Thursday, July 9, 2009

Shonen Jump: Not girly enough

Some linkiness: I (along with the rest of the world) was unaware of Rick Veitch's involvement with the creation of the Marvel Comics character the Sentry, but he has the story in a series of posts on his blog. I pretty much hate the character, but there's a germ of an interesting idea in there, and now I can attribute that to Veitch, and all the lame stuff to Paul Jenkins.

Looks like Powers is getting relaunched again, and it's supposedly going to come out monthly. We'll see how that goes. I still need to read the most recent collection...

The new "issue" of Dark Horse Presents (relocated to DH's site, at least for now) is up, and it's a good one, with a superhero story by Gilbert Hernandez, a "Giant Man" tale by Matt Kindt, and a Buffy story illustrated by Jo Chen. Cool.

I like this illustration of Macchu Picchu by Paul Pope.

And speaking of Pope, he did some really cool illustration work on this (mostly safe for work) photo gallery of girls in various states of undress for Marc Ecko's Complex magazine. Man, that guy can draw.

On the manga weirdness front, Scott Green has posted a couple pages from Hiroaki "Blade of the Immortal" Samura's series Halcyon Lunch. Freaky!

Oh, and I also blathered on about last week's episode of I Survived a Japanese Game Show over at The Factual Opinion.

Okay, on to my bitching:

Shonen Jump
August 2009

Since I had a subscription to Shojo Beat, I'm now receiving issues of Viz's manga magazine from the other side of the gender divide. I deeply mourn the loss of my monthly dose of girliness, so why not take it out on a few series that I have little knowledge about? That's not all that fair, but it's at least an interesting exercise to jump into a long-running series and see how much I can understand and how well information is conveyed to a new reader. As with SB, the series cover a range of quality, from enjoyable and well-done to tiresomely obtuse and hard-to-follow. That's the way it goes, I suppose. As for non-manga content, what there is is pretty negligible, mostly related to anime, video game, and collectible card game tie-ins to the various manga series. There's also reader-submitted fan-art, which is nice to see; even the lesser series can inspire creativity.

Okay, lets's see what sort of sequential storytelling this magazine has to offer:

By Ryu Fujisaki

The title of this series amuses me; it sounds like a duck's noise. I'm not sure what to make of it, but it's got a few somewhat interesting ideas behind it. The first couple of pages feature some psychedelic coloring (of the sort that can be seen on the cover of the first digest volume), but the rest of the story loses that energy, taking place in a vast post-apocalyptic wasteland. Apparently humans have been driven underground by killer robots and taken to living in earthen-domed cities. Our heroes are a traveling father and son; it turns out that the father is Guardian Al, a guy who can combine with their pet, a good robot, and defend humanity against the nasty machines. Of course, a shonen series isn't going to follow somebody who is already an established, respected champion, so you know something is going to have to happen to the father that will make him pass his mantle on to his son, the skunk-headed son. Sure enough, an attack by a giant horde of robots that take the shape of a giant man-like figure ends with a heroic death, and young Shio gets saddled not only with being a guardian, but the responsibility of protecting a (time-displaced?) young girl who seems to be the supernatural power behind the machine attack.

Thats some pretty basic Shonen stuff, and there's definitely some crazy energy here, but the action can get hard to follow at times. Still, there are some interestingly weird touches, like the organic designs of the machines, or the techno-symbiotic way they combine with people:

Or the bizarre appearance of a smiley face on the machine man:

The first chapter of a series isn't usually enough to make a complete decision, so things could easily get tiresome after this, but there's potential here, so it might be something to keep an eye on, if goofy shonen robot-battling is your sort of thing.

By Masashi Kishimoto

Oh lord, this is obviously not the place to jump into this incredibly long-running series (this issue of the magazine contains chapters 434-437); I was not only completely lost, but even though it was all high-stakes fights, most of it came off as boring, and surprisingly slow-paced. Naruto is fighting a guy named Pain, who can apparently possess several bodies at once, with the main one looking like a double of Naruto himself, except with black studs along the sides of his nose and concentric circles in his eyes. He's incredibly powerful, and Naruto is trying to figure out a way to defeat him, along with some frog mentors and a slug (?) that rides his shoulder. While there are occasional blows struck, most of the time seems to be spent discussing strategies, chakras, "jutsus" , and who knows what other gibberish. When the actual action happens, it's pretty cool:

But about halfway through this series of chapters, Naruto gets pinned to the ground with a sword (or whatever the black rod weapon that Pain uses is), and the two opponents spend an interminable amount of time arguing about peace and justice. There's probably some backstory involving rival ninja clans here, so for longtime fans it might be an interesting and enlightening debate, but for me, it's tedious talk when there could be more punching going on. Come on, I expect some awesome ninja skills when reading Naruto; if I wanted confrontations that consist of characters talking angrily at each other, I would still be reading Vampire Knight!

