Bitch Planet, vol. 1

BitchPlanet_vol1-1Welcome to Bitch Planet, where crime is aesthetic, gendered, sexual, political, and most certainly racialized. In a male-dominated world, women who are noncompliant with the law are exiled from Earth and sentenced to serve time in the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost (A.C.O.) otherwise known as Bitch Planet, a massive prison floating in space. They are sent here because authority figures fear that if they are allowed to remain on Earth, their “sickness” will spread to otherwise well-behaved women citizens. The main characters are charged with crimes such as political incitement, sexual deviancy, development and distribution of gender propaganda, marital neglect, malicious manipulation, and cyber infidelity. In prison, the women are treated in order to be reformed into compliant citizens (“How long since you prioritized how others see you?”) and are forced to compete in a violent, frequently fatal sport called Megaton in order to generate profit for the prison. Marginalized women take center stage in this book; the majority of prisoners are black and brown women, with a very small percentage of women being white. About a dozen women are introduced by name, forming the Megaton team led by Kam, one of the first main characters we meet.

This trade paperback collects single issues 1–5 of Bitch Planet and includes the covers and endpapers for each of these single issues in context rather than displayed at the end of the book as a gallery. A discussion guide of eight questions is included at the end of the book, covering major themes and referencing an essay by Kimberlé Crenshaw that can be perused as further reading. The covers and endpapers are drawn in a retro art style, full of trashy adverts for diet parasites and medication to change one’s personality. The comic is packaged for consumption much like a tabloid. The cover art drives this home with quotes like “Girl gangs…caged and enraged!”

The incredibly detailed art—expressive background characters, legible lettering instead of standard lorem ipsum—contributes to both the foreshadowing and worldbuilding. The characters don’t act as extras once they shift into the background of a scene, instead the action continues to follow them, and the world as a whole is informed by their actions. They do not become insignificant simply by shifting into the background. This gives the women power in an environment where the world is doing its best to strip them of it.

Following the flow of the layout did take some getting used to. I found myself reading dialogue out of order at times. Certain pages use very small panels to break up the art, though the art is meant to be read as if these strict borders were not present. The art is thus noncompliant to the rigid borders it is forced into, reinforcing the noncompliance of the women in the story.

The pacing of the art with the writing is very fluid and natural. I’ve often found DeConnick’s other work (Pretty Deadly, Captain Marvel) to feel rushed and clipped, so reading Bitch Planet was a very welcome change of pace. The broken up panels and background details force you to slow your reading. This is anti-consumption, in a sense, in contrast to the tabloid presentation of the book as a whole. The discussion questions presented also further this goal, asking readers to not simply accept what they have just consumed, but to question it, digest it, and relate it to the world they live in.

Bitch Planet is targeted toward adults (rated M for Mature) but I think it would be suitable for older teens as well. It serves as a good introduction to learning about intersectional feminism, the prison industrial complex, and misogyny. Librarians should be aware that this book contains nudity, blood, death, violence, swearing, and some brief sexual content.

This story would appeal to fans of the first season of Orange is the New Black, readers looking for women-centered fiction, and readers who enjoy a classic dystopia.

Bitch Planet, Vol. 1
by Kelly Sue DeConnick
Art by Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV
ISBN: 9781632153661
Image Comics, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: M

Wandering Son, vols. 1-7

100-coverWandering Son is an important manga series, much celebrated for the sensitive treatment of its two young transgender protagonists. It offers nuanced portrayals of these two middle schoolers, their friends, and their families. The tone is sweet, gentle, and hopeful, making it a pleasant reading experience. At the same time, it doesn’t turn away from realistic issues like bullying and the pain of experiencing puberty when your body already doesn’t match the way you feel inside. However, I have one major caveat about this series, which will be discussed below. Note: I will be using female pronouns for Shuichi and male pronouns for Yoshino as these reflect the characters’ preferred genders.

