Review: Dystopia

by Judith Park
Rated OT, for Older Teens
Yen Press, $10.99

This book is a disappointment, with one-dimensional characters, an artificial setup, and weak art. The conversations seem weirdly stilted—do you hear teenagers say “That’s very commendable” to one another? Ever?

The story seems like it was thought up in a day, without much reflection; it lacks emotional resonance. Dionne’s older brother, Lyon, has a heart defect, so her parents favor him and pick on her. Lyon tries to compensate by being extra-nice to Dionne. Dionne’s best friend, Shikku, has a crush on Lyon, and we get to watch them go through the paces of their very ordinary romance for a while—there’s a bit of uncertainty and pulling back, and lots of dreamy introspection, but it’s not really very interesting.

And then, just when you’re ready to drop off to sleep, the story takes a bizarre and very manga-ish turn: Lyon is hit by a car and dies. While Dionne is still mourning him, her parents spring a new surprise on her: Because they feared that Lyon would die young because of his heart defect, they had him cloned, and now the clone, Gabriel, is coming to live with them. Where has Gabriel been for the past 16 years? That’s a plot hole you could drive a truck through, but everyone is too busy chewing the scenery to ask. Dionne hates Gabriel because her parents are using him as a replacement for Lyon, and because she feels they never loved her; Dionne’s parents are frustrated because in her anger, she shuts them out; Shikku sort of hopes things will work out with Gabriel; Gabriel resents his new place in their lives and wants to be his own person. More panels of introspection, and then the book winds up with an emotional denouement that doesn’t really solve the problems proposed by the plot but does leave everyone a little wiser.

The story revolves around Dionne and her emotions, and if it has a saving grace, it’s that the teenage girls who are likely to read it will identify with Dionne, as she is completely misunderstood by everyone. It’s hard for an older reader not to conclude that she’s being a brat; her resentment seems to be out of proportion to the way her parents treat her.

Park’s art seems amateurish—it’s a good example of why a lot of people don’t like global manga. She puts emphasis on style at the expense of structure. The characters don’t quite hang together, and the anatomy and foreshortening are way off. She makes a lot of newbie mistakes, focusing on faces but getting the shape of the head wrong. On the other hand, some pages hang together really well. This is the first of her books that I have seen, but I gather from reviews that her other work is stronger.

I am not the audience for this book, that’s for sure. I think it has serious structural defects, but I can see a teenage reader enjoying it nonetheless, simply because the main character is someone they can relate to.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Guest Review: Hissing, vols. 1-6

hissing1Hissing, vols. 1-6
By Kang EunYoung
Rated T, for Teens
Yen Press $10.99

Review by Melinda Beasi.

High school freshman Da-Eh is an aspiring manhwa artist who carefully ignores constant cries for attention from her doting younger brother. Fellow freshman Sun-Nam, the youngest of three boys, is bound and determined to become a “bad guy.” Finally, senior Ta-Jun, the school hottie, finds himself drawn to the one girl who can’t stand him, Da-Eh. If this is where the story stopped, there would be nothing at all remarkable about it, and over the course of the first volume or so, that’s seemingly where things stand. Fortunately, both the story and Kang’s method of telling it soon become more complex.

As the three teens’ lives become further entwined, the truth of each of their circumstances begins to be revealed. It is soon apparent that Da-Eh’s coldness toward her little brother is due to her inability to forgive him for being the product of her dead mother’s affair. Similarly, Sun-Nam’s desire to be “bad” is symptomatic of his oppressive guilt over having wished his unfaithful father dead on the very day he died. Meanwhile, Ta-Jun’s infatuation with Da-Eh is little more than an escape from the much more complicated love he’s carried around in his heart for years.

The series is technically a high school romance, and as such contains plenty of the usual clichés. The “mean girl” love rival, for instance, makes a number of tiresome appearances, as do the ever-present love confessions, and even a jealous best friend. But Kang renders all of this insignificant by the middle of the fifth volume by pulling off a fantastic act of authorial self-insertion that alters the tone of the entire series.

One of the series’ most notable aspects early on is its resistance to establishing a single main character. By using a wandering POV that shifts not only between the three teens, but also to each of their family members and quite a number of their schoolmates, Kang prevents any one character from becoming the focus of the series. Then in volume four, as Da-Eh struggles to come up with something “different” for an upcoming manhwa contest, she hits upon the idea of creating a story in which every character is treated as the main character. She’s pretty excited about the idea, until Ta-Jun pipes in to complain, “But if you do that, there’s no center.”

