S*A v1

SA v1 cover

Finally, what we've all been waiting for - a serious manga about Ernst Rohm and the Beer Hall Putsch. Or maybe just another high school comedy.

Story and art by Maki Minami
Translation by Amanda Hubbard & JN Productions
Lettering and retouch by Rina Mapa

In her entire life, only one person has ever defeated Hikari Hanazono - the impossibly perfect Kei Takashima. The ultra-competitive Hikari can't take that lying down, so she enters Kei's high school to embarass him academically - only to discover that even there he's her superior. Will Hiakri ever be able to escape from Kei's shadow, or is she doomed to forever be No. 2?

I read the first chapter of S*A a few months ago in Shojo Beat and it seemed to have an entertaining premise - two hyper-competitive characters duking it out in every aspect of life, with a neat combination of rivalry and mutual respect. Unfortunately, that premise fizzles here, as Hikari loses out to Kei in every conceivable way without finding a single chink in his armor. It makes the whole rivalry seem rather one-sided, and also makes Kei seem dickish rather than charmingly smug. A few of the later stories even include rather blatant declarations that girls "just can't compete with a man's strength" which seems to undercut the very premise of the series and send a bad message to all the girls reading.

To be honest, the art is a big turn-off as well. The characters all have high forehads, jug-handle ears, widely spaced saucer-like eyes, huge black pupils, tiny pinched noses and chins, thin upper lips, thick lower lips. I've seen all of these elements in other character designs, and there's nothing inherently wrong with any of them. But put them all together and, well...

S*A v1 p. 23"For one thing, the people were more hideous and abnormal than those near the centre of the town; so that I was several times evilly reminded of something utterly fantastic which I could not quite place..."

...you get the Innsmouth look.

Admittedly, that's from page 23. The character designs become a bit more attractive as the book progresses, and look even better in the omake, but one can't shake the feeling that Minami is drawing less from life and more from a pile of other shojo manga.

I'd show some sequential pieces, but there's nothing of note here. In fact, S*A's art is just kind of there, moreso than any other manga I've read for quite some time. There are no well-constructed pages, no virtuouso drawings, or emotive transitions. There's not even anything worth carping on... Ah, what the hell, let's give it a try. Here's a random page from the middle of the book.

S*A v1 p. 77S*A v1, p. 77

Going quickly down the list:

  1. The page is cluttered. There are overlapping panels and full bleeds everywhere, and the gutters are thin or non-existent, which turns everything into a chaotic mess.
  2. There's no structure or rhythm to the storytelling - we go from vertical to horizontal to tilted panels, from regular panels to full bleeds. None of these transitions is used for any particular effect or reason.
  3. The individual images aren't composed in a way that guides your eyes, and some of them appear to be using bad advice from How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way. Like twisting the angel of the panel 15 degrees for no apparent reason.
  4. The word balloons are poorly spotted, frequently overlapping figures in the primary areas of visual interest. I count no less three word balloons bisecting people's heads, which is just awkwards. A few stray tails can be forgiven, but entire balloons?
  5. There's a lack of real backgrounds - sure, there are a few exterior shots, but only enough to give you the sense that there's a building there. Can you tell me where those two buildings are in relation to each other, or how big either one is? Where Club S*A is in relation to the S*A members?
  6. Also, those exterior building shots are clearly being traced from something - they recur several times throughout the book with no real difference in presentation.
  7. As with a lot of manga, it looks like it was inked with a technical pen, which means there's no real variation in the line weight to lend solidity to the figures. (And unlike some other manga, there's no real attempt to compensate for this with other techniques.)
  8. The overall tonal range is very neutral - there's no real area of interest, either dark or light, that grabs the eye.
  9. Oh, and a non-art-related complaint, about half the page is wasted explaining the schools' unusual structure through crude narration rather than having it come up semi-naturally through the dialogue. It wouldn't be a huge problem if it wasn't done this way in every story.

I honestly can't find a single thing to like about this page, except maybe the cloud screentone in the background of the fourth panel.

Unfortunately, I can't find much to like about S*A - it wastes a potentially interesting premise on some cardboard characters and stock plots. Strangely, it seems to be pretty popular in Japan, running for 12+ volumes and inspiring a TV show that's just about to air. Maybe there's something here that's lost in translation.

Comments (3)

  • jun (03/09/2008)

    What a thorough analysis of the problems with the page. I too review manga, but I don't know enough about art to put together so comprehensive a critique. So.. um.. well done! :)

  • Kelly (03/09/2008)

    I think if you want you should try reading ahead. The first volume is a turn off buy Minami Maki's art changes as it is progress in the story. For example if you compare the character drawings in the first volume to other late volumes you will see that there have been major improvements in my point of view.

  • Dave 'The Knave' White (03/10/2008)

    Kelly, I'm sure the art does improve in later volumes, but I'm not sure I see anything that would convince me to keep reading, especially when I'm already following ten other manga series on a regular basis. There's just nothing here for me to get excited about.

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