Arakawa Under the Bridge Vol. 1 (Vertical)

Arakawa

CREDIT: Vertical

Rating: 5/5 – A Strong Justification for Why I Like Comics!
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

“Why do you read comics?”

Any participant in our happy little hobby confronts this question at least once or twice in their lifetime. It may come from family members, strangers, or sometimes even ourselves as we examine our bank accounts. It’s a fair question, though. Why do we spend our days with these folded and stapled pamphlets? The sedentary lifestyle it demands isn’t good for our overall health. Our eyes will eventually give up on us from all the squinting at 6-point type. And there’s a deep-rooted psychosis involved in cataloguing back issues using archaic algorithms remembered only by the sorcerers, librarians, and comic collectors of the world. Indeed, why do we take up a hobby so obviously bad for us? Why do you read comics?

My answer is simple: Because of books like Arakawa Under the Bridge.

Kou Ichinomiya has it all: Born wealthy, whip-smart and good at everything he’s ever attempted, he’s also the heir to the company that bears his father’s name. The family has succeeded in life due to a strict…very strict…adherence to the motto “Never Owe Anyone”. Debts are paid immediately, and down to the nth detail. Kou put himself through college, for example, paying for it himself as he didn’t want to owe his parents anything. There’s more intense and twisted examples of this family creed, best left for you to find out by reading the book. Suffice it to say that when Kou’s life is saved by a homeless girl living under the bridge spanning the Arakawa river, he finds it necessary to repay the debt at any cost. He offers to buy her a home, but is refused. Desperate to not be in debt to her, he promises to give her anything (the colossal blunder of any protagonist), and is dumbfounded when she asks him to help her fall in love.

Oh, and she claims she’s from Venus… and she very well may be.

Arakawa Under the Bridge is one great big beautiful mess of a book. Hikaru Nakamura’s art style seems to go where it wants to go, as opposed to the usual cookie-cutter manga where the art is what it needs to be (and little more). That’s refreshing, because it at least seems to me like she had a lot of fun creating this book, and that comes through in the artwork. The writing, as well, has a playfulness to it that may frustrate readers accustomed to getting what they expect (nay, demand) from a book. Characters are introduced, then left alone, not fully fleshed out. Sort of like the real world where you don’t get to hear everyone’s origin story the moment you meet them. If you like everything spelled out for you from the get-go, this book may not be for you. If you like your characters to reveal themselves bit by bit as the story progresses, though, you’re going to love it. In short, Arakawa Under the Bridge doesn’t seem to do anything it’s supposed to do. Or to borrow from another popular manga, this book is not perfect, and because it not perfect, it is beautiful.

Why do I read comics? The answer today is as simple as it was for me when I bought my very first comic (Black Panther, don’t ask the issue number) many decades ago. To be transported to a world of fantastic characters, interesting stories, and artwork that captivates my imagination. Most importantly, to close that book feeling some kind of catharsis (if this book doesn’t make you smile, there may be no hope for you) and to anxiously anticipate the opportunity to open the next book or issue and get that same feeling again. Arakawa Under the Bridge delivers…oh my god does it deliver…on all those fronts. Vertical has always been a forerunner when it comes to delivering manga a bit outside the normal fare, and this book is truly a shining star of its current offerings. It is why I read comics.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Infini-T Force v1 (Udon Entertainment)

InfiniT

CREDIT: Udon Entertainment

Rating: 4/5 – A Girl Summons Tatsunoko Super-stars to Save Earth
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

Quick, think of four fictional heroes you’d bring together to save the world. Too broad a scope for you? Okay, think of four fictional heroes from one particular company – publisher, movie studio, etc. – who would be up to the task. Still not sure? Okay, let’s narrow it down to four heroes from a particular genre from that company. Still too m…ahh, skip it.

Infini-T Force is a celebration of the 55th anniversary of Tatsunoko Productions, and brings together four of their flagship characters – Ken from Gatchaman, Kishi Tekkaman, Casshan, and Hurricane Polimar – to basically do what heroes do. In this first volume that pretty much amounts to fighting with each other, stopping only long enough to deal with the actual enemy. Hey, it’s good to see that the same rules that apply to American comics – two heroes fighting when they meet for the first time – carries over into the manga realm as well, right?

