One of the tidbits that I was interested to read that came out of the recent NYCC conference was the fact that Yen Press is going to adapt Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate novels into manga. This should not be especially surprising, because Carriger is published by Orbit books, which is a division of Hachette and Yen Press is yet another imprint in the same group. I thought it was odd that the press release that Yen Press put out referred to the books as young adult novels, when I’ve only ever seen them shelved in the mass market paperback section of the adult science fiction section in any bookstore. The books resemble standard romance novels (wittier than most) that have been mashed up with plenty of steampunk and supernatural beings. Alexia is for the most part a spunky and independent heroine. I’m sure that there’s plenty of YA appeal in the books, but there aren’t really any teen characters in the series. I’m in the middle of the third book Blameless, which features a plot twist so predictable I am sometimes feeling like I’m reading a Harlequin novel from the 1980s. I’m still looking forward to the manga versions of these books if Yen Press manages to hire an actual letterer to work on the project. I have not read the Twilight adaptations because I was horrified by the art sample I saw, and I’m a bit twilighted out in any case. I am very curious how someone would visually portray the hideous hats of Ivy, Alexia’s best friend.
The Antique Gift Shop, Volume 1 by Eun Lee
The Antique Gift Shop is a solid example of the “spooky shop” genre found so often in manga and manhwa, where a mysterious shopkeeper sells customers items that have mystical properties. The customers’ lives end up being changed dramatically due to their purchases. In a short story “The Summer Guest”, a man brings back an antique woven bamboo tube that was used in the past to cool houses. The androgynous shop employee informs the customer that there are no refunds, only exchanges and he asks him to consider taking “Madame Bamboo” back at some point in the future. Left in the shop again, the spirit of the object rages like a woman scorned. The next story “The Fox Lantern” shows a man and a woman rediscovering each other again after losing their memories. A handmade hairpin serves as a personal memento and the lantern sends dreams that could be reminders of the past or glimpses of a an alternate life. The concluding story “The Secret Garden” shows a high school friendship built on sharing a diary begin to unravel as each girl finds the need to keep her own secrets.
There’s a comedic element in Antique Gift Shop that isn’t usually present in the typical “spooky shop” book. While the long-haired Mr. Yang works in the shop and seems to have a unique connection to the antiques, the shop’s owner Bun-Nyuh appears to be a normal, slightly materialistic young woman who is more than a little bit annoyed at Mr. Yang’s lack of business sense. The art in Antique Gift Shop is pretty in a functional sort of way. I’m not seeing much of a unique style in Antique Gift Shop, but the items in the shop are rendered with great detail, and there’s plenty of attention paid to Mr. Yang’s billowing costumes. The first story in the collection had an arresting quality that wasn’t really maintained in some of the longer stories. I liked the emphasis on traditional Korean antiques a couple of the stories had, since I felt like I was reading some interesting cultural foot notes as opposed to reading about a more generic item. I’d definitely recommend Antique Gift Shop if you enjoy books in this particular genre.
Book won in twitter contest from the publisher.
Goong: The Royal Palace Volumes 1-4 by So Hee Park
I think watching a couple live action Korean dramas for my soap opera needs has caused me to be able to appreciate manhwa more. I am now greeting standard plot devices like Poor Girl Inexplicably Engaged to Emotionally Withholding Rich Boy, Sympathetic but Potentially Dangerous Second Lead Guy, and Evil Manipulative Older Woman with amused recognition instead of annoyance. Goong takes place in an alternate world where Korea still has a functioning monarchy. Chae-Kyung is an ordinary high school girl. Her school is split into two buildings. She attends the school for normal students in the old building, while the crown prince of the country Shin Lee attends class in the new building. The two students have a fateful encounter involving Shin’s slippers that ends with each of them thinking that the other is annoying. Unfortunately long before they were born their grandparents decided that the two would be engaged.
The young couple go along with the arranged marriage, and Chae-Kyung soon finds herself unprepared for dealing with the customs of the royal family and the palace intrigue that goes along with her new position. Shin informs Chae-Kyung that he’s marrying her because he’d never bring someone that he likes into the royal family. Chae-Kyung is conscious of the financial struggles of her parents and sees marrying the prince as a way of taking care of her parents. While Chae-Kyung and her prince have a tendency towards antagonism in their relationship he promises to divorce her when he’s older and help her to able to make decisions for herself if she wants to leave the palace.
Park’s art gets better as the series progresses. The first volume displays a little bit of stiffness in the character poses, and some of the gangly proportions paired with excessively pretty faces that seems to be typical of most manhwa art. Park’s chibis look more grotesque than anything else, resembling Mad Magazine caricatures with sharp elbows and prominent teeth. Chae-Kyung often slips into chibi mode when dealing with the excessive emotions of her sudden engagement. Later volumes show more fluidity in the art and less broad comedy in the illustrations.
