Thursday, September 23, 2010

Small Press Expo 2010

I've already talked some about my experience at the Small Press Expo on the Manga Out Loud podcast, but I thought I'd add in a few details I invariably forgot to mention.

Last year I wound up going in the wrong direction on Metro. This year my luck continued with the wrong train in the right direction. The Grosvenor train ends a stop before the White Flint station. Fortunately all I had to do was wait for the next train and resume my journey. I boarded the Shady Grove train only to find Ed Sizemore on his way to SPX. The North Bethesda Marriott & Convention Center was only a block or two away from the Metro station, so it's a perfect location for locals.

The registration line was long but it moved briskly. The exhibitor's room was quite packed this year. I found it quite crowded; there was only one double wide aisle you could easily move through. Most of the bigger publishers like Top Shelf and Fantagraphics were given corners or endcaps, so they were able to spread out their wares. Some of the more popular webcomics artists were all in the same far right aisle together, so it was difficult to browse or move. Someone had wisely opened up a side door for Kate Beaton's line; she was signing and sketching throughout the day.



This year I was only looking specifically for one thing: NBM's The Broadcast. I've always been fascinated by Orson Welles' infamous "panic broadcast" of the "War of the Worlds", so the idea of a story using that as a backdrop fascinated me. The cover artwork is by Franscesco Francavilla, but the interiors are a sketchier ink-washed style by Noel Tuazon. Eric Hobbs' NBM blog includes sample artwork of Tuazon's style.

I was grateful for my various friends at this con. As mainstream as I tend to be, I'm really unfamiliar with most of the indie comics crowd. I recognized a few names from last year or if they've had some online recognition. I love people pointing me to new stuff I might have ignored otherwise.


I'd seen some of Carolyn Belefski's sketches on twitter after Baltimore Comic Con, so I was delighted when I discovered she was at SPX. She was working on a Wizard of Oz sketch while I chatted with Joe Carabeo, her partner-in-crime. The Legettes was described as burlesque dancers as spies; from a slight skim, it reminds me a little of Charlie's Angels maybe from Bosley's perspective. But I wound up buying both The Legettes and their new Carnival anthology. Right after the con, Carolyn Belefski was nominated for a 2010 Lulu in the Kim Yale Award for Most Talented Newcomer.

The unique thing about SPX is the diversity of formats. SPX had everything from tiny mini comics to hardbound graphic novels and everything in between. Everyone is trying new and different things with the comics medium. In that vein, I discovered Ken Wong's origami comics. He's found a nifty way to turn little mini comics into three-dimensional objects, mixing traditional sequential art with papercraft. What's neat is he picks the right shape for the right story, whether it's Pandora's box or a 2D for a D&D story. I bought the Schrodinger's Cat, which is one of those old "fortune-teller" folding games I remember from when I was younger. When you unfold it, he's included all the different cats from comics. We wound up talking about other kids' games like Cat's Cradle and how each generation seems to reinvent the wheel only to discover their parents and grandparents played the same games when they were younger.

I didn't buy all that much. I was coming off my heavy spending at Baltimore Comic Con, so I tended to hold back a bit. I do regret not stopping by Roger Landridge's table if only to tell him how much I'm enjoying Thor: The Mighty Avenger. I also regretted not stopping by Rob Ullman's Atom-Bomb Bikini table; as a sports fan, I like his pinup sweater girls. Unfortunately I root for completely the wrong hockey team (go Caps!), so it might have been an awkward encounter.

I also attended two panels. The first one was the "How We Judge" critic's panel. I didn't attend the one last year, so I was curious how this one would turn out. With seven panelists on board, it was quite a challenge to get everyone's viewpoint in, especially with only a few microphones. I tended to disagree vehemently with the more literary approach to comics criticism. Even when reading Girl-Wonder's bloggers, I sometimes zoned out when they included lengthy discussions on feminist or gender theories. I guess I tend to take a more narrow view of what constitutes canon – how a story fits comics as a whole, historically, yes, but more how it relates to that particular character/team/creator. I don't tend to factor in larger literary ideas. I don't think I'll ever be high brow enough for that crowd.

