Monday, October 28, 2013


So this month's reviews have been ... well, less than stellar.  It almost makes one give up any hope of finding a manga with vampires in it that DOESN'T suck (pun not intended). 

Thankfully, there's always something like today's review out there to save our collective sanity and renew that hope again.  We've had enough tricks this month - time for a treat.

HELLSING (Herushingu), by Kohta Hirano.  First published in 1997, and first published in North America in 2003.

There is a secret organization tasked with protecting both England and the Protestant faith against those who would threaten it, be they supernatural beings or merely Catholics.  That organization is Hellsing, led by the authoritative Sir Integra Fairbrook Wingates Hellsing.  Her secret weapon against these forces is the vampire Alucard, who relishes the opportunity to take out beings lesser than himself.  During a routine mission in Cheddar, a young policewoman named Seras Victoria is shot by Alucard in an attempt to kill the vampire keeping her hostage. He offers her the chance to live, and she accepts, becoming a vampire in the process.  Now she too is a member of Hellsing, and they're going to need all the help they can get when an assignment finds them clashing with the Vatican's own secret weapon - the deadly Father Alexander Anderson.

Oh Hellsing, you glorious, gore-ious piece of work.  It's such a relief to find a vampire manga where the vampires aren't beautiful bishonen nor creepy little girls, but instead are mad, dangerous monsters.

The story is rather piecemeal, with only the last story taking longer than a chapter or two.  We get the introduction, followed by a flashback to Integra's past so as to explain both how such a young woman came to being in charge of the organization as well as the nature of the bond between her and Alucard.  There's another brief story about a couple of punk kid vampires, leading up to the conflict in Belfast with Anderson.  Until that point, Hellsing's enemies are minor and all but nameless.  Anderson is something else entirely, though.  He has the power (both physical and supernatural) to inflict some real damage and keep pace with Alucard.  Thus, their fight has some actual stakes, and it's less about vampires showing off as it is a bloody battle, and it's the absolute highlight of the volume.

Characterization is not terribly deep here, but the story doesn't suffer for it greatly.  Alucard is mostly a cipher, being cool, distant, arrogant, and bloodthirsty.  Interestingly, in spite of his ego he does not seem to begrudge being a servant to a human, but then he mostly savors the chance to fight.  Of course, it helps that his mistress is no shrinking violet herself.  Intregra just embodies stern authority, and steals the scene of every scene she is in.  I'll admit up front that I have an almost irrational fondness for Integra.  She's just so damn cool.  She's smart, capable, authoritative, and does not waver even in the face of death.  It's all the more remarkable because she is just a human - unlike her vampiric servants, she has no superpowers nor immortality to aid her.  She commands Hellsing and Alucard through sheer force of will, and I love her to bits for it.  Seras is the closest thing we have to an everywoman, and her cheeriness and reluctance to drink blood are meant to serve as contrast to the dark and bloody circumstances around her, even if that reluctance is starting to slip by volume's end.  Still, she is a policewoman by training, and handles her weapons like a pro.  Even Anderson is not dull, as we first see him as a kindly priest at an orphanage, and it's like night and day to see him at his true calling, vanquishing vampires with holy weapons fueled by an unquenchable bloodlust and what he sees as his righteous duty to protect his church.

Oh, did I mention that there's a running subplot about how the Catholic and Protestant faiths are still fighting one another like it's 1699?  Of course, the battles have gone underground, but the two factions behave more like countries at war, defending their borders against both supernatural threats and whatever side they perceive to be the heathens.  It's kind of ridiculous when taken out of context, but it's a sort of ridiculous that fits right in with the story as a whole.  Hellsing is no super-serious drama.  No, this is a balls-to-the-wall action piece, and while it may be kind of dumb and kind of ridiculous, it simply doesn't care.  In its own strange, occasionally gory way, it's a lot of fun, and that more than anything is the saving grace of this manga.

