I’m not sure what is required to graduate from “manga neophyte” status, but whatever it is, I haven’t done it. I’m still pretty new at it. I’ve been trying out some new titles lately, but such is my naivete regarding manga that I was unaware that American Manga is to be avoided at all costs (numbers 90 and 6, respectively). Foolishly, then, I wandered unawares into the world of Antarctic Press.
Antarctic Press (AP), from what I can tell, only does American manga. That is, books that attempt to match the look-and-feel of honest-to-gosh manga, but are created by American writers and artists. Honestly, I’m not sure why I all of a sudden seemed to order a bunch of AP books to try out, but here I am with a little stack of them.
The first two titles I grabbed were Neotopia and Legends From Darkwood. Both of these were introduced to me by TJ, who let me borrow his copies of the individual issues, and I enjoyed them enough that when I saw collected digest versions offered, I went ahead and got copies of my own. Neotopia is probably the best of the lot, a charmingly illustrated story taking place in the sort of fantasy-cum-industry world common to a lot of Japanese manga. Its creator, Rod Espinosa, also produced the beautiful The Courageous Princess, which I also have. The comics of Neotopia are up to, I think, volume five, but the pocket digests have only reprinted through volume two (though volume three has been solicited.) TJ says he prefers the art in the larger format of the individual issues rather than the digest-size manga, but I kind of feel the opposite. For reasons I can’t explain, I think Espinosa’s art appeals to me even more at the smaller size.
Legends From Darkwood is another fun fantasy title set in the same kind of world, but with a dark humor element behind it. Only virgins can catch unicorns, so if the most successful hunter wants to keep bringing in the horned animals that everyone loves (to eat), she’s gotta keep her pants on. But when that goes wrong, it’s time for plan B. Again, a light, fun story with nice art that I think continues to look fine at reduced size.
The next title I got was I Hunt Monsters, which is co-created by Rod Espinosa. The idea is a standard one: guy finds out he’s heir to a long line of monster-hunters, accidentally sets a bunch free, now must use his mystical abilities and cadre of oddball friends to round them back up. Unfortunately, this one was so by-the-numbers that I found it to be pointless. There’s not a single original element here, and the artwork, oh my. It’s more of the ACTION!!!! type of drawing, where everyone is constantly in mid-seizure, no matter what’s going on. And there’s one character who’s head just ain’t right. I’m all for stylized art and all, but seriously, the top of this woman’s head is dangerously misshapen. It really started to get on my nerves after a while. With this title, the reduced art started to be a problem. Since every panel was an ACTION!!!! panel, a lot of the action sequences, while possibly very effective and exciting in their original formal, became a crowded jumble of speed lines.
Then I got The Agents. This was a 6-issue miniseries originally done through Image comics a couple years ago. It’s written by Kevin Gunstone and drawn by Ben Dunn, who Antarctic hails in its cover blurbs as “The Godfather of American Manga!” It looks like he’s the creator of Ninja High School, which I’m familiar with only by reputation. The Agents is a pastiche-slash-homage-slash-ripoff of British 60’s spy fiction. Everyone’s here, from Bond to Emma Peel to the Green Hornet(?) to the Thunderbirds. Even Doctor Who makes a cameo appearance (though really, guys, shouldn’t it be Pertwee’s Doctor instead of Tom Baker’s). The plot is, thirty years ago, an Ernst Blofeld-type mastermind successfully nuked Washington and Moscow, ending the cold war and returning Great Britain to the role of sole superpower. Since then, a variety of secret agents with amazing hardware have kept that power strong. But now that same criminal mastermind is dying and wants to share his advanced knowledge with the rest of the world for the betterment of mankind. Can he be trusted? And does mankind want to be bettered? This was originally six parts, and by part two I was seriously rolling my eyes. However, somewhere in part three, everything clicked for me, and I started to have fun. I gotta say, this book’s a hoot. Sure, there’s not a little bit of misogyny in it, and the plot starts to get absurdly complex, but these are 60’s era spy stories we’re talking about here.
