Shotaro Ishinomori’s manga classic, Skullman, is available for the first time in the US thanks to the fine folks at Comixology! This singe volume story tells the tell of a dark, masked avenger carrying out a war against a massive, secret organization that seemingly controls the world. Unlike his spiritual brothers in the Kamen Rider franchise, Skullman presents a rather grim take on the concept.
This is something I’ve been wanting to read for a while now and there’s something of an urban legend feel to it’s creation. The story goes that Ishinomori was asked to create a new hero for a kids show Toei was putting together. He presented them with this, Skullman, a dark, grim and possibly insane man waging a war against a secret organization. Reportedly the executives rejected it as being too violent and scary, so Ishinomori went home and after a few days he tweaked the concept and thus was born Kamen Rider. Indeed it’s hard to look at Skullman and not see quite a bit of Kamen Rider present in it. But make no mistake, the executives were right on this account; Skullman is surprisingly dark and he’s definitely not a knight in shining armor, he’s not even a knight in slightly tarnished armor, he’s a driven man who seems to take sadistic glee in the lives he takes and at one point even claims that genocide is an acceptable means to his ultimate end.
Shotaro Ishinomori’s artwork is lovely and effective. His action scenes are easy to follow but exciting and he does a fantastic job at conveying motion, speed and energy throughout the book. At times the cartoony style does seem to clash with the grim nature of the story and there are a few moments which lose a little impact because of it. In addition there’s another small issue with Skullman when it comes to visuals, namely… Skullman himself. His costume is fine, the all black clothing and the jacket that is vaguely evocative of some kind of military dress suit and the cape all work wonderfully together. It’s the helmet that really threw me a loop though. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the recent Skullman anime series, but Skullman’s helmet in this just doesn’t scream scary or skull to me. It’s a large, white helmet which covers most of his face, leaving his mouth and jaw exposed, with two giant red eyes. It’s not terribly skull-like and actually made me think of Riderman rather than.. a scary, skull like monstrosity. Still, despite this and the odd cartoony style I did love the book and it has some absolutely gorgeous moments. The opening with the giant bat in particular is visually impressive and memorable.
I’m incredibly glad that this is finally available in the US and I’m very thankful for both Ishinomori Productions and Comixology for getting it out to us, along with several other series of his that I’ve been interested in. While I did have some minor issues with the visuals as I mentioned above, and the ending feels a bit sudden and anti-climatic, I did enjoy reading this and I can see myself going back to it again and again in the future as well. Fans of classic manga, tokusatsu shows like Kamen Rider or the Power Rangers, and superhero fans in general should definitely give this a look.
Skullman is available now from Comixology.
Hush A Bye Baby
By Yuriko Matsukawa
DMG, 198 pp
Rating: 13 +
Hush A Bye Baby is a collection of three short stories from Yuriko Matsukawa, each focuses on a young woman and the man she loves. The title story is about a young woman working at an all night store who ends up handcuffed to a former member of a biker gang who’s out to clear his name. The two stories that follow it, “No Saint of Soupe” and “Professional Passion” take place at a French restaurant called Poete and focus on romances involving it’s two French chefs.
The three stories are rather run of the mill romances and follow the same formula, a young woman finds herself flustered by a pretty boy only to eventually realize that she has feelings for him. In “Hush A Bye Baby” this budding romance is set against the young man’s fight to clear his name for murder, while in “No Saint of Soupe” it’s set against the young man’s attempt to prove himself as a chef to his older brother and in “Professional Passion” it’s set against a young woman’s struggle to prove herself as a reporter. They’re not terribly memorable and all three male leads and female leads felt awfully alike.
Yuriko Matsukawa’s artwork is rather forgettable and unmemorable. There’s no stand out scenes and it all feels like the stereotypical shojo manga style, pretty boys, borderless panels, sparkles and toning scattered about. There’s little panel to panel flow and at times I had trouble following the flow of dialogue as the word bubbles were often accompanied by bubbleless internal dialogue scattered about, narration boxes and more. In addition to this none of the characters look particularly amazing, memorable or impressive and often look eerily similar to each other at times. Most of the book is composed of talking heads and upper body shots floating against white, grey or minimal backgrounds, giving the whole thing an oddly ungrounded feel.
