What I’ve Been Reading: X-Men Hardcovers, part two

November 29, 2009

When “Avengers/X-Men: Utopia” was announced, one of its selling points was that it was the first direct crossover between the two teams since “Bloodlines” over fifteen years ago. Technically that’s not true since this crossover involves the X-Men fighting Norman Osborne’s “Dark Avengers” team, which is made up of villains working for him. Early word of mouth indicated that this crossover wouldn’t have to work too hard to be considered the better of the two since “Bloodlines” was reputedly pretty dire. Mainstream comic book writing has come a LONG way in those fifteen years, though, and while I haven’t read “Bloodlines,” I can say that “Utopia” is well worth reading for X-Men fans.

Things start off with tensions between San Francisco’s human and mutant populations boiling over into mob violence on the streets. After the X-Men’s initial efforts to quell the uprising only succeed in making matters worse, Norman Osborne comes to town with his Avengers team in tow to restore law and order. But Osborne has bigger plans in mind than just restoring order, as he wants to use this opportunity to set up his own team of “Dark X-Men” with Emma Frost as its leader. As this also involves arresting Cyclops and effectively taking control of all mutant affairs, the X-Men aren’t going to take this lying down.

It’s that struggle to outwit and out-fight both of Osborne’s teams that forms the driving force of “Utopia’s” narrative, and in contrast to “Messiah War” the story isn’t focused on having superheroes fight each other. We get a lot of scenes showing how both sides are reacting to each others’ moves and planning on how to counter them. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything to say that the X-Men triumph in the end, but it’s immensely satisfying to see Cyclops’ plan play out perfectly by the time he addresses the nation on the mutants’ new status quo.

That’s also another thing that separates this from “Messiah War:” the story effects lasting change. While that story was essentially a big blast of sound and fury that signified nothing, “Utopia” actually sets up an interesting new status quo for mutants in the Marvel Universe. Whether or not it’ll actually play out into interesting stories is yet to be seen, as the team’s much-vaunted move to San Francisco really didn’t add up to much in the end. Still, this change has much more potential since it is physically and geographically much more interesting than having the team move to another city.

Another thing separating “Utopia” from “Messiah War” is that nearly all of the story is written by one man, regular “Uncanny” writer Matt Fraction. While I liked the fact that you couldn’t tell the difference between the writers in “Messaih War,” Fraction’s accomplishment here is greater not just for the above-mentioned reasons, but because he’s also dealing with a cast of over twenty characters in the crossover. With a cast that large you’d expect there to be a certain amount of chaos in the proceedings, but Fraction keeps things focused on the Cyclops/Emma/Osborne dynamic and manages to give the rest of the cast their own moments to shine as well. That being said, the only thing Fraction hasn’t managed to accomplish here is write a story that’s accessible to someone who isn’t already well versed in current X-Men/Avengers/Marvel Universe continuity. While the well-worn idea of the X-men being a metaphor for the struggles of minorities is on full-display here, this isn’t the story you’re going to want to use to get someone interested in the X-Men or comics in general.

While the main “Utopia” story is a clear success, the same can’t really be said of the other half of the collection which brings together all of the tie-in issues and stories for the crossover. “Dark X-Men: The Confession” written by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost technically falls into this area because it’s not part of the crossover proper, but actually an epilogue detailing the emotional fallout between Cyclops and Emma from all the secrets they’ve been hiding from each other up until now. It’s a nice, measured bit of character drama that works well because instead of resorting to the histrionics that you’d expect from this time of story, the couple involved just takes the time to talk things out and come to an understanding based on everything that’s happened. Good stuff overall.

Everything else, however, isn’t nearly as relevant. To be honest, just about everything else here feels like filler in order to justify the $40 cover price of the collection. The two issues of “X-Men: Legacy” by Mike Carey are standard crossover material, with Rogue, Gambit, and a reformed Danger showing up in San Francisco to help out where they can. It’s not bad, but it doesn’t really add anything to the crossover, which is a shame since I’d have loved to know how Professor X winds up in a cell at the superhuman prison in Alcatraz after his meeting with Osborne at the very end of the latest volume of “Legacy.”

What these two issues have over the rest of the stories in the book is the room to tell an actual story, since the rest of the collection is filled out by short stories revolving primarily around the other mutants/superheroes picked to be in Osborne’s “Dark X-Men” team. It’s not that they’re bad, but the problem here is the same as they’re not telling stories that are in any way essential to the crossover. Personally I liked Jason Aaron’s short “Get Mystique [Slight Return]” mainly because it ties into his excellent “Wolverine” story involving Mystique, and his knack for character detail makes her meeting with Osborne in a bar in the middle of nowhere suitably tense. Also of note is the last story in the book, “The One Who Got Away” by Simon Spurrier, which is interesting because it tells of Osborne’s only failure in recruiting: getting the Canadian mutant Aurora to join his team.

