Captain Ken, Vols. 1-2

By Osamu Tezuka. Released in Japan by Shogakukan, serialized in the magazine Shonen Sunday. Released in North America by Digital Manga Publishing.

Say what you will about Osamu Tezuka, he certainly knows how to write for his specified audience. This doesn’t dumb anything down, but it is absolutely 100% for boys around 7-12 years old, and almost every single page is filled with chases, fights, gun battles, etc. The conceit here is that this is a Western on the planet Mars, and indeed if you changes the Martians into Native Americans, little about this book would have to change. There’s a plucky young hero, a hotheaded teenager (usually the same person, but Tezuka generally liked his heroes to be very shiny, so the anger gets offloaded onto Mamoru here), a cute young thing with a mysterious past (well, in this case, that’s not quite true, but I don’t want to spoil). It’s classic boys’ adventure.

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Tezuka was churning out manga at an incredible pace at this period in his life, and there are times when it shows. I’ve seen Tezuka manga where you can tell he has no idea where things are going from chapter to chapter, or even page to page, but this was the first one where I wondered if he drew one panel at a time and then figured out what would happen next based on that. Sometimes this works to the series’ advantage, though. Apparently Tezuka’s plan had been for Ken and Kenn to be the same person (a la Princess Knight, a series he would revisit two years after this one), but so many people immediately wrote in guessing it that he called that off, and instead made it a competition to see what the real connection between Ken and Kenn was. This works well with the narrative, which starts with it being ‘obvious’ that Kenn is finding excuses to go be Ken, but as the excuses become more outlandish and impossible, we become suspicious along with Mamoru.

Those who enjoy Tezuka’s ‘star system’ of recurring characters will be pleased to see that Mamoru is basically Rock, his young hothead from several other titles. He’s fairly straightforward here, not much like the young man we’ll see in titles such as Alabaster later on. Lamp is also there as a villainous gunslinger. Lamp is actually one of the more interesting characters, not being motivated by greed or power as the other villains are, but simply out of a need to be the best at what he does. Sadly, Captain Ken bests him immediately, and later on it’s shown that he’s actually the worst at the style of fighting he specializes in! Poor Lamp, still no respect.

These two volumes are a lot of fun, and really don’t let a reader catch their breath at all. The message of ‘fighting each other is bad’ is a bit heavy handed at times, but that’s not untypical of Tezuka. There’s also quite a bit of Japanese nationalism tucked in here, which is also not untypical of Tezuka. Still, for the most part this tale of Cowboys ‘n Aliens is on the mark, though those who know Tezuka’s tendencies won’t be too surprised at how it ends. Those who only read his titles for older readers might want to give this one a shot.

Oh My Goddess!, Vol. 47

By Kosuke Fujishima. Released in Japan by Kodansha, serialized in the magazine Afternoon. Released in North America by Dark Horse.

The final volume is not going to have much time for this, so it’s very fitting that this penultimate one is devoted to the greatest love affair in the entire series. No, not K1 and Belldandy, though they’re cute too. I’m referring to the love affair between Fujishima and motorcycles, one which reaches its obvious zenith here as we wrap up a mini-arc where Keiichi must justify his life and earn the right to love Belldandy by driving a really difficult motocross race, something that would sound a bit ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t read Oh My Goddess! before. In fact, ‘really difficult’ may be underselling it – Keiichi’s failure at one point leads to his limbs being broken and his organs tearing apart, something he feels every bit of.

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That said, he ends up perfectly fine, even if his bike is totaled. But wait! A new arrival comes on the scene, who wants to play up the old ‘did you drop this gold motorbike or this silver motorbike’ schtick, but K1 and Bell aren’t having any of that – it’s the Lake Goddess, fresh from the tragic story of Vol. 46. Yes, she is now freed, and yes, it was due to the sheer power of the feelings Keiichi and Belldandy had for each other. This may seem like a hoary old cliche, but honestly, it’s exactly what readers of this title wanted. No one wants to read a grim and gritty Oh My Goddess where our heroes learn that life is pain and suffering.

So yes, she’s free, and able to make fun of Tyr as well. Yes, he’s still testing the couple in his guise as the Gate, even after Keiichi wins the final race, possibly due to the sheer joy of being on a motorcycle – it wouldn’t be the first time he’s won a race for that reason. But there’s one final test, and it’s one that many Oh My Goddess fanfiction writers have theorized about – Tyr offers Keiichi a chance to be a god, so he can stay with Belldandy forever, according to the terms of his deal. Naturally, though, Keiichi is never going to accept that – he is a living embodiment of all that is good about humanity. Take that away and you waste it a bit. Of course, that was a test as well.

The ‘cliffhanger’ ending has Hild explaining exactly over a game of Koi-Koi (and Skuld reading what appears to be Nakayoshi) how she managed to get pregnant with Urd despite losing the same contest that K1 and Bell are going through. But really, the real cliffhanger is knowing that this all wraps up in Vol. 48, and we’re still in the middle of Hell. Will everyone be able to get out? Will K1 and Bell live happily ever after? Is this series really as optimistic as it seems? Yes, yes, and yes. Again, what series have you been reading that these questions aren’t a surprise?

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.