go along with their looks).

The Band’s goal is to transform evil humans so that their appearances are as ugly as their hearts, and Cat-Eyed Boy finds himself defending a whole family of greedy jerks who probably deserve such torment, for the sake of the single kind-hearted boy in their clan.

The story gets weirder and weirder until it seems like Umezu is just completely improvising, but the Band certainly gives him a chance to flex his design skills.

That's followed by another big epic story involving the improbably-named Meatball Monster (Did they have meatballs in Japan? What about back in the Kansei Era?), a bizarre monster that haunts a particular family from generation to generation.*

Cat-Eyed Boy gets drawn into their curse when he's given a blood transfusion from blood one of them donated, including him in their apparently hereditary, blood-borne curse. Then he cures cancer with the help of the repulsive but more-or-less helpless monster that his magical bindle stick turns into.

The volume is rounded out with some shorter (and more clever) stories. In one he encounters a religious wooden idol with a thousand arms that comes to life to drink the blood of the faithful (one of Umezu's many super-creepy designs, it scurries about as a cloud of arms); in another he tries to protect a little boy form a snake-man; and in still another he tries to comfort a little boy who has lost his mother, to terrible results.

Among the most remarkable pieces are one that apparently takes place within the imagination of a sick little boy which I'm not entirely sure made complete sense (or at least I didn't understand the framing sequences), and one in which still another troubled little boy is gradually haunted by increasingly detailed, horrific visions of hell (which looks like a mash-up of the cartoon Catholic hell and Japanese afterlife; devils, pitchforks, fire, lava and ogres with clubs), and his having to haul his mother out of it. It's a brilliantly plotted little story, in which several moving peices all fall into place just so.

Red Colored Elegy
Drawn + Quarterly

Everyone knows you're not supposed to judge books by their covers, but it's perfectly acceptable to judge book covers on their own merits, and this one is just gorgeous. Author Seiichi Hayashi's simplified art is pulled from its context and transformed into bold, punchy graphics, colored in bright reds, light blue and light green, with silver text. The front and back covers, the inside front and inside back covers, are rock posters, album covers and concert t shirt designs as much as they are panels from the book. It's a hard graphic novel to ignore, and pass by unflipped-through when you see it on a shelf somewhere.

As with their other major manga offerings of late— collections of Yoshihiro Tatsumi output—D+Q aren't simply offering nicely packaged manga for grown-ups, but they're giving us some enormously challenging work. This is probably the most challenging comic I've read this year (excepting perhaps Lynda Barry's What It Is) and was, in fact, so challenging that I didn't even care for it for much of the time I was reading it.

But by the time I finished it, I did; and immediately reread it with the stronger sense of who was who, what was what and where the story was going. I have a feeling that Red Colored Elegy is one of those books that is frustrating precisely because it's so rewarding, and offers something new each time its reread.

Here's some background on the book from D+Q's site, which will likely be helpful going in, as much of the context isn't apparent from the story, which has a strange naturalistic approach interrupted by weird bits of silent close-ups of various people and objects and settings. To make a comparison to film, there's an element of cinema verite, an element of French New Wave, and an element of film school experimental short to it, which, obviously, isn't going to be everyone's cup of tea.

Ichiro and Sachiko are two young people dreaming of different lives than the ones they're living; lives that more than likely don't involve the other, but neither wants to really be apart from the other either. Most of their relationship seems to play out in and around their bed (well, futon) at the beginnings and endings of their respective days. It's pretty heart-breaking stuff, delivered in a pretty unusual style.

It’s probably also a good book to smack someone across the face with when they say they don’t like manga because it’s all the same.

*According to Every Day Is Like Wednesday’s Japanese language and culture consultant (i.e. The Only Japanese Person I know), Japan does indeed have a meatball called “Niku-dango,” so perhaps in the original The Meatball Monster was The Niku-Dango Monster.

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