Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1Creator: Masayuki Ishikawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781632360809
Released: February 2015
Original release: 2010

I’ll admit, when I first heard about the manga series Maria the Virgin Witch, I was more than a little skeptical. I’m not particularly interested in witches, which seem to be nearly as common as vampires in translated manga these days, and the emphasis placed on the heroine’s virginity seemed like it could be a little suspect. But then I realized that Maria the Virgin Witch was by Masayuki Ishikawa, the creator of Moyasimon, a quirky manga about microbes and fermentation that I enjoyed immensely. (Sadly, only two volumes of Moyasimon were ever released in English.) If for no other reason, I wanted to give Maria the Virgin Witch a chance because of my love for Moyasimon. I’m very glad that I did; the first volume turned out to be a very promising and intriguing start to the short series. Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1 was initially published in Japan in 2010 while the English-language edition was released by Kodansha Comics in 2015.

During the first half of the fifteenth century, England and France were still locked in the Hundred Years War, many of the battles being waged on French soil. Maria is a powerful but young witch living in France. She abhors the killing and senseless violence and so does what she can to disrupt the conflict and protect the villages and people who live near her woods. She has discovered one particularly effective method: by sending an owl familiar in the form of a succubus among the leaders of the armies on the eve of major battles, they often lose their will to fight or their interest in the impending confrontation. However, sometimes more direct action is required and Maria will summon great beasts to wreak havoc and chaos on the battlefield. But causing such a spectacle carries with it the danger of drawing the attention of Heaven and the risk of incurring the wrath of the Archangel Michael. There is a proper order to the world, and Maria poses a threat to it.

Maria the Virgin Witch, Volume 1, page 118 Maria’s outlook on life (as well as her and her familiars’ character designs) does tend to be more contemporary than the rest of the manga’s setting, but I really like her as a character. She has strong convictions, and she is prepared to act on them, doing what she can to right the injustices she sees in the world. Michael and others criticize her for her interference and audacity; Maria is very forthright with her feelings and opinions. She is young, and perhaps a little naive, but I admire her earnestness. Despite her anger and frustration, she has yet to become embittered by the world.  Maria honestly and wholeheartedly cares about people, especially those who are powerless or taken advantage of. Though some of her methods might not be considered to be particularly respectable by most, she and the people she protects believe her to be a force for good. Even so, Maria is considered to be a heretic by the Catholic Church, an institution for which she quite obviously holds no love.

Although Maria the Virgin Witch explores some fairly serious subjects—religion, morality, power dynamics, sexuality—the manga also includes a good deal of humor. Much of the comedy has to do with sex in one way or another, but some of it simply relies of the quirkiness of the characters. Maria, for example, is old enough to be curious about sex, but is still completely embarrassed at even the mere thought of seeing a man naked. As a result Priapus, the incubus she creates, is rather indistinct where it counts and is generally just put in charge of cooking and running errands. The first volume of Maria the Virgin Witch can be a bit crass at times (personally, I could have done without the repeated “cry for me like a little whore”-type comments), but overall the manga is a surprisingly layered work. The more I think about it, the more it grows on me, and the more I want to read the rest of the series. So far, Maria the Virgin Witch is a very interesting mix of historical fiction and fantasy that can be both entertaining and sobering.

Attack on Titan: Junior High, Omnibus 2

Attack on Titan: Junior High, Omnibus 2Creator: Saki Nakagawa
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781612629186
Released: November 2014
Original release: 2013-2014

I was actually a little surprised by how much I ended up liking the first omnibus of Attack on Titan: Junior High. Created by Saki Nakagawa with input from Hajime Isayama (both of whom actually attended the same design school, though that fact is more of a coincidence than anything else), Attack on Titan: Junior High is specifically a parody spinoff of Isayama’s immensely popular manga series Attack on Titan. More generally, the series is also a parody of just about any manga with a school setting. Attack on Titan: Junior High is an odd mix of Attack on Titan and contemporary school life that actually manages to work much of the time. The second Attack on Titan: Junior High omnibus, released by Kodansha Comics in 2014, collects the third and fourth volumes of the series’ original Japanese edition, published in 2013 and 2014 respectively. Kodansha was kind enough to send me a review copy of Attack on Titan: Junior high, Omnibus 2 which, because I enjoyed the first omnibus, I was particularly happy to see.

