Batman: Night of the Monster Men

Following the death of Tim “Red Robin” Drake—in Detective Comics, vol. 1: Rise of the Batmen—Batman is more protective of his followers than ever. Unfortunately, as much as he would like to shoulder the burden of protecting Gotham City himself, he cannot. Particularly with a hurricane bearing down on the city that promises to be the worst natural disaster in the city’s history.

Unbeknownst to Batman, Gotham City is also about to experience the greatest unnatural disaster in its history.

Dr. Hugo Strangea mad psychologist and scientist with a Batman obsession and no scrupleshas devised a method of animating the dead and enlarging them. At the height of the hurricane’s approach, he released four of his creations on a helpless Gotham City. With the city’s buildings being buffeted by the storm and the giants, Batman and his allies will find themselves tested as never before as they struggle to survive the Night of the Monster Men!

One wonders what prompted the creation of Batman: Night of The Monster Men. Was there a meeting at the Bat-Office at DC Comics where someone said, with a gleam in their eyes, “What would it be like if we threw Batman into the middle of a kaiju movie?” Was there mad cackling as the writers began throwing ideas at each other and talked about just how this might actually happen? This seems a logical guess and it is the only logical thing about this crossover between Batman, Detective Comics, and Nightwing.

Night Of The Monster Men is a profoundly stupid story. Despite this, it works within the context of its world. It is utterly nonsensical but it revels in that fact. The only thing more ridiculous than Dr. Hugo Strange’s plan in this book is the fact that Batman actually has plans in place for coping with giant monsters demolishing Gotham City.

Why? Because he’s Batman! He has plans for everything! It doesn’t reach the extreme of him having “Bat-Giant-Zombie-Repellant” in his utility belt or a giant bat-shaped robot but the action of the story is gloriously over the top. This is as it should be in a good kaiju story.

The artwork is competent but uneven. Such is frequently the state of crossovers where you have three artists, three colorists and three letterers working on one story. There’s no uniform appearance to the artwork which might not be a big problem were it not for the wildly contrasting aesthetics at play. Riley Rossmo, for instance, depicts everything in vivid, gritty detail and makes the entire story look like a horror movie. Roge Antonio, by contrast, uses a more exaggerated style, where every character not wearing a mask has big, bulging eyes.

Batman: Night Of The Monster Men is rated for audiences 12 and up by DC Comics. I consider this rating a fair one as there’s nothing inappropriate for teen audiences in this story. There’s no nudity or sexual content. There’s not even so much as a romantic scene or a kiss. Were it not for some truly horrific moments involving the monsters and the transformation sequences, I dare say this comic would be fitting for younger children who enjoy giant monsters demolishing cities.

Batman: Night of the Monster Men
by Steve Orlando, Tom King, Tim Seeley, and James Tynion IV
Art by Riley Rossmo, Roge Antonio, and Andy MacDonald
ISBN: 9781401274313
DC Comics, 2017
Publisher Age Rating: 12+

Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, vols. 2-3

Rika, Keiko, Suguha, and Hiyori are schoolgirls who spend their free time in the virtual reality game ALfheim Online, or ALO. In the opening volume of Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, the first three befriended Hiyori. Now, in the second and third volumes, the four girls continue their adventures together and a terrible secret about Hiyori is revealed. But first, a swimsuit contest!

When volume two opens, the girls need in-game money to fix their damaged armor. How will they get the cash? By winning an in-game swimsuit contest! The contest awards points for audience attention, so the girls go fanservice-wild all over the beach in an attempt to raise their scores. Then a monster attacks the swimsuit contest: a giant jellyfish with a taste for inappropriate tickling! How will our bikini-clad heroines fare against this perverted tentacle-monster? (After reading the first volume of SAO: Girls’ Ops, I would never have predicted writing that sentence about the second one.)

In volume three, a new arrival to ALO threatens to reveal an awful secret about Hiyori’s past. She knew Hiyori back in the days of Sword Art Online, the killer game that trapped players inside. People in SAO did terrible things to stay alive. Will Hiyori lose her friends when they find out what she did to survive SAO?

