What I’ve Been Reading: June 2020

Another month, another pile of books read. To stay true to the FEV branding we do have a Jump comic or two, but in a complete disregard for that same branding we have an intensely NSFW bit of hentai, so prepare yourself accordingly.

Okay? Okay.

art by Man☆Gataro

Le Petit Prince vol.6 (END)
Story & Art: Man☆Gataro
Serialised on Shonen Jump+
Published by Shueisha, 2020
Copy purchased from Bookwalker Japan

What is it?: There’s no good way to explain one of the most insular and bizarre adaptations of all time. This is Man☆Gataro comics through and through, a grotesque, violent, scatological romp across multiple small, desolate planets, with the titular prince and his pilot friend and artist Payao, as they face bizarre foes, defeat them, befriend them, and fly on to the next world. At this point the team includes a devil with a wolverine claw-abacus, a totally-not-pikachu, and a wizard with nothing under his robe and kicks that cause eruptions in the earth. Normal comics, you know?

What I think: Le Petit Prince is my only experience of Man☆Gataro outside of his seminal gag series Chinyuki, a series so scatological and weird that it could not live, and the Jump Sq version of Mitokon, that was a huge mess of cute girls and grotesque violence, to the point that the whole cast was wiped by a truck accident (a gag that this series reference multiple times throughout!), and I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this my favourite work of his. For six volumes (sharing space with a kickstarter reward comic for *that* statue campaign) I’ve been on a journey not just through space, but through a masterclass in conservation in artistic resources, which is to say the art is big and repeats a lot. backgrounds are pure black, planets are stark white, and speech balloons and single words can take up entire pages. To say Man☆Gataro lives by the “work smart, not hard” ethos is an understatement.

The question becomes whether this is good in a collected volume. Is this method of storytelling, made as a comic primarily for free online reading, worth the asking price when long stretches of pages can be the same images, resized and reframed, or statements spread over multiple artless pages. Shonen Jump Plus comics aren’t as cheap as normal Weekly Shonen Jump series, and on some level you expect the contents to at least match the cheaper product. Entertainment value-wise I have no doubts. This is one of my favourite Jump Plus series, up with Akuma no Memumemu-chan, Spy x Family, and Jigokuraku in sheer enjoyment, and in digital format I can kinda forget what I paid for each volume, but if I’d gotten this in print I may be a little steamed, though not so much in this volume as the previous two’s divergence into kickstarter buffoonery (not to call that bad, but it’s not Le Petit Prince now, is it).

But I don’t want questions of bang versus buck to be the conclusion drawn from this series. No, instead I want to point out that any series willing to end with the president of Tenga (yes, *that* Tenga) picking the team up, only to learn that the earth is overrun by evil, naked, killer elderly women, and everything is kind of for naught. That’s a Man☆Gataro series, all right!

Le Petit Prince is for fans of: Tenga’s excellent line of masturbatory products, BoBoBo-Bo Bo-BoBo, Pop Team Epic

art by Yukari Takinami

Ex-Enthusiasts: Motokare Mania vol.4
Story & Art: Yukari Takinami
Translation & Lettering: JM Iitomi Crandall
Editing: Jesika Brooks
Serialised in Kiss
Originally published by Kodansha, 2019
Published by Kodansha USA, 2020
Copy purchased from Kindle Store

What is it?: Yukari Takinami’s latest is a series about the ex-relationships that stick with you, and how they can absolutely make you into a mess, BUT ALSO about second chances at those very same things, BUT ALSO about Yurika Namba, a woman obsessed with her ex, Makochi, and her life when a joint job in real estate reconnects them. Internal brain councils, dysfunctional rivalries and the question of what to do when a relationship reforms abound as Namba tries to make it work all over again.

