Written by Adam Gallardo, Art by Nuria Peris and Sergio Sandoval
DarkHorse, 96 pp.
Rating: 8 +
Gear School is a sci-fi tale set in a future where mankind is locked in a war with a nameless alien menace. Thankfully mankind isn’t undefended and the ultimate machines of war in this era are known as Gears, hi-tech aircraft, mecha and the like piloted by the earths elite soldiers. It’s into this world that we follow seventh grader Teresa Gottleib as she struggles with the trial and tribulations of Gear School.
Coming in at 96 pages, Gear School makes for a quick and entertaining read. With such a limited number of pages the characters aren’t terribly fleshed out and it ends up feeling very plot heavy. Still, there’s not much time given to exploring Teresa’s motivation for joining Gear School which is a bit unfortunate, but they do manage to give us the feel of her average school day. The first half of the book gives us glimpses into her training regime, introduces us to her best friend and sets up social cliques and rivalries too. Meanwhile, the second half is made up primaril of an action sequence which forces Teresa to show off her piloting chops. Now, admittedly young people piloting hi-tech war machines is hardly breaking new ground. It’s a tried and true recipe in manga and anime, but isn’t terribly common in the US comics scene, so in that sense it’s a rather rare find.
The artwork is clean and eye catching, helped in part by the nice coloring throughout. There’s a variety of character body types, skin colors, hair styles and more and most of the characters are well differentiated. The vehicle designs are decent, but I think they fall a little short of being really memorable or fantastic. Visually the pacing is nice and even throughout as the book seems to stick to a four panel limit, rarely exceeding it and mostly breaking the pattern for dramatic splash pages when appropriate. One of my favorite visuals in the book comes in the form of the Gears “helper”, a program that relays suggestions, alerts, damage reports and the like to its pilot. It’s done using captions, but each caption comes complete with a little chibi narrator. It’s simple, cute and really entertaining.
I think this was overlooked by a lot of people when it first came out, because I’ve rarely seen it mentioned on comic or manga sites, which is a shame since it seems like it could have a lot of cross over appeal between manga and western comic readers. Still, someone out there liked it as a second volume is due out in late September and there’s apparently a short film in the works too. At any rate, it’s a pretty enjoyable and fun read and I’m looking forward to the second volume.
Gear School, Vol. 1 is available now.
by Minoru Murao
DMP, 202 pp.
Rating: Young Adults (16+)
I’m not a huge fantasy fan. Sure I’ve enjoyed the odd fantasy movie and novel and I loved AD&D back in the day, but it’s not a genre I’m really that hardcore about. It’s also a genre that has a hit or miss record when it comes to sequential art. There have been a few well done fantasy comics from the American industry, but oddly enough the manga and anime take on the genres seem to click with me a bit more. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read of Dorothea and Orfina, and really loved what I’ve seen of Berserk and Slayers, so when I stumbled across Knights from DMP and Emanga I was quite curious to give it a look see.
Set in a fictional medieval European country, Knights tells the tale of a small group of warriors dedicated to protecting those persecuted as witches, and to defeating the super powered soldiers of the Church known as Saints. There’s not a whole lot else to the plot at this point as the first volume is comprised almost entirely of the two leads doing the above. Speaking of the leads, they consist of Mist, a highly skilled swordsman and squire, and Euphemia a scantly clad witch. At this point Mist is the most interesting of the two, with several flashbacks hinting at a rather traumatic incident in his past which drove him to protect witches and presumably led towards the fairly militant atheist attitude he’s sporting. If having a militant atheist battling the evil minions of the Church while defending witches wasn’t interesting enough, he’s also one of the rare black leads in a manga! Euphemia, for her part, is bubbly and seems to exist solely for fan service reasons. One of the major problems with the story is it’s structure. Most of the book consists of the Mist and Euphemia rescuing witches from the Church and then, suddenly in the last chapter we get a massive info dump regarding the Church and their superpower minions, the Saints. The shift in gears is sudden and comes off feeling bit disjointed and clunky.