Overall, I did enjoy “Utopia” mainly on the strength of its main story, and the “not badness” of the filler didn’t do much to drag it down. While I’d like to recommend this to X-Men and [Dark] Avengers fans, I realize that the $40 price point for the collection is probably a little more than most fans are willing to spend for something like this these days, and I have to admit that the book isn’t THAT good. However, if you do what I did and order it from Amazon.com, you’ll only be out $26, which is a much more reasonable price for everything. It’s also possible that Marvel could release the core “Utopia” storyline in its own book (as they’re doing with the “X-Men: Legacy” issues and “Dark X-Men” short stories collected here), but I have this nagging feeling that’s not going to happen. So if you can find the price point that’s right for you, you’ve got a good story in “Utopia” that sets up a potentially interesting new direction for the X-Men franchise.

What I’ve Been Reading: X-Men Hardcovers, part one

November 27, 2009

The podcast is done, but we’re having some technical issues getting it up. It should be up sometime this weekend, though. In the meantime, I hope everyone is having a happy Thanksgiving and in lieu of not having a podcast up right now I figured I’d talk about the two large “X-Men” hardcover collections that arrived in the mail yesterday. Ideally “X-Force/Cable: Messiah War” and “[Dark] Avengers/X-Men: Utopia” are meant to be meaningful chapters in the ongoing saga of the franchise, but only one manages to have any real ramifications. Both of them also collect a number of tie-in issues in order to pad out the collected editions’ page count beyond their core stories. While it’s certainly… “thoughtful” of Marvel to throw in everything that was related to these storylines, they’re not really necessary to enjoying or understanding the storylines they’re tied into.

That being said, that “extra content” was my main reason for finally picking up “Messiah War” since it also functions as the next volume of “Cable.” (Issues #11-12, and “The Time and Life of Lucas Bishop,” featured here will also be available as “Cable vol. 3” in the near future.) Originally hyped as the follow-up to the excellent “Messiah Complex,” I wasn’t initially convinced to pick it up since I’d heard that while the storyline started out strong, it eventually degenerated into meaningless fighting. Having read the whole thing through, I can say that yes, that’s exactly what happens.

The thrust of the story is that after months have gone by in the real world without any word from Cable, Cyclops is getting worried that something has gone wrong with his son’s mission. After Beast tracks Cable and Hope to a point about a thousand years from now in the timestream, Cyclops makes the call to send in X-Force (the “take no prisoners” black ops team of mutants led by Wolverine, natch) to find out what happened. While that’s going on, Bishop is making plans of his own that include teaming up with Cable’s evil clone Stryfe to track down the time-traveling-duo so he can kill Hope and prevent his future from ever coming to be.

Long story short: they meet, they fight, Stryfe kidnaps Hope, they fight some more, Bishop fails to kill Hope, X-Force gets sent back to the present, Apocalypse shows up and kidnaps Stryfe, and Cable and Hope slide further forward in time. The End. Oh, and Deadpool shows up. He’s a thousand years older and nuttier, and the most entertaining parts of the book usually wind up involving him (such as how he developed a split personality to play tic-tac-toe while he was imprisoned, and how his other personality kept beating him). I wish there was more to say about the storyline than this, but there isn’t. Though the setup is potentially interesting with Stryfe being set up as a patsy for Bishop and the conflict between Cable and X-Force, who broach the idea that if this is the future that he took Hope to, then he might’ve made the wrong choice. Writers Duane Swierczynski (who handles the “Cable” issues) and Craig Kyle and Christoper Yost (who handle “X-Force”) do work well together in the crossover as there’s no clash in styles as they write characters from each others’ books. Things start off with lots of potential with the conflict between the protagonists, Deadpool’s always entertaining insanity, and the morbid “Why would you even bring them back?” appeal of the writers using Stryfe and Apocalypse here (for me, anyway – your mileage may vary); however…

All of it is eventually smothered underneath the nonstop fighting that ensues for most of the storyline. Some of it is clever, but the majority is just of the “superheroes hitting each other” variety. While the art of Ariel Olivetti and Clayton Crain is generally all right to look at, Olivetti’s style isn’t really that good at conveying motion. Crain’s art, on the other hand, is frustrating because it shifts from appealing photorealism in one panel, to rushed splotchiness in the next (it’s also way too dark for its own good in most places). Mike Choi’s work in the opening chapter is easily the nicest to look at, and even if he wasn’t able to do the whole thing, I wish he’d at least been able to take over for Crain’s chapters (since they alternate as the regular artists on “X-Force”).