One topic that has cropped more recently is the newcomer/outsider reviews. With graphic novels becoming more and more mainstream, they're getting reviewed in different places, some by people with little or no knowledge of comics. Even for regular comics reviewers, it's nigh on impossible to read or cover everything. Reviewers have specialized and sub-specialized; even manga reviewers tend to stick to their niche. So when reviewers venture outside that niche, it's a risk. Chris Mautner had just reviewed Fantagraphics' release of Hagio Moto's collection A Drunken Dream in a tone that smacked a lot of regular manga readers the wrong way. Johanna Draper Carlson still sees the value in those newcomer reviews. I think there are ways to approach the subject that are respectful of both current and non-comics readers.

Near the end of the day, I went to the "Comics for Younger Readers" panel moderated by Johanna Draper Carlson. The early part of the panel talked the technical approach: how to work with educators and libraries, what constituted kid friendly art styles and so on, while the end included some reading recommendations. The panel split on how consciously they intended to marketing to kids. Aaron Reiner tended to just let the story come out, whereas the Metaphrog couple tended to strongly gear their books towards children. I loved hearing their perspective. Their experiences teaching comics in Scotland was fascinating. Libraries and schools there tend to be stuck in the "comics are for kids" mentality. Also they mentioned that teen books there are fairly patronizing and condescending. They saw more problems inherent in coddling children from difficult subjects. Americans tend to be protective of younger reading habits. But as was pointed out, it's much easier to flip through a graphic novel and find objectionable pictures than it is to sit and read say a 400 page Harry Potter novel.

Raina Telgemeier talked about the challenges of working with Scholastic. The book market was much closely tied in with age demographic, so if she's writing about middle school protagonists, she's writing for that market, no exceptions. She's had to adjust her new work from being set in high school, because of those publisher expectations. Both Raina & Metaphrog actually had positive things to say about working with some editorial control/oversight, rather than the indie comics model of "Oh, I'll write whatever I want to". There was a different challenge inherent in working within those strictures.

The convention was double booked with a medical conference. A wedding reception was also setting up for Saturday night, so there were all these glamorous gowns contrasted with our jeans and t-shirts. At least our group wasn't dressed in costumes.

Would I go back to SPX? On the double plus side, the con is local and inexpensive. The day passes make the con very attractive to newcomers, too. On the minus, small publishers don't always publish as quickly as others, so finding new material is sometimes a challenge. Changing the con to October may also help me, assuming Baltimore Con stays in August again.

On the whole, I enjoyed the experience and having the chance to hang around my friends and talk about different comics for a change.

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Thursday, June 10, 2010

Heroes Con

Comic book conventions have always seemed strangely out of reach for me. When I was younger, I attended the little day conventions in some neighborhood hotel, a dealer's room of back issues and merchandise. Occasionally they'd invite a guest. Usually I'd ignore them. I didn't recognize most of the names and I was more after more stories to read. At one event, they brought Adam Hughes. I recognized him from his work on Maze Agency. What I didn't know was that he was on a long run of JLA and known for his pinup work. That aspect of work went completely over my head. Since then, I've gone to science fiction conventions, I've even daytripped my local anime con, but I couldn't find a way to the comics shows. SPX was a interesting test of the convention waters, but I'm a four-color superhero girl at heart.

I'd heard a lot of positive things about Heroes Con in Charlotte, North Carolina, how friendly and welcoming it was to newcomers. I liked that it was comics-focused, rather than a media show. So when the opportunity arose to attend the show this year, I leapt at the chance. I road tripped and shared the room with several other fangirls. Experiencing the con through the other people's eyes was fun, since left to my own devices, I might have stayed in my safe little corner. Instead I could discuss insane comics topics like Clint Barton's former occupations, come up with a fantasy baseball team, and or play a marathon game of Apples to Apples.


Or see a glorious rainbow over Richmond, Virginia after the sun came out in the middle of thunderstorm.



