Serenity #1: New Bad Girl in Town

Serenity #1: New Bad Girl in Town (2005)
by Realbuzz Studios | Barbour Books
96 Pages - Full Color [ Youth / Youth Interest / Teen Fiction ]

Story and Creation - Buzz Dixon
Art - Min Kwon
Original Character Designs - Drigz Abrot

Publisher summary: AMERICA'S PREMIER INSPIRATIONAL MANGA! Meet Serenity, a lonley teen from a broken family who just wants to be accepted--but who tends to lash out at others with anger and obnoxious sarcasm. At her new school, the Christian prayer group takes Serenity on as a "project," showing her friendship and love. . .but will even that be enough to crack her hard shell? Sharply illustrated in full color, BAD Girl in Town features realistic storylines and dialogue, and shares a solid biblical message with tween and teen girls.

(Special note: Exclusively for this first review, I've reposted our original reviews in its entirety, with all errors intact, to which might explain why some things might not make sense and/or might make one go, "Wha?" or "Hunh?" depending on which part is read. Mine, I posted at my personal blog not really intending it for audiences other than close friends. UC posted his at the Christian Readership of Manga forum we both are members of.)

Ann's Review - UC's Review

Reviewer: Psycho Ann | Contact | Previously posted in its entirety on 11/27/05 at blog
I don't know if I'm going to make this a regular habit to review published Christian manga as it's kinda awkward considering I know these people (especially when the time comes that my own company's manga get released) and I'm "in" the field myself. Regardless, I'm determined to do so anyway and try to be as objective as I can... Ah, who am I kidding? All of this will be subjective as heck. Because, really, the least I could do for the field is to give constructive criticism--brutal constructive criticism.

I know that we Christians eat our wounded (don't dwell on the visuals for that too long). However, I can't bring myself to truly be against that because right now, we need a healthy dose of blunt feedback from our own. Like for me, I listen to my harshest secular critics (or haters, it's hard to tell them apart) because they have no intention of sparing my feelings. Yes, I have to wade through the insults and what not to get to the legitimate criticism but it's worth it. I can only hope to provide the same degree of feedback without the ad hominem attacks and vulgar language. The question of if this review will ever reach the makers of the comic is another matter. When I shovel up the courage to do so, I'll make a much more condensed version to send it to the makers. What I mean by "condensed" is less ranting and more reviewing.

Something to keep in mind though: I'm a ruthless nit-picker. A good deal of what I say really isn't that bad and a normal reader won't really pick it up. People I have critiqued will tell you I really point out the small things that no one really cares or notices. It means I'm just picky. Waaaayyy picky. These are all solely the opinions of a manga purist perfectionist who finds it easier to point out other people's mistakes rather than fix her own.

So with that said, here's my review for Serenity: Bad Girl in Town.

"Meet Serenity, a lonely teen from a broken family who just wants to be accepted—but who tends to lash out at others with anger and obnoxious sarcasm. At her new school, the Christian prayer group takes Serenity on as a "project," showing her friendship and love. . .but will even that be enough to crack her hard shell? Sharply illustrated in full-color, BAD Girl in Town features realistic storylines and dialogue, and shares a solid biblical message with tween and teen girls."

My review in one sentence: decent try, should have been better considering the potential of the people behind it. Buzz Dixon (story) is a veteran in the comics and cartoon industry and Min "Keiiii" Kwon (art) is the much known and admired artist of Cozypaper for many years. I had very high expectations for the project the first time I heard about it from Buzz himself 2 years ago at the Comic-Con. Min Kwon is an online artist legend in her own right and I had been one of the many fledgling online artists (as Ann the Neko) that could only dream of achieving the status she has. Imagine my joy that I learned she was a Christian--it just made me admire her more.

Now, with these two behind the manga, I really, really, thought it would be a solid step to bring professional Christian manga forward in the industry. There's hope as Serenity can only improve, but it was not as powerful an attempt as I had hoped it to be.

Plot: The usual 'Christian group vs. single target' redemption story. Under that big generalization there's not really many different ways one can tackle that. In Serenity, it's pretty straight-forward spiced with what I predict to be a potentially ugly love-triangle (with themes of forgiveness, friendship, loyalty, etc).
At points, the story almost seems to randomly insert a message/mini sermon. Granted this mostly happens in a prayer club/bible study setting, but it really emphasizes the "preachy-ness" more than any other instance of Christian talk in the story.
Unless some really out there plot-twist happens, the plot isn't anything special, but nor is it entirely bad. What really matters then is the execution. Although, judging from the character bios at the official site, there's good reason to believe interesting developments will arise in the following volumes.
I do pray that Serenity doesn't evolve into a non-linear episodic manga. Maybe it's just me, but I really dislike those type of series (a few manga do it well, but generally I start to lose interest unless they get back on with the main plot. i.e. Detective Conan and Inuyasha) since it feels like one too many fillers until the important chapters.

