Monday, November 24, 2014

Review: JOAN

Before we all stuff ourselves silly with food, let's take a look at one last historical manga, an overlooked masterpiece from the creator of Gundam: The Origin.

JOAN, by Yoshikazu Yasuhiko.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2001.



PLOT:
Emil (born Emily) is the orphaned illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Lorraine.  She was saved by one of the Duke's followers who disguised her as a boy to protect her identity.  Now Emil is a young woman who wants to fight for her country as well as to emulate her own personal hero, Joan of Arc.  Emil heads off to Tourelles to meet with the other nobles and officially pledge herself to the cause, guided by visions of Joan in various stages of her life.  When Emil gets there, she discovers that she has allied herself to the dauphin Louis, a noxious bully who wants only to claim the kingdom for himself.  Now Emil finds herself questioning everything that has driven her to this point, even her visions of Joan of Arc, wondering if she has tied herself to an ignoble cause.

STORY:
I was expecting this to be a simple retelling of the life of Joan of Arc.  While it does serve as a sort of biography, Joan is more focused on exploring how Joan's life affected the land and people left behind after her death.

Mind you, if anyone had to walk in Joan's footsteps, few are as qualified as Emil.  She is a steely and determined woman, one who is driven to protect her family, her identity, her homeland, and her king.  She is surprisingly unfazed by her visions of Joan, as Joan herself reflects on her life and urges Emil onward.  Is Emil having divine visions like Joan did herself, or is it all simply a figment of her imagination, a projection of her own beliefs and desires?  Yasuhiko seems determined to keep mum on the matter, letting the reader decide for themselves.  She certainly serves as contrast to those around her, the noble youth trying to convince her jaded elders of something greater than themselves.  In Emil many see the echoes of Joan, but any lofty ideals they might have held died with Joan, and now most are simply trying to survive.

Admittedly, this story will make a lot more sense to those who know something of the events of the Hundred Years' War.  The story does it best to keep the chain of events clear and the book is loaded with translation notes to explain who is who and what is what.  Nonetheless, it throws a lot of names and titles about without a lot of context, and without it some of the impact is lost as well.  In particular, a little research goes a long way towards giving context to our ostensible villain, that scheming little bastard Louis, first-born son of King Charles VII.  He quickly demonstrates himself to be a megalomaniacal bully, one that is hungry for power and fighting solely to prove that he is a better leader than his father the king.  Louis comes off as a cartoonish figure on the page, but history proves that Yasuhiko didn't take a great deal of liberty with him.  The real Louis was that much of a bastard, one who opposed his father to his dying day and at the time of the story really was plotting a rebellion against him.  Louis may want for a mustache to twirl in an evil manner, but you can't say that he was misrepresented.

Joan uses a tumultuous time in French history to show how people can be affected when a real hero dies.  To some the hero becomes inspiration; to other, that same hero becomes little more than a fond memory or just a name to exploit for their own cause.

ART:
The story is good, but the artwork is even better.  First and foremost, this series is published in full color, with large watercolored panels stretching cover to cover.  I especially liked his use of bold, monochrome washes of color to convey both mood and setting, be it the cold, dark purples and blues of the wilderness, the golden yellows of sunny days and happier times in the past, the sickly green of the big city, or the fiery oranges and red during times of turmoil and threat. 

The character designs are handsome and grounded, although Yasuhiko has always tended to make his villains more cartoony than his heroes.  As such, Louis and his allies tend to have larger, more slanted eyes and bigger, broader expressions.  He also has a hard time making his leads NOT look like Amuro Ray, as Emil looks essentially like a slightly softer version of him with a Prince Valiant haircut.  Still, he clearly put a lot of effort and research into making the backgrounds and costumes as historically accurate as possible, although he tends to let things get a bit more Impressionistic during Emil's visions.  Honestly, the only artwork here that doesn't work is the front cover, which is far too Spartan to appeal and doesn't begin to suggest the beauty that lies beneath it.

PRESENTATION:
Luckily, that plain cover is in fact a book jacket that can be removed.  Unluckily, the cover underneath is even more plain, featuring just the title over a light brown marble pattern.  As noted before, there are quite a few pages of notes and essays afterwards explaining various historical references in the story, the Hundred Years' War, and the life of Joan of Arc for some very necessary context.

RATING:
This is a great historical drama with equally magnificent art, and anyone interested in seeing what Yasuhiko can do outside of Gundam should check this series out.

This series was published by Comics One.  The series is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently out of print.


Friday, November 21, 2014

Review: LUDWIG II

The second historical yaoi series of the week is also by another prolific BL mangaka who made a inspired choice for a historical figure to lead her gay smut story.  Now if only she had the chops to make that same figure fit comfortably into the gay romance element.

LUDWIG II (Ruhtovi II Sei), by You Higuri.  First published in 1996, and first published in North America in 2009. 



PLOT:
King Ludwig II of Bavaria reigned at a time when political tensions were threatening many of the old monarchies of central Europe.  Ludwig couldn't care less about it, though.  He has no interest in acting like a proper ruler or finding a wife.  He's far too busy losing himself in daydreams about Siegfried and other mythological heroes.  The only people who can connect to him are his lovely cousin Elizabeth, Empress of Austro-Hungary, and his handsome footman Hornig, and his relationship with Hornig threatens to consume Ludwig completely.  Is what he feels for Hornig truly love, though, or simply just another form of madness?

STORY:
I really want to give Higuri some credit for not only creating a historical yaoi series, but even going so far as to pick a person with a dramatic life story and who was very likely gay in real life.  It's too bad that she makes him out to be a total dickweed and then expect the reader to feel terribly sorry for him.

