The Manga Revue: Rose Guns Days Season One

In principal, a video game or visual novel ought to be a solid foundation on which to build a manga: the designers have already done the hard work of creating characters, endowing them with powers (or weapons), and setting them loose in a richly detailed environment. In practice, however, many game-franchises-cum-manga are a dreary affair, with thin plots and two-dimensional characters. I’ve largely sworn off the genre, but when my Manga Bookshelf colleague Sean Gaffney sang the praises of Rose Guns Days Season One, I thought I’d take it for a test drive.

Ryukishi07_RoseGunDays_1Rose Guns Days Season One, Vol. 1
Story by Ryukishi07, Art by Soichiro
Rated OT, for older teens
Yen Press, $13.00

Rose Guns Days has an intriguing premise: what if Japan had surrendered to the Allied Forces in 1944 instead of fighting until the bitter end? In Ryukishi07’s scenario, American and Chinese troops occupy Japan, carving out distinct spheres of influence while rebuilding the country in their respective images. Japanese citizens, meanwhile, are struggling to get by: work and food are scarce, creating an environment in which smuggling and prostitution flourishes.

Sounds interesting, no? If only the story was as compelling as the universe in which it unfolds! A close examination of Leo Shisigami, the principal character, offers insight into why Rose Guns Days reads like a pale imitation of better series. Shisigami’s got the skinny suit, tousled hair, and dangling cigarette made famous by Cowboy Bebop‘s Spike Spiegel, but their resemblance is pure surface; Leo is a cheerful blank whose only quirk–if it can be called that–is a fondness for pasta. After a meet-cute that’s shown not once but twice, Leo becomes a bodyguard for Rose Haibana, a pretty madam whose establishment caters to foreigners. The next 100 pages are a riot of kidnappings, fisticuffs, and golden-hearted hookers–no cliche goes unturned.

The artwork is similarly pedestrian. Though the supporting characters are rendered with loving attention to costumes, facial features, and body types, Rose looks like something pilfered from a twelve-year-old’s Deviant Art account: she barely has a nose or mouth, and her face is framed by two immobile locks of hair. The backgrounds, too, run the gamut from meticulously rendered to barely-there. Only a few panels capture the disruption and poverty caused by the occupying forces; most scenes appear to be taking place in a no man’s land of Photoshop fills and traced elements. What’s most disappointing, however, is that the artwork does nothing to bring depth or nuance to the original visual novel concept. Each scene feels like a collection of artful poses, rather than a dynamic presentation of a story with fistfights and car chases. With so little effort to adapt the material for a different medium, it begs the question, Why bother?

The verdict: Unless you’re a devotee of the visual novel series on which Rose Guns Days is based, skip it.

Reviews: Seth Hahne posts an in-depth assessment of Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit, while Erica Friedman reviews the Japanese edition of Rose of Versailles. Over at Snap30, Frank Inglese test drives the new Weekly Shonen Jump series Samon the Summoner, which debuted on September 21st.

Mark Pelligrini on vol. 1 of AKIRA (AiPT!)
Tyler Sewell on Bat-Manga! The Secret History of Batman in Japan (AiPT!)
Michael Burns on vol. 1 of Black Bullet (AniTAY)
Connie on vol. 31 of Blade of the Immortal (Slightly Biased Manga)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Chiro: The Star Project (Anime News Network)
Lori Henderson on vol. 1 of The Complete Chi’s Sweet Home (Good Comics for Kids)
ebooksgirl on Cromartie High School (Geek Lit Etc.)
Vernieda Vergara on Gangsta (Women Write About Comics)
Patrick Moore on Fragments of Horror (Bento Byte)
Erica Friedman on vol. 2 of Iono The Fanatics, Special Edition (Okazu)
Helen on King’s Game: Origin (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Jennifer Wharton on vol. 1 of Kiss of the Rose Princess (No Flying No Tights)
Kristin on vol. 1 of Komomo Confiserie (Comic Attack)
Megan R. on La Esperanca (The Manga Test Drive)
Thomas Maluck on The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (No Flying No Tights)
Nic Wilcox on vol. 1 of Log Horizon (No Flying No Tights)
Amy McNulty on vol. 71 of Naruto (Anime News Network)
Sean Gaffney on vols. 1-2 of One-Punch Man (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Connie on vol. 5 of Phantom Thief Jeanne (Slightly Biased Manga)
Ian Wolf on vol. 2 of Requiem for the Rose King (Anime UK News)
Jordan Richards on vol. 1 of Rose Guns Days Season One (AiPT!)
Karen Maeda on vol. 1 of Ultraman (Sequential Tart)
Austin Lanari on issue #43 of Weekly Shonen Jump (Comic Bastards)
Adam Capps on vol. 6 of Witchcraft Works (Bento Byte)
Connie on vol. 4 of X: 3-in-1 Edition (Slightly Biased Manga)
Lori Henderson on vol. 1 of Yu-Gi-Oh: 3-in-1 Edition (Good Comics for Kids)

