Delicious egg rolls.

*New column up, where corporate branding and comics hype collide! Call the State Police!


First off, thank you very much to the kind folks at Oni who hooked me up with a copy of this when I mentioned that I never saw one at my local store. Very awesome!

It’d be silly to demand some sort of responsibility be taken toward furnishing complex storytelling or thematic depth from a book with “100% Action Comics” splashed across the back cover, but I think it’s valuable to look at what else Oni has written on the rear of this volume: “But can Ceasar juggle both lives? Nabbing both the girl (the supersexy Chieko Momuza) ‘and’ stopping the baddies?” It’s kind of unfortunate to note that “Sharknife” doesn’t even reach that level of strictly boilerplate complexity; I saw no juggling of anyone’s life, I saw no question as to who is getting the girl. The book reminded me of the lastest book from Brian Wood’s “The Couriers” in this way: the heroes are utterly flawless, save when there needs to be a quick laugh. But everyone is ultimately perfectly controlled, perfectly cool, just perfect. And yet, to say there’s no suspense in “Sharknife” (and there’s most certainly not) is perhaps a misreading of the author’s intent. “Sharknife” exists to be as awesome as possible, and all else is fodder for the ignore list.

Writer/artist Cory Lewis (I’ll call him Rey, since that’s how he often refers to himself) certainly has one of the more organic manga fusion styles I’ve seen on the English language original racks. While so many manga-inspired artists succeed only in aping the surface elements of modern Japanese comics, Rey exhibits a naturalism that’s heartening to witness. His action scenes are what you’ll probably take away from this book; not only because the book is largely composed of fighting, but because Rey’s clashes have a chaotic force to them. In this way he’s truly a student of contemporary manga, sacrificing immediate clarity for a sense of movement and hopefully an overall impression of where the action is headed. It would be a massive error to attribute this technique to all of Japanese comics art (I’ve never had trouble following Osamu Tezuka or Makoto Yukimura, just for example), but it does seem like an awful lot of today’s anime-charged movement manga don’t mind if you sometimes need to examine a panel or two twice to calculate exactly who’s hitting who - so long as the felling of the battle is expressed. Rey embraces this approach. And it’s not his only approach: the book is divided into six chapters with an untitled prologue and epilogue, and Rey sometimes explores different styles in different chapters. Chapter 3 is entirely superdeformed. Chapter 2 employs a bunch of omniscient captions to tell the story of some wicked villains. Chapter 4 sees sound effects half-cut by the page edges, with the characters posing as rendered in a more thoroughly Paul Pope-influenced style then usual, with maybe a dribbling of Yoshiyuki Sadamoto (during his Moyoco Anno-influenced “FLCL” design phase) atop.

Indeed, the inevitable fights remind me of work by another young creator who probably has more than one Paul Pope trade on his home bookshelf: Sam Hiti of “Tiempos Finales”. Most of Hiti’s book was fighting too, but it had a certain spiritual/superheroic cocktail flavor, unafraid to spend too many panels sending the reader’s eye into the hero’s body to see The Power of Our Lord Jesus coursing through his heart; the iconography was caffinated, but utterly personal. There was strange atmosphere, and barely-explained rituals, and scratches of a larger plot at the edges. Rey, however, sticks awfully close to modern manga conventions, save for the occasional overlay of video game aesthetics, with health bars popping up and critical weaknesses pointed out. I found all of this stuff to act largely as an additional distancing technique, putting the Flawless Fighting Action behind yet another pane of glass, kept even farther out of reach, smothering even more drama.

The plot certainly isn’t around to help. Much of the dialogue is rendered in what can best be described as a cross between a university anime club’s approximation of urban slang and an internet message board. “I am a spazz-banana living in a cyclone of hyper. In fact, my lil’ pups are the only chill things I know!” beams the barely-present female lead, Chieko Momuza; her special fortune cookies have the odd power of transforming fantastically handsome and virtuous Ceasar Halleluja into the amazing Sharknife, all the better for fighting the monsters implanted in the walls of Chieko’s dad’s restaurant by his rival, Ombra Ravenga, who may also be the human identity of the villainous Orcasword. What I have just told you is precisely as deep as the characterizations go.

But hey, lots of fights. Rey smartly keeps dumping additional cool ideas into each new clash, like cooks transforming into super-fighters; sometimes Sharknife busts out a heretofore unseen new power, it keeps things sort of fresh. I’m not saying it’s a bad comic; Rey’s got a lot of potential visually - the guy’s barely old enough to drink alcohol in the US, after all. I guess when viewed from a distance, it’s an attractive book. But I found it almost impossible to get much closer to the book, so self-contained is its model world of model fighters, an extended comic book of moving model kits. By the time I was done with the first hour of “FLCL” (just to bring that back up), I was dazzled by its style but I had the clear impression that it was going somewhere interesting, that it was all about something deeper (and it was). At this point, “Sharknife” is determinedly about nothing more than how self-consciously awesome it is, and strangely, this detracts from the ass-kickings at its heart.