Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Goodbye, CMX

Yes, it's been silent around here, even with my one-year blogiversary passing me by. But, I am compelled to write today because of the shutdown of local manga publisher, CMX.

CMX published a slew of great books, many of which I enjoyed. While I'm sad to see some series will never be finished (like Two Flowers for the Dragon, Apothecarius Argentum, Venus Capriccio and Swan), there is a small measure of satisfaction knowing that other personal favorites came to a close in time, including Emma and The Name of the Flower.

I had the opportunity to meet editor-in-chief Asako Suzuki at San Diego Comic-Con International last year. I felt beyond lucky when she extended an invitation to visit the CMX offices in La Jolla, just minutes from my home in San Diego. I took her up on the offer a month later, during my first unpaid furlough day from my full-time job. It was a much-needed pick-me-up during an uncertain time.

There, I met editor John Chadwick and creative director Larry Berry, in addition to others on the CMX staff. They were all gracious, wonderful people willing to indulge my keen interest; they also introduced me to some awesome series, many of which I've continued reading. So, it was doubly troubling to hear the news earlier today; these people are fellow San Diegans and, working in media myself, fellow colleagues. I just hope that all of CMX's staff members land on their feet, as nothing regarding employees has been released thus far.

While I don't have much to say about CMX's relationship with parent company DC, I do know that it was always disappointing to find zero CMX presence at SDCCI, despite the Time Warner subsidiary's large footprint. As a public relations professional, I was also surprised by the lack of marketing support lent, especially considering the critical acclaim many titles earned.

With other recent and unwelcome manga industry news, it seems the niche is in a sorry state of affairs tied to the still-flagging economy and the larger publishing industry's difficulties in navigating an increasingly digital market. What this means for the future is anyone's guess.

All I know is that I'm disappointed that the market is contracting and consolidating. It means less choice, variety and competition overall, and there's nothing good about that.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

not simple

The story: Ian has a troubled past and the only thing he wants to do is find his sister. Traveling across Australia, England and America to find her, he’s trailed by a reporter, Jim, who is recording Ian's travels for his book. As a lonely young man, Jim is the closest thing Ian has to a friend. Will Ian find his sister, or will his tragic life continue?

Reaction: To say this story is a tragedy is an understatement. Reading it was somewhat akin to a watching a train wreck—you simply cannot look away.

But, the problem is that this story is nothing but tragedy. There’s no hope, optimism or redemption; it’s a grim story, plain and simple. His emotions, his family and his life are all within his always-eluded grasp, but he never displays passion, or makes a grab for it. The only exception is his sought-after sister, who seems oddly detached despite her promise to meet him again.

I kept hoping for a light at the end of this dark tunnel of a story, to no avail. While I hoped side characters would provide some sort of comedic relief, even they fell short, especially Jim’s neighbor, Rick.

Deep thoughts: Unlike a traditional narrative, not simple starts at the end, with the completion of Ian's journey. While I don’t loathe the non-linear narrative structure—my favorite film is Pulp Fiction—it doesn’t work well here as there's no "aha!" moment revealing something worth caring about.

There’s flashes to Ian’s childhood, interspersed with his interviews with Jim and the storyline based in the present. It’s disconcerting and muddles the spiraling uncontrolled trajectory of Ian’s life.

Artwork: Unlike some other reviewers, I actually like Natsume Ono’s art style here. It gives a decidedly contemporary, post-modern edge to this story. As precarious as the lines may seem in their unfinished state, they perfectly mirror the razor’s edge that Ian lives on. While the distorted eyes, dimensions and perspectives in not simple may be disconcerting to others, I thought it a fitting pair with this dark tale.

The verdict: Meh. As much as I wanted to like this story—and you do when you see the kind of life Ian has lived—I couldn’t bring myself to do it. There’s a sense of masochism afoot as there are few happy moments in Ian’s life and just when he seems in reach of some semblance of happiness, it’s taken away not only from him, but also any reader seeking any kind of redemption in this melancholy single-volume manga. not simple is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Honey and Clover, vol. 9

The story
: It's the beginning of the end in this penultimate volume—graduation is just around the corner for Takemoto and Hagu, while Morita and his brother will finally have their peace, or so they think. Even Mayama's life is changing when he moves to Spain to be closer to Rika.

While the gang begins to see the light at the end of the tunnel that has been their college experience, they’re still wistful for days gone by. Can they leave their carefree existence behind and tackle the real world?

Reaction: This is by far the best volume of the whole series, with a tragic accident consuming the dreams of one of the main characters and creating a ripple effect of self-exploration throughout the group. Without revealing too much, it calls into question everything the person affected thought they would do following their departure from art school. I found myself tearing up at times, astounded at the character’s strength and Chica Umino’s sheer brilliance in creating said character's reaction to the very tough situation they're presented with.

