One of Tokyopop’s publishing initiatives that I’ve been curious about is their new line of color graphic novels. I’m not sure how well these will do with the contracting bookstore market for manga and general publishing woes, but I like the idea of being able to read more comics from around the world.
Orange by Benjamin
Based on the cover art alone, I was most interested in checking out Orange. After reading it I found my reaction to it was mixed. A young girl named Orange is heading up to the roof of her building. She sees a man standing there already with a letter in his hand. He jumps, killing himself.
Five months earlier she was the one standing on top of the roof, holding a letter. Orange was about to jump when she was distracted by bottle of vodka smashing near her. Her older neighbor Dashu is up on the roof drinking. Orange heads out to school, still holding her letter. She begins a series of chance encounters with Dashu, seeing him passed out at a restaurant, walking past him in a hallway, and helping him to his apartment when he’s too drunk to walk. She leaves her suicide letter in his apartment.
Orange hangs out with her friends, goes to school, and stays out late. The story is told from her point of view, which can be a bit much sometimes. Perhaps my main problem with this book is that I’m twice Orange’s age, and reading observations like “I suffer a lot, but actually my suffering is laughable, because everything in life, even pain, is all a lie. In this fake world, I’ve got a lot of fake best friends.” doesn’t seem nearly as profound as it would if I was reading this graphic novel as a morbid thirteen year old. While Orange definitely captures the mood of teenage suffering, I didn’t feel as if the story presented me with anything I hadn’t read already in plenty of young adult novels. The art is exquisite, with a hazy watercolor style that pulls the reader into the urban environment where Orange lives. Benjamin draws moments where the outward action contrasts with Orange’s inner monologue. She smiles when running with her friends, thinking that she’s all alone.
I think Orange is worth reading to experience the illustrations, even though the story doesn’t quite live up to the art. It felt more like a short story with loose ends than a work that was complete in itself. I have to say that after reading so much stylized manga, it was nice to read a graphic novel where the Asian characters actually look Asian. There are a bunch of back-up illustrations and some comments by the author, who seems to have firmly placed himself in the category of suffering artist.
Pixie by Aurore and Mathieu Mariolle
Out of the three graphic novels, I think Pixie is most likely to appeal to younger readers. A young prince named Ael is bored with his life. Every day he has lessons from his tutor, and his tutor chants a spell over him before he falls asleep. One day a thief named Pixie, named for his large, pointed ears, steals into the palace with the goal of grabbing an expensive bracelet that is on Ael’s wrist. When the bracelet doesn’t come off, he bundles Ael in a sack and kidnaps him.
Ael is delighted to be out of his house, because his life can begin! It turns out that Ael was trapped in his castle and enchanted not to dream because he has the power to make his dreams reality. Pixie and Ael start a journey together which is complicated by the fact that whenever Ael sleeps he dreams of the fairy tales his tutor taught him. Ael transports himself and Pixie into different fantasy worlds whenever he falls asleep. Along the way Ael and Pixie meet a couple new companions: Balor, a bipedal wolf, and a girl named Elvynn. Pixie finds Ael’s enthusiasm annoying, but seems to be attracted to Elvynn despite her comments about his ears. Ael just seems to be happy that he’s out in the world, having adventures in the lands that he dreamed about, saying things like “Finally, after years of wait, I’ll be able to face a legendary monster!”
The sudden shifts in setting combined with a subplot about an evil dude named Sir Ankou in a city filled with technology who is building a horrible machine contributed to an off-kilter quality in the book. I often wished that there were a couple extra panels scattered around to provide more of a transition between scenes. The art in Pixie is very manga-inspired, with plenty of detailed costume changes for the characters as they quickly shift from scene to scene. Although I thought the plot could have been more smoothly developed, I could see how Pixie would be appealing to younger readers who enjoy fantasy stories.
Luuna by Didier Crisse and Nicolas Keramidas
Luuna is a young Native American girl who can communicate with forest spirits. She goes on a vision quest as part of her coming of age ceremony and something goes terribly wrong. Instead of receiving one totem animal, she gets two. A black wolf represents evil and a white wolf represents her better nature. While she manages to maintain her normal demeanor most of the time, when the moon is full she becomes lost in the thrall of the black wolf and the dark forest spirit Unkui.
Luuna can’t go back to her tribe with dual totem animals, so she sets out to discover how to fix her situation, encountering an elderly man in the woods who delights in telling her stories she thinks are pointless. She decides to help him with his own spiritual quest. In addition to the wolves, Luuna’s accompanied by three tiny forest sprites, who constantly bicker and provide a running commentary on her adventures. The art in Luuna is richly detailed, and the characters are drawn with angular features and mobile facial expressions. The landscapes that Luuna moves through on her journey alternate between the threatening look of the close forest and expansive mountain scenes.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of a manga title that I’d read recently which featured characters inspired by Native Americans, Song of the Hanging Sky. While I thought Song used Native Americans as an inspiration to come up with a new fictional culture in the form of the bird-people, the portrayal of Luuna and her tribe uses more stereotypical plot elements and Luuna herself is very much drawn like a typical Native American princess character, although whenever she is briefly possessed by evil she seems to lose most of her clothes. A translation element I wondered about some was the usage of the word “squaw”, which I think is a somewhat politically loaded term. Still, the art and story in Luuna were much more fully realized than the other two titles. I thought the first volume of Luuna told a satisfying story while I felt like there were elements lacking in both Orange and Pixie.
These volumes all have glossy paper stock, and I think the $14.95 price point seems about right for graphic novels that are in the 150 page range. I wonder where these will be shelved in the bookstores – with the manga or with the graphic novels? And will manga readers pick these up? So far I haven’t heard much about manga readers translating that interest into picking up graphic novels, so I’m curious to see how this publishing experiment will pan out.
Review copies provided by Tokyopop