Manga Review: Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10

Manga Review:  Fullmetal Alchemist, Volume 10 by Hiromu Arakawa.

In the country of Amestris, the highest form of science known is alchemy, the ability to transmute substances into another form.  It seems limited only by the Law of Equivalent Exchange “to obtain an object, something of equal value must be lost.”  Transmutation of humans is therefore forbidden.  But grief-stricken child prodigies Edward and Alphonse Elric decide to break this taboo when their mother dies prematurely.

Fullmetal Alchemist Volume 10

They do not get their mother back; Ed loses an arm and leg in the process, and Al’s entire body is consumed.  Ed is able to preserve Al’s consciousness by binding it to an empty set of armor.  They both gain the ability to perform transmutation without the cumbersome necessity of an alchemical circle, and Ed has his missing limbs replaced by automail, a form of cybernetic prostheses.

Edward Elric is determined to find a way to restore Alphonse’s body, but to do this he’ll need information on the Philosopher’s Stone, an item that allegedly allows transmutation to be performed without equivalent exchange.  To do this, Ed joins the State Alchemist corps, becoming “a dog of the military” and codenamed “the Fullmetal Alchemist.”  He soon finds himself and Al enmeshed in a government conspiracy, and about to learn even more hard truths about the nature of alchemy.

Fullmetal Alchemist was originally published as a monthly shounen (boys’) serial in Monthly Shounen Gangan.  It did very well, spawning two anime series (one with a different ending than the manga, which was still being written at the time), video games and light novels.  Arakawa went on to write Silver Spoon, the anime of which I’ve previously reviewed.

In the volume I have at hand, Alphonse, the military team led by Roy Mustang (“the Flame Alchemist”) and Ling, prince of Xing (essentially China) have temporarily teamed up with Barry the Chopper (serial killer who’s also been bonded to a suit of armor) in an attempt to make the government conspiracy break cover.  They engage in battle with the homunculi Envy, Gluttony and Lust.  The battle between Roy Mustang and Lust is particularly heated.

Meanwhile, Edward and Major Armstrong head across the border into the wasteland  that was once Cselkcess before the unknown disaster that destroyed it overnight.  In the ruins of the capital city, they meet with an old friend who gives them information on the conspiracy.  Edward also meets a group of Ishbalan refugees, and learns the fate of the parents of his friend Winry Rockbell.

In addition, the Elric boys’ father Van Hohenheim resurfaces after many years.  He had abandoned the family some time before his wife’s death, and hadn’t been heard from until now.  Ed is…less than pleased to see him.  The readers know, but Ed does not, that Hohenheim looks almost identical to the person codenamed “Father”, creator of the homunculi.   That’s pretty suspicious.

This is a pretty nifty series.  The monthly format allows more plot and character development per chapter, and Arakawa doesn’t let that opportunity pass.  There are some heartwrenching moments, as well as exciting battles.  (Even in this volume, Roy finally manages to defeat Lust, but at a terrible cost.)  The art is distinctive and competent, if never spectacular.

Alchemy, which is basically magic, works by a set of rules which is easily understood, and seeming exceptions are carefully explained over the course of the series.

Less good is that some of the comedic bits get overused, particularly Edward Elric’s oversensitivity about his height.  And while yes, the particular usage of the Seven Deadly Sins for the homunculi is nifty, that particular structure for a villain group is nearly a dead horse by now.  (And Lust is the only female in the group.  So shocking.)

I understand there are omnibus volumes out now, which will make collecting the series faster.  Also, because this series was very popular, the hipper libraries may stock it in their teen rooms.

Recommended for fans of shounen manga.

And now, the first opening for the Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood anime:

 

 

Comic Book Review: Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool

Comic Book Review: Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool written by Dwayne McDuffie & Robert L. Washington III, art by Denys Cowan & John Paul Leon

Static is Virgil Ovid Hawkins, a science-loving teenager exposed to an experimental gas that gave him electro-magnetic superpowers.  He protects his schoolmates and neighborhood against gangs and supervillains who were also powered up by the gas.   Now if he could find the time to also have a normal teenage life!

