Yep. Looks like they did.
The fact is, Yen Plus plays it smart every step of the way. The big coup is in the orientation of the comics. The magazine combines right-to-left Japanese manga with Koren manhwa and original English works which, of course, read left to right. Instead of flipping the Japanese stories to match with everything else, the magazine is split in half. That way you get a right-to-left Japanese section, and everything else goes left-to-right in the other half of the magazine. It probably sounds counterintuitive, but it works flawlessly. Advertisements are kept well within reasonable limits, and nearly all of the ads are grouped together in the front. You'll see at most a single page ad in between chapters. The paper is good, the pages are numbered at not too infrequent intervals (some chapters have layout more friendly to page numbers than others), and the art looks fantastic printed at this size (10" X 7"). Speaking of art, one page congratulatory pieces by the original artists accompany the comics. The Japanese side even gets translation notes. It's hard to take issue with the way everything is put together.
But in the end it all comes down to one thing: are the stories any good? Let's take a look....
The magazine opens with the adaptation of James Patterson's Maximum Ride novel. This is obviously meant to be a big selling point, as this is the story featured on the cover, and the only comic to be printed with colour pages. Its short length is an impediment - at just over thirty pages, it's one of the briefest chapters in the book and it simply doesn't give itself the time to cover any significant ground. What we do see is good enough, however: a group of young people who can sprout wings from their backs (and I presume fly with them, though we only see this in a dream) have set up house in a shack far away from normal human beings. "If no one knows about us, we stay alive" says the heroine. But of course, someone does know about them, and the chapter ends with a cliffhanger just after the appearance of werwolfish assailants. Before this, however, we get some good domestic scenes among the makeshift family which introduce the cast in an entertaining way. We also get to take in some very nice artwork, particularly on the character side of things. It's hard to gauge the potential of this work with so little actual story, but my best guess is that this will develop into a pretty good series. And with the script credited to the original novelist, fans of those books will certainly take an interest.
The next selection, Nightschool, gets a little further in its development but doesn't fully mark out a path. The story, which deals with the paranormal goings on at a school (normal high school by day, psychic training center by night, hasn't got much of a "hook" - at least not yet. But the experience is enlivened by the artist's flair for comedy, of which we see a great deal. And there are hints about larger things dropped and a moderately absorbing atmosphere to keep things interesting. The art is on the sketchy side, but serviceable.
The next comic is the standout for the left-to-right section. Pig Bride gets more story and characterization into its allotted page count than its five competitors, and is very well drawn, to boot. In particular, the art makes very good use of space (and looks all the better for being printed in the larger size). Pig Bride also turns out to be the only series that shows any romantic leaning, which is something this side of the magazine is starved for. The plot apparently ties into an old folktale - a technique I nearly always like, especially when it's as well done as this is. The basic premise is that the hero at age eight has agreed to marry a mysterious girl in a pig mask (it meant a free meal, so it seemed like a good deal at the time) who told him that when he was sixteen, they would be reunited. Now, of course, he's sixteen, and wondering what he's got himself into. Toss a guardian ninja type into the mix and you have a series that's equally at home with comedy, romance, and action. This looks like the one to keep an eye on.
Unfortunately, after Pig Bride this section of the magazine has shot its bolt. The next selection begins promisingly: Sarasah's first page is a page of quotations about love from greater and lesser historical figures, followed by the declaration: "And now I am in love!!!" We settle in for a good romantic story. What actually greets us (greets being a very mild way of putting it) is an utterly miserable story of unrequited love. Or, better, a story of love requited by cruelty. The only thing that keeps me from giving up all hope is the "twist" that occurs in the last two pages. It's something that could change the whole feel of the series. And boy do I hope it does.
My feelings about One Fine Day are difficult to describe. In fact, I'm not even sure I have any. It has practically no plot, so I assume it's meant to be a kind of mood piece. Well and good - the magazine can use something like that. The trouble is, the series doesn't strike any particular mood. It's also a little hard to make sense of. The main characters are a dog, a cat, and a mouse. At least I think they are. Sometimes they are drawn as normal animals, other times as small children in animal costumes. It reminds me a little of Calvin and Hobbes; but Calvin and Hobbes used the technique consistently. (When seen from Calvin's point of view, Hobbes was drawn as a "real" tiger; from any other point of view, he looks like a stuffed animal.) Here the characters are drawn any which way and shift back and forth between panels. The art is sketchy at best, and sometimes looks like doodling. However, the series does have a simple sweetness that may save it in the end.