What I think: Ex-Enthusiasts is (probably) one of my five favourite series coming out in english as of writing this review. Yukari Takinami is a truly singular creator, able to make very trendy, gorgeous comics about deeply-flawed women with peculiar charisma, as much here as in her greatest work, Rinshi!! Ekoda-chan, and that this series keeps walking this tightrope between enjoying Namba’s antics to finding them deeply worrying is kind of amazing, at least as much as the sheer idea that this comic is out in english, which is a dream come true.

The series to this point has been a darkly comic look at the marks the most important relationships leave on you, and the attempts to either move on or reconnect. But here in the 4th volume everything changes. Makoto accidentally pushes a serious boundary with Marunouchi, and an end to their co-habitation situation is reached, something shared with Namba, given to her as an opportunity by her rival, and so the ex-enthusiast is now a… ex-ex-enthusiast? Her and Makoto are tentatively back together, at the least. Which raises a lot of questions for where the comic can go from here, ones that we kind of get an answer to, in a surprisingly mature way.

Deciding how to process the length of your relationship is a challenge on a reuniting. You either treat it as a fresh start or a continuation, and the former can honestly seem healthier than the latter, which creates some drama when it’s clear that Makoto and Namba fall on opposite ends of how to treat it, with Namba in particular finding it hard not to hop straight into continuation mode, which Makoto is just not ready for. That casual pressure of commitment coming form Namba being further ahead than him is eating away at his core, which feels incredibly real, and is the sort of issue that makes it easier to finally click with Makoto. I don’t know that thinking the way Namba does is necessarily bad, but you really do feel for this guy being pushed further and further into a corner without any ill intent. However this plays out (and I suspect the introduction of Momoe, a new ex-enthusiast who Makoto finds interesting, represents the biggest challenge for the duo), I’m firmly on board for the new direction.

Finally, a quick shout-out to the ‘obachan boomers’, the sort of hilarious minor characters that nonetheless churn out amazing pearls of wisdom in a way that only a wine mother could. Stuff like “if you can’t tell what a man is thinking, that usually means he isn’t thinking at all” hit for the funnies, and “never let a man’s opinion determine your value” hits even harder for the stone cold truths. I don’t know that we’ll ever see them again, but what a pair!

Ex-Enthusiasts is for fans of: Princess Jellyfish, Wave, Listen to Me

art by Asahi Sakano

Guardian of the Witch vol.1
Story & Art: Asahi Sakano
Serialised in Weekly Shonen Jump
Published by Shueisha, 2020
Copy purchased from Bookwalker Japan

(the chapters from this volume are available to read in English on the Shonen Jump app and website)

What is it?: One of Weekly Shonen Jump’s most recent cancellations, Guardian of the Witch is a fantasy-action title set in a world where monsters known as evils ravage the land, and girls infested with a portion of evil are granted magic powers as witches with which to destroy evil, at the eventual costs of their lives, whether through turning into evils themselves or being killed by their guardians, elite swordsmen tasked with helping fight evils and protect the witches, at least until it’s too late. Fafner is a guardian unlike any other, however, as he rejects the idea of relying on witches, and when tasked with killing his witch, the fire-wielding Manasfa, rejects his mission and decides to travel the land with her (and her assistant Nahta) to find a way to cure her of the evil within, and end the suffering of witches forever!

What I think: I love this series, but in a way that definitely, 100% made me look like an absolute bitch from day one, so please understand that everything I’m about to say is from a sincere place of adoration for this particular type of title, which is to say flawed series that completely fail to build anything resembling a substantial audience, that flounder and fail in the most cutthroat publishing environment in Japanese comics. The sort of series where everything from the plot, aesthetic, character designs, and tone spell out certain doom from the start, that I’ve been able to set my watch by since I started checking out Weekly Shonen Jump in the mid-00s. Guardian of the Witch is one of those series, to the point of feeling like a deliberate throwback to that particular era where I latched onto cancelled Jump comics, and that’s GREAT.

