A Month of Wednesdays | 'Talon,' 'Reggie-12' and some manga

Happy Marriage?! Vol. 1 (Viz Media): Maki Enjoji's Josei rom-com dispenses with the suspense of the typical will-they, won't-they business, marrying off her heroine and the handsome, mysterious, prickly bachelor in the first chapter. Here, the couple starts off married, and then must get to know one another and fall in love.

Our heroine is Chiwa Takanashi, who works in an office by day and a hostess in a club by night, in an ultimately hopeless attempt to earn enough to get her ridiculous-with-money father out of his astronomical debt. She finds an unlikely way out of that situation when company president Hokuto Mamiya suddenly proposes marriage. It turns out the chairman of the board (and Hokuto's grandfather) owes a debt of kindness to Chiwa's family, and would only agree to let Hokuto have full control of the company if he marries Chiwa.

And that's the set-up. The middle-class Chiwa suddenly finds herself married to one of the most eligible bachelors in Japan, and in the difficult situation of having to keep the marriage secret from almost everyone (something about the business advantage of a bachelor image, I think), and trying to make the most of a loveless relationship -- although each chapter makes it more and more clear it won't be loveless for too long.

I'm tempted to say something about Japanese pop culture and weirdness, but I get the feeling that if I were to pick up certain cheap paperback from the book aisles of my local drug store or grocery store, I would find plotlines just as outlandish, if not more so. And those would likely seem more tiresome to me, because they are from my own culture and because they don't have any pictures. But comics can make even somewhat silly romance novel/comedy plots seem new and interesting and fun.

I bet an American romance novel would be smuttier, however. Although the fact that it's comics means it's at least as visual as it is verbal, the proceedings are almost entirely chaste, with nothing hotter or heavier than kissing in this first volume. So I guess that's one thing Harlequin romances and their ilk have over this particular manga ...

Magi, Vol. 1 (Viz Media): A few of the characters in Shinobu Otaka's adventure story will have familiar-sounding names. The star is a little boy named Aladdin, who wears a magical flute around his neck that, when blown, summons a formidable blue giant—or, more accurately, parts of a formidable blue giant (sometimes just his arms, sometimes just his legs, occasionally his whole body except his head, which never leaves the flute).  The djinn that's housed in the flute is shy, you see (and, should a girl touch part of him, he will immediately withdraw within his metal home). That's one of the ways Otaka keeps the Aladdin's genie from serving as too much of a deus ex machina; the other is that Aladdin can only call on him so often in a certain amount of time, because blowing the flute takes a lot out of him.

After the initial chapter introducing Aladdin and his flute and the guy inside, the boy teams up with the older, more traditionally heroic Ali Baba, who here has even less in common with his Arabian Nights inspiration than Otaka's version of Aladdin does, at least so far.

The former is seeking a friend, and the latter is seeking the sort of fortune that he can only gain by clearing a "dungeon," one of many mysterious towers full of traps, treasures and monsters that rose out of the ground one day. These are, as they sound, role-playing game inspired locations made and taken quite literal.

It's difficult to tell where exactly Otaka is going at this early point in the story, but the art is fine and sharp, and the mixture of Arabian Nights exotica with modern, Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs filtered through a modern manga style and sensibility ought to at least prove interesting to a certain kind of comics reader, if not exactly engaging.

Reggie-12 (Drawn & Quarterly):  You may remember Brian Ralph's Astro Boy-inspired boy robot who defends the city from bigger, more evil robots in the back pages of the late, great Giant Robot magazine. Or from his 2004 Reggie-12 Free Comic Book Day Special. But you've certainly never seen him quite like this.

Drawn & Quarterly has collected Ralph's Reggie material into a huge, 9-inch by 12-inch hardcover album, featuring a nifty cover that allows you to see (and feel) the mechanical workings of Reggie's innards (and those of his logo), if you tilt the cover just slightly (and run your fingers over it).

It's the kind of book-as-art object that's so cool-looking, you might find yourself regretting putting it on a bookshelf, and instead find yourself shopping for a coffee table, just so you have something to set it on for visitors to enjoy.

Like Astro Boy, Reggie is a button-cute, Pinocchio syndrome-suffering young robot with a distinctive hairstyle and a metal body brimming with weapons who seems to spend much of his free time savagely beating wicked-looking giant robots with names like Magno, H-Zinga and Doomsday-99.

The similarities end there, however. Reggie's cast includes his bearded creator Professor Tinkerton, fellow robot Donald-14 (more of a stay-at-home robot than a fighting robot) and talking house cat Casper, who is probably Tinkerton's weirdest creation (as revealed after a scene in which — "SPLORT!" — he unexpectedly births a kitten, holding it aloft and saying "Look what just came out of me," we learn that Casper was built Frankenstein-style from various dissected cat parts, at least some of which must have been the parts of lady cats).

