The heroine of R.O.D. (Read or Die) looks more like a character who needs rescuing than a super-powered agent for a Special Operations Division. Tall and slender, with ultra-large eyeglasses that she never removes and a school marm's fashion sense, Yomiko Readman is a Paper Master for the Library of England. In the world of R.O.D. (first established in book and direct-to-video animé, if I've got my chronology correct), book-larnin' is a high-priced commodity and librarians are figures of power. Yeah, this is science-fantasy, alright.
Yomiko's powers derive through supernatural force of will from her close connection to books. As one super-powered antagonist puts it, "Our abilities have grown out of our intense attachment to what we love" – and, as innocent as she appears, it's also made her more than a little monstrous. Though we're not given any specifics, it's asserted (by an admittedly unreliable character) that she's responsible for the death of a previous Paper Master, a lover/mentor named Donnie Nakajima. As the 19th Paper Master, Yomiko can manipulate sheets of pulp or volumes of printed material – making them hard enough to repel bullets or support human bodies (in one scene, she turns a stack of Shonen Jump mags into a bridge), using single sheets to create paper airplanes that can serve as sharply pointed weapons. Is there a single weedy kid reader out there in the world who doesn’t wish they had this power?
In Volume One of the four-book Viz manga series (written by series creator Hideyuki Kurata & drawn by Shutaro Yamada), our heroine – after a single chapter quickie introducing her and the manikin-faced secret agent Joker who is her intermediary with the Special Ops Division – primarily spends her time rescuing a teen-aged writer from an obsessed fan. Christening her "Paul S" (after the protagonist of Stephen King's Misery), the wealthy psycho kidnaps writer Nenene Sumiregawa; he plans to bed her on a mattress made up of her books. It's all part of his crazed plan to inspire the girl to produce a "masterwork of unparalleled popularity to make the masses see . . ." No, it doesn't make a lick of sense, but the guy's nuts, right?
Abetting our maniac kidnapper is a second super-talented type named Fire Inc., who's your typical hyper-sexualized villainess: wears a breast-hugging top with much cleavage, actively flirts with our heroine and regularly speaks in sexual metaphors. ("We'll both reach our climax at the same time!" she shouts in the heat – double-meaning intended – of battle.) There's a good measure of girl/girl sexual teasing slathered onto this book, much of it centered around the "homely"-faced Yomiko, though we're pretty sure the most intense tactilely sensual feelings that our heroine has experienced have centered around dust covers and leather book bindings.
Per her moniker, Fire Inc. controls flames using giant matches and is, of course, paper's "worst enemy," though we don't have any doubt that Yomiko will survive her "deflowering by fire." (Okay, that one was a bit campy, Inc.!) If their "climactic" battle frequently substitutes movement, impact lines and dynamic poses for clarity . . . well, that's not much different from too many American superhero books, innit? All I know is that our heroine defeats the henchwoman by intensely believing in the power of pulp to overcome flames and by flipping a sheet of paper at her. I'm still puzzled by her ability to make a convincing paper decoy of herself. Do her powers extend to making printed ink shift around, too?
Though Nenene's rescue isn't a Special Ops assignment, Yomiko's contact Joker also shows up to provide assistance. In his most memorable moment in the first volume, the library agent interrogates two henchmen in a manner that'd do Jack Bauer proud: he pulls out a tape of a forbidden book so dread-filled that to hear it drives the listener to madness. Sitting in the interrogation room with earplugs for protection, Joker starts the tape and has the two uncooperative villains whimpering in fear and pain within seconds.
There are repeated references in R.O.D. to deadly or just plain obscene banned texts (in the first chapter, a copy of The Black Book of Fairy Tales, a collection of erotic and grotesque stories penned for the exclusive enjoyment of the aristocracy, is retrieved from its thief by our heroine) – which leads one to suspect that the Library of England is not the most liberal of organizations. While I've tried to avoid reading too much advanced info about this series, my sense is that Yomiko is at some point going to bump against the powers-that-be. Whether that happens in the manga series or another media remains to be seen.
On its own, the manga R.O.D. can't help feeling more than a little incomplete, though. There are moments in the book where you can see author Kurata relying on reader knowledge of his heroine's prior appearances (I suspect, for instance, the references made to her doomed relationship with the previous Paper Master don't come off as awkwardly to followers of the series) and indulging a short-hand that I suspect does full justice to his own creations. At times, I found myself thinking of Dell Comics' comic book adaptations in the 60's of teevee spy series like The Man from U.N.C.L.E. – works that gave a hint of what their sources were about without fully capturing their (relative) complexity. The results ain't boring; I can see myself reading the remaining three volumes of this thankfully limited manga series, if only to see what other bibliographic adventures Kurata concocts. But I'm still guessing that paper manga isn't Yomiko's best medium . . .