MEET THE ARTIST, TALK TO THE WRITERS


The neatest part about the con was doing the "meet and greet" with all the different writers and artists. I loved having the opportunity to tell them how much I've enjoyed the work. To my credit, I think I acquitted myself pretty well. I introduced myself with my twitter name and every artist thanked me for retweeting or mentioning their work. If I love something, I like telling people about it. I very rarely rip someone's work. I'm more likely to say it wasn't to my taste -- different strokes for different folks, I always say.

Some of people I met/signed/sketched/etc: Thom Zahler, Jeff Parker, Tom Fowler, Gabriel Hardman, Francesco Francavilla, Colleen Coover, Paul Tobin, Steve Epting, Jim McCann, Chris Samnee, Matt Kindt, Bobby Timony, Joe Staton, Roy Thomas.

Most of the creators added lovely little sketches and personalized notes when they signed stuff.

Some had specific pages geared for these sketches. Francesco Francavilla's Black Beetle ashcan had a similar location planned out. Black Beetle is his original pulp inspired character. He publishes an irregular strip online "Kara Bocek". I know him mostly from his fantastic coloring work on "Green Hornet: Year One".



Others just added it to the first blank page inside.

Tom Fowler and Jeff Parker both signed my Mysterius: the Unfathomable trade. Fowler sketched this charming profile of Mysterius himself with his prominent nose. While I can see why Fowler's style might irk the traditional super hero fans, his art style really is perfect for the ornery old Mysterius.


Bobby Timony drew a little head sketch of Roscoe, the gargoyle troublemaker from Zuda's Night Owls.

Not to be outdone by the artists, Jim McCann, rascal that he is, personalized my copy of New Avengers: Reunion by drawing a thought balloon near Clint with "Thinking of..." with my name inside. Oh Clint, you're not really the blonde guy I fantasize about...)



Whereas Matt Kindt's little sketches for his Super Spy books blend so well into the layout, it's hard to believe there weren't there to begin with.



Whatever the case, I really appreciated the artists and writers going out of their way to personalize their signing. I was a little worried I'd utterly clam up talking to people or worse say something stupid.

Before the con, I pre-ordered a sketch from Colleen Coover for the Timely era Miss America as an old style figure skater. I'd been inspired by an old photograph of 1960 Olympic champion Carol Heiss wearing a dress with a small shield on her chest, similar to the one Madeline Joyce wore on her costume. I might have squeed with delight when I saw it.

Carol Heiss, 1960 Olympic champion Miss America as an ice skater

Finding her husband Paul Tobin was a little trickier since he didn't always stay behind the table. Silly writers, who told them they could wander off? Thankfully I was able to get him to sign my Black Widow & Marvel Girls trade and thank him for writing the Natasha mini that wasn't all about her love life.

Friday afternoon I had found Matt Kindt. I'd semi-discovered Kindt at SPX last year by watching him watercolor. His "Super Spy" books are wonderful twisty takes on espionage, spies, love and betrayal. Since I'd loved his Natasha Romanoff adventure in Marvel's "Strange Tales" anthology, I asked if I could commission him to do a Winter Soldier/Black Widow with a Cold War era vibe. One thing this exchange reminded me: don't assume every artist will know what your favorite character looks like, especially fairly recent ones. Some artists have insane memories for characters and costumes, but not everyone does. But if he had the right references available, he agreed. Since it was getting late in the day, I agreed to pick it up the next day. So after I was done getting my sketch from Chris Samnee, I went over to see if the commission was ready. I was so happy with the result.



One useful thing was I had my new smartphone, so I could keep up with twitter and email. That also meant I saw people post notices, like Chris Samnee's Hero Initiative sketching. Samnee was one of the artists I discovered on twitter and love his use of blacks and occasional reds for his sketches. For a small donation, Samnee would do a head sketch of your preferred character. This was a lovely way for people to support Hero Initiative and also get a sketch from a well known artist. You could support them by buying their art, comics or little green wristbands. So I had Samnee sketch my favorite Russian super spy, Natasha Romanoff.



