Bookmarked! The Best Manga of 2014

File this week’s Bookmarked! column under the heading Better Late Than Never. Brigid and I sat down this week to review our favorite manga of 2014, from swashbuckling Viking sagas to goofy shojo comedies. We also chatted about the series we thought we’d love but didn’t, and looked ahead to potential candidates for the Best Manga of 2015.

JUN131345 Brigid: When I was compiling my best of the year list for Robot 6, I mentioned three manga—Kyoko Okazaki’s Helter Skelter, Moyoco Anno’s In Clothes Called Fat, and Inio Asano’s Nijigahara Holograph—but I’m smacking my head because I somehow spaced on Vinland Saga. Even though Kodansha Comics has temporarily put the series on hold, it’s well worth a read. It’s a really well done story with a complex plot—lots of double-crosses and surprises—and some interesting characters. It’s also beautifully drawn, and Kodansha Comics has gone the extra mile in terms of production quality, with double-size hardback volumes and some little touches that make it feel really special. I simply disappeared into these books over the Fourth of July, and now I want to go back and read all the way through Volume Five.

Kate, what was your standout pick for the year?

974d10d54b54987b252eb2fece9827d4_1394065624_full_a3d4c3086a7e1d355a3b27f0c4f2091cKate: I’m also a Moyocco Anno fan, though I preferred Memoirs of Amorous Gentleman. I found Anno’s depiction of Colette, the prostitute-heroine of Memoirs, less mean-spirited than her depiction of Noko, the binge-eating heroine of In Clothes Called Fat; when I read Noko’s story, I had a difficult time distinguishing the author’s feelings about Noko from the other characters’. The other reason I liked Memoirs better: the artwork! The story takes place in a fin-de-siecle brothel in Paris, which provides Anno with a swell excuse to draw extravagant clothing, accessories, and lingerie. Her attention to detail doesn’t end with the clothing, either; the character designs are more soft and sensual than in her earlier series like Flowers & Bees.

Other titles making my best-of list would include Batman: The Jiro Kuwata Batmanga, which DC Comics has presented in a smart-looking, unflipped edition; Master Keaton, an older Naoki Urasawa title about a globe-trotting, crime-solving insurance agent; My Love Story!!, a goofy shojo comedy that offers a teenage boy’s perspective on first love; and OPUS, a manga-within-a-manga by the late animator Satoshi Kon. Honorable mention goes to the final volume of Thermae Romae, which managed to wring a surprising amount of story from a slender premise.

If you could only pick one of the titles from your list as “the best manga of 2014,” which one would it be?

Yamazaki_ThermaeRomae_V3_HCBrigid: I think Vinland Saga truly was the best manga of the year, but let me go back to your honorable mention of Thermae Romae. It’s hard to give that the best-manga tag, because the art is a bit odd and the story wobbled all over the place, yet there’s something really wonderful about that manga. I think it reflects our own reality in a way, because just like Lucius, we are taking artifacts from Japanese culture and making them our own—only for us, it’s manga, not bathrooms. I thought this was an amazing series and kudos to Yen Press for publishing it in such a beautiful edition.

Attack on Titan hardly needs a boost from me, but I have to say it was one of the series I turned to when I just wanted to relax and enjoy a good story. I also really liked Nisekoi in the same way—it’s not deep, just a fun read.

Were there any series you were reading just for fun?

Kate: VIZ tends to be my go-to label for fun series. I already mentioned My Love Story!!, which usually makes me laugh out loud, but I also enjoyed the first volume of Assassination Classroom. I won’t make any grand claims for Classroom; the story has a sentimental streak a mile wide, even though the premise is subversive. Koro-sensei’s preposterous assignments, dedication to his craft, and super-human grading skills, however, provide a reliable stream of chuckles even when the author loses his nerve and goes for the “awwww” moment instead of risking offense.

142156906XAnother series in my “just for fun” pile was Naoki Urasawa’s Monster. When VIZ began reissuing Monster last year, I dusted off my old set and revisited it for the first time since 2008. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the series was almost as good as I remembered. The crack pacing and twisty plots held my attention, as did the plight of the enormous cast of supporting characters. (And oh, those characters! No one draws a nose, a brow, or a paunch with the same elan as Urasawa.) The only thing that disappointed was the ending, which felt more suitable for an episode of Scooby-Doo than the conclusion of a thriller exploring the underbelly of the former Soviet bloc.

