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Jan. 1st, 2007 @ 02:08 am Comics Reviews from December 2006*
Kim, MiKyung. 11th Cat. Vol. 2. Trans. SukHee Ryu and Audra Furuichi. Seoul: ICE Kunion, 2006.
          Summary: Rika's shadowed past is revealed with the discovery that her memory of her father, the great wizard Arthur, has been erased. However, a book that she has found by chance in the dark prince's library turns out to be the key to her intended inheritance. Along with her "Uncle" and Nomi, she soon finds herself sucked into the world of the book, but that world has already been corrupted by the Sword Master of Black Iron...
          Comments: I have been interested in this title since seeing it on the shelves in Korea (and being given some free merchandise), but my experience with the first ICE Kunion volume was decidedly less than enticing. Really cute art, totally blah story. You know the drill. Still, I decided to give this apparent Harry Potter and Chobits crossover another chance...and, to my utter shock, it got at least 100% better. An intriguing series of mysteries involving multiple characters and a little bit of angst to bellie the cuteness make all the difference in the world, I suppose. Unfortunately, given this series' meager volume count, I worry that any momentum the storyline has built up in the second volume is sure to fizzle out quickly. (This problem, perhaps due to a lack of editorial control to rein in the ADHD excesses of the manhwaga, plagues a wealth of manhwa titles.) Nonetheless, it's redeemed itself for now, and I will continue reading to see what transpires.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2003
          Rating: 5/10 - Moe artwork a la CLAMP and Koge Donbo of the highest caliber is sure to attract a crossover male audience to what is not otherwise a particularly sunjeong OR sonyeon storyline.

Miura, Kentaro. Berserk. Vol. 13. Trans. Duane Johnson. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga and Digital Manga Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: One by one, the members of the Band of the Hawk are devoured by demons, and a helpless Guts is forced to watch as a Griffith, now resurrected as the fifth member of the Godhand, rapes Casca. But before the two can be destroyed utterly, the Skull Knight rescues them. Guts awakens to discover that Casca, traumatized, has reverted to an infantile state and that he has been marked for sacrifice.
          Comments: Holy eroguro rape scene!!! Man, they just don't do those like they used to, now do they? (You may think that the ginorme censorship sticker pasted smack on the middle of the cover is just annoying and silly, but let me assure you that, this time, we've got a beautiful example of truth in advertising on our hands here.) And, yes, we've got every standard eromanga angle represented. However, lest you worry yourself that this is merely another case of beautiful woman being exploited by gross beasties for the sole benefit of a vast contingent of oversexed but frustrated misanthropic male readers, I will also assure you that the scene is pivotal plot material AND has tremendous emotional weight. Unlike the works of Maeda Toshio, that often combine eroguro with tasteless levity (as if humor deflects the social trespass of drawing a young girl being raped by a monster), Miura's Berserk boasts a scene that is a RAPE scene first and foremost--Guts literally saws off his own arm trying to save Casca, and the otherwise strong-willed Casca's in a permanent state of nervous breakdown afterwards--and it underlines the magnitude of Griffith's transformation into Evil Incarnate and betrayal of his friends. Should the reader dare get his rocks off, he's confronted with the enormity of the deed depicted two chapters later.
          And, of course, Griffith/Femto stares Guts down the entire time he's doing it. (Cue the sound of yaoi fans drooling.) Talk about hero, villain, and girl caught in the middle! Normally, the hero and the villain fight over the girl, but, in this case, the villain wants the hero for himself (whether sexually or platonically is immaterial--so use your imagination). All throughout the series, the girl worships the villain; he only starts wanting her when she takes the hero's primary loyalty/devotion away from him. Rant all you like about stereotypical "homosexual threats," but this sort of plot framework is quite daring and unusual for a seinen manga series.
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1997
          Rating: 8.5/10 - The conclusion to the Eclipse story arc. Stunning and simply NOT to be missed.

