Manga Recon Manga reviews, features & interviews! Wed, 30 Jun 2010 12:53:16 +0000 en hourly 1 Farewell Roundtable Wed, 30 Jun 2010 12:20:55 +0000 Michelle Smith We’ve got some sad news to share. After over a decade online, our parent site PopCultureShock will be shutting down and as a result, Manga Recon will also be disbanding. No new content will be posted after June 2010, but archived content will remain accessible at this address for the foreseeable future.

Manga Recon has been a big part of my life these last two years. I know that goes for our team of reviewers too, so, in order to give it a fitting sendoff, we participated in one final roundtable, sharing our gratitude, memories, and directions on how to find us elsewhere online. Thank you for reading, now and at all times past and future.

MICHELLE: While I’m obviously saddened by the news of PCS’ closure, I’m still extremely grateful for the opportunity to spend two years working with talented writers and honing my reviewing skills. Before getting tapped by Kate Dacey to join the Manga Recon team I was toiling away in obscurity on my own modest blog, and the idea that someone as well-respected as she (for, yes, I knew her name already) was reading my reviews was pretty mind-boggling. In a very real way, Manga Recon changed my life.

MELINDA: My experience was very similar, Michelle, at least in terms of Manga Recon’s impact on my life, though I did not even consider myself a reviewer when you and Kate brought me on. I learned how to write reviews from the two of you and that was key in expanding my world and introducing me to the many wonderful minds in the manga blogosphere, something that has enriched my offline life as well. Without Manga Recon, it’s difficult to imagine what the last year and a half of my life might have looked like.

SAM: My experiences with Manga Recon are very close to Melinda’s: this website was really my start, my jumping-off point for becoming a reviewer. I never once thought that I would meet anyone so significant in a comic book shop and I am very fortunate to have met Kate that day in Comicopia.

Manga Recon overall has helped me become a better writer in general (I wasn’t great when I started out) and that is largely due to the wonderful editors I have had. Doing reviews and roundtables has fueled my creative interests, pushing me to go out and research series, authors and industry news. Manga Recon even helped me to increase my online and convention presence, driving me to start actively using Twitter, as well as taking part in panels. This has really been the best experience that I could’ve had; it has opened the door to countless opportunities and I hope to continue to take what I have learned here and carry it on into the future.

Thanks to all the readers over the years, especially my close friends who’ve supported my writing, and thanks to the wonderful staff of writers that I have had the pleasure of getting to know. You will be missed.

KATE: Thanks for the kind words, guys!

Like everyone else who’s chimed in so far, Manga Recon was the place where I cut my teeth as a reviewer, where I learned the difference between snark and criticism, where I learned how to write for an audience instead of myself, and where I learned just how passionate fans are about their favorite series— woe to her that pan Vampire Knight! I’d never been to a comics convention before contributing to PCS, so Manga Recon provided me with a crash course on the manga publishing industry, not to mention the various subcultures within the fandom. And Manga Recon gave me a place to let down my hair and experiment with my writing, something that’s a lot harder to do within the narrow confines of academia. Put simply: Manga Recon was an educational experience for me.

None of this would have been possible without Jon Haehnle, who originally invited me to join PCS back in September 2006. Lord knows what Jon saw in my writing—it was pretty uninformed—but reviewing turned out to be an exciting way to explore what was then a new interest for me. Jon was patient with me in the early going, and an indispensable collaborator when Manga Recon blossomed from column to blog to full-fledged website. I owe Jon a big debt of gratitude for his support.

I also wanted to thank Michelle for her excellent stewardship of Manga Recon. She’s raised the editorial standards well above the benchmark I established, she’s developed some exciting new features, and she’s recruited some great talent for the site. Michelle is a natural-born editor; not only does she have a keen eye for detail and a good ear for language, she is one of the most organized people I know. (This from a woman who alphabetizes her spice rack—I know organizational skillz when I see ‘em.) Michelle also has a terrific, dry wit that I really came to appreciate when we worked together in 2008: who but Michelle could work in a Robert Goulet reference to a review of Slam Dunk?

MICHELLE: Thank you, Kate. You and Jon know how hesitant I was to attempt to fill your shoes, but it ended up being a lot more fun than I had expected! Sometimes you have to take risks to realize that you’re capable of doing something, I guess.

Sadly, I think you’re the only person who ever really appreciated the Goulet!

CHLOE: I, too, tip my hat to Kate on this one—you’re an excellent curator of talent, and I feel exceedingly privileged to have been scooped out of the big pond and dropped in the lovely little enclave that is Manga Recon. Reviewing has been one of the most fun, exhausting and thrilling things to do and pushed both my creative and analytical skills to new areas, not to mention getting my hands on some cool books in in the process. I’m going to miss the reviews, the community and, of course, these roundtables!

ERIN: My friend and Dungeon Master Hal Johnson, a clerk at Midtown Comics, asked me if I’d like to earn some free manga by writing reviews back in 2006. I enthusiastically and foolishly agreed. Free comics! Oh boy! A crate of yaoi from DMP arrived and promptly took up a lot of space in my living room. (My boyfriend complained about it and tripped over it a lot.) I was quickly overwhelmed and buried in books.

Jon Haehnle and I worked together to come up with the ninja-themed name “Manga Recon” to go with my podcast persona. I started the “Ninja Consultant” podcast in 2005. It was always my intention to tie Manga Recon into the podcast, or give it its own podcast. I commissioned a logo from E.K. Weaver but only ever produced a few shows.

In the early days I picked manga randomly from the shelves of Midtown Comics and reviewed it in “monthly” columns, with no regard to publication dates. Without an editor to reign me in I rambled on and on for hundreds of words. I couldn’t meet my self-set goals and only ever produced a few columns.

I was surprised and a little territorial when Kate was hired on as Chief Editor or Head Manga Reviewer or whatever. When did I get demoted? Worse still, Kate’s reviews were all very polished and much smarter than mine, and she was able to write on a near-daily basis. When I met her in real life it was even more upsetting: she’s gorgeous and doesn’t look nerdy at all, outside of a classy CLAMP bag. I was slouching around conventions in black T-shirts with frizzy pink hair and a Katamari hat.

