Review

Review: Wolfsmund, Vols. 1-2

It is the beginning of November, and although we’re past the official date of 11/5/13, might I share something?

Remember, remember the Fifth of November
The Gunpowder Treason and Plot
I know of no reason
Why the Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.

Most of the internet has seen the Guy Fawkes mask, whether as the face of Anonymous, the hacktivist group, or  as the image of the title character V from V for Vendetta, Alan Moore comic book and Wachowski siblings film. What many people don’t realize is that Guy Fawkes’ mask comes from a failure to overthrow a “tyrannical government.” Fawkes and a group of conspirators attempted to blow up the House of Lords with a stockpile of gunpowder, an attempt that failed.  Guy Fawkes’ capture led to his torture and eventual betrayal of his conspirators.

If you’ve read any of Wolfsmund, this may seem familiar.

Wolfsmund, Vol. 1Wolfsmund, written and illustrated by Mitsuhisa Kuji, is the story of a rebellion and a people oppressed by a tyrannical government. People of the cantons that would eventually become Switzerland find themselves hemmed in by the despicable crown of Habsburg Austria. In this world, the Sankt Gotthard pass is the key to leaving the cantons for Italy, and controlled by the beatific and horrid Wolfram. All who pass through are subjected to his whims, and he always spots a fake.

Many try to enter through the pass, either to find safety, deliver information, or escape pursuit. Some attempt to bypass the fortress at the pass by going through the wilds, a dangerous and cold mountainside almost impossible to cross. But all feel the wrath of Wolfram.

The inquisitive and evil eye of Wolfram is one of the keys to why Wolfsmund works as a piece of fiction. The world of Wolfsmund is undeniably brutal. Within the first three pages, we see a man beheaded. What follows is just as severe. There is murder, torture, public execution, and more.  All the work of one man, one untouchable evil. While the magnificent bastard is an old cliche of film and fiction, I have yet to see one executed so well in manga. Despite his best attempts, there are small seeds of hope. Some of the goats leave the pasture.

Wolfsmund, Vol. 2

Part of why Wolfsmund is so resonant for me in this moment is also the unflinching eye it casts on absolute power. Wolfram states to one of the main characters in the second volume, “Punish all who are suspect.” This, strangely, reminds me of the current Edward Snowden/NSA spying scandal running through the media. Observe everything. Everything is suspect. Wolfram takes this to heart, often with horrible consequences.

While Wolfsmund is Mitsuhisa Kuji’s debut manga, she clearly has a set of artistic chops that rival some of the best. She commands pacing and storytelling deftly, and can handle the action scenes just as well as the searingly intense interrogations. The art is clean and smart, reminiscent of Kaoru Mori’s Emma or Naoki Urasawa’s Pluto. On the other hand, Kuji is happy to let it all hang out. Her characters are bawdy, some sexual, some depraved. All are avatars of a larger struggle.

Part of what makes the magnificent bastard so fun to read is the eventual failure he or she will commit. Wolfram will slip, and will no longer be magnificent. His failure will be his undoing. Volumes 1 and 2 of Wolfsmund are setting a stage for the grand fall.

I expect to see this one through until he does.

For Fans Of: Game of Thrones, The Dark Ages, magnificent bastards
Final Verdict: Highly Recommended (for adult audiences)

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Editorial

Some Thoughts on Crunchyroll

Earlier this month, I was thinking about getting back into the blogging scene, and I realized I had plenty of ideas about series, recent events, and the like, but didn’t actually feel like writing…

Thankfully, Lori Henderson at Manga Xanadu offered me a guest spot on her latest podcast, which you can listen to here. We talked a lot about the most recent happenings at VizManga, Crunchyroll, and the expansion of the digital marketplace. While I ultimately feel that Viz is doing fans a service by expanding their offerings to alternate digital formats, I also think that something gets lost in the translation when moving from a closed platform to an open market.

One of Crunchyroll’s strongest features is its community. People can interact in the forums or debate and discuss individual episodes of an anime right as they watch it.  There is a cohesion there that makes the whole site an experience, not just a place to go watch anime. Adding manga to the site seems like a no-brainer now, but I’m sure it wasn’t always. What sells the service is that cohesion.

Crunchyroll is able to package manga in a way that no other publisher or service has yet done: day and date, all you can eat manga. (The truth here is that JManga attempted a fairly similar project, called JManga7, but the content was already available as pay per volume on the main JManga site, and JManga went out of business shortly after they attempted to implement JManga7.) This release method is most aligned to the current aggregator model where chapters are uploaded and available for viewing once the scanlator’s website is scrubbed. All digital manga currently available for purchase is translated complete volumes, available the day of their US release and sometimes later.

The 12 manga series that started Crunchyroll's digital manga service

The 12 manga series that started Crunchyroll’s digital manga service. Notable inclusions are Attack on Titan, Fairy Tail, UQ HOLDER! and The Seven Deadly Sins.

The content here is interesting because it is all Kodansha content. Notable series include Attack on Titan and Fairy Tail, which are being published by Kodansha USA, and UQ HOLDER! and The Seven Deadly Sins, which have been licensed by Kodansha USA, but haven’t been released yet. The other series are a grab bag – mostly seinen or shonen, with a mix of other content. All are currently being published – Crunchyroll isn’t interested in putting old comics on the service. The reason, of course, is the weekly update.

