Manga Friday: Flashing Swords
One of the great symbols of Japan to a Western audience – equal to pagodas, kimonos, and that exaggerated white makeup – is the katana. (Well, any vaguely Japanese sword, to be honest – it doesn’t have to be precisely a katana as long as the profile is right and it’s declared to be incredibly sharp.) I suspect it’s the same for the Japanese themselves – that their traditional swords are one of their internal cultural markers, and part of the standard mental furniture that makes up “Japanese-ness” – since there’s a blizzard of the things in their comics stories. For example…
By Jun Mochizuki
Yen Press, November 2009, $10.99
Surprisingly, this is a single-volume story, not the first volume of anything longer. But it’s paced like the first volume of a longer work, and the ending certainly leaves lots of room for a continuation. (I actually went back to the cover and copyright page after finishing the book, to make sure that it wasn’t “volume one.”) I would not be at all surprised if this was meant as a try-out for something longer, though I have no idea if any more will ever appear.
But, in this book, there’s a young woman, Claudia (also called the Rose Witch), who is the mascot/powerhouse of the secret organization Red Rose – she’s part of its Crimson-Shell division, which I gather is the field operation. The usual mad scientist discovered something called a black rose, which has infected lots of people to different effect: some turn into thorn-tentacled monsters almost immediately, while others keep their intelligence and human appearance for much longer, the better to infiltrate and destroy organizations like the Red Rose – which, as you might have guessed, has a mission to stop the Black Roses at all costs. Claudia is the requisite one person infected with the Black Rose who didn’t turn infected and evil; she instead has unspecified and varying powers over Black Roses.
The guy with the sword is her mentor/friend/savior, Xeno, who is the usual laconic master of violence (with artfully disarranged duster, long hair, and facial scruff to signpost that’s what he is), and he’s accused of being a Black Rose early on in the book. There is also a bewildering array of other characters, many of whom either are or are accused of being Black Rose agents, and that adds to the confusion (as well as the feeling that this is only the beginning of a longer story).
Claudia muddles through the plot without doing much – she’s one of those standard teenage-girl manga heroines, who can’t be too assertive without seeming unfeminine to the audience – and then there’s an ending that leaves a number of major questions. Crimson-Shell would have been an intriguing, if confusing, first volume of a longer series – the reader could assume that all of the unclear details would be explained further along – but it doesn’t work well at all as a single volume.
Hero Tales, Vol. 1
By Hiromu Arakawa; Story by Huang Jin Zhou; Scenario by Ryou Yashiro; Art Configuration by Kusanagi
Yen Press, October 2009, $10.99
Hero Tales comes by its swords the old-fashioned way – it’s set in a vaguely medieval-China setting, with an “Imperial Army” making inroads into the region where our main character, Taitou, lives. Luckily Taitou is destined to be one of seven legendary heroes with the powers of stars in the Big Dipper – presumably not meaning that he’s an immense ball of superhot plasma many light-years away; you don’t go to legends for accurate astronomy – and so a wandering swordsman gives him an ancient sword that can only be drawn by a true hero.
But an agent of one of the other legendary heroes soon comes to take the sword away from Taitou, which sends him (and the usual odd group of friends, including his seemingly-useless little sister) off on a quest to get it back. Along the way, Taitou and company will gather allies – they only get one or two in this book, but the pattern is obvious – and there will be a big confrontation with the other major legendary hero eventually. (You see, there are seven legendary heroes, but two of them are more legendary and important than the other five – and, obviously, since Taitou is the protagonist, he has to be one of the premier legendary heroes, and not just one of the run-of-the-mill legendary heroes.)
Hero Tales is a solid slab of generic entertainment, and doesn’t show any signs of being the slightest bit surprising or original – but it’s engagingly written and cleanly drawn (by Arakawa, creator of the popular Fullmetal Alchemist series), and succeeds perfectly well as what it wants to be.
Soul Eater, Vol. 1
By Atsushi Ohkubo
Yen Press, October 2009, $10.99
I saw the first three installments of this story – which are here called prologues, which is accurate – when they were published in Yen+ magazine, and I reviewed the series as part of a larger look at the first few issues of that magazine. This book collects those three prologues – each of which introduces one part of the cast – as well as the first chapter of the story proper.
To quote myself, the main characters of Soul Eater are “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.” There’s a cute schoolgirl Meister with a boisterous boy weapon, a narcissistic boy Meister with a smart and professional girl weapon (these two teams are basi
cally mirror images of each other), and an even more narcissistic and self-obsessed young man Meister (the son of Death) with two blonde bombshell automatic pistols.
Luckily, Soul Eater is not at all serious; none of the characters quite take themselves or their work seriously, and the art style is energetic and dynamic, full of odd-sized panels, quirky character designs, and ferocious mugging on the part of those characters. (There’s also a high level of fanservice, particularly on the part of the often-bathing Witch Blair, for those attracted or repulsed by that.) If it were serious, I’d have questions about these vigilante junior death-gods, who seem to have license to kill anyone they feel like, particularly anyone called a “witch.” (On the other hand, they usually kill people called things like “Bloodthirsty killer Jack the Ripper” and “Evil spirit Wrath of the Pharaoh,” which doesn’t leave a lot of room for nuance – but there have also been a few cases where they’re clearly empowered to knock off someone who is not dangerous, merely because she’s called a witch.)
This is a fun series, full of energy and verve; it knows what the clichés are and is quite happy to alternately follow those clichés and make fun of them, depending on the need of the plot at the moment. It’s not deep or meaningful, but that’s just fine – most of the manga series that try to be deep fail miserably, anyway.
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.