When I first starting writing the column I figured the readers were probably the same high school-aged manga fans who crowded the aisles at Barnes and Noble. Then I met Brigid Alverson at New York Comic Con, and she really opened my eyes. Traffic was going through Manga Blog to PCS, and it wasn’t a bunch of Fruits Basket fourteen-year-olds at all—it was librarians, the publishers themselves, and other literary manga fans like Kate! I had to re-think how I was writing my reviews.

My most-viewed review is undoubtedly the Kare Kano comic I drew. I was unemployed in early 2007, and it took a couple days to put together the comic when I should’ve been job hunting. I also painstakingly reviewed individual volumes of the series with the idiotic idea that fans could save money by not buying the unimportant volumes. Nowadays I realize that’s ludicrous; even the most casual of manga fans can’t stand to miss a single volume. I wasted months writing those things, and the comic was a last-minute addition to the much-longer piece.

A horrifying thought occurred to me later: what if Masami Tsuda sees my comic? It’s been passed around the internet a lot, and even linked to from The Comics Journal website! After all, Rivkah herself commented on my review of her OEL manga Steady Beat. That really freaked me out! What if I ran into Rivkah at a convention (very likely)? Would I have said those things to her face? Tsuda probably can’t read English, but I drew myself slapping her…!

Through a combination of podcasting and writing for PCS I got a lot of press passes and went to a lot of conventions. I loved the ICv2 conferences and learned a lot about publishing. I met Ed Chavez of the Manga Cast, who hooked me up reviewing manga for Publishers Weekly. I used my Manga Recon reviews as writing samples for the job. When an opportunity came up to write about the Tekkonkinkreet movie for the second issue of Otaku USA Magazine, I pointed to my writing samples and got the job. Earlier I had reviewed the first issue of Otaku USA on Manga Recon with some harsh design notes. Ironically, I quickly became a staff anime reviewer for the magazine.

Paying gigs took up more of my time and I couldn’t contribute as much to Manga Recon (not that I ever contributed all that much per year). Fortunately, Jon and Kate kept adding more staff. I feel lucky to have met (almost) everyone on the incredible staff, and to have done some great panels with a few of you at conventions.

Last October I was approached to take over Bamboo Dong’s Shelf Life column on Anime News Network. It never would have happened without Manga Recon. In the last nine months, my writing has improved more than it has in five years of Manga Recon, thanks to tight deadlines, a tremendous volume of work, and extra editorial oversight. Obviously the paychecks also help. It bothers me that the readers there treat me like a n00b, even though I’ve been a reviewer for years!

In 2006 I worried that no one was reading my reviews, but now, thanks to Manga Recon, I have a tremendous number of readers. Otaku USA has a circulation of about 100,000 and Shelf Life has about 35,000 readers. I’m not sure how many readers my Publishers Weekly reviews have reached, but some of them turn up in Amazon’s database under “Editorial Content.” I have no idea of how many readers Manga Recon has reached over the years, but oddly enough I have found my Manga Recon reviews quoted in Wikipedia as “Critical Reception.”

MICHELLE: That’s an awesome glimpse into Manga Recon’s early days! I know that I had the Kare Kano review bookmarked for a long time before joining the staff myself. I’m not sure of Manga Recon’s readership levels myself, but I’ve seen some things I’ve written here turn up on Amazon, too, so they definitely get around.

Your account of your reviewing journey reminds me to encourage everyone to let readers know where you can be found! Just because PCS is closing down doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop writing about the manga that we love! Personally, I still have my original blog, Soliloquy in Blue, and also intend to ramp up my contributions to the Comics Should Be Good blog at Comic Book Resources.

Where will y’all be?

KEN: I had been writing long, rambling reviews for movies, comics, novels and more since ‘05, but those were mostly only read by friends and folks who stumbled across my livejournal. It wasn’t until I joined the TOKYOPOP site that Kate found me and brought me into the MR fold, which in turn served to introduce me to the larger online manga community. Thanks to that I’ve not only learned a little self-control in my reviews, but I’ve also met a number of interesting people, both online and off, that I probably never would have encountered otherwise.

Thanks to Kate, Jon, Michelle, the rest of the MR team and the readers. It’s been a fun and interesting few years.

ERIN: Oh yeah, I’m tagging my livejournal entries with “manga” if I put up an odd scrap:

I believe you can subscribe to an RSS feed for a specific tag.

KATE: Jeez, Erin, you’re embarrassing me—without you, there’d be no Manga Recon at all! You were the person who puts PCS on the map as far as manga is concerned, and your reviews of Kare Kano and the Death Note movies were among the site’s all-time most-viewed articles during my tenure. I know we had some awkward moments, but I will always regard our Definitive Guide to Fumi Yoshinaga one of my proudest moments at PCS; I’m particularly fond of your Flower of Life cartoon review, and might even like it better than your legendary Kare Kano piece. Heresy, I know.

As for where to find me, I have my own website, The Manga Critic, and I’m also a contributor to Good Comics for Kids, a blog at the School Library Journal.

SAM: In terms of future projects, I am moving aside from reviewing content and am currently working on a podcast project that explores the comics community as whole; who the people are who love comics, who shell out money week after week, why they attend cons, the relationships they’ve built through comics etc.

I really want to explore why people are so passionate about the artform in general and I want to do this through a series of themed interviews and stories. Think of it as a much nerdier approach to This American Life.

So I will be keeping people posted through my Twitter, @SamKusek, and hopefully you all will be able to hear the first episode within a week or so!

MELINDA: Sam, that sounds great. I think you are just the person to undertake a project like that. I really look forward to it!

As always, you can all find me at Manga Bookshelf, which also serves as the home for Off the Shelf, a new weekly discussion column that is a collaborative project with Michelle. We’ve got a couple of other such projects in the works as well. I’ve also just started a new manhwa-specific blog as a companion site, Manhwa Bookshelf, where I’ve been hosting this month’s Manhwa Moveable Feast.

Speaking of Twitter, I’ve put together a Manga Recon Twitter list to make it easy to keep up with everyone’s future exploits!