High-school student Emi Kaido receives a magical pencil that will grant any wish she desires…provided she has time to sketch it out. There’s never any real mention of Emi’s artistic ability, so it’s my guess the pencil taps into her mind and magically assists her in the drawing department. She’s not completely sold on the idea until she becomes the victim of a convenience store holdup, and in a panic wishes for heroes to come and save the day. Enter the four Tatsunoko-branded heroes mentioned above – though not all at the same time – and with them a larger plotline regarding those who want to wield the pencil’s power for themselves.

Kaido exhibits every trope you’d expect to find in a manga heroine written in the past five years. There’s a scene where she has a piece of toast in her mouth, she has a funky looking ribbon in her hair, she lives alone in an apartment where there’s nary an adult to be found, and she’s a bit of an idiot savant when it comes to mechanical devices. Given the nature of Tatsunoko’s more shonen-based stories, she’s perhaps an odd choice for the protagonist of this story. My guess is the creative team felt the story needed a female to counter all the testosterone the four heroes provide…there is certainly enough of it to go around. Still, in spite of the many stereotypes she embodies, she’s a very fun and engaging character, providing a central focus for the heroes to revolve around as they appear in the book. You’ll end up rooting for her before you turn the last page.

Of the four heroes Kaido summons, I’d only experienced Gatchaman – you might know it as G-Force or Battle of the Planets – and Tekkaman. Casshan and Polimar were completely new to me, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out their motivations and abilities as writer Ukyou Kodachi does a great job weaving four complex plotlines together with a deft blend of action, drama, and humor. Each hero is given their moment of soliloquy to relate a brief origin, so in no time any reader, regardless of their knowledge of Tatsunoko’s stable, can be brought up to speed. I’m already intrigued enough by the character of Hurricane Polimar to seek his story out, so in that respect the book did its job.

If the book stumbles anywhere it’s in its lost potential. It goes to some effort to show Emi as an independent, strong-willed and talented young woman who doesn’t always need saving – stereotypes and all – but then promptly turns around and puts her in a few unnecessary fanservice scenes. I’m no prude, but it seemed completely out of place and out of character. While it’s great to see Gatchaman represented – it was my gateway drug into anime (never mind how far back that was!) – it would have been cool to see Jun the Swan instead of Ken show up as the representative of the Science Ninja team, just to have at least one female hero on the squad.  Minor quibbles, to be sure, but missed opportunities and missteps that might have kicked this book up a notch.

Infini-T Force is well worth picking up if you grew up watching any Tatsunoko programs. Even if you didn’t, it’s a handy primer to get your manga/anime history lesson off to a good start. For a book mainly designed as a promotional tool (let’s be honest here), it manages to deliver a fun protagonist, some great characters from the not-so-distant past, and a compelling storyline that left me ready to pick up the next volume.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Generation Witch Vol. 1 (Seven Seas)

GenWitch

CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 4/5 – Short Stories from a World Where Witches are Integrated into Society.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

In the world of Generation Witch, the magic-wielding mavens are not only commonplace, but a huge part of society. Witchcraft is condoned, supported, and by and large understood even by those who cannot or do not practice it. Imagine a world where the Muggles know all about Hogwarts and really aren’t all that impressed by it. Despite this acceptance, witches still have problems. Some simple, some grandiose, but all playing a part in defining this world in which they live. And, fortunately for any witch lovers out there (like me), all collected here as short stories for our enjoyment.

A young witch must deal with an older sister who’s not just pretty and popular, but most likely in line to become the next High Witch of the realm. A witch with the power of precognition learns the day of her own death. A boy imbued with magical powers denies what he is for as long as he can…until he meets a girl with a pointed hat and high aspirations. A husband and wife must deal with an aspect of magic that puts a real strain on their marriage. To tell you any more would ruin the beauty of these tales, and they are beautiful stories. Heartwarming, bittersweet, sad, and hopeful, the stories cover a broad spectrum of emotion and theme.

Uta Isaki’s artwork it well-suited to this book. The style is cute when it needs to be, but also dark and grim when the story calls for it. As with any short story collection, some tales spoke to me more than others, but the artwork was beautiful throughout, and kept me reading each chapter, even the ones where I didn’t feel as heavy an investment.