Shuichi and Yoshino become friends in fifth grade and discover that they are hiding the same secret, or rather, opposite secrets. Shuichi loves pretty things and dreams of being recognized as a girl. Yoshino gets a short haircut, likes to wear his brother’s school uniform, and wishes to be seen as a boy. As the two become close, cue the inevitable complications with friends, romantic feelings, and the physical changes of puberty. It all takes place against a backdrop of school projects and family life that brings the story a down-to-earth realism, making it easy to sympathize with these very human characters.


Many unequivocally positive reviews of Wandering Son seem to be based on the first volume alone. This volume contains only a brief introduction to the character Yuki, a twenty-something trans woman who will go on to become friends with Shuichi and Yoshino. The introduction alone, though, might set off some alarm bells: Yuki spots Yoshino out in public dressed in a boy’s school uniform and hits on him, giving him her phone number; Yoshino is in fifth grade, only ten or eleven years old. 

In volume two, Yuki invites Yoshino to her apartment, then pouts when Yoshino brings Shuichi: “I told you to come alone.” When Yuki’s boyfriend Shii suddenly returns home, he is furious, convinced that Yuki is cheating on him with Yoshino (now in sixth grade). After giving Yoshino a long, suspicious look, Shii grabs the sixth-grader by the crotch. “A girl?” He smirks. “No chest yet, but it’ll grow.” He then speculates about Shuichi’s genitals. The kids leave the apartment shaken, but never tell anyone about this and continue to consider themselves friends with both Yuki and Shii.

In volume three, Yoshino visits Yuki alone after an upsetting day at school. Yuki tries to peek at Yoshino’s panties and attempts to convince Yoshino to shower with her, saying, “You can let me enjoy those budding breasts.” Yoshino flees Yuki’s apartment, saying he’s “scared,” only to have Yuki fetch him back, murmuring, “Sheesh, you are a sensitive one, aren’t you?” Instead of being called out for her predatory behavior and avoided, Yuki becomes a sort of mentor for the protagonists. She is the only trans adult depicted in the series (as of volume seven).

The series was originally published as seinen with an adult audience, which fits the nostalgic, poignant feel of the story. It also makes bullies’ occasional use of homophobic slurs feel less shocking than if the story were aimed at children the age of its protagonists. These new editions put the manga into large, beautiful hardcover books with thick paper. Enlarging the art to fit bigger pages makes it a little spare and simple, but that actually fits the story well as the clear, straightforward images help keep the focus on the emotional storylines. The drawings are always realistic, not veering into wacky visual humor or over-the-top action. They keep a quiet, consistent tone that supports the story like a well-chosen movie soundtrack.

In her notes at the end of volume one, the creator laments, “My characters are hard to tell apart, my backgrounds are too empty, and I have a million other flaws to overcome.” While the characters do have similar faces and sometimes hairstyles, I didn’t have trouble telling them apart, even though I am prone to mistaking manga characters for one another. It helps that the artist pays a lot of attention to characters’ clothes, which hold great significance for Shuichi and Yoshino, so characters can be told apart by their outfits.

Each volume ends with a message from the series’ creator as well as a note on the translation, focusing on honorifics and pronunciation. We get some interesting insights in these sections, like translator Matt Thorn’s brief essay on trans people in Japan.

Outside of the characters of Yuki and Shii (who do not appear in every volume), I would have no reservations about praising the manga for all the same reasons that many reviewers have applauded volume one. The story features thoughtful, empathetic portrayals of a varied cast of characters, including three trans kids (a friend and classmate of the protagonists is another trans girl). The series could offer trans readers a mirror by way of acknowledging their experiences and educate cisgender readers. But the unexamined presence of Yuki and Shii is toxic to the progressive, accepting tone of the story. There are few enough trans people represented in fiction right now that it is dangerous, not to mention tone-deaf, to produce a story where the only trans adult sexually harasses pre-teens. I would recommend this series only to readers capable of recognizing its problems, and I would caution them strongly about the characters of Yuki and Shii.

