Shōjo manga roundup: Tempest, Namida Usagi, Kimi ni todoke

Continuing from last week, here are some more short reviews of current (or at least recently translated) shōjo manga.
Hime from Tempest despairs of his male body.

Hime despairs of his male body in Tempest.

Title: Sonnensturm (テンペスト / Tempest)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Yuiji Aniya
Year: 2013 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Kōdansha)
Pages: 158
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/sonnensturm/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (of 3 volumes in German so far; volume 4 is scheduled for May)
ISBN: 978-3770481514

In the near future, earth’s entire male population is wiped out by a solar storm – that’s probably the eponymous Tempest (not to be confused with the manga Blast of Tempest / Zetsuen no Tempest). However, the remaining women figure out how to reproduce by hybridising egg cells. Only female children are born this way, until the 40th century, when a boy is born – our protagonist Hime. Trying to fit into this all-female world, he pretends to be a girl. Which goes well until his friend Kou wants to have children with him…
Such a story must be a real treat for anyone interested in gender issues. Homosexuality, social pressure and acceptance, radical feminism, family and reproduction politics, it’s all in there. It’s also interesting from a reception perspective: how easily does the reader “forget” that Hime is a boy? Can it be read as a yuri manga? On the other hand, Tempest doesn’t work well as a science fiction manga. Apart from some advanced data visualisation technology, we don’t see much that tells us we’re in the future at all.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
There's also a subplot on photography in Namida Usagi, but that's quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

There’s also a subplot around photography in Namida Usagi, but that’s quickly forgotten by the 2nd volume.

Title: Namida Usagi – Tränenhase (なみだうさぎ ~ 制服の片思い / Namida Usagi – Seifuku no kataomoi)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ai Minase
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2009)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/namida-usagi-traenenhase/
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 2 volumes in German so far; vol. 3 is scheduled for March)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3770481347

Ai Minase’s name might ring a bell, as she was an assistant to Arina Tanemura on the classic magical girl manga Kamikaze Kaitō Jeanne. Namida Usagi was off to a good start: in this high school love story, the stereotypical roles of powerless girl and powerful boy are reversed when Momoka, a fairly average girl, falls in love with her reclusive and unpopular classmate Narumi. However, this setup is already revised at the end of the first volume. After the holidays, Narumi returns to school with shorter hair and without glasses, and suddenly he’s popular with all the girls. This makeover (which the author claims to have made by popular demand) ruins the whole manga for me, as it looks like it continues from this point as just another bog-standard romance manga.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Scary Sawako from Kimi ni todoke.

Title: Nah bei dir – Kimi ni todoke (君に届け / Kimi ni todoke)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Karuho Shiina
Year: 2010 (originally 2005)
Publisher: Tokypop (originally Shūeisha)
Pages: 192-208
Price: €6.95 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=875_742
Volumes reviewed: 1-2 (of 18 volumes in German so far; vol. 19 is scheduled for April)
ISBN (vol. 1): 978-3-8420-0071-1

Her classmates avoid 15-year old Sawako because she looks like Sadako from The Ring. The only one who doesn’t find her scary is Kazehaya, the most popular boy in class – but then again, Kazehaya is nice to everyone…
I learned about Namida Usagi through a review in AnimaniA, which said that is was nowhere near as good as Kimi ni todoke. In the end I checked out both series, and AnimaniA was right. Although the character constellation in Kimi ni todoke (shy girl meets popular boy) seems generic at first, the subtle storytelling makes more than up for that. Particularly by the second volume, the focus is more on the girls Sawako tries to become friends with than Kazehaya. In other words, this manga is more about friendship than romance, at least so far. Will this series continue to be as enjoyable over the course of more than 20 volumes? I’m willing to give it a try.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○
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Shōjo manga roundup: Crayon Days, Pocha Pocha, Kase-san

It’s been a long time since I posted a straightforward review of a comic. The last one was actually from June 2013 (of Before Watchmen). All the while I’ve been reading comics, of course, some of which I found noteworthy. Here are three short reviews of some of them, united only by the fact that they are all shōjo manga from the last few years.
Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Painting is still very much a physical activity in Crayon Days.