Weekly updates give a reader a reason to visit the site at least one time a week, if not more. New free weekly content is a powerful draw. Crunchyroll is already doing this with their anime content. More visits means more ad revenue, more brand loyalty. And using the newest comics, they avoid competing with older titles already completely scanlated. The most complex part of all of this – the manga business is going to support the video service, and the video service is going to support the manga business in ways that I don’t think we can completely understand  at this point. I know I am watching anime because of the manga service. I know I can’t be the only person experiencing this cross-over.

Ultimately, I think Crunchyroll’s entry into the digital manga market is well-timed. They’ve brought one of the most popular manga in years to digital publication in a way that is free and legal to many readers, and a lot of other value to anyone who decides to pay. Provided they are able to continue this service and add other titles, Crunchyroll could be on solid ground to compete with aggregators in a way that no other publisher has been able.

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Review

Review: Monokuro Kinderbook

Monokuro Kinderbook

Coming to terms with the fact the majority of content from Japan that is published in English is written for children takes a little while. The content for children and young adults is by far the most popular content that is localized. And by and large, the content for adults which is brought to the US by the few small publishers willing to take the risks generally isn’t profitable. It’s a labor of love. And books that are adult oriented are a cherished and treasured thing. One of my favorite “labors of love” is a collection of short stories written by Kan Takahama.

Short story collections are a hard sell to the manga market, which now is favoring continuity and editorially driven content like Naruto and Bleach. Despite low sales, Monokuro Kinderbook is remarkable collection of fiction. Her stories explore the ideas of death, sexuality, youthful ignorance, and the occurrence of events mundane among those that are world changing. Her stories stare into the face of darkness; they do not overcome it, but they observe it, record it. They see a world covered in darkness, and do not flinch.

IMG_8792Unique among manga published in English, Takahama’s illustrations are blurry, sometimes sketchy. Like the strangeness of memories gone by, and the clarity of those memories that are recent, Takahama deftly uses changes in style and illustration to convey mood, time, and the fogginess of the past. There is a smolder in her work that is rarely seen in the US. In facial expressions and in body language, you can see the awkward tensions, the sorrow, even the sexual desire of the characters in Monokuro Kinderbook. Her pacing and paneling are simple and effective. Gone are speed lines and screen tone, but in their place is clarity of artistic vision. Perhaps it is that clarity (or maybe the lack of clarity?) that makes Monokuro Kinderbook so fascinating.

Earlier this year I discussed micropublishers and their place in the publishing spectrum. Fanfare is the very definition of a manga micropublisher. Coupled with Ponent Mon, a Europe-based publisher, they have been bringing the works of artists like Jiro Taniguchi to the USA and the UK for some time now. Monokuro Kinderbook is a lovely book, and it is obvious that a high amount of care and attention to detail has been put into printing. This collection of short stories is a fascinating addition to Fanfare‘s collection, and a book that I recommend to all adult manga readers. It offers a unique perspective, and a subtlety to its readers not found in the market today.

For Fans Of: Lost in Translation, Ian McEwan’s Saturday, Jiro Taniguchi
Final Verdict: Highly Recommended (for adult audiences)

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Review

Review: Doubt, Vol. 1

Werewolf is a game for 7-20 people. The idea is simple. You live in a village beset by evil lycanthropes who are eating townspeople left and right. Each turn is split into two phases, night and day. Two or more players are “werewolves” who have the power to remove a player from the game during the night phase. The villagers then (along with the werewolves) discuss the killing and it impact and choose a player to hang during the day phase. Any player hung divulges their identity. Werewolves win the game if only the werewolves remain at the end of the game, and the villagers win if they manage to hang all of the werewolves.

This, with a few exceptions, sounds a lot like the basis for the plot of Doubt, the new omnibus manga from Yen Press. Players of Rabbit Doubt “a cellphone game that has taken Japan by storm” meet to hang out and go to a karaoke room. While there, the players, who really aren’t important honestly, except one girl has the power to hypnotize people (surprise, this is the big reveal). Strangely, all the folks at karaoke are knocked out and arrive at an abandoned psychiatric facility where one of the players (the hypnosis girl) has been hung. One person in the facility is the killer, all the rest are rabbits. Now everyone gets to play a real game of Rabbit Doubt!

If you sensed some apathetic hand-waving in that last paragraph, you have keyed into the biggest issue with Doubt. By a large margin the biggest flaw with Doubt is its lack of well-defined characters. The only thing that passes for development is a collection of small character tropes that aren’t even exploited; there is nothing to differentiate each character from one another. Without differentiation, there is no unique behavior. So Werewolf (Rabbit Doubt) which is normally a very brainy game based on intuiting another person’s goals and will from their behavior and speech, is turned into a husk of itself. Everyone acts shady, everyone does weird stuff, everyone attacks other people for strange reasons, and no one’s personality shines through. Maybe that is the point, but it makes for dull reading. If a major character in a comic book dies and you are supposed to care, but don’t care at all? That’s a huge problem.

