July 2, 2010

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Nightschool Volume 2

Written by Svetlana Chmakova
Illustrated by Svetlana Chmakova
Yen Press

One way or the other, Alex is determined to get into the Nightschool. It's the only way to solve the mystery of her missing sister. But behind the already secretive corridors of the of the school itself are bigger problems for our young heroine...assuming she is a heroine at all. With hunters on her trail, and someone hunting the hunters, the mystery deepens as we further explore the world of the Nightschool.

Now that's we're into the second volume of this series, things start to settle down a bit, but only just a little. There's more focus on Alex and the hunters, now that the supporting players they'll need around them are already in place. Thus we do get a better handle on who are going to be the focal points of this manga. I was glad for that, as too much pinballing from person to person can make for a difficult read.

That does not mean, however, that the many mysteries set up in the prior trade are all answered. In fact, if anything, this time around we're left with more things to ponder than we did before opening the book, especially given the closing pages (which Chmakova jokingly apologizes for). Take Alex for example. We're clearly meant to like her, but the hints we've seen of what she's capable of terrify me. When Alex is normal, she's almost a prototype shojo heroine in an action series. When Alex activates her powers, on the other hand, the things she does and the way she talks form the core of a formidable villain. Add this to the things the hunters are saying about her, and the reader--at least this one--is left wondering whether or not we want Alex to win.

In some ways, Alex's character reminds me of Aya in Ceres Celestial Legend. She's fine when in human mode, but turn on her magic, and things get scary. I like the concept, and I'm going to be curious to see how Chmakova handles the idea, given that Alex doesn't appear to be facing an evil organization the way Aya was.

The hunters are also a mystery to me. They've been set up as opposing Alex, or least who she becomes. Yet it's clear we're meant to like them and to worry that three of their members are dying. It may be part of the job, as the head hunter Daemon notes cryptically, but that doesn't mean the reader wants it to happen. From what I can tell, they stand somewhere outside the mainstream of this world, neither fitting in with the witches and wolves nor being a part of humanity. Their story is just getting started, and it's another angle I look forward to seeing, assuming they manage to make it out of book three alive.

Strongly implied in all this is the third big mystery--what's going on with the Nightschool? Alex's sister didn't want her there, preferring to home school her. (As an aside, does the fact that home schooling is referenced in an OEL manga from a major publisher mean it's gone mainstream? Hard to say.) It changes on a regular basis, has some sketchy teachers in it, and the school council looks to have power far beyond its normal place, even given the magical elements. I don't trust that place as far as I can throw it, and trust me, I'm not really good at picking up buildings.

As with the first trade, Chmakova mixes everything very well, making sure to put enough humor into things to give the reader a chance to breathe and also to allow the tenser moments to have a bigger impact. Our mock Twilight couple are back (a nice touch), and almost every scene with Alex's astral are cute and funny. (I particularly liked the bit about it doing origami when only simple shapes were needed.) A mermaid guest speaker leads to the usual jokes, and even one of the (probably) more serious characters gets some spots as an absent-minded professor.

There's just enough of these parts to make it work. Too few and it's all drama, which would be bad for a horror series. Too many, and we end up losing the mystery in a haze of jokes that may or may not actually be funny on the page. My only concern in the long run is that Chmakova's walking a very fine tightrope. With lots of characters, lots of plot points, and quite a few things yet to explore, if she's not careful the manga might fall under its own weight. However, things are going fine so far, so I'm hopeful.

A natural consequence of the large story is that Nightschool packs a lot into every page. Most pages have as many panels as Chmakova can fit in, with characters sometimes getting almost Bendisian in their conversation. I like that style, personally, because I'd rather a creator err on the side of giving me too much than showing me too little. It also means that when we get to the select scenes with splash pages, they have more impact, both visually and in terms of the overall effect.

In terms of art style, there's still the blend of western and eastern influences at work. Some of the hunter scenes reminded me a bit of John Romita, Jr., in their layout, character posing, and flat, but emotional faces. I don't think big action scenes are ever going to be Chmakova's strong suit, but her ability to make her characters interact with the world around them and use of size and exaggeration to impact on mood more than make up for it.

Through two volumes, I'm a big fan of this series, and I definitely will be grabbing volume three as soon as I am able to. Nightschool is an OEL manga that can stack up with anything currently being translated in this vein. If you want a supernatural setting that has a cool plot filled with mystery, look no further. Nightschool is for you.