By Ai Yazawa, Yuu Watase, Kaori Yuki, Taeko Watanabe, Marimo Ragawa, and Mitsuba Takanashi
360 pages, black and white, some color
Published by Viz Media
It’s hard to believe it was just a few years ago that Viz first started publishing the English-language Shonen Jump monthly magazine, packing hundreds of pages of comics from Japan into an affordable unit and letting it infiltrate not only comic stores, but newsstands and bookstores as well. Now they’ve got a new magazine ready, Shojo Beat, with six serials of shojo manga (or “girl’s comics”) from Japan. Can lightning strike twice?
First off, I have to give the designers of Shojo Beat a tremendous amount of credit for the look and design of the magazine. At a glance, this looks like a mainstream teenage magazine. It’s smart: why not lure potential readers by making it seem like something else they’re already familiar with? More importantly, by giving it a look that people are used to, it reinforces a very specific point: this magazine is for them. They’re the audience, they’re supposed to be reading it.
Shojo Beat leads off with a whopping 100-page introduction to its strongest feature, Ai Yazawa’s Nana. We meet Nana Komatsu, a young woman who hasn’t figure out yet that there’s more to life than just meeting and falling in love with boys. After a relationship with her latest boyfriend ends abruptly and unpleasantly, Nana’s ready to try something different, trying to have a guy friend with no romantic connections for once, even as she’s inspired to try and get into university in Tokyo. What makes Nana so great is how Yazawa makes her an almost-instantly appealing character. This is someone who’s made a lot of bad decisions, but still has a good outlook on life and is really trying hard to get herself into a better place. She and her friends have such a natural friendship that it’s easy to see yourself in them, and to nod or wince at each twist of events. There are quite a few things that happen in those 100 pages, too; by the time I got to the end of the chapter, I was amazed at just how much plot progression happened. To be honest, more goes on there than in many other comics’s entire first volumes. Add in some beautifully delicate art from Yazawa, and I can see why Nana is one of the top comics in Japan at the moment; it’s fantastic.
Yuu Watase’s always been a favored creator of mine, so I was really happy to see that her new series Absolute Boyfriend would be running in Shojo Beat. To my surprise, it’s got one of the weakest openings from her that I’ve seen. In books like Fushigi Yugi, Ceres, Celestial Legend, Alice 19th, and Imadoki! they began with something that instantly grabbed my attention, sucking me in within pages. Here, it just feels like I’ve seen it all before: the confused girl finding something out of the ordinary and failing to understand it until its true powers are revealed to her in full force by delivering her greatest wish in the form of a perfect (but artificial) boyfriend. It’s not bad by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s just a slightly more predictable introduction to the series than I’m used to from Watase. She’s such a sharp creator that it’s disappointing to see her falling back on such a standard setup. Now that the series is rolling, though, we’ll hopefully get a bit more of Watase’s originality.
This was unfortunately a trend that seemed to continue on through some of the other new serials of Shojo Beat. Taeko Watanabe’s Kaze Hikaru, with a young girl in disguise trying to join a school for samurai in the 1860s, is so predictable that it made me wonder if skipping the first chapter would have made any difference at all in the long term future of the book. Even Shojo Beat seems to understand just how weak this opening chapter is, spoiling the utterly unsurprising revelation (it’s a girl!) in the table of contents, something I’d managed to miss before giving Kaze Hikaru a try. It’s almost like a thoroughly watered down Rurouni Kenshin, and that’s about the best I can muster towards it. Marimo Ragawa’s Baby & Me is equally painful and predictable, with a ten-year old boy having to help raise his baby brother after his mother dies. This is so trite and predictable you’d think it was the Hallmark Movie of the Week; there’s nothing to recommend about this series at all, so far as I can tell; I’ll be surprised if any readers really emotionally attach to this.
Kaori Yuki’s Godchild was also a bit of a misfire, but to its credit it tries a lot harder than Kaze Hikaru or Baby & Me seemed to. This Victorian Era murder mystery with hints of supernatural behavior sounds like it should be fantastic, and just glancing at it, Yuki’s visuals are right on target. They’re lush and richly developed, and Yuki brings a real atmosphere and definitive look to Godchild. The only problem is that at the end of the first chapter I found myself feeling befuddled more than anything else. If Kaze Hikaru‘s first chapter felt skippable, Godchild is at the other end of the spectrum, making me almost think that I’d missed a chapter before this. With additional installments it may very well all come together quickly and feel a little more cohesive, but on its own it’s a curiosity more than anything else, feeling incomplete but intriguing.
Thankfully, Mitsuba Takanashi closes out Shojo Beat with Crimson Hero, the second strongest story in the magazine. Nobara is a great protagonist, a bit of a tomboy who transfers high schools so she can join a well-known women’s volleyball team, even as her family wants her to give up sports and help run a dining establishment that their family has owned for multiple generations. Nobara’s got a fantastic attitude, never quitting and always thinking her way through bad situations. Add in a wonderfully devious mother who is one of the most realistic “villains” I’ve seen in comics for some time (she’s not evil, she just sees opportunities to guide her daughters in the path that she’s chosen, and takes them without thinking about what her daughters might actually want) and you’ve got a real winner. The art for Crimson Hero is great, too. I love how she draws Nobara’s hair and face; when Nobara sits down on the floor of the gym after discovering the truth about the volleyball team, the pain and anguish she’s feeling come across perfectly in the art. I’d already known that I liked Yazawa and Watase’s comics, but Takanashi is definitely a creator I’m going to be keeping my eyes open for.
Last but not least, Shojo Beat has a handful of articles; some of them are about the history related to the different settings, talking about 1860s Japan or Victorian Era England, giving a bit of context to the readers. There’s also some really clever and original ideas for articles here, like a page showing how you can replicate Nana’s look from the front cover of Shojo Beat using real clothing articles and accessories, or the top ten accessories in Japan at the moment as a tie-in to Nana. Add in a horoscope with wonderfully creepy and crazy art by Junko Mizuno, and a little sneak peek booklet enclosed for the upcoming series Ultra Maniac, and you’ve got a nice little package. (I was also really impressed that ultra-chic makeup company Sephora has the back cover advertisement. That’s something I never thought I’d see in comics.)
Shojo Beat is off to a good, if not great start. Two of the six titles are failing to impress me, but the other four are ones I definitely want to see more of: Nana and Crimson Hero are fantastic, Absolute Boyfriend shows promise, and Godchild has a lot of potential that may still come together. Throw in fun articles and for $5.99 I more than feel like I’ve gotten my money’s worth. Heck, for $5.99 I got my money’s worth just by reading 100 pages of Nana. If Shojo Beat‘s series hook a whole new audience of readers who are going to their favorite store for their monthly fix, it succeeded marvelously, and I think it’s going to do just that.