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- Locke & Key, Vol. 5: Clockworks (R)
Y’know it’s interesting, the first time I read these books in 2012-13, this was easily my least favorite volume in the series, because it’s a whole-plot flashback to the events of the previous generation of Lockes, their adventures with the keys, and how they unknowingly set the events of the present-day plot in action. But I was a younger man then, and the end-of-high-school shenanigans that Rendell Locke and Dodge got up to, the whole “we’ll all never be here together again” bittersweetness, was a flavor I hadn’t acquired a taste for in fiction because I’d lived through it myself too recently.
But that was a hell of a long time ago (and I think we can agree, not just in calendar pages), and my own youthful bullshit has faded enough for this to find me with a much kinder eye.
Anyway, enough woolgathering; we finally found out what happened down there in the Caves, why Rendell Locke never told his wife and kids about Dodge, where they keys actually come from, and the nature of the confrontation that’s waiting for all of them at the end of this story. It rules.
- Sweetness & Lightning, Vol. 1
This is an extremely wholesome and sweet and more than a little sad series from the creator of A Galaxy Next Door, which the gentle reader may remember I enjoyed very much, about a recently-widowed father’s struggle to care for his wee daughter and how he befriends an extremely lonely young lady whose family owns a restaurant, offering their companionship in exchange for teaching him how to cook something for his daughter that isn’t the Japanese equivalent of boxed mac & cheese. There’s a bit of very mild drama when it transpires that he’s a teacher at a local high school, and she’s one of his students, and while it definitely gets a little Don’t Stand So Close To Me on her end in a mostly-harmless way, it’s clear that even legal and ethical problems aside, that’s not what he’s interested in getting from their arrangement.
I don’t know if it’s actually indicative of anything about me or about manga, or maybe of nothing at all, that I keep unknowingly gravitating towards series that feature beautiful food quite prominently; I am not an adventurous eater and don’t generally seek out food-related content outside your Masterchefs, both Junior and Geriatric, but goddamn if I don’t keep finding series that are the visual equivalents of Redwall feasts wearing another genre’s pants for camouflage. In any event, it’s a good problem to have, and since they were on sale I snagged the subsequent three volumes as soon as I finished this one.
- Locke & Key, Vol. 6: Alpha & Omega (R)
Endings are hard! This one is pretty damn good.
- Locke & Key: Heaven And Earth
This is a very brief collection of bite-sized L&K side-stories that popped up near the end of the main series’ run, and overall I enjoyed it very much. The thing is that while everything in it–Open The Moon, Grindhouse, and In The Can–is definitely Of Quality in its own way, I am baffled, boggled, guffed, and hornswoggled that they were considered enough to constitute their own trade collection; the first is maybe an average issue’s length, the second maybe half that, and the last quite literally fewer than a dozen pages, and it’s ridiculous to me that they didn’t just include them in one of the other main trades.
The last two stories are little more than bonus material, but Open the Moon is the real showpiece and makes significant contributions to our knowledge concerning the progenitors of the Locke dynasty, and is also absolutely beautiful and heartbreaking, doing a good chunk of work to humanize the people who started this whole clefalogical clusterfuck.
- Otaku Elf, Vol. 4
More of the same, which is exactly why you return to a series like this: the elf is reluctant to do things and just wants to enjoy her nerdy pursuits, the shrinemaiden tries to get her to take things seriously, we learn a little bit about Ancient Elf-Times Japan. It’s a nice bowl of Raisin Bran; maybe not the most exciting thing, but dependable, and filling, and it keeps you regular.
- Desert Eagle, Vol. 1.
Okay, I fucking love this book. I snagged it based on the blurb, which promised that a young goon, Pure Of Heart And Dumb Of Ass, joining a friend on a mission of revenge, and cousin it DELIVERED. This isn’t my usual kind of reading for manga; I’m not generally interested in gangs or crimestyles or juvenile delinquents, but I am so glad I took a chance on this; read my full review for more on why you should too.