The mode is comedy, and short gag strips rather than anything even remotely manga-like. Many of the strips occupy only a single— albeit panel-crowded — page, while other are horizontal, two-tiered strips that each occupy half of one of the collection's big pages. There are a few multi-page strips, like the seven-page "Ultimate Origins" story, in which Ralph uses all of that space afforded to present the origin of Reggie-12.

There are obviously a lot of robot jokes and several gags that could only be told in a strip about a robot who beats up robots. (I like the one where Reggie-12 demolishes a regular car, for example, insisting that it is a disguised transforming robot the whole time, or one in which he's confounded by a robot that doesn't conform to anthropomorphic norms, and keeps correcting him when he wants to punch its "face" or rip-off one of its "arms.") But most of the humor simply comes from the interactions of the characters, their different personalities and their different points of view. It's a slacker sitcom in anime trappings, filtered through Ralph's often cuter (and weirder) than Tezuka style.

Talon, Vol. 1: Scourge of the Owls (DC): At first glance Talon seemed like little more than this generation's Azrael. Like the '90s Batman spin-off, the hero of Talon was a fair-haired hero who rebelled from and turned on the secret society of assassins that trained him, getting his own book at the conclusion of a big Batman crossover storyline. For Azrael, that storyline was the "Knightfall"-to-"KnightsEnd" cycle that started with Bane breaking Batman's back and ended with a healed Batman re-taking his city; with Talon, it was the Court of Owls storyline that dominated the first year of Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's New 52 Batman, spilling all over the Batman line with "Night of the Owls."

One  key difference, of course, was that Azrael was developed within the Batman books for a good long while before earning his own book, whereas Calvin Rose, the Talon of the title, is a new character with connections to the Court, being introduced in his own book for the very first time. That doesn't hurt the character any and may, in fact, have helped — particularly given how much time and effort Snyder and company put into building the Court up into a Batman-level threat. Batman readers would have been well-versed in how high the stakes would be for a brand new hero seeking to take on the group when they first picked up Talon #0. That and the next six-issues of the series are collected in this trade.

Trained as an escape artist at Haly's Circus, the Court's recruiting grounds, Rose was differentiated from the other Talons — the name the Court gives its assassins — by the fact that he was alive rather than undead, and the fact that he escaped their service and managed to stay escaped for several years ... at least until the start of this book, which follows the "Night of the Owls." Recruited by another long-time foe of the Owls, an old man with a lot of intel but none of Rose's physical abilities, he sets out trying to destroy the Court once and for all, now that Batman and his allies have dealt them a mortal blow.

Writers James Tynion IV and Snyder (the latter of whom only co-plots, while the former handles the actual scripting) make the most of this premise for the length of this volume, but offer a few unexpected twists that derail the narrative in rather unexpected ways. And, remarkably, they manage to go an awful long way without calling on Batman to guest-star; the Dark Knight doesn't start showing up until the volume reaches its climax, and even then it's only for a few two-page scenes at a time.

Aside from rather tight plotting making use of the villains of Snyder's Batman run–and, incidentally, introducing one of the only truly new superheroes of the New 52 — what Talon has going for it is superb artwork from Guillem March, one of the best (and certainly the least appreciated) of the artists to have spent any time at all drawing Batman comics over the course of the last few years.

The artist has been repeatedly called out for his sexualized depiction of women—he was unfortunate enough to have to draw the Batman/Catwoman masks-on sex scene in Catwoman #1, for example—but the source of that sometimes hyper-sexualized characterization is also one of the great strengths of his artwork, his ability to draw highly-detailed, highly-realistic people and places, but with a superheroic exaggeration in the angles and movements of his figure-work. March strikes a perfect balance between realistic comics art and fluid, exaggerated comics art.

It's the same balance that former Batman artist Norm Breyfogle used to strike so well, although March's work looks nothing like Breyfogle's. The figures remind me a bit of smoother, cleaner, prettier versions of a younger Neal Adams, but with angles more like something from Kelley Jones' Batman comics, and linework that evokes the late, great Joe Kubert, particularly around the faces. Those are some great artists to evoke, whether the similarities are intentional or not.

March is one of the publisher's top talents right now, and this collection offers a pretty great demonstration of what March brings to the table, when artists Jusan Jose Ryp and Vicente Cifuentes show up to draw an issue in the middle of the book (Ryp's no slouch either, but there's a vast gulf between the two's pencil styles).

This being DC, however, the book's greatest attribute won't appear in the second volume of this series, as March was replaced by Miguel Sepulveda and Szymon Kudranski after the issues contained in this first volume.

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