manga bookshelf

Off the Shelf: Black Butler, Pepita, Gundam

MELINDA: Good morning, Michelle! It’s a gorgeous morning here on Free Comic Book Day. Perfect for reading comics in the park. Do you have any comics-related plans for the day?

MICHELLE: Not in regards to Western comics, no, but I am looking forward to reading some Psyren later today!

MELINDA: I’ve got a nice stack of manga waiting for me as well. So I guess this is our cue to start talking about our comics-related activities earlier this week! What have you been reading?

blackbutler13MICHELLE: Well, one thing I’ve been doing lately is revisiting some of the series that I first talked about in the early days of Off the Shelf. Of course, there aren’t many that are still running—they’ve either finished or the publisher has disappeared—but there are a few, and one of them is Black Butler. Here’s my initial summary from back in January 2011:

In this series, a thirteen-year-old named Ciel Phantomhive is the head of his family after a fire claimed the lives of his parents. To assist him in his plans for revenge he has entered into a contract with a devil who is serving him in the guise of his butler, Sebastian. The Earls of Phantomhive have always served as a “watch dog” for the crown, a duty Ciel is now expected to perform for Queen Victoria.

At the time, I said that the emphasis on solving mysteries was pretty fun, but does that still hold true in volume thirteen? Well, sort of. Up until the previous arc, which involved a series of murders at Phantomhive Manor and the inspiration they provided a young Arthur Conan Doyle, the answer was yes. This current arc, though—which can pretty much be summarized as “zombies on the Titanic“—seems to be more about mass carnage than detection, even though Ciel got involved in the first place because he thought the Queen would want to know what was behind news reports of the dead being reanimated. The one bright spot is that Elizabeth, Ciel’s betrothed, turns out to be a secret badass with swords.

I was actually planning to talk about Black Butler even before you posted your 3 Things Thursday column about how you just couldn’t like it, and now your post has made me wonder why I’m still reading it. I like Sebastian, and sometimes there are amusing bits, but overall, I don’t feel connected to any of these characters or invested in their fate. Ciel could get devoured by a zombie at this point and I would not be affected in the least. So why am I reading? Unfortunately, I think the answer is… because Yen Press is still sending this to me. It’s an easy and uncomplicated read for me, and I don’t hate it, and so I read it. If I had to fork over $12 for each volume, though, I suspect I would’ve dropped it some time ago. It’s just not a satisfying enough read to justify that kind of price tag.

MELINDA: Discussion of Black Butler seems especially timely for me right now, not only because of that 3 Things Thursday post, but because my recent obsession with Yun Kouga’s Loveless has forced me to confront the question of why I can tolerate certain problematic fanservice in that series when I’m unwilling to stick with Black Butler. And by “forced to confront” I mean that I’ve been asked the question directly, and justifiably so! And the only answer I really have is that, well… Black Butler bored me—at least as far in as I was willing to go—well, and that I have pretty specific reasons for liking the relationships in Loveless that don’t really apply to Black Butler. But in any case, I’ve been asking myself a lot of questions about it, and pondering yet again whether I should give Black Butler another go. Given your reaction here, though, I’m thinking… no, not really.

MICHELLE: There really isn’t much fanservice of that kind in Black Butler, anyway. I mean, very occasionally there are pages where I think Toboso-sensei is throwing fans a juicy little tidbit, but on a straightforward reading, I am personally not seeing the overt, emotional subtext there like one gets in Loveless. Although… can something be simultaneously “overt” and “subtext”? Perhaps I need a better word…

MELINDA: I think subtext can be incredibly overt. Perhaps you could go for “generous.” Though I think there’s an argument to be made that part of the difference is that Loveless moves the subtext pretty well into the text, which means that Kouga actually forces us to deal with it instead of just giving us a nod & a wink.

MICHELLE: I think you’re right. I never take the “nod and a wink” stuff seriously.

Anyway, what have you been reading this week?

pepitaMELINDA: Well, on a very different note, my main solo read this week is not actually manga, though it’s of great interest to both of us (and, I expect, many of our readers). That read would be Pepita: Inoue Meets Gaudí , a sort of art book/travelogue released last month by Viz. The book combines prose, drawings, and photographs to chronicle the travels of Takahiko Inoue (Slam Dunk, Real, Vagabond) as he traces the life and work of Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí.

The book opens with a heartfelt introduction in which Inoue describes his first encounter with Gaudí’s work and how his detached view of Gaudí as a tourist in Barcelona differed from what he experienced in his quest to really know the man behind the work. It’s a passionate little piece that perfectly sets the tone for the book itself, which is informational and (of course) beautiful, but above all, personal.

