Cells at Work! Vol. 1 (Kodansha)

CellsatWork01

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
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Flying Witch Vol. 1 (Vertical)

FlyingWitch01

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
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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A Distant Neighborhood (Ponent Mon Ltd.)

adistant

CREDIT: Ponent Mon Ltd.

Rating: 5/5 – What If You Could Do It All Again?
by ComicSpectrum Reviewer Al Sparrow

It’s a question most of us have asked ourselves at one point in our lives: If you could go back and live your life again, knowing what you know now, would you do it? I know I’ve thought about it quite a bit, from both fanciful ideas like investing in Apple stock when it was dirt cheap to warning people I knew were going to die to take steps to avoid their fate. Would I tell myself to pay more attention to diet and exercise? Maybe not say some of the things I wished I’d never said to people, or say some things that needed to be said to others? Ask that girl or guy out? Stand up to that bully who tormented you in elementary school? Yeah, there’s probably a lot of things we’d like to change if we could.

But what if we could?

Hiroshi is a forty-something salaryman with a wife and children he barely sees or even acknowledges anymore. His life seems to be stuck on autopilot and he doesn’t notice it passing him by. One day he takes the wrong train and winds up back in the village where he grew up. He decides to visit his mother’s grave and pray, only to open his eyes and find out he’s back in his fourteen-year old body, about thirty years in the past.

After the initial shock dies down, Hiroshi is faced with predicaments both great and small. Humorous moments like discovering his fourteen-year old body can’t tolerate alcohol the way his forty-year old one could. Heartwarming moments like dealing with the prettiest girl in school – the one he never thought he’d have a chance with – developing a crush on him because he’s behaving more like a confident, mature adult. Serious moments like knowing the eventual fate and future of most of his classmates, and whether or not to steer them toward or away from those destinies. Overshadowing all this, however, is Hiroshi’s desire to prevent his father abandoning his family, and knowing the day is fast approaching when that event will occur.

Eisner-nominated Jiro Taniguchi’s award-winning work is beautifully published in a single hardcover volume. Slice-of-life is a difficult way to describe it, but also probably the best way. Little is made of the fantastical elements that provoke Hiroshi’s shift in time, as our attention is better spent finding out what he plans to do with that shift. I remember fourteen not being a particularly easy age, with a lot of my outlook and personality only beginning to take shape. That’s well-reflected in this book, as the confident forty-year old inhabiting Hiroshi’s fourteen-year old body shows the difference between the two ages. I could have used a forty-year old outlook from time to time when I was in junior high, I think.

The back cover of A Distant Neighborhood sums up the theme of the book perfectly: “You can go back again…but should you?” There’s so many things I know for a fact I would have done differently given the opportunity, but at the same time, what I did, right or wrong, made me what I am today. Given that, I wonder what I would actually want to change, and would I be wise enough to know whether or not it’s worth trying. Some of the best forms of entertainment leave you thinking about them long after you’ve closed the book, left the theater, or turned off the stereo. A Distant Neighborhood is definitely a story in that vein.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Holy Corpse Rising Vol. 1 (Seven Seas Entertainment)

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CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 4/5 – A Promising Start to a Historical Harem Manga
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

I’ve stated before that when it comes to harem manga – stories where a fairly nondescript male finds himself fawned over by a number of beautiful women – you really only need to invest yourself in one series. The overall plotline is almost always the same: the aforementioned male eventually ends up with one of the girls and the others somehow deal with it. Ultimately it comes down to how the story is told, as opposed to what story it’s telling. Your best bet is to find the harem manga with the components that click best for you – artwork, setting, tone – and go with that.

With Holy Corpse Rising, I may wind up breaking my own edict and adding yet another harem series to my reading pile. I’m a big fan of historical manga, however tangential it may be to actual recorded history. In this case, the setting is Rome in the 15th century, with the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, the persecution of witches, and a coming war between the two. Because it’s a manga, and a harem one at that, some liberties are being taken. Don’t cite this on your historical thesis or term paper, but there’s enough material grounded in actual history to give the book some weight. Creator Hosana Tanaka separates each chapter with informational pages – some based on historical fact, others to help advance the plotline or develop a character – that create a world with a rich history built into it, even though we’re only on the first volume.