Life isn’t easy for the human students of Attack Junior High. Not only do they have to worry about the normal sorts of challenges encountered at school—getting a passing grade in class, surviving the ire of upperclassmen, daring to ask another student on a date, ensuring their clubs aren’t suspended, and so on—they also have to worry about the rest of the student body, the Titans. It doesn’t help that Attack Junior High’s principal just so happens to be a Titan as well, meaning most of the administration looks the other way as the Titans terrorize the much smaller students, the victims of bullying and stolen lunches. But then there’s the beloved teacher Mr. Erwin Smith who on the surface seems to favor the Titans when in actuality he harbors a deep-seated hatred so intense that it rivals Eren’s. Considering Eren’s single-minded commitment to taking on and taking out all of the Titans, this is rather impressive.

There is no denying that Attack on Titan: Junior High is an utterly ridiculous manga series. In general, I think that overall I probably enjoyed the first omnibus slightly more. The novelty of the spinoff has worn off some, but the second omnibus still managed to make me laugh on multiple occasions. I do find that the series works best for me when it is directly riffing on the original Attack on Titan manga and its fandom rather than playing around with more generic story tropes. Granted, from time to time those parodies can be entertaining, as well. But ultimately Attack on Titan: Junior High tends to be rather uneven with its humor. Sometimes the manga can be absolutely hilarious, but just as often the attempts at comedy just aren’t very funny. Unsurprisingly, many of the jokes in the series require readers to already be very familiar with Attack on Titan to really appreciate them, but it’s those readers for whom the series is intended to begin with.

Attack on Titan: Junior High and its style of humor certainly will not appeal to everyone. It’s not particularly clever and much of the manga can only be enjoyed by readers who are already predisposed towards random, absurd, and frequently nonsensical comedy. The English translation and localization of Attack on Titan: Junior High is fairly loose in sections, adding a few jokes here and there and freely changing pop culture references to ones that will likely be more recognizable to Western audiences. I’m not sure how funny or effective some of the changes will be in a few years’ time since they often refer to recent events, but for now they are amusing. The best gags are those where Nakagawa takes the characters of Attack on Titan and emphasizes and distorts their personality quirks to extremes. One of the most appealing things about the original Attack on Titan is its ensemble cast, and that is true of Attack on Titan: Junior High as well. Fortunately, that’s something that doesn’t rely on timeliness.

Thank you to Kodansha for providing a copy of Attack on Titan: Junior High, Omnibus 1 for review.

Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2

Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2Creator: Hikaru Suruga
Original story: Gun Snark

U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781612629438
Released: October 2014
Original release: 2014

Attack on Titan: No Regrets, Volume 2 is the final volume of Hikaru Suruga’s manga adaptation of the A Choice with No Regrets visual novel written by Gun Snark. No Regrets is one of the many spinoffs and adaptations of Hajime Isayama’s immensely popular Attack on Titan manga series. It focuses on the backstory of one of Attack on Titan‘s most beloved characters, Levi, and how he became an exceptionally skilled and valued member of the Survey Corps. The second volume of the No Regrets manga was originally released in Japan in 2014, as was Kodansha Comics’ English-language edition. The volume also includes two short, largely comedic, No Regrets side stories as well as a special interview between Isayama and Suruga discussing the story and characters of the Attack on Titan franchise. I rather enjoyed the first volume of No Regrets and so was looking forward to reading the conclusion of the series.

At one point they were considered to be some of the most notorious criminals in the Underground, but now Levi, Isabel, and Furlan have been coerced into joining the Survey Corps, which may very well be a death sentence. Initially they weren’t well-liked by their fellow soldiers, and the three of them weren’t particularly happy with their situation, either. But during their first expedition outside of the walls, Levi and his crew leave quite an impression by handily dispatching an abnormal Titan with seeming ease. Levi and the others still don’t fit in with the rest of the Survey Corps members, but at least their remarkable skills, especially Levi’s, are recognized and admired. The extra attention they receive after defeating the Titan isn’t exactly welcome, though—Furlan is trying to coordinate a covert mission that will either lead to the three criminals’ ultimate freedom or to their deaths. They have been hired by a high-ranking political figure to steal back incriminating documents from Erwin, one of the Survey Corps’ most promising young leaders, and to end his life in the process.

