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Weekly Recon, 3/19/08

Posted by: Katherine Dacey on March 18, 2008 at 7:21 pm

For those of us who aren’t breathlessly anticipating the nineteenth volume of Fruits Basket—and I count myself among that tiny number—there are a few choice titles competing for space in your LCS’s new arrival rack. My top pick: volume twelve of Phoenix (Viz). Written shortly after he completed Princess Knight, these early Phoenix stories have a kinder, gentler feel than the rest of the series, betraying a strong Disney influence in both the character designs and the characters themselves; the heroine boasts a posse of talking animals reminiscent of Cinderella’s own rat pack. Other noteworthy arrivals include the final volume of ES: Eternal Sabbath (Del Rey), a psychological thriller in the truest sense; volume ten of Moonchild (CMX), a vintage shojo title with enough gender-bending weirdness for three Moto Hagio manga; volume four of My Heavenly Hockey Club (Del Rey), a comedy best described as a mash-up of The Bad News Bears and Ouran High School Host Club; and volume two of With the Light (Yen Press), a josei series documenting one family’s struggle to raise their autistic son.

In the review queue this week are volume one of Metro Survive (DrMaster), yet another tale from the Tokyo subway system, and the final volume of Phoenix. For additional perspective on Phoenix, I encourage you to visit MangaCast, where PCS reviewer and Ninja Consultant Erin F. has posted her ten cents on volume twelve.

SHIPPING THIS WEEK:
Alice on Deadlines, Vol. 2 (Yen Press)
Blood Alone, Vol. 4 (Infinity Studios)
Case Closed, Vol. 22 (Viz)
ES: Eternal Sabbath, Vol. 8 (Del Rey)
Fruits Basket, Vol. 19 (Tokyopop)
Full Metal Alchemist, Vol. 16 (Viz)
Gacha Gacha: The Next Revolution, Vol. 6 (Del Rey)
Gakuen Alice, Vol. 2 (Tokyopop)
Moon Child, Vol. 10 (CMX)
Musashi #9, Vol. 14 (CMX)
My Heavenly Hockey Club, Vol. 4 (Del Rey)
Ninin Ga Shinobuden, Vol. 3 (Infinity Studios)
Nodame Cantabile, Vol. 12 (Del Rey)
Phoenix, Vol. 12 (Viz; reviewed below)
Psycho Busters, Vol. 2 (Del Rey)
Suzuka, Vol. 7 (Del Rey)
Vagabond, Vol. 27 (Viz)
With the Light, Vol. 2 (Yen Press)
Young Magician, Vol. 11 (CMX)

Metro Survive, Vol. 1

By Yuki Fujisawa
DrMaster Publications, 206 pp.
Rating: 15+

metrosurvive1.jpgShogo Mishima works hard for the money—unfortunately, no one treats him right. His boss is a cigar-chomping slave driver, his wife is a harridan, and his clients are white-collar stiffs who blame him and his fellow maintenance men for the shoddy construction at Exopolis, the huge office tower/shopping complex where he works. While returning home from a grueling overtime assignment, a magnitude seven earthquake traps Mishima and nine other passengers in a subway car. Though they free themselves from the wreckage, they discover their escape routes have been cut off, trapping them in the bowels of the now-collapsed Exopolis. Mishima proves adept at surmounting a few early obstacles, but as the situation becomes dire—and the group stumbles across a more ruthless, mercenary band of survivors who have ensconced themselves in an underground convenience store—his leadership skills are sorely tested.

What I liked best about Metro Survive was its seventies disaster-movie vibe. In the proud tradition of Earthquake, The Poseidon Adventure, and The Towering Inferno (and, I’m assuming, dozens of similar Japanese flicks), manga-ka Yuki Fujisawa assembles a motley cast that includes yuppies, college students, club kids, salarymen, bouncers, and retirees. (And these are no ordinary retirees, I might add; they demonstrate uncommon strength and serious cajones in the face of adversity. Shelly Winters would be beaming her approval!) The conflicts that play out among them—like the conflicts that erupt among the Poseidon’s passengers or the inferno’s survivors—are meant to underscore A Big Thesis; in this case, Fujisawa is intent on revealing just how cutthroat and soulless a place Tokyo has become, a place where making a yen outweighs all other concerns. It’s not exactly a profound insight, but the class-based tension that fuels these exchanges adds an interesting dimension to a very familiar story.