Wandering Son, vols. 1-7
by Shimura Takako
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781606994160
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781606994566
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781606995334
Vol. 4 ISBN: 9781606996058
Vol. 5 ISBN: 9781606996478
Vol. 6 ISBN: 9781606997079
Vol. 7 ISBN: 9781606997505
Fantagraphics Books, 2011-2014

Sword Art Online: Progressive, vol. 1

Sword Art Online Progressive coverYour assessment of Sword Art Online: Progressive will come down to your tolerance for fanservice: targeted objectification or hypersexualization of anime and manga characters. All fanservice aside, this is a fairly entertaining debut story for Asuna Yuuki, one of the breakout stars of the Sword Art Online franchise popular on CrunchyRoll.

Asuna finds herself at a crossroads in life: does she double down on her studies to get into a good school, or apply herself to a virtual reality Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game called Sword Art Online? Asuna is teased in both worlds: in reality, girls ostracize her and she doesn’t fit in with her classmates; in the game, men discuss her body and belittle her contributions. Asuna doesn’t have to deal with reality for much longer, though, as Sword Art Online is taken over by a mysterious hacker who modifies the game so that in-game death results in actual death and players cannot leave unless they advance to the end.

Sword Art Online takes advantage of videogame logic in a way that will especially speak to gamers. The first wave of deaths are those who underestimate the risk based on other MMOs and push themselves too far, expecting instant resurrection. Some players rely on knowledge they obtained playing a beta release of the game, which turns out to be an advantage as well as a tragic weakness. Controlled and experienced via neural impulses, the game relies on motion-based “inputs” from the player’s brain, rewarding exact timing and stances. Asuna begins the book out of her league, but once she learns the rules of combat, her quick-study nature puts her on the front lines of an assault on the local dungeon.

Asuna eventually gains the notice of a master player, Kirito, and they begin to help each other. He offers her a bed for a night at a local inn, including a shower and bath, which Asuna cannot refuse… because she feels virtually dirty, I guess? I know I felt dirty during the subsequent shower and bath scenes as Asuna undressed to bra and panties. Even readers who would normally excuse a quick peek for gag purposes will roll their eyes at Asuna’s extended nudity; the only reason her nipples remain unseen is that they are not drawn. I thought the guys ogling her earlier were supposed to be examples of bad behavior as they objectified her body, but the manga goes on to sexualize her for several pages anyway. That treatment is clearly not in keeping with Asuna’s character as she is written by Reki Kawahara, so I wonder if it’s a seedy attempt to lure readers and whether it continues in later books.

In spite of the questionable treatment of its female lead, Kiseki Himura’s artwork serves the book’s gaming environment well, from its vaguely medieval virtual world to the swords and shields swung in combat against waves of monsters. The first volume sets the stage for plenty of story to follow as Asuna, Kirito, and company progress to the next floor of the game, discovering new challenges and hidden wonders, right down to the joy of virtual food. Here’s to future volumes that play to characters’ strengths without fetishizing them.

Sword Art Online: Progressive, vol. 1
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Kiseki Himura
ISBN: 9780316259378
Yen Press, 2015
Publisher Age Rating: T

Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink: The Complete Collection

  Romance is in the air at all-girl high schools Touhou and Sakurakai. When a pair of best friends is split between the two schools, it spurs them to become more than just friends; a girl who plays the captured princess in a school theater production falls for the cool older student cast as her rescuer; and even the ghost of a former student finds a way to express her love to the school nurse, who was once her classmate and friend. Not everyone gets a perfect happily-ever-after—one girl is afraid to tell her best friend that she wants them to be a couple, while another is pursued by a classmate even though she thinks she might not be into girls—but in most of these fourteen short stories, love conquers all.

Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink is a collection of connected yuri stories, nine of which feature the same couple, Nana and Hitomi. As the two begin dating and grow closer, they must survive relationship drama and deal with issues like coming out to friends. Some of their classmates think that lesbian relationships are “nasty” or laughable, while others support the couple. The rest of the stories follow other students at Sakurakai or Touhou, and as the characters’ social groups overlap, they sometimes pop up in one another’s stories. In addition to showing relatable emotion in many characters, the book offers fun glimpses of Japanese culture, like the Valentine’s Day/White Day celebrations.