Miura, Kentaro. Berserk. Vol. 14. Trans. Duane Johnson. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga and Digital Manga Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: Now wielding a sword capable of slaying dragons in one hand and a cannon embedded in the artificial one, Guts heads off to seek vengeance. In his travels he rescues a young girl whose village, as it turns out, is plagued by evil elves who have been kidnapping children. Also includes an early one-shot submission created during Miura's college years.
          Comments: And now, after the extended flashback of the Golden Age arc, we're back to where the much earlier Black Swordsman arc left off...and plodding right along with your standard manga plot filler. Three battles, one damsel in lots of distress, and no real story development. Oh yeah, except Guts levels up his equipment. *rolls eyes* Which hardly counts.
          Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this volume is the prototype story at the end. Though the artwork is perhaps a bit less assured (or just more sketchy in its execution and style) and the mythology more primitive (instead of the complexities of the Godhand and the Idea of Evil, there's some evil God named "Vuana"), even at this early a stage, most of the key components to the series are already in place. Oddly enough, the weakest point of the entire chapter is the appearance of Guts himself. I'm glad he loses the eye patch since he's a warrior, not a pirate, but that non-stop pout is absolutely and unintentionally hilarious--and TOTALLY wrong for an otherwise deadly serious story. Puck is more than enough comic relief. Too much, in fact. One of the reasons I liked the Golden Age arc so much was because Puck WASN'T in it! Annoying little flying pest...
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1997
          Rating: 5/10 - This volume sure as heck ain't gonna win over new fans on its own merit, but, fortunately, the series is a lot more than the sum of its parts.

Ha, SiHyun. Comic. Vol. 1. Trans. HyeYoung Im, J. Torres and Eric Kim. Seoul: ICE Kunion, 2006.
          Summary: High school student Alice Song has won third place in Cake Magazine's contest, which means that she's gonna have the chance to reunite with her beloved junior high teacher who has since become an editor at Sigongsa...and meet a popular sonyeon manhwa creator who turns out to be her age. Sparks fly and personalities clash with the charismatic but incorrigible Patrick Kang--is it to be hate or love?
          Comments: Not bad all around, all things considered. Ha Shi-hyeon's artwork is heavily influenced by that of Won Su-yeon (and an obvious homage to her appears early on in the story to give a short speech at the Cake contest award ceremony), but this is the Won Su-yeon of Full House, not Let Dai. So don't expect anything radical; we've got your standard sunjeong manhwa plot with a spunky heroine, the (older) man she loves but is never ever going to have, and her destined prince who, at the outset, is ready to make her life miserable. It's one saving grace is its insight into the Korean manhwa publishing industry, an unusual, if narcissistic, staging ground. I'm definitely going to keep following this series for now, if only to see if it ever goes anywhere.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2001
          Rating: 5/10 - A solid sunjeong title that offers both standard romantic wish-fulfillment and a glimpse into Korean manhwa creation.

Doha. The Great Catsby. Vol. 1. Trans. Soyoung Jung. Jersey City: NETCOMICS, 2006.
          Summary: Loser catboy Catsby has just lost Persu, the love of his life, to an older cat. He is despondent, but his dog friend Houndu tries to cheer him up, and Catsby attempts to rebound by registering with a matchmaker--who pairs him with a surprisingly nice catgirl.
          Comments: For those of you who have noticed that this webcomic turned graphic novel series has been winning awards and recognition, first in Korea and now the US, a caveat: THIS IS NOT MANHWA. Presuming, of course, that you define "manhwa" as the Korean version of that distinctive set of visual narrative language and conventions developed in Japan that the layperson calls "manga." So if, like mine, you're shtick is "manga" and not avant garde comic books usually shelved in bookstores under the catch-all "graphic novel" category, you're going to be surprised and possibly annoyed. Doha has developed--or, rather, translated--a visual narrative language more common to film (if you're a Miyazaki fan, the languid pace, bright colors, and visceral charisma of the characters' expression will feel slavishly derivative hauntingly familiar)--and reduced it to a series of novel layouts of frames panels.
          In fact, the story would've done better as an animation...except THERE IS NO STORY TO SPEAK OF. Or, rather, there is, but it's heedlessly nihilistic and approaching moronic: Guy loves girl. Guy loses girl to older guy. Guy finds out his best friend has been sleeping with girl the entire time. Guy dumps new girlfriend and takes back now-pregnant (by best friend) girl, anyway. Plus gratuitous fanservice in the form of a cat with balloon breasts. Atmospheric, maybe, but wholly meaningless. Unless you're along for the predictably human emotional rollercoaster ride. *yawns* Oh, and I just spoiled you for the entire series. Deal with it. As you can see, it has absolutely NOTHING to do with the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic whose title it puns...save the pun in the title. Rather, it's in the "I'm a loser male who hasn't grown up even though I'm an adult hear me roar!" tradition. Fun, fun, fun. Doha needs to stop trying and start illustrating other peoples' scripts.
          And, to make matters even worse, the NETCOMICS translation is a veritable trainwreck. When it comes to Asian languages with such fundamentally different syntaxes and narrative conventions like Japanese and Korean, a literal translation, which is, lamentably what this series has (if we use our terminology generously), is no translation at all. The story's nuance, aural personality--and even actual meaning in a bunch of really irritating places--is lost entirely in unforgivably sloppy adaptation--and the casual American reader won't even know it because the narrative is obscure in the first place! For the mindless entertainment that most manga is, this sort of sloppiness is not so much of a tragedy, but when the creator aspired to highly-controlled Art(tm), the effect is like spraypainting graffiti over the Mona Lisa. Suffice it to say that when it comes to production incompetence, I could point a number of very specific fingers, but I will refrain from doing so. (Nice people, wrong line of work. You know the drill.)
          Anyway, for godssakes, don't run out and BUY this unfortunate release. The first volume retails for $17.99, and subsequent volumes get more bloated and significantly more expensive. It's available free online at the NETCOMICS site, so if you're sure you can't live without it, read it there and save your hard-earned money for some other truly great storyline that has been blessed with an equally great adaptation. There are a ton of choices out there. Take your pick.
          Notes: ~A5 paperback, 1st US edition, 1st printing; first published in Korea in 2005
          Rating: 3.5/10 - The most overrated comic you've never heard of by a young artist who strives for profundity but lacks the life experience to achieve little more than banal obscurity.

