Welcome to our second edition of Off the Shelf with MJand Michelle!
Joining me again is Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith. This week, we cover a pretty varied range of titles, from Tokyopop, Yen Press, CMX, and Viz Media. I’ve got all shonen on the brain, thanks to this month’s Shonen Sundays, while Michelle takes a more well-rounded approach.
MJ: So, Michelle, thanks for joining me here again! What’s your first item for tonight’s discussion?
MICHELLE: How about a trip to bishie land with Alice in the Country of Hearts? Actually, I feel somewhat guilty referring to the series as “bishie land” because, while that’s technically an apt description, there’s really a lot more going on here than I ever would have expected. I read the third volume this week and enjoyed it quite a bit.
In a nutshell, a girl named Alice is whisked away to a Wonderland where a bevy of handsome fellows instantly fall in love with her. Instead of being flustered by this experience, however, she thinks it’s really weird and sets out to learn more about her surroundings. There’s a good deal of mystery afoot still, and in this volume Alice gets attacked by a couple of friendly-seeming denizens—while growing chummier with an early foe—reminding us that things are seldom as they seem in this baffling world.
It’s got a good English adaptation too, with some snappy dialogue that seemed Whedon-y to me. I believe the exact phrase to prompt the comparison was, “Who in the what now?” which I’m pretty sure has been a Xander line at one point or another.
MJ: First of all, you’re absolutely right about that Xander line. Also, this sounds like a pretty nice read. I especially like the fact that she’s so inquisitive.
MICHELLE: Yeah, she could’ve easily been written as a ditz who’s swept away by all the attention she’s getting, but instead she’s clever and likable and much more concerned about the conflicts between Wonderland residents and their casual attitudes towards death than their good looks. It’s based on a dating sim game—more obvious in volume one when Alice spends all of her time walking from one area to another—but there’s no obvious rush to pair Alice up with one of the guys.
What’s been off your shelf?
MJ: Well, in keeping with a vaguely Alice-related theme (and also bishies, whoa), I’ve been reading the second volume of Jun Mochizuki’s Pandora Hearts (review of volume one here). I love this series, probably more than most reviewers I know, and I swear it’s not just because the art is so pretty. :) It’s got a really twisted view of life, death, the afterlife, and the connections between all three, which really appeals to me. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity for a shonen manga as well, which makes it intriguing.
This series is both fast-paced and plotty, so this volume passes in a bit of a whirlwind, but there’s a lot of substance to be found here. There are some fairly major revelations for our hero, Oz, both about himself and the people around him. This is a great volume for characterization overall. It doesn’t hurt that Break, who was already the creepiest guy around, pops out of cupboards and the like in this volume. This sort of whimsy spliced with menace gives the whole series a dreamlike feel. It really plays into so many of my particular weaknesses. It’s got me, Michelle, it’s got me.
MICHELLE: “Whimsy spliced with menace” definitely sounds appealing. I read the first volume of Pandora Hearts back in February and also noticed how much plot is going on. Normally, I get kind of stressed out when there are a lot of story elements introduced all at once, but that didn’t happen here, even though many things still don’t make sense. Does volume two start to clarify some of the ideas introduced in the first volume?
MJ: Yes, volume two contains some useful info on the whole “illegal contractor” business, the nature of chains, and who some of the major players are and what they want. I think you’ll find things starting to make more sense.
So, what else have you got on your list this week?
MICHELLE: Apparently I need to reread volume one, too, because I don’t remember what illegal contractors are at all. Are they guys who come renovate your bathroom without getting the proper permits?
I didn’t read anything else with an Alice bent this week, but there was the second and final volume of CMX’s The Lizard Prince, which is an all-ages fairy tale romance about a princess who falls in love with a kind prince who was originally trapped in lizard form due to a curse but who now, thanks to the princess’ love, is human most of the time. In this volume their wedding approaches, but first he has to suffer amnesia, then they have to deal with her disapproving older brother, and finally the curse rears its ugly head once more right as the happy couple is greeting the citizens after the ceremony, exposing the prince’s secret in the process.
