In 2008 the London Anime Club disbanded. The writing had been on the wall for a long time, but it truly marked the closing of a chapter - born out of the age of the VHS swap-meet, anime fandom had now moulted into an online message board. Modern anime fandom truly is a creature of the internet - we're here on the UK Anime Network, of course, but as much as our red-hot news and insightful reviews make us the first click for any discerning enthusiast there's still whole terabytes of data entangled across the web. Some things never change, though - really, bootlegs back then were just as illegal as fansubs are today! The Internet has made their distribution almost incomparably easier, though - Torrent trackers indicate that just one out of several fansubbing circles releasing downloadable versions of anime can get over 10,000 downloads an episode. When barely a tenth of that gets an official release in the UK on the "bestseller" chart, you can understand a little why increasingly marginal licensing companies can get a bit exasperated with piracy. The sheer volume of data though clearly indicates that there's still a teeming community for those companies to cast their nets into though, and if just a fraction of those downloads can be turned into sales there's opportunity for big profits.
The publisher Vertical Inc. regularly invites Facebook surveys from its readership about what titles they should license next, and their competitor Seven Seas Entertainment has sought to ride on the currents of the switched-on anime community to learn at electric light-speed what new titles are creating a buzz before they've even left Japan. They've latched onto the discussions of the /a/nons of 4chan as tastemakers, and this strategy seems to have paid off - it's no exaggeration to state that Seven Seas struck oil with one of that board's best-loved manga, Monster Musume. Each and every volume in the series has shot to the top of the New York Times manga bestseller lists!
The reason why Vertical and every other company is the manga business is not immediately following Seven Seas, though, is due to the cautious understanding that although Monster Musume is still blowing a gale there is a considerable risk with relying on the Internet as your weathervane. It can be spent spinning around with brief gusts and back-eddies off the surrounding buildings, but a sudden squall doesn't necessarily mean a consistent wind. Does online buzz, particularly in specialist communities with an obsessive interest above that of the average consumer, truly indicate a powerful fan-factor fuelling a future hit, or is it just the pot-banging of a noisy fringe drowning out everything else? For several years now many have proclaimed Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer as one of the best manga that you've never read - Seven Seas are trusting then that an official licensed translation of the manga will enjoy similar success to Monster Musume. With Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer will Seven Seas hit the nail on the head or have they only just swung out wildly and smashed their thumb?
Amamiya Yuuhi is a college student in a rural area of Japan well away from the lights of the big city. Not just a quiet but a morose and sombre figure, Yuuhi just plods through his classes with no friends or clubs - even socially-awkward otaku at least have some interest to keep them busy, but Yuuhi doesn't have so much as that. His only companion in life is the black dog of depression, padding along beside him as he shuffles from college to his digs and back again. Then one morning he wakes up to find a lizard - not a lizard-man, just a lizard - on top of his duvet. The lizard announces in perfect human speech that he is a magical knight and that he has been sent by the Princess to defend the Earth against an evil Mage that threatens to destroy it, and this Lizard Knight needs Yuuhi's help to save the world. As you do.
Saving the world frankly sounds like more of a hassle than anything else, and it's very impolite of a magical Lizard Knight to just barge in and start trying to compromise other people's lifestyles without saying "please", so Yuuhi just tosses the lizard out of the window and gets on with his day. When a rather aggrieved Lizard Knight re-materialises on the table and starts yelling at Yuuhi and then insists on clinging on Yuuhi's back for his journey to college, Yuuhi starts wondering whether this creature is a figment of his imagination and if he needs to check in with a psychiatrist - but he might find himself going to A&E first. Even if Yuuhi doesn't care about stories of an evil Mage, the Mage evidently doesn't reciprocate, and Yuuhi finds himself being chased by a giant clay golem smashing up the scenery and soon enough, Yuuhi himself! It looks like the Lizard Knight's quest is going to be unceremoniously cut short, but salvation arrives in the form of a spinning dervish that zooms in the nick of time and smashes this hulking Goliath to potsherds with just a single punch. The Princess, Asahina Samidare, has arrived to be the salvation of one of her subjects... and the Princess just happens to be the schoolgirl that lives next door?
If things couldn't get any weirder, the tomboyish Samidare reveals the full extent of the Mage's plot. It's invisible to anyone not magically attuned like herself and the Knights but there's a gargantuan continent-sized mallet floating in space above the Earth. Once the Mage has accumulated enough power the hammer will plunge down and smash the planet to pieces as comprehensively as a crumbling biscuit dropped on the floor. The Princess won't stand for it - she's determined to stop the Mage and destroy the hammer... because the only one who's going to be destroying the planet and annihilating existence is her!