Things might’ve been salvaged if the story had done anything to advance the story started in “Messiah Complex,” but it doesn’t. We don’t learn anything new about Hope; such as, what her powers are, what did she do that killed a million humans in Bishop’s timeline, and whether or not she’s really Jean Grey reborn. Even more disappointing is that there’s no accord reached or final reckoning between Cable and X-Force. Traditionally this kind of story would’ve ended with the team realizing that Cable’s way was right and grudgingly giving him their approval. That doesn’t happen, and neither does the team make any attempt to take Cable and Hope back to the present day. I realize that I’m getting into spoiler territory here, but the end result is such a cop-out that there’s actually not much to spoil.

So while the main story is a swing-and-a-miss, what about the extra stuff that’s going to make up “Cable vol. 3?” To be fair, the two issues of the series that lead off the collection are probably the most satisfying thing about the book. This time, Cable and Hope’s time traveling has led them to a future that turns out to be a fairly desolate wasteland with little food or water to be had. It’s a fairly standard man (and his adopted daughter) vs. nature tale that’s enlivened by Swierczyinski showing us how Cable and Hope have really bonded to the point that they’re virtually “father and daughter,” and showing how Hope uses her wits to save Cable in the story’s second half. It also has some nice art from artist Jamie McKelvie who, despite being a jarring shift from regular artist Olivettie (whose art bookends the two issues), has a real skill with body language that sells a lot of the interaction between the two protagonists.

While this was nice, the other storyline that’s featured here, “The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop” is beyond redundant for anyone who is A) familiar with the character and B) has read “Messiah Complex.” (And really, if you haven’t read “Messiah Complex,” why would you have any interest in reading this book?) As I fall into both groups, I can say that while Swierczynski’s retelling is competent, it really has nothing else to offer the reader. Granted, there is a lot of detail in here that I wasn’t aware of, such as what Bishop’s family was like and his time as a thief, these details don’t enhance my appreciation of the character or his current story. Perhaps the best thing I can say about it is that while the story features art from Larry Stroman (last seen trying, and failing miserable to re-capture the magic of his and Peter David’s 90’s run on “X-Factor” in the current series), he’s on much better form here than he has been in the past though his style is still very much an acquired taste.

So while it wasn’t aggressively bad, “Messiah War” is a thoroughly disappointing entry in the X-Men’s ongoing story post-“Messiah Complex.” You might enjoy this more if you’re a hardcore fan of the characters or creators involved in the storyline, but if you’re buying this expecting answers or story progression you’re better off spending that money elsewhere. Preferably on what I’ll be talking about tomorrow: “Avengers/X-Men: Utopia,” a story that does offer up some surprising changes and resolutions, and a whole lot of filler.

What I’ve Been Reading 11/18/09

November 19, 2009

Yeah. I’ve got nothing this week. For this space, anyway. On with the reviews!

The Goon vols. 8-9: Entitled “Those That is Damned” and “Calamity of Conscience,” respectively. These two volumes bring an end to the “Goon Year” of storytelling where writer/artist Eric Powell delivered twelve issues of the series on a monthly schedule. He’s still working on the series, but at a more “relaxed” pace right now. While they continue the decidedly more serious storytelling trend started in “A Place of Heartache and Grief,” there’s still plenty of Powell’s wacked-out humor to keep things from getting too melodramatic or sentimental. Is there a catch? While the story wraps up satisfyingly enough, I was expecting more closure than what I got. For a storyline that was set up to be the mother of all “Goon” stories, to have it come off like the first part of a planned trilogy felt somewhat unsatisfying. Still, it gives Powell room to try and top himself whenever he gets around to following this up.

