Witchcraft Works, Vol. 1

By Ryu Mizunagi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Good! Afternoon. Released in North America by Vertical Comics.

Sometimes when a company has a reputation for left-field, odd or intellectual manga titles, it can be a bit of a shock to see a license that goes against the grain. Such is the case with Witchcraft Works, which is not exactly a lowest common denominator title per se, but it definitely feels odd at Vertical, being the sort of thing I would have expected to see more with one of the more mainstream companies. Vertical it is, though, and the production is as always first rate. The content is pretty good as well, with the proviso that this feels very much like a first volume that hasn’t quite gotten a running start yet.

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The best thing that Witchcraft Works has going for it are its two leads. The heroine, Ayaka, is the school princess, revered and good at everything she does. And, as we discover, she’s also a witch, there to protect our unwitting hero, Honoka. As a witch, she is also good at everything she does, being adept at fire magic to the point where she may literally be a fire elemental of some sort. Throughout this first volume, she doesn’t crack a smile or even vary her expressions, really – she is completely stoic. It works quite well for what she’s supposed to be. As for Honoka, given that his function here is mainly to be shocked at events spiraling around him and ask “what’s going on?” a lot, he does pretty well, and you identify with his frustration at being unable to do anything.

As for the villains and supporting cast, I will admit I was less impressed. The ‘moe’ aspect of the manga, since it can’t come out in its stone-faced heroine, tends to be shunted here. Thus, our first villain is a catgirl who uses bunnies to attack, her villain team that arrives later also looks like a collection of traits rather than people (though we’ve barely met them yet), and Ayaka’s waitress friend is there to have giant breasts and fall down a lot. It feels as if the author was told “there isn’t enough here that would remind people of Comic Alive, please add some fanservice pronto.” I hope that as the series goes on these villains will be fleshed out a bit more.

There is a healthy dose of humor, and I like that the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. I may have disliked the fanservice waitress, but her appallingness is lampshaded, and Honoka’s general bafflement can get so intense that footnotes are needed to remind readers that he’s an idiot. With a title like this, where catgirls are throwing around evil bunnies and our heroine decided to get intel by typing everyone to a stake and torturing them, a sense of humor is essential to not have it tip over into self-parody, and this strikes just the right note.

I wasn’t blown awway by this first volume, but it’s solid, and with an anime airing last year should definitely attract some readers, particularly those who like stoic female leads who don’t take any guff. We’ll see how it develops.

NYCC 2014 – Day 4

The final day of New York Comic Con had the fewest amount of panels I was going to, as usual, but was not without interest, particularly after I did some more room camping and ended up seeing panels I would not otherwise have seen.

The first ended up being a Doctor Who panel – I got there an hour early, which was fortunate, as the line was so big many were turned away. This didn’t have any of the cast or crew, however. It was a panel with several SF and fantasy authors discussing how Doctor Who influenced their work and what it meant to them. As I expected, most of the discussion involved the new series, though a couple of the authors noted experience with Classic. When asked about what they took away from the series, they mentioned the character-driven stories, the philosophy the program has explored, the ethical questions it finds itself embroiled in, and how it prefers cleverness over brute force. One author, Mike Cole, seemed to be only a casual fan, and in fact discussed how his dislike of chaos and love of efficiency has led to him siding with the villains much of the time!

After this was a panel run by Kickstarter, discussing how to crowdfund your comic book, with several people on the panel who had done just that. Kickstarter was emphasized as a place to build communities, and as an added bonus you can get publicity that isn’t all self-generated. Kickstarter by its very nature lends itself to comics and small press publications – there are 4700 projects that are comics related on the site. It also helps gain an audience of pros and editors, who do pay attention to things like this – new talent is appreciated.

When asked about advice, one point was hammered down over everything else – think about your shipping costs. When you offer stretch goals, think about what weight is added that may put your calculations over what you assumed. For that matter, think about your stretch goals, period – they can make or break a project. Most Kickstarter projects get their money in either the first or last weeks of the funding period, when it’s either getting new eyes or when people on the fence make a decision to pay. All the panelists were clearly enthusiastic about this as a way of getting their work out there and noticed.

After that came a panel that was more in line with my actual coverage, Kodansha Comics. They had four new titles to announce, all of which are exciting. I may have had my issues with Tsubasa Reservoir Chronicle, but if CLAMP can get past the morass of plot kudzu it became and make it more like the start of the series, then Tsubasa World Chronicle, coming out next year, should be a treat. As for Fairy Tail: Blue Mistral, it was a fairly obvious pickup as well, being a shoujo spinoff focusing on cute young Wendy and her magical adventures. There’s also a brand new series by the creator of Gantz, called Inuyashiki. It’s so new Kodansha couldn’t tell us much about it, but it comes out in Fall 2015. I wasn’t the biggest Gantz fan, but it certainly sells well, and barring Kodansha licensing Hen or HEN – both highly unlikely – this is the next obvious choice.

The big surprise for me was the pickup of L♥DK. Not really because I didn’t think it fit the company – after Say “I Love You” and My Little Monster it’s an obvious choice. No, it’s more due to the fact that it’s 15+ volumes. The author has had several other series in various Kodansha magazines over the last few years, mostly in Betsufure, which is also where L♥DK comes from. But I believe this is her first title over here. It did have a live-action adaptation come out this past year. The plot is not really anything new – school prince ends up being forced to move in with our heroine, a fact they have to hide even as she falls for him. If you like any of the recent shoujo Kodansha has done, this will be right up your alley.

My last panel of the day was Crunchyroll Manga, though sadly they were unable to announce any new titles, although they said it should be ready to announce in a week or so. So we got to see some of the editor’s favorite titles, including ones she wish got more clicks such as Memoirs of Amorous Gentlemen. They’ve also recently updated both the web and mobile applications, making for a smoother reading experience. A relatively quiet final panel allowed me to duck out during questions (which tended to be of the “have you guys considered licensing title X’ variety) and head over to an amazingly packed Artist’s Alley before leaving.

NYCC has grown exponentially over the years, to the point where I think this year it passed 150,000. It’s not a con for the casual or the introverted. That said, it was gratifying to see they sorted out many of the tiny room issues (lines were still prohibitively long, but well-policed, and there were few arguments that I saw) from last year. The fans were enthusiastic as well – I had several long conversations about cartoons after the early panel Saturday, and spent Sunday talking with a 16-year old Doctor Who fan and a young woman babysitting her 13-year-old charge, a huge Attack on Titan fan, and had gone the extra mile for him by dressing up as a Survey Corp member herself. The con may have been packed, but everyone was having a lot of fun. And that’s really all that you can ask of a con this size.

NYCC 2014 – Day 3

Saturday was a day fairly light on manga, but that doesn’t mean there was not a great deal of things to experience at this third day of the con – and the busiest in terms of sheer bodies.

I began with Tom Cook, an animator who worked with Filmation in the 1980s, who was discussing both his career and the way Saturday morning cartoons worked back in the day. He’d grown up with early Hanna-Barbera TV titles – Top Cat was a favorite – and through luck and talent managed to get a job working for them as an animator, which was very much learn as you go. They started work at an airplane hangar in Burbank, as the regular building was still being built/renovated.

After a few years, he got wing of H-B threatening to move all their jobs overseas and switched over to Filmation, whose big selling point was they said they would never do that – it was all in the US. Of course, the drawback was they had to compete with larger budgets, and also do larger shows – 25% of each He-Man had to be recycled footage. Not because they were too lazy or had no budget – for the sheer number of shows they had to do, the budget did what it could.

After a discussion of how ACME came into being (it came from the peg boards used to hold down their drawings, made by a real-life ACME), he ended the panel by walking us through how a typical cartoon was made in those days. Mattel asked for He-Man to sell their toys, so a good script was essential. After that, they moved to voice recording, followed by storyboarding and the model sheets. From there the animation happened, followed by backgrounds, then the actual filming on a camera, then the editing, and finally adding the voice and sound to the film.

Next up I saw a panel discussing comics journalism, with several names familiar to the manga crowd, including Deb Aoki and Brigid Alverson. The panel discussed how each of them found themselves in the field, and what makes comics journalism so rewarding. Some of the topics discussed included misogyny and hate in the comments of blogs and message boards, and how moderating these has simply gotten too time-consuming and exhausting. Most sites have comments active as it fosters a sense of community, but you should never be afraid to ban jerks.

There was discussion of the recent debate about “is cosplay killing comics”, which the whole panel agreed was ridiculous. Comics journalism is also finding new competition these days, from sites like TMZ or Nerdist, and it can b e hard to make your own site known. Much like real life politics, the internet comics scene is dealing with polarization and fragmentation (Tumblr is a good example here), and you have to move with the times.

After a brief line wait, I ended up in the IDW artists panel. Much of this panel was used to plug the various artists’ titles, but each was given a good discussion and going over about why it was so popular and fun to read. Gabriel Rodriguez discussed Locke and Key, his co-created series, s well as titles based on old properties such as the new Little Nemo reboot, where all artists are nervous about following in the footsteps of Windsor McCay. He enjoys drawing licensed titles as well, and Sarah Gaydos, the editor and moderator, helpfully added with regards to what studios want: “They have to be realistic, but also hot.”

An artist who goes by Menton3 also does licensed work, and finds that the ‘original is better by default’ crowd gets too pretentious. He said the real danger was in being bland – both in licensed and original works. Menton3 also does a lot of oil painting and also meditates, which is likely how he’s able to get away with lines like “externalizing the internality”.

Derek Charm does Powerpuff Girls, and was also good enough to do the recent IDW crossover series, Super Secret Crisis Wars, which brought the PPG together with Samurai Jack, Ed, Edd and Eddy, and other CN creations. IDW also took the time to announce they would be doing anotehr of those soon.

Andy Price discussed My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic, and how he had to argue to Hasbro to let him use his own, more ‘comics’ style rather than simply imitate the show. He enjoys making fun, experimental layouts, and says MLP is good for that as the show is already so fluid to begin with. He also had his range noted – we saw by some art of Hulk and Wonder Woman that he can draw more than just ponies.

Alan Robert got to talk about his Killogy title, which brings together characters from Goodfellas, Heroes and the Ramones in a horror comic title. He’s also done another popular series called The Shunned One, and said it was important for each title to have its own voice. After this, with minimal time for Q&A, the panel was asked to give comic advice. The best advice was Andy Price’s: draw everything. Don’t just stick with your favorites or what you’re good at.

Sailor Moon was in the same room in an hour, so I just stayed (which turned out to be a good idea – SM fans were getting turned away from the immense line). As a result, I saw Del Rey’s panel on the new Star Wars books. This really isn’t my fandom, so I didn’t get much of what they were talking about. The new book on Grand Moff Tarkin sounds interesting. And the Lords of the Sith cover was hilarious – the panel jokingly called it a “Darth Vader and Palpatine go on spring break” book.

As for the Sailor Moon panel itself, Viz played some dub clips for us – Stephanie Sheh makes a terrific Usagi, even to my dub-hating ears. We also got to hear the debut of Amanda Miller as Jupiter – this hasn’t been released yet. She sounded quite good. The other big news, which actually broke on Thursday, was the 2nd S1 box set, due out this February.

Lastly, Vertical played to a packed house, much to the surprise and pleasure of Ed Chavez. He went through some of their recent releases, then gave us the two big announcements, neither of which should surprise those who follow Vertical. They’re publishing Vols. 2 and 3 of Before the Fall as an omnibus together next fall, and this is the arc that was made into the manga Kodansha is releasing. They also have the brand new Harsh Mistress fo the City novel, which only has one volume in Japan, but will also be a 2-volume omnibus by the time it’s out here. It’s a good time to be a Titan fan.

The other big news was that they’re splitting the manga imprint into its own line, Vertical Comics, separate from Vertical Inc. which will continue to publish its non-fiction, crime novels, etc. Witchcraft Works and The Garden of Words are the first to bear that imprint, with more on the way. Ed is excited for this, as the separate focus will allow both Comics and Inc. to work harder at reaching out to their own distinct audiences.

This day wasn’t quite as involved as the previous two, so this writeup is smaller. Tomorrow will be smaller still, but both Kodansha Comcis and Crunchyroll manga should both have interesting things to say before everyone head home.