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Between the Panels: Realms of Manga
By Lance Victor Eaton (February 2007)

Going into a bookstore or comic book store to look at their manga offerings, customers are often overwhelmed. Even the mainstream stores typically have five or six bookshelves dedicated to these small black and white books. With hundreds of titles to chose from, readers may be sent into a seizure scanning these graphic novels' colorful and rich covers. Readers must also make sure they take the first book in a series or risk getting completely lost. It can be both a delightful and angst-filled experience. So here's some insight into recent series and titles to help readers decide what kind of manga is most agreeable to them.

Night of the BeastsNight of the Beasts by Chika Shiomi is a supernatural thriller following the exploits of Aria, a tough young woman who stumbles upon Sakura, a man possessed by a demon that takes him over and commits horrible deeds. Sakura's ability to control the demon has been dwindling but whenever he is in close contact with Aria, the demon subsides. As the two seek out dark creatures of the night, they try to understand how Aria's innate abilities keep demons at bay. However, others are on their trail with the goal of separating them and inflicting harm upon both. The story includes a decent mix of action and exposition. Those who appreciate the supernatural blended into a contemporary world (as in Buffy the Vampire Slayer) will enjoy this series.

JunkKia Asamiya's Junk: Record of the Last Hero invokes the long-standing construct of super-powered costume prevalent in both American and Japanese culture. After getting beaten up at school, Hiro has secluded himself and barely ever leaves the confines of his bedroom. Spending his time watching television and surfing the net, he stumbles upon a site that offers an opportunity to win Junk. Not knowing what it is, he enters and soon enough a package arrives. With a manual to guide him, Hiro quickly learns to use the super-powered suit. With its protection, he leaves his house and soon is racing through the streets. After playing the hero for a short stint, he seeks revenge on those who bullied him. However, his actions become less and less altruistic, and another person arrives on the scene with a Junk outfit, looking to keep him in line. The story packs lots of action, but also reveals an interesting psychological profile of Hiro whose inner turmoil bursts at the seams throughout this first book.

Mammoth Book of Best New MangaThe Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, edited by Ilya, can rightly claim its mammoth status with over five hundred pages of manga. In fact, in this collection, it's almost disappointing that the editor didn't choose more authors to participate. Several have more than one entry, thereby denying readers access to even more authors, styles, and stories. That said, the book includes a great kaleidoscope of short pieces that readers will enjoy. Some take but a page, while others carry on for dozens of pages. The editor manages a good mix of short and long, wordy and bare works. Ironically, the most intriguing bit in the collection is the introduction which presents many fascinating arguments about what manga is and isn't - a topic hotly debated among fans, academics, and artists.

Project XFinally, there's Tadashi Katoh's Project X Challengers: Cup Noodles, an amazing historical manga that explains how the tasty treat, Cup Noodles, came into being. American and Japanese fans alike (not to mention college students world-wide) will find this a fascinating retelling of how this inexpensive meal for people on the go was created by a team of hard-working employees at Nissin Foods. Action, of course, is lacking in this book, though readers will still sit at the edge of their seats with each passing page, waiting breathlessly for the team to succeed in each phase of development. This manga offers impressive bonus material, including an interview with Kunio Matsumoto, Head of Noodle Development, photographs, a timeline and other factual information about Cup Noodle's creation.

Part of manga's popularity lies in its fantastical, imaginative, action-packed worlds, flocked to - and devoured with fervor - by millions of teens the world over. Yet, the Project X Challengers series reminds US audiences that, just as the North American graphic novel can stray from Superman into more serious topics, so too can manga. Manga is the Japanese term for comic books and they come in many different shapes and sizes, filled with as many different stories and genres as can be found in North American comics.
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