Reviewed by Ken Rogers, GCPCUG Member
Should cartoon characters be smarter than their readers? Brilliantly mad scientists and charming absent-minded professors may be stock characters in the comics, but their intellects always seem more fantastic than realistic. A cartoon character with realistic scientific intellect - someone who might remind us of our high school physics teacher, or that lab partner who always seemed one step ahead of you - can too easily remind us of our own intellectual shortcomings, and spoil the casual fun that is at the heart of comics' appeal.
This absence of ordinary genius in comics is what makes Ryota and Megumi, the main characters in The Manga Guide to Physics, so remarkable. The latest in the delightful series of manga technical guides from TREND-PRO and No Starch Press, The Manga Guide to Physics uses a tutor-student relationship to explain complex scientific concepts with real-world examples. Ryota, the tutor, is a schoolboy science whiz who has to be the most unremarkable character I've ever seen in a manga comic. Clean-cut, dressed in a conservative suit and tie, ever polite and reserved - if manga characters were soft drinks, Megumi would be a glass of tepid water. Megumi, the frustrated student-athlete who pleads with Ryota to provide her with physics lessons, is only slightly more colorful - call her a decaffeinated, sugar-free soda.
Both tutor and student are ordinary, but the same cannot be said of their lessons. Make no mistake; The Manga Guide to Physics is a serious work of technical writing. If you don't find vector diagrams and algebraic equations inherently appealing, you'll find this book more than challenging at times. Yet Ryota explains the mysteries of Newton's three laws of motion with the ease of a newscaster reading from a teleprompter, and while Megumi clearly struggles at times she is able to master the material by book's end.
Watching these two unremarkable characters breeze through this remarkably difficult subject could easily be alienating - Ryota could seem aloof and condescending, Megumi annoyingly perky. Yet the relationship that develops between them makes for an appealing story. Ryota awkwardly approaches Megumi after her loss in a tennis match to Sayaka, her rival on the court as well as the classroom. Recognizing and respecting Ryota's knowledge, Megumi politely but forcefully insists that he become her tutor. Ryota feeds off Megumi's eagerness and launches into his fast-paced lessons with confidence. His respect for Megumi's curiosity prevents him from ever talking down to her, and his repeated use of sports analogies shows he understands how best to relate with his student. Megumi's appreciation for Ryota's knowledge and patience keeps her engaged in their lessons, and being the bold one she is the first to acknowledge their mutual attraction. An embarrassed Ryota at first angrily rebukes her observation, but Megumi convinces him to not feel threatened and enjoy their relationship. Ryota and Megumi may indeed be smarter than their readers, but their charming, genuine relationship provides a perfect complement to the technical information provided in the text.
And it bears repeating that The Manga Guide to Physics is a serious, weighty piece of technical writing - Physics for Dummies this is not . While it is certainly no substitute for a physics text, The Manga Guide to Physics is a wonderful introduction to the subject for manga fans with an interest in science.