7 Billion Needles vol. 1

September 30, 2010

If you’re familiar with mangaka Hitoshi Iwaaki’s great, overlooked series “Parasyte,” then the premise behind this series may ring a few bells.  Hikaru is a highschool girl who broadcasts her social aloofness to the world by wearing headphones everywhere she goes.  She’d be perfectly happy without getting to know the rest of her classmates until she winds up having her body infiltrated by an alien entity.  This entity is fairly benign, and quite polite (he rebuilt her body after his entry into Earth vaporized it), but he has come here on a mission.  Another entity known only as “Maelstrom” has also arrived on Earth and it has the potential to wipe out all life on the planet, one person at a time (so far...).  Now in order to catch an intergalactic serial killer Hikaru has to face the one thing more frightening than that:  interacting with the people in the world around her.

This first volume of “7 Billion Needles” doesn’t have the intelligence of “Parasyte,” and it also has a few silly plot elements and inconsistencies.  For instance, the entity in Hikaru attributes the extinction of dinosaurs to Maelstrom.  That’s just ridiculous!  World-ending stakes like this feel out of place in a series with an intentionally small scope as this.  I can understand the need to establish Maelstrom as a threat, but this goes way over the mark.  However, mangaka Nobuaki Tadano’s art is much more appealing than Iwaaki’s, and I like that the biggest obstacle that Hikaru and the entity face in their quest to stop Maelstrom is her shy and inward nature.  It might be a mechanical setup to have the plot force her to grow as a character like this, but Tadano makes it work by taking it slow and having her interactions with people feel believable.  It’s character-driven sci-fi on a small scale, but if you like the sound of that then check this series out.

Berserk vol. 34

September 29, 2010

... and now we wait.

Longtime readers and listeners will know that I think mangaka Kentaro Miura’s “Berserk” is pretty damn incredible.  You’re also probably aware that I’ve expressed some concern with how the series will read now that Dark Horse is no longer releasing volumes bi-monthly now that they’ve caught up to the series in Japan.  That’s because for all of the action, character, drama, and gloriously over-the-top fantasy violence that is the series’ stock-in-trade, after 33 volumes it’s hard not to feel its pace start to drag or feel that the story is starting to get out of Miura’s control.

I was feeling these things as I read through the first two-thirds of this volume despite its many impressive artistic achievements.  The opening scenes detailing the scale of the Kushan Emperor’s transformation are simply breathtaking in their scope and menace.  As much as this series deals in epic world and reality-destroying threats, this comes off as something truly important and frightening.  Then the battle begins as Griffith’s “Band of the Hawk” assume their demonic forms and jump into the fray against the demonic spawn of the Emperor.  Their initial scenes of transformation and attack are rendered without dialogue or sound effects which draws the reader’s eye to the impressively monstrous character designs and the brutal carnage that their assault begins.

These scenes are truly a feast for the eyes, but after about a hundred pages you start to wonder where Miura is going with this.  There are times when I’ve felt that the series becomes a bit too “Shonen Jump” in its pacing, where chapters go by without any real story advancement.  Then things pick up as the humans enter the fray after a rousing mental speech from Sonia, the young medium working for Griffith, and we get to see some more great battle scenes as humans and demons team up to fight an even bigger threat.

Now I can’t recall if I’ve mentioned this here before, but scenes like those make me think that the ultimate result of Guts’ quest for vengeance against Griffith will be the culmination of the greatest joke “evil” ever played on “good.”  You see, Griffith and his band haven’t actually done anything to make us think that their intentions are less than pure.  Yes, there was that time one of his acolytes laid waste to the home of the witch that was helping them, but other than that they’ve done nothing but rally the people of Midland and give them hope.  By not trying to make the world a living hell, they’ve set things up so that if Guts does kill Griffith, the latter can actually claim that sacrificing their comrades was for the greater good.

The scales might be tipping in the other direction, if the end of this volume is any indication.  In the final three chapters we’re treated to what could be a real game-changing moment in this series.  I’m not going to go into great detail here (you should just read this for yourself), but it involves fantasy invading reality and some of the foreshadowing from the “Troll Arc” coming to fruition.  These scenes are truly a sight to behold as creatures of myth come alive and the accompanying narration makes it clear that the world is not the same anymore.