Dialogue: Personally, me thinks it tries to hard. Some use of teen slang feels forced and at times really... I don't know--let me find a word... jarring. Distracting. I would find the dialogue pretty smooth and flowing until a random slang ("dawgz" one of the worse ones) make me go through the same sentence again wondering if people actually say that. Maybe they actually do, which I wouldn't know as I'm not exactly someone familiar with american high-schooler talk. But as someone who reads manga (and is Asian, I suppose) it gets annoying to a degree.
There's also way too many snappy one-liners that, for me at least, feels too artificial and "scripted". Even how the Christian kids talk to each other in the prayer club/bible study sounds a bit too much like a youth group drama (the stereotypical kind as I've seen some that are awesome). It's too "polished" and "condensed"--I will acknowledge that Serenity was probably cutting down on the script to make it compact for the ADD generation. Even so, I don't believe such cuts need to be made.
That's one reason why I deem manga superior: they don't dumb it down for the audience. Manga like Naruto, One Piece, and even Yu-Gi-Oh! are read by kids and tweens despite the heavy dialogue. In addition to that, even adults are able to enjoy them. The light dialogue in Serenity really didn't feel like much reading at all. Even shonen manga, which is more action than anything, give me a longer reading time.
All that aside, it's generally good writing (very American though, think Archie) and there are parts I really enjoyed and had a good laugh.

Pacing: Overall, it's quick and flows nicely. At times I wish time skips were better implied but it hardly made a dent on my reading experience. A few instances the pacing was too quick but I do believe a faster pacing is better than a dragging one. In a few instances, the placement of speech bubbles were not effective (that it causes the reader to read the dialogue in the wrong order) but it's a minor problem.

Characters: Every anime/manga needs a blue haired person, huh? Jokes aside, they did well with the character design and the characters themselves. They look normal (thank goodness, don't need another shoujo manga with impossible hairdos and wacky fashion sense) and distinctive as the obligatory PC cast (but where's the asian? ;P).
Serenity is an annoying brat, intentionally so, and I applaud how they handled her--she's annoying, but you know there's hope for her yet. Sally, the comic relief and occasional voice of wisdom, is probably my favorite character (as we both share the love for awful puns). Kimberly, the love rival, will make a great antagonist who will be hard to hate if they develop her well.
As for the male cast, they don't particularly stand out. Derek, the "main bishonen" of the story, is... well, just 'meh'. Unless they develop him a bit more in the following volumes, he's the equivalent of the "not-really-that-needed" love interest in shonen/seinen manga. Yes, Serenity is aimed towards the female audience, but from experience it's usually the strong (and very bishie) male characters that would reap in the extra readers.
The most popular shoujo manga all have a high quota of cool bishonen (or even just one really, really, good-looking one) in addition to the strong female leads. It's cliche, yeah, and unrealistic, totally, but dangit, it sells. My favorite shoujo manga are more on the less sappy and less cliche side (and no magical girl types) but I admit the strong male leads are what initially attracts me. Though, a weak female lead would not save it no matter how bishie the guys are so Serenity is doing well in this matter. Personally, Kare Made Love takes the lead in my most hated shoujo heroine list (yes, above Miaka from Fushigi Yuugi which will be shocking to many)--gaaaaah, she's so--argh!! I read on just to marvel at the patience of the male lead and wait to see if the heroine ever grows a backbone or some self-esteem.

