Jim Henson’s Return to Labyrinth, vol. 1

Have you seen the movie? Jim Henson’s brilliant and creepy Labyrinth left me pining after David Bowie (he’ll never look the same to you after you see him play Jareth the Goblin King) and longing for a parallel universe of my own to slip away into should the need arise. From where I’m sitting Return to Labyrinth is a pretty skillful homage to one of Henson’s best projects (and maybe to some of his most fanatical fans), but for those of you who are new to the world of Labyrinth I’m guessing it’ll still be a good read.

The curtain rises (literally!) on Tobey our teenage protagonist, catching him in the midst of accidentally ruining the school play and damaging his already tarnished reputation for good. One disaster piles atop another, building from a fight with his overbearing mother to a failed pop quiz to a puzzling encounter with the schools new “guidance counselor.” This suspiciously pointy-eared and good-looking character is seen on campus just long enough to ruin Tobey’s academic record forever before leaping out a third storey window and disappearing. Things just get weirder from here. Tobey’s family ignores him, his ability to finish homework is severely compromised, and a furry imp steals his history paper and runs off with it down a mysterious tunnel in the back of his closet. At the other end of this closet/rabbit hole (references to the Narnia series and Alice in Wonderland duly noted) Tobey stumbles into the world of the Labyrinth where super-hot goblin Jareth (sorry, I can’t help it!) is King and nothing is what it seems … including Tobey himself.

Jim Henson’s Return to Labyrinth, vol. 1
By Jake T. Forbes
Art by Chris Lie, Kouyu Shurei
ISBN: 9781598167252
Tokyopop, 2006

Queens, vol. 1

Manga and manhwa for girls are filled with pretty boys and cute boys and boys who look great dressed as girls. But is that really what girls want? Pil-Hyun Jung is one of those pretty boys–his eyes are large, his skin is soft, his body is thin. He’s very popular, but even though the girls say he’s cute, that’s not enough to keep his classmate (and crush) Song-Ah from falling for the manly Gyung-Ju. Desperate to shed his pretty boy image, Pil-Hyun turns to a manhwa artist, Bok-Nam Park, creator of the series “How to Escape from Being a Pretty Boy.” As Park’s apprentice, Pil-Hyun will finally be a manly man. However, Park and friends are not quite as they appear!

This series is about as silly and fluffy as they come, but it’s a fun and appealing read. Pil-Hyun is completely oblivious in many ways, but you can’t help feeling sorry for him. He wants to be liked for who he is, but he also wants to be something else, something that his father, his brothers, and the girls at school will appreciate. This very real teenage emotion is kept from angst by a host of wacky events. Particularly funny is how all the girls in school think Pil-Hyun would be a perfect companion for manly guy Gyung-Ju, even though neither boy is inclined that way. Some language and discussions of sex give this its older teen rating, but libraries looking for silly follow ups to shojo titles like Ouran High School Host Club or The Wallflower might want to give this series a shot.

Queens, vol. 1
By Sung-Hyen Ha
ISBN: 9781598166583
Tokyopop, 2006

Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, vol. 1

Eiri is an art student working in an antique store where he becomes fascinated by a painting of a young girl, Cossette. The painting is infamous because all of its former owners have died in odd ways. When Cossette’s spirit comes to Eiri asking for his help, he begins a journey through darkness and danger trying desperately to collect Cossette’s lost possessions–which have become cursed–and, in the process, save Cossette’s soul.

Based on a popular anime, this manga is a decent choice for teens who are eager for more Gothic romance-type books. It has an appropriately eerie feel, though never enough to fully suck the reader into the story. The art has lots of blood, darkness, long looks and Goth Loli clothes and the story is full of voiceover talking about fear, despair, death and fate. Somehow the two elements fail to come together to create anything especially memorable. This is not a bad title, but it fails to stand out from the crowd. At two volumes total, the series is a good choice for libraries with rabid Gothic fans, but it’s an optional purchase overall.