The tone change between these two volumes is enough to give you whiplash. The former revels in fanservice, while the latter is full of emotional scenes and flashbacks. Almost the entire second volume takes place in-game, in and around the swimsuit contest. The third volume includes more real-life scenes: fearing rejection, Hiyori stops logging onto ALO, forcing her friends to track her down in the real world.

While volume two is gleefully over-the-top with its fanservice, no nudity appears in either book. There is no graphic violence, either. Readers may find it refreshing that the fanservice is mostly intentional on the part of the girls. This isn’t a case of revealingly torn clothes or someone walking in on a girl’s bath—the girls have agency. They make the decision to put on those bikinis and strut their stuff (though nobody asked a creeper jellyfish to crash the party). Also, it’s easier to accept some unrealistic boob physics, given that the characters we’re looking at are video game avatars rather than real people.

The virtual reality MMORPG setting impacts both volumes. In volume two, the swimsuit competition has to be designed to avoid violating the game’s sexual harassment rules. In volume three, players take advantage of rules that allow them to attack other players under certain circumstances. The situation is compared to the way things were in SAO—an odd choice, perhaps, since it reminds readers that the stakes were far higher in SAO than they are now in ALO.

The artistic style is consistent inside and outside the game world, using fine, delicate lines with a variety of screentones and shades of gray. The artwork focuses on the characters, who are pretty, active, and expressive. Both the fantasy landscapes of ALO and the classrooms and cafes of our heroines’ real lives are shown enough to give a sense of place, but definitely remain in the background.

Volume one had the characters going on quests and beating monsters while cementing their friendship. These volumes, with their focus on swimsuit contests and tragic backstories, involve less of ALO’s usual gameplay, and not much combat. Each volume has some battle action, but more time is spent on the characters’ emotional lives—and in volume two, on their boobs.

Because the first three volumes are so different, it’s difficult to say who is meant to be the ideal audience for this series. Fans of the SAO universe will enjoy the ALO adventures of some familiar characters, especially the SAO references in volume three. Volumes one and three are plot-heavy and interconnected, while volume two is a wacky escapade barely tied to the others. Some readers will take it in stride, and those who like fanservice will love it, but it’s worth noting that any reader uncomfortable with all the fanservice can skip volume two without missing any plot developments.

Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, vols. 2-3
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Neko Nekobyou
vol 2 ISBN: 9780316268998
vol 3 ISBN: 9780316552677
Yen Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Sword Art Online: Progressive, vols 1-4

Asuna’s life has always been carefully planned. Her mother pushes her to work hard so she can get into a great high school, then an excellent college, then a stellar career. That means lots of studying and no time for anything as trivial as video games. So naturally, when Asuna takes a teeny break to try out her brother’s new game, Sword Art Online, she immediately becomes trapped in its virtual world along with thousands of other players. Mom will NOT be pleased.

But Asuna has bigger things to worry about: if you die in this game, you die in real life. No one can log out until someone has beaten the entire game and many have already died trying. Asuna doesn’t know anything about gaming!

When our smart, hard-working heroine realizes that video game skills can be studied and practiced, Asuna starts doing what she’s always done: overachieving. Soon she’s one of the game’s most powerful players, fighting on the front lines alongside the mysterious swordsman Kirito. It’s not all life-or-death battles: tackling side quests and solving mysteries, Asuna makes friends and discovers that she just might be a natural leader.

Originally a light novel series, Sword Art Online now has a wildly successful anime and nearly a dozen manga adaptations so far. The first manga series, Sword Art Online: Aincrad, sees Kirito, Asuna, and others battle their way through the deadly SAO game. The spin-off series that follow take our heroes through various different virtual reality game adventures. Now, Sword Art Online: Progressive goes back to the beginning of the story. Where the Aincrad manga opens late in the SAO game and explains previous events via flashbacks, Progressive starts at the first level of the game and goes from there. It’s hard to know how long this series might keep up its current pace—after four volumes, the heroes have only cleared two of the one hundred levels they must beat to escape SAO!

