I first got interested in Son Hee-Joon's PhD: Phantasy Degree (Tokyopop) when a sample of its storyline was included in one of the American manga publisher’s sneak preview books. A monster action comedy set in Hades? How could I resist?
The Age 13+ series is set around a school for demons, built on the side of a craggy mountain cliff. We meet our heroine Sang as she travels through the forests of Hades, seemingly on a quest to find said demon school. A red-headed teenaged human, Sang has apparently been traveling a long road to get to this part of Hades: "I'm so hungry," she says as she collapses onto the ground, "that I don't have any strength to move." Fortunately for our famished heroine, a werewolf shows up panting and happily lolling its tongue.
Though our heroine supposedly is too weak to move, she still manages to capture the creature. (We don't see how she does it, a cheat that Hee-Jon pulls more than once with Sang in this book.) "He's not really human, so it wouldn't really be cannibalism," San reasons, as she prepares a fire to cook the beast, but she's interrupted by the appearance of another supernatural creature, a vampire named Mordicus. In the time it takes for the reader to slide onto the next page (Tokyopop's edition, it should be noted, is packaged in traditional Western format, moving from left to right), Sang is herself trussed up by what turns out to be a quartet of teenaged monsters.
The foursome – which includes a mummy named Tyrannus and a short-horned demon named Dev – are ditching class during final exams. "You're a bunch of demon school slackers, aren't you?" Sang accuses, before slipping out of her ropes off-panel, and she asks the group to escort her into the school building. No humans are allowed, she told, so she gets Mordicus to bite her, transforming her into enough of a vampire so she's able to pass through the school's portals without any hassle – but still maintaining a vague measure of human-ness about her.
This damning humanity is picked up by others in the demon school: big-horned demon teacher Fatalis, who also teaches at the school (much like the fraternal relationship in Psychic Academy), the bodaciously shapely demon Notra, who has wings on her head instead of horns. (must be a flight-or-fight thing) and Katana, the leader of a trio of older demon bullies, who has it in for our quartet of "fourth-rate freaks." "Always a bunch of guys that think they're too cool for school," Sang notes, unable to hold back the quips even as they incite Katana and his buds. She then acts surprised when the bullies go after her along with the hooky-playing foursome.
The fight sequences in PhD are arguably the least involving part of the book: the kind of scene where characters shout phrases like "Lightening Tornado!" and "Thunder Wind!" at each other without ever explaining what they're doing. (Only visual clues we get are a lotta cracking power surges that imply something big and impressive.) Unfortunately, the second half of the volume is primarily fight scenes as a mysterious human villain named Khyung suddenly appears at the school and starts tearing the horns off demons. Sang apparently knows the blackguard ("That twisted beast! He got here faster than I expected!") as both Khyung and our heroine have apparently traveled to Hades after the same thing: an engagement ring that Notra is wearing, given to her by the son of Baal, the Supreme Commander of Hell. "The bloodfest begins now," Khyung chortles, but I wasn't all that interested, especially once I read in the back-of-the-book promos for volume two that all the demon characters who are killed will rise more powerful than ever.
Away from its action scenes, PhD works best when its characters are comically playing off of each other: as in a moment between young demon Dev and Notra (who has more than a hint of dominatrix about her.) The latter tricks the naïve young demon into unlocking the absent principal's office so that Notra can view the world outside the school from its window; we see both the young boy demon's overwhelming attraction to the shapely demoness and Notra's willingness to play him just that she can (temporarily, at least) escape the trappings of demon royalty. "I didn't know that friendship existed between demons," bad guy Khyung marvels at one point, but it's in these early adolescent alliances and rivalries that the series most shines, so much so that all the prolonged and confusing fight scenes prove a needless distraction, at least to this reader.
Hee-Joon's art can be appealingly funnybook, if at little too focused at times on headshots of characters looking stern or worried. The Tokyopop edition contains translations of the sound and action effects in the space between panels – not that unusual a tactic, but I don't remember it being done with such cartoony lettering before. The tactic adds to the story's humorous tone, but it also lets the air out of some of the action sequences. Perhaps this tonal discontinuity doesn't bother more manga-wise members of the book's 13-plus-aged audience. Me, I kept thinking of those damn sound FX from the old Batman teevee series . . .