Hirano's art is one-of-a-kind, to say the least.  It's not perfect by any means, as he struggles with perspective, which is why sometimes characters have orangutan arms or heads too seemingly small and narrow to fit them properly.  You'd think they'd be a little more refined considering that all the major cast members were taken (with few modifications) from Hirano's previous porny doujinshis.  Still, in spite of their inperfections, his character designs are strange and distinct.  Hirano excels at broad expressions, with cat-like eyes and curling, toothy mouths shifting into grimaces, shock, and pure, cackling madness, taking on an almost psychedelic air. 

There's not a lot of fluidity to the images, but the poses are strong and dynamic.  He also makes excellent use of shading, at times practically drowning the pages in ink (and often substituting it for backgrounds).  Hirano's idea of fanservice is more about guns than panties, and he lavishes detail upon Alucard's and Seras' powerful, fanciful weaponry.  He's not shy about gore, so blood is often found gushing across the page in Pollock-esque splatters.  Panels tend to be narrow and long, but he's not above letting the characters pop out of the panels or breaking out some page-wide splash panels for dramatic effect.  A little detail that I rather liked is how Anderson's prayers (which were in English even before translation) are written in with sloppy, handwritten cursive.

Hirano's art overall is rough but pleasingly strange, a fine complement to the story within.

There's an author's note, along with a bonus chapter about another pair of Catholic warriors: Heinkel, another secret agent for the Vatican, and Yumiko, a Japanese nun with a bloody split personality.  While it's incredibly politically incorrect (as it's about Catholic assassins attacking Muslim terrorists in Palestine), tonally it's a perfect fit with the main story - full of action, a little bit ridiculous, and doesn't care what anyone else thinks of it.

Hellsing is a personal favorite of mine.  It's not deep by any means, but it's incredibly fun to read with a great cast of characters and a unique if imperfect visual style.

This series is published by Dark Horse in conjunction with Digital Manga Press.  All 10 volumes have been released and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013


Let us get away from the distastefulness of lolis to something far more recognizable and classic, something like Vampire Hunter D!  Unfortunately this is not the original novels nor the animated movies.  It's certainly...something, I guess.

VAMPIRE HUNTER D (Bampaia Hanta Di), adapted from the novel by Hideyuki Kikuchi & drawn by Saiko Takaki.  First published in 2007, and first published in North America in 2007.

In the far distant future, where mutants, werewolves, and vampires coexist with humanity in a wrecked, dissolute world, there is a mythical vampire hunter.  He roams the world, and is known only as D.  His travels take him to a remote farm where a young woman named Doris is being targeted by the local vampire lord.  D offers his help, but there is far more than just a vampire to fight.  Roving mutants, werewolf minions, and deceitful townfolk all become involved in Doris's plight, and D may be her only hope of survival.

I can't lie - this manga has some problems.  The good news is that most of it can't be pinned on the story.  The bad news is that the mangaka can't take any credit for it. 

As noted above, this is an adaptation of Kikuchi's popular novel, a coproduction between him and Digital Manga Press themselves.  Having never read the original, I can't speak as to how it works as an adaptation.  As supernatural fantasy goes, it's not bad.  It's rather pulpy, though, and it seems like the story throws every supernatural being it can at the story to see what sticks.  It also gets kind of ponderous midway through as plotlines start crashing into one another.  We have:

1.  The plotline with the vampire pursuing Doris, along with his daughter's own plans to stop him.
2.  The mayor's son's attempts to woo Doris, who then turns the town against her when she rejects him.
3.  The battle between D and Rei-Ginsei, a dimension warping mutant.
4.  D's own attempts to bond with Doris and her little brother

That's a lot of threads to keep straight, and I can't say that it entirely succeeds.  It ends up rushing through most as it tumbles towards the conclusion.  It's not a feminist work by any means, considering how often Doris finds herself in someone's clutches and/or getting unwillingly fondled.  D's not exactly a fount of personality either.  I get that he's supposed to be the strong, silent type, so I guess I can't hold it against him, but then that type of hero has never really spoken to me personally.  The villains are all one-note cackling monsters, evil simple for the sake of being evil.  It's kind of a shame that the most dynamic character in this whole manga is the unnamed, unexplained creature...demon...THING that lives in D's hand, who spends his screen time mocking D and laying his innermost thoughts bare.  I guess if D isn't going to talk about himself, somebody has to. 

