Created by InvertMouse
My rating: 3.5 of 5
Vinty has always dreamed of making it big as a calligrapher. She’s putting a lot of work into her calligraphy, all the while barely surviving on her foodservice job. There’s a lot of pressure, and it’s hard to stay positive in the midst of it all. Really, why did she even go into calligraphy to begin with?
Without Within is a cute anime-style visual novel following a young calligrapher who’s at that super-difficult point where she’s just getting started. It’s an honest look at the challenges folks face at this point in life–I’ve been there and can relate. Vinty has a lot of attitude and tongue-in-cheek humor, which definitely adds a lot to the story. The entire visual novel is really short; I finished it in about 20 minutes, even getting sidetracked on several bad endings. But it’s cute and fun. Plus, it’s free to play on Steam. I’d recommend Without Within to those who enjoy a fun slice-of-life visual novel without a lot of frills–just a good story.
Mangaka: Kiyohiko Azuma
Yukari-sensei’s class has some interesting characters in it, but the truth is, she might just be the most biggest “character” of them all. She’s not exactly the most responsible teacher in Japan. At least this year she’s got Chiyo in her class, an adorable 10-year-old prodigy who’s jumped up to being a freshman in high school–and who’s bright enough to be a good tutor for the other students. On the other hand, there’s Tomo–she really should think before she acts. Or opens her mouth. Actually, thinking period would be a good start. Ditto with Osaka the transfer student from . . . you guessed it, Osaka. Although with Osaka, it’s not that she doesn’t think so much as that everything she thinks of is really ditzy. Yomi-san is Tomo’s friend from back in grade school, but I still don’t know why she puts up with her; sometimes I think Yomi must be a bit of a masochist although in most other ways she’s pretty smart and capable. Then of course, there’s Sakaki–tall, athletic, quiet, and generally too cool for words. You’d never guess what a soft spot she has for everything small and cute–especially kittens! Somehow, these girls become friends their freshman year, developing an everyday sort of friendship that’s warm and funny and just as unusual as the girls themselves.
Azumanga Daioh has got to be one of the best manga ever written. Although, is it technically manga, since it’s written in 4-panel vertical comics? Not sure on that one, but I really love the way the panels are each episodic, yet they flow into each other seamlessly to create a cohesive whole spanning the girls’ entire three years of high school (including some wacky summer breaks). This is one of those stories that it’s nearly impossible to explain what makes it so amazing. I mean, the characters are wonderful. That definitely is a big part of it. But I think it’s also that this is just an everyday slice-of-life story. Nothing crazy happens. Nobody dies, gets a rare disease . . . nobody even has a boyfriend! It’s just the normal lives of these girls. Yet somehow Azuma-sensei captures the touching and funny aspects of daily life in just the right light, drawn out by the unusual quirks of the students, so that they are immediately captivating and hilariously funny. I can’t read a chapter of this manga without bursting out into laughter–out loud, which can be embarrassing! Yet the story does deal with real problems that high-schoolers face regularly–weight and self-image, friendship, grades, feeling left out, and more–in a way that gives the story weight, bridging the gap from a flighty shoujo story to a mature josei one. I’ve shared this manga with friends young and old–my dad, a female college friend, and my teenage brother to mention a few–and they’ve all loved it. Truly, Azumanga Daioh comes with my highest recommendations to basically everyone.
Note: I love the randomness of the title, which comes from squishing the author’s name “Azuma” together with the word “manga” and sticking on “Daioh” from the magazine it was originally published in, Dengeki Daioh.
Author/Illustrator: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Katie is a perfect picture of someone in a late-twenties slump: stressed, directionless, boyfriend-less. She’s done fairly well as the chef at the restaurant Seconds, but she’s moving on now to owning a restaurant of her own–which should be super-exciting, but the work isn’t moving forward nearly as quickly as she’d like, and right now she’s in a state of limbo. Still living in the apartment on Seconds’ upper floor, still wandering through the restaurant making a pain of herself, but no longer needed, really. Her life takes a turn, though when she discovers she can change the past. . . . After an accident results in Hazel, one of the servers at Seconds, being badly burned, Katie is given the change to prevent that–as she is shown in a dream by the house spirit of Seconds. It’s supposed to be a one-time alteration, but Katie finds a way to get around the rules and soon has made such a mess of time that she doesn’t know what’s going on!
