Say what you will about Courtney Love, but the lady sure knows how to ride the wave. First time I read the p.r. about the punkrock/actress/pain-in-the-ass-rock-‘n’-roll-widow creating her own manga series for Tokyopop, I flashed on Marvel Comics’ early Kiss and Alice Cooper comics: attempts by artists considerably past their rock prime to jump-start stalled careers with comics that played off their rock personas. Considering the character that Love “created” as the frontwoman for Hole – a loudly dysthymic punk harridan – I had to wonder whether a manga series developed (in writer D.J. Milk’s words) “from Courtney and the fascinating breadth of her personality” is really the route to take toward broadening manga consciousness in America. But, then, I personally don’t find Live Through This to be half as listenable or replayable as, oh, the Go-Gos’ Beauty And The Beat, so what do I know?
In any event, here we are with the first volume in Misaho Kujiradou, Love & D.J. Milky’s Princess Ai (Tokyopop), an Age 13+ fantasy title set in the, ahem, Tokyo pop music world. Looking at the title heroine – designed, apparently, by Paradise Kiss creator Ai Yazawa – and it’s clear our Princess isn’t a direct mirror image of the Girl w./ the Most Cake. Long-legged, bedecked in ripped clothes and holey fishnets, Ai looks far too winsome to be a Courtney Love surrogate. And when she sings, winning over a crowd that “doesn’t even like metal,” it’s hard to reconcile this with our memories of the living Love’s vocal instrument.
Volume One opens up with our heroine waking up in the middle of Tokyo, seemingly suffering amnesia: she only knows her name and can recognize the fact that she’s on planet Earth (thus quickly establishing that she’s not from around these parts). Her dress is revealing and strategically ripped (later we’ll see her take scissors to an outfit, so it’s unclear whether this ragamuffin look is the result of an arduous trip or a simple fashion ploy); the only other possession she has is a small heart-shaped box that has secrets locked within it. When an anonymous street type tries to steal the box – in a sequence that’s initially confusing since artist Kujiradou doesn’t clearly differentiate the two male figures involved – a young man named Kent tackles the miscreant.
Kent, a dreamy lookin’ guy who turns out to be both a librarian at the nearby university and an accomplished songwriter/guitarist, looks to be the series’ potential love interest. (“I feel like I know him,” Ai thinks after they’ve been formally introduced, which doubtless foreshadows future plot developments.) He winds up taking Ai under his wings, much the chagrin of his annoyingly needy gay roommate, Hikaru. And it’s in the university library where our heroine gets her first clues about her past: she flashes on images of a woman wearing a sun mask, who reveals that Ai has been named after her country of origin (“Ai-Land” – and, yes, someone puns on this in the first volume). Her secret must remain just that, the apparition says, but we know that this can’t be because – unbeknownst to our heroine – a fanged female Fury named Tess is pursuing her.
Volume One is subtitled “Destitution,” and it centers around Ai’s efforts to make her way in the big city. Though she starts out starving and sleeping in a park alongside a feral mama cat, soon she’s making money singing at a strip club called Club Cupid. Recruited by a scout who hears her singing alongside a mysterious street musician named Fa’An, Ai pointedly refuses to take off it off (“My body is sacred, so it’s a no-go,” she says), but the club hires her, anyway (hey, this is a fantasy!) There, she wows club patrons crooning lyrics from America’s Sweetheart. She sings, Ai notes, “to forget everything bad around me. Song always had the power to heal.” (Maybe, but have you actually read the lyrics to “Miss World”?) It’s at Club Cupid that she meets Takeshi, a gun-toting talent scout rumored to have ties with the Yakuza. The agency he represents has the power to make Ai a global star, but doing so, of course, will make Ai more visible to the menacing forces seeking her.
We’re not given too much information about her nemeses in the first volume: other than the facts that they’re part of a winged group called the Second Revolution and that they’re seeking Ai as the “last member” of Ai-Land’s royal family. Fury Tess has been ordered to bring Ai back alive – and is none too happy about that directive – and makes several attempts to capture Ai with the aid of a pet-sized fire-breathing dragon. In this aspect of the plot, I was more than a little reminded of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World comics, and I found myself wondering whether creator Love, a purported manga fan, wasn’t also an avid comic book reader as a young girl.
Per publisher Tokyopop, the debut volume of Princess Ai has been a hit for the company, reaching the number one position in graphic novel sales for a week in July according to Bookscan. The company has heavily promoted this series with a thirty second TV ad and a score of press releases, so it’ll be interesting to see how far the title goes in subsequent volumes once it’s forced to rely on its story and art to keep the readers coming. On the basis of its first volume, which efficaciously blends show biz with a fairly familiar fantasy plot, Ai doesn’t look much different from any number of girl-centric shoujo – even with the addition of lots of Yazawa-indebted style-y poses.
Misaho Kujiradou’s art takes off during the concert scenes and is frequently sly when it comes to capturing body language during the character moments, but it’s less effective during the action sequences. It does include familiar shoujo manga images (floral pattern backgrounds, lots of sparklies whenever Ai is onstage, hearts a-plenty) and recurrent feather imagery that foreshadows a character revelation. For some strange reason, scripter Milky and Kujiradou include three different moments in the book where a character innocently falls on top of another’s body, though I’m not sure if this means anything beyond a little titillation for the teengirl readers.
Princess Ai may remain, at root, a Westernized take on manga storytelling, but it feels more like “real” manga than a lot of American corporate comics attempts at appropriating the style. And for all her winsome looks, our princess protagonist has an appealing toughness to her: she takes on a disagreeable rival diva and even slugs the presumptuous Takeshi when he starts bad-mouthing Kent. (So perhaps we’re to see these moments as analogs for the times that Courtney has gotten in legal scuffles with the surviving members of Kurt Cobain’s ol’ band? Note the similarities in four letter names.) I’m curious enough to want to follow the story into at east one more volume. So the only remaining questions are: when the inevitable anime feature comes, will they use Courtney’s music on the soundtrack? And will the accompanying CD be labeled Age 13+?