The Favorites Alphabet: I

Welcome to another installment of The Favorites Alphabet, where the Manga Bookshelf battle robot pick a favorite title from each letter of the alphabet. We’re trying to stick with books that have been licensed and published in English, but we recognize that the alphabet is long, so we’re keeping a little wiggle room in reserve.

“I” is for…

Ichigenme… The First Class is Civil Law | By Fumi Yoshinaga | 801 Media – There are some pretty terrific manga that begin with the letter “I,” but as a devoted fan of Fumi Yoshinaga, it’s impossible to pass up an opportunity to talk about Ichigenme, which has the distinction of being not only my favorite of Yoshinaga’s BL works, but one of my very favorite BL series of all time. In terms of my personal taste in the genre, Ichigenme has everything going for it. It’s a character-driven romance between smart, idiosyncratic adults, set in a competitive, career-minded environment that includes smart, idiosyncratic women and gay men who are actually gay. It also features quite a number of genuinely erotic, emotionally affecting sex scenes that actually move the story forward rather than getting in its way. I could go on and on about this two-volume series (and have), but instead I’ll just urge people to read it, especially those who think they don’t like BL. This is what good adult romance should look like. Melinda Beasi

I Hate You More Than Anyone! | Banri Hidaka | CMX – Yes, once again I’m picking a series that never finished in North America due to the company closing down.  But I can’t help it.  Intellectually I know this series is flawed – the early volumes have very sketchy art, the plot meanders, the emphasis on cartoon violence has disturbed some – but in the end, it doesn’t matter.  The characters in IHYMTA are hilarious, likeable, and magnificently talkative.  The series is filled with more dialogue than any other shoujo series I’ve seen, as everyone needs to give Kazuha Akiyoshi advice, or listen to her freak out about the latest crisis.  The title, of course, ceases to be true fairly quickly – it’s no spoiler that the series ends with a wedding – but that’s OK too.  This series for me is a tribute to the best and worst of Hakusensha’s Hana to Yume magazine – its high-spirited, tomboy-ish heroines, its silly love stories, and its fly-by-night plot resolution.  And Japan clearly agrees with me – the Akiyoshi family appeared in V.B. Rose as well, and Hidaka-san’s new series running today deals with their offspring.  Clearly folks cannot get enough of this family and their adventures.  (I just wish the companies would stop folding before they finish!) Sean Gaffney

Imadoki! Nowadays |Yuu Watase | Viz – All Yuu Watase manga are not created equal, but when I like one, I tend to really, really like it. That’s the case with this super-charming series about a country girl who enrolls at a snooty school in the big city. If you’re experiencing uncomfortable flashbacks to Tammy and the Bachelor, you aren’t far off. Like the titular hick played by Debbie Reynolds in that film, homespun Tanpopo upsets the elitist apple cart and falls in love with the cutest, snootiest boy in town. The difference is that Imadoki! is genuinely funny and surprising. Tanpopo is utterly sincere and completely indefatigable in her effort to make friends, and she does it on her own terms. The romance is sweet, the supporting cast is uniformly great, and there’s even an adorable pet fox to raise the cuteness level just that much higher. This book offers a fine blend of warm fuzzies and snarky chuckles. – David Welsh

InuYasha | By Rumiko Takahashi | Viz – Few manga have gone through as many English-language editions as InuYasha, which began its life as a floppy in 1997 and is now enjoying new life as a digital download. Easy as it may be to dismiss InuYasha as second-rate Takahashi, the series’ longevity is no fluke: InuYasha is Rumiko Takahashi’s most accessible story, a rollicking shônen adventure that incorporates elements of folklore, fantasy, and flat-out horror, as well as generous helpings of humor and romance. InuYasha also boasts some of Takahashi’s most appealing characters, from Sango, the tenacious demon-slayer, to Sesshomaru, whose chilling indifference to others makes him a more terrifying figure than the malicious Naraku. Great artwork and imaginatively staged combat help bring the story to life, and carry it through its more repetitive moments. – Katherine Dacey