Hush A Bye Baby ultimately did nothing for me whatsoever. None of the stories were particularly interesting and the book didn’t do much to make me want to seek out further works by Yuriko Matsukawa. I get that I’m not the target audience for shojo, but surely there are better and more memorable romance stories than this out there. Itazura Na Kiss, springs immediately to mind. At any rate the bland artwork and bland stories resulted in a wholly forgettable read.
Hush A Bye Baby is available now from Emanga.com. Digital review copy provided by the publisher.
Dolls Don’t Cry
By Kaoru Ohashi
DMP/DMG/Emanga, 223 pp
Rating: 18 +
From Kaoru Ohashi comes Dolls Don’t Cry, the tale of a girl named Sena who, after protecting a friend who would later betray her, finds herself attacked by a boy named Shin. The two fight on a foot bridge near their school and end up falling from it into a strange, fantasy, sci-fi world. Unlike the real world though, there are no women here, only strange engineered female sex toys called Dolls.
The story starts off like a fairly straight forward shojo or shonen series before it takes a hard left and begins to explore what it means to be a woman and ideas regarding the treatment and objectification of women in society. Sena’s starts off as a fairly strong and capable character but once she finds herself in the weird alternate reality she’s quickly thrust into danger as any man who discovers her secret, that she’s not a Doll but an actual woman, something that’s incredibly rare and unheard of in this world, pretty much attempts to rape her on sight. The story is fairly graphic in its use of sex as it puts Sena through the ringer, showing her as strong and capable one moment and helpless and scared the next. Along the way she begins to develop feelings for Shin. The feelings contrast with the sexual desire and urges that nearly every other male in the world has towards women and Dolls and the result is a complex look inside Sena’s mind. How on one had she desires Shin, fears him and how her feelings and how sex might change things between them and more. It’s a surprisingly complex tale that deals with the ideas of male/female relationships and the various ways in which they’re confused, tense and complicated by emotions and desires and to a degree societal pressures. Sena’s not the only one with mixed feelings towards a man. One of the Dolls, Thea, slowly develops feelings and a level of self awareness and comes to love her master despite his abusive attitude towards her.
While the story was a bit of a pleasant surprise the art wasn’t. It’s rather generic and bland looking with several characters looking alike. In addition to this Kaoru Ohashi uses a technique where there’s no toning or shading in some panels for emotional affect, but sadly this often leads to some of the characters who were only identifiable by their hair color looking exactly alike and things becoming confused. There’s a few short action scenes but they’re muddy and difficult to follow.
Dolls Don’t Cry is a bit of an odd duck. While there are certainly some interesting ideas regarding gender relations, the treatment of women in society and more, none of the ideas feel fully formed to me. The Doll and sex toy analogy is the most fleshed out on but even there it just didn’t quite click for me. It’s certainly an interesting manga and it does raise some interesting ideas and questions but in the end it just doesn’t hold together very well as a story.
Dolls Don’t Cry is available now from Emanga.com. Digital review copy provided by the publisher.
Erementar Gerade, Vols. 8 + 9
by Mayumi Azuma
Rating: Teen (13+)
Mayumi Azuma’s saga continues with the eighth and ninth volumes of Erementar Gerade! Following the dramatic and violent events of Coud and company’s battle with the Viros it’s time for a visit to the doctors. Unfortunately for our heroes the mysterious Org Night which has been pursuing Ren is still on their tails.
