Review: Black Butler, vol. 1

BLACKBUTLER_1-199x300Black Butler, vol. 1
By Yana Toboso
Rated OT, Older Teen
Yen Press, $10.99

Black Butler is set in Victorian, or maybe Edwardian, England, but anyone who is looking for a male version of Emma will be sorely disappointed. This is really an action story, and by the second half of the book—when the car chases begin and the characters all whip out their cell phones—all pretense of period elegance is gone.

The problem is that there is no action in the first half of the book. It’s all about Sebastian, the perfect butler, pleasing his 12-year-old boss, Ciel Phantomhive, with his superhuman butlering skills. This is made difficult by the fact that the rest of the household staff is bumbling idiots, a setup that the creator is desperately trying to play for laughs. It doesn’t work; the staff are too exaggerated and shrieky, and the pratfalls quickly become monotonous.

Ciel is apparently the last remaining member of the Phantomhive toymaking dynasty. He lives alone, except for his household staff, in his enormous, luxuriously appointed mansion, and he alternates between whining and lounging around looking bored. He’s your basic affectless manga guy, and he is the least interesting character in the first half of the book. You would think a toymaker would have some interesting toys scattered around the place, but all Ciel has is a generic boxed board game that serves as a plot device but has no entertainment value of its own. Instead, the focus is on the household staff, with the butler obsessing about the garden and the food and everyone else getting in the way.

The first half of the book should be setting up the story and providing some context. Who is Ciel? Why does he wear an eyepatch? What happened to his parents? Is there something sinister about his family’s toymaking business? Has something terrible happened to the rest of his family? These are things the reader wants to know, but we get no answers, just more poorly drawn teacups and mutterings about poached salmon. Then his childish girlfriend shows up and dresses everyone in frills and bows, throwing tantrums to get her way. Halfway through volume 1, there has been zero plot exposition, but the annoying side details have reached critical overload.

And then, a few pages into chapter 3, after another slapstick scene in which the household staff spazzes out about mice, the whole story starts to change. Suddenly Ciel is playing pool with adults and practicing a little extortion as well, in exchange for getting rid of … someone. Everyone speaks in metaphors, so it’s hard to say who. Then there’s more business with pastries and dropping the china before the book takes a final lunge in the opposite direction: Ciel is kidnapped and beaten, and Italian mafia guys threaten to kill his household staff because apparently Ciel has stolen some drugs from them. Then there’s a lot of yelling and speedlines and eventually Sebastian shows up and kicks everyone’s ass with some slick moves, including a cool Wolverine thing with the cutlery (which, sadly, shows the sort of potential this book would have if the author had tried a little harder). But wait! There’s a Sinister Secret! Ciel and Sebastian have a special bond, and Sebastian is no mere mortal butler, which of course comes as no surprise—it’s the sort of thing you expect to happen in this sort of book, even if the creator has neglected to foreshadow it at all. The end of the book is only marginally more coherent than the beginning, but at least the characters seem to have some motivation and the story is morphing into an action/revenge kind of a thing.

Black Butler has the makings of a great story, but it’s never really realized. The toys, for instance, could have been exploited for atmosphere, and toys are much more sinister than pastries and tea sets. The first two chapters are just floating out there with no context; if Toboso had used them to fill in some of the backstory, they would have been a lot more compelling. As it is, the Victorian schtick has an off-the shelf feel to it, and the whole Upstairs, Downstairs thing is so poorly executed that it detracts from the main story.

The book’s one redeeming feature—and it gives me hope for volume 2—is the way Sebastian totally kicks ass in the last chapter. Toboso’s artistic weakness—his figures are too thin and insubstantial—becomes a strength when Sebastian starts swinging from the ceiling and delivering kicks to the face. There is a nice, dynamic feel to those last pages that is totally missing from the beginning.

Dedicated shonen fans who like slapstick and prefer ass-kicking to narrative will probably enjoy this first volume more than I did, but I’m willing to stick with the series to see if it gets better in the long run.