Is this Miura stepping up his game as “Berserk” enters its home stretch or a trick to keep the faithful interested for a few more volumes?  I want to believe that it’s the latter, but the series celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and I’d certainly like to hope that it’ll have wrapped up before it reaches its 30th.  If I seem anxious about wanting the series to end, that’s because it’s frankly quite remarkable that the series has been this good for so long and I’d like to see it go out on a high note.  As opposed to seeing it go into decline before rallying to a finish after decreasing sales and popularity necessitate its cancellation.

If every volume were as good as this one, that wouldn’t be an issue.  Yet vol. 34 is great even by the series’ lofty standards and it also brings with it some new challenges.  I’m all ready to put “Berserk” on my list of the year’s best comics, but if Miura doesn’t properly follow through on the “game changing” elements here then you can expect a very angry podcast about it sometime next year.  One thing’s for sure:  vol. 35 just came out in Japan and I REALLY want to read it in English now.

(A final observation:  “Berserk” vol. 34 also continues the trend of manga series where the main character[s] make only a token appearance in the latest volume.  “Battle Angel Alita:  Last Order” and “Ghost Talker’s Daydream” also did this and it makes me wonder if I’ll see any other series do this before the end of the year.)

Green Lantern: No Fear

September 28, 2010

“Rebirth” also had another goal besides re-establishing Hal Jordan in the DCU:  To see if enough people would buy a series with him in it to make re-launching “Green Lantern” feasible.  Now I’m fairly certain they were going to do it regardless of how the series sold... but imagine for a moment if it had tanked.  DC would’ve been scrambling to find a way to re-establish Kyle Rayner as the one, true Green Lantern and I wonder how writer Geoff Johns would’ve reconciled that with his mancrush on Jordan.  Thinking about it some more, we probably would’ve got something like the trainwreck that the “Flash” comics became after Wally West was replaced by Bart Allen and the guys who wrote the “Flash” TV series proved that they had no idea how to write good comics.  Then Johns and artist Ethan Van Sciver were brought on to do a “Flash:  Rebirth” series to re-establish original “Flash” Barry Allen and get the comics back on track.  Funny how that works.

But the series sold gangbusters and the subsequent ongoing series sold pretty well out of the gate and then went into the same decline that all ongoing series enter these days.  Then Johns took things to the next level with “The Sinestro Corps War,” the “Rainbow Lantern” corps, “Blackest Night,” and now the “Brightest Day” initiative.  Regardless of what you think of the comics, it’s hard not to be impressed by how Johns has revitalized the franchise and spread the wealth through the DCU thanks to the various event-related tie-ins these things have spawned.  Along with the upcoming movie, of course.

All this makes the first collection of the ongoing series, “No Fear,” seem kind of quaint in comparison.  While Johns lays the groundwork for future storylines with a stellar team of artists (including the aforementioned Van Sciver, Carlos Pacheco, Simone Bianchi and Darwyn Cook are also featured in this volume) the stories here are well-executed generic superhero fare.  We get to see Jordan tangle with old and new versions of the android Manhunters in the first arc and Hector Hammond and the Shark in the second.  Johns is clearly having a ball writing these characters, but enthusiasm and great art only carry you so far.  Though there are some truly impressive action scenes, such as the one where a powerless Jordan leaps out of his crashing plane to take on an attacking Manhunter, the stories come across as mere excuses for the characters to fight each other.
This volume is definitely not on the same level as “Rebirth,” but it’ll fit the bill if you’re looking for some well-executed superhero action.  Still, knowing how good the later volumes are, I was expecting more than what I got with this one.

Green Lantern: Rebirth

September 27, 2010

I know that this book is over six years old, but it's something I picked up at Comic-Con.  Re-reading it now, I say my favorable first impression of it holds up very well.

