Welcome to the Halloween edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MICHELLE: Hey, did you hear that skritching noise? I think some zombies are trying to get in!
MJ: I’m safe! The workday already ate my brains. But wait, is that the howl of a werewolf?
MICHELLE: A ravenous one, no doubt! To take our minds off our impending doom, why don’t you tell me about a manga you read this week?
MJ: Okay! Well, my first selection isn’t exactly manga, though it is an East Asian comic. With Halloween approaching, I thought it was time to dig into some horror, but nothing from my to-be-reviewed shelf quite fit the bill. Fortunately, my husband is addicted to his iPad where he found a new app, just released yesterday, featuring award-winning Malaysian artist Leong Wan Kok’s From a Twisted Mind, published for iOS by a company called Manga BlackBox.
The book’s cover is immediately striking, with a surreal, psychedelic creepiness one might expect if, say, the Yellow Submarine had carried mad scientists instead of musicians. I plunked down my $3.99 based on the cover alone, which turned out to be a pretty good deal, all told. What I got for my money was a collection of seventeen short comics by Leong (sometimes known as “Puyuh”), originally published in four volumes, mostly horror (with one short volume’s worth of black & white fantasy/sci-fi stories in the back), all visually stunning.
The quality of the storytelling is uneven, as is the case of most short comic collections. The series’ first story, “Fantasy Aquarium,” (click title for screenshot) about a carnival run by vengeful fish, is delightful, and though it makes for a splendid opening, it sets the bar perhaps a bit too high for many of the comics that follow. Highlights include “Metamorphosis,” a creepy tale with a twist; “Love Virus,” about a biology student who wreaks disgusting vengeance on a backstabbing friend; and “The God of Happiness,” who is definitely not what he seems.
Even some of the weaker stories, though, are notable for their ambition. “Intruder,” for instance, a science fiction epic trapped in the body of a short story, offers a glimpse of what the artist might be capable of if he applied his talents to long-form storytelling, though the resulting short comic is clumsy and narration-heavy. Still others, like “Faces,” a story about two kids who find a spider with a human face peering out from its body, are beautifully creepy until they fall apart in their last few pages. And though the quality of the writing fluctuates wildly, the artwork is gorgeous, unique, and genuinely scary throughout.
My only regret here, is that now that I’ve discovered this intriguing collection, I can’t figure out if it’s available in print. Though there is evidence to suggest that others have owned this collection in book form, I can’t find it anywhere for sale. Certainly the iPad app is a bargain (as are the earlier iPhone/iPod volumes, each available separately), but with some of the individual comics bearing a copyright date of 2006 (and perhaps earlier) according to the artist’s website, it seems certain that there must have been a print run at some point.
MICHELLE: This sounds really interesting! Somehow “Faces” strikes me as the one with the potential for the most awesome creepiness. And “Fantasy Aquarium” makes me think of Gyo, a two-volume horror manga from Junji Ito with its own fishy menace, though they’re not sentient. Too bad I don’t have an iPad or any iProduct, for that matter.
MJ: “Faces” might have been my favorite if it hadn’t fallen to pieces near the end! And yes, I think it’s a shame that I can’t recommend this to anyone without an iOS device. For all its flaws, it is a really fascinating collection that stayed in my mind all day, one way or another. I can at least offer up this tutorial by the artist, demonstrating how he digitally created the image on the cover. Unfortunately, aside from that (and what can be found as screencaps at the iTunes store or the artist’s website), I’ve got nothing. Well, Paul hunted up this interesting article on speculative fiction in Malaysia. Maybe if we make enough fuss, the print volume will turn back up?
MJ: So what do you have for us tonight? Something spooky?
First up is the fourth volume of Svetlana Chmakova’s Nightschool: The Weirn Books. It’s the final volume of this story arc, with more Nightschool theoretically to come once Chmakova finishes her newest project for Yen Press.
I’ve enjoyed previous volumes of Nightschool quite a lot, and have named it my favorite OEL manga on more than one occasion. Unfortunately, I found this quasi-conclusion to be unsatisfying, and I think the main problem has to do with the treatment of the main character, a teenage witch (or “weirn”) named Alex. It’s happened before where it didn’t feel like the story was properly centered on Alex—one volume’s cliffhanger is about someone else entirely, for example—and that tendency rears its head again here.
Alex is active in the first half, enduring a particularly creative example of what happens when the whole world forgets your older sister exists—your lease agreement is now blank so the landlord tries to rent out your home!—and revealing, somewhat randomly, that she’s under a curse that prohibits her from demonstrating any affection for anyone or anything. With the help of a fellow student who actually remembers her sister, she manages to go through the gate to the dimension where her sister is being held, whereupon her body is promptly taken over by one of the Sohrem—I am still entirely vague on who or what they are—and Alex is relegated to a spectator’s role for the duration.
What ensues is very confusing—half a dozen all-black pages inserted for dramatic emphasis could’ve been better used to explain things more fully—and the strongest impression I’ve retained is that the school’s principal is far more awesome than I was expecting. I’ll still continue to read the series when Chmakova picks it back up, but I hope it’s more focused.
MJ: Oh, that’s a bit of a shame. I loved the first two volumes of the series, though I admit I got bogged down trying to get back into things with volume three. I’ve been rather looking forward to starting from the beginning and racing all the way through at some point, but I’m sad to hear that it ends so confusingly. Does it at least feel like the end of an arc?
MICHELLE: Yes, it does. Even though Alex is not actively involved in what transpires, there’s at least some closure, though it’s explicitly stated that this is just a temporary measure and the Sohrem will have to be permanently dealt with soon. Despite my complaints, I think it’s still worth reading, even if only for the principal!