Ghost Rider: “The Last Stand” and “Trials and Tribulations” – I’d been waiting for the next collections of writer Jason Aaron’s run on “Ghost Rider” for a while now, and while I wasn’t disappointed, they didn’t set my world (or even my skull) on fire. These two volumes continue Johnny Blaze’s struggle against the rogue angel Zadkiel who bound Blaze’s soul to the Spirit of Vengeance and turned him into the title character, and is now set on taking over Heaven. Tossed into the mix here is the revelation that there are many “Spirits of Vengeance” spread out over the world, bringing justice to their particular region, and Blaze’s brother Danny Ketch, who’s “extinguishing” the spirits on Zadkiel’s order. Despite its outlandish nature, the story is too predictable to be compelling in and of itself, but it’s the details that Aaron brings to his stories that make the books worth reading. From a warrior nun turned “Ghost Rider” wrangler, to a big-rig driver who sold his soul to the devil, an anime/manga inspired flesh-shaper, and the Punisher’s reaction to the fall of Heaven, there’s plenty of little things to hold your interest as the plot works towards its inevitable conclusion. Points off for the forgettable filler “annual” in “Trials and Tribulations,” though.

The Umbrella Academy vol. 2: Dallas – Writer/creator Gerard Way and artist Gabriel Ba’s follow-up to their ridiculously inventive first series is a worthy successor. No, it’s not as good as the first one, but that’s mainly due to pacing issues than the fact that the premise has worn out its welcome or that the creators have lost the thread. Anyway, “Dallas” picks up not too long after the events of the first series and finds the cast either succumbing to depression, enjoying their newfound fame, making the most of what was dealt to them, carrying on as usual, or in the case of Number Five, being hunted by an agency dedicated to resolving temporal anomalies -- an agency he used to work for. Now they want him back to fulfill the job he wrecked for them: The assassination of JFK. It’s never less than entertaining to see what crazy ideas Way has come up with and how Ba has decided to render them, but the feeling that things are being padded out starts to set in once the cast makes the leap in time back to the 60’s. They could’ve shaved an entire issue off the six that are collected here and not lost anything essential to the plot, but everything on display here still has me looking forward to the next volume in the series.

Captain Britain and MI-13 vol. 3: Vampire State -- If the idea of Count Dracula waging war on Britain from his secret base on the moon with his vampire army sounds appealing to you, then buy this volume now! It’s a credit to the skills of writer Paul Cornell that he takes a setup that sounds ridiculous even by the standards of the Marvel Universe and manages to not only wring out an effective superhero story from it, but one that can be taken seriously as well. Yes, there are funny bits sprinkled throughout the story (such as the rooting out of MI-13’s vampire infestation), but the overall story is so tightly plotted and well-thought-out that once Dracula begins his trans-lunar assault, you’ll feel that it’s a credible threat. While I wouldn’t quite recommend this to people who don’t read superhero comics, those who do (and especially those with a fondness for Marvel’s British characters, Captain Britain, Black Knight, Spitfire, Pete Wisdom, and Blade [yes, he’s British too]) will find a lot to like here, and it’s a shame we won’t be getting more of this anytime soon.

Battle Angel Alita: Last Order vol. 12 Angel Redux – Alita is back in action in this volume and she wastes no time in letting Aga Mbadi and Desty (Super)Nova know that they’ll be fighting on her terms from now on. While it’s great seeing Alita back in the real world after the events of vol. 10, the majority of this volume is given over to Toji and Zekka’s rebuilding of their “Space Karate” team for their fight against Alita’s “Space Angels.” While I would’ve liked to see more of Alita than that, it’s still a fairly satisfying chunk of action and character-building setup. However, the best moment in the volume comes in a quiet exchange between Mbadi and Nova, as the former agrees to give the latter one of his servants that Alita utterly defeated to remake for his own purposes. Now the last time Nova rebuilt one of Alita’s foes for his experiments, we wound up with “Tears of an Angel,” the best volume in the previous series. The potential here is exciting, and I’m REALLY looking forward to seeing where mangaka Yukito Kishiro goes with this.

Daredevil: Return of the King – Bringing an end to writer Ed Brubaker’s tenure with the character, a time that was mostly spent extricating the title character from the status quo that previous writer Brian Michael Bendis left him with. Granted, Brubaker’s run has been pretty entertaining, but he never really got the title out of the shadow of Bendis’ epic run. To be fair, this volume does pretty definitively extricate Matt Murdock from pretty much all of those loose ends by setting him up with a drastically new status quo… that will subsequently be explored by new writer Andy Diggle. While this means that Brubaker’s run will probably best be remembered as a “transitional” one, this volume at least sends him out on a high note by bringing The Kingpin, Wilson Fisk, back into Daredevil’s life. After having his attempt at a normal life ruined by Lady Bullseye, Fisk returns to New York and proposes an alliance with Daredevil in order to bring her down. While it should be obvious that there’s more to Fisk’s plan than this, the way things play out wind up giving Murdock a victory of sorts over the people who have sought to control his fate, even if it means placing himself in dire personal straits. Good stuff, but here’s hoping incoming writer Diggle doesn’t let his run wind up in the shadows of his predecessors.