GRANT: I was both shocked and thrilled when I was recruited to write for Manga Recon last January. I knew that there were review sites for manga, but never imagined I’d ever find myself writing for one (let alone being quoted on Wikipedia or landing a blurb for the Cirque du Freak manga series in a Yen Press promotional flyer). In a lot of ways, this was a huge learning experience, from poring over the MR article style guide to coming up with new ways to write reviews without falling into a pattern. I also found myself revising my reviews several times before submitting them: there was a standard of quality that all of you established and I had to make sure my work was always at that level.

Being able to write for Manga Recon truly helped me show other people what it is I see in graphic novels. Our review site was full of insightful breakdowns of what makes manga worth reading. Even better, it served as a reminder that there are plenty of other people out there who read manga with a critical eye. My students often tell me that their parents refuse to consider manga to be proper reading. I think our site proves that it is a legitimate story-telling form a thousand times over.

It has been a dream to write for MR. Just like many of you, I plan on continuing to write reviews. I look forward to commenting on your blogs and websites.

CONNIE: Manga Recon was one of the most fun projects I’ve been involved with, and I’m very sorry to have to say goodbye. I’ve been involved with other review sites before, and have had my own blog at Slightly Biased Manga for almost six years, but it had been a few years since I’d written real reviews for a site that was not my own when Michelle asked me to join the Manga Recon crew. I enjoyed the guidelines and deadlines I worked with at Manga Recon. Most of my writing is informal, off-the-cuff responses after I finish a book, so writing with purpose and coherency for Manga Recon was both fun and very good for me.

Most of all, though, I think I’ll miss the roundtables and the sense of community. I’m naturally very shy, so it’s hard for me to jump into a conversation or comment on things, even on the internet. But watching Twitter conversation and participating in roundtables has been an experience I haven’t had at any of the other sites I’ve worked at, and it’s what I’ll miss the most.

I’ve only been here a year and a half, and it’s felt like no time at all. I feel sorry that I couldn’t contribute more, but I am very, very happy with the time I’ve spent here. Thanks a million.

MICHELLE: Thanks again to all of you for being part of Manga Recon. It was a lot of fun working with each of you and, like Melinda mentioned, becoming part of a warm and welcoming manga blogging community. Although we won’t be writing here, I hope we still continue to follow each other’s endeavors in the future.

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Manga Recon @ the Movies: 20th Century Boys 1 (Beginning of the End) and 2 (The Last Hope) Wed, 30 Jun 2010 12:15:37 +0000 Guest Reviewer This guest review was submitted by Noah Fulmor.

VIZ Pictures, Inc.
20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End (run time: 142 minutes)
20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope (run time: 140 minutes)

In the twenty-some-odd years since Akira established itself as the first Japanese sci-fi epic with serious international crossover potential, nothing has come close to eclipsing either its vision or its popularity in the genre. Nothing, that is, until Naoki Urasawa’s manga series 20th Century Boys, a world-spanning tale of apocalyptic conspiracies by way of childhood nostalgia. The 20+ volume story has been adapted into a trilogy of films, with the last installment intended for DVD release in America on June 1, 2010. Sadly, despite a uniquely compelling plot filled with vibrant and interesting characters, the prior two films failed so profoundly to deliver on the promise of the manga, what should have been a ‘thrilling conclusion’ has warranted barely the slightest tremor of excitement from the fan community.

The story revolves around Kenji, a thirtysomething in 1997 Tokyo whose rock star career fizzled into helping his mother manage a convenience store and looking after his runaway sister’s abandoned daughter Kanna. Oblivious to the greater forces at work, he is reunited with some of his childhood pals following the death, under suspicious circumstances, of one of their number. Investigation soon reveals the involvement of a new but rapidly growing cult, centered on the personality of a masked guru who calls himself ‘Friend,’ and claims to possess marvelous psionic powers. As the faction grows in influence and their true agenda of widespread mayhem and world domination becomes clear, Kenji discovers, to his utter disbelief, that Friend is following a plan mapped out by Kenji and his friends themselves in the heady days of the early 1970s, when they were all just neighborhood kids playing pretend.

This is such a solid premise, and so much of the groundwork is laid for a film adaptation before a screenplay would even need to be written, that it’s hard to see how a director could fail to deliver a solid movie. Indeed, not only does the manga provide plot, dialogue and storyboard, it even delivers an awesome soundtrack informed by all the Rock & Roll Kenji and his companions were soaking up in their childhood hideout. The driving opening chords of the T. Rex standard that gives the series its title captures perfectly the fin de siecle mood and pursues Kenji like the unanswered promises of the past.

It’s a terrible disappointment then, with all the overwhelming advantages that the material presents, that director Yukihiko Tsutsumi cannot find the cinematic glue to hold these elements together. He seems hard-pressed to follow the emotional beats of the story, instead relying on glossy J-pop video-style cinematography to stand in for deep, meaningful moments. Two instances are painfully noteworthy. When Kenji narrowly rescues Kanna from a shop full of cultists who have suddenly taken an uncanny interest in her, the weight of the experience compels him to snatch up his long-abandoned guitar from storage and reconnect with the rebellious strength of the music to which he was once totally devoted. It is a crucial scene and should burn with a fiery, intimate intensity… yet Tsutsumi films it with all the cloying sensitivity of a Gackt video. Then, nearing the film’s climax, Tsutsumi makes a point of dragging out the cliched ‘band of brothers’-style monologue that Kenji delivers to his rag-tag group of misfits for an excruciatingly long time, making certain to hit every star-filtered false note repeatedly. The scene is an industry standard, but in a work that is so aggressively original it falls completely flat.

It is no help, either, that the long-awaited confrontation at the end of the first movie is instead replaced by an ellipsis, only to pick up fifteen years later. Subtitled ‘The Last Hope,’ the second film follows Kanna, now a young woman, as she makes her way through a Friend-dominated future. Despite her close relation to Kenji (who has been branded as Public Enemy No. 1 despite missing since the events of the previous film), Kanna is allowed to live a fairly normal life as a high school student and part-time waitress at a Chinese restaurant. Her natural charisma and do-gooder streak puts her between warring gang factions, corrupt police and transvestites in distress. What finally gets her in trouble is her insistence on questioning the official story surrounding the events of the ‘Bloody New Years Eve’ terrorist attack allegedly initiated by her uncle, which results in Kanna, along with a dim classmate, finding themselves shipped off to a re-education camp known as ‘Friend Land.’

