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


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 ( By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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


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 ( By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Clockwork Planet v1 (Kodansha)


CREDIT: Kodansha

Rating: 4/5 – Don’t Call It Steampunk
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

My wife and I picked up a grandfather clock at a yard sale a few months ago. No real rhyme or reason to it, it just kind of spoke to us as something we wanted in our home. They’re a real curiosity in our modern electronic world. You don’t plug them in. You have to maintain them weekly or they’ll stop working. There are no apps or programs to control them. They’re all built around an intricate and actually quite beautiful system of gears and pulleys that function as a sort of universe within itself. I got the first volume of Clockwork Planet around the same time and the comparison between the two wasn’t lost on me.

While the story of this series is nothing new to manga veterans – prodigy/pariah student comes across amazing technological girl/robot who somehow attaches to him and adventures ensue – the setting itself caught my eye. About 1000 years prior to the book’s current timeline, Earth faced utter doom when a legendary master technician created a series of massive gears, springs, and cogs that essentially covered the planet. These constantly rotating machines keep the planet and its cities alive and intact, and should one ever stop, it could spell imminent disaster. Thus we have our title for the book, and a fairly unique world for it to inhabit.

Unique? Isn’t this just steampunk? That’s what I thought when I picked this book up. I’m not an expert by any means on the genre, but I know enough to know what it is and isn’t. Clockwork Planet definitely falls under the “isn’t” category. This isn’t a throwback Victorian society of steam-based technological wonders. People wear modern shades, not monacles. There are no massive factories or dirigibles or other trappings of the Steampunk realm to be found here, or at least none in this first volume.  In fact, modern tech seems to exist side-by-side with the old-school gear-based machinery, creating a blend of the old with the new that somehow manages to work.

Normally, the “boy and his robot” storyline isn’t enough to grab me for the long haul. As mentioned before…been there, read that. Repeatedly. Clockwork Planet has a few things going for it that buck the general trends of that kind of story. For one, not-so-hapless mecha otaku Naoto is a pretty fun protagonist, not your usual everyman who kind of exists in the background waiting to come out and save the day at the end of the series. It also helps that the story doesn’t just focus on him and his relationship with Ryuzu, the obligatory cute robot girl who assigns herself to him when he awakens her. She’s a bit of a fun character as well, but the story only partially focuses on their initial meeting before moving on to an equally interesting plotline; several families work as guards, overseers, and repairpersons for the gearworks, complete with rivalries, backstabbings, and enough court intrigue to give this story a depth beyond many of its ilk.

Readers who see the gear-oriented artwork and read only the pitch of this series can be forgiven if they picked it up hoping for a manga-meets-steampunk romp. It’s likely they may find themselves taken in by the archaic meets modern technological aspects, compelling storylines, and solid artwork and character designs (I think cosplayers will have a lot of fun re-creating Ryuzu’s costume). Ultimately, Clockwork Planet may not be anything at all what people expect, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. In this case, it has enough going for it to bring me back for Volume two.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow ( By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Please Tell Me! Galko-Chan Vol. 1 (Seven Seas)


CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 4.5/5 – Everything You NEVER Wanted to Know
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

Are girls always dreaming of the day they become adults? Is it true that if you drink caffeine in the morning, it’ll have a huge effect on your outlook? Is it true that you can’t help moaning when you get a massage? Do High School Girls Really Carry Rubbers?

The answer to these and other – even more disturbing – questions can be found in the pages of Please Tell Me! Galko-chan, a manga that gets high points for originality, fearlessness, and its ability to get you to chuckle at things you probably shouldn’t be chuckling about. Join Galko and her two cohorts, Otako and Ojou, as they do their best to answer a gamut of questions from the perfectly innocent to the perversely crass. High school life gets a thorough examination in this humorous slice-of-bizarro-life book that’s like few others – strike that, like no other – on the shelves right now.

The questions get even more crude, lewd, and rude as the book progresses (or digresses if you want to look at it that way).  Be prepared to deal with questions about periods, hair on nipples, and other decidedly un-sexy topics that make this book much more than what it appears to be at first glance. Still, it’s the book’s reckless abandon in tackling these topics that gives it an edge over so many other titles out there right now. I found myself cracking up over topics that honestly should not be as funny as this book makes them. That said, anyone who picks it up after taking one look at Galko’s curvy oversexed figure on the cover is in for a bit of a rude awakening. Consider yourself warned.

It’s rare to find a manga printed in full-color from cover to cover, but the artistic style Kenya Suzuki uses almost demands it. It’d almost be cheating to switch from a few color pages into black and white, as most manga tankobon tend to do. The colored pencil/pen style blended with (I’m guessing) a few computer-enhancements gives the book a truly unique look. I haven’t seen a manga done in quite this fashion. Sure, the jokes and humor would work just as well in black and white, but they work better in full color, particularly in chapters with questions prone to make the characters blush, show anger, or panic (which to be honest is pretty much most of them). The beauty of the artwork belies the crudeness of the tribulations the characters experience, and that’s a huge part of what makes it such an entertaining read.