After this, the story quickly becomes much more chaotic, finally exploding in the middle of the fifth volume, where Da-Eh discovers the true center of her world (and the world of the series as a whole) as it is thrust upon her in the wake of a single event. The result is quite moving, and not something that would have been expected based on the series’ first couple of volumes.

This is not the series’ only strength. It’s primary romance between two loners, Da-Eh and Sun-Nam, is just stilted and awkward enough to help its flowery moments read as charming rather than clichéd. And speaking of flowers, Kang’s running gag featuring a magically-appearing background of Japanese shojo-style flowers that randomly surrounds Ta-Jun serves as a clever wink to a romance-weary audience. Da-Eh, too, is refreshing as a romantic heroine whose personal interest in romance is mainly as something to be studied as a subject for her work.

Kang’s artwork is nothing special, and her male characters frequently look confusingly alike. Fortunately, she has a greater gift for drawing distinctive females. She shows her greatest strengths in the series’ later volumes, where her use of paneling genuinely shines during the story’s most dramatic moments.

Though likely unintentional, Kang’s real message for readers here is, “Good things come to those who wait.” While the series undeniably gets off to a slow start, the payoff for those willing to commit to all six volumes is significant. Patient fans of romantic manhwa would do well to check out Hissing.

Read more from Melinda Beasi at her blog, Manga Bookshelf.

Review: Daemonium, vol. 1

DaemoniumDaemonium, vol. 1
By Kosen
Rated OT, for Older Teen (16+)
Tokyopop, $10.99

Kosen is a Spanish duo who have been writing and drawing BL manga for some time now, and their professionalism shows through in this horror story about a teenage boy whose world gets turned upside down.

Daemonium starts out like a lot of high-school graphic novels. Seisu is returning home from a trip to an amusement park with his parents, everyone is laughing and happy, and then in a moment, the car crashes, Seisu’s parents are dead, and he is left with a terrible scar. Fast forward to high school, where everyone notices the jagged scar running down Seisu’s face and no one notices the fact that aside from that, he’s very handsome. Instead they call him a freak and the school bully beats him up. Seisu’s awesomely beautiful sister, Alys, rescues him from the thugs and cheers him up—just like she always does, apparently.

A few pages later, Alys announces that she is going to take her brother on a surprise trip, and off they go to a remote monastery where they are practically the only guests. What could possibly go wrong? The story takes off from there in a things-are-not-what-they-seem direction that is at once comfortably familiar to fans of the genre and unpredictable enough to be interesting. The story is a bit offbeat, with two hunky angels fighting to save Seisu’s soul, a trip to a hospital where angels go to detox after being in hell (complete with fetish-y angel nurses in old-fashioned nurse uniforms—nurses never wear scrubs in manga), and our hero taking a mad drive down a dark road with a straitjacketed girl in the passenger seat.

The storytelling lopes along at a nice pace until the last third of the book, when suddenly the plot gets a lot more complicated and the dialogue gets a lot more expository, as the characters explain the rules of heaven and hell in order for the plot to make sense. It all moved too fast for me, and it felt artificial, as if people were being put into place in order to have a dramatic moment.

All this sped-up storytelling might have made sense if there had been a volume 2, but Daemonium must have been one of the victims of Tokyopop’s restructuring, as I see no evidence that a second volume was ever published.

BL fans should be aware that there is only the very faintest hint of yaoi in this book; it’s a horror story, not a love story. There is some horror-style female nudity (i.e. nude female hanging upside down from the ceiling). Kosen fans might want to pick up this volume to enjoy the art or to complete their collections, but it’s a tough sell for the rest of us.

(This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.)

Review: Toriko, vol. 1

Toriko1Toriko, vol. 1
By Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro
Rated T, for Teen
Viz, $9.99

There is something very primal about Toriko: It’s a story about hunting for food, and although there is a veneer of gourmet sensibility over some of the quests, it always comes down to the massive, overmuscled Toriko having a showdown with some enormous animal over who is going to eat who.