What I particularly liked about the first volume of No Regrets was that it expanded the setting of Attack on Titan in addition to providing valuable background information about Levi, Erwin, and their relationship to each other. Sadly, the second volume doesn’t add much more that is new; I felt like I had already seen many of the scenes play out before and it was very clear how some of the events were going to end. The second volume of No Regrets spends a fair amount of time explaining the long-distance scouting formation, for example. While it’s noteworthy that No Regrets shows the first time that the maneuver is ever attempted, anyone familiar with Attack on Titan should already be quite aware of how the formation functions and its importance. Likewise, as is to be expected, encounters with Titans never tend to go well. Because in many ways No Regrets serves as a prequel to Attack on Titan, the deaths of major characters in the series are not at all surprising and lose some of their impact as a result.

More than anyone else’s, No Regrets is Levi’s story, but Erwin plays a pivotal role in it as well. Both of the men are exceptionally charismatic leaders, although Erwin is the only one of the two who actually seeks that role. Levi doesn’t want to be responsible for the lives of others while Erwin is willing to shoulder the weight of the sacrifices made in the fight against the Titans. He is extremely intelligent and talented and able to make tough decision. Even at the cost of individual lives, Erwin voluntarily employs dubious methods if he believes that the results will increase the odds of humanity’s survival. His almost fanatical drive and obsession contrasts sharply with Levi’s more reserved and internally focused nature. As is known will happen, eventually Erwin wins Levi over to his cause and gives him a firm direction and purpose, but this foregone conclusion does seem to occur rather abruptly. Still, the exploration of Levi and Erwin’s respective personalities and motivations in No Regrets is probably what the series does best and is what the manga brings to Attack on Titan as a whole.

Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics

Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese ComicsAuthor: Frederik L. Schodt
Publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781568364766
Released: January 2013
Original release: 1983
Awards: Japan Cartoonists Association Award

Initially released in 1983 and then again in 1986 in a slightly updated and revised edition, Frederik L. Schodt’s groundbreaking Manga! Manga!: The World of Japanese Comics was one of the first, and remains one of the best, surveys of the history of manga and the manga industry available in English. Written and published at a time when manga was virtually unknown to the average comics reader in the West and when only a very few examples of manga had been translated, Schodt was hoping to provide an introduction to the art form, garner interest in manga, and share his love and excitement for the medium. Manga! Manga! was received very well both in Japan where it earned special recognition from the Japan Cartoonists Association as well as in markets focused on English-reading audiences. Although Schodt would follow up Manga! Manga! with his work Dreamland Japan: Writings on Modern Manga in 1996, his initial foray is considered a classic in its subject area and is still well worth reading.

Manga! Manga! opens with a forward by Osamu Tezuka, who Schodt personally knew and worked with. From there Schodt takes over with the first chapter “A Thousand Million Manga,” providing an overview of manga and its readership in Japan. “A Thousand Years of Manga” addresses the history of manga, tracing its origins and development from 12th-century narrative art traditions through its more contemporary influences. “The Spirit of Japan” looks at the portrayal of the bushidō ethic in manga, ranging from historical fiction to the yakuza and sports genres, while “Flowers and Dreams” reveals the significance of comics created for and by girls and women. Other genres, such as salaryman, specialty career-oriented manga, and mahjong manga are explored in the chapter “The Economic Animal at Work and at Play.” Subjects like censorship, violence, and eroticism are the focus of “Regulations versus Fantasy.” Schodt closes his research with a chapters specifically devoted “The Comic Industry” and “The Future.” (Granted, that future is now in many cases the past, but the chapter is still illuminating.)

The editions of Manga! Manga! printed after 1997 also have a short introduction by Schodt but otherwise are nearly identical content-wise to those that were published earlier. In addition to Schodt’s main text, Manga! Manga! also includes an index divided by general subject, creators, and title as well as a bibliography of both English-language and Japanese-language resources. As is appropriate for a work about manga, Schodt incorporates artwork and photographs throughout the volume—rare is the page which isn’t accompanied by some sort of visual component. Particularly noteworthy is the inclusion of translated excerpts selected from four manga: Osamu Tezuka’s Phoenix, Reiji Matsumoto’s Ghost Warrior, Riyoko Ikeda’s The Rose of Versailles, and Keiji Nakazawa’s Barefoot Gen. These examples are among some of the earliest manga in translation readily available to a general English-language audience. Brief biographies of the four mangaka are provided as well.

