*Monster: The Perfect Edition Books 1 and 2 — Recommended

Monster originally ran from 1994-2001 in Japan, and Viz serialized it in English from 2006-2008. Those volumes, out of print, have been in demand for two reasons. First, author Naoki Urasawa is now better known in the US, winning a couple of Eisner Awards for 20th Century Boys and gathering a great deal of critical praise for Pluto: Urasawa x Tezuka. Plus, Monster may become an HBO TV series.

So Viz has done the smart thing. They’re reprinting Monster in an upscale edition. The books are larger, matching the size of his other works in English; they have remastered pages and a new translation; and the volumes include color pages. Each contains the equivalent of two of the previous books, making for bigger reading chunks. They’re lovely.

The story is as involving as ever. Dr. Tenma is a promising young surgeon in Germany with a career on the rise. He’s also engaged to the daughter of the hospital director, who encourages him to think of his soon-to-improve position, because she likes the status. As part of playing the game, he’s asked to give up his research, work that might save lives, so he can ghost-write papers to make the director look better.

An early scene sums up the couple’s relationship, as Tenma tries to rationalize away his guilt at participating, unknowingly, in hospital politics, leading to the death of a poor man so a famous one could be saved, by saying, “I was following the director’s orders”. His fiancee responds, bluntly, “Some lives are worth more than others,” a chilling statement that haunts him.

That’s one reason, when ordered to leave a challenging operation on a young boy to save the life of a mayor whose funding is important to the hospital, he refuses — which ends up ruining his life. His promotion is rescinded, and his fiancee leaves him because his career has ended. However, nine years later, things have turned around for him, after the unexpected death of the director who blocked him.

He soon finds out why. The boy he saved turns out to be a serial killer. Tenma’s choice, while appearing morally preferable, has resulted in a number of other deaths. He gives up his work to search for this anonymous killer, trying to prevent more murders. He travels across Germany, looking for the now-young man and his twin sister. He wants to stop him to make up for saving the monster years ago.

Urasawa’s work is cinematic in its pacing, with excellent linework establishing the strong characters. His expressions of his characters are particularly revealing. Monster isn’t my favorite of his work — that would be Pluto, which is more tightly developed and with themes that resonate more with me. Monster is more of a thriller, and it spins out long for my taste, with some exaggerated plot developments. It’s not as thoughtful, but it’s more adrenaline-paced. Still, it’s worth a read.

I also have qualms with the base premise. Tenma does the right thing, and his life is ruined for it. I suppose the message is that no one can predict who’s going to turn out to be a psychopath, but it’s a bit random for my taste, attesting to an uncaring universe. Going back to the fiancee’s statement, the reader can’t help but think that Tenma’s life, with his ability to save others, IS worth more than that of Johan’s, since all he’s done is murder the undeserved. I don’t think we’re supposed to agree with her, though, since that privileged attitude is also what allows murderers to kill others.

Then again, the entire premise of a high-level doctor is that he can save lives, playing God by holding other’s fates in his hands. It’s certainly thought-provoking. Let’s see how I feel once I re-read the remaining reprints.

By book 2, Tenma is on the run. His asking questions about the various murders has tagged him as a suspect, and his Japanese identity in Germany makes him stand out. Johan is toying with him while Tenma tries to piece together what happened and where he was going, including investigating his childhood in an East German orphanage.

It’s fascinating to see how quickly everything Tenma valued, everything that made up his self-identity, can be replaced when he becomes a lone vigilante. He wanders, meeting a child whose most desired wish is simply a soccer ball and a country doctor trying to do what he can for the village patients. He’s not the only one after Johan; a white-supremacist organization is also looking for him to be the next Hitler.

Meanwhile, a police inspector who has sacrificed everything else in his life to solving murderers is on his trail, egged on by Tenma’s now-dissolute ex-fiancee. It’s rather like a 70s action show, with the big premise — Tenma hunts a murderer — allowing for smaller stories within the larger plot. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

Pondering Previews for May 2014 (Shipping July and Later)

Based on this month’s Diamond Previews catalog, here are some notable items I recommend pre-ordering from your local comic shop or Amazon.

