Sunday, July 6, 2008

Real: Takehiko Inoue shows off his arm strength

Talk about good manga below, but first, I gotta point everybody to the Umbrella Academy story that's up on this month's MySpace Dark Horse Presents. When's the next miniseries coming out, dammit? Also in this "issue": A goofy story written by Zack Whedon (Joss's brother) and illustrated by Eric Canete that ties in with (Joss) Whedon's upcoming web-musical starring Neil Patrick Harris and Nathan Fillion, a weird insect-western by John Arcudi and Steve Young, and a short one by Tara McPherson. Good times.

Also, I completely missed this when I was talking to Christopher Mitten at Wizard World, but check out the back cover of the issue of Wasteland that just came out:

Yeah, that's right, I got blurbed! Sweet! I wish it didn't make me sound so monosyllabic (and unoriginal, considering the celebratory interjection I just chose to use), but I'll take it. And I've also got a review of said issue up at Comics Bulletin.

Okay, on to business:

Real, volume 1
By Takehiko Inoue

Takehiko Inoue starts out the Real with an excellent scene that instantly defines its central character and ensures that you'll (probably) want to keep reading about him. Tomomi Nomiya, a recent high school dropout who used to be the captain of the basketball team, makes a visit to his former school to say goodbye to the place. In short order, he confesses a crush to a girl, play-kicks the new team captain (in a way that is obviously joking but still hard enough that you can tell he really does feel like hurting the guy), bequeaths his basketball shoes to a couple friends, and then strips naked and leaves, stopping to take a shit in the entrance gate on his way out:

It's funny stuff, but still pretty tense and kind of disturbing; the kid is obviously a troublemaker, but he must have had some sort of drive to be the captain of the team. What happened to make him give up and quit school? We get a hint of an answer when one of his friends mentions a motorcycle accident, and we learn more about said accident when Nomiya visits the hospital to spend time with a girl named Natsumi, who we learn was rendered crippled and near-comatose while riding on his bike, while he barely suffered a scratch. In a hint of the good-heartedness that he keeps hidden under a tough exterior, Nomiya has pledged to take care of her, even though he doesn't really even know her; he just happened to pick her up and give her a ride before almost getting her killed. He feels responsible, so he tries to visit and cheer her up, even though her sister doesn't approve.

It's a nice establishment of character in a quick, entertaining few pages. Though Nomiya acts all tough and full of braggadocio, he's got a heart of gold underneath. He just needs to mature a little bit. And what could make him mature? Why, the hard work and dedication required to excel at basketball, of course! Unfortunately, there don't appear to be any public basketball courts in Japan (a foreign concept to Americans, since we're used to blacktop courts in every playground, or a hoop set up in our house's driveway), so he seems to be out of luck. That is, until he runs into Kiyoharu Togawa, an athlete who lost a leg to bone cancer but didn't let that stop him from continuing to play basketball, even if he's relegated to a wheelchair. While the two of them are antagonistic toward each other at first, they soon realize that they have a lot in common, especially since Togawa quit his wheelchair basketball team after punching a teammate who wasn't sufficiently victory-minded. They share a desire to play basketball, but lack the resources to do anything about it.

After a couple of Nomiya's friends from school start to get picked on by the new team captain, he recruits Togawa to confront them and settle things, on the basketball court, of course. After that, the two of them start playing games for money with rich kids, teaming up to school them and build a good bankroll. At the same time, Hisanobu Takahashi, the new captain of Nomiya's old team, gets into a bicycle accident and loses the use of his legs, so he is poised to join the world of wheeled athletics. It's all a good introduction to the characters, a deepening of their relationships, and a good setup for plenty of interesting plots to come.

Inoue really demonstrates that he is a master of the comics form here, quickly establishing characters and situations and setting up conflicts and alliances between characters. It's a pleasure to watch as he throws them together and lets them bounce off each other. The characters are so expressive, both in facial movement and body language:

I love the way Nomiya wears such a sad-sack expression all the time, and while he's fairly big, he carries himself kind of slumped over, like he's trying to look smaller. But when he's on the court, he gets such confidence that he acts like nobody can stop him. Togawa is similar, dedicated to doing his best and acting stoic, not letting anybody get close. And then there's the sports action, which Inoue knocks out of the park (to use a metaphor from a different game entirely). As anybody who has seen his artwork knows, he's amazing at depicting movement, really adding a visceral excitement to the on-court action:

But the other thing he does so well is depict the pure joy that comes from athletic activity, as in this scene from Nomiya and Togawa's first meeting and pick-up game, when Togawa actually (almost) jumps his wheelchair over a broom that has fallen onto the court when chasing after a loose ball:

That aura of pleasure and excitement that arises when playing the sport is probably as responsible for Nomiya and Togawa forming a connection as anything else, and Inoue conveys it perfectly, without having to resort to monologues about how much they love basketball, or how it makes them feel better than anything else, or something like that. It's wonderful, true-to-life stuff, and since it's such a relatable feeling, it draws the reader right into the story.

So where is the series going next? Togawa seems dedicated to bettering himself and playing with a wheelchair basketball team. Takahashi will certainly become entangled in matters now that he is crippled. But how will Nomiya remain involved? As a fully-mobile person, will he have to live out his fantasies of competition through his friends? Will he remain forever relegated to pick-up games for quick cash? Will he ever make a connection with Natsumi? I can't wait to read future volumes of the series and find out.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. The book is due in stores on July 15.