Le Portrait de Petite Cossette, vol. 1
By Cossette House/Aniplex
Art by Asuka Katsura
ISBN: 1598165305
Tokyopop, 2006

Peppermint, vol. 1

Hey is an average teenage girl who has an above average crush on the hot teen singer EZ. Luckily for her, he goes to her school and he’s very friendly to her, always asking her to help him practice lines for the shows and movies he acts in. Unluckily for her, EZ’s friendliness catches the attention of a gang of crazed fan-girls and their leader, Naomi. Naomi is determined to have EZ to herself and she s more than happy to bully Hey mercilessly every time EZ pays extra attention to her. During one of these bullying sessions, Hey is rescued by EO, a skateboarder in junior high who wants Hey to pretend to be his girlfriend for reasons of his own. Now every time Hey tries to get up the nerve to let EZ know her true feelings, EO is in the way. Will she ever get the boy she wants, assuming she can figure out which boy that is?

I wanted to like Peppermint and if I hadn’t read–and fallen in love with–Ji-Sang Shin & Geo’s Chocolat first, I probably would have. The two manhwa are very similar both deal with the world of Korean fandom, both have a girl in full crush-mode on an idol, both have an annoying (yet cute) boy who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, both deal with girls bullying other girls, etc. but Chocolat is far better written, drawn, and presented. Seo’s work is interesting, but she doesn’t develop her characters enough for the reader to truly care about them. She also relies too much on typical shojo elements without branching out and finding her own path. Her drawing style makes it hard to tell the characters ages, important in a work dealing with both junior high and high school age students, and her characters movements seem stiff and forced. In addition to those problems, Tokyopop seems to have thrown this volume together haphazardly and ended up with an extra page stuck in, making it hard to keep the action straight, and some of the dialogue is lost in the fold of the page. I tried to pick up volume two to see if the story got better, but unfortunately it seems to have gone even further into the problems mention above. An optional purchase for libraries with shojo fans who have read everything else, but I’d make sure you have all the volumes of Chocolat first.

Peppermint, vol. 1
By Eun-Jin Seo
ISBN: 1598166816
Tokyopop, 2006

Mugen Spiral, vol. 1

The whole schoolgirl contending with a renegade demon has been done many times in manga, and while Mugen Spiral doesn’t really do anything too new with the premise, snide dialogue spices up the shojo frothiness enough to make it a fun trip.

Yayoi may be your typical schoolgirl, but she’s also a talented mystic over able to control a multitude of spirits. While on the one hand this makes her able to stand up to all manner of challenges, it also makes her a target for demons who know that if they can kill her, all of that power will transfer to them. Ura, one of the leading contenders jockeying for the position of King of the Underworld, arrives to claim her power for himself. Too bad she promptly turns him into a tiny, adorable, catnip loving black kitty cat. He may rage and rant, but it’s hard to take him seriously when he’s a ball of fluff.

Of course, this is just the prologue of what may well develop into a winning fantasy. The characters are already developing complexities, always a good sign. Yayoi is strong, certainly, but she has her vulnerabilities and can be a bit naïve ­ which will no doubt lead to growth. While Ura may come off as an arrogant, selfish brat used to getting his own way, he turns out to have tenderness and loyalty lurking under the snotty façade. As other demons start arriving on the scene, the battle for Yayoi’s power gets more vicious while the relationship between the two leads becomes more than just predator and prey. Comic relief is provided by Ura’s cat antics (the creators obviously know cat attitude) and a cousin of Ura’s who’s determined to marry him, never mind that they’re both guys ­ think of the power of being the spouse of the King of Hell!

So, if you like dashing demons, witty reparte, a touch of romantic tension, and wacky slapstick involving cats, then this is the book for you.

Mugen Spiral, vol. 1
By Mizuho Kusanagi
ISBN-13: 9781598168297
Tokyopop, 2007

King of Thorn, vol. 1

Kasumi opens her eyes, but no matter how surreal and impossible the waking world seems, it’s not a nightmare she can escape from.

