DRAWN & QUARTERED
2 American manga show promise and problems
Aside from publisher Tokyopop's glut of original English-language manga (OELs), other companies such as Seven Seas, Oni Press and Antarctic Press -- the last the home of the infamous, long-running "Ninja High School" -- are also coming out with comics drawn by U.S. artists in the manga style.
The same creators pop up in this circle of non-Tokyopop titles, but most of their works are worth checking out.
'Once in a Blue Moon'
One of the best parts of Aeslin Finn's childhood was reading "The Avalon Chronicles" with her parents every night before bed. Aeslin loved to pretend being Avalon's Dragon Knight, a woman who leads the kingdom's force of dragons, and protecting the land. But the happy ritual came to an abrupt end when her father died in an accident during one of her parents' business trips; her mother, determined to break all ties with the past, took away Aeslin's posters and toys and admonished her daughter to "grow up."
Now in high school and facing the usual teen problems of boys and self-image, Aeslin and best friend Sam are walking home from school one day when they come across a thatched-roof hut standing on the side of the road where there was none the day before. The two girls enter and find shelves full of strange potions and spices -- and, most incredible of all, a thick book called "Once in a Blue Moon," which the bearded proprietor says is the sequel to "The Avalon Chronicles."
No sooner do Aeslin and Sam take the tome back to Aeslin's home and start reading it that the girl is literally drawn into the book and into Avalon. Aeslin discovers that the bedtime stories were real and that she is destined to be the new Dragon Knight. It is her duty to save the kingdom from the evil wizard Khrom, who she last heard had been vanquished by the Prince and the previous Dragon Knight -- who has a much closer connection to Aeslin than the girl realizes.
Manga and anime fans might liken "Once in a Blue Moon" to the well-known series "Fushigi Yuugi," by Yuu Watase, with both stories' basis of "high school girl who gets sucked into a book and becomes the savior of the world." But unlike "Fushigi," the charm of "Blue Moon" is not awkward romance and love triangles, but the mix of fantasy and reality, as Aeslin is free to travel between the worlds and must navigate the perils of both Avalon and high school life.
Even though "Blue Moon" feels forced at times, there's something a bit offbeat about it that makes it great fun to read.
Aeslin brings a modern-world skepticism to Avalon along with a teen girl's sensibilities, but is still thrilled at exploring what had been just a storybook land. The characters have stereotypical traits, but they also have a sassiness and feistiness that goes against the grain just enough to keep them from being your average fairy-tale heroes and heroines.
The first and so far only volume of "Blue Moon" was published in September 2004 by Oni Press. Writers Nunzio DeFilippis and wife Christina Weir really ought to find a new artist -- original artist Jen Lee Quick left the project to start her own project, Tokyopop's "Off*Beat" -- hurry up and come out with the promised second book.
This series by Michael Dignan and Kriss Sison follows Hiroto Nakagai, who lives in a technologically advanced world that nevertheless has all the trappings of feudal Japan. Hunted by his uncle Kumagai after the slaughter of Hiroto's family, the young samurai uses a device called the Absprung to teleport to another dimension.
The place he falls into has swaying palm trees, lush mountains, beautiful skies, and the hallowed Maunaloa Academy. (Is this supposed to be Hawaii?)
Among the students at this fine high school are Ikuko, who acts and dresses exactly like your classic cute Japanese schoolgirl; Colleen, whose tough persona attracts unwanted attention; Drake, a rich bully who unilaterally decides Colleen is his girlfriend and will kill anyone who stands in the way; and Alvin, the eyeglass-wearing, dorky genius.
Talk about your melting pots -- but with your typical motley crew overtones.
Hiroto poses as a Maunaloa student, with his sights set on Alvin: The Absprung got broken du ring his escape, and the teen genius is Hiroto's last hope for fixing it.
But before that can happen, Kumagai finds his way to pseudo-Hawaii, and the entire group -- Hiroto, Ikuko, Colleen, Drake, Alvin and Drake's sidekick Tom -- is forced to use the malfunctioning Absprung to transport to another world.
After that, "Last Hope" becomes almost a "Quantam Leap" clone, with Hiroto and the gang finding themselves in far-foreign times and places, trying to figure out their current situation while looking for opportune times to activate the Absprung and jump to yet another bizarre locale.
This story has some serious wild and weird vibes going on, with personality (not plot) twists that would put any roller coaster to shame. In a matter of a few pages, overbearing Drake becomes a self-sacrificing hero, which in turn suddenly melts Colleen's anti-Drake nature into a puddle of silly teen longing.
Sugar-and-spice Ikuko's airheadedness takes a 180-degree turn, and not only does she get pushed into a leadership role, she also snaps and yells angrily at Hiroto for getting them all into this situation.
Did everyone leave themselves back at Maunaloa?
Now while showing another side of people's personalities usually gives some depth to the flat stereotypes they're cut out from, the abruptness with which it happens in "Last Hope" leaves readers' heads whirling and wondering just where in heck the characters -- and plot, for that matter -- went.
The group's dimension-hopping is pointless and has so far served only to allow Dignan and Sison to spoof popular anime series. (Who can deny the obvious mecha and uniform designs based on "Neon Genesis Evangelion"?) Yes, there is the little problem of Kumagai still chasing Hiroto, but it looks like the story is ready to deteriorate into "Kumagai catches up, Hiroto and gang fight and flee to another era, Hiroto and gang encounter much trouble in another era before managing to leave." Lather, rinse, repeat.
Published by Seven Seas, "Last Hope" reads from right to left in traditional Japanese style, with the second volume released just this month after more than a year. Now, while fellow "D&Q" columnist Jason and I have lamented delays and cancellations of series in the past, for "Last Hope" we'll make an exception.