Static shock: Rebirth of the Cool

Static was the most successful character to come out of the Milestone Comics line, an attempt to showcase African-American comics creators and more diverse characters in superhero comics.  He was a blend of early Spider-Man (nerdy teenager who is bullied at school, wisecracker, prone to bad luck) with concerns familiar to black teenagers in the 1990s.  He went on to have a Saturday morning cartoon, Static Shock, that ran for four seasons before being cancelled because the toy companies couldn’t figure out how to merchandise it.

Although Milestone had ceased publishing in 1997, the popularity of the TV series allowed for a four-issue miniseries that was a “where are they now” for the characters, centering on Static.

This volume reprints the first four issues of the original Static  series, as well as the Rebirth of the Cool miniseries.

The story opens with Static already having operated in his Dakota neighborhood for a month or so, and being appreciated by the locals.   Some hoods are hassling Frieda, the girl Virgil likes, and Static interferes.  After this triumph, Virgil heads home and we meet his skeptical mother and annoying little sister Sharon.  (Virgil’s father works long hours at the hospital and we see little of him in these issues.)

Next day at school, Virgil meets up with his friends, including the suave Larry and the sensitive Rick (who is the target of homophobic comments, even though the person doing so isn’t sure Rick is gay.)  Virgil asks Larry for relationship advice, as he is thinking of asking Frieda out.  Larry warns that Frieda may already be seeing someone, but Virgil scoffs.

The previous hoodlums invade the school to capture Frieda (popular girl!) and take her to a nearby abandoned playground.  Their leader, Hotstreak, is interested in her (but not vice versa), and in luring in Static for a fight.  With his powers of speed and fire, Hotshot beats Static badly, then leaves to bask in his triumph.  Frieda is surprised to learn that Static is really her friend Virgil.

At Frieda’s place, Virgil gets patched up and tells his origin story.  Some time before, he was new at Ernest Hemingway High School (the Hawkins family had moved from a worse neighborhood) when he ran afoul of a gangbanger nicknamed Biz Money B.  Virgil’s friend Larry advised him that he would continue to be victimized unless Virgil stopped the bullying permanently.

Not actively engaged in the local gangs himself, but “connected”, Larry knew of a turf war going on.  There was going to be a huge throwdown of all the gangs on Paris Island the next night.  If Biz Money B just happened to die during it, end of problem.  Larry provided Virgil with an address and a disposable gun.

Come the actual event, Virgil found himself unable to murder a man, no matter how awful.   But before he could retreat, the cops raided the battle and doused the assembled gangs with what was supposed to be riot gas.  It’s actually “Q-juice”, an experimental chemical developed by Alva Enterprises.  (Alva Enterprises is the bad guys at this point in time.)  Those who survive inhaling it gain superpowers.

This includes Virgil, who uses his newfound electromagnetic abilities to evade capture by Alva Enterprises goons.  Unlike most “Bang Babies”, who started out as criminals in the first place, Virgil decided to use his powers for good as Static.

Explanations given and a pep talk from Frieda later, Static has a rematch with Hotstreak (who of course is the former Biz Money B) and easily defeats him.   Virgil then asks Frieda for a date, but is turned down.  (Turns out she’s dating Larry.)  They remain friends.

The next two issues have Static battling Tarmack, the living road, and Holocaust, a flame-wielding villain who picked the name deliberately to be offensive.   Holocaust is a would-be crimelord, and tries to sell Static on the idea of working with him against “The Man” who’s keeping them down.  Holocaust talks a good game, and Static is not particularly blind to how systemic racism is a factor in his life.  But the villain soon shows his true ruthless nature, and Static dissolves the partnership.

When I first read this back in the early Nineties, I wasn’t all that impressed.  I was tiring of angsty teen heroes, and Virgil’s personality can be a bit much.  But the writing rapidly improved, and the more realistic look at life in a multicultural neighborhood made the book stand out from the mainstream comics equivalents.  The coloring is of special note–Milestone used a new coloring process that allowed more subtlety in hues, so that not all black people had to have the same skin tone.