- Cat Kid Comics Club, Vol. 1
You listen here, Commodore: CCKC is a miracle, and I am unshakably convinced that it and other works like it are largely responsible for the attitudes of self-acceptance and self-empathy, discussion of emotions both positive and negative, and blatant creativity without fear of failure we’re seeing in the generations that are reaching adulthood, bless their little cotton socks. If this means anything to you, I would put it on part with Bluey in terms of the complete Venn-overlap of quality, kindness, and honesty about being a kid.
The premise is simple: Cat Kid (who I understand is from the Dogman books, which may or may not be Captain Underpants-related? The Pilkeyverse is vast, and I am new to its waters) is teaching a pond full of froglets to draw comics in his club. They have a lot to contend with–fear of failure, well-meaning but overly-censorious parents, writer’s block–but Cat Kid is here to help and the results are incredible. Not being clear on that premise, I had been half-afraid before starting this that it would be semi-instructive pap, the kind of you-do-half-the-work “activity book” that any cartoon or movie was happy to slap its name on in the ’90s, but these fears were unfounded: aside from being a complete story, that story is itself a framework for the comics the kids create, which run the compass from Dennis The Toothbrush: Dinosaur Lawyer to the stop-motion action-figure epic Chubbs McSpiderbutt to a shockingly beautiful and thoughtful photography-and-haiku zine from purple twins Starla and Summer.
Just–I can’t get over how great this book is, and I am so happy for the kids who get to grow up with it, and for the growed-bigs like me who needed it when we were little but can and should enjoy it every bit as much now.
- My Wonderful World, Vol. 1
Hey quick question have you EVER heard of people being dyslexic in other writing-systems, ’cause I sure as hell hadn’t, so pick up a copy of this and GET INFORMED, CITIZEN. MWW is about a young fella named Shinobu who, much like me and probably you, can’t read a lick of Japanese, but for him it’s because of a visual informational processing disability that has somehow gone completely undiagnosed well into adulthood. I’m not disabled and am always a little wary of feeling too sorry for disabled protagonists because usually that’s not what the work or the character wants, but this title makes it perfectly clear that not being able to read or write has royally fucked this poor dude’s life up; he can’t get or hold a steady job, everybody thinks he’s either a slacker or a dumdum, and maybe the most upsetting part to me is that nobody, in his whole life, has looked at a clearly bright but struggling young man and said “Wait a tick, let’s see what’s sticking some rebar into the boy’s turbines.”
Anyway, the sort of inciting incident here is that he meets a cafe owner who is also dyslexic (though less so) and is the first fucking person to tell him “Uh yeah dude what we have is a disability and I can absolutely help you with it, also here have a job you don’t have to constantly worry about losing”. Admittedly, the job and the help do require him to spend time with the cafe owner’s theatre troop, but one cannot have it all.
Lets I make it sound like an Entire Bummer, let me assure you: it’s also plenty cute and fun, you’re not gonna be too depressed by it to enjoy or finish it, but it is primarily interested in telling the story of its disabled protagonist, and isn’t prepared to minimize that aspect of him.
This was just a great insight into a thing I had never even considered but that is, of course, obvious and natural: that other people in other places have the same problems we have, and that we should never presume about others because they could be struggling with things that they don’t even know have names. Also, avoid actors.
- Welcome To Japan Ms. Elf!, Vol. 3
I only recently rediscovered this delightful title; something in the Comixology/Amazon merger caused a lot of titles to be reclassified as kindle books, not comics, and/or have their volumes listed as individual books unrelated to the other entries in the series, and it’s a mess, but the upside is that it’s been long enough that I now have like four volumes to catch up on instead of having to wait for them. The iseka-otherworld side of the story continues to drip along with some not-uninteresting beats—I am, for example, VERY into giving an awful catfish-dragon a magic gem, causing it to burrow underground and reveal the entrance to a coliseum-sized spiral staircase down into a labyrinth—but the book makes the sensible choice to have that be the B-story where we get some action scenes and magic-coolness and meet a new little adorable cat-kid critter, and leaves the bulk of the effort for the Japan-side A-story, which is about these two being fuckin’ adorable and nobody they meet being able to handle it. One of the things I love about the reverse-isekai that we don’t get with its normal counterpart is seeing an actual acclimation learning curve; Mariabell arrives in Japan not knowing the language or customs or food or anything and has to spend active in-story time learning the ways of her new half-home, which isn’t usually a concern in your I Got Reincarnated Twice At The Same Time As The Gravity-Dragon’s Butler Even Though I’m OP With My Godlike Skill series, although now that I’m writing that title I think I probably would read that. My point is that like The Devil Is A Part-Timer!, although much, much more so here than there, a reverse-isekai shows us the things about our world that it’s easy to get too used to and stop seeing, and makes us remember how amazing the world and our lives really are. Also, the romance between Mariabelle and Kazuhiho really is just truly too cute and sweet for words, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t work in the series’ favor.