The art is gritty, and serviceable. It also has the tendency to give a lot of things away if you know where to look, which is obviously the point. You can miss stuff on the first read through if you aren’t paying enough attention to small details.

(BIG POTENTIAL SPOILER ALERT IF I’M RIGHT BUT I HAVE LIKE A 0.001% CHANCE OF BEING WRONG ABOUT)

Another problem of note: the solution to the opening problem of “who is the werewolf” is so obvious. You don’t have to be a genius to see that the “dead” hypnotist is actually alive and controlling another character in the game. The hypnosis angle is far fetched at best, mostly because of reality and the kind of stimuli you would need to force people to murder a bunch of people, but we’ve seen it in media before (Jason Bourne is a great example in literature and film). Honestly though, who cares how the violence manifests itself? Without well informed characters, there’s not really a point.

(SPOILER DONE)

Basically Doubt needs a lot of things to make it work, and the best tool it has at its disposal is smartly created, well-developed, rational players. Without good players, Doubt isn’t a very interesting game. And metagaming the “who is the werewolf” problem the way this book does (see big spoiler alert for speculation I know I’m right about) is a cop out. What could have been a really fascinating book turned out to be severely disappointing in content, style, and delivery.

For Fans Of: Durdling horror movies where things are supposed to be logical but nice try no cigar, Saw 4, great ideas that whiff on execution
Final Verdict: Not Recommended

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Review

Review: Unico

Unico is the first book of Digital Manga Publishing Inc.‘s Kickstarter quartet from 2012, is a collection of short stories about a lovable unicorn from a full color glossy Japanese magazine called Lyrica. Originally published from 1976 to 1979, Unico was a comic for children that tackled some tough ideas.

Unico tells the story of a baby unicorn named, appropriately, Unico, who has amazing magic, but only for those who love him. The series starts in ancient mythological Greece, where Unico is the pet of Psyche, the beautiful human woman from the story “Cupid and Psyche.” Tezuka pulls heavily from ancient myth here, but the similarities between the ancient myth and Unico’s origins quickly widen as Venus extracts her revenge on Psyche by stealing Unico away and forcing him to forget everything about his past. Each story then begins and ends with the same premise – Unico, dropped to the ground by Zephyrus, the West Wind, must make his way in a new world. At the end, when things turn out good for our hero, the wind comes again to scoop him up and take him to another place.

What is remarkable about Unico is the extreme variations on the theme that Tezuka can evoke by changing the setting and characters that Unico happens to fall into. Tezuka quickly brings the full weight of his writing talent to bear in “Buffalo Hill” a story about a pioneer girl and a Native American boy who fall in love. The innocence of these two characters is overwhelmed by the anger and hatred of their own people, despite how the two flail against it. Tezuka dazzles readers with an almost Kantian ethos of right and wrong in “Buffalo Hill,” but the complexity he layers upon his characters refuses to be explained absolutely. Tezuka uses his characters to engage the concepts of Eros and Pathos, in a way that is funny and tragic. In the end, Unico is scooped up by Zephyrus as a great calamity befalls his befriended people, and he is powerless to save them from their ultimate fate. Other stories have similar philosophical heft. “Rosaria the Beautiful” deals with appearance and the effects of superstition and lying. “The Cat on the Broomstick” works with false expectations, the power of a people willing to give up anything to depose a dictator, and even the responsibilities of family.

While there are some very impressive ideas bouncing around inside Unico, it’s still a simple enough book for children to read. This means that there inevitably are some issues with storytelling that might not pass inspection with older readers, but Tezuka does a very good job talking up to kids and allowing them to do much of the heavy lifting – he doesn’t tell you who is wrong and who is right, with only a few exceptions. Even better for younger readers, this book is full color and oriented in the Western format. All of this means it’s a good book to share.

My quibbles with Unico are all surrounding pricing and delivery. At $35 US, it’s pricey for most casual readers; it is unlikely that people unaware of Osamu Tezuka are going to be willing to pay that price for 410 pages of kids’ comics. And with such great paper and color, it would have been nice for this book to be a hardcover to increase its durability and collectability. Those buying the book now are likely able to get discounts from retailers on the first edition (I got my version from the Kickstarter, so no discounts available!)

I really enjoyed Unico. Its stories can appeal to a wide range of readers, and could be easily converted into bedtime stories read to younger kids, read together with an older age-group, or consumed wholesale by independent advanced readers. Tezuka is never talking down to his readers here, and it makes for good reading that stays fresh even through analysis. Unico is a fascinating look at Tezuka’s children-oriented work Tezuka fans, and Digital Manga Publishing has done a good job with the printing and binding of this color edition. However you consume Unico, whether as a collector, parent, or child, this book is a great addition to your library.

For Fans Of: The Story of Babar, Cute woodland creatures, stories that pack an emotional punch, empty wallets 
Final Verdict: Recommended

Unico
Written and Illustrated by Osamu Tezuka
Genre: Fantasy/Children’s Fiction
Publisher: Digital Manga Publishing Inc.
410 pages | $ 34.95 US
ISBN-13: 978-1569703120

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