Master Keaton, Vol 2

Master Keaton Volume 2 by Naoki Urasawa

I enjoyed the first volume of this series a lot, but I was hoping that the second volume would be a bit more consistent, without some of the pacing issues that I noted in the first volume. My expectations were met, as the stories in the second volume had a good balance of mystery of the week, background on Keaton, and just enough crazy wilderness badassery.

The pacing of the chapters in this volume was more episodic, and I enjoyed the faster pace as Keaton moved from case to case. He investigates a stolen Olympic medal only to uncover a complicated friendship between two champion runners, then moves on to investigating an insurance case that manages to touch on the legend of William Tell. “Red Moon” features more of a medical mystery, and the male equivalent of a Black Widow. Keaton’s personal life is touched on as well. The second volume feels more settled, without needing to frantically introduce both his academic and military background. The fallout of Keaton’s tendency to travel instead of teach is followed up on, with him losing his previous position. He’s now serving as a guest lecturer in another university that is about to close its doors, but he manages to convey his passion for education and reconnect with a long-lost mentor.

Keaton’s military background is showcased in a couple stories. In “Black Forest” he helps the object of a manhunt by building improvised weapons drawing upon his knowledge of archaeology and in “Little Big Man” he crosses paths with a group of bounty hunters, only to singlehandedly deal with his job and expose them as amateurs. There are a couple scenes showing more of Keaton’s family, as his daughter shows up to visit for one story, and an entire chapter is devoted to Keaton’s father solving a case of a missing rare dog.

Overall, this volume just felt more self-assured in the storytelling throughout the manga, with the pacing and variety of the stories just right in terms of exploring the variety of situations Keaton can find himself in. With chapters exploring murder, survival, the value of higher education, and the strained relationships among the folks who end up as the subject of an insurance investigation, the second volume of Master Keaton made me more interested in picking up the rest of the series.

Gangsta Vols 4 and 5

As I embarked on getting caught up on Gangsta, I found myself very grateful for the character bios and plot summaries in front of the volumes. The first couple volumes focused on the slightly more intimate lives of Alex as she meets and is taken in by the Handymen Worick and Nic inter cut with various scenes of violence, but the series is now headed into a full on gang war, and it is useful to be reminded of just who is who in the ever expanding cast of characters.

Gangsta Volume 4 by Kohske

The fourth volume deals with the personal problems of the characters as well as introducing more members of the sprawling underworld in the city of Ergastulum. The handymen are cleaning up after an attack, and Alex is distracted with memories of her younger brother. After shaking the dependency on the drugs she was previously addicted to, more of her normal memories are starting to come back, but she’s not yet able to recall the details of her past life. One of the things I like about this series is the artful way Kohske portrays her action scenes. Alex goes on an errand for the Handymen, and when she happens on a scene where another woman is being attacked, she grabs a stray piece of lumber and rushes in to defend a stranger without thinking of her own safety. Alex is about to get attacked herself, when on the next page a single panel of Nic in motion, mid-leap behind her attacker shows that the problem is being taken care of with almost frightening efficiency.

Alex and the Handymen go to a party thrown by the Cristiano Family, one of the weakest mafia families who is also the most charitable when it comes to taking care of Twilights who would otherwise not have a place to claim sanctuary. The head of the family is a tiny young girl named Loretta, who pragmatically surrounds herself with skilled bodyguards. An equally young twilight hunter shows up at the party and sets off a bloodbath. Another hunter names Erica appears, and while the Handymen and their allies manage to fight off the attack, they sustain huge losses in the process.

Gangsta Volume 5 by Kohske

In this volume it seems clear that the mafia factions in Ergastulum are going to be headed into war. The team of Destroyers becomes more defined, and the situation for regular Twilights not affiliated with an organization is looking worse and worse. Alex has gained even more of her memories, remarking to Nic that she knew him before, only to not get a response. Worick is forced to use his sense for objects to identify corpses, and he and Nic are separated throughout most of this volume, with dangerous consequences. The Destroyers begin to tear through the city, and identify themselves as agents of the Corsica family. Still, even in the middle of a tidal wave of violence, there are quick scenes of normal daily life, when Nic hands Alex a mug as soon as she wakes up from some disturbing dreams of her past. Nic heads off to help out Loretta, and Worick is left to help fend off an attack at the Monroe family house. Things are looking fairly grim for the found family the Handymen have built for themselves. We’re starting to get more caught up with the Japanese release of Gangsta, and I know I’m going to start getting impatient as the wait between volumes grows longer.

