Pop Culture Gadabout
Saturday, December 19, 2009
      ( 12/19/2009 07:46:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“HISTORICALLY, LIZARDS AND HUMANS DON’T MAKE A GOOD MATCH.” A goofy, sweet-natured all-ages comic fantasy, Asuka Izumi’s The Lizard Prince (CMX) tells the tale of Canary Darlberg, princess of the fairy tale kingdom of Linaria, and Sienna Hyrangea, prince of a neighboring kingdom who’s been transformed into a lizard by a curse. The two meet and make a romantic connection when Sienna’s ne’er-do-well younger brother Heath, fearful of an arranged marriage with the 17-year-old Canary, temporarily switches bodies with his lizard sib using “magic medicine.” Heath is counting on his more diplomatic brother to sever relationships with Canary, but instead Sienna falls for the tomboyish young princess. What’s a lovesick lizard gonna do once the body switch wears off?

Actually, this dilemma is rapidly resolved. Though the first volume of this manga series gives the impression on its back cover that the series’ll revolve around this “mixed-up triangle,” that particular romantic conflict is solved by the end of Chapter One. Newcomer Izumi originally wrote Lizard Prince as a stand-alone story, so in the first tale, the noble reptile is transformed back into human form through the power of Canary’s true love. To keep the lizard in the title, though, we learn in Chapter Two that Sienna, who spent 15 of his 19 years under the curse, has somehow gained the ability to turn into his lizard form for short periods. “After all,” Canary posits, “you spent 15 years as a lizard, maybe it ‘rubbed off.’”

This little plot revision actually proves more entertaining than you might expect. Sienna has spent so much of his life as a non-human that he starts turning into his animal self under the slightest pretext. Despite his love for Canary, he still appears to feel more comfortable as a tiny skittering creature -- which sez a lot for his self-esteem. And while his new princess love proves the tough half of the relationship, Sienna is prone to the occasional teary outburst: he's a sensitive new age lizard, which makes for some engaging comic character blips.

The four stand-alone adventures that follow are variably successful: a trip to a haunted mansion (where our duo get temporarily possessed by the ghosts of two estranged lovers) is a stretch, but a chapter where they have to babysit an infant for Canary’s cousin Camilla is definitely chucklesome. Sienna, it turns out, is terrified of babies. All those years as a tiny animal at the mercy of small children’s curious hands have instilled an understandable fight or flight response in our prince. His subsequent attempts at working through his fears with the baby Coral are decidedly droll.

Manga newcomer Izumi’s visual depiction of her comic fairy tale is engaging, though at times Sienna’s pipe-cleaner lizard arms call for a bit more fleshing out. The artist seems to have the most fun with Princess Canary, the character with the broadest emotional range, though Sienna gets his own humorously histrionic moments, particularly in the baby chapter.

Per the page at the end of Volume One, The Lizard Prince will be concluding with a second volume in March 2010. Nice to see that the manga artist isn’t planning on keeping this series going ‘til it wears out its welcome. At the end of the book’s first chapter, Sienna’s shiftless sibling looks out at the artist and demands that she not wrap the story up with a “happily ever after.” Bet she’s saving it for the end of Volume Two.


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      ( 12/19/2009 06:32:00 AM ) Bill S.  

WEEKEND PET PIC: Here's Kyan Pup, contemplating the Night before Solstice:

THE USUAL NOTE: For more cool pics of companion animals, please check out Modulator's "Friday Ark."
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Thursday, December 17, 2009
      ( 12/17/2009 06:34:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“LIKE STARING IN THE FACE OF DEATH ITSELF” After advertizing itself as a three-book mini-series, the third ish of Nick (Son O’ Gene) Simmons and Nam Kim’s Incarnate (Radical Comics) has arrived with a big ol’ “To Be Continued” affixed to the bottom of its last story page. Pretty disappointing, especially since the third book is awash with demon/human fight scenes that deliver on the splatter but do little to advance either plot or character. Lots of double- and triple-crosses during the fightin’, but the only figure we halfway care about is the half-shaven demon Connor, who comes across the most fallible of these dueling baddies.

Our anti-hero, the immortal teen (is that a rock ‘n’ roll metaphor or wot?) Mot, spends much of the fight as a giant bat-winged monster: visually interesting but essentially characterless. While we’re given a glimpse of the demon lad’s background torment, it isn’t enough to elevate our interest in the character, who comes across more bratty than anything. Basically, this mini-series is about nasty non-humans battling nearly-as-nasty humans, and while the bloody spectacle has its moments -- artist Kim provides lots of appealingly splashy fight panels that owe as much to early Marvel as they do manga fight comics -- in the end, Incarnate proves as enduring as flashpot explosives in a heavy metal concert.