I knew a girl like Galko-chan growing up. Overly friendly, drop dead gorgeous, and as comfortable hanging out with the geeks as they were the more popular girls in their clique. I don’t think I’d ever go so far as to ask her some of the questions in this book, mind you, but Please Tell Me! Galko-chan did provide an interesting bit of nostalgia. You’ll definitely want to check it out and make sure you’re the right audience for this book before you actually put your money down for it, but if you are the right audience for this book, you’re in for a real treat. Proceed with caution, but by all means, proceed.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow ( By Fans who Love Comics for Fans who Love Comics

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Delicious in Dungeon Vol. 1 (Yen Press)


Rating: 4/5 – How to Serve Monsters…Deliciously
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

Depending on how psychotically sadistic the person running your role-playing game campaign chooses to behave, assaulting a dungeon can be a very costly endeavor. Not only are there weapons and armor to keep in good repair, there’s the little matter of food. Provisions must be bought, protected, and meted out carefully depending on how deeply your party chooses to pierce the curtain of evil the dungeon hides. Only the best equipped parties with the most well-stocked larders can hope to survive…a poor band of destitute, starving explorers haven’t got a prayer.

Unless, of course, they get creative…

After a nasty encounter with a red dragon that may or may not have cost his sister her life, stalwart fighter Laios and his party of adventurers find themselves back at the beginning of the dungeon, victims of errant (or perhaps well-timed) teleportation spell. While they’re grateful to be alive, they have little money and even less food. All appears hopeless until Laios reveals a cunning plan and a hidden passion…the party could eat through the dungeon, consuming the monsters they defeat along the way!

It’s such an outlandish idea that manages to still make so much sense I’m surprised nobody’s tried it in an actual game. Why buy food when there’s so much fresh meat, vegetation, and other consumables just waiting to be eaten? It helps that halfling thief Chilchuck seems to be on board with the idea, and barely a chapter in the party comes across a dwarf, Senshi, with actual experience in monster-based cooking techniques, and a desire to eat a Red Dragon.

Marcille, the resident female elf mage, however, is having none of it, and it’s her presence that makes this first volume of the series as much fun as it is. She’s essentially us, the voice of reason, the big pain in the posterior pointing out why this isn’t a good idea, the only person so un-gung-ho that half the time I kept expecting her to leave the group. Hunger wins out, though, and she soon finds herself a somewhat unwilling participant in the ongoing quest to rescue Laios’ sister…and grab a meal or two along the way.

I have a soft spot for elves in fantasy, and Marcille starts out as such an endearingly pathetic character I couldn’t help but fall for her. It’s clear creator Ryoko Kui likes her as well, as some of the best faces of shock, revulsion, and out and out fear belong to her. Thankfully, she doesn’t develop into a one-joke pony…she’s hiding a rather dark secret, and when it’s revealed it makes for two of the most laugh-out-loud panels I’ve read in a comic in a long time. I have a feeling where she’s concerned it’s only going to get worse…and I’m looking forward to that. The only real problem Delicious in Dungeon has ahead of it is how long can the gag remain fresh? The novelty of a party going through a dungeon killing monsters and eating them (with recipe descriptions that would make Julia Child jealous) certainly doesn’t seem like one that can last very long.

If you’re an old-school RPG player like me, you’ll kick yourself wondering why you didn’t cut up and grill that Basilisk after you dispatched it to the outer planes. You’ll wonder just what a green slime actually tastes like if you cook it and harden it enough to make a gummy candy out of it. Simply put, this book is a lot of fun, with great artwork (as mentioned, some of the comedic expressions are priceless), and a host of characters with varied dimension to them. The strength of the characters and the sudden unexpected moments of humor kept me wanting more  Whether it can keep the main joke of the series appealing or not remains to be seen, but for at least this first volume, Delicious in Dungeon really delivers.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
) Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Cells at Work! Vol. 1 (Kodansha)


CREDIT: Kodansha

Rating: 4.5/5 – Our Bodies, Our Cells…Edutainment at It’s Best!
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

Mankind has struggled with the idea of using comic books for educational purposes since perhaps not too long after the first inkbrush hit the paper. Rather than dismiss them as youth-corrupting rotters of the brain, artists and educators alike have done their best to utilize this medium to inform as well as entertain. Often, the results are mixed. Stray too far into the educational realm, and it’s almost seen as pandering which any kid can see right through. Go too far toward the entertainment side of things, however, and you risk not getting your point across. Cells at Work! is an example of how to do it right.

Simply put, I wish I’d had this book when I was getting Ds in my science class in high school. Would I have aced the human biology test? Maybe, maybe not, but my score would have been at least a little bit higher. The book takes the human body and converts it to a massive building complex, where red blood cells, who seem to dress like UPS or FedEx workers, deliver small packages of Oxygen through the bustling hallways of the arteries, and return through the veins with carbon dioxide. One particular red blood cell keeps running into a particularly creepy looking white blood cell – hey, you’d look creepy too if your job was fighting disease and invaders all day – and the two learn more about each other’s world while fighting off a zombie invasion in the form of the flu, a cut that exposes the “building” to the world outside the body, and the occasional allergic reaction.