Like any teens in love, Hitomi and Nana have questions and concerns: will they stay together through college and beyond? What are they comfortable doing sexually? What do they expect from the relationship? Nana wonders, “When girls do it, what exactly do you have to do for it to count as sex?” and wishes someone could answer her questions. The girls also butt heads over Hitomi’s protective and occasionally patronizing attitude; Nana says that she doesn’t want Hitomi to be “the man” in the relationship and expects the two of them to be equals. Romance fans will likely appreciate the strong bond and good communication we see in the central couple, and enjoy the sometimes-wacky stories interspersed with Hitomi and Nana’s.

The artwork is delicately drawn and pretty. Backgrounds tend to be unobtrusive and minimal. Characters are easily distinguished from one another, though mostly by hairstyle, given that their body types are similar and their faces tend to have the same exaggerated cuteness so common in romantic manga. The artist pays great attention to characters’ clothes, differentiating between the two schools’ uniforms as well as plenty of other cute outfits. The girls’ bodies, though all quite slim, are refreshingly realistic compared to many found in manga.

Hitomi and Nana do have sex, though this is neither shown nor described in detail. There are a few nude images of the girls holding each other, lying together, or bathing, but they are not actually doing anything sexual. These images don’t seem gratuitous as the poses are natural and they don’t feel designed to put the girls’ bodies on display for readers. There are a few mild sexual references—one girl playfully gropes her girlfriend’s chest while both are fully clothed—but otherwise, it’s mostly kisses and a whole lot of longing.

The book explicitly dispels some myths and misunderstandings about lesbian relationships, including the idea that they aren’t serious or exist as a placeholder until a girl can get a boyfriend. The stories show a variety of relationships, yet spend enough time with one couple to watch the relationship progress, achieving depth and character development. The characters are respectfully treated and at no point do their bodies or their relationships feel exploited or trivialized. Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink could be an especially good read for girls who are interested in other girls and anyone who wants to read about lesbian relationships that are taken seriously while remaining sweet and fun.

Kisses, Sighs, and Cherry Blossom Pink: The Complete Collection
by Milk Morinaga
ISBN: 9781937867317
Seven Seas, 2013
Publisher Age Rating: Older Teen (16+)

Sword Art Online: Aincrad and Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance, Vol. 1

The story of players who have been trapped in a Virtual Reality MMORPG for two years, Sword Art Online has become immensely popular in the U.S. Released several years ago, the popularity of the anime has led to the U.S. publication of the light novel on which it was based and a subsequent manga adaptation, which is a mix of the light novel and the anime.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad is a large volume that covers events from the first light novel and the first half of season one. Aincrad begins in medias res as solo player Kirito and his partner Asuna, Vice Commander of the Knights of the Blood Oath guild, are fighting a top-level boss. After narrowly escaping death, Kirito recalls his very first day in Sword Art Online (SAO) when the game’s creator decided to take control, trapping 10,000 players inside a game turned lethal. The stakes are high: players who die in the game will die in real life as their virtual reality headgear short-circuits their brains. Readers follow Kirito as he battles monsters, teams up with Asuna, confronts his demons, and ultimately beats the game in a last-ditch effort. Like the novel, the manga is told from Kirito’s point of view, bringing a fresh perspective to those who have only seen the anime.

Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance picks up immediately after the ending of Aincrad. Even though Kirito has defeated the final boss in SAO, darkness still lurks: though he has awakened in the hospital, Asuna and many other players have not. Everyone is now obsessed with a new fantasy game called Alfheim Online (ALO), in which players can become fairies and even fly. When Kirito receives a picture from inside ALO of a girl who looks like Asuna imprisoned on top of the World’s Tree, he realizes that Asuna’s mind is still trapped in the game—and it was no accident.

Kirito enters the game, forms new allies, and uses his old skills to once again save Asuna, both inside the game and in real life. Unbeknownst to Kirito, his new ally Leafa is actually his sister, Suguha. Suguha has always had feelings for Kirito, and it wasn’t until their parents revealed that he is actually her cousin that she was able to accept these feelings. Though she in love with him, Leafa will do whatever it takes to reunite Kirito with Asuna. Unfortunately, while Asuna was a powerful heroine in Aincrad, she has an extremely passive role in the Fairy Dance arc.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad and Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance are illustrated by different artists. While the characters are instantly recognizable, full of emotion and energy, each artist contributes her own unique style. In Aincrad, Tamako Nakamura’s characters are rounder and cuter, while Tsubasa Haduki’s art in Fairy Dance more closely resembles the original character designs. In both cases, the detailed backgrounds add to the rich storyline, and the fighting sequences are done extremely well.

