Every month, I get a nice package of manga from Tokyopop, containing copies of their new series and a handful of other recent releases. When I first started getting review copies, about three years ago, the contents often elicited something between a WTF? and a yawn. Since Tokyopop's restructuring, painful as it was, the company has streamlined its releases and is putting out fewer but better books. Almost everything in the monthly package looks interesting now, and most of it looks nice, too—the production quality has improved since bad old days of coarse newsprint and crappy covers.
Anyway, I thought a quick rundown of the month's titles would be informative, in terms of both the individual books and the company's overall strategy. So let's rip it open and see what's inside!
Neko Ramen: This is a series of gag strips (4-koma) about a cat who runs a ramen store. That's right, a cat who runs a ramen store. Taisho, the cat, is one of those over-the-top characters with more enthusiasm than skill, and Tanaka-san, his frequent customer, plays straight man for most of the humor. I'm not a big fan of 4-koma in general—the humor doesn't always translate well—but I thought this one was pretty funny. The premise is just goofy enough to work, and there's a lot of variety to the gags. The Tokyopop folks are pretty excited about this book—they have been teasing it for months, even passing out packages of ramen at NYAF—and they have set up a dedicated Neko Ramen website set up with free samples and all sorts of cuteness.
Alice in the Country of Hearts, vol. 3: This series gets a lot of good reviews, and the cover designs are very attractive, so I really wanted to read it, but for some reason it doesn't hold me. The story starts with the classic Alice in Wonderland but turns all the characters into handsome young men, and I find the White Rabbit character incredibly irritating. Still, it's an interesting idea and the art is nice, so I'll probably take another run at it this month.
Isle of Forbidden Love: A lot of yaoi manga looks kind of generic, but this one has more than the usual ration of plot: It's set in ancient Edo and involves a string of murders and what looks like a sci-fi twist. The art is lovely, too.
Madness, vol. 2: Another yaoi title, this one involving assassins and microchips implanted in people's brains. This one looks more sci-fi and punky, where Isle of Forbidden Love was more lyrical. Both these yaoi books are in Tokyopop's Blu line, which has a dedicated following of its own.
World of Warcraft: Mage and World of Warcraft: Shadow Wing: The Dragons of Outland, vol. 1: The whole Warcraft thing is lost on me, but these are nice-looking books with handsome covers. The art in Shadow Wing looks way over-toned, but Mage has a nice, simple look and they even sprang for spot varnish on the cover—fancy! These licensed titles must be doing well, because Tokyopop publishes a lot of them, and although they are slim volumes, they are priced at $12.99, two bucks more than the standard line. (James Fleenor, who is a gamer, gives Mage a ringing endorsement.)
Deadman Wonderland, vol. 2: The first volume of this series really felt like something special, with a strikingly designed cover, color pages, and a bit more heft to it than your standard manga volume. The second volume is a bit more ordinary, but at this point they have me hooked. This is a shonen battle story about a teenage boy caught in a prison that doubles as a theme park, so you can expect a plentiful mix of wacky and gory. And while a lot of manga bury the action in speedlines, this one has a nice, clear style that makes the story easy to follow.
Portrait of M&N, vol. 2: This is a story about two misfits, Mitsuru, who is a masochist, and Natsuhiko, who is an extreme narcissist. This is not The Story of O, though; it is a high school comedy in which the quirks are simply another embarrassing "difference" to be hidden at all costs. Tachibana Higuchi, the creator of Gakuen Alice, has a nice, delicate style, but the action is a series of cringe-inducing situations (the mom who wants her son to get married, a field trip gone awry) accompanied by lots of internal monologue, all along the lines of "Oh no! What if they find out!"
This month's releases are fairly typical, with a little something for everyone: Deadman Wonderland for the traditional comics-shop crowd, although I don't know if they have found it yet; Alice and some yaoi for the ladies; and Neko Ramen, which has a broad appeal for most manga fans, and maybe cat fans as well. (I think it's a rule of thumb that no one ever goes broke publishing books about cats.) Missing from the lineup is the standard-issue shoujo manga on which Tokyopop made its bones, but last month's batch included both a Fruits Basket fanbook and a book of short stories by Fruits Basket creator Natsuki Takaya.
The challenge for Tokyopop is to get back some of those teenage girls; they have some ongoing series but nothing that is the phenomenon that Fruits Basket was. I would like to see Deadman Wonderland get the kind of push Neko Ramen is getting; the first volume made Diamond's top 300 charts in January and February but sold fewer than 1,000 copies in the direct market in those two months. This book should be a natural for Dark Horse readers, but they need to find it first. In the meantime, the Warcraft books and the yaoi should keep the wolf from the door.