Manga Friday: Everybody Was Kung-Fu Fighting
This week it’s time to go back to what manga do best – or one of the things manga do best, anyway – stories about people fighting and killing each other, usually with long point bits of metal. To make it even more interesting, all three of the books I’m looking at this week are later books in series – and I’ve only seen the earlier books in one case. So this might just turn into another installment of Stump the Reviewer…
Freak: Legend of the Nonblonds, Vol. 3
Story by Yi DongEun; Art by Yu Chung
Yen Press, June 2008, $10.99
Three people –the increasingly oddly named Verna, Lorel, and Tublerun – live together (I think) and are the “Nonblonds,” a troupe of fighter/bounty hunter/martial artists, which apparently is a legitimate career in this world. (And that’s not unusual for manga, actually.)
None of them are blonde – which I wouldn’t have been sure about if Tublerun wasn’t the guy on the cover, but leave that aside – but I have no idea why that matters. Oh, and Verna – a dark-skinned woman, when the other two are light-skinned men – has been spending too much time in “Cerebro” lately, to make more money for someone who’s been in a coma for fifteen years.
Anyway, in this book, Tublerun – who I think was previously the goofball of the group, or perhaps even the explicit comedy relief, takes a solo job up near the North Pole. There, a girl named Marti, who calls herself the personal secretary of President Magnus and says the quest is an unofficial GIA event, tells an assembled group of tough characters that they are going to go into “an ancient site where the method of liquid metal-making was created” to find and retrieve a capsule for a vast reward.
With her is a guy who is, in order, Mr. Ecliptor, GIA’s security chief, and the son of “our President.” (He’s also, once he puts on a mask, the powerful and deadly Chroma – this may be a secret identity.)
Everyone heads into the pyramidal building, which – big surprise! – turns out to be a deathtrap. There’s an amorphous monster, which can take various forms and is animated by the minds of scientists who were investigating the “liquid metal.” In the end, Chroma and Tublerun survive, but don’t get too attached to anyone else.
The battles are the point here, and they’re perfectly acceptable – it’s a bit like a horror movie, though, since there’s a whole lot of cannon fodder only there to demonstrate how nasty the monster is through their messy deaths. But I wouldn’t encourage anyone to start here – I don’t have much more of an idea what was going on after two hundred pages than I did from reading the back-cover copy. (And what kind of name is “Tublerun,” anyway?)
Heavenly Executioner Chiwoo, Vol. 4
By Park KwangHo and Le HaNa
Yen Press, May 2008, $10.99
This one was a little easier to place immediately – it’s a semi-historical guys-with-swords story, set in Korea or China or both – that doesn’t really matter – some long time ago when magic worked. Chiwoo is our main character, a young swordsman with great potential, some friends, and an array of older mentor/trainer figures. (For a change, one of these is his uncle and another is his father; usually the heroes of stories like this are solidly orphans long before the story starts.)
In the first story, Chiwoo trains with the very powerful (and seemingly borderline psychotic) Ju-Ah, and then the rest of the book is about a battle against Yi-Yun, who I think is the Big Bad of the series, to save Chiwoo’s uncle Wol-Bek. There’s lots and lots and lots of fighting – the Eastern kind where people put on magic masks, calculate their chi to six decimal places, and announce loudly the techniques that they’re using.
This would all be swell, but the art style is very dark, clotted, and stylized. I think I have a decent idea who all of the characters are, but sometimes it was difficult to tell who was doing what to whom. And I have a nagging feeling that some people might have died in the course of the book, but I couldn’t tell you who.
One last art annoyance – the cover shows a normal-looking sword, but the interior art, for whatever reason, depicts Chiwoo & Co. wielding what look like 4’ x 8’ sheets of drywall attached to a handle. Seriously, these swords are much wider than the character’s heads, and I have no idea what’s up with them.
So, if you’re in the mood for a historical sword-slinging epic about people hitting each other with construction products, Heavenly Executioner Chiwoo might just be for you – but try to dig up the first volume to start with.
Dororo, Vol. 2
By Osamu Tezuka
Vertical, June 2008, $13.95
Dororo is another historical story, set in a mythical Japan – unlike Chiwoo, which I think does have a real historical period lurking in the background. I’ve read and reviewed the first volume, so I have a better sense of what’s going on – and, of course, Tezuka is the official Godfather of Manga, so we expect more from him.
This is the middle volume of a trilogy, so it’s not as strong as the first volume – which set everything up – and, I hope, not as strong as the third, which will have the big conclusion. This is the middle, where things get more complicated, and Hyakkimaru the demon-haunted swordsman and his sidekick, the cute kid thief Dororo, find out more about each other and their world. They’re not happy with what they learn, but that’s the way life is.
There’s a story here that falls into the pattern set at the end of the first book: Hyakkimaru and Dororo come to a town beset by a demon, destroy it, are briefly hailed as saviors, and then driven out themselves. But the other two stories have different plots: in one Hyakkimaru also runs into his father, whom he had never known, and the other seem him battle a demon in a waterfall. More importantly, all three stories see his relationship with Dororo strengthen, and, with the help of a blind monk, he starts to think about his own purpose in life, and what he might do if he defeats all of the demons and finally becomes whole. Tezuka is at his best when he gets existential and philosophical, but those elements aren’t integrated as well here as in MW or Ode to Kirihito.
I didn’t mention it with the first volume – which I read as a PDF – but Vertical has kept Dororo unflopped, in the original Japanese right-to-left reading pattern, unlike their earlier Tezuka books. I suppose that they’ve seen that’s where the audience is — the manga purists prefer unflopped books, and getting a non-comics readership of any kind is very difficult, so it’s best to aim for the people who already want something.
Again, Dororo isn’t the very best of Tezuka’s work, but it’s head-and-shoulders better than most of the manga I’ve been seeing. If you’re looking for a story about guys in kimonos and topknots slashing at each other, the only thing I’d recommend above Dororo is Lone Wolf and Cub.
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.