Monday, January 31, 2011
Thursday, January 27, 2011
The dark side of urban fantasy doesn't always have to be the magical side. Sometimes, the mundane world is more than able to create its own problems. But when the magical comes to fix what the mundane has messed up, things are much more complicated than it seems.
In The Painted Boy by Charles de Lint, 17 year old Jay Li has struck out on his own to escape his overbearing spiritual leader and grandmother Paupau. He chooses a city in the desert of Arizona at random, packs a backpack and heads out to Santo del Vado Viejo. Directly upon exiting the Greyhoudn bus he ends up crossing not one but two of the local gangs, and is hidden and eventually taken in by Rosalie.
Rosalie has a tendency to take in strays, as her collection of dogs and cats show, and he can't help but want to help this newcomer to town, especially since he's ended up crossing the gangs so quickly. Having lost both family members and a best friend to the gangs already, she has a special hatred of them, which is backed up by her uncle and guardian, who left the gangs years ago and now runs a restaurant in town.
As Jay lives in Santo del Vado Viejo and becomes a member of the community, the secret that he's been hiding since he was ten years old begins to come out. He's been chosen as a leader of the Yellow Dragon Clan. When the spirits selected him, the symbol of the clan appeared on his back in the form of a full back tattoo depicting a Chinese dragon. Of course this only helped to isolate him when he was young, since he certainly couldn't let any of his friends or classmates see his back. This meant no swimming, no gym class or sports, and no sleepovers.
But Jay and his dragon spirit have found their new home and place to protect. In the process, he's also learning more about himself from the local lore and the other animal 'cousins' who inhabit the desert around the town. And as time goes on, one fact becomes painfully clear: the gangs are killing the spirit of the land, and it's up to the Yellow Dragon, traditional guardian of the Chinese imperial family, to save it.
As always, de Lint seamlessly weaves the desert southwest folklore, along with Native American and Mexican stories into the real wold in a manner that seems almost real. We meet crow people, a jackalope girl, and perhaps even a coyote spirit as Jason takes back the city from those who are destroying it, and most of the mundane, 'five finger folk' will never know exactly what happened.
That doesn't mean that de Lint glosses over what a town in the grips of a gang war goes through. Good people get killed for stupid reasons, or no reason at all. Businesses leave town, pay protection money, or are shut down by petty gangbangers. Families lose members, either by death or, sometimes worse, by having members join the gangs themselves.
The grandfather of urban fantasy has created yet another wonderful story, which might reach out better to boys than his other two recent young adult books The Blue Girl and Little (Grrl) Lost. It might even been a good pick for urban schools in which the students face the same problems as the townsfolk of Santo del Vado Viejo, and help show them that people really can make a difference, even the mundane ones.
Highs: And intricate weaving of both Eastern and Western folklore
Lows: Several false endings break up the flow of the story near the end
Verdict: Young Adult fantasy at its best
Further Reading: Little (Grrl) Lost, City of Bones
Monday, January 24, 2011
Slice of life romances, along with comedies, are also a staple of manga in Japan. Honey and Clover is one that has made a big hit in the US, but they've been around for years. We can even travel back over 30 years to one of the founders of modern manga and take a look at Rumiko Takahashi's Maison Ikkoku.
Godai-kun, a ronin trying once more to get into university, is finally fed up with the way his housemates have been treating him. He's decided to leave, but on his way out the door he runs into Kiyoko-san, the new manager of the building. Although she's slightly older than he, it's love at first sight and he resolves to stay at Maison Ikkoku.
What follows is a fairly standard, 1980s style manga. The tenants are a bit on the bizarre side by real life standards, though fairly tame in the manga world. In room 1 we have the Ichinose family, with a lush of a mother, an absent salaryman father and a young son. In room 4 we have Yotsuya-san, who has broken a hole in to Godai's room to swipe food and drink, as well as spy on room 6. Room 6 hosts Akemi-san, a hostess at a local bar who is also quite good at 'acquiring' drink from the people around her, and is perpetually either drunk or hung over, and is often not properly dressed.
The majority of the manga revolves around poor Godai trying rather unsuccessfully to get closer to Kiyoko-san and study for university entrance exams. The former is quite hard, considering the fact that Kiyoko-san is a recent widow, even though she's so young, and has decided not to remarry. The latter is a problem mainly due to the other tenants of Maison Ikkoku having decided that Godai's room is where the parties are going to be held, and keeping him up with drunken revelry most of the night, which is quite hard to study during.
The series itself is a very traditional manga of the time. Even when the humor gets bawdy, it stays within about the same limits as Ranma ½ or any other Rumiko Takahashi manga. It may need a Teen or Older Teen rating within the US, but it's nothing that ought to offend an early high school student, or even really an advanced middle school student with lenient parents.
Highs: A sweet, almost-love-story
Lows: The older style of the manga may be off-putting to the new generation of readers
Verdict: A good, light read that helped found the genre
Further Reading: Ranma ½, Emma: A Victorian Romance
Monday, January 17, 2011
Slice-of-life comics often have a wide appeal. So much so, in fact, that it's surprising that the smaller publishers are just now realizing this and starting to bring them over to the U.S. Kiyohiko Azuma however, is a known author here, with his anime and manga series Azumanga Daioh being a staple of college anime clubs for years. So it makes perfect sense that Yen Press would rescue the license for Yotsuba&! and continue to bring it out for American audiences.
Yotsuba&! (pronounced Yot-su-ba-to and meaning Yotsuba and...!) Volume 1 starts with the introduction of our titular character. A five-year-old girl with a vague resemblance to a four leaf clover, she's recently been adopted by Koiwai, who she calls 'dad,' and the two of them have just moved to town. Yotsuba's origins are a little bit vague, as she says she says she lived with her grandparents on an island 'to the left.'
From that sketchy backstory comes one of the most charming, naïve and just plain odd little girls in manga. One has to wonder just what island she came from that she doesn't know what doorbells, air conditioners, or department stores are, and yet speaks Japanese perfectly well, as well as reads at an age-appropriate level. Beyond that oddness, though is the wonder of being a young child. Somewhere between preschool and adulthood, things like playing in the rain tend to lose their charm. And that's a shame.
Along the way, we meet a slew of recurring characters from the neighborhood. The Ayase sisters take Yotsuba in as either another sister or perhaps as a pet, depending on the the personality of the sister. Their mother too joins in, becoming something of a surrogate mom to Yotsuba. We also get to meet Jumbo, who probably isn't all that tall by Western standards, but leaves people in shock and awe of his 'Jumbo-ness' at first meeting.
All in all, Yotsuba&! has a certain 'Andy Griffith Show' feel to the neighborhood. The people in Yotsuba's life are essentially good people, and even the ones who tend to play jokes aren't mean-spirited about it. And that makes for a nice, reliably sweet comic suitable for all ages.
Highs: A five-year-old's interpretation of global warning
Lows: Of course, it's a manga, so Jumbo has a crush on the eldest Ayase sister
Verdict: A sweet, innocent slice-of-life comedy
Further Reading: Chi's Sweet Home, Azumanga Daioh