I’ve never encountered Minoru Murao’s work before, and while his plotting may be a bit iffy, his is solid with exciting and easy to follow action scenes. Murao certainly knows how to make Mist look cool and heroic and does so at just about every opportunity. There are some lovely two page splashes of Mist in action or posing heroically which just ooze cool from them. The costumes, while detailed, are of your typical feudal/fantasy stock consisting of armored breast plates, puffy upper sleeves, and the like. The major exception to all this is Euphemia. Her outfit is just off the wall crazy and was clearly designed with fan service in mind. It’s made up of a skimpy metal bra fashioned into the shape of tiny hands which clutch her rather large bosoms while leaving much of them visible. There’s a second set of tiny arms and hands which serves as a belt piece for her loin cloth and I’ll leave it to your imagination on where those hands are placed. She also has a ridiculously large hat that seems to be flashing us the victory sign. Her appearance is actually a bit jarring, since the outfit feels so out place given the rest of the character designs and costumes in the book.
The first volume of Knights does an ok job at introducing us to the main characters and setting, and is generally entertaining throughout. There are some interesting and intriguing themes kicking about, such as religion, faith and the desire for power which causes people to pervert, corrupt and exploit them. They give me hope that Knights might grow into something interesting. It’s got potential, but right now it feels like they’re just being used to add flavor to what is essentially a fighting manga.
Knights, Vol. 1 is available now at Emanga.com. Review copy provided by the publisher.
Story and Art by Torajiro Kishi and Madhouse Studios
Rating: Not Rated
Devil is the result of a collaboration between Dark Horse comics and Madhouse Studios. It’s a comic mini-series created by Japanese creators and a Japanese company for the American market, something that’s not unheard of but is hardly common. It’s something of a throwback to the 90s, featuring a future where mankind is beset by a disease which turns its victims into devils, super powered killers with a taste for a human flesh known as “devils”.
The story focuses on two detectives in Japan who are part of a division that specializes in cases dealing with the “devils”. The Takimoto is your typical, rogue cop action movie cliche. He does things his way, gets the job done and regulations be damned. Migawa is much more by the books and almost feels like a naive rookie, clinging to the idea that devils are simply diseased ridden humans and should be treated as such, despite their tendency to rip people apart. The mini-series sees them involved in the pursuit of a devil named Nishioka with connections to a secret experiment; an early attempt at studying and understanding the virus which ultimately resulted in the creation of a pure sample in human form, a young girl named Mariko. The two must stop the devil from reaching her lest something horrible happen. In amongst the various action scene’s and shots of Nishioka splattering people left and right, there are weird and awkward bits of philosophical pondering tossed in. Characters discuss human civilization and how we’re no longer part of nature, how the introduction of a predator species will destroy it and more. I’m not sure if it’s the translation or simply the quality of the writing, but these bits generally read horribly, feel a bit odd and seem almost like the ramblings of miserable, angsty teens at times.
Continuing on with the trend of stiffness, the artwork is peppered with characters in awkward, stiff looking poses, particularly in the action sequences. The backgrounds are frequently just blocks of color with little else, this is actually a good example of the kind of thing you can get away with in black and white but isn’t really suited for color. In your typical manga you can slap a black background in and the readers mind will fill in the blanks. Maybe it’s outside and they’ll envision a clear blue sky with the various hues that they normally see. Maybe it’s inside and they imagine the color of the walls, feint glow of lamps, etc. In full color though, it’s just two fully colored and detailed figures against a blank white background, or in the case of Devil, against solid blocks of color. It just looks lazy and weird. Admittedly, the entire comic isn’t like that, but there was enough of it that I found it hard to ignore. On the upside, the design for the “devil’s” glowing blue skin with swirling masses of black was rather neat, and I loved the blueish white glowing effect they gave it and Mariko’s hair.
Despite all this, Devil is not a bad read. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a good read either. The are some fun and cool moments in the visuals and the core idea is fun in that crazy 90s way; something that sounds really cool and then you see it and it fails to be as cool as whatever you imagined in your head. In the end Devil was forgettable average.
Devil, Issues #1 – 4 are available now.
Original story by Hideyuki Kikuchi, Adaption by Saiko Takaki
DMP, 228 pp.
Rating: M (Mature Readers)
I’ve got to admit upfront that I’m a bit of a Kikuchi fanboy. Vampire Hunter D was one of the first anime titles I ever saw and I absolutely adored it. I first took a look at the manga incarnation back on Manga Recon when I reviewed the fourth volume, but now I’m getting a chance to look at the earlier volumes. The story follows D, a pretty and enigmatic vampire hunter as he takes a job involving a young woman being terrorized by the local vampire lord. Sci-Fi, horror and the western collide in this fairly faithful adaption of Hideyuki Kikuchi’s best known creation.