Witches have really become popular of late, with more than a few manga titles cropping up featuring them in various portrayals, from the wicked to the winsome. Hopefully they’ll slowly remove the creeping menace of zombies who seem to plague (pun intended) every other comic on the shelf these days. As a longtime fan of witches since the first time Margaret Hamilton had me hiding under my pillows, I’m enjoying this renaissance, and I hope it’ll be around a long time. With titles like this, it’s in good hands.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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The Tokyo 5 – Vol. 1

TT5_Part1_Cover

Rating: 3.5/5 – Not All Manga is From Japan…
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

If I’ve learned one thing after more than a decade of reviewing manga, it’s that manga fans can be very snobbish. Don’t deny it. Don’t say “Hey, that’s not me!” I’m right there with you. If it didn’t come out of Japan, my knee-jerk is the same as yours. Who cares, right? Someone obviously read those books at Michaels on how to draw Japanese-style and now they’re making funnybooks with it. And then we roll our eyes and move on to the next thing.

(Al’s Note: If I’m not describing you at all, congratulations. Seriously, the world needs more readers like you.)

Thing is, when we do that…when we focus more on the source than the content, we deny ourselves some great reading. I recently helped crowdfund (and loved) a manga by a creator originally from the exotic land of Tulsa, Oklahoma called Fallen. Spinnerette, another popular book regularly appearing in my Kickstarter feed, has definite Japanese stylings to it, despite the fact that the artists who work on it don’t necessarily come from Japan. Heck, Adam Warren has taken this concept and made his style synonymous with it.  More and more, creators around the globe are letting this genre that influenced them shine through in their own work.

Now we have The Tokyo 5, from Australian writer Andrew Archer and Filipino artist NICE, helping to blur the lines between manga and manga-influenced even further. At first, I thought the duo might be treading familiar ground: a five-female group of super-powered teens brought up in a school with corrupt ulterior motives (nothing less than world domination). It falls too easily into the “been there, read that” camp. Well…been there, read that if you’ve read manga for any decent length of time. But Archer did a really nice job of taking the expected and pushing it just far enough to keep me engaged. We don’t know everything there is to know about these five women, and I have a feeling we’re not going to for some time. That’s refreshing, in a genre that tries to get readers’ buy-in early by throwing at least a few nuggets of an origin story up early. After the four chapters in Volume 1, I don’t know everything…I honestly don’t know much of anything…about these girls. But I want to know more, and that’s the real trick.

The artwork does exactly what I expect a manga to do. NICE has a good command of line and tone that gives these pages a dynamic look most manga readers will appreciate and enjoy.  The action sequences are particularly nice, but around chapter four things begin to get a bit disjointed, whether on purpose or through poor plotting or poor interpretation. I won’t lay the blame at the feel of NICE or Archer here, but it did provide a bit of a hiccup in an otherwise smoothly flowing read.

The Tokyo 5 has a bit of an uphill battle ahead of it. It’s got to win over manga snobs who don’t care about it if it didn’t come from Japan, and it’s got to be at least as good as what *is* coming out of Japan already. Fortunately, it seems to be doing well on both counts. Here’s to seeing where the story leads them…and us…in future chapters.  You can find it on Comixology and IndyPlanet (where you can also get a print copy).  Or check out the Tokyo5 web-site, which also has the links.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love

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Don’t Meddle With My Daughter Vol. 1 (Seven Seas)

DontMeddle

CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 3.5/5 –  Mature Humor; Not for Kids or the Overly Sensitive
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

My name is Al Sparrow and I love super-heroines. There, I’ve said it. I feel like there should be a twelve-step recovery program – call it Heroine Addicts if you must, but I’m sure someone’s already made that joke – for people like me, but I’ve stopped apologizing for it years ago. Let’s be honest, there’s something really cool about a supermodel-level beauty kicking ass on the bad guys in an outfit that defies several laws of physics. I grew up reading my older sisters’ copies of Supergirl, Batgirl, and other female heroes so I’ve been born into the reality that women can be (and are) powerhouses in their own right. As I moved into puberty, of course, I was reading many of their adventures for wholly different reasons (I blame the pencilwork of George Perez for most of my teenage daydreams). As an adult, I still enjoy reading stories about women kicking bad guys’ collective butts, even if their outfits tend to be a bit more realistic these days (I leave it to you to decide if that’s a good or bad thing), and we’re getting heroines who don’t necessarily need to adhere to a particular body type.