The mini-series picks up some months after we last saw Static in his own series.   Virgil has retired from superheroing after losing a partner, and is catching up on his civilian life, including having a new girlfriend.   This can’t last, of course.   Someone is kidnapping Bang Babies and other superhumans.

They’ve already taken down the Blood Syndicate (morally complex gang), and crippled Hardware (the local equivalent to Iron Man.)   Icon (the local equivalent to Superman) is out in space, Xombi (regenerator) only handles occult weirdness, and the Shadow Cabinet (secret society of superhumans) is officially hands off.  That just leaves the Heroes, Static’s old team, and without his powers, they’re not doing so hot, having just lost one of their most powerful members.

Virgil is begged to come back to active duty, but refuses until inevitably the baddies stumble across him while hunting other Bang Babies.  He briefly assumes a costume that looks like the cartoon before returning to his more usual garb, and leads the remaining heroes (including some unofficially seconded Shadow Cabinet members) to find the missing superhumans.

The investigation leads to someone with a shocking tie to Earth’s first superheroes, the Tower Family, and a small army of that person’s minions, powered up by the very Bang Babies they’ve kidnapped!

It’s nice seeing many favorite characters again, including the love-to-hate omnicognitive Dharma.  (“I’m not going to tell you anything.  Because I know the minute I leave the room, Iron Butterfly will tell you everything you need.”)   Because this is a Static-centric story, the other characters give him more respect than is perhaps warranted by their history.

I’m not fond of the art, as the inks tend to the blobby, losing subtlety in facial expressions.

Good ending, though.

I understand that there’s a Milestone event coming up from DC comics, so now may be the time to look up this bit of the backstory.

And now, the openings from the cartoon:

 

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Comic Book Review: Suicide Squad Most Wanted: El Diablo

Comic Book Review: Suicide Squad Most Wanted: El Diablo story by Jai Nitz, art by Cliff Richards

Chato Santana used to be a drug dealer and gang leader in East Los Angeles.  At some point he became linked to a vengeful demon and gained pyrokinetic abilities.  El Diablo used those powers to rule his neighborhood, until the day he burned down a rival gang’s crack house only to discover he’d also killed the enemy’s women and children as well.

Suicide Squad Most Wanted: El Diablo

As penance for his actions, Chato chose to turn himself in to the law, and serve his time, never again to kill.  While in  Belle Reve prison, El Diablo was drafted into the Suicide Squad, a covert ops team which uses criminals on missions they are unlikely to survive in exchange for reduced sentences.  He’s survived enough missions that he could leave prison any time he feels like it.

And now Chato wants to go home.  But Squad leader Amanda Waller doesn’t like that idea.  The ruthless political operative is putting together a new iteration of the Suicide Squad for “scorched earth” operations and wants El Diablo as the leader. He turns down the assignment, and Waller punishes him, only to be interrupted by Uncle Sam.

Yes, that’s right, the living symbol of America.  It seems he’s working for another government agency, Checkmate, which is slightly more aboveboard.  They’ve got a problem with a superpowered being slowly crossing the Sonoran Desert and need El Diablo’s help.  Chato turns down the job, but this does give him enough leverage to return home.

Home isn’t a healthy place to be, as new metahuman gangster Bloodletter has taken over the neighborhood.  His house destroyed, El Diablo joins up with Checkmate.  This sends Chato on a journey through the underbelly of the DC Universe.

“El Diablo” is kind of a generic name–this is the third DC Comics character to bear the moniker.  He was created by Jai Nitz in 2008 for a limited series meant to showcase a Latino character created by a Latino writer.  Sadly, the time just wasn’t right, and sales were dismal.  The character disappeared until the New 52 reboot of Suicide Squad, when a revised version was written into that series by Adam Glass.

Interest in the Squad was heightened by the recent movie directed by David Ayer, and El Diablo was one of the more successful parts of the film.  Thus he got his own miniseries written by his creator.