Now I'm sure that the behind-the-scenes editorial wrangling that led to Hal Jordan falling from grace as Green Lantern, becoming the villain Parallax, dying and becoming a host for the Spectre, before being coming back to life to pick up where he left off would make for a good book.  I’d certainly like to know how DC tried to appease Jordan’s fans while making his replacement, Kyle Rayner, into a viable hero before they gave writer Geoff Johns the go-ahead to bring him back.  That said, Johns didn’t have an easy task reconciling everything that had happened to Jordan after he became a villain into a coherent storyline, but I’ll be damned if he doesn’t make it look easy here.

On one hand, this series is more newbie-friendly than most DC Universe titles simply because Johns has to account for not only what has happened to Jordan recently, but the rest of the Green Lanterns in the DCU.  Familiarity with who Kyle Rayner, John Stewart, Guy Gardner and Ganthet are will certainly help, but it’s not required for this story.  The focus here is squarely on Jordan and his journey back to the realm of the living and redemption.

This could’ve been a grindingly exercise in comic-book retconning, but Johns’ focus is clear and he knows exactly what he wants to do here and how he wants to go about doing it.  Even if everything that has happened to Jordan since he became Parallax was the result of multiple writers and editors, Johns makes it all seem fairly seamless.  His take on what Parallax actually is ties in nicely to the Lanterns’ problems with the color yellow, the reason Sinestro was able to survive his “death” at Jordan’s hands, and why the Spectre chose him as a host.  It also sets up the “rainbow specturm of emotion” that has become a key part of Johns’ run on the title.

So if you’re looking forward to next summer’s “Green Lantern” movie with Ryan Reynolds and are looking to see why such a movie got (ahem...) greenlit, then this is the title to start with.  I’ve heard that the producers used Johns’ revisionist take on Jordan’s origin (obviously titled “Green Lantern:  Secret Origin”) as the basis for the movie, but if it wasn’t for his work here re-establishing the character and setting the stage for some very entertaining stories down the line then it’s very likely the movie wouldn’t have been made.  The amount of retconning going on here may make it a bit much for non-comics, non-DCU fans to take, but if you can still appreciate superheroes then you’re going to be entertained by “Rebirth.”

Gantz vol. 12

September 26, 2010

Yup.  I’m still reading this.

It’s funny because when you look at what’s happened in the past eleven volumes it seems like a lot.  The problem is that it doesn’t feel that way as you read each individual volume, as I tend to breeze through them in less than half an hour.  Still, we’re at the beginning of one of the most interesting arcs as Kei’s nemesis Izumi has slaughtered his way through Shinjuku in an attempt to get back into Gantz’s good graces.

Not only has Izumi’s rampage brought a lot of new and interesting characters to the game, but it sets up an interesting dynamic between him and Kei.  While the former is in it just for the thrill, Kei’s knowledge of how Gantz works puts him in a position of leadership amongst some of the newcomers as they try to survive being slaughtered by alien dinosaurs.  It’s another example of how far Kei has come as a character and his growth from selfish teen to concerned leader has been the best part of the series so far.

So if you were planning on jumping off this series, now isn’t a good time to do it.  Things are picking up again, and I’m still onboard and looking forward to seeing what happens to the series after it gets past the point I read up to in its scanlated form.

Bokurano vol. 2

September 25, 2010

I’m sure that I’m reading “Bokurano” right now for different reasons than the majority of its American audience.  Having seen the anime adaptation that came out a few years back, I’m more interested in seeing how it deviated from its source material.  After all, not many directors go public with their dislike of the manga their series is based on and state their desire to “save” its cast from the horrible fates that await them.

(Lots of discussion about the differences between the manga and the anime after the break.  Those of you looking for a recommendation -- I say buy the manga and then come back and read this.)

Make no mistake, I’m guessing that the fates that await the cast in the manga are much worse than what we saw in the anime after it went all “warm-’n-fuzzy” after episode 9.  Now the series’ premise isn’t happy by any means -- middle-school kids sign a contract to pilot a giant mech in battles to save the Earth only to find out that the chosen pilot will die after each battle -- but mangaka Mohiro Kitoh seems to have made a career out of exploring the dark underbelly of childhood fantasies.  His previous work “Shadow Star” (“Narutaru” in Japan) showed us what would really happen if kids got their hands on an alien friend who’d obey their every demand.  It wasn’t pretty.