Packed with adventure, humor, action, and likable characters that are both strong and intelligent, Sword Art Online is a highly appealing series for teens. Though Fairy Dance includes some fan service that targets male readers, these books are bound to be popular with teen boys and girls alike. Sword Art Online: Aincrad and Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance will make solid additions to any library collection.

Sword Art Online: Aincrad ISBN: 9780316371230
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Tsubasa Haduki
Sword Art Online: Fairy Dance, Vol. 1 ISBN: 9780316407380
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Tamako Nakamura
Yen Press, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: T (13+)

Sword Art Online 1: Aincrad

In 2022, Sword Art Online (SAO) is released, a Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (VRMMORPG) that is unlike any other. Advances in technology have allowed for the creation of a perfect virtual reality experience, known as “full-dive.” A specialized NerveGear helmet worn in the real world bypasses the player’s senses and sends signals straight to the brain, creating the full-dive effect. On the day of the game’s release, ten thousand lucky gamers throughout Japan enter SAO, where they hope to find adventure, gain new skills and weapons, make friends, defeat monsters, and clear as many of the 100 floors within Aincrad’s ominous floating castle as they can. Then something unthinkable happens: players realize they cannot log out of the game. Akihiko Kayaba, the game’s brilliant designer, appears in hologram form; to their horror, he explains that he has decided to make SAO real, imprisoning gamers in his world. Anyone killed in SAO will really die, and if anyone from the outside tries to forcibly remove their NerveGear equipment, the players will also be killed. The only way to escape is to beat the boss on the 100th level, which will allow all surviving players to leave. It makes sense for players to work together, since anyone left at the end can leave, but being trapped can do strange things to the mind. It is not only monsters that our protagonists will have to defeat—thus begins their two-year quest for survival.

Kirito, a solo player and former beta tester, is the novel’s main protagonist. The story follows Kirito’s experiences within the online world, particularly his developing relationship with Asuna, the beautiful and powerful vice-commander of the well-known guild Knights of the Blood. Together they make an unstoppable duo as they fight to clear the game and reunite in the real world. Kirito and Asuna’s relationship is refreshingly equal, with each character mentally and physically strong enough to protect the other.

Sword Art Online is one of the hottest series to watch, but before the anime came the novel. Sword Art Online stands out for its extraordinary world-building, epic sword fights, and compelling characters. Reki Kawahara clearly did his research on multiplayer role-playing games and the psychology of hardcore gamers, creating a believable world within SAO and the actions of the players trapped inside. While the anime brings a new dimension to the story, the novel relies solely on Kawahara’s descriptive language, engaging tone, and expert pacing—all translated seamlessly into English—to transport readers into the fascinating world of SAO. Interspersed are Abec’s gorgeous original illustrations, including six in full color.

The Sword Art Online novel has broad appeal for reluctant to avid readers, anime and gaming fans, and anyone craving a solid action/adventure story. There are some differences that fans of the anime will pick up on; knowing how the anime ends will not detract from their enjoyment of the novel, as they will experience the world of SAO in a new light. Likewise, those who have not seen the anime will be able to jump right in without any confusion. Teens who are wary to venture outside the genre of graphic novels may need a little push, but will not be disappointed once they begin reading.

Sword Art Online is an absolute must-have for any collection. Book two will be published in August 2014.

Sword Art Online 1: Aincrad
by Reki Kawahara
Art by Abec
ISBN: 9780316371247
Yen On, 2014
Publisher Age Rating: 13+

Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America


Escape to Gold Mountain chronicles an aspect of North American history that is rarely discussed in mainstream culture: the treatment of Chinese immigrants and their descendants in the western U.S. and Canada across several centuries. Spoiler alert: bad things happen.

