The Garden of Words

By Makoto Shinkai and Midori Motohashi. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Vertical Comics.

I don’t really watch a lot of anime, but I know enough by osmosis that I am aware that the words ‘Makoto Shinkai’ and ‘bittersweet’ go together extremely well. I also recall the manga version of Five Centimeters Per Second, which lived up to that description very well. Now Vertical is releasing The Garden of Words, another by the same author. It’s still pretty riddled with emotion and emotional turmoil, but the good news is that there is a more optimistic ending that makes you think things might actually work out for the couple on the cover, even if several people might be skeeved a little by the May-August romance going on within the book.

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Our hero is Takao, a young high school student who has dreams of being a shoemaker, but finds himself frustrated as he’s trying to do this self-taught, and still is not as good as he wants to be. He skips school whenever it’s raining and goes to a public gazebo to sketch people’s shoes. I like him. His frustration rings very true, and we can also see how he wants to try to help Yukari as well but is uncertain how to, so it just comes out as emotional turmoil. He also falls for her pretty fast, even though she’s clearly older than she is – he assumes that she is an office lady.

One of the more interesting things about this title is that it has some reverse bullying. Takao seems to get on fairly well with his fellow students. When we get the flashbacks that show us what led Yukino to her depressed current existence, though, we see that it was a case of the students bullying a young teacher. The girls in her class think she’s being too friendly with the boys, so begin to simply skip, and the rest of the class then joins in. The few remaining blame the teacher for the poorer instruction they receive as a result. And so Yukino quits, and we see in the scenes in her tiny apartment that she’s had tremendous trouble moving forward in life, to the point where she goes to the aforementioned gazebo just to drink.

But she and Takao have a strong bond, at first over poetry, and then because they seem to want to understand each other. I like that the poetry used was one of those quotes where you have to find the proper response, as it allows the whole thing to go full circle towards the end. I was a bit less happy with the way things did turn romantic – there’s nothing untoward here, but Takao does say he’s in love with Yukino, and the epilogue hints he’ll seek her out after he graduates from shoemaking school. The artist even shows off the discomfort of this by including a picture of a 20-year-old Yukino holding hands with an 8-year-old Takao in the extras. Teacher/student romance stories are far more popular in Japan than they are here, where anime fans still can’t say the words “Na-chan” without risking a fight.

Overall, however, this is exactly what you want from a Makoto Shinkai story, and the fact that it’s slightly happier and open ended also helps. And at one volume, it would also be a good present for someone who may have seen the film it’s based on.

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.