While the manga wasn’t published to completion over here, the anime ranks as one of the most traumatizing series I’ve ever seen.  Not so much for the actions of the aliens, but for its illustration of just how brutal kids can be to each other.  That said, the series managed the difficult feat of shocking me enough to leave a distinct impression, but never getting so bad that it caused me to stop watching or having its approach get so over the top that it eventually became dull.  It was licensed by Media Blasters and can be found for dirt cheap on Amazon -- if you don’t mind buying it used.

Anyway, back to “Bokurano.”  Like I said at the beginning, my main interest in reading the manga comes from wanting to compare it to the anime.  While we’re still in the realm of stories that were adapted into the anime there are still some interesting differences to be observed.  First of all, the military has yet to get involved.  They were present almost from the start of the series and were mainly notable for the fact that their main liason with the kids was secretly one of their parents.  As that hasn’t happened yet, I’m looking forward to see if that “secret parent” plot point still holds true and if Kitoh can put a more interesting spin on it than the conventional path this subplot took in the anime.

As for the stories featured in this volume, we get to see what happens to Daiichi -- who looks as if he’ll be bald by the time he graduates from high school.  That’s because he has tasked himself with looking after his two younger sisters and younger brother after his dad walked out on them years ago.  We get some decent scenes setting up what a good guy he is and how he and his siblings still live at their old house, despite the offer of his uncle to take them all in, in the hopes that their father will come back to them one day.  Then he gets chosen as a pilot, saves the amusement park that his family was set to go to before the battle, and then dies.  It’s a decent enough take on a familiar story, but it offers up nothing that wasn’t already in the anime.

Then we get the story of Mako, a girl who is as upstanding and responsible as you could hope for someone of her age.  She’s also socially burdened with a mother who works as a high-class call girl and gets no end of grief from her classmates about it.  While the anime took a somewhat disturbing “look how many people your mother has brought happiness to” approach, the manga offers up a much more reasonable and interesting take on how Mako resolves her issues with her mother’s lifestyle.  We also get some great scenes with Mako and her mom as they give the people who have slandered them verbal and situational comeuppance.  Her mother’s scene is particularly gratifying in the way that she makes no excuses for herself and exposes her neighbor’s hypocrisy at the same time.  That said, take these scenes out and it’s basically the same story we got in the anime.

With that in mind, the most interesting difference from the manga and the anime in this volume is where these stories appeared in the anime.  These stories appeared toward the middle of the anime, after the director went public about his distaste for the manga, and after a storyline which offered up some of the same traumatizing excitement that I got from “Narutaru.”  The fact that they’re in the second volume gives me the impression that Kitoh is slowly warming up to the really bad stuff.  If you’re reading this series without the knowledge of what will happen in future storylines then you’ll probably find Daiichi and Mako’s tales to be reassuring in the way they make the most of the time they have left and become better people in the process.

Which is probably how Kitoh wants it because you’ll be that much more susceptible to the shock of seeing how some of these kids react to their situation in later volumes.  One of the chosen kids in this is taking his current lot in life VERY badly and if his arc plays out the same as it did in the anime... then you won’t feel as bad for him as you do for Daiichi and Mako.  So really, the appeal of this series for me is kind of like watching a train wreck in slow motion.  You know people are going to die, and die very badly in some cases, but you can’t look away all the same.  Maybe it’s because you’re glad you’re not on the train or that you hope to see survivors emerge from the wreckage -- battered but intact, with stories of people who gave their lives to avert the disaster.  That’s the series in a nutshell, and why I’ll continue to read it.

Viz is also publishing the series online at its IKKI site with a new chapter being posted on a quasi-monthly basis.  It’s free, but I like actually having a physical copy of the series and being able to read a chunk of it at a time.  Plus I hope that buying it will get Viz to release the series at a quicker pace because at this rate I’ll be pushing 40 by the time they release all nine volumes.