The story for Vampire Hunter D isn't bad per se, but isn't particularly good either.  It's mostly a crazy quilt of pulp and horror clichés stitched together into something that's not quite cohesive but still can be entertaining in its own right.

Now THIS is the section that lost something in translation from novel to book.  The novels are illustrated by Yoshitaka Amano, who known not only for his artwork for the Vampire Hunter D series, but also for the Final Fantasy franchise.  Amano's artwork is delicate and beautiful, with obvious Art Nouveau influences and lots of light watercolor work.  Unfortunately he does not do the artwork here.  Instead we have a doujinshi artist handpicked by the author, and I fear that Kikuchi does not have very good taste in manga artists.

Takaki's art is dark, sloppy, and trashy.  The character designs are odd, as if everyone's head is too small for their bodies.  This is only enhanced by the big hair and (on the women) the ridiculous boobage.  Seriously, Doris shouldn't be able to stand up straight with the cannonballs she's got on her chest, and Takaki takes every opportunity he can to let them loose, with lovingly detailed nipples and everything.  Everyone's eyes are dark and sunken, with lots of excess pen lines around them, like a drunk trying to apply 10 layers of eyeliner.  Indeed, just about everything is inked in a dark, rushed, and rough manner, and at best it looks amateur; at worst, it looks off-model. 

Takaki also tends to abuse dark, obscuring screentones and speed lines, which tends to turn the already busy, overly inked panels and make them even worse.  He's rather hopeless with action scenes, drawing them in an positively disjointed matter.  Panels tend to be small, although he does break out larger splashier panels for fancier settings and the more blatant instances of fanservice.

Vampire Hunter D's story might have been saved by quality artwork like Amano's.  Instead it is singularly AWFUL, drowning the story in piles of sloppy ink and tig ol' bitties.  If this was the best Kikuchi could find, I hate to see the ones he rejected.

Typical of DMP releases, there's a color dust jacket on this volume, even if it's mostly just shades of purple.  There's a sepia-colored copy of the same image on the actual cover.  There's a page of color art in the front, and a brief and goofy omake in the back.

Vampire Hunter D is an entertainingly pulpy story with a lot of faults, most of which stem from the terrible artwork.  If you want to experience this story, stick with either the novels or Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust.

This series is released by Digital Manga Press.  This series is ongoing, with 7 volumes available, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

Monday, October 14, 2013


You know how I said last week that in spite of its many faults, I was glad that Vampire Knight didn't have any loli vampires in it?  Yeah...this manga, and more than quite a few like it, are the reason I have cause to say such things.

DANCE IN THE VAMPIRE BUND (Dansu in za Vanpaia Bando), by Nozumu Tamaki.  First published in 2005, and first published in North America in 2008.

Mina Tepes is an ancient being in the body of a preteen girl, and in spite of her youthful look she is in fact the ruler of the world's vampires.  Mina is no tyrant, though.  If anything, she wants peace for humans and her kind.  As such, she essentially bribes the Japanese government into giving her an island for her kind, in turn for paying off their national debt.  She also decides to go public with the existence of vampires, even holding a press conference to announce her intentions, and she gathers all of vampire kind to her.  Not all within the vampire world are happy the creation of her 'bund.'  Some try to stop her before the announcement, and other seek to overrule her through more devious means.  She is not alone, though.  By her side is her faithful werewolf servant Akira, who pledged to protect her as a child and means to do so now, even if he's uncomfortable with her overtures to make their relationship something more.