And then came…Twilight X. Oh, my. On paper, Twilight X looks right up my alley. From the back cover: “Eleven years of war have left the Earth in turmoil. The survivors are left to struggle against hostile forces bent upon claiming what’s left of a ruined, lawless planet.” I like me some post-apocalyptic drama, so naturally this seemed worth checking out. In fact, it appears I ordered TWO volumes of it.
Where to begin? Well, let’s say that post-apocalyptic isn’t quite the right description. In this ruined, lawless world, nothing seems overly ruined. Hard to say for sure, though, since the action never seems to take place anywhere in particular. It’s on…a beach, a boat, some jungle. No clue as to where any of this is supposed to be. The characters run around shooting at each other for no well-explained reason. There’s a LOT of military hardware just laying around. Need a jeep? There’s guaranteed to be one along soon. A helicopter? Take your pick of several. A luxury speedboat? One just happens to be parked at the pier you’re standing by, with the keys conveniently in it.
The characters. There’s Jed Saxon, he’s the hero. Ex-Special Forces, Action Saxon can pretty much do anything. The curious lack of pupils in his eyes suggest he’s a descendent of Little Orphan Annie’s. He meets the other main character, his love interest, when he sneaks up on a car that she and her boyfriend are having a fight in, pulls the boyfriend out, kills him, and then steals the car. This almost immediately makes him insanely desirable to…Toots. Yes, this is her name, Toots. Toots is described on the back cover (her name is noticeably omitted) as “enigmatic,” which seems to mean “vapid”. Toots exists only to worship Jed, offer him sex, and get kidnapped.
The artist can certainly draw military hardware, and can draw manga-style humans about as well as anyone who seems to be interested in doing so can. The artwork is constantly vacillating from “looking very close to at least a somewhat well-done faux-manga webcomic” to “might have looked better in its original medium of Erasermate on 8th-grade History notebook.”
Like I said, I somehow ended up with two volumes of this, and it didn’t improve much with time. If my words here can keep just one person from purchasing this, it will be worth it, though. So is there a good, Fallout-style post-apocalyptic book out there I should look into?
After that debacle, I was hoping to end my tour of Antarctica on a high note, and I sort of did. The final book I got was the digest version of the miniseries, Assembly. It’s the story of a young woman living in an oppressive nation that is at war with its neighbors for unspecified reasons. Despite her older sister’s warnings, she runs off and joins the army, but eventually gets in over her head.
The artwork in here is really nice, with a softness that I wasn’t really expecting. The characters (there are really only one and a half) are well-rounded, with Shon being sympathetic, even though she doesn’t seem to have thought things out very well. But unfortunately, the promise of the first half of the story is wasted by the tragic thud of the second half. Things it seems we’re eventually going to learn about, such as, for example, the nature of this constant war, are never addressed. The main implement of battle is, of course (this is still manga) mechs, and mech-on-mech action is seldom done well. The sketches in the back make it clear that creator Sherard Jackson had very specific goals in mind for the mech designs, but on the page it’s just a jumble of machinery. I had no idea who was who and on what side. Shon is trained in the military as a battlefield surgeon, though you know she’s going to get behind the wheel of a mech eventually, because remember, this is a manga. How does this happen? An officer is so impressed with her skills as a surgeon that he immediately has her reassigned to front-line combat. Zuh? And finally, tragically, all of this is heading towards an ending that is incredibly hokey and predictable. Assembly wants very much to be an Important statement on War, but it’s ultimately extremely shallow. It’s not bad to look at, and there’s a good story that could have come out of it, but it disappoints in the end.
So that’s my adventures in American manga. Six titles, three of which I liked, two of which I didn’t, and one of which was kind of meh. Could have been worse, I think. Granted, in the backs of these I saw ads for other AP offerings that I wouldn’t read on a salary, but still, I’m not sure these odds are that different from any other manga company, American or otherwise, or any other comic company, for that matter.