June 11, 2009


Xtreme Art Ultimate Book of Trace-and-Draw Manga. By Christopher Hart. Watson-Guptill. $21.95.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—The Junior Novel; The Last Prime; Operation Autobot; When Robots Attack!; I Am Optimus Prime; Rise of the Decepticons; Coloring and Activity Book and Crayons; The Reusable Sticker Book. HarperEntertainment. $5.99 (Novel); $4.99 each (Prime; Coloring); $3.99 each (Autobot; Attack!); $6.99 (Sticker). HarperTrophy. $3.99 each (Optimus; Rise).

     The continuing popularity of manga and its animated cousin, anime, is clear from the appearance of innumerable movies now being made for American and worldwide audiences. No longer Japanese phenomena, manga and anime have become true globe-spanning styles, at once distinct from other forms of cartooning and animation and related closely enough so that readers and viewers can immediately comprehend and enjoy them. And part of that enjoyment is in drawing these stylized characters yourself – which young fans will find surprisingly easy to do under the guidance of Christopher Hart in the awkwardly titled but very well designed Xtreme Art Ultimate Book of Trace-and-Draw Manga. The book is in three parts – manga, manga chibi and manga monsters – and explains the basics of each style before showing how to draw specific characters. Anyone who wants to draw manga, or simply understand its appeal more clearly, will find material of interest here – the different shapes of eyes for children, teenagers and adults, for example, or the creation of “monsters” (few of which are really monstrous) by starting with the body shapes of real-world creatures and modifying them (often with bits and pieces of other real-world creatures – a worm with crab claws or a creature with a cat’s body and rabbit ears). Much of the attractiveness of manga is in the characters’ eyes, but some of it is in the proportions: in standard manga characters, the head is about one-fourth of the body, while in super-cute manga chibi, the head is fully half the body’s size. Hairstyles are also important in manga, and Hart shows how to shape them clearly. The drawings here are simple and stylized, sometimes too much so: “Undercover Agent” looks just plain silly in a dress-like trench coat, and calling the adorable Bubble Baby and Cooboo “monsters” is stretching things to the breaking point. Still, the book’s basic structure is sound: each character is presented in four quarter-page drawings that start with its basic shapes and then add touches to give it personality; then the facing page shows the finished, shaded character. Comparisons of character types are especially good here, for instance when Hart draws the same girl in manga style and then as a manga chibi – and points out exactly how the two differ. Younger artists will have some trouble moving from the four quarter-page drawings to the finished one – there are often quite a few additions required – but more-experienced artists should find the book easy to follow, and even younger aspiring cartoonists will find at least some characters here that they can create (although not as adeptly as Hart does). Xtreme Art Ultimate Book of Trace-and-Draw Manga is an attractive introductory book for manga fans – and artists who get good at the basics should be able to move beyond Hart’s characters and create their own.

     Lest there be any doubt of the persistent popularity of manga and anime, one need only head for the local multiplex to find the latest summer movies made in this style. Just a couple of years after the film Transformers (2007) – loosely based on a 1984 TV series and more directly based on a popular line of toys – comes the inevitable sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. And with it come the equally inevitable movie tie-in books, which slice and dice the plot well enough to earn (+++) ratings for families that simply must have some sort of souvenir, but which will be of no interest at all to people who have not seen the film. None of these books is likely to pull people into the theater, but none will disappoint people who have been there already and who really, really liked what they saw. The Junior Novel, by Dan Jolley, aims at the oldest group targeted by the film – ages 8-12 – and gives the story of the not-quite-beaten-yet Decepticons in the most detail; it also includes eight pages of Transformer pictures. The Last Prime, by Tracey West, is an even shorter novelization; it is aimed at ages 7-10 and contains black-and-white drawings rather than color pictures of Transformers. Operation Autobot (by Susan Korman) and When Robots Attack! (by Ray Santos) are picture books for ages 3-7, with big and bright drawings that tell most of the movie’s story and a few words (including the inevitable bam! and AAAAH!) to communicate the action. For roughly the same age range, I Am Optimus Prime and Rise of the Decepticons (both by Jennifer Frantz) are Level 2 books in the I Can Read! series: each gives only part of the movie’s plot, using big, bold drawings and a minimal number of simple words. Families that really want to immerse kids in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen can even go beyond these books to some novelty items that will appeal to Transformer-fascinated preschoolers. The Coloring and Activity Book and Crayons (by Devan Aptekar) includes a variety of puzzles (with answers at the back of the book) and a number of movie scenes in black-and-white that kids can color with the three clever crayons packaged in plastic on the book’s front page – each crayon offers two colors, one at either end. But of course coloring books lose kids’ interest after the pictures are finished, so some families may prefer The Reusable Sticker Book (by Lucy Rosen), which includes two pages of reusable stickers that can be used to fill in a series of stills from the film. Nothing in any of these tie-ins is educational – or pretends to be – but if there is a Transformer devotee in your house, the various movie-spinoff books can be a recipe for summer fun that extends beyond the movie theater.

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