Other food manga, such as Oishinbo and even Kitchen Princess, hinge on the main character’s refined palate and esoteric knowledge. Toriko’s world is much simpler: The best foods are the ones that are hardest to get. Deliciousness, it seems, scales with difficulty, and the prizes in the first two volume present formidable challenges: Garara Gator, a huge, dinosaur-like creature, and Rainbow Fruit, which grows on a tree protected by massive four-armed apes.

Toriko is a basic shonen battle manga, in which the battles take place between Toriko and the creatures he plans to eat, or who are getting in the way of a meal. His companion on his hunts is Komatsu, a chef at a hotel run by the International Gourmet Organization. Komatsu is small and more at home in a kitchen than a jungle, and he spends most of the first adventure cowering in fear, but his reactions are an important part of the story. (Presumably the creator’s choice to name him after a brand of construction equipment was deliberate irony.)

Although he seems to spend a lot of his time eating, Toriko does have a plan, of sorts: He wants to construct an ideal multi-course meal of the best foods on earth. His quest to track down the hard-to-find foods, in order to determine whether they are worthy of this meal, adds a bit of structure to the series. Also, the characters mention that Toriko is one of Four Heavenly Kings, the four top gourmet hunters, although the others aren’t seen in this volume.

Like many shonen heroes, Toriko combines crudeness, strength, and extraordinary knowledge: When a leech attaches itself to Komatsu, for instance, he squeezes the juice from a mangrove leaf onto it; the juice contains salt, which leeches cannot tolerate. Later on, he makes a rather remarkable leap of logic: Just as the Komodo dragon (a real creature) has bacteria in its saliva that weaken its prey, so the Garara Gator (not a real creature) allows leeches to live in its mouth, because the leeches travel and draw blood from potential victims, and the scent of blood leads the gator to its prey. There is an interesting sort of reasoning that runs through the book, and for someone who rips things apart with his bare hands and tears into raw animals with his teeth, Toriko has quite the philosophical streak. He won’t kill the four-armed apes, for instance, because he doesn’t plan to eat them; instead, he stuns them with a double needle.

There is a lot of food in this manga, but most of it is imaginary: Plants that grow leaves of bacon, banana cucumbers, cod with the claws of a crayfish, and the wondrous Rainbow Fruit, which changes its flavor seven different times in the process of being eaten. Toriko has an enormous appetite and seems to be constantly eating, but he doesn’t so much prepare his food as rip it out by the roots and tear it apart. Then he rips a branch from the cigar tree and lights up. Toriko has a penchant for fine old brandies bourbon as well; he can slice the bottom off the bottle with his bare hand and down the contents in a single gulp.

At its heart, Toriko is a battle manga, so all this talk of rare fruits and delicate tastes is accompanied by depictions of the gargantuan Toriko slobbering as he shoves hunks of meat into his massive jaws. The art style is also crude, with strong emphasis on the grotesqueness of the creatures and the action of the fights.

With its Rabelaisian hero and imaginative array of preposterous foods, Toriko is a fun read, and it’s not surprising that it is one of the top five series in the Japanese Shonen Jump. It is clearly pitched at teenage readers, and the nonstop shonen action doesn’t stray far from the confines of the genre, but older readers may enjoy the flashes of wit and the portrayal of the ultimate iron-man gourmet.

This review is based on a review copy provided by the publisher.

Guest Review: You’re So Cool, vols. 1-6

ysc1You’re So Cool, vols. 1-6
By YoungHee Lee
Rated T, for Teens
Yen Press $10.99

Review by Melinda Beasi

Tomboyish Nan-Woo is the class klutz. Impulsive, accident-prone, and chronically late, she provides a daily dose of schadenfreude for her eager classmates. Seung-Ha is the class prince. Gorgeous, mature, and kind to everyone, he is admired by students and faculty alike. After Nan-Woo pays accidental witness to Seung-Ha’s rejection of a pretty upperclassman, Seung-Ha explains to her that he’s looking for someone who will accept all of him, “even the dark and selfish parts,” at which point Nan-Woo naïvely proclaims, “If I had the chance, I wouldn’t care. I would love you completely and without regret.”

These prove to be fateful words indeed, for though Nan-Woo is granted her dream boyfriend faster than even most fairy godmothers could reasonably manage, she quickly discovers that the boy she so admires is nothing more than an elaborately constructed fantasy. Though his model-student act is impressively well-practiced, out of uniform Seung-Ha is a bona fide thug who belittles Nan-Woo, bullies her into buying his meals, and gleefully sends her off to be tortured by his ruthless fan club.