THE SKETCHBOOK

I'd bought a lovely new Moleskine sketchbook. I accidentally left it at Francesco Francavilla's table after getting his Black Beetle ashcan, so I was understandably quite embarrassed. I did immediately put my name, address and twitter username in the book, so if it went wandering again, I'd have maybe a prayer of seeing it again. I'm still learning the whole art side of the con experience. Even armed with knowledge ahead of time, I still didn't always know what the etiquette was involved.

I was a big "Agents of Atlas" fan, so Jeff Parker became the first one to add a sketch with his Namora. I'm also a Wonder Woman fan, so I sometimes think the reason I love Namora is because she's the unabashed regal powerhouse of the team.

Namora by Jeff Parker

On the last day of the con, I located Franco Aureliani, the Tiny Titans creator I'd seen at Richmond Comix at Free Comic Book Day. He was only charging a buck for your favorite character, so Wonder Girl joined Namora in my sketchbook. (Only fitting that royalty stick together.) Franco commented on how she was sorta the LUcy van Pelt of the Tiny Titans team -- loud and a little brash. I'd like to get a proper Wonder Woman for my sketchbook. Hopefully the sketchbook will continue to grow as I continue to attend conventions.



BUYING STUFF

With all my focus on art and panels, the traditional exhibitors/vendors/dealers did get the short shrift. I only bought one older back issue, World's Finest #250 written by Gerry Conway and drawn by the late George Tuska. I mostly bought it for the Green Arrow/Black Canary part of the story, set so early in their relationship history that Dinah was still thought to be the Earth-2 incarnation, widowed and moved to a new world.

I had gone into Heroes Con determined to buy more comics geeky t-shirts. What I really wanted was an old-school Wonder Woman t-shirt preferably with Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez's older artwork not in a baby doll cut. But all I'm finding are either geared for juniors or baby dolls. The massive "tower of t-shirts" with Stylin was a little intimidating and mostly they didn't seem to have too many in my size. But I did satisfy my inner Marvel spy girl by getting a SHIELD t-shirt.

What else did I come home with? Matt Kindt's Three Sisters, the prequel to Super Spy; Hawkeye/Mockingbird "Women of Marvel" #1 variant; Gabriel Hardman's sketchbook; Steve Epting's sketchbook; Francesco Francavilla's Black Beetle ashcan; Alter Ego #93 and All Star Companion vols 2 & 3.

OTHER STUFF

In retrospect, I do wish I'd brought a real camera rather than relying on my phone. I would have loved to get some decent shots of Hawkeye and Mockingbird or Dazzler and the Isaiah Bradley Captain America. A group of Zatannas (Zatanni?) helped with the art auction. We only swung through to have a look at all the art. Remember my young encounter with Adam Hughes? His Zatanna painting went for $8000.

I also wish I had taken better notes of panels I attended, rather than relying on my memory. I'll have panel reports up later. Quite a number of the panels were recorded by Dollar Bin Comics, so at least you can listen to the audio.

Seeing the artists sketch in person makes one appreciate all the brushstrokes and techniques that go into a particular style. Or there's art that completely defies description. I was intrigued by the concepts behind Jim McCann's Return of the Dapper Men, but it was seeing Janet K Lee's gorgeous woodblocks and artwork that moved me over into the sold and "When can I read it?" column. She also works fast. She was just starting inking a Dapper-fied "Spider Jerusalem" commission when we dropped by the table. We turned around to bond with the table across on X-men and Cyclops appreciation and she was done inking and adding color.

Comics is a solitary but very social hobby for me. That's why I used to love the letter columns because someone else was noticing the same things. That's why I love chatting with other fans about what they're reading. That's why I love hearing artists and writers go fannish over their favorite characters. They're no longer just names on a credit page to me. Hearing artists and writers talk excitedly about their projects gets me interested in their work. To be honest, if I wanted hardened cynicism, there's plenty of that online to go around.

