By Wilma Jandoc
Jason's note: From the Pile was supposed to be a semi-regular feature in which we profiled something at random from our large pile of yet-to-be-reviewed anime and manga. Considering the last installment came with Genkaku Picasso back when this blog was regularly updating on the starbulletin.com domain last year, and the last installment before that came with the gawd-awful Master of Martial Hearts aaaaaalllll the way back in 2010, we've kinda abandoned all hope of this being even "semi-regular." But we still try. Oh, we still try. Anyway, without further ado …
Like many other books I get attracted to on a whim, the synopsis of the Korean manwha Aron's Absurd Armada was what drew me in. It seemed like a funny enough series, about the misadventures of a pirate crew under the captainship of one Master Aron, a freewheeling noble who wants to go out and be a pirate because they're "cool." His faithful servant Robin naturally tags along with him to protect him -- because if Aron gets killed, he'll be out of a job, and Robin loves money more than anything.
Along the way they pick up two sailors, Gilbert and Anton, and a mysterious tomboyish girl, Ronnie, who is constantly mistaken as a guy, which provides the fodder for a lot of the jokes. Rounding out the crew is another gender-bender mate, Mercedes the hairstylist, a guy who looks (and acts) like a girl, and "chef" Vincent, whose cooking skills -- or, more accurately, the lack of them -- create concoctions that are probably the most lethal weapon the pirate wannabes have aboard.
You can tell right off the bat that this is going to be one of those series that will live up to its name and makes no bones about it. The character descriptions on the first page, for example, say this about Aron: "He's an immature rascal who drives people up the wall, and he's a stupid dumbass."
After that introduction, I was ready to have a good laugh with what I expected to be a typical manga-style comedy story. But what I found instead is that Armada isn't your usual manga or manwha style; it hews more closely to what's known in Japanese as the 4-koma format. Rather than long-form stories drawn on full pages like regular manga, 4-koma -- an abbreviation of the Japanese term that literally means "4-panel comic" -- is more like the daily newspaper funnies: The strip is divided into four frames and usually ends with a gag.
Because of that, any apparent character development or seriousness during the first three panels is almost immediately wiped away by the silliness of the last panel. There are occasional longer comics that are more in the typical manga format, but even those end just as inanely. At the end of 30 pages, which is as far as I managed to force myself through before tossing the book down in disgust, I wasn't sure if anyone had any "development" at all or if the comics had merely cemented the "Absurd" part of the title.
This steep up-and-down cycle gets stale, extremely annoying and terribly disappointing after just the first few strips. If the technique was meant as a laugh-getter -- hey, here's a totally serious situation but we'll end it on an unexpected ridiculous note because it's FUNNY! -- then it failed miserably. (Actually, after just a few strips, it won't be "unexpected" any more, just exactly HOW it ends will continue to be the surprise.) If the story kept solely to running up the "funny" meter, rather than trying to include some actual development, then Armada might work. Barely.
Adding to the headache is that Kim often squeezes a lot of text and action into the small frames, many of which are divided into even smaller blocks to try to get even more into the story, so the four panels usually turn into six, eight or more. The detailed art style suffers from being squished into such a small space, and a lot of times coherency is sacrificed as well -- at points I struggled to understand the story and which character was saying what.
I read Armada off and on for about a week before I finally gave up. When I opened it up again after a couple of months (because, to be honest, I had nothing else to read and that was the only thing close at hand) and picked up from where I'd left off, I found myself laughing out loud at the gags. But the enjoyment still faded just as quickly as when I'd initially started reading.
So as my experience shows, Armada is one of those books that: 1. grows on you; 2. tickles your funny bone once you understand that it's not a serialized comic; and 3. like anything slapstick, is best in small doses. Emphasis on "small."
Still, in the end, there's only so much I can take, and seeing as this was labeled as volume 1, there's apparently more in store. But my patience and sanity were exhausted by the time I managed to reach the end of the book, and the thought of a "volume 2" and beyond makes my mental faculties scream for mercy. My brain has had all it can handle of Aron's Absurd Armada.