- Engineward: The Complete Series
A desert planet is ruled over by big powerful decadent corrupt zodiac-types. This has gone unchallenged until, conveniently enough, just about the time we start reading it. They revolute. End of comic.
I regret to report that this series was a huge letdown for me; it ran monthly and I saw its individual issues with their gorgeous covers teasing me for most of a year, but there’s really just nothing in these pages, at least not for me. The art is perfectly competent but not interested in being anything more, the characters are entirely flat and take up no more room in the story than their mechanical purpose requires, and the story itself has some interesting ideas but doesn’t bother to try to do anything with them. I try not to be unkind but I really can’t recommend anyone spend any significant money on this; it’s currently up for $3.99 in Comixology, which is admittedly a much more reasonable ask than the (I think) $30 I paid when it dropped, and I would’ve been much more kindly disposed to this had they realized it wasn’t a thirty-dollar book before I had to do it for them the hard way.
- Daily Report About My Witch Senpai, Vol. 2
The second and final volume! This is just a very sweet, cozy little story about a witch choosing her supportive kohai over an abusive piece of shit. Honestly, I have to wonder if they got a cancellation notice or warning of same, because the conclusion seemed very abrupt, but they managed to make it work and I enjoyed my time with it.
- Manor Black, Vol. 1
A family of WIZARDS OR SOME SHIT threatens to tear itself apart in a brutal succession war! But the patriarch thinks MAYBE he can change the course of his clan’s future by tagging in a new and unanticipated player, and hopefully keep both his power and his family together. Magic car crash! SECRET BLOOD CONNECTIONS MAYBE!
- The Laundry Files, #6: The Annihilation Score – Charles Stross
It’s those books about Bob Howard, the IT Director who keeps Cthulhu from using your NeoPets account to invade London on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government!
Except this book is actually about his wife, Mo, who has been a constant but somewhat thin figure throughout the series, and we’re riding shotgun with her for once! Because, as the reader may recall from May’s list, the previous book was about wampires, and one of them was Bob’s old girlfriend Mhari who never knew how to take no for an answer; things got…messy, and Bob explicitly didn’t do anything wrong but y’know who doesn’t really care about particulars? The hateful, hungry, creaking awareness that lives inside her violin made of human bone and has been begging her to let him kill her husband for a couple of books now. Anyway, they decide they need some time apart, which is just as well because Mo has just been directed to assemble and run The Avengers. Wait, what? Yes.
‘Magic’ in this series is a kind of applied mathematics (although it’s implied that this is just one way to look at it), and as Lovecraft’s famous Stars begin to Come Right (referred to by Bob’s bosses as Case Nightmare Green) it becomes easier and easier for the non-magically-inclined to pull off bigger and more dangerous stunts without even meaning to; being a mathematical function on a progressing curve this points to, for lack of a better description, a superhero and villain boom among previous Normals the world over. Naturally, everyone is sick of superheroes and if humanity is going to survive this bullshit they need to get a handle on it now, and the powers that be chose Mo to be their Nick Fury. Oh uh, also, Mhari is going to be her Maria Hill KAY GOOD LUCK BYEEEEEEEE.