At this point, the film takes what should be a harrowing demonstration of cult indoctrination and turns it into a trip to a moderately grating Orwell-themed summer camp. There is nothing new here; the staff are brainwashed and the kids become brainwashed and are made to conform. It’s such a well-worn genre trope at this point that the filmmaker doesn’t even bother to try to bring anything unique to it. It should come as no surprise, then, that beneath the horrible veneer of Friend Land, in a camouflaged secret base, one of Kenji’s old associates leads a clutch of the resistance and hopes to help Kanna discover Friend’s identity. How the Friend Land operators could maintain a sophisticated totalitarian observation network throughout the camp but fail to discover the insurgents living on their property is left up to the imagination of the viewer.

The plot zigzags from here, jumping from one time period to the next, snaking through a virtual-reality representation of the past, around subplots involving Kanna’s parentage, the genesis of a deadly virus, the daring escape of one of Kenji’s bunch from a Stalag-like prison, an assassination attempt on Friend’s life… middle movies are often messy, but ‘The Last Hope’ is a narrative miasma that winds up resembling the sort of free-form make-believe Kenji’s gang engaged in as children. This is fine for kids; when they are fully immersed in play, their imagination can fill in the gaps (or dismiss them) as their whims require. A commercially released film is expected to be far more refined.

One is forced to reserve full judgment of the overarching story as a whole until completing the third installment, but it is difficult to see how the final film, no matter how well-wrought, will be able to reach backwards and impose some order on what has come before it. Unfortunately, after watching the first two movies, the viewer is left with the experience that rather than being in the midst of a sci-fi epic, they are in the midst of a sci-fi epic being recounted from memory by an excitable eight-year-old boy. The end result will satisfy neither genre fans, nor moviegoers.

20th Century Boys 1: Beginning of the End and 20th Century Boys 2: The Last Hope are available now. The third movie, subtitled Redemption, has also just been released on DVD by VIZ Pictures.

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Toriko, Vol. 1 Wed, 30 Jun 2010 02:47:59 +0000 Erin Finnegan Toriko, all other food manga published in the US are sissies!]]> By Mitsutoshi Shimabukuro
Viz Media, 208 pp.
Rating: Teen

The first few pages of Toriko are mind-bending. First, Shimabukuro establishes the existence of a bizarre parallel Earth covered with trees that flower king crab meat and streams filled with ambrosia. (The first page was utter nonsense in a scanlation I saw two years ago; this is reason enough to buy the pro translation.) Next, we’re introduced to pint-sized chef Komatsu, who is sent on a mission to provide Garara Gator steaks at his boss’s next big party. Komatsu is tasked with hiring the only man in the world manly enough to catch a Garara Gator: Gourmet Hunter Toriko.

As chapter one continues we’re introduced to Toriko fishing off a cliff face. Seven feet tall if he’s an inch, Toriko uses an enormous grasshopper as bait. Remember those monster bugs in the beginning of (Peter Jackson’s) King Kong? While waiting for a bite on the line, Toriko slurps down a lobster tail for lunch, washes it down with an entire bottle of Maker’s Mark (poured from the bottom of the bottle), and follows up the meal by smoking a branch from a nearby cigar tree. Komatsu watches, slack-jawed, as a gargantuan clawed fish goes for the monster grasshopper, only to be picked up by an eagle the size of a building.

Unfazed, Toriko slams the eagle, still holding the fish, into the ground by swinging the fishing pole over his head. The line and rod do not break, because, as Toriko explains, “It’s a 76 millimeter iron rod wrapped in elevator wire.” Komatsu, sweating and shaking, hires Toriko for the Garara expedition.

So far in America we’ve been lucky to see the import of a few food manga titles, but Kitchen Princess, Oishinbo, and even Yakitate!! Japan are all sissies compared to the uber-machismo of Toriko. Toriko is the Golgo 13 of Iron Chefs, the Kenchiro of the kitchen. And he lives in a house made of candy. This is a man who eats his coffee cup after breakfast.

Toriko fights snakes with two mouths and gorillas with four arms. Like Ted Nugent on crack, Shimabukuro lays out Toriko’s hunting philosophy: he only kills what he plans to eat. Other dangerous animals are put down with incapacitating, yet temporary, drugged needles. Some of the equipment is explained in little pseudo-educational panels, like this:

Obviously Toriko can’t use guns; that would be way too objectionable for a mainstream manga magazine in a country where guns are illegal. All the smoking and drinking makes Toriko a Teen title Stateside, but this is clearly for younger boys (and foreign foodie Golgo 13 fangirls like me, obviously).

The artwork ranges into the absurd and the grotesque. Komatsu seems to get smaller with every chapter, until he’s riding Toriko piggy-back by the end. Toriko’s battle aura is a demonic mountain gorilla/yeti thing drawn with all the flourish and extra lines of a doodle in a junior high boy’s notebook, (except the art is professional). Shimabukuro often draws heads and faces proportionally too large, a standard convention of gag manga in Japan, but totally unseen in the States outside of Bobobo-bo Bo-bobo.

Imagine if Oishibo was a present-day sci-fi title starring Paul Bunyan. A mysterious mega-corporation called IGO has genetically engineered an extinct rainbow fruit tree in their Biotope Garden. The fruit of the rainbow tree is so sweet that it leads to my favorite panel of volume one:

Toriko follows a straight-up Shonen Jump formula. It is Toriko’s goal to consume (construct?) an ultimate Full Course Meal. But unlike in Oishinbo, it looks like Toriko will actually accomplish his task in a reasonable amount of time; the menu is spelled out with eight blanks, and volume one completes the dessert slot.

Volume one of Toriko is available now.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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Ax: A Collection of Alternative Manga, Vol. 1 Tue, 29 Jun 2010 22:22:27 +0000 Connie C.

Various Artists
Top Shelf, 400 pp.
Rating: Mature (18+)

In this 400-page anthology of some of the best Ax (an underground manga magazine) has to offer, you’ll find a sampling of short stories (33 in all) from artists who are both new to the English audience (Shinya Komatsu, Takao Kawasaki, Toranosuke Shimada) and who have appeared in their own volumes or in other underground anthologies in the past (Kazuichi Hanawa, Takashi Nemoto, the legendary Yoshihiro Tatsumi). There’s a little bit for every taste here, and as a look at Japanese underground comics, it’s the best we’ve had in English.