Ugh, lolis.  I have been dreading this review in part because I knew that this series involved lolis, and nothing skeeves me out faster than those who fetishize and sexualize girls (or girl-like beings) who aren't even out of training bras.  Dance in the Vampire Bund not only revels in fetishizing its lead, but tries (and fails) to make it tolerable through some half-baked attempts at supernatural. mythos and romance.

Honestly, I wished it had focused more on the former than the latter.  Sure, the notion of vampire clans as some sort of kingdom or aristocracy is far from original, but it has potential and can be used as the base for some decent world building.  Still, they never explain why Mina is in charge, or why she seeks peace between the various vampire clans as well as between vampires and humans.  Instead, they just use it as a way to generate a quick villain or two to be deposed of.  Tamaki seems aware of the fact that the romantic subplot is the stronger of the two and thus the story is far more about a loli vampire queen and the werewolf she loves.

Tamaki tries to paint this as something lovely and innocent, having various members of the cast coo over the two and how Akira makes Mina so happy, but it doesn't work because it's just another example of 'show, don't tell."  The fact that they have to have others state it outright means that Tamaki isn't doing his job at making us believe that through Mina and Akira's interactions.  God know Mina isn't being shy about her affections, as she spends most of the first third wearing nothing but skimpy panties and a capelet in order to tease him, and at times takes stupid risks in order to get his attention and make him prove his dedication to her.

The weird thing is that Akira is ostensibly the lead, as we start with him and he's clearly meant to be the (rather relative) everyman reacting to the strange new world around him, yet we learn so little about him.  We know he's devoted to Mina, that he's some sort of strange werewolf who can control the degree of his transformation without the moon, and that there's some schoolgirl somewhere that he likes but can't be with.  Want to know more about his personality or history or anything like that?  TOO BAD!  Mina gets a little more development, as we get glimpses of something more innocent and childlike that peeks out beyond her more poised and profession demeanor when performing her queenly duties, although these seem to conflict with the weirdly seductive moments she has with Akira.  Tamaki can't seem to decide whether he wants to treat the so-called romance between Akira and Mina as pure loli cheesecake or as something sweeter, because it seems he wants his fanservice while wanting us to take the whole thing seriously, and I just can't do that when the two leads are so underdeveloped (in many senses of the word). 

Takami's character designs are solid, but he clearly loves his fanservice to come in two flavors: big-busted blondes and lolis.  I've mentioned previously that Mina spends a lot of time nearly naked, and she is drawn in all her prepubescent glory, nipples and all, and I admitted tended to skim through those sections lest I be seen looking at a mostly naked little girl.  He's clearly more focused on drawing that fanservice than he is drawing faces, considering how often peoples' noses disappear and reappear between panels.  The backgrounds are neatly drawn as well, but they're often obscured by dark screentones.  Really, the only remarkable thing about the art is the fanservice, and sometimes that's for all the wrong reasons.

I've noted my distaste for Seven Seas's brand of translation in the past.  They tend to leave too much untranslated for my taste, leaving in things like 'hime-sama' and 'oni-sama' and even a kid's jump-rope song is left in kanji, albeit with translation underneath.  I can live with honorifics, but it's not like you lose something by turning 'hime-sama' into a comparable English phrase, like "your Majesty."  If no context is lost in translation and there is a perfectly comprehendable equivalent in English, than TRANSLATE IT DAMN IT.

As far as actual extras are concerned, the only one present are a bunch of goofy 4-komas about Mina's maids.  It's mostly fluff, and I have to wonder why on earth they chose to focus on otherwise nameless maids.  It's also being rereleased in 3-in-1 omnibuses, although as far as I'm aware of they have not added any extras to those releases.

Dance in the Vampire Bund can't commit to telling an interesting story or building up an interesting world, so instead it focuses on a controversial romance.  It doesn't even succeed at that, though, because it's more focused on creepy fanservice than it is on the two involved.

This series is published by Seven Seas.  The series is complete in 14 volumes, and is currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!