The book follows the Wong family from the immigration of Wong Ah Gin in 1845 to the present day. In the framing story, elderly Emily Wong explains the family’s history to her grandchildren. Though the Wong family is fictional, some incidents in their story are based on real events and the author takes artistic license in his depiction of their interactions with real historical figures.

Since the Wong family immigrated to North America, they and their Chinese co-workers, neighbors, and friends suffered insults, segregation, violence, legalized discrimination, and other forms of racism. But North America—then referred to as Gam Saan, or Gold Mountain—was not the only place they faced trouble. Nineteenth century China had been rocked by two opium wars and its economy was strained under the burden of reparations, with more wars and violent rebellions yet to come. Little wonder that Wong Ah Gin and many others left to search for work in the U.S. and Canada.

Despite the outrageous treatment they received, many Chinese immigrants remained in North America. They worked on railroads and in factories, created communities and built families, and even contributed heavily to American and Canadian war efforts; in short, they acted as model citizens despite the fact that they were not allowed citizenship. Eventually, the U.S. and Canada stripped their racist laws from the books, issued formal apologies, and recognized the citizenship of Americans and Canadians of Chinese descent.

In addition to its seldom-publicized historical topic, this book adopts an atypical perspective: it follows the history of a people rather than a region. The Wongs travel back and forth across the U.S.-Canadian border, even spending some time in Hawaii. They interact with white Americans and Canadians, but also native Hawaiians and other First Nations people. Occasionally, members of the family or their friends travel back to China, giving the reader a glimpse of the situation there. A timeline at the front of the book tracks historical events, which is helpful because their order can be a bit unclear as the story jumps between members of the Wong family in different eras.

The book’s black-and-white line art is more expressive than it is realistic: postures can be stiff and expressions exaggerated. With so many characters who age and change in appearance as the decades roll by, it can sometimes be a little hard to keep them all straight, but that’s not a major problem. There is considerable violence and tragedy, but it’s shown with sadness, not sensationalism.

I found this volume’s historic and linguistic information fascinating. Several Chinese-language phrases are included and explained, and we also see antiquated phrases and terms with which I was unfamiliar. For example, Americans used to call the Chinese “celestials,” because China was sometimes called the Celestial Kingdom. However, the text can be repetitive when trying to emphasize a point and some of the dialog is a little stilted, even when characters are speaking their first languages. Multiple introductions at the start of the book are provided by relevant experts who illustrate the author’s credentials, including the founder of the Chinese Canadian Historical Society of British Columbia – readers must get through several pages of text before starting the graphic novel. There are also thoughtful endnotes that provide context and explain some of the author’s research.

Escape to Gold Mountain has a lot to teach its readers, yet it remains an engaging and entertaining story. It would be good support for a middle or high school history curriculum, whose students possess the attention span required to take on its long and complicated story.

Escape to Gold Mountain: A Graphic History of the Chinese in North America
by David H. T. Wong
ISBN: 9781551524764
Arsenal Pump Press, 2012

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse, vols. 1-3

69-coverShinji is a quiet teen just trying to make his way through school. His parents are gone, so he lives with an old pal of his dad’s. He has a couple of good friends and a crush on Rei, a girl from school. That’s what ends up getting him into trouble. When Rei starts spending time with a weird new kid, Shinji, jealous, follows them after school one day, only to find himself in the middle of a battle with something that isn’t human.

Shinji is reluctantly dragged into a world of highly-trained teens fighting an unexpected enemy: Angels. Each teen has an Eva, a weapon that is a manifestation of her or his will. Now Shinji has one, too, but he’s not sure he’ll be able to use it. Does he even want to fight this battle? And how much of his life is connected to this secret Angel-fighting organization? His whole school? His parents?

This shonen series is both fun and funny. There’s some slapstick, and there are laughs to be found in normal-teen Shinji’s interaction with the other three members of his team: weirdly-disconnected Rei, mean-girl Asuka, and friendly-but-strange Kaworu. The characters sometimes get emotional, as when Shinji reflects on his lonely upbringing and when the fate of Asuka’s parents is revealed, but mostly the tone is light. Angels do take over people’s bodies, which causes those people to die, but this doesn’t generally happen to characters the readers know and the main characters don’t spend much time being sad about it. We see glimpses of tragedy in Asuka’s and Shinji’s backgrounds, but the focus is on the characters in the present: moving forward, making friends, and fighting the good fight.