Finder: Third World coverLegal Drug Omnibus cover
Finder: Third WorldLegal Drug Omnibus
by Carla Speed McNeilby CLAMP
Dark Horse Books, $19.99Dark Horse Manga, $19.99
MAY14 0074, due September 3MAY14 0102, due September 10
The Finder story from Dark Horse Presents is collected in color, making it the first Finder book in color. Carla’s storytelling and linework is so strong that I never thought about the series being black-and-white, so I’m very curious to see how this turns out… in addition to just loving her art and series and so being thrilled at a new book.Collecting the three previous volumes of the unfinished manga series under one cover… in preparation for a sequel due in 2015! It’s some beautiful paranormal-themed work with hints of boys’ love.
Scooby-Doo Team-Up #5 coverRagnarok #1 cover
Scooby-Doo Team-Up #5Ragnarok #1
by Sholly Fisch and Dario Brizuelaby Walter Simonson
DC Comics, $2.99IDW Publishing, $3.99
MAY14 0389, due July 2MAY14 0444, due July 23
That isn’t the real cover, because presumably the real cover will show this issue’s guest star, who is (excitement building) Wonder Woman! This has been a fun, funny series, and I can’t wait to see a story with the Amazon princess training Daphne and Velma.Walt Simonson loves drawing warriors and dinosaurs, so what better than his own series about the Twilight of the Norse Gods?
Street Angel coverChiggers cover
Street AngelChiggers
by Brian Maruca and Jim Ruggby Hope Larson
AdHouse Books, $19.95Atheneum Books, $10.99
MAY14 0979, due JulyMAY14 1060, due June 11
It’s been ten years since this nuevo punk miniseries originally shook up the comicsphere. Be interesting to see how it reads today. I’m sure it’s still immediate and energetic.I really like all of Hope Larson’s work, and what better time than summer to revisit this story of girls at camp?
Jellaby: Monster in the CityBarnaby Volume 2 cover
Jellaby: Monster in the CityBarnaby Volume 2
by Kean Sooby Crockett Johnson
Capstone Press, $12.95Fantagraphics, $39.99
MAY14 1239, due August 6MAY14 1400, due July
I find it odd that the book is listed on the Previews site but can’t be found on Amazon or the publisher’s website yet. Still, after enjoying the first book, I’m looking forward to finding out what happens next.I’d heard good things about this classic comic strip for years, but even so, I was highly impressed with book one. I particularly enjoy the satire; even though this strip was published in the 1940s, making fun of the government is still timely.
Magic Trixie coverMonster: The Perfect Edition Volume 1 cover
Magic TrixieMonster: The Perfect Edition Volume 1
by Jill Thompsonby Naoki Urasawa
HarperCollins, $8.99Viz Media, $19.99
MAY14 1444, due June 11MAY14 1671, due July 16
Jill Thompson’s playful series about a little witch ran three books and ended due to low sales, but it’s still charming in the volumes we got. All are available for reorder this month.Now that Urasawa’s works (such as Pluto) are better known here, and with TV series interest, his serial killer series is coming back into print in double-sized volumes

CBLDF Presents Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices

CBLDF Presents Manga: Introduction, Challenges, and Best Practices could have been used by the industry six or seven years ago, during the first rise of the manga trend, but better late than never, right? In this case, it’s definitely worthwhile to have waited to gather a more balanced, knowledgeable perspective.

Anyone who needs to know the basics of manga — the sub-categories, the speciality terms, the genre expectations, the pitfalls — will find this book, sponsored by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, essential. Each chapter explains a particular type of manga, including shonen, shoji, seinen, josei, yuri, and boys’ love. Specific target audience segments include librarians and booksellers who want to understand how to serve their customers interested in manga.

CBLDF Presents Manga is edited by Melinda Beasi, owner of Manga Bookshelf (although that isn’t mentioned — an “about the contributors” section would have been a useful addition). Several of the contributors also write for that site, including Katherine Dacey (who wrote the history chapter), Sean Gaffney (shojo), and Erica Friedman (yuri, dojinshi). Also contributing are Shaenon Garrity, former Viz editor (shonen, josei, boys’ love), and Ed Chavez, marketing director of manga publisher Vertical (seinen). All obviously know their subject matter and write informatively and clearly, with plenty of examples cited of genres, popular titles, and key artists within the age and gender groupings. I learned a lot.

The book begins with a history of the form, its connections with anime, and explanations of manhua/manhwa/OEL manga. Although it’s important information to know and an obvious starting point, it’s going to be of less immediate use to those seeking to put the material in the book to use in deciding how to stock shelves, for example.

In Chavez’s chapter, I found the praise for Dark Horse (this book’s publisher) and Vertical (his employer) a tad unseemly, since there were no disclaimers as to the associations included. His chapter also discusses key artists without indication of which of their works are available in English, an omission that makes it difficult to follow up. (Why would you talk about Naoki Urasawa without a single title of his listed when the books are readily available? The suspicious might wonder if the same choice would have been made if his titles were published in English by Vertical, since several of their releases are noted by name.) In contrast, Garrity’s josei chapter lists plenty of titles and imprints but doesn’t note that they’ve all ceased publishing.