Oh, good old "Mad" Ludwig of Bavaria.  Most people know him for his fondness for ornate castles, being one of Richard Wagner's biggest fans, and for being nuttier than a squirrel's breakfast.  As a ruler he was kind of hopeless from the start.  He never made any effort to defend his land from Prussia and willingly allowed his kingdom to be enfolded into the newly united Germany.  As a man,  his life was full of short-lived and tumultuous relationships, culminating in a diagnosis of insanity and his mysterious death.  That's more than enough material for any decent manga writer, regardless of genre, to craft a great story.  Higuri did more than her fair share of research on Ludwig, and it shows all over the volume.  Many of the significant events of his early years are represented here and she takes fairly little artistic license with them.  Even Hornig is based on a real man, a stableboy in Ludwig's household who was one of his many lovers.  The only problem is that she tries to make the real Ludwig's life fit inside the standard mold of yaoi romance, turning what was in reality a short-lived fling into some sort of true love, and it never works for a moment.

Ludwig spends most of his time on page being dreamy and angsty in equal measures, but the moment Hornig enters the scene he transforms into the stereotypical seme with alarming speed.  We're never given any sort of explanation as to why Ludwig has put so much importance in Hornig.  He's certainly a kind enough man, but Hornig doesn't show himself to be terribly bright, insightful, or remarkable in any way.  Hornig serves little purpose to Ludwig beyond being Ludwig's pet, there to be cosseted or saved as the story demands.  It's telling that Ludwig has more romantic chemistry with his cousin Elizabeth than he does with Hornig.  This romance is also in defiance of the real history of Ludwig II.  Ludwig is believed to have had many male lovers in his time, and the story could have used that fact explore the idea of Ludwig seeking his Romantic ideal in man after man, each of them falling short of his fantasies.  It would have tied the two sides we see of him together in a more orderly manner, giving each more dramatic resonance, instead of having them contrast so starkly. 

My biggest issue with Higuri's take on Ludwig is that she wants us to feel SO SORRY for him, but her version of Ludwig is too unlikeable to elicit sympathy.  Like Elizabeth in the intro, we're meant to view him as this tragic romantic figure, chasing the ideals of beauty and heroism in an attempt to escape a harsh reality.  The truth is that the Ludwig here doesn't come off like a tragic victim of circumstance but more of a willful, obsessive asshole.  He can (and does) snap out of his obsession at will and is shown to be perfectly aware of the demands of his position and world events.  This Ludwig isn't a madman, but instead a selfish man-child who wants to play pretend for the rest of his life and paints himself as a martyr whenever he's forced to do otherwise.  Worse still, everyone around him goes out of their way to forgive his transgressions.  Elizabeth sees him as a best friend and ideal.  Hornig sees him as a good and protective man.  Even Ludwig's fiancée, who nurtures a schoolgirl crush on Ludwig, ends up forgiving him for cheating on her with Hornig because she's happy that he's so deeply in love.  Higuri ultimately treats Ludwig II with the reverence of a schoolgirl in love, whitewashing all his faults and complications, and this treatment mostly makes me nauseous.

Her choice in subject may have been inspired, but Higuri goes too far in making the life of Ludwig II into some romantic ideal.  She turns a real and complicated man into a dickish asshole and turns a casual fling into a shallow, stereotypical romance, all while painting the whole affair as a maudlin tragedy. 

ART:
Higuri could be considered a better-than-average BL artist.  While her character designs take a lot from shoujo conventions, she can make emote decently and they do bear some resemblance to their historical counterparts.  She's also less focused on the smut than most, and the few sex scenes that are present are brief and non-explicit.  The backgrounds come and go, although the better examples are clearly traced from reference.  It's not at Kaoru Mori levels of historical accuracy, but I will take whatever effort and quality I can get in this genre. 

PRESENTATION:
There's a long and rather cute omake about Higuri visiting Austria for research, along with an afterward and a bibliography. 

RATING:
Higuri's inspired choice in subject is undermined by turning him into an irredeemable asshole even as she declares him to be a tragic hero.  It's better looking and better informed than the average yaoi series, but that doesn't necessarily make it a good one.

This series was published by Digital Manga Press.  This series is complete in 3 volumes, and all are currently out of print.

There are only a few days left to contribute to the Carolina Manga Library's Indiegogo campaign! They have over $1700, but they still need funds to put towards a permanent trailer, and at $2000 they will make a video showing off their collection.  Help them meet their next goal before it ends on Sunday!

Speaking of good causes, also consider contributing to the Patreon for Jonathan Kaharl, a fellow writer and site editor over at Infinite Rainy Day.  Supporting him will help support IRD (and possibly myself and the other writers, if it does well enough).  He's a great writer well worth supporting, so donate today!

Monday, November 17, 2014

One-Volume Wonder: LOVERS IN THE NIGHT

It shouldn't be shocking that there are yaoi series that take their inspiration from history as well.  We'll be looking at a couple of those this week, starting with this early work from one of my favorite mangaka.

LOVERS IN THE NIGHT (Ai Towa Yoru ni Kizuku Mono), by Fumi Yoshinaga.  First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2007. 



PLOT:
Claude is a young man who is drafted into becoming a servant in an aristocratic household in Ancient Regime France.  Claude soon demonstrates that he is a servant beyond compare, rising all the way to becoming the master's personal valet.  Upon his master's death, Claude's services are transferred to the master's son Antoine.  Antoine is youthful, cheeky, spoiled, and gay, and the two soon becomes lovers as well as master and servant, doing their best to survive in a post-Revolution world.

