Manga-ka: Natsumi Matsumoto
Publisher: Viz Media
Rating: Teen (13+)
Release Date: December 2009
Synopsis: “During the Sports Festival, Momoka brings lunch for Ryuga so they can eat together, but Akira isn’t happy that Ryuga rejected her lunch in favour of Momoka’s. Jealous, Akira calls on three impish wind demons to break the couple apart.”
A charming mixture of Chinese pop culture with the traditional styling of Ribon manga, St. Dragon Girl is a sweet, spirited piece of manga fluff. It also slips in just enough fantasy elements and strange cuteness to avoid being overly sweet, relying on an upbeat tone that will overcome many a jaded manga fan.
St.Dragon Girl’s recipe takes a lot of tried and true manga elements and presents a combination that well suits those with a shojo appetite. The Chinese cultural references work themselves in neatly as the series combines Japanese and Chinese spiritual practices, joyfully celebrating these elements much as Ranma ½ had. The series establishes this well in this volume, kicking off with a self-contained story about a supporting character and the little dragon who is a better friend then she could suspect, and eventually moves onto a story wherein an adorable Panda demon wrecks havoc that leads to an epic number of adorably drawn pandas of varying sizes populating Momoka’s school. This understanding of cuteness expands into other aspects of the series such as the strange demons that attack the cast, reflecting their mischievous nature. This compliments how they often ultimately prove to be harmless wayward spirits, reflecting the generally positive outlook of Matsumoto’s characters.
The upbeat nature of the series is further enhanced by the art. Matsumoto’s art bounces across the page, mixing in some decent knowledge of action layouts with the usual flowery fare you expect from shojo for younger readers. Whether it’s snowboarding to the extreme at a deluxe resort , or some overviews of cities as the cast soars above on a flying dragon, the artwork is primarily polished, and extremely cheerful. Some might still find it cluttered due to the amount of screen tones, but I appreciated the kinetic feel it gave the series. The series flips well between action scenes, supernatural moments and school day hijinx, providing some consistent laughs whether it’s cutesy razorblade demons or narcissistic school idols.
Another element of St. Dragon Girl that struck me as charming was the role reversal of gender and superpowers we’ve seen in old superhero comics. For many years it was common for the girl on the team to have a more passive power, like Jean Grey‘s telekinesis or the Invisible Girl‘s force field while giving the men more physical powers. This trend that started to wean off in the 70’s, when Jean started eating suns and manipulating the cosmic fabric of the universe, thankfully. Because girls, they want to have fun, y’know? And Momoka is definitely the one having fun in this title, claiming credit to all sorts of cool martial arts action scenes and excelling as one of the school’s top athletes. Meanwhile, the male characters all had magic based powers, so they don’t get to partake in kicking the butts of evil panda poachers. While this was more of a background element to the usual sparkly shojo overdrive, I still appreciated it. It was refreshing to see a take-charge shojo lead who gets to both invoke magical dragons and know kung fu.
However, while the manga itself is definitely endearing, Matsumoto’s comments sections proved to be the most intriguing element. Matsumoto’s commentary proved insightful, as she delved into topics relating to how manga is made, rather then the usual anecdotes, fan mail and “this is the video game I’m currently playing” blurbs we usually see in shojo manga. As a cartoonist, it was fun to learn things like the inner workings of Ribon editorial, and the tools she uses for her colour work, inking and bits where she discussed panel borders. This isn’t a topic that comes up often in authors notes, and it was interesting to find out how an individual magazine might approach these things.
If you’re a fan of Arina Tanemura’s work, often published in Ribon as well, you’ll find a lot to like in this series. This shares the same sense of fun mixed with moments of melodrama, though opts to focus more on silly situations with a decent sense of humour. I recommend this most to fans of manga who don’t mind their shojo sparkly and fluffy, and also to anyone who find pandas adorable, which I imagine should primarily ensure the enjoyment of all.