What struck me at SPX was even more true at Heroes. Seeing the fans in the panels asking questions and hearing the creators made me realize how diverse comics can be. I met young and old fans alike. There were people that were just getting into comics or ones that had stumbled into the hobby. There were small publishers putting out their first book and there was Boom's massive booth. There were big name artists with long lines, but there were others you could just go up to and chat with or have sign something. I was able to meet two of my childhood heroes, Roy Thomas and Joe Staton, purely by wandering up and saying nice things.

Charlotte was muggy and hot and miserable. The West hotel was decent, if small for four people, but it was right across the street from the Convention Center. They weren't terribly prepared for the swarm of people needing rooms on Friday. The Westin charged $12 a night for their internet, so I relied on my phone for the entire weekend. The con bar sounded loud when we passed through the lobby, so hopefully many deals and friendships were being struck. As usual, there weren't a lot of eating places immediately around the Convention Center, so we either made do with concessions inside or we hiked around. The bowling alley had surprisingly good food. We were even able to watch the Belmont Stakes.

Heroes definitely lived up to its billing and then some. Everyone was so friendly and polite. I'd come back in a heartbeat.

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Sunday, May 02, 2010

FCBD Traveling Caravan

Saturday was Free Comic Book Day. Rather than hitting the usual haunts here, I was invited to join some Twitter friends for a "comics caravan". So I took the Amtrak train at any ungodly hour down to Richmond, Virginia. The caravan was actually a nine-person van. This worked out well, since we didn't have to worry about following other cars or odd directions. The caravan was a near even split with three women, three men and one small boy. He was quite well behaved and seemed to enjoy himself.

The fun for me was seeing someone else's comic shops and how they're organized (or not). The comics caravan went to four in total, all with different approaches to the day.

The first one was a small badly organized maze with one person handling everything. All the "gold" level book covers were on the counter and you pointed to whichever ones you wanted. Everything else (including ones from previous years) was below the counter and you had to know about them to ask, which defeated the spirit of discovering something new and different. That store had the most bizarre selection of toys and statues. They also had stormtroopers helping with the line. I had a bad Disney moment when I saw a stormtrooper without his helmet; it was like seeing Mickey Mouse wandering around without its head!

The second store was larger and quieter. They had a nice selection of the pulp reprints, both Tollin's Shadow/Doc Savage/Avenger/Whisperer reprints and the Adventure House reprints. The comics geek in me is still amused by the Whisperer being Police Commissioner James "Wildcat" Gordon. Does Ted Grant know this? And what does Batman think of Gordon horning in on his act?

The third store was Velocity Comics in downtown Richmond. That store was the artiest of the four stores with heavy selection of independents and lesser known comics. Also the only one of the four with a decent manga shelf, but there's always the regular bookstores/Amazon. They also had a nice sale/discount which encouraged extra shopping.

The fourth store Richmond Comix had Tiny Titans' Franco and Jamie Cosley at the store. They were both doing sketches for the kids. Cosley did an adorable Aquaman complete with sea creatures. Franco sketched an Ace the Bat Hound and Flash while I watched.

What I liked about the last two stores was the large all ages/kids sections. Some stores tuck them away on some spinner rack somewhere. These were large sections with lots of back issues to wade through and find treasure. They felt very welcoming to my inner nine year old.

All but the second store seemed to be doing a booming business on the day. People seemed to be buying other stuff, along with snagging their freebies. I was heartened by the number of kids I saw. I do wish there had been some "girly" book to point to, though.

I enjoyed myself mightily. It was good to put names with faces with my twitter friends and also chat about comics in person, rather than limited to a lj/twitter post. I do wish there had been some more time for discussions. Hopefully there will be other opportunities in the future.

The FCBD books I acquired: Iron Man/Thor, Owly, IDW's Library of American Comics, Sixth Gun, Oni Press Free for All, DC Kids Mega Sampler (signed by Tiny Titans' Franco) and War of Supermen. I also snagged an old Justice League of America #0, which I loved for the Trinity moments. I definitely pushed myself outside the box on this Free Comic Book Day, rather than sticking with the tried and true.

I also wound up with Heroclix War Machine. At the last stop I actually saw the Heroclix game being played, so now I understand it in theory.