STORY:
My expectations for this story may have been a bit inflated, considering my fondness for Yoshinaga in general and for her other French Revolution-era yaoi series, the flawed but fascinating Gerard & Jacques.  The quality of her other works had me hoping for much of the same with this book, but sadly it seems that Yoshinaga slacked off here.  There isn't so much of a linear story arc as there is a lot of interludes, which makes the story as a whole feel choppy.  Worse still, the cast only feels half developed, and the story never truly takes advantage of its given time period.

It's not for lack of trying on Yoshinaga's part.  There are many intriguing things to explore with Claude, be it his partially Asian background, his rise from common prostitution to high status servant, and his complicated affections for both Antoine and Antoine's father.  Sadly, these aren't explored, and Claude remains the same quiet, assured and intelligent man from beginning to end.  Antoine is at more of an advantage simply because we literally watch him grow up.  We not only see him physically grow up, but we see him transform from a callow spoiled brat to...well, still something of a spoiled brat, but one who can at least acknowledge there is world beyond his own needs and wants.  Even Antoine's father gets more development, as we see him as both a kind and gentle man and as a total lech who wastes his family's fortunes.  The story never asks us to see him as a saint or a villain, but simply as a complicated man too stuck in his habits to change the faults in himself and his lifestyle. 

What's truly strange is how blithely and quickly the story glosses over something like THE FREAKING FRENCH REVOLUTION.  Claude and Antoine simply escape to a relative's house in some Germanic territory in the space of a couple of chapters, and afterwards never so much as acknowledge that most of their friends and family are dead and that they can never truly return to life as they knew it.  Antoine pines more for good French food and wine than he does for the past, and Claude solves their financial troubles in a throwaway gag involving a fake aphrodisiac.  As such, there's never any fear that the two will be split apart or forced to suffer due to poverty.  The story also never questions the large age different between our leads.  Claude is not only a servant, but a literal father figure to Antoine.  In some ways, he's been more of a father to him than Antoine's real father was, and now he is sleeping with the same boy he watched grow up.  I can't say I'm fond of such a dynamic, and I can see it being a turn-off to others.  It also never really alters the master/servant dynamic between our title characters.  While it's clear that Claude is the one directing Antoine's life and not vice versa, the two never quite reach the stage where the two become equals, in spite of all the changes that the Revolution hath wrought.  After all, Antoine is still the one who commands Claude to sleep with him, even after all this time.  Thus there's always a sort of power imbalance between the two that never quite sat easily with me.

Lovers in the Night is far from the worse yaoi series I've read, but it's disappointing to see a master of the genre create something so half-assed.  It glosses over much of the impact of the time and setting, and the character development feels half-assed and occasionally squicky.

ART:
At least I didn't suffer the same sort of disappointment with the art.  The character designs are typical for her work, with a lot of finely drawn, square-jawed handsome men expressing themselves in a truly beautiful manner.  The wardrobes are fairly period-accurate, save for the fact that they are almost minimalist in design.  Backgrounds are rare, and this absence is only accentuated by the large, spacious panels.  Yoshinaga does use that space to her advantage with framing, shifting her characters to the edges of the panels or fading their face halfway into the white space for effect.  The sex scenes themselves strike a nice balance between smuttiness and coyness, and they're inserted in a very organic manner.  It never feels like she had to add a sex scene to keep the readers' attentions, which is a point in her favor.

RATING:
The artwork is as lovely as ever, but the story is lacking in scale and never fully fleshes out its main couple.  In comparison to Yoshinaga's other works (BL and otherwise), Lovers in the Night feels like a trifle and I can't recommend it to most outside of hardened BL fans or Yoshinaga completionists.

This book was published by Tokyopop.  It is currently out of print.

It's the last week to contribute to the Carolina Manga Library's IndieGoGo campaign!  They still need funds to put towards a permanent trailer, and at $2000 they will make a video showing off their collection.  Help them meet their next goal before it's too late!

Speaking of good causes, also consider contributing to the Patreon for Jonathan Kaharl, a fellow writer and site editor over at Infinite Rainy Day.  Supporting him will help support IRD (and possibly myself and the other writers, if it does well enough).  He's a great writer well worth supporting, so donate today!

Monday, November 10, 2014

Review: LE CHEVALIER D'EON

Of course, very few historical manga are straight up adaptations of history.  Most take some liberties with the material.  Some, like today's selection, take a lot of them.

LE CHEVALIER D'EON (Shuvarie d'Eon), based on the story by Tow Ubukata and drawn by Kiriko Yumeji.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2007.



PLOT:
During the reign of Louis XIV, something strange and supernatural is afoot.  Learned men are being possessed by strange spirits that spur them to write crazed poetry in the blood of innocents as they shapeshift into strange reptilian creatures.  The only defense Paris has against these monsters is the Chevalier Sphinx, a fearsome woman who masterfully wields her blade against those who threaten the city.  What few people know is that the Chevalier Sphinx is in fact the male Chevalier d'Eon, a hapless police officer and secret agent for the king who calls upon the spirit of his dead sister (not to mention a frilly dress and wig) to transform into the Sphinx.  What are the mysteries behind d'Eon's transformation and those behind the poor men force to write these bloody psalms?

STORY:
Le Chevalier d'Eon is a nifty concept for a historical AU, but its fast pace and lack of backstory ruin what potential it may have had.