Amano, Shiro. Kingdom Hearts: The Complete Series. Los Angeles: TOKYOPOP, 2006.
          Summary: The young Sora and his friends Riku and Kairi plan to sail away from their island home in search of adventure, but they are suddenly separated under mysterious circumstances, and Sora is determined to reunite with them. Unfortunately, destiny gets in the way--our hero receives the magical Keyblade and is enjoined, accompanied by Donald and Goofy, who are searching for King Mickey, to save the various kingdoms of their universe from the destructive Heartless. He does just that, and along the way discovers that Kairi has lost her heart, Riku has gone over to the dark side, and that the creator of the Heartless Ansem has taken over Riku's body. Of course, Sora defeats Ansem and saves Kairi, but now he must continue his quest to locate the redeemed Riku and the still-missing King Mickey.
          Comments: Okay, confession time. I haven't played videogames since I was a teenager, and I think I probably had my peak around the fourth grade. However, I've always loved video RPGs, particularly the Final Fantasy franchise. So, even though game-spinoff manga don't generally merit a second glance as far as I'm concerned, I made an exception for Kingdom Hearts...and I'll start by saying this: I would've LOVED it back in the fourth grade!
          Now, some cultural purists MIGHT think perhaps that anything by Squaresoft crossed with anything by Disney is a sure recipe for disaster, but I was really amazed by how readily the two styles blend together...perhaps because this sort of animation-inspired artwork requires a fundamental suspension of disbelief, anyway. Amano Shiro deftly captures the stylistic elements of both as the heroes jump from world to world and relive most of the major Disney animated classics in recent memory while advancing an overarching plot that boasts themes universal to the Squaresoft FF franchise (the betrayal of a "brother," the super-special, magical heroine in distress, the ally who turns out to be an enemy, etc.). Believe it or not, it works. Really well. Never mind that the gimmick is waaaay more interesting than the story itself.
          I don't know how true to the original game this is, but at times the subplots seemed a bit stiff, arbitrary, and lifeless. Still, I nevertheless enjoyed the reinterpretations of longtime favorites such as Aladdin, The Little Mermaid, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter Pan, almost in spite of myself. Thankfully, the translation (uncredited) is readable and believable and effectively captures the distinctive, Disney-fied voices of the company's most famous characters--the manga would've been unbearable otherwise.
          But, lamentably, TOKYOPOP did not stay true to the high production values that graced the Enterbrain Japanese editions; the slipcase is a flimsy, card-stock joke, and Kingdom Hearts is the only manga series I can think of off-hand whose US editions are cheaper than the originals...and I don't personally think it does anybody any favors. The paper quality is a tragedy, and the lovely wrap-around covers merely taunt me with what could have been. I would've have loved to see the color pages left intact, particularly for the fourth volume's Winnie the Pooh side story, dammit!
          Notes: four ~B6 paperbacks in cardboard slipcase, later printings; first published in Japan from 2003 to 2005
          Rating: 5/10 - Good, (relatively) clean fun for kids that adults, if they're so inclined, can enjoy, too. You know...just like Disney movies and some videogames.