End note: I read Lianne Sentar’s review of the anime, and if you don’t mind spoilers, you should check it out, if only for her excellent descriptions of what went wrong. Like this:

Unfortunately, most of the comedic potential is wasted on a bevy of side characters who couldn’t be less funny if they were gassing kittens, and the homoeroticism between Sebastian and his pre-pubescent charge is definitely more disturbing than amusing.

Yup. But here’s the thing: Lianne likes the story, and she explains that the anime gets better as you go along. Hopefully the same will be true of the manga.

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

Review: Sexy Voice and Robo

Sexy Voice and RoboSexy Voice and Robo
By Iou Kuroda
Rated T+, for Older Teens
Viz, $19.99

There’s a lot to like about Iou Kuroda’s Sexy Voice and Robo. I like the basic idea—a perceptive teenager moonlights as a paid phone friend and uses what she has learned about human nature to solve mysteries. I like the art, most of the time. I like the characters. I like the oversize format, which shows off Kuroda’s art at its best—this book would feel cramped if it were published in the standard manga size.

And yet, I feel like it could be so much better. This manga has a half-baked feeling, as if Kuroda realized what a good idea he had and started running with it before he was completely ready.

The strongest evidence of this is the structure of the book, which begins with eight self-contained stories and then, a little more than halfway through, shifts to a longer, more complex storyline. At around that point, for the first time, the characters start to develop more self-awareness, and the story gets a lot more interesting. Then, a few chapters later, the book ends, leaving some threads dangling.

Even in the earlier stories, though, Kuroda seems to get carried away with how good his ideas are at the expense of execution. The first story, for instance, is about a kidnapper whose ransom demand is a strange one: Hold off on turning on the traditional Christmas lights in a Tokyo shopping district. Working with the thinnest of clues, and with a great deal of help from coincidence, Nico finds the kidnapper and frees the young boy, but the kidnapper’s true motivation is never revealed. It’s one of the conventions of the mystery genre that bizarre elements like that must ultimately be explained. Nico does come up with a possible reason, but it is never confirmed, and the story seems unfinished as a result.

Several of the self-contained stories seem to have missing pieces like that, and as a result they seem haphazard, as if Kuroda started out with an idea but hadn’t quite mapped the whole thing out. There is a freshness and spontaneity to the book, and Kuroda’s stories are imaginative—he sets one story in a circus and another in an open-air hair salon, and one of his best characters is an amnesiac hitman whose memory only goes back three days. But somehow, each of these stories left me thinking “Wait—that’s it?” Kuroda doesn’t always wrap up all the loose ends in a satisfying way.

Another problem is a lack of depth in his characters. Admittedly, that’s hard to develop in a short story, but what I see Kuroda doing is falling back on the same pattern over and over: Cold, beautiful women who use their looks and their sexuality to manipulate men, and hapless men who get themselves into bad situations and then flounder around helplessly, making things worse. These are all basically less likeable avatars of the lead couple. Nico may be charming, clever, and cute, but she makes her money by enticing men into lengthy, expensive phone calls, and she uses what she has learned about them in their vulnerable moments to manipulate them. She really isn’t that different from the selfish lover in the second story or the suicidal prostitute in the last one.

(Actually, there is one difference: Nico is not sexy. She looks like a little kid—a smart kid, but a kid nonetheless. Her mannerisms are childlike, and she is missing the usual markers of mature sexuality—her hair is short, her chest is flat, and she wears sensible, sturdy clothing. She’s the exact opposite of what her clients want, which is why she doesn’t have to feel threatened by them.)