The Manga Revue: Komomo Confiserie

Apologies for missing last week’s deadline – the first week of the semester is always chaotic, and manga reviewing took a back seat to lesson prep. Now that school is underway again, however, the Manga Revue will run weekly on Fridays, as it did this summer.

komomo_confiserieKomomo Confiserie, Vol. 1
By Maki Minami
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Manga, $6.99 (digital)

Flip through The Big Book of Shojo Plotlines, and there – between “I’m Having an Affair with My Homeroom Teacher” and “I’m a Spazz Who’s Inexplicably Irresistible” – you’ll find another time-honored trope: “I Was Mean to My Childhood Friend, and Now He’s Hot!” Komomo Confiserie embodies this plot to a tee: its wealthy heroine, Komomo, was spoiled rotten as a child, with an army of servants at her disposal. It was her special delight to order fellow six-year-old Natsu to make her sweets–he was the pastry’s chef son, after all–and terrorize him when he didn’t comply. When Komomo turns fifteen, however, her family loses everything, forcing her to get a job and attend public school. Natsu–now a successful baker in his own right–makes a seemingly chivalrous offer of employment to Komomo, who’s too guileless to realize that she’s walking into a trap.

You can guess the rest: Natsu revels in his new-found position of power, directing Komomo to perform menial tasks and scolding her for lacking the common sense to sweep floors or boil water. The fact that he’s cute only adds salt to the wound; Komomo vacillates between plotting her escape and speculating that Natsu bullies her out of love.

Whatever pleasure might come from witnessing Komomo’s comeuppance is undermined by the author’s frequent capitulations to shojo formula. Though Natsu frequently declares that bullying Komomo is his privilege – and his alone – he routinely helps her out of jams, bakes her sweets, and behaves a lot like someone who’s harboring a crush on her. Komomo, for her part, behaves like such a twit that it’s hard to root for her; even when she has an epiphany about friendship or hard work, her insights are as shallow as the proverbial cake pan.

The series’ redeeming strength is the artwork. Though Maki Minami frequently resorts to pre-fab backgrounds and Photoshopped elements, she does a fine job of representing the emotional rush that a sugary treat can elicit in even the most jaded adult. Komomo’s food reveries are a swirl of flowers, tears, and lacy doilies that neatly suggest the mixture of joy and sadness she experiences whenever a macaroon or a petit-four stirs up childhood memories. Too bad the rest of the story isn’t as sharply observed.

The verdict: Saccharine plotting and unsympathetic leads spoil this confection.

Reviews: Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith post a fresh crop of Bookshelf Briefs, while Claire Napier kicks the tires on Ichigo Takano’s ReCollection and Kate O’Neil reminds us why a new installment of Kaze Hikaru is worth the wait. At Contemporary Japanese Literature, Kathryn Hermann posts a glowing review of Yurei: The Japanese Ghost, a collection of essays by manga scholar and translator Zack Davisson.

Erica Friedman on 2DK, G Pen, Mezamashidokei (Okazu)
Matthew Warner on vol. 5 of Ajin: Demi-Human (The Fandom Post)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Alice in Murderland (Anime News Network)
Jordan Richards on vol. 1 of Attack on Titan: Colossal Edition (AiPT!)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 16 of Dorohedoro (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Jordan Richards on vol. 1 of Inuyashiki (AiPT!)
Justin Stroman on vol. 1 of Inuyashiki (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Megan R. on Here Is Greenwood (The Manga Test Drive)
Saeyoung Kim on K-On! High School (No Flying No Tights)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 2 of Love Stage!! (Sequential Tart)
Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 3 of Love Stage!! (Comics Worth Reading)
Anna N. on vols. 1-2 of Maid-sama! (The Manga Report)
Ash Brown on Maria the Virgin Witch: Exhibition (Experiments in Manga)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 4 of Master Keaton (Watch Play Read)
Matthew Warner on vol. 3 of My Neighbor Seki (The Fandom Post)
Ash Brown on vol. 5 of Mushishi (Experiments in Manga)
Al Sparrow on vol. 1 of Nurse Hitomi’s Monster Infirmary (ComicSpectrum)
Joseph Luster on One-Punch Man (Otaku USA)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 4 of Pokemon X.Y. (Sequential Tart)
Sean Gaffney on vols. 19-20 of Ranma 1/2 (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Matt on vol. 1 of Rose Guns Days: Season One (AniTAY)
Vernieda Vergara on The Science of Attack on Titan (Women Write About Comics)
Ken H. on vol. 2 of A Silent Voice (Sequential Ink)
Matt on vol. 3 of Sword Art Online Progressive (AniTAY)
Frank Inglese on vol. 7 of Terraformars (Snap30)
David Brooke on vol. 1 of Vinland Saga (AiPT!)
Frank Inglese on vol. 6 of World Trigger (Snap30)

