Review: Frau Faust vol. 1 – In which I really, really try to not compare it to The Ancient Magus’ Bride

Frau Faust is the other manga that’s being published in English by Kore Yamazaki, the author of New York Times best-selling graphic novel series The Ancient Magus’ Bride, which you’ve probably already read (and if you haven’t, you need to). Frau Faust is technically a josei manga, but it doesn’t (yet?) feel like the majority of josei that gets published in English. Not that there’s much English josei to choose from in the first place, but what there is tends to be either steamy and glamourous or about working women, speaking VERY broadly (manga often seems to be marketed to stereotypes, but that’s a whole different article that I’m not equipped to tackle). But there’s so much more to josei manga than that. With the increasing convenience of ebooks and the critical acclaim showered on stuff like Princess Jellyfish and Descending Stories, publishers seem to be willing to take chances on josei. And if you’re looking for guaranteed sales, what better josei manga to take a chance on than one that kinda feels like Fullmetal Alchemist more than anything else?

Our story opens up with Johanna Faust, the “real” Dr. Faust of legend, riding into an unnamed town in search of…something. She believes it’s in the town church, but some kind of ward is preventing her from entering. In town, Johanna performs some magical misdirection to save a boy from getting arrested. The boy, Marion, is an aspiring scholar and was stealing books that used to be his. His father’s business failed, and tax collectors took anything they thought might be valuable to cover the debts, including books. Johanna essentially blackmails Marion into opening the church door for her on the night of a new moon by threatening to tell his mom he was stealing, but she sweetens the deal by offering to teach him for the few days that remain until then. He accepts, and becomes quite attached to her during his lessons. All the while, Johanna is being tailed by a mysterious man in a hood.

On the night of the new moon, everything becomes clear. Kinda. Johanna has a dream about what I assume is a past interaction with the demon Mephistopheles, in which she acts very chummy and physical with him. Like holding his hand and resting her head in his lap physical. She wakes up, and she and Marion go to the church. There, in a basement crypt, she finds what she has been looking for: one of Mephisto’s limbs. You see at some point the demon had his powers sealed, and he was drawn, quartered and scattered to the corners of the earth. Johanna is trying to make him whole again, so she can BEAT THE SHIT OUT OF HIM.

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Oh baby. Hit me next.

 

But in that dark basement, the mysterious hood guy lies in wait. It turns out he’s an inquisitor, charged with protecting the parts of Mephisto. He’s after Johanna because she’s already recovered a few of Meph’s bits. Enough that he can manifest and warp her and Marion out of the basement, but not before the inquisitor severely wounds Johanna, in the process revealing to us the readers that she is immortal. After making their escape, Marion, attached as he is, demands that Johanna allows him to travel with her, and she reluctantly agrees. Intro over, the meat of the story can begin.

If that seems like a lot of intro to you, you’re not alone. That’s all just the first chapter, which is over 40 pages long and throws an unholy shitload of story threads at you. Johanna is immortal, and despite looking maybe 25 at a stretch she’s easily 5 times that old, she had a contract with a demon, she might have had the hots for that demon, she’s trying to reassemble him to kick his ass, she’s being hunted by the church detectives, and she now has a kid half her age who probably has the hots for her following her around.

But we’re not done! Over the next two chapters (we only get 3, plus a fun but unrelated one-shot) we learn that [VAGUE, MILD SPOILERS] Johanna has a daughter who’s actually an automaton who’s ACTUALLY an adorable little homonculus inside a human-sized mechanical doll, that Johanna has performed some ethically questionable experiments on an entire fucking town, that she might be aging backwards or at least shrinking or something, and that SHE MAY BE DEAD. [END SPOILERS]

wat.

It seems like kind of a mess right now, to be honest. I trust Yamazaki-sensei can pull it all together but there is a ton going on. It’s tough not to compare it to The Ancient Magus’ Bride in this regard, which started with a simple premise and built masterfully from there, adding characters and expending the world as necessary. Frau Faust prefers to start by spreading itself way out, planting the seeds for about a dozen ideas, and will hopefully narrow it’s focus as it goes. I  prefer the first method though. It makes for a more engaging first volume and makes me more likely to read subsequent ones.

Which isn’t to say this wasn’t engaging or that I’m planning to drop it. Johanna is an intriguing character, all confident bluster and cool, deadly intellect. She has a kind of sexy librarian thing going on, which along with all the mysterious happenings surrounding her bolsters her sinister appeal. All that masks a tangle of guilt, regret and anger that is linked inextricably to her past with Mephisto. There is a ton of emotional ground that could be covered in future volumes.

