Good manga for kids, April 2009
This month’s column focuses on three new series: Ben 10 Alien Force (Del Rey), a manga adaptation of the popular Cartoon Network show; Dinosaur Hour! (VIZ), a series of short stories about the Jurassic era’s dimmest denizens; and Leave it to PET! (VIZ), a comedy starring a robot made out of a recycled plastic bottle.
Ben 10 Alien Force, Vol. 1: Ben 10 Returns
Adapted by Elizabeth Hurchalla
Rating: All Ages
Del Rey, 2009, ISBN: 978-0345514387
96 pp., $7.99
Fifteen-year-old Ben Tennyson, a.k.a. “Ben 10”, is the custodian of the Omnitrix, a watch-like gizmo that allows him to transform into various alien species, all of which possess superpowers. Though Ben hasn’t used the Omnitrix in years, the sudden disappearance of his grandfather forces him to dust it off. Ben then enlists the help of two other super-powered teens—Gwen, his cousin, and Kevin Levin, a frenemy—in tracking down Grandpa Max, an intergalactic police officer who may have stumbled across an alien plot to annihilate mankind.
Like Bakugan Battle Brawlers, another Del Rey title, Ben 10 borrows screen shots and dialogue from a popular Cartoon Network show and assembles them into a book-length narrative. I confess that I’m not a big fan of the “cine-manga” approach, as screenshots look flat in print; I’d prefer to see original art instead of murky stills that convey none of the TV show’s energy or charm. (Making the pages even less attractive are the busy background patterns that compete with the panels for the reader’s attention.) The bigger problem with Ben 10 is that the adaptor didn’t trust the artwork to tell the full story; many of the most basic actions are shown and explained. In one scene, for example, the script helpfully tells us that “Ben hides under a table. The creature grabs the table and throws it across the motor home, but Ben gets away just in time.” Yet we see all of these actions depicted clearly: in one panel Ben dives under a table; in the next the alien smashes it; and in the third we see Ben dodge a lethal blow. In the few scenes where these narrative interventions prove helpful, I wondered why the editors hadn’t chosen better artwork—surely an action-oriented series could yield more evocative images than close-ups of shouting characters.
It’s easy to dismiss such a quickie tie-in project, but I understand why kids like them. When I was seven, I owned a copy The Star Wars Storybook, a Scholastic “novelization” of the 1977 film. I’d be the first to admit that it wasn’t great literature, but I loved it nonetheless, as the pictures and text allowed me to re-live my favorite scenes whenever I wanted to—a real plus in the era before VCRs and DVD players. I’m not sure if kids will find Ben 10 as compelling as I’d found Star Wars; if anything, the cruddy production values and overly scripted story may prove a turn-off for hardcore fans with ready access to the original shows via DVD, TiVo, and the Internet.
The bottom line: Ben 10 Alien Force is most likely to appeal to eight-to-ten-year-olds who’ve seen (or know about) the Cartoon Network show. Parents should note that volume one contains numerous fight and chase scenes in which characters exchange laser fire, gooey substances, and punches, though no one meets a gruesome end.
Dinosaur Hour!, Vol. 1
Story and Art by Hitoshi Shioya
Rating: All Ages
VIZ, 2009, ISBN: 978-1421526485
192 pp., $7.99
No one will confuse Hitoshi Shioya’s Dinosaur Hour! with The Big Book of Dinosaurs or My First Dinosaur Encyclopedia. Dinosaur Hour! is heavy on the slapstick and wisecracks, and light on the scientific information, presenting only the most basic facts—name, size, dining preferences—about such perennial favorites as the velociraptor, the allosaur, the pterosaur, the stegosaur, and the triceratops.
The book is divided into twenty-three self-contained chapters, each highlighting two or three different species and suggesting how they might have interacted. What becomes obvious as you read these stories is that Dinosaur Hour! is really an extended riff on the idea that dinosaurs were, in fact, even dumber than the phrase “walnut-sized brain” might lead you to imagine. Shioya’s dinos trade barbs, play tag, cook up ridiculous schemes for bagging prey, and goad each other into foolish dares, paying dearly for their stupidity. In one chapter, for example, a pair of protoceratops fret that their garlic breath will make them an easy mark for predators (it does), while in another, two herbivores coach a T-rex on the finer points of posture and pronunciation. (The T-rex unironically refers to himself as a “Tyrant-o-saurus.”) The script has a delightful, tongue-in-cheek quality that’s nicely complimented by copious sight gags and exaggerated reaction shots. Shioya isn’t the best draftsman, but his loose, sketchy style captures each dinosaur’s signature features (e.g. spines, giant claws, armor plating), making it easy to distinguish among species.
The bottom line: Budding paleontologists aged seven and up will enjoy Dinosaur Hour!, though younger readers may need some parental help understanding the dialogue and pronouncing the dinos’ scientific names. Highly recommended.
Leave it to PET!, Vol. 1
Story and Art by Senji Sonishi
Rating: All Ages
VIZ, 2009, ISBN: 978-1421526492
192 pp., $7.99
The premise of Leave it to PET! sounds like something cooked up by a well-intentioned environmental activist: after nine-year-old Noburu Yamada places a plastic bottle in a recycling bin, the bottle is reborn as PET, a “super robot” charged with protecting Noburu from harm. The book’s subtitle—The Misadventures of a Recycled Super Robot—gives a truer picture of what’s to come, however. For all his bells and whistles, PET proves surprisingly inept at saving Noburu from bullies, rescuing animals in peril (he gets stuck on a branch while trying to coax a cat from a tree), or translating foreign languages—PET’s solutions are often woefully misguided, causing collateral damage and squandering good will. Noburu, for his part, is no saint. In the absence of any true emergencies, he gang-presses PET into cleaning his room and ending a rainstorm that’s preventing him from playing soccer with pals. Not surprisingly, PET bungles both requests, obliterating Noburu’s manga collection in the process.
Parents hoping for a fun, educational introduction to recycling will be disappointed in Leave it to PET! There’s almost no discussion of how or why recycling works, though the characters clearly view recycling as a positive and necessary behavior. (To underscore the point, we see Noburu’s enemy tossing an empty bottle into a park bush, despite the presence of a convenient, well-marked recycling bin.) As a comedy, however, Leave it to PET! succeeds beautifully. PET and Noburu are as perfectly mismatched as Ernie and Bert, a cheerful, clueless narcissist and a quick-to-explode fussbudget whose conflicts yield some of the book’s funniest scenes. The artwork is well-suited to manga n00bs, as the characters are rendered in big, bold lines and simple shapes with a minimum of screentone and fussy detail. Though the script is appropriate for grade schoolers, a few of the jokes are squarely aimed at adults—there’s a robot that looks remarkably like the monster from Alien, for example, and a scene in which PET wins a video game by making its central character “an offer he can’t refuse"—but these references are done in the spirit of Sesame Street, a boon for parents re-reading the book for the third or fourth time.
The bottom line: In spite its goody-goody concept, Leave it PET! will appeal to eight-to-ten-year-olds with its slapstick humor and bold, cartoonish style. Younger readers eager to tackle the book’s supplementary arts and crafts projects should be supervised, as several of them call for an X-acto knife. Highly recommended.
About Katherine Dacey
Katherine Dacey has been reviewing comics since 2006. From 2007 to 2008, she was the Senior Manga Editor at PopCultureShock, a site covering all aspects of the entertainment industry from comics to video games. In 2009, she launched The Manga Critic, where she focuses primarily on Japanese comics and novels in translation. Katherine lives and works in the Greater Boston area, and is a musicologist by training.
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