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Itazura na Kiss, Vol. 5

March 28, 2011 Leave a comment

by Kaoru Tada
DMP, 328 pp.
Rating: Teens (13 +)

The seemingly never ending struggle that Kotoko faces in her war to win Naoki’s heart hits a few bumps as a new competitor enters the battle! If that wasn’t enough there’s a medical emergency and tension between Naoki and his folks over his chosen career path. As cliche as it seems it almost feels that after this volume things may never be the same for our star crossed lovers!

Admittedly, I haven’t read every volume of this series, but of what I have read I think that this was probably my favorite volume to date. Naoki’s struggle to find his own way in the world by becoming a doctor sparks a moment of self awareness within Kotoko, and while it’s something that’s long over due, it’s still nice to see her make the realization that she’s essentially co-dependent and incapable of imagining herself not joined at the hip with Naoki. For Naoki’s part he finally seems to be encountering something of a challenge, namely his family’s expectations for him and the path their forcing him down. It’s a path that spins both his life and Kotoko’s into some unexpected directions. While Kotoko’s incompetence still grates on me a bit, her development here is great to watch, likewise for Naoki who still continues to be a bit of a quiet jerk. While character growth and relationship changes abound in this volume, it still manages to cram in a good amount of laughs and comedy thanks to fairly large supporting cast and poor Kotoko’s efforts to fend off rivals to Naoki’s affections.

The artwork is as solid as ever and I still love what Kaoru Tada does with the characters hair. We also get to see her flex her stylistic muscles as several Shonen Jump characters make brief appearances as well, not to mention her take on two classic cross dressers from manga history, all in a style similar to that of their own series. While the backgrounds are still a bit sparse, the dialogue, character reactions and humor are so well done and mesh so wonderfully that I didn’t even notice them missing the first time through.

Itazura na Kiss is one of those series I never expected to enjoy but ended up liking a whole lot, and I’m reminded of this each time I read a new volume. While I do often find Naoki and Irie’s relationship and attitude towards each other frustrating at times, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t also surprisingly touching at other points and the comedy, unlike that of some other manga and anime series, clicks for me. In my review of volume 4 I was a little worried that Kotoko’s endless fascination and pursuit of Irie would start to wear on me, but the developments in this volume are a breath of fresh air and erased any fears I may have had. In the end it’s an incredibly fun and engaging read!

Itazura na Kiss, Vol. 5 is available now from Digital Manga Publishing. Digital review copy provided by the publisher.

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The Beautiful Skies of Houou High, Vol. 1

March 20, 2011 1 comment

by Aki Arata
DMP, 184 pp.
Rating: YA (16 +)

The Beautiful Skies of Houou High is an odd, gender bender comedy following the misadventures of Kei Saeba as she finds herself forcibly enrolled in an all boys school. For some girls that might not be a bad thing, but unfortunately the distinctly boyish Kei is only interested in other girls, thus her mother’s underhanded scheming forces our heroine into the all boys private school of Houou High!

The book bounces between funny, cliche, offensive and creepy. The entire premise and the first few pages read like something out of a coming of age story of a young lesbian dealing with parents who are determined to have her live a normal, heterosexual lifestyle. It’s actually a fairly good start and makes Kei rather sympathetic, it also led me to expect a satire of homosexual rehabilitation projects. Unfortunately it quickly crushed my hopes as we’re introduced to Yui Yaji, a cruel schoolmate of Kei’s, who’s somehow involved in getting her into the school and one of the few students aware of the fact that Kei’s a girl. Yui, for his part, takes every opportunity to humiliate and embarrass Kei by forcing her into situations that risk exposing her identity and through general physical harassment and bullying. A good chunk of the humor revolves around Yui treating Kei like crap, hitting her and the various chibi overreactions this all leads too. In fairness, some of the overreactions are funny, they’re just not the ones directly linked to Kei or Yui. There are a dozen other plots floating around in this book ranging from an overly manly student who secretly loves cute things, to the amusing and disturbing attachment that the principle seems to have towards the school, to a pair of brilliant twins and their mad science schemes and more. With so many subplots kicking about some are bound to be funny, but sadly the central plot isn’t one of them.

Visually the book is fairly unmemorable and average. Everyone is incredibly pretty and looks pretty androgynous, which actually works strongly against the premise of the story. See, Kei’s supposed to be an attractive androgynous looking girl and is often referred to as a pretty boy or being awfully pretty for a boy. The problem is that nearly everyone in the book looks like that! The other boys who say it, the other students who don’t say anything, and even some of the supporting cast look far prettier and more girlish than Kei. I suppose that could be considered part of the comedy, but it’s a part that seems to work against the premise her Kei struggling to look like a normal guy due to looking to effeminate. The book often lapses into chibified art for comedic purposes, typically during overreactions. It’s a bit hit or miss, as chibi comedy often is. At times it works and at other times I felt it was a bit intrusive and ends up feeling excessive and ends up coming off as overplayed.

