Tag Archive for manga

Three quick reviews of Harlequin manga titles

So about 10 years ago, Harlequin, in partnership with Dark Horse, did a line of comics called Harlequin Ginger Blossom — manga-style romance comics written by Harlequin writers and drawn by Japanese artists. There were 14 titles published and then they disappeared. I figured the whole thing managed to not catch on and it disappeared

The other day, I was browsing through Comixology, and I came across the Harlequin/SB Creative page (I believe most are also available on the Kindle, though, and possibly elsewhere — this is just where I found them). Not only had the whole Harlequin manga thing not disappeared, there are nearly 450 titles. (Most seem to be both be written and drawn by women.)

A quick crowdsourced query offered some suggestions of ones to read. So of course I bought some and did just that.

lucDomesticating Lucwritten by Sandra Paul, art by Mayu Takayama

This was probably the most straightforward and the sweetest of the three I read. It’s about a playboy, Luc, who is trying to train his late grandmother’s dog so he can put it up for adoption. His dog trainer, Julie, ends up staying with him to do just that (like you do).

It’s fun and silly (the dog, an Italian mastiff named Puppy, even has some asides). I didn’t find Luc to be particularly attractive — little too stiff and square-jawed for me — but Takayama’s Julie is bright-eyed and adorable. It’s the least sexually-explicit of the three I read — while Julie and Luc clearly has sex, it’s all hazy and dreamy with no nudity.

I didn’t quite buy the romance between them — it’s all pretty obvious and tame — but it was cute.

passionate-sinnerThe Passionate Sinner, written by Violet Winspear, art by Yoko Hanabusa

This is when things start to go off the deep end, which I am guessing is the ultimate appeal of these. I mean that in a good way. A surgeon named Paul Von Setan is blinded and the nurse who took the blame, Merlin, pretends to be an old woman to become Paul’s secretary as he works on a book on a tropical island.

Following all of that? Of course, Merlin is found out and Paul suspects she was the nurse who intentionally blinded him. There’s a bunch of gothic silliness here in the classic sense (think … Jane Eyre, but maybe in reverse and maybe with a loss of a limb).

The relationship seems primarily passionate and physical at first, and Paul definitely has a weird, controlling streak. There is a bit more nudity here and the sex scenes — while still hazy — definitely feel more physical and present. Hanabusa’s art has a pleasing retro quality to it, which I enjoyed. Her panel layouts are also dynamic and appealing.

This kind of falls into the “I don’t know if I’d call it good” category for me, but it was fun and I enjoyed I had no idea where it was going next (even if it ended up in an expected place).

Thesheik Sheik and the Virgin Secretary, written by Susan Mallery and art Kakuko Shinozaki

When I asked for recommendations, someone said “anything with Sheik in the title” and OK, let’s ignore the ethnic implications and just go with that. I picked this one because that title made it seem like it was going to be ridiculous.

I was kind of right. It wasn’t as over-the-top as I expected, but I think that made it better.

The virgin secretary of the title, Kiley, asks her boss, Rafiq (you guessed it! The sheik of the title. He’s from a fictional country in the Middle East so that fixes everything!) if she can be his mistress. You see, Kiley
just caught her fiancé cheating on her and clearly this is a logical solution to that. They agree to do this for three months.

I admire how quickly the plot just jumps to this (this arrangement happens in the first three pages). However, after Kiley admits to Rafiq she’s a virgin, he says he’s going to take it slowly — in a good way, of course. Yes, they fall in love because of course they do, but their relationship seems to have a natural progression. While there is conflict and family drama, it’s all pretty quickly resolved. I liked that.

Of the three I read, this definitely had the most sex — lots of undressing, fondling early on and it quickly progresses to more as the book continues. There’s quite a bit of nudity as well (all female, though). The sex scenes are pretty extended and while they still leave enough to the imagination, I was surprised at what they didn’t.

Shinozaki’s art is loose and modern and I thought it suited this story well. Kiley isn’t presented as a great beauty, but that’s definitely one of the points of the story. Rafiq is playfully handsome. Her page layouts have a breeziness to them that makes this story fun. For all the expected beats, the art really carries the story.

I have to admit I was surprised by the overall quality of these — I definitely went into this with some curiosity but not overly high expectations. The writing, while it adheres to pretty standard romance novel tropes and beats, is strong and effective. The manga artists are a good match for each title. These feel like they weren’t treated as a throwaway — the quality is much, much better than it needs to be. I love that.

While I could see how easily these could be addicting — they’re certainly entertaining and fun — at about $6 per title, they’re a little pricey for things I’m unlikely to ever read again. However, I like to know they’re there and whenever I need some silly comfort, I can imagine myself buying a couple more every now and then. I have a couple more recommendations to read but I’ll gladly take more.

Review: Insufficient Direction

insufficient-directionManga artist Moyoco Anno and husband, anime and film director Hideaki Anno are just like any other married couple: They binge-watch TV shows, try to find shelves to accommodate their collections, eat junk food (although they really try to eat better, with mixed results) and sometimes drink too much.

