Rock Manga
Written by
Lyn Jensen
October 2011
Written by
Lyn Jensen
October 2011

This review is updated and revised from reviews that originally appeared in LA Alternative, Feb. 17-23 and March 3-9, 2006.

Rock and manga create a mash-up completely different from rock and traditional comics. Japanese manga-ka (comic artists) are freely inspired by both scenes, and they have given us works as diverse as Nana, Beck, and Gravitation. During TokyoPop's existence, the company made the phenomenon a truly global one by publishing such works as Road Song (an American manga), Yonen Buzz (a German one) and Princess Ai (a true international manga collaboration).

Unlike some rock star projects, readers didn't need to be a Courtney Love fan to enjoy Princess Ai. The original three-volume series was credited to four collaborators:

Love, the controversial (on so many, many levels) rock singer, and a longtime manga fan who once lived in Japan, was credited with the concept and writing. However, she "had nothing to do with the manga or any of the ancilliary projects. Her choice," said a TokyoPop spokesperson in 2006.  Misaho Kujiradou drew the manga, working from Ai Yazawa's character designs. DJ Milky wrote the goth-rock songs that brought an extra dimension to the action.

"Ai" is "love" in Japanese and just like love, Princess Ai conquered all in the epic story of a fallen angel from another planet (shades of Yun Kouga's Earthian) who became a rock star in two worlds. All the characters showed multiple dimensons, including Ai herself, whose transition from lost soul to "the second revolution" was spellbinding. The freer she got, the bigger her angel wings got, and that brought her into conflict with big bad music-biz gangsters who thought the only good rock star was a dead one.

TokyoPop originally envisioned a marketing plan that involved a film, novels, toys, downloads, and clothing. That would have put this female-driven manga on the same commercial footing as the most popular shonen manga. However, the franchise never gained the commercial momentum needed for such far-reaching ventures. It tapered out with a spin-off comic strip Princess Ai of Ai Land targeted to young teen girls, a coloring book, a few dolls, art/fan books and digital versions, and a manga sequel Prism of the Midnight Dawn that died when TokyoPop did.

While Ai was targeted to a shojo audience, Road Song was marketed more to a traditional comic audience, and was originally presented as a poignant comedy-drama about a band that really was on the run. The creator, Allan Gross, said of his lead characters, "Monty is probably how I see myself, and Simon is probably more like I really am!" Joanna Estep did the art. It was one of the few OEL (original English language) manga series that TokyoPop actually stayed with until its conclusion, at three volumes.

In the first volume, two troubled teenage boys fled to Cleveland after their families were destroyed by a Japanese gangster who was feuding with one boy's father. Simon, the punky kid from the wrong side of town was the classical violinist, while his brother-in-law Monty was the egotistical rich kid into Elvis, guitars, girls, and baseball. Unfortunately the story deteriorated over the next couple of volumes. The second volume, set in Tennessee, had absolutely nothing in common with that state's music scene. The final volume was set in San Francisco but was nothing like that city either--not its streets, music, baseball, or even hippie culture. The crime sub-plot strained credibility, even by manga standards. Even the songs (penned by Gross) were a distraction, entirely the opposite effect from the fine work Milky did that enhanced Ai.

Christina Plaka's Yonen Buzz was like Ai in that it was an international creative effort. TokyoPop offered an English translation of a German manga about a Japanese rock band. Plaka attempted to bring the energy of a grunge band to the printed page. The story and characters wound through familiar territory: the band member who can't make rehearsal, the romance that becomes a distraction, the art-versus-commerce dilemna. TokyoPop stayed with the series for three volumes but the fourth and final one was never published in English.



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