MMF: Ten things I love about Cross Game

I’ve already spilled so much cyber ink on Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game (Viz), and I’m sure I’ll continue to do so. Quite simply, it’s one of the finest shônen series I’ve ever read. Heck, it’s of the best comics of any category that I’ve read. Here are ten reasons why I feel that way:

It’s less about baseball than the people who play it. One of the first questions that always arise when a sports manga is published in English is whether or not a reader needs to be interested in the sport in question to appreciate the manga. In the case of Cross Game, fondness for the sport isn’t necessary, and I say that from a place of profound disinterest in our putative national sport. Here’s the thing, as I see it: a creator or creators can tell an interesting story about any subject, no matter how removed from my personal interests, if they approach the material with intelligence and restraint and populate the telling with compelling, complex characters. The cast of Cross Game is undeniably dedicated to baseball, but they’re also invested in their interpersonal relationships with friends and family. Protagonist Ko Kitamura wants to succeed in the sport, but his reasons are specific and deeply personal. Aoba Tsukishima wants to excel in baseball as well, but her efforts are nicely tinged with ambivalence over the limitations a girl faces in that endeavor. They don’t live in a baseball-centric vacuum where nothing else matters. It’s not about baseball; it’s about the ways baseball intersects with characters’ deeper lives.

The pacing is often surprising. One of the first things that struck me about Adachi is the fact that he seems very unconcerned with the kind of traditional, beat-by-beat storytelling that you sometimes find in shônen manga. He can certainly spend chapters examining the progress of a single baseball game, but that progress is layered with so much more than stats and stunts. A good half of the second collection features Ko’s team of second-stringers challenging the coach’s chosen squad. It’s got the kind of narrative weight you’d expect, what with the underdogs stepping up and trying to prove their worth, but there are plenty of unexpected undercurrents. Adachi uses the game to explore the sometimes unsavory politics of team sports. He also uses a perfectly delightful and unexpected narrative device, as Aoba and a mysterious old man watch the game together, immediately establish a rapport, and evaluate the progress with a full and understated grasp of the other’s emotional and personal subtext. The game is fine, but the framing is better, and Adachi entirely skims over what other artists might consider pivotal moments to be documented from every angle and articulated in exhaustive, exhausting detail.

Adachi trusts the intelligence of his readers. Part of the peril of sports manga is that aforementioned exhausting detail, so it’s refreshing to see that Adachi doesn’t fall into that trap. He’s figured out the exact formula for how much exposition his readers will need to understand what’s going on, which means he doesn’t need to resort to the trick of pervasive narration drowning the actual action. He can show instead of tell, which is a disappointingly rare ability in a field that should rely so heavily on showing. Part of it might be confidence, but I think a more significant element is trust in the fact that readers care enough about the characters to remember their motivations and intuit how they drive their behaviors. Clear and persuasive motivations obviate the need for middle-distance monologues about what’s about to or has just happened.

The digressions are as appealing as the primary narrative. Cross Game is one of those titles that fully cohere in spite of seemingly disparate elements. Adachi can wander away from the baseball to pursue side stories and character moments that support the narrative as a whole. Quirky day-in-the-life chapters are charming in their own right and provide a change of pace, but they also give readers a wider view of the characters, which makes them even more likable.

The dialogue is understated. I’d never argue that this is an immovable requirement of good storytelling. I would even concede that the aforementioned middle-distance monologues can make some manga better. Look at the searing, hyper-expressed inner passions of the characters in Kyoko Ariyoshi’s Swan (CMX). All the same, it’s a pleasure to see a more oblique approach. As with Natsuki Takaya’s Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), characters in Cross Game are much more likely to allude to past events than to fully restate them. It’s more in line with the way people actually speak, in fragments and phrases that the people who know them will understand, and those people include readers.

It can be very funny. The humor in Cross Game, like everything else, derives largely from who the characters are. The most aggressively comic character, Senda, is actually funny, which isn’t always a given. This egotistical dork is the type who really can’t accurately assess his own strengths and weaknesses, and Adachi takes at least a little delight in humiliating him. Senda isn’t mocked without at least a degree of fondness, though. Aoba is funny in a subtler way; her set-jaw certainty and pragmatism are amusing in contrast to some of the space cases around her, and Adachi lets her be wrong without scolding her.

It can be very sad. Of course, the thing Aoba is wrong about most often is Ko, but she can hardly be blamed. Early in the series, they share a very specific, very real loss, and it informs their young adulthood in ways that are both mournful and somewhat uplifting. Aoba and Ko have the same pole star, relying on their memories of this person to influence their actions in what they think are positive ways. Of course, those memories also form obstacles between Aoba and Ko, in spite and because of the things they have in common. It isn’t unusual for a shônen tale to have a driving, underlying tragedy, but it’s rare for it to be as grounded and effectively applied as it is here. The notes of sorrow pop up at unexpected but entirely credible moments, and they make the palette of the piece richer.

Adachi brings the mono no aware. It’s that juxtaposition of sorry and comedy blended with wistfulness and self-awareness that categorizes the concept of mono no aware, or “the pity of things,” for me. The characters here are very much invested in the moment, but they’re also cognizant of how fleeting that moment can be. Past, present and future all intersect to influence the characters’ feelings, making them feel truer and more pungent. If there’s a quality that makes me really invest in a story, particularly in a comic from Japan, it’s mono no aware.

