thermaeromae More comics reviews, this time focused on manga. Contains spoilers in places!

Thermae Romae I (Yen Press)

Surely the greatest time travel/bathhouse design manga ever written, Mari Yamakazi’s charming Thermae Romae has the pace and pleasures of a culture-clash sitcom: each episode, down-on-his-luck bath architect Lucius Modestus is confronted with a bathing-related problem in 2nd century AD Rome, finds himself whisked away to modern Japan, and returns home full of inspiration. Along the way he invents the Roman Empire’s first reptile house, water slide and loyalty marketing scheme.

With its repetitive structure and gentle mood, Thermae Romae is as relaxing as a good soak. It’s also laugh-out-loud funny, as the uptight Modestus tries to parse what he’s seeing on his visits to the future, and rather shrewd on the comparisons between two cultures that revere bathing. It’s even educational: unlike Thermae Romae’s original audience, I came to it knowing nothing about Japanese bathing habits, a gap which is being thoroughly filled. Yamakazi isn’t a spectacular artist, and it’s hard to say that Thermae Romae benefits from the extremely luxe packaging (and price point). But she’s a good storyteller, and Modestus’ quizzical, uptight expressions carry the book’s humour well. This first omnibus sticks to a formula closely – I loved it, others may tire. But as Modestus gets a little more involved in Roman politics, there are hints of a plot bubbling to the surface. (4.5 stars)

Dorohedoro Vols. 1-3 (Viz)

Lizard-headed Caiman and his friend Nikaido wander a vaguely steampunky world of capricious magic-users and the ordinary guys they experiment on, looking for the magician who turned Caiman into what he is. That’s the – not especially promising – initial set-up for Dorohedoro, but beyond the grime and gore this is a surprisingly gentle, whimsical manga. Caiman and Nikaido’s friendship is a warm one, but so are the relationships – however dysfunctional – between the group of magic-users who Q Hayashida sets up as their initial antagonists. Very quickly Dorohedoro – for all its grotesquerie and gothic inventiveness – becomes a comic you read to see what its characters are up to, rather than for the plot per se. (Just as well, as Hayashida’s story is set up so she can continue spooling it out for as long as the strip is popular). The art has a scratchy, spiky, distorted zest which – along with the dark humour – reminds me of the more cartoonish end of 90s 2000AD: Bisley, Hicklenton, ‘SMS’. A taste worth acquiring. (4 stars)

Phoenix Vol.1: Dawn (Viz)

Thrilled to finally get the chance to read this manga by the prolific and revered Osamu Tezuka. The only other Tezuka I’ve read are the early parts of his Buddha, and Dawn inevitably reminded me of that – not just the ancient setting, but the vivacious, flowing cartooning, mixing slapstick, action, mythology and tragedy while trusting the reader’s intelligence and ability to navigate the shifts in tone. (What hand-holding there is – stodgy text passages on early Japanese history – turns out to be the result of over-cautious English language editors.)

Dawn shares plot points with the first volume of Buddha, but it’s a looser, more meandering story. It’s also – as a standalone – a more powerful one, set on the misty border of myth and history. Kingdoms clash, with enslavement and slaughter the result for the losers – repeatedly, the story seems like it will resolve into a neat narrative of revenge, but Dawn is a more fatalist (and more humane) piece: tyrants age like anyone else, aggressors ultimately meet more powerful foes, life continues. Some characters’ hubris is met by nemesis, while others’ goes unpunished. Traitors and butchers live long enough to become protagonists. Behind the vivid motion and cartoon clarity of his figures – Disney’s impact on Tezuka is enormous and obvious – this is a real and unsparing story, unsentimental even though it’s also fantastic. Tezuka’s art is a delight throughout, but at its best when it pauses to linger on landscape and wider action – the forbidding walls of a volcanic crater, or a fleet of war-boats on a sea at night. (5 stars)

Gantz (Dark Horse)

Gantz is probably the most adolescent comic I have ever read. That’s meant in a good way as well as a bad. The energy – Hiroiya Oku is a wonderfully clear choreographer of fights – the hunger for sensation, the morbid imagination, and the sheer compulsive hookiness of the plot with its casual cruelty – these are all good things. On the other hand, the characterisation is risible throughout and Oku’s treatment of his women characters is truly dreadful – a parade of embarrassing stereotypes well beyond the demands of fanservice. The simpering love interest, the busty lust interest (who asks the hero to keep her as a pet!), the Lara Croft lookalike who jumps him and promptly dies, the famous pop star who naturally falls in love with him… none of them get even the rudimentary hero’s journey development of the lead, remaining half-dimensional mannequins until their near-inevitable death – though here, at least, Oku is an equal opportunity slice-and-dicer. It’s like an excruciating tour of a 14 year old boy’s dreamworld.

Luckily, the “characterisation”, while rough going, is at most 10-15% of an otherwise crisply drawn and inventively violent manga. The plot is simple, Riverworld meets Suicide Squad: the recently dead are harvested by a high-tech gamesmaster and given a second life as agents sent into gory battle against clandestine aliens (who often, quite reasonably, ask why they’re being targeted). Survivors get points, and points mean prizes – weapons, freedom, or the opportunity to resurrect former players. The gamesmaster will happily shove anyone into a battlesuit – punks, criminals, salarymen, grannies, small children, pandas, and, inevitably, quite a few angst-filled high-schoolers. Who survives? The answers are (occasionally) surprising. Over the course of extremely long, fast-paced, videogame-style battles against a variety of aliens, a team solidifies, in time for a wider alien invasion. At which point the manga lurches into apocalyptic bio-horror, and a lot of the energy bleeds away. Perhaps Oku, after over a decade of creating this nonsense, got bored of drawing cyberpunk fights – though he finds reasons to keep the nudity quotient extremely high.

Gantz is often reprehensible but generally compulsive – it’s a fast, bloodthirsty read, suspenseful and exciting even though most of the characters are cyphers, and much though I’d like to mark it lower I still ended up reading the whole thing given the opportunity to. Even the relatively feeble final act kept me turning the pages – though at least there’s the magnificent payoff of a giant nude alien woman with Hitler’s face in her stomach, informing the reader that God does not exist. Peak adolescence has been reached, the rest of comics can go home. (2.5 stars)