Now that she’s met the real Seung-Ha, can Nan-Woo possibly live up to her own rash promise?

Yes, yes, your groans are audible from here, and with a premise like that it’s difficult to protest. Even by the end of the second volume, there’s not much grounds for defense. Though Nan-Woo displays more genuine spunk and idiosyncratic charm than her typical Japanese counterpart, it’s hard to invest in even the spunkiest heroine when she’s willing to be pushed around by her sneering, bad-boy love interest for more than a panel or two. Even as Seung-Ha’s growing attachment to Nan-Woo begins to erode his class president persona, it’s unsatisfying as long as Nan-Woo remains in his control.

Fortunately, midway through the series’ third volume, Lee forgets that she’s writing a hopelessly clichéd, emotionally-backwards romance and gets caught up in the real heart of the story: how people (especially families) shape each other, for better or worse.

This begins with an affectionate look at Nan-Woo’s unconventional (but loving) parental figures. Nan-Woo’s mother, Jae-Young, a badass guitarist with a decidely masculine frame, is objectively terrifying and fiercely protective of her daughter. Though Nan-Woo’s father is absent (and apparently unknown), their household is rounded out by Nan-Woo’s uncle, Jay, an unselfconsciously feminine homemaker who acts as the nurturer of the family. Though this familial grouping is clearly presented as a happy one, as individuals they each have their own issues. Jae-Young is habitually inconsiderate and prone to violence, and Jay will do almost anything to avoid being alone. Interestingly, though their weaknesses factor heavily into the person Nan-Woo will one day be, they are perhaps more responsible for her strengths than anything else.

In contrast, the weaknesses and failures of Seung-Ha’s family have contributed mainly to warping his personality. As the illegitimate child of a wealthy businessman, Seung-Ha was abandoned by his self-involved mother as a middle-schooler and taken into his father’s household. There, an environment of cold antipathy taught him to mask his true existence just to survive. Though this could easily be played as a “poor little rich boy” scenario in order to gain sympathy for the misunderstood bad-boy, it is actually in studying Nan-Woo’s family that Seung-Ha is humanized rather than through his own sad circumstances.

Though she herself fights with Nan-Woo on a daily basis, it is the attitude of Nan-Woo’s mom that is key in influencing reader concern. Her ability to see through Seung-Ha’s façade and her outrage over his unprecedented control of her free-spirited daughter implies a harsh authorial judgement unusual for this type of story. Instead of preaching the coolness of her bad-boy love interest, through the eyes of Jae-Young, Lee calls Seung-Ha out on every move from his pathetically manipulative playbook, assuring readers that there is no way this guy is going to make time with Nan-Woo unless he figures out how to shape up. This assurance makes it easier to let go of our deeply ingrained feminist reflexes and view Seung-Ha (and by extension, everyone else) as an individual rather than an archetype. Suddenly, all of Lee’s characters are relatable, even in their worst moments, and it’s hard to write off anyone as just another (insert your cliché here).

It is this move, more than anything, that frees You’re So Cool from its origins in bad-boy romanticism. By viewing her characters through sharp, honest eyes, Lee gives them the context they need to shed their relationship’s worst clichés, or at least diminish their meaning. Though the story continues to follow the basic structure of teen romance, at its core it’s a examination of friendship between two fumbling teenagers who, despite a foundation of false pretense, become important influences in each other’s lives, mainly for the better. That the story’s secondary romance (between Jay and a quiet loner he meets at the grocery store) ends up stealing most of the series’ romantic thunder is likely no mistake, leaving room for Nan-Woo and Seung-Ha’s relationship to take a more ambiguous path.

The series’ transformation does have its share of stumbles. Lee’s ambition occasionally exceeds her skill, especially when she’s trying too hard to dig deep. A sequence in the final volume, for instance, featuring Seung-Ha in a drawn-out mental showdown with his pre-teen self, reads as contrived and convoluted rather than insightful. Through most of the series’ later volumes, however, Lee maintains a solid thread of lighthearted humor that keeps her from sinking too far into depths she’s not quite ready to tackle.