The Manga Revue: Inuyashiki, Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service and Tokyo Ghoul

I’m fresh out of snappy intros, so I’ll cut to the chase: this week’s column looks at Inuyashiki, The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Omnibus Edition, and Tokyo Ghoul.

inuyashikiInuyashiki, Vol. 1
By Hiroya Oku
Rated OT, for older teens (16+)
Kodansha Comics, $12.99

Bette Davis famously declared that “Old age is no place for sissies,” a statement borne out by the first chapters of Hiroya Oku’s grimly compelling Inuyashiki. Its hero, a 58-year-old salaryman, is a picture of despair: his family loathes him, his co-workers ignore him, and his health is failing. In a blinding flash of light, however, his life changes. He wakes up to discover that his memories are intact but his body has changed; his once-frail limbs and failing eyes are now military-grade weapons, capable of withstanding lethal force. What to do with this gift? That question animates the final pages of volume one, as Ichiro tests his new body’s limits for the first time.

This final scene is a neat illustration of what’s good — and not so good — about Inuyashiki. Oku stages a suspenseful confrontation between Ichiro and a gang of teenage thugs; though we sense that Ichiro will prevail, how he gains the upper hand is a nifty surprise made more effective by Oku’s meticulously detailed illustrations. The incident that precipitates the showdown, however, is saddled with a heavy-handed script; Oku stokes the reader’s sense of righteous indignation by revealing that the thugs’ intended victim is a good but vulnerable man. By overemphasizing the victim’s inherent decency, Oku reduces him to a saintly caricature, a problem that also mars Ichiro’s early interactions with his family. (His kids are such ungrateful jerks you may root for Ichiro to use his powers on them.)

Even if Ichiro’s catharsis is less earned than contrived, watching him transform from terminal sad-sack to indestructible bad-ass is a deeply satisfying experience. He’s found his purpose and his spine, even if it’s taken him 58 years to do so. Now that’s a fantasy that any middle-aged reader can get behind.

The verdict: Pour yourself a scotch before reading; you’ll need the emotional fortification to navigate the early chapters.

kurosagi_omnibus1The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Omnibus Edition, Book One
By Eiji Ōtsuka and Housui Yamazaki
Rated OT, for older teens (16+)
Dark Horse, $19.99

Scooby Doo for grown-ups — that’s how I’d describe The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service, a macabre comedy about five cash-strapped college students who drive around in a van solving supernatural mysteries. The Kurosagi gang’s bread-and-butter are mysterious (and often violent) deaths. Through dowsing and channeling, they discover how and why their “clients” died, enabling the victims’ spirits to cross over to the other side.

The new omnibus edition — which collects the first three volumes of KCDS —  includes two of the series’ best stories: “Lonely People,” in which the gang stumbles across a portable altar with a mummy inside, and “Crossing Over,” in which the gang searches for the victim of an organ harvesting ring. Though the denouement of both “deliveries” include a few gruesome panels, the deadpan dialogue, expressive character designs, and snappy pacing prevent KCDS from sinking to the level of torture porn; the horrific imagery functions as a rim shot or an exclamation mark, not the main attraction. The self-contained nature of the stories is another plus: you can begin your KCDS odyssey almost anywhere in the series and still grasp what’s happening, though the crew’s origin story (“Less Than Happy,” the very first chapter) offers an interesting window into Buddhist university culture in Japan.

The verdict: If you haven’t tagged along on one of the Kurosagi crew’s “deliveries,” the omnibus edition gives you an economical way to do so.

Review copy provided by Dark Horse.

tokyo_ghoul2Tokyo Ghoul, Vol. 2
By Sui Ishida
Rated OT, for older teens (16+)
VIZ Media, $12.99

The first volume of Tokyo Ghoul reads like an urban legend: Ken Kaneki, earnest college student, goes out for dinner with a pretty girl, but wakes up in the hospital with a brand-new set of organs… that used to belong to his date. Within a few days of his release, Kaneki begins turning into a flesh-eating monster, a side effect of the transplant surgery. Volume two picks up where volume one left off: now caught between the human and demon worlds, Kaneki casts his lot with the demons of cafe Anteiku. They teach him tricks for passing as a human, and warn him about the deep divide between the ghouls who embrace their predator status and those who feel some kinship with humanity.

