Karneval Volume 1

“Whenever Circus does a big operation to catch some bad guys, they put on a show for the townspeople to apologize.”

A white-haired boy, Nai, is desperately searching for Karoku, the young man who raised him. Karoku has disappeared and all that he has left behind – apart from a trail of blood – is a mysterious bracelet. Naive, trusting Nai is captured by Lady Mine, a woman whose glamorous exterior hides her true monstrous form. Luckily for Nai, Gareki, a fifteen-year-old explosives expert (burglar) has chosen that evening to break in to Lady Mine’s mansion – and he rescues the boy from almost certain death. But soon they’re on the run as the Peacekeepers (the local police) are after Nai on a trumped-up charge. And things go from bad to worse when they find themselves caught up in a train hijacking. Eventually the boys are spirited away by members of Circus onto Airship 2 where they are greeted by the little robot sheep (complete with top hats) who perform all the routine tasks.

 “Circus” is the Supreme National Defense Force and the elite crews of Ships 1 and 2 are tasked with pursuing a new, genetically altered class of criminal – or so Hirato, the captain, tells the fugitives. A sinister organization, Kafka, has been creating these mutations, known as Varugas. Because they’ve already encountered one – Mine – they need to be checked in case they’ve been contaminated by her blood. But the tests reveal that there is something very different indeed about Nai and it’s not just his white hair, red eyes, or his extraordinarily acute sense of hearing, or the fact that Karuko’s bracelet once belonged to a Circus operative. A trip is planned to the Rainbow Forest, the remote and unspoiled place where Nai was brought up to investigate Nai’s background. Is there a link between Karuko’s disappearance and Kafka? Why are the top brass of Circus so interested in Nai, even suggesting that he should be dissected? Who can Nai and Gareki really trust?

Karneval belongs to that intriguing and distinctive range of fantasy josei action adventures whose creators delight in playing with steampunk and Victorian gothic tropes (Gareki’s goggles, the Circus airships, the stovepipe hats worn by the Circus Captains… ) To say that it will appeal to fans of Pandora Hearts, Devils and Realist or Black Butler, could, however, be a tad misleading, as these series are really all quite different (except for the fact that the main male characters are equally as pretty as the females). The underlying story is more science-fictional than gothic, dealing with genetic mutations and manipulations, and sinister experiments carried out on vulnerable and unsuspecting victims. Touya Mikanagi also has a great deal of fun depicting the interactions and rivalries between the members of the airship crews and her sly sense of fun makes the characters really come alive. The black-and-white splash pages are always full of wickedly amusing details; the illustration for Score 12 is an especially good example, depicting Hirato (while Tsukumo looks on dispassionately) applying a little antiseptic to a squirming and squeamish Yogi, whose clenched fingers and toes tell us more than any words could…

The Circus members make up – of course! – an attractive and motley crew, using their considerable skills to entertain the people in the Big Top when they’re not chasing criminals. There’s solemn Tsukumo who’s a gifted acrobat, and swashbuckling Yogi who, in battle mode, wields a terrifying two-rapier technique, Dornkiste, but in Circus mode loves dressing up as Nyanperowna, a giant cat who dispenses candy to all the children. We also meet the voluptuous Eva for the first time who wields a powerful jewel-based fighting technique and, although scornfully dismissive toward all the men on the ship, adores Tsukumo. There’s no getting away from the fact that mangaka Touya Mikanagi’s main cast are extremely attractive; the boys are bishounen, the girls are bishoujo. Her distinctive style, especially in drawing faces and expressions, and her vivid use of colour make Karneval a pleasure to read, especially as she’s skilled at telling the story through well-composed, striking panels as well as through dialogue. The extra pre-serialization story/one-shot on page 385 shows how her work has developed and improved since she first proposed the series.  

Another plus point is that (like the mangaka of 07-Ghost) she has – thus far – managed to keep the series going in the comic magazine Zero Sum, in spite of the anime TV series. An anime series is a wonderful boost to a mangaka’s career but is so often the kiss of death to an ongoing series. I can only hope that she will bring it to a proper conclusion and not leave it languishing, unfinished, as other more tempting projects come along (Yun Kouga, Loveless, need I say more?).  

Yen Press has produced a handsome 2-in-1 volume, with the original (gorgeous) colour plates inside and all the extras, including the amusing ‘tease’ panels which appear on the originals beneath the dust jackets (and in the French editions from Ki-oon). The translation by Su Mon Han is fluent and preserves many of the wicked little humorous touches as well as the honorifics. (Although Yogi’s Circus cat disguise is described as male here, but in French is female…)  A special word of praise should also go to the Letterer, Alexis Eckerman, for finding an impressively wide range of different styles to bring out the full character of the different interactions, thoughts and, of course, sound effects.

This 2-in-1 volume ends with the sudden appearance of someone from Gareki’s tragic past, adding a new layer of mystery and complexity. Yen Press are kind enough to give us a generous taster from the beginning of Volume 2, before the extras (several 4-koma bonus comics) and the other goodies mentioned above.

In Summary

Karneval is a fast-moving, attractively drawn series with likable central characters and plenty of mysteries to be solved.

8 / 10


Sarah's been writing about her love of manga and anime since Whenever - and first started watching via Le Club Dorothée in France...

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