Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

4.0 out of 5 stars Astounding art

Judge Bao Volume 1: Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix

“Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” took me by surprise. I thought the premise sounded cool; Judge Bao is a historical figure from China who, like Robin Hood and King Arthur, has spawned his own folklore. Judge Bao the character has appeared in numerous books, TV shows, and films, wandering ancient China, investigating crimes, and dispensing his own brand of tough-but-fair justice that does not discriminate between people of different classes.

Storywise, the book lived up to my expectations for the most part. It is like the best of Chinese historical films, with intrigue, action and mystery. Judge Bao is like a Chinese Sherlock Holmes, with ninjas. (Or perhaps Nero Wolfe would be a better analogy, with Bao’s right-hand man Zhan Zhao making a capable Archie Goodwin.)

But what I wasn’t prepared for was art so brilliant it leaps right off the page and smacks you in the face. Seriously. I can’t remember the last time I saw art this beautiful in a comic.

Chongrui Nie is phenomenal. Looking at “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix”, I have no idea why he hasn’t been recruited by one of the major comic companies. I imagine it takes him a long time to create artwork this detailed, but that is no reason not to hire him for a graphic novel project or something. I really don’t know how he pulls this level of artwork off.

I assume he uses some sort of photo-reference , although there is nothing stilted or lifeless about his work like I have seen in other photo-reference heavy artists. His lines are fluid and show an easy hand, while all of his surfaces are dense and rough as if they were scratched onto a board. There is fluency and attention paid to even the smallest detail. This is the kind of comic art that makes you re-think the potential of what comic art can be.

Archaia Comics has also put together a pretty little package to contain that art. It is a canvas-bound hardcover that is smaller and wider than your typical Japanese comic. “Judge Bao and the Jade Phoenix” was originally a French publication, so I don’t know if Archaia simply reproduced the original or came up with a new design, but either way this is a very well put together book.

Unfortunately, what keeps the book from being perfect is that the story falls away towards the end. The all-important denouement, where Judge Bao reveals his hand and shows that he has seen through the tangled weave of the crime—just doesn’t play out. I am left with plot threads untangled. (Who really killed Red-Cloud?) and some unsatisfying dispersions of justice. I don’t know if the story continues in the next book, but it is dissatisfying for a first-time reader.


I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 4

4.0 out of 5 stars Fall down seven times, stand up eight

I’ll Give It My All…Tomorrow, Vol. 4

I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing that I can relate so much to Shizuo Oguro, the protagonist of “I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow” (Japanese title: “Ore wa Mada Honki Dashitenai, Dake” or “It’s Just That I Haven’t Given It My All Yet.”) At 42 years old, he has decided to ditch his unfulfilling job as a soulless office worker and pursue his dream of becoming a manga artist. Shizuo has neither talent nor experience, but he does have that most necessary trait of persistence—coupled with a thick skin that isn’t deterred by countless rejections.

Approaching 40, I see something of myself in Shizuo—not much, thankfully, as Shizuo has Charlie Brown karma and is a loveable loser at everything he tries—but I understand that sense of “If not now, when?” that drives the mid-life pursuit of dreams. Most likely failure lies at the end of both mine and Shizuo’s path, but at least we can be happy that we gave it a shot, if not our all.

This forth volume of writer/artist Shunju Aono’s series test just how thick-skinned Shizuo is. Up until now, he has had a fairly supportive editor working with him and giving him encouragement if not publication. But suddenly Shizuo finds himself with a new editor, Unami Aya, who is determined to show Shizuo the folly of his ways and make him give up his dreams. Aya’s own father spent wasted decades trying to pursue his dream of becoming a novelist, and she despises middle age men in pursuit of their last glimpse of youth.

Although I have enjoyed it, “I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow” has been a hit-or-miss series. The first volume was brilliant, but the second volume was just too depressing, dwelling more on the “loser” aspect of the story and less on the “lovable.” Volume 4 has the correct balance again. We get to root for Shizuo, hoping that this perpetual underdog will get at least one small chance to see his dreams come true. At the same time, I thought the new character of Umami Aya brought some depth to the series, as we see the child’s perspective of having a parent that refuses to acknowledge reality and their own limitations.

