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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Deadman Wonderland v12 (Viz)

Deadman

CREDIT: Viz Media

Rating: 4/5 – Survival At Its Most Insane in a Prison for Heinous Felons!
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Adam Brunell

I’m not much of a Manga reader, but Deadman Wonderland was highly recommended by a friend of mine. I fought him on it, but he let me borrow it, and a free read is always a good thing with me…Now I can’t stop reading it. At this point volume 12 is available for purchase in English, and volume 13 will be available in February. A volume comes out every few months but it only takes me about an hour or 2 to devour these things!

Deadman Wonderland sounds like Alice in Wonderland meets possibly something to do with zombies. I can assure you, this is not Alice’s Wonderland down the rabbit hole and there are no zombies. Deadman Wonderland is a manga written by Jinsei Kataoka and illustrated by Kazuma Kondō and it is an addicting series for me; I get pulled into the story like my favorite TV shows. It’s well written and while the art can be a little cluttered and chaotic at times, it all levels out in the end. There is romance, death, destruction, action, comedy, one stop for all kinds of things! I like stories having to do with survival and Deadman Wonderland is survival at its most insane.

Trying not to spoil anything, the story starts out with Ganta Igarashi who is sent to jail for a pretty nasty crime. His sentence is death, but instead of going to the gas chamber, he’s sent to a facility called Deadman Wonderland. The rules of the facility are pretty corrupt, but every inmate is here for doing something pretty bad reason. Just when I would get into a character and find their motives heroic, I remember that the character is in this facility for a crime like murder, plus they are quite possibly insane. I feel like I’m being pulled into rooting for the bad guy in every situation, because everyone in this place was convicted of a crime that put them on death row. The inmates work at the facility, and its one big game of survivor and is like a twisted theme park  Adding to that, the public can watch what’s going on in Deadman Wonderland (you’ve got to love these tropes that you mostly see in Japanese Manga).

Deadman Wonderland is captivating, like watching Survivor or Lost.  Kazuma’s illustrations are so well done that after a while I don’t notice the lack of color even though I’m used to mostly reading color comics.  Fight sequences are fast paced and the design shows heavy and fast movement, but being bounced around so much during battles I can’t help but have to look back to see if I missed something in the last segment. I will continue to read this as it comes out in English, because after 12 volumes the story still pulls me in and I can’t wait to see what happens to this large array of convicted felons next time!

Reviewed by: Adam Brunell
(adamb@comicspectrum.com
)
https://comicspectrum.com/ Covering the full spectrum of comics culture

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Akuma no Riddle: Riddle Story of Devil Vol. 1 (Seven Seas)

Akuma

CREDIT: Seven Seas

Rating: 2.5/5 – A Difficult Take on Some Common Manga Themes
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

The concept behind Akuma no Riddle seems pretty solid: Azuma Tokaku, an assassin, transfers into Class Black and Myojo Private School, an elite all-girls boarding academy. Her goal? Assassinate student Haru Ichinose. The problem? The other eleven girls in the class are also assassins, and are also out to kill Haru. At some point Tokaku has a moment of clarity and decides to protect Haru from these other killers. Who will be left standing in the end?

Now that sounds like a pretty decent story, right? Unfortunately, Akuma no Riddle fails in the execution of that story by taking a lot for granted from the reader. Characters are introduced spur-of-the-moment with little to no fanfare and almost zero explanation other than “They exist”. Tokaku’s relationship with her overseer is confrontational, but never explained, and while it’s implied Haru did something to warrant everyone wanting to kill her – Haru herself knows she’s the target, for one thing, and says as much – we don’t know much beyond she did something and people died from it.

Now all of this can be easily dismissed with a simple wave of the “Building a Mystery” wand…i.e. these stories take time to truly develop. The problem is that a bone needs to be thrown to the reader early on or there’s little investment in wanting to see that development. Characters are either stereotypical, boring, or just plain annoying. For example, Haru’s constant referring to herself as “Haru” got particularly grating the more she spoke. A few sentences in and *I* wanted to assassinate her.

