Spiritual successor to this. Are there any interesting skeletons in the publisher's catalog of uncollected manga?
It’s rare these days that we get some indication about how well a manga title is selling for its publisher. Which is why this article about Hiroaki Samura’s latest was a very pleasant surprise to read. (Now only if some of that sales success can rub off on fellow digital-only seinen release “All-Rounder Meguru”...) It’s also good to know that Kodansha will be sticking with this series because this is its sharpest yet. We pick up after the quasi-cliffhanger from budding radio personality Minare Koda’s latest show in which she participated in a scenario where her no-good boyfriend came back to life after she tried to bury him. This leads to some funny bits involving a goddess of rebirth who would “[L]ook cute if she lost weight?” and is obsessed with Sweden because of its good welfare programs.
With her dramatic history with her previous boyfriend successfully mined for material, Minare beings to look for new experiences to fuel her show. She’s willing to give anything a shot, so while you or I would balk at investigating the frightening scrawl faxed from listener begging for help with the ghost of the girlfriend he believes is haunting him Minare decides to give it a shot. After some egging on by her producer, of course. What follows is more entertaining silliness that sees Minare in full Japanese exorcist getup, tells us about the kind of hot spring you don’t visit, and maybe involves a Russian assassin as well.
Much as I enjoyed this stuff, I kind of wish that Samura had stuck to the original outcome of Minare’s visit because the twist is really easy to see coming. It does lead to an awkward/funny radio show where she sets the record straight and may likely prove to be a turning point in her radio career. Which will be interesting to follow as she’s presented with a “Valentine Radio” plan at the end of the volume. I’m sure that’s going to turn out real well for her!
This is actually the first arc of “Saga” to have a proper name. “The War for Phang” is described on the back cover as being “an epic, self-contained ‘Saga’ event.” If you’re going to hype up a story to that event then you’d better deliver. On that level, this volume of “Saga” is a genuine disappointment.
A deceased debutant’s dildo. A masturbating millenial mayor. A merchandising meth-head named Matty. These are just some of the new wrinkles introduced to the irreverent craziness of the plot of this series. Roy, the cop who likes to think that he’s a smooth operator, is dealing with the fallout from the death and subsequent mansion explosion of the starlet he was supposed to be protecting. While this case may be the big break his budding showbusiness career needs, it might be derailed in short order if the side business he and his partner have with some meth-heads turns out to have been the reason she died. Speaking of his partner, Mac may not have any illusions about his smooth operator status, but he’s actually managed to forge a solid bond with the one morally upstanding character in this series: Pretzels, the drug-sniffing beagle. Now Mac just has to leverage that friendship so that his suburban crimelord boss can get one of his guys through the TSA screening.
If the crude humor and poorly-timed social aspects of the first volume didn’t turn you off, then I have great news! Vol. 2 of “The Fix” offers up much more down-and-dirty jokes and jibes at the expense of proper social etiquette. No, the boundary-pushing nature of writer Nick Spencer’s humor doesn’t always hit the mark, but it does much more often than not here. It’s also impressive to see how much effort he’s put into creating this wild and weird take on L.A. Witness meth-head Matty’s detailed thoughts about his current life situation and goals. Partner-in-crime Steve Lieber is also fully committed to this debauchery, particularly in the mostly wordless two-page sequences where it feels like he was given free reign to be as absurd as he can within the story.
There is one big issue with this volume and that would be how little the story progresses in the four issues contained here. Granted, this is only a four-issue collection. Yet one only needs to look at what Brubaker and Phillips did on the similarly-sized “The Fade Out” collections to see that you really can advance a story in a trade paperback of this size. If they want to keep me reading then Spencer and Lieber are going to have to work a lot harder to make sure the next volume actually moves the narrative forward.
Tom King’s first volume of “Batman” took a familiar concept -- Batman having to work with new superpowered characters who want to work with him to help Gotham -- and didn’t do anything new with it. “I Am Gotham” had some nice art from David Finch and Ivan Reis, but the storytelling never really rose above “competent.” There was the hint that things could get interesting at the end of the volume as Batman agreed to undertake a mission for Suicide Squad head Amanda Waller in order to get Gotham Girl the help she needed. The good news is that seeing Batman assemble his own “Suicide Squad” is pretty entertaining and shows that King isn’t going to be entirely beholden to convention in his run. If you’re also guessing that there’s some bad news here, you’re right as I can only hope the writer’s one big thought on why Batman does what he does is quickly forgotten.
