Title Pun Shortage Strikes Manga Columnist

The first issue of Shojo Beat, Viz’s new manga anthology, has arrived, and it’s raised an unexpected question. Where am I supposed to put the damned thing?

It’s not a matter of concealment. I’m much more likely to be guarded about stacks of super-hero comics than anything manga has to offer. My partner did look at the cover of Shojo Beat with its CosmoGirl presentation and ask, “Aren’t you even a little bit embarrassed?”

The answer, obviously, is, “Of course not.” I’m not embarrassed by good comics, and Shojo Beat seems like it’s going to fall squarely in that category. He did ask a follow-up: “So, are you going to subscribe to it?”

That’s a somewhat trickier question, because I like the idea of actively buying it each month. There’s nothing quite as uplifting as wandering through a comic shop with a big old comic for girls clutched happily in my arms and interrupting a coded, homoerotic conversation about, say, Hal Jordan to slap it down on the counter.

I also hate the idea of missing something. Given the choice between a sober examination of artistic merit and instant gratification, sobriety will come out with at least a black eye and maybe a few spaces where teeth used to be. What if there’s a preview of a really cool manga title? (It’s how I found Whistle in Shonen Jump.) What if Godchild suddenly gets better? How would I know to look for the new green matcha tea from Starbucks if I didn’t pick up the monthly?

What it really comes down to is the battle between a decades-old collector mentality, the weak voice of financial responsibility, and the progressive shrinking of anything resembling storage space in my home. I still have comics I bought when I was five years old; even if I haven’t read them since, I flinch at the thought of getting rid of them. I can’t imagine suddenly becoming mercenary about phone-book thick Shojo Beat.

If I were to do a cost analysis, Shojo Beat could be a bit of a money pit. I can walk past Shonen Jump, because there’s precisely one serialized title that interests me (Hikaru No Go). Having read Shojo Beat, there are at least three series I would readily collect in tankoubon form (Absolute Boyfriend, Crimson Hero, and Nana). So, assuming the digests would come out quarterly, that’s a dozen a year at $8.95 a pop.

I’m not generally inclined to buy the same material twice. If I pick a title up as a monthly, it’s extremely unlikely that I’ll buy a trade paperback. I know many publishers try and work around this by adding enticing new material in their collections (my beady eyes are locked on you, Street Angel), but it will probably always strike me as a redundant expense.

And picking up Shojo Beat monthly and some of its titles in tankoubon for easy repeat readings would only compound the space problem. Looking at a single issue of Shojo Beat, I can’t help picturing what a stack of 12 of them would look like.

So will I subscribe? For the geographically fortunate, the initial subscription price is tempting. And I could always attribute it to the profound responsibility of the manga columnist, which is a handy excuse for overspending.

But enough of that prattle. How about a look at the actual manga published in the magazine? Here’s a quick rundown, from worst to best:

6. Kaze Hikaru, by Taeko Watanabe. In Kaze Hikaru, a girl disguises herself to gain entry to an order of soldiers, encountering disappointment (the guys are pigs) and intrigue along the way. The first chapter is preceded by a substantial text piece detailing the historical era and many of the key figures the manga portrays. It doesn’t help much, as Watanabe’s character designs aren’t particularly distinct, and the story itself is dull and confusing.

5. Godchild, by Kaori Yuki. How can a story about beheadings be so listless? In Godchild, mysterious aristocrat Cain Hargraves investigates the violent murders of some young Victorian damsels, demonstrating his own spooky morality along the way. It’s visually arresting, but Yuki seems to skim over the good bits in favor of clunky dialogue and corseted tantrums.

4. Baby and Me, by Marimo Ragawa. After the untimely death of his mother, ten-year-old Takuya is forced to assume a great deal of responsibility for his baby brother, Minoru. Ragawa does a nice job illustrating the frustrations of a child who’s had to assume a lot of responsibility before he’s ready. Takuya is a pretty believable and sympathetic kid, showing an appealing mix of frustration and dedication. It’s a bit slight, and I can’t help but wonder why more adults don’t step in to lighten Takuya’s load, though the title has an undeniable sweetness.

3. A tie between Absolute Boyfriend by Yû Watase and Nana by Ai Yazawa. Neither of these titles from shôjo superstars exactly bursts out of the gate, but both demonstrate the strengths of deservedly popular manga-ka. Absolute Boyfriend looks a bit like it could have been created following the shôjo chapter in Even a Monkey Can Draw Manga, but Watase invests it with her trademark antic charm. Familiar romantic-comedy elements fall into place as harried heroine Riika stumbles into a trial offer on an android companion. Given how often I’ve wondered if the average shôjo dream boy might have been developed in a lab, this title tickles me maybe a little more than it should. The first installment of Nana almost seems like the lead heroine didn’t show up, so they handed the story over to her kooky friend. Nana Komatsu wants to be in love to the degree that she isn’t particularly discriminating about her potential romantic partners. Her level-headed friend Jun finally convinces her to lay off the love parade and try and actually befriend a guy without any unrealistic expectations. Of course, Nana’s first attempt at this turns out to finally be decent boyfriend material. There’s nothing particularly surprising in the way it plays out, but Yazawa is a pro at crafting likable, interesting characters. I’ll have to withhold full judgment, as this Nana is one of two drastically different women who’ll share the title, but it’s a strong start.

1. Crimson Hero, by Mitsuba Takanashi. Glorious art, vivid characters, and a terrific premise move this manga to the head of the Shojo Beat pack. Volleyball star Nobara is struggling against the expectations of her very traditional, iron-willed mother. Mom wants Nobara to be a proper young lady and assume additional responsibilities at the family’s high-end inn. Nobara favors setting and spiking and would rather leave the flower arranging and tea ceremonies to her pretty-princess little sister. It’s a nifty blend of highly charged shôjo emotion and root-for-the-underdog sports manga energy. The first chapter is packed with teen-aged twists and trauma, and I’m eager for more.