Manga Friday: New and Different
This week: three books with very little in common. Oh, they’re all recently published – on paper, and in English, even! – but that’s about it. So you won’t be bothered by my heavy-handed attempts to link everything together this time….
B.Ichi, Vol. 1
By Atsushi Ohkubo
Yen Press, October 2008, $10.99
In the nation of Japon, in the city of Toykyo, in the busy Chinjuku section – are your ribs sore from all of the nudging yet? mine were – an impressionable and unworldly young man named Shotaro is looking for his good deed of the day. You see, in this alternate world – you did get that it’s an alternate world, didn’t you? Because the alternative is that the translator was just really, really bad at spelling – there are “dokeshi,” who use more of their brains than the rest of us, to unleash superpowers, but they also each have a condition that governs those powers.
(OK, just for the record. The “people only use 10% of their brains” idea? Bunk. Utter bunk. It’s not true now, and it never was true – it was misreporting from an era when scientists studying the brain only knew what 10% of it did. But, even then, they knew it was all being used for something – they’d just only figured out part of it. But some people are so gullible they’d drown if they looked up during a rainstorm…)
Anyway, back to Shotaro. His power is that he gets the abilities of animals by chewing on their bones. (In the ever-lovin’ Animal Man vein, as if birds needed “superpowers” to fly, rather than wings, light bones, and strong muscles.) His condition is that he has to do a good deed a day. And his disposition is that intense sunnyness seen only in manga protagonists who have no clue about the actual rules of their world.
His quest? Well, he doesn’t seek the Grail – that’s a relief. He’s looking for his long-lost best buddy from early childhood, a fellow dokeshi named Emine. We readers, though, know that Emine has become evil, so we’re calculating how many volumes before the first, inconclusive confrontation, how many before the major confrontation, and how many before they team up to battle Piccolo.
Very early in this book, he meets the spunky young woman Mana, who also has a bizarre quest – she’s going from place to place, consulting fortune-tellers and “collecting commendations.” (Apparently from the local governments, from doing good deeds of her own.) She meets Shotaro, and they get caught up in various schemes and attacks by evil dokeshi – behind whom, lest we forget, is the shadowy overlord played by Shotaro’s ex-best friend.
B.Ichi is energetic and odd, with lots of strange touches and nudges about how alternate this world is. The art is similarly manic, with large blotches of black and characters whose eyes come in several widely varying sizes. (Here’s how to tell them apart: the closer someone is to being a protagonist, the bigger the eyes.) I’m not sure I got it, but I think I enjoyed it.
Wild Animals, Vol. 1: Key Trafficker
By Song Yang
Yen Press, September 2008, $10.99
Wild Animals, on the other hand, is a semi-autobiographical story of being young and vaguely rebellious in the late ‘80s in Peking. (Yang, from his foreword, still lives there – this was originally published in China, making it neither manga nor manwha but whatever the equivalent Mandarin word is.) There’s a frame story in 2001, when Ma Xiaojun is about thirty, but the bulk of the story is set thirteen years before, with Xiaojun and his friends near the end of high school.
(Count those dates carefully. Remember that this story is set in China. Add in rebellious students. And add the fact that Wild Animals is only two volumes long, and I think we all can see what – and where – the climax of the story will be.)
Xiaojun meets two girls – Yu Beibei, self-possessed and more than a bit wild, who is on the fringe of his group of friends, and Mi Lan, a bit older and more settled. If either of them were particularly interested in him, which there’s no sign of, Wild Animals would be the story of a love triangle. Instead, it’s Xiaojun’s story – eventually, it’ll be about how he grows up, but, in this first volume, he’s still got a long way to go.
Along the way, Xiaojun smokes a lot, and gets caught up in some low-level teen gang violence – probably highly shocking for China, but minor-league J.D. stuff for us jaded Westerners. It’s a realistic story of a teenager, and so there are elements that will be familiar to everyone who is, or ever was, a teenager.
The translation, or possibly the original text, is a bit stiff at first, but it settles down and becomes more colloquial pretty quickly. The art is quite nice, deftly gray rather than black most of the time and clearly a cousin of the kind of manga we’re familiar with…but not quite like anything I’ve seen before. Wild Animals is a bit rough around the edges, and the supposed thematic importance of the keys Xiaojun steals (source of the volume subtitle, “Key Trafficker”) is muted at best, but it’s a worthwhile graphic novel, and not at all what anyone would think of as “manga.”
Mao-Chan, Vol. 1
Story by Ken Akamatsu; Art by Ran
Del Rey Manga, October 2008, $14.95
Mao-Chan, on the other other hand, is exactly what one thinks when one thinks of manga. (Or, at least, one subset of that expectation.) You see, aliens are attacking Japan, trying to steal its cultural monuments for no apparent reason. And these aliens…well, let me quote:
“There it is, the cute alien! If we destroy that cute alien with modern weaponry, the whole country will be up in arms! In that case…we’ll have to fight its cuteness with our cuteness!”
Yes, the aliens are too cute to be battled with conventional weaponry. (I have to admit I chuckled at that.) So three elementary-school girls – one each the granddaughter of the Chiefs of Staff of the Ground Corps, the Air Defense Corps, and the Marine Defense Corps – have high-tech vehicles, cute uniforms, cloverleaf-looking light-up insignia, and batons that shoot some kind of energy beams.
Mao-Chan comes within a millimeter of not taking itself the slightest bit seriously – the three grandfathers are always bickering, until the girls cry and work together; the aliens have secret agents in the forms of the ditzy high school student council president and her tough, studious sidekick, the secretary (and they have cat ears and tails, to boot); and Mao, the main character and ground-based defense, is amazingly clumsy in that way only manga protagonists ever are.
If you’re looking for a serious read, stay far away from Mao-Chan. But it’s silly, goofy fun (and a knowing take on some silly manga tropes), and this volume has nearly four hundred pages of story – twice the size of the average manga – for only a few more dollars. If you like funny manga, you’ll want to check out Mao-Chan.
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.