The final chapter ends with Naruto transforming into a giant, multi-tailed fox spirit, which seems cool, although it seems to be exactly what the bad guy wants, so who knows, it could lead to more tediousness. Find out next month!

By Hiroyuki Takei
Original Concept by Stan Lee

Ah, it's the notorious manga "written" by Stan Lee! He's only credited with "original concept" here, so it looks like the heavy lifting has been done by Shaman King creator Hiroyuki Takei, but I do notice that a key character (who doesn't actually appear anywhere outside of the title page this chapter) has been given ol' Stan's likeness, with a bit of beefing up and a ponytail:

That's funny. Anyway, this is only the second chapter, so it's not too hard to jump into the story here. Apparently, the series concerns two robot puppets, Ultimo and Vice, who were created in the 12th century by some sort of old-school mad scientist (the Stan Lee character), supposedly embodying good and evil, respectively, with the intent of having them battle to find out which is stronger. Uh huh. Now, in the present day, a kid named Yamato (who seems to be the reincarnation of a bandit from the past, or something) comes across Ultimo in an antiques shop, and his presence makes the robot boy wake up, declare Yamato to be his master, and get all frantic about finding Vice and stopping him before he obtains a master and becomes powerful. And then, sure enough, Vice shows up and attacks Yamato and his friend, slicing a bus in half with a huge claw and prompting Ultimo to show up and save the day. As with too many of these types of things, there's only a little bit of action, with several pages taken up by the characters posturing at each other. It's still kind of cool, since Ultimo is floating in midair, holding half of a bus in each hand, and Vice has a ridiculous thirty-foot-long giant claw sticking off the end of his arm:

I'm not so sure about the character designs; Takei seems to favor highly-exaggerated features, so the robots have overly skinny limbs and torsos, but wear flamboyantly poofy clothes (and, in the case of Ultimo, a halter top that makes him appear to have breasts) and sport hugely spiky hair. That's not all that uncommon in shonen manga, but it's a bit much for me. Still, I don't mind this one all that much; it's kind of silly so far, and I doubt it will be a highlight of Stan Lee's career, but it's probably going to be fairly enjoyable.

One Piece
By Eiichiro Oda

This is probably another series that's much too far into the story to make sense at this point (rather than a ridiculously high chapter number, this is the 56th and 57th installments of the current storyline, "Alabasta"), but it's still pretty enjoyable, even though we're jumping in right at the climax. Our crew of piratical heroes are apparently mixed up in a revolution in some small country, with most of them in the midst of a city-wide battle. There are some scenes in which a girl who I guess is the princess has climbed to the top of a clock tower and is screaming at everyone to stop fighting. That's probably supposed to be dramatic, but I've got no context. More interesting is the fight going on elsewhere between the rubbery-limbed Monkey D. Luffy and the bad guy, a big dude named Crocodile. There's no boring posing going on here; the fight is all a flurry of crazy action, with the highlight being a bit in which Luffy kicks Crocodile up through a building's roof and high up into the air, then sucks in a bunch of air and shoots himself up into the sky in order to deliver a crazy multi-fisted attack. It's awesome.

Oda's art is pretty amazing too, although I did have a slight bit of trouble following the action at times. But he really sells the hard-hitting nature of the fighting, with everybody's faces and bodies streaked with dirt and smeared with blood (I assume; it's hard to tell in black and white). But at the same time, the crazy exaggeration keeps things appearing cartoony and fun:

And while there's a large amount of destruction, with buildings being toppled left and right, we're assured that it's okay by Luffy's huge grin, signifying that it's all a fun romp through this milieu of scurvy scalawags. Sure, I might not really know what is going on here, but I had a hell of a time reading it. This is much more like it.

Tegami Bachi
By Hiroyuki Asada

And it's back to the realm of incomprehensibility, which is pretty remarkable, since this is only the fourth chapter of this series. From what I can piece together, it takes place in some sort of medieval-ish fantasyland, and Lag, our intrepid boy hero (there's one in every shonen series, of course), wants to be a Letter Bee, one of an elite group of Pony Express-style messengers who are allowed to travel across the uninhabited areas between cities. He's joined by the requisite band of adventurers, with the most interesting one being a weird feral girl named Niche who has prehensile, sword-like hair. But the main focus of this chapter is a different girl named Nelli, who, along with a bunch of other people, is trying to steal Lag's Crossing Pass, which allows passage on a bridge between cities. Got that? Because I don't know if I did. Nelli wants to find a guy named Jiggy Pepper (gotta love the names in this series) who abandoned her and her younger brother, eventually leading to the boy's death of sickness. Boo hoo. We get some chases, some weird shit involving Lag's power, Niche trying to get Lag to admit she's his "dingo" (servant? I dunno), and a big monster attack. I suppose it all makes a sort of sense if you just go with the flow, but this is the kind of manga that makes me say "I'm too old for this shit".

