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Off the Shelf: Soap, Shoujo, & Samurai

Welcome to Off the Shelf with Melinda & Michelle, and our first column of the New Year! I’m joined, as always, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.

This week, I catch up on some favorites from Yen Press and Viz Media, while Michelle shares a look at a unique “how-to” offering from Tokyopop.

MICHELLE: Hey, Melinda? Why were the little strawberries upset?

MELINDA: I dunno, why?

MICHELLE: ‘Cos they were in a jam!

MELINDA: Ba-dum-dum *chick*

MICHELLE: Thank you! I’ll be here all week. Tip your waitress.

Before you advise me not to quit my day job, perhaps I should make with the business at hand and inquire as to what you’ve been reading this week!

MELINDA: I spent the week catching up on new volumes of both a new favorite and an old one. I’ll start with the old one, which would be Park SoHee’s gloriously soapy manhwa, Goong. And I have to say, now that Yen Press has been releasing these in omnibus format, the series is more addictive than ever. Despite its soap-opera leanings, Goong moves at a brisk pace, so it reads very well in two-volume chunks.

Volume ten (consolidated from Korean volumes 11 & 12) begins with Chae-Kyung throwing both herself and her husband to the palace wolves by revealing the truth about their marriage in a live television interview. Incredibly, things only ramp up further from there to the end, making this one of the most dramatic volumes of the series so far.

What I admire most about Park SoHee, aside from her detailed, expressive artwork, is her ability to create well-rounded, morally ambiguous characters in both the “hero” and “villain” camps (particularly with the younger characters), displaying all their weaknesses, refusing to make clear distinctions between them, and yet still creating real biases and allegiances in the hearts of her readers.

Take Hyo-Rin for example. She’s certainly at odds with our heroine, Chae-Kyung, but she’s pretty well-balanced, overall. She’s equal parts “bitch” and “misunderstood victim,” and Park gives significant page time to both. As a reasonable adult, it’s clear to me that she’s just a regular teen girl stuck in a situation just as unfortunate and as unfair as Chae-Kyung’s. Yet I believe Park intends for me to really hate Hyo-Rin. Why? Because I do. I really, really do. Despite the fact that it’s incredibly juvenile of me to do so, I genuinely hate her and have, at times, wished ill upon her.

Writing a villain like a villain may not sound particularly noteworthy, but what’s brilliant about what Park does is the way she’s able to create the illusion of black and white using only shades of gray. It’s what keeps this series crisp and compelling, despite its soapy consistency. I’m impressed by it every time.

MICHELLE: The bit about you wishing ill upon Hyo-Rin literally made me crack up. Well done! And man, you have certainly stoked the flames of my love for Goong. I’ve been hoarding the past several releases with the intention of reading them soon, but now I’m tempted to reread from the beginning first the better to wallow in the melodramatic goodness that is this cracktastic series.

MELINDA: This volume is just about as melodramatic and as good as it could possibly be, and if you aren’t wishing ill upon Hyo-Rin right along with me by the end, I’ll eat my hat. :D

MICHELLE: No one ever goes through with that promise.

MELINDA: Well, I might not either. It’s a wool hat. Terrible texture. But never mind that! What have you been reading this week?

MICHELLE: My pick for the week is not actually manga, but is very much about manga. I read How to Draw Shojo Manga, by the Editors of Hakusensha’s shojo magazines. The title is a bit unfortunate, because it might lull one into thinking this is simply a book about drawing, when that isn’t the case at all.

What it is is a very thorough introduction to the entire (incredibly time-consuming) process of creating manga, with specific advice and examples. I’m not talking simply “use this kind of nib for thin lines” but in-depth instruction on topics like creating outlines and storyboards, panel arrangement, the proper order for inking, using digital tools, and even how to deal with criticism. This can sometimes get quite specific, like, “It’s effective to have a panel that draws the eye to the top of the left page.”

Throughout, readers follow Ena, an aspiring manga-ka, as she creates an outline for a 16-page submission to a short story contest, moves on to the storyboard phase, and finally submits her finished product for criticism from two of Hakusensha’s editors. Obviously, the parts of this book dealing with submitting one’s story for consideration aren’t really applicable to American would-be manga-ka—unless they are fluent in Japanese, one supposes—so it’s unlikely that the claim “Follow along with us, work hard, and you will find yourself transformed into a professional shojo manga artist” will ever come to fruition. I wonder how often a book like this has actually produced success in Japan.