While Red and White Blood Cells are the clear stars of the show, there’s plenty of time for cameos from Macrophages, Killer T-Cells, Memory Cells, Mast Cells, and if you don’t find the Platelets adorable, I don’t know what to tell you. All these cells work as a (mostly) coherent unit to keep the business of the building intact, and they’ve only scratched the surface of what’s to come. As a diabetic, I’m anxiously awaiting the appearance of Insulin as a character or weapon to be used. I’m sure it’s out there somewhere.

Really, that’s the only question I have about this series…how long can they keep it going and keep readers engaged with it? Will the novelty and fun peter out by the time I reach volume four? The first volume of this book joins the hard science of the human body with the action and excitement of great manga (the strep virus looks straight out of Dragonball Z) and make it all look effortless. I’m genuinely curious as to how long they can avoid becoming stale or running out of material.

This book is a shining example of the real potential of comics. No, it’s not going to replace an actual textbook, and if my doctor said they’d used it as the background for their work, I’d likely go running from the building, but if someone was truly struggling with the concept of human biology, Cells at Work! explains it in a fairly unique way that might help it make sense. Then, of course, you have to return to that textbook, but perhaps with a better understanding of how everything works. Plus you might have found a smile or two along the way. Perhaps education can’t always be this entertaining, but this book certainly challenges that idea.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
) Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Flying Witch Vol. 1 (Vertical)


CREDIT: Vertical

Rating: 2.5/5 – Check Out the Anime Before Investing Too Deeply in the Manga
by ComicSpectrum Reviewer Al Sparrow

Fan that I am of the printed page, it’s often difficult for me to recommend checking out the live-action or animated version of a story over something that exists in book form. Having seen Flying Witch in both the anime and manga formats, however, I’m hard pressed to recommend eschewing the former for the latter. It’s particularly difficult when the book comes from Vertical, a company I’ll own up to having a favorable bias toward. I tend to love their books, particularly recent releases like Nichijou and My Neighbor Seki.  I was looking forward to Flying Witch being a solid addition to their growing stable of great titles. Sadly, I made the mistake of checking out the anime in advance of this book’s arrival, and while that may have unfairly influenced my outlook on the printed version, it’s still a comparison worth noting.

Makoto Kowata, the titular witch in the series, is returning to her rural roots to complete her training and become an actual bona-fide witch. She moves in with her cousins, one who knows about her profession and another who is about to find out, and begins a life of misadventure after misadventure. Our heroine, while knowledgeable in the realm of witchcraft and spellwork, has much to learn about how the real world operates, and it’s these flaws and foibles – such as a notoriously poor sense of direction – that make her such a fun character. She doesn’t know it all, but she knows enough to be dangerous.

There seems to be a growing trend these days for witch-centered titles. Maybe they’ve become the flavor-of-the-month (year?)(decade?) but there have been a number of books and anime showing up lately involving our pointy-hatted cauldron-brewing baba yagas in training. For someone like me who has been enamored of witches since cowering in fear at Margaret Hamilton many years ago when I first saw The Wizard of Oz, this is truly a great time to be a manga lover. At the same time, there seems to be more and more light-hearted, so-called “slice of life”, stories showing up, and in my book that’s also a great thing. They can’t put out new books of Non Non Byori or Nichijou, for example, fast enough to keep me happy. Despite what you may hear, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to read a book that simply makes you smile and feel good about the world. Combine this type of storytelling with a witch protagonist, as they’ve done with Flying Witch, and you’d think a reader like me would be in heaven.

So why, then, would I start this review suggesting you check out the anime over the manga? Either way, I recommend experiencing this story, particularly if you’re a witch lover like me, but the anime takes advantage of the fact that it’s an anime and comparing it to the manga only showcases the shortcomings of the printed page. For one, Makoto inhabits a gorgeously rendered world, and the wonder and awe she expresses at her surroundings are better captured in the multi-colored realm of the anime. The “sets” (aka the backgrounds, buildings, and cityscapes) are gorgeous in the anime and they just don’t translate to the black and white of the manga. There too, the pacing of the jokes in the story are better served when the animation can expand on something only hinted at in the manga. Read the early story about Makoto picking up a mandragora for her new friend Nao, then watch the animated version, to get an idea of what I’m talking about. The anime can get away with things the manga cannot, and the experience is simply better viewed on a screen than read on a page this time around.

Whether you choose to read or watch the story of Flying Witch, it’s one well worth checking out if you’re a fan of witch-based stories or slice-of-life-I-just-want-to-relax stories. If you’re into both, it’s a no-brainer to check out. While the old saw is to say that the book is superior to the movie, or in this case animation, I found the reverse to be true.  Experience it however you choose, but by all means, experience it.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
) Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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