Through Inoue’s quest to understand Gaudí, I felt that I was also given an opportunity to understand Inoue—and in a very different way than what I’ve learned about him through his own work. There’s a sense of wisdom and confidence in a series like Real, for instance, that makes me, the reader, feel that I’m the student; I’m learning about humanity through the eyes of a master. Here, Inoue is the one seeking wisdom from a master, and that alone gives us a very different glimpse of him as an artist and a person than what we’d ever see otherwise.

Though I don’t know that Inoue gets the answers he was looking for on his quest (he gets answers, but it’s complicated, I think), the journey itself is glorious to behold. The book is filled with Inoue’s detailed, inspired scribblings alongside (and sometimes inserted into) breathtaking photographs of both Gaudí’s work and the Spanish region he grew up in. It’s a visual treat of the very best kind. It also offers a wealth of information about the life and work of Gaudí through bits of researched history, interviews with artisans and Gaudí scholars, and Inoue’s personal observations.

I’m sure very little of the information offered will be new for serious students of Gaudí, but I am kind of thrilled at the thought that it might serve as an introduction to Inoue (and perhaps manga artists in general) for lovers of architecture, just as it might open up a new world of architectural beauty for fans of Inoue. It certainly did for me.

MICHELLE: That sounds glorious. Now, I have to ask… how detailed were the pictures of Gaudí’s work? Did Inoue attempt to draw any of them? Building geek that I am, I would love that most ardently.

MELINDA: The pictures are plentiful, though there isn’t a particular focus on the detail, if that makes sense. And though Inoue does sketch them occasionally, I’ll admit that he spends the bulk of his time drawing Gaudí’s surroundings—the streets, people, countryside, mountains—the things that he felt must have most deeply influenced Gaudí’s work, rather than the work itself. He ponders for quite a while Gaudí’s relationship with nature and how some of his buildings were designed to become part of the natural landscape—it’s fascinating, really. I think you’d enjoy it quite a lot.

So, to take a fairly drastic turn once again, would you like to introduce our mutual read for the week?

gundam1MICHELLE: Sure! This week, Melinda and I decided to venture out of our comfort zone and into the realm of… mecha.

Back in late March, Vertical, Inc. released a deluxe hardcover edition of the first volume of Mobile Suit Gundam: The Origin. Vertical has licensed the aizouban edition of the series, rather than the 23-volume tankouban version, so this first release (subtitled “Activation”) is quite substantial and contains some bonus essays. Mobile Suit Gundam is a relatively recent manga adaptation of the first Gundam anime, and was originally serialized in a magazine called Gundam A, which sounds like it’s for hardcore Gundam enthusiasts. I’d never actually read or seen anything Gundam-related before, so I wasn’t sure how I’d make out, but it turned out to be newcomer-friendly.

In Earth’s distant future, a large chunk of the population is living in gigantic, orbiting colonies. War breaks out when some of the colonies declare themselves the independent Republic of Zeon. A nicely ominous color introduction informs us that the resulting battles wiped out half of the population. “All men grew to fear their own deeds. The war entered a stalemate, and eight months went by…” Fighting resumes when a Zeon mecha force infiltrates a Federation colony where a new mobile suit is being developed.

Long story short… the civilian colonists end up escaping on a rather unwieldy ship, fleeing from their enemy who fight with red-eyed metallic soldier things, and… anyone else here getting some serious Battlestar Galactica flashbacks?

MELINDA: Heh, well I’d say yes and no. I mean, yes, of course I see where you’re going with that. And I’d say that the plight of the civilians on the ship is the thing that interests me most in Gundam so far. Several of the civilians find themselves sort of spontaneously becoming part of the military operation—in particular Amuro, a civilian teen who accidentally finds himself the pilot of a new mechanical suit prototype, Gundam, and Sayla, who begins as part of the volunteer medical team. The conflict among the military command over the assimilation of the civilians is compelling, but as I struggle to describe any of it here, I think I’m actually hitting upon the thing that least reminds me of something like BSG and is also the source of my own difficulties with the book as a reader. The thing is, unlike BSG or even most of the other Japanese mecha-based series I’ve been able to get into (Evangelion, of course, or more recently, Knights of Sidonia), Gundam is for me, at least so far, a bit too much about the mecha.