Robo, for his part, is a clueless guy who is led on by desires he can’t really control. That describes most of the men in this comic as well. The aquarium worker so besotted by love that he is willing to kill all the fish to get his fiancé to marry him; the young man who impulsively steals from a gambling parlor and then has no idea what to do next; the hapless motorcyclist who is led by a woman (another scheming tele-club caller, like Nico only not so nice) into an escalating series of crimes—all these men lurch forward without thinking, careening into one disaster after another, unable to formulate any sort of plan to help themselves.

Like Nico, Robo is a likeable version of this caricature: He lets himself be led around, true, but he doesn’t go on and on about his obsessions, he has a real job (until he gets fired) and he connects with people, in his own way. So neither character is an extreme; they both feel like someone you might actually know, but with a few extra twists thrown in. The other characters, with a few exceptions, are much less nuanced.

That critique extends to the old man for whom Nico works. He is really more of a plot device than a character—an aging gangster, he gives Nico her assignments, sets the story in motion, and then conveniently disappears unless he is called upon to move the plot along. Although Nico suggests that she is his lover when it’s convenient for her work, there actually seems to be very little rapport between them until fairly late in the book. He is simply a cardboard cutout who is rolled onstage when necessary.

The last part of the book shows what Kuroda is capable of once he gets going. The story starts to branch out into something larger, a framing tale that encompasses Nico’s mystery-solving. But then it ends, and much of its potential goes unrealized.

Kuroda is a good storyteller, and his art is one of the reasons to pick up this book. He works with brush and ink, which is a bold and unforgiving medium. Most of the time it works, especially when he keeps his line simple; his older characters often dissolve into a formless mass of wrinkles, and I find it hard to see any underlying form in the old man. His figures sometimes sport a stiff pose or an awkwardly foreshortened limb, which is the risk of working in this medium—you can’t really go back and fix things. (You can try, but it just ends up getting fussier and fussier.)

One of the things I really like about Kuroda’s work is the composition of pages and panels. He constantly shifts his point of view as people talk, which keeps the pages dynamic, and his backgrounds are fully realized, drawing the reader into every panel. A lot of manga artists use stock backgrounds that are so geometrically perfect that they seem flat and unreal. Kuroda’s backgrounds are more organic; every line may not be perfectly straight, but the parts all work together to build a convincing atmosphere. As the book progresses, Kuroda relies less on hatching and more on areas of pure black and white to define his scenes, and as a result, his pages become easier to read at a single glance.

Finally, a word about format. This book is an early departure from the standard manga format, and as I mentioned earlier, Kuroda’s art really demands a larger page. The problem is that the book isn’t quite big enough (or, more likely, the proportions of the original were slightly different than the U.S. version), so it looks like some of the art is chopped off by the edge of the page. At the very least, the art often seems crowded at the edges.

If I were going to republish this in a new edition, I might consider flipping it so that it could reach a broader audience—I can see fans of Yoshihiro Tatsumi’s work picking this up, when they are in the mood for a less depressing read. I would tweak the format so the art isn’t cropped. And I’d hire Kuroda to go over his earlier work, fill in the gaps, and then write another volume to wind his story up. Failing that, I’d like to see more of his manga translated into English, to see if his more mature work lives up to his earlier promise.

Review: All My Darling Daughters

519IfIf-3xLAll My Darling Daughters
By Fumi Yoshinaga
Rated T+, for Older Teen
Viz, $12.99

The centerpiece of All My Darling Daughters is a two-part story about Sayako, a woman who decides to have an arranged marriage. We look over her shoulder as she goes to dinner with a businessman who denounces those who don’t pull their own weight, a doctor who thinks women should be “natural and feminine,” not aggressive and short-haired, and a sweaty salaryman who immediately propositions her. Finally, she meets a man who is physically damaged but beautiful inside, and you think, ah, here we go.

But this is not a Harlequin romance. Instead of following the standard script, Sayako takes things into her own hands, and the resulting twist is both surprising and satisfying.

