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Weekly Recon, 1/30/08

Posted by: Katherine Dacey on January 30, 2008 at 1:04 am

hellgirl1.jpgIt’s a big week for Viz—or, more accurately, a VIZBIG week, as the first omnibus edition of Rurouni Kenshin arrives in bookstores. This hefty, 580-page slab of manga includes the first three volumes of Nobuhiro Watsuki’s perennially popular samurai series in an oversized package complete with dust jacket, color pages, and “extras.” (No clue what those extras are—sorry!) Other noteworthy Viz releases include the final volumes of Godchild and Buso Renkin, the first volume of Ral Ω Grad, and new installments of Bleach, Eyeshield 21, Kaze Hikaru, Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation, Ouran High School Host Club, and YuYu Hakusho.

The only other notable new title this week is Del Rey’s Hell Girl, another fine example of comeuppance theater involving a wish-granting website. Initial reviews have been mixed. Davey Jones of praised Hell Girl as a “chilling” supernatural thriller, while Deb Aoki of About.Manga and Billy Aguiar of CBGxtra took a dimmer view of Miyuki Eto’s work, awarding it just two stars. I’ll reserve judgment until I have a chance to read it, though I give Aoki props for this memorable analogy:

Eto’s awkward anatomy drawings, indistinguishable character designs and their saucer-sized eyes give this story an odd mix of cuteness and bitterness, kind of like cherry soda and absinthe ice cream float.

Yuck! You can decide for yourself by reading the first twenty-five pages of Hell Girl at MySpace. Click here for the preview.

REVIEWED LAST WEEK:
Death Note, Vol. 2 (Viz Media); Fall in Love Like a Comic, Vol. 2 (Viz); Honey and Clover, Vol. 1 (Viz); Sand Chronicles, Vol. 1 (Viz)

REVIEWED THIS WEEK:
Déjà vu: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter (Tokyopop); Kaze Hikaru, Vol. 8 (Viz); Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation, Vol. 3 (Viz); Ral Ω Grad, Vol. 1 (Viz)

SHIPPING THIS WEEK:
Absolute Boyfriend, Vol. 5 (Viz)
Baby & Me, Vol. 6 (Viz)
Bleach, Vol. 22 (Viz)
Buso Renkin, Vol. 10 (Viz)
D. Gray-Man, Vol. 8 (Viz)
Dragon Drive, Vol. 6 (Viz)
Eyeshield 21, Vol. 18 (Viz)
Godchild, Vol. 8 (Viz)
Hell Girl, Vol. 1 (Del Rey)
Hoshin Engi, Vol. 5 (Viz)
Kaze Hikaru, Vol. 8 (Viz; reviewed below)
Knights of the Zodiac, Vol. 22 (Viz)
Megaman NT Warrior, Vol. 13 (Viz)
Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation, Vol. 3 (Viz; reviewed below)
Oh! My Goddess, Vol. 28 (Dark Horse)
Ouran High School Host Club, Vol. 10 (Viz)
Penguin Revolution, Vol. 5 (CMX)
Pretty Face, Vol. 4 (Viz)
Ral Ω Grad, Vol. 1 (Viz; reviewed below)
Rurouni Kenshin VIZBIG Edition, Vol. 1 (Viz)
Tail of the Moon, Vol. 9 (Viz)
Yu-Gi-Oh Millenium World, Vol. 7 (Viz)
YuYu Hakusho, Vol. 14 (Viz)

Déjà vu: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter

Story By Youn In-wan, Art by Yang Kyung-il, Yoon Seoung-ki, Kim Tae-hyung, Park Sung-woo, Byun Byung-jun, and Lee Vin
Tokyopop, 246 pp.
Rating: OT (Older Teen, 16+)

dejavu.jpgDéjà vu features six stories by writer Youn In-Wan, each illustrated by a different artist. The first four, “Spring,” “Summer,” “Fall,” and “Winter,” follow the same basic template: two lovers find themselves drawn together by mysterious forces, only to be separated by a moment of terrible violence. The settings and circumstances vary from the vaguely folkloric—a warrior and a fox demon fall in love after he frees her from a hunter’s snare—to the contemporary—a blind Korean-American girl and an up-and-coming pop singer meet cute on the streets of San Francisco. The best stories, “Spring” and “Winter,” reminded me of Tezuka’s Phoenix, as Youn In-Wan gracefully interlaces the fates of the warrior and the fox with the survivors of a twenty-third century apocalypse, while the worst, “Fall,” recalled Death Wish in its unsophisticated and racist depiction of urban America. (Kim Tae-hyung’s dark, busy layouts do little to add to the story’s appeal, I might add.)

The final two stories in the collection are utterly different in tone and execution than the first four. “Utility,” the grimmer of the two, follows a group of teens as they try to dispose of a suicide victim’s body, while “Ocean,” a more sentimental story, documents the misadventures of a nearly-blind pop singer and the average joe she enlists for a special errand. Despite its disturbing subject matter, “Utility” proves one of the strongest stories in Déjà vu, largely because of Byun Byung-Jun’s arresting artwork. His slightly grotesque character designs and rough, spidery linework underscore the horrific nature of the teens’ behavior without reducing them to monstrous caricature.