Although volume two introduces several new and potentially interesting characters, Kaneki’s wet-blanket personality continues to put a damper on the story: he whines and frets and refuses to do anything that might compromise the reader’s good opinion of him. As anyone who’s read Death Note knows, however, a charismatic, intelligent protagonist doesn’t have to be good or right to command the audience’s sympathy. Someone who’s flawed, misguided, or tempted to abuse a new-found power might actually invite more self-identification than a goody two-shoes lead.

The verdict: Tokyo Ghoul isn’t bad, just a little too obvious to sustain my interest.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media.

Reviews: Joe McCulloch looks at the new English-language version of Comics Zenon, Michelle Smith and Anna N. post a fresh set of Bookshelf Briefs, and Vernieda Vergara asks if Bleach has overstayed its welcome.

Connie on vol. 19 of Bakuman (Slightly Biased Manga)
Julie on The Desert Lord’s Bride (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Ash Brown on Dr. Makumakuran and Other Stories (Experiments in Manga)
Connie on vol. 3 of Earthian (Slightly Biased Manga)
Kory Cerjak on vol. 47 of Fairy Tail (The Fandom Post)
James Ristig on Full Metal Alchemist (How to Love Comics)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 1 of Hayate Cross Blade (The Fandom Post)
Connie on vol. 11 of Kamisama Kiss (Slightly Biased Manga)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 23 of Kaze Hikaru (Anime News Network)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of Komomo Confisere (WatchPlayRead)
Jordan Richards on vol. 1 of Komomo Confiserie (AiPT!)
Connie on vol. 14 of The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service (Slightly Biased Manga)
Angel Cruz on vols. 1-2 of Love at Fourteen (Women Write About Comics)
Lori Henderson on vols. 1-3 of Neon Genesis Evangelion (Manga Xanadu)
Ken H. on vol. 1 of Ninja Slayer Kills! (Sequential Ink)
Matthew Warner on vol. 10 of Nisekoi: False Love (The Fandom Post)
Connie on vol. 4 of No. 6 (Slightly Biased Manga)
Jocelyn Allen on Nobara (Brain vs. Book)
David Brooke on vol. 1 of Noragami: Stray God (AiPT!)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of One-Punch Man (WatchPlayRead)
Kristin on vols. 1-2 of One-Punch Man (Comic Attack)
Jordan Richards on vol. 2 of One-Punch Man (AiPT!)
Matthew Warner on vol. 18 of Rin-ne (The Fandom Post)
Sarah on vol. 1 of The Royal Tutor (Anime UK News)
Al Sparrow on vol. 1 of So I Can’t Play H (Comic Spectrum)
Helen on Sweetness and Lightning (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Dustin Cabeal on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Comic Bastards)
Matthew Warner on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (The Fandom Post)
Connie on vol. 6 of Toradora! (Slightly Biased Manga)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 29 of Toriko (Sequential Tart)
Adam Capps on vol. 1 of Ultraman (BentoByte)
Michael Burns on vol. 3 of Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches (AniTAY)

The Manga Revue: Ultraman

Ultraman made his television debut in 1966, defending Earth from the dual scourge of aliens and giant monsters. What began as a 39-episode series soon blossomed into one of Japan’s most prolific franchises, yielding dozens of sequels, spin-offs, movies, video games–and now a manga, which has been running in Monthly Hero’s magazine since 2011. Today’s column looks at this incarnation of the Ultraman story, which arrived in stores on Tuesday.

For extra insight into Ultraman‘s history, I encourage you to check out Brigid Alverson’s interview with Tomohiro Shimoguchi and Eiichi Shimizu, the creators of the latest Ultraman manga.

Ultraman_2011Ultraman, Vol. 1
By Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $8.99 (digital edition)

Dusting off a beloved franchise and making it appeal to a new generation is a hazardous undertaking: stray too far from the source material and incur the wrath of purists, but hew too closely to the original and risk camp. Manga-ka Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi have found an elegant strategy for introducing Ultraman to contemporary readers, using the original premise of the 1966 TV show as a starting point for a new chapter in the story.

The prelude to volume one neatly outlines Ultraman’s origins. Shin Hayata, member of the Science Special Search Party (a.k.a. the Science Patrol), unwittingly becomes the host for Ultraman, a powerful alien tasked with ridding Earth of dangerous monsters. Only a few members of the Science Patrol know Ultraman’s true identity–a secret they keep from Hayata, who is unaware that he is the vessel for Ultraman’s powers. The story then leaps forward thirty years: Ultraman has returned to his own world, Hayata has retired from the Science Patrol, and his son Shinjiro is beginning to manifest powers of his own.