You know, all the normal couple things.

Moyoco Anno’s Insufficient Direction (Vertical, 2014), is a charming and hilarious look at a couple who happily indulges each other and creates a happily equilibrium.

Moyoco draws herself a baby she refers to as “Rompers;” she calls Hideaki “Director-kun” and presents him round-faced, wild-haired overgrown kid. Clearly, this is how the couple sees themselves.

The stories are small, episodic vignettes about married life without much consequence, but that’s the joy of them. Usually, “Director-kun” will get excited about something and “Rompers” will try to be the mature one (something she obviously resents). The ultimate conclusion is usually trivial but involves the two coming to some understanding.

But refreshingly, very few of these tales are a case of “patient wife indulges her silly husband.” The best moments of the book is when the two influence each other in the best and worst ways — singing along loudly to anime theme songs in the car, waking up early to watch children’s TV shows or embracing the joy of being lazy. It’s sweet and hilarious.

Moyoco renders scenes between “Rompers” and “Director-kun” in a loose, exaggerated style that suits the childlike world they inhabit. While it’s almost always just the two of them in these stories, Moyoco draws everyone else in a much more realistic fashion, further placing these two in their own world. It’s adorable.

The Vertical edition has extensive annotations about the references made in the book, and while I appreciate them, I didn’t mind not knowing about everything. Hideaki Anno’s essay about the book and Moyoco is sweet and heartfelt and makes the perfect cap to the end of the book. The only thing I question is including a short biography and filmography of Hideaki, putting the focus on him, when the book is much more about both of them.

And that’s ultimately what I take away of Insufficient Direction — it’s the story of a couple whose playful affection and obvious love for each other is a beautiful thing. I’m sure that Moyoco and Hideaki Anno’s relationship is not always easy (because no relationship is), but as presented, they’re so well suited to each other, it’s impossible to not find joy in getting to know them.

Copy of Insufficient Direction provided by Big Planet Comics.

Review: Uglies: Shay’s Story


Uglies: Shay’s Story
Buy at Powell’s

I absolutely love Scott Westerfeld‘s Uglies trilogy. It is actually one of my favorite dystopian stories, actually. The general premise works — who, as an awkward adolescent, wouldn’t want to be turned gorgeous and get to party all the time?

While Westerfeld’s ideas aren’t necessarily the most innovative, he had a fresh and relevant take on them, and ultimately, the books are a beautiful metaphor for growing up and finding (and accepting) your own power.

While I basically knew a comics adaptation of them was inevitable, like any beloved material, I approached the announcement of it with some skepticism. Two things, though, reassured me — that Devin Grayson would be leading the adaptation and that it was going to be told from Shay’s perspective (who was the best friend/rival of the main character, Tally). That it wasn’t going to be a straight retelling made it more intriguing to me.

The manga-esque art by Steven Cummings did not, though. I don’t think manga-style art was a bad choice for this story — in a lot of ways I think it suits it — but the early images I saw just felt a little generic.

I’m giving all of this as background to say: I went into reading this with quite a lot of baggage. Uglies: Shay’s Story (Del Rey, 2012) had a lot to live up to and a lot to prove.

And it did both things. Mostly.

If the title didn’t tip you off, without a doubt, this is Shay’s story. I like that this adaptation shows things that were only mentioned in the novel. Shay’s motivations are much clearer, and at least this early in the story, she’s much bolder and more savvy than Tally. Even though much is made about Shay not wanting to get the surgery that will turn her “pretty,” it feels in character. Shay is thoughtful and willing to face life, even if it means hardship. She took a while to get there, but her willingness to not take things at face-value makes her intriguing.

While I was never anti-Shay — she is nearly as important to the trilogy as Tally is — I think I’m going to like seeing her journey and her perspective on these events.

Grayson and Westerfeld do justice to Shay’ story while still making it a compatible companion to the Uglies novel. I was happy that this didn’t feel at all redundant.

All those things are great. But I do have complaints.

I enjoy the early scenes with Shay, certainly, as she and her friends play tricks on the Pretties and learn about the people who’ve set up their own society outside the cities. I also like that the sinister Special Circumstances is much more present from the very beginning. However, these parts take up the bulk of the graphic novel and I feel like Shay’s experiences out in the Smoke are kind of shortchanged. The conflict between her and Tally also feels rushed toward the end, almost as if the page count was quickly approaching and the story needed to be wrapped up.

While Cummings’ art grew on me and he certainly has a dynamic eye for page layouts and action — the hoverboard scenes are fun and full of movement — I feel like the character design suffered. No one really looked distinctive to me and I don’t think there was enough differentiation between the pre-operation characters and the post-operation characters. Yes, I get that the “uglies” aren’t necessarily ugly, but everyone in this book was just a little too good-looking for it to work. With a story that’s so much about appearances, this was distracting.

Still, I’d like to continue following Shay through the next two books. And I realize I’m due to read the Uglies trilogy again.

Interior art taken from Scott Westerfeld’s blog.