“I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow” is a good book for those who think that “manga” is a genre, with one style of art and one style of story. Artist Shunju Aono has more in common with Daniel Clowes than with Eiichiro Oda. His panels are sparse, with almost no extraneous decoration. Everything has an amateurish feel, as if we are reading the comic that Shizuo Oguro will eventually publish (and perhaps we are. I have my suspicions along that line). Yet even with limited detail and facial expression, Shunju manages to tell an emotional story. He uses a few tricks, like the slogans on Shizuo’s perpetual black t-shirts to let us know what mood our hero is in. And occasional visits from God who talks to Shizuo adds a nice fantasy element that keeps the story from being too grounded in depressing reality.

I don’t think you have to be a 40-year old guy with unfulfilled ambitions to enjoy “I’ll Give It My All … Tomorrow”, but it certainly helps. This is a comic for adults, and it is interesting that it is being published by pop culture purveyors Viz Media instead of art-focused publishers like Fantagraphics or Drawn & Quarterly. I don’t know if Shizuo will ever get a comic published—Charlie Brown never did kick that football, after all. But in reading his story I can borrow a little of his persistence to pursue my own dreams.

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5.0 out of 5 stars The Mythology of War


“Ichiro” is exactly why I like comics. Ryan Inzana makes skillful use of the medium to weave a compelling story of Japanese mythology, race relations, family relations, and the folly of war. With his clean and simple visuals he describes complex ideals and deep emotional truths that wouldn’t have had the same impact in novel form.

On the surface, Inzana mixes the ancient fairy tale of the Tanuki Teakettle with a contemporary–and very real–story of a young half-Japanese boy named Ichiro, who has suddenly had his world upturned. Hi American father died long ago in the Iraq war, and his Japanese mother, struggling to make a living in the U.S., takes Ichiro back to Japan and contemplates returning to a country Ichiro barely knows. While his mother interviews for a job, Ichiro is thrust together with a Grandfather he doesn’t remember, who takes the boy on a tour of Japan, from Tokyo down through Hiroshima and ending in Izumo to witness the Kami Mukae festival where all of the gods of Japan gather once a year to meet in Izumo Shrine. But along the way, Ichiro is flung into a fantasy world of magical creatures and yokai, Japanese monsters, and a war between Heaven and Hell.

One of the things that impressed me right away with “Ichiro” was its authenticity. I know nothing of Inzana’s background or ethnicity, but he gives the feel of drawing from person experience and background knowledge for this comic. I did my Master’s Degree in Japanese folklore in Hiroshima, and I was getting nostalgic looking at his artwork. Inzana also perfectly capture the awesome power of the Hiroshima Peace Park. It is very difficult to go there and come away unchanged.

Ichiro is certainly changed by the experience. He begins the story as a military-loving, father-worshiping young man who clings to his father’s war experience like a totem, wearing a “Kill `em all and let God sort `em out” t-shirt and his father’s sunglasses. When he sees the devastation of Hiroshima, he starts to hate America until his Grandfather reminds him that Ichiro is also American, as was the father he idolizes. There are no easy answers, and Inzana doesn’t offer trite or candy-coated wisdoms to ease the bitter pill the conflicted Ichiro has to swallow. I know exactly how he feels.

The fantasy elements begin about halfway through the book, when a confluence of circumstances finds Ichiro whisked away to mythical Japan, into the underworld of Yomi where the monsters live. Yomi has been at war with Ama, the home of the gods, since the Heavenly Bridge was broken and forces conspired to set the two kingdoms against each other.

Inzana impressed me with his ability to flow the story so freely between modern day and mythical Japan. Although there is some foreshadowing, Ichiro’s is spirited away so suddenly you can’t help but get whisked away along with him. His depictions of the Japanese underworld and its inhabitants pass my accuracy test as much as his scenes of Hiroshima. He draws heavily from the Yamato Shinto pantheon from the Kojiki, including Amaterasu, Susano, and the god of war Hachiman. He also populates his fantasy kingdom with kappa, tengu, Aobozu, and a host of creatures from traditional Japanese folklore.

While the fantasy element tells its own story, there is a clear metaphor; the cracking of the Bridge of Heaven is a terrorist attack. The heavenly kingdom of Ama blames their old enemy of Yomi, and wages war against them even though evidence for the attack points elsewhere. The god of war Hachiman counsels against the pointless war, but as a loyal soldier he does as he is told. Both sides become embroiled in a ages-long cycle of attack-and-revenge, attack-and-revenge. I didn’t have to look too hard to see the US/Iraq war, Colin Powel, George Bush, and the Twin Towers. But the metaphor is not heavy-handed and in your face. Inzana much too subtle a storyteller for that.

