Okay. Here's a quick attempt to clear a small pile of paperbacks off my desk. They're in the order from least-liked to most liked, if you care.
Kon Kon Kokon
Kon Kon Kokon v1
Story and art by Koge-Donbo
Translation by Satsuki Yamashita & Jason R. Grissom
Lettering and retouch by Keiran O'Leary
Ren Hinonishi may look like he's got it all, but beneath his cool and collected exterior lurks a country bumpkin and a monster otaku. He's trying to suppress all that so he can score with the cutest girl in school, but his plans go awry when a fox spirit from his hometown shows up on his door. Her name is Kokon, and she's here to repay Ren for a past kidness — by becoming his wife!
I figured this would be cute when I picked it up. I wasn't expecting it to turn into a lolicon harem manga, where Ren picks up an army of cute monster girls eager to "repay" him for some past kidness. Truth be told, I really can't stand lolicon's sexualized little girls or the creepy wish fulfillment aspects of the harem manga, and a combination of the two of them is extremely off-putting.
It's not particularly good either. There's practically no logical plot structure — by the end of the first volume Ren has picked up three monster girls in rapid succession, but it never occurs to him to figure out out why any of them are hanging around. The characters are either fawning girls or Ren, who, while not completely unlikeable, is the sort of personality-free mannequin you always find at the center of a harem manga.
Koge-Donbo's characters are cute in a minimalist way, but there's nothing particularly creative or compelling about the character designs. This is particularly disappointing given that most of the characters are monsters, and the Japanese have some really weird monsters that could make for some interesting character designs. An umibozu, for instance, is a sea monster whose defining characteristics is that it's big and bald. I've seen depictions that have ranged from a Hedorah-like octopus monster to a giant kappa-like ogre to a human-sized freak. The umibozu above, though, is just a generic cute girl with some fish-fin ears slapped on. Not very exciting, and very similar-looking to the existing characters.
I do like some of the techniques used in the drawing above, though. The black areas are intelligently spotted in a way that frames the central drawing, and the use of white tone to lighten the background gives everything a luminous soft-focus quality that makes you feal like you're in an undersea dreamworld. The panel layout is solid if unspectacular. It's also unfortunately atypical. In general, Koge-Donbo just piles panels on top of each other one after the other with no regard to how the overall page looks, and the result is a confusing, hard-to-read jumble.
I'd give a strong recommendation to avoid Kon Kon Kokon unless you've got a taste for loli. A really strong taste for loli.
Wild Ones v1
Story and art by Kiyo Fujiwara
Translation by Mai Ihara
Lettering and retouch by Mark McMurray
When Sachie's mother dies, she's taken in by the grandfather she never knew esisted. That would be disturbing enough on its own, but it turns out that her grandfather's a yakuza oyabun who lives in a house full of thugs. And to top it all of there's Rakuto, the underling he's assigned to watch her — an impossibly polite, handsome high school boy who keeps treating her like a fragile princess!
This could be entertaining nice set-up, and the preview in Shojo Beat was entertaining enough to convince me to pick up the first volume. Alas, as entertaining as Wild Ones is, it's still an utterly forgettable, by-the-numbers manga.
The biggest weakness is that there are only two characters — Rakuto and Sachie. They're actually pretty well-defined characters — Sachie seems like a normal girl but occasionally shows flashes of yakuza toughness that she's inhereted from her mother and grandfather, while Rakuto is a serious-minded young man who's taken a childhood friend's advice to always let a smile be your umbrella a bit too far. The two of them are clearly meant to hook up, and by the end of the first volume, they're well on their way to hooking up with no significant obstacles standing in their way. It's not a situation that creates a lot of dramatic tension.
There's also no serious attempt made to utilize the yakuza atmosphere for anything other than some cheap laughs.
The art is standard for a modern shojo comic — there's nothing particularly good or bad about it. Fujiwara actually has a bit of a flair for dramatic staging, but not enough to pull it off completely. For instance, I like some aspects of the above page — the sudden, violent transition from horizontal to vertical emphasized by Rakuto's thudding hand, followed by some brief moments of silence and a washed-out close-up of Rakuto's face that lends the drawing some extra dramatic weight. Unfortunatley, I think the effect is spoiled by the second panel, which complicates the layout and takes away from the horizontal thrust of Rakuto's fist. The thin-line inking doesn't help much here either.