A proud author’s note at the end of volume three reads, “There’s some pretty excellent fanservice in this third volume – Asuka’s booty short/thigh-high striped socks outfit… barefoot Kensuke being seduced by a bosomy Angel/avatar; and just a tasteful smidge of nudity.” The nudity is on one page and two characters are shown from behind in a nonsexual context, no naughty bits visible. The “seduction” doesn’t actually involve sex, it’s more of a mind-control situation. Still, this kind of explicitly-defined fanservice—and the occasional panty shot through all three volumes—is a little weird given that the main characters are all in middle school. They look older, but my understanding is that Japanese middle schools generally go up to ninth grade. This means the characters are probably no older than fifteen, and though their actual ages are never given, their behavior backs this up. Other than a few vaguely lewd comments in one volume and Shinji’s innocent crush on Rei, there is no romantic or sexual content.

The art is clean and active, the characters distinct, and the fight scenes are easy to follow. Battles are action-packed without being gory; even combat scenes are full of character interaction, teamwork, and emotional responses rather than pure violence. Characters are expressive, with plenty of room for humor as well as drama. The supernatural elements—Eva, Angels, and more—are shown sparingly enough to retain their weirdness value, standing out among the many scenes that take place at school or in other normal settings. This effectively grounds us in Shinji’s seemingly everyday world, giving the fantastical elements a real punch when they appear.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse is a four-volume series. Since I only had the first three, I can’t comment on the ending, but those I did read are highly enjoyable. Lots of action, but also lots of engaging character development and plenty of humor. Shinji is a loyal, decent guy, doing his best as he stumbles through crazy situations, becoming a hero without meaning to do so. This was my first experience with any element of the Neon Genesis Evangelion canon. I know that there are a number of series and different continuities associated with the franchise, but Campus Apocalypse can stand alone as a fun series for shonen fans.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse, vols. 1-3
by Mingming
Vol. 1 ISBN: 9781595825308
Vol. 2 ISBN: 9781595826619
Vol. 3 ISBN: 9781595826800
Dark Horse Manga, 2010-2011
Publisher Age Rating: 16

Neon Genesis Evangelion, 3-in-1 edition vol. 1

Shinji Ikari is a reclusive and withdrawn boy who was left by his father at a young age. At the beginning of the story, his dad has contacted him after an absence of more than ten years. It’s after this that Shinji gets involved in his dad’s work and is forced by him to pilot a giant robot, also known as the Eva, to fight aliens known as ‘Angels’ and save the world.The Eva is part of a larger project by Shinji’s father, who is the lead in a secret organization known as NERV. Shinji doesn’t want to pilot the Eva because he doesn’t want to have the responsibility of doing so. He’s only doing it because of his longing to get his father’s approval.

Writing –
The series is famous for being a critique and deconstruction of the mecha genre, including many philosophical, psychological, and Christian themes. It’s also known as one of the most successful anime franchises in history. As this is the beginning, it’s close to the anime’s storyline and doesn’t add in or leave out many elements. The story’s narration is from Shinji’s point of view and, for this book, we only see the events he’s around for. We also hear his thoughts, as he’s practically dragged through the duty of having to save the world, being one of currently two teenagers able to pilot the Evas. It is the story of a hero who seriously doesn’t want to be a hero and quite refreshing if you’re tired of manga like One Piece, Bleach, and Naruto that all have idealistic protagonists.

Art –
The art is more realistic than other manga. There are fewer exaggerated expressions and the eyes aren’t stylized like typical “anime eyes.” The Evas, angels, and plugsuits all have very interesting and detailed drawings. The backgrounds are well drawn as well. At the beginning of each new chapter, the book has color pages as a very nice bonus.

Extras –
The omnibus includes many extras: interviews with the creator, the anime voices of both Rei Ayanami and Shinji Ikari, and the designers for the angels, Evas, and characters. A sound effects glossary is included to romanize the sound effects that were kept in Japanese. There’s some concept art, character profiles, and color pages as well.

