Cipher Book 1

This is a CMX book? What happened to the trade dress with the white backgrounds and the bright-colored corners? Where’s the heavy type set on a slant? This book is missing any identifying imprint information at all on the cover, leaving only the title, volume number, author’s name, and a nondescript picture of a couple in winter. (The logo shown in the image here was added for the publisher’s website; it doesn’t appear on the actual book.)

Looking at the spine — always a problem for these titles, since the CMX letters were as big as the title, causing all the books to be shelved under “C” in many bookstores — there are other changes, as well. The logo has shrunk and gained some swirls, so the whole thing resembles a take on the CBS eye. It’s now able to be printed horizontally across the spine, making it look more like a bullet logo and less like a title.

Cipher Book 1 cover
Cipher Book 1
Buy this book
Swan Book 1 cover
Swan Book 1
Compare this older
CMX cover

The title typeface seems to be individually chosen for the book instead of the heavy black block caps previously used across the line. The outline letters have more of an old-fashioned, antique feel, less like a cut-rate product for a grocery store shelf and more in keeping with the slightly outdated story (copyright 1984).

Also on the spine, the small reproduction of the cover picture has become bigger and switched places with the author’s name, suggesting an emphasis on content over creator. The straight line delineating the volume number has been curved for a softer feel.

These are all improvements on the line’s previous trade dress, although I think they err too far on the side of making the book look generic. The CMX name, after the Tenjho Tenge editing controversy, may have become a liability, and I can understand if they want to downplay it in favor of giving titles their own identities… but what’s left here has little identity of its own. It resembles the publication of a cheap bandwagon-jumper instead of a future-facing intiative of one of the biggest American comic companies.

So, what’s inside? The first page replaces the Japanese vertical text with English lettering, also written horizontally. Being confronted with a page that resembles this:
S H A S
H I N I
A S D N
L
L D U L
  E N I
R S T E
U I O S
L R
E E Y A
    O T
O A U
V N   T
E D S H
R   H E
  Y A
H O L D
I U L O
M     O
.   B R
    E .

is immediately off-putting. There’s 17 more lines like this, and it’s only page one, so I skipped it. (It wasn’t until I had to type it in here that I read it for the first time.) There’s faithfulness, and then there’s unreadability.

Unfortunately, that approach continues in the dialogue. When a word balloon isn’t the right shape for lines of English dialogue, they simply run the words vertically, splitting them if necessary, so a one-word greeting becomes
M I
O N
R G
N !
-
It’s very disruptive to have to switch back-and-forth between horizontal and vertical text even within one panel.

The art style is what most people think of when you say “manga for girls” — a cute, all-eyes heroine with long flowing hair who looks about eight years old, and a pouty older boy with a banged puffball for hair. I was already disclined to continue with this book, given the readability problems, and the cutesy art began setting my teeth on edge. The paper stock has been downgraded to something closer to newsprint, and the book’s ink coming off on my fingers wasn’t impressive, either.

It was a shame, because I thought the story might have potential. Former child star Siva is approached by spunky girl Anise, who demands to be his friend (because she has a mole the same place on her forehead where he wears a bindi — she’s not very bright, apparently). She soon finds out that he and his twin brother, Cipher, switch places frequently, sharing one life.

Continued reading revealed a clunky, leaden translation, with the characters talking in flat exposition, so I gave up. I flipped a bit later and saw that she apparently moves in with the twins, but I didn’t care enough to wonder why.

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13 Comments

  1. That kind of lettering is what happens when anyone who can pound a keyboard is a “letterer.”

    Pfah.

  2. What I have never been able to figure out about the CMX line is why they didn’t do immediately what almost all other publishers of translated manga have done – i.e. more or less retain the original cover images, while finding a suitable typeface and -colours for the text elements. After all, the Japanese are masters (and mistresses) of niche marketing. It only takes 20 minutes’ examination of original tankoubon or manga magazines to realise that every aspect of a cover – artwork, layout, font, colours, decoration – has been chosen with great care to attract *exactly* the audience aimed at. As is, how many potential readers of, say, EROICA or SWAN have never even paused at the CMX editions because of their heavy, clunky presentation?