All My Darling Daughters is a self-contained set of five short stories about families and relationships, and each one takes a dip into unexpected territory. The framing tale is that of Mari, a working single mom, and her daughter Yukiko. The book begins with Mari’s abrupt announcement, following a bout of cancer at age fifty, that she has gotten married and her new husband, Ken, will be moving in with them. Yukiko is unnerved to learn that her new stepfather is younger than her, and at first their relationship follows a predictable, spiky curve. What makes this story so great is that Yoshinaga shows, rather than tells, what is going on; watching Mari and Ken prepare dinner together, Yukiko realizes that everything has changed. She moves in with her boyfriend, but she visits frequently, and much of the rest of the book unfolds as the family sits around at dinner, telling stories and arguing, as families do.

Like all real families, Yukiko’s family is messy and ambiguous. There are nice people and people who are not so nice, one heroically good character but no clear-cut villains. One of the threads that runs through the story is Mari’s insecurity about her looks, which she blames on the way her mother used to speak to her as a child. But in the final story, we see her mother’s point of view, and we learn that her negative comments were well intentioned. Another story, about a mediocre college professor and his sexually aggressive student, flips the usual norms of manga romance on their head.

Although the characters sleep on futons and eat with chopsticks, the situations and conversations in this book are universal. In fact, I felt like Yoshinaga was channeling me in the very first scene, when Mari returns home from work and scolds Yukiko (a teenager at the time) for not cleaning up or at least making tea. If she had added “Couldn’t you at least empty the dishwasher?” I would have started looking for hidden cameras. The story does get a bit more baroque after that, but Yoshinaga always allows her characters to find happiness in a number of ways, conventional or not, and somehow it all works out. It’s very refreshing.

This is the difference between truly mature manga and genre-bound shoujo or shonen. So much manga reflects our worst stereotype of Japan, the rigidly dictated roles, the all-or-nothing society in which anyone who doesn’t conform is bullied into suicide or seclusion. The bad suitors in the arranged-marriage story exemplify those stereotypes, but the woman, Sayako, rejects them all and makes her own path. While Japanese life often seems sterile in fiction, here it is rich with humor, anecdote, and ambiguity.

Yoshinaga’s art has grown in precision and complexity since her earlier works, such as Antique Bakery. There, she had a trick of placing a single head in a large panel with only blank space surrounding it. What could be a cheat in a lesser artist’s hands seemed monumental when she did it, but it could get monotonous after a while. In All My Darling Daughters she crowds the pages with more panels and more detail, which may be less pure but is also more interesting. She still uses the big, empty panels, but she saves them for major announcements, and they punctuate the flow of the story rather than dominate it. Yoshinaga’s clean linework is easy to read, and the pages never look cluttered. Her women are precisely drawn, and each one has a personality that shines through from their first appearance on the page. They all have a familiar look, too as if they were someone you knew once.

In terms of production quality, Viz has put together a beautiful package, with a gorgeous cover and cream-colored paper that really shows off the art without fatiguing the eye. Even more than most of the titles in the Signature line, this book feels deluxe, like a graphic novel for adults; it’s as far as you can get from Naruto.

Not that All My Darling Daughters would ever pass for anything other than manga. The storytelling style and the stories themselves all echo familiar manga tropes, but in Yoshinaga’s hands they have grown up and become something rich and strange—and highly entertaining.

Review: Yokaiden, vol. 2

9780345503299Yokaiden, vol. 2
By Nina Matsumoto
Rated T, ages 13+
Del Rey, $10.99

The second volume of Nina Matsumoto’s is as imaginative as the first, but it lacks a bit of the sparkle.

Volume 1 introduced Hamachi, a nine-year-old boy who is obsessed with yokai, spirits and monsters of Japanese folklore. When his grandmother, his sole caretaker, is killed by a yokai, Hamachi ventures into the yokai realm to seek revenge.

It’s a pretty classic setup that is enlivened by Matsumoto’s colorful renderings of a huge variety of yokai. However, in the first volume, as she notes in her afterword, she focuses on the more grotesque creatures, while in this one she brings in more human-like yokai, and she also sends Hamachi on a very classic fairy-tale quest. Honestly, I think the yokai in the first volume were more interesting.