Art: Could have been better. I expected much better actually. I've stated on a few forums already that I prefer Min Kwon's non-anime art because I've never been too fond of her anime-style. That aside, it's still a solid style with a good grasp of face, race, and age variation. That's really great since I can't tell you how many professional shoujo mangaka can't properly draw an adult to save their lives--nor can they draw beyond two types of bishoujo and bishonen (good and evil) let alone a different race. Expressions are also well done and suit the situations.
The weakest part of the art is the perspective and backgrounds/environments. I would actually be more forgiving if only this wasn't a professional effort. They could at the very least provide reference for her to draw from (as pro mangaka do). It's very disappointing to see such weak environments since you can even hire a person solely for the backgrounds (as many pro mangaka do as well). Budget constraints? Time constraints? Whatever it was, the weak environments brought down the quality sharply. Coupled with the bland coloring and bad typesetting (both to which I'll be ranting about next) the visuals suffered much to a point Min Kwon's skill in drawing people could not save it.
Also, I have the feeling that a lot, if not all, was done digitally. If my eyes(or the printing) don't deceive me, judging from some draft snippets at the end of volume, it seems the sketches were done digitally. The inking is very neat and might have been done digitally as well--it's hard to tell since the lines are edited to remove the grays. A section where Serenity dreams seems to be done manually as the lines appear to 'bleed', but other than that everything else is a bit too crisp. Nothing wrong with that, it's just personal preference of mine to lean towards "loose" manual inking. Pretty obvious since my favorite mangaka are the guys who have messier inking than most (Toriyama, Togashi, Nihei, etc).

Color: The general reaction is that the coloring is bland. Yes, it is, is it a result of style or time constraints? Honestly, I was relieved it was not Min Kwon who did the coloring as I would be disappointed: she has done gorgeous paintings with a good sense of color. I had guessed it was done in spirit of the american comics where the inking depicted the form and depth much more than any coloring/toning.Of course, that doesn't quite work here due to the simple inking. Some color choices were not good (over saturated complimentary colors for instance), I lamented the lack of depth and form in the coloring (simple atmospheric perspective coloring would have done wonders to fix the "flatness" of essentially everything), as well as the lack of texture (everything seems to be made of the same material most of the time). It would have done much, much, better if it was just toned regularly as a b/w manga. Generally, color elevates the quality of the line art, but in this instance it was a hindrance by making everything look painfully flat.
Also, there should be better quality control as coloring mistakes were frequent. One most telling was as scene in the gym right after Serenity falls; apparently the colorist accidentally swapped Kimberly's (love rival) color with Lori's (other friend). It's so obvious as right in the next panel their colors are back correctly so I wonder how anyone could miss it (as the erroneous panel occupies 1/4 of the page). There is also parts where Serenity's eye color shifts from purple to reddish brown. I suspect it's due to different colorists as the style of coloring shifts noticeably (actually, it seems like there were at least three colorists working on the volume). I can't say for certain, as it might just be a single colorist whose quality changes as he/she nears the deadline. The evidence does point to multiple colorists as in a few the shading quality just plummets by making little effort to follow the form. Then there are times where the color fills aren't clean (tip: after using the magic wand, expand the selection by 1-2 pixels before filling on another layer).

Editing/Graphics: If I could demand one thing to be redone, it would be the typesetting. I'm sorry, it's the graphic designer in me. That and living with someone like Jessy who's even more sensitive to bad type. For speech, the leading does not match the size of the speech bubble (is way too much most of the time) and although I can forgive the font used, the fonts (and editing too, really) for mangascans are superior in quality. The typesetting for the SFX are one of the worse I've seen in professional and amateur comics/manga. Seriously, there is much improvement to be made in this area. The typesetting just totally knocked the quality down more notches than the other stuff combined. Am I overreacting? I probably am, so, um, blame Jessy for brainwashing me into one of those elitist graphic designer types.
It's as if all SFX text needs to avoid artwork as much as possible or that they do not know how to properly place SFX in a way that it incorporates with the artwork well. Pick up any random manga and you can see what I mean; for shonen manga in particular (original japanese SFX more than the english counterparts) where the SFX gives that extra "oomph" and makes the composition all that more engaging.
Then I wonder why there are instances where SFX isn't present when it should be. For instance, when the principal slaps her folder and when she slams her hands on the table it's all drawn in "present action" (action smears and impact lines) which would require SFX in order not to make it seem weird. I see the action, I "hear" the dialogue, but the absence of the SFX totally throws me off. This happens more than once throughout the volume and it bothered me more than I thought it would.
Any present SFX mostly were just typed on straight with corny fonts (argh). Could they not spare some budget to get professional comic fonts? Or even license some of the better looking "free" fonts? I can go on for another paragraph but I'll spare you.

Closing that awfully long rant/review, I stand by my decision to "support" but not necessarily "recommend". If people ask me, I would say it's more a "rent" series than a "buy"--but only for now with this one volume to judge on. It would appear the rest of the volumes will be something worth looking forward to (and from me, that's saying a lot). If it doesn't improve, I will be following and collecting the volumes regardless.