Scalped vol. 5: High Lonesome – By all rights this series should be too depressing to read. The series’ ostensible hero, Dash Bad Horse, has let his life descend into a drug-fueled stupor and then lets himself get roped into a con man’s scheme to rob Chief Red Crow’s casino. However, the worse things get for the cast of this series the more entertaining it becomes. The other stories in this volume are similarly happy tales as they depict crucial and compelling backstory from the supporting cast. We get to see how wannabe Indian FBI agent (and current prison inmate) Diesel became the man he is today, what really went on when the two FBI agents were killed on the reservation back in Red Crow, Gina Bad Horse, and Catcher’s younger days, and most satisfyingly the personal history of Nitz, the FBI agent dedicated to bringing Red Crow down. Up until now Nitz has come off like your average evil white guy in a position of authority; but, with this story we finally get to understand what made him that way and why he’s so bent on getting revenge for his FBI friends that were killed. It doesn’t make him likeable by any means, but he’s a far more interesting character to read about now especially since his actions aren’t entirely unjustified. Another superb volume from writer Jason Aaron, and artist R.M. Guera (and co.), and I can’t wait to see how much worse things get for everyone in the next volume.

Comic Picks #42: Garth Ennis’ War Stories

November 13, 2009

Almost in time for Veterans' Day -- my thoughts on the genre that Ennis keeps coming back to time and time again.

(Sorry about the delay.  My computer has been giving me crap all week and I've finally bludgeoned it to the point where it'll go on the internet, but keeps throwing system errors at me.)

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What I’ve Been Reading 11/4/09

November 5, 2009

Okay, so I meant to get this retraction up earlier, but other commitments *cough*BORDERLANDS*cough*RE-READING 18 VOLUMES OF “MONSTER”*cough*GENERAL LAZINESS*cough* conspired against me.

Anyway, that bit I wrote two weeks ago about Miracleman being Norman Osborne’s “secret muscle” – completely wrong. As it turns out, the “MM” that Rich Johnston was referring to was “Secret Wars” veteran “Molecule Man.” While I understand he has a place in the hearts of many fans of 80’s Marvel comics, he’s also gifted/burdened with a power that makes him almost impossible to write in a shared superhero universe. That power being the ability to rearrange molecules into any form he wants. It’ll be interesting to see how writer Brian Michael Bendis has wrangled this character and his powers into a believable plot element for the upcoming “Siege” event, but that’s why I like waiting for the trade – you get to hear how these things work out before putting your money down. That said, the fact that Osborne’s secret muscle isn’t Miracleman has diminished my interest in this storyline considerably. More shenanigans with Osborne and his “Dark Reigin” after the break.

New Avengers vol. 10: Power – I’m back on the wagon after taking two volumes off while the series filled in “Secret Invasion” backstory. As this volume is pretty much the starting point for the “Dark Reign” storyline, I was expecting to see more action than I did. While the opening chapter, “Secret Invasion: Dark Reign” has lots of engaging chatter and setup for future events courtesy of Bendis and artist Alex Maleev, the actual “New Avengers” issues are pretty “meh” in comparison. In the three issues collected, we see the team re-formed, Luke Cage get his daughter back, and the team throws down with The Hood’s gang of supervillains, but remarkably little is actually achieved. There are some good moments as the team gets formally introduced to the new Captain America, and reacts to Osborne’s “Dark Avengers” (while finding out that Wolverine has a son in the process), but remarkably little progress is made in telling any kind of story. Which is too bad because…

Invincible Iron Man vol. 2: World’s Most Wanted book 1 -- …this is an excellent showcase for what mileage can be gotten out of the “Dark Reign” setup. With Stark Industries on the brink of collapse, and S.H.I.E.L.D. being re-formed as H.A.M.M.E.R. under Osborne’s watch, Tony Stark has reached his lowest point in a long while. Making matters worse, his plan to keep the Initiative database (which contains the identities of every costumed superhero in the U.S.) out of Osborne’s hands has made him... well, look at the title of this volume. While Tony’s plan to keep the database safe by storing it in his mind and slowly wiping it all away (with a subsequent loss of intellect) requires a certain suspension of disbelief to accept, the rest of the story is grade-A superhero action courtesy of writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca. The ensuing battle of wits between Osborne and Stark’s camps is truly entertaining to watch, and all the action sequences are never less than “thrilling.” Overall, this isn’t just something that I’d recommend to fans of the character or superhero comics – but if you liked last year’s movie and don’t read comics, then I’d recommend this to you too. Speaking of series that have hit their stride…

