Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Shonen Jump: A different sort of animal from the manga magazine I usually read

Quickly, before I start the real post, here are a couple links to neat stuff. First, Chip Zdarsky (using his real name, Steve Murray) has a funny comic strip up for Canada's National Post describing a journalistic-minded trip in which he and another reporter spent a weekend at a nudist colony. Good stuff.

Then, NBM has a lengthy excerpt from the upcoming book Moresukine, by Dirk Schweiger, which collects a blog he did while living in Tokyo and performing "assignments" that readers asked him to do, like sleep in a pod hotel or check out the crazy local fashion. It looks quite good; I'll have to check out the book when it comes out.

Okay, on to the good stuff:

Shonen Jump: Fifth Anniversary Collector's Edition

I spend so much time reading shojo comics, it's always interesting to look at the other side of the pond. Unfortunately, I don't have a lot of experience with the shonen stuff, but luckily, this fancy special version of the popular magazine arrived in the mail, giving me a good opportunity to get acquainted with some popular series. It's a pretty nice-looking package, a $25 hardcover volume (I guess Viz is banking on their audience getting older and having "nostalgia money" to spend) that reprints all the manga that appeared in the first issue of the magazine, along with the first chapter of Naruto (which didn't show up until the second issue), and a best-of selection of the magazine's articles from over the five-year run. There are also some editorials, some puzzles, a gallery of every cover from those five years, and a timeline of the history of manga (with special focus, of course, on Shonen Jump-brand manga) on the back side of the dust jacket. There's some good stuff in the articles, like a neat flowchart looking at the process of creating a manga series, a series of Japanese tongue twisters, and a travelogue-style guide to Bleach's Soul Society. I especially liked a lot of the creator interviews, where I learned things like Hellboy is one of Shaman King creator Hiroyuki Takei's favorite manga, or that Bleach's Tite Kubo is more involved than the average manga artist on the animated adaptation of his series, especially working on character designs. I was especially amused by a series of questions that readers sent in to Akira Toriyama about Dragon Ball, since they were all incomprehensible to me. Here's a typical one:
Q: What happened to Vegeta's tail after he was defeated on Earth? A: The tail lets you gain tremendous strength instantly by transforming into a giant ape, but the risks are equally great--you'll lose your strength if it's squeezed. Once you're as powerful as Vegeta and Goku, the tail just gets in the way. It is thought that the bodies of Saiyans, who are a fighting species, decided that their tails are unnecessary appendages.
Maybe that makes sense if you're a regular reader of the series, but for me, it's a bunch of gobbledygook.

Anyway, as with Shojo Beat, the main thing here is the manga, so let's look at the various series. Interestingly, I've seen episodes of the anime versions of almost all of them, but this is the first time I've ever read any of them in manga form. How about that?

By Kazuki Takahashi

I've seen a few episodes and the movie of Yu-Gi-Oh!, and it's entertaining enough, if a bit simplistic. I do enjoy the dramatic way characters play their cards, saying things like, "You think you have won, but I still have one more card: Shining Valkyrie Armor Beast! Now attack, with Ultimate Sword Energy Blast!" I don't know why, but that always amuses me. But none of that matters here, since I found that the card game didn't show up until around seven volumes into the manga series. In the beginning, the story was about all sorts of games, like dice and puzzles, but once Takahashi introduced the cards, there was no going back.

This first chapter is kind of an awkward start, focusing on short, dorky little Yugi, who gets picked on by other kids because he would rather mess around with puzzles instead of play sports. He has an ancient puzzle that he's been trying to complete, which he manages to do, of course, giving him access to the Shadow Games. This chapter sees him play a dangerous game with a greedy hall monitor that tried to extort protection money from him. It works like this: each person takes turn putting a stack of money on the back of their hand, which is pressed flat on a flat surface. Then they try to stab as many bills as they can with a knife. That's not what I expected for this series, but it's interesting. Yugi's "shadow self" seems really sinister here, and it seems like the story could go in some kind of dark directions, if not for a lot of sappy talk about friendship. Eh, I don't think I have much interest in reading more, but it seems competent enough. I did like one bit of art, in which the bully is magically fooled into thinking he's surrounded by a pile of money:

The leaves there look like the ones in Andy Runton's Owly. Cool.

Dragon Ball Z
By Akira Toriyama

As popular as it is, I think this is the series I know the least about, having not even managed to make it through a whole episode of the anime. I always hear that it's really good though, so I suppose I could try to read it sometime (which is a virtual certainty, since I've got the first VizBig volume in my review pile). It's just so intimidatingly massive though, so I approach it with trepidation. For instance, the storyline which starts here is 28 volumes into the series. Damn. Fortunately, there is a pretty good plot summary and character guide (which takes up two whole pages), so I was able to get caught up fairly well. At this point in the story, the hero Goku had defeated a villain called Freeza and then apparently perished after a planet was destroyed. The rest of the cast ends up hanging out on Earth for about a year and resurrecting various dead characters, before being faced with a huge threat and a cliffhanger ending. Crap, who knows when I'll ever find out the resolution to that one.