Friedman’s yuri chapter takes yet another tack, discussing the concept more generally without reference to artists or representative works. Given the wide-ranging associations for that term, it’s a useful and valid approach. Her later section on scanlations, though, I found too short. It states bluntly how they’re all illegal, which is true, but a more nuanced discussion of why customers flock to them, the debate over timeliness and authenticity that often goes along with them, and suggestions on how to convert users would have made for a more thorough treatment of the topic.

Librarian Robin Brenner co-writes the final “Challenges” chapter with Garrity, and this lengthy section is the real meat of the book, discussing potentially troublesome manga subject matter (cross-dressing, sexuality, ethnicity, Christian imagery) in the context of being prepared for objections. It’s a useful catalogue to prepare decision-makers against potential outcry, putting works in the context of their country of original publication. The chapter concludes with an overview of legal cases involving manga.

CBLDF Presents Manga is a unique work. Its target readers will find it essential, while any others interested in the topic, no matter their background, will likely learn more about history and perceptions of the format. (The publisher provided a digital review copy.)

Viz Bringing Monster Back Into Print

Viz has announced at Otakon this weekend that they will be bringing Naoki Urasawa’s Monster (originally released in English from 2006-2008) back into print as 2-in-1 deluxe omnibus volumes. (If there’s clarification on what that means, I’ll update when I get an official announcement, which will likely be coming next week.) That takes the series from 18 to 9 books, a more reasonable number to collect and read.

With the conclusion earlier this year of Urasawa’s 20th Century Boys, it’s a great time to make his suspense series, about a doctor who sacrifices his career to stop a mass murdering child, available again. Urasawa is immensely skilled at both character development and cinematic pacing, all told through gorgeously detailed artwork, and Monster, with its pulpy premise, is a better starting point for some readers than series like Pluto (although that’s my favorite of his work).

Also announced at the show, now that the series has just concluded, was a Bakuman box set that will include a minicomic and a double-sided poster.

Update: Anime News Network says that the Monster re-releases will be titled Monster: The Perfect Edition, priced at $19.99 US each, and debut in July 2014 with others following every three months.

*21st Century Boys Book 1 — Recommended

For those of you who, like me, were left a little confused by the conclusion of 20th Century Boys, you want this book, the first of a two-volume sequel series.

The first chapter summarizes the events we should remember (which I found immensely helpful). Everyone’s at the music festival, there’s a UFO attack masterminded by the Friend, who’s decided, screw it, he’s just going to destroy the world. Again. (At this point, I’m adopting a very Buddhist cyclical view of events, because that’s the best way to cope with the recurring plot structures of this series. There is nothing new under the sun, and we’re doomed to repeat even things we remember. More on that later.) The attack is stopped, at the cost of a few lives, and one character is redeemed at the end and given his fondest desire: to be one of the group.

It’s at that point that I began realizing that I might have been evaluating this story the wrong way all along. It’s one of the classic differences between Japanese and American society, the importance of fitting in vs. rampant individualism. Kenji isn’t the hero here, although to an American reader, he seems closest, having gone on a traditional solo quest — most of which we don’t see. The book is about protecting society, and how culture reinvents itself in the midst of tragedy and chaos, and how someone can become a world-changing villain just because they felt left out of the gang when they were all kids together. The Friend succeeds for so long because so many people want a group to belong to, after all.

Another of the deaths demonstrates the obvious — someone assumes that they’re known, that they’re important, when they’re really not. Still, his passing is something to be sad about, in my mind, because the death of one member diminishes us all.

So, I had lots of big thoughts, and that was only the first chapter, so I was already liking this a lot. I wasn’t caring as much about what happened as how the characters were affected. Although there’s another big threat to stop, this time an “anti-proton bomb”. Before that, many of the cast members, now gathered together, tell each other what happened, which helps either remind or clarify things for readers like me.

Much of the book involves flashbacks to when the cast were all kids together, which is the part Naoki Urasawa truly excels at. He gets right how children think and act and what they care about. If you want mind-blowing, an adult version of one character loops around and meets his kid version. There’s some kind of SF explanation for this, set up a while back, but the real point is that we have to face the people we thought we’d be against who we really became.

I blanch at the idea of even trying to describe how great Urasawa’s art is. It’s incredibly cinematic, not in the “I really wish I was making movies” sense or even in the “if I draw bigger pictures I can draw few of them” way. It’s like a movie in that the scope is immense, yet we’re skillfully drawn along by virtue of the artist’s framing choices to follow the emotional high points and feel the dread and fear and exhilaration and concern of the characters.