Cancelled comics are far and away more interesting than big successes. You can dismantle a failed work, learn what was promising enough to get serialised, what appeals to you personally, what failed, what aspects caused it to have an untimely death, or caused it to sell poorly. I think that if you’re able to look at the whole picture, the series for good and ill, and walk away with a favourite title that you’ll hold in your heart forever, then that’s a kind of magical thing, and with Weekly Shonen Jump the average reader gets a hundred or so opportunities to have this moment. I know I have it with Hoop Men, with Shinmai Fukei Killco-san, ST&RS, Double Arts, and a few others. And this? It’s not quite there, but it’s close.

Early warning signs are there out the gate with the character names. Fafner, Manasfa, and Nahta are, if we’re being honest, not the names of popular characters. They don’t have the best mouthfeel, are kind of clumsy, and are incredibly easy to misspell. I can’t guarantee I’m not going to have written them a few different ways in this very review. In fact, at one point they’re written on wanted posters completely differently to how the English edition presents them (and thank god for the existence of the English edition, without which I’d be floundering with some names), so I don’t know that Sakano-sensei had properly thought out how to present these names themselves.

There’s some very self-serious edgy stuff peppered in at the early stages, none more painful than Fafner biting his hand till it bleeds as a hardcore move to remind him of real pain or some such. It’s the sort of moment that makes you realise that you’re very much not the teenage audience this series is targetting, and have grown past such middle-school syndrome shenanigans, and are 30 years old, laying in a hot bath for too long, because you have a sore back from your full-time job, and time keeps passing, and maybe you should be graduating from Weekly Shonen Jump. I mean after all, you’ve got a kid yourself, and read more age-appropriate stuff in Grand Jump now, and are quickly beginning to realise that the amount of comics you’re reading is completely unsustainable and cutting down on new Jump series would seriously free up your time, but it’s a decade and a half habit at this point, and you’re trapped with this magazine forever, and it’s j u s t  t o o   m u u u c h.

…. which is to say that Fafner biting his hand didn’t resonate with me, I guess.

The art is pretty scrappy in a way eerily reminiscent of Kendo Kurando’s Santa! (a mid-00s cancelled WSJ title, funny that), and design elements like Fafner’s oversized collar remind me of series like Mikio Ito’s Granada (a mid-00s cance- you get the point), action is unusually static, despite some inspired ideas in what to do with action scenes, and all of this is more the pity, as you get the feeling that Sakano could be the sort of artist best-suited to refining themselves over a serialisation, similar to how Masashi Kishimoto went from scrappy to incredibly consistent over the course of Naruto. Things just didn’t come together here.

There is stuff I unreservedly think of as fantastic in this series, don’t be mistaken. It’s always nice when the main girl in a Shonen Jump series gets to be the glutton, Fafner’s aim to be strong without witches, and then becoming a team with the witch he’s close to as a way of getting to a world where witches don’t have to exist is kind of amazing, and my GOD, the perfect teen comic angle of having the people controlling the witch system be old folk in power, treating the young witches and guardians as so much fodder against the evils (themselves often being the very same young people sacrificed by them) that threaten their security and power is uhhhhh REAL POTENT, now as much as ever. There’s a diamond of a series underneath all the warts, and that truly makes it worth reading.

As a final observation, one not entirely limited to this volume being reviewed, I’d like to admit that this series, from day dot, frustrated me because I couldn’t work out precisely what comic it reminded me of, among all the series of that very specific era it felt like a throwback to. But as it entered its final couple of chapters, clearly about to be cancelled, but churning out one final quickfire story, packed to the brims with emotions, before jumping wildly ahead to a future ending, I realised.