Still, she puts some pretty good spins on the traditional tales. In order to find the lizard-like kappa who murdered his grandmother, Hamachi visits the nine-tailed fox spirit, one of the most powerful yokai. Matsumoto imagines her as a massively obese, three-eyed, rather feline fox who is obsessed with human culture: She lives in a mockup of a human home, eats human food, and even has her servants wear human masks. The fox takes a liking to Hamachi and wants to keep him as a pet, but when he insists on staying on mission, she reluctantly agrees to tell him where the kappa is. But first, he must retrieve three treasures that have been stolen from her.

The treasures aren’t stolen, of course; they are simply things the fox wants, and it’s Hamachi who will be doing the stealing. Accompanied by his yokai helpers, a lantern and an umbrella that have come to life after lying around for 100 years, he heads out to perform what should be impossible tasks: stealing a sword from a tengu, a mirror from a slit-mouthed woman, and a necklace from the gods. Each quest brings its own danger, but thanks to his friends’ intervention and a bit of dumb luck, Hamachi manages to get the elusive objects and come out alive. Meanwhile, a human yokai hunter is tracking him, but the hunter is slowed down when the yokai trick him out of his sword and he has to win it back by gambling with them.

Once Hamachi completes his three tasks, the fox yokai reneges on her promise and announces that she is going to keep Hamachi after all. The story ends on a cliff-hanger as the mysterious yokai-hunter bursts in, sword in hand.

Almost all of the interest in this book comes from the varied array of yokai and other creatures that Matsumoto brings to life. She doesn’t just stick with the classical definitions but gives them personalities of their own. Despite their outlandishness, the yokai are convincing as characters, and that makes the story tick. Hamachi usually plays straight man to their quirks, although he does have a sense of humor and a reckless quality all his own. If there is a problem in this book, it is his lack of emotional depth. He was not terribly broken up by the death of his grandmother (who admittedly is portrayed as a mean old woman), and he doesn’t seem to be terribly driven in his quest to avenge her death. It’s more like an excuse for a lark in yokai-land than a burning desire that cannot be quenched. In one chapter, he tells his yokai friends about his parents and how they died, and while the story is charming, it is played a bit too much for laughs. This would have been a good time to show Hamachi’s serious side, but instead he not only shows no sadness, he comes off as a bit dumb when his parents return as ghosts and a villager passes off their unusual appearance as tuberculosis.

I have to admit that I rolled my eyes a bit when the fox spirit announced her three quests—that’s a motif that was done to death by the Middle Ages—but Matsumoto mixes things up a bit and gets Hamachi through each one of them fairly quickly. In fact, the story is quite episodic—one adventure per chapter—which makes it easy to put down and pick up again.

Matsumoto’s art is worth a special mention here, as she does something quite difficult and makes it look easy. Rendering supernatural creatures is tough, because you don’t have real-life models, yet she manages to make an umbrella, a one-legged lizard, and an angel-like tengu all come to life in convincing ways. Not only that, she keeps all the art at the same level. Often Japanese manga artists will put a very cartoony character next to a realistic one, a juxtaposition that I find jarring. Matsumoto’s characters are all consistent—human or yokai, they all look like they belong in the same world. She seamlessly blends disparate parts together, too, giving a woman a convincing bird’s foot, for instance. And she avoids the temptation to make them look too close to classical Japanese representations—they are not overly complicated, nor do they appear to be frozen on the page. Instead they are loosely drawn and very animated, so much so that they look like they could hop off the page.

By the end of this volume, Hamachi is no closer to his goal (in fact, he barely mentions it), but we have been introduced to and entertained by a wide array of yokai, and that is the true charm of this series.

ETA: Almost forgot, I reviewed vol. 1 for Graphic Novel Reporter.