We don’t see a lot of Kanna this go-round, but she has one key scene where two significant (at least to me) things happen. The first is the quintessential crisis of spirit expressed by someone who had been caught up in big events for most of their lives: What now? What should she do now that her purpose is no longer necessary? The second is sillier — she brings a sick friend a comic book, which she reviews:

“These aren’t all that good… I like Japanese manga a lot better myself. I bet you do too.”

The most important lesson comes two-thirds of the way in, when we learn about the success, as a rule, of “the copy of the copy”, or the third person to try something. (Remember the theme of repetition?) I kept remembering Lewis Carroll’s promise, as I learnt it from Robert Heinlein, “What I tell you three times is true.” Or “third time’s the charm.” In the case of this story, that may end up referring to the number of times I have to reread it to understand all the nuances! (The publisher provided a review copy.)

Good Comics Out January 2: Manga Classics and Comic Strip History

A small week, but a good one, as we welcome the new year.

Top of my list is the Heart of Thomas omnibus volume from Fantagraphics ($39.99) that I had a chance to read last year. This solid hardcover contains the entire classic shojo series, and it’s a must-read for anyone interested in the development of the genre. It’s also surprisingly gripping in its own right.

Also of interest to fans of historic manga is the second, concluding volume of Message to Adolf (Vertical, $26.95). My copy should be coming soon, and I’m eager to see it, since I enjoyed the first book. This is the first Osamu Tezuka series I can recommend without a “ok, but you have to ignore …” caveat for bizarre plot choices or sexism. It’s a great starting point for those who want to try Tezuka.

If you’re interested in American comic history instead, you might want to check out The Complete Funky Winkerbean: Volume 1 (1972-1974) (Kent State University Press, $45), reprinting the still-going high school comic strip. It’s as dated as you’d expect, but that’s part of the charm, checking out 40-year-old gags, and there’s an informative piece about Tom Batiuk’s work by R.C. Harvey. Batiuk also includes his own lengthy autobiographical introduction, explaining how the strip came to be, based on his work as a junior high school art teacher. Nice presentation, although the Sunday strips aren’t in color. I enjoyed the flashback and learning more about the strip’s beginnings.

Fantagraphics also releases the paperback edition of Castle Waiting Volume 1 ($24.99), which reprints everything from the hardcover except for Jane Yolen’s introduction (and the ribbon book marker). The original hardcover was one of my best of 2006; it’s a gorgeous twist on fairy tales, concentrating on daily life instead of big events, which makes it charming.

I’ve already reviewed Glitter Kiss (Oni Press, $15.99), which is flawed but entertaining and very well drawn, and the manga Strobe Edge Volume 2 (Viz, $9.99). Manga fans will definitely want to note that today also brings the first volume of Naoki Urasawa’s 21st Century Boys (Viz, $12.99), the two-book sequel to 20th Century Boys. My review is coming soon, but a sneak peek reveals that things are explained a little more clearly, for those of us who were thoroughly confused by the end of the previous series, and much of the volume focuses on flashback stories to the characters as kids. That’s one of Urasawa’s strengths, the way he captures their behavior so clearly.

What are you looking for today?

20th Century Boys Books 21-22

It’s been a long time since I’ve followed a manga series to this length, and honestly, I probably need to reread the whole thing in bigger chunks to appreciate the subtleties before talking about it in depth. (But who has the time?) And although the series concludes with these two books, it’s not really over — that will happen in the two-volume followup 21st Century Boys.

Even when I’m not so sure how far we are along in the story, or what the status is of the various conspiracies, the art is amazing, as I’d expect from Naoki Urasawa. His flow, pacing, and character expressions are so cinematic, but not in the sense that he wants to be working in some other medium than comics. It’s that he thinks through how to guide the reader’s emotional reactions and portrays what’s needed to accomplish it, beautifully.

I will say that Book 21 really encapsulates the theme that began the series, the idea that the right, rebellious music can change the world. It opens with a crazy DJ, left broadcasting over the radio without even knowing if anyone can hear him. He encounters another character we haven’t seen for a long while, all under an atmosphere of looming dread made all the more creepy by being set in an abandoned cookie factory. What could go wrong in a sweet place? A lot, it turns out, since evil comes from people. However, the DJ also demonstrates that in some cases, it’s not too late for a second chance.

Since we are getting near the end, many former cast members reappear, including one of my favorites, the former gangster priest we met in Book 15. At first glance, this interlude is frustrating, since it doesn’t directly relate to the core group we think we’re following, but at this point, the story is really about what life would be like in a totalitarian regime and how different character types would react.

