Welcome to another edition of Off the Shelf with MJ & Michelle! I’m joined, once again, by Soliloquy in Blue‘s Michelle Smith.
MICHELLE: Wednesday’s child may be full of woe, but somehow I doubt the same can be said about what we’ve been reading this week. At least not my picks. How about you, MJ?
MJ: You’re absolutely right! I caught up with a couple of universes I’m particularly fond of this week. Shall I just jump right in?
MICHELLE: Jump away; the water’s lovely.
MJ: *Sploosh* Okay! Well, having complained just this week about the shortage of new manhwa licenses, I figured it was only fair of me to give some attention to one of my favorite currently-running series, SangEun Lee’s 13th Boy from Yen Press. This is a series that hooked me early on with its quirky mix of romantic comedy and supernatural oddities (TALKING CACTUS). Though it was a bit all over the place in its first volume, it found its feet pretty quickly and now, five volumes in, it feels wonderfully sure and comfortable in its strangeness.
This is a pretty eventful volume, filled with some serious revelations for several of its main characters, particularly heroine Hee-So and her friend/sort-of-rival, Sae-Bom. What really makes the romantic aspect of this series work is Hee-So’s unyielding personality. Anytime the series seems in danger of becoming sentimental or melodramatic, she brings it right back to earth like a giant bulldozer, ripping everything apart with a moment of brash honesty or blatant self-involvement. She’s a character who manages to be totally obnoxious and still incredibly likable. How can you dislike anyone who is so open and honest about her own worst thoughts and so transparent in her painful attempts at guile? Hee-So is like a cup of tepid water in the ceaseless desert of teen romance comics– flawed, but extremely welcome.
Also, a stuffed rabbit comes to life and chews out Whie-Young for giving him a crappy personality. That’s worth the price of the volume alone.
MICHELLE: I’ve only read the first two volumes of this series, but I definitely liked it a lot and plan to return to it. I have to say, though romance is all well and good, it’s really the bit about the stuffed rabbit that I find most tempting. I suspect, however, that you knew this would be so!
By the way, did you know that SangEun Lee’s had a few other series released here? Her five-volume Love or Money was released in its entirety by TOKYOPOP, who also licensed her Forget About Love. Alas, the completely cute cover of volume one was not enough to secure the release of the second volume, and the series is now languishing in limbo.
MJ: Yes, I figured you’d be partial to the rabbit. I am too. Though one thing I consistently enjoy about this series is how deftly Lee combines drama and cracktastic humor so that neither ever dominates the story. I mean, there’s some pretty serious stuff going on here with Whie-Young’s secret abilities that take years off his life, and the love… parallelogram is as earnest as a Silhouette First Love novel, but served up together with a helping of true whimsy, every piece of this meal is utterly delectable. How did I wander into a food metaphor?
Also, I have never read Love or Money, or even the sad little first volume of Forget About Love, but I feel I must hunt them down! 13th Boy is one of my favorite teen series currently in print.
So what have you got on your agenda for the evening?
I was so charmed by the first volume of Neko Ramen, a 4-koma series about a cat named Taisho who runs a ramen shop, that I nearly read the second as soon as it arrived, but managed to exert enough control to save it for this week and this column. Alas, I ended up disappointed.
In my review of volume one I wrote, “I think I smiled the entire time I was reading Neko Ramen.” By contrast, the second volume only made me smile once or twice. What seems to be missing is the universal cat humor—strips like the one in which Taisho is evaluating a potential part-timer’s cash register skills, but all the cat wants to do is roll around on the machine—and the moments of genuine cuteness, like, the longer story about how Taisho first developed neko noodles.
Instead, this volume goes for the same punchline over and over—gee, that Taisho sure thinks up some wacky gimmicks! Taisho tries all sorts of random things to try to get customers to come into his shops, from a variety of unappetizing menu specials to devoting a corner of his restaurant to various things like a salad bar, fortune teller, and petting zoo.
It’s not that I actively disliked this volume of Neko Ramen, but it worries me. Will volume three see a return to the greatness of volume one or will it be more of the monotonous same?
MJ: What? What’s this? You promised an absence of woe! What is this if not woe!?
MICHELLE: Ack! So I did! I think perhaps I must be taking the disappointment a little hard, since the first volume was such an unexpected pleasure. It’s not like it’s bad, it’s just not the kind of funny I wanted it to be, I guess.
MJ: *Sigh* False advertising, my friend, false advertising.
I do understand your disappointment. I suppose you’ll just have to wait for volume three to know whether this new, dull direction is something that lasts. At least… cute kitty?
MICHELLE: Only a couple of times. I *did* like the strips where Taisho goes to the “beauty salon” and emerges all cute and fluffy and also one in which he couldn’t resist the inexplicable urge to lie on some newspaper.