Claymore vol. 15: At this point, there’s very little chance that Norihiro Yagi’s saga of demonic creatures and the girls with big-ass swords that kill them will ever escape being “Berserk Lite” in my mind. However, it still works pretty well as violent fantasy manga “comfort food” and this volume was a particularly tasty meal. After swiftly resolving the cliffhanger from the last volume Claire and company (I’d give more names, but Yagi’s biggest weakness as an artist has been the way most of his characters tend to look alike) sit back and have the next phase of the plot explained to them. As expository speeches go, this one wasn’t bad, and while one of the revelations came as no surprise (the Organization really are the bad guys) the subsequent twist on that was actually quite ingenious (it turns out that the world of “Claymore” is much bigger than we’ve been led to believe). In addition to this, we finally get to find out what Raki has been up to since the “Battle of the North” and if he and Claire ever meet up again, his new travelling partner will make their reunion a violent one at the least. Toss in the surprise return of a long-forgotten character at the end, and you have a series that has me anticipating the release of the next volume… NEXT JUNE! Come on Viz! You haven’t caught up to the Japanese release yet, so there’s no reason for us to wait THAT long for the next volume. *takes deep breath* Well, at least we won’t have to wait too long for other series…

20th Century Boys vol. 5: Of the two mangas by Naoki Urasawa being released by Viz, the other being his Astro Boy remake “Pluto,” this is easily the better of the two. The first half of this volume focuses on Kenji’s efforts to gather his friends together and plan to take down the mysterious “Friend,” and it’s well-done if a bit predictable (though seeing the modern-day versions of Yanbo and Mabo was quite a surprise). Things really get interesting when the series jumps ahead 15 years to 2014 to focus on Kenji’s niece Kanna, who has grown up to be the type of frighteningly competent heroine that Urasawa loves to write (see also: Nina in “Monster”). Seeing her stop a gunfight by dressing down the attackers’ poor tactics is great and there’s no easier way to win me over to a story than to show me a protagonist who has their act completely together. While I was less convinced about the leap forward in time as a storytelling device, the fact that I’m actively speculating about what happened to Kenji’s group in 1999 makes me think that it was a good choice in retrospect. And while I can’t wait to see more of Kanna in action in the next volume, other series aren’t as fortunate to have protagonists as capable as her…

Slam Dunk vol. 6: The match between Shohoku and Ryonan finally wraps up, and even though it’s not a televised game, the down-to-the wire action was still pretty exciting on the page. While Hanamichi is still too much of an idiot for my tastes, the fact that he’s improving as a player makes him a little more palatable. Mangaka Takehiko Inoue also makes things more interesting by introducing a new character that might be even more of a violent troublemaker than Hanamichi is. Not a great “Shonen Jump” title, but it’s getting better. Slowly. Still, when it comes to Takehiko Inoue and basketball, his other title is the one I’d recommend to anyone…

Real vol. 6: Ostensibly this is about wheelchair basketball, but it’s really about three teenagers with varying degrees of mental and physical handicaps. You’ve got Nomiya, who is so much of a hothead that he got kicked off of his school basketball team and subsequently quit school, Togawa, a rising star in the field of wheelchair basketball, and Takahashi, Nomiya’s former teammate who was recently paralyzed from the waist down in an accident. It’s Takahashi’s story that’s the most compelling of the three and the one that has (rightfully) been the focus of the last two volumes. While the easy way to handle his story would be to portray Takahashi as a determined hero with an indomitable spirit (right out of a “Shonen Jump” manga) who will regain the ability to walk through sheer will, Inoue takes a much trickier route with him. While he has shown some resilience in the face of his tragedy, the realization that his life will never be the same has pretty much crushed his spirit and caused him to give up on his rehabilitation. The return of his father, who ran out on him and his mother years ago, hasn’t helped as he’s now a beaten-down potter as opposed to the heroic businessman Takahshi remembers him as. Though Takahashi’s struggle has been fascinating to watch, the series was set up as a three-character drama, and while Nomiya gets one good scene in this volume, Togawa and the rest of the wheelchair basketball team’s story feels like it’s going nowhere fast. While it would be nice to see Nomiya and Togawa’s stories get the same treatment that Takashi’s gets, this series is still plenty engaging as it is.