Tsuchiya, Garon and Minegishi Nobuaki. Old Boy. Vol. 3. Trans. Kumar Sivasubramanian. Milwaukie: Dark Horse Manga, 2006.
          Summary: The enemy proves that he knows of Goro's girlfriend. Goro, refusing to be manipulated, tosses away the cell phone he received and visits a Yakuza-run boxing gym in order to find Saijo, the thug who took the money from the man who wanted Goro locked up. To dissuade him from making friends with mobsters, however, Goro's enemy sends him a woman who leads him to Saijo, who proves not to know anything. Fortunately, the woman has information, and Goro fucks it out of her--he must remember his teen years.
          Comments: I've wanted to read the manga since I saw Park Chan-Wook's award-winning, cinematic adaptation back in 2004. Unfortunately, it was out of print at the time, and I was thrilled when I heard that Dark Horse had licensed the manga and couldn't wait to read it. Alas, I'm starting to think that I'm wasting my time. *sighs* For the first two volumes, it was ALMOST worth it as I saw shots from the film mirrored in the frames of the manga, but by the third volume we've pretty much given up on original and intriguing and instead fallen back on those tried and true seinen manga cliches. Goro, who has never boxed in his life, knocks out a professional boxer solely on the strength of his TV-watching. Oh, give me a break. It's every couch potato's fantasy AND the sort of "hands-on experience not required," moronic ideation that one often encounters in tournament manga when the mangaka can't think of a better explanation for the protagonist's victory. And THEN we have the femme fatale that the protagonist must screw in order to advance to the next stage. This sort of thing started in genkiga manga, but I can see how it evolved into the dating sim craze. *double sigh*
          Since I'm nearly halfway through the series, I'll probably finish it off--if only to compare it to the film--but for those who haven't started, I'd advise you not to. Stick with the film, and you'll get unforgettable, disturbing beauty instead of the sort of trash that gets recycled into toilet paper. It was out of print for a reason, you know. In fact, it all just makes me respect Park Chan-Wook even more...that he did THAT with THIS...?! Amazing.
          Notes: B6 paperback, 1st American edition, 1st printing; first published in Japan in 1997
          Rating: 4.5/10 - The film was art. The manga is trash hardly worth the paper it was printed on.

Neculai, A. and O. Laila, eds. Rush: Issue #00. DramaQueen, 2006.
          Summary: This pilot volume of the bimonthly anthology features the introductory chapters of four all-new (non-schooldays romance) BL serials: "Night and Day" by Akira Atsushi, "Children of Bones" by Theresa Zysk, "Master!" by Lara Yokoshima, and "Roulette" by Tina Anderson and Laura "Zel" Carboni.
          Comments: My first thought, after pulling this book from the mailing envelope, was DOUJINSHI! Yes indeedy, it looks, despite the ISBN, way more like a doujinshi than a graphic novel, tankoubon, or manga zasshi, and there's a diamond-in-the-rough quality to it as well that screams independent publication. Talent to burn, sloppy editing, and all that. (Tran, I've got great respect for you and and DramaQueen, but if stuff like "affraid" gets through, proofreading just isn't your destined line of work.) Actually, despite the fact that one is BL and the other yuri, Rush bears remarkable similarity to the Yuri Monogatari anthologies.
          As for the contents themselves, well, it's a mixed bag. Akira Atsushi's artwork is gritty and gorgeously realistic and reminds me of Stay Tasuko...but it's all wrong for a lighthearted BL version of Yamatonadeshiko Shichihenge. Sorry, but THAT *points to Jin* is just not a convincing otaku. Still, like the premise. ^_^ Laura Carboni's artwork is likewise quite lovely and by far the most individual of any of the artists represented in the anthology, but for now I'm reserving judgment on "Roulette" because, while the characters definitely have style to burn, Tina Anderson's story hasn't really taken them anywhere yet to focus my interest on more than angsty Mafia eyecandy. My least favorite story, far and away, was "Master!" I'm glad that Lara Yokoshima likes man-dogs a la Inu mo Arukeba, Japanese onmyouji, and other assorted popular manga subjects (me too), but inserting them all into the same 48-page serial and randomly shuffling the deck just doesn't win points in my book--and I don't care how "authentically" Japanese your artwork looks. However, far and away my favorite story was, surprisingly, the story I read last: Theresa Zysk's "Children of Bones." Though her artwork is the least visually stunning (and has that "I draw yaoi doujinshi" look to it...umm, Hikaru no Go!/Fullmetal Alchemist fan...?), her story was quite delightful. An intriguing but not overly oblique paramilitary takeover backdrop and a quick but unsentimental introduction to the boys-in-question. Substantial enough to be satisfying but open-ended enough to whet my appetite. This is the story that, for now, is going to make me want to come back to the Rush anthologies. However, I think both "Night and Day" and "Roulette" may yet prove to be most entertaining as well, so, for now, I'm going to play the eternal optimist and wait patiently for more.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 5/10 - Though this seems to be a promising anthology series, if you're not a die-hard BL fan (in which case of course you probably already have it), I'd wait for a few more issues to come out and see how things develop before buying up and/or subscribing.