My regular online service, DCBS, allows us to preorder up to five of the books, so eventually I'll have Stuff of Legend, Love and Capes and the Green Hornet issues to add to my pile.

I bought a batch of other things: the Aquaman & Etrigan issue of Brave & the Bold, Black Widow & the Marvel Girls, Night Owls, and Pluto volume 8. The last one I was grateful for, because I hadn't been able to find it in any of my local stores. (So much for living in a major metropolitan area...) My friend Caroline also loaned me the first volume of Ooku and gave me the first issue of Hickman's SHIELD.

All in all, a long but fun day with lots of future reading material.

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Kimi ni Todoke v1-3

Relatability is a double-edged sword. Comics have to dance a very. On the one hand, publishers want to keep their characters young and fresh for new readers. On the other hand, they don't want to antagonize their current audience. It's a tricky business. What one person finds endearing, another might find overbearing and idiotic.

I nearly gave up on the manga "Kimi ni Todoke" after the first volume. Not because Sadako wasn't relatable as a character, but she was almost too relatable.

I first encountered "Kimi ni Todoke" in a Shojo Beat magazine preview. SB used that charming image from the second volume as its cover, highlighting the friendship amongst the girls. I was intrigued. But the first chapter focused instead on the stereotypical shojo romance between the socially awkward Sawako "Sadako" Kuronuma and the popular guy Shota Kazehaya. The first impression left me disappointed, especially seeing how her classmates treated Sadako. The romance didn't wow me all that much either, so I was discouraged from picking up the full volume. Other manga friends have encouraged me to keep trying. So when I came across the first three volumes at my local library, I decided to dive back in.

Being the outsider on the periphery of the popular crowd at school is a painfully familiar experience. In high school, I was the quiet girl in school. I didn't always make friends easily. But the ones I had were in the theater and music crowd – all more outgoing and talented. And yes I had my own Kazehaya -- that easy going guy everyone knew and had a crush on in school – one little smile or "hello" was all I needed to feel good about my day. I was also the subject to my share of teasing, too, so seeing Sawako treated as that weird girl for no apparent reason bothered me.

The portrayal of Sawako as the "weird girl" unfortunately hinges on POV and Shiina's artwork. We see her as her classmates see her initially with the long hairstyle in her face or soaking wet after a rainstorm. The results feel like a cheap parlor trick. By choosing to emphasize her resemblance to "The Ring" character, I'm almost expecting a different story.

The second volume is all about gossip and rumors and how they get out of control. It's also all about the meaning of friendship. To Karuho Shiina's credit, she does twist the clich├ęs a bit. Yoshida and Yano could simply accept everything at face value, including Sawako's involvement. But they're both plagued by doubts. My favorite moments in the series so far are the smaller ones, like seeing Yoshida and Yano discussing Sawako together. I loved seeing these girls trying to include Sawako in things. They honestly wanted her to be included, rather than it's just for class or something. Even the simple scene of them hanging out together in the third volume was nice, because you saw the friendships away from school.

I did find the writing a bit sloppy though. The entire second volume hinges on people not talking to each other. The rumors continue to build and swirl but no one does anything about it.

Tone is an important component of "Kimi of Todoke". The series feels light and fluffy and cheerful, but that confrontation in the girls' bathroom left me very uncomfortable, especially with all the recent attention given to bullying. In any other series, that scene with Sawako backed into a corner, could have been quite chilling.

I'm still not terribly interested in the Kazehaya and Sawako relationship. He's been set up as this impossibly super-special guy and I'm just not getting what the fuss is all about. The introduction of Kurumi adds the usual complication in the mix and yet it's a very off kilter sort of rivalry. I worry how trusting Sawako is. Sawako wouldn't see the danger until it was already on her.

This whole experience brought to mind a different discussion on twitter – on how necessary it was to review multiple volumes of a series. For a series to be successful, they should hit the ground running with the first volume. If anything the tendency I've noticed is to lead off with a strong first volume and then peter out as the series progresses. So "Kimi ni Todoke" was a new experience for me. I've never had a series change so radically with the second and third volumes. I still have some major reservations about the series, especially Sawako & Kazehaya, but the friendships and interactions fascinate me. I've swung back to intrigued.

