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.


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.


Upcoming 10/26/2011

Thank goodness Viz is taking the week off on the ComicList, because a couple of other publishers are really bringing it.

The first volume of Drops of God, written by Tadashi Agi and illustrated by Shu Okimoto, arrives courtesy of Vertical. This series has the interesting distinction of having been covered by dozens of newspapers prior to ever being licensed. (And those articles were subsequently picked up via service by hundreds of other newspapers.) This phenomenon occurred because the manga has boosted the wine industry wherever it’s been published. Will that occur here? Will Wine Spectator feature it in the next issue? Hard to say, but I’m really looking forward to reading this tale of a race to find a roster of legendary vintages. (I’ll probably stick with Three-Buck Chuck myself, but at least I’ll know what I’m missing.)

Vertical also unleashes the seventh volume of Kanata Konami’s Chi’s Sweet Home, so you can balance rare wine with adorable pets.

Not to be outdone in the cute and funny department, Yen Press delivers the tenth volume of Kiyohiko Azuma’s Yotsuba&! I predict low-key, identifiable antics will ensue, and that I will probably giggle.

I also predict that my jaw will drop at the quantity and quality of pretty contained within the second volume of Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story. I discussed this in more detail last week at Manga Bookshelf, though I couldn’t muster a Midtown-dependent pick this week. I did manage to provide a couple of Bookshelf Briefs.

Kodansha isn’t quite as impressive in its generosity, but it does offer the 11th volume of Koji Kumeta’s very funny Sayonara, Zetsubou-Sensei, which is not to be overlooked. (In other Kodansha news, I thought the first volume of Mardock Scramble was fairly promising, and I barely escaped the first volume of the unbearably shrill Animal Land with my sanity intact, but more on that later.)

So, what looks good to you?


Upcoming 10/19/2011

Looking at the Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week, you’d expect a bounty of new arrivals in your average comic shop. Looking at the Diamond-driven ComicList, it’s somewhat less exciting.

Never fear, though! Vertical leaps into the breach with the 16th volume of Osamu Tezuka’s Black Jack. It’s hard to believe that there will be only one more book in this series, isn’t it? As much as I enjoy Tezuka’s crazy, grown-up opuses, it’s always a treat to see him in mainstream entertainer mode, because even those comics are refreshingly weird. Here’s hoping that Vertical will find another example of Tezuka aiming for the mainstream and still packing his stories with insane, often disturbing grace notes. (Hi, Pinoko! I’ll miss you!)

What looks good to you?


Coming soon

We’re in a phase when there’s more occasion for license requests than license news, so it seems appropriate to take a break and celebrate some very exciting announcements. Leave it to Vertical to keep giving manga fans reasons for joy.

Now, how did I go through all those license requests without ever hitting upon Moyoco (Hataraki Man) Anno’s Sakuran? Looking back, the one-volume title from Kodansha’s Evening received only a scant mention in The Seinen Alphabet. Let’s pretend that I’ve been begging for it all along, because it certainly feels like a request fulfilled.

Once upon a time, Viz published Osamu Tezuka’s Adolf. Vertical will pull the title from limbo under the title Message to Adolf. It’s a seinen murdery mystery set in pre-World War II Germany featuring a bunch of guys named Adolf, including the obvious. Crazy Tezuka noir and a license rescue all in one joyous package!

For our wild-card entry, Vertical offers the two-volume 5 Centimeters Per Second, Yukiko Seike’s adaptation of Makoto Shinkai’s animated motion picture. Under normal circumstances, an adaptation of this nature isn’t an especially promising prospect. This case is slightly different, as it ran in Kodansha’s Afternoon, which is a reliable source of quality, often ambitious manga (though not as reliable as Kodansha’s Morning). There’s also Vertical’s taste level to consider: 7 Billion Needles was one of the most pleasantly surprising unknown quantities of the last couple of years, so there’s no reason this should be different. Plus, that cover positively oozes mono no aware. (Could it just be Ed Chavez’s plot to have vertical dominate the numerical entry in The Favorites Alphabet? I wouldn’t put it past him.)




Upcoming 10/5/2011

It’s a huge week of eagerly anticipated arrivals on the ComicList, so let’s get right to it!

Drawn & Quarterly releases the collection of Kate Beaton’s super-smart, super-funny Hark! A Vagrant strips. I’ve read some of these online, mostly in the context of someone linking to individual strips and rightly noting how super smart and super funny they are, but I’ve resisted reading all of them, because I wanted to hold the book in my hands and enjoy all of these comics in dead-tree form.

NBM delivers Takashi Murakami’s Stargazing Dog, which is about a down-on-his-luck guy who gets through tough times with the help of his loyal canine companion. Early word on this is that it’s lovely but will probably make me cry buckets, so I’ve stocked up on handkerchiefs. Here’s a preview.

If you missed it in hardcover (as I did), Emblem Editions gives you a paperback opportunity to enjoy Scott Chantler’s Two Generals, which portrays World War II through the eyes of average soldiers. Chantler is a marvelous cartoonist, as evidenced by his Northwest Passage from Oni Press, so I’m really excited about this one.

Osamu Tezuka’s The Book of Human Insects (Vertical) reaches comic shops. I reviewed the book last week; it’s excellent, particularly for fans of Tezuka’s unique brand of noir.

Viz is also dumping a ton of new titles on the market, many of which were discussed in the current Manga Bookshelf Pick of the Week and Bookshelf Briefs. Of the series I’ve not yet personally mentioned, I would highlight the fourth volume of Kazue Kato’s increasingly excellent Blue Exorcist and the ninth volume of Yuki Midorikawa’s always lovely Natsume’s Book of Friends. I’m also led to believe, by a reliable source, that Toshiaki Iwashiro’s Psyren becomes a lot better than the first volume would suggest, which is certainly possible; most of the first volume of Blue Exorcist was flat-out awful, and that’s become one of my favorite shônen titles.

But enough about my incipient poverty; what looks good to you?