And the worst is saved for last. Jack Frost sports the best-looking art of its section, with the most three-dimensional look probably in the whole magazine. But the excellent "deep" anime-style visuals are squandered on gruesomely depraved imagery. The heroine is decapitated on the second true black and white page, and it just keeps getting worse. There's no story here at all: this is sick, cheap shock value. It also gives the impression of playing the old "it was all just a dream" card. If so, this chapter is a nightmare in every sense of the word. I'm too repelled to want to read any more.
After Jack Frost it is a relief to turn to the Japanese side of Yen Plus. But not right away. Soul Eater would have been the worst series in the magazine if Jack Frost had been absent. It has a rough, creepy visual style that's all the more disturbing for being slightly cute. It's also pretty jagged - even the clothes are spiky. The titular character's main attribute is a persistent drool. The plot is derivative junk. The artist throws in a character that's more or less personified fan-service to disguise the fact that there's nothing to see here. I'm surprised this one made the cover.
Better but generic fare is around the corner. Nabori no Ou is mostly exposition in its first chapter, but sets up a potentially interesting situation of shinobi, a hidden world, ninja, and mysterious forces. It's hard to evaluate based on this chapter alone. If it's going to catch fire, it'll take some time.
The good stuff begins with Sumomo Momomo. The fathers of two martial arts houses have arranged a betrothal between their newborn children to create a line of the world's strongest offspring. The girl is enthusiastic and has been training all her life; but the boy wants to be a lawyer, not a warrior, and isn't crazy about becoming a family man, either. The author has a genuine flair for over-the-top action and comedy, and milks it for everything it's worth. A nice wrinkle is that the hero is actually brilliant, and has a strong sense of justice. This is miles better than reading about just another loser hero, and watching him talk his way through a crisis is often more fun than a fight would be. (Not that the fights aren't good too, of course.) If you can overlook a dash of puerile reproductive humour, this one's a winner. (Betcha can't say the title three times fast.)
Then we come to the highlight of the magazine. Bamboo Blade not only bolsters the ranks of English sports manga, but distinguishes itself among that smallish company. The wrinkle here is that the point-of-view character is the teacher in charge of the kendo club, rather than the fabulously gifted student athlete. The teacher in question is strapped for cash and staring at an empty refrigerator. His only hope is a bet made with another kendo instructor. The stakes: a full year's supply of all-you-can-eat deluxe sushi. In a virtuoso scene of exaggerated comedy (and easily the best moment in the entire magazine) he discovers an unmatchable candidate for the squad...but she doesn't want to join the club. Top-of-the-line comedy and furious kendo bouts - how can you go wrong there? This is easily the best material in this first issue. So we're pretty lucky to get two whole chapters instead of one.
Almost anything would seem like a disappointment after Bamboo Blade, but Higurashi: When They Cry holds its own pretty well against the favourite. At least, most of the way it does. It's got round, big-eyed, very attractive art and a very funny cartoonish sensibility (Oh no! Rena's "Adowable" mode has been activated!). A sweet, charming, and awfully funny school comedy - until a severed corpse jars it in a completely different direction. I have as yet no idea why the plot chooses to go that way, or what it expects to find along that road; but 90% of this first chapter is excellent.
Now let's take a deep breath and look back over all the ground we've covered. First, a breakdown by quality:
Good right off the bat: Pig Bride, Sumomo Momomo, Bamboo Blade, Higurashi: When They Cry
Definite potential: Maximum Ride, Nightschool
Possible potential: Sarasah, One Fine Day, Nabari no Ou
D.O.A.: Jack Frost, Soul Eater
That leaves us with six pretty strong contenders, three more that might make something of themselves in time, and only two that aren't pulling any weight. Not a bad average. Yen Plus offers a generous and diverse selection of material at an excellent price: the subscription rate works out to less than five dollars an issue. Even as a sampler this magazine is well worth picking up. And you can't beat it as a way to keep up with some very good stories before they hit shelves in paperback form, not to mention being able to take in the art in a much larger size. What's not to like about that?