Even if I don't "recommend" Serenity, I do encourage people to read it and make a decision for themselves. Go out and borrow/buy it!

Edit: Judging from Min Kwon's own graphic novel, Haru-Sari, the makers of Serenity maybe really should have given her more control (or time). The quality level of Haru-Sari is what I had expected for Serenity.

Reviewer: UC Pseudonym | Contact | Previously posted in its entirety on 12/13/05 at CRM
Well, this is part analysis, part review. It is really aimed toward those who have already read the first volume, but I suppose it can be read by anyone (who can read). As already stated, I’m not going to talk very long about things I know little about (eg art), and focus more on other aspects. Starting with the fairly trivial…

Art as a Storytelling Device: For the most part I ignore SFX, so their sporadic use didn’t really bother me. However, the occasional =sound= would disrupt my reading, as did a few other things (for example, in one panel either someone else is sticking their arm in randomly, or one of Derek’s sleeves turns pink).

My only real complaint is the fact that they used green boxes to censor all curses instead of just a blur effect or something similar. It actually serves to draw attention to the missing word, and at times just seems rather silly. Also, when Serenity says, “Christians go [green box] if someone says ‘poopie’” I honestly cannot think of what word they intended to place there. That causes the sentence to sound like situations go like this:
Atheist: Aw, poopie!
Christian: Well, [green box] you, too!

I was also not pleased with most of the super-deformed emotions, but this may be personal preference. It wasn’t Teen Titans, but it wasn’t well done, either. And why do so many panels have concentric circle backgrounds?

Dialogue: Overall it was pretty good, which is to be expected from someone with as much experience as Buzz Dixon. There were a few blips, but for the most part it flowed better than the majority of comics. I wish more of his American comic experience had rubbed off though, at least in the amount of text on a page. Dialogue was rather sparse, but overall one of the better aspects.

I do, however, have to include a note on the slang utilized. This usage causes breaks the flow most of the time and will date extremely quickly. I am still scratching my head over “scope the new tassel.” As for the deeper content of the dialogue, I will address that later.

Pacing/Setup: It moves at a pretty fast clip, but overall this doesn’t hurt it too much. The number of events in the first volume would have been about right for a 200-page volume, which would have given them more time to lengthen some scenes that could have used more space.

I worry somewhat that it shows some signs of becoming episodic; the first chapter is your basic introductory issue and the second is cursing themed (and that, in my mind, is a bad idea from the start). Previews of later volumes make it sound as though it will continue this way, but I have some hope this is merely deceiving. Later on in the volume there are at least multiple plot threads going on at the same time (stolen money, Derek and Serenity, etc).

Sometimes the new story elements aren’t introduced in the best possible manner, though. A few things seem slightly forced to me, though that is a minor complaint. I do have to nitpick on one thing: how can you fall while climbing a rope?

Characterization: I wouldn’t describe it as “bad” so much as “thin.” At this stage, most of the prayer group members are practically nonexistent, not that they had much space in which to form personalities. Kimberly is mostly a cut-out character, though I believe she’ll grow beyond that. Derek fails to create much of an impact, or at least that was my experience.

Serenity, at least, is characterized better. I think the creators were perhaps too fixated on the fact that she is supposed to have attitude, but I have seen much worse. There are a few scenes that really shine to me, showing instead of telling. Serenity after Derek leaves the house is one of these, and a similar one I’ll address later. I also liked the brief dialogue between Serenity and her mother in Chapter 4:
Serenity: I need another advance on my allowance!
Mom: Tough, kid. I’m tapped out.
Serenity: You don’t understand – you never understand!
It says so much about their relationship, and about Serenity’s self-centeredness, that is much more realistic than most of their arguing.

There must be a word, of course, about minor characters. By this I mean those that rarely appear but actually have some significant dialogue when they do. The primary ones would be Mr. Pyle (the literature teacher), Ms. Baxter (the counselor), and cheerleader persons. Of those, the last seem pretty flat and strained. On the first:
Serenity: You’re censoring me!
Pyle: On the contrary, I’m trying to liberate you!
I had hope he was going to be one of those acidic teachers that really doesn’t like most kids, and it would have been nice to see someone verbally outmaneuver Serenity. However, it turns out he’s just a Shakespeare geek. Unfortunate.

Ms. Baxter gets her own paragraph, because this incredibly small scene (two pages) contained a number of things that disappointed me. She’s a sad strawman (straw-womyn?), and she isn’t even really used as she could be (though I guess that might be a blessing in disguise). Then, as if they hadn’t already beat us over the head with use of the spelling “womyn” they have to actually note this.