This entry in the series was a little uneven–I, for one, am not a fan of “Bwuh it isn’t what it looks like!” and ongoing, unresolved relationship tension, though I must say it’s more earned here than in most works that use it–but overall I very much enjoyed the refreshing change of pace, the new perspective on Bob and the Laundry that Mo provided, more insight into what the fuck is living in her violin and the price that keeping it on a leash is extracting from her, and the nuts-and-bolts logistics of what setting a new government office up is like. That’s not an exaggeration, Mo literally sets up IKEA desks and orders office supplies; fortunately for this book I am very into that shit, but asking the audience to deal with it instead of hearing about monsters is a big risk, and I can see it not paying off for a reader less interested in practical minutia.
- Wotakoi: Love Is Hard For Otaku, Vol. 1
Man, know what’s tough? Finding love when you’re a nerd. These two coworkers are so sick of it, in fact, that they decide to just pair up and call it done BUT HAHAHA THERE ARE NO FEELINGS INVOLVED YOU SEE, what a notion, the very idea. And then they and their geeky friends can all enjoy their apparently??? embarrassing pastimes and passions together.
I wanted to like this one more than I did; part of it is that I just kind of…don’t buy the premise? Like I don’t believe that in Japan (or the United States for that matter) a geeky hobby/lifestyle makes one a social, romantic, or workplace pariah. Not that I have to find a scenario completely believable to engage with it, but like, meet me in the middle here, story; you can’t show me successful young professionals who find joy in their hobbies and all enjoy spending time together (which is nice, I like that) and then ask me to believe that this is social poison.
Adding to that is the comedic timbre of the book; much like Chip Zdarsky did in the episode of Mangasplaining where they read this, I frequently literally couldn’t follow the beat-to-beat of the jokes, which just felt like hyperactive non-sequiturs. In that episode, the other hosts do clarify the thought behind these and why they actually work, and I’m sure they’re great if you, y’know, already know those things, but to the casual reader it was almost impenetrable. The story and relationship-stuff is nice when it’s not hiding from you or cowering from no-one, and if you don’t mind a bit of homework this is certainly worth a read.
- The Dark Room
I’m gonna do a rare thing and actually quote the blurb here, because you can ALWAYS tell when they’re written by, y’know, people, ideally who read the book and like it:
“The hunt for a camera containing an undeveloped photo of the face of true evil threatens to wipe out New York City one chilly autumn evening. Doune Mahoney is the curator of a private collection of extremely dangerous cursed objects, and her night’s about to go to hell. Werewolves, secret societies, blessed animals, cursed objects, and more in a fantasy horror comedy from X-Men and Deadpool writer GERRY DUGGAN, your new favorite artist SCOTT BUONCRISTIANO, and color artist extraordinaire TAMRA BONVILLAIN. Take a deep dive into THE DARK ROOM, a world the creators will be returning to for many years. Includes the first appearance of your new favorite characters, including Walt, the dancing bones of Times Square, and his blessed boom box.”
Couldn’t have done it better myself, and not just because I read it six months ago; this is a REALLY fun book that takes every big, weird swing it can think of every single time–regarding, for example, where everything that gets thrown in the Hudson River goes, and what is guarding that place and MAY be willing to part with what you’re looking for…for a price.
Hard recommend, can’t wait for more stories in this world.
- The Boys Omnibus, Vol. 1
And now, a hard recommagainst.
As the careful reader may recall, like many I found myself enjoying the Amazon adaptation of The Boys almost despite myself (IT’S SO FRIGGIN GOOD GANG) and thought y’know, I read the first trade when I was a younger man with more delicate and pretentious sensibilities (see Locke & Key, Vol. 5 above) and maybe I was just being something of a prude. After all, it inspired this impossibly great (albeit still very upsetting) show, how bad could it be? Also, the first omnibus was up for borrow on Comixology Unlimited, so what did I stand to lose?
Answer: a decent chunk of time and a small but real measure of my self-respect.
Do not read The Boys, my friends; it is just so consistently gross, mean-spirited, and try-hard tWiStEd, both in ways that are products of its time and ways that are inherent to its story and that story’s teller. I get why people like it (I mean c’mon, there was a guy’s peeled-off face on a pizza, of course I laughed in horror, I’m just a man), and I’m not here to knock anyone for tastes that veer to the nasty, I’m just saying that a decade ago I read the first trade and worried I was a worse person for having put it into my head, and now I’ve read the equivalent of the first three trades or so and I’m sure I am. Watch the show instead, it’s incredibly well made, more fun, less shitty in some really important ways (for example, giving the only female member of the main crew a fucking name instead of simply calling her ‘the Female’, inspiring generations of misogynist chuds), and still does some really, REALLY fucked-up stuff but without the glint the comic has in its eye that accuses you of complicity in the act of watching it happen.
