Review

Review: From the New World, Vol. 1

The relationship between manga and anime is a fruitful one; anime studios may pick a popular manga to adapt into a television show, a manga might be written as an adaptation of a popular anime work. Often times, these different works are based around some of the same core ideas and characters, but they are completely different.  Studios might make changes in storylines, in tone, or in other stylistic elements because the manga isn’t completed yet, or the manga might shorten certain storylines in order to fit them more appealingly into a print format. But what happens when you toss the Japanese fiction market into the mix? That’s the source of one of Vertical Inc.’s brand new releases, From the New World.

From the New World, Vol. 1Originally, From the New World was a high-fantasy fiction novel published in 2008. Written by Yusuke Kishi, the novel won the 29th Japan SF Grand Prize. Yusuke Kishi’s work has been published in English by Vertical Inc – his novel The Crimson Labyrinth was originally published in English in 2006. I’m not privy to the decisions book publishers make regarding fiction adaptations, but it was clear that this property was deemed a likely success in the shonen market. Four years after the book was originally published, it received a manga adaptation, and an anime adaptation shortly thereafter.

As a comic, From the New World is a really interesting piece of fiction. Humans have developed telekinesis and other psychic powers a millenium into the future. As children, they learn to develop those powers. In the background, however, more disturbing things are happening. Children who step out of line or who don’t make the grade often go missing. There are rumors of a “Dupe Cat” that hunts down the weak. And very strange and creepy things start happening after the students go off on summer vacation.

Most readers will come to From the New World via the anime simulcast on Crunchyroll. I had the opportunity to read the first volume of the manga, and then watched the first 7 episodes of the anime, for comparison. Which leads me to a question: how do you review From the New World? Is it enough to discuss the manga, or should we also discuss the anime adaptation? Both are now available in English for the first time.

What fans of the property will realize is that while there is a lot that is similar in the two adaptations, there is a lot that is different as well. Stylistic choices and costume redesigns abound. The storylines between the two follow a similar path, but take different steps to get there. By the time we reach the end of volume 1 of the manga, we have skipped a few scenes from the anime, and the cast is still largely together in one place.

The manga is also quite a bit more explicit than the anime. There are a few scenes in the manga that, to be frank, give it its +16 year old rating. How this plays into the storyline will probably come up at some point, but at this point into the anime, we already have some more contextual information about the scenes in question. I’m certain this content was written to titillate. I’m certain this will even drive some of the sales of the manga. Whether the explicit content at the end of volume 1 can be used to drive forward the story will have to be seen in volume 2, but at this point, it seems gratuitous to me.

The tone of From the New World is almost like a mix of the moe fan-favorite K-On! and another Vertical release, Knights of Sidonia. There are elements of that unfettered joy that permeate the first volume, coupled with the unhinging fact that, although we can’t see what’s happening, we know that a lot of things are going wrong. The image of hypercute girls stacking cards juxtaposed against the body horror of the Morph Rats is a really interesting element of the series, and lends to its unsettling nature. The world building is fantastic, but there is a lot that isn’t revealed in this first volume.

As a physical product, From the New World is the Vertical compact size – the same size as their release of Keiko Suenobu’s Limit. It’s slightly smaller than Knights of Sidonia, and approximately a half an inch smaller in width and height compared to the standard Tokyopop/Viz tankōbon.  Check out MW_alt for images.

Overall, I think that this type of high-fantasy is extremely rare in manga being localized currently, and I like what I’ve read so far, despite my misgivings about the explicit content in the first volume. And as for the anime along with the manga? Well, think of them as complementary. Both the anime and the manga bring their own information to the table. Without the anime, I would be a bit confused about some of the content in the manga. Without the manga, I would have put together much less about the storyline. Together, they create a fuller picture of this fantastic and strange new world that Kishi has imagined.

If anything, reading From the New World has convinced me to check out Kishi’s other fiction, and to watch some anime (something I hardly ever do). I think it’s a good start to what could potentially be a very strong series.

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Editorial

Things We Learned From the AMA

Kodansha USA did an Ask Me Anything on reddit last week. Although I was unable to participate, there were some interesting questions asked, and a little data here and there that are worth exploring.

1. We finally learned what happened with the Vinland Saga V1/Amazon SNAFU. The short answer is that Amazon was shorted books, and because of this, pushed back the release date 2 weeks (this was over a month ago). Kodansha states they don’t know why preorders were cancelled.

Vinland Saga, V.1I was one of many loud and grumpy voices involved in the general social media questioning of Kodansha when the Vinland Saga issue first came to light. I was one of the first to preorder the book, and I still don’t have a copy. Amazon cancelling my preorder was essentially the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’m no longer interested in getting Vinland Saga as it is released. I cancelled my preorder of volume 2. I’m sure it’s a fine book. But I also know that I’m not interested in getting boogered on another deal like this. I’ve been preordering manga from various publishers for 3 years now, and I’ve never seen or heard of anything like this. Amazon isn’t the only party at fault here.


Of note: Amazon still doesn’t have a listing for a physical copy of volume 1.

2. Manga is on the upswing – and some publishers are doing leaps and bounds better. Dallas Middaugh delivered some interesting news via Bookscan – most manga publishers are doing better now than previous years. This is not really a surprise, since the ’07 manga crash and Borders’ closing did a lot of damage to the market. Of note,  Seven Seas Entertainment is selling approximately 100% more books than last year.

monstermusume_vol1_full

This uptick in sales is likely associated with two factors – a more active social media prevalence, and an uptick in licensing. The first set of licenses really started hitting shelves in late 2011, with Gunslinger Girl and A Certain Scientific Railgun, both of which were pretty popular with a certain piece of the anime fandom. They’ve picked up titles like the Alice in the Country of… series, as well as recent additions Monster Musume and A Centaur’s Life.

Seven Seas has found a niche in the market – their catalog has a large amount of moe, harem, and otaku-centric  titles. The moral here, if there is one, is sell what people want to buy, feathers, scales, and all. And talk about it a lot.

3. Some fans still don’t realize that Attack on Titan is published in English. Which is unfortunate, but ultimately, a sign of the way that things work in the fandom. When cool projects like PBS Idea Channel use pirated content on their YouTube show, you know there is a problem. Many people still don’t realize that manga aggregator sites are hosting pirated content.

4. Crunchyroll and its dealings with Kodansha Comics Japan were not monitored or connected to Kodansha USA. It seems odd, but Kodansha USA benefits by selling collected editions of manga currently available (but not in full) at Crunchyroll. In addition, CR gives weekly readers of UQ Holder, Fairy Tail, and Attack on Titan a chance to go to a legitimate website instead of an aggregator. The more you legitimize the content, the more likely people will pay something for it, right?

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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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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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