The pacing is nothing short of relentless.  We begin the story mid-fight, and those fights never seem to let up.  They seem to follow the same sort of pattern: d'Eon screws up at his day job, we meet the victim of the week, the victim transforms, the Sphinx shows up to save the day, and the status quo returns.  The only relief from the formula comes from d'Eon's occasional visits to the king, which in the end serve only as exposition dumps.  Even these are rushed through, so the reader is never given an explanation for anything, and the story is in desperate need of it where d'Eon is concerned.  We never learn who d'Eon's sister is, why she is dead, or how she is able to possess her brother, and it's a plothole that's simply too massive to be brushed aside.

Speaking of the Chevalier himself, he's a bit too feckless at times to be truly interesting.  In all fairness, it is part of an act he uses to get info without making him suspicious, a tactic familiar to fans of The Scarlet Pimpernel.  On the other hand, this means we get a lot of tedious scenes where d'Eon screws up and the chief makes him do menial tasks as punishment, leaving his errand boy Robin to clean things up.  He doesn't even seem to change all that much when he transforms aside from his outfit and his increased fighting skills.  It's rather strange, considering that there really WAS a Chevalier d'Eon who was a spy as well as one of history's first transgendered figures.  That's a great hook for a story.  I just don't know how it was transformed into this rushed, spotty mess.

ART:
Le Chevalier d'Eon has surprisingly ornate artwork, which is fitting for a series set in the Baroque period.  There's a high level of detail on the characters and textures, and everyone seems to be outlined in thick scratches of black ink.  Unfortunately, that same level of detail was not spared for the backgrounds.  Instead, that space is filled with thick, rough hatching and speedlines.  Panels are cramped, which gives no room for the action to flow or for the details to truly shine.  It's not like Yumeji wasn't trying, but it's all too cluttered to be appealing.

PRESENTATION:
Aside from the usual translation notes, there's also a little script where d'Eon and Robin provide historical context for the story, talking about things like the court of Versailles. 

RATING:
The artwork has some interesting qualities, but the story is too rushed and scattershot and the art too messy for its own good.

This series is published by Kodansha, formerly Del Ray.  The series is complete in 8 volumes.  The physical volumes are out of print, but the series is being rereleased in e-book form through most large e-book retailers.

The Carolina Manga Library met its $1500 goal, but they'll still need more if they want to get that trailer!  There are only two weeks left in the campaign, so donate to their IndieGoGo campaign today!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Review: HETALIA

Manga allows its readers to approach history from all sorts of fascinating angles, and we'll be exploring some of those angles all of this month.  It can be a straightforward retelling of events, fictional extrapolations of real people, fanciful stories in period settings, or like today's choice, a humorous take on world history.

HETALIA, by Hidekaz Himaruya.  First published in 2008, and first published in North America in 2010. 



PLOT:
In a world where the nations of the world are personified as people, Germany is seeking out Italy during World War I.  He's appalled by what he finds, as Italy is a cowardly wimp who is more interested in girls and pasta than conflict of any sort.  He latches onto Germany instantly, and in turn the two team up with distant, reserved Japan.  This action sets the Allied nations into an uproar...well, no more of one than they create whenever they're forced to be around each other.  Hilarity ensues, and no nation past or present is off-limits.

STORY:
Hetalia is something of an oddity in the manga world, having gotten its start not in a magazine, but as a 4-koma webcomic.  Does it still work when you take this sort of material from the web to the printed page?  Honestly, it really depends upon the reader.

Hetalia's appeal can depend a lot on your knowledge of world history.  Most of the strips and stories stem from events both big and small in history.  While it may start out during the World Wars, it quickly abandons that concept to instead bounce about to whatever time period it wants.  This does give this series the advantage of moving on once all the jokes have been mined from a particular topic, but it's also a bit disorienting to move from World War II to the Renaissance to the War of Austrian Succession.  Some of these events and references are so obscure (or represented so obliquely) that they require footnotes after the strip, something which you'll find throughout the book.  Those that are well-read will be well-rewarded, because Himaruya digs deep for trivia for his strips, and they will likely be those who will get most of the jokes.

That being said, this series trades just as much in dumb humor as it does smart history.  The vast majority of the jokes and character development center around each nation being big, broad stereotypes of their respective nations.  As such, Italy is obsessed with food and sex, America is loud and egocentric, Germany is rigid and militaristic, and the list goes on and on.  This is probably the biggest caveat of the whole series; if you are offended by stereotypes, then this is most certainly NOT the manga for you.  At the very least, Hetalia can be said to be an equal opportunity offender: no country is spared from scrutiny.  Even Japan gets mocked, although he doesn't get nearly the ribbing that some of the Western nations do.  Those who are familiar with the animated version may notice that the manga doesn't feature either the heavy amounts of homoeroticism nor the more vulgar humor that the show is known for (depending on whether you watched it subbed or dubbed).  It's odd that a series so renowned for its slashiness could be so innocent and goofy in its original form.  It's almost enough to distract you from the fact that this is all an extrapolation of World War II.

Jokes are something of a relative term when it comes to Hetalia.  Being a 4-koma series, there's not much space to build up to a punchline.  At best, the humor is at the level of a mild chuckle.  Hetalia's shortness, weak humor and history-hopping can make this a hard series to marathon.  Still, it can be clever with its use of  history, and those who can get past the stereotypes just might enjoy this humorous take on international politics and culture.

