Hetalia: Axis Powers vol. 2

December 31, 2010

As promised, and to wrap up the year, my thoughts on vol. 2 of “Hetalia:”

If you liked the first one, you’ll like this too.

Seriously.  There’s really not much else to say about this.  It doesn’t feel as unfocused as the first volume, but there’s still no real narrative tying everything together.  So you wind up with a volume of loosely-connected, yet admittedly funny, gag strips about the various interrelationships between the countries of the world.  This time, the focus is off of the Germany/Italy relationship as America/Japan and Russia and his “sisters” (older sister Ukraine and little sister Belarus) get more of the spotlight here.  So yeah, it’s a slight improvement over the previous volume but it also makes me glad that this series is only three volumes long.  Based on what I’m seeing here, I don’t think the concept could or should’ve been stretched out longer.

There is more to say about the preview of “Chibisan Date” included in the back of the book.  This is “Hetalia” creator Hidekaz Himaruya’s first serialized manga, and it’s about a struggling artist on Nantucket island off of Cape Cod.  While his art looks great in the transition to long-form serialization, the slice-of-life story offered here comes off as rather dull.  The events here feel dull and rather pointless, and lack the detail and spark that creators like Fumi Yoshinaga or Kiyohiko Azuma bring to their works.  Coming from the creator of “Hetalia,” I’m sure this will be of interest to people who really like that series.  As I only “like” it, I think I’ll be taking a pass on this.

Comic Picks #71: Two from Tokyopop — “Hetalia” and “Future Diary”

December 30, 2010

A podcast devoted to Tokyopop.  Now here's something I'd never thought I'd be doing when I started podcasting.

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Ooku vol. 5

December 28, 2010

Another one of my favorite titles from last year is still very entertaining in its fifth volume. However, the reasons for that are turning out to be quite different from what I was expecting after reading the first two volumes. The first volume set up a fascinating alternate history of Japan where the Edo era became a matriarchy while the second was equally compelling in the way that it showed how this new order was forged. From there, mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga has traced the lives of the female shoguns and their retainers as this new era progresses. So while the focus has shifted from a deconstruction-centric approach, we’re still getting something that still plays to Yoshinaga’s strengths as a creator.

This is most evident in the way new Senior Chamberlain Emmonosuke maneuvers his way through the halls of power in the capital. Having shown himself to be a very cunning man in the way he secured his appointment, revealing himself to be too old to serve as a concubine he suggested the shogun appoint him to his current position, he proves equally adept at standing his ground against her most trusted advisers. Then things get complicated when the shogun’s daughter dies unexpectedly and the race is on to see which faction can provide her with a mate that can produce an heir.

I’ll be honest, I can’t get enough of protagonists who can outwit and out-think their opponents to the degree that Emmonosuke does in this volume. That’s not all there is to his character, though. We learn that his drive comes from the time he spent as his family’s... man-whore where all of his precious learning and culture was put to the sole use of keeping his siblings in fine attire. It’s his drive to keep from returning there that keeps him going, and it comes back to bite him on the ass in his dealings with the shogun. I won’t go into detail, but it’s a powerful moment when Emmonosuke realizes that he has more in common with her than he initially thought.

While the majority of this volume is given over to intrigue of this sort -- and don’t get me wrong, it’s good stuff -- Yoshinaga hasn’t completely abandoned examining Edo-era Japan in its new circumstances. The last chapter of this volume is given over to her take on the classic tale of the “Forty-Seven Ronin” and it’s remarkable for how she manages to make every party in the tragedy sympathetic. Lord Asano might be a miser, but he’s wracked by a crippling lack of self-confidence that makes his role as one of the last male household heads that much harder. The same goes for his advisor Kira, because even though she comes off as arrogant and more than a little smug, most would agree that her fate is far too extreme. Then you have Tsunayoshi, the shogun herself, who administers the punishments in these situations. Watching her deliberate and try to make sense of these incidents makes for great drama as her common-sense analysis makes perfect sense, but after knowing the whole story and circumstances I still couldn’t help but feel sorry for the fates of Asano and his retainers. It’s dramatic irony at its finest.

I don’t get the feeling that we’ve heard the last of this incident, or of men rising up in this female-led world, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing what new challenges Tsunayoshi faces in the last days of her reign. Even if the focus has shifted to the characters rather than the world they inhabit, this still remains one of the best series on the market. If you haven’t started reading it yet, do yourself a favor and go start now.