Locke & Key vol. 1: Welcome to Lovecraft

September 24, 2010

When the patriarch of the Locke family is killed by one of his former students, the rest of the family decides to head back to their home in Lovecraft, Massachusetts.  As Robert Crais noted in his introduction to this book, if you’re planning on putting your life back together you DON’T move to a town called Lovecraft.  As you’d expect, we soon find out that the house is full of mysterious facets including (but not limited to) a creepy girl trapped in a well who is guiding the killer to their home.

Someday, I’m sure that people will stop thinking of writer Joe Hill as “the son of Stephen King.”  That day isn’t here yet, but “Locke & Key” shows that he has inherited some of his father’s best traits as a writer.  These would include writing believable, grounded characters, being able to generate tension from any situation, and creating interesting supernatural menaces.  He’s also doing something different from his father as this volume sets up a mystery involving the nature of the house and the entity that’s imprisoned within it.  I can’t remember the last time I read a Stephen King story that had a genuine mystery at its center (he usually operates on the idea that things are scarier when you don’t understand everything), but I’m genuinely interested to see where Hill is going with this thanks to his strong work establishing the cast and making them genuinely sympathetic as they work through their grief.

As for artist Gabriel Rodriguez... I want to like his work here but it doesn’t quite click with me.  He displays a fairly cartoonish style here and while that’s not necessarily antithetical to drama (see Steve Rolston’s work on the first volume of “Queen and Country” for one example) it doesn’t quite fit with the grounded, serious tone of the book.  On the other hand, his style makes for an interesting contrast with the horrible things that the characters do/have done to them.  I’d liked to have seen him use a more realistic style like he did in his “CSI” comics, but what’s here is by no means a dealbreaker.  Recommended for those who think character studies work better with a touch of the supernatural.

Comic Picks #64: Postapocalyptic odds and ends.

September 22, 2010

"Crossed," "Old Man Logan," and "The Dark Tower:  The Battle of Jericho Hill."  One of these I really liked.  The other two... not so much.

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Ultimate Comics Spider-Man vol. 1: The World According to Peter Parker

September 21, 2010

(Or, “Ultimate Spider-Man vol. 23” for those of you keeping track at home.)

After the hiccup that was “Ultimatum,” writer Brian Michael Bendis sweeps most of it under the rug and gets back to telling stories about comics greatest hard-luck superhero.  On one hand, he’s now appreciated by NYC’s police force.  On the other, he has a crappy job, a new supervillain to contend with in the form of Ultimate Mysterio, and girl trouble up the wazoo.  Uh... that’s “up the wazoo” in a dramatic sense, not something that would involve his wazoo.

If you’ve been reading the series for as long as I have, then you’re going to get enough enjoyment out of Bendis’ dialogue and seeing him put Peter through his paces as usual.  He does add some new wrinkles to the formula as Johnny Storm and Bobby Drake wind up coming to live with Peter, Aunt May and Gwen Stacy.  It’s cool to see Aunt’ May’s house becoming a “home for wayward teenage superheroes” and the characters get an engaging dynamic going in this setting.  That said, we find out early on that Peter and Mary Jane have broken up AGAIN for reasons that have yet to be revealed.  This will probably make all the fans who wanted to see him hook up with Gwen happy -- as she’s his new squeeze -- but this is getting ridiculous.  They’ve already broken up and gotten back together twice, so unless Bendis is REALLY serious about making this new dynamic work (which I doubt) then we’re well past the point of diminishing returns on this particular plot twist.

New regular artist David LaFuente is a worthy successor to past pencillers Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen.  He has his own distinct style that maintains artistic consistence with how we’ve seen the characters before, but he also knows how to handle the flow of an action scene and to depict convincing facial expressions and body language.  So overall, it’s another entertaining volume in the series.  Those of you who worried that “Ultimatum” ruined the Ultimate Universe should know that it didn’t ruin this series.

Ghost Talker’s Daydream vol. 4… and lateness.

September 19, 2010

Twenty months after the arrival of vol. 3, the fourth volume of “Ghost Talker’s Daydream” has finally arrived on American shores.  For a while I’d figured that this series had gone the way of other Dark Horse Manga titles like “Satsuma Gishiden,” MPD-Psycho” and “Eden” and been quietly “cancelled.”  I was disappointed that we weren’t going to be getting more of this series, as it had been steadily improving from a mediocre first volume, but there are more deserving series to be resurrected at Dark Horse than this one.  Still, I was looking forward to seeing if this volume continued the series’ upward trend in quality.