As I say this, I’m aware that I’ll probably be criticized for it—and perhaps justly. As one of the two or three manga fans left in the world who has never seen even a second of this very famous anime series, I’m a total novice. I think my nervousness in approaching a series as iconic as this one is pretty similar to Phillip’s trepidation when he decided to read and talk publicly about Sailor Moon. I’m out of my depth and I know it. But as I read through this volume, gorgeous as it is (and it really, really is—seriously, it’s visually epic), I found that I had difficulty remembering characters’ names or really identifying with their story. And I felt pretty detached from the suit itself, which really seemed like the thing I was supposed to be appreciating the most. Is it just me?

MICHELLE: It is not just you at all. As you say, the manga is visually epic, and the overall atmosphere carries the story along even more than the plot does. (There were things about the plot that confused me, for example. Like why is civilian teen Amuro suddenly the pilot of the mecha, when there was an officer slated for that role? Did I miss his demise or something?) But the characterization is where things really fall flat. I don’t feel like we know Amuro even a little teensy bit, other than he seems to have some natural aptitude for piloting a big fighting suit. And where this might put him in direct comparison to Nagate of Knights of Sidonia, at least I have a sense with the latter that it’s Tsutomu Nihei’s intent that his lead be inscrutable. That’s just his style. With Mobile Suit Gundam it feels more like characterization was deemed unimportant in the grand scheme of things.

MELINDA: I’m grateful to hear you say this, because I really feared that my reaction was a case of reader failure more than anything else, which is to say that it quite surprised me—and saddened me, actually. Not because I feel like loving Gundam a grave necessity in my life, but because the book is so, so stunning to look at, and so obviously created out of a deep love for the source material. One doesn’t even need to read any of the heartfelt essays in the back of the book to feel the sense of reverence and devoted fandom that went into the making of this manga. And Vertical takes that fandom seriously in their production of the book as well. From the bright semi-gloss paper to the gorgeous color pages, Vertical made sure that this labor of love was presented in the most reverent light possible. If I was a fan of the franchise, I’d feel that this was a tremendous gift, I’m sure. And honestly, I could look at the artwork all day long.

MICHELLE: The artwork really sells it for me, and I was especially impressed that the space battles are drawn with such clarity. True, I did weary of the space battles by the end, but at least they weren’t incomprehensible, as could easily have been the case. Too, I never got the sense with this that I was reading an adaptation. I wonder how it reads to those who have actually seen the anime.

Ultimately, though I get the sense that you’re not planning to continue with the series, I think I will. While I might not care about the characters much—though several of the female ones seem to have potential for awesomeness—I still like the story and the sheer scope of what mankind is facing.

MELINDA: I can see how you’d draw that conclusion, but actually I suspect I will continue with it. Despite my feelings of detachment at this point, the artwork alone is enough to carry me on, at least long enough to see if the characters might begin to really grab me. I like to give any series at least three volumes or so to pull me in, and Gundam surely merits that much. Who knows what might happen?

Note: Melinda & Michelle will be taking a break from this column for the next two weeks, in order to prepare for the upcoming Yumi Tamura Manga Moveable Feast. Can you guess what they’ll be reading?

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  1. James Moar says:

    Re: characterisation in Gundam, I think it’s partly that the original anime comes from an era of less character-driven stories. It does build up a bit over time, though.

    “Like why is civilian teen Amuro suddenly the pilot of the mecha”
    They’ve lost nearly all their officers, and Amuro’s at least someone who’s piloted the Gundam in battle the one time, so….

    (I’m basing that more on the anime, though. I seem to remember from reading the previous edition of the manga that some of its changes might obscure that a bit.)

  2. I totally agree with the both of you on Gundam. I’m a complete novice as far as the mecha genre in manga is concerned. My only exposure was the anime version of Neon Genesis Evangelion. So, Gundam, with its long winded history and characters, seemed completely off-limits for a newb like me. However, Ed Chavez of Vertical Inc. convinced me to give it a try and I did. The book is, without a doubt, one of the most gorgeous manga editions I have in my library (the Nausicaa box set tops the list and Thermae Romae comes in second) and so, as a collector, I’m happy with the purchase. However, story-wise there’s not much going on. May be the plot’s going to traverse some interesting paths in future volumes, but I am yet to see any indication of it in the present volume. Gundam the Origin, in my opinion, sacrificed brevity for the sake of drama and exposition. But, in my opinion, it only took away from the main plot which didn’t make a lot of progression. However, one thing I did like about it was the accessibility of the main storyline. I could jump right in and not feel out of place. Some technical jargon and character names did detract me often but they were few and far between. I really appreciated the artwork and I think I’ll stick around to see where this leads to in the end…

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