The Beautiful Skies of Houou High is a bit of an odd book and I’m not sure what to think of it. There were definitely moments that made laugh and chuckle, but then Yui’s cruelty and abuse of his knowledge of Kei’s identity would lead to uncomfortable situations that were less comedic and more a reminder of the real life cruelty that young transexuals and homosexuals endure. I get that it’s supposed to be a reverse harem book, but the driving force behind the plot just doesn’t sit well with me, and instead of laughing at poor Kei’s situation and the Yui’s bullying, I often found myself thinking that this kind of thing will probably end in tragedy with Kei slitting her wrists in the bath tub.

The Beautiful Skies of Houou, Vol. 1 is available now. Digital review copy provided by Emanga.com.

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Xombi #17 – 21: Hidden Cities

March 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Written by John Rozum, Art by J.J. Birch
Milestone
Rating: Unrated

The final arc of Xombi has arrived. After facing down creatures, cults and other things that have threatened the world, David Kim’s path has brought him to begrudgingly accept his place within the shadow world. Under the tutelage of Rabbi Sinnowitz he embarks on a journey of exploration and learning before his fiance, Dalila returns home. Along the way he will uncover some very disturbing things about his future and face down a sinister and nigh unbeatable foe as well.

The final arc of Xombi is a virtual dive into the imagination of John Rozum and we begin to grasp the fact that the last seventeen issues where just the tip of the iceberg. Entire worlds populated by immortals, ancient gods, frauds, literary geniuses and more are brought to life within this final arc. Kim’s journey brings him into contact with other Xombi’s as he searches out opinions and ideas on how to deal with his condition and how to share it with his soon to return fiance. There is no overarching antagonist for these issues, instead it’s very much an exploration of the new world David Kim is a part of and it’s populated by the tales of some of the inhabitants, each working in his own way to shed light upon his new life. From the wonderful, folklorish tale of the African xombi, Dumaka, to the tragic and heartbreaking choices made by the immortal Kameko. The tension in these tales comes less from physical threats and more from the decisions the characters make. How will David Kim respond when his future is revealed to him? Will he allow his immortality to turn him into a bitter and lonely man as it did Dumaka? Even the immediate threat of The Boogeymen Dread, beings who kill be devouring hopes, dreams and positive emotions helps to further these questions and the idea of hope and despair being the two immediate paths upon which David may journey.

Birch’s art is at it’s best here. Every panel is alive and is often packed with detail and monsters, wonders and horrors. He doesn’t balk at drawing anything that Rozum’s mind can cook up, ranging from a young girls aura, sidewalk fish, fantastic cities, black knights and more. It’s a treat for the eyes. The high gloss paper is in use and it does a fantastic job at bringing out the colors which give Birch’s artwork that extra little pop. There’s a two page spread in the first issue of a flying pagoda which is absolutely gorgeous and incredibly striking, due in no short part to Birch’s pencil’s and Noelle Gidding’s colors working together beautifully. As much as I enjoyed the earlier issues I just can’t imagine that one moment having the same impact on the older paper stock.

While the final arc doesn’t answer all the questions, it certainly does a good job at wrapping up the series and gives David Kim’s story, not to mention the readers, a fairly positive and happy ending. Given his immortality and some of the revelations dropped throughout this arc David Kim’s future wouldn’t be all roses, not to mention the new ongoing Xombi series, but at the time his immediate future was looking pretty good.

Xombi #17 – 21: Hidden Cities were published by Milestone Comics..

COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS, Vol. 1

March 11, 2011 1 comment

by Kemuri Karakara
DMP, 184 pp.
Rating: YA (16 +)

In the world of COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS there are two worlds. The world of the living and Sheol, the world of the dead. Oddly enough they’re not that different from each other and even the dead souls never stop learning. Enter Mitamura, a teacher at the Sheol academy for the departed. On a supervised field trip he looses a student and is forced to recruit the recently deceased Hanasuke to help him find her. From there the duo’s paths seem entwined and they quickly find themselves sucked into a whole host of problems plaguing both worlds. In addition to the main story, there’s a short one off tale called “Soothead” included at the end.

