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Sailing the Seven Seas

With its blend of webcomics, manga-influenced print titles, and new foray into licensed manga, Seven Seas Entertainment has embraced many of the key emerging trends in the graphic novel industry in the eyes of Luffy.org.

If Seven Seas can be said to be about any one thing, that one thing might be choice. Fans can read their favorites on-line or in print, select from a range of visual styles, and sample original or licensed products. Readers can also choose from a range of genres, from comedy to fantasy to adventure to suspense.

So how about the books themselves? Seven Seas sent me a preview pack of some of their recent releases, and there’s a lot to like.

If I say that Earthsong by Lady Yates seems like an adaptation of a video game, I don’t mean it derisively. Like a good role-playing adventure, the book has an interesting fantasy premise and diverse, distinct characters.

It opens with a pale young woman waking in a strange world with no memory of where she’s come from and no idea what she’s doing there. She’s thrust immediately into a conflict between two opposing forces. One group represents the spirit of the planet, Earthsong; the other serves a much more malignant force dedicated to the acquisition of power.

The girl, named Willow by her newfound companions, learns that Earthsong is one of a number of planet spirits. Over time, her kin have created species to inhabit their worlds, but creator neglect has led some to absorb a bit of their creators’ massive powers. Faced with few alternatives, these innocents are sent to Earthsong until a balance with their home planet can be restored. But a rival force isn’t interested in balance, and Earthsong is forced to enlist some of her visitors to keep her opponent at bay, even as he gathers his own minions from the new arrivals.

Like any good point-of-view character, Willow isn’t entirely sure what’s going on, and readers learn about her new world with her. Earthsong is populated with strong, temperamentally varied women like Nanashi (Earthsong’s most devoted aide), Tengu (a sparkly fairy who happens to be a general on her home planet), and fierce, winged Skogul (a leading player for the bad guys). Yates has a nice way with character design, taking advantage of each cast member’s unique abilities in classic super-team fashion.

Yates has a lot to explain in the volume, and things can get a little talky, but visual imagination adds interest. The colors are rich and saturated, and Yates hits real heights of creativity with lettering.

Ultimately, the book could use a little more punch, I think. While Yates does good work setting things in motion, she could stand to pick up the pace in future volumes. And she really should think about pitching Earthsong to a game developer. I think it would be a lot of fun.

In the great manga glossary, “fan-service” and “harem comedy” are among the phrases least likely to spark my interest in a story, so I went into Aoi House with a certain amount of prejudice. I left it with prejudices largely intact, but I do admire the craft that writer Adam Arnold and illustrator Shiei bring to the exercise. Arnold and Shiei seem to want to bring some equity to the harem comedy equation.

Hapless geeks Alex and Sandy are booted out of their freshman dorm and have to find alternative housing. When they learn of a house populated with anime fans, they think their problems are solved. But Aoi House is a den of crazy yaoi fangirls who welcome the boys under the assumption that they’re a gay couple, ripe for objectification.

Mercifully, Arnold doesn’t choose the Three’s Company route, forcing Alex and Sandy to play gay to keep a roof over their heads. But the girls are unperturbed by the reality of the boys’ relationship and project their fantasies on them anyways, when not unmercifully hazing them. While the ogling is mutual, the girls have the decided advantage.

Arnold undeniably knows his way around this territory. He knows how to construct a story and keep it moving. Shiei does strong work with the illustrations, contributing visual comedy to the overall package.

There are some genuinely funny bits. You can’t go wrong with an overly inquisitive hamster, and Sandy’s pet Echiboo can be relied upon to create comedy chaos. Arnold and Shiei fold in a host of otaku references, creating an appealingly geeky environment.

At heart, though, it’s a fan-service harem comedy in spite of its attempts at subversion. Panties abound, and visits to bathrooms, locker rooms, and fitting rooms are predictably frequent. There’s also an unsettling element of ridicule centered around an Aoi House alum, a transvestite named Carlo whose “manly face will give you cold chills in a bad way and make you want to gag,” according to his character bio. Carlo is used to make the boys squirm and the girls laugh at their unease. It’s more than a little mean, positioning Carlo as a laughable weapon in the war between the sexes.

Aoi House has some interesting undercurrents and ideas that don’t quite come to fruition. While the intention to subvert the harem comedy format is ambitious and creative, it isn’t fully realized on the page.

Sarah Ellerton’s Inverloch is another example of a book that employs very familiar genre elements. In this case, the familiarity is comforting. Ellerton deftly combines a number of fantasy tropes for a story with a warmly classic feel.

It begins with the abduction of an elf child, Kayn’dar. Twelve years later, his friend Shiara is still bereft at the loss. When she visits the site of his disappearance, she meets Acheron, a cub-like da’kor. Despite the significant distrust between the two races, Acheron is able to befriend Shiara. He’s smitten with her, but her grief over Kayn’dar and the elves’ lingering prejudices against the da’kor keep her from returning his feelings.

So Acheron volunteers to find Kayn’dar for Shiara. If he can’t win her love, he can at least ease her mind and ensure her happiness. He sets off on his quest, leaving his family behind and encountering a number of potentially dangerous mysteries along the way.

It’s a classic set-up, but Ellerton invests it with emotion and suspense. Some storytelling tropes become tropes because they’re so durable, and that’s certainly the case here. And Acheron is a fine heir to the legacy of fantasy protagonists – kind, clever, and determined. He has great rooting value.

I like Ellerton’s illustration work a lot too. Character designs are imaginative and distinct. While the da’kors are visually similar, Ellerton is able to vary them visually in terms of age, social standing, and disposition. Some more attention to background and setting might contribute to building the fictional world, but what’s here works well. The color palette adds depth to the visuals and helps set mood.

I want to know what happens next in Inverloch. I’m invested in the characters and intrigued by the mysteries they’re trying to solve. Given how many times this kind of narrative territory has been covered, that’s quite an accomplishment.

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