Kiseki Himura’s art is crisp and polished, making use of a range of grayscale shading. While the characters are by far the most prominent element, SAO’s fantasy world and monsters are given enough attention to ground the story in its setting. Like other SAO manga, the series incorporates visual reminders of the fact that the characters are in a video game, such as floating menus and hit point bars.

A reserved and practical character, Asuna does not flaunt her body, but the illustrator certainly does. In addition to scattered panty shots, the series occasionally serves up a concentrated dose of fanservice. In the first volume, for instance, Asuna takes a bath, and we get eight and a half pages of her either in her underwear or naked. This includes full-frontal nudity, though nipples and genitals are not drawn in. Asuna gets outraged and embarrassed when someone tries to peek under her skirt or speculate about her underwear, so the fact that the reader keeps getting upskirt shots of her can feel a little gross. Similarly, when someone walks in on the aforementioned bathing scene, Asuna is horrified—clearly this is meant to be private, yet it is shown to the reader in loving detail. Besides being fanservice, these scenes are sometimes played for laughs, usually based on Kirito’s flustered reaction.

This series contains plenty of action. The video game setting means that fights are bloodless, but the stakes remain high. There’s more than battle going on in this manga, though, as the characters get to know each other and explore the world of SAO. For Asuna, being trapped in the game actually brings new freedom: without her mother’s expectations, what will she do? Who will she be? Asuna is still figuring that out, but she’s clever, good-hearted, and fun to root for.

Despite being a recent installment in SAO’s long list of manga series, Progressive could be a good entry point to the SAO universe. For fans of the anime, it offers some of the same events, but from Asuna’s perspective, which is quite different from Kirito’s. Readers who like Asuna’s viewpoint here might enjoy SAO: Mother’s Rosary, which follows her adventures in a new game after escaping SAO.

Sword Art Online: Progressive, vols. 1-4
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Kiseki Himura and abec
vol 1 ISBN: 9780316259378
vol 2 ISBN: 9780316383776
vol 3 ISBN: 9780316348751
vol 4 ISBN: 9780316314657
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Komomo Confiserie, vols. 1-3

Komomo has always been rich and spoiled. When she was a child, her family even had their own pastry chef. Komomo got everything she wanted, except attention from her parents, so she took her frustrations out on the pastry chef’s son, Natsu. Komomo bullied Natsu mercilessly, even though she secretly loved the sweets he made. When Natsu’s family moved to France, Komomo didn’t expect to see him ever again.

Ten years later, Komomo’s family abruptly loses everything, and she’s informed that she will now be attending public school and looking for a job! Within a week, Komomo’s bratty attitude and total lack of know-how get her fired from one workplace after another. Then Natsu shows up.

Even though he and Komomo are just fifteen, Natsu is now a celebrated pastry chef. He’s back from France to open up a sweet shop in their hometown, and he wants Komomo to work for him and live in the apartment above the shop. Komomo is conflicted: she doesn’t have a lot of options and her memories of Natsu center on the sweet treats he used to make for her. But Natsu clearly hasn’t forgotten how Komomo treated him when they were kids, and he’s planning to make her pay for it.

Natsu is a classic tsundere character, and your feelings about this trope will basically determine whether or not you like Komomo Confiserie, especially in the beginning. For those unfamiliar with the term, tsundere characters are initially mean and cold towards another character, but eventually warm up to them or even fall in love with them; sometimes the term can also refer to characters who simply run hot and cold or put up a mean front to disguise their inner kindness. When they meet again as teenagers, Natsu is very mean to Komomo. His concern for her well-being drives him to seek her out and hire her, but that doesn’t change the fact that he belittles her, “comically” punches her in the head when she annoys him, and openly revels in her tears when she’s upset. He also refuses to train her or help her do her job right, and when she does it wrong, he punishes her and docks her pay.

After the first volume, Natsu’s meanness subsides slightly, perhaps due to his conflicting feelings about Komomo. There are strong hints that Natsu is romantically interested in Komomo, which is no surprise, since this is shojo manga and that’s how tsundere characters work. Even so, by the end of volume three, he’s still not exactly nice to her. Meanwhile, Komomo’s story isn’t centered solely on Natsu: she’s busy making friends, navigating public school, learning to cook, and generally achieving character development. Her bratty behavior quickly improves and she becomes upbeat and determined, applying a can-do attitude to every challenge… including Natsu!