So when I heard about Don’t Meddle With My Daughter, I was in before I had to see a single panel. It’s a manga about super-heroines, and that’s all I had to hear. Twenty years after she disappeared, the super-heroine Eighth Wonder has re-emerged on the scene, looking pretty much exactly how she looked when she vanished. That’s because the person in the costume is the daughter of the original Eighth Wonder. She has the same powers, same basic look, and same desire to do good. What she lacks is experience. Clara, the aforementioned daughter, is a well intentioned but naïve girl, so it’s up to Athena, the aforementioned mother, to work behind the scenes to keep her child safe from harm without revealing who she really is. Clara, for her part, seems to be a bit clueless to the obvious. Her friends and schoolmates have all pretty much figured out who her mother is, or was, but to Clara, her mom is just an annoying parent stifling her burgeoning superhero career.

Sounds like a cool story, right? And it is. Great artwork, like you’d expect from Dance in the Vampire Bund creator Nozomu Tamaki, and the story itself does a decent job balancing humor with drama. However, there’s also a “mature” label on the back of the book, and given the subject matter and the fact that this is a manga, I think you know what to expect: Bring on the Tentacles. And yes…there are tentacles.  Heck, there’s a villain named “Mr. Tentacle”, and while this book doesn’t go into full-on hentai mode, there’s enough nudity, fanservice, ecchi (softcore porn), and oppai (boob humor) to go around.

Some examples: The real “wonder” of the Eighth Wonder is how Clara keeps that outfit on – just take a gander at that cover! And it’s even worse for her mother, who has added about twenty pounds of matronly weight to her frame. There’s number of jokes involving her trying to fit into the outfit she wore in a more petite body some twenty years prior. One of Athena’s jobs, in addition to secretly protecting her daughter, is destroying the cameras of paparazzi trying to get unsavory pictures or videos of her for the obvious money it’d bring in. The clandestine hero-based organization the Eighth Wonder works for is named N.U.D.E. (Next Ultimate Defense Experts) while the clandestine villain-based organization is called BLOWJOB (no acronym), so if you had any thoughts about the book trying to be subtle, let’s just quash those right now. The villains, whether female or male, also seem bent on undressing or potentially defiling the heroines in any number of ways, and it’s the underlying threat of where that “defilement” might go – one villain threatens to “contaminate” both of them – that makes this title skirt dangerously close to an area many readers might be – justifiably – uncomfortable reading.

Look, you get the general idea. Is your child really enjoying the Supergirl show on the CW? Would they like to read about other super-heroines? Don’t pick this book up for them. Did you enjoy Bomb Queen? Do you want a darker, less satirical version of Empowered? Here’s your book.

Will this tone be off-putting for other super-heroine fans? Perhaps. Perhaps not. To its credit, it doesn’t make any apologies about what it’s trying to be. In the afterword, Tamaki talks about this book being an exploration of the super-heroine fetish with “the belief that there are other comrades out there who share my interests.” As an avowed fan of super-heroines, I’m probably in that camp, but I’m also relieved to find out this series is only three volumes in length, as I think that’s about as far as a story like this can be taken. There’s a definite audience for this book, but it threatens to go places even that audience many not be prepared to follow.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Siuil, A Run: The Girl from the Other Side v1 (Seven Seas)

SiuilARun

CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 4/5 – A Grownup Fairy Tale with a Dark Social Commentary
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

It’s no accident that one of the advertisements I saw for this series mentioned it would be perfect for fans of The Ancient Magus’ Bride, another series published by Seven Seas. The parallels are fairly self-evident: a creepy monstrous being living with and protecting a cute, younger girl, in a realm populated with magic and danger. While the girl in this book is far too young to be considered a marriage candidate, and there’s a bit more menace to the monsters (one touch will make a normal human take on their form via a disease called The Curse), there’s certainly a similar feeling to both books. It’s a dark fantasy – or as the book calls itself “a quiet (tranquil) fairytale” – dealing with those who live Inside and those who live Outside. Those capital letters are intentional, if you were wondering.

Shiva, a young girl from the land Inside (where all normal looking humans live) finds herself paired with a monster from the land Outside (the home of all people inflicted with The Curse). Awaiting her aunt’s return to collect her, she fearlessly learns how to live with this scary but polite beast she calls “Teacher”. While he does his best to protect her as any parent would a child, Teacher harbors a dark secret. He knows the truth about Shiva’s aunt and why it’s unlikely she will ever return to take her back home.

As with the Ancient Magus’ Bride, this book transports you to a world you almost wish were real, but at the same time can be glad it isn’t. Events both fantastical and horrific occur within its pages, and you feel and fear for the characters these events happen to. It isn’t difficult to fall in love with the waifish Precious Moments figure that is Shiva, as well as empathize with Teacher’s struggle to care for a child he dare not touch, for fear of making her a monster like him.