In contrast to the introduction, which is a model of economy, the first chapter sags under the weight of too much expository dialogue. The characters relate their histories and concerns in such bald declarations that the entire chapter reads like a rejected Mystery Science Theater 3000 script.  (A sample exchange: “We certainly don’t see much of each other these days.” “Right, even though I work at the Ministry of Defense, too.”) The pace improves with the sudden appearance of Be Mular–one of Ultraman’s old adversaries–who lures the inexperienced Shinjiro into a rooftop battle. Although the script has a familiar rhythm–powerful attacks punctuated by snappy one-liners–the fight choreography is well executed; you can almost feel the force of Shinjiro’s punches. Equally important, the fight’s outcome is not a foregone conclusion: the chapter ends on a cliffhanger just as Shinjiro realizes that he isn’t strong enough to protect his family from Be Mular… yet.

If the 2.0 version of Ultraman sounds like a radical departure from the original series, rest assured that Shimizu and Shimoguchi haven’t strayed too far from the show’s roots. The proof lies in the character designs: they’ve done a nice job of bringing Ultraman and Be Mular’s appearance in line with contemporary seinen aesthetics while preserving the look and feel of the original characters. Ultraman and Be Mular don’t exactly resemble their rubber-suited predecessors, but a long-time fan will recognize them as spiritual descendants–a fair compromise for a series that’s toeing the line between 1960s kitsch and 2010s pop culture.

The verdict: The first chapter is a tough slog, but the combat is staged with enough panache that I’ll be checking out volume two.

Review copy provided by VIZ Media.

Reviews: Here at Manga Bookshelf, Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith tackle the latest volumes of Black Rose Alice, Citrus, Evergreen, and Food Wars! Further afield, Megan R. takes a nostalgic look at Kare Kano: His and Her Circumstances; Aimee A. deconstructs shojo stereotypes in Skip Beat!!; Seth Hahne praises Ajin: Demi-Human for its “fantastic cat-and-mouse” plotting; and Erica Friedman reviews Manga de Tsuzuru Yurina Hibi, a “non-fiction comic essay” about the relationship between a businesswoman and her girlfriend.

Alice Vernon on Akame ga Kill! (Girls Like Comics)
Wolfen Moondaugter on vol. 22 of Arata: The Legend (Sequential Tart)
Austin Lanari on The Art of Satoshi Kon (Comic Bastards)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 5 of Assassination Classroom (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Nick Smith on Awkward (ICv2)
Emma Weiler on vols. 1-5 of Crimson Spell (No Flying No Tights)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 10 of Deadman Wonderland (WatchPlayRead)
Lori Henderson on vol. 1 of The Demon Prince of Momochi House (Manga Xanadu)
Frank Inglese on vols. 5-6 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Snap30)
Sheena McNeill on vol. 7 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (Sequential Tart)
Johanna Draper Carlson on vol. 10 of Happy Marriage?! (Comics Worth Reading)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto (Anime News Network)
Erica Friedman on vol. 2 of Hayate x Blade (Okazu)
Allen Kesinger on vols. 4-5 of High School DxD (No Flying No Tights)
Matthew Alexander on vol. 6 of Judge (The Fandom Post)
Sarah on vol. 2 of Karneval (Anime UK News)
Anna N. on vol. 5 of Kiss of the Rose Princess (The Manga Report)
Austin Lanari on The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Omnibus Edition: Book One (Comic Bastards)
Ian Wolf on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Anime UK News)
Kristin on Manga Classics: Emma (Comic Attack)
Ken H. on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (Sequential Ink)
Ash Brown on The Science of Attack on Titan (Experiments in Manga)
Frank Inglese on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Snap30)
Michael Burns on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Ani-TAY)
Michael Burns on vol. 2 of Tokyo Ghoul (Ani-TAY)
Julie on vol. 2 of Tokyo Ghoul (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of Ultraman (WatchPlayRead)
Elizabeth Lotto on vol. 1 of Ultraman (The Outer Haven)
Nick Lyons on vol. 1 of Ultraman (DVD Corner)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 9 of What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Anime News Network)
Wolfen Moondaugter on vol. 2 of The World’s Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera (Sequential Tart)

The Manga Revue: A Brief History of Manga

I’m taking a break from shojo romances and shoot ’em ups this week and reviewing Helen McCarthy’s A Brief History of Manga, a slim introduction to the medium’s history, stars, and influential series.