While Gangsta does feature plenty of action and grim themes centered around drugs, class issues, and the mafia, the core story circling around Alex and her relationship with the Handymen ensures that the violence in the manga always seems to have a narrative purpose. Koshke’s narrative start small and builds up to a intercut scenes of a sprawling cast headed into some serious confrontations is building more and more suspense and tension as the series progresses. I’m also always impressed with the variety of character designs and defined looks as the manga includes more and more characters. I’m glad that Viz is continuing to give quality seinen some serious attention in the Signature Line with this title.

Requiem of the Rose King, Vol. 1

Requiem of the Rose King, Vol. 1 by Aya Kanno

I really admire the way Kanno moves from genre to genre, coming up with unique stories each time, at least with her series that have been translated into English. Blank Slate and Otomen are utterly unlike each other, and now with Requiem of the Rose King there’s an entirely different series to enjoy.

Requiem of the Rose King is a retelling of the story of Richard III, which is a topic I tend to enjoy exploring, going way back to when I first read the classic mystery Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey as a young teenager. So I was really interested in seeing how Kanno was going to tackle this story. It opens with the childhood of young Richard during the Wars of the Roses. Richard is a favorite of his father, but his mother views him as a damaged child due to his physical abnormalities. The introduction to Richard is framed with a reference to Joan of Arc’s sin of dressing like a man. Richard is cloaked, roaming through the forest alone after his mother abandoned him. One of his eyes is more prominent than the other, but his face is entirely in shadow. As Richard’s mother sits back in the castle thinking about how evil her own son is, he’s shown being trapped by vines. Richard’s older siblings are integrated into their mother’s affections, but when Richard’s father goes off to fight the Lancasters, he loses his main source of love and affection.

Richard appears to be intersex, or at least having some feminine characteristics while being raised as a boy. Richard sees visions of Joan of Arc tormenting him. He’s determined to be the best son possible for his father. I wasn’t sure exactly which gender to use to refer to him, but since in the first volume Richard clearly identifies as male, I was just going with that for the sake of this review. Richard accidentally strikes up a friendship with young prince Henry. He also meets a girl named Anne Neville. While Richard experiences battle in this volume on the sidelines, the fear and danger that he’s exposed to being left behind are very real. His mother grows even more hostile throughout the volume, which I didn’t even think was possible given how she was introduced initially.

Kanno’s art is great in this volume, and it seems like the subject matter has given her more room to be experimental. Richard’s visions of Joan of Arc keep popping up to make the events he’s experiencing even more unsettling, and there seem to be shadows about to attack lurking in the woods and in castle corners. Close up of eyes are used for dramatic effect often, showing fear, anger, and mental instability. I feel like with this series and Black Rose Alice, Viz is being a bit more adventurous with some of their current manga that might appeal to shoujo readers. While I enjoy a good romance as much as anyone, I am really happy to get a bit more variety on my shelves.

Meteor Prince, Vol 1

Meteor Prince Volume 1 by Meca Tanaka

Meteor Prince is a super cute shoujo series that is ideal to read if you need a break from the winter blahs. It is in some ways like a kinder, less manic version of Urusei Yatsura, because the heroine of the story Hako is cursed with an incredible run of bad luck. The latest incident occurs when a naked alien prince suddenly appears and announces that she’s his soulmate. The alien prince Io is a bit of a benign horndog, as he is constantly asking Hako if she is ready to mate, but at the same time he is always in the right place at the right time to protect her from all the accidents that seem to constantly happen in her vicinity. When Hako protests that she can’t have a relationship with someone she’s not in love with, Io promptly yells “Let’s fall in love!” and their courtship begins.