Uneven as the collection may be, I hope Tokyopop continues to take similar risks with its manhwa licenses. The stories in Déjà vu offer readers a diverse sampling of the Korean comics scene, revealing a greater range of styles and subjects than were represented in the first wave of seong-juhn titles to hit the American market.

Déjà vu: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter is available now.

Kaze Hikaru, Vol. 8

By Taeko Watanabe
Viz, 200 pp.
Rating: OT (Older Teen)

kazehikaru8.jpgVolume eight of Kaze Hikaru divides neatly into two parts. The first half completes the story arc begun in volume seven, depicting the human cost of the Shinsengumi’s victory in the Kinmon no Hen, both for the civilians—many of whom lost their homes to fire—and for the soldiers—Yamanami and Todo face a death sentence for an incident at the Rokkaku prison. If I had a criticism of these chapters, it’s that Yamanami and Todo’s plight doesn’t elicit much sympathy from the reader, since neither character is particularly well developed; I had to consult previous volumes to remind myself who, exactly, they were in relation to Okita and Sei.

The second half of volume eight offers a stronger, more compelling story as we jump back in time to Okita’s childhood, watching him transform from spoiled young boy to Shinsengumi leader. The only false note in this extended flashback is a chance encounter between a youthful Sei and Okita. (Why do manga-ka love this device so much?!) But it’s easy to forgive such concessions to shojo formula, since Taeko Watanabe usually emphasizes political intrigue, hand-to-hand combat, and warrior ethics over romance. Now that’s my idea of girl power.

Volume eight of Kaze Hikaru will be available on January 30th. Click here for a review of volumes one through five.

Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation, Vol. 3

By Yoshiyuki Nishi
Viz, 232 pp.
Rating: Teen (13+)

muhyo3.jpgIn the third installment of this ghostbusting series, Muhyo, Roji, and their gal pal Nana face a new crop of spooks: a spirit who’s drawn to the sound of a child’s recorder, a ghost who haunts an onsen, and a sinister creature known as the Mad Planter. The second story arc (chapters 17-19) is the most amusing, as the spirit of a frustrated novelist impersonates a best-selling author so that he can—you guessed it—ghostwrite a story that he was unable to complete during his lifetime. The final chapters introduce a longer, darker plot in which the gang assists Muhyo’s pal Biko, a wide-eyed sprite in a pointed hat. When Biko’s wards of binding fail to contain the prisoners at the Arcanum (the Magical Law Association’s answer to the Bastille), she enlists Muhyo and Roji to help seal the convicts back into their cells. I have a few minor quibbles with the artwork and pacing of Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation. But this series continues to surprise me with new developments, chief among them Roji’s evolution from bumbling sidekick to Magical Law practitioner. His frequent failures—and their sometimes devastating consequences—add layers of depth to the pedestrian plots, pushing the series in a more interesting direction than the first volume’s otherworldly Odd Couple schtick suggested.

Volume three of Muhyo & Roji’s Bureau of Supernatural Investigation will be available on January 30th. Click here for a review of volume one.

Ral Ω Grad, Vol. 1

Story By Tsuneo Takano, Art by Takeshi Obata
Viz, 212 pp.
Rating: OT (Older Teen; Parental Advisory Warning for nudity and sexual content)

ral_grad.jpgHow to describe Ral Ω Grad: heavy metal concept album? D&D character profile? Victoria’s Secret catalog? You make the call.

In the kingdom of Sphein, a powerful dragon (Grad) seizes control of an infant’s body, laying waste to the surrounding area until the boy’s father imprisons them in a cage. For the next fifteen years, this symbiotic pair lives in complete darkness, their only connection to the outside world a virtuous young woman named Mio, who tutors the boy (Ral). Mio persuades Ral/Grad’s captors to release them so that they can defend Sphein from an army of hideous, parasitic creatures under the control of Lady Bira, a demon who seeks nothing less than mankind’s annihilation—and who just happens to be a mortal enemy of Grad. Let the slayage begin!

Though the opening chapter has great potential, raising interesting ethical questions about Ral/Grad’s treatment and providing an elaborate explanation of their unique body-sharing arrangement, the subsequent chapters quickly devolve into a fan service spectacular with a parade of big-breasted bimbos receiving humiliating treatment at Ral’s hands. Or perhaps I should say, in his hands—Ral loves to fondle women, even though Mio repeatedly counsels him not to. Aside from Mio—whose glasses and modest outfits are meant to communicate her smart, serious nature—the female characters are a pretty dim lot, falling into such basic categories as painfully stupid moe sidekick and ridiculously oversexed villainess. (Case in point: Lady Bira, whose wardrobe consists entirely of matching bra and panty sets).

The other big drawback to Ral Ω Grad is the artwork. I’ll concede that Takeshi Obata’s monsters are nifty-looking and his backgrounds detailed, giving the story a sense of place and time that’s sometimes lacking in shonen series. But Obata’s heavy-handed use of screentone makes it difficult to figure out what’s happening in many fight scenes. As if to compensate for this problem, writer Tsuneo Takano frequently calls upon characters to describe an event we just witnessed, often in such baroque detail one wonders if Obata could have realized Takano’s vision.

My verdict: Ral Ω Grad looks cool, but the demeaning treatment of female characters and confusing fight scenes make this manga an unpleasant slog for readers outside its target demographic of teenaged boys.

Volume one of Ral Ω Grad will be available on January 30th.

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