Manga Before Flowers — A Love Letter to CMX
A lot of people don’t seem to know about CMX manga. It is a very strange little imprint of DC Comics (it is considered part of “Wildstorm” even though you wouldn’t even guess that unless you examined the copyright info in the back of a CMX manga).
For a large number of manga fans, CMX is best known for one of the biggest mistakes a U.S. publisher has ever made with a beloved title — that being the publisher’s edits of the raunchy & violent title Tenjho Tenge into “pg-13″ respectability. CMX appears to have learned from that very early mistake but there are some fans that will never forgive them for mangling that title so badly from the get-go.
I am very clearly not one of those fans.
Let’s face it….CMX does a lot of strange things. I think its editing choices with TenTen (which they clearly *learned* from) aren’t even its top ten of truly bizarre decisions. And by “strange” I don’t mean “bad” but actually “wonderful yet exempt from what we humans call earth logic.”
Case in point. From Eroica With Love.
Who else would bring us 1970’s shojo manga about an uptight German intelligence officer and the gay British art thief who loves (and therefore delights in torturing) him?
No one, that’s who!
I’ve already named CMX’s SWAN one of the top five shojo manga currently being published in the states, but to be honest, From Eroica with Love owns a corner of my heart no other shojo manga ever will. It is both unbelievably insane and at times surprisingly suspenseful. It is a laugh-out-loud parody of James Bond that can also make you anxious for the safety & well-being of its characters. One the one hand, we have the flamboyant aesthete, Earl Dorian Red Gloria, with flowing, golden tresses who has a thief’s sense of morality and goes by the name “Eroica” when he steals works of art. (And whose character design is apparently based on Robert Plant from Led Zepplin, dating this as the most 1970’s manga ever made. According to me). Then, on the other hand we have the rigid NATO officer Klaus Heinz von dem Eberbach, who inspires such fear in the international intelligence community he is nicknamed “Iron Klaus.” Klaus is beyond stereotypically German — he works his underlings beyond human comprehension (26 men all given an alphabet codename, A, B, C, all the way down to the delicious Z.), has no sense of humor and lives for the mission and nothing else.
There is a formula to the title — Eroica somehow gets into Klaus’s business, and they must work together to 1) save each other, and then 2) save some some precious piece of intelligence that is often 3) lodged in some priceless work of art while 4) Eroica hits on Klaus and is 5) very forcefully rebuffed and 6) the Russians and / or Klaus’s men and / or Eroica’s men run around screwing things up. Sometimes to mix things up someone is kidnapped and/or taken hostage on transportation of some kind (Trains, planes, and yes, even on boats at times.) During the breaks between the crazy missions we get glimpses into Eroica’s and Klaus’s odd home-lives and everyday routines.
It should be noted that this formula doesn’t click in place until the second half of the first volume, basically once Iron Klaus shows up. Before that the immoral and hedonistic Dorian takes center stage and it really doesn’t work until his equal in intelligence and sheer insanity enters the scene (this is simply to warn folks that if you pick up the first volume you have to be very, very kind to the mistakes the mangaka makes in the first chapters — she self-corrects and then brilliantly brings the title into focus by creating Klaus and springing him on the unsuspecting Dorian).
It’s a delightful formula that is surprisingly flexible — so far the characters have run over most of Europe, significant portions of the middle-east (multiple times), and even parts of America (usually Alaska, but once Hawaii). No matter how many iterations the mangaka goes through of the plot it always feels fresh because the scattering of all the players on the board always *is* fresh (and it doesn’t hurt there’s always a fresh, often “exotic” locale explored in each mission). There’s always a new set of circumstances, a new location, a new kooky hijink Klaus must endure (in the lastest volume he has to choose which man he should cross-dress to blackmail a Swiss banker in order to find out where the Russians are hiding $100,000. Why cross-dress a man when one could easily hire a woman? Klaus *cough* doesn’t trust women.)
Even though I read yaoi (read: manga focusing on male/male romantic relationships) Eroica is without a doubt the “queerest” manga I read. Any manga that lets this man (see cover image below) run amok clearly has a fabulous sense of the odd.
I recently went to the manga stack and read volume 12 & 13 back-to-back and more than ever am I convinced CMX deserves copious amounts of love for ever allowing this title to see print in English.
However, there’s more to CMX than SWAN and From Eroica with Love. They also publishing trippy 1980’s shojo which I haven’t even read yet, but already know has to be awesome. You know why? “Trippy 1980’s shojo”! Need I say more?
Okay, probably. Much of their contemporary shojo line is also quite excellent — there’s Penguin Revolution (teenagers cross-dressing to enter show-biz!), Land of the Blindfolded (teenagers with special abilities!), GALS! (teenagers with crime-fighting and accessorizing abilities!), Oyayubihime Infinity (teenagers with past-lives!), Two Flowers for the Dragon (a teenager who turns into a dragon!), Venus in Love (college freshman (aka older teenagers) in love!).
On the other hand, one might not always want to read about teenagers. Or. Um. Want to read shojo. (Yeah, this is hard for me to imagine).
Then there’s EMMA. A lovely historical romance set in the late 1800’s, emphasizing the chasm between the merchant and serving classes in its couple, William and Emma. YES, it is still about love. But it is a mature love story aimed at adults and I can honestly recommend this title to anyone who likes comics. (The art alone makes this title a must-have — luckily the writing matches its quiet intensity).
Now, CMX also has a horror line (usually rated “M” for mature themes) and puts out some shonen. I’m sure some of this is good. I wouldn’t know because clearly I’ve very, very happy with old-school & even new school shojo CMX puts out.
The odd thing about CMX is they don’t make a big deal (read: advertise) the fact they happen to be bringing things to the marketplace that NO ONE ELSE DOES. Perhaps because no one else is crazy enough to do so, as these titles aren’t exactly catching fire with consumers). Yes, Vertical brings the 1960’s and 1970’s manga but often with the name Tezuka attached or it is is shonen-oriented 70’s manga (thinking of the Kieko Takemiya stuff they publish). Recently, Matt Blind gave his take on CMX in the marketplace here. My favorite part of his take: “Anyway, CMX is such an outlier (the furthest colonial outpost, as it were) and runs so far beneath the corporate radar that they can actually release good stuff.” However, he also adds that of CMX’s releases none of them have broken the top 500 manga according to his calculations (I think Penguin Revolution has come closest). This is not suprising but it is quite a shame as far as I’m concerned.
But CMX made me a fan for life by bringing over really extraordinary titles that no one else ever has and published them on a very consistent schedule over the past few years (Even though three of four volumes of Eroica a year isn’t a lot, it is enough to make me happy). I’ve finished up a number of their series and while there are things they could do to improve the quality of their releases (generally the print & paper quality are not great) I still treasure my volumes of Eroica & SWAN. Even if I never saw another volume of Eroica in English (14 has been delayed from September to November, sadly), CMX still would have brought over 13 volumes of the zaniest, oddest and (as far as I’m concerned) most wonderful shojo manga ever created. And that is no small thing.