Manga Friday: Yen Plus Magazine
Yen Press launched a new manga magazine last month called Yen+ (or maybe Yen Plus), to compete directly with those twin 800-pound gorillas of manga in America, Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat. I now have the first three issues here in my hands, so let’s take a look at Yen+ and see what’s in it.
Yen+, August to October 2008 issues
Yen Press, Aug-Oct 2008, $8.99 ea.
All three issues have the same eleven serials in them, so it would be silly of me to review each issue separately and come back again and again to the same stories. (I’m not saying that I never do anything silly – just that I’m not choosing to do so this time.) So I’ll talk about Yen+ in general first, then cover the serials, and finish up with particular points in the separate issues.
The first thing a savvy reader notices about Yen+ is that it has two front covers, and a quick glance inside shows that it’s not just the covers – the whole magazine is divided in half. Japanese manga start at the “back” and run right-to-left for two hundred and some-odd pages, while Korean manwha and Western-originated comics go the opposite way for about the same number of pages. The Korean/Western side is the “front,” with the table of contents, editor’s letter, masthead, and the other usual “front-of-the-book” materials. But the two sides are close in length – the Japanese side has five serials (with generally longer page counts), and the Korean side six (plus the editorial matter). So Yen+, if I may be impertinent for a moment, is perfectly happy swinging both ways…
Yen+, if I may continue to torture a metaphor, doesn’t aim at one sex or the other, unlike the Japanese magazines that are its model – or like Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat in the US. (So it’s bisexual as well as swinging both ways – no wonder it comes in its own plastic bag!) The editor’s letter in the first issue explains that – since the audience for manga, and for manga magazines, in the US is not huge yet, trying to please both boys and girls will, they hope, allow them to reach an audience large enough to survive. (The other possibility is that it will fall between two stools, with too much mushy stuff for the boys and too many severed heads for the girls.)
The lead serial in the first issue (they rotate a bit after that, so that more of the stories have a chance to be cover-featured) is an adaptation of a young adult novel from the biggest writer currently to publish with Yen’s parent company, in an example that I’m sure someone is holding up as wonderful synergy. The author is James Patterson, and the book is Maximum Ride.
The art for Maximum Ride is by Korean artist Narae Lee, who draws it in an accessible low-key-manga style for easiest assimilation by any Patterson fans who might have wandered in. (The only writer credited is Patterson himself, but given that he doesn’t even write most of his own novels, I doubt very much if he actually scripted this. It’s also unclear if this is an adaptation of one of the books in the series or an original story.) Maximum Ride is one of the grandchildren of King’s Firestarter: there are people with unlikely physical attributes – wings, in this case – and a nasty government agency that hunts and experiments on them. Our story focuses on a small band of these flyers, all of whom are teenaged at best, who are hiding in a remote location…until the evil government folks swoop down in the middle of the first installment to kidnap the youngest and cutest flyer for diabolical experiments. A rescue party is quickly arranged, but, by the end of the third installment, that’s still how it stands: one kidnapped, three off to save her, more to come.
Next in the line-up on the manwha side is Nightschool by Russian-turned-Canadian cartoonist Svetlana Chmakova, set among the secret night-dwelling alternate supernatural society that lives among us even now. (It’s a setup that allows for a lot of possibilities, and Chmakova does interesting things with it – she hasn’t yet dropped the naïf from our world into our story, which is the usual pattern – so we’ll forgive her if it’s not the most original idea in the world.) The first installment introduces the world through oversleeping Nightkeeper Sarah, who watches over the school that’s secretly shared between Night and Day folks. It looks like we’ll then have a school story, either among students or teachers, but the next two installments instead leave the school behind to follow Sarah’s younger sister Alex – who needs to stay at home for Important Reasons which are not explained – on a secret trip to a graveyard. So this one is still explaining itself, though it’s energetic and thrilling as it does so.
Pig Bride is from Kookhwa Huh and Sujin Kim, and it’s the first full-bore manwha story, based on Korean folklore. The son of an important politician disappeared for a few days in the mountains when he was eight, and dreamed that he was married to a girl in a pig mask. Now that boy, Si-Joon Lee, is eighteen, and attending a very posh school…when the pig-mask girl returns to consummate the marriage (accompanied by her quiet and deadly swordswoman older sister). Of course, Si-Joon is interested in one of his school friends – and isn’t crazy about the idea of a mysterious pig-mask girl to begin with. Wacky hijinks ensue, and by the third installment there’s also big nasty monsters and ominous talk about “how could there be someone with such high spiritual power in Korea?”
Ryang Ruy’s Sarasah takes a while to get going, but it looks like it’s turning into a distaff Korean version of Osamu Tezuka’s Apollo’s Song — a girl in modern Korea is crazy about a boy, he doesn’t reciprocate, and, through odd fantasy circumstances, she finds herself incarnated as (I think) her own ancestress, in Korea’s medieval history. There, I suspect, she’ll have to make the boy fall in love with her, and heal the rift in their love that was never supposed to be…or something like that. The three installments so far are all setup – one in the modern world, one in a transitional supernatural realm, and one is historical Korea – so I might be making assumptions from facts not in evidence. But I think that’s where this is heading.
