Classics Illustrated

In the flurry of publicity for Tokyopop’s OEL initiative, there’s been something of an ink shortage for the publisher’s new line of shonen-ai/yaoi titles, Blu. LikeDigital Manga, Tokyopop has cordoned off a special plot of manga about boys who like boys.

One of their early releases, Yun Kouga’s Earthian, is billed as a classic of the shonen-ai genre. First published in Japan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it got released again as a special edition starting in 2002, and now it’s making its English-language debut.

I’m reluctant to speak ill of a classic, but the first volume of Earthian is kind of a slog. With its wandering attention span and sampler platter of shonen-ai conventions, it seems more like an essay on the genre than a compelling example of it.

In it, angels Chihaya and Kagetsuya are hard at work monitoring the pluses and minuses of Earthian (human) behavior. If the monitoring angels (actually aliens from the planet Eden) find 10,000 minuses, Earth will be destroyed. Chihaya is a dedicated plus-counter and something of an oddball by Eden’s standards. He has black hair and wings, and he’s an unrepentant Earthian lover. (Most of his fellow angels are either indifferent or hostile to humans.)

Chihaya’s adoptive father, the Archangel Michael, will make the final call on the fate of the Earthian (it functions as both singular and plural). He keeps close tabs on Chihaya and Earthian-hating Kagetsuya as they wander the globe counting. The duo runs into a rather unrepresentative sample of Earthian, though it’s fairly standard for fantasy manga.

A lady astronaut, a mafia sorceress, an artificial human, and others catch Chihaya’s eye and challenge his observer status. They teach valuable lessons about courage, loyalty, love, and what makes each Earthian unique. It feels like someone took a Moto Hagio treasury and tossed it into a blender.

Earthian isn’t bad, precisely, but it never soars, nor does it particularly hold together. Sentimental Chihaya and hard-line Kagetsuya aren’t very compelling individually or together, and a potential romance seems a long way off. (There are frequent reminders that, on Eden, homosexuality is punishable by death, so one can only assume the drama will ramp up at some point.)

The art is only average. It isn’t helped by a number of references to how pretty certain characters are. In the eye of this beholder, “pretty” might be a bit generous. Kouga’s fond of long necks and tiny heads, and there’s some inconsistency in the rendering of characters. At one point, there’s actually a note that says, “This is Chihaya,” with a pointer. And it was useful.

The production values are rather mixed. It’s hard to complain about almost 400 pages for $14.99, but the image areas go deep into the spine, and it can be a struggle to see the effect of whole pages. It’s got a nifty, textured cover and some color pages, but there’s little in the way of supplemental material.

I’m glad that Tokyopop has committed itself to the shonen-ai/yaoi audience with Blu, but Earthian won’t make my personal list of classics.
If there’s ever been a family that begged to get the sudsy epic treatment, it’s the Borgias. Money, power, lust, murder – they’ve got all the ingredients for sensational manga. All their story needs is a talented manga-ka to bring those ingredients together with style and imagination.

I’m happy to report that You Higuri seems to be precisely that manga-ka, and Cantarella (Go! Comi) is a juicy corker of a book. Nobody should use it as reference for a history report, but the liberties Higuri takes are designed to ramp up the drama.

Set in 16th-century Italy, Cantarella tells the story young Cesare Borgia, bastard son of Cardinal Rodrigo. Hungry for the papacy, Rodrigo conceals his dalliances and passes himself off as uncle to his illegitimate offspring Cesare and half-siblings Juan and Lucrezia. He houses them with a string of mistresses and cohorts, leaving Cesare to protect Lucrezia and Juan to pursue his own sadistic pleasures.

Emotionally charged as that scenario is, Higuri has added another layer. To achieve his ambitions, Rodrigo has made a demonic bargain that’s left Cesare under a curse. As young Cesare comes to fully understand his father’s amorality, he also learns of his own role in Rodrigo’s bargain.

Is the supernatural element necessary? Nope. Is it a bit of added punch to an already loaded story? Yup.

Much of the first volume is given to Cesare learning to hold his own among the scheming adults of his father’s social circle. Adultery and assassination are fairly commonplace, and Cesare has to learn quickly if he wants to survive (and keep doting Lucrezia safe). In the process, Higuri makes Cesare a surprisingly sympathetic figure. He can be ruthless, but there isn’t really an alternative. His mystical destiny distresses him, but he develops a wry sense of humor about it.

Higuri even manages to fold a bit of shonen-ai into the proceedings. Rodrigo’s rivals send a young assassin, Michelotto, to dispatch Cesare. Michelotto fails but survives, and the scenes between the two young men crackle with tension and chemistry. Their situations intertwine in interesting ways, and Higuri does a nice job of linking their individual destinies.

But Higuri does a nice job with just about everything. The art is expressive, detailed, and kinetic. Character design is particularly strong. She’s juggling a huge cast, some of them growing from children to young adults, but you never lose the sense of who’s who. Scenes of swordplay and seduction are rendered with energy and craft, and the more tender moments are genuinely affecting.

Extras are substantial. Go! Comi is clearly (and understandably) proud of the level of Higuri’s participation in the translation. Extra features include a welcome to English-speaking audiences from Higuri, a lengthy text piece on the research she conducted, a look at the evolving scholarly view of Cesare Borgia, and a detailed examination of Go! Comi’s production process (shooting pages from original photographic negatives).

I have to confess that Go! Comi has slid under my manga radar up until now. Their presentation of Cantarella has changed that, thanks to both the quality of Higuri’s work and the Go! Comi’s care in repackaging it. This is a title and a publisher to watch.

In an odd bit of coincidence, via Previews, I find myself eager to give the Blu line another shot. January will see Blu’s release of Gorgeous Carat, by You Higuri. This time around, Higuri will take readers to turn-of-the-century Paris for a tale of jewel thieves in love. I’m there.