I absolutely loved Seconds; I read it in one sitting, even though it’s a pretty thick graphic novel. This story is a zany mix-up of contemporary life, ancient lore, science fiction, etc. The result is quirky, for sure, but also very fun and significantly insightful. I think this graphic novel speaks meaningfully into a slice of life that is often ignored–those people who aren’t quite such young adults anymore, but who are still young enough that they’re not settled yet. This is a significant–often lonely–demographic, yet writers seem to shy away from addressing the needs of this age range, in my experience. Not so here–Katie’s issues are laid out in painful honesty. Katie is really a great character–even depressed, she’s full of life, personality, and enough determination to get the world in trouble. Her arguments with the narrator are the best! I think the art style really fits the story as well. As opposed to, say Sandman or Fables, Seconds is more a cross between manga and American cartoons–the style is actually similar to that used in Foiled. It really suits the story, plus I personally like this style of graphic novel a lot better than the more classic comic-book style. I would recommend Seconds to anyone who likes American graphic novels, but especially to those who are stuck in that awkward late-twenties slump themselves–if only as a reminder that some people have it even worse than you!
For as long as he can remember, Kimihiro Watanuki has been plagued by being able to see spirits–and worse, by attracting them! It is on a seemingly ordinary day, much like any other, that while he is attempting to evade a particularly nasty and persistent spirit, Watanuki finds himself drawn–physically, by powers unseen–into an eccentric-looking shop. Within this shop, he encounters the even more eccentric shop-keeper, Yūko Ichihara, who claims his coming is hitsuzen, fate. Before long, Watanuki finds himself employed part-time, serving the unusual, selfish, and frequently-drunk Yūko–and the steady stream of customers, human and otherwise, who frequent the shop that fulfills wishes.
XxxHOLiC has got to be one of the best manga out there, period. The characters are first-rate–well developed, unique, and showing immense and fascinating growth over the course of the story–and the relationships between them are subtle and beautiful. In particular, I love Watanuki’s overreaction to Domeki (his best friend, although he won’t admit it) and to Yūko. And the subtle developments in Yūko, going from a completely overbearing and selfish individual to a self-sacrificing and almost motherly one, is absolutely incredible and completely fitting with the story. Because that’s a major factor in the story, the idea that the people we encounter change us and that everything has a purpose. I also really enjoy the inclusion of lots of Japanese legends, especially as CLAMP weaves them into the modern world in a classic urban-fantasy fashion. The main story-line itself is intricate yet wonderfully consistent–and absolutely heart-rending. Finally, the art is beautiful–primarily a classic CLAMP style, but with a more traditional Japanese art flavor that fits the storyline perfectly. I would highly recommend xxxHOLiC to anyone, regardless of usual taste; it supersedes barriers like gender, style, and age in a wonderful manner.
Author: Jenny Allen
Illustrator: Jules Feiffer
Moving into a new apartment, Caroline decides to turn an entire wall into a gigantic chalkboard–the perfect place for her children’s creativity to blossom. Of course, things never go quite as planned, and over time, the giant chalkboard passed through numerous hands and purposes. Still, it brought her happiness.
The Long Chalkboard is a set of three illustrated stories. It’s slated as a graphic novel, but I would say it’s more like a picture book for adults. I love the chunky landscape layout, and the illustrations are warm, expressive, and humorous. (Actually Jules Feiffer’s work is what initially drew me to this book; I’m a longstanding fan from the time I first read The Phantom Tollbooth.) The stories themselves are funny, ironic, and approachable–just what you’d expect from the joint work of a journalist/comedian and a comic writer/illustrator. Although it’s really written more for my parents’ generation, I found The Long Chalkboard to be an enjoyable set of short stories.