One immensely important scene (I think) happens a third of the way through this volume, as the returned Kenji, now a modern post-apocalyptic take on the wandering troubadour, reacts to the news that the Friend has announced that the new Expo will be held forever. Kenji says,

You can’t hold an Expo forever, jeez. […]
Our future awaited us there… our 21st century…
Only thing is… I didn’t get to go…
It was almost like I’d gone, I got to know it so well…
I practically lived there in my imagination.

For Expo, I read future, and his statements also relate to the problem of growing up. You can’t keep anticipating it, and you can’t keep living in your fantasy of what you’re going to be. At some point, you have to cope with where you really are, no matter how well it matches (or fails to match) your dreams. It’s also fascinating to see how many different people remember events differently, focusing on what caused most pain to them, even to the extent of coming up with conflicting stories for the same situation.

20th Century Boys is like the world’s biggest action movie, one that extends a lot longer than two hours but keeps ramping up the suspense the whole time. Just like one of those, there are all kinds of people we keep checking in with, until we finally can’t wait to see the final confrontation.

In Book 22, it’s Kenji’s song that prevents fear in the populace and rallies them to a place where they might be safe. Music is what brings people together and what takes people back to their most authentic selves. I’m not entirely sure what happens at the end, although I do like the way an honest representation of understanding your own mistakes short-circuits those who want a more dramatic confrontation of good and evil.

October 2012 Previews: A Small Month, Full of Reprints

Books I Recommend You Consider

The Adventures of Superhero Girl coverResident Alien: Welcome to Earth! cover
The Adventures of Superhero GirlResident Alien Volume 1: Welcome to Earth!
by Faith Erin Hicksby Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse
Dark Horse, $16.99Dark Horse, $14.99
OCT12 0042, due FebruaryOCT12 0046, due February
As reported last month, Faith Erin Hicks’ charming webcomic is coming to print … and unlike the self-published edition, this time in color. It’s funny, in how it looks at how a young woman with superheroic powers would really act. She can do amazing things, but she still worries about boys and looks and what to do with her life.I enjoyed the comics, issues #0-3, reprinted in this slim volume. Not sure I need to buy it again, but if you haven’t read it yet, it’s a nice little mystery with some sharp small-town observations.
Global Frequency coverHouse of Secrets Omnibus cover
Global FrequencyHouse of Secrets Omnibus
by Warren Ellis and various artistsby Steven T. Seagle, Teddy Kristiansen, and others
Vertigo/DC Comics, $19.99Vertigo/DC Comics, $75
OCT12 0299, due JanuaryOCT12 0297, due February
Now that the two previous collections of the 2002 anthology science fiction series are out of print, DC is sensibly bringing the series back into print as one big volume. Some of it is terribly dated, but some of it is still insightful. I’d read more — wish the comic would come back.I guess printing technology has progressed to the point that you can do a 750-page hardcover collecting over 27 comics without it falling apart. I’d forgotten about this odd offshoot, titled to maintain a brand but with some unusual characters and distinctive art. Odd what books are being made these days — it’s a real “clean out the file cabinet” approach sometimes.
The Perhapanauts: Treasure Obscura coverNaoki Urasawa 21st Century Boys Volume 2 cover
The Perhapanauts: Treasure ObscuraNaoki Urasawa’s 21st Century Boys Volume 2
by Todd DeZago & Craig Rousseauby Naoki Urasawa
Image Comics, $9.99Viz, $12.99
OCT12 0490, due DecemberOCT12 1259, due January
Image calls it Volume 2, I call it Volume 4, but the first two trades from Dark Horse are now Image’s V0, so whatever. I’m still glad to see more Perhapanauts stories, including the ones previously online-only.I’m ready for the final final volume, since 20th Century Boys is over but there are still many questions to answer. This book promises to explore how the Friend became evil, the core of the story.

Snarky Comments

Two months ago, Bluewater decided they would no longer work with Diamond. Their right, of course, although it makes them even more irrelevant than they already were. This month, in their cancellation list, Diamond lists the remaining orders for Bluewater titles as code 10, which means “Supplier Out of Business”. Advance notice of Bluewater’s fate, or just a last jab by the distributor?

I have figured out what Marvel Now! means, now that I see it took 38 pages of the Marvel Previews to get to an issue numbered over #4. (Journey Into Mystery #647 — when they jumped, they jumped big.) They are restarting most series, but they didn’t want to make that obvious, probably for fear they’d be accused of using DC’s tactics.

My, those weren’t very many recommendations, and all from big publishers. I’d feel discouraged about things if it weren’t the end of the year, past the holiday selling season.




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