Inzana’s art, by the way, is fantastic and equally as powerful as his writing. He has his own style that involves loose, fluid brush strokes. I found it entirely fitting that his art style is rarely black-and-white, but relies heavily on shades of gray, just like the ideology that makes up his story. The whole tone of the comic and the art is personal, and you can tell that this comic means something to Inzana.

I have read that Inzana uses his color palette to distinguish between the real and fantasy Japan, and that is the only thing I regret about my black-and-white advanced review copy–I realize I am not seeing this work in its full splendor. The comic looks fantastic as it is, and I think it works perfectly fine in black-and-white, but as skillfully as Inzana handles the story and the art I am sure he handles the colors impressively.

It says on the back cover that this is Ryan Inzana’s second graphic novel. I had never heard of him before “Ichiro,” but I will be looking up his previous work as well as keeping an eye on him in the future.

Breathe Deeply

4.0 out of 5 starsMedical Ethics and Love

Breathe Deeply

In a bit of fortunate synchronicity, I had just finished reading Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization before diving into the latest release from One Peace Books, “Breathe Deeply.” Because I had just gotten a crash course in humanity’s endless attempts at extending life and defeating death, I was better equipped to understand the perspectives and philosophies–if not the medical techniques–that are addressed by “Breathe Deeply.”

Breathe Deeply is not the age-old Science vs. Religion debate. It is not even the Transhumanist debate. It is about Science vs. Science. It is about what prices people are willing to pay, and as stated “Just because we can do something, doesn’t me we should do it.”

In the story, there are two brilliant young doctors. Inaba Sei is a chemical engineer working on mechanical hearts and plastic cells that replicate human cells. Oishi Tsuyoshi is a biologist working with ES stem cells to grow new organs. Both were in love with the same girl, Yuko, who died of a heart condition when they were young. Yuko’s death drives both Inaba and Oishi, but in different directions. Both want to extend human life, but Inaba feels that life should never continue at the expense of someone else’s death, so he is opposed to transplants and stem cell research. Oishi feels that filling up a body with plastic parts that don’t work very well is just a dream. Transplants and stem cell research work, and that is what matters.

Because “Breathe Deeply” is a thick book–248 pages–there are a host of other characters and perspectives as well. There is the organ donor advocate whose own wife was turned into donation parts, and who feels strongly (too strongly it turns out) about Inaba’s opposition to transplants. There is the chief research doctor, whose studies haven’t shown results, and isn’t above using deception and her own sex appeal to advance herself. There is the mother whose child is waiting for a transplant, and doesn’t care about points of view and humanity, she just wants one of these high-and-mighty doctors to fix her little girl. And then there is Yuko herself, shown in flashbacks, torn between Inaba’s ideals of purity, and her own desire to live at any cost which she shares only with Oishi.

“Breathe Deeply” is not an easy read. I had to read it twice through to pick up on all of the nuances, all of the philosophy being discussed. I don’t know how accurate the science is, but the book lists a heady roll-call of Tokyo University chemical engineers and biologists who acted as consultants, so I assume it is a step-up from your average medical drama. There is definitely a bit of science fiction going on, as Inaba’s breathing plastic polymers exist nowhere in the real world, and neither can we grow new hearts from stem cells.

Philosophically, I recognized many of the debates put forth. There are sides taken; the heroes and villains all stand on one side of the debate or the other. One gruesome image in particular of a genetically engineered baby born without a brain to be used as spare organ parts shows where the writer’s sympathies lie. The anti-transplant narrative was hard to digest, especially the insinuation that brain-dead patients marked as donors have the ability to magically wake up from their comas. This isn’t so. The point of view I find the strongest is what The Quest for Immortality calls the Wisdom Narrative; meaning that we will all, 100% of us, die eventually, and that accepting that fact is the only true path to happiness. But nobody likes to hear that.

The art in “Breathe Deeply” is well done, but not particularly outstanding. It serves the purpose of the story, without distracting. The characters are distinct. The situations believable. The only problem I had with the art was the image of Yuko in a coma, looking angelically beautiful. I have seen people in comas before, with their slack faces and odd coloring; they look anything but angelically beautiful. It is a love story, however, so some license must be taken. The series is credited to Yamaaki Doton, which is a pseudonym of a husband-and-wife team, but I am not sure how they split the chores.