These two volumes are a bit of a mixed bag for the series. You can see where it’s starting to tread water with the villain of the week formula and there’s a huge info dump in volume nine which stops any momentum the story had dead in its tracks. Worse, it’s an info dump that lays out the power tiers and hierarchy of Edel Raids, complete with diagrams. If there’s one thing I’ve always hated about shonen series it’s their inexplicable love of tiering for characters and their abilities. Despite this there’s some interesting twists and turns along the way as well. A figure from Ren’s past appears all to briefly and we get a better look at Org Night and their forces. Sadly we also see the departure of my two favorite characters, but I’m hopeful that they’ll both pop up in a future volume. The odd sexual exploitation theme that the series has been flirting with takes something of a back seat in these two volumes. We get some small mention of a doctor who molests his Edel Raid patients and there’s a line that seems to confirm that whatever Viro did to Ren was akin to rape, but that’s about it. That said one of the villains is bonded to multiple Edel Raids which does raise some interesting questions and ideas about relationships and emotions in general. With rare exception the Edel Raid/Pleasure pairings have been female/male and they’ve touched upon the idea of using women as objects and exploiting them versus a healthy relationships, but with this volume we’re introduced to a male Pleasure who’s bonded to no less than ten Edel Raids! If we continue along the idea of an Edel Raid/Pleasure relationship being akin to male/female relationships then what are to think about this? Edel Raids can only be bonded to one Pleasure at a time but apparently Pleasures can be bonded to as many Edel Raids as they want. Is there some kind of weird commentary about men being able to juggle multiple women but women only being able to give their heart to one man at a time or am I simply reading way too much into it?
The artwork is still solid but not terribly spectacular. The fight scenes take a small step backwards as well in volume nine, losing the clarity and flow that they had started to develop in favor of panels full of barely decipherable lines which contain the suggestion of action and movement rather than the depiction of it. The new characters who are introduced don’t strike much of a chord with me visually either aside from the figure from Ren’s past.
Overall these two volumes were a bit of a surprising read. The unveiling of the Edel Raid tiering structure, something that had been hinted at before but never explicitly explained, was incredibly disappointing and its inclusion was awkward and clunky. The repetitive nature of the villains is also starting to grate though at nine volumes this seems like something that won’t be changing any time soon.
Blood Blockage Battlefront, Vol. 2
By Yashuhiro Nightow
Dark Horse, 208 pp.
Rating: 16 +
The second volume of Yashuhiro Nightow’s horror action series Blood Blockade Battlefront has arrived! We return to Jerusalem’s Lot for three more tales of Libra struggling to keep the more destructive forces of the Otherworld in check.
I found this volume to be a bit more enjoyable than the first one. While the first heavily focused on Leonard, the newest member of Libra, this one switches things up and we spend a bit more time with the other members of the cast while being introduced to a few more members as well. This is a good thing as Leonard was pretty damn passive and boring, so getting glimpses at the rest of the cast is a welcome change of pace. The three stories within it also hint at a possible over arching plot line involving the most underexposed of all supernatural horrors… vampires. We get a short history of vampires in the world of Blood Blockade Battlefront, their origins and more before an all too brief confrontation with one. Meanwhile the comedy continues to miss for me and feels a bit too slapsticky and over the top. It also tends to stick out like a sore thumb and often feels awkward and forced, pulling. The characters aren’t terribly interesting or intriguing at this point either. They tend towards one or two traits cranked up to eleven and that’s about it.
Visually the book is pretty engaging and interesting to look at it. Nightow’s style is fairly unique and pretty stylish. The demons, monsters and weird bits of technology that fill Jerusalem’s Lot all look fantastic and are eye catching. The detailed backgrounds and crowds of demons, humans and things in between do help reinforce the weirdness of the setting and how it’s all usually taken in stride. Unfortunately when it comes to action sequences things get a bit messy. This is thanks in part to cluttered layouts, poses and the compressed nature of the action scenes. The result is something akin to the sequential art equivalent of the fight scenes from Nolan’s Batman movies. Some fast, undecipherable movement and positioning followed by a pose of the hero or villain looking cool as hell. They just lack the fluidity of other action series, both shonen and seinen alike.
The second volume of Blood Blockade Battlefront is a definite improvement over the first, thanks in part to the marginalization of Leonard and the shift in focus onto other characters. Unfortunately it failed to deliver in several other areas. The build up to the confrontation with the vampire was fantastic, the actual confrontation itself was rather short, underwhelming and failed to convey any of the menace or threat that the creature was built up to be. This seems like a good summation of the series so far. Lots of potential and interesting ideas but lacking in the delivery for various reasons.
Blood Blockade Battlefront, Vol. 2 is available now from Dark Horse Comics.