It looks great. Adachi’s art has all of the individual elements that combine to form an attractive book – appealing character design, a facility for rendering people and objects in motion, sly comedic styling, and so on. What strikes me most are the page compositions, which often use a series of small, rigid panels to create a more sinuous whole. That style can be applied to the wide spectrum of tones Adachi routinely incorporates into his story. It’s more than good panel-by-panel drawing; it’s effective staging of those panels into something larger.

There’s an adorable cat. Okay, the cat isn’t central to the narrative, and its appearances are more like Easter eggs – little flashes of cuteness that occasionally pop up. But Adachi draws the cat very well, and he’s restrained in his use of the furry little critter. It adds a nice little touch to the Tsukishima household, making it feel slightly more real than it already does. And, let’s face it, the presence of an adorable cat always makes manga better. See also: Shampoo in Kiyoko Arai’s Beauty Pop (Viz).

So there are the ten reasons I love Cross Game. They’re also the reasons I’m so eager to read more of Adachi’s work. I look forward to seeing other people’s reaction to the series as the current Manga Moveable Feast (hosted by The Panelists) progresses.


Good trash revisited

This week’s random question has me nostalgic for Go! Comi and hopeful that someone will pick up some of their orphan titles, so I dug up an old Flipped column from August of 2009 that outlined some of my personal favorites from their catalog. To atone for the rerun, I’ll open with the following image:

I can’t believe summer is almost over.  June and July are vague, blurry memories.  Fortunately, there are still a few weeks before Labor Day, so it’s not too late to recommend some good trash for beach reading.  And when it comes to slightly tawdry, highly readable shôjo manga, Go! Comi has a very solid track record.

One of the titles from the company’s 2001 launch, Takako Shigematsu’s eight-volume Tenshi Ja Nai!!, remains one of my favorite examples of mean-girl manga.  Shigematsu combines sleek illustrations with twisty storytelling to concoct memorable soap opera.

Tenshi (or “I’m No Angel!!”) is set in an elite all-girls school, always a promising setting for scheming drama.  It’s protagonist, Hikaru, would like to avoid drama entirely; a brief childhood career as a model made her the target of ruthless bullying from jealous classmates, and she’s tried to keep her head down ever since.  Unfortunately, the school’s registrar gives her a roommate that makes her low-profile strategy impossible.

A budding starlet is the worst possible pairing for Hikaru.  The shared spotlight and jealousy of the student body are bad enough, but this starlet has a secret.  The fetching Izumi is actually a guy, as ruthless and conniving in private as his public persona is sweet and demure.  Izumi needs Hikaru’s help to keep his secret, and he’s not averse to blackmail to secure Hikaru’s cooperation and silence.

With secret identities, schoolgirl rivalries, gender bending, and show-biz ambition, Tenshi is the kind of story that virtually writes itself.  Shigematsu keeps the twists coming and even infuses the story with a reasonable amount of romance, though she never lapses into sentimentality.  Given her spiky cast of schemers, it’s hard to see how she could.

Go! Comi has released two other titles by Shigematsu.  There’s a forgettable one-volume outing, King of the Lamp, about a genie who must help young girls find love.  It’s noteworthy mostly for Shigematsu’s acknowledgement that girls are entitled to have sexual desires and to act on them without punishment or guilt.  More in the sneaky, substantive vein of Tenshi is Shigematsu’s Ultimate Venus, which is currently in release.

It’s another swimming-with-sharks story, this time focusing on an orphan who learns that she’s heir to a corporate dynasty.  After her mother’s death, young Yuzu is shocked to meet her high-powered cougar of a grandmother who wants to groom Yuzu to take over the family business.  Yuzu relies on her mother’s homespun, occasionally hardcore wisdom to foil scheming competitors and keep her head above the blood-filled social waters. (Go! Comi only published five of the nine volumes of the series.)

I would be hopelessly remiss if I looked at Go! Comi’s good trash and ignored You Higuri, a prolific manga-ka who stylishly skates on the edge of good taste.  Like the gifted Fumi Yoshinaga, Higuri rarely seems to allow herself to be confined by the strictures of category.  Higuri may generally aim artistically lower than slice-of-life queen Yoshinaga, but her philosophy similarly seems to be that more is better.  A straightforward fantasy story can always benefit from guy-on-guy sexual tension, and a costume drama is always better with a healthy dose of smut.

Her English-language debut came in the form of Cantarella (Go! Comi), a fictional, gothic look at the scheming Borgia clan.  Given the rich volume of historically documented scandal and sleaze the Borgias offer, it hardly seems necessary for Higuri to gild the lily with demonic possession, but gild it she does.  Budding patriarch Cesare is doomed from birth by his ambitious father, who sells the tot’s soul to the devil to support his own ambitions.

A possessed prince can always use a good right-hand man, and Cesare’s comes in the form of hunky assassin Chiaro.  When your father is the Pope and your moral compass is a hired killer, you know your life is bound to be complicated.  So why not complicate it further by entering into a twisted love triangle with your kept murderer and your own sister, Lucrezia?  History tells us that, glory days aside, the Borgias didn’t end well, and it seems unlikely that Higuri’s version will fare any better, but it’s certain to be juicy. (Go! Comi only published ten of the twelve volumes of the series.)

Having come of age in the 1980s with television shows like Dynasty and Dallas, I’m a sucker for sagas about powerful families full of sociopaths, so Cantarella has a special place in my heart.   That said, Go! Comi has launched another Higuri series that I may like even better, as it is top-to-bottom insane.  It’s Crown, written by Shinji Wada and illustrated by Higuri.

