Check-up

There’s a new clerk at the comic shop, and I’d describe him as manga-curious. He’s mostly into Marvel and DC comics, but he’s open to the possibilities of the growing shelves of tankoubon. Since I’m a conspicuous and omnivorous manga consumer, he checks with me on titles that have been recommended to him. (He’s now joined the army of readers addicted to Death Note.)

Being a mystery fan and an anime viewer, he was asking me about Case Closed (Viz) the other day. We were marveling at the number of volumes in the manga series and episodes of the anime. It got me thinking about longevity, and it occurred to me that it might be useful to check in with some series that I’d recommended previously.

I enjoy Case Closed, but the prospect of sitting through 40 more volumes makes me twitch. I loved the first volume of Eerie Queerie (Tokyopop), but the second made me want to take a thousand showers. Not every title holds up, so I thought I’d do a quick tour of some of the books I’ve praised in the past.

Death Note (Viz – Shonen Jump Advanced), story by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata: Currently in its fifth volume, Death Note has fallen into an amusing if perilous pattern. Ohba seems to delight in writing his characters into a corner, then coming up with a jaw-dropping escape route to get them out of it. At times, the process is fabulously entertaining to watch, but I feel like the urgency of the book is becoming weaker as the narrative gymnastics become more strenuous.

Ohba is literally making the rules up as he goes along, revealing details of the use of the deadly title document with each successive chapter. So far, it doesn’t seem like cheating. Instead, it gives the book what-can-possibly-happen-next energy. Unfortunately, that energy threatens to overtake some of the other key elements of the book, namely the cat-and-mouse game between teen sociopath Light and his opposite number, brilliant weirdo L. I’m still hooked, but I find myself wanting to be engaged on a less superficial level.

Eden: It’s an Endless World! (Dark Horse), by Hiroki Endo: No one would ever credit Endo with inventing the blending of philosophizing with ultra-violence, but he certainly executes the mixture with panache. Volume three finds our protagonists (a mix of innocents and guerillas) cornered in a mountain stronghold as the quasi-governmental forces of Propater close in. Endo uses the extended, bloody battle to illustrate just how far people will go when their backs are against the wall.

Given the state of Endo’s post-apocalyptic world, that would be just about everyone. Each moment of thrilling, gory action is underlined by difficult moral choices, with thematically relevant flashbacks illustrating the specific dilemmas in play. The violence is extremely visually explicit, but Endo’s underlying humanism keeps the book from feeling too sensational. It’s a nice balance between the adrenal and the emotional, and I’d love to see more people talking about it.

Fruits Basket (Tokyopop), by Natsuki Takaya: This sprawling shôjo tribute to emotional dysfunction has reached something of a turning point. After almost a dozen volumes, eternal optimist Tohru Honda has taken it upon herself to break the curse that has tormented the Sohma family for generations. She’s stared cruelty and fatalism in the face (in the form of sadistic head Sohma Akito) and come away with resolve.

As a result, the thirteenth volume feels a bit like vamping as Takaya positions her large cast for what happens next, even as she continues to introduce new characters. Still, even Takaya vamping can be startlingly moving. This book is just packed with extreme emotion – painful memories, thwarted love, and family cruelty – but Takaya keeps that slender thread of hope running through it all. How can you not want to know what happens next?

Genshiken (Del Rey), by Kio Shimoku: Brace yourselves. In the fifth volume of this increasingly endearing oddity, the Society for the Study of Modern Visual Culture actually does something. Don’t worry that it’s going to become one of those young-people-with-a-dream books, though. Genshiken is all about baby steps, and as many of them stumble backwards as forwards.

Shimoku is much more interested in a quirky study of character and subculture than plot, which is entirely in keeping with his cast of otaku oddballs. He keeps things fresh by introducing new and unusual nerds with some regularity, subtly changing the group dynamics and revealing new facets of old standbys. The result is a low-key charmer populated by characters with real rooting value, even if they don’t seem to have any ambitions to support.

Monster (Viz – Signature), by Naoki Urasawa: Does it make me a terrible cynic that I almost always laugh when saintly neurosurgeon Kenzo Tenma inspires someone to be a better person? It probably does, but laugh I do, and Tenma’s crayon-bright decency in a world of murder and mystery keeps me coming back.

In the three volumes that have been released so far, Urasawa has constructed his own variation on The Fugitive, with Tenma tracking a brutal killer even as the police mistakenly track him. Along the way, he teaches children to laugh, helps crusty country doctors confess their feelings, and saves orphans from lives of systematic psychological torture and physical abuse. He’s a beacon of hope, and his influence often sails past inspiring all the way to ridiculous.

But Monster is melodrama, first and foremost, and Urasawa has a real knack for it. Excessive sentimentality aside, the thriller elements are very solid. Honestly, the intermittent chuckle at blooming flowers of hope in a desolate moral landscape is a nice counterpoint to the suspense. Monster is nowhere near as dark or deep as it seems to think it is, but it’s a very diverting potboiler all the same.