One of the barriers to getting into manga is the long-running nature of many of its series. There is little in the way of British Brevity in this Eastern medium, and while I'm normally the sort to happily welcome more as more I have to admit that the sheer daunting scale of some of these great towers of books throw out deep shadows. Volume 70 of Naruto will be released next month - if you're a new reader just discovering the "Big Three", wanting to find out what one of the most popular mangas is all about is going to cost you over £500 to get fully up to speed! Manga - it's a drug, in more ways than one.
I'm pleased then to see more publishers are dipping their toes into one-volume releases - I enjoy a grand operatic epic so I wouldn't want to see long series disappear by any means, but shorter titles are both more accessible to newcomers who don't want to be made dizzy by sprawling character-relationship diagrams and more affordable to established fans who need to tighten their belts after impoverishing themselves with the Soul Eater box set. While we weren't too enamoured with the content of its release Alive, the publisher Gen Manga deserves credit for putting out a number of one-shots over the last year, and now Yen Press is seeking to build up more on those foundations with its own The Angel of Elhamburg. Is this concise package short'n'sweet, or is it just slight'n'simplistic?
The Angel of Elhamburg is drawn by a female mangaka with the pen-name "Aki", but she has no personal relation or professional connection to the Katsu Aki who did sex-comedies like Manga Sutra and Step Up Love Story. The Angel of Elhamburg is coming out alongside another Aki one-shot, Olympos, and a third title of hers Utahime: The Songstress hasn't reached the UK yet but is available in the USA via DMP.
The Angel of Elhamburg itself tells a story very lightly influenced by fantasy. Madeth and Lavlan are two young men and good friends who have just led an uprising that has deposed the cruel and tyrannical lord of Elhamburg. Madath has been the one to become the new king for the new age - with his beguiling, charming, easy manner that radiates disarming likability he's naturally the one to win the people's love and so sit on the throne. For all his charisma though, Madeth really doesn't have a head for detail: he has difficulty concentrating, he's easily distracted, he doesn't know how to read and he's a procrastinator par excellence. Much of the business of actually governing Elhamburg then falls down to the intelligent and diligent Lavlan, the Thomas Cromwell who keeps the machinery oiled while the king is pressing the flesh with subjects and diplomats - if Madeth is the graceful swan gliding across the surface of the lake, Lavlan is the pair of stubby black legs thrashing underneath the surface to keep it moving.
Even if this doesn't mean much in the way of honour and glory for Lavlan though, he at least outwardly appears to be content - with his gentle and unassuming nature that's quietly self-assured enough to pin down Madeth when he's being wrong-headed, an idyllic life in Elhamburg seems set to continue. However, Lavlan starts to see a strange sight - it's something only he seems to be able to see, but he observes a beautiful, glowing, androgynous angel drifting around the walls and towers of the castle - and planting a gentle kiss on the unaware Madeth. What is this strange apparition? Is Lavlan himself imagining things, is it a sign from God, or has some ghostly spirit of the castle itself manifested from its scarred stones? Is that kiss a blessing of benediction or a mark of misfortune? Is the message for Madeth after all, or Lavlan himself?
Rather than make a one-volume edition a cheap pocket-book to fill out some spare time Yen Press have decided to go the other way and make The Angel of Elhamburg a more expensive premium release with an oversized, hardback edition with gold-leaf effect on the title. This makes commercial sense - when in the shop The Angel of Elhamburg is going to be book-ending about thirty volumes of Attack on Titan so you need to make it more prominent if it's not going to be lost on the shelf. This does also allow for more emphasis on detail of the art - as seen with the intricately-decorated suit of armour on the dust jacket, this is a big source of the manga's appeal. The Angel of Elhamburg has a vaguely late-medieval setting and a general "Renaissance Fayre" style, but is distinguished with incredibly elaborate and heavily decorated costumes - there's a general lack of backgrounds in this manga, but accusations of a lack of effort there are ably answered in the absolute ostentation of characters' dress. Even prisoners are impeccably turned out. I don't doubt that fashionistas will find The Angel of Elhamburg interesting to read and it certainly presents some fascinating projects for cosplayers.