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

Review: Deka Kyoshi, vol. 1

DekaKyoshiDeka Kyoshi, vol. 1
By Tamio Baba
Rated T+, Teen Plus
CMX, $9.99

Detective Toyama is a big, bumbling, good-hearted guy, so when his superiors suspect a schoolteacher has been murdered, they send him undercover as the new teacher for her class. It sort of works, because he obviously loves kids, but Toyama tends to lead with his heart, not his head.

Well, actually, he does lead with his head on the first day of school—hearing a child being bullied, he rushes into the classroom and hits his head on the top of the door frame, leaving a visible head-shaped dent. That’s the only bit of slapstick in the story, though. Although the cover suggests a comedy, Deka Kyoshi is more of a series of moral tales, with a central mystery knitting them loosely together.

The mystery has to do with the first teacher’s death—she fell from a roof, so her students assume she committed suicide, and several of them blame themselves or each other. It’s not clear what Toyama is looking for, but he gets an assistant early in the book: Makoto, one of his fifth-graders, who can see people’s emotions as physical forms. To Makoto, a bully appears as a spiky monster, a girl who doesn’t want to grow up looks like a giant stuffed doll. It’s all pretty basic, although the alternate personalities, called synthes, are well conceived and well drawn.

Makoto’s abilities make him shrink from others, and that in turn makes him a target for bullies—he was the child Toyama heard being bullied in the beginning of the book. After Toyama rescues him, the two hit it off, and Makoto starts helping Toyama. But not with the case of the falling teacher—that case is forgotten as the book turns episodic and Toyama and Makoto start solving the other students’ problems.

In addition to Makoto, Toyama has another ally—Narita-sensei, the school doctor, who is also something of a psychologist. She is cool and logical, proposing sensible solutions and countering Toyama’s hotheadedness. If anything she is too cool, often offering advice that is so laid-back as to be useless. When Toyama gets frustrated that his class is all reading manga instead of paying attention, Narita advises him not to confiscate the offending books. “Being a hardnose about it will have the opposite effect,” she says. “The best thing to do is take time to persuade them that their time here is better spent paying attention.” Like that’s going to work with a classroom full of fifth-graders.

And indeed, the solutions proposed to the students’ problems are too simplistic. In the manga story, a student has been shoplifting manga so he can share it with the class and thus become popular. Narita catches him and makes him promise not to do it any more. Of course the kid backslides, and Toyama yells at him to be a man and stop stealing. The student’s synth disappears and he gives up shoplifting for good. With similar ease, Toyama, Narita, and Makoto manage to cure a girl who cuts herself and another girl who is uncomfortable with her changing body. The stories are nice little self-contained dramas, but they never veer far from the predictable. There does seem to be a dark figure lurking in the shadows who may be causing bad thigs to happen—and by implication may have something to do with the teacher’s death—but that possibility goes unexplored in this volume.

The art in Deka Kyoshi is clean-lined and clear, with a fair amount of exaggeration. People more knowledgeable than me have described it as old-style shonen, ad that does seem to fit, but it’s an accessible style that either girls or boys can enjoy. The synthes are nicely drawn, and creator Tamio Baba does a nice job of using physical forms to describe emotional states.

At about 160 pages, this volume feels a little skimpy, but there are a few extras—a color page in front, a two-page bonus comic in the back. The cover is bright and appealing, although it implies a wackiness that isn’t really present in the book. With its simple stories and clear art, Deka Kyoshi does feel like it is pitched more toward the middle grades than adults, and it will probably have the most appeal for that age group.

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

Review: Yotsuba&!, vol. 6

yotsuba_6Yotsuba&!, vol. 6
By Kiyohiko Azuma
Rated All Ages
Yen Press, $10.99

Yotsuba&! has become such a phenomenon in the manga world that it is impossible to write a truly objective review. Everybody loves the little green-haired kid!