Title: Kreidetage (くれよん でいず ~ 大キライなアイツ / Crayon Days – Daikirai na Aitsu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Kozue Chiba
Year: 2013-2014 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Tokyopop (originally Shōgakukan)
Pages: 192-196
Price: €6.50 (D)
Website (German): http://www.tokyopop.de/manga-shop/index.php?cPath=872_901
Volumes reviewed: 1-3 (of 3 volumes in German so far; vol. 4 is scheduled for April)

Shima is a 16-year old girl who likes to paint, but is otherwise unremarkable. The story starts with her changing from a regular high school to an art school. A fairly standard love story ensues, her (main) love interest being a rough and unfriendly schoolmate who is already an acclaimed painter. While I can’t say I find the depiction of high school life in Crayon Days convincing, it might be an interesting manga from an art historian’s perspective, as we get to see people painting and talking about painting. For instance, in the world of Crayon Days, abstract expressionism still seems to be en vogue. However, as in many other manga, the setting isn’t all that important here – it just serves as a backdrop for the characters and the story.
Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○
Katsuyo being caught at what she's best at.

Katsuyo being caught at what she’s best at in Pocha Pocha Swimming Club.

Title: Pocha Pocha Swimming Club (ぽちゃぽちゃ水泳部 / Pocha Pocha Suieibu)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Ema Tōyama
Year: 2014 (originally 2011)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Hōbunsha)
Pages: 112
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch-buchreihe/pocha-pocha-swimming-club/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (1 volume in German so far; vol. 2 is scheduled for March)

When overweight Katsuyo finds out that the boy she fancies only likes slim girls, she decides to lose weight and joins the swimming club of her school. I must admit I hadn’t read a yonkoma (4-panel) manga before, mainly because I thought that format was employed only for gag strips. As Pocha Pocha shows, longer stories can be told just as well in such a rigid layout of 2 × 4 panels per page. I’m not even sure  whether I find ‘comedy’ the right genre designation (though I suspect some of the humour gets lost in translation). Then again, romance isn’t the decisive element either here, as the story revolves rather around swimming, eating, and losing weight.
Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○
Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Yamada and Kase, our soon-to-be lovers from Asagao to Kase-san.

Title: Ipomoea (あさがおと加瀬さん / Asagao to Kase-san)
Language: German (translated from Japanese)
Author: Hiromi Takashima
Year: 2013 (originally 2012)
Publisher: Egmont Manga (originally Shinshokan)
Pages: 159
Price: €7 (D)
Website (German): http://www.manganet.de/buch/ipomoea/
Volumes reviewed: 1 (only 1 volume in German so far)

The shy schoolgirl Yamada meets her athletic schoolmate Kase when watering flowers (ipomoea or morning glories, asagao in Japanese) at their school and gradually falls in love with her. Yuri (Girls’ Love) is another kind of manga that I’ve shied away from in the past, finding it somewhat creepy for adult men to read about lesbian teenage love. Kase-san, however, handles the topic sensitively, as there is no nudity at all in this manga. It is quite similar to a heterosexual romance story, except that the protagonist Yamada struggles to come to terms with her sexuality and that of the eponymous Kase. Their homosexual love is still experienced as a somewhat ‘forbidden love’, which adds an interesting twist to this story. Hopefully Egmont will translate more of this series.
Rating: ● ● ● ● ○

Before Watchmen roundup, part 2: Minutemen and Rorschach

Last month I looked at Before Watchmen: Ozymandias, the storytelling of which I found disappointing. This month I’m going to look at two Before Watchmen titles which refer to the original Watchmen series in somewhat different ways.

from Minutemen #1 by Darwyn Cooke / DC ComicsReview of Before Watchmen: Minutemen #1-3 (of 6)

Language: English
Authors: Darwyn Cooke (writer/artist), Phil Noto (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 26 (#1) / 22 (#2-3) (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/before-watchmen-minutemen-2012

The fourth issue is already available (see e.g. this review at Major Spoilers), but as always I have to wait for the next mail order shipment to get it, so this review covers only the first three issues.

I imagine writing Minutemen must have been both easier and harder than the other Before Watchmen books: easier because not as much is said about them in Watchmen, which gives the writer more freedom, and harder for the same reason, because all the bits of information on the Minutemen scattered throughout the original comic need to be put together and integrated into a coherent story.