Wada is one of those seemingly rare male manga-ka who work primarily in shôjo, though his works (like Delinquent Girl Detective) often seem to favor an action-adventure bent.  Wada and Higuri’s respective sensibilities seem to blend perfectly, creating a freakish, addictive fusion of hardboiled violence and secret-princess sparkle.  Here’s the plot:  a plucky orphan learns that she’s actually a lost princess of a wealthy island nation; she also learns that she has a brother, half of a pair of ruthless mercenaries who break out the big guns to protect her.  Some hearts are set aflutter even as others are blown, still beating, from the chests of rival soldiers of fortune by military-grade ordinance.

The princess crushes on the boys.  The boys may or may not be crushing on each other.  Schoolgirls squeal at trained killers.  Skyscrapers explode.  Bloodthirsty assassins fail in their task because the princess is just so darned nice.  In other words, Crown is a nutty, freewheeling mash-up of manga clichés drawn from whatever category strikes Wada and Higuri’s fancies. It’s delightful.

I should note that guilty pleasures aren’t the only things Go! Comi does well.  I’ve already written at length about Setona Mizushiro’s After School Nightmare, and the publisher has made some nice choices with sweeter, more sentimental shôjo.  Yuu Asami’s A.I. Revolution (five of seventeen volumes published) offers old-fashioned science fiction with a romantic bent, and Toriko Gin’s Song of the Hanging Sky (two of six volumes published) is a potent, beautifully drawn fable.


From the stack: Maoh: Juvenile Remix vols. 4 and 5

The good news: there’s nothing wrong with Maoh: Juvenile Remix (Viz) that Kazuya Minekura couldn’t fix. The bad news: Maoh: Juvenile Remix was created by Megumi Osuga.

Maoh, based on a story by Kotaro Isaka, has an interesting plot. A corporation is undertaking a neighborhood revitalization plan that basically involves razing the place and displacing the residents to make room for luxury high-rises. The corporation is opposed by a group of vigilantes led by an enigmatic and ostensibly charismatic figure named Inukai. Caught in the middle of these two forces is a high-school student named Ando who has the minor psychic power of being able to put his words into the mouths of others.

The story is packed with corrupt officials, hired killers, angry mobs, and generally seedy types. There are attempts at moral complexity and the angst of personal choice in a crumbling world. There’s a reasonable sprinkling of homoeroticism.

In other words, it reminds me of Minekura’s Wild Adapter (Tokyopop). Unfortunately, it also makes me wish I was reading Wild Adapter instead.

The main problem with Maoh is its leaden sincerity. Ando makes Hamlet look like a type-A personality, and his use of his “ventriloquism” is generally awkward and hard to follow. (How does forcing people to quote Kamen Rider protect you from mob violence?) The dialogue is almost always overblown, and Ando’s droning internal monologues may make you wish someone else was putting words in his mouth.

The promising plot is generally sacrificed to spectacle. The people of Nekota City seem even more prone to mob mentality than the denizens of Springfield, and it’s supposed to be chilling here instead of goofy and ironic. Inukai and his vigilantes seem to have no credible moral position, and their opponents in the Anderson Group are just greedy, which equates to “bad.” There are interesting arguments to be made in a story like this, but it’s just a frame for bombast in this case.

The quality of the art varies quite a bit. Some chapters have a sleek competence that resembles a combination of Takeshi Obata and Naoki Urasawa. A lot of the time, the pages seem like they’ve been finished in a hurry. I would describe the character design as patchy; I’ve seen many a manga assassin look ridiculous and still be terrifying, but Osuga doesn’t strike that balance. Some of the crowd scenes display too-strenuous attempts to achieve visual variety and end up looking like a community theatre musical chorus that was asked to provide its own costumes. Even the homoeroticism doesn’t help, as it frequently seems inadvertent, unless Osuga is trying to suggest what a cute couple Ando and his younger brother might be.

Maoh badly needs some of Minekura’s polish and slyness, but it has neither. It’s just lumpy and overly serious, with a waffling protagonist who lacks urgency. Hard as it tries to simulate it, Maoh lacks the sex appeal it needs to really be something.

(Based on review copies provided by the publisher.)


Lychee Light Club

David: Kate and I were both planning on writing about Usamaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club, which arrives courtesy of Vertical this week, and we decided to pool our critical resources. It’s… quite a reading experience, and I think Kate and I have different overall responses to the book. First, though, Kate, would you like to take a stab at summarizing the plot?

Kate: If I were at a cocktail party, and someone I didn’t know very well asked me to describe Lychee Light Club, I might say that it’s about a group of teenage boys who are just beginning to go through puberty. They’ve formed their own secret organization with elaborate rules and rituals, and go to extreme lengths to conceal their activities from outsiders. Among those activities: building Lychee, a robot who’s programmed to find beautiful girls and bring them back to the clubhouse. Not long after his activation, however, Lychee develops a conscience, forming a bond with one of his kidnapping victims and turning against his creators.

Of course, that summary makes Lychee Light Cub sound more coherent and less violent than it is; the boys deal with threatening figures by raping, torturing, and dismembering them, acts that Usamaru Furuya draws in exquisite detail. There’s also a great deal of internal conflict within the Lychee Light Club, as several charismatic boys vie for control of the group. And in true Lord of the Flies fashion, the boys begin turning on each other with a savagery that’s genuinely disturbing.

How’d I do?

David: I think you did very well. It’s a fever dream of adolescent power fantasies manifesting themselves as abominable realities. I think there’s always an element of that in Furuya’s storytelling, and I don’t always have a lot of patience for it. I tend to find that his work is characterized more by flashes of brilliance than sustained craftsmanship.