Akuma no Riddle does a decent job of setting up the assassination concept, but with such a large cast and relatively poor character development in this first volume, there’s little to recommend here.  You might be better served seeking out the anime version, hopefully it does a better job of pacing and character development than the manga does in this first volume.

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

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Kill La Kill Vol. 1 (Udon)

KilLaKill

Rating: 4/5 – The Wildly Popular Anime Comes to Manga…
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow

Honnouji Academy’s oppressive student council inflicts its will over the student body via the use of powerful Goku Uniforms – special suits that grant superpowers to their wearer. To date, nobody has dared stand against them and lived to tell the tale (if the crucified student in the doorway, guilty of attempting to steal a uniform, didn’t tip you off). Kill la Kill chronicles the story of transfer student Ryuki Matoi, a student wielding a blade that looks like half a pair of scissors. She’s looking for the other half, as the owner might be the person responsible for her father’s death.

Kill la Kill – in anime form – has a pretty good reputation as a fun, bloody, and fanservice-laden revenge tale. I know when I work various conventions it’s common to see a Ryuki cosplayer walking around the floor. Those elements transfer nicely to the manga page in this impressive first volume from Udon. The humor is definitely intact, both in Ryo Akizuki’s artwork and in TRIGGER/Kazuki Nakashima’s writing. Ryuki’s main fighting move – running away – is particularly hilarious. Fighting sequences are completely over the top, much like in the anime, but well-rendered by Akizuki. Even fanservicey elements – the demon-powered uniform Ryuki finds leaves little to the imagination – blend well with the humor and action to provide a well-rounded story whether you’re familiar with the anime or not.

There might be little here to goad someone well-steeped in the anime to want to pick it up unless they’re just a huge fan of the series. It certainly makes a nice companion piece to it. I almost feel this book may serve more to draw people to watching the anime for all the right reasons. Usually if a manga doesn’t hold up well to its animated counterpart, I’ll encourage readers to check out the anime instead. In this case, I’d almost say dig into both. The manga is a really fun read but it may only serve as a nice appetizer before hitting the main course. In either event, it’s easy to see why Kill la Kill has the following it does. Rarely does any series blend action, humor, drama – and a little fanservice – this well.

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

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Alabaster Vol 1+2 (Digital Manga)

Alabaster

Review: 4/5 – The God of Manga Creates Characters He Hates
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

Digital Manga, known mainly for their release of yaoi manga over the past few years, has a splinter group focused on releasing the works of Osamu Tezuka, Japan’s acknowledged “God of Manga”. Imagine Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Will Eisner, and perhaps some Walt Disney all rolled up into one figure, and you have an idea of Tezuka’s impact on Japanese culture and in particular the manga industry. Yes, he’s that important. He also created an amazing body of work right up to his death, some easily accessible, some not quite so simple to obtain.

It’s that latter area Digital Manga has been working to fix. Title by title they have gone through and secured rights, worked on translation, and released some of Tezuka’s lesser-known (or it’s better to say lesser known outside of Japan) works. Long out of print titles like Captain Ken or Ludwig are now back in print and Digital Manga used Kickstarter backing to do it. The process is not cheap, but neither does Digital Manga cheapen the process. The volumes I’ve received thus far have been beautifully done, with the occasional fun extra thrown in (it’s a nice touch to get a personal thank you note handwritten by the publisher on a postcard in each volume). The kicker? I know I’m paying more by backing the crowdfunding campaign than if I’d waited to see if they’ll release it via normal channels, but I’m still happy to do so. It goes back to the project not succeeding without my support, and to illustrate that point, Digital Manga’s recent effort to print Tezuka’s Wonder Three did not succeed. While I’m sure they’re going to revisit their efforts to see that title does get printed, perhaps it’s time (after all these paragraphs) to talk about one of their recent successes – Alabaster volumes 1 and 2.