There’s a surprising number of underground manga that have been translated into English, considering how “scarce” they supposedly are in Japan. You can go for the literary short stories of Yoshihiro Tatsumi, the methodical prison accounts of Kazuichi Hanawa, the nigh-unreadable gross-out that is Takeshi Nemoto, or the surrealistic and strangely compelling work of Imiri Sakabashira. And that’s not even counting the collected anthologies that have been published over the years (Sake Jock, Comics Underground Japan, Secret Comics Japan).

Basically, much like manga itself, underground manga isn’t so much a “genre” as it is… well, in this case, the free-form stories that appear in Ax tackle any subject matter in any way they can. You’ll find everything from touching short stories of break-ups and potential butterfly love matches to mildly strange accounts of rooftop assassins/office workers/schizophrenics, to women that give birth to puppies and grieve when they aren’t accepted into society, to a story about long-legged men that find a pubic hair in their sushi. Some stories are better-looking and more coherent than others, but it’s fascinating to browse the myriad styles that come forward when editorial restraints are cut.

This was much longer than I expected, which means that there’s a lot more room to show off different styles. The book does a good job transitioning between stories, so you won’t go directly from melancholy stuff to, say, women who are made out of penises. There’s not many warm and fuzzy stories, though, and I think the first story, “The Watcher” by Osamu Kanno, does a good job of setting the tone for the rest of the book: it opens with a couple finding a man with a knife in his head sleeping on their front step, snoring loud enough to make all the neighbors complain. When the snoring man doesn’t wake up even when a dog pees on him, the couple grows bored and the woman begins dancing naked. The story ends. Without going into too much detail (there are simply too many stories, of too many different types), this is how a lot of the stories feel. A little arbitrary and with a jolting narrative that ultimately ends before anything can happen, and yet at the same time, most are still worth reading.

The artwork is a mixed bag, as it often is in these anthologies. Many of the stories go for a minimalist approach, with abstract anatomies and sparse details. More than a few are drawn purposely bad, in the heta-uma (good-bad) style that is so often discussed in these comics. But there are artists like Kazuichi Hanawa to balance things out, and a handful of stories are downright gorgeous and full of incredible detail. There are also more than a few that are likable for their own unique illustration style (cubist, for instance), neither crude nor fantastic, just highly individualistic, which is another one of the best things about an anthology like this.

Basically, I can’t do this book justice with a single review, since there are so many different stories with different approaches. Some might be put off by the crude stories, but most will undoubtedly find something to like. And the best thing about the abstract storytelling approach is that you can pick the book up and read a story over and over again and never come away with the same thing. It’s by far one of the best manga anthologies we’ve seen in English, and is up there with the best comic anthologies I’ve seen, period.

Volume one of the Ax: A Collection of Alternative Manga will be available on July 15th, 2010.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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Manga Minis, 6/28/10 Mon, 28 Jun 2010 04:10:23 +0000 Melinda Beasi In this, our final minis column ever (see our Farewell Roundtable for an announcement and some reminiscing), Melinda checks out the BL oneshot Blood Honey (BLU Manga) while Connie reviews the second volume of Madness (BLU Manga) and the fourth of 13th Boy (Yen Press).

Blood Honey

By Sakyou Yozukura
BLU, 178 pp.
Rating: M (Mature)

Yuki Akabane is a vampire, but descended so far down the line, the only family trait he retains is a thirst for blood. His job as a nurse at a blood donor clinic keeps him hooked up with occasional meals, but his intake gets jacked up immensely by an obsessive donor named Osamu Mayazumi. Mayazumi is a teacher with a bad temper that seems to be quelled by donating blood, and thanks to a fear of needles, the only nurse he’ll trust is Akabane. Frequent visits to the clinic shift to nightly dinners at Akabane’s home, and before they know it, the two are harboring feelings for each other more serious than those of donor and nurse.

Despite the fairly creepy premise, this series’ most consistent trait is that it is quite simply a lot of fun. Yozakura’s sense of humor fits her characters perfectly, particularly in the second half of the book, where she introduces Akabane’s precocious nephew, Kiri. The book is undoubtedly tongue-in-cheek, but it thankfully lacks the overblown ridiculousness of some humorous yaoi. As a bonus, there are some genuinely touching moments as well.

Yozukura’s artwork is quite expressive and frankly adorable, though her characters fall visually into the typical seme and uke roles, almost to the extreme. Thanks to that, both Akabane and his nephew look about fifteen, one of the book’s few major downsides.

Though it’s certainly not profound, Blood Honey is a fun, sexy, take on the current vampire trend.

Blood Honey is available now.

–Reviewed by Melinda Beasi

Madness, Vol. 2

By Kairi Shimotsuki
Blu, 245 pp.
Rating: M (18+)

In the concluding volume, the surviving members of Madness find out that they may have been manipulated into doing nearly everything they can recall in their lives. When their hunters are uncovered and the reason behind the Madness crew is reveaed, Izaya has to take a good, hard look at his beliefs and decide for himself how to lead his life.

This series falls into the rare category of “action yaoi,” where there’s a relatively involved plot to go along with the sex/flirting. Actually, there’s very little sex to speak of, and aside from a handful of non-con harassment scenes, there might only be one or two brief encounters between the main couple. Which means that we’re left with… the rest of the book.

The simple plot becomes convoluted when explained by the plethora of characters with different personal motivations running around after Madness. The fights also suffer from poor panel layouts and flow. Madness does get points for being something other than pure smut, and while I’m not the biggest fan of dark action yaoi, at least it isn’t an interminable string of sex scenes in the middle of a convoluted plot. It also has some pretty ridiculous dialogue, and aside from a hilarious theological discussion in the middle of a fight, there are some choice cheesy lines scattered throughout.

I think there are plenty of other series out there better than this (Yellow, for instance), but there might be a lot of fans starved for this type of story that might want to give it a try.

Volume two of Madness is available now.

–Reviewed by Connie C.