The Medusa virus, an illness that quickly and painfully killed the infected by turning them into stone, was sweeping across the globe, and a few infected chosen were placed in suspended animation to be awakened only when a cure was found. Heartbroken at leaving her beloved twin behind, Kasumi was one of the selected — but when she wakes up, there is no cure and no help. A jungle has enveloped the facility and creatures resembling dinosaurs are the only living creatures roaming the halls. Haywire electronics have caused her and her fellow sleepers to be revived, but with monsters set on their destruction and a world so altered, the survivors need to think quickly to survive, let alone speculate on what has happened or where they can go from here.

What has happened to humanity? Is hope an option, or is it dangerous? With the Medusa virus reactivated inside their bodies, they have precious little time to solve the riddle they’ve discovered. While the remaining few have to work together, circumstances reveal the best and worst of humanity — from people who bribed their way into the project to those who will do anything, include sacrificing everyone else, to survive. Iwahara’s character design may seem at first glance almost too cute for such a serious dilemma, but her ability to create engaging action sequences and terrifying monsters and still illuminate each character’s emotions, from greed to horror to determination, proves that she is more then capable of knocking your socks off artistically.

This is one heck of an opening for a series, and while a few answers are within sight, with every new answer comes a pile of new questions. If you like mysteries like Lost, this suspenseful survival tale is for you.

King of Thorn, vol. 1
By Yuji Iwahara
ISBN: 9781598162356
Tokyopop, 2007

The Embalmer, vol. 1

Mihara is best known for her Goth-loli fashion and exploring the uneasy and increasingly intimate relationships between people and technology. With The Embalmer, she takes on a different kind of relationship: the dead and the living they leave behind. Shinjyurou Mamiya, a magnetic and brilliant medical student, has returned to Japan to practice the art of embalming, a practice generally considered unclean and barbaric. Mamiya, however, feels that embalming, if done artfully, gives mourners one last goodbye with the deceased, starting the living on the road to recovery rather than clinging to grief. With Azuki, his cute landlady and conscience, Mamiya manages to discover who needs his services most. The connections between life and death are potent, especially as Mamiya, ahem, releases tension with rotating lady friends after each embalming, satisfying the lust brought on by each close brush with death. The art is everything Mihara is known for: elegant, gothic, and a little bit unsettling. This first volume forces U.S. readers to take another look at our own mourning practices and consider how people can best come through loss and loneliness. The sensual shenanigans are offset by the tender compassion Mamiya shows both toward his clients and toward the people they’ve left behind, though thus far there is not enough sense of where the story is going to be sure how the meditations on death will become part of a greater story arc. The few scenes of seduction, given Mamiya’s urges, lend the title an definite older edge. Neither truly shojo or shonen, The Embalmer occupies middle ground in terms of appeal, though the emotional focus and dashing lead pull the title toward shojo.

The Embalmer, vol. 1
By Mitzukazu Mihara
ISBN: 9781598166460
Tokyopop, 2006

Blank, vol. 1

It’s a walking mailbox! It’s a talking stone wall! No! It’s Blank, nameless, international man of mystery and superspy extraordinaire. Or maybe not quite. Our man Blank suffers from amnesia, exacerbated by a severe case of cluelessness and social awkwardness. Luckily he’s got fantastic martial arts skills and a cute smile or high school athlete Aki Clark would never have given him a second chance after she catches him spying on her from inside the trashcan in the girls’ bathroom. … Did I mention that Blank’s not the smoothest customer? Just as Aki is getting totally fed up with these creepy antics Blank’s unexpected abilities come in handy when Aki unwittingly becomes the target of a gang of international terrorists. In situations like this, even an amnesiac teenage spy is better than no friends at all.