Erementar Gerade, Vol. 7
by Mayumi Azuma
DMP, 184 pp
Rating: Teen (13+)
The seventh volume of Mayumi Azuma’s Erementar Gerade continues the adventures of Cou and company as they attempt to reach Edel Garden. Unfortunately due to the events of the last volume, and Cou’s horrid attempt at border hopping, the group has to use more round about methods. They find themselves attempting to cross a forest via a gondola only to find themselves in a trap set by one of their own!
This volume is heavily focused on Viro, a young girl who joined the group a volume or two ago as a Cou fangirl. She began acting strangely last volume and engaged in some very disturbing activity with Ren. While it wasn’t really explained at the time it read like a sexual assault of some kind. At any rate it’s time for Viro’s secrets to be revealed in a tale that does a great deal to reinforce my belief that the underlying theme of the series is the exploitation of women in society as sex objects. For all intents and purposes she’s been raised and bred to serve, treated like a slave and had it ground into her that she’s just an object and less than dirt. By undertaking this mission to infiltrate the group she had hoped to rise from a toy to.. uh, well, a slightly more valuable toy. That’s what fascinated me about this volume. Her motivations are the horribly twisted ones of someone who’s been exploited and dehumanized to such a degree that they can’t recognize a healthy relationship or a way out of the cycle of abuse when it’s biting them in the ass. Instead she pursues self damaging obsessions and unknowingly continues the cycle. At least that’s my interpretation of it all. Viro and her secrets aren’t the only interesting moments of the volume though! We also get our first glimpse of Rasati and Lilea Reacting with each other and it’s kind of interesting, not to mention some more information regarding the antagonists and the introduction of potential cannon fodder for our heroes to deal with as well.
The artwork continues to improve though the character designs still fall flat for me, though a new villain in the series who appears here is a step in the right direction. The action scenes are becoming clearer and easier to follow as well which is a definite bonus in my mind. Mayumi Azuma does a fine job at depicting the quieter moments and this volume has a fair amount of them before things explode into mass combat. I’m a little tired of reading manga set in the woods though. I suppose it’s a little easier to draw sparse, rocky woodland areas than big urban cities, but it’s just so generic and bland that the physical setting for these fantasy/action shonen manga often blur together.
While it wasn’t quite as dark as the last volume I was reasonably impressed at some of the psychological themes that played out with Viro, even if it did ultimately come down to the typical good/evil dynamic that dominates shonen manga. I am starting to wonder whether Mayumi Azuma is actually going to say something about society and its treatment of women beyond that of “women are people too”, but I suppose that’s still a bit more than most shonen manga. The series continues to surprise and entertain!
by Mayumi Azuma
Rating: Teen (13+)
The fifth volume of Mayumi Azuma’s Erementar Gerade finished off the fight club story and expands upon the background and personalities Rasati and Lilea, a Pleasure and Edel Raid duo that was introduced at the beginning of the arc. From there the ever growing group begins their journey across the sea. In the sixth volume the group continues their journey across the ocean and crosses swords with the mysterious Greyarts!
With these two volumes we see the relationship between Edel Raids and their Pleasures shift a little bit. Up until volume five the Edel Raid/Pleasure relationships have generally been Male/Female. While there was a brief encounter with a Female/Female team, it’s only with these volumes that we get a real introduction and look at a same sex Edel Raid/Pleasure duo. Rasati and Lilea’s relationship shifts the idea of love and closeness from one of friendship, romance and exploitation to one of familial love and care instead. Given that up until now there was a strong underlying theme of men exploiting women for their own needs versus genuine love and friendship it’s interesting to see this permutation show up. The end of volume six features a return to the underlying theme of exploitation and abuse as we see an antagonist being punished in a way that’s more than a little evocative of sexual abuse. It’s actually a rather disturbing scene and stands out in stark contrast to everything else that’s been going on in the series so far. In fact the entire second half of volume six takes a surprisingly dark and disturbing tone. As for the cast, Cou continues to be slightly obnoxious and hot headed though he’s slowly beginning to calm down a bit. Unfortunately it’s not enough to really make him likable and I still find myself far more interested in the Arc Aile group and Rasati and Lilea.