Mr. Nitz digs deep into the obscure character barrel for interesting opponents and allies for El Diablo.  Most notably, El Dorado, who was created for the Super Friends cartoon and never appeared in a comic book, finally gets to be on-page, along with every other Mexican superhero DC Comics has. ¡Justicia!

The art is decent, but I want to shout out colorist Hi-Fi and letterer Josh Reed for some excellent work.

The story is mostly an excuse to run Chato all over the map to meet interesting people, but returning to the status quo at the end.  It remains to be seen if any of the events here will ever be referenced again.

There’s quite a lot of violence, some gory, as well as ethnic prejudice.

If you liked the El Diablo parts of the Suicide Squad movie, or want to support Latino comics creators, this is a pretty good volume.

Manga Review: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3

Manga Review: Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3 by Naoko Takeuchi

Usagi Tsukino doesn’t look much like hero material at first glance.  She’s clumsy, not the sharpest knife in the drawer, and a bit of a crybaby.  But Usagi has a secret heritage, and when talking cat Luna seeks her out, Usagi becomes the bishoujo senshi (“pretty guardian”) Sailor Moon!  Now gifted with magical powers, Sailor Moon must seek out the other guardians and defeat the monsters of the Dark Kingdom to save the world.

Pretty Guardian Sailor Moon 3

This 1991 manga series was groundbreaking in many ways.  The mahou shoujo (“magical girl”) subgenre of fantasy manga and anime had been around since the 1960s, inspired by the American TV show Bewitched, but was primarily about cute witches, fairy princesses and ordinary girls who were gifted power by witches or fairies who used their magic to help people with their day to day problems and maybe once in a while fight a monster or two.  Takeuchi blended this with the traditionally boy-oriented sentai (“warrior squad”) subgenre to create magical girl warriors whose primary thing was using magical powers to defeat evil.

It was also novel for being a shoujo (girls’) manga with an immediate animated adaptation as Takeuchi developed the series in coordination with Toei.  The manga ran monthly while the anime was weekly, so the animated version has lots of “filler” episodes that don’t advance the plot but do expand on the characterization of minor roles.  Indeed, it’s better to think of the manga and anime as two separate continuities.

Both manga and anime were huge hits, though the versions first brought to America were heavily adulterated.  American children’s television wasn’t ready for some of the darker themes of some of the episodes, and the romantic relationship of Sailors Neptune and Uranus blew moral guardians’ minds.  More recently, new, more faithful translations have come out, and there’s a new anime adaptation, Sailor Moon Crystal that sticks closer to the manga continuity.

The volume to hand, #3, contains the end of the Dark Kingdom storyline.  Wow, that was quick.   Once forced into a direct confrontation, Queen Beryl isn’t really much more formidable than her minions; only the fact that she has a brainwashed Prince Endymion (Tuxedo Mask) on her side makes the fight difficult.  Queen Metallia, the true power behind the throne, on the other hand, is a world-ending menace and it will take everything our heroes have plus Usagi awakening to her full heritage to defeat it.

Takeuchi had originally planned for her heroines to die defeating Metallia and ending the series there, but the anime had great ratings, and both Toei and her manga’s editor felt that this would be too much of a downer.  After some floundering, the editor suggested the new character “Chibi-Usa” and her startling secret, and Takeuchi was able to come up with a plotline from there.

So it is that just as Usagi and Mamoru are getting romantic, a little girl who claims her name is also Usagi drops out of the sky to interrupt.  “Chibi-Usa” looks a lot like a younger version of our Usagi, and is on a mission to reclaim the Silver Crystal (despite the fact that she seems to be wearing a Silver Crysal herself.)  She infiltrates Usagi’s family, much to the older girl’s irritation.

At the same time, a new enemy appears, the Black Moon.  Led by Prince Demande and advised by the mysterious Wiseman, they seek not only the Silver Crystal but a being called the “Rabbit.”  Their initial ploy is to send out the Spectre Sisters to capture the Sailor Senshi one by one.  The Spectre Sisters are very much evil counterparts of the Senshi, each having an elemental affinity and interests matching one of the heroes.  The first two, Koan and Berthier, are destroyed in battle, but not before they remove Sailor Mars and Sailor Mercury from the board.