The second volume opens with the wedding, complete with gorgeous traditional costumes. I was surprised a little bit by the pacing, as I expected that Chae-Kyung’s princess training and the wedding preparations would take a few chapters at least. After one of the many ceremonies during the long day of festivities Chae-Kyung notices her new husband doing strange facial exercises so he’ll be able to tirelessly smile at all the people that will greet them. She thinks that she wants to get to know him better. Even though he often acts like a spoiled brat, there are occasional moments where Shin seems lost in his own thoughts. Perhaps he has hidden depths? Exhausted after a grueling day, the new couple keep falling asleep together whenever they get a chance to sit down.
Complications are introduced into the palace with the return of the former crown prince Yul. Shin’s cousin attends school in Chae-Kyung’s class and seems to have a bit of a crush on his new sister-in-law. Yul’s mother is determined to better her own position and that of her son, and she’s not afraid of playing underhanded tricks get her way. Chae-Kyung seems to enjoy talking to Yul, because he relates to her as more of a peer than her autocratic husband. Chae-Kyung and Shin escape the palace and go to visit her parents. The close physical proximity to her new husband causes Chae-Kyung to start developing feelings for him.
Shin’s visit to Chae-Kyung’s home exposes him to the lives of regular people. He stares at everyone’s toothbrushes crowded together in a single cup in the bathroom and thinks that is what a family truly is. He asks Chae-Kyung what it is like to call her mother “Mom.” He starts to articulate his own wishes instead of just being the puppet that the royal family expects. One of the ways that Park mixes humor into her soap opera series is breaking the fourth wall, as Chae-Kyung frequently comments on developments in her life that are like a “girly comic.” When she meets a pack of royal cousins that look as primped and pampered as a boy band, she wonders if this is her big chance to be “one of those female characters that is loved by several pretty boys?”
The awkwardly developing relationship between Chae-Kyung and Shin is hampered by Chae-Kyung’s wondering about the continued presence of one of his female friends and her natural ease when relating to Shin’s cousin Yul. She tells Yul that she loves Shin, but comments “I get attached to people easily. If I’d met you first I might have fallen in love with you.” When Yul attempts to intervene when Shin teases Chae-Kyung too much, Shin warns him off, saying “for now she’s mine and I can do anything I want with her.” Shin tends to relate to people through a protective shell of bravado, and after seeing the cold and overly-mannered way his family interacts, it is easy to see why he turned out to be a bit of a brat.
After setting up the relationships and budding romance, volume four of the series dials up the scheming and emotional manipulation. Yul builds on his relationship with Chae-Kyung by giving her a puppy. She’s delighted to have a cute companion to care for, but how will they manage to raise a puppy in the cold and overly regimented royal palace? Yul’s mother manages to get an additional title conferred on her dead husband with the effect of raising her rank so she can move back into the palace. She’s determined to make things worse for Shin and Chae-Kyung in order to advance Yul to his former position of crown prince. Shin has to leave on a trip, and Yul’s mother pressures Chae-Kyung to stay behind.
It is easy to feel sympathy for the new royal couple. Since they’re just teenagers they don’t have the freedom to fight back against the web of manipulation that is beginning to be put in place by the royal family. Still Shin and Chae-Kyung are both stubborn enough that they might manage to thrive in their unfortunate situation. If they become allies, they might be able to attain some degree of autonomy, but their bickering way of relating to each other may keep them apart. As Chae-Kyung tries to deal with a love she thinks is one-sided, Shin shows signs of wanting to help her out and protect her. He might claim that he wants to be around her because she’s fun to tease, but she’s one of the few people in his life without a hidden agenda.
Goong: The Royal Palace didn’t start out with a perfect first volume, but the art and intricate storyline improves as the series develops. The combination of humor and modern palace intrigue makes for an interesting plot, and as Park’s artwork develops it is easy to appreciate the attention to detail she lavishes on the fashions of the royal family and the occasional portrayal of a traditional ceremony. I’m going to check out the rest of this series, I’m curious to see how the new princess Chae-Kyung manages palace life as she becomes more used to the customs of the royal family and her new husband.
Kobato Volume 1 by Clamp
When I got into manga again for the second time after a long absence from comics, Clamp wrote some of the series that got me addicted. I collected X/1999 like a maniac and was disappointed to find out that the series didn’t have an actual conclusion. Since then I’ve sampled many of their other series, but I don’t tend to rely on Clamp for consistent entertainment as much as I used to. While the art is gorgeous, sometimes I’m left feeling a little disappointed with their more recent work. This why I’m looking forward to the reissue of Cardcaptor Sakura more than their recent series Kobato, which seems go be designed to inspire bewilderment in the reader instead if providing entertainment.