In this case, though, and in spite of the really strenuous efforts to be shocking, I found this to be the most coherent work of Furuya’s that I read. It’s packed with undeniably revolting moments, but it holds together in ways that something like Genkaku Picasso didn’t. Whether that coherence compensates for the unsavory content is an entirely different question, obviously.

Kate: I wonder if the story’s coherence can be attributed to the fact that Furuya adapted Lychee Light Club from a pre-existing work. (For folks who haven’t read the English edition, Furuya based the story on an experimental play called Tokyo Grand Guignol.) Perhaps working from someone else’s storyline helped Furuya concentrate more on plot mechanics, something he definitely had difficulty doing in Genkaku Picasso. It certainly makes me curious to see what he’ll do with Osamu Dazai’s No Longer Human.

As for the unsavory content… I don’t even know where to start. I understand that the story is intended to be dark satire, to reveal just how hysterical and silly young adolescent boys can be, especially before they know how to approach and interact with girls. But I have a hard time getting on board with that kind of satire when it requires the characters to grossly abuse girls and women. And I have an even harder time embracing that kind of plot device when the author eroticizes the violence against female characters. I’m thinking, in particular, of an early scene in which the boys capture one of their teachers. Though we’re meant to see that the boys’ behavior is a symptom of their depravity, the scene in which they kill her is charged with a thoroughly unpleasant, sexual energy: they fondle her, they strip her, and then they vivisect her, inspecting her internal organs with prurient interest. As a female reader, my own revulsion was so strong that it was hard to push past that scene.

David: That scene definitely constructs a high barrier to the work. I almost wonder if it got so gruesome so early to inform the audience that this was what they were likely to get, and that they might choose to flip past those chapters as they appeared in Manga Erotics F. An issue that may compound the problem of the frankly repulsive acts these kids perpetrate is that, while Lychee Light Club is more structurally coherent than some of Furuya’s other works, that doesn’t mean that it has a sound and consistent philosophy. On one hand, I’m not a fan of entertainments that try and paint aberrant depravity as generational malaise, and this book certainly doesn’t attempt that. But it doesn’t really present any other explanation aside from the malignant influence of a charismatic psychopath. And that’s a problematic starting point for other reasons.

But I’m glad you mentioned the work’s theatrical origins side by side with its offensive content, because the theatricality was key to my appreciation of what I feel like Furuya is doing here. One of the striking things about the book was the very specific theatricality that I took away from it.

By that, I don’t mean that it was melodramatic or extravagant, but that it seemed wedded to certain theatrical conventions. Furuya kept using compositions that suggested proscenium staging to me, a sort of one-set gore opera not unlike Sondheim and Prince’s Sweeney Todd or the sewer scenes in Phantom of the Opera. Even the strange flatness of character and event, no matter how horrible, seemed like a conscious aesthetic choice that a theatrical troupe might assume as their distinguishing shtick. I’m not saying it justifies the gratuitous violence, particularly when it was sexualized, but it did add a layer of distance for me, and it added a certain degree of fascination.

Kate: I agree; the characters’ interactions with one another — especially the boys’ group dynamic — feel like pure stage business, which makes it easier to interpret their behavior as ritual or schtick. I also agree with you that there’s something aesthetically appealing about the way Furuya emphasizes the story’s theatrical roots, both in the way he frames the action and in the way he moves his characters around the “stage”; the boys’ ceremonies reminded me of something out of Young Sherlock Holmes — well, if that movie had been made by Leni Riefenstahl, and not Steven Spielberg.

And yet…

I’m still struggling with my reaction to the way the female characters are treated. Kanon endures less sexual and physical humiliation than the other female characters, yet she’s so saintly that it’s hard to see her as anything more than an adolescent fantasy figure. Maybe that’s the point, but Furuya’s treatment of the other female characters is so despicable that it’s hard to know whether he’s condemning the boys’ behavior or just shrugging his shoulders and saying, “Gosh, that’s just how young teenagers are.”

David: I’m glad you mentioned that shrug, because I view it as a consistent problem in this sub-genre of fiction. When I was in college, it seemed like there was a minor flood of independent films about how awful and amoral teen-agers are, and my consistent reaction to them was always, “Yes? And?” I’ve never thought that merely identifying the depths to which any group of people can sink isn’t sufficient purpose for fiction, no matter how well it’s crafted. When it resorts to a vérité approach to that material, whether it’s a movie like River’s Edge or a graphic novel like Ayako, I feel like there’s nothing to respond to but the bleak appraisal, and that’s always unsatisfying. Lychee at least has the absurd theatricality to elevate it.

But, as you say, that’s not going to be enough to mitigate the effect of violence, particularly the violence against women. And Kanon is a problematic female lead in the sense that she’s very much in that gray area between ambiguous and under-developed. I kept hoping that there was more to her behavior, as I would occasionally detect some suggestion of a larger pattern to her actions, but that never really cohered into anything meaningful. She influenced the outcome of the story, but that was less through agency than it was a result of an incongruous female presence, which is hardly the same thing as an active female character. Does that make sense?

Kate: Absolutely — I think you’ve put your finger on why I struggled so much with the story, even though Kanon is intended to be a sympathetic figure.

Switching gears, I wanted to ask you what you thought of the artwork.

David: I’ve always been taken with Furuya’s art, even when it’s in service of this kind of material. He strikes a really impressive balance between realism and stylization, I think, and that was definitely my impression here.

