In the last six months, VIZ Media and Yen Press have both launched iPad apps to great fanfare, but they aren’t the only manga publishers in the digital comics game. Seven Seas, home to such properties as Dance in the Vampire Bund, Gunslinger Girl, and Toradora!, recently began offering Kindle editions of their global manga. Though some of these stories are better suited for older readers, a surprising number are great for tweens and young teens. This month, I’m going to look at three Seven Seas titles: Blade for Barter, Captain Nemo, and Hollow Fields. (N.B. My colleague Snow Wildsmith has also weighed in on Hollow Fields; click here for her review of the print edition.)
A few notes about Seven Seas’ Kindle editions. First, they’re incredibly hard to find in Amazon’s Kindle store; a casual browser needs to click on three different menus just to access the Comics and Graphic Novels category, which offers the reader few useful options for sorting. Your best bet is to search directly for titles of interest, or to visit the Seven Seas website, where links will direct you to the appropriate page on Amazon. Second, the pricing is competitive with other digital manga editions; expect to pay between $2.99 and $3.99 for a single volume. (For comparison, VIZ charges $4.99 per volume and Yen Press $8.99.) Third, you may experience a moment of cognitive dissonance when you begin reading. Though Seven Seas’ global manga read right-to-left (in a Japanese orientation), readers turn the page from the right-hand side, as they would with a conventional Western text. Last but not least, the image resolution is good; the images are crisp enough to give a reasonable approximation of the print experience, and the panels are large enough to read easily.
Blade for Barter, Vol. 1
Story by Jason DeAngelis, Art by Hai!
Seven Seas Entertainment, February 2011, ASIN: B002QHWOSG
192 pages, $2.99
This pun-tastic series focuses on Ryusuke Washington, an unemployed but ambitious young samurai living in New Edo, a city best described as a fanciful mash-up of nineteenth-century Tokyo and modern-day New York. Ryusuke’s outfit is as culturally confused as the city in which he lives: in addition to his katana, he wears a trench coat, fedora, and sneakers, and a hairdo eerily reminiscent of Sonic the Hedgehog. Rounding out the cast is Ryusuke’s loyal pooch Hachiko; his nemesis Nikolai Nikishi, head of the local samurai union; and his begrudging partner Macadamia, a feisty female ninja who sports a pair of fuzzy knee-high boots and a serious attitude.
Plot-wise, not much happens in Blade for Barter. Most of the chapters revolve around Ryusuke’s futile search for work, with each new setting providing a jumping-off point for extended riffs on anime, comic book, and video game cliches. Midway through volume one, for example, Ryuske applies for a job on the top floor of a skyscraper. Unfortunately for him, the elevator is out of order, forcing him to navigate a Donkey Kong landscape of ramps, ladders, barrels, and booby traps in order to reach the interview.
Occasionally the jokes feel a little forced (i.e. calling the local mob the “Mafuza”), and some of the busier scenes look too much like pages from Where’s Waldo. On the whole, however, the story’s quick pace, imaginative artwork, and anything-for-a-laugh spirit make it a good choice for readers who have a few shonen manga titles under their belts. Though the print edition of the series was discontinued after a single volume, readers eager for more of Ryusuke’s adventures will find additional stories on the Seven Seas website.
Objectionable Material: A few off-color (but mild) jokes involving bodily functions.
The Bottom Line: Like the Scott Pilgrim series, Blade for Barter works best for readers who’ve already had some exposure to anime, manga, and video games, though the playful cityscapes and slapstick humor have broad appeal. Best for readers 10 and up.
Captain Nemo, Vol. 1
Story Jason DeAngelis, Art by Aldin Viray
Seven Seas Entertainment, February 2011, ASIN: B00318D6Z4
192 pages, $2.99
Set in 1893, this alterna-history imagines a world in which Napoleon successfully conquered Europe and established a hereditary monarchy. Only one man stands a chance against Napoleon IV: Captain Nemo, the nineteen-year-old commander of the submarine Nautilus. To gain a bargaining chip with the emperor, Nemo kidnaps Camille Pierpoint, the beautiful and feisty eighteen-year-old daughter of France’s Vice Minister of Security.