Star Wars: Legacy vol. 10 — Extremes

December 25, 2010

This volume collects the last four issues of the ongoing series, but as with “Incredible Hercules” there will be a follow-up mini-series to give proper closure to the story.  That said, “Extremes” does an excellent job of cramming a lot of action into its pages.  We start off with the evacuation of the planet Dac by Admiral Gar Stazi and continue to the fallout from the botched kidnapping of Emperor Roan Fel and the efforts of his knights to rescue his daughter.  This is while Cade Skywalker closes in on Vul Isen, the Sith scientist behind the biological genocide taking place on Dac and gets a wake-up-call regarding his ultimate fate.  Skulking along in the background is Darth Krayt (his return shouldn’t be a spoiler -- he’s on the cover to the new mini-series) as he explores the new Dark Side powers gained from his resurrection and reveals his plans to bring the galaxy under his control.

In lesser hands, trying to cover this many plots as well as give face time to a cast of over a dozen characters would’ve resulted in an unreadable mess.  However, in the hands of John Ostrander and Jan Duursema (writer and artist, separately; co-plotters together) it comes off as an exciting sci-fi adventure that feels surprisingly well-paced.  Yes, there are a few times where their highly compressed approach fails them, in one instance we learn about the fate of Imperial Knight Draco’s former master only to find out that it’s not true on the next page, but it works more often than not.  This isn’t great art, or something you’ll see on any “top ten lists” this year but it’s another example of why “Legacy,” and Ostrander/Duursema’s “Star Wars” work in general, is worth your time.

Not Love But Delicious Foods Make Me So Happy!

December 23, 2010

Yes, the title is very long and silly, but also quite apt.  This is a collection of shorts about a female mangaka named F-mi Y-naga who specializes in drawing yaoi manga and frequenting restaurants with good food.  She is IN NO WAY a thinly-veiled self-portrait of the person who wrote and illustrated this volume, Fumi Yoshinaga.  While her roots in yaoi manga still color a lot of her work, Yoshinaga’s main passions lie in dissecting human relationships and talking about good food which take center stage here.

In any manga where the focus is on food (see also “Iron Wok Jan”) the key to making it work is to have the characters sound believably excited and knowledgeable about the food they’re eating while making it look good on the page.  Yoshinaga pulls this off quite well, and if I ever go to Japan again, I’ll have to eat at one of the fifteen restaurants featured here (even the one that specializes in Italian).

As Yoshinaga’s other strength lies in relationships, these eight-page stories also detail Y-naga’s relationships with her live-in assistant S-hara and their mutual friends who share in their dining adventures.  These aren’t proper stories, but short character pieces that thrive on Y-naga’s antics.  Be it the dichotomy between her frumpy “at-home” self and flashy out-on-the-town appearance, her cluelessness about a friend’s sexual orientation, how her advances during dinner frightened an acquaintance into marriage, there’s a lot of stuff to (ahem...) savor here.

Still, while I did like this, it’s more for fans of Yoshinaga than anyone else.  Those who are not already into her character-driven style or devotion to the foodie lifestyle might find these stories to be slight and a little self-indulgent.  I’ll admit that’s probably true, but as one of the converted I didn’t find that to be a problem.  I’m not sure I’d want another volume of this, but this collection turned out to be a pleasant diversion.

Uncanny X-Men: The Birth of Generation Hope

December 21, 2010

With the mutant race now saved, growing (a little), and still fairly hated and feared writer Matt Fraction kicks off the post-”Second Coming” era by getting back to basics. This is in the sense that the main story in this collection is about doing two things that we haven’t seen in the X-titles for a while: discovering new mutants, and setting up a spinoff title in the pages of the main one. (The spinoff in question being Kieron Gillen and Salva Espin’s “Generation Hope” -- hence the title of this volume -- which I have high hopes for despite its blatant theft of some of “Akira’s” most iconic bits.) It’s a solid enough effort, undermined by the fact that it reads like Fraction is doing this out of a sense of duty and editorially-driven-mandate rather than any real passion about the core story.