One thing I have to mention, which is minor but struck me repeatedly in this book: the odd blush that he applies to boys’ lips. It’s such a strange little detail, but I always notice it, and I always find it unsettling in a productive way, at least in this book. I can’t quite put my finger on why, but it landed in this place where it suggested both innocence and horror.

Kate: That small detail with the boys’ lips harkens back to what you said about Lychee Light Club‘s theatricality; it’s as if the characters are wearing stage make-up to make them look even younger and more androgynous.

And speaking of the boys’ appearance, one of the things I found most interesting about Lychee Light Club is the way in which Furuya channels the spirit of Suehiro Maruo. When I first flipped through the book, I was struck by how many of the characters reminded me of an image that appears in Frederick Schodt’s Dreamland Japan. It’s a picture of three schoolboys — one holding a sword, one playing a flute, and one cocking a baseball bat — from Maruo’s Itoshi no Showa (My Beloved Showa Era). Each of the boys represents a different period in modern Japanese history (the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras, respectively), and at the end of the story, when a new “sibling” is born into their family, “they take off their masks and reveal themselves as monsters.” Schodt goes on to quote critic Inuhiko Yomota, who characterizes Maruo’s style as “a museum of 20th-century kitsch art” for the way in which Maruo synthesizes Nazi symbolism, traditional Japanese woodblock prints, and Taisho and Showa-era graphic design into a coherent visual language.

I think that “museum” metaphor is an apt way to describe Furuya’s style as well. In Short Cuts, for example, he proved that he could mimic just about any manga-ka’s style in service of a good joke; he pokes fun at Leiji Matsumoto and Osamu Tezuka with beautifully drawn panels that not only reproduce the characters from Galaxy 999 and Astro Boy, but also the sensibility of those comics — the linework, the density of images, the application of screentone. In Lychee Light Club, Furuya does something similar with Maruo’s work, though the prevailing spirit is different: the character designs, extreme violence, and “unmasking” of the boys in the final act of the story seem like explicit homage to Maruo, rather than a playful jab at established masters.

David: That’s so interesting, and it helps some things click for me. I think I noticed a similar kind of curatorial bent in Furuya’s Palepoli strips in Secret Comics Japan. I always find creators more interesting when they have a wider frame of reference, so to see Furuya fusing theatrical conventions and Maruo homage with his own sensibility is very satisfying, in a way. I just feel like artists are almost always automatically better when they have interests beyond their specific creative spheres and when they can drawn on these interests to inform their work while still maintaining their specific point of view. The ability to synthesize a range of elements from all over high and low culture while still creating something unique is quite impressive to me.

Of course, if it’s in service of fairly repulsive material, that may not be enough to salvage the reading experience. It did for me, but I certainly understand that it probably won’t for many, many people. Which brings me to a tricky question: to whom would you recommend this book, if you would recommend it at all? It’s interesting to me that Vertical would publish a book like this. There’s certainly been no shortage of aggressively shocking material in their other releases (Felipe Smith’s Peepo Choo and Tezuka’s MW and Ayako come to mind), but Lychee Light Club seems to be on a different taste plane altogether.

Kate: Good question — and one I feel unqualified to answer, since a formulation as glib as “fans of Suehiro Maruo’s work!” only addresses a tiny fraction of Lychee Light Club‘s potential audience. But if I had to take a stab at recommending it, I’d say it would be of interest to anyone who was intrigued by the darker stories in AX: An Alternative Manga Anthology (e.g. Kaizuichi Hanawa’s “Six Paths of Wealth”).

David: I think that’s an excellent answer. I like it even better because I don’t have an answer of my own.

On the subject of marketing, I noticed an intriguing tag line in Vertical’s house ad for Jiro Matsumoto’s Velveteen and Mandala, which asserted that “the manga renaissance continues.” I quite liked that sentiment, particularly as it relates to Vertical’s catalog. It’s ambitious, and not every book is right for every reader, but Vertical does make very ambitious choices, and their selection does have something for many different demographics, from kids who like funny cats to hardcore otaku.


From the stack: Ai Ore! vol. 1

Who could have predicted that the comic I read this week that really made my skin crawl wasn’t Usumaru Furuya’s Lychee Light Club (Vertical)? No, that dubious honor goes to Mayu Shinja’s Ai Ore! (Viz). It manifests the kind of dreadful sexual politics I secretly hoped for from The Beautiful Skies of Hou Ou High, providing a handy reminder that one should always be careful about the wishes one makes.

It begins with an all-girl rock band losing its lead singer and the subsequent application of a boy for the vacant spot in the line-up. The band members are all sexy and androgynous, and they’re idols at their all-girl high school. The would-be singer is delicate and feminine, and his classmates have declared him the princess of their all-boy academy. Mizuki, the de facto leader of Blaue Rosen, is reluctant to admit Akira to the band. She doesn’t think she’s particularly fond of guys, but Akira is persistent. In fact, he’s creepily persistent. One might even say he doesn’t take no for an answer.

His desire to join the band is driven mostly by his obsession with Mizuki, and her repeatedly expressed disinterest doesn’t really penetrate Akira’s disconcerting determination. He’s one of those “just a matter of time” love interests who keeps acting like the girl’s already fallen for him (or that she doesn’t have a say in the matter). In spite of her formidable demeanor, Mizuki can’t seem to effectively fend off Mizuki’s persistent advances. Worse still, and obviously, she doesn’t really want to.

