Manga Friday: In Medias Res
We all want to get on the ground floor, but that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes, we find ourselves walking into a movie two reels in, munching popcorn and whispering to each other “And who is that guy?” In honor of those confused moments in all of our lives, this week Manga Friday read Book Two in a short stack of manga series, and tried to figure out what the heck was going on.
First off is Spiral: The Bounds of Reasoning. The division into volumes is a bit odd here, since the first section of Vol. 2 is the third and final part of a locked-room mystery. So we get that old-fashioned mystery-plot staple: the detective explaining everything and talking at great length to all of the characters, who wonder why he’s gathered them all there. It’s very talky, of course – that’s the whole point of that kind of exercise – but it summarizes the first two parts of this particular story well enough for me to understand the ending.
After that are two one-part stories and then a two-parter, which explain a bit more about the premise, and expand out the cast a bit. The detective from the first story is a teenager named Ayumu Narumi, and he’s the other stereotyped manga teen boy: the uber-competent whiz kid (as opposed to the amiable slacker – no manga teens that I’ve seen are just pretty good at a couple of things). He’s both a deductive genius and a world-class pianist, but is tortured because he’s not as good at either of those things as his older brother, who disappeared mysteriously (swell ominous music).
The antagonists are a group called the Blade Children; we don’t learn all that much about them in this book, but they all are missing one rib (surgically removed in early childhood), are even more tormented than Ayumu (and linked to him and/or his brother somehow), and possibly have some kind of secret over-arching plan. Two major Blade Children are introduced in this book: Eyes Rutherford, the goth-y English teenage piano sensation (the world within a manga is a deeply silly place, sometimes, full of people named “Eyes”), and the sneaky, monologuing Kousuke Asazuki. I’m not entirely sure if they’re supposed to be villains, per se, which might explain why they’re not terribly frightening – or comprehensible. All in all, I could follow the main plot of Spiral, but the first volume might have explained the point of it all in a way that I really needed.
Next is Andromeda Stories, which, despite the title, is the middle volume of a trilogy. (There’s only one Andromeda Story, and this is it.) It’s from 1980-82 originally, so the style is a bit different from today’s manga – there don’t seem to be quite as many close-ups and the backgrounds and panel layouts are subtly different. The plot starts somewhere in particular and heads somewhere else at high speed (as opposed to the episodic, TV-show quality of most modern manga, which dither around the same premise for as many episodes as the manga-ka can string out). The back cover copy is dense, but necessary, explaining that an evil race of machines (called merely “the Enemy”) has conquered the Cosmoralian Empire (on a vaguely India-looking patch of land on an alien world somewhere in the Andromeda galaxy), and Queen Lilia and her son Prince Jimsa are fleeing ahead of the metal hordes.
(Actually, the back cover gives away more than that, including a plot detail from the last five pages, so you may want to skim or skip that if you end up reading this book.)
Jimsa grows up about ten years in a blink of an eye – becoming an eleven-year-old who looks like at least sixteen – and then embarks on the journey to Achieve His Destiny, as the children of countries conquered by The Enemy always must do. There are a lot of events in this book, and a lot of talking – much of it from the Wise Old Mentor, who tells Jimsa some important facts, but is also Hiding Secrets – but it all adds up to Epic Fantasy Plot #3, and is very seriously incomplete when this volume ends. Andromeda Stories is a well-told version of that plot, with nice art, but it’s still a story we’ve all seen a dozen times before. If you’re a huge epic fantasy reader, Andromeda Stories would be an excellent way to dip your toe into manga – it will be very familiar, down to the three-volume structure. But, if you do, don’t be like me – start with the first book.
Monster is something else again: a tough, tense psychological thriller from the mid-90s that won a number of awards (1997 Media Arts Festival Award for Excellence, 1999 Tezuka Osamu Cultural Award) and which has an instantly accessible, very Western-looking style. It’s set in Germany, which seems odd at first, but plenty of US writers set their stories in foreign countries, so there’s no reason to expect Japanese creators won’t do so as well.
Dr. Kenzo Tenma saved the life of a boy a decade ago, but that boy has now grown up into a serial killer. (He is the kind of ridiculously smart, amazingly organized serial killer who only exists in fiction, but he’s not on stage at all in this book, so he’s easier to accept.) Meanwhile, the boy’s twin sister – the one who nearly, and deliberately, killed him all those years ago – has amnesia. Inevitably, she’s being stalked by that brother, who has his own, very nasty, plans. That part of the story gets resolved in this volume, and there’s another sequence about Kenzo – it seems that he’s the core of the series.
Monster is a really good crime drama in comics form, with excellent pacing, great characterization, and some unexpected plot twists. According to the back cover, it ran for eighteen volumes – which seems like an awful lot to me – but, here almost at the beginning, it’s damn good. (And it’s not hard to figure out what’s happening, though I’m sure I missed some important events in the first book.)
Last for this week is the requisite historical samurai drama, Vagabond. It’s got another one of those heroes who looks way too old – he’s supposed to be eighteen, but looks like he’s in his thirties. He’s also a major historical figure, Miyamoto Musashi, though, at this point in his life, he has the name Shinmen Takezo. (The same thing goes on in Path of the Assassin, whose main character has changed his name at least twice already, and still hasn’t settled on the one hallowed in history. I guess samurai of the sixteenth century were just flighty like that.
Takezo is also on the run from the local authorities as this book opens, for a reason that’s not entirely clear. (Though he does slaughter a whole bunch of people starting on about page three, so, even if they didn’t have a good reason to be after him at first, they certainly do now.) He’s tormented and tortured by his place in the world and his upbringing (apparently his parents were horrible), which probably led to the killing spree.
There’s also something of a love triangle here: the local lord, Matahachi, is expected to marry Otsu, a girl (possibly an orphan) who was raised in his household, but she has come to hate him. (And she only started to like him at first, when the three were children, because Matahachi was Takezo’s only friend.) And a monk is trying to save Takezo – whether to save his life or just his soul is not quite as clear, nor why he’s doing this.
Vagabond has a lot of exciting action, well-choreographed and without much of the flashy flying limbs you sometimes see in the Koike-Kojima samurai manga. The art is crisp and easy to follow, and the characters well-delineated (though many of them seem to be a decade or two older than they should be). If I were looking for a samurai manga, this would be right at the top of my list.
Spiral: The Bonds of Reasoning, Vol. 2
Story by Kyo Shirodaira; Art by Eita Mizuno
Yen Press, 2008, $10.99
Andromeda Stories, Vol. 2
By Keiko Takemiya; Story by Ryu Mitsuse
Vertical, Inc., 2007, $11.95
Monster, Vol. 2
Viz Media, 2006, $9.99
Vagabond, Vol. 2
Takehiko Inoue; based on the novel Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa
Viz Media, 2007, $9.95
Andrew Wheeler has been a publishing professional for nearly twenty years, with a long stint as a Senior Editor at the Science Fiction Book Club and a current position at John Wiley & Sons. He’s been reading comics for longer than he cares to mention, and maintains a personal, mostly book-oriented blog at antickmusings.blogspot.com.
Publishers who would like their books to be reviewed at ComicMix should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.