Things kick off with the “Uncanny X-Men: Heroic Age” one-shot which sets up some key bits of the new status quo. Cyclops gets some advice on leveraging the goodwill from saving San Francisco towards making mutants less hated and feared from Steve Rogers in the Savage Land. Beast leaves the X-men again and consoles Molly from the Runaways about the still-looming threat of mutankind’s extinction. Hope gets a physical from Mr. Fantastic and makes a decision to find out who her birth parents were. All three do a good job of setting up future stories, and there are some nice character moments between the cast as well, particularly Cyclops and Hope’s heart-to-heart at the end of the issue. Art is split on the three stories by Whilce Portacio, Steven Sanders and Jamie McKelvie who all do excellent work. I also have to admit that Sanders’ commitment to his glaringly off-model Beast is starting to grow on me.

Portacio also illustrates most of the rest of this collection to diminishing returns. As I said above it starts off great, with real energy and dynamic-looking panels and then slowly gets sketchier and more awkward as things go on. The fact that the last few pages in this arc are done by another artist, Harvey Tolibao, ultimately come as no surprise. Greg Land is back on the book after this arc, so if Portacio does return I hope that he’ll be able to keep things more consistent than he does here.

As for the story itself, Hope’s search for her birth parents is accomplished swiftly and paves the way for her to track down the five new mutants detected at the end of “Second Coming.” The four we see here do a good job of running through “usual suspects” of X-gene awakenings. College-student Laurie angsts and rages over her new lot in life before discovering how cool it is, Gabriel almost dies after he loses control of his powers, Idie is threatened by the local militia, and Teon... Teon just wants to have a good time. If you’ve been reading X-men for any length of time (and at this point, I don’t think that anyone still reading it hasn’t been doing that) then all of these scenarios will strike you as VERY familiar. Fraction doesn’t do a whole lot to offer any twists on the formulas and the characters themselves are essentially blank slates. I imagine that’ll give Gillen plenty of room to work in for “Generation Hope” but they don’t come off as particularly memorable in their introductions.

I will say that the very act of seeing these old tricks one more time does have some inherent interest as it’s been -- over five years according to the publication date of “House of M” -- since we’ve seen anything like this. Also, even if Fraction doesn’t seem particularly interested in this kind of thing, I do appreciate his work outside of Hope’s quest. There’s lots of other things going on in this volume, primarily Emma Frost’s dilemma about how to get Sebastian Shaw off of Utopia without anyone noticing. This dovetails nicely with Kitty Pryde’s struggles with being in her “phased” state and while it leads to some nice drama, it doesn’t quite have a payoff.

Still, there’s plenty of other things to keep a reader occupied. Emma dining with Tony Stark and later, Namor, Iceman getting the X-men a PR person (and her reaction to finding out that Magneto is still alive), Longshot and Dazzler fighting crime in San Francisco, and Cyclops getting advice on how to process his grief from Wolverine. I know that last part sounds ridiculous -- but it actually comes off pretty well. You can really feel that Fraction is more invested in these sub-plots as they have real momentum, energy and even wit to them. I also like the fact that with all of these subplots we’re getting a denser kind of storytelling with these elements as that has also been a hallmark of “X-men.” Hopefully Fraction has studied the lessons of the ‘90’s and will actually resolve these at some point.

So this volume is a success in terms of getting the series back to “business as usual” after several years of struggling under a status quo that no one really knew how to take advantage of. This actually is pretty good jumping on point for new readers... At least, as good as a jumping on point gets for “X-men.” I will admit that this volume does a better job of setting up future stories than telling a compelling story in its own right, but I’m cool with that. Especially since Gillen will be joining Fraction on the next arc.

(This volume also has an eight-page story by Allan Heinberg and Oliver Coipel detailing Magneto’s current whereabouts and agenda. It’s not bad, but will be of primary interest to anyone reading “Young Avengers: The Children’s Crusade.”)

The Incredible Hercules: The New Prince of Power

December 20, 2010

This is technically vol. 8 of the ongoing “Incredible Hercules” saga, but the first since the series was “cancelled.”  That’s because while the series ended with the last volume, the story goes on in the two mini-series collected here.  First we get the two-issue mini “Hercules:  Fall of an Avenger,” where many notable heroes of the Marvel Universe show up to pay tribute to the title character after he “sacrified” himself to save the universe in the last volume.  This being the Marvel Universe, fighting breaks out when the gods show up and Athena and Apollo wind up having to choose their champions to fight over which one of them will take over the pantheon.  Then in the four-issue “Heroic Age:  Prince of Power,” series mainstay Amadeus Cho, now having figured out what the audience already knew (that Hercules isn’t dead, he’s just... missing) goes on a quest to bring his friend back to our universe.