Also, now I'm creeped out by the fact that they crossed this universe over with that of Young Miss Holmes, because I hate to think of what appeal that series would have for the audience of DITVB *shudder*

Monday, October 7, 2013


It's October once more, so once again I look at the frightful side of the manga world!  This month I'm focusing on vampires, exploring all the terrible various ways Japan explores the vampire mythos.  I'm starting with one of the biggest vampire-related titles in the last decade or so, but does it live up to the hype?

VAMPIRE KNIGHT (Vanpaia Naito), by Matsuri Hino.  First published in 2004, and first published in North America in 2007.

Cross Academy has two classes, a day class and a night class.  The day class is made up of ordinary students, even if there seems to be a far higher concentration of girls than normal.  The night class is made of mostly beautiful young men, all of whom conceal a terrible secret: they are all vampires.  The only people who know the truth about them are the headmaster and his two adopted children, Zero and Yuki.  Thus, the headmaster tasks his children with being the class monitors, which mostly means trying to keep the girls of the day class away and keep the night class from nibbling on the student body.  They do receive some assistance from Kaname, the head of the night class who has ties to Yuki's past.   Unfortunately, the delicate balance between the classes is threatened by Zero, who has been concealing a terrible secret of his own, and Yuki finds herself in the middle of something far bigger and far more dangerous than she realized.

While I am grateful to find a vampire manga without a single loli (believe me, it's harder than you think), I can't say that Vampire Knight is any better than its subgenre brethren.  It's simply pandering to a different audience through its slavish devotion to shoujo cliché.

I literally rolled my eyes when the night class was revealed to be nothing but a pack of bishonen, each more beautiful than the last, because it's just a given anymore than vampires are beautiful, seductive creatures.  Of course every girl within a mile of them (save for our lead) is desperate and dying to get in their pants, because they're just doing what Hino expects her teenage audience would do in their place.  Hino knows her audience well, even if she doesn't respect their intelligence very much.

It doesn't help that she can't be bothered to give her cast much in the way of character.  Yuki has none to speak of, being defined more by her relationships than herself.  Kaname is your standard princely type, and Zero is a sullen, pissy little thing.  Also, if he were any more possessive about Yuki, he would pee on her to mark her as his territory.  The sad thing is that of the main cast, he gets the most development.  He at least goes through a physical change, even if it does nothing to improve his insufferable attitude.  There's not even a villain for the main trio to react against.  The closest this volume gets are a couple of Kaname's sleezier classmates.

Hino makes no effort to explain why there are vampires in this world, or why the headmaster is so set on the idea of peace between humans and vampires.  There are other bits and pieces of world building, like the notion of vampire hunters and the notion of 'purebred' vampires free of any human lineage, but they're not tied together in any cohesive, intriguing manner.  Instead, the only thing they seem to be tying together are the corners of the inevitable love triangle between our three leads.  I wouldn't mind that those three had anything resembling a personality.  That may be the story's greatest fault.  These characters at best are stereotypes, and at worst are nothing at all.

Hino's art is just as stereotypical as her characters.  The character designs are all points and limbs and shiny eyes, with hair that is so limp, messy, and long that it almost appears sentient.  It's really telling that the biggest thing anybody took away from this series were the overly fussy and heavily detailed school uniforms, with the oh-so-clever twist of having the day class wear the black variations and the night class wear the white ones.  The overdesigning continues into the panels, as Hino uses a lot of close-ups, dutch angles, and dingy obscuring screentones.  This manga isn't even so much a collection of talking heads as it is a collection of staring, glowering heads, and when combined with the already thin story the result is a mess.

There's a brief, pointless little side story with a couple of the other vampires, as well as some translation notes and notes on the details of those notoriously tacky school uniforms.

The popularity of this series baffles me.  It surely can't be for the stories or the characters, because there's barely anything there to speak of.  It can't be the artwork either, because it's an appalling mess of fussy details over generic designs.  So what's left to enjoy?

This series is published by Viz.  The series is complete in Japan.  16 volumes have been published so far, and all are currently in print.

You can purchase this volume and many more like it through!