Mayumi Azuma’s art continues to improve though I’m still not in love with it. It’s certainly serviceable and the action scenes are getting significantly easier to follow, but the designs still feel a tad too generic with few standing out or really capturing the imagination. Greyarts, for example, just kind of blends into the background as someone who’s supposed to be slick and stylish and cool looking but is ultimately forgettable. It’s a hard thing to really define. The best comparison I can come up with is the differences between Street Fighter and King of Fighters character designs. While the King of Fighters characters often look cool, modern and very hip and stylish they don’t quite capture the imagination or break into that iconic territory that make the Street Fighter character designs so memorable. I think a lot of it has to do with the designs conveying something of the characters personalities and when you dress an entire cast like they just walked out of an upscale, high fashion boutique they generally won’t convey much. Rasati, so far, is the stand out for the series in my opinion. Her design is interesting, not overly complex, and it conveys quite a bit about her character and who she is as a person.
The series is.. interesting. The dark and slightly disturbing twists and turns of these two volumes really has me wondering what the hell’s going on. It’s just such a strong shift in the tone of the series that it’s really taken me by surprise. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little curious to see how some of it plays out though.
by Mayumi Azuma
Rating: Teen (13+)
The third volume of Erementar Gerade kicks off with Cou, Ren and Cisqua crashing in on Wolx’s attempt at selling his captured Edel Raids, including their companion Kuea! After that the group finds themselves caught up in an underground Edel Raid fight club as they attempt to raise money for their trip to Edel Garden.
And here we begin to see the shounen-y heart of the series coming to the forefront. Following a rather brutal hand to hand fight between Wolx and Cisqua the Arc Aile contingent, previously looking to capture and defeat the Edel Raid hunter, instead cut a deal with him and the two groups part as friends. Following the conclusion of that story the series launches into an arc involving an underground Eden Raid fight club, which really seems to be an excuse to give Cou and Ren some time to train and explain in more detail the relationship between Edel Raids and their Pleasures, those that wield them, and the nature of their powers and abilities. Throughout the story Mayumi Azuma continues to touch upon the idea of women being exploited and treated as objects through her use of Edel Raids. It reaches new levels as our heroes witness an attempted rape upon an Edel Raid and we see more of the buying and selling of Edel Raids, something that once again brings to mind the illegal sex trafficking industry. It’s not all clever metaphors and subversive messages about the treatment of women though. Indeed there’s one scene that does a lot to reinforce certain gender roles and stereotypes. It comes when Cou and Ren are discussing the nature of their relationship and Cou states that he wants to protect Ren because… he’s a man and she’s a girl. Ugh. One step forwards, two steps back. Hopefully it’s something that will take a bit of a back seat or be subverted as the series progresses though.
The artwork seems to be getting more and more solid with each volume. While there are still some issues with the clarity of the action scenes, they’re definitely more coherent and easier to follow than those of the first two volumes. This is especially true of a surprisingly intense fight scene where Cisqua gets to strut her stuff in combat against an Edel Raid user. Mayumi Azuma imbues the blows the two exchange with a surprisingly good sense of force and power. While the character designs still leave me wanting, particularly the designs of the Edel Raids when they’re in their weapon form, a few new characters and outfits for existing characters appear and they’re a bit more to my liking. Clearly though that’s a matter of taste but I did find Cisqua’s hand to hand gear a bit more interesting and memorable then her normal clothing.
I have to admit that the series is starting to grow on me a bit, though at this point I’m not terribly interested in Ren or Cou. No, right now it’s the supporting cast that’s interesting me more. That’s not really that unusual for me and shonen manga though. Still, there’s a nice subversive feel to the series at times in the way it stealthily injects doses of real world womens issues into the series via Edel Raids.
by Mayumi Azuma
DMP, 184 pp
Rating: Teen (13+)
The second volume of Mayumi Azuma’s Erementar Gerade picks right up where the last one left off. Cou, Ren and the three members of an Edel Raid protection group, Cisqua, Kuea and Rowen, clash with a warlord who’s taken over a small town and traffics in women and Edel Raids. Afterwards the unlikely band finds themselves against.. another guy who kidnaps and traffics in Edel Raids.