I would have a hard time recommending “Breathe Deeply” just as a comic. The story is solid, but unless you are interested in the debates over stem cell research the love-triangle isn’t really enough to carry the book. There are long pages and passages that delve into science and possibility, and those pages stand a good chance of boring the average reader. If I hadn’t just read “Immortality,” I don’t think I would have enjoyed this as much as I did.

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.hack//CELL Volume 1

1.0 out of 5 stars The cover is the best thing about this book

.hack//CELL Volume 1

“.hack//CELL Volume 1” has been sitting on my “to be read” pile for quite a long time, more than a year. Now that I have finally gotten around to reading it, I realize I should have let it sit awhile longer. Or just never read it at all.

“.hack//CELL” takes place at the same time as “.hack//Roots,” in The World R:2. The connection to the other .hack series is tenuous, however. Haseo makes a brief appearance in his hunt for Tri-Edge, and Silabus and Gaspard show up as well, almost as if to say “See! This really is .hack!” But other than that, “.hack//CELL” is really the story of two Midoris.

One Midori is a PC in The World, a Professional Victim who wanders around with her companion Adamas. Midori carries some sort of secret, which Adamas knows but Midori seems to have forgotten. The other Midori is an average school girl who doesn’t even play the game. Her friend, Kaho, tries to lure her into The World, but it isn’t until Midori becomes hospitalized with some unknown illness that she sees the appeal of escaping into a fantasy world. The reader is left to guess how much—if at all—the two Minoris are linked, and what is the secret behind them both.

To start off with, this novel had an amateurish translation. The sentence structure and storytelling was clunky, and the translator had difficulty with the Japanese word for blue/green. Midori would talk about her green eyes in one paragraph, and then her blue eyes in the next. There were several other errors, and the text just didn’t flow.

But even with a good translation, I don’t think “.hack//CELL” would have been a good read. The author, Suzukaze Ryo, says in his afterword that he didn’t know much about the .hack universe, and wasn’t given much guidance on what kind of story to tell. He emphasized the real-world Midori, which could have been interesting as most .hack series emphasize the game, but Midori was a lifeless and ultimately boring character whose internal dilemmas and fuzzy philosophizing on the nature of reality didn’t make for a compelling read.

I wasn’t expecting anything amazing when I picked this up, just some light entertainment. Unfortunately, it was one of those books I had to grind through till the end. Even then, you don’t get a complete story. This is followed up by  .hack//CELL Volume 2, but I won’t be along for that ride.

Gate 7, Volume 2

4.0 out of 5 stars Same lovely art with a thicker plot

Gate 7 Volume 2

I wasn’t overly impressed by the first volume of Gate 7. It was all style and no substance, with things happing too rapidly and with no characters I could care about or story I could get into. The best thing about it was the beautiful art, but that isn’t enough to carry a comic book.

“Volume Two” was a huge leap forward. The story started to come together, the characters started to flesh out, and the art remained as beautiful as ever.

The story starts off right where “Volume One” ended, with Hana under a flaming attack by Mitsuhide Akechi and his oni. They are seeking the corpse of Nobunaga so that they can capture his oni Dairokuten-Maoh, reputed to be the most powerful oni in existence. Standing against them is Masamune Date, the one-eyed Dragon. Standing with them is Tokugawa Iemitsu.

If all of those names mean something to you, then you have a decent grasp of Japanese history, specifically the Siege of Sekigahara and the Warring States period. “Gate 7” pulls fast and loose from Japanese history, merging real historical figures with fictional characters like Yukimura Sanada and the Sanada Ten Brave People. I have a pretty solid understanding of the era but there are still characters and personages I didn’t know. Fortunately for us readers, the one human character, Takamoto Chikahito, is a Kyoto history buff who gives a running commentary on new characters as they show up.

“Gate 7” uses a unique mythology vaguely based on Shinto and Japanese folklore–and I mean very, very, very vaguely based. Basically, the mythology of Gate 7 revolves around those who were enshrined as kami after death being born again as magical-based creatures in symbiotic relationships with oni. The oni in “Gate 7” are nothing like traditional oni. Instead of multi-colored giants with horns and leopard-skin loincloths the oni of “Gate 7” look almost like children clinging to their masters. Most of the magic seems to be elemental based, with lots of fire being flung around.

What I liked about “Volume Two” was how the story was developing. Chikahito actually came in handy instead of being the pointless buffoon required of the human-in-fairlyland character. Hana remains as mysterious as ever, although she seems to care for Chikahito. Tokugawa Iemitsu was an interesting addition to the cast. I was surprised that they would use Iemitsu instead of his more famous father Tokugawa Ieyasu, but it makes sense in that Iemitsu is more of a blank slate and doesn’t carry the baggage of using someone like Ieyasu.