9781781570982A Brief History of Manga
By Helen McCarthy
Ilex Press, $12.95

A Brief History of Manga is an odd duck: it’s too short and impressionistic to be a reference work, but too focused on historically significant titles to appeal to a casual Attack on Titan fan. That’s a pity, because Helen McCarthy’s generously illustrated book provides an accessible introduction to manga, from its prehistory to the present.

A Brief History of Manga begins with Toba Sojo’s famous Choju-jinbutsue-giga, a twelfth century scroll depicting frogs, rabbits, and monkeys engaged in human activities, then jumps ahead to the nineteenth century, when European ex-pats helped popularize new cartooning styles via influential publications such as The Japan Punch (1862). The rest of the book explores the emergence of longer-form storytelling, from the newspaper-style comics of Rakuten Kitazawa (1876-1955) to the cyberpunk manga of Masamune Shirow (b. 1961). Sprinkled throughout the book are callouts highlighting specific artists’ contributions to the medium, as well as summaries of famous series, thumbnail histories of important magazines, and milestones in the globalization of manga.

For a reader familiar with Frederick Schodt’s venerable Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics (1983), many of McCarthy’s insights are old news. Schodt covered the early history of Japanese print culture in considerably more detail, painstakingly connecting the dots between Sojo’s frolicking animals, the birth of the Japanese publishing industry, and the emergence of the post-war manga market, bringing his narrative up to the 1980s. The final section of McCarthy’s book is a useful coda to Manga! Manga!, however, offering insights into more recent trends and titles, some well known–Boys Over Flowers, Death Note, Hetalia: Axis Powers–others less so–51 Ways to Save Her, Field of Cole, XX.

A Brief History of Manga has a more fundamental problem, however: its layout. Although the book’s designer has taken great pains to group images thematically, and link each entry with a timeline, the visual presentation is sometimes misleading. The 1931 entry, for example, pairs images of “manga pup” Norakuro with robot cat Doraemon without acknowledging the forty-year gap that separates the two characters. (Norakuro’s first story appeared in Shonen Club in 1931, while Doraemon debuted in 1969.) A caption informs the reader that Doraemon creator Hiroshi Fujimoto was born in 1933, but the main text never explicitly establishes the influence of Suiho Tagawa’s series on Fujimoto’s; even a simple, declarative sentence stating that Fujimoto had grown up reading Norakuro would have made this entry more valuable by demonstrating the role of pre-war children’s magazines in popularizing certain character types and storylines.

The first mention of gekiga–“1959: Manga’s Punk Movement Takes Root”–is similarly confusing. Although the text introduces gekiga pioneers Takao Saito (b. 1936) and Yoshihiro Tatsumi (1935-2015), the featured images are drawn from Fukushima Masami (b. 1948) and Kai Takizawa’s ultra-violent Prince Shotoku, a fascinating oddity from the late 1970s. While these images are among the most striking in the entire volume, they are not representative of early gekiga; it’s as if someone saw the word “punk” in the manuscript and set out to find the most visually outlandish artwork to emphasize McCarthy’s word choice. Complicating matters further is that the text never mentions Fukushima or Takizawa, or explains how their work built on the legacy of Saito and Tatsumi–no small oversight, given the pronounced differences between Prince Shotuko and Baron Air (1955) and Black Blizzard (1956), Saito and Tatsumi’s debut works.

I’m less bothered by McCarthy’s omissions than earlier reviewers were*; though it’s easy to cavil about missing works, McCarthy has chosen a representative sample of titles and authors across a wide spectrum of genres, demographics, and time periods. A manga newbie would find enough here to pique her interest, and perhaps steer her towards more comprehensive treatments of manga’s history. Knowledgable readers may find the quasi-encyclopedic format and emphasis on familiar material more frustrating, though they may be pleasantly surprised to discover new names and series through a careful scrutiny of the timeline. I did.

The verdict: A Brief History of Manga would make a swell gift for a new reader looking for information about the P.N.E. (that’s the Pre-Naruto Era).

* It’s worth noting that I heartily agree with Prof. Kathryn Hemmann’s concerns about the dearth of female creators in A Brief History of Manga. As Hemmann persuasively argues, this omission effectively silences some of the medium’s most influential and interesting voices. Click here to read Hemmann’s thoughts on the subject.

Reviews: Over at The Comics Journal, weekly columnist Joe McCullock compares the Dragon Ball comic with its most recent big-screen adaptation. Closer to home, Sean Gaffney and Michelle Smith post a new installment of Bookshelf Briefs. Kathryn Hemmann reviews Buchō wa onee, a bara title “about ferocious anthro muscleheads being adorable.”