I’m starting to notice a theme here. The first two volumes have both featured Cou and company facing off against a male antagonist who kidnaps Edel Raids and sells them to another buyer. Ten to one the buyer for Wolx, the second Edel Raid hunter in this volume, and the buyer mentioned by the first Eden Raid hunter are the same person. While it does seem to hint at a big bad for the early part of the series, I’m just not sure rehashing the exact same story we just read is the best way to go about it. Beyond the basic story the series continues its weird pseudo-commentary on gender relations and the treatment of women by society. It’s hard to not look at these stories about men kidnapping Edel Raids, which are always women so far, and then selling them and abusing them and not think of human trafficking problems. The abusive relationships between the antagonists and their Edel Raids, complete with them calling them objects, is hard to miss and at times I think it’s a rather clever and subtle commentary on the way society views and treats women. But then the series turns around and gives us weird fan servicey bits, like a scene with Cou which echoes his abortive attempt at molesting Ren when they first met, only this time he’s peeping on Ren and the other female cast members, Cisqua and Kuea, as they’re bathing at a hot baths spa.
Maymumi Azuma’s artwork continues to be a bit hit or miss with me. The character designs are serviceable but none of them jump out as being amazingly memorable or fantastic. The action scenes in this volume are also a bit clearer then those in the first. The scenes with Rowen and Kuea battling the second Edel Raid hunter are much more coherent and flow far better then any of the other action scenes that have turned up so far. Unfortunately the over the top comedic reactions still abound and that’s something that almost never works for me and Erementar Gerade is no exception.
The story continues to be a weird mix of interesting ideas and concepts and fairly bland shonen tropes. Ren gets threatened, Cou spouts dialogue about how he’ll protect her, fights ensue, etc. Right now the underlying ideas of the series interest me more than anything the characters are actually doing or anything happening within the plot.
by Mayumi Azuma
DMP, 182 pp
Rating: Teen (13+)
After taking a hiatus due to the closing of Tokyopop, Mayumi Azuma’s Erementar Gerade returns thanks to the fine folks at DMP! The series begins again as the first volume introduces us to the young sky pirate Cou and his adventures after encountering a mysterious young girl named Rev, who just happens to be an incredibly powerful weapon known as an Edsel Raid.
I read this years ago when Tokyopop first released it and wasn’t terribly blown away with it then. Sadly, the years haven’t really softened my opinion of the first volume at all. Cou is introduced to us as a bit of a lecherous pervert. We meet him seconds before he attempts to cop a feel on the sleeping Rev. It doesn’t exactly get him off to a good start with me even if it was meant to be some sort of light, comedic introduction. That said it does help set the tone for what’s to come, namely the idea of some young women being Edsel Raids, powerful weapons that are desired and lusted after by various people. With that in mind I suppose Cou attempting to molest some random unconscious young girl is just in keeping with what appears to be an underlying theme of women as objects. One can only hope the series rises above it’s shonen-y roots and actually articulates and says something interesting about the idea of women and their place in society but I’m not holding my breath.
Mayumi Azuma’s artwork runs the gamut from impressive to just ok. There’s a reliance on the over reactions for comedic effect, something that rarely clicks with me, and the action sequences are a bit muddled and confusing at times as well. Still, there’s something oddly stylish to some of the settings and characters designs even if they do feel just a tad too generic in places. That may sound like a contradiction but it’s not. Cou’s jacket and clothing are very cool, they just also happen to be fairly forgettable and almost stereotypical of a young male protagonist in an anime or manga.
I’m not still not in love with this series and I’m actually a bit surprised that DMP would be interested in bringing it back, I wasn’t aware that it was that big of a hit the first time around to really warrant a rescue when compared to some of the other highly regarded titles that are floating around in limbo at the moment. I’m sure someone will really enjoy it though, but sadly at this point in time that person isn’t me. I do have some hope for it though, the underlying idea of women being treated as objects has a lot of mileage to it and when the issue is discussed through a shonen series there’s some possibility for it to become a surprisingly subversive and socially relevant title.