Manga Friday: Welcome to the Neighborhood
Some people stay in the same place their entire lives: joining the family business, marrying their childhood sweethearts, growing old in the bosom of their loved ones underneath the spreading chestnut tree their grandfathers planted. But they’re boring, so there aren’t many manga about them.
People who go different places and do new things, on the other hand, are much more popular…
Cirque Du Freak, Vol. 1
By Darren Shan; Art by Takahiro Arai
Yen Press, June 2009, $10.99
Let’s get a couple of notes out of the way – first, this book calls itself just Cirque du Freak everywhere on the actual volume, but online stores think it’s named Cirque du Freak: The Manga. (Probably because there’s a long series of books for young readers under the “Cirque du Freak” umbrella title, of which this volume adapts the beginning of the first book, A Living Nightmare.) Secondly, “Darren Shan” is a pseudonym, and I know that definitively, because this is the story of a young boy named…
Darren Shan – who loves soccer and spiders, is inseparable from his best friend Steve, and goes to a uniform-requiring elementary school in some unspecified place. But then one day the circus – the strange, mysterious, dangerous, secret circus – comes to town, and Darren and Steve get tickets. The show is creepy and surprising, mesmerizing and faintly evil, in the way of a thousand fictional circuses since Dr. Lao and Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Steve is sure that one particular performer, a Mr. Crepsley, is more than he seems, and sneaks off to beg to be allowed to run away with the circus. That doesn’t work out, but Darren soon has an unexpected transformation from the same source. By the end of the book, Darren’s been torn away from everything he ever knew (and so on; you know the drill), given dangerous and ill-defined new powers, and made a mortal enemy out of Steve.
Cirque du Freak shows its origins as a mildly creepy story for grade-schoolers in everything from the I-am-telling-you-my-true-story bunkum of the author credit to dumb names like “Vur Horston, the Vampire” to the moral simplicity of the choices that the characters make. Arai has an energetic but clean-lined shonen style, full of close-ups of distressed faces and overly-dynamic bodies, but that can only go so far – this is essentially a story for ten-year-olds, and so those of us substantially older than that will inevitably find it thin gruel.
Welcome to Wakaba-soh, Vol. 1
By Chaco Abeno
Yen Press, June 2009, $10.99
Kentarou Sawai is just an ordinary boy – yes, another one of those – who’s desperately in love, in the way only a fifteen-year-old can be, with a girl named Karen Toguin who he’s barely met. So he transfers to her high school to be closer to her…and immediately learns that she’s on a leave of absence.
But he also moves into one of those small hotel/apartment/dorms so beloved in harem manga, called Wakaba-soh, and eventually learns (after the usual confusion, humiliation, and multiple panty shots) that Karen is going to be the caretaker of that building during her leave of absence, which doesn’t make much sense. (Even discounting the fact that her family – mostly as represented her by the requisite scarred and tough old grandfather – seems to be both rich and powerful.) Oh, and then there’s a girl with glasses (Arashi) who also lives in the building who was Kentarou’s best friend as little kids – she recognizes and loves him, but he’s too dumb to know it’s her. (And I haven’t mentioned Karen’s tough female driver/bodyguard/personal assistant, who is another manga cliché.)
Welcome to Wakaba-soh treads some very familiar ground, and does that over-quickly and haphazardly. This book has fifteen short chapters in its hundred-and-twenty pages, which means each one barely gives Abeno time to sketch out a generic situation and run it at full tilt to the obvious ending. The headlong rush also makes some of those chapters choppy or confusing, especially early on, as Kentarou goes from thinking Karen is gone to seeing her at the apartment to thinking she’s leaving again (for a different reason) in about two pages. The story could definitely have benefited from being seriously decompressed; it proceeds at a pace, and with a density of dialogue, more typical to Western comics.
The story also takes an unexpected hard left turn in the last three chapters, which start off as a flashback to Kentarou and Arashi’s childhood, and then sidetracks itself into an unrelated story about a manga-ka and her editor. This story is more original than the beginning, and has some potential, but it’s feels greatly out of place a hundred pages into a book about different characters ten years later.
So I can’t entirely recommend Welcome to Wakaba-soh: it means well, and it has its moments, but it ends up being very scatterbrained.
An Ideal World
By Chao Peng and Weidong Chen
Yen Press, March 2009, $120.99
A You is nineteen and still living at home in one of those cities that I thought only existed in slightly unrealistic European comics – bustling, stuffed to the rafters with odd visual interest, slightly archaic-looking in all sorts of ways, and brightly colored. He’s grumpy most of the time, sure that he’s destined for something great in life but sullen that it hasn’t yet fallen into his lap, and he’s bad at his warehouse job since he’s so easily distracted and unfocused.
I’m afraid that An Ideal World is a comic with a message, and that message seems – to this unrepentant capitalist American – to be deeply Chinese and collectivist. A You needs to learn to be less selfish and to do his work like a good little son of the revolution, but it will take some doing for him to learn that lesson.
So the story follow A You on a typical day – he gets up late, grumps to his mother (who is a pushy, obnoxious witch herself), gets into a whole series of accidents and mishaps on the way to work, gets ther
e late (and gets chewed out), and then causes a big problem by his whiny inattention. And the story is very talky through all of this – not to mention the rest of the story – as A You grumps to everyone who’ll listen that he’s not happy with his life, that all the bad things happen to him, and that he should have it better than this. They all, in turn, talk back to him at equal length about how he needs to pay attention and actually do some work, which advice works about as well as it usually does with a sullen nineteen-year-old.
A You eventually finds his way to the Ideal World of the title – a fantasy world filled with vibrant color and life, where he works for a circus (yes, again!), meets a wise zebra-headed businessman/philanthropist, and eventually realizes that everyone in that world is happy because they do their jobs as well as they can and pour their energy and enjoyment into those jobs. He’s also falling for a pretty girl, Anan, and thinks that’s he’s found perfection. So, of course, he’s dragged back, all but kicking and screaming, back to his own world.
Did he learn his lesson? Does he become a smiling, efficient, take-charge worker immediately upon his return? (And start treating seriously the real-world version of Anan?) I’ll have to send you back up to my second paragraph about this book for a definitive answer.
I haven’t seen many Chinese comics, so my impression of them may be skewed by lack of evidence, but – from what I have seen – they seem to look much more to Europe than to their Asian neighbors. The storytelling here, aside even from being oriented left-to-right, is much more like that of French comics than of manga or manwha. (This particular book was published in France as well, which may either explain the comparison or just be the French market picking up on a project of interest to them.) The heavy-handed lesson wouldn’t be out of place in French comics, either – some of the more turgid Jadorowsky/Moebius “Incal” stories are equally thudding and obvious. An Ideal World may also be best for a somewhat younger audience, particularly of those who need to be reminded that you do need to work at something if you want to succeed at it.
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 to submit books for review should contact ComicMix through the usual channels or email Andrew Wheeler directly at acwheele (at) optonline (dot) net.