Teens and parents alike will find Captain Nemo a frustrating experience — teens, because the story was clearly intended to continue past the one and only published volume, and parents, because of the fanservice. Volume one lays the foundation for a potentially interesting fantasy-adventure, with stops at exotic ports of call and lost underwater cities, battles with sea monsters, and plenty of naval combat between big, fanciful ships. Unfortunately, there’s no pay off for this meticulous world-building; the story ends with the Nautilus steaming towards the enemy fleet.
The other big drawback to Nemo is the artwork. Artist Aldin Viray draws terrific warships and submarines; the Nautilus is a playful homage to Jules Vernes’ original creation, straddling the line between machine and deep-sea fish. Viray’s character designs, however, are clumsier; in some panels, the characters’ proportions seem grossly distorted, while in others their faces look pointed and snouty. Viray’s obvious fondness for “sexy anime girls” (his words, not mine) is evident in the pin-up drawings that are sprinkled throughout the book, as well as in the female characters’ skin-tight costumes. It’s a shame the art skews older than the script, as I think tweens and young teens are more likely to enjoy the story than high school students.
Objectionable Material: Camille is naked in one scene, though her nudity is implied and not directly shown. Provocative pin-up drawings of scantily clad female characters are sprinkled throughout the book. (Again, nothing is shown directly, but both girls pose in an unbuttoned shirt and panties.)
The Bottom Line: Teens may enjoy this old-fashioned adventure story — especially if they’re familiar with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea — but with no sequel in the works, they’re bound to be disappointed at the story’s abrupt ending. Best for readers 13 and up.
Hollow Fields, Vols. 1-3
By Madelina Rosca
Rating: All Ages
Seven Seas Entertainment, February 2011, ASIN Vol. 1: B002QHWOTU, ASIN Vol. 2: B002QHWOWM, ASIN Vol. 3: B002QHWOWW
Each volume: 192 pages, $3.99
Nine-year-old Lucy Snow, a plucky girl with smartly striped stockings and a stuffed pal named Dino, arrives in Nullsville bound for the genteel halls of Saint Galbat’s Academy for Young Ladies. Bad directions from a stranger lead her instead to Hollow Fields, a.k.a. Miss Weaver’s Academy for the Scientifically Gifted and Ethically Unfettered. Though Lucy’s gut instinct is to flee, Miss Weaver entices her to stay with free tuition and a private room. The cheerful, naïve Lucy soon regrets her decision, as she struggles to fit in with the sour, competitive students in her taxidermy and robotics classes. But when a shy, underachieving boy named Simon Belljoy is sent to detention—a punishment from which no one has ever returned—Lucy decides to tough it out until she can rescue her friend.
While the story borrows elements from Lemony Snickett and Harry Potter—not to mention Castle in the Sky and Steamboy—Rosca’s artwork is crisply appealing. The Hollow Fields faculty are a sinister-looking lot, from animatronic dorm mother Miss Notch to grave robbing instructor Mister Croach. Miss Weaver is the picture of menace, clad in a Morticia Addams gown and a gravity-defying ‘do that would be the envy of Frankenstein’s bride. Rosca lavishes similar attention on the school grounds, rendering Hollow Fields as a lugubrious, gothic heap of a building with exposed ironwork and steam seeping from vents in the walls and support columns.
Some readers may feel that Hollow Fields strains too hard to be “authentic,” with its right-to-left orientation, steampunk elements, and saucer-eyed moppets. Granted, there are a few design elements in the book that seem a bit gratuitous. Most of Hollow Fields’ staff members, for example, dress like employees at a maid café—a design decision that seems especially impractical, given the curriculum’s heavy emphasis on blood, entrails, and machines. (Not to worry; Rosca spares us the gory details of monster taxidermy class.) But Rosca’s smart-looking artwork is as good—if not better—than the artwork in many licensed series, employing the visual tropes of shonen manga to tell a fun, fast-paced story story that’s gender neutral in its appeal.
Objectionable Material: The curriculum at Miss Weaver’s involves live taxidermy, grave robbing, and other activities that may not be well received in some religious communities. None of these activities are glorified or shown in graphic detail; in fact, the gruesome nature of the coursework is one of the series’ running jokes.
The Bottom Line: There’s a reason Madeline Rosca won an International Manga Award for Hollow Fields: the art is terrific, the story is engrossing, and the jokes are ghoulishly funny. Best for readers 10 and up.
–Portions of this review originally appeared at PopCultureShock on 7/12/07