MJ: So, slightly less woe? Reduced woe? Like that milk that they used to call “Low Fat” until someone finally called them on it?
MICHELLE: Uh, yeah. Just like that.
So, quick, tell me about something more uplifting!
MJ: I can do that! My second read this week was the first volume of Natsume Ono’s Gente from Viz Media’s Signature imprint. It’s a continuation of her single-volume manga, Ristorante Paradiso (discussed previously here at Off the Shelf), though it so far acts as a prequel to that story.
In this volume, Ono reintroduces us to the restaurant’s famous gentlemen, looking back at how each of them came to Casetta dell’Orso, and how Lorenzo came up with the idea to hire them in the first place. It’s a quiet little volume, much like its predecessor, and just as elegant and subtly sexy.
I’m struck by how her artwork matured between Ristorante and Gente. It’s nothing extremely obvious, but there’s just a really sure sense about the visual characterization. Her art has always been very expressive, but there’s a simplicity to this volume–a knack for capturing a character in a single moment–that just feels so solid here. The only criticism I can make in that vein is that so many of her female characters look alike, there were times when I had to struggle to keep track.
The storytelling is a bit episodic here, bringing in characters one-by-one. Ono reveals them slowly, in a manner as reserved as most of her gentlemen are, uncovering bits of their relationships with women and with each other. It’s a feast to linger over, not to consume in one quick read.
Also, I should note that this manga makes you hungry. I came out of it with an intense craving for good food and wine.
MICHELLE: I’m so glad that manga like this—elegant and subtle—not only exists but has been translated into English. I’m going to be reading this myself soon, but I’m really looking forward to revisiting favorite gents like Claudio but also getting to know some of the waiters that weren’t featured too prominently in Ristorante Paradiso. Is there anything more about the waiter who nurses an unspoken, unrequited love for Lorenzo’s wife?
MJ: He appears, but the focus is on other gentlemen in this volume. I do think you’ll like it very much. I think any fan of Ristorante Paradiso will naturally enjoy this series. It’s more of the same, but in the very best way. Woe-free, at least for readers.
MICHELLE: That’s good to know.
MJ: So, tell me you have something less woeful to talk about!
MICHELLE: Indeed! I go from kitty disappointment to kitty delight, provided by the charming second volume of Chi’s Sweet Home.
I guess you could say there’s more of the same in the second volume of Chi. There are the requisite chapters about how Chi hates going to the vet or having a bath, plus a couple of cute interludes in which she attempts to nap alongside human toddler, Yohei, or get another helping of delicious “cow miulk.” All of this is pretty much adorable, and though I can see where a person who doesn’t love cats would not be very interested, a cat owner will certainly recognize all manner of feline behavior.
There is a slightly more serious side, though. Chi’s gaining a little bit of independence and ventures into the world a few times, where she talks with a huge black cat that’s been hanging around the apartment complex and making a nuisance of itself. This cat warns her not to trust humans, and for the first time Chi seems to realize that she is different from Yohei and his parents. This doesn’t seem to really take—at the end of the second volume she’s back home and happy—but I wonder if Chi’s going to go through a rebellious adolescence or something.
I continue to love the colored art very much, and can’t imagine it any other way. It adds such warmth to the series and makes sequences where Chi lies on “Daddy” and snuggles in to sleep that much nicer. She’s having fewer memories of her mother, too, but snuggling always seems to bring a sort of hazy recollection to her mind. I saw you’ve reviewed this one—did you notice that when Chi’s out and about and working on finding her way home (she’s mature enough to succeed at this) she walks right by her mother and siblings?
MJ: I didn’t notice that AT ALL and now I must run straight to my copy and pick that out! Wow. You know, that’s the subtle brilliance of this series. It’s so cute, but there is also this deeper examination of what it means to be a cat living with humans.
Suffice it to say, I share your delight over this volume. And I especially agree with you here regarding the choice to keep this series in color. It really does add emotional texture to the story.
MICHELLE: It looks like it’s just about the exact same spot she got separated from them in the first place. And yes, that’s exactly what I’m trying to say. It’s super cute and adorable on one hand, but extraordinarily bittersweet on the other.
MJ: That seems like the perfect note on which to end this evening’s column. Do you have anything further to say? Any final, woe-free thoughts?
MICHELLE: Oh! I did want to mention how much Chi reminds me of Yotsuba at times, especially her zeal for new things, like when she has just discovered the tastiness of milk and is obsessing about it going, “Cow… cow… cow… cow…” I bet cat-loving Yotsuba&! fans would love Chi.
MJ: That’s a wonderful point! And about as far from woeful as one could get. :)
MICHELLE: Nothing drives away those blues like a good ol’ “cow” chant.
MJ: That’s what my grandpappy always used to say.
I can’t top the grandpappy line. Sorry.
And there you have it. Join us again next week for an all new Off the Shelf!