Kobato is a homeless girl with an inexhaustible supply of cute outfits and hats. Her utter lack of understanding of human behavior seems to indicate that she’s from another world. She could be an angel or an alien, but she’s given a typical magical girl task of collecting wounded hearts in order to fulfill a vague quest. Before she can get her jar, her eternally cranky and alcohol-seeking dog Ioryogi is giving her tests on human common sense. Kobato encounters various holidays and events like dealing with rain, Christmas, and Valentine’s day. Usually in most of these tests Kobato will try to act like a human and fail in some way, receiving a limited number of points from Ioryogi. The character background is mysteriously absent, leaving Kobato and Ioryogi as blank slates for the reader without much to explain where they came from. Where is Kobato’s closet and hatboxes? How does she manage to be so perfectly accessorized while hanging out in a drainpipe? Ioryogi has an encounter with creature from his past but the “who what when where why” of the two main characters is frustratingly absent.
Hints of a supporting cast appear in the form of a young man who works at a kindergarten and his fellow teacher. He thinks that Kobato is trying to have sex for money after he witnesses her dash around frantically offering to help people “heal their hearts.” Clamp’s art is as usual very very pretty. The initial stories in Kobato appear to be so shallow and superficial that a quick read might prove frustrating to the reader. But as I was reading it I was wondering if Clamp’s storytelling has undercurrents that might be revealed in other volumes. Sure, Kobato’s main purpose seems to be to change outfits and burst into tears when her dog scolds her. But is this series buying in to the whole moe genre, or is it actually satirizing it? When a dirty old man tries to pick up Kobato, it seems like that single event might be targeting the types of readers who enjoy obsessively reading stories about sickeningly cute little girls in overly precious outfits.
I’m on the fence about this manga. There’s nothing about the overly sweet story lines that attracts me as a reader. But there are a few hints of darkness present, that if developed, might pique my interest in the future. I’ll check out the second volume before deciding to follow this series or not. It is unusual for a Clamp series not to immediately hook me on the first volume. I’m hoping that Kobato has hidden depths, but if it doesn’t not even the cutest costume changes can tempt me to read further.
Bunny Drop Volume 1 By Yumi Unita
I have to confess that I initially bought this manga mainly because I want to support publishers bringing out more josei titles in the US. I was not attracted to the premise of a bachelor unexpectedly becoming a father. I don’t think that there’s necessarily anything extra cute or special about men acting as a primary parent, so I was worried that this series would be overly sentimental. But when I picked Bunny Drop up I was happy to discover that it was much more subtle and interesting than I assumed it would be.
Daikichi travels to meet his family on the occasion of his grandfather’s death. When he arrives at the familial home he sees a strange little girl hanging around the house. It turns out that the little girl is the product of his grandfather’s secret affair. Daikichi now has a six year old aunt! Rin immediately attaches herself to Daikichi, silently following him everywhere. It turns out that he’s the spitting image of his grandfather as a young man, so he seems like a familiar person in a house suddenly filled with strangers for the funeral. Daikichi is enraged when he hears his relatives dismissing Rin as an odd child and going through the motions of talking about what to do with her when it is clear to him that they’ve already decided to put her into some sort of institution. He asks Rin if she wants to come home with him. Daikichi suddenly has to figure out what to do about his demanding job, finding childcare, and figuring out how to parent a six year old girl.
While Bunny Drop has some lighthearted moments, it doesn’t portray single parenthood as the idealistic barrel of laughs that Yotsuba&! does. Daikichi has to carefully weigh every decision – which day care will be best for Rin? Can he provide her any companionship when his job requires so much overtime? He starts to notice Rin’s habits and figures out which bunny stuffed animal she likes the most. The details of sudden parenthood seemed realistic and interesting, but Unita adds in another storyline to engage the reader. There’s a larger mystery that remains in the back of Daikichi’s mind. Where exactly is Rin’s mother, and why did Rin have so few possessions at his grandfather’s house?
One of the things I liked very much about Bunny Drop was the character designs. Rin is cute, but with her silent mannerisms, curtain of hair, and neediness she seems realistic and more like her own person than a generic adorable kid. Daikichi is drawn to deliberately look not very handsome. He looks like a nebbishy salaryman in his 30s, which is exactly what he is. Unita’s drawing style is very economical. There’s just enough detail, but she doesn’t spend an excessive amount of time drawing tiny background details or adding flourishes of tone. This lets the reader focus more on chracter expression and interaction. While seeing Rin and Daikichi bond over cooking and shopping was cute, it is balanced by Daikichi’s realization that taking care of a child does represent a sacrifice. I’m always happy when something turns out better than my expectations, and Bunny Drop was a nice surprise. I’ll be on board for the second volume.