Though this story is a little too lightweight for me to really feel enthusiastic about it, I nonetheless think this is a fabulous series for tweens. What was so great about CMX’s all-ages titles is that they don’t look like they’re for kids. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with Fairy Idol Kanon or its ilk, but I’m sure a twelve-year-old would rather read something like this that looks like other shojo than she would want to read something that’s obviously for kids.
MJ: Yes, yes, I know at that age I really wanted to be treated more like a teen than a kid, so I definitely would have gravitated to something with a more mature look. I’m glad you can recognize the merits of a title like this, even if you aren’t really its audience. I had the same kind of difficulty getting into some of those younger-aimed CMX titles but they certainly were sought after by librarians, from what I hear.
MICHELLE: Yeah, I liked Lapis Lazuli Crown (another all-ages CMX series) well enough, but when I was finished I actually gave my books away *to* a librarian for use in the middle school section. That said, I believe The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is also all-ages and I love it quite a bit. I guess it just depends on the series.
Something tells me you’ve got a second book to talk about!
MJ: Heh, yes I do, and it’s also a series I’m definitely not the audience for. That would be Toriko, a new shonen series from Viz. It’s about a guy who is a “Gourmet Hunter,” which means that he gets paid a lot of money to hunt and kill exotic animals for wealthy gourmets to eat.
The series is definitely meant to be funny, aside from its fierce action, but wow is this not for me. It starts right off the bat with hunting and poop jokes–not exactly the path to my heart.
You know, I was a vegetarian for eleven years, and even though I do eat meat now, a whole manga about gleefully hunting animals for brutal slaughter and consumption is a bit too much for me. The series is full of salivating, chomping, and generally eating flesh with relish–which is hardly anything I can object to. But the giddy, ravenous tone definitely pushes my buttons in a very unpleasant way.
The humor is broad and it doesn’t take itself seriously at all, which is a big plus. I’m just very aware that I’m not the series’ intended audience.
MICHELLE: I’m sorry to hear you didn’t like it! I bought volume one, though I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. It looked like it could be zany fun. The poop jokes are especially disappointing. Every time I try to read Akira Toriyama—whose Cowa! I loved—I’m always depressed by how many references to farting I’ve got to endure.
MJ: So, what’s last for you this week?
MICHELLE: The second volume of Deadman Wonderland, from TOKYOPOP. The concept is kind of hard to describe, but I’ll attempt to summarize succinctly. A middle schooler named Ganta is the sole survivor of a classroom massacre and, presumed to be their murderer, ends up at a prison where the inmates compete in games for the benefit of an audience. In the first volume, Ganta demonstrated the ability to manipulate his blood as a weapon, and in this second volume we learn more about that and about why the prison was created in the first place.
The basic story is fairly interesting, but what I really like about this series is the architecture. The prison complex is huge and sprawling, and a significant chunk of this volume featured Ganta and two friends evading a security bot while navigating secret passages of the prison, trying to find the ward where the real killer of Ganta’s classmates is rumored to be housed. It’s a page turner, and tremendous fun.
There are a couple of downsides to the series. One is the fanservice, though it’s a peculiar breed. While the head prison guard is extremely, improbably, ludicrously buxom, she is still fully clothed at all times. Similarly, Ganta’s friend, Shiro, wears a skin-tight unitard, so while little of her shape is left to the imagination, it’s still not as skeevy as it otherwise could’ve been. The other issue is what Carlo Santos at ANN aptly described as “gratuitous torture porn.” I think I’ll spare you the details, but there’s one scene in particular that I rather wish I could unsee.
MJ: Oh, yikes, the downsides do sound pretty significant. Though I’ve mostly heard good things and it sounds fairly intriguing as you describe it.
MICHELLE: It is intriguing, and most of the time it’s a good deal of fun. It’s just every now and then, one of the flaws will pop up to remind one that it could’ve been even better.
What’s the final book on your agenda?
MJ: Believe it or not, I’m still trying to read Ultimo, the famed collaboration between Stan Lee and Hiroyuki Takai, about two mechanical puppets–one the embodiment of perfect good, and the other of perfect evil.
Now, my disdain for the series’ “Chapter 0,” published a couple of years ago in Shonen Jump is well known, and before I say anything more, I should make it clear that what’s been released here in full-volume form is not that. In fact, it’s about 180 degrees from that original chapter.