I’m also a sucker for witches, and this book promises a number of them. Indeed, the general plotline involves Nikola, the virginal monk protagonist, marrying eleven of them after resurrecting them from the grave. Bear in mind these aren’t witches of the pointy-hat and striped legging variety, but the oracles of ancient Greece: worshipers of the goddess Diana, with powers and abilities activated through interaction with Nikola. Because this is a harem manga, of course they’re also drop-dead (pun intended) gorgeous. They’re contrasted with their present-day pagan counterparts, who want nothing more than the complete destruction of the church.

I was a fan of Hosana Tanaka’s earlier series, Ninja Girls, so I knew going in I would enjoy the artwork at the very least. Here Tanaka seems to be taking a much looser approach to character rendering, and it works quite well. It almost doesn’t seem like the same artist, and that can be a refreshing thing in the manga world. The witches themselves took me back to the more stylized drawings I remember from the anime I watched growing up (Galaxy Express, Macross, etc.). Ezelvald, the first witch Nikola encounters, seems like one of Leiji Matsumoto’s creations, and that’s not meant to slight Tanaka’s ability at all. If anything, she’s a tribute to that particular style, and I’m curious to see how the other witches are rendered when they show up. Indeed, it’s this blend of old-school artistic style blended with newer trends in manga that makes this series worth further investigation.

It might take another volume to completely win me over on Holy Corpse Rising, but the series is off to a very promising start. Fans of harem manga with a historical bent will find an enjoyable read, and manga historians may find a few things to have them digging out their old tankobon for a trip down memory lane. It’s interesting that we’re seeing a number of “witch” based manga showing up on the shelves of late. This one seems to both follow and buck that trend at the same time, offering a unique take on witches and what they’re all about, while using many of the elements we’ve come to expect from a harem manga to do it.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Land of the Rising Dead (Seven Seas)

landofdead

CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 5/5 – Everything You Never Thought You Needed To Know About Zombies
by ComicSpectrum Reviewer Al Sparrow

Don’t let the frivolous (and lengthy) title fool you (subtitled: A Tokyo School Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Zombie Apocalypse) this book takes its subject matter very seriously. Part manga, part prose novel, this tome walks you through nearly every aspect of surviving a zombie apocalypse, and does so with an almost scholarly bent that prevents this book from becoming yet another entry into the zombie-manga horror craze of late.

Join Chris, Sarah, Lina, and the recently zombified Mero as they walk you through the various aspects of all things undead. After a brief history of the zombie in popular culture, from White Zombie to George Romero to Resident Evil and beyond, the book looks at the seven main archetypical zombies you might encounter, followed by chapters on proper weapon selection, survival techniques, and a couple simulations to test your true mettle against the horde.

The charm of this book is that it reads like a textbook, or maybe a better word might be survival manual. Brief manga vignettes are thrown in to allow the four female protagonists to illustrate a point here or there. I would like to have seen a bit more manga and a bit less exposition, but the two elements work well together, helping this book walk the fine line between scholarly work (the writing team really did their homework) and goofy fun send-up of the genre. While the book is rated all ages, a few of the manga snippets involved some pretty obvious fanservice and the subject itself is by its very nature a bit graphic and gory. Nothing most seasoned manga readers haven’t already experienced, but parents take warning.

Land of the Rising Dead is a great mix of manga and manuscript, creating a valuable field guide for anyone planning to deal with a zombie apocalypse anytime soon. While it aims to take a serious look at the zombie phenomenon, there’s enough humor, particularly in the manga sections, to keep it light and entertaining.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Monster Girl Encyclopedia (Seven Seas)

monstergirl

Rating: 4/5 – Great Art and Great Writing for a Very Select Audience
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

Monster girls are huge right now in the anime and manga world. For example, as long as you can stomach the more prurient aspects of the story and art, pound for pound you won’t find a more fun book on the shelves right now than Monster Musume. Even a cursory examination will reveal that monster maidens have been a part of manga since its early days, so it’s surprising that it’s taken this long for someone to create an actual encyclopedia of monster girls, complete with lush full-color illustrations.

The book opens with a forward from a nomadic scholar who has been attempting to chronicle and categorize every type of monstrous female, and an introduction is given to explain things like their nature, diet, reproduction, and the monster’s relationship to humanity. There’s even a brief history of how the monster females first emerged, all tying back to the very first known monster female – the Succubus. If you know the nature of succubi throughout literature, you may have a fair idea where this book heads after the introduction. If you have no idea what I’m talking about, in simplest terms these monster women have monster libidos and that’s the real focus of what the book is trying to cover.