No, this isn’t a good jumping-on point; and yes, fans of the series will definitely be entertained.  Only in this series will you see the lord of the underworld being tormented by visions of candy-colored unicorns, ducks and teddy bears.  Or see the Egyptian cat-god of destruction Sekhmet turned into an manga-style, lol-cat goddess of love.  Great stuff, and the art is almost as good.  Ariel Olivetti handles the first two issues, and while his backgrounds may be empty, he knows how to pose his characters for maximum comedic effect.  Reilly Brown (with assistance from Zach Howard and Adam Archer) handles the “Heroic Age” mini and it looks fantastic.  The brightly-colored and expressive characters really add a lot of fun to the proceedings, and he doesn’t skimp for detail either.  Thoroughly entertaining, and I’ll be looking forward to the wrap-up in “Chaos War.”

Peepo Choo vol. 3

December 17, 2010

If you’ve been following my thoughts on this series from the podcasts, then you’ll know that the first two volumes of this series left me with deeply mixed feelings. While mangaka Felipe Smith is a very talented artist who also has a keen eye for satire, he also has an over-the-top approach to his work that becomes wearying after a while and a taste for gratuitous sex and violence that doesn’t really add anything to the story. The amount of interesting characters was also running equal to the amount of obnoxious characters by the end of vol. 2. Despite the presence of these problems, vol. 2 was an improvement over the first one and that made me hopeful for how this volume would wrap things up. I enjoyed it, but some of this volume’s twists wound up being more conventional than I would’ve liked.

One such example is that of hapless otaku Milton who rebounds from his “rude awakening” about Japan and the popularity of his beloved “Peepo Choo” anime in its home country. Up to this point, Milton’s character has easily been the most annoying part of the series for me. He’s clearly meant to embody American fandom’s worst social excesses and general myopia about Japanese culture and anime fandom there, and does too good a job of it on the printed page. Rather than find some kind of identification with the character, he comes off as repellent and is likely to inspire Smith’s target audience to go, “Well at least I’m not as dumb/stupid/annoying as him,” than reflect on their behavior. After all, it’s hard to identify with some guy who can’t tell the difference between “Peepo speak” and Japanese.

In this volume, he gets a chance to redeem his idiocy from before when Miki and Reiko show up to make amends and take him to the otaku’s Mecca -- Akihabara! Through his visit there he learns that there are Japanese people who share his passion for anime, manga and videogames. It’s in Milton’s ensuing joy at his acceptance that the two messages Smith wants to convey with this series become clear: “You can find your place through the way you live your life and those you surround yourself with,” and “Don’t be a goddamn idiot and make assumptions about a nation based on its pop culture.” In case you’re wondering, it’s the latter idea that comes through loud and clear in the pages of this volume. I’ll admit that seeing Milton find acceptance and friends here was a little heartwarming, but we had to venture through some very rough territory to get there.

We also get to see a new side to Reiko, primarily defined by her anger, large bosom, and ability to speak English, through her interactions with Milton, Miki and their friends while in Akihabara. Smith does a good job of having her convincingly warm up to the otaku’s antics through some pointed commentary from Miki and Milton’s clothes swap with a senior citizen. Though I can believe her change of heart, one of the key ideas of that transformation comes up out of nowhere as it turns out that she has a secret passion for cosplay. The re-awakening of said passion results in some nice visuals, but I wound up wanting to believe it was possible more than I actually did.

As for comic shop owner/psychopathic assassin Gill, his arc winds up being fun through most of the volume. His antics provide Smith with the chance to provide some truly over-the-top violence as he continues to murder his way through the Tokyo underword. The hurt he inflicts on his victims is so cartoonish in its outlandishness -- punching through a guy’s chest, skinning an old Yakuza don, raping a guy with a missile launcher -- that it becomes more funny than shocking. If he ever reads this, I imagine it’ll make Garth Ennis go “Why didn’t I think of any of this before?” Regrettably, Gills arc culminates when his true nature is revealed after a heart-to-heart conversation with Milton. I won’t say exactly what it is, but Smith goes for the cheapest laugh possible in his “humanization” of the character. After all, what could be funnier than seeing this macho caricature engage in behavior that’s diametrically opposed to everything we’ve seen about him so far.