Like its hero, Blank can’t quite decide whether it’s a goofy slapstick comedy or a spooky international thriller. Watching Blank try to negotiate the hurdles of life in a fancy private school while simultaneously “protecting” and stalking Aki is hilarious – it’s easy to see why she can’t take him seriously until danger strikes. As usual, I could wish that Mhan would tone down the fanservice shots of scantily-clad highschoolers in favor of a little more plot, but it’s clear from the cliffhanger at the end of Volume 1 that the series has a lot more thrills in store. Girls, look again at the awkward, giggling doofus in the back of the classroom – he just might be a 16-year-old James Bond.

Blank, vol. 1
By Pop Mhan
ISBN: 9781598167795
Tokyopop, 2006

Beyond the Beyond, vol. 1

Futaba is a sixth grade boy without a care in the world, despite being the baby of his family (and therefore the recipient of much nagging from his older siblings) and proclaiming himself abnormally short and clumsy for his age. However, Futaba’s life takes a most unexpected turn when Kiara, a beautiful Amaranthine girl, shows up and mistakenly believes Futaba to be her master. By the time she realizes her mistake, her fate has already become inextricably intertwined with Futaba’s, and the two of them are whisked off to Kiara’s home world, which is unlike anything Futaba has ever seen. He must help Kiara to find her true master and thereby prevent Kiara’s powers from falling into the wrong hands. Strange phenomena abound, including twin princes who are both named Virid but who are faced with the quandary that only one can become king. What actions will such a desperate predicament drive each Virid to commit in the name of the throne, and how will these actions affect Futaba and Kiara? And is their cute yet mysterious guide Lady Belbel have Futaba and Kiara’s best interests at heart, or is she merely using them for her own personal gain? The story ends with a cliffhanger, and one is left with the feeling that this first volume merely skims the surface of the story while hinting that there is much more to come. All of the main characters are introduced here but none of them are explored in true detail. Their personalities are only hinted at, and further reading is necessary to become truly immersed in their world. As such, the first volume may seem somewhat rushed and confusing, but what it does excel at is inspiring curiosity as to where all of this is leading. In addition, Beyond The Beyond is sprinkled throughout with comedic moments to keep things lighthearted, and the detailed and beautifully drawn artwork does well at enhancing the overall atmosphere. All in all, it is an enjoyable read but since this first volume is so short, it ends up serving as little more than a brief introduction. It is difficult to fully enjoy without venturing further into the story and may be somewhat confusing if read solely on its own.

Beyond the Beyond, vol. 1
By Yoshitomo Watanabe
ISBN: 159816371X
Tokyopop, 2006

Afterlife, vol. 1

Forget everything you’ve ever heard about what happens after death. There is no heaven; there is no hell; there isn’t even oblivion. There is only the Afterlife, a horrible wasteland of nothingness filled with every human being who ever lived. Thaddeus and Mercutio are two of the guardians of the Afterlife, a mixed bag of souls fighting desperately to keep demons from destroying everything. But Mercutio is distracted by the search for his lost love and Thaddeus is consumed by the desire to discover the secrets of life and death. A mysterious girl will change everything when she begins asking questions about a rumored gate which might lead to a way out of the Afterlife. Hayes and Steen’s first volume is not an uplifting title, but it skillfully drags the reader along with the story right up to the loose ending, which offers a promise of more to come. Their world is bleak and harsh. The dead look the way they looked when they died: some with heads severed from bodies or limbs missing, others pristine and perfect. Thaddeus, with a hole through his skull, and Mercutio, who died in a fire, are particularly gruesome, but they are also very sympathetic characters. The religion, or rather the lack of religion, is a strong element and the creators don’t pander to any common belief system. The story is well-thought out, never rushed, and expects the reader to think, a nice touch in any work. To further that end, there are cameos by famous and infamous people, most of whom are explained in the back of the book. This book is a good choice for more mature readers, though it isn’t as graphic as it could be considering the subject matter, and it leaves the reader eager for the next volume.

Afterlife, vol. 1
By Stormcrow Hayes, Art by Rob Steen
ISBN: 9781598166927
Tokyopop, 2006