13th Boy, Vol. 4

By SangEun Lee
Yen Press, 180 pp.
Rating: Teen

Hee-So continues to look out for Sae-Bom and help her weather the teasing she receives from the other girls, causing a major split with Nam-Joo, her best friend. Teasing meant for Sae-Bom goes wrong, and Hee-So finds herself in yet another situation risking her life for the girl, only to be saved by Whie-Young. But with things getting more intense between Whie-Young and Hee-So, is Won-Jun stepping back into the picture to try for Hee-So’s affection again?

Where the other volumes introduced a lot of off-the-wall elements that made me like this series more and more, things have leveled off here as some of the relationships in the love triangle are sorted out. There’s still Hee-So’s obsession with fate, Whie-Young’s out-of-place magic, and Beatrice the talking cactus, but all that begins to work towards the noble goal of finding boyfriends and girlfriends for everyone. It’s still a lot of fun, though, and the story only gets more interesting as Hee-So and Nam-Joo begin coaching Sae-Bom on how to stand up for herself so she doesn’t get teased. Little by little, Sae-Bom begins to shake her eccentricities, and I love that her much more serious story goes right along with the silliness of Hee-So finding her destined boyfriend. We also learn a bit more about why Sae-Bom has stayed in her state of arrested development, meaning the former “playground accident” explanation isn’t nearly as inadequate as it seemed.

While nothing much new in the way of oddities gets added in this volume, the story continues to be among my favorites. It has just the right number of quirks and a pleasant mix of likable characters to make the oldest girls’ comic plot in the book very fresh and new.

Volume four of 13th Boy is available now.

–Reviewed by Connie C.

Review copies provided by the publishers.

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Neko Ramen, Vol. 1 Sun, 27 Jun 2010 15:20:26 +0000 Ken Haley By Kenji Sonishi
Tokyopop, 160 pp.
Rating: Teen (13 +)

After a fairly big online push from TOKYOPOP, the first volume of Kenji Sonishi’s Neko Ramen has arrived! Within you’ll find the highly entertaining adventures of Taisho, an adorable kitty who happens to run a ramen shop. With a setup like that you’d assume that hilarity ensues, and you’d be right!

This first volume is a collection of various 4-koma strips depicting the humorous day-to-day life of Taisho and his ramen shop. Many of the strips involve his attempts at garnering business through marketing, experimenting with flavors, promotions and more, often while using his one steady customer Tanaka-san as his guinea pig. From time to time, the story breaks away from the 4-koma format. This is usually accompanied by an extended flashback detailing some humorous aspect of Taisho’s life. For whatever reason, the humor in Neko Ramen really clicked with me in a way that a lot of manga humor doesn’t. On more than one occasion I found myself chuckling at Taisho’s antics. For his part, Tanaka-san is a fairly good straight man; a lot of the humor involves his reactions or under-the-breath commentary to Taisho’s off-the-wall schemes.

Neko Ramen’s art works with the stories perfectly. It’s simple, cute and incredibly charming. Furthermore, Sonishi seems just at home in the 4-panel strips as he does in the more conventional non-4-koma tales and his storytelling and comedic timing within both are dead-on. Taisho’s character design is brilliantly simple: instantly recognizable and utterly adorable. Frankly, it seems like he could be a hugely marketable character and I can easily imagine Taisho plushies, key chain charms and more.

In addition to the stories, TOKYOPOP crammed the back with extra features, including a look at their web campaign, and a nice four-page interview with Sonishi himself. There’s also an incredibly addictive flip book portion! I’ve got to admit that I went into this with a little trepidation. Like I mentioned earlier, what a lot of people find hilarious in contemporary manga just doesn’t click with me, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I ended up enjoying it. In the end, I found Neko Ramen to be an incredibly fun read, which should work its charm on just about anyone who gives it a look.

Volume one of Neko Ramen is available now.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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Shinjuku Fri, 25 Jun 2010 19:15:11 +0000 Ken Haley Written by Mink, Art by Yoshitaka Amano
Dark Horse, 160 pp.
Rating: 16 +

Daniel Legend is a bounty hunter, tasked with tracking down the various criminals of LA. After one busy night on the job he arrives home to discover an old postcard in the mail, apparently sent to him from his long lost sister. With the card as the only clue as to her whereabouts, Daniel heads off to the place pictured on the card in search of answers. He heads off to Shinjuku.

Going from that description, Shinjuku doesn’t sound half bad, does it? Well, I fooled you because it is half bad. Which half? Well, it’s certainly not Amano’s half that’s for sure. Shinjuku is a weird hodgepodge of near-future sci-fi, Eastern mysticism, crime stories and more. All of which could and should jell together nicely to give an intriguing, weird, maybe even pulpy piece of fiction. Sadly, in Mink’s hands it falls a bit short. For one thing, all of the characters are incredibly flat and bland. Daniel Legend, aside from a rather snazzy name, is a fairly unmemorable protagonist. The main antagonist, Shi, is only a bit more memorable thanks in part due to his tattoos. Neither is terribly compelling, though, and for the most part their personalities are incredibly thin.

They move through the plot with little to no explanation given for their actions beyond the idea that Shi wants to rule the universe and Daniel Legend is the key to this. I’m still a bit foggy on how, though. There was something going on involving a bull god named Togensa, some things about cycling through realities and Daniel’s father, but beyond that a lot of what happens just seems to happen because the writer wants it to. There’s no natural flow or progression and a lot of action and plot points occur off the page, such as a subplot dealing with an LA gangster coming to Tokyo in search of Daniel and his sister, and… oh, the entire climax of the story.

Still, there was one redeeming thing about Shinjuku, namely Amano’s artwork. Unlike other illustrated novels, there’s more than just a few pieces here. In fact, nearly every single page is adorned by some kind of artwork from Amano, ranging from incredibly striking two-page spreads to small, half-page pieces. It’s definitely a rougher and less clean style than I’m used to from Amano, and he focuses heavily on the use of black, gray and red, with the odd blue or gold tossed in for kicks. But yeah, his artwork is the highlight of the story and it looks gorgeous in this oversized format.

In the end, Shinjuku was a rather disappointing read that boasts some lovely-looking artwork by Amano. I was left feeling confused, bewildered and wondering what I had just read and what was the point of it. But who knows, maybe all will become clear in the next two planned installments of the series.