- No One Left To Fight, Vol. 1
Ooh this one is PRETTY! Admittedly, in a kind of ‘Lisa Frank draws Dragon Ball Z‘ way, which may not be to all tastes but is EXTREMELY refreshing in short bursts.
I mean that literally, by the way, this is openly an affectionate take on musclebound, defeat-means-friendship shonen manga and anime that actually takes the time to ask some questions like, well, what happens when there’s no one left to fight? When a team held together by a common foe suddenly has nothing to keep it from asking some hard questions about what it did to save the world? To a man whose life is defined by one moment that grows further away in the rearview mirror every day?
NOLTF is, fundamentally, a sad story, but one filled with hope and the belief that if violence has to be a means to an end, that it can be set aside once that end is achieved, but that the hands and the heart will have to learn how to hold something else.
It’s also PRETTY DAMN GOOFY and fulla neat monstros who do not need to be punched and romantic tension, and it’s well worth your time and attention if you’re at all intrigued by it.
[Note: in sourcing the link for this one I see that since I read it earlier this year, this title has apparently been delisted from the Comixology shop, but it’s still available in paperback!]
- The Rabbi Small Mysteries, Vol. 2: Saturday The Rabbi Went Hungry – Harry Kemmelman (B)
Reader: this novel is very probably the angriest you will ever be at a synagogue’s managerial committee, because they want to FIRE RABBI SMALL. For shame! And his wife with child and all! Oh also a member of the congregation is dead in a seemingly-impossible locked-room mystery that looks a hell of a lot like suicide and if the Rabbi doesn’t figure out what really happened, the poor dead fella won’t be allowed burial in the Jewish cemetery. Probably should’ve mentioned the murder part first, but I’m just so mad at that jackass on the committee with the agenda. And right before Yom Kippur! The Sabbath of Sabbaths! THE RABBI SUPERBOWL!
Anyway this follow-up to Friday The Rabbi Slept Late (which you may recall I loved) is an entirely worthy successor and delivers everything it promises: a murder (maybe), many lessons on Judaism, not as many descriptions of food as I would’ve liked but whatcha gonna do, and a decent man doing his best to help others and be true to himself in a world that seems determined to deny him both.
- Banished From The Hero’s Party, I Decided To Live A Quiet Life In The Countryside, Vol. 2
Hero just wants to run his wee shop in peace! But former party member shows up and asks if she can stay with him! Sure! PERHAPS THERE WILL BE SOME ROMANCE??? But then uh-ohhhhhhh, trouble comes looking for them! Etc
This series is fine, I enjoy it when I read it but I don’t feel compelled to keep doing so afterwards; if there’s a sale or something in a year or so I’ll certainly snag the next few volumes, and there’s something to be said for a nice, plain, filling series that doesn’t demand much but welcomes you back whenever you find the time.
- Chicken Devil, Vol. 1: Under Pressure
Citizens, I’m a simple man: I see a comic that seems to be Breaking Bad if it was about chicken instead of meth, and I buy that comic. End of cycle. I know how to follow orders
That’s an oversimplification, of course, but the broad strokes are accurate enough: a man–something of a schlemiel, no small measure a schlimazel, but inarguably a genius in the way of the chicken–ends up in an actively dangerous debt through no fault of his own and is forced to take matters into his own wings after his family gets blown up HAHAHA WAIT WHAT, THIS COMIC IS INCREDIBLE.
The art is a little much for me at times–like literally there’s just A Lot on every single page, and it takes more engagement and attention than you’re used to spending on a per-page basis, but that’s not a bad thing at all, and Mitchell Moss himself is an enjoyably relatable protagonist who definitely has to get dangerous and turn into a badass vigilante but doesn’t lose himself or his position in relation to the Moral Event Horizon. Of course, it’s early days yet.