This is the part where I start ranting like an old prude, but dynamics like this really bother me. I hate the whole “I know what you want better than you do” précis, and I think it sends a horrible message. I really hate unwanted physical affection being presented as romantic or, even worse, cute. I hate when female characters are repeatedly put in peril so their stalker love interests can save them and look marginally better by comparison. And I hate Akira.

I find him repulsive. Part of this is due to the way that Shinja draws him. She’ll give Akira close-ups, narrated by Mizuki talking about how cute or ardent he looks. I think he looks demented in these panels, but maybe I’m just projecting my interpretation of his behavior on his appearance. It’s certainly partly because of the horrible lines he uses on Mizuki. (“Instead of singing about love, drown yourself in me.” “I came to take advantage of… your sadness, Mizuki-Chan.” “Don’t  you like me licking you?”) But mostly it’s just his obnoxious, menacing behavior. His final acts of the volume go so far beyond the pale that the second should begin with him being sent to jail.

Listen, I’m not naive enough to think that this kind of thing doesn’t have its audience, and I certainly don’t think that I’m going to make any difference by bitching about it. But when my primary response to a romantic narrative is “Nobody who actually loves you would treat you that way,” then it seems worth noting, at least for the record.

(Based on a review copy provided by the publisher.)


The dreary skies of Hou Ou High

When I do my “pick a dubious manga” polls, I have two preferred outcomes in mind. The first is that I’ll be pleasantly surprised by a manga that sounds questionable, finding a nugget of gold in an unexpected place. The second is that the book will be even worse than it sounds and that I’ll be able to unleash a bitter diatribe on something that’s offended one of my core values. The worst potential outcome is that I’ll merely be bored.

Unfortunately, the first choice in this series of reader-generated selections achieves that last result. Arata Aki’s The Beautiful Skies of Hou Ou High (Digital Manga) is garden-variety bad. Oh, it’s very bad, I assure you, but it’s not memorably bad.

It’s about a young lesbian whose mother contrives admission to an elite, all-boys’ school in the hopes that the complete immersion in a sea of wealthy dreamboats will burn the gay out of her daughter. (“The students are all fat-cats!” Mom crows. “If she gets pregnant, then we win!”) Aki doesn’t stage a train-wreck of skin-crawling sexual politics like Jun Yuzuki did with Gakuen Prince, mostly because I suspect Aki isn’t writer enough to conceive of a plot outlandish (or consistent) enough to be that awful.

Instead, we get a lot of quirky classmates out of central casting who harbor an inexplicable fascination with our heroine, Kei, whose defining characteristic is her stupidity. (“She really is an idiot,” Kei’s younger sister notes. In a moment of what’s later revealed to be understatement, her mother calls her “dimwitted.” “Man, everything about you is weak,” her first friend at school concludes.) Manga has a rich history of endearingly dumb protagonists. Kei Saeba is not among their number. She’s frantic and grating and dull, and her stupidity is so generic that it’s hard to invest any interest in it.

What passes for an ongoing subplot isn’t especially promising. The school’s administration has been blackmailed into admitting Kei, and they basically want her gone. (Sympathies, gentlemen!) The director is terrified of potential scandal involving a girl secretly attending the prestigious school, but he’s equally concerned with concealing his own secrets. I could go on, but I don’t care. Even a little.

I don’t care about stupid Kei. I don’t care about the blurry boy harem that Aki is assembling for her. I don’t care if the headmaster arranges for her to be tossed into a deep, icy well.

I do care about the fact that Digital Manga couldn’t be bothered to include translation notes for the volume, as at least knowing what some references were would have given me something to think about besides the manga I was trying to read. But no, all I had to work with were dull characters, inane plot developments, and a tone that couldn’t even work up the energy to offend me.

Blue Exorcist, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.


From the stack: Chew: Taster’s Choice

It’s time again to look at a title from the top 10 list of the 2011 Great Graphic Novels for Teens list assembled by the Young Adult Library Services Association of the American Library Association. The exercise is providing a nice variety of reading experiences, from a gracefully rendered adventure on the high seas to a slice of adolescent life in Guadeloupe. This month’s entry is Chew: Taster’s Choice (Image), the first collection a novel and occasionally nauseating detective series written and lettered by John Layman and drawn and colored by Rob Guillory.

This volume introduces us to Tony Chu, a police detective who also happens to be “cibopathic,” which means he experiences the full history of everything he eats. You may worry about food miles, but at least you don’t have to travel every one of them with your salad. As a result, Chu isn’t a very enthusiastic eater. The gift-curse does have its uses in the course of investigations, and Chu ends up drawing the interest of a strangely sinister Food and Drug Administration. The agency hires him to help solve food-related crimes.

Chu is assigned to work with fellow cibopath Mason Savoy, who is as stout and hearty as Chu is scrawny and drawn. They investigate the death of a food inspector, and Chu becomes smitten with a writer whose unique ability is to write about food so expressively that her readers react viscerally to her prose. Before Chu can pursue this fetching raconteur, he starts to sense that there may be more to the FDA and Savoy than he suspected, and the volume ends with Chu’s life changing drastically yet again.

Layman has a great sense of pacing. The chapters generally charge along at a nice clip, but there’s plenty of space for quirky details and funny set pieces. Guillory seems ideally suited for the material, straddling the line between amusingly absurd and full-on gross. Together, they’ve assembled an interesting cast, conducted some smart world building, and established an underlying plot that seems like it could sustain the series for some time. (Why did the FDA drive the poultry industry underground?) They also create enough of a level of internal logic to make the weirder elements fit quite nicely.