As mentioned above, the story is fairly straightforward and is reminiscent of many a western or samurai flick. Mysterious loner wanders into a town beset by a powerful menace, and he ends up staying to deal with the menace. It’s a fairly classic and timeless formula that’s been used in just about every corner of the globe. Of course the town in this case isn’t really worth trying to save, but that’s what Doris and her annoyingly upbeat younger brother are for. It’s this duo that brings D into conflict with the menace of the local vampire lord and his minions, including a werewolf servant and his daughter Larmica. D, like every Kikuchi protagonist I’ve ever encountered, is a man of unearthly beauty and intensely enigmatic. He speaks little, is shrouded in mystery that only serves to make him more interesting and desirable to just about everyone that lays eyes on him. Unfortunately some of the characterizations for the supporting cast fall by the way side. The tension between Larmica, D and Doris never really develops and I think the story suffers for it. We never really get a good reason for Larmica’s dislike of Doris and her attempts to undermine her fathers plans. Doris also suffers a bit as we never really get to see how capable and independent she was prior to her run in with local vampire lord, which makes her dialogue about growing dependent upon D feel a bit out of place.
Saiko Takaki’s artwork is lush with detail and her rendition of D and his cold, almost eternally solemn expression is fantastic. That said there are some odd bits of anatomy here and there. Throats that are inhumanely long mar several scene’s, particularly with the women. Speaking of the women, how Doris manages to fight with breasts so enormous that they must surely have their own gravitational pull is beyond me, but the rather large bosom is something she seems to share with the other major female in the book, Larmica. There are also a few comedic moments within the artwork when it goes borderline chibi that didn’t really click for me. The storytelling is ok, though the action scene’s can be a bit hard to follow and there were a few moments where I wasn’t sure which word bubble follows which. Still, it is a very, lovely looking book.
All in all, I thought it was an ok adaption. It’s not without its flaws, ranging from some oddities in the artwork and everyone feeling a bit flat in the story. Still, I did find myself enjoying it and despite the odd bits of anatomy the clothing of the characters and her rendition of D are really fantastic.
Vampire Hunter D, Vol. 1 is available now at Emanga.com. Review copy provided by the publisher.
Story by Ryukishi07, Art by Yoshiki Tonogai
Yen Press, 192 pp
Rating: Older Teen
The manga adaption of a popular game series continues. This particular arc focuses on Detective Akasaka’s investigation into the kidnapping of the Minister of Constructions grandson. It leads him to the small town on Hinamizawa and the group at the center of a series of protests against dam construction in the area. Akasaka quickly learns that Hinamizawa is far from the friendly, innocent country town that it appears to be.
This was a bit of a chore to get through. It’s fairly slow and not terribly interesting or intriguing. The investigation almost takes a back seat to such activities as Detective Akasaka hanging out with Rika Furude, a young girl who’s found of saying “Mew” who also serves as a Priestess at a local temple. Way too much time is spent on showing the two together, and even after Furude exhibits some strange and ominous behavior, I just couldn’t get up the energy to care. But don’t worry, it’s not all about Akasaka hanging out with an underage girl. He also spends quite a bit of time playing mahjong in another rather boring sequence intended to showcase his cunning. Despite that, Akasaka still comes off as way too bland and uninteresting for his own good. It doesn’t help matters that he’s a fairly passive character, moving through the story, nominally investigating the kidnapping, but really just being around town by other characters while displaying little to no initiative of his own.
The artwork is incredibly average and forgettable. There’s nothing terribly interesting or eye catching about the book at all and Tonogai fails to impart the tale with any real sense of atmosphere or of building dread that the dialogue seems to hint at. On the upside, the story telling is clear and easy to follow. It’s just not terribly interesting to look at.
My first foray into the popular Higurashi line left me feeling very under whelmed. Maybe the anime is better, or the original games, but the manga was very average and horribly unengaging. Bland characters and artwork to match made the whole thing a forgettable read.
Higurashi When They Cry, vol. 7: Time Killing Arc, Part 1 is available now. Review copy provided by the publisher.
By Gakuto Coda, Translated by Andrew Cunningham
Tokyopop, 232 pp
Rating: Teen (13 +)
The second of the thirteen volume Missing series brings more of the supernatural weirdness and magical theory that marked the initial volume. But this time Aki Kidono takes center stage, as her friends at the Literature Club race to solve the puzzle of a mysterious cursed fax which threatens her sanity and her life!
