Visit the graphic novel aisle at Borders or Barnes and Noble, and you’ll realize that there are plenty of manga for teens and adults, but almost none for younger readers. The few companies licensing all-ages titles generally favor established franchises like Pokemon and Disney’s Kingdom Hearts, on the assumption that TV shows, video games, and plush toys are more likely to spark children’s interest in manga than the other way around. A notable exception is CMX. Unlike their competitors, CMX publishes titles free of the merchandising tie-ins and pop culture references that make some children’s books seem more like extended advertisements than genuine stories.
SUIHELIBE!, Vol. 1
By Naomi Azuma
CMX, 158 pp.
All Ages (8 and up), $9.99
SUIHELIBE!, the latest kid-friendly offering from CMX, might best be described as an intergalactic screwball comedy—Bringing Up Baby for the under-twelve crowd. The straight man is Tetsu Kobayashi, a middle school student with a passion for plants and animals. He joins the Biology Club, only to learn that the student council plans to scrap it for lack of members. Frustrated, Tetsu strikes a deal with the council: if he can recruit three new members within three months, the Biology Club will be saved.
Tetsu is simultaneously hindered and helped by the arrival of the energetic Lan Toriumi, a seemingly normal tween who is, in fact, a researcher-in-training from the planet Noid. (In true screwball comedy form, the two meet cute when Lan’s flying saucer crashes into Tetsu’s school.) Like Tetsu, Lan is single-mindedly pursuing a goal—in her case, to round up an assortment of extraterrestrial critters that escaped from captivity and sought refuge in Tetsu’s neighborhood. Lan’s ditzy demeanor belies a tech-savvy, can-do personality; she proves surprisingly adept at subduing ferocious animals, even if she’s unable to keep her true identity under wraps. (Lan compulsively confesses that she’s an alien, then threatens her confessors with harm if they reveal her secret.)
Though the characters barely rise above type, and the plot is repetitive, SUIHELIBE! proves a surprisingly fun read on the strength of its sight gags and gentle humor. In one of the more memorable scenes, for example, Lan attempts to populate the Biology Club with dummy members, an effort that backfires when Tetsu realizes that she modeled her “members” after posters in the music room. (Needless to say, no one else is fooled when “Beethoven” and “Handel” attempt to join the Biology Club.) And there are plenty of funny, if predictable, moments in which a seemingly benign critter turns out to be much fiercer than its cute appearance suggests. The best joke of the series, however, isn’t visual—it’s Tetsu’s dawning realization that tracking aliens is a far better recruitment tool for his floundering club than cleaning hamster cages or collecting wildflowers.
SUIHELIBE!’s simple layouts and larger panels make it easy for newbies to follow the artwork’s right-to-left orientation. The character designs are a little generic—I’d have a hard time distinguishing Lan and Tetsu from other cute, competently-drawn tweens—but crisply rendered. Interspersed throughout the book are profiles of various “alien” species as well as a brief explanation of the book’s title (which is comprised of the abbreviations for Hydrogen, Helium, Lithium, and Belium, the first four elements in the periodic table).
In sum, SUIHELIBE! is a fun, fast-paced story that should appeal to boys and girls alike with its broad humor, sci-fi elements, and sharp artwork. Parents of fickle readers take note: SUIHELIBE! is just two volumes long, making it a perfect series for kids with short attention spans. Volume one will be released on November 5th and volume two on January 14th.
This review is based on a complimentary copy provided by the publisher. Cover art © 2008 CMX/DC.