ART:
Being a 4-koma series, Himaruya isn't concerned with filling up the page with big, beautiful panels.  The character designs are generically cute, but are distinct enough to know which nation is which (well, except for Canada, but no one ever seems to remember Canada).  The quality of the art varies wildly from page to page, and I suspect that at least some of these stories were retouched before being published.  Some have a more refined artstyle and appear to be professionally inked, but others still retain the softer, cruder lines of a pencil sketch, right down to the extra lines around the frames where he was trying to straighten them out.  Mind you, even the cruder looking ones have their charms, as Himaruya does make an effort with the backgrounds as well as some gentle, watercolor-style shading.  For what it's worth, these unpolished details give the artwork a certain sort of homespun charm.

PRESENTATION:
Hetalia has the misfortune to be one of Tokyopop's last licenses, seeing only two volumes hit print before they shut down. Amazingly, Tokyopop managed to retain the license and now have reprinted these volumes (as well as more recent ones) through a print-on-demand agreement with online retailer RightStuf.  While the content remains the same, there are noticeable differences in the two editions.  The RightStuf copies are notably larger and feature better quality paper than the original Tokyopop volumes, but those from Tokyopop's first edition feature color artwork - something that was not retained for the RightStuf copies of the first two volumes.  Aside from that, the extras are the same between the two versions - translation notes, character profiles, a foreword from Tokyopop CEO Stu Levy, and a collection of pictures of Hetalia cosplayers from around the world. 

RATING:
Hetalia is a series with little to no middle ground - either you love it or you don't.  What camp you find yourself falling into will ultimately depend on how much you value the appeal of bishonen countries, your interest in world history, and your tolerance for non-PC humor.

This series is published by Tokyopop and RightStuf.  This series is ongoing in Japan, with 6 volumes available.  All 6 have been released and are currently in print.

The Carolina Manga Library is only $64 shy of meeting their goal with less than three weeks to go!  Help them meet their goal and more by donating to their Indiegogo campaign today!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Review: PETSHOP OF HORRORS

Per tradition, I always like to give you guys a treat of a review for Halloween, and once again it's one of my favorite series ever.  Happy Halloween!

PETSHOP OF HORRORS (Pettoshoppu obu Horazu), by Matsuri Akino.  First published in 1995, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Deep in the heart of San Fransisco's Chinatown is a petshop run by the mysterious, androgynous Count D.  He will sell you any pet that you wish, and depending on the owner that pet can bring fortune or ruin in its wake.  Detective Orcot is convinced that the Count knows more than he is letting on in regards to the recent deaths of some of his clients, and as such keeps returning to the shop to investigate Count D and his menagerie of magical animals.

STORY:
Morality tales are a common form for horror stories, and have been so since the first peasant needed a way to scare their kids into obeying the rules.  This is doubly true for horror manga, as is suits the serialized nature of manga magazines in Japan.  It was a veritable trend in 1990s shoujo, and Petshop of Horrors was one of the first and one of the best of the lot, a masterful combination of atmosphere and sly humor.

It helps that Count D isn't just the Cryptkeeper-style narrator, but instead an active participant in every chapter.  Not only does he sell and reclaim the creatures he sells, but he has his ongoing relationship with Detective Orcot.  Despite what the pretty artwork and the fandom might suggest, their relationship is surprisingly free of homoeroticism.  If anything, Akino plays the relationship between the two more for laughs than for fangirl appeal (and those laughs always come at Orcot's expense).  Still, their weird, quasi-friendly relationship is woven well into each chapter, fitting in perfectly with each new story. 

The actual tales are also well-written.  Structurally they're quite simple: Count D provides someone with a pet, along with a short list of rules for the new owner to follow.  Of course, the owners end up breaking one or more rules due to some human failing - curiosity, indulgence, ego.  Others fall victim to more innocent emotions such as love or devotion.  Sometimes the end result is just a bit of sadness and hard-earned wisdom for the owner; other times the results are outright deadly.  In a stranger twist, the owner often perceives their new pet as some sort of beautiful man or woman where others can only see a rabbit, bird, or dog.  The story never explains how D knows just what drives these people to seek a pet or if he has any hand in how they act.  That mystery only goes to add interest to the stories instead of lingering as a plot hole.  It fits in perfectly with the same air of mystery D has cultivated around himself, the same one that modern-day man Orcot is determined to explain away and the same air that make this series such a delight to read in the first place.

ART:
The art for Petshop of Horrors is at once lush and delicate.  While there are some fashion choices that instantly date this series to the mid 1990s, the characters are nicely detailed (if a little flat due to lack of shading).  This is especially true for Count D and his many elegant gowns, as well as the costumes for the pets' human costumes.  There's also a fair degree of subtlety to the art, as Count D can convey much from just the slyest slip of a smile or a narrowing of his eyes.  The character designs are as extravagant as the art gets, though.  The composition is fairly restrained and the backgrounds are mostly washes of black and white, broken up only by the wacky patterns that come out during the wacky moments.  It's artwork that is very much of its time, but it's one of the best examples of its sort.

RATING:
This series has more than earned its status as a classic.  It finds a fine balance between the horror and the humor, and the art restrains itself enough to let its delicate characters designs shine. 

This series was published by Tokyopop.  The series is complete in 10 volumes, and all are currently out of print.

It's a good day to give the Carolina Manga Library a treat by donating some funds towards their Indiegogo campaign.  They're currently 90% funded - they only need $154 to meet their goal, and you can help them reach that before October ends!

Monday, October 27, 2014

One Volume Wonder: CRIMSON CROSS

It takes a lot for a vampire manga to grab my attention.  It takes even more for a one-shot vampire manga to do the same.

CRIMSON CROSS (Crimson Cross ~ Shi ga Futari o Wakatsu made ~), written by Sakae Maeda & art by Kyoko Negishi.  First published in 2006, and first published in North America in 2010.



