- Written by David Mitchell on Wednesday, August 27 2014 and posted in Reviews
Vampires, shoujo romance, and more tarantulas than you might expect.
There are books that I like and books that I dislike, but it's very rare that I find a book that I'm entirely confounded by. Black Rose Alice is such a book, a gothic horror and romance manga that I just can't pin down. Every time I thought that I liked the book it'd take a turn into disinterest for me, and every time I was quite certain that I disliked the book, it was upset my expectations once more and do something to keep me engaged. I can't in the least call it an average or mediocre book, because it's not- it's a book that sways between great and terrible. At the end of the day, despite it's inconsistency, I have to give the book the benefit of the doubt for continually keeping me interested.
Black Rose Alice volume one is a heavy exhibition volume. It's pretty clear reading through to the end that it's merely setting the stage for future volumes- indeed, the bulk of the overall narrative is supposed to take place in 2008, but the majority of volume one takes place roughly 100 years earlier. The exposition chiefly concerns Dimitri [sic], a handsome raven-haired tenor of Vienna. Dimitri is in love with a young girl named Agnieszka, who he sees as the perfect and purest person he knows- but she is promised to another, a member of the upper class. Shortly into the story Dimitri is seemingly killed, but in fact is brought back as a vampire. After a few twists and turns in the now vampiric tale, the plot jumps forward to 2008 and we are treated to the implication that Dimitri has become a plotting, planning, love-lorn vampire lord. I don't want to spoil too much, but then, as an expository volume, it's hard for me to even know what I'd be spoiling.
Writer & artist Setona Mizushiro is a charming, if somewhat bizarre, creative force. Her unique touch is pretty clear throughout the entire book- it's definitely her, in every instance, and it never feels like a corporate product. Perhaps the most peculiar creative choice is the occasional meta self-insert, not within the panels themselves but in the margins. On a handful of pages throughout the first volume, Mizushiro decides to set aside a whole third of the page to insert a small personal anecdote about bugs or pastries or things she enjoys drawing. I've seen author self-inserts plenty in manga, but they tend to be small footnotes or perhaps yonkoma (small, four-panel comics) at the end of the volume. Occasionally you might even see a chibi version of a creator popping into an actual panel to interact with a character. But setting aside a significant chunk of a page, during the story, to insert essentially irrelevant commentary is... an interesting choice. I don't dislike it to be honest. It actually has a lot of charm, a neurotic technique that is either incredibly self-aware or impressively oblivious.
The actual storytelling in the book is a bit hard to comment on. This volume is pure exposition, solely meant as an introduction to a larger story. Mizushiro herself points out, half self-deprecating, that the book's title character Alice hadn't even been introduced by the end of the first volume. Looking solely at what is present though, the book is up and down. The first portion feels like a predictable shoujo period-romance, replete with beautiful gowns and backgrounds and an austere sense of purity and true love. Sex isn't really ever present visually but is talked about with frankness that I don't often see in the genre. The switch to horror is somewhat abrupt, at first fairly gruesome and then settling into something that feels a bit vanilla: as vampiric powers and rules are outlined, it seems as though vampires in the story have very little in common with vampires of tradition. This change is interesting, but also makes me question if "vampires" had to be used at all.
The horror ramps up nicely with the introduction of insect & arachnid familiars controlled by vampire Dimitri, though, his sudden shift in personality is a bit bizarre. After a few more chapters in horror/romance mode, the story jumps forward to modern Japan in 2008 and tells the tale of an entirely unrelated high school romance. This shift is hard to engage with but at the same time it's rather compelling in a way. I had no idea where Mizushiro was going when she changed things up, and when the stories tie back together, it gives one an incredible sense of "beginning". It's clear by consequence of the earlier story, leading into the seemingly unrelated later story, that the overall story arc has a wider scope than we yet know.
Artistically Mizushiro is somewhat subpar. She's not a bad artist per se, but most manga that gets brought to the west tends to be extremely polished. Mizushiro is rough around the edges. Her backgrounds are beautiful when she chooses to render them, but often drop out, particularly in scenes of dialog. This isn't an uncommon technique in manga, but when the backgrounds drop it, it leaves us only with the human subjects, which are indeed Mizushiro's achilles heel. Her figures aren't horrendously bad, but they're inconsistent, which is a deadly sin in comic art. Her good figures tend to be very pretty and very much in the language of shoujo, but her poorer figures tend to end up very fishy (in the sense that they look like fish, not that they look suspicious), with forward noses, low set-apart eyes, and eerily wide mouths. These figures are distractingly odd looking, and appear frequently enough through the book to be worth note. Mizushiro seems to have particular troubles with mouths- besides being too wide and fishy, when they're open, they always are drawn without any interior, as though she's only drawing the lips, but no cheeks, throat, teeth, or tongue.
I reiterate, Black Rose Alice is an up and down book. I think it's rather intriguing overall, and I'm interested to see where Mizushiro takes the story next (and also intrigued to see more of her random mid-story commentary), but looking solely at this volume, it is a mixed bag. The character writing is uneven, the art is unpredictable, and the story wavers between compellingly unpredictable and predictably genre-reliant. If you're willing to engage with a slow starter, Black Rose Alice looks like it's pointing towards something greater. But if you demand your comics to be great from page one, you may want to skip this one.
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