I made two mistakes regarding this series. The first was buying this arc in three-volume paperback form. There’s going to be an oversized hardcover collection of “A Nation Under Our Feet” released later this year that will not only be cheaper, but reprint-free as well. The second was expecting that this concluding volume would offer up a more exciting experience compared to the previous two. There is some interest to be had in seeing T’Challa’s reunion with his sister Suri, the Midnight Angels negotiating the tricky path of revolution, and the battle against Tetu and Zenzi for control of Wakanda’s Golden City. Yet the majority of this volume (and the first arc as a whole) is made up of people talking about the rights and responsibilities of rules towards their people and it’s not really any more interesting here than it was before. Credit where credit is due, artists Brian Stelfreeze and Chris Sprouse do their best to make the talking heads as interesting to look at as the action and writer Ta-Nehisi Coates does wrap things up with a markedly different status quo for Wakanda heading into his next arc “Avengers of the New World.”
It’s also worth mentioning that the reprints selected to round out the page count in this volume are of a more recent vintage than what we saw in vols. one and two. They’re from Jonathan Hickman’s “New Avengers” run in the lead up to and start of “Time Runs Out.” While they’re a lot more fun to (re)read compared to the 60’s-era offerings in the first two volumes, their inclusion is somewhat problematic from a quality standpoint. That’s because even in their abbreviated presence here they show how dialogue-driven superhero comics can work really well. Seeing the Illuminati grapple with the morality of destroying a world as they have minutes to decide its fate is downright gripping. In less dramatic context, the dinner conversation between Namor and Doom as the former asks the latter for help is rife with tension and drama leading to the classic “Doom is no man’s second choice” statement. Compared to scenes like these, Coates’ “Black Panther” doesn’t really measure up.
I do recognize that this is Coates’ first major work in comics and that he committed himself to this twelve-issue arc from the start. Now that he’s had a year of experience writing comics I’m interested in seeing if he’ll handle things differently with this next arc. That’s my reason for sticking around. Optimism, as opposed to the actual quality of the comics in these three volumes.
Hiroki Endo’s MMA-manga continues on in its own appealingly low-key fashion. After the (perhaps unsurprising) finish to Maki’s match from the previous volume the focus shifts back to Meguru and his ongoing struggle to get better. While he’s slowly developing his technique and refining his ability to copy moves on the fly from others, he still lacks the strength needed to compete with tougher opponents. Much of vol. 3 focuses on Meguru’s growth as a grappler within the title’s grounded aesthetic. I think this approach for a fighting manga is still pretty novel even though I’ll admit that some might find mangaka Hiroki Endo’s approach just a little dull. Endo does spice things up a bit with some goofy humor, mostly from the introduction of skilled judo practitioner Momo Aikawa, which is appreciated.
The really interesting stuff takes place between what I’ve described above as we get to see what Meguru’s old (former?) friend Takashi gets up to when he’s not training or fighting. After his latest fight, he meets up with his sugar mama, Miyuki, who has a personal request. One of her former hostesses fell in with a low-class yakuza thug and wound up in the hospital after said thug beat her really bad one day. Miyuki wants this guy to be taught a lesson, and Takashi turns her down only to find out later that one of his co-workers from the bar he waiters at has taken the job in the hopes of getting in good with the local gang.
This leads to some, how shall we say, real-world applications of the fighting techniques that Takashi has been utilizing in the ring. It’s a brutally efficient sequence that showcases not only the young man’s skills, but the theory behind their application as well. I found it easy to appreciate this thoughtful approach along with the interesting twist where Takashi finds out there was more going on than he was aware of. This thread is also further evidence that the mangaka isn’t afraid to bring in more complex subject matter than we’re used to seeing in fighting manga, which is also appreciated. So if you’re like me and want to see more of this, it’s best you go out and buy a copy to download right now. Kodansha hasn’t solicited any more volumes of this series yet, and it would really suck if ANOTHER of Endo’s manga wound up being unfinished out here.
The main reason vol. 4 of this series only scored an honorable mention on my “Best of 2016” list was because I didn’t believe the death of a major character from its last few pages was genuine. Now that vol. 5 is here I can say that I WAS RIGHT! Said character returns in a blistering one-off where their skills are put to the test against the Mexican Mafia. Creators Rick Remender and Wes Craig have consistently demonstrated that they know how to put together exceptional action sequences for this series and this is one of their best. Not just for the sheer amount of carnage on display, but for the emotional catharsis present in the story as well. I don’t want to give too much away (well, any more than I already have) so I’ll just say that it represents a rare instance where the struggle of the protagonists is rewarded appropriately. Well, compared to the rest of Remender’s work at any rate.