Kimi ni Todoke, volumes 1, 2, and 3 with story and art by Karuho Shiina, published by Viz Comics, rated Teen.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Fire Investigator Nanase vol. 1 & 2


With the coming of the New Year, it's time to spread your wings and try new things. At least that's the theory. I'm trying to catch up reading with my piles of existing graphic novels and manga. I've wanted to get my reactions and thoughts down on paper. My reading choices will be all over the place.

I hope you'll enjoy these reviews and please leave feedback, so I have some idea how I'm doing, good or bad.

Fire Investigator Nanase

As a firefighter academy student, Nanase Takamine saved a notorious serial arsonist. Three years later, Nanase is a precocious rookie fire investigator determined to solve the crime, even if it means butting heads with her supervisor Fire Chief Tachibana. No one believes her when she goes off on her wild theories. That brings her back into contact with that arsonist -- "Firebug".

Katherine Dacey likened this series to being "like Silence of the Lambs, CSI, and Firefighter Daigo rolled into one!" And she's not wrong by much; maybe add in a little "Backdraft" and "Towering Inferno" for good measure.

Fire Investigator Nanase is part procedural and part psychological mystery. The episodic parts of the manga focus on the particular arson cases. The cases allow Nanase to showcase her knowledge, but also get her into trouble. Her "girl detective" act is clearly not wanted. Fire Chief Tachibana and his team like nice and simple answers. The only person who encourages her to question what she sees is the last person you'd expect and yet the person who knows fire better than anyone – the infamous "Firebug".

While the one-sided relationship has a feel of "Silence of the Lambs", the scene in chapter 5 with the candelabra and his flowing shirt and scarred face brought to mind "Phantom of the Opera". So "Firebug" is part rival and antagonist, but he's also mentor and artist. Fire to him is some sort of twisted art form and he hates seeing it misused. In Nanase, he's found someone that appreciates fire's innate power and fury.

Nanase is what they'd call a spunky heroine. She's not afraid to dive right into tough situations, even when it's dangerous or particularly when she's not wanted. But she's never shown as too cocky. She has very personal reasons for wanting to be a firefighter and a fire investigator, ones that add poignance to her story. She doesn't have to be shown how dangerous fire is – she's lived through it, so she knows.

The biggest question after those first volumes is what "Firebug" wants of Nanase. Nanase saved his life, so clearly "Firebug" feels grateful for her help, but to what end? "Firebug" clearly needs her alive for something. He saves her from other predators on occasion, but he's not afraid to let her fend for herself. He also wants to test her knowledge of fires and how they work. So he's preparing her for something. From a story perspective, waiting to see what "Firebug" has in store for Nanase is both suspenseful and terrifying.

Unfortutnately while the story is fascinating, the artwork sometimes detracts more than it helps. On the plus side, Tomoshige Ichikawa draws Nanase as young and tough. She's no pushover. And even when we're treated to the otherwise distracting fanservice, Nanase can and does get herself out of the situation pretty well. The fires themselves are shown with a certain rough beauty, especially the "Flashover" sequence in volume one. But all the faces except Nanase look downright evil with scary eyes and faces, so it's hard to know who to like or trust. (Considering "Firebug" appears to be a master of disguise, maybe that's not a bad thing.) Maybe the rough quality is part of the shounen style, but it's still off-putting.

Bottom line: The story is interesting enough to consider reading further volumes. Nanase is a likeable and determined heroine and "Firebug" is a scary and twisted antagonist. "Fire Investigator Nanase" could be a cool series to appeal to the fans of procedural crime dramas. Unfortunately the artwork isn't doing the manga any favors.

Fire Investigator Nanase, volume 1 & 2, story by Izo Hashimoto, art by Tomoshige Ichikawa, published by CMX Manga, rated Teen Plus, includes violence, language, brief nudity and suggestive situations.

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