Sunday, December 12, 2004

SWAN Volume 1
Ariyoshi Kyoko
CMX, 200 pages, $9.95 (November 3, 2004)

I've been fascinated by ballet and ballernias ever since I was a young kid. Perhaps it comes from living in a rural area, that lacks a certain class of entertainment. Which made the soft beauty of ballet a wonder to me. With how it tells stories with music and graceful dancing figures.

It just seemed so alien to me, given that the usual brand of entertainment here consisted of truck and tractor pulls, and the occasional baseball or football game on TV.

Still I wasn't sure how that world would translate to the comic field, given that it lacks music and movement. Yet when I saw CMX's SWAN series I decided to give it a shot, to see if it captured that allure I had as a kid.

The first volume mostly follows Masumi, a young woman whose dream is to be a prima ballerina. Her love of the ballet comes through with her enthusiasm for anything and anyone related to it. Such as when attending a ballet, she sneaks back stage and expresses her enjoyment to the lead dancers by dancing to them.

The enthusiasm pays off, as the dancers are part of a group starting an exclusive ballet school which will be the first of its kind in Japan. Its goal is to make Japan a major player in the ballet world, by having the best teachers teaching only the best students.

Only 8 finalists will be picked out of a competition of hundreds, so the competition is stiff. Masumi meets and befriends other talented dancers during the competition, who also see the potential in her.

Yet Masumi must eventually learn a hard lesson. That no matter how much talent you have, if your basics are not strong then the full extent of your talent will never be reached. Masumi must work hard to first unlearn the bad dancing habits she has, in order to learn the right way to do things.

An analogy used in the book was to a painter who keeps painting without learning the fundamentals of design. Making the point that if you don't master the basics, then one day you will stop growing. Which reminded me a lot of comic creators from the past and even today, who seem to have stopped growing in their work. Possibly because they never mastered the basics of comic story telling.

Masumi's constant self doubt got grating at times, but it is balanced by the others in the book's true caring for her. They want her to get better, so honestly tell her what she needs to hear in order to do so, instead of sugar coating it to not hurt her feelings.

The background stuff of the competition involved is very well done as well though. With feelings of jealousy, regret, loss felt (along with backstabbing) as some lose their dream of dance. The joy of achieving a goal balances it all out though, keeping things on an even keel.

The art does a solid job of showing the grace and beauty of the dance. Each interlocking step of a dance is drawn, given it a real sense of movement that was easy to follow and picture in my mind.

One of my favorite things though is the sheer volume of history and information given on the world of ballet. From definitions in the margin to dancing terms like Pas De deux, to gorgeous two page spreads showing and detailing the history of pieces like Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty and the like.

While I've had a fascination with the ballet world, I didn't know a lot about it. These bits were interwoven seamlessly, and were natural parts of the story. Which led me coming away from reading it bother entertained and informed.

My only real beef with the book, is the sloppy production values that went into it. The binding is quite tight, and I had to take great care when reading it for fear of tearing out a page.

There is also some very word balloons that were left blank, forcing me to guess what the context of the conversation was supposed to be. It also seems odd that the book has no introduction or point of context page. Heck I had to hunt up the credits page, as they were so small and seemingly hidden in the back(front?) of the book.

Yet those are just technical things, that I think could easily be fixed if DC really wants to commit to the manga movement. This is the first of their series so far to really grab me, and I think could be very interesting to not only young girls. Yet anyone who has been interested in the world of ballet or even just the story of someone who works hard to gain their dreams.

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