Itazura Na Kiss | By Kaoru Tada | DMP – Because I can rest assured that my other “I” favorite, InuYasha, is in Kate’s capable hands, I can devote my pick to the shoujo classic Itazura Na Kiss, being released in deliciously chunky two-in-one volumes by Digital Manga Publishing. Some of its plot points might seem cliché—a ditzy heroine in love with a brilliant and aloof guy, circumstances that force them to live together, etc.—but then you realize that it’s Itazura that most of those other series are copying! Lamentably unfinished due to the mangaka’s untimely accidental death, the series is sheer pleasure to read, with a storytelling style and large cast of eccentrics that reminds me more of the seinen Maison Ikkoku than anything you’d find in the Shojo Beat lineup, for example. Goofy, addictive, and satisfying, I love this series and am extremely grateful to DMP for licensing it. Michelle Smith

What starts with “I” in your favorites alphabet?


Princess Knight, Vol. 1

The thing that frequently strikes me about Osamu Tezuka’s comics is how fresh they feel, no matter when they were created. I suspect this is because, while he was as solid and conscientious an entertainer as has probably ever worked in the medium, he was also always pushing to bring new ideas to manga and to infuse new levels of ambition into comics. This isn’t always true, and there are some Tezuka works that feel locked in the time of their birth (Swallowing the Earth, Ayako), but it happens with a frequency that just about any creator of any kind of entertainment would envy.

Princess Knight (Vertical) exhibits that lively timelessness that I associate with Tezuka at his best. I have no idea if he sat down one day and decided that he wanted to take comics for girls in an entirely new direction or if it just happened because he wanted to take all comics in entirely new directions, but the comic exudes that feeling of opportunity and transformation.

It’s hard not to think of the princesses of Walt Disney’s motion pictures, mostly because Tezuka references them so often. Disney was an influence and inspiration to Tezuka, but Tezuka didn’t seem content to merely mimic Disney. Princess Knight seems like the best example of that. While Disney’s princesses were titular, they were never the heroine of their own story, at least with Disney at the rudder. Tezuka’s Sapphire may be pulling plot points out of a Disney grab bag, but she’s nothing like her American sisters.

Before Sapphire is born, a mischievous angel named Tink gives her the heart of a boy shortly before she receives her assigned girl’s heart. Beyond the supernatural complications, her earthly parents are hoping for a son, or rule of the kingdom will pass to a craven moron. The king and queen love their daughter, but archaic tradition forces them to raise her as a boy. Sapphire’s extra heart makes this easier than it might have been otherwise.

She’s great with a sword, and she stands up for what’s right. She’s smart, tough, and good-hearted, though she keenly feels the call of her feminine side. She falls for the prince of a neighboring kingdom, but she can never act on those feelings. And she’s constantly wary of her unscrupulous, ambitious uncle, who would love to expose her and open up the throne for his idiot son.

Things go from difficult to impossible when her charade is exposed. Loss piles upon loss and peril upon peril, and she’s imprisoned and exiled. Fortunately, adversity brings out the best in her, and she takes steps to reclaim her kingdom, not because of any air of entitlement but because it’s right and the best thing for her people. She’s not passive and she doesn’t want a prince to save her; you can’t come close to saying that about any of her Disney princess contemporaries.

That’s not to say her adventures don’t draw on familiar princess tropes. Like Cinderella, she gets to don glamorous disguise to connect with her handsome prince. Like Snow White, she’s targeted by an evil and ambitious witch. Like Ariel, she loses her ability to communicate. Beyond that, there are pirates and assassins, scheming courtiers and incompetent angels, magic and monsters. Sapphire faces more difficulties than the entire coterie of Disney princesses combined, which makes for an insanely lively narrative flow.

