Hey all, lots of colors.

*My luck didn’t entirely hold out, but hey - what are you going to do?

Robot Vol. 1

I’ve suddenly seen copies of this thing, a lavish, full-color oversized manga/illustration anthology popping up in several Borders locations, despite having been originally released in Summer 2005 (and having been available in chain stores then too) - it’s possible that everyone is restocking in anticipation of Vol. 2 of this series hitting stores next month, since there’s continuing serials present that few will be happy to put up with if their initial installments aren’t around.

Digital Manga Publishing has been contributing to the current manga release scene for a while now, putting out a number of apparently popular yaoi titles (as the nice little color catalog that comes shrink-wrapped in with this book proclaims, yaoi is “The girls only sanctuary,” which not only provides a neat statement of audience-courting intent, but sets their releases apart from anything actually targeted at authentic homosexual men right up front) along with some varied general choices, ranging from the execrable Twilight of the Dark Master (by Saki Okuse) to the pleasingly gonzo Bambi and her Pink Gun (by Atsushi Kaneko). Soon, they play to broaden their horizons into the Project X line of manga biographies for prominent Japanese personalities, historical-minded biographical manga for young folks (but who of any age wouldn’t want to see the story of Anne Frank as told by Astro Boy?), and high-production art books (the first of them sporting a title that really rolls off the tongue - Yoshitoshi ABe Lain Illustrations ab# rebuild an omnipresence in wired - and essentially reconfigures a 1999 art book dedicated to the much-admired ABe’s work on Serial Experiments Lain, an excellent anime television series).

This tome is actually dropped in with that lattermost group, though it is more-or-less a manga anthology, albeit not one quite in the sense that most Japanese comics are initially serialized via anthology format. Rather, this is a prestige production through and through, edited and assembled by Range Murata, a designer for animation house Studio Gonzo; apparently the project has been popular in Japan, as it’s currently up to Vol. 4, with serialized stories continuing onward and new one-shots appearing. The list of contributors is largely stable, from what I can gather, and the page count remains generally the same (this one is 164 pages). And naturally, it’s all full-color work, and particularly dazzling color work at that.

It’s also all very heavily informed by anime, which perhaps is to be expected; I’m not going to pretend that I’m hugely familiar with even a quarter of the twenty artists presented in here, though the ones I instantly recognize - Murata, ABe, and Ugetsu Hakua - are all primarily designers for animation, with some excursions into manga and doujinshi (at least that’s how it is for Abe), and I’m fairly sure that such a background is common to many of the contributors here. As one might therefore expect from a group of artists whose output largely centers around design rather than sequential storytelling, their comics gravitate toward providing candied visual fireworks rather than particularly thoughtful stories (I’ve heard similar charges levied at Image’s Flight anthology, which I also believe is heavy on animation and visual design folk), a situation no more apparent than with the handful of ongoing serials beginning.

ABe’s work was easily the one I was most interested in, the acclaimed anime series Haibane Renmei having been inspired by his doujinshi, but Wasteland is a fevered 8-page array of dungeon-crawling and yelling, with the occasional scary beast or dismemberment popping up to splash ABe’s misty visuals with slime or grue. Really, there just isn’t a lot of space for a some of these artists to get into anything more than an ass-kicking groove, the desire to provide amazing visuals in their first chapters awfully strong. I can’t think of a more visually appealing action piece than Shin Nagasawa’s Sedouka, a hefty dose of Western superhero style (the artist worked on the Wolverine: Soultaker miniseries from a while back) dripped into 8 pages of jumping and saving little girls and stuff, but positioned as yet another in a series of context-light fight scenes, the impact is definitely dulled. Of the serials, only Hiroyuki Asada’s Pez & Hot Strawberry succeeds in setting up an interesting story to follow, with a par of future steampunk drifters wandering around a pink and purple landscape, confronting a warmly decomposed strip of sepia celluloid telling of the world that came before. Style matches substance here, for a while.

As for the one-off stories, well, when they actually are stories they’re pretty neat. Murata himself provides only a series of 4 splashes that kinda-sorta constitute a vignette, and Hakua follows suit with a small batch of pretty girl pin-ups. Much more pleasing to me is the likes of Sho-u Tajima's Angels at the Planetarium, offering up a marvelously creepy b&w metaphor, concerning a young man ripping off the wings of little angels that hang around the rotting title structure in harshly-shadowed formations, all for fine profit. The page designs are distinctly Mignolaesque (the artist can current be found writing and drawing his Madara series from CMX). Suzuhito Yasuda indulges in some fun spot coloring for a cute thing titled Ebony & Ivory, and Makoto Kobayashi (of What's Michael? fame) provides some mercifully scratchy lines and earthy hues in Dragon’s Heaven, a wordless short somewhat reminiscent of Vaughn Bode. Indeed, a lot of the work here seems informed by western visual style, even to the detriment of some (not a fan of Yu Kinutani’s Angels, yet another isolated fight scene, this time distressingly similar to something one would see in the likes of Witchblade, only with non-stop crotch shots). But some, like Naruco Hanaharu, tap into a classical anime power, transforming the likes of Picnic into still frames, Cinemanga if you will, from the big-budgeted theatrical feature of their dreams. And the story, a tour of an overgrown post-civilization Shibuya, even makes me kind of want to see that movie.

More than anything, this book represents instant creative hungers being fed. All of the artists provide short statements in the back of the book (tragically, there’s no bibliographies or suggestions for future reading/viewing or anything), some of which boil down to ‘gosh, what a great chance to use my new Flash techniques!!’ There’s also a definite erotic tone pulled through, the often young-looking characters aestheticized perhaps leaving Western readers feeling, as the sociologists say, skeevy. I believe the industry term for this is moe, what I understand to be a type of subsumed sexual interest mixed with fatherly affection for young anime females - whatever it is (and you can learn your heart out over at Wikipedia), it’s all over this book, and you’d best be ready for it. Still, there’s absolutely no denying that there’s some incredible visuals in this book - eye candy enthusiasts will want to plunk down their $24.95 now, and then shell out the same price next month for Vol. 2. That occasionally we get something like Yasuto Miura’s Biting Summer Play, eight achingly beautiful watercolor pages brimming with fantasy European throwback architecture, yet hiding a core of impossible sadness and clinging, disturbing emotional decay - well - it’s kind of a bonus with things like this.