Alabaster tells the story of James Block, an Olympic-level athlete who falls in love, has the object of his affection spurn and laugh at him because of the color of his skin (he’s African-American), and when he attacks her in passionate rage he’s thrown in prison. While there he meets a scientist who tells him about a device he’s created that will make his skin disappear – along with the rest of him – making him an invisible man. Intrigued, and bent on revenge, Block serves his time and finds this device, but of course something goes wrong, and he finds only his skin has turned transparent. Crazed and disfigured, he dubs himself Alabaster and decides to destroy beauty in any form. Only when the world is completely ugly like he is will there truly be any beauty at all.

“I hate every character that appears in it without exception,” Tezuka writes in the afterword to volume two of Alabaster, mentioning that this is one of his least favorite works due to its darkness. He was reluctant to have it included in the scope of his work, but for completeness’ sake he finally allowed it. It is, indeed, perhaps one of the darkest books I’ve read by him to date, certainly up there with Ayako and The Book of Human Insects, and character plays a big role in that. It truly is difficult to find a “likable” person to latch onto and root for. Alabaster himself is a deplorably vile person whose soul is as twisted as the veins running across his transparent face. His followers and pursuers both have few redeeming qualities to share with the reader. Even Ami, the young girl who was one of the earliest victims of the invisibility device (it worked on her), becomes easily corrupted and understands Alabaster’s hatred of beauty and those who worship it.

That darkness, and examination of what beautiful really means, might be the general idea behind the book. The vanity of beauty being only skin deep, as the saying goes, is put on trial by Alabaster and his crew of henchmen, and eventually Ami herself. It’s the story of a supervillain, told by those who have to deal with the horrors a supervillain can wreak upon those he chooses to terrorize. It is not going to be an easy read, and certainly isn’t recommended for the casual reader looking to introduce themselves to Tezuka’s work, but for longtime fans these two volumes will be invaluable additions to their collections.

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

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Tokyo ESP Vol. 1 (Vertical)

TokyoESP

CREDIT: Vertical

Rating: 4.5/5 – Just Don’t Call Them the X-Men!
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

Rinka Urushiba is a struggling high-school girl trying to make her way through life in the poorer sections of Tokyo with her father, a retired policeman. Then one day she starts sinking through the floor of their tenement and winds up in the room below. No sooner can you say Kitty Pryde than a dashing young man teleports in and helps her figure out how to control her powers. No sooner can you say Kurt Wagner than her father begins to exhibit magnetic powers. No sooner can you say Magneto…well, you get the idea.

What sold me on Tokyo ESP is that the book doesn’t shy away from such comparisons. Rinka’s father looks just like an older, more mature version of Wolverine, and they even go so far as having him hold three pseudo-blades in-between his knuckles at one point. The creators are totally in on the gag, which made it easy to relax and just have fun reading it…and make no mistake, this is a very fun book, despite the seemingly grim and gritty plotlines that surround it. It’s good ol’ shonen fighting fun like mother used to bake.

One night in Tokyo, some glowing, flying fish began to appear in the sky, chased by a flying penguin – work with me here – and shortly after that, people began to develop superpowers. It doesn’t take long before these newly-endowed people begin using their powers to commit crimes or help prevent them. In this first volume (which I believe is collecting the first two volumes of the Japanese release) the battle lines are beginning to emerge.

As mentioned, it’s easy to make the connection between the super-powered entities in this book and those of another company – just don’t say the word “mutant” – but these characters certainly stand on their own merit. Rinka is every bit as cute and adorable as a certain Ms. Pryde, but she’s not necessarily a computer whiz like Shadowcat. Her sometimes unwanted partner-in-crimefighting, Kyotaro Azuma, sees his newfound power (and everyone else’s) as nothing short of a miracle and loves the idea that he can be a bona-fide superhero now. The villains are equally fun. Black Fist – who may turn out to be on the side of the angels by the end of this story – is a tough-talking girl with the power of invisibility. Small wonder she takes up burglary, right? The colorful cast of characters, as with any shonen story, is likely what will keep this series as fun and entertaining as it is.

