Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Manga Review: Spy Goddess vol. 1

Spy Goddess #1: The Chase for the Chalice
  • Publisher: Harper Collins / Tokyopop
  • Writer: Michael P. Spradlin / Rachel Manjia Brown
  • Artist: Yifang Ling
  • Release: 2008

Totally Spies! is one of my guilty pleasures.  It's stupid, and can't stand up to real spy fiction plot-wise, but those girls are hot! ^v^  You can expect a review of that show later, but for now, we get... Spy Goddess.  It's got some of the idiocy of TS!, none of the fanservice, and a host of its own problems.

Spy Goddess started out as a series of two novels written by Michael P. Spradlin, the first one released in January 2006.  This is the third book, and they already decided to switch to an OEL manga format.  Kinda jumping the gun there, are you?  The Artemis Fowl and Maximum Ride series had to wait at least twice as long before doing similar, to say nothing of actual street cred.  But Spradlin may not have been involved with this manga.  The script was written by Rachel Manija Brown, who wrote for several small boys' love manga titles, and the art is by Beijing-born Yifang Ling, AKA Rainbow Buddy.  She's gonna need a new alias once I'm through with this.

Our designated heroine is Rachel Buchanan.  In her backstory, she apparently got caught joyriding, and was given a choice of either going to juvenile hall or spy school Blackthorn Academy.  If you're expecting any sort of plot, not only will you be disappointed, but you could guess which one she took.  Oh, and she's a fashion-obsessed girl who sucks at martial arts - well, off and on anyway.  You call that a hero?

The equally unimpressive supporting cast includes:

  • Pilar Jordan.  Is psychic, but not an awesome Psychic like in Sapphire.  What this means is she's prone to certain sixth-sense feelings.  It's an easy talent for the reader to forget about it - but don't, or else her scenes won't make sense.
  • Alex Scott.  A frequently irate black-belt in tae kwon do, but he doesn't do much.
  • Brent Christian.  The gadget guy, usually mute.  Also doesn't do much.
  • Johnathan Kim.  Their boss.  A ninth-degree black-belt, not that he really does anyfighting for himself.  He actually has a good character design, a thirty-something with a thin beard, but said beard inexplicably shrinks throughout the book.  I never thought I'd see growing the beard in reverse. ^_^
The majority of this book takes place in Tokyo, Japan.  The problem with setting a story in a foreign location is the tendency to feel like a travel documentary with a plot attached.  I admit I fell into this trap, to some degree, while writing Sapphire, particularly Episode II which also takes place in Japan.  This can be done well, though, and make the setting that much more immersive.  But if the plot gets ignored, it tends gets overshadowed completely.  Our so-called heroes spend time shopping in Akihabara and Harajuku, eating at an Okonomiyaki restaurant (Okonomiyaki originated in Osaka, but it exists in all the big cities, so never mind), and soaking in a public bath before any of the real action starts.

In Tokyo, our five-man-band is joined by two Japanese investigators, Mrs. Kazumi Sato and Mr. Yoshi Tanaka, who are both blond... despite being of Asian descent.  Now I know about the whole Sailor Moon thing, but this here isn't that fantastical.  Yoshi arrives later, at the Okonomiyaki restaurant.  During the lunch, Rachel and Pilar have a private chat in the bathroom, where Pilar informs that she sensed an evil feeling during the shopping trip with Rachel and Kazumi.  They then proceed to steal Brent and Yoshi's PDAs to check for any incriminating messages.  Presumably on the latter, using the former to do the hacking.  It's never explained why they need the two, but with Brent on their team, I had to make that connection myself.

Now that we got all that out of the way, the plot supposedly involves a chalice stolen from a Tokyo museum of Roman artifacts.  The obvious choice of culprit is Simon Blankenship, the villain from the two novels who is convinced that he is a reincarnation of the evil Roman god Mithras.  And yes, he left a calling card in the form of a gold trinket.  I never got the idea of these calling card things.  The theft of the chalice was caught on security video, perpetrated by his anonymous horned-helmeted goons.  Look carefully and you'll see it's not even a chalice - literally, cup - that was stolen, but the thing is instead a vase.  But worst of all is that the thing is never mentioned again, and only shown in two more panels.  AND THIS THING'S PART OF THE FREAKING TITLE!!!