Warnings –
The series is famous for having a lot of fanservice (although it’s fanservice from the 1990s, so it’s certainly not as bad as fanservice in modern works). Implied nudity and quick references to certain body parts is most of the fanservice. In addition, there is some alcohol depicted, as well as smoking. The main character has lots of teenage angst, and later in the series even has some mental breakdowns.

Neon Genesis Evangelion, 3-in-1 edition vol. 1
by Yoshiyuki Sadamoto
ISBN: 9781421550794
VIZ Media LLC, 2012
Publisher Age Rating: OT (16+)

Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, vol. 1


59 - coverA mysterious stranger has just wandered into Meiji-era Tokyo. He carries a katana in public, which is against the law, but seems reluctant to use it even when attacked. But when left with no other option, Kenshin is a formidable opponent, which is unsurprising once it’s revealed that he is actually Hitokiri Battosai, the deadly samurai whose blade helped usher in the Meiji era – and who had disappeared into legend … until now.

Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration plunges readers into the action early. There’s a brief battle-filled prologue followed by a story that sees Kenshin meeting and helping people who are being oppressed by a nasty arms dealer. After revealing his identity, Kenshin dodges some assassins and makes some friends. Then we shift gears to another story, set in the town of Yokohama, where Kenshin protects a doctor who treats the poor.

Being unfamiliar with the Rurouni Kenshin canon (other than the most basic “wandering swordsman” premise), I admit that parts of this volume puzzle me. Japanese terms are frequently used and rarely translated. The many fight scenes can be difficult to parse. This latter could be seen as a good reflection of Kenshin’s legendary speed and battle style, which leave opponents stunned and confused, but it sometimes left me confused, too.

Still, the personality of Kenshin ties together the various stories nicely. He is a bit of an oddball. His habit of referring to himself as “this one” makes him sound formal, perhaps old-fashioned or a little out of touch. He uses his trademark phrase oro, or sometimes ororo, constantly and it is never defined or explained (a quick search tells me that this exclamation is well-known to Rurouni Kenshin fans, but newcomers like myself may take awhile to figure out that it’s just a thing he says). But this only adds to Kenshin’s weird-guy-with-a-heart-of-gold characterization. He’s obviously done violence in the past, but now is determined not to hurt anyone unnecessarily. All this, plus a hint of mystery (Where did that scar come from? Why does Kenshin seem to lose control of himself when he draws his sword?), makes for a compelling protagonist.

Confusing fight scenes aside, the art is clear and straightforward. Characters are easily identified and expressive, sometimes taking on a silly or simplified appearance at humorous moments. Keep an eye on the outfits, they can tell you a lot about the characters who wear them. In this era of growing Western influence, business suits appear beside traditional Japanese garments. One fighter emblazons his coat with a character that represents his frustration with the new rules of the Meiji era and the author notes that another fighter’s clothes were designed to make him a visual foil for Kenshin.

It should be obvious, given the plot, that there’s a lot of violence in this volume. While Kenshin uses a nonlethal sword now, that’s not the case in flashbacks and we do see a few blood-spraying-everywhere battles from his pre-Meiji era days. Still, there’s nothing particularly grotesque and fans of battle-oriented shonen will have seen it all before.

An extensive author’s note at the end of the volume offers some interesting explanation as to why the creator returned to writing Rurouni Kenshin (because of the release of a live-action movie) and the various things he hoped to accomplish with the new series. Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration is a reboot, not a prequel or continuation of Rurouni Kenshin: Meiji Swordsman Romantic Story. No characters from the original other than Kenshin himself appear. The author hopes that Restoration will answer at least one question left unresolved by the original series, appeal to established fans, and be accessible to new readers. It’s a lot to accomplish. If the first volume doesn’t succeed with flying colors in all categories, it’s still a good read and will likely be of great interest to fans of the previous Rurouni Kenshin manga.

Rurouni Kenshin: Restoration, vol. 1
By Nobuhiro Watsuki
ISBN: 9781421552316
VIZ media 2013
Publisher Age Rating: T/Teen