The History of the West Wing by Jiayu Sun and Guo Guo
History of the West Wing is based on a classic Chinese play but the truncated story and lack of plot and character development failed to capture my attention even though it was bolstered by some lovely art. A wandering scholar named Chen Yuquing catches a glimpse of the beautiful PianPian at a Buddhist temple. Through chance encounters in the gardens, a dropped handkerchief and a rainstorm, they begin their courtship. Obstacles prevent the couple from achieving happiness. PianPian is already engaged to a dissolute noble who Chen knows due to his association with his equally infamous sister. Bandits threaten the temple and PianPian’s mother promises her daughter’s hand in marriage to whoever defeats them.
Chen promptly rides away and shows up with his own army to defend the temple. He’s then given the task of passing first in the civil service exams. He does that too! Then PianPian doubts Chen’s fidelity due to the sudden appearance of a woman from his past and one panel later after talking over the situation with her maid, she decides to trust him. Then they get married and the story ends.
I think some of the most interesting parts of the story were never shown to the reader. How exactly did Chen manage to find a handy army in the mountains? How did he manage to study well enough to pass the civil service exams with a perfect score? I had no idea how these things happened. Plenty of time was spent on PianPian and Chen’s initial meetings, but the rest of the story felt strangely abrupt. While the art in the book was gorgeous with soft colors and detailed costumes for the characters it didn’t make up for the lack of story in this slim volume.
The production quality of the book is great, as the cream colored paper stock set off the watercolor hues of the art. Several bonus illustrations of the characters are included after the story. If you need any sort of satisfying story, this isn’t the book for you. If you enjoy comics solely for the illustrations, History of the West Wing is worth a look. I felt that this book was much less satisfying than Bride of the Water God, another example of pretty art and patchy storytelling.
Forest of Gray City Volumes 1 and 2 by Jung-hyun Uhm (amazon)
Forest of Gray City has been on my “to read” list for a while. Since reading so much manga about kids in high school can sometimes get a little old, I try to keep an eye out for stories featuring characters in other stages of life. It is of course a big change to read books about twentysomething women with messed up love lives instead of reading manga about high school girls with messed up love lives. This was a nice josei series that is complete in two volumes.
Yun-Ook is a freelance graphic designer. She has a hard time making ends meet, so she decides to rent out a room in her apartment. She’s so desperate for extra cash, she’s willing to accept a male roommate. She’s sometimes distracted when she looks out the window and sees a solitary man on the bridge outside her house. She wonders what he’s doing.
Yun-Ook goes out drinking with her friends and is carded by a young waiter. Later when she’s drowning her sorrows alone, that same waiter ends up on her doorstep looking for a place to stay. His name is Bum-Moo. At first they lead entirely separate lives, only running into each other for a few minutes each morning. But they begin to share the mundane routine of daily life, watching tv, fixing dinner, and bringing umbrellas to the subway stop for each other when its raining. Bum-Moo asks Yun-Ook if it is ok if he has a crush on her. She simply says “No.” and starts to avoid him.
Yun-Ook learns that Bum-Moo’s only 17 years old, with some complicated family drama that has lead to him being on his own. He also has a habit of standing on bridges, looking at the morning break. When his long-lost stepsister shows up, Yun-Ook and Bum-Moo’s relationship starts to get even more complicated. Bum-Moo has to help out his step-sister, while Yun-Ook struggles with her feelings for him.
I enjoyed this series. My main criticism of it is that the ending felt a little rushed. I would have happily read a third volume, learning more about the characters before Yun-Ook and Bum-Moo’s relationship was resolved. There are so few manga series out there featuring working women, this manhwa is definitely worth a read if you are looking for some good josei.
One thing that I’ve been wondering is how many libraries will decide to subscribe to the new Yen Plus Magazine. The price point is much higher than Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat, but on the other hand Yen Plus features a bunch of series that the typical library reader might not be familiar with. It is a little tough to get an estimate of how many libraries are currently subscribed to Shonen Jump and Shojo Beat, just because WorldCat has multiple records for each magazine. And there are tons of libraries that aren’t represented in the WorldCat numbers for subscriptions. It looks like Shonen Jump has roughly 500 WorldCat libraries subscribed to it and Shojo Beat has a little under 400 library subscribers. Yen Plus doesn’t have any libraries listed yet. It’ll be interesting to see if libraries start to pick it up. I’ve seen a Yen Press marketing person posting on the Graphic Novels in Libraries List, so at least they are making an effort to reach out to the library market.
I read the first issue, and my thoughts about it tend to agree with the general consensus of most of the people reviewing it – Yen Plus presents some wildly inconsistent series that vary greatly in genre, tone, and age range. While that can be a good thing for a reader wanting to stretch themselves a little bit, the higher age range (Older Teen) listed for this magazine is no joke. School libraries which have more concerns about nudity/fan service will likely not want to subscribe to Yen Plus, it won’t be worth the hassle.
Here’s a mini round-up of reviews for library folks out there who might be considering adding this to their collections:
Updated to add a link about Yen Plus subscription problems.