Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book Review: Kingdom Hearts with Introduction of New Blogger

Nothing makes me madder than bad manga.

Kingdom Hearts Boxed Set--vols 1-4 by Shiro Amano. Tokyopop, Los Angeles: 2000. Based on the Disney/Squaresoft video game.

This is D. G. D. popping in for a moment here. I'm pleased to announce we have a new blogger. This is Snuffles. He's a dragon. We've known each other for some time, you see, because his parents raised us together when they found me swaddled in a basket in the magic woods. Anyway, he's keenly interested in kid lit, anime, and manga, so I thought it would be appropriate to give him a space on the blog. Make him feel welcome. I'm sure you'll enjoy his charming personality. --D. G. D.

Okay, people, listen up, up. Dang it, I'm not used to this whole typing thing. If you've been reading The Sci Fi Catholic for a while, you've learned a couple of things. The first is that D. G. D. is fond of sf. The second is that he's an idiot.

And that's why I'm here. I can't take it anymore.

But enough of that. We can call him a moron later. For now, let's talk about Shiro Amano's kiddie manga adaptation of the Kingdom Hearts video game. This manga made me so mad I had to go burn a couple of villages and kidnap a virgin to feel better. When I got back home, I found Frederick the unicorn, who's also an idiot, in the kitchen wearing an apron and making dinner (don't even ask me to describe the image of a unicorn in an apron). I verbally abused him for a while--that's how I like to unwind--until I heard the front door bang open. That was D. G. D. home from work. He started in on his annoying habit of "unloading his gear," as he calls it. that means dropping all the archaeological stuff he has on his belt or in his pockets. I'm surprised all that weight doesn't make his pants hang around his knees; once, I saw him unload his gear too quickly and the recoil gave him a world-class wedgie. Believe me, nobody wants to see that.

As soon as the trowel, Leatherman knife, GPS unit, and holstered bottle of Tabasco hit the cheap linoleum, Frederick poked his head around the corner, waved a wooden spoon, and shouted, "Don't you dare drop that stuff in the hall! Put it in your room where it belongs!" D. G. D. then began emitting that high-pitched noise Frederick charitably calls "grumbling." I won't say D. G. D.'s whiny or anything, but his "grumbling" has been known to shatter windows.

Anyway, the high-pitched noise stopped abruptly when D. G. D. saw me. He tried to look menacing as he demanded, "Snuffles, what is that?"

"It's just a virgin I kidnapped," I answered. "What's it look like?"

"Snuffles!" he shouted. "You know our rental agreement specifically says no pets!"

"Then who's going to groom my scales?" I shouted back.

Ugh. Well, to make a long story short, he made me take the virgin back to the village, and he made me apologize. Do you know how embarrassing it is to apologize to a village you've just burned? Probably not.

So all in all, reading Kingdom Hearts was a bad experience.

It goes like this, see. There's this kid Sora, and he lives on an island. A storm comes up, he gets a powerful weapon called a Keyblade, and then he gets stuck in some shady town full of characters from Disney cartoons and Final Fantasy video games. He runs into Donald Duck and Goofy, who just happen to have magic powers and a dimension-hopping spaceship. They spend the rest of the series--that's four volumes, mind you--zipping around through different Disney movie sets looking for the missing Mickey Mouse and saving the multiverse from a band of evil monsters called the Heartless. All the while they move constantly toward a final encounter with the heart of the multiverse, which they have to close to stop the monsters from destroying everything. There's a love story in there or something, and maybe some plot about betrayal by a friend, and something about loyalty.

If that sounds to you like a video game plot, you've hit on the basic problem with this manga series. Based as it is on video game levels based in turn on Disney films, the movement of events is episodic and artificial. The appearance of movie-based environments feels like an endless succession of cameos, and if there's one thing I hate in comics, it's cameos--just because you're writing a DC comic doesn't mean you need to haul out every DC character you can think of and stick him in somewhere. Nobody's impressed by that, and original characters are by nature much stronger. Well, Kingdom Hearts feels like some oh-so-clever writer is giving a cameo to every Disney cartoon flick he can come up with.

This may not be Amano's fault. He doesn't own this title, so there's no telling how much liberty he has. But some of it is Amano's fault: his art style is excellent and his renderings of both the Disney and Final Fantasy characters are flawless, but the characters and convoluted subplots are severely underdeveloped. You don't so much read this comic as decode it. Half the time, you'll be asking, "What is going on?" The whole thing about hearts and darkness and multiple universes is only cursorily explained, so though the story is about a big adventure and a mythic quest, the reader is left wondering what the quest is about. This is only worsened by the heavy application of one of manga artists' greatest weaknesses--a penchant for fancy-schmancy layouts and tight closeups that make action sequences virtually incomprehensible. Since most of Kingdom Hearts is action, most of it is indecipherable. It is a very difficult read. If it were a cartoon show, it would give its young viewers severe Attention Deficit Disorder.

There's a good myth buried in here, but the reader has to dig for it. Here's what Kingdom Hearts needs: clear panel-by-panel layouts, developed characters, carefully written dialogue, well-delineated plots, and a unique, well-developed world in which the action can take place. Keep Mickey, Goofy, Donald, and any other Disney or Squaresoft characters in there as warranted, but spend more time developing a unique, specifically Kingdom Hearts cast. This last, in and of itself, would make the story easier to follow. Kingdom Hearts is so bent on working all the different Disney flicks into a single mythos, the resulting plot is much more artificial and complicated than it needs to be.

Having said all this, I will add that, failure though it is, Kingdom Hearts contains probably the best idea Disney's come up with since Duck Tales, and certainly the best collaborative effort they've done since Who Framed Roger Rabbit. The image of Donald, Goofy, and a manga character in hand-to-hand combat with monsters is instantly appealing. Kingdom Hearts exploits one of the greatest, strangely underutilized strengths of cartoons and comics--the ability to put very different characters in the same visual space. This produces an instant charming effect unattainable with any other medium, though puppets sometimes come close. The end result is that Kingdom Hearts is all the more frustrating because of its many failures. Ergh. Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go burn some villages.

The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Kingdom Hearts:

Myth Level: High (quest, universal themes, use of iconic characters)

Quality Level: Low (great art and nothing else)

Religion/Ethics: Medium/High (generally pretty good, appropriate for children)
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