There’s dating and talk of love in these books, but no nudity or sexual content. However, there are some mature situations; at one point, Komomo and a friend are tricked by two men who plan to take compromising photos of the girls and blackmail them (a plan foiled by the girls and Natsu right away). Violence is discussed and threatened, but no serious on-page violence occurs, just a few scuffles that are mostly played for laughs.

The artwork is detailed and pretty, fitting for a shojo manga. In addition to bubbly and flowery backgrounds, there are lots of delicious-looking sweets. Author and artist Minami provides notes in each volume about the treats and how they’re made, and there are also interesting asides about the research she did in confectioner’s shops. She even shares some layout sketches of Natsu’s sweet shop and other locations, showing that the backgrounds have been planned in great detail, even though the artwork focuses on the characters and their emotions.

Fans of tsundere characters or “enemy turned lover” storylines will likely enjoy this series. It might also be popular with readers who like to watch a plucky heroine overcome obstacles when the odds are stacked against her.

Komomo Confiserie, vols. 1-3
by Maki Minami
vol 1 ISBN: 9781421581392
vol 2 ISBN: 9781421581408
vol 3 ISBN: 9781421581415?
VIZ Media, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Sword Art Online: Mother’s Rosary, vols. 1-2

Having escaped the deadly Sword Art Online (SAO) game world, Asuna and Kirito are now enjoying a new virtual reality game, ALfheim Online. In this fantasy world, Asuna can forget her scary past and demanding mother to relax with friends. They still go into battle sometimes, and Kirito plays a very powerful character, just like he did in SAO. So when Asuna hears that a mysterious new duelist called the Absolute Sword is accepting challenges—and has already defeated Kirito!—she has to see for herself.

The duelist isn’t what Asuna expects: she’s a cheerful, friendly girl, but when Asuna challenges her, the Absolute Sword strikes with speed and technique that seems almost impossible. Though Asuna’s in-game character isn’t as strong as Kirito’s, her tactics impress the duelist, who introduces Asuna to her guild. Although the players in the guild are already incredibly powerful, they need a strategist like Asuna to help them conquer an in-game achievement; it’s a goal they’re determined to reach, but they get cagey when they’re asked why it’s so important. Is this really just about the game, or is something bigger going on?

It’s helpful to be familiar with the Sword Art Online universe before reading this series, though it’s probably not necessary. Fans will recognize Kirito, Asuna, and other characters, and they’ll know about the devastating past that is only vaguely and occasionally referenced here. Those who have also read Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance will be caught up on the rules of ALfheim Online and experiences the characters have had since SAO ended.

While other series in the franchise focus on Kirito, such as Sword Art Online: Aincrad and Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance, this one follows Asuna, her life outside the game, and her insecurities in her relationship with Kirito. With her kindness and clever strategic mind, Asuna is sympathetic and fun to root for. Her bravery and curiosity make Asuna the ideal person to investigate the mystery of Absolute Sword and her powerful, secretive guild.

The elegant, expressive art will be especially familiar to readers of the Fairy Dance arc since the same illustrator drew that series. Like Fairy Dance, this manga focuses on the characters over the backgrounds and uses visual cues like floating menus and health bars to portray the characters’ in-game experiences. Unlike Fairy Dance, this series does not use its female characters for fanservice (panty shots, shower scenes, women throwing themselves at Kirito, etc.). Instead, as in Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, readers are treated to a variety of active, interesting female characters who aren’t highly sexualized.

There is some mild, in-game violence as characters battle virtual monsters and other players. There’s also emotional conflict: as Asuna’s mother pushes her to switch schools and find a “suitable” marriage match, Asuna worries that if she shares her fears with Kirito, he might think less of her. Simultaneously, Asuna wants to get to know her new friends in the guild, but they’re clearly hiding something and won’t let her get too close.

With heart, humor, and action, this series will appeal to fans of video games and fantasy battles. If they aren’t already familiar with Sword Art Online, they might do well to pick up one of the earlier series first or skim a summary of previous stories online. Returning readers will especially enjoy seeing Asuna, a staple character since the beginning of the series, star in an arc of her own.