Of course, another fascinating aspect of Tezuka’s work was the way his well-intentioned thinking regarding women’s roles was betrayed by execution that wasn’t quite as involved. Sapphire’s agency is entirely connected to her boy’s heart. In moments when she loses that heart, she becomes as passive a victim as Snow White and Sleeping Beauty ever were. And it’s not entirely clear what Tezuka is trying to say in those moments. Is it just another form of peril to keep things moving, or did Tezuka wholeheartedly own those gender roles, even if he regretted them? It also makes me wonder about likely outcomes in the next volume – will a happy ending for Sapphire constitute a satisfying conclusion for me as a reader?

Jarring as those considerations are, they do give the reader an extra layer to ponder. You don’t really need to think about Princess Knight in the context of its time too often, since Tezuka the entertainer is in such fine form here. But the chance to consider Tezuka the figure of his era, no matter how progressive he may have been in relative terms, is always intriguing to me. It’s kind of like how you can ride along with the madly entertaining antics in Dororo (Vertical) only to be occasionally slapped with how genuinely bleak Tezuka’s world view must have been.

Speaking of aspects that could date the work, I have to take issue with the packaging here. Vertical has an admirable history of crafting vibrant covers for classic titles, so why does Princess Knight look like a paperback textbook from the 1970s? The washed-out palette and the minimalist cover design aren’t up to Vertical’s usual standard, and the design does nothing to communicate the excitement contained within. Vintage manga is always a tough sell, so why make the book look so blah? It wouldn’t look out of place in a book stack at a suburban garage sale.

That sounds harsh, but I’ve got a protective bent for this book. I’ve wanted someone to republish it in English for ages, and I think I imagined it being perfect. And it is almost perfect – wonderful characters, a terrific story, and Tezuka’s wonderful illustrative style, packed with action and humor and feeling. Vertical has done a marvelous job making a range of Tezuka’s work available in English, though it generally falls in his seinen vein. That’s great and entirely welcome, but I feel like it’s equally important to showcase Tezuka’s work as an entertainer for a wider, younger audience. Because even those pieces feel fresh and ambitious, just like Princess Knight.


Previews review November 2011

It’s kind of an odd month in the Previews catalog from Diamond. There’s a lot of great stuff, but there’s very little immediately exciting debut material. (There is a fair amount of on-the-fence content, and I could certainly use your feedback on that front.) Let’s start with a few new editions of previously published material:

Dororo Complete Edition, written and illustrated by Osamu Tezuka, Vertical, NOV11 1117: If you haven’t read this brilliant, Eisner Award winning piece of supernatural shônen, this will provide an excellent opportunity to pick up all three volumes in one shot. While it makes me sad that Tezuka ended this series early, the material he did finish is just magnificent: scary, sad, funny, bleak, gruesome… the whole package. This is one Tezuka title that I can recommend without any reservation or qualification.

Girl Genius Omnibus Vol. 1: Agatha Awakens, by Phil and Kaja Foglio, Tor Books, NOV11 1104: This web-to-print success story has been around for a while, and I’m glad to see it get some hardcover, prestige treatment. It’s about a mad scientist who learns that she’s even madder and more inventive than she suspected. Spunky, scrappy Agatha finds herself in a million different kinds of steampunk peril, and it’s great-looking, fast-paced fun.

Now, onto some less chunky but still worthy items:

A Treasury of 20th Century Murder: The Lives of Sacco and Vanzetti, written and illustrated by Rick Geary, NBM, NOV11 1052: I love these crime histories for their smart writing and great, detailed art, but I tend to wait for them to be available in paperback. It means I have to wait a bit to enjoy Geary’s take on highly controversial cases like this one, but I can be patient.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol. 12, written by Eiji Otsuka and illustrated by Housui Yamazaki, Dark Horse, NOV11 0055: On the other hand, I can’t be any more patient with this title than the publication schedule demands, and damnation, does that schedule demand a lot of patience. Still, this is one of my very favorite Japanese comics ever, and I always get giddy at the prospect of enjoying more misadventures of a group of supernatural investigators.