In the first volume, Aki Kidono played a rather crucial role. Being one of the two most capable and intelligent members of the five man literature club she was key in rescuing Kyoichi Utsume from the nebulous “other world.” During the course of the story it was mentioned that Kidono had a rather interesting link to the supernatural herself, and it’s that link and the cursed fax that brings it to the surface, which is the focus of this volume. That’s not the only thing that Gakuto Coda brings back from the original novel, as several supporting characters reappear and are expanded upon, including a mysterious “witch” who attends the same school as our protagonists. The horror in this volume felt a bit more tangible than in the original volume. I’m not sure if it’s just me; maybe I’m just more susceptible to the idea of being watched rather than being lost and confused, but about halfway through the volume is a fantastic sequence involving Aki and Ryoko that was wonderfully tense, creepy and paranoia inducing. The story is again clothed in the feeling of realism and research that made the original novel so enjoyable.
Unfortunately it’s not all roses, as it drags a bit in the beginning while the group attempts to establish whether or not the cursed fax is genuine, or whether it’s all in Kidono’s head. Speaking of Aki Kidono, she suffers the curse that seemingly all openly strong and capable female characters suffer from in Japanese fiction. Namely it’s all just a show and she’s not as strong as she presents herself. Also, after reading this I really had to wonder what the big deal about Kyoichi Utsume was in the original volume. He certainly comes across as an intelligent and capable person, but unfortunately he also comes across as pretty cold and unlikable, not to mention being a bit too perfect.
While the characters still feel fairly stock-ish, and the plot takes a little bit to really get going, I think the worst thing about this book is the last fifteen pages or so. No, they’re not the climax to the story, but a preview to the third volume that will probably never be printed. It’s a horrible, horrible tease of something that most likely will never come. In the end though, I was pretty glad that we at least got the first two volumes in English. They’re flawed, but still fairly entertaining, and the mysteries and the world that Coda is building are fascinating and I’d love to see more of them both.
Missing, vol. 2: Letter of Misfortune is available now.
By Gakuto Coda, Translated by Andrew Cunningham
Tokyopop, 208 pp
Rating: Teen (13 +)
Nearly a decade ago, young Kyoichi Utsume and his brother went missing. Days later, Utsume returned, but his brother never did. The experience left an indelible imprint on Kyoichi which marked his development over the intervening years. Now years later and a high school student with more than a passing interest in occult studies, Utsume goes missing once again leaving his friends in the Literature Club to unravel the mystery of his disappearance.
While reading this I couldn’t help but think back to The Summer of the Ubume. Both are eyeball deep in real world theories on magic and the occult, demonstrating the nice amount of research done by their individual authors. The story follows the missing person formula fairly well, but with a supernatural twist. Instead of going to the police or looking into crime in the area, the cast of teens immediately turn their eyes towards the paranormal and dive into a world of psychics, witches, fairies and more. Gakuto Coda seems to sow the seeds for a much longer series throughout the volume, introducing us to groups, characters and organizations that one can’t help but figure will turn up repeatedly throughout the thirteen novels that comprise this saga.
While the story and the ideas it plays around with are engaging and entertaining, the main characters feel a bit flat. Each of the five main characters could have been drawn from a collection of stock character types. Kyoichi Utsume is the brilliant, quiet, pretty boy. Toshiya Murakami is the loyal and physically strong friend. Ryoko Kusakabe is the young, good hearted but overly emotional young girl, and so forth and so on. It’s very, very noticeable and a bit puzzling given the rest of the story. I almost have to wonder if there’s something more to it; if perhaps Gakuto Coda was setting up some kind of metaphysical balance with each character representing an element, or trait or some such.
At first I thought there simply were no illustrations for this novel, kind of like Goth, but apparently that’s not the case. There are no illustration in the Tokyopop release of it but in the Afterward, Gakuto Coda does thank his illustrator. The decision to remove the illustrations is a bit baffling and a little irritating, but I have to be honest when I say that I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything major. Light Novel artwork is always a bit hit and miss, and most of the time just feels like a bonus and doesn’t really bring or add anything to the overall reading experience. Admittedly in some cases they can help give you a better grasp on individual characters appearances, and in the case of sci-fi or fantasy novels that’s definitely a good thing, but for a contemporary novel set in a high school I just can’t imagine the artwork bringing that much to the table.
The ending hints of things to come, but sadly we’ll probably never get to see how everything will ultimately play out as Tokyopop’s only released the first two novels in this thirteen volume series. Despite this, and the flat characters, I found myself pretty engaged and entertained by the book. I think of a lot it has to do with the amount of research Gakuto Coda put into the theories that fill it, and I am a sucker for books on the occult and folklore.
Missing, vol.1: Spirited Away is available now.