I was certain that Fumi Yoshinaga’s What Did You Eat Yesterday? would be on my “fun” list, too, but I’ve found it oddly unengaging. The problem, for me, lies with the ratio of interpersonal to culinary shoptalk. Though Shiro and Kenji’s travails as a middle-aged couple are compelling, the endless panels of recipes, food preparation, and grocery shopping are too run-of-the-mill to hold my attention, even if some of the ingredients are exotic from an American’s perspective. I liken it to reading a manga about household chores: unless the character has a talking robot vacuum cleaner or uses depth charges to clear a messy bedroom, it’s hard to make such routine tasks interesting on the printed page.

What series didn’t live up to your expectations?

1421575892Brigid: Shockingly, Naoki Urasawa’s Master Keaton. I really loved his other series (although I agree with you about the end of Monster), so I was really looking forward to this one. The setup is great: The main character is an archaeology professor who moonlights as an insurance investigator, which gives him plenty of excuses to solve mysteries, but the plots have holes you could drive a Mack truck through. Still, Urasawa on his worst day is better than most other creators on their best. His art is great, although not quite as sophisticated as in his later books, and his lead character, who is sort of a combination of Sherlock Holmes and McGyver, is fun to watch.

Another manga that I felt was solid but didn’t quite live up to its hype was Barakamon. The premise is solid: A talented calligrapher punches the wrong guy and exiles himself to a remote island to hone his craft in solitude, but the locals keep intruding into his life. The city-boy-in-the-country humor works, and Satsuki Yoshino does a nice job of establishing a sense of atmosphere with the backgrounds and settings. The weak point was the way figures were drawn—they often looked like piles of clothes with no structure underneath. Also, while I understand the decision to have the locals speak in dialect, I don’t really agree with it. It makes the story hard to read. I think this series is just hitting its stride, though, and I have the second volume queued up on my reading stack.

Jaco 1To end on an up note, though, I already have a favorite manga of 2015, and it’s one I had low expectations for: Jaco the Galactic Patrolman. It’s a one-shot by Akira Toriyama, the creator of Dragon Ball, which is not really my kind of book, so I didn’t have high expectations, but I was really impressed by the art. Toriyama knows how to set a scene, with clear lines and just the right amount of detail. All his characters looked very different, with strong personalities of their own. The plot is a ridiculous pileup, but Toriyama pulls it off, and his earnest but vain galactic patrolman is a perfect foil for the cranky Omari and the spunky Tights. (Yes, that’s her name.) There is a bit of a Dragon Ball crossover, plus a bonus Dragon Ball story at the end, but you don’t have to have read that series to enjoy this book. It was a real treat, and I highly recommend it for one of those gray winter days when you just need a laugh.

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Now we turn the floor over to you: what were your favorite new manga of 2014? What titles disappointed you the most? Inquiring minds want to know!

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  1. My top five manga from 2014 would be
    • The Summit of the Gods (Taniguchi)
    • A Silent Voice (Oima)
    • In Clothes Called Fat (Anno)
    • Opus (Kon)
    • Flowers of Evil (Oshimi)

    Summit of the Gods is just straight-up gorgeous and Taniguchi’s illustrations of the natural realm are amazing. The story is thrilling and really all very edge-of-your-seat.

    A Silent Voice charmed my socks off and following it through its conclusion on Crunchyroll this last year was one of my reading highlights.

    In Clothes Called Fat didn’t strike me as particularly mean-spirited toward its heroine, more just an indictment of whichever society could plausibly let something like this happen.

    Opus was visually stunning, kind of like the first time I read Domu. I was sad that it was not a complete work, but I did feel the posthumously discovered rough draft finale really worked better than i thought it would.

    Flowers of Evil evolved from something pervy and tawdry into something actually worthwhile as it meandered toward its conclusion. I hadn’t expected that and I hadn’t expected to grow as invested in character growth as I eventually did. The last volume got a lot of things right for me.