Review: A Drunken Dream and Other Stories


A Drunken Dream
and Other Stories

Buy at Amazon.com

I didn’t buy that much while I was at Comic-Con. Yes, a good portion of that was because I lost my wallet on Saturday (and it never turned up, by the way. I’m going to assume it’s in a landfill somewhere now) but I really didn’t have that much money to spend in the first place.

But it was a privilege to purchase Moto Hagio’s A Drunken Dream and Other Stories (Fantagraphics, 2010, with translation by Matt Thorn). It should go without saying that if you’re at all interested in women’s comics or manga, you should buy this book. But in all honesty, I think even if you just like comics and beautifully-told stories, this should be a part of your bookshelf.

Most of the stories here revolve around loss. Sometimes the loss is a physical death or departure. Sometimes it is more psychological as characters try to come to grips with who they are or aren’t. Often, it’s quite a bit of both. “Angel Mimic” has a young woman coming to terms with her choices and “The Child Who Comes Home” has a family facing pain they’d rather forget. Hagio treats her characters with affection and sympathy and rarely is anyone ever completely right or completely wrong. Through their anguish, she show tenderness for the human spirit.

Hagio does deal quite a bit with what it’s like to be a girl or woman in a changing world. The earlier “Girl on the Porch with a Puppy” focuses on a little girl who does not behave in the way her family expects, with a disturbing ending. “Hanshin: Half-God” focuses on conjoined sisters. One is beautiful but empty-headed and the other is ugly but intelligent. Told from the perspective of the “ugly” sister, it deals with how she perceives her own worth in the world, especially once she and her sister are separated and she is the one to survive.

The centerpiece of the book is Hagio’s “Iguana Girl” about a girl, Rika, whose mother can only see her as an iguana and subsequently shuns her. As Rika grows up, she has to find her own self-worth (even she believes she’s an iguana) and make peace with who she is and her relationship with her mother. It’s a powerful story — Rika is strong and funny despite her mistreatment and Hagio makes the wise choice of drawing Rika-as-iguana as cute rather than realistic. It gives the story a lightness and humor that balances the thoughtful tone.

Hagio’s art is, of course, constantly gorgeous. This is evident throughout the collection, but very much so in the title story, “A Drunken Dream.” The lush scenes of this romantic tragedy are shaded in white, black, gray and red and transition from space to ancient Rome. Her talent for expressive faces and small, every-day details from the interiors of homes to clothing make all these stories feel like they’re populated by real people.

Thorn’s translation definitely seems to be true to Hagio’s stories. He is obviously a great admirer of her and he does her justice.

Also included is an overview of the manga scene Hagio was a part of, “The Magnificient Forty-Niners,” and an extensive interview with Hagio. Both are by Thorn and originally appeared in the July 2005 issue of The Comics Journal.

This is a beautiful book by an incredible creator. Whether or not you knew of Hagio before or this is going to be your introduction to her, it’s a book you need to have.

Spotlight on Moto Hagio at Comic-Con

Moto Hagio is considered to be one of modern sh?jo manga’s pioneers, but English-language audiences haven’t gotten much of her work. Fantagraphics‘ forthcoming A Drunken Dream and Other Stories (available now at Comic-Con) will help to remedy some of that. (I did buy it yesterday, as I reported.)

Moto Hagio is also a recipient this year of Comic-Con Inkpot Award and this was her first-ever visit to the U.S.

During her interview session yesterday with manga expert Matt Thorn, who translated her comments from Japanese, Hagio was utterly charming and fascinating.

She said she made her professional debut at the age of 20 and gained fame through her vampire story, The Poe Clan. Greatly influenced by American science fiction writers like Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clark (she specifically cited Philip K. Dick’s “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” as one of the stories that had a big impact on her), she tried her hand at sci-fi stories like They Were Eleven and Marginal.

Hagio incorporates a lot of darker ideas into her work. The short story, “Iguana Girl” is about a girl whose mother only sees her as being a lizard, although to everyone else she looks normal. Hagio said she created this story because she was trying to deal with her own issues with her mother, who believed that being a manga-ka was a “vulgar” profession.

Her longest-running story to date is A Cruel God Reigns about a young man seeking redemption after killing his stepfather who was molesting him.

During the audience question-and-answer session, someone asked if she had trouble getting published. She said when she first started out, she was doing comics for a magazine aimed at elementary school girls and her editors wanted energetic, happy stories. Instead, she was turning in depressing stories where people died. Another publisher approached her and it was glad to publish her dark stories. She said she kept right on killing people in her stories after that.

Someone else asked if she liked how sh?jo manga now had a lot of strong female characters, and she said that it’s a good development. Japan has always been male-dominated, she said, and women are expected to get married, have kids and stay at home (she also remarked that she thinks that’s why her job was a source of conflict with her parents). She then went onto say that “The idea that men should do this and women should do this is ridiculous.” That got the most applause of anything she said.

At the end of her presentation, it was announced that she was donating the books of her works that she had brought with her to Comic-Con.