PLOT:
Karl is a man with a mission.  A descendant of the Van Helsings, it is his personal mission to hunt down the world's vampires, and in particular the master vampire Elliot.  Why?  Well, part of it is that he wants to avenge those in his past killed by Elliot, but he also has a more personal revenge in mind.  On a whim, Elliot turned Karl into a vampire and now every cross and bit of scripture Karl wields threatens to destroy him just as much as the prey he seeks.  Nonetheless, Karl is determined to save the innocent women he encounters along his way without losing his humanity in the process.

STORY:
I didn't have high hopes for this one.  There are countless manga that take bits and pieces of Dracula mythology and repurpose it for their own means.  For every single series that recombines it in interesting ways, there are easily half a dozen others that make a complete mess of the matter.  Crimson Cross manages to become one of the former by anchoring those bits and pieces to an interesting and compelling lead character who is caught in a surprisingly philosophical dilemma.

Karl is a man who is torn between two worlds, both in a literal sense (human vs. vampire) and in a spiritual sense (heaven vs. hell).  He's a holy warrior who has been turned into a demon against his will, and he is determined to fight back against his curse and continue to fight his good fight against the monsters who made him this way.  He's determined to hold on to his humanity and to not let his own thirst for revenge distract him from that.  Unfortunately, Karl has good intentions but not a lot of physical strength, so he tends to get hurt a lot.  I do wish that so much of his motivation wasn't tied so much to saving naïve waifs from vampires.  It doesn't matter whether it's his mother, his friend, a random witch he meets in the woods, they are all these perfect virgin sacrifices made in the name of the plot, and the last of that list earns him a grudge from a bunch of random werewolves to boot.

The vampires here are something of a mixed bag.  They're very typical in the sense that they're decadent, hypnotic noblemen out to exploit the plebes.  What makes them slightly atypical are their weaknesses.  It's not so much the use of holy words against, although I do like the idea of Scripture being thrown at them like spells.  No, here the greatest danger to a vampire is sheer boredom.  One lesser vampire let himself be killed by a hunter in the past because he was just THAT bored with eternity.  Thus, to Elliot and company, Karl's struggles are like some glorious joke that's too amusing to stop.  While they are perfectly capable of violence, the vampires here come off less like monsters and more like philosophers (albeit dickish ones).  I'll happily take their half-hearted attempts at thoughtfulness over "Oh, woe is me, I'm surrounded by riches, women and demonic power, but what I truly pine for is looooove."

That's a good way to approach Crimson Cross in general.  I do wish it had been a little different - maybe make it a little bit less sexist, a little more coherent, or give it a more definitive ending.  Still, I was invested in Karl and his conflict because Maeda made a genuine effort.

ART:
Negishi's art is surprisingly good as well.  Her character designs are handsome and grounded.  They're all delicately drawn and very expressive, which goes a long way towards selling the reader on Karl's internal conflict.  That delicacy does hurt the backgrounds, which end up being a lot of wispy greys and blacks.  It does blend well with the vaporous qualities of the vampires' powers, though, and at time the effect is pleasingly spooky.  While it's not gruesome, Negishi doesn't shy away from violence, be it the burns on Karl's body, the blood pouring from Elliot's latest victim, or one character having their eyeball ripped out of their skull.  If the art has any particular failings, it's that the panels shift angles all the time.  The images pan up and down or tilt in all directions, and it's mildly distracting.  Still, there's a lot of quality and subtlety to be found in the art here, and it helps sell the reader on this story despite its shortness.

RATING:
DMP tends to pick up a lot of middling series, but here they found a real diamond in the rough.  Don't dismiss this as just another wishy-washy vampire manga, as there's more than enough effort and thought here to make this one worth your while.

This series is published by Digital Manga Press.  It is currently out of print.

If you haven't already, please consider donating to the Carolina Manga Library's IndieGoGo campaign.  They're at 78% of their goal with less than a month to go, so let's get them to 100% and beyond!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Review: REIKO THE ZOMBIE SHOP

If there's one classic monster that doesn't get a lot of play in manga, it's zombies.  The zombie craze hasn't quite overtaken Japanese comics in the same way that it has with American ones, but because of that they sometimes take it in some interesting directions.

REIKO THE ZOMBIE SHOP (Zombie-ya Reiko), by Rei Mikamoto.  First published in 1999, and first published in North America in 2005.



PLOT:
Reiko is a girl with a very special gift.  With the help of a magic symbol on her hand and a retinue of handy chants, she can bring the dead back to life.  These zombies can speak out against those who killed them and even lash out against them.  Of course, Reiko doesn't do all this for free, but for the bereaved parents, scared schoolgirls, fatalistic rock stars, and desperate criminals who call up her services, anything is worth the price.

STORY:
Nonsense title aside (seriously, where or what is the zombie shop in the title?), Reiko is a solid, if shallow and bloody collection of morality tales tied together by our lead.

I'll give Reiko this much - she's not written as a terribly deep character, but she's forceful and willful enough to serve as a good anchor for the anthology-style storytelling.  She's got a don't-give-a-shit personality which feels appropriate not only to her position as necromancer, but also as a teenage girl.  Yeah, she can raise the dead, so what?  She doesn't have time to ponder her own backstory, she's got a job to do!  She's also very efficient at her job, even if no one ever seems to pay attention.  She has a few ground rules - she wants payment upfront, restrain the resurectee lest they go berserk - but no one ever seems to listen until the ghouls start a-rising.  Reiko does have a few friends, but we don't get much insight into her life beyond her work.  Instead we follow her as she finds new reasons to resurrect the dead in increasingly outrageous ways.