The framing narrative is Hollis Mason writing his book “Under the Hood” shortly after his retirement as the first Nite Owl in 1962, reflecting on his Minutemen days, and re-telling their story once again. This time, his story goes into more detail than what we have read in the “Under the hood” excerpts in Watchmen, and his words (caption text) are accompanied by pictures. As a result, we’re getting a much more fleshed out account of the formation of the Minutemen.

However, it’s more complicated than that. While Mason’s words refer to the pictures they’re placed in, it becomes clear that the art doesn’t merely illustrate the captions. We’re seeing things (and reading things in word balloons) that Mason cannot have seen (and heard), because e.g. in the episode on Hooded Justice in issue #1, he was standing in front of a building, but we get to see what happens inside it.

In issue #2, this narrative mode stops after the first ten pages, and from then on the text is only in straight dialogue (apart from a quoted poem interwoven with the main narrative). Mason’s 1962 voice returns in issue #3 for three pages, and then it’s word balloon text again, this time with the ironic addition of inserted panels from a fictitious 1940s “Minutemen #1” comic book. This more straightforward storytelling approach lends itself better to the episodes Darwyn Cooke tells: the ones that are not covered in Watchmen, e.g. the first Minutemen mission, or the expulsion of the Comedian after he had raped Silk Spectre. Other episodes contain scenes that explicitly show the homosexuality of Captain Metropolis, Hooded Justice and the Silhouette. Although Alan Moore/Hollis Mason strongly suggests this in Watchmen, showing it unambiguously takes away some of the mystery surrounding the Minutemen, so I’m not happy with Cooke’s choice to do so.

In general, though, I’m more comfortable with the storytelling approach in Minutemen than the one in Ozymandias. Add Cooke’s impressive reduced layouts and drawing style, and you end up with a solid comic book.

By the way, did anyone recognise what is depicted on the first panel of the second page in issue #1? All I can see is a manhole cover and rain, but what are the yellow and brown areas, and where exactly is that place supposed to be?

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○

 

from Before Watchmen: Rorschach #2 by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo / DC Comics

Review of Before Watchmen: Rorschach #1-2 (of 4)

Language: English
Authors: Brian Azzarello (writer), Lee Bermejo (artist), Barbara Ciardo (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 24 (#1), 22 (#2) (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/before-watchmen-rorschach-2012

The outline of Rorschach is quite different: instead of fleshing out Rorschach’s origin story (which he himself tells in Watchmen), we’re following him on what could be an average day in his life as a masked vigilante, as he is going after a drug dealer ring. The story is set in 1977, 13 years after Walter Kovacs first donned the mask of Rorschach and 8 years before the beginning of Watchmen. Is this version of Rorschach any different from the one we’re familiar with from the original series? Maybe. I found both his caption text monologue (his journal) and his speech bubbles too verbose, his way with the Gunga Diner waitress too friendly. Either Brian Azzarello is going to put Rorschach through a change that will make him more like he is in 1985, or his Rorschach is just slightly different from Alan Moore’s.

Despite this possible inaccuracy in the writing and the so far unassuming nature of the story, this series is still a good read, mainly due to Lee Bermejo’s striking, timely (i.e. for the 21st century) artwork, and the brilliance that Barbara Ciardo’s colouring adds to it.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Before Watchmen roundup, part 1

From "Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1"I confess: I have read and purchased copies of several Before Watchmen issues, and plan to continue to do so. For some people, this is an immoral act, equivalent to slapping Alan Moore in the face. Other people say Moore made a mistake when he signed his contract with DC, and now he has to pay for it. In any case, I was curious to see how the Before Watchmen books would handle the unavoidable intertextual challenges that come with such a task.

In preparation, I re-read Watchmen, to be better able to get all the references in Before Watchmen. Maybe that was a mistake, because it raised my expectations towards Before Watchmen even more. Consequently, I decided to read all seven #1 issues and then select which series I’m going to follow.

The books that I dropped after the first issue were Nite Owl, Comedian, and Dr. Manhattan. With Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan, I found the stories were too close to the original series and didn’t add much to it, whereas the storytelling in Comedian was too slow-paced to convince me that the plot was going anywhere soon. That leaves me with Minutemen, Silk Spectre, Ozymandias, and Rorschach. Ozymandias is the only book so far of which I have read two issues, which I consider the minimum for a meaningful review. (Minutemen #2 came out earlier, but due to a mail order fail I didn’t get it yet.)