Hako has a supporting cast of friends in the form of the paranormal research club, who stick close to her despite her bad luck because they are so interested in exploring unexplained phenomena. They are also fascinated by the sudden appearance of the alien, but also want to look out for Hako. Despite Io’s initial approach of dropping out of the sky naked and asking teenage girls to be the mother of his children, he’s actually incredibly enthusiastic about the new environment he’s exposed to on Earth, and his devotion to Hako is absolute. Hako and Io actually end up striking a bit of a friendship, through the usual high school milestones that a reader would usually expect in a shoujo manga. There are plenty of funny hijinks, but what I enjoyed most about this title was the genuine warmth and caring shown in the unlikely romance between Hako and Io.

Tanaka’s art switches between slapstick humor and exaggerated emotions as Hako tries to dodge her bad luck with more contemplative moments like when Io sits and communes with birds for the first time. Her art is engaging, with Hako inspiring feelings of sympathy and Io managing to look both regal and occasionally bizarre, which is exactly what a reader might expect from an alien prince.

This is only a two volume series, and sometimes I’m a little hesitant to recommend such short series because often they seem a bit unfinished or partially developed. I felt satisfied as a reader after reading the first volume of Meteor Prince. I’d be happy if it had gone on for several volumes, but the core of the story was just delightful and entertaining. I expect that this is going to be one of the rare two volume series that gets a permanent place on my bookshelves. I’ve been hoarding Tanaka’s four volume series for Tokyopop, Pearl Pink, and now I’m much more motivated to read that too, since Meteor Prince seems so charming.

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Part 1 Phantom Blood Vol 1

JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Part 1 Phantom Blood, Volume 1 by Hirohiko Araki

I read this volume without much background in this series other than knowing that it was a huge and long-running series in Japan, has a bit of a cult following in Japan, and the books that Viz had been releasing under the shonen jump line started midway through the series. This volume goes back to the earliest story arc in the series, kicking things off with the English nobility, bloodthirsty Aztec masks, and people beating the crap out of each other.

The story kicks off in old school shonen fashion, where a scantily clad woman is sacrificed to the wearer of a mysterious stone mask who proclaims that his accessory drinks the blood of the living. Bones from the mask pierce his skull, but he’s still alive and taking on even more blood sacrifices, not worried about staining his stylish leopard skin pelt cape because he has found the secret to eternal life!

The story then skips over to England, where an evil red-haired young man offers his dying father some medicine. Dio’s father tells him a story about how he accidentally saved the life of a nobleman named Joestar when he came across the wreckage of carriage he was intending to scavenge. Brando tells Dio to go to the Joestars when he becomes orphaned, and Dio does, thus starting the torture of poor young Jonathan Joestar. Dio is immediately adopted as a second son by the Joestar family, but since he is basically the spawn of Satan and Jonathan Joestar is like a friendly naive puppy, things do not go well with the new brothers.

Dio is basically a human form of a cancer, undermining the heir to the Joestar family whenever he gets a chance. It has been a long time since I’ve read a shonen manga this manly! There are speed lines and yelling on almost every page. Jonathan and Dio engage in fistfights and boxing matches, where one blow will end up knocking a half dozen teeth into the air. Towards the end of the book the legacy of the blood drinking Aztec mask is further explored, and Jonathan finally begins to get proof of Dio’s nefarious deeds. The art is really dynamic although the proportions are often a bit off. Often one of the muscular bodies of the main characters will look like it is supporting a shrunken head. If Rob Liebefeld and Tetsuo Hara of Fist of the North Star mashed up their styles you might end up with something like JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure, except Araki can actually draw feet. I’m sure the art gets much better in subsequent volumes, and even though it wasn’t always to my taste I couldn’t deny the effectiveness of the energy of the many battle scenes in the manga.

As a main character, Jonathan Joestar lets himself be taken advantage of for far too long, but he does manage to battle back as shonen heroes always do. The hardcover edition is really nicely designed, with color pages shifting to further tonal pages where the black and white art is enlivened by shades of orange. This volume ends on a cliffhanger, and I do want to know what happens next, as I assume it will involve more stone mask blood drinking and face punching. I can certainly see why this is such a long-running and popular series in Japan. Recommended for those who want a major dose of testosterone in their manly manga.