The phenomenon might be a little harder for those new to manga to understand. The basic premise of the comic—cute kid misunderstands things in a humorous way—is so simple as to be universal. It’s the underpinning of countless newspaper comic strips and children’s books, and Yotsuba&! never strays too far from that premise. What makes it special is that it is done so well, with solid writing and beautiful, clear artwork.

In the first volume, Yotsuba was puzzled by ordinary things like air conditioners. She would see an object, wonder what it is, and then apply her own logic to the problem, always winding up with a crazy misunderstanding that was gently corrected, with many amused looks, by the others around her.

By volume 6, Azuma seems to have run that well dry, and the stories are more ordinary kid-and-family stories. Yotsuba does a recycling project, taping discarded objects to an old T-shirt. Yotsuba gets a bike. Yotsuba rides all over creation to deliver a bottle of milk to a friend. She just seems like a sweet kid who lives with her father and likes to go hang out with the older kids next door.

There are a few qualities that set Yotsuba&! apart from, say, Dennis the Menace or Rose is Rose. For one thing, the setting is very noticeably Japanese. Yotsuba&! is a slice-of-life manga in a pedestrian setting, so we get to see a lot of images of ordinary people at home, which is somewhat unusual in manga. While many artists keep the backgrounds vague, Azuma treats us to detailed interiors and sweeping urban landscapes, complete with carefully delineated buildings and crisscrossing wires. My favorite part of this volume was the story in which Yotsuba rides her bike cross-country to bring a bottle of milk to a friend, along paths and through fields and neighborhoods, the landscape spreading around her on either side.

Yotsuba herself always seem to be on full power, unlike the people around her. It’s not that she is hyperactive so much as earnest and eager, always straining to head out on the next adventure. One difference between Yen Press’s editions and those produced previously by ADV is that in the Yen book, Yotsuba’s words appear larger in the text balloons, so she seems to be yelling a lot of the time.

One of the interesting things about this series is that Yotsuba is drawn in a noticeably more cartoony, less realistic style than everyone else. Her head is big (bigger than her father’s) and perfectly circular, her body is smaller in proportion to her head than those of other characters, and her eyes are often reduced to circles. Everyone gets the circle-eyed look once in a while, but Yotsuba has it most of the time. It’s as if the iconic smile face grew pigtails and a body. If you apply Scott McCloud’s theory, that means that the reader is supposed to identify with Yotsuba herself. That opens up a range of interesting speculation, given that the series runs in a comics magazine for young men in Japan, that I’m choosing not to pursue.

Here in the U.S., though, Yotsuba takes on a different context. Its all-ages rating makes it a natural for kids, and the clear linework and simple situations also make it easy to grasp the story visually. Azuma describes his characters with great economy, giving each one a distinct look and personality without distracting the eye with a lot of details.

As many readers know, Yotsuba&! was originally published by ADV, which started their manga program with a flood of releases and then slowed their output to a trickle. They published the first five volumes of the series, with decreasing frequency, and then, despite louder and louder clamoring from readers, never published any more. This will remain one of the great mysteries of manga publishing—why, with people practically climbing the walls for these books, they didn’t just go ahead and publish them.

Anyway, Yen rescued the license and has started it fresh, with new translations and redesigned editions of the first five volumes. The translations definitely are different, although which one is better will be a matter of individual taste. The ADV editions have translators’ notes at the end, the Yen editions do not. On the other hand, Yen retains the original sound effects and Japanese script in the art (translated in the margins between the panels), as well as honorifics, which will doubtless please purists. Yen also wins on production values, with high-quality paper and glossy covers making for a very handsome set of books.

Yotsuba&! is one of those atmospheric manga, like Aria, that you can read for relaxation. Each chapter is a self-contained story, so you don’t have to work too hard, and the biggest conflict in the book is Yotsuba taking off on her bike and getting grounded. It’s a great choice for escapist reading for kids or kids-at-heart.

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