S.S. ASTRO is funny enough in spots to make me wish it could be consistently funny.
Writer/Artist: Negi Banno
Translated By: Stephen Paul
Adapted By: Stephen Paul
What They Say:
S.S. ASTRO follows the adventures - romantic and otherwise - of a group of young teachers working to make ends meet. One teacher tries to hide her boys' love obsession from her coworkers; another agonizes over her lesbian crush on a homeroom teacher. Failing productivity results when a fascination with portable videogames sweeps through the faculty room and wireless racing battles ensue. Fun doesn't have to end after high school!
What We Say:
The packaging is nicely put-together, using the enlarged print size that Yen Press is fond of and good, high-contrast printing on bright-white paper. There are eight pages of bonus full-color artwork included in this volume; the colors aren't too vibrant, but the warm sepia tones suggest that the soft palette is a deliberate artistic choice. As an extra, Yen Press has thrown in a ten-page preview of Suzunari!.
S.S. ASTRO's artwork is functional and a touch crude, which isn't a problem per se: this is a series where the jokes are supposed to be the main event, not the art. But Banno's art style sometimes interferes with the comedy, mainly because there's not enough done to distinguish the characters: Maki and Nagumo look nearly the same, except for their attire, and on top of it many of the students aren't differentiated that much from the main characters. So much of the comedy depends on the characters' individual personality traits that not being able to tell who is who can diffuse the impact of some of the jokes.
Paul's English script strikes a nice balance between accessibility and cultural faithfulness: the dialog preserves the honorifics and uniquely Japanese references while incorporating enough American colloquialisms (a student talks about "eating it in an epic way" when she falls down) to keep the translation from feeling mechanical. Cultural references are outlined in four pages of extensive translator's notes, plus a special "Arai-Tentei Explains All" page that outlines why Arai isn't technically a nurse.
Japanese signs and SFX are kept intact, with English translations added inline where there's room and placed in the margins where there isn't.
Contents: (please note that content portions of a review may contain spoilers)
S.S. ASTRO doesn't have much of a formal storyline, since it focuses on the day-to-day lives of a clique of teachers at the Asashio Integrated Public High School of Tokyo. Izumi Maki, arguably the closest thing the series has to a main character, has returned to Asashio as a teacher six years after her own schooling there ended, bringing with her an old classmate named Yuko Nagumo. On the way to their first day on the job, the two are reintroduced to Setsuna Arai, the school nursing teacher, and Kaname Karasuma, a foreign language teacher. And that's sort of it for story set-up -- there isn't a major plot to advance, at least not in Volume 1, and pretty much everything in the story has to do with little snippets of their classroom lives and their interactions in the titular Asashio School Teachers' ROom [sic]. At one point Maki's brother works his way into the proceedings with surprise news that he's joined Asashio's staff (and that he dated Arai at some point in the past), but that's about as far as it goes for long-term plot advances.
What drives S.S. ASTRO's narrative instead is that each of the four female leads has her own unique personality quirks that color her interactions with their students and other teachers. Maki's the most "usual" of the four, acting mostly as a good-natured foil to the others and the unknowing target of Karasuma's secret lesbian crush. Arai and Nagumo are given fairly otaku-friendly personas, both being video game fanatics, the former frequently exchanging innuendo with Maki's brother at the workplace, and the latter being a yaoi fangirl with a bottomless stomach.
The volume isn't really even divided up into chapters, though there are obvious arcs separated by character profile pages and half-page artwork. Again, these aren't story arcs in the conventional sense of the word, but rather kinds of common themes that are carried throughout each day at school. Among the challenges that Asashio's staff deals with in this volume are their first day of the new school year, a field trip to Kyoto, a roach infestation, sports competitions, and lots and lots of drinking.
Sometimes, I feel like Even A Monkey Can Draw Manga has ruined me forever on 4-koma comics.
Okay, so what Even a Monkey's Aihara and Takekuma were really poking fun at was the way 4-koma strips go for bland, inoffensive humor in the name of family-friendliness, which isn't a problem that S.S. ASTRO has -- its main cast includes a glutton, a sadistic nurse, at least two video game addicts, and a closeted lesbian with the hots for a (now grown-up) former student. But what it might lack in family-friendliness, it makes up for in otaku-friendliness ... what with the glutton, nurse, video game addicts, and lesbian making up most of the almost-completely-female cast, after all. Whenever "safe" but tired gags, like Nagumo needing a taxi to carry her lunch (Get it? She eats a lot! Har har!) kept popping up in S.S. ASTRO, I couldn't help but think that the fictional Aihara and Takekuma would have approved.
But enough with the negativity: S.S. ASTRO isn't a totally bad read, even if it is an extremely uneven one. In fact, a solid number of the gags actually do work, especially when the script stuck to the relationships budding among the teachers. The "chemistry" and wishful thinking going on between Kaname and an oblivious Maki were almost always pretty damn funny, while even the more conventional sexual tension between Arai and Maki's produced some decent laughs. The more predictable stuff I could've generally done without, but even there Banno strikes comedic gold once or twice (a running gag about Maki not being able to remember her students' names finally pays off halfway through the volume, for instance).
In the end, whether or not Volume 1 of S.S. ASTRO is worth the $11 to most readers is a tough call. This is the kind of title that'd be a good way to pass some time if someone lent it to me, but not one I personally like enough to go out and pay full MSRP for.