The only thing they haven’t seemed to do by the end of this volume is to figure out ways for Chu to solve crimes without eating human flesh. Given the volume of evidence available at the average crime scene, it seems like cannibalism would be a last resort for someone of Chu’s abilities. There are lots of marginally edible things lying around that are bound to be at least somewhat usefully resonant before starting in on the (not chicken) fingers. Aside from being revolting, the device feels limiting. Much as I enjoyed this volume, I want to see the hero vary his diet.


From the stack: Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths

There are several very welcome text pieces in Drawn & Quarterly’s handsome production of Shigeru Mizuki’s Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths – a foreword by Frederik L. Schodt, extensive translation notes, and an afterword by the creator. My favorite extra has to be an interview with Mizuki in which the legendary mangaka is simply not having it.

He’s not being difficult or unpleasant, but he’s not really game for the standard questions that legendary cartoonists generally get asked. His answers tend to be much shorter than the inquiries that triggered them. He won’t play into the “trailblazing artiste” narrative, nor will he won’t deprecate himself. He won’t list his influences, trash commercial comics, or paint the creation of Onward… as an artistic or personal struggle.

Of course, my favorite bit of the interview is when Mizuki is asked which of his works he’s most proud of and would like to see made available in English:

SM: I would have to say GeGeGe no Kitaro.

I would have to agree with him. Grateful as I am to have any of his work licensed and in translation, it feels kind of odd to start with one of his darker works. It would be like if Osamu Tezuka’s Ayako had been licensed before anyone had a chance to read Astro Boy. Of course, GeGeGe no Kitaro is a Kodansha property, some of which was published ages ago in the publisher’s bilingual comics initiative, so that complicates things. It’s also beloved and probably very expensive, so one can’t precisely fault other publishers for not waiting. Of course, Onward… was a Kodansha property as well, originally serialized in Gekiga Gendai, so it’s nice to see the publisher continue to work with other houses rather than keep everything for themselves.

And Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths has numerous merits in its own right beyond being part of Mizuki’s body of work. It’s based on Mizuki’s experiences as a soldier serving in Papua New Guinea during World War II and portrays the hardships and ill use average soldiers endured at the hands of their superiors. These abuses range from routine, almost desultory physical punishment – “New recruits are like tatami mats: the more you beat them, the better they are.” – to the overall military culture that paints surrender as the worst kind of shame and promotes dying in battle, no matter how senseless and futile the effort, as every soldier’s highest calling (aside from victory, obviously).

Mizuki doesn’t need to do much beyond merely portraying this mindset in order to condemn it. His cast of everyman grunts doesn’t pontificate about its fate. They gripe about the shortage of food, the isolation, the grueling routine, the danger and disease. The overarching injustices they face and the ways that these will doom them always loom, and the soldiers are keenly aware of them, but they’re rarely addressed directly in the text. This is welcome, because it keeps subtler, more effective condemnation from becoming an obvious screed, and it’s also natural in a way. It makes sense to me that these powerless people are reluctant to address the fact that their day-to-day suffering is almost certainly for nothing, and that the people responsible for their fate know that and don’t care. As a result, it’s a very straightforward, chronological narrative. The soldiers arrive, conditions deteriorate, they face unthinkable danger and impossible choices, and things end badly. The approach serves Mizuki’s aims well.

The visual style can be jarring at times. Mizuki paints lushly realistic backdrops and peoples them with cartoonish figures. That isn’t problematic by itself, as I’m more than happy to embrace the combination of cartoonish and gruesome in works like Tezuka’s MW and Ode to Kirihito. There are moments when Mizuki’s particular stylization is not just dissonant with his subject matter but directly at odds with it. This is particularly evident in more violent scenes when body parts are flying, and Mizuki’s strict adherence to his character aesthetic sometimes results in panels that look more ridiculous than horrific. He’s also dealing with a large cast, and individuality tends to get lost in terms of design and simple space to develop characters thoroughly. Ironically, it’s the higher-ups who make the strongest impression. Again, that fits, since they’re the ones with the most agency, and it reinforces the brutal expendable status of the rank and file.

It’s an effective piece on the whole, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to read it. The overall level of restrained sincerity is welcome and makes the piece stand out in the field of autobiographic comics. I’m also pleased that Drawn & Quarterly chose to mark the occasion of Mizuki’s proper English-language debut with proper introductory pieces providing an overview of his career and impact. If it doesn’t seem like the ideal piece to use for Mizuki’s reintroduction, it certainly does him credit.


From the stack: Cross Game vol. 3

Hello, and welcome to the latest installment of “David Gushes over Mitsuru Adachi’s Cross Game!” Listen, I know I’ve crossed over from any kind of clear-eyed critical examination into full-on, sweaty, tent-in-a-parking-lot evangelism with this title, but I also know that I’m beyond caring. This series delivers joy on a regular basis.

The third omnibus, which collects the sixth and seventh volumes of the series, can be reduced to the simplest of sports manga narratives. The team of plucky upstarts prepares for a big game, then plays the big game, then reacts to the outcome of the big game. It doesn’t get much purer than that, and the arc here is certainly exciting in terms of that basic outline.