We’ll wrap up with one on-the-fence item that I didn’t feel like wedging into this month’s poll:

Gentlemen’s Agreement Between a Rabbit and a Wolf, written and illustrated by Shinano Oumi, Digital Manga, NOV11 0962: As you know, I always like to investigate unknown boys’-love quantities before investing in them, so I’d appreciate any feedback either on this title or on Oumi’s work in general. This one sounds promising – a workplace romantic comedy about two guys who work for an advertising agency. The whole predator-prey framing is a little on the nose for me, but I’m certainly open to anything about grown-ups with jobs.


Upcoming 11/9/2011

Even if there was only one thing on this week’s Comic List, it would still be one of the best ever. Here’s why:

You know how something you anticipate for a really long time can end up being something of an anticlimax? The first volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (Vertical) is emphatically not one of those things. I read it over the weekend, and, if anything, it made me even happier than I thought it would. I’m going to review it on Friday, so I won’t go into too much detail now, but it’s pure Tezuka: entertaining as you could possibly wish, a little insane, a little sad, and incredibly fresh, even though it was created 65 years ago.

It’s hard for anything to hold up to that, but I’m also happy to see the tenth volume of Kou Yaginuma’s Twin Spica (Vertical). I like the characters a lot, and I love the fragile aesthetic Yaginuma creates to tell their stories.

I’m really hoping I’ll enjoy the first volume of Kai Asou’s Only Serious About You (Digital Manga), a boys’-love title that sounds like it matches a lot of my tastes in this category. It’s about a single father who works at a restaurant who becomes close to a flirty, seemingly frivolous customer.

You can see the Manga Bookshelf crew’s Pick of the Week here, and we formed the mighty battle robot to bust out a whole bunch of Bookshelf Briefs.


The Drops of God, Vol. 1

I promise to use only one wine metaphor in this review of the first volume of The Drops of God (Vertical): it gets better after it has a chance to breathe. The first few chapters of Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto’s tale of wine aficionados are kind of a slog.

There’s a behavior known as “mansplaining,” and I certainly think there’s a variation of it, “fansplaining.” You’ve all been engaged in conversation with someone who’s passionate about a particular entertainment who proceeds to bury you under unsolicited detail delivered with an unsettling degree of authority. (I’ve been both victim and perpetrator; I have no illusions about that.)

And Drops of God is absolutely fansplaining manga as only a certain type of seinen can be. Even though its protagonist is a novice to the world of wine, he’s surrounded by people who aren’t, and he’s thrust into a situation where he has to join their informed ranks. And the audience must gauge their tolerance for the level of detail they can endure regarding varietals, vineyards, rankings, price, and so on. There’s a lot of that, and the world of wine is often viewed as kind of byzantine and elitist and twee to begin with.

Personally, I can deal with a lot of fictional fansplaining if the characters are engaging. That’s why the first couple of chapters of this volume worried me. The leads came off as fairly flat, cookie-cutter versions of types you can see in literally a hundred different licensed manga: the brash, ignorant hero who happens to be enough of a savant to unsettle his highly trained, elitist rival, especially with the help of a book-smart rookie. Agi and Okimoto almost literally drown them in exposition in the early going, and I was kind of anxious that this eagerly anticipated title would turn into a charmless, didactic experience.

Then, a few chapters in, the creators start to relax a bit. The hero, Shizuku, reveals himself to be kind of an endearing dork. Yes, he’s suspiciously astute in terms of his ability to evaluate wine by taste, even though he tastes it for the first time in this comic, but he’s a pretty funny guy. Trainee sommelier Shinohara doesn’t quite transcend the thanklessness of her role as “girl who knows things but has no real personal stakes,” but I like her well enough.

