Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, August 15, 2009
      ( 8/15/2009 06:45:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Here's a shot of Xander Cat, which shows off his eyes to good advantage.

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Friday, August 14, 2009
      ( 8/14/2009 09:06:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"DON'T EXPECT TOO MUCH. I'M LOW ON CAPABILITIES IN MORE WAYS THAN ONE." Yunosuke Toshinaga's Broken Blade (CMX) is a boy-and-his-giant-robot tale with a tiny twist. In the world that Yunosuke Yoshinagta posits, nearly everybody has the capabilities to power and steer a giant robot -- except for our hero. From early childhood, the people of Curzon have been gifted with the ability to "power up" quartz, the prime energy source on this world. ("There is no oil to be taken from the earth," we're told in the series' opener.) Yet Rygart Arrow, as we're shown in an opener that goes back to his childhood, doesn't possess this basic ability. As a result, he lives his life in relative isolation as a "lowly farmer," 'til his old schoolmate King Hodr requests that he be brought to the Imperial City.

Hodr, who reigns over the kingdom of Krisna, once attended the Assam National Military Academy, with his queen-to-be Sigyn and our "unsorceror" hero Rygart. Though Rygart was forced to drop his schooling, the bond between the threesome remains strong -- as nicely depicted in their teasing interactions when they're reunited. It's clear that Sigyn, the typically headstrong not-so-girly queen of Krisna, still has vestiges of a lingering attraction for the "good-for-nothing" Rygart.

Krisna is presently under siege by the neighboring kingdom Athena, though the isolated Rygart has been unaware of this situation until he's delivered to the court. Leading the Athenian attack is yet a fourth former school chum, Zess, who can't help wondering on the verge of an attack what Rygart will think about what he's doing. "If you knew that I was trying to take Hodr's country by storm, would you be angry, Rygart?" he wonders. Clearly, this quartet has a plethora of unresolved issues.

Broken Blade's mighty big weapons are giant robo-suit creations called "golems" that are powered by quartz and brandish cannon-sized pistols. Because Rygart can't charge up quartz, he's the only one in the land incapable of combat fighting, though the archeological discovery of an ancient "under-golem" rapidly changes that situation. Possessing an unknown power source and run via manual controls, the device appears to be useless until our curious hero gets behind the controls. Once inside the antique weapon, christened Broken Blade, Rygart proves a formidable fighter.

If this all sounds like something you've seen or read before, well, of course, you have. Yoshinaga's fast-paced teen-plus rated manga fits into the young-outcast-makes-good template that's successfully served for beaucoup shonen manga. What lifts this series a few notches above its formula are the slivers of characterization that manage to poke through the exposition-heavy dialog. Even antagonist Zess is provided his human moments, most notably during a sequence with two women soldiers who compete for his attention. His role in the war seems motivated by a desire to measure up to an older brother, who looks to seize the ample quartz deposits that are in Krisna's possession. (Blood for Quartz!)

Broken Blade's art is strongest when it's reflecting its characters' personal moments -- when it depicts, for instance, the flashbacks to our main characters' school days -- though it's not always as distinct during the book's battle sequences. Since the first volume in the series is designed to introduce the primary players, any weakness in the fighting scenes isn't that big of an issue. If future books extend the sometimes confusing battle panels into more extended page fillers, that could be a problem. But if Yoshinaga can keep his eye fixed on character-driven tension over mechanical fetishism, though, we should be copacetic.

Still, I'm wagering that this series will find a mecha happy manga audience, especially after reading that an anime adaptation of the current six-volume series has been green lit. I can see Broken Blade fitting snugly into SyFy channel's Monday night anime bloc -- and so, I suspect, can the powers-that-be at CMX.


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Wednesday, August 12, 2009
      ( 8/12/2009 01:39:00 PM ) Bill S.  

MID-WEEK MUSIC VIDEO: Busy busy busy busy busy. But we've still got a few minutes to slip a mid-week music vid on the the blog, so let's make it a rockin' one from BRMC:

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Sunday, August 09, 2009
      ( 8/09/2009 11:01:00 AM ) Bill S.  

"THE NECESSITY OF SOCIAL CONTACTS" Looking thoughtfully out at the reader, the heroine of Kaoru Mori's Victorian romance Emma (CMX) seems an unlikely subject to have caught the shojo audience's fancy. Bedecked in a maid's outfit, hair pulled up, her large shy eyes behind an equally huge pair of wire-rims, she looks so unassuming. Yet the humble servant proves a magnet for more than one male member of the city gentry.

Foremost among our heroine's would-be suitors is William Jones, eldest son of a "quite prominent" family of merchants. Though William finds the idea of class divides unpleasant (early, we see him gently chiding a servant for calling him "young master"), his bourgeois father is firmly invested in the values of "fashionable society." Clearly, the primary conflict in Emma's romance will arise out of its class system. "Great Britain is one," William states at one point, "yet within it are two countries."

As dramatized by self-confessed Anglophile Mori, Emma is a lovingly detailed reconstruction of the 19th century Upstairs/Downstairs mores. A meticulously paced tale full of side-long glances and tiny character moments, it is defiantly unlike much of the teen shojo manga that American audiences know. The artist shies away from adolescent histrionics and remains committed to a consistent visual treatment of her characters (no sudden bursts of cartoonishness here -- though she does feature herself as a sketchy cartoon sprite in a comic three-page afterword). But her characterization is so precise and appealing, conveyed as much by what her characters hold back as what they say, that it keeps us engrossed in this old-fashioned romance of manners. Complimented on her looks at one point, woman-of-few-words Emma says simply, "I've been through a lot," and that one line has us eager to learn just what it is she's referring to.

The young girl is working as maid to Lady Kelly Stownar, a woman once forced by sudden widowhood to be a governess for the Jones family, who knows William from his boyhood. When William comes to visit Lady Kelly, he's instantly love-struck by the quietly beautiful Emma, a development that is monitored from the sidelines by the firm-but-kindly former governess. "If she were just a tad less meek," Kelly thinks of her servant, "she could have any number of suitors. But the thing about Emma is she doesn't care a fig about that."

Lady Kelly has mixed feelings abut William's obvious attraction for Emma. "I wish the young master would act more like a responsible adult," she thinks, though, in comparison to his old Etonian chum Hakim, William is a model of maturity. The wealthy son of Indian royalty, Hakim shows up at the Jones estate with both dancing girls and an elephant. An unapologetic hedonist, he provides a marked contrast to William's mild rebelliousness and a visual relief from the very proper Victorian milieu. "No one gets the purpose of the Indian girls," Mori jokes in her afterword. "Actually I just like this kind of character."

The art in Emma is packed with detailed cross-hatching and intricately imagined 19th century architecture. If the characters occasionally look a bot too fresh-faced for the period, well, that's just a romance convention, innit? As a storyteller, Mori excels in scenes with limited dialog: a sequence where Emma tries on a new pair of eyeglasses, silently examining herself clearly in the mirror for what we know is the first time in years, is sweetly elegant, while the moment where Hakim arrives with his entourage shows the artist just as skilled at visual hoopla. This is a book I'd give to a comics reader who is still on the fence about shojo: its straightforward storytelling pulls you into its world and keeps you there.

Emma's main storyline was written to a conclusion in seven volumes, though the artist added three more books to the series rounding out the stories of the series' secondary characters. CMX, a year after it released the concluding volume, has recently started publishing these appendices, a fact sure to cheer those readers who've become wrapped up in Emma's World. After reading the first volume in this engrossing period entertainment, I suspect I'm not gonna be satisfied to stop just at seven books.


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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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