YuYu Hakusho
By Yoshihiro Tagashi

Wow, this series is still going? Do kids even like this sort of thing? It seems so old-fashioned. I can barely follow it, but as with most of the content of this magazine, it's very far into a long series, so it's probably silly of me to expect to do so. As far as I can tell, this one is about demons and fighting tournaments in the afterlife, and the current storyline sees several powerful rivals planning to compete in a massive tournament that will decide who rules the "Pemon Plane". Sounds like a big deal. The chapter here (which takes the One Piece tack, being the 12th part of the current storyline) seems to be a preliminary one, positioning the various competitors as they make alliances and prepare to wage battle, or whatever. I find it kind of boring, with maybe some slightly humorous moments here and there; the main thing that I take away is the surprising crudeness of the artwork. A lot of the characters seem roughly sketched onto the page, without much energy going into the details at all. Why would I want to read something like this on a regular basis? It's boring and ugly. Next!

By Tite Kubo

And here's another one of the better series; after this chapter, I can see why some people like this manga so much. Again, it's quite a ways into a long series (although only chapter 11-13 of the current storyline, "Journey to Hueco Mundo"), but I feel like I'm able to jump in and go with the flow without feeling so confused that I want to throw the magazine on the floor. I don't know what hollows, arrancars, or espadas are, but I get that there's a girl named Orihime who has been kidnapped by bad guys, and they're trying to screw with her psychologically and get her to betray her pals. And meanwhile, said pals are making their way through the bad guys' fortress in an attempt to rescue her. That makes enough sense for me.

The real highlight here is Tite Kubo's dynamic artwork, which is really clear and exciting in the fight scenes. Our hero Ichigo comes across a guy named Dordoni, who initially appears to be a pushover, given his clumsy entrance and goofy matador-like attire. But soon enough, he's kicking Ichigo through walls and doing pretty awesome stuff:

And he even sprouts some crazy spikes from his shoulders and his pants grow nozzles that shoot out huge, prehensile clouds of smoke, or something. I dunno, it's weird and crazy and pretty cool. I'm pretty floored by how well Kubo conveys motion during the action; check out the middle panel of the second image just above; the dense lines on Dordoni's clothes work as shading, but they're also like speed lines, showing that he's flying through the air toward Ichigo. And the same lines work in the next panel to show Ichigo jerking his head upward in anticipation of the next blow. That's some nice work there.

So yeah, I still don't really know what's going on here, but it's still hella fun to read. Why can't all the series in the magazine be like this?

Yu-Gi-Oh! GX
Story and art by Naoyuki Kageyama, in collaboration with Brain Navi
Original concept/supervised by Kazuki Takahashi

It seems like I should be lost on this series as well, since it's a spin-off or follow-up to the long-running card-battle series that seemed hugely popular a few years ago, but not so much, really. I only have a vague notion of how the game the series is built around actually works, but the few episodes I've seen of the anime show (along with most of the movie, which came out when I used to work at a movie theater, so I watched bits of it here and there) were enjoyable enough; it always cracks me up when they shout "I summon Mega Fire Dragon! Now attack, with Ultimate Blast!" or something like that. It's so dramatic.

Anyway, this version of the series follows some students at a Duel Academy that apparently teaches only how to play silly card games, since that's what's important in life. There's some intrigue about Jaden, the main character, angling for a higher rank and competing against the school champions or something, and a subplot about a malevolent demonic presence, but that's all fluff; the real fun is just watching them play the game. It's pretty much exactly like the anime, with cards being drawn and weird creatures attacking each other, and characters revealing some amazing hidden strategy to everyone's shock and amazement. I dunno, that's pretty stupid when described (or watched, or read, etc...), but I find it kind of enjoyable, in a cheesy way. Characters shouting "I'm not going to hold back! I'm going all out!" and that sort of thing. It might not be great, transcendent shonen manga, but it's fun for what it is. I can't really fault it too much. Yes, I'm sure those words will attract many readers. Enjoy, weirdoes!

Aw, that was much too positive of a way to end this. I was hoping to shout and swear and cry, showing my anguish at the loss of my beloved girls' comics. Overall, I would give the series in the magazine a thumbs-up for maybe three, or three and a half of the seven series (with Ultimo, Yu-Gi-Oh, and maybe Naruto getting a half a thumb, even if that doesn't make sense. Oh, and another half a thumb for the Waqwaq preview, why not?). That's probably around the level of Shojo Beat, but I was more invested in those series. We'll see how it goes, I guess, but probably not for too long; I don't think all that much more is left on my subscription.