The story starts out like your standard horror anthology, where each chapter is a new self-contained story about some blatantly wicked person who calls upon Reiko, who in turn resurrects the victim to deal out some old-fashioned ironic punishment.  The topics of these chapters are incredibly sensationalist, as they feature victims of suicide, child molestation, teenage pregnancy, and more.  Midway through the story starts condensing into something more continuous, as Reiko's work starts to cross over with the victims of a teenage serial killer.  Said killer starts off fairly calm, but by volume's end she's an eyetwitch away from cackling like a loon as she slashes with abandon.  When she and Reiko finally meet, and the conclusion is both insane and awesome at once.  I can't imagine how this series continued beyond an ending like THAT.  This is often an outrageous and ludicrous work, but that same ludicrousness made its bloody action more palatable.  It does diminish the horror of these situations to some degree, but in return it becomes more entertaining and darkly humorous.  Maybe that's the best way to approach a series like Reiko The Zombie Shop.  It's not a great character piece or a pinnacle of horror, but it's a glorious, gore-ious bit of insane action.

ART:
Reiko's art is kind of odd and also very, very gory.  People don't just bleed, they spray fountains of inky blood across the page along with limbs and chunks of flesh.  The undead, regardless of how recently they died, all have these ghoulish and sunken faces stuck in permanent howls of anguish.  The living in comparison are more simply drawn.  Reiko in particular is meant to be cute with her sassy, swishy pigtails and slightly punkish wardrobe, but she's also bug-eyed in a way that makes her look slightly alien.  It's even worse with the many children characters, who are so heavily chibi-fied that they look less like people and more like animate dolls.  Everyone expresses themselves in ways that are both over-the-top and weirdly stiff, going from perfectly placid to Higurashi-style rictus grins and wild eyes without much transition.  It's made weirder still by the fact that they tend to be outlined in thick, dark lines, as if they have been cut out and pasted on the page.  Clearly the biggest attraction was meant to be the blood and gore, as it's given the attention that the characters or backgrounds rarely got.

PRESENTATION:
There's a short gallery of fan art from Japanese fans, and I was personally kind of disturbed to see so many submissions from elementary-aged children.  I know a lot of kids are drawn to horror, but I would question exposing them to stuff like this so young.

RATING:
Reiko the Zombie Shop isn't deep, but it is a bloody good time.  Its insanity and over-the-top approach to horror and gore help to make its contents palatable and even enjoyable to those willing to approach it on that level.

This series was published by Dark Horse.  This series is complete in Japan.  6 of 11 volumes were published, and all are currently out of print.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Review: GYO

There are few horror manga that are as well-known (or as best-selling) in the US than Uzumaki.  Of course, Junji Ito didn't stop with that series.  Along with writing some more mundane manga about cats, he also wrote today's selection.  Why don't you hear it about as much as Uzumaki?  Well, there are many reasons...

GYO (Gyo Ugomeku Bukimi), by Junji Ito.  First published in 2002, and first published in North America in 2003.



PLOT:
Tadashi and Kaori are supposed to be enjoying a relaxing vacation together on the sunny beaches of Okinawa.  It would be perfect, if Kaori didn't keep smelling a strange, rotten-fish smell wherever they go.  Soon, bizarre fish start to emerge from the ocean, with spidery legs, strange biomechanical tubing, and reeking of death itself.  As larger and larger creatures begin to rise from the waves and others being to submit to the same strange condition, the invasion threatens to destroy the island and all who live there.  The only hope for humanity lies with Tadashi and his scientist uncle to find the cause so that they can find a cure.

STORY:
I really have to wonder what happened to Junji Ito between Uzumaki and this series.  While it occasionally went into some silly directions, Uzumaki is a masterpiece of moodiness, imbued with a constant, creeping sense of paranoia and dread.  With Gyo, Ito tries to replicate that same mood, but it's always undone by the very premise of the story.

Ostensibly, this should be a very scary story.  You have freaky undead fish on spider legs, pumping out a concentrated cloud of decomposition gas.  This condition affects everything from the tiniest fish to the largest sharks.  The condition can spread to humans with only a scratch, turning them into swollen, pustule-covered freaks.  This should be unnerving, nauseating, and fearful.  So why then do I find myself wanting to laugh at the whole thing?  Maybe Ito shouldn't have made one of the symptoms uncontrollable gas.  You see, when a person is infected, they literally start spewing the corpse gas from both ends, meaning that they are belching and farting almost constantly.  It takes willpower to not revert to childish giggles because it's just so basic and juvenile, something that appeals to the kid within us that still thinks fart jokes are funny.

It's not helped by the fact that our two leads aren't terribly interesting or sympathetic to begin with.  Tadashi is a very passive character, always reacting to the events around him but unable to contribute anything to help anyone.  Kaori is downright unpleasant even before she becomes a rotting gasbag.  She's always unhappy, always fighting with Tadashi over petty things, and always complaining about the smell.  She's said to have a sensitive nose, so she spends most of the story yelling about the terrible smell as she showers over and over to try and make it go away.  I honestly couldn't care less if these two survived the invasion, and I very much doubt the story would suffer for their loss.  The only person with any sort of useful input is Tadashi's uncle, and he's sort of...well, odd.  Maybe it's the fact that he conveniently knows the history of this strange plague, or how unaffected he seems to be when part of his own body is threatened by it during his research, but I can't help but get a bit of a mad scientist vibe from him.