In the future, the possible Kimberly-Derek-Serenity love triangle will either significantly help characterization or damage it. There is potential for a mature look at relationships, and also for terribly gratuitous drama. We’ll have to see.

Plot: Yes, I’m only now getting around to discussing the plot. They’re working from a terrible disadvantage, in that they’re using the much-exploited conversion story. It could have been much worse (thank God that Serenity doesn’t become Christian in one volume), but the main issue is how they develop said plot.

This is handled with varying (though improving) success. Serenity’s initial encounter with the Christians is too scripted and blunt. Similarly, I can’t bring myself to take the cursing chapter seriously. Why would Serenity simply be influenced by them for no readily evident reason?

Later on, however, certain things are done in a better manner. I can easily accept Serenity going to church to attack her mother, because I’ve seen that before. Similarly, the end of the first volume is a tense quagmire, and I admire them for being willing to do that (though how good the choice of ending was will be discussed later). This feels very real to me; there aren’t simple answers and not everything is clear.

There are several things in this stage of Serenity’s journey to faith that don’t ring true to me as well. The “bad crowd” scene is awkwardly written and unrealistic. Similarly, when Serenity attends the church, everything is too immediate. No non-Christian is going to ask that many naïve questions. We could hope this is flawed writing instead of an excuse to sermonize (also to be addressed later). The last of these is Serenity’s thoughts about God to herself later on. Yes, I’ve heard the Santa Claus argument before, but no self-respecting atheist is going to use it in an internal dialogue.

Morality: This is perhaps the most concerning element, as it almost always is. I realize that I’m using the word in an unusual way, so it needs explanation. What I mean is the system of ethics that a work promotes on a conscious or unconscious level.

Initially, I need to say that I applaud the creators of Serenity for not having perfect, cookie-cutter Christians. They’re flawed individuals with problems of their own. This is good, but moral ambiguity is not. There are times when the morality (or, failing that, the wisdom) of an action being promoted is rather unclear, at least in my mind.

For an example, at one point Kimberly thinks, “This isn’t Christian, but…” That what she intends to do is supposed to be morally wrong is made incredibly obvious. It is unclear if the authors intend other attitudes or actions of the Christian characters to be wrong as well. I certainly hope so. On the other hand, the series emphasizes the trivial; yes, we all know that every single non-Christian is into that evil rock music.

The first one is also one of the most troubling: the group takes on Serenity as their “project.” In more than just the language, this strikes me as objectifying. It doesn’t stem from real concern for a person. This one actually bothers me, unlike some of the others, which are minor concerns.

Ultimately, the faith of the Christians seems too simple. It is possible that at some point later in the manga one of them will question what they believe or something similar, but I don’t have much hope for any faith complexity outside of Serenity. The conversation on cursing, for example, is resolved ridiculously simply and with many mini-sermons. Similarly, Serenity’s questions about divorce always receive immediate textbook answers (and, as stated earlier, I’m dubious about the joke embedded in this part).

Because of this, their answers are similarly too simple. The quintessential example of this is Pastor Calvin (hm, that can’t be a reference to John Calvin – I’m probably over-thinking this). I’ve always felt antsy reading his conversation with Serenity; everything he says is cut and dried and manipulative. This is probably my least favorite part of the first volume. At least it ends in one of the best moments, with “That’s the biggest joke of all” to which there is no snappy comeback (in a bought of cynicism, I considered that this might be only because she was thinking it – God only knows what might have been said had she spoken aloud).

The End: I’m not sure what exactly I think of this as the end of the first volume. As previously stated, I like that everything isn’t resolved, but I don’t think this is a particularly strong moment either. The main thought it evokes in me is, “What is this?” which isn’t exactly what authors typically aim for. Then… Bible verses. I’m really not sure what they intended with that.

What really saddens me is that I spent a moderate amount of time writing this, and it essentially won’t matter. Given that evidence suggests they’ve completed the first four volumes and that I assume they’ve written the rest, my feedback couldn't have any major influence on the future of the series even if they knew it existed. Similarly, I’m not sure anyone really wants to hear what I want to say.

And now, for something completely trivial that will say something about me: At the end of Chapter 2, all we can see of Serenity's math problem is " x 3(x^2) = 42". Since when do algebra problems have simple numerical answers? The only possibilities are that the variables canceled or that she did her work off panel, both of which I doubt.

But all that aside... I did purchase it, and I'll probably get the rest.

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