    • Katherine Dacey says

      I’d given up on Summit of the Gods after volume three—not because I disliked it, but because I found the wait between volumes almost interminable. I often had to backtrack into the previous volume (or volumes) to remind myself of where the story had left off. When the fifth volume is released in March, however, I think I’m going to revisit Summit and read all five volumes on consecutive nights.

      As for Silent Voice, I haven’t tried it, but I’ve been excited to see the range of titles on Crunchyroll. Sounds like I should add it to my “must read” pile!

  2. I was fortunately able to read the entire Summit of the Gods in the space of a year. I picked up vols 1 and 2 from Fanfare’s table at SPX in 2013, got 3 the following week, picked up 4 when it came out a month later, and scored a printer’s proof of vol 5 at SPX 2014. It’s definitely the kind of series that benefits from pouring through all at a once, like a long novel.

    But yeah, the waiting is a killer. I generally don’t read series until I I find they’re wrapping up because I’m not great with anticipation. I’m reading Monster now for the first time (I didn’t have the money last time it was printed) and the idea that I’ll have to wait two more years to see the conclusion is soul-destroying. (Or at least it breaks the narrative flow and pushes me to forget important details and characters.)

    And yes, Crunchyroll surprised me with its variety. It’s rather a nice way for me to taste series that I wouldn’t otherwise have given a shot. The Lucifer And Biscuit Hammer was a lot of fun too. And they’ve got Moyocco Anno’s Insufficient Direction and Memoirs of Amorous Gentleman. AJIN also surprised me by being clever in a Death Note-y sort of way.

    • Katherine Dacey says

      I had a similar reaction to AJIN: it was a lot better than I thought it would be, especially since the premise is pretty shopworn. I read the first volumes in paperback, so it would be interesting to compare the Vertical and Crunchyroll translations.

      • I read the first two vols in paperback and then caught up through vol 5 on Crunchyroll. I should check the translations. I had just assumed they were the same, but they probably aren’t?

  3. Top releases in 2014 for me were:
    In Clothes Called Fat
    What Did You Eat Yesterday? (I love cooking and the meals are great to make.)
    Massive: Gay Erotic Manga and the Men Who Make It

    I was especially happy to get Massive last month since there just isn’t a lot of gay manga published in English.

    Talking about Opus makes me regret not reading it yet. It’s sitting in my backlog pile along with the last volume of Thermae Romae.

    I thought Helter Skelter came out in 2013? I quite liked that though. But, it reminded me PINK had been in my backlog last year. As for disappointing… that would be at the top of the list of what I read last year. I thought I understood edgy josei manga but, I was unprepared for such a disturbing and sick book.

    I was also unpleasantly surprised by Asumiko Nakamura’s Chicken Club. I’ve enjoyed some of her other works and was also familiar with Manga Erotics F. Still, thank goodness the collection gets better after the first chapter!

    Last I think would be NightS by Kou Yoneda. I don’t read much BL, but Yoneda is an artist I respect in the genre. Maybe it was the short story format that contributed to NightS being very lackluster for me.

    Still quite a good year of manga though!

    • Katherine Dacey says

      I don’t know if you saw our Monday post, but we linked to a number of reviews of and essays about Massive, including an interview with translator Anne Ishii. Massive hadn’t been on my radar before I read those articles, but I’m now adding it to my growing list of titles I missed in 2014! Thanks for the suggestion!

      • I missed the Monday post. Thanks for pointing the Massive links out. I’m glad I could read the interview with Anne Ishii. I feel a bit odd liking Gengoroh Tagame’s work and buying gay manga in general, but from that interview it would seem there are more women out there who appreciate it too. I hope you find Massive interesting!

  4. Oh, as for what most disappointed me: From The New World.

    I had collected up the first few volumes to read and review and thought that I’d watch the anime alongside for a little compare/contrast. The anime was great. Moody, thoughtful, interesting and with fantastic visual sense. The manga may be the worst comic I’ve read. Not only were its depictions of its female characters just pretty gross, but its storytelling was abrupt and silly. There’s a good story hidden in there (as the anime proves), but the manga hides it under so much junk.

    Also, yeah, Helter Skelter came out in the US in August 2013. Pink came out three months later at the end of November. I liked them both (they bear thematic resonance) but preferred Helter Skelter (Pink was more lighthearted a bit).

  5. Manga is funny. Thermae Romae version anime is joke.