Most of the titles in the VIZKids line fall into one of two categories: manga for younger readers (e.g. BakeGyamon: Backwards Game, Happy Happy Clover, Pokemon) or chapter books based on popular shonen series (e.g. Dragonball, Naruto). Next month, VIZ will be adding a new format to its kids’ line, one that falls somewhere between graphic novel and chapter book. The two debut titles, Panda Man to the Rescue and Taro and the Magic Pencil, combine elements of comic art — word balloons, manga-influenced character designs — with text and games, and are aimed at elementary school readers. I have no doubt that kids will like the format and the stories, but some adults may balk at the humor.
One final note for librarians: both books include exercises that encourage readers to draw directly in the book, making Panda Man and Taro better choices for a home library than a school or public one.
Panda Man to the Rescue!
Story by Sho Makura, Art by Haruhi Kato
Ages 6 and up
November 2010, VIZ Media, ISBN: 978-1421535203
96 pp., $7.99
Panda Man is an improbable superhero, the self-proclaimed greatest martial artist in the world. He’s rude and clumsy, overwhelming his opponents with his stinky feet and super-powered flatulence. When a town finds itself under siege from a gang of thieves, they appeal to Panda Man for help. In keeping with his desire to be the greatest at whatever he does, he demands one million dollars from the residents of New Milk Village, though he relents when they offer to bake him the world’s yummiest butter cake instead. (“It’s nothing personal,” he assures the cows. “I just make it a point to be the world’s most… well, everything. So I have to have the world’s most expensive protection fees.”) Panda Man then sets out to defeat Leo Pepperpot, a lion on a mission to make everyone hate milk.
Panda Man reads less like a story and more like a collection of gag strips; the plot meanders and many of the villain’s schemes don’t make much sense, even within the parameters of a fantasy-comic universe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for readers with short attention spans or a special fondness for jokes and wordplay, though adults may find the story too antic and disjointed to read aloud to a child. Some of the jokes cross cultural boundaries effectively — Japanese kids aren’t the only ones who feel ambivalent about drinking milk — while others may leave readers scratching their heads (e.g. puns on famous Japanese tourist spots). The artwork is energetic and easy to parse, while the numerous activities — mazes, rebuses, and step-by-step instructions for drawing Panda Man — will help engage young readers.
Objectionable Content: The story abounds in the kind of crude bathroom humor — flatulence jokes, scenes of characters stepping in manure — that kids will find amusing but adults may find distasteful.
The Bottom Line: Panda Man‘s subversive humor and goofy, delusional hero will appeal to readers aged six to nine, though the lively, humorous adaptation will be too challenging for most six-year-olds.
Taro and the Magic Pencil
By Sango Morimoto
Ages 6 and up
November 2010, VIZ Media, ISBN: 978-1421535241
104 pp., $7.99
Taro, a talented young artist, is shocked to discover that Doodledom, the cartoon world he created, is under siege from a nasty villain: King Crossout, a squid-shaped monster who wields the Eraser-o-doom. With the aid of a wise magician and a magic pencil, Taro assumes the identity of his favorite character, Terrie, and plunges into his drawings to save the day. Once in Doodledom, Taro/Terrie discovers just how powerful the magic pencil really is, using it to draw his way out of tight spots. There’s just one catch: if Taro/Terrie breaks the pencil’s tip, the spell is temporarily broken and Taro returns to the real world.
Though Taro and the Magic Pencil has its share of slapstick humor and bathroom jokes, the story never suffers for them; unlike Panda Man, Taro follows a clear dramatic arc with a beginning, a middle, and an end. The story is enlivened by several lengthy action sequences in which Taro/Terrie creates nifty machines in response to danger: a frog-shaped submarine, exploding bowling balls. Taro/Terrie makes a nice surrogate for young readers, who will identify both with his brash confidence and occasional vulnerability. The artwork is direct and simple, with easy-to-follow layouts, a smattering of color pages, and cute, expressive designs that effectively convey the characters’ personalities.
Objectionable Content: Like Panda Man to the Rescue, bathroom humor plays a big role in advancing the storyline, though the flatulence and poop jokes are less ubiquitous in Taro than they are in Panda Man. In one scene, for example, Taro/Terrie and his pal escape from the belly of a monster by means of its “poop chute.” Children will find these passages very entertaining, but adults may find the humor crude.
The Bottom Line: Young readers who like to draw — especially those who loved Crockett Johnson’s 1955 classic Harold and the Magic Crayon — are an obvious audience for Taro, as are kids who love goofy adventure series. Though VIZ describes the book as “best for ages 6 and up,” kids on the low end of that range will struggle with the story’s vocabulary and syntax; Taro is better suited to slightly older readers who are capable of tackling a chapter book on their own.
Both books will be released on November 2, 2010, though some retail outlets may already have copies available.