Friedman, Erica, ed. Yuri Monogatari. Vol. 4. ALC Publishing, 2006.
          Summary: An anthology of nine yuri-themed one-shots and short strips by writers and artists from around the world.
          Comments: Though of course one must always expect a multi-author, small press anthology to boast contents that differ widely in quality, the sheer variation of this book on every level is absolutely dizzying. At its absolute worst, we have virtually meaningless (unless you think cute art is meaning enough) shorts like "Ichigo Hime" by Akiko Morishima that aren't worth even the minimal number of pages they consume in the anthology and interesting vignettes like "Tales of Destruction" by Beth Malone that are wholly done in by clumsy art and page layouts. Then there are the stories that evince tremendous--and most likely youthful--enthusiasm but are amateur in every respect and whose creators would never have been given the time of day elsewhere at another publisher. Right in the middle of it all, literally and figuratively, is "Cog" by Althea Keaton, retreading the overworn Android as Metaphor for Oppressed Minority Group dystopian sci-fi story. Neither her artwork nor her storyline truly match the initial ambition of the theme, but at least she hits upon an emotionally poignant moment when her human character cannot overcome her prejudices. Of quality, but likely to be underappreciated by American audiences, are the collection of four-panel slice-of-life strips by Rica Takashima. A technique and aesthetic made famous in Japan by Machiko Hasegawa's Sazae-san, it has no equivalent in the US and is often regarded as overly insipid.
          And finally, there are "Kissing the Petals" by Tomomi Nakasora and "Happiness" by Kristina K. Yuri fans already know that the Yuri Monogatari series is a must-have on their own bookshelves, but these two stories make this volume worth checking out to any comic and/or manga connoisseurs. Nakasora gives her ladies manga a stylish lesbian flair and a graceful, traditionally Japanese undertone of unspoken tragedy. Meanwhile, Kristina K., an under-recognized talent anchoring the anthology series since at least the second volume, returns with a ghost story tinged with elegant magic realism that reminds me surprisingly of avant-garde mangaka Yuko Tsuno. (If you don't know who SHE is, check her out, too.) Both of these stories are well-worth the price of entry to any highbrow reader and are the sort of thing we in the US would never in a million years have had the chance to see if it weren't for ALC Publishing.
          Overall, though, I feel that Yuri Monogatari continues to lack genuine coherency. The self-proclaimed yuri theme just isn't enough! Quality and style, in particular, vary far too much. (Even the quality of the image reproduction seems to differ at random spots, with some pages clear and others pixelated. What the...?!) Stories like "Bittersweet Melody" just do not belong in the same book as stories like "More Rica 'tte Kanji!?"...and in the end the admixture does everyone a huge disservice. First of all, the painful inexperience of some creators unfairly reflects negatively on all. But even more importantly, are the manga fans who read stuff like Happy Mania going to read Crayon Shin-chan, too? Probably not. Moreover, the anthology at times tries to bridge the gap between Japanese manga and indie Western comics--which I think is an attempt that is destined to be DOA for the foreseeable future. So why do we assume those interested in yuri to be more monolithic? Any who try browsing the book (which came to me shrink-wrapped, but we all know how long that DOESN'T last in bookstores) aren't going to to be able to see what might appeal to them amidst all the stuff that obviously doesn't. The anthology paradoxically excludes new readership by casting its net too widely.
          Notes: A5 paperback, 1st edition, 1st printing
          Rating: 5.5/10 - A couple of luminaries here are sure to wow the discriminating reader, and this is indeed their best yet, but we've yet to see all the yuri genre--or ALC Publishing--has to offer.

*originally posted on caseybrienza
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