That said, try as I might, I can’t seem to get hooked on Ultimo. It’s got an epic battle between good and evil going on, which isn’t my favorite thing, but so many other elements are there. It’s got a rich backstory, nicely developing characters, and some pretty fantastic art. I’ve read the first volume a few times now, trying to figure out what’s missing for me, but since the only thing I’ve come up with so far is the frequent (and jarring) insertion of Stan Lee’s face, which doesn’t match the look of the rest of the series in the slightest, I think I haven’t quite got it.
Fortunately, I’ve just received volume two, so I can give the series another chance.
MICHELLE: So, the Chapter 0 is not part of the first volume? That’s rather weird. I know what you mean about author insertion, though. I’m actually having the same problem with Portrait of M & N right now, where the creator inserts her own name (or permutations thereof) everywhere and many of the background characters look like the authorial stand-in she uses in her author talk sections. Distracting!
Anyway, I’m glad you were able to persevere with Ultimo and are willing to give it another chance. It’s never easy to just give up on something.
MJ: Yeah, I was surprised not to see Chapter 0 there when I got the book, but it’s definitely for the best!
MICHELLE: Maybe he heard your complaints! :)
MJ: Ha! Perhaps!
On that optimistic (if unlikely) note, we’ll wrap things up for this week. Many thanks to Michelle for joining me here again this evening! Come back again next week for the next edition of Off the Shelf!
Some discussion based on review copies provided by the publishers.
Oliver saysJune 10, 2010 at 12:52 am
Psssh! At that age, I was already looking for the 18+ yaoi titles!
Michelle Smith saysJune 10, 2010 at 5:49 pm
At that age I was reading Anne of Green Gables, completely unaware that manga even existed.
Melinda Beasi saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:13 pm
Second that! Also, the Betsy-Tacy books, man I loved those!
Michelle Smith saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:22 pm
I have those on my shelf this very minute, but have never read them. :)
Melinda Beasi saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:30 pm
YOU MUST READ THEM NOW.
Michelle Smith saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:40 pm
Eep! I will try to squeeze them in.
Melinda Beasi saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:41 pm
And then I must re-read them, because seriously it’s been probably almost 30 years. I think I only own one of them. I hope the libraries still keep them up! :)
Michelle Smith saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:43 pm
I have seriously just taken the first one off the shelf.
Kate saysJune 10, 2010 at 8:28 pm
What I love about that series is how the books change over time — the first three or four are definitely for little kids and then as the girls mature, so do they. The Little House books are actually fairly similar in this.
Michelle Smith saysJune 10, 2010 at 9:34 pm
I have all of those too. And I still haven’t finished the Anne of Green Gables series. I always get bogged down several books in.
Melinda Beasi saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:15 pm
Heh, you must be much younger than I. I was a tween in the 1970s. I’m pretty sure yaoi titles were not an option for me. :D
Michelle Smith saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:22 pm
The ’70s?! You’re not that much older than me! I was a tween in mid-’80s, so you must’ve been early ’80s!
mom saysJune 10, 2010 at 7:39 am
Delightful conversation. Thank you, both.
Melinda Beasi saysJune 10, 2010 at 6:31 pm
Marfisa saysJune 12, 2010 at 9:13 am
The “Portrait of M & N” mangaka seems to insert her self-caricature in the backgrounds reasonably often in her more popular (and more recent) series “Gakuen Alice” as well. But I didn’t even notice this for several volumes, since her self-caricature looks kind of like a cruder version of Piglet from “Winnie the Pooh,” and “Gakuen Alice” is about a vaguely Hogwarts/Xavier’s Academy-like school for kids with “special” talents. One of said kids is a boy who can create stuffed animals capable of walking around and talking. So I think I assumed the author’s Piglet-rag doll-looking self-caricature was one of those sentient toys until I finally realized that the pig-snouted creature wandering around in the background of one scene was the exact same thing pictured in the author’s “free talk” column about her daily misadventures down the side of the page.
Michelle Smith saysJune 12, 2010 at 11:24 am
You know, I’ve read 7 volumes of Gakuen Alice and NEVER NOTICED that the pig-snouted creature is in there, too! You’re right; he must’ve fit in with that setting well enough that it wasn’t distracting like it is in the high school environment depicted in Portrait of M & N.