Friday, October 31, 2014


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

You can purchase manga like this and much more through!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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


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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Help the Carolina Manga Library!

I'm interrupting the reviews briefly for a bit of promotion, this time for a good cause.  Today I want to talk to you about the Carolina Manga Library.

The Carolina Manga Library is a nonprofit organization which serves to bring the joy of graphic novels to fans across the south and beyond through their travelling library of Japanese and American works.  They bring a collection of over 2000 volumes of graphic novels to conventions across the south, allowing newcomer and fan alike to enjoy old favorites and discover new ones.  Theirs is a volunteer organization, being both staffed by volunteers and having a collection based upon donations from others.

Recently they started an IndieGoGo campaign with a simple goal.  They need $1500 to buy sturdier, more attractive shelving for their collection.  Any excess will go towards the purchase of a permanent trailer which will not only allow them to travel further out-of-state, but also allow the curators to focus their own funds on expanding the collection.  As of this date, they're at nearly 40% of their goal, but you can help them get further.

Their IndieGoGo campaign will be open until November 23rd of this year, with backer benefits like art prints from local and online artists, honorary plaques on the shelves, and even a free ticket to a South Carolina-area convention.  Even if you can't afford to donate funds or wish to do so outside of the campaign, you can donate funds (via Paypal) or books to them through their website.  Being a nonprofit, any and all monetary donations are tax-deductible.

As someone who loves manga and libraries, I think this is a fantastic organization worthy of your support.  I highly encourage anyone reading this who is able to support them in any way possible.  It doesn't matter whether it's supporting them through your wallet, through donating books, through spreading word of their campaign on your own social media feeds, or even visiting them at cons (or inviting them to your own local cons), anything you can do to promote them and their cause can help.  I plan on donating both money and books, and I sincerely hope that some of you can do the same.