But it’s so much more than that. Ultimately, the events portrayed here are about justice, about heart and determination winning out against elitism and presumption. Of course, that’s also one of the least novel conflicts ever to grace the pages of manga as a category, but still…

The thing is, while Adachi is working with one of the oldest road maps in the form, he doesn’t take a straight line anywhere. Our scruffy heroes don’t gaze off into the middle distance and make vows about their future. They’re too realistic for that. They don’t lapse into paragraphs of internal monologue about what’s happening, because Adachi draws too well and frames sequences too clearly for that to be necessary. Characters can behave entirely believably and still surprise you, because Adachi doesn’t feel the need to underline their every thought or feeling. He trusts your ability to comprehend subtext, to remember past moments, and to connect what you already know or suspect with what you see unfolding on the page in front of you.

As goofy as Adachi’s sense of humor can sometimes be, he can also tug at your heartstrings or thrill you with moments big and small. You can be both elated and tickled when justice is visited upon the smug. You can snicker at and feel sympathy for the team dork during his mishaps, and you can feel touched but not manipulated as characters inch towards a better understanding of each other.

It’s just an awesome comic, you guys. It does everything you expect a comic of this sort to do, but it does them with such distinctive style and heartfelt sincerity that you’ll never notice you’ve visited this territory before. Awesome.


From the stack: Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators

I don’t know if it was editorially composed to be this way, but Korea as Viewed by 12 Creators (Fanfare/Ponent Mon) puts its least successful pieces first, allowing the stories to build in ambition and interest as the anthology progresses. The order leaves the reader with the strongest possible impression of the collection and only a scant memory of the introductory blandness. It’s a smart choice.

Choi Kyu-Sok opens the collection with “The Fake Dove,” a reminder that pretense is an international language. In it, a manhwa artist tries to live among the homeless for an assignment. It’s exactly what you’d expect – halfhearted, privileged guilt tempered by winking cynicism. “Feel bad about their plight, but you can still complain about the way they smell.”

Catel’s “Dul Lucie” has a promising idea – the creator’s attempts to show South Korea through her trademark character’s eyes. Unfortunately, it ends up being a shapeless blend of travelogue and authorial excuse-making. It’s not without charm, though, and I’d like to read some of Catel’s other work. (This chapter is among those that suffer from sometimes awkward, seemingly rushed translation; happily, none of the really good pieces fall victim to that fate.)

Things start to perk up with “Solego’s Tree,” by Lee Doo-hoo. A gifted artist finds that masterworks can have unintended consequences in a simply structured, beautifully drawn little parable.

Alas, it’s back to the bland with Vanyda’s “Oh Pilsung Korea!” A French brother and sister (whose father is Korean) bemoan the fact that they aren’t seeing “the real Korea” during their visit. Putting aside the fact that they haven’t made any specific efforts in that direction, I always find the notion of finding the “real” anywhere kind of presumptive. If the story had been about the impracticality of expectations or the travelers’ accountability, there might have been something here.

I liked “Cinderella” by Park Heong-yong, a tale of boyhood mischief that morphs into something stranger but still welcoming. I found Mathieu Sapin’s “Beondegi” twee in the way I generally react to “normal person gets dragged into wacky misadventures by a free spirit” fiction. Byun Ki-hyun makes a conscientious effort to illustrate the ways women are underestimated and overlooked in “The Rabbit,” blending elements of fantasy into a realistic urban landscape. The results aren’t especially memorable or persuasive, though.

The anthology really takes off with Igort’s “Letters from Korea.” It displays the sharpest point of view of any of the stories up to this point, and the creator clearly filtered his experiences into a coherent, thematically resonant narrative. He recounts his experiences with artisans of various levels and types, from someone who crafts handmade notebooks to a legendary animator to the people who merely leave notes to loved ones on the border with North Korea. It’s a story with interesting things on its mind, representing a meaty kind of travel experience that’s well worth sharing.

Utterly different and even more glorious is “The Pine Tree,” by Lee Hee-jae. A large family gathers in their rural hometown for the funeral of their patriarch. It speaks clearly and eloquently of the power of tradition and the enduring bonds of home as it articulates, moment by moment, the experience of the wake, the funeral, and the landscape where they’re set. I’d love for someone to publish more of Lee’s comics if they’re even remotely close to the quality of this piece.

We’re back to travelogue with Hervé Tanquerelle’s “A Rat in the Country of Yong,” but what a travelogue it is. Tanquerelle forgoes conventional detail for wordless, anthropomorphous charm. It’s such a treat to see Tanquerelle visually frame the experience of going someplace utterly new in classic, children’s-book fashion. The experiences aren’t exactly novel, but their rendering has such endearing freshness and such a warm point of view that I doubt most readers will care.

Chaemin snaps us back into the real world with “The Rain that Goes Away Comes Back,” a glimpse at what the Korean equivalent of josei must look like. As with “The Rabbit,” Chaemin shows the challenges and choices working women face. Unlike “The Rabbit,” Chaemin doesn’t need to rely on obvious metaphor. Her protagonist, an unmarried woman working at a social service agency, makes eloquent points about the pros and cons of solitude and makes anxiety about the future palpable, while keeping it at a recognizable, human scale.

Things close out on a totally whimsical note with Guillame Bouzard’s “Operation Captain Zidane.” Bouzard, in a hilariously self-parodying frame of mind, paints his trip to Korea as a ridiculous bit of subterfuge tied to the World Cup. Bouzard neatly and winningly satirizes politics, nationalism, and manic sports fandom in this smart and frisky closer to the book.

While Korea isn’t as consistently successful as its predecessor, Japan as Viewed by 17 Creators, there’s more than enough excellent material here to make it worth your time. Its high points are extremely high, and they’re varied in tone and approach. It’s about two-thirds of a good-to-great anthology, which is a totally acceptable rate of return.