I particularly enjoy Nagabe’s artistic style, as I’m a fan of artists who do the majority of their work with simple black ink on white paper. While there’s the occasional splash of gray tone, the bulk of this book is filled with a near-hypnotic sketchy style that can leave you staring at some panels for several minutes, drawn into this binary Inside/Outside world paralleled in the Black/White contrast of the artwork. I like to imagine that’s done on purpose, but I probably read too many books on theme and symbolism in college for my own good.

When we hear the world “manga” particular images tend to come to mind. But “manga” is simply a Japanese word for “comics”. If this book had come in a Fantagraphics or Top Shelf wrapper, it would have had the same kind of impact and feel to it. Pick it up for your friend who likes to profess they don’t like manga because they think it’s nothing but giant robots and doe-eyed schoolgirls. If the book does its job as well as it should, they’ll take care of picking up the rest on their own.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Aho-Girl: A Clueless Girl Vol. 1 (Kodansha)

AHoGil

CREDIT: Kodansha

Rating: 5/5 – A Deceptively Smart “Anti-Harem” Manga.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

I’ve talked about harem manga before in my reviews for ComicSpectrum. By all means, read one, but one is all you’re going to need, as the story and characters are almost always the same no matter who the creator may be. Of late, Japan seems out to challenge my broad brushstroke commentary, and Aho-Girl (translation: Idiot Girl) may be the best throwing down of the gauntlet to date. It’s almost an anti-harem manga, with a protagonist who literally has no interest in any of the women throwing themselves at his feet, and as these women introduce themselves to us in the story, it’s easy to see why.

Akkun is a studious male looking to get high marks in school to get into a good college. Idle time is studying time, and thus there is no time for playing around or goofing off. Unfortunately, he’s been friends since childhood with Yoshiko Hanabatake, the titular Aho Girl on the cover. She consistently gets zeroes on her exams, wishes every day could be Sunday so there’d be nothing but playtime all week, has a serious banana fetish (use your imagination), and is quite simply Akkun’s polar opposite. Convinced that one day Akkun will fall in love with her and marry her (so she can continue to do nothing but play), Yoshiko lives in a delusional world without consequences, and impossibly manages to pull it off. How she’s managed to survive this long and stay in school is a suspension of disbelief you’ll have to bring along should you decide to pick up this title. And you should pick up this title. It’s deceptively fun.

The series is told in the traditional yonkoma (4-panel) gag format, and as mentioned, creates a harem manga setting without relying on the actual trappings of the genre. Akkun isn’t some hapless dope pining over the girls fawning over him. Even the ultra-cute (and fairly normal) Sayaka is kept squarely in the friend zone as he focuses solely on his schoolwork. His side-job – keeping Yoshiko alive and trying to get her to study – keeps him busy, but it’s again more of a friend helping a friend than anything else. Not once did I get the idea that over time Akkun is going to “come to his senses” and fall for one of these girls. He’s playing the role of the only sane person in the room. Throw in an overly obsessive school monitor, a mother desperate to marry off her idiot daughter so she doesn’t have to deal with her in her old age, and a little sister living in fear of becoming the next Aho Girl, and you have a cast of characters that give this series a solid foundation to build on for future volumes.

The humor translates well to English, but it’s nice to have the index at the end of the book explaining some of the more culturally-specific gags. I found myself laughing out loud at some of them, as the humor jumps from the physical to the mental at a very brisk pace. It would be easy to dismiss this book as nothing more than lowbrow comedy, but it’s just at those moments when it’ll throw an obscure reference for the intellectual crowd to keep you off your toes. When was the last time a comedy manga mentioned the literary concept of sturm und drang or the tigers running around the tree from Little Black Sambo? Write this series off at your peril…there’s more going on here than meets the eye.

I’m holding fast to my idea that you really only need to keep one harem manga in your collection. That said, I’m likely to keep reading Aho-Girl because it flies in the face of a lot of what conventional harem manga provides. A cast of characters that manage to avoid falling into stereotype while at the same time playing stereotypical roles, humor that runs the gamut from slapstick to highbrow, and solid artwork that blends kinetic insanity with great character design…all this adds up to a book well worth checking out, even if you’ve already found that harem manga you want to follow. Go ahead…pick up a second one. I won’t tell.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow (al@comicspectrum.com)
https://comicspectrum.com/ By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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