In a subplot, a new minor character is introduced, an underclassman of Mamoru’s whose job is shilling Mamoru and his fine qualities.  This is actually kind of helpful, as Tuxedo Mask had spent most of the Dark Kingdom arc either being mysterious or unavailable.  This allows us more insight into who this Mamoru person is when he’s not around Usagi.

Rei and Ami get some development in their focus chapters, but seemingly mostly so that the Spectre Sisters can have similar interests.

Some of this comes off as cliche now, but that’s because Sailor Moon was such a strong influence on magical girl stories that came afterward.  Here’s where many of the tropes started!

The art is very good of its kind, and again seems less distinctive now because of imitators.

Recommended for magical girl fans, teenage girls and romantic fantasy fans.

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Wonder Woman ’77 Volume 1 written by Marc Andreyko

Back in the 1970s, live-action television series with a woman in the lead were rare creatures indeed, and one of the best was Wonder Woman, starring Lynda Carter.  It migrated from ABC (where it was set during World War Two) to CBS in 1977, and it is this “modern day” series that this comic book series is based on.

Wonder Woman '77 Volume 1

In this version, Wonder Woman works for the Inter-Agency Defense Command in her secret identity of Diana Prince, along Steve Trevor, Jr.  Steve may or may not know  that Diana is also Wonder Woman, but at least in these issues, he doesn’t officially know or make a fuss about it. They have access to the latest 1970s technology, including the advanced computer IRA, but Wonder Woman’s powers and compassion are usually the main key to victory.

Where this comic book series varies from the TV version is that the live-action version used none of WW’s comic book supervillains, so versions of these compatible with the show’s look and feel are inserted.

The first story takes place mostly at a disco, where a Soviet defector scientist must be protected from mind-controlling songstress Silver Swan.  Diana’s outfit for this is based on the “white pantsuit” look she had during a brief period where the comics depowered her (to make her more “relevant.”)

The second story opens with Diana waking up in a world where she is not Wonder Woman or Diana Prince, but a mentally ill woman named Donna Troy.  There are some nifty references to the Cathy Lee Crosby TV movie, and the post-Crisis WW continuity.  Diana must figure out what’s going on and fight her way back to the reality she knows.

Next, there is a story that uses the Barbara Minerva version of long-time supervillain the Cheetah.  It brings in elements of the Priscilla Rich version of the character as well–Dr. Minerva is driven by jealousy when the museum she works for dismantles her prize exhibit involving years of scholarship and hard digging for a Wonder Woman-centric publicity grabber.  This allows the Cheetah spirit to take over her body so that Barbara can try to get her revenge.  The climax is a showcase for Diana’s gentle spirit being able to overcome Cheetah’s command of great cats.

Original (so far as I know) villain Celsia takes center stage next.  Due to a nuclear power plant accident that killed her home town, Celsia can project both heat and cold.  She is determined to punish the men who placed profit over life and safety.  We also get a version of the Atomic Knights, including a not-named Gardner Grayle.

And finally Diana has an encounter with the swamp monster Solomon Grundy on Halloween.  Grundy may not be the real monster here…  (Warning: domestic abuse.)

The issue is filled out with an essay by Andy Mangels about the television show, plus a gallery of covers and concept art.

One of the things I really like about this series is Wonder Woman’s dedication to non-lethal force, something that has largely been lost in recent years.  Yes, punching bad guys is an important part of her problem-solving style, but whenever possible, she uses truth and compassion to bring about resolutions.  This Wonder Woman smiles a lot, and inspires others to be better people.

Some of the 1970s elements do come across a bit cheesy, but this is not entirely a bad thing, as they fit with the feel of the show.  On the other hand, the very episodic stories mean that there’s no character growth or deeper characterization–what you see is all you are going to get.

The art is okay, with Diana and Steve being on model most of the time.

Recommended to fans of the TV show, Wonder Woman fans who prefer a lighter style and younger readers.  (It should be okay for tweens with a little parental guidance.)

And let’s enjoy that theme tune!

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