You won't regret picking up the first volume of Wild Ones but neither will you be clamoring for more.
Stand-By Youth v1
Story by Young-Bin Kim
Art by Juder
Translation by Lauren Na & Kereth Cow-Spigai
Lettering and retouch by Star Print Brokers
Hyungmo is a smart kid, but he cracks under pressure. When he fails all of his college entrance exams, he enrolls in a test-prep school filled with juvenile delinquents and slackers. He'd drop out but a beautiful student named Sora catches his eye. Unfortunately, if his eyes are on the girl, they're not on his exam..
Stand-By Youth is almost a very good manga. Hyungmo is an intriguing character, and though he's portrayed sympathetically the creators don't shy away from his negative qualities. He's self-absorbed and self-pitying, to the point where he mistakes his family's soft-touch treatment of him for condescencion. He has the skills necessary to succeed but not the focus necessary to use them, and always finds something outside himself to blame for his failures. Being held back makes him a social reject, but it's also partly his own fault for not trying to maintain a connection with his friends. It's rare to see such a complex characterization in a mainstream comic.
For instance, there's a wonderful scene where Hyungmo's extended family drops by for a visit. Hyungmo escapes all the family drama by spending a few hours basking in the simple, unconditional love of his niece, only to have his self-confidence dashed when his grandmother tries to give him some money. Anyone who's got enough pride to try and make it on his own can understand the reticience to take a handout — but it's still rare to see a depiction of that in popular culture.
The art almost conveys the sense of uselessness that Hyungmo is feeling. It certainly manages to capture how small he feels through the forced perspective and his dejected expression. However, the decision to plop him into an abstract swirling background is a strange one. It may be an attempt to capture his inner turmoil, but his feelings of uselessness might have been better captured by a forced perspective shot of Hyungmo, standing alone in a very empty room, or something understated and personal. The redundant captions don't help — you could lose everything after "but..." and still get the same amount of information.
And that's pretty much the problem with Stand-By Youth in a nutshell — it almost pulls off the effect it's going for, but not quite. Every time you think you're going to get something resembling a personal breakthrough, Hyungmo gets pulled into some wacky antics by his fellow students or has to spend some time dealing his two potential love interests. It's two steps forward, two steps back, and what you're left with is an open-ended character study going nowhere in particular.
The Palette of 12 Secret Colors
The Palette of 12 Secret Colors v1
Story and art by Nari Kusakawa
Translation by Sheldon Drzka
Lettering and retouch by Wilson Ramos
Cello is in training to be a "palette" — a color magician who can transfer pigments from one substance to another. Unfortunately, she just can't seem master the fine control necessary to pass her exams, which keeps staining her hair and clothes and landing her in Dr. Guell's office to get de-colorized. Fortunately, she's got her pet bird, Yoyo, and her best friend, Mousseline, to cheer her on. Can Cello unleash her hidden talents before the school kicks her out?
I really liked this one. Cello is a plucky heroine who's on the cusp of adulthood. She may not be able to do everything her fellow students can, but she has some unique talents that need to be nurtured. She's clever and determined enough to solve her own problems and take the initiative, but she still needs some help from her friends and teachers every now and then. The adventures she has are fun and light, whether she's helping triplets have a fun birthday or trying to track down the bird thieves who've framed her.
There's still one major flaw, though — ideally, a story that's about color wizards really calls out for the occasional splash of color, but The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is entirely black and white. Still, Nari Kusakawa does a nice job of creating a sense of color in black and white by using a specific set of screen tones to indicate intense, shimmering color. Here's a scene were Cello uses her powers to steal Yoyo's color from a great distance, something none of the other palettes can do...
Those soft, shimmering screen tones are only used to for the color effects in the book — everything else is done with simple dot and pattern screens. Consequently, when the bright colors start flying, you get the sense of tremendous brilliance even though you're looking at things in black and white.
The rest of Kusakawa's art is nothing to write home about, but it does keep up the light and friendly tone established by her writing.
The Palette of 12 Secret Colors is definitely a comic for the younger set — I can't imagine that anyone who's hit puberty will spare it a second glance. But for a children's comic, it's fresh and charming and definitely worth a look in spite of its flaws.