This series is Naoshi Komi’s Double Arts. Soup to nuts, it’s Double Arts. All it lacks is that inspired hand-holding gimmick and fighting style. It so resembled that most promising of cancelled titles, the true prodigal debut that didn’t land, that it’s almost funny I didn’t realise. Manasfa is just like Elle, a girl sacrificing herself for the greater good, realising she wants to live on as its almost too late, and Fafner is Kiri, the boy pushing her on, trying to save her and every other girl in their order (be it witches or sisters). It’s shocking how blatant it feels to me now, and while I don’t think it’s deliberate it definitely goes a long way to explaining why this particular series has stuck with me so hard.

Guardian of the Witch is for fans of: Double Arts, just about every cancelled WSJ action title from 2001 through till 2006

art by Mizone

How to Conquer Monster Girls
Story & Art: Mizone
(English release credits unclear)
Serialised in Comic Moog Online
Originally published by G-Walk Co. Ltd., 2018
Published by Fakku, LLC, 2019
Copy purchased from Bookwalker Global

What is it?: A compilation of hentai stories by Mizone, centred around monster girls of a variety of species. The main story is Omnivore Hero, about a hypersexual fantasy knight travelling the land to have sex with every sort of monster girl that catches his eye, but there are a variety of other stories, from tales of fishwomen to centaurs and medical-based spontaneous transformation, all in the name of getting readers off.

What I think: Fakku books have made their way to Bookwalker Global, a continuing sign of legitimacy for hentai as as valid a form of comics as any other, something that shouldn’t necessarily need to be said, but that we so often need to as the ruder side of comics continues to be looked down upon by some. So to celebrate these works coming to an app that you can actually have on your smart devices, eradicating the need for browser-reading or pdf downloads, I’ve grabbed the most interesting looking of the available selection. Which of course is the one with monster girls.

Monster girl series are always kind of fascinating, as they have the hardest job of how best to apply human sexual characteristics onto creatures that so often aren’t, especially the further you get from legs. Or, I suppose, when you get to too many legs. What I’m trying to say is that legs, or the lack thereof, with regards to monster girls and what may be between them, can present some issues.

Mizone fearlessly bounds into these challenges with confident skill, taking mermaids and snake ladies, deciding roughly where the hips should be, and just plonking a vagina slightly below there, right on the front. Inelegant, but fit for purpose, and with careful posing this simple choice allows for clear scenes that are as functional as ones with creatures who aren’t fifty percent tail. Centaur girls get their stuff at the back of the horse part, because it would probably be weird to have it at the middle bit, or at the least it would just make you very aware of how centaurs have six limbs, which is somehow chilling every time I realise it.

These artistic decisions are kind of cool, because while yeah sure absolutely these stories are there for sexual gratification, it makes you super aware of the book as a comic, with design choices and artistic skill behind it, and gives Mizone an identity as a creator, recognisable beyond just their ability to get you going, as all good creators of erotica should be recognised.

Fakku’s commitment to uncensored art is admirable here for this reason as well. The various forms of censoring in Japanese editions (you know the ones, black lines, glowing white genital silhouettes, invisible crotches) dilute the artistic work of the creators, and can be a distraction. By giving a platform for these creators, Fakku have allowed us to see the full scope of what Mizone can do, and it turns out that yes, one of these things is draw penises and vaginas well.

It’s kind of frustrating then that I can’t specifically find out who translated the stories in this volume, or who lettered them. Their creative input is as crucial to what I’m reading as the actual original work, and a vague production team credit at the end really doesn’t do the job. There’s no greater turn-off than bad crediting, is something that I decided to type here, and I hate that I did, but come on, better credits please.

A final positive to end on, but one that I almost forgot to include; Omnivore Hero could easily have been full of non-consensual action with the powerful hero taking on these monster girls against their will, but it was with a huge sigh of relief that our hero actively makes a point of these encounters being purely consensual experiences, something that makes the core story of this book far more positive than it otherwise could have been. Playing with taboos is a part of erotica, but it’s a blessed relief to know that you can have a wholesale positive experience once in a while.

How to Conquer Monster Girls is for fans of: Interspecies Reviewers, Yokai Girls, but who are after something a bit more extreme

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