Appropriately for a girl weaned on Saint Seiya doujinshi the characters that Aki draws to wear these clothes are almost all classically slender, silken-haired, fey-faced bishounens, suitably enough to have beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes I suppose; but this unblemished smooth porcelain grace does become a little silly when the events of the storyline are spread over more than three decades but by the end Lavlan and Madeth's pretty-boy faces haven't been disfigured by so much as a line, even though seeing them change with their relationship would have been appropriate. Yaoi fans might get some mileage out of this unchanging effete beauty, but they'll have to be imaginative about it as despite the theme of male friendship there's no suggestion of anything more between Madeth and Lavlan; throughout the book no-one bares even an ankle and there're only two chaste kisses, one being the angel giving Madeth a peck and then Madeth kissing his wife at their wedding - with the camera pulled back a discreet distance. Similar to the absence of sex is the almost total absence of violence too - even if Lavlan is wielding a sword on the cover no-one suffers so much as a paper cut in the whole 190 pages. Battles are referred to in conversation but only one single half-obscured side-panel has anything like violence - there are two wars fought without that sword on the cover even being drawn, let alone used. The Angel of Elhamburg remains a palace drama focused entirely on character and dialogue; the chapters of the book are called "scenes" (with the first chapter split into three sub-chapter "acts") and there is indeed a theatrical quality to the story, given how it's delivered principally by dialogue between a small, intimate cast. As mentioned above backdrops are unimportant - multiple backgrounds are only patterns, geometric tiling or trellises of shoujo flowers - and just as the Bard pleaded for a Muse of fire that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention so too is the reader here asked to deck their thoughts upon these kings for a book that cannot itself fill the lusty fields of France. An adaptation of this manga would certainly be cheap to stage!
It's all very well and good to present yourself as a play but you still must have a script to deliver to the audience - the absence of action and passion is not necessarily a bad thing, and much like the exquisite construction of the clothes it does make for a gentler, more reflective and considered atmosphere, but does The Angel of Elhamburg fill that atmosphere or only leave a vacuum? The relationship between Madeth and Lavlan is smartly and economically, even poetically demonstrated in an early scene where Madeth's writing is so bad that he gets Lavlan to write love letters to the ladies he's courting for him - and yet when this is discovered Madeth's charisma parlays a lady's outrage at being deceived into a funny little Meet Cute that lovers can have a giggle together remembering. For his part Lavlan the ghost-writer is unsure whether he is happy at being out of the harsh spotlight or resentful being stuck in the cold shadows, and that conflict emerges in his words and is noted by others, and from small chinks cracks grow. A problem common to manga is again that lack of brevity, and they take a long time to say simple things - The Angel of Elhamburg is rather more dextrously laconic and says a lot more in less space.
Unfortunately for something that's put right there in the very title one of the things that really doesn't work in The Angel of Elhamburg is the angel itself. For all of the attempts at presenting the angel as some mysterious presence of mercurial will it's pretty obviously really just some moral weathervane - how Lavlan describes it in his captioned soliloquies is exactly how it is, and adding a question mark at the end of the speech is a lame way of pretending that there are alternatives. Sure, the angel looks pretty enough with all those strange stringy wings spreading out around the page like an unravelled Celtic knot but it's muteness is not mystery, it's just maundering mawkish mopiness, and half the time it seems that even Aki even forgets its there until she remembers that she has to round off a chapter with a quick visitation. This lack of depth can also be found in a lot of the other relationships - we are asked to imagine a lot, infer years of subtle manipulation behind a single sly smile, and we do - but once it's done there's not much else more to say. The Angel of Elhamburg is about the nature of the friendship between two close but radically different men... and this works well, they have a believable, natural relationship with realistic attractions as well as understandable problems - both characters are envious of the other for different reasons and when a breach forms between them it's over an entirely plausible issue of trust rather than the ludicrous Idiot-Plot Misunderstandings that limit so many other manga... really, just for that I think I should be giving The Angel of Elhamburg a 10/10! However once they separate midway through the book none of the other scenarios and meetings that come up really match it - they carried the first half of the book and without it the second feel listless. We see a prince looking a bit glum and sullen during a parade - from Lavlan's reaction to seeing this, we're evidently meant to see with him despair at a life crushed and emptied but it's really just not enough to justify such a powerful reaction - being asked to have such strong emotive responses to some thin material only makes the manga seem less compelling and more just overwrought.
The Angel of Elhamburg has its heart in the right place and it has been written with good ideas and noble intentions, but its reach does exceed its grasp - it's perhaps just as well that this is a one-volume story because it's reaching its limit here and it would be spread too thinly over a multi-volume tale. That rather sounds like damning with faint praise, but it does also show that the manga is sensibly constructed not to overstay its welcome. Even if the second half is not so attractive, there's enough energy in the first to keep you coasting through and reading to the end rather than just coming to a dead stop - and it looks gorgeous from start to finish and there's plenty to admire just in the art. Altogether, The Angel of Elhamburg is certainly a big improvement over the Gen Manga oneshots and it does justify its cover price as a bookshelf ornament, nice to look at and with enough craft and skill within it to start a conversation about it, although you may need to lead it thereon yourself.