Matt on vol. 11 of BTOOOM! (AniTay)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 55 of Case Closed (Sequential Tart)
Al Sparrow on vol. 1 of Chaika, The Coffin Princess (ComicSpectrum)
manjiorin on Clay Lord: The Master of Golems (Organization Anti-Social Geniuses)
Johanna Draper Carlson on Cool Japan Guide: Fun in the Land of Manga, Lucky Cats, and Ramen — A Comic Book Writer’s Personal Tour of Japan (Comics Worth Reading)
Ian Wolf on vol. 1 of The Demon Prince of Momochi House (Anime UK News)
Sheena McNeil on vol. 10 of Dogs: Bullets and Carnage (Sequential Tart)
Ken H. on vol. 49 of Fairy Tail (Sequential Ink)
Nick Creamer on Fragments of Horror (Anime News Network)
Austin Ganari on vol. 36 of Gantz (Comic Bastards)
Al Sparrow on vol. 1 of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (ComicSpectrum)
Matt on vol. 2 of Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? (AniTAY)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 3 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part One: Phantom Blood (WatchPlayRead)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 3 of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, Part One: Phantom Blood (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Kate O’Neil on vol. 2 of Let’s Dance a Waltz (The Fandom Post)
Ash Brown on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Experiments in Manga)
Rebecca Silverman on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Anime News Network)
Ash Brown on vol. 3 of Maria the Virgin Witch (Experiments in Manga)
Sean Gaffney on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
SKJAM on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (SKJAM! Reviews)
ebooksgirl on vol. 1 of Recorder and Randsell (Geek Lit Etc.)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vol. 18 of Rin-ne (Sequential Tart)
Julie on The Secret Princess (Manga Maniac Cafe)
Matthew Warner on vol. 5 of Seraph of the End (The Fandom Post)
Joceyln Allen on Sorairo no Kani (Book vs. Brain)
Anna N. on vol. 5 of Spell of Desire (The Manga Report)
Austin Lanari on issue 37-38 of Weekly Shonen Jump (Comic Bastards)
Wolfen Moondaughter on The World’s Greatest First Love: The Case of Ritsu Onodera (Sequential Tart)

The Manga Revue: Back to School Special

My inbox is overflowing with emails touting back-to-school deals on everything from sneakers to school supplies–a sure sign that the fall semester is right around the corner, and a nice reminder that Seven Seas, VIZ, and Vertical all have new (well, new-ish) school-themed comedies arriving in stores this month. Today, I take a look at Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, a comedy about the World’s Most Fascinating High School Student; My Hero Academia, a shonen adventure about a teen who’s studying to become a superhero; and My Neighbor Seki, a gag series about a slacker who elevates procrastination to an art form.

sakamotoHaven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, Vol. 1
By Miki Sano
Rated Teen
Seven Seas, $12.99

Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto is “The Aristocrats” of manga, a basic joke that yields endless variations, each more baroque than the last. The premise is simple: transfer student Sakamoto is handsome, brilliant, and athletic, making him a natural target for bullies and lovelorn girls. Any time a challenging situation arises–a bee in a classroom, a classmate injured by a softball–Sakamoto effortlessly meets that challenge, in the process revealing a previously undisclosed talent.

In the hands of a less imaginative storyteller, Sakamoto might be a wish-fulfillment character for every teenager who’s ever been tongue-tied or harassed by other students. Nami Sano puts a distinct spin on the material, however, portraying Sakamoto as so calculating and unflappable that he’s genuinely creepy; Sakamoto never smiles, laughs, or shows any discernible human emotion, even when confronted with other people’s tears or anger. (The real joke seems to be that everyone admires Sakamoto anyway.) I’m not sure that I LMAO, but Sakamoto’s odd persona and equally odd talents are a welcome rebuke to the school council presidents and earnest strivers who populate most teen-oriented manga; I’d much rather spend time with him than a standard-issue shonen prince.

The verdict: You’ll either find Sakamoto’s antics inspired or too weird to be amusing.

academiaMy Hero Academia, Vol. 1
By Kohei Horikoshi
Rated T, for teens
VIZ Media, $9.99

Meet Izuku Midoriya: he’s an ordinary teen living in a world where 80% of humanity possesses a super power. That doesn’t stop Izuku from aspiring to become a professional hero, however; since childhood, he’s dreamed about the day he might gain admission to prestigious U.A. High School, a training ground for future crime-fighters. A chance encounter with All Might, a celebrity superhero, gives Izuku a chance to prove his mettle and get the coaching he needs to pass the U.A. entrance exam.