The second of DMP’s two Kemuri Karakara offerings: Where as Replica was an action packed series, COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS has a much stronger comedic bent and seems more focused on relationships and characters rather than non-stop action. The characters actually might feel a tad familiar to readers of Replica. Mitamura’s a quiet young man who has a problem connecting with people, meanwhile Hanasuke is a loud, brash and outspoken fellow. While the relationship between the two at times seems to echo that of Replica’s two leads, Mitamura and Hanasuke’s relationship and interaction feels a little less forced and a bit more natural. I found the interplay and back and forth between them interesting and believable. That said the characters aren’t without their downsides, particularly Mitamura. I get that the story seems heavily driven by his learning to relate and care and be open to others and that he needs to start out fairly isolated and aloof, but Kemuri Karakara doesn’t seem to think that’s enough and includes a bit of backstory for Mitamura that makes him seem down right sociopathic! There’s a heartless and cruel incident from his past that made it really difficult to relate to him or care about him in any way, shape or form, which is a bit of a shame since he’s one of the leads. Amazingly Karakara is able to salvage his character, and while I’m still not sure I’m rooting for him or care about him, his presence is tolerable, though he’s tainted with an aura of a budding serial killer.

If the main story wasn’t enough, the second half of the volume is compriised of a one off called “Soothead”. “Soothead” is an interesting tale of a near perfect kingdom plagued by a boogeyman, evil genius, supervillan known as, surprise, Soothead. It’s a bit of a complex tale involving politics and the manufacturing of a common villain for the purpose of preserving the peace. It’s an interesting concept and one that has it’s roots in real world politics, it’s not exactly uncommon for people in power to manufacture a threat to unite or galvanize the populace, but here’s it’s done for benevolent purposes rather than sinister ones. That said the idea does present a bit of a problem since I’m not really sure why the kingdom isn’t rife with paranoia regarding Soothead and why and how he’s capable of being behind all the countries’ ills while continuing to evade the law. Still, it’s interesting and I’d actually like to see more done with the concept and the characters.

Visually there aren’t too many surprises here. COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS looks good and I feel that the artwork suits this tale more than the action packed Replica. Kemuri Karakara does a good job at depicting the emotions of everyone involved and the layouts are interesting and easy to follow. The designs are slick and polished looking with the odd foray into the more comedic overreactions scattered throughout. Perhaps it’s thanks to the lively back and forth between Mitamura and Hanasuke, but these overreaction don’t really feel out of place or at odds with the rest of the story at all. “Soothead” is a bit of a treat with a fantastic design for the titular character, one that echoes the classic doughboy look of DC’s superhero, The Sandman, with some nice modern tweaks to it. The action sequences in the tale are probably the best I’ve seen from Kemuri Karakara and where energetic, humorous and engaging to look at.

COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS was a pleasant surprise, given my lukewarm reaction towards Replica I started into this volume expecting to dislike it, but it ended up being a wonderfully entertaining and enjoyable with a few minor bumps here and there. I don’t think it’s groundbreaking work, but I wouldn’t mind reading more COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS and I thought that “Soothead” showed some amazing potential and would love to read more of it. If Kemuri Karakara ever chooses to revisit the concept and flesh it out I’d definitely be willing to give it a look.

COUNTDOWN 7 DAYS, Vol. 1 will be available on March 15 from DMP. Digital review copy provided by the publisher.

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Replica, Vol. 1

March 4, 2011 2 comments

by Kemuri Karakara
DMP, 184 pp.
Rating: YA (16 +)

Replica a recent offering from DMP is an odd, sci-fi-ish tale of a viscous bodyguard known as, Manji, aka The Red Dog. While looking for work one day Manji happens to cross paths with the mysterious Kal and finds himself sucked into the battle between Kal and his allies, as Cards and the mysterious AAA.

The story wastes little time in throwing readers head first into the action. We’re quickly introduced to Manji and informed about his reputation as a lethal and deadly bodyguard. Hot on the heels of these revelations comes the introduction and Kal and the dangerous, destructive beings known as Toys. From there the tale jumps between action scenes and info dumps quite quickly, barely giving readers a chance to catch their breath, with the exception of a small bit midway through the volume. This is both good and bad as it makes it a quick, light read, but at the same time there’s little to no time given to setting up the world in which the story takes place. While it’s true we’re told quite a bit about the Cards and AAA, we’re given very little information on the world the tale inhabits. The result is that the story takes on a weird, free floating feel where the Cards and Manji move from helpless, heavily populated town to helpless, heavily populated town as the only defense against the Toys. On top of that the information we’re given regarding the two groups tends to come through exposition from Kal aimed at Manji. I felt this undercut Manji’s reputation as a deadly and experienced bodyguard and he instead he ends up coming off as a bit clueless, naive and headstrong, kind of like your generic shonen protagonist actually.