There are still parts of “Gate 7” that are off-putting. I had some issues with the translation. I have no doubt that the translator is being faithful, but some of the turns of phrases and dialog is so awkward I am surprised it made it past an editor. There are some puns and humor that are entirely lost. The running joke about Hana loving to eat noodles has gotten old after only two volumes, and I hope they drop it soon. And there are some internal logic issues, like how is Masumune Data resurrected as a powerful magic-being, yet still be a child forced to attend Elementary school? And although Chikahito was a little more useful, he needs to magic-up a bit and stop being such a liability to the team. So far, aside from his encyclopedic knowledge of ancient Japan his only ability is to be immune to magic–not a bad trait, I suppose!

The story is still more flash than substance; this is a series clearly going art first, story second. But at least now with “Volume Two” I feel like the series is going somewhere, that all that prettiness is being connected with some interesting plot and that CLAMP has a good story to tell. I will definitely pick up Volume Three and keep up with the series.

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Cardcaptor Sakura Volume 3

4.0 out of 5 stars Master of the Clow Cards

“Card Captor Sakura Omnibus Volume 3” is almost exactly where I stopped reading the TokyoPop editions of “Card Captor Sakura.” Although I loved the first volumes, I thought the series was losing some of its magic as the storyline went along. There were too many characters, and some of the elements I didn’t enjoy–like Yukito’s revelation of his true form as Yue the Judge. I liked Yukito better as just Yukito. Budgets were tight. Decisions had to be made. I had read the series up until Sakura completed her task of capturing all the Clow Cards, and I didn’t see much point in continuing. What is a Card Captor with no cards to capture? And so I stopped picking up the Tokyopop collections.

But I always wondered how the series ended. And I figured I would get around to reading it someday.

Enter the extremely cool Dark Horse Omnibus series. Along with a larger format, nicer paper, a new and improved translation, and full-color pages, I could get the entire Cardcaptor Sakura series in four affordable volumes. The Omnibus volumes were too good to pass up, and I could finally read the end of series.

“Omnibus Volume 3” starts off with Sakura Kinamoto as a 5th grade elementary school and Master of the Clow Cards of the magician Clow Reed. She has finally captured the last of the errant cards, and assumed her destined role. However, capturing the last of the cards has left here without a purpose. A magical warrior with no one to battle isn’t of much use. Fortunately, some danger and intrigue arrives at Sakura’s school with a new exchange student arrives from England, Eriol Hiiragizawa. Sakura and the Clow Cards are called upon once again, but Sakura quickly finds herself outmatched. It is not enough to be Master of the Clow Cards. Sakura must transform the cards, making her own magic instead of just borrowing someone else’s.

And of course, much of the fun of “Cardcaptor Sakura” has nothing to do with battle. I have loved reading all of the bizarre–yet perfectly sweet and innocent–little love stories intertwined in the series. In one story, the gang learns of a superstition involving handing out hand-made teddy bears to the one you love, so soon teddies bears are getting made and exchanged everywhere. Sakura’s classmate Rika gives one to their teacher. Li Syaoran makes one but can’t decide if he wants to give it to the girl Sakura or the boy Yukito, both of whom make him swoon. And then Valentine’s Day comes around, and it is the same problem all over again. Good times.

Getting back into “Cardcaptor Sakura” after more than a decade was easy. The ladies at CLAMP seemed to have assumed that there would be new or returning readers, and recaped the story and re-introduced the characters in the first few pages. After everyone is comfortable in their settings, they then drop the gang into new adventures against new opponents and get the ball rolling for the second half of Sakura’s series.

While I am enjoying the series, I personally don’t think that Volume Three is as good as volumes one and two. Some of the new characters seem a bit forced. They have gone the “dark mirror” route making sure that everyone in Sakura’s battle group has an opposite to fight. If Sakura has a cute little winged lion that turns into a fierce guardian, then they will have a cute little black kitty that turns into a massive winged black panther. And so on. Once the reveal is made of the identity of Sakura’s new opponent, the story makes a little more sense, but there is less immediacy to the storyline. She isn’t a girl on a mission anymore, and is being battered around by mystic forces.

Even so, I will definitely be getting the final Volume 4 to see how it all plays out. And since Dark Horse has put out these excellent Omnibus versions, I am glad I waited.

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