Saint Marie vol. 1
Chad Clayton rates it:
Author/artist: Yang Yeo-Jin
I don’t quite know how to react to Saint Marie. There’s nothing terribly wrong with it, but at the same time, it doesn’t strike me as being particularly good. All the more frustrating is that I can’t pin down exactly what about this comic bothers me so much. I’ve written several reviews’ worth of text about this title already, but to no avail. Since I’m tired of trying to find the root of this comic’s problem, I’ll just try to describe my feelings on this comic as closely as possible.
Saint Marie has a really bizarre, convoluted premise that would take forever to explain thoroughly, but it all boils down to this: psychic-powered teenagers from a Korean Catholic school must become human pieces in a deadly “Chess Game” to decide the fate of Earth. The schoolgrounds are the battlefield, and the prize is the Philosopher’s Stone, an item of such power that it would allow its possessor to rule the world. I’ll refrain from trying to explain the rest of the backstory, as it’s so long, bizarre, and convoluted that it would take all day to explain thoroughly, so I’ll save that headache for those who decide they want to pursue this manhwa.
My first problem with Saint Marie isn’t that it panders to teens by making them the most incredibly important people in the world. As distasteful as I find that, I know it’s just par for the course in the manga/manhwa business. My problem is that the premise just doesn’t make any damn sense. The Chess Games that took place in past eras involved such epic battles as a battle over “supremacy over the Orient” and another between the Christians and the Muslims. Pretty large-scale battles, those. So why on Earth is the third, final, and most important battle being fought in a Catholic school by a bunch of middle school students? Saint Marie doesn’t seem interested in answering that question.
Even a cursory reading of Saint Marie and its appendices shows that quite a bit of brainstorming and preplanning went into the story’s concept. The first volume appends page after page of story synopsis, detailed character profiles, a map of the school, and a chart explaining which chess piece each character is and what each piece can do (at which point the appendix really begins to sound like a video game manual). At this point, you’re pretty much obligated to read these appendices if you want any character information or a way to keep track of all the information that this story’s throwing at you. That leads to the second main problem I have with Saint Marie: so much of it just feels…superfluous. For one example, in addition to the characters having a Korean name, they also have a Pan-European name and a chess piece designation that you’re obligated to keep track of, since for some strange reason the story uses them interchangeably when referring to characters. Another is the shallow and spurious use of Catholicism (or Christianity in general) in the story. Saint Marie is yet another story that uses and abuses religion for its own ends, but in this case, the result makes even less sense than usual. Most of the characters, even those supposedly on “God’s side,” don’t strike me as being particularly pious – in fact, the opposite is true in some cases. At least in this respect, the story isn’t following through on its own ideas. The whole religion angle is just coming across as a cheap attempt to add some slightly outre spice to an otherwise banal story.
Even though it’s only the first volume, Saint Marie is building up a large cast of characters. Unfortunately, most of them aren’t worth discussing – we either don’t see enough of them to learn much about them, or they just don’t have vivid enough personalities to inspire any review-worthy comments. In fact, the only semi-memorable character is Yoon-Ha, and even then, he’s only memorable because he’s a odd combination of a charismatic goofball and a violent, sociopathic little snot. The reason most of the characters – heck, the comic itself is so forgettable is because little effort is made to portray them as human beings. Saint Marie seems only interested in dealing with the characters on the most superficial level possible.
This leads to my third and final big complaint with Saint Marie: for a comic that purports to be a suspenseful, horrifying comic, it’s curiously sterile. We’re never treated to any moments of profound emotion or visceral terror. None of the characters ever reach out and touch the reader, unless said reader is the type that gets emotional over just about anything. Whenever something potentially scary or disturbing happens, we don’t get any horrifying, “unblinking eye” moments: Saint Marie actually seems to try and cushion the scary moments as much as possible. Even a character death in the first volume is treated with less importance than the (unconvincing) love triangle going on. At times it feels like the comic is consciously trying to keep us at arm’s length, trying to keep us from being absorbed into the story. Everything just feels too scripted and carefully planned out; it doesn’t feel real enough to be emotionally involving. It’s one thing to make someone give mental assent to the idea that characters are suffering; it’s quite another to make him or her really believe the characters are suffering, and identify with their pain.
Saint Marie has an attractive visual style that looks like a stylistic combination of CLAMP and Yu Watase, especially in the character drawings. The comic looks very nice, if a bit standard. For reasons I can’t really articulate, none of the visuals really jump out and grab me, but the comic doesn’t look bland or terrible by any means. The character design is a little more dodgy, as some of the characters look way, way too much alike. At times the only major physical difference between characters is a few inches of height or a few inches in hair length.
Saint Marie ultimately strikes me as a story that was simply too ambitious for its own good. It’s full of information on every character, every nuance of the Chess Game, and all that – but at times it feels like this information is getting in the way of other, more important aspects of the story. At this point, Saint Marie is all discussion and plotting, with almost no action to keep things moving and little pathos to keep things interesting. The story tries to bring too much material together at once, and ends up not developing any of it properly. I’ve read comics that I found disgusting, infuriating, or boring, but I haven’t read too many as utterly forgettable as Saint Marie.
Added: Monday, October 18, 2004
Related Link: ADV Manga