I've never been a manga reader. Aside from GON and anything Adam Warren has done with GEN13, I haven't read anything manga-ish regularly since NINJA HIGH SCHOOL IN COLOR about ten years ago. Thus, SUPER MANGA BLAST! #1 from Dark Horse is my first real attempt at reading a wide array of manga stories.
This book is the perfect package for people willing and wanting to experiment with this stuff. It's 128 black and white pages of manga for five dollars. That ain't bad. The cover is slick and colorful and the book is stapled together at the seams. It's a lot of comics for a cheap price at a slightly lower paper grade. (It's not solid white paper, but it sure is better than cheap newsprint.)
There are five stories, ranging from 32 pages to 6 pages.
First, some disclaimers: I'm not including any creator names in these reviews. To those who are already manga fans, you'll already know who they are. To those who are newbies, such as myself, they're meaningless at this point. We can learn them later. Besides, at the risk of being labeled all sorts of nasty things, my eurocentric mind has a hard time wrapping itself around some of them. That's actually an on-going theme of the book to a certain extent. A lot of the Japanese names used for the characters hinder my enjoyment of the book. They roll right off my memory banks. I'm working on it…
Onto the stories themselves:
I'll start the review with where I started reading: "What's Michael?" It's the shortest story at 6 pages in length and contains no introduction. None is really needed. It's just a silly short funny animal story about a couple of wrestling cats. (I guess they figured if nothing else, they might pull in a WWF crowd this way. I shudder to think of that.) The story rests on one facet that only animal lovers will appreciate, I suppose, and it's a rather tenuous thread at that. In the middle, there are a couple of clever little sight gags.
The art reminds me a bit of James Dean Smith's BORIS THE BEAR. There's a similar line work and expressiveness about the characters. Everything is drawn in a fine line, and the speed lines are numerous. The storytelling uses a lot of panels per page, keeping everything in line and easy to read.
It's a cute little bit, but nothing terribly exciting.
The "Oh My Goddess!" story which leads off the issue is the most promising of all. It starts off with a one-page introduction to the characters and the setting and the story so far. In all honesty, much of this is re-explained from within the story, so it may not be completely necessary.
The story is neatly self-contained, and told in a couple dozen pages. Two characters are in search of a place to stay. They meet up with a third character who's an anime fanatic and embodies every negative stereotype known to comics fans. (He also looks a little like a cross between Steven King and Mike Carlin, but that's not either of their faults!) Hilarity ensues.
The art uses the same amount of thin lines you saw in the furry story last, but is all about the human characters. Backgrounds, when necessary, can be highly technically-oriented. There's also some gray-toning and zip-a-tone type stuff used throughout. Storytelling is a little more freed up from the "Michael" story. It's mostly nearly-grid type layouts. But sometimes, the artist does veer off of it to good effects.
It also reminds me that the more I think of it, the more important I think it is to adopt a grid-like storytelling structure for newer readers. That is the easiest stuff in the world to follow, visually. There aren't any "anchor images" holding down the page at the expense of the storytelling. Everything is pretty clear and all the basic tenets of sequential art have the chance to be used. The more chaotic methods used by some artists today might be easier to lay out or might look prettier, but generally just end up being confusing or looking misplayed.
The next story that I read in SMB #1 concerns 3x3 EYES. This one is the most confusing for me. The "Story So Far…" page is informative, but I had a tough time following everything that's going on in the story as it happened. I'm not sure if characters change in some points of the story, or if the scene is shifting to somewhere else or what. It ends up being a complete mess to me. Even the brief action scenes are tough to follow. There's a lot of dramatic close-ups with tons of speed lines that don't illuminate the action at all. It just obscures whatever it is that's going on.
The unfortunate thing about all of this is that this is the story in the issue that seems to be centered most on the plot. This isn't a light humorous piece. It isn't an episode in an on-going storyline with its own beginning/middle/end. This isn't just a teaser at a larger story. I feel like I've come into the middle of a story and then leave while still there. Nothing is really settled.
The art itself is a little more variable than the other art styles I've talked about so far. The backgrounds are sparse. The characters change from semi-realistic to downright cartoonish in a few spots. The panel positioning is straight grid at some points, and a little more freeform at others.
While some bits look really nice - see pages 52 and 53, for examples - most of it is easily forgotten.
The last story in the book is called "Seraphic Feather." This might be a cultural issue again, but if you want to understand "Seraphic Feather" at all, be aware that the person in the opening pages of the issue is a boy, not a girl. So when the story shifts to space and we have this dramatic splash page of a more mature person in the same clothes as the kid in the opening sequence, you'll realize that it's one and the same. That kid at the beginning, despite all appearances, was a guy, not a gal.
There's not much else to this "story." Some nice architectural detailing. A definite sci-fi feel. But nothing really happens for over 30 pages. What's the point?
The final story is "Shadow Star," which seems to be concerning itself with a young girl being sent off to spend some summer vacation time with her grandparents. It's actually quite an engaging tale, as we follow her and her expanded imagination to her grandparents' house, then out swimming with some friends. In the end, something mysterious is happening and there's an air of danger.
The art and the story are easy to follow. The grid structure doesn't get broken up much. There's some nice uses of grey areas, and I find myself genuinely curious about what's going on. This is the kind of series that could bring little girls to comics. Even better, the story begins in this issue, so you don't have to feel like you're missing out on much.
So what do we get for our five bucks in the end? Well, there's one gigantic waste of space, one confusing section, a couple of fun little stories, and one which shows great promise, especially since we're in from the ground floor with it. I'm not sure if this is the perfect beginner's manga package or not, but I know it's convinced me to give it another shot.