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Weekly March 5, 2007:
Bugs and Drugs
- Mushishi and Apothecarius Argentum

Heaven Knows I'm Miserable Now

Monthly February 22, 2007:
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- Part two

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Bugs and Drugs

Mushishi and Apothecarius Argentum

A quick quiz: Is my appetite for episodic manga about paranormal investigators limitless, or are publishers doing a really good job of releasing interesting titles in that niche? I think it’s the latter.

A recent addition is Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi from Del Rey, a beautifully illustrated tour of the folkloric landscape guided by a chain-smoking spiritualist. Ginko travels from village to village helping humans plagued by mushi, life-forms so ancient as to defy categorization (or conventional extermination).

Urushibara’s portrayal of the mushi is fascinating. They can be parasitic or destructive, but they aren’t malevolent. Like any species, their goal is survival. Sometimes their continued existence can put humans in considerable peril, but there’s no malice to their behavior. They’re part of the environment, and the trick is finding the proper balance for coexistence – to meet the sometimes competing needs of different species without compromising either.

That’s where Ginko comes in. He’s got a good foundation in the craft of mediating between human and mushi, though he’s still learning. Each place he visits is a microcosm of species imbalance, and it’s his responsibility to restore things to the best of his ability. Since the mushi are so diverse, he can’t always rely on experience or learned knowledge to cope with them; instinct and intuition play just as much of a part in his ministrations. They aren’t always enough.

The guiding scenario could very effectively lend itself to horror, but Urushibara stays more in the realm of wistful, even sorrowful fantasy. Since the mushi aren’t hostile and they’re a far older part of the natural order than humans, they can’t merely be battled in any conventional sense. At times the best solutions aren’t immediate or complete ones, and there’s pain and anxiety to be endured before a satisfactory conclusion is reached. There’s texture and variety to the episodes, but they’re all fueled by an expansive, humane perspective.

Urushibara pairs her narrative sensibilities with some truly gorgeous illustrations. The stories are set in remote corners – snowy mountaintops, thick forests and marshy swamps. They all feel lushly alive, even more for the unexpected inhabitants that influence them. The natural and the supernatural are beautifully integrated.

Del Rey never skimps on production values, and Mushishi is no exception. It’s from the publisher’s line of $12.95 books with their higher quality of paper and cover stock. Extensive translation notes are always a welcome feature, and they’re particularly useful and interesting here, given the dense presence of folklore in the episodes.

So it looks like I’ve got another paranormal-investigator series to add to the roster of titles I enjoy. When they’re as good as Mushishi, I’m happy to make room.

*

Quiz #2, this time on the protagonists of Tomomi Yamashita’s Apothecarius Argentum: Lead Character A is a pugnacious royal who’d rather spend time fencing than learning about court etiquette or more scholarly concerns. Any problem can be solved with the spirited application of force. Lead Character B is a willowy, silver-haired beauty who wants to heal but is plagued by dark secrets and hampered by a gentle nature.

Now, which lead character is male, and which is female?

Excellent work on setting aside years of ambient indoctrination to traditional gender roles! Yes, you’re right. Lady Primula would rather kick ass than curtsey, and Argent is delicately nurturing flowers in a forest glade. (Okay, most of the blossoms are poisonous; just work with me.) But a twist on the traditional male-female dynamic is only one of the charms of AA.

There’s also star-crossed romance, political intrigue and class-driven crises of conscience. It’s surprisingly emotionally dense and an awful lot of fun.

Primula and Argent meet as children. Argent’s ghastly upbringing included systematic poisoning to turn him into a “basilisk,” a gifted assassin, but found himself enslaved as a food taster by the king. When Primula realizes the truth of the dynamic she shares with her dining companion, she’s horrified and helps him escape.

The experience transforms both. Primula takes responsibility for her own safety, building her strength and resourcefulness. Argent decides to defy the intentions of others and use his knowledge of poisons and his unique resistance to them to heal others. Years later, their paths cross again, and a more honest bond begins to form.

Primula is delighted by the reunion and determined to atone for the horrors of Argent’s youth. Argent is more cautious, keeping Primula at arms length (and not only because he exudes poisons from his skin). Primula’s father, far from the bumbling, benevolent kings of most romantic fiction, is a real operator, trying to figure out all of the ways he can benefit from Argent’s presence in the court.

Yamashita strikes the right balance of romance, angst, comedy and adventure. The pace varies nicely, shifting between event and emotion. And since Yamashita spent ten years as a pharmacist, there are plenty of doses of interesting curative and chemical wisdom throughout. (Don’t eat foxglove plants from the garden, kids.)

Not too long ago, CMX ran some sample pages of AA in Diamond’s Previews catalog. They didn’t really do the series justice, presenting a spoiled princess and the dashing man who saves her from peril. The reality is a lot more interesting than the preview suggested, with a complex dynamic between Argent and Primula, a solid fictional landscape, and enough potential plot complications to keep things humming for volumes to come.

(This review is based on a galley proof provided by the publisher. Apothecarius Argentum is set for release on May 16.)


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