MJ: I’ll still plan my Nightschool binge, then. Have we actually received confirmation from Yen Press that the series will continue?
MICHELLE: In her notes at the end of the volume, Chmakova writes, “This is not the end of the series! This story arc is done, but we are planning more books in the future.” I imagine they wouldn’t print that if it weren’t the plan, but I suppose one never knows…
MJ: We live in hope!
MICHELLE: Forsooth. What else have you got this hallowed evening?
MJ: Well, if my first selection wasn’t exactly manga, my second isn’t exactly horror, though it does include so-called demons and some fairly dark stuff. That would be, of course, the first two volumes of Demon Sacred by Natsumi Itsuki, published in English by TOKYOPOP.
I recently named these books as Pick of the Week, largely on the strength of Kate Dacey’s review, which described the action of the series’ opening scene as a “stampede of unicorns emerging from the aurora borealis and trampling a group of tourists in the Finnish countryside.” With an opening like that, cracktastic shojo fantasy must follow, and I was not disappointed in the least.
For those not in the know, the series involves twin teen girls, Mona and Rina, one of whom suffers from a disease called “Return Syndrome,” which causes people to age in reverse until they disappear from existence. Also in the picture are “demons” (so named by the humans who study them), beings from another world who feed on each other according to rank, and who, as it turns out, are inadvertently responsible for Return Syndrome.
The demons can be controlled by human “chains” (special humans who are immune to the Syndrome), and as Mona and Rina become involved with these demons (through the history of their dead mother and the research of their scientist cousin) their world is turned upside-down by shojo wackiness of the very best kind–terrifying beasts, time travel, age-inappropriate romance–even a demon who is accidentally bestowed with the appearance of a famous pop idol. You name it, this story’s got it.
And it’s wonderful. Truly. Admittedly, my love for 1980s shojo has instilled in me a kind of bullet-proof appreciation for this particular kind of fantasy, but even within that category, Demon Sacred‘s pretty great. Itsuki is a deft storyteller with the soul of a dreamy-eyed teen, and despite the story’s complicated plot and abundance of characters, the narrative is so strong, it’s not confusing in the least. Everything about this manga is perfectly crafted to appeal to its core demographic of teen girls, but sophisticated enough to grab the attention of those of us who are only teens at heart. I honestly can’t wait to read more.
MICHELLE: It sounds like it could easily become a trainwreck, without someone as skilled as Itsuki at the helm. You’re right that the stampeding unicorns sound awesome; that somehow reminds me of the poodle ranch massacre in Little Fluffy Gigolo PELU. Also, these two volumes are available at $5.99 each!
MJ: To be fair, I’d love a story like Demon Sacred even if it was a trainwreck, but I’m thrilled to report that it is far from such. Of course the scientist cousin is impossibly hot, the two main “demons” range from gorgeously sinister to cluelessly adorable, and the twins are as sweet and devoted as can be. But would you wish for anything less?
Oh, and thank you for bringing up the wonderfully low price! Shojo fans, seriously, at $6 a pop, you really can’t do better.
So what’s your final, spooky selection for us this week?
MICHELLE: I finally checked out a volume of Higurashi When They Cry!
To provide a bit of background… I’ve always been a little interested in Higurashi. I like the idea of a spooky murder mystery that resets and/or is retold from differing perspectives, and the rotating array of artists is also an intriguing touch. When I flipped through the first volume in Border’s, though, I was turned off by the “byoing” sound effects accompanying a female character’s movements and didn’t end up buying it.
Fast forward nine volumes to the first volume of the Beyond Midnight arc. This is a manga-only side story—most of the rest are based on a series of games—and is set in 2006, 23 years beyond the events of the main Higurashi story line. A magazine has recently highlighted the village of Hinamizawa as an occult hotspot, on account of an incident that killed 2000 of the town’s residents in one night. The official explanation is that it was a gas leak, but the residents believe it was a curse inflicted by a deity known as Oyashiro-sama.
Five strangers converge on the village, including a mysterious woman in a kimono who claims to have lived in Hinamizawa and introduces herself as Mion Sonozaki, and take shelter from the dark and stormy night inside the local shrine. Various creepy happenings ensue, escalating from disappearing vehicles to the death of one of the group. And then someone spots Mion’s name on a list of victims!
It’s an excellent starting point for a newbie to the series and the pacing is so great that I am really looking forward to the concluding volume of this arc! I may even have to brave the byoings and go back to the beginning!
MJ: You know, I’ve been hearing about this series for a long time. I know it’s very popular. But you’re the first person who has ever made it sound even remotely appealing to me. How did you do that?? :)
MICHELLE: Maybe by emphasizing the fun/suspenseful atmosphere? It actually reminds me of Ghost Hunt in that way.
MJ: Yes, somehow I didn’t expect such a ghost-story kind of feel. I don’t know why.
MICHELLE: I’m not familiar with the earlier arcs, so they may have a different tone entirely, but I was definitely impressed.
MJ: Well, with the rotating artists, as you mentioned, that could certainly be possible, right?
MICHELLE: Right. And it’s true that the cover of this volume is, to me, the most attractive of the lot so far, with not a hint of moe in sight.
MJ: So, wow, it’s not even ten o’clock and we’re already finished with tonight’s column. What kind of madness is this? Does that mean we have to fight zombies now?
MICHELLE: It’s been quiet for a while. Perhaps the wolves ate them.
MJ: So maybe we just eat candy corn?
MICHELLE: Sounds like a plan!