I'll give Gyo this much: its pacing is relentless.  The threat constantly builds upon itself, with little sign of stopping at the volume's end.  Crazy things just keep piling upon one another, with practically no lulls in the story to let some of the insanity soak in.  Maybe that's what keeps this story from achieving the close, clinging sense of madness that defined Uzumaki.  The story never stops to reflect on the madness happening around it or to let the tension build to the next horrible sight, and it suffers all the more for it.

ART:
At the very least, the quality of Ito's art hasn't suffered over the years.  The characters are all very realistic looking and generally well-drawn, but they do suffer from a strange sort of stiffness.  Maybe that's just a side effect of most them spending the whole volume with their mouths agape.  The fish creatures are also well-drawn, and he does try to create some visual atmosphere by gradually filling the town with thick, dark wisps of corpse gas.  It's a shame that he doesn't take more advantage of the seaside scenery.  After all, this is series about the ocean literally invading land, and yet most of what we see are bland, anonymous apartment buildings and plain, boxy interiors.  Ito might not have lost his skills, but he does seem to have lost his skill or desire for visual atmosphere to go along with his stories.

RATING:
The artwork is alright, but Gyo is simply too ridiculous to maintain any sense of horror the story might have held.  It's best to just throw this one back on the shelves.

This series is published by Viz.  This series is complete in 2 volumes, and both are currently in print. 

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Review: KITARO

October has come around once more, which means another month of spooky themes and horrific characters.  Today's selection is one of the forerunners of such a genre, and for once when it comes to older manga, it's not from the mind of Osamu Tezuka.

KITARO (GeGeGe no Kitaro), by Shigeru Mizuki.  First published in 1965, and first published in North America in 2013.



PLOT:
Kitaro is a strange little boy who serves as a sort of middleman between the world of humans and the world of yokai.  He is there to save the innocent while punishing those wicked yokai who would seek to hurt humans or humans who want to use yokai powers for their own gain, as the insects of the night chirp their approval.

STORY:
This series is the wellspring for all things yokai in Japanese popular media.  Everything from Yokai Watch to Black Bird owes its existence in part to this very series.  It's so popular that it's been adapted to television numerous times, roughly once every decade.  That's a powerful testament to the lasting power of this series, and having read through this collection I can see why it has remained so popular.

This book isn't a complete omnibus, but instead a selection of chapters from the series' full run - think of this like a greatest hits compilation.  All the stories featured here are simple and self-contained stories about the collision of the ancient world of the yokai and the modern world of humans.  Sometimes this conflict is played for humor, such as the story where Kitaro and friends face off against classic Western monsters like werewolves, witches, and a Frankenstein monster.  Sometimes it riffs on then-current pop culture, like the story where Kitaro turns into giant, hairy, whale-like monster who fights a giant robot in the middle of Tokyo.  He's even referred to as Kaiju Kitaro in that form!  Most of the time, though, it's about little morality tales where Kitaro rewards the good and punishes the bad in clever and unwitting ways.

For a supernatural creature, Kitaro is rather endearing.  He takes the form of a little mop-topped boy with a striped vest and gata.  Of course, most little boys don't have their father living in their head as a sentient, speaking eyeball to give them advice.  He doesn't exert control through physical force, but instead using reason, gentleness, and the occasional bit of trickery to solve problems.  It's good that he's such a weirdly sweet character, because he's pretty much the only constant to all of these stories.  The other yokai run the gambit in personality, from noble to petty to outright mean-spirited.  They also vary in looks, with some taking traditional forms and others looking more abstract or incorporeal.  The same goes for the handful of humans we see, although they tend to be divided into innocent victims or wrongdoers in need of punishment.

All of these characters come and go as the stories grow longer and longer in length.  The longest of the lot is "Creature of the Deep," the same story that features Kaiju Kitaro.  It's a story about a snooty scientist hoping to find fame and fortune by rediscovering an ancient creature.  Honestly, this story goes on a little too long, far past the point where even the most oblivious, self-centered villain would have gotten a clue.  Regardless of length, the moral of the stories remain simple and straightforward.  Those that are good and just will always be able to find aid in others; those that seek to exploit others, no matter how petty the reason, will be punished.  These are classic moral lessons that resonate with people of all ages, and that ultimately is the reason these stories have endured in Japanese pop culture.  A good morality tale never goes out of style, and dressing it up with supernatural gives the younger readers a bit of a vicarious thrill while older reader can pick up on both the old and the new cultural references.

ART:
Mizuki's art can look a little crude to some readers, even those used to the different visual style found in older manga.  Tezuka might have been a little cartoony at times, but it was almost always very polished.  Mizuki, on the other hand, had a style that was rough and caricature-like, which ends up rather suiting the dark and grungy world of the spirits.  He's good at making yokai easy to distinguish and appealing to the eye, with Kitaro being the most humanoid and familiar looking of the lot.  They serve as good contrast to the dark and moody landscapes of both the human and spirit worlds.  He clearly took a lot of these scenes from photo references, and he even refers to his own WWII past (and to a future work) by taking things to the lush jungles of Papua New Guinea.  The art gets a lot of room to shine, thanks to Drawn & Quarterly's choice to print this in an oversized omnibus.  It's just something of an acquired taste.

RATING:
Kitaro is a charming classic, one where the clash between the past and present play out at the hands of a cute little yokai boy and his friends.

This series is published by Drawn & Quarterly.  This series is complete in Japan with 9 volumes available.  Selections from these volumes have been compiled into a single omnibus, which is currently in print.

If you haven't already, please consider donating to the Carolina Manga Library.  They're currently at 48% funding, but you can help them meet their goal and beyond!