My final verdict:  slightly underwhelming; but, it’s not entirely the series’ fault.

The biggest problem with vol. 4 is that the majority of it comes across as setup for future stories in the series.  There’s also the fact that the titular “Ghost Talker” Saiki Misaki is absent for the majority of this first volume.  While writer Okuse Saki and artist Meguro Sankichi clearly have talent, the world and supporting cast they’ve created aren’t as interesting as Misaki herself.  (The counterpoint here is Yukito Kishiro’s “Battle Angel Alita:  Last Order” where he’s done such a good job at world-building and fleshing out the supporting cast that it allows him to have the main character absent from the series more often than she should be... but I digress.)

I will say that there are some potentially interesting plot developments and some sufficiently creepy thrills to be had from this volume.  The first story, “Hallucination” focuses on Kunugi Ai, a recurring character from volumes 1 & 2, and Mitsuru, Misaki’s mostly harmless stalker.  The two wind up being thrust together to solve the mystery of a double suicide on the grounds of Mitsuru’s family temple after a cop investigating the matter finds out that Ai has “ghost talker” abilities.  This storyline peters out at the end without really going anywhere, or making its leads any more interesting.  I did like some of the scenes where Ai uses her abilities, and Mitsuru’s dream near the end of the story was quite disturbing.  Still, the only thing I took away from this story was how the “suicide BBS” that has played a part in previous stories was brought back again, and how its administrator Yuo has his eyes on these two characters.  It’s not explained why he does, but that’s the problem when a story is written only to set up future ones.

The next story, “Ghost on a Bridge,” involves Misaki’s cowardly partner Soichiro as he works with another ghost talker to solve the mystery of a girl who committed suicide on a bridge over a year ago.  It’s a standard setup that becomes more and more familiar as we learn the details behind her death which involve unrequited love between the girl and her former employer.  While this new ghost talker is certainly a distinctive character with his wizened physique and eccentric dress style, he doesn’t really add anything to the story beyond that.  I have a feeling that he’ll be brought back at some point, otherwise why spend a chapter introducing him, but I can only hope that the creators will see fit to give him a personality as distinctive as his appearance.

“Fog,” the last story, brings the protagonists from the previous stories together as they team up to track down Misaki.  As it turns out, our title character has been relaxing at a hot springs resort in an attempt to get away from her life as a ghost talker.  While she’s there, she winds up meeting a woman who previously worked for the city as a ghost talker but lost her abilities once she got married and had some kids.  This comes across as your standard “hero loses confidence, but regains it after talking to someone in similar cirucmstances” story; and, like the first volume, seems to function mainly as setup for future stories.  Which promise to be more interesting since Soichiro, Mitsuru and Ai will almost assuredly meet up with Misaki in the next volume (I hope).

So after twenty months, “Ghost Talker’s Daydream” returns with a volume that provides setup for what will hopefully be more interesting stories in the future.  It’s certainly not the most triumphant of returns, but I can’t really fault the series for that.  According to Anime News Netowork’s encyclopedia entry, there was only a six-month wait between volumes 3 & 4 in Japan.

I’ll readily admit that the problem here is mine and one of perception.  Had this come out in a timely manner, I might’ve been more forgiving of its flaws while knowing that the next volume was only months away.  After twenty months, I was expecting something better.  Something to show me why they chose to bring this series back over “Eden.”  I now realize it was foolish of me to expect something like that from this volume as nothing like this happened to the series in Japan.

Vol. 5 is scheduled to come out in January and I’ll definitely be picking it up to see if any of the setup in this volume pays off in that one.  I do wonder what the fans of this series will make of this volume and if enough will pick it up to convince Dark Horse to release the rest of this eight-volume series.  I’d like to think that they’ve made plans to publish the rest of it -- I mean, why bring it back if you’re only going to cancel it again -- but we’ll see what future solicitations from the company bring.