The ostensible plot is a contest between Shizuku and a snooty wine critic to see who’s worthy of inheriting the legendary wine collection of Shizuku’s late father, a snooty wine critic in his own right. But the series really seems to be more about teaching readers about wine by showing the ways it can influence people’s character. Agi and Okimoto prove themselves to be pretty deft with that sort of thing, and, lectures aside, it’s the sort of thing I really enjoy in a manga.

It’s about hooch, it’s got amiable stars, and you can learn stuff about a subject that may be new to you while occasionally enjoying the comfortable structure of competition manga. I’m in for the duration.


Previews poll for November 2011

It’s been a while since a new edition of the Previews comics catalog has offered enough dubious manga debuts for me to run a poll, but the latest has three! Here they are:

GTO: 14 Days in Shonan, written and illustrated by Tohru Fujisawa, Vertical:

The sequel to the groundbreaking manga Great Teacher Onizuka takes its titular lead back home to the rough and tough surfing heaven of Shonan. One of the most important manga in American history returns with a brand new mini-series.

I know a lot of people enjoy this franchise, but it’s consistently failed to interest me enough to ever read a page of it. This series is currently running in Kodansha’s Weekly Shônen Magazine.

A Devil and Her Love Song, written and illustrated by Miyoshi Tomori, Viz:

Meet Maria Kawai—she’s gorgeous and whip-smart, a girl who seems to have it all. But when she unleashes her sharp tongue, it’s no wonder some consider her to be the very devil! Maria’s difficult ways even get her kicked out of an elite school, but this particular fall may actually turn out to be her saving grace…

Maria’s frank nature gains her more enemies at her new school, but her angelic singing voice inadvertently catches the attention of Yusuke Kanda and Shin Meguro. Can these boys mend her hardened heart, or will they just end up getting scorched?

This actually sounds like I’d enjoy it a lot, so I might track it down even if it doesn’t win the poll. It ran for 13 volumes in Shueisha’s Margaret.

Durarara!!, written by Ryohgo Narita, characters by Suzuhito Yasuda, and art by Akiyo Satorigi, Yen Press:

At the invitation of an old school friend, introverted high school student Mikado Ryuugamine, yearning for a life less ordinary, makes his way to Tokyo. His destination: Ikebukuro, a hotbed of madmen living most unusual lives. On his first day there, Mikado encounters a cast of characters so colorful, the rich hues of his rural hometown pale in comparison! And as if the naïve stalker chick, the high school senior obsessed with the rather creepy object of his affections, the hikikomori genius doctor, the hedonistic information dealer, the strongest man in all of Ikebukuro weren’t enough…Mikado also chances upon a sight that leaves him rubbing his eyes and scratching his head — the Black Biker, who is black as night from bodysuit to license plate, soundlessly weaving through the streets like a figure out of an urban legend. Who is this “Headless Rider” on the jet-black metal steed!? And why does it seem like Mikado’s already gotten himself neck-deep in the insanity that is the norm in his new home!?

The cover’s really appealing, but the plot sounds like junior hipster hogwash to me. It’s running in Square Enix’s GFantasy.

So which do you think I should pre-order? You can use any standard you prefer, whether it’s to connect me to something I might enjoy or to drive me to the brink of madness. Cast your vote by the end of the day Friday.


License request day: Shimane no Bengoshi

I have a weakness for PBS series about professionals living in small communities, from All Creatures Great and Small to Doc Martin. I also love manga about people’s work. I believe I’ve found a perfect fusion of these two pet entertainments.

It’s called Shimane no Bengoshi, written by Masahito Kagawa and illustrated by Tetsuo Aoki, and it’s currently running in Shueisha’s Business Jump. I must warn you that the cover image I’m about to display may shock you.

That’s probably the most modestly proportioned woman I’ve ever seen depicted on the cover of a Business Jump title. And she isn’t holding an automatic weapon or wearing lingerie, or both.