At the other end of the “likeable” spectrum is Jody’s fate. I made no secret about my distaste for his character on the most recent podcast as he is a character devoid of any redeeming features. Here, he finally gets his comeuppance as his efforts to get laid result in several beatings, the realization that all Japanese porn is censored, being mistaken for gay comedian “Beauty Judy” again, nearly sleeping with a transvestite, and beating up a Yakuza. It’s that last bit that brings him into contact with gangster extraordinaire Morimoto, who is very myopic in his own way about the “gangsta” lifestyle in America.

Ultimately, there’s nothing to be gained from Jody’s travails in this volume beyond a few laughs at seeing such a hateful and pathetic creature brought so low. The resolution to Morimoto’s arc, or lack thereof, proves to be more interesting. While I initially thought the fact that “Peepo Choo” had been cut down from a five-volume series to a three-volume one was a good thing, the truth turns out to be a bit more complicated. The ending implies that the setting would’ve changed to America and focused more on Reiko and Morimoto’s misconceptions about our culture. At least, that’s what I hope would’ve happened. Two more volumes of sex, violence, and culture-clash comedy probably would’ve been too much. Smith gets things wrapped up effectively in these three, so unless he was planning a change of locale, diminishing returns would’ve set in by the next volume.

As it is, I would’ve liked to have seen how Reiko and Morimoto responded to American culture. Considering my thoughts after reading the first volume, I’m impressed at how far this series has come. It’s definitely not going to be for everyone, but those of you who can appreciate the humor in series with a similar mindset (I’m looking in the general direction of “Detroit Metal City” here) will find a lot to like . Furthermore, as the first actual “manga” -- that is, a series created in Japan for a Japanese audience -- from an American creator Smith shows that it’s not only possible, but the results can actually be entertaining. I’ll be looking forward to seeing what he does next in his career.

Comic Picks #70: Ex Machina

December 16, 2010

Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris' political/sci-fi series wraps up and comes off very well in retrospect.

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Kodansha’s manga plans are…

December 15, 2010

Well, it’s nice to know that they, actually have plans. After months of silence, a cancelled panel at the NY Comic-Con and the announcement that they’d be taking over publishing most of Del Rey’s titles, we finally found out what they’ll be publishing next summer. It’s a combination of new titles, license rescues from other publishers, and continuations of series that were originally published by Del Rey. Check out the full list over at Anime News Network.

I will say that it’s good to see them continuing to publish the bulk of Del Rey’s line, even though the publisher itself is not quite done with certain titles. CLAMP’s “xxxHolic” and the recently completed “Tsubasa” were cited as the primary examples. I can only hope that this also extends to the one title of theirs that I do still read, “Moyasimon,” which along with “Nodame Cantabile” was not mentioned at their conference on Sunday. It was stated that Kodansha is still working out their fall schedule and that more titles may be announced, but my experiences with low-selling, older-skewing, cult titles from Dark Horse does not leave me optimistic.

As for all of the new titles... meh. There’s really nothing there that strikes me as particularly compelling or original. Most of them sound like standard shonen adventure titles, though the hacker-centric premise of “Bloody Monday” does intrigue me a little. I’d like to be hopeful about the manga spinoffs of “Phoenix Wright” and “Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex,” but my curiosity is of the “morbid” variety than anything else. Projects such as these rarely turn out well as for every “Samurai Champloo” manga that manages to capture some of the spirit of its source material, there’s... everything else. Still, the “morbid” part of my curiosity comes from seeing whether or not “Phoenix Wright” can turn out better than the generally terrible anthology released by Del Rey a few years back and to see if whoever is doing the “GitS:SAC” manga can turn in an effort that’s more comprehensible and entertaining than creator Masamune Shirow’s efforts. I don’t think that’ll be hard, but I’m doubting that it’ll even approach the quality of the TV series or the two theatrical movies.

I’d like to be happier about the fact that Kodansha is FINALLY talking to the public, but it appears that all they’ve done is to get me to put on my “bitter fanboy” hat. Given the state of the market, it’s probably smart of them to publish titles that target a mainstream audience; but, the stuff that really excites me has always been outside of it. If they’re successful in their new incarnation, then I’m sure that they’ll eventually publish something that catches my eye eventually. Hey, Tokyopop did it and it only took them two years after they published their last volume of “Kindaichi” so there’s hope for Kodansha yet!