That said, even a casual manga fan would find this book illuminating. For a reviewer, particularly ones like us who are trying to improve our skills in artistic criticism, I’d go so far as to call it positively indispensable. There’s so much practical advice about what a manga-ka should be—and theoretically is—striving for in his/her work that I found it quite a fascinating read.

MELINDA: I have a copy of this as well, and while I haven’t read it in-depth, I was immediately struck by how different it is from the lame, obviously western takes on “shojo manga” we’ve seen in so many how-to books. It’s honestly the first one I’ve ever been sent that I had any interest at all in reading after doing a quick flip-through, and that includes all the ones I’ve actually read. Heh.

Though I expect you’re right–not too many American artists are going to be submitting their work for publication in Japan–was any of the submission advice general enough to be useful for western artists submitting their work to OEL publishers?

MICHELLE: Indeed, there is nothing lame about this book at all. And absolutely, the advice would completely apply to OEL creators. From the aspects of the craft itself to how to solicit criticism—instead of asking a friend whether they liked your work, instead ask if they understood it, for example—it’s completely applicable for western artists!

MELINDA: Now I feel even more inspired to read this!

MICHELLE: Any time I like something, I always think that you should read it, but this time I really, really mean it. I think you’ll learn a lot. I did.

Anyways, enough gushing. You hinted earlier at a new favorite. Which one might that be?

MELINDA: Ah yes, well, the new volume of a new favorite is volume two of Natsume Ono’s House of Five Leaves, one of my favorite debut series last year. As you may recall, I read volume one pretty much on a whim via the SigIKKI website, during a week in which I had little access to physical books. It’s going to be real books all the way for Five Leaves from now on, though. This series is definitely a keeper.

As this volume opens, Masa falls ill, which forces him to retire to the country under the care of Goinkyo, a friend of the Five Leaves gang. With Masa separated from Five Leaves’ leader Yaichi for most of the volume, the story takes on a dreamy, disjointed feel, emphasizing how important Masa’s admiration of Yaichi has become to his sense of purpose–perhaps even his sense of self. At Goinkyo’s, Masa is encouraged to discontinue his association with the Five Leaves, but thanks to Yaichi’s influence, it’s clear by the end of the volume that Masa’s not going anywhere.

This series continues to be very much in tune with my personal sensibilities, which is obviously a major selling point for me. Masa’s layers of quiet turmoil, the story’s moral ambiguity, and Ono’s distinctive, melancholy artwork are all perfectly constructed for my enjoyment. Though this volume has a distinctly plodding feel, this has the effect of placing the reader in Masa’s convalescent headspace–part boredom, part relief, and tinged with some undetermined amount of separation anxiety. The volume’s a bit sleepy but never dull, and the last few pages are genuinely riveting.

I suspect a series that relies so heavily on prolonged character study may not be to everyone’s taste, but it’s certainly a great fit for mine. And I’m expecting the emotional payoff to be pretty big as Masa submerges himself further into the world of the Five Leaves.

MICHELLE: I’ve really been looking forward to reading this second volume after I, too, loved the first very much. With his personality, Masa could so easily be irritating if handled poorly, but Ono renders him with incredible sympathy. He is ill-equipped to resist Yaichi and his charms and is actually kind of adorable in how he gets swept up in it all.

MELINDA: I absolutely adore Masa, and I agree that might well not be the case were he in another author’s hands. As it is, though, he’s a character I always want to know more about. I think I actually find him more interesting than any of the mysterious criminals around him. He’s really a unique protagonist.

MICHELLE: Definitely. You know, your picks this week remind me how much thoroughly awesome manga and manhwa we have in English these days. Granted, I could easily rattle off a dozen series I’d love to see licensed, but we’ve got it good.

MELINDA: You’re absolutely right. It’s a great time to be a fan, no matter how you look at it.

MICHELLE: Which reminds me, Deb Aoki at put together this thoroughly awesome gallery of the new series debuting here in 2011. I bookmarked it, and thought maybe others might find it useful as well.

MELINDA: Great call, Michelle! Way to start the New Year off right!

MICHELLE: I guess this just goes to show that I can never simply appreciate what we’ve got, but must always pine for more, but I’m looking forward to quite a lot on that list and that’s a fun place to be as a fan.

MELINDA: I’ll drink to that.

Happy New Year from Off the Shelf!

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