When the world is going to be destroyed not by any nuclear holocaust or psychic emanation but just a really, really, really big mallet you appreciate that Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer has something of a cartoon-ish setup. Appropriately enough then it also has very lively art. Battle scenes are very elastic and kinetic, with punches not just knocking someone over but sending them bouncing and rolling like a hyperactive ping-pong ball, so your eye is zipping back and forth across the page almost as fast as the characters are. Another effective method to depict fast-paced action is to show characters in multiple poses in the same panel, implying a dozen different leaps and sprints in one single static image. Yuuhi - and the other Knights serving the Princess that he meets over the course of the adventure - fight the golems with a type of magic called "domain control", little floating force-field balls that with practice they can stretch out to create shields, platforms to fly sky-high atop, or clubs with which to pummel their enemies. This is an interesting use of magic that makes things a little different than the characters just yelling energy-bolts at each other and most importantly is very good for keeping the action up-close and personal with more exciting and vigorous close-combat. Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer is an entertaining battle manga that offers a good density of fighting for those seeking action and adventure.
A lot of the humour in the manga is similarly physical - not so much slapstick as such, there isn't much in the way of toilet jokes and the like, but with cartoony exaggerated overreactions with well-timed contrasting deadpan comic beats between the delivery and the realisation by the object of the joke that he's meant to be outraged. Frequently the camera will pull back far so that the retaliatory punch is a distant speck - oddly enough this enhances the cartoon nature of the comic, suddenly skipping and tripping lightly from before to after like a stick-figure flick-book; there's a childlike quality to it. Now, though, one thing that isn't especially childlike is that there is some moderate fan service in this manga with a number of panty shots too! However, I do think that they actually add to the experience. This isn't just making excuses - seeing the Princess's skirt flap and snap about really does magnify the sense of speed when she comes howling in to deliver the finishing blow to a golem, and there is a knowingly self-aware running gag with Yuuhi's persistent disappointment that the girls don't react like they do in manga rom-coms.
It would seem then that Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer appears at first to be altogether light and insubstantial, but it does suddenly acquire some dramatic weight. After all of these knights jumping around them the golems do finally land a crushing bloody blow. This might not seem to be terribly fitting in a manga about talking animals and skirt-flipping heroines but I must reassure readers that this doesn't just come out of left field like a post-Madoka magical girl anime trying too hard to be edgy. They do say from the outset that the battle against the Mage is one of life or death, so you respect the manga for making good on the theat rather than just being lamely unable to commit. Moreover, you are eased into this cheery knockabout battle-manga having a bit of a darker underbelly through Yuuhi's dealing with his own depression. Unlike so many anime heroes whose hang-ups amount to little more than rootless adolescent angst, Yuuhi has an understandable reason for his behaviour - while you might think that the scenario itself is a bit overcooked, it also makes Yuuhi's adverse reaction to his grandfather's attempted reconciliation entirely understandable; this is nothing to do with pride, an Idiot-Plot refusal to just talk to someone or tortuously convoluted manga misunderstandings, Yuuhi is entirely right to feel the way he does. The chains that quite literally weigh Yuuhi down are a fitting visual way for a manga to realise it in the action, too.
As much as it seems that Yuuhi has some depth to him though, Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer does have a big cast and most of them are painted with a somewhat broader brush. There are a dozen Beast Knights serving the Princess, and while pleasingly their animal familiars are not just reiterations of the overly-familiar Chinese Zodiac (there's a Grasshopper Knight, a Mouse Knight and even a Swordfish Knight!) the characters themselves tend to fit to a single key trope. While each one gets a significant number of pages to be introduced to the reader, few of them really throw up surprises. However, while they might seem to be thin sheets they stretch it out into quite a bouncy trampoline, always shooting up into the page with a gregarious manner, and the Beasts themselves are also a proper presence, whether it be Yuuhi holding his lizard up by the tail until it learns to stop shouting at him or the Black Cat Knight not turning out to be a mysterious dark stranger but a tubby chubster. The adoration of Yuuhi for his "Little Lucifer", the Princess who wants to save the world only so that she can reserve the privilege of destroying it for herself, is crazily melodramatic but delivered with such earnestness that you are pulled along for the ride.
Much the same could be said of Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer as a whole. It's nothing revolutionary, but it's vivid in its enthusiasm and energetic in its action, its drama adding a lashing of spice to give it extra flavour rather than just drowning it it in a slush of morbidity. With a one-two jab of over-the-top combat and a humourous spirit, it's a manga that's certainly leaving an impact and the double-sized two-volume omnibus editions that the manga is sold in give it the weight to leave a mark - you'd blast through single volumes of a battle-manga too quickly for it to feel satisfying, but a bigger chunk of reading per-purchase makes it feel more substantial even if it's more expensive. With a third release of volumes five and six coming up in June I'm staying at the ringside to see if the Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer can keep up the combo attack.