Sword Art Online: Mother’s Rosary, vols. 1-2
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Tsubasa Haduki
vol 1 ISBN: 9780316270335
vol 2 ISBN: 9780316272353
Yen Press, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: Teen


Screen-Shot-2016-06-26-at-6.48.56-PMOne of my favorite graphic novels of all time is I Kill Giants, not only for its powerful story, but its evocative and moving artwork. What does that have to do with Henshin, you wonder? Well, Ken Niimura, of course! He was the artist of I Kill Giants and this is his first book printed in English since then. In Henshin, Niimura weaves together multiple short stories showing the reader a side of Tokyo they’ve not seen before: a lonely girl discovering herself, a young child with superpowers, and a rather…eccentric uncle.

The book is read in typically manga-style fashion, back to front (at least in the European sense.) Niimura’s writing in the series is often sparse, like his artwork, but conveys a great deal of emotion that builds during the story….although sometimes it doesn’t translate so well to English. This isn’t the fault of Niimura, but more that he writes about customs and humor that would be familiar to Japanese readers, but that require a bit more effort at times for English readers to understand. Overall though, most of the time the story shines through, making for a delightful read.

Niimura shares the story of his characters in short, but moving vignettes. Each showcasing different aspects of life, such as moving to a new and unfamiliar city, experiencing growing old, experiencing loss for the first time. Each vignette is relatable to the reader because even though the characters are in a different part of the world, its something that we’ve all had experience dealing with in our life.

His lines are spare, but evocative easily conveying emotion and the character’s thoughts in simple linework depicting the squint of an eye or the quirk of an eyebrow. Expression lines are also used to great effect, to show running or fear for the characters. Niimura uses the backgrounds just as effectively, often just a few lines to give us a building or the stripe on a baseball field. But when the backgrounds are slightly more complex, such as the equipment in a hospital room, Niimura continues to use sparse lines, just putting together the shape of what needs to be in the room for effect, without overwhelming the story.

My favorite story in this collection is actually the first one. A young woman travelling to live with her aunt and uncle for a while. She’s quiet. Like really, really quiet. Doesn’t say anything, but has the subtle air that something has happened and gone wrong. Perhaps she’s seen too much and needs to hide for a while. Her uncle comes off as that goofy, somewhat eccentric uncle that has a heart of gold. And then you find out…well, maybe he isn’t as goofy as we think he is.

The best readalike for this book, at least in terms of art style, would be I Kill Giants. In terms of story, at least for some of the stories in this collection, would be Yotsuba&!, which has the same sense of eccentricity and fun that Henshin does, even though it is aimed at a somewhat younger audience. Henshin‘s content would be appropriate for most teen readers, but it will likely appeal most to adult readers.

by Ken Niimura
ISBN: 9781632152428
Image, 2015

Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance, vols. 1-2

110-coverKazuto Kirigaya is one of thousands who were trapped for two years in the virtual reality game Sword Art Online. SAO wouldn’t let its players log out and, if you died in the game, you died in real life. The only escape was for someone to beat the game, releasing all the players. As his character Kirito, Kazuto did just that, and now he’s back in the real world with his little sister, Suguha.

But not everyone was released from the game: Kazuto’s love, Asuna, lies unresponsive in a hospital bed, her virtual reality helmet still on—if someone tried to remove your helmet while you were inside SAO, it would zap your brain and kill you, so Asuna’s family is taking no chances. Meanwhile, a skeezy businessman seeks to marry her, even though she’s effectively in a coma. The man is especially dangerous because he controls the company that owns SAO’s servers, where Asuna’s mind is presumably still trapped. Soon, Kazuto discovers that the same company has released a new game, ALfheim Online, which has strong parallels to SAO, and a screenshot taken in the game shows a girl who strikingly resembles Asuna. 