The artwork is serviceable, if not elegant. Fujisawa creates a distinctive look for each character, lavishing considerable detail on body type, facial features, clothing, and posture. If anything, he relies too heavily on the art to convey personality, rendering the most repellent characters as sweaty, grotesque figures with comically exaggerated mouths and piggy little eyes; it’s as if he pinned small “kick me” signs to their shirts to remind the reader that our sympathies should lie with Mishima. Some of the text has been superimposed on heavily toned panels, making it hard to read; the thick, bold font only compounds the problem. My biggest complaint, however, is the book’s strange odor. I’d like to think this petroleum smell was a deliberate attempt to bring Odorama to the printed page, to help the reader experience the horror of being trapped in an underground parking garage or subway station, and not an accident of the printing process. Whatever the cause, I hope future volumes are a little less pungent, as this efficient, B-movie of a manga shows considerable promise.

Volume one of Metro Survive is available now.

Phoenix, Vol. 12: Early Works

By Osamu Tezuka
Viz, 192 pp.
Rating: Older Teen

phoenix12.jpgPerhaps a better subtitle for volume twelve of Phoenix would be I Lost It At the Movies, as these four stories reveal just how passionately Osamu Tezuka loved American cinema. These early works date to the late 1950s, shortly after he completed work on Princess Knight. As Tezuka explained in a 1980 essay, watching “American big-screen spectacle movies such as Helen of Troy and Land of the Pharaohs… made me want to create a similar sort of romantic epic for young girls’ comics.” He continued:

When I had the opportunity to serialize Phoenix, I first thought of creating an epic involving European history, but then I came up with the idea of doing a grand romance in the style of American cinema. And this lead me to create the “Egypt-Greece” volume of Phoenix for girls. From the start, I was very conscious of the young female fans of my Princess Knight series, and that is the reason that this Phoenix is so different from the stories I drew in young boys’ comics and so much sweeter and more romantic.

Looking at this collection, the sword-and-sandal influence manifests itself in almost every aspect of Tezuka’s storytelling, from the costumes and settings to the grand pageants that unfold in almost every chapter. The principal characters declaim their thoughts in the manner of Charlton Heston or Kirk Douglas, uttering every line as if it were of Biblical consequence. What makes this 1950s Hollywood pomposity bearable—even charming—is the other major influence on these early Phoenix stories: Walt Disney. The character designs reveal an obvious debt to Disney’s earliest films (especially Snow White), while the supporting cast of talking critters (including the Phoenix herself) could easily belong to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty’s entourage of animal friends. Tezuka even borrows one of Disney’s most time-honored tropes—the heroine with a singing voice so pure she can tame animals—and incorporates it into several scenes.

Anyone looking for the moral complexity of later Phoenix stories—especially the powerful, multi-volume Civil War and Sun—will be disappointed in these early tales, as Tezuka, like Disney, creates cartoonishly villainous villains and chastely noble heroes. If one approaches this collection in the spirit of, say, a musicologist flipping through Beethoven’s pre-Eroica manuscripts or a film historian reviewing an early Hitchcock thriller, however, the rewards are more palpable. In these early stories we see Tezuka developing his comedic chops with pop culture references and physical slapstick; we see him experimenting with layout, as he renders the battlefields of Troy and Rome in sweeping, full-page panels; and we see him creating his first cycle of interconnected stories, introducing some of the themes that will unify the most disparate elements of the Phoenix saga. In short, we see Tezuka’s first attempts to find his own voice as he pays tribute to the artists who influenced his own style, learning more about his exuberant, unique artistry in the process.

Volume twelve of Phoenix will be available on March 19th.

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