Back in the world of King’s Dominion, however, the storytelling isn’t too shabby either. The new school year brings with it freshmen and a re-adjustment of power within the ranks of the ruling class. Expert assassin Saya wants nothing to do with either, but finds herself dragged into both when she’s assigned a new pledge -- a devout Christian girl from Africa -- and targeted by the school council for being the headmaster’s favorite. Oh, and her yakuza brother from Japan has finally found out where she is and is preparing a trip to get her and the family sword she wields back for himself.
You could say that the schoolbound parts of this volume are business as usual for “Deadly Class.” The catch would be that business there has always been pretty good and the new additions to the cast are pretty great with Helmut, the metal-loving KGB-hating dungeon master from Germany, proving to be the new standout. We also get a freshman mixer full of drama and (figurative) open wounds, a hilariously warped D&D session, and one of the best extended fart jokes in recent memory. There are some sections where the dialogue feels like a very on-the-nose examination of the trends of the era and the school sections ends with one of its characters in a very bad place that they probably should’ve seen coming. They’re minor issues and not nearly enough to stop me from coming back to this consistently great series.
Savor the title of this volume because it’s likely the last we’ll see of “Invincible’s” traditional naming scheme when it comes to these things. I’m expecting the titles of its last two volumes to be “The End of All Things, Part One” and “Part Two,” respectively and this volume really does read like a buildup towards the finale. When we last saw Mark Grayson he was confronted with the cruel reality that he had lost five years after returning to the present from his trip to the past. Now he has to deal with getting to know his six-year-old daughter Terra and finding out how his wife Eve coped in his absence. While the narrative doesn’t shy away from some of the more complicated parts of Mark re-adjusting to his new life they are dealt with rather swiftly in the first half of the volume. It’s all handled decently enough, but it feels like writer Robert Kirkman wanted to move on to more important things. Such as the building of Thragg’s All-New Viltrumite Empire.
The former ruler of the Viltrumites has been busy in the time that Mark has been gone and is now a genuine threat to the galaxy. However, Mark is in no hurry to rejoin the fight after losing five years. If you’re thinking that it’s only a matter of time before Thragg brings the fight to him, then you get a gold star. In fact, this is probably one of the more conventionally plotted volumes of “Invincible” to come along in a while. There are a few twists here and there -- like with Anissa’s current domestic situation -- but the broad strokes of the narrative play out about as you’d expect. It’s just the tiniest bit disappointing for a series that has thrived on breaking with superhero conventions over the years.
Still, there is still plenty of entertainment to be had from seeing the various cast members interact with each other in a normal fashion in what may be the last time before the finale. Returning artist and co-creator Corey Walker also does a stellar job in handling all of the emotion in the story as well as the gut-punching, torso-ripping action that caps it off. I’ll admit that I’m not entirely cool with the get out of jail free card Kirkman throws Mark and Eve at the end of the volume. Even if it has been done before, I’m wondering how it’ll be addressed to maintain the drama going into the final arc. I’m fairly certain Kirkman has an idea about that as the storytelling confidence on display here makes me ready for “The End of All Things.”
Much of this volume reads like a masterclass in trolling people who can’t stand the idea of Steve Rogers as a secret agent of Hydra. This time around it’s revealed that Steve is going to have to rely on the help of his best friend in the whole world in order for his plan to succeed. Who is this friend? None other than Helmut Zemo! He also engineers an alien attack on Earth in order to gauge the capabilities of the Alpha Flight program, goes demon-hunting in Scotland to swing the votes in the titular trial, almost poisons comatose comrade Jack Flag, and is revealed to have nearly done the same for the man who made him a super soldier, Abraham Erskine. Mind you, the present-day stuff is being done at the same time as Steve is trying to undermine the Red Skull’s current plan and seize Hydra for himself. Not to be left out in the shenanigans arms race of this volume, Maria Hill tries to save her position as Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. by offering up a planet-sized bribe at her tribunal.
I can see how these things would rub a lot of Cap fans the wrong way and that’s part of the fun. Writer Nick Spencer appears to take a perverse kind of delight in putting forth the idea that longtime enemies Captain America and Baron Zemo (Jr.) are actually best friends, and that a pre-”Operation Rebirth” Steve attempted to assassinate Dr. Erskine under orders. He knows he can get away with stuff like this because it’ll all be retconned away by the end of “Secret Empire.” Marvel has even said as much, urging fans to be patient and they’ll get the Cap they know and love back at the end of the event. This doesn’t surprise me since it was obvious that was going to be the endgame for this storyline. Spencer is clearly having fun with it, both in the flashbacks and in the present day where Cap still manages to project an outwardly heroic exterior while advancing his sinister agenda. Jesus Saiz provides some wonderfully textured artwork, with Javier Pina doing a capable fill-in job, and I found the whole thing to be pretty enjoyable. Whether or not you’ll agree with me all depends on if you recognize the trolling going on here and are amused by it too.