‘Crime’ as a genre is rarely enough to tempt me, but it turns out all it has to do is put on a funny costume and make me hungry for chicken, because this was a winner and I recommend you take it home to your hopefully unexploded family to-day.
- Kaijumax, Vol. 1: Terror And Respect (R) (⭐️TOP MONTHLY RECOMMENDATION⭐️)
Ooooooh this one is upsetting.
Kaijumax is Orange Is The New Black (or Oz, or Prison Break; your prison-drama of choice) through the lens of monster-movies, specifically kaiju (Godzilla, etc.) and super sentai (Power Rangers, Ultraman, etc.), because it knows that there’s a better chance of a random reader caring about those than about real, mostly minority, human prisoners. It’s also hilarious, deeply touching, and a thoughtful examination of the nature and causes of crime and whether the penal system is actually capable of (or interested in) rehabilitation or whether it just sets the cycle of poverty and trauma up for another spin with the next generation
Kaijumax is rough, and it only gets rougher, but it also never stops being incredibly fun and smart and simply chocka with more deep-cut monster-movie references than you would believe, and is always primarily interested in showing you that the simple facts of the way the criminal justice system works constitute a condemnation of that system.
- Spy X Family, Vol. 5
Spy shenanigans continue! Anya struggles in school a surprising amount for a telepath! Yor takes a cooking class in secret and comes home covered in blood! Yuri continues to be the fucking worst! BOND IS BIG AND FLUFFEH!
The running thread in this series is that these people–and dog–all have secrets and are all wearing masks, but you can only wear a false face for so long before it becomes real; the Forgers are being…forged??? into a real family, but there will come a time when the goals they have to pursue are incompatible with that. Fortunately for now it’s all goofs and what I’m given to understand are extremely sexy furniture and wardrobe design.
- Kaijumax, Vol. 2: Seamy Underbelly (R)
Our return to K-Max asks: what does prison destroy besides the souls of the incarcerated? And cousin the list is a long’un: the ethics and morals of the people who work in the system, the stability and futures of the children and family of the imprisoned, and the integrity of the justice system itself.
But it’s so fun and clever! I promise! Because you have to see fleshed-out, well-rounded characters do things besides suffer, you have to see friendships and growth, and all the ways that people/monstros find to pass the days and live a life in captivity, so that it will hurt extra much when they get shivved with a windmill-blade.
- Hulk, Vol. 1: Smashtronaut!
Donny’s previous series, Immortal Hulk, was one of the first titles I ever reviewed here, and at the time I would’ve said there was no way in Hell or France that it could get more upsetting in either implication or execution.
Dear Donny: I STAND CORRECTED.
As its central premise, the title supposes that the Hulk himself is a defense mechanism, not for Bruce Banner, but against Banner for the world. But he has cobbled together for himself a cockpit in the cognitive space and taken control of the Hulk’s body, WHICH HE IS NOW USING AS A SPACESHIP POWERED BY HATRED, specifically the hatred of the Hulk’s personality, which he has trapped in an Engine Room and whom he forces to fight an endless stream of monstrous foes depending on how much acceleration he needs.
Banner has become unstoppable by any means normal, heroic, or immortal. Fortunately, it seems like all he actually wants is to get away from everyone once and for all, but there’s a problem: He’s not alone in the cockpit.
Hulk is incredible, and the team-up/clash/seismic event implied at the end was enough to get me to check out…
- Thor By Donny Cates, Vol. 1: The Devourer King
Thor is king, and Allfather to his people. Asgard is at peace, and Thor is…working on that, for himself. All is well. Which is why it’s a shame it’s all about to end.
Not the end of an era, not the end of a cycle, with the beginning of the next over the horizon. Simply the End.
The Black Winter is coming.
THIS TITLE IS EXTREMELY VERY GOOD AND I RECOMMEND IT, even if like myself you aren’t generally overly en-Thor-siastic; Donny has a way of taking characters about whom I could not care less–looking at you, Venom–and using them to rip my goddamn heart out while fending off the terror-barfs, and I wish you all nothing but the same and more.
You realize the Sun doesn’t go down
It’s just an illusion caused by the world