After leaving the museum, ruining her new outfit by falling in a koi pond, and being treated to a public bath, Rachel gets captured.  Some heroine.  Pilar investigates the room, discovers a couple of clues, and fingers the suspect...  Yoshi Tanaka!  What!?  It's not Kazumi?  Pilar had her sixth sense go off with her nearby, and in the baths, she even tipped off Rachel about the phony hair treatment where she would get abducted!  Okay, so that feeling was about another unnamed enemy spy, and Kazumi probably didn't know about the trap.  Again, I'm making that last part up myself.  But Yoshi is indeed a Mithrian, and manages to run away into the crowd.  But Alex tracks him down, having placed a tracking dot on him.  ...Or not.  The aforementioned Mithrian spy snuck a tracking dot onto Rachel's new trenchcoat, and during lunch we saw it again, still on the trenchcoat, but that's it.  There's nothing in this book even implicitly showing that Alex took the dot off and planted it on Yoshi, or even used a new one on him!!  ...I hope my anger's showing through in my writing, because this plot hole deserves it.

With that hangup out of the way, Rachel is introduced to Simon Blankenship, here a black-haired bishônen decked out in a caped Romanesque costume, complete with bull horns on his helmet... and even the toes of his boots.  Hope you like Rachel calling him out on this fashion faux-pas, because she milks the joke for all it's worth.  He explains his evil plot - sacrificing the goddess Etherea to allow Mithras to return - but we're led to ignore it in favor of Rachel and Yoshi arguing.  Oh, I forgot to mention - Rachel has been imbued with the power of Etherea, a little deus ex machina that comes in handy with her duel with Simon/Mithras.  And by the way, the two fight scenes in this manga are rather poor as well.  The poses chosen focus more on the reaction than the action, and fail to flow well together as a result.  You'll often wonder how one move led to another, or if it did so at all.

Meanwhile, the other five heroes reach the base to rescue Rachel.  At one point, they are faced with an entrance which Brent indicates, through the power of his magic PDA, is booby trapped.  A seriously funny little scene ensues in which he imagines what would happen if one of the invisible lasers were to be tripped, completely overkilling Alex as a demonstration.  Alex is not amused.  Pilar dives through a gap in the lasers, attempts to disable them using a voice command which she just happened to make up on the spot, and as luck and her psychic feelings have it, it works.  ...That's kind of a bit to buy, book, and I'm already broke.  But it turns out there's one more trapped door left, which Alex senselessly triggers in order to reach Rachel.  The trap here is... some kind of blade...  The only indication we get is a panel of some slicing wind, and another of drops of blood on a white background.  I can understand if they were trying to hide some of the violence, but like I said, I'm broke.

The team follows to find Simon/Mithras knocked into the wall by Rachel/Etherea... the duel over after just one blow.  So once again the day is saved, or something.  Kazumi proceeds to arrest Yoshi, and oh, look! Alex's arm was cut up after all!  On the flight home, one final text message comes in: "Simon Blankenship has escaped."  Oh, right, because they want to make a sequel.  ...*sigh*...  This is the *worst* manga I have ever read.  Almost all of its problems, be they the lack of explanation, poor character and plot development, or choppy fight scenes, can be traced to the fact that this book feels short.  The target size for a tankôbon manga volume is 180-200 pages, but this clocks in at 163.  Oh, and it's a one-shot; a full-length story crammed into these six tiny chapters.  With something this bad, you wouldn't think I'd be asking for more, but expanding on this would make it at least readable.  Everything else, such as Rachel being a poor excuse for a heroine, is of course a problem of the source material itself, so there's no helping that.

Artwork: 2 vases out of 5
Plot: 1 vase out of 5
Characters: 1 vase out of 5
The Call: 25% (F)

And now for a segment that I and TVTropes like to call "Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking", where after listing all these serious criticisms, I go after something trivial.  At one point early on, Kazumi joins our heroes by some vending machines.  Vending machines are everywhere in Japan; I can attest to that first-hand.  But one of the machines here sells iPods, which leads Brent to deem Japan the greatest country in the world.  Never mind that the iPod, unlike many electronic devices, is an American invention, or that it's capitalized incorrectly (Ipod) in the book.  I'm just not comfortable with this level of product placement, even if it is unsponsored.  I'm not sure that we're at the point where iPod is a generic name for this kind of thing, like what things like Xerox, Photoshop, and Google have become.  Besides, keeping things that expensive in a vending machine is just stupid.  In stores, they have to keep these things behind the counter!  Oh, and speaking of product placement, this book name-drops various anime titles - Naruto, Fruits Basket, and Full Metal Panic, plus a cameo of some Doraemon and Sailor Moon toys - but they have to make up a video game series, Neon Apocalypse Engine.  I assume they were riffing of of Evangelion, but this kind of dichotomy is just weird.

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