For a complete change of pace, One Fine Day is a loosely-drawn tale of a man and his three pets – a dog, a cat, and a mouse – who also can change into little boys. They have various minor everyday adventures – making cookies, going for a picnic, and so on. It’s a cute little series, something like an even quieter and lower-key Yotsuba&! I don’t know how long a series can run on charm, but this one, by a creator credited as “Sirial,” is going to find out.
Last on the manwha side is Jinho Ko’s Jack Frost, a complicatedly ultra-violent afterlife highschool fantasy with a lot of severed body parts coming off people who turn out to be perfectly fine afterward. (It also has substantial fan service involving heroine Noh-A Joo, sometimes – uncomfortably – while her head has been temporarily removed from her shoulders.) Jack Frost is the main reason, at this point, that Yen+ is rated OT for older teens rather than just plain T for teens. The art is fine in a clean shonen style, and the story looks like it’s going to start coming together soon, but I’m really not sure why Yen would drag the audience for their whole magazine up several years to suit this gory, leering series. (I’m not disliking it, but it’s clearly further out than it’s magazine-mates.)
Turning to the other side, and reading from the other direction, we’ll start with Soul Eater, which had the first (back) cover. Soul Eater is by Atsushi Ohkubo, who is introducing a large cast – each of the first three installments have different main characters. But they’re all in the same line of work – they work for Shingami-Sama, the death god, and harvest souls. (They seem to be utterly free to decide whose souls to collect – and when and how – but they insist that they only take evil souls…like anyone calling herself a witch.) Some of them are “Scythemeisters,” who collect the souls and may be human or some kind of supernatural entity, and the others are the transforming weapons (usually scythes, but also six-shooters and others) used to gather those souls. Soul Eater is broad and silly and doesn’t seem to take itself seriously at all; I’d love to see this once it hits tankoubon form – I’d prefer a bigger chunk, so that (I hope) all of these characters will eventually be part of the same story. (This story also has a lot of fanservice-y almost nudity, including a lot of strategically placed soapsuds.)
Nabari No Ou is a modern-day ninja story from Yuhki Kamatani, focusing on Miharu Rokujou, a seemingly normal teenage boy who actually contains vast secrets of occult power within him – and, so, many groups are lining up to fight over him. He, of course, just wants to be left alone to have an “ordinary life,” but the series will eventually be about Miharu taking responsibility for his great power, yadda yadda yadda.
Along very vaguely similar lines, but much sillier, original, and more fun, is Sumomomo, Momomo by Shinobu Ohtaka, in which the young scions of the two greatest ninja families in all Japan were betrothed by their parents as infants. The girl – who has immense ninja skills – is utterly into it, but the boy intends to become a famous prosecuting attorney. I hope that he manages not to have to punch anyone as the series goes on; it’s a nice conceit. Sumomomo, Momomo is clearly a piss-take on previous ninja series – things like Nabari No Ou, actually – and it’s a lot of fun.
Bamboo Blade is another series that isn’t entirely serious; it’s a sports manga by Masahiro Totsuka and Aguri Igarashi. The impoverished faculty advisor of a high school kendo club needs to build a strong female team in order to win a year’s worth of sushi dinners in a bet with his own old teacher…and the only way to do that will be to recruit a mysterious girl who has never done kendo at school, but practices incessantly at home on the orders of her family. It’s broad and silly and full of the usual manga highschool stereotypes, but the art is clear and the characters believable as caricatures, so I’d be happy to keep reading this for quite a while.
And last is Higurashi: When They Cry, which I can’t quite pigeonhole. Keiichi is a teenage boy who recently came to live in a small, isolated town, and has been taken up by four gorgeous girls of his own age (and who have very obvious separate characteristics, though I still can’t remember who they all are consistently). So far, it looks like a harem manga…but this town also was the site of a nasty dispute over a damn project four years ago, and someone connected with that dispute has been murdered on the same festival day every year since then. Keiichi starts investigating almost in spite of himself, and soon becomes suspicious of some of his new female friends. I’m really not sure where this is going; the script by Ryukishio7 shifts tone from comedy to near-horrific with ease, and doesn’t show any sign of settling down to a more limited emotional palette. The artist, Karin Suzuragi, can also pull out the stops artistically, shooting up to tight close-up full-page panels unexpectedly (but very effectively.)
Yen+ also lists the Yen Press manga for the given month – with one singled out as “My Favorite of This Month” by one of the Yen Press editorial team – and has short notes from the team (including a one-page “what happened this month” manga from their editorial assistant) in the middle of the book, just before the switchover from left to right.
Yen+ could have easily looked like a house organ – and the ad pages can give it publishing insiders that impression (particularly those of us who know that Little, Brown is part of the same publishing company) – but it doesn’t really feel that way; it has a wide mix of creators and styles. I can’t say if the sometimes-blinkered manga audience is going to want a wide variety of stories, but, if they pick up Yen+, they’ll find a lot of good stuff, including some that’s in exactly the style they like.
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.