Shinjuku is available now.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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Latest Episodes of BLEACH to Begin Streaming on Tue, 22 Jun 2010 19:00:45 +0000 Michelle Smith

San Francisco, CA, June 22, 2010– VIZ Media, LLC (VIZ Media), one of the entertainment industry’s most innovative and comprehensive publishing, animation and licensing companies, continues to generate tremendous momentum for its popular BLEACH series with the announcement that English-subtitled episodes from the most current story arc will begin streaming for free in the U.S. via the company’s premier website for anime, Starting today with Episode 275, will stream a new BLEACH episode one week after it has aired in Japan.

BLEACH is one of the most popular Japanese anime and manga properties in the world and this near simulcast schedule is part of VIZ Anime’s ongoing strategy to bring hit animated properties to a national audience via the web.

BLEACH is a popular manga and animated series (both rated ‘T’ for Teens), distributed domestically by VIZ Media, that follows the adventures of Ichigo, a 15-year old student with the ability to see ghosts. When his family is attacked by a Hollow — a malevolent lost soul – Ichigo encounters Rukia, a Soul Reaper, and inadvertently absorbs her powers. Now, he’s dedicating his life to protecting the innocent and helping tortured souls find peace. Episode 275, from the newest story arc in Japan, marks the start of a thrilling storyline and guarantees a series of face-offs that are sure to excite old and new BLEACH fans! is the official online home to some of VIZ Media’s best-loved animated series, and a burgeoning social network for fans to connect and form an interactive community. Over 1,000 episodes are currently available, and new content is added on a weekly basis.

“BLEACH remains one of the most successful and popular anime series in North America, and VIZ Media continues to break down time and distance barriers by making new episodes available within days of their original airing in Japan,” says Ken Sasaki, Sr. Vice President & General Manager, VIZ Media. “ is the ultimate destination for the many popular VIZ Media animated titles, and currently contains an extensive catalog of hundreds of episodes from popular shows like BLEACH, INUYASHA, NARUTO, THE PRINCE OF TENNIS and more, all offered with accurate, high-quality streaming video that is completely free for viewers!”

BLEACH is a tremendously successful multimedia property internationally. The manga has been licensed in numerous countries around the world and has sold over 2 million copies in the US. In North America, the manga has been a sales hit and the popular animated series is viewed weekly by millions. This success also includes an array of related video games, apparel, action figures and other merchandise.

BLEACH animation can be viewed on Adult Swim and through a variety of other web-based video download and streaming outlets that have partnered with VIZ Media, including iTunes®, Xbox Live, PlayStation Network, Amazon, and HULU. For more information on BLEACH, please visit To view subtitled BLEACH animated episodes, please visit

About VIZ Media, LLC
Headquartered in San Francisco, CA, VIZ Media, LLC (VIZ Media), is one of the most comprehensive and innovative companies in the field of manga (graphic novel) publishing, animation and entertainment licensing of Japanese content. Owned by three of Japan’s largest creators and licensors of manga and animation, Shueisha Inc., Shogakukan Inc., and Shogakukan-Shueisha Productions, Co., Ltd., VIZ Media is a leader in the publishing and distribution of Japanese manga for English speaking audiences in North America, the United Kingdom, Ireland, and South Africa and is a global ex-Asia licensor of Japanese manga and animation. The company offers an integrated product line including magazines such as SHONEN JUMP and SHOJO BEAT, graphic novels, and DVDs, and develops, markets, licenses, and distributes animated entertainment for audiences and consumers of all ages. Contact VIZ Media at 295 Bay Street, San Francisco, CA 94133; Phone (415) 546-7073; Fax (415) 546-7086; and web site at


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Kingyo Used Books, Vol. 1 Tue, 22 Jun 2010 04:18:12 +0000 Sam Kusek Kingyo Used Books!]]> By Seimu Yoshizaki
VIZ, 208 pp.
Rating: Older Teen

So much of what makes manga, and really comics in general, a great hobby, is the immense amount of history behind them. Manga is such a cultural force over in Japan: partly created post-WWII to help rebuild the Japanese morale, it has become a powerful engine to help people tell their stories. Take Barefoot Gen, for example, a series that was produced by a Hiroshima survivor who wanted to portray his own experiences and anti-war views as his fellow students were protesting another war in Vietnam. Manga has always been reflective of the Japanese culture and it is safe to say that manga has permeated all facets of the Japanese lifestyle. At least that’s what Kingyo Used Books, one of the latest series from Viz’s SIGIKKI imprint, suggests…

Set in modern-day Japan, we are introduced to a little-known used bookstore that specializes in—you guessed it—manga. The book reads as a series of short stories surrounding people who have lost their way somehow, whether it be in their daily lives, in the heated intensity of a school sport or in a quest for a future goal. The store becomes a safe haven for these people, offering them a place to pour out their worries and invest themselves in books that allow them to take a step back and reflect on what is really important in this day and age. This is a wonderful theme that is carried throughout the book, making it an invigorating read and a real breath of fresh air in the current manga market.

Writing-wise, I felt that this book might be a bit too light at some moments. This is not on the part of the characters that are introduced in their short stories; I think they are all well-crafted to get their individual points across. This criticism leans more towards the cast of main characters presented as the owners, workers and friends of the shop. Be it the manga-obsessed and mysterious employee, Shiba, or the spunky assistant manager, Natsuki, I never felt as though I really got to know who these people are. What are the motivations driving them to open up this shop? Why are they so obsessed with manga? There were hints at possible further story involvement with them throughout the book but it was hard to guess if the dynamic was going to change to focus on their lives or keep the short story format.

Fortunately, the artwork is as light and breezy as the message is. Everybody is expressive and realistic; not one of the characters, no matter how important, is skimped out on. Not only that but the book sports an enormous amount of research in terms of the feel of everyday modern Japanese streets and the manga series being discussed. This realism really helps to bring the story back down to earth, making it feel as wholesome as possible.

On a whole, this is a series that has the potential to really say a great deal about the state of manga and its readership today. I think it is a brilliant time for it to come out, considering the boom that manga and anime have taken over in America and the recent decline of readership in Japan. I just hope that it delivers on its message.