The artwork isn’t horrible but it honestly didn’t blow me away either. It’s solid and the character designs are slick and appealing. The fight scenes are ok and are clear and easy to follow, there is a fairly nice sense of movement, particularly with Manji’s sword swings. The Toy designs vary in complexity and style, but most seem like little more than living balloons that fly about and blow things up. Even the more dangerous Toys lacked a sense of menace and felt more like evil parade floats.

I’m not really sure what to make of Replica. It looks slick and polished but read a bit awkwardly and feels like it’s trying to be incredibly creative and imaginative but ends up feeling a bit contrived, generic and bland. The weird Alice in Wonderland riffs and the silly appearances of the antagonists left me a bit flat, as did what little we saw of the Cards themselves. It’s just a tad too bland for me right now, but it is only the first volume so there’s plenty of room for improvement as the series continues.

Replica, Vol. 1 will be available on March 15 from DMP. Digital review copy provided by the publisher.

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Xombi #12 – 16

March 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Written by John Rozum, Art by J.J. Birch and Denys Cowan
Milestone
Rating: Unrated

Initially I had planned to cover the entire series in three entries, one for each of the major arcs, but upon rereading it I realized that I had forgotten just how long it was between “School of Anguish” and “Hidden Cities” arcs! With five single issues bridging the gaps between the two arcs I was forced to break my look at the series into four posts rather than three. Unlike the previous two posts there’s no singular arc present in these issues. Instead there’s a vague and loose thematic arc depicting David Kim and his gradual, reluctant acceptance of his new life. It’s comprised of three single issue tales a two parter that’s vaguely connected to a summer cross that Milestone was running at the time.

Issues #12 – #13 continue along the thread started in “School of Anguish” and deal with David’s first, tentative steps toward accepting and learning to deal with his new situation as he seeks out help from Rabbi Sinnowitz and contemplates how to break the news of his condition to his heretofore unseen wife, Dahlila. Up until now she’s only been mentioned as being out of the country due to work, but here we’re finally given a glimpse of Dahlila herself, not to mention some notion as to what kind of a person and character she is. There’s also a haunting, cautionary tale from Rabbi Sinnowitz’ past which serves as an official prelude to “Hidden Cities”, the next major arc, and introduces the Kinderessen, a threat that will turn up again in the series fairly soon. While the next three issues, #14 – #16, are technically part of a company wide crossover the first issue functions fine as a stand alone tale and requires no knowledge of anything outside of Xombi, but the final two are a little trickier. Several characters who have appeared elsewhere in the Milestone Universe pop up, but thankfully just about everything you need to know is given to you within the story itself and hopefully folks who are unfamiliar with them will be able to muddle through. Honestly it was a bit difficult to write about these issues as a whole since there’s no real overarching plot tying them together. There is the vague theme of David Kim slowly acclimating to the weirdness and starting to take in step, but the momentum of the first two issues almost feels derailed by the final three. That said we do get some development thanks a brief look into David Kim’s normal life and there’s the introduction of a wonderful new supporting character in the form of Cheryl Saltz, a fellow scientist and friend of David’s. She’s one of the highlights of the this “arc” and I can only hope that she’ll pop up again in the new series.

The artwork in this issues are fine and the oddities from Birch’s art in “School of Anguish” are gone. The oddness is actually toned down a bit after the dream sequence and the creatures are far from the surrealist nightmares that have appeared to date. That said, Birch digs deep and cranks out a very basic but primal nightmare in the Kinderressen, creatures who are fairly generic as far as monsters go, but also seem to fit the very basic premise of a childhood monster, large, threatening, dark, hairy and viscous as hell. They’re not terribly fancy or fantastic visually, but I thought it was the simplicity of their design that makes them so memorable. It’s also worth mentioning that the final three issues in the arc feature a switch to the high gloss paper stock which makes the Noelle Gidding’s colors really pop and helps give the artwork a much fuller and lush feel.

While I enjoyed these issues I can’t help shake the feeling that the final three are place holder material due to the cross over, and that Rozum would have happily dived into the “Hidden Cities” arc three issues earlier if possible. They break up the flow the series had developed over the past twelve issues and when you look at the series and the arcs as David Kim’s development and growing into his new life, they kind of stick out. Still, the first two issues are incredibly important and the final three, thematically awkward though they may be, are pretty damn fun.

Xombi #12 – 16 were published by Milestone Comics.

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