Author Kenkou Cross goes to great pains to explain how each monster girl wants to seduce and have their way with unsuspecting and hapless male prey. Ever wonder how a slime girl does it? What about a Dryad? Or a Fairy? It’s all covered in the pages of this tome, and while it makes for some funny reading, there’s also a few moments where you’re bound to either roll your eyes or scratch your head and wonder who thinks of such stuff.

That said, the book has some gorgeous full-color renderings of each type of monster girl, including the occasionally more lascivious inset graphic to illustrate a point or two. It’s put together nicely in a hardbound volume with excellent graphic production to make it look and feel like an actual encyclopedia. I know some of you younger readers may wonder what an encyclopedia might be…feel free to use the internet to look it up.

To its credit, the book goes to great pains to ensure it ends up in the right hands, with a “For Mature Monster Girl Fans Only” badge just above the Mature (18+) rating. It’s almost a shame such a good looking book will reach only a limited audience based on its topic and tone, but this is a must for any older fan of monster girls. The artwork will surely grab you, the writing – whether intentionally humorous or not – will keep you chuckling, and the promise of future volumes will no doubt make this book just enough to whet your appetite for more.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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School Judgment: Gakkyu Hotei (Viz)

SchoolJudgement

CREDIT: Viz Media

Review: 4.5/5 – Courtroom Drama was Never Like This
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

Without revealing too much about the Bruce Wayne side of my existence, when I’m not writing reviews or reading comics, I earn my living working in the legal profession. So any time a book or program comes out involving courtrooms, judges, and lawyers, I always like to compare the reality of my chosen field to the fantasy portrayed in these other mediums. You almost have to expect some liberties to be taken by a creator to make the story more interesting, but often these efforts make the story too fantastical to be taken seriously by anyone who works in that field. The same is probably true of every cop drama, construction site, or emergency room that shows up in the pages of a comic.

The creators of School Judgment manage to do an end run around all that by setting their courtroom drama in an Elementary School, with students serving as lawyers, and pre-schoolers (work with me here, people!) serving as judges. Crazy as that scenario might sound, it works. In the not-too-distant future, bullying and crime has threatened Japan’s educational system to the point of collapse. To combat this, the government set up the School Judgment system, allowing schools to act as their own judiciary, trying and sentencing those caught on the wrong side of the law.

Abaku Inugami is a young transfer student gifted in the art of “ronpa” – the technique of turning ones arguments against them – called upon to defend a number of students guilty of various crimes against the school. Because it’s an elementary school, these crimes usually involve something as seemingly innocent as cheating on an exam, or the destruction of a beloved school mascot, but the story-behind-the-story holds much graver overtones. Abaku was the sole survivor of a mass execution at his previous school, for reasons as yet made unclear. While this first volume is a collection of individual courtroom drama vignettes, there is a much sinister story being told in the background.

The stories themselves function as mini-whodunnits, offering astute readers the opportunity to take a minute to figure out the solution to each case, however far-fetched it might be. Whether the presented solution confirms the reader’s suspicions or seems to come from out of nowhere is pretty much left up to the individual reader. Or they could just be read straight through without that investment on the reader’s part and still manage to be just as entertaining.

It doesn’t hurt to have Takeshi Obata (Death Note, Bakuman) on art chores. Every character is dynamically and expertly rendered, from Abaku’s first client Tento to his rival Pine Hanzuki, a magical girl wannabe attorney for the prosecution, complete with magic wand. Obata’s ability to cover both the innocence of childhood – these are little kids, after all – as well as the grimness of whatever mystery lurks in Abaku’s past, make this book another strong entry in his already amazing portfolio of work.

School Judgment: Gakkyu Hotei is a must for any fan of courtroom drama, debate, or really anyone who just likes a good argument. The book takes a group of elementary kids and has them deal with a very adult situation, and manages to do so with just enough believability blended with charm to make it work. Playful for the most part, but with enough dark overtones to keep readers wanting to find out the whole story, School Judgment is well worth your time.

Reviewed by: Al Sparrow
(al@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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