    (Though I don’t have Johanna’s problems with the logo – much less weird than Tokyopop’s little red alien…)

    As for CIPHER itself, I bought the first volume and I must agree, it’s a strange choice. Apparently this title was wildly popular in Japan when it was first published, but I suspect at least some of this was due to what must then have been the novelty aspect of the American setting. The references to Madonna etc now seem dated without having become distant enough to be interesting or quaint. And as for the vertical layout (which incidentally jumps from reading right-to-left to left-to-right to back again) – laziness combined with bad judgement.

    In fact CIPHER typifies my personal problem with the whole CMX project, which can pretty much be summed up as “a great opportunity, almost entirely wasted”. Yes, I buy every volume of SWAN as it appears… but then have to grit my teeth at references to “Margaret” Fonteyn and “Waldorf” Nureyev. Or simply close my eyes to the massacre of EROICA’s wit and humour. I can only hope that someone else has nabbed the English-language rights to ROSE OF VERSAILLES…

  3. Clarification (since it seems you can’t edit your comments any more): The third sentence above should read “It only takes 20 minutes’ examination of *a collection of* original tankoubon or manga magazines…” From personal experience, I can testify that the effect of a well-put-together cover is immediate!

  4. “Classic” manga hasn’t done very well here, apparently, but like you I’m hoping we’ll eventually see at least a sampling of Rose of Versailles. Other than that, you sum things up well.

    (I’ll look into the comment editing thing.)

  5. WinterStars

    I just bought the CIPHER manga vol. 1. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it on the shelves, had to do a double take before grabbed it and hug the book… I agree with other comments that the lettering was kinda off… vertical lines with english lettering are just wrong. But hey, take it from me, it’s a good story. I have read Minako Narita-sensei’s mangas such as Alien Street and Alexandrite (this one is kinda sequel to Cipher), and i LOVE it. Absolutely love it. Unfortunately, Cipher was never translated to my language. So I was extremely surprised when I saw the english manga. VERY surprised. Hey, I actually hunted down and ordered the japanese bunko version (all 7 volumes of ‘em), although I can’t read Japanese :P (I know the story already, so it doesn’t matter I can’t read japanese, I still understand. sort of). Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, be patient in reading the manga. Narita-Sensei has a very gentle, yet rich and detailed way of storytelling, and her characters are well developed with their flaws and triumphs. Very humane characters, very realistic. A GREAT READ!!! (just… bear with the vertical lettering. They’re not that many anyway).

  6. I think it’s kind of sad that the flaws with the text and cover has put people off buying Cipher that much. It really is a great series if given a chance.

  7. The problem is, there are so many wonderful manga choices out there these days that readers are often not willing to put up with shoddy presentation and packaging.

  8. I do believe it, this is a worthy book. Plain stories but with real and practical feelings within it, like the similar stories may happen around us every day. It’s ten years since i read it for the first time. i almost enjoy it once every year. so i may never refuse it, and refuse the cute roles, perhaps for my lifetime.

  9. I’m both surprised and disapointed to hear the technical problems this printing has. I’ve read vol.1 about 10 years ago through a well fan translation of it. And after hearing good things about the series and reading through it, I was immediately hooked and wanted more. The series should be given a chance, but I’ve not yet picked up CMX’s copy to check out how well their translations are.
    Perhaps we should mail the editors over at CMX about the problems cause I seriously believe that this series is well worth the read through it’s entirety with readable font and good translations.

  10. Eric Henwood-Greer

    Sorry for the late reply I just can’t find anything else on this title…

    I nearly completely agree with the assessment of volume one. i didn’t even totally follow much of the plot because of the poor translation. But I love classic shoujo titles and there really aren’t a ton of shoujo manga I’m following right now (Banana Fish, PSMEarth, Tower of the Future which suffers from some similar CMX probs, Nana and Swan are all at th emo) so I stuck with it and having just finished vol 5 I’m really glad I have. Only now do I really understand and follow the story but I love the subtlety of the characterization and how it’s all interwoven, the art nad other classic shoujo elements are great and dare I say the translation and especially presentation have gotten much better.

  11. I’m glad to hear it — but I’m sorry that it took them so long, since I’ll bet that most samplers aren’t willing to come back to the series after such a long time.

  12. Although the vertical text may be difficult to read and the art is outdated (it’s an old manga) I thoroughly enjoyed reading the first two volumes. Give it a chance and actually read the manga.

  13. [...] to hoping that a JDrama adaption of the wonderful classic shoujo manga Cipher is in the works!! [...]

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