Review of Before Watchmen: Ozymandias #1-2

Language: English
Authors: Len Wein (writer), Jae Lee (artist), June Chung (colourist)
Publisher: DC
Pages: 23 (+2 pages of backup story)
Price: $3.99
Website: http://www.dccomics.com/comics/before-watchmen-ozymandias-2012

The framing narrative here is that Adrian Veidt tells his life story on October 11, 1985. I instantly recognized some of Veidt’s words as Moore’s, and thought that Len Wein just wanted to flesh out Veidt’s autobiography as told in Watchmen chapter XI (“Look On My Works, Ye Mighty…”). However, reading both sequences side by side reveals vast differences: in Watchmen, Veidt’s monologue takes place much later than October 11. The wording is different – sometimes considerably, sometimes only slightly, e.g.: “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he had struck north toward Gordium” (Wein) vs. “Strangely, before subduing Phoenicia, he struck north towards Gordium” (Moore). And there are inexplicable visual differences too: in Watchmen, the gravestone of Veidt’s parents is rectangular with a rounded top, whereas in Before Watchmen he is standing at two gravestones in the shape of celtic crosses. So unless Veidt is randomly dropping roses at strangers’ graves, Jae Lee or Len Wein altered the appearance of the grave, presumably to make it look cooler.

The completely new things that Wein adds to Veidt’s origin story aren’t convincing either. As Jennifer Cheng already said in her review of Ozymandias #1 at CBR, it is hard to believe that the reason why Veidt would become the masked vigilante Ozymandias is to avenge his lover Miranda. Furthermore, given the importance attributed to this relationship, what are the readers supposed to make of Veidt’s homosexuality that is clearly hinted at some pages earlier?

Then again, the selling point of the book isn’t its plot, or its unlikeable protagonist. It’s Jae Lee’s spectacular art, as several other reviewers have pointed out. The success of Lee’s contrast-heavy style depends on good colourists, and luckily, June Chung is more than up to this job. Thus, Before Watchmen: Ozymandias is a series that makes me want to read more by Jae Lee and less by Len Wein.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○

As for “The Curse of the Crimson Corsair”, the backup story by Len Wein and John Higgins: while “Tales of the Black Freighter” was smartly interwoven with the main story in Watchmen, an independent pirate/horror story spread across all Before Watchmen series doesn’t make sense to me. I wouldn’t mind reading a well-written and well-drawn standalone comic book in this genre, though (and the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean films shows that this genre has market potential).


Astonishing X-Men is a gay soap opera (and that’s a good thing)

Review of Astonishing X-Men #48-51

Language: English
Authors: Marjorie Liu (writer), Mike Perkins (artist)
Publisher: Marvel
Pages: 20-26
Price: $3.99
Website: http://marvel.com/comic_books/series/14275/astonishing_x-men_2004_-_present

Recently, David Watkins said on HLN: “Comics and soaps have a lot in common — wild situations, love triangles, forbidden love, revenge and intense drama abound in both.”

I wouldn’t go as far as that. While such mostly romantic motifs can be found in many American mainstream superhero comics (Watkins mentions the X-Men and the Fantastic Four), they are dominated by other themes such as the supernatural, or physical fights between good and evil. Romance isn’t exclusive to soap operas, but their emphasis on romance is a defining characteristic. Astonishing X-Men, however, relies heavily on romance and thus gravitates towards the soap opera genre, as we will soon find out.

Previously in Astonishing X-Men: I didn’t read this series before Liu and Perkins started their run in #48, so I have no idea what was going on before. This version of the X-Men consists of the well-known characters Wolverine, Gambit and Iceman, and some not-so-well-known ones. At the center of this story is Northstar – if you don’t know who he is, I recommend this blog post at Major Spoilers.

Issue #48 is already surprising: four entire pages are devoted to Northstar and his non-superpowered boyfriend Kyle, who basically “only” talk about their new situation of living together in New York after years of long distance dating. Then we get to read three pages of Gambit and fellow mutant Cecilia Reyes, talking in his apartment. That makes a total of seven pages of pure soap opera. The remaining 13 pages feature rather generic action: the X-Men being attacked by a group of supervillains.