There’s raw emotion, too, especially in explaining the reason for Morita’s crazy work schedule and standoffish behavior. So much is revealed about why he is the way he is, and showing all the sacrifices he’s made over the years despite all outward appearances. While no definitive romantic choices are made, the book moves towards resolving the two love triangles that have consumed this series thus far.

Deep thoughts: What I’ve especially appreciated in this series is Umino’s skill in surrounding panels with a character’s inner monologue. Interspersing beautiful imagery and the character’s spoken words amongst black spaces filled with near-poetic prose draws me into this world that is so downright beautiful, even in its jarring tragedy.

There’s also the clever little details in Umino’s text. In the beginning chapter, Hagu expresses interest in someday carving a statue out of marble. In a later chapter, Umino loops back to this scene, noting the look of her face—“white as marble.” It’s a detail easily overlooked, but speaks to the poignancy with which Umino has created her characters and the world of Honey and Clover.

Artwork: There’s a certain artistic balance between innocence and its loss in this volume. From playful scenes during Morita’s childhood to Mayama’s sheer joy at being invited to join Rika in Spain, there’s an optimistic lightness afoot. But, this is balanced and tempered by the darkness and conflict approached in the volume’s second half. There’s blood, tears and dark emotions illustrated, providing an intimate look at the pain and turmoil bubbling up. In visually telling this story, Umino builds the main conflict up to a boil slowly, but surely. At volume’s end, it was all I could do but sigh at the perfectly simple last panel.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There’s just so much raw emotion here, like clay pots waiting to be fired. It pours out of the characters in a way that never feels forced and in words that never become stilted. It’s just real. While what happens next will no doubt be sad, there’s a sense of closure at hand. All I know is that despite my connection to these characters, I'm looking forward to seeing them move on. Honey and Clover is available in the U.S. from Viz.

Monday, April 5, 2010

MangaCast Review: Hero Tales, vol. 1

During my unplanned hiatus, not only was i♥manga ignored, but so was MangaCast, another great manga blog where I occasionally provide reviews. But, I'm back with my latest post—this time around, I took a look at Hero Tales, vol. 1. Here's an excerpt of what I thought:

Brother and sister Taitou and Laila are heroes of their town, fighting the Imperial Army as it tries to impose its will upon the people. But, things are not what they seem—when the master of the temple gives Taitou a mysterious sword following his coming-of-age ceremony, it is quickly stolen away by an even more mysterious man named Shimei. ... With its shonen roots showing, Hero Tales hits the ground running with quick action and a larger plotline laid out in the opening chapters. With a mythic tale connecting several characters, there’s something familiar in this unique story.

To read the rest of my review, check it out here. Hero Tales is available in the U.S. from Yen Press.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

My Darling! Miss Bancho, vol. 1

The story: After her parents’ divorce, Souka is determined to not be a burden on her now-single mother. Choosing to attend a technical high school, she sets her heart on learning a trade that can help her get a job immediately after graduation.

But, there’s a major kink in her plans—her new school’s male delinquents have caused all the girls to leave and she’s the only one left! Refusing to reveal the truth to her hard-working mom, Souka stays on at the troubled school and, in a hilarious turn of events, ends up a gang leader. Just what will Souka do now that she’s surrounded by tough guys committed to honoring and protecting their new bancho?

Reaction: This story is certainly a different take on reverse-harem comedy—instead of being surrounded by beautiful and silly rich boys, Souka must deal with a bunch of knuckle-headed gang members. While the antics here are as silly as any high school shojo, the technical high school setting and ensemble cast proves a difference maker.

I really liked Souka, especially because she disproves the stereotype that girls don’t like science. If she sets her mind to it, Souka realizes that she “gets” science. Other characters proved equally likeable, especially Katou who belies his greaser exterior with a laughable mother hen personality. It’s a great balance and entertains with its unexpectedness.

Deep thoughts: I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of science-related manga lately. While this book isn’t very scientific, it does drop a few mathematical formulas and chemical names here and there, providing a backdrop of sorts. Overall, I think technical high schools are an interesting facet of Japanese secondary education options and I wonder why more manga don’t feature them. While they don’t have an exact American equivalent, California's high school ROP, or regional occupational programs, are fairly similar, preparing young adults and others for "further educational, employment and occupational changes."

Artwork: There’s a definite evolution of characters in this first volume—in the opening chapter, faces are awkwardly shaped at times. The art is reminiscent of some of the early work by Nari Kusakawa, mangaka of The Palette of 12 Secret Colors and Two Flowers for the Dragon. By volume’s end, there’s more consistency and uniformity in design; I especially liked one character's design in particular, an anonymous gang member who looks like Aang from Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender, his bald head tattooed with an arrow. Otherwise, the art here is nice enough, but it doesn’t make a big impression in comparison to other shojo manga.