Kazuto has to know if Asuna is somewhere inside ALfheim Online, so he dives back into virtual reality and soon makes a friend, Leafa. Kazuto doesn’t know that Leafa is played by his sister, Suguha, and she doesn’t know that Kirito is played by her brother. To complicate things further, while Kazuto was stuck in SAO, Suguha’s parents revealed that he’s actually her cousin, not her brother, and Suguha proceeded to fall in love with him. But maybe she can snap out of that, now that she seems to be falling for this Kirito guy… In the meantime, Asuna is indeed trapped in ALfheim Onlineheld prisoner by the businessman who wants to marry herand she’s also trying to escape.

Though focused on Kazuto, this series includes the perspectives of Suguha and Asuna. The villain is a cackling caricature of evil, so it’s easy to root for Kazuto and friends in opposing him. The story mixes real-life situations—like Kazuto visiting Asuna in the hospital and Suguha’s angst over her love for her adopted brotherwith in-game action, full of fantastic battles, magic, and scheming fairies.

The art is crisp, detailed, and richly shaded. While we get glimpses of the fantasy world of ALfheim Online, the emphasis is on its characters rather than its backdrops. Characters are distinctive and much attention is given to faces, hairstyles, and costumes. Most look youthful and attractive, which makes sense in the game, since they’re all avatars chosen by the players. There’s a lot of in-game battle, but it’s all completely bloodless; characters who die in ALfheim Online simply dissolve and then reappear back at their starting points. They face enough penalties that in-game death is unpleasant, but it’s nothing compared to SAO.

There’s a fair amount of fanservice in the portrayals of female characters, including panty shots and huge, prominent, physics-defying boobs. Despite being written as young and shy, Suguha is constantly sexualized visually. For instance, she takes a shower and we see a panel featuring her breasts (without visible nipples) before we get one showing her face. She falls asleep next to Kazuto and awakes with her top coming unbuttoned and her lingerie-clad boobs on display. A creator’s note at the end of volume two reads, “Can’t beat those hot little sisters!” Asuna, meanwhile, has gone from the formidable fighter of the SAO series to a prisoner who insists that Kirito will rescue her. Her captor keeps her in a cage, periodically visiting to gloat and threaten that if she doesn’t give in to him sexually, he may decide to “take [her] by force.” Asuna still has a strong will and eventually enacts a clever escape, but by the second volume’s end, she’s been recaptured.

Nevertheless, fans of the earlier Sword Art Online manga series will be interested to follow Kirito and Asuna as their stories continue. For those new to SAO, the first volume of Fairy Dance summarizes what happened in the previous series, so this storyline is still accessible.

Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance, vols. 1-2
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Tsubasa Haduki
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780316407380
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9780316336550
Yen Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

Zodiac Starforce vol. 1: By the Power of Astra

109-coverIt’s been two years since now-sixteen-year-old Emma, Savanna, Molly, and Kim had to fight monsters. Two years since they beat the evil goddess Cimmeria and left her stranded in another dimension. Two years since they stopped using their Zodiac Starforce powers and went back to being normal teenagersgoing to school, partying, and dating.

Except now, monsters are appearing again, stronger than before. One of them attacks Emma, leaving her with a magical wound that keeps getting worse even after the monster is defeated. Meanwhile, it seems their high school’s resident mean girl queen bee is dabbling in mind control, and maybe even something more dangerous.Will Astra, the goddess who granted the Starforce girls their powers, help them now? And if she doesn’t, will they be able to save themselves?

Zodiac Starforce: By the Power of Astra is a bright, bubbly action story that defies stereotypes. Stemming from a webcomic that the creators made for fun, the series got picked up by Dark Horse after its enthusiastic reception online. The comic’s creators compare a previous iteration of the Starforce concept to “Jem [and the Holograms] meets Scooby Doo” and allude to Sailor Moon as an inspiration, all of which tell you something about this comic’s plot, humor, and visual aesthetics. A true magical girl story, it combines saving-the-world action with hearts, sparkles, and an emphasis on friendship.

Our heroines are a diverse bunch. Emma and Molly appear to be people of color, as is Savanna’s girlfriend, and Savanna has a cute and very positively-portrayed romantic relationship with said girlfriend. Kim does a little stereotype-busting, too: she’s tough and brash and loud, her style more punkish than traditionally feminine, yet she has a sweet, stable, supportive relationship with her boyfriend from the beginning of the volume.

