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Sunday March 8, 2009

Law and laughter

The Phoenix Wright Files
Story and art: Various authors
Publisher: Del Rey; 300 pages
(ISBN: 978-0345503558)
For ages 13+

I WAS excited to receive Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney, Official Casebook Vol.1: The Phoenix Wright Files (right, that’s a mouthful). But, like me, you might find the manga, which is based on the hit video game revolving around the title character, totally not what you’d expect.

The world of Phoenix Wright is a little offbeat and filled with colourful and eccentric characters. The protagonist is a rookie defence attorney, a simple man with a single goal: to uphold the truth in the court of law. Goofy and single-minded, he often finds himself in odd situations and without a case. He relies on his deductive skills (like a detective) rather than on his debating skills when defending a client.

His assistants at Wright & Co Law Offices are Maya and Pearl, two mediums who live in a village outside town; they channel spirits of people long gone. More often than not, the spirit that they channel is Mia, Phoenix’s busty mentor, ex-boss, and Maya’s sister – the main reason why this manga has a “13+” age rating.

Maya is an innocent and eager sidekick. How she became Phoenix’s partner is never explained in this volume. Pearl’s origins are also unexplained. The cute, self-appointed guardian of the non-existing romance between Phoenix and Maya brings a child-like charm into the mix.

There’s also Edgeworth, the prosecution attorney and Phoenix’s arch-rival. Harry Butz is the best friend whose hapless misdeeds are legendary, and there’s Detective Gumshoe who calls everyone “pal”.

Going by the title, synopsis and thickness of the manga, one might deduce that Phoenix Wright is filled with 20 mysterious and quirky cases just like it is in the video games.

But in reality this is a collection of 20 short stories and about a dozen four-panel-comics written and drawn by 20 different authors that was originally published in two books in Japan. Twenty different tales, drawn in 20 different styles, with 20 different perspectives of the Phoenix Wright franchise and with no continuity whatsoever – it aims to be a disaster.

The first tale asks: “Why did Phoenix Wright become a defence attorney?” It effectively introduces Phonex’s connection to Edgeworth. The second and third are mystery stories with all the trimmings of a wacky manga. However, the rest of the manga are made up of quirky and silly tales more commonly found in comedy manga such as Sgt Frog (Keroro Gunsuo).

With such a colourful cast of characters, comedy is a major element in the Phoenix Wright universe, but it is not the core of the series. Where are the murder cases? Where is the intrigue? I was expecting Detective Conan, but all I got was a variety show.

Still, there are plus points. For one, if seen as a comedy manga, Phoenix Wright is not that bad. Each story is relatively short, independent of each other, and drawn in a different style, making it the perfect manga to be enjoyed in short bursts, one tale at a time, or as a filler, something light to read between chapters of a complex book.

The comedy is your typical manga affair complete with infectious diseases, comical misunderstandings, lost kittens and even a noodle-eating competition. Sadly, some of the comedy is lost in translation. It’s not the translation that’s at fault – some aspects of Japanese comedy are just not easy to translate into English.

While packing the manga with a large content makes Phoenix Wright a value buy, its use of so many different authors is, however, both a boon and a mistake. Diversity does not ensure continuity in the story or the art. The result is a mixed bag of effects.

Is Phoenix Wright faithful to the franchise? Sometimes. Is the book compelling? Only if taken in short doses.

Most importantly, do you need to be familiar with the franchise to enjoy this manga?

Clearly, Phoenix Wright is a fan service. Even so, lovers of comedy/variety manga – including those unfamiliar with Phoenix Wright – will find this manga enjoyable regardless of the references to the game and lack of a back story.


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