Volume one of Kingyo Used Books is available now.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

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Manga Minis, 6/21/10 Mon, 21 Jun 2010 04:10:38 +0000 Michelle Smith Hellsing and more!]]> It must be Monday, ‘cos we’re back with more minis! Connie gets us started with her review of the third volume of Alice in the Country of Hearts (TOKYOPOP) and also takes a look at the tenth and final volume of Hellsing (Dark Horse). Michelle is impressed by the debut volume of Maiden Rose (DMP), while Sam is grateful for some plot developments in the eleventh volume of Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning (Yen Press).

Alice in the Country of Hearts, Vol. 3

Story by Quinrose, Art by Soumei Hoshino
TOKYOPOP, 192 pp.
Rating: OT (16+)

The plot thickens as Alice begins to blend in more and more with the residents of her Wonderland. She becomes a regular assistant to the clockmaker Julius, Peter the White Rabbit begins to cool his amorous advances, and Alice and Blood Dupree have a conversation about where they stand with one another.

This series continues to defy every expectation I have for it. Even the characters begin pointing this out, as Blood’s conversation runs towards the topic of how Alice ought to be head-over-heels for him and stringing along all the characters that are in love with her, but isn’t. It also ought to be a harem series, but isn’t since Alice is too strong a character and the various suitors are just creepy. The strange mechanics of Wonderland and the “game” Alice is caught up in continue to be maddeningly elusive, and the tidbits we are offered once again in this volume point to it being a pretty complex and tantalizing mystery. There are strange quirks that keep coming up, too, like the fact that Peter can turn into an animal and might remain that way for some time to come.

It’s far better than it ought to be, and volume three continues the mystery of Wonderland and the strange hobbies all the characters keep as Alice becomes used to the way things work. This was more of a leveling off than exposition, but Alice in the Country of Hearts is currently one of my favorite TOKYOPOP series, and I’m very much looking forward to precisely where the story and characters are going to go.

Volume three of Alice in the Country of Hearts is available now.

–Reviewed by Connie C.

Hellsing, Vol. 10

By Kohta Hirano
Dark Horse, 192 pp.
Rating: 16+

In the final volume of Hellsing, nazi vampires and the Hellsing Organization clash one final time in the middle of what was once London, amidst the flaming wreckage of the nazi zepplin. The final three confrontations take place, Alucard is brought low, and the series comes to a conclusion.

What is there to say about this series? It is ridiculous, violent, over-the-top, and absolutely revels in its debauchery. The final fights that take place aren’t unexpected, since Seras is locked in battle with the werewolf at the end of volume nine and it’s obvious that Integra will face off against the Major. What isn’t so obvious is the true nature of the Major (you knew he wasn’t quite human all this time, but he kept his hand held close), and the ultimate fate of Alucard.

Alucard’s battle being a wildcard was a surprise to me, and it was nice to see that he didn’t just plow through everybody, but at the same time what happens is rather poorly explained and nonsensical. On the other hand, the fact that such a thing came from left field is totally in character for this story. The other thing that wound up being a little tedious was the Major’s tendency to launch into tirades about the philosophy of war, but he’s been doing that all the way through, and it made sense for him to have… such strong opinions about the things he’d done.

The epilogue was a little underwhelming, but then again, how does one tie up the loose ends in Hellsing? It was violent and action-packed in the most extreme way possible all the way through and quiet moments feel out of place. It revels in depravity and does it better and marginally more coherently than most other series that try it. It’s a true legend to the end.

Volume ten of Hellsing is available now.

–Reviewed by Connie C.

Maiden Rose, Vol. 1

By Fusanosuke Inariya
Digital Manga Publishing, 206 pp.
Rating: Mature

Taki Reizen and Claus von Wolfstadt should be enemies since their countries are at war. But a bond forged at school abroad leads Taki, a nobleman, to make Claus his knight, fighting by his side while Taki takes the role of division commander, marshalling his humble subjects as they seek to defend against the enemy’s advances. Many view Claus with suspicion, despite his apparent devotion to the commander, and are more apt to regard him as a “mad dog” and possible spy than as a trustworthy ally.

The two adjectives that best describe Maiden Rose are “promising” and “confusing.” For a boys’ love manga, this story is extremely complex, and features many character types and conflicts not traditionally seen in this genre. The character designs are also terrifically varied, from beautiful Taki to gruff Claus to the myriad middle-aged men who make up the rest of the division.

Confusing, though, is the exact nature of Taki and Claus’ (sexual) relationship. A flashback to their first encounter makes it clear that Taki wanted this, but now it seems like Taki is simply allowing himself to be violated by Claus after each battle. This makes for some disturbing scenes, but what’s good about Maiden Rose is that it doesn’t shirk from the consequences of Claus’ roughness. Too, Taki has enough depth as a character that one can read his passivity here as a desire to be punished for getting innocent people hurt; he’s commanding them because he must and it’s better than remaining ignorant while they die, but it’s definitely taking a toll on him.

So, yes, a very promising boys’ love manga indeed. It’s perhaps not for the faint of heart, but it’s definitely something different.

Volume one of Maiden Rose is available now.

–Reviewed by Michelle Smith

Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, Vol. 11

By Kyo Shirodaira & Eita Mizuno
Yen Press, 208 pp.
Rating: Teen

It is always really nice to get the facts when you are reading a story and volume eleven of the Sprial: The Bonds of Reasoning is just that. The facts. After the battle with Kanon, Ayumu Narumi and the rest of the Blade Children are hospitalized, giving them time to mull over the attack. Being the proactive guy that he is, though, Ayumu seeks to find out what exactly caused this situation and what is going to happen in the future.

All I really have to say is thank god for this volume! It makes the story much more interesting, clearing up exactly who and what the Blade Children are and getting me reinvested in the series. Kyo Shirodaira paces the scores of information we receive wonderfully; the volume is never overloaded at any point and instead draws you in with great twists and turns in the writing.

The artwork hasn’t changed much, though, and could work better to suit the serious nature of the story. It just isn’t dynamic enough, underplaying what’s really trying to be said here.

Volume eleven of Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning is available now.

–Reviewed by Sam Kusek

Review copies provided by the publishers.

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