Though the plot twists are unsurprising, and Izuku’s classmates familiar types (e.g. the Bully, the Spazzy Enthusiast), the breezy script propels My Hero Academia past its most hackneyed moments. The clean linework, playful superhero costumes, and artfully staged combat further enhance the series’ appeal; Kohei Horikoshi could give a master class on the reaction shot, especially when a supervillain is wrecking havoc on a downtown skyline. Most importantly, Horikoshi respects the sincerity of Izuku’s ambitions without letting the character’s earnest intensity cast a pall over the fun–in essence, it’s a Silver Age comic in modern shonen drag, with all the corny humor and fist-pumping action of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s best work on Spider-Man.

The verdict: My Hero Academia is as predictable as death and taxes, but a smart script and crisp artwork help distinguish it from other titles in the Shonen Jump catalog.

sekiMy Neighbor Seki, Vols. 1-3
By Takuma Morishige
Unrated
Vertical Comics, $10.95

Like Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto, My Neighbor Seki is a one-joke series: middle-school student Seki goofs off during class, much to the consternation of his seat mate Rumi. Seki isn’t just doodling in his notepad, however. He pets kittens, builds elaborate sculptures from shoji pieces, runs an intraschool mail service, and hosts a tea ceremony. To vary the rhythm of the joke-telling, artist Takuma Morishige occasionally transplants the action from the schoolroom to the playground, though the set-up remains the same; Seki does something outrageous and Rumi reacts, prompting the teacher to scold Rumi for not paying attention.

Given Seki‘s slender premise, it’s not surprising that each volume is a hit-and-miss affair. In volume one, for example, Seki knits a cactus plushie using a double-ended afghan hook. Rumi initially scoffs at his choice of tool; as she observes, “The hallmark of afghan knitting is its unique thickness and softness. It’s a texture best utilized when making sweaters,” not stuffed animals. When she sees the final results, however, she concedes that Seki has chosen the perfect technique and materials for his cactus, sending her into a rapturously funny meditation on yarn. Not all the gags are as successful: Seki’s penchant for staging elaborate scenes with action figures is moderately amusing at first, but grows more tiresome with each new and less imaginative iteration. Still, it’s impossible to deny the energy, creativity, and specificity with which Morishige brings Seki’s exploits to life, making this series more “win” than “fail.”

The verdict: My Neighbor Seki is best enjoyed in one or two chapter installments; when read in large bursts, some scenarios read like 4-koma strips stretched to epic and unfunny proportions.

Reviews: Over at Manga Connection, manjiorin reviews the first four volumes of Princess Jellyfish, which are currently available on Crunchyroll. TCJ columnist Joe McCulloch jumps in the WABAC machine for a nostalgic look at Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga. In honor of 801 Day, Megan R. reviews a title from the Tokyopop/BLU Manga catalog, Shout Out Loud.

Matthew Alexander on vol. 1 of Aoi House (The Fandom Post)
Michael Burns on vol. 5 of Assassination Classroom (AniTAY)
Nick Creamer on vol. 4 of A Bride’s Story (Anime News Network)
Rebecca Silverman on vol. 1 of First Love Monster (Anime News Network)
Michael Burns on vol. 7 of Food Wars! Shokugeki no Soma (AniTAY)
SKJAM! on Fragments of Horror (SKJAM! Reviews)
Connie on vol. 1 of Junjo Romantica (Slightly Biased Manga)
Sean Gaffney on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (A Case Suitable for Treatment)
Wolfen Moondaughter on vols. 1-2 of Maid-Sama! (Sequential Tart)
Lesley Aeschliman on vol. 1 of My Hero Academia (WatchPlayRead)
Adam Capps on vol. 3 of My Neighbor Seki (Bento Byte)
Connie on No Touching At All (Slightly Biased Manga)
Adam Capps on vol. 75 of One Piece (Bento Byte)
Ken H. on vols. 9-11 of Sankarea: Undying Love (Sequential Ink)
Matthew Warner on vol. 7 of Say I Love You (The Fandom Post)
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manjiorin on vol. 1 of Tokyo Ghoul (Manga Connection)
Ian Wolf on vol. 1 of Twin Star Exorcists (Anime UK News)
Connie on vol. 1 of Twittering Birds Never Fly (Slightly Biased Manga)
Connie on vol. 2 of Twittering Birds Never Fly (Slightly Biased Manga)
Lori Henderson on vols. 3-4 of Until Death Do Us Part (Manga Xanadu)
Sarah on vol. 9 of What Did You Eat Yesterday? (Anime UK News)
Connie on vol. 1 of World’s Greatest First Love (Slightly Biased Manga)
Alice Vernon on xxxHolic (Girls Like Comics)
SKJAM! on vol. 1 of Yamada-Kun and the Seven Witches (SKJAM! Reviews)
Ash Brown on vol. 2 of Your Lie in April (Experiments in Manga)