Pop Culture Gadabout
Wednesday, September 21, 2011
      ( 9/21/2011 05:43:00 AM ) Bill S.  


“THE UNIVERSE IS SO MYSTERIOUS.” Having taken on stats, calculus, even the theory of relativity, the crew behind the Manga Guide series have elected to think bigger. Kenji Ishikawa and Yutaka Hiiragi’s The Manga Guide to the Universe (No Starch Press) tackles the huge huge questions: the theoretical origins of the universe, its shape and size, the possibilities of extraterrestrial life. As with other titles in this series, the lessons are presented via cute manga teens and a wise teacher, though unlike The Manga Guide to Statistics, our teacher isn’t as comically nerdy.

The typically negligible plot serving as a set-up for our manga lecture centers on the Kouki High School Drama Club’s efforts to put on a performance for the school’s arts festival. If the small club can’t cobble together a show, the school will shut down the club, so brainy senior Yamane, headstrong junior Kanna and new American exchange student Gloria strive to work up an adaptation of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter.” An ancient folk tale about a princess from the moon, the story leads our drama-minded threesome to try and concoct an “outer space romance.” To research the play’s sci-fi elements, they enlist the aid of Kanna’s older brother Kente, who takes them to one of his professors. It’s Prof Sanuki who schools our quartet on the nature of the universe: the first question is whether the Earth is the center of the universe.

As in the other Manga Guides, the professor’s lessons are presented through comic interactions and histrionics on the students’ part, plus sudden costume changes and metaphors. The professor uses more than one sports prop to demonstrate size and distance, which particularly appeals to the athletic Yamane. The usual heavy text pages are interspersed between each manga segment; in several instances they consist of play-like dialog between the students as they hack out topics like Heliocentric Theory, the Big Bang and our expanding universe. Since the book culminates in our cast putting on their play, this approach seems apt.

Yutaka Hiiragi’s shojo art is light and amusing, capable of portraying his winsome characters as well as the theoretical visuals used to convey the professor’s take on the universe. Kenji Ishikawa’s script examines the history of scientific thought from Galileo to Hubble -- also appropriate since so much of what we “know” today remains largely theoretical. Unlike many of the earlier volumes in this series -- which focuses on topics so specific (e.g., Databases) as to push away many manga readers, Manga Guide to the Universe has plenty of broad appeal.

A strong entry for this charming and informative EduManga series.

(First published on Blogcritics.)

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Pop cultural criticism - plus the occasional egocentric socio/political commentary by Bill Sherman (popculturegadabout AT yahoo.com).



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