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Tuesday, December 15, 2009
      ( 12/15/2009 06:04:00 AM ) Bill S.  

HOLIDAY FOR PLUGS: Have I mentioned that copies of the plus-size comic soap opera Measure by Measure would make a delightful holiday gift for the incurable romantic in your life? Or that most of the online booksellers are still making it possible for you to get a copy delivered by Xmas?
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Sunday, December 13, 2009
      ( 12/13/2009 10:22:00 AM ) Bill S.  

“CC CORP HASN’T CHANGED A BIT, HAS IT?” Wasn’t initially sure just how newbie friendly Tokypop’s .hack//Legend of the Twilight would be, as the manga mini-series is only part of a massive multi-media franchise. Featured in a series of novels, animé and games, .hack concerns an elaborate virtual online setting called the World, where a variety players become involved in a series of adventures. From what I can tell, Twilight appears to be the first manga treatment of this universe, though Tokyopop has also released other manga volumes like .hack//Alcor. Originally issued in three smaller tankōbon paperbacks, the 21-chapter story has just been collected in a larger, more economical package encompassing all three volumes.

Twilight tells the tale of Shugo and Rena, brother-and-sister twins who are brought into the World when they win a pair of chibi (small person) avatars once used by the legendary dot hackers (whose original adventures, the newcomer supposes, have been documented in one of the .hack novels). Their explorations of the World lead them into hooking up with several other players, most notably Mireille, an acquisitive collector who explores the World looking for rare items, and Ouka, a busty “career werewolf.” When an ethereal figure named Aura gives Shugo an artifact named the Twilight Bracelet, the sibs’ adventure begins in earnest.

At first, the twins’ interactions with the World are random and primarily devoted to helping the duo build up strength to get them through their adventure: battles with monsters, puzzles, visits to a haunted house, and so forth. But by the second volume, a somewhat satiric story takes shape. Our gang is pursued by a group of system cops called the Cobalt Knight Brigade, who’ve been charged by CC Corporation (the company responsible for the World’s creation and ongoing maintenance) with making sure any unexpected irregularities in the system are eradicated.

Shugo’s bracelet is considered one such anomaly, and our protagonists need to unravel its secrets before Brigade leader Kamui wipes them out of the World. Kamui is particularly interested in Zefie, a waifish piece of system-created artificial intelligence who appears to be connected to the mysterious Aura. To the no-nonsense Kamui, the “vagrant AI” is also a bug because the free-thinking entity can’t be controlled by the World’s system administrators. Fourteen-year-old Shugo initially is reluctant to go along with the World’s elaborate game, but he soon becomes protective of Zefie.

As Twilight entirely takes place in its virtual World, we’re only given a glimpse of the protagonist avatars’ real-life counterparts in a two-page spread at the end of the book. And even here, tellingly, there’s no key as to who is who. The primary focus is on the world of the World, and though Shugo, in particular, displays character growth through the course of the mini-series, we’re never shown how this impacts him once he takes off his virtual reality headset.

Writer Tatsuya Hamazaki handles the elaborate .hack reality by providing enough background information throughout that I had no trouble following the general storyline, though I’m sure that fans of the franchise will get more out of the side details than I did. His treatment of his early teen-aged protagonists strikes me as convincing (the series is rated aged 13+), though Tokyopop indicates in its cover rating box that there’s some “mild fanservice” in the series: slightly titillating poses of Rena and the sexy wolf-girl Ouka, in particular. It doesn’t interfere with the story, though some manga newcomers might be taken aback by it.

Rei Idumi’s art efficiently carries the story, though at times -- as when our crew enter a disreputable corner of the World called the Net Slums -- you wish he’d pushed the setting a little more. We’re told that the Slums look choppy and broken, but aside from two establishing panels, we’re not provided much of this background. (I suspect that the anime adaptation of Twilight, which started a year after the manga series began its serialization, provides more visual information on this front.) Still, we’re given enough to get a sense of the various pieces of World that Shugo and Rena visit.

In the end, I found myself entertained enough by this .hack manga excursion to want to pick up any other graphic novel spin-offs, though not so invested in the concept that I feel the urge to go exploring the novels or other story formats. Perhaps if I was more of a gamer, I’d be interested in exploring all the nooks and crannies, but as a simple dabbler, I’m content to stick with the occasional manga. I've got a copy of .hack/Alcor on the to-be-read pile, though. Think I’ll move it closer to the top.


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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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