The series’ character designs are typical of Yen Press’ girls’ manhwa line, with its characters’ thickly-lined eyes, full lips, and delicate, pointed chins. And though even Lee’s most beautiful characters can’t quite achieve the delectable pout mastered by Goong‘s Park SoHee, Lee more than makes up for it with her heroine’s pug-nosed, tomboy glower, which is just as expressive and miles more fun. Her visual storytelling is energetic and easy to follow, and her use of dramatic imagery for humorous effect is key in establishing the series’ breezy, lighthearted tone.

Though it would be difficult to recommend the series’ early volumes on their own, for those willing to commit to the not-so-long haul, You’re So Cool offers a lot to enjoy.

This review is based on review copies supplied by the publisher.

Read more from Melinda Beasi at her blog, Manga Bookshelf

Review: Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1


Deadman Wonderland, vol. 1
By Jinsei Kataoka and Kazuma Kondou
Rated OT, for Older Teens
Tokyopop, $10.99

This tale of an innocent young man trapped in a prison that doubles as an amusement park isn’t exactly blazing a new literary trail, but the strands are twisted together very nicely, with clear art, good storytelling, and a bit of foreshadowing to tie it all together.

It starts with the first few pages, a hazy view of a boy and a girl playing together while a woman plays piano. The action is accompanied by a song lyric about a woodpecker who is poisoned by the gods and cannot touch his friends for fear he will poison them. Then a mysterious red man appears, armed guards storm him, and the apartment blows up. After which, Tokyo is destroyed by an earthquake.

(Spoilers after the jump)

Fast forward ten years, and say hello to Ganta Igarashi, a survivor of the Tokyo earthquake (and presumably the little boy in the opening sequence). Comfortably ensconced in junior high, Ganta is doing typical teenage things—goofing around with his friends and looking forward to the class trip—when suddenly, the mysterious red man appears in the window. Next thing you know, everyone in Ganta’s class has been reduced to slashed-up corpses. As Ganta stands up, still dazed, the red man advances on him and thrusts some sort of red jewel into his chest.

So, in the first 20 pages we have done the normal-life-shattered-by-unspeakable-violence thing twice, and we still have no clue why. But the book continues to rocket forward, and the creators drop just enough clues along the way to keep it interesting.

Ganta is quickly tried and convicted for his classmates’ murders, sentenced to death and sent to Deadman Wonderland, a prison that doubles as a theme park. This gives the creators plenty of scope for combining violence with goofy pop-culture cuteness, and they take full advantage of it, with a cartoony guide for prisoners and loudspeakers concealed inside super-cute roosters in prison stripes. The prisoners perform in deadly competitions for the entertainment of the spectators, who are told the whole thing is faked. In fact, the contests are just one of the highly creative ways that the prison administrators have of executing the prisoners’ death sentences.

Away from the public, of course, the prison is a brutal place, with a dominatrix of a guard, Makina, overseeing the prisoners and bullies imposing their will on the weak. All this is pretty much standard-issue prison-fantasy stuff. The twist comes in the form of Shira, a cheerful albino girl in a skin-tight jumpsuit who comes crashing into the story to act as Ganta’s protector and cheerleader. Shira is the ultimate manga girl—she is naïve, cheerful, unfailingly kind, and incredibly acrobatic. She absorbs much of the pain intended for Ganta, even taking a knife in the back at one point. She seems to be immune to any sort of physical harm, but it’s hard to tell whether she has some special power or it’s just dumb luck that keeps her from getting killed.

What emerges out of all this, and you can see it coming a mile away, is that there is Something Special about Ganta. On the one hand, he is determined to survive in a system that is stacked against him, and he wants to somehow prove the red man exists, in order to prove his innocence. At the same time, the whole thing is rigged: The prison administrator knows all about the red man (who is known as Original Sin and kept locked up in the same prison), and he has a special interest in Ganta, who saw the red man and lived. So Ganta is not going to be shrugged off and sliced into ribbons or tossed into an electrified tank of water like some ordinary prisoner.

Deadman Wonderland is an entertaining if somewhat gory read. The creators seem to delight in coming up with challenging and painful competitions for the prisoners, and Shira’s unexpected appearances keep the story from being too predictable. The test for this series will be whether the creators continue to bring in new ideas or allow it to become a simple series of battles, but the first volume shows a lot of promise.

This review is based on a review copy supplied by the publisher.