As good as the characters are though, there’s one thing that feels like its missing, and here’s where comparisons to AMB become nearly unavoidable: the world-building is lacking. In AMB, the world is a character. With its rural lanes, busy London streets, and alternate faerie dimensions, and all the intersections of human and inhuman, ancient magic and present-day tech that implies, it’s as multifaceted as any real person. It uses modern England as a way to ultimately ground itself even as it spirals off into a beautiful, bizarre, dangerous unknown. Frau Faust just uses 1800’s Germany, I think, more or less. Sure, some people can do magic, but as of right now it could be any old countryside that Johanna and Marion are traveling through.

Even a fairly mundane setting could be elevated by incredible art, of which Yamazaki is capable. But the backrounds especially aren’t quite up to snuff. Yamazaki’s style tends to favor hyper-detailed character art, often forgoing backgrounds entirely for pages at a time, saving them instead for beautiful scene-setting spreads. In Frau Faust, those detailed character designs, attention to body language and fantastic close-ups remain, but the full page spreads are almost entirely absent.

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Frau Faust vol. 1’s biggest, most detailed spread.
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One of several like this in The Ancient Magus’ Bride vol. 1. The difference in detail level is noticeable.

 

It might seem like I’m dumping on it, but here’s the thing: Frau Faust is real good. It’s an enjoyable read, and it scratches a different itch than Ancient Magus’ Bride. AMB is about a young woman who has had a lot of bad things happen to her learning that her life has worth and meaning, her adventures in magic helping her to see outside the hell inside her head. Frau Faust is about an older woman who has done a lot of bad things looking to put her past to rest, and seems willing to wallow in the dark if it’ll mean closure. AMB is mostly hopeful, with ripples of darkness lapping at the edges of the story. Frau Faust is waist deep in that darkness and wading further in.  It’s a mystery more than an adventure, despite the globetrotting nature of Johanna’s quest. And in a vacuum, it’s a strong start to a manga that could go to some sexy, sinister places.

But it’s real fuckin’ hard to criticize it as if it were in a vacuum. The Ancient Magus’ Bride exists, and the similarities are hard to ignore. Both take place in the “real” world, with magic lurking at the fringes. Both involve a romance between human and non-human characters. Both also have pairings with a significant age gap. These are superficial similarities, sure, but The Ancient Magus’ Bride just does them better. It’s a stone cold masterpiece, and Frau Faust isn’t yet. But I think it will get there. Remember, AMB has had 7 volumes to build its world, and Frau Faust has only had one.

Bottom line, you should read Frau Faust. It’s a good comic, and I trust it will only get better. Plus, buying it might convince manga publishers that the wonderful, varied world of josei manga is worth their time.

Anyway, thanks for reading my review of The Ancient Magus’ Bride.

 


 

I went to a wedding last night. The bride is one of my best friends, and I was/am very happy for her and was pumped to party. In the hours leading up to the wedding, I ate only a couple slices of microwave bacon and a bowl of ramen because I figured there’d be a cash bar and I’m not exactly filthy rich, so I wanted the most bang for my buck. Then I forgot to bring cash anyway, so I was shit out of luck. Or so I thought. But it was a motherfucking open bar, baby! I love weddings, and not just because they give me an excuse to drink. They’re just fun and good. They bring people together. It’s incredibly difficult to not be happy at a wedding.

I was happy the entire time. I really did enjoy myself. But there was some weird shit. The big one was that NOBODY WAS FUCKING TIPPING THE BARTENDERS. Me included, because I didn’t have cash, as stated above. But straight up nobody was. I felt so bad for them. Just crushing guilt the entire night. So I had to keep drinking to stave it off. I would approach the bar when it was crowded in hopes that they wouldn’t notice I wasn’t tipping. But they noticed because the tip jar was empty the whole time. Oops. I sucked down two rum and cokes and a glass of wine before the food even showed up, so I was pretty drunk.

Which was good, because I spent the next two hours getting mercilessly hit on by one of the bridesmaids who apparently had a thing for me when we first met 7 years ago in freshman year of college. She said she was so forward with me back then, but I had no fucking clue. Oooops. I had no trouble figuring it out this time, but she was easily twice as drunk as I was and I was not gonna take advantage of that. So I left slightly frustrated, the Grinch’s pants having shrunk two sizes that day.

Then on the ride home I had to ask my friend who was driving to pull off so I could barf. He waited for me for like 20 minutes while I paced around in a gas station parking lot, trying to gain mastery over my GI tract. What a guy.

Moral of the story is, I drank too much, clumsily flirted, danced, and had a fantastic time. But as a result I felt like shit this morning, and I have to work tomorrow, so no drinking for me today. This has been a rare sober post from the Anime Liteweight.

 

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