In issue #49 there’s another four-page dialogue between Northstar and Kyle, taking place after the aforementioned fight, with lines such as “I love you. I’ve never loved anyone as much as I love you” (Northstar).

Issue #50 contains the marriage proposal that got so much media attention. Consequently, the number pages devoted to Northstar and Kyle is increased to a whopping eight out of 20. Still, this issue also features the artistically best action scenes so far. The technique of Perkins and colorist Andy Troy to overlay delicate outlines with opaque highlighting effects gives a certain radiance to the drawings, which looks particularly good whenever Iceman is involved.

Finally, issue #51, the wedding issue. (The idea of the gay wedding, by the way, turned out not to have been Liu’s, but an editorial decision from long ago.) The action part of the story is reduced to six pages, the remaining 20 pages of this oversized issue being taken up mainly by the wedding preparations and ceremony. The fact that this is a gay wedding is hardly reflected at all. In two panels, two wedding guests express their mild discomfort (“it’s a lot to take in”, “I can’t stop thinking about what my grandma would say about all of this”). Then there’s the scene where Warbird refuses to attend the wedding, which I had thought was due to her not recognizing the validity of human weddings in general. But that’s probably just my lack of knowledge of the Shi’ar alien race to which Warbird belongs, because several other reviewers interpreted Warbird’s behaviour as a decidedly homophobic.

So large portions of this series read like a soap opera centered around a gay couple. Is this what I want to read in a superhero comic? Well, for me, drama, feelings, and relationships between superheroes have always been part of the appeal of the Marvel universe, and in particular of team series like the X-Men books, in which all characters seem to be related to or at least acquainted with each other. At any rate, it’s better than endless fisticuffs. Therefore I’m enjoying Astonishing X-Men.

As for the homosexuality aspect: though some people say that “all superheroes are gay“, Astonishing X-Men strongly focuses on homosexuality. Or does it? While in the real world, in the United States and elsewhere, gay marriage is still a controversial issue, we don’t really get to see that in the comic. In this fantasy world, homophobia is something that befalls only aliens, and everything is sunshine and roses. Marvel has found a way to make homosexuality palatable to their mainstream audience, and at the same time to appear to be bold and progressive. In spite (or exactly because) of that, this storyline will probably become an instant classic among scholars at the intersection of LGBT and comics studies.

Rating: ● ● ● ○ ○


Review: König des Comics

film still from flyerA theatrical release of a documentary film about a German comic artist is quite an event. As I write this, König des Comics might still be shown in some German film theaters, and it has yet to be released in other countries. Therefore, I thought I’d post a short review of it (although there already are competent reviews online, e.g. an English one by Joe Walsh at CineVue and a German one by Lida Bach at kino-zeit.de).

This comic artist is, of course, Ralf König. Despite his gay subcultural background, he is probably Germany’s best-known living comic author, so the film title is more than just a pun on his last name. As a biographical documentary, König des Comics succeeds in telling us a lot about Ralf König that we (or at least I) didn’t know before. Instead of using a lot of original early video footage (of which there simply wasn’t much, I guess), the film relies primarily on interviews with König himself and other people who either played some role in his life, or who are just gay celebrities (e.g. Hella von Sinnen). In between we get to see König doing a reading of his comics, talking to a Swiss fan, or hanging out with friends.

There’s nothing wrong with that as a method, but my problem is that the film shows a very personal side of König. Given that the film was made by gay director Rosa von Praunheim, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that it emphasises König’s homosexuality, his coming out, his gay rights activism, etc. While such a perspective surely needs to be covered in a film on an author of gay comics, I would have liked to learn less about him as a person and more about him as an artist.

König is shown reading his comics along to a slide show, but hardly ever drawing them. That is a pity, because the film only hints at both the quantity and the quality of his output. I must admit that I haven’t been following his work since Sie dürfen sich jetzt küssen (2003), but König has published at least one book a year since that. For me, König des Comics was also a reminder of what a masterful draughtsman König is, however fleetingly the film treated this aspect. In itself, I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but at any rate, it makes you want to read König’s comics again, and that’s not the worst thing a film can achieve.

Rating: ● ● ○ ○ ○