Hajime Segawa’s crisp, detailed linework certainly doesn’t hinder matters. The fighting scenes are a veritable study in how to do them properly, which is saying something for a genre that rises and falls on its ability to craft a good battle sequence. What kept me flipping page after page, however, was the humor of the book. Despite all the fighting and seriousness going on around them, the characters manage to tread that fine line between drama and comedy without falling into goofiness. It’s not that the characters aren’t aware they’re in an insane situation, but that they acknowledge it’s all-too real to them. If Segawa can keep up that balance, I’m in for the long haul on this series. I’m hesitant to seek out the anime, as I think I want to just keep enjoying this manga for what it is: the flip-side of Tiger & Bunny (another examination of the super-hero mythos) with a less-slapstick style of humor. And nary a Professor Xavier in sight…yet.

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

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Pandora in the Crimson Shell: Ghost Urn Vol. 1 (Seven Seas)

Pandora

Rating: 5/5 – Two Manga Masters Unite to Create a Masterpiece.
by ComicSpectrum reviewer Al Sparrow.

Caveat Emptor: It is statistically impossible for me not to like this book, so keep that in mind as you read this review. I’ll do my best to remain objective and forget that Shirow Masamune, the artist who gave us Appleseed and Ghost in the Shell, just teamed up with Rikudou Koushi, the creator of Excel Saga, to create a manga series featuring the things each does best: cybernetic girls and, well, girls in general. For a western parallel, Eisner just wrote a story and handed it off to Kirby to draw. Yeah, it’s on that level as far as star-power goes.

“The reason I didn’t turn this into manga myself,” Masamune writes in the afterword, “is that, to begin with, my art style is old. I knew it’d end up being reminiscent of Ghost in the Shell…” Certainly the elements of a good Shirow tale are there. When a near full-conversion cyborg girl, Nene, travels to what should be an island paradise to visit her aunt, it doesn’t take long before she finds herself embroiled in an anti-terrorist plot, working alongside a fellow loli-con cyborg named Clarion to fight giant mecha at the behest of Clarion’s sexpot owner, Delilah. Oh, and Delilah’s assistants, a bunny girl, a cheongsam-clad beauty, a girl in a schoolgirl outfit…are you getting the picture?

Both Masamune and Koushi are known, along with creating manga epics, for their women. Interestingly enough, but perhaps not too surprising, there are no male cast members in this first volume. Flipping back through it, I’m not sure Koushi even drew a single male in the book, outside of a crowd scene. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that. If anything, they’re being honest and playing to their strengths. Rikudou, in a back yonkoma in Excel Saga, extolled the fun of drawing breasts, so it’s probably a bit of a challenge keeping that in check while drawing two younger women in metal and plastic bodies. Cyborg fetishists take note: your book has arrived with a vengeance.

Still, with Koushi at the helm working to Masamune’s plotline, I kept wondering just how far they’d be willing to go with it. I got my answer about halfway through, when Nene must tap into Clarion’s power-base to temporarily download a fighting program that will give her a momentary edge over her adversary. You will now be given three guesses as to where that interface lies, and what Nene has to do to access it. Yes, they went there. Yes, it’s borderline hilarious and yet somehow I know somewhere this is a scene that someone has been waiting all their lives to see. The rest of you? Proceed with caution.

As I mentioned, it’s impossible for me not to like this book. In fact I loved it, and can’t wait for volume two. The author of two of my favorite manga series teamed up with the creator of my absolute favorite manga series? I’m not sure what they could possibly have done that I’d hate, but fortunately I don’t have to find out. Pandora in the Crimson Shell will not be for all audiences (if my subtle hints above weren’t enough to clue you in) but the audience it does find is going to absolutely love it.

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

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