It's all ridiculously complicated, but the thing is, it doesn't feel too exclusionary. I feel like I could keep reading from this point and still get an entertaining story and a good understanding of what is going on, which is probably more than I could say for anybody picking up current issues of X-Men or Avengers. Maybe it's my age though; when I was a teenager, I enjoyed throwing myself into series with a long history (like, well, X-Men) and trying to figure them out. But I imagine Toriyama's skill at storytelling is probably the explanation here for the ease of entry. He's very clear in depicting what is going on, and he does a great job of conveying the drama and danger through characters' expressions:

He throws in some good humorous moments too; it's good all around. Yeah, I've definitely got to read more of this, but it could take me years to get through it. We'll see what happens.

Sand Land
By Akira Toriyama

I take back what I said earlier; I had never even heard of this series before, but I definitely feel like I want to follow it further. And it's only one volume long, so I should go for it. The story involves a post-apocalyptic desert inhabited by demons, with our hero being the spiky haired Prince Beelzebub, son of Lucifer. He and his demon buddies hang out hijacking water from human vehicles, but they get recruited by a human sheriff named Rao, who wants them to help him find a lake in the middle of an unexplored, monster-filled area (the payment he offers is a working Playstation 6, including Dragon Quest 13). Adventure ensues! It looks like a fun time, with some excellent art that is full of neat details, cool monsters, and nice character designs. And some brooding:

That scene is really just an excuse for exposition though. Yeah, I've gotta check the rest of this one out.

YuYu Hakusho
By Yoshihiro Togashi

I think this is my least-favorite of the series included here, if only because of the wonky artwork. Togashi's main character Yusuke often sports a strangely-shaped head and lots of weird facial expressions. That's probably due to the style of the time in which it originally came out, in 1990. It seems like an interesting concept though, as the thuggish troublemaker Yusuke dies on the first page, then flashes back to what happened. He was a no-good punk who was always getting in fights and skipping school, but he did one good deed, pushing a kid out of the way of a car, and getting run over in his place. But it turns out it was a pointless death, as Botan, the cute girl guide to the afterlife informs him, since the kid was supposed to survive miraculously. So rather than go to heaven or hell, he has a chance to take a test to come back to life. I don't know if he makes it or not, but I think he turns out to be a ghost detective/psychic karate master or something, judging by the episode or two I've seen of the anime.

Once you get used to the art, it seems like it could be a fairly enjoyable series, but I don't know if I would bother reading more of it. There is one nice moment, in which a rival of Yusuke's flips out at his wake, angry that he'll never get the chance to defeat him in a fight. Then, a teacher badmouths Yusuke, and gets chastised by the guidance counselor for his lack of respect for the dead. But that's not really enough to make me thirst for more.

One Piece
By Eiichiro Oda

Now this is a series I could read more of; I love Oda's goofy comic style and crazy character designs. I probably don't need to explain the concept of the series, since it's a pretty popular one, but suffice to say it's about the adventures of the stretchy-limbed Monkey D. Luffy, who longs to one day be "king of the pirates". This first chapter sees his early days as a young boy who hangs out with a local band of non-threatening, hilariously-designed buccaneers:

I especially like the fat guy, who seems to always be chomping on a giant turkey leg, even when he's shooting a bad guy in the face (really!). This chapter sees some drama of the "stand by your friends" sort, as well as some of the "true courage involves more than getting in meaningless fights". You've also got the scene where Luffy eats a magical fruit that turns his body all rubbery, in an indication of the goofy plots and characters to come. It's all good times, with lots of energetic action and some ridiculously over-the-top expressiveness; I don't know if anybody can draw hugely wide-open mouths like Oda:

So, yeah, I'll have to try to read more of this.

By Masashi Kishimoto

And here's another one that I really don't need to describe to anybody, since I'm probably the last person around to actually read some of it. It's also a lot of fun, with some nice-looking art and a lot of potential for action and drama. I like the over-the-top nature of the story, with a ninja academy, garish outfits, and weird weaponry, not to mention the crazy ninja techniques that get used. The main one focused on here is the doppelganger, in which a "spirit double" is conjured to confuse the enemy. Young Naruto, being a troublemaker, has his own take on the exercise:

Gotta love the projectile nosebleed. We get some good drama here as well, as Naruto discovers his true nature as the host of a dangerous fox spirit, battles the treachery of a rogue instructor, and learns to focus his power and do awesome feats of ninja badassery. It's a good beginning, and surprisingly violent for a kids' series:

That's gotta be the biggest throwing star I've ever seen. I'll definitely have to check out more of this one of these days.

And I think that's everything. At the very least, it's given me a desire to read more shonen manga, so look for more discussion of that sort of thing here. Or maybe just more girly stuff; we'll have to see what happens.

This review was based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher.