Master Keaton, Vol. 2

By Naoki Urasawa, Hokusei Katsushika, and Takashi Nagasaki. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Big Comic Original. Released in North America by Viz Media.

This is another solid volume of Master Keaton, with a bit more attention paid to the mysteries and a bit less to the leading man this time around. As I kept reading, though, one thing kept coming back to me. There were stories of a man stealing to try to help the poor in Italy; Olympic runners who also fell afoul of running for money so they could give to charity; old revolutionaries who have found that betraying a cause or lying for the sake of a woman doesn’t make one happy; and even Keaton’s class, unable to finish its final lesson as the school is being shut down and evil bureaucrats want the mural on the wall behind him. Only occasionally tragic, what this manga really is deep down is sad. It’s about chasing dreams, even as you realize that it destroys your life and you likely won’t succeed very well in any case.

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This is likely not a surprise to anyone who has followed the career of Urasawa, a man who wrote one of the most depressing manga ever and called it “Happy!”, or Katsushika, who wrote for Golgo 13, another series that tended to end in death and disappointment, just with less focus on the emotions involved. But Master Keaton seems to go that extra mile. it’s the tail end of the Cold War in these stories, and everyone is simply weary. Even the terrorists are giving themselves up as they’ve had enough. The bounty hunters are ex-cops who got tired of letting the criminals get away. Little girls are cynical before their time as they see adultery and cruelty in their daily lives. And even Keaton, a man who loves his ex-wife but let her go anyway because he thinks it helped him grow up.

There are moments of triumph here, but they’re less in the emotions and more in the action and deduction. You see Keaton figure out the story behind a “werewolf”-inspired serial killer, or fend off neo-Nazi assassins to save some Turks in West Germany. There’s also one emotional high point in the story, where Keaton reminisces about his old mentor, who he named his daughter after, and finds his friends and family have managed to track him down for a reunion. Even then, though, the event is muted: Professor Scott looks at Keaton and says he’s turned out well, which brings the man to silent tears. I get the feeling as I read this series that despite being an archaeologist/insurance investigator/ex-SAS soldier/detective/awesome guy, Keaton really doesn’t like himself all that much.

But for this sort of series, I think that’s OK. It’s evocative of a mood, one that fits its time: Europe in the late 80s, with the Soviet Union starting to crumble and the last vestiges of the old guard left with nothing but regrets. I will even forgive this volume for trotting out the old “a man has his dreams” cliche. Keaton is the type of series you want to read while swirling around a glass of brandy and listening to Sonny Rollins. Just don’t be surprised if you’re counting your own regrets after you finish it.

Attack on Titan, Vol. 15

By Hajime Isayama. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialization ongoing in the magazine Bessatsu Shonen Magazine. Released in North America by Kodansha Comics.

This volume continues to examine the morality of our heroes and the military in general, but doesn’t quite hit all my hot buttons like the last one did, so I enjoyed it more. We start off resolving the cliffhanger from last volume, and Armin’s defense of Jean, which horrifies him so much he’s throwing up. Armin is an interesting character, balancing the ‘innocent’ Survey Corps member side we’ve seen in Jean, Sasha and Connie with his tactical genius side, where he can casually come up with horrible plans and then toss them off with a ‘just kidding’. But he’d never killed anyone before. Levi fares much better here than he did in 14, telling Armin he did what he had to in order to save Jean while also saying that this does not mean getting his hands dirty is a good thing. Sadly, I’m led to believe that Levi is kinder to Armin than to Historia as he values Armin more as a soldier.

(I do sometimes wonder if Levi and Hange have a plan for what to do when/if Eren dies. I have to think step 1 is “Kill Mikasa by any means necessary before she becomes a berserker”.)

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Meanwhile, back in the city, Erwin’s on trial for his life, and everyone still believes the Survey Corps have become terrorists. Indeed, we see two of the MPs, Marlowe and Hitch, looking for Levi and company, and it’s startling how little they know given that they’re supposed to be part of the ‘bad guys’ group. (They were probably my favorite part of the volume – I love everyone talking about how Marlowe’s idealistic dumbness reminds them of Eren, and Hitch’s mourning for Annie, and subsequent horror when she finds out Annie was the Female Titan, is beautifully portrayed, a rare case where I will praise the art.) Hange’s job is to try to convince the little people of the city, those who hide in its slums and those who report on it in the newspapers, to stop doing what the government says out of fear. She offers the Survey Corps’ protection, but more importantly, Flegel Reeves finds his inner badass and becomes someone that a town can rally behind.

Erwin’s trial resolves itself in a fairly cliched way, but the fact that the government falls for the cliche so easily shows off how stupid and corrupt they’ve become. There’s several people who were simply waiting for a good time to make a move, and this isn’t so much ‘doing what’s right’ as ‘getting revenge’. Also, the town is unsurprisingly a bit dubious about the military seizing power, and no one really expects them to ever let it go. I suspect that whatever’s happening with Historia and Eren will put that on the back burner for a while – she’s seemingly been ‘converted’ by her father to their cause, and the Royal Family definitely seem to have SOME power in their bloodline, enough that touching Eren brings back some old and horrible memories.

So next time we finally get an explanation for what’s been going on with Eren’s father, and (I’m hoping) find out that Historia is playing an elaborate double bluff. Till then, I will freely admit Attack on Titan has won me back, and as long as it stops torturing for the greater good or emotionally abusing young women to get what it wants, it can stay there. Recommended.

(As a side note, Sasha is barely in this, but I loved her simply wrapping her entire body around Mikasa’s head in joy when she finds out the Corps has been cleared. And then Hitch’s as well. Sasha may not just be into food is what I’m saying.)

Kokoro Connect, Vol. 3

By Sadanatsu Anda and CUTEG. Released in Japan by Enterbrain, serialized in the magazine Famitsu Comic Clear. Released in North America by Seven Seas.

Like many series I review here, I had assumed I’d do a main page review of Vol. 1 and the rest of the series would be consigned to the Bookshelf Briefs column. This despite the fact that the second volume improved on the first. And now the third has improved on the second, taking the cast to surprisingly dark places. It still has a tendency to have people lecture other people to advance the plot, but I’d really like to see how this Heartseed thing resolves now, if it ever does. It’s also very much a manga of two halves, or rather two-thirds and one-third, as the last part of the volume involves Yui wondering if she should date another girl… which is handled awkwardly, but looks like it’s trying.

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In the first two volumes, Heartseed was more of a plot mcguffin than any sort of villain, possessing a teacher in order to explain the bodyswapping to the cast, and then making itself scarce to watch the fallout. But the fallout isn’t good enough for them, as Taichi and Iori manage to resolve their issues a lot faster than anyone was expecting. Like Inaba, Iori’s identity crisis ends up having a solution that’s a lot less complicated than one would expect, and I hope she manages to resolve a few more things going forward. But we can’t let all the problems be resolved like that… so Heartseed literally attempts murder, by tossing Iori into the reservoir and swapping Taichi and Yui at the same time, so that he can’t save her.

What follows is a classic sadistic choice. Iori’s near death, and Heartseed says she only has a half hour to love… provided one of the others doesn’t swap out before she dies, dying in her place. Of course, it’d only be their mind dying, their body would live on with Iori in it. And mostly, this is an excuse to show off how Taichi’s ‘selflessness’ is actually a really bad case of selfishness, as seeing anyone hurt makes him feel so bad he’ll do anything to stop it. Luckily, his friends are there to punch sense into them. Also luckily, Iori gets to swap out one last time to point out that she’d never be happy with any of them sacrificing themselves for her. And also also luckily, this was all a test/game, and Iori was never really at risk after all.

After all this, it’s nice to have a lighter story (this appears to be the end of the first novel, and the rest of the volume adapts a short story from “Volume 4.5″) that focuses on nadrophobic Yui. She gets a love letter in her locker, which turns out to be from another girl. Reactions range from Aoki’s, who adamantly says that man/woman relationships are the only natural ones (I know he’s in love with Yui, but still, shut the hell up, dude) to Inaba’s (who wants to leave things up to Yui to decide, but still uses the word ‘lesbo’), to Fujishima’s (we’ve seen her lust for Iori before, so she’s the one who’s best suited to tell Yui to follow her heart. I’m not sure how this will resolve itself in the next volume (though I can guess), but so far it’s a wildly uneven handling of the issue.

Which, to be fair, fits with this series in general. It’s dealing with the emotions and feelings of teenagers in general more than most high school comedies, and kids say stupid things. Awkward emotions are the order of the day, and this volume continues to serve them up. We’ve only got two more to go, so I’m interested to see how the adaptation wraps up.