The verdict: If only… While the humorous story definitely carries this book, there’s a sense of repetitiveness in each story. It wasn’t until volume’s end that things got interesting by introducing a love rival and other complications between Souka and Katou. Luckily, that’s enough to keep me reading until volume two! My Darling! Miss Bancho is available in the U.S. from CMX.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture, vol. 1

While the connection to today's review may seem a bit tenuous, I'd like to give a nod to Cesar E. Chavez, who led the first successful farm worker's rights movement in the United States. In California, we celebrate his life's work on March 31 with a statewide holiday. Since this book focuses on farm work and agriculture, it seemed an opportune time to note Chavez's work in providing equal rights to migrant and other farm workers.

The story
: It’s the first day of college for Tadayasu, an agriculture student with a special skill—he can see bacteria and other germs without the help of a microscope or other tools. While he’s kept the secret to himself for many years, his nutty professor, Dr. Itsuki, soon finds out and seeks to use Tadayasu’s gift for scientific research. While all Tadayasu wants is a cool Tokyo college experience, it seems other forces are conspiring against him!

Reaction: This unique story was funny, science-filled and gross—but in a good way! The inordinately gifted main character, Tadayasu, provides a close-up view of all the things better left unseen, like fungus and bacteria. While the obsessive professors and goofy classmates were reminiscent of the art college manga (and personal favorite) Honey and Clover, the similarities ended there. With entertainment and education in equal doses, I found myself enjoying this story on several levels.

Deep thoughts: With a microbiologist mom and a science-filled childhood, I probably enjoyed this book more than most. Growing up, The Anatomy Coloring Book was an unlikely part of my childhood coloring book collection. More recently, I shared this book with a colleague at work—the dean of the College of Sciences at the university I work at, who also happens to be a microbiologist himself. He was so interested in it that he immediately bought the book and then informed me of the anime based on Moyasimon!

Artwork: This is definitely a seinen book in design, with realistic character designs (Hasegawa, in particular, reminded me of Detroit Metal City at times) and detailed backgrounds. But, the cartoony depictions of fungus and bacteria are unexpected, while providing a “fun” balance to the graphic grossness of agricultural life.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There is no other book like Moyasimon, manga or not. From Tadayasu’s unique gift to the disgusting situations he’s thrown into, I found this a promising start to a series I’ll definitely continue reading. Moyasimon is available in the U.S. from Del Rey.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Twin Spica, vol. 1

Time to dust off my poor, neglected blog! After a month of silence, I'm glad to be back—moving and freelance writing assignments have been keeping me busy. And what better way to come back to manga blogging than with a super-sized review of Vertical's new Twin Spica?

The story: For as long as she can remember, 13-year-old Asumi has wanted to become an astronaut. But, since her mother died a few years ago, she's reluctant to pursue it as a career, lest she leave her dad alone.

But, when she's selected for further testing by the new astronaut-training high school program, her dad tells her to follow her dreams. Can Asumi and her team survive the mentally and physically exhaustive examination process?

Reaction: Take one part astronomy, add a sympathetic heroine determined to persevere and round it out with a compelling cast of supporting characters, and you've got Twin Spica. Kou Yaginuma has created a fascinating alternate future for Japan, where tragedy becomes the foundation of both the protagonist’s story and her country’s entry into the space race.

While I didn't care for the glossed-over physical violence between Asumi and her father (it further complicates their already-strained relationship), I was pulled in by Asumi’s classmates and her mysterious friend, Mr. Lion; the bits of scientific fact peppered throughout; and Asumi’s back story.

By volume’s end, I found myself wanting to see Asumi deal with more hardship. Not out of some misplaced sense of sadism, but because she has an amazing ability to overcome even the toughest of hurdles. She’s a really remarkable character, even in comparison to the oft-used shojo trope of down-on-their-luck, yet-plucky heroines overcoming adversity.

Deep thoughts: In my real-life work, I’ve had the opportunity to work with astronomers, influencing my reading of Twin Spica. About a year ago, I interviewed a San Diego State University professor about his research on the death of a large star; Asumi’s passion for the stars reminded me of my conversation with Doug Leonard (embedded below).

Of course, the main tragedy in Twin Spica also reminded me of the Challenger explosion years ago; the incident has continued to influence space exploration efforts in the United States, much as it does in this story.

Artwork: Yaginuma’s character design is his greatest strength; from the petite Asumi to the self-assured Shu Suzuki, the cast here is wide-ranging in looks and personalities.

There’s a dichotomy of settings in this story, with the main storyline taking place in a sterile, one-room environment, in comparison to Yaginuma’s expansive backgrounds of space and its role in his characters’ imaginations. He’s also deft at portraying the emotional hardships the teams experience during testing. Lastly, flashes to Asumi’s personal tragedy throughout the story help build an unexpected emotional crescendo.

The verdict: Highly recommended. There’s a lot of heartfelt emotion balanced with space-based science in this tale of a young girl’s desire to visit the stars. Asumi’s single-minded dedication to her childhood dream is admirable, with a promising ending to this introductory volume. As soon as I finished this book, I found myself already longing to read more. Twin Spica will be available in the U.S. from Vertical.

Review copy provided by the publisher.