Her name is Mizuho Yamazaki, and she’s a hard-working and principled lawyer serving the underrepresented population of Shimane Prefecture. To do so, she travels around on her bicycle, presumably helping elderly couples write wills, settling contentious divorces, facilitating adoptions, and so on. I can’t quite see her mounting a defense in a highly charged murder case, but there isn’t a ton of information on this title. Still, it’s been described as “slice of life,” so I feel fairly certain that she deals more with the routine details of the legal profession rather than the high drama.

Kagawa is also writing a title with the legendary Shotaro Ishinomori , which is certainly a vote of confidence. Aoki seems to be no stranger to manga with a travelogue quality, and I’m quite intrigued by the idea of his Koufuki no Hito, which is about farms and food.

And, honestly, episodic manga about a bicycling lawyer just hits all my buttons. It’s been adapted into a live-action drama, and if the lawyer could talk to dead people, she’d already have a series on CBS. I doubt I’d watch that series, as it might involve an Arquette, but I’d absolutely read Shimane no Bengoshi.



A Bride’s Story, Vol. 2

For those who note that very little happens in Kaoru Mori manga, I must inform you that there is a pitched battle in the second volume of A Bride’s Story (Yen Press). Normally, this would be confined to Mori’s bonus comics and consist of a hyperactive, hilarious difference of opinion with her editor, but it actually happens in the narrative here.

Amir’s relatives try to reclaim the young woman, hoping to offer her in marriage for a more valuable alliance. But Amir is very taken with her young husband, as he is with her. The lesson here is to never underestimate a group of determined villagers with a big pile of bricks. The lesson is also that Mori can really stage an action sequence when she puts her mind to it. In addition to being exciting, these sequences shine with character-driven moments and really give you a sense of Amir’s new community.

Of course, me being me, I’m equally taken with the very long sequence where Amir’s sister-in-law teaches her daughter about embroidery and the family’s traditional designs. What can I say? I’m probably even more partial to scenes where next to nothing happens as I am to ones where lots does.

It’s a little hard to come up with anything new to say about a given volumes of Mori’s manga, because she’s so consistent. Her art is lovely, her attention to detail verges on hypnotic, and her clear fondness for her subject matter is infectious. I just love A Bride’s Story, maybe even as much as I loved Emma (CMX).


Upcoming 11/2/2011

Like that house in the neighborhood that always offers the best haul on Halloween, the ComicList has lots of appealing choices this week. I’ll focus on three.

I doubt it will be a barrel of laughs, but I’m eager to read No Longer Human (Vertical), Usumaru Furuya’s adaptation of Osamu Dazai’s acclaimed, apparently depressing novel. I haven’t read it, but the book was heavily featured in Mizuki Nomura’s Book Girl and the Suicidal Mime (Yen Press), which was awesome. Furuya’s work is always interesting to me, even if I don’t particularly like it, if that makes sense.

I was pleasantly surprised by the first volume of Bloody Monday (Kodansha Comics), which overcame the total familiarity of its teen-hacker plot with rock-solid execution. Volume two is due tomorrow.

And oh, mighty Isis, is that the fifth volume of The Story of Saiunkoku (Viz) I see? It is! Okay, so I already bought this at the bookstore over the weekend. I’m still excited for the seven people who buy it through their local comic shop.

Over at the partially snow-bound Manga Bookshelf, a weather-reduced Battle Robot offers its Pick of the Week and some Bookshelf Briefs. We’ll take a week off from The Favorites Alphabet this week and devote all of our energy to hoping that our afflicted members get their power back soon.


Random weekend question: costume drama

Okay, here’s the obligatory Halloween-themed random weekend question: if resources and logistics were no object, what manga character would you emulate for your costume? While it seems fairly easy, I’d probably go with Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. Now, I know you’re probably thinking that’s fairly simple — a trench coat, a wig, a few scars drawn on with an eyebrow pencil, and you’re finished. But that coat would take some wicked tailoring, and I’d want the whole armory of surgical tools in the lining, just for the effect.