Manga! Manga! is a fantastic work. Even decades after it was first published it remains an informative and valuable study. And, as I have come to expect, Schodt’s writing is very approachable and easy to read. Manga! Manga! explores the history of manga within the context of Japanese culture and history, ultimately showing that the two cannot be completely separated. Manga and its development reflect, is influenced by, and emphasizes the changing state of Japanese culture, politics, and social mores. It is an art form and a source of entertainment, but it can also be used for educational and informational purposes and even as propaganda. Schodt outlines the importance of manga in Manga! Manga!, both culturally and historically, and what it has to offer to Japan and to the world at large. Manga! Manga! is very highly recommended to anyone interested in learning more about manga, its history, its creators, or the manga industry as a whole.

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 5

Vinland Saga, Omnibus 5Creator: Makoto Yukimura
U.S. publisher: Kodansha
ISBN: 9781612624242
Released: October 2014
Original release: 2010-2011
Awards: Japan Media Arts Award, Kodansha Manga Award

Makoto Yukimura’s award-winning manga Vinland Saga, an epic and thoroughly researched work of historical fiction, has quickly become one of my favorite series currently being released in English. I was very happy when Kodansha Comics initially licensed Vinland Saga, but with each new volume that is published my excitement increases. The English-language edition of Vinland Saga is being printed as a series of hardcover omnibuses, each containing two volumes of the manga as originally released in Japan. The fifth omnibus, published by Kodansha in 2014, collects the ninth and tenth volumes of the Japanese edition of the series which were published in 2010 and 2011 respectively. It also includes a section of questions and answers exclusive to the English-language edition in which Yukimura discusses some of the inspirations for and creative processes behind Vinland Saga. I already enjoy Vinland Saga immensely, but greatly appreciate of this sort of bonus material.

Ever since his father was killed in front of his eyes, Thorfinn has devoted his life to one thing—seeking revenge against Askeladd, the man he holds responsible for his father’s death. But when Askeladd takes King Sweyn’s head and doesn’t survive the resulting skirmish, suddenly Thorfinn is left directionless and without purpose. Despondent and empty, he ends up a slave on an expansive wheat farm in Denmark. There he really only goes through the motions of living, suffering silently under the humiliation, discrimination, and torment inflicted by the farm hands and hired guards. It’s not until Einar arrives at the farm that Thorfinn is slowly drawn out of his despondency. Of the two, Einar is much more lively and still chafes at his enslavement. And, unlike Thorfinn, he actually knows a thing or two about farming. As difficult as it will be to achieve, those are skills that could conceivably help them earn back their freedom.

The amount of research and historic detail that Yukimura has put into both the artwork and the narrative of Vinland Saga has always been impressive, and that hasn’t changed with the fifth omnibus. Vinland Saga incorporates the politics and social structures of the time period directly into the story in a very engaging way, making them critical issues that the characters must deal with and which greatly impact their lives. At this point in the series, the manga has largely moved from the battlefield to the wheat field, but it still retains its intensity. Farming, like war, is also a life and death struggle which requires men and women to submit themselves to arduous and unforgiving tasks for the smallest chance of survival. The main difference is that raising crops is a creative act while battle is a destructive one. It seem appropriate then that Thorfinn’s labouring in the fields might actually help to bring him some healing, especially since in his past he was part of a force that would raze farms and villages when needed or convenient.

Much of the fifth omnibus of Vinland Saga is devoted to Thorfinn and Einar and the system of slavery that they are now a part of. A great deal of focus is given to Thorfinn and his psychological development in particular. In addition to historical accuracy, Yukimura also excels at creating realistically complex and well-defined characters in Vinland Saga who change and are affected by the events around them. And in some cases, they are the ones to bring great change to the world in which they exist. One of the characters that has transformed the most is Canute, the younger son of King Sweyn. Out of the entire omnibus, only two chapters show what has become of him, but they leave a tremendous impact. Once a seemingly weak and timid young man he has shown incredible fortitude and strength. Where Thorfinn has lost his purpose, Canute has found his. Canute’s ambitions and his willingness to do anything it takes to forge his kingdom will have far-reaching implications.