Thursday, March 03, 2005

Oni Love Can Break Your Heart

Sidekicks Vol. 1: The Transfer Student

Now this is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit despite my initial reservations. Just on the surface, it seems to be the kind of hoary genre mash-up that is so prevalent in American comics these days - in this case, you have the traditional manga boarding school scenario crossed with superheroes. Its also got enough of the surface trappings of manga to remind me of all the bad American manga which I've studiously avoided throughout the years. Two strikes against it before I even crack the damn thing open.

But my initial reservations were soon rendered moot, because this is a delightful book. The lion's share of the credit for this fact can probably be lain at the feet of Takeshi Miyazawa, whose work I was very slightly familiar with before (he did the art for Marvel's short-lived Mary Jane series, which may not have made much of an impact but sure had some nice looking covers). Miyazawa has an intuitive feel for physical form that deftly broadcasts the perfect illusion of dimensionality. His figures have the rounded and supple contours of reality, and it seems as if he takes a delight in the almost methodical rigor with which he varies the angle of his compositions. But from all angles, his people look impressively solid, with a weight and mass that belies their ink & paper existence.

Miyazawa also possesses an impressive touch with expression. Every character has a distinctive and consistent face, and every face is wonderfully pliable. If Miyazawa sins, it is perhaps the oldest sin in the (comic) book: there's not an ugly or even uninteresting face anywhere to be found. I have to wonder if there's ever been a high school anywhere in the history of the world with such a photogenic student body and faculty. But even here, it's easy to forgive because every face is attractive in a different and memorable way. It also doesn't hurt that Miyazawa has a way of drawing every female character to look irrepressibly cute.

I have, in the past, been critical of J. Torres' writing. He has impressed me as being particularly prolific with no care given to quality - producing reams of material that rarely manages to rise above the realm of passable. I couldn't tell you whether or not Sidekicks would be as memorable a book for me if Miyazawa had been replaced by someone with a less interesting style, but the fact remains that Miyazawa is good enough to paste up the cracks in what could have been a standard boarding school hi-jinks scenario. If the characters are recognizable, Miyazawa's art manages to animate them beyond the realm of cliché. It's worth remembering that every character type in fiction exists for a good reason, and sometimes the most compelling people are also completely predictable. The art is what elevates Sidekicks above the realm of mere pastiche, bestowing a sheen of compelling reality onto what might have, in other hands, been a completely uninteresting exercise filled with stock characters and familiar situations.

Thankfully, the super-hero elements are neither intrusive or superfluous, merely granting a slightly interesting perspective on character interactions. You could have conceivably created the exact same characters and situations in the context of a school for magicians or musicians or even electricians - but the superhero bits give it a vantage into the American mentality that perhaps an authentic manga in the same vein but in a different milieu would not.

Love As A Foreign Language Volumes 1 & 2

As enjoyable as Sidekicks was, I found the first two volumes of Love As A Foreign Language to be uninteresting in almost inverse proportion. Here we have J. Torres paired with a young artist who does not impress, Eric Kim, and the result is uniformly tepid.

This is a story of cultural disassociation, of a young man named Joel trapped in Korea for the duration of a teaching contract and hating every minute of his stay. Joel's ennui is illustrated rather literally, through tediously repetitive sequences featuring identical scenarios recurring multiple times. It would be one thing if Kim possessed the acumen to attempt something more subtle with the story's rhythms, but it's mostly just boring.

Joel is a whiner, the kind of unsympathetic protagonist who presents absolutely nothing in the way of distinction for the reader to either identify with or be interested in. He interacts with a blank featureless world of empty rooms and white walls, encounters multiple characters who look alike and whose facial expressions rarely stray away from the stock manga catalog. The series is supposed to be based around Eric's relationship with Hana, the new secretary at his school - but by the end of two volumes Hana has yet to emerge as anything other than a total cipher, a hook on which Torres can latch his somnolent plot, but otherwise nothing but another in the long sequence of vaguely Asian ingenues with vapid expression who populate the Korea of Love Is A Foreign Language.

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