This lively story emphasizes friendship, loyalty, and courage, but it’s not without a serious side. Emma is still mourning the relatively recent death of her mother, and the story juxtaposes this against another character whose grief for lost loved ones has been channeled into rage and destruction.

The art combines brilliant color with a retro cartoon style. The hair is big enough fit in with the Jem and the Holograms crowd, while the way some facial features are drawn would be at home in an issue of Betty and Veronica. At the same time, the soft outlines (done in colors that coordinate with the filler colors rather than in black), the skillful use of shading and highlights, and the bold, saturated palette give the comic a modern look. The poses and facial expressions can occasionally be a little stiff or unnatural, but at other times they look dynamic and natural, and they’re always easy to read.

This volume packs a lot of battling, but no gore. There’s no nudity and no sexual content more suggestive than a kiss or a crush. The Starforce uniforms are cute and refreshingly practical for magical girl outfits. The characters’ other outfits are colorful and varied, but stay consistent enough to give a sense of each girl’s style.

The main story takes up just over two thirds of the volume, with the rest full of creators’ notes and sketches, silly side comics, drawings of the characters by other artists, and more.

Zodiac Starforce is a fresh new take on the magical girl genre. It has the potential to appeal to that audience as well as readers who are drawn in by its color-popping artwork or interested in its diverse cast. Despite the publisher’s 14+ age rating, the creators have said in interviews that Zodiac Starforce is intended for all ages. The story is gentle enough for older kids, but brings enough action and fun to interest tweens and teen readers, too.

Zodiac Starforce vol. 1: By the Power of Astra
by Kevin Panetta
Art by Paulina Ganucheau
ISBN: 9781616559137
Dark Horse, 2016
Publisher Age Rating: 14+

Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, vol. 1

104-coverSword Art Online was a virtual reality game whose players could not log out, and if they died in the game, they died in real life. But SAO is gone now, beaten by a hero named Kirito and his friends. In its place a new game appears: ALfheim Online. It has all the fun fantasy adventures and battles of SAO, but without the “trapped-in-the-game, potentially-deadly” element. It’s very popular, even—perhaps surprisingly—with a few survivors of SAO.

Rika and Keiko, known in the game as Liz and Silica, survived SAO. Now they’re enthusiastically playing ALfheim Online, along with their schoolmate Suguha, who plays a character called Leafa. Because the game has the same quests and characters that SAO did, Liz and Silica know what to expect… or so they think. When a new quest becomes available, the trio jumps at it, only to find it much more difficult than they anticipated. The girls are in trouble until a mysterious swordsman joins the battle. The swordsman, who bears a remarkable resemblance to Kirito, turns out to be another SAO survivor. SAO killed thousands of people, and survivors were often left traumatized. Can Liz, Silica, and Leafa accomplish their quest and help to heal the swordsman’s emotional scars?

Mild spoiler: the girls learn fairly quickly that Kuro, the mysterious swordsman character, is played by another girl. I think this is important to clarify that the first volume of Girls’ Ops does not, in fact, revolve around a man who rescues and upstages our heorines. Kuro is an interesting, complex character; after losing people in SAO, she’s determined to protect others in ALfheim Online. The other girls seem to have suffered less trauma, but they understand what Kuro went through and they’re ready to help and support her. All four are heroic, good-hearted characters who are easy to root for.

Although there are several Sword Art Online manga series that chronologically precede this one, I had no trouble understanding this story as a newcomer to SAO. Its references to past events are intriguing without being confusing. ALfheim Online doesn’t have the life-or-death stakes of Sword Art Online, but it’s fascinating to see the characters processing the emotional fallout of SAO while playing another game that superficially resembles it.

Most of the volume follows the in-game characters Liz, Silica, Leafa, and Kuro. They are drawn in the same style as the real-world girls who play them: pretty, detailed, and highly expressive, which suits the emotional storyline of this volume. There is some mild visual fanservice, but the characters don’t feel sexualized; there are a few allusions to their relative breast sizes, e.g. how well they would fill out each other’s in-game armor. The visual focus is definitely on the characters rather than their surroundings; there are hints of the fantastical nature of the world of ALfheim Online and our heroines encounter plenty of supernatural creatures there, but we see little of the scenery. There are battles in which characters get hurt, but the fights are bloodless. Injured characters register damage on their hit point meters, which pop up when they are attacked.

Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops has epic battles, but it also contains a lot of emotion and conversation. It’s fun to see female characters who are passionate, skilled gamers. Our trio of protagonists defy stereotypes: they care about beating monsters and completing quests, but also about getting their pretty armor fixed and being emotionally supportive to their new friend. Readers who enjoy fantasy stories with heart and who don’t demand nonstop action will devour this volume, even if they are new to the SAO universe. Those who are already SAO fans may enjoy this new installment even more, since it follows up on some characters they’ve met in previous series.

Sword Art Online: Girls’ Ops, vol. 1
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Neko Nekobyou
ISBN: 9780316342056
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: Teen

The Inker’s Shadow

allensayAllen Say is the rightfully acclaimed illustrator and author of a number of beautiful children’s books, many of which focus on Japanese stories or cross-cultural issues. One of my childhood favorites was a book called How My Parents Learned To Eat, written by Ina Friedman and illustrated by Say, about a young American sailor falling in love with a Japanese woman, both of them struggling to learn to use each other’s utensils of choice. His tender tone and detailed, precise illustrations belie a deep well of affection for humanity in all its forms and across cultural boundaries, and his work has helped to foster that affection in his readers.

With his recent entry into autobiography, lovers of Say’s work and new acolytes alike have a chance to find out how he developed such a keen sense of cultural complexities and such an observant artistic eye. This story began with Drawing From Memory, a fantastic examination of his childhood in Japan, with a troubled mother, an estranged father, and a burning desire to express himself through the artistic medium. In this first volume, Say managed to apprentice himself to manga master Noro Shinpei at the age of 13, and began to hone his talent. Say’s family life was a bit strange, and his childhood was unique, to say the least. His choice to reflect on his journey to art through art blurs the lines between mediums, drawing from the conventions of both picture books and graphic novels, and touching down at other points along that spectrum.

Say continues his story in The Inker’s Shadow, recounting his equally unorthodox teenage years in the USA. He moves to Southern California with his father, but is soon left at a military academy, where Say lingers somewhere between grunt-work employee and student, even though the student population is mostly comprised of wayward kids at least three years his junior. Through necessity as well as, perhaps, his true vocation, Say seeks solace elsewhere, taking art classes, making friends and trying to learn about the world beyond his bunk. Eventually, through a series of events, some fortunate and others unpleasant (it’s not as though post-war California was a great place to be a Japanese teenager), Say leaves the academy, rents a room in a small town, and secures a spot at an arts high school, where he finds friends and teachers who encourage him in his artistic pursuits. Perhaps the most touching part of this book is his tribute to his teachers and mentors, which show how much one person can change the course of your life just by encouraging you to be who you are. His high school teachers clearly share a place in his heart with his manga mentor Shinpei.

As Say brings mediums other than cartooning into his wheelhouse within the story, those methods are reflected in the bookwith photographs, photorealistic art, and the occasional cameo by his manga alter-ego introduced in book one. Say reminds us of how an artist’s life and talent builds on itself beautifully, using a format lingering somewhere between picture book and graphic novel to relate his experiences. It’s almost like his personal scrapbook, cut and pasted together to capture the moments that mattered most to him.

Since The Inker’s Shadow only covers Say’s teenage years, there is an incompleteness about itit is simply an intermediate moment in his artistic development. It’s a necessary one, of course, but Drawing From Memory felt so foundational in a way that The Inker’s Shadow can’t on its own. It seems almost certain that Say will continue this series of memoirs on to his adulthood, where he worked seriously in photography before finding his singular voice in illustrated work for young people. The Inker’s Shadow is an important, but incomplete part of the puzzle that is Allen Say, and I can’t wait for it to take it’s place nestled into the greater arc of his life’s story.

The Inker’s Shadow
by Allen Say
ISBN: 9780545437769
Scholastic Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: 10-14 years